Running freed her. Freed her from the expectations of her mother, the obligations of her career. Freed her from her own expectations, which could be just as crushing as the ones her mother held for her.
Delilah's hooves snapped twigs as she raced through the forest, her head down as she dodged between the trees. She'd only been living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula for two weeks, but already she had begun to recognize the scents on the wind and the plants sprouting from the barely-thawed ground. The nightly runs--an indulgence she would have never allowed herself in Atlanta--had lifted a burden from her she hadn't realized she carried. She'd never been one to toss around words like soul, but out here, in the form she'd restricted herself from for so many years, she felt like her vocabulary might expand.
A low growl pricked her ears, and they twitched above her head. Somewhere in the forest, an animal hunted. Not close enough to be an immediate threat, but she didn't want to take a chance. A wolf wouldn't care if she was a human shifter with a human job and a human mortgage. A wolf would just be disappointed when its meal turned from a nice, juicy doe into a less-savory human.
The only problem was...the scent of a predatory animal stood between her and home. She would have to be insanely careful. Why had she done this? She'd known it would only be a matter of time before she did something stupid to get herself seriously injured.
And that something stupid had been coming out here, and not noticing the wolf that had stalked her, and now it was looking at her through the trees.
She froze for a full heartbeat. Then she took off, in the opposite direction of home but damn safer than toward the animal. It gave a yip, and she didn't have to look back to know it chased her. She dodged the trees, that seemed to be working against her now, and kept her ears back to hear the animal closing in. And it was closing in, gaining two steps for each one of hers. She didn't have much of a choice. Either in deer form or human form, he was going to catch her. At least in human form, she had a chance of scaring him off.
She just hoped this wolf wasn't hungry enough that he wasn't afraid of people.
Leaping over a fallen log, she willed herself to change. She turned in mid-air, her body hitting the ground half-woman, half-doe, and rolled into a defensive posture. The position left her staring directly at her pursuer...but he wasn't a wolf anymore. She got to her feet, brushing off the leaves that clung to her bleeding knees.
"Damn, baby, why you running around the woods in the U.P. all dressed up like a deer? You ain't from around here." A round-sounding accent dipped the vowels and softened a few key consonants.
"Apparently you are." Delilah smirked as she straightened, but that smirk faded when she remembered just how naked she was in her human form, how naked he was in his human form, and how completely gorgeous he was. U.P. accent aside, he looked like a statue cast in bronze standing in the clearing, and the cold blue dawn could have been the white-hot fire from the forge. The eerie morning light painted silver highlights over every sinuous line of him, from the plump curves of his calves to the long, round muscles of his thighs, to his...sight a good girl averts her eyes from, a voice disturbingly like her mother's snapped, and she brought her eyes up north to join the rest of her. She did briefly glimpse the hard, upside-down L curve above his hip bones. The guy looked like he'd been carved, not born.
He reached out to her, leaning slightly into the handshake like they were meeting at a pharmaceutical convention and not naked in the woods, sweaty from a chase. "Miguel Paz."
"Miguel?" She took his hand and shook it. If he was going to pretend they weren't bare-ass naked in the woods, she could play along.
You're naked in the woods with a naked man. You should be running from naked men. What's wrong with you?
True, if she'd run into a naked man in Atlanta, she wouldn't have stuck around for introductions. But this wasn't just any man. He was a shifter. The first shifter she'd talked to in her life, other than the guy who'd convinced her to move to Gwinn Close, the gated community built exclusively for shifters. Two weeks, and she hadn't talked to a single soul. Naked or not, he was her kind, and curiosity had been the reason she'd given up the sweet Atlanta spring for the cold, muddy Michigan April.
As they let go of each other's hands, she said quickly, "I'm Delilah. Like in the Bible."
The smile that curved his lips would have been mocking, if his big, brown eyes hadn't been so damn nice. "Ya, I heard of that."
A high-pitched screech broke the air, and Miguel jerked his head up, scanning the canopy of trees above them. "Down here. New girl."
The biggest bat Delilah had ever seen--okay, she'd never actually seen a bat that wasn't on tv--flapped into the clearing. It circled once then stopped abruptly in midair. As it fell, the shape of the animal poured itself into a different shape, like plastic flowing into an injector mold.
"So, what brings a new girl to Gwinn Close?" Miguel asked, as if seeing a bat become a man was something that happened every day and not just in vampire movies. "You picked a real good year. Early spring."
"Um, what?" She looked back to Miguel. "Did you just see a bat turn into a guy?"
"He did." The bat-man didn't offer his hand. Like shaking hands with her was beneath him. "I'm Darius."
"Okay, hi, Darius. Are you a...vampire?" She felt stupid asking the question, but even more stupid when they looked at each other and laughed. "Yeah, it's real funny, two naked guys laughing at me in the woods."
