Jaycee brought the steaming mug to her lips. “That’s good, Angel,” she encouraged her daughter, who was putting one of their new ponies through its paces with Hector’s assistance. The man was never more than arm’s length from her daughter, just in case.
She smiled at the seemingly simple accomplishment, but for a child with uncontrolled seizures, nothing was simple. “Five more minutes, Hector,” she called out to her neighbor and friend.
“She is doing well, Señora,” smiled his wife, Lupe. “Moving out of the city, it is good for the child.”
“I was thinking the same thing, Lupe. Since we left Dallas, Angel seems able to stay focused longer. She’s not having nearly as many meltdowns. I was reviewing her seizure diary last night. There is a definite trend towards fewer and milder ones.”
Jaycee did not mention that she had been scouring the journals looking for patterns at two o’clock to keep her mind off a certain cowboy that made her heart race.
“Sometimes, the best medicine does not come in a bottle.” The woman waved her arthritic hands about her, “Sometimes the earth, she gives us all that we need.”
Jaycee shook her head. She was a woman of reason, of science. It was likely all just coincidence, this improvement in Angel’s condition. Perhaps as some of the more optimistic doctors had suggested, her daughter was even outgrowing her condition. But whether it was the quieter country life or happenstance, all that mattered to Jaycee was that she had more good days with Angel.
“Thank you for coming over again today. I hate to impose like this, but this follow-up meeting to the case yesterday could prove crucial,” she tried to change the subject.
“No problema, Señora. With our grandchildren so far away, la niña has become like one of the family. You both have.”
Words of gratitude froze on her lips. The smile disappeared from Jaycee’s face as she watched the large white truck drive up the bumpy dirt road towards her wood-frame home. Her heart stammered in her chest. Why did this man affect her so? This stranger?
“Lupe, would you and Hector take Angel inside when she is finished?”
The truck drew to a halt in front of them. Both sets of eyes were glued to it as the door swung open. He unfolded his large frame and rose to his full six-foot-plus height.
“Madre de dios,” the older woman whispered as she made the sign of the cross.
His eyes were locked with Jaycee’s when the tiny ball of energy hurdled itself at her mid-section. “Did you see Mommy? Did you see me? Hector said if I keep improving one day, I may be able to run the barrels just like you did.”
She wrapped her arms about her daughter’s shoulder and hugged her tightly as she watched the man approach. The dark expression on his face did not bode well for this meeting, but she was determined. She would convince him to allow her to board her client’s horses. She had to, just had to. They had so much riding on this case. She could not afford to lose, no matter what.
Even more than her need to win this case, the mother inside of her had to protect her little Angel. She pushed Angel behind her back, “You go inside with Hector and Lupe, sweetie. I have some business to discuss with this gentleman.”
None of it made sense to Rex. He knew from his woman’s thoughts that the child she was hiding from him was her daughter – her reason for existing. But his senses told him something else as well – the child was gifted, special. A skinwalker. A female skinwalker. It was unheard of. He froze at the foot of the steps. He shook his head, uncertain of what to do or how to proceed.
The child decided for him. Stepping around her mother, she walked to stand in front of him. He bent down, staring into the most intense brown eyes he had ever seen. She frowned at him for a moment, then her tiny light brown hand reached out and caressed his cheek. He felt the zing of power from the top of his head to his toes curled in his boots.
Then those eyes glazed over and rolled back into her head. She would have dropped to the ground if he had not caught her. Her body began to convulse erratically. His woman screamed out as she raced towards him, “Give her to me. Lupe, get me her meds.”
He shook his head and stood up as she reached him, “No, I’ll carry her. Where should I put her?”
The older woman stepped forward, “Inside, take her inside.” He nodded and walked towards the door. An older man opened it as the woman led his mate inside. He placed his precious cargo on her side on the couch.
His woman dropped onto the floor next to her child as the other woman’s hands rested on her shoulder. “She may come around on her own, Señora. Give it a couple of minutes.”
Jaycee lifted the little girl’s hand to her lips, “I know, Lupe. She usually does.” Her sobs tore at his heart, ripped it from his chest, and squeezed it tightly.
