While I'm Away
Hey, all, this week, my mind is going to be elsewhere, distracted by the fact that my younger daughter is in the hospital, taking care of some health issues. So in lieu of my regular post, I am going to let you read the entry that I won the Romance Junkies contest with. Hope you enjoy it!
The First Part
When fate arrived in Destiny Falls, Micah Sloane was elbow-deep in his brother’s Ford Tempo, trying to coax the geriatric engine back to life. With little luck. But still he tried, determined not to be brought low by four cylinders of sheer stubbornness. So intent was he on his task, he would have missed the arrival of fate if not for the low whistle of his brother.
“Would you look at that?”
Must be one hell of a car, Micah thought, if he were to judge by the reverent tone of his brother’s voice. Cam didn’t go all soft over just any car like some of their friends did; it had to be special. Definitely not a Ford, although he liked the classic Mustangs. Probably not a Chevy, either. A Firebird was a possibility; Cam was known to get all sweet on them in the past. But - would that elicit such a whistle from his brother? No, that was a different kind of whistle, an I-never-saw-that-here-before kind of whistle. Whatever it was, it was a newcomer to Destiny Falls.
When he didn’t react quick enough, his brother - who’d already turned away from their task - back-handed him on the shoulder. Hard. “Hey!” Micah yelled, returning the favor without looking up. “What’s with you, brother?”
“Look at that.”
But before Micah could do that, his senses pricked up - and not by the urgent undertone in his brother’s voice. No, it was something else entirely, something that tickled his nose with awareness before it flared in the back of his throat and shot through his body like a skyrocket. He gripped the frame of the car to steady himself under the onslaught of foreign sensations that wracked his body then. His nose twitched as he sniffed the air, testing the truth of his other sense, his special sense. Yes, it was there, in the air that gently wafted over him. But still, his mind balked. So he tilted his head, just enough to catch a glimpse of -
A vision in blue jeans and a pink and white polo shirt, just exiting Cam‘s new dream machine in front of the family‘s general store. Tall, just the way he liked them, with a nicely filled out form in all the right places. Just the way he liked them. And long hair, pulled back in a thick braid that rivaled the color of caramel - a fact that actually made his mouth water in anticipation.
Oh, yes. Fate had arrived in Destiny Falls.
In a black Hummer.
“Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?” Cam asked then.
Micah cast a quick glance Cam’s way to gauge the direction of his gaze as he withdrew from beneath the car hood. He was relieved - though he didn’t know why - to discover that his brother was still ogling the Hummer. Not exactly his kind of car, but it must be nice if it overruled the sight of a beautiful woman for someone as girl-crazy as Cam. No competition there, he thought. Good. But then he shook his head at his own foolishness. Seriously, Micah, you don’t even know her name yet and you’re already getting territorial? Who cares what your senses are telling you, she’s still a stranger. Much too early in the game for staking out your territory.
Folding his arms across his abs in a self-protective gesture, he hastily sifted through the fog in his brain for a way to divert his own attention away from his disturbing thoughts. A wicked smile toyed with the corners of his lips when it came to him.
“Close your mouth, Cam,” he said. “You’re embarrassing yourself. I think you‘re starting to drool a little, man.”
Cam’s mouth snapped shut as he looked away from the Hummer for the first time since it caught his attention. He even wiped at the corner of his mouth as if to check the validity of his brother’s claim.
Micah couldn’t contain his mirth.
“You think it‘s funny?” Cam asked, backhanding Micah’s shoulder. “Huh, brother? You think that’s funny?”
“Hilarious. The way you wiped your mouth - classic. Ow! Now, come on. It was all in good fun.”
“Was it? If we’re gonna talk about drool, maybe we should talk about what came out of your mouth when you first saw her.”
Cam nodded his head in the direction of the vision still standing within the embrace of the open door, her head inclined in a manner suggestive of a conversation with the driver. Once again, Micah’s gaze was drawn to her, drawn to the perfection of the body showcased in form-fitting - He shook his head to clear it of lascivious thoughts.
“Nice to know you noticed there was a woman there, brother. I was beginning to worry about you.”
Cam didn’t respond to the jibe, much to Micah’s disappointment. His attention was fully focused on the new arrivals now, rather than just their mode of transportation. “I wonder who they are,” he mused. He shot a glance over his shoulder at Micah, took a step forward with a nod in the direction of the Hummer. “Maybe we should go find out? They could be lost. I mean, who comes to Destiny Falls on purpose? In a Hummer?”
With a shake of his head, Micah grabbed Cam by the arm to stop him. “Not that way,” he said, pulling him toward the back of the sprawling old farmhouse that comprised the family store. “You know we’ll find out more through Raven.”
Cam just nodded in acquiescence. It was common knowledge in town that if you wanted to know anything about anything, Raven Sloane was the girl for the job.
