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You may have driven my mother mad, but you won't do it to me.
Regan Adler gazed out at the intensely rugged vista of the Sacramento Mountains-vast slopes of ponderosa pine, towering cliffs and deep blue sky, all nearly nine thousand feet high. It should have been inspiring; it should have been invigorating.
Regan scowled out over that beauty. "Don't you dare talk back to me," she muttered at it.
The land said nothing back. After a moment, her sturdy blue roan gelding snorted impatience, and Regan released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. The gelding's winter hair curled damply under her hand as she patted his neck; he'd shed out in another month or so, but the April noonday sun already beat down hard, and they'd covered only half the generous acreage attached to the Adler family cabin.
For now, Regan Adler focused on getting reacquainted with this place to which she'd vowed she'd never return.
"Yeah," she said, when the horse snorted again, bobbing his head in suggestion. "It's not your fault that Dad's away, is it?" Or that Regan was trapped here, caretaking the place for some unknown length of time while her father recuperated from a back injury with his brother in El Paso. Although he was still a man in his prime, this was no place for a man-or woman-who couldn't hold his own against winter snow, the woodstove or the long hike off the mountain if the truck didn't start.
Another shift of her weight, and the horse moved forward again, placing his feet carefully in spite of the spirit in his movement. She'd already come to appreciate this canny little mustang and his responsive nature; his good judgment left her free to hunt the boundary markers on a land that hardly seemed changed since she'd been here last.
The horse snorted again, but it held a different sound; it came with a head raised and small ears pricked forward. Regan sat deliberately still in the saddle, quiet and balanced and waiting.
Plenty of bear up in these parts. Plenty of tree trunks and shadows and juts of land to hide a bear even nearby.
"Shh," Regan said softly as the horse trembled briefly beneath her. "It's not exactly safe to go bolting off through the woods, either."
Neither ear swiveled back to acknowledge her. Not good. "I was thinking admiring thoughts about you a moment ago," she told the horse, laying one hand on that sweaty neck-feeling the tension there. "I'm trusting you to keep me safe."
The word eased through her mind, an unwelcome su-surrus in her thoughts. Oh, just perfect. Safe.
"I heard you the first time," she snapped. "Stay out of my head!"
Even silent, the whisper crawled across her skin. Regan gritted her teeth. You may have driven my mother mad, but you won't get me.
And the horse exploded into bucking beneath her.
Kai hadn't meant to intrude. He hadn't meant to alert the horse, never mind spook it.
The woman had been sitting the blue roan with a comfortable grace, well mounted on the compact creature. The sun beat down on a battered straw cowboy hat, glinting off the amazing pale gold of her hair as it trailed down her back in a single braid. She stayed quiet when the horse detected Kai, alarmed at the unfamiliar lynx-and-human mix of scents; she'd scanned the woods, as aware as the horse-and as aware as Kai-of the dangers that lurked in this natural beauty.
And Kai responded instinctively, as he did nearly everything. He imbued his thoughts into the land, making it an offering a reassurance. An intent to stay silent and unseen, here where he tracked the other recent intruders in this place.
He hadn't expected her to hear the ripple of his message so clearly.
He really hadn't expected her to react so strongly.
It put the horse over the edge into bucking, right there on the slant of the earth, a tangle of deadwood to one side and a tight, scrubby cluster of knee-high oak to the other. Not wild bucking, but without footing and without space.
Kai didn't expect it when the woman came off, either.
The horse didn't hesitate for an instant. Reins flying, stirrup leathers flapping, it whirled and bolted away.
But the woman didn't move.
Kai crouched to the earth, appalled his broad lynx paws spread over humus and twig, his claws flexing momentarily deep, and his concern rippling out as loudly as his reassurance a moment earlier.
Her voice rose from amidst the scrub oak. "I'm fine," she said, with sharp annoyance. "Now butt out." The words slapped back at him through the land, a light smack of retribution, and Kai crouched even lower, his ears slanting back and his mouth opened to a silent snarl of protest and surprise.
