Authors: Laura Kaye
Tags: #goddesses, #north of need, #gods, #Paranormal Romance, #south of surrender, #hard ink, #romance, #Fantasy Romance, #hearts in darkness, #west of want, #spring, #her forbidden hero, #forever freed, #one night with a hero, #Contemporary Romance, #laura kaye
Laney Summerlyn hated thunderstorms with a passion, and this was no regular storm. The wind blew so hard it sounded like the roof could lift off the house, and a wet dripping in the living room turned out to be rain forced in through the east-facing windows. The concussive deluge was deafening, not a welcome sensation for someone already nearly blind.
As loud as it was, the screaming of the horses still made it to Laney’s ears. And that was driving her crazy. She debated going out to the barn, checking on them, calming them. But she couldn’t seem to force herself out the door and into the torrent. Her night vision had been the first thing to go, and getting disoriented and lost outside in a storm when she was nineteen had left her terrified of them.
But those horses were her babies. Her family.
A clap of thunder exploded low and close. Laney jumped, chiding herself even as her heart raced. The lights flickered, once, twice, which she could just make out through the pinpoint of central vision that remained in her right eye, like looking through a drinking straw. The threatening dark got her off the couch and in search of a lantern before the power shut off for good. It might not be many years until she lost her sight entirely. Then she’d be forced to live in total darkness. In the meantime, she intended to soak in every bit of light and color and memory of the physical world she could.
“Stay, Finn,” she said to her chocolate Labrador. Not that he was likely to get up, old as he was, but he kept an eye on Laney like the guard dog he’d once been. Laney counted her steps from the couch across the spacious open living room to the adjoining kitchen and finally to the hall closet, then reached in and retrieved the third object from the left on the middle shelf—a battery-operated lantern. Through her mobility training, she’d long ago memorized her way around, as well as the location of everything in her house—such organization made her independence possible. Laney could take care of herself just fine.
She’d no more closed the closet door than a tremendous burst of thunder detonated above her house, shaking the building as if a bomb had gone off. Laney struggled to swallow against the lump in her throat.
In. Out. In. Out.
She focused on the mechanics of breathing to ease her anxiety. Clutching the lantern to her chest as if it could keep her safe, she forced away the panic.
Despite the air conditioning, the air suddenly felt thick and heavy, like something was happening, something was coming. The rain continued to pour down, but there was a stillness that felt…wrong.
A series of cracks ricocheted from outside, then a crash. The sound of the horses’ distress went from nervous to outright panic. Laney saw every bit of the farm in her head, like a 3-D model she could turn and manipulate. That damn sound came from her stable. Her gut squeezed.
Forcing herself to take the measured steps that allowed her to count her paces, Laney went for the coat closet in the foyer and found her raincoat. She slid it on and snapped it closed with shaking fingers. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out onto the porch and walked right into the howling night and the soaking rain. Her hair instantly matted to her face and the wind blew so hard it stole her breath.
You can do this, Laney. You
to do this
Lantern in one hand, she grasped the lead line tied to the newel post at the bottom of the stairs with the other and followed the well-worn path toward the stable. The thick blackness swallowed the lantern light and negated what was left of her sight, sending her heart into a sprint. Her sneakers slipped in the mud puddles over and over. If she fell and lost the line…
No. Don’t go there.
She held onto it so tight it dug into her palm. But the pain was worth it. As long as she held onto the rope, she knew right where she was because of the plastic tags hanging from it at ten-foot intervals.
The closer she got to the stable, the more obvious the horses’ fear became. They snorted and blew, kicked and pawed at the walls, screamed and struck their massive bodies against the grated doors and sides of their stalls. She imagined them pacing, desperate for escape. Her stomach squeezed and sank.
Please, whatever that noise was, don’t let it have injured one of my babies.
Soaked, muddy, and breathless with dread, Laney passed the seventh tag on the line, and then her hand encountered the cold metal of the door handle to which the line was tied. She yanked the door to the right and it glided easily on its track.
