Ana stared at the cream-colored wall through the murky light and felt every second pass like pebbles dropped onto her back. The mattress beneath her was hard and uncomfortable. It caused her to toss and turn all night long. Or maybe it was the memories of yesterday that kept her up. How could she even think to dream at night when Chance, the person her heart beat for, was gone? Had left. Dreams were for people with hope.
Ana readjusted under the sheets for the millionth time that morning, turned over to see that Lifen, her new mentor, wasn’t in the neighboring bed. She hadn’t heard her leave, but Ana supposed that wasn’t very surprising, especially for a woman who was both a shapeshifter and a healer. Stealth clearly wasn’t an issue for Lifen, considering she’d been checking in on Ana over the last four months without her knowledge.
“Are you awake, Ana?”
A beam of light poured into the room and Ana looked over at the sliding glass door that led to their hotel balcony. Lifen peered at her from between the thick curtains. Her long black hair was twisted into a bun on top of her head and she blinked her narrow, dark eyes in Ana’s direction.
“Yeah.” Ana’s dry throat made her voice scratchy.
“You did not sleep, did you? I hoped you would get some rest…”
Ana shook her head, pulled out the overstuffed pillow she was lying on and pressed it against her face to muffle her weeping. Tears soaked into the fabric and cooled her swollen eyes. She thought she had cried herself dry, but the pain wouldn’t go away.
“Maybe if you talk about it, it will make you feel better.” Lifen’s fingers touched her shoulder. The torrential emotion dwindled away so she could breathe again.
Ana threw the pillow aside and rubbed her temples. When Lifen joined her on the edge of the bed, she rested her hand on Ana’s back. The skin under her nightshirt tingled and the heaviness she had just experienced lifted momentarily.
“I keep seeing Balam’s death.” Nothing could stop Ana’s tears from pouring out again as the words formed at her lips and hung in the air. She could still envision Markus, Chance’s cousin, poised on top of the man who’d taught them both so much over the last two months, and the last moments of his life. Balam, Chance’s great-grandfather, had lived through the Spanish invasion, only to die a senseless death at the hands of a boy suffering from the shifter sickness.
Ana brushed away her tears and held her palms to her eyes. She wished the sickness didn’t exist. It was the root of their problems. Too many had died because of it, and now Chance was infected, poisoned with the voices of unbalanced shifters.
“Are you sure Chance has the sickness?” Ana whispered, feeling foolish for asking the question. She avoided Lifen’s eyes as she awaited the answer.
“You said Chance killed the boy who was stalking you, correct? That boy, Markus, had the sickness and ended the lives of many other shifters. If Chance was beside him as the energy wave was released, then he could not have avoided it. He is infected.”
Ana nodded and her cheek quivered while she recalled the darkness that crept into his handsome face moments after the death of his cousin. His penetrating gaze had moved over her body with violent hunger and his icy stare had chilled her heart. The softness behind the excited gleam in his eyes was gone. Just that lurid glare remained, and then he had vanished.
What if he was just upset about Balam’s death and that’s why he left? In her heart she knew the truth. His protective nature would never allow him to abandon her unless it was in her best interest. And being around her would be too great a temptation for a shifter who couldn’t control his hunger for power.
Now that her abilities were awakened, she would be too enticing. Without their knowledge, when Chance saved her life so many months ago, he’d planted a seed of power within her, awakening both the ability to shapeshift and to heal. She’d only discovered that fact yesterday when she’d shifted into a horse on her way to help Chance.
“When I said I’d go with you, you promised to teach me how to save him so I can cure him of the sickness, but I still don’t understand why we have to leave here.” Ana sat up and her voice rose with every word. Her lip trembled as she thought about leaving Mexico and the last place she saw Chance.
