Hot Piece of Ash (Paranormal Dating Agency #28) - Milly Taiden

Chapter One

Gerri leaned against a tree outside the local animal shelter observing families and listening to the happy screams of children as overzealous puppies licked ice cream from their messy young faces.

This was one of her favorite charity events every year. Watching the kids’ eyes light up when they see the pet, they’ve been dreaming of their whole lives brought a tear to her eye and joy to her heart.

This year’s adoption outing would be just as emotional. Times like this had her wanting to adopt every animal in the shelter, but her lifestyle wouldn’t allow for that. Not with her zipping back and forth between planets and her apartment, which she had just remodeled in all-white.

A microphone screech from closer to the building grabbed her attention. A young woman tapped the mic head making a loud thud, thud. After an adjustment, the woman stood in front of the crowd and smiled. Gerri’s eyes narrowed, zeroing in on the familiar face.

She was the same person who coordinated the event last year. Gerri would never forget such a big-hearted human. The young woman had to be late twenties or early thirties. Perfect age. She was just growing into her career and knew where she wanted to go in life. Gerri wondered if this was the path the girl truly desired.

“Welcome everyone to our annual adoption charity.” Her voice rang out crisp and clear. She was confident and sure even though the way she covered up her curvy body said she might be self-conscious about how others saw her. If she wasn’t already comfortable in her skin, she would soon learn to be. “I’m Valentina Lombardi, and I would like to thank you for coming out to find your new family member.”

A small white flash zipped in front of Gerri’s feet. Following that blur was a running teenager bent over with arms extended. She heard him whisper, “Get back here, you furry butt.” Yes, he needed to catch the rabbit before it reached the dogs’ section. What a riot that would be to see twenty dogs chase a scared-shitless bunny around the parking lot. And then all the handlers chasing after the dogs.

Gerri shook her head with a smile and turned her attention back to Valentina. The hostess had stepped to a large wire cage that had a log and foliage inside. Valentina put her hand on the wire cage. “I would like to introduce everyone to our most recent addition. Larry.”

The girl opened the top hatch and stuck her hand inside. Immediately a dark critter with a slender body and long tail raced up her arm to her shoulder, poked its nose around the back of her neck through her thick brown hair to peek out on her other shoulder. She leaned forward a bit.

“This is Larry the Lizard.” She rubbed a finger over its head. “Larry, say hi to the audience.” The lizard whipped out its serpentine tongue and sucked it back in. “Larry, that wasn’t very nice. You’re not supposed to stick your tongue out at people.” The group chuckled.

Gerri was shocked by how comfortable the woman was with a three-foot-long reptile hanging on her shoulders. Not a typical scene by any means. She wondered…

After the short presentation, the animal meet and greet continued. Gerri made a beeline for Valentina. She had to know more about this woman.

“Excuse me,” Gerri said, standing behind Valentina as she put Larry back into his cage.

Valentina turned and gasped, putting a hand on her chest. “Ms. Wilder, oh my gosh, it’s so nice to meet you.” She grabbed Gerri’s hand and shook it. Gerri was almost as shocked as the girl at being identified by the stranger.

“I’m sorry,” Valentina replied. “I know you from our newsletters that have the photos of our larger donors. You are our biggest, and I can’t thank you enough for how you’ve helped so many animals.”

Gerri smiled. “Beasts of all kinds share a space in my heart.” And she did mean “beasts”—shifters, of course. She smiled to herself.

“I agree,” Valentina said. “There’s just something about them that allows them to see through the physical image and straight into your soul.” She rubbed her skin. “None of that matters. It’s what’s in here.” She tapped a fist over her heart. “Unconditional love.” She sighed.

Hmm. “Hard-core romantic?” Gerri asked.

“Till the end. All I read are romance stories where love always wins, no matter what was thrown at them.” Valentina slipped her hands into her pockets and looked down. “It would be