Welcome back! Since most of you prefer more chapters less frequently, this week we have Chapters 8 and 9. A bit of Amber’s back story is revealed. Calvin shows up again, and I hope you will begin to see that he is not entirely one dimensional.
All the previous chapters (1-7) of Bear Fate are still available on my blog. To read the previous chapter, just click on the blue link at the top of each new chapter. Or go to Blog on the website header and scroll down as far as you need to.
A big thank you to everyone who has caught my typos and thinkos. Please do not refer to yourselves as nitpickers! You are contributing to a smoother, more consistent narrative, and I really appreciate your corrections.
Enjoy the puzzle and let me know what you think of these chapters!
“I’ll just take a gander at the mares before I turn in, son.” Calvin’s father yawned and stretched before getting out of his armchair. Cal nodded at Dad. It might be hours past Freddie’s bedtime, but taking a last look at the stables before bed was an ingrained habit. At least Dad didn’t actually have to make the long, cold trek to the stud anymore. Cal set his brandy glass down and followed his father over to the bank of screens above the long wooden desk.
Freddie flipped through tiles scanning sleeping mares breathing contentedly in the infrared light of the CCTV cameras. He stopped at a stall where a man and a woman stood intently observing a mare asleep on her side. The horse’s flank moved rhythmically and easily.
“What in blazes is Amber Dupré doing in the stable block at this time of night?” thundered Calvin.
Dad’s lips were twitching, although his voice was bland. “I’d guess Lance is teaching her to assist with the mares. It’s past time Amber learned how to help with births.”
Calvin snorted. Prescott was standing so close to Amber he was almost touching her. His body was angled towards hers in unconscious masculine possessiveness. “That girl shouldn’t be out loose. She’s so green it’s painful. She’ll fall for the first plausible liar she meets.”
“Amber? She’s a sensible young woman,” Dad said. “She puts me in mind of your mother.” He sighed gustily. “If I were a younger man, I would give young Lance a run for his money.”
“She’s young enough to be your daughter,” snapped Calvin.
“Your mom was younger than Amber when I first met her,” Dad reminisced. “And every bit as spunky. Just as smart too. Nothing wrong with Amber’s brains. She will make some lucky man a good wife.”
“You think Prescott wants to marry her?”
“He’d better. I will not have him trifling with Heather’s sister.”
On screen, Lance Prescott stepped backward and let Amber precede him. They went down Lane Five towards the line of scoured wheelbarrows. Calvin leaned over to track them. He pushed buttons to switch to a different camera. Lance opened a tall built-in cupboard door to display neatly arranged bottles and gleaming equipment.
“She’s a cozy armful,” Dad mused. “Built for bear. And babies. Pretty as a field of flowers too.”
Calvin watched closely as Prescott showed Amber the adjacent cupboard where the disinfectant and sterile rags were kept. Did that bastard have to crowd her like that? Amber was smiling and nodding at something that Prescott had said to her. She did not jerk away when his sleeve grazed hers. The silly minx was damned well encouraging that damned opportunist. “Lance Prescott is no bear,” he forced the words through his teeth.
“Nope. But Amber doesn’t seem to mind. Lance is a hard worker, and a good man. That little girl could do a whole lot worse.”
Calvin clamped his jaw on a flood of invective. Since when had he become obsessed with ample curves and a pink and white complexion? The girl was cute enough, but cute wasn’t enough. Not for him. His job was just to look out for Pat’s sister-in-law. Make sure that sumbitch didn’t take advantage of her naivete. Lance and Amber strolled toward the tack room where, if memory served, there was a cot.
His teeth were clenched so tightly they ached. “Fellow’s nothing but a fortune hunter.”
“Amber hasn’t got a fortune.” Dad pressed buttons and the screens went black. “I’m for bed. Doesn’t look like I will be called out tonight. But morning is just around the corner.” He turned back towards Calvin and clapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Did I tell you that I’m glad you’re going to fill in for Laura while she’s on mat leave?”
