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By Meryl Sawyer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 M. Sawyer-Unickel
All rights reserved.
The wolf was at the door — literally.
Claire Holt unlocked the rear entrance to The Rising Sun gallery and saw the animal peering through the front door. She paused, her nerves responding on an instinctive, primitive level. She adored dogs, but Lobo frightened her.
The dog was a hybrid, part shepherd, part timber wolf. His lush silver-gray coat glistened in the sunlight. He had an aloof, almost regal bearing, worthy of the show ring. Yet his eyes had the sinister, predatory glint of a natural-born killer.
Along with the wolf-dog, came someone even more dangerous — his master. Her gallery was several steps below street level. At this angle, all she could see was the dog — and long-steely muscled legs clad in faded denim.
"It's all right, Lucy," Claire told her own dog.
The golden retriever hadn't spotted Lobo, or she would have hidden. Lucy was frightened of most dogs, especially large dogs capable of killing. She wagged her tail, looking up at Claire as if to ask why they were so late in opening the gallery.
Last night. The words shuddered through Claire with frightening intensity. It was nothing short of a miracle that she was here after what had happened. Her head throbbed, and every inch of her body was sore and achy. For the life of her, she couldn't dredge up a coherent memory about those hours after midnight in The Hideaway.
She was not up to facing Sheriff Zachary Coulter and his wolf-dog, Lobo. Ducking into the storeroom, she tore open a foil packet of coffee, dumped it in the container, and flicked on the coffee maker. After last night, she was going to need a major caffeine boost to keep going. She doubted that she'd slept more than fifteen minutes.
A powerful fist pummeled the front door. A two-legged wolf if there ever was one, Zach Coulter had been the town's bad boy when she'd been growing up. Now he was sporting a badge. Unbelievable.
"I'm coming. I'm coming."
She wiped her moist palms over her denim skirt as she walked toward the gallery's entrance with Lucy limping at her heels. She knew exactly why the sheriff was here, and she was going to be thrilled to say that she had no idea what had happened to Bam Stegner's bear. She unlocked the door and swung it open.
"Good morning, Sheriff."
Zach Coulter had one powerful shoulder braced against the doorjamb, his long, booted legs crossed at the ankles. He was taller up close, but then six-two in a Stetson and sharkskin cowboy boots seemed even taller to someone stretching it to make five-five. This near, he seemed bigger, more powerful than she remembered.
His hat cast a dark shadow across his face, emphasizing his square, uncompromising jawline. He thumbed back the hat and revealed deep blue eyes trimmed with dense lashes the same shade as his gloss-back hair. Those eyes gave him a smoldering sensuality some women found appealing.
Claire thought he was just plain cocky. He didn't wear a badge or carry a gun. Why bother? No one in their right mind would cross a hell-raiser who was even tougher now than he'd been in his youth. Just the sight of him brought back a memory she'd spent years trying to forget, and she had to force herself to look him in the eye.
The intimacy in his gaze startled her. For a moment she recalled too many things she'd spent years striving to forget. The gentle touch of his hand on her cheek. The low, raspy sound of his voice when he whispered in her ear. The promises they'd made under the stars.
She tamped down the unwelcome memories and seared him with her drop-dead glare. Most people backed up or backed off when she did this; not Zach.
"Real late, aren't you?" He sauntered into the gallery, his dog beside him.
Claire reached down to give Lucy a reassuring pat, but amazingly her dog was wagging her tail. Lucy wasn't the least bit intimidated by the animal, that could easily have passed for a real wolf.
"Your sign says you open at eleven," Zach drawled. "It's past noon."
She adjusted the silver and turquoise clasp that secured her long, blond hair at the nape of her neck. Usually it tumbled to her shoulders in waves that defied a brush, but she'd been in too much of a hurry to fool with it. She hadn't bothered with makeup either. Not that she cared what Zach Coulter thought.
"I was running behind this morning. Are you interested in buying a painting or perhaps a bronze?" she said with a straight face, positive the only thing he considered art was a centerfold.
"Nope." He removed the black Stetson and tossed it like a Frisbee. It sailed across the gallery and landed on Wild Horse, her best bronze, as if the statue were a cheap hat rack.
"Just make yourself at home."
The cool air in her gallery developed a thickness, an intensity. The taut silence was underscored by the click-click, of the dogs' paws on the buffed wood floor as they wandered toward the back alcove, leaving them alone.
Suddenly, the large gallery with its whitewashed walls and cases displaying Southwestern art seemed too small. The sheriffs dominating, masculine presence radiated a certain intimidating ruthlessness. If Zach Coulter hadn't been the law, he would have been running from the law.
"It must have been a hell of a night!" His lips quirked into a knowing smile.
Last night had been an unbelievable night. No wonder her eyes were more red than green with dark circles to make them look even worse. She mustered an insolent stare despite a jackhammering headache, another legacy of the previous evening.
"My private life is none of your business."
He reached into the pocket of Levi's that had been washed so many times that they were more gray than blue. How he managed to jam his hand into jeans so tight — let alone get something out of the pocket — was one of life's unexplainable mysteries.
