The Centaur's Bride
The Centaur's Bride
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When city-girl Renee meets a shirtless cowboy with abs of steel and a soft spot for horses, she decides to extend her visit into a vacation. But the ranch workers are acting mighty strange, and her sexy cowboy has a secret she never expected...
- City Girl
- Country Boy
- Secret Shifter Society
- Monster Hero
- "Pack" (Herd) Dynamics
- Moral Dilemmas
Renee plans to take one last look at the sage-covered hills before she sells her late grandfather's ranch. When she meets a shirtless cowboy with abs of steel and a soft spot for horses, she decides to extend her visit into a vacation. But the ranch workers are acting mighty strange, and her sexy cowboy has a secret she never expected...
Black Stevens has always been an outsider. To the herd he’s defective, unable to shift to full equine form, and to humans he’s a monster found only in myth. When the herd's leader offers him a chance to earn a position among his people, he can't say no. Now he only has to get the ranch's sexy young heiress to say yes...
As he shows Renee around, he discovers there's more to this little human than he gave her credit for, and he wants her. Bad. Can he convince her to leave behind the life she's always known and keep the ranch? More importantly, can he convince her to give herself over to a monster like him?
Intro Into Chapter One
Intro Into Chapter One
Black Stevens pushed the brim of his cowboy hat up off his forehead with the back of a wrist and stepped aside to allow the newborn foal room to stand. Dim florescent bulbs hanging from the barn's rafters fought back the night with tenacious insistence. The delivery had gone smoothly, in spite of the herd's concern that Millie was too old for another pregnancy.
Beside him, Millie's oldest daughter, Su, let out a sigh of relief. "She looks okay?"
"Right as rain," he said, meeting her gaze.
Su quickly looked away. In her human form, Su was even more mousy than her horse form, with nondescript dark hair and sallow skin that matched her mare coat. She was one of the few herd members subordinate to Black.
Millie, a bay, bumped her gray-haired muzzle against the newborn, encouraging her to stand.
"What’re you going to name her?" Black asked.
Millie snorted and rolled an eye, unable to answer in horse form, while Su held out a hand to the filly, sharing her smell. "We'll probably let Lori decide."
Now it was Black's turn to snort and roll his eyes. He hooked his thumbs into the front loops of his jeans rather than ball his hands into fists like he wanted to. Since his grandmother's death, Lori had taken over as Lead Mare and had all but declared martial law over the herd.
"Let me decide what?" Lori's sultry voice filled the barn. Black ducked around the stall corner to find the blonde-haired herd leader approaching, decked in what she called her human bling—lacy black bra peeking above the plunge of her red button-down shirt, tight jeans with bright rivets along the pockets, and a big silver belt buckle shaped like the state of Montana. Her shiny New Helens cowboy boots brought her almost eye-to-eye with Black's six-foot-three frame.
"Hey, soldier." She sauntered past him, keeping her gaze locked with his until he looked away like a good herd member. A lifetime of ingrained respect for rank warred with his urge to buck the new Lead Mare's authority. Stallions protected the herd physically, while mares guided policy, and the lead mare’s word was law once she was voted in. Only the strongest herd members might dare to challenge her. His grandmother had demanded respect during her leadership, but she'd also given it in return. Lori was just a bully.
Inside the birthing stall, Lori took a wide stance, hands on her hips. "Well she's a plain-Jane little thing, isn't she? Let's call her Jane, shall we?"
Su kept her chin down and nodded, while Millie turned her head aside submissively.
Black's nostrils flared, but he kept his posture relaxed. "I thought we might name her Ivy because of those lovely stripes wrapping her hocks."
The herd leader flicked her manicured fingers dismissively. "Ivy's for greener pastures. We'll stick with Jane. Come on, ladies. We're heading out.” She snaked her belt off and hung it from a peg near the entrance as if staking territory with a flag, then pulled off her boots. She shoved them at Black. "Put these in my locker.”
Before he could blink, Lori and Su were naked, Lori's upright breasts and perfectly manicured pubic area a complete opposite to Su's natural sags and bulges. Lori slipped into the darkness outside. Su followed close behind, casting a concerned glance over her shoulder at Millie. The light spilling from the open door caught a flash of Lori's golden palomino coat as she shifted.
Millie nudged her new foal toward the exit.
"You don't need to go. Let Ivy-Jane get her legs and nurse." Black refused to call the baby plain Jane. "She should meet your human form, too." Black put a hand on Millie's bony whither, self-conscious about giving a seasoned mother advice, but his veterinary training wouldn't allow him to remain silent. Not only were there dangers like mountain lions out there, but the first few hours of a foal’s life were critical for imprinting, especially for shifter young, who had to acquaint themselves with what amounted to two mothers. The foal wouldn't be capable of shifting for a few years, but she'd have to learn both equine and human communication right away.
