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Synopsis

Myra McClure, orphaned at birth, found herself struggling in life, trying to search out a place to fit in until one snow-covered night her life suddenly took a strange new turn. In rescuing a very special horse, she entered a world unlike anything she had ever known. Wolves, horses, and human-like animals woke Myra to the world of the Wendigo. A world she didn’t understand at first but a world she wanted to be part of despite the dangers that came with it. She learned about trust, loyalty and most of all how to love.

Alex Wade, head of his own Wendigo clan, offered Myra the protection of his clan and in doing so lost his heart to this strong-willed, sarcastic unconventional woman. Wendigos didn’t take humans as life mates but Alex began to learn Myra was no ordinary human. She had a gift with horses, evident in the rescue of a horse he spent years finding. While his own clan is ready to accept Myra into the fold, he must struggle with his own fears of the past. And most of all the animal within


Chapter 1

The Begining

The Wendigo Series
Wendigo translates to “evil spirit that devours mankind” by the Native American Algonquian Indian tribe. Its definition over time has changed but always remained consistent in its description. It is a half man, half-animal that feeds on human flesh.
What if the truth of the Wendigo wasn’t what had been written over the years but rather a cultured society of creatures that lived among humankind?
A species that cherished the horse as an integrated part of their society, utilizing the horse’s strength, speed, grace and loyalty to benefit them in everyday life. Set in the wilds of the great pacific wilderness, Harvest Moon tells the story of a secret society living within our own society. 

Chapter One
Life begins to end the moment we take our first breath. Once we begin to live we also begin to die; but in death, we will live again. Myra did not remember where she’d heard that sentiment, but the words had followed her for most of her young life. Even now, as the wind tore at her body, the heavy snowfall blinding her, those words chanted through the back of her mind.
The wind echoed across the endless sea of snow, trees, and ice. Myra hunched her shoulders to brace herself against the brunt of the sudden late-season mountain snowstorm. She battled the knee-high snowdrifts, moving toward the shadowed form of a building in the distance. The abandoned barn was one of the many stops she used while traveling between Spokane and Seattle. The deserted structure wasn’t much to look at but was a very welcome sight at this particular moment.
She pushed on the door, using her shoulder for leverage. The door gave way with a loud crack seconds before she fell through it. Snow crept in through broken boards every few feet down the aisle, long-abandoned stalls lining both sides. The wind whipped at the aged structure, forcing the old building to creak and sway as she moved farther down toward the old tack room.
Inside the room were countless empty saddle racks and bridle brackets, the only remaining evidence of the once successful show barn. Myra closed her eyes, recalling the familiar scent of leather, the shuffle of horses outside and the occasional neigh off in the distance. She hunkered down in the back of the room of the interior wall, tucking her gloved hands into the sleeves of her parka. She glanced at the metal garbage can in the corner of the room, which she used as a burn barrel whenever she stopped here. She would have looked for something to make fire with, but right now, all she wanted to do was sleep. She curled up into a tight ball, put her head between her knees and as always, when she was here, her emotions went off in different directions.
Life had given up on her, as had society. She was treated as a castaway, a forgotten soul within the sea of countless faces who did not care if she lived or died. Life continually dealt her a bad hand, forcing her to struggle hard to see the light of a better way. It existed; she knew it did, because at one time she lived better, but it seemed so long ago, simply a memory.
She sought a peaceful sanctuary within those memories, looking deep within until she finally saw it in her mind—endless valleys dotted with horses, the sea of wildflowers swaying in a warm gentle breeze, the warmth of the glowing sun on her face. With closed eyes, she could almost feel the brush of the wind against her skin, stirring the locks of her golden curls about her shoulders.
The hours passed, and to her dread, the storm worsened. It grew colder as darkness set in. She started to shiver and, after a while, her toes started to go numb. Cursing, she realized she was going to be here for the night. She should build a fire, but couldn’t summon the energy to get up. She was on the edge between this world and crossing over into the next, but she couldn’t keep her eyes open. She was just too tired. She would sleep, just for a while, then she’d start a fire.