Laney reached out, found the panel of light switches, and flipped every one of them, flooding the nine-stall center-aisle barn with yellow light. Adrenaline flooded through her so fast she was shaky, making it hard to focus the sliver of central vision she still possessed. But it was clear the barn had been damaged. Wind gusted through, raising a chill on her wet skin, and an intense shower of rain echoed against the floor at the far end.
She settled the lantern on a shelf and let her raincoat drop to the floor. Cocoa Puff’s agitation was clear in the flurry of movements and blows coming from the old mare, who was the most high-strung of them all. Laney moved to the barred grill of the first stall and shushed her like she would a small child. Cocoa let out a high-pitched nicker and tossed her head. Laney wanted to stroke her forehead, but hesitated to get too close when the horse was so riled. “You’re okay. Mama’s here. You’re a pretty girl, Cocoa,” she cooed. The rescued Morgan nickered again and pushed her nose into Laney’s hand. She snuffed as if looking for treats. “Next time, I promise. I gotta go check on the others now. Okay? I’m right here.”
Trailing her hand over the grated fronts of the stalls, Laney moved to the next door and found Casper, a white Sabino gelding that was another of her rescue horses. Casper strained his head toward her, and Laney laid her cheek on his forehead. “You okay, buddy?” She petted the soft white hair covering his neck. “Yeah, you’re okay.”
Laney’s heart still raced in her chest, and she wiped the water from her face as she moved to the next stall.
“Hey, Rolly,” she said, finding the muzzle of the Appaloosa spotted almost like a Dalmatian, lots of creamy white with occasional black spots. He blew against her hand then pulled away. Rolly was her newest rescue. Recovering from a supposedly accidental gunshot to the abdomen, he remained standoffish. Couldn’t blame him, really.
The volume of the rain tapering off now, Laney crossed the center aisle to an empty stall and turned toward the two remaining horses. Hope rose within her and calmed the worst of her fear. All her senses told her the damage was restricted to the opposite—and empty—end of the barn. Her hand found the next door, and the colt—a boarder—nipped at her fingers. Mouthy thing. Laney smiled as tension eased from her shoulders. She couldn’t imagine telling Windsong’s owner, a fifteen year old named Kara who had just been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa—the same degenerative eye disease from which Laney suffered—that anything had happened to the colt. Stroking his cheek, she said, “Good thing you’re so handsome.” He licked her forearm. “Ew, Windy.” She backed away, chuckling, and wiped her arm on her T-shirt.
Finally, Laney came to the last stall she needed to check, and Sappho nickered softly and reached her head out. “Hi, baby,” Laney said, leaning her forehead against the silky black mane of her Friesian, the first horse she’d owned, a gift from her grandfather on her sixteenth birthday. When other kids got cars, Laney got her very own filly. She’d grown up around her pop’s horses, so getting Sappho that day had been a wish come true. Less than a year later, she’d started noticing problems with her vision. As her sight deteriorated, more than once she’d cried on this horse’s shoulder. Ten years had passed, but Sappho still had the power to cheer her up more than anything else.
“You okay?” she asked, reassuring herself more than the mare. Laney let out a long breath, fear making her feel tired and wrung out, even after determining the horses were all fine. “Let’s just hang out for a minute and calm down. How ‘bout that?”
Sappho chuffed out a breath against her hand, a soft affectionate agreement. Laney wished she could clearly see the Friesian’s eyes, which had always held such intelligence and understanding, but the black-on-black coloring obscured the details. This animal probably knew her better than anyone ever had—her grandfather excepted, though he was gone now. Off to greener pastures. The thought always made her smile.
After a few minutes, Laney realized the rain had stopped. A humid breeze gusted and water dripped occasionally, but otherwise only the normal sounds of the horses filled the space.
She gave Sappho a final pat and turned toward the other end of the barn. Seth would have to give her the full picture of the damage when he got here in the morning. Her long-time farm manager and horse trainer—not to mention best friend—was here every day. In fact, he was here so frequently that her grandfather’s will provided for the construction of a caretaker’s cottage for Seth. If it would ever stop raining maybe they could finish construction. This summer had been the wettest on record, halting their progress, and this storm was the worst of them all. In fact, given his protectiveness of her, she was surprised Seth hadn’t called during the storm. She’d made it quite clear on numerous occasions she was more than capable of taking care of herself, but that didn’t stop him from worrying over her every chance he got. It would be annoying if it wasn’t so endearing.
