Chapter 1 & Chapter 2
Maybe Bigfoot was watching her.
Abby Winchell had loved imagining that from the time she’d been old enough to wander alone on her grandfather’s property about thirty miles outside Portland. As she trudged through the early morning mist, damp leaves squished under her hiking boots and the evergreens dripped in a steady, familiar rhythm. Otherwise the forest was quiet, but she kept her hand on the camera tucked inside her jacket pocket, just in case she saw something big and furry.
Ten days ago, after a lifetime of fruitless searching, Grandpa Earl Dooley had seen not one, but two big furry creatures. A Bigfoot mated pair! But his evidence was maddeningly inconclusive. His single grainy shot could easily be a picture of two very tall hikers wearing hooded sweatshirts. Two exceedingly smelly hikers. Grandpa Earl claimed the stench had been overpowering, even from a hundred yards away.
While Earl had struggled to attach his zoom lens, the creatures had loped off. Earl’s arthritis had kept him from giving chase, and a heavy rain had washed out any footprints. That left Earl with only one bad picture to corroborate his story.
It had been enough for the Bigfoot faithful. Earl had made the trip to town and told everyone down at his favorite bar, Flannigan’s. News had spread quickly among the cryptozoology crowd. As happy as he’d been about finally realizing his dream of a Bigfoot sighting, Grandpa Earl hadn’t been all that pleased with the consequences.
With the exception of Abby, his family down in Arizona thought he was losing his marbles. Curiosity seekers had trespassed on his property. And his wealthy neighbors the Gentrys had flown in some big-deal NYU professor to label the sighting bogus. Having Dr. Roarke Wallace challenge Earl’s claim had cut down on the trespassers, but Abby’s grandfather smarted under the insinuation that he was either gullible or a nutcase.
Abby had volunteered to take a week off from her job as an insurance claims adjuster in Phoenix to check on Grandpa Earl. She’d promised the rest of the family that she’d convince him to sell the land and the general store with its attached living quarters so he could move to the desert where his loved ones could keep an eye on him. He might have agreed to do it, too, now that he’d seen Bigfoot and possibly Bigfoot’s mate.
But that damned professor had gotten her grandfather’s back up and he wanted to prove the stuffed shirt wrong. Grandpa Earl was also convinced the Gentrys were smearing his reputation on purpose because they hoped he’d leave and they could buy his land. He didn’t want to give them the satisfaction.
Abby didn’t blame him. The Gentrys had been trying to buy out the Dooleys for at least seventy years. Both pieces of property backed up to a wilderness area, so if the Gentrys got Grandpa Earl’s land, they’d be sitting on one of the most secluded private estates around.
And the Gentrys loved their seclusion. She could imagine how horrified those high-brows must have been to hear about the Bigfoot sighting. Flying in a Ph.D. from some Eastern school fit the Gentry mentality. No doubt the guy was a condescending jerk.
The Gentrys were like royalty in Portland, and as a kid Abby had often climbed a rocky promontory on Dooley land because it provided a view of the obnoxiously huge Gentry mansion. She decided to do that again this morning for old-time’s sake. The estate was off-limits to all but a select few, so spying on them had always appealed to her sense of mischief.
Other than this view from the promontory, the heavily wooded estate couldn’t be seen except from the air. A tall iron gate at the main road barred anyone from driving up to the mansion unannounced, and a sheer rock wall dropped fifty feet below the promontory. The steep cliff continued along the property line for about half a mile, neatly dividing Gentry land from Dooley land.
Grandpa Earl’s property ended at a rushing stream that tumbled over the cliff in a beautiful waterfall. The far side of the stream marked the beginning of the wilderness area. That’s where Grandpa Earl had spotted the Bigfoot pair.
Abby was puffing by the time she reached the top of the outcropping, which meant she’d spent too much time sitting at a desk lately. Looking across to Gentry land, she noticed lazy curls of smoke rising from two of the Gentry mansion’s six chimneys. Trees hid a good part of the building, giving it an air of mystery.
Abby trained her camera on the mansion and zoomed in to admire the stonework and the massive bulk of the place. Surely a family this powerful wouldn’t sabotage some old guy’s reputation in order to get what they wanted. They already had plenty of holdings in the Portland area.
Standing on the rocky outcropping looking down at the mansion, she wondered why the Dooley land was so important to the Gentrys. Maybe they knew something Grandpa Earl didn’t, like the presence of mineral deposits. Or what if the prize was this very spot? What if they hated the idea that someone could watch them from here?
