"Supernatural badasses united in romance and against evil..."
Reviewed by Monique Daoust
Posted September 13, 2018
Fantasy, bear shifters, and a whole lot of magic is what you get in the
appropriately titled THE SECRET SHE
KEEPS. These four long novellas can be read in any order, as they
are not interconnected.
SHADOW OF TRUTH by Shannon K. Butcher
What if your childhood imaginary friend was real? That's what video
game designer Winnifred Archer finds out when she meets Garet
Hartwell. SHADOW OF TRUTH is a fast-paced, action-packed fantasy,
and the author's vivid descriptions fill the pages with vibrant images.
Shannon K. Butcher clearly and concisely establishes her world, and I
was immediately sucked in even though fantasy is not usually my thing.
The romance is based on the fated mates concept; Garet and
Winnifred's relationship seems more of a lust-fueled partnership to
unite their forces against evil than true love, but they certainly have
sexual chemistry to spare!
BAD ASS BEAR by Kathy Lyons
She loves him, he loves her, so what's stopping them? Boy, are you in
for a treat! Now I know for a fact that Kathy Lyons is my favourite
shifter romance author! BAD ASS BEAR reads like a complete
standalone, while still tied to the Grizzlies Gone Wild series. Not one to
shy away from complex situations, Ms. Lyons surprised me again in
tackling some interesting issues, therefore lifting shifter romance yet to
another level. BAD ASS BEAR is intense, emotional, tender, and
completely mind-blowing where the conflict is concerned. There are
some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments, and the banter between
Gary and Margaret is priceless! Kathy Lyons never ceases to awe me
with her boundless creativity, always taking things just a little further
than anyone else, and in such a flawless fashion.
Gary and Margaret are both wonderful characters; their relationship
from the start is so loving and feels so authentic. It was truly gratifying
to watch the romance unfold; they are so attuned to each other, they
really care. Two very different difficult situations are handled very
realistically, and one is truly scary. Some secondary characters are
simply wonderful: Gary's father, Ray, and the unflappable Vic. And BAD
ASS BEAR is so beautifully written, it's all so awesome. Kathy Lyons has
cornered the market on intelligent shifter romances.
NOWHERE TO HIDE by Terri L. Austin
After three years on the run, Hailey Evans knew that someone was
watching her, but this time it wasn't her enemies: Vane Aldridge, a
sorcerer and telekinetic, is on her side. It takes some serious writing
skills to parachute a reader into an unknown world and make it seem
instantly familiar. The foreboding atmosphere, stunning visuals, and
clever dialogues contribute to make this novella a smashing success. I
loved Hailey's voice and spirit, and Vane was just as impressive. I tend
to shun magic-themed stories because I feel authors often underuse
what lies at their disposition, which is not the case here. Ms. Austin's
world is exciting, the magic intriguing, and the romance is delightful
and entirely believable precisely because of the author's terrific use of
the characters' supernatural powers. NOWHERE TO HIDE is absolutely
SHARDS OF LIGHT by Anna Argent
SHARDS OF LIGHT was a bit of a letdown following the fireworks of the
previous stories. I felt too much time was spent on talking, reminiscing
about the past, and basically being in Dex and Lark's heads. It felt very
static, there was precious little action per se until the very end.
SHARDS OF LIGHT felt either as a prequel or the first installment of a
series in establishing the world and introducing various characters. The
magical concept is interesting, the villain quite innovative, the author
descriptions shine throughout, but the slower pace clashed with the
other three stories, and left me a tad deflated.
The beauty of anthologies such as this one is having yet another story
by a favorite author, in my case Kathy Lyons with yet another
outstanding story, and discovering new authors. I consider THE SECRET SHE KEEPS a winner
because I discovered Terri L. Austin's exceptional talent in a genre that
is often a miss for me.
Four novellas filled with passion, magic and deep, dark
Shadow of Truth by Shannon K. Butcher
Socially awkward nerd and video game designer Winnifred
Archer has a rich fantasy life. So, when a badass,
sword-wielding warrior decides he wants her, she’s not sure
whether or not he’s real. She’s not equipped her to handle
man like him, or the things he wants from her, but she must
find a way to face her fears and fight by his side or she
will lose everyone she loves.
Bad Ass Bear by Kathy Lyons
Hiding from the secret that ended her last relationship,
flight attendant Margaret Taylor settled for the next best
thing to love: a friends-only status with her handsome,
paraplegic neighbor, Gary Baldner. But Gary has a secret,
too. It’s about to break free, upend their worlds, and
them both perfect happiness.
