Chapter One

I entered the final stretch of my eighteen-hundred-mile drive fueled on the fumes of a two-hour-old caffeine stop, nineties rock, and the emotional turbulence of a person who’d recently discovered her entire life was a lie.

For a good chunk of the journey, I’d silenced the rotating cycle of grief, anger, and guilt by belting out the lyrics to my grunge favorites. My singing ended once I hit the switchbacks carved into the snowy Colorado mountains. That was also when I reached for the stereo knob to lower the volume.

Shifting my hips around in the seat, I searched for a position that eased the dull throb in my lower back. Why hadn’t anyone ever told me that my days of ache-free road trips would end along with my thirties…or that I’d transform into one of those embarrassing people who needed to turn down the music to drive?

I braved a fleeting glimpse of my reflection in the rearview mirror and wrinkled my nose. “Welcome to your forties, Cassidy. No more denying that you’re an official member of the Middle Age Club.”

I remembered when my sister and I were younger and would argue with our parents over the music every time we climbed inside our gold Buick. We’d insist that the volume only affected their ears and not their ability to see other cars. Now here I was, some twenty-odd years later, turning into my mom.

Except, in a shocking twist, the woman who’d raised me wasn’t my biological mom. That honor belonged to my favorite aunt, and my real dad died just before I was born, because apparently, my life belonged on a daytime talk show.

A little over a week ago, a Colorado area code had flashed across my screen. Aunt Sylvie had never shown up for our holiday dinner, and my daughter and I had been worried sick. I’d snatched up the phone, thinking she was calling from a different number, only to hear a county official with a flat voice informing me that she’d died. A hiking accident, he’d said. From what they could tell, she slipped on an icy rock and fell thirty feet, smashing into the frozen boulders below.

I spent most of Sylie’s funeral back home in Jacksonville sobbing my eyes out, right up until a strange man with electric-blue eyes tapped me on the shoulder. He claimed to be Sylvie’s lawyer before handing me a letter…

Hey, Snowflake… Enclosed, you’ll find your true birth certificate, the keys to my cabin, and some of the legal paperwork needed for you to take control of my estate… I’m your biological mother… I gave birth to you in a hospital in Jacksonville. Shortly afterward, my sister took you home, adopted you, and raised you as her own.

I was adopted. Not only that…Sylvie was adopted too. Neither of us was related to the Wright family by blood. Why had she hidden the truth from me all these years? Why was she content to remain in the background while her younger sister raised me?

After almost thirty hours of alone time to ponder those conundrums, one might guess I’d be closer to answers.

One would guess wrong.

Now here I was. On my way to some Podunk town buried in the Rocky Mountains to, hopefully, find some answers.

I refocused on the road, easing off the gas as I coaxed my ancient hatchback around another sharp curve. On the driver’s side of the highway, snow softened the jagged mountain edges. White powder cloaked the drop-off on the passenger’s side, camouflaging exactly how far I’d fall before splatting on the rocks if Old Reliable skidded off the road.

I loved everything about winter. It was the hairpin turns I could do without.

When the worst of the switchback was over, my death grip on the steering wheel eased. A highway sign promised that the remote town of Silvery Pines awaited just two miles ahead.

Leave it to Sylvie to pick one of the most remote mountain towns in all of Colorado to call home. Then again, she’d never been one to do things the conventional way. Everyone else in the family was a by-the-book, Miss Manners-quoting Southern belle. Not Sylvie.

I should have come to visit her when she’d called.

Guilt pressed on my shoulders like a lead blanket. I couldn’t even remember my reason for rejecting her last plea to visit. It was around the time my husband, Chet, had left me. Shay was off at college, and I’d recently taken on more assignments at the magazine I wrote for, but none of that should’ve kept me from taking a long weekend off to fly out and spend time with my favorite aunt.

If only I’d known that would be my last chance to see her, I would’ve hopped on a plane. Instead, I’d come up with excuses. Shay had called me on it, with the bluntness that only a teenage daughter possessed.

“You might be the most risk-averse person I know.”

A slap in the face, but one I’d needed.

Tears threatened to blur my vision. “Nope. We’re not doing that.” Mimicking the critical tone I’d heard from my mom—adoptive momJoanugh—all my life, I glared at myself in the rearview mirror. “You did enough crying to last a year back at the funeral. No more.”

Up ahead, the highway transitioned into a main street filled with quaint one- and two-story buildings, and I sucked in a delighted breath as the town popped into view with an explosion of color.

Silvery Pines was adorable. Shops painted in bold blues, pinks, oranges, and yellows greeted me like escapees from Disney World or a children’s storybook. Each building with its unique architecture was a decadent little treat, all featuring snow-dusted awnings framed by a stark backdrop of towering, white-capped mountains.

In particular, a gorgeous purple building with teal trim caught my eye…mostly because a neon coffee cup illuminated its frosted window.

A sign from the caffeine gods…or my overflowing bladder. Either way, I squeezed Old Reliable into a parking spot a few buildings down and climbed out. A flyer fixed to a lamppost fluttered in the winter breeze.

