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“What idiot decided that matchmaking people would be fun?” Chantel Chandler asked her sister Angel.
Angel turned from arranging the display in the front window of the Fallen Angels lingerie shop in Whiskey River to answer. “Both of us. Remember how well it went for Fiona and Johnny?” she said, referring to their first attempt at the annual Valentine’s Day Ball. Angel and Chantel had been in charge of the matching of single people at the dance and though it was supposed to be random, they’d finagled a little magic so their two friends could finally get together.
“One success—” Chantel began.
“Oh, stop it. We’ve had others since. Besides, it’s just a hobby. Why are you so bent out of shape?”
“Because I can’t make Gabe Walker answer his damn phone. He’d be the perfect person to set up with Marie.”
“Go out and see him, then,” Angel said reasonably, turning back to the display. “He’s living out on the Walker ranch, isn’t he?”
“Yes. Last I heard, he’d built a house on the ranch.” Angel’s calm rationality irritated the snot out of her big sister. “Marie is your friend. Why don’t you go see him?”
“Because you know him better and besides, you’re more persuasive.” She paused and stood back to look at her handiwork. “I can’t put my finger on it but something’s off.”
“It could be that the other mannequin’s head is turned around backward,” Chantel said dryly.
Angel laughed. “Oh, yeah. I did that earlier and forgot about it.”
“Why did you—Oh, never mind,” Chantel said, deciding not to go off on that tangent. Returning to the discussion, she said, “I’ve hardly seen Gabe since he moved back to town. I mean, I’ve seen him but just in passing. I’m not sure we’ve even spoken more than a few words. Just because we knew each other in high school doesn’t mean I know him now.”
“So find someone else.” Angel stepped back, tilting her head to consider the peach lingerie set she’d chosen to spotlight. “I think I like the blue better. What do you think?”
“The sapphire blue. Definitely.” Chantel frowned. Giving up was not in her nature. “Fine, I’ll go out there. Can you handle things here?”
“Of course. We’re not very busy and Krista’s coming in to work later. Have fun,” she added mischievously.
Chantel gave her the evil eye but Angel had already turned back to the display. Sisters.
Chantel had never been to Gabe’s workshop before. She’d known him since she was a teenager, and she’d been to his parents’ house at the Walker ranch, but she’d never seen his new house or workshop. Other people had talked about his place, though not many had seen it. Though his parents had retired and moved away, some of his siblings still ran the ranch and raised cattle and horses. Gabe had built his house and workshop on land some distance away from the main house when he came back to Whiskey River and was apparently happy to stay there most of the time.
Gabe was a metal artist. A well-known and very good one, judging by the prices of his work. Not to mention the articles she’d read from time to time, indicating he not only had a national audience, but an international one as well. As for Whiskey River, Chantel knew that along with the Wild Horse art gallery, some of the local businesses showcased his pieces. Several private citizens owned some for their collections as well. There was a piece in the local bank that was his work but that was the only one she knew for certain was Gabe’s, other than the ones in the gallery, of course. She admitted his art fascinated her. She’d seen pictures, again in articles, but in person the art was awe-inspiring. The one in the bank was abstract so she wasn’t certain what it was but its gold and silver tones made her think of money. Which wasn’t surprising since it had been commissioned for the bank.
Chantel had dated Gabe’s best friend, Randy Hardy, in high school, but she’d never dated Gabe. She and Randy didn’t break up until the summer after their senior year of high school, before they both went to college in the fall. So she hadn’t had much opportunity even if she’d wanted to date him. Once she and Gabe both moved away she completely lost touch with him. Several years ago Chantel had come back and opened Fallen Angels lingerie with her sister. A couple of years after that Gabe had returned to Whiskey River and built his own place on the ranch. Although she’d seen him around town it had been ten or twelve years since she’d had much interaction with him.
