Lion's Take

In honor of Thanksgiving, I decided to share a “short” story with you. This story shows that family doesn’t always mean blood. And sometimes, we find families in unexpected places. Let me know what you think.

Lion’s Take:

The dark haired woman came through the door as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon. Her black boots, leather pants, and leather jacket were made almost brown with road dust. She placed her hard plastic helmet on the bar top then nodded to the bartender.

“Evening.”

He nodded, walked over and took in her clear green eyes and delicate features. “Evening. What can I get you?”

“Got any local brews?”

He shrugged. “Couple.”

“Any local stouts?”

“Yep, one.”

“Really? That’s surprising.” In this out of the way bar, she didn’t expect that.

The bartender shrugged. “Owner of the bar also owns the brewery.”

Amy smiled. “Gotcha. I’ll take a bottle.”

She unzipped her jacket and pulled her wallet out of the inner pocket as the bartender turned and grabbed a dark bottle out of the cooler on the back wall. He popped the top as he turned back to her then placed the bottle on the bar in front of her. She looked at the label and grinned. It was called Lion’s Take, and had a mountain lion gracing the front.

“Four bucks.”

She nodded and handed him six. “Keep it.”

As he nodded thanks and turned away, Amy felt eyes boring into the side of her head. She hid a smile as she took her beer and sipped it. The stout had a pleasant coffee aftertaste. Wondering who was looking at her, she turned, but not to see who was looking at her. She turned in the opposite direction, taking in the bar.

The old building was large and square on the outside, but inside the shape was distorted by various hallways and separated rooms. The main room took up most of the space, with the bathrooms at the back. There were two pool tables opposite the bar, and she could see another pool table and two dartboards beyond the separating wall. There were a lot of tables, most unoccupied and empty stools all along the bar and far wall near the pool tables.

Amy wasn’t surprised that the bar was empty: it was Tuesday. Most people worked tomorrow. The bar, Paw’s, was too far out of the way for people to casually stop in on a work night. As she continued to turn, she realized there were two tables with occupants and no one at the bar. One table had a young couple who were sitting very close to each other, whispering to each other and looking intently into each other’s eyes. Amy guessed they were in a relationship.

The other table had four people: one woman and three men. The foursome did not look like they belonged together. The woman was still dressed for work, including her sheriff’s badge and gun. Her radio sat on the table in front of her. Two of the men were dressed in jeans and looked like factory workers; the third man wore a very nice dark grey suit. He was the one staring at her. She nodded to him and watched as he stood and came over to her. He had dark hair, hazel eyes, strong chin and strong cheekbones. He stuck out his hand.

“Hi. I’m Etienne.”

Amy looked him up and down, then took his hand. “Hi, Etienne. I’m Amy. I like your name. French, isn’t it?”

He smiled as he let go of her hand. “It is. How did you know?”

She shrugged then took a slow swallow of beer. “Either heard it in a movie once or met someone with the same name. I travel a lot. Meet lots of people.”

“What brings you here, Amy?”

She licked her lips and smiled. He had a nice voice, not too deep, but smooth as silk. She shrugged at his question. “Passing through.”

He frowned a bit. “Where are you headed? There’s not much in this area.”

Amy gave a small laugh. “You’re right. There isn’t. I don’t have any real destination. When I get up in the morning, I point my bike in a direction and go. This morning, I realized I had never been to Coeur D’Alene. I thought I had enough time, but my bike gave me some trouble. I was forced to stop for repairs, which slowed me up.” She gave a small frown. “You know of a place I can sleep tonight?”

“There’s a room upstairs. Joe can tell you if someone’s claimed it for the night.”

She frowned. “Joe?”

He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “Bartender.”

Amy nodded and made a noncommittal noise. “So why are you so helpful? You the welcoming committee?”

He grinned and Amy decided she liked the grin. “You’re new. Thought I’d make you feel welcomed.”

She gave him a soft, friendly smile. “It’s working so far.” She looked him up and down, then placed her hand on his lovely, if out of place suit, rubbing the lapel between her thumb and forefinger. The soft fabric teased her fingertips. “So what is a man like you doing in a place like this? You look like you belong in a high class restaurant or fancy office.”

He shrugged. “I like dressing well. Cloths make the man.” He gave a slight shrug. “Or so the saying goes.”

Amy laughed and moved her hand away from him. She noticed he sighed in disappointment when she stopped touching him. “What does that say about me then?”

Etienne took a chance and stepped closer. He placed his hand on her cheek and peered into her laughing green eyes. “A beautiful woman, dressed in leather who arrived on a powerful bike?” He gave her a smirk. “It speaks volumes.”

She raised her eyebrow, then her drink. Amy took a slow sip, which forced his hand to move away. As she placed her beer back on the bar, she sighed. “You may be reading the wrong thing. Why don’t you tell me what you see?”

He leaned against the bar and crossed his arms in thought as he looked at her. “You’re traveling alone, which means you’re either not afraid, or not experienced enough to be afraid. Your clothing look well worn, but not too worn, which means this is not your first time riding, probably not even your first year. That tells me you’re not afraid to be alone. You came in here, and didn’t pause when I started talking to you. That tells me that you know you can handle yourself, and have done so enough that you know you don’t have to be a bitch to get a man to leave you alone.”

