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Where There's Smoke
By Sandra Brown
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 7, 1993. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Deadline
Also by Sandra Brown
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He'd never particularly liked cats.
His problem, however, was that the woman lying beside him purred like one. Deep satisfaction vibrated through her from her throat to her belly. She had narrow, tilted eyes and moved with sinuous, fluid motion. She didn't walk, she stalked. Her foreplay had been a choreographed program of stretching and rubbing herself against him like a tabby in heat, and when she climaxed, she had screamed and clawed his shoulders.
Cats seemed sneaky and sly and, to his way of thinking, untrustworthy. He'd always been slightly uncomfortable turning his back to one.
"How was I?" Her voice was as sultry as the night beyond the pleated window shades.
"You don't hear me complaining, do you?"
Key Tackett also had an aversion to postcoital evaluation. If it was good, chatter was superfluous. If it wasn't, well, the less said the better.
She mistook his droll response as a compliment and slithered off the wide bed. Naked, she crossed the room to her cluttered dressing table and lit a cigarette with a jeweled lighter. "Want one?"
"If it's handy. A quick one." Bored now, he gazed at the crystal chandelier in the center of the ceiling. The fixture was gaudy and distinctly ugly. It was too large for the bedroom even with the light bulbs behind the glass teardrops dimmed to a mere glimmer.
The shocking pink carpet was equally garish, and the portable brass bar was filled with ornate crystal decanters. She poured him a shot of bourbon. "You don't have to rush off," she told him with a smile. "My husband's out of town, and my daughter's spending the night at a friend's house."
"Male or female?"
"Female. For chrissake, she's only sixteen."
It would be unchivalrous of him to mention that she had acquired her reputation for being an easy lay long before reaching the age of sixteen. He remained silent, mostly from indifference.
"My point is, we've got till morning." Handing Key the drink, she sat down beside him, nudging his hip with hers.
He raised his head from the silk-encased pillow and sipped the straight bourbon. "I gotta get home. Here I've been back in town for…" he checked his wristwatch, "three and a half hours, and have yet to darken the door of the family homestead."
"You said they weren't expecting you tonight."
"No, but I promised to get home as soon as I could manage it."
She twined a strand of his dark hair around her finger. "But you didn't count on running into me at The Palm the minute you hit town, did you?"
He drained his drink and thrust the empty tumbler at her. "Wonder why they call it The Palm. There isn't a palm tree within three hundred miles of here. You go there often?"
Key returned her wicked grin. "Whenever your old man's out of town?"
"And whenever the boredom of this wide place in the road gets unbearable, which, God knows, is practically every day. I can usually find some interesting company at The Palm."
He glanced at her abundant breasts. "Yeah, I bet you can. Bet you enjoy getting every man in the place all worked up and sporting a hard-on."
"You know me so well." Laughing huskily, she bent down to brush her damp lips across his.
He turned his head away. "I don't know you at all."
"Why that's not true, Key Tackett." She sat back, looking affronted. "We went through school together."
"I went through school with a lot of kids. Doesn't mean I knew all of them beyond saying hello."
"But you kissed me."
"Liar." Chivalry aside, he added, "I didn't like standing in line, so I never even asked you out."
Her feline eyes squinted with malice that vanished in an instant. As quickly as she extended her claws, they were retracted. "We never actually went on a date, no," she purred. "But one Friday night after a victory against Gladewater, you and the rest of the football team came strutting off the field. My friends and me—with just about everybody else in Eden Pass—lined up along the sideline to cheer as you went past on your way to the field house.
"You," she emphasized, digging her fingernail into his bare chest, "were the outstanding stud among all the studs. You were the sweatiest, and your jersey was the dirtiest, and of course all the girls thought you were the handsomest. You thought so too, I think."
She paused for him to comment, but Key regarded her impassively. He was remembering dozens of Friday nights like the one she had just described. Pregame jitters and post-win exhilaration. The glare of the stadium lights. The cadence of the marching band. The smell of fresh popcorn. The pep squad. The cheering crowds.
And Jody, cheering louder than anybody. Cheering for him. That had been a long time ago.
"When you went past me," she continued, "you grabbed me around the waist, lifted me clean off the ground, hauled me up against you, and kissed me smack on the mouth. Hard. Kinda barbariclike."
"Hmm. You sure?"
"Sure I'm sure. I creamed my panties." She leaned over him, pressing her nipples against his chest. "I waited a long time to have you finish what you started then."
"Well, I'm glad to have been of service." He swatted her fanny and sat up. "Scoot." Reaching around her, he retrieved his jeans.
