Jaycee smiled as she brought the steaming cup of black coffee to her lips. She had been standing on the front porch watching Grandfather teach Angel to ‘talk’ to the horses.
A few weeks ago, the whole idea would have seemed preposterous. But so much had changed for them. For her, mostly.
Especially since that night. Just thinking about it, about him made her body come alive from head to toe, particularly those good bits in the middle. If she weren’t careful, she would need to change her panties. She seemed to be going through the things at an alarming rate, changing them a couple of times every day.
Not that she minded. The nights more than made up for it. And the occasional morning and afternoons while Grandfather kept Angel occupied with her ‘lessons.’ The reading, writing, and arithmetic of home education seemed to have taken a backseat to these new studies. But she did not mind. With each new day, Angel seemed to improve.
There had been no seizures in weeks, and even her meltdowns were becoming a thing of the past. While Jaycee might not be a fan of religion, the prayers, chants, and meditations that Grandfather taught her daughter seemed to be working miracles that no medicine had.
Of course, that would be the real test. She had not found the courage, or perhaps faith would be a better word, to discontinue her daughter’s seizure medications. Not yet, anyway. She knew it was ridiculous. None of those meds had ever proven effective at completely stopping the seizures as these past few weeks had. Still, she held on to the safety net.
Though Rex and Grandfather, even Angel, were beginning to pressure her. The side effects were not worth it, they claimed. Rex, especially, should know, having spent most of his childhood on similar medications. She knew they were right. But?
Her cell phone on the rail in front of her dinged. She picked it up as much out of habit as anything. Yes, she still had her clients to consider, but there were not that many of them. And Hector and Lupe usually checked in once a day or so as well.
She cursed as she saw the message. Why suddenly was Sean playing the concerned father? Was there some new woman in his life that he was trying to impress? Or perhaps some new political position that could use the boost of a couple of photos with his poor sick child?
But for whatever reason, for the past few days, her ex-husband, who only called once or twice a month, usually to say that the child support was too much or would be late, was calling two and three times a day, demanding to know where she had taken ‘his’ daughter and when they would be returning.
Jaycee considered ignoring the text but knew that would only result in another phone call. The last one had ended with Sean threatening to take her to court for interfering with his parental rights. Unfortunately, this time, she knew he was right. She did not have a right to keep Angel’s whereabouts from her father. It was not a legal battle she could win, not without serious evidence of abuse.
These past couple of weeks here had been so peaceful. But it was not just Sean who was intruding on this ideal. Rex’s boss, Tim Masters, had emailed, phoned, and repeatedly texted about the horses, too.
Since the animals were no longer on her ranch, they had violated the agreement. They must surrender the horses to the RSPCA. He had fired Rex. Not that Rex seemed bothered by that. Grandfather had been begging him to quit and work with him to keep this place running. But now Masters too was threatening to take them to court. It seemed she would have plenty of work to do, just none of it paid.
If she had been worried that this was some dream, afraid that someone would pinch her, and she would wake, then this was much worse. The world was closing in around them from all sides. She was not sure how much longer they could keep any of it at bay.
The pinch on her jean-clad bottom brought her back to the present. As Rex smiled and held out a breakfast burrito, “You need to eat before we face any of that. But yes, this is very much real, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”
He leaned in and kissed her, drawing her bottom lip between his teeth and biting lightly. “The good and the bad. I’m afraid we can’t keep hiding from any of it.”
‘What if that thing finds us here?’ he switched to speaking in her mind.
She still found that incredibly strange, almost frightening. But at times like this, it could prove useful. While she had learned that Grandfather could occasionally overhear them, it was better than spelling to keep adult talk away from little ears.
‘We knew we would have to face it eventually. And we need to. We can’t spend the rest of our lives hiding.’
She nodded, though a chill ran up her spine at the memory of that night. The sight of that monster. The sound of Blu’s dying whimpers. The smell of fresh blood on that thing’s fangs. She did not want to think about what might have happened if Hector had not arrived with his gun. But not even that had stopped the thing. It merely absorbed the bullets like some bad science fiction movie.
Rex’s arm went about her. He drew her closer to his side as he planted a tender kiss on the top of her head, “This time, you won’t be alone, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.” He spoke those words of reassurance aloud as Grandfather and Angel joined them on the porch.