Nowhere to Hide by Terri L. Austin
Running for her life, Hailey managed to escape from the
psychotic billionaire who imprisoned and tortured her. Now
using her secret clairvoyant powers, she’s trying to stay
one step ahead of certain death. Sexy sorcerer, Vane, has a
duty to take down Hailey’s enemy, even if it means using
Shards of Light by Anna Argent
When Lark witnesses a bizarre murder, a decade-old secret
resurfaces and forces her to find her old flame. Dex is no
longer the easygoing guy she knew. He’s dark, deadly and
involved with a secret society that believes magic is real
and hunts down those who abuse it. As their passion
reignites, Dex must find a way to keep the darkness in his
life from touching Lark or he will end up just like the
things he hunts.
ExcerptShards of Light by Anna Argent
November 16, Oklahoma City
For the last ten years Dex Hamilton had dreamed about
seeing his childhood friend again, but not like this. Never
Lark Florence stood on his doorstep, dripping wet,
shivering and terrified. His porch light shone down on her,
gleaming over limp, wet hair. Her bright copper-colored
eyes were wide with fear and rimmed with black where her
rain-soaked mascara had run. With another woman he would
have guessed she’d also been crying, but the Lark he’d
known never cried. Period.
She’d lost her freckles since he’d last seen her, but her
sweet, heart-shaped face and deeply-indented upper lip were
still the same. Age had carved her features into more
elegant lines and her body into fuller curves—curves that
even when immature had left him panting with lust at the
tender age of seventeen. Then again, at that age, pretty
much everything had turned him on, even the rounded
contours of his video game controller.
She wasn’t any taller now than she’d been as a teen, but he
was. He’d come into his size late in his teens and early
twenties, now towering over most people. It was strange to
be staring down at her when for so long they’d been on the
same eye level.
He was so shocked to see her appear out of nowhere on his
doorstep after all these years that all he could do was
stare. He worried that if he so much as blinked, she’d
disappear like some kind of cruel trick of the eyes.
“Lark?” Her name came out as a question, though he hadn’t
intended it to. He knew who she was. How could he not?
They’d been inseparable until that last night ten years
Some days he still ached from the loss of her presence in
She struggled with a smile. It flickered across her full
mouth before dying a swift death. Her voice trembled
slightly. “I know I shouldn’t have shown up without
calling, but I didn’t have your number.”
“How did you find me?” he asked. Not that it mattered. All
that mattered was that she had found him.
“I got your address from public real estate records.”
Outside his small, warm home, cold rain continued to fall
from the night sky. The paved road was glossy, reflecting
the streetlights in warm, golden swaths of color. A white
Nissan sat at the curb, its headlights still glowing.
Had she left it running? Was she going to disappear from
his life for another ten years?
A surge of denial burst through him. He’d known he missed
her, but hadn’t realized just how much until now, when she
was once again close enough to touch.
They’d been kids together. Their moms had been best
friends. When he was thirteen his family had moved into the
house next door to hers. They’d been thrust into each
other’s lives on an almost daily basis. Weekly dinners,
back yard barbeques, holiday gatherings. He’d been taught
to look out for her, protect her, and that instinct had
never quite faded, as if it had somehow been imbedded in
That, in a nutshell, was why he hadn’t spoken to her in ten
long years. The only thing that had the power to keep him
away was the certain knowledge that wherever he went,
danger was always right on his heels. He couldn’t bring
that into her life, so he’d kept his distance. For her.
And now? he asked himself.
He couldn’t let her get away again—not until he at least
had a way to contact her. Talk to her. How dangerous could
a phone call be?
The bleak answer to that question swirled in the back of
his mind, but he shoved it down until he could ignore it.
Their time together had ended in abrupt tragedy, but even
while drowning in shock and grief, he’d missed her. He’d
ached to reach out, to respond to her email messages and
texts, but it had been against the rules. No outside
contact. It wasn’t safe. Powerful, dangerous people were
Dex was a grown man now, and while he still worked with the
group that had saved his life all those years ago, he was
no longer a child to be controlled by them.
Lark was in trouble now. He could see it in her face, in
her pretty copper-colored eyes, and damn if all those old
protective instincts didn’t roar back to life from the mere
sight of her.
Whatever her problem, he was going to fix it. Kill it.
Destroy it. Even the idea of doing so gave him a rush of
strength and made the ancient fragments of magic he carried
shiver in anticipation.
A gust of wind slipped through the open door, reminding him
that she was wet and cold—something else he was going to
He stepped back out of the way. “Come in out of the rain.”
Lark glanced over her shoulder to check behind her as if
she feared someone might see her. The quiet street was
empty. His neighbors were all inside, tucked away from the
storm. Their windows glowed with light. A shadow crossed
the curtains of Mrs. Neimyers’s living room.
No dogs barked out a warning. Everything was quiet except
for the patter of rain.
She stepped through his front door just enough for him to
close it behind her. Water dripped from her clothes into
the utilitarian rug he kept in his entryway. Her eyes
darted around his home, taking in his sparse furnishings
and his casual, second-hand, garage sale style.
