Chapter 14 – Closing Circles

Ryan watched his cousin as the little girl delighted in putting her pony through its paces. Rex’s arm was loosely wrapped about his mate’s shoulder. Jaycee stood stiffly; the weak smile she wore did not reach her eyes. He knew how difficult these past few days had been for all of them.

His go-bag was packed and sat at his feet. Kira was packing hers now. Within half an hour, this part of his assignment would be over. He already had his orders for the next stage – infiltrate McBride Industries at the highest level.

If Sean Riley was dead at his own hand, it was nothing more than a glitch in the investigation. They had bigger fish to fry; they always had. Riley had only been one domino in a long chain of them – a crucial one perhaps.

The agency had long suspected his involvement with Gerald McBride, but they had had no evidence to prove it, or even enough to get the search warrants to move ahead with their investigation. Not even the US government accused a man like McBride of money laundering, prostitution, and dealing drugs without substantiation.

Jaycee Riley’s testimony might not be enough to convict the man, but it was enough to get the go-ahead to put him undercover in the man’s company. It would be his job to find corroboration.

He studied the woman closer. He knew way more about her, her child, and her ex-husband than he was at liberty to share with his cousin. He knew that pain like hers did not just disappear overnight. But she was an incredibly strong and intelligent woman. She would have had to be to survive marriage to Sean Riley.

Ryan did not doubt that eventually his cousin would find some way to heal those old wounds, which the past few days had reopened. After all, Rex had the mating bond on his side. Ryan wished there was more he could for the man. More that he could share with his cousin, but he supposed Rex’s bond with the woman probably supplied details that not even the agency had uncovered.

He had wanted to go to Rex the other night. His cries had been so pathetic. Ryan had even made it as far as the doorway, but Grandfather was more able to manage the situation than he was. What did he know about relationships?

Oh, he had had a couple of girlfriends over the years, but none of them lasted more than a few months, a year or two tops. Maybe he was like the man who fathered him, whoever that might be, incapable of true love and commitment.

Growing up a bastard in small-town Texas had not been easy. His mother, like Jaycee, was incredibly stalwart. Ingrid Ranger had, with the support of her family, finished her final year of college, then brought her baby back to the town that their family had helped to found. But not even his family’s standing in Fredericksburg could wipe away the stain of his birth.

For over three decades, his mother had dedicated herself to two things: the small museum where she worked as a historian and her son. She had faithfully dragged him to the Lutheran church each Sunday until he got old enough to refuse. She had served two terms as President of the PTA. But none of that could obviate the sins of the young woman who had born a bastard.

Maybe if Ingrid had remarried? If she had found love again? If he had had a step-father? Perhaps then he would have understood more about relationships, about how they worked. About this thing called love and commitment. But she had not. The only male influences he had growing up was his uncle – Rex’s father, and Grandfather.

“They will be fine, my son.”

Ryan had long since gotten used to the way the old man did that. As a teen, he had resented the man’s ability to read his thoughts, but in his time in the military and with the agency, he had seen how valuable those skills could be.

“I know,” was all he said. The hard truth was he was jealous of his cousin. Maybe he always had been. The whole mate thing. Having one perfect woman in this fucked up world. One woman meant just for you.

Oh, he understood the dark side of that, too, even before this case. Grandfather had never hidden that peril from his grandson. Though the man was one of the few, the only living one in memory, to survive the death of his mate without succumbing to the darkness that had claimed Sean Riley’s life and soul, he had always been clear with Rex about the dangers.

But still, Ryan knew he would give anything to be in his cousin’s position. To know that kind of love and stability. To be accepted, flaws and all by another human being. But such was not his lot in this life.

He felt the firm grip on his shoulder and turned to look into the depths of the universe in dark eyes that knew all his secrets. “We all have mates, my son. It is just that for some of us, recognizing them is easier.”

If only he could believe that as easily as he had so many of the other lessons he had learned from this man.

He turned back to watch as his cousin drew the woman closer to his side. He saw her stiffen, he knew at least some of what she was struggling to come to terms with, but the old man was right. Between Grandfather, her little girl, and his cousin, he was confident they would break through those walls of pain, encasing her heart right now. What were terrible memories when compared with such love and devotion?

Rex brushed a kiss across his mate’s forehead, and Ryan’s heart tightened in his chest. He was happy for his cousin. Really, he was.

