A Touch of the Beast
Linda Winstead Jones

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Hawk gently but firmly took his hand from the woman and reached into his back pocket to grab his wallet so he could pay Ike for the medicine. The bell on the front door rang gently as the woman in black opened the door.

He was about to toss her note into a trash can behind the counter when she said in a very soft voice, “By the stars above, you look so very much like your mother.”

Hawk’s head snapped around just in time to see the door slowly close. He bolted, leaving his purchases sitting on the counter as he ran after the woman. A newly arriving customer, agonizingly slow and nearly ancient Addie Peterson, opened the door before he reached it. Standing front and center and planted there like a tree, she said hello, smiled and began to tell Hawk about her newest ailment. He nodded curtly, obviously impatient, and waited for her to move out of the doorway. When she took a step forward, he slipped around her and burst through the pharmacy doors.

Hawk searched up and down the street for any sign of the woman who’d given him the message, but she was already gone. Where could she have disappeared to so quickly?

Baby stood. Her ears perked up and her tail wagged furiously. Hawk dropped to his haunches and looked the dog squarely in the eye. He reached out to stroke firmly but gently behind Baby’s left ear. “Where did she go, girl? Show me.”

Baby ran down the sidewalk, turning sharply into the alley between the pharmacy and the coffee shop next door. Hawk followed. Through the narrow alley they ran, then down a grassy hill and into the parking lot of the restaurant that had closed down last year. In the middle of the small parking lot Baby came to a dead stop. Confused, she walked in a tight circle and then turned her gaze toward the street.

Hawk cursed under his breath, and Baby looked up sharply.

“Not your fault, Baby.” Hawk reached down and rubbed her head. “You did good.” But the strange woman was no-where in sight. She’d obviously left a car waiting in the parking lot, and she must’ve run from the drugstore in order to escape. Even with Mrs. Peterson slowing him down he should have been able to catch the woman who’d pressed the note into his hand.

When she’d said that Hawk looked like his mother, she must have been talking about his birth mother. The woman he’d called Mother all his life had been five foot one in her best heels. She’d had a round and cheerful face with dimples that appeared when she smiled, blue eyes and blond hair. No one had ever mentioned a resemblance before, because there wasn’t one.

Hawk’s eyes and hair were dark, and he’d always been tall for his age. In his youth he’d been lean, but in the past few years he’d added some muscle to his frame. His disposition was nothing like his mother’s, either. She’d been sunny. She’d been able to laugh easily. She’d loved people and they loved her.

Nope, Hawk Donovan had nothing in common with his mother.

From here the odd woman could have gone anywhere. He could try to follow her, but by the time he got to his truck on Main Street and picked a direction, she’d be long gone, and he didn’t have time to waste. Not today. Crap! How could an older woman move so quickly? He should have caught her long before she’d reached the parking lot and driven away. Obviously, she’d known he would follow…and she had no intention of getting caught.

Hawk stood tall and opened his fisted hand, unfolding the scrap of paper the woman had placed there. It said 204 Pine Street, Wyatt, North Carolina. There was nothing else written there, no clue as to what he might find at this address. He turned and headed back to the pharmacy to collect his purchases, retracing his steps up the hill and through the alley to the sidewalk on Main Street. A few shoppers walked along that sidewalk, purchases in hand, but for the most part it was a quiet September morning in Greenlaurel.

What if the old woman was right, and there was nothing here in Greenlaurel that would help Cassie? The knowledge that there might be no way for him to help her was scary. They’d lost their parents nearly three years back; Dad in a car accident, Mom from a heart attack not four months later. Hawk’s twin sister was all the family he had left. Her and the baby she carried. He would do anything to help them.

There was certainly no guarantee that he could find what he needed, what Cassie and the baby needed, at the address on the sheet of paper he still held in his hand, but he was desperate.

Desperate enough to travel to North Carolina on such thin evidence?

Back in the pharmacy, Ike handed over the small bag of items, then took Hawk’s money and made change with maddening deliberation, counting out each coin as if he’d just learned to count. He’d been making change just this way for more than forty years.

Addie Peterson, who was apparently put out because Hawk had brushed past her in midailment, lifted her nose and continued to study the selections on a shelf not far from the front counter.

“That woman who was in here a few minutes ago,” Hawk said as he returned his wallet to its place in the back pocket of his jeans. “Do you know her?”

“Never saw her before,” Ike said. His old eyes twinkled. “Strange-looking lady, I must say. I would guess she was just passing through. What was that she said to you as she left? Something about your mother?” Ike Chapman was certainly old enough to remember when the Donovans had brought their newly adopted twins home, some twenty-eight years ago, and he’d known the Donovans well.

But Ike’s old ears weren’t as good as Hawk’s. In truth, Hawk didn’t know anyone who could hear as well as he did. “I don’t think she was talking to me,” he said. A blatant lie, since the woman’s words had sent him racing out of the store. “You wouldn’t know where she might be staying?”

The old man shrugged his thin shoulders. “If she’s staying in town I reckon she’s at the Sunshine Motel, though she might be out at the RV park near the old campgrounds.”

