Snake-shifter Sophia Samson is on the run with a knife-wound to the gut after her last con went belly up. With a mob man hot on her tail and her wound not healing like it should, she seeks refuge in her mother’s childhood hometown, Woodland Creek. She slithers in through the back door of the urgent care clinic and charms the handsome doctor into treating her.
The shifters of Woodland Creek turn to Desmond Callahan, MD when they suffer from unique medical conditions, but when Sophia sneaks into his office with silver poisoning, it’s obvious she has no idea there are other shifters in their small town. Desmond can tell Sophia doesn’t want him to know she’s a shifter – and that’s not the only thing she’s hiding. As a puca, Desmond has a few tricks of his own up his sleeve and he’s not going to let the captivating Sophia slip out of his life so easily.
She pressed a hand to her left lower rib to check for blood seeping through the bandages. She’d already had to change them twice on this last-minute cross-country trip. Changing bandages was not something Sophia — or any Samson before her — had any practice in. When she was barely tall enough to reach the sink, her mother had told her the snake-shifter genes were the reason why her scrapes healed so much faster than all the other kids’. In twenty-seven years, Sophia had never had to worry about any wound for more than a couple hours — not even that time a bullet took a chunk out of her femur.
But eighteen hours after taking a four-inch ceremonial blade to the stomach, her condition had only worsened. It wasn’t even a real knife, she kept thinking. The lightheadedness and bouts of vertigo hadn’t even left her any time to worry about Johnny Valrico — the owner of said ceremonial blade, which Sophia had been trying to steal at the time — and his promise to make her pay for her betrayal. And Johnny Valrico wasn’t the type of man to make empty threats. She’d seen that first-hand.
Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump.
“Shit.” Sophia jerked the wheel and returned the car to the middle of the lane, where it was supposed to be, instead of straddling the white line with rumble strips installed for exactly this reason.
A green sign appeared up ahead. Sophia’s sleep-deprived eyes had to squint to read it. Woodland Creek, 5 mi, it said. Five miles. She could make it that much further. Then she’d crash on whatever furniture her mom hadn’t sold from Sophia’s grandparents’ house and give her stomach wound a chance to knit itself up. And to stop bleeding. That would be great, she thought as she wiped her hand, wet with her own congealing blood, on her jeans.
In her pocket, her backup burner phone vibrated for half a second before the default ringtone kicked in. Instead of a phone number, the phone displayed the word “Private.” A pang shot through her gut that had nothing to do with the knife wound. Sophia was pretty sure she’d never given this phone number to anyone. Her instinct told her to ignore the call, but her curiosity wouldn’t let her. Every good con artist knew the first step to success was amassing as much intel as possible.
Letting out a slow breath, she pressed the green phone button. “Hello?” She grimaced at the fragile tone of her voice. Her mother had taught her better. The only weakness that should ever enter her countenance was intentional and calculated.
“Sophia,” a gruff voice with the hint of a Jersey accent said.
Shivers overran her entire body. Even if she had given this number to someone, it sure as hell wouldn’t have been him.
“Johnny.” Sophia tried to imitate his cool-as-a-cucumber inflection, but failed entirely. Her hands shook, so she gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white.
“Heading west, huh?” She could picture him, picking invisible lint off his pant leg like he always did when he was bluffing.
Unable to stop herself, Sophia rolled her eyes. “You live in Jersey, Johnny. Everywhere is west from you.”
Adrenaline had flooded her veins at the first sound of his voice, giving her back the alertness she’d been missing so dearly. He wasn’t going to catch her with such a basic ruse.
“Aren’t you going to ask me how I got this number?” he said, voice filled to the brim with smugness.
She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “What do you want?”
He sighed. “Justice.”
A spit of a laugh escaped her mouth. Johnny Valrico talking about justice — was that irony? Or just plain old hypocrisy?
I didn’t make off with anything of yours, she wanted to remind him. But she knew, reasoning with Johnny was like reasoning with a hungry shark when you’re bleeding in its ocean.
“You made a fool out of me,” he said.
Well, at least that was something. She didn’t get the goods, but at least she made him feel foolish. Her mom would be so proud.
“No one gets away with that,” he added ominously. “Not even the infamous Sophia Samson.”
Her blood turned to ice. She could count the people who knew her real last name on one hand and still have enough fingers to shoot a gun. None of those people were Johnny. None of them were even people whom Johnny had ever laid eyes on.
A sign glowed in her headlights. Entering Woodland Creek, it said.
“Are we done or do you have any more specific threats?” she asked, forcing calm into her voice.
“If I can’t find you, I’ll find whatever you love most, so you might as well come back and face the piper.”
“For one, that’s a mixed metaphor,” Sophia said. “It’s either face the music or pay the piper.”
She couldn’t help herself. She’d spent four months pretending to date him and, aside from the casual violence, mixing every stinking metaphor was his most annoying trait. One time, he’d actually said, “You can’t teach an old leopard to change its stripes.” She’d had to do a lot of deplorable things while working a con, but nothing made her dislike herself more than when she’d giggled at that, placing a hand on his arm and cooing, “You’re sooo right, Johnny.”
“And two?” His voice was small, like he was clenching his jaw.
“The only thing I have ever loved is the thrill of a con.”
With that, she slammed the phone shut to end the call. The cool Autumn air cooled her face when she rolled down the passenger the window – and chucked the phone into the town’s namesake as she drove over a small bridge.
“Home sweet home.” As long as her mother maintained her self-imposed exile, Woodland Creek would be the perfect place to lay low and regroup until Johnny found his next obsession. She hadn’t spoken to the woman in five years, but Sophia couldn’t imagine any reason Sonia Samson would deign to return to the place she grew up. Then Sophia’d leave this podunk town in her rear view and never look back.
About the Author & Links:
Aria Kane is a recovering mechanical engineer and romance writer. As a military brat, she grew up all over the country, but now lives in sunny Florida with a 60 lb mutt who thinks he’s a chihuahua.