The Reaper's Seduction
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by Linda Gayle
Category: Erotica/Paranormal Erotica/Historical Fiction
Description: Genre: Vampire/Historical Western
Confederate soldier Caleb Tanner is so vicious on the battlefield that his own men call him The Reaper. Yet something even darker shadows him--a creature he witnesses drinking the blood of the dying, a creature he comes to believe is a vampire. During a struggle he's bitten, but survives. The poison of the vampire's bite flows through his veins and gives him an awareness of the beast. With the South lost, Caleb vows revenge and pursues the demon from Kentucky to Kansas.
Out hunting wolves, rancher Annie Monroe encounters a stranger who needs shelter for the night. The wounded man draws her in with the tale of the demon he hunts. While she's convinced the vampire is a figment of Caleb's imagination brought on by the stresses of war, she can't deny a recent series of strange deaths, including her brother's, may have more sinister causes, nor can she deny the powerful sensual desire the stranger stirs in her.
Drawn into a living nightmare, Caleb and Annie join forces to defeat an ancient, immortal enemy. But first the vampire has a dark destiny for Caleb, one he must fulfill to save Annie's life.
eBook Publisher: Loose Id, LLC, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: March 2010
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [257 KB]
Reading time: 166-232 min.
Annie Monroe might not have noticed the stranger approaching if her gelding hadn't turned his head toward the horizon and whickered softly. She drew up, shielding her eyes from the late March sun. Through the curtain of snow and sleet that stung her cheek, she watched the dark rider approach at a shuffling trot.
The stranger rode hunched forward, one arm wrapped around his middle, his hat pulled low over his forehead. Silent-footed in the snow, his horse slogged toward her with its head down. Steam rose from its thin, spotted flanks. An Appaloosa, an Indian horse. Annie's jaw tightened, and she put her hand on the butt of her rifle, but as the pair approached, she recognized army gear and an officer's coat, Confederate gray, tattered and stained, flapping in the breeze. She eased her fingers off the rifle. The uniform was no guarantee of safety by any means, but with the war over, it seemed likely this might be a soldier coming home.
Red tugged at the reins and turned to whinny a greeting. Annie patted his neck. If only she could be as glad to see a kindred spirit as her horse was. Strangers in this part of Kansas could be a boon, could be trouble.
The man drew up before her. His horse shook its scruffy mane and dropped its head as he slackened the reins. "Ma'am," he murmured. His voice was rough as the cutting wind, his cheeks winter gaunt, eyes shadowed beneath the brim of his hat. "Could you tell me where I am?"
"God's country," she answered. "Perth. Kansas," she added, in case he was so truly lost he'd crossed state borders without realizing.
He leaned his hands on his saddle horn and slouched lower. "How far's the nearest settlement?"
"About eight miles north. There's not much there." She eyed his Appaloosa, which ignored Red's friendly nickering and looked ready to buckle over. "I don't know if your horse has the strength to go that far."
The man's mouth tightened. "Nowhere closer?"
Only her brother's ranch. Hers now. Apprehension silenced her. But looking at his near-dead horse, his wet, worn gloves knotted in the braided reins, the three or more days' growth of beard darkening his lean jaw, Annie shook her head. The next closest homestead was miles away. It was bad enough finding dead sheep in the snow. She surely didn't want to ride out tomorrow and find this man and his spotted pony laid out beneath a coating of ice. Besides, the War Between the States was over. She harbored no ill will toward the soldier. It was only right, and certainly putting a weary traveler up for the night was not an unusual act of charity in these parts. It was her Christian duty.
"There's my ranch," she said finally. "It's not much, but it's no more than half a mile." She turned Red so the man could see the Winchester she strapped to her saddle. She was no helpless woman--not that it didn't look as if a stiff wind couldn't blow the man right off his horse. "You're welcome to put up in the barn till tomorrow. The storm's getting worse. It wouldn't be safe to travel much farther today anyhow."
Annie bit her lip. Something about the man had her nerves fluttering. She hoped this wasn't the last dumb thing she'd do in this lifetime. Nudging Red with her heel, she turned him toward home. The wayward wanderer kicked his Appy to follow. For now she'd abandon her hunt for the wolf pack that had been taking her sheep. Another one killed last night, a sturdy ewe that would have had a fine lamb in the spring. The wolves had grown bolder, coming closer to the ranch in their almost nightly raids, going right into the pen. Yet they left no tracks. She was a sorry excuse for a rancher if she couldn't track wolves in snow.
"Where're you from, stranger?" she asked to take her mind off her troubles.
