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Authors: Madison Layle & Anna Leigh Keaton

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BOOK: Falke’s Captive
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Only she would think Kelan did that. Reidar knew different. They were a close bunch despite their differences. Kelan saw the threat and leaped to save his brother’s life without hesitation or consideration of the consequences.

“I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I never would’ve shot—I was trying to protect him and all of you. I tracked that cougar here. It escaped.” She stared at the cat before reaching into her back pocket. “I thought it was about to—”

“Careful,” Axel warned, watching her hand.

She slowed her movement, but continued until she’d produced the missing collar. “It was running around loose in the forest yesterday when I tranquilized it. I…we…There’s a team of us from WSU out here this summer conducting a research project, funded by a government grant.”

“What kind of research?”

“We’re tagging pumas to study their habits, track them, and learn more about how their population grows while other large cats around the world are near extinction. I didn’t realize it had this collar on until I got closer.”

“You shot…Falke. Yesterday?” Axel’s suspicious, angry tone put Reidar on edge. He eyed his other siblings; none were smiling now.

Beth nodded. “When I realized it must be someone’s pet, I couldn’t just leave it out there. We thought it must’ve broken free of its enclosure or something, and a semi-domesticated wild cat is a hazard not only to humans but itself too. So we brought it back to our mobile lab. I was searching for its owner, hoping this collar would help, but there’s no ID on it, and the cat escaped last night. Are you the owner?”

“Falke is part of our family,” his brother responded. “No one
owns
him.”

She frowned at Axel and held up the collar, shaking it at him. “Do you have any idea the kind of danger you’re putting the civilian population of this town in by trying to domesticate a wild animal? Letting it roam the woods alone—”

“Look, lady—”

“It could run out into the road and get hit by a car, attack a small child—”

Reidar cut off her diatribe. “He wasn’t alone.” Again, all eyes turned toward him.

Kelan would owe him big time for this.

“I was hiking…in the forests behind your house, Ax,” he began, easing his way into a story he hoped would explain everything—at least to the mad scientist with a tranq gun. “There’s some great public hiking trails through there that go on for miles, and I…umm…Anyway, Falke here, he was with me.”

Reidar stroked the cougar’s neck and tried not to wince when Gunnar grumbled inside his mind,
Knock it off.

“I thought we both needed to get away for a while, burn off some energy. We weren’t in town, so I didn’t see the need for a leash.”

Gunnar growled low and deep.

Giving his brother some space, Reidar continued with his explanation from a safer distance. “At one point, I stopped for a water break. The sun was warm, and I guess I dozed a little. Falke wandered off ahead of me. We got separated, and well, I searched for him but when I couldn’t find him, I went home…uh…where he returned last night.” He shrugged. “I figured Falke could find his way home, and I was right. He always comes back.”

“He has another collar,” Beth observed, then looked around, her brow furrowing in obvious confusion. “You’re all wearing collars?”

“Yeah, well,” Reidar replied, “it’s part of our uniforms. It’s only fair that if Falke must wear one to be here, we should all be willing to do the same. Anyway, after Falke came back without his, Kelan gave him his collar this morning.”

The puma huffed and lowered his head onto his big paws, his body taking up a large chunk of counter space, his tail swiping back and forth in an angry way.

So what if the family didn’t buy his tale; it only mattered whether she did.

“I thought it must’ve broken and fallen off or something,” Reidar said, warming to his story. He held out his hand for the collar, waiting patiently until she handed it over. “We decided it would be better if the cat wore one. You know, since the townsfolk know Falke, they won’t be alarmed, but without the collar he could be mistaken for a wild animal.”

Raising her chin in challenge, Beth looked him in the eye. “Mistaken? Collar or not, he
is
a wild animal,” she stressed. “A predator, a carnivore, with sharp teeth and claws. Don’t fool yourself.”

Reidar smiled. She was a spitfire and adorable when ticked. A shame their budding acquaintance had to end on this sour note.

Kelan was going to get a piece of his mind for not sharing that Beth was the trigger-happy scientist with him last night.

“I suppose you removed the ear tag too?”

Sindre and Torsten snickered but sobered when Axel scowled at them. Feeling uncomfortable, Reidar nodded to Beth.