“Impressive.”

He grinned. “Care to try me out?”

They stared at each other for a moment as the double entendre hung in the air. Amy grinned at the handsome man in front of her. “Nah. I’m not arrogant enough to think I know someone on the first meet.”

He hissed in air in mock anger. “Touché.”

She liked him. Amy didn’t want to like him, but she did. She wanted to play with him some more, and wondered how she could continue, when she realized she was starting to get hungry. She frowned and looked for the bartender. Not finding him, she looked to Etienne. “Is there a kitchen here?”

“Yes, and you could stay here and order food then sleep in the room upstairs, or you could come home with me, let me cook you dinner and then sleep in my bed.”

She stared at him, a dare shining in her eyes. “And what makes you think I’m that kind of girl?”

“I’m hoping you’re not usually that kind of girl, but will be in this case.”

Amy laughed. She definitely liked him, but didn’t want to appear too eager. “And are you that type of man, usually?”

“I usually don’t do this, no.”

She thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. “Look, this is ridiculous. I really am only here for the night. In the morning when I wake up, I’ll get on my bike and go. I won’t wake you to say goodbye and you’ll probably never see me again. It’s really rare for me to take the same road twice.”

His hazel eyes bore into her green ones. He wanted to be with her tonight. “Ok.”

She raised her beer to her lips then looked to the sheriff still sitting at the table. “We wouldn’t be able to leave now. I’ve been drinking and though I’m no lightweight, how can I trust that she won’t pull me over the second I get on my bike?” She looked to Etienne. “This could all be a ruse to get me to pay a hefty fine.”

“Darla’s family. I know her well enough to know she doesn’t pull that type of thing. And if you’re really worried about it, I could drive you to my place, bring you back here in the morning when you wake up.”

“Oh, no. Like I said. I wake up and go. No long goodbyes, no driving me to my bike. If I go home with you, I’m taking my bike, and all the stuff on it.”

He crossed his arms again. “So what do we do?”

She took a sip of beer and placed the half full bottle back on the bar. “Do you play pool?”

Etienne nodded. “I do.”

“Why don’t we play pool? Two out of three wins, and winner decides what we do for the evening.”

Amy wanted to spend the night with him, but still hadn’t decided if it were a good idea. She usually didn’t have one-night stands, but there was something about him that piqued her interest, aside from that fact that he was really good looking. When he nodded, she grinned.

“Sounds good.”

“You any good at pool?”

“Not really, but if it gives you more time to think, I’m all for it.”

She smiled. “Let’s go.”

Etienne grabbed her by the arm before she could move away and pulled her into his arms. He stared down into her eyes for a fraction of a second then pulled her even closer and kissed her. Amy’s arm snaked around his neck and her nails dug into his skin as his body pressed into hers. When he let her go, they were both breathing quickly.

“You should be careful.” She stated softly. “That kind of thing can get you scratched.”

He grinned. “Maybe I like being scratched.”

She made an approving noise and took her beer and helmet off the bar. She took them closer to the pool table and looked to Etienne as she took off her jacket. “Set up the table. I need a minute.”

He nodded and headed to the pool table as Amy headed to the restroom.

In a daze, thinking about Etienne’s kiss, Amy didn’t see the sheriff until they bumped into each other in the hallway outside the bathroom.

“Oh! Sorry.”

The sheriff’s eyes opened wide and she looked startled, then quickly recovered. “No worries.”

Amy continued to the restroom, but the sheriff looked over her shoulder at the newcomer, a frown on her face, a stray thought flitting through her mind. She couldn’t be one of them, could she?

                                                            *****

Etienne woke to the sound of a motorcycle starting up. He lay on his side as the bike sounds grew louder for a moment, then faded into the dawn. He sighed and tried to lie on his back. He hissed in pain and rolled back onto his side, a smile on his face. He reached out to the spot Amy just vacated. Her side of the bed was still warm. Etienne grabbed her pillow and brought it to his nose. Still smelled like her. He imagined that would not last long.

The alarm on the side table went off and he sat up. He moved to the edge of the bed then turned off the alarm. Darla would be here soon. He sighed again, left the bed and slipped on some sweatpants as he headed to the kitchen. He started the coffee and as if she knew he was up, Darla came through the kitchen door.

“Morning.”

“Morning. Is she gone?” She was dressed in sweats and her hair was down.

“Left a few minutes ago.”

 “You have any weird dreams last night?” Darla asked as she opened his fridge.

“Didn’t sleep long enough to dream.”

She stopped looking in the fridge and turned to Etienne. “She kept you up all night?”

The smile on his face spoke volumes. “Yep.” He turned on the coffeepot and looked to Darla. “I can’t remember the last time that happened.”

Darla closed the fridge, leaned against the counter and looked at Etienne. “I think she’s like us.”

Etienne frowned as he turned to pull mugs out of the cupboard. “Nonsense. We know all our family.”

“I didn’t say she was family. I said she’s like us.” She stared at the scratches on his back. “What happened to your back?”

Etienne grinned like a schoolboy and turned back to Darla. “She liked to use her nails. I liked letting her.”

