Authors: Susan Laine
“Well, you are all most welcome to Howling Creek Ranch,” Daniel King said coolly and politely, as if accustomed to speaking and expecting others to accept his undeniable position of leadership—which was probably the case since he was the alpha of the pack, according to Rafe, anyway. “Rafe, why don’t you show Kris around the ranch? I’m sure he’d like a personal tour of the premises.”
Fear gripped Kris with sharp nails as the prospect of being left to fend for himself with Rafe burned at his confidence as though it were made of something flammable. Isaiah was quick to step in. “I’d
a tour myself. Mind some company?”
For the first time, Rafe broke eye contact as his hazel gaze veered to lock with Kris’s brother’s, and Kris had no trouble seeing how displeased he was at this new turn of events. Still, Rafe smiled politely and said, “Not at all. The more the merrier, as my ma always says.”
Isaiah always did have a gift for twisting the knife in the gut. “Yeah, always good to have a proper chaperone.” Isaiah grinned as he said it, and Rafe smiled back, but where Kris was standing, he felt like he was caught between two snarling beasts. And Kris was lunch.
got quite a lucrative enterprise here,” Isaiah said casually as the three of them wandered around the ranch that extended over the rugged landscape of rocky hills, flower-covered plains, and evergreen forests for over seventy hectares—with more than enough room for horses and cattle alike to graze or stampede or whatever else animals like that did that Kris had no clue about. “Yeah, you’ve been pretty fortunate, I think. And that makes Kris pretty damn fortunate too—his fortune being the case in point here that is.”
Rafe grumbled something inaudible as he walked over to a huge barn painted fire-engine red. The sounds of horses in their stalls and the smell of fresh hay and manure greeted them as they walked into the shade of the stables.
“You didn’t tell me on the phone you were an honest-to-God cowboy,” Kris managed to mutter quietly, carefully glancing in Rafe’s direction.
The man’s features softened, and Kris smiled happily when Rafe’s hazel eyes shot him a warm glance. “Yeah, well…. We didn’t get into specifics much, now, did we? We have about forty horses here, a few private mounts, and some for riding the fence and the herd, and others for training to be cutting horses for the rodeo.”
“What is cutting?” Kris inquired, actually curious.
Rafe nodded to one of the stalls where a chestnut-colored horse was moving about in a restless manner, tossing its small head and long mane around, snorting and stomping the hay-ridden floor of the stall with its muscular frame. “This is Kings’ Cipher. He’s an American quarter horse, specifically a racing and hunting breed of horses that specialize in speed over short distances. In that sense they’re a lot like thoroughbreds,” Rafe explained, leaning a bit on the stall door; the horse huffed, as if annoyed by his presence. “He’s got a bit of an attitude, much like the rest of the King family. He’s in training to be a cutting horse. Cutting is a Western riding sport. Cutters and their riders attempt to separate a single beast from a herd for a predetermined amount of time, and longer if possible. Cutters, like Cipher here, are strong and athletic, but without the rider, the horse can’t do much. They have to work together to get the heifer to steer clear of the herd. It’s a testament of skill and savvy.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Isaiah scoffed, chuckling.
Kris winced and bit his lower lip. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand why his brother was behaving so obnoxiously—to protect him and to show the Kings that they weren’t the ones in charge of the proceedings—but he began to feel like he was an object of a game or the target of a battle, with no say about his own position or desires. He was the rope in a rope-pulling contest, and both sides were definitely giving the yanking their all. Strained, he tried to cut in—unsuccessfully.
“It’s not as easy as you might surmise, slick,” Rafe replied, his tone lowered to a threatening level. “Quarter horses have a temper and a mind of their own. If you don’t get their respect, they’ll throw you off their backs faster than you can cry out for help.”
Isaiah shrugged impassively. “Yeah, most animals need to be broken to become adequate pets.” It wasn’t Kris’s imagination that Rafe’s cheeks flushed, his hazel eyes began to burn intently, and his hands fisted at his sides.
