Authors: Karen Rock
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Domestic Life, #Family Life, #Military, #Adirondack Woods, #Safety, #Dark Memories, #Bronx, #Danger, #Orphaned Bear Cub, #Conservation Officer, #Poachers, #Peaceful World, #Rehabilitating, #Support, #Courage, #Tragic Past Events, #Compassion, #Clean Romance, #Heartwarming
He shook his head, his earnest expression replaced with a wash of annoyance. “Out of the question. There are too many ifs in that idea.”
She tried keeping the heat out of her voice. The DEC. Always so difficult. Especially Walsh. “Why? I’m sure you could call in a favor. Ask one of the rehabilitators to find temporary space for the cub. Then I’ll pass the test and, with your help, be approved to care for it. Don’t you want to do the right thing?”
Wasn’t that his job?
“I do. Which is why I’m taking the bear. Now.”
“Not a chance. You’ll have to go through me first.” She hated to sound dramatic, use a cheesy line from bad TV, but there was no other way to say it.
A crease appeared between his brows, his eyes scanning hers. Finally, he released a long breath.
“How about this—I’ll take her to the vet where they’ll check her jaw, give her some food and a safe place to stay, temporarily, while I continue investigating.”
She considered, wishing she could trust him. But after her dealings with him before, her faith was on the short side.
“Let’s try this,” she countered. “I’ll go with you and stay with the bear until you come back. Then we’ll talk about what happens next.”
He settled his hat back on, pinching the indented top. “There’s no reason to get more involved, ma’am.”
She pulled out her cell and tapped in Maggie’s number. Someone could come by and pick up the pies. Another worker would be called in for an extra shift. The Homestead would manage without her today. She wasn’t leaving the cub’s side until she knew it’d be safe—from nature and the DEC.
“It’s much too late for that, Officer Walsh.”
She studied him for a long, heavy moment, then moved aside. If the cub’s mother was dead, then she’d take on the role.
And nothing was more ferocious than a mama bear...
his black SUV an hour later and backed out of the vet-office parking lot, his mind focused more on the investigation than the road.
Gut instinct told him someone had shot the cub’s mother last night, and the scared orphan had followed its nose to food and shelter. He cranked the wheel, heading back to Vivie’s neighbors’ house.
Had to be.
The visiting nephews might be here on a fishing trip or they might not. His fingers tapped the wheel, his jaw tight. Either way, he’d get to the bottom of it. Eight years on the job and it still surprised him how quickly people confessed when a uniformed officer knocked on their door.
He didn’t expect trouble. Not from the men. The spitfire he’d left at the clinic, on the other hand...she was a handful. Just as she’d vowed, she’d followed him and the bear in a beat-up pickup, tailgating him all the way despite the winding roads. Steel lurked beneath her pretty face and expressive eyes.
She’d put up a fight when he returned for the bear. No doubt about it. Hopefully, he wouldn’t find the mother dead and could release the cub to rejoin its parent. The other alternative, however...
The ugly thought lingered. He’d never been a hunter. Didn’t relish killing, though he’d done his duty as a marine in Afghanistan. His mind veered from those brutal memories.
Ending a young animal’s life was horrible. Yet the cub couldn’t survive on its own, and without a trained caregiver, humanely putting it down might be the only option.
Unless he considered Vivie’s outrageous proposal...
He punched on the radio, the music overriding his crazy thoughts. Of course he wouldn’t let a novice take on such a large task, even under his supervision. Vivie didn’t have a clue what it entailed.
Plus, she was already acting possessive of the cub. If he went along with her plan, she’d still have to surrender it when he released it this fall. If the jaw didn’t heal properly, he’d need to find a permanent home at an animal reserve or sanctuary. Would she be able to let it go? He doubted it. She seemed like the type to get emotionally involved.
He shook his head, thankful he’d never let himself get attached to anyone or any place...not after the war. Room. Freedom. That was what he needed.
When he opened the windows, the rushing air making him want to follow wherever it led. His sister Mary Ann accused him of having wanderlust and he didn’t correct her. She couldn’t know what’d really happened to him in Kunar, Afghanistan. None of his family needed the extra pressure while they helped his twin brother, Niall—also an army vet—deal with losing his leg. Instead, Liam kept what had happened to him buried deep, wishing he could hide it from himself, too.
Every few years the compulsion to get out was too intense, so he relocated. He’d been investigating positions in Yellowstone National Park lately, the familiar pressure growing stronger and heavier each day. Hopefully it wouldn’t be difficult to get time off for Mary Ann’s August wedding if he got hired.
Mammoth fir trees flashed by as he whizzed up Vivie’s road, the majestic sentinels impressive as always. A small brook wove along the roadside, its water sparkling under the strengthening sun. Cedar-scented air filled his lungs.
