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Cassie Ashton shaded her eyes with her hand and squinted up at a man dangling halfway down the face of a bluff, twenty feet off the ground. The guy in the climbing harness wore jeans, heavy boots, a long-sleeved blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a very familiar battered white Resistol hat.
She'd finally run her quarry to ground.
Grinning, she tipped her head back and watched as he braced one gloved hand on the rock and worked the ropes with the other. She waited until he'd secured his footing, then cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled: "Hey, Martinelli!"
The white hat dipped as he looked down, and even though he was too far up for her to hear it, his lips formed a coarse word she easily recognized. "What the hell do you want?" he shouted back.
"Gotta talk to you!"
"In case it's escaped your notice, Ashton, I'm kind of tied up at the moment."
She'd noticed, all right. The leather straps and ropes nicely framed the best, and the most arrogant, ass in all Wyoming.
"Whatever's in that rock has been there for over sixty million years, and it's not going anywhere now. What I have to talk to you about is important."
"Christ, couldn't you once call ahead for an appointment?" He twirled above her as he repositioned himself, muscles pulling at his cotton shirt, straining its seams. "You can't expect me to come running every time you snap your fingers."
As the voices of the crowd gathering behind her grew louder, she affected a look of bored amusement and made a show of gazing around the rocky, scrub-brush terrain of dinosaur-rich Como Bluff. "An appointment? What do you think you are, Martinelli? A dentist lounging around some posh office?"
"This is my office. Now go away, call my department, and leave me a message."
Which he wouldn't return. Cassie grinned. "I don't think so. Get your ass down here, Professor Martinelli, because I'm not going anywhere until we talk. And you know I mean it."
"Don, what the hell is she doing here? Why didn't someone stop her before she got this far?" he demanded.
"Sorry, Alex. The new kids on the crew don't know her," answered a familiar gravelly voice. "And I was busy working on that hadrosaur leg we found yes-
terday. I guess she slipped right past me....You want me to throw her in the creek? I'd really enjoy that."
"You're welcome to try it, Igor." Still smiling, Cassie didn't bother turning around to face Don Cleary, the wiry old man she'd teasingly nicknamed Igor because he was Martinelli's second banana.
Above her, Martinelli called, "That's a pleasure I'm reserving for myself, Don."
Before Cassie could retort, a young man's voice from behind her yelled cheerfully, "Hey, hey, everybody, look who's here...it's showtime!"
Fine; if they wanted entertainment, she'd give them something to remember. Something to match that night eight months ago in Medicine Bow when Martinelli had humiliated her in a bar full of people. And last year, and that October three years earlier...and it wasn't like she'd ever live down the acrimonious showdown that had started their feud five long years ago, either.
By now, their clashes were nearly legendary.
Smile widening into a grin, Cassie pretended not to hear the increasing catcalls, acting as if it didn't matter that her kind would never be welcome here.
"Come on, Martinelli. Are you just going to dangle up there, safely out of my reach, or come down here and face me like the big ol' manly man you are?"
She couldn't resist the "manly man" bit. With his half-supported stance against the rock emphasizing his lean, strong build, he looked like a poster boy for a wilderness outfitter advertisement.
For a moment Cassie thought Martinelli would refuse the challenge, but after another mouthed curse he began lowering himself, working the lines and pulleys with an expertise that came from years of climbing mountains and cliffs the world over, hunting fossils, looking for that elusive "big find" that would put his name in the history books.
Too bad for him that she'd just beat him to the finish line.
As he descended, Cassie couldn't help focusing once more on how the harness cradled his rear and groin over the worn denim of his jeans, revealing a most impressive package, front and back.
Mortal enemies they might be, but she could still appreciate what he had to offer a woman. It just wouldn't ever be her, not in a million years.
"Mmm-hmm, he is one hot bitch, all right," said a female voice in a soft, near-purring tone.
Cassie turned to see a woman who fit Martinelli's usual type -- mid-twenties, blond, leggy, and striking in an athletic, wholesome sort of way.
The woman smiled faintly when she met Cassie's eyes. "You have to admit he has a great ass."