He pulled back into himself and did the only thing he could-the thing he'd wanted to avoid in the first place. He reached for the human within himself-stretching out into his shoulders, straightening long legs. He put noise into his feet so she would hear him coming with his human stride, and moved through the woods as though he had no habitual cause for silence-and as he reached her, he pretended he hadn't heard her earlier words, or felt that stinging slap. "Are you all right?"
His voice came out rough with disuse, a voice with a rasp at the best of times. She seemed to understand him regardless, though she didn't respond directly, and she didn't yet get up. She lay tangled in the oak, one bent knee upright and casual. "He was sure there was a bear. You must be it."
"Lynx," he responded, before he could think not to, and winced.
She gave him a sharp look from the corner of her eye, but she did as so many others in the outside world did- she ignored that which didn't make sense. "You know, if you weren't trespassing, you might not have spooked my horse."
"I didn't expect you to fall," he admitted. "But I'm not trespassing."
"The hell you aren't." That brought her upright, indignation on her face. "And I didn't fall. I bailed." She had the fair skin to go with her bright hair, her face flushed from her fall and her ire. "It didn't seem like the place to go mano a mano with the mustang. Especially not when he was right. There was something creeping around out there." She fixed him with a blaming glare, her eyes a pale blue in the sun, before she snatched her straw hat from the brush and crammed it back over her head.
Kai rose to that glare in ways he hadn't expected-a notch of his own temper, the hint of a growl in his throat as he nodded over her shoulder. "The boundary is behind you. Frank knew this."
"My father?" Something crossed her features, then-a brief inner conflict revealed and dismissed. "He's not here. But I know our land." She climbed to her feet, brushing off her jeans-twisting to check her posterior and in the process revealing a glimpse of toned belly and the wink of a stone in her navel.
The shiny flicker woke the cat in him-but more so, the man in him, laying over his protective nature with a new alertness.
She gave him an odd look-and then another, clearly taking him in for the first time. "Seriously?" she said. "You're out in the middle of nowhere with no shirt and no water and Daniel Boone pants and no shoes?"
This was why he hadn't wanted to take the human, or to approach her-why he rarely spoke to others at all. What was right for them? What was normal? At least when he slipped into the Cloudview general store, they knew him. He thought they liked him. Outsiders even occasionally hired him as a guide, which was money enough for his scant needs.
So he responded in the way that so often worked- ignoring the question and the implications that he might just be crazy, and pretending to ignore the glint of jeweled fire nestled at her belly button. "Let me help you find the horse."
She laughed shortly. "He's probably back at the hay feeder by now. I just hope he doesn't step on a rein along the way."
"Then let me walk you back to safety."
"I'm safe enough," she said pointedly, and reached a hand for the small sheath on her hip, a weapon of some sort.
But she had no idea. She couldn't possibly, this woman who didn't know what he was and yet had still somehow heard him through the land.
This woman who had no idea the Atrum Core recently lingered nearby, encroaching on her world in the wake of increasing activity along the edges of it. Playing with their workings and amulets up here where it was easy to hide, searching for illicit advantage and power, searching for a foothold against all that was right with the world.
Maybe even searching for him.
"Let me walk you home," he said again. He put some voice behind it this time, letting it resonate in the land between them. Her eyes widened just enough so he knew she'd felt it, if not identified it.
She put her hand back on the sheath a message. "Let's go, then," she said, even as she eyed him with obvious doubt. "It's a long way back, and I'm getting hungry."
But she wouldn't have turned her back to him if she'd truly understood what he was.
What Regan hadn't said was "No shirt and no water and Daniel Boone pants and that body?" But it had been a close thing. And in the moments during which this man led the way back to her home-obviously familiar with the land between here and there-she watched not her own path but the expanse of his shoulders, the fine taper of his back and the unique nature of his movement. There lay a primal strength behind his completely unselfconscious grace, and it drew her eye whether she willed it or not.
She spotted the boundary line on the way back in, chagrined to realize he'd been right-she'd wandered over into Lincoln National Forest. But he said nothing, and it felt natural enough to walk in silence.