“And this time, we know what we are facing. We will be ready. In our time and on our ground, my children,” Grandfather added as he shooed her daughter into the house.
“So, what do we do?” She looked up at Rex.
“We draw them here. All of them,” Grandfather replied.
She shook her head, “All of them?”
“Yes, child, since we cannot know where the danger comes from, we bring all of the players together. Here.”
The thought of bringing that thing, and whatever danger it represented here was terrifying. This had become their refuge, their fortress. And inviting their enemies in was not something she wanted to consider.
Rex nodded, “Grandfather is right. We have no other choice, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. We have not been able to identify who the Chupacabra is. So, bringing all the players here is our best option.”
“But won’t that put more innocent people at risk?”
Grandfather sighed, “Yes, my daughter, but it is the only way. We do not why, what it seeks.”
“The horses, it went after the horses that night,” she answered.
“Yes, but were they its ultimate goal? Or merely something to feed upon before going for its real target?”
“What do you mean, Grandfather? Are you saying that thing was after Angel?”
He shrugged, “It is possible, my daughter. Or perhaps it is you. Maybe it came to stop you, some case you are on.”
“Only a couple of them are that big. Most are wills, no-contest divorces, that sort of thing.”
“We bring them here. Bring them all here. Call them, arrange meetings,” said the old man.
She shook her head, but it was Rex, who voiced the concerns for both of them. “When? And in what order?”
Neither of them liked his grandfather’s response, “All of them. As soon as possible.”
Rex was not sure this was a good idea. Bringing so many ‘potential suspects’ to the ranch at once. They had spent Angel’s afternoon nap discussing who to include. Not that Angel needed to rest any longer; usually, she just read or meditated quietly in her room.
The list was surprisingly long. It made him feel that Grandfather had watched one too many episodes of Murder She Wrote or what was that other one with the doctor? But this was a Chupacabra they were dealing with. And each of those people became possible victims if they weren’t careful.
He stared across the dry hills as the sunset. It was a spectacular view, the reds and oranges of the sky bringing the land alive with its natural beauty. Any other time he would put on his other and take to the hills with his friends. Run free and wild, just feeling its beauty.
After that first night, Jaycee had thought he carried the skin around with him, that he needed it to transform each time. She had thrown a handful of hay at him when he doubled over with laughter at the misunderstanding. It had deteriorated into a tickle fight that ended with another ‘quickie’ roll in the hay.
Then he had explained that the pelts were necessary only in the beginning as a skinwalker learned his other. Eventually, it was a part of you that you carried inside and could call forth at will.
The misunderstanding made him realize how much work they had to do, how much Grandfather had to teach Angel, but first, they had to deal with that thing.
“Dammit, Sean, you can’t have it both ways. Either you want to know where Angel is staying or…”
His mate’s anger and frustration beat at his mind as he opened his arms. She smiled weakly as she stepped out on to the porch, the old wooden screen door slamming quietly behind her. He felt the surge of desire and peace as she stepped into his embrace. She, too, faced the sun setting behind the hills. The way her round bottom brushed against the front of his jeans was torture.
Rex forced his mind to follow along with her side of the conversation, instead of how hard and horny he was. That thought earned him an elbow to his ribs and a stern look. “Yes, Sean, I realize how busy you are. Aren’t you always? But we brought Angel here for the peace and quiet…”
“We? A friend and I. What does that matter? Sean, I know you understand the law well enough to know that who I am or am not screwing is no longer your business. That’s one of the benefits of a divorce.”
He caught the fleeting, ‘not that you bothered to wait.’ He drew her closer and squeezed her gently, reminding her that he was here now, that what they shared was different.
She shook her head, he could not make out what the man said, but he could hear that his voice had risen, gotten much louder.
“As the email communication between our attorneys and us indicated, I am happy to meet you in Comfort day after tomorrow. We will show you where Angel is staying, and you can spend some time with her, see for yourself that she is happy. But no, I am not just texting you the address.”
“Why? Why, Sean? Because I am not playing your games anymore. I’m not having you show up once every couple of months, upset her routine, then disappear for weeks. If you want to be a part of her life, then you keep to the court-appointed visitation schedule.”
