Cassie Ashton shaded her eyes with her hand and squinted up at a man dangling halfway down the face of a bluff, twenty feet off the ground. The guy in the climbing harness wore jeans, heavy boots, a long-sleeved blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a very familiar battered white Resistol hat.
She'd finally run her quarry to ground.
Grinning, she tipped her head back and watched as he braced one gloved hand on the rock and worked the ropes with the other. She waited until he'd secured his footing, then cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled: "Hey, Martinelli!"
The white hat dipped as he looked down, and even though he was too far up for her to hear it, his lips formed a coarse word she easily recognized. "What the hell do you want?" he shouted back.
"Gotta talk to you!"
"In case it's escaped your notice, Ashton, I'm kind of tied up at the moment."
She'd noticed, all right. The leather straps and ropes nicely framed the best, and most arrogant, ass in all Wyoming.
"Whatever's in that rock has been there for over sixty million years and it's not going anywhere now. What I have to talk to you about is important."
"Christ, couldn't you once call ahead for an appointment?" He twirled above her as he repositioned himself, muscles pulling at his cotton shirt, straining its seams. "You can't expect me to come running every time you snap your fingers."
As the voices of the crowd gathering behind her grew louder, she affected a look of bored amusement and made a show of gazing around the rocky, scrub-brush terrain of dinosaur-rich Como Bluff. "An appointment? What do you think you are, Martinelli? A dentist lounging around some posh office?"
"This is my office. Now go away, call my department, and leave me a message."
Which he wouldn't return. Cassie grinned. "I don't think so. Get your ass down here, Professor Martinelli, because I'm not going anywhere until we talk. And you know I mean it."
"Don, what the hell is she doing here? Why didn't someone stop her before she got this far?" he demanded.
"Sorry, Alex. The new kids on the crew don't know her," answered a familiar gravelly voice. "And I was busy working on that hadrosaur leg we found yesterday. I guess she slipped right past me...you want me to throw her in the creek? I'd really enjoy that."
"You're welcome to try it, Igor." Still smiling, Cassie didn't bother turning around to face Don Cleary, the wiry old man she'd teasingly nicknamed Igor because he was Martinelli's second banana.
Above her, Martinelli called, "That's a pleasure I'm reserving for myself, Don."
Before Cassie could retort, a young man's voice from behind her yelled cheerfully, "Hey, hey, everybody, look who's here...it's showtime!"
Fine; if they wanted entertainment, she'd give them something to remember. Something to match that night eight months ago in Medicine Bow when Martinelli had humiliated her in a bar full of people. And last year, and the October three years earlier...and it wasn't like she'd ever live down the acrimonious showdown that had started their feud five long years ago, either.
By now their clashes were nearly legendary.
Smile widening into a grin, Cassie pretended not to hear the increasing catcalls, acting as if it didn't matter that her kind would never be welcome here.
"Come on, Martinelli. Are you just going to dangle up there, safely out of my reach, or come down here and face me like the big ol' manly man you are?"
She couldn't resist the "manly man" bit. With his half-supported stance against the rock emphasizing his lean, strong build, he looked like a poster boy for a wilderness outfitter advertisement.
For a moment, Cassie thought Martinelli would refuse the challenge, but after another mouthed curse he began lowering himself, working the lines and pulleys with an expertise that came from years of climbing mountains and cliffs the world over, hunting fossils, looking for that elusive "big find" that would put his name in the history books.
Too bad for him that she'd just beat him to the finish line.
As he descended, Cassie couldn't help focusing once more on how the harness cradled his rear and groin over the worn denim of his jeans, revealing a most impressive package, front and back.
Mortal enemies they might be, but she could still appreciate what he had to offer a woman. It just wouldn't ever be her, not in a million years.
"Mmm-hmm, he is one hot bitch, all right," said a female voice in a soft, hear-purring tone.
Cassie turned to see a woman who fit Martinelli's usual type -- mid-twenties, blond, leggy, and striking in an athletic, wholesome sort of way.
The woman smiled faintly when she met Cassie's eyes. "You have to admit he has a great ass."
Heck yeah. "I wouldn't know, as I don't have hands-on experience -- thank God. You do, I take it?"
The woman's smile elongated into a smirk. "And working on keeping it exclusively mine."
Ah...staking out territory. Another starry-eyed grad student, fallen to Martinelli's dark, dubious charms.
"It shouldn't take too much work." Cassie glanced upward. Damn; the harness really emphasized things that weren't meant to be emphasized in decent company. "He screws anything female that moves."
As if on cue, Martinelli unclipped the harness and hit the ground, puffs of dust rising from beneath the thick soles of his boots. "Not quite anything." He sent a pointed look at Cassie. "Even man-whores like me have standards."
Someone in the crowd made crowing noises, and another young man said in a faux sports-caster voice: "Martinelli scores a point for the home team, and the crowd goes wild!" Scattered laughter followed.
Cassie smiled, since some perverse part of her actually enjoyed these little sparring matches with Martinelli.
She glanced at the dusty card table she was leaning against in her best nonchalant pose. It held a number of soil samples, fragmentary fossils, and what looked like ordinary rocks to the untrained eye. But she knew fossilized dinosaur dung when she saw it. In fact, just last week she'd sold a nice specimen to a sweet old lady from Coral Gables.
She counterattacked with the ammunition at hand. "This is some real nice shit you have here, Dr. Martinelli. Some of the finest I've ever seen. Congratulations on a job well done."
A woman laughed somewhere to Cassie's right, then added, "And the opposition bounces back to make a brutal hit. Ouch!"
Martinelli advanced, moving with the confidence of a man who looked good and knew it. He pulled off his Resistol, slapping it against his thigh to knock off the dust before he wiped the sweat from his face with his forearm, then quickly unbuttoned his sun-faded chambray shirt and stripped it off. Without looking away from Cassie, he grabbed a large bottle of water from the cooler by the table, twisted off the cap, then dumped the entire contents on his face and chest.
He had a lean, spare build, the sinews and tendons neatly outlined beneath sun-browned skin, and the water made tracks in the grit on his face, flattened the dusting of dark hair on his chest, and gleamed wetly along the hard lines of his chest, ribs, and belly.
Cassie almost laughed, knowing this show was all for her benefit, but the leggy blonde beside her mewled: "Oh. My. God."
"Please. Have some self-respect." She eyed the woman. "It's just a chest. A pretty ordinary chest."
The blonde raised a brow. "You can't be serious."
Cassie shrugged. "Take it from one who knows. I've been married, given birth...at this point, men and sex hold no mysteries or suprpises."
"And isn't that just...sad." Martinelli pulled his shirt back on -- not that it made any real difference, since both skin and shirt were damp -- and locked his gaze with hers. "You're too young to be so cynical about men, Ashton."
"Not all men. Only players and posers."
"Ashton?" The blonde gasped, taking a step back as her eyes widened with sudden understanding -- and maybe awe as well. Or so Cassie liked to imagine. "Ohhhh...you're that commercial collector Alex told us about."
"Nothing flattering, I bet," Cassie said wryly, turning her attention back to Martinelli. "Was it?"
He flashed the grin that had probably broken legions of coed hearts and mucked up the academic careers of a few earnest graduate students as well. Then he settled his hat back on his dark hair, plushed his sunglasses up his nose to hide his eyes, and strode toward her, arms outstretched as if they were two old buddies about to embrace. "Cassie, Cassie."
Feeling the kick of her heartbeat, she raised her arms as well and ambled forward to meet him, smiling. "Alex, Alex."
