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By VONNA HARPER
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Vonna Harper
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Chapter OneThe space between summer and fall had an energy all its own, Shari Afton decided. Inhaling, she concentrated on the clean, slightly cool air drifting in from the indistinct foothills a half-mile away. In a little over a month, it would be breeding season for the deer that ventured from there on to her property. Hopefully her no hunting signs would keep them safe. Just watching the graceful creatures made her feel more alive. And a tad envious.
Acknowledging a distracting wave of sensual anticipation, she shook her head. After all this time she should have a handle on her libido. If she had a man in her life, she could do something about what was going on between her legs. But she didn't.
More to the point, she didn't have time for a member of the opposite sex. Maybe in about a hundred years. In the meantime—what?
Stopping, she looked around at what she could see of her three plus acres of open land, scrub oaks, two newer kennels, and older house, seeking distraction. Although she'd given every bit of physical and mental energy she possessed to Working Dogs over the past year, she still didn't quite comprehend that it was hers. That she had a permanent roof over her head. That the dream she'd harbored almost from the moment she'd stopped being Heather Stevens was coming true.
"You take it for granted, don't you?" she asked the middle-aged mutt ambling beside her. "You figure it's your absolute right to live your retirement years here, and when am I going to let you sleep on my bed?" Might as well, since no man's sharing it with me.
Ona stopped and looked over at her. Wondering if the dog could read her mind, Shari patted the broad head. Ona, who was Blackie's great-granddaughter and thus precious, was a short-haired mix of black and rust. Her head nearly reached Shari's waist. Most of her face was dark, but a brown patch surrounded her left eye, making her resemble a pirate.
Hmm. A pirate? In fantasy a swashbuckler for a sex partner sounded fabulous. Reality was another story. Undoubtedly showers weren't a priority with them. Just thinking of a man who hadn't touched soap in months was enough to cool her blood, at least briefly.
"Look," Shari continued even though Ona had lost interest in the conversation, "I understand. If I'd put up with as many foster pups as you have, I'd figure I'd earned the royal treatment, too. I just need to know what percentage of the electric bill you're going to be responsible for."
Obviously electric bills could matter less to Ona because she took off at a trot. Watching the disappearing rear end, Shari decided that despite her self-imposed celibacy, life was good. Granted, running her business with only one full-time employee meant burning a lot of midnight oil, but she'd never wanted to do anything else with her life.
The frightened and trembling child she'd once been belonged to yesterday. A lot of yesterdays. At the same time, keeping Heather Stevens tucked into a corner of her mind served as a benchmark for her goals. Never again would she be afraid and helpless. The adult she'd become was a strong modern businesswoman waiting for a new customer. A male customer.
Watching Ona follow whatever scent had caught her attention, Shari fought an unexpected vulnerability. All right, so her property was isolated. Given how much noise the dogs made she didn't have much choice. Just because she had no neighbors within shouting distance was no reason to feel nervous. The land was peaceful and safe.
Shaking her head for the second time in a minute, she mentally replayed yesterday's phone conversation with Maco Durant. To her surprise, the man's voice had scraped her nerve endings in fascinating, exciting, and unsettling ways that had kept her awake much of the night. Speaking slow, deep, and yet so low she'd had to strain to hear him, he'd been somewhat vague about why he needed at least two of her guard dogs ASAP. Money wasn't the issue, he'd assured her. Time was.
"I've been around working dogs all my life, but I've never had the need for canine protection," he'd said in a near drawl while she struggled not to give into the sudden heat in her core. "I simply don't have the time for a lot of lessons in how to handle them. They have to be ready to go to work immediately. Just give me a short course in the commands I'll need. We'll get along fine."
"It isn't that simple," she'd broken in. "First, I'm glad you're comfortable around dogs that have a purpose. You understand how guard dogs operate, don't you?"
"Operate? Can't be much different from cattle dogs. As long as they're doing their job, they're great, but give them too much free time and they get into mischief. Feed them and they love you. Rub their bellies and they love you even more. Throw in a warm place to sleep and they're your slaves for life."
Insanely wondering if he felt the same way about women, she'd told him that trained dogs were different from the family pet or the cattle dogs he'd mentioned. They had to meet certain standards and expectations, as did their owners. "Not only that," she'd continued. "Until I know more about your operation, I can't determine which of my animals, if any, would make the best fit for you."
"My operation? I—it's a large construction firm," he'd said as she tried to concentrate on more than the way the male tones rolled through her. "We're setting up in a remote area. Law enforcement isn't quite nonexistent but close. Pretty much we're on our own. If anything happens to our equipment, we're out of business."
"If it's remote, is it susceptible to vandalism? That's what you're talking about, vandals?"
"Look, I'd rather discuss this in person."
