Officer Aspen Wolfe hurried out of the cramped stairwell and stepped onto the building’s rooftop, her gaze darting to the kid precariously balanced on the concrete ledge.
The kid peered down on Boston’s busy Tremont Street with a look of wonder, fear, and longing. Winds from an approaching storm swiped the kid’s gray hood. Shaggy brown hair darted from side to side.
Hard to tell if this one was male or female. Aspen’s money was on female, but she’d been wrong before. Taking a careful step forward, she listened to the sounds of passing traffic on the city street below. She was keenly aware of how high they were. She hated heights. Always had. The feel of solid ground beneath her feet was definitely preferable to being up here.
“Don’t come any closer.” The kid glanced over one shoulder. “I swear, I’ll jump.”
With nine years under her belt as a Boston beat cop, Aspen’s unconventional methods had earned her begrudging respect from fellow officers over the years. Due in large part to her success, dispatch usually saddled her with all the crazies.
She studied the kid and pulled her hair into a ponytail with the elastic from her wrist. Couldn’t be more than twelve. Thirteen at most. Black eye, bruised cheek, split lip. She had no other information. Not even a name.
“Tell you what,” she said, putting her hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I’ll stay right here until you give me permission to come and sit with you. I’ve been on my feet all day and could really use the break.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the two Snickers candy bars she’d grabbed from her patrol car on her way to the call. She spent a small fortune on candy bars each year, but they’d gotten her out of more than a few dicey situations. Who could resist chocolate? A candy bar took down the defenses. Instant friend maker. She was considering starting a class at the academy on how to use chocolate as a defense tactic in law enforcement.
“You hungry?” she asked, tearing the wrapper and taking a bite.
The kid pulled up the hoodie and looked back at her like she was nuts.
“If you’re gonna jump”—she held up the extra candy bar—“you might as well go down with some chocolate in your mouth.”
“I hate Snickers.”
“Copy that.” Aspen tossed the Snickers on the ground and reached into her other pocket, still munching. The more she studied the kid, the more convinced she became this was a girl. “Butterfinger?”
The kid shook her head.
She dug around in the cargo pocket of her pants. “Kit Kat?”
The kid turned away, resuming her scan of the busy street below.
“Not a chocolate fan. Okay. That’s cool.” She was running out of pockets. Last chance. She pulled out a Skittles bag and gazed at it longingly before holding it up.
The girl turned. “Toss it here.”
Just her luck this kid would pick the one she’d been saving for end-of-shift paperwork. She sighed. “Do me a favor and step down, just for a minute—long enough to enjoy your last bag of Skittles. Then you can climb back up there if you want. But every person deserves a decent last meal.”
This elicited a small smile. “You’re not like any cop I met before,” she said, finally meeting Aspen’s gaze.
“And you’re not like any kid I’ve met before. People who think about taking the plunge into rush-hour traffic are usually older, grayer, and fatter than you.” Suicide was no joke, but she had the kid’s attention, and snark seemed the way to hold it. She took another bite of the Snickers. “You’re a few decades too early, kid.”
She held her breath as the girl spun around and effortlessly hopped from the ledge down to the roof. True to her word, Aspen tossed her the bag of Skittles.
She tore the bag open and popped a few in her mouth, eyeing her suspiciously. “Officer Wolfe,” she said, studying the nameplate on the breast pocket of her uniform. “Cool name.”
“Mind if we sit?” Aspen lowered her body to the ground and rested her back against the rooftop wall. They sat there and snacked together in silence. Savoring the last chocolaty mouthful, she crumpled the Snickers wrapper and tossed it aside.
The kid stopped chewing and stared at her. “You’re littering.”
“What do you care? You were on your way out.”
“But you’re a cop. Don’t you arrest people for littering?”
“Cops aren’t perfect,” she said, rising to retrieve the offending wrapper before joining her once again. “By the way, I was saving those for later,” she admitted, casting a glance at the bag of Skittles. “Came from my personal stash. Care to share?”
The girl handed her the bag. “Your dentist must love you.”
She poured some into her palm and handed them back, digging into another pocket to pull out a travel-sized toothbrush. “Good oral hygiene is important.”
“Want to talk about what’s going on?”
“I know the drill. You ask me my name and age and all that. When I refuse to tell you, you haul me down to the station, call Child Protective Service, and send me off to another crappy foster home.”
Aspen studied the girl as she talked. Her red high-top sneakers were obviously too big. Her jeans were torn and filthy. The gray hoodie was sized for a much larger person and fell almost to her knees, its thin material providing little protection on this chilly November day. She was pale and gaunt—probably hadn’t eaten a decent meal in ages. Looked like she was living on the streets. Aspen remembered those days from her own youth all too well. “You like pancakes?”
“Do you think about anything besides food?” She looked right at Aspen—through her—her bright green gaze piercing and curious. “Whoa, your eyes are—”
“The windows to my soul,” Aspen finished, well aware they perfectly matched her raven hair. She knew little about her parents, but her Native American heritage came through loud and clear.
“They’re so…dark,” the girl said, staring. “They’re beautiful. You’re pretty. For a cop,” she added quickly.
