I should have known better than to go into the woods alone.
My dad and I hadn’t been in town long, really just a few days, and I should have stayed at the house. But I was bored and lonely, and the woods around our new place just seemed to call me.
At first, I wasn’t scared at all. Truth be told, I’m not the kind to scare easily, but that’s because I’m…different. My dad’s word. He doesn’t like to call me a freak or anything since he’s my dad, so he says I’m just different.
My tennis shoes crunched over the ground, breaking twigs and crushing leaves. The waning sunlight barely broke through the treetops. Around me, the woods were dark green and brown and I could hear birds chirping in a sweet song. For a girl who’d lived the first sixteen years of her life in the city surrounded by tall buildings and asphalt that stretched for miles, the swaying trees and the light pine scent of the woods were…nice.
No, at first I wasn’t afraid at all. I just walked and walked. I didn’t worry about getting lost. I can’t get lost. No matter where I go or what I do, I’m never lost. I can always find my way back home.
That’s just one of the ways that I’m different from other girls. But dad didn’t like for me to tell folks about that particular talent. Then again, my dad wasn’t real big on sharing with anyone. As far as I knew, I was the only person he ever confided in. Sometimes, I got the feeling he was keeping secrets even from me.
I walked and walked. I found a small stream and the icy cold water chilled my fingertips. Wisps of dying sunlight fell down on me as I knelt at the stream, and I could take breaths that didn’t taste of the city.
But then the sunlight seemed to fade even more. I was crouched over the stream when I heard the first growl.
And when I felt the light touch of fear on my skin.
I lifted my head slowly, and my gaze darted across the water.
“Oh, crap.” My startled whisper as I saw what waited for me.
I should have known better than to go into the woods alone.
Another growl had the hair on my arms rising. Because this growl…it showed the fangs—the very big fangs—that the beast before me had. Those fangs were big and way too sharp as they burst from the animal’s mouth.
A dog? A really big, scary dog? “Easy,” I whispered as I rose and offered my hand. I thought I’d read that someplace…that you were supposed to let a dog sniff you to show that you didn’t mean any harm.
The dog snarled at me. Seriously, a snarl, and I dropped my hand.
Its eyes—bright and yellow—were on me. Thick black fur covered its body and its strong paws dug into the earth.
Sweat began to trickle down my back. Run.
The dog’s teeth snapped together, and it jumped up, flying right over that stream and coming at me.
I screamed and turned away, running as fast as I could. “Heel!” I shouted over my shoulder as I ran. I heard the slosh of water as the dog landed at the edge of the stream. “Go away and just—heel!” I wasn’t exactly a dog lover, and crazy Fido sure wasn’t doing anything to change my opinion.
The ground seemed to shake behind me as he closed in. I didn’t glance back. I didn’t want to see those teeth again. I raced as fast as I could go, but I was never gonna be a track star. My side ached, and tree limbs scratched over my arms.
Once I got away from Fido, I was never going into the woods alone again.
I could feel his breath behind me. Maybe that sounds crazy, but I could. Hot, heavy. My own breath choked out as I saw a tree up ahead. An oak tree, one with a long, hanging limb that I was sure I could reach. I pushed forward with my last bit of energy—I am so not an athlete—and I jumped up, reaching desperately for that limb.
I missed it.
So not an athlete.
I slammed into the ground and in the same instant, I felt a white-hot pain slice into my upper arm. I screamed and kicked, and, lucky me, I caught the mutt right in the side. He howled and flipped back.
Bleeding now—thanks, Fido—I pushed up and jumped for the tree again. This time, I caught it. I lifted my legs up, doing a weird half-crawl up the tree. The bark bit into my skin, but I didn’t care. In about four seconds, I was sitting on top of that tree branch.
And Fido was right below me, doing that deep, rumbling growl that freaked me out.
“Go away!” I yelled at him as I glanced at my left arm. Jeez, he’d clawed me! I had four long slices cutting across my skin. Four long, bleeding slices. The kind that you knew weren’t going to heal easy. No, thanks to Fido, I’d probably be carrying these marks for weeks.
My dad was going to flip out over this.
And now, I was stuck up in a damn tree while the dog circled around me, sniffing the air every few minutes, and pawing at the ground.
I took a walk and ended up trapped. That was pretty much the story of my life, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by this messed up situation.
