This is a free sample of the first chapter of Shift of Destiny (Ice Age Shifters Book 2), a paranormal romance by Carol Van Natta.
Nunn, Colorado, Summer ~ Present Day
Moira Graham locked the door of her old, noisy, beater of a car out of habit, not because anyone sane would steal it. She was too tired and hot to sweep out the back, where barley cake pellets had fallen. It could wait until the cooler morning hours. She wiped the sweat off her forehead, then resettled her dusty ball cap over her equally dusty hair and pushed her braid back. The heat of the almost-summer June day was finally letting up with the setting sun, but her T-shirt was still clinging to her like she’d gone swimming in it.
The walk to the cozy outbuilding she temporarily called home always seemed twice as far after a long day at work. At least she had a job, even if it meant she never had a day off. That was fair, she supposed, since the dairy cows she cleaned stalls for didn’t get days off, either. She slung her backpack over one shoulder as she walked up the narrow sidewalk, past the neat, white clapboard house that fronted the street.
She jumped, then turned to face the elderly, dark-haired woman coming around the corner of the house.
“You’ve got to stop sneaking up on me like that,” Moira said loudly. Del, her landlady, refused to wear her hearing aids in public because she said they made her look old. As a consequence, conversations with her involved a lot of shouting.
Del wiped her soapy hands on the dishtowel she was carrying. “I went to the sheriff’s office this afternoon. You were right about that man who interviewed Emilio and his friends for that magazine sales job. The attorney general’s office said he has charges pending in about five other states. He’s even stranded whole teams in strange towns with no way to get back home.”
“Oh no. Those poor kids.” She’d overheard the guy interviewing Emilio and two other teenagers in the town’s park—who conducted evening interviews at a picnic table?—and had a hunch the man was a slimeball, because his body language hadn’t matched his words or his oily smiles. In the dappled shade, he’d almost looked like he had the scales of a snake. She’d mentioned it to Del, who’d started making calls. Slimeball wasn’t the half of it, apparently. She shook her head. “I’m sorry the job didn’t work out.”
Small towns in the northeastern plains of Colorado had very few jobs for recent high-school graduates like Del’s live-in grandson. Moira had lucked into her current job because she happened to know how to catch runaway cows. The barn work was exhausting, but it paid in cash under the table, which was exactly what she needed. Neither she nor her diary farm employer wanted a paper trail. Moira paid cash to rent the tiny house, because Del didn’t want a paper trail, either.
Del eyed the clear bag in Moira’s hand that held a wrapped sandwich and chips. “Fast food is bad for you. Come on in. I made a big pot of chili.”
Moira shook her head. “No thanks. I just need a shower and to put my feet up. I don’t think I sat once all day.” She didn’t want to take advantage of Del’s generous nature. Her landlady’s only income besides social security was renting out the illegally converted shed, and she had still-unemployed Emilio to feed.
Del gave her a sly look. “You should use some of your magic and get yourself a boyfriend to give you a foot massage every night.” Del knew everyone in Nunn and the surrounding farms and ranches, and had been trying to pair Moira up with anyone remotely eligible. Del had loved her husband dearly, and thought everyone should have the chance at that kind of happiness.
Moira had given up trying to tell her that any kind of relationship wasn’t in the cards, and just laughed. “I keep telling you, it’s not magic. I just notice things.”
Del patted Moira’s arm. “I understand, sweetie. It’ll be our little secret.”
Moira suppressed a sigh. People who wanted magic to be real never let facts get in the way of a good belief. She looked at her watch. “You’re going to miss your favorite show if you stand here gabbing with me.”
“You’re a good girl.” Del gave Moira a quick hug. “Go take your shower.”
Del trundled off, leaving Moira to follow the narrow walk that led to her tiny home. At twenty-nine, Moira was too old to be called a girl, though maybe Del applied the term to anyone under fifty.
In the backyard, Moira stopped to admire Del’s lovingly tended garden. It reminded her of her foster mother’s garden, which had been filled with practical vegetables, but still had room for a few flowers. She missed her foster parents a great deal, but couldn’t risk dragging them into the mess that was her life. All she could do was send occasional postcards and breezily tell them she was still enjoying her road trip of three years and counting. Maybe in another year, if things stayed quiet, she could finally go home again for a while.
Moira straightened her slumped shoulders, then turned and opened the screen door to the converted outbuilding.
The pink petunia petal she’d carefully placed between the door and the frame when she’d left at dawn was lying in the dirt. She picked it up and gently brushed the dust off with her thumb. The petal felt like someone had stomped on it, and incongruously smelled a bit like wet dog.
She tried the door’s handle, and was relieved to find it locked as she’d left it. She let herself in with the key and pulled the door closed behind her. Sunlight streamed in from high west windows as she took in the room.
