Excerpt for The Chosen One Trilogy (box set) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



THE

CHOSEN ONE

TRILOGY


MIREILLE CHESTER




Copyright © 2017 by Mireille Chester

Published by Mireille Chester

Smashwords Edition



This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any way, shape, or form without the express written permission of the author. For more information, please visit http://mireillechester.blogspot.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.




Crossover

The Chosen One Trilogy

Book One


Mireille Chester





Acknowledgents



First and foremost, I have to thank my husband. Kyle, you encouraged me to follow my dreams and even gave me a few pushes here and there when I was sure giving up was the only option.

A big thanks to Baico Publishing for making my dreams come true when I first started out.

A huge thanks to Booktrope for keeping that dream moving forward.

To my team, I just have to warn you, if I ever meet any of you in person, you will be hugged to death. Jennifer, Stephanie, Anna, and Laura, you are all amazing.







For a friend and fan, Miss Bree, one of the strongest and most amazing young women I have the pleasure of knowing.

And for my Sweet, who insists on reading over my shoulder even though he knows it annoys the hell out of me.





Prologue


It’s hard to believe that at one point life had seemed dull, boring, average and uneventful. That was the way I liked it. My life was routine--one day at a time with no extra fuss. Everything I did was so uneventful that, for the most part, I didn’t even dream, or at least I didn’t have any dreams that I could remember. My days followed a simple rhythm. I got up every Monday morning, took a shower, ate breakfast, and headed to school. There, I sat and suffered for eight hours. I was in my first year of classes for veterinary medicine. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved my coursework. The reason I felt like I was suffering was because those eight hours stood between me and Dodge.

Dodge was my thirteenth birthday present. He’d been a goofy looking weanling with long legs and soft eyes. He’d stood looking up at me from his stall with a big green bow tied around his neck. He was perfect.

You see, I’d been riding since I was eight and begging for a horse since I could talk. Before he’d given me my horse, my dad had told me I had to prove to him that I was going to stick with it. That hadn’t been hard to do. I can’t begin to count the arguments we’ve had about the fact that I spend most of my free time with Dodge.

Dodge is now ten and I’m twenty-three. He has grown into a beautiful, muscular horse and I’m, well, I’m happy with life as it is. Just me and Dodge. It’s not that I’m not interested in men. I’ve had one fairly serious relationship that lasted a year and a half. At least I thought it was serious. When I think back on it now, it’s hard to believe I’d thought he was the most amazing guy. Well, he was, until I loaned him my truck for a weekend and found a very nice pair of lacy underwear that didn’t belong to me under the seat the next day. They say Canadians are sweet, polite, and will forgive anything and everything. Yeah. Apparently, I didn’t get the memo.

I’ve had a few other boyfriends, but most of them didn’t understand why I’d rather go to the barn on a Friday night instead of going to the bar. The thought of going out and being paraded around just isn’t my thing, and I’ll admit that some of it probably has to do with my personal image of myself. I don’t put myself in the “beautiful people” category.

My slightly wavy dark brown hair that falls to the middle of my back is never done. I prefer ponytails and baseball hats. I also don’t have the greatest body. At five-foot-four, I’m kind of thin and seriously lacking curves. Of course, I don’t really dress to flatter, either. My wardrobe consists of Wranglers, t- shirts, and tank tops, though I do own one dress. My dad made me buy it for my cousin’s wedding when I was seventeen. It’s been worn as little as possible since then. I think my best feature is my eyes. They’re a deep green with gold and grey specs and long eyelashes. No mascara for me. Well, no makeup, period. I always end up smearing it because I forget I’m wearing it.

You’re probably getting tired of hearing about me, but I need you to understand one thing before I get on with this story. I’ve always been a loner, that person who is never comfortable around people. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like most people, but I’ve always felt like I didn’t belong. You know, like there was something very important missing.

Then one day everything changed. It was a Friday…




Chapter One


The late afternoon sun was painting the closing hours of the day a beautiful shade of gold as I drove up to the stables. I watched the staff bringing in the horses for the night as I pulled into a parking spot and got out of my truck, and noticed that Dodge was still standing in his pen, patiently waiting his turn.

“Hey, Hayden!”

I looked back to the barns and saw Shaynna. Shay was eighteen and was looking forward to her high school graduation in a few weeks. She was the kind of girl who was beautiful and knew it, but still didn’t mind getting a little dirty. Her blond hair was short and spiky, her eyes blue. She was always done up.

Dodge saw me making my way toward- him and nickered. He always made me smile. Shaynna stopped at Macho’s pen and put his halter on. Macho was stunning; a sleek, black, massive stallion, perfect for show jumping. He made Dodge look like a pony.

“Should we head to the bridge, Shay?”

She smiled. “Sounds like a plan!”

I tied Dodge to the outside of his stall and grabbed the brushes from my tack box. When he was groomed and saddled, I went out to meet Shaynna and Macho in the outside ring where she was talking to her instructor. She nodded when she saw us coming. Macho ambled over to the fence.

“Hey,” she said. “Change of plans. Do you mind if we go to the bridge tomorrow? Anita is giving an extra lesson today to anyone who wants it, and with our first show of the season next weekend, I’d like to get as much practice in as possible.”

Sure,” I nodded. “Not a problem. I’ll just do the short trail today. Maybe the ropers will be here when I get back and I can give them a hand with the chute. Is Shawn coming tonight?”

She shook her head. “No. He had to work late.”

I waved goodbye and turned Dodge towards the trails behind the barns. The second longest trail was my favorite. It went over an old bridge and on either side of the river were flat, grassy banks. I loved packing a book and a bag of chips and just hanging out there while Dodge ate grass. I didn’t have time for that kind of leisurely ride today.

