Rienne gently pumped her brakes as she peered at the passing buildings with weary eyes. The early-morning clouds had finally burned off, and the sun was starting to shine with the promise of a warm day. At least as warm as it got in the Pacific Northwest in early spring. She’d been driving for hours and just wanted someplace quiet to eat. Something not moving to sit on would be an added bonus, but the way the local population stopped what they were doing to watch her drive by didn’t bode well for a peaceful meal. She could almost hear the ominous spaghetti western theme music playing. Should she have worn a poncho? Perhaps a cigar clenched between her teeth? Maybe Aunt Sophie had been wrong about sending her here.
This is what happens when you take advice from your crazy aunt! she thought with a wan smile.
Sorrow, Rienne’s parrot, pulled her head out from under her wing and glared out the window, muttering salty curses from her seat-belted perch. She shook her body and fluffed her feathers before preening a toe. “Almost home?” she mumbled in her oddly hollow voice and peeked at Rienne hopefully from one golden eye.
“Not yet, Sorrow. Maybe soon,” Rienne replied soothingly. The meandering trip to nowhere had taken its toll on both of them. The last two months had been spent driving from one family member to another, trying to find someplace she could call home again. Not that she wanted to move in with any of them, but she did want to live closer to her family. Her life probably wouldn’t be the mess it was if she hadn’t isolated herself from her loved ones.
She sat up straighter as she spied a small café. There was a parking spot not far from the door and a park with picnic tables across the street. A few children played on monkey bars and a merry-go-round. The early-spring sunshine made the grass and budding trees glow greenly. Dandelions and other spring flowers were just beginning to bloom in the grass and carefully tended flowerbeds. She pulled into the spot and rolled the windows down a bit. “I’ll be right back,” she said, hopping out of her old pickup truck.
Sorrow nodded, craning her head to watch the children play. The parrot was exceptionally well socialized and loved children. Rienne often wondered about who had owned her before she had found her, forlorn and featherless, in a small cage at the humane society. The only thing the volunteers could tell her was that the former owner had passed away and the lady’s son had dropped the bird off. He hadn’t even given the parrot’s name or age.
Rienne nodded her thanks to the man who held the café door open for her, and slid into a seat at the counter. She picked up the plastic-coated menu and hunched her shoulders, trying not to draw attention. When the waitress finally reached her, she ordered scrambled eggs with cheese and a cup of oatmeal to go. She added on a side of plain steamed vegetables and a lemon-lime soda. The scent of cooking food made her belly rumble eagerly, which surprised her a little.
The waitress leaned a hip against the counter after placing her order and sipped from a huge mug of coffee. “Just visiting?” she asked Rienne in a smoky voice. The café was mostly empty, and the few customers watched with wary curiosity.
“Possibly,” Rienne replied cautiously. “Is there a motel nearby that takes pets?” She was tired of catnaps in rest stops and feeling out of place in guest bedrooms. Just one night of full sleep, she thought tiredly. Even if this place didn’t work out, she needed at least one full night of uninterrupted sleep before she moved on. She was so tired her bones ached.
Not that she had any illusions she would get a good night’s rest. Her brain and heart were so wounded she had nightmares every time she drifted off. Not gore-and-blood nightmares, or even something as normal as being chased and unable to get away. No, her brain dredged up her former friends and lover, making her relive them all turning on her. The hurtful venom they had spewed, and the ugliness they had hidden. Images of beeswax-scented infernos haunted her waking and sleeping. She shied away from that particular memory.
The waitress took another slow sip of coffee. “What kind of pet? There are some cabins down by the lake you could probably rent for a night or two. But the owners ain’t real fond of dogs messing up the rooms or yard.”
Rienne traced a finger on the counter. “She’s an African gray parrot.”
“Huh, might be okay with that. She clean?” she asked in the oddly abbreviated way common to the Pacific Northwest.
