Hero In The Making
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After all Skylar Mathews has been through recently, she only wants her son, Cody, to get better. And visiting Montana is supposed to accomplish that. Yet thanks to the unexpected and larger-than-life presence of Marcus Whitefeather, her plan could be in jeopardy. She can't indulge the sparks flaring between them because reuniting with him is not an option. Not with the secret they share.
But when Cody doesn't improve, Marcus suggests the unthinkable – that they reveal the truth. Everything else has failed so maybe this will work. But how can Skylar be sure? With her son's welfare at stake, Marcus has to prove he's the hero she and Cody need him to be.
Keep your check. I’ll see you in Montana.
"Mom, are we there yet?" Cody asked from the backseat. "Why are you going so slow?"
Skylar Mathews-Adams drove along the road toward the main buildings of the Second Chance Ranch, very much aware that the closer she came to arriving, the more slowly she drove. She'd spent three very impressionable years living on or around this ranch, and with every roll of her tires, a memory surfaced.
"We're almost there," she answered for the hundredth time, her gaze meeting her son's briefly in the rearview mirror. "And I want to be careful, too. Remember, there are going to be lots of physically challenged people on the ranch. Horses and animals, too. We can't go racing somewhere or we might hurt them."
Cody didn't answer and she wondered if he took heed of her warnings at all. Her seven-year-old son went back to playing, making sounds, his hands fisted around his dolls as they flew through the air, crashed and fought.
She stopped outside the building that served as check-in, dining hall and game room. She felt sick to her stomach at the chaos and grief she'd left behind in New York and yet she was happy to have finally arrived. "We're here."
"Let me out! I wanna see."
Cody released his seat belt and stood between the bucket seats of the rental. He gazed up at the snowcapped mountains towering above the ranch. "Awesome."
Cody's enthusiasm did nothing to ease the tension pulling her shoulders tight. Fifteen years ago her mother, Rissa, had uprooted Skylar from New York and moved them to their cousin's family owned ranch to help Skylar cope with her father's death and some other heavy-duty personal issues no fourteen-year-old kid should go through. Now on this sunny Wednesday afternoon, Skylar was making the same pilgrimage with Cody for similar yet very different reasons. "Pretty cool, huh?"
His psychiatrist hadn't agreed with Skylar removing Cody from his weekly sessions, but when her colleague had mentioned drug therapy as the next step in her son's medical plan, Skylar couldn't bring herself to do it.
Cody was struggling with his father's death, yes, but drugs? Her son was almost eight, and kids his age had active imaginations. Cody's fixation on his imaginary world was...acceptable for what he'd been through.
There was an issue. She knew there was an issue. But before she began feeding her child chemicals, she had to try removing him from everything and focus on him one-on-one. Montana had worked for her, helped her deal with her father's traumatic death in a car accident and the part she'd played in it, so surely it could work for a little boy who needed to find as much fun and adventure in real life as he did in his fantasy world? "I told you they made the mountains big here."
"I bet there are lots of vampire caves up there. See that one?" He pointed to the tallest peak. "That one belongs to the oldest vampire ever."
Skylar got out and pushed the seat forward so Cody could climb out the conventional way versus plowing over the console and scuffing it with his shoes. "Then it's a good thing we won't be going up there."
Even as she made the statement, she chastised herself for playing along. But after ten days of grief counseling the teens at her high school after a student's suicide, it was the best she could manage.
They'd had a delay-ridden flight and a long drive from the Helena airport, and Skylar was exhausted. She'd already spent countless sleepless nights debating staying in New York, keeping Cody in therapy and continuing to work alongside her co-counselor to help their students deal with the loss. In the end, she had decided to stick with her original plans. The last thing she wanted was for Cody's troubles to manifest themselves like Travis Duncan's, the boy who had hung himself.
Cody's mop of silky-straight, white-blond hair lifted in the breeze that blew over the beautiful landscape. Thanks to the cowlick at the crown, Cody's hair always had a messy, fresh-from-bed look. And she loved it, loved him, more than life.
"But we gotta! How will I find my dad if we don't?"
Ignoring the guests leaving the common room, Skylar focused on Cody and stamped down the nerves churning within her. "Cody, we've talked about this. About how make-believe is fun, but it's not real. Remember?"