"The players get into position," yelled a curly-haired grad student with a mustache. "And the crowd holds its breath in anticipation! Who will win this round of the Dinosaur Wars?"
Cassie allowed Alex to take her by the arms and position her at a safe distance from him. The palms of his hands were dry, rough, and warm against her bare skin.
"And how," he asked as he released her, "are you going to make my life hell today?"
Cassie shoved her hands into her back pockets. "You sure know how to make a girl feel special, Martinelli."
He gave her an unsubtle once-over, his gaze lingering on her breasts beneath her camouflage-print T-shirt. "What's with the G.I. Jane look? Going for a sneak attack? Didn't work, but it's a good look for you. Kind of cute."
To her eternal annoyance, she was doomed to be cute until she grew old and wrinkled -- and even then she might not escape it.
"Martinelli, I'm cute like a rattler is cute."
"And match point to the little lady in the tight camouflage shirt and even tighter jeans."
Cassie glanced over her shoulder at the bearded, bespectled young man who'd spoken. He was covered in dust and dirt, good-looking, and grinning, his gaze frankly appreciative. She arched a brow at him, then patted her behind. "Kiss this, honey."
"Can I?" Spectacles eagerly moved forward, only to be brought short by Cleary's hand on his shoulder.
"Don't," Cleary intoned. "You'll catch something."
"Lame, Igor." Cassie grinned. The older man always tried to draw blood, but he really didn't have it in him to do so.
Orindarily she'd have played out the game a little longer, but she was impatient to deliver her news and see the look on Martinelli's face. "It's been fun, as always, but showtime is over, kids."
She seized Martinelli's belt buckle -- a calculated familiarity to piss him off and give the blonde fits -- and hauled him a short distance away. "I have news...and it stays between you and me. I mean it. I don't want even a single word of what I'm about to say shared with anybody else."
Martinelli knocked her hand aside, then shifted to put the sun behind him -- so it shone directly in her eyes and obscured his face. The bastard wasn't above a low trick or two.
"It's something big," he said.
At the guarded, tired tone of his voice, a faint discomfort prickled over her, but she shook it off. "Oh, yeah. Hugely big, and I want you to see it. You were my first choice to verify it, Martinelli. As always."
"Because that way you can twist the knife just that much more." He stepped closer, then leaned down until they were almost face-to-face. He smelled like wind and earth and wholly male. "Not interested."
Cassie smiled, unperturbed by the crackling intensity of his hostility. "You might want to wait until you hear what I've found." She inched closer until she could feel the heat radiating off his body, glanced around to make sure no one else was within hearing distance, then lowered her voice. "I had a tour group digging at a private ranch up toward Thermopolis, at what used to be an old riverbed. We found an infant rex, Martinelli. I think it's nearly intact...and you damn well know what this means."
His face went slack in shock. A second later, his jaw tightened, muscles working beneath the dark beard stubble, and she could imagine the emotions in the eyes behind those sunglasses: anger, envy, regret, longing.
After a moment, she said quietly, "You want to talk about this or not?"
He gave a short, taut nod.
"I thought so. No way would you pass up a chance to study this animal and write it up. It's what you live for, isn't it?" He didn't respond, and after a moment she added, "I'll meet you at the Dip Bar tonight. Eight o'clock. I'd come earlier, but my ex is picking up my kid for a visit and I need to be there."
"I bet he's looking forward to another round of emasculation by Ashton."
His flat, unflattering comment stung, but Cassie flashed him her sweetest smile. "No doubt. So you'll be at Dip's, right?"
"I'll be there."
"Alone and sober?"
"Not if I can help it," he said with feeling.
"Either way, I'm sure we'll find common negotiating grounds. Bye, Dr. Martinelli. Have a nice day...and I hope you find something interesting up there in that old slab of rock."
Flushed with triumph, she walked away, aware of his furious stare boring a hole in her back -- and an almost physical tendril of dislike followed her as she passed his crew, curling around her as she headed back to her truck.
Once she was a safe distance away, Cassie stopped and glanced back at the familiar, ragged line of Como Bluff, sloping up toward a blue, cloudless sky. She could clearly see Martinelli's excavation tucked within a weathered ravine, and listened to the familiar sounds of pick axes on rock, shovels slicing into hard earth, voices and laughter, and the low rumble of an engine. His crew had returned to business as usual, ducking beneath protective tarps or hunkering to the ground under the harsh sun, sweat gleaming on muscles and skin as they dug and crawled amid the rocks and dirt.
The sight filled her with equal senses of longing and regret. They were always like that, these mixed feelings that followed her clashes with Martinelli. Why, she couldn't say.
But when she inserted her key in the ignition, her hands were shaking so bad that it took her three tries to get it right.
"Be careful," Cassie panted. "If you drop her now, I swear I'll shoot you...Wyatt! Could you possibly pay attention to what you're doing?"
After meeting with Martinelli, Cassie had returned to her Hell Creek lab -- which was more of a glorified shed -- and was now hefting her precious find from its protective crate to a worktable. All her staff, plus a few rand hands, had gathered to watch the momentous event, and the two dozen bodies crammed into the small building made maneurvering that much more difficult.
"Ow! Goddammit. Cassie, you just dropped the fu --"
"Wyatt, children present."
"Mom. Please. Like I haven't heard worse."
Cassie glanced over her shoulder, breathing hard from the physical exertion, her fringers cramped from the strain of holding on to the solid rock. A baby rex might be small, but baby and rock and plaster combined were heavy as hell. "Not from Uncle Wyatt, I'm sure."
Her fifteen-year-old son, Travis, looked suspiciously innocent -- a look helped along by the fact he'd inherited his father's fine blond hair and thickly lashed gray eyes.
"Nope," Travis said brightly. "Not at all."
"Goddammit!" The low, sharp curse brought Cassie's attention back to her younger brother, whose temper was as frayed as his work clothes -- and whose expression was as dark as his eyes and hair.
A frequent look for him these days.
"Wyatt, I am trying to raise a civilized child here. It may be just another of my pipe dreams, but I'd appreciate it if you'd tone down the cursing when Travis is around."
"Raisin' the kid to be a pussy, you mean." He glowered. "And do you think I can put this thing down here or not?"
God, she hated that word. With an effort, she reined in her own temper and repeated, "Yes, but carefully. This is worth a small fortune, if it's what I think it is and as well-preserved as I hope it is. Mae ... grab that side and help Wyatt, would you?"
Her lab manager, the epitome of mousy geek girl, was only too happy to rush to Wyatt's side. Cassie had long suspected Mae had a thing for Wyatt, since she had a habit of materializing out of thin air whenever he was around. Cassie occasionally considered pointing out that while her brother might look like a man, he had the emotional maturity of a three-year-old. But Mae was an adult, smart, and capable of making her own decisions and screwups.
"Okay, just a little more to the left and we're set," Cassie said, her voice tight with strain as she lifted her side.
A moment later, with Wyatt's and Mae's help, the precious burden of rock and plaster was settled safely on Cassie's worktable.
"Hey," Travis said from behind her shoulder. "If she died while she was just a baby, then her mom sucked at being a mom."
Giving a sigh of relief, Cassie stepped back from the table and turned to her son. "I wouldn't say that to her mom."
"Like I'd diss a T. rex. Even if I could." A gleam lit Travis's eyes. "But you're a good mom."
"Flattery will get you many places -- but not to the mall to buy an Xbox."
