Rex Ranger stood naked among the backdrop of low trees that covered the rolling hills. He wore only a tan and white buckskin thrown loosely about his broad shoulders. His gray-green eyes followed the dozen or so mustangs that raced and played in the soft glow of the early morning sun. His heart beat in time with theirs.
“Rex, my son,” said the gravelly voice behind him.
A faint smile creased his thoughtful expression. He should have known that his grandfather would sense his presence. He always did. “Good morning, Grandfather.”
The older man approached him slowly, holding two steaming cups of strong black coffee in his weathered and calloused hands. His long grey hair was pulled back from his face and secured at the base of his neck with a simple leather strap. That wrinkled face bore with pride his Native American heritage. His black eyes were sharp, his nose flat and broad. Only his lighter skin tone attested to his mixed blood.
Rex reached out his calloused hand to take one of the cups that Grandfather held. Its rich aroma blended masterfully with the clean, crisp smell of spring in the Texas Hill Country. Bluebonnets were beginning to bloom in the valleys. Although it was brisk, his body welcomed the gentle breeze.
“What brings you here, my son?”
Rex’s chuckle blew softly across the surface of the dark brown liquid, making circles that expanded outward until they reached the rim of the earthenware cup and bounced back towards the center. His grandfather had never been a man for subtly. “Just needed a break, I suppose.”
His grandfather reached into the leather bag that hung across his shoulder. He drew out a pair of jeans and a soft chambray shirt. “It is still cold this time of year. Get dressed, and we will talk.”
Rex sat his cup down on a broad limb in the tree. He took the clothes without a word and quickly donned them. While he was grateful to his grandfather for the warmth they provided, some part of him rebelled at their confines, screaming to be free again. He shrugged his shoulders, trying to adjust the material where it chafed against his sensitive skin.
His grandfather stared off to a distant hill, where the last of the mustangs were disappearing to the valley below. “It has come.”
Rex shook his head, “We don’t know that, Grandfather.”
The old man shook his head and chuckled as he raised the cup to his mouth. He took a long sip and waited.
Rex picked up his cup from the tree behind him. The two men watched the horizon as the sun climbed higher into the sky, beckoning another day.
When the last of the hot liquid was gone, Rex turned to his grandfather, “What do I do?”
“Nothing. You do nothing…until the time comes. You will know. You will have no doubt when you meet her.”
Rex ran his fingers through the shortly cropped blond hair still wet from his morning run. He had known since his first transformation at the age of twelve that this day would come. The ‘season’ was upon him, just as his Grandfather had always warned him it would.
The ‘season’ was a time in the lives of all skin-walkers when they sought out and mated with their other half. The one true love with the power to draw them into the light. Without her, Rex knew the road to destruction that lay ahead. He would become the most feared of creatures, man and beast, capable of nothing but killing, even those closest to him.
“You worry needlessly. It has been many, many generations since one of our line failed in this quest. You will find her, my son. Of this, I have no doubt.”
Rex wished he had his Grandfather’s surety. But this blessing had always seemed more of a curse to the man, who lived in a modern world with little tolerance for those who were different. From kindergarten, Rex had been labeled. Hyperactive…ADHD…trouble-maker. They were badges he knew well.
His parents had brought in the best doctors, therapists, and specialists to ‘fix’ their son. But none of it worked. He simply could not sit still. He could not focus. And the medicines they gave him only made him sick.
It was not until his mother, desperate for a break from the overwhelming responsibility of parenting her ‘special needs’ child, had given into her father’s demands that the boy spend the summer with him, that he had found any sense of purpose.
The moment that ten-year-old had stepped foot onto this ranch, he had known. He had felt free, something he had never felt in his young life. That summer had been the best of his life, learning Comanche lore, riding horses, and sometimes just roaming the vast acres all day long.
When it ended, he had begged and pleaded with his parents and his grandfather to stay. But his parents refused. His mother had been estranged from her father since college. His mystical traditions were anathema to her calculating scientific mind that needed logical explanations for everything.