“Remember, son, if you want that kind of love, then you must be willing to risk giving it as well,” the old man gave his shoulder a final squeeze and walked over to join the couple as they clapped for the child’s equestrian endeavors.

Ryan would have plenty of time to ponder it all. It was a four-hour drive to Houston, and if things went the way they were supposed to, he would be on a ten-hour flight to London soon.

He loved his job, really he did. It was just – sometimes, he wanted more. But Ryan Ranger had learned early in life – some things just were not meant for little bastards.

Jaycee watched as her daughter put the pony through its paces. Angel’s face shone with happiness. Happiness that was in stark contrast to the events that had transpired here just three days ago. Not that she begrudged her child this happiness.

But Jaycee was struggling, struggling to come to terms not just with the events of the past few days and weeks, but of her ten-year marriage. Hell, a lifetime of pain and heartache as a foster child.

She stiffened and inhaled as his strong arms drew her even closer against his hard body, his lips brushed her forehead. ‘It will be alright, Nʉ Sʉmʉ,’ his calm voice spoke in her turbulent mind.

She wanted to scream, to push this man far away, to scoop up her child and run. Run so far and so fast that…

Jaycee exhaled slowly as tears slipped out the corners of her eyes. But that was not possible. Angel thrived, perhaps needed, Grandfather’s guidance. Besides, where would they go?

Their ‘ranch’ was frozen, all of Sean’s assets were. Rico, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Since she had purchased the farm with her settlement from the divorce, it was a grey area. But at least until she, herself, was cleared and could prove that she had no idea of her husband’s illegal activities or the monies source that avenue was not open to her. Of course, her income from the few cases that she had taken was not in question. But that would not go far.

More tears joined the others until her vision blurred. The truth was she did not want to go anywhere. Even if she had the money. Even if Angel was not so incredibly happy here on this ranch with Grandfather and Rex.

Rex. As hard as she pushed him away, kept him at arm’s length, she could not even begin to imagine what it would be like to crawl into bed alone at night. She did not want to consider it.

Rex was the only thing keeping her sane. Not even the depths of her mother’s love for Angel could anchor her right now. Only falling asleep in his strong arms, her head pressed into the molten steel of his shoulders, the refreshing, crisp smell of man filling her senses, his words of love in her mind a lullaby. That was all she had.

But it was not fair or right. She had nothing to give this man in exchange. Nothing except pain. It was all she had ever known.

“Mommy, look,” Angel called as with Hector’s help, her pony jumped the lowest wall. She held her breath until her daughter was safely on the ground.

The fear of losing her that Jaycee had lived with almost Angel’s whole life was slowly loosening its hold. Perhaps not fast enough for her child, who wanted to make up for all those lost years of sickness, wanted to cram those lost experiences into every moment.

No pain was not all she had known. No matter what, she could never regret her daughter’s existence. If she had it all to do again, knowing everything she knew now, would she? To have that beautiful soul in her life and this world?

Her throat tightened as she brushed the tears away with the back of her hand, “You’re doing really well, Angel.”

Yes. Yes, to have her child, her daughter, she would do it all again. Perhaps she would change some things; the death of that girl still weighed heavily upon her conscious. But all of it, the swinging, the clubs, even that cane was worth a single one of those smiles.

“Now, you see, my daughter.”

Jaycee was no longer surprised that Grandfather seemed to read her thoughts, as clearly as Rex had from the beginning.

She had not had the energy the past couple of days to block Rex. What he thought or felt about those things she had not dared to consider. She caught only brief glimpses of his thoughts, things that she knew he wanted her to see. But otherwise, she was both too inexperienced at such things and also too caught up in her own shit to delve deeper.

“Regrets are pointless,” the old man continued. “If you had not walked the path you did, then you would not be standing here this moment. You would not have that special little girl. And while you and Rex are Fated mates, you would not be the same person that you are.”

“Strong, beautiful, compassionate, loyal. You are all those things, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. And like the steel blade of a fine hunting knife, those things have been forged in fire.” Rex brushed away a stray tear, “As your mate, I would do anything to prevent you pain. I’d lay down my life for you, Jaycee. For our little girl.”

He brought her hand to his lips and brushed a tender kiss across the knuckles before turning it over and placing another in the center of her palm. “But I could not. I could not keep you safe. I did not even recognize the real danger until it was almost too late. That eats at me, sweetheart. What kind of mate am I?”

