Finding Release – First Chapter
Dec 19, 2012 Filed under: book release, cowboy, excerpts, m/m, paranormal, shapeshifter
Finding Release (Wild R Farm 1)
“That should be the last of it.” Jonah tossed the final sack of feed on the back of Cole’s truck parked outside his family’s feed store. “You need anything else?”
Jonah looked at Cole with his big brown eyes as if he needed something. Cole caught his scent, and his wolf stirred to life. He smelled like horse and sweat with an underlying citrusy scent, young and clean. Prey. Cole’s cock wanted to fulfill all Jonah’s needs, but Cole wasn’t stupid enough to even flirt with an eighteen-year-old high school senior whose stepfather had been the most vocally anti-gay preacher in town. The only reason the Marks family deigned to sell him grain was because in these hard times they needed his money.
Cole tried to ignore the fantasies playing out in his mind. “Nope. We’re good.”
Jonah looked down at his dusty boots. “You got a minute?”
Cole took a deep breath. He glanced around. They couldn’t talk here, not openly. Jonah needed a friend, and Cole had once been young and different and scared. “Sure. You wanna get a cup of coffee?” He tilted his head toward the diner down the street.
“Yeah.” Jonah looked at his watch. “I’m due for a break.”
“All right. Mind if I leave the truck here?” Cole asked.
“Nah, we’re not expecting another big delivery until this afternoon.”
They walked to the diner in awkward silence.
Cole couldn’t let himself think about how gorgeous Jonah looked, staring at him with those puppy dog eyes. Jonah was off limits for too many reasons to count.
They got a booth by the front windows, and Cole ordered coffee for them. Once the waitress brought the steaming mugs, Cole let himself look at Jonah. His red-brown hair was rumpled from finger combing. A combination of sunburn and embarrassment tinted his cheeks. His denim jacket hugged his broad shoulders and… No! Cole wasn’t going to let his perusal go any lower, not even in his imagination. His wolf growled deep inside, his werewolf nature recognizing the equine inside Jonah, the shifter side his family forced him to deny.
He concentrated on Jonah’s strong, pale hands as they wrapped around the coffee cup, holding it tight for warmth and stability. Cole wanted to reach out and take Jonah’s hands in his own, but that would be bad for both of them.
Cole realized he’d made a mistake. He should have told Jonah he was in a hurry to get back to the farm, or something that would’ve kept him from sitting here alone with a very young horse shifter who was having an indescribable effect on him.
Well, being addressed as ‘Mister’ certainly burst the lurid fantasy in his mind. He was only thirty, but now he felt ancient. “You know you can call me Cole.”
Jonah’s cheeks got even redder. “I know… it’s just… I was wondering if you’d consider hiring me. I know I don’t have experience working in a barn, but, I… well… I’m kind of a natural with horses.” He grinned as he said this.
His cutely upturned mouth made him look even younger, and Cole cursed his inappropriate thoughts. The boy needed his help, not his perving.
Jonah’s home life had to be hell. His father had left them when he was little, and his mother and elder brother were both self-righteous Bible-thumpers. From what he could tell, Jonah couldn’t do a damn thing right in their eyes, but Jonah working at Wild R Farm would be a disaster. Cole could smell Jonah’s desire for him. Sooner or later, he’d give into his own desire and exploit that. Jonah deserved freedom and a man who had more self-control.
Cole’s wolf growled, the sound almost escaping Cole’s mouth. If he put his hands on Jonah, he feared his wolfish instincts would take over. Jonah smelled like prey, like something to be consumed, possessed. Cole shuddered. No. He could never let those desires loose. “Jonah, I—”
“Please…” He dropped his voice to a whisper. “My family… I can’t live with them anymore.”
“Your mother’s not going to let you work for me.”
“I’m eighteen. She can’t stop me.”
Cole tried a different tactic. “You need to finish school. Didn’t I hear you’d won a scholarship?”
Jonah looked directly into Cole’s eyes as if willing him to understand. “Yeah, but I can’t take it anymore.”
“You’ll graduate in four months. Then you can get out of here, go to college.”
He shook his head. “I won’t last that long.”
He wouldn’t last long on Cole’s farm either, if Cole snapped and let his werewolf side take control. “Why ask me?” Cole thought he knew, but he wanted confirmation.
