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Unleashed: A Reverse Harem Shifter Urban Fantasy (Dark Moon Shifters Book 1) by Bella Jacobs (1)

Chapter 1

Wren

I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t—

Believe.

In ghosts.

Palms sweating and a sour taste rising in my throat, I stand tall, forcing a smile to my face for the next girl in the cafeteria serving line.

She has red hair and moon-glow skin just like Scarlett. But she isn’t Scarlett.

She isn’t, she isn’t, she isn’t…

This is just my virus-addled brain playing tricks on me.

I refuse to get my hopes up. I know better. After eight years and a dozen cases of mistaken identity—racing after a woman boarding a train or taking a stranger’s hand at the farmer’s market—I know my sister is never coming back to me.

Scarlett is gone. Forever.

Scarlett is dead, and I don’t believe in ghosts. Only the kooky extremists and the old hippies in our church actually believe in things that go bump in the night and exorcisms and all the rest of the crazy. The rest of the Church of Humanity movement is firmly grounded in reality and helping people come together to make a better world.

Which means not scaring away newbies to the movement by rushing up to hug them like they’re your long-lost best friend.

As the girl slides her tray closer, her blurred features come into sharper focus, revealing a forehead that’s too wide, a nose that’s too sharp, and blue eyes instead of brilliant, glittering green. She isn’t Scarlett, but the sadness dragging at her delicate features reminds me of my sister, and my throat goes tight as I ask her, “Beef stew or veggie?”

“Um…either one is fine, thanks,” she whispers, ducking her head to hide behind a shock of dirty auburn hair. “Whatever.”

“Well, I can’t get enough of the veggie. The tofu has great flavor,” I say gently, “but I’d love for you to choose. I want to make sure you get what you’d like best. Your opinion matters.”

The girl looks up sharply, suspicion blooming in her tired eyes. I smile in response, silently assuring her this isn’t a prank and I’m not being a smartass B-word. I truly care about her opinion and her preferences. I care about her and every teen who comes into the Rainier Beach C of H shelter.

After three years as an assistant coordinator, this is my shelter now. And in my shelter, every soul is precious and valued. Any staff members who thought differently were relocated when I took the reins last August. And I intend to hold on tight to those reins through this relapse and all the pain, dizziness, and exhaustion that goes with it.

I may only be able to work part-time, but the hours that I am here, I’m all in.

When Lance, one of our regulars, sighs heavily behind the new girl and grumbles, “Just pick something already,” I shoot him a gentle, but firm, look and say, “It’s fine, Lance. We’re not in any rush.” I glance back at the girl. “What’s your name, honey?” I just got here an hour ago and haven’t had time to look over the new intake forms.

“Ariel,” she mumbles, glancing nervously between Lance and me.

“Like the mermaid.” I grin. “That was my favorite cartoon when I was little. My sister has pretty red hair like yours, and she would let me brush it while we watched and sang along with all the songs.”

Ariel’s lips curve shyly. “That’s my sister’s favorite princess, too.” She blinks, her smile vanishing as quickly as it appeared. “Or, at least it was. I haven’t seen her in a couple of years. Not since my stepdad kicked me out.”

I want to hurry around the counter, pull her into my arms, and promise her things are going to be better for her from now on. She’s at a Church of Humanity Shelter, not one of the poorly funded nightmares on the east side of town. No one will hurt her here. No one will judge her. It’s finally safe for her to grieve and grow and begin to heal from all the horrible things she’s no doubt been through as a beautiful young girl living on the streets of post-Meltdown Seattle.

But I’ve learned to keep my heart off my sleeve and my touchy-feely hugging instincts in check.

A lot of the kids in my care have yet to learn the difference between touch that offers comfort and touch that makes demands—sometimes ugly demands. Until they make it clear a hug is welcome, I keep my hands to myself.

Instead I lean in and whisper confidentially, “I bet Ariel is still her favorite. Once you go mermaid, you never go back. I still have mermaid pictures on my wall and I’m a grown woman.” I cast a glance at Lance as I add with mock seriousness. “But keep that just between us, okay? Gotta keep my street cred.”