Heck yeah. "I wouldn't know, as I don't have hands-on experience -- thank God. You do, I take it?"
The woman's smile elongated into a smirk. "And working on keeping it exclusively mine."
Ah...staking out territory. Another starry-eyed grad student, fallen to Martinelli's dark, dubious charms.
"It shouldn't take too much work." Cassie glanced upward. Damn; the harness really emphasized things that weren't meant to be emphasized in decent company. "He screws anything female that moves."
As if on cue, Martinelli unclipped the harness and hit the ground, puffs of dust rising from beneath the thick soles of his boots. "Not quite anything." He sent a pointed look at Cassie. "Even man-whores like me have standards."
Someone in the crowd made crowing noises, and another young man said in faux sportscaster voice: "Martinelli scores a point for the home team, and the crowd goes wild!" Scattered laughter followed.
Cassie smiled, since some perverse part of her actually enjoyed these little sparring matches with Martinelli.
She glanced at the dusty card table she was leaning against in her best nonchalant pose. It held a number of soil samples, fragmentary fossils, and what looked like ordinary rocks to the untrained eye. But she knew fossilized dinosaur dung when she saw it. In fact, just last week she'd sold a nice specimen to a sweet old lady from Coral Gables.
She counterattacked with the ammunition at hand. "This is some real nice shit you have here, Dr. Martinelli. Some of the finest I've ever seen. Congratulations on a job well done."
A woman laughed somewhere to Cassie's right, then added, "And the opposition bounces back to make a brutal hit. Ouch!"
Martinelli advanced, moving with the confidence of a man who looked good and knew it. He pulled off his Resistol, slapping it against his thigh to knock off the dust before he wiped the sweat from his face with his forearm, then quickly unbuttoned his sun-faded chambray shirt and stripped it off. Without looking away from Cassie, he grabbed a large bottle of water from the cooler by the table, twisted off the cap, then dumped the entire contents on his face and chest.
He had a lean, spare build, the sinews and tendons neatly outlined beneath sun-browned skin, and the water made tracks in the grit on his face, flattened the dusting of dark hair on his chest, and gleamed wetly along the hard lines of his chest, ribs, and belly.
Cassie almost laughed, knowing this show was all for her benefit, but the leggy blonde beside her mewled: "Oh. My. God."
"Please. Have some self-respect." She eyed the woman. "It's just a chest. A pretty ordinary chest."
The blonde raised a brow. "You can't be serious."
Cassie shrugged. "Take it from one who knows. I've been married, given birth...At this point, men and sex hold no mysteries or surprises."
"And isn't that just...sad." Martinelli pulled his shirt back on -- not that it made any real difference, since both skin and shirt were damp -- and locked his gaze with hers. "You're too young to be so cynical about men, Ashton."
"Not all men. Only players and posers."
"Ashton?" The blonde gasped, taking a step back as her eyes widened with sudden understanding -- and maybe awe as well. Or so Cassie liked to imagine. "Ohhhh...you're that commercial collector Alex told us about."
"Nothing flattering, I bet," Cassie said wryly, turning her attention back to Martinelli. "Was it?"
He flashed the grin that had probably broken legions of coed hearts and mucked up the academic careers of a few earnest graduate students as well. Then he settled his hat back on his dark hair, pushed his sunglasses up his nose to hide his eyes, and strode toward her, arms outstretched as if they were two old buddies about to embrace. "Cassie, Cassie."
Feeling the kick of her heartbeat, she raised her arms as well and ambled forward to meet him, smiling. "Alex, Alex."
"The players get into position," yelled a curly-haired grad student with a mustache. "And the crowd holds its breath in anticipation! Who will win this round of the Dinosaur Wars?"
Cassie allowed Alex to take her by the arms and position her at a safe distance from him. The palms of his hands were dry, rough, and warm against her bare skin.
"And how," he asked as he released her, "are you going to make my life hell today?"
Cassie shoved her hands into her back pockets. "You sure know how to make a girl feel special, Martinelli."
He gave her an unsubtle once-over, his gaze lingering on her breasts beneath her camouflage-print T-shirt. "What's with the G.I. Jane look? Going for a sneak attack? Didn't work, but it's a good look for you. Kind of cute."
