Chapter 13 – Never Ends

Rex ran his trembling fingers through his hair. His head throbbed. Not from any physical ailment, but from the bombardment of her thoughts and feelings. He was glad that her mental walls had dropped, but the recriminations and self-doubts were almost more than he could stand. He needed to go to her. To hold her and reassure her that none of this was her fault. That there was no way that she could have or should have known who or what her ex-husband was.

Instead, he was stuck here in the tiny waiting room of the local sheriff’s office. Thankfully, it was not the original one that had been turned into a tourist trap. Still, the modern version, which was tucked in the small lot behind it, was not that much bigger. It did not need to be. The biggest crime to hit Comfort was usually a couple of drunks mashing up the local bar on a Friday night.

The sheriff here was decidedly unprepared for a suicide. Though Earl Kerr had made the whole process worse by insisting that it be thoroughly investigated as a murder, that had meant a few statements taken on Grandfather’s ranch was not sufficient. All of them had been dragged down here and questioned individually. Only Guadalupe had been allowed to remain to care for the child.

He looked at the clock on the wall, eight forty-seven. They had been here for over six hours. He had been interviewed a couple of hours ago but refused to leave without Jaycee. The others had all given sworn statements and left one by one. They must have been quite a sight driving through town like a funeral procession. Kerr in the Sebida county sheriff’s car had led the way, each of them had followed in their vehicles since there was not enough room in the sheriff’s car for all of them.

No, Jaycee alone had been subjected to that humiliation. At least Sherriff Todd had not given into Kerr’s assertion that she be handcuffed and read her rights. It had been traumatic enough for Angel to have her mother torn from her after…

He shook his head and sighed. This was not how he had wanted things to end. Had it even ended? Would it ever? He had so much work to do with his mate and their daughter. He had not even been allowed to phone the ranch to check on the little girl until after he was interviewed. Even then, he had used the phone at the station. His cell phone would not be returned to him until he left the building.

Thanks to Kerr’s allegations, this investigation required far more intrusive investigation than suicide normally would. Not that the sheriff here in Comfort believed that it was murder. At least not by the time he got around to interviewing Rex. With matching statements from Grandfather, Mitch Taylor, both the Marshalls, Hector, and Tim Masters, Kerr was the lone dissenter. Todd just wanted to make absolutely sure that the investigation was so thorough and unbiased that the other man had no grounds for complaint.

The look on Kerr’s face had been priceless when they had arrived at the police station. He had attempted to push his way into the lone interrogation room in the back. Todd had stood toe-to-toe with the man, reminding him that in this county, he was nothing more than a witness like all the others. Rex could tell from the look on Kerr’s face that he meant to argue the point, but the other man preempted it by suggesting he wait with the others in the reception area – make sure no one had the opportunity to get their stories straight.

Sherriff Todd had interviewed Tybor Marshall first. He could see that the man was not well, even before Mitch Taylor had intervened. The attorney had demanded to be allowed into the room with his client, but Sherriff Todd had pointed out the conflict of interest since he, too, was a witness. Marshall waved the man’s concern’s aside and disappeared into the back with Todd.

Rex had wanted and needed to wrap Jaycee in his arms to comfort her, but Kerr had preempted even that, demanding that they all sat apart in silence until it was their turn. Marshall had not been in the interview room for more than half an hour before the visibly weakened man emerged. Sherriff Todd had interviewed Mitch Taylor next so that he could get the elderly man out of there. His interview, too, had not lasted much more than half an hour. It was a pattern that was to continue with the younger Marshall, Tim Masters, and Hector.

Kerr would have been next, but he insisted that Grandfather was interviewed before him. That left just the three of them sitting in the waiting area. Kerr was pacing back and forth like a soldier on guard. But Rex was more concerned about Jaycee, who sat curled into a ball in the chair across the room from him. She rocked back and forth with tears streaming down her cheeks. He had tried to reassure her then, but she gave no response to his gently whispered words in her mind.

When Grandfather emerged from the interrogation room over an hour later, she had begged Sherriff Todd to let her call the ranch and check on her daughter. Rex could see that the man would have agreed, but Kerr was not having it. Todd had smiled and nodded, then demanded that Kerr was next to be interviewed. The man shook his head, saying that the two suspects should not be left alone to get their stories straight. Todd had pointed to a camera in the corner that he had not noticed and assured him that was not a concern. The man had practically dragged Kerr to the back.

