Read Prey Online

Authors: Linda Howard

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

Prey (6 page)

BOOK: Prey
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He nodded at all the supplies spread out across the kitchen table, barely leaving enough space for them to set their cups. “Looks like a long hunt.”

“A week, though you know how it goes: If they bag their prey the first day, the hunt’s essentially over.”

“Trophy hunter?”

“Yeah. I’ve made the usual arrangements for the meat.” That meant that the meat would go to a homeless shelter, or to a family that needed a helping hand with food. The law was that the meat couldn’t be wasted.

“Who are your clients?”

“One’s a repeat; his name’s Chad Krugman. Nice enough guy, but not much of a hunter. The other one, Davis, is
his
client. I guess this is the roughing-it equivalent of a golf game.”

Harlan gave her a somber look. “Be careful.”

“Always.” She knew exactly what he was talking about, and didn’t pretend otherwise. In a perfect world a female guide wouldn’t have to take precautions when taking out a party of male hunters, but the world wasn’t perfect and she wasn’t stupid. Not only was she always armed when she was out on a guide trip, she made certain people knew where she was, who she was with, and when she was coming back—and that her clients knew she’d left their names with someone else, which was probably the best safeguard she had.

Nevertheless, she was on birth control. She kept things on a no-nonsense basis, never flirted, and slept lightly with her rifle at
hand. There were some things she couldn’t control, and if two men decided to gang up on her she might or might not to be able to handle the situation, but she was fairly certain she’d be able to handle someone acting alone. She made things as safe for herself as possible, and had to be content with that.

One thing she didn’t have that she wished she did: Her dad had gotten a satellite phone that he’d taken on guide trips, for emergencies, and she’d kept it for the first couple of years, but last year she’d had to cut expenses, and the satellite phone was one of the first things to go. She’d felt safer, having the phone. Thank goodness she hadn’t had any real emergencies in all the years she’d been guiding. Come to think of it, neither had her dad, but he’d liked having the phone.

He’d modernized in other ways as well, such as buying the four-wheelers, but for the most part he’d liked the whole bit of going out on horseback and giving his clients a real sense of adventure. She should have sold the horses the first year and kept the four-wheelers, but sentiment had gotten in the way of good sense, and she’d kept the money-eaters not only because her dad had liked them, but because one of the horses was a particular favorite of hers. Then last year she’d lost Jupiter to colic anyway, and another horse had broken its leg and had to be put down, which meant she’d had to buy two new horses, neither of which she liked nearly as much as the horses they’d replaced.

Life just kept on happening, damn it.

In keeping with the rule of letting someone know where she was, she pulled a piece of paper toward her, wrote out all the pertinent information, and pushed the sheet toward Harlan. “I’ll check in with you when I get back. If I don’t call by this date, send out the search party.”

Harlan nodded as he folded the paper and stuck it in his pocket. He’d done watchdog duty before, for her dad. He sipped his coffee, looking around at nothing in particular, and Angie noticed that guilty expression on his face again. An idea struck her
and she said, “Wait, I’ll get my camera. It isn’t as good as yours, probably, but it takes decent pictures. You can take the SD card with you; I have another one.” That was something else she always took with her: a camera for photographing the victorious hunters, just in case they forgot to bring their own cameras.

“That’s okay,” Harlan said quickly, then turned red. “I need to tell you something.”

Angie stared at him in puzzlement. He seemed both embarrassed and disturbed, which was weird. “You can’t handle the listing?” She couldn’t think of anything else that would account for his expression.

“Of course, that isn’t it. No problem there. It’s just, well, I don’t need to take pictures because there’s already been an offer.”

“Already?”
Angie sat back, her eyes wide. She didn’t know if she should be elated or terrified, because she hadn’t in her wildest dreams imagined the property would move so fast. This would save her a ton of money; on the other hand, she hadn’t had time to get herself emotionally or physically ready to move out, so this was kind of panic-inducing. Harlan must have immediately started spreading the word in the community, or e-mailed someone who—

Then a horrible thought occurred to her. She herself had told one person, someone who would have a vested interest in getting rid of her as soon as possible.

