Authors: Patti Berg
He watched her close the front door and finally shrug out of that big furry coat. She tossed it over a hook on the rack and slowly walked into the parlor. She started to grab an old broom someone had left standing against a wall. She touched it gingerly with the tips of her fingers, peeling away cobwebs wrapped around the handle. Alex came darn close to bursting into laughter at the grimace on her face. Watching the way her body moved when she finally swung the thing was no laughing matter, though. He hadn’t had anyone to haunt and he
hadn’t had a pretty woman to look at in a mighty long time.
e didn’t like the newfangled contraptions like this one was wearing that showed every curve and too much skin. He wasn’t a prude, but he preferred those ruffled and lacy things women wore back in his day, clothes that covered their necks, their wrists, their ankles, and their legs. Made a man wonder what was hidden under all that fabric. Made a man long to peel away the layers to find the sweetness beneath.
And oh, how he missed that sweetness, every fold and curve, every soft, mysterious spot that reacted so nicely to his touch.
Just the thought of it made him slink down to the floor and bury his head in his hands. If he could shed a tear, he would. Damn, he missed being alive. He hadn’t touched a woman in over a hundred years—a hundred-plus very, very
years. Not since Amanda.
He silently whispered his lover’s name and a deep sadness encompassed his face.
Oh, darlin’. Do you think this is the one? Do you think this woman can get me out of this place and back into your arms, where I belong?
He wrapped his hands around the post of a bentwood lamp and pulled himself up. He didn’t need the support, not physically. He could swoop from the entryway to the top of the attic and back in five seconds flat. But when he was sad, it felt good to grab hold of something real and tangible. At times he hugged the posts on the big oak bed upstairs, just to remember how good it felt to hold onto something more than air. A hundred
-and-something years was a
long time to hold onto things that couldn’t hold you back.
He looked again at the woman who’d invaded his domain, the woman he might be able to talk with, who might make his blasted home somewhat less boring. She was staring at the swaying lamp, a frown on her face. In fact, Alex realized, she was looking straight at him, studying the spot where he stood. Could she sense his presence? Could she see him? Neither seemed possible—he hadn’t allowed her or anyone else that privilege.
Not yet, anyway.
Size-fourteen double-E cowboy boots left their deep, heavy imprint in the snow-dusted street as Jon walked toward the end of town, his head tilted down, his face protected from the chill behind the brim of his hat. He’d spent the past hour drinking coffee at the Tin Cup, waiting for his temper to cool, and spent another fifteen minutes standing on the boardwalk outside, contemplating whether or not he should apologize to the new woman in town. He thought he’d overreacted, thought he might have exploded without giving her a chance to explain her partnership with Matt. But she hadn’t even tried. Instead, she’d feigned ignorance about what was really going on. In the end, he’d decided he’d ignore her and forget the fact that he wanted to sculpt her, forget the fact that he liked the sound of her voice, the openness of her laughter, and those red hooker boots that molded over her ankles and calves like a coat of red paint.
She wasn’t the type of woman he was usually attracted to, anyway. He liked them blond, petite,
and classy. No, Elizabeth wasn’t classy. Not at all—and that observation had nothing to do with the clothes she wore. It rested solely on the fact that she was in partnership with Matt Winchester.
She didn’t have a clue about hunting seasons, and more than likely, didn’t know the difference between elk and antelope. She probably didn’t know one end of a gun from another, or how to aim to kill so an animal wouldn’t suffer. Chances
are she probably didn’t care, either.
Of course, she could have been putting on an act. His cousin had done a good job fooling the
game wardens and anyone else who’d ever questioned him about his outfitting activities. Maybe Elizabeth was smart in that way, too.
Hell! Why did she have to be involved with Matt?
At the end of town where the narrow road swerved to the right and looped back toward the highway, Jon pushed through the arched black wrought-iron gates leading to his home. At least ten feet tall and fifteen feet wide, they had elaborate scrollwork that became a mass of entwining leaves at the top, with an ornate D forged at the center of each gate. Jon’s great-great-grandfather Jedediah Dalton had founded the town of Sapphire in 1880 and had built an empire that now stood in the center of nowhere. Jon liked it that way. He liked the solitude, the quiet. The town rarely attracted anyone but hunters and fishermen, sightseers and hikers, people just passing through because there was nowhere in town to stay. But Elizabeth planned to change all that, and Jon didn’t like it one bit.
He climbed the cobbled drive and mounted the walk that wound its way up the gentle rise where Dalton House stood guard over the town. Three stories of limestone block with massive round towers at each corner, it might have looked like a fortress if it weren’t for the elegance of its arched windows and sloped roofs of black
slate tile. Jedediah Dalton had covered the spires in copper, one of the area’s natural elements, and one of the things that had made Mr. Dalton a very rich man. Opulent and majestic, the Dalton mansion had stood more than a hundred years and was designed to stand a thousand more.
Pushing through a side door, Jon tossed his Stetson on a butcher-block table and draped his coat over the back of an oak captain’s chair. As he crossed the room, his boots left dirty wet imprints on the black-and-white tile floor, but he gave little thought to the mess. He wanted to get upstairs. He needed clay in his fingers, something tangible to bear the brunt of his anger and frustration.
He opened the refrigerator, grabbed a can of Budweiser, and mounted the narrow circular stairs that led to his studio.
On a good day, blue sky and sunshine would have radiated through the two-by-six windows that circled the
turret, but today only filtered light broke through the stormy gray sky. Jon preferred working by natural light, but he flipped one of the switches and filled the room with the best lighting money could buy.
