Tainted Gold

Tainted Gold

by Lynn Michaels

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Appearances can be deceiving…

Quillen McCain’s anger is hot enough to burn down every tree on her twelve acres of wooded property. She may be a poor freelance artist, but no amount of wealthy businessman Desmond Cassil’s money—or his thinly veiled threats—will make her sell this land.

It’s not only the

…  See more details below


Appearances can be deceiving…

Quillen McCain’s anger is hot enough to burn down every tree on her twelve acres of wooded property. She may be a poor freelance artist, but no amount of wealthy businessman Desmond Cassil’s money—or his thinly veiled threats—will make her sell this land.

It’s not only the home of the annual Cassil Springs Renaissance Festival, it’s sacred ground. The place her father died while mining for gold. The only way Cassil will build an amusement park on it will be to pry the deed out of her cold, dead hand.

She’s still fuming when handsome fellow Ren player and geologist, Tucker Ferris, catches her eye. Then as the tenants of her Victorian home—her only source of steady income—begin bailing, Tucker becomes an ally. And when a suspicious accident lands her in the hospital, he captures her heart.

As they race to discover just how far Cassil will go to get what he wants, Quillen and Tucker’s relationship is threatened by a series of cold, ground-shaking truths. Forcing them both to realize just how much they stand to lose.

This book has been previously published.

Warning: This book contains a stubborn heroine, a handsome hero who’s more than a pretty face, and enough twists and turns to count as an amusement park ride!

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Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
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Chapter One

Almost as much as she loved the money the Renaissance Committee paid her to lease the twelve wooded acres she owned outside Cassil Springs, Colorado, Quillen McCain loved performing in the festival every autumn. She never said so, though. To anyone who'd listen, she'd complain about the time she lost away from her drawing board. When asked why, then, did she troop through the crowds every fall in the guise of a roving tale teller, she answered that as landlord she felt duty-bound to keep an eye on things.

The truth, however--which she'd sooner die on the rack than admit--was that the six weekends of the Cassil Springs Renaissance Festival were the high point in her otherwise colorless life.

Sitting behind the wheel of her bronze, scaled-down Chevy Blazer, munching on an Egg McMuffin as she stared through the windshield at the ticket seller's booth near the rough-hewn, wooden front gates of the festival grounds, she thought how ironic it was--an artist with a colorless life. Yet, she reflected, wasn't all irony based on truth--or was it that all truth was based on irony?

Oh, well, who cared. The simple fact of the matter was that her life was about as exciting as a stale peanut butter sandwich. She truly loved her work; she'd just never been able to figure out how to find time to illustrate science fiction and fantasy book covers and have a life, too. But someday, she promised herself for the zillionth time, someday my work will be famous and I won't have to slave over my drawing board eighteen hours a day.

And then what? asked the morose little voice which occasionally made itself heard from the deeper recesses of her psyche.Who are you going to find to share your fame and wealth with in Cassil Springs, for heaven's sake?

"Fear not," she replied with cheerfully forced confidence. "Someday my prince will come--I hope," she added under her breath as she wiped her mouth with a paper napkin, crumpled it and then cranked the rearview mirror toward her.

She brushed English muffin crumbs from the white linen front of her hand-sewn blouse, then turned her head from side to side to make sure the mauve and lavender velvet ribbons she'd French-braided into her shoulder-length ash blond hair hadn't worked loose. As she smoothed the amethyst-tinted shadow highlighting her green eyes and fluffed the lace jabot at her throat, she made a mental note to steer clear of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Last year they'd given her hell about her jabot. It's seventeenth century, not fifteenth, they'd scolded. Artistic license, she'd replied loftily, and though this year she'd armed herself with memorized, anachronistic passages from Shakespeare to defend her costume if necessary, she wasn't anxious to repeat the scene.

She tugged her keys out of the ignition and tucked them inside the magenta velvet pouch knotted into the braided belt that matched her hair ribbons. She picked up her cloak from the passenger seat, slid out of the truck, and locked the door. The autumn-dried grass crackled beneath the soles of her fawn-colored suede boots as she flung her green velvet cloak over her shoulders and started toward the gates. She'd need the cape until midmorning when the sun would finally clear the ring of encircling mountains and burn through the shroud of mist enveloping their blue-gray shapes. Then she'd roll it and tie it into a bundle by the strings presently securing it at her throat, and for the rest of the day use it as a pillow to cushion her back whenever she settled down beside a tree to tell a tale.