Aspen sensed there was something special about this kid. And not just because the girl had complimented her, though that did score her some extra points. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was exactly, but she was sure of it. Trusting her instincts had paid off more than once on the job. She checked her watch. Her shift was ending soon. “How about we grab some dinner at IHOP? My treat.”
“How come you’re not fat?” the girl asked, looking genuinely baffled.
Aspen smiled. “Fast metabolism.”
“Fast what?” She shook her head. “Forget it. You’re trying to trick me. I go with you, and we end up at the station instead of eating pancakes.”
Aspen sighed, deciding to come clean. “I got my ass kicked today by a drunk who was twice my age. The guys at the precinct will never let me live it down.” She stood, brushed the dirt from her pants, and extended a hand. “Believe me, I’m not in any big hurry to get back.”
To her surprise, the girl reached up and grabbed hold with a firm grip. Time slowed the moment their hands connected. The kid faded from view like smoky wisps as the image of a huge white owl, wings spread wide, appeared before her. Aspen drew in a sharp breath. The owl had the girl’s unmistakable bright green eyes.
She let go of the girl’s hand, squeezed her eyes shut, and opened them again. The kid was now standing where the owl had been.
The girl took a step back, a look of surprise on her face. “You’re a panther.”
“I’m an owl. You’re a pan—” She shook her head. “Never mind.” She lifted her red backpack from the ground and slung it over one shoulder. “Can we go eat? I’m starving.”
An owl? Aspen stood speechless as she watched the girl hurry off toward the rooftop door. Did she say owl? She couldn’t remember the last time she was rendered speechless. There was one thing about herself she knew she could always count on, regardless of the situation: she carried a well-stocked arsenal of clever quips and candy bars wherever she went. What good was one without the other?
The kid swung open the rooftop door and glanced back over her shoulder. “You coming or what?”
Aspen ordered the usual and handed her menu to the waitress, watching as the kid did the same. She had taken her regular booth in the back corner and requested that the surrounding tables remain unoccupied so she and the girl could talk. “So?” she finally asked as their waitress sauntered away.
The girl stared at her blankly.
“Chocolate-chip pancakes for a name. That was the deal.”
“Fine. It’s Skye. I’m thirteen,” she said, her shoulders sagging in defeat. “Lots of people think I’m a boy, but I’m a girl.”
Aspen gave herself a mental high five. “You cut your hair to look like a boy so no one’ll mess with you on the streets.”
Skye looked up, a mix of emotions spreading across her face.
“You’re smart, resourceful. I admire that.” She studied Skye’s black eye, bruised cheek, and split lip. “What happened to your face?”
“Some homeless dude wanted my high-tops.”
Aspen glanced under the table. “And?”
“And I said no.” The girl met her gaze defiantly.
She thought for a moment, suddenly concerned for the homeless dude. “How badly did you hurt him?”
“I kicked him—hard—in the nuts. Told him I’d cut them off if he bothered me again.”
“Okay.” Aspen shook her head. She couldn’t help herself and smiled. “Aside from your face, how’s the rest of you?”
“Do you have any other injuries?”
Skye shook her head.
Just to be safe, she’d take the girl to the hospital for an exam and get her statement as soon as they were finished here. Skye had obviously perfected a tough exterior, but her underlying fear was palpable. “I bounced between foster homes and lived on the streets for a while when I was a kid.” Aspen stood and went to the other side of the booth to sit beside the girl. “I got my ass kicked more than a few times. Made me think I always needed to look tough and be on guard with everyone. But deep down, I was really scared inside.” She sighed. “It’s okay to be scared, you know.”
They sat together in silence. Skye wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of one sleeve. “Did you make that up just to…you know…relate?”
“It’s all true. I swear on my entire collection of candy.”
The girl smiled and looked up. “How’d you end up in a foster home? Where were your parents?”
“They died when I was six. I didn’t have any other family.” She thought back, remembering the feeling of disbelief upon learning of her parents’ death. The hardest part to grasp at that age was the permanence of their passing. She remembered waking up each morning, believing with all her heart and soul that they had magically returned in the middle of the night and were asleep in the next room. It had taken her a whole year to figure out that deadmeant never coming back.
Aspen realized most people went through life fighting like hell to avoid revisiting the painful memories of the past. She made a point of regularly running her fingers over the old scars in her life to keep herself resilient and strong. “What about you?” she asked, returning to the opposite side of the booth. “Where are your parents?”
Skye looked at her for a long moment before answering. “Dead.”
It took Aspen a few beats to put two and two together. She thought back to the moment their hands touched on the rooftop. This girl must be a Shroud—a shapeshifter. More precisely, an owl. But how had she figured out the girl’s animal? Aside from a blood test, there was only one way to discern humans from Shrouds: actually seeingthem shapeshift. She’d seen Shrouds shift many times over the years, both on and off the job. But this girl hadn’t shifted in the usual sense. It was as if Skye had removed a mask, her human body, when their hands connected. Aspen had shaken hands with countless Shrouds over the years. Never once had that happened before.