The mare's scarred flank flinched at his touch. She turned her head to bump against him with her cheek, telling him she appreciated his concern, but to mind his own.
He sighed and stepped back, listening as the sound of hooves striking packed dirt faded into the night. Stuffing Lori's clothes into a cubby, he looked around for any spectators before he stripped down himself. As a centaur, he'd never be a true part of the herd, and had to guard his secret more diligently than the other shifters, but tonight he had a foal to protect.
Taking a breath, he faced the door and allowed the pressure of the shift to take hold.
* * *
Renee angled the rented Ford Escape up the dirt hill toward the ranch's gate, air conditioner running full blast against the dry Montana heat. Her best friend, Steph, sat in the passenger seat, scrolling through her phone, already bored with the sagebrush-covered hills and stark rock formations rimming the plateau. Decades-old memories tumbled over Renee as they drove: Mom and Grandfather and even Dad watching her ride her black-and-white spotted pony, Cookies; stormy nights when Grandfather would sneak her out of bed to watch the lightning from the covered porch; Mom showing her a nest of kittens in the barn. Happy memories that filled her with regret the closer they got to the ranch.
Grandfather had died, and she'd never gone back to see him. He’d been gone two years and she hadn’t even known. The news had arrived with the detective hired to track her down and deliver the will. Now the ranch was hers, at least for a short while. This would be her last visit. Best to be rid of it along with all the memories, she told herself. Keeping up with Steph's rock-star lifestyle cost a lot of money, and the realtor had offered a nice sum for the property. What did Renee know about running a ranch, anyway?
The final message in Grandfather's will looped through Renee's mind as she drove.
The ranch holds a treasure deep under cover
Toliman's secrets are yours to discover
Guard it with care, and love it with spirit
Once you gain their trust, you'll no longer fear it.
Her father would’ve said it was more of the old man's voodoo or something, putting a poem in a will. But then, Dad hadn't been invited to the reading, had he? An age-old bitterness rose in Renee's throat. After Mom had died, Dad had shunned Grandfather's "heathen" ways. Something or other about shaman ceremonies and cloven-hoofed devils causing Mom’s cancer. The moment Renee'd turned eighteen and inherited Mom's trust fund, she'd run away, thinking only of escaping her father's hysterical recriminations.
Steph thought the poem meant there was buried treasure, and insisted they go check it out before Renee got rid of the place. She'd booked the first available tickets out of La Guardia on Renee's behalf, posting memes about treasure hunting to Instagram and posing for lurking paparazzi with a tiny shovel from one of her previous escapades. "Does it look like I'm ready to dig? Maybe I should shoot a music video while I'm there."
Glancing in the rearview mirror at what was obviously a reporter's car keeping a discreet distance, Renee wondered what fodder they'd end up feeding the ever-hungry press this time. Sometimes she felt like no more than a fictional character of her own life, following Steph around. But living in the rock-star’s shadow at least provided an itinerary in Renee’s discontented life.
Beneath a gnarled tree in the distance, a herd of dun-colored animals lifted their heads at the SUVs approach. Renee nudged Steph. "Look, elk." At least, she thought they were elk. Maybe deer?
Steph glanced up from her phone, then back down. "Cool. Are we almost there?"
"Soon, I think." Every fencepost they passed along the sage-dotted plateau made Renee's stomach grow tighter and tighter. Why was she so nervous? She felt like something huge was looming on the horizon, a choice she wasn’t prepared for, even though her decision to sell had already been made.
The arch of the head gate came into view, Toliman Ranch scrolled in wrought iron along the lintel. She pulled to a stop and opened the car door. A blast of dry heat flooded the air-conditioned cab, along with the far away scent of horses and sunbaked sage brush. She took a deep, appreciative breath, noting the guy behind them hanging from his car window snapping pictures with a telephoto lens. Quickly opening the gate, Renee returned to the cab and the relief of the air conditioner.
"How rustic," Steph said, eyeing the gate as they drove through. "I suppose we have to do that every time we come or go?"
Renee shrugged. "Not so bad. Gave your paparazzi boyfriend an opportunity to flirt with me."
As if in territorial response, Steph rolled down the window and stuck her torso through, offering the cameraman a shot of her ample cleavage. Renee calmly drove past the gate and then hopped back out to shut it behind them. Steph could keep the limelight for all she cared. Renee was a nobody anyway.
She drove another several hundred feet around a hill that blocked most of the house from view of the road. Sunlight danced through motes of dust as they pulled to a stop in front of the wide covered porch. Almost expecting Grandfather to emerge from the house to greet them, she cut the engine.
Steph flung open her door and glanced at Renee with her nose wrinkled. "Whew, what's that smell?”
