It did not make sense. None of it made a lick of sense to Jaycee. She wanted to stop, to come to a screeching halt. This was crazy. Something out of an awful movie from one of those women’s channels. The heroine racing into the arms of the hero. But as stupid and asinine as it sounded, that was all she wanted. To feel his strong arms wrapped about her. To have him hold her and tell her that everything was going to be okay.
Even if she knew that it was not. Even if she still trembled and quaked from the carnage that she had seen with her own eyes this night. Even if every fiber of her being still feared that creature. Even if she was loathed to face the unknown that seemed to be stalking her and her daughter. That threatened everything she had re-built for them.
And like a stupid, silly woman, she just wanted to run into a man’s arms? Still, her feet kept running towards him. Eating up yards with each step. Bringing her closer and closer to her heart’s desire. Her eyes never left his face. His usually tan skin seemed paler. Was it the halogen lights from the police cruisers? Or perhaps had he honestly feared for her?
Cared? Even half as much as he said he did? ‘He is here, isn’t he, stupid?’ whispered a little voice in her that she dared not believe. It was the same voice that she had been battling since that first day in the courthouse.
Was it the voice of her girlish dreams that she had thought long since dead? Was it the voice of some weakness that dwelled deep within her, that sought a rescuer when she knew that no one would save her or Angel but herself? Or perhaps was it the heart of woman herself, crying out for what could not be?
But then they met somewhere in the middle. His arms went about her automatically. Not a single word was said. And everything was all right. For the first time perhaps that night, likely years, maybe even a lifetime, she felt safe. She felt secure. She felt truly home. She did not feel alone anymore.
That scared her even more than the lifeless, bloody carcass that lay broken and mangled in the barn. Still, she did not rouse. Instead, she buried herself deeper into him.
He smelled of sweat and man with just a hint of leather and mint. It was the oddest combination but comforting somehow. She buried her face into his chest just over his heart. Its steady beat just under her fingertips was the lullaby that, as a little girl, she had always dreamt a mother would sing to her each night. This was where she belonged. In this man’s arms. That was the only truth she knew at that moment.
She was not sure how long they stayed like that. It seemed an eternity but was not long enough as Rex just held her. His warm hand moved slowly up and down her back. The motion similar to the one that she had used when Angel was a baby to burp her, but it was more comforting than anything she could imagine.
Finally, after a long moment, he pulled back. Not much, and for that, she was eternally grateful because, after a night of such excitement and a lifetime of misery, she was not sure that she could stand on her own just then. The look on his face was grave even though he tried to force a smile. When he spoke, his one-word question said all that she ever needed to know about this man. “Angel?”
She wanted to laugh hysterically. She knew that tears she had been holding back for hours, for a lifetime, were gathering behind her too heavy eyelids. This man had staked his job, his career, on her ability to keep those horses safe. He had as much or even more riding on this. And his first concern was her daughter?
Of course, it was only natural that she be concerned for her only child. After Angel’s first seizure, Jaycee had grown accustomed to her father’s lack of interest in his child. So, why would this man, this stranger whom she barely knew? Why would he place her little girl’s safety above his career?
Her throat was tight, and her voice cracked when she finally found the strength to answer. “Lupe is with her. She is alright. Well, as good as can be expected with all the lights and noise.”
The smile that broke across his handsome face then was genuine, if weak. The hand that had been caressing her back landed soundly with a thud against her jean-clad bottom, sending a fine cloud of dust into the air. “That is for disobeying me when I told you to lock yourself in the house with her.”
Jaycee was not used to anyone telling her what to do. Certainly not a man. And despite all the hype from those books and that movie about kink, spanking did nothing for her. It never had. She shoved against his broad chest, trying to break away, trying once more to assert herself in this situation. Even if she wanted nothing more than to give him control. She struggled for a long moment against the steel bands of his arms. “Let me go.”
He chuckled, and the deep sound washed over her like cool water from a mountain spring trickling through the parched desert. “That, sweetheart, is something I will never do. And I will never again be so far away that I am helpless to be there for you when you need me, either.”
He bent and placed a soft kiss on her lips. The moment that his warm, soft lips touched hers, she moaned softly and opened for him. He did not need a second invitation as his tongue danced and warred with hers.
