This week you get 2 chapters of Bear Fate at once! I have decided that fewer emails and longer excerpts would work better. If you have a strong opinion either way, please let me know.

Amber is back in Success. She and Lance finally get some quality time together, and we spend an evening in the stable block.

As always, I love hearing from you and look forward to your comments. Enjoy the chapter and the jigsaw. Let me know what you like and don’t like in the story. Typos are gratefully acknowledged and fixed.

<<<CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

 

“Hank’s isn’t that bad.” Patrick cut in before Amber could ask Calvin Bascom just what kind of a girl he thought she was.

Not that she cared a plugged nickel for what that stuffed shirt thought of her. Calvin was even worse than the men in her clan, without having the slightest right to comment on her behavior or choices.

“I’ve spent a lot of happy hours at Hank’s myself.” Patrick sounded amused by his cousin’s remark. He bent to kiss Heather. “Our girls look great this morning, darling. You get to feed one of them in twenty minutes.”

Immediately Heather looked less tired. Patrick offered a hand to Amber who stood up and kissed him on his bristly cheek. She had to make an effort to get on better terms with Heather’s husband. At least Patrick looked as if he had been up all night worrying like a decent man, instead of like a fashion plate without a care in the world.

Amber glared at Calvin but directed her words to Patrick. “How’s it going? I can’t wait to meet my nieces.”

A bulging muscle twitched in Calvin’s big square jaw. He didn’t care for being left out of the conversation. Good. What did he know about the simple pleasures of a working man’s life? It was hardly Lance’s fault that she was a bear. Or that out of a roomful of hardworking, respectable folks, some strange snake shifter had picked her to harass.

Lance had been alert enough to take care of her. He could have sat waiting at their table while Blondie sliced her face open. And instead of being thankful that Lance had saved her from a thug, Calvin had nothing but criticism.

“You better start walking, if you want to get to the NICU in time for that feeding,” Patrick told Heather. “No wheelchairs today, sweetheart. Nurse’s orders.”

“Good. I’m pretty steady on my feet now. Amber stood outside while I had my shower. But I didn’t get dizzy or wobbly.”

“Hmm.” Patrick exchanged a worried glance with Amber and then stared at Calvin until he got the message and stalked into the hall.

Amber got Heather’s housecoat out of the closet while Patrick helped her put her slippers on and stand up. He tenderly folded the pink fleece robe around his wife, hovering at her elbow as if he expected Heather to faint.

“Right after the babies were born, I was so lightheaded that I passed out,” Heather explained.

“Lying down,” Patrick cut in when Amber couldn’t suppress a horrified gasp.

“Just once,” Heather said.

“I wish I had known that before I stuffed you in the shower,” Amber responded.

“I’m much better. I just need to get some sleep.” Heather began to shuffle towards the door. Patrick walked beside her, concern in every line of his body.

* * *

“Welcome back,” Lance said as Amber came bustling into the stable block.

Big dark faces looked out of the stalls and Buddha nodded at her. Amber scratched the stallion’s nose. “Thank you,” she murmured. Lance stood so close to her that they were almost touching, but she didn’t feel crowded. Apparently he was the one man who could stand as close as he pleased.

“How was your sister?”

“Pretty good – considering she had just had three babies.”

“I thought you were going to stay for a while.”

Amber moved off toward the back wall and the row of hanging pitchforks. Lance followed. “I was, but the babies are still in intensive care. Heather wants me to come to stay when they’re all home.”

“I hear all three are girls.”

“Yup. Want to see?” She pulled out her cell.

“Of course.” He admired Stella, Hope and Bethany in their incubators. “They sure do look tiny. But cute as a bug’s ear.”

Amber nodded. “Everyone says they are doing fine, but all they do is sleep.”

“I think that’s normal for babies,” Lance reassured her. “You get started in Lane three. I want you to tell me what you notice about Sissy.” Sissy was Alberta’s Silver Scilla. The bay mare was due to give birth.