Jonah glanced around the restaurant. Only a few tables were occupied, and no one sat nearby. In a voice so low even Cole’s sensitive ears could barely hear, he said “Cole, I’m… different, like you. If my brother finds out…”
If Nathan found out, he’d kick Jonah out, maybe beat him. Cole wished Jonah didn’t stir him up so much. “I’m sorry. I’ve got all the hands I need right now.”
The eager light went out of Jonah’s eyes. He sloshed coffee on the table in his haste to get out of the booth. “OK, I understand. I’m sorry.”
Cole grabbed Jonah’s arm before he could run. Heat snapped between them, nearly making Cole let go. “I’m sorry for what you’re going through.”
Jonah shook his head. “Not sorry enough.” He pulled free and left.
Jonah’s condemnation hit Cole like a punch to the gut. Cole leaned back and closed his eyes, willing the thick, bitter coffee to stay down.
One year later
What the hell was Cole doing at a horse rescue center? He needed some promising colts, not another stray. But he’d run into his friend April when he stopped for lunch on the way to visit a breeder, and she’d sweet-talked him into coming out to her farm to see her rescue organization’s latest adoptees. Cole was probably the most soft-hearted werewolf in the history of his kind. His inability to resist a stray was legendary.
April ushered them into her kitchen and plied him with her illegally delicious chocolate chip cookies. Cole let himself relax and enjoy just sitting and talking for a while. He’d forgotten how much he enjoyed April’s company. They’d met when he was in college, and when he’d moved back to Cranford, they’d gotten reacquainted, though he saw her less than he meant to. Billy, his barn manager, kept telling him to take more time off. Working all the time made Cole act old and cranky.
Eventually, they headed to the barn, and Cole braced himself for a hard sell. As they walked down the aisle looking at the latest rescues, Cole saw a quarter horse he thought a friend could use so he gave April the contact info. As they neared the end of the barn, Cole thought he was going to escape empty-handed. Then a terrified whinny broke the silence, making Cole shudder.
“That’s Demon.” April walked toward the heart-rending sound. “His owner died and a neighbor saved him from being destroyed and brought him here. He’s been beaten and starved. He won’t let any of us touch him, and he’s not eating.”
Cole followed her. He heard stomping and banging as if the horse was slamming himself against the stall door in his panic. His heart ached for the poor horse. “He’s going to hurt himself.”
April nodded. “I know. He’s already been injured trying to escape. I’m scared we’ll have to put him down if we can’t get him to eat.”
Cole reached the end of the barn and saw the roan stallion. His ribs stood out. His coat had the potential to shine like autumn leaves in the sun, but lack of grooming had made it dull, and scars and saddle sores marred his back. Demon lifted his head and stared at Cole. Suddenly the fight drained out of him.
The force of his stare made Cole step back, instincts on high alert. Something in Demon’s eyes called to him, melting his heart and making the hair on the back of his neck stand up at the same time. Cole wasn’t sure how he knew, but his life was about to change irrevocably.
Demon stared at Cole for several seconds, standing nearly motionless. Then he stuck his head over the door of his stall, snorted gently, and stretched his neck. He was hoping for a treat.
Cole hardly dared to breathe. Nervous horses normally got more skittish around him. He’d never been able to gentle a horse before. His human half made riding possible, but he still needed much longer to bond with a horse than a pure human would. Some of the animals grew to trust him, but the truly wild ones never accepted him.
April laid a hand on Cole’s arm. “I’ve never seen Demon act this way. He’s never shown interest in any of us.”
Cole stayed where he was, but spoke to the horse in a low voice. “Easy, boy. You want a treat?”
Demon whinnied softly. Cole took a step toward him.
Demon stayed put.
Cole took a deep breath and counted to three, not wanting to move too fast. As he waited, frozen in place, he noticed something in the barn smelled familiar, a bright scent he couldn’t place.
April laid a hand on his back. “Keep walking slowly. See if he stays calm.”
Cole took a few more steps. Demon whinnied loudly, but it was a happy sound. No hint of his earlier terror remained. “Wait here,” April instructed. She backed away slowly, and then returned with some carrots in her hand.
