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Except for a couple of cars parked outside the town hall, the lot was empty, and it appeared the wolf biologist speaking here tonight wouldn't have much of an audience to lecture to.
The Oregon air surrounding him felt damp and cool, not like the drier, much sunnier weather Leidolf Wildhaven had left behind in Colorado. He kept telling himself he'd get used to it. Old-time brass lanterns cast a golden glow over the sidewalk. A steady breeze stirred the spring leaves of the massive white oaks that lined the brick walk leading to the two-story building. An antiquated clock chimed seven times in the center of the tower on top, announcing to everyone in the listening area that the time had arrived for the lecture to begin. He let out his breath and headed for the building.
Anything to do with wolves concerned him, and even though the "doctor" couldn't say anything that he didn't already know, he wanted to see how others reacted to her talk concerning them. At this rate, it looked as though no one was going to show.
He took two steps at a time up the brick stairs and strode into the building, his gaze focusing on the empty chairs and the speakerless podium.
Dressed in a gray suit, Millie Meekle, the woman in charge of tourism and special events in the area, rung her hands nearby and shook her head, her stiff, glued-together silver hair not moving a fraction out of place.
"Oh, Mr. Wildhaven, this is a disaster. Dr. Roux had a flat tire at the place she's staying, and my husband dropped me off here, so I haven't any vehicle to go get her." She waved at the empty seats. "And no one has even shown up yet."
"Where's she staying?"
Several men sauntered into the town hall, their boots tromping on the wooden floor, their expressions annoyed. "Where's the doc?" one of the men asked gruffly.
Millie quickly spoke up. "She's stuck at the Cranberry Top Bed and Breakfast. Mr. Wildhaven's kind enough to offer to get her. She's staying in the Blue Room, first door on the left down the hall from the entryway," she directed Leidolf.
The man snorted. "We don't need no damned wolf biologist telling us how we should reintroduce wolves into the wild out here."
"Now, Mr. Hollis," Millie said.
"Don't 'Now, Mr. Hollis' me, Millie. You know I raise sheep, and if any damn wolf slinks onto my land, I'll kill him dead. That's what I'll do."
"I'll go get her," Leidolf said. He stalked out of the building with its oppressive heat and back into the cool out-of-doors. He hadn't figured any of the livestock owners would bother to come to the meeting, but after seeing the burly men, he was afraid the professor was bound for trouble.
Climbing into his Humvee, he assumed the woman probably wouldn't get a whole lot of lecturing done but instead would be faced with a barrage of condemning remarks. He still couldn't figure out why in the world she'd come here instead of lecturing to a more intellectual crowd in the city of Portland, two hours away.
Putting the vehicle in drive, he headed to the Cranberry Top, a quaint little red-roofed home with white siding and a white picket fence. Like many of the homes in the area, the place had been turned into a bed-and-breakfast inn because it was situated on a creek perfect for fishing and picturesque Mount Hood could be seen way off in the distance. Great for a Portland getaway.
When Leidolf arrived at the inn, he saw the vehicle in question, a green pickup with California plates that was tilting to one side. Women. Probably didn't know how to change a tire or call for someone to come and fix a flat. He'd barely opened the door to his Humvee when a woman hurried out, red hair in curls down to her shoulders and bouncing with her every step, eyes sea green and wide and hopeful, brow furrowed as she clutched a leather satchel tightly against her chest and headed straight for him. Dr. Roux? At least he presumed that's who she was, only he'd expected someone a lot less leggy and less stunning to look at.
What he'd figured he'd see was a gray-haired older woman, her hair swept back in a bun, with oval gold rimmed glasses perched on her nose. Instead, this woman looked to be in her midtwenties and in terrific form, with shapely legs and a body to match. He envisioned her hiking through woods on wilderness treks to observe wolves, dispelling the notion that she was strictly a classroom lecturer.
"Dr. Roux?" he asked, feeling more like a knight in shining armor now.
She didn't smile but looked worried as hell as she chewed a glossy lip and then gave a stiff nod. "Did Millie send you for me?" She didn't wait for him to answer and motioned to the truck. "I changed the tire already." He frowned and glanced back at the flat tire.
"Someone was nice enough to ruin the spare also when I ran inside to clean up," she added, her tone peeved. "It was too late to have the spare fixed before the meeting."
Irritated that any of the townspeople would treat her that way, he bit back a curse. Yet he couldn't help being surprised for a second time. First, by her appearance. Now, by how capable the little woman was.
He motioned to his Humvee. "I'm Leidolf Wildhaven, rancher south of town. I'll take you to the meeting and have one of my men fix the tires while you're lecturing."
"A rancher," she said softly, her voice slightly condemning.
He cast her a smidgeon of a smile. "Yeah, but cougars are the only animals that bother me of late. Wolves? They're my kind of animal. Protective, loyal-you know, like a dog, man's best friend."
"They're wild, Mr.-"
"I'd prefer you call me Leidolf."
"I'm Cassie. Never met a rancher before who liked wolves." She sounded as though she didn't believe he would care for wolves. Maybe even worried that he might cause her trouble when she lectured.
She climbed into his vehicle, took a deep breath, and her eyes widened again. He swore if he hadn't blocked her in as he held the door ready to shut it for her, she would have escaped. He heard her slight intake of breath and her heartbeat accelerate. Her gaze swiftly swept over him as if he was suddenly someone of more importance. She swallowed hard and smoothed her skirt over her lap, drawing his eye, and then she pulled away from him as much as possible.
She took another deep breath and met his gaze. "Wolves are wild and unpredictable. But you're right. They're also protective and loyal. Thanks for coming to get me."
He smiled in response, appreciating that she was a wolf advocate yet understood wolves well enough to realize how dangerous they could be, and felt a slight connection to her right away. Before he could shut her door, she quickly added, "You... are taking me to the town hall, right?"
"Yeah. Millie Meekle said you needed a lift."
Cassie still looked a little alarmed when Leidolf climbed into the vehicle, and he supposed he could understand her wariness. Millie should have called to let Cassie know he was coming to get her.
"I never figured I'd have trouble out here." She snapped her seat belt in place and pressed herself against the passenger door, almost as if she was attempting to keep as far away from him as she could.
For someone who studied wolves, she seemed a tad skittish. Which made him wonder if she'd had trouble with men before. Instantly, that thought gnawed at him, no matter that he'd just met her.