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A Touch of the Beast

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“Never mind, Sandy,” Eldanis said in a calmer tone of voice. “False alarm. I’ll call you later if I need help with anything.” After she ended the call, she leaned onto the counter and studied not Hawk’s face, but the way her cat had made a home on his shoulder. She didn’t relax all at once, but gradually her distrust of him faded. A little. Maybe a trace of the smile crept back, and her expressive eyes definitely changed.

“Laverne seems to like you,” she said. “That buys you three minutes to explain yourself. I suggest you make the best of it.”

Sheryl stayed close to the phone. In fact, she kept one hand on the receiver, just in case. She was absolutely stunned by Laverne’s reaction to the man in the waiting room, and she couldn’t ignore what she saw. The stubborn cat never cuddled up to anyone, and yet she had definitely made herself comfortable on the stranger’s wide shoulders.

“My name’s Hawk Donovan,” the man said simply. “If you want to call the police, go right ahead. I don’t have anything to hide.”

That was a good sign, Sheryl decided. She relaxed a little bit. “What do you want?”

“I’m not sure,” Donovan said. “You mentioned files. What kind of files?”

Was it possible that her two visitors were not connected? Possible. Not likely. And she still didn’t trust this man—or any other. She especially didn’t trust men who looked like this one. He was too pushy. Too big. And he had a fascinating face that suggested women had been doing whatever he asked of them all his life.

She didn’t allow herself to be pushed around, not anymore, and no one told her what to do. Especially not men. “Don’t try to turn this around on me. Why are you here?”

He didn’t answer. At least, not immediately. Hawk Donovan, if that was indeed his name, was not at all bad looking. Not at all. He had the required iron jaw, and the hard body and the way of moving that came from being in the kind of physical shape most men simply dreamed of. There was something sleek about Donovan, in the way he walked, in the way he moved his head. He reminded her of a caged animal. Beautiful, fascinating, but also dangerous and unpredictable.

Big men could be aggressive, so for a moment she ignored the fact that he was over six feet tall and wide in the shoulders. His hands were big, too, and they were definitely a working man’s hands, weathered and scarred.

His dark hair might’ve been conservatively cut a while back, but was growing out just a tad on the shaggy side, untended and thick. Those eyes set above killer cheekbones were deep and dark and warm. His face would be like granite, if not for the unexpected and subtle dimple in his chin. Well-worn jeans hugged muscled thighs, and the shirt he wore was a plain and sturdy denim. The boots were leather, expensive and had seen better days. There was no cowboy hat in sight, at least not today, but she’d bet her last dollar that he had one at home.

“My sister is sick,” he said in a lowered voice. “The doctors are having a problem coming up with answers for us. Since we were adopted as infants, we don’t have any family medical history available.” The dog who’d arrived with Donovan sat at his side. Laverne continued to rest on his shoulder, and instead of dismissing the cat, as many men would have, Donovan seemed to have forgotten she was there.

“Don’t tell me,” Sheryl said sternly, not at all convinced by his supposedly tender words or swayed by the fact that he was mouthwateringly studly and intriguingly different in a way she could not explain. “You want the files from the fertility clinic to assist in your search for answers.”

He didn’t smile, but it seemed that the muscles in his face relaxed as if he were thinking about it. “Fertility clinic?”

Disgusted, Sheryl waved her hand at him. “Don’t play games with me, Donovan. Don’t stand there and pretend you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about.” What could possibly be in those old boxes that was suddenly so desirable? Maybe she should have looked through a couple of them when she’d moved them from the basement of this old building.

Donovan reached into his back pocket and pulled out a thick wallet. “I don’t know what’s going on here exactly, but it seems to me you’ll rest easier once you know that I am who I say I am.” He withdrew a driver’s license and tossed it to her. It landed on the counter and skidded to a stop directly in front of her.

She glanced at the authentic-looking license. “Fake IDs—”

“Call your police chief,” Donovan interrupted briskly. “Have him check me out if it’ll make you feel better. Have him call anyone in Greenlaurel, Texas, and ask them about me.”

She picked up the phone, ready to call his bluff. “Fine.”

Instead of challenging her, Donovan walked to a lobby chair and sat. Laverne remained on his shoulder. His dog, a large, yellow, mixed breed who obviously adored him, curled up at his feet. An absent hand, tanned and long-fingered, reached up to stroke Laverne’s thick gray fur, and the usually unsociable cat purred and swished her tail.

Donovan hadn’t been exactly warm in dealing with her, but any man who was so obviously adored by animals couldn’t be all bad.

“Aren’t you going to make your phone call?” the cowboy asked as he waited. At the sound of his deep voice, both Laverne and the yellow dog turned accusing eyes to her. This was her clinic, and that gray cat usually wouldn’t let anyone but Sheryl near her. So why did she suddenly feel like the outsider here?

“No.” He didn’t care about her phone call to the police, which meant that, true or not, his story was going to check out. She still didn’t trust him. “Come back tomorrow.”

He stood quickly, one big hand on Laverne so the cat wouldn’t be frightened by the sudden move. “Tomorrow? What’s wrong with right now?”

Carpenter had been smoother than this! The last thing she needed was a bossy man showing up to issue orders.

