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Authors: Susan Bliler

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BOOK: Skin Walkers: Monroe
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Robert laughed
, “Wondered if you knew who the complainant would be.”

“Yeah, I know.  Look, I’m about to get out of range.  I’ll buzz you after I talk to the
WhiteEagles.”

“Alright, be safe
.  Oh, by the way, how’s Peyton?”

“Getting better,” Eden sighed.  “Her fever broke over the weekend and n
ow she’s just tired and cranky.  Poor baby.”

The smile was back in Robert’s voice, “
I’m glad she’s feeling better.  I hate it when little ones fall ill.”  He paused a moment.  “It was real good of you to take those kids in.  I know it’s a lot for a single woman to handle, but in case nobody’s told you in a while you’re doing a damn good job.”

Eden smiled, “Thanks Rob.  I needed that.”

“Anytime.  Okay, be safe.”

Then the line cracked and went dead.
 
Be safe
.  It was how Robert ended nearly all their conversations.  He knew her well and knew that she took more risks than the average Wildlife Department warden.  Often volunteering for dangerous retrieval missions and predator stalks, Eden had earned a reputation in the agency for being the go-to-gal when there was a job that no other warden would take.

“Great, now I get to explain myself to Richard.”  She huffed out a sigh then slammed her foot on the brake as a flash of streaked
fur caught her attention.  She sat with her eyes focused on the area where she’d seen the movement.  The fine hairs on the nape of her neck rose in warning telling her that she was being watched.

Reaching a gloved hand down, she put the car in
park before rolling down her window and killing the ignition.  Brisk westerly winds blew in and stung her cheeks as she watched and waited. 

After several moments, she started the truck and rolled
up the window.  She knew she hadn’t imagined the movement, but she frequently crept up on animals and sent them racing for cover. 
But stripes…  What in the world would have a coat like that?

She slowly poked her way to the
WhiteEagle ranch, keeping her eyes more on the forest than on the actual road. 
Gemsbok, panthers, and now striped creatures. 
A frown crinkled her brow. 
What in the hell is going on?

Chapter
4

Eden pulled her truck to halt just outside the closed gate of the
WhiteEagle ranch.  She hadn’t even unlatched the gate before two black and white collies bounded toward her barking first a warning then their excitement. 


Ruby, Ruger!” Eden bent to greet each dog in turn while the dogs licked her cheeks excitedly.

“Edie
!” George WhiteEagle strode down the drive toward her in a gait that had been crooked by too many years on horseback.  His slightly bowed legs added emphasis to the faded old cowboy hat and denim jacket that screamed ‘true cowboy’.

Eden stood and quickly closed the distance to him, not
wanting the old-timer to have to walk further than necessary.  As she approached she yanked the glove off her hand before extending it, “George.”

His weathered hand was warm as it clamped around her
small fingers. 

“See you got my message.  Let’s go in,
Dorothy’s got coffee on.”

Eden followed the old cowboy to the ranch house.  Inside, the home was as warm as
Dorothy’s smile as she hugged her greeting to Eden.

“So
good to see you my girl.  Sit, I’ll pour you a coffee.”

Eden took a seat at the small table, knowing better than to waste her time refusing anything
Dorothy would offer. She’d learned quickly that to Dorothy WhiteEagle, ‘no thank you’ wouldn’t be tolerated.  Eden smiled at the endearment ‘my girl’.  It was something the old Cree woman had called her since the first time they’d met.

The
WhiteEagle’s house was simple, much like her own, but Eden couldn’t seem to replicate the warmth that permeated from its confines.  It wasn’t the wood burning stove in the corner, or the fresh bread baking in the oven that made the home so warm either.  It had taken Eden several years to realize that the welcoming feel was the result of familial affection that the WhiteEagles lavished on each other, the dogs, and any guest that was fortunate enough to enter the home.  While it was comforting, it also served as a reminder to Eden just how lonely her own cabin could feel regardless of the fact that she’d welcomed in four abandoned children.

Per the typical routine, Eden and
George sat in silence waiting for Dorothy to pour them coffee and set a plate of warm biscuits and honey on the table before Dorothy finally joined them.

“So,”
George began, “I told Robert about our panther.  Don’t think he believed me.”

Dorothy
smiled cutting in, “Well you can’t blame him.  I wouldn’t believe you if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”

Eden cut into a biscuit and scooped a spoonful of honey over one half, earning her an approving
nod from Dorothy. 

