On Wings of Love
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Recipient of the LiFE Award
Literature For Environment~~books that are for life
and against destruction.
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"...The fast-paced story has plenty of suspense, heart thumping drama, and a powerful seductive relationship between the two main characters. Kate Douglas has written a clever tale of two strong characters who learn to work together and trust one another. You will enjoy reading this contemporary romance in the great outdoors."
"The author maintains a fine balance between romance and adventure. This is a fast moving and enjoyable story."
"ON WINGS OF LOVE is an adventurous read. The hero is yummy and a nice guy, almost a boy next door with a hint of roughness. The heroine is strong -- willed and minded...Ms. Douglas takes these poor characters and puts them in a situation to test their patience (working with each other), then keeps throwing things at them. A few gunshots, three smugglers, a cave in, and a dangerous trek to safety...everything just flowed, making the pages almost turn themselves. I already have Ms. Douglas's next book, and am looking forward to losing a few hours in it as well."
Read an excerpt~~~
On Wings of Love
NATE MURDOCK stared at his cluttered desk and wondered if anything else could possibly go wrong. His staff photographer was out of commission with a broken leg, a pile of term papers awaiting grades covered his desk, and somehow, over the next six weeks, he had to figure out what was decimating the peregrine falcon population in his research project.
At least he'd managed to line up a decent photographer to take Will's place for the study, a last minute replacement with impeccable credentials. Nate rested his elbows on the stack of papers and studied the neatly framed photo on the opposite wall of his office, a life-size print of a peregrine falcon in flight, personally signed with a sweeping "A. Petersen."
The photographer, Andrew Petersen, had captured life and death in motion, the falcon's long pointed wings arrowed back along its sleek body as it launched its dive after prey, the black mask and dark eyes enhancing the impression of deadly predator.
The tables, though, had turned on the falcons. The hunters were now the hunted. The International Falcondai Foundation, the organization supporting Nate's research, mandated he find out what, or who, was violating the falcons' nesting site in the Trinity Alps, with the investigation documented on film. Luckily, after Will's accident, the department secretary had hired Petersen, a man who obviously appreciated and understood the majesty of birds of prey.
Nate dug through a stack of magazines piled haphazardly on the cracked linoleum floor next to his desk, and pulled out a tattered issue of National Geographic, the cover folded back to an article on eagles and other raptors. A picture of the famed photo-journalist appeared on the first page of the story. From the look of him, Nate figured he must be close to sixty, but the man was a professional and wouldn't have accepted the job if he couldn't handle it.
Nate wasn't looking forward to working with a stranger, especially under the rigorous conditions the project required, but Petersen had as much experience studying birds of prey as Nate. That experience could prove invaluable over the next six weeks.
There was just so much left to do if he was going to be ready to leave by morning. The research project in northern California's Trinity Wilderness was a dream assignment, but leaving before the end of the spring semester was a headache. He'd left the details up to the department secretary, everything from securing the grant from IFF to hiring the photographer.
Darlene could be a complete flake sometimes, but at least when it counted she'd come through. Just in time, too, because it was already April, well into the falcons' nesting season.
Sighing, Nate picked up the first of the term papers and began to read.
"ARE YOU SURE you'll be okay, Andy? I can't believe you're taking off for six weeks to share a tent with some guy you've never met. What if he's psychotic, or a serial killer or . . . ?"
"I'll be fine, Donna. Don't worry. The man's a professor of ornithology at UC Berkeley, for crying out loud. The worst he can be is knock-kneed, bald, and old as the hills."
Andy Petersen pulled her thick, waist-length hair back in a ponytail, then searched through her jeans pocket for a rubber band. Failing to find one, she tied the mass of hair into a loose knot, then, hands on hips, faced her friend.
"Besides, Donn, they don't give tenure to serial killers. Anyway, I want this job." Narrowly avoiding ladders and saw horses, the wild movement of her hands punctuating her words, she paced restlessly around the cluttered room. "It's exactly what I need to build my reputation. It'll be good for the studio."
"Andy, the studio's just coming together. We've got at least two months of remodeling before we can open and -"
"And you're perfectly capable of handling it." Andy took a deep breath and looked directly into Donna's soft brown eyes. "I have to do this, Donn. Can't you see?" she pleaded. "This is the first time anyone of importance has wanted to hire me instead of my father. It's my chance."
"In spite of your father, you mean." Donna held up one hand, forestalling Andy's rebuttal. "I know that's not very nice to say, Andy, but it's true and you know it. He's taken jobs away from you. And we both know he's claimed credit for your work! He's not a very nice man even if he is your father."
"That's not fair, Donna. It only happened once."
"Well, it was a big once, and I don't know why you think you have to defend him."
"I don't know. I just do." Andy turned away. She knew what was coming next, and as usual, Donna didn't fail her.
"He should have married your mother."
Andy had her standard response ready. "My mother was a seventeen year old housekeeper. She'd never been out of her village. She didn't even speak English. She was no more ready to get married than he was. He could have left me in her village on the Yucatan Peninsula when she died, but he didn't."
"He could have treated you with a little more affection than he would a stray cat . . . but he didn't do that either."