It was on her lips to deny it all, but a cough interrupted her. “I’m sorry to bother you, but Ryan and I are leaving.”

Jaycee turned with a forced smile to the other woman. She had not been happy about the prospect of having some ‘shrink’ probe her daughter’s mind, force Angel to relive those tragic moments of her father’s death, or the lifetime of disappointment that had marred their relationship.

She had reluctantly agreed, only because she felt she had no other choice with the government’s involvement in her ex-husband’s life. Begrudgingly, she had to admit that Kira Goldman had not only been exceedingly compassionate of Angel’s situation but a big help in the child coming to terms with it all.

“Thank you, Dr. Goldman,” she said, holding out her hand to the woman that was perhaps a couple of years older than her thirty-nine.

The woman nodded her head as she took Jaycee’s hand. In her other hand, she held out a small card.

“What’s that?”

“The number of a friend in Austin. She is expecting your call.”

“But I thought you said Angel was coping with the whole thing better than could be expected. Is this really necessary? I don’t want to put her through anymore.”

“It’s not for Angel. It’s for her mother.” The woman smiled as she waved good-bye to the little girl. “I know that you want to be the best mother possible to her, but you can’t do that if you allow all these things to fester inside of you, Ms. Riley.”

“Please, please call Elizabeth. She’s the best I know at working with victims of gaslighting and abuse. She even does video counseling if you can’t manage a two-hour drive.”

Jaycee was not sure what to say to the woman, but she was saved from the need to respond by that little streak of joy who propelled her tiny body at the woman, wrapping her arms about her.

She looked down at the card and sighed. Perhaps. Perhaps this was what she needed. It was undoubtedly the route that she would recommend for her clients. But the thought of laying her soul bare before a stranger was not easy.

Rex watched his mate. For two weeks, this had become her routine. They put Angel to bed, usually with Grandfather’s assistance, sharing another legend. Then Jaycee slipped from the house. She always came here. The same place, the spot where her ex-husband killed himself.

Some nights he merely watched her from the edge of the woods, always managing to make it back to the house and slip into their bed before she did, pretending to be asleep. Once or twice, he had gone to her in his other form, and together they had run free with the ponies.

He knew two weeks was not that long. Not long at all to process a decade of pain from her marriage, a lifetime of hurt. She had been faithful in her counseling, though. Once each week, they had driven into Austin to meet with the woman, and twice more, Jaycee would video conference her.

Rex was careful not to intrude on her thoughts during these sessions, even as much as he wanted and needed to understand his mate’s pain. She would tell him – in time. He wanted to believe that – needed to.

But when?

It was more than sex. He had lived without that for much of his adult life. What was the point of getting your rocks off with someone who you did not share a connection with? It only led to misunderstandings.

He supposed he should be content that she had not wanted to move from the room they shared. But each night, after that first when she had protested, Jaycee had come to their bed, slipping in next to him. She usually wore some old t-shirt or her bra and panties.

Sometimes, when she thought he was sleeping, she would slip her arms around his waist, lay her head on his shoulders. Most nights, he felt her wet tears against his skin. He wanted to kiss them away, but he did not dare.

No, what Rex missed most was the connection. That special bond they shared. Oh, it was still there. As long as they both had breath, nothing could sever the mate bond. But those walls that he had taught her to erect on occasion had become the norm.

Sure, he could have pushed back against them. But he did not want to take that which she would not give. He did not want to be like that other man.

“Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, whose breath gives life to all the world,” he began as he had so many other times in his life.

“Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.” The words never failed to comfort him. Not since that first summer, when Grandfather had taught them to him.

“Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.” Though he knew that so much of his people’s truths had been lost in the past, that they could never recover, he held firm to that which he did have.

“Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me.” Those words especially, had become a mantra. He came back to them over and over and over again these past few days. He knew to the depths of his soul that strength and calm were the things that his mate needed most, especially from him. Especially now.

“Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.” As always, he felt that connection.

He chuckled in his mind at the image of their daughter in the doeskin dress that would become her skin, once she grew into it, which he feared might be sooner than he imagined or thought possible. But for now, it was still much too big for her, physically as well as spiritually. That had not stopped Angel from dancing about the room singing that famous song from the children’s movie, which was surprisingly faithful to the beliefs of his people.

“Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others. Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.” That was proving incredibly hard. The feelings he had for his mate went so much deeper than mere empathy, and yes, they very much threatened to overwhelm him. At times like these, he felt he was hanging on by the most insignificant of threads.

“I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy Myself. Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.” That too, he had struggled with the past few weeks.

Once, once upon a time, Sean Riley had been his brother. One of the few of their kind remaining. Even Grandfather had no idea how many there were, or if as he believed there were others, in other forms, other lands, and cultures.

Rex even understood what had driven the man to embrace the darkness within his soul, the shade that lived within all skinwalkers. He watched her, and tears clouded his vision.

He knew that Grandfather had found the strength to honor his mate’s memory, to fight back that darkness. First, for the sake of his mother, who had been little more than a baby when her mother died. Then, Grandfather had become consumed with the need to find answers, to uncover the hidden truths of their people.

But Rex knew something that few others did – it was still a daily battle for the old man. The great Raymond Greywolf, the revered elder of their people, still fought that darkness. His grandfather had struggled incredibly hard the past couple of months since the death of his brother.

He knew that Grandfather harbored so much guilt. Though what did the man think a little boy of five could have done to prevent the white man from taking the children from a drunk and abusive father, and a sick and impoverished mother? But still, he blamed himself as the elder for all those lost years, over fifty of them, before the two men who had been friends for years began to compare notes on their childhoods.

Was it Fate that had brought the men together? How remarkable that each had in his way become such a leader among their people. His grandfather, a spiritual one, and his great-uncle had been one of the first to open a casino, to provide jobs, independence, and dignity for so many of their people.

“So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.” Yes, those two had undoubtedly accomplished that.

Still, Rex wondered, could he have? His throat tightened; if things had gone differently that day. Could he have found the strength to go on as Grandfather had? Or would he have taken his vengeance upon that thing? And in the process sealed his own Fate, becoming the very thing that he had fought.

‘You would have done the right thing.’ He wanted to believe that sweet voice, which spoke in his mind.

He smiled as he stepped from the edge of the woods. “How long have you known I was here, Nʉ Sʉmʉ?”

Jaycee knew this moment was coming. It had been for days. She had thought it all through carefully. Talked it all out with her therapist. But now? Now, it seemed all those carefully rehearsed words had fled her mind like a flock of geese after a shot rang out.

She watched as Rex took careful steps towards her. How like the man who had worked with skittish animals for so long. Her throat tightened, and she brushed away the tears that had marred her vision.

He stopped just a couple of inches in front of her. “How long?” He reiterated his question.

She inhaled as she prepared to face her future, “Always.” She lifted her hand and allowed it to come to rest over his thudding heart. She felt him stiffen, knew that he was holding tightly to his self-control. For her sake. He always thought of her first. Her and Angel.

“I have drifted into your mind a lot these past few days. When you were focused on other things,” she admitted with a blush.

He nodded and lifted her hand, bringing it to his lips, he pressed a tender kiss in the center of her palm. “You needed to know what I was thinking, what I felt.” It was a statement, not a question, and Jaycee nodded her head slowly.


She allowed her fingers to caress the lines that bracketed his mouth. Rex closed his eyes and turned his head slightly, capturing her finger between his lips, drawing it softly within his mouth and suckling. His tongue circled the tip, and her nipples pebbled within the cursed confines of her bra.

“Did I pass your test, Nʉ Sʉmʉ?”

“It was no test, Rex,” she denied.

“Wasn’t it, sweetheart? Didn’t you need to know that this was real?”

“Perhaps you’re right. Maybe you know me better than I know myself.”

He stepped forward, just inches, but enough to close the distance between them. Jaycee sighed and forced herself to release the tension that automatically tightened each muscle in her body. Fight, flight, or freeze response, as Elizabeth had explained, was natural for abuse victims.

Survivors, she reminded herself. She was an abuse survivor. Or she was determined to become one. She was not going to allow Sean this final victory. Was not going to let him control her in death as he had in life.

Therapy had been hard. It was intensely challenging to take experiences out of that box at the back of her remind where she had shoved them all. To pull them out, scrutinize them, turning them over and over from all angles.

It was difficult for her to admit the depths of abuse even to herself, especially to herself. She had crafted this image of herself in her mind of a strong, independent woman. A professional, an attorney, someone that others went to for help. Not someone who needed assistance, certainly not a victim.