She gave him a look then shook her head. “I bumped into her last night, when she went to the restroom. There was something about her, Etienne. I didn’t think about it too much, until I woke up this morning. I dreamt about her. She was running through a field under the full moon, and turned into a coyote, then a bear, then an eagle.”

He frowned at her. “That could mean anything.”

“Grandpa told me once about a tribe of nomads that were like us, but had the ability to change into any animal they had dreamt of. Etienne, what if she’s from the nomadic tribe?”

Etienne had his hands on the counter, his head down. He took a moment to think then sighed. “Darla, what does it matter? She’s not coming back.”

Darla wanted to tell him about the rest of the dream, then saw the look in his eyes and stopped. The look and the sound of his voice showed Darla how much Etienne already missed Amy. Instead of continuing, Darla relented.

“You’re right. Never mind. I’m going running. I’ll be back in a little bit.”

“Breakfast will be ready by the time you get back.”

He went about making breakfast as Darla left. Three steps off the porch, already in the woods, Darla concentrated and turned into a mountain lion.

                                                            *****

                                                Five Years Later

The bar hadn’t changed much in the past five years. There were more people here today than there had been before, but that might only be due to the fact that it was Saturday. Half the tables were occupied, there was a smattering of customers at the bar and she could hear people playing pool.

Amy sighed and unzipped her jacket as she looked around. Not immediately seeing Etienne, she went to the bar and waved down the bartender. Though she hadn’t been here in five years, she thought it was the same man as last time, so she called his name.

“Joe.”

He came to her and nodded. “What can I get for you?”

“I’m looking for Etienne. Can you tell me if he’s been here, or even if he will be here today?”

Joe gave the woman a hard stare, trying to remember her. Something about her was familiar, but he wasn’t sure what. “Why are you looking for him?”

She crossed her arms and returned the look. “That’s my business, but if this helps, I was here five years ago and met him then.”

It wasn’t much to go on, but something tickled his memory. “What’d you order when you were here last?”

She gave him an open mouthed stare then shook her head, wondering if he would remember her from her order. “I asked if you had any local stouts.”

His expression became friendlier. “Then you played pool with Etienne.”

Amy looked surprised. “Good memory.”

He shrugged. “Not many people ask for a local brew, let alone a local stout. Then you ended up playing pool with the owner. That sticks in the mind.”

The surprised look came back. “He’s the owner?”

Joe frowned. “You didn’t know?”

She blushed and gave a short, embarrassed laugh. “We didn’t talk much.”

He smiled as if he understood then nodded. “He’ll be in later this evening. If you want, I can call him and let him know you’re here.”

Amy smiled at him gratefully. “I would really appreciate that. Can you tell him Amy’s here?”

“Sure. Did you want anything while you wait?”

“Two bottled waters, if you have them.”

He nodded, grabbed the water, and placed them on the bar. “If you’re going to be here awhile, and think you’ll order more, I can start a tab.”

Amy smiled again. “I would appreciate that. Thank you. I’m taking the waters to my bike, but I’ll be back in.”

Joe went to the phone, a few steps away. Amy picked up the waters and walked outside. She nodded to her friend Bess, who still sat on her bike. Amy indicated the child sleeping in the sidecar on the other bike.

“Jenny’s out cold.” Amy handed Bess the second bottle of water.

“She’s had a long day. Let her sleep. I’ll let you know when she wakes.”

Amy nodded.

“Is he here?”

“He will be. Bartender’s calling him. I’m going back in.”

Amy turned and went back inside, sipping water as she walked. She went back to sit at the bar and wait for Etienne. She didn’t have to wait long and when he came in she could feel his eyes on her almost immediately. This time, she turned to look at him as soon as she knew he was looking at her.

Their eyes met and he walked quickly to her. She stepped off the stool and was suddenly in his arms. The kiss he gave her nearly stopped her heart. She had been so afraid of this moment. Now that it was here, she wondered why she had waited so long.

Etienne let her go and looked down into her eyes. “Hey. Thought I’d never see you again.”

She placed her hand on his cheek. “Unforeseen circumstances.” Her eyes traced the lines on his face. He was still rather handsome. “You look good.”

He grinned. “Thank you. You do, too.”

Amy gave a tense smile. “I came here for a reason Etienne. I…”

He looked worried. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know how to tell you this. I’ve thought about this so many times, but…”

“MOMMY!”

Amy turned to the door and saw Jenny, her daughter running to her. Amy caught her in her arms and looked to Etienne. She still didn’t know what to say to him.

Etienne looked at the girl in Amy’s arms. She had hazel eyes and dark hair. The shape of her nose and face were like his. He looked to Amy, who spoke to the girl.

“Jenny, this is mommy’s friend Etienne. Can you say hi?”

Jenny stared at Etienne for a moment, then held her arms out and opened and closed her fists as if she expected a hug from him. Etienne didn’t say anything as he pulled the child into his arms. The moment she was settled against his chest, he knew for certain she was his. He looked to Amy, who looked ashamed.

“I’m sorry.” She mouthed. There were tears in her eyes.

Etienne closed his eyes and held the little girl – his daughter – to him. An unknown voice sounded near Amy.