For the first time in hours, Jaycee felt alive again. Her body flamed with need, even though she knew almost a dozen people were milling about, perhaps even staring at them. She did not care. She wrapped her arms tightly about his broad shoulders and just hung on for the ride.
When he finally did break the kiss, his smile lit up the dark night and those hidden corners of her heart. “You go inside and check on our Angel. I’ll speak with the sheriff. See what else I can find out.”
She opened her mouth to argue. Then she realized something. She was about to argue with him over the very thing she wanted to do most. She would be arguing just for argument’s sake. For the past hour, she had wanted nothing more than to run to the relative safety of her home, to hold her little girl, and try to forget bloody mangled flesh. To just let someone else deal with this mess.
And here he was offering to do exactly that. Why was she arguing? Some misplaced sense of independence? Some ideal of women’s liberation that said she did not need a man? Well, she had. She had been thrilled to see Hector when he arrived, and even more glad to see this one. Honestly, she had been waiting for him to get here, sneaking glances at the road since even before the sheriff and his deputies arrived.
Jaycee was not foolish enough now to argue with him. Not when he offered the very thing that she wanted most. A break from all this. Instead, she closed her mouth and nodded her head. He smiled once more and bent to kiss her again. But this time, he kept it light. Just a brief peck on the lips as if to seal some bargain between them.
He released her from his arms then. For a moment, she felt unsteady on her feet. She wanted to turn back into the safety and warmth of his embrace. But she needed to see how her daughter was managing in all this chaos. Not well, she could be almost certain. That was a pity as she had been having a good couple of weeks since Rex had been visiting so often.
She was on the bottom rung of the steps when she realized that she had not told him what happened, what to expect in the barn. She turned back to look for him, but he was gone. Disappeared in the night. Just like that thing had done. It sent a chill up her spine to think of it.
Another quick scan of the area did not reveal him. Jaycee shrugged and turned back towards the house. He would soon discover the mess for himself. For now, she had another kind of mess to deal with – her child’s health.
Rex made his way towards the barn. Even without all the people milling about, his nose would have drawn him there. The smell of blood was overwhelming. It made his skin itch. It cried to the beast inside of him. And now, without her in his arms, that ugliness, which he had battled all night, was reasserting itself.
He ran into Hector first. He was leaning against the hood of one of the police cruisers. The older man looked like he had aged a decade since Rex had seen him just yesterday. His naturally darker skin tone was faded to a pasty white. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his shoulders slumped. Rex noticed that his hands were trembling as he wrung them together nervously.
When Rex put his hand on the man’s arm, Hector jumped. He let up a small squeal as his dark eyes met Rex’s. “Señor Rex,” he shook his head, “the sheriff says it was a wolf or a rabid dog. But I saw it. I saw it myself. That thing was no normal wolf and certainly not un perro.”
Rex felt guilt now combined with the helplessness that he had battled since he first heard her frightened voice on the phone. This was not how it should have been. He should not have sent this man to do his job. Protecting his girls was his responsibility.
Now this man was paying for it. The way the man’s voice broke as he spoke stood in testament to that fact. “Lo siento, I’m sorry, mi amigo,” was all that Rex could do now. And promise himself – never again.
The man shook his head that seemed greyer overnight. “It was a beast, Señor Rex. Chupacabra. It was una Chupacabra, Señor. I swear. Madre de Dios, I saw it myself. It had no hair, and its back stood up high. I saw the blood on its fangs, and I thought it was going for Miss Jaycee. Then it looked right at me and snarled. That sound was no animal. It was more like a wounded man crying out.”
Rex listened to every word, absorbed them as a new fear began to dawn inside of him. Was this his fault? Had he brought this creature to their door? Was it the bond that he shared with Jaycee that called this monster to his family? He did not have the answers, but the man that would was likely already on his way here now.
He squeezed Hector’s shoulder, “I believe you.” That was the problem. He did believe Hector. He knew the man told the truth or as much of it as he knew. Because Rex was one of the few people who knew the truth, the real truth about what or who the Chupacabra was. They were the monsters, the darkness, which lived inside of all skinwalkers. What he would become without her.
Had this creature who had embraced the darkness come just to steal his light? Nothing bothered the Chupacabra more than one of its kind finding the light. Had this one known somehow? Sensed it and come to take her from him? It was a fear that ate at the core of his happiness like a worm rotting the apple from within. Had he brought this danger to them? To Jaycee and Angel? Even to Hector and Lupe?
