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Daring the Moon
By SHERRILL QUINN
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Staring down the end of a shotgun barrel was not the way Taite Gibson had planned to end her day. She bit the inside of her lip and, with two fingers, carefully moved the barrel so it no longer pointed directly at her.
"Listen, Mr. Wheeler, I'm not asking you to testify in court." She left the yet unspoken. "I'm just starting the investigation for the Pima County Attorney's Office, okay? I need to talk to you about what happened."
The man's face went dark with outrage. "What happened? I'll tell you what happened! A bunch of punk-ass hooligans came in here and robbed me at gunpoint, that's what happened." Wheeler made a threatening gesture with the shotgun. His ruddy face darkened even more. "I dare 'em to try it again."
Taite held up one hand and tried to inject as much authority into her voice as possible. This wasn't the first time she'd been on the wrong end of a gun, and it probably wouldn't be the last. "Mr. Wheeler, put that away."
He grinned. "Don't worry, Ms. Gibson. It's legal. I've got a permit." He held the gun in one hand and ran the other one down the wooden stock in a slow caress. "Ain't she a beaut? Remington Wingmaster five-shot with walnut stock, twin bead sight, and would you look at the finish on that barrel." He sighed like a man in love.
"I wasn't concerned about the legality," she replied steadily. "Just put it away. Please."
With a mumbled comment and a last, loving caress he complied, stowing the gun under the counter. He walked back around and leaned against the glass case and fussed with a display of cowboy hats.
"Thank you." Taite drew in a breath. She loved the smell of leather. Wheeler carried leather coats, chaps, boots.... You name it, if it was made of leather, he had it. She also caught a faint smell of something similar to sage as she walked forward again and pulled out a small notebook from her oversized purse. "Now, as I said, I'm here on behalf of the Pima County Attorney's Office. I'm investigating the robbery in preparation for the trial."
Over the next two hours, Taite got Wheeler's account of events, drilling down to the smallest of details. "And you're willing to testify against them in court? Point them out to the jury as the ones who robbed you?" she asked as she flipped the cover closed on the notebook.
"Yep. Those punks' faces are burned in my memory." He tapped a beefy finger against his temple. Big teeth flashed in a wide grin. "You get 'em in court, and I'll nail their asses to the wall."
She couldn't resist returning his smile. "It's a deal." After tucking the notebook back into her purse, she flipped her wrist to check her watch. Almost six P.M. She had time to stop back at the office to debrief her boss-he rarely quit work before seven. She told Wheeler good-bye and left the store. Making sure she had her keys firmly in hand, two keys poking out between her fingers, she walked toward her car with quick steps.
A spot between her shoulder blades heated. She glanced around, but there was no one behind her. Just the same, she tucked one hand into her purse and curled her fingers around her can of pepper spray. There was no doubt in her mind someone was watching her.
She was so tired of this ... this uncertainty. The phone calls had started a couple of weeks ago, then gifts had begun to arrive at the office-a box of candy, one red rose, then a dozen. Why some nut had fixated on her was beyond her comprehension-she wasn't anything extraordinary. Medium height, medium build, medium brown hair.
Except she was damned good at her job and knew a lot of cops. Maybe the guy just had a death wish.
Another tingle between her shoulders. If it was her stalker, she didn't want to give him the satisfaction of seeing he was getting to her. Still, when she reached her car half a block down from Wheeler's store, she couldn't help herself from turning to glance behind her again.
There was no one there.
No one she could see, anyway.
Taite pressed the button on the remote and unlocked her car. Just as she reached for the handle, she heard a low growl. She whirled, thinking there was a large dog behind her about ready to chomp down. But there was nothing.
Keeping her gaze on the street, she opened the car door and tossed her purse onto the passenger seat. Another growl, off to her right, drew her gaze to a small alley. A pair of eyes glinted in the darkness, reflecting the light from the nearby streetlamp.
Holding her breath, she watched an enormous wolf pad slowly from between the two buildings. She stared at it from across the expanse of the roof of her car. The animal's hackles were raised, lips drawn back from its teeth in a ferocious snarl. Its ears, one white-tipped with a chunk missing from its outer edge, were flat against its head. Growling deep in its throat, it stalked forward.
To Taite everything seemed to move in slow motion. She fumbled, trying to get into the car. The wolf kept its gaze fixed on her, the intensity of which made the hair on her arms stand up. With a small cry, she jumped in the car and slammed the door closed, flipping the locks for good measure.
The wolf leaped against the car, claws scrabbling against the door and window. The animal snapped and snarled, the force of its lunges shaking the vehicle.
Taite screamed and thrust the key into the ignition. Once the car revved to life, she shoved the shift lever into drive and tromped on the accelerator. A few seconds later she glanced into the rearview mirror to see the wolf standing on the sidewalk beneath the streetlamp, watching her. She swallowed and put her gaze back on the road ahead.
