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Her Montana Man
By Laurie Paie
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChelsea Kearns stripped the surgical gloves from her hands and tossed them in the Contaminated Waste Disposal bin. In the locker room she showered, then dressed in street clothing of khaki slacks and a cotton shirt of cool, mint green.
Once outside the hospital, which housed the county morgue, she breathed deeply several times before unlocking her car from the passenger side, opening both doors and letting the accumulated heat escape.
Here in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana just north of Yellowstone National Park, summers were usually pleasant - low eighties during the day, forties at night. The temperature on the digital display at the bank proclaimed the temperature to be ninety-three.
"This heat is terrible. It must be global warming," a passerby said to her companion as they strolled past Chelsea. "The government should do something."
"Maybe we'll have a thundershower later this afternoon," the companion said in a soothing voice.
The first woman grimaced. "Those only bring lightning and forest fires at this time of the year."
Chelsea sympathized with the ill-humored woman. She felt out of sorts herself. The bank clock indicated it was well past the noon hour on Wednesday, July third.
She'd eaten a quick breakfast at five-thirty, but she wasn't hungry. She never wasafter a morning spent in the morgue, doing her job as a medical examiner. The autopsy had disclosed information that was going to shock most people in the town of Rumor, located twenty miles from here.
Tossing her purse onto the passenger seat, she reluctantly followed it inside the hot car and started the engine. She turned the air conditioner on full blast and aimed the vents directly at her face.
Leaving Whitehorn, she followed the highway to the turnoff that would take her to Rumor, Montana, and the lakeside cottage where she would be staying for the next three weeks. This first week she had to work, but after that she had two solid weeks of vacation.
Ah, bliss. However, before the fun began she had bad news to report to the deputy sheriff in charge of the investigation. The autopsy she'd performed indicated murder, not suicide; although, the perpetrator had tried to make it look that way.
The absence of powder burns precluded a self-inflicted shot, or else the victim would have had to have held the weapon with her toes in order to inflict a wound in her left temple at a sufficient distance. Besides all that, the angle of entry of the projectile was all wrong for suicide.
Chelsea sighed. This was going to be a tough case. She could feel it in her bones. The trial, assuming they caught the guy who did it, would be time consuming. She'd have to come down from Billings, an hour's drive each way, and testify about her findings. The defense attorney would try to prove she didn't know what she was talking about.
She sighed again. There was also the complication of Pierce Dalton - successful businessman, mayor of Rumor where the murder had been committed, brother to her best friend, Kelly, and ... former lover.
Her life, which had seemed calm and sensible when she'd accepted the position as medical examiner in Billings, suddenly seemed complicated.
Maybe she should have stayed in Chicago. She'd been busy but lonely in the city, she admitted. And she'd missed the mountains. Had she also wanted to see Pierce again? She didn't have an answer for that.
Arriving in town, she slowed to the requisite thirty-five miles per hour for the short drive down Main Street, then turned right onto Blue Spruce Road and right again onto the lane that took her to a modern cottage set among towering evergreen trees next to a jewel of a lake.
With a deck built out at the edge of a tiny cove, the place was as enchanting as a scene in a fairy tale.
Grabbing her purse, which held her recorder and the notes dictated that morning, she went in and changed to shorts, a comfortable T-shirt and flipflops. On the deck, with a tall glass of iced tea and her handy laptop computer, she began her formal report.
Sometime later, the sound of tires on the gravel lane interrupted her concentration. She heard a car door slam, then silence. She waited until a knock sounded on the cabin door before calling out, "I'm on the deck."
A male figure appeared at the corner of the cabin. Dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, his stride long and assured, the visitor exuded power and authority.
She instantly recognized the sandy-blond hair and six-two frame of her long-ago lover. Pierce was a man with a commanding presence. She hadn't been surprised when Kelly had told her Pierce was now mayor of the town.
The jagged edge of remembered hurt plucked at her heart, a never-forgotten melody of love and wonder and, ultimately, rejection. Pierce had made it clear he was not a settling-down kind of man the last time she'd seen him.
"Hello, Pierce," she managed to say in a quiet manner.
Two years older than she was, at thirty-six he looked trim and fit, a prime male specimen with his blue eyes and handsome, somewhat rugged features. He'd always reminded her of the mountains - strong and solid and inspiring.
It had been eight years since she'd last seen him. They'd parted one stormy April night, two months before she graduated medical school. So many dreams ago.
He ignored the three steps and leaped to the deck in a single, graceful bound. "Chelsea," he said, acknowledging her greeting. He didn't smile.
So what had she expected - that he would gaze soulfully into her eyes and declare he'd never gotten over his love for her and that she must marry him at once so they could live happily ever after?
Dream on, she thought, and would have laughed had it been the least funny.
"You have a wonderful place over there," she said, indicating the resort, the lake and the idyllic setting.
He nodded, his mind obviously not on the scenery. "What did you find out?"
Blunt and to the point. She'd wondered how he would react to her being here - on his turf, so to speak - so now she knew. She could be all business, too.
Excerpted from Her Montana Man by Laurie Paie Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.