He’d never really cared much about how the place looked as
long as it was clean and functional. His job kept him busy
and showed him just how big a place the world really was—
how many things there were to worry about beside a trendy
décor. But now, watching her study his home, he felt a pang
Had Lark become judgmental in the years that had passed?
Would she look down on him for his lack of color and style?
The old Lark never would have cared, but this one? He had
no idea if she’d changed, or how much.
“Take off your coat,” he said. “I’ll grab you a towel.”
“It’s okay. I can’t stay long. I just had to…” She shivered
again as she trailed off, though he could no longer say for
sure if it was from cold or whatever was scaring her enough
to show up on his doorstep at night after such a long
Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
“Don’t you dare move,” he said, his tone the same hard
crack of sound he used to train those who were new to their
powers. “I’ll be right back.”
He raced down the short hall to the linen closet and pulled
out the biggest, fluffiest towel he owned.
She was still there when he came back ten seconds later,
and for some reason, seeing her there, dripping on his rug,
surprised him all over again.
She was beautiful. She’d always been pretty, but she’d
grown way past that now. Even with drenched hair and
dripping makeup, she was stunning. All he wanted to do was
wrap her in his arms and never let go. It was the only way
to be sure she was safe.
Dex handed her the towel. “Dry off. I’ll make you some hot
tea and we can talk while you warm up. Do you want some dry
clothes? I could throw yours in the dryer.”
She shook her head slightly as she rubbed the towel over
her wet hair. The blond curls he remembered came bouncing
back to life as the strands were freed of the wet weight
holding them down. She scrubbed off the rain with quick,
efficient movements, but still didn’t take off her coat.
“I won’t be here that long.”
He led her to the kitchen, which was set at the back of the
house. The original wooden floors creaked in protest
underfoot—loud for him and softer for her.
He flipped on the lights, and the space was flooded with
bright, white light. He’d grown tired of the flickering,
yellow fluorescent fixture and had replaced it a few months
ago. Sadly, the change had only managed to highlight just
how much work this space still needed.
Like the rest of the house, the room was clean, but dated.
The tile backsplash had been the height of fashion in the
seventies, with avocado green accents tucked randomly
inside the brown tiles. The grout was cracked with age. The
laminate counters had been upgraded sometime in the
nineties, but they were now scuffed, burned and bubbling in
A small table big enough for only two chairs sat next to
the back door. His mail was piled there, along with his
wallet, keys and one of his handguns.
Lark eyed the gun, but rather than shock or fear on her
face, her expression was one of relief.
“Do you know how to use it?” she asked.
“I do,” he said, unwilling to brag about his excellent
“Is it loaded?”
“Always. It’s not much use without bullets.” And in his
experience, the bad guys never did seem to be willing to
wait for him to load it.
“Good.” She nodded once and pulled in a deep breath.
“Because I think you’re in danger.”
For the second time in less than five minutes, Lark
Florence had shocked the hell out of him—not because she’d
said he was in danger. That was a lifestyle for him. No,
what shocked him was that she knew about it.
She wasn’t supposed to know. No one was.
Dex filled a kettle with water. Without looking at her, he
casually asked. “What makes you say that?”
“Do you have coffee?” she asked.
“Sure. Do you want some?” She’d been a tea-drinker when
they were kids, but things had changed since then.
She cleared her throat. Her voice was filled with fatigue.
“I haven’t slept in a while. I could use a jolt before I
get back behind the wheel.”
He wanted to ask her what had kept her awake, but it wasn’t
time for that. At least not yet. Her showing up, afraid of
something was the first mystery he had to solve. Everything
else was going to have to get in line after that.
He couldn’t destroy a threat if he didn’t know what it was.
He started a pot of coffee and hovered on the far side of
the room. A man his size had to be careful not to get too
close. People often felt threatened or intimidated by his
height and build. Sometimes it was handy, and sometimes
not. Fear was the last thing he wanted for Lark.
She didn’t know him anymore. Not really. Just like he
didn’t know her.
He kept his voice soft, casual. “Why are you here, Lark? I
mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to see you, but I
can’t say it was expected.”
She lowered her gaze to the gun. The towel was wrapped
around her upper body, gripped at her chest like a
“I saw something,” she said. Her eyes closed. She shook her
head as if trying to convince herself that whatever she’d
seen wasn’t real.
“What did you see?”
She swallowed once, twice.
Dex waited for her to gather her words. Behind him the
coffee pot hissed and sputtered to fill the kitchen with
the confusing scent of morning in the middle of the night.
“Murder,” she whispered.
Dex straightened. Every instinct in his body was pulled
taut, tuned to her. “When? Tonight?”
“Did you report it to the police?”
Her copper gaze met his, and for a moment, the rest of the
world fell away. There was so much fear there. So much
What had she done to make her carry that guilt? It seemed
like too much for her slender frame to bear.
“No,” she said, her voice still low, ashamed.
“Why not?” No accusation, just curiosity. Deep curiosity.
