Jaycee watched as her ex-husband paced a few feet in front of her. Perhaps this had not been a good idea. But her only thought when Sean had exploded was to protect Angel; it always had been. While the man had never physically harmed either of them, she knew mental and emotional abuse could damage too.
Angel had been doing so well. Until today. Until they brought all these strangers here. Until her father came.
She felt the unease and sense of foreboding rising inside her. Whether this man was the evil that they sought or not, he was and had been her personal demon for over a decade.
But she was not that same starry-eyed, insecure law intern who stood in awe of the great Sean Riley. Her heart torn with sympathy for this brilliant attorney that was mourning the great love of his life.
Perhaps if she had known stability and a loving home, she would have never settled for the paltry arrangement of companionship, professional partnership, and…
And what? The truth stared her in the face, but she still found it hard to think the words. Breeding. She had never been anything more to this man than a breeder.
It was her failure in that too, which had fueled the divorce. For both of them. The more she focused upon her baby girl and finding the answers they needed for her seizures, the more that Sean has insisted they should try again. Another baby would be the distraction she needed.
As if Angel were some broken doll that could be discarded and replaced with a ‘perfect’ one. She had been appalled Sean would even suggest such a thing. What if the other child had epilepsy too? They did not know if the condition was genetically linked.
So, as she withdrew from her career and husband to focus more on her daughter’s health, he had drifted deeper into the other world, the carefully hidden double life they had always lived.
If she had been stronger, less in awe of the man, would she have ever agreed to it? To the swingers and BDSM clubs. It was not that she had anything against them. Some people wanted or perhaps needed such things. She had not been one of them. But Sean had pestered, demeaned, and bullied her into it.
She shivered and wrapped her arms about herself, carefully studying the man who had been her first lover, her husband for almost a decade, and her professional mentor. Was it possible? Had she lived all that time with that monster and never known? She did not want to believe that was possible.
‘The other’ cracked through the carefully constructed cage in her mind. Sunshine was the only name that she had ever known the young woman by. However, the girl was perhaps more accurate, barely legal.
Jaycee shuddered to think of what had happened to her. She had read the news story just weeks before deciding to leave Sean. Had that influenced her choice? Had she known all along the depths of this man?
But she had no evidence. Knowing the victim of a serial killer did not make you one. Besides, Sean’s reputation was so above reproach and his secrets hidden so well that only she knew them. Who would believe an ex-wife?
She inhaled deeply, willing her heart to slow, as she watched him pace back and forth. He always did that when upset. She had grown used to it over the years. What bothered her was that his position effectively blocked her only escape route. Behind her was a rather substantial drop, perhaps enough to kill, certainly enough to cause serious injury.
She knew that the longer Sean paced, the more worked up he became. As much as she did not want to do it, she knew it would be better, in the long run, to engage him in conversation. She had once been able to talk him down from the worst of these episodes. But that had been years ago, before Angel’s birth. She only hoped that she could remember those skills.
Jaycee held up her hands as if in surrender. Submission, even if only pretend, worked best to soothe her ex. “Sean, let’s talk this through.”
“Talk? Why should I want to talk with an ignorant bitch like you? You had one job to do. One lousy thing that I asked of you. Give me a son to carry on my work. And you fucked up even that.”
His words hit to the core of Jaycee’s self-confidence, confirming what she had suspected for years. But she was not going to let him see that, know that he had scored a direct hit. “No, we have a beautiful daughter, instead.”
“Pah! A daughter? Worthless. Girls can’t inherit…” His words dried up like the landscape around them. He went back to pacing, more rapidly this time.
“Sean, I’m afraid you may have gotten the wrong impression from what you witnessed. Until today, Angel has been doing so much better. Being here, the quiet, slower pace, her seizures had almost disappeared. And she’s really gotten close to Raymond…”
“Polluted. You’ve polluted my child with all that goodness and light bullshit. Don’t you get it? After all these years, are you so fucking stupid and clueless not to see, not to know? The world does not work like that.”
“Let’s cut the bullshit. Since you won’t be around to finish the book, I’ll tell you the ending. Evil wins. It always does.”
His words chilled her to the core. But it was other words in her mind that she choose to focus upon, ‘I’m coming for you.’ Those too brought fear to her heart. What if Rex did come? What if Sean was right?
For the first time, Jaycee allowed the blinders to slip. She faced the nasty truth. Her ex-husband was not merely ambitious, or even greedy and hubristic. He was evil.
‘Yes, sweetheart. He is the Chupacabra.’ She did not question Rex’s words. Though she felt her knees weaken at the realization that she had lived with a murderer for over a decade, worked side by side with him, even bore his child.
