The wolf dream again.
Jillian Descharme rolled over on the lumpy folding couch that doubled as her bed and squinted to read the alarm clock. 3:29 A.M. She didn't need to reach for the light—the dream was no nightmare. Far from it. Fifteen years ago, a great white wolf had emerged from the darkness and saved her life.
Her counselor, Marjorie, had favored other theories. She felt that the white wolf was something Jillian's mind created to protect itself, to protect her very sanity from a trauma that couldn't be borne, from a brutality beyond imagining. "The wolf is a symbol your mind has adopted," Marjorie said. "And in the study of dream images, a white wolf in particular symbolizes both valor and victory, plus the ability to see light in the darkest hours. It's an extremely powerful and positive image."
Marjorie was a skilled counselor, as well as a kind and loving person. She had helped Jillian work through a great deal of pain, and Jillian knew she owed her a lot. That was why she always felt a little bit guilty. Because although she stopped insisting the wolf was real, she never quite stopped believing it.
And she didn't stop dreaming of it. Jillian dreamed of the white wolf when she moved away from home, when she entered veterinary college, when she wrote exams, when she applied for jobs, when she competed in martial arts tournaments—pretty much any time she was nervous, stressed, or even lonely. Okay, especially when she was lonely.
Not alone. Here with you, the wolf always said to her. She didn't hear the words so much as felt them in her mind. Not alone. And in the presence of the wolf, she could believe it. Jillian always felt soothed, comforted, safe. Between them was a connection that defied description. A sense of wholeness she had never conceived possible.
"Nothing like being codependent on an imaginary friend." Jillian got up for a drink of water, realized that wasn't enough to get rid of the fuzzy taste in her mouth, and decided to brush her teeth.
Popping open the tube of toothpaste seemed to jog a memory at the same time. Jillian always welcomed the wolf dream and the calm it brought her whenever there were changes in her life. But in the past few years she'd noticed a new pattern—the wolf dream also seemed to show up just before something in her life changed. And this was the third night in a row she'd had the dream.
That had never happened before. Back in bed, she lay with her eyes open, wondering what the dream meant, wondering what was coming. She hoped it wouldn't be the bank calling about her student loans again. That thought was enough to keep her awake for the next hour. When her alarm went off at six, however, there was nothing unusual about the morning except that it took three cups of coffee to jumpstart her brain instead of one. There was nothing different about the weather. It was the same as it had been for weeks, just another humid scorcher in southern Ontario. There was nothing different at work. There were no new animals at the environmental center, and no unusual visitors. She accidentally sat on her lunch bag, but except for being squished, her peanut butter and honey sandwich tasted exactly the same.
Later, at the post office, she had nothing but bulk mail in her box. She dropped the flyers and ads into the trash by the door as she left. At least there weren't any bills. But there was no winning envelope from Publishers Clearing House either. She attended the last of her weekly Tae Kwon Do classes—she couldn't afford any more—but there were no breakthroughs there. She had yet to master all 29 movements of the hyung, the complicated practice sequence that would allow her to progress to the next level.
The feeling of letdown was heavy by the time Jillian opened the door to her tiny rented room. It was silly, it was childish, but she couldn't deny she was disappointed that not a single out-of-the-ordinary thing had occurred that day. On top of that, she was tired to the point of being downright cranky. Maybe the stupid dream didn't mean anything this time. Maybe it isn't supposed to mean anything. Maybe Marjorie was right and this whole wolf thing really is a figment of my—
The phone rang, making her jump, and she snatched up the receiver with a growl. With any luck it might be a telemarketer and she could unload a little of her frustration. Petty, she knew, but it would be something. She promised herself to feel guilty later. "Yes?"
"Is this Dr. Jillian Descharme?"
"What are you selling?"
The caller didn't even pause. "A job. I'd like you to come work for me. My practice is running me ragged, and I need a hand. If you're as good as your instructors say you are, it could turn into a partnership. That is, if you like northern Alberta."
She fumbled with the receiver then, certain that reality had taken a complete holiday. "What?" Her brain finally kicked in. "Wait a minute. I forgot what day it is—this is a stupid April Fool's joke, isn't it?" Jillian wracked her brain to figure out who might pull such a prank. A coworker? A former classmate? "Of all the mean, rotten—"
"No, it's no joke, honest. Hey, if I'd realized what day it was, I would have waited until tomorrow to call you. I promise you, this is a real call about a real job. Look, it's calving season and I haven't slept in two days, so if I sound desperate, I am. Will you come?"