To her eternal annoyance, she was doomed to be cute until she grew old and wrinkled -- and even then she might not escape it.
"Martinelli, I'm cute like a rattler is cute."
"And match point to the little lady in the tight camouflage shirt and even tighter jeans."
Cassie glanced over her shoulder at the bearded, bespectacled young man who'd spoken. He was covered in dust and dirt, good-looking, and grinning, his gaze frankly appreciative. She arched a brow at him, then patted her behind. "Kiss this, honey."
"Can I?" Spectacles eagerly moved forward, only to be brought short by Cleary's hand on his shoulder.
"Don't," Cleary intoned. "You'll catch something."
"Lame, Igor." Cassie grinned. The older man always tried to draw blood, but he really didn't have it in him to do so.
Ordinarily she'd have played out the game a little longer, but she was impatient to deliver her news and see the look on Martinelli's face. "It's been fun, as always, but showtime is over, kids."
She seized Martinelli's belt buckle -- a calculated familiarity to piss him off and give the blonde fits -- and hauled him a short distance away. "I have news...and it stays between you and me. I mean it. I don't want even a single word of what I'm about to say shared with anybody else."
Martinelli knocked her hand aside, then shifted to put the sun behind him -- so it shone directly in her eyes and obscured his face. The bastard wasn't above a low trick or two.
"It's something big," he said.
At the guarded, tired tone of his voice, a faint discomfort prickled over her, but she shook it off. "Oh, yeah. Hugely big, and I want you to see it. You were my first choice to verify it, Martinelli. As always."
"Because that way you can twist the knife just that much more." He stepped closer, then leaned down until they were almost face-to-face. He smelled like wind and earth and wholly male. "Not interested."
Cassie smiled, unperturbed by the crackling intensity of his hostility. "You might want to wait until you hear what I've found." She inched closer until she could feel the heat radiating off his body, glanced around to make sure no one else was within hearing distance, then lowered her voice. "I had a tour group digging at a private ranch up toward Thermopolis, at what used to be an old riverbed. We found an infant rex, Martinelli. I think it's nearly intact...and you damn well know what this means."
His face went slack in shock. A second later his jaw tightened, muscles working beneath the dark beard stubble, and she could imagine the emotions in the eyes behind those sunglasses: anger, envy, regret, longing.
After a moment, she said quietly, "You want to talk about this or not?"
He gave a short, taut nod.
"I thought so. No way would you pass up a chance to study this animal and write it up. It's what you live for, isn't it?" He didn't respond, and after a moment she added, "I'll meet you at the Dip Bar tonight. Eight o'clock. I'd come earlier, but my ex is picking up my kid for a visit and I need to be there."
"I bet he's looking forward to another round of emasculation by Ashton."
His flat, unflattering comment stung, but Cassie flashed him her sweetest smile. "No doubt. So you'll be at Dip's, right?"
"I'll be there."
"Alone and sober?"
"Not if I can help it," he said with feeling.
"Either way, I'm sure we'll find common negotiating grounds. Bye, Dr. Martinelli. Have a nice day...and I hope you find something interesting up there in that old slab of rock."
Flushed with triumph, she walked away, aware of his furious stare boring a hole in her back -- and an almost physical tendril of dislike followed her as she passed his crew, curling around her as she headed back to her truck.
Once she was a safe distance away, Cassie stopped and glanced back at the familiar, ragged line of Como Bluff, sloping up toward a blue, cloudless sky. She could clearly see Martinelli's excavation tucked within a weathered ravine, and listened to the familiar sounds of pickaxes on rock, shovels slicing into hard earth, voices and laughter, and the low rumble of an engine. His crew had returned to business as usual, ducking beneath protective tarps or hunkering to the ground under the harsh sun, sweat gleaming on muscles and skin as they dug and crawled amid the rocks and dirt.
The sight filled her with equal senses of longing and regret. They were always like that, these mixed feelings that followed her clashes with Martinelli. Why, she couldn't say.
But when she inserted her key in the ignition, her hands were shaking so bad that it took her three tries to get it right.
Copyright © 2005 by Michele Albert