Her thoughts only made it worse. Fear was not an accurate enough word. Even desperation did not cover the dark cloud that covered his mate’s mind. She was petrified for her child.
He wanted to do something. Anything to comfort her. To take away her pain. His eyes focused upon the child. He studied her for a moment. She was not what he would have pictured. Her hair formed a cap of tight ringlets that covered her tiny head. The color was draining from her face, and her lips took on a dark blue hue.
He listened as his mate drew in a deep breath, “Get me the emergency meds, Lupe.” Her hand rested lightly on the child’s shoulder, keeping her daughter on her side as the violent shaking continued, saliva leaking from the corners of her lips.
He knelt on the floor behind her. His body pressed against her back; he could feel the tiny tremors that shook her body as well as the child’s. Heartbeats, moments stretched. He was not sure how long they waited, but he knew it was too long, too long for the violence that shook the child’s tiny body. One hand rested on her shoulder, drawing her instinctively into the comfort of his arms.
His other hand covered hers on the child’s shoulder. He felt that zing once more, and just as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The child lay deathly still. Everyone tensed, waiting until the little girl drew in a deep breath. His woman sighed as the older one brought her a small box, “Thanks, Lupe, but she finally came out of it.”
“Bueno, Señora,” the woman smiled as she placed pillows under the child’s head and knees.
He felt his woman tense in his arms. He heard her thoughts, knew that she was angry with him for taking the liberty of comforting her, but she was madder at herself for accepting it. He smiled as the words, ‘how right it felt,’ flitted through their heads. At least, she recognized that. It was somewhere to begin.
Reluctantly, he pulled back, going to stand next to the older man as the two women fussed over the child that appeared to be sleeping naturally now.
“Hola, I’m Hector Ramirez,” offered the man as he held out his weathered hand.
“Rex Ranger.” His eyes returned to where the women were murmuring near the little girl.
“Lupe is my esposa. She was a nurse for many years, working with niños, children. We help Señora Jaycee out as much as we can. I putter around with the animals, and Lupe cares for little Angel,” smiled the man.
Rex nodded, feeling an instant camaraderie with the couple, who cared so much for his woman.
And the child. He shook his head as he studied the sleeping child. This changed everything. She changed everything. Angel changed everything.
Of course, he had known about the child from his mate’s thoughts. He had even caught glimpses of her concern about her daughter’s health. For that, he had been prepared. Whatever, whoever mattered to his woman mattered to him, came under his protection.
What he had not expected were her gifts. There was no doubt in his mind. This child was a skinwalker. And from the power he felt when they touched, a damned powerful one.
His woman stood slowly. Her eyes were glazed with moisture; her hands trembled just a bit as she turned to him with a weak smile. “I’m sorry, Mister Ranger. If you don’t mind, perhaps Hector can show you around. Then we can discuss things in more detail.”
“Or I could come back at a better time?”
She shook her head and sighed, “No, Mister Ranger, this is as good a time as any. You have come all this way. Besides, it is in the best interest of my client to settle this matter as quickly as possible.”
He felt the pain and despair rolling off her like the deepest fog, hiding the beauty of a meadow in bloom with wildflowers. He heard the litany of thoughts that raced through her intelligent mind. Embarrassment that he had witnessed her daughter’s condition. Disgust with herself that she would have such an idea. Fear that this would not work, that she would not be able to fulfill her duties to her client and her child.
He wanted, no, he needed to go to his woman. Wrap her in his arms and kiss away every last one of those fears. Reassure that she no longer had to bear those burdens alone. That she would never again face anything alone. But he knew that she would not welcome it, welcome him.
And he had other duties of his own. It was his job to make sure that those animals were well cared for.
He turned towards the man next to him, “How about a quick tour then, Señor Ramirez?”
Jaycee could hear the men talking inside the old barn. She could not make out the words, though. This morning had not gone at all as she planned, but then again, nothing had gone to plan since Angel’s first seizure. But this might rank as a disaster.
How could she convince this man that she could manage three thoroughbred racehorses on a five-acre ranch with a sick child? She was not confident she could convince herself. But she would deal with that concern later.
She plastered a smile into place as she pushed open the barn door. Its squeak announced her presence, and the men stopped talking, turning towards her. “Thank you, Hector,” she said with a slight nod.