Amber had been working with the big mare for two weeks. Now she shifted Sissy to one side of the stall so she could muck out. She rapidly filled her wheelbarrow with soiled straw. The horse’s huge belly was even more swollen than it had been two days earlier. And she smelled stronger. But given the quantity of horse apples in the straw, Sissy was still eating her usual amount of silage, or maybe a little more. She began tucking into the fresh hay Amber provided even before it was properly distributed in the manager.

Lance appeared in the doorway. “Well?”

“She’s bigger. And hungrier.” Was that it? Or was it the smell thing?

“And?” He was grinning.

Amber shook her head. “Let me groom her and ask again.”

“Okay.” He slipped away. She heard him greet the Boss’ gelding Dakota in a soft croon.

Sissy’s glossy dark flanks were muscular. Her chest was broad and strong. Her shoes were in good shape. Her ears were clean. No burrs were stuck in her mane or tail. She did have a small amount of discharge dripping down her hind legs. That was new and the source of her stronger smell. It was probably what Lance was expecting her to find. If she remembered correctly, discharge meant that Sissy would foal soon.

She combed the mare’s long tail with extra care and braided it in preparation for the labor. Sissy normally enjoyed being groomed. But today she was impatient with the brush and curry comb. She kept swishing her tail in Amber’s face. It stung. Particularly when it struck directly across her eyes. But she got the job done.

Lance’s voice made her jump. “Well?”

“She’s in labor, right?”

“Just about. Tonight, or maybe tomorrow night. Would you like to stand watch with me this evening?”

“I’d love that.” She hesitated. “I guess I’ll have to go in to the sheriff’s office today and explain about that fight at Hank’s.”

Lance patted her shoulder. “I’ll go with you after stables. I have to sign my own statement. Believe me, the Sheriff would wait much longer than this for you to do that paperwork. I told him that the Bascoms had flown you to Washington State to be with your sister.”

“What difference does that make?”

Lance only grinned at her. Well, duh. What had she thought? The Bascoms could do as they pleased in Success, Colorado.

Amber was still a little nervous when they got to the sheriff’s office. She was glad Lance was in the room too. Of course it wasn’t giving a statement or the sheriff that had made her uneasy. It was the probable consequences of giving testimony against a snake shifter that frightened her.

She was more than a little surprised when the sheriff told her Orville Sutton was still in the County Lockup. She had half-expected that the snake would have slithered off by now. It was all too easy for a snake to slip off. The narrowest crack or vent would do.

“The judge set his bail at ten grand,” Ramirez told them. “I guess that was too high for Mr. Sutton. At any rate, he hasn’t posted bond.”

Lance grunted and his lips tightened.

“What about his friend? That guy Dog?” Amber asked. Although he wasn’t a shifter, Dog smelled like trouble too.

“Mr. Sutton’s associate has left the county,” Ramirez said. “We came up empty on his name, which could either mean that he’s clean, or that Mr. Sutton lied about his buddy’s true name.”

That information was altogether too vague to suit Amber. Neither of those jerks had struck her as the forgiving type. “Do you know where Dog is now?”

“Nope. We don’t have the manpower to put a deputy on a citizen with no outstanding warrants,” Ramirez explained. “However, much we’d like to.”

“Well, do you know where they are from?” Lance asked.

“Mr. Sutton’s driver’s license was issued in Illinois. He has only a couple of misdemeanors to his name. No current employment, but that’s not a crime.” Ramirez sounded as dissatisfied with his sketchy facts as Amber felt.

It was obvious the Sheriff’s Department had been unable to adequately trace Blondie. That was a red flag all by itself. These days the internet could track anyone alive. Anyone could be thrown out of work, but the absence of a job combined with his patchy background, indicated that Blondie bore watching.

Amber looked between Ramirez’s big stern face and Lance’s even graver expression. They were both uneasy about Blondie and Dog, without quite knowing why. But she could hardly blurt out that Sutton was a snake. Briefly, she wished she were back in French Town among bears.

Ramirez had been taping their conversation. He asked a few more questions before he turned off his phone. He was obviously mentally reviewing Amber’s answers against what she had said and he had seen on Saturday. He must have decided it was close enough. He stood up. “I’ll have this typed up. I suggest you folks go get some lunch. Come back in an hour or so to sign it.”