About twenty yards shy of the shaggy-barked, wooden stockade enclosing the grounds, Quillen joined the thin trickle of early-arriving performers making their way toward the gates. This was the first morning of the festival, and she said hello to those she knew and waved to the others as she tugged her open-laced, black velvet vest over the waistband of her skirt.

"Hey, Quill!" a familiar, deep bass voice called behind her.

Turning around, she saw Cal Wilson trotting toward her, his brown leather over-the-knee boots stirring plumes of dun-colored dust in the brittle, half-dead grass. All six feet and four brawny inches of him were clad in hunter green tights and jerkin, and he slung his bow and quiver over opposite shoulders as he came up beside her.

Alas, he was not a potential prince. Good-looking enough, yes, with his chiseled features and brown eyes, but they'd known each other too long to ever be anything but friends. Familiarity, Quillen often thought, bred apathy.

"Glad I caught you," he said, tugging his peaked, long-feathered cap over his blond head. "I tried to call you last night, but you weren't home."

"Yes, I was," she confessed, lengthening her strides to keep up with him as they turned toward the gates. "But I unplugged the phone."

"That's what I figured," he replied with a frown, "and so did my crafty old boss. He said in the office yesterday that he's coming out here today to talk to you, that you've hung up on him and slammed the door in his face for the last time."

"He told you that?" Quillen asked, her heavy, multicolored brocade skirts sweeping around her knees as she pivoted sharply to face him.

"No," Cal admitted with a grin. "I overheard him talking to some guy on the phone. He said he wasn't going to take no for an answer."

"Well, he'd better," she said staunchly, wheeling away from him and marching purposefully toward the gates, "because I am not selling this property to Desmond Cassil--ever--no matter how much money he offers me."

"Why not, Quill?" Cal asked as he caught up with her. "All you've talked about for years is moving to New York. If you'd sell, you'd have enough money to go."

Quillen came to an abrupt halt. "Whose side are you on, anyway?" she demanded, her hands on her hips as she half-turned and glared up at his boyish face.

"Yours, of course," he assured her, his thick, fair eyebrows knotting over the bridge of his nose. "I just don't understand you, that's all. Since high school all you've talked about is New York, New York, New York--"

"Listen, Cal," she interrupted firmly. "At this point in my career, I'd starve to death in New York. I prefer to stay here and starve among friends rather than among strangers in the Big Apple."

"But if you sell--"

"To Desmond Cassil!" she cried, her eyes widening and flashing angrily. "And have my father and my grandfather come back from their graves to haunt me? No, thanks!"

"Okay, okay," he said, backing away from her. "Just thought I'd warn you, that's all."

"Well, thanks for that," she answered, regretting her temper flare and sidling away from him almost sheepishly. "See you later, maybe."

"Sure, Quill." He sighed with an offhand shrug and strode past her.

That's one reason he's never made prince material, Quillen thought, lagging behind and watching him shake his head. At the first glimpse other notoriously Irish temper, he made a quick exit. Too bad Cassil isn't so easily deterred, she thought, frowning, as she trailed her friend through the open gates and into the hay-strewn festival grounds. She'd thrown enough angry tantrums in the last two weeks to drive away a dozen Cals, but still his employer persisted.

The early morning shadows beneath the soaring blue spruce and autumn-flamed deciduous trees were deep and chilly, and Quillen hugged her cloak tighter as she passed craft booths and clusters of performers in the Guildmaster's Glen and made her way toward the sunny and warmer Thieves' Market. She shivered a little, not from cold, but from dread at the thought of another scene with Desmond Cassil who, in addition to owning Cassil Construction, the company Cal worked for, was president of Cassil Springs National Bank and mayor of the town his family had founded a little over a hundred years ago. She tramped angrily across the wooden footbridge which spanned the creek that bisected her land, and she bowed her head as she balled her fists inside the folds other cloak.

