Evelyn Brooks raced across a purple-tinged sky. Behind her, lightning and thunder clashed within baleful clouds. Her wings dipped in a strong crosswind and plunged her toward the earth. Muscling through the gale, she climbed into a less turbulent current. She’d never make Raleigh before getting soaked, despite the speed her Peregrine form achieved.
A ferocious roar drowned out the whistle of the wind. The upward flap of her wings faltered, and her blood chilled. Turning into a different current, she glimpsed the silhouette of an enormous beast against the storm’s clouds.
Below her, the treetops of a deciduous forest with red-kissed leaves due to an early frost stood sentry. She took shelter within the branches of an oak tree.
The whoosh of wings induced Evelyn to shrink against the tree trunk and dig her talons into the bark as the limbs swayed. A strong crosswind contorted the tree further. Another roar challenged the incoming storm’s might and silenced the nighttime creatures.
Twisting her head, she glanced through the foliage into the cloud-filled sky. A dark shadow moved against the dark gray backdrop. Gigantic wings lifted a massive creature high into the sky.
Hunted until extinct, dragons had been stripped of their scales and blood, their magic forever lost to the supernatural communities. For eons they’d guarded and sheltered those seeking wisdom or healing until humans, who couldn’t control their desires, rampaged across the earth and destroyed all the sanctuaries.
Apparently, the purge hadn’t destroyed them all, and the approaching storm had disturbed this one’s slumber.
Moving to the East Coast was supposed to keep Evelyn safe. Free her of the disturbing sense that someone watched her. Maybe stimulate her creativity and spark a burst of artistry. Instead, she was denied the escape of flight and forced to hide.
She stared longingly at the sky. Only when she rode the winds, sweeping high above, did she find peace. Released from the entanglements on the ground, flying freed her mind and stimulated the creative well inside her. Using her camera to record the beauty around her was potent, but it was nothing compared to the enthrallment of soaring in the air.
For over a hundred years, she’d captured the images around her. Recorded life, the daring vistas of the world, and the beauty of nature. Now every time she peered through her lens, clouds blended together, colors were muted, and not a single star twinkled. The wonderment of life around her had vanished.
Despite being able to change shape, she felt shackled to an earth-bound existence. Alone. Heartbroken, even though she had no desire for a mate.
She shook her feathers. Males were far too controlling for her taste. Everything had to be their way, on their schedule. Even other artists didn’t appreciate her wanderings or how she sometimes retraced her steps, following the inner drive of her artistic perceptions.
Her last date had been with a musician. While he sang like an angel, his interest wandered like a house wren. Consideration for her didn’t register. He practically panted after any woman who walked by, then had the audacity to make sexual suggestions to Evelyn.
She’d refused his offer of a car ride home. She couldn’t stomach the thought of fending off his roaming hands. Why couldn’t she find a good guy who could be courteous in public and playful in bed?
Thunder rumbled in the distance, followed by a faraway roar. Thankfully, the storm and dragon were moving on.
Maybe some time in Raleigh would help. A city full of people to watch but who would leave her alone. She’d stopped in a few small towns on the way and everyone asked questions. Not nosy, per se, but definitely curious.
She liked being anonymous, being left alone to experience life and find her own place.
If only she didn’t ache for a refuge, someplace to come back to, to call home. To have someone greet her at the door. Too bad she traveled too much to have a dog.
Turning her head, she plucked an errant feather from her back. Stress affected her even in her falcon form. The deadline for turning in fifteen photos to the Enchanted Empyrean, a gallery specializing in landscapes highlighting the sky, was due in two weeks. At least this wasn’t a solo exhibition, but she still needed to provide the prints.
Fourteen days to discover her muse and capture amazing images that told a new story. Something without limits that every person who looked at them could relate to.
Evelyn shuffled along the branch until she glimpsed the sky. A lassitude blanketed the area. The darkest hours of the night stilled even the most enraged predator. She ruffled her feathers, laid her head against her back, and settled in for a few hours of sleep.