* * *

Lance ended his call. “Carlos knows we won’t be back for at least another couple of hours. Can I buy you lunch?”

“I’d like that.”

So would he. Even if the occasion wasn’t ideal. The diner was empty except for the usual table of old men who were spending the day gossiping as they did rain or shine. Lance nodded politely to them as he escorted Amber to a booth in the corner. Not that there was any such thing as privacy at the only coffee shop in town.

Amber gazed around at the red vinyl booths, at the counter with its row of stools and revolving glass and chrome pie safe. She looked bemused, as well she might. This place was a relic of the 1950’s, not because retro was hot, but because it was the genuine article. The Blue Moon Cafe was slightly shabby from years of use, but in good repair.

“What would you like?” he asked. “Something hot?”

Amber’s eyes went to the old green milkshake machine behind the counter. She leaned across the table and spoke softly. “I’d sure like a milkshake if that machine isn’t just for looks.”

“It worked the last time I came in here.”

“The one at the French Town diner packed up when I was sixteen.” She sighed. “No one could fix it, and Lester – that’s the owner – claimed it was too expensive to replace. For the last few years it has just sat on a shelf next to the chrome toaster with the flip sides and a kettle shaped like a sixties headlight. Just a memory of its glory days.” It was an amusing comment, but she didn’t seem amused. There was sadness back of her eyes that no broken milk shake machine had put there.

The middle-aged waitress came over with her notepad and a couple of menus. Lily was wearing her usual pink uniform with a white apron. “Hey, Lance,” she greeted him cheerfully.

“Howdy, Lily. Have you met Amber? She’s hired on at the stud.”

“Hey, Amber. She the one you took to the dance Saturday night?” Lily’s eyes were avid.

“I am,” Amber said distinctly. “Unfortunately, the evening did not end as we intended.”

“I guess not. Either of you know the guy who pulled the knife?”

“No, ma’am.” Amber’s voice was soft and sweet. “I guess he was just some ornery drunk. The sheriff says he’s not from around here.”

Balked, Lily switched tactics. “Where are you from, honey?”

“Washington State.” Amber gave the waitress a big smile that didn’t touch her eyes.

“Oh, yes.” Washington struck no chord with Lily. She lost interest. “What can I get you folks?”

“I’ll have burger, a salad, and a vanilla milkshake, please.”

“I’ll have the same,” Lance said. “But make my shake chocolate.”

Lily trotted off and left them alone. “Sorry about the interrogation,” Lance said.

“It would be the same back home,” Amber confessed. “Everybody knows everybody. And everybody’s nosy.”

“Small towns. Ya gotta love ‘em. You just wait till Lily takes her coffee pot across to the coffee klatch.” He indicated it with his chin. “As soon as she tells them your name, and where you’re from, she’ll be back to find out if you’re connected to the gal who married Mr. Patrick.”

“I guess people around here are interested in anything the Bascoms do. I didn’t expect that when I came out here.”

“Yup. The Bascoms are the movers and shakers in this town, and a perennial source of gossip. When Lily asks about your sister, show her those photos of the babies. Brag on them a bit.”

“Divert her you mean?”

“I do.”

She smiled. This time her blue eyes sparkled. He figured he should take advantage of her having settled down. “Do you want to tell me why you are so upset about the prospect of testifying against Blondie?” he asked.

“He struck me as the kind of guy who’s vindictive,” she said slowly. “If he isn’t convicted…” Her voice trailed off.

“Yeah. A fellow who whips out a knife when a woman defends herself, sure has a king-sized chip on his shoulder.”

“Pulling his knife when I stomped on his foot was out of proportion,” she said. “But so was grabbing me just for saying I didn’t want to dance. The more I think about it, the weirder he seems.”

She had that right. Lance was uneasy about that pair, and wasn’t about to let his guard down. It wasn’t as if the county borders were defended by razor wire and machine guns. Dog could slip back into the area and no one would be the wiser.

“What if he comes after me – or us?” she whispered.

“We’ll keep an eye out. Luckily the stud has good security. We had a little trouble with rustlers and saboteurs last year, so Steve stepped up our defenses. There are cameras everywhere.”

