The chilly evening air smacked Alli in the face as he stepped outside, a welcome wake-up call after a long day. One more Friday gone. Of course, being the owner of his own shop made tomorrow a work day, too. Took a bit of the fun out of the end of the week.
That was okay. He hated Fridays anyway.
It took a firm tug to get the door to close. The bells above the entrance, which had jingled merrily for everyone else all day, tumbled free. They hit the sidewalk with a symphony of discordant jangles. He glared at them.
“Stupid bells.” Alli thought about retrieving them, but in the end just shoved the trio of bells behind a nearby flowerpot with his foot. They’d either still be there in the morning or not. He wouldn’t be too sad if it was ‘not’.
Locking the door while juggling an umbrella and an oversized tote bag full of books presented something of a challenge, but Alli did it and only dropped the bag on his foot once. Not too bad, all things considered, although it didn’t make his toes throb any less. At last count, that made four boxes, six piles of books and two bags that had landed on that particular foot today. And it was only six o’clock—he still had the whole evening ahead of him.
Stepping out from the relative shelter of the awning, Alli pulled up the hood of his jacket. The trickle of rain promptly became a torrential downpour. Alli’s resigned sigh would have knocked over a sign. He slung his bag over one shoulder, wincing at the pinch of the weight, and struggled to pop open his umbrella. A sudden gust of wind made him stagger.
Alli watched with a distinct lack of emotion—achieved over many, many Fridays—as the umbrella, now inside out, flopped its way down the street. He didn’t bother to chase after it. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his windbreaker, hunched his shoulders, and accepted the fact that he was going to get wet.
He really, really hated Fridays.
Alli absently scanned the area for any sign of his friend Chris. A local deputy, Chris made something of a habit of walking Alli home. Protection, he claimed. Chris had altered his patrol route shortly after Alli had arrived. There had been an incident, a kitchen fire when Alli was sleeping. The fire department couldn’t find any cause. Chris had kept hounding Alli, and Alli had finally broken. Chris was well-educated in the paranormal world. Alli said “Fayte” and Chris had caught the implications immediately. Now he kept an especially close eye on Alli on Fridays, the day of the week when Alli’s magic bubbled over and bad things happened.
Chris wasn’t anywhere in sight, so Alli looked both ways with exaggerated care before stepping out onto the crosswalk. Jack Bower, owner of the local newspaper, called his name. Alli looked over to wave. When he looked back, a white van was barreling down the formerly empty street right toward him. He stared, transfixed, at the large vehicle and knew a collision between them was imminent.
He knew who would win, too, and it wasn’t him.
“I hate my life,” he whispered.
* * * *
Michael Lakkis kicked the tire of his truck in frustration, knowing he had only himself to blame. Here he was, two hundred and eighty-three miles from home, with a rust-bucket heap of a truck that just had to die. He should have spent his last paycheck on a down payment for a new vehicle, not bought a blasted hunting cabin in Northern Wisconsin.
Michael still didn’t know what trouble-making imp had possessed him. He didn’t even hunt, for crying out loud.
Then again, maybe he did know. He’d been living in Madison for too many years. He could practically hear his older brother’s voice in his head. “Cities and shifters don’t mix.”
Michael wasn’t going to tell Evan that he had been right. The press of humanity was starting to get to Michael and make him itchy. Make Bruce itchy. His shifter half had started popping out at weird times, impatient with the confinement and the lack of greenery. Weekends by the lake didn’t cut it.
When Michael had stumbled across the ad for a place in Putman County, it had seemed perfect. Not a paranormal species on Earth hadn’t heard of the place. It had become something of a haven for the supernatural, somewhere they could be themselves without fearing discovery. Not that it meant Michael could wander down the street in animal form, but perhaps he wouldn’t have to lock half of himself away quite as often.
Michael kicked his tire again, but it was more for form than actual emotion. After all, the day was temperate, the sky overcast but not— okay, that was a rumble of thunder. Maybe he’d better get his ass in gear. At least he didn’t have far to walk, which was a good thing, since he had taken about half a step before the skies opened up into a torrential downpour.
The sign next to his truck read Putman County. Things are different here. He’d made it to his destination before losing his transportation. That was something, anyway.
He peered around the sign and to the town a quarter of a mile beyond. He glanced up and down the nearly deserted street, squinting through the pouring rain. There, at the far end, he saw a mechanic. He grabbed his wallet off the passenger seat then slammed the door shut before beginning the long, wet trek to find help.
A panicked shout caught Michael’s attention and his head shot up.
What on Earth?
Someone buried in an enormous jacket stood in the middle of the road while a very large van barreled right toward him.
Michael cursed and began to run. He almost flew the last few feet, body slamming into the smaller figure. He felt the bumper of the van brush his leg, and the slight impact sent them hurtling toward the side of the road. Michael tried to twist sideways.
He didn’t make it. He landed solidly on top of the other man. In a very large puddle.
Oh, well. At least they weren’t dead.
The man groaned and stirred. “I think you broke my back.”
“Hey,” Michael replied, struggling to untangle them. “Look on the bright side. You aren’t a road pancake.”
“Easy for you to say. I’m not sure this is an improvement.” The man grunted when Michael’s knee thumped into his hip.
“Hold still, will you? You know, people usually respond to life-saving heroics with a little gratitude.”
“You’re squashing me!”
“If you would quit moving—”
“Need some help, boys?”
Michael tilted his head back, blinking against the rain. “Ah, please. We seem to be stuck.”
