Mountain Lion

By: Terry Bolryder


Wyatt didn’t know what to make of the figure sitting in front of him, waiting for some kind of job interview.

He, she, it was wearing some kind of long duster jacket, a wide cowboy hat, and their face was fully obscured by the high collar of the coat and the low brim of the hat. All the clothing looked worn and dirty, as if the person had been traveling for some time, and reeked subtly of pasture and road oil.

No doubt that had something to do with the old motorcycle the character had ridden in on, looking for a job.

Wyatt thought perhaps this particular employee might be a better match for the McAllister ranch. They were a little rougher up there, whereas Wyatt ran an upscale dude ranch where people came to relax and enjoy the mountain air in luxe surroundings rather than have any sort of authenticity.

But there was something about the little creature that bothered him. He guessed you couldn’t really call it little. It seemed broad in some ways, wide through the shoulders? He couldn’t really tell under that huge coat.

And then there was the fact that they weren’t short, but weren’t exactly tall.

But they were tiny compared to him, a tall cougar shifter with long, lean limbs, muscled shoulders and broad back, and a height bred through years of perfect shifter matchmaking.

Matchmaking that seemed to falter when it came to him. For some reason, most cat families didn’t want to send a female out to Montana to breed, and so here was Wyatt, alone and single, and, for the most part, fine with it.

Occasionally, he had a twinge of jealousy when he saw his friends at the McAllister ranch with their mates.

He’d already been jealous, when they were younger, of the fact that they were siblings, when Wyatt had been the only child of his family. His mom had gotten tired of the remote life and gone back east, and his father had died fairly young, maybe from the stress of losing his mate or from the hard work on the land.

Or from the fact that he’d gotten so gosh darn mean in his later years.

He’d even gone so far as to ban the McAllister brothers from coming on the ranch, mistakenly blaming them for one of his wife’s outbursts that had led to her leaving.

But Wyatt pushed away all those unpleasant memories.

Most of that was over. His father was gone, he didn’t care where his mother was, and he was friends with the McAllister brothers again, had healed the rift between them, and even helped one of them rescue a mate a while back.

But none of that had anything to do with the person in front of him, who a part of him assumed was at least sort of female.

“So what sort of credentials do you have?” he asked, trying to remain professional as he angled his head, trying to get a view of the face across from him.

“I’m good with horses,” it said in a low, gruff voice that sounded like it was disguising itself.

“Okay… so you could lead trail rides?”

“Or teach lessons,” it said.

“And your name?”

“Val—” The person cut themself off and shook their head. “Just Val.”

“Like Val Kilmer?” Wyatt joked.

The person nodded but didn’t laugh, and Wyatt rubbed the back of his neck, not sure how this would work at all.

“Look, I’m sure you’re a good worker and all, but I just don’t know that you’re the right fit for this ranch in particular,” he said. “The clientele here are kind of upscale, if you know what I mean.” He gestured to Val’s clothing, and Val straightened indignantly. “I don’t really think it’s a good fit.”

“I can dress differently,” Val said.

“Can you?” Wyatt cocked his head to the side. “You aren’t even willing to take off that hat or that coat. Just what are you afraid of?”

“Nothing,” Val said, pulling the coat in tighter. “I just… I don’t see what it has to do with the job.”

Wyatt sighed. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a reference for the McAllisters. The main horse trainer there might be able to use some help. I hear his mate is pregnant, so that’s something.”

Val nodded gratefully, and Wyatt found himself almost chagrined that he couldn’t hire this person and keep them around. But he didn’t want to force them out of their comfort zone or let them scare away customers.

This would be a better fit overall.

Wyatt handed over the paper, on which he’d written Maverick’s number, and passed it across the table.

“Well, thank you for everything,” Val said, standing abruptly.

Wyatt walked around the table to shake hands good-bye and was struck once again by the height difference between him and the other person. He stuck out a hand, and Val took it, and a shiver went through Wyatt at how soft the skin was there.

There were callouses, sure, probably from holding horse reins, but it was still soft skin. Small hands.

A creeping suspicion settled under Wyatt’s skin, but he let it go. Whatever this person was hiding, it was up to them. No business of his.

“Is there a bar around here?” Val asked, shoving the paper into a pocket.

“Just down the canyon,” Wyatt said. “But I don’t recommend it. It’s a rough clientele, though I sometimes go there for entertainment, watching the locals.” He laughed, but Val just nodded solemnly.

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