It was almost lunchtime when Rex arrived back at the ASPCA offices. He read through the half a dozen messages that waited in his inbox and cursed under his breath when he saw his boss’s signature on the last one. Tim Masters wanted to see him in his office the moment he got back. He sighed and headed to the large office at the end of the hallway. No use delaying the inevitable, just another of his grandfather’s sage advice.
He inhaled deeply as he brought his fist up to the hardwood door. He could still smell her, lingering in his nostrils as much as she did in his mind. It was that which propelled him forward when the voice bid him, “Come in.”
Tim Masters had never been his favorite person. With his freshly pressed suits that seemed out of place in a building with hundreds of animals, he was too much the polished politician for Rex’s liking. The man had never spent a day in the field, knew nothing of the neglect and abuse that the animals faced.
Hell, Rex could not remember the last time he had seen the man in the holding pens, where the animals were kept awaiting adoption. No, this man got and kept his job because of one thing, his ability to raise money. And this time, Rex was standing in his way. He did not relish this meeting.
“You wanted to see me, Mister Masters?”
“Yes, Mister Ranger,” the formal introduction set Rex even more on edge. “I received a call from Marigold this morning. She told me about what happened in court yesterday.” The man finally lifted his cold eyes from the computer screen, “Would you mind telling me since when does the ASPCA work with the defense on cases we are prosecuting?”
Rex met the man’s stare directly, “Miss Riley is not the defense. She represents a third party in the case. The man’s son, who claims rightful ownership of those horses. His father is contesting his wife’s will that left the bulk of her estate to their son. Mister Marshall’s intent likely was to starve the animals so that his son could never take possession of his property.”
“Yes, I knew all of that going into this court case. We all did. It has no bearing on the case. If the younger Mister Marshall wanted to claim his property, he had the responsibility to ensure that it was properly cared for. What I want to know is what the hell came over you in that courtroom that you would deviate from our case and take up with the opposition?”
Rex could see the red tint forming around the man’s ears and hear the rise in voice. “This was an unusual case from the beginning, Mister Masters, you know that. It is not every day that the ASPCA is called to one of the largest ranches in the state. The Marshalls trace their ancestry back to the Alamo, founders of this state. And the value of those horses? We have never dealt with those kinds of assets.”
Rex skirted the subject, knowing that was the real motivation for this man’s concern, the loss of potential revenue from the auctioning of the horses. This man had never cared for the animals themselves, just his career, his ability to impress the board and move on to another higher-paying and more prestigious job in a couple of years. It disgusted him, but he did all that he could to hide his feelings, to keep the conversation professional.
“Exactly, Mister Ranger, all the more reason that the ASPCA must do all that it can to protect the welfare of those animals. We cannot appear to favor the Marshalls because of their station in this community. You saw for yourself the state of those animals. The intentional starvation imposed by Mister Marshall on the animals when every other animal on that ranch was well maintained with plenty of food and water.” The man’s hands rested on the top of his desk. His knuckles were turning white, where they were laced together.
“Yes, but once more that had nothing to do with his son,” Rex tried to keep his anger under control. This man got under his skin on the best of days. The past two years working with him had been an exercise in control.
But today, when he was already on edge, when the beast in him in roared to claims its mate, when things were happening so fast that his brain could no longer process it, his patience with the self-centered bastard was hanging by the proverbial thread.
“And we are back to the point that we agreed with Marigold and the Prosecutor’s Office before taking this case to court. That Thad Marshall had a legal obligation to monitor the care of the contested property while in possession of his father. How has that changed, Mister Ranger?” Masters furrowed his brows as he stared at Rex.
Rex searched for an answer that would make sense, would appeal to this man and his agenda. He fell back onto the only one that he had been able to come up with during the long, sleepless night filled with images of her in his arms and bed.
“The ASPCA cannot insert itself into a civil matter of this magnitude. While those horses are animals and deserve all the protection that we can offer them, they are also financial assets worth one point two million dollars, Mister Masters,” which he knew was the heart of his boss’s objection. Tim Masters wanted those horses for the centerpiece of the annual auction next month. Rex would bet that the man had even listed them in the brochure already.
