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Salmon Bay, Washington
"They all backed out of my research study?" Jane Dearly asked in dismay, her hand tightening on the phone receiver. "Every last one?"
"I can probably round up another bunch of students at the University of Washington at the start of the fall semester. There's always a new crop eager for a way to earn a few dollars."
"But I need help now."
"I'm sorry, Jane. Unless you want to drive down here to Seattle and scoop some volunteers off the street, you're out of luck. You sure you can't find anyone in that cute little town of yours?"
"Positive. They're sort of experimented-out around here. They have been since I was about fifteen."
It was not her favorite memory and she closed her eyes, fighting to control her disappointment. Some birthday this had turned out to be. She'd been trying for so long to make her big breakthrough and time was running short. Failure had dogged her the past few years, as did the knowledge that she wasn't the only one working on this particular project. Competition was fierce. She couldn't afford a single day's delay, let alone several weeks.
"Isn't there any chance of changing their minds about participating in the study?" Jane asked.
A tiny silence followed her question. "Apparently they balked when they read your questionnaire," came the hesitant explanation. "You might want to consider toning down some of the questions for the next group."
Darn. "I see. Thanks for your help."
"I'll be in touch as soon as I have more volunteers."
Offering her appreciation a final time, Jane hung up the phone. Dipstick, her huge Saint Bernard, whined, lumbering back and forth between her and the door.
"Time for the mail?" she asked. "Maybe there'll actually be some good news for a change." A brisk knock sounded at the door and Jane opened it to the mail carrier. "Hello, Mr. Keenan."
"Happy birthday, Jane."
It didn't surprise her a bit that he'd remembered her birthday. Salmon Bay retained all of its small-town characteristics, despite its proximity to Seattle. The residents knew one another as intimately as their own family members, something she'd always appreciated about her hometown. "Why, thank you." She gave the box a hopeful glance. "Have you brought me something for my birthday?"
"Sorry. It's for your uncles. Since they weren't home, I thought I'd drop it off here." At her crestfallen expression, he asked, "Were you expecting a package?"
"Not really. Just hoping I'd get something to brighten my day."
"Ah." He nodded sagely. "Another experiment gone awry?"
She leaned against the doorjamb and grimaced. "My test subjects took a walk. Can you believe it? So now I have my latest series of formulas ready to go and no one to test them on."
"Scared them off, did you?"
Her smile turned wry. "Don't I always?"
"Okay. Tell you what. This onceand just this onceyou can test me."
That brightened her right up. "Really? You'd do that for me?"
"People in Salmon Bay would do anything for you, Jane." He gave a self-conscious shrug. "Well Anything but participate in your experiments. Since it's your birthday, I'll make an exception this time. It's nothing dangerous, is it?"
"Not a bit."
He handed her the box and tapped the receipt taped to it. "Okay. You sign for the package and do whatever experiment you have to on me. But don't take too long. I have the rest of my route to complete."
She gave the mail carrier a quick hug. "Thanks, Edward. I owe you one. Now, stand right there, okay?"
"Right here," the mail carrier confirmed, planting his size twelves firmly on her doormat.
She rushed back inside and closed the door behind her, looking hastily around. "Darn it all. Where did I put that spray?" She frowned at Dipstick. "I don't know what's wrong with me. Do you suppose it's because I turned twenty-nine today? I thought I'd have until at least thirty before I became an absentminded professor."
The dog nudged her pocket and she plunged her hand into it, coming up with a glass atomizer. "There we go. Thanks, Dip."
Hastily spritzing herself with a bit of perfume, she glanced in the mirror to make sure her hair was right. It hadn't budged from the impossibly tight knot she'd twisted it into this morning. She slipped her glasses from the crown of her head to the tip of her nose and smoothed the lapel of her lab coat, checking to make sure nothing untoward had spilled on it. She wanted to look businesslike, not grungy. And she wanted to make sure her appearance wouldn't in any way affect the results of their encounter.
Crossing to the door, she pulled it open and greeted the mail carrier with a professional smile. Not too much teeth. Heaven forbid she taint her experiment by being too friendly. "Hello, again," she said casually. At least, she hoped it sounded casual. She'd never been terribly good at pretense.
Edward Keenan fought back a grin. "Hello again, Miss Jane."
Dipstick shoved his huge head between the two of them, snuffling loudly. Darn it all! The silly dog had probably sucked up all of her perfume. "Phew. Sure is warm today." She leaned over the Saint Bernard and gently fanned the air in the mail carrier's direction. Nothing. Maybe she hadn't been generous enough with the spray bottle. No doubt another squirt was in order, if only she could find a way to do it without Edward catching on.
"Sure is." The mail carrier shifted from foot to foot.