I was so lost in my thoughts that I never noticed that I passed the turnoff for the short trail until I got to the bridge.

We better keep going, Dodge.” I patted his neck. We crossed the bridge and turned left where the trail forked. “Tomorrow we’ll take the other one. We’ll have all day to play here.”

I nudged him into a trot to try to make up for the time we’d lost taking the longer trail. We hadn’t gone far when I noticed a new fork in the road.

That’s funny. No one said anything about them adding trails...” I was confused. Although the trail was narrower than the one I was on and slightly overgrown, it didn’t seem like a new addition. A new trail would have been clean cut. I was positive that it hadn’t been there before.

I turned Dodge left again so that we could start back toward the barns. He balked and pivoted toward the unexplored trail.

Come on, buddy. We’ve got to head back.”

Dodge remained still, perked up his ears, and looked down the trail. I followed his gaze and caught my breath. Farther up the trail on the ridge of a hill a man stood as still as a tree. The sun broke through the trees and made his dark brown hair gleam like it was on fire. His shaggy curls rustled in the breeze. What really caught my attention were his eyes. Even from this distance they bore into mine. Green met blue and locked. I realized I was lightheaded before I remembered to breathe.

“Holy shit!” I whispered.

I blinked as I inhaled, and when I focused on the top of the hill again he was gone.

I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Did that just happen?” I asked Dodge. I was pretty sure it had, though I was known to daydream. “Probably just a hiker taking advantage of a beautiful day.”

Still, my thoughts returned to the sudden discovery of the path. It was weird about the unmarked trail.

Dodge swished his tail.

“You’re right. We’d better get going.”

We picked up a steady canter and made our way to the outside arena. Shaynna was leading Macho out of the outdoor ring as Dodge and I slowed to a walk. She waved me over to her.

“How was your lesson?” I asked.

“Great! I think we’re ready for next weekend.” She grinned from ear to ear, and I smiled at her excitement.

“That’s awesome! You guys will do great.” I dismounted Dodge and walked to the barn with Shaynna.

“How was your ride?” she asked.

Nice.” I paused. “Say, did you hear anything about a new trail back there?”

She shook her head.

Weird. Maybe I just never noticed it before.”

“Whereabouts?”

“After the bridge, just past the clearing.”

She frowned. “I don’t remember one there, either. Are you coming back tomorrow morning?”

I nodded. “I’ll be here before ten. Dale is giving a lesson then and I really want to get some more lead changes practiced with Lena before the show.” Another reason I spent so much time at the arena was the horses I was training for other people. Though I did get paid for the work, I hesitate to call it actual work. I mean, I got to play with horses all day. Lena was a little three-year-old dun Quarter horse mare. Her owner wanted her ready as a reiner for the shows this summer. I was also riding Crush, an old chestnut roping horse that needed miles put on him to get him back into shape. My newest student was Rosy. She was a two-year-old Percheron, black as the night itself. She was going to start under harness Sunday when I had a bit more time to play.

“I don’t know how you ever find time to eat with all the horses you have in training right now,” she teased.

I grinned. “What can I say?”

“Well, you could admit that you prefer horses to people.”

I laughed. “I’ve never kept that a secret.”

She rolled her eyes. “Ok. I’ll be here just after lunch. I have to watch my nephew tomorrow morning.”

I grimaced with her and we laughed. Her five-year-old nephew was a holy terror. Shay had once compared babysitting him to trying to divert a tornado bent on destruction. She’d thought bringing him to the barns one day to see the horses might be a good idea until he’d disappeared. We’d searched everywhere and Shaynna had been close to tears, thinking the worst had happened. Thankfully, he’d simply fallen asleep in the straw bales with some baby kittens he’d found. That was the last time she had brought him.

We brushed the horses and bedded them down for the night before stopping at the cafeteria to grab an iced tea from the pop machine.

Shaynna screamed as someone jumped from behind the main door, picked her up, and crushed her against the wall.

Shawn!” She giggled and he planted a few quick kisses on her lips. “You scared the shit out of me!”

He laughed and pulled away, hooking his arm around her waist.

They’d been dating for two years. They met when he started hauling his horse in to rope twice a week.

He looked more like a sixteen-year-old than a nineteen-year-old. His carrot-orange hair, freckles, and dark blue eyes nullified any resemblance his six-foot-two, 230-pound frame had to a man’s.

By the looks of them, they were an odd couple at best. Shaynna stood in her breeches and half chaps snuggling against his red t-shirt, her index finger hooked into the belt loop of his Wranglers. His white straw cowboy hat hid both their faces as he leaned in for another kiss.

“I thought you weren’t coming in tonight!” Shaynna’s face flushed.

“I got out of work early so I could see you.”

Shaynna grinned and bumped hips with me. “Want to stay and help with the ropers?”

I rolled my eyes and laughed. “Twist my rubber arm.”

We headed to the indoor arena. Shay and I went to the chute and loaded the first steer while Shawn went to get his horse, Doc. The next couple of hours flew by as everyone took turns heeling and heading.

Once the horses were put away and the steers had been returned to their pen, we all headed up into the small lounge that overlooked the arena. Shaynna sat beside me at one of the tables and looked on lovingly as Shawn got each of us a beer from the fridge.

Her smile faltered and her eyes narrowed. “Your secret admirer is on his way.”

I groaned, not bothering to look up to see who it was.

“Hi, Hayden.”

“Hey, Dave.”

He sat across from me beside Shawn.

Aren’t you a little young to be having a beer?” he asked Shay.

“Aren’t you a little old to be hitting on Hayden?” she snapped, anger flaring in her eyes.

Shawn choked on his swallow of beer. I took a long drink from my bottle and tried not to laugh.

Dave ignored her and turned back to me. “So, I was thinking that we could go to the movies tomorrow night.”

