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A Touch of the Beast

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But like it or not, she wasn’t ready to turn her back on Donovan and his mysteries.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Sheryl said as the lights of Wyatt, such as they were, loomed closer. “You teach me how to do that, and I’ll let you search through the files.”

His head snapped around, but the truck didn’t swerve. He, and the vehicle, remained steady. “You do have them?”

She nodded gently. “They’re in my attic at home. I moved them there when I set up the clinic. I have to warn you, they’re really a mess. I thought about tossing the old boxes out instead of moving them, but at least some of them are the doctor’s files and may be important to local residents who saw him way back when. So I moved the boxes to the house and planned to go through them when I had a chance. Haven’t thought about them much since, until a few days ago when a man impersonating a building inspector showed up at the clinic and ended up asking about the fertility clinic records.”

“Do you think that’s the same man who broke in last night?” he asked.

“I do.” She was suddenly sure Donovan would never do such a thing. He might bully his way past her and demand to see what he was looking for, but he would never sneak in and nose around. It wasn’t his style.

He braked, for no apparent reason, and slowed the truck to a crawl. They were still miles from town, and there wasn’t another vehicle in sight. Before she could ask why he was stopping, a deer bounded across the road, caught in the beam of the truck’s headlights. If Hawk hadn’t stopped, he surely would have hit the doe.

As he put the truck in motion again, she asked, “How did you—”

“I’m starving,” he interrupted. “Do you eat?”

It was such an inelegant and obviously unplanned invitation, she had to smile. “Just about every day.”

“The hotel where I’m staying has a restaurant and the food is pretty good. Wanna grab a bite?”

She hadn’t had a date since moving to Wyatt. Not that she hadn’t been asked, but with her new business and fixing up the house she’d bought and taking care of her animals she simply hadn’t had time for a social life. To be honest, she hadn’t had a date since ending her relationship with Michael. Love hadn’t been enough to get past his demands. He’d been looking for a wife who would be there every night when he came home. A woman who would put his desires and career and worth above her own. The first and only time she’d challenged him outright, he’d responded with a fist.

He hadn’t let her go easily. For months she’d turned around and found him watching. He had never touched her again, but the way he’d followed her, the way he’d hung on…it wasn’t natural. It was no wonder that she was still skittish where men were concerned. Dating was just too risky.

Not that dinner with Donovan would be a date, mind you, but they would be eating together, and people were bound to notice and talk. Still, it had been two years since she’d sent Michael packing. Maybe it was time.

“Sure,” she said, her heart fluttering briefly.

Donovan obviously didn’t want to talk about the deer, and maybe that was for the best. As she watched his profile and tried to make sense of everything she’d seen of this man, she got the distinct feeling that she didn’t want to know all his secrets.

Chapter 4

Hawk almost groaned aloud when he reached the top of the pull-down stairs, flipped the switch that turned on the uncovered bulb that hung in the center of the room and peered into the attic. There were dozens of cardboard boxes stored here and there, most of them unmarked, all of them showing signs of years of wear and neglect. He glanced over his shoulder and down to where Sheryl stood at the foot of the rattletrap steps.

“You moved all these boxes up here by yourself?”

She shrugged and smiled.

In spite of the fact that she didn’t look strong enough to handle the task on her own, he wasn’t really surprised. Moving all these boxes from the clinic to this attic had been a tough job, but Sheryl Eldanis had energy. Not a too-much-caffeine kind of energy, but a real, pure strength and quiet enthusiasm. He didn’t imagine she’d ever considered a chore and wondered whether she could handle it. Besides, when he’d lifted her onto the mare he’d discovered that, petite or not, she had muscles. Even though his reason for being here was an important one, the man in him couldn’t help but wonder what she’d look like in something other than those baggy clothes. Or even better, in nothing at all.

He stepped into the center of the attic and turned around slowly. It was an ordinary enough attic, with bare wood floors and exposed beams and two windows that looked down on the front yard. The ceiling was high enough for him to stand here in the middle of the space, but if he moved more than a step or two to the side he’d have to duck.

And like most other attics, it was full of junk. Along with a broken lamp, a rusty birdcage and a rocking chair that had to be older than the house, there were newer boxes mixed in with the older ones he was interested in, most of them labeled with black marker. Kitchen. Bedroom. Linens. Winter clothes. Sheryl’s own things stored with the rest. Unlike her boxes, the ones he needed to search weren’t marked at all. Where to start?

Sheryl didn’t join him, but she climbed up the stairs to peer through the square opening in the attic floor. “If you need help, I can come back after I get the animals fed.”

“No,” he said, his eyes on one particularly nasty-looking stack of mildewy boxes. “I can’t even tell you what I’m looking for. I guess I’d better just dig in and see what I can find.” He grabbed a box at random and set it on the floor, then knelt down to open it. It smelled of musty old paper, and while there were a few file folders in the box, most of the paperwork was loose and completely unorganized.

“Okay.” Sheryl backed away slowly. “Holler if you need anything.” And then she was off to feed her animals. From what little he’d seen as he’d walked in through the kitchen and to the stairway, she had a few. Cats, dogs, a colorful parrot that had called him “meathead” as he’d walked past the living room downstairs.

Hawk had learned to tune down his abilities when he needed to, and he did that now. He adjusted the part of his brain that could see and feel and hear things others couldn’t even imagine and concentrated on the papers before him.

Somewhere in here was information that could help Cassie. The woman in the pharmacy hadn’t sent him on a wild-goose chase. What they needed had to be in one of these boxes; he couldn’t entertain any other possibility.