He did not have the answers. All he could do was wait. Well, not all. He inhaled deeply, but rather than calming him, it only made his skin itch more. Blood was thick in the air, but so was something else. Something that he could not describe. Something dark, wild, and deadly. He could not shake the feeling, it was coming for him. For them.
Each step was heavy and slow as he made his way towards the half-closed barn door. By the time he stood just outside of it, he too was trembling. Dread hung like a heavy cloak on his shoulders. He did not want to open that door. But he knew that he had to. He had to see what was inside. Had to face the horror that was stalking them. That threatened her.
His head was throbbing in time with his heart as he placed the palm of his hand against the weathered wood and shoved gently. It was the sound of ancient war drums calling him to battle, and he knew it. He knew fear too. Not fear for himself. Death never scared him. Whether the ancestors of his Grandfather or the heaven of his mother, he knew that death was nothing more than another stage of life.
No, what scared him was the thought of losing them. Losing her, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. Even though he knew she was safe in the house with Angel, he could smell her here still. Smell her fear. It hung like accusatory words in the air. ‘You should have been here. Where were you when I needed you?’
But there were other smells too. Blood was the strongest. Though looking around, he saw very little of it. For a murder scene, an animal attack. There was almost no blood to be seen as he walked slowly to where the sheriff crouched next to the dead animal. Rex looked at it. His heart slowed virtually to a stop. It skipped a beat, perhaps two, before it restarted that too fast, pounding drums of war again.
Despite the lack of blood, the dog’s throat had been ripped open violently. The odd angle of its head indicated that it was likely the beast had snapped its neck in the process. Its light blue eyes that showed its wolf-mix heritage were fixed open. Rex caught the unique whiff of the assailant. He memorized it. This thing that was threatening his family.
He dragged his eyes away from the dead dog and forced himself to hold out his hand towards the sheriff. He knew the man from his work.
“Rex, what are you doing here?”
It was probably best not to say anything about his professional interest in the horses. Instead, Rex replied, “I’m a family friend, and Jaycee called me when she heard the noise.”
The sheriff took a final photograph of the dead dog with his cellphone. “Same old story really: a wolf or coyote, maybe a rabid dog. The horses were probably its intended victims, but the dog got in the way.”
Rex realized that a dog this size would have put up more of a fight. Fared better even against a rabid animal. No, Hector was right. This did not make sense. But he knew better than to argue with this man. Legends like the Chupacabra had no place in police work or animal welfare. Even if he knew they were real.
No, it would be up to him as a skinwalker to protect his family. To find this creature of the darkness and end its misery. Because there was no other word for the life, it had chosen. This creature of darkness was evil. It craved death and destruction more even than food or water.
Even in its human form, the life he led would be depraved. He would enjoy hurting others, even those closest to him. There was no doubt. He had made his choice when he gave into the darkness, the need for power and blood. The thing, for it was no longer human really, must be killed. And that job fell to him alone now.
It was not a task he wanted or would enjoy, but it was one that must be done, nonetheless. Now that the thing had her scent, it would be back. Again and again. It would not give up. And Rex could not, would not, allow anything to happen to her. Not now, not ever.
Of course, he was not looking forward to the fight that was too come with the breaking dawn. When she saw his Grandfather drive up with the horse trailer in tow, he knew that all the running into his arms, just being held, and holding on tightly in return, would fly out the window, fast.
He would have to fight her as much as the Chupacabra to keep them safe. But he had an ace up his sleeve, and he was not ashamed to use it. His mate, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, would do anything to keep her daughter safe. Anything.
Jaycee came awake slowly. She smiled as she looked at her daughter curled up next to her, soft brown curls askew across the pink pillowcase. She was half-convinced that it had all been nothing more than a nightmare. A horrible nightmare. One she could never forget. The sight of that ‘thing’ with Blu’s neck in its jaw.
It, whatever it was, was the ugliest, scariest thing she had ever seen. In some ways, it looked like another dog or perhaps a coyote. But it was much larger than any dog or coyote she had ever seen or even heard of. It was closer in size to Angel’s pony.
That was not the worst part. It was completely hairless. Well, excepts for a couple of tuffs of thick hair that looked almost like a porcupine’s quills that stood up straight on its prominent backbone. Its eyes, even in the dark of the barn, they glowed yellow. It was like nothing she had ever seen.