"What do I have to do?" she wondered out loud. "Paint Cassil a twenty-by-twenty-foot sign that says NO in giant black letters?"

"You could try that," he answered, "but I'd probably ignore it just as I have your refusals so far."

Instantly Quillen's chin came up and she stopped a scant three feet from the far side of the bridge and Desmond Cassil. His smile, as artificial and ever-present as his year-round tan and expertly styled steel gray toupee, made her grit her teeth and whirl around to retrace her steps.

"Oh, come now, Quillen," he chided smoothly, "let's have our little scene and get it over with."

"I have only one thing to say to you," she responded, pausing and shooting him an icy glare over her shoulder. "No."

His smile widened and she clenched her teeth tighter. Once, just once, she wished she could say or do something that would wipe that perpetual smile off his face. It irritated her as much as the impeccably tailored tweed sport coats, designer slacks, and monogrammed turtlenecks he always wore. She stamped her right foot on the dusty planks of the bridge to quell the urge she felt to kick dirt in his face.

"How can you say no," he said, tucking his hand inside his jacket as he came toward her, "when you have yet to see my latest offer?"

"I don't care how many zeros you've added to the check," she told him coldly. "My answer is still no."

As she'd anticipated, he produced a check, written in his broad, scrawled hand, from his inside pocket. He held it out to her and she retreated two steps.

"It's for one hundred thousand dollars, Quillen."

"I can read," she snapped. "And this is the last time I'll tell you what you can do with your money."

"But think what you can do with it," he replied, waving the check slowly from side to side. "No more tenants in your Grandmother Elliot's house, no more painting into the wee hours--"

"And no more Renaissance Festival," she finished acidly. "Just a cheap, trashy amusement park that wouldn't raise cent one for the pediatric burn unit at the Cassil Springs Hospital, that would just line your pockets with money you don't need."

"That's progress, Quillen."

"That's greed," she countered bluntly. "And as far as I'm concerned, you've made your last buck off the McCain family."

"Still grinding that ax, are you?" he asked, his smile dipping sympathetically. "I had no choice, my dear. As president of the bank, I was forced to bow to the wishes of the other officers, who felt I'd been too lenient too long. Your father hadn't made a payment on the second mortgages he took out on his lumber business and your Grandfather McCain's mansion in three months--"

"Oh, yes, tell me what a great humanitarian you are, Mr. Trying-to-Be-Reelected Mayor," she retorted sarcastically. "I wonder what the townspeople would say if I showed up at your rally Wednesday night and told them you're trying to jerk this property out from under the Renaissance Committee."

"I'm sure they'd agree with me that you're blocking what would be a very lucrative step forward for our community. The jobs my proposed Gold Rush Days theme park will provide will last for six months every year, Quillen, not just six weeks. Please." His smile curved slyly. "Attend the rally as my special guest and let's bring it before the people."

"Get off my land," she told him tightly, her clenched jaws beginning to ache from the effort of keeping her anger in check.

"A hundred thousand dollars," he repeated, waving the check closer.

That was it. Her temper erupted and she snatched the check away from him. With quick, furious tears, she shredded it in little pieces and tossed a handful of confetti into the air. A scrap or two caught on his brown tweed lapels and she smiled, immensely satisfied, as she watched his smug smile change to a tight-lipped glower.

"Money isn't my only resource," he told her, his voice no longer smooth but rough with anger. "There are other methods of persuasion available."

"Such as?" she taunted, drawing her cloak tighter. "My grandmother's house is mine free and clear. So is this land, and as long as I live, you'll never get your hands on either one of them."

"All right, if that's the way you want it," he said curtly, flicking shreds of paper off his jacket as he turned sharply on his heel.

Her knees trembling, Quillen watched him stride up the bank. A halfhearted breath of wind rustled the pine boughs overhanging the bridge and lifted a section of his toupee. She had a brief glimpse of his pale, freckled scalp before he batted it down and turned right onto a path which led back to the gates.

With a gleeful, under-her-breath cackle, Quillen moistened the tip of her index finger on her tongue and drew an imaginary mark in the air. Score one for the underdog, she congratulated herself. She'd finally done it; she'd finally bested Cassil.