“I am not discussing that with you. It is none of your business. I have never interfered with the women you brought around my daughter. So, no, Sean, you don’t have the right to a name, and you certainly don’t have the right to do a background check on him. Good night, Sean.”
“We will be at the bank at nine Saturday morning. If you want to see Angel, then show up. Otherwise, I will see you in court in six or nine months.” Her cheeks were flaming red, and she was trembling by the time she hit the button to disconnect the call.
He drew her closer into his embrace. If she wanted, or needed, to talk, he was there. He knew from what he heard of his mate’s thoughts that she was struggling. The truth was always hard to face.
Jaycee leaned back against Rex. It felt so strange, knowing that she did not face this alone. That she no longer encountered any of life’s struggles by herself. It was perhaps as much an unbelievable miracle as a man who could turn into a pony. Maybe more so.
She did not know why she had come out here. Sure, she had felt his unease with the situation, but she was caught up in her own issues at the moment. Why had she felt an almost compulsion to be near him then?
He laced their fingers together and brought them to his lips, kissing the back of her hand, tenderly, ‘Because we will always be stronger together, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.’
That too was a foreign concept to Jaycee, one that seemed vastly at odds with her Feminism 101. You were not supposed to depend upon a man. You were strong, and you dealt with your shit yourself. That was how it was supposed to work, right?
Two independent adults who willingly came together by choice for sex, companionship, and perhaps to raise a family. That was the deal she had negotiated with Sean. Except that phone call reminded her that was not how it had really worked in their marriage.
She sighed as she faced the uncomfortable truth – she had been abused. Oh, Sean never hit her, sure. But for all his public and private rhetoric about the rights of women, he had verbally and mentally abused her. Cut her confidence in herself as a woman and an attorney. Gaslighting was the term.
From the casual comments like ‘you’re wearing that?’ to his need to always win any argument or debate they had. Right down to the decision to buy the cream-colored sofas that were hardly practical with a baby on the way.
Professionally, of course, she had never questioned it. Sean was almost fifteen years older and more experienced. He had been a full partner in their prestigious firm when she was just a summer intern.
Looking back, she supposed she had gotten caught up in the romance of it all. This older man, who had lost his beloved wife years before, was taking an interest in her. But their marriage had never been a fairy tale, nor was it, she was beginning to see, the partnership of equals that she had wanted to believe it was.
She shivered at the memories. She knew that Rex could not read her mind exactly, only the thoughts that she spoke inside it. That was a fine line, one she had not learned to walk yet. Oh, but she wished she had. There were things in her past, in their marriage, that she was not ready for him to know. Maybe she never would be.
His lips on the top of her head brought her back to the present. “Know that I will never judge you, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. And if you do not want to talk about it, now or ever, I will love you and support that decision.”
She turned in his arms, wrapped her about his neck, and stood on tiptoes, pressing her lips to his. “Thank you, Rex. There are somethings that I have to come to terms, perhaps on my own.”
“Do you think he’ll come?”
She was grateful he had changed the subject, at least a bit. “Who knows what Sean will do. For such a brilliant legal mind, the man rarely makes sense.”
They had decided that the only way to control the situation was for them to agree to meet all the parties on neutral ground, then bring them back to the ranch. If they gave away the location before then, who or whatever that thing was, could show up here at will. They needed to control this first meeting.
Rex and Grandfather were confident that one, if not both of them, would be able to sense or smell that thing on one of them. So, they had spent the afternoon going through both of their lives looking for someone, anyone that might have a reason to harm them.
But the ‘them’ was the problem. Was that thing after her, or Rex, the horses, or even Angel? They did not have any idea. So the list of possible subjects had grown incredibly long. Well, more accurately, her list.
Rex only had his former boss, Tim Masters, on his. He wanted to believe that if he had spent months working with such an evil being, he would have known. But he had to admit that something had never felt quite right about the man.
Her list, on the other hand, had included not only her ex-husband but both Thad Marshall and his father, Tybor. That man clearly had some evil living inside of him. Not only was he doing everything he could to disinherit his only son, simply because the man was gay, but his treatment of the horses showed a cold-blooded disregard for life.
The last-minute addition to the list had been the sheriff of Sebida county. The man might boast an impressive war record, be some heroes’ hero with his former SEAL team. Still, nothing excused his treatment of his wife and daughters, not to mention the rumors of corruption that Jaycee had discovered while investigating the man.