“You’re certain it wasn’t a dog or wolf maybe?”  She bit into her honey covered biscuit, letting the crusty sweetened flakes melt in her mouth.

George scratched at the scruff of his chin.  “Thought it was a bear at first, but it was definitely a cat.  Long thin tail, short, cropped ears, yellow eyes.  Looked right at us then bounded off into the trees.”

Eden had finished the first half of her biscuit and was spreading honey on the other half.  “Well, if you
’re certain it was a panther I trust your judgment George.  Problem is that means someone’s got an exotic pet on the loose.”

Dorothy
’s soft worn features contorted into genuine concern as she eyed the window. “Isn’t it too cold out for a panther?  They can’t survive these temperatures.”

Eden set her biscuit on the small plate
Dorothy had provided and smiled.  Leave it to Dorothy to be more concerned about the panther’s welfare than her own.  “I’ve heard of black cougars even black bobcats in the southeast, but you’re right our climate is too cold.”  Eden stood, reaching in her pockets to retrieve her gloves.  “I better get cracking; I don’t want the poor thing to die 'cause I’m in here stuffing my face with your delicious biscuits when I ought to be working.” 

George
stood and walked her to the door.  “You’ll let us know when you catch it?”

Eden smiled and used a gloved han
d to pop the last half of honey-slathered biscuit into her mouth.  They knew her well, and it wasn’t a question of
if
she caught the panther, but
when
she caught the panther.

“I will
George,” she spoke around the bite of food.  “In the meantime keep Ruby and Ruger close to the house.” Eden smiled as Dorothy approached.  “And keep her,” she motioned with her head toward Dorothy, “even closer.  We don’t know if it’s dangerous, but even if it has been a pet for years, it’s still a large predatory animal.  Don’t take any chances.  If it comes around and gets to close for comfort, shoot it.”

George
cleared his throat, “One more thing.  Can’t be sure, but I thought I saw a collar on the animal.”

Eden sighed, “Well, then I guess that just verifies that it is
, in fact, a pet on the loose.  Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it.”

Dorothy
shoved a basket into Eden’s hands, “Some biscuits and honey for you and the kids to have with supper tonight.”

“Thank you
Dorothy,” Eden bent and hugged the older woman before straightening and shaking George’s hand.

“Hey,”
George began without releasing her fingers, “what have you heard about that StoneCrow fella that bought the old William’s place?”

“Not much.  He already ow
ns roughly three hundred acres and is expanding his wildlife preserve and rehabilitation facility.  Apparently he’s got the money to do so.”

“Is he married
?

Eden felt herself
blush; she knew where this was going.  “Not sure Dorothy.  I’ve only met him once and…”

“You met him?”
Dorothy’s eyes lit with interest.  “Is he old?  How does he look?”

“No, he’s not old
, bout my age I guess.  He’s…”

When Eden didn’t answer
Dorothy prodded, “Handsome?” 

Eden pulled her hand from
George’s grip even as the old-timer laughed and turned leaving the two women.  Eden shrugged one shoulder as she forced a glove onto her bare hand, “I suppose he’s handsome in that I’m-a-rich-city-slicker-and-I-think-I-rule-the-world sorta way.”

Dorothy
’s old eyes twinkled as she smiled knowingly, “Sounds promising.”

Eden turned to the door, “Well it’s not.  He’s an ass
Dorothy, s’cuse the language.  He filed a suit against me to gain an easement across my land.”

Dorothy
gasped audibly, “He didn’t!”

Eden turned back to the old woman.  “He did.  Funny thing is if he’d a just asked I would have been okay with it.  I didn’t even know he wanted access until I got the court documents served on me. 
Spelled my name wrong and everything.  Then he came to the house demanding to speak to my husband or father,
Eddie
StCloud.”  She watched as Dorothy pursed her lips in disapproval.

“Well you
’re too good for the likes of
that!

Now it was Eden’s turn to smile, “Oh
Dorothy.”  She hugged the woman one more time, “Don’t you worry about me.  I can take care of myself.”  Before Dorothy could argue, Eden opened the door and stalked out into the cold with Ruby and Ruger fast on her heels.  “Have a good day.”


Don’t be a stranger,” she heard Dorothy yell as she neared the end of the driveway.  “Say hi to the kids.”

Back in her truck, Eden waved a final goodbye before picking up
the radio.  “Robert this is Edie, copy?”

Robert’s answer came a few short moments later.  “Did you talk to
George?”