“De nada, Señora,” her friend replied as he shook their guest’s hand. “It was nice meeting you, Señor Ranger. I look forward to seeing you again.” The man smiled as he turned and walked past Jaycee towards the house.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t show you around myself,” she mumbled as she looked at her boots half hidden among the straw and dirt. She tried to think of a logical argument to counteract what he had seen this morning.
But at that moment, she doubted herself more than ever. How had she thought that she could return to practicing law when Angel could have another seizure at any moment? Cases like this one demanded her full attention, which was something that her child owned.
Her shoulders slumped as she shook her head. “This was a bad idea. I’m sorry for bringing you all the way out here, Mister Ranger. I’ll speak with my client, prepare him for the seizure of the horses.” Without looking up, she turned to leave the barn, but strong arms held her in place, drew her into safety and warmth.
It was an illusion. This man was a complete stranger. They had met less than twenty-four hours ago. So, why the hell did she feel so fucking protected and cherished when she was anywhere near him? And since when did Jaycee Riley, gung-ho feminist, need any man? But that was precisely what she felt – need. Not want, but need, pure and simple.
She brought her hands up to the front of his flannel shirt. She had meant to push him away, but instead, she found her fingers curling into the soft fabric and solid muscle that lay just beneath it. “Let me go,” her voice sounded throaty and weak.
His arms tightened about her waist, “I can’t. Trust me, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, I am the needy one when it comes to you. Without you, I am damned,” he whispered the words against her lips. Then his mouth covered hers, but not with the same boldness that he had yesterday. This time, he teased the corners with his tongue, licking and tasting her, as if pleading for entrance.
Her fingers started to move once more, tracing lightly across his shirt, feeling every inch of his broad chest, moving lower until her hands splayed across the small of his back, drawing him closer. She whimpered when she felt the hard ridge of his erection press against her thigh. She felt silly when it reminded her of a bad romance novel with electrical shocks skittering along her spine.
His hands covered her butt, pulling her against him, until their bodies danced against one another. Only their clothes kept them from the true dance they both wanted at that moment. She moaned into his mouth and cursed her suddenly overactive sex-drive as her hands trailed to the front of his jeans. Her fingers wrapped about his erection, moving teasingly up and down the full length.
“Fuck, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, that feels so good,” he rasped into her mouth. But then his large hand came between them, covering hers, holding it still.
She could feel his pulse beat within the firm column of flesh. She could hear it pounding in her head louder than music in a disco. She frowned as she realized that it beat in perfect synchronicity with her own. She shook her head and jerked her hand out of his, away from his erection.
Her mind rebelled at the thought. What was she doing? She whirled and crossed the barn, putting as much distance as she could between them.
But it did not help. The truth stared her squarely in the eye. She had been just heartbeats away from a literal roll in the hay. With her sick child laying less than fifty feet away. With this case, that very well might decide their whole future up in the air. And she was throwing herself at the man, who held that fragile future in his hands.
It made no sense. Okay, so she had not had sex in a long time. And the man was drop-dead gorgeous, if you liked rough-neck cowboy-types anyway. But she never had, and she had certainly never been a woman to throw herself at any man.
As for the lack of sex, well, it was nothing that her toys could not replace. She did not need a man. They did not need anyone; she reassured herself as she paced back and forth.
His deep chuckle knotted her stomach into a tight ball. “What’s so funny, Mister Ranger?”
“Trust me when I do take you, my mate, the first thing that is going are those damned toys. I will care for all of your needs from now on.”
She shook her head as she looked at him. In the dim light of the barn, it seemed as if his eyes glowed the faint red of a wolf.
“That day will never come, Mister Ranger. This is business, nothing more. It is about property, my client’s property. Those horses,” she tried to keep her mind on the case, but it was not easy the way the man stretched his shoulders, making that chest even more expansive than it already was.
It had felt so amazingly warm and solid beneath her fingers. What would it feel like to lay her head against it? To fall asleep listening to his heart beating just beneath her ear. Was it covered in soft blond hair that would tickle her nose? Or was it bare like his native ancestors?