“Yes, very good manners too.” She looked up as the waitress went to retrieve her order and dug in her pocket for money to pay her bill and tip.
“Well, just follow the road out of town and turn right at the third crossing. Doesn’t hurt to ask about the parrot.” The waitress gathered the bills and her coffee. “Have a nice day, hon. And get some rest. I could take a three-week vacation with the bags under your eyes.”
Rienne smiled wanly and went to collect Sorrow. She set the bag of food on the hood of her truck and opened the passenger door. Sorrow perked up, climbing the arm Rienne held out and crooned, preening Rienne’s hair. Rienne grabbed a small blanket and travel perch for the parrot. Juggling the perch and food, she crossed the street to one of the picnic tables where she spread the blanket and placed the perch on it. “Do you want to stretch before lunch?” she asked her pet, holding her arm out straight and away from the table.
Sorrow nibbled her ear before working her way down to her wrist and stretched out her wings, flapping them as Rienne raised and lowered her arm a few times. Then with a cackle of glee, the parrot launched and flew in low circles around the table.
Rienne sat down and opened the bag while Sorrow hopped around on the grass, stretching and exercising. She saw the children stop playing to watch the parrot and smiled. Sorrow was a people magnet. Her friends used to tease her about how she should use the bird to pick up guys. A quick look around didn’t turn up any adults watching the children, which made her frown. Granted it was a small town, but you would think at least one adult or parent would be keeping an eye on the children. Maybe someone was watching from the diner across the street.
The dish of vegetables went on the blanket, ready for Sorrow when she finished playing. Rienne dug into her food and sighed with pleasure. There were even little cups of dried cranberries, brown sugar, and milk tucked in the bag for the oatmeal. The simple meal wouldn’t upset her tender stomach, and she couldn’t afford to lose any more weight. Her clothes hung on her as it was. She’d lost thirty pounds in eight months without even trying to diet. When the problems in her life had come to a nasty, infected head, food had started making her sick. The only things her stomach wouldn’t rebel against were liquids, bread, and yogurt. She was heartily sick of Ensure and Slim Fast. She'd make a million if she could package her weight-loss plan. Want to lose weight? Try the new Misery Diet! All you need to do is have your life crash around your ears, and the pounds will simply melt off like magic!
Giggles made her look up. Sorrow was showing off for the kids. She did a somersault and then hopped on one foot while singing a nursery rhyme. A little boy with finely drawn features and slanted eyes dropped to his knees and sang with the parrot. The sun added a slightly odd green tinge to his overly long, wavy brown hair. Once the song finished, the parrot peered back, checking to see where Rienne was and then went back to playing. The boy followed the parrot’s gaze, and she found herself stilling under his scrutiny. There was something far older about him than his age accounted for. He looked about nine but his eyes had eons in them. A smile spread across his face before he returned his attention to Sorrow.
The kids were careful to keep a respectful distance away from the bird, but their eyes shone with excited pleasure at the unexpected treat she presented. A little girl started to sing another rhyme, and Sorrow puffed her feathers with pleasure and crooned along. This continued for half an hour or so while Rienne slowly ate. The food was cold before she finished half of it, but she didn’t care because it tasted so good.
A shadow fell over her, blocking the warmth of the sun. She turned her head and blinked in surprise. A tall, broad-shouldered man in a police officer’s uniform shirt and jeans stood behind her, watching the bird and children impassively.
He sat down beside her without a word, folding his arms across the picnic table and continued to watch. A slow smile edged the corners of his mouth. “Nice parrot,” he finally said. His voice was a deep rumble.
“Th-thank you,” Rienne stuttered, turning her gaze down to the cold food, feeling her stomach knot with anxiety. “She won’t hurt them, she just likes to sing,” she mumbled quickly. “I’m sorry if I did something wrong. Want me to get her?”
“Naw, looks like everyone is having a good time over there.” He slid her a sideways look. “I didn’t think parrots liked to sing.”
