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Liza Enders looked around the room at all the people gathered for the faculty welcoming tea. Yes, they called it a tea, which struck her as a grandiose description for a gathering of faculty members at a junior college in Conard County, Wyoming.
A "tea" should have paneled walls, leather chairs, old Victorian tables and heavy curtains.
Instead the faculty occupied a cafeteria with folding tables, plastic chairs and vertical blinds on the windows. The sandwiches were quartered but still had crusts, the beverage was a punch made of a soft drink poured over a brick of ice cream, and there was hot, tinny coffee in huge urns. The coffee cups were institutional, white with a green line, and the punch cups were plastic.
It was hard not to laugh.
She knew most of the faculty already because Conard County was her hometown and she'd already taught her first course over the summer session. This tea was the only one held each year, however, and the college didn't spring for more intimate evening gatherings with the dean. No, they held this one social each year and all faculty were required to attend.
That meant the one new guy stuck out. Of course, he would have stuck out anyway, given that he didn't remotely resemble his peers.
Most of the faculty looked like underpaid teachers, which they were. All teachers were underpaid, just as journalists were. Liza knew all about that, having recently been laid off from her job as a reporter.
They dressed casually but nobody had this dude's kind of cool. And cool was the only word she could think of to describe it. He stood there holding a mug of coffee without using the handle, his denim-clad hips canted to one side in a way that was going to drive his female students nuts. His black T-shirt showed off some pretty good musculaturenot at all common among the bookish typesand instead of the usual faculty jogging shoes or cowboy boots, he wore black motorcycle boots. Cool, she thought again.
Her instincts, honed by a decade as a reporter, drew her in his direction. Those little differences in appearance and stance suggested an interesting story, not a curriculum vitae of academic accomplishments.
She ran her eyes over him as she eased toward him, appreciating the picture of maleness, and allowing herself to enjoy the moment of attraction. God knew, she wasn't attracted to any of the other male professorsmost of whom were married, happily or not.
But she was curious. She'd spent a lot of time getting people to tell her things, and she was sure she'd get this guy's story before this sham of a tea was over. Then her curiosity would be satisfied and she'd be able to return her attention to more serious matters. Like teaching, and figuring out what she really wanted to do with her mess of a life now that her true love, journalism, had spurned her in massive cost-saving layoffs.
That still rankled. The hunk in the black T-shirt would provide a little distraction and satisfy her now under-satisfied need to know everything about people. Especially intriguing people.
Something about this guy caused her nose for news to twitch like mad.
When she reached him, she extended her hand and gave him her friendliest smile. "Hi. I'm Liza Enders. I teach journalism."
He shook her hand, a firm grip. "Max McKenny, criminology."
That totally snagged her attention. "Really. I did the cop beat until I was promoted."
"That's a promotion? Getting away from cops?"
He smiled at last, and she was almost embarrassed by the way her heart skipped a beat. Such a good-looking man already had enough going for him without adding a devastating smile. Slightly shaggy dark hair with just a bit of wave to it, eyes the color of blue polar ice. Yummy. What was it he had just said? Oh, yeah
"It's considered one," she finally answered. "The cop beat is rough but not all that difficult in terms of gathering information, so it's usually given to the newest reporters. Most of us don't last long at it, though."
"Between the hours and the stories? Well, you teach criminology, but I also covered auto accidents."
"Oh." His smile faded a bit. "That would be rough."
"The average survival as a cop reporter is about two years," she agreed. Then it struck her: he was learning about her.
She cocked her head a little. Had she just been deflected? She didn't know many people who could do that, including crooked politicians with a lot to hide. "What about you? Law enforcement background?"
"Some," he said with a shrug. "No big deal."
"Well, your course will be popular. Seems like CSI made you a ready audience."
At that his smile returned to full wattage. "Not much reality there."
"No," she agreed. "Criminalists don't last too long on the job, either. Five years, is what some of them told me. So you were a criminalist?"
He shook his head. "Just law enforcement. I'm teaching mostly procedures and the law."
"Were you a beat cop?"
"I was on the streets, yes."
It seemed like a straightforward answer but Liza's instincts twitched again. "I always thought it would be rough to be a beat cop," she said by way of beginning a deeper probe. But just as she was framing her question he asked her one.
"So what do you get promoted to after the cop beat?"
She blinked. "Depends." Then she decided to open up a bit, hoping to get him to do the same. "I went to county government next."
"That must have been boring as hell."
"Far from it. Folks don't realize just how much impact local government has on their lives. Most of the decisions that affect an individual are made locally. Plus, it can be fun to watch."
"I can't imagine it."
"Only because you haven't done it. You see some real antics. But what about being on the beat? You must have had some nerve-racking experiences."
He shrugged one shoulder. "I had my share, I suppose. You know what they say, hours of sheer boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer terror."
"I can imagine. I bet you have some stories to tell," she suggested invitingly.
"Not really." He smiled again. "I was a lucky cop. You probably saw more bad stuff than I did."
"Well, most cops tell me they go their entire careers without ever having to draw a gun."
"That's actually true, thank God."
"So what made you change careers?"
