Authors: Madison Layle & Anna Leigh Keaton
“Don’t worry. Professor Whitmore will be here tomorrow. Everything’ll be fine.”
“Sure. Here, use this to pay for everything.” She dug into her purse and pulled out her credit card. “Just bring me back the receipts.”
“I’m going to do the lab work on the blood samples we took from the cat and get them into the database. I’ve also got to contact the forestry department again and set up that meeting with one of the park rangers to see if there’s a good place we can move the lab.”
She nodded and dug in her pocket for the car keys. “If you have to go all the way into Seattle for the equipment, bring me back some McDonald’s fries.” She grinned. “If we’re heading into the woods soon, it’ll be my last splurge for a while.”
He chuckled and took the keys. “Sure thing, Lizzy.”
She rolled her eyes at his back as he left the trailer. Lizzy. Why the hell did he insist on calling her that? She swiveled around and turned on the computers. She had several hours of work to keep her busy, and it would be nice not having Tim around to bug her while she did it. He was a nice guy, but she feared he wanted to take their relationship from friendship to something more, and she didn’t see him that way.
Five hours later, she stared at the computer screen disbelieving what she saw. She’d run the tests three times, and each time they came back the same. There was something very, very odd about that cat.
His head hurt. His vision was blurry.
“Fuck. What happened?” Kelan asked no one in particular. “Where the hell—”
“Don’t move,” his sister said.
“Yes. Just relax. You’re in Sin’s bed. You were tranq’d by some crazy woman. Do you remember?”
Kelan groaned, let his head fall back on the pillow and closed his eyes. Yeah, he remembered. How in the hell had she found him?
“Hey, bro,” Reidar said, jostling the mattress as he sat on the other side of the bed.
Kelan opened his eyes and tried again to focus, get his bearings. “Hi. Shit, that stuff packs a punch.” He rubbed his arm where the dart had pierced his skin. “How long have I been out?”
“Long enough for Axel to build up steam,” Reidar answered.
He slid his hand around to his nape and felt a small bandage. “What—?”
“I had to do surgery,” Heidi said.
She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “A small procedure. Won’t even leave a scar, I promise. You had a microchip inserted under the skin.” Her fragile smile faded. “That’s how your sharp-shooting scientist tracked you here. If Gunnar hadn’t been shifted and nearby—”
“Yeah, I get it.” He’d fucked up and damn near exposed their secret to an overeager scientist who would probably love nothing more than to find fame and fortune by unveiling a new species to the world. “You don’t have to badger me about it.”
“Who me?” she asked. “I figure Axel can have that honor.”
With a frustrated groan, Kelan pushed down and sat up a little.
“Here, let me,” Heidi said, adjusting the pillows for added cushion. “We can probably take this off now. It was just a tiny incision—probably stopped bleeding half an hour ago.” She peeled off the bandage. “Yep, we’re good. It’s a good thing your girl uses the latest in technology. If this had been an old, bigger model—”
“She’s not my girl,” Kelan snarled.
“Okay, okay. Sheesh, don’t get snappy. Just a figure of speech.” Heidi stood, tossed the bandage in a trashcan, and retrieved her satchel. “And since you’re obviously on your way to a full recovery—hot-headed attitude and all—I’ll get back to work. I’m late enough as it is.” Pausing at the door, she glanced back with a grin. “Nice earring, by the way. I’m sure it looks a lot better than an ugly ID tag.”
Kelan threw a pillow at her, missing on purpose. Laughing, his little sister danced out of sight. He rubbed his eyes and let out a sigh. Reidar didn’t move, of course. His closest sibling had the patience of a saint.
Kelan glanced at his brother. “Okay, let me have it.”
Kelan blinked. “What?” That had been the last thing he expected.
“You’ve been keeping secrets.”
“I have not,” he protested. Not from Reidar. Hell, Reidar knew more than anyone else about what he’d been through. How could he say that?
“You didn’t tell me your
was a certain hot stranger with fiery hair, long legs and a tongue as sharp as a whip. You should’ve seen her stand up to Axel. At least until he sent her packing.”
Kelan rubbed his face with both palms to avoid Reidar’s stare. So
’s what he was so hurt by? If roles were reversed, he’d expect Reidar to leave off that little detail, too. Why would any grown man with an ounce of pride want to admit a woman felled him, tagged him and put him in a cage? Even if she was sexy in a quirky, scientific way.
“Last night, when you said scientists,” Reidar continued, “I pictured pale-faced, skinny men with horn-rimmed glasses, receding hairlines and pocket protectors.”
Kelan decided offense was the best defense. “There were
of them, and one fits that description, a little. Besides, would
admit a woman we’d been ready to bed shot you in the ass with a tranq dart?”
