She just wants to make it through her whirlwind wedding. Too bad life isn’t cooperating.
Chloe thinks her life is just about perfect. She’s finally got her psychic abilities under control, her relationship with her father has never been better, and she’s finally marrying her shape-shifter boyfriend Jorge. But when a teenage shape-shifter in need of help leads Jorge’s rival to their door, Chloe’s perfect life deserts her. Chloe’s mother and grandmother find themselves in a psychic feud that leaves Chloe caught in the wake, and a woman with suspect motives insinuates herself into Chloe’s life. Throw in a shocking revelation about the origins of her family’s extrasensory abilities, and she’s not sure she’ll make it down the aisle in one piece, let alone live long enough for a happily ever after…
And she thought meeting her in-laws was tough.
“So what was up with your lack of cake enthusiasm?” My best friend Naomi peers at me over her latte. We’re taking a wedding planning respite at our favorite coffee place.She clearly knows something is wrong. Usually I love cake, food, all things with sugar and fat. And, of all the tedious parts of planning my wedding, tasting the cake was supposed to be the highlight.Naomi starts tapping her fingers and her blue-eyed stare means business. I’m not getting out of spilling the beans. Time to woman up.“I found an old letter I wrote to my mom.” I stare down into my Earl Grey latte and try not to let my emotions run away with me.“From when?”“I was sixteen. Wrote it the day I tore up every picture of her I had.” I didn’t need to say more.Before Naomi can say anything, there’s a commotion at the entrance. A boy, maybe twelve or thirteen, careens into an empty table just inside the door, almost knocking it over. I know puberty can have its awkward gangly growth spurt phases, but this is no ordinary stumbling. At first, I assume he’s drunk or stoned or something—sad, I know, for a young teen—but then I notice some awfully shaggy hair sprouting from his neck and spreading under his shirt.Shit. He’s a shape-shifter, and by the looks of it, one who isn’t prepared to be going through a transition. Given his age, this is probably his first shift or close to it. Odds say he’s an orphan shifter—born into a family who doesn’t know shape-shifters exist but have some rogue genes in their DNA. Puberty takes hold, and boom, you find out you’re a shape-shifter.A barista is heading from behind the counter right for the boy, and things might get ugly. I’ve never witnessed a shifter hitting his first change before, but from what Jorge told me, it isn’t smooth—especially when the person doesn’t know it’s coming.I look at Naomi, who is watching events with wide eyes. She and I are probably the only people in this coffee shop who know shape-shifters exist—and it needs to stay that way. My voice is low and surprisingly calm given that my body is taut with tension. “Hey, Naomi.”She turns to me. “What?”“Call Jorge now. Tell him we’ve got an orphan shifter changing.”Her eyes get wider, but she doesn’t panic. She’s rock solid like that. Instead she starts dialing.I get up to intervene, opening my telepathic gift to send a mental tap to the boy. His head whips toward me, his body swiveling into the table again. It screeches across the floor, drawing any eyes that weren’t already looking his way. I hold my focus on him. His brown eyes are wide and frightened. Another tuft of hair sprouts on the back of his hand.Now that I’ve got his attention, I smile tentatively. I really wish I knew what the hell to say to calm down a hormonal teenage shape-shifter, but as an only child with a freakish psychic gift, I don’t have a lot of people skills. Instead I default to the soothing words I telepathically murmur to homeless animals at the shelter. “It’s OK. I can help you. You are safe with me.”He stands motionless now, his eyes glued to mine. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the barista stop, look between the two of us. My eyes dart his way.“It’s OK. I know this boy and can help him.”The barista nods, and I shift my full focus back to the boy. His posture relaxes ever so slightly.“I know you’re a shape-shifter. It’s OK. Do you understand what’s happening?”“Wh-who are you?” His voice is hesitant in my head and fairly high pitched still.“My name’s Chloe Swenson and I am a psychic who can speak with animals and people who change into animal form. My fiancé is a shape-shifter too. He’s on his way here. We can help you.”“I don’t understand. What’s happening to me?”Well, double shit. Definitely a first shift. I take a deep breath, my mind racing to figure out what to say. The temptation to use my gift to take control of him is strong, but I don’t want to go down that road after what happened last time.“As I mentioned, there are people in this world who can change into animal form, and you are one of them. The first change happens in early puberty. I’m guessing you’re going through yours?” I glance at his hand.He follows my gaze, his face getting paler even as he stuffs the hand into his coat pocket, but not before I notice how violently it’s shaking. He looks like he’s scared shitless and about to bolt.“Please, trust me. I can help you, but we need to get out of here so we can talk without an audience.”He looks with frightened eyes at the people around the coffeehouse staring our way. They’re probably wondering why the hell the two of us are staring at each other and not speaking. I’m sort of surprised myself that Brian isn’t freaking out about the telepathy. Maybe the shifting has him rattled enough that having a stranger speak in his head is nothing. Or maybe he can just see the sincerity in my face.“Let’s go outside at least. Please.”He nods and then strides out, almost at a run.I grab my coat and hurry after him, calling out to Naomi to grab my purse.She nods, shrugging into her coat. “Jorge’s on his way.”I tap my head and nod, indicating that I already know. I felt his mind more focused on my own and his concern rolling through our link. Even if I can’t actively talk to two shifters at once, I can always sense Jorge. “Can you stay by the road to watch for him?” Then I hurry out the door, anxious to ensure the boy doesn’t flee so far I can’t catch up to him.Thankfully he’s around the side of the building, leaning against the wall with hands tucked deep in his coat pockets. He looks up when I approach.I hold out a hand to shake. “Hey. So you got that I’m Chloe. What’s your name?”He tentatively takes my hand and shakes. “Brian Jones.” His voice cracks.He’s got more hair sprouting on his hand under my grasp and another line snakes around the sides of his neck. It even looks like his nose might be trying to become a snout. I glance around, but we’re fairly alone in the alleyway. I can hear people on the street, though, so I really wish I knew what to do. The best idea I’ve got is to try to keep him calm and hope that will keep the shift at bay.