Authors: Arthur Mitchell
“He wasn't a criminal!” I snapped.
“I know. Nobody said he was. These guys thrive on blackmail sometimes. Could've been as simple as forcing him to store their loot here, maybe even their drugs. Do you see now, Cat? We're decent people, and it's a battle just to understand anything about their world. How can you be safe if you don't even know your enemy?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He got me.
“I just...I can't leave this place. It's all I have left. If I need to, I'll burn every last fucking dollar up there. I swear that I will. I won't be forced off my family's ranch.”
Ethan stared at me in cold silence. When he moved again, he reached across the table, grasping my hands tightly in his.
“I understand what it's like to be bound to your land. This ranch is your home in every sense of the word. You feel it even now, don't you?” He watched me tilt my face, questioning what he meant.
“Blood and soil. All the generations that have lived and died here. All the men and women who came before you, probably facing down greater problems than a bunch of crack slinging degenerates.”
I was too lost in his words to speak myself. His hands felt good, though.
He grounded me when the world had thinned, and it felt like I'd simply drift away. But not while I was tethered to him. All I could do was increase my hold on him, the only thing that kept me from losing myself.
“If you won't leave, then let me help. I won't sit idly by a couple miles away and let something horrible happen. Please, Cat. Let me be your protector.”
I swallowed hard, feeling my heart swell up several sizes. No one had ever offered to put their life on the line for me.
After several years in the city, I didn't even think such a thing was possible. The urban boxes of glass and concrete have their dangers, but they're easily forgettable just by hopping off to the nearest bar or lounge.
Out here, people still defended themselves, and they took everything dead seriously.
“Okay. I can deal with that,” I whispered.
“I'm going to spend more nights here with you. Even if I gotta get up at dawn and haul ass back to my own place. Last thing I'd do is step on your toes running this place during the day. It's really the night where you're gonna need my help.”
He wasn't lying. My father had been murdered at night and found in the morning. Somewhere in the mysterious blackness cut with rain, the skull had appeared too, as if from a dream.
“And what am I supposed to make of that head out there?” Part of me didn't want to ask the question, but a bigger part of me forced it out. I had to know.
“You don't know?” He echoed, eyes wide. “It's a warning. These gangs might be violent savages who deserve the nearest grave, but they do have a certain...code.”
Ethan hesitated. He lowered his hands from mine and grabbed the edge of the table, close to tipping his chair several inches off its legs.
“I don't understand.”
“They give people fair warning, Cat. Fair in their minds, anyway. I don't really get it myself, but it's the way they run. Obviously, they know the money's still here, and they're giving you another chance to turn it over.”
I filled the long silence between us with my thoughts, struggling to digest it all. If either of us smoked, somebody would've lit up during the anxious and heavily pregnant stillness in the air.
“What if I just give it to them?”
“You kidding? You can't negotiate with animals like this. Yeah, part of it's probably theirs, as much as a thief and a murderer can own his wealth.” His knuckles bulged as his fingers tightened on the table's edge.
“Even if you gave it up, there's no guarantee they wouldn't do something anyway. That's the kind of guys we're dealing with. Soon as you give them what they want, they'll put a bullet in your spine just for the fun of it.”
An icy loop ran up from the base of my spine. The way he said
sounded like the most general phrase in the world, but I knew it was filled with a hundred painful possibilities.
“You're right. I can't take the coward's way out,” I said. “Pa must've been cut in somewhere along the line for storing their crap here. Right or wrong, that money belongs to me now. It's the way he would've wanted it.”
Ethan smiled and nodded. “That's right, little Cat. You're really starting to get it now.”
We said our goodbyes for the day and he promised to return by sundown. By the time he pulled out, the first guys were starting to arrive.
Jimmy came up to the house and asked about the smashed up skull he saw beneath the stairs. I laughed it off as a prank Ethan had brought by to cheer me up.
No need to let anyone else know about this. This is your fight, and yours alone.