Her intelligence and strength had been Sean’s greatest weapons. He had used those very things to isolate her. To push her to do things that made her uncomfortable. Testing her boundaries, exploring herself had been how Sean had challenged her to do so many things that were not what she wanted.

And if she dared to question him or to deny him anything he wanted, then he held the ultimate weapon – he withdrew his support and approval. That was all it had taken to control and manipulate her for over a decade.

That little girl had craved belonging so profoundly that the woman had been whored and beaten. Sean could call it swinging and BDSM all he wanted, but without her true consent, it could never be those things.

Yes, she had known some for whom those things held not just pleasure but were a part of their identity. But she knew that she was not the only one who had been badgered and bullied into doing things that she would have never done otherwise. That was the dark side of those things. The part that no one wanted to admit existed.

Now, she had a choice to make. She could continue to let her past control her. She could wallow in self-doubts, recriminations of all the things she should have been strong enough to say and do. She knew that it could take years, a lifetime, of therapy to unpack that box in the corner of her mind.

Or she could move on. Angel had. It had astounded her how wholly and quickly her daughter had grasped the situation. ‘Daddy made choices. I don’t have to make the same ones.’ It was indeed that simple for her child. And it was — truly that simple.

The past, her past lay over the edge of that cliff. She had spent two weeks unpacking it. She had felt the hurt, shame, pain, and filth of it all. She had even come to understand how Sean had manipulated her so easily. Why he had chosen her to begin with.

There was only one piece missing to the puzzle that was her life. And that piece did not lay at the bottom of that cliff. She had no idea where it lay. She was not even confident she would ever find the answers she sought. But she had come to the decision she needed to try.

“I want to find my parents, Rex.”

He only nodded, “Of course, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. Anything you need.”

She knew he meant that, too. She had found herself slipping into his mind so much over the past few days. At first, she had not even realized she was doing it. As the initial shock and pain of Sean’s death wore off, as her therapy began to explore things she had wanted so much to forget, to pretend did not even happen, she had found herself wondering what this man would think of her, how he would feel about it all.

Without even thinking, her mind had brushed his that first time as he and Grandfather worked with Angel and her pony. What she discovered had brought tears to her eyes. Genuine love and concern for her daughter. It was all that little girl inside of her had ever dreamt of.

Was it any wonder that Angel found it so easy to brush her father’s rejection and death aside? Her daughter had everything that she had not – love, security, and stability.

When she had come here that night, she had just felt his presence, known that he was near. She had expected him to approach her as he had that first night. But he had not. Instead, he merely hid among the trees, observing her, protecting her. She had not dared delve deeper then, afraid that he would sense her presence.

But over the coming days, she became bolder. She knew that she could erect barriers to keep him from slipping into her mind. But she had not needed them. And that said something to her as well. It was not that Rex did not want to know her thoughts and feelings, but that he wanted her to share those with him freely. And until she was ready, he was determined not to take that which she would not give.

She had known then. Known that this man truly did love her. How could she not? Every time that she had slipped into his mind, whether by choice or accidentally, Rex’s concern was for her and Angel. Not once had she caught a glimpse of disapproval or censure, even the slightest hint that he held her culpable.

“Because you are not, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. Why can you not understand as Angel does? The only person responsible for his choices is Sean Riley.”

“But if I had…”

“You might be dead, too. Angel and her gifts in the hands of a monster. And me condemned to a living death, eventually forced to decide to kill myself or become like him.” He brushed a strand of hair back from her face, “You did what you could. You left. And you kept yourself and Angel safe. That is what is important.”

He drew her into his strong arms. It was like coming home. It was home. He was home. He and Angel. Grandfather and this place. It was the home that she had been seeking her whole life, and nothing could ever change that. Not Sean’s death or the years of existence that would always be that box in the corner. Not whatever or even if she never found her birth mother or father. This was what mattered. He was what mattered.

She could hear his heart beating steadily just beneath her cheek. It reassured her as nothing else could. It was the sweetest music that she had fallen asleep to each night for the past couple of weeks. “Make love to me, Rex.”

Those were the words that Rex wanted to hear most. They had been for days. Words that he had, in his weakest moments, feared would never come.

His hands brushed tenderly down her arms to her fingertips and back again, as if to spread warmth or reassure. “Are you sure, Jaycee?”