As her eyelids drooped, they jerked back open, alerted by some unknown sense. The wind raged outside but she wasn’t able to distinguish anything different from the roar of the storm. She closed her eyes again, figuring it was nothing, but jerked awake yet again. This time she leapt to her feet, hearing only the raging storm outside. She concentrated, holding her breath, and then she heard it—the sound of a horse calling out in distress.
Head bent to the wind, she trudged into the storm, stopping long enough to get her bearings. The wind and knee-deep snow made walking difficult, slowing her progress as she moved back up the winding drive toward the road. Headlights of a large dual-wheel truck pointed into the sky a short way down the road. As she moved closer, steam rose from the crunched hood and despite the massive damage to the truck, the engine was still running. The truck rested in a deep snow bank, twisted sideways, wrapped around trees, with the silhouetted form of the driver leaning against the steering wheel. Behind the truck, a two-horse aluminum trailer lay flipped on its side, halfway over the side of the steep embankment. She rushed as best she could through the snow toward the back of the trailer to find it empty, both doors flung wide open.
Who in their right mind would be driving in this weather hauling horses? The horse called out again, but it sounded much farther away. The animal was moving away from the accident, obviously more mobile than the driver was and while she wanted to go after the loose horse, she should check the condition of the motionless man first.
She yanked open the driver side door to find the body of the driver slumped over the steering wheel. She wrinkled her nose at the foul stench of beer washing over her, heightened by the heat of the still warm cab. Her temper flared. Drinking and driving in this weather—the man was insane. In her opinion he got what he deserved. She stepped up onto the guardrail to lean into the vehicle. Truth be told, by the extent of the truck’s damage, she didn’t expect to find him still alive.
She had witnessed too much death in her twenty-seven years. So much so it didn’t shock her anymore. Her life on the streets wasn’t always pretty. Death was as common as trying to find a meal, or most often the lack of one, but this was different. She took hold of the man’s shoulder and pushed him back off the steering wheel. The cut above his left eye and the blood on the steering wheel led her to believe he hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt when he crashed. She examined him for any other injuries, but the gash to the head appeared to be it. She had no way of knowing if he had any internal injuries out here so far from civilization. What a waste of a good-looking man. He was young, maybe in his early twenties or younger, with a crop of wheat-colored, short haircut close to the nape and shaved just above his ears.
A wave of relief rushed over her when his eyelids flickered. A moment later, they slowly opened, revealing a rich, bluish-silver color, which caused her to catch her breath. He was trying to focus, trying to make sense of where he was and what was going on until his gaze fell on her.
His expression softened. He reached out a gloved hand to touch her cheek, and to her surprise, she didn’t want to back away. His touch was soft, almost searching.
“Just my luck to be knocked out and then rescued by such a hot dish without being able to do anything about it.” With that his eyes slowly closed again and his head slumped to the side.
This encounter certainly confirmed he suffered a serious head injury; either that or it was the beer talking because she was far from a hot dish. Glancing at the near empty gas gauge, she assessed getting him inside the barn before the truck ran out of gas and the warmth of the heater ran out.
First order of business was to get a fire going. Ten minutes later, a fire crackled in the burn barrel in the tack room, thanks to the cigarette lighter she found in the glove box of the truck. Despite the cracks in the barn’s dilapidated walls, smoke started to fill the room. She had no choice but to open the room’s window to let the smoke vent from the room. Gathering as much scrap wood as she could find around the barn, she stacked it near the burn barrel, then went in search of something to place on the floor for a bed. She’d found nothing inside the barn so she headed back out to the truck in hopes that she could find something in the trailer.