He took a deep breath before he continued to plead his case under the intense stare of his superior. “Due to the nature of this case, it is likely to receive a lot of media attention, not just locally or even statewide, but nationally and perhaps internationally as well. We cannot have Mister Marshall or his attorney claiming that the ASPCA interfered and prematurely seized his property. It would do serious damage to our reputation and perhaps scare off some of our high profile donors.”
There it was, his ultimate argument. He watched as the man’s brows knit together in thought, his mouth scrunched up, his nose twitched. He waited. And waited. And waited as he allowed the man to play through the various scenarios in his mind.
“Yes, well, I will concede your point, Mister Ranger, but that did not give you the right to intercede on the woman’s behalf without consulting Miss Clement or me.”
“I apologize.” He kept it simple. The sooner he was finished with the man, the sooner he could focus upon more important things. Like her. His Nʉ Sʉmʉ.
“I’m assuming that you have a plan. That you and the woman are working out this compromise that you promised Judge Ortega? And I trust that you are looking out for the best interest of the animals.”
“Yes, sir, I am. Miss Riley, the younger Mister Marshall’s attorney, has a small ranch just outside of Houston, in Waller County,” he stumbled over the half-truth. The few acres that the woman owned could hardly qualify for the term, but he did not want his supervisor knowing that.
“She runs a pony farm for special needs children in her spare time. And in her youth, she competed in barrel racing at the Livestock Show and Rodeo and won several Four H prizes. She has volunteered to care for the animals, under our close supervision, of course, until the civil matter comes to court. If the younger Mister Marshall wins the case, then she has assured me that he will reimburse the ASPCA for any care they received while in our possession.”
He played his ultimate card, “She assures me that we have Thad Marshall’s deepest gratitude. Perhaps he would even be moved to make a generous donation.” Rex waited as he dangled the worm before this greedy fish. He saw the man’s face soften just a bit before he continued, “Of course, if Mister Marshall senior were to win, then nothing stops us from proceeding with our case against the man and seizing the horses as we planned.”
Rex smelled the man’s discomfort. He knew that Masters was not completely satisfied with the plan. He was confident that the lure of immediate revenue from the auction weighed more heavily than any possible donation. He did not blame the man. From a purely business point of view, it was not the wisest decision, but Rex had never been much of a businessman. And this decision had nothing to do with business. Honestly, it had far less to do with the welfare of the animals than he wanted to admit. It had everything to do with her.
The man finally shook his head, “I’m still not convinced that this is going to work, Mister Ranger. You said that the ASPCA would supervise the care of the horses? How do we even know that Miss Riley has the facilities or ability to fulfill her duties? As you say, these are highly valuable animals. The ASPCA needs assurances that they will be cared for properly.”
“That is where I was this morning, checking out Miss Riley’s facilities. While her ranch is not large, it has a sufficient barn for housing the animals and land for their exercise. As I said, Miss Riley, herself, is quite the horsewoman, and she has the assistance of Hector Ramirez. He was a former jockey and groomsman until he retired some years ago. And you have my word that I will inspect the horses often to ensure they are receiving the care they need to recover fully.”
The man frowned, “Yes, well, as I said, I am not happy with the situation, Rex.” Masters’ use of his first name did nothing to assuage him. “But after your little performance in front of Judge Ortega yesterday, you have not left me much choice in the matter.”
The man stared him in the eyes before continuing, “Hear me now. Do not pull another stunt like that again without consulting Miss Clement and me. We do not like having the rug pulled out from under us without warning.”
Rex inhaled deeply, knowing that this battle was won. His mind raced ahead to the next, his grandfather. And as it always would, it returned quickly to her. His Nʉ Sʉmʉ. “Thank you, Mister Masters. And you have my word.” He slipped from the office, closing the door behind him.
Jaycee paced back and forth down the hallway. She opened the door and checked on her sleeping daughter several times. She would pause until she heard the raspy wheeze of her snores or could see the gentle rise and fall or her chest. If she did not, then she tiptoed into the room and softly laid a hand on Angel’s tummy until she felt the gentle rise and fall of her chest that confirmed the child was still breathing.
