Jena Crowe narrowed her gaze at the old man, whose eyes were twinkling with mischief. The corner of his silver mustache twitched a moment before the air around him began to shimmer like asphalt on an August day.
“Joe Quinn, you better not.” She lunged a hand toward him, but only caught the edge of an empty shirt before it fell to the tired red barstool where Old Quinn’s pants had already pooled. An empty straw hat was the last thing to fall to the ground. “Quinn!” Jena darted out from behind the counter.
The bell on the diner door rang, and a scurrying shadow darted toward it. Jena’s grandmother almost tripped over the tiny creature as she made her way into the air-conditioning with four pies balanced in her hands.
“Goodness! Was that Joe Quinn?”
Jena ignored her for the moment, leaning down to swipe up the empty hat and charge out the door, her brown eyes locked on an old red pickup parked under the shade of a Palo Verde tree on the far edge of the parking lot. She raised the hat and shook it in the dusty air.
“Quinn, I am keeping this hat until you settle your damn bill!”
She saw the tell-tale shimmer on the far side of the truck, then Old Quinn appeared again, buck-naked, sliding into the passenger seat and scooting over to roll down the window. “Aw now, Jena, don’t be hard on me. I’ll pay you next week, I promise. Throw an old man his pants, will you?”
“Not on your life. I hope the highway patrol gives you a ticket on the way home!”
Jena spun around and pulled the door closed to seal in the precious cool air. The temperature in the Mojave Desert was already in the 90s at breakfast time, and the radio said it would reach a sizzling 120 at the height of the day. She brushed the damp brown hair off her forehead and stomped behind the counter, reaching under the cash register for the hammer.
“That old snake,” she muttered as she searched a drawer for a nail.
Devin Moon looked up from his coffee. “I always thought his natural form looked more like a horny toad than a snake.”
“Shut up, Dev.” She glanced up with a scowl. “And can’t you arrest him for driving naked or something?”
“I probably could…” Dev glanced down at the sheriff’s star on the front of his shirt. “But I just got my eggs.” He went back to sipping his coffee and glancing at the messages on his phone.
“Why is there a pile of clothes here?” Jena’s grandmother, Alma Crowe, had set the pies on the counter and unboxed them. “Did Joe shift at the counter?”
“Yup.” Jena finally found a nail. “Right after I handed him his check.”
“He still hasn’t paid that tab? Sometimes, I think that man has forgotten any manners his mother tried to teach him. Shifting at the counter and running out on his check. Does he have any sense?”
“Nope.” Jena raised a hand and aimed the nail right through the front brim of Old Quinn’s favorite hat. With a sharp tap, it was nailed up behind the register, right next to his nephew’s favorite Jimmy Hendrix t-shirt. “Typical Quinns,” she muttered, eyeing the t-shirt that had hung there since Sean Quinn had abandoned it—and the town—shortly after high school graduation.
Jena turned to the diner that was still half-full from the breakfast crowd. “The hat’s mine until he pays his bill. Someone want to toss those clothes out to the parking lot?”
She saw Dev snicker from the corner of her eye as he sent a text to someone. Alma opened up the pie rack and slid her latest creations in. And the youngest Campbell boy, who was busing tables for her until he left for college in the fall, quietly picked up the pile of clothes that Quinn left and took them somewhere out of her sight.
The boy’s grandfather, Ben Campbell, lifted an eyebrow and stared at the hat. “Remind me to pay my tab later, Jena.”
“I’m not worried about you, Mr. Campbell.” The worst of her anger taken out on the unsuspecting hat, Jena leaned over and refilled Ben’s coffee. “I doubt you’ve run from a debt in your entire life.”
He winked at her before turning his attention to Jena’s grandmother. “Now Alma, what did you bring to spoil my lunch today?”
The familiar chatter of her regulars began again, and Jena put the coffee pot back to start the ice tea brewing for the day. Alma and Ben Campbell started debating the best fruit pie for autumn. Missy Marquez, heavily pregnant, coaxed her four year old into another bite of eggs. Robert and John McCann glanced around and debated in low voices about what sounded like plans for a new house. Jena wondered who might be moving back to town while she wiped counters, filled glasses, and took orders.
When Jena had moved back to the Springs after her husband passed three years before, the last thing she had expected was to be running the family diner full time. Cooking at it? Sure. After all, she was a trained chef and this was the only restaurant in town besides The Cave, her friend Ollie’s roadside bar that sat on the edge of the highway. She expected to be cooking, but not running the place. Unfortunately, a year after she’d moved back, Tom and Cathy Crowe decided to answer the call of the road in their old Airstream and Jena had to take over. Now, her parents came back every few months for a quick visit while Jena ran the place and took care of the two boys she and Lowell had produced.
