“Move it or lose it, buddy!”
If Kelsey had obeyed his common sense, he would have moved it. However, as the command woke him up quite abruptly from a sound, exhausted sleep, and as he was feeling a bit irascible because of it, he chose to force the issue. So, in his best Bogart imitation, he growled, “Scram!”
The wisdom of that response was instantly in doubt when he felt the cold hardness of a gun barrel against his neck.
In a matter-of-fact voice that was musical and yet held all the softness of an angry drill sergeant’s, the woman said, “Any last words? A cigarette and a blindfold, maybe?”
Sitting very still, Kelsey chose to respond to the steely voice rather than the flippant words. “Uh— can we back up a little? I don’t know who you are, but—”
“That makes us even, doesn’t it? All I know is that this piece of junk is parked on my land and you’re in it. I get jumpy when strangers park on my land.”
Kelsey wanted badly to turn his head and look at the woman, but didn’t dare. “Look, I’m harm- less,” he insisted in his most bland and unthreatening voice. “I drove all night and I was tired, so I just pulled off the road to sleep. I didn’t know this was private land.”
“Now you do. Move it out.”
“Did anybody ever tell you that you have a wonderfully light conversational touch?”
“I said beat it!”
She had her hand through the window in back, he realized, so opening his door suddenly wouldn’t throw off her balance. Then he caught a sudden glimpse of her hand in the rearview mirror, and he almost laughed. Instead, he reached over his shoulder abruptly and took her “gun” away from her. It was an empty soft drink bottle, and he stared at it in disgust.
Of all the childish tricks to be taken in by! Muttering to himself, Kelsey tossed the bottle
through the window, then opened his door and got out of the car. He fully intended to pour his wrath all over her, but when he turned and got his first look at his attacker, wrath was the last thing on his mind.
She stood confronting him, stiff and angry, magnificent green eyes blazing with temper. Her incredibly pale silver hair was piled atop her head in what he vaguely recognized as a chignon, with tendrils escaping to frame her face. And Kelsey had never seen such a stunningly beautiful woman in all his life.
No one—man or woman—would ever call her merely “pretty.” She had the rarest kind of beauty, the beauty of bone structure and coloring that would remain with her all the days of her life. Her eyes were large and almond-shaped, fringed with long dark lashes, and their color was so vivid a green, they were almost iridescent. Her every feature was finely sculpted, and each blended so that her face was quite simply perfect.
“Close your mouth!” she snapped.
He did, then opened it again to laugh. “Damn, but you’re lovely!” he said. And he was intrigued to note that not even a scowl could make her face less than beautiful.
She put her hands on her hips, continuing to glare. “Am I going to have to call the cops to get you off my land?” she demanded.
Kelsey was trying to ignore the effect she was having on his senses, which was rather like trying to ignore a tornado while standing just under the funnel. “Um, you just might,” he confessed, feel- ing somewhat dazed. And in the back of his mind, behind all the rational, logical reasons why he just couldn’t, not now, a little voice was groaning, Oh,
hell, what lousy timing!
She blinked, and humor shone briefly in her eyes before temper rose up again. She turned her head and whistled sharply between her teeth.
Her teeth were lovely too, he noticed. And the jeans and T-shirt she wore did absolutely nothing to hide the fact that nature had been as wonder- fully generous below her neck as above. Kelsey decided he was dreaming. He decided he didn’t want to wake up. Then he became aware that something was growling near his left hip, and he tore his gaze from her to look down.
He woke up. In a hurry.
It was disguised as a dog, but from the sound it was making, Kelsey deduced that it was either a grizzly bear or a Tasmanian devil. Its fangs looked perfectly capable of devouring a whole steer, a redwood tree trunk, or Kelsey’s leg—which was what was closest at the moment.
Careful to keep his voice mild, Kelsey asked, “What the hell is that?”
“My dog. His name is Lobo. That means wolf. Lobo doesn’t like strangers either. Now, unless you can show me a badge—state or federal—and a warrant, along with a gun big enough to frighten
Lobo, you’d better clear out.”
“Right.” He edged carefully back into his car and shut the door with absolute quiet, but then hesitated. Looking at the face he knew he’d never forget if he lived to be a hundred, he said quietly, “At least tell me your name.”
She stood with one hand on the bristling ruff of her dog and stared at him for a long moment. “Elizabeth Conner,” she said, and seemed surprised that she’d said it.
“Thank you. My name’s Kelsey,” he told her, and then started his car and drove away.
The town was named Pinnacle, and it had never lived up to its christening. A sleepy little village with a city limit that was about a mile long and half as wide, it was tucked away in the country- side like a trail forgotten by time. The nearest interstate highway was ten miles away, the nearest city of any size a hundred, and if it was on any state map, it boasted only a pinprick with which to mark its location.
But as Kelsey drove his battered Ford slowly through two caution lights on Main Street, he de- cided that Pinnacle had, somewhere, an ace up its sleeve. He had spent nearly two hours driving all around Pinnacle before venturing in, and from that had concluded that the town would be a stagnating, dying one.
There appeared to be few income-producing resources in the rural county. Scant acres of usable, productive farmland, no river or stream of any size, nothing to attract tourists, one lone industrial plant called Meditron operating about five miles from town, and if a company or private individual was cutting timber, it was well-hidden.
So Kelsey had expected a dying town, one being slowly choked to death by its own limitations. He expected to see few young people, no new businesses or construction, and signs of decay every- where.
He was wrong on all counts.
The downtown area boasted several establishments of considerable size, all in excellent repair and, judging by traffic along the busy sidewalks on a weekday, flourishing nicely. At a rough estimate the population on the streets today had a median age of thirty and an income way above average, leaving folks with a lot of money to spend on themselves. Most of the cars on the picturesque street were late models, and there wasn’t a weed, a broken-down building, or crooked street sign anywhere to be seen.
“Damn,” Kelsey murmured. He continued down the main street and out of the downtown area, looking left and right to study some fine old homes and tasteful new ones, a compact little shopping center doing brisk business, an obviously new high school, and other signs of a healthy economy.
A county sheriff’s patrol car cruised past in the other lane, and Kelsey looked in the rearview mirror and watched as it pulled into a parking lot, backed out again, and fell in behind his own car. “Double damn,” he muttered. It could have been coincidental, of course, but he doubted it. Kelsey didn’t have a great deal of faith in coincidence. And he remembered, then, that Elizabeth Conner had ordered him off her land unless he could produce a badge—“state or federal.” So, didn’t the beautiful, bristly lady trust the local police? Now, that was interesting.
That was interesting as hell.
Kelsey found a small, neat motel about two miles from the city limits and pulled in there, nearly rammed head-on by a flashy sports car that was exiting at the same moment. Hanging his head out the window, he roared a few choice expletives, saw a faintly apologetic salute from the other driver, and parked his car with half his attention on that task and half on the patrol car that had departed, siren wailing, after the sports car.
He grinned a little, then got out of his car and went to acquire a room for himself. The result was a room, no more and no less; it was neat and clean and impersonal, and he barely glanced at the bland colors and sturdy furniture before dumping his bag and busying himself in showering and shaving.
He hardly looked at the face in the steamed mirror while he shaved automatically, but thought instead about everything he had seen and the conclusions he had reached. And he told himself that Elizabeth Conner figured prominently in those thoughts only because she looked like a good place to start. That was all, of course.
Sure it was.
Kelsey changed into clean clothes, faintly amused at himself for even thinking to check the shine of his shoes before leaving his room. He re- turned to his car, chose a less public road to leave the small town, and made only one stop before finding his way back to the pla...