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A Touch of the Beast

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Her offices were located in an old building. True, the place needed some work, but the rooms were spacious and the hallway was wide, and some of the interior walls were red brick, giving the place a solid and homey feel. In addition to the equipment necessary for her practice, she’d livened the place up with plants and hung framed pictures—photographs and drawings of animals—down the long hallway. The clinic wasn’t home yet, but it was certainly beginning to feel that way.

The man who waited in her office was indeed “kinda nice lookin’.” But he didn’t look at all like a building inspector. Did men who worked for the state of North Carolina dress in black, wear their hair in a short ponytail and sport a gold earring in one ear? She didn’t think so.

“Dr. Eldanis.” The man, who hadn’t been waiting in a chair but was perusing her bookshelves, offered his hand for a quick shake. “Tony Carpenter, North Carolina Department of Structural Safety. I need to ask a few questions and take a look around the building, and then I’ll be out of your hair.”

“Sure,” she said, seeing this intrusion as an annoyance that came with owning an old building.

“You’ve been here how long?” he asked.

“Three months.”

He nodded curtly. “And the building was empty for several years before you bought it, correct?”

Sheryl cocked her head and studied the man’s face for a moment through narrowed eyes. “Yes. The building was empty for quite some time. Don’t you have this information in your files?”

He gave her a practiced and disarming smile. “The database is woefully out of date, I’m afraid. I always find it best to cover everything pertinent when I conduct an inspection.”

Sheryl no longer trusted disarming smiles. In fact, they put her on edge.

Over the next several minutes, Mr. Carpenter asked a few questions about the condition of the building. He made a couple of quickly scribbled notations on the paper on his clipboard, and while he certainly wasn’t nervous, he was definitely wound a bit too tight.

There was something about the way he glanced around her office that made Sheryl suspect that he was a little bit too interested.

“Did the previous residents leave any materials behind?” he asked, finally laying his eyes on her again. “I understand that several years ago there was a fertility clinic at this location.”

“Yes.” Sheryl crossed her arms across her chest. “That was quite a long time ago, Mr. Carpenter.”

There was that smile again. “Call me Tony.”

Oh, I don’t think so. “A few years after the clinic closed, a doctor’s office opened here. After that the building stood empty for more than five years before I bought it.”

“I see,” he said, making a notation. “And you didn’t come across anything out of the ordinary when you moved in? Sometimes businesses will leave files and materials behind in their haste to leave.”

Sheryl backed slightly away from the so-called inspector. Why wasn’t he asking questions about the plumbing and the electrical? Why didn’t he want to know if the roof leaked when it rained, or where she stored her fire extinguishers? And why was this inspector working on a Saturday morning? It just didn’t add up.

The fertility clinic he seemed to be so interested in had been closed for close to thirty years.

“Can I see your ID, please?” she asked him.

“I showed your assistant….”

“I’d like to see it myself.”

The man with the ponytail reached into his pocket and withdrew a business card. Sure enough, it read Tony Carpenter, North Carolina Department of Structural Safety. Looked to Sheryl as if the card had been printed up on a computer. A very good computer but still… She could print up a card declaring herself a queen, but that wouldn’t make it so.

“Wait right here,” she said with a smile of her own. “I just remembered I have a phone call I need to make. I’ll be right back, Tony.” She left the room as casually as possible, then once the door was closed behind her she hurried down the hallway to the lobby. She snagged the phone on the front desk. Every instinct told her that the man in her office was not who he said he was. If she was wrong, she’d be embarrassed. But if she was right…

Wyatt had a small police force. They weren’t exactly NYPD but they did their best, considering that most of the officers were younger than Sheryl and the chief was a good ol’ boy who had grown up here and was trusted not because he was good at his job but because everyone knew him from way back.

Sheryl asked for a policeman to be dispatched to the clinic and then hurried back to her office. She might need to stall the so-called inspector for a few minutes, since law enforcement response was erratic at best. She burst into the office, ready to answer any question the ponytailed man might have.

Her office was empty.

It was a two-day trip by pickup truck from Greenlaurel, Texas, to Wyatt, North Carolina. Two full days, with a few hours’ sleep at a hotel in Tennessee along the way.

Hawk was tired, he was cranky, and with every mile that had passed he’d wondered if this impulsive trip was a mistake. Cassie needed him, the horses he’d left behind needed him.