"He didn't have to, Donna," Andy answered softly, knowing exactly how to end every argument the two of them had about Andrew Petersen. "I had you and your mom and dad and all the affection I needed."
"It just ticks me off. When he does notice you, he acts like he's invented you or something. He's such a control freak. You're better off living as far from him as you can. It's like he has to compete with you and always let you know he's better. And you know what, Andy, you're better than he ever was!"
Donna flipped her blond hair back over her shoulder and glared at Andy. Andy couldn't help but laugh at her best friend's righteous anger. They had always argued like sisters. Short, blond, brown-eyed Donna. Tall, dark, blue-eyed Andy. Sisters in every way but blood.
"I know," Andy finally said. "It is frustrating, always living in someone's shadow, especially when he doesn't even know I'm there. I used to think Dad was embarrassed by me, but I don't think having an illegitimate daughter bothered him in the least. Mainly because he never thought about me. He still doesn't. He's always left that responsibility to your folks."
"When you were small, he called you Shadow."
"Yeah," Andy laughed. "But that's only because my skin is so dark. I know better than to think of it as a term of endearment."
"You may have gotten your mother's coloring, but you are definitely your father's daughter," Donna answered wryly. "The world is not heavily populated with blue-eyed, five foot ten inch Latinas. I think you're more hard-headed than he is. And you know what?" Laughing, Donna pointed her finger at Andy. "You're just as much a control freak as he is. Worse!"
"Well I'd rather be in control of my life than give it up to some man. That's what my mother did, and look what it got her. Pregnant, unmarried, and dead at seventeen."
Fighting angry tears, Andy grabbed both of Donna's hands and squeezed them tightly. "Don't you see? That's why this job is so important. I'm the one the university wants, not my father. The secretary said my peregrine poster is the professor's favorite. My photo, not my father's. I know it's a last minute thing, but it's my opportunity to do something important on my own."
"You might as well go," Donna finally conceded. "The contractor and his crew will be here in the morning. I guess I can handle the remodeling . . . and all those handsome young, half dressed construction workers."
"You can have `em. I'm through with men." Andy grinned at Donna, then grabbed a stack of documents off the counter.
"This contract is my ticket. I can feel it. I don't care if Professor Murdock is short or tall, bald or hairy, or even if he has his bird watching binoculars surgically attached to his eyeballs. I'm going to spend six whole weeks in the Trinity Wilderness climbing mountains and taking pictures and doing what I love most. And getting paid for it! Wadda ya say?"
"I say go for it, kid." Donna laughed, pointing an admonishing finger at Andy. "But ya better take your own tent!"
"YOU'RE ANDY Petersen?" Dressed impeccably in ranger green, the helicopter pilot towered over Andy. His dark features split into a wide grin as he stuck out his right hand and pumped Andy's so hard she thought he might shake it right off her arm. "Boy, is Doc in for a big surprise."
Exhausted from her long drive north, Andy carefully extricated her hand and reached for one of her bags. "Oh, Dr. Murdock knows I'm coming. I think he expected me earlier, but I was late getting away."
The ranger grabbed the heavy bags Andy handed to him and tossed them into the helicopter. "I see you've got your own climbing gear. That's good, `cus you'll be up on the rocks a lot. I'll get this baby warmed up and it'll only take a few minutes of flying time, then a short walk to camp. We can get you settled in real quick."
"Thank you, um, Mr . . . ?"
"Dalton, ma'am. Roger Dalton. I'm sorry, guess I got carried away. Doc always says I talk too much, too fast."
"You mean Dr. Murdock?" Andy still hadn't spoken with her employer. By the time she'd tried to call him, he was on his way to Weaverville and the nearby Trinity Alps. "Do you know him well?"
"Yeah, Doc and I go back a long way. We played football together at UCLA, and he's done research on the falcons up here for years. I've been stationed with the Forest Service here since I got out of college, so we run into each other a lot. He's a good man to work with."
Dalton loaded the remainder of Andy's gear into the back of the helicopter, and they both boarded the small craft.
"I've never met him." Andy buckled her seatbelt as Dalton flipped switches and checked gauges. They lifted smoothly into the air, and talk was impossible over the roar of the engine. Which was just as well, she decided, because it gave her a chance to think about what Dalton had said.
If Roger Dalton played football in college with Nathan Murdock, then Andy needed to reassess her image of the good professor. She glanced at the pilot, his big hands dwarfing the controls, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses. He looked like a football player. The man was huge, and his muscles bulged under his uniform shirt.
Which meant that Nathan Murdock was probably not the ancient, knock-kneed ornithologist of her imagination. Andy tried to picture six weeks on site with a thirty-ish hunk, and her mouth went dry.
Of course, the man could be a jerk, but Andy wasn't certain if that could make things more, or less, complicated. She gazed out the window, mesmerized by the rolling green forest below, thinking of the man ahead.
DALTON KEPT his hands on the controls, but he couldn't keep the smile off his face or his eyes off the woman sitting next to him. Doc had spent the whole morning bragging about his new photographer, Andrew Petersen, the dean of wildlife photographers, gentleman photographer extraordinaire. Well, Dalton figured Doc was in for a big surprise, because this lady was no gentleman. She was something else altogether!
