Authors: Madison Layle & Anna Leigh Keaton
“In this town time doesn’t mean much. Not to our generation.”
She smiled at that.
“Yep. We move at a lot slower pace than you young’ns,” another said. “Say, you just passin’ through?”
She shrugged then said with a cheeky smile, “I don’t know. Maybe you should try to convince me to stay.”
A man clear across the dining room guffawed. “Tell her about the Falke brothers, Bill.”
Her heart sped in excitement. “The Falke brothers?” she said, pretending ignorance and lifting her steaming coffee cup to her lips as if only slightly interested in their tale.
For the next two hours the elders of Leavenworth entertained her with stories of the town’s founding, and how the Falke brothers—a few generations back, not the ones she really wanted to hear about—helped Leavenworth flourish into a tourist town.
The gentlemen she’d chatted with wouldn’t let her pay her bill—a whopping four dollars and change—so she thanked them and promised to drop in again for breakfast soon. The eggs and hash browns had been a little too greasy, and the toast burned and butter-less, but the never-ending supply of coffee had been hot, strong and delicious. She’d enjoyed the company and learning about the town’s colorful history the most. She’d finally extracted herself from the conversation by telling them she had to get to work or she’d be fired and then would have to leave town. None of them seemed to want to see that happen.
Grinning over thoughts of their small-town hospitality, she climbed behind the wheel of her Jeep and headed to the other end of town and the veterinary clinic she’d looked up in the phonebook yesterday.
The clinic, with its gingerbread façade, sat about a half mile from the main tourist area, down a short, pretty, tree-lined drive. The sign out front was a simple one with Veterinarian etched in bold letters.
It wasn’t until she got out of the Jeep and went to the door that her eyes narrowed.
Heidi Falke, VMD was carved into a smaller wooden plaque. So, the town vet was related to the brothers. How convenient. She wondered if this Heidi was married to one of them, or a blood relation.
In any case, if she was close to the family, the vet might have some real answers.
Beth turned the doorknob and stepped inside. The floor was Italian tile, the walls a beautiful shade of mauve. Picturesque paintings of wild animals in their natural surroundings graced those walls, including a couple of predatory looking mountain lions. Possibly the classiest vet office she’d ever entered, though it still had the scent of a clinic—antiseptic cleaner with the undertone of animal dander.
“May I help you?” a white-haired woman asked as she came through a door behind the high counter.
“I was hoping I could see Dr. Falke. I don’t have an appointment, but…” She took a quick breath. “My name’s Elizabeth Coldwell. I’m here about the family’s pet cougar.”
The older woman smiled. “I’ll let her know she has a visitor.”
Beth stared at one painting in particular while she waited. A portrait of Falke, she was sure, though the cat in the picture wore no collar. He was big, his head held high, his ears pricked as if listening to someone.
“My mother painted those.”
Beth turned to see Heidi—the woman who’d been in the store yesterday and attended to Kelan after Beth shot him.
“They’re gorgeous,” Beth said, referring to the paintings. “Is your mother a vet too?”
Heidi’s smile was a little sad when she shook her head. “No, just a talented artist, housewife and the best mom in the world. Why don’t you come into my office?” She held the door open for Beth and motioned her through.
The back hallway was closer to what she knew of vet clinics. Linoleum flooring—easy to clean—and walls coated in eggshell paint. Heidi’s office was just as comfortable as the waiting room she discovered when she entered behind the other woman. Same color scheme, same beautiful tiles.
“Have a seat, please,” Heidi said pleasantly as she rounded the massive oak desk and sat behind it. “You’re here to talk about Falke?”
“I am. I didn’t realize you were…related to the family.” Beth sat in one of two comfortable chairs facing Heidi. “Or are you married to one of them?” After last night, she could understand the attraction. Despite her disastrous run-in with the other Falke men, she could readily admit they were all quite handsome. But she thought she could see the family resemblance. Hair color, eye color.
“Oh no. I’m their only sister and baby of the family.” She folded her hands on top of the desk and wrinkled her nose, a smile curving her lips. “Not always fun with six overbearing big brothers.”
Six? That wasn’t what Kelan had told her. Although, she vaguely remembered a couple more coming on scene in the store yesterday morning. “And a giant housecat for a pet?” she asked, not wanting little sister to know about her attraction to two of her brothers.
