Debbie Mumford is a versatile writer. She’s published twenty-four titles under her own name and fourteen titles as Deb Logan, her children’s and young adult persona. Her work includes short stories, novellas, and novels and she has been featured in several anthologies. Debbie’s titles include romance, fantasy, science fiction, and the occasional historical—like her recent release, Tales of Bygone Days. Debbie is currently working on the final novel in her “Sorcha’s Children” series. Visit her at debbiemumford.com to learn more, or join her newsletter list at eepurl.com/bTXLhX to stay abreast of her current releases. This is her first appearance in Heart’s Kiss.
by Debbie Mumford
The view from the ridge was killer, but the girl in my arms eclipsed its splendor.
I leaned my forehead against hers, closing my eyes and breathing in the scent of her: lavender and sage and the enticing muskiness of her sweat. I was a goner and I knew it; even Jenny’s sweat was alluring. She angled her head, bringing those perfect lips to mine and Yellowstone’s backcountry ceased to exist. Jenny filled my senses. The feel of her lithe, well-toned body in my arms, her intoxicating taste…so sweet, but overlaid with a spicy wildness that set my senses on fire.
Time stood still. The wilderness around us evaporated. Primal emotions roared for fulfillment and I deepened the kiss. Our tongues danced a preview of the mating I hoped would follow.
Jenny stiffened, then tore herself from my embrace, leaving me weak-kneed, dizzy, and totally confused.
“Wha….” I opened my eyes, stumbled, and waited for my conscious self to catch up. Evidently my subconscious was still on duty, for the hairs on my forearms stood at attention and the back of my neck prickled with unease. Danger lurked nearby.
The world snapped into focus. Jenny stood facing away from me, arms outflung. She was magnificent, a fierce young mother protecting a child too slow-witted to recognize his peril.
Only she wasn’t a mother and I wasn’t a child.
I stepped to her side and grabbed her hand. “What is it, Jenny?”
She shook me off, adjusting her backpack and tightening its belt around her waist. “Not now, Ethan.”
That’s when I noticed the eyes. Dozens of amber eyes glowing from the underbrush. I sucked in a breath and took an involuntary step backward as wolves crept forward into the clearing where we’d stopped to enjoy that killer view.
They slunk forward on silent paws, bodies low, eyes fixed on their prey. Us. A rough semicircle formed as a dozen wolves emerged. Charcoal grey, nut-brown, silver grey, chestnut, every shade of pelt I’d ever imagined, even a black wolf.
We were surrounded. Behind us the ridge dropped away in a steep incline to the Hayden Valley far below. Just minutes before, I’d remarked that we were so high that the bison herds in valley looked like so many beetles. No escape in that direction.
Our only hope lay in the tall lodgepole pine a few steps to our right. I adjusted my backpack to ensure it would stay on during a climb. We’d need the provisions if we were treed for very long.
“Jenny,” I whispered, grabbing her hand again, my voice ragged with fear. “We’ve got to get into that tree. I’ll distract them while you climb. Get read….”
She shook off my hand. Again.
“No. You climb. I’ll deal with this.”
My jaw dropped.
The wolves crept closer. All except the black one in the middle. He sat on his haunches, tongue lolling out, staring at Jenny.
“Cut it out, Kam,” she said, looking for all the world like she was talking to the black wolf. “This isn’t funny.”
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling the scents of pine and sage and rangy wolf. Jenny had lost it. Stress had pushed her mind over the edge. We would die here on this ridge. Side by side. I wished I had a gun. I was a lousy shot, but at least I could’ve put Jenny down rather than allow her to be torn to shreds by the pack.
Opening my eyes, I squared my shoulders and stood beside the woman I loved. No way would I climb a tree and desert her, even if she had retreated into La-La Land.
“Kam’s not here, Jenny,” I said quietly, placing a hand on her shoulder. “It’s just you and me against these wolves.”
She glanced at me with pity in her eyes before turning her attention back to the black wolf.