Her foe vanquished--for the time being at least--she tripped lightly off the bridge and whistled her way through the Thieves' Market, a semicircle of craft booths and eateries ringing the gently upsloping hillside. Multicolored triangular flags lifted in the breeze, and pale gray smoke, charcoal-scented, drifted across the straw-colored grass from the direction of the closest brazier, where turkey legs were roasted by the gross.

That was for you. Dad, and you, Mother, she thought as she savored a mental replay of her scene with Cassil. Her mind slid backward in time to the morning he'd evicted them from Granddad McCain's house. She'd been only seven years old, but she remembered being angry, even though she'd hated the old American Gothic horror her grandfather had built with the lumber fortune he had made before he contracted his fatal case of gold fever. Unfortunately, he had transmitted the disease to his son, who'd mortgaged everything except these twelve acres surrounding the McCain claim to finance his fruitless search for the gold vein his father never found.

"It's there, Quillen, I can feel it," her father had told her that morning as he'd helped her pack her dolls. "Someday I'm going to find it, honey, and it'll be your legacy."

With the cardboard box of toys in one hand and Quillen in the other, he'd led her out of the house, then past Desmond Cassil, who had his own hair then, thin and sparse though it was. His face was clearly fixed in her memory, and it was the pleasure, the sheer joy of taking she'd seen there, that was the only focus she'd ever been able to find for her anger.

Since that day twenty years ago she'd despised Cassil, not because he'd hurt her, but because he'd taken everything away from her parents except their dignity. How they'd managed to hang on to that between having to move into the big, white Victorian house in town with Grandma Elliot and listening to the whispers about her father, poor Jeff McCain, who hadn't been quite right in the head since that shell almost got him at Anzio, Quillen still couldn't understand.

For six years she'd fought every kid in school and in the neighborhood who said her father was crazy. In ninth grade, however, when she realized there was no gold in the mine, that there never had been and never would be, it occurred to her that her peers could be right. In tears then, she'd gone to her mother, who told her that her father wasn't crazy, he just had a dream.

A dream that had killed him when a shaft in the mine caved in ten years ago. Her mother, losing her own will to live, died soon after. She and Grandma Elliot had converted her house into six apartments, and they had lived there very nicely while Quillen commuted to Colorado Springs and studied for a degree in art. Quillen lived there still, and Grandma Elliot was buried with her parents and Granddad McCain in the private cemetery tucked in the gentle hills behind the mine.

Quillen remembered Cassil's offer to either move the graves or guarantee their sanctity, and a smirk puckered her mouth as she wandered through the shady, sun-dappled lane that connected the Thieves' Market and the Gypsy Camp. She'd never yet seen a bulldozer, or a money-hungry businessman for that matter, who understood or respected a word like sanctity and a simple, straightforward declaration like, "This is all I have left of my family, why can't you leave me alone with it?"

A tinny bong startled her out of her thoughts, and she looked up to see that she was standing in the midst of the brightly painted caravans that lined the boundaries of the Gypsy Camp. Quillen winced as a ray of sunlight glanced off a swinging, dented brass gong hung from the lowest branch of a scrawny jack pine. The tree grew near the mouth of the Wizard's Cave, which was no more a cave than the white-bearded, gray-robed old man striking the gong a second time was a wizard.

The dark gash in the flank of the quartz-riddled, granite hill (which in any other state would probably be called a mountain) was the entrance to her grandfather's mine. The identity of the sorcerer, however, was unknown to her. He was a new performer this year, one Quillen hadn't met at the orientation meetings. As she moved closer with the people who were taking seats on the hay bales placed in a half-circle before the black iron cauldron suspended over a low, stone-ringed fire, she decided that he had to be seventy-five years old if he was a day--or a top-notch makeup artist. Curious, she raised and rested her right knee on a bale in the back row and watched the wizard as he struck the gong a third time and moved toward the cauldron.

"Greetings to you all!" he called in a strong, vibrant voice. "I am Realgar, student of the great Merlin and inheritor of the secrets of the ancient Druids. I will this morn, for your edification and amazement, show you such wonders and feats of magic as have been deemed safe for the mortal eye to behold!"