“If this is all business, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, why does it matter that my chest is bare like my Native forefathers? And there is nothing I want more than to hold you against me as you fall asleep in my arms.”
He drew in a deep breath, “But you are right. We need to settle this business between us first.”
Jaycee’s throat worked reflexively, trying to clear the tightness that his words caused there. How did the man keep doing that? It was disconcerting, to say the least. Having another human being know your every thought. Was he human?
Of course, he was. Psychic maybe, but even that she had a hard time believing. More than likely, it was just that her years of staying home with Angel had made her rusty with the poker face that her work required. She would need to practice hiding her feelings more if this man could read them so well.
“You will never get so practiced that you can completely block me, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. That is not the way of mates, but given time, I do not doubt that you will be able to build some walls. Filter some of what your mind so readily broadcasts to me now. And no, I am not psychic. Not in the truest sense of the word, only with you. Because you are my light, my breath, my one.”
She shook her head, even more confused at his words. “Listen, Mister Ranger, I don’t know what kind of game this is, but I’m not interested in playing. In case you couldn’t tell, I have enough things on my plate right now. My daughter. Making this ranch work. Rebuilding my legal career. Men are off my list. Period.”
“I am glad that men are, but I am not any man. You are my mate, Nʉ Sʉmʉ,” he walked towards her, holding his hands out. “How is Angel?”
“What? Can’t you just look into my mind and find out for yourself?” Jaycee felt trapped. She could not afford to offend this man, her career and their future depended upon it. But he frightened her and excited her as no man ever had. It was a dangerous combination.
He came to stand just a couple of feet away from her. The way he towered over her made her feel small, vulnerable, and incredibly protected. “It does not work like that. I hear what you think as if you said it aloud. You have not thought about Angel lately.”
She frowned at his words. She thought about her daughter constantly. How could she have gone this long without doing so? “She’s sleeping peacefully. She usually does after one of the big ones.”
“Does she have them often?”
She wanted to argue, to tell him it was none of his business, but if she wanted his help with those horses, she needed to assure him that she could manage them. “Generalized ones like that, not so much anymore. One or two a week. But she has focal ones, what they call absences, where she just kind of stares off. She has several of those every day. And when she sleeps, she has myoclonic ones, jerking.”
“Besides Lupe and Hector, do you have any help? School? Her father?”
Jaycee tried to formulate her answer positively. “I homeschool her because she kept falling asleep in class. Schools just can’t manage sick children like Angel. As for her dad, he sees her when he can, but his law practice keeps him pretty busy.” She tried to excuse her ex-husband.
“But I assure you, we do all right. Hector helps me out with some of the heavier chores when it comes to managing the animals, and Lupe watches Angel when I need to meet with clients. She used to be a pediatric nurse, so she is as familiar with Angel’s seizures as I am.”
“You’re lucky to have them, but what about you? When do you get time for you?”
She shook her head and held up her hands, “Mister Ranger, that is none of your business.”
“Yes, it is. You are my business. You are my entire world, Nʉ Sʉmʉ?”
She stared at him for a moment. She was getting nowhere with this. He seemed stuck in some fantasy land with her in the starring role. She needed to get him back on the subject that brought him here.
“Mister Ranger, I assure you that I can manage those horses. I have been working with animals since I was a teen. I know my horses, and as you can see, I have the facilities to house them,” she asserted as she waved her arms at the barn.
“You have my support with that,” his voice was low as he spoke.
“Thank you, Mister Ranger.”
“You are welcome. I would never do anything to add to your burdens, Nʉ Sʉmʉ,” he smiled at her, and her tummy did a funny little loop-the-loop. Why did this man intrigue her as much as he infuriated her?
“I intrigue you because the Great Spirits created us to share one soul. You are the light, the good. I am the dark and dangerous. We need one another.”
Jaycee’s brows arched. The quiet way that he said it made her pause. There was no doubt that he believed what he said, but how could a man who otherwise seemed reasonable believe such superstitions?
The man stepped closer to her, pinning her against the wall. His hand came up slowly to caress her cheek. She sucked in a deep breath at the almost electrical shock as the rough pad of his thumb brushed her lower lip slowly back and forth.