A fertility clinic. Even though he had never expected to find such a place in his background, he shouldn’t be surprised. All his life he’d wondered about his parents. Who were they? Why had they given their twins away? When he’d discovered his gift with animals he’d wondered if they’d known. Was that the reason they’d given him up? Now there were Cassie’s flashes of precognition to take into account. But how could their parents have known when they looked at their infant twins that they’d be different?

He hadn’t given his biological parents much thought in the past few years. In adolescence he had almost become obsessed with them, but eventually he’d decided to put them, and their reasons for giving him up, out of his mind. If his parents hadn’t wanted him, then why the hell should he care who they were and what they were like? It was easier to put them out of his mind than it was to wonder all the damn time. Cassie’s seizures had fired up his curiosity all over again.

Hawk took his time with the task before him, carefully studying each sheet of paper. Most of what he scanned didn’t make any sense to him. Chemistry had never been his best subject in school, and this… A lot of what he discovered were formulas and medical data. Much of what he found in the manila folders was private information, women’s medical files. He felt strange, perusing such personal information. But he couldn’t set aside the papers without checking each one. Notes were scribbled in the margins here and there. Names that meant nothing to him appeared more than once. He tried to drink it all in, just in case a name or a date came to mean something to him later.

Hawk tossed one useless folder aside and grabbed another. Maybe Cassie was right and he should’ve hired this chore out. He didn’t know what he was looking for, and besides, he didn’t spend his time at home sitting in a cramped room going through papers. He practically lived outdoors. He needed fresh air in his lungs, sunshine and moonlight on his face.

But this was not a job he was willing to hand over to anyone else, no matter what the cost might be. His secrets, and Cassie’s secrets, wouldn’t be safe with anyone else.

Not even an unusually pretty vet.

“You stink.”

Sheryl added water to Bruce’s dish. “Can’t you say ‘Polly want a cracker’ like a normal bird?”

“Bite me.”

Normally finding a home for a beautiful talking bird wasn’t a problem, but Bruce had been trained in a home where his primary teacher had been a teenage boy who thought it was funny to train the colorful parrot to insult everyone who passed by. “You stink” and “bite me” were actually not too bad, considering Bruce’s repertoire.

Sheryl’s mind was elsewhere as she fed the other animals. Two dogs, three cats and a bird. Some of them she’d brought to Wyatt with her; others she’d collected since her arrival in town. They’d all taken to the new house well, settling in as if they’d always lived here. She had a variety of animal beds here and there, and there was a small doggie door in the kitchen that allowed the animals to go into the fenced backyard at any time.

The pets she had accumulated over the years were her family. They loved without question or demand, and it was nice to have them waiting for her when she came in the door after a long day. They needed her; she needed them. And yes, they were her family. Like most families they were a bit dysfunctional. Bruce was temperamental and was given to bad language. Bogie was the shy ugly duckling, and Howie could be aggressive on occasion, like all Chihuahuas. There were times when Smoky and Princess tormented the dogs, as cats often do, but the situation never got out of control.

Laverne was independent and thought herself better than all the pets who had come after her, which was why she usually went to work with Sheryl. It was just safer that way.

The other animals in Sheryl’s house were suspicious of Baby at first, but once they’d all sniffed one another properly, they got along just fine. Besides, the big yellow dog had the Laverne seal of approval, and the others all knew that didn’t come easily.

Considering the way animals took to Donovan, Sheryl was a little surprised that they didn’t all climb the rickety stairs to stand watch while he pored through the files. But they didn’t. The animals left him alone.

So did she, even though she was dying to go up there and jump into that nasty chore with him. There was something desperate and touching about his need to find this information about his mother, and she wanted to do what she could. Sympathy: it was her downfall. It was the reason she had three temperamental cats, two ugly dogs and a personality-challenged bird no one else wanted. The last thing she needed to do was add a surly man to her menagerie.

Dinner at the hotel restaurant had been pleasant enough, even though she’d done most of the talking. Donovan had paid attention, especially when she’d spoken about her practice. His love for animals was genuine and deep. If they had nothing else in common, they had that. But there was a definite wall, a barricade so tangible she could almost count the bricks. She just didn’t have the time, or the heart, to try to break through that wall.

Besides, Donovan would be gone as soon as he found whatever he was looking for in her attic. He might thank her, and he might even mean it, but once he had what he’d come here for, he’d go home to Texas and she’d never see him again. So it would be foolish to get interested.

She’d been foolish before, and it was no fun.

When he’d been up there for more than three hours, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She made a large glass of iced tea and carried it up the stairs. All the kiddies—her animals—were sleeping. Even Baby. She needed to get to sleep herself. Tomorrow would be an early day, as every day had been since opening her practice. Besides, her animals wouldn’t let her sleep late, even on Sundays. The cats might let her lie in bed past six on occasion, but the dogs were relentlessly cheerful in the morning, and they wanted everyone to rise with the sun.

Donovan was startled to see her when she popped into the attic. The strain of sorting through the mess was showing on him already. His eyes looked tired, and he’d run his fingers through his dark hair more than once, probably in sheer frustration. The heavy stubble on his cheeks indicated that it had been a long day.

He looked much too tempting, sitting there. Sheryl wanted to do more than bring him tea. She wanted to run her fingers through his hair, lay her hands on those broad shoulders, tell him everything was going to be all right, even though she had no idea if anything would ever be right again.
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