“Who?” She tried to keep her tone neutral, tried not to betray anything, but the look Harlan shot her told her that she’d failed … maybe because she could feel her eyes squinting into slits and her jaw clenching. No way was a neutral tone going to offset the Look of Death.

“Dare Callahan.”

Fury welled up inside her. She tried to tamp it down, tried to be reasonable. After all, she
needed
to sell, and the sooner the better. Callahan was actually doing her a favor, whether he knew it or not. Yeah, she wished anyone else except him would buy the place, but she had to get past that.

Harlan coughed. “I, uh, I happened to look out the window yesterday and saw you in the parking lot with him. I gather you aren’t on the best of terms.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” she muttered. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have to sell.” She sighed and rubbed her face, looked out the kitchen window to keep from looking at Harlan while she gathered herself, pulled it all back in. Okay. This made her so angry she could spit nails; she’d have to deal with it. She’d signed a contract with Harlan. If Callahan met her price, she was legally bound to honor that contract. That was what had Harlan so bothered; he knew she was caught, and he hated being the trap Callahan had used to catch her.

“He came straight up to my office after you left, then got back with me this morning after meeting with his banker, and made an offer.”

She was so focused on containing her feelings that it took her a few seconds to actually make sense of what Harlan was saying. Her head whipped around. “An offer?” That was different from taking the deal, which was what he would have said if Callahan had met her price.

“Yeah.” He turned his cup back and forth. “Would you be willing to take thirty thousand less?”

Angie erupted from her chair, unable to sit still with so much red-hot anger pouring through her. Going to the window, she clamped her hands on the edge of the sink and held on hard as she stared out, not seeing anything but using the time to get control of herself. The bastard! The low-down, miserable bastard! He knew how tough things were for her, had to have figured out she was close to bankruptcy and
had
to sell; he also knew how miserable the real estate market was right now, and how difficult it was to get financing. He pretty much had her over a barrel, and he was using that to get the property at a dirt cheap price. She and Harlan had priced it to give her a little maneuvering room for negotiation, but not thirty thousand dollars worth!

She didn’t have to accept the offer. Because Callahan hadn’t met her price, she was free to turn it down. But if she did, there was no guarantee she’d get another offer from someone else, and later on she might be so desperate she’d take even less money. Even worse: Did Harlan need the commission, even one based on the reduced price? Of course he did. How long had it been since he’d had a sale?

So she was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. Either way would cost her money. The more she delayed, the more of her money she’d lose in operating expenses—and if she took the deal right now, she’d lose it by taking the lower price.

She gritted her teeth, took a deep breath, and did the adult thing. “Make a counteroffer. Come down ten thousand.” That would buy her some time while she did this guide trip, but wouldn’t eat up so much time that she’d lose a lot to operations. And, who knew? He might come up ten thousand. Maybe he’d be willing to truly negotiate. Maybe he couldn’t swing her asking price, or the bank hadn’t been willing, and had low-balled her on his offer to give himself some wiggle room. Anything was possible. Not likely, because she couldn’t make herself give him the benefit of the doubt, but possible.

Harlan blew out a big sigh of relief. “Atta girl. I was afraid you’d turn him down flat.”

“If I could afford to, I would. But if I could afford to, I wouldn’t be selling in the first place.”

“I know.” Now that he could relax some, he took a big gulp of coffee. “I’ll see what he says. In the meantime, I’ll set things up with a home inspector and an appraiser, okay?”

“Sure. Let me get you a key, in case you can get things rolling while I’m gone.”

The extra key was in her bedroom. She took it from the bureau drawer and stood there a minute, clutching it in her hand while she did deep breathing exercises. She could do this. Even if
Dare Callahan made the only offer, even if she couldn’t afford to turn him down, she could do this.

He had to know that if he stuck to his guns, she could make counteroffers until she was blue in the face, but eventually she’d have to take his offer. The bastard.

Angie was so furious that as soon as Harlan left, she made a beeline to the computer in the den and e-mailed her pals in Billings.
“Want to guess which asshole is trying to buy my place for thirty thou less than the asking price???”