But she knew too that her best bet, her only hope of coming out of this alive, was to keep him distracted. Keep him talking. Sean loved to speak. Most attorneys and politicians did. And she knew just how to keep him distracted while Rex came for her. She only hoped that the man she loved stood a chance against the monster she had once married. She knew that it was her job to give him that chance.
“Why, Sean? Why did you do it?”
Rex raced out of the house. He could feel her, sensed where they were. He knew her fear, too. He felt even more helpless than he had that other night.
Why had they done it? Why had they thought they could bring such evil here? But it was too late to worry about that now.
All he could do was race against time and Fate himself to reach the woman who held not just his heart, but his very soul and life in her dainty hands. Because make no mistake, without her, he too would become like that thing.
That thing. A Chupacabra.
That was not right, either. It was no longer merely a thing. It was her ex-husband. A man she had lived with and loved for a decade. The father of her child. Angel’s father.
“Señor, Señor Rex,” he heard Hector calling from the barn.
“What the hell?”
He did not recognize the other voice from the house behind him, and he did not have time to find out who it was, either. She needed him.
But damn it, there were too many people around here. He needed to transform. His other was stronger, faster, better able to protect their mate. But was even he a match for such a thing?
He considered changing instead into a wolf. He had done it a couple of times when he was younger — tried on Grandfather’s skin. But it was the mustang that had fit him best. Now he wished for something, anything stronger, more lethal.
None of that mattered if he could not get away from the people who seemed to be pouring out of the house now.
“Where do you think you’re going so fast, buddy?”
He recognized that one, as much from the tone of command as anything — the Sherriff. But the man was corrupt. Perhaps as much as that thing, only in human form. And he was in league with the creature.
Every second was precious now. He did not have time for this. Any of it. She needed him, and these delays could cost them their lives. And it was their lives.
He turned to the only one he knew, the only one he could trust. “Jaycee needs me,” was all he said to Hector.
The man nodded as he stepped between Rex and the men who were flooding from the house. “Go, I will handle them.”
“Handle who? Who are you? And what is going on here?” demanded the Sherriff.
Rex wanted to punch the man, anything to get him out of his way so he could get to her. How could he even explain? Would this man even listen? “I have reason to believe that Jaycee is in danger.”
“From whom? Sean Riley? The man is one of the most respected attorneys in this state. Hell, he’ll be our governor one day. The man just wants answers. Answers about his child. I can understand that.”
The man grabbed Rex’s shoulder. He felt the zing race down his spine and up to his brain. The taint of evil was there, even if it lacked the magic, the power.
“But your woman doesn’t seem to think men have any rights when it comes to their children. Not even the right to know where they are, how they are, or the people they’re with. So, if you ask me, it isn’t your woman’s that in danger but Sean Riley.”
“And I sure as hell am not letting you run off from here like some hot head. Who knows what might happen to the man?”
“You really believe that she’s in danger?” The other voice was incredibly weak.
Rex nodded at the old man, “I know it.”
“How? How do you know anything?” Earl Kerr blocked his path.
Rex searched for an answer, one that was reasonable. He landed on a half-truth, “Angel. When the little girl came around, she was worried about her mother. Said that her father might hurt her…”
“Oh, so here we go again. Filling a child’s impressionable mind with garbage. Turning them against their own fathers. Having innocents makes false allegations. Just what I’d expect from a woman like that.”
“Well, not on my watch, buddy. You are staying right here. Give those two time and privacy to work this out on their own. If I have to cuff your sorry ass and put you in the back of my squad car, I will.”
Rex had had enough. He gripped the man’s shirt. Looked him eye-to-eye, something that he could do with few others, “On what fucking grounds, asshole? Need I remind you this is not Sebida county. You don’t have any authority here.”
The older man stepped between them. His frail and bruised hands did their best to pry the men apart until Hector joined the effort, pulling Rex back as Tybor Marshall pushed Earl Kerr back.
“Okay, boys, settle down. Ain’t nobody arresting nobody here.” He turned towards Rex, “You honestly think the man will hurt his ex-wife?”
How could he possibly make any of them understand without revealing the truth? And even if he did, who would believe him? ‘Oh, I’m a shapeshifter, and Jaycee is my mate. I can feel her emotions.’
Yeah, that would go over like a fart in his mother’s church. In the end, his shoulder’s slumped as he sighed and nodded his head. The old man stared at him for a long moment.