The dirt path gave way to a gravel driveway, which led directly to Gabe’s workshop. Several yards away and connected by another gravel driveway, was a small cottage that she assumed he lived in, though she figured he spent a lot of his time at his workshop. There were a couple of huge metal sculptures outside the building as well as a forge. One was a Pegasus, an incredibly detailed winged horse, a warrior at his side, done in bronze. The other was a lion, made out of some other kind of metal—she wasn’t sure what. She was tempted to examine them more closely but, remembering her mission, she didn’t. The interior workshop was open to the outside at the moment, with a garage door that rolled up and down.
A sweet-faced chocolate Lab lay on his side just outside the concrete floor of the building. He wagged his tail when she squatted down to pet him, but though he rolled to his stomach and raised his head, he made no move to get up. Music blasted. Unfamiliar music, with a raucous, wild beat. She rose and walked inside. Deciding there was no way he’d hear her even if she yelled, Chantel stood watching him for a moment, trying to decide the best way to get his attention.
He stood beside a metal workbench, wearing welding gloves and holding an acetylene torch in his hand. A visor covered his face and he wore a white T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off and a faded logo of the University of Texas on it.
Oh. My God. Holy shit! His arms were sculpted masterpieces of lean muscle. Not bulky, but totally ripped. He wore jeans that rode low on his hips, and she could tell he had leg muscles to match the arms. His chest was broad and she realized he had grown taller since high school and even then, he’d started out fairly tall. How had she gone all these years and never realized Gabe had an incredible body? Surely he hadn’t looked like that in high school. She felt woozy and couldn’t decide if it was from the heat in the room or the fire running through her blood.
Maybe it wasn’t Gabe. Maybe it was some other artist who was sharing his workspace. Maybe—
He turned off the torch, yanked off his gloves and took off his visor and tossed it aside, then pulled up his T-shirt and mopped his face with it.
Damn. It was Gabe and those were washboard abs, not that she should have been surprised given the rest of him.
He reached over to an ancient boombox and turned off the music. “Hey, Chantel. What brings you out here?”
Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. She was afraid she’d babble if she tried to talk. Chill, Chantel. This is Gabe. You know, good old Gabe.
“Hi, um, Gabe.”
“Hi.” He peered at her. “Are you okay?”
She could only nod.
“Want a Coke or some water?”
Chantel cleared her throat. “Water sounds good.”
He opened the door of a small refrigerator, took out a bottle and tossed it to her. Pulling out another bottle, he unscrewed the top, put it to his mouth and chugged it.
Chantel watched his throat work, watched a trickle of water slide down his chin to his neck and on to his chest. Oh, shit. Oh, crap. Damn it. Get hold of yourself, you idiot. Preferably before she completely lost her mind and went over there to trace the path of that water with her tongue.
He finished the bottle and wiped an arm across his mouth. “You’re starting to freak me out, Chantel. What’s going on?”
She took a drink of water and gathered her poor, scattered wits about her. “Don’t you ever answer your phone?”
“Not when I’m working. Why?”
“I left several messages.”
He shrugged. “I don’t check ’em very often.”
“Obviously.” Finally managing to tear her eyes away from him, she looked around the workshop. Off in one corner was a fireplace—or forge, rather—vented to the outside. It was smaller than the one outside, though it took up most of the space in one corner. There were tools of all varieties, hammers and tongs and ones she couldn’t identify, some hanging on the wall, a large number of them laid out on a table, and some hanging on a freestanding rack. There were several torches scattered around, including one next to whatever he’d been working on.
She walked over to a huge piece hanging on the wall. An abstract like the one in the bank, but completely different. Metals of different types, hues of red and orange, the colors of fire, with an intense blue flame in the center.
“Wow. Is this yours?”
He looked mystified. “Well, yeah. It is my workshop.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it. What is it?”
“What do you think it is?”
“I’m not sure.” She studied it, trying to put her thoughts into words. “It radiates violence. Bloodshed. Something… Something epic.” She put out her hand then drew it back.
“You can touch it,” he said. “You won’t hurt it.”