She suddenly found herself with more questions than answers but refrained from asking the girl about it. Skye had lost her parents. She’d bet anything they were targeted and murdered simply because they were Shrouds. Aspen put her arms on the table and leaned forward. “You’re a Shroud,” she whispered, careful not to draw attention.
Nodding, the girl bit her lip uncertainly. She pushed up the cuff of her sweatshirt to reveal the mark on her right hand.
“Okay.” Relations between humans and Shrouds were tenuous, at best. When President Decker took office three years ago, he’d wasted no time before playing to his base of racist supporters. He spread lies about Shrouds on a daily basis, exacerbating the tension between the two species and amplifying humans’ distrust of Shrouds to a degree unprecedented in the history of human/Shroud coexistence. Aspen had seen the effects of Decker’s toxic influence firsthand. She despised him and everything he stood for.
She pierced the girl with a steady gaze. “What happened to your parents?”
“A man in a suit knocked on our door a few months ago. He said he worked with my dad, so I let him in. He shot my dad with a gun, and then he shot Mom. He fired at me, too, but he missed. I escaped through the back kitchen door and…” Skye hesitated. “I ran as fast as I could to the police station. The police went to my house but never found my parents. They said they found suitcases on the bed. Looked like my parents had packed up all their clothes and took off without me. But my parents would never do that. They loved me.” She shook her head as fresh tears welled up in her eyes. “I sawwhat he did to them. But the cops didn’t care.”
Aspen thought for a moment, unnerved by the similarity in their stories. She was six when her parents were murdered. They, too, were Shrouds. The only difference between her story and Skye’s was that Aspen was human. She was adopted by Shroud parents, which is why she’d been spared.
She looked at the girl. Aspen could smell an omission a
mile away. “There’s something you’re not telling me, Skye. What is it?”
The girl averted her gaze and shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “When the man in the black suit shot at my parents, they…shifted. My dad shifted into a black bear, and my mom shifted into an owl. Before my mom shifted, she yelled at me to fly away and trust my instincts. But I just stood there. I couldn’t believe she’d said that.”
President Decker had signed an executive order last year, making it unlawful for Shrouds to shift. Aspen had never arrested a Shroud for shifting—she refused—but she knew lots of other cops who had.
Skye opened her mouth to go on but thought better of it and looked down. Suddenly quiet, she fidgeted with the zipper on her sweatshirt.
“It’s okay.” Aspen reached across the table reassuringly. “You won’t get into trouble with me for shifting.”
Skye looked up, her expression doubtful. “Promise?”
“When the man shot at me and missed, I bolted out the kitchen door. You know that expression, fight or flight?”
“Well, I flew. Literally. I turned into a white owl, just like my mom, and I flew into the sky. That’s how I got away. He couldn’t chase me up there.”
“That was a smart thing to do.”
“But how can you say that? You’re a cop. Shifting is against the law.”
Aspen shrugged. “It’s a stupid law,” she said honestly.
“My dad raised me neverto shift—even before it was against the law. He did everything he could to make me as human as possible. He said it was too dangerous to embrace Shroud culture, that there were too many Shroud haters out there.”
Aspen said nothing as the waitress returned and set their plates on the table. “What were you doing on the roof?” she asked as soon as they were alone again. The girl watched, seemingly mesmerized as she drowned her pancakes in as much syrup as humanly possible.
“You are seriously addicted to sugar.”
“I know. I’ve been looking for a good support group. Haven’t found one yet.” She stuffed a large forkful of pancakes into her mouth, relishing their buttery sweetness. Syrup ran down her chin and onto the napkin she’d tucked into the collar of her uniform. “So?”
Skye stabbed a fork into her own stack. “I was going to jump.”
“To fall or fly?”
“Fall.” Skye took a modest bite, chewed, and swallowed. “I just didn’t want to be here anymore.”
Aspen set down her fork, wiped her chin, and took a sip of coffee. “Do you feel that way now?”
“No.” Skye took a much larger bite this time, returning Aspen’s gaze with confidence.
“Good. What’s changed?”
The girl grinned around a mouthful of pancakes. “I met you.”
President Timothy Decker set his hands on his hips and stared out over the South Lawn from the window inside the Oval Office. “Have the SEA troops been mobilized?”
“Yes, Mr. President. Dispatched to every state and all major cities. Last unit touched down about an hour ago.”
“And this still hasn’t hit the news?”
“Then it’s time we got started.” Tim took a deep cleansing breath. “Tell them the mission’s a go.”
His secretary of defense remained glued in place on the Oval Office rug.
The president turned and cast a stern glance at Finkleman. “Do it,” he ordered. “Now.”
“But wouldn’t it be best to wait until morning, Mr. President?”
“I want to implement these changes before the media catches wind of this.” Tim stepped away from the window and casually leaned over the leather chair behind the Oval Office desk—hisdesk, he reminded himself proudly. He checked his Rolex. “Most Shrouds are probably leaving their jobs right about now, scurrying home to their little fur families. Time to round them up and dispose of them like the vermin they are.”
It was closing in on seven p.m. by the time Aspen parked her patrol car in the hospital parking lot. She cut the engine and turned to Skye. “Just a quick checkup with the ER doc to make sure you’re okay. No big thing.”