She was not going to have her father pollute her only child with his ‘voodoo rubbish.’ It had been two more long years before she had succumbed to Rex’s pleas and allowed him to return. It was only his psychologist’s concerns that he was so despondent he might attempt suicide that had finally forced her to accede.
Again, Rex had found the freedom he longed for. But this time, he found more. In a trunk in the tack room of his Grandfather’s barn, he found an old pelt…a grey wolf. His hands had tingled as he ran them across its soft fur. His mind had cleared as he saw a vision – himself running through the woods. But not as a boy, as the wolf. He had jerked back his hand as if burned only to hear his grandfather chuckle.
Just as he was now. “What is so funny, old man?” Rex passed the empty cup back to his grandfather.
“Your mind still battles. Even after all these years. Even knowing who you are, what you are. It is still like hers.”
Rex did not bother denying the words. As always, his grandfather had gone straight to the heart of the matter. His mother might have worried that his grandfather’s teachings would pollute his mind, but the truth was that he feared her science had tainted his soul. His intelligent mind still sought answers. Answers that he knew modern science would never provide. But without those answers, he feared he would never find the peace he sought.
“Peace is not as hard to find as you think, my son. It is all around us. We have simply to accept it within us.”
Rex shook his head. Why he was still surprised that this man knew what he was thinking was beyond him. Telepathy was one of the gifts that came with skin-walking. Even as untrained as his talents were, he had, on occasion, caught glimpses of other people’s thoughts, especially when strong emotions such as anger, hatred, or fear were involved. It always made him uncomfortable.
“Go. Run for a bit more, child.” The old man said as he turned back towards the house with both cups in his hands. “We will talk more when you have worn out your troubled mind.”
Jaycee Riley pushed the disconnect button on her cell phone as she shrugged her shoulders. Her dark hair fell in gentle waves down her back, its ends coming to rest between her shoulder blades. Her eyes took in the austere dark wood paneling of the courthouse waiting room. The heavy mahogany doors to the courtroom were closed.
She turned to scan the hallways once more. Her client was late. If she did not get her butt into the courtroom soon, it would be more than the young man that was too late. This case was not to her liking. Family disputes were never easy, but this newest conflict between her client and his father was particularly distasteful.
Animal cruelty was not an area of the law that she had experience with, but in her new practice, she could not afford to be choosey about the cases she took. Her livelihood and her daughter’s health depended upon making a success of her new career path.
With one final survey of the area, she squared her shoulders and pushed open the heavy doors. She walked determinedly towards the podium on which the judge sat. Her client’s father, his attorney, the prosecutor, and a man she did not know all looked up from their conservation.
“Your honor, Jaycee Riley, for Thad Marshall. He is the defendant’s son and an interested party in this case,” she kept her tone crisp and business-like even as she felt all eyes on her.
A shiver ran up her back. Discomfort hung on her shoulders like a heavy coat on the hottest West Texas summer day. If she had been leery of this latest development before, now some deep instinct screamed at her to run. Run as fast and as far as she could.
But Jaycee had never been the running type. Her flight reflex turned off from birth, it seemed. Instead, she did as always. She squared her shoulders, spread her feet a bit, and braced for the fight. She scanned the faces.
Marigold Clement was the prosecutor. Although she had never battled her in a courtroom, they had met once or twice at social events. The older woman was austere. Her gray hair pulled back into a bun at the back of her head. Her dark blue suit was so tight that Jaycee wondered how the woman managed to breathe. The woman might be a formidable opponent, but she had a reputation for being a fair one. Jaycee dismissed her as the source of her discomfort.
As for Tybor Marshall and his good-ole-boy attorney Mitch Taylor, she knew the animosity that they bore her. This war of wills had been dragging on in civil court for almost a year now. So, while she recognized that she was not their favorite person that could not explain her discomfort.
Of course, the bailiff and court reporter could easily be dismissed since she had known them for some time. Jaycee had even shared casual conversation with them in the greasy spoon across from the courthouse on the rare occasion.
That left only the stranger. Her eyes locked with his. She drew in a deep breath at what she saw. For a moment, she felt like prey, and this man, the consummate predator. Something so primitive arced between them as they took the unflinching measure of one another. For once, Jaycee was the first to back down, breaking eye contact.
