The light of predawn had mellowed to a cool gray blue as Petra ran with the Land Dwellers through thick patches of mist-coated fauna and over a series of perfect miniature waterfalls cut into the easy hillside. As always, she lagged slightly behind the Shifter party who hunted their section of the rainforest every other day. Unfortunately it was the reality of one who was not a Shifter and whose lungs and muscles normally gave up before the meal was even spotted.
"Damn." She came to an abrupt halt near a wide collection of mud and let her head fall forward as she gripped her knees. The sound of her heavy, labored breaths competed with the thunderous noise of the Shifters steady though departing heartbeats in her ears. Even after twenty-four years in their society, those glorious Shifter heartbeats still made her jealous.
Would she ever have one?
Her parents, the kind and generous lion Shifters who had taken her in as a baby, claimed her as part of their pride and protected her secret from the rest of the breed population that she was not Shifter born, had always told her that someday they would help her find her true beginnings. But she was starting to have some serious doubts. Her parents' number-one priority was to protect her and her brothers, and Petra couldn't help but wonder if their claim to know only the name of her birth father was true.
As the thundering mass of heartbeats moved farther and farther away, Petra picked up on one that did not, one that was actually intensifying, coming straight for her. Under the canopy of trees, she forced herself to stand, forced herself to turn, her gaze instantly spotting the mass of brown fur in the distance. The earth beneath her feet started to shake with its approach, and the cracks of branches and twigs intermingled with the menacing shift of flora.
A growl echoed through the wood, the fierce sound penetrating Petra's chest. Head down, it rushed toward her, muscles rippling beneath its thick fur, massive paws hitting the dirt in an intimidating cadence.
Petra didn't move.
Faster and faster it came, mouth gaping, eyes focused. The entire forest seemed to brace itself, preparing for the bear's assault. But the massive brown giant surprised them all-the trees, the ground, and the fauna-by jerking to a halt right in front of Petra, and shifting into a handsome human male.
He grinned broadly. "Damn close to the finish today, Pets. I thought you were going to make it."
Wearing only a strip of fabric around his lean hips, the male who stood before her, his straight brown hair licking his tanned shoulders, was tall and intimidatingly muscular. But as he gazed down at her, only humor and affection lit his gorgeous pale brown eyes.
Petra returned his smile. "I honestly don't know why I keep playing this game."
Brodan, a bear Shifter and the community's well-respected healer, took a step toward her and put his hands on her shoulders. "Someday you'll be there for the capture and kill, Pets. Then you will feast alongside us." His eyes locked with hers. "I can't wait for that day."
"Neither can I." Petra's smile faltered, as it always did when Brodan found a reason to touch her. "And maybe at that point I'll have developed a taste for raw meat."
He laughed, and as she turned, he dropped an arm over her shoulders. "How about I walk back with you?"
"No." She hoped the word hadn't come out too quickly. She liked Brodan a lot, respected the hell out of him, but she didn't feel the same way about him that he felt about her. He was her friend, and she wanted to make sure nothing screwed that up. "Thanks though. I'm going to head over to the mountain and check on Malen. See how she's fairing."
Under the light of the waning moon, Brodan's expression changed from familiarity and humor to sympathy. "Poor Malen. Transitioning that early is so difficult on the mind. Bring her by the clinic if you see she's exhibiting any signs of depression, all right?"
Petra nodded, admiring Brodan and his kind heart. Why couldn't her own heart find him a match? A female would be so lucky to have his love and care.
"You know," she began, "I've seen this several times during early transition therapy. This first month, and for Malen, the first moon cycle, is the worst. But I have some mental and physical exercises I think will help her to cope."
"You are very dedicated and very good at your job."
"So are you."
He smiled with his whole face. It was the kind of smile that made a female's knees turn to water. "We would make a good team, don't you think?"
Most females in the rainforest community would've loved to have this attention from Brodan. He was highly sought after as a mate, a wonderful healer, devastatingly good looking-and totally honorable. Like everyone else in the community, he believed she just hadn't gone through her transition to Shifter yet, but unlike everyone else, he found her attractive despite her body's late, or as some had called it, "defunct" response.
The honorable, perfect male.
Damn, she wanted to love him. Perhaps she was latent in both her heartbeat and her emotional maturity, she thought with a mental kick of hope. Perhaps those feelings would develop over time. Perhaps she just needed to be patient.
"You'd better catch up," she told him, easing out from under his hold. "Don't want to miss the kill."
He nodded, but his gaze roamed thoughtfully over her face.
Don't look too deep. You won't like what you see.
He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. Then he moved away, lifting a hand in her direction. "I'll see you later, Pets."
Petra watched him shift back into his bear state, leaving behind the scent of desire and longing. It was the one thing she did have, the one thing that gave her hope that she would someday claim her shift, her animal-a good nose. Several feet away, Brodan stretched up, leaned into a tree, and growled. He was magnificent, massive, fierce-fortunate to know who and what he was.
With one last glance in her direction, he turned and barreled away, the forest once again alive with the sounds of an animal on the hunt.
As she always did, Petra watched until he was out of sight, then she turned and made her way out of the forest. Brodan made no secret of his hope that someday she'd suddenly shift into her animal-preferably for him, a bear-and inside the dead muscle housed and protected by her ribs a steady, life-giving beat would begin.
Someday, they would both know the truth of what she was.