SUDEP, it was a horrible acronym. Sudden Unexplained Death in Epilepsy. It was also her worst nightmare. The possibility that her daughter would go to sleep and never wake up. It occurred in just one to two percent of those diagnosed with epilepsy, but they were almost all either children, teens, or young adults.
She shivered at the thought. It was not the first time. From Angel’s first seizure, Jaycee has scoured the internet seeking information and support. One place that she received that support was an online forum run by a national epilepsy foundation.
Her eyes filled with tears as she thought of that first night that they were home from the hospital. She had come across a posting on the forum that would stay with her forever. A mother wrote about putting her daughter to bed for her nap. The child had begged and pleaded for another story, but the mother refused and closed the door. When she went to wake her daughter, she was dead. The woman was filled with guilt, not only over the death but the story as well.
Jaycee swiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She had to stop thinking about the worst. But on days like this, it was virtually impossible to manage. Bad days always brought out the worst of her fears. Of course, there was no telling when Angel would have a bad day. Or why.
It did seem odd that her daughter’s seizure began the moment she had touched Mister Ranger, Rex. Then again, anything outside of her routine tended to upset Angel, and she was more likely to have the worst seizures when she got upset, tired, or sick.
She once again debated the advisability of returning to work, but the only other choice was a protracted legal battle with her ex-husband to increase the child support. And as Lupe reminded her, taking a few cases also gave her a small break from the almost constant care she provided for Angel.
She had to admit that it felt damned good to be back in the courtroom. It gave her a sense of control that was missing in her personal life. But this case might be more than she could handle. Already there had been days of depositions, two court appearances, and now this unexpected turn of events.
She played over in her mind the rest of her meeting with Rex Ranger. There was no denying that the man got under her skin. And into her mind, it seemed. How the man did that still bothered her. It was disturbing, having another person know what you were thinking all the time. All the time? Just how far did his gift go? Did he know what she was feeling now?
The soft vibration of her phone in the back pocket of her jeans made her jump. When she looked at the screen, her eyes widened. Rex. She pressed the button to accept the call, “Yes, Mister Ranger. I was just thinking about you, but I suppose you knew that.”
The deep chuckle on the other end of the phone did funny things to the butterflies that seemed to have taken up residence in her stomach since she met the man yesterday. Yesterday? She shook her head again.
“It does not work like that. When we are not together, it is not that clear. I only feel vague glimpses, the strongest of your emotions. A protective mechanism to know when our mates are in danger or need us.”
That information should have been reassuring to Jaycee. She had only to put distance between them to know that her thoughts were her own once again. What confounded her more was the idea of being protected, of anyone caring when she was upset or in danger. She had been battling alone for so long that the very thought of it brought fresh tears to her eyes.
She brushed them away and cleared her throat. “Yes, well, to what do I owe the privilege of your call, Mister Ranger?”
“Many things, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. Just to hear your voice, know that you are safe. To check on Angel. Is she feeling any better?” His soft Texas drawl washed over her like warm water in a bubble bath. Refreshing and relaxing at the same time. She reminded herself that she needed no one, least of all a stranger that she had met just twenty-four hours ago.
“My daughter is still sleeping. After those types of events, she often does for hours.” Jaycee tried to keep her voice business-like. Tried to keep the fence around her heart in place.
Why did he have to ask about Angel? She could talk to Sean, Angel’s father, and he would barely mention their child. But this man thought to inquire as if he genuinely cared. “I really should go and check on her again, Mister Ranger.” Jaycee tried to cut him short before he got any more under her skin, breeched that fence.
“Just one more thing, Jaycee. I spoke with my supervisor about the horses. He has okayed the deal. When would you like me to deliver them?”
Jaycee should have been happy. She had managed to protect her client’s interests. But at that moment, it felt like just another heavy burden on her shoulders, one that she feared might break her. But she could not admit that to this man.
“I guess tomorrow morning would be fine. If that works for your schedule, Mister Ranger. Or Hector has a truck and trailer. We could come there?”