“Yeah, and they’re pretty sure of what they saw.  I’m coming in to the office
.  Can you pull any licensure for exotic pets in the county?”

“Will do.”

“Thanks Rob, see you soon.”

She rarely ventured into the office, she didn’t need to.  Robert and his brother
Kevin kept her apprised of what she needed to know.  She had a laptop, scanner, and printer at her home for when they needed to get documentation to her, and her check was direct-deposited.  It was rare for her to visit the main office, and it was intentional.  She didn’t want people snooping into her life and finding out the truth about her children.

An hour later, Eden
walked into the main Fish Wildlife and Parks office in Great Falls.

Kevin
, her supervisor, stood near Robert’s shoulder as the two men simultaneously scoured the document that sat on Robert’s desk.

“Afternoon boys
.  Got something of interest there?”

Kevin
straightened, crossing his arms over his chest to frown at her as Robert smiled mischievously.

“Been causing some trouble up your way?”
Kevin didn’t smile.

Shit!
  Without having to see that it was Monroe StoneCrow’s complaint against her, Eden brushed past Robert’s desk and snagged the document.  “Come on Kevin, you know he’s got it in for me.”

“For you
?”  Kevin’s eyes saucered in incredulity. “Have you read the report?  Sounds the other way around to me.”

Without responding
, Eden flicked her eyes to Robert, “Got that list I asked for?”

If possible, Robert’s smile widened.  “Yep,” he quickly stood and approached her with a single sheet of paper, “only one exotic license in the whole county
and you won’t believe who it belongs to.”

Her fee
t skidded to a halt, and she closed her eyes. 
Come on!
  She gritted her teeth, “Let me guess, one Mr. Monroe StoneCrow?”

Robert laughed
, “The one and only.”

She turned and scowled at
him, snatching the paper he held in his outstretched hand.  “You could’ve radioed and saved me the trip.”

“He would have,”
Kevin interrupted, “but we need to discuss that complaint, Edie.”

She sighed and stalked quickly to her mailbox pulling out the pile of papers stuffed inside.  “Robert
, I thought I asked you to scan and e-mail me all this crap!”

“Edie
,” Kevin prodded, “it’s a formal complaint.  I’m required to address it.”

She turned then frowning up at her boss, “Fine.  Discipline me.  What’ll it be?  Leave without pay? 
Suspension?”

Kevin
’s expression softened.  She knew he couldn’t afford to lose her even for a week; they were short staffed as it was.

“I’d be satisfied with a letter of apology from you to Mr.
StoneCrow and your word that you’ll stop giving him and his men a hard time.”

Eden chewed the inside of her lip, Christ she hated to apologize especially when she didn’t feel like she was in the wrong.
  “Fine.  I’ll shoot him a letter tonight.”

“E-mail me a copy,”
Kevin demanded before turning and disappearing into his office only to poke his head out a second later.  “And keep me apprised of the exotic situation.  Looks like the panther belongs to him.  I want this handled professionally Edie, strictly by-the-book.”

She held up her hands, “Okay
Kevin, I got it.”  Once Kevin disappeared into his office closing the door firmly behind him Eden frowned at Robert before grabbing a book off the nearest shelf and throwing it at him, “Thanks for the warning asshole!”

Robert
dodged the book laughing as he held up his hands in surrender, “I didn’t know.  Really Edie, he was looking for some chart and rifling through your box when he found the complaint.  I’d never snitch you out.”

Eden pursed her lips and frowned disparagingly.
  She pulled her angry eyes from Robert just long enough to peruse the licensure registry she’d requested.  There in bold black letters was the lone license in the county, and it was registered to Monroe StoneCrow.  “Have you got any…”

“Contact info?”  Robert was already on his feet.  He crossed to her and held out a second sheet of paper. 
“There’s a phone number to his office, and that’s it.”

Eden crinkled her nose as she stared at the phone number.  “How do you know it’s to his office and not a residence?”

Robert shifted nervously before clearing his throat, “I…called it.”

“And…”
she prompted.

“Some lady named Lilly answered, said it was
StoneCrow Industries.”

“And…”
Eden prompted again more impatiently.

Robert used a knuckle to
chuck his glasses higher on his nose.  “Well then I hung up.”

Eden’s brows shot up in
disbelief.  “You
hung up
?”

Robert shrugged carelessly, “
Well I didn’t know what to say.”

BOOK: Skin Walkers: Monroe
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