Excerpt – Track the Sun

Chapter 1

A warm breeze ruffled my fur, bringing with it the scent of the desert. Though it had been nearly a decade since I had visited my girlhood home, everything was still achingly familiar. The cooling sand beneath my paws, the distant yip of a coyote, and the bright moon in a cloudless sky. But it was my heightened sense of smell that really brought my surroundings to life. It still amazed me how much my perceptions changed with my form. It also made it clear that this was a dream. I had only run through the desert on four paws oncethe night before I left it.

Odd that Id started dreaming of the desert again. Prior to the last few nights, it had been years since Id last dreamed of this familiar landscape. In the past, I would have awakened the moment I found myself hereas I had the last couple of nightsbut this time, I felt a brazen need to remain in this place. After all, I was an adult, well past the fears of childhood.

I trotted down the rise Id been standing on, digging in with my nails when the loose soil shifted beneath me. Just as the ground leveled out, a jackrabbit darted out from under a nearby bush. Startled, my heart surged, then instinct took over and I sprang after it.

Exhilaration filled me, and I saw only the furry form attempting to elude me. Each time I closed, the rabbit turned, but I turned almost as quickly. I had no doubt that with an extra burst of speed, I would have him, but I had no true desire to catch and kill the animal. It was all about the chase. So when he disappeared into the narrow opening of a burrow, I wasnt too torn up about it.

I gave the entrance a cursory sniff, to make certain he hadnt found the burrow occupied and was about to dart back out. His scent had moved beyond the entryway, leaving me to conclude that hed found shelter in the depths of the hole. The chase was over.

With a mental shrug, I turned awayand froze.

He stood mere feet from me. Not the rabbit, but the reason Id trained myself to avoid this place.

The Mexican wolf watched me, his ears erect and his tail up. A stance of interest and alert watchfulness. He was even bigger than I remembered, but the last time wed run across this dreamscape together, hed been a scrawny teenagerlike me.

His golden eyes met mine, and I woke with a gasp.

I sat up so quickly that I knocked my planner onto the floor, where it landed with a thump. Heart pounding, I struggled to orient myself in time and place.

My head cleared as I took in the familiar surroundings: my old desk, the shelves loaded with ribbons and trophies, and assorted chew toys littering the indoor/outdoor carpet that covered the floor. I was in my office at the Queen City Canine Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio. Far from my childhood home in the desert.

Get a grip, Tegan,I told myself, pushing back the strands of blonde hair that had come loose from my ponytail. It was just a dream.

Deep down, I knew that was a lie, but the falsehood gave me hope that it might have been a dream. I was able to quell the growing alarm that would erupt into a panic attack if I let it.

Needing to move, I got to my feet and stretched to relieve the stiffness. I really needed a better cushion for my chair. I wasnt one to nap during the day, but my recent struggles with the desert dreams had left me exhausted. However, today was the first time he had shown up. Did that mean

A series of vicious snarls carried through my open door. For a second, I thought it a remnant of my dream until human shouts joined the growing cacophony. A dogfight.

I rushed out of my office into the large training area that took up most of the space within the

building. My boss and fellow instructor, Velma Durkins, had an obedience class in session, but at the moment, it was anything but. She stood to one side, shouting instructions as a man and a woman tried to separate their dogs. The man held a broken leash while the woman struggled to pull her Rottweiler away from the Chow he was fighting.

As I neared the conflict, I could see that the Chow was the aggressor. The Rottweiler was in a defensive posture, protecting his mistress.

I arrived at the womans side and gripped the leash in front of her hand. I got this,I reassured her. But hang on to the leash.I slid my hands along the thick canvas as I moved closer to her dog.

The two animals had parted, but both remained in their aggressive stances, teeth bared and fur bristling. They werent done.

I reached the Rottweilers side and laid a hand on his shoulderwhich came to my upper thigh. Easy, big boy,I said, my tone calm, but also firm and confident.

Rubbing his thick neck at the base of his skull, I continued to reassure him. It wasnt really the words I spoke, but the way I said them. Tone of voice was critical when dealing with dogs.

The Rottweiler relaxed his lips and lifted his large head. His earswhich had been pressed against his skullrose at the sound of my voice.

I scratched his head, then stepped in front of him, blocking his view of the Chow.

Maam,I said, keeping my eyes on the other dog, please lead him away.

Come on, Moab,the woman said, the words weak and shaky. Ive got treats!Her voice rose on the last word, finally masking her fear. I needed to speak to her about using a confident, authoritative voice. Fortunately, her dog was probably a big sweetie who didnt take too much advantage of her.