“I’m sorry. I was talking to the sheriff. Jenny woke up and ran in here before I realized.”

“It’s OK. Jenny? Can you go with Aunt Bess? Mommy has to talk to Etienne.”

Jenny pulled away from Etienne without a word and allowed him to set her on her feet. She took Bess’ hand and the pair left the bar. Etienne waited until they were gone to look back to Amy. She looked terrible.

“I’m so sorry. I wanted to tell you, but I was terrified. I was afraid you wouldn’t want to see her, then I thought maybe you would want to keep her from me. I…” She looked down at her hands and took a deep breath. “I used the fact that I didn’t know much about you to justify not finding you, but I could have found a way to call you.”

Etienne felt his heart break and he wanted to yell, but he decided not to. He reached out and placed his hand under Amy’s chin to lift her head up. “Stop. Take a deep breath.” Once she did, he continued. “Are you sure she’s mine?”

“Yeah. I don’t sleep around and usually when I sleep with someone, I insist on a condom. If you want a paternity test, we’ll get one done. I’ll pay for it. I don’t mind. I know she’s yours, but if you want proof, that’s all right. You deserve that.”

He nodded, then heaved a great sigh and sat on a nearby stool. He didn’t know what to say. Amy placed a hand on his arm.

“Etienne, I don’t want anything from you. I just wanted to give you the opportunity to know her. If you want us to leave, we will. If you want us to stay for a paternity test, we’ll stay. I’m hoping you don’t insist on sole custody. I’m hoping we can work something out.”

“This is a lot to take in.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

He sighed again. “Do you have a place to stay while we get the test done?”

The girl was his, but he wanted proof. He also wanted to be with Amy and Jenny for a little bit until he knew what he was going to do. There was too much Amy didn’t know about him that she would have to know in order to deal with Jenny properly.

She gave him a sheepish smile. “I was kind of hoping we could stay at your place? Maybe I could stay in your bed?”

His eyes opened wide at the thought of sharing his bed with her. Etienne pulled Amy into his arms and kissed her. “All I’ve dreamt about since you left was having you in my bed again.”

Amy blushed and tried to pull away. “That’s…”

He stared into her eyes. “I’ve embarrassed you.”

She closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “I’ve had the same dream. Not every night, but often.”

Etienne gave a happy grin. “Do you remember where my place is?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Go there. I’ll join you shortly.”

“I have a tab to pay.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll pay it. Just go to my place.”

She frowned a bit. “Why can’t I just follow you up there?”

He gave her a kiss. “I have some things I need to take care of. I’ll be there shortly. Is it just you, Jenny and…Bess was it?”

“Yes. Is it alright if Bess stays?”

“Not a problem.” He gave her one last kiss. “Go before I convince you to join me in the back.”

She laughed and slipped away. As she left the bar, Darla came in. She went to Etienne, a knowing look on her face.

“I told you.”

“Shut up Darla. I don’t need to hear it right now.”

“That’s your kid. You have to tell her the truth. If you don’t…”

“Darla, I am fully aware of the issues. I don’t need this right now.”

“Etienne.”

He growled. Those near him moved away. Darla stood her ground. “Do you still consider me your alpha, Darla?”

She bowed her head. “Yes.”

“Then drop it. I am aware of what needs to be done.”

Darla nodded. “Yes, sir.”

He watched as she turned tail and left, then turned to Joe. The bartender came to him immediately. “Tell everyone to stay off my ranch. I’m going to have company for a while.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m paying her tab.”

“She just had a couple bottled waters. It’s not a problem.”

Etienne nodded, stood and left the bar.

                                                            *****

The morning sun streamed in through his windows, waking him slightly. The soft hand on his chest made him smile and woke him further. Etienne grabbed the hand and pulled Amy into his arms. As they kissed, someone knocked on his bedroom door and it opened before he could tell the person to go away. When a soft voice called out, Etienne let Amy go.

“Mommy?”

“What is it honey?”

“I’m hungry. Bess is running. Can I stay with you?”

Amy looked to Etienne, who gave a slight nod. “Sure, honey.”

Jenny ran to the bed, and before Amy could move, was laying between Etienne and Amy. She didn’t bother with moving the sheets. This pushed Amy and Etienne apart, but also hid their bodies. Jenny lay facing Etienne and reached out to touch his face, as if learning who he was.

“They’re the same.” Jenny said in a quiet voice.

“What honey?” Amy barely heard her daughter’s words.

Jenny looked at Etienne as she touched his eyebrows then hers. She spoke louder this time. “They’re the same.” Before either adult could say anything, Jenny scurried off the bed. “I’m hungry.”

“Go to the kitchen, Jenny. I’ll be right there.”

Jenny ran out of the room. Amy turned to Etienne, shaking her head. “I didn’t tell her to…”

He placed a finger on her lips. “I know.”

“She is yours though.”

He pulled her into his arms. “We’ll know soon, won’t we?”

She placed her hand on his cheek. “Etienne, do you really need a test to tell you she’s yours?”

They had been in his home for a nearly a week. The first day here, Etienne, Jenny and Amy went to the town doctor and asked him to run a paternity test. The doctor, an older man with thinning white hair, told them it would take about a week. It would take less time if they went to a bigger city, but Etienne seemed reluctant to do that.