"Louisiana, originally," he said. "Name's Tanner. Caleb Tanner."
"Glad to make your acquaintance, Caleb Tanner. I'm Annie. Kansas is a long way from Louisiana."
"Yes ma'am, it is."
His voice was deep and steady, with a rolling Southern accent. She liked the sound of it. She supposed she was greedy to want to hear more, but like Red, she'd had a long dry spell between welcome company. It didn't hurt that she liked the look of him, all dark mystery and lean strength. "Trying your fortune out west then after the war?"
Disappointingly, he remained silent, and she glanced back at him. He looked not at her but straight ahead, the skin taut around his eyes, his hand fisted in the collar of his gray frock coat, keeping it closed against the snow. She railed at herself. Of course a Southerner wouldn't want to discuss the war his side had lost. Annie tried to put a smile in her tone. "I've got some stew that'll fix you up right, and a dry stall for your horse. You're welcome to stay the night."
"Appreciate it," he said. "Most kind of you."
Every word seemed to take an effort, so they rode on in silence. Red picked up his pace when the ranch came into sight through the swirl of snow. Silly, but she felt butterflies in her stomach, anticipating having Caleb in her small but comfortable cabin that Joseph had left her. Her brother had done well in the year he'd been here, before he'd passed on. Now she was making a hash of it all. Well, she wouldn't think about that now.
She led Caleb to the broad-beamed barn and sheep pens adjacent to the cabin, pulled up Red, and swung down. Her legs ached from the cold and wet. She could only imagine how Caleb felt. It looked as if he hadn't been off his horse for days, judging by the dried sweat on the Appy's shoulders. What could be so important he would nearly ride his horse into the ground in weather like this?
Stiffly, the man lowered himself from the saddle and gave his mount a pat on the neck. The horse rubbed its head on its rider's thigh, and the man sighed out a plume of breath. They were clearly a couple of old friends. Curious, Annie peered at the man. Unfolded from his saddle, he had to be almost six feet, taller than her brother had been; and for all his leanness, there was an air of coiled energy about him. A stillness she sensed could spring to action in a heartbeat, like a cougar about to pounce.
How different the men of the frontier were from those she'd known back home in Connecticut. The young gentlemen who'd courted her before her journey west had worn fine, tailored suits and smelled of pomade. In Kansas, men smelled of gun oil and horse sweat, a combination she found particularly appealing. Like Caleb they had rough, weathered faces, their eyes framed with crow's-feet from squinting into a relentless sun. Caleb tugged off his gloves, revealing chapped but strong-looking hands with long, thick fingers. He threaded them through his horse's mane while he looked at Annie expectantly. His eyes were just a shade paler than his Confederate gray coat and ringed with black. Quite striking. And she was staring. Oh dear, how rude. With effort, she turned from him and opened the barn door to let the horses in.
Annie paused self-consciously while Caleb's gaze swept the interior. She'd stuffed as many sheep as could fit into a makeshift pen in the back of the barn and they bleated and butted against one another, unhappy to be apart from their outdoor cousins. Her dray horse nickered and her chickens squawked. "Well," she said with an apologetic grin, "at least you'll have plenty of company in here."
"Right about now, it looks like heaven," he said. "My thanks to you...and your husband."
There was a question in his statement she couldn't ignore. Drawing herself up to her full five feet four inches, Annie said, "No husband. This is my brother's spread."
Caleb tipped his head in acknowledgement. "To your brother, then."
Annie paused, hating the necessary lie. "My brother's away at the moment. But I'll get you that stew and you're welcome to grab some feed for your horse. I keep the oats over there, and hay's out back in the lean-to." She opened a stall door and shooed out a couple of ewes. "You can put him in here."
Caleb looked rightly baffled by her overflow of sheep, but politely said nothing. Red whiffled his nostrils as if he were sharing some antisheep sentiment with Caleb's Appy. The poor thing looked like it needed a month's worth of good oats and grazing. Ribs were visible beneath the wooly winter coat. Caleb murmured to his mount as he untacked him and curried him with a brush he pulled from his saddlebag.
"Looks like you've ridden a long way," Annie said, shutting Red into a stall with an armful of hay.
"All the way from Kentucky, barely stopping." There was a note of tired pride in his voice and in the way he stroked the horse's black and white shoulder. "Only Hawk could carry me that far without complaint."
"Hawk? He's an Indian pony, isn't he?"
"Cherokee. He's saved my sorry hide more times than I care to recollect."
"Well, over supper you'll have to tell me how a man from the South got his hands on a savage's Appaloosa."
