Read Prey Online

Authors: Linda Howard

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Suspense, #Thrillers

Prey (2 page)

BOOK: Prey
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She took the flight of stairs down the outside of the building at a brisk pace, then strode across the cracked parking lot to her seven-year-old dark blue Ford pickup, keeping her head high with an effort. She wasn’t beaten, not yet, but she’d definitely lost this battle, and the taste of defeat was bitter as gall in her mouth. The worst thing was, Dare Callahan probably didn’t even know—and wouldn’t care if he
had
known—that she’d been in a fight for her survival, and that as she’d been going under for the third time he had effectively put his boot on top of her head and held her underwater.

God, she hated him. No, not
hate
, not exactly, but she sure as hell didn’t like him. To think that when he’d asked her out, two years ago, she’d actually been tempted to accept, that she’d even gotten butterflies in her stomach, but that was before she realized what he was doing. She knew better now. She didn’t like anything about him, not the way he looked or the truck he drove, or even his damn name.
Dare
. What kind of name was that? Like he thought he was some supercool urban daredevil, able to leap small Yuppies with a single bound—except he was too cool to make the effort.

If she had to be fair about it—and she didn’t feel like being fair—she supposed she had to blame his parents for his name, but that didn’t mean he was completely innocent, because he could have changed his name to Jim or Charlie, something like that. But on a website, Dare Callahan, Wilderness Guide, looked a whole lot
cooler than, for instance, a plain old Charlie Callahan; people probably subconsciously felt as if they were hiring Indiana Jones.

And when she compared her own website to his, Powell Guide Trips was so lackluster she had to admit she probably wouldn’t hire herself, either. That was a hard thing to face, but there was no getting around it. She didn’t have the extra money to hire someone to jazz-up her website, so in her spare time she’d been trying to figure out how to do it herself, though she was painfully aware that generally one got what one paid for. Her site had been set up so she could update it, but it was inspiration that failed her. She had no idea what to do to make herself sound more capable than Dare Callahan, Wilderness Guide. Change her name to Ace, maybe?

The idea struck her and she stopped in her tracks, wondering if she might have actually come up with a workable idea, something that would buy her a little more time if nothing else. Her income had been falling for the past two years. Part of it was the economy, sure, but it didn’t help that she was a woman. Even though some of the big-game hunters who came to Montana every year were women, and an even larger percentage of the photographers on photo shoots were women, most people seemed to think that a male guide was a safer bet than a female one.

If there was trouble, a man was stronger, supposedly tougher, yada yada. She knew the drill. She wanted to fault it, but she couldn’t, even though she knew she was good at what she did. She was five-seven, a little above average height for a woman, with a lean, rangy build that disguised how strong she was. Even given that, there was no way she came anywhere close to being as strong as most of the men around here, especially a muscle-bound jerk like Dare Callahan. But if she changed her website and, say, used her initials instead of her name so people didn’t know right away that she was a woman … Yeah, she might lose repeat business, but that was practically nil anyway, so any new business could only be a plus.

And maybe she should concentrate more on photography trips and wilderness camping, things like that, rather than on hunting trips, which naturally leaned more toward men, as if a set of nuts was a requirement for competent guiding. From what she could tell,
not
having testicles was a big check mark on the plus side. Not only did she not have testosterone blinding her with ego and competition problems, she didn’t have to worry about whether to put them on the left or right, and she didn’t fall down and vomit if anyone punched her in the groin.

Talk about selling points: lifelong experience, no testicles. She could see it now, blazing from her website in brilliant red letters. She enjoyed the vision for a moment, then jerked her thoughts back to repositioning herself as more of a guide for photography trips and family outings.

Except this was something she should have done back in the spring, to pull in business during the height of the hunting season. Winter was coming fast, and with it came the end of hunting trips until next year. No, she had to face it: She was up against the wall. It galled her that she couldn’t turn her situation around—at least not here, not now. Her only chance at turning this around was to move somewhere else, where she wouldn’t have to deal with the competition of a jackass superstar. But she hated being a failure, at anything, anywhere, and under any circumstances. She hadn’t failed just herself, but her dad and his faith in her. Why else would he have left the property and business to her if he hadn’t thought she could make a go of it?