I was glad I was already busy and didn’t have to make up an excuse. I was a terrible liar. “Some of the girls and I already have a movie night planned. Sorry.”

Oh. Well, we could meet up afterwards.”

It’s an all-nighter. We’re going to Tara’s.” I took another swallow of beer and considered him. He was handsome. He had deep brown eyes and dark brown hair that went complemented his dark complexion. The fact that he was thirty-two didn’t even really bother me. It was his attitude that turned me right off. To him, women were trophies. He had confided in me about all his conquests when I was dating his friend, Chris.. It was backfiring on him now.

I had to give it to him, though. He was persistent. Persistent to the point of being harassing if he’d had too much to drink. On more than one occasion he’d shown up at the same club or dance, gotten right pickled and tried to bodily haul me out with him. Thankfully, I never went out alone and we usually had a few guys in the group. Shawn was not his biggest fan. But instead of telling him he was just plain unlikeable, I gave him the same excuse I used every other time. I was way too nice.

Dave, I told you. It would be too weird if we hooked up after I was with Chris for so long.”

He shrugged and left it at that. I knew I was only staving him off until next time. He chugged his beer and got up to get another. I breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t come back to our table.

“What a jackass,” muttered Shawn.

I smiled. “Yeah. That, he is.”

I finished my beer and stood. “Well, I’d better head home. I’ll see you tomorrow, Shay.”

“See you!”

I hopped into the truck and headed home. When I got there, a note from my parents on the kitchen counter let me know that they had gone out with some friends and would be home late.

As I stood in the empty house, I started thinking again about my plans to get my own apartment this summer. I knew it was going to be a big adjustment. My best friend, Tara, had offered to let me move in with her and her boyfriend, Ben. It would have been a lot cheaper to share costs, but I wanted out of my parent’s place so that I could be alone. Tara and I had been friends for quite a few years. She had moved here at the beginning of grade ten, I had been in grade nine.

I remembered the first time we met. I had been sitting out in the school yard during lunch. I had my art pad open and was working on a drawing of a horse jumping over a fence.

“You like horses?”

I had jumped at the voice coming from behind me. I nodded shyly at the blonde-haired girl.

I have a mare. Her name is Foxy. Do you jump?”

No. I rein. I have a little bay named Dodge.”

Nice! I rein too. I just moved here. Foxy should get here this weekend. I’m keeping her at the arena just north of town.”

I smiled. “That’s where I keep Dodge.”

We had hit it off immediately and been best friends ever since.

I headed up to my room, turned on the radio, and settled in at my desk to work on my most recent drawing of a horse. After staring at my paper for a good ten minutes, I turned the page on my art pad. My pencil came to rest on the paper as I tried to figure out what I wanted to draw. I started with one tree, then another, until soon a forest was emerging on my page. Through that forest ran a trail, and at the end of the trail was a hill.

I stopped. I had never drawn from memory before. I put the pencil back on the paper on top of the hill. Here my memory failed. I only remembered his eyes, so blue they matched the sky. The rest was blank.

Had he been handsome? I’m pretty sure he hadn’t been naked! I would have remembered that! So what had he been wearing?

The intensity of his stare was impossible to get right on paper. I stared at my sketch a bit longer and decided I wasn’t going to remember any more details tonight. I slipped into my sweats and a t-shirt and went to bed







Chapter Two


He lay with his arms behind his head and looked up into the darkening sky. A frog croaked to his left. He tensed at the sound, then chuckled to himself. What was wrong with him, he wondered. He’d stood at the top of the hill and looked down on the girl, unable to move. It was her eyes; they were unbelievable. It was like they’d been peering into his very being. He’d been caught in her gaze, trapped, the urge to go down to her, overwhelming. But she’d blinked and he’d been able to regain control of himself, to get off the path and out of sight.

He’d heard it could be like that. Getting thrown off balance by a look. He groaned at the memory. The urge to go to her, to look deeply into those mesmerizing eyes and watch their reaction if he were to press his lips against hers.

A heavy feeling settled on his chest and he stretched to get rid of it. Maybe he should have gone to see her. What if she didn’t come back?

A growl made its way up his throat and he shook his head. She’d be back. If that look had anywhere near the impact on her as it had on him, she would be back. Stick to the plan, he thought to himself. If it could really be considered a plan






Chapter Three


I woke up Saturday morning around seven-thirty, just like every morning. I could smell coffee brewing downstairs which meant my dad was up.

“Morning, Hayden.”

Morning, Dad.” I popped some raisin bread into the toaster. “How was poker night?” I asked as I poured myself a cup of coffee and stirred in some sugar and cream.

Not bad. Steve cleaned up as usual,” he chuckled. “But Mom surprised us and actually won a few hands.”

My mom poked her head into the kitchen and grinned. “I told you I knew how to play. I was just letting you guys win!” She gave my dad a playful shove with her hip as she passed him.

My toast popped up and I quickly moved them to the counter before they could burn my fingers.

I’m going to the arena for the day. Dale is giving a lesson this morning and I want to work on lead changes with Lena. She’s giving a bit of trouble with the left one and I’m hoping he can give me a hand. Shaynna is going to meet me out there and we’re going to the bridge for a picnic.”

Dad nodded. “Sounds good. Will you be home for supper?”

I shook my head. “We’re all going to Tara’s tonight to watch movies. If it gets too late, I’ll just crash there.”

Ok, honey. Have fun. Let us know if you decide to spend the night.”

I nodded and started throwing a lunch into a bag. The arrangement I had with my parents was great. My rent was cheap and as long as they knew where I was, they really didn’t care what I was doing. Some of my friends thought it funny that I would phone and let them know if my plans had changed, but I thought it was the least I could do. After all, they did let me stay with them, their way of ensuring I wasn’t a starving university student.

