Being a black woman wasn’t the detriment it used to be, or at least not in the experiences of a one Miss Sadie Rose, recent owner of her own cattle ranch. No, her gender and color were no problem to anyone she knew, and the fact that she was a bit on the larger side should have set their minds at ease as to her abilities with rustling the cows and such, but the idea of a woman running a cattle ranch certainly had a few cowboys up in arms, able to do the work or not.
Of course, since her ample curves were rather well placed according to some of these men, she also had plenty of volunteers chomping at the bit, so to speak, to become her man and take the reins into their more capable hands, but not one of them could manage to hold her interest long enough for the deed to be done. Probably because she had no notion of handing over the reins, capable man or no. That was her ranch, and that was that.
She thought of these things as the car zipped along the vast, flat prairie that lay between South Dakota, where her ranch was, and the much bigger ranch her three uncles helped run out in California. The few small towns that zipped by as they went held little interest for her. She was actually looking forward to seeing what lay beyond the mountains at Yosemite.
She wondered if Greg, her ranch hand and best friend throughout childhood even though he was ten years her senior, would be driving through any of the casino towns in Nevada. Not that she intended to visit any of them, but she was certain those buildings were a fair sight bigger than any she’d ever seen in her twenty-three years.
She hadn’t liked leaving the ranch in Earl’s care, but he’d been there the longest even if he was a pain. He was one of the first men to start bellyaching when her Dad’s last will had been read. She supposed he’d been expecting to take charge of the old place himself after Jethro Rose had been mauled by a bull, but he’d been told different, that was for sure. She could still see the sour look on his face even now.
“You might as well get some sleep now, Miss Sadie,” said Greg as he looked back at her through the rear-view mirror. “California is a lot of hours away, and if you use up all your lookin’ now, your eyes won’t stay open when we get to the good parts.”
“You may be right,” she agreed with a yawn. “Make sure you let me know when anything interesting happens.”
Sadie’s eyes were already drooping as she unbuckled herself so she could lay down. She found a comfortable spot and soon she was fast asleep. She was jolted awake sometime later and realized almost instantly that the car was drifting off the road, and the tire was still rolling down the highway for a few more feet.
“Greg, what happened?” she gasped, then looked over the top of the seat she’d just smashed into. “Oh no, Greg? Greg, wake up!”
Panicking now, Sadie tried to push herself back up onto the back seat, and realized with shock that she must be injured as well when pain shot up her arm. Looking at it, she saw that her wrist looked dislocated. When she tried to pull at the limb, it hurt so much she stopped. She scrambled around to look for her cell phone, but it was shattered on the floor.
The back door opened, and she felt a pair of strong hands lifting her out. A man’s voice was shouting in her ear. “Are you all right? Miss, are you all right? Can you speak?”
“Do something, Merlin,” said another voice. “We can’t just leave her like that.”
“You know the rules, no magic outside of the Facility,” said the first man, Merlin, though he didn’t sound very convincing.
“There’s no one around to see, just do it,” said the other man insistently.
“The driver isn’t waking up,” said a third man with finality. “I wish I knew who hit them. Some lousy drunk, most likely. Merlin, you might as well help the girl, there’s no point in leaving her like that.”
The hands that had carried her to the sidewalk began to smooth over her body, looking for injuries. When he got to her arm, Sadie shrieked with pain.
“Well, other than a nasty concussion and a broken wrist, she seems to be in relatively good shape,” said Merlin as he turned to the others. “I should be able to heal her easily.”
Sadie gasped when his hands started to glow a bright, translucent blue, and then he touched her wrist and the pain was gone. Next, he touched her head. Just as she was beginning to feel good again, everything suddenly went black.
She came to in a dark room. She was lying under a blanket on an old sofa. One of its springs was poking her in the calf. “Ouch!” she grumbled as she moved away from the thing.
“Merlin, she’s awake,” said a young man with long, dark hair who sat at a nearby table. An exact duplicate of him suddenly rushed into the room and knelt beside her.
“How are you feeling now?” he asked earnestly. “I had to bring you along when you passed out. I guess you needed a bit more healing than I thought.”