. This was going south in a hurry. Kris flinched and grimaced. “Iz, I got this. Why don’t you go find Dad and tell him to come and check out these magnificent horses too?” With a flick from his blue-gray eyes, Isaiah shrugged again and stomped off, glaring at Rafe over his shoulder as he went. Kris let out a small sigh and glanced at Rafe under his lashes, seeing the man stand there all tense and straight, like a flagpole. “So… a wolf cowboy, huh? How does that work out exactly? Aren’t the horses scared of you?” Yes, it was a terrible anti-segue, but it was all Kris could come up with on short notice.
Closing his eyes for a moment, Rafe let out a deep sigh, and his shoulders slumped as he bowed his head, as if he were exhausted to the bone. “Um, I guess these horses have gotten used to us. Animals can sense danger, but these horses don’t consider us like that anymore.” Cipher came slowly forward and allowed Rafe to rub his snout a little before prancing away again, throwing his head back in a very elegant and high-spirited manner. Kris could tell that this horse had an attitude—and an air of high maintenance to boot.
The other thing Kris could tell was that Rafe didn’t want to talk. And Kris needed the man to talk and open up, or Kris wasn’t sure he could even consider staying with him. In his protectiveness, Isaiah had actually made things worse. “W-would you have preferred a female mate? The NFL didn’t say if you were, um….”
Frowning suddenly, Rafe turned to Kris with a look of shock plastered all over his ruggedly handsome face. “Denham didn’t tell you I was gay? I specifically told the NFL they could release that information without question because I didn’t want you to ever doubt—”
“That’s great,” Kris interjected with a relieved smile. He had prayed for this outcome, but the NFL had been so tight-lipped about it he’d feared—in addition to all the other worries—that maybe his mate was in fact straight, or at least bisexual, wanting to have children of his own with a female mate. Kris knew he was letting his insecurities run amok, especially since Rafe had already indicated his interest over the phone, so he tried to rein in those feelings. “I was kind of… nervous… about that.”
Rafe laughed, apparently equally relieved, and his energetic burst of amusement was music to Kris’s ears. “Oh, honey, you have nothing to worry about. I am extremely gay. So
Kris laughed too. “Good. Me too.”
Rafe was still leaning against the stall door, but turned his body to face Kris, and there was pleasant welcoming warmth to his stance and expression again. “So, what do you look for in a mate?”
“Why?” Yes, it was a stupid question, and Kris regretted it the moment the words left his mouth, but it was too late to take them back.
Smiling with only one corner of his mouth lifting in a quirky mannerism, Rafe replied amusedly, stating the obvious. “Naturally I wonder if I have those qualities you covet and value in a man—specifically in the man of your dreams.”
Nearly fainting at the tender taunting in Rafe’s voice, Kris was dying to exclaim that Rafe was all that Kris had ever dreamed of—and more. But surely it was too soon for declarations of that sort, so he coughed a little as he said, “Well, I want the basics, I guess. Love, honesty, loyalty, sex appeal—all that jazz.” Faintly he was aware of his cheeks burning at the admission, and the feeling increased when Rafe gave that sexy sly smile and low husky chuckle that made Kris’s head dance dizzily.
Waiting for Rafe to answer him, to comment, or to just say anything, Kris felt his heart hammering in his chest, but Rafe merely nodded in acknowledgement of the requirements Kris had specified. “Well, thanks for the info, honey. It’ll come in handy, I’m sure,” he replied with his honeyed drawl that made Kris’s toes curl. Glancing in the direction of the house where Isaiah had disappeared to, Rafe suddenly frowned a little. “Your brother doesn’t like me much.”
Kris looked down at his feet, having anticipated this line of inquiry. “I’m his younger brother. He gets a little… overprotective sometimes. You see, when I was a kid, I used to get bullied at school because even back then I knew I wasn’t quite like the other boys. Since then, Iz has watched out for me. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
“I’m sorry,” Rafe said, his tone hushed and empathetic. “About being bullied, I mean.” For a while there was a companionable silence between them. Horses puffed and snorted, and their hooves hit the floorboards, making the ground shake a bit. Dry hay rasped everywhere while sandy dust danced in the streams of sunlight coming through the high-up windows by the rooftop. Due to the large open space of the stables, the echoes reached far and wide. “So, honey—uh, Kris—how do you feel? Do you feel like jumping my bones?”
