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Mike Windwalker, D.V.M., came home early from work, pulling into his driveway in his battered brown van, practically a veterinary clinic on wheels. It had been a busy but short day, allowing him to leave his assistants in charge of the kennels and point himself toward a relaxing late afternoon and evening.
A well-earned bit of relaxation, considering he rarely enjoyed a day off. Not that he minded his workload. In fact he loved it because it gave him scant time to think about all the things missing in his life. And the animals he spent his time with, if not all of their owners, didn't give a damn that he was a "redskin," a full-blooded Cheyenne, an escapee from the rez.
He climbed out of the van, feeling a little stiff from an unusual encounter that morning with a bovine. The animal had been half insane but worth enough money that the rancher wanted to be sure there wasn't some treatment for the steer. In the process, he'd been kicked, although not too badly, nearly bittenthank God he'd dodged that oneand had wrestled with twelve hundred pounds of maddened muscle while trying to get a blood sample.
He'd guessed it was rabies to begin with, but the rancher had been insistent. In the end, however, he'd simply had to put the animal down, over strenuous objections, with the flat statement that he wasn't going to risk his own life or anyone else's when the diagnosis was damn near written all over the steer.
He'd left with the body of the steer and dropped it off in his cooler so that tomorrow he could remove the brain and spinal cord to send to the state lab.
Fun day, stubborn client, and now he ached all over. Yet he still felt a lot of sympathy for the rancher, who, like most in his business, was running on a margin so small that losing one steer, just one, could be a terrifying prospect.
The only thing that had made the guy stand back and let Mike put the animal down was the possibility that if he kept that steer around, he might wind up with a sick herdthe only catastrophe worse than losing a single animal.
Mike tossed his head, causing his inky hair to fall back from his face. Despite local opinions about Native Americans, he defiantly wore his hair long. Let 'em stare. His heritage was stamped on his face, and his hair was the crowning glory. Usually he tied it back with a beaded band, but today when he left work, he'd discarded the band. His scalp was grateful.
"Hi, Dr. Windwalker!"
The light, youthful voice called to him from the house next door, and he turned to see Colleen Carmody sitting in her wheelchair on the large front porch. The Carmodys had moved in a little over a month ago, and he'd shared a few brief conversations with thirteen-year-old Colleen, who was incurably cheerful and friendly. He'd even spoken to her mother Delia, or Del, a few times, but he tried to keep the contact to a minimum. He didn't want any trouble, and he certainly didn't want to cause any to the Carmodys. He knew his place; it had been beaten into him.
"You're home early," Colleen said with a wide, welcoming smile.
He couldn't be rude to that girl, not for anybody's sake. From inside the house he heard a banging, indicating that Colleen's mother was busy at the restoration work she did to support herself and her daughter. "Yeah," he replied, without approaching. "And I need it. I had a hard morning."
"What happened?" Colleen asked.
"A very sick steer would have liked to kill me. I didn't let him, but he almost won the fight."
The girl giggled, a delightful sound, and rolled her chair across the porch so she was a little closer. Her red hair caught some of the spring sunlight that filtered through the leaves before it crept under the porch roof, and flamed. "You don't look like you did so bad."
"That's because my bruises are under my pants. I figure I'll look like a piece of modern art in a day or two."
Another giggle answered him. "How's your day been?" he asked. Nope, no way could he be rude to that child.
He watched, feeling a twinge of concern as he saw the girl's smile vanish. "Colleen?" Something must be wrong.
"It's nothing," the girl said. "I just don't like this house."
She hesitated, then said in a rush, "I feel like there's something else in there. I hear things. It's creepy!"
He looked from her to the two-story, clapboard house, and the blank eyes of the windows. Old house. Plenty of rot, no doubt, and maybe raccoons or mice. But something else Some feeling he tried to shove away, because at least around here he had to be one hundred percent a man of science and bury instincts honed throughout his youth by people who believed in spirits and the sentience of even the very rocks.
"Rats?" he suggested. "Raccoons?"
"Mom checked. That's what she thinks it is."
He nodded, his gaze returning to the child. "She's probably right. But you don't think so?"