"You really are leaving?" she asked, surprised.
Frowning, she ground out her cigarette in a nightstand ashtray. "Son of a bitch," she muttered. Then, taking a different tack, she came off the bed and swept aside his jeans before he could step into them. She bumped against his middle seductively.
"It's late, Key. Everybody out at your mama's house will be sound asleep. You'd just as well stay with me tonight." She reached between his strong thighs and fondled him, with audacity and know-how, boldly looking into his face as her fingers coaxed a response. "You haven't lived until you've partaken of one of my breakfast specialties."
Key's lips twitched with amusement. "Served in bed?"
"Damn straight. With all the trimmings. I even—" She broke off suddenly, her hands reflexively clenching hard enough to cause him to grimace.
"Hey, watch out. Them's the family jewels."
"Shh!" Releasing him, she ran on tiptoe toward the open bedroom door. As she reached it, a male voice called out. "Sugar pie, I'm home."
"Shit!" No longer languid and seductive, she turned toward Key. "You've got to get out of here," she hissed. "Now!"
Key had already stepped into his jeans and was bending down to search for his boots. "How do you suggest I do that?" he whispered.
"Sugar? You upstairs?" Key heard footsteps on the marble tiles of the entry below, then on the carpet of the stairs. "I got away early and decided to come on home tonight instead of waiting for morning."
She frantically motioned Key toward the French doors on the far side of the room. Scooping up his boots and shirt, he pulled open the doors and slipped through them. He was outside on the balcony before he remembered that the master bedroom was on the second floor of the house. Peering over the wrought-iron railing, he saw no easy way down.
Swearing beneath his breath, he quickly reviewed his options. What the hell? He'd faced worse situations. Typhoons, bullets, an earthquake or two, acts of God, and man-made mayhem. A husband coming home unexpectedly wasn't a new experience for him, either. He'd just have to bluff his way through and hope for the best.
He stepped back into the bedroom but pulled up short on the threshold of the French doors. The nightstand drawer was open. His lover was now reclining in bed clutching the satin sheet to her chin with one hand. With the other, she was aiming a pistol straight at him.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Her piercing scream stunned him. A second later, a blast from her pistol shattered his eardrums. It was a few pounding heartbeats later before he realized that he'd been hit. He gazed down at the searing wound in his left side, then raised his incredulous eyes back to her.
The running footsteps had now reached the hallway. "Sugar pie!"
Again she screamed, a bloodcurdling sound. Again she aimed the gun.
Galvanized, Key spun around just as she fired. He thought she missed but couldn't afford the time to check. He tossed his boots and shirt over the railing, threw his left leg over, then his right, and balanced on an inch of support before leaping through the darkness to the ground below.
He landed hard on his right ankle. Pain shimmied up through his shin, thigh, and groin before slamming into his gut. Blinking hard, he gasped for breath, prayed he wouldn't vomit, and strove to remain conscious as he swept up his boots and shirt and ran like hell.
Lara jumped at the sound of hard knocking on her back door.
She'd been absorbed in a syrupy Bette Davis classic. Muting the television with the remote control, she listened. The knocking came again, harder and more urgent. Throwing off the afghan covering her legs, she left the comfort of her living room sofa and hurried down the hallway, switching on lights as she went.
When she reached the back room of the clinic, she saw the silhouette of a man against the partially open miniblinds on the door. Cautiously she crept forward and peered through a crack in the blinds.
Beneath the harsh glare of the porch light his face looked waxy and set. The lower half of it was shadowed by a day-old beard. Sweat had plastered several strands of unruly dark hair to his forehead. Beneath dense, dark eyebrows, he squinted through the blinds.
"Doc?" He raised his fist and pounded on the door again. "Hey, Doc, open up! I'm making a hell of a mess on your back steps." He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, and Lara saw blood.
Putting aside her caution, she disengaged the alarm system and unlocked the door. As soon as the latch gave way, he shouldered his way through and stumbled, barefoot, into the room.
"You took long enough," he mumbled. "But all's forgiven if you still keep a bottle of Jack Daniel's stashed in here." He moved straight to a white enamel cabinet and bent down to open the bottom drawer.
"There's no Jack Daniel's in there."
At the sound of her voice, he spun around. He gaped at her for several seconds. Lara gaped back. He had an animalistic quality that both attracted and repelled her, and although she was inured to the smell of fresh blood, she could smell his.
Instinctively she wanted to recoil, but not from fear. Her impulse was a feminine one of self-defense. She held her ground, however, subjecting herself to his disbelieving and disapproving stare.