Missing Persons, it read.

Beneath that proclamation was a black-and-white photo of a man and woman around my age. The text claimed that they’d disappeared while cross-country skiing two weeks ago.

I hoped someone had found them. No one could survive out in the elements during winter in a place like this for long.

I continued walking and pulled open the coffee shop’s front door.

Somehow, the Pinecone Café’s interior was even more colorful than its exterior. Almost too colorful, as if a rainbow had upchucked on the walls. After a quick stop in the ladies’ room, I strolled over to the short line in front of the sunny-yellow counter.

When my turn came, a brunette close to my age with the lean build of an athlete and a no-nonsense demeanor took my order. “What would you like?”

“Can I get a latte with caramel, chocolate, and a double hit of espresso?”

“Sure can. We call that the turtle latté here.” She picked up a cup and a sharpie. “What name should I put on it?”

“Cassidy. With a C, not a K.”

A furrow formed between her brows. “Do enough people really get that wrong that you need to clarify?”

“Believe it or not, yes. In multiple states, even.”

With a shake of her head, the woman scratched the marker tip across the cup. “Anything else?”

“Nope, I’m all set.”

The milk steamer hissed and whirred as the barista whipped up my latte, the delicious, sweet aroma cutting through the fog in my caffeine-deprived brain. Things were looking up until she swung around with an open cup, splashing hot milk on her hand.

“Son of a bitch!” she hissed.

My jaw about hit the ground, and not because of her tame use of profanity. No, my shock came from what I saw protruding from the seat of her jeans.

A tail. Between one moment and the next, the barista had grown a tail.

I squeezed my eyes shut and swallowed a groan.

Not this again.

Chapter Two

I rubbed my eyes, counted silently to ten, and reopened them. That served no purpose other than smearing the mascara I’d slapped on that morning as my one concession to my Southern upbringing. I wiped the black marks on my fingers down my pants as I stared at the furry appendage that refused to disappear.

I was nothing if not stubborn, though. I tried again, then the third time really did turn out to be the charm. When I blinked, all I saw was the seat of the barista’s pants.

The worst part was…this wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed a bizarre illusion like this. They’d started after Sylvie died.

Could grief trigger hallucinations? Or could caffeine withdrawal, maybe? I’d have consulted the internet, except the last time I researched a symptom on a medical website, I came away convinced I suffered from testicular cancer. Pretty impressive, considering I had nary a testicle to my name.

The barista snapped a lid on my drink and slid the cup onto the counter. “Here’s your turtle latte. Enjoy.”

“Thanks.” I took a sip and bit back a moan when the sweet caramel and coffee flavors hit my tongue.

The barista’s voice stopped me as I started to turn away. “Distance running.”

“I’m sorry?”

I peered over my shoulder to find her smirking. “I said, distance running. That’s what keeps my cheeks so nice and toned.”

She smacked her butt for good measure. Just in case I was confused over exactly which set of cheeks she meant. “Oh. Um…that’s great.”

What else could I say? I swear I wasn’t checking out your ass…I was just wondering if that was a tail poking out a few seconds ago, or if a monstrous, fuzzy caterpillar crawled up your jeans and attached itself to your butt.

With my face on fire, I scurried out of the café and headed straight to my car. Once inside, I rested my head against the steering wheel and groaned. “Ten whole minutes in Silvery Pines, and you’ve already earned the reputation of town lech. Excellent work. No, really. Achievement unlocked.”

Lucky for me, replaying awkward social interactions over and over in my head happened to be one of my superpowers, so I got to spend the rest of the short drive cringing.

Sylvie’s cabin was less than two miles from the Pinecone Café, but thanks to my snail’s pace on the icy roads, the trip took a good fifteen minutes. I passed a tree-lined drive for an establishment called the Green Huntress Lodge shortly before making the turn onto the winding road that led to the cabin. Once the cabin came into view, my self-flagellation stopped, forgotten in a wave of delight.

Sylvie’s home in Silvery Pines was an adorable little A-frame with a wraparound porch that melted into the surrounding trees.

The front door, windowsills, and roof were all painted a vibrant shade of turquoise, showing off Sylvie’s funky, eclectic taste and complementing the stunning traditional log structure perfectly.

When I pulled into the unplowed driveway, I thanked my past self for stopping to put chains on Old Reliable’s tires before getting too far into the mountains. As I hopped out, my boots sank into the powder with a satisfying crunch. I ran my fingertips through the snow, enjoying the tingle of ice on my bare skin.

To some, winter might seem cold and foreboding. To me, snow created a sense of utter calm and quiet that the other seasons couldn’t match. When Mother Nature pulled out the white blankets, it was like being transported to a different world.

I longed to stretch my legs in the surrounding forest, but curiosity won out. Stomping across the driveway through the unblemished snow layer, I knocked the slush from my boots and climbed the three steps up to the porch. I froze at the top. A set of huge paw prints tracked across it.

“Good thing bears don’t have opposable thumbs,” I muttered as I scurried over to unlock the front door.