Heidi snickered. “Falke, if not this Falke, then another, has been around since before I was born. It’s…well, it’s an eccentricity that’s become a family tradition, I guess you could say. My ancestors helped build this town. They were the first to accept a catamount into the family. It’s been that way ever since.”
Beth kept her expression bland, but she’d just heard two hours of information on the eccentricities of the Falkes dating back to before most of the men in the diner were born. It would seem that Kelan and Reidar weren’t the only ones who hunted for women in pairs.
But the way Heidi phrased the relationship with Falke intrigued Beth. Like her brother said the day before,
No one owned Falke
“Again, I assure you, as my brothers did yesterday, that he’s not dangerous. He was raised with us.”
“So, he was born in captivity?”
Heidi hesitated, then gave a slight nod.
“Do you have others? Females? The mother? Does Falke have littermates?”
“No, no, and no.”
Three nos, four questions. “There were littermates?”
Heidi shook her head, but she seemed uncomfortable. She picked up a pen and fiddled with it, and Beth noticed that the vet wore a unique necklace—a pewter pendant similar to the medallion on Falke’s collar—on the collars all the brothers wore. The whole family sure took their infatuation with mountain lions to extremes.
“Oh. Okay. Umm…I was wondering,” she said, meeting Heidi’s hazel-eyed gaze, “if you’d allow me to take another blood sample from him.”
“Another?” Heidi asked, her eyebrows rising.
Beth nodded, pulled the folded lab results from her purse and handed the papers to Heidi. “There’s something strange in the genetics tests I ran on the sample I drew from Falke at the lab. As you know, cougars have thirty-eight chromosomes, yet, when I ran Falke’s test, it comes up with twenty-three pairs. That’s forty-six total, the same as humans.”
Heidi stared at the papers for a moment, and then smiled. “There’s no way a cougar could have forty-six chromosomes.”
“Right. I know.”
“So there must have been a mix up in your lab,” Heidi said.
“Except there’s nothing else in the lab to mix it up with. Falke’s was the first and only sample I’ve drawn so far.”
“Then your equipment must be faulty.”
That got her back up. “Ms. Falke, I’m an animal geneticist. I’m a dissertation away from my Ph.D. I know my equipment, and I know how to take a blood sample. I’m here because I’m worried about a cat your family obviously cares about, and to ask permission to take another sample from your pet in order to straighten this out.”
Heidi leaned back in her chair and twirled the pen between her fingers. “I don’t think Axel will approve of that. He’s—we are all—rather protective of Falke.”
“I don’t wish Falke any harm. What if this unusual genetic condition is a health risk to Falke? These tests show an anomaly, which is why I’d like to double check the results against a second sample. All I need is one vial of blood.”
vial, you mean.” Heidi seemed to close up right then. Her friendly expression left her face. She held up the papers, wrinkling them in her fist. “The answer is no. These tests were not authorized. The sample you have was obtained without our permission, and don’t try to tell me you assumed it would be okay, because you knew before you stuck him with a needle that he must belong to someone. The collar was clue enough.”
“Don’t you want to get to the bottom of this? For the sake of his health? A mutation of this type could—”
“I already know all I need to know about his health. I’m his vet. He gets his vaccinations here.” She waved toward a file cabinet. “And before you ask, I can’t show you those records, either. Call it doctor-client confidentiality, if you like.” When Beth made to dispute that, Heidi leaned forward, her gaze locking with Beth’s. “Our family has permission from the city council to keep Falke within city limits, and the mayor and sheriff are close family friends. If you have an issue with the fact I won’t let you go poking
needle into him, then I suggest you get over it and move on. You, Ms. Coldwell, are the outsider here. Don’t forget that.”
Beth seethed. So much for that famous Leavenworth hospitality.
Heidi leaned back, opened her top drawer and dropped the crumpled papers in it.
“Hey—” Beth stopped her protest. The papers were just a printout. The original results were back at the lab; she could always print more copies.
Then Heidi lifted out a tiny Ziploc bag. “Here’s your GPS microchip implant. I’ll be keeping this stuff…as evidence. Something else you did to Falke that was unauthorized. We don’t need it to keep track of him.” She stood and walked to the door. “If there’s nothing else, I have patients to tend to.”