"Who the hell are you? Where's Doc?" He was scowling darkly and holding the bloodied tail of his unbuttoned shirt against his side.
"You'd better sit down. You're hurt."
"No shit, lady. Where's Doc?"
"Probably asleep in his bed at his fishing cabin on the lake. He retired and moved out there several months ago."
He glared at her. Finally, in disgust, he said, "Great. That's just fuckin' great." He muttered curses as he shoved his fingers through his hair. Then he took a few lurching steps toward the door and careened into the examination table.
Reflexively Lara reached for him. He staved her off but remained leaning against the padded table. Breathing heavily and wincing in pain, he said, "Can I have some whiskey?"
"What happened to you?"
"What's it to you?"
"I didn't just move into Dr. Patton's house. I took over his medical practice."
His sapphire eyes snapped up to meet hers. "You're a doctor?"
She nodded and spread her arms to indicate the examination room.
"Well I'll be damned." His eyes moved over her. "You must be a real hit at the hospital wearing that getup," he said, lifting his chin to indicate her attire. "Is that the latest thing in lady doctor outfits?"
She had on a long white shirt over a pair of leggings that ended at her knees. Despite her bare feet and legs, she assumed an authoritarian tone. "I don't generally wear my lady doctor outfits past midnight. It's after hours, but I'm still licensed to practice medicine, so why don't you forget how I'm dressed and let me look at your wound. What happened?"
"A little accident."
As she slipped his shirt from his shoulders, she noticed that his belt was unbuckled and only half the buttons of his fly were fastened. She prized his bloody hand away from the wound on his left side, about waist level.
"That's a gunshot!"
"Naw. Like I told you, I had a little accident."
Clearly, he was lying, something he seemed accustomed to doing frequently and without repentance. "What kind of 'accident'?"
"I fell on a pitchfork." He motioned down at the wound. "Just clean it out, put a Band-Aid on it, and tomorrow I'll be fine."
She straightened up and unsmilingly met his grinning face. "Cut the crap, all right? I know a bullet wound when I see one," she said. "I can't take care of this here. You belong in the county hospital."
Turning her back on him, she moved to the phone and began punching out numbers. "I'll make you as comfortable as I can until the ambulance arrives. Please lie down. As soon as I've completed the call, I'll do what I can to stop the bleeding. Yes, hello," she said into the receiver when her call was answered. "This is Dr. Mallory in Eden Pass. I have an emer—"
His hand came from behind her and broke the connection. Alarmed, she looked at him over her shoulder.
"I'm not going to any damn hospital," he said succinctly. "No ambulance. This is nothing. Nothing, understand? Just stop the bleeding and slap a bandage on it. Easy as pie. Have you got any whiskey?" he asked for the third time.
Stubbornly, Lara began redialing. Before she completed the sequence of numbers, he plucked the receiver from her hand and angrily yanked it out of the phone, leaving the cord dangling from his fist.
She turned and confronted him, but, for the first time since opening the door, she was afraid. Even in this small East Texas town, drug abuse was a problem. Shortly after moving into the clinic, she had installed a burglar alarm system to prevent thefts of prescription drugs and narcotic painkillers.
He must have sensed her apprehension. With a clatter, he dropped the telephone receiver onto a cabinet and smiled grimly. "Look, Doc, if I'd come here to hurt you, I'd have already done it and gotten the hell out. I just don't want to involve a bunch of people in this. No hospital, okay? Take care of me here, and I'll be on my merry way." Even as he spoke, his lips became taut and colorless. He drew an audible breath through clenched teeth.
"Are you about to pass out?"
"Not if I can help it."
"You're in a lot of pain."
"Yeah," he conceded, slowly nodding his head. "It hurts like a son of a bitch. Are you going to let me bleed to death while we argue about it?"
She studied his resolute face for a moment longer and reached the conclusion that she either had to do it his way or he'd leave. The former was preferable to the latter, in which case she would be risking the patient's health and possibly his life. She ordered him to lie down and lower his jeans.
"I've used that same line a dozen times myself," he drawled as he eased himself onto the table.
"That doesn't surprise me." Unimpressed by his boast, she moved to a basin and washed her hands with disinfectant soap. "If you know Doc Patton well enough to know where he stashed his Jack Daniel's, you must live here."
"Born and raised."
"Then why didn't you know he'd retired?"
"I've been away for a while."
"Were you a regular patient of his?"
"All my life. He got me through chicken pox, tonsillitis, two broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a broken arm, and an altercation with a rusty tin can that was serving as second base. Still got the scar on my thigh where I landed when I slid in."