Jaycee had flung herself at Grandfather, begging and pleading with him to take care of Angel. Other than her self-recriminations, her daughter had been her only thoughts. It was not merely the seizure. That was worry enough for any mother. But the little girl had been witness to her father’s suicide. Hell, Kerr was demanding that the child be interviewed too. But so far, at least Todd had been able to put that one off, insisting that specialist interviewers from Austin and Texas Rangers had to be called in for that.

Kerr had been in the interview room far longer than any of the others, over an hour, closer to two. When he emerged, he had gone to take a seat across from Jaycee. But Todd had been adamant that he was free to go. When Kerr protested, Todd had taken both of them to the back, leaving the other man alone.

Rex wanted to protest when Todd had led them to the empty cells; there were just two. He wanted the sheriff to interview Jaycee first while he waited in the cell. If Kerr came back here, well, his fist might still be a bit sore, but he could handle himself.

“I’m sorry, son. But the little lady needs to be interviewed last.” Todd had closed the solid metal door to the reception room. The click of its lock held such finality.

Jaycee had roused herself enough to give the man a weak smile, “It’s fine. May I lay down on the bed?”

“I’ve ordered a couple of burgers from the local dinner. I figure you ain’t eat much today.”

 It’s my daughter that I’m worried about.”

“I called the ranch and spoke with that nice lady caring for your little girl. I ain’t gonna lie to you; your daughter is mighty upset. How could she not be? But the woman said to tell you she has not had any more seizures.”

Jaycee practical collapsed onto the small cot in the corner then, “Thank you.”

He took a step to go to her, but the sheriff put his hand out to stop him. “I need to read you your rights, son.”

Rex’s heart had accelerated at the man’s words. The words ‘why’ on his lips as a smile broke across the older man’s face. “It must have felt damned good to hit that bastard. I’m sure it was self-defense, right?”

He had drawn him out of the room and down the hall. That was almost four hours ago. Jaycee had been in that room for over two hours now. What could she possibly tell the man? He ran his hands through his hair again as he shut his eyes and sought the calm that had eluded him for days.

Rex felt a firm hand grip his shoulder. He opened his eyes and looked up, expecting to see Sherriff Todd, but it was not the older man. “Ryan, what are you doing here?”

Ryan Ranger studied his cousin, “You look like shit.”

The man only shook his head. “What are you doing here, Ryan? Why would your employers care about a simple suicide? I’m assuming you did not rush half-way across the state because Grandfather called you.”

“No. How is the old man anyway?”

“Until this started, he’s been fine. He’s taken Jaycee’s little girl under his wing the way he did us and Jack. You know how much having an apt pupil revitalizes the old man. But you still have not answered my question. What does the US government care about the suicide of one lawyer?”

Ryan was aware of the security camera in the corner of the room. While he was authorized to share certain facts with the sheriff, he did not want those on record. “Let’s get your mate out of here, and we’ll talk on the way back to the ranch.”

He could see that his cousin wanted to argue with him, but he figured the man had enough on his plate right now. He knew how long Rex had been waiting for his mate, and just what that meant to his cousin.

They were related through Rex’s father. So he had none of the Native American blood, which had embued Rex with his gifts. However, he had joined his cousin and Jack, Grandfather’s great-nephew, on the ranch for more than one summer. He had known about his cousin’s other since they were just teens.

He turned and looked directly into the camera. Taking his badge from the pocket of his suit jacket, he held it up to the device. “I’d like to talk to you.”

It took the sheriff, an older man who had held the job for close to four decades only a moment to come out from behind that closed steel door, “What can I do for you?”

“If you’re done with the woman, I have a few questions I’d like to ask her.”

The older man shook his head, “I’m sorry, but that little lady has had about all she can handle for one day. I know you play for the big boys but have some compassion. The woman watched her ex-husband jump off a cliff. She ain’t seen her sick child in hours. She’s hardly eaten. And she’s been accused of having something to do with the man’s death.”

“Why would anyone think that this was anything more than suicide? Who accused her?”

“One Sherriff Earl Kerr of the noble Sebida County, Texas.”

That name, too, rang a bell with Ryan. Though much lower down on his food chain, he knew that the sheriff also was under federal investigation. “And do you have any reason to believe that the man’s accusations are legitimate?”

“None whatsoever. But I had to go all out on this one. Dot every I and cross every T. I don’t want this hanging over anyone’s head for years to come.”

“And are you satisfied? That it was a suicide? Is your investigation complete?”