I heard, rather than watched, the woman and Rottweiler move away. My attention remained focused on the Chow who was intently watching his sparring partner walk off.

Hey there,I said, my tone friendly, but firm. I wasnt here to start a fight, but I wouldnt take any guff, either. To my relief, the dogs gaze shifted to me. That was a good start if

Suddenly the Chows owner moved to his side and reached for his collar.

Wait, dont—” I didnt get to finish as the dog whirled with a snarl.

The man jerked his hand back, narrowly avoiding the snapping jaws.

Why, you ungrateful…” The man pulled back the hand that held the broken leash.

I stepped forward, positioning myself between them, but it was too late. The Chow had seen the threat. With another snarl, it lunged toward us.

Stop!I shouted, staring directly into the animals eyes.

The dog stumbled to a stop, clearly surprised by my unwillingness to back off. He wasnt used to someone standing her ground.

Were done here,I told the dog, my voice cold and stern. I wont tolerate any more of this behavior.

He no longer snarled, but his ears and tail remained low. He was reconsidering his decision to attack, but he still didnt know what to make of me.

Youre missing out on a lot of good stuff by acting this way,I told him. As I spoke, I moved closer. There are treats and cuddles…” I reached for his collar.

Be careful,the dogs owner blurted in a loud voice.

I jumped at the sudden noise, and the dog jerked away with a snarl.

Enough,I commanded, then laid my hand atop the Chows bushy head.

He froze, clearly not sure what to expect. He growled softly, a warning, but not one he was confident about acting on.

I softened my tone and continued. Thats a good boy. See? Theres no need for violence.I rubbed one ear and the low growl quieted.

What the hell?the dogs owner muttered. Are you magical?

I spared the man a frown. This guy was really starting to annoy me. Magic is not needed to get good behavior from your dog.

It is if you get results that quickly,the man insisted.

I gritted my teeth to keep a rude response from escaping. Since magic had appeared to the world almost twenty-five years ago, a magical explanation made for a good excuse, but not in this case.

Dog training is what I do for a living,I answered, my tone cool. Im good at it.

Velma was watching us, her eyes narrowed as she listened to the conversation. I wasnt certain if it was because of the mans accusation, or me bragging about my skills. I hoped it was the latter. Velma hated magic and made no secret about it.

Do you have another leash?I asked the man, trying to steer the conversation to safer ground. I had slipped my hand beneath the dogs collar as we spoke. If you dont have another, I have some in my office.

I have one in my car.He glanced between me and the dog, his expression still suspicious, but he hurried off to get the leash.

Velma cleared her throat, drawing the attention of her remaining students. Since we have only five minutes left in the class and our animals concentration is hopelessly broken, Im going to stop here.She went on to encourage them to practice their leash work and promised a more productive session next time.

She received a few mutters of agreement, though most of the half dozen people were still watching me rub the Chows ears. But with Velmas dismissal, they seemed to realize that the show was over and headed for the door.

Velma turned her frown on me. I do not appreciate you interrupting my class.

I interrupted your class? A class in what? Dog fighting?

She cast a dark look at me, but didnt get to respond as the Chows owner returned, a leash dangling from his hand.

He stopped and stared at me. Hes letting you pet him?

Thats unusual?Most dogs loved a good ear rubbing.

He can be temperamental. Thats why Im here.

Im glad that youre making the effort and not giving up on him,I said, meaning it. But you will get better results if you remain calm in your dealings with him. Do not react in anger, no matter what he does. But most important, use a confident tone when you speak to him.

Velma cleared her throat. She was always hypercritical of what she called my chatterbox method. The thing was, my method wasnt earth-shatteringor magical. Dogs were adept at reading body languageboth their fellow canines and their owners. Humans communicated on the same level, but with our reliance on a spoken language, our awareness of body language had become more subconscious. Yet just because we were unaware of it, didnt mean it wasnt still there.

My method encouraged dog owners to speak to their pets as they would a person. Their body language would translate their expectations to the dog. Yes, it could be tricky. Human emotions,

especially those outside the momentsay anxiety about work, or a problem with a relationshipcould creep in and mess things up. I encouraged my students to focus on their tone of voice, forcing them to remain in the moment and aware of what they were truly communicating to their pet.

You must be firm,Velma advised the man. Perhaps private lessons would be best until you have him more in hand.