He gestured toward the box she still clutched. "I need you to sign the receipt on that package I brought, remember?"
Inspiration struck. "Let me get a pen," she said. That way she could give herself another dousing of perfume.
To her dismay, he pulled one from his shirt pocket and offered it. "No need. I have a pen right here."
"Don't be ridiculous, Edward. Why would I want to use up your ink when I have plenty of my own?"
The mail carrier groaned. "Okay, okay. Time out."
"Already?" She checked her watch before regarding him with a frown. "Thirty-two seconds. I seriously doubt that's sufficient time for my experiment to take effect."
"Come on, Jane. Spill it. What witch's brew have you cooked up in that lab of yours? Doggy love drops? Won't help." He stared glumly at Dipstick. "No offense, but I hate dogs and not even one of your concoctions can change that."
She grabbed for Dipstick, covered her poor baby's ears. "Mr. Keenan, I think very highly of you, you know I do. In fact, I can honestly say your attitude toward dogs is your one-and-only failing as far as I'm concerned, though it's a serious one. But please don't say such things where Dipstick can hear. And it's not doggy love drops."
"Right. Let me guess. Mindaltering address labels. You switched the labels, right?" He reeled around, staggering ever so slightly. "I'm hallucinating as we speak, aren't I?"
She didn't know what to say to that one. "I suppose that depends on what you're seeing," she offered after a moment's consideration. "Since it's impossible for me to make a specific comparison between your perception and mine, we can only attempt to match"
He staggered again. "I'm sure my mind is altered."
Oh, dear. She'd hoped for a reaction to her perfume, had, in fact, felt an unsettling emotion akin to desperation. But this would never do. Not in a million years. Who'd want a perfume that drove men postal? "I just wanted your reaction to my perfume," she hastened to explain. "That's all."
He paused mid-stagger and winked at her. "Your perfume doesn't affect my sanity, does it?"
"No Oh. You're teasing," she realized.
"Yes, Jane. I'm teasing." His expression gentled. "Sorry, I was just trying to make you smile on your birthday."
She sighed. "Thank you, but if you really want to make me smile, you'll sniff me."
"Sniff me, Edward!"
"Not doggy love drops?"
"Goodness, no." She gave the Saint Bernard a quick hug. "Dipstick is lovable enough without them."
"Not mindaltering address labels?"
"You know That's an interesting concept." Glimpsing a return of his earlier amusement, she hastened to add, "But, no."
"It's a very special perfume. Does that help?"
"I'm afraid not." He checked his watch. "Sorry, Jane. I have to be off now. If I'm not reacting the way you hoped, then I guess your perfume doesn't work any better than that bug spray you invented for Sheriff Tucker." With a friendly wave, he started down her porch steps.
"My bug spray worked just fine," she retorted, stung. "The sheriff simply forgot to mention" Edward disappeared down the sidewalk and Jane sighed. "He forgot to mention that he wanted it to kill the bugs. Though, why he'd want to kill something so fascinating is beyond me."
Returning inside, she picked up the atomizer she'd left on the hallway table and regarded it with a frown. "Well that didn't work too well, did it, Dipstick?" The dog wagged his tail in agreement, as if he understood everything she said, which she secretly thought perhaps he did. "I have to find a man I can test this perfume on.
More important, she had to prove herself as a bona fide chemist. Prove that the years of effort and training she'd received from her unclesbrilliant chemists every onehadn't been an utter waste of resources. Time was running out, and with each passing day her desperation grew. This experiment was her life and nothing, absolutely nothing, would prevent her from finding a successful formulation for her perfume.
Dipstick butted her with his head, and she scratched the dog behind his ears as she thought. "A man. I absolutely have to find a man for a test subject. Now, where am I going to find someone? It's not like I can just order one through the mail."
She slumped onto the floor next to the Saint Bernard and shoved her glasses from the tip of her nose to the top of her head, ticking off on her fingers. "No students available. No townspeople willing to help. No men, period. Hell. Too bad I can't just buy one." She ruffled Dipstick's ruff and chuckled. "Hey. Now, there's an idea. I'll run out to the corner store and buy myself a man. Wouldn't that be a great solution?"
Flynn studied the three men who had "bought" him. A ponytailed, silver-haired sorcerer, a hulking brute whose hangdog expression would have done Walter Matthau proud and a blushing-pink cherub. Just great. Now what the hell was he supposed to do? He dreaded the first question he'd have to ask .
Folding his arms across his chest, he cocked an eyebrow. "So, gentlemen. What's your pleasure?"
The leader of the group, the one he'd privately dubbed "the sorcerer," matched him, lifted eyebrow for lifted eyebrow, his pale blue eyes glittering with frank enjoyment of the situation. "Why, now you get to help save a beautiful young woman." He tapped the massive chest of the brute with his gold-tipped cane. "Bring him, Dogg."
