reezing rain sliced out of the black sky, turning the wet pavement to glass. Zoey stared out at the freakish weather and groaned aloud. With less than two days left in the month of April, the skies had been clear and bright all afternoon. Trees were budding early and spring had seemed like a sure bet. Now
. Local residents said if you didn't like the weather this far north, just wait fifteen minutes. She gave it five, only to watch the rain turn to sleet.
Perhaps she should have asked more questions before taking the job as editor of the
Dunvegan Herald Weekly.
She was getting the peace and quiet she'd wanted, all right, but so far the weather simply sucked. Winter had been in full swing when she'd arrived at the end of October. Wasn't it ever going to end?
Sighing, she buttoned her thin jacket up to her chin and hoisted the camera bag over her shoulder in preparation for the long, cold walk to her truck. All she wanted before bed was a hot shower, her soft flannel pajamas with the little cartoon sheep on them, the TV tuned to
, and a cheese and mushroom omelet. Hell, maybe just the omelet. She hadn't eaten since noon, unless the three faded M&Ms she'd found at the bottom of her bag counted as food.
As usual, the council meeting for the Village of Dunvegan had gone on much too long. Who'd have thought that such a small community could have so much business to discuss? It was well past ten when the mayor, the councilors, and the remnants of a long-winded delegation filed out. Zoey had lingered only a few moments to scribble down a couple more notes for her article but it was long enough to make her the last person out of the building.
The heavy glass door automatically locked behind her, the metallic sound echoing ominously. Had she taken longer than she thought? There wasn't a goddamn soul left on the street. Even the hockey arena next door was deserted, although a senior men's play-off game earlier had made parking difficult to find. Now, her truckâa sturdy, old red Bronco that handled the snow much better than her poor little SUV hadâwas the only vehicle in sight.
The freezing rain made the three-block trek to the truck seem even longer. Not only did the cold wind drive stinging pellets of ice into her face, but her usual business-like stride had to be shortened to tiny careful steps. Her knee-high leather boots were strictly a fashion accessoryâher bedroom slippers would have given her more traction on the ice. If she slipped and broke her ankle out here, would anyone even find her before morning?
The truck glittered strangely as she approached and her heart sank. Thick sheets of ice coated every surface, sealing the doors. Nearly frozen herself, she pounded on the lock with the side of her fist until the ice broke away and she could get her key in. “Come on, dammit, come on!”
Of course, the key refused to turn, while the cold both numbed and hurt her gloveless fingers. She tried the passenger door lock without success, then walked gingerly around to the rear cargo door. No luck there either. She'd have to call a towâ
Except that her cell phone was on the front seat of her truck.
Certain that things couldn't get any worse, she tested each door again. Maybe one of the locks would loosen if she kept trying. If not, she'd probably have to walk all the way home, and wasn't that a cheery prospect?
Suddenly a furtive movement teased at her peripheral vision. Zoey straightened slowly and studied her surroundings. There wasn't much to see. The streetlights were very far apart, just glowing pools of pale gold that punctuated the darkness rather than alleviating it. Few downtown businesses bothered to leave lights on overnight. The whispery hiss of the freezing rain was all she could hear.
A normal person would simply chalk it up to imagination, but she'd been forced to toss
out the window at an early age. Her mother, aunts, and grandmother were all powerful psychicsâand the gene had been passed down to Zoey. Or at least a watered-down version of it. The talent was reliable enough when it worked, but it seemed to come and go as it pleased.
Like right now.
Zoey tried hard to focus yet sensed absolutely nothing. It was her own fault perhaps for trying to rid herself of the inconvenient ability.
No extrasensory power was needed, however, to see something large and black glide silently from one shadow to another near the building she'd just left.
What the hell was that?
There was nowhere to go for help. The only two bars in town would still be open, but they were several blocks away, as was the detachment headquarters for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. There was a rundown trailer park a block and a half from the far side of the arena, but Zoey knew there were no streetlights anywhere along that route.
A dog? Maybe it's just a big dog, she thought.
A really big dog or a runaway cow
After all, this was a rural community. And a
rural community at that, so maybe it's just a local moose, ha, ha . . . .
She struggled to keep her fear at bay and redoubled her efforts on the door locks, all the while straining to listen over the sound of her own harsh breathing.
The rear door lock was just beginning to show promise when a low, rumbling growl caused her to drop her keys. She spun to see a monstrous shape emerge from the shadows, stiff-legged and head lowered.
It was bigger than any damn wolf had a right to be.
Some primal instinct warned her not to run and not to scream, that the animal would be on her instantly if she did so.
She backed away slowly, trying not to slip, trying to put the truck between herself and the creature. Its eyes glowed green like something out of a horror flick, but this was no movie. Snarling black lips pulled back to expose gleaming ivory teeth. The grizzled gray fur around its neck was bristling. Zoey was minutely aware that the hair on the back of her own neck was standing on end. Her breath came in short shuddering gasps as she blindly felt for the truck behind her with her hands, sliding her feet carefully without lifting them from the pavement.
She made it around the corner of the Bronco. As soon as she was out of the wolf's line of sight, she turned and half skated, half ran for the front of the truck as fast as the glassy pavement would allow.
Don't fall, don't fall!
It was a litany in her brain as she scrambled up the slippery front bumper onto the icy hood. With no hope of outrunning the creature and no safe place in sight, the roof of the truck seemed like her best betâif she could make it.
Don't fall, don't fall!
Flailing for a handhold, she seized an ice-crusted windshield wiper, only to have the metal frame snap off in her hand. She screamed as she slid back a few inches.