Fascinated by that thought, Abby began scanning with her zoom to evaluate how much she could see of the place. A cherry red Corvette convertible sat in the circular cobblestone drive, but no people were around. Slowly she panned toward the back of the house, with its formal gardens, neatly trimmed hedges and a large collection of marble statuary. As she did, she caught a movement in the trees.
Focusing on that spot strained the limits of her little camera, but she managed to identify what looked like a large dog. It behaved more like a wild animal than a domestic dog, though, as it glided through the trees. A coyote, maybe? No, it was too big, and its coat was an unusual pale blond.
The body shape reminded her of a wolf, but that was impossible. There were no wolves on the west coast of Oregon, and even if one had somehow migrated over here, it wouldn’t be this color. She’d heard of white wolves, but not blond ones. Knowing the Gentrys, the animal could be some sort of exotic hybrid.
Grandpa Earl wouldn’t be happy if the Gentrys had decided to keep dogs on their property. Her grandfather and great-grandfather had always avoided adopting any because they didn’t want dogs around to scare off Bigfoot. In all her visits to her grandfather’s place she’d never heard the sound of barking dogs coming from the Gentry estate, either.
She snapped a couple of pictures, even though she knew they wouldn’t be very clear. Grandpa Earl would want to know about this. Maybe the wolf-dog was another tactic to annoy him.
As she considered that, she deleted the pictures. No sense in stirring up her grandfather even more. That wouldn’t fit with the plan that was gradually forming in her mind.
Much as she’d love her grandfather to stick it to the Gentrys and stay on the land for another ten or fifteen years, that wasn’t in his best interest. His arthritis wouldn’t bother him nearly as much in Arizona and she sensed that Grandma Olive’s death a year ago had left him lonelier than he’d admitted.
Therefore she needed to contact the stuffed-shirt anthropology professor and convince him to change his tactics. If the professor would support Earl’s belief in Bigfoot instead of challenging it, everyone might get what they wanted. Grandpa Earl would relax, sell his land, and move to Arizona, and the Gentrys would get her grandfather’s property. Grandpa Earl said the professor was staying with the Gentrys. But Abby didn’t relish driving up to the gate in Grandpa Earl’s ancient pickup with the battered camper shell on the back and asking for admittance to the estate. Too demeaning. But she was a member of Rotary Club International, so she could attend a meeting today at a hotel in Portland, where the guest speaker just happened to be Dr. Roarke Wallace.
Taking one last look through her camera’s viewfinder, she was startled to notice that the blond animal was staring at her. Then he wheeled and ran into the trees, moving with a fluid grace that looked far more wild and wolf-like than dog-like.
What in hell had she seen down there?
* * *
Damn it. Roarke hadn’t seen her until the last minute, but he was positive she’d seen him. Seeking thicker cover, he prayed he hadn’t caused a problem. At home in Upstate New York he could roam the isolated property without fear of discovery and he’d made the mistake of thinking he could do the same here. No wonder Cameron Gentry wanted the Dooley property with its rocky overlook of the Gentry estate.
Irving Gentry, the alpha who’d bought this land in the early nineteen hundreds, obviously hadn’t been the brightest bulb in the chandelier. There was some evidence that Irving had enjoyed his whiskey a little too much. That might explain why he’d purchased this low-lying acreage with a vantage point right next door.
The woman standing on the rocks hadn’t been worried about being seen. Anyone with hair that red would have to wear a stocking cap if she expected to sneak around. He didn’t think she was into sneaking. With luck she was a tourist trespassing on Dooley land in an attempt to find Bigfoot, and a canine creature wouldn’t interest her.
Roarke made sure the woman was gone before he loped back through the formal gardens and headed for the tunnel entrance into the mansion. Whoever had devised this entrance had been a werewolf genius. A fake piece of granite swiveled at the touch of a paw, allowing Roarke to enter a tunnel.
Once inside the tunnel, Roarke took the branch that led to a stone stairway. Bounding up those steps, he nudged open a revolving panel and was standing in his guest room. All the bedrooms had the same arrangement, which allowed Weres to enter and leave without having to navigate doors and locks.
Stretching out on the bedroom’s antique Aubusson rug, Roarke shifted to human form before hitting the shower. In moments he was downstairs for the breakfast being served buffet-style in the immense dining hall.