“Go away!” I yelled. “Go find someone else to bite!” I shifted around, trying to ease into a better spot. Future note—there is no better spot when you’re stuck up in an oak tree.
And then things got worse for me. Yeah, how is that possible, right? But I started to hear a distinct…crack.
I have the worst luck in the world. My gaze flew to the right, and I saw that the limb, my sweet safety, had started to break.
Fido still circled below me.
Crap. Crap. Crap!
“Go—” I began again, but the dog stopped mid-snarl. Its head tilted to the right, and its ears perked up. Then, without even another glance my way, it turned and lunged into the woods.
Yes. I sagged back. Blood dripped down my arm.
This would teach me to leave my mace at home. But I figured, hey, not in Chicago anymore. What bad thing can possibly happen in the boonies of South Carolina?
Apparently, wild, vicious dogs could happen.
My breath hissed out when I touched the claw marks. Ten to one odds they’d scar. Then I’d be the not-so-cool girl with claw marks on her arm.
“Uh…you okay up there?”
The male voice was deep, hinted with just a bit of the south, and…amused. Amused at my expense.
My head snapped up, and my gaze searched the ground. I frowned because I didn’t see anyone, not at first and then—
Then he stepped out of the shadows.
Tall, tan, with lots of muscles. Muscles I could see because the guy didn’t have on a shirt. A pair of old faded jogging shorts, tennis shoes, but…nothing else.
His thick, black hair was a little too long, and his eyes had to be the absolute bluest that I’d ever seen.
He looked like he was around my age, maybe a year or two older. One look, and I knew he was trouble. The really good kind of trouble that can make a girl want to sneak out late at night.
And I was stuck up in a tree, bleeding. Right. Way to make a killer first impression. Things were supposed to be different this time.
I cleared my throat and felt I had to warn him. “You need to be careful! There’s some kind of wild dog running loose out here.” Yeah, my voice broke a bit because I’m super cool and sexy like that. Nice.
He blinked and his brows rose. “Dog?”
There was another crack. Louder this time and I knew that—
The limb broke, and I went down. In that half-second, I prepared for the impact and the staggering humiliation of falling at the hot guy’s feet.
But I didn’t slam into the ground. He caught me.
He caught me.
Up close, I realized that his eyes weren’t solid blue. Gold circled his pupils.
My arms locked around him. He was warm and strong and…I cleared my throat. “Thanks. You move fast.” How lame did that sound?
A ghost of a smile lifted his lips. Nice lips. Not too thin. Not too thick. “You spend a lot of time falling out of trees?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Only on days when Fido chases me.”
The smile faded as quickly as it had appeared, and his gaze dipped to my arm.
I was still holding on to him. Okay, now this was getting awkward. “You can put me down.”
His face was truly perfect, in the dark-and-dangerous kind of way. Strong features. Hard jaw. Incredibly white teeth.
Slowly, he lowered me to the ground. I didn’t want to be bleeding all over him—and I didn’t know him and we were alone in the woods and my dad hadn’t raised a fool—so I took a few quick steps back. Adding a little space might be a good thing.
“What happened?” He wanted to know as he put his hands on his hips.
Do all the guys here look like you? I bit the question back. So not the time or place. I have a tendency to blurt things out. I’m working on that tendency. Really. Kind of.
And I’m also supposed to be working on my attitude. The teachers at my old school had pretty much thought that my attitude sucked. Because, you know, it did.
My hand covered the marks. “The dog clawed me.”
“So you ran up a tree?”
I blinked. Where was the flaw in my plan? Oh, yeah, the breaking limb. “It seemed like a better idea than just standing still and letting him bite me.”
His gaze came back to mine. “You sure it was a dog?”
But just then, a new sound filled the forest. A long, mournful howl.
He laughed then, and his white teeth flashed in a grin that made me think again—trouble. “Chicago, you don’t know much about animals do you?”
Chicago. So he knew who I was. I cleared my throat. “You’re saying it was…a wolf?” I’d just been nearly eaten by a wolf? I could never do anything half-way.
He stepped forward then, and his hand lifted toward my red hair. I flinched because I wasn’t expecting that move.
“Easy.” He seemed to barely breathe the word. Then he pulled a twig out of my hair.