Which was why it simply had to be a nightmare. A bad one. A different kind of suffering than her usual one. Losing Angel had haunted her since that first seizure, those she was used to. Whether the one where she was looking for her daughter in thick banks of fog, crying out for her, hearing her call back but never able to reach her. Or the one where she awoke to her daughter’s cold, blue, lifeless body next to her own.
The thought of that made Jaycee reach out her hand and brush her child’s forehead. Even though she could see the pink tinge in her cheeks and even watch the gentle rise and fall of her chest as she breathed, something inside of Jaycee forced her to touch Angel just to be sure. She was still warm, still alive. Even when Angel frowned and turned over in her sleep, shying away from the caress, nevertheless, the compulsion was there. Just to be absolutely sure.
She knew it was crazy. Perhaps the past few years, as her ex Sean claimed, had destroyed her sanity. But she was certainly not going to admit it to the man or anyone else. She was not going to give him grounds to take the only thing that mattered to her – her daughter.
She blushed then as she remembered the other part of that dream. Him. Rex Ranger. He had been in it too. He had come when she called. No questions asked. And he had held her. She had felt safe in his arms. But she knew that was just a dream too. There was only one person she could count on: herself.
She bit back the guilt. That had not been true either. Hector was there in her dream, too. He had shown up just as that thing had taken its first step towards her. He had his shotgun also. He had gotten off a couple of rounds.
One she swore had hit the thing in its shoulder, but she must have been wrong because the creature had not so much as flinched. Instead, it had stood there, its back growing even more prominent if that was possible. Then it had let out the most unearthly howl she had ever heard before bounding off through the open barn door, right past the two of them.
She shook her head. Coffee. She needed a nice cup of hot, black coffee. The magic elixir of the gods. She stood up and stretched. She was still in her dusty jeans and t-shirt from yesterday. She never went to bed, fully dressed. Well, not in a while. She had done that very thing for months after Angel’s first seizure.
She had been so frightened that she wanted to ready, should her daughter have another one during the night. But she had stopped doing that once they were given the emergency medication and told not to bring her to the hospital unless they could not get the seizure to stop. After using the medicine a couple of times and the attacks stopping almost immediately, she had relaxed a bit, taken back to wearing nightgowns, though not the sexy, see-through things that Sean liked.
Maybe that had been another reason for the divorce? Not that she cared. She did not need him; she rarely even thought about her ex anymore. Other than when he instigated another court proceeding.
It was always the same thing. He wanted more custodial rights over Angel, which was ironic given that he rarely took advantage of the ones he had already, canceling more visits than he kept. And, of course, less money, less child support. That was the real thing. Sean loved two things – money and power. He always had. More than he ever loved her or their child.
She stretched her too tired and stiff muscles. Her back hurt. Probably from the way that she had slept. A single Princess canopy bed was not made for two people.
Coffee. That would put everything to right in this world, not thoughts of ex-husbands or creatures in the night or seizures. She bent and kissed Angel’s forehead before she headed into the kitchen.
There was almost a full pot of fragrant coffee. See, everything was fine. She must have remembered to set the timer on the damned thing. All just another bad dream. She poured some into her favorite cup, the extra-large one.
She cupped the mug lovingly between both hands as she headed out to the front porch. That was her favorite place to drink her morning coffee, watching the sun come up. On those rare mornings like this one when she woke up before Angel, that was.
She frowned as she threw open the front door. The sun was higher in the sky than it should be, much higher. By the looks of it, it was mid-morning, nine at least, probably closer to ten. But that was not all that was wrong. There was an unfamiliar truck sitting in the driveway. With a horse trailer attached.
Panic rose inside of her. Something must have happened. They had come for the horses. Why had Rex not warned her? Because no matter what he says, a career is more important than a few stolen kisses. Hadn’t Sean taught her that lesson well enough? If her ex’s job came before her or even their sick child, then, of course, this stranger owed her no loyalty.
She took a deep swig of the coffee, even though it burned her tongue and throat. She would need the caffeine jolt for whatever battle lay ahead. She had started down the steps just as she saw him emerge from the barn with one of the thoroughbreds on a halter.
Her heart froze behind her breastbone for a moment. Not warning her was one thing, but coming to take the horses himself only deepened the betrayal. Although why she should care was not something she wanted to think about.