Pausing, he bowed humbly, and Quillen grinned. Oh, that's great, she thought, a medieval necromancer with a Wizard of Oz delivery. He straightened and raised his arms above his head, and his belled sleeves slid back to his elbows. Makeup, definitely makeup, she decided, as the well-defined muscles in his bracelet-clasped forearms flexed.

For the next five minutes she watched him create glittery flame and colored smoke with flash powder flung on the low flame beneath the cauldron, and perform tricks with lengths of rope and interlocking gold rings. He wasn't a half-bad magician, and the tongue-in-cheek banter he kept up while he performed was remarkably informative. This guy, Quillen concluded, as she listened to his brief description of the methods used by medieval alchemists to turn lead into gold, has done his homework.

She watched for another five minutes, then reluctantly turned away. As enjoyable as his performance was, it was time she got on with her own, but she'd moved no more than three steps from the bale when the wizard's voice stopped her in her tracks.

"You! Young woman in the green cloak!"

Oh, no, Quillen groaned silently as she pivoted to face him. "I, my lord?" she asked, bobbing a timorous curtsy.

"Yes, yes, you," he replied, and beckoned her with an impatient wave. "Come forward."

Oh, well, she thought with a resigned sigh as she started toward him. This couldn't be any worse than the knife-throwing act she'd been shanghaied into the year before--as the target, of course--or the troupe of jugglers who'd nabbed her out of a crowd the year before that to hurl tenpins past her head.

Fussing with her skirts and feigning a fearful, wary posture, Quillen made her way to the front of the crowd and curtsied. Realgar stood before her, his hands on his hips, a glower on his face, and reached out with his right hand as she rose. His fingers just brushed her earlobe and laced a shiver down her spine as he raised his hand and held aloft two copper coins.

"How did you come by these, mistress?" he demanded, his expression stem as he gave her an upstage wink the audience couldn't see. "This is a considerable sum for one so lowly born to possess."

"I know not, my lord!" she gasped, lacing and twisting her fingers as she played along with him. "'Tis witchery, I swear!"

"'Tis thievery," he countered as he gave his right hand a dismissive wave and the coins disappeared. Clasping his right hand on her left wrist, he tugged her around to face the audience. "Such a crime is punishable by dunking or the stocks. What say you, good people? Which shall it be?"

Oh, no, Quillen groaned again, she'd been wrong--it was worse. Unless, she thought, her mind racing as the audience called out their preferences, I can get myself out of this.

"Mercy, my lord, have mercy!" she wailed, falling to her knees and clinging with both hands to his wrist. "The black death took my husband and my children are starving! Please, my lord, I beg you! What will become of my babes?"

From the audience, a chorus of sympathetic murmurs overrode the chant of "Dunk her! Dunk her!" With a quick wag of her eyebrows that challenged the wizard to top that, Quillen glanced up at Realgar's face. Amusement glinted in his deep blue eyes, and his unyielding expression softened as he drew her to her feet.

"You poor unfortunate creature," he said, his voice dripping pity. "Good people, what say you? Compassion for the widow or justice for the king's law?"

Quillen won the loudly shouted vote hands down, and curtsied to the crowd. When the accompanying applause died down, the wizard waved his hands in the air and, with a magic word Quillen didn't quite catch, materialized two pieces of silver to replace the copper.

"This, good woman, is enough to feed your children for a year," he said as he put the coins in her hand and closed her fingers around them. "With sufficient extra," he continued, his bearded mouth quirking mischievously, "to a buy a new dress and catch another husband."

The audience laughed and applauded and rose from their seats as Realgar bowed deeply. Taking Quillen's hand in his, he bowed again and she did the same as the crowd began to disperse. As she straightened, the smile on her face froze. She saw Desmond Cassil standing in the midst of the audience, his thin mouth curled in a crooked, smug expression.

It's a smirk, Quillen decided, a surge of anger tightening her throat. A smirk that says I'm-still-here-and-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it? She started toward him, unmindful of the hand still holding hers.

