For Manda Brooke Wheeler.

Someday you can dedicate a book to me.

Chapter 1

Rianna Lancaster’s feet pounded the winding trail, adrenaline rushing through her veins, wind on her face, her heavy breathing the only sound in the quiet of the piney woods. That, and the cry of a hawk circling somewhere overhead. This was what being alive was all about. Just her and nature. Inner peace. Pure freedom…

Yeah, right. If you’d listen to me, we could be flying. Talk about wind on your face. I can almost feel it now. So close, yet so far away.

Ria missed a step but quickly recovered.

Almost freedom.

It was just her, and the voice inside her head, running along the trail. Ria’s parents had told her that everyone had a voice inside their head. She had a feeling it wasn’t quite like the voice inside her head.

Maybe insanity ran in her family. It was possible. She’d been adopted when she was three and knew nothing about her biological parents.

The voice did cause her some concern, though. She frowned. And it caused a few of the townspeople concern, too. That was her problem. Well, one of her problems. The major one. Living in the small Texas town of Miller Bend, which had a population of a whopping three thousand, made it pretty much a gimme that everyone knew everyone else’s business. It seemed they thought she was a little, well, daft. Unfortunately, sometimes she had a tendency to agree with them.

I said we could be soaring through the sky. Were you listening to me?

“No, I wasn’t,” she panted, not wanting to break her stride. “Go away.”

Not gonna happen.

No, Ria hadn’t really thought the voice would leave her alone. It never had before.

The delusional voice inside her head had a name—Shintara. Because it had a name, did that make Ria crazier than the usual, say, run-of-the-mill, crazy person?


She worked around animals too much. Another problem. Not that she didn’t love her Pet Purr-Fect Grooming shop. She was proud that she was doing a booming business, but maybe she did need to get away for a while. If her new assistant worked out, she would seriously think about taking off for a week or two.

Okay, she needed to clear her head. Nothing in life mattered when she was out running. This was her time. She didn’t have to worry that people thought she was a little mentally off-balance. She didn’t have to…

A hawk swooped down, landing on the trail in front of her.

She came to a grinding halt, feet still running in place, and then stopping altogether.

What the hell? Hawks didn’t just land in front of people. And it should have taken off as soon as it spotted her.

Ria stared at the bird as she tried to catch her breath, bending over and resting her sweaty palms on her knees.

The hawk was magnificent, with a creamy white breast and speckled, dark-brown wings that blended into black tips. The bird was so close she could see its sharp talons. Talons that were made for catching and holding prey. Something about this wasn’t good. Probably because the hawk still hadn’t moved. It stared at her as though it were silently trying to communicate. This was weird. No, it was more than weird.

Almost as weird as the thick fog rolling in. She straightened, her gaze flitting from tree to tree until she could no longer make them out. An icy chill raced down her back as if someone had run an ice cube over her spine.

Fog wasn’t that unusual. Right? It was early morning, and the trail behind her house was in a low spot. Except this fog wasn’t like any fog she’d ever seen. Kind of Friday the 13th creepy.

Alrighty, maybe this was her cue to leave.

Someone groaned, but the fog was so thick now she couldn’t see a thing. Ria hesitated. What if the hawk had been trying to tell her that his owner was hurt? That…that…

It had finally happened. She had completely lost her freakin’ mind.

But the fog began to dissipate enough that she could make out a man’s face. A very tall man. At least six- two. With short dark hair. Strong chin. Green eyes that studied her. Tanned skin. Muscular chest…

Her assessment came to a screeching halt.

Muscular bare chest.

Yum! Shintara’s voice came through to Ria’s thoughts.

“Shut up,” she told the voice.

Well, he is hot.

The man stepped forward. “I’m Prince Kristor, from New Symtaria. I’m here to take you back to my planet,” he said in a deep, commanding voice.

The fog vanished.

The man was totally naked.

Ria screamed.

Birds took flight.

Small animals scurried into hiding.

Fear cemented her feet to the ground, and no matter how much her brain screamed—Run, you idiot!—they weren’t budging.

Her sweaty hands fumbled with the small can of mace hooked onto her waist purse, her heart slamming against her ribcage.

She got it loose, raising it as he stepped closer. “Like hell you will! Take this!” She thrust out her arm and sprayed. He grabbed his face and yelled, his voice a thundering boom that bounced off the trees. She didn’t waste any time turning and running as if the devil were on her heels and, as far as she knew, he just might be.

“Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. Please don’t let me die!” she prayed as she stumbled down the path toward her house, accidentally dropping the small can of protection. There was no way she was going to stop and pick it up.

Why hadn’t she gone to church last Sunday? This was her punishment. She was going to die. She could almost feel a knife plunging into her back. Not that the guy had had a knife. He hadn’t had anything. He’d been bare-assed naked.

But he could choke her to death. He’d had big hands.

That wasn’t all that was rather large, Shintara said.

“Shut up,” she wheezed.

Home. She had to make it back. There she would be safe. She tried to take a deep breath, but it was as if she’d lost her ability to inhale.

Who was the naked man? A mugger?

No, a serial killer!

She needed to call the sheriff. Phone! Crap. She had her cell with her. Why hadn’t she already thought about calling the cops? She fumbled with the zipper of her waist purse, not stopping in case the guy was behind her.

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