“It’s late, and I’m tired,” she said. “I’m sure the hotel has a room available. It’s cheap and just a couple blocks away.”


“Tomorrow,” Sheryl said. She stepped out from behind the counter. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like my cat back.”

He reached up and grabbed Laverne in one large hand, swung the cat down and handed her over. Laverne allowed herself to rest in Sheryl’s arms for about three seconds, and then she leaped to the floor. She and the dog were nose to nose for a moment, and then Laverne began to once again wind her supple body around Donovan’s legs.

Anthony Caldwell made his way out of town, empty-handed and frustrated. According to the computer file he’d stolen, thirty-odd years ago genetic experiments had taken place in that building where Sheryl Eldanis now operated her veterinary clinic. There should be something that had been left behind. Something concrete. Proof.

Nothing remained in the building itself; he’d confirmed that for himself. After darkness had fallen and Eldanis had gone for the night, he’d searched the place from top to bottom and found nothing out of the ordinary.

That didn’t mean what he wanted didn’t exist; it just meant it was going to be tougher to find than he’d imagined it would be. Did Eldanis have possession of that “something concrete?” Or was it long gone? Somehow he’d spooked her, and he hadn’t had a chance to look around the clinic properly on Saturday morning. He’d watched her for a few days before visiting the clinic, and he’d watched her over the weekend. Not that there was much to see. She led an ordinary, dull life—her and her animals.

A neighbor had seen him last evening, dammit. She hadn’t said anything to him, but Anthony knew he’d been seen. And a woman at a store in town, where he’d stopped twice for supplies, had started asking why he was in Wyatt. Time to get out of town, at least for now.

There was a festival this upcoming weekend, and the town would be filled with strangers. He could blend in with a crowd, he knew.

He was leaving Wyatt behind him for the moment, but he’d be back.

Hawk arrived at the vet’s office shortly after eight in the morning. Sheryl Eldanis was already in and supposedly hard at work. Her cat met him before he’d taken three steps into the lobby.

There were two customers in the waiting room, even at this early hour. An older lady, who cradled a small dog in her generous lap, and an equally older gentleman with a calico cat curled up on one thigh. Both animals perked up as Hawk walked into the lobby and claimed a seat to wait. Eldanis’s cat seemed anxious to reclaim her place on his shoulder, so he moved her there. Baby curled up at his feet.

After a moment the small dog jumped from the lap where he’d been sitting contentedly before Hawk’s arrival. The cat followed suit a few seconds later. They both gravitated to Hawk, and without hesitation he reached down to give them each a gentle stroke on the head. The cat leaped into his lap. The little dog, whose leaping days were over, went up on his hind legs. Hawk reached down and snagged the dog, and made a place for the animal on his lap, there beside the cat. They did not hiss or growl at each other, but settled in much as Laverne had.

Animals had always liked him, and he’d always liked them. They were less complicated than humans, more honest and open and loving. An animal would never betray or lie. They loved completely and without demand.

For a long time Hawk hadn’t questioned his affinity with animals. It hadn’t seemed at all odd that there were times when he simply knew that one of his pets was ill or afraid. He’d called it instinct and left it at that. As a child, as a young man, he’d understood that the other people he knew didn’t have this instinct, but he didn’t worry about that too much. Everyone had his own talents.

He had been nineteen when he’d discovered that his talent with animals went beyond the ordinary.

The calico purred, and the little dog rested his head on Hawk’s knee and closed his eyes. Hawk laid a hand on the small canine body, and for an instant, just an instant, he felt the sharp pain in the animal’s hip.

Arthritis was a bitch, no matter what species it attacked.

Hawk laid his big hand on the dog’s head, and everything else faded away. In spite of the pain, the animal was happy. He was horribly spoiled, in fact, and was already thinking of the treat that would be hand-fed to him when he got home. Colors faded as Hawk saw through the dog’s old eyes. His vision wasn’t as crisp as it had once been, and in true canine fashion there was no color. Ah, but he heard everything, and he lived in a world of smells. He could even smell the woman who gave him shots and fed him treats and clipped his toenails. Sometimes she hurt him, but he liked her all the same because she knew just where to rub his tummy and she kept those treats nearby.

“What are you doing?”

Hawk’s head jerked up at the sound of that annoyed voice. For a moment Sheryl Eldanis and everything around her was gray. Gradually, color and depth came back, and he found himself staring into a very pretty—and very annoyed—face. He realized, as he removed his attention from the animals who had gathered on and around him, that he was not alone in this room. The owners of the small dog and calico cat were staring at him with wide, confused eyes.

Go. The command was silent and friendly, and the animals on his lap obeyed. The calico cat jumped to the floor and sauntered to her owner, and the little dog stood shakily. Hawk wrapped one hand around the small furry body and lowered the dog to the floor.

“You wearin’ bacon under them pants?” the old man teased as his cat leaped into his arms.

“No,” Hawk answered.

“My, the animals surely do like you,” the little dog’s owner said as she retrieved her pet. “Why, I haven’t seen Toby move that fast in five years or more.” She cast a sharp glance at the cat owner. “Though I have to say, Harold Johnston, it’s quite rude of you to suggest that the young man is hiding bacon beneath his blue jeans.”
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