Her son's indigo eyes stared at her with mutinous intensity, his chin set at a stubborn angle she recognized from looking in the mirror. With his naturally dark complexion and light hair, he looked more like a sun-kissed California surfer than a kid born and raised in the heart of New York City.
When he didn't respond, she said, "Why don't we go inside and find Grandma Rissa and Maura? Figure out which cabin is ours? Won't that be fun?"
He lowered his head and his fingers tightened around his dolls–or rather, action figures–as though he wanted to sling them at her. Ignoring her suggestion, he stared at Batman as if the doll was talking.
"I know," he whispered to Batman, then heaved a gusty sigh. "Okay. We'll wait."
"Cody," she said, pulling his attention to her. "What's going on? Where are we right now?"
"That's right. I want you to remember that. Now we're going to see Grandma. Are you ready?"
Cody lifted his head and focused on the mountains with such longing, her heart skipped a beat. Maybe she shouldn't have brought him here. "Listen to me. Look at my eyes." She waited for him to obey her. "Honey, I know I sort of looked like a vampire in those pictures you and Natalie found," she said, referring to the babysitter, "but I was playing dress up. I'm not a vampire, and neither was your dad."
He shook his head. "Mom, I know the secret."
"Cody, there is no secret. Your dad is–"
"No, he's not! He's not really dead!"
Nine months, six days. That's how long it had been since Tom had died on August 26 of last year. Nine months and six days, but Cody still couldn't accept it. "Your father is buried in Rose Mount Cemetery. We've visited his grave how many times? You have to stop making up these stories."
Cody stared at Batman again before he grabbed his backpack. "We don't have to go up there to find Dad."
She blinked at the sudden turnaround, but welcomed the change in topic with open arms. Talking about Tom's death wasn't easy for her, either. "We don't? Why?"
"Because Dad's probably asleep now, and if we go, the other vampires might be hungry. We can stay here. Dad'll find us."
She was glad Cody had changed his mind, even if she was upset because he was still pretending.
Other than a single trip to Montana when Cody was too young to remember, her son had never seen so much open land. He didn't know the dangers of getting lost, despite the number of talks she'd had with him. "I'm glad you're thinking about the risks, Cody."
"Yeah. Parker said vampires have lots of power and move really fast, like they're flying. Some are good and some are bad. Dad's a good one. When you were a vampire, could you fly?"
Never had she regretted her ultimate Goth–girl days–complete with the black fishnet, ass-kickers and too-short skirts topped by skull T-shirts–more than now. Those pictures she'd saved as a reminder of how far she'd come in her life fueled Cody's make-believe world. While babysitting him, Parker and Natalie–the teenagers next door, good, straight-A, genuinely nice kids–had loved helping Cody come up with a story to match Skylar's clothing, not realizing the depths to which Cody's dream world took him.
"How about we go get our key so we can settle in and explore? Won't that be fun?" Skylar said.
"Yeah. Can I turn into a vampire like you did?"
"Cody, enough already."
"Parker said they have to bite you. Does it hurt?" He then proceeded to have Batman–a vampire in Cody's mind, despite how many times Skylar had explained to the contrary–do a surprise dive attack on Robin.
What could she say to him to get through to him? Get him to understand? Get him to stop?
One of the horses nickered from the corral. Skylar wondered how long she'd been standing there delaying going inside because she hoped his pretending and questions would end. "Come on, Cody. Let's go."
She ushered Cody up the ramp and inside, where the smell of fresh-baked cookies and bread filled her nose.
"Skylar! Rissa, she's here," Maura cried.
Maura Rowland, her mom's cousin and the chef of the Second Chance, hurried toward them behind Skylar's mother, who'd hopped up from her chair and crossed the room in a split second.
Engulfed in her mother's embrace, Skylar noticed Grace Rowland, the ranch owner's wife, standing tall and lithe and grinning from ear to ear beside Maura, both waiting for their hugs.
"Oh, baby, welcome home. It's so good to see you," Rissa said. "I know you were torn about coming, after what happened with that boy, but we're so glad you did."
Rissa squatted to hug Cody and remark how much he'd grown since her last trip to New York.
