Chapter One: Nora
The summer sun was beating down on the land in a grueling wave of heat as the last hours of the day approached. The rolling hills of Wyoming were full of brush and grass, looking crisp from the lack of rain, and the trees freckled the higher peaks. A beautiful landscape was laid out for Nora as she pushed the rickety old wheelbarrow down down the dirt path. With purpose, she wheeled the hay over to the large stallion on the other side of the property for his nightly feeding. She had only been on the ranch for a month and already the big bay had stolen her heart. The stud watched her with intense amber eyes and made throaty nicker as she approached the fence.
Gentle hands softly stroked the handsome horse's nose in greeting, "Hi Roman. How are ya big guy?" The greedy stud pushed his muzzle into her shoulder with impatience as she tried to run her hands through his thick, black mane. Laughing, Nora dropped her hand, "Okay, okay, you stinker! I'll feed you then!" Turning around, she grabbed an armful and tossed the hay into the center of the pen. Roman jogged over his pile and began munching happily. Watching him bat a few pesky flies away with a flick of his tail, Nora Daniels breathed in the smell of hot earth and hay, letting the peaceful scene soak into her memories. This is where she belonged.
Horses were Nora's first and only love. From the first time she laid eyes on one of these magical creatures at the tender age of three, they were forever imprinted on her heart. As she grew, Nora took lessons and eventually gravitated to working with these big animals. It didn't take much time before her natural horsemanship was noticed by others and by the time Nora was 18, she was working for various ranches, training and caring for dozens of horses.
Now she was almost 21, and working her dream job in the mountains of Wyoming. She was brought on to be a wrangler here at Cottonwood Ranch, with 25 horses under her care. The 600 acre, private ranch was a summer home that had a river cutting through the middle and mountains surrounding either side. With several guest lodges scattered across the property and one main house, it took a small army to keep things running smoothly. Nora was just one of 10 employees during the summer season, but she would be one of the few that would be staying through the winter. After all, horses still need care and attention no matter the time of year.
A bell rang in the distance, signaling dinner time and shaking Nora out of her daydream. Wheeling the empty barrow back to the hay barn, she double checked on the few horses in the smaller pens attached to the barn as she walked by. Leaving the wheelbarrow available for the morning chores, Nora headed down the path that promised a good meal. A perk of the job was an on site chef that cooked most of the meals for everyone on the ranch.
She took a left at the fork and the cottonwood trees opened up to the main portion of the ranch. The building in the middle was the large dining hall. The space had a sitting area, which felt more like a large covered porch being open to nature on three sides. A large chef's kitchen occupying the back corner. Nora stopped at the washing basin near the steps to scrub the day from her hands before heading in.
J.D., her boss, hollered at her as she climbed the steps, "'bout time you got her! Grab yur plate and si'down!" His thick southern accent mixed with a mouth full of food made his words barely audible. Luckily, she had caught the gist and just gave him a wave, heading to the buffet. Pablo and Lisa, the chef and his assistant, smiled at her before continuing on preparing the desert. A large plate in one hand and a drink in the other, Nora headed for the staff table. Chuck, the grounds keeper, caught her eye and jerked his head over to an open spot next to him.
The staff usually sat together, leaving the other tables free for guests. Giving Chuck a smile, she snuggled herself between him and Julie. The chatter of the staff continued as she tucked into her mountain of food. Rachel, who was sitting on the other side of Julie, looked her up and down with a smirk. "I'd be careful how much you eat, Nora... Remember, a moment on the lips is forever on the hips," The snarky comment caused a few people within ear shot to frown at her.
Stephanie, who was sitting across the table from Julie, was first to reply, "Well if you worked as hard as Nora did I'm sure you could stay slim too!" Those who heard tried to contain their laughter as Rachel shot her a withering look. Rachel's gossiping lips, sharp tongue, and arrogant attitude tended to grate on people's nerves and Stephanie was one of the few who could put her in her place.
Sensing the need to prevent her friend from escalating the situation, Julie butted in before Rachel could make comeback, "O.M.G. have you heard who finally got engaged?!" Successfully grabbing her friend's attention, Julie began sharing the latest gossip that she read in the local newspaper.
Glancing back over to Stephanie, Nora gave her a grateful smile before returning to her food. The blossoming friendship with the curly haired brunette has been a surprising highlight since coming to the ranch. The eccentric photographer gave her a wink before turning her attention to her boyfriend who sat next to her.
Barnaby, leaned over to whisper in Stephanie's ear, making her giggle. The German handy man had worked the ranch for several years by the time Stephanie had arrived, and it was love at first site. Holding his girlfriend's hand under the table, they chatted and smiled at each other. Nora watched them for a moment secretly and a small pang of loneliness settled in her gut. She had yet to find someone she wanted to claim.