Rienne smiled nervously. “Sorrow likes the sound of her voice. I can only hope she doesn’t decide to teach them any new swear words.”
He chuckled softly. His golden-green eyes sparkled with amusement. Wavy, ash-brown hair brushed his collar. “Shiloh Benton, Oracle Island Chief of Police,” he said, holding out a massive hand.
“Rienne.” She shook his hand quickly, barely touching his fingers before pulling away again.
“So, Miss Rienne, what brought you to Oracle Island?” He folded his arms on the table again and went back to watching the kids.
Rienne wasn’t fooled by his studied casualness. “I came to visit my cousin,” she whispered, closing the carton of food in front of her. Her appetite had deserted her, and the delicious food was threatening to claw its way back up her throat.
It couldn’t be a coincidence he happened upon her in the park. It was a small town, but not so small the chief of police would just be strolling around. Apparently, however, the inhabitants were a suspicious-enough lot that strangers were checked out the moment a toe touched the ground.
“That’s nice. I know most everyone who lives here. Who’s your cousin?” His golden-green gaze lanced her.
“Cassia Kinsley.” She stuffed her napkin back in the bag. He’s about as subtle as a brick to the head, she thought.
“Aren’t you going to finish your meal?” he asked gently, the intensity of his stare easing off some.
She shook her head, wondering if there was a polite way to gather up her pet and leave. “I should be going.” Forget polite, she just wanted to leave. She was too sensitive to emotional currents right now. It didn’t take much to make her start thinking she’d done something wrong or someone didn’t like her or was angry with her. Intellectually she knew there was no way everyone was against her, especially strangers. She also knew she was being paranoid, but it didn’t seem to stop the thoughts spinning in her head or the sick churning in her stomach. She tucked the container in the bag and reached for Sorrow’s veggies. Maybe the parrot would eat while she drove.
“I see. Well, perhaps I will see you around town while you are visiting.” The chief stood, rubbing the back of his neck. “Will you be staying with your cousin?”
Rienne shook her head. “I don’t want to intrude. The waitress at the café said there were some cabins for rent by the lake. I thought I’d see if they would let Sorrow stay with me. If they don’t, I’ll ask Cass.” She didn’t know why she was telling him this. Cass was newly married and had only lived on the island for about six months. Aunt Sophie had been very vague about why her cousin had moved. Rienne didn’t think Cass would ever leave Portland. She loved the house she had been raised in. Another of their cousins was living in the house right now, or Rienne would have asked if she could stay there. Aunt Sophie had been adamant that Rienne visit Cass before she came back to stay with Uncle Hiram again.
If she didn’t find a place to live soon, she would have to take her uncle up on his offer to stay the summer in his one-room guest cabin. The weather was starting to warm up with early-spring sun, and her bees would need someplace with flowers to live. She was running out of time and could lose her last hive if she didn’t settle in the next few weeks.
Sorrow had finally noticed someone was talking to Rienne and let out an indignant squawk before flying to land on Rienne’s shoulder. She eyed Shiloh distrustfully and muttered, hiding her head in Rienne’s hair.
Rienne murmured soothingly to the parrot as she scooped up her possessions. “Have a nice day, Chief,” she said softly before escaping to her truck. Sorrow refused to get on her perch once Rienne got in and instead settled on her lap. She leaned down to press a light kiss on the bird’s head before starting the engine and following the directions she had been given to Cass’s home. She wanted to see her cousin before she tried to get a cabin. Her stomach roiled with distress, making Rienne sigh and resign herself to another night of yogurt and Ensure for dinner. Maybe she’d get really crazy and throw in a slice of toast or a few crackers.
SHILOH WATCHED THE old truck chug down the road with a grimace. Having a woman all but run away from him was a new and unpleasant experience. There was something strange about Rienne, other than her oddly dyed hair. What had made her leave the top sections a dark golden blonde while coloring the bottom sections a shiny black-brown? She must be a city girl.