The burly man with a badge clipped to his belt helped them sort themselves out. Once Michael’s feet were released—somehow, they had become wrapped up in the straps of an enormous canvas bag—he was able to stand with relative ease.
The man rose to his hands and knees, moaning. Michael winced in sympathy. All right, so maybe he could cut the guy a little slack. The stranger didn’t have Michael’s weight or bulk, and they had landed pretty hard. Poor guy was probably going to be black and blue on both sides.
The man stood, staggering sideways until the police officer steadied him.
“You need the doc, Alli?” the officer asked.
Alli grunted. “Nothing’s broken,” he replied, testing his body out gingerly. “At least, I don’t think so.”
“Mark went after the guy,” the officer offered helpfully. “Bastard was doing sixty-five in a thirty.”
“No offense, Chris, but that doesn’t really make me feel any better.”
“Don’t imagine it does.” Chris turned, chuckling. He held out his hand. “Chris Owens, Putman County Deputy Sheriff. The man you blind tackled is Allegro Romani, resident florist. I’ll say thank you, since he seems to have his head stuck in his ass.”
“Not funny, Chris.”
“Wasn’t meant to be, Alli.”
Swear to God, Allegro actually stuck his tongue out at the officer. The officer just laughed.
Michael had fallen through a vortex into a strange new world. He wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it.
So, he did what he always did. He smiled back, shook hands, and jumped in with both feet. “We landed hard,” he said. “I imagine he’s going to be pretty sore tomorrow.”
“I’m right here,” came the grumble. “And I’m sore now.”
A speculative look lit the deputy’s eyes for reasons beyond Michael’s comprehension. The big guy studied Michael with an intense regard that Michael found distinctly disquieting. His mind started ticking through paranormal possibilities. The deputy clearly wasn’t quite human, but Michael couldn’t put his finger on—
“Oh, no!” The anguished howl had Michael’s gaze swinging back to Alli. Gray eyes were staring mournfully at the bag on the ground. Several paperbacks had tumbled out onto the sidewalk. They were now quite thoroughly ruined.
“Better the books than you,” Chris pointed out.
From the look on his face, Michael thought the man would have rather been sporting tire marks up his back.
Alli leaned over to scoop the books back up.
“Here, let me—”
Michael didn’t even get to finish his sentence before the man keeled over and did a face-plant onto Michael’s tennis shoes.
* * * *
Michael wrinkled his nose at the scent of ammonia and that nasty smell peculiar to all hospitals, wondering how in the hell he had ended up sitting in an uncomfortable plastic chair in the waiting room of Putman County General Hospital.
The now-familiar bulk of Chris came around the corner. He guessed the local PD didn’t go in for uniforms, because the man certainly seemed to be on duty, despite the jeans and Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt. Michael stood.
“Our boy is getting a couple of stitches put in his shoulder, then he should be good to go. But the doc is making grumbly noises about that concussion. I told him you would wake Alli up a couple of times tonight, make sure he wasn’t dead.”
“Me?” Michael gaped. “How did I get involved in this mess?”
“You’re the one that tackled the guy.” Chris pointed that fact out like it made everything else completely reasonable.
Michael wondered if everyone in this town was freaking nuts, or just the ones he’d met. When he’d been introduced to ‘Doc’, the man had shared a significant look with Chris. Chris had waggled his eyebrows. The doc had giggled. Giggled. Like a teenage girl.
This place was straining Michael’s ‘go with the flow’ philosophy to its limits.
“Your truck won’t be ready until tomorrow afternoon, earliest,” Chris pointed out.
Michael didn’t even ask how Chris knew, especially since Michael himself hadn’t talked to the mechanic yet. Hell, he couldn’t remember telling Chris about his mechanical troubles in the first place, let alone arranging for transport with the local garage.
“In the meantime,” the deputy continued, “you can sack out on Alli’s couch. Save you the cost of a hotel and that way Alli won’t have to stay here overnight.”
A crash from behind the double swinging doors made them both wince.
“I think everyone would be happier,” Chris added.
Michael made a little noncommittal sound. He’d been sucked down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. It was the only explanation that made any sense whatsoever.
The doors flung open and Alli burst out—as much as it was possible to manage a burst while weaving like a drunk on a week-long binge.
“He’s going over!” yelled a nurse.
Chris and Michael both reached for Alli at the same time and collided. It was the doctor, following right on Alli’s heels, who caught the injured man by the shoulder before he could take out any innocent bystanders.
“Hold on there, Lancelot,” Doc ordered. “That’s the maternity ward.”
“Right,” Alli drawled. “Don’t need that.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Will someone please get the man a wheelchair?”
A second nurse appeared with the requested item before he’d even finished his sentence. Efficiency. Had to love it. It appeared to be something of a rare commodity in this area.
Doc pushed back on Alli and Alli dropped into the wheelchair.
“Man the torpedoes!” Alli yelled, thrusting one hand in the air.
“He’s been on a naval biography kick,” Chris said in an aside.
Michael completely lost it. Here he stood, in the middle of a hospital in a Podunk town in the middle of the Midwest, surrounded by strangers and, man, was the situation just the most…
Hell, he couldn’t even begin to describe it.
Michael laughed until tears streamed down his face and he had to lean against the wall for support. Most of the surrounding staff ignored him. Chris and the doctor looked on and heck if they didn’t look almost…indulgent.
“Come on,” he finally said, wiping the tears away. “Someone needs to give me and the admiral here a ride.”
It was Wonderland. And he kind of liked it.