The bruteDoggmade a growling noise deep in his throat while the cherub shifted from foot to foot in front of Flynn.
"He means, he wants you to come," the cherub explained. Chubby hands danced in the air. "Come along."
Flynn sighed. "Look Why don't I just"
"We don't want our money back. We want you," Dogg interrupted.
"give you the money you paid and we'll call it" Flynn broke off, disconcerted for an instant before managing to hide it. "Cute trick."
"Come along, Mr. Morgan." The sorcerer's voice drifted back to him. "Time is wasting."
Flynn gave in. What would it hurt to hear what they had to say? He could always refuse. They'd demand a refund from Lost Springs Ranch and he'd reimburse the loss, while, once again, having lived up to his reputation for being a no-good troublemaker.
Yeah, right. That would work. A few years back, maybe. But not now. Which meant he gave these three their money's worth as he'd promised.
A large stretch limo waited outside the auction area, incongruous in a lot filled with pickups, rentals and more practical sedans. The sorcerer gestured for Flynn to enter. Eyeing the three purchasers with a combination of suspicion and resignation, he climbed into luxury. He'd thought being purchased by a pair of little old ladies or giggling young girls was laughable. But at least those fellow bachelors had been purchased by women. Hell, these three had to be bottom of the barrel, worst of the worst, god-awful bad.
"Why don't we introduce ourselves?" the sorcerer suggested. "I'm Hickory."
"And I'm Rube and this is Dogg," the cherub hastened to add. "And you're Flynn Morgan."
Flynn closed his eyes. Crazy. They were clearly crazy and he'd gotten into an enclosed space with them.
"Scaring him," Dogg announced.
"Are we?" Hickory planted his cane between his legs and leaned on the gold handle. "We're chemists, if that helps at all. Perhaps it also helps explain our oddness."
It was only then that Flynn realized the crisscross of gold lines of Hickory's cane formed some sort of atomic model, like an explosion of elements. Perhaps if he'd paid closer attention in chemistry class, he'd have been able to decipher it. But at least it gave him some badly needed insight. It suggested the wizard appreciated science on some level and that he might employ reasoning and logic in his thought processes. Flynn settled back against the leather seat, forcing himself to utilize that possibility in his response to his three "purchasers."
"Fear is a natural fightor-flight instinct," he explained, projecting a calm he was far from feeling. "In my case, it's a product of my early environment."
"How fascinating." Hickory tilted his head to one side. "And what in particular about us causes this reaction?"
"Your reason for purchasing me."
Wicked amusement flickered to life in Hickory's eyes. "Did you think we wanted you for ourselves?"
Flynn fingered the tender bruise at the corner of his mouth and winced. "I sincerely hope not."
Rube busied himself unwrapping a lemon sour ball. "Don't have to worry about that. We're not interested in you. Nope. Not at all. Want you for Jane."
The cherub blushed as pink as the wisps of faded red hair floating around his shiny pate. "Sorry," he muttered. "Got ahead of myself."
Flynn sighed. If the last few minutes were any indication, it was going to be a very long weekend. "I don't suppose you'd care to explain what this is about?"
The three exchanged quick glances. "No," Hickory replied, apparently having reached a consensus of opinion from that single look. "We wouldn't. At least, not until we're sitting down and enjoying a leisurely lunch. Then my brothers and I will be happy to explain everything." His eyes glittered with amusement again, his focus uncomfortably intense. "Or almost everything."
They drove from the ranch, straight into wilderness, leaving a trail of dust in their wakea dust Flynn had done his level best to shake from his boots years ago. The irony hit hard. It would seem he couldn't escape this place any more than he could escape the past that had molded him. Though he appreciated how all the counselors and instructors associated with the ranch had helped him, encouraging him to set his feet on a different path through life, those years had been painful. Almost as painful as the events leading up to his stay at Lost Springs.
When his parents had dumped him here, they'd neglected to release their parental rights. So though they were happy to forget all about himnever once visiting himthey refused to release him, to allow him to start over with a new family. Not that anyone had been terribly anxious to adopt him. He'd been far too much trouble for a sensible couple looking for an openhearted child. He'd been as closed-down as they came.
But he'd dreamed of a real life, yearned for it, thirsted for it and buried those desires deep inside where no one could find his vulnerability.
It didn't take long to get to Lightning Creek. Flynn slouched lower in his seat and thrust out his long legs, staring at sleepy roads and Old West buildings that hadn't changed a bit since he'd left. Hell, the bustle from the auction had probably stirred up the most traffic they'd seen around this place in the last couple of decades. A traffic jam on Main Street. Who'd have thought?