Even dressed in scuffed leather hiking boots, faded blue jeans and an old flannel shirt, she looked like a picture out of a fashion magazine. Tall and slim, her olive skin almost as dark as his own, all that black hair tied in a long pony tail - the woman was gorgeous.
And her eyes . . . brilliant blue, framed in thick black lashes and slightly tilted at the corners, eyes that looked right through a man.
Dalton chuckled, searching for the clearing below where he could set down. Yessir, Doc was definitely in for quite a surprise.
* * *
THEY REACHED the campsite after a short hike. Dr. Murdock had set his tent up in a secluded clearing deeply shadowed by towering redwood and fir trees. A ring of stones formed a fire pit, and two strategically placed logs provided seating by the fire.
The crisp pungency of pine and redwood needles crushed beneath her feet filled Andy's senses, and the muted rush of a nearby mountain creek blended with the soft trill of warblers hidden in the thick undergrowth. A sense of calm permeated the forest, the natural sounds underscoring the lack of man-made noise.
A sharp cry caught her attention. She looked to the east, at the towering cliffs nearby. The very top of the tallest pinnacle was bathed in the last rays of the setting sun, but Andy could still make out a pair of tiny dots, swirling and soaring against the pale blue of the evening sky.
"Look, Roger!" She pointed them out to Dalton. "I think those are peregrines. It's hard to tell from this distance, but I don't know of any other bird that flies like that."
"That's where the eyrie is," the big ranger agreed. "Most likely where Doc is, too. In fact, he's probably half way up the cliff. Knowing the good professor, he'll stay there until the light's gone."
Andy shaded her eyes, searching for a human form against the massive wall of rock, but the shadows were too deep and her binoculars were stuffed in one of her bags. She gave up the search and started unpacking her tent, smiling up at the ranger. "You don't have to stay, you know. I'll be fine here until Dr. Murdock arrives."
"I would like to get back to Weaverville before dark. That is, if you're sure you'll be okay here alone," Dalton added as he watched Andy assemble her small blue dome tent. "I might as well get going." He looked toward the western sky where a pale orange glow faded into deep blue. "Doc should be here any time."
As Dalton turned to leave, the impact of his words hit Andy like a physical blow. My God, she thought, glancing around the isolated campsite, at the two nylon tents carefully arranged next to each other. The setting was so intimate! Donna's joke about a serial killer came back to her . . . along with the thought that she'd never met the guy but she was calmly unrolling her sleeping bag less than two feet from his.
She'd be sharing a mountain stream for bathing, primitive latrine facilities, and all her waking moments with a total stranger, a man Roger Dalton had just described to her as an ex football player from UCLA with a penchant for rock climbing!
Images flashed through her mind; the comical figure of a Gary Larson cartoon bird watcher dissolving into a perfectly proportioned Chippendale dancer in bikini briefs and binoculars, a coil of climbing rope slung over one massive shoulder. Andy glanced at Dalton's retreating figure, suddenly wanting to know as much about Nathan Murdock as she could possibly learn.
"It must be hard on the professor's family, with him going off on research trips all the time," she said, hoping Dalton would answer the unasked question. Working with a family man had a nice secure ring to it.
"Oh, Doc's not married. He was," Dalton added, frowning at the memory, "but she up and left him right after college, while he was doing graduate work. But you're right, it was the research that did it. He was researching birds . . . she was researching the new quarterback."
He laughed at what was obviously an old joke, then checked his watch and looked up at the darkening sky. "I need to get going. Doc's due back any minute. Tell him Hi for me, and remind him to radio in by Thursday evening. We keep regular contact while he's in the field." He flashed Andy a reassuring smile. "You take care now."
He turned to walk down the trail, but halted a moment, sensing Andy's uncertainty, and looked back. "You'll like Doc," he said. "He's a good man, dedicated, has a great sense of humor." Which was a good thing, Dalton figured, because Doc was going to need it when he met his new employee.
Smiling at her, he waved good-bye. She made quite a picture, standing alone in the clearing with the towering cliffs behind her. Dalton was still smiling when he climbed into the cockpit of the small helicopter, and he cut loose with a full throated laugh as the craft leapt into the air. He could hardly wait for Doc's first radio contact on Thursday.
ANDY WATCHED the big ranger saunter down the narrow trail, but it wasn't until he was out of sight that she realized how comforting his presence had been. She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of alder trees growing nearby and the rich earthy smells of the damp woods.
The huge trees encircling the camp cast dark shadows across the small meadow. Andy shuddered, a brief shiver that shot across her arms and shoulders like an electrical current. She smiled briefly to herself. Donna's mom would say someone was walking across her grave. Not a particularly comforting thought while standing alone in a dusky clearing.
She wasn't afraid. No, uneasy, maybe. Definitely uneasy.
She looked east. The cliffs were in complete shadow now, the setting sun casting a pale orange glow across the evening sky. Dr. Murdock was due back any time, and the thought of finally meeting him caused a tightening in her gut, a feeling she wanted to attribute to hunger but knew was merely a case of nerves.