The next morning, she took to the sky to return to her weekly rental. While not the best accommodations, the extended-stay room gave her a base to rest at each day. Someplace to store her equipment and plan her excursions.
After a shower and change of clothes, she picked up her camera bag and then drove around Raleigh. The lure of the warm and breezy day prompted her to explore the arboretum. A quiet stroll along the grass and stone paths from the Asian Valley to the Rose Garden should have inspired a few pictures. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to frame a shot.
Not even the bright colorful roses stirred her spirit. Her muse remained immune to the lovely and well maintained setting. Gritting her teeth, she retreated to her hotel. Abandoning the ties to the earth, she flung herself into the sky.
Only when the wind flowed under her feathers did her soul lighten.
She banked and drifted into a thermal that would carry her higher toward Murmuring Springs State Park. The bite of anticipation energized her system. The tips of her feathers almost glowed in the sunlight. She screeched her joy into the heavens.
Maybe her creative drought was about to end? Surely a striking landmark could be found.
Movement along the tree line captured her attention. She angled closer to the ground. A man raised his hand against the sun, and a sickening feeling grabbed her as he trailed her path. He lifted the tall walking stick at his side and aimed it along her trajectory.
For a moment, it reflected the sun’s rays with a blinding golden glow. Until a surge of magic struck her wing. Pain stung her body, seized her in a frozen grip of terror. Her wing had been shoved up against the wind and her body tumbled out of the thermal into a spin toward the ground.
Frantic, she screeched, but no sound came out. Her limbs wouldn’t respond. She couldn’t break out of the fall and continued to tumble toward the earth. She crashed through tree limbs, her body smacking against wood but continuing until she finally impacted with the hard clay dirt.
She wanted to get away, to escape the threat from the man who attacked her, but darkness surrounded her thoughts on all sides. Soon she’d slip into unconsciousness. Her only hope of surviving was if she didn’t change right now. Do not change. Do not change. Do not change.
She repeated the words endlessly and hoped her body followed. Black nothingness submerged all thought, erased the pain, and left her vulnerable.
Lawke Morgan drove his truck down the left-hand fork toward the employee-only section of the park. He couldn’t wait to get to the cabin where he could shower. Today had been more about rescuing visitors than educating them.
He’d missed giving the daily tour of the Violet Shadow Orchid, a dark purple orchid that grew in the shadowed cove of the park’s small waterfall due to a college girl in high heels twisting her ankle on the slight incline to the falls. Her boyfriend couldn’t help her back to the car and Lawke had been sent to help them out. Who wore heels hiking anyway? Except the woman’s boyfriend seemed enthralled by her.
He wasn’t sure who was more idiotic, but they’d both made him feel old. At thirty-two, he was divorced and had a thirteen-year-old daughter. The couple had seemed so in love—starry-eyed and oblivious to each other’s flaws.
Once upon a time, right after high school, he’d been that naïve. Then Zoe had been born and Rachel wanted out of the marriage so she could find someone better. Apparently, he’d been good for escaping the small town where they’d grown up but not for living with.
His pride had been hurt but he’d learned the lesson to never give his heart to another woman. Very few women understood his need to be outdoors or could put up with living near the park. They wanted shops and gatherings, not insects and tree bark.
His truck bounced from a particularly nasty hole, and he concentrated on the road. The crackle of his radio reminded him he had friends, if not a life-long companion.
“Lawke, you need to come back to the education center. We have something of yours.”
There was nothing for him to leave behind. “Billy, what’s going on?”
“Just come back.”
“Roger. See you in a few.”
He drove until a wide spot opened in the road. Skidding to a stop, he executed a three-point-turn and drove back toward the park entrance. Turning into the main parking area, he stopped close to the entrance.
The boys were probably pulling a prank on him. He couldn’t come up with anything that would explain the urgent need to come back. He yanked open the door and stopped short. His daughter sat in front of the information desk cross-legged on the floor, a drawing pad and colored pencils scattered around her.
