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"Draw me a map, and I'll find the site myself, Mr.... "Sabina Hanlon said firmly.
"Just Jonas, ma'am." The gnome-like little man behind the serviceable desk gave it one more try. "Now, Missy, the roads are right bad out there this time of year, and you're an awful little thing and all..."
"And I'd be better off waiting here until Mr. Peters returns at noon. If he returns. You've already told me that." There was little point in taking her anger out on the little man; he'd been left to do the dirty work. So far, Sabina had controlled her temper, but she was reaching flash point.
Keeping her voice silky, she pointed out, "I can't inspect the site from here, can I? Since I'll need Mr. Peters' assistance, it makes sense for me to go where he is."
"Well, now, Missy, I'll do the best I can, seein' as you don't know the lay of the land." Tearing a sheet of paper from a tablet, he penciled in their present location, the business office of Calico Mining Company. "It's awful rough out there. You sure you wouldn't just as soon stay here warm and snug?"
Sabina wasn't sure which aggravated her more, his cajoling voice or being addressed as "Missy." "If you don't finish that map right now, I'll fine your boss and this company for obstructing a representative of the state."
This wasn't the first time since she'd begun work as a deputy inspector for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources that Sabina had resorted to threats. Few of the miners took her seriously ... until after her inspection. Occasionally an owner made the fatal error of offering her a bribe to ignore sloppy mining practices. Sabina wasn't at all offended to know she had become known as the"Tough Broad."
"Here it is, ma'am. You shouldn't have any trouble finding your way, but you'll most likely get stuck."
Sabina took the paper and glanced at it. "I won't have any difficulty. And I never get stuck." She smiled for the first time, and asked, "Is there a decent motel around here? I've not been in this part of the state before."
He grinned foolishly and responded, "None that would be fit for you, Missy. I'll call Miz Kincaid to see if her room's available. She takes in people every now and then. Her house is clean as new paint, and she's a right good cook."
"Lovely. I'll check back this afternoon to see if she has room for me. And thank you." Sabina turned and exited quickly.
She dropped the map on the front seat of the mud-splattered state car. Wrapping the hems of her heavy twill slacks at the ankle, she replaced her dress boots with a steel-toed pair. Next she traded her tailored wool coat for a serviceable quilted jacket. Stepping behind the car, she opened the trunk and removed snap chains, which she attached to the rear wheels. From the corner of her eye, she saw the blinds covering the office window twitch.
Jonas viewed the efficient transformation with dismay. Who'd have thought such a pretty little thing would be so well prepared for the rough country ahead of her? He'd been fooled by the satiny, dark brown hair which curved to hug the fragile line of her chin, by the extravagant sweep of lashes above dark blue eyes, by the misplaced dimple that flashed when she finally smiled.
They'd anticipated an inspection since the first of the year. Industry rumor said the new deputy inspector knew her business, but the workers at the site had been betting against the survival of a female inspector when pitted against Chad Peters. Chad's men had great faith in his way with the ladies. They were confident he could charm her out of taking three whole working days to complete her report. Now Jonas wasn't so sure.
Before the exhaust of the state car dissipated, Jonas pulled the two-way radio from the bottom drawer of the desk. "Tom? The Tough Broad is on her way. Tell Moogie I want to put fifty on the lady inspector ... no, my first bet rides. The odds are goin' to shorten real quick, and I want my backside covered."
Sabina was grateful for the chains. The car had fish-tailed several times on the way from Columbus, even though the highways appeared clear. Now faint, early morning sunlight revealed icy patches on the pavement and highlighted the stark, monochromatic beauty of the rolling southeastern Ohio landscape. The piercing scent of thawed and refrozen earth filtered through her slightly opened window. The sights and sounds said spring ... even though this morning was still winter.
She was weary of fighting her way over winding, hilly, ice-splattered highways, but the Mozart flowing from her tape deck was calming.
As if by instant replay, yesterday's conversation with her superior flashed through her mind. "Chad Peters might be a little prickly, Sabina. He had a bad experience a year and a half ago."
"What do you mean?" she'd asked.
"Brainard, the man you replaced, offered him a favorable report without an inspection ... for a bribe."
Righteous indignation shook her. "If Peters bribed him, he's dishonest, too."