Cameron, the pack alpha, was the only member of the Gentry family sitting at the table. A slim man who was beginning to gray at the temples, he looked every inch the aristocrat. As a wolf, though, he had more trouble looking noble. Most Weres were powerfully built with luxurious coats, but Cameron shifted into a scrawny wolf with dull gray fur and a furtive look in his brown eyes.
Come to think of it, he had a furtive look as a human, too. The way he lingered over his coffee and darted glances at Roarke suggested he’d stayed in the dining room in order to give his guest the third degree. Roarke wished Cameron good morning and headed for the sideboard loaded with food. He was starving.
“The surveillance cameras picked you up this morning,” Cameron said. “Find anything?”
“Unfortunately, no.” Roarke considered telling Cameron about the woman and decided against it. Cameron was already paranoid about the overlook and seemed willing to do almost anything to get his hands on that property and eliminate the potential security risk.
That was one of the reasons Roarke was here – to make Earl Dooley look like a fool in hopes that he’d decide to sell out and leave town. In the Were community, Roarke was an expert on megafauna cryptids such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, but in his university career he was known as a prominent myth buster. The good people of Portland would take his word that Earl’s sighting was bogus.
It hadn’t been, of course, and Roarke had also agreed to quietly track down the Sasquatch mated pair and relocate them out of Were territory. Gentry didn’t fancy having Bigfoot seekers tramping around the countryside anywhere near this estate. More people increased the likelihood that someone would accidentally learn that werewolves lived here.
Roarke hadn’t warmed to Cameron, unfortunately. The Were had a ruthless streak, a dangerous trait in a pack alpha. But he was now the guy in charge, having taken over from his father Gerald. Gerald and his mate Tabitha had moved up to Alaska where Gerald could indulge his fishing hobby.
Roarke thought Gerald would have been a whole lot easier to deal with than Cameron. Now that Roarke understood his host’s lack of empathy, he planned to make sure that the Sasquatch pair was relocated far away from Cameron Gentry.
Roarke respected the Sasquatch tribe and wanted these two moved to safety without incident. He was afraid Cameron just wanted them gone and would choose the most expedient method. Roarke wasn’t about to have Sasquatch blood on his conscience.
Cameron drained his coffee cup and stood, shoving back his chair. It moved smoothly on the polished oak floor. “You’re at the Rotary Club today, right?”
“Right.” Roarke found the lectures increasingly difficult to give. When Cameron had called asking for his help, he’d thought busting the myth of Bigfoot wouldn’t bother him even though he knew damned well the creatures existed. If a werewolf pack was in danger of being discovered by Bigfoot-happy trespassers, Roarke was happy to fly to the rescue.
But he was a teacher at heart, and dispensing false information, even to keep people from discovering that a werewolf pack owned half of Portland, was distasteful. Because of his degrees and his position at NYU, his audiences tended to believe everything that came out of his mouth. He deliberately enhanced his scholarly image by wearing plaid vests, a bowtie, and corduroy jackets with elbow patches.
The outfit was an Indiana Jones kind of cliché, but it inspired confidence in his scholarly opinions. Dressed in his professorial duds, he looked less like a college quarterback – which he’d been ten years ago – and more like a man with multiple degrees.
“I won’t be able to make this one.” Cameron braced his fingertips on the dining room table. “I have an important business meeting.”
“No problem.” Roarke would prefer not having him there.
“How many more are scheduled?”
“Two. Tomorrow and Friday.”
“I think that should do it.” Cameron looked pleased with himself. “Lately I’ve heard people joking about Dooley and his wild imagination, so the plan seems to be working.”
“I can’t help feeling sorry for Dooley, though.”
Cameron straightened and adjusted his cuff links. “Hey, I’m doing him a favor. He’s old and he has arthritis. Selling to me and moving to a dry climate would be the best thing for him.”
Roarke wondered what it would be like to be so sure of everything. Alphas were naturally confident, but Cameron’s arrogance set Roarke’s teeth on edge. “If you say so.”
“He’s been a thorn in our side for years. Stubborn old goat just laughed at my dad’s offers, which were, by the way, more than generous. So it’s time to try something new.”
“Meaning public humiliation.”
Cameron gazed at him. “Whatever works. That overlook is a security threat and I’m tired of worrying about it. I will get that land. In any case, I have to go now. Good luck with your talk.”