She found it hard to breathe when he was this close; all she could smell was him. Fresh straw, animals, it all melted away, and all she knew was him, fresh, clean, and all man. Her man. Her eyes went wide at the thought. Her heart skipped a couple of beats.
He bent slowly towards her once more. “Yes, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, all yours.”
She did not have time to deny it before his lips softly closed over hers. Unlike all the other kisses they had shared, where passion flared quickly and burned so brightly that she feared it would consume her, this kiss was tender and comforting.
And it scared her more than the others ever had. How easy would it be to simply give in, accept the crazy illusion that this handsome stranger offered? She had been alone for so long. Born so much pain. Lived in almost constant fear of losing the one thing that meant the most to her. Sleepless nights, just watching her daughter breathe, making sure that she did. Long days spent in hospitals, one test after another, one doctor after another.
And nothing helped. Now she had this place and her career that she had to, simply had to, resurrect. It was all too much. But it was her life, her reality. Jaycee had learned the hard way that she was the only one that she could count on. Alone, always alone.
She pushed against his chest, and he drew slowly back from the soft kiss, but he did not let her go, keeping her wrapped in his tender embrace. He leaned his forehead against hers. So close that their breath mingled, entwined, and hung like a cloud about them, pillowing them in its intimacy.
“No more, Jaycee, you are mine as much as I’m yours. That includes the burdens you bear. You will never be alone again. Never face it all alone.” His use of her name shocked her, she froze for a moment, then shook her head.
He drew her into his embrace, his hands smoothing her hair as he simply held her. She knew that she should pull away, deny his words, fight him. But the truth was that those words had crafted such a hypnotic spell about her that she wanted nothing more than to believe them. So, for several long moments, she pretended, leaned against him, and allowed her fantasies to weave a web of love and security.
He was the first to break it as he pushed her back arms-length. He gave her another of those dazzling smiles and bent to kiss the top of her head once more.
“I want to stay here with you,” he sighed as if under some heavy burden of his own. “But I cannot. Not yet, anyway. There are things I must do, must see to, before we can truly be together as we are meant to be.”
“And one of those things is the horses. I won’t lie to you, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, I have my reservations. Your land here is small for housing such animals. But more importantly, their care is an immense burden on top of all the others those tiny shoulders already bare. But Hector assures me that you will have his help.”
His thumb brushed her cheek once more, and she was helpless to stop herself from leaning into the tender caress. “And make no mistake about it, I will help too. It is part of the bargain. If I agree to place one point two million dollars worth of prime horse flesh as you keep pointing out to me on this kiddy farm, I have the right to inspect them. Anytime. Do you understand?”
She frowned at this latest demand. Was he using his position unfairly?
“Actually, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, you are using yours to your advantage. Know this, I would not agree to this deal for anyone except you. Hell, my mind keeps telling me that I should not even now. I may damned well lose my job for this. But as with everything for the rest of our lives, you come first. And you need this.”
She choked past the tightness in her chest as she nodded her agreement to his demands. “Thank you,” she managed, at last, to whisper past the knot in her throat and the moisture in her eyes.
“For you, anything and everything.” Once more, he lowered his head and brushed another of those heart-stopping kisses across her lips.
This time she could not fight it, fight herself. Her fingers wrapped in his hair, drawing him closer. It was she who deepened the kiss. Her tongue that snaked its way between his lips, danced against his. For this moment, she wanted to taste and feel all of him, all of this fantasy.
Her body melded against his, Jaycee shivered when she felt the stony ridge pressed against her thigh once more. Her right hand slipped between them again, moving surely over it. It was like some magnet drawing her to him; this need to touch and explore.
She felt him tremble, knew her power, and used it as she toyed with him until she could hear their hearts pounding so loudly that it drowned out all other sounds.
She reluctantly broke the kiss, her hands dropping to her side. She did not want this game to end. It had been so fucking long since she had felt her womanly powers. And this was unlike anything she had ever felt before. If she were honest, it had been too long since she felt anything other than worry, fear, and despair.
But it was all an illusion, a fantasy, she reminded herself. There was no room in her life for men, love, or even sex. She had Angel, this place, and her career. There simply was not enough of her left for anything or anyone else.