Tim Masters stepped forward, “I’ve known Rex for a year, and except for those horses, I’ve never known the man to be rash.” His former boss eyed him for a moment. “I trust him,” were not the words that Rex expected from this man.
Hector, too, stepped forward, “Señor Rex would not lie. Nor would Angel.”
“So, ya’ll want just to let this man run off, interfere with a father’s rights?”
“How about we all go? Search parties. We know what direction they headed at least,” as the consummate lawyer and good ole’ boy, Mitch Taylor stepped in to mediate.
It was not the solution that Rex wanted or needed, but if he were to get to Jaycee, at all, it would have to do. “Hector, come with me.”
“I don’t think so,” Kerr stepped forward. “I’m coming with you. Make damn sure you don’t butt your nose in where it don’t belong.”
What choice did he have? But somehow, someway, he would manage to slip from this man’s watchful eye. He would do whatever it took to be there for her. If that meant taking this man out of the way, so be it.
Jaycee wanted to be sick. How had she not seen? She had lived with this man for ten years and worked with him for a dozen. Had sex with him, slept next to him. He was the father of her child.
She had always known that Sean was ambitious, perhaps even ruthless. But the difference between amoral and evil stared her starkly in the contorted, rage-filled face of her ex-husband.
She took a step back, but there was nowhere to go. She glanced sideways; the drop was a good twenty, maybe thirty feet, almost vertically down the rock face of the cliff. Her only escape was forward through her worst nightmare, the man she had once idolized, if never loved.
Her best chance, her only one, was to buy time, delay him until Rex got here. That, too, was a frightening prospect. What chance did his palomino have against that thing? But she could not think about that now as she repeated her question, “Why, Sean?”
His laugh was far worse than any B-grade movie villain; Vincent Price could have taken lessons. “Power, you stupid bitch. Why else does anyone do anything? Power and money are all that anyone ever thinks about.”
She shook her head, “No, Sean, not everyone. There are other things in this world than money and power. Greed and hubris don’t rule everyone.”
“What? Your weak little hero? Not for long. Not once I kill you. Then he will become just like me. A skinwalker cannot survive the death of its mate. Either it too dies or…”
She shivered, “Is that what happened, Sean? Was it the death of your first wife? Was she your true mate? You know no one ever even told me her name, let alone what happened to her. Is that why, Sean?”
Jaycee dug her heels into the soft, dry earth as he lunged for her. His fingers bore into the tender muscles of her upper arms until she feared he would rip them off, or worse, toss her over the edge of the cliff. That was his plan; she knew that now. Understood, that was why he had chosen to stop at this spot in particular.
Her mind automatically reached for Rex’s, but she stopped herself. If this was the end, she did not want her final thoughts, pleas, and screams to be in his mind and soul when he faced this thing.
But Sean was wrong. Rex would never become a monster as he had. Yet, that meant he would follow her into death, once he destroyed this thing. Then what would become of Angel? Her daughter? She was sure that Grandfather would take the child in, but what if something happened to him? He was not a young man.
She stared into the glaring, almost red eyes of the man/thing which held her life in its paws. She had watched Rex transform, but this time she was virtually a part of Sean’s transformation. As she felt his nails lengthen and thicken into claws. She winced as those claws punctured through her shirt and skin, embedding in the muscles.
He was wrong. Sean was wrong, she realized. A skinwalker had survived the passing of his mate. Raymond had done it. For his baby daughter’s sake. She knew that Rex had promised her that Angel was his now, but was it enough? Without a genetic connection, would the bond be strong enough to tie him to this world to get him through the pain of her death?
Maybe she should be afraid. She never had ‘made her peace with Jesus’ as so many of her foster carers pleaded and even beat into her. But if there were a Jesus or god, surely he or she would understand. Be compassionate. But that was not what worried her. Only what would become of her daughter and Rex.
Did she dare? She had no choice. ‘Take care of Angel. Promise me, Rex,’ she pleaded through their link.
Rex was sorely tempted to hit the cold-hearted bastard over the head and leave him where he fell. Sheriff Earl Kerr more than deserved it. Not just for his pompous and biased stance on this situation, but if half of the rumors they had uncovered were right, this man should be locked up for the rest of his life.
“Slow down. I keep telling you that this is ridiculous. Sean Riley would never hurt the woman.”
The man shook his head as he reached to grab Rex’s arm, but he shook him off and kept moving in the direction in which he felt her. If they were where he thought they were, he could not get to them soon enough. And this man was not going to delay him.