"Mom, you said --"
"What I said and what you're rewriting in your head are not the same thing," Cassie said. "And I'm not arguing about this again, Travis. I have a lot of work to do with this specimen. I don't have time."
"So what's new," he muttered under his breath, loudly enough for her to hear.
Even though she knew he was up to his usual trick of "guilt out Mom," it worked. Which only made her more annoyed.
"Travis, you know I love you, and you're too old to pull this guilt shit!"
"Language," murmured Wyatt from the other side of the worktable. "Tsk-tsk."
She briefly closed her eyes, wondering if she were the only woman in the world who struggled with such overpowering urges to bury her family in a hole. A very deep hole.
"Playing poor little abused child will not et you an Xbox. It will not change the fact that I have work to do." Travis backed down, but his jaw was still thrust outward in a familiar, mutinous angle.
Cassie turned and faced everyone gathered in the spartan, well-used lab. "And let me take a moment here to remind all of you once again that no one is to speak of this fossil to anybody without my express permission. No exceptions."
She made a point of meeting each and every pair of eyes: Wyatt, Travis, Mae, her mother, Ellen, the lab's computer guru, Amy Gupta, all her diggers and the ranch's hired hands, and the part-timer who'd been the one to unearth the fossil.
"Don't look at me like that. I promise my lips are sealed," said her newest employee. Russ Noble was a slender, black-haired man with a mixed white and Cheyenne heritage who also freelanced for a wilderness travel outfit. "But I don't know about Vern. The old guy's really the one who found her."
Despite her stern orders, Cassie knew better than to expect her discovery to stay under wraps for more than a week or two, which, if all went well, would be more than enough time. "I don't want this news leaking out until I get all my ducks in a row. Which is why I have to leave in a couple hours to pay a visit to a certain somebody and make a few arrangements."
"Oh, great," Wyatt muttered, and Cassie didn't miss the look of commiseration that passed between her brother and her son. "And we all know who that somebody is, just like we know those visits always leave you in a shitty mood."
"Can't be helped, but this time I have the last word to end all last words." With a smile, she turned to the table where the lump of rock and plaster lay, all its secrets safely hidden within. A little tingle of excitement shot through her, an excitement of the kind she'd almost forgotten.
"I have the first intact specimen of an infant Tyrannosaurus rex. It's the find of the century. He'll never top that, and he'll know it. I don't expect him to give me any trouble at all."
Beyond the little stuff, anyway.
"Excuse me, but who the hell are you talking about?" Russ asked and immediately glanced at Travis, grimacing. "Sorry. I'm not used to having kids around."
"I'm not a kid! I'm -" Travis began hotly, but Cassie quickly interrupted him.
"Yes, you are. The law says so. More importantly, I say so." She turned back to Russ. "I keep forgetting you're new and don't know about Alex Martinelli."
"Boo, hiss," said Amy Gupta, with a wide grin. She was a lushly built woman whose New Delhian ancestors hard given her shiny black hair, black eyes, and a toffee-colored complexion that worked wonderfully with the bright orange shirt and pink and lime striped capri pants she wore. Her wrists were smothered in bracelets that tinkled and clacked, rings adorned every finger, and a diamond stud pierced her nose. If Mae had the mousy geek look down pat, then Amy had colorful eccentric covered.
Come to think of it, her lab was a little heavy on the estrogen.
"He's our enemy," Travis added helpfully, drawing Cassie's attention back. "He and Mom have been in a feud for years."
"A rat bastard," Wyatt elaborated, winking at his nephew.
"And I'm still way confused," Russ said flatly.
Cassie folded her arms across her chest, smiling. "Let's just say he has something I need."
"And it starts with a P," explained Mae. She glanced at Wyatt and turned pink.
Russ eyed Mae -- and her blush -- and his face split with a grin. "Ah, a penis, huh? What's the big deal? Because, hey, I've got one of those, and you wouldn't have to go to any trouble for that."
"Ack! Child present!" Despite his shout of mock horror, Travis was grinning.
Sex talk and the fifteen-year-old male of the species -- the combination was so predictable, although in a very entertaining way. Cassie couldn't keep her smile from turning into a grin. "And I'm sure it's a very nice one, Russ, but one which will have to remain an eternal mystery to me."
"That's so gross," Travis added, nose wrinkling.
Ignorning her son's dramatics, Cassie added for Russ's benefit, "And the P is for Ph.D. It's a nuisance, but all my scientifically significant finds have to be verified by a real paleontologist."
"And you're not a real one?" Russ looked surprised. "You seem real enough to me."
Silence filled the lab.
"Remember he's new." Mae brushed a tendril of brown hair from her thin face, her Bambi eyes wide. "Please don't eviscerate him."
"I'm not 'real' in that sense," Cassie said curtly. "I do all the things a degreed paleontologist does, and probably better than most of them, but because I don't have those three little letters after my name I don't get to play with the big boys."
"Oh." Russ looked embarrassed. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it. But that's why I need it verified. And since I have to be the maid of honor at my best friend's wedding in a few weeks, I'm also short of time. And that, Travis, is why your dad is coming by in an hour or so to pick you up to spend the rest of the month in Laramie with him."
A look of disappointment crossed her son's face, since he truly enjoyed helping out around the lab, but when the disappointment faded, she suspected he was already calculating how he could talk his father into buying him an Xbox. And Josh probably would, because Josh spoiled the boy something awful whenever he had him.
But that was a small price to pay for a few weeks of around-the-clock, interruption-free work time.
"Travis, why don't you and I go pack for your stay with your dad," said Ellen Parker, and her frowning glance at Cassie broadcast disapproval of her daughter's maternal skills
Ah, well. Nothing new in that. She and her mother came from different generations; they'd never see eye-to-eye on certain matters.
"Will you call and tell me how it's going with the baby?" Travis asked.
Even knowing he'd hate it, Cassie affectionately ruffled her son's hair. "You know I'll call."
"What are you going to name her?" he asked, ducking away from her hand.
"We're not sure it's a girl, and I haven't given it much thought." She hesitated, sensing that he wanted to name the find but for some reason was too self-conscious to ask. "Would you like to name her?"
He brightened. "Can I?"
"Yes, but don't go overboard," Cassie cautioned. "Think posterity. It has to look respectable in the history books."
"Trixie," Travis immediately stated with finality.
Baffled, Cassie stared at him. Wyatt repeated "Trixie? Where the hell did you come up with a name like that?"
"It's a pun. You know, a play on words," Travis said, defensively. "She's a T. rex, so Trixie sounds a little like T. rexie. Get it?"
Cassie laughed. Sometimes she forgot how smart he could be. There were days she missed the little boy who thought his mother was the center of the world, but mostly she was enjoying the young man who'd taken that little boy's place.
Even when he was being a total pain in the ass. Or when he still looked young and vulnerable and hopeful, and made her worry that she wasn't paying as much attention to him as she should.
"You know, I really like that name. Trixie it is."
"Yes!" Travis crowed, raising both arms in a show of victory. "I win!"
"It sounds like something you'd name a dog," Wyatt said.
"Wyatt, zip it and put those muscles you're so proud of to good use. I want her turned with that bumpy part facing up. I have a feeling that's where we'll find the rest of the skull, if it's still there, and where I want to start working."
Her brother put his impressive musculature to good use, as ordered. Mae watched in admiration, but all Cassie could wonder was why she couldn't seem to exchange a civil word with Wyatt these days.
They'd always had a fractious relationship, but when had it devolved into something so tense and ... bitter?
"Now what do we do?" Mae asked.