Was it the life she had planned for? No. But then, if Jena knew anything from growing up in a town full of shapeshifters it was this: Everything changed.
Dev finally glanced up from his phone. His mouth curled in amusement as he looked at the old hat hanging on the wall. “Remind me not to piss you off. God knows what you’d nail up for everyone to see.”
“Since you don’t actually live here, Sheriff Moon, that’s a tough call. But I’m gonna say those red silk boxers I saw hanging off of Mary Lindsay’s line would be the first thing.”
“Is that so?” She might have been imagining it, but she thought a red tinge colored Dev’s high cheekbones. It was hard to tell. Unlike Jena, who was only part Native American and still burned in the intense desert sun, Dev was full-blooded. His dark skin, black eyes, and lazy grin had charmed half the female population of Cambio Springs, including one of Jena’s best friends. But then, Dev had charm to spare, even though he knew better than to try it on her.
She said, “I think Ted’s coming in for lunch today. You sticking around?”
“And risk pissing off that wildcat? Nope. But I might go to The Cave tonight.”
“Uh huh. You working?”
“Sure am.” She heard the cook ring the bell and slide two huevos rancheros over the pass. Jena picked them up and slid them in front of the two old farmers talking about football at the end of the counter. “Ollie asked me to help out this whole week. Tracey’s on vacation with Jim and the boys.”
“I’ll see you there. What are you doing with the boys if you’re working all week? Your parents in town?”
“No. Christy’s still home from college.” Christy McCann was her late husband’s youngest sister and her boy’s favorite aunt. “She’s hanging out this week while I’m working.”
The free babysitting would only last a few more weeks. It was August, and though the boys’ school had just started, the state colleges hadn’t. Jena would take advantage of the extra hand that family provided as long as she could. After all, it was the reason she’d moved back.
“Hey Jena,” Missy called. “Can I just get a to-go box for this plate?” Jena glanced up at the tired young mother and the preschooler with the stubborn lower lip.
“Sure thing.” She carried a styrofoam box over to the booth. “You better be nice to your mama, Chelsea.”
“Thanks so much.” Missy began shoveling food into the carton.
“No biggie. You feeling okay?”
A wan smile touched the woman’s face. The mayor’s wife was working on number four. Jena had no idea how she did it. Her two boys ran her ragged.
“I’ll manage. My mom’s coming over in the afternoons now.”
Thank goodness for family. Jena patted Missy’s shoulder and ducked back behind the counter. Her boy’s aunt. Jena’s grandmother. Missy’s huge clan. It was a close knit community, the one place their kind didn’t have to hide.
Tucked into an isolated canyon in the middle of the Mojave Desert, miles away from the state highway that the tourists drove, was the little town of Cambio Springs. It was an isolated town, made of the descendants of seven families who had made their way west over a hundred years before. Seven families that discovered something very unusual about the mineral springs that gave the town its name.
Dev stood and walked to the counter. “Well, I’m outta here, Jen. Did you see that Alex was back in town?”
“Really?” Jena looked up from the ketchup containers she was filling and walked over to the cash register. “Have you seen him?”
“Just saw his Lexus out at Willow’s.” Alex McCann was one of her late husband’s many cousins and one of her closest friends in high school. He’d moved, like so many of the younger people, when he went to college. Still, as the oldest McCann of his generation, she suspected he’d be back sooner or later.
“At Willow’s, huh?” She gave Dev a sly smile. Willow McCann, Alex’s sister, was one of the few girls that Dev hadn’t bagged, and not for lack of trying. “He’s probably just out for a visit.”
“He still doing the real estate thing in LA?”
“As far as I know. There’s some kind of town meeting tomorrow night. His dad probably asked him to show up.”
Dev lowered his voice and glanced at Missy, who was married to the town’s young mayor. “Anything I need to be there for?”
Jena shrugged. Monthly town meetings were a tradition in the Springs, and the oldest members of the seven families made up the council. It was an archaic kind of government, but when you were running a town full of various shapeshifters, normal rules of city government didn’t always apply. Sure, they elected the mayor… but he pretty much did whatever the elders asked him to do.
Alma Crowe, Jena’s grandmother and a member of the town council, poked into Dev and Jena’s conversation. “Nothing the tribes need to be concerned about.”
“You know we’re always available, Alma.”
She leaned down to kiss his handsome cheek. “I know. You’re a good friend for asking.”