“Thanks.” Roarke couldn’t argue that the Gentrys needed to own that promontory. A pack of Weres required privacy. He thought again of the redhead and hoped to hell she wouldn’t become a problem.
Three hours later, when she walked into the Rotary Club luncheon in a banquet room of a downtown hotel, he had a hunch she was going to be a very big problem, because the first thing he noticed about her was the way she smelled. Scent was all-important to a Were, and this woman’s aroma filled him with a longing so deep he lost his place in the conversation he’d been having with a couple of club members.
Absorbed as he was in her scent, he wasn’t immune to her visual appeal, either. A tiara of raindrops glittered in her bright red hair, a white trench coat was belted around her tiny waist, and her stiletto heels drew his attention to her shapely legs.
As she unfastened the coat to reveal an emerald green knit dress, his gaze traveled back upward and he felt a visceral tug. It wasn’t that her figure was spectacular, but something about the fit of the dress made him long to peel it off. Not good. He wasn’t in Portland to make any sexual conquests, no matter how much a woman appealed to him.
Other members greeted her politely, but no one acted as if they knew her, so she must not be a regular member. She leaned close to someone as if asking a question. Then her gaze swept the room and she headed directly for Roarke’s table, bringing all those lovely pheromones with her.
He stood, noticing that he didn’t tower over her the way he did with most women. Even taking her heels into account, she had to be at least five-nine in bare feet. Thinking of her in bare feet was an erotic exercise in itself.
God help him, he did favor tall women. They were built for so many interesting sexual positions that weren’t possible between a tall man and a short woman. Not that he needed to be thinking about sexual positions in the middle of a Rotary Club luncheon.
Her blue-eyed glance traveled over him and her freckled cheeks grew pink as if she liked what she saw, too. He’d have to be made of ice not to react to that kind of obvious feminine approval. Roarke was a lot of things, but stoic he was not. He gave her his best winning smile.
She smiled back, revealing an adorable little gap between her two front teeth. Then she held out her hand. “Dr. Wallace, I’m Abby Winchell.”
The name wasn’t familiar, but her hand in his felt perfect – warm, soft, and slender. He breathed her in and barely kept himself from groaning with pleasure. “When someone calls me Dr. Wallace I always feel as if I should be wearing a stethoscope,” he said. “Plain old Roarke’s fine.”
She beamed at him. “All right, Roarke. I’m looking forward to your talk.”
Despite struggling with sensory overload, he managed to say something halfway appropriate in response. “So you’re interested in cryptozoology?”
“I was as a kid.” She glanced down and gently extricated her hand from his.
Great. Apparently he’d held the handshake longer than the socially acceptable two seconds. At least he hadn’t hauled her into his arms. “Would you like to sit down?” Would you like to leave with me right this minute and check into a hotel room upstairs?
“I’m afraid your table is already filled.”
He glanced at the head table and sure enough, every seat but his was taken. He should be glad of that because he needed to nip this instant attraction in the bud for many reasons.
He wasn’t forbidden to have a romantic liaison with a human, but he had to be careful about it. If a woman got too close and began to suspect that he was not quite the man she’d bargained for, that was a potential security breach for the pack. Roarke’s brother Aidan had landed in exactly that fix and there’d been all kinds of trouble, even if he was now married to a human.
Roarke had no intention of following in Aidan’s paw prints. He didn’t believe Weres should mate for life with humans. It was just too complicated. That issue aside, Roarke had two important assignments here in Portland, and allowing sex to overrule duty was frowned upon in the Wallace pack. Translated, that meant he didn’t have time to fool around on this trip. He had a mated Bigfoot pair to find, and no telling how long that would take.
“I’d better find a seat before they start serving the meal,” Abby said. “I just wanted to introduce myself and see if you’d be available after your talk in case I have some questions.”
Now there was a really bad idea, but his libido trumped his brain. “Sure, I have some spare time.”
“Great. There’s a quaint little bar called Flannigan’s in this hotel. I’ll buy you a drink.”
He heard himself agree to that suggestion, too. But it was only one drink. One harmless drink with a beautiful redhead. A beautiful, tall redhead with eyes like sapphires, who had spied him roaming the Gentry property as a wolf.
Maybe having a drink with her was actually a good idea. He could plant some story about the Gentrys offering to dog-sit for a friend. That would solve any lingering issue over what she might have seen this morning. So meeting the willowy, wonderfully scented Abby for drinks was okay. Provided, of course, that he kept his libido under control.