“Where are we?” she asked weakly. “What about my car—and Greg? What happened to Greg?”
“By Greg I assume you mean the driver,” said another voice as an older, taller man with similar looks stepped up behind Merlin. “There was nothing we could do for him. We felt it best to simply alert the authorities to the whereabouts of your vehicle and the gravity of the man’s injuries. I imagine they’ll get it all sorted out in the end.”
“But I don’t understand,” Sadie insisted. “How is it that my arm isn’t broken? How did you heal it with that weird light from your hands?”
“Magic,” Merlin chuckled. “You can say the word, we won’t think you’re crazy.”
The other twin, for that was obviously what he was, stepped over to join his brother. “There’s more than one kind of magic, of course,” he supplied. “Merlin, here, does best at healing and such, while I myself do much better with defensive spells.”
He conjured a blue ball in his hand and threw it at the wall, making it shudder and groan.
“Don’t frighten her, Markael,” Merlin admonished him. “She’s not quite out of the woods yet.”
When he glanced back at Sadie, Markael realized that Merlin was right, Sadie actually was frightened when she saw what he had done. He reached out and gave her a hug.
“I’m sorry, I forget sometimes that humans aren’t used to seeing magic every day,” he said then. “Forgive me?”
The look of entreaty in Markael’s eyes made Sadie’s stomach do a little dance. The trouble was, with her jangle of nerves at the moment she wasn’t at all sure if the reaction was from shock or a sudden and very intense attraction to the handsome man. However, as their gazes held for a few moments longer she was convinced shock had very little to do with it.
“How can I stay mad when you gave me such a sweet apology?” she answered with a slight smirk as she moved away from him. “But that still doesn’t answer the immediate question. I was trying to get to Sedona, to my uncle’s cattle ranch. My great grandmother’s about to turn a hundred and two. They’re having a huge party, and even my sister is going to be there. I haven’t seen Sandy in three years—not since our father died and left me the ranch She moved in with my uncle back then, and the old house has never been the same without her.”
“Well, as it happens, we’re on the way to Yosemite ourselves,” said Markael with his most winning smile. “Maybe you’d like to tag along with us?”
“As long as you understand that our need to be there is somewhat urgent,” Merlin added as he put a hand under her chin and turned her face to one side and then the other. “Do you feel any more dizziness?”
“No, I’m fine, really, but I don’t know if it would be a good idea to go on a road trip with a couple magicians and some other guy I don’t even know.”
“Oh, sorry, I guess we did forget to introduce ourselves, didn’t we?” Merlin said with a slight blush. “I’m sure you heard that my name’s Merlin, and this is my twin, Markael. The rather stand-offish guy over there is our Uncle Eric. He’s just been married and is doubtless thinking about his new spouses.”
“Spouses? You mean as in more than one?” Sadie asked, raising one brow with interest.
“Oh, yes, werewolves especially like a marriage with two husbands and one wife,” Markael said, smirking at her shocked look. She was almost more affected by this statement than she had been when he’d lobbed a spell at the wall.
“Not that Markael and I are one hundred percent werewolf, mind you,” Merlin added with a slight frown. “And we still don’t know who you are, ma’am?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, embarrassed as she looked from Markael to Merlin, feeling slightly disoriented. “I’m Sadie Rose. Did you just say you’re not werewolves?”
“No, I said we’re not one hundred percent werewolves,” he said as he set her back onto the sofa with concern. “I think you’re still somewhat dizzy, aren’t you? No, the other half is shape shifter, if you are at all curious about such things.”
“But isn’t that sort of the same?” she wanted to know.
“Not precisely,” he explained. “Jagger, like our uncle over there, they can only shift from wolf to human at will. Markael and I can become anyone or anything we like.”
“I think you two have shocked Miss Sadie Rose quite enough for one evening,” said Uncle Eric from where he still sat at the small table. “You boys take the big bedroom. Sadie may have the room I’d intended for myself when we booked this place. I will just have to content myself with sleeping on the couch.”
“Oh, no, I have no intention of putting you out,” Sadie protested.
