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He'll claim his mate like the animals he lives among.
There's a connection between several murders and a missing man. Though she hasn't yet worked out the link, investigative reporter Smokey Powers is determined to visit the Oregon coast to learn everything she can.
Upon her arrival, Smokey is seduced by the work of local Native American photographer Mato Hawk. His passion for nature stirs a deep desire burning inside her. When she meets the gorgeous and compelling Mato, she's unaware of his hidden agenda - one that includes capturing her and using physical attraction to stop the danger she represents.
Publisher's Note: This steamy paranormal romance contains elements of power exchange.
Captured in flight, the hawk commanded most of the photograph. Its wings were spread as if embracing its world, talons stretched, haunting yellow eyes seemingly trained on whoever had taken the picture. The rest of the picture was a blur of greens and browns, undoubtedly the forest it lived in, but the hawk's image was so sharply defined Smokey could make out the individual tail feathers.
Stepping closer, she continued her study of the picture that had been placed at eye level on the small art gallery's wall. Except for the faint drum and flute notes from the Native American instrumental playing in the background, the gallery was silent. She could hear her heart beating, feel the pull and release in her lungs as she breathed.
What came after incredible, mesmerizing, captivating, eerie?
Yes, there was something otherworldly about the frozen in time and space predator. It wasn't that large a bird, certainly not as imposing as an eagle or osprey, and yet there was no doubt of its confidence and power. What would it be like to have such faith in one's physical ability, to be utterly at home in the wilderness?
"Pretty amazing, isn't it?"
Startled, Smokey Powers spun around. Behind her stood the young, probably Native American woman who'd greeted her when she'd first come in the door. As the only two people in the building, she shouldn't be surprised that the woman whose name tag identified her as Halona had joined her, but the hawk had claimed her attention.
"Amazing is the right word, all right," Smokey acknowledged as she returned to her study of the photograph. "Do you know who took that shot? I'd love to paint the bird."
"That's one of Mato's creations. In fact, he's responsible for every wildlife and wilderness photograph in here."
"Mato?" The name seemed to settle on her tongue. "He's local?"
"As local as they get. I don't know how many generations his family goes back, certainly long before white men arrived."
"That explains how he knew where to find this magnificent creature." She indicated the hawk that seemed to be watching her. "What does he do, work for National Geographic?"
"Hardly, although I think he's good enough. He contracts with the Bureau of Land Management in addition to managing his own timber acreage."
In her mind's eye she clearly saw Mato slipping silently through the forest, a shadow among shadows, camera at the ready, senses acutely tuned to his surroundings. He saw the forest, not as a great unknown, but home, his. Maybe the creatures that lived there sensed that about him and shared their wilderness knowledge with him.
A man like that would be physically hard, primal, alive, real. If he saw a woman he desired, there'd be no game playing, no dance of attraction, no slow getting to know her. Like the animals who shared the forest with him, he'd claim his mate, take her down and fuck.
Struggling to ignore the heat chasing up her neck, she concentrated on swallowing. "What do you think? Any chance he'd sell me that picture? I notice it's not for sale."
"None of his work is because he wants visitors to see and appreciate what exists around here."
Around here meant the southern Oregon coast, specifically the forest that threatened to swallow the town of Storm Bay where she'd be spending the next few days.
"I'll tell you what," Halona continued. "I'll give you directions to where he lives. Hopefully your vehicle's made for off-road travel because the road into his place can get pretty hairy depending on the weather."
"Mine's four-wheel drive." Her gaze strayed to the one window and beyond it to where dark gray clouds and wind-whipped trees signaled an approaching storm. As if she didn't feel isolated enough. "He wouldn't be there this time of day would he?"
"I doubt it. I don't know how pressed you are for time, but I'm sure where he'll be tonight."
An alarm went off in her head, but she kept her expression neutral. "Oh?"
"The meeting." Halona made it sound as if nothing else mattered. "The whole town's going to be there. There'll even be reporters although maybe they're here because of that man who's been missing over a week."
Not breathing, Smokey waited to see if Halona would ask if she was one of those reporters. Instead, Halona only shrugged.