Reidar opened his mouth to say more, but Axel walked in. With reinforcements. When Axel came to a stop near the bedside, Gunnar, dressed in a Catamount Outfitter uniform, stood behind him.
“Who’s manning the store?” Reidar asked, his gaze on Gunnar.
“Torsten’s prowling,” Gunnar answered.
“Sin can handle the counter by himself for a while,” Axel added, letting Reidar off the hook for now.
“Dakota?” Kelan asked, surprised to see both of his big brothers here rather than trailing her like hungry kittens.
“I’m here,” she said, stepping into view through the doorway, although she remained in the hall.
“Figures,” Kelan mumbled. Reidar cleared his throat.
Alex frowned. “I see your nap didn’t help your disposition.”
Kelan adjusted himself, sitting up straighter. He didn’t like being in a position of weakness. “Getting tranq’d by some broad with a quick trigger finger will do that to ya.”
“You should’ve come to me, told me what happened—”
“And set you off on another of your alpha speeches? No thanks. I’ve heard them all before.”
“And not learned a damn thing!” Axel took a step closer, but Gunnar’s hand on his arm stopped his progress.
Kelan kicked free of the covers but stayed put otherwise, his gaze on Axel. He wasn’t sure he had the strength right now to stand up to, let alone stand against, his eldest brother.
Axel took a deep breath. “What you do, Kel, affects us all. When are you going to realize that?”
“You think I did this on purpose? That I
to get shot and tagged? Or that I
any of this to happen? Fuck you, Ax. I didn’t volunteer to be a lab rat. I’m the victim here.”
“I’m pregnant.” Dakota’s words were like a bucket of ice water thrown over him. She stepped into the room, and Ax and Gunnar immediately flanked her.
She silenced Axel with the touch of a finger to his lips and a smile on her face. “He has to know why you’re being such a bear lately.”
Axel snorted. “A bear?”
She grinned. “Okay, a pissy puma.”
“I’m not sure that’s much better.”
She caressed his cheek, her love for Axel palpable. “He needs to know, and besides, it’ll be obvious soon enough.”
All of the anger seeped out of Kelan’s limbs. That explained everything—why Axel wouldn’t leave her side, why he’d been so scarce around work and defensive about it, about everything.
“But I thought…” Kelan began, letting his words drift off when Dakota looked at him.
She smiled. “That I wasn’t ready? I know I told everyone that because I really thought I wasn’t ready for kids.” She cast a grin at Axel first and then at Gunnar, touching him on the arm. Color in her cheeks made her look radiant. “But your brothers are rather…persuasive.”
Axel and Gunnar actually squirmed, making Dakota grin and Kelan chuckle. Dakota was pretty persuasive too, when it came to his older brothers.
Reidar was the first to move. He got up, went to their sister-in-law and pried her away from her mates. “Congratulations, sis.”
She giggled and returned his hug. When they pulled apart, she approached the bed where Kelan sat, having draped his legs off the side.
He smiled, opened his arms. “I’m happy for you.”
Her eyes were so alive with joy, he felt her gaze like a punch to the gut. “Thanks.” She gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek, then whispered, “Don’t blame Axel. He’s just a little overprotective.”
He chuckled as she pulled away. Yeah, his big brother had always been that way, worried about the safety of his siblings, and now his mate. And Kelan hadn’t made it easy on him.
Quite frankly, he blamed himself for the whole fiasco. And he grasped the seriousness of the danger without Axel having to point it out. A scientist had captured him, tagged him, and he’d led her to his family. If Gunnar hadn’t been shifted…
“I’ll handle this,” Kelan told them. Whatever it took, he’d do it. He wouldn’t let a mistake on his part endanger his family or his brothers’ future.
“There’s nothing really left to handle,” Reidar said, drawing the attention of everyone else. “The microchip is out. The woman knows the cat is home with us, safe and sound. No harm, no foul. Now she can go off into the woods and find real wildlife to pester with her darts and tests. There’s no other reason for her to come around again, unless she needs camping supplies.”
After a moment, Gunnar said, “Let’s hope you’re right about her.”
“But there’s still one thing left to do,” Axel said.
“And that is?” Kelan asked.
“Someone has to tell our fathers.”
Kelan cringed but pushed to his feet and met Axel’s unyielding gaze. Axel might be the family’s alpha now, but Kelan would rather dive head first into lava than upset his fathers. Nonetheless, he nodded.
“I’ll go with him,” Reidar volunteered.
Kelan said telepathically without a glance at the brother who’d been there with him, for him, all his life. A firm hand patted his shoulder.
Don’t worry. You can make it up to me some day.
“At least I’ll have another day to figure out how to tell them,” Kelan said as he lifted the frosty mug to his lips.