She sat for a moment on one of the fallen logs near the fire pit and ran her hand along the scarred surface of the wood, trying to read the faint carvings left by other campers. The long drive and longer day had caught up with her. She rolled and stretched her tired shoulders then gazed in the direction of the cliffs.
She thought about building a fire, about looking for something to eat, then realized she was nodding and dozing and not really thinking about anything at all. An early star hung brightly over the shadowed cliffs. An owl hooted from a nearby tree. Apparently Dalton hadn't been kidding when he said the professor would stay out until the last bit of light was gone.
"This is stupid." Her whispered comment was lost in the still forest. Andy rolled her shoulders again, trying to unkink tired muscles. "Well, Dr. Murdock, it's been great meeting you," she said to no one in particular. Yawning, she crawled stiffly into her tent and zipped the flap shut.
STARS FILLED the nighttime sky when Nate finally returned to camp, his back and shoulders aching from the day's climb. He thought about heading to the creek for a quick bath, but it was late and he figured he should welcome Mr. Petersen.
The quiet camp and tightly zippered tent were stark evidence he was too late. "Terrific," he muttered, dropping his heavy load of climbing gear in an untidy heap near his own tent. He felt the myriad frustrations of a long and tiring day turn to disgust. Andrew Petersen was a perfectly acceptable target for his anger. The eminent photographer couldn't even stay awake long enough to meet his employer.
It couldn't be all that late, Nate thought, looking toward the dark western horizon. Barely ten o'clock, he guessed, and the man didn't even have the decency to get a fire going so Nate could heat up something for dinner. Grumbling, he dug through his fanny pack for an energy bar.
Chewing morosely on the stale bar, Nate gazed at the cliffs, now a dark wedge of rock against a darker sky. He tried to make sense of his day . . . all he'd found were empty nests, no sign of eggs or chicks, and the adults were unusually agitated.
Something was definitely amiss.
Nate finished the bar and wiped his hands on his pants, then pulled the leather thong loose that held his long hair out of his eyes. He'd worn it long since college, but at thirty-three it was getting harder all the time to remember ever being that young.
He didn't remember hurting quite this much the last time he'd climbed, either. Getting old was the pits. Nate stretched his legs out in front of him, and propped his booted feet on one of the stones at the fire pit. He'd roust Petersen out of the sack early tomorrow, see what the fellow was like. Maybe they'd be able to get in a full day on the cliff.
Nate wished he'd met the photographer first, but there just hadn't been time. At least the man had a fantastic reputation. So much depended on this project.
An owl hooted softly in the trees near the creek. Nate felt a swoosh of wings as the bird took flight, gliding low over the camp. Moments later, a quick shriek sounded off in the distance, and Nate chuckled quietly. At least someone would eat tonight.
With a last disgusted glance in the direction of Andrew Petersen's tent, Nate crawled into his own.
THE RAUCOUS call of a Stellar's jay perched just above the tent jolted Andy awake. Gradually, she recognized the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee brewing over an open fire. Its lure was enough to drag her, shivering, from her warm sleeping bag.
She pulled on a pair of faded sweatpants that had at one time matched the shirt she slept in, then dug through her sack for a towel and soap. Stifling a yawn, she pushed her tangled hair out of her eyes. It took some tugging to work the elastic band out of the long snarls and finger-comb some of the worst of the knots.
Aware of the same knots in her empty stomach, she unzipped the flap to the tent, fully expecting to meet her employer. The coffee bubbled in an old tin pot, close against the campfire, but the elusive Dr. Murdock was nowhere to be seen.
Great . . . a chance to clean up and look a bit more presentable before meeting the eminent professor. She slipped her bare feet into hiking boots for the short walk to the creek.
She heard him first, off-key and high pitched, singing "Pretty Woman" in a poor imitation of Roy Orbison. She couldn't see him through the brush, but she paused a moment to listen, then laughed when he missed the high note. She was still grinning when she rounded a sharp turn in the trail - and collided full on with a naked man.
The impact almost knocked her to the ground. "I'm sorry, I didn't . . ." She shut her mouth and turned away, but not before catching enough of a glimpse that proved he was definitely male and very definitely not the elderly ornithologist she and Donna had imagined.
Who else could it be but Professor Murdock?
Only this Professor Murdock fit the Chippendale version. His chest was broad and heavily muscled, smooth except for a narrow ribbon of dark hair that arrowed below his naval to . . . she covered her mouth quickly to prevent a nervous giggle when she realized she hadn't even noticed his face.
"Who the hell are you?" His demanding bellow destroyed any embarrassment Andy might have felt.
"Excuse me?" Who did he think he was, king of the forest? Hackles rising, she turned deliberately, holding out her right hand to him, and glaring directly into dark eyes beneath furrowed brows. "I'm Andy Petersen, your photographer. Dr. Murdock, I presume?"
Thank goodness she'd kept the tremor out of her voice! She locked eyes with the man, willing herself not to flinch in the face of his anger.
And he was obviously very angry.
Unsure how to get out of such an awkward situation, Andy continued to hold her hand out, daring him to ignore her outstretched fingers.
It was a dare she didn't expect him to take, but suddenly his long, callused fingers grasped her hand and his rough palm grazed, then pressed against hers.