"Were you called out?"
"Hell no," he replied, as though that were beyond the realm of possibility. "More than once I've come through that back door in the middle of the night, needing Doc to patch me up for one reason or another. He wasn't as stingy with the medicinal whiskey as you are. What's that you're fixing there?"
"A sedative." She calmly depressed the plunger of a syringe and sent a spurt of medication into the air.
She then set it down and swabbed his upper arm with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol. Before she knew what he was about to do, he picked up the syringe, pushed the plunger with his thumb and squirted the fluid onto the floor.
"Do you think I'm stupid, or what?"
"If you want me anesthetized, get me a glass of whiskey. You're not pumping anything into my bloodstream that'll knock me out and give you an opportunity to call the hospital."
"And the sheriff. I'm required by law to report a gunshot wound to the authorities."
He struggled to sit up and when he did, the open wound gushed bright red blood. He groaned. Lara hastily slipped on a pair of surgical gloves and began stanching the flow with gauze pads so that she could determine how serious the wound was.
"Afraid I'll give you AIDS?" he asked, nodding at her gloved hands.
"No worry," he said with a slow grin. "I've been real careful all my life."
"You weren't so careful tonight. Were you caught cheating at poker? Flirting with the wrong woman? Or were you cleaning your pistol when it accidentally went off?"
"I told you, it was a—"
"Yes. A pitchfork. Which would have punctured instead of tearing off a chunk of tissue." She worked quickly and effectively. "Look, I've got to trim off the rough edges of the wound and put in some deep sutures. It's going to be painful. I must anesthetize you."
"Forget it." He hitched his hip over the side of the table as though to leave.
Lara stopped him by placing the heels of her hands on his shoulders. The fingers of her gloves were bloody. "Lidocaine? Local anesthetic," she explained. She took a vial from her cabinet and let him read the label. "Okay?"
He nodded tersely and watched as she prepared another syringe. She injected him near the wound. When the surrounding tissue was deadened, she clipped the debris from around the wound, irrigated it with a saline solution, sutured the interior, and put in a drain.
"What the hell is that?" he asked. He was pale and sweating profusely, but he had watched every swift and economic movement of her hands.
"It's called a penrose drain. It drains off blood and fluid and helps prevent infection. I'll remove it in a few days." She closed the wound with sutures and placed a sterile bandage over it.
After dropping the bloody gloves into a marked metal trash can that designated contaminated materials, Lara returned to the sink to wash her hands. She then asked him to sit up while she wrapped an Ace bandage around his trunk to keep the dressing in place.
She stepped away from him and looked critically at her handiwork. "You're lucky he wasn't a better marksman. A few inches to the right and the bullet could have penetrated several vital organs."
"Or a few inches lower, and I couldn't have penetrated anything ever again."
Lara gave him a retiring look. "How lucky for you."
She had remained professionally detached, although each time her arms had encircled him while bandaging his wound, her cheek had come close to his wide chest. He had a lean, sunbaked, hair-spattered torso. The Ace bandage bisected his hard, flat belly. She'd worked the emergency rooms of major city hospitals; she'd stitched up shady characters before—but none quite this glib, amusing, and handsome.
"Believe it, Doc. I've got the luck of the devil."
"Oh, I believe it. You appear to be a man who lives on the edge and survives by his wits. When did you last have a tetanus shot?"
"Last year." She looked at him skeptically. He raised his right hand as though taking an oath. "Swear to God."
He eased himself over the side of the examination table and stood with his hip propped against it while he rebuttoned his jeans. He left his belt unbuckled. "What do I owe you?"
"Fifty dollars for the after-hours office call, fifty for the sutures and dressing, twelve each for the injections, including the one you wasted, and forty for the medication."
She removed two plastic bottles from a locked cabinet and handed them to him. "An antibiotic and a pain pill. Once the lidocaine wears off, it'll hurt."
He withdrew a money clip from the front pocket of his snug jeans. "Let's see, fifty plus fifty, plus twenty-four, plus forty comes to—"
He cocked an eyebrow, seeming amused by her prompt tabulation. "Right. One hundred and sixty-four." He extracted the necessary bills and laid them on the examination table. "Keep the change," he said when he put down a five-dollar bill instead of four ones.
Lara was surprised that he had that much cash on him. Even after paying her, he still had a wad of currency in high denominations. "Thank you. Take two of the antibiotic capsules tonight, then four a day until you've taken all of them."
He read the labels, opened the bottle of pain pills and shook out one. He tossed it back and swallowed it dry. "It'd go down better with a shot of whiskey." His voice rose on a hopeful, inquiring note.
