Three new chapters this week! Amber and Lance go to into town and Calvin falls out of a tree. Let me know what you think.

<<<CHAPTERS FIFTEEN & SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Amber

Rhonda was chatting with the guy from FedEx when Amber came out of the washroom. The administrative assistant told him goodbye and waved her over.

“It’s for you.” Her face was alight with glee.

Amber eyed the huge box on the counter warily. “For me?” She hadn’t ordered anything. What could it be? There had to be some mistake. “Where’s it from?”

“Cherry Creek,” Rhona said smugly. “You’ve gone up in the world.”

“Who or what the heck is Cherry Creek?”

“Just the fanciest shopping center in Denver,” Rhonda crowed. “I’ll bet your sister has sent you a present.”

“Maybe. But it’s not my birthday or anything.” She and Heather weren’t in the habit of giving each other expensive presents for no reason. Of course, now that Heather had married money, maybe she was giving in to impulse purchases.

“Go on. Open it up,” Rhonda urged.

Amber shook the package. It was moderately heavy. Didn’t rattle or tick. Probably not a bomb or a snake shifter. She took out her penknife and slit the packing tape. There were two more sealed cardboard boxes inside the first one. She pulled them out and stacked them on the counter.

Rhonda’s eyes were sparkling. “Are you this slow at Christmastime?” the older woman teased.

“Probably.” She and Heather usually tried to drag out opening their presents, seeing as they only ever had one each. Although last Christmas had been a little different. Heather had gone crazy buying her twin treats.

Amber slit open the smaller box. Lifted the lid. Took out half a roomful of bubble packing and found a long, slender dark-green box with silver scroll-work on the lid. Opened that. Silver tissue sealed with a silver horseshoe concealed the contents. Underneath was a pair of heavy red leather gloves.

“Ooh,” squealed Rhonda. “Try them on.”

There was no price tag. They weren’t even attached by those little plastic doohickeys. On the inside of each wrist there was a discreet leather label stamped with a silver horseshoe and the size. Amber slipped on the right glove, settled her fingers into the thick sheepskin lining. Snugged them down. They fit as if they had been made for her.

She pressed her gloved hand against her cheek. “They’re so soft. Feel.”

“Like butter,” Rhonda agreed. “They fit well too. I love that color. It’ll look great with that blue-gray coat of yours.”

Amber put on the other glove and opened and closed her fists. The gloves followed her movements like another skin. They were beautiful and well made. Snug, warm, but not in the least stiff. Perfect in fact. Way better in every way than the ragged pair in her parka pocket.

She slipped them off and examined them. On the ridge, lots of hunters tanned their own leather and made their own gear. These were beautifully made. Tough, double-stitched, and gusseted between the fingers. A knitted cuff inside the wrist would keep out the weather. The fell-stitching around the tops would help them last forever. Why on earth had Heather splurged on handmade gloves for Amber to wear to shovel horse apples?

“Is there a card or a note?” Amber sifted through the tissue and paper on the counter.

Rhonda also peered into the empty boxes. Shook her head. “I don’t see one. Maybe there’s one in the other box?”

“Maybe.” The gloves were gorgeous. She had never seen or felt anything to compare with them. Heather must have spent a small fortune. They were almost too nice to wear to muck out a stall. She took them off carefully and laid them back in their fancy box.

The other carton contained a boot box. No note. No card. Just a pair of soft, supple, pull-on red boots in a shade to match those pricey gloves. At least these were factory made of some easy-care waterproof fabric that only resembled suede. Heather hadn’t lost her whole mind.

“Try them on,” begged Rhonda.

Amber sat down, and pulled them on. Her feet sank into cozy warmth. She stretched out a leg to admire them. They came up to her knees and had laces at the front that tightened to adjust the fit. “Cool,” she said holding out one leg.

“And just what you need,” Rhonda said happily. “Your sister must have been listening to us this morning.”

Amber grinned at an image of Heather with radio antenna eavesdropping on Colorado from Washington State. “Or had an angel whisper in her ear. I’ll just call and thank her, right this minute – if you don’t mind?”