And a shock of awareness raced from their clenched hands to startle every cell in her body.
Locked doubly now, eyes and hands completed a circuit that held Andy immobile, frozen in time and space for a heartbeat. Fighting the sudden desire to pull away and end the contact, in fact to end the entire uncomfortable episode, she clasped his hand tightly. He was magnificent, standing tall and tan in front of her, and the seconds stretched on forever, an unscheduled battle between unfamiliar adversaries.
NATE FOUGHT to control his suddenly active libido, doing his damnedest to disregard the fact he was stark naked in the forest, holding hands with one of the sexiest women he'd ever seen.
Obviously there had been a mistake, because he knew he hadn't hired a female, but she was certainly something to look at. Dark skinned with brilliant blue eyes, her face framed in a tousled mass of black hair that fell loosely to her waist. Tall and proud, she dared him to cover himself, dared him with a look that chilled him and sent fire through his veins in the same instant.
Then her lips began to twitch and Nate saw a twinkle in the blue eyes that held him captive. She lost it completely, pulling her hand free and clapping it across her mouth to stop the laughter that suddenly exploded, full and throaty and free.
Nate grabbed a towel off a nearby branch to cover himself, libido abruptly extinguished, and wondered briefly what the proper etiquette was when one was caught literally, pants down, on a mountain trail. Miss Manners certainly hadn't covered this one, but he was positive laughter wasn't polite. His immediate reaction was anger, but the woman's mirth was too uninhibited and the situation much too ludicrous.
"I'm sorry, really." Andy grabbed a large white handkerchief out of her pocket, wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and tried to stop giggling. She looked away, refusing to meet his eyes, started to turn back to him, then halted. "You are decent now, aren't you?"
"I'm always decent, I just wasn't dressed," he said indignantly. "You can turn around."
She liked his voice. It sounded warm and deep, and she turned, hand outstretched from long habit, then dropped it when she realized his right hand was holding a very small pink towel around his lean hips. She blushed then, for the first time since meeting him, and looked somewhere off to the right of his left ear, past the long auburn hair that curled damply to his shoulders.
"Look, you've obviously washed up already, so why don't I just meet you back at camp, after I bathe?"
"Okay." He stretched the word, and she could tell he was fighting to keep his lips from twitching into a smile. "And yes, as to your earlier assumption, I am Nathan Murdock, but I guess we can save the formal introductions for later."
He grabbed a small knapsack off a nearby branch and almost lost his towel in the process. He fumbled with it a moment, then headed back up the trail, obviously trying to look nonchalant and failing miserably.
Andy bit her lower lip to keep from laughing out loud again. The tiny pink towel molded his lean hips, his shoulders stretched impossibly wide, dark hair covered his long, muscular legs, and the whole masculine image was punctuated by the "flap, flap, flap" of rubber thongs slapping against the soles of his feet.
He really needed to lose those thongs, she thought, watching him disappear around the curve in the trail.
As soon as he was out of sight, she undressed and rinsed off in the icy creek. "Good Lord," she muttered, shivering as much from her first meeting with the professor as from the cold water. What a terrible way to start a new job.
The sun was peeking over the plateau to the east by the time she stretched out on a flat rock at the water's edge to wash her long hair in the swiftly running stream.
The sunlight warmed her chilled skin, and she wrung the water from her hair and lay there a moment, calming her jangled nerves with the mountain sounds of jays and warblers, and the quiet rush of the creek.
She felt his presence before she saw him, and turned quickly, grabbing a towel to cover herself. He stood about ten feet away, fully dressed, holding an extra cup of coffee.
"I thought you might like a cup," he offered nonchalantly, a broad smile on his face as he held the steaming mug out to her. His cavalier attitude angered Andy more than it embarrassed her. Typical, she thought, the way men always need to even the score.
"You might have waited until I was dressed." Her voice trembled with anger. She grabbed her sweats, and looked pointedly in Nathan's direction.
His position didn't alter, even though Andy ignored the coffee while she held the towel and the folded bundle of sweats covering her body. "Do you mind?" she asked, when he continued to hold the cup out to her.
"Mind what?" His innocent look pushed her over the edge.
Damn you. She stood up and dropped the towel, giving Nate an unhurried look at her long legs, small breasts and the dark thatch at her center. Then she proceeded, quite slowly, to dress.
NATHAN STARED, transfixed, as she pulled her sweat pants on, then slipped the worn sweatshirt over her head. This wasn't quite the reaction he'd expected when he pulled his childish stunt, but she'd left him feeling embarrassed and foolish earlier. At the time, this seemed like a perfectly acceptable way to even the score.
But when she pushed her long hair out of the way and back over her shoulders, Nate's mouth went dry, and when she held out one slender hand, graciously accepting the coffee mug still clenched in his trembling fingers, he had to resist the urge to wipe the sweat beading on his upper lip.
The second the cup was out of his hand, Nate made the strategic decision to beat a hasty retreat back to camp. Gritting his teeth, he turned away and stomped along the brushy trail, muttering to himself as he shoved the rich, green foliage out of his way.