"He's not a vampire," Miguel said, that teasing smile still playing on his lips. Delilah didn't care for teasing usually, but when it came in such a yummy package...
Okay, definitely not thinking about anyone's package, she scolded herself, keeping her eyes firmly up.
"I get that a lot," Darius said, with the tone of person who really did get that a lot. "I'm just a shifter. My form just happens to be a bat."
"He's a were-bat," Miguel said with a wink.
"Okay, well." She crossed her arms over her chest. "It was nice to meet you, Miguel the dog--"
"Miguel the red wolf and Darius the not-vampire bat. I'm going to go home now. Put some clothes on. Still a little too chilly out here to be running around naked."
"Come with us," Miguel said. "Our truck is just over there. We can give you a ride back to wherever you're going."
"Gee, get in an enclosed space with two naked dudes who want to drive me to a second location? No, that doesn't go against anything my mother ever taught me." She shook her head firmly. "I think I'll just shift and head back to my house on my own."
"You're real new here, huh?" Darius said, and it sounded more like an insult than a question.
She wasn't going to let him bait her into some display of bravado that would end up with her dead body in a ditch. "I've only been here about two weeks, why?"
"Where are you from? Before, I mean."
Okay, so brother did have one of those deep voices that put her immediately at ease. But serial killers probably had those, too. "Atlanta."
"This ain't the big city Atlanta is," Darius replied, and Delilah couldn't figure out if it was a warning or a reassurance.
"What he's trying to say, but failing at on account of being all serious and scary, is people don't take to trespassers up here. You come across some poachers in your deer form, they're gonna shoot you. You come across some poachers in your nekkid black girl form, well, they're just as likely to shoot you." Miguel shrugged. "But you could handle yourself in the big city? You'll be fine."
Delilah struggled through her fog of horror to remember what the guy had told her when she'd first moved to Gwinn Close. Being shot was definitely not on her bucket list, and though she had lived in the "big city" of Atlanta, she'd grown up in the affluent Ansley Park neighborhood. The closest she'd ever come to being shot was playing paintball at her friend Ronnie's sixteenth birthday party. "Okay, hold up a minute. That guy, Mitchell...the guy who started the place? He said there weren't any poachers in Gwinn Close."
Darius nodded. "There aren't any poachers. In Gwinn Close. But you crossed the easement line about two miles back. You're in Hiawatha state forest now."
"What?" She'd never been good with distance, and the only thing she was good for in shifter form was running. She must have overshot the line considerably. "Then what are you two doing out here?"
"Looking for you," Darius said, his deep voice as dark as a hot summer night. Delilah's skin went all tight and flushed. It was a good thing she had her arms over her chest.
Miguel cut in. "I caught your scent and didn't recognize you. Figured you had to be the new girl. Didn't want to see you get into any trouble."
Darius nodded. "There are campers past the sand hill to the west. Now, they had guns. Could be for protection from bears. But you can't be too careful, especially of nutjobs who want to camp in April."
The full import of what he said sank in, and Delilah shivered.
Miguel broke the silence. "You don't have to get in a car with us. But at least let us take you your place."
"What's with the 'me Tarzan, you Jane?'" Delilah laughed to break the tension that arose from almost being a poacher's trophy doe, but it didn't quite work.
Darius smiled anyway. "Miguel speaks more Yoopanese than Spanish. Don't mind him dropping important clauses here and there."
Miguel held up his hands, "It's the language of God's country. I'm sorry youse don't speak it."
"We better get moving, if we don't want to break curfew," Darius said, suddenly back to all serious, all business mode. He shook his head, like someone trying to get water out of his ears, and before Delilah could blink, his body sucked up into his bat form.
She'd never thought to change in front of a mirror before. She doubted she looked anywhere near as smooth as he did when she changed.
Miguel dropped to all fours, and the tawny fur of his Red Wolf form grew up his arms like kudzu vines growing on a time lapse video. Within seconds, all that remained was a sort of mangy, feral-looking dog who watched her expectantly.
"Oh, hell. All right, follow me home." Delilah took a step back, her arms raised over her head like she'd learned in gymnastics class, then sprang forward and dove at the ground. She loved the feeling of the change, of the long bones of her arms and legs lengthening, her joints easing to new places. Her hands touched the ground as if to spring into a forward round-off, but were replaced at once with hooves. Her back bowed and her feet hit the ground, toes spreading into hooves as well. She raised her head, shaking her face into an elongated snout. Then, with a muffled snort, she headed back the way she'd come.