"Peters didn't pay. Brainard asked for the money up front, and he refused. Brainard wrote him up for three violations ... without leaving the company office." He paused to relight his pipe. "The fines were processed, but Calico sued. We withdrew the accusations when our own investigation located a reliable witness to the offer."
"But that doesn't mean there aren't any infractions."
"Peters insisted on a full inspection. I did it myself. He was clean as a whistle, but plenty resentful. Said he didn't have the time to play our Mickey Mouse games. Be careful not to rile Peters. He'll be hostile, and he's got a hair-trigger temper."
Sabina willed herself to relax. Chad Peters would have no reason to doubt her honesty; she intended to do a thorough job.
She turned cautiously onto a narrower and less developed road, and ten minutes later sighed with relief as she parked next to a motley collection of pickup trucks and jeeps. The track was suitable only for idiots and miners. "That parking area's going to look like a plowed field before the day's out," she murmured.
In the distance Sabina saw an immense off-the-road truck; several figures stood beside a mammoth front-end loader. She parked her car and set out along a trail which was already a churned mixture of earth and snow. The path ended abruptly just short of a slight rise.
Movement in the cab of the loader drew her attention. As she watched, a tall, muscular figure sprang lithely to the ground. His hard hat dangled from one hand, and early morning sunlight danced over tousled, sun-streaked blond hair. For the instant he looked in her direction she felt tiny electrical currents skate across the surface of her skin. Then the tanned face turned away. Sabina shook her head to clear it, dismissing the prickle of anticipation as coffee nerves.
Rough, makeshift stairs were cut into the bank. As she approached the first step, a pair of ham-sized hands closed around her waist. Seconds later she was suspended in air, her feet dangling helplessly. "Let me swing you up, little lady," said a coarse voice close to her ear.
A series of vicious kicks to his shins made the giant release his hold. Ignoring the moan of pain echoing in the clear morning air, she climbed the bank, the strap of her bright yellow hard hat in one hand and her clipboard in the other.
At the top she found herself confronted by the tawny-haired worker she had seen moments before. She met his clear, expressionless gaze with a matching lack of animation. A totally irrelevant thought surfaced. His eyes are the color of country-brewed coffee. The idiocy of the comparison nearly spawned a giggle, but the coldness in those clear eyes made her wary.
"That man you kicked is limping badly."
The morning sun had no effect on the frost in his even tenor voice, Sabina noted before responding levelly, "Maybe that will teach him to keep his hands to himself. I refuse to be pawed." She shifted her hat to her left hand and extended her right. "Am I correct in assuming you're Chad Peters? I'm Sabina Hanlon from the Department of Natural Resources."
His hand thrust out to grasp hers before Chad realized he'd made the gesture. Even with Jonas's warning, he felt off balance; she wasn't what he'd expected. Then surprise gave way to annoyance. Every spare minute for three days would be spent shepherding this female through his records and over the mine site, where he'd never thought a woman had any business. The scene he'd just witnessed was one reason.
What both disconcerted and annoyed him was the way his whole being was reacting--as if it were radar honing in on a long-awaited signal. He couldn't fathom why. The bulky coat disguised her body, while the loose hood revealed only a finely-boned, intense face and amazing deep blue eyes beneath winged brows. Her expression was just short of condemning, proof she wasn't feeling a corresponding response. "I'm Chad Peters," he responded tersely, attempting to control his anger.
"I know you're a busy man, Mr. Peters, but I'm afraid you'll have to make time for me. We have a lot of ground to cover."
Chad nearly smiled a reluctant salute to her direct approach. Her ruthless demolition of Bobbie Russell had his grudging approval, even though he wasn't about to admit it. Still, he resented her presence and the gaping hole it would make in his tight schedule. He mentally shuffled his plans for the week. "You're in the driver's seat, Ms. Hanlon, but I'm pinched for time. We operate well within the laws."
"Thank you for telling me. I'm looking forward to seeing the proof," she rejoined, matching his bluntness. "I'll need your help for the next three days. Then I can report your perfection as a matter of record."
"Hey, Chad!" The shout came from the edge of a wall of overburden, material that had been removed to open the seam of coal at the bottom of the excavation a short distance away. He swung his attention from her and moved toward the voice, although part of him was aware she stood looking around her carefully, assessing the site. Early sunlight revealed the extent of the cut and he saw her move further away, toward a mound of debris. Suddenly her knees buckled and she sank to her knees, struggling to keep her balance.