“Because there wasn’t anyone else,” she muttered, then, despite everything, she had to give a little laugh. Not that her dad hadn’t loved her; he had. But whether or not he’d loved her hadn’t factored into the decision to leave everything to her, because she was his only child and there literally hadn’t been anyone else. Maybe if he’d had any inkling of having heart trouble before literally dropping dead, he’d have put the place up for sale and taken up a line of work that wasn’t so physically demanding, but
all in all Angie was glad that, if he had to die, at least he’d died doing what he loved. He’d been riding the range, not cooped up in a store or an office.

She’d been living and working in Billings at the time; her job had been just an ordinary one, in the administrative office of a hospital, but it had paid her rent and she’d liked it okay. The thing was, she’d never had a great ambition to do anything in particular. All she wanted at the time was to support herself. So when her dad died, the logical thing had been to move back home and take over his guide business. After all, she’d often helped him before she moved away, so it wasn’t as if she was a novice and didn’t know how to conduct a guide trip. She was a decent tracker, and a decent shot. At the time, she hadn’t seen any reason why she couldn’t make a go of it, and she was kind of ready for a change anyway, so why not?

And then she’d found something she hadn’t expected to find: She loved it. She loved being out on the mountains, she loved being in charge of her own destiny. There was something special about stepping out of a tent into the pristine early morning and being overwhelmed by the solitude and beauty around her. How could she have gone so many years without realizing this was
exactly
what she wanted to do? Maybe she’d had to go away for a while in order to see how suited she was for this life. Not that she hadn’t enjoyed living in a city; she had. She’d liked the variety, the people, the friends she made; she’d even taken some cooking classes and thought about maybe doing some catering on the side. But she
loved
being a guide, and enjoyed living here way more now than she had when she’d been growing up.

She did wish she’d made some different decisions, such as selling the horses and keeping the four-wheelers, instead of doing the exact opposite. Hindsight was great, except it was so damn slow in coming. She hadn’t anticipated that the economy would bottom out and discretionary spending would almost disappear. She hadn’t known Dare Callahan would move back home and siphon away
most of her business. Why couldn’t he have stayed in the military where he belonged, safely away from her little patch of Montana?

If only—

No. No
if onlies
. Never mind that she was thirty-two and he’d given her butterflies. She didn’t trust butterflies, didn’t let herself get carried away by emotions and hormones. Once had been enough. She’d made such a fool of herself that whenever she thought of her abbreviated marriage her stomach still curdled from an almost overwhelming sense of embarrassment. A strong desire to leave Billings, the scene of the debacle, had made her that much more eager to take over her dad’s guide business when he died.

No doubt about it, if she’d been happily married at the time she’d have sold off the business and stayed in Billings, simply because she’d built a life there. When her personal life fell apart, though, she’d withdrawn so much that her friends had almost given up on her in exasperation. After moving back here and getting her feet under her again she’d mended those relationships—a woman always needed other women—but by then she’d fallen so in love with her way of life that dynamite couldn’t have blown her back into an office setting.

Thinking that she needed to send some e-mails when she got home, just to keep in touch, she opened the truck door and was about to climb into the cab when she abruptly remembered that she needed some nails and staples to repair fencing, which she might as well get now while she was right here at the hardware store and save herself a trip later. She also wanted to catch up on the community gossip, such as it was, with Evelyn French, the chatty half of the husband and wife team who owned the hardware store. Their son, Patrick, had been the only other kid her age in their little community, and all during their school years the Frenches and her dad had swapped out driving them to school in the nearest real town, forty miles away. Patrick was a cop now, in Spokane, married, with two ankle-biters of his own. Evelyn was
crazy about her grandchildren, two little boys ages four and two, and always had time to relate the latest tales of what they’d said and done. She seemed to relish their mischief, as if she thought Patrick deserved everything they did. Remembering some of the things Patrick had gotten up to when they were growing up, Angie had to agree.