She’d always been so uptight about the rules, so lawful. To
fail to report a murder was not like the Lark he knew at
She averted her gaze again, this time going to the floor
instead of his weapon. It struck him that he wasn’t nervous
to have her so close to an efficient means to kill him.
With anyone else, he’d have already retrieved his handgun
and tucked it close to his body for safekeeping—even people
In his world, you couldn’t trust anyone. Not even your
friends. People changed, sometimes fast.
Had Lark? Had she gone from a sweet, loving girl to a woman
hard enough to gun him down in cold blood with his own
It wasn’t out of the question.
“The murder,” she started, hesitant and halting, “wasn’t
the usual sort. It was…different. Unbelievable.”
His body tensed as if a battering ram was headed right for
his balls. He’d seen enough to know just how unbelievable
the world could get.
Magic was real. Monsters were real. Sure, most of them wore
human skin, but they were still monsters nonetheless.
“What do you mean?” he forced himself to ask.
He didn’t want her to say what he thought she was about to
say. He didn’t want her anywhere near his fucked-up world.
She was supposed to be out there, safe and living a happy,
normal life, not wrapped up in magic and shards and death.
He’d deprived himself of her presence all these years so
she would be safe.
“The woman,” she said. “The victim. She wasn’t shot or
strangled. She wasn’t beaten or poisoned.”
“What happened to her?”
Lark looked up at him then, her gaze connecting to his so
tightly there was no means for him to escape.
“All the man did was touch her.” Lark lifted her hands to
her temples and pressed them there to demonstrate. “Like
Dex went cold. Old memories roiled beneath the surface,
threatening to spill out and cloud his thoughts. He forced
them back down with a hard shove and an inaudible growl.
His shards—the fragments of ancient, powerful souls he
carried—shifted along the back of his skull. He could feel
their agitation, their interest. Some of the darker shards
practically vibrated with excitement.
They wanted all the gruesome details. They wanted to lap
them up like sweet cream and savor them.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Lark stared past him like she was witnessing the event all
over again. She shook her head as if in disbelief. “The
news said she died of a massive brain aneurism.” Her gaze
met his. “Just like…”
She didn’t have to finish. He knew.
Before Dex realized what he was doing, he’d crossed the
room and had pulled her to her feet by her shoulders.
Her eyes were wide. Her fingers were clenched around the
towel, her knuckles white. Her body trembled beneath his
“Did you see the killer?” Dex demanded.
Lark nodded, but the movement was so tight, he wasn’t sure
it had been voluntary.
“Did you see him?” he asked again, louder this time,
harder. It took every ounce of willpower he had not to
shake the answer out of her.
“I did,” she said, guilt clear in her tone. “And there’s
something else. Something I should have told you ten years
ago. Something that’s haunted me every day since that last
night we were together.”
“What?” He did shake her this time, slightly. If he didn’t
find a way to calm down, he was going to hurt her.
Thanks to his shards, he was strong—too strong for delicate
bones and soft skin.
“The man I saw last week,” she said. “I’ve seen him
“When?” he asked, though he was certain he knew the answer.
“Ten years ago.” Guilt flared brighter in her eyes, easy to
read. “He was the man who killed your parents.”
Dex went numb. Rage billowed just beneath the surface, but
he held it firmly in check. Numb was better. Safer. Numb
meant he could still function. He could fight. Kill. Numb
had saved his ass more times than he could remember.
He shoved everything down until he could no longer feel it.
He could barely breathe now, but that was better than the
When he got like this—when his darker shards took hold—it
was far too easy to kill.
He loosened his grip on Lark’s arms. She’d gone up on
tiptoe inside his hold but now sank back down to her normal
With slow, methodical care, he embraced the cold numbness.
He turned away from her, took two mugs from the cabinet and
filled them with coffee. He carried the dark brew to the
table. Rings rippled across the surface, revealing unseen
tremors racing through his body.
He was furious at her for keeping this secret from him. He
was excited that the man he’d been hunting for a decade had
finally resurfaced. But mostly, he was terrified that she’d
put herself in danger—the kind of danger no normal human
was capable of facing alone.
None of those emotions reached him fully, none showed in
his expression as he calmly sat down and slid Lark’s coffee
across the old table.
Go numb. Stay numb. Do your job.
She gripped the mug in her hands as if to warm them. Steam
curled up from the surface. She inhaled it but didn’t
Too hot? Or was it not to her taste?
Maybe she was simply stalling.
Dex picked up his Sig and slid it into the back of his
jeans. He was back on the clock now, sitting across from a
woman who might or might not be the person he remembered.
Through the thick fog of numbness, one thought surfaced
clear and bright. Whoever she was now, he prayed he wasn’t
going to have to kill her.