Dinner continued on for a while and when most of the group had cleared their plates, J.D. stood up to make his announcements. "Alright gang. We got a new bunch comin' late this evenin' and will be staying through the week," he adjusted his cowboy hat before continuing, "we got a couple that haven't been here before, so let's make sure we give them a big welcome." The majority of the guests that came were close friends and family members and the owners, Pat and Jim, loved to make every summer feel like a family reunion.
J.D. turned to Nora, "We got some kiddos comin' that wanna do a lot of riding." Nora smiled, remembering how crazy about horses she was when she was younger, and nodded to her boss in understanding, "I'll take care of them." J.D. grunted something that sounded like 'good' before addressing the rest of the staff in their duties for the week.
Once the announcements were wrapped up, J.D. called it a night. As Nora got up from the table, he let out a soft growl that only she could hear, a clear order to stay behind. The group looked at the pair curiously as they started trickling back to their respective cabins. Nora wished she could follow them out, being alone with J.D. made her twitchy. His assertive energy could be intimidating sometimes, a natural trait for an lycan male.
J.D. and Nora were the only lycans currently working at the ranch. Unlike werewolves who are controlled by the moon, lycans have the ability to shift at will. Enhanced senses, higher athleticism, fast healing, and a rapid metabolism even in human form, made lycans a threat to humans. So much so that over the centuries, lycans were hunted to almost extinction and forced to go into hiding. Now only a small population exists, scattered across the northern countries.
J.D. waited to talk until the last of the staff was out of ear shot. "We gotta new guy comin in," he started, crossing his arms over his broad chest. Nora raised her eyebrows, catching his meaning when he gave her a pointed look, "When does he get here?"
"Early in the mornin," he paused before continuing, "He's 'an alpha... and unmated," J.D. said, his blue eyes were hard and Nora felt a trickle of unease down her spine. Unmated males, especially alphas, could be unpredictable. The longer they went without a mate, the more unstable they became. A mate could tame the beast within, even for females, which is why most ended up mated in their twenties.
"I want ya to keep your eye on him. If you feel like he becomes a threat, you come straight to me and I'll run him off.. Alright," J.D. puffed himself up as if he would be a match for an alpha. Not trusting herself to answer, biting her lip Nora nodded. "Now that that's settled, go on and get some sleep."
Taking that as her dismissal, she spun on her heels and headed down a side trail leading to the staff housing. J.D. left in the opposite direction towards his house where his mate and pups were waiting for him. Nora's small white cabin was nestled in between two others at the end of the trail. The trailer on the far left belonged to Lisa, who secretly preferred to sleep in Pablo's cabin. No one knew about the two except Nora.
Old cottonwood trees surrounding the little houses, sheltered them from view of the other staff housing. An ideal living situation for someone needing privacy to shift on occasion. With the other cabin currently sitting empty, she was isolated from the rest of the occupants on the ranch, at least for the time being.
The sky now had a dusting of pink, and the crickets were singing loudly in the grass. Nora enjoyed the last bit of light the day had to offer as she climbed up the wood decking steps leading to her little home. Reaching the top, she kicked off her boots and left then neatly outside the door.
A wave of exhaustion hit her as she ducked inside her private space, the cool air of the cabin soothing her warm skin. The August sun could be ruthless when spent all day outside, the elevated temperature that lycans tended to have didn't help much. The cold air made the ache in her bones more prominent. Lately, there seemed to be a constant throb throughout her body.
"God, I need a shower," she groaned as she quickly set to stripping the smelly barn clothes from her body. Once the last of them were tossed into the hamper, she moved into the small bathroom off the bedroom and turned on the shower. It only took a half a minute before the water was hot enough to step inside. "Oh ya...," sighed Nora, letting the warm stream pelt her shoulders, "That's perfect."
Humming softly, she got to work cleaning away the day. Then a short ten minutes later, the water began to run cold and she groaned with irritation. The icy water forcing her to remove herself from the little shower stall and shut the faucet off. She quickly grabbed the towel from the bar and wrapped it around her, shielding herself from the cold air. With a slight shiver, Nora dried her body quickly before securing it around her chest and stepping over to the small vanity.
Picking up a brush, she dragged it through her long, brown locks before leaving it to air day. Olive skin, tanned and splattered with freckles from all her time in the sun got a quick rub over with lotion and moisturizer for her face. Not one to be high maintenance, she finished with a cleaning of her teeth.
Satisfied, she hung the towel back on the hook and quickly streaked back into the bedroom. The fresh white sheets and plush duvet called to her and she dragged her tired body into the king sized bed. The cotton sheets felt divine against her bare skin as she snuggled deeper under the covers to fight the chill. Most lycans preferred the colder weather do to their hot nature, but lately Nora had to fight to stay warm in the evenings.
Aching and tired, she flicked the switch on the lamp with a yawn. The fresh country air trickled through the small gaps of the windows, and she breathed deep, letting the sweet smell settle her in. Now that she was still, she could hear her herd moving across the pasture as they grazed and the soft breeze flowing through trees. With a final sigh, she let the sounds of the night lull her to sleep.