“Several times.” Cal stretched. “Least I can do for my only sister. Besides it’s time for my vacation.”
Dad grinned. “Sure. And managing a ranch and a stud for a couple of weeks beats two weeks lying in the sun in Corfu.”
“Corfu and the villa will still be there in six months. Laura needs me now.”
Resisting the impulse to turn the monitors back on and spy on Lance and Amber in the tack room, Calvin followed his father to their bedroom wing. He made a note to get Steve to check Prescott out six ways to Wednesday. What did a lovely creature like Amber see in an ugly, beat-up has-been like Prescott anyway?
* * *
At three when Budge Purvis showed up for his shift, Amber and Lance walked back together in the frigid air to her cabin. The sky was clear and spangled with stars. But when they passed under the trees that grew around her cabin, the pine boughs blocked the sky. Lance was tense. He craned his head in every direction, as if he expected trouble. Of course he was hampered by both his bad eye and his heavy parka. He couldn’t just glance, he had to turn his whole body to see on his left side.
“What’s the matter?” Amber whispered.
Lance shook his head. He spoke slowly as if considering every word. “I’m not sure. Maybe it was seeing that bear the other day. Maybe it’s not trusting Dog. It’s probably nothing, but I’m twitchy tonight.”
She sniffed the air surreptitiously. The wind was blowing strongly from the north. It brought her nothing but the scent of horses and cattle mingled with coming snow. “I don’t think that bear will be back,” she murmured.
His eyes quartered the darkness. Even with her shifter vision she could not see far beyond the circle of light cast by the back-door light. What could Lance make out with only one eye? Better not to comment. A man had his pride.
He shrugged. “I’m not so sure. You never can tell with half-grown animals. They don’t have a lot of sense at that age and if they just once get a taste for garbage, they tend to hang around. And I wouldn’t trust that fellow Dog if I could see him.”
“Hmm.” What could she say? She didn’t trust Dog either. And naturally she too was keeping an eye out for both Dog and Blondie. What was there to keep a snake behind bars if he didn’t want to stay?
As for that bear, the truth was not an option. And Lance was more correct than he knew – she had behaved with a total lack of sense in taking bear where she could be spotted. She was just lucky Lance had not realized she was the bear. They reached her back door without meeting anything — not even the owls were hunting so close to dawn. Lance held her hand as she went to step inside. He gave her time to back away before he kissed her. He was just as good a kisser as she had remembered. And tonight there was no officious Calvin Bascom to play the part of an affronted, over-protective papa bear.
Lance nibbled his way along her lower lip to the corners of her mouth, tasted the bow and only then asked for admittance. He was a tease. Willie had been all hot urgency and directness. Lance wasn’t hesitant exactly, he was more delicate and leisurely. He kissed her as if he had all night and nothing better to do than explore her mouth and learn what pleased her.
She let herself savor the gentle glide and sweep of his tongue. He tasted of potent masculine desire and smelled enticing. She felt safe in the strong circle of his arms and regretful when he raised his head and smiled gently at her. They were both warm and she could feel passion prickling her skin. But for her at least it was too soon for anything more than kissing.
His twisted smile stretched wider and the skin on either side of his eyes formed crows’ feet. “I’ll see you at morning stables.” He let her go. “Lock your door.” He waited on the back porch until she had gone inside and done just that.
Amber watched his straight, upright back through the back window until it disappeared into the darkness. Maybe she ought to feel guilty for enjoying another man’s kisses, but her Willie was never going to come marching back to her. He was buried at Arlington. All she had to keep her warm at night was his old letter jacket and the class ring he had given her to wear when she was sixteen and he was their high school running back. His mama had his purple heart displayed in her front room.
For sure Willie Benoit had broken her heart, but she didn’t have to mourn her first love forever. Did she?
Amber opened the sliding door of her closet. She reached past her clothes to the garment bag hung just out of convenient reach at the far end. She lifted it out and hung it where she could see properly. Pulling on the zipper revealed red wool and black leather. She buried her face in the familiar jacket. It no longer smelled of slightly rank adolescent bear. All her nose could detect were the cedar chips keeping away the moths, and the faint background note of the lavender sachet resting at the bottom of the bag. She zippered it up and tucked it away regretfully.
