THE paw print glistened in the sunlight. It was the only clear track left by the harsh wind that constantly howled between the stable’s back wall and the paddock. Luckily, Usher had found it before the sunshine had melted it.
He glanced across the landscape. A path had been forged from the woods, through the deep January snow, and into the rear paddock to the barn. Usher pulled a tape measure from his coat pocket, knelt, and measured the track horizontally.
Frowning, he swore and stood up. He should call the game warden again, but he doubted it would do any good. With a few more weeks to go of bow season, the warden was more interested in nabbing deer poachers than investigating anything else.
If Usher didn’t find the sorrel yearling that had been missing for the last three days, he’d have to contact the insurance company and report her stolen. He stared at the paw print and prayed that whatever had been making nightly visits hadn’t harmed the yearling.
The prints have claw marks, so a cat didn’t make them. And if that’s a wolf print then it has to be a freak of nature. He shivered and glanced across the paddock at the encroaching woods.
The sound of a motor drew his attention. Usher stepped around the corner of the stable. Looking toward the mailbox, he squinted against the sunshine. The postal truck pulled away from the letter box and trundled along the snow-packed dirt road.
After a week of being snowed in by a blizzard that had dumped twenty inches of snow, Usher finally heard a plow go through about three in the morning. With the mail delivery behind schedule, it took the postman some time to fill the box. Usher figured his was probably two-thirds junk and the other third bills.
He noted the snow chains on the vehicle too. Maybe I should wait another day and give the township more time to treat the roads before driving into Stone Trail.
He labored over the path the horses had mashed in the snow. The fence posts all wore fluffy white caps, and ice filigree laced the glass panes of the stable office. As he exited the paddock gate and made his way along the shoveled path to the mailbox, the sound of tires sliding over hardened snow drew his attention to the mail truck. Although the postal carrier fought to keep the vehicle on the road, it slid closer to the edge, pitched into the culvert and toppled over at an angle. With its right side pinned against three fence posts, the wheels on the driver’s side spun in midair.
Usher burst through the yard’s wooden gate and jogged toward the wrecked truck, the dry snow squeaking beneath his boots. He prayed he didn’t step on a patch of ice and fall face first.
A string of profanities tainted the brisk air as the engine died. The mailman slid the door open and stuck his head out. Usher skidded to a halt by the driver’s side, the truck’s tires still whirling, and squinted up at the man.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, thanks.” The guy wiggled out, swung his legs over and dropped to the ground next to Usher. “The postmaster is going to throw one hell of a fit, though. I’ve slid off the road twice in the past two months. Delivering mail around Stone Trail is nothing like doing it in Miami.”
“Miami, Florida?” Usher asked, recognizing the man. His heart performed a weird jitter in his chest. He’d seen the guy around town and glimpsed him a couple of times whenever he filled in for Jess at the local bar.
“Yep. I moved here to take care of my mother.” He flipped open a BlackBerry and placed a call. Someone answered it, and after explaining what had happened, the mailman grimaced and ended the conversation. “Like I said, the postmaster is pissed. It will be a while before a wrecker makes it out here. Most everyone living on back roads is still snowed in, and the ones who have been plowed out are in such a hurry to get to town for supplies there’s been several accidents.”
“Come in and have some coffee,” Usher offered, his heartbeat escalating. “There’s no sense in staying out here in this cold.”
The postman held out a gloved hand. “Jarreth Malloray.”
“Usher Addison,” he replied. Even through their gloves, something snapped between them. “Malloray, huh? Is Una Malloray your mother?”
“I know Una,” Usher stated, realizing that the small-world expression was very true. “I don’t know her well, but she moved to Stone Trail about ten years ago to live with her sister, didn’t she?”
“Yep. My aunt died six months ago, and then Mom got sick, so I’ve been here the last three months.”
“I’ve seen you around a few times,” Usher replied. “Other than when you deliver mail, I mean.”
Does that mean he’s noticed me? Nah, I’m probably reading too much into it.