Those stunning gray eyes turned to her. "If you like."
Still somber, still slightly bent as if something pained him, he nevertheless stood more at ease now that they were safe and dry, or drier at least. He also seemed imposing, the exhausted refugee transforming into a large, solid, masculine presence. Perhaps it was the promise of food that lightened his mien so, she thought. She hoped. If she had to embellish her thread about Joseph being away, he was sure to catch her in a lie. She'd never been good at telling tales, and her sorrow over her brother's recent demise was still fresh, settling over her heart like snow on the prairie.
Once again, she wondered if this was the wisest course of action. To be alone with a strange man, with no one to hear her screams for help... Well, it was too late now. The man was here and expecting supper to boot. Besides, despite his apparent strength, Caleb seemed gentlemanly enough. And it would be a pleasant relief to have a man's company for the evening. And a handsome man at that.
An unexpected warmth surged through her, a longing that was almost painful. Annie hoped Caleb wouldn't notice the embarrassing heat rising in her cheeks. She was a silly goose girl, just as her dear Joseph used to call her.
His horse put away with feed and hay, Caleb swept off his hat revealing sweat-flattened but thick, nearly black hair that curled slightly at his collar. His coat fell open, revealing the polished wooden butt of a pistol. "I don't want to impose on your hospitality. I can pay you for the food and for the board as well."
"Not necessary, surely," Annie replied, wondering why the butterflies in her belly had begun to dance until she felt a fluttering between her thighs. "Won't you come inside, Mr. Tanner?"
The woman lived alone. Caleb had sensed the lie as it passed her pretty lips, and he cursed the necessity of taking advantage of her kindness. If there had been a husband or even the brother she'd claimed was temporarily away, he wouldn't be nearly so concerned. But now he'd brought his battle to her doorstep and he could only pray she wouldn't get caught in the middle.
He followed her softly swaying form onto a covered porch and through the door of a low-ceilinged but comfortable cabin. A banked fire glowed in the fireplace, and the smell of stew coming from the pot hanging over the embers made his mouth water. The ache of his wounded side eased in the warmth. Here he could feel almost...human again. Surely he must still be, for his fingers itched to reach out and touch the damp, careless curls falling between Annie's shoulder blades. It had been so long since he'd had a woman's comfort.
She stripped out of her floppy hat, gloves, and sheepskin jacket and threw them over a chair by a rough-hewn table. "Please, Mr. Tanner, make yourself at home."
There was a lightness in her that touched his dark soul. So trusting. If only she knew what she'd just invited into her home.
Wincing when his wound gnawed at him, he shrugged out of his sodden wool coat and draped it next to hers. He put his hat on the table. "When is your brother returning?" he asked.
"Presently, I'm sure. He just...went to town. Delayed by the storm, I'd imagine." She waved him toward a chair. "Please sit. A hot drink will do us both good."
While she banged plates and spilled water, patching together a hasty meal, Caleb considered her. Her outerwear had hidden her petite stature. She was no great beauty, but she was fresh-faced in a way that reminded him of spring--young, alive, hopeful. All the things he could no longer afford to be. Her almond-shaped brown eyes sparkled when she tossed him an apologetic smile after she'd dropped a dish.
A tangle of curls swirled as she turned with plates laden with stew. Her shirt and trousers were three sizes too large for her, it seemed, not that a proper woman would wear men's clothing anyhow. She held them up with a heavy leather belt that nipped in her waist, and the pants' cuffs were rolled up several times so they wouldn't drag on the floor. Her hair was caught back with baling twine. She had all the appearances of a woman abandoned. He wondered what had really happened to her brother, for surely those were his clothes she wore. Caleb cursed the circumstances that had brought him here. Not for the first time he wondered if there were sinister machinations at play, leading him to where he would be most vulnerable, where his ancient enemy would have the advantage.
He could not allow himself to feel sorry for this woman, no matter what dark events unfolded. Attachment would weaken him, make him vulnerable.
She sat across from him and allowed him to eat in silence for a few minutes, but he could sense her burning curiosity as she would not stop staring at him. Finally he said, "I hope I didn't interrupt whatever task you were about when I happened upon you."
"Task? Oh." She shook a strand of hair from her cheek. "I was hunting wolves. They've been taking my sheep. Yet it's so strange. I can never find tracks, even when there's been fresh snowfall." She looked up at him, her brows pinched. "If wolves had wings, I'd believe it, but they must be the cleverest pack in the territory."
A chill passed over his skin. "Do you find the carcasses?"
