Annabelle was almost free.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she let out a long slow breath as a smile curved her lips. In a few hours she would be in Baja, Mexico, sitting on a beach, with her family and their insanity far behind her. Guilt tugged at her, because in spite of her father’s crazy beliefs, she loved him very much. After Annabelle’s mother died ten years ago, she and her father had moved in with some of his cousins on the family ranch in California. They’d been left destitute by her mother’s medical bills, and her father was unable to find work. With no other options, he’d turned to his cousins for help.
She’d never met her Caedo cousins before that day. A decade ago, she and her father showed up with everything they owned in the back of a pickup truck. Looking back, it was clear that the Caedo compound was what most people would consider a cult.
The smile faded from her lips as the plane took off.
The Caedo family, the ones her mother never wanted to be around, was driven by their hatred of the Amoveo shapeshifters. In fact, part of the homeschooling she and her cousins received included lessons about these shapeshifters. At first she thought it was some kind of joke, but after seeing the surveillance videos…she knew the Amoveo were real.
However, unlike her cousins, Annabelle wasn’t frightened by the Amoveo—she was fascinated by them. She didn’t understand the Caedos’ hatred of these creatures, and when she’d expressed her curiosity, it was met with swift and immediate punishment. They’d sent her to her room and kept her there, totally alone, for three days. Her meals were brought to her by her father, and during his brief visits, he’d begged her not to argue with them.
She shook her head at the memories and ran her fingers along the sterling silver bracelet draped around her left wrist before gathering the oval disk between her fingers. Rubbing her thumb over the smooth surface, the one with her name engraved on the front, she wished so much her mother were still alive.
As the massive jet launched into the air, her father’s final words to her yesterday ran through her mind over and over: It’s your duty, Annabelle. You must use your gift to help us in our cause.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“What?” Annabelle blinked, the flight attendant’s voice pulling her from her thoughts. She glanced at the two empty seats next to her and realized she had been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she didn’t even notice that nobody else was seated in her row. “I’m sorry. I guess I was in my own world.”
“That’s quite alright.” The woman’s warm brown eyes smiled at her as she held out a napkin. Annabelle sensed sadness lingering beneath the surface. “What would you like to drink?”
“Coke, please.” Smiling, Annabelle took the napkin from the flight attendant. “Thank you.”
Twin boys. Blond hair. Laughing and running toward her as they giggled and shouted, “Mommy!” The screech of car tires. Weeping. Tiny caskets.
Annabelle, surprised by the sudden vision, sucked in a deep breath and fought the tears that threatened. This often happened when she touched an item someone had recently handled or an article of clothing they’d worn. Sometimes she saw beauty and love, and other times it was pure horror. Over the years she’d learned to shield herself from the unwanted visions, but sometimes, when she was tired or let her guard down, they were able to slip in.
She lowered the tray and quickly placed the napkin down. Turning her face toward the window so the woman wouldn’t see her tears, she pressed her fingers to her lips. This lovely woman had lost her twin boys in a dreadful car accident and yet she was still here. Still working on the airplane and still smiling. How was that even possible? After Annabelle lost her mother, she went into a full-on depression and barely left the house for six months. She couldn’t even begin to fathom the loss that this woman had suffered.
“Here you are.” The attendant leaned over and placed the drink on Annabelle’s tray. “Are you alright, miss?”
“Yes.” Annabelle nodded, turned to the woman, and captured her gaze. She wanted to get out of her seat, wrap the woman up in a hug, and tell her how horribly sorry she was for her loss. She didn’t, because how weird would that be? Instead, she quietly said, “Thank you.”
The flight attendant nodded and pushed her cart to the next row, moving along totally unaware that Annabelle had just seen her life’s worst tragedy in full color. Some gift, Annabelle thought, taking a sip of the cool, sweet liquid. I get to witness the past and can’t do a damn thing about it.
Her father and the Caedo cousins wanted to use Annabelle and her psychic gift to try and track Amoveo shapeshifters. It was ridiculous, because the last thing she would do was use her gift to hurt anyone.
She’d been planning on leaving for a while, but the thought of abandoning her father was the one thing that had kept her there. All of that changed, though, when the dreams started. For the past week, she’d been having bizarre dreams about a lion following her as she walked along the beach. Every day when she woke up from these dreams, Annabelle felt lost and lonely, as though something were missing from her life.
When she told her father about it, his reaction was nothing like she’d expected. Instead of being worried about her and her interrupted sleep patterns, he seemed oddly horrified and looked at her with something akin to disgust. It was the first time in Annabelle’s life that she was frightened of her father.
The last straw was when she overheard him talking with Silvio, the head of the Caedo family. Silvio was one of the most frightening men Annabelle had ever met. He was devoid of any compassion and driven entirely by hatred. He made her skin crawl from the moment she met him, and she did everything possible to avoid him.
The scariest part of the entire experience was the significant change in her father’s behavior. He’d become secretive and paranoid, and if Annabelle didn’t know better, she’d think he was on drugs or something.
Staring out the window at the billowy clouds below, she recalled hearing Silvio say something to her father about Annabelle being “tainted.” He was going on and on about Annabelle being some kind of a traitor—and to her horror, her father didn’t argue. He’d agreed with Silvio and told him that in the morning he would bring Annabelle to the basement for debriefing.
One other Caedo cousin had been brought to the basement for debriefing, and Annabelle never saw him again.