"We get back to business as usual and nobody comes near Trixie but me. Then later, I have to go lock horns with Martinelli." She sighed. "Twice in one day. What a lucky woman I am."
"That lucky bitch." Don Cleary sat down heavily on the nearest boulder, and Alex joined him.
For a long moment, Alex said nothing, listening to the buzzing of flies, the low rumble of voices, the chk-chk of metal tools meeting rock. Then he rubbed his hand over his face and said darkly, "Tell me about it. How the hell can one woman be in the right place so many times in a row?"
It occurred to him that skill was likely involved, but he was in an ugly mood and didn't feel like acknowledging it to himself, much less to Cleary.
"An intact infant rex. Just think what finding one of those would do for our funding." Cleary slumped over, staring at his boots. "Instead it's Ashton who hits the big one, and you know she'll probably sell it to whoever pays her enough. Like she did with that old triceratops with the battle scars I wanted to study. Now it's somehwere in freakin' France."
"By the way, don't say anything about this yet to anybody. I wasn't supposed to tell you, but if I'm going to take Ashton up on her proposition to prep and study the specimen, that'll leave you here alone on the dig. The least I can do is tell you why I'm dumping all this work on you."
"Alex, I was digging up bones before you were even an embryonic gleam in your daddy's eye," Cleary said mildly, picking away the ever-present dirt caking his dry, gnarled hands, the knuckles swollen by arthritis and years of harsh weather and physical labor. "I think I can limp along on my own for a few days while you're off glory hunting."
Alex turned, his already raw temper further chafing at Cleary's comment. "Why the hell do you always say that? Lately I'm getting the sense you resent the hell out of me."
"It's not resentment, exactly." The older man had gone still, his expression a mix of wary surprise and guilt. "Look, there's an ebb and a flow to all things in life. I had my day in the sun, now it's your turn. I can't say I was happy when some controversial young Turk from California hit the department like a whirlwind, but -" Cleary grinned as he slapped Alex on the back -- and it wasn't exactly a gentle tap. "Then I decided that if my glory days were done for, I wanted to be working with one of the top guns in the field. And that happens to be you."
Cleary's answer took Alex by surprise. He'd never considered how he must appear in the older man's eyes, and he couldn't blame Cleary for viewing him as an usurper.
An ebb and a flow summed it up very well, and someday he'd find himself ebbing, too.
"If it helps, I want you to know I have every intention of bringing that fossil back with me to the department, no matter what I have to do to get it. Then it'll benefit everybody, not just the glory hounds like me."
Cleary laughed, but Alex didn't miss the sudden flash of longing in the man's pale eyes. "It would be something, to get a chance to look at an animal like that...one nobody's ever seen so young."
Alex couldn't help grinning. "Then I guess whatever I have to do will be worth the hassle."
"You've never had to work with Ashton on a professional basis before. Do you think you can manage it?"
"I have issues with her ethics, but from all accounts she does decent work. A few guys I know and respect speak well of her."
"If those few guys are the ones I'm thinking of, they're more than a little controversial themselves."
"Birds of a feather and all that." Alex pushed to his feet, then massaged the aching muscles in his back.
"You okay?" Cleary asked.
"There are days I feel every year of my age, and this is one of them. That exposed vertebra we found up there this afternoon is one stubborn bitch. I was turning myself into a pretzel trying to clear it enough to identify it."
"Did you? In all the excitement, I forgot to ask."
"The vertebra is honeycombed, so it's a tyranosaur. But I didn't see anything else near it."
"Just another discarded Jurassic snack, then."
"Yeah, I doubt it'll pan out to be more than a few scattered bones. Nothing to get excited about."
"Not compared to what just fell into your lap, anyway."
"Can't argue with that," Alex admitted, but despite his aching muscles and the weariness dragging at him, a lingering charge from his confrontation with Cassie Ashton sizzled hot inside him. He couldn't wait for a rematch, even one he had no chance of winning.
The woman always riled him to a point where rational thought simply ceased and his primal instincts took over. After every confrontation, it took him hours to cool his temper down to non lethal levels.
"Here comes your little Melissa."
As Cleary's wry tone broke into his dark thoughts, Alex looked up. A familiar blonde was headed his way, and his gaze lingered on the swing of her hips, the bounce of her breasts -- and the part of him not totally preoccupied with the coming clash with Ashton acknowledged that Mel was a fine-looking woman. Fast on the heels of that thought, though, came a prickling of guilt: she didn't rouse any emotion stronger than appreciation for something warm and pretty, and God knew, she deserved better.
"You've kept her around longer than I'd expected," Cleary said, as if reading Alex's mind. "Could it be you've finally met the right one?"
"The look on your face says you don't approve."
"Only because there's rumors that she's been hanging around Billy Landry more."
Alex wasn't angry or jealous, just resigned -- and curious. He tried to place the name but drew a blank. "Landry?"
"New guy. You've got him working with Lee."
"Oh, yeah...nice kid. Stutters when he gets excited."
"That's him. I think he has an eye on your Miss Melissa."
Miss Melissa was almost upon them, and Alex swung his shoulders from side to side until his back cracked. There; that felt better. "He's more her type anyway. If she has half the brain I know she does, she'll figure that out before long."
Behind him, Cleary sighed. "Sometimes I worry about you."
"Don't." Alex glanced down, grinning at his colleague's mother-hen expression. "I'm not worth the trouble."
Then he walked forward to greet Melissa and allowed himself to enjoy her soft warmth as she hugged his arm against her breasts. Until she woke up and smelled the coffee, he might as well enjoy the perks."
"So...how'd Martinelli react when you told him?" Amy demanded. "Spill all the gory details. Now."
Cassie flopped down on a relatively debris-free chair, allowing herself to relax now that she was back in comfortable territory. She needed the downtime to prepare herself before heading into Medicine Bow. "About as I expected. He loathes me, I despise him, but we have this strange relationship where we sometimes need each other. Or at least I need him," she amdended sourly. "I think this is the first time in the five years we've known each other that he really needs me."
"Must be a nice change?" Mae looked uncertain, her brown eyes concerned.
"It's certainly different." Cassie swiveled on the chair; it was a nervous habit that annoyed most everybody in the lab, but she couldn't help it. "I'm meeting him at the bar tonight because I figure he'll be less aggressive after a few beers."
"Idiot," said Amy, nearly nose-to-nose with her massive computer monitor, and sucking on a carrot stick she'd eventually eat, her ever-present water bottle close at hand. "Have you forgotten the dozen or so epic battles you two have waged while in a bar?"
Cassie scowled. "Not likely. The last time, he humiliated me in front of his entire team. He actually had the nerve to tell me that I deserved all the criticism coming my way. He was really pissed when I sold the old triceratops. I still don't get why. It's not like triceratops are all that rare, even elderly, beat-up ones."
"And you think he'll behave better this time? Honestly, Cassie, sometimes I wonder what goes through that brain of yours," Amy said, then crunched loudly on the carrot.
"He'll behave because he doesn't have a choice." Cassie shifted so that she could see the rock-and-plaster bundle on its table. It had seemed so big when they were trying to move it. Now it looked so small. The poor little thing hadn't had much of a chance to live before she'd met her end. "And because I'm asking him not only to verify it for me but also to help me prep the fossil, study it, and write it up. He'd practically kill for this opportunity, and I'm giving it to him, no strings attached."
Wyatt, carrying a bag of shovels and pickaxes in need of repair, walked into the lab at that moment. "Are you crazy?" he demanded, with his usual bluntness. "He's been trying to put you -- and all of us -- out of business for years."