She stopped them when she glimpsed solar panels gleaming in the sun-her family's cabin, as self-sufficient and tucked away as any house could be in this modern world. "I'm home," she said. "It wasn't necessary to come with me, but I appreciate the gesture."
He studied her a moment. "I don't know what that means."
She almost laughed-until she realized he'd meant it. Then she floundered, glancing toward the snug cabin in which she'd grown up-the careful combination of old-time sensibility and modern tech, so far off the grid and so self-sustaining. "It means I still don't think you needed to come with me, but I understand that you meant well by it. And now I would like to be left alone."
"Ah." He flashed her an unexpected grin, all Black Irish coloring with dark hair and deep blue eyes and features cut with hard precision, an unexpected smudge of kohl around his eyes. "That, I understand."
He moved away, bare feet confident on the spring-damp ground with its unique and primitive mix of fern and desert thistles, and she felt an instant of regret-but she still took a step back when he turned again, not so much wary of him as aware of him.
"My name is Kai," he said. "Call me if you need me again. Because you have been away too long, Regan Adler-or you would know why I needed to walk you here."
And what was that supposed to mean? She frowned, and she would have asked him-but he'd taken her dismissive words to heart and he had the long casual strides to act on them. By the time she might have opened her mouth, he was into the woods and gone, and she was left awash with conflicting impulses-and with the sudden realization that he'd called her by name, when she'd never given it to him at all.
And then she stared into the apparently empty woods just a little bit longer, her eyes catching on a flicker of there-and-gone-again light-tumbling blue-white shards of energy that made no sense in this day of bright sky and clear spring sunshine overhead.
"Oh, I don't think so," she said out loud. "There wasn't anything safe about him. Not a single damned thing." No one had anything to say about that.
By the time she'd located the mustang grabbing hay from the wrong side of the paddock's corral panels, unsaddled him and groomed him and inspected both horse and tack for damage, Regan's stomach growled with ferocity and she ached with stiffening bruises.
She'd told Kai the truth-she'd bailed from the sturdy little horse. Bailing was better than waiting for him to hit a tree or catch a hoof in the uneven ground, and it was better than falling-it meant controlling the circumstances controlling the landing.
But there had still been a landing out there on the side of the mountain. Ow.
She finally slipped in through the tiny mudroom and through the kitchen to the bright splash of sunshine in the great room, thinking about the big homemade cookies her father had left in the freezer. But when she saw through the picture windows to where the mountain fell away from the front of the house, she didn't withhold her groan at the unfamiliar car sitting behind her father's old pickup.
Her father's cat responded with a flick of his tail from his sprawling perch in the sunny bay window; outside, her father's old dog waited for his master's return, maintaining his station on the worn wooden porch.
She took her cue from the dog, who would have greeted a friend. A glance showed her the shotgun leaning quietly in the corner closest to the door; she left it there as she headed outside, but she kept it in mind.
The people here on this mountain were good people. But she wasn't expecting anyone, and the man exiting the car hardly had the look of a local. Not with the expensive cut and perfect fall of his suit coat and slacks, or the heavy silver at his ear and wrist-or the affectation of his tightly slicked back hair and the short gather of it at the nape of his neck.
Bob the Dog regarded the man's approach with disapproval, his tail stiff, his gaze flat and staring-and a little growl rising in his throat.
Maybe it was the dog's reaction that made Regan cross her arms as she waited on the porch, a less than friendly demeanor. Maybe it was the little whisper of unease she felt, not knowing if it came as an irrational little inheritance from her mother or her own common sense.
Maybe it was Kai's words-You've been away too long-or his insistence on walking her home.
Maybe she was just cranky, and not expecting company.
The man smiled, stopping a few feet before the open porch, his eye on the dog even as he pretended not to be concerned. "You must be Frank's daughter."
It wasn't an introduction; it wasn't a reason for visiting this remote little home without the courtesy of a call.
Right, she thought back at that insidious little voice. Because I needed your help to tell me that.