So would she, she'd agreed, as a flush spread through her. Then, although she'd offered to come out to where he was, he'd said he'd make time to meet at her place. She could introduce him to her dogs that way, he'd added. His explanation made sense; just the same, she couldn't help but wonder if he didn't want her on his turf.
Although knowing she'd be sharing her own remote land with a stranger made her a bit uneasy, having Maco come to her for the initial meeting was probably better. She called the shots here. Being in familiar surroundings would keep her on task. No getting sidetracked by a sexy voice when she needed to concentrate on getting straight answers.
What did he look like? Smell like?
Apparently bored with what she'd been doing, Ona circled back. Having the big mutt back again was comforting. Together human and animal headed toward the east end of Shari's property to the shelter and runs where the dogs she boarded were kept. "Look," she said to Ona, "here's the deal. I give you the thumbs-up and you give this Maco character a mouth full of wet kisses. But if it's thumbs-down, take off his kneecap."
The thought of Ona attacking anyone made her laugh. Despite her size, Ona's value came from her motherly instincts. Besides, there were enough dogs with protective instincts on the property.
Ona seemed satisfied with her mistress's plan as witnessed by her wagging, switch-like tail. Having learned the hard way to keep her distance from that weapon, Shari planted her knee against Ona's side and shoved. "No you don't. One bruise a week from you is more than enough. Look, when we get to the kennel, let me lead the way. No need to get the inmates all in a lather when they see you."
Inmates was hardly the way she thought of the dogs she boarded, but what was wrong with a private joke? Boarding brought in a steady if modest income while each sale of a trained guard dog resulted in a financial windfall. Today, hopefully, would culminate in a much-needed windfall. The only downside about Maco Durant wanting two dogs was that she only had two ready to go to work. If he took them, she'd need to pick up the pace with the others she was training.
Ona growled, stopping her. Something at the south end of the property had caught the dog's attention, but because of the oaks and the shadows their broad canopy cast, she couldn't tell what it was.
Seeing Ona's hackles lift, she struggled to focus on possibilities instead of the chill down her spine. Damn it, she wasn't going to freak out! Ona had seen so many deer that they no longer interested her. A neighbor's dog could have ambled over. The intruder might be a cat or a coyote or even a cougar since her property backed up to a large swath of unimproved land. The possibility of a cougar unnerved her a bit. Hopefully Ona knew better than to challenge a predator. Wait! What if it was an out-of-season hunter?
Ona continued to growl. Despite Shari's battle to keep it from happening, the sound took her back to the night Ona's great-grandmother had kept her alive. Straining to see what Ona was looking at, she grabbed for the dog's collar, but she broke free and stalked stiff-legged in the direction where she'd been staring. Ona had never attacked anything, so what—
Ona glanced back at her mistress. For the first time since Ona had opened her lids as a puppy, Shari didn't recognize the look in her eyes. No longer the slaphappy surrogate mother of dogs in training, she'd become a primitive beast. Another cold wave attacked Shari's spine. Why the hell hadn't she talked herself into learning how to shoot a gun and getting a permit?
"What is it? A cougar? Poacher?"
Ona began panting, a sign of tension. The air felt infused with electricity, but there was no impending storm.
"What is it?" she repeated, trying to calm her tone. Ona's big head swung back to where she'd been looking.
Again Shari wished she had a gun. A gun was power and safety, monsters blown away, nightmares shattered. Instead she reached into her jeans pocket for her cell phone. But what could she do, call 911 to say her dog's actions had her spooked?
"I hate making a fool of myself," she told Ona as she let go of the cell. "Let's go into the house for a while. The boarders can wait. We'll—"
Ona started forward again, scruff uplifted, head low, and ears flattened.
Be careful, my sweet.
Ona was staring at a thicket of mistletoe-laden oaks surrounded by blackberry bushes. Someone could be crouching behind the blackberries and she'd never see him.
Until it was too late.
Slowing to a stalking pace, Ona lifted her head but kept her ears back. Shari wiped sweating palms on her jeans. Today wasn't supposed to include this—what?
Ona stopped, the growl rolling out of her sounding a little like thunder.
Why couldn't Maco Durant already be here? A little strength in numbers couldn't hurt. It was just her and the dogs, and all except for Ona were in their pens.
Ona's growl dropped an octave and the hairs on the back of her head looked starched. Had to be a cougar. Or a bear? No. Couldn't be. She lived ten miles from a city with a population nearing 150,000. A bear hadn't been seen here for—
Yelping, Ona spun in a half circle. Then her legs gave out, and she fell to the ground. The other dogs howled.
Run away! Be safe!
But Ona was her love, her companion. She'd never be able to face herself if she deserted her. Dropping to her knees so hopefully she'd present less of a target, Shari stared in the direction she thought the shot had come from. This wasn't happening. Couldn't happen.