But as he watched her walk away, her hips swaying gently, he realized his libido had been in charge all along.
She was in luck. Under that cheesy getup, Dr. Roarke Wallace was one hot guy. Give him a surfboard and a wetsuit and he could be a California surfer dude, complete with the sun-streaked blond hair and killer green eyes. She’d love to see what those eyes looked like minus the wire-rimmed cheaters.
Even better, Roarke had reacted well to her quickly created outfit. She’d packed only jeans and sweatshirts, her usual Portland gear. Consequently she’d had to spend the morning on a power shopping spree at Pioneer Place, change in a public bathroom and then stash her other clothes in Grandpa Earl’s pickup.
But Roarke’s expression as she’d walked into the meeting had justified all the trouble plus the damage to her credit card. Here she’d expected to work her wiles on a pudgy, middle-aged scholar with an attitude, and instead she’d been blessed with Roarke.
Spending time over a drink in Flannigan’s would be no hardship at all. And unless she’d read him wrong, he’d be willing to listen to what she had to say about Grandpa Earl and his dedication to the Bigfoot myth.
She found a seat at a table populated mostly with real estate brokers. First she identified herself as an insurance claims adjuster visiting her grandfather, and everyone was fine with that. The conversation flowed easily through the salad course and the main entree.
But right before dessert, someone thought to ask whose granddaughter she was. The name Earl Dooley apparently left them all at a loss for words. Abby guessed that they’d bought into the current theory that her grandfather was a kook.
Abby pushed aside her chocolate cake, no longer hungry. “I don’t know what he saw, but he’s studied Bigfoot for years. I’m willing to believe this was the real deal.” She wasn’t quite as convinced as all that, but Grandpa Earl deserved to be defended and nobody else was volunteering for the job.
A balding man in a gray suit cleared his throat. “I’m not calling your grandfather a liar, Abby. But everyone’s eyesight gets worse as they get older. Earl’s what . . . seventy-eight?”
“Seventy-seven.” Abby’s jaw tightened. “But the picture proves that something was out there, and whatever it was stunk something terrible. No hiker would smell that bad, no matter how many days they’d skipped a shower.”
“But maybe a skunk was in the area,” said a blonde woman in a purple turtleneck. “When our dog flushed a skunk, I thought we’d never get rid of the smell.”
Abby didn’t want to admit she’d thought of the skunk angle. Or that Grandpa Earl’s fierce yearning to see Bigfoot might have influenced his description of the sighting. “All I know is that my grandfather has lived in this area all his life, and I think he’d recognize the smell of a skunk.”
A brunette dressed all in black with silver jewelry frowned and started to say something, but the table was spared her opinion when Roarke was introduced. Abby didn’t expect Grandpa Earl to get any better treatment from Roarke’s lecture, but at least he was yummy to look at. She was digging those broad shoulders and his square jaw.
He needed someone to dress him, though. His lack of a wedding ring and the dopey outfit suggested he wasn’t married. His corduroy jacket wasn’t bad, but the plaid vest and bowtie were ridiculous. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was channeling Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr.
“The idea of a mystical creature living in the Pacific Northwest originated with the indigenous tribes.” Roarke touched a button on his laptop and the screen behind him lit up with a crude drawing of Bigfoot. “Humans have always fantasized about megafauna cryptids like the Yeti and Bigfoot.”
Even if Roarke was about to rain on Grandpa Earl’s parade, Abby thought he was unbelievably cute as he threw out terms like megafauna cryptids. She had a weakness for brainy guys who spouted jargon, especially when they looked like Roarke.
He showed the audience a few more slides reputed to be of Bigfoot. “We seem to have an innate need to imagine something larger than life.” He glanced at Abby.
She had the urge to laugh. There was no chance in hell he’d made a sexual reference just now, but that’s where her mind was at the moment. Although she had zero intention of seducing the bodacious professor, she amused herself by wondering what sex with him would be like and whether certain parts of him would be larger than life.
Roarke hesitated. “But wanting to believe in something doesn’t make it so. These creatures are not real.”
She met his gaze and had the craziest impression that he didn’t believe what he was saying. But that couldn’t be right. He was a man of science, brought here specifically so he could blast this myth out of the water. She must be imagining things.