“Mostly. I still need to interview the little girl. But that can wait. I need to consult with some experts before I put a sick kid through reliving her father’s death to satisfy some aaa…”

“An asshole?” Ryan liked this man more by the minute.

Sheriff Todd only smiled, “Your words, not mine.”

“Noted,” Ryan nodded at the camera. “But back to my question. Is there any legitimate reason why you cannot release Jaycee Riley into my custody?”

He caught sight of his cousin rising from where he sat on the hard wooden bench, but held up his hand. “You’re not taking Jaycee anywhere,” his cousin protested. “The only place my mate is going is home. Back to Grandfather’s ranch so she can rest, eat, and see her daughter.”

“I have no objection to that. But I do need to question her.”

“Why? Why does the US government need to talk to my mate?”

Ryan turned to Sherriff Todd, “Would you mind bringing Ms. Riley out, please? I’ll sign whatever release you need.”

“No, I have finished with the woman anyway. She’s free to go.”

“But that does not mean she’s going with you, cousin,” Rex confronted him.

Before he could respond, though, a tiny slip of a woman emerged from the back with the sheriff. She was incredibly pale with dark circles under her eyes. Ryan could see she practically trembled. His cousin rushed to her, wrapping her in his arms, placing his body like a shield between them.

“Thank you, Sherriff Todd. I’ll see that Mister Ranger and Ms. Riley make it back to the ranch,” he dismissed the man.

His cousin turned, the woman still silent in his arms, “We’re not going anywhere with you, Ryan.”

He held up his hands, “Listen, Rex. It would be half an hour at least before Grandfather could come and pick you both up. He’d need to leave that little girl alone or bring her out to do that. Just let me give you a lift back to the ranch. I’ll explain on the way.”

He turned his attention to the woman, “Please, just a few more questions?”

“I don’t see what I could possibly tell you or why you even care.” She turned her eyes up to his cousin, “I just want to get back to Angel as soon as possible, Rex.”

His cousin nodded and, with a protective arm about the woman, followed him out the door.

Jaycee opened the door of the nondescript black rental car. Her feet hit the ground running, and she was across the yard and up the porch steps before it even came to a full stop. She opened the front door and raced down the hallway to the bedroom that had become her daughter’s. Her hand was on the doorknob when it opened.

Raymond Greywolf stood in the doorway, blocking her path to her child. He raised his finger to his lips to quiet her as she looked over his shoulder to examine her sleeping daughter. Angel was incredibly pale and still, but she could see and count each gentle rise and fall of the child’s chest.

The old man stepped into the hallway, pushing her back a bit as he pulled the door closed behind him. “I know that you want to go to her, my daughter, but your anxiety and exhaustion beat at even this old man’s trained mind. It took me and Guadalupe hours to calm her. She has just drifted off to sleep. Please, I beg you, let Angel rest.”

His words were such a rebuke that they cut Jaycee to the core. She would have collapsed then except for the strong arms that scoped her up and carried her into the bedroom across from her daughter’s. The bedroom that she had shared with this man for weeks.

Rex laid her gently on the bed. She was too tired and confused to argue as he began to strip her clothes from her body. When she was naked, he stripped off his own clothes and climbed into the bed next to her. She knew that she should give some protest when those strong arms reached for her, wrapping about her shoulders and drawing her closer into his embrace. But she just could not find the energy to argue with him.

Tomorrow. Tomorrow would be soon enough. She would answer whatever questions the other man had. Then she would pack their things and leave. One thing that Sean Riley had reminded her was that fairytales were not for people like her.

She felt the brush of his soft lips on her forehead. “Yes, tomorrow, we will face it all. Together, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”

Jaycee had no idea what time it was as she stretched in the bed. She was alone, and the light was streaming through the closed curtains. She rolled over and reached for her dusty jeans on the floor next to the bed. “That can’t be right?” She mumbled as she looked at the time on her cellphone.

“Yes, it is almost two p.m., Nʉ Sʉmʉ.” Rex’s broad shoulders filled the doorway. “Here, I thought you could use this,” he held out a steaming cup.

Jaycee’s fingers trembled as she took the cup of coffee. It smelled like a small piece of heaven as she brought it to her lips. It was scalding hot, but she did not care. The flavor and burn reminded her that she was still alive. However, some part of her felt numb, dead.

He sat on the bed next to her. She could not bring herself to look at him. To see the disappointment and recriminations in his eyes. You could not live with someone for over a decade and not know. Not unless you were as stupid as Sean Riley accused her of being.