"I don't know you from Adam. And you haven't even met me. You haven't seen my résumé. I haven't even applied for the job yet. I didn't even know there was a job." She certainly hadn't looked for anything that far away, had never been to that part of the country. Mentally she pictured a map of Canada and visualized Alberta. It was one of the largest provinces, stretching from the American border all the way up to the Arctic Circle. Just how far north was this clinic? Was there still snow on the ground there?
"I've been friends with a couple of your instructors for a long time. That's where I got your name. They both said you're good, and that's good enough for me." He rattled off their names and enough personal details to prove he was telling the truth. Or that he'd really done his research. He seemed to read her mind then. "Call them up. Ask them about Connor Macleod, and they'll tell you I'm not a nutcase or a stalker."
"But I have a job."
"I heard. I also heard your present position's temporary. I happen to know the director of the place—he thinks you're extremely talented too, by the way. Says he'll even let you go early, if you decide you want the job here."
She sighed and swore, forgetting that the man could hear her through the receiver. She ran a hand through her choppy blond hair, causing it to stand straight up in places. It was all too true that her job at the environmental center was up at the end of the month. She'd tried hard to find another opportunity to work with wildlife, especially wolves, but most positions these days were filled by volunteers. Those that weren't were largely government-funded—and that funding had dried up considerably after the last election.
Tapping the phone against her chin, Jillian figured that this Macleod guy really must be flat-out desperate. Why else would he call someone on the other side of the country for God's sake? It was on the tip of her tongue to say no, to tell him she'd rather patch up coyotes and feed orphan skunks than work with livestock and pets. Not only were they more interesting to her, but coyotes and skunks didn't have owners to deal with. She wasn't as good with people as she was with animals. Okay, she could be downright lousy with people, especially ones that didn't take care of their animals.
But she couldn't make herself say no, especially when Macleod told her that living quarters were part of the deal.
Jillian hadn't been out of veterinary college very long. She desperately needed a full-time position, any position that would give her a chance to pay off her massive student loans and get on her financial feet. She might have a DVM after her name now, but that was all she had to her name. No cash, no savings, no car, no furniture, no apartment. No family that could help her out either, not since an accident had claimed her parents when she was in college. She didn't even have her textbooks anymore—she'd been forced to sell them last month to keep her small room near the environmental center.
"Hello? Hey, are you still there?"
She realized she'd left the man hanging. "Sorry, just thinking things through. It's a big move. You're just about on the other side of the country."
"Let me make it easier then. Commit to giving us six months, and I'll pay your way here. If you really hate us after that, or we can't stand you, no harm done. I'd pay your way home, too."
She could do six months. That wasn't a long time. She could keep her temper, make nice with clients for six months. Probably. Macleod likely ran a cramped, shoestring operation in the middle of nowhere, but the guy was offering good pay and a place to live. And surely there must be wildlife rehabs she could look into while she was there. Maybe she could work for Macleod's clinic for a while and then move on to what she really wanted to do with her career. Besides, how bad could it be? Making a mental note to check this guy out with her instructors and maybe even the RCMP before she actually packed any suitcases, she said yes.
And remembered the wolf dream as she hung up the phone.
The full moon called and the Pack answered. The lights of the town of Dunvegan were left behind as seven creatures ran silently, effortlessly, mile after mile. Nothing could cover distance as efficiently as a wolf's perfect form. Charcoal and tawny, gray and silver, gold and black, the wolves were a diverse group, yet they moved as one with the smooth grace of long practice. Eventually a white wolf joined them, easing into the band without a ripple.
The Pack loped along the game trails at the very tops of the coulees, high above the Peace River valley. The wolves' path seemed almost suspended between sky and water, moon above and moon reflected below. Joy, fierce and bright, was all around.
Stars wheeled overhead, revealing the constellations of the early morning as the Pack leader turned toward Elk Point. There, she slowed at last and picked her way along the rocky promontory until the trees parted to reveal a sweeping view. Tongues lolling, sides heaving, the wolves flopped down on the stone plateau just as a wind gusted up from the valley. Dry leaves swirled into a lazy vortex around the group. The air crackled, flashed here and there with tiny sparks, as static electricity began to collect. The power built until the ground thrummed with it, until the very rocks vibrated.
Sudden silence burst as loud as a thunderclap. Human laughter and human words flowed in quickly to fill the vacuum. The breeze died away, the leaves fell to earth. Where eight wolves had been, there was now only one. A lone white wolf and seven human beings.