The various tribes along the Colorado River had known about Cambio Springs for ages. But sharing a history of wanting to be left alone, they’d tacitly helped to keep the Springs a secret. And it really wasn’t that hard. What did the outside world care about a dusty desert town in the middle of nowhere? If you weren’t a resident or a friend of one, you were sure to receive a cold shoulder. Visitors, if they happened to come around, didn’t stay long.
Jena’s voice dropped so she couldn’t be overheard by Missy, who was married to the current mayor. “It’s probably just Matt pushing another plan to create jobs since the airfield shut down.”
Dev said, “It would be nice if one of them worked.”
The military air base that had provided half the town with jobs had shut down in the latest round of federal budget cuts, and more and more families were having to move away. Moving away meant hiding. Though Jena and the rest of the town could shift at will, some of the myths were true. Come the full moon, the urge to change was almost overwhelming. Except for the oldest and strongest of them, full moons meant feathers, fur, or scales. That meant that families who moved were forced to keep secrets. And as someone who had lived ‘away,’ Jena knew just how hard that was.
“It’ll all work out,” Alma reassured them. “It always does.”
Dev paid his bill, still glancing at Old Joe Quinn’s hat hanging on the wall behind her, and whistled as he made his way out the door. The continuous hum of conversation flowed around her as Jena went about her tasks for the day. Old men argued. Mothers fed boisterous children. Silverware clattered, the kitchen bell rang, and Jena Crowe saw it all.
She heard the door slam just as she slipped off her shoes.
“We’re home, Mom!”
Aaron, her youngest and most cheerful, thundered like a small elephant down the hall. He was the picture of her late husband, Lowell. His sandy brown hair was mussed from his bike helmet, and his shirt was sweaty. The small town school was only a few blocks from the house she’d taken over from her mom and dad, but a few blocks was enough to drench an eight-year-old in sweat in 115 degree heat.
“Is Low home, too?” she asked, wondering why she only heard one child. But then, Low, Jr. was almost twelve and in the full swing of human and shifter hormones.
Aaron nodded as he gave her a quick, sweaty hug. It was a good thing she hadn’t showered from the diner yet. The Blackbird Diner closed down at 3:00, which meant that she got home from work right about the time the boys came home from school. Usually, her evenings would be devoted to homework, more cooking, and wrangling two active brothers, but since Ollie had asked her to help out at The Cave, her evenings had become much more hectic.
Jena finally heard the door to Low’s room close.
Not a word of greeting to her. Jena frowned. It was typical recently. With shifter kids, who usually had their first change in puberty, adolescence took on a whole new hairy, feathery, or scaly dimension. Low was coming up on his change, she could feel it. Or, it was just wishful thinking, because for the small percentage of kids who didn’t shift, a far harsher fate was in front of them.
“Aaron, homework out on the kitchen table. I’ll make you a snack as soon as I get out of the shower.” She walked down the hall to Low’s door, which was closed. She gave a quick knock and heard shuffling inside.
Her eyebrows lifted at the haughty tone. Jena cleared her throat and knocked again, a little louder. Finally Low came to the door.
“What was that?” she asked.
He had the manners to look embarrassed. “Sorry, I thought you were Bear. He’s been bugging me all day.”
“You shouldn’t be rude to either of us. Do you have homework?”
“Finished it in study hall. I just have a book report to do.”
“Anything interesting happen today?”
“What does that mean?” Why did her son have to be so much like… her? Jena frowned. He was, too. From the dark hair and olive skin to the sullen expression. Her mother had enjoyed that one. Jena knew she hadn’t been the easiest teenager, so it was fair. Rotten, but fair.
Low gave a tortured sigh. “Kevin shifted last night. He wasn’t in school today.”
“He did?” Her face broke into a grin. Kevin Smith was her friend Allie’s oldest son and she knew Allie had been worried sick. He was older than Low by a year and his shift was beginning to seem uncertain. Allie and Joe had been a wreck about it. “What did he—”
“Fox, like his mom.”
“Aww.” She melted. Allie would love that. She’d married another canine shifter, so her kids would always be furry, but it was nice when a child’s natural form took after one of his parents. In time, Kevin would be able to shift into any canid he focused on, but his natural form, his first shift, would always be his most comfortable. It was hard to explain, but then, Jena rarely shifted out of her natural form.
Low still had a sullen expression on his face. “I’m never going to shift.”
Ignoring the flutter of fear in her heart, Jena patted her son’s shoulder and reassured him. “Yes, you will. Just be patient.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “That doesn’t mean it will happen to you, Low. You know how rare that is.”
Rare it may have been, but for the descendants of the seven families who didn’t shift, life was short. Heart attack. Premature stroke. Lowell Sr., Jena’s childhood sweetheart, had been lucky to make it to his late twenties before a mysterious brain cancer had cut his life short, leaving Jena with two small boys and an aching hollow in her heart that still echoed on the loneliest nights.
