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Authors: Linda Howard

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

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BOOK: Prey
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“Nothing’s the matter with me,” she said, her teeth clenched so tightly her jaw ached. Now that she’d looked at the scar on his throat, she found herself staring at the other scars on his face: the gouge high on his right cheekbone, another beside his mouth
that actually looked like a dimple if you didn’t know the scars were from shrapnel, and another sort of arrow-shaped scar on the bridge of his nose. None of the scars was disfiguring; they didn’t seem to bother him and they shouldn’t bother her, except seeing them made her chest hurt from something that felt inexplicably like sorrow.

She pushed that thought away; she couldn’t afford to feel personal sympathy for him. So he’d been hit by shrapnel in Iraq; he was alive, he wasn’t disfigured or disabled, and she could feel sympathy for him in the abstract, as a service member, without letting him elicit any other emotion from her.

She wished his breath stank, instead of smelling pleasantly like coffee … wished there was something, anything, about him that was physically distasteful. What kind of idiot was she that in some weak moments she’d find herself wistfully thinking about what might have happened if she’d actually gone out with him when he’d first returned to the area and asked her out, if anything would have come of it? Then doubts would set in, and she’d wonder if maybe he’d set out to deliberately destroy her business because she’d turned him down; if so, that made him a major jerk, and no good could have come from dating him. What gave her emotional whiplash was that she simply didn’t know, which meant she kept worrying at the different scenarios without any way of knowing which one was true. All she knew for sure was that she wasn’t good with men, and that Dare Callahan had ruined her business. She was rock solid on those two things.

With him standing so close and the truck right behind her she felt hemmed in, trapped. Damn it, enough was enough; she couldn’t stand it, not for another second. She edged sideways, farther from the truck, though her damn stubborn pride wouldn’t let her actually step back from him.

He adjusted his position, too, turning with her so they remained face-to-face.

“Then what makes you act as if you have a stick shoved up your ass every time I’m around?” he snapped. “Just now you turned and ran as soon as you saw me. I’m tired of it, damn it. If you have a beef with me, then tell me to my face what it is.”

“I didn’t
run
,” she snapped right back. Instinctively she slid another few inches to the side. “Maybe I thought of somewhere else I need to go.” She didn’t bother even trying to put any sincerity into her tone. Instead, her good sense seemed to have taken a hike, because she sounded as if she was taunting him. She didn’t want to wave a red flag at the bull, she didn’t want to escalate things into an all-out argument, she just wanted to get into her truck and leave. That was what she wanted, but instead she kept standing there, and things she hadn’t meant to say kept coming out of her mouth. “Maybe seeing you or speaking to you doesn’t rate very high on my list of things to do.”

Again he moved, keeping his position squared off with hers, and this time they both seemed to be caught in an unconscious momentum that kept them moving, slowly circling each other like angry combatants, each looking for the other’s weakness. She was vaguely aware that they looked like fools dancing a hostile tango in the parking lot, and hoped no one else saw them; everyone knew everyone else’s business around here, and she didn’t want to field any questions about what was going on between her and Dare Callahan. Lord, please don’t let Harlan look out his window right now, because he’d feel duty bound to come out and make sure everything was okay.

“Stand still,” he said, still growling, though with the damage to his larynx he’d sound growly even if he was trying to sing lullabies.

“Why should I? You’re the one who’s crowding me, not the other way around. If you want me to stand still, then back off.” She punctuated the last two words by putting the tip of one finger squarely in the middle of his chest and applying pressure; it was like pushing on a rock—a living, breathing rock, but still a rock.
She wasn’t certain how easy it was to communicate with a rock, so just to make sure he understood, she repeated herself. “Back. Off.”

Under the brim of his hat, his brilliant blue eyes were narrow and angry. His head cocked a little, an arrogant, combative tilt of his chin, then he put his right forefinger in the middle of her chest, on her breastbone, duplicating her movement. “Make. Me.”