Why was she fixated on Kam Jacobs? Especially now? The guy was scum. Sure, he was tall, dark and handsome, not to mention muscled like Atlas, but his personality sucked. He lorded it over the rest of the summer interns like he was the god of Yellowstone. All because he and Jenny lived here year round, their families being full-time forestry service employees. He might be more familiar with the terrain, but that didn’t give him the right to make life miserable for those of us who had scraped and saved and prayed for the opportunity to work in this glorious wilderness for a summer.
And the way he treated Jenny…like she was his by right. Just last week I’d had to pull him off her when he’d cornered her at a bonfire party on the beach at Yellowstone Lake. He’d knocked me flat, but at least he’d left Jenny alone.
“Ethan, please, you don’t have a clue what’s happening here,” Jenny said, her voice firm and in control. “Just stay out of my way, okay?”
I removed my hand from her shoulder and held both up. “You’re right,” I said. “I don’t understand, but I’m not leaving you.” I turned my attention to the wolves, wondering how many I could keep off of her. I was in decent shape, but wrestle a dozen wolves into submission? Not bloody likely.
“Come on, Kam. You’ve had your fun,” Jenny said to the black wolf. “What do you want?”
I glanced sideways at Jenny, stifling an exasperated sigh. I didn’t want her to die thinking I doubted her, even if she had dropped off the edge of reality.
Whining wolves combined with scrabbling in the underbrush forced my attention back to the wolves. The pack was slinking away from the black one, tails between their legs. The big black writhed on the ground, but not in pain—he didn’t yelp or whine, just spasmed in silence.
Was he diseased? I wracked my brain trying to remember how rabies presented.
Jenny watched with quiet passivity. The wolf’s odd behavior didn’t seem to concern her. Of course, I wasn’t sure she was still viewing the same world I was.
The wolf’s spasms increased, his limbs stretched and bent at odd angles. His pack mates whined and averted their gazes from the distressed animal.
Bile rose in my throat and I forced myself to swallow, to maintain composure. I didn’t have a clue what was happening to that animal, but I knew it wasn’t normal. Wasn’t part of the natural world I inhabited. Sweat beaded my forehead and made my hands slick. I rubbed them on my jeans, but it didn’t help.
In front of me, the black wolf melted. Fur puddled on the creature’s flanks and was absorbed. Claws liquefied and retracted into misshapen hands. Jaws and teeth oozed, reformed, and congealed.
I longed to look away, to unsee the gruesome scene, but horror held me paralyzed. The transmogrification glued my muscles in place, as though every cell in my body had declared its stability in reaction to the absolute wrongness, the utter instability of what transpired on the forest floor.
Jenny stood her ground, stoic and silent, arms folded across her chest.
Kam Jacobs rose from the ground, naked and aroused. He shook back his shoulder-length black hair, glanced at the cowering wolves around him, and growled. All went belly up before turning over and laying flat against the ground, as if begging Mother Earth to shield them from the monster in their midst.
“What are you?” I murmured, fighting the blackness that gnawed at the edges of my vision. I desperately wanted to crouch on the ground and put my head between my knees until the dizziness passed, until the nightmare ended and reality reasserted control. But I wasn’t asleep, I wasn’t high on a hallucinogenic, and like it or not, my perception of reality had changed.
I held it together. Whatever else he was, Kam Jacobs was dangerous, and I refused to give him the satisfaction of watching me cower.
And to think I’d been worried about a pack of wolves.
Jenny accepted Kam’s transformation without a blink. She strode across the clearing and slapped him so hard the air rang with the sound.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she asked. “You have no business transforming in front of Ethan.”
He wiped a trickle of blood from his lip and grinned. “Your fault, Jenny. You asked me a question. You know I can’t answer while I’m wearing my wolf skin.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” she said turning on her heel and pacing back to me. “Why were you following us? Why did you bring the pack here?”
“What? You thought I’d just sit by and let Riley romance you out of my life?” He scowled at me, but kept his distance from Jenny’s barely contained rage. “You’re mine, Jenny. Always have been, always will be.”
Jenny closed her eyes and took several deep, calming breaths. Her hands unclenched and her shoulders relaxed. I wanted to put my arms around her, to hold her close and rest my chin on her soft dark hair, but I knew I was out of my league. Until I understood what was happening, I’d keep my hands and my thoughts to myself.