Cole couldn’t figure out what was going on. Why would a terrified horse show an interest in him? Had a werewolf been kind to him in the past? The familiar smell tantalized him again. He tried to pull it deep enough into his lungs to figure out what it was, but memories only teased him.
Demon flared his nostrils. He smelled the carrots, but he wasn’t looking at Cole’s hand as most horses would. He looked right into Cole’s eyes, studying him as if he knew him.
Cole had never seen this horse before. No one would forget him. If the animal hadn’t been abused, he’d be stunning. But the sense that their meeting held a deep significance took hold and wouldn’t let go.
Cole held out his hand, palm up, offering the carrot. Demon ate it quickly, and then nuzzled Cole’s hand. Cole stared, unable to believe what he was seeing. The horse was starving. If he’d snatched the treat and backed away, Cole might have dismissed his easy acceptance of a man with wolf blood, but Demon still wanted attention. He rubbed Demon between the ears. The tantalizingly familiar smell was stronger now. Was it coming from Demon? He rubbed the horse’s nose and concentrated, but he couldn’t grab the memory before the scent of hay, leather, sweat, and other horses overwhelmed Cole’s senses.
April cautiously stepped up beside him. “I can’t believe it.”
“He hasn’t responded to anyone else. We’ve barely been able to take care of his wounds and offer him food without getting hurt. Then in walks a half-breed werewolf, and he’s as content as can be.”
“Do you think he’s known a wolf before, a civilized one like me?”
April grinned. “Sweetie, there aren’t many like you.”
Demon snuffled as Cole scratched his ears. How could someone treat such a wonderful horse so badly? His gut knotted as he looked at the horrible scars on Demon’s back. He couldn’t imagine what could make someone think they needed to beat a horse. “You’re going to be OK, now. You know that don’t you, boy?”
Demon snorted and nodded as if truly answering. Cole smiled. “You’re a smart boy, aren’t you? April is going to take such good care of you.”
Demon pulled back and stomped his foot as he shook his head vehemently.
Cole looked at April. “Is he saying ‘no’?”
She grinned. “Looks like it.” April stepped up to the door of the stall, and Demon laid his ears back. His nostrils flared. “Demon, do you want to go with Cole?”
“April.” Cole growled, but Demon’s ears perked up, and he nodded.
Cole didn’t need another rescued animal to join the growing pack of dogs and cats, and… hell, some of his grooms were rescues too. He didn’t have time for this project, but how could he say no? The last time he’d turned someone away… well… Jonah had never been found. He might have died because Cole didn’t have the courage to hire him.
He couldn’t atone for what he’d done to Jonah by taking in an abused horse. But ever since Jonah disappeared, Cole had been incapable of saying no to someone in need. Billy kept pointing out how expensive this habit had become. They’d nearly come to blows over his decision to hire an ex-con Cole believed had been wrongly accused. So far the man had exceeded every one of Cole’s expectations.
Maybe Cole could turn Demon into an all-star horse. Demon was asking for help in the only way he could. Yes, cozying up to a man with werewolf blood was strange behavior, but Cole had already begun to think of Demon as his horse
April studied Demon carefully. “Did somebody teach you how to answer questions?”
Demon snorted and shook his head.
Cole was astounded. “Are you sure he’s not a shifter?”
“If he could turn into a human, why did he stay with his former owner? Wouldn’t he have shifted and run?”
Cole considered her statement. “What if he was hiding from something or someone?”
April pointed to the scars on Demon’s flank. “What could make him endure that?”
Cole forced himself to look, to imagine enduring such torture. “You’re right. No secret could be worth such pain.”
April turned to him, but before she asked the inevitable question, he preempted her.
“Yes, I’ll take him.”
She grinned. “Thank you. I know Demon thanks you too.”
The horse snorted and nodded vigorously.
Cole was going to nurse him back to full strength. He had horses he trusted and loved, but he’d never truly bonded with one. He could bond with Demon, he was sure of it. They were perfect for each other.
* * * *
After leaving April’s, Cole spent a long, grueling day haggling with some of the best breeders in the area. Fortunately, his efforts paid off. He purchased two beautiful colts, the most perfectly gaited Tennessee walkers he’d seen since he’d taken over the farm. If his instincts were right, he’d gotten them at a bargain price.