Furious heat surged under her skin.
Make him?
God, how she wished she could! Frustration and fury filled her chest, almost smothering her. She couldn’t budge him an inch, and they both knew it. Failing that, what she would most like to do was punch him in the jaw, but she wasn’t stupid. The best thing that could come of that would be that he’d have her arrested for assault, but she doubted that solution would even occur to him. No, he’d hand out the consequences himself, and even though she didn’t know what form that would take she was absolutely certain she wouldn’t like the result at all. Sometimes you just knew things about people, and she knew Dare Callahan was a stubborn jackass who would blow right past good manners if he had a point he wanted to make.

She also should have known he’d dig in his heels. Maybe he’d been a more even-tempered, congenial person when he was growing up, but since leaving the military and coming home he was known to be surly at best, and most times downright ill-tempered. Maybe he had reason to be a sorehead now, maybe he’d always been one. Either way, she had to deal with him as he was now, which was right in her face.

For a split second she weighed her choices as she stared up at him, torn between all those conflicting emotions, then abruptly something inside her heaved a tiny sigh and gave up. She could hold on to her pride and pretend she was leaving because she wanted to, but why try to put a good face on it? He’d won. Let him enjoy it.

She ground her teeth together, trying to get the words out.
Damn, this was hard. She took a couple of breaths, digging deep for self-control, and finally was able to say, “It isn’t any of your business, but I just put my place up for sale.” She kept her voice low so if it wobbled, maybe he wouldn’t notice. “I’m sorry it hurts your feelings that I don’t feel like dealing with you right now, but I
don’t feel like dealing with you right now
. Got it?”

His expression went blank. He glanced up at Harlan’s office, then back at her. “You’re selling out?”

And there they went again, her back teeth locking together. Couldn’t he have used any term other than
selling out
? She did some more deep breathing, blowing air out through her nose like an angry bull. “I don’t have a choice. My business has gone downhill since you moved back and went into competition with me. I can either sell or go bankrupt.” There, that was bald enough. She hadn’t tried to protect her pride, but neither had she accused him of deliberately running her out of business. Maybe he had, maybe he hadn’t. He was definitely the cause, whether deliberate or not, and that was all the credit and a lot less of the blame she was inclined to give him. At this point, it didn’t matter, because the end result was the same.

His expression shifted, hardened. “And you blame me.”

“I don’t see anyone else around here starting up a guide business.”

He stared down at her, eyes narrowed, his mouth a grim line. “For the record, I didn’t go after any of your customers. If any of them were yours first, they came to me, not the other way around. And I’ll be damned if I’ll apologize because they preferred me.”

“I don’t believe I’ve asked you to apologize. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve asked a damn thing of you.” And she wouldn’t, not one tiny thing. “You asked what my beef is, I’ve told you, now get your nose out of my business and leave me alone.” She broke away, stepping out of their little hostile circle, and once again reached for the truck’s door handle.

His hand shot out and he gripped her arm, holding her in
place. “Wait.” Angie froze, her heartbeat abruptly thundering like a runaway horse as she looked down at the tanned, powerful hand that completely encircled her forearm. It was a lean, long-fingered hand, callused, and the back of it was marked by a two-inch-long white scar. His touch radiated a heat that burned through the thick double fabrics of her shirt and coat. “How much are you asking for your business?”

For a minute she couldn’t believe he was actually asking her that, then she went white with anger and jerked her arm away from his grip. “I’m not selling my
business
,” she snapped. “I’m selling my
place
, and getting the hell away from here, and away from you!”

She pulled the truck door open, tossed her tote bag inside, and climbed into the driver’s seat. She wanted to do something violent, hit him, kick him, but contented herself with slamming the door and shoving the key into the ignition as hard as she could. The motor turned over as soon as she turned the key, and roared to life. If she’d had a clutch, she’d have popped it, but she had to be satisfied with floor-boarding the gas pedal and fishtailing out of the parking lot, though it would have been a lot more satisfying if the lot had been gravel instead of asphalt and the wheels had thrown rocks against his legs.

Immediately she pictured the scars on his face, his hand, and her imagination violently rejected the very idea of peppering him with gravel. That was too much like shrapnel, and she couldn’t … well, she just couldn’t. She’d put this part of her life in the past and move on. The future had to be better; she’d made some miscalculations, some bad decisions, but she’d learn from her mistakes and things would get better. They
would
. They had to.