The judge cleared his throat. She forced her mind back to the business at hand. “Your honor, Mr. Marshall and his son are engaged in a civil matter the outcome of which relates directly to this case.”
“As you realize, the horses in question are not just any animals. They are purebred racehorses, some of the finest stock in the country. My client’s mother, Mr. Marshall’s wife, left the animals and the bulk of her estate to their son, Thad. But for personal reasons, Mr. Marshall is contesting his wife’s will with the intent of disinheriting their only child.”
Jaycee looked at the defendant. Her distaste for the man had grown to new bounds. “We believe that Mr. Marshall starved the animals in an attempt to circumvent the court system.”
“Miss Riley, I am aware of the civil court proceedings, but that has nothing to do with this case. The only thing at issue here is the welfare of those animals.”
“I understand that, your honor. And I am as disgusted as anyone at what these animals have gone through. But they are also property. Property involved in a civil matter. Property worth close to one point two million dollars. Property that his mother left to my client. It would be judicious of the court to consider how its actions might bear upon the civil proceedings and, ultimately, upon the value of the estate. For this court to award animals of this quality to the ASPCA would be precedent-setting.”
The man turned and stared at her once more. “Perhaps your client should have thought of all that before now, Miss Riley. Those animals were without feed for weeks. Where was your client then? How often did he check up on his inheritance as you call them?”
Jaycee shifted her weight from one foot to the other, aware that her client’s absence at these proceedings spoke louder than her words. “My client is a businessman. He travels extensively. He was unaware of his father’s intents and had assumed that the animals would be safe in his care while this matter worked its way through the legal system.”
The man reached into the file he held and drew out a picture. Holding it up, he replied, “This is what your client’s assumptions did to these animals.”
Jaycee could not stop the flinch that shook her body as she looked at the picture of the emaciated horses. She was an animal lover and an equestrian. Instinctively, she brought her hand up to cover her mouth as she fought back the rising bile. She feared that she would completely lose control, and rushing from the courtroom to vomit would not be in her client’s best interest. But what she saw in front of her turned her stomach.
Suddenly a cool glass was pressed to her lips, “Drink this,” it commanded.
Rex did not like this latest turn of events. He cursed and snorted as he held the glass to the distraught woman’s lips. He wanted to throw her over his shoulders and race from the room. Her distress rolled over him like the roughest of seas, plummeting and pounding at his mind, his heart, and his very soul.
He could hear each of her disjointed thoughts in his head. Louder than his own. She fought to control her disgust with what had been done to the beautiful animals. She wanted to do what was right for them, but she had been hired to do a job. And doing that job was about more than just the law. It was about her very survival.
And her survival meant more to him than his own. It always would.
He stepped forward, his large body acting as a shield, guarding her against their prying eyes, giving her a moment to compose herself. “Breath deeply, Nʉ Sʉmʉ,” his mind slipped naturally into the language of his ancestors. He inhaled deeply, held her eyes for a long moment, willed her mind to be silent, and then exhaled. He did it again before turning back to the others, who were all staring at them.
“Your honor, it is clear to the ASPCA that Miss Riley’s client had no part in the neglect. Would it be possible for a small continuance while we negotiate a compromise that is in everyone’s best interest?” He stared at the judge, who knew him well and had overseen hundreds of these cases with him.
The man cleared his throat, “Rex, I don’t have to tell you how unusual this is.”
“I know, your honor, but as the woman says, this case is unprecedented as well.”
The judge turned to his friend Marigold, who prosecuted almost all the animal cruelty cases for the District Attorney’s office. “Miss Clement, do you have any objection?”
The older woman looked to him quizzically. He shrugged and mouthed the word, ‘please.’ She nodded and turned back to the judge. “As you know, your honor, the District Attorney works closely with the ASPCA on these types of cases. I do not doubt that my colleague and I can work something out in the best interest of these animals.”
“Alright, then. This case is bound over for review. One week from Thursday. Ten days, Mister Ranger. Miss Riley. You have ten days to present this court with a viable resolution, or these animals become the property of the ASPCA. This court is adjourned for lunch.”
