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A Touch of the Beast

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“I was just having a bit of fun, Mildred,” Harold said with a snort. “I shoulda known you wouldn’t recognize a joke if it walked up and bit you on the—”

“Mrs. Harris,” Sheryl interrupted brightly, “you and Toby are next.”

The woman rose, offering the old man, Harold, a lift of her pert nose and her double chin as she carried her little dog to the veterinarian, and the two women began walking down the hallway. Eldanis glided; Mrs. Harris waddled. The pretty vet gave Hawk one last, sharp glance before she disappeared from view.

Sometimes Hawk wished he could read humans as easily as he could read animals. Other days he was very grateful that his talents were restricted to the animal world.

“Hot broad, ain’t she?” Harold said once the women were well down the hallway and out of hearing range.

“Dr. Eldanis?”

“Her, too, I reckon,” the old man said. “Though she is a mite young for me. Shoot, I’ve got grandkids her age!”

Which meant Harold was talking about Toby’s owner, the older woman who had turned up her nose at his supposed joke.

“You’re a young fella,” Harold continued, even though Hawk did not participate in the conversation. “How does a man go about asking a lady out these days?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Hawk answered.

“Handsome young fella like you?” Harold protested. “Surely you can give an old man some pointers. Help me out here. I’m spending a small fortune, bringing Bitsy down here every Tuesday morning just because I know Mildred is going to be here with her cantankerous mutt. Usually we don’t talk at all, and if we do it’s mostly arguing. Stubborn woman,” he added beneath his breath. “It ain’t easy to start all over again, you know. I was married for forty-one years before my wife passed. Mildred had been married almost as long when her husband passed away last year. What do you think? Should I ask her out to supper? Maybe I should just invite her to take a walk around town with me, though with my bad knee that might not be such a good idea. Maybe we could go out for an ice cream cone. I just don’t know.”

Hawk stood, at the same time scooping the gray cat from his shoulder and placing her on the ground. “Tell Dr. Eldanis I’ll be back this afternoon,” he said as he and Baby headed for the door.

“Okay. But what do you think I should do about Mildred? You never did say.”

“Sorry. I don’t know,” Hawk said as he pushed the clinic door open and stepped onto the sidewalk, his mind filled with questions of his own. Maybe he could find some answers at the courthouse, if they kept decent records. All night his mind had spun and danced. A fertility clinic! Had his birth mother been here, in this very building? His biological father?

Perusing old records was preferable to offering advice to a man old enough to be his grandfather. Even if he were inclined to chat with strangers, he was the last man who should be giving anyone advice on romance.

Chapter 3

At five minutes to four, Laverne began to pace before the door. She even seemed to peer through the glass to the sidewalk, as if she were looking for someone.

Someone. Sheryl shook her head as she rearranged a new display of dog collars near the front desk. Who was she kidding? Laverne was anxiously waiting for Hawk Donovan to show up.

Sheryl was not. It would suit her just fine if the man never showed his face here again. He was trouble through and through; she knew that with every fiber of her being. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder what was in those fertility clinic files that would interest both a fake building inspector and someone like Donovan.

When she’d arrived here this morning and discovered that someone had broken in last night, Donovan had been her first suspect. But if Hawk Donovan had broken into the clinic last night looking for the files, why had he shown up here this morning? If he’d searched the clinic last night, he knew the documents he wanted weren’t here.

This morning she’d been so tempted to accuse him of breaking into her place, but she hadn’t wanted to make a scene in front of two regular clients. Gossip in Wyatt traveled at the speed of light, and she had no desire to be the subject of that gossip. Twice in the past three weeks, Doc Murdock had shown up unexpectedly to see if she needed any help. The veterinarian who’d retired just before Sheryl opened her practice was already bored. His retirement was the reason she’d opened her practice here, instead of in a larger city. She wanted to be her own boss, to have her own clinic, but if Doc Murdock decided to reopen his practice, she was finished. Especially if people thought this clinic wasn’t safe.

As far as the break-in went, her money was on the man who’d called himself Carpenter, and that was what she’d told the police chief when he’d shown up to talk to her, around ten o’clock—three hours after her initial phone call.

Tonight she’d go home and take a look for herself. Maybe she should just call Chief Nichols, explain what had been happening and turn the boxes over to him. Once they were out of her hands, someone else could deal with Donovan.