She found bales of hay in the front of the trailer and with the help of a saddle blanket and lead rope made a makeshift sled to get the bales back to the barn to spread out over the floor. She surveyed her handiwork for a brief moment with great satisfaction before going out to get the man. She brought the lead rope and blanket along, figuring if it worked for the hay bales, it would work for the injured man as well. As she trudged back to the truck she noticed the horse wasn’t calling out anymore and it worried her. Had it succumbed to the storm’s elements, lying dead somewhere, in a cold bed of snow and ice, or had it wandered far enough away that she could no longer hear it? As much as she wanted to find the horse, she had to get the man inside, which wasn’t going to be an easy task. He was a large man, far bigger than her, with his fancy parka and snow pants only emphasizing his size. After laying the horse blanket down just beneath the door, she climbed over him, braced herself against the crunched passenger door and pushed the man with her booted feet. He rolled out of the truck and into the soft snow with a muffled thud, missing the blanket by inches, his fancy wool-lined boots still propped on the door ledge.
“Sorry.”
She quickly scrambled out of the truck, grabbing him by the arm to roll him onto his back and onto the blanket to avoid smothering him to death. When she positioned him just right, she grabbed the lead rope and dragged him back toward the barn. Getting him back into the tack room seemed to take forever. The fire had warmed the space to a comfortable level, despite the cracked window, although it didn’t matter; she had broken into a sweat due to her efforts.
She packed hay all around him and as she did so, he grabbed her wrist. She inhaled sharply and tried to pull back but his grip was too strong. His eyes, those brilliant blue eyes, seemed darker now, almost a royal blue, as his grip tightened painfully.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Just relax, you’re safe in here. I’m sure someone will come looking for you.”
Again his face softened, and his eyes faded back to a brilliant silver-blue. “Ah, beautiful angel, please tell me you’re not just a dream.”
First, she was a hot dish, now beautiful. She was far from either. Her hair was too thin, stringy, some would call it, hanging limply about her shoulders. Her face was homely plain and her body, under the thick layers she wore, wasn’t anything to write home about. The fact she grew up an orphan was hard enough. She always felt like an outcast, the child all the kids in social services picked on. Nothing had changed as she grew into young adulthood other than that she was older and even odder-looking, with the body of a boy.
“No, I am not a dream. You were in an accident.”
In a split second, his expression turned to panic as his eyes widened. “The horses! Alex is going to kill me if Raven gets hold of them!”
He attempted to sit up but was forced back to the hay with a moan, as he placed a hand to his wounded head.
“I’m going to look for them right now,” she said, tucking the hay around him again. “Stay here where it’s warm.”
The man shook his head. “No. It’s too dangerous.” He rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. “You need to call for help.”
He tried shoving the phone toward her. “Call Alex. He’s number one on my speed dial. He’ll know what to do.”
“No one is coming out in this weather,” she said, but took the phone to appease him. The man closed his eyes. She wasn’t certain if it was wise to let him rest with a head injury, but what other choice did she have? She shoved the phone back into his pocket before she took a moment to warm up, and headed back out to see if she could find the horses.
As she stepped out into the snow, she sensed something, a strange feeling surrounding her she couldn’t explain. The wind whistled, the snow raged on, nothing seemed changed, but it hung over her as she walked, head bent, into the stinging wind. Who was Raven? Was he a murderer as well as a horse thief? Was that why he was so dangerous?
She scrambled down the snow-covered bank behind the truck and trailer, using the broken trees for hand holds until she reached the bottom. Among the brush, she found the form of a large horse, lifeless, its eyes opened wide in death and covered with at least a couple inches of snow. She knelt next to it and touched the body, finding it nearly frozen. It had died some time ago, which meant this wasn’t the horse she’d heard earlier. She looked up, staring out into a wall of white, wondering if she dared go any farther. But the storm wasn’t letting up, and as it raged on, she wondered about the poor horse lost in it. Any signs of tracks were long gone, and she risked freezing to death herself if she ventured too far. She had spent a great deal of her teenage years riding these very woods. Despite the blinding snow, she recognized certain landmarks, such as the thinly frozen stream she used to cross, and the grove of large oak trees she often rested under after a long afternoon ride. Familiarity added confidence to her stride.