The ground could have just opened up and swallowed me then. That would have been merciful. But, no such luck.
Bloody, dirty, and with twigs in my hair. Normally, I presented much better than this. I had style—I just didn’t have it right then.
I swallowed and tried to calm my racing heart. I’d been in situations much, much worse than this before.
I took another step away from him. Not because I was nervous. Or maybe because I was. “My name’s Anna Lambert.” Not Chicago. I waited just a beat. “Who are you?” My eyes darted behind him. That howl hadn’t sounded close. A good thing.
A wolf? Guess I sure wasn’t in Chicago anymore.
Another howl filled the air, and I rocked back on my heels.
His face hardened. “You shouldn’t be out here,” he told me. “You don’t know this area. You’ll get lost—”
“I never get lost.” Now there I went—blurting. And except for one bad confession to an ex-boyfriend, I’d kept that secret for over three years, ever since I first developed my little gift on my thirteenth birthday. But give me a wolf, a claw mark, and a hot guy, and suddenly I’m over-sharing.
His brows snapped together at my words. “What?”
“I know my way home,” I mumbled, aware that my cheeks had to be flushing. I could feel the heat on my face.
“Good.” Though he didn’t sound particularly convinced.
I straightened my shoulders. Sure, I might only be hitting about five foot five and Mr. Strong easily topped six feet, but I wasn’t a pushover.
Despite my screaming run through the woods—had he seen any of that?—I knew how to handle myself. Correction—in the city, I did. Out here, maybe I was just fresh meat.
Note to self…get country tough, ASAP. I cleared my throat, “Who are you?” I asked again, but this time, I made my voice stronger, harder.
He stared at me a moment, and I hoped I didn’t look as bad as I felt. Probably a wasted hope. “Be careful walking in the woods,” he told me, so not giving me his name as he turned and sauntered away. “You never know what’s waiting out here.”
Okay. That had sounded all darkly menacing and dangerous. I brushed off my hands, and blood stained my shorts as I pressed my palms over the material. The guy had saved me from more bruises, possibly even from a broken leg, and he was hot.
So, of course, I just watched him walk away.
I admired the view.
Then, when he was gone, I turned and started jogging back for home. And with every move I made, I felt like I was being watched.
The woods weren’t as interesting anymore. No, now they just seemed dark and dangerous and for once, I was very, very glad to be different as I took the shortest route to my new home.
My dad was late coming home. I had time to shower, wash the blood out of my shorts, and bandage my arm before I saw the Dawson County Sheriff’s car pull into our graveled drive.
Yeah, my dad’s the new sheriff in town. One day he’s a detective with the Chicago PD. The next…he’s been appointed sheriff here in Haven, South Carolina.
I acted like I was happy for my dad, but the truth was…I couldn’t even remember the last time I was actually happy about anything. Maybe before my mom died?
I smiled for my dad, though. I always did that. I figured why should he worry about me? He worried enough as it was.
Back in the day, my dad grew up here in Haven, South Carolina. Funny, though, he’d never told me about this place. I’d thought he always lived in the city.
Then he’d gotten word that his mother—a lady I’d never met, thanks, Dad—had passed away. He’d inherited her house here in Haven. He inherited the house one week and received the appointment of the sheriff’s job the next.
Dad said it was all fate.
I didn’t believe in fate. If I did, then I had to believe that I woke up this morning with no choice but to get clawed by a wolf.
No thanks, Fate.
The gravel crunched as Dad came toward me. He was a good-looking guy, or so I’d heard some ladies say when they didn’t think I’d been paying attention. In his early forties, he had short, blond hair and a face that only had a few lines near his eyes. Laugh lines. Despite the work he did, my dad liked to laugh.
But he wasn’t laughing now.
His sheriff’s uniform was a dull brown, but the star he wore on his chest gleamed in the weak light. He held his hat in his hands, and his jaw clenched as he walked toward me.
I knew that hard look on his face too well.
I rose from the porch swing. “What happened?”
My heart pounded too fast. He’d only been on the job for a few days-four days—and this gig was supposed to be easy. No stress. No fuss. That was the whole reason we’d left the city.
A long sigh slipped past his lips. “They found Sheriff Brantley today.”