"This time it's different."
Wyatt narrowed his eyes. "Why? Because you think you'll finally get the respect you've always wanted from him?"
For a moment, Cassie was too startled to respond. "How do you come up these half-baked ideas? I don't give a damn one way or another if I ever have that man's respect. Why should I?"
"Keep telling yourself that."
With an effort, she maintained her temper. "It's different, Wyatt, because this is a rare infant fossil from a pristine bed of sediment, which means there's a very good chance parts of her soft tissue or other fragile remains have been preserved, and as good as I am at this, I'm not taking any chances. I need to get somebody in here who's an expert in the field, someone whose skills I respect, and that would be Martinelli."
Everybody stared at her.
As the startled silence stretched on, she added, a little embarrassed, "Not that I'd ever tell him that."
Wyatt eased his burden down to the floor. "And if you do all this, Martinelli will figure he deserves the fossil. He's gonna want it."
"Everybody's gonna want it, m'boy," Amy said and crunched aggressively on her carrot stick. "No surprises there."
Wyatt didn't take his gaze from Cassie. "And what's the chance of you thinking you should do the right thing, for the sake of science and all that shit, and handing the fossil over to him for next to nothing?"
"I haven't given any thought to what I'll do with her, beyond getting her cleaned up."
"I know you too well, Cassie, and like hell am I gonna let you hand this fossil over to that bastard. You'll sell it to the highest bidder, we'll make a nice profit -- and everybody'll get a big, fat Christmas bonus this year. For once we have a chance to make some serious money. Don't fuck it up."
"Look," she snapped. "I make the decisions. Period. And in case you've forgotten, I'm the one who sacrificed -"
"- your whole life, yes, we've heard this before." Wyatt glared back. "Give it up, Cass. Nobody asked you to leave college and come back here after Dad died. Nobody asked you take over running the ranch or shop. Nobody asked you to stay. Nobody asked you to get yourself knocked up or married or divorced. So don't give me that shit. The guilt worked when I was a kid, but I'm not a kid anymore."
"If you don't like how I run things, then leave!"
"And that's supposed to be an answer? Sounds like a dodge to me."
She took a long, deep breath to calm herself, beating down the prickling of guilt -- and very real hurt at his accusation. "No, nobody asked me to come back and give up all my plans and dreams. I know that. But what did people expect me to do? I couldn't let everything our family worked so hard to create over so many years just disappear. Our parents give us life and raise us, and it's right to give something back to them when the situation requires it."
"It's wrong when you keep using it as an excuse to do everything your way because you're a selfish control freak." Along with the anger coloring his face, Cassie saw hurt and frustration in her brother's dark eyes a split second before he dropped his gaze. "I see your point of view more than you think. But you laid a guilt trip on us for years to force us to do everything your way, and now -"
"No one else was doing anyting at all! You and Tom were too young, and Tom never had any interest in the rancy anyway. After Dad died, somebody had to step in to keep everything from falling apart, and you know Mom never had a head for business. Staying here cost me a lot, Wyatt," she finished quietly. "All I ask is that you remember that."
"Like I can forget, with you telling me at least once a day," her brother said bitterly. "Saint Cassie, savior of the Parker Ranch and Hell Creek Rock Shop. And God forbid that I dare disagree with any of your almighty decisions."
He grabbed his bag of tools and stalked off, clanking with each forceful stride, and leaving her with a sudden awareness of Mae and Amy, sitting in a frozen silence of embarassment. Amy had been at Hell Creek long enough to grow accustomed to the occasional blowups between Cassie and Wyatt, but Mae had joined them only some eight months ago, and she always looked like she wanted to cry following these shouting matches.
"Sorry about that," Cassie told Mae. "Wyatt and I don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. He's also getting to the point where he doesn't want to work for his big sister; he wants to run the show."
Mae tried smiling, which made Cassie want to give her a reassuring hug. Mae always brought out her protective streak; it had to be those Bambi eyes. She seemed so unworldly, Cassie sometimes wondered if the woman had lived her life in some kind of bubble. How could any woman be that naive in this day and age?
"It's okay," Mae said softly. "You're both so much alike, really, and I wish you'd get along better. It must be hard for him."
And what about me? Why did everyone assume she had it easy just because she was in charge?
"Hey, Mom," Travis called, poking his head through the door that led from the shop to the lab. "Why's Uncle Wyatt all pissed off again?"
"Pick your flavor or gripe of the day."
"Ooookay. Forget I asked." He walked in and edged closer to the table. "So how do you think Trixie died?"
"It's too early to say." Casie stood and absently removed a bit of loose plaster, revealing paler bone. So slender and fragile; hard to believe she would've grown into a massive killing machine. "We found her in what used to be an old riverbed, so it's a pretty safe bet that she drowned in a flash flood before being quickly covered by mud. That's why she's in such good shape."
Touching a tiny bone gently, Cassie felt her gaze blur as she imagined the infant rex's fate.
67 Million Years Ago...
The flying thing had drawn her away from her safe place. She'd followed, curious, trying to catch it as it buzzed from one leaf to another. Soon, her chase had taken her far away, to a place where everything looked and smelled strange.
Before long, water had fallen from the sky. Scared and alone, the creature had cried out for her mother. Then, trying to hide, she'd fallen into a cold, watery dark.
Despite her efforts, she couldn't climb back up the slippery incline. Light flashed above, blinding her. Even young as she was, fear registered clearly. She understood her mother, her body both a comfort and safety, was not near. The water tickled against her belly as more fell from the black sky with its burst of lights.
Over and over, she tried with all her strength to climb out of the rising water. She smelled mud, but not the refuge of the place where she belonged. Fear pulled her down as surely as the strong currents of the water.
The torrential rains had turned the dry riverbed into a brown, churning maelstrom. Ripped from her precarious hold on the shore's edge, she was tumbled and pushed forward by the current, dragging her under the water.
She cried louder for her mother, never stopping, until the water pulled her under for the last time. Weak, too weary to fight, she let the darkness take her to a peaceful place.
For a long while, she bobbed and swirled to the whims of the wind-whipped river, until finally the rains eased, the winds died down, and the current turned sluggish once again. Her small body drifted toward the muddy shallows and sank into the softness, where it was soon covered by layers of fine silt that washed down from the hills and mountains. Tiny hands curled inward, her head arched back, the mud switfly entombed her.
Once the rains receded, the sun emerged, and long, hot days followed, baking the mud hard as rock and sealing the little one within a cradle of dark earth.
"She's really worth a lot of money, isn't she?"
Travis's voice pulled Cassie back to the present, to her own vulnerable child.
"Sweetie, she's priceless."
Seeing his wistful expression, she added quickly, "But as incredible as she is, she's not as important to me as certain people in my life. I think you know who I'm talking about."
"I know." He heaved a sigh. "I didn't mean what I said earlier."
She nodded, understanding why he'd trailed back into the lab just now. Her son didn't have a mean bone in his body; he couldn't hold a grudge even if he wanted to. He was a good-natured kid, and the fact that she could still say that during adolescence had to be a miracle.
"Trav?" Ellen Parker called through the lab door. "Your dad's here, and he brought Trina and the kids."
Travis groaned. "Oh, great. They'll be crawling all over me. I hate that."
Being a teenager with two half sisters half his age didn't do much for his dignity, especially since their way of showing how much they idolized him was to torment him. Mercilessly.