As she traveled a little deeper into the woods, the uneasy feeling she felt when she first left the barn intensified, slowing her step. Her eyes tried to pick out any movement in the dense forest, but she only saw darkness and shadows. The snow seemed to be letting up a bit, but that didn’t make it any easier to see what was going on around her. Then she heard a horse cry—a deep, mournful sound that broke her heart and powered her steps through the remaining trees. The horse was in great distress. She stopped a few feet from the edge of a clearing. A large black stallion had its lead rope caught in the branches of a fallen tree, desperately fighting off a pack of what looked like wolves. But were they really wolves? There hadn’t been wolves in this area for a long time. Dogs maybe, or possibly hybrid wolves, two black and one white, but whatever they were, their intent was obvious. If she didn’t do something, the horse would become their next meal.
She struggled against the panic rising up in her, her instincts conflicted. The homeless streetwise person in her told her to run, to save herself, instead of becoming these animals’ next entrée, but the horseman in her knew she couldn’t just leave the horse to its fate without doing something to help. She scanned the area for anything she could use as a weapon. She grabbed a thick branch from a small snowdrift to use as a club.
She held it tight in her gloved hand, took a deep breath then charged forward. “Leave him alone!” Her bellow attracted the attention of the three animals. The horse took advantage of the dogs’ distraction and with a kick of a back hoof sent one flying into the brush. The black wolf-dog hovered close to the horse’s snapping jaws and the horse picked it up by the neck and shook it like a toy before flinging it away. The animal landed with a thud and then whimpered as it limped off into the trees. The last wolf-like animal held its ground, growling and baring its teeth at her. What happened next was a blur. She vaguely registered the wolf leaping toward her, but her eyes squeezed shut when she swung the piece of wood. She felt it connect with a body, but when she opened her eyes the dog was nowhere to be seen.
She dropped the wood and hurried to the horse. It shied away from her, but she ignored its fear as she reached to untangle the rope. The horse pulled back at the same time as her hands tried working to free it, making it even more difficult. Finally, in all her frustration and fear she yelled out, “Will you just stand still!”
Surprisingly the horse settled and she was able to untangle the lead rope.
“Come on. “She tugged on the lead line. The horse followed behind her without much urging. He seemed as eager to get out of there as she was.
She led the horse up the embankment and back into the barn. After getting him into a stall, she cautiously went for more hay, retrieving the last bale from the trailer. She kept her eyes open for any signs of wolves but in the raging storm she saw only a wall of white snow.
She fed the horse and returned to look for a first aid kit, knowing the horse had some minor cuts. She found the first aid kit, but also found a battery-powered lantern in the back of the trailer dressing room. Perfect timing since it was dark inside the barn. The horse munched contentedly on the hay as she tended his minor wounds and looked him over for any serious injuries. He was a big animal; at her 5’5” height she couldn’t see over his back. The horse appeared to have the build of an Oldenburg or maybe a Dutch Warmblood, all muscle and bone. His full mane and tail were lush, his black tail touching the ground while his mane fell past his shoulders. The long forelock hung to one side of his head, leaving his large prominent eye focused on her as she moved her hands over him. In the midst of her examination, the persistence of the man’s cell phone drew her away from the horse’s side. She grabbed the cell phone from the unconscious man’s parka pocket and flipped it open.
“Where are my horses, Ray?”
“Hello?” she answered, uncertain of what else she should say in response to this man’s angry tone.
“Who is this?” the voice demanded. “Where is Ray? Let me guess, he is lying in a drunken stupor with yet another gold digger, and you’re thinking you’re going to get a fortune. Wake up, lady; you’re on a train to nowhere. The money is mine. He’s as poor as the day is long. You’re just another sucker caught in a long line of Ray’s conquests. He won’t even remember your name in the morning. Now put him on the phone!”
Conquest! If this man’s assessment of his “friend” was accurate, it would certainly justify the tone of voice, but he had no right to make assumptions about her. She was doing them a favor and he automatically assumed the worst of her.