“No, Kam,” Jenny said, folding her arms across her chest again. “I’m not yours. I am not some dog to be owned and ordered about. I am my own person and I’ll make my own choices about who I spend time with.”
She stepped closer to me and wrapped an arm around my waist. I didn’t need further invitation; I draped an arm across her shoulders and hugged her tight.
“And right now, I choose Ethan.”
Kam’s head snapped back as though she’d slapped him again. Rage lit his eyes and he dropped to all fours. He raised his head and his gaze met mine. “You’re dead, Riley,” he growled, and the transformation took him.
“Come on,” shouted Jenny, propelling me forward with the arm around my waist.
“What about the pack?” I asked as we sprinted from the clearing.
“They won’t leave him. We’ve only got a minute’s head start. Now run!”
Like that was going to do us any good. Once Kam was in wolf form again the pack would be after us, and no matter how fast we ran we didn’t stand a snowflake’s chance in hell of outrunning wolves.
But this was Jenny’s world, not mine, and I still didn’t have a clue about what was really going on. So I ran.
We careened down the trail, adrenaline fueling our flight. I skipped over roots, avoided rocks, and leapt fallen limbs, until Jenny grabbed my hand and led me off the trail and up an incline through thick underbrush. Brambles snagged my shirt sleeves and twigs scratched my face and neck. The terrain was rough, but Jenny didn’t slow the pace and I worked to keep up.
My heart was hammering too loudly for me to tell if we were being followed and sweat blurred my vision, so maybe I can be excused for not questioning when we emerged on a rocky slope and ran into a cave. I knew better than to enter a cave without first checking for signs of occupation, but these were desperate circumstances.
I leaned against the rough wall, gasping like a fish just reeled from a stream. Jenny collapsed on the dirt beside me, sides heaving from our mad dash.
Pulling my water bottle from the pocket of my backpack, I sipped the luke-warm liquid and wiped sweat from my eyes. “This won’t work, you know,” I said. “They’ll just follow our scent.”
As soon as the words left my lips, I noticed a ripe, feral stink. I don’t care how scared we were, neither Jenny nor I could ever produce an odor that pungent. I stared into the gloom of the cave’s depth and my breath caught. Hell, my heart seized. I nudged Jenny with my hiking boot. “Jen? We’ve got to get out of here. This cave is occupied.”
She swatted my foot and sat up. “I know, and Kam and his pack won’t dare to follow us in here.” She reached up, grabbed my hand and yanked. “Sit down. You’re making Zell nervous.”
A huge silver-tipped grizzly rose onto her haunches and snuffled in our direction.
My knees buckled and I joined Jenny on the ground. “Zell?” I squeaked. I wasn’t proud of the sound, but it was all I could manage at the moment.
Jenny patted my knee and then crawled across the cave to sit beside the massive bear. She scratched behind the animal’s ears before turning a radiant smile in my direction. “Isn’t she the most magnificent grizzly you’ve ever seen?”
Since the sum of my grizzly experiences were taxidermied museum exhibits and glimpses across the Hayden Valley, I just nodded, speechless.
“Zell, this is Ethan. He’s part of the family now. Protect him as you would me.” Jenny stared into the animal’s eyes for a moment and then stroked her thick fur. Glancing at me she grinned. “This day hasn’t exactly turned out the way you’d hoped, has it?”
“Not exactly, no,” I said, clutching my water bottle. A momentary vision of Jenny and me naked on a blanket beneath a canopy of aspen leaves floated across my mind. “I had something more mundane in mind. Not werewolves and pet grizzly bears.”
She giggled and patted the space beside herself. “Come on over. I promise, neither Zell nor I will bite you. Well, if you’re nice, I might.”
I grinned weakly, stowed the water bottle, and, moving carefully and gingerly, joined her beside the bear. Zell stretched and laid a massive paw across my legs. I managed not to scream. Her claws were as long as my hand, the pads as thick and rough as an iron file.