"You'll survive." Cassie turned as her ex-husband walked in, laughing at something Ellen had said. He was still tall, still thin, still blond and gray-eyed, and still cute in that grown-up-little-boy way that had been her utter undoing so many years ago.
Now, there were times she looked at him and wondered what the hell she'd been thinking. Not that she regretted it; how could she, with the fantastic kid she'd been blessed with?
"Hey, Cass," Joash said lazily. "You're lookin' good. The old bone business must be doing right by you."
"It's a living," she answered, as she always did. He'd never shared her fascination for geology, much less dinosauria, so no one had been too surprised, herself included, when their marriage had gone sour pretty much from the start. Still, he was an okay guy, as was his wife. Cassie returned Trina's smile. She wouldn't consider Trina a friend, but she liked her well enough -- and it helped that Trina was truly fond of Travis.
"You ready to bo, buddy?" Josh asked his son, grinning from ear to ear. Their marriage may have been a disaster, but she'd never once doubted that Josh loved his son.
"All pakced. My suitcase is out by the garage." Travis nodded at Trina and gave a wave at his two half sisters, who were clinging shyly to their mother. Somewhere by the lab's back door, Wyatt laughed loudly, and the little girls moved even closer to their mother. Cassie couldn't blame them; Wyatt had an overwhelming effect on a lot of people. Especially female people.
Cassie gave her son a quick, firm hug, wishing she could hold him close or kiss his cheek like she'd done so often when he was small. But she knew better than to embarrass him. Instead, she said cheerfullyl to Josh, "Here you go, then: one prime specimen of Pesticus bratticus. Please return the creature to me in the same condition as you received it."
Travis groaned. "That is so lame."
"I know. Can't help it."
Still grinning, Josh asked, "Is there anything I need to know? Any rules or orders?"
"I'd tell you not to spoil him rotten, but I'd be wasting my breath."
"Okay, Trav, let's go. You can give your mother a call when we get back to Laramie."
Everybody said good-bye and Cassie waved until she could no longer see the trail of dust down the long driveway.
Strange how the place always seemed so quiet once Travis left. At moments like this, she wondered how she'd deal with the empty nest thing. It wouldn't be long before he'd hit eighteen, and then he'd be impatient to head out into the big, bad world all on his own.
And of course he should; that was the way it worked. Kids grew up and left home. Mothers suddenly had to find something else to fill up the hours they'd once spent chasing after kids.
"God," she mumbled to herself. "Am I in a mood or what?"
As Cassie passed through the shop, she automatically checked the shelves and stock. Housed in a log shed built by the first Parker settler in 1910, it had been modernized and expanded as the business grew, but still possessed a quaint charm. She'd loved playing in the shop when she was little, and it was still her favorite part of the business, even if it made the least profit.
But once she'd taken over the business, she'd started catering to the serious collectors in addition to the casual tourists who wanted a pretty rock or two to take home as a souvenir.
For pint-sized rock houds, the shop had barrels of quartz, pyrite, geodes, and other showy rocks and minerals, as well as fossils too fragmentary or damaged to be of value, or too common to be worth cataloging, like the fossil shark teeth that sold so well. Shark teeth and kids went together like Hershey's syrup and French vanilla ice cream.
The nicer specimens were shelved in display boxes, and the big-ticket items were up front by the cash register. And some of those big-ticket items were just plain big, like Opie the juvenile triceratops -- or the front quarter of him, anyway -- who would stand on display near the front door until somebody came up with the money to take him home.
Her mother stood at the cash register, chatting on the phone while she priced little sand buckets full of plastic dinosaurs and colorful shovels. As Cassie approached, Ellen finished up the conversation and hung up.
"It was nice of Josh and Trina to take Travis on such a short notice," she said.
It's only a week earlier than we'd arranged. He always spends time with his dad before school starts. It's not that big a deal."
"Still, it was nice," Ellen repeated. "You're expecting to be really busy with that thing, huh?"
"Yeah, it will take a marathon of cleaning. How's it going today? Looks like we've been busy."
"Just the typical end of summer rush, last-minute vacations before school starts. We've had a lot of famlies with kids today. Oh! And that reminds me, I took a call from that nice gentleman in Dallas who's looking for eggs. Anything you've got, he said he'd take."
"Hmmm." Cassie leaned back against the counter, watching a family with three small boys who were pawing excitedly through the barrels of polished rocks, all oohs! and aahs! and excited whisperings. "I'm not sure we have much in stock. I'll have to check with Mae. Did he leave a number?"
Her mother handed it over. "He said to leave a message if he wasn't there."
Cassie slipped the paper into her back pocket.
"So what's next with that thing?"
It didn't require a genius IQ to deduce that her mother didn't much care for Hell Creek Fossil Company's newest prize. "Mom, you could be a little more excited about it. We're going to be able to sell this one for major money."
"I know, but I'm not looking forward to all the stress. I remember what it was like when Wyatt and his people found that partial rex last year, and that elderly triceratops that caused your last big fight with Mr. Martinelli. Lately I find myself missing the times when we just ran the rock shop. I hate disruptions."
"Then you better brace yourself, because when word gets out on this one, the phones will be ringing off the hook."
"I'm sorry, honey. I know this means a lot to you. And I know it's important." Ellen sighed. "But I'm dreading the long hours and the arguments. You and Wyatt haven't exactly been getting along these past few months."
"Leave Wyatt to me. He'll get over it."
"So what are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to check on Trixie, then get ready to head into Medicine Bow to negotiate terms with Martinelli."
"Cassie, I hope you know what you're doing. He's never been very nice to you. In fact, he very nearly -"
"Martinelli and I have a basic understanding," Cassie interrupted before her mother could start in on the laundry list of Martinelli's Crimes Against the Parkers. "He won't try to get me arrested this time. I promise." She pushed open the lab door. "I don't know when I'll be back, so don't wait up for me."
Once back in the lab, she asked Mae to check on their fossil egg stock, told Amy to run numbers to get an idea of what this fossil was going to cost in terms of work hours and supplies, cautioned the whole crew once again to keep their mouths shut about Trixie, then headed to the main house to change into something more appropriate for "negotiations."
The ranch house had started out small, and over the years various Parkers had added on to it as needed, so it was an odd mix of styles. But it was home, and that made all the difference. Sometimes she longed to move away to her own place; at other times she found the familiarity, the memories, and the connection with family long since gone to be comforting.
It was a good place to raise a kid, although there were days when she wished it had more than one bathroom with a shower. With four people in the house -- though technically Wyatt was living in the apartment above the garage -- bathroom time was a precious commodity.
Right now, though, she was the only person in the house and the shower was all hers for as long as she wanted.
After leisurely washing away the day's sweat and grime, she toweled dry, powdered and perfumed herself, then rummaged through her closet until she found what she wanted.
It qualified as a dress, even if there was barely enough of it to do any qualifying. She'd bought it a few years back on a shopping trip in L.A. with her best friends, Diana and Fiona. She couldn't remember why she'd bought it; it wasn't like she had many opportunities to dress up out here in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming. The skin-colored crochet sheath, lined in a matching knit that created the illusion of nothing beneath, hugged her curves and bared a lot of leg and cleavage.
Not a dress for the faint of heart or the modest of soul, neither of which had ever been an issue for her.
Cassie eyed herself in her dreser mirror and laughed softly. "All's fair in love and war and dinosaur hunting."
Curious to see the reactioin to her newly created man-eater persona, she traipsed back to the lab in high heels. The second she walked through the door, silence fell over the room. Russ, talking with Wyatt, nearly let hs jaw hit the floor; Wyatt just grinned.