Low just shrugged his thin shoulders and grabbed a book out of his backpack. “I’ll help Aaron with his homework. I know you have to get ready.”
“Is Aunt Christy coming for dinner?”
“Yep. She’ll be here around five.”
Low walked down the hall. Jena called out to him. “Low?” He turned. “I know she lets you stay up late, and I’m okay with it for you, but make sure that Bear’s getting enough sleep, okay? You’re his big brother.”
He rolled his eyes. “I know, Mom.”
“Good kid. I’m gonna get clean, then I’ll come out and get you guys a snack.”
Hours later, after a rushed dinner, Jena was primped and ready for another night of work at the bar. Her long runner’s legs were encased in skin tight jeans that showed off a trim figure. She’d put on a halter top her other best friend had convinced her to buy on a girls’ weekend in Palm Springs. It was snug in all the right places and even gave the illusion that Jena had breasts, which hadn’t really been true since the last time she’d breast-fed, but then, illusion was everything when it came to good tips.
Plus, it was just fun to get out every now and then. She never minded helping Oliver Campbell run his family’s old roadhouse on the edge of town. The Cave was an institution and drew some of the best business in the desert. It was also the unofficial boundary of the Springs’ territory. Few outsiders ever got past Ollie. They were welcome to the cold drinks and the good music, but if you weren’t one of the regulars from the Springs, the Tribes, or one of the motorcycle clubs that made The Cave their home, then don’t linger. And don’t get too familiar with the staff.
But please tip your waitress, because Mama needs to buy two growing boys shoes before their toes poke out of the old ones.
Jena did all right. The diner was steady business and she didn’t need much to get by. The house was family property and didn’t have a mortgage. Her car was paid for. But keeping up with everything that two kids needed was still a challenge some months. And that was another reason Jena was dolled up and headed out to Ollie’s. A few good tips wouldn’t hurt the bank account.
She pulled into the back and could hear the band warming up. Despite the isolated location, The Cave had become known for some of the best music in the desert. Rock, blues, old-fashioned country. If you were an independent musician looking for a gig, then The Cave was the place to play. Ollie paid the bands decent, but the money wasn’t really the draw. Saying that you’d survived the tough-as-nails crowd at The Cave without bottles being thrown at you was the real prize. More than one famous musician or group had a picture on the wall that led to the bathrooms.
Not behind the bar, though. Nothing was behind the bar besides beer, liquor bottles, and the hulking form of Ollie Campbell.
“Hey, honey.” Jena slipped into Ollie’s office and put her purse on the bookcase behind his desk. Ollie’s office was very much like the man himself. Solid furniture, an eclectic mix of decor, and quiet, soundproofed walls.
“How was your day, Jen?”
He had a pencil in his mouth and he was chewing on it. He’d been doing that since the year before when he stopped smoking.
“It was fine. You gotta stop that, Ollie, you’re going to ruin your teeth.”
He chuckled. “Doubtful. You know what these teeth tear up on a regular basis?”
“I’m not talking Bear Ollie, I’m talking Regular Ollie and you will ruin your teeth if you keep doing that. Try some gum.”
She whacked the back of his head. “Shut up, you’re two months older than me.”
He just gave her a quiet smile. Quiet smile. Quiet man. If you didn’t know him, Ollie Campbell might seem like a hard case. He was well over six feet tall, had dark curly hair that was trimmed short and a full beard that hid his dimples. His suntanned skin was covered in black and grey tattoo work that decorated most of his arms and a lot of his back.
And Ollie was a giant teddy bear.
“Hey, did you hear Kevin shifted? Fox, just like Allie. Low told me he wasn’t in school today.”
Ollie’s face softened at the mention of Allie. But then, it always had. Ever since they were kids.
“Good.” He nodded. “That’s real good. She was worried about that. I’m sure Joe’s relieved, too.”
“Yep.” Ignoring the sorrowful tinge to his eyes, Jena fluffed her hair and put her hands on her hips. “How do I look, boss?”
He whistled. “If you weren’t like my sister, I’d hit on you. Between the band tonight and those jeans, we should both make out pretty good.”
“Good to know.”
Ollie rose from his desk and ushered her down the hall. “Hey, did Old Joe Quinn really run out of the diner buck-naked today?”
“He shifted and ran when I handed him the bill. His favorite hat’s nailed behind the cash register.”
Ollie chuckled and shook his head as they walked down the hall and into the bar that was growing louder by the minute.
“He won’t forget that one.”
“Neither will I.”
The first book of the new Cambio Springs series will be published in Winter 2013.