“I insist, my dear,” said Eric. “Now, since we have no idea how else to fix this mess other than to get you back to your own people, tomorrow morning we’ll set off first thing, get to California, and drop you where you need to be. It’s the least we can do, all things considered. You will, of course, exercise discretion when telling anyone about the three of us, I trust? We don’t really want anyone to know we’ve been traveling around the countryside instead of staying underground where we supposedly belong.”
“So I guess you’ve got everything all figured out, then,” Sadie commented dryly. She was too tired to argue with the man, who had already laid on the couch and covered himself up. Short of making him get off of the couch, there was little she could do other than follow his orders. It was clear that Eric was used to being in a position of authority just going by his actions alone.
“Well, good night, then,” Sadie replied. She was not surprised when a snore greeted her ears instead of a reply.
“Let me help you to your room,” Markael offered then. He took her by an arm and led her into the room, helping her get into the bed and then settling on one edge of it and watching her.
“What are you doing?” she asked with a smirk.
“Trying to visualize you roping a cow,” he said with a grin. “I’m betting you’d be pretty good at it.”
“I’ll hogtie you as proof, if you like,” she said with her best southern drawl.
“No, it’s just that you remind me of Jess,” he explained. “She’s just as strong-willed and independent as you are, though of course she’d never think of doing anything as strenuous as ranching.”
“So what, now you’re having fantasies about your aunt or something?” Sadie teased him.
“Not at all, but I’m most certainly having a few about you,” he admitted with a grin.
“Like what?” asked Sadie. She rolled onto her side and leaned up on an elbow as she spoke, chuckling as his eyes blazed a trail down the V of her top when she did so.
“I think it might be a very improper thing to disclose,” he said. “Ma’am. But if you really want to know, I’d like to dip your delectable body into cream and keep going until it turns to butter.”
“Oh, so now you’ve acquired a southern drawl as well?” she chuckled at his feigned accent. “And you’re right, that does sound rather inappropriate.”
“Hey, I’m a shape shifter, remember?” he said then. “If I were to morph into a cowboy or something, I might need to sound the part, right? I can alter my voice into all kinds of things.”
“Yeah, I guess,” she agreed. “So your voice doesn’t morph too?”
“Vocal chords might, but a southern drawl is a learned trait, not a physical one,” he explained.
“Okay, so can you do a southern woman?”
“I could do you,” he said in her voice, making her eyes widen in surprise.
“Wow, you’re really good at that,” she giggled as she sat up across from him. Her hand accidentally brushed his knee as she did so, making his eyes darken as he leaned in a bit closer.
“I suppose I’m good at lots of things,” he mentioned in a sensual whisper that made her shiver.
“Not me, I’ve never really had time for boys,” she admitted, looking down at her hands. “Too busy milking cows or shoeing horses and such after school. I didn’t even get to go to my prom.”
“Well, we can’t have that,” he laughed, pulling her onto her feet next to the bed and backing away a bit so he could bow. “May I have this dance, my lady?”
“You may, sir,” she said, but felt a bit dizzy when she tried to bow. “Slowly.”
“Even better,” he said with a grin. When he took one of her hands and wrapped an arm around her, Sadie caught herself marveling at the color contrast between his pale skin and her darker tone. She thought it was somewhat stimulating to her senses—either that, or being held against him definitely had an interesting side effect.
Still grinning, Markael’s lips came down on her own. Sadie welcomed the kiss for the sake of curiosity as much as for desire, since obviously she’d never been kissed by a shape shifting werewolf who was supposed to be living underground but who had, for whatever reason, taken up with his brother and uncle on a cross-country adventure.
Then she jumped as she felt another body pressed up against her backside, clearly just as aroused as the first. Merlin’s voice whispered into her ear, “Apparently my brother has neglected to tell you that we do everything together.”
“What? Everything?” she breathed, feeling lightheaded yet again. She couldn’t tell if it was because she’d become breathless from Markael’s kisses, Merlin’s touch, or her concussion simply wasn’t finished messing with her head.
“Everything,” he repeated, kissing the ear into which he spoke. She felt his hands snake around her broad belly as he pressed his hardened need against her buttocks. At the same time, Markael chuckled and pressed into her from the front, grinning down at her suggestively.
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