"Yes. Usually. The varmints don't often take them off more than a quarter mile or so. Poor things are simply drained of blood. That's the other strange thing." She leaned forward conspiratorially. "They rarely eat much of the sheep. Gut it, drain it, and leave it. Oh my!" Annie blushed, sitting back abruptly. "What sort of hostess am I? That's hardly appropriate dinner conversation."
"It's fine," he murmured, losing himself in thought as he ate her tough, oversalted stew. "How long has this been going on?"
"Just the last week or so, but at the rate they're going, they'll have me cleaned out by March. And I had such great hopes for spring lambs. It's my...our business here. Sheep farming." She paused as if expecting congratulations.
"You're new to ranching, I see."
"You can tell?" She seemed truly shocked.
"Cattlemen don't always take kindly to sheep herders. Sheep graze the land too closely, you see."
"I had heard that, but our operation is still small enough. I can't believe we'd bother anyone. You don't suppose..."
"That it's not wolves but a rival rancher killing off our stock? No, I couldn't, wouldn't believe that." She dug into her stew with renewed energy. "It must be wolves. I can hear them howling at night, very close."
"Most likely. Have you tried traps?"
Her pretty mouth pursed. "I'm rather afraid of catching myself. There was a terrible story of a mountain man who caught himself in the winter and wasn't found until the following spring. You can see I have enough trouble getting a meal on the table. It would simply be courting disaster to give me steel-jawed traps."
Tanner felt a smile trying to bend his lips. "Your brother could do it."
She hemmed tellingly. "Oh yes. Hmm. Well, he's often away, so it would fall on me."
"You're not from around here, are you?"
Annie set down her fork. "You're very direct, sir."
He shrugged, enjoying the way her face colored so easily. "It's your accent. It's like mine. It gives us away."
She quirked a smile. "Of course. You're right. I'm from Connecticut. Hartford area. Is it that obvious?"
"I'm afraid so."
She laughed and he amended his earlier opinion that she was no great beauty. Indeed, when she laughed it lit up the entire room, so carefree and innocent was she. "You are quite correct. I'm far more used to sitting rooms and satin gowns than I am to sheep and wolves and red Indians. And lost soldiers." Her eyes twinkled. "I must believe Fate has brought us together for good reason, we two lost souls, Mr. Tanner."
Her innocent confirmation of his darker suspicion gave him pause. He leaned forward in his chair and stared into her eyes. "Miss...?"
"Monroe. But please call me Annie."
"Annie. I must ask you one favor."
She held his gaze, wide-eyed, sobering. "Of course. Anything."
Anything? His body, grown suspicious of sensual needs, came almost painfully awake. He swallowed hard. "Do not go out after those wolves. Keep your sheep locked up. I'll be sleeping in the barn tonight. I'll take care of any varmints for you."
"Oh would you?" Her relief was nearly palpable. "I do appreciate it, sir. But the barn... It would be so cold and dirty. I can't imagine sleeping amidst all those animals."
"It'll be better than the finest hotel after my long ride. And I'm grateful for it."
"I'll bring you blankets and some hot water to wash with. If you should need anything...anything..." Her voice trailed off. She still stared into his eyes and her face softened, her lips slackening, her cheeks flushing pink.
Caleb sat back and turned away, horrified. God damn, it was the curse, the bite, the poison that burned through his veins. As soon as he broke eye contact, Annie shook her head and seemed to come back to herself.
"Forgive me," she murmured, then stood, hiding her face from him, and took their empty plates.
What the devil? Caleb ran his hand over his jaw, closing his eyes and breathing a heavy sigh. Was he truly to become like the beast, the stealer of souls he hunted now? A mesmerist who held his victims in thrall until they bared their throats willingly?
The never-healing wound above his right hip throbbed. The familiar, sweetly aching pain reached black fingers to his groin, curled beneath his skin, made his balls draw up and his cock stiffen. He'd had no release from it for so long. If a woman's hand could coax that feverish ache from him, even for one night, it would be like salvation. An image of Annie's slender fingers circling him, stroking, pumping...
Annie's gentle, inquisitive voice dragged him back to reality. It was clear from her tilted head and furrowed brow that she'd had to call him more than once.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. Lost in thought."
"Are you well?" She reached a hand and boldly placed it on his forehead. Her palm was cool and soft. "You're cold as ice," she murmured, drawing back. "A night in that barn would kill you. You must stay indoors with me."
He stood so quickly his chair scraped against the floorboards. "I'll be fine. Thank you for the meal."
He grabbed his coat and shoved his hat onto his head, then pushed out the door to the solitude of the barn.