That was when she knew she had to leave. So she did. With only the clothes on her back, some money, and her passport, Annabelle left everything she had ever known. It was a frightening prospect to start over somewhere new, but not as frightening as staying at the ranch. The only person who knew she was leaving was her girlfriend at the restaurant where Annabelle worked. Grace’s family owned several eateries in California, and unlike most rich girls, she chose to manage one and actually work for her paycheck as opposed to living off her trust fund.
The girl worked her butt off, and in fact, most people didn’t even know she owned the place. She and Grace confided in each other about everything, and she’d been telling Annabelle to run for a while. Grace even offered to let her stay at one of the many rental properties her family owned, but Annabelle knew it wouldn’t be safe for either of them. She didn’t even tell her where she was going. The less Grace knew, the better off she’d be. Silvio was capable of anything, and she didn’t want to give that son of a bitch any reason to mess with Grace—her only friend.
She shuddered to think what Silvio and the other Caedo cousins would do if they got their hands on her. Running far away and hiding out was the best option. Hell, she thought with a wry smile, she’d rather face an Amoveo head-on than deal with her Caedo cousins and their debriefing. Her eyes fluttered closed, and as the veil of sleep drifted over her, she vaguely heard the captain’s voice over the intercom.
Soon she would be safe. No more Caedo craziness. No more talk of shapeshifters. Just a beach, some cold drinks, and time to think.
Annabelle paid the cabbie and stepped out of the taxi. He spoke broken English, although it was far better than her Spanish. Instead of dropping her at the center of town, he’d let her off at the end of what looked like the main street. She could have pressed the issue, but she was too exhausted.
Pushing her sunglasses onto her head, she smiled at the beautiful sunset casting a breathtaking orange-and-pink glow across the sky. The little town of Loreto was just as she’d expected, and for the first time in years, she felt relaxed. She adjusted the messenger bag that was slung across her chest and stretched her arms over her head, working out the kinks from her journey.
This particular stretch of road along the beach was dotted with several tiny houses with red-tile roofs. High wooden fences prevented anyone from the street getting a look at what was on the other side. She hoped the fences were there for privacy and not because of theft concerns. The research she’d done online at the library assured her this town was safe, but now that she was here all alone…she hoped that actually was true.
The first order of business was to find a hotel room and buy some clothes. She’d been in such a hurry to get away that she hadn’t even packed a bag. In fact, before going to the airport, her only stop was at the bank to withdraw every penny she’d saved up from working as a waitress for the past four years. Then Annabelle put the money on several different refillable debit cards. She knew her father and the others would come looking for her, and she couldn’t leave any kind of electronic trail.
Shaking her head, she let out a sigh and patted the lumpy leather bag slung against her hip. Her entire world was reduced to the contents of that bag. She would have laughed at the ludicrousness of the situation if it weren’t so painfully sad. A balmy breeze from the ocean fluttered over her and she closed her eyes, allowing herself to sink into it for just a moment. The long black sundress fluttered around her legs, and she tugged the thin green cardigan around her. She wasn’t cold, at least not physically. She was tired, lonely, and scared.
The sun’s swift descent made the lights from the center of town seem both brighter and farther away than she’d first thought. As she hurried along the narrow street, the sound of gravel crunching beneath tires caught her attention. It sounded like a bicycle.
Just as Annabelle glanced over her shoulder to see who or what was coming, a young man slammed into her with his bike. In a matter of seconds, he’d grabbed her bag and sent her to the ground with a shocking amount of force. Annabelle cried out as her shoulder and then her head slammed into the sandy pavement. Sharp, searing pain shimmied down her back when she tried to get up.
Forcing herself onto all fours and fighting the dizziness, she watched helplessly while the little bastard disappeared around a corner with every single thing she owned. She grabbed a handful of sand and threw it, screaming with pain, rage, and frustration. Sobbing, she swiped at something warm that dripped into her eye, and her stomach roiled when she pulled her hand away and saw blood.
What the hell was she going to do now? She was in a foreign country, hurt, with no money and no clothes. She could call Grace, but that would mean involving her further. Even though she had no desire to do that, her choices were severely limited.
This was the definition of screwed.
“Hey!” A man’s voice, deep and low, cut through the haze and asked the dumbest question in the history of dumb questions. “Are you alright?”
Annabelle laughed with little humor and shook her head while she tried to push herself to her feet. She made it halfway up before dizziness and nausea took over and the world around her spun uncontrollably. Expecting to land on her ass again, she braced herself for the impact that never came. Instead, she was swept up by a pair of strong arms and instantly cradled against the warmest, firmest male body she’d ever had the pleasure of touching.
She let out a gasp that bordered on a shriek and instinctively grabbed him.
The most devastatingly handsome man she’d ever seen in real life was holding her like she weighed nothing at all. Sun-bleached blond hair framed a pair of smiling hazel eyes. Annabelle’s fingers curled around the slightly damp fabric of his T-shirt at the very same moment she locked eyes with him. As those smiling eyes latched onto hers and she touched his shirt, a tsunami of images flooded her mind—but there was one that stood out among the rest.
His strong arms tightened around her, while the flashing slide show filled her head. Even though she wanted to scream, no sound would come.
Running. Gunfire. His muscular body slick with sweat. Running through the woods. Betrayal. His body shimmered and changed in a flash from man to beast. The roar of a lion filled the woods…the same roar that had resonated through her dreams.
“It’s you,” Annabelle breathed.
This man, the one holding her in his arms, could shift into a massive tawny-colored lion with a golden mane. It was the same lion from her dreams…and one of the very creatures her Caedo cousins had been searching for.
As the darkness closed in, a single word whispered through her mind: Amoveo.
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