"Whoa," Realgar said as he pulled her to a halt and then stepped in front of her. "Don't rush off until I have a chance--"

"Excuse me." Quillen tugged her hand free of his and ducked around him.

"--to say thanks," he went on, moving quickly and blocking her path, "for being such a good sport."

"You're welcome." She dodged him again and caught just a glimpse of Cassil threading his way through the crowd toward the Gypsy Camp before the wizard stepped in front of her a second time.

"I wouldn't have let them dunk you," he persisted, trapping her shoulders in his hands. "But I might put you in the stocks myself if you don't hold still."

Peeking around his gray-robed arm, Quillen could see no sign of Cassil. She sighed as she looked up at Realgar's face.

"Sorry," she apologized. "I thought I saw someone I know."

"Oh, well then, I'm sorry," he replied, but the smile on his white-bearded face was anything but contrite. "You sure think fast on your feet."

"I'm used to it," she admitted. "I get snookered into things all the time. It's part of the fun."

"I'm Tucker Ferris," he said, loosing her shoulders and offering her his right hand.

"Quillen McCain," she answered as she shook his hand. "Your makeup is really magnificent. You honestly look like you're seventy-five years old."

"Thank you," he said, half-bowing. "Actually, I'm only seventy-three."

Quillen laughed, and his whiskered smile spread into a grin that creased the layers of wrinkles around his blue eyes. Releasing her hand, he unfastened his brocade-trimmed cloak and flung it over a nearby boulder as he leaned against the thigh-high chunk of rock and fanned both hands at his face.

"Is your beard getting hot?"

"Very," he replied, lifting the long, silky hair that lay against his shoulders and fanning it, too, at his face. "Hope I don't sweat my wrinkles off. They're a bitch to put on. You know, you were really terrific," he repeated. "Maybe we could work something up between us. Not for every show, just whenever you have free time. By the way, what do you do around here? I mean, besides loiter in the back of crowds looking so attractive that I kept forgetting where I was in my routine."

"I'm a tale teller," she replied, choosing to let the compliment pass.

"No wonder you're such a great ad-libber. So your time is pretty much your own?"

"Pretty much."

"How about it then? Want to talk about it over lunch?"

It was a pass--sort of. Though Quillen had no idea what kind of man lived under the white wig and beard, she was rather surprised to find herself seriously considering his invitation.

"Honest," he assured her, as he drew an imaginary "X" across his chest. "I'm as harmless as I look, although I lied, I'm not really seventy-three, I'm seventy-two."

Quillen laughed again and he grinned as he pushed up his sleeves. If those are the arms of a seventy-two-year-old man, she thought, I'll eat my cloak.

"All right," she agreed, wondering what he looked like under his elaborate makeup. "I'll meet you here about noon."

"Great. I'll look forward to it."

"Me, too," Quillen answered, and meant it as she turned away and smiled at him over her shoulder.

Even though she figured Cassil was long gone, Quillen nonetheless searched the Weavers' Glade, paused in the Children's Dell long enough to tell two stories, then browsed through the shops in the Guildmaster's Glen-looking for Cassil, not a bargain. Not that she knew what she'd do if she caught up with him--the festival was open to the public--but even giving him a piece of her mind would be satisfying. Of Tucker Ferris the wizard she thought very little, except to wonder where she'd heard the name Realgar before. It had sounded familiar when he'd first said it, yet she couldn't remember from where. She'd have to ask him about it, she thought as she wormed her way through a knot of people near the scaled-down three-masted clipper permanently anchored in a broad inlet of the creek called the Pirates' Cove, and heard a preteen girl in braces whine at her father that it was twelve-thirty and couldn't they please have lunch now.

Damn, Quillen swore silently as she hiked up her skirts and took off as fast as she could for the Gypsy Camp. The midday crowds were heavy, however, and it was slow going. Forty minutes late, winded and disgusted with herself, she pelted to a halt before the Wizard's Cave as a sharp pain between her ribs--exertion, not disappointment, she rationalized--sat her down on the boulder to catch her breath. Glumly, she looked around at the deserted area and the extinguished fire and sighed. Oh, well, she couldn't blame him--

"Hey, finally! I thought I'd been stood up--for the first time in seventy-two years, I might add."