“What the hell is this world coming to when a man can’t even show genuine concern for his children? When women can cut men out of their children’s lives for nothing? Mere accusations are enough to get these bleeding-heart liberals all up in arms over a simple spanking. When I was growing up…”
But Rex was not listening. Not to the man anyway. He increased his pace, but it was not fast enough. Not fast enough to draw the man’s interest, and not fast enough to reach her in time.
Silence. All Rex heard in his mind was silence. That worried him more than anything she might say or think. He knew that she had been practicing. He had even offered her advice on how to block him a bit. Legalese was not his thing and hours of hearing it had been tiresome. Why had he not realized that she could use those skills at other times as well?
The only thing that gave him comfort was that he could feel her. Her heart still beat in time with his. He could sense that, hear it almost. She was still alive, and that was all that mattered.
“I said stop,” the man behind him was bent over with his hands on his knees. “I don’t know what gym you go to. I certainly did not think I had let myself get this out of shape. But you need to slow down. Like I told you, you’re overreacting to some lie that a child has been coached to tell.”
Rex might regret it later, but it felt damned good when his fist connected with the man’s jaw. Earl Kerr fell unconscious to the ground. “Shit, I’ll have to face the music for this one.”
He increased his pace, not transforming yet, just utilizing the almost superhuman speed that was also part of his gift. He was eating up the distance more quickly now, just another moment or two…
‘Take care of Angel. Promise me, Rex,’ was not what he wanted to hear from his mate.
‘Hang on, Jaycee. I’ll be there in a minute. Just hang on,’ he pleaded.
He came to the edge of woods, if you could call the patch of mesquite trees that clung to the rocky cliff that. They were less than fifty feet away. The Chupacabra gripped his mate by the shoulders. He could smell her blood on the air, and it enraged him.
The thing stopped with her just inches from the edge of those cliffs. It stopped, lifted its mangy head, and sniffed the air. “I know you’re here. Come out now. Or I swear I’ll throw her over the edge.”
“You’re going to anyway,” Rex choked out each word.
The thing laughed, if it could be called that. The sound grated more than nails on a chalkboard that his second-grade teacher had used to punish him when his attention drifted elsewhere.
“I will trade you. Your life for hers.”
Although Rex knew better than to trust the thing, it was his one chance. And he took it, stepping from the edge of the trees with his hands held out to the side in surrender. “Then let her go. Let her go now. And fight me.”
The thing’s laughter echoed over the cliffs and arid terrain. As hurt and disgusted with herself as she was, Jaycee knew one thing – she needed to keep Sean talking, distract him, and give Rex the best chance.
“What happened to that girl, Sean? What did you do to Sunshine?”
He turned towards her, taking his eyes off Rex for a moment. Eyes that glared inhumanly red at her.
His ordinarily dark brown ones had always been icy cold, but she had wanted to naively believe that was only from the pain of losing his wife.
When she had begun her internship at his firm, she had heard all the stories of how devastated the ‘poor’ man was by his wife’s death. Perhaps in his ‘deal,’ she had thought she could take away that pain. Instead, she had found herself drawn into a world that she wanted no part of.
“Did you kill her, Sean?”
The simplicity of his admission to murder shocked her senses. “Why? She was just a kid. What could she have possibly done to deserve that?”
“She had an abortion. She murdered my child. I got sloppy, something I never did with you. I was hungry for a kill. So, I transformed and went hunting. I did not know that she saw me. I thought she was asleep.”
“When I came back, she was gone. Would not answer my calls or texts. But I was not going to allow that, not when she was pregnant with my son. I hunted her down. But I was too late. When I tried to bargain with her to come back, just until the child was born, she told me there would be no baby, that she would not bring another monster into this world.”
“I could not let her live. Not only had she murdered my legacy, but she knew the truth. Sure, I could have discredited her as delusional. But why take the risk? She deserved to die.”
Jaycee was not sure whether to feel pity or anger at the young woman. Perhaps even sympathy, how would she have felt if she had known the truth about the man, about that thing? She wanted to believe that she would not have blamed an innocent child, but would she?
“You have a child, Sean. Angel, isn’t she enough?”
“A girl. A worthless little girl. You saw what happened. The seizures. She won’t live. They never do.”
He shook her, hard. “It’s all your fault. You had only one purpose – to breed me a son. And you’re so pathetic you couldn’t even get that right.”
Jaycee would not allow his words to shake her as she noticed Rex inching closer to where they stood. She dropped her head and turned her body just slightly. She knew that Sean interpreted it as his words hitting their mark, but it brought them parallel to the drop. Her back was no longer entirely to the cliff, and Rex was no longer in Sean’s direct line of sight.
She lifted her head and stared into those glowing orbs, “And your first wife? Did you kill her, too?”