“You plan on dumping me here?”
She cut the engine and turned to Skye. “Not at all.”
“You’re off the clock now.” A palpable sadness crept into Skye’s green eyes. “You’ll call CPS, and then you’ll be done with me. Right?”
Aspen thought for a moment. The kid was right. Protocol dictated that’s exactly what she was supposed to do. But there was something inside that urged her not to follow the rules this time. She wasn’t sure why. There was no denying she felt connected to this kid. But there was something else, too. Something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Sighing, she reached inside the collar of her uniform and pulled out the pendant that had come to feel like a part of her body. She unclasped the chain and gave the pendant one last rub between thumb and forefinger. “Someone gave this to me when I was your age,” she said, handing it to Skye. “It’s the symbol of the phoenix.” She watched as the girl studied the pendant’s gold face. “When her old life is over, she rises from the ashes into a new life, emerging even more powerful and made even more beautiful by her newfound strength. Eventually, with time, that’s what will happen to you. I see it in you, Skye, so I know it’s there. Someday, you’ll see it in yourself, too. And when you do, it’ll be time to pass this on to someone else.” She retrieved the necklace from Skye’s hands, draped it around the girl’s neck, and clasped it securely in place. “From now on, just know you’re never alone.”
Skye looked at her, the tears flowing freely down her cheeks.
Blinking back her own tears, Aspen offered a reassuring smile. “Oh, and one more thing.” Unable to keep from breaking the tension, she put on her best serious-cop face. “You’re not going to turn into an owl in the exam room, are you?”
Skye laughed. It was the first real laugh she’d heard from the girl since they’d met. “No. I promise I won’t do that.”
“Good. Let’s go get you medically cleared.”
Skye hesitated, carefully tucking the pendant inside the collar of her red hoodie. “Then what?” she asked.
Aspen shrugged. “I don’t know. But we’ll figure it out…together.”
The doctor rounded the corner and almost collided with Aspen in front of the vending machine.
“All set,” she said, eyeing the pile of candy inside the barf bucket Aspen had confiscated and was now holding under one arm.
Aspen reluctantly turned away from the Payday dangling precariously inside the machine to give the doctor her undivided attention. “She okay?”
“She’s a bit malnourished. Has some bruises and scratches but otherwise appears in good health. I’ll finish my report and fax it over. You can go into the room and wait there. Skye’s taking a shower now. I gave her a fresh pair of scrubs to wear.” The doctor’s eyes kept returning to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups inside the barf bucket. “You’ve made quite an impression on her, Officer Wolfe. She trusts you.”
The doctor’s eyes were the most unique and beautiful shade of amber-gold she’d ever seen. Unruly curly blond hair was braided loosely down her back. Several locks had broken free and were tucked behind one ear. Aspen withdrew the Reese’s from the pile and handed it to her.
She accepted the candy and extended her hand. “Tora Madigan.”
Captivated by her eyes, Aspen returned the handshake but immediately wished she hadn’t. Time came to a screeching halt. As the doctor faded from view, a lioness assumed her place with those incredible amber-gold eyes. Rippling with power, nobility, and self-control, the lioness held its tail high as it stalked around her in a full circle.
The hair on the back of Aspen’s neck stood up. Her instincts told her she was being evaluated. As she turned to face the lioness, they squared off like two alphas vying for dominance. She felt her own primal instincts kick in, begging to take over. She shook her head to snap herself out of it. What the hell?How could this happen twice in one day? She released the doctor’s hand and took a step back.
The doctor was now standing where the lioness had been. Exactly as it had happened with Skye and the owl.
Their eyes locked as they stood in silence for long seconds. The doctor observed her with a calm, quiet confidence that Aspen was unaccustomed to seeing. Most people were at least a smidgeon intimidated by an armed police officer in uniform.
The doctor was the first to break the silence. “Did you skip breakfast, lunch, anddinner?” she asked with an amused grin, glancing at the candy-filled barf bucket. “For a week?”
Aspen switched the bucket to her other arm a little self-consciously. It was getting heavy. “This is just an after-dinner snack.”
Tora closed the distance between them and studied her intently. “I’ve never seen eyes so…dark. They’re quite beautiful.”
The alluring scent of Tora’s perfume wafted over her, a little intoxicating. “Ditto,” was all Aspen could think to say. “But minus the dark part,” she added quickly. “They remind me a little of—”
“A lion’s eyes?” Tora finished, an impish grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. She returned Aspen’s gaze with the forthright and unwavering confidence of a leader.
It was a little unnerving. “Nice to meet you, Doc. Thanks for taking care of Skye,” Aspen said, already heading down the corridor. She turned the corner and glanced back, relieved to see she wasn’t being followed by a hungry predator.
Tora watched, mesmerized, as Aspen made a hasty retreat. Those eyes. Had she really seen what she thought she saw? Was it even possible? She squinted, following the cop’s lithe figure as she disappeared around the corner and vanished from sight.