I ran upstairs and quickly pulled on my Wranglers and a khaki green tank top before I headed out the door.

Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad.”

“Hayden, your cell phone!” My dad tossed it to me and I clipped it to my belt.

“See ya!”

I checked the clock on my dash as I started my truck. Nine o’clock.

“Perfect timing.”

I rolled up to the arena ten minutes later. John, the barn’s manager, was having coffee in the cafeteria with Carl and Steve, the stable hands.

“Hey, guys!”

Hey, Hayden.” John smiled. He was a short, thick man in his sixties with a full head of white hair.

“John, do you mind if I put my lunch in the fridge?”

Nope. Go ahead.”

Thanks. Is Dale here yet?”

Not yet. But he said something about having the lesson outside if it was nice. Tara and Ben are already out there.”

I headed to the barn and made my way to Dodge’s stall. I took down the note I had left for John, asking him to keep Dodge in this morning.

Hey, buddy.” I picked a piece of straw out of his forelock and fed him a crunchy. Dodge never said no to his favorite cookies. “I’ll be back after the lesson.”

I moved on to Lena’s stall and got her ready. Once she was saddled, we made our way outside to join the other reiners who trained with Dale.

Tara was loping a smooth circle at the far end of the arena, her dirty blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. She looked up and her caramel colored eyes squinted in the sun. Foxy, her sorrel mare, stopped quickly when she was asked. Ben was on his gelding, Baldy, a big brown and white paint with brown eyes that matched Ben’s. Ben ran a hand through his light brown hair and shook out a pollen fuzz that had lodged in the strands.

We waited another ten minutes while four other riders either walked over from the barn or pulled up with their trailers. By ten o’clock the lesson was underway and, by noon, we were all perspiring and hungry.

Ok, guys, listen up!” Dale rallied the group before dismissing us to share some final details about next weekend’s show. “Good work today. I’ll be here at six on Wednesday if you want to get one more in before next weekend. And remember, we are leaving at four on Friday so we can get to Carefree Stables early enough to have a quick lesson before we bed the horses down for the night. Joan, try to make sure you’re there for that one. It will give Spike some time to get used to being away from home.”

I hopped off Lena and loosened her cinch. We headed back to her stall where she ate her oats while I unsaddled and brushed her. I left her to relax and bolted the stall door.

I’ll be right back,” I told Dodge as I passed his stall to go grab my lunch. I passed Shaynna as she saddled Macho.

“Meet you outside,” she said.

I hurried back to Dodge’s stall, saddled him, and tied on the saddle bags. He followed me quietly down the aisle and we made our way outside where I swung on and gave his neck a pat.

We headed out at a walk, taking our time in the warm afternoon. An hour later we were at the bridge.

Man, I’m starving!” I stripped Dodge’s saddle off and put his hobbles on so he could wander around and eat grass.

We were almost done eating when Shaynna’s phone rang. She talked for a few minutes, a big grin on her face.

That was Shawn. He’s in town today and wants to take me out to dinner and a movie.” She beamed. Was it really possible to be that happy? I thought. For her sake, I hoped so. “Do you mind if we start heading back? I need to take a shower and get ready.”

Sure. I want to show you that trail I told you about the other day. Should I tell Tara you’re ditching on movie night tonight?” I smiled when she blushed.

“I totally forgot about that!”

That’s ok. I’m sure she’ll understand. Ever since her and Ben have started dating, she’s been just as annoying as you with this mushy stuff!”

She laughed. “You know, Hayden, one of these days you’ll meet a guy who is more interesting than Dodge.” She frowned. “And who isn’t a total jackass.” Her frown disappeared and her grin returned. “When that happens, I will be the first to say I told you so!”

I laughed with her, but shook my head. “Don’t hold your breath.”

The horses saddled, we started out past the bridge. We took a left at the forks and brought the horses to a jog.

“So where’s this mystery trail of yours?”

“It should be just up ahead, after the clearing.”

Two minutes later we were still on the main trail, past the clearing. Ten minutes later there was still no sign of the trail.

“I could have sworn I saw a trail yesterday!”

Maybe you were daydreaming. You do that a lot.”

I stuck my tongue out at her. “Maybe.” But I didn’t think so.

Shay’s phone rang again. I rolled my eyes for her benefit and smiled.

Yeah. She’s here. Hang on.” She reined Macho in closer to Dodge and handed me her phone. “It’s Tara.”

“Hello?’

Hayden, where’s your phone? I’ve been trying to call you. I have to cancel for tonight. My pharmacology class is having a study session. I hope that’s ok.”

Sure. No problem. I should really study for finals anyway. Speaking of that, I still need to borrow your genetics notes from last year.” Tara was a year ahead of me in the vet med program. “There are a few classes I know I missed.”

Ok. I’ll drop them off at your house when I leave later.”

“Sounds good.”

I handed Shay her phone back.

I looked down at my side, expecting my phone to be where I’d clipped it, but it wasn’t there.

Hang on, Shay.” I stopped and hopped off of Dodge and went through my saddle bags. “Crap.”

“What is it?”

I must have dropped my phone by the bridge.” I looked back along the trail. “Why don’t you just go ahead. I’ll run back and get my phone. We wouldn’t want you to be late for your date!” I teased her.

“Are you sure?”

Go. I shouldn’t be too far behind you anyway.”

Ok. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Have fun!”

She smiled and turned Macho back toward the barns while I remounted Dodge and turned him toward the bridge. “Sorry, buddy. I’ll make it up to you when we get back. Extra oats and some molasses, promise.”

When we got to the bridge it took me all of three seconds to find my phone. It was sitting under the tree where the saddles had been leaning.