She wanted to be open and honest with this young woman, but she had a job to do, one that might be impossible if she didn't keep certain things to herself starting with her full name. Reconciling herself to deception, even though she already knew the answer, she asked about the meeting.
"It's being held in the school auditorium, seven o'clock. That's the only place around here that's large enough to hold everyone."
"The meeting sounds important."
"It is to us. What's at stake is whether the land our people have always lived in harmony with will remain unspoiled or if greed—I'm sorry, I'm sure you don't care. You're on vacation. You are, aren't you?"
Shrugging, Smokey divided her attention between Halona and the piercing yellow eyes that seemed capable of seeing beneath deception and omission. "How will I know who Mato is?"
"He'll be speaking, I'm sure of it. And even if he doesn't—" Pressing her hand to her chest, Halona sighed. "He's the sexiest man alive. Early thirties and in his sexual prime. Unless you're dead from the neck down, you'll know."
"Okay." Halona grinned. "Maybe not the sexiest man alive but definitely the finest representative of his sex I've ever seen, not that I've observed that many in this one horse town."
She hadn't come here to lust after a man. She'd come from Portland because what had been happening in Storm Bay for a long time had gotten her reporter's juices flowing. She'd been fascinated and horrified by what her digging had turned up. When she'd told her publisher at Northwest News about the story she wanted to write, his reaction had been what she'd expected.
"Hot damn, that's unbelievable. Go for it! Your instincts have yet to fail you. Be careful. There's something seriously weird going on there."
Careful didn't get the story researched and written. Probing, listening, watching, questioning, and sometimes taking chances did. And because she was who and what she was, she was willing to take those chances.
"I don't know about trying to approach him," she told Halona. "If he's wrapped up in this meeting, he's not going to want to talk about selling a picture or giving me permission to paint it." Taking a deep breath, she looked at the photograph again. No denying it, the hawk was staring at her. How could she not try to reproduce something so intense? "But if I go, I'll get some idea how my request will be received, don't you think?"
"When it comes to Mato, I don't make predictions. You know that saying about what you see is what you get? Well, there's a lot more to him than what's on the surface, not that I have any objections to the physical package."
"He sounds interesting."
"Interesting?" Halona winked. "Let's talk after you've laid eyes on him. If I was ten years older—"
"Is he married?"
"No. Not sure why, maybe because he's so restless."
Like me. "Mato? Is that his first or last name?"
"First. Full name, Mato Hawk."
Against her better judgment, she again glanced at the photograph. "Same as the bird."
"There's nothing wo-wo about the connection, at least I don't think so. He's taken thousands of wildlife pictures. You just happen to have zeroed in on this one of the Red Tail."
In response to Smokey's question, Halona explained that the rich, russet red coloring on the predator's broad, rounded tail identified it as the largest hawk species, this one weighing close to four pounds. What fascinated Smokey was the impressive wing span and learning that its cry resembled a hoarse rasping scream, two pieces of information Mato had told Halona about.
"I'm sure Mato believes I'm nothing more than a curious kid." Halona sighed. "Little does he know that when I'm asking about his photographs, it's because I can stand close to him. What is it about some men? They give off this electrical charge, this heat. Shit. Mato's heat is enough to start the woods on fire."
You have to be exaggerating. "Sounds fas—about the meeting, is it going to be controversial? It must be about something vital if so many people are going to be there."
The youthful eyes sobered. "It might not matter to outsiders, but there's no reason for greed and money to jeopardize this precious land, none! Whatever it takes to protect it, we will. No one is more committed than Mato."
Committed enough to kill?
Before she could come up with something to say, the gallery phone rang. Rolling her eyes, Halona headed toward the front counter. Alone again, Smokey avoided looking at the endlessly gliding hawk. Although the art gallery was small, the pieces on display were first class. Mato's photography was the star of the show, but among Storm Bay's residents was a master wood carver, an oil painter specializing in ocean scenes, two spectacular free-form metal pieces, and pottery pieces in subtle rainbows of colors.
This wasn't what she'd expected when she'd decided to come to Storm Bay to dig into a number of mysterious deaths going back more than a hundred years. Small and isolated, the town had come into official existence as a fishing village. Native Americans had lived here since before recorded history.