She glanced at the caller ID, which read “Alex.” That explained a lot, but it didn’t lessen her irritation.
“Well, I would put him on the phone except he’s unconscious due to a large wound to his head from the accident he was in.”
There was a brief pause. “Where?”
She gave him the exact address. “I managed to get them into the barn but his wounds need tending.”
“So you have the horses?”
Did the man care anything about the driver? Why didn’t he ask how he was?
“One didn’t make it. The stallion, though, I managed to rescue from a pack of wolves. At least I think they were wolves.”
“Wolves? There?”
“I know. I’ve never heard of wolves in this area. It was dark, they could have been large dogs, but regardless, the horse is fine and safe.”
The phone echoed with a string of curses. “I’ll have someone there by the morning. Stay inside and block the doors if you can. They may still be around.”
“I doubt it. If they know any better, they’re sheltering somewhere as well. The storm has picked up again worse than before. I doubt you’ll get anyone out here until the weather lets up.”
“Let’s say wealth has its privileges,” he said flatly, and then added in a curse, “that damn kid, I told him not to use the mountain pass. Stay by the phone, I’m going to call a few people.”
Then he hung up. She hunched down against the wall, hugging herself. She kept the cell phone close, while watching the young man she’d rescued. His chest rose and fell in a comfortable rhythm, his breathing even and his color good. It eased her mind to know he likely wouldn’t die in her care and as soon as his friend arrived in the morning, she would be able to move on. She removed her socks and boots, putting her feet near the fire. When her feet started to burn with a prickly pain, she knew the circulation was slowly returning to them, first her toes, then the rest of her feet. It was a good sign.
The tingling in her feet had almost completely subsided when the phone rang again.
“This is Alex. I spoke to you earlier. I should have someone there in a few hours.”
Yeah right, so someone else could end up getting stranded and need to be rescued too. Well, she wasn’t waiting around to find out.
“The fire will burn well into the night and the horse has plenty of hay,” she told him. “I will put something by the end of the drive so they can find the turn-off after I leave.”
Again another pause. “You can’t leave.”
“I need to move on.”
“Move on where? Don’t you live there?”
“Yeah, I live in a barn.” She bit her tongue on her sarcasm, as the pain of her feet forced out an anger this man didn’t deserve. “I don’t live anywhere. It’s just time I moved on.”
“What’s your name?”
“Myra.”
“Just Myra?”
Myra McCain, she almost said but caught herself. She learned a long time ago not to give too much of herself away. “Does it matter?”
“I like to know whom I am talking to.”
“You’re talking to Myra,” she said, holding her ground.
“Fine,” he spat out, with obvious irritation. “What were you doing out in the storm?”
“I wasn’t out in the storm initially,” she snapped back at him. “I was sheltering in the abandoned barn when I heard the horse.”
“There isn’t anyone missing you?”
She took a deep breath, not prepared for her gut-wrenching reaction to such a simple question. “No.”
“So no one’s missing you. You’re wandering in a blizzard. Shall I assume you’re homeless?”
“I like to think of myself as a free spirit,” she told him defensively.
“So tell me how a free spirit knows how to handle horses? That stallion can be a handful on a good day.”
She remained guarded. “I just know horses.”
“And?”
“And what?”
“I doubt the homeless are around horses much. Where did you learn to handle horses?”
“It doesn’t take much for someone’s circumstances to change.” She paused, and then added, “I doubt you’ll ever have to worry about that. Anyone who can afford such fine horse stock will never have to think about where their next meal is coming from.”
“Oh, I see. You’re one of those people.”
“What people?” she snapped.
“People who hate others because you’re jealous of what they do have and you don’t.”
