Woodland Creek Series
30 Authors. 30 Shifter Stories
Snake-shifter Sophia Samson is on the run with a knife-wound to the gut after her last con went belly up. With a mob man hot on her tail and her wound not healing like it should, she seeks refuge in her mother’s childhood hometown, Woodland Creek. She slithers in through the back door of the urgent care clinic and charms the handsome doctor into treating her.
The shifters of Woodland Creek turn to Desmond Callahan, MD when they suffer from unique medical conditions, but when Sophia sneaks into his office with silver poisoning, it’s obvious she has no idea there are other shifters in their small town. Desmond can tell Sophia doesn’t want him to know she’s a shifter – and that’s not the only thing she’s hiding. As a puca, Desmond has a few tricks of his own up his sleeve and he’s not going to let the captivating Sophia slip out of his life so easily.
Sophia clenched the steering wheel when another wave of dizziness washed over her. As the first rays of sun broke the horizon behind her, she chugged the last half of her third Red Bull of the night. Fifteen miles left.
She pressed a hand to her left lower rib to check for blood seeping through the bandages. She’d already had to change them twice on this last-minute cross-country trip. Changing bandages was not something Sophia — or any Samson before her — had any practice in. When she was barely tall enough to reach the sink, her mother had told her the snake-shifter genes were the reason why her scrapes healed so much faster than all the other kids’. In twenty-seven years, Sophia had never had to worry about any wound for more than a couple hours — not even that time a bullet took a chunk out of her femur.
But eighteen hours after taking a four-inch ceremonial blade to the stomach, her condition had only worsened. It wasn’t even a real knife, she kept thinking. The lightheadedness and bouts of vertigo hadn’t even left her any time to worry about Johnny Valrico — the owner of said ceremonial blade, which Sophia had been trying to steal at the time — and his promise to make her pay for her betrayal. And Johnny Valrico wasn’t the type of man to make empty threats. She’d seen that first-hand.
Ba-bump. Ba-bump. Ba-bump.
“Shit.” Sophia jerked the wheel and returned the car to the middle of the lane, where it was supposed to be, instead of straddling the white line with rumble strips installed for exactly this reason.
A green sign appeared up ahead. Sophia’s sleep-deprived eyes had to squint to read it. Woodland Creek, 5 mi, it said. Five miles. She could make it that much further. Then she’d crash on whatever furniture her mom hadn’t sold from Sophia’s grandparents’ house and give her stomach wound a chance to knit itself up. And to stop bleeding. That would be great, she thought as she wiped her hand, wet with her own congealing blood, on her jeans.
In her pocket, her backup burner phone vibrated for half a second before the default ringtone kicked in. Instead of a phone number, the phone displayed the word “Private.” A pang shot through her gut that had nothing to do with the knife wound. Sophia was pretty sure she’d never given this phone number to anyone. Her instinct told her to ignore the call, but her curiosity wouldn’t let her. Every good con artist knew the first step to success was amassing as much intel as possible.
Letting out a slow breath, she pressed the green phone button. “Hello?” She grimaced at the fragile tone of her voice. Her mother had taught her better. The only weakness that should ever enter her countenance was intentional and calculated.
“Sophia,” a gruff voice with the hint of a Jersey accent said.
Shivers overran her entire body. Even if she had given this number to someone, it sure as hell wouldn’t have been him.
“Johnny.” Sophia tried to imitate his cool-as-a-cucumber inflection, but failed entirely. Her hands shook, so she gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white.
“Heading west, huh?” She could picture him, picking invisible lint off his pant leg like he always did when he was bluffing.
Unable to stop herself, Sophia rolled her eyes. “You live in Jersey, Johnny. Everywhere is west from you.”
Adrenaline had flooded her veins at the first sound of his voice, giving her back the alertness she’d been missing so dearly. He wasn’t going to catch her with such a basic ruse.
“Aren’t you going to ask me how I got this number?” he said, voice filled to the brim with smugness.
She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “What do you want?”
He sighed. “Justice.”
A spit of a laugh escaped her mouth. Johnny Valrico talking about justice — was that irony? Or just plain old hypocrisy?
I didn’t make off with anything of yours, she wanted to remind him. But she knew, reasoning with Johnny was like reasoning with a hungry shark when you’re bleeding in its ocean.