“Purely in biological terms, the existence of Bigfoot is an impossibility, especially in this area,” Roarke continued. “Climate and food supply issues would preclude establishing a large enough breeding population to guarantee survival. And, as most of you know, no one’s ever found the remains of a Bigfoot specimen. That alone is enough to convince any thinking person.”
As Abby listened to him, logic warred with loyalty. His argument was convincing, and he looked damned good making it, too. If he’d come to Portland on his own, motivated by scientific curiosity, she might be more willing to accept what he was saying. But the Gentrys had sponsored his visit, so in her view, his argument was tainted by the Gentrys’ desire to get Earl Dooley’s land.
Nope, she was still going to believe in Grandpa Earl’s sighting. The kid in her wanted it to be true, even if the practical adult she’d become agreed with Roarke. Thinking of Bigfoot as real brought back the magic she’d felt as an eight-year-old walking through those mysterious woods.
Grandpa Earl was the dreamer of the family, and her parents used to worry that she’d take after him, partly because she was the only one who’d inherited his red hair, although his was now snow white. She hadn’t taken after him, though.
To the great relief of her mom and dad, she’d picked a solid career in insurance, one that fit in well with the rest of her relatives. Her mother and father ran an auto parts store. Her brother Pete was an accountant. Her aunt and uncle owned several fast-food franchises and both her cousins were in business school.
Last year Abby had almost married an insurance agent she’d met through work. She’d broken up with him over what everyone else called a stupid reason. He didn’t think kids should be encouraged to believe in Santa Claus. Abby knew Santa Claus wasn’t an actual person who flew all over the world delivering toys, but for the first six years of her life she’d thought he did, and she wasn’t willing to rob her children of that innocent joy.
She wondered if Roarke had believed in Santa Claus when he was a kid, or if he’d been a child prodigy who’d always been as mercilessly scientific as he seemed now. He continued with his PowerPoint presentation by showing a photograph that looked very much like her grandfather’s, except that only one Bigfoot was pictured instead of a pair.
“The person who took this photo up in Washington near Mount Rainier was positive he’d seen Bigfoot,” Roarke said. “It was an honest mistake, not an attempt to defraud. But soon afterward a hiker came forward and identified himself as the one in the photograph. The hiker agreed to pose in the same area in similar weather and at the same time of day, and this is the result.” Roarke showed another shot almost identical to the first.
Abby noticed her tablemates sneaking glances at her, and she had to admit the evidence was damning. But what about the smell? Grandpa Earl had been very specific about the smell, and he wouldn’t confuse skunks with Sasquatch.
It was as if Roarke had read her mind. “Our local celebrity Mr. Dooley, who claims to have seen a mated pair, says the stench was unmistakable. Unfortunately for the veracity of his story, that stench could be any number of less exotic things – a skunk, a dead animal in the underbrush, even a colony of feral cats.”
With a sigh, Abby acknowledged that could be true. Roarke wasn’t destroying her grandfather’s claim with ridicule. Instead he was quietly dismantling it with clear and unassailable logic, which was much more effective. She’d been faced with that kind of reasoning all her life, which was why she’d given up on tales of unicorns, frogs turning into princes, and Bigfoot.
If Grandpa Earl’s cherished Bigfoot really existed, and Abby wanted to believe that for her grandfather’s sake if for no other reason, then more evidence was needed. One grainy picture and a report of an obnoxious smell didn’t cut it. Grandpa Earl wanted that evidence, but his arthritis kept him from spending hours hiking through the woods.
She wasn’t scheduled to leave for another five days. Once she convinced this professor to lay off his campaign, she’d buy a better camera and devote the rest of her visit to combing the woods. She wouldn’t tell her parents about it, though, because they’d probably want to fly up here and stage an intervention.
Roarke finished his presentation and invited questions, but he didn’t get many. Judging from the comments at Abby’s table, everyone was convinced that her grandfather had seen a couple of tall hikers wearing bulky sweat suits. They’d left quickly because they’d known they were hiking illegally on private land. Case closed.
Gathering her coat and purse, Abby exchanged pleasantries with the people leaving her table and assured them that she wasn’t offended by their doubts about her grandfather’s claim. And she wasn’t. The evidence was inconclusive and even Earl probably knew that. But he’d been there, and he believed.
If Abby found better evidence, she’d enjoy parading it in front of the skeptical professor Wallace. She should be sure to get his card before they parted ways. The thought of continuing a debate through email sent a zing of excitement through her.