“What right do you have to make assumptions when you have no idea who I am? I had a nice quiet place to shelter out this storm when your drunk driver ran off the road. Now I find myself in the position of taking care of your horse and driver when I can barely take care of myself. All I wanted was to be alone but now that’s all shot to hell.” She took a deep breath. “Let me tell you what I really think about your type, buddy. You do what you want because you have money. You think it gives you the right to judge others. When you have to fight to keep from starving to death or fight off the cold every day, then you can judge me. When you’re forced to sell every little part of your self-respect to survive, then you can look down your nose at people like me.” She stopped long enough to take another quick breath. “I risked my life saving your horse, and here you are judging me? I don’t need this! I did you a favor and this is the gratitude I get. Screw you.”
She hung up on him, her hands still shaking from her fury. When the phone rang again, she had a strong urge to answer it and hang up again. Instead she glanced at the caller ID and made sure it was the same person calling back before she really gave him a piece of her mind. She didn’t get the chance, since he spoke first.
“Don’t hang up. I’m sorry, okay. I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m just a little frustrated with this whole situation.”
Damn right, he was sorry. He was only sorry because he needed her to stay there and watch over his precious property until someone else came along. Then she’d be right back to being dirt under his feet. She took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down.
“It took me nearly a year to find those horses and now I am out one of them. I cannot afford to lose this one as well.”
“Don’t you care about the driver at all?”
“Of course I do,” the man countered angrily. “But Ray will recover. He’s more resilient than you realize. The horse, however, is one of a kind. I lose him, I lose more than just money.”
She was ready to question the hidden meaning of those words, but it really wasn’t any of her business. Her feet were warm now. It was time to go.
“I need to get going. Unlike you, I don’t have the luxury of checking into a hotel. It’s a long walk to Seattle, and maybe if I can get to the road, I can hope to get a ride. If your driver was crazy enough to be out in this weather, maybe someone else will be. I’ll make sure the door is barricaded so nothing will get in.”
It was as if she’d reminded him of the urgency of the situation because he once again sounded worried.
“Don’t hang up,” he said quickly. “Stay on the phone. You can do whatever you want once help arrives, but I need reassurance my cousin and my horse are kept safe.”
Cousin? This young man was his family. He sure didn’t act like he was family. Damn! Why did he have to tell her that and why did he have to sound so desperate? “Fine, I’ll stay until help arrives, but then I am gone. “
“Good, then talk to me. It will pass the time and I’ll be able to know you all are weathering the storm,” he said. “You said you know horses. How? Did you live on a farm?”
She didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t want to remember. She just wanted to hide, to make it all go away. After some time passed without her saying anything, Alex spoke up.
“I get by your silence that you aren’t into talking, but you’d feel better if you did.”
“No,” she said without hesitation.
“Wouldn’t it be better to talk to a stranger that you’ll never see again?”
“You know, what would make me feel better is hanging up and moving on.”
“Okay, I get it, no pushing,” he said quickly. “I just want you to stay. I get a strange sense that you are very capable person. I need someone like you there until help arrives.” He was quiet again. “If Ray had been on schedule, he would have missed the storm.”
She glanced at the young man resting quietly across from her.
“He seems awfully young for such an important responsibility.”
“Oh, please don’t rub it in. My regret is great enough. Ray may be young but he’s got certain skills that I can usually count on when needed. At least you were there to come to the rescue or I would have lost both horses.” He paused for a moment. “Did he wake at all?”
“Briefly. Just long enough to be worried you’d be pissed off if someone named Raven got the horses. Then he passed out again.”
Again silence, then Alex said, “You’re certain you weren’t followed back to the barn?” His tone was one of worry.
“By who? The abominable snowman? I’m telling you there is nothing out there in this storm.”
“You need to stay by the phone. I need to call someone. Promise me you will answer when I call back.”
She now worried at the urgency in his tone. She didn’t have time to say anything before he spoke again, almost pleading.
“Promise me!”
“I will.”
Then silence. She stared at the phone for a moment before snapping it shut. What was that all about? She glanced at the resting man, wondering if all the people associated with this situation were off their rocker.