All right, Dodge. Let’s head home.” We trotted over the bridge, took the left fork, and passed through the meadow. Dodge stopped short almost pitching me over his head.

I straightened myself in my saddle and looked around to see what had taken Dodge by surprise. My jaw dropped. The trail was back!

How is that even possible?” I had just been here with Shay. I looked to the top of the hill, thinking he would be waiting, and I was surprised at how disappointed I was that he wasn’t there.

Dodge took a few steps forward onto the narrow trail, then stopped and pricked his ears back at me as if to ask if he should go on.

Well, I guess we have a bit of time now. But not too long.” He seemed happy with that and started forward again.

It was a beautiful trail and I lost track of time as we wandered down it. Dodge walked lazily up a hill. Ahead of us, the trees started thinning and we continued until we found ourselves in a beautiful meadow. The grass was chest high on Dodge and freckled with flowers of every color. At the far end was a clear blue creek that ran downhill.

Wow! This is great!” Dodge wasn’t listening. He was too busy chewing the tips of the grass around him.

I caught my breath at almost the exact moment Dodge’s head snapped up to look at the far end of the meadow. There, sitting on a large rock by the creek, was the man I had seen on the hill.

He was staring, his eyes slightly narrowed, as if he was deep in thought. I stared back, unable to do anything else. The meadow disappeared. All that existed were his eyes. The light-headed feeling returned and I reminded myself to breathe. I inhaled slowly, not wanting him to disappear like yesterday.

Dodge took a few steps forward and the man tensed. I tore my eyes away from his and took note of his features which had escaped my memory the previous day. His face was beautiful. A strong jaw, high cheek bones, slightly slanted eyes and a nose that showed evidence of having been broken at one point were all surrounded by messy, dark brown curls and a couple days’ stubble. He was wearing khaki colored pants and a white cotton shirt that seemed to cling to his arms and torso as the breeze blew it against his body.

He stood in one fluid motion, the movement so fast I expected him to dash away. Instead, he walked over slowly, seeming unsure of himself.

“Hello.”

My heart fluttered. His voice was unbelievable. It was what I imagined when I read a book and the author described the leading man’s voice. Deep, smooth, and with a hint of an accent. Was that Scottish? Shivers went down my back.

He smiled. “Are you alright?”

I blinked and blushed. “I’m fine. I’m just surprised to see anyone out here.”

His grin widened and he walked closer, putting a hand on Dodge’s nose. “Nice horse.”

Thanks. His name is Dodge.”

He stroked Dodge’s face, staring intently at him. After a brief moment he nodded, the movement so small I wasn’t sure I’d seen it. He looked up at me.

“I’m Jasper.”

I’m Hayden.” I blushed. Again. “Do you do a lot of hiking?”

He frowned.

I just thought, you know. This is the second time I’ve seen you on the trails in two days and there isn’t much out here...” My voice trailed off as his eyes bore into mine. I forgot what I was saying.

He smiled. “I love hiking. It gives me time to think.”

“So, are there any nice spots around here for that?” I wanted to keep him talking so he wouldn’t say he had to go.

There’s a little waterfall just few minutes away. Would you like to see it?”

I glanced at my watch. Three o’clock. I still have plenty of time before I have to get back. His eyes caught mine and his head tilted in question. Oh, man. Yep. I’m doing this. What is it about those eyes? I nodded. He started leading the way and I followed on Dodge. A little voice in the back of my head tried to talk some sense into me.

What are you thinking? Are you sure you should go deeper into the woods with this strange man?

“How old are you?” I asked, trying to shut out the little voice.

Twenty-eight. You?”

“Twenty-three.”

He looked back at me and smiled. “Almost there.” We’d taken another, smaller trail by the creek and as we moved further along the sound of the waterfall reached my ears.

“Oh! Wow! It’s beautiful!”

The waterfall wasn’t big, but it was clear, and the water shone like diamonds where the sunlight hit it. A perfect white sand beach surrounded the small pond at the base of the waterfall.

You like it?” Jasper asked. He seemed pleased.

“I love it!” I dismounted Dodge and walked to the water’s edge.

Jasper was looking at Dodge again and I saw him shake his head.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

He looked at me, surprised. “Nothing. Just thinking.” He sat on the sand and patted the ground beside him.

I don’t think I have time.” I looked at my watch. Three o’clock. Wasn’t it three o’clock when we headed toward the waterfall? “Hey, do you have the time? I think my watch is broken.”

No. Sorry.”

I pulled my cell phone out and looked at the time on the screen. Three o’clock.

“That’s strange.” I muttered.

“What is?” He looked up at me from the ground.

When I checked the time a little while ago it was three o’clock. Now both my watch and my cell phone still say three o’clock.”

He shrugged. “Maybe you read it wrong the first time.”

Maybe, but I don’t think so.” I looked at him and decided I wasn’t quite ready to leave.

He smiled as I sat. “So, Hayden. What else do you do besides ride trails?”

I glanced at him, wondering just how much information I should give him. “Well, I’m studying to be a vet. Other than that, there’s not much to tell. You?”

He seemed surprised that I was interested. “Um...well. I’m in the army.”

I grinned. “I thought of joining when I was younger. We had a career day in high school and all these different universities, colleges, and professions had booths set up. It was a toss-up between the army and the police force.” I laughed. “But I’ve always liked animals better than people.”

He chuckled.

“What made you chose the army?” I asked.

Jasper picked a small rock from beside him and tossed it into the pond. “I was born into it. My whole family is military. I suppose it never occurred to me to do anything else.”

A bird chirped overhead and I glanced up. A flock of birds was settled on several branches in the trees. “I’ve never seen that many bluebirds together,” I remarked. Jasper glanced up. “I’ve never really noticed.” He shook his head again.