That wasn't strictly true, of course. I'd certainly involved Ethan, almost without any choice in the matter.
him. No one else on the ranch, perhaps no one else in the world, could give me the kind of strength I needed to face down the storm about to settle over us.
I worked on the ranch's supply reports and financials until nightfall. Ethan's truck appeared on time, just as the evening devoured the last of the sun's light.
He brought beer, big steaks, and fresh asparagus for dinner. We cooked them up together and ate quietly.
His presence alone was enough to send a happy glow arcing through me. I'd been alone in the house so long I'd missed having someone else around outside the bedroom.
Halfway through dinner, a shrill howl ripped through the half-open window, followed by several loud barks.
I dropped my fork, startled. Then I listened closely, tuning my airs to the distant, chipper yelps.
“Coyotes,” we said in unison.
I smiled. I hadn't heard their trademark night song for years. Not since Pa and I shared similar dinners, or sometimes when we took his antique telescope outside on clear nights to gaze at the moon's craters.
“They're getting to be pretty rare in these parts. My grandfather always told me there were a lot more of them in his heyday.” Ethan looked past me toward the window, as if he were trying to spot the animals through miles of darkness.
“Yeah, Pa said the same thing. Guess they've been run off over the years by too many farmers guarding their fields. Least it's one less thing to worry about.”
“Sure, but you know what? I'd take the coyotes any day over the dangerous animals we've got rolling in now.”
The distant animal howled again, and this time it wasn't so comforting. It was a sorrowful, feral sound, a shrill music that contained the wild loneliness of the plains.
We cleaned up and I wrapped my small arms around his waist, steeling myself in his hard strength.
“Guess we'd better get upstairs,” I said.
The day had been too taxing to leave me with any surplus energy for sex. Part of me was surprised he didn't make a move when he laid down together.
I snuggled tight into his vast shield of a body, loving the way he warmed me as he flanked my backside. Ethan kissed me in the middle of the neck and laid still.
A mellow summer breeze sauntered in through the window. It showered both of us with its airy kisses, as if to say,
don't worry. Everything is gonna be alright.
Our first night together truly sleeping as a couple, rather than spending our nocturnal hours doing something else, was divine. So calm, so peaceful, that I couldn't remember the last time I'd drifted off to sleep so quickly.
Everything existed in a tenuous balance, though. I woke long before morning, into a living nightmare.
I noticed Ethan's side of the bed at once, cold and empty. I sprang up, glazed with cool sweat despite the pleasant summer night.
A dark shape lingered at the window, a hand raised to his face, as if he were trying to see a great distance.
“Baby? Hey!” I swung my legs off the bed and let my feet fall to the floor.
His head spun to its side and shushed me at once. I knew then that something wasn't right – far from it.
“They're out there,” he said.
I froze, just inches behind him, my heart beating so fast that I thought I would faint. They were the worst words a woman in my position could've heard in the night.
All at once, he pivoted around. The severe line in his brow made me gasp.
I barely noticed how hard his hand was pressed into the pocket of his jeans before he moved forward, gently brushing me aside.
“Where are you going?” I whispered after him, quietly running to the edge of the stairs.
He didn't answer. I took a deep breath and followed him down into the living room. Each creek of the old wood on the steep steps felt like stepping on bone.
“Ethan?” I peered into the kitchen and noticed that the door was slightly cracked.
Oh, Jesus. No. He didn't just go outside, with them out there, did he?
My eyes clouded at the worst possible time. I tried to wipe the tears, forcibly lifting my feet off the ground and moving toward the door.
I was about to fling it open, leaving nothing between me and the dangerous outdoors but the thin screen exterior door, when a blast rang out.
I screamed, deathly startled even before I realized it was a gunshot. The shot emanated in my head like a cannon whisper, stalling any recovery.
Several more deafening blasts rang out, and then the furious growl of an engine. I couldn't see what had happened, even through the kitchen window.