She had assuaged her loneliness so often with Willie’s scent that it seemed incomprehensible that she could no longer do so. Where had her lovely memories gone? She brushed her teeth and puttered around straightening her already tidy quarters and setting out her breakfast things. And pondering. Just when had she decided that her one true love’s body odor was rank? Surely even when he was soaked from practice or hard work she had loved Willie and delighted in his presence? If he had lived, would her feelings have evaporated like his personal fragrance? Was she really so flighty?
As she lay in bed waiting for sleep, she thought of Willie’s broad handsome face. Like all the Benoits, he had been stocky and muscular. A true bear. Dark haired and dark eyed and heavily bearded. Strong and loving. With a reckless taste for adventure that had made him a star on the football field and sent him to join the Marines as soon as he graduated from high school. They had always planned to marry as soon as she was done with school. But he hadn’t come home after his first tour.
He had been dead before she graduated. And her dreams of living happily ever after with her sweetheart had been crushed. She had resigned herself at seventeen to widowhood without ever having been quite a wife. Even though she knew that Willie would not begrudge her happiness, her attraction to Lance smacked of infidelity. What kind of a bear forgot her lover so quickly?
* * *
“What do you know about Prescott?” Calvin asked his brother-in-law before he had his first sip of coffee.
Steve Holden stared in surprise. “Lance Prescott? Less than you do, I imagine, since I’m the newcomer around here. He’s a Marine. Made sergeant. Was wounded in Iraq, got a medical discharge, and has worked in the stables for the last seven years. All round stand-up guy. Why?”
“He’s sniffing around Amber.”
Laura broke in laughing, her eyes sparkling. “I think it’s cute. When they think no one is watching, they look at each other out of the corners of their eyes. And blush. They’re adorable.”
“You don’t think he’s hoping for a free ride?” Calvin demanded.
“Lance?” Laura sounded shocked. She shook her head. “He’s a straight arrow. I think he’s smitten. Amber too.”
“What’s he going to do when he finds out she’s a bear?” Cal demanded. “How cute will that be?”
Laura and Steve exchanged glances.
“Either he will mind or he won’t,” said Steve after a long pause. “Depends how badly he’s smitten. I think it’s too late to interfere.”
“Amber doesn’t have a clue,” snarled Cal. “She just a babe from the backwoods. I don’t want to be the one to tell Patrick that his wife’s gullible sister has been taken advantage of by one of the hands.”
Steve raised his brows. He shook his head. “Lance won’t hurt Amber — although she may hurt him. He is a southern gentleman.”
“With a mind above money?” Cal asked cynically.
“No one is that pure,” admitted Steve. “But Lance is a good guy. I would trust him at my back in battle.” Sgt. Steve Holden, late of Special Forces, had no higher praise for any man.
Laura rubbed her bump. “Maybe you should investigate Lance’s background anyway, honey,” she suggested. “When he was hired we took him at his word. He looked and acted like a veteran, and he’s certainly a hard worker and a natural with horses. You’d think he grew up around them. We’ve never had a reason to look deeper. But if he’s going to be part of the family, perhaps we should know a bit more than we do. After all, Amber doesn’t have anyone but us to look out for her.”
“Fair enough. I can make inquiries.” Steve returned to his eggs. “Were you planning on working today?” he asked his wife.
“Nope. Today I’m going to be busy.”
“You might say so. I think today’s the day.”
Steve stood up, leaving his eggs to cool on his plate. “Are you in labor?”
Laura nodded. “I think so. Sit down, both of you. Finish your breakfasts. Likely we have hours to go before we have to leave for the hospital.”
Calvin caught Steve’s eye. Laura pressed hard on her bump and picked up her glass of milk and set it down unsipped.
