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Hollow Back Girl, Page 1

Olivia R. Burton

  Hollow Back Girl

  A Preternatural PNW Novel


  Olivia R. Burton

  © 2018 Olivia R. Burton. All Rights Reserved

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  Cover Art by Michelle Preast

  ISBN: 978-0-9976333-6-8

  Peacock Deceiving a Suitcase

  Other Titles

  Empathy in the PPNW

  Mixed Feelings

  Business With Pleasure

  Cold Feet

  Hollow Back Girl

  Change of Heart


  Bone to Pick

  Flesh and Blood

  The Writer’s Overnighter

  Gut Feeling

  Suckered In

  Death in the PPNW








  Passage Through Moonlight

  The Godfather’s Naughty Daughter

  Song of the Argyle Goddess


  Thanks to Courtney for reading all Gwen’s books before they’re ready to go, forgiving my dumb mistakes, and helping me correct them. Your help is invaluable and your commentary entertaining!

  Thanks to Margaret Bishop: Plot Hunter for all your help with the first draft of Hollow Back Girl. Your suggestions for Izzy and the shenanigans he propagates helped me better understand his nonsense and how Gwen would react to his presence.

  Thank you for reading Hollow Back Girl, the fourth book in the Empathy in the Preternatural Pacific Northwest series! In case you haven’t already, check out all my writing over at If you enjoyed the book please leave a review and feel free to say hi on Twitter: @OliviaRBurton.

  Table of Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter One

  “You can’t make me go!”

  “Technically I’m not making you go,” Chloe said, before bodily shoving me through the doors of SEA-TAC airport. I huffed out a breath, trying to fight her, despite the fact that I knew I was being childish and stupid. Chloe Warren works out regularly and knows her way around a cranky empath; I had no chance.

  “Besides, Gwen,” she said, her slim arm around my shoulders as we walked ever closer to the serpentine security lines. “This trip was your idea.”

  “Technically,” I intoned, mimicking her like I was three instead of thirty, “it was my mother’s idea.”

  “Then blame her. In person, in Montana, later tonight. Now. I’ve got to leave before the parking fees get to be so high I have to sell my soul.” Kissing my cheek and leaving me standing next to a TSA agent who was so bored it was almost painful, she backed toward the exit. “Don’t worry about Sonny, either. Just enjoy yourself. Your bird will be fine.”

  “I can’t leave him!” I said, seeing it as the opportunity it really wasn’t. “I should stay, he’ll miss me.”

  “If you try to get back in my car,” Chloe said with a big smile. “I’ll pay Mel a thousand dollars to follow you around for a week, telling you how cute your butt looks in those jeans—even if you’re not wearing jeans. Have fun!”

  Knowing she’d properly cowed me with the threat of our werewolf work neighbor, Chloe winked and disappeared around the corner. I scowled, already miserable without the idea she’d put in my head. Mel and I were friends—had even slept together one, regretful time—but werewolf emotions can be brutal to an empath and no amount of ogling his sexy abs could overcome the miserable state in which his presence often left me.

  Turning, taking a deep breath, wishing silently that I could get back home without the misery of actually traveling there, I scurried into the security line like a rat trying to escape a flood by jumping into an oven.

  Bag checked, cup of icy, blended, pink, syrupy goodness in hand, I sat at my gate, glaring at the wall. I could have been skimming social media or reading, but instead, I was trying to decide if I wanted to kill time properly or just pout some more. So far the emotional din of all the other passengers in the airport had made the choice for me.

  I like being an empath. It’s a useful skill that makes life easier in a lot of situations. I’ve never been turned down for a date, I know when someone is lying to me, and you cannot bluff me in poker. Cleaning up in Vegas aside, it has its downsides, too. Everywhere I go I’m bombarded by the feelings of other living creatures within my vicinity. Sure, it’s cool to always know if there’s a particularly aggressive goat at a petting zoo or if someone’s planning something dastardly. (No need to twirl your dirty mustache and cackle madly, sir; I already know you’re plotting to tie me to the train tracks.) Being constantly forced to, at least in part, experience every emotion of those around me gets tiring, though. It’s why I try to keep much of my human interaction strictly internet-based.

  Sitting in a crowded concourse, surrounded by cranky travelers, stressed babies, and harried parents was making me kind of want to throw my drink to the ground and have a tantrum like the toddler three seats over. I didn’t, of course; not only would the TSA have been on my butt faster than I could yell, “Frappuccino!” but it would have been a waste of perfectly good sugar and I am nothing if not committed to rotting my teeth with sweets.

  My phone rang, buzzing against my side insistently, trying to distract me from the cloud of grumpiness swirling around. I dug it out of my pocket reluctantly, fighting my urge to continue to sulk, and put it to my ear without looking at who was calling.

  “Yeah,” I said, shoving the straw of my drink toward my mouth. Poking myself in the nose because I was too stubborn to tear my gaze away from the spot of carpet I was fixated on did not help my mood.