“You are not stupid, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. Someone, a creature, like Sean Riley, a skinwalker who chooses to give up his soul, to become a monster like that Chupacabra, they are expert liars.”

She shook her head, lying was one thing, but how could she have lived and worked with the man all those years and never known?

Yes, she had come to see the man as less than perfect. Her idolization of the great civil rights attorney had not withstood the first year of marriage. It was an act. Sean Riley cared less about rights and principles and more about power, money, and fame. She had known that.

She had been disgusted by his sexual mind games. Not that she condemned those who did such things, but it was the way that Sean had bullied and demeaned her. And the others. No, there had been plenty of signs. If she had wanted to see them.

Rex brushed a stray strand of hair back from her forehead, “And you did, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. That’s why you took Angel and left the man. But you had no way of knowing what he truly was.”

Jaycee discovered that she was still too tired to argue. But she knew the truth. Sean had simply reminded her of it. At the very least, she should have gone to someone with her suspicions when she learned of Sunshine. “Is your cousin still here? Does he still want to speak to me?”

“Yeah, Ryan ain’t going nowhere until he interviews you. But first, you need to eat something. Guadalupe has made a big pot of her mole. Then, I think you and Angel both need some time to talk. Ryan can wait.”

“I need a shower first, though.”

She could feel that Rex wanted to argue with her, but thankfully he recognized that she was just too mentally exhausted. He kissed her forehead, “We’re in the kitchen when you’re done. And Jaycee, remember one thing – I love you. We will get through this together. As a family.”

Tears welled in her eyes as she watched him get up and close the door behind himself. If only she could believe that.

The shower revived Jaycee enough to face the day to come. Or so she had thought until she stood in the doorway of the kitchen. Guadalupe was stirring the pot on the stove. Rex, Hector, and his cousin seemed to be engaged in some serious discussion in the corner of the room.

But it was the way that her daughter’s dark head was bent so close to the grey one. Her tiny hand covered the rough, gnarled one on the table. How could she have thought it would be as simple as packing their things and leaving?

She studied the child carefully. Though there were still dark circles beneath her eyes and she was paler than usual, a slight smile curled the corners of Angel’s mouth as her head bent over some book that lay on the table in front of Grandfather.

As if the man heard her, and perhaps he had, Raymond Greywolf looked up at her. “Glad that you could join us, my daughter.”

“Mommy, Mommy,” Angel chorused as the chair she had been sitting in toppled to the floor, and her daughter rushed to her, wrapping her little arms tightly about Jaycee’s legs.

For the first time since she watched ex-husband sail over the edge of that cliff, Jaycee felt something other than numb. She fought back the tears that welled in her eyes, and she squeezed her daughter’s shoulders, perhaps a bit too tightly.

Angel looked up at her with those dark eyes that reminded her of Sean, but they had always held far more light and laughter, even during the worst. And this moment might qualify as that. She felt her throat tighten. What did you say to your child? The child who only the day before had watched her father throw himself from a cliff?

“It’s okay, Mommy. It’s going to all be okay. Grandfather said so. He says that we all have choices to make. That each of us is re-spoon-sible for our own Fate. No one can make those choices for us. Not even Mommys,” she beamed up at her mother as she squeezed her legs even tighter.

“Grandfather says we don’t have to be like our Mommys and Daddys either. That we all have our own path to walk. Don’t worry. I’m not like Daddy. I promise. I know that now. And Grandfather says I’m right,” her daughter turned and smiled across the room at the old man.

How could she possibly think about taking Angel away from the old man? Her daughter needed this man’s wisdom and guidance. It was for sure that she had no idea how to provide that.

But watching as Rex broke away from the other men and came closer to her, she battled to stand her ground, not to turn and flee. Didn’t he know? Couldn’t he see it? She would never be good enough for someone like him. She had too much blood on her hands. And her soul.

“I’ll make you a sandwich until dinner, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. Do you feel up to talking to Ryan now?”

She nodded her head; it was the least she could do. She had tried to tell Sherriff Todd about Sean’s murder confession, but all he could do was promise to pass the information along to the proper authorities in Fort Worth.

Maybe Rex’s cousin would take the girl’s death more seriously. Why else would he want to speak with her? Her hand went to her mouth, were there others? Was that why the federal government was involved? Had her ex-husband been a serial killer?

Those thoughts were still on her mind as Rex’s cousin, who was a slightly blonder and bigger version of him, led her out of the house onto the front porch.