Jenny took my hand and gazed into my eyes. “You’ve been very calm, Ethan. I think you’re the bravest man I’ve ever met.” She glanced down at our entwined fingers. “I’m sorry. I never intended for you to find out like this. I would’ve told you eventually, if it looked like things were getting serious, but, well, Kam….”
Zell growled low in her throat and stood, careful not to mash my legs into the dust. She moved to the entrance of the cave and roared. I covered my ears as the sound reverberated around the small space, bouncing off the walls.
“Kam’s here,” said Jenny, as if a friend had just rung the doorbell.
Jenny strode to the cave entrance and wedged herself into the small space between the rock wall and Zell’s bulk. I wanted to see out too, but there wasn’t room beside Jenny. I stepped sideways and realized I could match Jenny’s position on Zell’s other flank. Was I brave enough to squeeze between a grizzly and a rock the way Jenny had? Scylla and Charybdis had nothing on this bizarre situation.
What the hell? I’d already lived longer than I’d thought possible since the appearance of the wolves.
I pushed into the small space with feigned confidence. Most animals sense fear, so I tried to keep mine at bay. The bear’s fur was coarse, more like spines than hair, but as my hand worked its way deeper into the shaggy pile, the texture softened to downy warmth. A muscle twitched beneath my fingers and Zell swung her massive head in my direction.
I scratched the skin beneath the downy fur and she snorted softly and turned her attention back to the action outside the cave. Reassured, I wriggled forward and peered under her chin.
Kam stood just outside the cave, wearing black sweat pants and a stained tee shirt with the sleeves torn off. Nice to see him wearing something besides a massive erection, but where had he found clothes? And more importantly, where was his wolf pack?
Jenny’s disembodied voice sounded from the far side of the bear. “Thanks for stopping by one of your stashes,” she said. “I’m not really in the mood to swoon over your muscles.”
“Come on out, Jenny. Let’s talk this through.”
“What’s to talk about, Kam? You blew it. You let your jealousy run wild and revealed things to an outsider that should’ve remained secret.”
Kam’s face darkened and his fists clenched, but he glanced at Zell and shook it off. “What are you going to do with him, Jen?” he asked. I could hear the strain in his voice as he tried to sound calm and reasonable.
“Well, I’m not giving him to you and your pack,” Jenny retorted, not bothering to hide her anger. “Is that what you thought? That I’d just stand by and watch you kill a man I care about?”
Kam widened his stance and folded muscled arms across his chest. “We can’t just let him walk away, Jenny. He knows too much.”
“You don’t know me at all, do you, Kam?”
I could imagine Jenny shaking her head, could hear the sorrow in her voice.
“Go back to your wolves, Kam. I’ll take care of Ethan.”
Kam dropped his arms and stepped toward the cave. Zell growled a warning—a sound I felt vibrating through her muscled body. Kam stopped.
“Jenny?” he whimpered.
“We’re through, Kam. This is the last mess I clean up for you.”
I shuddered at the steel in her voice and wondered how the woman I loved intended to take care of me. I closed my eyes, leaned against the rock wall, and breathed in the fetid stench of grizzly. I’d been a dead man since Kam interrupted that glorious kiss. At least now I knew that Jenny would be safe, and that was all I’d really wanted. I would meet my fate like the brave man Jenny thought I was.
Fresh air wafted across my face as Zell lumbered back into the cave. I opened my eyes and searched the slope. Kam had gone. No wolves were evident. Jenny stood across the entrance watching me with a worried expression.
I put on a feeble smile. This would be hard enough for her, I had no intention of making it tougher.
“Are you okay, Ethan?” she asked. “You look a little green around the gills.”
I straightened away from the rock. “I’m fine,” I said, my gaze dropping to the dirt at my feet. “What’s next? How do you clean up this mess?”
“Oh, Ethan,” she cried. The next thing I knew she was in my arms, her head tucked beneath my chin. “Do you really think I’d let anyone hurt you?” Tears seeped through my flannel shirt and a sob wracked her body. I hugged her tight and rubbed my cheek across her hair. The scent of lavender and sage rolled across my senses and my own eyes moistened.
She sniffled and pulled back so that she could gaze into my eyes. “I’m taking you home to meet my parents.”