  “Chipmunk, are you at the airport? Are you boarding yet?”

  “Mom,” I complained, suddenly ten years old again. “Don’t call me that.”

  “So you haven’t boarded?” my mom asked, ignoring my protest as she’d been doing for twenty years. I heard commotion in the background, followed by a pair of masculine laughs. I was betting Robin and Jake had already arrived; I refuse to believe my father is capable of laughter, so that left only my brother-in-law Jake and my brother Thomas.

  “No, not yet, but soon.”

  “Eat something healthy,” she said, though it had the ring of habit, as if she’d just said it because she’d had to remind me not to eat like trash since I’d gotten old enough to feed myself. “Some nuts or fruit or something.”

  I glanced down at the pink drink in my hand, shrugged.

  “Fruit is involved,” was as close as I could get to the truth. My mother sighed, knowing me better than to trust me at my word. Despite being two states away, I hunched my shoulders in shame. “Fine. I’ll ge
t an apple. Or something.”

  “Good. When does your flight land again?”

  “Mmm,” I mumbled around the straw, taking a guess. “Two-thirty?”

  “Robin’s going to meet you,” my mother said, her tone distracted, likely by the child begging, I was assuming from the nonsense approximation of the word, to be picked up. I’d sent her my itinerary weeks ago and I was sure she’d put it on every calendar she had in the house, overjoyed her middle child was finally deigning to risk life and sanity to come home for a visit. “Let me get her.”

  Mom called out to my sister, setting off an aural chain of events that made me smile, despite the toddler still having a fit nearby: a young boy shrieked, my brother laughed, my mom mumbled, and Robin made a sound of excitement, before speaking directly to me.

  “Hey chipmunk!”

  “I refuse to answer to my slave name,” I sniffed, slurping the last bit of the liquid out of the frozen slush at the bottom of my cup. Frowning at it, I set it in my lap and shifted the phone to my other ear.

  “Don’t be callous,” Robin chided. “Two-thirty, right?”

  “Yes!” I snapped, knowing she didn’t deserve the ire but unable to help myself. “Don’t bring dad.”

  “I know better than to lock the two of you alone in a car, dummy,” she said with sisterly affection. “What did you want for dinner tonight? We’re going shopping before I leave to get you.”

  “Pie!” I answered without giving it any real thought. My sister, as used to denying me pleasure as my mother, didn’t even sigh or seem surprised.

  “I meant real food. You’re not getting pie for dinner.”

  “For dessert, then. A light snack. A welcome gift for the prodigal daughter who just braved—”

  “Shh,” she interrupted mildly. I heard my brother’s voice get closer again before it faded away and I heard a door shut. Silence fell and I could almost feel my sister’s concern, even though that was physically impossible. “You okay?”

  “I mean, I’m at an airport about to come visit dad, so no,” I said.

  “You’re not seeing dad, you’re coming to see everyone,” Robin chastised, before going quiet again. Then her voice slow and serious, she said merely, “You’ve been weird the last few months.”

  “I’m always weir—er, I mean, weird how?”

  “I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully. “I just want to make sure you’re still … you.”

  “Not at all,” I joked. “I’m Ted Nugent now.”

  Robin only sighed and I could picture her as she’d looked when we’d been teenagers: hand over her eyes, sick to death of my stupid jokes. I snorted quietly, feeling only a little guilty that I couldn’t be an adult for even ten seconds.

  “I’m fine, Rob,” I insisted, before feeling my phone buzz in my hand. I glanced at it, considering the unknown number, and decided to use it as an excuse to get out of this awkward conversation. “I have another call. I’ll see you when I land, okay?”

  Robin was quiet for a moment before singing, “okay, see you soon, chipmunk!”

  “Ugh,” I grumbled, hearing her snort out a laugh before I ended one call to answer the other.

  “This is Gwen,” I answered, expecting to hear a call from one my clients. Chloe had let everyone know I was going to be out of town for awhile, and most of the people I counsel don’t need to chat outside of our sessions, but I wanted to be safe. To my surprise, a sexy voice I hadn’t heard in much too long slid over the line.

  “Hey, Gwen. It’s Owen.”

  “Hi!” I nearly shrieked, startling the kid who’d moved on from screaming over nothing to screaming over Cheerios. “I mean, hey,” I corrected, trying to sound cool. Owen laughed, and I was so pleased he didn’t find my excitement irritating, I did a little dance in my seat.

  “Guess who’s coming to Seattle soon,” he teased.

  “Simon and Garfunkel?”

  “Yes, that’s why I’m calling,” he agreed, going with my bit. “I know you’re a huge folk rock fan.”

  “Well, that’s very considerate of you,” I said, grinning downward and noticing the cup with its chewed up straw still sitting in my lap, dampening the crotch of my pants in a way I hadn’t considered when I’d tucked it there. “When do you think the boys will be in town?”

  “With any luck, next week.”