He wasn't certain who she was or what she was doing here, but there was no denying the fact that his body was painfully aware of every curve and line of her dusky figure.
It was bad enough she had interrupted his morning bath, but it really ticked him off to know he was responding deep in his gut to something as unprovocative as the sound of her footsteps stomping angrily behind him.
"JUST WHO THE hell are you, anyway?" Nate's long legs carried him to the space in front of Andy's tent. He stopped abruptly and spun around to confront her as she stalked into the clearing.
"I am Andrea Petersen. Remember, the photographer you hired, the one who does photos of birds and bunnies and other quick little creatures? The one you pleaded for, who kindly filled in on a moment's notice to replace someone who was injured? Or don't you recall any of that?" She threw her knapsack to the ground, almost spilling her mug of coffee in the process. The nerve of him. After all the hassle she went through to get up here at the last minute.
"I hired Andrew Petersen." Nate glared at her, hands on his hips, body tense with anger. "And I want to know where the hell he is!"
"Painting seascapes at Big Sur, you jerk," she shouted. She stepped closer and poked him none to gently in the chest. Nate stepped backwards, stumbling slightly over a tent peg in the wake of her aggressive attack.
She moved with him, furiously enunciating every word, punctuating each one with another jab to his broad chest. "He retired six years ago. When you called Andy Petersen Photography you called me. You hired me."
Sensing control, knowing she was right, Andy added, as if she were speaking to a small child, "So you'd better get used to me, because I have a contract with your signature on it. And unless you want to pay me off up front and send me home, then I would suggest you apologize for your rude behavior. Then maybe we can both act like grownups and get to work. What do you say, Dr. Murdock? Can you manage that?"
Finished with her speech, Andy backed off, took a very dignified sip of her rapidly cooling coffee, and hoped he wouldn't notice her trembling fingers.
She eyed him coolly over the top of her mug, but her calm expression hid the emotions churning within. All her professional life she'd competed with her father. Growing up, she had idolized the man, no matter how distant he remained. All that ended with the perception of an adult.
It was difficult enough for a woman to gain a name in her field, but Donna was right. The fact she was the famous Andrew Petersen's only offspring made the hurdles even higher.
Andy knew her struggle to succeed had cost her the one serious relationship she'd ever had. Jake's inability to accept her moderate success while his own photographs languished unpublished had eroded the foundation of their growing relationship until it collapsed in upon itself. At one time, she'd even considered changing her profession, figuring it would end the competition between them and soothe Jake's ego. It had been almost impossible for Andy to admit their joining was a failure, even after the love was long gone.
In its own way, Andy realized her studio was an admission of failure, an attempt to find contentment in her profession away from the wildlife photography that would always be her true love. Though weddings and graduations and family portraits might pay the bills, they would never take the place of photographing a mother lynx bringing her cubs to a desert pond for their first drink, or the thrill of capturing a peregrine falcon on film during its diving, soaring, courtship flight.
It came to her in a flash that she had given up too easily, had let Jake's criticism and her father's duplicity chase her away from the work she was meant to do.
Not this time, she vowed with calm determination. This was her chance, her future. Nathan Murdock was not going to take it away from her.
STUNNED BY the vehemence of her attack, Nate paused, speechless for a moment. Obviously, there was a misunderstanding of epic proportions, and just as obviously, the mistake was his. Or, more specifically, the department secretary's. Andy Petersen had to have accepted the job offer in good faith.
Time to regroup, he decided, furious but still not resigned to the idea of six weeks of work lost because of a stupid error.
"You're absolutely right, Ms. Petersen. I was wrong and I am sorry." Nate smiled grimly, controlling his irritation with difficulty. "I assumed, a grave error on my part I might add, that Andy Petersen and Andrew Petersen were one and the same. Now," he continued, enjoying her obvious confusion over the sarcastic tone of his voice, "the problem is, I still need a wildlife photographer capable of climbing those cliffs," he pointed with a sweep of his hand toward the sheer wall just east of their camp, "and taking close-up shots of the peregrines, both in their nests and in flight."
He looked her long form slowly up and down, insulting her even as he explained the job. "And you, Ms. Petersen, photograph little children in a studio while they sit on Mommy's lap. Somehow, I don't think that qualifies you for this job, do you?"
Andy coolly returned his smile. Her blue eyes twinkled as she dumped her cold coffee on the ground and carefully refilled her cup. She held the pot out to Nate. Confused by her calm demeanor, he let her fill his empty mug.
She replaced the pot, then sat on one of the logs near the campfire, took a long, unhurried sip of her coffee, looked up at Nate and gestured for him to sit down. Curious, he took a seat on the log across from hers, still not quite sure what to expect.
"I'm going to ignore your insult," she offered sweetly, taking another sip of her coffee, "and just chalk it up to the fact that you are a complete and utter chauvinist, devoid of the intelligence God gave women." She held up one graceful hand to stall his indignant protest. "But I would like to know why you wanted to hire my father. Was it a particular photograph he did?"
Controlling his temper with difficulty, Nate decided to take her question at face value. "Actually, there were a couple of things. One was an article in an old issue of National Geographic. The photographs were excellent. But foremost was a poster, one of a peregrine in flight. I have it framed in my office. I love the clarity of the picture, and the vitality, the life force captured on film."