“You made a fool out of me,” he said.
Well, at least that was something. She didn’t get the goods, but at least she made him feel foolish. Her mom would be so proud.
“No one gets away with that,” he added ominously. “Not even the infamous Sophia Samson.”
Her blood turned to ice. She could count the people who knew her real last name on one hand and still have enough fingers to shoot a gun. None of those people were Johnny. None of them were even people whom Johnny had ever laid eyes on.
A sign glowed in her headlights. Entering Woodland Creek, it said.
“Are we done or do you have any more specific threats?” she asked, forcing calm into her voice.
“If I can’t find you, I’ll find whatever you love most, so you might as well come back and face the piper.”
“For one, that’s a mixed metaphor,” Sophia said. “It’s either face the music or pay the piper.”
She couldn’t help herself. She’d spent four months pretending to date him and, aside from the casual violence, mixing every stinking metaphor was his most annoying trait. One time, he’d actually said, “You can’t teach an old leopard to change its stripes.” She’d had to do a lot of deplorable things while working a con, but nothing made her dislike herself more than when she’d giggled at that, placing a hand on his arm and cooing, “You’re sooo right, Johnny.”
“And two?” His voice was small, like he was clenching his jaw.
“The only thing I have ever loved is the thrill of a con.”
With that, she slammed the phone shut to end the call. The cool Autumn air cooled her face when she rolled down the passenger the window – and chucked the phone into the town’s namesake as she drove over a small bridge.
“Home sweet home.” As long as her mother maintained her self-imposed exile, Woodland Creek would be the perfect place to lay low and regroup until Johnny found his next obsession. She hadn’t spoken to the woman in five years, but Sophia couldn’t imagine any reason Sonia Samson would deign to return to the place she grew up. Then Sophia’d leave this podunk town in her rear view and never look back.
Desmond Calllahan, MD, double-checked the patient’s vitals to confirm his suspicion. He sighed, then flashed a comforting smile at the teenage girl slouching on the exam table. Her light brown hair brushed her shoulders, stringy with sweat. Yellow-green eyes watched him warily from a flushed face.
“Vanessa, would you go borrow a stethoscope from someone for me?” he said to the nurse helping him. “I think mine got damaged in that little scuffle this morning.”
Vanessa raised her eyebrows at him. “Doctor?” She’d seen him use his stethoscope at least twice since this morning and she wasn’t dumb.
“Please,” he said, without offering explanation.
She nodded and left the room without another word. He traced her steps and ensured the door was fully closed, before turning to face the girl, allowing every bit of sympathy he was feeling to show on his face.
“Where are your parents?” he started.
She bit her lip. “Mom’s working, dad’s in the waiting room. He stopped coming in to doctor’s appointments with me a couple of months ago when… um, you know, puberty hit.”
Desmond gave her a knowing smile. “I hate to be so blunt, but I have to hurry before Nurse Vanessa comes back. She’s human.”
The girl nodded slowly, trying her best to put on a brave front even as she realized her mysterious illness must’ve been a shifter issue, not just a normal human illness. She was from a large wolf family and understood the need for secrecy. But she was still a scared teenage girl.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Desmond told her. “It’s your time.”
“You mean…?” A wide range of emotions flitted across the girl’s face in a matter of seconds: excitement, fear, confusion, anticipation, uncertainty.
“You should be able to make your first change in a couple of days,” Desmond told her. “The fever will only get worse until then, but you can keep it in check with ibuprofen. I assume your mom can help you with the change?”
She nodded as tears flooded her eyes. Desmond usually handled crying patients pretty well, but in this case, he couldn’t discern the cause.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She choked back a sob. “I have six brothers and sisters. I’m the youngest,” she said. “I thought I’d never be able to join the pack.”
Ah, good. Happy tears, then. The easy ones.
Desmond smiled. “Congrats, pup.”
She smiled then — a true and joyful grin. Wiping her eyes, she said, “Not a pup for much longer.”
He shrugged. “True.”
The door swung open and Vanessa walked in, holding out the stethoscope. He’d almost forgotten about his little deception.
He held up the end of his own stethoscope. “Got it to work. Just needed a little shake.”
Vanessa pressed her lips together and examined the room with a skeptical eye. Desmond quickly turned his attention back to his patient.