Shadow of Truth by Shannon K. Butcher
The imaginary friend Winnifred Archer had summoned when she
was a stone cold badass, and the guy standing in line for
“What are you staring at?” asked Calista Bijou, her best
first day of high school. They’d been inseparable for the
roommates and business partners—and Winni couldn’t imagine life
Calista was model-tall, with long, blond hair that never
two figure, stunning features every camera loved, and eyes
faceted emeralds. Winni—being the socially awkward, physically
athletically challenged nerd she was—would have hated her on
for her sweet personality, amazing artistic talent, and fierce
lucky enough to call her friend.
Winni’s favorite coffee shop, Bean There, was busy today.
stuffed full of people seeking a late afternoon caffeine boost.
from the nearby campus filled half the seats, studying or
wi-fi. Two middle-aged women sat with their heads bent close
their first children’s book with animated glee. A trio of
filled the table closest to the door. A thick stack of legal
being passed around with many frowns and a few stinging curses.
A gray-haired woman at the next table scowled at their
her headphones with enough anger, she practically scraped
clip-on earrings in the process.
The smell of coffee and freshly baked cookies filled the
and celery from the savory soup of the day. While the menu’s
and changed frequently, everything was tasty and made with
than hydrogenated corn syrup and genetically modified petroleum
The whole space was humming with activity and promise, as if
sweet, dark, bitter whatever held a little drop of magic.
“See that guy?” Winni whispered. She nodded to the giant Viking
lookalike who towered over the rest of the people in line at
He was well over six feet tall, with massive shoulders and a
with seven kinds of muscles. Even under his casual jeans and
see bulging ripples of strength that couldn’t be hidden by
thighs pressed against the denim that strained to contain
to cover up that much sexy had left the threads faded and worn.
From her table in the corner, Winni only had a view of the
what she could see of it was as angular and bold as the rest
wide jaw, broad forehead, and a deep dimple in his chin. As
slightly to greet the cashier, Winni caught a glimpse of
glittering beneath a heavy brow.
All he needed was a sword and long, braided beard, and his
would be complete.
His gaze caught hers and held it for a second. He offered
her a slow,
smile. It was easy and warm, like they’d been friends for
she’d never met him. If she had, she would definitely have
Winni’s heart rate kicked up. The air in her lungs seemed to
throat was too tight to let out a breath. Every cell in her
quivering, but she couldn’t tell if it was because they
wanted her to
or get closer.
Much, much closer.
Was she supposed to smile back? She didn’t think she could
mouth hanging open like it was. Of course, a man who looked
used to women gawking at him. She just hoped she wasn’t
She tried to grin, but her face felt numb. Her brain—which was
capable of accomplishing any task that faced her—seemed to be
old record stuck in a deep groove. She couldn’t remember how to
if she should.
Calista’s gaze flicked up to the man, before dismissing him
tablet and her current project. “How could I miss him? He's
It was his turn to order. He finally looked away, breaking
breathtaking male appeal had on Winni. She’d seen plenty of
before had one drawn her in and put a choke-hold like that
Maybe because she felt like she knew him.
It took Winni three tries, but she finally managed to get
looks just like Bumpy.”
Calista peered at him again, narrowing her eyes in scrutiny.
He’s even got the necklace. Maybe he’s a fan and heard you
“No,” Winni said. “You don’t understand. He looks exactly
Calista gave her a stunning smile. “I hate to break it to
imaginary friends are called that because they’re not real.
guy his age be your beloved Bumpy? Even if you’d seen him in
were four and turned him into your mental playmate, he would
kid then. That man can’t be out of his twenties yet. Thirty
good care of himself.”
He definitely did that. His physique was amazing, likely
a gym than not every day.
Normally, Winni would have overlooked a man like that as having
priorities. She much preferred men who developed their
than their bodies. Besides, she was no paragon of physical
Men like the guy in line would only be interested in women
Calista—perfect, thin and toned.
Maybe that smile he’d given her hadn’t been meant for Winni
aimed it at Calista, but his male magnetism had drawn her in
and made her think it was all about her.
“You should go talk to him,” Winni said, though a tiny spark
as she said the words. “I think he’s into you.”
Callista blew out a scoffing breath. “Pfft. No thanks. I
on half the photo shoots I do. I am sick of hearing about
workout regimens and what part of their cycle they’re in.”
“They can’t stay cut all the time, so they gain and lose fat
Photographers have to time their photoshoots accordingly, so
of guys who rotate in and out.”
The bizarre concept gave Winni something to think about
her Bumpy’s doppelganger had gotten his food and was now
He was even more amazing from the front—all intriguing
like some kind of rock formation tourists from all over the
see. The closer he got, the bigger he looked, until he was
table, tray in hand.
“Mind if I share your table?” he asked with a charming grin.
and I don’t see any empty tables.”
Winni opened her mouth, but only a squeak came out.
Calista saved the day by filling the awkward silence. “Are
A flickering frown crossed his handsome face for a second.
realize you’re famous. No autographs required. I’m just here
Calista moved her purse so there was room for him to slide
directly across from Winni, who still hadn’t regained the
She peered over the screen of her laptop, wishing she could
and disappear. It had been a long time since she’d been
in front of a man—so long that the subjects of her
at the time.