Beth recognized a dismissal when she heard one and stood. “No. Nothing. Thank you for your time.” She walked out the door Heidi held open for her and found her way back to the waiting room, glancing once again at the painting on the wall that had grabbed her attention.
Her equipment was just fine; the needle and vial had been brand new. The lab held no contaminates. There was something strange about that cougar, however, and the vet knew it. If Heidi hadn’t been hiding something, she would have let Beth take another sample.
Beth pushed through the front door and out into the sunshine.
She hated the thought that tickled the back of her mind, but she couldn’t push it away. She wondered if, because she’d gotten intimate with two of the Falke brothers, they’d let her take another sample.
As she got into her Jeep to head to the forestry base camp, she again thought about her night with Kelan and Reidar. She didn’t want to tarnish whatever they had together by bringing up Falke, but how else would she get another blood sample?
Maybe Professor Whitmore would have some ideas.
“Three of a kind, aces high,” Kelan said, laying his cards on the dinner table and laughing at Reidar’s expression. He’d beaten his brother at poker for the third time in a row.
“Remind me to let you place the bets the next time we vacation in Vegas. How in the hell do you get so lucky?”
“I’m not lucky. You just suck.” Kelan glanced at the clock when he heard the garage door opener activate. “They’re home.”
“Show time,” Reidar muttered as he gathered up the cards and put the poker chips away.
That morning, they went to work as usual, only to be sent home by Axel to wait for their dads. Now midafternoon, their house arrest was almost over…or just getting started, depending on how things went with their fathers.
Seconds later, Fridrik and Burke came in, laughing and carrying overnight bags.
“Hey, Dad,” Kelan said, approaching Fridrik who was closest. “Let me get that for you.”
Fridrik handed over the bag, eyeing Kelan then Reidar with suspicion. “Why aren’t you two at work?”
Kelan looked at Reidar. “Axel finally gave us a day off.”
Burke harrumphed. “Been workin’ you too hard, huh? Hard work is good for you, builds strong bones, but I can see how too much can wear a man down.”
“Yeah, don’t I know it,” Reidar muttered, not missing his father’s sarcasm. He took a second bag from Burke. “How was your visit?”
“Good. Good. Dick took off today on his way to China. Some big business meeting for that corporation he heads up back east.”
“Dick Haven?” Kelan asked with surprise.
“I didn’t realize you guys were still close. After what happened between you three and Mom…”
Fridrik chuckled. “Axel told ya ’bout that, did he?”
“Gunnar actually, but yeah. He said Mom was out on a date with Dick back in high school when you two showed up and went all wild animal on him.”
Burke laughed. “It was a long time ago, but Dick’s a good guy…and
“A good friend,” Fridrik added. “Besides, we helped make him a very rich man, put him in touch with our financial advisor in New York. They’re partners now in the venture that’s sending him to China.”
“Ah,” Kelan said, not sure what to make of that and a little disturbed by the realization of where they’d wound up. He and Reidar had followed their fathers into the den, a room off limits to the children unless they were in trouble.
At thirty, neither Kelan nor Reidar were kids anymore, but the room still emitted an exclusive aura.
As they entered, the two older men briefly split up. Fridrik took his seat in one of a pair of recliners, which Kelan and his siblings had long ago dubbed the thrones. Burke went to the wet bar and poured himself a drink before he sat too, and bade them over to the couch separated from the recliners by a scarred oak coffee table.
As they took their places, Kelan exchanged a glance with Reidar, not daring to say anything, not even telepathically. His fathers would hear it.
“Now that the small talk is over,” Fridrik began, “which one of you wants to tell us the real reason you’re both at home in the middle of the afternoon? Don’t know how many times we went through this when you two were in high school.” He shook his head and pursed his lips, waiting.
Kelan took a deep breath and started the story of how he’d been on a run near Axel and Gunnar’s home when he was captured by a troublesome scientist and her lab partner. Reidar took over the tale during the time Kelan had been tranquilized at the store, and both of their dads listened without comment until they’d finished.
“Reidar thinks it’s all over now that the woman knows the cougar isn’t a threat to the civilians of Leavenworth.” Neither he nor Reidar shared the events that took place
Beth left Catamount Outfitters.
“Axel does too. He made it pretty clear,” Reidar added, “that we wouldn’t look the other way if she didn’t take her pistol and lab and go elsewhere to find her four-legged science experiments.”