Sitting in their usual booth at the pub, Reidar nodded and shredded small pieces off a paper napkin. He preferred the “rip the bandage off fast” approach when dealing with their fathers, not putting things off as long as possible, the way Kelan always did. His brother lucked out with a reprieve from telling their fathers about his capture, when they’d found a note at home earlier that afternoon saying their dads had gone to visit an old friend in Seattle.
“Oh, come on,” Kelan said, chuckling. “It’s not like they’re going to take a belt to our backsides.”
Reidar cast him a narrow-eyed glance. “I didn’t do anything wrong. If anyone’s ass needs to be belted, it’s yours. What exactly were you thinking, running off on your own like that?”
“Now you sound like Axel.” Kelan slouched in the booth across from him and folded his arms. “I was pissed and needed to cool down. I’d gone to talk to Axel about our idea, and he blew me off. Again.”
“Oh.” Reidar reached for his beer. “At least we know why he’s being such an ass lately. Maybe after the babies are…Wow. We’re going to be uncles.” He knew the responsibility behind raising their kind. Their own mother and fathers hadn’t had it easy with six telepathic, shape shifting boys and a girl who wanted to be one of them. Childhood was bad enough, but once they reached puberty and could shift…
“Kill me if I ever get that way around a woman.”
Reidar laughed. “We have to find one who’ll put up with you first.”
you’re a comedian…”
Still grinning, Reidar stared at his glass a long moment, then said, “Do you ever think about it?”
“A mate. Settling down. Having children.” He couldn’t believe he was actually bringing this up, but something changed in him when Dakota made her announcement.
“Whoa, there. Where the hell is this coming from?” Kelan sat forward and leaned over the table. “We’re going to have kids in the family in a matter of months, and you’re thinking about getting laid?”
“I got laid last weekend. That’s not what I mean.” Reidar sent Kelan a look of irritation. His brother could be so obtuse sometimes. “I’m talking about finding what Axel and Gunnar have.”
“Paranoia? Having to look after someone else? Guarding a woman? Have you lost your mind? I’m too young to do that. I’ve got too much living left first.”
“We’re the same age as Axel and Gunnar.”
“Yeah, and look at how nuts they’re acting.”
“Gunnar seems okay.”
“He’s not the alpha.”
The two might share the same woman, but a lion’s share of the responsibility lay with the elder. When he and Kelan claimed their mate, that duty would fall to Kelan, so Reidar could see his point…somewhat. “That’s what has you worried?”
“I didn’t say that,” Kelan said a little too fast. He sat back and lifted his drink. “Besides, what you’re obsessing over—”
“I’m not obsessing.”
“Who’d you fuck last weekend?” Kelan demanded as if just realizing what Reidar had said earlier.
Reidar laughed. “You really do have your mind on other things if it took you that long.”
“Who was she?”
Reidar shrugged, but incriminated himself with a grin. “Just a hot German coed on summer holiday.”
Kelan snorted. “She got a sister?”
“Naw, but her two best friends were a lot of fun. They left town the next day anyway. Just stopping through on their road trip.”
Kelan’s jaw dropped. “You…What the hell, man? All three?”
Reidar winked. “Oh, yeah. All three. Damn if they didn’t wear me out!”
“Asshole. Didn’t even bother to call me.”
“Actually, I did. Remember? Saturday evening? You told me you were busy when I called and asked what you were up to.”
Kelan slumped farther down in the booth. “Jackass.” Reidar laughed again, which made his brother smile. “And you’re willing to give up hot coeds for a mate and a litter of brats?”
Reidar’s smile faded, and he sighed heavily. “I guess I’m tired of it all.”
Kelan raised an eyebrow. “After three at once, I’d be tired too.”
“No, man. That’s not what I mean. Three women in one night was great—some of the hottest, raunchiest sex I’ve had in ages. But I woke up alone.” He shrugged and lifted his drink. “It’d be nice to wake up, roll over, and find someone there next to me. Someone I really cared about.”
“Fine, whatever. All I’m saying is it’s a moot point anyway. Where in this town are we going to find a woman who likes our…ahem…you know…? Our more adventurous side?”
Reidar eyed his brother. He’d considered that thought a time or two himself. Not that he was ready to admit it to the man who would one day share his mate.
They’d shared women in the past. Coeds on summer vacation were the easiest one-night stands because they left soon afterwards. And then there were a few trips into Seattle where they’d found an impressive fetish club called Inferno. Behind its doors they’d experienced some of the wilder, kinkier fantasies they’d only discussed before.
They both knew exactly what the other wanted. But Kelan didn’t believe they’d ever find the right woman in their small hometown. Too few people.