It was almost as if Aspen was unaware of her own gifts—ignorant to who and what she was. How could that be? Surely, she would have come to terms with her identity by now. But if that was the case, why would she be out in public, unprotected? What Shroud in their right mind would let someone as indispensable as Aspen roam around the city streets, fighting crime?
Her stomach growled as she gazed down at the Reese’s in her hand. She hadn’t taken the time to eat today and felt grateful for this small energy boost. She tore open the orange wrapper and peeled the brown paper from each peanut butter cup. She ate them quickly, her mind on Aspen.
Aspen knocked on the door and stepped inside the exam room. The door to the bathroom was closed. She heard water running in the shower. She sat in the only chair and set the barf bucket in her lap, unwrapping a Twix as she thought back to the day she met Oscar.
At twelve years old, she’d just bolted from another nightmare of a foster home. Living on the streets was an improvement to being bullied, beaten, and starved by a family who took her in for the sole purpose of getting a modest monthly stipend from the state. Convinced she could take better care of herself, she wasted no time in establishing a dependable routine.
She’d started each morning with a brisk walk to the local Dunkin’ Donuts, scavenging what she could from the dumpster. They always discarded the previous day’s unsold food before opening their doors at five a.m., so there was usually a plentiful buffet of baked goods from which to pick. From there, she headed to a spot along the Charles River to feed the ducks. Determined to continue her academic studies, she then made her way to the Boston Public Library, where she would disappear in the vast array of bookshelves and spend each day reading everything she could get her hands on. At three p.m., when students were released from Boston public schools, she took the bus to the local YMCA to shower, brush her teeth, and change into fresh clothes. Each night, she stopped by the Laundromat to wash her clothes in the sink, remove someone else’s from the dryer, and steal a few minutes of their time until her clothes were dry enough to wear again the following day.
Her routine had continued, uninterrupted for months, until fall turned into winter. She had nowhere to go to keep warm. That was when she realized nobody cared about her. She didn’t have any family. No friends to speak of. When it came down to it, no one gave a crap if she lived or died. Humans considered her tainted because she’d been adopted and raised by Shrouds.
Knowing her circumstances were unlikely to change, Aspen decided to take her own life. It was certainly better than freezing to death overnight on the park bench where she usually slept. She stole a knife from the local grocery store and stabbed herself repeatedly in the stomach in the middle of the night.
A local beat cop happened upon her as she lay in a pool of her own blood. He’d scooped her up and carried her in his arms all the way to the emergency room. She still remembered looking up at him and feeling the sting of his hot tears on her face. Looking back, she knew she was lucky to have survived without any long-term effects from such serious injuries.
In a bittersweet twist of fate, she ended up finding a home with that cop. He’d saved her life in more ways than one. By the time she turned thirteen, her second adoption was official. It didn’t take her long to realize she felt safe and loved in Oscar Wolfe’s presence. He was a man of integrity, honor, and intense loyalty, never far whenever she needed him. He was a Shroud—just like her parents had been. But she didn’t mind in the least. Despite the fact that most humans were either intensely distrustful of Shrouds or downright hateful toward them, she believed Shrouds were inherently good. Not a popular opinion in this day and age, but it was one she vehemently defended.
Hard to believe eighteen years had passed since that fateful night. She’d come a long way since then.
Aspen spent her teenage years listening to stories about Oscar’s time on the streets as a beat cop. His Shroud status prevented him from rising through the ranks, but that never seemed to bother him. He loved his job and saw it as his chance to change humans’ misconceptions about Shrouds.
Shrouds were required to register with the Shroud database and be marked with a branding iron on their right hand before they reached their second birthday. Since Shrouds were prohibited from wearing gloves—no matter how cold it was outside—every human Oscar encountered on the job knew he was a Shroud. That, of course, created challenges on a daily basis for him as a cop, but it sure made for some interesting stories—stories he was always more than happy to share over dinner.
Aspen had lived vicariously through him and grew up knowing there was only one thing she wanted to do with her life: follow in her hero’s footsteps. She applied for a spot on the BPD at twenty-one and never looked back. She was made for this job.
The sound of running water stopped. Skye emerged a few minutes later in green scrubs that made her eyes blindingly brighter. Freshly washed and still wet, her short hair was now a darker shade of brown. The color in her cheeks had finally returned. She smelled soapy clean.
Relieved to set eyes on the girl again, Aspen sighed. Was this how it happened for Oscar? Some kid hijacked your heart when you least expected it, and there was no turning back? She suddenly found herself wanting nothing more than to be there for Skye like Oscar had been there for her.
Skye exited from the bathroom, shut off the light, and glanced at the bucket in her lap. She sat on the bed across from Aspen, her brow furrowed in genuine concern. “I was just joking before, but I think you might have a real problem.”
Aspen looked down to find she’d already polished off the Twix, a Hershey’s bar with almonds, two York Peppermint Patties, and a bag of Peanut M&M’s. The empty wrappers stared up at her. “I know how it looks, but this candy isn’t mine,” she said, wiping some chocolate from her chin.
“Nice try.” Skye frowned. “I’m pretty sure denial is the first sign of a problem.”
The kid had a point. She set the bucket on the floor. “How’re you feeling?”