Billy cleared his throat. “Rachel dropped her off. Said she was going out of the country for a few weeks. Refused to wait for you.”
Rachel, what are you up to now? “Can you watch her for a moment while I see what’s up?”
“Go ahead.” Billy leaned over the counter and pointed to Zoe’s drawing. “Make sure your dad’s hair sticks out from under his hat.”
Usually his partner’s antics brought a smile to his face, however, not today. Lawke stalked outside. His hands curled into a fist. Taking a few deep breaths, he willed himself to calm down. Being angry when he talked to Rachel would not be productive. While he loved his daughter, she was supposed to be safe with Rachel. There were too many places for Zoe to get lost or hurt in the park.
“Lawke, what do you need?”
For her to not be a self-centered bitch. “An explanation of why my daughter is in the park when she should be in Raleigh with you?”
“It’s time for you to be responsible for her well-being.”
“I’ve always been responsible for her. What’s really going on, Rachel?” His voice cracked on her name. He walked up and down the sidewalk. Right now he didn’t want to be patient. He wanted to shake her and make her see sense.
“Declan invited me on his trip to London for a month. I don’t want to miss seeing another country. It might be my only chance.”
More like her chance to cling to someone rich. “And how long has this trip been in the works?”
A scurrying mouse made more sound than the phone at that moment. “Rachel.”
“All right. About two months.”
Long enough to get a passport. “And why didn’t you tell me about this trip?”
“Because you would have said no.”
Damn right he would have. His job at the park required unusual hours that didn’t lend itself to hiring a babysitter or working from home. And while, at thirteen, Zoe might be okay for a few hours alone, she wasn’t safe for the whole day by herself.
“What am I supposed to do with Zoe?”
“You’re her father and a smart man. Figure it out. She has her books. It’s about time you step up and do more for her than send money.”
He stared at the cell phone in his hands. That sneering voice wasn’t one he’d heard before. But the sentiment was one Rachel had had since she became pregnant. He was never around, never did enough. As if she did more than shop or watch soap operas all day.
Voices laughed in the background. “I have to go.”
“Rachel, this isn’t the way to handle anything. I can’t get off on a moment’s notice.”
“That’s your problem.”
The cell phone disengaged while he stared at it. He couldn’t believe she would do this. Well, maybe he could, but he hadn’t thought she’d just walk out on Zoe. Worse yet, the park was shorthanded with only Billy and him on duty for the next few days.
A loud rumble of thunder disturbed the serenity of the afternoon. He looked up. The sky above was clear, but slate-gray clouds drifted toward them from the southeast. Just what the area didn’t need—another late-afternoon thunderstorm.
Going back inside, he said, “Billy, check the weather.”
Billy scowled, walked around the counter, bent over the keyboard, and cursed. Their phones chirped with emergency beeps.
“We need to get moving. Can you close? I’d like to get Zoe to the cabin.”
“Yeah, meet you there.”
Bending down, he lifted one earphone from her ear. “Time to go, sweetheart.”
Her smile lit her face. “Hey, Dad?”
She deliberately closed the pad of paper and placed it in her backpack. The pencils were less elegantly gathered and stuffed into a side pocket. Standing, she slipped the straps over her shoulders, pulled her shoulder-length blonde hair from under the fabric and then leaned around the counter. Dragging a pastel green duffel bag and large black rolling suitcase, her smile disappeared. “Mom said I had to stay with you for awhile. She needed a vacation.”
That contemptuous tone was not one he wanted his daughter to perfect. Even if she copied her mother. “Zoe. Be nice, especially in reference to your mother.”
“Yes, sir.” She mumbled.
He would always see her as the cute, chubby little girl running into his arms. Yet she was becoming a young woman. He wasn’t ready.
He suppressed a growl. Why didn’t Rachel talk to him about this if she needed a break? At least Zoe was homeschooled and this disruption wouldn’t interfere with her studies. “How are your classes?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Science is fun. I like learning about animals and researching the projects.”
“What about English and math?”