She would much prefer to pick the animals up. He was unlikely to be so bold at his place of employment. If she were lucky, he might even be out on another case, and she could avoid him altogether.
“No, tomorrow morning will be fine. I want to make certain that they are settling,” he explained. “And there is someone I want you and Angel to meet, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”
“Fine, I will see you then.” She needed to get off the phone. Some other part of her begged and pleaded for just another minute with the deep baritone that calmed and soothed her soul. That petrified her.
“And Jaycee, try to get some rest. The exhaustion and worry beat at me,” he whispered.
Anger rose in her gut. How dare he? What did he know of her existence? Did he think it was that easy? Did he think that she wanted to wake a dozen times or more each night just to check that her daughter was still breathing? Did he believe as Sean and some of the doctors seemed to that she was over-reacting?
“I’ll just schedule a week at the spa, Mister Ranger.”
“I’d settle for a good night’s sleep. Preferably in my arms.”
“Not happening, so fuck off,” she spat as she heard Angel call for her. “I have to go. Angel is awake.”
“Of course, but Nʉ Sʉmʉ make no mistake, it will happen. And soon.”
His unshakable confidence disturbed her. The tiny butterfly that took flight from her tummy and seemed to settle somewhere in her chest, causing a tightness that felt oddly like want and need, appalled her even more.
“Good-bye, Mister Ranger,” she replied as coldly as she could manage.
“See you tomorrow morning.”
Rex felt the tension rising inside himself. His beast roared, and not even the presence of his grandfather in the truck beside him could quiet the monster.
The horses must have sensed the danger too because they had been uneasy in the trailer. Driving required all his concentration. If the horses shifted to one side, he needed to be ready to compensate, or the truck and trailer could turn over. He did not relish facing Tim Masters if anything happened to that one point two million dollars worth of horseflesh.
“Do you want to tell me what is going on?” Grandfather calmly brought the cardboard cup of coffee to his lips.
“It won’t be long now. The turn off is just ahead.” His grandfather’s piercing black eyes continued to bore into his soul.
“Tell me all that you know about skinwalkers, Grandfather.”
A rich chuckle came from the other side of the truck. “If our turn off is just ahead, son, then we do not have time for such things. Tell me what you wish to know.”
Rex pondered his response. He had not told his grandfather the real purpose of his visit. Despite everything that his senses had told him yesterday when he met the child, his mind still rebelled, doubted what he already knew. He did not want to prejudice his grandfather; he needed the man’s first reaction to Angel to be entirely his own.
“Has there ever been a female skinwalker?” Rex almost whispered the question that had been the center of his thoughts for the past twenty-four hours.
The old man studied him closer as if deciding how to answer the question, “Yes and no, my son. Yes, there have been some girl children born with the gift.” He paused, looking out the truck’s window at the field, passing them by.
“But these gifts are not easy to master. You of all people should know that. Being born with the gift is only a small portion of it. You must also embrace your gift and learn to use it properly. That is a lifetime process.”
Given all that had happened to him in the past couple of weeks, Rex had a new appreciation for how far he still had to go to embrace and master his own gift. “What happens if you don’t?”
His grandfather continued to stare out the window for several long moments. As it often did, his silence told Rex far more than words. When he turned back, his face was solemn, the lines of age and wisdom seemed to run deeper than it ever had. “That is not an option, my son. The consequences are too grave.”
Rex knew that his grandfather thought he was asking about himself, but before he could explain, he saw the turn-off. Driving required all his attention to make the left hand turn off the highway and then to travel the almost half a mile across the dirt road with three restless horses in the trailer. Besides, it was best if his grandfather’s first reaction to Angel was unclouded with his suspicions.
His heart leaped into his throat when he saw her working alongside Hector, preparing the corral, spreading fresh straw. He scanned the front porch until he saw Angel swinging with Señora Ramirez. The girl was using her feet and legs to kick, trying to make the massive porch swing sail far higher than it could. Disappointment shown in her face at her efforts.
He stopped the truck at the end of the circular driveway and opened his door, motioning for his grandfather to join him. Even before his boot hit the hard clay ground, her smell drifted upon the morning breeze to him. Not even the apple shampoo and soap could cover the smell of worry and exhaustion that clothed her like a heavy coat on a hot day.