My heart stuttered and then leapt into overdrive. Her parents? Blood drained from my face and the edges of my vision darkened. Again. I sure as hell hadn’t seen that one coming.
Jenny explained as we walked, Zell pacing beside us. Kam wasn’t a werewolf, and Zell wasn’t a pet.
Kam and Jenny belonged to a supernatural community that protected the Yellowstone valley. Their unusual abilities were fed by ley lines of magical power that coalesced and knotted in and around the geothermal features. Just as Yellowstone was unique in geophysical terms, it was also unique magically.
Jenny’s family bonded with animals in the Yellowstone ecosystem. The animals were also effected by the magic, being larger and more intelligent than their normal cousins.
Kam’s heritage was shape-shifter, or skin walker to borrow a Native American term. His family could change shape at will. As children, the skin walkers experimented with many animal shapes, but at puberty they had to choose just one. Kam had chosen a wolf. His father had settled on a mountain lion. Kam’s mother was mundane, like me.
When we came to the edge of a clearing with a neat log cabin in the middle, I stopped beneath a white-barked aspen and hunkered down to take in the sight. The cabin was built of native pine, evident in the varying sizes of the logs. Gray chinking alternated with red-brown wood, resting on a thick foundation of large rocks, rounded and smooth from a river’s action. The roof was shake-shingled and smoke curled from a river-rock chimney. A wide porch fronted the cabin, complete with a matching pair of log chairs. A paddock in the back abutted a sturdy shelter for several horses. The clearing looked homey and comfortable. A picturesque homage to the American West.
Jenny walked on a few paces before noting my absence. She turned and looked back at me, head cocked to one side, a small furrow between her eyebrows.
“Ethan? Is anything wrong?”
Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside, but I managed to choke it back. Seriously? Was anything wrong? Let me think about that. I’d been stalked by a pack of wolves, discovered that shape-shifters exist, found out that my girlfriend is bonded to a grizzly bear, and was now facing an imminent introduction to her parents, who had god-only-knew-what unnatural skills and lived in a picture-perfect log cabin.
“No,” I said, holding onto my sanity by sheer determination. “Nothing’s wrong. I just realized that I’m filthy and sweaty and I’d really like a shower and clean clothes before I meet your parents.” I straightened, readjusted my backpack and stepped to her side. “But that’s not going to happen, so I’ll just hope for the best.”
She placed a hand on my arm and smiled at me. “Don’t worry, Ethan. They’re going to love you.”
Zell chose that moment to charge into the clearing roaring what I hoped was a greeting. A golden eagle appeared in the sky and flew to the bear. After circling Zell a few times and screaming its own greeting, the magnificent bird perched on a limb that stuck out from one of the logs supporting the porch roof.
The front door of the cabin swung open and a man and woman emerged. He wore a red plaid flannel shirt, faded blue jeans, and well-worn waffle stompers. His salt-and-pepper hair was in need of a trim and his chin and cheeks were stubbled with several days growth of beard.
Jenny’s mother was an older version of my love. Her hair was long and dark, her temples streaked with gray. Like her husband, she wore flannel and jeans, though on her they looked comfortable rather than scruffy.
Mother and daughter ran to embrace, while her father and I hung back, measuring the situation. When they broke apart, Jenny and her mother each held out a hand—Jenny to me, her mother to her husband. He stepped off the porch and claimed his wife’s hand. I stepped to Jenny’s side, but didn’t touch her. She curled her fingers and let her hand drop.
“Mom, Dad,” she said, “I’d like you to meet Ethan Riley. Ethan, these are my parents, Jed and Linda Leigh.”
Her mother spoke first. Disentangling herself from husband and daughter, she stepped to me and held out her hand. “We’re thrilled you’re here, Ethan. Welcome to the family.”
I frowned, a little confused, but took her hand. Calloused fingers. Strong grip. This was a working woman, and not in the sense of a cubicle jungle. “Uhm…thanks.” Not exactly gracious on my part, but it had been a weird day.
Jenny burst into tears, and Zell whined and clawed the ground.