This guy was all man. And then some.
Bumpy’s doppelganger took the lid off his coffee to let it
famous?” he asked Calista.
“Not me. This is the amazing Winnifred Archer. She’s the
game, Shadow of Truth. I thought you might be one of her
Winni blushed at the attention. She was used to nerdy folk
approaching her, but never anyone like this man.
His bright teal gaze caught hers, and everything in her went
neuron fired. She didn’t breathe or blink. All she could do
like he was the long lost missing piece of a years-old puzzle.
“Is that so?” he asked, his voice deep and warm. “I’ve never
game designer before. I’m Garet. It’s nice to meet you.”
He held out a hand. Calluses graced the pads of his palm,
than the rest of his supple skin. His hand was so wide and
sure if it was real. And even if it was, she had no clue
what she was
to do with something of that epic scale. She certainly
“Uh,” was all she managed, followed by a wet gurgling noise she
or identify as any known means of communication.
Calista kicked her under the table, then shook his hand so
as not to
hanging. “Sorry, Garet. We don’t touch the talent,” she said,
Winni’s total lack of cool.
Her lungs were so starved for air, they finally took over
start breathing again.
She was certain her face had to be red from lack of oxygen,
trust that her hands wouldn’t shake if she lifted them from her
Whoever this man was, he packed one hell of a punch, leaving
“What’s your game about?” Garet asked Winni. His long
sandwich, making it look like child’s sized, rather than the
layered concoction it was.
“Fighting and stuff,” Winni wheezed. “Monsters. Swords. Magic.”
Calista patted Winni’s thigh under the table as if to sooth
the conversation. “Winni’s game is the story of Princess
her search for her lost love, Sir Starkadhr. He was cursed
alone in darkness by the evil one-horned demon who wanted the
himself, but she refuses to give up her quest to find her
“Calista does most of the artwork,” Winni finally managed,
complete, coherent sentence. “She draws the characters
exactly like I
It’s a gift.”
Rather than turn his gaze to the only beautiful woman at the
continued to look at Winni. “But the story idea was yours?”
She gave him a tight, fast nod that made her head spin. “You
“Really?” His tone was one of amused curiosity. “Can I see?”
Calista tapped on her tablet, then turned it around to show
Starkadhr—the character for which Winni’s imaginary friend
The drawing was of a muscular man in tattered pants, holding a
sword. His long blond hair flared behind him as if a breeze
shimmering strands. An iridescent band filled with a hundred
circled his throat, clinging to the contours as if it
His bare, bulging chest was covered in a large tattoo of a
tree, along with more than one scar he’d earned in glorious
dark, evil monsters.
This was how Bumpy had appeared to Winni the night of her
formed and seared in her mind. This was the image that
flared to life
Winni had been afraid or lonely. This digital picture,
lifelike as the one in Winni’s head, was as close as Calista
capturing the raw essence of Bumpy’s power. It was the first
before she opened her eyes in the morning, and the last one
she laid down to sleep every night.
He was her constant, unwavering companion, long past the
shed their childhood crutch and stopped believing in what
His blond brows shot up. “Wow. I really do look like him.”
Calista nodded. “He’s based on Winni’s childhood imaginary
He grinned at the childish name. “Bumpy?”
“He appeared to me when I was little,” Winni said as she
of big muscles, but I didn’t know what to call them. I just
lots of bumps. Thus, Bumpy.”
All signs of humor fled his expression. “Appeared? In person?”
The answer seemed so important to him, she couldn’t help but
just a figment of my overactive imagination.” And deep
Not that she’d say that part. She’d never told anyone what had
night. Not even Calista, who she loved and trusted more than
“How old were you when Bumpy appeared?” he asked. His tone was
focus on her intensified, as if the answer was important.
Why had she told him that? It wasn’t like her at all to
blurt out her
secrets to complete strangers. No one but Calista knew about
friend—that she still had one at the ripe old age of
time he should have faded out of existence.
“Just a baby,” he said, his tone one of deep speculation.
Winni drained her coffee cup as an excuse to avoid his gaze.
She was such a spaz. Why didn’t he just finish his sandwich
Surely there were at least ten other women in here who would
After a couple of bites, his intensity seemed to fade,
casual, easygoing vibe he had about him. “What’s the deal
Winni had talked about her game more times than she could
managed to string together a few coherent answers to
on a panel in front of a crowd at the last ComicCon. Surely,
in front of five hundred people, she could answer the
man—even one of galactic proportions.
“It shows the passage of time in the game. If the princess
Starkadhr before the last leaf falls, then he dies and the
“Sounds harsh,” he said.
“It is,” Winni said. “It takes most gamers months to figure
from the one-horned demon before he’s devoured.”