His mind reached for hers and was relieved to find no doubts. He wished that teleportation was among the powers of a skinwalker. But since it wasn’t, he began to unbutton his shirt. They could get back to the ranch quicker as his other.

Jaycee’s trembling fingers joined his in the battle of the buttons. Her warm hands slipped beneath the soft chambray and brushed the offending material aside. He allowed it to drop where it would. He would worry about retrieving the damned thing tomorrow. Or maybe the next day. He was not sure when he would let his mate out of their bed.

Her fingers were already working the thick metal clasp of his belt. It was taking too long, but he focused on kicking off his boots while she was victorious over both the buckle and the zipper of his jeans. Her hands were as hot as branding irons on his hips as she pushed the jeans aside. He stepped out of them and pressed a sweet kiss on her lips.

“Step back, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, so that I can transform.”

“No, Rex.”

He stared at her in confusion as her dulcet words filled his mind, ‘Here, Rex. Take me here.’ He shook his head, partly in denial and partly in confusion.

Her lips were practically pressed to his as she spoke aloud this time, “This is going to be our home. For the rest of our lives. I don’t want the memories of that day to haunt me for years. I don’t want to have to avoid this place.”

Her fingers traced the lines about his mouth, “Make new ones with me. Fill my head with ones that will make me blush; make me smile. Make this place, all of this ranch, ours again.”

He heard the others, too. The unspoken ones, ‘Make me yours again. Completely yours.’

While it was not something that would have occurred to him, he could see her point. They had not discussed what would come next – for any of them. But Grandfather had been pressing as never before for Rex to commit to this place.

He no longer had the job that he had once loved. Besides, his salary would not have been enough to support his new family the way he wanted. And his small apartment in Houston was definitely not family-friendly. It would be years, if ever, before Jaycee might reclaim her ranch.

Perhaps most importantly, he knew and understood to the depths of his soul, how much their daughter needed the loving, but firm guidance of his grandfather. He remembered well those years that his mother had denied him this place and the old man’s presence. They could not do that to the child, especially not now.

He felt incredibly stupid, like some teenage boy tangled up inside, pleading with his first girlfriend. “Are you sure, Jaycee?” he asked again.

“Yes,” the single word was breathed across his lips, a heartbeat before hers captured them.

Need erupted like a volcano, molten lava coursing through his veins. It felt as if the whole universe exploded from the top of his head as her tongue slipped inside his mouth to dance against his.

It was happening too fast. He had planned this moment for days. He had lain awake with her in his arms formulating and calculating each touch, every moment. But none of it had taken this into account – her.

Jaycee was not the sweet, innocent who needed coaxing and seducing. She was a woman – all woman. A woman who knew what she wanted and was not afraid to take it. She was his woman. And he would deny her nothing.

His fingers began to fumble with the buttons of her shirt, but it was taking too long. With a groan of frustration, he grabbed each side and ripped. She only chuckled in his mind, ‘Good thing that was your shirt, cowboy.’

‘It could have been my favorite, and I wouldn’t care. It was in the way.’

Her lips broke the seal, and she stepped back. Her fingers went directly to the button of her jeans, “Then I better get rid of these before I’m walking back to the ranch naked. Good thing, I did not rip your shirt off you. At least I’ll have something to wear.”

Her sweet laughter echoed off the canyon. It was the sweetest country ballad he had ever heard, a song that he had feared would never be the same again.

She kicked her shoes off, and the jeans quickly followed. Then as if by magic, she was back in his arms. He had never felt so complete, so right.

Her hands moved across his shoulders, back, and chest. “It is not the same. I am not the same, Rex.”

She pulled back just enough to look him in the eye. He saw the tears swimming there as she spoke, “I’m not hiding anymore. I can’t change the past. And even if I could, I’m not sure I would. That past brought me Angel. And for all the pain, I would not change that.”

“I can’t deny or run from the bad memories either. I must live with them. But living with them does not mean they have to control or destroy me. As Grandfather told Angel, we all have choices.”

Her gaze held his as a single tear slipped from the corner of her eyes, the moonlight dancing on it. The smile on her lips radiated a glow that threatened to consume him. “I choose you, Rex. I choose our future. Together.”

She sealed that with a tender kiss that was as consuming as the passion had been but a moment before. Rex’s hands would no longer be denied as they moved over her skin, igniting flames that they shared through their link.