“Really?”

“Really. You’ve seen the bank of screens in the tack room.”

“I thought that was for monitoring the mares in labor,” she said.

“That too. But there’s no part of the facility that doesn’t have surveillance. We had someone take a chisel to our barn roof last spring. A couple of bales of hay got soaked clean through.”

Amber nodded soberly. “Wet hay can smolder. Was there a fire?”

“Nope. We noticed the damp hay and got it outside in time.”

“Was that part of the trouble that Laura’s cousin made?”

“I guess you’ve heard about that?” Lance was unsurprised.

“Just gossip,” she admitted. “At least six people have told me that the Belingtons are banned from the ranch, and that one of them is actually in jail for trying to kill the boss.”

“All true. Nolan Belington was trying to get control of Miss Laura’s property. He hired himself a pack of scoundrels to steal her stock and wreck her business.”

“Gosh.” Amber’s eyes were round.

“But Steve and Laura caught the rustlers,” he said quickly. “And we got the guy who made those holes in the barn roof. He turned out to be a disgruntled stable hand. Cody Saunders was fired for laziness and a bad attitude. Now he’s in jail too. Anyway, Steve decided that Miss Laura’s security needed beefing up and he did a thorough job of it. Be damned hard for Dog or anyone else to sneak up on any part of the stud.”

“That’s a comfort,” she said. But she didn’t look comforted.

“I’ve met losers like Blondie and Dog and they are all the same under the attitude: it’s always someone else’s fault that they are in trouble,” he said. “But we’ll be careful and keep an eye out for them.”

“My Uncle Pierre always says that learning to take responsibility for your actions is what turns a child into an adult.”

“Your Uncle Pierre sounds like a wise man,” he said. And just like his own granddaddy.

“Uncle Pierre is the head of our family,” she replied. She pulled out her phone and showed him a photograph of a tall, broad, mustached man whose straight back belied his white hair and wrinkles. “There’s not much he doesn’t know about human nature.”

He almost took his wallet out and shared his snapshot of Tommy Jeff. But Lily returned with their shakes and the moment passed.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

This wasn’t a date. He had to keep reminding himself that tonight he was just teaching Amber her job. But after supper he still got out his razor and had a shave. What the hell. A fellow ought to be prepared for his luck to change. He had a shower and put on a clean shirt.

He got to the stable early and dismissed Dusty. He cast a disapproving eye on the way the other hand had made up the tack room cot and swiftly remade it so it would pass inspection. There was no excuse for sloppiness. Then he sat down before the monitors to observe the horses and wait for Amber to come. It wasn’t a date, but it sure felt like one.

* * *

She had meant to lie down and have a nap before she went back to the stable block. But by the time she had cleaned up after supper and spent a half hour on the phone with Heather, she no longer felt like she could fall asleep. She had settled for reading quietly until just before eleven.

At a quarter to she washed her face and combed her hair. She was tempted to change into something more glamorous than her flannel work shirt and oldest jeans. Maybe put on some lipstick. But she had to guard against that. No matter how Lance had looked at her, no matter how he smelled, this was not a date. She had been invited to help oversee the birth of a foal not to canoodle.

This was part of her job – probably the most important part. Healthy foals were a necessity on a stud. Of course, the foals the mares were giving birth to this spring were not of Laura’s breeding. The mares were carrying the foals that had been conceived when they had been bred last year. They would have been sent to a different stud, where they would have given birth to the previous year’s foals before being serviced.

For all that Laura seemed genuinely attached to her horses, the Bascom Quarter Horse Stud was a business. Laura bred and trained her horses for sale. Laura did breed her own stock, but Sissy was not one of her own mares. If Alberta’s Silver Scilla lost her foal, Laura’s reputation would suffer and so would her pocketbook.

Sissy had been sent to the Bascom Quarter horse stud to be bred to Laura’s stallion Buddha. The breeding would take place as soon as she came into estrus, which would be within six to twelve days of giving birth. Which was why the mares did not give birth at home unless they were being artificially inseminated.