“Fine.” The girl yawned. “I’m glad you’re still here.”
Aspen checked her watch. It was already nine p.m. “You’ve had a long day. Let’s head to the station. You can sleep there tonight.”
Skye sat up straighter, a worried look in her eyes. “Are you going home after you drop me off at the station?”
“On what?” Skye asked, leaning forward.
“Have you ever played Boggle?”
The girl was quiet as she thought for a moment. “The word game?” she guessed, looking up.
“My parents and I used to play that all the time. It’s only my favorite game in the entire universe. Why?”
If she needed a sign that she was supposed to stay in the kid’s life, this had to be it. “You any good?”
“Not to brag or anything, but I’ve won every tournament against my parents since I was, like, eleven.”
“Well, kiddo”—Aspen narrowed her eyes—“looks like you’ve finally met your match.”
Skye grinned knowingly. “Or maybe you’ve finally met yours.”
“Touché. Hot cocoa and Boggle at the station?”
“Only if there’s popcorn and you agree to stay the whole night.”
They shook hands, and Skye’s tense posture visibly relaxed. She rubbed the pendant around her neck. “Thanks, Officer Wolfe.”
“Aspen,” she corrected the girl. “Just call me Aspen.”
With Skye beside her, Aspen exited the exam room, rounded the corner, and came face-to-face with Skye’s doctor. The lion doctor, she reminded herself. They sized each other up once again.
“There’s been a complication,” Tora said. “Follow me.” Glancing nervously over her shoulder, she led the way back to the exam room.
The hair on the back of Aspen’s neck stood up as she stepped inside. She set her hands on her hips, the weight of her gun belt reassuring. “What’s up?”
Tora took one last look up and down the corridor, closed the door quietly, and turned to face them. “The president just made an announcement. He signed and enacted a worldwide treaty authorizing any and all humans to…” She trailed off, her eyes on Skye.
“To what?” Aspen pressed.
Tora sighed, turning her attention to Aspen. “To execute Shrouds.”
“ExecuteShrouds? You’re kidding me, right?”
The doctor shook her head, her amber-gold eyes focused solely on Aspen. “He set up a government fund to compensate humans for every successful execution.”
Skye edged closer to Aspen. “Humans will get paid for killing us?”
“Over my dead body.” Aspen draped her arm protectively around Skye as a red-hot rage boiled within.
“There’s more.” Tora took a breath, her gaze penetrating and strong. “He created a new branch of military, the SEA—Shifter Eradication Agency. They’ll start rounding up Shrouds to begin the extermination process.”
“When?” She needed to know how much time she had to come up with a plan and get Skye to safety.
“They’ve already been deployed to every major city around the US. He said extermination troops are being released all over the world as we speak.”
Aspen glanced down at Tora’s hand and realized she didn’t have the mark. But that didn’t make any sense. She saw Tora as a lion, clear as day. “You’re a Shroud, but you don’t have the mark.”
“Neither do you,” Tora said, her gaze darting to Aspen’s hand.
“I don’t have it because I’m human.”
“Lie to humans all you want.” Tora stepped forward. “But don’t you darelie to me.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” she shot back, confused. Was Tora under the impression that she was one of them? She thought back to something Skye had said on the roof. I’m an owl. You’re a panther. No way. Not possible. How could she be a Shroud her whole life and not know it? “First off, I don’t lie. Second, if I did, I could lie to anyone I wanted. You included.” Who the hell did this doctor think she was, anyway?
Skye cleared her throat. “Neither of you has the mark, but I do.” She held up her hand. “If you get me to the roof, I can jump.”
Aspen turned to the girl, pushing everything else from her mind. “I am notletting you jump off the roof, no matter how bad things get. I thought we already went over this.”
Skye rolled her eyes. “Did you forget? I’m an owl. I can fly.”
“Oh.” Aspen scratched the side of her head. “Well, when you put it that way, it sounds like a pretty good plan. I guess we’ll need access to the roof.” She pointed to the badge that was clipped to the pocket of Tora’s white lab coat. “Can I borrow that?” She knew from experience that the door to the hospital’s rooftop was locked.
“No?” Aspen turned to Skye. “Did she just say no to an angry woman with a gun?”
Skye’s eyes grew wide.
“The badge stays with me,” Tora said firmly. “I’ll take you to the roof myself.”
This was a piss-poor time for a power struggle over a stupid badge, but whatever. If Tora insisted on tagging along, that was fine with her as long as she stayed out of the way.
“Take Skye to the elevator. Go to the fifth floor. I’ll meet you there. We’ll take the employee stairwell to the roof.”
“Wait a minute.” Aspen grabbed Tora’s arm as she turned to leave. “Why can’t we all go together?”
“SEA is already in the building. It’ll look suspicious.”
“Copy that.” She set her hands over Skye’s shoulders. “You’re now my prisoner.”
“I am? For real?”
“Of course not.”
“Good. Because you sounded pretty convincing.”
They exited the exam room together and set out in opposite directions. She and Skye were making their way down a long corridor toward the elevator when two SEA soldiers rounded the corner, coming face to face with Skye. With neon orange SEA patches on each sleeve, their black and green fatigues were badass.