He pulled Amy into his arms tighter, giving her a light kiss. “Maybe I want to wait for the test to keep you here. Maybe I feel like you’re going to leave as soon as we have the results, regardless of what they say. Maybe I just need a few more days to decide what happens after we find out the results.” He gave her a deeper kiss. When he spoke again, his voice was thick. “Maybe I just want you in my bed for longer this time around.”

She didn’t say anything, just held on to him tightly. She didn’t know what was going to happen after the results came back, but she knew she needed to leave soon. There was something out there calling to her and she needed to find it. She needed to leave. Holding back tears, Amy let Etienne go and climbed out of bed. She dressed quickly and went to take care of her daughter.

Before Etienne could follow, his cell vibrated on the side table. He picked it up and sighed. He tried to sound neutral as he answered. “Hi, doc.”

“Test results are in.”

Etienne sighed. “Can we come in later for the results?”

“I can tell you what they are over the phone.”

“I want to prolong this, doc. I don’t want her to leave yet.”

“All right. Come in when you can. I’ll see you when you get here.”

Etienne hung up, but lay on the bed for a moment. He really didn’t want to let her go. He wasn’t ready to accept Jenny as his child yet, but only because of what that meant. It meant letting Amy know he could change into a mountain lion. He had never had to tell a woman that before. His previous lovers and girlfriends were like him. Though not all were mountain lions, all could change into an animal.

Were-creatures they were called, but he didn’t like the term. It brought up too many images of horror movies with men changing on the full moon and not being in control of their actions. Etienne and those like him could change any time they wanted and were in control of their actions, even when in animal form. Their human thoughts did not go away when in the animal body.

As smells wafted in from the kitchen, Etienne finally got out of bed, dressed and left the room.

                                                            *****

Dr. Brown closed the door behind Etienne and fiddled with the folder in his hands. “She’s yours, but I think you knew that already.”

“Yes.”

“You know what you need to do.”

“I know.”

“At the very least, you have to tell her mother what you are. You have to keep the two of them here, maybe not now, but when she hits puberty, that child will need your guidance.”

“I know.”

“Why do you sound like you don’t?”

Etienne sighed. “I didn’t plan on this doc. Never wanted kids. Never slept with anyone who didn’t know what I was, and now… I don’t know what to do.”

“Accept her as your own and tell her mother. It’s the right thing to do in all situations.”

“What if her mother leaves or rejects her daughter because of this?”

“Then you have a daughter to take care of.” Dr. Brown sighed heavily. “Etienne, I’ve known you your whole life. What’s the real problem?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t plan on this. I think I’m just scared.”

Dr. Brown moved toward Etienne and placed a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder. “All new fathers are, Etienne. Take a deep breath, relax and realize: you’re not the first man in this situation. It may be a little different due to what you are, but it’s still a matter of taking care of your own, which you’ve always been good at.”

Etienne nodded, sighed and left the room. In the waiting room, Amy stood. He smiled and went to her. Jenny was outside on the playground with Bess.

“The test shows she’s mine, like you said.”

She didn’t like the look on his face. “You don’t look happy.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

“I could say the same thing.”

“I need more time before… Stay with me.”

She shook her head. She wanted to, but something was still calling to her. “I can’t stay any longer, Etienne. Part of me wants to, but unless I know you accept her, I don’t think I’m willing to stay. I need to get back out there. There’s something I need to find.”

That suddenly felt very true. There was something out there waiting for her. She had to find it, but she didn’t want to leave Etienne. She reached out and placed a hand on his cheek.

“Come with us.”

He frowned in thought. “What?”

The smile on Amy’s face was childlike and endearing. “Come with us. Come with Jenny and I. You can ride on the back of my bike until you learn how to control it.” She leaned in and kissed him, then whispered to him. “Come with us.”

He slipped his arms around her and thought about holding on to Amy as the road sped by underneath her bike. The air in his hair, feeling her all day long… “All right.”

Amy stepped back and looked into his eyes. “Really?”

“I don’t want to let you go yet, but I need more time. If you want to leave, I want to come with you.”

The smile exploded on her face as she hugged him hard.

                                                            *****

This was their second month on the road, and Etienne had yet to learn how to control the bike. He seemed to prefer to hold onto Amy and watch the world go by. The sidecar, where Jenny rode, was large enough to accommodate him, if they moved things around. Once every few days, Etienne would ask to sit in the sidecar with his daughter. They would spend the ride pointing things out to each other. It was nearly impossible to hear if someone talked, but the two seemed to communicate well enough.

The three were getting to know each other. Bess stayed out of the way, but still traveled with them. She wasn’t ready to part company. It was nice having her along, as she would take care of Jenny when Etienne and Amy wanted to spend some time alone.

Tonight, they were camped in the mountains, somewhere in Montana. They had traveled through a few states in the past two months, but had somehow ended up back in Montana. As Amy said the first time they met: she woke in the morning, pointed her bike in a direction and rode with no destination in mind. Though they did not take the same road twice, they did end up doubling back to familiar territory often.