“You keep an eye on her,” Steve instructed. “I’ll get her bag.” Calvin shovelled in eggs while he could. Just as he bit into his toast, Laura started to rise, thought better of it, and plunked back down again. “I have to wash my hands before I go anyplace.”
“The hell you do.”
Laura’s face contorted. Calvin swept her up into his arms and carried her towards the powder room. Steve met them in the hallway. “Let’s swap,” he suggested, handing Calvin a small suitcase.
The sun had found Amber’s cabin windows when she woke. The cabin was flooded with light. She was late. That would never do. The horses were used to their routines and morning stables had been underway for half an hour. Her phone alarm had not gone off because she had not turned it back on after she got home.
She scrambled into her clothes, ignored her coffee pot and laid table, and headed for the stable block as fast as the freshly fallen snow would permit. Even so, she took note that all around her cabin the snowfall her nose had predicted the night before was unmarred. No one had been prowling around while she slept.
She had already made sure a snake couldn’t come slithering through a gap around the plumbing or electrical wires. The cabin was caulked as tight as a drum against critters and winter. It had triple-glazed windows which she wasn’t opening until it got a lot warmer. The doors fit snugly and her wood stove might be banked during her absence, but it was still a death trap for anything that tried to use it as an entrance.
She sniffed the air. A coyote had been hunting nearby and had caught a rabbit. And someone was adding horse apples to the manure pile out by the barn. She was super late. She dashed into the empty tack room stripping off her parka as she went. She grabbed her gear and headed for Sissy’s stall.
The mare was chomping busily at the remnants in her hay net. Sissy barely lifted her head when Amber came into her stall with broom and pitchfork. Beneath her glossy coat Amber could see ripples as the foal tried to turn in what had undoubtedly become tight quarters. This morning Sissy smelled pungent. Amber figured that meant the mare was now even closer to impending motherhood.
From out in the aisles she could hear two masculine voices rumbling back and forth. Carlos and Calvin. What was he doing here? She had thought he and Jeremy were going back to Denver to do whatever stuff those two big shots did for B&B Oil. It’s none of your fricking business she reminded herself as she got busy changing Sissy’s straw and making sure the mare had fresh rations and water.
The rumbling continued. Both voices sounded tense. She strained her ears, but even her sensitive bear hearing could not make out words. She dumped her wheelbarrow out by the barn and went back to finish grooming Sissy who was even less cooperative than usual. She was humming to quiet the mare when she became aware she was being watched.
Calvin stood in the doorway, arms folded across his burly chest. His fancy suit was gone and his plaid work shirt was rolled up to reveal muscular forearms and wrists. His faded denim jeans were snug and frayed. His tooled leather boots were clean and shiny but the toes were scuffed and the heels worn down. For once he looked like he belonged on the Double B. And like a bear. A tame bear. But still a bear. Made a pleasant change.
“Good morning.” She tried to be natural, but her voice came out stiff.
“Sleep well?” he asked. Despite his smile, there was a subtle question in his tone. What was he driving at?
“I overslept,” she said curtly, brushing Sissy’s already shiny rump. “I’m not used to standing watch. I’ll make up the lost time.” Damned if she would ask what he was doing here.
“Steve took Laura to the hospital this morning,” he continued, just as if they often chatted idly in the mornings.
She stared at him over Sissy’s back. “That’s early,” she said. “Is she okay?”
“Seems to be.” He shrugged and his shoulders strained the seams of his flannel shirt. “Of course she’s still in labor. But no news is probably good news.”
Under his aura of masculine assurance, he was genuinely worried about his sister. Unwillingly she felt sympathy and tried to be reassuring. “Laura is strong and healthy. The hospital in Acton is first rate. She’ll be fine and so will her babies.”
“Thank you, Dr. Dupré,” he drawled.
Amber controlled an urge to bite. “Childbirth is a normal process,” she said gently. “Laura has had no problems so far, don’t worry until you have to.”
He grunted, leaned against the door frame and watched her comb out Sissy’s mane. “That mare is about to drop her foal,” he announced as she moved to the long braided tail.