****
“Dammit, Jacob, pick up the phone!” Alex said, frustrated after the fourth time trying to reach his other cousin. He paced back and forth in his study under his sister’s watchful eye. She leaned back in the rocker and watched him.
“Will you at least sit, Alex? You’re making me nauseated.”
Alex pinned her with a hard look. “Why aren’t you out hunting with the others? I thought you hated being in on cold, rainy, windy nights like this one?”
Arana cocked her head slightly, her pale blue eyes almost whimsical in their assessment of him. “Because you’re far more amusing, and I can hunt anytime. I find it rather interesting, watching your features when you talk to this person on the phone. It’s better than a soap opera.”
He opened his mouth to yell at her, but Jacob finally answered his phone.
“Where have you been?”
“Well hello to you too,” Jacob said.
“Jacob—”
“Just coming into Washington now.”
“I want you to call the others in.”
“I think I can handle Ray and that demon horse of yours just fine by myself.”
“I think Raven is there, and as good as you are, Jacob, I know he will not be alone.”
Arana sat up in the chair, all humor gone. “Raven is back?”
Alex allowed a brief flicker of compassion to cross his features when he glanced at his younger sister but he could not allow it to distract him right now. He had to concentrate on getting both Tristan and his cousin back safely. And now there was an innocent involved. He could not risk exposure. Not when they had lived in peace for so long.
“Why do you believe this?” Jacob asked, drawing Alex’s attention back to the receiver. He quickly explained, bringing Jacob up to speed on the current situation.
“We can’t take any chances. Call the others in. Raven will not get his hands on this horse too.”
“How could he have figured it out? We took every precaution.”
“I don’t know, but the girl has no idea the danger they’re all in. Get there by any means.”

****
Myra moved out to check on the horse and found him contently eating when she approached. In the darkness, she could only see his outline against the back of the dark stall. Once her eyes adjusted to the darkness she could see he was watching her with an intent eye, all the while chewing on his hay.
“I bet you feel as alone as I do,” she said. The horse moved closer to the door and stuck his muzzle through the bars. She stroked his soft muzzle, giggling when his whiskers tickled her hand as he nickered softly.
At the sound of the ringing phone, the horse jerked and snorted, startled. She stepped back to answer the phone.
“Hello?”
“It’s Alex.”
For some reason she was pleased to hear Alex’s voice. Almost relieved.
“The weather is clearing,” he said. “Jacob, Ray’s brother, should be there by the morning.”
More family. A man who kept his family close was often a man a person could trust, a loyal man. However, she could be wrong. She had been in the past.
“How old are you anyway?”
Once again, he caught her off guard. “Why do you need to know?”
“I like to know how old the person is who is looking after my family and my horse. Is that wrong?”
She supposed it was an honest enough question. She’d have probably asked the same thing if the situation were reversed.
“Twenty-seven, not that it really matters. Living on the streets, the only age that matters is that of the food tossed away in garbage cans.” She yawned. She moved back to the tack room, back to the warmth. “I’m really tired. I’ve been up a long time and this whole situation has worn me out. I just want to sleep for a little while. I need my strength, if by chance those wolf-dogs do show up and I have to fight them off again.”
“You actually stood up to them? You didn’t run?”
“Oh believe me, I sure in the hell would have gotten out of there, but the horse was trapped by its lead rope. I couldn’t leave it behind to be picked off. Besides, I got a good hit on one of those beasts before it ran off. The horse took care of the others.”
“You took a terrible risk,” he muttered. It almost sounded as if he were scolding her with an edge of concern. But concern for his property and his cousin—that was all.
“Yeah, well, that’s me. Little miss adventure. Now please, I just want to sleep for a little while.”
“Don’t go to sleep,” the man ordered with an urgency she didn’t understand. “You need to stay awake. You might freeze to death while you’re asleep.”
“Aw, your concern is so touching,” she mocked. “Really, I’m fine. I’ve been through a lot worse. I will make sure your cousin and horse survive. But I need some sleep before I move on.”