“Of course not, you go right ahead. I’ll just put these boxes in the recycling.”

Heather took a while to answer her cell, but when she did, she expressed total bewilderment. “I probably should have sent you some, if your old boots are leaking, but I didn’t. I haven’t left the hospital in days. Stella has a respiratory infection.”

“Oh no.”

Heather launched into technical details of what the pediatric respirologist had said, versus what the neonatal nurse thought. Moved on to how slowly the antibiotics were working. Amber concentrated hard, hoping to glean something she could use to encourage her despondent sister. But it all seemed to be bad news.

In the end, Heather comforted her. “Stella’s getting the best of care here. I know that – intellectually. And she will be fine. It’s just so horribly disappointing for us all. I can’t help feeling scared.”

“I know. They’ll send them all home soon,” Amber said helplessly. She sure hoped that was true.

“And then you can come and play auntie.”

“I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait to hold them.”

“Love you, twin.”

“Love you, more.” They hung up together.

“Well?” asked Rhonda who had been shamelessly listening in.

“Stella’s got a cold – at least I think that’s what all that fancy talk meant. It’s settled on her chest, as my Grandma would have said, and she’s sick as a pup – tries to cough but she’s just too tiny.”

“What about the boots?” prompted Rhonda.

“Heather doesn’t know a thing about them.” Amber wiggled her toes in the soft fleece lining one last time and sat down regretfully to remove the boots. “If I don’t know who sent them,” she said, “they’ll have to go back. I can’t keep such expensive gifts from a stranger.”

“Don’t be foolish, Amber,” Rhonda said. “Aside from the fact that you need them – badly – and that they are a kind and thoughtful gesture, you’ll crush the giver if you send them back. Might even break his heart.”

Oh, of course. Rhonda meant that Lance had bought them for her. It was just like him. She bent her head admiring the color. “Do you think it’s all right? I mean, they were a pretty expensive purchase.” Like out the wazoo expensive. And they weren’t engaged or anything. How could he afford such a lavish gift?

Rhonda’s grin widened. “More than all right. You accept them as the considerate gesture they are. You wear them home. They’re fine looking boots and the wind’s turned right around and, without a doubt, that mud has already turned into ice.”

Now that Rhonda mentioned it, the aluminum siding on the building was rattling in a howling wind. “So fast?”

“That’s the Chinook for you. You bundle up warm and I’ll see you tomorrow after morning stables to finish up Laura’s backup.”

“It’s done,” Amber said. “I’m just running an overnight virus scan. But I’ll come back tomorrow to see if that found any malware.”

Her old boots were gone. Just a muddy puddle on the boot mat showed where they had dripped all afternoon. Probably Rhonda making sure she did not change her mind. Not that it mattered who threw them out. Those tired old things were only fit for a garbage can.

She crammed her knitted cap over her ears, pulled up her hood, and fastened every snap and zipper. The outer door opened. Lance grinned at her. “I see you’re ready,” he said. “Let’s go.”

* * *

Lance

“New boots?” he asked, although it was obvious those red ones were just out of the box. “Very sharp.”

“I think they’re just beautiful,” she said warmly. “And they match the gloves perfectly.” She waved a pair of genuine hand-made pigskin gloves at him.

He forced a smile to his face. “They do look warm,” he managed past his fury. That rich bastard Bascom had easily put a month’s wages on Amber’s hands. And the same again on her feet.

“They are,” she said happily. “And they are so soft. I love the color too. They’re perfect.” She glowed like a kid at Christmas.

“It’s a good red.” He gave her a boost into his truck.

“But I’ll treasure them mostly because of the giver,” she murmured shyly.

He gaped at her. She was blushing. It dawned on him that she believed he was the provider of the snappy red boots and exquisitely expensive gloves. He was tempted to let her go on thinking that. But sooner or later, Bascom would claim credit for his gift. He backed out of his parking space and got a grip on his temper.