A slight shift in the wind was her only indication that something was out of the ordinary. So slight, in fact, it was nearly indiscernible. A whisper of air across her cheek, fanning over the skin in a manner that scarcely ruffled the loose tendril resting there. Nor did it elicit a reaction from the people who milled about in front of the country store, she noticed upon casting a surreptitious glance their way. Oh, no, only she would notice that something monumental had just happened. Shiloh Beck. The sensitive.
Lifting a hand to her right cheek under the guise of brushing the hair from her face, Shiloh scanned the surrounding area with a critical eye. The place had its charm with the abundant woodlands as far as the eye could see in either direction, the “highway” cutting a swathe through it and running parallel to a river that snaked behind the house - er, store. Quaint, she thought. A welcoming sight with the porch that wrapped around it like a warm embrace, dotted with strategically placed loveseats and rockers. Intentional? It worked.
But that wasn’t the origin of the shift. No. Neither were any of the people - customers, presumably - who lingered on the porch with tall glasses of some iced beverage, chatting easily amongst themselves. Had the shift occurred there, they wouldn’t be so casual about it. No, it was coming from somewhere else. Away from the house - store.
Her gaze was drawn to an impressive shade tree in the right side yard just as two figures disappeared around the corner of the building. She had a brief vision of two tall men in ripped jeans and tee shirts - ebony hair streaming out behind them in long ponytails - before they were gone completely. One of them, perhaps? Or both?
The wind settled into the packed dirt of the parking lot with the strangers’ retreat. As if in confirmation of her unspoken question. Curious, she thought, even as her attention was drawn back to the Hummer - ostentatious car - by the rude question, “You gonna stand there all day or what? We don’t have a lot of time before dark.”
With a gentle roll of her eyes - so he wouldn’t see - Shiloh moved away from the Hummer with a mumbled, “I’m going.” She shut the door on any possible reply and made her way to the store entrance. Along the way, she looked about for the mystery men on the off chance that they might make a reappearance. Who were they? she wondered as she pushed open the door which, yes, gave off a little tinkling sound from the bell attached to its top. Just as she imagined it would when they first pulled into the parking lot out front.
But then all thoughts of the mystery men flew out of her head as she paused on the threshold of the store and tried to take in the magnitude of the sight laid out before her. Nothing she’d ever seen before compared to the chaos and grandeur of the artfully displayed wares, the rainbow of colors - and the smell!
If she didn’t know better, she’d swear that she just stepped into a bakery rather than a store as the aroma of baking bread, apple pies and pumpkin muffins tickled her nose in greeting. And something else, scents she couldn’t recognize just then but were exotic-smelling, and flowers - roses! Oh, how she loved roses, but - where were they? She didn’t see any bouquets about. Perhaps they were deeper in the store, she decided as she took a tentative step into the wonderful room. Maybe next to that exotic smell. What was it? Some sort of incense?
She jumped as the door closed behind her with a gentle slap and another tinkling of the bell. Her cheeks heated with embarrassment. Damn it, did she always have to act so gauche? Like she’d never been anywhere. Not that she had, but still.
Flattening a hand over her racing heart, Shiloh cast a quick look about to see if anyone had noticed her folly. Her gaze came to a rest upon the face of the most beautiful woman Shiloh had ever seen before. And yes, she was smiling. But it was a gentle smile, almost - knowing. Not a hint of condescension anywhere on the rose-hued lips or the almost russet skin. Native American? In this part of the state? She’d always thought they were only on the East Coast, down on the Cape and islands. Curious.
Before she could marvel over that for long, the woman spoke, her voice like music on a soft breeze. “Don’t be embarrassed. Everyone has that reaction.” She held out a hand with long, delicate fingers. An artist’s hand - or a pianist’s. “I’m Raven. Welcome to the Sloane Country Store.”
Making a detour around an aisle of penny candy to her right, her every movement tentative, Shiloh reached across the counter to shake the offered hand. Good Lord, she was more beautiful up close than she was at a distance. Not a blemish marred the skin over the high cheekbones, straight nose and gently sloping forehead. Her eyes were a brown so deep they bordered on black - and her hair! Not a kink or a curl in sight, Shiloh noted, unlike her own unruly mess - which she had to keep back in a tight braid or suffer the consequences. Unlike Miss Perfect who probably braided hers by choice to showcase its ebony sheen. She gave herself a mental kick as she released the woman’s hand. After all, it wasn’t her fault that she was born beautiful, unlike others.
“And you are?” Raven prompted, disrupting the awkward silence with her musical voice.
“Oh! Ah, Shiloh - Shiloh Beck.” She paused to inhale a shaky breath - and try to bring order to her disjointed mind. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to stare. That’s rude. But I bet you get that all the time, huh?”