A stalker and now a wolf attack. What was going on? By the time she reached her office, she had managed to push the incident to the back of her mind, though it had taken the entire twenty-minute drive to do so. Sitting in her boss's office, she gave him the rundown on her interview with Wheeler.
"Great job, Taite." Luis Valdez stood and pulled her to her feet, enclosing her in a big hug. "God, that's great stuff. We'll nail those degenerates for sure."
She grinned and patted him on the back. When he released her, she picked up her purse and slung the strap over her shoulder.
"You're coming to our party tomorrow night, right?" He went back around his desk and sat down, pulling his laptop toward him. Already his attention had drifted from her and an intense look of concentration covered his face.
She shook her head, used to him by now. "Yes," she said, grinning when he gave a grunt in response. She could have told him she couldn't make it because she'd be shopping on Mars, and he would have given the same reply. "See you tomorrow." Taite adjusted her purse strap on her shoulder and closed the office door behind her.
She was glad he was pleased with her report on the interview with Wheeler. Helping Luis do his job well was what her job was all about. She started to turn and bumped into someone, a startled "oomph" leaving her. Twisting around, she saw it was her friend John Sumner. His usually neat hair was in disarray, damp around the edge of his face, the white-blond streak at his part flopping onto his sweaty forehead. His pale blue eyes were slightly red-rimmed.
He put out his hands to steady her. "Whoa there, sweet thing."
"Sorry." Her purse slipped, and she adjusted the strap again. "You all right?" she asked. "You seem a bit ... harried."
"Just too much to do and not enough time to do it in," he responded in a gruff tone. Pulling a handkerchief from his front pocket, he pressed it against his forehead for a moment. He balled the linen in his fist and shoved his hand into his pocket. "Not sure why I left a government job. I could be the County Attorney by now."
She shook her head with a smirk. "You're not enough of a political animal, John, and you know it. Well, animal enough, I suppose. Just not political," she joked. She reached out and ruffled the hair that covered the top of his left ear. "You're beginning to look a little shaggy there, Counselor. Methinks you're overdue for a haircut."
John jerked his head away and laughed. He put his fingertips under his chin and flipped them out toward her with an accompanying grin. "Being a defense attorney is better, anyway. You get to meet all sorts of interesting people. And no one cares if your hair is a little on the long side." He moved closer and leaned one shoulder against the wall. "Hey, you going to the party tomorrow night?"
"Luis's?" she asked, nodding toward her boss's office.
Taite hesitated. She and John had dated for a few months and, while she liked him well enough, once she'd realized there was no romantic spark between them she'd called things off. That had been six months ago.
Thankfully, he'd been a good sport about it, even though she knew she'd hurt his feelings. But he hadn't seemed to let that stand in his way, not giving up on the idea that they could be an "item." Afraid he was about to ask her to go to the party with him, she finally said, "Yes," with some caution.
His smile was quick and confident. "Why don't we go together? We can save on gas."
She pursed her lips. Even just riding in the same car with him would constitute a date as far as he was concerned. Damn. "I, uh, I'm already going with someone." As she told the lie she gave a quick smile, hoping he'd leave it at that.
He straightened away from the wall. A muscle beneath his right eye twitched and a tic started up in his jaw, but his voice, when he spoke, was congenial enough. "Oh, okay. That's ... good. Who?"
She should've known he wouldn't let it go. He was like a dog with a bone. A bit panicked, she gave the first name that popped into her head. "Declan. You remember; I've talked about him before."
He nodded. "You'd have a better time with me." He flashed a grin and she relaxed, seeing he wasn't going to flare into anger like he sometimes did. He gave a shrug. "That's all right. I was going to ask Sheila, anyway." He sniffed, then leaned toward her and sniffed again. Wrinkling his nose, he backed away.
"Hey!" Taite frowned. "I'm sorry if my smell offends you. I've had a long day." Not to mention a near heart attack from that wolf.
"Sorry," he muttered. "It's just ... I have a better than average sense of smell." He squeezed her shoulder. "Well, I have to go. See you at the party tomorrow."
She watched him walk away. Already dreading the party, she turned and headed toward the south exit and the parking deck.
The next evening, Declan O'Connell helped Taite out of his low-slung black Mustang and walked with her up the road toward Luis's house. Cars of other partygoers lined the street, so that Declan had ended up parking about a quarter of a mile from the house.
"And just what will your friend John say about me bein' your date?" Declan grinned at her grimace. When he continued, his rich Irish brogue rolled over her ears and tickled her senses. "It's about time I get to meet him, anyway. See what a wanker he is."
"Declan! Behave." Taite elbowed him in the ribs, shaking her head at his laughter. "I can promise John will not get your warped sense of humor."