“Hang on one minute, Amber. Don’t say another word. I didn’t buy those boots and gloves for you. Which is not to say I don’t wish I had, but I didn’t.”

“You didn’t?” She sounded almost in tears. “But I got them muddy.”

“Only a touch around the soles. The mud has mostly frozen. They still look fine.”

“I can’t send them back with mud in the treads.”

“Why would you send them back?” he asked. He turned onto the main drive that led to the road to town. Amber didn’t seem to notice that he had bypassed the turnoff to her cabin.

“I can’t keep an expensive present when I don’t know who the sender is,” she wailed. “It wouldn’t be proper.”

It was almost amusing. If it hadn’t pissed him off so much. Who but his Amber still cared about such things? She might almost have been raised in the South. “You said yourself you’ve got them muddy and will have to hang onto them. Are you sure you can’t think who would slap down a credit card to buy you expedition-quality boots?” he hinted.

“It wasn’t Heather.”

“No?”

“No. I called. And, I forgot to tell you, Lance. There’s awful news. Stella’s sick.” Her voice broke.

“Hey. Hey. It’s going to be okay. Stella is in a good hospital. She’ll be fine. What did Heather say?”

“That they were giving her antibiotics in a drip. Another tube. That poor little scrap is stuck like a p-p-pincushion.” Amber’s tears came then.

He handed her a box of tissues from the dashboard. “Blow your nose. It’s been a long, hard day, but we’re going into town to eat the blue plate special at the diner.”

“Are we?”

“We are. And then I thought we could buy some groceries, in case you felt like cooking me a lunch tomorrow.” Take that Calvin Bascom.

She wiped her eyes and blew her nose defiantly. “Thank you. I’d like that – supper and groceries both. If only I knew who to thank for these boots.”

“Calvin.”

“Calvin? Why would Calvin Bascom buy me boots and gloves?” She was genuinely, totally surprised. And not very happy.

“Look in the mirror,” he teased.

“I’ve looked,” she shot back. “Nothing special there. Calvin dates supermodels and actresses. What would he want with me?”

“What any red-blooded man would want when he meets a girl as sweet and pretty as you.”

“You think I’m sweet and pretty?” she asked.

He sneaked a look at her rosy cheeks and downcast lashes. Sweet, innocent and fresh as flowers in a field. “As jonquils in the springtime,” he assured her.

“What are jonquils?” she asked.

“Daffodils.”

“Oh, thank you.” But her pleased smile didn’t last. She sighed.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“If Calvin gave me these things, I can’t keep them. It wouldn’t be right to accept such expensive presents from a man I’m not related to.”

It would serve that poaching bastard right if she threw his damned expensive presents in his face. But Amber needed those boots and she wanted them. “Seems to me he is kinfolk. His first cousin is married to your sister. Calvin and Patrick are closer than brothers. Raised together, by what I hear. That would practically make him your brother-in-law.”

“It still doesn’t feel right. I don’t know what my Aunt Debbie would say.”

“Not your mamma?”

“My mother died when Heather and I were real little.”

“I’m sorry. That must have been hard. What about your daddy?”

“He died before we were born.”

He clucked his tongue. “So who raised you?”

“Lots of people. Mostly we lived with my Uncle Bobby and Aunt Marlene. And sometimes with my Grandma Shirley. But Aunt Debbie is my favorite aunt and always gives us good advice. Come to think of it, she’s a Bascom too.”

“Is she?” Lance asked.

“Yeah, she married Cal and Patrick’s Uncle Gilbert*.”

“Oh. Yeah. I knew that. So Debbie Bascom is your aunt?”

“Yup. French Town is a very small place.”

“Hmm. Well now, what do you think your Aunt Debbie would say about those boots and gloves? My own grandma would say that so long as they were a gift from a relative, you should accept them with thanks.”

“Would she?”

Lance chuckled. “She would. And she would advise you to write Mr. Calvin Bascom a nice prim note on your best paper and send it to him right away, so he didn’t get any misplaced ideas.”

He sneaked a look at her. Amber’s eyes were round. “She would?”