He motioned for Jarreth to follow him to the house. Inside, he hung their coats on the hall tree and then showed Jarreth where to put his boots to drip onto a blanket of newspapers. He led the way into a kitchen done in deep brown, white and a warm butter-yellow.
“Nice home,” said Jarreth with genuine appreciation in his voice.
“Thanks. My sister signed the house and farm over to me when she married and moved to Oregon with her husband.” He reached for a clean mug on a hand-made set of shelves. “I’m betting you take your coffee black?”
“How’d you guess?”
“When you’re an avid coffee drinker like I am, you can sort of tell how others take theirs.”
Jarreth pulled out a chair and sat at the table, but Usher couldn’t help thinking about other ways Jarreth might take things—like in the bedroom. Did he dominate, or was he submissive?
Hell, he’s probably not even gay! He shook his head slightly. But there’s something about him, something that says he’s….
The cell in Jarreth’s pocket chimed.
“Hello?” he said. “Really? Wow, that was fast.” He rattled off Usher’s address and then said goodbye. “Looks like a Good Samaritan loaded the nearest wrecked car on his flatbed, so the tow truck that was called to pick it up will detour here instead.”
Disappointment assailed Usher. Man, I’m such a pushover.
As Jarreth accepted the cup of coffee from Usher, their fingers brushed. Usher sucked in a startled breath and nearly spilled the brew all over the tabletop. Jarreth stared up at him with interest in his dark-brown eyes. Humor lines deepened around them, giving him a rugged look.
Usher’s breathing sped up, and if he didn’t know better he’d swear his heart just performed a somersault. “Why don’t you join me at The Cannonball tonight?” he asked, surprising himself.
“Sure,” Jarreth answered. “I’ll buy you a few drinks as my way of saying thanks for saving me from sitting out in the cold.”
Elation swept through Usher, followed by wariness. “Uhm, maybe I should warn you….”
The look in Jarreth’s eyes hardened. “Is something wrong?”
“You might not want to be… uh….” He turned away and busied himself with topping off his mug.
“What?” Jarreth pressed.
“Let’s just say people might talk if they see you with me. I thought maybe I should warn you.”
“I don’t care about that kind of shit, Usher.”
He spun on his heel, surprise filling him. “Why not?”
“This is a tiny community. Small towns are full of people who have nothing better to do than talk about others. I’m from Miami, remember? I’ve seen all sorts of things go down. People are different in the city, and they’re often more accepting of things. I don’t pay attention to gossipers and shit-stirrers like the ones around here.”
Damn! Sounds like he’s not gay after all. Usher didn’t know whether to be happy that Jarreth wasn’t judgmental or disappointed that he obviously wasn’t gay.
“Well?” said Jarreth. “What do you say? Still want to meet for a few drinks?”
“Sure.” A glum sensation descended on Usher. He shouldn’t let the locals get him down, so he pushed the feeling aside. “What time?”
Jarreth thought for a moment before he looked directly in Usher’s eyes.
Maybe this was a mistake. Using his coffee cup as camouflage, Usher gulped hard and pretended to sip from it. Every time the man looks at me my cock jumps to attention.
“How about ten?” Jarreth offered. “I know it’s late, but I won’t be able to get Mom settled in bed until nine thirty when the home-health nurse arrives for the night shift.”
An engine rumbled outside, drawing Jarreth’s attention. He stood and turned toward the doorway. Up close, Jarreth was even better looking than Usher imagined. The man was every bit six foot three or four. Usher wasn’t short by any means, but he liked his men to be at least a couple inches taller than he was.
Usher’s gaze wandered over the planes of Jarreth’s wide shoulders beneath the blue postal shirt and down to his ass encased in gray slacks. He’d love to be dominated by the man. An image of Jarreth on top of him flashed through Usher’s mind, his face pressed into a pillow as Jarreth—
“Well, thanks for the coffee, Usher.” He gulped down the last of it and set his mug on the counter. “I can see the tow truck through the window, so I better get out there.”