He wanted to run to her, scope her in his arms, and carry her off to bed. Not to claim her as his body demanded though, but to lull her into the rest that she needed, to kiss away every single grave worry line in her forehead and erase the dark circles beneath those mesmerizing windows into her soul. He held himself in check, reminding himself that he did not have the right, not yet anyway. But soon.
He was so caught up in studying his woman, inspecting each inch of her after their long separation, that he almost missed the look of shock and awe upon his grandfather’s face. He had turned not to join Rex and his woman by the barn, but towards the house where the child sat swinging with her caretaker.
“Grandfather,” he called, but the man kept walking straight towards Angel. Rex was not surprised, but Jaycee seemed to be as she dropped the shovel in her hand and shimmied over the rough wooden boards of the corral. His hand shot out to capture her arm as she went past him.
“Let me go, you maroon. I need to get to my daughter.” She struggled in his arms as he drew her closer to his body. “Sex might be all you think about, but I have a child to consider. After yesterday.” She shook her head almost in accusation.
“My grandfather would never harm a child. Especially not your daughter,” he soothed as he kept his eye upon the old man.
Rex studied his grandfather as he stopped at the steps, kneeling upon the bottom one. He noted something unusual, a calm, almost adoration in Grandfather’s face. It reminded Rex of the stained glass in the church that his mother attended. The three wise men kneeling before the baby Jesus in the manager.
Rex held his woman back, giving his grandfather time alone with the child. But that was not easy as Jaycee twisted and turned in his arms, “I said let me go, Mister Ranger.”
“Please, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, give him just a moment with her. You have my word. He means her no harm.”
“Yeah, well, whether he means her harm or not, doesn’t matter with Angel. She doesn’t handle disruptions to her schedule too well or new people. You should know that after yesterday.” He could see the tears glistening in her eyes.
She brushed them off with the back of her hands, but that only succeeded in smearing dirt across her alabaster skin. The rough pad of his thumb repeated the motion erasing both the smear and her tears.
Jaycee forced herself to swallow the knot of fear that threatened to choke her. She had barely slept all night. Not only was she afraid to leave her daughter unattended after such a violent episode, but her mind could not seem to quiet the battle that raged inside. Things had gotten out of control. Again.
She was somewhat used to the lack of control she felt when it came to her daughter’s illness. While she still had not learned to accept it, she had been living with it for so long that it was a familiar enemy, perhaps the way people in war zones learned to live with terrorists.
When she decided to return to practicing law, she had not thought that she would be opening the door to let even more chaos into their lives. But it seemed that was what she had done with this case. And this man.
She took a deep, steadying breath as she watched the older man kneeling before her daughter. Granted, he seemed as harmless as Rex asserted, but still, it was not him that she worried about. It was her daughter’s reaction to him, to anything new or different in their small world. She sighed as the child smiled back at the man, they seemed to be laughing at something, even Lupe joined in the mirth.
She looked up into the handsome man, who haunted what few moments of sleep she had managed to get the night before. Every time her eyes closed, the dreams of him filled her mind. His lips hot against hers, his hands were caressing her body. Going further than he ever had, burrowing between her legs, he rubbed the tender flesh until she cried out and arched off the bed, a powerful orgasm draining her of all energy and calming her turbulent mind.
His forehead leaned against hers, “Fuck woman! Do not think about that when we are surrounded by people, when we have those horses to see to.”
Jaycee blushed a beet red as she remembered that this man could read her thoughts. What must he think of her? Of the wild and kinky fantasies that had never seemed to be a problem until he came into her life. “That’s it. It’s all your fault. You’re planting these ideas in my mind somehow.”
“Afraid not. Those fantasies are all yours, sweetheart. One day soon, I’ll share a few of my own with you, though.” His thumb brushed her cheek once more, and she fought everything inside of her to keep from leaning into the tender caress. “But right now, we need to get those horses out of the trailer and settled.”