Amber left Sissy’s plait as it was and just combed out the loose end. “Probably. She has more discharge than yesterday, and it smells stronger.”
“Hmm. They usually wait until dark, but not always. I’ll get Carlos to examine her.” He vanished with surprising speed for such a big man. But no more quietly than any of her big cousins back home would have done. Like Joey and Gideon,and his own cousin Patrick, Calvin was in the Reserves. He had been trained to move silently and fast, as they had.
He returned just as swiftly and silently with Carlos. “Morning, Amber” Carlos said genially. “How’s it going, Sissy?” He scratched the mare’s muzzle.
Calvin held the mare’s bridle while the older man ran his latex gloved hands all over Sissy’s belly and flanks. “She’s having contractions all right. You want to stay with her, Cal?”
“I can. But I had expected to get cracking on those records today.”
Carlos stripped off the blue gloves and stuffed them into his hip pocket. “I know. Now do you see what I mean about Laura being spread too thin these days? She’s doing her own job as well as every dang thing Clive used to do. And she never used to be married and about to have her own babies.” The elderly foreman sounded exasperated as well as worried. Amber knew he was fond of Laura.
“Where’s Dad?” asked Calvin.
“He’s out stitching up a heifer that tangled with a barbed wire fence.” In Carlos’ drawl ‘barbed wire’ came out ‘bob war’.
“Maybe the Double B could use another veterinarian as well as an archivist,” Cal suggested.
“Laura and Dr. Freddie hired themselves a couple of veterinarians last month,” Carlos said. “But they don’t start for another two weeks.”
“And then they will have to be taught everything,” finished Calvin.
“Well, no. Both Dr. Franklin and Dr. Lopez did a practicum on the Double B a couple years back — before they qualified. They know our ways. It’s just that they are both working out their notice and can’t just drop everything to come ten days early.”
“I guess that’s something. You guys hire yourselves an archivist too?”
Carlos shook his head. “Laura is mighty choosy and she finds fault with every one we interview.”
Calvin chuckled. “She doesn’t really want to hire one.”
Amber pulled a few strands of hair from the curry comb. “Should I turn out Gerty next, Carlos?”
“You should,” the foreman told her. “And then you come back here and give Calvin a hand with Sissy. He can explain the process to you.” He turned to Calvin. “She’s never seen a birth.”
The last thing Amber wanted was to share tight quarters under Calvin Bascom’s disapproving eye. But Carlos was the foreman. “Yes, sir. I’ll see to Gerty and then I’ll come back to Sissy.” She made sure her best smile was pasted in place and got cracking on Gerty, who was in truth Fescue’s Great and Good Constant Delight. Like all the other mares, she was hugely pregnant. Amber nudged her aside and began the chore of clearing out the soiled bedding.
* * *
Calvin went to the tack room for a folding stool and a mug of coffee. Somehow coffee in the city never tasted as good as this sludge he had grown up on. Maybe the aroma of horses had something to do with its superior flavor. Or maybe it put him in mind of the days when he and Luther would run in and out of the stables getting underfoot and learning all there was to know about quarter horses. Those had been some good times. Christ, even after all these years, he missed his twin like a lost arm.
He glanced at the monitors. Prescott was in the training ring with a big three-year-old chestnut. He was putting the gelding through his paces. Prescott sat in the saddle as if he had grown there, one with the huge colt. There had been a time when Cal had loved training the young stock, but he was too damn heavy these days. There was a price for being a big muscular son of a bear. If he was going to ride, his mount had to be fully grown with lots of well-developed bone and muscle.
A glance at the monitor informed him that Sissy was shifting from foot to foot. He had better get back to mama before she dropped her foal alone. Amber was working in a stall with a pregnant roan mare. As she tossed straw into her wheelbarrow, her magnificent bosom strained at the snaps of her shirt. Of course it did. Well, he’d better get his ass back to Sissy.