“Are you ok?”

He nodded and stood, his eyes burning into mine. What was it about those eyes? He offered me his hand to help me up and I took it.

“Well, I better get going.” I contradicted myself by standing still, my hand still in his.

He smiled, but didn’t seem extremely cheerful. “Alright. Will you come back?”

I grinned stupidly at the question. “Are you camping in the area? How long will you be out here?”

He shrugged. “I’m not sure. A few more days, for sure.”

I nodded. “Ok. I’ll come back tomorrow.”

His smile lit up his whole face.

Dodge stomped a foot and I forced my gaze away from his. “Alright, buddy. Let’s head home.” I pulled my hand out of his reluctantly and swung into the saddle. “What time should I come?” I looked down at Jasper’s hand on my knee, surprised by the gesture, but oddly not uncomfortable with it.

He laughed. “Whenever. I’m not really on a schedule here. I’ll find you.”

I nodded. “Ok. It will probably be after lunch.”

We stood still, unable to look away from each other.

Dodge snorted and Jasper blinked.

“See you tomorrow,” he said softly before turning and disappearing into the woods.

I looked after him for a minute then shook my head. “You probably just made a date with a serial killer, Hayden,” I muttered.

Dodge shook out his mane.

Alright, bud. Home time.”

We set off at a trot and as we stepped back onto the main trail back to the barn I looked back to the top of the hill. My heart jumped in my chest and I frowned. Had he been there watching? I could have sworn I’d seen him standing up there. Impossible. There’s no way he could have kept up with Dodge. I laughed at myself. It was time to dial down my imagination.

By the time I got back to the stables, all the horses were in the barn and having their supper. I gave Dodge an extra scoop of oats and added some molasses like I’d promised him.

Good night, buddy. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He nuzzled my face and went back to his oats.

I waved at everyone in the cafeteria, got into my truck, and made my way home.

“Hey, honey.” My mom gave me a quick kiss as I walked through the door.

“Hey, Mom.”

She picked up a couple of binders from the couch and handed them to me. “Tara dropped these off for you.”

Thanks.” I smiled at her. I’d always thought my mom was the most beautiful woman alive. She had long blond hair and green eyes, though not the same green as mine. Hers were more of an aqua color. She was also tall, a good four inches taller than me. She made a great match for my dad who was six -foot-five. His blond hair was slowly turning silver, but his grey eyes weren’t losing any of their sparkle. Sometimes I wondered what my real parents had looked like, but I wasn’t really interested in actually finding out. As far as I was concerned, these two were my parents. Someone had definitely been watching over me the day my adoption papers had been signed.

“Did you eat? Tara told me you guys had to cancel, so I made enough for you.”

No, I’m good, mom. I’m not really hungry. I think I’ll just go upstairs and study.”

“Ok, hon. It’s in the fridge if you change your mind.”

“’kay.” I made my way upstairs and settled myself at my desk with my genetics notes spread before me.

I stared at the papers for a good half hour before I realized that the only thing on my mind was Jasper. I rolled my eyes. Giddy. I felt giddy and shy and I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

You think you might be a bit old for a high school crush? I shook my head. But he is gorgeous. Good god, those eyes!

I laughed, decided I was hungry after all, and managed to have supper and concentrate on some studying.

As I lay in bed that night, though, my covers pulled up to my chin, I fell asleep thinking of Jasper.







Chapter Four


It was impossible to fall asleep. Jasper rolled over onto his stomach and laid his head on his crossed forearms. He remembered the feel of her hand in his, the way her thumb had rubbed his. He’d loved how she had blushed when he had looked back at her and smiled. It had taken every ounce of strength he had to let her walk away.

You have your orders, man. He growled. He was finding it harder and harder to follow those orders.

He looked up at the rustling of the leaves in the bushes ahead of him. A small grey rabbit made its way into the open, then bolted at the sight of him.

He shrugged and stood with a stretch. Since he wasn’t able to sleep, he might as well go hunting.




Chapter Five


The following morning I hurried through my morning routine. Dad looked up in surprise from his seat at the dining room table as I ran down the stairs and threw together a lunch.

“I’ll be gone all day, Dad! I’ll let you know about supper.” I gave him a quick kiss and ran to the entrance.

“What was that all about?” I heard my mom asking as I shut the door.

I jumped into my truck and made my way out of town. My heart was beating wildly. I thought of Jasper’s eyes and smiled. It had been a while since I had felt anything like this, or let myself feel anything like this. Maybe it was because he was a stranger. I was pretty sure he wasn’t from around here. Maybe deep down I thought a couple days of fun would be safer than getting attached to someone again, only to have him hurt me.

I pulled up to the arena and glanced to the pens. Dodge was already outside. He perked his ears when he saw me heading toward him.

“Hey, buddy.” I put his halter on and led him to the barns.

I brought my books so I can study,” I told with him as I saddled him. “I told Jasper I’d meet him after lunch, and I have no clue where his campsite is, so I thought the two of us could go hang out at that little waterfall for the morning.”

Dodge snorted.

I went back to the truck and grabbed my lunch, some blankets to sit on, and my backpack full of books. I stopped by Dodge’s stall to grab my sweater from the tack box. I put that and my lunch into the saddlebags, rolled the blankets and tied them behind my saddle, and pulled on my backpack.

Alright. Let’s go.”

I glanced around outside as I swung into the saddle. There was no one around and I exhaled with relief. The thought of having someone else along for the ride today made me anxious. Thankfully, I wasn’t going to have to tell anyone that I didn’t want company. I was sure it wouldn’t have gone over well.

I imagined the conversation in my head.

Hey, Hayden, mind if we tag along?”