“My grandma is an old-fashioned Southern lady. When my sisters got to be old enough to think about beaux, she gave them each boxes of pale blue writing paper with their names engraved at the top, so they could write letters of thanks for any little thing they received.”

“Gosh. I don’t think I’ve even got a notepad.” She sounded worried, of all things.

“We’ll go to the drug store.” Lance Prescott Boy Scout and etiquette adviser to orphans.

She visibly cheered up. “Okay. What should my letter say?”

“That you are grateful for his kindness in providing such a useful gift. That you like the boots and gloves and wish the sender good health.”

“Sounds a little stuffy.”

“That, my dear, is the whole idea.”

At last she giggled. “I don’t know why Calvin Bascom even wants to look at me.”

“Maybe he sees how happy your sister has made his best friend, and wants that too.”

“How happy Heather has made Patrick?” she parroted.

“Yes. Hasn’t she?”

“I never thought of it like that. I mean, I always think more of whether Patrick could or is making Heather happy.”

“Marriage is a two-way street. I’d say a man who picks up and moves himself across country for a woman is dead set on making her happy.”

“Huh. Well, Calvin Bascom is too namby-pamby for me. For gosh sakes, he plucks his eyebrows.”

“So he does. But honestly, Amber, here we sit, two people who make our livings trimming stray hairs from the fetlocks of horses. Plucked eyebrows don’t seem much different. Or like much of a crime.”

“Well he also waxes his chest!”

That made him laugh. “I did that once,” he told her.

“Really?” She was genuinely shocked.

“Really. Hurt like being painted with fire.”

“Oh. But why?”

“I wanted a tattoo. The artist told me to get waxed first.” He shook his head. “Talk about your pain and suffering to be beautiful.”

“You have a tattoo on your chest?”

He felt the blood in his face. But he had started this. “I do.”

“What is it?”

“Well, you have to understand, I was nineteen. Proud as punch of my first promotion. Bunch of us guys had been drinking. Went to a tattoo parlor. I wanted the Marine insignia across my manly chest. The artist must have been blind drunk. I wound up with a big brown bear with a rose in her mouth.”

“You have a brown bear on your chest?” She sounded not shocked but astonished.

“With a big red rose in her mouth.” He laughed. “It’s not as silly looking as it sounds, but it’s a good thing my chest hair thickened up.”

“I can’t wait to see that.”

*Bearly Beloved  

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

Calvin

The look on Amber’s face when she saw those nasty old boots were gone was utterly priceless. He had come into the vestibule in time to hear her wondering if she should keep her boots and gloves if she didn’t know who had sent them. By now, Patrick should have told Heather she had.

It was the work of a moment to slip outside and throw those boots into the dumpster and cover them up. Not as if there was much holding those worn soles on. Even after a whole day of drying indoors, they were still soaking wet.

Amber was risking frostbite and arthritis by working in wet socks and thin worn out gloves in subfreezing temperatures. She would be far more comfortable in those waterproof boots he had found online. FedEx had done a splendid job of delivering them on time.

The only fly in the ointment was that while he had spying on her, Prescott had scooped up the girl and taken her home. Not that she seemed any too eager for Calvin’s company. What he ought to have done was have found some job that would have kept Prescott working late. But he hadn’t, so he might as well head home.

The big house was warm and welcoming. Rosa was making dinner in the kitchen and had a kiss and a hug for him. Dad was relaxing in the living room with Laura and Steve and a pair of women. Strangers, for all they had glasses of wine in their hands. The twins were asleep in matching bassinets, but when he would have picked Kenny up Laura warned him off with a hard look.

“Come on in,” Dad called. “I want you to meet our new vets. Dr. Amanda Arruta, and Dr. Sophia Franklin.”

He smiled as the women stood up. Extended his hand. Shook. “Veterans or veterinarians?”

“Both,” said Dr. Arruta briskly. “At least I am.” She was a sturdy, capable looking female with short, no nonsense dark hair and incongruous dimples in her rather severe face. Her crisp navy tunic and pants looked like a uniform.