She charged across her front yard, coffee sloshing over the sides of the cup, but she barely registered the pain of the scalding burn. “What do you think you are doing, Mister Ranger?” They met face-to-face near the open back of the trailer.
He stared at her. His handsome face was devoid of the smile to which she had become accustomed. He was all business, and she read the determined set of his mouth. It was a side of him that she had not seen lately, not since their first couple of meetings.
She planted her feet firmly apart as if daring him to pass her. She wanted to put her hands on her hips, but the cup of coffee she was holding prevented that. She thought for half of a second about throwing the damned thing right in his face. “I said…what are you doing?”
Even knowing that this battle was inevitable, Rex did not relish it. He did not like arguing with her. Those lips were meant for kissing, not fighting. But the longer he delayed the inevitable, likely the worse it would be. Besides, the sooner they were on the road and away from this place, the better he would like it.
He was tired and on edge. The scent of that monster taunted him, a constant memory of what might have been. All that he could have lost. He had not slept at all last night. Even once the sheriff left, he and Hector had dug a hole to bury the dog. Blu, he remembered its name at last. He knew that the dog’s death would upset Angel, but he did not want the child to see what had happened to her pet.
Then together with Lupe, he had soothed Jaycee, convincing her that they would handle everything. That she needed a couple hours of sleep at least. For Angel’s sake.
For Angel’s sake. That was his ace card in all this. “I am packing the horses up.”
“I can see that. But why? Why have you suddenly changed your mind about me fostering them until my client’s case comes to court?”
“After last night, well…”
He watched the color drain from her face. It went from angry and animated to pale and frightened. He watched the cup drop from her trembling fingers. He saw her knees begin to buckle and dropped the horse’s reigns without thought. He reached out for her arms just in time to keep her from falling into a puddle in the dusty dirt driveway. Those big eyes of hers stared up into his, “I thought it was all a nightmare.”
Rex cursed under his breath. He preferred her angry and fighting mad to this. It brought all those feelings of guilt and failure crashing back on him. He tried to clear his mind, but the smell of the evil that was haunting them still hung in the air like a miasma that he could not shake. He needed to get them away from this place, now.
That was what he said without preamble, “I am taking you and Angel someplace, where I can keep you safe.”
She shook her head and opened her mouth to protest, but Rex was in no mood for arguing. He wanted out of there, had needed it for hours but not enough to wake her. One of them needed a few hours’ sleep, that was for sure. Given the danger they faced now.
“I do not want to argue with you, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. If you will not do this for yourself or me, then do it for Angel. What if that thing last night had come after you? What if it had broken your neck and torn out your throat instead of Blu’s? What then? What would become of Angel? Who would have taken care of her then? Your ex? Would he have given up everything to make sure she has the best care possible the way you have?”
Rex knew he was tough on her, perhaps too harsh. He might even be destroying some of the fragile trust that they had built up this past couple of weeks. He might regret this later. But he was tired, on edge, and all he wanted right now was to get his family as far from this place as possible.
He hated himself, even more when she dropped her head, but not quickly enough that he did not see the unshed tears glistening in her eyes. He felt the fight leave her body as her shoulders slumped beneath his fingertips. But when she finally spoke after a moment, it was a whisper, “What can I do to help?”
He smiled, even though it was strained. “Grandfather and I can manage the horses and Angel’s pony. You pack whatever the two of you need. We leave as soon as she wakes up.”
“For how long?” She looked up at him through those unshed tears.
He gave her the only answer he had. “Take anything and everything she needs, Jaycee. Or might possibly want because you are not coming back here. Not until I can be certain it is safe.”
Likely not even then, he thought but dared not give her that much of the truth. They were his now. His responsibility, his to protect and care for. Never again would he be so far from them when they needed him. When they were in danger.
He could see that she wanted to argue once again, but she did not. Instead, she simply nodded her head and turned silently back towards the house. He wanted to go after her. Hold her close in his arms as he had last night. He knew that he could not. Not now, anyway. She did not want his comfort now. And he had more pressing matters as he grabbed the horse’s reigns and saw his Grandfather leading the stallion from the barn.
He had things to do. To make them safe or as safe as he could with that ‘thing’ stalking them. Because one thing he knew beyond a doubt – it would find them again. Once a Chupacabra had a scent, there was nowhere safe. But next time he faced it, it would be on his terms.