  “Next week as in, the week after this week?” I asked, feeling my excitement ebb away.

  “I … don’t know how else to specify such a date, so yes,” Owen said.

  “Dammit,” I grumbled. “I’m out of town until next Friday.”

  “How out of town? Could you rush back for just a night? A few hours? Fifteen minutes?”

  I laughed. “You sell yourself short, Reid. Fifteen minutes? Come on.”

  “I could come on in fifteen minutes, if properly motivated.”

  I giggled, unable to help myself, dirty, messy thoughts of our last encounter making me blush all over.

  “Any chance I could entice you to jet over and meet me? Where are you headed? When are you leaving?”

  “I’m literally about to board a plane to Montana. I’m going to visit family for two weeks.”

  “For your birthday?”

  “How do you know when my birthday is?” I asked, trying to remember if I’d told him. He was quiet and I shook my head and grinned. “Okay, fine, Mystery Man. You have your secrets. But, yes, for my birthday and then Thanksgiving.”

  “Where exactly will you be?” he asked slowly, sounding secretly delighted.

  “Um, it’s a little town no one’s heard of: Balanis.”

  “Balanis?” he asked and I could hear a smile in his voice. “Balanis, Montana. Where you grew up.”

  “No fair on the background checks,” I chastised. “I don’t have your resources.”

  “Well, when I see you later, I can lend you my resources. You can use them for whatever you may desire.”

  “When you see me later?” I asked, suspicious and eager all at the same time.

  “That’s the plan.”

  “How later? What plan? Where are you and are we gonna make this work for longer than fifteen minutes?”

  “Much longer, since we can start tonight.”

  “Tonight?” I laughed, sure I was misunderstanding, but enjoying the tingly feelings of anticipation just the same. “I won’t even get home—er, to my parents’ house for a few hours. Where are you?”

  “In a hotel room just outside—drumroll please—Balanis, Montana.”

  “You are kidding!” I cried, my spine going rigid, wondering if fate had a P.O. box and if it was accepting thank-you gifts. Owen let out a low laugh, pleased at my glee.

  “I never kid about my job. Though, I am a little surprised you’re happy I’m so close to your loved ones.”

  “Eh,” I said with a shrug. Owen hunts monsters, taking care of problems the police couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Balanis wasn’t a major city but it was big enough and bordered by enough forest where monsters probably lived that I was pretty sure my kin would be safe. I wasn't thinking with only my hormones, I swear. “Should I be worried? Are you hunting something dangerous?”

  “When do you want to meet?” he asked in lieu of answering. I chuckled, used to his avoidance of work-related questions.

  “Well, I should spend some actual time with my family, but later in the evening would work. I can sneak out after the kids are in bed.” I really didn’t want to wait, but I hadn’t seen my family in over a year and darting off to get my rocks off first thing after arriving would so get me grounded.

  “We can get late dinner, catch up in the hotel bar, what do you think?”

  “How about we just cut right to the chase. Tell me where you are and I’ll meet you in your room and we can get all our catching up done in bed.” Owen let out a low purr of a sound, making me bite my lip as I wondered if my cheeks were as red as they felt.

  “A woman after my own heart,” he said. I let out a quick laugh.
  “Let me assure you, that is not the organ I’m after.”

  “Ten o’clock?” he asked.

  “Perfect. Text me your hotel information and I’ll see you then.”

  “Can’t wait.”

  “You have no idea,” I said.

  Chapter Two

  “Don’t say chipmunk,” I ordered as I pulled open my mother’s car door and pointed threateningly at my sister. She just waved me in.

  “Hurry, hurry. I’ve been circling and I don’t want to get in trouble.”

  “You won’t get in trouble,” I said. Hefting my bag into the back seat, I shut the door and hopped forward to the passenger door, sliding in. Robin leaned over and gave me a quick hug and kiss on the cheek before pulling out into traffic.

  “How was the flight?”

  “Being trapped in a steel box with a hundred unhappy people and two teething babies? Oh, it was great.”

  “You’re fine,” she said, dismissively. I scowled, but felt right at home.

  Robin looked good. I hadn’t seen her since my youngest niece had been born, but she looked much better than she had fresh from squeezing something the size of a watermelon out of her body.

  Robin and Thom got my mother’s stunning good looks, though she’d been the only one of us to get mom’s lovely red hair. I’m average height, curvy with short dark hair, a square jaw, and green eyes, but Robin got the model genetics. She’s tall and willowy, with long copper hair and pale skin. Her eyes are hazel, her smile somewhat delicate. She looks extremely similar to our mother, though I had yet to recognize either of my parents in my own face. This is despite the fact that everyone tells me repeatedly that my father and I are the same person in every way.

  I looked over her long, soft dress, suspected she’d chosen a pattern jammed with so many angled spots of color to hide the inevitable grape juice stains or toddler vomit. She’d paired it with a cardigan to fight off the chill of the November afternoon.