He withdrew a swatch of black silk no larger than an eye patch and dangled it in front of her nose. "Lose something?"
It took a split second to realize those were her panties, and she knew exactly where she'd lost them. Oh, Lord, what had happened to her? Why couldn't she remember more?
She opted to brazen it out. "Why on earth would you think they're mine?"
How had Zach Coulter — of all people — gotten them? She had searched frantically, but had been unable to find them. Why hadn't she checked more thoroughly? Zach must have gone to The Hideaway when Bam Stegner reported his bear stolen and looked around, finding the panties. But why would he think they belonged to her?
Zach hooked his thumbs in the waistband of the skimpy bikinis, stretching them out to full size, and held them up to her silver concho belt. His irreverent grin made her want to smack him. "Your size exactly."
"Is there a point to this?" she asked, reluctant to tell an outright lie and say the panties weren't hers.
Zach's marine-blue eyes swept from the tip of her head down her stone-washed denim dress to the toes of her moccasins in a heartbeat, seeming to see right through to the sexy panties that matched the ones in his hand.
"Last night at The Hideaway —"
"You bitch!" Bam Stegner burst through the door, slamming it so hard a prize-winning basket woven from yucca, bear grass and rare devil's claw crashed from its pedestal to the wooden floor. "Where'n hell is my bear?"
Three hundred pounds of enraged bully with jowls like saddlebags glared at her. Bam's bare chest was partially covered by a red leather vest, but it didn't conceal a gut that slopped over a silver skull-and-crossbones belt buckle. A tattoo of a snake wound up his beefy arm to stick its forked tongue out at her from the top of his naked shoulder.
Bam's jeans and boots were splattered with reddish mud. It was in his gray ponytail, too. Bridging close-set black eyes were scraggly brows flecked with mud probably kicked up from his Harley. He was so furious, his hairy chest heaving with rage, that she was actually glad Zach was beside her.
Bam Stegner owned the Hogs and Heifers nightclub and the adobe bungalows next door known as The Hideway. Although he didn't look it, he was one of the richest men in Taos. Most of his money came from illegal activities. He'd done time in prison, but these days he was too slick to get caught.
If he hadn't been so evil, Claire would have found him comical. He insisted on wearing enormous silver spurs even though he rode a Harley, not a horse, claiming to be an ex-Hell's Angel. In the winter, when snow piled up in town, he wore a T-shirt under his vest. The rest of the year, he didn't bother with a shirt, relying instead on a collection of leather vests from the seventies.
"What bear?" she asked, justifiably proud of her calm tone. She hated Bam Stegner so much each breath burned in her throat with the urge to tell him off, but she controlled herself.
Bam stomped toward her, the spurs on his boots clinking, his huge fists flexing as if he intended to strangle her. "Don't play dumb with me. When you twitched your tight ass into my club last night, I knew you were up to something. If I don't get Khadafi back, you're gonna to be sorry."
"I don't have your bear. Look around." She waved her hand in the direction of the two dogs at the far end of the gallery. "Go to my place. Check it out."
Bam grabbed her arm, his dirty nails biting into her bare skin. "Look, bitch —"
"Let her go." Zach's voice was low, yet as sharp as a new razor.
Bam released her but still stood menacingly close, his body odor so foul that she wanted to take a bath in lye. She stood her ground, glaring back at him.
"Stegner, leave. Let me handle this," Zach said.
"Arrest her ass. Throw her in jail until she tells where Khadafi is."
"Isn't he over in Iraq where he's supposed to be?" she asked, unable to resist taunting him.
Bam lunged toward her, grunting and huffing. Zach's powerful arm shot out with the deadly swiftness of a rattlesnake and halted Bam mid-stride.
"Get out, Stegner."
The devil himself wouldn't have argued when Zach used that tone of voice. Bam swaggered to the door, his anger echoing through the room with each spur-clanging step that left clods of mud on the polished floor.
"If I don't get Khadafi back, you're gonna pay, bitch."
"Stegner," Zach's voice boomed through the gallery. "Don't threaten her. If anything happens to Claire, I'm coming after you."
Bam slammed the door so hard that only a miracle kept the glass from shattering. Relief hit Claire like a tidal wave, almost knocking her to the floor. She'd known Stegner would be furious about losing his bear, but she had never anticipated he would try to attack her in broad daylight. She knew she should be grateful to Zach, but her pride — and the past — kept her silent.
"You're brain dead." Zach cupped her chin with his hand. "Why did you provoke Stegner like that? He'll be after you now."
She shrugged, pretending she wasn't concerned, but it was difficult because his strong fingers were distracting her. "I've got a gun here, and another at home."
"Leave Stegner to me," Zach said, his thumb making a slow sweep across her lower lip and back again. He took his thumb off her lip but didn't move his hand. It still cradled her chin, his powerful hand tilting her head upward so she had no choice but to look at him.
