Teagan Wolfe was not a normal child. At the tender age of seven she was slowly coming to realize this. She could do things normal children could only dream of…normal human children, that is. But among her own kind she was different, regarded with a combination of trepidation and loathing. She was ignored by the elders and mercilessly teased by the children. The only person who paid her any attention was her papa, which actually ended up making her life more miserable. Her papa was a very important man and was often away on business, which left her at the mercy of those who hated her; namely her half-siblings. So, unsurprisingly, when her papa came home, it was a treat. He brought her presents and read her stories and played make believe with her. To her, the sun rose and set on this man.
So naturally when he believed her half-siblings' story over hers, she was crushed, and, with a seven-year-olds simple logic, she decided to run away and live in the dense woods that bordered her papa's house. Of course, seven-year-olds never think anything through, and Teagan had not bothered to pay attention to the fact that she had never set foot in the woods and had no idea where she was going. She had not counted on the trees looking so menacing, or the silence being so overbearing. Another thing she had overlooked was the necessary food, clothing, and shelter, which put her in the unhappy state at the present: alone, lost, and hungry. And as seven-year-olds have a low tolerance for misery, Teagan started to bawl her eyes out, sobbing out promises about how she'd never again run away, complain, or snitch sweets from the pantry as long as someone came and took her home.
She was so wrapped wallowing in self-misery that she didn't hear the soft pad of footsteps coming up behind her. She didn't notice them stop and she didn't hear the soft rustling of metal on leather. What she did notice was the smooth voice whispering in her ear, "What's wrong, little kitten?"
Poor Teagan nearly jumped out of her skin. Whirling around she dropped into a defensive stance like her papa told her, but froze as soon as she got a look at the intruder. Her first thought was that this man must be a giant! He was so tall that she thought he might be able to touch the sky, which was something she'd always wanted to try and something that papa forbade. He was pale, pale, pale too, like he never saw any sun. He had white blond hair and brownish red eyes, with a straight, aristocratic nose, exotically high cheekbones, and a strong jaw with a slightly pointed chin, like a pixie or an elf. Teagan though he was the handsomest man she'd ever seen, except for her papa. She was jolted back to reality at the sound of his amused chuckle. Cross that he was laughing at her (she was seven, nearly a grown up!) she stamped a foot and said, "Stop it! It's mean to laugh at people. I'll tell my papa on you," she threatened when he wouldn't stop. That made him shut up, she noted smugly.
A smile still hovering on his lips he asked, "And who is your papa, little kitten?"
Suddenly a frightening thought occurred to Teagan. She looked down to gather her courage before glancing up at the pale, pale man through her lashes. "Excuse me, sir," she started timidly. "But are you a vampire?"
The man paused, considering her words. "What if I am? Is that a bad thing?"
Teagan bit her lip. "Well, my papa told me that vampires were heartless, soulless, life-sucking parasitic sons of bitches. But you don't seem like that to me."
Something flashed in the stranger's eyes. "Your papa couldn't be more wrong about vampires."
Teagan's expression fell. "But…but papa's never wrong," she whispered. "He'd never lie to me. That would make him like the others."
The stranger raised an eyebrow, which made Teagan instantly jealous. She'd always wanted to do that. "What are the others like?" he asked.
Memories flooded Teagan's mind. Her half-siblings Jennifer and Richard chasing her with sticks while the other children raced after them throwing stones at her; her step-mother slapping her for tracking in dirt; the cold glances; the nasty words; everything whirled together until she couldn't take it anymore and fell to her knees screaming, hands covering her ears as if to keep everything from exploding from her head. Gradually she became aware that she was sitting in someone's lap, with a pair of strong arms wrapped around her. Teagan dried her eyes and leaned her head against the hard chest, listening to the stranger's breathing, counting his breaths. Suddenly she said, "The others are mean to me."
Teagan wrinkled her nose. "Because I have a different mama than Jenny and Ricky. And they call me an amoma-anomla…"she paused, thinking. "An anomaly!" she said triumphantly. "I'm an anomaly 'cuz I don't have a true form." The thought made her sad and she cuddled into his body, seeking comfort. The action caused his hold on her to tighten almost imperceptibly.
"You are a shifter, then." It wasn't a question, but rather a toneless statement.
Teagan squirmed in his grasp until she could look up at his face. The look on it was enough to make her brows furrow in confusion. "Uh-huh. What did you think I was, silly?" A thought occurred to her. "Have you never seen a shifter?"
The stranger shook his head. "I have not lived here long, so no, I have never seen a shifter."
Teagan's eyes brightened. "I can show you! Papa says it's the only thing I'm good at. That, and fighting." As she spoke she began to wriggle out of her dress and undergarments until she was standing naked before the shocked stranger. She beamed up at him. "What form do you want to see?"
He blinked. "Um…I have no particular preference."
Teagan stared at him blankly before smiling. "Okay then I'll do a tiger."
The man stared, enthralled, as the child's body began stretching, bones shifting and organs changing shape to fit her new body as white and black striped fur grew from her skin. Moments later a white tiger cub was frolicking at his feet. He bent down and cautiously extended his hand. The shifter girl curiously inched forward and sniffed the offered appendage. Soon she was rubbing against his legs, purring contentedly. In the blink of an eye she was human again. He immediately closed his eyes. A tug on his sleeve made him crack open one eye. The child was staring up at him, worried. "Mister, are you okay?" she asked anxiously.
She had not one shred of self-consciousness about standing naked in front of him, the man thought. He smiled tightly. "I am fine, kitten. Put your clothes back on and I will take you home." Teagan nodded brightly and scrambled to do as he asked.
As they walked Teagan chattered happily about her papa and her clan. She talked about her only friend, Drake, who hardly ever came to see her anymore, and her pet cat, Trixie. She described her house and told him about her room, with the green paint and green quilt. She recounted tales of the clan children's cruelty and how she was always left out and how hurt it made her feel. Soon Teagan began to grow tired and her words started slurring. After stumbling for what seemed like the hundredth time, the man muttered something under his breath and swept her up in his arms, one arm under her knees and the other supporting her back. Relieved at the break Teagan rested her head on his shoulder, right above his heart. Her eyelids drooped as it became harder and harder to stay awake. Before she departed for the land of dreams she murmured up to him, "You can't be a vampire."
She felt rather than saw his gaze shift towards her. "And why is that, little one?"
Teagan let a small yawn escape. "Because you're nothing like papa said vampires were. And you have a heart. I can hear it beating." She smiled sleepily. "It matches mine. Our hearts are twins. Do you hear it? Ka-thump, ka-thump, ka-thump…like you stole my heartbeat…" Teagan trailed off. She was so far gone in dreamland that she didn't feel the stranger stop; didn't see the look of disbelief and wonder that crossed his face. When Teagan woke up the next morning, she was in her own bed, her father sleeping in a chair next to her. She was told that she had been found dirty, but safe, and fast asleep on the front porch swing. When asked what had happened she just shrugged and said, "I don't remember." She wasn't willing to share her pale friend, because then Jenny and Ricky would steal him from her. So she kept silent and eventually she was left alone, the leaves in her hair and the dirt under her nails the only reminder of the pale stranger in the woods.