Her heart leaping, Quillen slid off the boulder and turned around. The smile on her face took a nosedive, however, as she saw Tucker exit the mine entrance with a wicker basket swinging from his right hand.

"What were you doing in there?" she demanded sharply.

"Retrieving our lunch," he answered, resting the basket on the chunk of granite between them. "It's twenty degrees cooler in the back of the tunnel. Great natural refrigeration."

"I wish you wouldn't go in there," she requested, her voice pleasant but firm. "It's safe enough, or at least it should be since the committee reshored the roof and recapped the shaft two years ago, but still--don't give the kids around here any ideas, okay?"

"You got it." He nodded and offered her his right hand. "Come on, we have to eat fast. I've got another show at two."

"Sorry," she apologized as she crossed the first two fingers of her left hand behind her back. "I usually carry my watch in my pouch but I left it at home this morning." Her Timex was, in fact, bouncing gently against her left hip as she rounded the boulder. She slipped her hand into his, enjoying the gentle strength in his grip and the smile that split his bearded face as their fingers laced themselves together.

She walked hand-in-hand with him toward a tree-lined cleft in the hillside about thirty yards to the right of the mine entrance.

"Is this a great spot for a picnic or what?" He looked at her askance, then his pleased-with-himself grin faded. "You've eaten lunch here millions of times, right?"

"Once or twice," Quillen hedged, taking off her cloak as she stepped past him and spread it on the leaf-mounded ground.

The semi-secluded cul-de-sac, lined with autumn-yellowed aspen and no more than ten yards square, was Quillen's favorite place to park her pop-up camper. On spring and summer weekends when her workload allowed, Quillen spent Saturdays and Sundays here, camping and backpacking the trails that crisscrossed the property.

"This is no good." Tucker frowned as he dropped to his knees beside Quillen, plunked the basket down on her cloak and rocked back on his heels with his lean, long-fingered hands spread on his gray-robed thighs. "I have a confession to make--this whole thing is a setup."

"What whole thing?" she asked, genuinely perplexed.

"Everything. This picnic, luring you into my show this morning--Well, no, that wasn't," he qualified himself as he opened the basket. "I just took advantage of the opportunity." He handed her a white cloth napkin and one of two bright blue plastic mugs. "There's two of everything, you see. I've been planning this since I saw you at the first performers' meeting three weeks ago. I've lain awake nights plotting and scheming, and finally hit on this romantic little lunch as the perfect way to meet and impress the lovely lady with the gorgeous green eyes." He paused and smiled tentatively. "So, are you?"

If he's seventy-two, I'll kill myself, Quillen vowed. "Am I what?"

"Impressed." His smile widened. "Favorably, I hope, but if you're not, please be gentle. My ego is extremely fragile."

"I'm very--" Quillen faltered, bewildered, and smiled self-consciously. "Flattered--and very confused. Why did you think you had to resort to scheming and plotting?"

His lips parted, then pressed firmly together as he looked away from her. A shadow flickered briefly across his profile, but Quillen wasn't sure if it was real or if she'd imagined it--a trick of the light played by a cloud sliding across the sun or a shift in the shade patterns as the aspen quivered in a sigh of wind. Within two heartbeats it passed, and she told herself it was all in her mind as he stretched out on his side and braced his weight on his right elbow.

"Two reasons. One, I was afraid if I just walked up to you and said, Hi, let's go out, you'd think I was arrogant and brazen, which I am, of course, but, two, I wanted to impress you with my charming, witty personality first." He grinned as he lifted a foil-wrapped paper plate from the basket and pulled back the crimped aluminum edge. "I didn't want you to think I'm just another pretty face."

"No danger of that," Quillen answered with a laugh as she took a fried chicken leg off the plate. "But when do I get to see the real you?"

"How about at dinner tonight?" he asked as he sat up and crossed his legs.

"Careful," she cautioned him playfully. "You're being arrogant and brazen."

"It's okay now, you've been warned. So how about it?"

"Sure, I'd love to have dinner with you tonight. My address--"

"I know your address," he interrupted. "I asked around at the meetings until I found that out, and your name, that you're an artist, and that you own this property. Small towns are wonderful, aren't they? Everybody knows everything about everybody."