Arruta eyed him critically from head to toe and found him wanting. “Your father tells me you’re in the Reserves.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Major. Marine Corps. Retired.” She sat down.

Dr. Franklin looked softer. Sleeker. She was wearing makeup. Not a lot, but enough to give her rosy cheeks and long lashes. Her camel-colored slacks were set off by a chocolate turtleneck. She smiled at him and picked up her wine glass.

His nose told him Arruta was a grizzly bear and Franklin a mountain lion. Lioness. What was up with that? In Clive’s day, the no shifter rule had been strictly enforced. But Laura was a changed woman since her marriage.

Laura raised her glass of sparkling water. “Amanda and Sophia are going to split Dad’s workload,” she announced. “Welcome to the Double B, ladies. I hope you will both be happy here.”

Calvin found a glass and poured himself some of the red the veternarians were drinking. “Welcome.” So these were the vets who were going to give Dad the time be a grandfather and granduncle. He was on board with that, whether or not they were shifters.

Laura began to inquire about their accommodation – they were apparently staying in the big house. In the buzz of conversation Cal moved over to admire the twins. Bigger every day. Not like Patrick’s three. Steve wandered over and indicated he wanted to talk. They slipped away to Steve’s office.

“So what do you think of our new horse doctors?” Steve asked when the door was shut.

“They seem fine. At least Dr. Franklin does. Maj. Arruta must just have woken up cranky from hibernation.”

Steve laughed. “She pulled rank on me too. I don’t mind. Must be hard being a Latina working a male-dominated profession like large animal husbandry.”

“Maybe. More likely she thinks only Marines are real service people. That what you hauled me away from my niece and nephew to say?”

“Hell, no. I wanted to tell you what I found out about Lancelot Jefferson Prescott.”

“Lancefuckinglot?” What the hell kind of sissy name was that?

Steve laughed. “Good Southern name.”

Calvin threw himself into a chair. “What about him?” Maybe Steve had found the goods on that fortune hunting bastard.

Steve picked up a printout. “Born and raised in Duneden, Tennessee. Enlisted in the Marines after high school. Spent four years in Recon.”

Calvin’s brows rose. Recon was the Marine Corps most elite group. You didn’t make Recon without some serious commitment and training, and balls of steel.

“Had one too many missions. Was badly injured on the last one. Blown to hell and gone. That’s when he damaged his eye. He was given a medical discharge and sent home with a chestful of medals. Psychiatrists expected him to eat his gun.”

Calvin wasn’t about to ask how Steve had got a look at Prescott’s military records, let alone his medical charts. “Guess he wasn’t that hungry,” Calvin said. Well, didn’t that suck? Lance was a genuine US hero.

Steve nodded. “There were incidents, however, in Duneden. Police were called. No charges, but his wife left him, sued for divorce, and married his first cousin.”

“Christ on a crutch. What a thing to do!”

“That’s when he came out to Colorado. Left his job at the Duneden distillery and signed on at the Double B.” Steve folded the paper and stuck it in a drawer.

“Duneden. Duneden. Why does that ring a bell?” Calvin asked.

“Bourbon.” Steve walked over to a shelf and handed Cal the bottle of amber liquid he removed.

Cal read the label. “Is Lance related to these Prescotts?

“Grandson of Thomas Jefferson Prescott, President and former CEO of Prescott Distilleries. And founder and owner of Prescott Horse Farms.”

“Son of a gun.” Cal poured himself two fingers of the bourbon. “You want some?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“So he comes from money?” Cal asked.

“Seems to. Not that he’s some long-lost heir. The present CEO of Prescott Distilleries is Thomas John known as Tommy Jack. He’s the cousin who married Lance’s ex. I can find out if Lance has a trust fund if you want.”

“Nah. Don’t bother. If Prescott wanted money he’d be in Tennessee kissing ass.” Shift. Shift. And double dang. Not a fortune hunter. Just a certified military hero.