Although the aging pickup she drove told a different story. It ran smoothly enough but showed signs of hard use. It was the kind of vehicle you’d see on a ranch, not tooling about the streets of downtown.
Rienne’s clothing hung on her in baggy wrinkles. He didn’t think it was so much a lack of style as sudden weight loss. The young woman had dark circles under her wounded eyes. Beautiful eyes, like velvety blue pansies.
He speculated about the body under the loose jeans and ugly plaid shirt. The only thing he could identify with any certainty were small breasts gently tenting the soft cloth.
There was a soft, pulsing pull of hearth magic and warmth surrounding her. She was not a normal human, but what she was eluded him. Curiosity welled in him. He felt like a lumbering giant next to her tiny frame. If she was over five feet tall, he’d eat his hat.
Something about her reminded him of a beaten dog. The wary eyes and nearly invisible trembling made him wonder if she was running from an abusive spouse.
He had started receiving calls within minutes of her driving off the ferry. Half the town was stirred up about having a stranger around. The island protections made it nearly impossible for strangers to come. Even family of someone living on the island would keep forgetting they wanted to visit, or something distracting would pop up. People with fey blood would have no problem with the journey, but it was rare for the island to get new arrivals. As far as he could tell Rienne didn’t have a drop of fey blood in her.
Magical creatures had lived on the land for so long that the island itself was becoming slightly self-aware, which increased the effectiveness of the protective spells. If everything was still running the way it was supposed to, she shouldn’t have been able to get here. Even for something as simple and unthreatening as a visit to her cousin. The closer Rienne had gotten to the island, the stronger the urge to leave should have been.
The earth and plants gave off small amounts of the energy magical races needed, and while it was enough to sustain them, it wasn’t enough for them to flourish. As humans had moved into every corner of the planet, they had cut down most of the wild places, further weakening the other races.
A soft buzzing sounded in his ear, and he turned his head to arch an eyebrow at the small glowing dot hovering beside him. It darted into a stand of trees. Shiloh sighed and stood to follow. Once he was in the scant privacy of the trees, the glow became much brighter and formed into a small man.
Dandy, short for Dandelion, crouched on a branch, his huge violet-blue eyes grave. He was wearing his working leathers that day, dyed in shades of green, each subtly different from the next. His long yellow hair, the same shade as his namesake, was pulled back in a French braid to keep it from tangling with his dragonfly wings.
“Who is she, Shiloh?” the small fey asked, his voice like leaves rustling in a breeze.
“Her name is Rienne. She’s come to visit her cousin, the newcomer Cassia, wife of our Dar.” Shiloh leaned against the tree. “Why are the small fey interested in her, Dandy?”
Dandy rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Cassia is a shifter. I wonder if her cousin is as well.”
Shiloh waited. The small fey took his time getting around to answering the question.
“She smells of honey and pain. Her light is near to extinguished. Darkness has cast a veil over her like the bruise clouds of a thunderstorm.” Dandy went still, gazing at the bark of the branch under him as if willing it to give up secrets.
Shiloh raised an eyebrow. The words were unexpectedly poetic for Dandy who generally had a mischievous and irreverent personality.
Dandy sighed. “She has bees in the truck. At least one hive, possibly more, but they would not speak to me other than to say Mother would return soon.”
Shiloh frowned. All bees spoke to the island small fey. They had raised and cared for the hives since the founding of the town. Honey was one of the more popular island exports. Most small fey cared for flowers, trees, and other plant life, but a small branch had changed their focus to honeybees centuries ago.
As far as he knew, bees were not stunning conversationalists. They generally only talked about the health of the queen and where the best flowers were. They had no concept of the future and only vague comprehension of the past. The hive was referred to as a whole; no bee thought of itself or any other bee as an individual, with the exception of the queen. “Mother? They spoke of their mother?”