Dare Callahan stood in the empty parking lot and glared after the blue Ford as Angie Powell barreled down the road as if she were escaping from Satan himself. “Fuck!” he said violently, both his
fists clenching. A good, old-fashioned bar brawl would suit him right now, but the nearest bar was over thirty miles away and this time of day there likely wouldn’t be anyone available to brawl with anyway. His next best choice was a punching bag, and he did have one of those hanging in the barn back at his spread, but he wanted to knock the shit out of something right now, not an hour from now. He was out of luck unless he wanted to shatter the bones in his hands beating on the weathered brick building.

That was the effect she had on him. Ten seconds in her vicinity, and he was ready to fight something, anything. She was goat-stubborn, hostile, infuriating, and made him feel like a fool. Good riddance. He’d be glad when she was gone.

Except, even though she always looked at him as if he was a pile of steaming fresh cow manure that she’d just stepped in, there was nothing he wanted more than to fuck her blind. It had been that way from the day he’d first seen her. He’d even asked her out—twice—and been slapped down twice, and her attitude made it pretty damn plain she wasn’t the least bit interested in him, but his dick was too stupid to get the message. All he had to do was see that high, round ass of hers, or that dark ponytail swinging down her back, and the damn thing perked up and all but begged to be petted.

Life would be a lot calmer with her gone. Hell, it wasn’t even as if she was especially pretty. Dark hair, dark eyes, the kind of strong, carved bone structure that hinted at some Native American blood a few generations back, but nothing extra. Attractive, yeah, but that was it. Except for her ass. Her ass was jaw-dropping, eye-popping, slobber-dripping
prime
.

Maybe when she was gone his dick would give up the insane hope that some day it would have a shot at having her. And maybe then he himself would get serious about looking for another woman, someone who could stand to spend a few minutes in his company, which Angie Powell obviously couldn’t. He didn’t spend his time crying into his beer over her; he’d been rejected before,
and sometimes it sucked, but he didn’t curl up in a whiny, whimpering ball because of it. Still, for some reason, having her there kind of blunted the desire to go out looking for someone else. Even though he hadn’t asked her out again after the second rejection, he knew his own competitive nature well enough to realize that part of him—like his dick—had stayed focused on her and refused to give up.

With her gone, his clientele list would grow even more. He might have to start turning people down—

An idea streaked across his brain like a flash of lightning, freezing him in place. It was so obvious, yet so outlandish, that he automatically tried to discard it. She wouldn’t go for it in a million years … would she? No. Maybe.

Maybe?

Damn
. It just might work.

He looked up at Harlan’s real estate office, then down the road to where the blue truck was just a dark speck.

“What the fuck,” he said aloud, “why not give it a shot?” He strode across the parking lot and climbed the stairs to Harlan’s office. Harlan heard him coming, of course; his boots thumped on the steps and the planks of the upstairs landing. When he opened the door, Harlan had already swiveled his chair around and was waiting with an expectant look on his florid face.

“Dare,” he said in mild surprise. “I thought you might be Angie coming back. Sit down and have some coffee with me.”

“Thanks,” Dare said, because on principle he never turned down coffee. He never knew when he might get another cup, and he’d been deprived often enough that he never took coffee for granted. Going over to the coffeepot, he poured a cup for himself, then one for Harlan. “Black, white, sweet?”

“Black and sweet.”

“How many?”

“Two.”

Dare dumped in a couple spoonfuls of sugar, gave the coffee
a quick stir, then handed the cup over to Harlan. He dropped his tall frame into one of the four client chairs Harlan had optimistically put in the office. “Angie just told me she put her place up for sale,” he said brusquely, in his mind the ritual of coffee having taken care of whatever social niceties there were. “What’s the asking price?”

Chapter Three

Angie stared straight ahead through the windshield, her hands clamped around the steering wheel. Her eyes burned, but she refused to cry. She wasn’t a crier, anyway; the only time in her life she could remember having a complete meltdown was when she’d made a fool of herself at her wedding. If she hadn’t had the meltdown she wouldn’t have been so embarrassed, so in her book crying was not only a waste of time but also opened the door to all sorts of bad results.

BOOK: Prey
9.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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