“Devoured? Not just killed?”
“The monsters in my world feed on the blood of descendants
beings. Starkadhr is one of those people.”
“And Princess Pellonia? Is she one of those people as well?”
“Of course,” Winni said. “Why else would the one-horned
Garet’s gaze flicked to Calista. “Do you have any drawings
She pulled up the artwork for the cover of the upcoming sequel,
II, and showed it to him.
He studied it with a look of disappointment.
“What’s wrong?” Winni finally asked.
“I thought she’d look like you. Too bad.”
Winni let out a laugh that was the mutated offspring of a
snort and a
“If Princess Pellonia Pendragon looked like me, no one would
“I would,” he said, completely serious.
Silence reigned over the table—the long, awkward kind that
clamp her fingers into fists.
“Do you want a refill?” Calista asked as she took Winni’s
away before she could get an answer.
The move left her completely alone with the giant Viking who
tingle—especially her most sensitive areas, even the
He finished off his sandwich, wiped his mouth, then leaned
The whole time, she stared at him because she couldn’t help
made reminded her more and more of the imaginary companion
Finally, after a long moment of studying her, he asked, “Are
“You make me feel funny,” she said.
Oh, hell. Had she really admitted that?
Humiliation heated her cheeks.
At least she hadn’t added in my swimsuit area on the end. If
embarrassment would have been fatal.
He laughed, but it wasn’t the cold, scoffing laugh she was
saw themselves as too good for her. Instead, it was a warm,
like she’d made a joke.
Maybe he was too dumb to realize just how socially awkward
He was certainly handsome enough that also being smart would
He leaned forward. His body was big enough that he nearly
space, even from across the table. His voice lowered to a
inch closer to hear. “You make me feel funny, too. In a good
And just like that, Winni was once again speechless. Her
a few times, but no air passed her lips. She could feel her
turning red, but there wasn’t a thing she could do to stop it.
Calista came back with fresh coffee in hand to rescue her.
Garet eased back to his side of the table but kept his
Winni. “I have an appointment right after sunset, but I’d
love it if
dinner with me tonight.”
Winni looked at Calista, waiting for her to accept his
best friend gave her an expectant look, she knew she was
this man again.
“She’d love to go,” Calista said on her behalf.
“Me?” Winni squeaked. “You were asking me out?”
“Who else?” he asked.
“Calista, of course. She’s the pretty one.”
“He’s not interested in me, honey,” Calista said gently,
Winni had no idea what to say to that. She was too confused
what was happening. “But hot guys never ask me out.”
He laughed again like she’d said something funny.
Calista shook her head and rolled her eyes. To Garet, she said.
little Italian restaurant a few blocks from our apartment.
but the food is amazing. She’ll meet you there at seven.”
She scribbled the name of the place on a napkin and slid it
Garet gave Winni one last charming grin and said, “See you
She sat there in stunned silence while he walked away. As
soon as the
sense of disorientation dissipated, she turned to Calista.
“You just agreed to go on a date with the man who looks like
Calista laughed. “Because he’s completely into you and hot
“What if I make a fool of myself?”
Calista patted her hand and said in a gentle voice, “Honey,
I hate to
to tell you this, but you already did that. He didn’t seem
think he found your stammering awkwardness charming.”
“It appeared so.”
“That’s too weird.”
“It is,” Calista agreed. “But if you want my advice, I say
can tell by the way a man walks how good he’ll be in bed.”
“I know. It’s one of your superpowers.” Then it hit Winni
saying. “How good is he?”
Calista bobbed her eyebrows. “On a scale of one to ten? He’s
Nowhere to Hide by Terri L. Austin
I scuttled across the slick sidewalk on my way to work, teeth
I frowned at the bloated clouds overhead. More snow was on
meant bad news for me and my wallet.
My evening job at Mikey’s Eats paid a pittance, but working
meant Mikey forked over cash after every shift. Still, I
make ends meet, and when it snowed people wisely remained home.
I’d almost reached the entrance of the restaurant when a
awareness pricked my skin. Someone was watching me. I could
tiny hairs on the back of my neck practically vibrated.
Shoulders hunched against the bitter wind, I spun around,
area. Both the street and sidewalk were oddly empty.
the afternoon cars zoomed to and fro along Riverside. Not
impending snow that kept everyone off the street, or
I stilled, trying to pick up a trace of that warm, familiar
No, not a hint of it. Yet something was off. I felt that, too.
I scanned the windows of the nearest building to my right,
any movement. Then I searched through the dusk to see who
me, but found myself completely alone on the sidewalk. I’d
hustling to the restaurant, I hadn’t really noticed, and
damn it, I
have. That was Survival 101.
Be aware of your surroundings, Hailey. Wasn’t that the first
father drilled into me? Actually, no. The first had been:
be cold. And I got the backside of his hand every time it
being aware thing was a very close second, though.