The shorter of the two grabbed Skye by the wrist and held up her hand for inspection. “Got one!” he shouted, yanking the girl closer as he reached for the cuffs on his belt.
Every muscle in Aspen’s body went on high alert. There was no way she was losing this kid. Not after what the girl had been through. “Lay off. She’s mine.” She held up her own hand. “Human,” she said before the other soldier could even think about putting hands on her. “I found her, and I intend to collect my money.”
The soldiers exchanged a glance, but the tall one held firm to Skye’s arm.
“C’mon, man,” she pleaded. “They pay Boston’s Finest shit wages. I need the extra cash.”
“Fine. You can have her.” He released Skye with a vicious shove that sent her careening into the wall with an audible thump. “Just do us all a favor and throw a pair of cuffs on her before she does anything stupid.”
It took every ounce of willpower not to draw her weapon and shoot the racist bastards in the face. “Will do,” Aspen said with a forced smile, reaching for her cuffs.
“And be sure to do it in the garage. We have a cleanup crew on standby. No muss, no fuss,” he said, wiping his hands.
“Copy that.” She slapped the metal cuffs around Skye’s slender wrists.
“When you’re done with her, come back and find us,” the shorter of the two soldiers added. “We’ll give you a few more to fatten your paycheck. Adult males are worth the most. We’ll save them for you.”
“That’d be great, guys. Thanks. I owe you one.” The elevator doors opened. Sick to her stomach, she led Skye inside and pushed the button for the fifth floor.
“Ouch,” Skye said as soon as the doors slid shut.
“Cuffs too tight?”
“No.” Skye brought her hands out from behind her and handed the cuffs to Aspen. “You left them loose enough for an elephant to escape.” The girl winced as she rubbed the side of her head. “I have a huge goose egg, courtesy of soldier ass-face.”
“Very observant. His face did resemble an ass, didn’t it?” He had one of those long chins with a sizable cleft in the center that made it look like a tiny butt.
The doors parted on the fifth floor. Tora was already there waiting for them. She led them to an employee stairwell and unlocked the door with her beloved badge. They sandwiched the girl in an unspoken alliance to keep her safe. By the time they reached the tenth floor, they were all breathing heavily—Aspen guessed as much from fear as from physical exertion.
A small window set high in the door looked onto a vast rooftop and then out to the city beyond. Tora swiped her badge and jiggled the handle. The door didn’t open. She inserted her badge a second time.
Aspen sighed impatiently. “What’s taking so long?”
“My badge isn’t working.”
Had the SEA already put the hospital on lockdown?
They all froze at the sound of a door banging open below them, followed by the distant echoing of heavy footsteps in the stairwell.
If she wasn’t mistaken, it sounded like those boots were marchingupthe stairs, not down. She peered over the metal railing just as soldier ass-face did the same. The good news: he was on the second floor, eight stories below. The bad news: they were like sitting ducks up here.
Aspen considered winding her way back through the hospital, but she didn’t want to risk getting ambushed. She also couldn’t, in all good conscience, risk the lives of hospital staff and patients if things got ugly. The safest bet was to get on the roof and let Skye escape—assuming she could really fly, of course. But this wasn’t the time for second-guessing. Now was the time to trust her instincts. They had never let her down in the past.
Aspen couldn’t shoot the lock and risk the bullet ricocheting around the stairwell—too dangerous. She holstered her gun, withdrew her baton, and started striking the door’s lockbox again and again as hard as she could. The metal box didn’t budge. Not even a dent.
They were trapped.
“You keep working on the door,” the doctor said. “I’ll stall our friend below.”
Aspen gave the box another hard blow. “And just how do you plan on doing that?” she asked, knowing she was the one with the gun. If anyone was going to confront him, it should be her. She hated the thought of leaving Skye’s side. But she would, if it came to that.
Tora’s mind raced through likely scenarios as she contemplated shifting there in the stairwell. If she went through with this, she could never return to work here—or in any hospital, for that matter. From this day forward, she would forever be on the government’s radar.
It took her a few heartbeats to wrap her mind around what she was giving up. Resuming her career as a physician would never be an option. Everything she had worked her whole life to achieve would be cast aside in the blink of an eye.
Still, she didn’t flinch. Knowing there were other things much more important, she shifted into the lioness that felt more familiar to her than her human body. Now she was ready to wage war on anyone who posed a threat to Aspen.
She knew it was her duty to keep Aspen safe, even though Aspen seemed oblivious to who and what she was. Did she really believe she was human? The smartass cop was about to get the biggest wake-up call of her life. Not only was she a Shroud, but she was also the most important Shroud alive right now—the one who could save them all. And it would be up to Tora to show her how.
When the doctor didn’t answer, Aspen turned to discover a formidable lioness standing in the stairwell behind her, tail flicking agitatedly from side to side. She dropped her baton, reached for her gun, and put an arm across Skye to push the girl behind her.
The lioness turned and descended an entire set of stairs in one graceful leap to land silently on the floor below. She glanced up at Aspen with those amber-gold eyes before resuming her stealthy descent.