“I’m sure there’s some kind of law against that,” she said, her frown out in full force.

“And I’m sure there’s some rule against tagging family pets,” he countered with a smirk, “so let’s call it even.”

She cast a worried glance at the cat, which hadn’t moved from his spot on the counter. “You just let it roam free in the store? Around town?”

“In the store, yes. Around town, he has to be on a leash just like any other animal taken for a walk.”

Her tone softened. “Do you have any idea how inherently dangerous that is? How liable you are—”

Falke yawned, and Reidar fought to keep his expression sober. Hers was an argument as old as every person present, older really, but the villagers had been conditioned to accept the Falke family quirk for generations. Their “pet” had become somewhat of an unofficial town mascot, and the cat was rarely if ever the one who actually caused trouble.

“Falke’s been welcome in Leavenworth longer than you, Ms. Coldwell,” Axel said, his tone harsh. “If you wish to continue your
research
, I suggest you do it someplace else—”

“Ax…” Reidar began, but stopped when he got
the look
.

“And not on anyone under my protection.”

“Protection?” She glared at Axel. “I’m not a villain, mister. I’m trying to
help
, and I thought—”

“The name’s Axel Falke, and I’m sure you think you’re helping, but shooting a firearm of any kind inside my store is not
in the wild
.” He took the pistol from Dakota, checked to ensure it was unloaded, and handed it back to Beth. “I won’t press charges…
this
time. But I strongly suggest you determine whether the next animal you sight in on is wearing a collar
before
you fire. Now, if you’ll excuse us,” he finished pointedly, “I have a brother who needs medical attention.”

She seemed to want to counter but apparently thought better of it. Her lips thinned into a hard line then softened when she glanced at Kelan who lay unconscious on the floor, Heidi attending to him. Slowly, Beth raised her hand, her fingertips lightly brushing her lips. Reidar fought an urge to wrap her in his arms, console her until the furrow in her brow vanished.

But Axel was right. She’d fired at Falke not once, but twice, and both times the cat had been collared. He didn’t really know Beth, didn’t know what her scientific research entailed, but he knew enough of recent events to know now she was too dangerous to welcome further contact.

“Tell him, I’m sorry. Please?” she all but whispered to him.

“I will.”

She blinked, looked around, her gaze settling on Axel. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you,” she said, her back ramrod straight. She stashed the dart gun in her deep purse then dug around in it and produced a business card, which she handed to Reidar. “I don’t anticipate there being any, but please send any related medical bills to me at that address. I only used a mild sedative. A man his size should awaken within the hour, two at the latest. Goodbye.”

Heidi, bless her heart, didn’t give Axel time to build up steam by waiting for Beth to exit the building before she took command of the situation. “Sindre, Torsten, help me get Kel upstairs to your apartment. He needs to be in a bed, not on the hard floor. Reidar…”

“Yes, ma’am?” he quipped, his lips pressing tight against a grin.

She lowered her voice. “Go to my truck and get my vet satchel out of the cab.” She continued telepathically.
If she implanted a GPS microchip on him, which is the only explanation for how she tracked him here, I need to find it and get it out, now.

 

Beth exited the store with as much decorum as she could muster, but the moment she slid into the driver’s seat of her Jeep, her shoulders slumped, and she gripped the steering wheel. “Damn.” Who did these people think they were? A mountain lion was
not
a house pet.

She glanced at the awning over the store. Catamount Outfitters. She snorted. It’d almost be cute, if the situation wasn’t so dire. Did these people not watch the news? Read the papers? Wild cats were just that…wild. The same as a wolf, or a bear, or any other creature meant to roam the forests. They could be captured and trained but were still wild deep down, and one little thing—a child’s cry, a grown human making a wrong move—and that was all it’d take for disaster to strike. They’d attack, maim and possibly kill.

And those men thought putting that cat on a leash would help? A full-grown puma had the strength of ten men when agitated.

Besides, if they loved the big fur ball, why didn’t they set it free? Couldn’t they understand that such majestic creatures should be free to roam the woodlands? Not cooped up in some damn store as a publicity stunt.