By the time Amber got out to the stable block, most of the lights had been dimmed to permit the horses to sleep. Mares generally gave birth in the dark. But naturally human beings needed lights in order to help. Dim lights had been set low on the walls so that they barely illuminated the lanes between the horse boxes.

Amber went into the tack room to hang up her parka. Lance was seated in the swivel chair at the desk, looking at the video screens. The cameras panned slowly over each doorway and each horse box. The horses were sleeping – some standing up and some lying down. Now that she knew about the security aspect, she could see that the cameras moved relentlessly over every area no matter how deep in shadow.

Lance looked up and smiled his crooked smile at her. He was wearing his eye-patch and his hair was a little mussed as if he had been lying down. But the narrow tack room cot was made up military fashion with tight hospital corners, and the coverlet lay taut over the pillow. Maybe he had forgotten to smooth his hair after he took off his watch cap.

She slipped off her parka and hung it in her locker. “What do we do now?”

“Sissy is fast asleep. I don’t know if it’s going to be tonight after all. There’s no point going over to her stall and disturbing her until she gets restless.” Lance waved an arm towards a stool. “Sit beside me and we’ll keep watch together.”

Amber pulled up the stool beside Lance’s chair. “I hadn’t realized how many cameras there were in the stable block.”

Lance nodded. “There are cameras on every horse box and on all the entrances – inside and out. And a couple scanning the training rings as well. Steve did a good job.”

Amber had been listening to the whispers and the gossip in the lunchroom for two months, so she knew that Laura’s husband was a hotshot executive in a big security company. She also knew that Laura had married a distant cousin. Steve Holden had turned out to be one of Clive Bascom’s descendants – just like her own Grandma Shirley. For sure Laura’s great-grandpa had been a randy, careless son of a bear.

Steve Holden liked to spend his weekends playing with the horses. Not that training them was a casual activity, but everyone had emphasized from the beginning that the horses were supposed to enjoy what they were being taught. And that worked best if the people teaching them enjoyed themselves too. So far Amber had only been allowed to watch as the yearlings were taught to walk on a line with a bridle. In fact, except for mucking out and grooming, mostly what she did was observe. Well, it made sense. She had a lot to learn. She settled herself quietly beside Lance to do just that.

Lance indicated the smaller of two screens. “I’m going to put this camera right on Sissy. If she wakes up we, will go check on her. Sometimes they surprise you. And there are four other mares who could go into labor unexpectedly.”

Amber knew that there was always someone in the stable block keeping watch during the birthing season. The mares were simply too valuable to waste time getting dressed and coming over from the living quarters after trouble was spotted. The tack room was pleasant enough – and you could in theory watch from the bed. But Amber was grateful that Lance did not seem to want to lie down. He fiddled with his mouse and the array of tiles on the larger screen popped up four larger images that displayed sleeping mares.

“So what do we do if one of them does go into labor?” she asked.

“We go stand in the stall with her and watch. Usually a foal just slips out. We generally give the mother a hand cleaning up her baby and we like to disinfect them both – it prevents complications down the road. But at the first sign of trouble, tonight we’ll be calling Freddie.”

Amber already knew that Laura’s dad Dr. Freddie Bascom was a veterinarian. But obviously he could not keep watch every single night. There was a roster, and everyone took turns. So far Amber had not been scheduled for night watches. But that was because no one thought she was experienced enough. Which she hoped was about to change. She couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of watching a foal being born.

“What do you mean disinfect them?” she asked. Surely foals were born sterile?

“You never know what germs are floating around an apparently clean stable. And even after the mom licks them clean, they need a wash. To be on the safe side, we wipe the mares off after they give birth. And once the mares have eaten the afterbirth and licked their foals, we dip the babies in the disinfectant too. And then we clean out all the old straw, swab down the stall floor and replace the straw.” Lance chuckled. “It’s not a glamorous operation, Amber, but you’re going to love it.”

“I thought horses just dropped their foals without any real discomfort or hazard? After all they evolved to give birth outside, and alone, in the dark.”

“And pretty much they do,” Lance assured her. “But every now and again the foal presents wrong. Or the mare has twins. Or she spends too much time in labor. That’s when we need an equine midwife. Carlos and Laura and I are pretty good at it, but Dr. Freddie is the expert. Don’t worry, I’ve been working here for seven years, and we’ve never lost a mare or a foal yet.”