"Sounds to me like he doesn't have a sense of humor at all, from what you've said." Declan shrugged. When she scowled at him, he grinned. "I'll try to be on my best behavior, darlin'." He crossed his heart with one finger. His smile faded. "But seriously. You know I'm happy to help."
"I know." Taite's heel came down on a rock and her ankle turned. As she pitched forward she grabbed Declan's arm to keep from going all the way down.
He stopped, turning to grab her elbows to support her. "You all right?"
She rotated her ankle, feeling a slight twinge but nothing too bad. "Yeah. Just being my usual graceful self. I don't know why I even bother wearing heels."
"Because they make your legs look sexy. Especially in that skirt."
"Down, boy." She tapped him on the shoulder. "This is a pretend date, remember? Besides, you don't like me that way."
"Doesn't mean I can't appreciate a lovely view." He took her hand and started walking again, keeping his strides short so she wouldn't have as much trouble in her heels. They reached the edge of Luis's driveway and stepped up onto the pavement. "You know, goin' back to what you said in the car," Declan said in response to the story about the wolf attack she'd shared with him earlier, "I'd see it bein' a rabid coyote, maybe. But Tucson doesn't have wolves."
"I know the difference between a scrawny coyote and a wolf, Declan." She glanced at him. "It was a wolf."
"And it attacked your car." His look was as skeptical as his tone. "Wolves just don't attack vehicles, darlin'. If they can't eat it, they don't want it." He shook his head. "I don't mean to upset you, Taite, but maybe your lack of sleep is playin' tricks with your mind. Or ..."
"Or?" she prompted when he trailed off.
"Or your subconscious is directin' your fear of your stalker in another more primal direction."
"Well, listen to you, Doctor Freud," she muttered. "I would think I'd know the difference between a real wolf and a figment of my imagination."
"Maybe." He gave her hand a squeeze. "It's done now, anyway. Try to forget about it and enjoy yourself tonight."
She wished she could. But at the oddest moments she'd remember the way the wolf's ruff bristled; the way its lips pulled back from sharp, white teeth; the way its eyes seemed to see right through her....
Declan was correct from the standpoint that she had other things to worry about. A stray encounter with a wolf was nothing compared to the almost daily harassment she received at the hands of the stalker. The phone calls that were getting more and more threatening, the continuous gifts that, as ordinary and even romantic as they were, served to make her skin crawl.
Declan let go of her hand and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer in a hug. "Let's enjoy the party, okay? Forget about wolves and stalkers for a few hours." He gave her another squeeze and then, with a hand at the small of her back, let her precede him into the house.
Luis greeted them right away, pulling Taite into his arms for a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. He and Declan shook hands, Luis with one hand on Declan's shoulder. "Come in, come in. Mi casa es su casa." He motioned to a server, who brought over a tray of champagne.
They each took a glass, and Luis toasted, "To friends."
"To friends." Taite smiled at Declan, grateful to have him for a friend, especially during this time in her life. He was a former special forces commando with the Royal Marines who had gotten involved in one of her cases five years ago. They'd immediately clicked. He was like the older brother she'd never had, though she usually told him he was the older brother she'd never wanted. Still, their relationship was more that of siblings, and she wouldn't trade it for anything.
He put up with her crap and watched out for her like family. Which sometimes got a little tiring, especially since he tended to drive off her dates. Not that he wanted her that way. Nor she him. She suppressed a shudder at the thought. Declan was a sexy, virile man, but it would feel like incest.
Luis patted her on the shoulder and went off to greet another arrival. Over the next several hours, she talked with friends and coworkers, Declan never leaving her side, seeming the ever-attentive date. And of course he charmed the socks off the men and the panties off the women. He was the kind of man many of the men there wanted to be, and the kind of man most of the women just plain wanted.
At midnight, she linked her arm through Declan's. Going up on tiptoe, she whispered in his ear, "I'm beat. Are you ready to go?" He wasn't much of a party hound, so she figured he was past ready.
He nodded. "Aye, lass, that I am."
"Let's go say good-bye to Luis, then." She wound her way through the crowd, Declan at her heels. When they approached Luis, she saw John standing off to the side on the other side of the room, his date on his arm, his gaze steady as he tracked Declan's progress behind her.
"Luis, we're going to go." Taite pressed a kiss against her boss's swarthy cheek. "Thanks so much-we had a great time."
"I'm glad you came, chica. And you, too, Declan." He shook hands with her fake date and looked back at Taite. "See you on Monday?"
"You bet." Seeing that John still watched them, she waved at him, then she and Declan walked toward the front door.
"You leaving without saying good-bye?" John's voice came from behind them.
Taite stopped. Taking a deep breath, she turned with a smile. "John. You looked tied up."
He lifted his chin. His gaze cut to Declan. John held out his hand in greeting and Declan took it.
Excerpted from Daring the Moon by SHERRILL QUINN Copyright © 2009 by Sherrill Quinn. Excerpted by permission.
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