Warming to his favorite subject, Nathan allowed himself to relax a little, but he couldn't ignore the contemplative look in her sea-blue eyes. "You've probably seen the photo I'm talking about," he said, matching her direct look. "Your dad caught the falcon just as it started its dive, and you know that whatever it sees has definitely met its match. There's such pride in those eyes, so much life. The photographer couldn't have taken a better shot. It's unbelievable."
"Well thank you, Dr. Murdock. I'll take your compliment, since I'm the photographer who took the picture. I understand it's not up to par with the photos of children and mommies, but I'm still quite proud of it." She took another sip of coffee.
"That's yours?" Somehow, it was impossible to imagine this exotic looking woman, loaded down with climbing gear and camera equipment, hanging from the face of a cliff. "If you're that good . . ."
"Oh I am," she quipped.
"Then why the studio?" he continued without pause. "Why the children, and the moms and the graduations and all that mundane stuff when you . . ."
"Can fly?" she asked softly, her eyes sparkling, brilliant with unshed tears. "When I can scale the cliffs and capture that moment of freedom forever on my film? Well, I'll tell you why, Professor Murdock," she added sarcastically, wiping the back of one hand quickly across her eyes.
"It's because of men like you, Professor. Men who would rather break a contract than work with a woman. I'm good at what I do," she added vehemently, "but I'm getting damned tired of constantly having to prove that in spite of my gender, which, for some strange reason most men consider to be a liability, I am just as capable of doing my job as my father was. Better, in fact, because I'm younger and stronger, and I'm damned good with a camera."
"And, for your information," she added, her voice suddenly lifeless, "half of the shots in that National Geographic article about raptors were mine. I was only nineteen then, and my loving father convinced me that no magazine would publish someone so young, so he took the credit."
She stopped speaking a moment to gaze in the direction of the towering pinnacles where the peregrines flew, then faced Nate again. "He got a Pulitzer Prize for that series, and my name wasn't even on the by-line. I got a `thanks, Andy. You did a good job, but I don't think it would be a good idea to tell anyone, do you?' Well, I haven't, until now, but I think you ought to know what you're giving up."
Rendered speechless, Nathan gaped at Andy. The fire was gone from her eyes and her shoulders slumped. Her long fingers, so expressive in anger a moment before, fluttered uncertainly. She looked away, and he noticed the rapid pulse against the dark column of her throat.
"I'll pack my gear," she said quietly, her naturally low voice roughened with defeat. "Will you please radio for the pilot to meet me?"
"No, wait." He grabbed her arm as she rose to leave. Her muscles were taut beneath the thick sweatshirt. He was instantly aware of a spark of contact as she turned on him, impatiently brushing her long hair out of her eyes.
"I'm sorry." This time his apology was sincere. "I really am. I don't like to admit when I've made a mistake, but I was wrong, and I am sorry." He paused, then looked away to gather his thoughts and control the feelings that raged beneath her steady gaze.
Gently he released his grip on her arm, then held his right hand out to her. "Let's try this again, shall we?" He smiled, noting the subtle relaxation of her body, the slight shudder as she relaxed the tension in her shoulders.
"I'm Nate Murdock, Ms. Petersen, and I think we might be able to work together. That is, if I can learn to keep my chauvinistic attitudes in check. What do you say?"
She paused a moment, then the corners of her mouth twitched slightly, and she grasped his larger hand firmly in her own. Nathan wondered if she prepared this time, as he had, for the tiny shock that seemed to jump between them each time they touched.
"Might? Why, Dr. Murdock, is that a bit of doubt I sense?"
"Oh, it's more than a bit, Ms. Petersen. Definitely more than a bit. But I'm sure we can work around that." He returned her smile and clasped her hand securely, aware of the calluses that marked her palm, the wiry strength of her fingers, the blunt nails. Then he released his grasp and automatically rubbed his tingling hand against the rough fabric of his jeans.
Andy rubbed the palm of her right hand with her left thumb. Nate realized she shared the same odd sensation with him. She looked at her hands, a perplexed expression on her beautiful face. Then she tilted her head and smiled at Nate. "Call me Andy, Nate." She emphasized his first name. The sincere warmth of her smile unsettled Nathan more than when she'd caught him stark naked at the creek.
NATE HAD HIS gear packed and ready to go within the hour, anxious to return to the eyrie. He stole a glance at Andy, watching as she gathered her equipment. As before, he felt mesmerized by her beauty. He'd never be able to erase the vision of her, naked by the creek, her dark skin a rich mocha shade made even more exotic by the brilliant blue of her eyes and the thick length of her hair.
And the audacity of her, to drop that towel and effectively hoist him by his own petard. He had to give her points for that move. It definitely got his attention. In fact, it had kept his attention all morning long.
Now, though, she had pulled her long hair back into a single braid, tied just above her waist with a serviceable rubber band. She wore faded blue jeans and a sleeveless tee under a heavy plaid flannel shirt. All practical, nothing contrived. There was a natural honesty about her that Nathan admired. Her boots were light-weight and designed for serious climbing, selected for function, not appearance. All of her equipment looked comfortably used, including the large array of cameras and lenses she was carefully storing in a nylon pack.