My mouth dropped open. Of all the things I’d thought might happen, that hadn’t even crossed my mind. Jenny had faced down a wolf pack, dragged my sorry ass on a flight through the forest, sent Kam packing, and explained the unexplainable, and now she was crying?
Her mother gathered Jenny into her arms and whispered soothing words in her ear while stroking her hair.
I glanced at Jed Leigh, completely bewildered.
Jenny sobbed out the words, “It…it’s not…what…you think! Kam ruined everything.”
Jed moved to my side, took my arm and propelled me toward the cabin. “Come on in, son,” he said. “I can tell there’s a story to be told.”
I glanced over my shoulder to see Linda escorting Jenny inside as well, so I allowed myself to be led. The living room was every bit as homey as I’d expected. Dark leather sofa and chairs, solid plank flooring, a river-rock hearth with a banked fire. Jed led me to one of the leather chairs and nudged me into it. He settled in another. Jenny and Linda cuddled together on the sofa. Glancing out the front window, I saw Zell curl up beneath the eagle, preening on its perch.
“Now,” said Jed. “Tell us what’s going on. You’re neither one looking too fresh and sprightly.”
I shrugged out of my backpack, setting it to one side, and leaned forward, elbows on knees. Did I really want to try to put the day’s events into words? With people I didn’t know? On the other hand, these were Jenny’s parents. If anyone should understand, it’d be them.
In halting sentences, I outlined our day. How we’d gone for a hike, been set upon by wolves; how Jenny had recognized Kam and everything that had happened since.
“What I don’t understand,” I said as my story wound down, “is why Jenny is crying now? She’s been amazing all day. She’s saved my life repeatedly.” I turned my attention to the only person in the room who mattered to me, “So why are you crying now? When we’re both safe and everything is over?”
Jenny just hiccoughed and buried her face in her hands.
“I think I can explain that, son,” said her father. I turned my puzzled gaze on him. “In our family, we don’t reveal our nature and bring anyone home to the folks until we’re sure of acceptance.”
I frowned. “Acceptance?”
He sighed. “Think of it like this, a guy wants to marry a girl. He’d be a fool to buy a ring and propose, especially in public, if he wasn’t damned sure of his girl’s response.”
I fidgeted in my chair and let my gaze drop.
“Jenny isn’t sure of your answer,” he continued. “She wasn’t ready to ask for your commitment. Kam forced her hand.” He turned to his daughter. “Am I right, baby?”
Jenny straightened away from her mother, wiped her eyes, bit her lip, and nodded.
I stared from one to another of them, feeling very thick. My eyes met Jenny’s and the pleading in their depth nearly broke my heart. I slid from my chair and knelt on the floor at her feet. Taking her hand, I asked my question. “So, your dad is saying that by revealing your nature and bringing me home to meet your parents, you’d be asking me to marry you?”
Her eyes brimmed with tears, but she nodded.
“And we…you weren’t ready to make that decision, but Kam screwed everything up?”
Another silent nod. Her cheeks pinked and her gaze slid away from me.
I held her hand so tightly I could feel her bones move beneath her skin. “What about now, Jenny? Do you want to marry me? Because I’ve never wanted anything so much in my whole life!”
Her eyes widened and her lips formed an ‘O’. She stared into my eyes and cried, “Truly? Oh, Ethan!” And then she was on the floor beside me and I was kissing her tears away.
We never even noticed when her parents slipped from the room.
After a few minutes, we caught our breath and she settled into my arms, her head resting on my chest.
“Just one question,” I said, closing my eyes and stroking her hair. I’d never felt so content and relaxed in my entire life. Jenny loved me, and I would spend my life in Yellowstone. Not only had I survived the day, but all my dreams had come true. “When we have kids,” I asked with a lazy smile, “they won’t be grizzly cubs or anything, will they?”
Jenny giggled and punched me in the ribs. “No, but they may bond with bears…or wolves…or something.”
I kissed the top of her head and inhaled her sweet fragrance of lavender and sage. “I can live with that,” I whispered. And I could. Happily. Ever after.
Copyright © 2017 by Debbie Mumford.
Heart's Kiss Magazine
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