Hawk thanked Ike and stepped onto the sidewalk, where once again Baby waited. She wasn’t as calm as she had been before; she’d picked up on Hawk’s own frustration.

He was going to search for the old woman at the motel and the RV park, and he’d drive his truck down the road, just in case he got lucky and spotted her along the way. But he had a feeling he wasn’t going to find her. Not here in Greenlaurel, anyway.

Maybe he’d find her in Wyatt, North Carolina.

Sheryl Eldanis locked up the veterinary clinic and headed toward home, walking as always. Laverne, that obstinate gray cat, walked beside her but a little ahead. Laverne wasn’t the type to follow. Ever.

Sheryl and Laverne had a lot in common these days. Neither of them wanted to be told what to do.

She couldn’t help but be pleased with the way her life was going now. Things had been working out well in the few months she’d been here. Wyatt was a smaller town than the one she’d grown up in, and she hadn’t been sure exactly how she’d take to living in such a place. But it suited her. She knew all her neighbors and they knew her. Town socials were frequent and low-key and surprisingly fun.

Now if she could just convince the local population that she wasn’t interested in dating, dancing or marriage, she’d have it made.

Her last romantic relationship had been bad enough to make her swear off men forever. She didn’t need a man, not for financial support or emotional support or sex. She was a veterinarian with her own business, and finances, while occasionally tight, were under control. For emotional support she had Laverne. And Bruce and Howie and Bogie and Princess and Smoky. As for sex…she could learn to live without it, if the occasional thrill meant letting a man disrupt her well-ordered life.

Yeah, Michael had taught her well. Romance just wasn’t worth all the trouble that came with it.

“Hi, Sheryl.”

The next-door neighbor—a tall, slender and attractive woman who always seemed to be smiling—rose from her place in the front yard where she’d been planting mums in an obscenely neat flower bed, dusting dirt from her knees and then pulling off her gardening gloves.

“Hi, Debbie.” Sheryl took a detour and headed down the walkway that led from the sidewalk to the neighbors’ front door. “Pretty day.”

Debbie’s smile widened. “I love autumn. September is my favorite time of year.”

“I like spring myself,” Sheryl said. “Autumn runs a close second, though.” She was happy to see the heat of summer wane. And traffic through town decreased substantially when the summer beach traffic let up.

Debbie studied the clear blue sky for a moment before asking, “What are you doing this weekend?”

“Sleeping, mostly,” Sheryl answered.

Debbie laughed. The woman had so much energy. She had a husband who worked on the road most of the time, three kids and a part-time job. And yet she never seemed to be overwhelmed. Did she ever sleep? Maybe that was the secret. No sleep.

“The autumn festival is next weekend, don’t forget,” Debbie said.

“I won’t forget.” How could she? Someone reminded her on a daily basis. She looked forward to her weekends, since she worked a half day on Saturday and was off on Sunday. Unless there was an emergency, of course. All her clients knew how to reach her on the weekends and in the middle of the night.

“My brother-in-law is coming to town for the festival,” Debbie said much too casually. “Maybe you can show him around while he’s here.”

“No, thanks,” Sheryl responded, not at all surprised or dismayed. Debbie was always trying to fix her up, and she was forever raving about the joys of marriage and motherhood. Sheryl had learned to take the friendly interference in stride, just as Debbie was learning to accept the fact that her new friend wasn’t at all interested in the things that made her own life complete. She wasn’t quite there yet, though.

When she’d moved to Wyatt, Sheryl had never expected her new best friend to be eleven years older than she, a married woman with three kids and an unnatural fixation for The Home and Garden Channel.

The Home and Garden Channel gave Sheryl a headache.

After talking to Debbie for a few minutes more, Sheryl headed for her own house, ready to kick off her shoes and plop down in a comfortable chair. She’d have to feed and water the animals first, but once that was done they’d let her have a breather. A short one.

Her own yard was not as well kept as Debbie’s, and was not nearly as large. Sheryl had bought the smallest house on the block, but it was more than sufficient for her needs. The clapboard ranch was square and ordinary, but there was something warm about it. The previous owners had painted the house a pale yellow, and she liked it. She had never thought of herself as a yellow-house person, but this one… She loved it. Inside there was a large kitchen, a spacious living room, a dining room, two large bedrooms and a big bathroom that needed updating but was functional and roomier than most modern ones. The attic was unfinished and strictly for storage, but the extra space was nice. After years of living in apartments, she found the yellow house was a real luxury.

Laverne waited on the deep front porch, her gray tail swishing with impatience. Sheryl collected her mail from the metal box beside the door, but waited until she’d unlocked and opened the door before leafing through the envelopes. Bills, ads, a letter from her dad.

There had been a time when something as simple as leafing through the mail had made her heart beat too fast. After she’d broken up with Michael there had been too many angry letters waiting for her in the mailbox, too many unwanted messages on her answering machine. She hadn’t heard from her ex-fiancé in four months, but still every now and then she expected him to rise up out of the bushes.

Yeah, romance was nice enough, but it just wasn’t worth the hassle.
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