"Horses," Renee replied, recalling a younger self who'd also wrinkled her nose. Today the smell stirred something in her, as if a trembling bud was about to bloom in her chest. She squashed it down, reminding herself she was only here to hand everything over to the real estate agent. Hopping out, she gazed at the fancy log-frame house with its high windows and country décor. An old rusty wagon wheel hung from the wood shake siding, and the front door fixtures were made of black wrought iron, right down to the old-fashioned knocker shaped like a horse shoe. Two square planter boxes on either edge of the porch steps held nothing but wisps of dry brown grass.
Behind her, the metallic rattle of the barn's bay door opening made her turn. A very tall blonde woman emerged, pointed toes of her cowboy boots impossibly shiny for a ranch worker. The woman raised her chin, as if smelling them as she approached. "Which one of you is Renee?"
Renee stuck out a hand to the giant of a woman, at least giant compared to Renee's five-foot-one frame. "I am."
The woman gripped Renee's knuckles with uncomfortable firmness. "Name's Lori. I've been running the place since your grandfather's death. Sorry for your loss, by the way."
Steph pushed forward, her hand out. "Good to meet you, Lori."
Lori took her hand, eyebrows high. "And you are?"
A look of irritation passed over Steph's features. "Oh, sorry. I'm just so used to being recognized. Steph Bilmore." She cocked her head coyly. "You might have seen one of my music videos?"
"Ah. That would explain the fellow at the gate taking pictures. Hope he knows people in Montana carry guns." The woman turned back to Renee. "How long you planning on staying?"
"Uh," Renee automatically glanced at Steph for validation. "A few days, probably? I've got a realtor coming out tomorrow."
"We're on a treasure hunt," Steph added. "Plus I want to ride a cowboy. I mean a horse." She held up her camera for a selfie next to the wagon wheel on the siding.
Lori's nose flared. "A realtor? I see. Well. The housekeeper's inside. He'll show you your rooms. I'll be in the barn." She spun and strode off without looking back.
Steph sniffed as if unimpressed. "Amazon woman there acts like she owns the place. I suppose we have to get our own luggage, huh?"
"You were a little bold with that cowboy thing,” Renee said, feeling strengthened by the Montana air. “We don't even know her."
"This is your property. You can do what you want. She needs to get over herself."
Self-assurance dwindling, Renee nodded and wandered to the fence near the barn, allowing Steph time to sort through her usual mountain of luggage. Leaning against the rough wood rail, Renee surveyed the pasture. Beyond the green, irrigated section within the fence, the rolling hills were calico-spotted with patches of yellow broom and silver-green sagebrush. A shirtless man in a cowboy hat knelt next to one of the sprinkler boxes inside the fence. She admired his broad, tanned back as he picked up and discarded tools and parts. A baby horse with zebra-striped legs pranced around him while its mother grazed placidly nearby.
The man reached a hand behind him while he continued working, wiggling his fingers until the baby nosed them and darted away in delight. The pit of Renee’s stomach danced with butterflies watching his obvious affection. The man's throaty laughter floated across the field as he rose and dusted his hands against the front of his jeans. He crouched and did a playful football shuffle, taunting the tiny horse, who kicked up its heels and ran back to its mother.
Momma horse flicked her black tail and continued grazing without concern.
Gathering up his toolbox, the man glanced in Renee's direction, sending the butterflies in her stomach into overdrive. He adjusted his hat off his forehead, letting the sun hit a fine, straight jaw with a haze of stubble. She fluttered her fingers at him, a little thrill chasing down her spine when he lifted a well-muscled arm in a reciprocal greeting. God, he’s hot. Looking over her shoulder, she realized Steph hadn't yet spotted him. Renee never got the jump on her, often due to her own hesitancy. Well, not today. This was her ranch, and she was going to own it for as long as she could. Heart beating in her throat at her own boldness, she called, "Dibs."
"What?" Steph abandoned the luggage and crunched across the gravel to stand beside her. "Aw, not fair! There'd better be more delicious cowboys around."
Renee grinned. Wow, that felt good. Most of the time, Steph picked the targets and left Renee to play wingman, which meant spending the night fending off the target's wingman. Not this time.
Setting her chin atop her forearms, Renee leaned into the fence, watching the rancher stroll toward the barn. His jeans hugged his lean hips and muscular thighs in exactly the right places, and his muscled abdomen flexed with his gait. He didn't look at her directly, but she could feel his attention igniting her core.
Face heating, she looked away.
Steph turned back to the car. "If you don't seal the deal before tomorrow, all dibs are off."
Her previous thrill of confidence crumbled. "Hey! I called dibs!"
"Dibs are first shot, not exclusive. So don't screw it up. Just screw." Steph smirked and rattled her wheeled suitcase across the gravel into the house.
Yanking her own suitcase from the jumbled pile of Steph's castoffs, Renee scurried after her.