Not that they could do anything other than join in her outrage, and offer some outlandish but satisfying suggestions for revenge. That was the best thing about female friends: the instant, unquestioning support, regardless of common sense or practicality. They were all at work, of course, so she didn’t expect to hear back from them right away—

As soon as she had the thought, her e-mail pinged, and she saw she had an answer from Lisa, who had worked with her in the hospital administrative office. She’d sent the e-mail to Lisa’s home account, so this had to be a coincidence. She clicked on the e-mail to open it.

“Got a new BlackBerry! Can get e-mail all the time now. That rat bastard. Makes you think of harvesting some mountain oysters, doesn’t it?”

She typed back:
“His would be poisonous
.”

“Well, if you can’t even eat his nuts, what good is he?”

A few exchanges later Lisa said she had to get back to work, but by then Angie’s mood was much lighter. She’d done the adult thing and made a counteroffer. The ball was now in Callahan’s court, and until Harlan got back to her, she was wasting her time stewing about the entire situation. She still had work to do, and she’d be better off focusing on that. She couldn’t do a damn thing about Dare Callahan and what he did or didn’t do, but she could definitely make certain she did her job as a guide. That had to count for something, didn’t it?

She just wished … well, there was no point in wishing, because nothing could change the past. Yet she was always aware of a deep sadness whenever she thought of Dare Callahan, a sadness she kept carefully buried under a thick layer of anger, because there was no point in letting herself feel anything other than anger. Reality was what it was.

But still, for a giddy while, back when they’d first met, her stomach felt as if it had taken flight, her heart rate had soared, and despite all common sense she’d let herself get lost in anticipation. She could remember the exact moment when they’d been introduced—in the feed store, standing beside fifty-pound sacks of grain. She’d looked up into the strong face shadowed by the brim of his black hat, met those vivid blue eyes, and it felt as if the world had fallen away. She remembered the feel of his hard, warm hand wrapping around hers, the calluses on his palm, the steely strength held firmly in check so he didn’t crush her fingers. “Miss Powell,” he’d said briefly, his voice so hoarse she’d wondered if he had a cold or something. Then she’d noticed the scar on his throat, and knew that raspy tone was permanent.

“Call me Angie,” she’d said, and he’d given a curt nod.

Then someone else had called his name and he’d turned away, and though she’d lingered a little longer than necessary in getting her supplies, feeling as obvious and awkward as a fourteen-year-old trying to get a boy’s attention, she didn’t think he’d so much as glanced in her direction again. She had a million things to do to get ready for the guide trip she had booked for the next day, and there she was, wasting time, hoping he’d say something else to her.

Finally she’d given herself a mental shake and checked out. The feed had been loaded in the back of her pickup, and as she climbed into the cab he’d come out of the feed store. Angie hadn’t let herself pause; she’d cranked the engine and started to put the transmission in gear when he motioned for her to lower her window.

She pressed the button and the window slid down. Deliberately she kept her expression neutral, because she was a tad embarrassed at herself for dithering in the feed store the way she had. After her wedding fiasco, she’d made it a point to keep men at a distance, but a set of (very) broad shoulders and a pair of (very) blue eyes had all but blown her self-control to smithereens, whatever a smithereen was.

That blue gaze had pinned on her like a laser. “Have dinner with me tomorrow night,” he said abruptly, no lead-in, no chitchat, just a bald and blunt invitation.

Regret almost made her sick. Why tomorrow night? She was leaving early in the morning and wouldn’t be back for a week. Why couldn’t he have given her a decent lead time, at least a week? “I can’t,” she blurted, her refusal just as blunt as his invitation.

She didn’t have time to explain. He gave a curt dip of his head, turned around, and walked to his truck before she could get another word out.

And that was that. When she’d returned from the guide trip, tired, with another million things to do before yet another group of clients came in, she’d nevertheless raced into the house to check her answering machine, to see if he’d called during her absence. There had been a couple of calls, but his hadn’t been one of them. As days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, he still hadn’t called. Disappointed, after a while she’d stopped expecting him to.

BOOK: Prey
3.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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