“What street cred?” Lance snorts. “It’s too late, Miss Frame. We all know you’re a hopeless cheese case by now. The secret’s out. Now give the girl some stew before she passes out.” He nudges Ariel’s arm gently with his elbow. “You’re starving, right?”

Ariel laughs softly and nods. “Yeah. I am.” She grins across the counter at me, hope cautiously creeping into her eyes. “I’ll have the beef stew, please. I’m a meat eater in a big way.”

“A girl after my own heart,” Lance booms, making Ariel laugh again as she scoots her tray down toward the dessert station. “Two servings of beef for me, please, Miss F. I’m starving after all that nature exploration shit today.”

“Language,” I admonish, but my heart isn’t in it. Lance came to us an angry street kid with two misdemeanors for drug possession and a history of taking out his frustration with life on smaller teens. After six months, he’s become a kind young man who enjoys helping the newbies at the shelter fit into our rhythms and who volunteers for campus clean up and laundry duty without being asked.

All it took to unlock his heart was for someone to show him how to turn the key. He just needed someone to care about him first, to show him he was worth it, so he could start learning how to love himself and others. It’s simultaneously so simple and so hard, and I’m so, so proud of him.

“You’re doing great, Lance.” I mound his tray with as much stew as I can fit into the main compartment on his plate. “I appreciate the light you shine around here.”

Lance’s cheeks go pink beneath his golden-brown skin as he rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, Miss F, don’t get sappy on me. Trying to play it cool in front of the new girls.”

“You know the policy on inter-shelter dating, Lance,” I remind him, arching a brow.

“Yeah, yeah.” He flashes a bright-white smile over his shoulder as he slides his tray away. “But a guy can dream. I won’t be here forever, you know.”

The words make my chest ache. It’s true. He won’t be here forever. That’s the hardest part of my job—falling in love with these kids and then seeing them go off to foster families, most often never to return.

I don’t blame them for wanting to leave the past in the past and move on with their lives, but that doesn’t keep me from missing them. From wondering where they are and wishing we could stay one big extended family.

But that’s part of my own set of mental glitches—I hate for people to leave. Too many people have left me already. First the biological mother and father I can’t remember, then my best friend, Dust, and finally my sister, the person who meant the most to me in the world. She was my hero, my protector, my playmate, and my confidante. She was everything I wanted to grow up to be, even though she never made it past the age of nineteen.

I’ve been thinking of her more than ever recently.

For a time, years after the fire, I was able to put her out of my mind for days, sometimes even weeks, and go about my life.

But now…

Now my health is failing the same ways hers failed.

Now there are days when I can’t get out of bed, the agony burning through my bones is so bad.

There are moments—flashes of despair—in which I consider taking a few too many steps at the edge of the train platform. I don’t want to die, but I don’t know how much longer I can live with the pain, the weakness, the uncertainty of whether I will ever go back into remission.

The virus my drug-addict bio-mom caught from a dirty needle and passed on to both of her daughters is a Meltdown disease, one of the many exotic new autoimmune viruses that oozed out of the polar ice caps as they melted to near nothingness in the years before I was born. Researchers and scientists are working as fast as they can to find cures for the Devour virus and the other diseases plaguing humanity, but a cure is still decades away.

I won’t live to see it. Not unless there’s a miracle.

There are days when that’s okay with me, when I’m grateful that there will soon be a day when I won’t have to drag my body out of bed, stuff my mouth full of ten different kinds of meds, and fight to pass as a normal, functional adult anymore.

And then there are days like today, when I look out at a cafeteria filled with once hopeless kids, now laughing and chatting and eating with the gusto of healthy people who need fuel for all the big things they’re going to do with their lives, and I pray for another year.

Two.

Three or more—if somehow my body can be convinced to stop attacking itself.

“We good to close the line, boss?” a voice rumbles softly from beside me, making my cheeks heat.