Rain poured down on him all afternoon. He was splattered with mud, sweat-soaked after the adrenaline rush of haggling for fine horseflesh, and starving. He wanted to run into the house, grab something to eat, and take a hot shower, but he had to see to Demon first.
A terrified whinny sent Cole rushing to the trailer. “I’ll lead him out.”
His trainer, Danielle, eyed him as if he’d lost his mind. “I don’t mean to disrespect you, Boss, but I’m not sure you’re the best one to coax him out.”
“I’m the only one who can coax him out.”
Billy gave Danielle a look that told her to back off. She did, though she obviously wanted to know what was going on.
Cole approached the trailer. “Demon, it’s OK. I’m here.” He kept his voice low, talking like he would to a shy dog rather than a horse, an animal that “got” him, that could be convinced he was part of Cole’s pack.
The horse calmed and Cole climbed into the trailer. He rubbed Demon’s flank as he approached. “Easy, boy. We’re on my farm now. I need to put a halter on you and lead you to a stall. No one here will hurt you.”
Demon’s eyes were wide. A shiver ran along his back, and he tossed his head.
“Shhh!” Cole leaned close and hugged Demon’s neck. “I know this is hard. You’ve been hurt, but so have a lot of us here. We want to help you.”
Demon pawed the floor of the trailer. His ears swiveled, trying to interpret all the new sounds and check for danger.
Cole sighed. He worried his legs would fold under him. He’d give anything to lie down on a soft bed, but Demon needed him.
“I’ll stay with you as long as you need me, OK?”
Demon nodded. And snuffled softly.
Cole slipped the bridle over Demon’s head, feeling the horse tremble under his hands. “I’ll take it off once you’re in the stall.”
Demon nodded again. How the hell could the horse understand and answer so clearly if he wasn’t a shifter? But April was right. A shifter would’ve changed and gotten free. Demon had probably been owned by someone who trained him for a circus. Although Cole had never heard of another horse who could answer complex questions so easily.
He clipped the lead rope to Demon’s halter, clucked his tongue, and encouraged Demon to back out of the trailer. “Clear the way for us, or he’s going to panic.”
Billy, Danielle, and the grooms moved back, but they all stared.
“What the hell’s going on, Boss?” Shep asked. The groom had worked for Cole’s grandparents. He was the only employee who’d stayed on after they died. He’d witnessed first-hand how hard Cole worked to get the horses to accept him when he’d first come to the farm as a grieving teenager.
“I wish I knew. I don’t understand it either,” Cole said in a low voice as he emerged from the trailer. Demon nuzzled him and snuggled against his side as if he were a security blanket.
“Can he really talk?” another of the grooms asked.
Cole grinned. “His grammar’s not so good, but he’s got ‘yes’ and ‘no’ down.”
“Hell, my grammar ain’t so good either, city boy. You saying that horse is as smart as me?”
Cole laughed. When he got to the barn door, Demon pulled back and neighed nervously. “What is it, boy?”
Demon shook his head. Billy and Shep had entered the barn ahead of him. They were settling the colts he’d bought into their stalls.
He stepped back and scratched Demon between the ears. “You’re going to have to get used to being around the other horses.”
Cole tugged hard on the lead, but the horse scrambled backward. “Damn it.” Cole was exhausted, tired, and hungry. He should’ve stopped for a burger on the way home. He tugged again.
Demon flattened his ears.
“Fuck.” Cole kicked at the ground. “You’re going in the barn. I’m not going to hurt you, but we’ve got to get you into a stall.”
Demon still refused to budge. Cole forced himself to take a slow breath. “Is it the horses? Did you think you’d get a private barn?”
Demon shook his head.
“Then what the—oh, you don’t want my men in the barn, right?”
Demon’s ears came back up, and he gave a small nod.
“Billy, Shep, you got those colts settled?”
“Yes, sir,” Shep answered.
“Then do me a favor and head on to the bunkhouse. I don’t think Demon’s going to let anyone else be in the barn.”
Billy raised a brow. “That is one odd horse.”
“Yeah, but I guess we got to give him his quirks after all he’s been through.”
“Sure, but cozying up to a wolf. Hmmph. No accounting for taste.”
Cole flipped him off. “Fuck you.”
“Let me shower first, Boss.” Billy retorted.