“Earlier you said you sold your self-respect. Did you mean you really sold yourself? Are you a hooker?”
“What kind of question is that, you sick bastard?” she spat out.
“No, I am not. I was speaking rhetorically. The day I was thrown out on the streets was the day I sold myself.”
Images of the past rose up fast and clear in her mind, bringing forth a familiar face, looming just beyond in her subconscious. First clear, then blurry as tears formed in remembrance of happy days long gone. She felt more alone now than ever.
“Are you still there?”
“Yes.”
“So tell me what you look like.”
She then realized what he was up to. He was keeping her talking to have her focus on something, anything but sleep and now hunger. Her belly was starting to rumble. The last time she ate was about two days ago when she broke into a hunter’s cabin, showered, ate, and brushed her teeth. They came back earlier than she thought and she had to shimmy out a bathroom window, leaving her bag behind. Not that it mattered. There wasn’t anything in it except a change of clothes, her brush, and toothbrush. She’d steal some new supplies later, when she reached Seattle. But right now that plan was put on hold, shot all to hell, and her belly reminded her of it.
“Why do you need to know that? I already told you how old I am, and believe me, it’s more than most people have gotten out of me.”
“I like to have an image in my mind of whom I’m talking to.”
“Are you some kind of pervert?” she countered. “Because I am not into that kinky phone crap.”
“Such a disappointment,” he replied. She could hear the smile in his voice. “No really, it’s an innocent question. I’m just curious.”
“I could say I look like a super model if it helps your image any,” she said, hearing his soft chuckle on the other end. “Truth is I am rather plain.”
“Well, you have a nice voice.”
“And I have a wonderful personality too,” she joked halfheartedly.
Once again, he chuckled. She liked his laugh. So deep and so pure.
“So what about you?” she couldn’t help but ask. “What’s your history?”
“My full name is Alexander Mitchell Wade. I own a horse ranch and, yes, I am wealthy. My good looks are just an added bonus.”
“Wow, aren’t you modest.”
“I’m charming as well, but I don’t base what I achieve on my looks. I’ve worked hard for what I have. I’ve done that by breeding quality race horses.”
“So someone with your ego can’t be married.”
“Ouch!” he responded with a laugh. “I was about six years ago. She died in a riding accident.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, unable to feel any more like a heel. Of anyone, she should know how much it hurt to lose someone you cared about. The years never whittled down the pain, just made it bearable and barely that.
“It was a long time ago,” he said, his voice quieting. “At least she died doing something she loved.”
Unlike poor Frank, she thought. He’d died in pain and fear that lasted for days.
“Death can sometimes be a peaceful release,” she said in somber memory of an old man’s body twisted in pain.
“And life can have equal rewards,” Alex said quickly. He paused for a moment before asking, “Since you opened this door, what about you? Any significant other?”
“Oh yes, being the pinup model for Homeless Weekly, I have men breaking down my door,” she snipped but smiled as she did so. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. Most men can’t handle my charming personality.”
Alex laughed so loud she had to hold the phone away from her ear. She smiled. She shouldn’t be doing this. She shouldn’t let him draw her out of her own self-loathing, make her feel again. She had to keep her distance.
“The battery’s almost dead,” she said as the phone began to beep. She was disappointed as well as relieved.
“Isn’t there anywhere you can charge it? I know Ray had a charger in the truck.”
“What part of abandoned barn did you not get?” She made an effort to smooth over her sarcastic tone. “I have plenty of wood for the night. It’s quieting down outside. We will be fine.”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
Because she was afraid to be alone with the responsibility of others in her care. She wouldn’t care so much if it were her and the horse. Horses she knew, but this man lying close to her had people who would miss him.
“I won’t let anything happen,” she said, and meant every word.
And with that said the phone went dead. The dull silence that followed began to close around her like a glove to her throat, and she let it consume her. She curled up next to the man she knew as Ray to share his warmth, closed her eyes, then let darkness sweep over her.

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Ann L Marie

Racine, USA

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