The chair at the square, battered pub table was perfectly centered under it, and the table was perfectly aligned with the strip of a kitchen. The microwave and toaster oven on the counter both squared up perfectly with the edge. The rectangular, mosaic-mirrored vase was perfectly aligned with the edge of the low bookshelf. She’d bet her sandwich that the contents of her medicine cabinet would be too neat and that the few things hanging in the repurposed school locker that served as her wardrobe were now evenly spaced.
Lawrence Witzer had not only found her, he’d been in her house and pawed through her things.
Moira allowed herself three swear words that wouldn’t count toward her swear fund.
Hell. That was her life since meeting the man, turning him down, and evading him ever after. She was sorry she had ever taken that summer job three years ago as a costumed fortune teller for a Renaissance fair in southern Colorado, doing entertainment tarot readings for the visitors.
Wealthy but crazy Witzer had visited her tent once and become convinced she was a genuine psychic, not just someone with common sense and a vivid imagination that had gotten her into trouble since childhood. She’d spun him a vague but colorful tale of business setbacks, intrigue, and ultimate victory over an enemy, because richly dressed customers like him tipped better when they starred as the hero of the story. She’d had no idea who he was at the time, only that he had expensive taste in jewelry and a compulsive need for order. He’d come back several more times over the run of the fair for additional readings. Then on the last day, he’d astonishingly invited her to interview for a job as a business analyst for international financial deals. He was undeterred when she admitted she only had an associate’s degree in hospitality, and she’d only gotten that to please her family.
She’d been flattered by the attention and the breathtaking salary Witzer had offered, but his behavior during the meeting in Denver, in the hotel’s presidential suite, was deeply weird. He obsessively straightened everything, even her sweater on the back of her chair, without seeming to be aware he was doing it. He asked her nonsensical questions about her “magical gifts,” mumbled in a foreign language, and watched her like he expected her to sprout antennae or spontaneously combust. His expression made her imagine he’d soon ask to look at her ankles and teeth, like she was a prize thoroughbred he wanted to buy.
She’d told him she needed to think about it and escaped quickly, then sent him a polite email a week later declining his offer, after she’d lined up a tour guide job in Vermont because she wanted to see the fall foliage. Instead of dropping it, he’d seemed to take her refusal as a challenge, which he’d since carried to extremes. He’d overshot “eccentric” some time ago and was now well into obsessive-delusional.
Shit. She knew from experience that after Witzer, his goons with strong arms and black vans would soon be at her door. They’d come after dark this time, because they’d learned from their encounter last year that she could scream really loud, a skill she’d developed when she’d played a banshee in a haunted house. Something told her that if she didn’t leave in the next thirty minutes, she could kiss her freedom goodbye. She was certain that Witzer, based on his unflagging pursuit, had no intention of letting her get away again.
She put her backpack on her chair and pulled out the battered rolling suitcase from the locker wardrobe. She put her toiletries in a plastic bag in the bottom, so her clothes wouldn’t be ruined by leaks. Her worn athletic shoes went next, followed by her hanging clothes, then her spare pair of jeans and T-shirts, then her underwear, bras, and socks for easy access. She’d have to carry her winter coat and snow boots. She’d learned to keep her computer and cash with her at all times, so they were already in her backpack, along with her cellphone charger, hoodie, tools, first-aid kit, hair brush and small mirror, and the few important papers she had. She shoved her sandwich and chips into the top of the backpack.
In the kitchen, she pulled the can opener out of the drawer, along with one set of eating utensils and the plug-in immersion heater, and stuffed them in her backpack’s front pocket. She put her only can of stew in the backpack’s side pocket. She pulled the comforter off her futon and zipped it up to make it a sleeping bag again, stuffed it with her thrift-store sheets and pillow, then rolled it up. That was her entire life packed in fifteen minutes. She looked around for anything she couldn’t live without.
Fuckity fuck, fuck, fuck. Same word, so it was still exempt from the swear fund. She really liked the quaint little town of Nunn and its residents who admired her for staying off the grid, even though they thought it was by choice rather than necessity. The dairy farm owed her a week’s pay that she’d never see, and Del would be hurt that Moira didn’t say goodbye. She was heartily sick of the life of a tumbleweed, blown by the wind and Witzer’s demented desire to harness her supposed gifts for his benefit.
Speaking of the wind, she needed a direction. She pulled the well-worn US roadmap out of her backpack and spread it out on the narrow futon. She placed the bruised flower petal on her palm and blew it gently toward the map. It almost seemed to sparkle in the streaming late-afternoon sun, then landed. The petal’s tip pointed to a mountain town on the southern Wyoming border called Kotoyeesinay. It was as good a choice as any, though the route to get there from Nunn looked convoluted. Perhaps it would slow down Witzer’s hunters, trying to guess where she’d gone. If she was lucky, she could be there in a day.
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