Kris blushed but deflected the question by asking, “Aren’t you worried that what
might feel for me isn’t real? That it’s all just hormones and pheromones and the like?”
“No,” Rafe replied, with certainty and confidence in his voice. “The spirits choose and grant us the perfect mate. There is no denying it. To fight it would be like trying to fight against the rising sun, or the prevailing spring wind, or the ebb and flow of the tide. Mating is natural. We, that is to say you and I, are destined by all that is natural and divine to be mates—forever.”
The absolute unwavering trust and the complete absence of apprehension that Rafe demonstrated gave Kris heart palpitations.
Why can’t I be that confident that everything will work out fine in the end and that I will live happily ever after with my mate?
“So, if—and when—we have sex, will that… sort of… seal the deal between us? Will that—the sex, the mating, whatever you want to call it—will that mean I am your mate for good?” The conflicting worries within Kris—wanting a man for no other reason than mating pheromones versus not feeling anything at all in an arranged marriage—forced the questions past his lips. He wasn’t sure what concerned him more: feeling too much… or not enough.
Tilting his head to the side, Rafe seemed to ponder his answer carefully, and looking into his hazel eyes that burned with a dark lustful light that gave him shivers, Kris realized he had no idea what was going through the man’s mind. “Mating—with lycans, anyway—is more than sexual intercourse and physical attraction. For us, mating is a spiritual and an emotional bond that forms beyond us, and it exists and continues despite the reactions of our bodies. Yes, the sensual aspect is there to facilitate and ease the bonding, but at its heart, mating is about soul mates. The perfect union of heart, mind, body, and soul. Two as one.”
“That’s very poetic and romantic,” Kris said, his voice shaking at the intensity of his mate’s meaningful words he clearly believed in, “but it doesn’t really answer my question.”
“You want certainties and clarifications and simple yes-or-noes.” Rafe spoke humorously. “But, honey, that’s not how life works—for humans or for lycans. What I told you is what my kind believe. For us, a commitment is more than a mere word, and far more than what humans consider a lifelong engagement. We are, for lack of a more specific term, immortal—though technically forever hasn’t happened yet. Anyway, when we bond with our mate, it’s forever. The spirits, the gods, or nature—take your pick—select for us the one who is perfect. And as long as we live, there will be no other.”
Kris felt weak in the knees and kind of dizzy too. “B-but you have been with… other men?”
Rafe smiled and nodded. “Yeah. How else could I know if I am straight or gay? But I could not—and would not—make a commitment to any of them because they are not my mate, and you are. Wolves are monogamous, and they mate for life—”
“Yes, I get
”—Kris cut him short—“but you are
100 percent wolf. You are half human. And humans are not biologically predisposed to monogamy. And… you could develop feelings for those men—if you wanted to.”
Rafe tilted his head more and licked his thin lips as he narrowed his hazel eyes. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true. However, I don’t want to. My connection with this hypothetical other would never amount to much of anything because I’d always know you, my true mate, would be out there waiting for me.”
“Waiting for you?” Kris repeated humorously, the corners of his lips tugging with held-back laughter. When Rafe quirked an eyebrow and grinned mischievously, Kris grew serious again, thinking back to the question that had been nagging at him since he’d studied about wolves on the Internet. “Um, I read…. Is it true that wolves can… die from loneliness? If they can’t find their mate, or if they lose their mate?”
Stepping into Kris’s personal space for the first time, but withholding his touch, Rafe stared down at Kris, and his eyes held a tender light. “What is possible with wolves is only half possible for us. As you said, I’m only half wolf. I’m half human, and even though romance literature and love poetry are filled with women and men dying when their hearts are broken by whatever reason, lycans have human intelligence and self-restraint. We may have animal instincts and reactions, but they don’t control us. Yes, I would miss you like crazy, especially now that I’ve had the chance to meet you in person. But would I die without you in my life? I’ve already lived so for two centuries. I suppose I could do another two the same way… but it wouldn’t be my first choice.”
Kris could respect that view, but he had to make sure Rafe understood where they both stood—still virtual strangers to each other. “And what if I stayed with you but intimacy between us never happened?” he asked in a low cautious tone. “Could you live with that? Living with me but not being with me physically or emotionally if I couldn’t love unconditionally like you—”