As a matter of fact, girls, I do. I’m on my way to meet a gorgeous stranger out in the middle of nowhere and no one will be able to hear me scream for help when he turns out to be a serial killer.”

I laughed. I could always try to defend myself with my hoof pick.

“Ok, Dodge.”

I turned his head toward the trail and silently wondered if the mystery trail would be there today. My stomach stayed in knots over the thought until we passed the clearing. I took a deep breath and smiled. It was there. Dodge seemed to know that was where we were headed and made his way up the hill with no direction from me.

I was amazed once again at how beautiful the meadow was when we reached it. I guided Dodge to the smaller trail by the creek and inhaled deeply to calm the butterflies in my stomach.

Man. And to think this place has been here all this time and I never knew about it.”

Dodge stopped by the pond and waited patiently as I took everything off of him.

“Shit.”

Dodge stopped drinking and looked at me.

I forgot your hobbles. I put them with Rosie’s harness, thinking I was going to work her this morning.”

He shook his head and went back to drinking.

I’ll just put your halter on. No funny business, mister.”

I could never remember a time when Dodge had ever wandered away from me and was fairly sure he wouldn’t, but didn’t think that testing the theory this far out in the woods was a good idea. At least this way I could grab the lead rope if he got a bit too far away.

I unrolled one of the blankets and spread it out over the sand then settled on my stomach with one of my notebooks.

I read all of the headings then skimmed over the main points, muttering definitions and answers to questions.

Live vaccines... killed vaccines...” I took a break after the vaccines to grab an apple out of the saddle bags. I took a bite and chewed thoughtfully.

Intravenous...into the vein. Intramuscular...into the muscle. Subcutaneous....under the skin.”

I smiled as I studied and lost myself in the definitions. Pharmacology was one of my favorite classes.

I glanced up to make sure Dodge was still close enough to catch. My heart jumped in my throat and I screamed in surprise.

Jasper laughed as he stepped away from the tree he had been leaning on and came towards me. “Sorry. You were concentrating so hard I didn’t want to bother you.”

I glared at him and tried to get my heartbeats to slow down. “How long have you been standing there?”

He smiled and sat beside me. “A few minutes.”

As my breathing slowed, my irritation dissipated. “Good god, don’t ever do that to me again!” I smiled.

He laughed. “What are you doing?”

Studying. I have finals this week.” I laid my head down on my arms and eased the tension in my shoulders. “What time is it?”

“It’s after lunch.”

My stomach growled. “Hmm. So it would seem. Did you eat? I brought a lunch.”

He shook his head. “I was fishing and lost track of time. Do you like fish?”

“I love fish.”

He grinned. “I’ll make lunch. You can study some more if you want.” He wandered into the woods and came back out with sticks and some bigger dead branches.

“There’s a lighter in my saddlebags if you need one.”

He shook his head and pulled two stones out of his pocket. I watched in amazement as he struck the stones together and a spark flew toward the sticks and dead grass he’d bunched under them. It took three more tries, but he soon had a fair-sized fire going.

“When you go camping, you really go camping!”

Jasper looked up and smiled and I had to catch my breath. He went back into the woods and reappeared with a handful of long green branches and a fish. After tying the branches together he placed the fish on top of them and held it over the flames. I watched every move he made, mesmerized.

He glanced sideways at me and I blushed with the embarrassment of being caught staring. He held my gaze with his and I saw him take a deep breath. He blinked and turned back to the fish.

“All done.”

I moved my books out of the way to make room. He held the sticks up in the air for a few minutes to let them cool down then set them on the blanket.

That smells great!” I reached into my saddlebags and pulled out the cheese and bread I had brought along.

Dodge gave a loud sigh from his sunny spot, his eyes half closed. We were quiet as we ate. I concentrated on the food and picking the bones out of the fish so I wouldn’t get caught staring again.

Something moved in the bushes to our right and made me jump.

Jasper bolted to his feet, the movement so quick I wasn’t sure he had been sitting at all.

Everything happened at once. Dodge stepped in front of me just as Jasper looked my way, his blue eyes narrowed with indecision. He seemed to make up his mind just as quickly and ran toward where the noise had been, a growl erupting from his throat.

My heart dropped and the blood drained from my face. Jasper’s body blurred as he ran, then morphed into a tiger just as he jumped over the bush. The tiger collided with something I couldn’t see and the sound of animals fighting made my throat tighten.

Dodge pushed his shoulder into me but I was frozen in place. A yelp pierced the air and a grey wolf streaked through the clearing before it jumped over the creek.

I noticed blood on his hip as he flashed into the bushes.

Dodge stepped on my foot and the pain broke the trance I was in. “Jasper!” I ran toward the bushes and stopped short when I came face to face with the tiger. It stood there, motionless, staring at me. Its eyes were the same perfect sky blue as Jasper’s. Its shoulder twitched, making me glance at its side.

You’re bleeding.” I wasn’t sure what to do. Part of me wanted to go to it and see if I could help. The other part wanted to run away, screaming.

It seemed to sense my indecision and lay on its side. Mustering all the courage I had, I squatted down beside it and gently touched where the wolf had bitten it. I exhaled with relief. “These aren’t deep at all. I’ll be right back.”

I ran to Dodge and pulled my sweater out of the saddle bags then went to the creek to wet it.

I knelt beside the tiger and cautiously wiped the bite clean. It lift its head and looked at me.

This has to be a dream,” I said out loud, not sure if I was talking to myself or to the tiger. “I must have fallen asleep studying.” I nodded, glad with this reasoning.

The big cat closed its eyes and lay its head on my lap. Without thinking I ran my fingers through its fur. It started to purr.

I started to laugh. “This is too much,” I muttered to it.