Colleen shrugged. "She didn't find anything."
"Ah." He tried a small smile. "Then maybe some mice got into the walls. They can be so hard to find once they do that."
"Yeah. That's what Mom said, too." Colleen gave another small shrug, seeming a bit embarrassed now. "I know she's probably right, but it's creepy anyway. Especially late at night."
"That would creep me out, too," he said sympathetically, letting his barriers down just a shade. "Scratching and banging from something you can't see Nah, I wouldn't like that either."
That elicited a smile from Colleen. "You're kinda okay, Dr. Windwalker."
"Just call me Mike." He was about to say goodbye and head into his own house when the screen door behind Colleen squeaked open and a woman poked her head out.
"Colleen? Did you call me?" Then, as she saw Mike, "Oh! Hi, Dr. Windwalker."
"Just Mike." He felt nearly embarrassed that he'd kept such a distance since they moved in that they didn't even feel free to call him by his first name. Of course, he was only protecting himself and them.
Del Carmody stepped out onto the porch with a smile. And once again he felt the impact of her beauty. Black Irish to the bone, she didn't have her daughter's flaming hair but instead hair much like his, the color of a raven's wing, only shinier and finer. The impact was heightened by intense blue eyes and milky Irish skin. Right now she looked a little dusty, but that didn't detract one iota from a body that even in jeans and a loose work shirt sans sleeves showed a perfect shape, the kind of shape only a woman could achieve from hard physical labor. The kind of shape that had always drawn him, more muscular than average but still curved in all the right ways. And that smile of hers.
Things he really shouldn't notice. Couldn't afford to notice. But he saw them all anyway.
"Mike," she acknowledged, still smiling. "Didn't mean to interrupt you guys, but I heard Colleen's voice and wondered if she needed something."
"I was just telling Doctor I mean Mike, about the mice in the house."
"The noises." Del nodded, looking at her daughter with a flicker of concern. Clearly she cared that her daughter was frightened, even if the explanation had to be utterly benign. A loving mother.
"Mice in the walls can be a beast to get rid of," he volunteered.
"Tell me about it," Del said. She came farther onto the porch and leaned against the railing. "That's where they must be because I can't find any sign of them in the attic. I just hope I can get rid of them before one dies inside a wall."
"That'll make the place uninhabitable for a while," he agreed. He felt awkward, standing so far away in his driveway, knowing the neighborly thing would be to approach. But he didn't approach white folks readily anymore. Hadn't since he was eighteen. If they came to him in a friendly fashion, fine. But he never made the first overture. And this situation, with a widow and her daughter, could cause exactly the kind of mess he'd been avoiding his entire adult life.
Awkward to stand at a distance, even more awkward to just walk away. Needless rudeness did him no favors, but then neither did unwanted friendliness. He'd given up sighing over reality years ago, though. The West was the West, and people here still harbored old hatreds.
He didn't feel sorry for himself. Others, he believed, had it far worse. But he was well aware that he was always on a tightrope, at least in this part of the country. It hadn't been so bad back east where he'd gone to veterinary school, but here memories were long. On both sides, if he were to be honest about it.
"I hope that all my sawing and banging isn't driving you nuts," Del said.
He allowed himself a faint smile. "Not at all. I'm usually at work during the hours you're banging away. How's it going?"
"Well, the place was in worse shape than I guessed when I looked it over before I bought it. A lot of hidden problems. But it's coming along."
"A lot of rot?"
Her blue eyes met his openly, tired but smiling. "Oh, of course. Worse than I anticipated. When I started pulling out the old plaster, I found some of the studs were in pretty bad shape, and the lath behind the plaster isn't so great either."
"It's a shame you have to replace the plaster at all."
"I know." She turned toward him, facing him. An open posture. "They don't build them like that anymore. It's killing me to have to put in drywall, but plastering would be a bigger headache than I want to buy, especially since I may have to replace all of it. I guess the roof must have leaked into the walls at some point, for a long time." She looked back at the house and then smiled at him. "This job is always an adventure."
"So's Mike's," Colleen offered. "A steer tried to kill him."