Rex sighed. Ten days was not long. Not long to broker this kind of deal. He knew that his boss was salivating over those animals. They would not be put up for adoption as other animals were. These animals would become the centerpiece of their annual fundraising auction.
Usually, the event was nothing more than a big party, a chance for their largest benefactors to pay far more than they usually would for some poor, rescue animal. But with those horses, Tim Masters was sure they could attract the type of buyers, donors, that they had only dreamt of.
He watched the woman drain the rest of the water from the glass. He felt her mind shift. Readied himself for battle, before she could speak, his hand took her elbow. He heard her heart, listened as it skipped one, then two beats. It began to pound in his head like a war drum.
But it was the smell that left him weak in the knees, threatened to overpower what vestiges of man remained in him. He was so close to his animal self, so close to losing control. Closer to it than he had ever been. And his body knew why. That smell told him that the woman did too. His woman. His.
He managed to formulate only a few words, “We should go now.”
Jaycee shook her head. This man did things to her that no one ever had. It was not just his size, or that rugged cowboy looks either. Something about his eyes. She could not quite figure out what color they were. But they did things to her stomach that she had only read about in the trashiest of romance novels on her e-reader.
And that voice. Just the sound of his voice caused her nipples to scrap painfully against the lace confines of her bra. And what happened inside her panties did not bear thinking about.
His grip on her elbow tightened as he propelled them towards the doors at the back of the courtroom. “Think of those damned horses. Count fucking sheep. Do anything except think about what I do to your body. Or we are both going to embarrass ourselves, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”
She nodded as she cast the occasional sideways glance at him. She bit her lower lip as she pondered his words. It was as if he could read her mind, and somehow knew the embarrassing fantasies she had been contemplating.
He led them out the doors, down the marble-tiled hallway, and out the glass doors into Houston’s mid-day sun that glinted off the city skyline. “Over there,” he commanded, pointing to the silver railing of the steps leading to the glass doors. “Wait for me.”
She nodded but could not figure out why. Sure, she probably owed the big oaf for saving her ass in there. She could not afford to get a reputation as a softie, not this early in her resurrected legal career. She needed clients and wins if she were to rebuild their lives. So, she could not afford to piss off any potential ally.
But this man did not feel like an ally. Alright, he might not exactly feel like an enemy either. She was not sure what he was. Other than a complication. A dangerous one too. At least to her sanity. That much was for certain.
Jaycee Riley was not the type to just obey an order. Let alone one from a sexy stranger. She had received top marks in Feminism 101. He-men were most definitely not her type, cowboys either. She watched him pacing some fifteen or twenty feet away on the other side of steps. What was it about this one?
He seemed to be doing some type of deep breathing exercises, those stunning eyes closed as he dragged in deep breaths, and then exhaled them. Just as he had instructed her to do back in the courtroom. At least the man practiced what he preached, she could give him that much.
He looked up at her, and for a moment, she swore that he growled. Growled like a bear. His eyes locked with hers. “Think about something else,” he commanded.
But it was hard to think of anything else when he was so close. Too close. Closer it felt than any man ever had been. That was most definitely not what she needed right now. Men were off her to-do list. Trouble, nothing but trouble.
Her nasty divorce proved that. Sean Riley had fought her for every dime that their once profitable Dallas practice brought in. Money had been what was important to him. And in the end, she had let him have it all. Her interests lay in their daughter, Angel.
“Angel,” she cried out, reaching for her phone inside the pocket of her best suit. She pushed a button, and the screen flared to life. No missed calls. That was a good thing. She pushed the button and waited as it rang.
“Hola, Senora Riley.”
“Lupe, como esta Angel?” she asked nervously.
“Bene, bene. She is good, Senora. She has been playing with the new gato, the cat.”
Jaycee breathed a sigh of relief. “No seizures, Lupe?”
“Nothing major, senora. A couple of the petite ones, but she came out of them very quickly. Less than a minute, Senora.”
“I’m done in court, but I need to meet for a bit with,” she sought for the right word. “Meet with a colleague to discuss things more. Then I will head back to the farm, but it might take me a while. If I hit rush hour traffic, I could be late getting back.”