That’s what he does to me, this man who is another reason I would like to stick around a little longer. Long enough to see what having a steady boyfriend might be like, maybe…

Or at least long enough to see if Kite’s kisses are as lovely as the hugs he gives me every evening as we say goodbye and head for our separate train stops.

“Yeah, let’s close up.” I turn, smiling up at him as whips off his hairnet with a relieved sigh, setting his long, glossy black hair free to stream around his broad shoulders. “Aw, poor Kite,” I tease. “I’m telling you, you’re pulling off the hairnet. It’s a solid look for you. You should take a selfie.”

His rich brown eyes narrow on mine. “Very funny, Bird Girl,” he says, the nickname making me grin even wider. “Are we saving the peach cobbler, or can I pack up what’s left for the staff?”

I glance over at the warming pan to see only a few inches of untouched cobbler. “Go ahead and wrap it up for the staff. You’re going to make Carrie Ann’s day. She lives for an excuse to have dessert for breakfast.”

“Amen!” Carrie Ann, my right-hand woman, cruises by with an arm full of dirty salad bar dishes bound for the kitchen. Her blond bob is still safely secured under her hairnet and her face is makeup free, but she looks as adorable, a real-life pixie with a mischievous grin that always lifts my spirits. She flashes it now as she says, “Make mine a big one, Kite. My legs are jelly from that hike around the bay. I need sugar to restore me. Lots of it.”

I keep my grin in place, refusing to feel envious of my friend or the others who were able to make the hike around the new beach line today, exploring the places where the rising ocean has intruded and where Seattle’s manmade barriers to the overflow are holding strong.

Yes, I would have loved to spend hours out in nature with Kite, absorbing his teachings on native flora and fauna, interspersed with the always fascinating stories passed down from his grandfather—former chief of the Samish Indian Nation—but I learned a long time ago not to waste energy feeling sorry for myself.

Besides, Kite will fill me in on our way to the train. He always does. My newest hire is not only a gentle giant with a heart of gold and a knack for winning over even the surliest street kid, he’s also patient, generous, and thoughtful.

And gorgeous, a wayward voice whispers in my head.

I avert my gaze, pretending great interest in the chafing dishes as Carrie swoops in to grab the empty green bean container near my elbow. I’m not ready to let Kite see how much appreciation I have for his sculpted features, silky hair, and big, burly, and completely snuggle-perfect body. I have as many fantasies about curling up in Kite’s arms and going to sleep with my head on his chest as I do about other, racier things. Maybe it’s a side effect of being so tired all the time—nap fantasies are totally a thing for sicklies like me—but I don’t think so.

I think it’s a side effect of him being absolutely adorable.

“You need vegetables,” Kite calls after Carrie as she scoffs and continues about her business. “For a grown woman, you’re eating habits are shameful.”

“Good thing I’m not done growing yet,” Carrie Ann shoots back as the kitchen door swings closed behind her.

Kite turns to me with a sigh. “Someone needs to teach that girl the basics of good nutrition.”

“I’ve tried,” I say, turning off the warmers beneath the stew. “But she’s set in her ways. Sugar, caffeine, and sliced deli meat are her three basic food groups. Maybe she’ll rethink things when she’s older. She’s only twenty; she has time.” I reach for the edges of the chafing dish, engaging my abs as I prepare to lift the metal container. It’s half empty and can’t weigh more than ten pounds, but I still struggle to work it free, sweat breaking out in the valley of my spine as I slide it to the edge of the counter.

“Here, let me.” Before I can protest, Kite claims the meat dish in one hand and lifts the leftover tofu stew free with the other, making it all look as effortless as plucking a couple of summer cherries out of a bowl.

“I could have done it,” I say, but Kite is already headed toward the kitchen.

“Just wipe down the serving line, boss,” he calls back. “Let your minions take care of the heavy lifting.”

He’s clearly trying to dismiss my struggle with a joke, but it isn’t funny. It’s demoralizing, and the way my arms are trembling as I finish cleaning the serving line is enough to make me want to grind my teeth in frustration.