Of course, that brought her back to where this all began. Her marriage. She was not ready to face the possibility that the man she had been married to for a decade could be – that thing. Maybe Sean had not been a good husband or loving father, but surely she would have known if she lived and had sex with such evil?
Or would she? She tried very hard not to let her mind drift down those pathways. But then she had denied them for years.
“Rex, are you sure about this? Isn’t there some other way?”
He shrugged those broad shoulders that she had spent the past few nights resting her head upon as she slept peacefully for the first time in over five years. “I don’t see how, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. We can’t hide here from that thing for the rest of our lives. Or even until Angel is grown.”
“Your ex is threatening to take us to court for keeping his daughter from him.” She was glad that he did not mention she could lose custody of Angel or even go to jail.
“And you know that Masters is demanding we return the horses to the RSPCA, or he’ll have us arrested.”
As much as she had wanted to live in the ignorant bliss of nights spent in Rex’s bed and days spent watching her child blossom, she knew he was right. As for Thad, Tybor, and this mysterious Sheriff Kerr, while it was unlikely that any of them were involved, the only way to be sure was to bring them here, too.
It still worried her. What if they were wrong? What if neither Grandfather nor Rex could identify the Chupacabra? What then? Maybe none of them were involved? Perhaps it was all just random, though her gut and theirs said otherwise? But what if they brought that thing here and it left them all vulnerable? What then?
“You have my word, Nʉ Sʉmʉ; I won’t let anything happen to you or our daughter.”
But that was what worried her too. After finding this man, she could not believe that Fate would be so cruel as to snatch him from them. But she knew that what he left unsaid was, ‘no matter what.’
“Come with me, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. There’s something I want to share with you,” Rex pleaded as he turned her in his arms.
He refused to believe that Fate brought them together to tear them apart. But whether it had or not, he intended on living each and every moment they had together, whether that was days or decades.
She followed him across the dusty yard, passed the barns, and the corral. Only once they were out of sight of the house did Rex disrobe.
His mate smiled and stepped closer. He trembled as her dainty hand traced a line from his fingertips, up to his arms, across his shoulders, and began to trail down his chest. His hand covered hers before it went any lower. There would be time for that later, but he had something else in mind when he brought her here.
He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “I know you aren’t a skinwalker. And can never fully understand the world that Grandfather, Angel, and I inhabit. But tonight, I want to share it with you. As much as I can, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”
He took a couple of steps back. His eyes met hers, “Do you trust me, Jaycee?”
“That’s a stupid question, Rex. After all, we’ve been through in such a short time. Of course, I trust you.”
“No, sweetheart. This isn’t about mates, or Fate, or skinwalkers. This is about a man and a woman. About two human souls.”
His eyes held her gaze, “Hell, it probably isn’t even about a woman. It’s about a little girl that was hurt and all alone in the world. A little girl who desperately wanted someone to love her. A family to call her own. A child that was disappointed and hurt time and time again.”
“Can that little girl deep inside of you trust me? Know that I love you and want you more than life itself?”
He watched the tears track down her cheeks. She held her other hand, clasped tightly in front of her heart, but she nodded her head slowly.
“You know, Angle has been torturing me with all her movies. But there’s this one I like.” Rex stepped forward and kissed her forehead gently, “Tonight, let me show you a whole new world, princess.”
The tears were streaming as he took two more steps back. His mind reached for his other. He felt his body grow; his muscles stretched and transform. Until the breathtaking mustang knelt, bending his knees just enough to allow his mate to grab hold of his mane.
Rex felt the gentle tug as Jaycee threw her leg over his back and shifted her weight. He neighed softly, remembering that she had once run the barrels. Fate had not gone wrong, giving him an experienced horsewoman as his mate.
She leaned forward, her hands gently stroking his neck as she whispered in his ears, “I do trust you, Rex.”
It was all the encouragement he needed as he took off at a gallop, heading for the hills that surrounded the house. He could almost sense where the herd ran this night. The moonlight lit his way, but he was not worried. He knew this ranch. It was him home. Their home. And he was determined that here they would be safe.
The night was magical. Jaycee tried to remember a time when she had felt this free and at peace. It was not simply riding bareback with her hands laced through his mane, racing the wild horses across the rolling hills from which this region got its name. The moon was almost full, and it gave a surreal feel to the land.