“Would it help if I told you there’s no reason to freak out?” I smile in what I hope is in an I-totally-can-relate-to-young-teens way. Based on Brian’s frown, I fail epically at convincing him it’s all going to be OK. “Yeah, I didn’t think so.” I shrug, going for nonchalance. At least my voice isn’t wavering. “Maybe just try some deep breathing until Jorge gets here?”He stares at the ground, kicking at the loose gravel absently with one foot. The good news is I don’t see anything else animal-like sprouting from his skin.Finally he looks up, and I’m relieved to see his face looks completely human again, but his eyes are still filled with fear. “Am I turning into a monster?”I shake my head. A swell of pride fills me for how well this boy is handling what has to be the scariest moment of his life. “No. Absolutely not. I know several shape-shifters and they’re great people. I’m even marrying one.”He nods, a small smile blooming on his lips. “I guess you wouldn’t be marrying a monster.”I laugh. “I’d hope not.”His body begins to relax more, and he leans against the side of the brick building. “So you talk to animals with your mind?”“Yeah. And shape-shifters, presumably because of the animal component.”“Uh, yeah, that’s cool. So why aren’t you on TV or something?” He starts to fidget and his gaze darts around erratically.I sigh. “I’ve found it’s better to keep my ability on the down low. I don’t like people thinking I’m a whack job.”He laughs and looks my way. “You don’t seem like a whack job. Your voice in my mind, it was, uh, nice. I mean, you seem nice. Or whatever.” He blushes and glances down again.Oh, lord. I have no idea what to say to that, but if he’s crushing on me and that keeps him from running, I’m not saying a word. Brian holds his tongue too, and I take the break to mentally reach out to Jorge and ask for an ETA.His laughter fills my head as soon as we connect. “Going awkward with the kid, huh? I assume you’ve got things under control or you’d be panicking and not squirming.”“Ha. Ha. And I suppose you’re a genius with recently pubescent kids?”He sobers. “Touché. I’m about ten minutes from you.”“That’s ten minutes too long.”He laughs again. “I’m sure you’ll manage just fine. See you soon.”Our connection dissolves into the low-level one we seem to always have with each other. We have to work to shut it down completely, and even then, it’s still there to some extent. This strong connection is something I’ve only experienced with Jorge. Thank God, or I’d be nuts from all the animals or shape-shifters tracking me down.Brian makes a somewhat strangled cry, and my head snaps up to see fur sprouting on him again.“Hey, it’s OK. Jorge’s about ten minutes away.”His look turns curious. “You can talk that far away?”I nod, happy to notice that the fur stopped emerging as soon as I got his attention. Evidently I need to keep him distracted. “Yeah. Distances of about a hundred miles or so aren’t an issue.”Brian’s gaze is darting about again, so I try to figure out what to talk about, finally landing on small talk. “So have you always lived in Columbus?”“Uh, yeah.” He scuffs his shoe along the ground, sending a few stray stones skittering across the alley. “My mom’s gonna flip when she finds out what I am.” His face starts to contort with a shift again.“Don’t worry about that just now.” I want to tell him it will all be OK and that his mom will be fine with it, but I can’t do that. I’ve heard of too many orphan shifters disowned—or worse—by their families, who believe they really are monsters. “Is your mom home now? And what about your dad?”“I never met my dad.” He says it matter-of-factly. I recognize the hardness in him, and my heart breaks a little. I felt the same hard bitterness about my mom when I was a teen not much older than him, hence the angry letter and destruction of everything that reminded me of her. “My mom won’t be home until after six.”I’d reach for my phone to see what time it is, but Naomi has that and my purse out by the main street. Based on when we arrived at the café and the quickly approaching twilight, I’d guess it’s nearing five.I lean against the brick wall and motion to his furless hand. “Have you noticed that you can keep the shift at bay? From what I’ve heard, it’s hard for new shifters to control.”He turns his hand over and over, then grins at me. “Yeah?”I return the grin. “Yeah.”“Cool. Guess I’m a natural.”“I guess you are.” I laugh. “So you never did say where you live.”“Oh, yeah. Just a few blocks over at the Pines.”I nod. “That’s the big apartment complex, right?”“Yep.”I want to ask for more details about how he thinks his mom will react to learning he’s a shape-shifter, but refrain. Best not to water that seed, and I don’t have a good feeling about the whole situation. Instead I ask him about school and even try my hand at pop culture to fill the small talk gap until I gratefully turn at the sound of Jorge and Naomi approaching.“And here are Jorge and my friend Naomi now. Jorge, Naomi, this is Brian. Brian, Jorge and Naomi.”Naomi waves and hands me my purse. Jorge shakes Brian’s hand and rather obviously sniffs him without getting too close.“You’re a bear. I don’t know many bears. They’re almost as rare as jaguar shifters like me.” Jorge straightens and steps back from Brian, who looks at Jorge with a mixture of confusion, fear, and awe.I turn to walk toward the street. “Why don’t we take Brian back to his place and wait for his mom?”Jorge shrugs his agreement, and we all follow his lead. He walks fast toward the apartment complex.As we pass the coffee shop entrance, we almost collide with a red-haired women barreling out the door. Jorge quickly side steps, but I just about walk right into her.A tall blond man by her side catches me before I lose my balance. “Excuse us.”“No problem.” I right myself and continue after Jorge.