Kelan’s heart stuttered at the thought of Beth leaving, pulling out of town. But that was a subject he was definitely not ready to broach with their dads. Besides, why would he? She was just a hot piece of ass.
Yeah, right. He clenched his teeth. It
right. He had to convince himself—and Reidar—of that. He’d avoided his brother’s every attempt to discuss what happened last night between them and Beth, but Kelan didn’t know how long he could bury his head in the sand. Something happened to him, something deep, and he didn’t know how to deal with it. Reidar insisted Beth was
. All he would accept right now was that she was attractive and dangerous.
Kelan waited for an eruption from their dads, while Reidar fidgeted beside him.
Burke sipped his drink and glanced at Fridrik. “That explains the new jewelry.”
“Shit,” Kelan muttered. He’d forgotten he’d been wearing the damn thing.
What’d I do?
“If it’s truly over,” Fridrik began, his gaze narrowed on Kelan, making it obvious he’d heard his sons’ telepathic exchange, “then it’s safe to say we’ve dodged a bullet, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
“Yes, sir,” Kelan agreed, because they expected him to. But it was far from over. He had to figure out why Beth made him feel this way—unsettled and unsure; edgy with a possessiveness he’d never in his adult life experienced.
Kelan turned at the sound of Axel’s voice to see him, Gunnar, Dakota and Heidi walk in. “Ax? What’s going on?”
“Heidi has something you need to hear.”
Heidi was frowning. Axel and Gunnar stood protectively on either side of Dakota, who looked at Kelan with worried eyes. His gut clenched. This didn’t sound good.
“That scientist of yours—”
“She’s not mine,” he interrupted through gritted teeth.
“Whatever! She came to my office today asking for permission to withdraw a
vial of blood from Falke.”
Son of a bitch.
Heidi nodded. “She must’ve taken the first sample while you were unconscious at the lab. What’s worse is that she’s already tested what she’s got. She brought the karyotype to my office. She knows the cougar she tested has an abnormally high number of chromosomal pairs.”
“Tell us,” Fridrik ordered, and Heidi recapped everything that had happened at the clinic.
“Do you think your threat of prosecution will work?” Burke asked.
“I don’t know, Dad. I doubt it. The problem is she already has a sample to work from. If she has a large enough sample and the right equipment to do more in-depth testing…”
“We can’t let that happen,” Burke said.
“We won’t.” Kelan stood and looked from his fathers to the rest of his family. “I said I’d handle it, and I will. Whatever it takes, I swear that woman and her sidekick won’t be able to threaten this family anymore.”
“Kel,” Reidar said in a warning tone.
Kelan growled under his breath as emotions warred within him. He didn’t want to hurt her, but no way in hell could he let her expose their family’s secret. “You and I are going to make damn sure she doesn’t have any evidence to test or use against us. Her lab’s behind the hotel, a semi trailer with a simple doorknob lock. Should be easy to get in. We can go in when it’s dark, destroy the evidence and get out before anyone even knows we’re there. No harm, no foul.”
Reidar raised a challenging eyebrow. “And I have to go why?”
“You’re the computer whiz.”
“Boys?” Fridrik said, making them turn to face the family patriarchs. “Be careful.”
“We will, sir.” As Kelan and Reidar left, Kelan stopped by Axel and glanced at Dakota. “We’ll take care of it. I promise.”
Axel nodded and then closed the door after the pair walked out.
Outside in the hall, Kelan stopped Reidar.
Kelan eased closer to the door and held up one finger.
Just a minute…wait for it.
“About damn time you told us!” Burke’s voice boomed.
Reidar grinned. Kelan was happy for his brothers, but they had a lot to protect, and they’d damn well do it.
Beth opened the door to the lab and stepped inside. Professor Whitmore, seated at the computers, turned around and looked at her. “Well?”
“Sorry, Professor, bad news.”
Beth walked over and sat in the other office chair, setting her laptop case and purse on the floor beneath the desk. “As it turns out, the town vet is sister to the brothers who own the cat.” She wouldn’t get into the whole
no one owns him
thing with her scientific-minded professor. She didn’t really understand their strange attachment to the animal. Professor Whitmore definitely wouldn’t. “They are all very antagonistic toward me when it comes to that cougar, but even trying to talk to Heidi who is a scientist herself didn’t produce any results. They’re protecting that cat with everything they have, including threats to have us thrown out of town.”