The man frowned as he clipped the leash to his dogs collar. He looked up, meeting my eyes. Though I must wonder if the woman petting my unruly, snap-at-anything-that-moves dog might have a better method.

I stopped petting his dog and looked up.

Good day.The man led his dog away.

What?I asked when Velma turned her frown on me. Im sure you saw that he was afraid of his own dogand the dog knew it.

Precisely. Changing his tone will not salvage that relationship. Just because something works for you, does not mean it will work for the rest of us.

I studied her. Was that a backhanded slam on my recent success? A Hollywood producer was working with me to develop a show for one of the networks. He had been intrigued with my training method and wanted to showcase it. We were still in the planning stages, but he was coming over this afternoon to film me in an agility competition.

The TV show was an incredible opportunity that would allow me to achieve my dream of helping dogs and their owners live happy lives together. Okay, it wasnt exactly world peace, but it was my dream.

My method works. For everyone,I told Velma.

If you truly believe that, youre deluding yourself.

I took a breath, preparing to defend myself, and stopped. For some reason, Velma didnt like me, and since she owned the Queen City Canine Academy, it was best that I made an effort to get alongespecially with my contract up for renewal in two months.

Well just have to agree to disagree.I tried for a smile, but suspected I looked more like a dog baring her teeth.

Velma pursed her lips as if she debated continuing the argument, but like me, she seemed to decide it was pointless. Without another word, she turned on her heel and marched off to her own office on the other side of the room.

Way to keep your cool,I muttered to myself, then headed for the exit.

One of the perks of working at the academy was that the job came with an apartment. Well, I still paid rent, but it was very affordable, and the apartment was located upstairs. Though a pain during inclement weather, the exterior entrance did provide a way to separate work from my private space. I followed the sidewalk to the far end of the building where a set of wooden stairs led to a small deck that served as my front porch. Unlocking the door, I had barely stepped inside before I was attacked by a white and brown bundle of canine happiness.

Okay, okay, Im back.I laughed as Athena, my Jack Russell terrier, danced around me, barking a greeting. I leaned over to rub her ears. I was only gone an hour,I reminded her. But you did miss some fireworksand Im not talking about the dog fight during Velmas class.

Athena wagged her short tail in what I took to be a supportive manner.

I patted her shoulder, then straightened. But Im not going to dwell on it. We have an agility trial to prepare for.

Athena answered with a single bark, her stance alert and eager. She knew the word agility.

Chuckling, I crossed to my tiny kitchen to grab a bottle of water from the fridge. I was reaching for the door handle when I glimpsed movement out of the corner of my eye.

I turned with a gasp, facing the living room on the other side of the breakfast bar. Athena stood at my feet, waiting for me to open the fridge, so she hadnt been what caught my attention. In my minds eye, the shape had been much larger.

Xol?I whispered his name for the first time in years, pronouncing it as he did. Zole. I stood quietly, waiting and listening. My mind conjured all sorts of soft rustlings from the dark hall that led to my bedroom. A brush of fur against the wall. The nearly silent click of claws on the hardwood floor.

I glanced down at Athena, but she was still staring up at me, waiting for the opening of the refrigerator door. Her senses were much better than mine, so if he was here, she would hear him. Then too, she had been distracted by

Stop it.I spoke the words between clenched teeth.

Athena whined.

Not you.I leaned down and rubbed her head. Im just losing my mind.

I needed to stop this. He wasnt here, nor was anything else. If it was a monster from my past, it wouldnt be skulking in the shadows. It would attack.

For some reason, that terrifying thought calmed me.

How about a piece of cheese?I asked Athena.

She barked once, then danced around my feet, unable to contain her excitement. She knew the word cheese as welland loved it. I kept a pack of cheese cubes on hand for special treats, and Thena knew those were kept in the refrigeratorhence the intent stare she was currently giving the appliance.

Not as much fun as chasing a rabbit,I confided as I opened the fridge, but certainly tastier. I assume.

Athena just wiggled.

I tossed her a cube of cheese, and she snapped it out of the air.

Smiling at her antics. I selected a bottle of water and closed the door. I was lifting the bottle to my lips when a knock at my door caused me to jumpand spill water down the front of my T-shirt.

Damn it,I muttered while Athena raced to the door, barking the whole way.

Athena, enough.I followed her across the room. I wasnt expecting anyone, so it must be Velma. I really wasnt in the mood for more of her.

I pulled open the door. What?The word was out before I realized it wasnt Velma.

My best friend, Katerina Wilson, stood on the threshold and arched an eyebrow.