“I guess we’ve got an explanation for why he’s so great at training horses,” Steve said. “Laura figured him for a natural, but it looks as though he’s been around them all his life.”

“Yeah,” Cal said sourly. All his fucking life. Prescott Horse Farms were justly famed for their thoroughbreds. Year after year, they raised the two and three-year-olds that won the big races.

They went out to join the others at the dinner table. Where, after two hours of being patronized by Dr. Arruta, and watching her turn on the charm for his father, he finally excused himself to go keep watch on Amber’s cottage. Shift and damn.

It was colder than a witch’s hind tit tonight. The Chinook had churned the soil into mud that had frozen solid when the wind changed. He couldn’t see or smell any trace of snake, although he didn’t think this surface would take a print. And this dry windy air didn’t hold odors well.

He returned to his tree. Amber’s house was dark. He got settled just in time to see Prescott’s old truck rattle up to the cabin. Prescott escorted her to her front door, they had a little conversation and then she invited him in. At least she was wearing his warm boots. But Prescott was the one going inside.

* * *

Lance

In Success, they had bought groceries and a box of note cards that would not have found favor with Grandmother Prescott. Too casual. But the flowers on the front had appealed to Amber, and naturally enough there were no boxes of heavy laid vellum writing paper in the Success drug store.

Their dinner conversation had roamed around, but had not come back to Bascom’s gift. All in all it had been a successful date. He thought Amber had enjoyed herself. And she certainly had needed warmer boots and gloves. He just wished he was willing to spend Tommy Jeff’s money. But not even for Amber would he touch a penny.

He parked the truck as close to Amber’s cabin as he could. The ground was frozen solid, so he had no excuse to carry her tonight. But perhaps he could make an occasion. He did get to take her elbow when she skidded on a patch of ice clinging to a boulder freshly exposed by the thaw and freeze. Be still my heart.

“Would you like to come in?” she asked.

“I would. But I don’t think you are ready for what I want,” he replied with probably too much honesty. It was dark on the porch, so he couldn’t read her eyes. But there was light enough to see her smile. “I don’t know what I want,” she admitted. “But I do want you to help me with that letter. I don’t want to write the wrong thing.”

He could do this. He had led teams into combat. Surely keeping his hands off a woman couldn’t be harder than facing enemy fire?

“Sure,” he said. He followed her into the little cabin.

It was as tidy as it had been on every other occasion he had visited. He was still military enough to like that in a woman. She shrugged off her parka and hung it up. Took off her boots with a sigh.

“They were a little warm for sitting in a heated truck,” she confided.

Good to know.

They sat down at the table and she took out the first of the cards. It had a big basket of wild flowers. She examined it doubtfully. “Is it a bit girly for a guy?” she asked.

Probably. “You’re a girl. It’s fine.”

She started to scribble on the back of the little paper sack she had got at the drug store. After a while she showed him what she had written.

“Too apologetic,” he said. “You should be all gushing gratitude to a rich uncle who has given you a treat. Not a hint of ‘Sorry, but I’m not interested’.”

“Oh. Good idea. I’ll make believe my old Uncle Pierre bought them for me.” She went back to work. Crossed out what she had written. Scratched away. Passed him the paper bag. There were a great many lines drawn through words and several arrows pointing to newer versions. But he figured it out.

Dear Calvin, I was delighted to open my surprise parcel this afternoon and find such warm and lovely things. The boots are beautiful and cozy, and they fit perfectly. So do the gloves. I love the red color which looks great with my coat. I will be warm and dry all day when I am working. Thank you. Your gift has made me feel a real part of the Bascom family. I can’t wait to show Heather and Patrick the fine things you have given me. I am sure they will both appreciate your thoughtfulness and kindness as much as I do, and will be grateful that you are looking out for me. With all good wishes for your continued good health, Amber Dupré

He read it and laughed. “Grandmother Prescott couldn’t have done better,” he assured her. “A nice balance between gratitude and stiffness. You write it in the card and we will see that Rhonda gives it to him.”