Raven flicked away the question with a wave of her hand and a puffed-out breath. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to that,” she claimed. “Besides, it’s mostly locals who come in here. Not a lot of tourists - especially ones that drive something like that.” She nodded her head toward the Hummer parked out front.
Shiloh grimaced as she followed her gaze. “Yeah, pretty out there, huh?” She immediately turned away from it, just in time to catch a glimmer of something familiar in an adjoining room to her left. Familiar? How could that be? She’d never been to this place before.
“Not your style?”
“Not my choice.”
“Oh,” Raven said in a knowing manner. “Boyfriend likes the showy cars?”
“Not a boyfriend. Just a…friend.” Shiloh could’ve kicked herself when she noticed the flicker of interest in Raven’s eyes. Too much information. Not supposed to get too personal. Just do what you came in here for and leave. But - how?
“Is there something I can help you with?” Raven asked. She peered a little closer at Shiloh. “You look a little lost.”
“Um, yeah, I don‘t get out much so I don‘t do a lot of this.” She waved a hand about her in indication of shopping, which caused the woman - Raven - to raise a brow in wonder. Not good. Need to distract her away from personal information. “I have a list –“ Shiloh reached into the front right pocket of her jeans and pulled out a folded square of paper “ - but I’m not sure where to start looking.”
“No problem.” Raven flashed her a smile before she turned her head toward the adjoining room - the same one in which Shiloh had caught sight of something oddly familiar to her - and called, “Ava! Come out here for a sec, will you?” When five feet of sheer energy and long pigtails came to a halt at the end of the counter, Raven cast it a look of tolerance as she emitted a long-suffering sigh. “I need you to help our new friend here find some stuff in the store,” she said, her voice mirroring her expression. “Can you do that without causing too much trouble?”
The girl frowned, her irritation obvious in the way her brows met over her nose. “I don’t cause trouble.”
“Tell that to the display of kachinas I had to rescue this morning. One more encounter with you and they truly will be rag dolls.” Raven waved the girl forward, frowning as she swept too close to a rack of bandanas. “She has a list,” Raven said when the girl stood in front of her, separated by the counter. “Take your time and show her where things are, okay?”
Rolling her eyes, Ava announced, “I stopped being a baby when I turned twelve last month, so you can stop talking to me like one.”
“I’m not talking to you like a baby,” Raven argued. “I’m talking to you like the force of nature that wants to cut loose in my store.”
“Our store. We all own it, Mom even said so.”
“Well, there won’t be much to own if you don’t tread carefully inside it. Understand?”
Ava released a sigh to go along with the roll of her eyes. Taking Shiloh by the hand, she started to lead her down a random aisle, saying, “I’m Ava, by the way. If someone wasn’t so rude - “ she directed the last two words over a shoulder at her sister although she didn’t look at her “ - she would’ve told you that.”
Shiloh split a glance between the sisters. Were they always like this? she wondered as she bit down on her lower lip to hold back her uncertainty. Bickering like enemies - and in front of customers! How could the girl - Ava? - stand it? To live in such conflict with a blood relative - it was unthinkable. And yet, the girl didn’t seem bothered by it. In fact, she was actually smiling as she led Shiloh away from the counter, toward the other side of the store. Amazing.
Unable to contain her curiosity for long, Shiloh waited until they were a safe distance away from the counter before asking, “Do you always talk to each other like that?” She half-turned at the end of the aisle to cast a skittish glance back to Raven. Who was, as she feared and suspected, watching them.
Ava snickered and swished the air with a hand in a dismissive gesture that was beyond her years, somehow. “Oh, that’s nothing. The wolf’s bark is sharper than it’s bite,” she said, her attention already focused on the list Shiloh still held.
A strange breeze fluttered by Shiloh’s cheek at the utterance of that word. Wolf. It was the same type of breeze that had greeted her when she first stepped out of the Hummer. But her reaction to it differed; rather than a vague curiosity about its cause, this time she stood taller, alert, as it chased a chill down her spine. She cast a furtive glance about her, suddenly overcome by the sensation of being watched. The chill increased; a shiver rippled down her spine despite her attempt at holding it back. And yet, the atmosphere about her was electric, charged with ions not unlike those following a lightning strike.
In a desperate attempt to control her emotions, Shiloh folded her arms over her midriff, her fists knotting up in the cottony fabric of her shirt. She barely registered the sound of paper crinkling in her hand with the gesture as she focused her attention more fully on the girl standing before her with an expectant, somewhat unsure, look upon her cherubic face. “D-don’t you mean dog?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
Ava favored her with an odd little smile - as if she were privy to some inside joke. “Oh, yeah. Dog. That’s right.” She chuckled and once again reached for the list. “Can I see what you’ve got there?” she asked, almost as an after-thought. She pulled the list from Shiloh’s unresisting hand without waiting for a response and set about finding everything that it contained.