She could not remember the last time she had ridden at all. Though she had a few older horses and ponies at her ranch that they used for the children, she was so busy caring for Angel or trying to rebuild her legal career that she left their care and exercising mostly to Hector.
Tonight reminded her how she had felt the first time she rode a horse. She had been moved again. Another foster home. The Wilsons were an older couple in East Texas. They had a huge old farm. They had raised their children and a grandson on the land that had been in the family since before Texas was a state.
But they were getting older now. Chores weren’t as easy for them as they once had been. An older foster child meant a bit of free labor. Perhaps others would have resented the arrangement, but those final years in the foster system with the Wilson’s had been the best for Jaycee.
The stability, discipline, and love that they had provided had turned her life around. She had gone from a mediocre student to the valedictorian of her class. She had been president of the 4H club and even learned to ride barrels. She owed everything to the couple.
She had lost touch with them following her marriage to Sean. She had lost touch with lots of things then. There was never any time for the things she had wanted to do or her friends. Besides their firm, which took up twelve or more hours a day, there was always some political or charity event that required their presence.
Or those other… But she did not want to break the spell of this night with those memories.
They topped the highest hill, and Rex stopped. She inhaled the crisp night air. She wanted to shout or sing but settled for laughing. She could not remember the last time she laughed with such aplomb either. Perhaps she never had?
She hopped down from the horse’s back. It was the man she wanted to share this moment. Her man? Her mate.
She was never sure if she would get used to watching him transform. Especially knowing that one day, her daughter would undergo the same metamorphosis. Of course, there was an otherworldly feel to the way his body stretched and grew, hair covering it entirely. When the process was complete, she covered her mouth and giggled.
“What’s so funny, Nʉ Sʉmʉ?”
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea; you’re going to get cold like that pretty quick,” she teased as a naked Rex stalked her.
He caught her, not that she was trying to flee all that hard. Rex wrapped his arms around her and leaned in to nuzzle at her neck. “You know, you can do serious damage to a man’s ego that way, woman.”
“I am only concerned about your comfort.”
“Well, if that’s the case, then I can think of a couple of ways to generate some heat, sweetheart.” He began to unbutton her shirt.
“What then I’ll be cold too?”
He bent and nuzzled her neck, “Oh, no, sweetheart, I’m gonna get you plenty hot. And wet.”
Rex matched actions to words as his hand moved inside her shirt, cupping her breasts. His fingers brushed over her sensitive nipples. She moaned and shucked her shirt down her arms. The slight chill added another layer of sensation to her suddenly overheated skin.
Her hands ran across his shoulders and upper back, drawing him towards her lips. She was in no mood for games. She wanted him, and she wanted him now.
She giggled as their fingers battled over the button and zipper of her jeans. She surrendered that one in favor of toeing off her sneakers. Working as a team, they made surprisingly quick work of her clothes until she was as naked as Rex.
She looked around. Sand, rocks, and mesquite did not make comfortable beds for what she had in mind. But Rex had that one under control as well. Taking her hand, he guided her to one of the low trees. Placing her hands on the trunk, “Spread your legs, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”
Jaycee was not in the mood to argue. Feminism 101 be damned. She cried out as he surged into her. Her body was more than ready for its mate; she came even before he was entirely inside her. Her moans mixed with his and rang across the hills, joining nature’s chorus of owls, frogs, and insects in the song of life.
Time held no meaning for the lovers. Moments or hours rolled by, lost in the embrace of love. He took her to that peak over and over again before joining her in nirvana. They both sagged replete against the tree.
She turned her head and brushed a soft kiss to his cheek, “I love you.”
Those words came surprisingly easy. Especially considering the fact that she had never said them to anyone other than her daughter.
His lips captured hers, his cock still hard inside of her. “And that makes them more special than you can ever know to me, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. I love you, too, Jaycee. Not just as my mate, my one, but as a woman, and a person. You’re strong, beautiful, and caring. And I am the luckiest man alive to have you.”
She felt his tongue on her cheek, and only then did she realize that tears had spilled from her eyes as he spoke. After a lifetime of looking for love, needing to belong, she had finally come home. To this special man. Fate could not be so cruel as to take him from her now.