Though they were in Montana, and Etienne was not familiar with this area, he knew where he was. Every night, as dinner cooked, he would take out a map and mark the roads they had taken. There were a lot of were-families in the world, a lot more than anyone realized. His father made treaties with all of the families in Montana, some in Idaho, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Canada. He believed in peace.

When Etienne took over as alpha, as clan head, he reached out and kept the treaties going. As he and Amy traveled, he marked where they were, in case they crossed into an unfriendly families’ territory. If that happened, he would do everything he could to keep the peace, and to protect his family.

Tonight, camped in the mountains, he knew they were in the territory of a family of were-coyotes. He wasn’t worried about it; they were friendly. He wanted to change and find them though, as he liked this particular family and wanted to say hello. Map marked and dinner cooking, Etienne smiled to Amy.

“I think I’m going to go for a walk.”

She licked her lips as a sly look came to her eyes. “Do you want some company?”

He laughed and shook his head. “I’d like to go alone. Do some thinking.”

Amy nodded, trying not to be disappointed. “Dinner will be ready soon.”

Etienne nodded and went off into the woods, just as Jenny and Bess came back into the area. They had been at a nearby river, getting water.

“Mommy! Where’s Etienne?”

“He went for a walk. What were you doing? You were gone longer than I expected.”

Bess set the pale of water near the fire. “Swimming. The river was so calm. I didn’t see the harm.”

Amy slipped her arm around Jenny. “Did you have fun?”

“Yeah, but I’m tired now.”

“So lie down. I’ll wake you when the food is done.”

“Kay.” Jenny ran to the small tent she shared with Bess without a second thought.

Bess looked to Amy. “Did you want to join him?”

She shook her head. “He wants to be alone.”

Bess sat down and stirred the food in the pot. “You know…”

“I know.”

“You have to tell him.”

“I know.” It was said with more force this time, as if Amy wanted Bess to drop it.

“Amy, we’ve been friends for a while. I know that tone of voice. I don’t see why you’re acting like this.”

Amy stared hard at her friend. “And how exactly am I supposed to broach this subject? ‘Hey, I know I just told you about your daughter, well, there’s this other thing I have to tell you now. When she hits puberty, she’s going to start to change. And not like other girls her age.’ I need more time.”

“Just show him what you are.”

The look turned mean. “And how exactly am I supposed to do that? I haven’t been able to change since before she was born. I can’t show him something I can’t do.”

Bess gave Amy a curious look. “Haven’t you figured that one out yet?”

“No.”

“What did the elders say?”

“I haven’t had a chance to ask them yet.”

Bess rolled her eyes. “Bull. You just don’t want to.”

Amy was about to say something when a noise in the forest stopped her. It came again: a long forlorn howl that chilled the women’s bones.

“Bess? You did make sure we weren’t in someone’s territory, didn’t you?”

“Um…”

More howls came, and before Bess could truly answer, a group of ten men, women and coyotes stepped out of the forest, into their campsite. Amy and Bess stood quickly to greet them and Amy hoped Jenny would stay in the tent.

“You’re trespassing.” An older man said, as two of the coyotes growled.

“We didn’t realize.” Amy moved forward one step and looked the man dead in the eyes. She tried to hide her fear and show respect at the same time. “Please. We beg your forgiveness and ask for safe passage through your lands.”

The man, tall, muscular and rather tan, looked at her in anger. “Too late for that. You have already soiled this area. Family trash.”

The nomadic tribe was often referred to as ‘Family Trash’. Their group was made up of many members of the were-families that didn’t want to be with their original people. Rebels, loners, drifters. Those in need of time to adjust to what they were and who they were. Though the nomads took pride in who they were, no one else seemed to.

“Mommy?” Jenny popped out of the tent, saw the people and stopped at the edge of the tent. She started to shake as a coyote came toward her and growled at her.

“Leave her alone!” Amy’s voice cut through the air, shrill and terrified.

The leader moved toward Amy and grabbed her arm. “You have no right to tell us what to do on our lands. You have no right to be here, either! We did not give you permission. We will do as we please!”

Amy started to answer, but a deep, calm voice called out from behind her. “I have permission. They’re with me.”

All turned to see Etienne at the edge of the forest.

                                                            *****

Etienne found it odd that he could not locate any of the coyotes. He could hear them, and though he made himself easy to find, no one came forward. He stayed in mountain lion form for only a few moments then changed back to human and headed back to camp.

At the edge of the forest, right before the camp, he saw the group confronting Amy and became worried. He listened long enough to understand what was going on, then stepped forward. He knew the group and would not be afraid. He would remind them of who he was, and of their treaty, and keep Amy, Jenny and Bess safe.

As one of the men grabbed Amy and threatened her, Etienne emerged from the forest. “I have permission. They’re with me.”

All turned to regard him. The man holding Amy snarled, but Etienne looked to another as he came forward.

“Peter, you know me. Let these women go. They mean you no harm and we will be gone in the morning.”

“Etienne. It is good to see you again.” Peter stepped from the crowd and almost bowed to Etienne. “You know these women?”

He kept his eyes on Peter, though he very much wanted to look to Amy and Jenny. “I do. I was trying to find you. Now I understand why I couldn’t. These women are under my protection. They’re family. Please. All we ask is for a place to rest our heads for the night.”

