Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General, #Anthologies (Multiple Authors)
But Andrés was untroubled. “You have never had a real man before. This I knew when we first met.”
She drew back and met his gaze. “But why me? Why did you seek me out? Who are you, Andrés?”
He put his finger to her lips, lifted her and eased her down onto his cock. She was so wet that there was no discomfort; she felt a tingle as if she might come all over again. But when she began to move, sliding up and down, he stopped her.
With casual strength he rose from the bed, holding her impaled, and carried her to the wall. He clasped his hands around her cheeks and supported her as if she weighed no more than cottonwood down. He held her tight as he entered her, and she recognized with disbelief that she was on the edge of another incredible orgasm. She clasped her legs around his waist, moving with him. He closed his eyes and worked until beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, plunging, grinding, pounding. The glorious pulsing started in the pit of Cat’s belly.
“Let it go,” she whispered. “Come to me.”
For a moment he gazed right into her eyes, and she saw pain and desperation and centuries of suffering.
“Forgive me,” he said hoarsely.
“Yes. Yes. I forgive—”
He stiffened, the muscles of his stomach standing out in harsh relief, his hips slamming against hers.
He finished with a cry of triumph, gathering her against him as his shuddering came to an end.
Cat dropped her chin on to his shoulder, breathless and exultant. Andrés kissed her mouth and forehead and carried her back to the bed. He laid her down with her head on the pillow and smoothed the tangled sheets over her, tucking the edges under her chin as if she were a child. Then he backed away, his eyes still full of sorrow.
“Don’t go,” she said, reaching for his hand.
He glanced toward the window. “There is little time.”
“Time for what?” She tried to push the sheets away, but he pressed her back and sat on the edge of the bed with a sigh.
“Perhaps it is over,” he said. “Perhaps there will be no change.”
Instead of answering he stretched out beside her and tucked her head into the curve of his arm. “Rest now, mi gatita.”
Cat realized that she was exhausted, not only by the vigorous sex but also by emotions she couldn’t quite comprehend. A minute ago Andrés had been dominant, guiding and controlling their lovemaking with her full cooperation. But now he was something else entirely: tender, solicitous, and melancholy in a way that made her want to take him in her arms and tell him everything was going to be all right.
“You won’t go?” she asked sleepily.
He kissed her forehead and brushed his fingers over her eyelids. “Sleep.”
The caballos charged into the village, nostrils flared and teeth bared like the fangs of the jaguar ready to slaughter its prey. Their riders were gods of destruction and malice, helmets and weapons flashing as they trampled the villagers who came to meet them.
Itzel stood at the door of her house, mouth open to cry out. No sound would come. Men she had known all her life collapsed into the dust, great gaping wounds spilling blood bright as forest flowers. Women screamed and fled, some falling under the horses’ hooves, others dragged by their hair to be violated and cast aside. Children wept. And yet the conquerors slew on, laughing and merciless.
Filled with despair, she turned to the one who stood behind her. She begged Andrés to stop those with whom he had once ridden, to save the village from their murderous rampage.
But Andrés didn’t move. He stared, his skin the color of bleached bone, his eyes no longer the hue of clear water but swallowed up in obsidian black. He had become like some forgotten stone idol, unable or unwilling to interfere in the fates of men. Only when one of the conquistadores , his hair golden as the sun, drove his huge mount toward the house and reached for Itzel did Andrés act. He pushed her behind him and looked up at the man on the horse. He spoke words in the enemy tongue. Hair-of-the-Sun laughed again, spun his beast about and rode away, his followers behind him.
Itzel staggered from the doorway, her eyes glazed with horror. She knelt beside the lifeless body of her brother and stroked the matted hair from the terrible gash across his forehead. There were a few others left alive; they, like her, wandered from one body to the next, searching for those they had loved.
Much time passed before Itzel turned back to the house. Andrés still waited there, empty as one whose heart had been given in sacrifice to the gods.
She had loved him. She had made the others see that he was not like those he had abandoned. But she had been wrong. He was no different.
“Itzel,” he whispered, his voice a broken husk. But she felt no pity. She came to stand before him, fists clenched at her sides.