“No problem. Hector and I will manage, Senora Riley.”
“Call me if you need me, Lupe. And thank you. Thank you again for everything. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“Adios,” said the older woman.
Jaycee closed her eyes and thanked whatever was out there for small favors. At least, Angel was having a good day. That was not always the case. Her daughter’s seizures were uncontrolled, despite being seen by the best doctors in Dallas and Houston. Numerous tests at the Children’s Hospital had revealed nothing in terms of the cause of her child’s epilepsy.
Neither she nor Sean had the illness or anyone in their families that they knew of. Although having grown up in the foster care system, Jaycee’s family history was sketchy at best. Still, the doctors could see no abnormality in Angel’s brain despite numerous MRIs and CAT scans. But for whatever reason, her child had seizures, several a day usually and more when she slept.
If it were not for the help of Lupe, a retired pediatric nurse, Jaycee did not know how she would be able to manage returning to work. She had taken a five-year break from her once all-consuming career when her daughter began having seizures.
Angel had been just eight months old when she had the first one. Sean had been holding their daughter when their daughter’s eyes rolled back in her head, her tiny body stiffening then shaking uncontrollably. Her lips had begun to turn blue as Jaycee finally composed herself enough to dial nine-one-one.
It had been the beginning of the end for their already strained seven-year marriage. She had become consumed with finding the answers to what ailed their child. In contrast, Sean had continued on his path to fame, money, and ultimately the White House, if he had his way.
But she did not have time for a walk through the minefield of mistakes from her past. She needed to focus on the business at hand. Clear her head. Deal with this man. And get on her way as quickly as possible. Back to her daughter. Back to the only thing that mattered.
Not some unrealistic fantasy about a good-looking blond Neanderthal with striking eyes and a body sculpted by hard work and not narcissistic hours in the gym. What would he look like without that soft chambray shirt? Solid, perhaps a bit of padding that was a welcoming place to lay her head at the end of a long day? What the hell was she thinking?
He walked over to her, shaking his head slowly. “You were doing so well there for a while, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”
“Excuse me? I don’t know what game you are playing, Mister Ranger. What does that mean anyway, new sumo? It’s not Spanish; I know that much.” Jaycee would not back down, choosing to stand and fight was so natural for her that it no longer seemed a choice. Although this time, something dark inside of her warned that fleeing was a more sensible course of action.
“Nothing, a nickname in Comanche.”
“Comanche? You don’t look very Native American to me, Mister Ranger.”
“Looks can be deceiving, Miss Riley. Wouldn’t you agree?” Those eyes bore into her. And something told her that this man knew far more than he should. Far more than she wanted him to.
But rather than delay, she got straight to the business at hand. “Were you serious about finding a compromise?”
He nodded, and she continued before he could speak. She forced her mind to take control before her body could betray her once more. And it was most definitely trying to do just that as she felt the blood rush to her cheeks and lower still, from the man’s stare alone.
“I have a small farm, about an hour outside of Houston. Waller County. I use it as a petting zoo and Equine Assisted Therapy for special needs children. Let me take custody of the horses until the civil courts resolve this matter.”
“Why would the ASPCA do that, Miss Riley?”
“Because I am sure that the care and upkeep of such animals must be placing a severe burden upon the ASPCA’s limited resources, Mister Ranger.” She fought back the unusual urge to reach out, brush back the strand of hair that fell on his forehead.
She knew that not only would the action be decidedly unprofessional, but she would not be able to stop. The image of her fingers wrapped through the soft waves, pulling him closer, those lips closing over hers raced like the thoroughbreds through her mind.
“Fuck,” he spat, drawing her back to the moment.
“Excuse me, Mister Ranger. But I think that my offer is more than fair, the compromise that you seek.” She needed to finish this. Finish it quickly and get away from this man. The irrational things that his mere presence was doing to her sex-starved body could not be tolerated.
That must be it. She needed to get laid. It was that simple. She tried to remember how long it had been. She and Sean had stopped having relations long before their divorce was filed. Two years? Three?