“How very interesting,” he murmured. “I think we might see if we can find out more about our visitor. Would you ask the others to keep an eye on her? She was heading for the cabins.” Not that he really had to tell anyone to watch her. The residents would do it all on their own, like they did with every other outsider. He wondered briefly why Dandy had been nosing around the truck in the first place but didn’t ask. “What’s the status of your hives?” He knew the island’s bees had been disappearing without warning or cause. Dar had brought back information on colony collapse disorder when he had returned to the island. But, like the scientists studying the phenomena, the small fey were baffled.
“There are no bees left, Shiloh. Last month we lost the few remaining hives.” Dandy’s eyes dulled. “The women faded shortly after.” Fading referred to a type of willed death magical beings could do. Once life became too much, they simply willed themselves to die. Fading was quite literal. The person dissolved by releasing the magic inside them. “There are only twelve small fey left on the island, and we have no hope of finding mates since the bees are gone and all the other female small fey in the world are flower fey. I fear there is no hope for us now. Those of us left are not willing to give up and fade just yet, but I expect it won’t be long before we do.”
Shiloh swallowed hard, a knot of grief burning in his chest at the thought of losing his friends. “Don’t give up, Dandy, not yet. Go and watch her. It will keep you and the other small fey busy for now.”
Dandy nodded and with a burst of multicolored sparks took his smallest form again and buzzed away.
Leaves rustled briefly, and a moment later, another small fey landed on the branch Dandy had been standing on. Long spirals of purple-red hair hung to the small man’s hips. He was wearing similar clothing to Dandy’s, only in shades of brown. His clothing was rumpled in a way that made Shiloh think the fey had slept in it. The man’s handsome face was pinched with strain, and shadows of sadness chased across his expression. Gray, silver, and dusty-brown moth wings fanned slowly behind him.
Shiloh inclined his head in greeting. “Foxglove, hello. I didn’t see you.”
Foxglove shrugged, his gaze still turned in the direction the woman had driven. “No one sees me, Shiloh. Don’t worry about it.” A small, faintly bitter smile toyed with the corners of his full lips. Startling green eyes met his. “She’s beautiful. All pulled in on herself and trying to hide from the world.” He sat down and tucked his knees under his chin.
Shiloh rolled his shoulders against the tree behind him and regarded Foxglove thoughtfully. Of all the small fey living on Oracle Island, Foxglove was the quietest, slipping silently through crowds and more like a ghost than a resident. Not to say he was sneaky. Foxglove was just someone you forgot about almost as soon as he wasn’t around.
The slight bitterness in his tone made Shiloh aware it wasn’t something the man did on purpose. Shiloh reached out and ran a fingertip down the other man’s cheek in a fleeting caress.
Foxglove leaned into the touch, and lashes veiled his gaze as he looked down.
“I see you, Foxglove,” Shiloh said softly.
Startled green eyes locked with his. A look of yearning crossed Foxglove’s face.
“For now,” he murmured. His gaze returned to the street. “Do you think she’ll stay?” he asked wistfully. “I would like to meet her. She’s so sad. I would bring her flowers to make her smile. I want to see her smile. Really smile, not the small shadow she gives to strangers to look normal.” He ducked his head, appearing embarrassed. “If she truly smiled, I think it would be like the sun rising.”
Shiloh’s brows rose. It sounded like Foxglove was almost in love with the newcomer. Does she affect everyone like this? Do we all want to heal her?
He brushed a fingertip over Foxglove’s cheek again.
Foxglove looked up at him with a smirk. “You are interested too, aren’t you?” A crafty look spread over Foxglove’s face with his smile. “So is Dandy. I will keep that in mind.” He stood and kissed the tip of Shiloh’s finger. “I will see you later, Shiloh. I have much to think about.”
Diving off the branch, to get air under his wings, the small man flew away. Shiloh shook his head in confusion as he watched Foxglove leave. That last smile Foxglove had sent him made him a little nervous. The other man was planning something.
With a shrug he walked out of the trees. There was nothing he could do about it now. He would have to wait and see what the future brought.