He took a mound of clay from the refrigerator where he stored his supply and circled the room like a caged animal, digging his fingers into the cold, pliable clay, squeezing it, twisting it, until
he’d created nothing more than a grotesque, two-faced abstract of a woman, sweet on one side, cunning on the other. He stopped at his workbench and slammed the clay into the wood. Damn! Picturing the woman that way didn’t make him feel better at all.
He grabbed a charcoal pencil and a sketch pad. He thumbed through the pages until he found a clean sheet, dragged a wooden stool over to the window on the west side of the tower, and straddled the seat.
He looked down on the town, at the old hotel, at the windows filled with light. And he began to sketch what he’d seen, and what he imagined had been hidden behind that furry parka. Charcoal curves instantly appeared. Breasts full and round, a tapered waist, and hips made the way any man in his right mind would have made them—padded for comfort. Blue-black hair, shiny as a raven in the sunlight, trailed over one shoulder, the braid heavy and thick and curled at the end, where it grazed her waist. He penciled in high cheekbones, large, dark eyes, and thick, sensual lashes he knew would lie gently on her fair skin when she slept. And plump red lips that...
The blaring ring of the phone snapped him away from the sketch, away from the beauty he couldn’t get out of his head. Stalking across the hard oak floor, he dropped the pad on his drafting table and grabbed the phone. “Hello.” Annoyance rang loud and clear in his voice.
“Sorry to disturb you, Jon.”
Andy Andrews never imposed or disturbed anyone
unless it was important. “What is it?” Jon asked.
“Harry found a bear and her cub yesterday,” Andy said slowly. “Their paws and gallbladders were gone.”
Jon closed his eyes and silently counted to ten. “Where?”
Only a slight static sounded through the phone. Andy was hesitating for some reason, but finally he answered. “Schoolmarm Gulch.”
“Damn!” The charcoal pencil snapped in half from the pressure of Jon’s fingers. “Any sign of the other cub?”
“No. Harry checked the den, but nothing. Sorry I had to tell you, Jon, but I knew you’d been watching them last fall.”
“Spring and summer, too.” Jon sifted through a pile of sketches lying on his drafting table. He stopped when he reached the ones he’d done of the black bear and her cubs shortly before they’d gone into hiding in early winter. It wasn’t the first time a slaughter like this had happened, and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. But it didn’t make their deaths any easier to accept.
“I suppose Harry’s going to look for the other cub?” Jon asked.
“Guess so. I’m having dinner with him at the Tin Cup tonight. Want to join us?”
“Yeah. Might as well see if I can help him in the search.”
Jon heard Andy clear his throat. The man was a rancher and had done his fair share of killing to protect his livestock and hunting to stock his freezer. But senseless murder didn’t set any better
with Andy than it did with Jon. “See you around seven,” Andy said.
Jon heard the click and dial tone and hung up, but he stared at the phone for several more moments, then lifted it again and punched in a number he knew as well as his own.
He listened to the continuous ring and finally the voice on the other end, but he said nothing—just hung up again and took a long swallow of beer. He’d wanted to ask his cousin if he’d had a successful hunting trip yesterday, if he’d made a bundle. But he had no proof against Matt. Over the years, Jon had searched again and again for evidence to prove his cousin’s outfitting business, like his real estate practice, had produced more ill-gotten gain than legitimate profit. But Jon had continually failed. He didn’t want to fail again.
He picked up his beer, downed the remainder, crushed the aluminum in his fist, and easily tossed it into the trash across the room.
He looked through the stack of sketches again, his eyes resting finally on the one he’d just done of Elizabeth. He ripped it out of the tablet, crumpled the thick paper, and tossed it just as he had the crushed and empty can.
He couldn’t allow himself to think about her, not as a friend, not as the woman he wanted to sculpt. No, he had more important things to deal with now.
Plowing his fingers through his hair, he went to his desk, flipping through the Rolodex till he found the number he wanted. He stabbed the buttons on the phone, listened to the ring and the voice answering on the other end.
“It’s Jon Winchester,” he said. “I have a plan.”
Dust permeated not only the chesterfield’s worn fabric, but Elizabeth’s clothing, her nose, and her lungs. Every pore in her body felt as if it had been invaded by dirt. She knew she should climb into the tub and wash away some of the grime, but she couldn’t work up the energy to test the water in the bathroom. Three long days of sitting in the car and one long day of fighting spiders had sapped her strength. Now it felt good just sitting on the comfortable old sofa, not moving a muscle.
For the first time in hours she relaxed and took stock of things that needed repair or replacement other than the cracked paint and peeling flowered wallpaper. The red, blue, and green fleur-de-lis that had been stenciled over the doorways and windows had faded with time. It would take patience and a steady hand to restore them to their original beauty. Heavy velvet drapes with fringed hems no longer swagged in the wide windows and doorways, but she had easily seen the richness of the fabric and wanted to duplicate them exactly. Now, though, they lay with all the other tattered and torn items in a heaping pile.
It might have appeared dismal if Elizabeth hadn’t seen the charm deeply hidden away.
Gilt mirrors and framed landscapes and portraits hung on the walls and made her smile. They’d look good as new, once they were cleaned, and they’d add a wonderful touch of authenticity to the room when the walls were repainted and papered and new drapes were hung. And the pink marble fireplace—she’d never seen such beauty, carved with rosebuds and twisting vines.