As he rounded a bend, a smallish home, two stories, with white siding and a red tin roof came into view. He’d passed it on his way to Vivie’s this morning and noted that the mailbox number matched the address she’d given him. He pulled in behind a navy truck parked in front of a detached, single-car garage. As he eased outside, a large pit bull perked up its ears, then raced toward him, barking and straining against its chain.
“Easy, big guy,” Liam murmured, pitching his voice low and firm. The dog’s massive jaws snapped a foot short of his leg. Liam’s eyes roamed over the thick metal links wrapped around a willow tree, an overturned water bowl and a bone the size of his calf resting beneath it. He gave the animal a wide berth and strode up to the porch, his hand automatically running over his Glock and flipping open the holster’s snap. It paid to be ready in case these guys surprised him.
He rang the bell a few times, then tugged open the metal screen to knock, peering through the side glass panels. An empty living room and a narrow hall were visible. Little else. Still, with a vehicle on the premises, his suspects could be out back.
He shooed away the blackflies nagging at his ears and paced around the house, listening for voices.
Tinkling wind chimes sounded and birds called out their territory from the surrounding trees. Otherwise, silence reigned. When he rounded the house’s rear corner he pulled up short, the air sticking inside his lungs.
A black bear hung from a massive maple, rope tying its paws to a thick limb. He smothered an exclamation, his worst suspicions confirmed when he noted the animal’s swollen teats. A lactating female. Most likely the cub’s mother. He pulled out his cell phone and snapped a couple of photos.
Had the men answered the front door, any evidence he found without a search warrant wouldn’t be admissible. Yet glimpsing it while trying to contact them at the back door—that would squeak by the judge. And these guys would see their day in court.
His eyes narrowed as he turned away from the bear. He’d haul them in today. Vivie had mentioned they weren’t New Yorkers. Out-of-state meant flight risk and an appearance before the bench. His lips stretched in a grim smile. Justice was sweetest when served fast.
After another regretful look at the beautiful animal, he called in backup, then marched up concrete-block steps and rapped on the door. When no one answered, he pounded on it again, using the side of his fist. He doubted the hunters would leave their prize unguarded. They were skulking inside and someone better open the door, quick, before his patience ran out.
The lowest life-form on the planet.
“Open up. DEC!” he ordered loudly.
At last a man swung the door open, his eyes red and puffy, dark stubble shading his sagging jaw, chin and neck. At the sight of Liam, he straightened his slouch, his lax mouth closing.
Liam flashed his badge. “Officer Walsh. May I come in?”
The man nodded, then seemed to remember he had a voice. “Uh, yeah.” His eyes darted over Liam’s shoulder to the bear, then swerved back. “Come in.”
Liam stepped inside a small, square kitchen littered with beer cans and a nearly empty pizza box on the table. He scrunched his nose at the sour smell of cheap malt and sweat, and noted a high-powered rifle with a scope leaning in the far corner. No signs of fishing gear...
Liam pulled out his notebook and spoke, keeping his voice neutral. Measured. “If anyone else is here, go get them.”
The man dug at his ear and gaped at him.
“Now,” Liam repeated, his voice harder. This wasn’t a social call. Not by a stretch.
The man hurried off, his loose belly jiggling over a pair of boxers. When he returned, another man trudged behind the first, his face pinched, skin pale. In contrast to his fleshy friend, his limbs were elongated and sticklike, kneecaps nearly cutting through flesh.
“Any more weapons in the house?”
The thin man nodded, his eyes darting around the kitchen like hummingbirds. “My rifle.”
“Go get it.” Liam wasn’t worried about these guys pulling anything on him. Besides, his backup would be here in minutes.
The guy whirled and disappeared the way he’d come.
“I’m Tim Favero and that’s my brother Matt.” Tim lumbered over to a couple of flannel jackets hanging on the backs of chairs, pulled out wallets and fished out Montana driver’s licenses.
Liam scribbled down the information, then glanced up as Matt returned carrying his weapon.
“This is it.” He placed his gun beside the pizza box, scattering empty cans. They clattered to the floor and rolled.
“How’d that bear end up in the backyard?” Liam stared them down. Tim lowered his gaze and Matt’s mouth worked for a moment.
“Someone needs to start talking,” Liam barked. “Now.”
“I-it’s ours,” Matt sputtered, cracking his bony knuckles.
“Looks like it’s been shot.”
“Tim got it last night. About eight miles west of here.”
Matt ducked his head at his brother’s accusing stare and scratched the back of his neck.
“Could have been your shot,” Tim’s voice rose, accusingly. “We only had the one floodlight and we both fired at her.”
An argument broke out, silenced when Liam held up a hand. “You knew it was a female right away?”
The men quieted and studied their feet. At last, Tim said, “Saw a cub run up a tree, I guess.”