He detoured down Aisle Three to catch another glimpse of Ms. Dupré. Amber was lifting forkfuls of wet straw into a wheelbarrow with strong, easy movements of her back and arms. Her western plaid shirt and blue jeans were not much different than his own. But on her the effect was electrifying. Dad was right. Every supple inch of this woman was built for bear. Even the sway of her long dark braid was a temptation to his bear.
Absently he noted her scuffed work boots were worn to the leather at heel and toe and her baggy work gloves made of cloth. She ought to have better footwear and warm leather gloves that fit. What the hell was Pat thinking? Or Laura? Amber was their responsibility.
Her smooth rhythm faltered. Her straight spine stiffened. He could almost feel the effort of will that kept her from turning to look at him. He abandoned his view of Amber’s curvy ass and narrow waist and headed for Sissy’s stall. He was looking forward to the birth. Which would be delightfully seasoned with a couple hours in Ms. Dupré’s company.
Funny how it all came back to you. The smell of the mare. The tense way she stood as her contractions started. Sissy wasn’t in pain or in danger, but he left his stool to stand by her head and whisper sweet nothings into her twitching ear. Gratefully she rested her great head on his shoulder and blew down her nostrils into his.
Amber found them standing like that when she showed up. She had a mug of coffee in one capable hand. Her disreputable gloves were hanging out of one front pocket.
“She’s not quite straining, but she’s gearing up,” he said.
“What do you need me to do?”
“Right now, just watch. No reason to think she’s going to be fast. But you never know.”
“Should I get the equipment?” The stable always had a clean wheelbarrow full of the sterilized gear that might be needed during labor.
“Read her chart,” Calvin said. He had studied it earlier. This was Sissy’s third birth and while the first had caused her a little trouble, the second had not. His own thought was that her contractions might back off and the birth hold off until nightfall.
Amber picked up the clipboard hanging outside the stall and took her time reading it from the beginning. There were three or four pages documenting each and every feeding and exercise session at the Bascom Stud, and a couple of others underneath with the reports of her previous labors. Amber read it through slowly and then read it again. Her lips pursed. “I’ll get the labor stuff,” she announced. She vanished.
What the hell had she seen to light a fire under her? He had another look at the clipboard. Sissy had been eating, well, like a horse. Right up until this morning. Her feed net still contained most of the hay Amber had filled it with, but she had had a little. Her bucket was a quarter down, so she was drinking. And her chart read like a textbook case of equine labor. Especially last year’s.
Amber returned pushing a wheelbarrow with a large plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. “Just in case,” she said.
“The foal is not likely to come soon,” he corrected. “She had a very standard labor last year.”
“That’s what those notes say,” she agreed. “But that stable is just cutting and pasting the same notes into every mare’s records. Someone is too lazy to keep individual records and just slots the same notes into their template.”
“What do you mean?” he demanded.
“All the mares who have given birth at the Bluefield Quarter Horse Stud have the exact same notes. They all took precisely the same time to give birth and did so at the same times. To the minute. They do get the sex of the foals right — I guess — and the dates are different. But the rest of it is identical. Which just can’t be accurate.”
“You have got to be kidding.” He heard the roar in his voice and gentled it. “That’s a heck of an accusation, Amber. Tell me why you think so.”
“Carlos and Lance have had me reading these charts from start to finish for weeks. From the beginning. The same ones, over and over. Studying them really. At first I thought I was just blurring them together, but then I started noticing the Bluefield Quarter Horse Stud — it came up again and again.”
“That’s perfectly reasonable. It’s one of the top two or three studs. It’s natural that lots of the mares here this year have been previously bred at Bluefield’s.”
“Sure. But none of the other top studs uses exactly the same language and timing for all their mares. Even the spelling mistakes are identical. And it seemed uncanny that they never call a vet.”
Calvin whistled. “Jesus. That means we can’t rely on the notes.”
“I wouldn’t think so. We have no way of knowing if Sissy had a hard labor last year, or an easy one. Do we girl?” She gently stroked the mare’s arching neck.
This is material not previously published. ©Isadora Montrose, 2017