“You have betrayed us,” she said.
“You did not stop them. For this…” She closed her eyes. “For this you must pay.”
For the first time in many suns she drew upon the powers her grandmother and mother had passed to her, powers bestowed by the earth and the sky. “You will suffer as you have watched the people suffer,” she said. “Your kind are bound to the great beasts you call caballos. Now you shall run as such a beast for all the days of your life, walking as a man only at night. But you shall not die. You shall have no relief until one of my blood forgives you for your cowardice this day.”
Andrés heard her, but he did not believe. She saw that in his eyes. But a few minutes of daylight remained; he grew taut, the curse beginning to work its way through his body.
Itzel turned her back on him and walked away, ignoring the wordless cries of agony and terror as Andrés lost his ability to speak with a human voice. The last she heard of him was the drumming of his hooves as he fled into the forest.
Cat shot up in the bed, her heart hammering and her breath locked in her throat. It took several moments before she recognized the room around her.
Andrés stood by the window, his shoulder propped against the wall as he gazed outside. Tension had turned the muscle of torso and buttock and thigh to sculpted stone. He still looked exactly the same as he had in that other, ancient world. Not even his name was different.
He had begged her forgiveness. She had given it, unthinking, never questioning why he had asked.
From the very beginning he’d tried to seduce her while revealing as little about himself as he could get away with. Suddenly she had a reason for his behavior.
Incredulous laughter roiled in Cat’s stomach like an over-rich meal. It isn’t possible. But Andrés had appeared only when Trueno had vanished. And the black stallion hadn’t returned until daylight.
Coincidence, no more. Yet the anger from the dream was a bleak knot in Cat’s chest. She felt Itzel’s despair, the agony she had experienced when she’d placed the spell on the man she loved.
If it were true—if, in spite of every rule of logic, Andrés and the black horse were one—then he had deceived her from the first moment they’d met. The only reason he’d have asked her to forgive him was if he’d believed that Itzel’s “blood” ran in her veins. He’d arrogantly assumed that the way to control a female was to give her a good banging. He’d made her so helpless with passion that she’d hand him anything he asked.
Even her love.
She got out of bed, dragging the top sheet from the mattress and wrapping it around her body.
“Trueno,” she said. “It’s almost daylight.”
Andrés looked at her…only for an instant, barely long enough for her to see the flash of shock in his eyes when he recognized the trap she had set. He smiled, though it was too late.
“Mi gatita,” he said. “You have been dreaming.”
“Yes.” She walked toward him, righteous fury flowing through her body. “Very vivid dreams. Dreams of a man who would not defend those who had welcomed him.”
The color drained from Andrés’s face. “Catalina…”
“Don’t lie to me.” She stopped inches away, holding his gaze. “I saw it all. I saw her .”
“Itzel,” he whispered.
“Yes.” She let her heart become a block of ice. “You are True no.”
He must have known then that denial would do him no good. “Yes,” he said, despair weighting the word like an anchor thrown to a drowning man.
Cat didn’t falter. “You must have been looking for centuries…looking for someone who could lift the curse. Then you discovered me. Somehow you knew that Itzel was my distant kin. You needed to win my forgiveness by any means necessary.”
“No. It is not so simple, queri —”
“Do you have an excuse, Andrés? She loved you, and you let them destroy everything she cared about.”
“Have I not paid enough?” He reached out to touch her face. “Listen to me. It was five hundred years
She jerked free. “Maybe if you’d been honest, if you’d really tried to atone…but you set out to use me instead.”
“No. When I first saw you…your grace, your strength…I could not help…could not help but—”
“It’s too late, Andrés. I won’t play.”
“Catalina. I beg of you…” His voice thinned, and he grabbed at his throat. His skin began to ripple as if every muscle and tendon beneath were attempting to assume a new shape. He fell against the wall, pushed away violently and staggered toward the door, his hands extended before him.
Cat rushed after him, ready to take back every word she’d spoken. But Andrés flung open the door and rushed onto the landing. He stumbled downstairs into the parking lot. Cat dashed back into the room and threw on jeans and a shirt. She practically fell down the stairs. The black stallion stood trembling among the trucks and SUVs, his coat shining with sweat.