“I don’t want your daughter hearing us,” was all he said as he closed not just the screen door but the wooden inner one as well.

“Thank you for that. Will Angel have to be interviewed?”

He nodded, “But I have arranged for our best children’s therapist to come here. She will use play and art with Angel. I don’t want to push the child too much. Rex explained about her medical condition.”

“And Grandfather told me about the rest. So, Angel will only know Kira as my friend. We’ll stay a couple of days and allow things to unfold naturally. Is that acceptable to you?”

Jaycee choked back more tears, brushing them away with the back of her hand. “It sounds as fair as it can be, I suppose. I just wish she did not have to relive the…” She inhaled and clasped her hands together in her lap as she began to rock in the old swing. “Her father’s death,” she forced the words out.

“I can understand that. But sometimes talking is the best thing. Kira is one of the best. I know she’ll be happy to talk to you, too, about ways that you can help Angel cope when we leave. Are you up for a few questions?” He pulled up an old wooden chair next to the table.

She could only nod at first, “But I don’t know how much I have to add. Sean and I have barely seen one another since the divorce a couple of years ago.”

He took out a small recorder and pushed some buttons, “I know you understand.”

“Sure, I’ll tell you whatever I can. But you realize that I am an attorney, so anything that I might know professionally about Sean’s life is probably protected by privilege.”

“As an attorney myself, I understand that. So I’d like to focus on your ex-husband’s friends and associates outside of the office.” His face seemed to redden a bit as he cleared his throat, “The ones from the clubs.”

Jaycee’s heart froze for a moment. She had honestly thought that no one outside of those places would ever know. As Sean had assured her, even if they did run into someone that they knew, those people would have as much of a vested interest in keeping their secrets, lest their own be revealed. But that obviously was not the case if this man knew. How much did he know?

“Please, Mister Ranger, no one knows about that. That part of our marriage. Or I did not think so,” Jaycee stammered.

“Did you know a young woman named Maria Louisa Cortez?”

“But I only knew her as Sunshine back then. Before he died, Sean confessed to her murder. I told Sherriff Todd that, but he did not seem very interested.”

“I am. The people I work for are. That and anything else you can tell me, Ms. Riley.”

“I don’t know much. I suppose you are aware that part of my relationship with Sean ended years ago. When I had my daughter. I never had,” she blushed deeper and forced out the words.

“That was never my taste, Mr. Ranger. None of it. So, when I had Angel, when she began having seizures, I used that as an excuse to withdraw from that part of our marriage.”

“I understand. Can you tell me anything about who your husband associated with? In the clubs?”

She shook her head, “As with that girl, I never knew real names of most of them. Everyone went by some nickname in those places.”

“Yes, Zeus and Hera, I believe.”

Jaycee sucked in a deep breath, realizing just how much this man might know about a very dark part of her life. “Yes. Sean liked the double entendre of that one. Not just the chief Olympian god, but the black civil rights activist from that action movie. I forget who played him now.”

“Did you ever know anyone else’s real name? Or recognize anyone?”

“Only one. The man usually wore a mask in the clubs. But once, the last time. I was pregnant with Angel and tired, so I went looking for Sean because I wanted to leave early. I came upon them in one of the ‘playrooms.’ They seemed to be discussing something serious, but I did not hear what. Those places are a tad on the noisy side, as you might imagine. The man had his mask off.”

“And how did you know him? What made you recognize this man in particular?”

She chuckled though it sounded forced even to her ears, “Most people would. That’s probably why he wore the mask. When you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a billionaire philanthropist, your picture tends to make the newspapers, Mister Ranger.”

The man leaned forward, “And you recognized this man? You can identify who your husband was talking with in that room? One-hundred percent?”

“No witness is one-hundred percent, Mister Ranger. I know you realize that. But yes, yes, I can identify the man beyond all reasonable doubt.”

“A name? Who was the man you saw with your husband that night?”

“Gerald McBride.”

The man smiled and nodded.

Rex watched his mate from the doorway as she fussed over her daughter. Angel had spent much of the day with Guadalupe or Grandfather. Because of the severity of her seizure and the trauma of what she had witnessed, Jaycee had insisted that she not ride her pony for a couple of days, just to be safe. Instead, Angel had bombarded Grandfather with questions. The old man had done all he could to answer them all honestly, even when the response was ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I think…’

The truth was Angel was fairing much better than her mother. As hard as Jaycee had been trying, she had not been able to block him from her mind completely. She was just too exhausted and confused to expend the mental energy it took to keep the walls up all the time.