She hadn’t even mentioned the files to the chief. Nichols was a nice man, and it wasn’t that she didn’t trust him. But what if Carpenter showed up with a new name and a new ID? Chief Nichols would hand the boxes of documents over and be glad to be rid of them.

Laverne quit pacing at ten after four, and stood in the middle of the lobby with her eyes riveted to the front door. Sure enough, not three minutes later the door opened and Hawk Donovan and his dog walked in. Donovan looked to be as surly as ever.

There was something unusual about the man, surliness and good looks aside. The way he moved… He was sleek and strong enough to make any red-blooded woman’s mouth water. She had never known it was possible for a man to be graceful, in an entirely masculine way, but Donovan pulled it off. It was downright eerie, and more than a little fascinating.

Laverne, the traitor, meowed and greeted Donovan as if he were her long-lost and much beloved owner. The big man relaxed visibly, and even had a smile for the fat cat. Did he respond that way to any human? She thought not. Laverne didn’t take up residence on Donovan’s shoulder this afternoon, but settled into his arms with a purr.

Donovan did not have a smile for Sheryl. He fixed dark eyes on her and said, “We need to talk.”

“No, we don’t.” She turned and walked away from him. He was the most infuriating man! Demanding and cantankerous and…and Laverne really did love the big guy. Sheryl stopped before she reached the hallway and turned to find that Donovan hadn’t moved. He stood in the waiting room with a contented Laverne in his arms and a happy dog at his feet.

Yeah, a man like this one was nothing but trouble.

“Did you break in here last night, searching for your damned files?” she asked sharply.

He looked properly shocked. Was the reaction genuine or a well-planned act? She didn’t know him well enough to judge for herself.

“No, of course not. Someone broke in? Was anything stolen?”

Naturally, he was worried that someone else might have gotten their hands on what he’d come here for. “A lock on the back door was broken, and a few things in my office and in the basement were moved. As far as I can tell, nothing was taken.”

If she was reading Donovan correctly, the news of the break-in sincerely disturbed him.

“I did some research at the courthouse today,” he said. “In the seventies, there was a fertility clinic in this building. They were shut down for some reason, and a couple of years later a doctor had his offices here. He retired, and the building stood empty for a few years. Three months ago you moved in.”

“You’re not telling me anything that I don’t already know.”

He was not deterred by her attitude. “What I’m looking for is paperwork that might’ve been left behind by the fertility clinic. Maybe by the doctor,” he added with a frown. “I can’t be sure.”

“And you expect whatever it is you’re looking for to be here after all this time?” she snapped.

For a long minute he didn’t answer. She wished he would give away something with his dark eyes, but they—and he—remained a mystery. If he would smile at her and try to beguile the files out of her, she’d know he was just like Carpenter and she could toss him out with a clean conscience.

But he didn’t. Instead he finally said, “I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for. Something important is here, in this building. Or was. There could be medical information that was left behind. About my birth mother.” He said the words reluctantly, as if they’d been dragged from him one syllable at time. He might be great with animals, but he was not the kind of man who shared personal information easily or often.

Heaven above, she did not want to feel even an ounce of sympathy for him! “Even if I do happen to know where some old documents are, how do I know you’re not lying to me?”

“Why should I lie?”

“Why should two men suddenly show up at my clinic looking for a bunch of moldy old files?” And what if she made a mistake and turned them over to the wrong man? What if there truly was something important in that mess of papers?

Donovan almost smiled. His lips twisted a little, and his eyes softened. Oh, eyes like that should be illegal, she thought. The man might be a cowboy, but he had gypsy eyes that were not only dark but mysterious. Soulful. “So,” he said, “they’re moldy?”

She was saved from explaining herself when Mort Dermot pushed his way through the front door, using his left hand, since his entire right arm was in a cast. Sheryl was happy enough to turn away from the maddening man who had bewitched her cat.

“Hi, Mort,” she said. “What happened to your arm?”

“That damn mare,” he answered softly. “I can’t do a thing with her and neither can anyone else. Do you have the name of that guy in Raleigh who handles horse disposal? I’d put her down myself, but…” He shook his head and stared at the floor. “I just don’t have the heart for it. But I can’t have her hurting one of my kids, and I can’t in good conscience sell her to somebody else who might get hurt. What else can I do?”

Donovan turned all his attention to Mort. “Let me have a look at her,” he offered in a low but intense voice.

“Thanks, mister, but—”
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