“Thank you for agreeing to this compromise, Mister Ranger. But I need to get back to Angel, and I have work to do before those horses arrive.” Her voice sounded too throaty to carry the authority that she had hoped to convey.
He nodded, his thumb caressing the corner of her mouth one more time. “Yes, I too have obligations. But know this, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, you and the child come before all else with me. You always will.”
She stepped back and inhaled deeply, squaring her shoulders. “Mister Ranger, like I said, thank you for agreeing to let the horses stay here until the court case. But that is all this can ever be, a professional relationship.”
“I’m sorry if I led you on in any way.” She studied her boots and stammered across the truth, “I lost my head for a moment. Sometimes we all dream of things that we can never have. But I mean it, there is no room in my life for a relationship. With anyone. And certainly not a man I met less than twenty-four hours ago.”
“Bull shit, Jaycee. Say whatever you need to now, but if we both didn’t have things that were so pressing, I’d take you into that stall and show you just how real this is.”
She gasped, opened her mouth to deny his claim, but thought better of it. She could not lie to him or herself. If she had gotten the chance, she most definitely would have taken the opportunity for a quick roll in the hay with this man. Looking at him from boots to slightly ruffled blond hair, she admitted, lots of women would.
“You are not most women, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. And it would have been much more than a quick roll in the hay,” he laughed.
“And quit doing that. It’s freaky. People can’t just hear other people’s thoughts.”
“But I do. Hear yours. As for freaky, there are things in this world that defy explanations. That does not make them untrue. Good-bye, Jaycee. For now.”
“Wait. When will you bring the horses? Should I draft an agreement of some sort?”
Now that he was leaving, why did some part of her feel so bereft? So alone? She was making a fool of herself, trying to keep the man. She stopped the rising panic. There was no way she would allow him to ‘hear’ these thoughts.
But the slight smile curving the corners of his delectable mouth told her he already had. At least he had the good manners or good sense not to mention it. “I’ll be in touch when I speak with my boss. And, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, try to get some rest. Your tiredness beats at me.”
“Tired doesn’t even begin to cover it, Mister Ranger.”
“Rex. Call me Rex, Jaycee.”
She would have argued, tried to keep things on a strictly professional level, but the pile of hay caught her eye. That boat had probably sailed already. “Alright, Rex. I look forward to hearing from you.” She stammered again, “I mean about the horses.”
Rex forced himself to turn away from his woman. Forced each step that took him closer to his truck and further from her. This trip had not been what he expected, but then again, nothing about her was. He waved to Hector, who was puttering by the corral. He was thankful that his Nʉ Sʉmʉ had the couple.
But now she had him too. He climbed into the truck and started the engine. He debated which call to make first. He choose the easy one. Punching in the button, he listened as it rang. Just once. It rarely rang more than that with his grandfather. He out the call on speakerphone.
“Rex, my son, what do you need?”
How like his grandfather to cut straight to the heart of the matter. “I don’t know for certain, grandfather. Could you come down to Houston for a few days? I have something to show you.”
He watched the house recede in his rearview mirror. Saw her climbing the steps, her limbs seemed almost weighed down with the responsibilities those tiny shoulders bore. “Someone I want you to meet.”
“Yes, grandfather. Nʉ Sʉmʉ. But someone else as well.” He did not want to say any more to the man. He wanted his grandfather’s first encounter with the child. With Angel, he reminded himself. To be utterly untainted with his own opinions.
His grandfather knew these things far better than he did. If the girl had the gift, the old man would recognize it. And he hoped have some of the answers that the doctors seemed unable to give his woman. “Please, grandfather.”
“Of course, my son. I will leave right after my prayers.”
“Thank you, grandfather.”
The line went dead. Rex paused the truck at the end of the driveway. This next call would be far more difficult, but it needed to be made. He had to convince his boss, Tim Masters, to release the ASPCA’s claim to those horses. And that was not going to be easy. Hell, maybe it would be best to fight that battle in person.
He turned towards the highway and Houston. His mind and senses were still on overload, filled with her, but he tried to focus on the battle that lay ahead. He would win it. He had to. For her. He had given her his word, and he would find a way to keep it. It was just the first of a lifetime of promises that he would always fulfill to his Nʉ Sʉmʉ.