“Okay.” She bent over the card and carefully transcribed her words. Sealed the finished card in its envelope and wrote Calvin’s name on the outside. “There. That’s done. Only what do I say, if I see him?”

“Thank him the way you would thank Uncle Pierre,” he suggested.

“I am not hugging and kissing Calvin!”

“Best not. But you could thank him for taking care of you.”

“Okay.” She gathered her writing stuff and put it away. “I’m glad that’s over.”

He stood up. “I should go,” he said.

Her eyes were very big. “I’m sorry I’m being so indecisive,” she said. “It still feels a bit weird to kiss someone who is not Willie.”

He took her shoulders in his hands, stared into her eyes. “Do you wish I were Willie?”

She met his eye square. Shook her head. “No. I just feel bad because it seems wrong to forget about him. I mean, I thought he was my one and only, and here I am just forgetting about our love.”

“Hmm.” He continued to look into her eyes. It was surprisingly intimate. He felt an overwhelming tenderness for her. They had to get this right. He wasn’t much good at talking, but he could try. “I would say that if his name is on your tongue you haven’t forgotten him. You are just no longer in love with him.”

“That’s it. But surely love should last longer?” Her pretty mouth drooped.

He rubbed his thumbs in circles over her strong shoulders. Felt the supple muscles relax a little under his touch. “Probably would have, if you had been able to grow up together. It isn’t really so surprising that you have fallen out of love with a teenage boy.”

She sighed. Ran her hands up his arms and rested them on his biceps. His heart skipped a beat.

“I remember him with fondness, but my best memories seem to make me shake my head at his – at our – foolishness.”

“Seventeen and eighteen is a long way from twenty-three. You were a child when you loved Willie. Now you are a woman.”

“Yes.” But her soft voice was hesitant still.

“You tell me one thing, Amber.”

“What?”

“Was your Willie a jealous fellow?”

She tipped her head to one side and thought. Really thought. Wrinkled her nose. Nodded. “Yeeeah.”

“Mean jealous, or insecure, do-you-really-love-me jealous?”

She giggled. “That last. That describes Willie perfectly. He wasn’t one of those boyfriends who smacked his girl around if some idiot whistled at her. But he always watched if I was dancing with some other boy and gave him the stink eye.”

“That sounds normal. Tell me another thing. Would Willie have wanted you to put yourself in cold storage because he was dead?”

She didn’t even have to think. “Nope. He thought it was terrible that Aunt Debbie never remarried even though she was a young woman when her husband was killed.”

“And I gather you think that Aunt Debbie’s marriage to Gilbert Bascom is a good thing?”

“Oh, yes. She’s even happier than she used to be.”

“Think I could make you happy?” He held his breath.

“Yes, I do.”

He rested his forehead on hers and let the relief pump through him. They stood like that for a long time before they were interrupted by the sound of a branch breaking. The crash when it landed shattered the intimate moment. They moved apart.

After a while the noise was followed by the sound of a scuffle. They hurried to peer out the window.

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

Calvin

The hero was inside that nice warm cabin doing who knew what to curvy little Amber. And he was up a tree that seemed inadequate to support his weight, while the wind did its best to toss him off his perch. To say nothing of freezing his hairy bear ass. Shift and dang. And double dang.

What the hell was it about those Dupré girls that turned the heads of sensible bears like him and Patrick? For all she was as luscious as a centerfold, Amber was tart-tongued and totally unsophisticated. She made him feel horny – not happy horny either – dirty old man horny. Not that she was any Lolita, but he was a good few years older and a lot more experienced than she was.

Unless Lance was in her panties, right this minute, she was probably a virgin. He hadn’t been interested in virgins since he was one himself. So what was her lure? Because she had one. She was leading him around by the nose. Him and Lance. A backwoods temptress who didn’t know her own power.

He was cold. Cold and miserable. And no hope of relief until dawn. His thoughts drifted. It was good that Dad had someone to take the night shift. But he didn’t like Arruta. Was it her attitude of cold disapproval, or the fact that she was a grizzly? He had never liked grizzlies. Damned superior I’m-bigger-than-you-are bears.