Connor Macleod automatically reached out a hand and ruffled the thick soft fur. His older brother was not just the only one in the family with such a snowy pelt, but the only Changeling that Connor had ever seen with that coloration—not an albino but a true white. Their father had often called James a winter wolf, but there was always a touch of sadness in his voice when he did so. Connor had pressed him for an explanation once. It's a verra long journey until spring for a winter wolf, lad. A verra long journey. Connor had been too young to attach any meaning to his father's words. Now he saw that they had been all too prophetic.
He spoke to his older brother in his mind. All of them had that ability; it was part and parcel of being Changeling. Good to see you, bro. Have you eaten tonight?
Old moose, lame. Easy hunting. Full now.
James's words were always clear in Connor's mind, but they were few and labored, as if it were a strain to use human words at all. As if running as a wolf for thirty years made it difficult to even remember the language. Seven words in a row nearly counted as a speech.
It might have given Connor a tiny glimmer of hope, but he hadn't allowed himself that luxury in many years. His hand fell away from the thick white pelt as he automatically blocked the rest of his thoughts from his brother. What possible good could it do to tell James how much he missed him, ached to talk with him, to joke and laugh with him, hell, even to fight with him? How the whole family grieved for James, as if he was dead. And he was dead to them. Even as a wolf he very seldom ran with the Pack or came near any of them except Connor on occasion. James had forsaken his human self entirely, and it was unclear if he was bound to the Macleods by remembered human ties or merely a wolf instinct to be part of a Pack.
But not one of us blames him for it. Good Christ, how could we? We weren't there. We were too far away, all of us too damn far away. He shook his head. By the time they'd arrived at James's farm, the house was a heap of blackened beams and cold ashes. Too damn late to do anything but bury poor Evelyn. It had nearly been too late for James as well. The Pack had tracked him through deep wilderness for two days, unable to catch up with him until he finally collapsed from his horrific wounds. Over thirty years had passed and still Connor shivered at that memory. He had barely recognized the blackened and battered creature that once was the white wolf. Changeling or not, it was a miracle James had lived.
But the miracle was incomplete. The wolf came back to them, but not the man. Connor glanced over at his brother. The massive white creature was stretched out on the ground beside him as if relaxed, but the vivid blue eyes flicked from person to person. Alert. Ready, Connor knew, to disappear. Everyone else knew too. Connor noticed that each member of the Pack, family and friend alike, would glance over at James and then quickly turn away, not knowing what to do or say. Fearing to break some unknown spell, fearing that the white wolf would leave them even sooner than he usually did.
It's hard on James but it's hard on all of us too. Your older brother has lost his balance, his ability to be comfortable in both worlds.
Jessie Watson's voice was warm and strong in Connor's mind. He knew the Pack leader was focusing her speech so only he could hear it. He did the same. I don't know how to help him.
You're doing all you can. James is doing all he can, too. He's chosen to stay here, for one thing. He wanders but always returns. He still feels a connection to this land that your family claimed and settled, a bond to something that symbolizes roots. And he responds to you, Connor. Cares for you as a brother, not just a Packmate, even guards you. Haven't you sensed him on some level when you've been working late at the clinic?
Connor looked across the fire, saw it brush golden highlights over Jessie's dark skin. There was always something regal about her, a sense of power. She was a small woman, downright tiny when standing next to her husband Bill. Yet she possessed a formidable blend of courage and wisdom, as well as more exotic gifts. Including magic. He didn't doubt her, but the news came as a surprise. James has been at the clinic?
Many times. Perhaps you haven't noticed his physical presence because thoughts of James are always in your mind. Take a walk tomorrow and use your Changeling senses to check the stand of trees behind the building. Scent the air, the ground. Watch for hairs in the hay bales in the compound, prints along the fences in the corrals. He watches over you, Connor. He watches over the others too.
Well, then he should be fired—he didn't make sure everyone was dressed tonight. Connor tried to lighten the subject, a little uncomfortable with the notion that the older brother he worried so much about was guarding him. He turned his attention to where his younger brother Devlin was mercilessly teasing his twin Culley about missing shoes and socks. Anything—clothing, objects, tools—that touched a Changeling's body as it shifted to wolf was automatically suspended in a another dimension until human form was resumed. What or where that dimension was exactly, Connor didn't know, only that the current theory favored the existence of many more dimensions than the four that Einstein declared. That was Devlin's passion, exploring the physics associated with Changeling life. Culley, however, couldn't care less. Always in a hurry, he often Changed without checking to make sure he was fully clothed.
Excerpted from Changeling Dream by Dani Harper Copyright © 2011 by Dani Harper. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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