I spotted two cars parked across the street—a red Toyota sedan,
chalky white from road salt, and a clean, black SUV almost
It’d be easy to shrug off this feeling, dismiss it as a
Except for one thing—someone really was out to get me.
With my eyes sharp, looking for any sign of movement, I
the street to check out the SUV. It was too clean to have been
around the slushy streets for long. And most people didn’t
their cars with another round of snowfall on the way.
I thrust my right hand into the pocket of my jacket, my
clenching the hilt of an automatic knife, while my left hand
a thin canister of pepper spray.
With my heart beating faster than a rabbit’s, I neared the SUV.
directly across from it I stared into the windows, my nerves
poised and ready to fight.
But the car was empty. No one sat behind the wheel or in the
The back was clear, too.
My grip on the weapons loosened, and I let out a long sigh
It hung in the air, suspended for a moment before
could evaporate just as easily.
All these years I’d managed to stay one step ahead of the
father—the other old man. Theodore Du Monde. I’d lived on
cramped, dirty apartments, and took shelter in airports more
could count. I worked menial jobs and lived in cities where
attention to a friendless girl dressed in secondhand clothes.
But I’d made a mistake this time. I’d forgotten how cold
could be. Though Minneapolis met my criteria of a large-ish
I could blend in and find a cheap apartment—the kind where the
actually preferred cash transactions—I’d underestimated the
weather. It was only November, and technically still fall,
wind ripped right through my down-filled coat and leather
fingers bone cold.
I needed to move on from here fast. Head south, maybe Florida.
someone was watching me, I was already on borrowed time.
I’d been on the run for so long, fear had become a constant
clinging to me like an oily film that seeped into my soul. I
myself of it, no matter how hard I tried. But this feeling
heaviness in my chest, the sense of foreboding—this wasn’t
like a nagging certainty that my luck had finally run out.
* * *
BADASS BEAR by Kathy Lyons – a Novella in The
Secret She Keeps anthology
This is the moment Gary first shifts into a grizzly bear.
Neither he nor Margaret know anything about shifters. And
here's the kicker: in his human form, he's a paraplegic.
If he'd had the breath Gary would have screamed too, but the
flash-flow of lava started in his head then rolled
lightning-fast down the rest of his body.
His back arched, and strength pulsed through his arms, which
levered him upright. He felt his body lift off the couch,
and then the pain hit. Bursts through his mind and body. His
mouth—agony. Arms throbbing. Legs on fire.
Hard to breathe. Hard to move.
Another scream. A high-pitched wail of terror.
He looked at Margaret. Her eyes bulged, and her skin was
white. Her mouth opened in a scream he didn't process. There
was only agony.
New sounds filled his ears: An animal yowl harsh with pain
and terror. A crash. Furniture? Fabric ripped. But he could
only focus Margaret's fear.
What nightmare weapon had hit him? What was attacking them?
He didn't know, but he would stand between it and Margaret.
He twisted, intending to do just that. His agony was
lessening, but his mind was still sluggish. It was hard to
focus on anything but the bursts of stabbing pain in his
hips and legs. Unpredictable. Unrelenting. He convulsed.
He gathered his strength, which was an impossible task, but
he did it. And yet, he didn't see any threat, just his loft
and destroyed furniture at his feet. At his… Wait. What the
hell was he seeing?
Massive paws. Fur. Claws, each the length of his phone. All
right there, inches away.
He jumped backward—actually jumped—then half scrambled, half
crawled until the couch got in the way. It toppled beneath
him. Unfortunately, the paws moved too. Frantically
flapping, they were a bizarre flurry of motion.
What the hell? The paws were faced outward. As if…
He looked down, feeling his head about to explode. The claws
were definitely where his hands were supposed to be. And his
arms were massive, with coarse fur of brown and tan.
Another animalistic sound cut through the air. It held panic
and terror, and the smells… God, there were a thousand of
them: The food they'd eaten. Chocolate. Margaret's perfume.
And the acrid scent of her fear.
He heard her soft whimper. She wasn't behind him anymore.
She was to the side, plastered against the wall, caught
between his desk and the window. She was shaking and pale,
her hands outstretched as if to ward him off.
He opened his mouth to reassure her, but when he spoke he
didn't hear words. He heard a kind of bark. Not like a dog.
Deeper. Weirder. And the sound rose on the end, a yip of
What the hell? He couldn't talk? His mouth felt weird, and
he reached up to touch it but a paw came at his face with
huge, sharp claws. He jerked backwards, his body thick and
clumsy, like he had double his weight in muscle. Each
movement had immense power, but nothing felt right. Nothing
Then he saw the mirror to his right, a large one hung beside
the loft door. In it, he saw fur and a body. A bear. But—
He swallowed and heard another plaintive whimper. Had
he made that sound? He couldn't have. It was the
anguish of a terrified animal. He took a step forward,
closer to the mirror.
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