“Do you need me to talk to your dad?” he asked the girl.
“Nah,” she said, hopping down from the table and landing with admirable grace. “He’ll be thrilled.”
“Thrilled?” Vanessa asked, alarmed. “Because you’re sick?”
Desmond forced a laugh. “Because it’s not contagious.”
A couple seconds of exceptionally awkward silence followed.
The girl glanced back and forth between Desmond and Vanessa, her lips twisting. “Thank you Doctor Callahan,” she finally said. “You’re the only doctor my family trusts.”
“Anytime,” he said as he escorted her into the hall, leaving Vanessa behind them. “Tell your grandfather I said hello, will you?”
“Of course.” Another big grin broke out across her face. “I can’t wait!”
Desmond returned her smile with one just as big. “Enjoy, pup.”
As she skipped toward the waiting room, Vanessa came up beside him and gave him some nasty side-eye. “This isn’t one of your little shenanigans, is it?”
Desmond chuckled. “You’re not today’s chosen victim,” he said in his best radio-announcer voice. “Try again next time.”
Her lips twisted into a frown.
“But keep an eye out around shift change, yeah?” He winked at her, then busied himself in some files at the nurse’s station.
Desmond’s favorite nurse, Chelsea, dropped a file in a bin on the counter in front of him. “Doctor Callahan, didn’t your last patient leave, like, ten minutes ago?” she drawled.
Desmond fought back a smile. “Yeah, I just have a few things I need to finish up.”
Chelsea gave him an odd look, then shrugged. She had moved to Woodland Creek from Arkansas a couple of years back after hearing from a cousin that their little community was a bit more friendly to “our kind” than the redneck town she’d been living in. Desmond still couldn’t figure out if “our kind” referred to shifters or to African Americans. Chelsea changed into a sweet little tabby cat, which was a lot easier to manage than the other forms. Either way, she’d thrived in Indiana like she never could have back home and she loved this town as much as Desmond did.
At shift change, twice the normal number of nurses, techs, and doctors walked back and forth, barely looking up from charts and trays of equipment. Desmond had been waiting all day, he could wait a bit longer. He shuffled the same stack of papers over and over again for four more minutes before he finally heard it. In the nearest exam room, hundreds of lead pellets rolled across a countertop and fell like rain to the tile floor.
“Des!” Doctor Karen Jasper shouted from inside the room.
A deep, joyful laugh boomed from Desmond’s mouth. Karen carefully escorted a very confused twelve-year-old boy out of the exam room and toward the next one down the hall. The two took slow, deliberate steps to avoid slipping on the pellets that now covered the entire exam room floor. He leaned forward to peek into the room. Some of the tiny balls still bounced off the walls and furniture. The cotton swab container — which he’d liberated from its bottom and filled with the pellets — rolled back and forth on the counter.
She frowned at him over her shoulder, her blonde ponytail swaying side to side, but amusement sparkled in her hazel eyes. Karen always pretended to be “disappointed in his lack of professionalism” in the office, but they both knew they’d laugh about it over a beer in Vider’s later that night.
“You’re cleaning that up,” Karen said.
Desmond was pretty sure he saw the corners of her mouth twitching.
He bowed low. “Yes, your majesty.”
That earned him an honest-to-goodness glare from the bee shifter. He’d pay for that one later.
Poor thing never thought she’d be a victim of one of his pranks. She should have known it was only a matter of time. No one — not even the literal Queen Bee, herself — was granted amnesty from the Callahans. It simply wasn’t in their nature.
“And get me a new cotton swab thing,” she added before shutting the exam room door.
As soon as the door clicked shut, the entire back office burst out laughing. Desmond grinned at them. At least half of them were previous victims, but everyone knew it was all in good fun. Something to break up the stress of working in Urgent Care, especially during tourist season.
Someone tapped him on the back. When he turned, Chelsea stood there with a broom and dustpan, smirking.
She thrust them into his hands. “I’ll get another cotton swab container.”
“You’ve always been my favorite, Chelsea,” he said.
She cocked her hip at him and pursed her lips. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
Aria Kane is a recovering mechanical engineer and romance writer. As a military brat, she grew up all over the country, but now lives in sunny Florida with a 60 lb mutt who thinks he’s a chihuahua.
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