“She’s beautiful,” Skye said, her eyes glued to the empty landing below.
Aspen holstered her gun and let out a lungful of air. “If by beautiful you mean terrifying and dangerous, then…yes, she is,” she said, bending to retrieve the baton. “Pretty sure I peed my pants a little.”
Skye set a hand over her mouth to stifle a case of the giggles.
Blow by blow, she kept hammering at the lock. A deep, guttural roar reverberated through the stairwell, making Aspen work faster to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. A man’s bloodcurdling scream was cut short by a loud crunch. The sound made her feel sick to her stomach. Maybe she shouldn’t have eaten all that candy.
The door behind them suddenly flew open as the second soldier from their earlier encounter rushed inside the stairwell. In desperation, Aspen gave the lockbox one final blow. It disintegrated in slivers on the floor at her feet. Chucking her baton at the soldier’s head, she reached for the handle, grabbed Skye, and shoved her through the doorway to the rooftop.
She needed to buy the girl some time, so she held the door shut with all her might, digging her boots into the ground as the man pummeled it with his body from the other side.
“Go!” she shouted.
“What about you?” Skye cried.
She didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to hold him back. Felt like there was an NFL defensive tackle on the other side. “I’ll be fine. Go!” The door finally gave way. She was knocked to the ground. The gun slipped from her grasp and skidded across the rooftop.
Aspen scrambled along the ground and reached for her weapon as a shiny black boot stomped hard on the back of her hand, pinning her to the ground. She looked up to find a dart gun pointed at her face. In that moment, she knew she would die for the girl without giving it a second thought.
“Where is she?” he asked.
She didn’t like his tone. His mother had obviously neglected to teach him how to properly address an officer of the law. “There’s an angry lioness on her way up the stairs right now—”
“Where’s the girl?” he asked through clenched teeth.
Wincing as he crushed her hand harder under the sole of his combat boot, she decided to take the higher road and offer some friendly advice. “I’d seriously reevaluate my escape plan if I were you.” As those words fell from her lips, an enormous white owl swooped in on silent wings, wrapped long talons around the dart gun, and effortlessly plucked it right out of his hand.
The lioness she had warned him about was now standing behind him. His face contorted into an expression of stark terror as he spun around. He opened his mouth to scream but didn’t have time as the lioness sprang up and clamped powerful jaws around his throat. Aspen turned away as the lioness finished him off. When she turned back, his lifeless eyes were staring into the dark night sky.
The lioness collapsed near his body, drawing shallow, rapid breaths. An orange-tipped syringe protruded from the big cat’s thigh muscle.
“You were hit,” she said, unsure if the lioness could understand her. The lioness stared her down with flattened ears as she reached over and carefully withdrew the syringe.
An owl swooped in, landing beside them. Skye was back—not that she’d ever left, Aspen reminded herself. She watched in amazement as the owl shifted into a thirteen-year-old girl.
Skye bent down to hold the big cat’s head and peer into her eyes. “Thanks for protecting us, Dr. Madigan.” She stood and turned to Aspen. “She can’t turn back into herself now because she was darted. I’ve heard about this happening to other Shrouds. We need to get her to a doctor, or she’ll die.”
Aspen knew the girl was right. The BPD had recently added the dart guns to their arsenal against Shrouds. As of next month, they’d be standard issue for every cop on the street. “Can Tora understand us like this?”
“Okay. New plan.” Aspen retrieved her gun from the ground and stood guard by the door as she talked. “Are you strong enough to fly across town and find someone for me?”
Skye nodded. “I could fly forever.”
“His name is Oscar. He’s a wolf, and I trust him. You can trust him, too. Tell him what happened here tonight. Show him the necklace I gave you. Tell him you’re in danger, and you need his protection until I can get there. I’ll meet up with the two of you as soon as I can.”
“Where are you going?” Skye asked, nervously rubbing the pendant around her neck.
Aspen looked at the lioness. The lioness held her gaze. She couldn’t abandon the doctor. Not after the doctor had risked her life to help them. “I’ll be busy smuggling a three-hundred-pound ass-kicking predator out of the hospital.”
Skye grinned. “Copy that.”
She recited Oscar’s address and made the girl repeat it back to her. “Will you be able to find it?”
“Duh, I’m an owl. We have a great sense of direction. Having me around is better than GPS.”
“One more thing.” Aspen picked up the dart gun Skye had stolen. “Take this to Oscar. Tell him we need to have it analyzed ASAP. Maybe we can get an antidote to whatever’s inside this thing.”
The girl ran over and gave her a long hug.
“Just be careful,” Aspen said, determined not to get choked up. “And stay high so no one can track you from the ground.”
“You can trust me, Aspen.” Without another word, the girl jogged along the roof, broke into a full sprint, and leaped high into the air. Her arms elongated into huge, gorgeous white wings as the rest of her body followed suit. She reminded Aspen of an angel. Her transformation was instantaneous and breathtaking to watch. Even the lioness seemed momentarily transfixed as Skye swooped back in to snatch the dart gun from Aspen’s hand as she held it aloft.