Jaycee was grateful that she had maneuvered into a better position as Sean pushed her away. As it was, she fell to the hard ground a few feet away. Now she had a clear route of escape. Not yet, though. She would buy Rex some more time as he got into position.
“Do not ever speak of Astrid. You have no right!”
She squared her shoulders and lifted her head, “I have every right to know the truth. I lived with a monster for a decade. I gave you a child. The truth is the least I deserve.”
The thing shook its head, half beast, half man. “What does it matter? You won’t live to tell anyone.”
“No, I did not kill Astrid.”
For a moment, Jaycee would have almost sworn she saw the man she had once admired, that deep pain which she had once tried to soothe. But then it was gone with a snarl.
“Astrid killed herself.”
The words hung between them. Jaycee could not have moved if she wanted to. Even Rex froze twenty or thirty feet behind Sean or that thing.
“Why?” She seemed as bad as Angel when it came to that word. But this might be her last chance to get any of the answers she needed to make sense of most of her adult life.
“Because she could not give me a child, you stupid bitch. Do you have any idea how much I loathed you? Watching you get bigger every day of your pregnancy, knowing it should have been Astrid.”
He shook his head, and his eyes softened to those endless, almost black pools she had once thought attractive, “She was wrong. I would have loved her anyway. She was my fucking mate. How could she not have known that meant more than a baby?”
“Oh, Daddy, I’m so sorry.”
Jaycee’s heart stopped as she turned to look over her shoulder. Grandfather stood next to Hector, who held a ghostly pale Angel in his arms. She squirmed and pushed at the older man’s shoulder. “Let me down.”
“No, no, Angel,” but her pleas were in vain as her daughter wobbled to find her footing.
Her daughter shook her head and met her gaze, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’ll be alright, I promise.”
But Jaycee was not so confident. Their daughter had never meant much to Sean. She had known that even before his harsh words today. She reached out as the child passed by but was shocked at the speed and agility with which her daughter avoided her grasp.
“It will be okay, Daddy. I know you’re still in there. Somewhere. The man, the skinwalker that she knew. You just need to fight your way back for her. For your Astrid,” the child pleaded.
The thing bent down on the ground next to the little girl. It ran a sharp talon down her cheek. Jaycee was surprised not to see blood in its wake.
It shook its head as it spoke, “No, it is too late for me, Angel. You are so like her. So, full of life, and light, and laughter. It hurt just to be near you. You were such a reminder of all I had lost.”
Angel reached out her hand and gently caressed her father’s cheek, “You can make this right, I know you can.”
He closed his eyes and, for the briefest moment, leaned into that touch. A gentle smile almost touched his lips. Jaycee would have sworn that she saw real tears glisten in those dark chocolate depths as her ex-husband met the gaze of their daughter.
“No, Angel. Daddy has done too many bad things. Bad things that you may hear about one day. They are all true. But remember, I was not always this way. Once upon a time, I was young like you. And full of light and hope. You hold onto that – like I could not.”
Rex was only a few feet from them, but he was not quick enough, not even with his preternatural speed. He could not stop the man from flinging himself over the edge of the cliff. He barely reached the little girl and grabbed onto her to keep her from following.
He wrapped his arms tightly about Angel and turned them so that she could not see over the edge of the cliff.
But the small group of men who emerged from the woods just behind him walked to the precipice. The old man leaned on his son as his attorney shook his head at Jaycee. Tim Master looked as if he might lose the contents of his stomach.
“What’s going on here?” boomed the voice from behind Grandfather.
Jaycee jumped at the sound, which startled her out of her shock. She moved quickly to where Rex and Angel were, wrapping them in her arms and holding tighter than she knew she should.
When Sheriff Kerr joined the men at the edge, he turned to Rex. “I’m putting you under arrest for the murder of Sean Riley. You have the right to remain…”
It was Mitch Taylor who put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Not only do you not have the authority to arrest anyone in this county, but the man is innocent. Sean Riley threw himself over the edge of that cliff. And there are half a dozen witnesses to prove it. So, I suggest you back off, buddy.”
“Anyone have a signal?” The man took charge of the chaos.
They all shook their heads. “Then, the sheriff and I will stay here and secure the scene. The rest of you go back to the house and call the local authorities.” He turned to Kerr, “The ones that do have the power to investigate this mess.”
Somehow or the other, Rex steered them away from the cliff. The walk back to the house seemed an eternity, as so many old memories flooded her mind. Pieces of the puzzle falling into place, but still, there were so many missing. Things that she would never know or understand about the man she had been married to for a decade.