As she approached the small group of people surrounding him, her heart rate spiked. Okay, so she was attracted to him. Any woman would be who managed to look past his clothing choices. He might not be married, but there was a good chance he had a girlfriend back in New York.
Maybe his girlfriend was a geek who preferred her man in plaid vests and bow ties. Or maybe she was a smart cookie who realized that turning her honey into a GQ guy would only increase his hottie quotient and cause her more problems with other women. Maybe . . .
Abby blew out a breath, impatient with herself. Debating Roarke’s availability was distracting her from her goal to help restore Grandpa Earl’s reputation in the community. She’d come here to assess the enemy. Whether or not he had a girlfriend was completely beside the point.
She waited until everyone else drifted away from Roarke before stepping forward. “Interesting talk.”
He smiled. “You weren’t bored out of your skull?”
“Not at all. Still have time for that drink?”
“Sure. Let me shut down my laptop and I’ll be right with you.” He turned and tapped a few keys.
He looked as handsome from the side as he did straight on, and she allowed herself to admire him in profile. He had very sensuous lips. That didn’t guarantee that a man was a good kisser, but it was a fine start.
“Did I convince you that Bigfoot is a myth?” He closed the laptop and disconnected it before stowing it in a carrying case.
“You convinced me that Earl Dooley’s evidence doesn’t prove anything.”
“Nobody’s evidence has ever proved anything.” Grabbing a tan raincoat, he hoisted the carrying case strap over his shoulder.
“Yet.” She couldn’t resist.
“Ah.” He smiled at her as they started out of the banquet room. “You’re a believer.”
“I’m a semi-believer. I’m also Earl Dooley’s granddaughter.”
He stopped to gaze at her. “Oh.”
“Is that a problem?”
“Not for me, but I’m curious why you’d want to buy me a drink, all things considered.”
She laughed. “Afraid I’ll slip some arsenic in it?”
His worried expression relaxed into a grin. “Would you?”
“Nah. Too obvious.”
“In that case, where’s this quaint little bar you mentioned? I could use a beer.”
“Follow me.” She led the way to Flannigan’s and soon they were seated opposite each other in a cozy booth surrounded by gleaming mahogany paneling and jeweled light from Tiffany shades.
The place was nearly empty at this time of day, which meant Abby could actually hear the Irish ballads on the bar’s sound system for a change. She’d been in here with Grandpa Earl and Grandma Olive on summer nights when the noise level had made conversation impossible. Both her grandparents, Irish to the core, had enjoyed sipping a pint of beer served in a pub-like atmosphere.
After Grandma Olive died last year, Grandpa Earl had stopped going to Flannigan’s. But then he’d sighted the Bigfoot pair and had headed to the bar with his pictures and his story. Abby’s heart squeezed as she imagined how excited he must have been to share his discovery.
Roarke ordered a Guinness and Abby did, too. Being in Flannigan’s always brought out the Irish in her.
The beer, served in glass mugs, arrived quickly. Abby lifted hers in a salute. “Here’s to scientific inquiry.”
“I’m for that.” Roarke touched his mug to hers. Then he took a sip and set the mug on its coaster. “I’m going to guess you have some ulterior motive for coming to the meeting today.”
“Of course.” She savored the tang of the dark beer, which she only drank when she was in Flannigan’s. “Have you known the Gentrys long?”
An emotion flickered in his green eyes. “No. My dad knows Cameron Gentry’s parents.”
“The Gentrys have wanted Dooley land for years.”
“I’m aware of that.”
Damn, but he was good looking, which made it tougher to concentrate on her mission. “You’re a smart guy, Roarke. You also must have figured out that Cameron Gentry wants to make my grandfather into a laughingstock so he’ll give up and sell.” She waited, wondering if he’d try to deny it.
He gazed at her for a long time before sighing. “Yes, I know.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“You’re right, it isn’t, but there were other issues, like concerns about trespassers. Once your grandfather made a public announcement of his supposed discovery, the Gentrys had to deal with unwanted curiosity seekers. That wasn’t fair to them.”
“Come on. Don’t tell me that was a huge problem for them. With all their money, I’m sure they have a security system to end all security systems.”
“They have a surveillance system, but –”
“Roarke, if I tell you something, can you promise not to take it right back to the Gentrys?”
He hesitated, as if weighing that. “All right.”
“I’d like to see my grandfather sell that land, too.”