Flat-chested, plain spoken Arruta was an even more unlikely seductress than Amber. And yet she had had Freddie preening like a kid on his first date. Dad had been a widower a long time. But he was a rich man. He should be careful. Still, he had avoided lots of gold diggers in his time, there was no need for Calvin to be concerned.

Arruta had to be older than she looked if she was retired. Unless retired was code for some other form of honorable discharge. He made a note to check her employment file. Steve would be able to find out her record.

Sophia Franklin was another story. She was pretty enough to stir up the hands. Although she left him stone cold. Which was strange, given his usual preference for tall, svelte blondes. And he liked cats – usually.

Not that he should be thinking about ranch employees as sexual beings. That kind of thing was so last century. This century, the boss was supposed to remain above such things. To act civilized. But in bear, his beastly nature had the ascendant. And right now his fur was standing on end. Why?

The clouds blew away from the moon and lit up the landscape. The snow was gone and the dark mud did not reflect the moonlight well, but there was enough illumination to let him see further. He remembered his mission. Snake shifter. He was watching for trouble from a snake shifter.

And there was the sonovabitch, side-winding along the trail, staying in the shadows, but getting closer to the cabin with every shimmy. Calvin couldn’t smell the snake from so far away, but it was for sure a shape shifting snake.

An ordinary rattler would be paralyzed by this intense winter cold. Yet this one was moving as if the temperature was not an issue, flicking its forked tongue to taste the air before deciding on its path. Moving without haste toward its objective.

Time Cal got down from this tree. He rearranged his bulk. The wind gusted hard. The branch he was sitting on cracked. He fell fifty feet to the ground. Landed on a great prickly bush. The dry thorny branches broke his fall and saved his life. But the long spikes penetrated his leathery paw pads and scratched his nose.

The fall also knocked the air out of his lungs. He took a moment to collect himself. Realized the branch had landed beneath him, cushioning his fall. Scrambled inelegantly out of the brush. The snake was deaf of course in this morph, but it had felt the vibrations of his fall and was turning its head from side to side trying to get a fix on the source of the disturbance.

Calvin was upwind of the bugger. He padded forward, ignoring the thorns in his paw pads, keeping his eyes on the predatory snake. He would only get one chance. One bite. If he didn’t take the rattler out with that first strike, he would be bitten. That would not end well. What he needed was a gun. But he didn’t have one, all he had was the element of surprise.

The snake vanished. Calvin sat down in utter surprise. Listened carefully. The thin cold air was not the greatest at transmitting sound waves, but Calvin caught the scrape of skin on bark. The snake was climbing a tree.

He visualized the landscape. The cabin was overhung by only one tree branch. The slender length of an aspen limb did not seem strong enough to support the hefty bulk of the rattlesnake shifter. But perhaps that was the plan? The snake could get onto the roof if the branch bent low enough, or if it broke off entirely.

Calvin changed course. In bear he could not intercept the snake. He would have to rouse Amber and Lance and hope the ensuing ruckus would frighten off the rattler. They would lose their opportunity to take him out, but priority one was Amber’s safety.

The scent of unbathed human male came out of left field, blindsiding his senses. He had run smack dab into the scent trail left by a trespasser. Blondie had a pal. Was this Dog’s scent? It was too much of a coincidence that the Double B would have two intruders on the same frosty night.

He could not both alert Amber and ambush the human male. While he deliberated, a single gun shot rang out. Thirty feet above his head, the snake tumbled out of the aspen, flailing its body uselessly. Calvin decided the gunfire would have served to warn Amber and Lance. He turned to intercept the human.

A blast of buckshot caught him in his haunches. The gunman’s fire was returned with two rounds. The cabin door opened. Holden’s voice barked an order. The door snapped shut. He heard Holden conferring with his backup. Apparently they had two bodies to contend with. One naked. One not. The naked one was dead, the other just wounded.

A quiet, amused voice spoke over his head. “We have another casualty, Holden. The weekend soldier has got himself shot in the butt.”

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