She moved with a natural grace, an elegance at odds with her rough surroundings and practical clothes. Nate appreciated how completely focused she remained on the job at hand, totally unaware of his observation.
She squatted next to the bulging pack and lifted it once to check the balance, then carefully redistributed the contents. Her long fingers caressed each item, her reverence for the equipment as natural as the smile she flashed in his direction when she completed her job and stood up.
"Sorry to take so long, but if the weight's not right, it makes climbing more difficult." She lifted the heavy pack and balanced it over one shoulder, then grabbed her climbing gear with her free hand and smiled again at Nate. He couldn't help but smile back. Suddenly he realized they were both just standing there, grinning at each other.
"Can I help you carry that?" He reached for her pack. Andy's smile faded and she backed away.
"I'm fine, thank you. I don't need any help." Her voice was clipped, defensive.
"I'm sorry." He didn't try to control the sarcasm that colored his words. "I certainly didn't mean to offend." Nate grabbed his own gear and abruptly spun around and stalked down the trail, leaving Andy to follow.
She broke into a trot to keep up with his long strides. Nate grinned when he heard her mumble to herself while she struggled with the heavy pack and all her gear. He wondered exactly what he had done to upset her. His offer to help had been nothing more than common courtesy.
She might be gorgeous, but damn! the woman was pig headed.
THE BASE OF the cliff was still in deep shadow when they reached the rubble-filled clearing. They dumped their gear in a pile while Nate explained his plans for the day. Andy tried to catch her breath without letting him see how winded she was.
She'd gotten over her irritation with Nate during the short, fast walk to the site, although she felt a certain sense of shame at her childish reaction. Donna had told her more than once to think first and sputter later. Andy realized, belatedly, Nathan hadn't been inferring she wasn't strong enough to carry her equipment. He was only being polite when he offered to help.
"What we need to concentrate on today," he said, "is the search for any viable nests." Startled out of her musings, Andy gave Nathan her full attention.
Nate swept his gaze across the wall of rock that rose up in front of them in a vain attempt to divert his awareness of the woman standing beside him.
It wasn't working. "There are a number of established nesting sites on ledges across the face of this cliff," he said, pointing at the rugged wall. In response to his gesture, Andy moved a step closer, enveloping him in her distinctly feminine scent. Nate fought an immediate desire to touch her.
Without warning, his mind projected her image, naked by the creek in the soft morning light, and he saw Andy instead of the stark walls of the cliff. Coughing to clear the catch in his throat and the vision from his mind, Nathan tried to recall his scattered thoughts and professional demeanor.
Finally, in a voice reserved for the lecture hall, he added, "there should be a lot more activity around here this time of year." Nate bent down and reached into his nylon pack, searching for one of his hand-drawn maps.
Andy watched Nathan withdraw a role of graph paper and roll it out against a large granite boulder, one of many that littered the hard packed earth at the base of the cliff.
She moved closer to him, and peered over his shoulder at the rough diagram he had drawn. She focused on the sketches while Nate described the nests he had studied a few years earlier, but her senses were all wrapped up in the thick auburn hair tied neatly at the back of his neck and the muscles that rippled beneath his pale blue chambray shirt. She smelled the faint pungency of his shampoo and leaned even closer to inhale the scent that was just him. She listened intently, more aware of the deep rumble of his voice than the actual words.
"Are you paying attention?" His words were teasing, but Andy noticed a slight catch to his voice. Was he as affected by his proximity to her as she was to him?
"Of course," she said, answering his question as well as her own. She'd need to think about that.
He straightened up then, and standing so close, Andy had to tilt her head back to see his face. It was a strong face, deeply creased and tanned, his nose beginning to peel from sunburn. He hadn't shaved this morning. She wondered if she'd interrupted that part of his morning ritual. Suddenly she realized Nate was aware of her intense scrutiny. Quickly she backed away. He watched her just as intently.
He turned then, still holding the diagram. "There are two ways up this thing," he said, pointing at the sheer wall of rock thrusting directly out of the ground in front of them. The granite face was weathered and seamed. Andy picked out a number of fissures and hand-holds, her experienced eye automatically calculating different routes to the top.
"We can either climb straight up the face or hike the long way around the back. The ascent's gentler that way. Once we reach the top of the plateau, we could lower ourselves down the front to an area directly across from the nests. I'll leave it up to you, since I don't know your level of climbing ability or experience."
He's certainly all business, Andy thought, trying to read more into his comments than he probably meant. Was he insulting her, suggesting the easier route, or just being cautious for her sake? She didn't want to make the same mistake again.
"I did the photo of the peregrine when I was seventeen," she said in answer to his comment. "It was taken about two thirds of the way up El Capitan in Yosemite. You choose the route."
Mentally picturing the sheer granite face of one of the most difficult climbs in North America, Nate silently reassessed the woman standing proudly beside him. Wordlessly, he reached into his pack for his climbing helmet and put it on. With a grand sweep of his hand he directed Andy toward the wall of rock that rose majestically in front of them.
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