She traced a finger over it, marveling that it felt so cool when it looked like a fiery explosion. “Blood, ferocity, death.” She turned and stared at him, seeing him in a completely new light. That he had all that inside him and was able to translate it into a work of art amazed her.
He grinned. “Good, that’s what I was going for. It’s the Battle of Helm’s Deep.” He walked over to stand next to her.
“From the Lord of the Rings?”
“That’s the one. Or it can be anything you want. You know what they say. Art is in the eye of the beholder.”
With an effort she took her eyes off the wall hanging, but looking at him was just as bad. Talk about a work of art. And what rock had she been living under not to notice? She consoled herself with the fact that she’d only seen him briefly since his return to Whiskey River. But hell, it had been two years or more since he’d come back. You’d think she’d have seen him more often.
Still unsure where to start she crossed to his workbench to see his current project. “This looks similar to the battle scene I just looked at. Only bigger. And bloodier. There’s more red.” She tilted her head to consider it. “It’s incredible.”
“Thanks. It’s also from the Lord of the Rings. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, just as Aragorn and the Army of the Dead show up.”
“Clearly you’re a Lord of the Rings fan.”
He shrugged again. “I like to portray battles, among other things. I’m thinking about doing one from Game of Thrones but I haven’t decided on which scene yet. Maybe one of the ones with the dragons. Or maybe the one when the wall falls. Of course, that would be ice, not fire. Which could be interesting in itself.” He paused, cocked his head to study her. “Did you come out here to look at my work?”
“I didn’t think so.”
“I’ve seen your work in the Wild Horse Gallery but why haven’t I seen more of your art around town?”
“You probably have. You just didn’t know it was mine.”
She thought about that. “There’s one at the Bank of Whiskey River. But I don’t know what else… Oh, my God. The horse down by the playground. That’s yours?” It was a gorgeous piece, a life-sized sculpture of a horse rearing up, with a flowing mane and a look of immense power. All in metal. “Of course it is. I mean, you’ve got a Pegasus out front. Naturally that horse is yours.”
He nodded. “My contribution to the new park.”
“I heard it was made from scrap metal. Is it really?”
“It is.” He smiled and added, “I thought you didn’t come here to talk art.”
She kept getting distracted looking at him. Damn, his face was pretty, but in a masculine way. A strong jaw, apparent even with the dark stubble, dark wavy hair that was a bit long and shaggy, as if he didn’t bother to cut it often, not as a fashion statement. His nose was a little crooked but if anything it added character to an already arresting face. She thought she remembered he’d broken it playing football. His eyes were a beautiful gunmetal gray, with dark thick lashes. Right now they were looking at her quizzically.
Art. Oh, yeah, he’d asked her a question. “I didn’t.” Now that she was here she felt a curious reluctance to tell him. Because she wouldn’t have minded going out with him herself? She squashed that thought. “I came to talk to you about Marie Phillips. She’s a friend of Angel’s and we thought you and—”
“I know who she is,” he interrupted. “Why?”
“To see if you wanted to go out with her.” An unwelcome thought occurred to her. “You’re not involved with anyone, are you?”
“No. Are you?”
“No, but that’s beside the point. You and Marie are both single. And Marie is pretty and fun and…” She trailed off, noticing his skeptical expression. “What? Why not go out with her?”
“Aside from the fact that I already did and we both had a crappy time?”
“Oh. Well, damn. I had no idea.”
“What’s this about? Have you started another business? Setting people up?”
Chantel laughed. “No, it’s purely a hobby. So, I guess you aren’t interested in being set up with someone else?”
“Thanks, but I can get my own dates.”
She bet he could. Except… Apparently he wasn’t. Why was she only now noticing how hot Gabe was? “Sorry to bother you.” She felt kind of stupid now.
“You didn’t.” His expression was a combination of amusement and speculation. “I’m going to pick up some scrap metal for another project. Why don’t you come along?”
End of Excerpt