“Drive three miles and turn left,” the GPS intoned in its maddeningly calm, monotone voice.
“Really, you stupid machine? What have I ever done to you?” Lainey Robinson pushed a lock of wavy brown hair from her eyes and glared at the colorful screen.
She’d been in Blue Moon County for five minutes, and already the GPS on her rented car was straight up trying to kill her. If she followed its directions, she’d end up driving into the swamp that lay just ahead. Florida swamps were known to be filled with alligators. She had a feeling that in a contest between gator versus bobcat shifter, the gator would win, and she’d be bobcat shish kebab.
Where to go? Left or right? She had trusted in technology and neglected to buy a map at the Orlando airport, three hours south. Silly her. The GPS had gotten her somewhere in the vicinity of the town…and then, out here in the middle of nowhere, decided to experience brain freeze.
Lainey was sitting there, idling, with no idea what to do. She needed a moment to think. She pulled over to the side of the road, turned off the engine, and climbed out into the warm, humid embrace of a Blue Moon Junction morning.
She was completely alone, on a tiny strip of road that threaded through a primeval forest splashed in countless shades of green. The air was perfumed with honeysuckle, and fat, fluffy clouds hung in the still, blue sky like decorations in a baby’s mobile.
She should be panicking, but standing out there, surrounded by nature, had an oddly calming effect on her. Dwarfed by the towering mangrove trees, whose massive gray-black roots looped higher than her head, Lainey felt very small, but strangely at peace. She was a city girl, born and raised in Philadelphia, and yet she felt as if she’d lived here all her life. She was suddenly seized with the temptation to strip off her clothing, shift into bobcat form, and start climbing trees. If she didn’t have a noon check-in time at the boarding house in the tiny town of Blue Moon Junction, she’d have done it without a second thought.
A warm breeze stirred her hair, ruffling the brown waves that flowed over her shoulders and fluttering the hem of her skirt, a red silk dirndl skirt that swirled around her knees.
An image of her mother’s disapproving face flashed in front of her. Renee hated it when she wore primary colors.
“Wouldn’t you like to try something a little more subdued?” she’d wheedle. “This is so…bold. Everyone will stare at you.”
Lainey always wished that her mother would just come out and say what she was thinking: that skirt makes your ass look huge. Actually, her refined, elegant mother would never think in such vulgar terms, but that was the general idea.
“And what’s so bad about people staring at me, anyway?” she muttered, as if her mother could hear her.
She knew the answer to that question. While her parents would never say it out loud, they’d prefer that their large, socially graceless daughter with the big laugh and the bigger figure would stay quietly in the background. For her own good, of course. So nobody would hurt her feelings. That’s why they’d insisted that she decline to attend the debutante ball with her cousins when she was eighteen, why they included her brother Donavan, and not her, in family photos and in the brochures for their construction company…
“We’re just protecting you, dear,” her mother would say. “People can be so cruel when you look…well…it’s for your own good.”
Suddenly something wet and plastic-y thwapped against her cheek, making her start, until she realized that it was just a large, windblown leaf.
It was almost like a gentle rebuke from nature, pulling her back into the present.