By the time Carrie Ann sidles up beside me, clutching her Tupperware container of cobbler, I’m fighting tears.

Like the sweetheart she is, she puts a hand on my back and reminds me, “You don’t have to do any of this, you know. Kite, the others, and I are happy to do the grunt work.”

I shake my head. “But I hate that. I feel like such a diva.”

“Oh, please.” Carrie laughs her bright, musical laugh, making a few of the kids seated nearby glance our way with smiles instinctively curving their lips.

That’s what Carrie’s laugh does to people, and one of the many reasons she’s the best choice for my replacement when the time comes. Other people have more education and fancier degrees, but Carrie is an upbeat force of nature who lifts the spirits of everyone she meets.

And she knows exactly where these kids are coming from. Just four years ago, Carrie was one of them, one of the shattered souls that ended up on our doorstep after the rough streets of Seattle chewed her up and spit her out. But, lucky me, this time one of the new friends I’d made stuck around to join our crew on a more permanent basis.

“You’re the farthest thing in the world from a diva,” Carrie continues, gazing up at me. “You’re the hardest working woman I know. And we need your brain and your heart more than we need your muscles. Seriously, when you come in tomorrow, sit your ass down in your office and give your energy to your counseling sessions. That’s where you work the magic. Anyone can man the serving line, Wren—even Kite, though he clearly was never taught how to properly clean up after himself.”

“I heard that,” Kite calls from the bowels of the kitchen. “It’s not my fault I have six older sisters who never let me in the kitchen.”

Carrie rolls her eyes as she leans in to whisper, “Six older sisters. Can you imagine? I bet they used him as a dress-up doll when he was little.”

“I heard that, too,” Kite says, proving his hearing really is something extraordinary. “And no, they didn’t, but I did have to wear their clothes until I was too big to fit into them.” He emerges from the kitchen, two containers of cobbler held lightly in one hand. “My mother couldn’t see the point in wasting good money on boy clothes since I was the last baby on the docket.”

Carrie giggles, and I smile as I say, “Aw. I would pay good money to see those baby pictures. You in ruffles.”

“Stay on my good side, and I’ll show them to you for free someday,” he says with a wink that sends warmth flooding through my chest. He turns to Carrie with a mock glare and adds, “But not you, Trouble. I’d never hear the end of it from you.”

“Correct,” Carrie cheerfully agrees, pressing up onto tiptoe to peck my cheek. “See you tomorrow, Sunshine. Text me if you want to chat later. I’m just hanging at home tonight, hiding from my miserable roommates and the cockroaches. No money to go catch a band until next payday.”

“Will do. Get home safe,” I say, sweet anticipation dumping into my bloodstream as she departs, leaving me alone with Kite.

It’s my favorite time of the day, the fifteen minutes it takes to walk to the place where our paths diverge on the way to our separate train stations. I look forward to it from the moment my eyes creak open in the morning.

There are days, when I wake up aching and feverish in a nest of sweaty covers and roll over to be sick in the bucket by my nightstand, when this walk is the only thing that gets me out of bed. This walk is the lifeline I cling to as I force my throbbing joints into the shower to sit on the stool Mom bought for me a few months ago when she realized I no longer had the strength to stand under the stream until my meds had kicked in.

Unless something changes, there will come a day—a day not far from this one—when I will no longer have the strength to make this walk, either. But it isn’t today. Today I am still alive and upright, and my meds are holding the pain at bay enough for me to enjoy the way my blood pumps faster as Kite rests a warm hand on my shoulder and asks, “You ready, boss lady?”

I nod, beaming up at him. “I am. Just let me grab my jacket and I’ll meet you out front.”

I make my way slowly to my office, conserving my energy, wanting to save it all for the walk through the misty spring afternoon with Kite.

I may not have many afternoons like these left, but that isn’t a reason for sadness. It’s a reason to savor, to treasure, to soak up every minute of sweetness and pack it away for a day when I’ll need good memories more than ever.

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