A sinking feeling settled in Liam’s gut. No doubt about it. Vivie’s cub was orphaned. Would need to be put down. He dragged his mind off the miserable thought. He had to focus on this job first. Hopefully his backup would arrive soon so he could ticket them and call the judge. Get things on a predictable, all-too-familiar track.
“You two have hunting licenses?”
Matt nodded, his movement jerky as he pulled the paperwork from their wallets.
Liam scanned the Montana paperwork, then glanced up. “You got some for New York?”
Tim shrugged. “Didn’t think it was necessary. We hunt big game out there.”
Liam willed the irritation off his face. Every hunter knew to get a state license. What a wise guy.
The guys exchanged an uneasy glance. “No,” Matt squeaked.
“So you thought you’d come to the Adirondacks and try it?”
“Yes. I mean, no,” Matt’s answer changed at a sharp glance from his brother. “I don’t know,” he added lamely, shoving back a greasy lock of hair.
“Are these the weapons you used last night?” Liam pointed at the rifles.
The men nodded. “We’ve got our gun permits.”
Liam didn’t doubt it. Still, it paid to double-check. “Let’s see them.”
As Tim grabbed the paperwork, a loud barking erupted. Backup. Liam breathed a sigh of relief. These guys were cooperating, but an extra pair of hands would make this easier.
“Matt. Call off your dog and let in my colleague. He’ll be coming up to the front door now.”
“Got it.” The man smiled unevenly and stumbled away.
Were these guys still drunk? Hungover from celebrating last night’s kill? Worse, had they been intoxicated while shooting near Vivie’s house? The thought stabbed through him. She shouldn’t be living on her own so deep in the woods.
He studied the gun permits then looked up when another officer, James Ruffalo, strode into the room, his back as straight as his pants’ crease. Since they were the same age—twenty-seven—and had joined the department around the same time, they’d hung out and become friends.
“I’m Officer Ruffalo.” He nodded curtly to Tim then glanced at Liam, a grim smile ghosting across his face. “Officer Walsh.”
“James.” Liam jerked his chin. “They’re getting ticketed and then arraigned since they’re out of state. I’d appreciate you taking Tim to the courthouse while Matt and I follow.”
“We’re going to court?” sputtered Tim, his body shaking in indignation, his thick face flushing red. James shot him a stern look that settled him down. Matt, on the other hand, grew paler, a thin sheen of sweat coating his forehead and upper lip.
Liam pulled out another pad and began writing. In the tense silence, James headed to the back window and whistled long and sharp at what Liam guessed was his sighting of the dead bear. Matt repeatedly cleared his throat. After a couple of minutes, Liam clicked his pen, ripped off the last slip and handed a small pile of paper to Tim.
“You’re being ticketed with the following misdemeanors—taking wildlife out of season, illegally taking wildlife and taking a bear with the use of artificial light, as well as hunting without a license—a violation.”
“Both of us?” Matt picked up an open beer can and drained what was left of it.
Liam nodded. “Let’s go, boys.”
Just as he’d hoped, they followed him and James, a textbook arrest.
If only the woman waiting back at the vet clinic would be as easy to handle...
* * *
have the results for the cub.”
Vivie stood and straightened her cramped back. How long had she been sitting in that plastic chair? It felt like hours. She scanned her cell-phone screen, the time confirming her suspicions.
“How is she, Doctor Morrison?”
The pretty veterinarian smiled, the creases around her mouth and eyes deepening. “Her jaw was dislocated. Looks like she hit it hard—maybe in a fall. Hopefully it will heal properly now that I’ve reset it or she’ll have trouble feeding in the wild. Otherwise, she’s dehydrated and stressed, but healthy. No life-threatening issues.”
Vivie’s joints loosened and her breath rushed in, easier than it had this morning.
“So she’ll be all right.”
Doctor Morrison freed her gray-streaked braid from her name tag then nodded. “As long as her jaw heals well, there’s no impediment to her living a long life.”
None except Officer Walsh...
Vivie wondered what had kept him so long. She’d thought he’d be back in an hour or so, but was glad for the chance to delay whatever he had in mind for the bear’s future. Rather than dwell on the negative, she’d spent her time studying the DEC’s online material for the certification test. If Officer Walsh had been around, he might have said it was unnecessary, bursting the lovely plans inflating in her head.
“May I see her?”
The doctor nodded and gestured behind her. “Right this way. We had to sedate her earlier, so she might be a bit sleepy.”
Vivie entered a spacious room with several cages, all empty except one.
Her pulse leaped at the sight of the small black animal behind metal bars, her claws poking through them.
“Hi, sweetie.” She stuck a finger inside and stroked the cub’s nose, making her lids lift slowly, her deep brown eyes meeting Vivie’s.
Immediately, the bear jerked to her feet and pressed against the cage door, grunting.