"Jesus," Russ said in awe. "What the hell is that?"
"My war gear. History has shown that the best way to deal with Martinelli is to distract him with boobage."
"You know, I almost feel sorry for the guy." Russ hadn't stopped staring. "Poor bastard doesn't stand a chance."
"That's the whole point." Cassie pirouetted, thoroughly enjoying her rare plunge into femaleness. "You like?"
"What's not to like?" Russ's focus dropped to her backside. "Very nice."
"I do have a pretty decent ass, don't I?" Cassie peered at her bottom, clearly outlined beneath the tight dress.
"The magnificence of which nearly matches your ego, yes," Russ replied with a grin.
"Hey, none of it's my doing. The good Lord giveth." She slapped her hands on her rear, then over her breasts as she added mournfully, "And the good Lord also taken away."
"Hey, none of that." Russ eyed her breasts with a lazy appreciation. "You have great boobage. And you're so damn cute."
"Uh-oh." Amy gave him a look of mock alarm. "The newbie just used the c word. Now you're in for it, Russ."
Cassie laughed. "Lucky for you, Russ, I'm in a good mood. But for the record, calling me 'cute' won't win you any points."
"Sorry." He didn't look in the least contrite. "But I call 'em like I see 'em, and you're cute as cute can be."
Amy said, "It comes from being barely five foot tall and all perky and bouncy. Disgusting, isn't she? But damn, if I weren't straight, I'd do her."
Everybody laughed, and Russ said, "I am straight, and I'd do her, too." As Cassie sent him a quelling glare, he added, "Martinelli's never gonna know what hit him."
"Excellent. Just what I wanted to hear. Okay, kids, I'm off to the bar to pick up slutty palentologists. Play nice while the lab mommy's away, and remember -- nobody plays with the baby or talks about her."
With a pert finger wave, she spun on her high heels and sashayed out to the garage, carefully making her way over the gravel. Stepping up into the pickup in her tight skirt took a little ingenuity, but she wiggled onto the seat without ripping or snagging anything critical. And then she was headed toward the nearby town of Medicine Bow.
Cassie was aware of the truckers checking her out as she passed them, and she enjoyed the attention. Still, it was so unfair.
A man like Martinelli could show up all sexy and attractive just the way he was, while women needed to stuff themselves into skinny clothes, balance on high heels, fluff their hair, and make up their face. She enjoyed the sprucing up, though; it had been a long time since she'd had an opportunity to feel like a desirable woman rather than a mom or a boss.
Along with the familiar hum of excitement, jitters staked out their territory in her belly as she approached the bar. Martinelli was bound to retaliate before giving in to her demands, and he was at his most dangerous while acting charming or harmless. For that reason alone, she hoped he'd greet her with snarls and jabs rather than smiles and charisma that worked its wiles on her far more than she liked to admit.
A group of skinny, weathered cowboys outside the bar surveyed her with unabashed apreciation as she walked their way, and their catcalls and whistles followed her into the dark, smoke-choked bar. In the heart of Wyoming, sexism and non-PC behavior still flourished.
Above the sound of a jukebox, the clink of bottles and glasses, and the hum of conversation, Cassie heard the solid thwack of pool balls hitting one another, and she spotted Martinelli and his sycophants by the back pool table. He'd spruced up a bit and appeared to be wearing clean jeans, a clean shirt, and a shiny, twenty-something blonde.
The shiny blonde didn't deter her. While Cassie might have left her twenties behind some time ago, she still looked good. More important, she was sneaky, unscrupulous, stubborn, and thick-skinned. Sometimes success was nothing more than being the last one standing.
Martinelli pretended not to see her, although he couldn't possibly have missed her arrival since the entire bar fell dead silent. She moved forward, aware of the male and female gazes following her, assessing and judging.
"Hey, Martinelli." Cassie leaned her hip against the pool table. "I see you're well-accessorized, as always."
Lazily, he looked at her over the blonde's head. "You're just jealous."
"Of what?" She grinned as she hitched herself up to sit on the side of the pool table, then deliberately crossed her legs, causing the intensity of the stares directed her way to incrase a gazillion-fold. "Your reputation as the biggest slut west of the Mississippi?"
The blonde turned and Cassie recognized her as the grad student working on obtaining exclusive rights to Martinelli. And very attractive rights they were; the dim light of the bar only added to his classic good looks, the patrician nose, firm lips, and hooded eyes that clearly marked his dark, volatile Mediterranean heritage.
"Oh, it's you." The other woman's voice was cool, her expression scornful. No trace of the earlier friendliness; the girl was a quick study on whom to look down upon.
"Yes, it's me, and I have business with your boss. Now be a good girl and go away."
"Don't you give me orders, bitch."
Oh, my. Dramatics! It was like having an angry puppy yapping at her heels.
Cassie smiled gently. "In this little world of ours, I'm the queen bitch and you're nowhere near my league. Truth is, you're just a nuisance. Now go away."
The woman pulled free from Martinelli, who didn't move. A nice man would've jumped to his girl's defense; instead he looked like he was enjoying the skirmish.
"Alex? Are you going to put up with -"
"Mel, why don't you get a beer and keep Cleary comany for a few minutes. I'll come for you when I'm done here."
His low, pleasant voice carried a note of authority, and the blonde simply glared at Cassie as she walked past.
God, had she ever been that young and emotionally transparent?
"Bye, Mel," she chirped at the woman's stiff, retreating back.
"Pull in the claws, Ashton," Martinelli said, his tone still pleasant. "Your business is with me, not her."
Cassie arched a brow. Admirable of him to defend his date, if rather pointless after the woman had left. "But she's so easy to offend."
"And when you scent a weakness, you go for the kill. Nice habit." His voice had an edge to it she hadn't heard in a while.
He was furious. Ice-cold, raging, blindly furious -- and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about the reason for it.
"The laws of survival, my friend," Cassie said easily. "Something we should be well aware of in our line of business."
"My line of business and your line of business aren't alike." He turned toward the pool table and picked up a cue. "Despite your fantasies to the contrary."
At what point had the other men at the table faded away to leave them alone? Absolutely alone, in the center of the room, with the neon gleam of the Budweiser sign on the wall casting his face in a cool, blue light.
Cassie slid off the table and picked up a cue. She wasn't much a pool player, and letting Martinelli win might help ease the brittle tension. Twirling the cue, she ambled to the other side of the table.
"Like it or not, this time our business is mutual. Play a round?"
Wordlessly, he bent, aimed, and sent balls smacking across the table. The number six dropped into a corner pocket. "Take your best shot."
"I always do, Martinelli. You should know that."
She did her best but managed only to send a few balls wobbling over the worn green felt. She glanced up, and caught him eyeing her cleavage.
Yup; distraction techniques in place and working fine.
"If that was your best shot, I'd pay money to see your worst." Martinelli lookd up, not the least embarrassed at being caught ogling her boobs.
"We can't all be brilliant at everything. So, have you thought over my little proposition?"
"Drop the nice act, Ashton. I like you better bitchy."
She smiled, reveling a tiny bit in her victory over him. "I just thought you might have a few questions."
"You're getting off on this, aren't you?"
Cassie leaned back against the table and did her best to look bored. Again, his gaze lowered to her breasts; the look almost physical as a touch. Her entire body warmed in a way that was pleasant but most definitely not welcome.
"Why not?" she answered. "Serves you right for being such a bastard to me for all these years."
He merely stared at her, his mouth thin. "You're sure it's an infant rex?"