With a happy whine, Athena rushed forward to greet her, wagging her short tail so enthusiastically that she wiggled her whole body.

At least someone is happy to see me.Kat bent to scratch Athenas head.

I reined in my agitation. Sorry. I thought you were Velma.

That explains it.Pushing her dark red hair from her face, Kat straightened. What has that woman done now?

Just her usual uptight bullshit.I stepped back and waved Kat into the apartment.

Shes a real piece of work,Kat agreed, walking inside. Her eyes narrowed as she looked me over. But you usually laugh it off. Was there more to it?

Yes, Velma was a source of annoyance, but Kat was right, I usually laughed her offeven events like this mornings. I opened my mouth, but before I could speak, Kat continued.

Your hands are shaking.

I stuffed my hands into the front pockets of my shorts like a guilty child. Its nothing. I slept poorly and—”

Kats eyes narrowed, and I realized Id said the wrong thing. Whats going on?

Really, its nothing. Im just—”

Out with it, Tegan.

I loved Kat dearly, but she was annoyingly astute at picking up distress in others. It made her a great veterinarian, but I hated it when she turned that talent on me.

Seeing no alternative, I answered. Ive been dreaming about the desert.

Kats forehead wrinkled. For how long? And why havent you said anything?

Just the last couple of nights. Im all right.I smiled as I spoke, but Kat didnt fall for it.

I thought you were past this.

I am.I waved away her concern, walking back to the kitchen to pick up a dish towel and blot the wet spot on my shirt.

Did something happen?Kat followed me to the kitchen. Something that triggered a memory?

Athena gave up on more petting and retreated to the couch and her chew toy.

No.I kept my attention on my T-shirt. Nothing like that.

You think it was him?Her voice dropped to a whisper as if she was afraid of being overheard.

I made an effort not to glance at the hall. No. It was probably just my subconscious. Things have been going so well, it probably wanted to remind me not to get too full of myself.

Dont.Kat caught my hands. Youve worked your ass off for this. You deserve it.

I smiled despite my grumpy mood. It wasnt fair to take it out on Kat. Shed seen me through some dark times. I just wished shed accept the fact that I was okay now. I was strong enough to face my fears and make my own way in life.

Im fine. Really,I insisted. It wasnt a night terror. Actually, the dreams have been pleasant. Just me running through the desert.Until this mornings dream, but I didnt dare tell her about that.

What are you doing here?I asked, trying to change the subject. Have I forgotten a holiday?Kat wouldnt leave the animal clinic she owned and operated without a really good reason. I knew she normally had appointments at this time of day.

I left Bo in charge.

I lifted an eyebrow. She wasnt one to turn over the reins so easily, and certainly not to a new employee. Bo hadnt even been there a month. Something important had inspired this visit.

Now Im worried,I admitted. Whats going on?

She studied me a moment as if debating whether to answer. Bo got an address for that guy running those dog fights. The guy is supposed to be out of town tonight.

Seriously? Way to go, Bo. You know Im in, but you could have sent a text.I studied her. Why did you really drive all the way over here?

She picked up the dish towel and, after folding it neatly, returned it to the counter. Look. Youve had a hard morning. This can wait.

Dont coddle me. You drove all the way over here for a reasonand you havent given me

the real one yet.

She sighed. Okay. Fine.She pulled her phone from her pocket. A few taps on the screen, and she handed it to me.

Whats this?I glanced at the paused video of a wooded area.

Just watch it.

I tapped the screen and the video began to play. The image was a little grainy, but I recognized the forest path and the gated stone wall that bordered a field. I also recognized the white Jack Russell terrier that trotted into view. It wasnt Athena.

What the hell?I whispered.

Its not as bad as you think,Kat reassured me.

I would have given her a frown, but my attention was fixed on the screen, my heart hammering for what felt like the hundredth time this morning. I watched the video, though I knew what would happen next.

The Jack Russell trotted toward the gate. The position of the camera was in the forest, the view partially obscured by trees, though the dog remained visible.

Was someone hiding in the trees, filming this?

According to the description, it was a game camera. You can see the salt lick in the foreground. My guess is that the owner was trying to get some video of deer.

I glanced where she indicated and saw that she was right. Meanwhile, the terrier took the last few strides toward the gate, the camera now positioned behind her. She vanished from view for a moment behind a tree that stood between the camera and the terrier. The video cut outthe game camera shutting off due to lack of movement?then back on. Except the dog was no longer in sight. Instead, it was a woman. A naked woman.



Releases April 30, 2020

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