The tiger stood and walked away.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

It kept walking until it was hidden by the bushes. All I could do was stand and stare. Why did I suddenly feel all alone? I felt like crying. Maybe it was just the stress of this weird dream, but I didn’t want the tiger to leave. I wanted Jasper to come back.

As if reading my thoughts, he reappeared from behind the bushes.

“Jasper!”

His eyes opened wide as I ran, threw myself into his arms, and broke down, my tears soaking into his shirt. His arms were unbelievably strong as they held me up and he placed his cheek on top of my head.

“Shhh…”

“Wha...wha...what was...that?” I sobbed into his chest.

He simply smoothed my hair and held me until my sobs had stopped.

“This can’t be real,” I whispered.

I’m so sorry.” His voice was quiet. He held my face gently in his hands. “Are you alright?”

I gazed into his eyes and nodded weakly. We stayed like that for a minute, looking at each other. He looked away first and turned his focus to Dodge.

“Do you think?” he seemed to ask my horse.

I frowned. “I didn’t say anything.”

He looked back down at me and was quiet for a moment. “Alright. Let’s go.”

What? Where?” I started to panic. I began to think coming here had been a bad idea.

“I’ll explain on the way.” He took my hand and started leading me to Dodge.

Wait! I...I have to get home. My mom and dad will think something happened to me!”

I looked at my watch and then my phone. Ten o’clock. AM. “What’s going on!” I pulled my hand free of his and stopped walking.

He kept walking toward Dodge. “She doesn’t want to go. I can’t make her.” He stuffed my sweater back into my saddlebags and saddled him for me. He went back to the blanket and rolled it up before tying it where it belonged. His eyes widened and he looked at Dodge. “Yes, those are my orders.”

The surprised look turned into a glare. “No. I can’t.”

There was a pause. “I don’t know why.” He shrugged.

I noticed that his shoulder was bleeding. “You should put some pressure on your shoulder,” I mumbled.

Jasper turned to look at me then back down at his shoulder. “I’m fine.” His attention returned to my horse and he nodded. “Why don’t you get on Dodge and I’ll take you back to the main trail.” His shoulders sagged and I wondered why he looked so defeated.

But... I... You...” My head started to spin and I sat on the ground, trying to settle my breathing. “Wake up,” I whispered. “Wake up, wake up.”

I heard him sit in front of me. “What part of this seems like a dream?” he asked softly and took my hands in his.

“All of it.”



Chapter Six


He moved both of my hands to one of his and used the other one to brush some stray hairs back behind my ear.

I inhaled deeply and slowly opened my eyes.

Ask away,” he said, keeping his eyes locked on mine. He frowned. “Wait.” He turned to Dodge. “No. She needs to know. She’s about to have a meltdown.”

I started to object to that comment and stopped. He was right. I was having a meltdown. I was imagining that this absolutely gorgeous man sitting across from me was arguing with my horse about my sanity. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry, so I did both. It came out as a snort.

Jasper seemed about to say something so I held up a finger to stop him. I started with the obvious.

“Am I awake?”

He smiled. “Yes.”

“Is my watch broken?”

No. Things from there don’t work here.”

“Where is here?”

“Quelondain.”

I paused and took a deep breath. “Did you turn into a tiger?”

“Yes.”

I looked into his eyes, trying to find any indication that he was lying, joking. “How?”

I am one of the Namael. We are able to change our shape.”

“You can turn into anything?” This was ridiculous.

He shook his head. “No. I turn into a tiger. That’s it.”

“You talk to Dodge.”

And he talks to me. I can hear his thoughts. But I can’t do that with all animals.”

“What is he thinking now?”

He is not pleased. It is not my place to explain things to you. My orders are to find you and get you to Queen Melana.”

“How does he know all of this?”

He is one of your guardians. He is from here.”

“Does he change into a human?”

Jasper laughed. “No. He is just a horse.”

Dodge stomped his foot. Jasper laughed even harder and looked at him. “Oh, don’t be so sensitive! I didn’t mean it like that.” He turned back to me. “Anything else?”

I looked into his eyes for a moment, my train of thought slipping away even as my mind exploded with questions.

Dodge and Jasper’s heads snapped up to look at the other side of the clearing.

A pack!” Jasper growled. In a flash, he was on his feet. He picked me up and threw me into the saddle. “Go!” he yelled at Dodge. “I’ll meet you in the blue woods!”

Dodge spun and galloped off past the waterfall and deeper into the forest.

I couldn’t think; only years of riding were keeping me in the saddle. I held the reins but didn’t used them. Dodge seemed to know where he was going. Behind us, I heard a deep growl and some excited barks.

Dodge ran for all he was worth and, soon, sounds of the fight faded away.

I let Dodge have his head and he continued at a speed I had never thought possible of him. Just when I thought he might drop from exhaustion, he slowed to an easy lope but kept heading deeper into the woods. We crested a hill and I caught my breath at the sight.

Jasper hadn’t been kidding. Atop the ridge, I found myself looking at a forest made up of blue tinged trees. I had almost managed to convince myself it was trick of the light when a flash of orange and black streaked through the trees to our left.

My heart jumped into my throat. Was it normal to feel this happy at the sight of a tiger? I wasn’t sure, but I thought that in these circumstances, it was possible. One tiger seemed a lot safer than a whole pack of whatever was behind us.

Dodge slowed to a jog and we entered a field. Jasper slipped behind the cover of the blue trees and reappeared as himself.

“Are you alright?” His eyes searched my face for an answer.

I nodded weakly.

Let’s stop here for a bit. Dodge looks like he needs to cool down.” He laughed and gave my horse a playful punch to the shoulder, though his breathing was just as labored. That sounded good to me. I needed a drink and some time to think before anything else happened. When I felt I could trust my legs, I dismounted and walked to the saddlebag where I had stored some water bottles and other supplies.


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