The moment I crossed the threshold, a sensation of familiarity washed over me. There was something about this place, like I was returning home after a long trip, even though I’d never visited before. I set down my oversized purse by the door and took a step inside to drink it all in.

The waning afternoon light filtered in from the rear, west-facing windows. Like spotlights, they cast their glow on the stacked-stone fireplace that towered up toward the vaulted wooden ceiling. Off to one side, a set of stairs led to the second floor.

From the overstuffed maroon couch with a quilted scene of snow falling on evergreens draped across the back to the rustic table created from a tree trunk, the essence of Sylvie was on full display. Along one wall, a bookshelf—hand-painted in shades of blues—held piles of books stacked sideways, backwards, and upside down, all of them competing for space with glittery pink and aqua-toned crystals and her collection of snow globes. Candles perched on every available surface. On the walls, wildlife scenes and winter landscapes hung side by side with abstract depictions of unicorns and Bigfoot.

My lungs constricted with a mixture of sorrow and longing. I swiped my sleeve across my eyes. “Dammit. It’s too soon to fall apart.” Staring at the new black streak on the fabric, I sniffled even harder. “Also, I don’t care what the bottle says. This new mascara sample they sent me to review is about as waterproof as a sponge.”

To prevent the tears from falling, I started inspecting a quartet of vibrant tapestries that displayed a sapling’s changes throughout the various seasons. Unsurprisingly, the image featuring bare, snow-laden branches and an ice-blue sky took up the prominent spot.

Sylvie and I had shared a love of winter. I figured my karma score must be in the negative digits to have stranded me in hot and humid Florida for my entire life.

Glancing over Sylvie’s hodgepodge of belongings, I managed to smile through the ache in my chest as I remembered a conversation I’d had with my daughter on the drive back to her college. She’d pulled out all the stops trying to convince me to come up here, planting stories of treasures and secret stashes I’d uncover, but there wasn’t a creepy doll or foot picture in sight. Shay would be so disappointed.

Sylvie had called the cabin her winter sanctuary, and now I knew why. Closing my eyes, I could almost feel her presence nearby.

A loud thump overhead sent my eyes flying open. “Okay, I didn’t mean that literally.”

Holding my breath, I waited, straining to hear above the sudden gallop of my pulse. The ceiling groaned, followed by a rhythmic creak, creak, creak.

Almost like someone was walking around up there.

Casting a wary glance at the stairs, I debated my next move. In the middle of winter, in a remote little community like this, squatters were probably the least likely possibility. For all I knew, the house was just settling. Old houses made lots of noises, right?

Of course, the only way to find out was to go up and take a look.

Squaring my shoulders, I started for the staircase. I made it three steps before a snarl rumbled down and stopped me cold.

Unless this place took lessons from The Haunting of Hill House or Amityville Horror, that definitely wasn’t the sound of an old home settling.

A chill swept over me as I recalled the animal prints on the porch. Sylvie’s cabin was warm, cave-like, and deserted. The perfect place for animals to shelter. Like lions, tigers…or bears.

I was no expert in Colorado wildlife, but I felt confident enough in my rusty geographical knowledge to cross lions and tigers off the list of potential intruders. Bears, on the other hand, were a distinct possibility. As were mountain lions, bobcats, maybe even wolves…

I gulped past the knot threatening to close my throat. Please be a raccoon.

Glancing around the cabin, I considered objects I could use to defend myself in rapid succession.

Chair? Too big to lift.

Fireplace poker? Where was the fireplace poker?

A book? Please. What was I planning to do, read it to death? That one about the little girl who got eaten by the big, bad wolf would probably be just the thing to whet a carnivore’s appetite.

C’mon, Cassidy. Pull yourself together.

In the oversized purse I’d dropped near the doorway, light played off the foil-covered top of the champagne bottle I’d purchased to celebrate Sylvie’s life. I bit my lip and wasted the next few seconds debating just how worried I should be about ending up as a serving of human tartare. Hey, I’d splurged. Wasting good bubbly wasn’t a sacrifice to be made lightly.

Scrape…tap, tap, tap.

I darted for my purse and retrieved the bottle. “Whatever kind of beastie you are, please don’t have rabies.”

I could make a break for it. Walk out that door, lock up, and rent another cabin. Or book a room at the lodge and call animal control. There was no rational reason for me to face down a wild animal.

No rational reason, apart from the fact that this was Sylvie’s cabin, and she’d wanted me to stay here. The idea of fleeing now felt too much like failing her. Again.

A low growl—much closer this time—rumbled from somewhere behind me. I jumped, and the bottle flew from my grasp, hit the floor, and shattered. Carbonated liquid sprayed everywhere. The sight of my ruined champagne tribute puddling on the hardwood floor and seeping between the cracks snapped something inside me.

My jaw clenched. Okay, now I was pissed. “Whatever you are, I’m going to turn you into taxidermy! Look what you made me do!”

“I beg your pardon?”

At the sound of the husky voice, I nearly choked on my own spit. I whirled in time to watch a strange woman with wild golden hair glide down the stairs.

 

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