The wolf sprang at once. It scrabbled and clawed, unable to find a purchase on the ice-coated metal. Foam from its snapping jaws sprayed over her as the beast roared its frustration. Finally it slipped back to the ground and began to pace around the truck.
Zoey managed to shimmy up the hood until she was able to put her back against the windshield, and pulled her knees up to her chin. She risked a glance at the roof behind herâshe had to get higher. Before she could move, however, the wolf attacked again, scrambling its way up the front bumper. Vicious jaws slashed at her. Without thought, Zoey kicked out at the wolf, knocking one leg out from under it. It slid backward but not before it clamped its teeth on her calf. The enormous weight of the creature dragged at her and she felt herself starting to slide. . . .
One hand still clutched the broken windshield wiper and she used it, whipping the creature's face and muzzle with the frozen blade until she landed a slice across one ungodly glowing eye. The rage-filled snarl became a strangled yelp; the wolf released her leg and slipped from the hood. This time Zoey didn't look, just turned and launched herself upward for the roof rack. She came down hard, adrenaline keeping her from feeling the impact of the bruising metal rails. She was conscious only of the desperate need to claw and grasp and cling and pull until she was safely on the very top of the vehicle.
safe. Not by a long shot.
She could plainly see that she wasn't high enough.
Crap, crap, crap.
The enraged wolf leapt upward in spite of the fact that its feet could find little traction on the ice-coated pavement. What it couldn't gain in momentum, the wolf made up for in effort, hurling itself repeatedly against the Bronco. Its snapping jaws came so close that Zoey could see the bleeding welts across its face, see that one of its hellish eyes was now clouded and half-closed. She slashed at it again, catching its tender nose so it howled in frustration and pain as it dropped to the ground. Snarling, it paced back and forth like a caged lion, watching her. Waiting.
The wind picked up and the freezing rain intensified. Huddled on her knees in the exact center of the icy roof, Zoey's adrenaline began to ebb. She was cold and exhausted, and parts of her were numb. But she wasn't helpless; she wouldn't allow herself to think that way. The thin windshield wiper was badly bent with pieces of it missing, but she'd damn well punch the wolf in the nose with her bare fist if she had to. If she still could. . . .
The wolf sprang again.
Dr. Connor Macleod cursed himself for the hundredth time for not bringing another veterinarian into his practice. His family and friends, and particularly his receptionist, had been on his case about it for the past two years. He'd always handled everything himself, but it was time to face factsâhis practice had grown too large.
The second calving season of the year was in full swing, and Connor had been out on farm calls since five o'clock that morning. He wouldn't have minded except he'd gotten only an hour of sleep after performing an emergency cesarean on a heifer. That case had been touch and go for most of the night. He'd had a few choice words for the farmer who had bred the young animal to a bull of a much larger breed, creating a huge calf that couldn't possibly be born on its own. The man had been defensive and angry, but Connor didn't care. He had every patience with animals and none at all for those who deliberately misused them.
Right now he had no patience left for anything, and the unseasonal weather didn't improve his mood. He needed coffee. And food. And sleep, but that was less likely than the other two. Fortunately he wasn't human and as long as he ate enough, his body could deal with a serious sleep deficitâat least for a while.
As the lights of Dunvegan came into view, uneasiness twisted his gut. The ice storm had been far more intense here. The road was glassed over and treacherous, yet his feelings had nothing to do with the driving conditions. He switched off the radio and pulled to the side of the road for a few moments, needing to think, to focus and unravel the sudden surge of energies he sensed.
Suddenly the darkness brightened as everything around himâthe dashboard, his hands on the steering wheel, the road signsâbegan to glow with a silvery light. It was a phenomenon that only he could see, a precursor to
. . . .
He yelled out. He couldn't help it. A hideous premonition spawned a violent and bloody image in his mind. A woman was in terrible danger, and what was threatening her was no more human than he was.
In the blink of an eye the image was gone and the otherworldly light yielded to the natural darkness. Connor pulled back onto the deserted highway and sped toward the village, heedless of the glaring ice. The truck had studded tires and four-wheel drive, both necessary in harsh northern winters and unpredictable northern springs, and Connor was a skilled driver. Nevertheless, his pickup stayed on the road largely because he
it to. As he drove into town, the vehicle fishtailed repeatedly but recovered each time. Then he turned onto a side street.
Close. He knew he was close, he could feel it. Suddenly, as he swung the truck hard onto Hemstock Avenueâhe saw a huge wolf leap at a parked truck. He leaned on the horn and stepped on the accelerator as the snarling creature fell back into the road. One of its eyes flashed green in the bright headlights, as it turned to look at the oncoming truckâ
âthen vanished without a trace. But not before Connor recognized it: a Changeling.
He slowed his pickup and pulled up behind a red Bronco that had seen better days. He scanned the ice-covered windows, expecting the woman to be insideâuntil a faint movement drew his eyes upward. His mouth fell open.
She was on the goddamn roof
. Slippery as it was, it was only a matter of moments before the wolf would have reached her, killed her. Or worse.
She was soaked and pale, her long hair plastered to her head and caked with ice. Her amber eyes overwhelmed her white face, but they weren't tearful and frightened. Instead, her direct gaze took him by surprise. A creature out of legend had just attacked her, yet instead of falling apart, she was taking Connor's measure. He was suddenly reminded of a falcon he had treated last year. The small predator had showed a fierce courage out of all proportion to its size.
And it nearly took my thumb off, he reminded himself.
Best to step carefully here, Macleod.
“I don't know what you said to that wolf to get him so riled up,” he ventured. “Do you always insult the local wildlife?” The deliberate absurdity of the question surprised a small grin from her.