Not what I’d expected. “The guy who ran off?” That’s why my dad had been called in to Haven. He and the mayor had once been friends, so my dad said, anyway. When Sheriff Brantley cut out of town, the mayor had been desperate. There’d been no one else ready to take the job, and he’d phoned my dad.
Instant new life…so we thought.
“So—what?” I asked, confused and angry. “The guy decided to walk back into town? The job’s yours now, he can’t just—”
He climbed up the porch steps. “He didn’t walk back in any place.” He ran his fingers through his hair. My dad does that move a lot—usually when he’s worried.
I wasn’t going to like the part that came next. But I just stood there, with my toes curling into the wooden porch and my chin up. The wound on my arm seemed to throb.
“Some kids found Brantley’s body in the woods today.” A rough sigh slipped past his lips. “Or they found what was left of it.”
My stomach clenched. There weren’t supposed to be any dead bodies here. This place was supposed to be quiet and safe.
Not filled with wolves and death.
I was starting to think this town wasn’t much of a Haven after all. My hands fisted. “How do you think he died?”
My dad’s eyes, an exact shade of green to match mine, cut toward me. “Hard to say…too much of his body is gone at this point.”
That was just gross and way too much information for me.
“The animals got to him,” he said and all I could picture then was that big wolf, coming at me with his snarls and growls and too-sharp teeth.
“We won’t know for sure what happened to him, not unless we can find more of his remains.”
I forced my eyes to hold his. I had to say it. “Dad, do you need me to—”
He bounded up the porch steps and pulled me into his arms. “No!”
Great. The very fast, very adamant response I’d hoped to hear.
“I told you, Anna, things are different now. We’re starting over.” My head was against his chest, so I could feel the rapid beat of his heart. “Both of us are.”
A fresh start, with a dead body thrown in.
Somehow, that didn’t seem so different from my life in the city.
Back home, Dad had made a career out of bringing down killers. The more vicious they were, the harder he hunted them.
Most kids were told bedtime stories about fairytales and castles when they were little. That hadn’t been my life. At night, I’d overheard my dad talking about crime scenes and profiles.
So maybe I’d had more than my share of nightmares because of that cop talk.
No one’s life was perfect, least of all mine.
“We’ll send dogs out into the woods,” my dad said and his hand patted my back. “We’ll find what’s…hell, we’ll find him.”
It didn’t seem like there was much of him to be found.
He pulled back and stared down at me. “Until we figure out what’s happening, I want you staying out of those woods.”
His fingers rested just below my bandage. The wound still ached, and I was pretty sure the blood might be close to leaking through the gauze I’d put on it. “S-sure thing.” My immediate plans didn’t include another hike through the forest.
I pulled away from him before he could find evidence of my earlier slip-away into the woods. No sense worrying him now.
“A bear could’ve done it,” he said, and I saw his gaze dart to the line of trees just behind our house.
I nodded, but I don’t think he even saw the movement. “Maybe—maybe it was a wolf.” Yeah, I blurted again.
His head snapped toward me. He hadn’t missed that mutter.
I forced a shrug. “I heard some howls earlier. It sounded like a few wolves might be running close by.”
“Wolves?” He repeated like I’d spoken Greek. “In Haven?”
“I heard them.” And had almost been eaten by one. My, what big teeth you have…I already knew who—what—would be starring in my nightmares tonight.
“If you see any wolves, you run as fast and as far from them as you can.” A muscle jerked in my Dad’s jaw. “You understand?”
I nodded. “Trust me, if I see a wolf coming at me—” I’m hauling ass. “I’m out of there.”
He exhaled and some of the tension finally seemed to drain from his body. “Good. Wolves are vicious. They’ll turn on you in an instant.”
Just like people. We both knew just how deadly humans could be. After all, mom was barely cold in her grave.
Dad went inside and started cooking dinner. I stayed on the porch, and my gaze turned back to the dark wall of trees.
It might have been crazy, probably was, but I could have sworn as I looked…
Something looked back at me.
I could almost see the eyes, bright yellow, locked on me.
I jumped and glanced over my shoulder.
My dad frowned at me. “You okay, baby?”
I nodded. What else was I going to do? I’d learned six months ago that there were some things my dad couldn’t fix, no matter how hard he tried.
So I turned away from those woods, I pushed aside the gnawing in my gut, and I went inside.
Whatever was out there…it could just wait.