The suggestive gesture and the sensuality in his blue eyes kicked up her pulse a notch. It wasn't hard to understand why he'd earned a reputation as the town stud. Women threw themselves at Zach Coulter. Well, she wasn't that stupid. She'd learned her lesson years ago.
She batted his hand away. "You're going to take care of Bam Stegner the way you took care of Khadafi?"
If looks could have killed, she'd be pushing up daisies. "Keeping a pet bear is not against the law."
"Khadafi wasn't a 'pet' and you know it." Her voice kept rising with every word despite her best efforts to temper it. "Bam named him Khadafi so men would think they were macho and patriotic when he staged fights with the bear. What kind of man gets a thrill out of having his picture taken beating up a defenseless, half-starved bear? Bam had the bear's teeth and claws pulled out, so he couldn't fight back. Now, I ask you, is that fair?"
"I saw the pictures you showed around town, but I couldn't catch Stegner actually staging a bear baiting. Even if I had, it isn't illegal in this state."
"You should have arrested Bam on animal cruelty charges. That shed was an abomination and the bear wasn't fed properly."
"You know I tried. The animal regulation inspector found the facility satisfactory."
"Bam bribed him."
"Probably," Zach conceded, his world-weary expression intensifying, but I couldn't prove it. The bear is personal property. No matter how just the cause — stealing him is against the law."
"I did not steal Khadafi," she said with total honesty. Search the gallery. Search my home. Search me."
"Now, you're talking," he said, his eyes taking a leisurely tour of her body, starting with her hair and slowly dropping to her lips. His gaze lingered there an uncomfortably long time before detouring to her breasts. Then his attention centered on the deep V of the shawl-collared denim dress edged with scarlet whip-stitching.
Most people would have been fascinated by the polished silver sunburst with the turquoise cabochon hanging from her neck on a sterling chain. The dramatic piece matched the smaller earrings she'd worn, hoping to interest customers in other pieces by this artist. But Zach wasn't looking at the jewelry. From his superior height, he was gazing down the shadowy hollow between her breasts.
"This might just require a strip search," he said with a grin that canted to one side in a way some women would have found adorable.
The thought of his large hands on her did ridiculous things to her heart rate, which infuriated her. She resented the familiar way he'd touched her a minute ago. No doubt, he was experiencing a hormonal overload that made him manhandle anything in a skirt. Well, forget this skirt.
"Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm dead serious. I did not steal the bear. I have no idea where it is."
"But you know who did."
Again, she was completely honest. "I have absolutely no idea who stole Bam's bear, but I'm not going to pretend I'm sorry."
He moved closer and she resisted the urge to step back. "I'm not bothering to look for Khadafi. I've got a bigger problem than Stegner's bear. Somebody blew out Duncan Morrell's brains last night at The Hideaway."
Duncan dead? The news hit Claire like a knockout punch. Her breath stalled in her lungs, and for a moment the killer headache vanished. She despised Duncan, but she had never wished him dead. It was impossible to imagine a world without the conniving Duncan Morrell. "He's dead?"
"Yes, and I'm pissed big-time. This is a quiet little place. I don't want a murderer living in my town."
"Who did it?" she asked.
"Stegner claims you murdered Morrell."
"That's ridiculous!" she shot back, but a fission of alarm lanced through her. Duncan was her arch enemy. And she'd been at The Hideaway until dawn. Worse, she didn't remember what had happened.
Zach jammed the panties into his back pocket. "It's logical — even coming from a creep like Stegner. You and Morrell were rivals. He'd stolen your most profitable artist, right?"
"I didn't have a contract with Nevada," she said, aware of the bitterness etching every syllable, but unable to soften her tone. She'd discovered Nevada while she'd been working in a Phoenix gallery, raising money to open The Rising Sun. She'd nurtured his talent only to have Duncan lure him away. "He was free to go to another gallery."
"Didn't you accuse Morrell of selling phony lithographs?"
She couldn't deny it. "Yes, but I wasn't the only one who suspected he was selling counterfeit prints. Other gallery owners had complained. Look, I despised Morrell, but I didn't kill him."
"Okay," Zach said, leaning so close she couldn't miss the trace of citrus aftershave or the challenging glint in his eye. "I believe you, but your panties were found in the bungalow next to where Morrell was killed — along with your wallet."
"My wallet?" She vaguely remembered dropping her purse, in that dark room last night. Had her wallet fallen out? The air siphoned from her lungs in a dizzying rush. Her panties and her wallet. She couldn't be that unlucky, could she?CHAPTER 2
"It can't be my wallet." Claire dashed across the gallery to the alcove by the back door where she'd left her purse. She grabbed the hand-tooled leather bag and dumped the contents onto her cluttered desk.
A checkbook, a Daytimer, keys and a few loose coins. No wallet.
She dropped into her chair, groaning. Last night. So much of it was a blur. She was positive someone had put something in her drink. Snippets of memories whirled like dervishes through her brain, and she recalled the muffled thunk of her purse hitting the bed. Her wallet must have fallen out.
Excerpted from The Hideaway by Meryl Sawyer. Copyright © 1997 M. Sawyer-Unickel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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