But the odd woman’s words kept echoing in his head. She said the answers to his questions could be found in the past. What if Cassie’s new health problem was genetic? What if the address in Wyatt somehow led to their birth mother? It was a long shot, but he had to do something.

Cassie would be in good hands during his absence, and so would the horses he trained and cared for. The Donovan Ranch was a good-size organization, not a two-man operation. There were people to care for Cassie, if she needed help, and there were employees to care for the horses. If there was even a small chance that he might be able to help his sister by coming here, he had to try.

Wyatt was a small community, smaller even than Greenlaurel. It boasted a town square, complete with courthouse, sheriff’s auxiliary office and local police department. The square was completed with shops necessary for a small town to survive. Maybe they picked up some of the tourist traffic that ventured off the interstate. There were a couple of antique shops, a candy shop, two small restaurants, a bookstore and other assorted businesses. All around town, signs advertising Wyatt’s autumn festival were posted. This weekend. With any luck, he’d be long gone by then.

Two turns off the main square, he found Pine Street. There it was, 204. The freshly painted sign out front read Eldanis Veterinary Clinic. Hawk parked his truck at the curb and reached over to run his fingers through Baby’s fur. She whined, as if she knew what awaited her here.

“We’re just visiting,” Hawk said as he left the truck. Baby came with him, though not as enthusiastically as usual. “No shots, I promise.”

Baby perked up considerably, and they walked into the clinic side by side. Down the hallway that led to individual rooms, a thin teenage boy with spiked hair was pushing a broom. Curious, the kid glanced toward the lobby, checking out both Hawk and Baby as he continued with his chore.

A woman stood at the counter with her head down, a phone in one hand, a pen in the other, as she made note of an appointment. She said something pleasant to the person on the other end of the phone and smiled as she lifted her head to see who had arrived.

Sleek, dark-blond hair had been pulled back into a long ponytail, and intense blue eyes sparkled when they landed on him. Pretty girl. Very pretty. Hawk had to remind himself that he wasn’t here to admire the scenery; he didn’t have the time. Still, he had to admit that she had a nice wide mouth and a genuine smile…and man, were those eyes blue.

The smile was wider and more real for Baby than it was for him, even at the end of the day. According to the hours on the sign at the entrance, the place would be closing in five minutes.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked as she walked around the counter. She wore a long white smock that disguised her figure. Beneath her smock baggy trousers hung loosely around her legs. Her shoes were of the sensible sort.

Could she help him? It would be a whole lot easier to figure that out if he knew what he was looking for. “I guess I need to speak to Eldanis.”

“I’m Sheryl Eldanis,” she said, her smile fading slightly. “What can I do for you?”

Sheryl Eldanis was definitely the cutest vet he’d ever laid eyes on, shapeless clothes and all. And he’d known his share of vets. “I’m not really sure,” Hawk admitted. It didn’t really matter what she looked like. He needed answers, and if she was the one who had them, he didn’t care how pretty she was.

“I’m looking for information. Have you been in this location very long?” She was much too young to have been here more than a couple of years at most. “What I’m looking for is probably going to go back several years. I’m not even sure what it might be, exactly. Some information from past activities in this building, I imagine.”

All pretense of friendliness disappeared. The smile vanished, the blue eyes went hard. Her stance changed, as she became defensive, and the muscles in her body tightened. “What are you?” she asked sharply. “The second team? I don’t go for the fake building inspector, so two days later they send in an aw-shucks cowboy to charm the files out of me?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She lifted a finger and wagged it at him. “You can tell your friend that I called the police after he disappeared. It only took one phone call to find out that there isn’t any Tony Carpenter. There isn’t even a Department of Structural Safety!” Eldanis stepped behind the counter and lifted the phone, dialing with anger and precision. “Let’s cut out the middle man this time around. You can talk directly to the chief of police.

“Sandy?” she said into the phone.

Hawk glanced down at the gray cat that had begun to weave between his legs. In and out, around and around, that long tail twitching and twining. He smiled and reached down to snag the friendly feline with one large hand. He felt her deep purr in his palm as he said hello.

“Hey!” Eldanis called, moving the phone away from her head so she wasn’t shouting into the receiver. “Laverne doesn’t like—”

She stopped speaking when the cat in question purred and wound its way around Hawk’s neck to settle comfortably on his shoulder. The long tail twitched and wound around his head.
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