He had to admit, some of what he had seen bothered him — a lot. The very idea that the other man had casually shared something so precious to him incited rage. But he knew that was not a useful emotion. He had blocked his turmoil over the other. Abuse.

He was not one to judge other people; Grandfather had taught that often enough. So what other people did sexually, the swinging and BDSM was their business. As long as it was truly consensual. But he knew in his mate’s case it had never been. None of it. Her husband had coerced and bullied her into doing things that no woman should have to. That sadly was the dark side of that world about which he admittedly knew so little.

Which made knowing what to say or do to help his mate come to terms with that trauma even more difficult. Of course, that was compounded by the fact that Jaycee refused to see what happened to her as abuse. Like so many victims, she blamed herself. She should have said no, or so she thought, refusing to recognize the power dynamic of an older, more experienced husband who was also her boss.

Jaycee denied it all. She was bottling her pain, just as she had been for years, perhaps her whole life. But how could he break through all those defenses? And what then? Was he even prepared for what might happen? How did he empower his mate? Help her to build her self-esteem? Show her that she was worthy of love, true love?

She shifted on the bed next to Angel, brushed a stray curl out of her daughter’s face. Angel turned towards her mother, opened those soft brown eyes, smiled, and lifted her hand to caress her mother’s face, “It’s not your fault, Mommy. Daddy made his own choices. Just as we all must.”

His mate smiled at her child, yet he could hear the wail in his mind, suspected that Angel could too. Yet that smile never broke as Jaycee bent and kissed her daughter’s forehead. “Get some sleep, Angel. Mommy loves you.”

She stood and looked down at her child, who had once more closed her eyes, though Rex could see Angel’s lips moving, likely in one of his Grandfather’s chants. Jaycee brushed passed him without a word or even making eye contact.

He was turning to leave when that small voice whispered in his mind, ‘It’ll be okay.’

He looked over his shoulder, but Angel’s eyes were still closed, her lips moving in prayer.

He was halfway out the door when the hand on his shoulder stopped him. His throat tightened, and his vision blurred as he turned to look into the comforting dark pools of his Grandfather’s eyes and the calm, wizened features of a man who had seen so much, knew even more. “Leave her be for a while, my son.”

He looked out into the darkness. He could feel her moving, knew where she was going. He should be there for her.

“And you will be. But not yet. Your woman is not ready. As hard as it is, Rex, we can never make choices for another. Not even those we love the most.”

“So, what do I do? Just wait?” He wanted to scream, to rage against the Fates that had brought her to him, given him the most precious gift of all, then crushed it all.

“No, my son, you grow. You deal with your own anger and pain. Or you will not be able to help her when she is ready to face hers.”

“How, Old Man? How do I deal with this anger and hate? The man is dead. I did not even have the pleasure of killing him myself.”

“Because he did the honorable thing. In that final moment, Sean Riley was touched by the light in his child. And he did the only thing he could. He knew that it was too late for him. That he could not win against that thing, against the darkness that he had fed for so long. So, in a brief moment of lucidity, he took the only honorable path open to him. He destroyed that thing.”

Anger burst inside of him, “You make him sound so fucking honorable. He killed a young woman. At least one. Who knows how many others? And he…”

He could not bring himself even to say the words. They stuck in his throat. He choked on them. Rex was not even sure he could force air past them.

“And he beat, raped, and abused your mate.”

There they were. The words he could not bring himself to say. They hung in the air. They brought him to his knees. His hands gripped his head as if he could pull them and the hundreds, thousands, of images that taunted him from his brain. Excise them like a surgeon wielding a laser scalpel.

Air pushed past that knot, which had threatened to choke him. It erupted like a volcano. The pain and anguish burst forth in screams that he knew would wake the others. But he could not bring himself to stop. If Hector, Guadalupe, or his cousin heard him, he was passed the point of caring. Not even for his beloved child could he tamp down the vitriol.

He collapsed as he once had as a child into the only safety he had ever known. His Grandfather’s arms embraced him, became the only solid ground he knew as he cried. Great gulping sobs of hate, anger, shame, fear, and helplessness flowed.

Rex was not sure how long they stayed like that. His head buried in his Grandfather’s shoulders, his body wracked and plundered as those floodwaters of pain burst forth. Trembling, tears coursing down his cheeks, wailing from the depths of his battered soul. With only the comfort of the old man’s arm to center him.