Del's eyebrows, perfectly arched, lifted. "Why in the world would a steer do that?"
"I'm pretty sure he was rabid. He got in a few kicks, but I dodged well enough that the damage is minor."
Colleen giggled. "He said he's going to look like modern art."
Del's smile widened and she chuckled. "Ouch. There are days that leave me looking that way, too."
He turned his mind away from inevitable thoughts about what might lie under her clothing, bruised and unbruised.
"How would a steer become rabid?" Del asked.
"The same way you or I could. A bite from an infected animal. I'll look for the marks when I start the necropsy tomorrow, but it could have been anything from a raccoon to a wolf."
Colleen spoke. "I bet the rancher thinks it was a wolf. They hate the wolves."
"Yes, they do." And entirely too much so, though Mike could understand their reasoning. For his own part, he prized the return of wolves to the area, both culturally and scientifically. "But it could have been something else. A rabid animal will bite just about anything regardless of size. And it's my job to find out."
"I hope it was a bat or something else," Colleen said. "I like wolves."
"I do, too." Really. Because if he found a wolf bite on the animal, there might well be other infected wolves, and the hunt would begin. Considering that as near as anyone could tell there was still only a single pack on Thunder Mountain, that would be a tragedy, both for the wolves and the ecology.
Del straightened a bit. "You must be tired," she said to him. "Don't let us keep you in your driveway."
She smiled, but instead of feeling grateful for her concern, he felt dismissed. "Thanks," he said, trying to keep a pleasant tone. "Nice chatting." Then he turned and started toward his door.
And on his back he could feel the eyes of two white women, forbidden territory.
Del watched Mike Windwalker stride away to his door, thinking he was an extremely attractive man, from his face to those narrow hips cased in worn denim. And she liked the coppery color of his skin, such a contrast to her own ghastly paleness. All her life she wished she could tan rather than freckle. Ah, well, she wasn't in the market for a man, any man.
Then she looked down at her daughter. "You getting hungry?"
"Could be." Colleen grinned.
"Um " Colleen pretended to think it over. "Just teensy hungry right now. Big hungry comes later."
"Fair enough." She reached for the grips on the back of the wheelchair and heard an immediate protest.
"Mom! I can do it myself."
Del had to smile. Colleen's independence and upbeat attitude always made her smile except when it made her cry for what her daughter had lost. "Okay, okay. I'll just get the door."
"I want chips!"
"Sheesh, Mom, I have a growing brain. I need the fat."
"I learned it in biology."
"You learn too much in biology."
In the kitchen, which was still awaiting renovations, the dust layered everything. No way to avoid it at this stage of restoration, so Del grabbed a wet rag and wiped down just enough of it to feed her daughter some pretzels without all the plaster dust. In other parts of the house, near open windows, big fans tried to suck dust out of the house. They helped but not entirely. Just as the plastic she hung over the door to the kitchen didn't completely prevent the dust from getting in.
As she was wiping around the sink, she noticed the window beside it was unlocked. She paused, wondering how that had happened. She never opened the windows in here because she didn't want to create a draft that would suck the dust in around the edges of the plastic.
Damn, she couldn't remember. For all she knew it had been unlocked for weeks or more. She might have done it in the way she did so many things, while thinking of something else. Except, she wouldn't have closed it without locking it again, would she?
Hell. As forgetful as she seemed to be getting lately, it was silly even to wonder about it. Maybe one of the workmen or deliverymen had opened it briefly.
Sighing, she reached out to flip the lock closed.
"What do you want to drink?" she asked after she'd put a couple of large pretzels on a plate.
Del faced her daughter. "You do this to drive me crazy, right?"
Colleen giggled. "No." But the way she giggled had given lie to her denial.
Del laughed herself. "You know what's in the fridge."
"Yeah. Darn it. Wouldn't you know I'd have a health freak for a mom?"
"Such a curse." But Del couldn't help feeling a pang. Her daughter wanted the same simple things every other kid her age wanted. Having to take extra care about her weight because her activities were limited only made it harder for both of them. "Okay," she said.