He paused, studying her. "Reporters," he said finally, and chuckled quietly. "I'm taking a hiatus. Sometimes you need to step back for a while. You?"
God, he was almost good enough at eliciting information to be a reporter himself. No way she could ignore his question without being rude, and if she was rude she'd never learn his story.
"Laid off," she said baldly. "Didn't you hear? News is just an expense. Advertising is where the money is at."
"But " He hesitated. "I don't know a lot about your business, but if papers don't have news, who is going to buy them? And if no one buys them "
"Exactly. You got that exactly right. But the bean counters and the shareholders don't seem to get that part. Plus, they just keep cutting staff until every reporter is doing the work of three or four. No one cares that the quality goes down, and there's no real in-depth coverage."
"Blame it on a shortening national attention span."
"Cable news," she said.
"Thirty-second sound bites."
Suddenly they both laughed, and she decided he was likable, even if he was full of secrets. Secrets that she was going to get to the bottom of.
Although, she reminded herself, she couldn't really be sure he had secrets. It was just a feeling, and while her news sense didn't often mislead her, she might be rusty after six months. Maybe. She cast about quickly for a way to bring the conversation back to him. "Where did you work before and how did you get to this backwater?"
"I was in Michigan," he said easily. "Is this a backwater? I hadn't noticed."
She almost flushed. Was he chiding her for putting down her hometown? For an instant she thought he might not be at all likable, but before she could decide he asked her another question.
"How about you?" He tilted his head inquisitively. "What brought you here?"
"Two things. A job and the fact that I grew up here. I like this place."
"And before? Where did you work?"
"For a major daily in Florida." Damn, she was supposed to be the one asking.
"That's a big change in climate," he remarked. "I doubt I'll notice this winter as much as you will."
Before she could turn the conversation back to him, he looked away. "I'm being summoned. Nice meeting you, Ms. Enders."
"Liza," she said automatically as he started to move away.
"Max," he said over his shoulder and disappeared into the crowd.
Well, he didn't exactly disappear. A man like him couldn't disappear anywhere. Soon she saw him conversing with some other teachers.
He'd escaped her clutches without telling her anything at all. Darn. Either he was good at deflecting or he was just as curious as she was by nature.
She couldn't make up her mind.
When the crowd parted a bit, she could see his butt, a very nice butt, cased in denim. As a female, she couldn't help but respond to the sight. Eye candy indeed.
One of the other faculty members started yammering in her ear about the renewed effort to build a resort on Thunder Mountain and she reluctantly tore her gaze away.
Max wasn't handsome, she told herself as she listened politely to the man talk about the threat a resort would raise to the mountain's wolf pack.
She cared about wolves, she really did, and didn't want to see them driven away or killed.
But she couldn't forget Max McKenny. Even as she talked about wolves, he was the image burned in the forefront of her brain.
There was something there, a story of some kind. And she wanted to know what it was.
But when she looked around again, he had vanished from the room.
A deflector who was good at disappearing? Her instincts revved into high gear. Before she was done, she was going to know everything about Max McKenny.
She might have laughed at herself, but she knew exactly why she was reacting this way: training and instinct. It had been over six months since she'd had a story to follow. Max might be the most normal ex-cop on the planet, but that wasn't the point. The hunt for information was. She could hardly wait to get to her home computer.
"So will you help us?" Dexter Croft asked her. "With the petition drive?"
"I'll see what I can do," she agreed almost automatically. "But the ranchers aren't happy about those wolves, which means many of the other locals aren't, either."
"Those wolves don't get anywhere near the herds," he said irritably. "In fifteen years we've only had one confirmed wolf kill."
"I know, Dex," she said soothingly. "I know. But it's the idea we're fighting. That and the news from Montana and Idaho."
"Which is not all that bad."
"I guess that depends."
Dex drew himself up. "On what?"
"Whether you're a rancher who's running on a margin so slim one kill could cost you nearly everything."
"They get reimbursed for wolf kills."
She smothered a sigh. She wanted to save the wolves, yes, but you had to consider the other side of the story. Without cooperation from the ranchers one way or another, the wolves weren't going to make it. "I said I'd help, Dex. But maybe we need a better way to talk to the ranchers."
"We've been talking to them for years."
"Maybe the problem is we've been talking at them. I don't know. But I said I'd help."
She turned to scan the room again, but still no Max McKenny. She wished she knew what excuse he had used because she'd sure like to try it out herself. She hated this blasted tea.
Then she turned back to Dexter and fixed him with her inquisitorial look. "So, Dex, why are you devoted to saving the wolves?"
The question seemed to startle him and he blinked rapidly. "Because they're an important part of the ecology."
She nodded. "Very true. I know a lot of people who just like them because they look like puppies."
"That's absurd. They're not domestic dogs. You couldn't bring one home with you. But they improve the ecology."
"I know. I've read about it. I just wondered if there was some special reason you took up the cause."
"It's what's good for the environment, that's all."
Which told her she was now going to be badgered by Dex on every possible environmental issue. Inwardly she sighed. Ten years of training as a reporter had hardened her against taking sides. She could have been fired for taking sides even on her personal time.