She shoved, and he fell back onto the hard ground with a thud. He knew that his back would bare more than one scratch and bruise, but he did not care as she followed him down. Her body covered his. He was not complaining.

She sat astraddle his hips. Her head tossed back as that laughter burst across the cool night air again. This was no sweet ballad; this was a bold Texas two-step. It was joyous. And free.

Her fingers played across his chest as she shifted her hips. His cock slipped home, welcomed by her wet warmth. “Yes, sweetheart. Free. That is how I feel. For the first time in my life. I feel free. Alive. Happy, even. You gave me that. Your love was the key that unlocked it all.”

“Marry me?” The words were out of his mouth before they even entered his sex-starved and addled brain. But Rex knew they were right. He wanted this woman as much as he needed and loved her. And he wanted the world to know the depths of that commitment.

Jaycee stared down into his face, dumbfounded. Those were the last words that she expected to hear at this moment. But why should they surprise her?

She brushed her finger gently through his hair. Was there more grey at his temples? Was that because of her? Of the troubles that she had brought to his life? She tenderly sketched the lines which bracketed his mouth before turning to those along his forehead. Were they deeper? Lines of worry?

Rex turned his head into her caress. His hands gripped hers, holding them against his flesh. ‘And I would not change any of it, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.’

She smiled as she nodded her head. “Yes, Rex. Yes, I’ll marry you.”

She felt his relief and joy at those words to the core of her being as he lifted his hips, burying his shaft deeper inside of her. ‘That was easier than I thought.’ His hands gripped her hips as he guided her to match his rhythm, ‘Now, we can get on to more pleasurable things.’

The tender teasing ignited her love for this man as well as her passion. She leaned forward until her nipples practically brushed his cheek. Close, so incredibly close, but she kept them just out of reach. Until he was moaning and pleading beneath her.

Her hands grasped his, drawing them away from her hips and above his head. She pinned him firmly beneath her, at her mercy. She bent and brushed a kiss across his cheek, trailing them to his ear. “My turn to play,” she whispered as she blew softly into it.

But she had other fantasies in mind as she drew the lobe into her mouth. She swirled her tongue about it as if it were the head of his cock. Rex trembled beneath her with a moan. She bit down, hard. Not hard enough to draw blood, but close. His hips jerked beneath her, and that moan turned into a roar.

She leaned back, and her eyes sought his. “So, you like that?” She did not need to hear the words. His blush and the frantic pace of his hips told her more than they ever could. She threw back her head as laughter bubbled up from the depths of her belly and soul.

“Good, cowboy, because next time I’m bringing rope.” His quick intake of breath and the way his eyes flared at her words sent a feeling of feminine power surging through her. It was a new sensation. One that she liked. Lot.

A dozen ideas of ways to torment, torture, and tease him sprang to mind. A smile the size of Texas spread across her face as her hips matched his pace. A lifetime with this man would not be enough to explore them all. But she was going to give it her best shot.

She heard a wolf or perhaps a coyote call across the hills to its mate. She felt at one with the creature. With her own mate. With nature itself. But perhaps most importantly, Jaycee Riley, soon to be Ranger, felt at peace with herself. With her past, even the bits of it that would always remain painful or unknown.

She knew all that was truly important. She was woman. And together with this man, she was complete. And that was alright.

Something that her Feminism 101 had not taken into account was that true equality was not always about being like man. It was about two strong individuals coming together by choice into a partnership that transcended all else. That kind of love could never make you weak or less than a man. Because she held his life in her hands every bit as much as he held hers.

“Now that you know the truth, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, would you please, please, put your cowboy out of his misery?” Rex begged as his hands flexed beneath hers.

She leaned forward, keeping her nipples once more just out of reach. “Never,” she said as her lips captured his. Her tongue conquered her mate, catching his very breath and soul, drawing it deep within her until they mixed and melded as one, then breathing that life back into him.

Only then did she give in to his pitiful whimpers and pleas for relief. Riding him like the cowgirl she was. Racing towards something far more precious than a blue ribbon at the rodeo. Because in the end, there were no losers in this race of love and life.

Their cries mingled with that of the coyote and the howls of the wind. And life began anew. As the Great Spirit, Oden, Zeus, Yahweh, Buddha, Vashti, and the Goddess intended from the beginning of time.

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