Usher followed him into the tasteful foyer where Jarreth retrieved his coat and shrugged into it.
“Tonight at The Cannonball. Ten o’clock, right?”
“Yeah,” Usher replied. “Ten it is.”
The mailman smiled, revealing perfect white, straight teeth. “Good.” He jerked on his boots. “See you then.”
As Usher watched Jarreth navigate the slippery walk to the road, he regretted the so-called date. How was he going to hang out with the guy if all he wanted to do was get him into bed?
I could just kick myself for asking him to meet me at the bar, but he’s so damn attractive I couldn’t help myself! Besides his good looks, there’s something about him that’s…. Usher couldn’t label it, but even if Jarreth wasn’t gay, he still wanted to see the man again. Well, I guess I can pine for him from afar, but if I see him hit on any women, I’m going home.
With his forehead pressed to the cold window glass, he surveyed the scene at the fence. The wrecker driver used a cable to pull the mail truck from the ditch and settled it onto the snow-packed road with a thud, where it rocked gently. Jarreth surveyed the vehicle, checked the tires and then gave the driver a thumbs-up, indicating everything was fine and functional. Both vehicles left, going opposite directions.
Sighing, Usher shut the door.
The phone jangled, and he snatched it from its base on the hall table. “Hello?”
“Usher, you better come over to my place,” his neighbor, Hanna Tope, said gravely.
It felt like the bottom of Usher’s stomach fell out. Hanna’s tone of voice wasn’t a good sign. She was such a bubbly personality, so he knew her news couldn’t be good.
“What’s wrong, Hanna?”
“You know that sorrel yearling you’ve been missing for the last three days?”
“Aw, hell. You found her, didn’t you?”
“I’m afraid so, darlin’, or at least what’s left of her.”
“So are you coming over?” she asked.
“Yeah, give me about twenty minutes.”
“You’ll find me where our properties meet,” she said. “I was putting hay bales out for the cattle, so if you can’t get your Bronco to travel the wooded lane, we can load the corpse on the wagon instead. I’ll bring a tarp out with me.”
He hung up and reached for his boots, still dripping on the newspaper. Maybe now the game warden would pay attention to his worries about a large animal roaming the hills of Stone Trail, Virginia. First, however, he had to make sure the corpse was truly that of the little one-year-old filly.
Before slipping on his coat, Usher telephoned the game warden’s office. A woman answered, stating she’d give him the message, but he was already addressing a poacher call on the other side of the county.
Fuming, Usher slammed the portable into its base. He grabbed his coat and keys and stormed outside.
Barking burst from the stable.
Damn. I forgot I left Brock in the office.
He hurried across the shoveled path to the stable, opened the door, and stepped aside as a red, furry blur burst through it, jumping and leaping.
The Irish Setter woofed in a chastising manner.
“I know, I know. It’s been a crazy morning, so cut me some slack, boy.”
Usher yanked a scarf from his pocket and wrapped it around his neck. His sister, Angie, had crocheted it and mailed it to him for Christmas. He fingered the soft, cushiony fibers and wondered what she’d think about the weird paw prints he’d been finding in the snow around the farm. Could a wolf that made six-inch paw prints really exist?
Maybe I’ll call Angie tonight and discuss it with her. Just as quickly as the thought entered his head, Usher nixed it. The last thing Angie needed was to worry about him here alone on the horse farm several hundred miles away.
He opened the driver’s door of his 1978 Ford Bronco and let Brock jump in to ride along. Whatever the strange tracks belonged to had to be dangerous. From now on Usher would make sure Brock was safely in the house before dark.
He climbed in behind the steering wheel and started the engine, allowing it to warm up a few minutes before putting the truck in gear. As he stared at the ice melting on the windshield, loneliness assailed Usher.
It would sure be nice to have someone special to confide in and lean on.
He patted Brock’s head. As if he sensed his master’s inner turmoil, the dog stared back at him with big, soulful brown eyes.