"Keep your voice down," she ordered, after glancing around to make sure no one was in earshot. "And, yes, I'm certain."
"So you can prove it?"
"Oh, Martinelli, you're just making this harder on yourself."
He turned away, and more pool balls cracked against each other before thudding into the pockets. "You're such a nice girl."
"Been there, done that. When I played nicely, by the rules, it got me a big, fat nothing. You've got so many rules to play by, it must really chap your ass that I can go where I want and do what I want without departmental bullshit and grant committee red tape tripping up my every move."
"At least I have respect."
A direct hit, and he knew it. With another smile, though this one took a bit more of an effort, Cassie sent a few balls skittering across the table. Again, she could feel his gaze on her, heated and physical as a touch.
"It wasn't your turn, Ashton."
"I'm not much for waiting. I've already won what really matters, haven't I? So here's the rundown, even though your ego won't allow you to ask for it: The remains are in very good condition, and from what I've already cleared, I'm pretty confident the skull's intact. We did find one of her arms and a portion of a foot washed downstream, but we've excavated that area as well. If any other small bones drifted away, we should recover most, if not all, of them. And if we're lucky, some of the soft tissue might have been preserved and we'll get skin impressions. Maybe more."
"You can tell it's female?"
"Nope." At his raised brows, she elaborated. "I'm going on instinct. When it comes to bones, anyway, my instincts rarely fail me."
"So what exactly do you want from me?"
"For starters, the usual -- I need you to verify it's what I already know it is."
"Yeah, the validation behind those three letters is something you can't claim, no matter how much you lie, cheat, and manipulate situations to your advantage."
Old words, old accusations. There was no real heat or conviction in his voice.
"Seems to me that precious little bundle back in my lab is all the validation I'll ever need for the rest of my life." She smiled at him and watached his expression darken. "Now, what I'm about to say may come as something of a shock, but I'm completely serious."
She walked around the table until she faced him. It annoyed her that she had to look up, and she wished yet again that she hadn't been born with an overabundance of "cute and tiny" genes. Her looks had a few advantages, but most of the time they made for a struggle to be taken seriously.
"Despite what you and your colleagues believe, I run a damn good business and I know my work. But because this is an important find, and because half the members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology will be out to discredit me, I want somebody with credentials working at my side. You may have a certain notoriety within your circle of peers, Martinelli, but nobody questions your skills or judgment. If you're there to back me up, I won't have to waste so much time defending every minuscule move I make."
"What's in it for me?"
"You need to ask? You get your name attached to the biggest paleontology find of the century, which ought to translate into a whole lot of journal papers and attention for your department. Maybe National Geographic will even pick you to be their next cover boy."
"Maybe I don't give a rat's ass about that."
"And maybe I'll wake up tomorrow looking like your tall blonde over there." She leaned into him, close enough to feel his heat and smell the freshly showered scent of him beneath the bar's miasma of stale beer and cigarette smoke. "Best of all, you get to uncover, with your own hands, something nobody else has ever seen. You're not going to turn me down."
"No," he said after a long moment, his expression not in the least friendly. "No, I'm not. But there's one more condition you need to meet before I agree."
Cassie nodded, waiting. She knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth.
"I want first crack at acquiring the finished specimen."
"Deal," she said, without hesitation.
Wyatt would have screamed at her for that. Martinelli didn't look as if he believed her.
"You heard right," she said, answering the question in his eyes. "I know what you think about me, that all I ever want is to make a quick buck -"
"And this isn't true?"
"I make no apologies for wanting to earn as much money as I can, although I barely break even most of the time. And even that's hard when unexpected court costs and lawyer fees nearly bankrupt the family business."
Their gazes clashed, and an old, bitter anger washed over as she added softly, "But a girl can still dream, right?"
For a long moment, Martinelli stood very still, not even blinking. "I told the truth."
"You told your version of the truth."
"Because that was the only version I had."
"And it nearly landed me in jail. Not that you cared."
"Why should I?" he asked, his tone so quiet that Cassie heard him only because they stood close together.
Too close together. When had they moved toward each other?
And when had the bar grown so quiet?
She glanced around and saw the room's occupants were watching her and Martinelli as if the two of them were acting out a drama on center stage -- except for the stiff-backed blonde at the bar, who stubbornly faced away.
Cassie stepped back, hoping Martinelli didn't notice her retreat. "As I was going to say, even I'm not rapacious enough to sell a fossil this valuable to a businessman with too much disposable cash on his hands. She's not ending up in a bank lobby or somebody's living room. You get first dibs -- but that's all I'll promise."
"And you'll price her so high, my department will never have a chance in hell of buying her."
Cassie stared back at him. "You just don't get it, do you? I have bills to pay. Like you, I have employees and overhead and business expenses. It costs me time and a hell of a lot of money to dig up fossils, clean them, put them back together again, and get them ready for display. You expect to be paid for your work. You don't seriously think I do this out of the generosity of my heart, do you?"
At that, he smiled. "And all this time, everybody's been saying you're heartless. Who knew?"
Beneath the jab, she sensed an easing of the tension between them.
"So do we have a deal, Martinelli?"
"You knew you had me before you walked through that door, Ashton, but I appreciate the fact you dressed up for me, even if it was just a tease. You're a fine-looking woman, and if you didn't make me feel homicidal every time we get within arm's reach of each other, I'd even think we could get along better. Much better."
"I don't want to get along better with you. You are so damn sleazy sometimes." Cassie rolled her eyes, but her heart was racing. "What time can you be at my lab?"
"I'll be there tomorrow morning but can't say exactly when. I'm in the middle of a dig; give me time to put matters in order first. I have to bring Cleary up to date -"
"You don't tell him a thing," she said flatly. "I don't want to be dealing with telephone calls, reporters, or any of your pals stirring up trouble for me. Ideallly, I want as much of her cleaned in the next few weeks as possible."
"A friend of mine is getting married soon, and I'm in the wedding party."
He still looked resentful, but anticipation had toned his hostility down to a manageable level. "I'll see you tomorrow. Shall I buy you a beer to seal the deal?"
"Your little woman is waiting for you, Martinelli. If you bring me over to the bar, there's no way you're getting laid tonight. See you later, dino boy."
With a wave, Cassie left the bar to the sounds of a few more catcalls from Martinelli's team. But Don Cleary's narrow-eyed, hostile glare almost stopped her. She'd never seen that look on his face before. Exasperation and angry resentment, yes, but nothing that close to...hatred.
To be sure no one noticed her reaction, she blew the old man a kiss before walking out into the cool, clear night air.
She'd won, but for some reason it didn't feel like much of a victory.
One Way Out
Publisher: Pocket Books
Date: March 2005
Sexy fossil hunter Cassie Ashton and hunky by-the-book paleontologist Alex Martinelli are sworn enemies. She thinks he's a snooty Ph.D. with a womanizing streak (and denies his dangerously rugged appeal). He thinks she's just in it for the money (and pretends he doesn't notice those legs). Their legendary sparring is the source of much gossip across the rocky canyons of Wyoming, where they compete for discoveries. Yet the chemistry between them is blistering. To their dismay, Cassie and Alex are forced to team up to protect Cassie's latest discovery -- a priceless prehistoric skeleton. For it quickly becomes clear that someone will stop at nothing to steal it. Thrown together in the face of danger, the two rivals try to fight their passionate, long-suppressed attraction. But sometimes, when you're on the run and falling in love, there's only one way out.
"An enjoyable and suspenseful read." – All About Romance