“Ha. Like I’d want your bony ass.” Cole laughed as he remembered how lucky he was to have a manager he could joke with.
“I’ll make sure they leave some supper for you, Boss,” Shep called as the two men headed out the far door of the barn.
Once the men were gone, Demon followed Cole into the barn without further protest. The light outside was beginning to fade. Cole turned on the lights over the aisles, but the stalls remained deeply shadowed.
Cole’s stomach growled as they walked to one of the far stalls. He usually managed to keep his lupine instincts under control, but he’d let himself get way too hungry, and now the barn smelled like food. He wished Demon would let someone else groom him. By the time he got back to the house, he’d have to grab a steak from the fridge and eat it raw. Cole tried to live like a pure-blooded human, but sometimes the wolf inside him was damned hard to fight.
At least the others would be in the bunkhouse and wouldn’t see him. A few months ago, Billy had caught him stuffing raw meat in his face like a maniac. Cole feared his friend would run, maybe even quit, but he just made a joke about working for a savage. Other than ribbing him about it occasionally in private, he’d never said anything else. But Billy’s acceptance didn’t keep Cole from being embarrassed about letting his animal needs control him.
How much pull would his predatory instincts have if he were a full-blooded werewolf? He couldn’t imagine fighting stronger urges than those he already felt. No wonder so few werewolves were civilized enough to live among humans. He’d once longed to be a pureblood, but after a year of trying as hard as he could to shift with no success, he’d denied his wolf whenever possible and worked at being human.
Being pulled in both directions was tearing him apart. He imagined hunting prey on four legs, racing through the woods like sleek muscular vengeance. He’d sink his teeth into his prey and… no, best not to think about that. Such animalistic freedom might make it hard to become human again.
As he led Demon into the stall, he smelled the familiar scent again, a bit like fresh hay but orangey and bright and… young? What did that mean? Maybe he was going crazy.
He’d found a horse that preferred a half-werewolf to a human, and he believed the horse could answer his questions. Yep, he sounded crazy all right. Smelling strange things was just an added bonus. Thankfully, April had seen the horse answer him, or he’d be convinced he’d lost it.
Cole unhooked the lead rope but kept hold of Demon’s halter. “Are you going to let me groom you? I promise to be gentle.”
“Good. I’ll be right back.” Cole slipped out of the stall door, latched it behind him, and went to get a grooming kit. When he returned, Demon was waiting patiently for him. He selected a curry comb and started working the dust out of the horse’s coat. Demon hadn’t let anyone on April’s farm groom him, and his hair was a mess. Tonight wasn’t the time to really get him good and clean, but Cole wanted to make a start. He rubbed in firm circles, careful to avoid the freshest wounds which were still healing.
As he worked on Demon’s flanks, the horse studied him curiously. His big brown eyes held confusion, fear, and longing—for safety? For a real home? Cole sympathized, and he hoped to God he could give Demon some security.
He finished with the curry comb and rubbed Demon’s nose. “I’m going to brush you and clean your hooves. Then I’ll get you some dinner.”
Demon pushed against Cole’s hand and watched him, his eyes soulful, familiar.
What? How could they be familiar? Cole stepped back. The barn spun around him, and the citrusy smell floated in the air again. What was wrong with him? He shook off the feeling that he was missing something important and grabbed the brush. He’d be OK once he got some protein in him. He’d just waited too long to eat. That would explain the swirling of his thoughts and the sloshy feeling in his stomach.
He brushed Demon quickly. The horse continued to watch him as if he was trying to figure something out or trying to memorize every inch of Cole. The constant attention unnerved Cole.
By the time he finished brushing Demon and cleaning his hooves, the horse’s ears stood up and Cole would have sworn his mouth curled up in a smile. “Do you feel better, boy?”
Demon nodded vigorously.
“Good. I’m going to get you some hay, and then I’ll have to get my own dinner.”
Demon nodded again and nuzzled Cole.
Cole patted his nose before leaving the stall. He headed to the far end of the barn and grabbed a feeding bucket. But a few seconds later, a clattering sound made his skin prickle. Something was wrong. He dropped the bucket and ran to Demon’s stall.
Demon wasn’t there.
Jonah stood in the middle of the stall, pale and thin and completely naked.
Cole rubbed his eyes. He had really gone over the edge now. “J-Jonah?”