Professor Whitmore leaned back in his chair, tapped his lips with his index finger and nodded. “I can see why they’d be protective. I would too.”
Beth frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“I’ve used a portion of the original sample to re-run the tests and verify your findings. My conclusions are identical to yours. This cat is a genetic anomaly. This cougar could be the answer to future generations, a super cat that could save future species.” He grinned.
She shared his smile. Cougars weren’t on the endangered species list, which was why they’d chosen to study them—a perfect transition between domesticated felines and the big cats at risk of extinction. If they could gather the right data, engineer the perfect DNA profiles through cloning, they had a promising chance of saving a variety of big cats in the wild for centuries to come. This was her dream, to be on the cutting edge of scientific discovery and most importantly help preserve the genera of felidae for all mankind.
“This cougar could put us on the map. This is…huge!” He sat forward and tapped her knee with his finger. “Don’t you see? After all these years of research, I’ve finally found something special.”
An inkling of unease snuck into Beth’s brain. He hadn’t discovered this; she had. He said it could put
on the map, but that
found something special.
“We need that cat or at least another blood sample, Elizabeth,” the professor continued. “Any way we can, we’ve got to get one, because we have to duplicate the original findings with a second round of tests. I’ve checked the sample for impurities and can’t find any, but without duplicating the test we have no proof.”
Beth pushed her emotions aside and brought forth the professional scientist. The professor would be sure to share any accolades. More research funding. Papers published in international scientific magazines. She grinned as she envisioned their pictures, side-by-side, in
with an article detailing the tremendous discovery of a super cat living in the Wenatchee National Forest.
“As it turns out,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “I’ve gotten to know a couple of the brothers in the last few days, so I could approach them about it. They aren’t as inhospitable as their siblings, so they might be willing to help me out. It’s not like we’re going to kill the cat. We only want more DNA samples to study, right?”
“Right. Of course. Do that. We need that cat, or this means nothing.” He waved his hand toward the computer screens and shook his head. When he glanced at her again, a look of awe shown in his eyes, a gleam she’d never seen in the six years she’d studied under him. “Think of it, Elizabeth. A whole new genetic code no one has ever discovered…until now.”
She was thinking of it and the promise it could mean for the dwindling numbers of big cats in other parts of the world. Recognition aside, she reminded herself that helping stop the path toward extinction was the most important thing here.
“I can talk to them tomorrow night, after we spend the day in the field.”
Professor Whitmore shook his head. “No, no, no. You need to concentrate on the Falke cat. Tim and I can do the fieldwork. I sent him out as soon as we got here to mark trails.”
Beth frowned. She was the one who’d laid out the maps, the areas to do the tracking. Now she was being brushed off to go cozy up to the brothers? “Prof—”
“Would you rather I entrust Tim with the task of getting the Falke sample?”
Well, when he put it that way…“No, sir.”
“I know you can do this, Elizabeth. You’ve got the important job.” He swiveled his chair around and opened the small refrigerator used for storing samples. “I also want you to mail this back to the university. Mark it for Dr. Sayers.” He put the vial of Falke’s blood—or what was left of it—into a padded cooling box. “I’ll call him tonight when I get back to the hotel to let him know to expect it.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, taking the box. “Are you going to tell him?”
“No, I don’t want to taint his findings. I’d rather they independently corroborate ours.”
“Okay.” She frowned at the box, uncertain about entrusting such an important sample—all of their evidence—to the postal system. “Are you sure—”
The professor scowled. “Are you questioning me?”
“No, sir,” she said quickly, standing and picking up her purse. If she pissed him off, he could dump her like dirty underwear and get an assistant who wouldn’t second guess him. “I’ll get right on it. Could you please ask Tim to install the software he got for me?” She motioned toward her laptop case on the floor.
Professor Whitmore nodded dismissively. “Sure, sure. Just get us access to that cat, and get that sample sent off to Dr. Sayers. I want to have him start breaking down the DNA.”
“Good.” He turned and opened a drawer, withdrawing a couple of capped, sterile syringes in sealed plastic. “Take these. Call me as soon as you get the new sample. Get two if you can swing it.”
She slipped the syringes into her purse. “I will, sir.” She headed out to her Jeep, just as Tim came out of the trees fifty feet to the west.