Peter nodded, but hot-blooded Curtis stepped closer and growled at Etienne. “Just because you’re sleeping with them doesn’t make them family.”

Knowing Curtis, Etienne was able to let the insult pass. He looked to Jenny, who looked terrified. He held out his arms to her. “Jenny, come here.”

She ran to him, and the coyote let her. He picked her up and walked closer to Curtis and Peter.

“Take a good look. You’ll see it even in this poor light.” The only true light was the half full moon and the cooking fire. “This is Jenny. She’s my daughter. She’s blood, and therefore, family.”

Tears came to Amy’s eyes and she nearly sobbed. It was the first time Etienne had used that word in her presence. When he turned to her, she smiled. He held his hand out to her and pulled her to him.

“This is Jenny’s mom, Amy. She is my mate.” He looked to her and placed a gentle hand on her cheek. “My wife, if she’ll have me.”

Amy’s mouth dropped open, but before she could answer, Etienne turned to Bess.

“This is Bess. She’s…”

“I’m not family.”

Her voice cracked as she said it. All looked to her, wondering at her game. By distancing herself like this, she could be hurt. Bess turned to Etienne.

“I thank you very much for trying to include me, but…I’m not your family.” She looked to Peter and dropped to her knees. “Sir, for the past year, all I’ve dreamt of is the coyote. I have not been able to change into anything else. Though I didn’t consciously come to these mountains, I feel that a part of me brought me here to meet you. I ask to become part of your family.”

Peter stood in quiet contemplation as the others around him murmured. This was an accepted part of being a nomad. If one dreamt long enough of only one creature, and only changed into one creature for that time, the nomad asked for permission to join said family. The other were-families seem to accept this, but somewhat reluctantly at times.

“Show me.”

Bess looked up at Peter. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Show me. Change.”

She bowed her head as she understood. Bess changed into a coyote. Her legs and paws were of a darker shade, like the others in the clearing. Seeing this, Peter changed as well and walked around Bess. The alpha coyote sniffed the woman, then dominated her by knocking her over and clamping his teeth over her throat. She let him. He held her there for a moment then let her up. He changed to human and looked to his son.

“You will be taking over soon. What say you?”

Curtis changed into a coyote, walked around Bess and looked as if he were about to mount her. A woman stormed over to him, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him off Bess. Curtis changed into human, and snarled at the woman.

“What are you doing?”

“Stopping you from doing anything in front of the kid. I’ve told you before, I don’t like it when you do that.”

He turned to look at Jenny, still in her father’s arms. She was looking right at Curtis, her eyes wide and curious. He then turned to the woman and they stared each other down for a moment, until Curtis nodded.

“All right. Take her home.”

The woman nodded and went to Bess, who was now human. “Come on. Don’t worry about your stuff, or about saying goodbye. We’ll take care of that tomorrow.”

Bess nodded, then looked to Curtis and Peter. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank us yet. There are a few others who will look you over and decide if you can join.”

Bess nodded then followed the women into the forest. The others in the group started to leave. Curtis and Peter spoke with Etienne and Amy.

“You have a place for the night and safe passage through our lands. Next time, make sure to ask for permission first.” Curtis did not sound happy as he spoke to Amy.

She nodded and he left. Peter and Etienne shook hands.

“We should get together soon. With Curtis taking over, we need to renew the treaty.”

“I’ll contact you when I return home, Peter. And thank you.” Peter nodded and left. Etienne looked to Jenny. “Jenny. You’re mom and I have to talk. Do you mind going into the tent for a little bit?”

“Are you going to talk about being a mountain lion?”

He looked at her in awe. “How did you know I’m a mountain lion?”

“Dreamed daddy was a lion. Knew I was too.” She squirmed out of his arms and raced to the tent and out of sight. Amy and Etienne looked after her, then to each other.

“So.”

“Mountain lion?”

“Yep. You?”

Amy shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve been so many things, but the day before I met you, I had a dream that I was a mountain goat. Before I could move, a mountain lion came out of nowhere and ate me.”

“That would be worrisome.”

She sighed. “That’s one way of putting it. I tried to change into a goat the day we met, but couldn’t. I’ve tried to change into many animals since that dream and have not been able to at all. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Etienne stepped forward and placed a gentle hand on her cheek. He asked a question on a hunch. “Have you tried changing into a mountain lion?”

Amy frowned. “No. In the past, if I dreamt of one animal killing another, I avoided the predator at all cost. I always took it as a bad sign.”

He pulled her into his arms. “Our daughter will be a mountain lion. I’m a mountain lion. Maybe your dream wasn’t warning you against a predator, but letting you know what your true form is. Try, Amy. Try to change into a mountain lion.”

An odd look crossed her face as she laughed. “I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe you’re like me.”

He laughed softly and kissed her deeply. “I can’t either.” He kissed her again then spoke softly in her ear. “Change for me, Amy. Let me see you.”

She made a noise in the back of her throat, as if worried or scared, but pulled away from Etienne. Amy concentrated, thought about a mountain lion then shook her head. “You first. I can’t…picture one.”