“Absolutely. He’s all alone up here now that my grandmother’s gone. That little general store he runs out by the main road is a lot of work but he doesn’t make enough to justify hiring help. The rest of his family moved to Arizona years ago, and now we want him to come down there. It would be so much better for his arthritis and we could keep an eye on him as he gets older.”
Roarke frowned. “So why hasn’t he done that?”
“Bigfoot. He wanted to see that creature just once.”
“And now he thinks he has.”
“Right. And he might have sold out after that, except the Gentrys brought you in to rain all over his parade. Now he says the only way he’ll leave is feet first.”
Leaning back in the booth, Roarke scrubbed a hand over his face. Then he began to chuckle.
“It isn’t funny.”
“Oh, but it is.” Shaking his head, he picked up his mug and took a swallow of his beer.
“Not to my grandfather.”
“No, I suppose not.” Roarke returned his mug to its coaster. “Abby, I regret making your grandfather look foolish, but in a way, he left himself open to it with his flimsy case.”
She felt compelled to defend Grandpa Earl. “If you’d searched for something all your life, and then you found it, wouldn’t you tell people? Wouldn’t you show them the picture, even if it wasn’t a very good picture?”
His green eyes filled with compassion. “You love him very much, don’t you?”
“Yes. That’s why I’m asking you to help repair the damage you’ve done to his self-esteem.”
“How could I do that?”
She took a deep breath. “I don’t suppose you’d give a talk saying you’ve studied his picture more thoroughly and have decided it could be a legitimate shot of Bigfoot.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Because of the Gentrys?”
“Partly, and partly because it wouldn’t be true.” His glance flickered slightly. “Anyway, Bigfoot doesn’t exist.”
If she hadn’t been fascinated by his gorgeous green eyes, she might have missed that flicker. In her experience with insurance claims, a flicker like that meant the subject wasn’t giving her the whole truth.
She sensed an opening and decided to try a different tack. “I’m willing to agree that it’s unlikely that Bigfoot exists, but the world’s an amazing place, where new discoveries are made every day. I would think as a scientist you’d want to leave yourself open to the possibility.”
“But all the hard evidence –”
“Screw the hard evidence, Roarke. My grandfather saw something, and he doesn’t believe for one minute it was hikers. I challenge you to come by Dooley’s General Store and talk to him about it.”
“He’d probably throw me out on my ear.”
“Not if I’m there to stop him. Come tomorrow morning around ten. Please. This is a delicate situation, but you and I might be able to make it end well for all concerned.”
Roarke turned his mug around in his large hands before glancing at her. “You’ll be there?”
“I’ll be there. I’ll admit that Grandpa Earl has a stubborn streak, so somebody needs to hang around and referee. But I think if you hear him tell the story of what he saw and smelled, you’ll find that ridiculing his sighting won’t be so easy.”
“It’s never been easy.”
She leaped on that. “Because you think Bigfoot is a possibility?”
“Because I don’t like poking holes in somebody’s cherished dream.”
“So why did you?”
He finished off his beer. “It’s complicated. I –” A cell phone chimed and he pulled a BlackBerry from inside his corduroy jacket and checked the number. “Sorry, but I need to go.”
“No problem. But your call reminds me. Would you give me your cell number? I think my grandfather will be available tomorrow, but something might come up and I’ll need to call you.”
“Sure thing.” He took a cream-colored business card from a different inside pocket of his jacket and handed it to her. Then he levered himself out of the booth and picked up his coat and laptop case. “Unless I hear from you, I’ll be at your grandfather’s store tomorrow at ten. I owe him that much.”
“Thank you, Roarke.”
“Don’t thank me, yet. It could turn out to be a shouting match that won’t solve anything.”
“It won’t be a shouting match.” She gazed up at him. “I’ll prepare him for the visit. I’ll tell him you’re actually a good guy.”
He smiled at that. “You’re making quite an assumption on such brief acquaintance.”
“I’m an insurance claims adjuster. It’s my job to separate the white hats from the black hats. Until today, I thought you were in the black hat category, but now I’ve changed my mind.”
Roarke held her gaze. “I wouldn’t be too quick to do that if I were you.”
A shiver of sensual awareness ran through her. “Are you saying you’re a bad boy?”
“I’ve been known to be.”
She gulped, unable to come up with a single snappy comeback.
“See you tomorrow.”
Her heart racing, she turned to watch him walk away. Oh, baby.