With fishing in decline and timber harvesting controlled by regulation, the town was losing its economic base. It had lost some population, but not as much as she'd expected, proof that something beyond economics kept people here. Whatever that something was, it fed some residents' creativity.
What fed Mato Hawk's creativity? One of his pictures was of a bull elk nearly hidden among ferns with sunlight highlighting its antlers. Another, obviously taken with a powerful zoom lens, showed three young fox kits wrestling each other while their mother watched. A third shot zeroed in on a white butterfly about to land on pine needles sprinkled with dew. A close look revealed a spider clinging to one of the needles.
A man of contrasts? One willing to stand up for what he believed in, one capable of becoming part of his surroundings so he could identify and share its life force.
A sexy man.
She didn't know about the sexy part. Halona might be filled with the romantic notions that came with youth and innocence. Once Halona had put a few more years behind her, she'd realize there was more to a man than what lay between his legs. Broad shoulders and narrow hips might still get Smokey to occasionally, very occasionally, spread her own legs, but it would take a hell of a lot more than that before she'd consider hooking her life with some man.
And until or if she found one with that nebulous something, she'd concentrate on a career she loved. And do a little painting on the side.
She'd come in here because she had time to kill until the meeting started. Oh, she could have stayed in the cabin she'd rented, but doing nothing always made her a little crazy. She had no intention of going into the one bar where other reporters might be hanging out because she didn't want anyone to know she was here for as long as possible. All too soon word would get out that the driving force behind the Northwest News award-winning column Just the Facts was hot on a story.
Some fifteen minutes later, she pushed open the studio's front door and stepped into a swirling wind. She made her way to her SUV and closed herself in. When she picked up her cell phone, she saw she had two messages, both from her publisher. True to his nature, he'd kept his messages brief. "Call me."
"You were supposed to check in." He snapped when she got through to him.
"I called this morning to let you know I was almost here, remember."
"What have you been doing since then? This assignment is making me uneasy. If you're right about murders passing as accidents, that's serious shit. It's bad enough that no one's seen hide or hair of what's his name in over a week, now you're alone in enemy territory."
"His name was—is Flann Castetter. So far I have no proof this is enemy territory."
"The official search has been called off. Did you know that?"
"Yes," she said. "There's nothing to justify expending more man hours looking for someone who may have decided he'd taken enough heat and was bailing."
"He brought the heat on himself. Him and the rest of that NewDirections bunch. I don't blame the locals for not taking kindly to the resort proposal."
She muttered that she agreed but didn't add that Castetter's disappearance might be the latest in the list of strange things to have happened around Storm Bay. She didn't need him to keep warning her to be careful.
Let other reporters chase after celebrities. She thrived on gut churning stories about real people.
People like Mato Hawk?
Trying not to own up to the shiver down her back and an increase of heat elsewhere, she told her boss she'd call him after tonight's public hearing. Then she hung up.
Instead of heading for one of the five cabins that passed for a motel in Storm Bay, she stared at the world around her. The art gallery was set back from the coastal highway and at the end of a narrow gravel road that snaked through the dense vegetation. Someone had cut growth back from the road but what remained made her think of a living green wall.
And that makes you vulnerable.
Where had the thought come from? She thrived on her fast-paced life, chasing down rumors and getting to the truth. Pouring the truth out through her fingers and onto the keyboard made her feel strong and in control, not vulnerable.
Startled, she leaned forward and rubbed condensation off the windshield with a sleeve. She could barely see the clouds for the trees. That's why she was feeling a bit spooked. Who wouldn't when it felt as if everything was closing in on her?
"Knock it off!" Just the same, the heat between her legs increased. How long had it been since she'd gotten laid? That's all this was, pent up sexual frustration on a miserable day in the middle of nowhere while trying to run down some information about a man who might have met with foul play but more likely was off getting some R and R.
She'd see this Hawk character tonight, put him in his place somewhere far from her mind. Either that or she'd learn he had something to do with Flann Castetter's disappearance.
A whoosh of movement killed the thought. Gripping the steering wheel, she shivered.
No, she hadn't just seen a hawk!
Or had she?