Etienne nodded, and changed. It happened so quickly, she barely had a chance to see it. He was just human one moment, then on all fours the next. His fur was golden, he was about knee high and he purred at her as he wound his body around her legs, encouraging her. Amy knelt down and wrapped her arms around him. As he continued to purr, Amy closed her eyes and concentrated. She thought about being a cat, a mountain lion, about the feel of the ground under her feet and felt something inside her shift.

Amy continued to think of the lion in front of her and took deep slow breaths. She could feel her skin tingling, her hair receding and her senses changing. Soon, as she grew smaller, she pushed away from Etienne and fell to all fours. Before her hands could touch the ground, they were changed. Feline paws touched the ground, claws digging into the dirt. She arched her back and suddenly she was a mountain lion.

Etienne was instantly on her, licking her, greeting her and welcoming her into his family. She returned the caresses, being playful and purring as well. Before too long, Etienne tried to mount her. She pushed him away and turned human. He changed back and had a confused look on his face.

“What?”

“Not in the open. That woman was right. Not in front of Jenny. She’s seen it before but I’d rather not have her exposed to that too much.”

Etienne nodded then pulled her into his arms again. “You did it.”

She smiled. “I did.”

“How did it feel?”

She leaned into him and placed her head on his chest. “It felt right.”

His hands were in her hair. “So?”

“Can I be part of your family?”

“Well, I did call you my mate and asked you to be my wife.”

She giggled. “You did.”

He pushed her back to look into her eyes. “Well?”

Amy smiled and slipped her arms around his neck. “Yes.”

He kissed her tenderly. “You’ll still have to meet the rest of my family and ask for their acceptance was well.”

She held on to him as he picked her up in his arms. “Will they?”

“Accept you? Yes. Darla already has.” He turned and headed to their tent.

“Stop, Etienne.”

“Why?”

“With Bess gone, I don’t want to leave Jenny all by herself. I’ll sleep in her tent tonight. Tomorrow, we can head back to your place. We’ll spend time in bed together when I know she’s safe.”

Etienne placed Amy back on her feet. “Yes. Absolutely. Go to her.”

They kissed, then Amy went to Jenny’s tent. Jenny was already asleep therefore Amy did not disturb her.

                                                            *****

Amy and Bess cried when they said goodbye in the morning, but Jenny did not seem upset. As she hugged Bess, Jenny whispered into her ear. “We’ll see you soon. The Black Foot Coyotes and the Mountain Lion families have a long history.”

The young girl hurried away from Bess and went to her father as Bess and Amy hugged each other again. Bess left first, taking her motorcycle, her tent and her pack. She didn’t need any of the food; home was very close. The other coyotes had accepted her last night, and they had rejoiced. Now, she was one of them.

Etienne, Amy and Jenny waited until the cloud of dirt from Bess’ motorcycle faded. Then, in near silence, they packed their things and left the clearing for Etienne’s home. They took the quickest way possible. At their first stop at a diner nestled in a tiny town in the mountains, Etienne called ahead and warned of his homecoming. He was bringing his wife and child home. Darla, who often helped with such matters, promised to gather the others. They would be waiting upon his arrival.

It took less time than Amy wanted, but she was eager as well. She was to meet her new family soon. Within a few days, they were at Etienne’s ranch again. It was late at night, but his family waited. Many were in mountain lion form; some were still human. They littered his front yard and porch. It seemed almost like a party, except that no one smiled, no one spoke.

Amy stopped her motorcycle and took Jenny from Etienne. Father and daughter spent the trip in the sidecar. Jenny was asleep, but Etienne needed her awake. He took her from her mother and woke her gently. She grumbled, but not too much, and seemed to understand the importance.

As she woke, Etienne took her and Amy to his porch. He looked at all his family and all save Darla left his porch. With sleepy Jenny in his arms, Etienne looked to his family.

“I hold Jenny in my arms. She is my daughter. Accept her as my heir.”

His words were said with authority. Not a question, but a statement of fact. The others bowed their acceptance readily. He then looked to Darla. Darla stepped forward, looked Amy in the eye and nodded before taking Jenny inside. The girl did not protest. It was rather late and she needed sleep.

With the young girl accepted, Etienne slipped his arm around Amy’s waist. “This is Amy, Jenny’s mother. She will be my wife. If you accept her, she will be my mate as well.”

He had warned of this. Etienne’s family had to accept his daughter, but did not have to accept Amy. It had to be their choice. Etienne’s father learned it was best to have his family accept outsiders for themselves. If they were forced into it, fights inevitably broke out.

Amy stood on the porch, as one by one, the others came forward to eye her. They asked no question, said no words, just looked. Some sniffed. When they were done looking, Etienne whispered to her. Amy nodded, walked down the steps to the lawn, took a deep breath and changed into a mountain lion.

The others surrounded her, also in animal form. She held her ground; let no fear show. When they growled at her, she answered, but let it sound more like a purr then a growl. This seemed to appease the others.

When they were done, a growl came from the porch. All turned to see Etienne in animal form walking languidly down the steps. He went to his mate, headed butted her, then walked behind her and mounted her as his family watched. She accepted him and knew that she was now part of his family.

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