She closed the door she’d opened and trudged across the parking lot, watching her step as she went around a deep pothole—and when she lifted her head she saw
him
, the big man, the devil, Dare Callahan himself, coming straight at her from the parking area on the other side of the store, where his big black truck loomed like a shining, sinister metal monster.

Seeing him was too much. Angie’s heart gave a sudden hard thump, and the bottom dropped out of her stomach. Her reaction was completely automatic. She didn’t stop to think, didn’t give herself a pep talk, didn’t consider how it looked; she simply turned around and headed back to her own truck, muttering under her breath. She’d pick up the nails and staples when she got back from the guide trip; she wouldn’t have any time to work on the fencing until then, anyway. Running was cowardly, but at the same time she couldn’t nod at him and be polite, couldn’t pretend she hadn’t just up-ended her world because of him. Damn it, figures she’d run into him at the hardware store immediately after putting her place up for sale, an action
he’d
forced her into taking. Sometimes coincidence really sucked.

“Hey!”

The deep bark, laden with anger, rolled across the space between them. Angie didn’t look back. She didn’t think he’d be talking to her—after all, for over two years she’d gone out of her way to avoid him if possible and barely grunt a hello if forced to acknowledge him—so she glanced around to see who he
was
talking to, because she hadn’t noticed anyone else nearby.

With a jolt she realized there wasn’t anyone else. He was talking to her.

Chapter Two

The fine gravel littering the pavement crunched under his boots as he strode toward her. Like his truck, his hat was black, and he wore it pulled low so the brim shadowed most of his face. Black hat equaled bad guy, right? She was good with that, because as far as she was concerned he was definitely the bad guy in her life—the bad guy who was coming at her like a steam locomotive. She grabbed for the door handle, then stopped, fighting her own impulses. She wasn’t afraid of him. She was uneasy around men, but it was her own faulty judgment she didn’t trust. Besides, just how cowardly could she let herself be before she lost all self-respect?

Evidently she’d just reached her own stopping point. Jumping in her truck and driving away was the best thing she could think of to do, especially if she flattened him on her way out of the parking lot, but, okay, she’d let him have his say about whatever had his shorts on fire. She might have lost their battle—hell, maybe even the whole damn war—but she could face him this one time, and afterward she’d never have to speak to him again, not even to be polite. Squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin, she released
the handle and stepped away from the truck, her insides like Jell-O but her outside revealing nothing of that, her whole posture that of a gunfighter facing an enemy in the middle of the street.

He bulled right into her space, stopping only when he was so close that the brim of his hat knocked against hers as he glared down at her; so close that, when she looked up, she could see the white striations in his deep blue eyes. Angie took a quick, automatic breath, then wished she hadn’t because the very air she drew in seemed to be filled with him, the scents of leather and coffee and denim, heated by his skin. A primitive sense of danger made the back of her neck prickle, sent chills running down her spine. Instinct screamed at her to back away, get out of touching distance, reclaim her sense of inviolate
self
that his nearness somehow threatened, but backing away now was one retreat too many on this day of all days, when her pride had already taken too much of a beating because of him.

She clenched her teeth, straightened her spine, and held her ground. “What do you want?” she asked curtly, and, by God, even if nothing else about her was steady, her voice was.

“I want to know what the hell’s the matter with you,” he growled, his voice so rough she had to fight to keep from flinching, as if it had actually scratched her. The words were even more guttural than she remembered. Before she could help herself she glanced at his throat, at the pale scar that slashed at a slight diagonal across the muscled column. Was his voice deteriorating, or did he sound as if he’d eaten ground glass simply because he was so pissed about something? She hoped he was pissed, hoped she’d inadvertently done something to make him so angry he could barely speak; if she could find out what it was she’d done, she’d go out of her way to do it again.

BOOK: Prey
10.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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