A kind of morbid curiosity drove her toward the damage to see what she could for herself. Trailing her hand along the rail, Laney held her breath in anticipation of what she’d find. A twisted piece of metal railing was the first thing that told her she’d found what she was looking for.
. Just before he’d died two years ago, her grandfather had rebuilt the stable, so everything was new and state-of-the-art. Her stomach dropped as she began to get a feel for the damage, which mostly seemed to have impacted the end two stalls. Crossing the center aisle, she found the tack room walls intact. A quick circuit revealed everything was how it was supposed to be. The damage was confined to the other side, then.
Laney grabbed a rake from a hook and flipped it handle side down as she crossed back to assess the damage. She rarely carried her cane around the farm, but if part of the ceiling had come down, there would be debris. As she stepped into the ruined stall, she tapped the pole in front of her, searching out obstructions that might trip her up. The sound was immediately wrong, metallic, and her foot landed on a sheet of metal that wasn’t the normal rubber-over-concrete flooring. Part of the roof had collapsed.
Slowly, she lifted the rake handle and swung it in front of her to ensure no pieces of roofing hung loose from the ceiling. Nothing.
Returning her makeshift cane to the floor, she tapped along a large section of metal sheeting.
But what the hell brought it down?
She expected to find part of the ancient oak tree that stood behind the barn, but nothing she was finding confirmed that theory.
Laney was just about to give up when the handle encountered something on the floor, solid but giving. She focused and scanned her limited vision back and forth, her brain slowly assembling the pieces of the picture into a whole that made her gasp out loud.
It was a horse. She blinked and squinted. A weird yellow halo flickered across her vision when she looked closer. It really
a freaking horse.
How? From where?
Laney mentally recounted her steps to ensure she’d checked on all
Cocoa, Casper, Rolly, Windsong, Sappho
. She’d talked to and touched every one of them. She was sure of it.
And even if she wasn’t, this stall had been empty for a long time. None of her regular horses used it.
Oh, crap. Could there have been a tornado? They were rare in Maryland, but what the heck else would drop a horse out of the sky? Just imagining that’s what happened made her stomach toss.
Setting the rake to the side, Laney crouched, her gut queasy and pulse pounding in her ears, and found the wet barrel of the horse’s belly with her hand. The lift and fall of its breathing was immediately obvious, shooting relief through her amazed disbelief.
She moved from between the horse’s legs. Downed horses could thrash or kick. Getting injured was the last thing she needed. She crouched near his head and stroked his golden neck, that strange halo effect growing brighter. Laney clenched and reopened her eyes, but it was still there.
“Hey, friend,” she whispered, still struggling to believe what her pinpoint of sight was telling her was there. She leaned in close enough to see the eye was closed, though flickering. Every once in a while, the horse shuddered out a breath, but otherwise its respiration was just a little fast. She pressed her fingers against the fetlock joint toward the bottom of his leg and found a pulse. Heart rate was elevated, but not as unusual as she might’ve expected.
How could he still be alive?
Given what had likely happened to him and his unconscious state, she expected him to be a lot worse off.
When she leaned away, Laney’s hand brushed something sticky and she traced her fingers over the horse’s left front leg. A gash flayed open the golden flesh.
She needed to get help. Now.
Laney fished her iPhone out of her pocket and pressed the extra-large telephone icon in the bottom right corner. “Seth is going to have a cow when he sees you,” she murmured. She waited for it to connect. And waited. She redialed but had the same luck. No signal. “Seriously?”
Groaning, Laney pocketed her phone as she rose. There were two land lines in the barn. Overkill for a sighted person, but having both made it easier for her to get to one of them when they rang.
Back in the tack room, Laney dialed Seth’s number, but all she got was an odd fast busy signal with lots of crackling static. Why would she still have lights but no phones?