She shook her head. "Take one every four hours. Two if absolutely necessary. Take them with water," she emphasized, seriously doubting that he'd stick to those instructions. "Tomorrow afternoon around four-thirty, come in and I'll change your dressing."
"For another fifty bucks, I guess."
"No, that's included."
"Don't be. As soon as you leave, I'm calling Sheriff Baxter."
Crossing his arms over his bare chest, he regarded her indulgently. "And get him out of bed at this time of night?" He shook his head remorsefully. "I've known poor old Elmo Baxter all my life. He and my daddy were buddies. They were youngsters during the oil boom, see? It was kinda like going through a war together, they said.
"They used to hang out around the drilling sites, came to be like mascots to the roughnecks and wildcatters. Ran errands for them to buy hamburgers, cigarettes, moonshine, whatever they wanted. He and my daddy probably procured some things that old Elmo would rather not recall," he said with a wink.
"Anyway, go ahead and call him. But once he gets here, he'll be nothing but glad to see me. He'll slap me on the back and say something like, 'Long time no see,' and ask what the hell I've been up to lately." He paused to gauge Lara's reaction. Her stony stare didn't faze him.
"Elmo's overworked and underpaid. Calling him out this late over this piddling accident of mine will get him all out of sorts, and he's already cantankerous by nature. If you ever have a real emergency, like some crazy dopehead breaking in here looking for something to stop the little green monsters from crawling out of his eye sockets, the sheriff'll think twice before rushing to your rescue.
"Besides," he added, lowering his voice, "folks won't take kindly to you when they hear that you can't be trusted with their secrets. People in a small town like Eden Pass put a lot of stock in privileged information."
"I doubt that many even know the definition of privileged information," Lara refuted dryly. "And contrary to what you say, in the time I've been here, I've learned just how far-reaching and accurate the grapevine is. A secret has a short life span in this town.
"But your message to me about Sheriff Baxter came through loud and clear. What you're telling me is that he enforces a good ol' boy form of justice and that even if I reported your bullet wound, that would be the end of it."
"More'n likely," he replied honestly. "Around here, if the sheriff investigated every shooting, he'd be plumb worn out in a month."
Realizing that he probably was right, Lara sighed. "Were you shot while committing a crime?"
"A few sins, maybe," he said, giving her a slow, lazy smile. His blue eyes squinted mischievously. "But I don't think they're illegal."
She finally relinquished her professional posture and laughed. He didn't appear to be a criminal, although he was almost certainly a sinner. She doubted that he was dangerous, except perhaps to a susceptible woman.
"Hey, the lady doctor's not so stuffy after all. She can smile. Got a real nice smile, too." Narrowing his eyes, he asked softly, "What else have you got that's real nice?"
Now it was her turn to fold her arms across her chest. "Do these come-on lines usually work for you?"
"I've always thought that where boys and girls are concerned, talk is practically unnecessary."
"Saves time and energy. Energy better spent on doing other things."
"I don't dare ask 'Like what?' "
"Go ahead, ask. I don't embarrass easily. Do you?"
It had been a long time since a man had flirted with her. Even longer since she had flirted back. It felt good. But only for a few seconds. Then she remembered why she couldn't afford to flirt, no matter how harmlessly. Her smile faltered, then faded. She drew herself up and resumed her professional demeanor. "Don't forget your shirt," she said curtly.
"You can throw it away." He took a step away from the table, but fell back against it, his face contorted in pain. "Shitfire!"
"My goddamn ankle. I twisted it when I… Hell of a sprain, I think."
She knelt down and as gently as possible worked up the right leg of his jeans. "Good Lord! Why didn't you show me this sooner?" The ankle was swollen and discolored.
"Because I was bleeding like a stuck hog. First things first. It'll be all right." He bent over, pushed aside her probing hands, and pulled down his pants leg.
"You should have it X-rayed. It could be broken."
"You're not qualified to give a medical opinion."
"No, but I've had enough broken bones to know when one's broken, and this one isn't."
"I can't take responsibility if—"
"Relax, will you? I'm not going to hold you responsible for anything." Shirtless, shoeless, he hopped toward the door through which he'd entered.
"Would you like to wash your hands before you go?" she offered.
He looked down at the bloodstains and shook his head. "They've been dirtier."
Lara felt derelict in her duties as a physician treating him this way. But he was an adult, accountable for his own actions. She'd done as much as he had permitted.
- On Sale
- May 7, 1993
- Page Count
- 417 pages
- Grand Central Publishing