“Stop it. Now,” he growled through gritted teeth. “I do not need to know how long it has been since another man has touched you, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. All that will matter is that I will be the last man who ever does.”
His words splintered her mind in a dozen pieces. As if confirming her earlier suspicions. How could he possibly know what she had been thinking? But he obviously did.
What did Nʉ Sʉmʉ mean? She had the distinct feeling it meant something far more profound than just any nickname. And why would his words that sounded so ominous, like something a stalker would say to his victim, why would those words cause her heart to pound so loudly that she feared it would burst from her chest? That was the antithesis of her feminist beliefs.
“Because you are my one, and that is what it means. Nʉ Sʉmʉ means my one. We need to get the hell out of here now.” He checked his watch. “Four fifteen. We should be able just to miss the worst of the traffic if we leave now.”
“Leave now? Go where? If you think I am going anywhere with you, Mister Ranger, you are badly mistaken. You,” she searched for the right word. Why was it that this man who she had just met could leave her so speechless?
“It’s mutual, sweetheart. But if you want me to agree to this ridiculous compromise of placing one point two million dollars worth of prime horseflesh on a fucking kiddie’s pony farm, you can damned well bet I’m going to see the place first.”
“What my body wants aside, I have a god damned job to do, and my brain is not that addled by your smell, the sound of your heart beating faster than war drums, or those vivid images of me fucking those pretty little brains of yours right out of both our ever-loving minds.”
He placed his hand under her elbow once more. Jaycee tried to pull back, but his fingers bit into the tender flesh until she winced. She jerked back. His caveman show had to stop. But then why was it sending fire racing through her whole body?
He released his hold immediately, turning to her, “My apologies, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. I would never hurt you. That much you can count upon. You may be the only person that is safe from me right now. You have my word on it.”
“This is a bad idea.” But she followed him down the steps and across the parking lot to her car. “I’ll give you the address. You can follow me. Or use GPS?”
“No, I will come with you,” he replied with an intensity that took her breath away. “It is safer.”
“For whom? Look, Mister Ranger. My farm is over an hour outside of Houston. How do you expect to get back once we are finished with our business?”
“I will run,” he replied calmly even as he seemed to tower over her.
A soft chuckle escaped her throat, but suddenly his hand covered it. His grip was firm but not enough to cut off her airway, but certainly enough to force her head back up. To stare once more into those eyes that scared her more than anything ever had, well almost anything.
“And we will never be finished with what is between, Jaycee. My sanity and the safety of many people depend upon that.”
She would have argued with him, asked him a hundred different questions. Except suddenly, his mouth that she had dreamt about from the moment they met in the courtroom covered hers.
His teeth nibbled at her lower lip. His tongue licked at it. Until she moaned softly, melting against his much larger body. Then everything fled her mind, all thought, all reason, sanity itself, as her arms wrapped about his neck drawing him closer. Her tongue found his, wrapped about it, tasted him. She moaned deeper. The sound swallowed by his mouth as his hand found her breast. She arched into his touch.
Then just as suddenly, it was gone. He was gone. She reeled against her car, stumbling a bit. His hand on her elbow steadied her once more, but he kept his distance. He remained arms-length from her, looking down at her, studying her.
“You are right, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. This is a bad idea. Give me the address. I will come for you tomorrow,” he inhaled deeply. “When we are both in more control of ourselves.”
She grabbed the cell phone from his hand. Punched her number and address into it, before turning to him. “Oh, you can count on it, Mister Ranger. I will most definitely be in control.”
He shook his head, took a single step towards her. “Oh, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, do not lie to yourself. Neither of us has control of what the Great Spirits have decreed.” He frowned, the action creasing his forehead, “Tomorrow. We will speak more tomorrow.”
He turned without another word and walked away. Jaycee stood by her car for a couple of minutes, watching his broad back disappear among the other vehicles in the garage. Those hundreds of questions suddenly swept like a tidal wave back into her fragmented brain until she was trembling. In fear and need. Tomorrow. She touched her lips. They were swollen and hot, almost enough to scorch her fingers.
“We will most definitely talk tomorrow, Mister Ranger.”