He looked toward her, ears flat against his head, and spun on his hind legs. Before she’d taken another step he’d set off at a wild gallop toward the weedy field that backed the smattering of motels, fast-food joints and garages to the west. Dawn had just broken; cars on the road were sparse, and only a few early-rising souls noticed the saddleless horse charging across the street.
Cat slumped, cursing her pride and the implacable judgment that had driven him away. Even if she got right into Turk’s truck and drove as fast as she could, she knew she’d never catch up with him. He could cover terrain no vehicle could manage. And he had every reason to run and keep running until sunset found him human again, friendless and alone.
There was no reason in the world for him to come back. She’d given him not a shred of hope.
And all her hope had gone with him.
She checked out quickly, tossed her duffel in the truck and drove back to the ranch by a circuitous route, indifferent about when she arrived or what she’d do once she got there. She pulled up in front of the ranch house well after noon, as weary as if she’d walked all the way from Taos.
Turk tapped on the window. She rolled it down and summoned a smile.
“Back so soon?” he asked. “Thought you might be spending the weekend in town.”
“I had a good time, but I think I may be coming down with something. If I have to be sick, I’d rather be sick in my own room.”
“Sorry to hear it, Miss Cat. I’ll put the truck away.” He opened the door for her and took her place in the driver’s seat. Cat looped the duffel over her shoulder and plodded toward the house. Pilar met her in the kitchen, the housekeeper’s hands and lower arms coated with flour. A ball of pie dough sat on a wooden board beside the sink.
“Catalina!” Pilar hastily washed her hands and dried them on a thick cotton towel. “How was the festival?”
“It was fine.” Cat dropped into a chair and stared at the pretty bouquet of wildflowers Pilar had set on the table. “I just…got a little lonely.”
“Ah?” Pilar rubbed at a patch of flour left on a fingernail. “Did you find no one to keep you company?”
The inevitable blush burned Cat’s cheeks. Pilar nodded gravely. “I saw the change in you the night Kelpie came back lame. I see it even more strongly now. Who is he?”
Cat found that she had no desire to pretend any longer. “I met him that night. He helped with Kelpie, and—” She broke off, unable to describe how she’d felt that first time. “He was…is…unlike any man I’ve ever known.”
“What is his name? Where does he live?”
All of Pilar’s questions were logical, but the answers would tell her nothing. “His name is Andrés,” she said. “I don’t think he has a home.”
“Yet he has won your heart.”
Pilar’s words, so simple and blunt, stopped the air in Cat’s lungs. She tried to stand and fell back again, her muscles gone weak and useless.
She’d known Andrés all of three days. It just wasn’t possible to fall in love so quickly. But she’d never believed in curses or men who could change into horses, either.
“He was not what you expect to find when you came to us,” Pilar said.
“Your mind tells you to stay away, yet you cannot.” The older woman placed a plump hand on Cat’s shoulder. “Has he done you some wrong, this Andrés? A wrong you can’t forgive?”
How could Pilar possibly have guessed? Andrés had betrayed Itzel. He’d let her people die while he stood by, refusing to intervene. His punishment had been no less than he deserved.
But that isn’t why you turned on him. It isn’t what happened hundreds of years ago that matters, is it?
It’s what he did to you, how he deceived and manipulated you….
“Perhaps you came to us for a reason,” Pilar said. “Not only to find love, but to free yourself from your own past.”
And to free Andrés as well.
Cat jumped to her feet. “I have to go out, Pilar. Don’t expect me back before dawn.”
The housekeeper nodded, smiled, and returned to her pie crust. Cat grabbed several bottles of water and a chunk of cheese from the refrigerator, fetched a blanket from her room and ran outside to look for Turk. When she didn’t find him, she saddled a mare and placed the blanket, food and a supply of oats in a pair of saddlebags she hung over the mare’s hindquarters.
Rosie was more than ready to cooperate with Cat’s eagerness to be gone. Cat rode north toward the Colorado border, certain that Andrés would head away from civilization. She paused at five to drink and eat and rest the mare, refusing to give up hope.