Then he felt it – a soft, gentle glow of light and love pushing back the darkness. His eyes opened in wonder, and he looked into the soft brown ones of the child. Her fingers caressed away the tears as she drew him back with the simple words. “We need you, Rex. Mommy and I need you.”

He lifted his head and nodded, still unable to force words passed his throat that had become hoarse with his screams and tears.

His grandfather smiled as he pulled the little girl who had become his protégé into their embrace. “Now you are ready, my son. Now you see. Now you understand that it is only the light, only love, that pushes back the darkness. Pain, anger, hatred get us nowhere. Only love can make us see that which we do not want to.”

Jaycee sat a few feet from the edge of the cliff. She wondered if it were daylight, would she still be able to see her boot prints in the rocky soil? Or had they been erased by the dozens of local, state, and even federal law enforcement officials, who had spent the past day and a half scouring every inch for clues?

Was that what she was doing here too? Looking for clues? It was so unlike the man she knew to have taken the ‘easy’ way out. She would have never thought Sean capable of suicide. Then again, had she ever known the man she had been married to for a decade? Evidently, not.

She was still numb. Was it just shock? Or would she always feel this way? His words had bored their way into her mind; she knew that. To realize that she had never been anything more than a breeder to the man was one thing. She had known that all along, at least on some level. The terms of their marriage had left little doubt that her purpose was to produce children.

But she had once thought he had chosen her because he respected her mind, considered her his protégé. That, too, was a lie. The disdain that he had voiced in those final moments played like a loop through her head, eating away every shred of self-confidence she had worked so hard to achieve this past couple of years.

Wanda Kerr’s bruised and battered face sprang to her mind. Jaycee had always been so careful to ‘own her shit’ as she called it. To accept full responsibility for the things that she had done during her marriage to Sean.

She had convinced herself that while she did not always enjoy some of it, if any, it had been a journey of self-discovery, of pushing her limits, a rebellion against the ‘good girl’ mask that she had been forced to wear her whole life. It had all been consensual. Or so she had told herself.

She shivered, but it had nothing to do with the crisp night air. She should have… What known better? Told Sean ‘no’?

The pressure had been so subtle at first. They had been on their honeymoon cruise that first time. They had made friends with the only other couple their age. Well, younger actually, at least the woman had been. Nineteen, or so her forty-something husband had claimed. Sean had gotten Jaycee drunk, perhaps even drugged her. Then he had casually suggested that they swap partners for the night.

Jaycee remembered so little of what happened that night. Brief flashes of hands or lips here or there. That was one of the reasons why she had considered the possibility that she had been drugged. Or perhaps the human mind merely blocked that which she did not want to remember?

And there was plenty of that over the next couple of years as they tried to conceive. Other couples. Swingers clubs. As with that first experience usually while on holiday or business trips. She wished she could forget the business trip to Los Angeles. Several hundred people crowded into a large ranch in the hills just outside the city.

She had spent most of that night huddled in a corner, drinking. Eventually, she had drifted out into the cold night, much as she had this time. She had walked and thought about her life and marriage as the sun came up over the mountains.

She had decided then that she had had enough. That perhaps a divorce, a fresh start somewhere else, would be better than this double life that was not her ‘cup of tea.’ Before they got back to Dallas, before she could work up the courage to speak with Sean, she had become ill. At first, she thought it some tummy bug she had picked up on the trip. But after trying for almost three years to conceive, she quickly recognized the pattern. She was pregnant. At last.

She had convinced herself that a baby, the family Sean always wanted, would settle him down. She was just beginning to show when Sean suggested they try a new place he had heard about. A new ‘club’ in Austin. Jaycee had tried to beg off, pleading the tiredness associated with her pregnancy. But as before, Sean’s had belittled her, badgered her, even thinly veiled threats.

She had only gone a couple of times. This one far beyond her comfort level. Jaycee laid her head on her knees and closed her eyes against the images that sprang unbidden to her mind. She could probably thank her pregnancy that it had not been much worse. Sean had forbidden some of the harsher things such as paddles, electro play, and tawse. But that had not saved her from twenty lashes with the cane on the soles of her feet. Or being tied up like some hog at the Livestock Show and Rodeo and paraded around naked for the perverse pleasure of others.

She felt the tears spill from the edges of her closed eyes. She heard the roar of some mortally wounded animal. She gripped her knees tighter. Perhaps if she could curl into a tight enough ball, then she would simply vanish like some magic trick?