If the guys had been following her somewhere in a car, she would have driven safely and considerately in front of them, making sure they never got left behind. But they weren't in cars, and something primal wanted competition. She took off without a signal, sprinting through the trees, her nimble hooves dashing the bracken underfoot into the soil. Over head, Darius sent out a shriek that prickled her fur. Something nipped at her heels, just as Miguel rushed past her, looking truly ridiculous, the way dogs always did when they ran. Whatever the deer equivalent of laughing was, Delilah did it.
Running through the woods had been exhilarating alone, but with companions, competitors, it was enough to get her higher than any drug that had circulated at college parties. She closed her eyes briefly as she jumped over a fallen log. For the brief, weightless moment, everything, her past, her family, her uncertain future, evaporated.
Then, a gunshot rang out.
Panic tore through her guts. She didn't know where the sound came from and didn't really care. A fucking white-tailed deer and you decide to move to the U.P. You're brilliant, Delilah.
Miguel fell back, growling as they ran. If it was to urge her on, she didn't need any more urging than a gunshot. Overhead, Darius screeched again as he dove between tightly spaced branches. Delilah's right front hoof caught in a rut and she stumbled. Don't worry about what they're doing. Keep your eyes on the goal.
The goal in question wasn't exactly within her sight, not yet. She'd eaten up the ground like birthday cake on her way into the woods, getting out wouldn't be quick and easy. But no other shots followed, and her fear turned to resolve that pounded through her with every step. I will make it. I will make it.
The mantra still spun in her head as she broke through the tree line and into the clearing around her house, a big pine-log cabin with the lights inside all lit up like Christmas because she didn't like coming home to a dark house. Her bare, human feet hit the yellow grass as soon as she cleared the trees, and her momentum carried her forward, rolling to the ground with painful shocks to her elbows and knees.
Miguel shifted and knelt beside her, as breathless as she was, and Darius fell to the earth in a crouch.
"Welcome to town, huh?" Miguel said with a wheezy laugh.
Delilah sat up, laughing too, until the laughing turned to hysterical sobs that shook her back and seared her gasping lungs.
"Hey, don't do that," Miguel patted her back timidly. "Hey. Chica, don't do that."
"I could have gotten shot!" She pulled her legs to her chest, resting her eyes on her knees. "I could have been killed!"
"Never a dull moment," Darius said quietly.
"This is nuts." She squeezed her eyes shut. "My momma was right. This is not going to work out."
Miguel laughed softly. "What she say? 'You're gonna go up there and get yourself shot?'"
"No. She said, 'This is not going to work out.'" Delilah sprang to her feet and headed for the house. "What the fuck am I doing?"
The guys followed her. She subdued the powerful urge to slam the door on them, to scream for help because suddenly it didn't seem like the best idea to be hanging out naked with strangers. Instead, she went to her bathroom, pulled on her bathrobe, and came back downstairs, where they waited for her.
Darius had the good manners to remain standing by the back door, but Miguel had sat down at the kitchen table. She frowned. "I don't recall the section in Emily Post about putting your naked butt in my kitchen chairs. I eat here, you know."
"Miguel doesn't have any manners." Darius nodded toward her. "Are you gonna be okay?"
"I'll be fine." She'd be fine, just as soon as she got her shit packed and got out of Dodge. "Does this kind of thing happen all the time?"
Miguel shook his head. "Not on our land. We have our own way of dealing with predators here."
Predators. Not poachers, not hunters, predators. "You talk like we're animals."
"Aren't we?" Darius took a step toward her. "You don't seem like you understand the way things work here. This isn't Atlanta."
"That's pretty damn clear," Delilah snapped.
Miguel's voice was gentler, but it might have been just the goofy accent. "Look...the shifters that come to live here do it because we want to indulge in our animal sides. We don't want to live the secret life, nine-to-five, maybe run around a state park on the weekends. Tell me that when you were running out there, that wasn't the most alive you've ever felt."
"No. I feel alive now. Because I didn't get shot out there." Her fingers shook as she pushed her hair back. "I feel like I need a fucking cigarette."
Miguel chuckled. "Then that's a good run, baby. I don't think exercise ever made me feel that good."
Okay, she had to laugh at that. "Okay, maybe not that good. I haven't felt that good in a long time."
"That's a shame," Miguel said with genuine sympathy. "You leave a boyfriend behind in Atlanta?"
She laughed awkwardly. As if the situation could be any more awkward. "Um, no. I don't really date that much."
"I think we could help you out with that."
"Miguel--" Darius warned quietly.
"I'm not looking to be fixed up, thanks." She tucked her braids behind her ears and flicked away a piece of leaf that had straggled in from the woods.
"Maybe not fixed up," he said, drumming his fingers on the table. "But I certainly know two guys who really wouldn't mind breaking up your dry spell."
She laughed, until she realized that he was dead serious.