"Tell me," Quillen agreed ruefully. "So what about you?"

"I'm a geologist with the EPA," he told her, licking his fingers as he dropped a gnawed chicken leg on his napkin. "I've been transferred out here to study a fault one of our mapping crews stumbled over last year. When I heard about the festival, I barely had time to set up my seismometer, before my audition with the committee. I'm a frustrated actor, you see. I couldn't pass up this chance to perform."

"Fault?" Quillen echoed. "You mean as in San Andreas?"

"Nothing that big," he assured her with a smile. "Just one that bears monitoring for a while because of all the old mine shafts honeycombing these hills."

"Oh, good," she sighed, relieved. "Where were you transferred from?"

"St. Louis. Missouri. Being an avid spelunker, I really miss the old Show Me State."


"Spelunker," he explained with a grin, "is the term applied to a grown man who doesn't have any better sense than to go crawling around in caves. Missouri is the spelunking capital of the world, did you know that? The whole state's riddled with caves. It's a spelunker's paradise. Nothing here to poke around in but old mines. Pretty dull stuff, for the most part, though I've stuck my nose in one or two that look like they could be interesting."

Quillen's mouthful of chicken stuck halfway down, and she swallowed hard to clear her throat.

"Forget my mine," she said sharply. "It's a deathtrap. A side shaft came down on my grandfather about thirty years ago, and the last cave-in ten years ago killed my father."

"I'm sorry," he murmured, his bushy white eyebrows drawing together over his rather large nose.

"They never found much of anything, anyway," she continued pointedly. "A little copper, some silver, but very, very little gold," she finished emphatically.

"Who said anything about gold?" he asked, one eyebrow arching curiously.

"No one, I just thought I'd mention it."

"Don't worry, Quillen." He smiled as he planted his left hand between them and leaned toward her. "The only gold I intend to lust after is the little flecks of gold I see in your eyes."

She tried to laugh, but only managed a breathy, giddy sigh as he rubbed his shoulder against hers and a flutter of warmth flushed up her throat. Quickly bowing her head to hide the pink staining her face, Quillen picked at the flaky brown coating on her chicken leg.

"Sorry, but you're much too old for me."

"Is my makeup that good?" He laughed, shook his head, and leaned closer. Leering and growling in the back of his throat, Tucker leaned over her, then spun away quickly as the gong hung in the jack pine tree bonged loudly and repeatedly. Behind him, Quillen scrambled to her feet and followed him out of the cleft. Two blue-jeaned little boys were taking turns bashing the gong with the mallet.

"Oh, hell, I'd better go before they beat it to a pulp." Tucker frowned and waved at the remnants of their picnic. "Could you--"

"Yes, I'll clean up," Quillen finished. "You go on."

"Sorry," He brushed a whiskered kiss on her cheek, then took off at a trot. "Pick you up at eight!"

Touching her fingertips to the tingling spot on her jaw, Quillen watched him go. About ten yards shy of the tree, he slowed his pace to a fast walk.

"Here, here, young masters!" he called sternly. "Is that any way to treat the property of Realgar the sorcerer, who's widely renowned for his skill at turning small boys into toads? Be off, lest I forget that this is a festival day and send you home in green skins and warts!"

Chuckling, Quillen watched the boys drop the mallet and take off at a dead run with Tucker close behind. I'd run, too, she thought as she walked back to her cloak and started rewrapping the chicken. She tucked the plate back in the basket, helped herself to a slightly overripe peach, then sat back suddenly on her heels as she remembered where she'd heard the name Realgar.

It wasn't a name at all, but a word, for arsenic something or other, a reddish or orange-yellow substance that her father had once found in granulated crystals in the mine. She remembered vividly his flushed, excited face as he'd shown it to her and her mother.

"See?" he crowed triumphantly. "It means it's there! Realgar occurs naturally with gold!"

Also with silver and lead ores, Quillen had found out later when she'd looked it up in her encyclopedia.

Sighing sadly, Quillen closed the basket and picked it up with her cloak. Realgar was derived from an Arabic word which meant, quite literally, dust of the mine.

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