Horrified, he broke off his conversation and ran toward her yelling, "Sock, you just cut that out right now!"
His black Labrador retriever had just knocked the legs from beneath the representative of the state. With this humiliation, added to the mauling she'd received earlier, she would have no trouble finding violations that didn't exist.
"I'm sorry, Miss Hanlon. One of my men taught him that trick, and I haven't been able to break him of it." Keeping his face straight was a struggle. Chad would have given a great deal for a picture of Sabina's face as her knees folded beneath her.
Sensing he was the center of attention, the dog threw himself full length on the ground and pulled his body forward with his front paws, all the while smiling his delight.
Sabina knelt, removing one bulky glove and extending the back of her hand to him. "What a handsome fellow you are!"
The dog nudged his head beneath the slender fingers so she could scratch behind his ears. Chad held his breath, hoping she would smile again, providing him a second glimpse of the misplaced dimple just below the right corner of her mouth. Her tense features had relaxed, and she looked ... too attractive.
He reminded himself who she was, and why she was here. He kept his voice expressionless as he said, "Whenever you're through playing with the dog, we'll take a look at this schedule of yours."
His words had the desired effect, her smile faded, and as she scrambled to her feet she said coolly. "I have a weakness for Labs, but I hope he doesn't try that trick on me again. I might be closer to the excavation the next time."
"We don't let women get that close, Ms. Hanlon." He realized his words had a double meaning, and wondered if she caught both interpretations.
"You will find I go wherever I feel is necessary, Mr. Peters. Is this all the overburden you have at this point?"
Apparently this inspector did play by the book. She could only be an improvement over his earlier experience, but the timing was bad. Too many problems clawed for his attention. "We're like cats, Ms. Hanlon. We cover each section as soon as the coal is out."
"What a lovely comparison," she responded sweetly. "I'm well aware you don't want any more moisture than necessary to get into the vein. Still, you've been at this site how long?"
"We opened it last month."
She swept her eyes along the wide swath of disturbed earth. "You're working fast."
"It's been too cold to stand around."
"Then I won't waste your time. You're familiar with an inspection, I'm sure. Tomorrow I want to go over your permits to assure compliance." She ran her eyes down the list on her clipboard. "I also need to look over your last two reclamations."
Chad stifled a groan and glanced at his watch. "I can spare the time to take you around part of this site before lunch, but then I have to leave for a meeting. You'll have to make do with my assistant manager this afternoon."
"I prefer to work only with the individual directly responsible, Mr. Peters."
He grinned, amused by her starchy reply. "Then it's a good thing you came early ... or you might not have caught me at all. Let's go." With that he set off at a ground-eating pace.
Sabina was accustomed to clambering over rocks, through mud, and up and down hillsides. Little conversation was necessary, since she knew what she was looking for. Normally, she enjoyed the whole process. Today, for the first time, she had to extend herself. Sure that Chad Peters was deliberately testing her, she allowed herself a grim smile and persevered. The surprised lift of his eyebrows when he discovered her close behind him was satisfying.
Secret amusement gathered inside her as time sped by. He spoke only in answer to her questions, offering nothing extra. If he thought his brusqueness would make her leave before she was finished, she had a surprise for him. "You don't own Calico Mining, do you, Mr. Peters?"
The coffee-colored eyes darkened and his jaw tightened, then the expression vanished so quickly that Sabina wondered if she had imagined it. "I run the company for the family."
She had no response to such brevity, but wondered what could have happened to cause the pain she had glimpsed. She was unfamiliar with family intricacies. Her own family wasn't close, but she'd discovered in a very short time that in parts of Ohio it was not only close relations who mattered. Shirt-tail cousins and their connections were considered family, and each member's problems were shared by the others. She thought it unfortunate they didn't feel as strongly about the land as they did about each other. The earth before her was ravaged and bleeding.
The early sun had melted the frost from the banks of clay, from rocks, and from limestone wrenched loose and segregated into anonymous ridges. The very innards of the earth lay revealed.
The sight no longer made her physically sick. She recalled her first sight of an unreclaimed surface mine, doublespeak for strip mining. Tree roots had protruded from the mounds of torn earth flanking a vast, ragged gash. Deep runnels of acid-stained water had eroded each slope. The land had looked as if some immense, clawed monster had made a careless swipe with its paw.