“I don’t like most of required readings or the papers.” Her expression turned mulish. “Do I have to keep reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow?” A bit of a rebellious whine colored her voice.
“Yes. I’ll discuss the story with you. But you have to write your own answers to your teacher’s questions.”
“Whatever. It’s just a silly tale. Not like there are real supernatural creatures haunting the forests.”
“No, probably not.” He’d never seen anything related to the supernatural, but every year a few reports of pixies or floating lights were filed. “But some people still want to believe. And math?”
She shrugged. “Math’s okay. I don’t understand multiplying polynomials, but I’ll get it.” Her voice filled with dogged determination.
He slammed the tonneau cover over the cargo bed and stared at her. Not for the first time, he couldn’t believe how grown up his little girl had become. “Zoe, you can do anything you want. And when you need it, I’ll be here to help.”
Everything loaded in the back of the truck, he pulled back onto the cabin road. This time he concentrated on where he went. The dark clouds blocked the fading sunlight and the wind had picked up.
“Lawke… Campground One…report.”
“Billy, can you repeat? The storm’s interfering.”
“We have a report of a downed bird at Campground One. Can you check it out?”
He cursed under his breath. The storm, Zoe, and now an injured animal. What else could happen tonight?
“Roger. Heading to Campground One.”
At least he hadn’t passed that road yet. Ten minutes later, he pulled into the wooded clearing. There was an F150 with a trailer setup. A woman and a boy of about fifteen anxiously watched him.
“Can I come?” Zoe stared longingly from her seat.
He sighed. “You have to stay back until I know it’s safe.”
“Sure.” She hopped out of the truck.
“Don’t forget your coat. It’s going to rain soon.”
He shook his head, watching her run. She could go from still to full speed ahead in under fifteen seconds. He stepped out and straightened his shoulders and hat. He had to present a capable image for the park visitors despite the winds whipping around them.
After grabbing a blanket, rope and some bottled water, he approached the visitors. “Hi. I’m Ranger Morgan. I understand you reported finding an injured animal?”
“Yeah,” the boy answered without looking up from mobile phone. His thumbs moving quickly across the device.
Lawke glanced to the sky. He didn’t have time or patience for bored teens at the moment. “Can you show me where?”
“Back that way.” The kid tilted his head to the left.
“Henry. Stop texting that girl and show the ranger where we saw the bird.” She had the frustrated mother tone down.
The kid huffed. Zoe copied the sound. Just what he needed—for his daughter to learn to be a hostile teenager.
After an eye roll at his mother’s glare, the boy trudged toward the trail.
About ten minutes later, he left the path and turned into some thick trees.
“What made you come along here?” Where no one else traveled.
The kid shrugged, drug his feet and refused to look at Lawke. He couldn’t be sure the kid wasn’t on something; he didn’t think it was drugs, but who knew these days. They stopped under a thick canopy of trees.
“Over there.” The kid pointed. “I’m outta here.” He almost hit a tree paying attention to his phone more than where he walked.
Broken twigs and green pine needles littered the ground around a large bird. Walking closer, he discovered a large female Peregrine falcon with blue-gray feathers and a white chest with gray stripes and sharp yellow claws.
The falcon had taken a hard fall. The bird lay on its side with one wing under its body and the other angled into the air. Hard to tell how long the animal had been here. He gently brushed the bird’s crown, watching its claws.
If the bird’s chest hadn’t been rising, he’d have thought she was dead. Carefully wrapping the thick towel from the back of his truck around the bird’s head and controlling the claws, he carried the animal back to the truck.
He tipped his hat and thanked the family for their report.
“Zoe, can you set up the box in the backseat?”
Lawke stood with his back to the wind. Thunder rumbled in the distance. A deceptive sign. Too much moisture rode the winds. They were in for a heavy downpour.
Putting the bird into the box, he quickly got in the truck in gear and drove for the cabin again. Hopefully this time he’d make it. A shower would clear away the dirt, if not the knots in his shoulders from the unexpected events of today.