“Calm yourself,” Lifen said through pursed lips, but then her face softened and she continued. “I must return home to Canada to my other students—it isn’t safe for me to leave them alone. I have already been away from them too long. There I can teach you what you need to know about healing. Sadly, you are not able to help Chance yet, since you truly just came into your powers yesterday. It is not something a beginner can do. It will take practice and time, but I sense so much potential in you. I see you becoming truly great.”
“But what about Chance? It feels wrong abandoning him here. I can’t leave him. I won’t. What if he comes back looking for me?” Ana’s throat tightened again.
Lifen adjusted on the bed to face her. “What if he does? He killed the power-hungry shifter. You tell me Chance was a kindhearted person. But even the most peaceful shifter would be poisoned by the voices and memories from just one unbalanced shapeshifter. If he comes back for you, he will not be the same person you grew to love. It would be safer if you remained hidden from him.”
Ana stood up and brushed past Lifen. She stomped over to her bag and pulled out a set of clothes. A bra dangled from her hand as she pointed at Lifen. “Well, what about you then? If I’m not ready, why can’t you help him?”
Lifen rose gracefully from the edge of the bed and pulled open the drapes, letting in the morning light. “When trying to free the mind of a shifter who’s been imprinted with another’s personality and memories, that shifter must be willing to let the healer in. It is not as simple as healing a wound or soothing an achy belly. It involves the psyche and removing foreign energy. You must be careful because many things can go wrong. Chance does not know me. He will naturally be distrustful, which will make it a challenge. If he resists me, then I cannot help him, because it will only cause harm.”
“But what if he wants to be healed? I know he would, if I could just find him and talk to him.” Ana’s throat tightened again and she took a deep breath, trying to force her airway open. She was desperate for the opportunity to put things right. Her fear of leaving the area without at least trying to find him and help him was overwhelming.
It was all because of his instinct to protect her. Although she’d threatened never to forgive Chance if he sacrificed himself for her again, it wasn’t anger that poisoned her heart, it was guilt. If it weren’t for her, he may not have been forced to make a choice that put his life in danger again. Maybe she could have done something differently. When she ran into the jungle to find Chance, she’d intended to help him, but in the end she’d been his downfall.
Lifen waited in silence as Ana remained trapped in her tortured thoughts. Finally, her mentor spoke. “Even though I do not think this will yield the result you seek, I will help you track him so you may try to convince him. But I do not wish to see you hurt. I did not wait patiently by only to lose you now.”
“Oh, thank you, Lifen! He wouldn’t hurt me, I’m sure of it. He’ll listen to me and you’ll be able to help him so we can all go back to your place together. It’ll work out, I know it will.” But she didn’t know it. Ana’s confidence went only as far as her words.
Lifen gave Ana a sympathetic smile. Ana wasn’t the only one who knew her words were empty. “Alright, young one. We must collect our things so that we may revisit the last place you saw him. The longer we take, the harder it will be to catch his scent.”
Ana darted around the room and crammed her things into her travel backpack. It was hard for her not to fold everything neatly and do a proper job of it, but she didn’t care if her clothes got wrinkled. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was finding Chance as quickly as possible.
“What about your stuff?” Ana asked Lifen after she accounted for all of her things.
Lifen tucked a stray hair into her bun and slipped an elegant silk purse over her shoulder. “I have all of my belongings on me. Shifters must learn to travel light.” She paused, glanced at Ana with her lips upturned. “You may be going a little lighter than I recommend, Ana.”
Ana frowned and looked down. She only had on her sleeping shirt and underwear. “Right.”
Lifen wandered gracefully to the door, her pale blue sarong curled out behind her as she moved. Ana unzipped her bag and pulled out a pair of jean shorts and a fresh T-shirt. She shoved her jammies back into her pack and pulled her hair into a ponytail. She hadn’t even seen herself in a mirror yet, but it would have to do.
Morning light poured in through the open door and Ana rushed to catch up to her mentor. While they wandered through the hotel hallway, Ana thought of something and cursed under her breath. She wasn’t sure which would be more challenging—catching up with Chance, or telling her mom she wasn’t coming home just yet.