"It's good to be here," Skylar said, while receiving Maura's hug, which smelled like the fresh-baked cookies on the counter.
"Mom, I'm thirsty. Do they have any blood?"
"Blood?" Rissa asked, her tone filled with surprise.
"Tomato juice or punch." Skylar shot Cody a hard stare of reminder. "He likes to...pretend."
"I have cranberry juice," Maura said.
He looked at Skylar as if to confirm that it was red and reluctantly she nodded.
"Thank you," he said, remembering his manners.
"You're welcome, sweetie. How about a snack, too? You must be hungry," Rissa said, at home in the Rowland kitchen from her days of working there. "You can eat while we help your mom settle in."
Barely managing to hold in a groan because she'd hoped for a little more time with Cody to get him out of his make-believe world, Skylar tried to smile, wondering what her family would think once they discovered the real reason she and Cody were here.
One thing she knew for certain, try as she might, she couldn't hide Cody's unusual behavior for long.
Marcus Whitefeather scowled when he heard Oreo's high-pitched whinny. The mare didn't like being trapped in a stall, but she had a penchant for roaming. With her so close to foaling, Seth Rowland, the owner of the Second Chance, had penned the horse for her own safety.
Done teaching for the day, Marcus headed toward his van and the racing wheelchair inside of it. He had enough time to get a good roll in before Grace finished his grandfather's biweekly physical-therapy session.
A loud thump sounded and the wall of the barn vibrated with the force of the horse's kick, distracting Marcus from his purpose. He turned away from the van and the hydraulic ramp lowering into position, and wheeled himself into the barn to investigate.
It took a good five seconds for his vision to adjust to the change in light, but once it did, he spotted the source of Oreo's upset.
Across from the mare's stall, a child had climbed the rails of a holding pen. The boy looked to be about five or six and he had a piece of black material tied around his neck. If the boy fell off his perch and the material got caught, he could strangle himself. "Hey, kid," Marcus called softly, careful with his tone so as not to startle the child. "Get down from there before you fall."
The boy ignored Marcus, or else didn't hear, and continued making a shooshing sound, his arms out at his sides. As high as he was on the rail and with the material stretched out by his hands, no wonder Oreo was spooked. "Hey, you. Kid." Was he deaf? Marcus waved to get his attention. "Hey!"
The boy suddenly turned toward Marcus and he wobbled before regaining his balance, his dazed expression slowly clearing. The boy stared but didn't budge.
At least he hadn't fallen. That wobble was enough to have Marcus's heart thumping out of sync in his chest. "You need to get down. You aren't allowed to play in here. Understand? The barn's off-limits unless you are with a ranch employee."
"Vampires can do anything." The boy bared his teeth at Marcus with a hiss.
Vampires? Marcus wheeled closer. "Not here, they can't. See that horse over there?" He indicated Oreo's stall. "She's ready to foal, but we don't want her to have her baby yet."
"So, you're making her nervous."
The child turned up his nose and gave Marcus a glare. "I'm a vampire." He raised his arms and the cape as though that alone should prove his point.
"Yeah, well go be a vampire at your cabin or on the playground, not here."
"Vampires like the dark."
"Then play in your closet until the sun goes down. You can't play here. Now get down and try not to–"
The little vampire leaped from the rail to the floor before Marcus could finish. Oreo spooked, her shriek of complaint echoing loudly off the walls as her hindquarters hit the stall.
"Damn it, I told you not to scare the horse."
The boy had landed in a crouched position, but he straightened with an ease and speed Marcus envied. As he'd discovered teaching art classes and helping out occasionally with riding lessons at the ranch, not many kids that age were that coordinated.
"You said a dirty word."
"Don't scare the horse." Marcus enunciated each word through gritted teeth because the kid's obliviousness was irritating him. "If she goes into labor right now, it could kill both of them. Is that what you want?"
ORDER HERO IN THE MAKING
From the book Hero In The Making by Kay Stockham
Harlequin Superromance © January 2012, ISBN 0373717520, ©2012 Dorma Kay Stockham.
Cover Copyright ©2012 Harlequin Enterprises Limited © and T are trademarks of the publisher. The excerpt published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. For more romance information surf to: http://www.eHarlequin.com