She relived her outrage, then reminded herself that mine had been in another state. Working in Ohio made her grateful for the tough reclamation policies adopted by the state in 1977.
As she fell back a few paces, her attention fastened on the lean figure in front of her. Well-worn jeans clung to his legs, causing Sabina's pragmatic side to wonder if he had been able to fit thermal underwear inside such snug denim. Probably not, which could be the reason he set such a brisk pace. Her less practical side was weak enough to savor the view.
A sleeveless down vest concealed the upper part of Chad's body, emphasizing the width of his shoulders. His thick gray chamois shirt made no secret of the strength of his arms.
The response she'd felt when she first spied his figure swinging down from the cab of the massive piece of machinery returned. She'd been struck by a fleeting sense of recognition. She squashed the fanciful thought. Surely that initial awareness was a figment of her imagination.
Chad paused atop a rise, patiently waiting. When she reached his side, she had her first complete overview of the site. They stood at the southern end, the partially mined gash stretching away from them. "This area must have been beautiful once," she said tightly.
"It will be even more beautiful when we're finished."
"Are you telling me you ravage the land and improve on God's handiwork?" Sabina demanded.
"I'm saying we take the bounty nature put here for us and then put the land back in condition suitable for human use. And frequently we improve the looks. This particular site was an eyesore."
Sabina's set her jaw at an angle that mirrored her antagonist's. "Before you ruined it, this was the way it has been since the age of the glaciers. Future generations should be able to see something that hasn't been dug up, turned over, subdivided or paved!"
Her voice shook with the force of her emotions, drawing Chad's complete attention. His initial response to her had been a less than pleasant surprise. Since that moment he'd avoided thinking of the lady inspector as a person.
State employees came and went. Some were careless, some were overzealous, while others, he had reason to know, were simply dishonest. None had ever expressed a personal feeling toward what they were doing. He said gently, "You're in the wrong line of work, Ms. Hanlon. You can't become emotionally involved over a piece of land that was nothing but rocks and scrub timber. You'll tear yourself up and burn out."
"I'm not a bleeding heart, Mr. Peters. I just happen to feel the earth has been manhandled enough."
He wanted to groan in frustration. He'd offered sympathetic advice and she'd responded with a blind argument that never failed to inflame him. "Did it ever occur to you that reclaimed land can be more useful, more beautiful? That hundreds of families have roofs over their heads and food to eat because mining provides jobs? Don't condemn an entire industry because of a few careless operators. Some of us love the land as much or more than you do."
"I haven't met anyone like that yet," she spat back, refusing to be pacified.
Chad's temper rose. "You wouldn't recognize him if you did." Her earnestness was at least honest. He turned on his heel, retracing their trail, and threw over his shoulder, "It's time for lunch. You're welcome to eat lunch in the shack with us--if you don't think you'll be contaminated."
Unaccustomed to having someone walk away from an argument about the sensitive subject, Sabina remained in place, still furious, but with no one to vent her anger on. She called after his retreating back, "Thanks for your gracious invitation. I prefer to eat in my car. Alone." Looking down, she discovered Sock poised beside her. He looked from his retreating master to her, as if urging her to follow and apologize.
"Sock!" The angry call confused the animal further, and he whined softly. A second summons prompted another whine, but a shouted "Socrates!" eliminated any indecision. He loped after the receding figure, his head ducked apologetically.
Head high, Sabina followed, maintaining a generous distance from the figures ahead of her. She needed time to cool her temper. During her time with the department, she had yet to see any beautiful reclamation. Nor had she seen land use that showed any signs of creativity. Each site had looked like a sheep which had just been sheared with dull clippers.
A sudden gust of wind penetrated the layers of her clothing, reminding her that she was dawdling. She hurried toward the welcome shelter of her car. The prosaic comfort of the contents of her thermos, a wine-kissed beef soup she'd made over the weekend, would calm her down.
She needed to regroup. Why hadn't her boss warned her that Chad Peters resembled an illustration from a volume of Norse legends? He'd treated her as if his veins were filled with water from a Norwegian fiord--not that she expected anything else. Sabina made a face at herself in the rear view mirror as she settled herself. The man was an enigma, and she had no time in her life for enigmas, no matter how attractive they were.