"Damn it!" she yelled. "You just shot my pet."
There was no outburst of regret from some moron with a hunting rifle.
Not an accident?
"Ona?" she moaned. "Ona, please."
Horrified because Ona hadn't moved, she crawled toward her. No matter how hard she tried to make her mind work, it refused to move past the impossible question that maybe the bullet had been meant for Ona. The house was a hundred miles away, the road in the next country.
Another bullet. Aimed at her this time?
Stay down. Stay safe. Maybe.
Her mind freezing again, she belly-crawled to Ona's side and laid her hand on Ona's chest. Thank God, she was breathing. But when she slid her hand under the dog's jaw, she dealt with dead weight. Blood soaked her hand.
Trying to comprehend the insane, she stroked the space between Ona's eyes. No matter what happened, she wouldn't leave her beloved pet's side. They'd live or die together. The kenneled dogs were still making so much noise she couldn't hear anything else. Fear and determination clogging her throat, she blinked Ona into focus.
The round, liquid brown eyes were closed, stubby lashes wet with what might be tears.
Keeping one hand on Ona's belly, Shari dug out her cell phone. Her first impulse was to call her aunt and uncle who lived on the other side of the county. Sharking off a thought only a small child had a right to, she concentrated, but her fingers shook so it took three tries before she hit 911. She again looked around. At least the dogs were quieting a little; otherwise the dispatcher wouldn't be able to hear her.
"My dog's been shot!" she blurted the instant a female voice came on the line.
There was no immediate response, making her hope the dispatcher was pinpointing her location.
"Did you hear me? My dog has been shot." Don't yell. "Please, I need help."
"Do you see who did it?"
"No. Please send—"
"I have to get more information. First, I see that you're out on Duggan Road. That's in the county."
"What does that—?"
"That's the sheriff department's jurisdiction. Unfortunately, right now the only officer on duty is responding to another call. Do you feel you're in immediate danger?"
"I don't know." Too late, she realized her call would have a higher priority if she'd said yes. "It had to be a deer poacher. There's no other explanation." Is there?
"Is your dog alive?"
"Good. You're going to want to get him to a vet."
"Her. I'm afraid to move her. Besides, what if the shooter's still—"
"The deputy will be there as soon as possible. In the meantime you—"
Just then Shari heard a new sound. Not thinking what she was doing, she punched End and strained to listen. A vehicle. Tires crunching over the gravel drive. The dogs yipping. Ona not moving.
"Did you see who did it?" the dispatcher had asked.
Not breathing, she tore her attention off the approaching vehicle and looked toward where the shots had come from.
In the distance, the sun glinted off something.
Chapter TwoHands on the Jeep's steering wheel and his right foot touching the brake pedal, Maco Durant scanned his surroundings. Because the Jeep's cloth top was down, he had no doubt he'd heard two gunshots separated by maybe three seconds and furious barking. Telling himself someone was target shooting hadn't eased his mind. For one thing, there was no gun range around. More to the point, given what the Homeland Security agent had told him about what he and his brother had gotten themselves into, no wonder he was moving slow and cautious. He understood deadlines, equipment breakdown, and the dangerous pit called price overrides. What Jason and he hadn't counted on when they were bidding on the project was what they'd termed the crazies. There better by hell not be any of the breed out here today.
In the middle of asking himself what he'd do if a crazy jumped out at him, he spotted someone up ahead crouched over something.
Pressing on the brakes, he stared through the bug- and dusten-crusted windshield. The back of his neck prickling and his heart rate kicking up, he took inventory. The croucher was too far away for him to be sure of anything except that the form was smallish. As for what was on the ground, a dog? No, he hadn't blundered into a battle. This wasn't a shootout at the OK Corral. So what was it?
Hoping he wasn't about to play the role of sitting duck, he inched forward. In deference to the wind, he'd placed his Stetson on the passenger's seat instead of keeping it on his head where it would provide a measure of shade for his eyes and make seeing easier. Hunkering down behind the steering wheel while checking and re-checking the terrain wasn't easy. Granted, the canvas Jeep top hardly qualified as an armored truck, but he wouldn't be as much of a target, would he? So what was the best course of action? Maybe pulling a U-turn and getting out of Dodge. He'd actually started to pull the vehicle to the left when he remembered whom he'd come out here to see. If the croucher was Shari Afton of the arousing yet strong voice—
Like who else would it be?
Killing the distance between himself and his goal took half of forever, but slowly rolling forward gave him time to sort out a few things and get his pulse under control. Most important, the human on the ground, who was looking more and more like a woman, didn't seem to be hurt. Did that mean the danger, if there'd been any, was over?
Excerpted from Canyon Shadows by VONNA HARPER Copyright © 2012 by Vonna Harper. Excerpted by permission of APHRODISIA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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