Shaking her head, she started her vehicle and backed out of the space. She drove through the small town to the end of the tourist district, then headed back to the Bavarian Inn, with her thoughts churning over what had just happened.

Of all the bad luck. She’d shot the sexy hunk in front of his family and ruined all chances of there ever being anything between them, or between her and his brother. She was embarrassed and frustrated and…

“Damn it!”

Little point in staying in Leavenworth now. Maybe they should move on and start in Wenatchee as she’d originally planned.

It didn’t take her long to drive back to the hotel. Tim was pacing, a cell phone in hand, until he looked up and saw her return. He pocketed the phone and waited with a frown on his face for her to park her Jeep next to the mobile lab.

“What the hell happened in there?” Tim asked as he opened her door. “And where’ve you been? Professor Whitmore called to say he’ll be arriving tomorrow morning. Something last minute came up. He tried to call you too.”

Thank God for small favors.

“Sorry. Phone’s on vibe in my purse. I didn’t hear it. Didn’t you get my note?” She grabbed her purse and got out of the Jeep, slamming the door behind her.

“Yes, but ‘Cat got out. Be right back,’ isn’t exactly the kind of message that sets one’s mind at ease.”

“Sorry, but I was sort of in a hurry. The cat escaped last night. And I tracked it down.”

“You did
what
?”

She ignored the increased volume of his outburst. “I’m fine, as you can see, and I was right. It’s a pet. A bunch of brothers own him and keep him untethered, roaming loose inside a sporting goods store. Right in the middle of town.” She marched up the steps into the lab and flopped down in her chair. Then she rubbed her forehead and sighed. “They’re mad, the lot of them.”

“It’ll be okay.” Tim came up behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders in what she assumed was a friendly gesture, but when they began to slide down her arms, she shrugged him off. His touch was a little too friendly for her peace of mind.

“I need you to get some supplies.” She swiveled her chair so she faced him. “With the professor arriving first thing tomorrow, we need to work fast.”

“Sure. What?”

“I need you to find a hardware store to get a new side door for the trailer.”

“Why?”

Because I don’t want to have to answer the professor’s questions about claw marks on the damn door of a mobile lab we don’t own.
She clenched her teeth and forced herself to breathe. “Actually, you know what? I’ll do that.”

“No, I can go get it. What else?”

“All right. Make sure the new door has a deadbolt built in. This flimsy doorknob lock obviously isn’t very effective, and we’ve got a lot of expensive equipment in here.” She waved her hand at the door. “Oh, and get whatever you need to install the…whatever it’s called to latch the deadbolt into the doorjamb. I don’t want to wake up to another call like the one this morning. Since we’re going to have to move the trailer to a more remote area soon, I think a few extra security measures are needed.

“Also, I need you to take that door off the cage and see if you can bend the bars back into place so that the latch works again. Can you do that?”

“Yeah. No problem.”

“Then, get online or call around. Find the nearest big retail store or someplace where you can get a camera.”

He wrinkled his brow.

“I want some surveillance equipment. Like a nanny cam or something. A webcam might work. Something with wi-fi so I can view it from my laptop when I’m out.”

“I’ll see what I can find.”

“Thanks. It would have been nice to know exactly how that big boy got out of here last night. Also, get a sturdy padlock for the cage. I didn’t think about it before, but I guess the slide latch doesn’t cut it for a
domesticated
mountain lion. If we’re lucky enough to land a wild one, I don’t want it getting out.”

Tim grabbed a notepad from the desk and started scribbling, then looked up at her and around the lab. He cleared his throat.

“What?” she asked, irritated. Not really at Tim, just in general. This whole expedition had not started out well. She prayed the rest of the summer went better.

“Doesn’t it seem odd that a mountain lion was loose in here and the only damage is to the door? I mean…” He trailed off with a shrug. “I would have thought a ticked off cougar would do a bit more destruction before figuring out how to open the door.”

She glanced around the lab. He was right. It was odd, and she was surprised it hadn’t occurred to her before. With a frown, she sighed. “It lives with those guys. Maybe it’s house broken and didn’t want to pee in the cage.” She chuckled. “Hell, Tim, this is only day two, and things aren’t going well.”

BOOK: Falke’s Captive
4.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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