“How did you happen to start working in the stable?” Amber asked.

His drawl was more pronounced, but his voice was easy as he told her, “When I got discharged from the Marines, I heard some scuttlebutt about a place in Colorado where you could almost guarantee been given a job if you were a veteran. I was at loose ends, and there didn’t seem to be a place at home for a wounded vet. So I moseyed over to check out those rumors and found out that they were all true. I was hired to work on the ranch, but Miss Laura needed a stable hand and she asked me if I liked horses. I sure do, so here I am.”

She could tell that there was a lot more to his story than his lighthearted explanation suggested. But all she said was, “Where are you from originally?”

“Tennessee. Duneden, Tennessee.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Well I’d never heard of French Town.” There was a laugh in his voice and she smiled back. “Duneden was its own place once, but these days it’s pretty much a bedroom community for Nashville. Lot of subdivisions now. But when I was a boy there were still lots of horse farms, and you could earn some pocket money helping out whenever they were shorthanded.”

“Does your family still live there?”

“Are you kidding? My family have been there so long, they’ve grown roots into those hills.”

Amber nodded and shared his grin. “That’s not such a bad thing. My sister flatly refused to move away from Yakima Ridge and our kinfolks.”

“So what made you decide to pick up and leave?”

Amber shrugged. “I was ready for a change. I love French Town, and I love the Pacific Northwest, but I got tired of being the poor relation.” What had made her say that? She had had no intention of revealing so much.

Lance’s voice was surprised. “Hard to imagine Mrs. Patrick Bascom’s twin sister being anyone’s poor relation.”

“I’m not married to Patrick Bascom.” And while no one in French Town was exactly rich, she and Heather had grown up having to be grateful for too damn much stingy charity.

“Fair enough. What did you do before you came here?”

“I clerked in the hardware store.”

“This must be a big change.”

“It is, and it isn’t. There’s not much difference between sweeping out the stable block and sweeping out the hardware store on Saturday evening. But I have to say, I like the horses better than I liked our customers.” A lot more.

Lance chuckled. “You seem to have a way with them.”

His praise made her feel warm. Before she could respond, a movement on the screen caught his eye. He adjusted the smaller screen. Sissy was still fast asleep. But one of the other pregnant mares was standing. Bitsy moved restlessly and her tail swished from side to side. She nibbled her belly and stamped her feet.

“She’s probably just fine, but we should go and check on her to be sure. Sometimes they just move around – I guess the foals kick and it gets uncomfortable for the mom.” Lance pushed back his chair and stood up. “But sometimes that biting means they’re having contractions. Sometimes it’s only flies.”

Lance pulled out a small but powerful flashlight and scrutinized the straw in Bitsy’s stall.

“What are you looking for?” she asked him.

“Any kind of discharge.”

Amber sniffed the air. It smelled pleasantly of horse and dung with a small overlay of piss. In other words, normal for a stable. But she could hardly tell Lance that now that she knew what to watch for her nose would have picked up on any new discharge. Bitsy raised her head sleepily and accepted having her muzzle and ears scratched. Lance crooned at the mare and checked her hindquarters.

“I don’t see any sign of wet. I think she was just getting comfortable. Go back to sleep, girl.” He snapped off the light. The mare blew down his neck, folded her legs and settled back down in the deep straw. As they returned to the tack room, he pointed with the flashlight to what Amber had assumed were sparrows’ nests. “Those are the cameras,” he said. “While we’re on our feet, we might as well check on Sissy.” He led the way to her stall.

They stood side by side looking over the barrier at the sleeping mare. Lance did not turn on his flashlight. “All those cameras can be viewed from the big House as well as the tack room,” he told her, “And from the Diego’s place too.”

This was the third time he had indicated that there were cameras watching them. Was he telling her that she was safe from his attentions, or explaining why he wasn’t acting on his low-level arousal. Because his scent was the scent of a man who liked what he saw.

This is material not previously published. ©Isadora Montrose, 2017

CHAPTER EIGHT>>>