Her throat tightened. Did she want to? What about Angel? Yesterday, on this same spot, she had come to terms with dying, leaving her child in the tender care of Rex and Grandfather. But that was not what she wanted. She wanted to see Angel grow up – to become this warrior of light that the old man claimed she was.

But could she do it? Could she bring herself to remain here for Angel’s sake? To be so close to the man that she loved, and know that he could never see her the same way, never want her again?

She opened her eyes and inhaled the night air. She had been avoiding looking over the edge, half-expecting Sean or that thing to leap from the canyon below. She could still hear the echoes of that laugh off the walls of rock. He had won. Sean might be dead, but the victory was his in the end anyway.

Because she knew that she would never be the same. She was broken. As broken, no, more broken than the mangled body that Rex had tried to shield her from seeing as they wrenched the basket up the side of the cliff and over the edge. It had done no good, though. In the end, it was she who had been forced to identify her ex-husband for the coroner.

It was strange. As maimed and disfigured as his body was, she almost thought she had seen a smile upon his lips. Not that arrogant mockery Sean always wore after a victory in court or the condescending one he used every time they argued. No, there was something genuinely peaceful and serene about it.

That would be the ultimate irony. If his dark and nefarious soul had in death, found something which his final words would forever deny her – peace and happiness. Love, she had come so close to that one. But his words and those images danced through the streets of her mind. Even if she could find the strength to face her demons, Rex would never want something as stained as she.

Jayce lost track of time as she cried, her mind circling the drain, swirling deeper and deeper into the oblivion and pain. No, it had never been her choice. None of it. Nothing about her marriage to Sean had been that consensual lie that she had wanted to believe. The truth was that she was as much a victim of abuse as Wanda Kerr. Perhaps more so, because that woman had found the strength to break free of her abuser, Jaycee would never get that chance.

Rex watched his mate. His heart shattered even as it continued to beat wildly within his chest. He wanted to take her in his arms. Kiss her sweet lips. Promise her that everything would be fine. He wanted to bury himself so deeply inside of her that they became one. Until he erased every single one of those disgusting memories from her brilliant mind. But he knew he could not. If he approached her now, he might only push her further away.

But he knew who could. Stepping into the row of trees, he removed his clothes. He allowed his other freedom.

The palomino emerged from the clearing. It approached the woman that was their mate cautiously. It brayed softly into the still, silent night, alerting Jaycee to their presence.

She looked up, her lovely eyes clouded with tears, some shed, and others still held back. She half smiled as it approached her.

The pony trod carefully over the rough ground until it came to stand beside her. He gently nudged her shoulder until she lifted her hand, and tenderly rubbed the bridge of its nose.

“How did you know?” she asked the darkness.

But Rex knew that she understood, that she realized their mental connection was unbroken even if the physical ones were. For now.

The animal leaned down, just enough. His mate grabbed hold of the mane and pulled herself on to its bareback.

The horse worked its way back to the house, but not before a brief detour. Rex knew just where to find them. The herd. The other wild horses that Grandfather had rescued over the years, and their offspring that had never known the tortures of captivity, that knew no fear of man.

They ran together with the beasts. The wind whipped hair and mane about their faces and into their eyes. The sky was growing light when they finally approached the weathered but solid old house.

Without a word, he transformed back into his human form. If his mate noticed or was bothered by his naked body, she said nothing. She had erected those mental walls once more. He knew he might be able to burst through them. But then he would become like that other man, taking what she would not offer.

He took her hand. He thought for a moment she might pull away, but she did not. They climbed the steps together and turned down the hall. When she would have slipped into Angel’s room across the hall, Rex shook his head. “Please, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, just let me hold you?”

She looked at the closed door of her daughter’s room. He was sure she was going to refuse him. But then she turned back; fresh tears glistened in her eyes as she nodded her head. Rex took her hand and led her into the room that they shared.

He kept his eyes down; he erected his own mental walls as he began to divest her of clothes. He would not have her frightened by the strong current of desire that raced through his blood. This was his mate. Nothing changed that. Nothing ever could.

When she wore nothing but her bra and panties, he drew back the old quilt. He tenderly picked her up and deposited her in its softness before walking to the other side and slipping in beside her.

Rex felt her stiffen as he pulled her into his arms, but he only kissed the top of her head. “You’re safe now. Angel is safe. Sleep. Rest and recover, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”

It was some time before the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest told him that she slept. Even then, he laid awake, pondering it all. How could he reach her? What if he never did?

But finally, the exhaustion, mental as well as physical, overtook him, and he too slept.

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