All Shiloh could do was follow Ava about the store like a faithful puppy on an invisible leash, her mind still lost in the sensation that she was being watched - and not just by the beautiful woman behind the counter.
“Eager to get out of here, huh?”
“Well, let’s go, then.”
Shiloh didn’t argue with that. Instead, she followed the trucker out of the diner and to his cab, fighting the urge to run in her eagerness to be gone. She just wanted to put this whole awful episode behind her and be done with it - but she didn’t want to make a fool of herself in the process. She’d called enough attention to herself for one day. Time to slip away quietly.
If only the voice didn’t stop her when she pulled open the truck door, prepared to enter. A rather chilling voice that sounded vaguely familiar although she couldn’t quite identify it. A voice that called out across the lot, “Where are you going, Shiloh? We haven’t had a chance to talk yet.”
A voice that froze her to the spot where she stood, one foot raised to step up on the runner, her hand on the edge of the open door.
Something about it…
Oh, god. No.
The man whose job it was to ensure that people behaved properly - i.e., the way the powers above wanted them to - at the Institute. Or dragged them back when they tried to leave.
“Are you comin’?” the trucker asked her then, breaking the unnatural spell that other voice had cast upon her.
She started to get in the truck, but hesitated, her foot still poised on the runner. She was forgetting something, something important. What was it?
At the same time that the answer came to her, the Enforcer called out, “You don’t want to do that, Shiloh. I have something you want.”
Something you want.
With exaggerated slowness, Shiloh stepped away from the truck, conveyed her answer to the driver with a shake of her head and closed the door. She continued to back up with the same lack of speed until there was a safe distance between her and the monster vehicle, her arms stretched out to the sides at shoulder level. Ever so slowly, she turned about to face the Enforcer, even as a shift in the wind alerted her to the fact that Micah was near. Very near.
She ignored it. Gave no signs to reveal it as she prepared to face down the man who‘d taken Ava. Better to have a secret weapon at her disposal. If the reputation of the Enforcer - and others of his ilk - was any indication, she was going to need it. And as she stood there, readying her mind for what was to come, all the hours of martial arts training that Jon had inflicted upon her over the years came back to her. Along with something new; the reasoning behind his actions.
He wanted her to be prepared. For this. Somehow, he knew that it might come down to something like this - and he wanted to give her a chance to succeed. Thank you, Jon. For that, at least.
When she was finally facing the rather mild-looking man - who stood on the opposite end of the lot from her, an irritated Ava pressed to his wiry chest - Shiloh shrugged her right shoulder to dislodge her backpack from its resting-place. The gesture sent it sliding down her leather-sleeved arm to her hand. She let it slip off the tip of her fingers to the ground beside her. Already forgotten.
A gust of wind from the departing truck behind her lifted the panels of her duster jacket away from her body, causing them to flap about her like the wings of a great, prehistoric bird. But she didn’t notice. Every ounce of her attention was focused on the man across from her. The man who held Ava against him. Like a shield. Coward.
“I’m not going back,” she called out to him, a deadly note to her voice that changed its sound, making it nearly impossible to recognize as her own. Good Lord, it almost sounded like - a growl. A wolf’s growl. But…that wasn’t possible. She thrust that thought aside, ruthless; she would think about it later. When it was safe. “You can’t make me,” she stated, her voice hardened by determination. She stood still as a statue, arms still held out to the sides, as if daring him to strike her with – something. “Not this time.”
“I beg to differ,” the Enforcer said with a self-satisfied smirk. He tightened his grip on the unresisting Ava in a silent message.
Shiloh scarcely flicked her gaze down in acknowledgement. No, she couldn’t allow him to distract her with the gesture. She wouldn’t. Keep your focus on his face, she silently coached herself. Don’t let him get the upper hand.
“I won’t go back alive,” she informed him.
“And I can’t go back without you,” he countered. “You know how it is.” He shrugged, as if they were talking about weather conditions that would impede their trip! “Seems we’re at an impasse.”
Shiloh risked a glance at Ava, who was finally showing signs of fear. Poor thing. She really didn’t know what she’d gotten herself into this time. Maybe this would teach her not to be so impulsive in the future. Or to force herself into adult situations that she wasn’t yet able to handle. She certainly hoped so. Otherwise the girl was going to keep finding herself in such predicaments.
It never occurred to Shiloh, in her musings, that the girl’s fear surfaced when she told the Enforcer she wouldn’t go back alive. She missed that message when she chose to ignore the slight buzz in the air between them in favor of concentrating on the man who held Ava hostage.
“Let her go,” she told the Enforcer, returning her attention to him. “She’s not a part of this.”
But he just pulled Ava closer at her declaration, making one of his own. “Oh, I think I’ll hold onto her for awhile.”