“In a minute. I just need to check on Angel. See how she’s feeling. I mean, after yesterday…” Jaycee blushed as she admitted how vulnerable she felt. “I just need to make sure she is okay.”
Rex studied her for a moment. Those lips that had been so hot and firm in her dreams twitched a bit at the corners before turning up in a soft smile. “Alright. I want you to meet Grandfather anyway.”
She tried to think about anything except the delicious feel of his hand at the small of her back. It was protective and yet promised a thousand erotic delights at the same time. It was her turn to curse as she caught herself once more and knew from one sideways glance that he had heard every single thought. ‘One times one is one, one times two is two, one times three is three.’
Deep, rich laughter wrapped about her as his eyes caught hers, “And here I thought you would take to reciting line and verse of the law.”
“Yeah, well, that takes too much work to remember, and my brain doesn’t work that well when I’m around you.” Her hand flew to cover her mouth as she realized how much she had revealed to him with her words.
“It’s okay, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. Mine does not work so well around you, either.” His blond head nodded towards the truck and trailer. “I know we should get to those horses, but all I can think about is making you laugh, erasing those tiny worry lines that crease your forehead, and carrying you inside to that bed and re-enacting every single one of those erotic dreams of yours.”
His heavy sigh and slight smile did those funny things to her tummy again. “But there are too many people around, and those horses do need our attention. So, let’s go check up on Grandfather and Angel, then get our work done.”
They headed across the yard towards the small group on the porch. “Grandfather, may I present Jaycee Riley. Nʉ Sʉmʉ, I would like you to meet my grandfather, Raymond Greywolf.”
She studied the man as he held out a weathered and slightly misshapen hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said as she took it.
She shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot as the man’s dark eyes seemed to bore into her very soul. It was worse because of how vulnerable she felt knowing that his grandson read her every thought, his protective hand at the small of her back moved up to drape over her shoulder in a clear show of possession that had all three people on the porch smiling broadly.
“No, child, it is I, who am honored to meet you. I have waited long for this day, to know that my Rex’s soul is safe in the care of his mate.”
Jaycee would have protested the man’s wild assumption except for the bright light that shone in those eyes. What would it hurt to let him think what he liked if it brought him happiness? He looked like a man who had seen far too little of it in his lifetime.
He turned towards her daughter and held out his other hand. Angel stepped forward with a huge grin, “And this special one is but an added blessing from the Great Spirit. I am humbled and honored to count you both among our family.”
Jaycee opened her mouth to correct the man. She could not allow Angel to get caught up in this fantasy. But as her daughter’s tiny hand meet the mangled dark one, she felt a zing of power. Like a static electric shock but a thousand, hundred-thousand, times more powerful. If not for Rex’s arm about her shoulder and his other hand that came up to encircle her waist, she would have collapsed from the power of it.
“What the fuck?” She was shocked by it all that she forgot to filter her words around Angel. Her knees threatened to buckle as her eyes traveled back and forth between the older man and her child.
“See to the animals, my son. I will speak with your woman and child.” The man as he patted the wooden porch next to him. “Sit, my daughter, there is much I want to ask you.”
Panic welled up inside of her. Since the moment she laid eyes on Rex Ranger in that courtroom, she had felt that her life was spiraling out of control. Looking into the black depths of this man’s eyes, it felt more like water circling the drain, and she was just a couple of turns from being sucked under forever. She fought to breathe as fear of what lay on the other side of that drain consumed her.
Then she felt Rex’s strength holding her up, “No, grandfather. You take Angel inside for a bit. I will see to the horses and my woman.”
Rex exchanged a stare with the old man, and for a moment, Jaycee felt that perhaps they communicated in some unspoken manner. But that was crazy. As crazy as him reading her mind? She began to laugh hysterically.
Lupe looked at her oddly as she stepped forward, “Yes, Señor, I am sure that la niña would like to show you her room. She has many horses there, do you not, Angel?”
Her daughter beamed, actually glowed, at the man as she tugged on his arthritic hand. Jaycee squinted as for a split second, it seemed that the man’s fingers straightened under Angel’s touch. She shook her head. Nothing made sense in the world anymore. And she feared nothing ever would again.