Ethan's truck was still parked in its place. Someone else had taken flight, barreling back onto the little gravel road outside the ranch as fast as their wheels would carry them.
Adrenaline shocked my system for the thousandth time when the door swung open. Ethan dived into the house and slammed it shut, breathing heavily.
The handgun he'd drawn lay at his side, tightly gripped in one hand. It seemed like a whole minute passed before either of us moved again.
Finally, his huge shoulders relaxed, and he slowly turned toward me. I watched his chest rise and fall like small mountains.
“They're gone. I gave them the closest warning shots I could manage. Hopefully that'll keep those fucking creeps away for awhile.”
I slumped against the refrigerator's white door, feeling the smooth coldness through my thin gown.
He laid the gun on the table and crossed the small distance between us.
Soon, I was wrapped in his arms, shaking with miniature seizures and bawling into his broad chest.
When his sweet lips met my forehead, I shook a little less, but the tremors just wouldn't die.
“God, what are we going to do if they come back?”
“It's okay, Cat. We're both okay. If they show their ugly faces around here again, the shots I fire won't be warnings. I'll aim straight for any shadows creeping around, and I don't give a damn what the police have to say about it. Nobody's gonna come prowling around this property when my girl's asleep. These bastards give a warning? Well, I'll extend the same courtesy, but nothing else.”
His words were like stones, the determined cadence in his voice piling them high into a wall, so strong and sturdy that it felt like the whole world had been sealed off.
He'd managed to awe me in the worst circumstances. No, more than that.
Ethan had just exposed his strength in a way that wasn't playful. He'd single-handedly driven off God knows how many ruthless invaders coming to do me harm.
“Cat?” He said my name softly, uncertain, probably wondering why I hugged him so harshly right above his hips, almost to the point of scratching him with my nails.
I realized that I never wanted him to leave. And not only because of the danger, but because he'd shown how awesomely
Men like Ethan Hartz didn't circle the countryside everyday, easy pickings for any woman with a good appetite and a little determination.
He was vastly more special than that, and even more importantly, he was
I silently vowed never to let him go. Inside me, a commanding and primal voice welled up, ordering me to bind him deep into my life forever, permanently intertwined with me.
I had to have this beautiful cowboy's baby. Much sooner than just “someday” too.
The scary intrusion hadn't just dragged me out of bed – it showed me what I really craved in the deepest way possible.
I knew, and no amount of threats, doubts, or common sense would stop me any longer.
VI: Sweet Obedience
I wasn't sure how I managed to resist him for two more nights. Maybe something about the near attack by our enemies had frozen my lusts. Or else I'd mentally decided what I was about to do, but getting my body to act took something more.
Regardless, I had to have him, more than I'd ever wanted anyone or anything in my entire twenty two years. It got to the point where I could hardly think during the day.
I'd stare out the small window next to the kitchen, my laptop and a bunch of bland tax books laid out in front of me. I knew I should be crunching numbers and triple checking expenses before I sent everything off in a neat package to my accountant.
But all I could think about was sex, sex, sex.
Sex for pleasure, so vivid and blistering hot that every inch of my flesh pulsed in a painful hum, sweeping in thick waves through my whole body. I had to have it.
Sex for creation. I visualized myself spread out beneath him in the taut ropes, but I'd fight him binding my legs if I needed to.
I had to have them free and open to hold him inside me, not letting up until I'd taken every molten drop of his seed.
Muscles deep within me clenched and rolled, quivering with hunger. I had to take him bare, had to have his come, the same way parched earth cries out for furious rains.
Tonight's the night,
I told myself.
I'm going to rock your world, Ethan Hartz, in a way that won't let
you pull out or seal off your perfection with dull rubber.
Beneath the table, I pressed my legs together with a purr, coldly trying to get a grip on my lusts. The nighttime incursion by the drug runners hadn't given me any time for rest.