Callie Sterns had cared for the big cat she’d named Luna from the day of his birth. She’d watched him open his eyes for the first time, held her breath as he got his feet under him, but seeing the fully grown creature brought her to tears. She was looking at something precious and rare, something she believed she understood as well if not better than any human could.
Not for the first time, she wished she were an Elite and not an Other. As an Elite, she’d have a say in the rare and magnificent beast’s future. However, she didn’t. Never had and never would.
“I hope the move will be what you need and deserve,” she told the predator watching her from the other side of the metal fencing. “I understand the facility is larger than this one. I’m sure you’re glad to hear you won’t be on display.” She smiled. “You’re a loner. It’s part of your makeup, but the preserve is being set up as a breeding facility. Do you get what I’m saying? If everything works out like the owner intends, you’ll be doing your part to save your species.” She waited while the predator blinked and cocked his head.
“You don’t understand the meaning of the word endangered so I won’t go there. Suffice to say the desire to mate is an essential part of your makeup. I know how strong, how healthy you are. You haven’t yet fucked, but I have no doubt you’ll know what to do. Instinct’s like that. I just wish…”
Undone by regret, she swiped at a tear. Apparently the jaguar she loved more than she believed she was capable of loving wasn’t interested in listening to her regrets because he yawned and started to walk away.
“All right, all right,” she called out. “You’ve heard me pour out my heart more times than I can count. If you’ll come back, I promise I won’t do it again. And I won’t go off on my opinion of how the Society is set up.”
Luna stopped in mid-stride and looked back at her. Every move, every stance the young male had taken since birth mesmerized her. Now was no different. Tawny yellow with dots that ranged from white to black covered most of his body. Thanks to nature’s design, he could blend into a forest’s shade. At the moment Luna stood where she had a clear view of his lean, hard muscles. The zoo where he had spent his life was in need of an overhaul, but at least his enclosure allowed him to move about freely. The space included several trees to climb and boulders to hide behind.
The zoo’s ownership had just changed hands and rumor was the new owner had plans to buy some adjacent property and turn the facility into a showstopper. As an employee, she should care where she fit in with the new plans, but today was for saying goodbye to Luna.
“I’ve been trying to learn more about where you’re going,” she said now that she had Luna’s attention, “but other than being told it’s a preserve, I can’t tell you much. I’m sure those who run the Society have given it their approval. Hell, nothing happens without politics being involved. Preserve has a nice tone to it, don’t you think? Better than zoo. I don’t know who runs it, whether it’s a corporation or a group of Elites but—”
“It’s neither,” a male voice behind her said.
Barely holding back a gasp, she spun on her heels. She found herself looking way too far up at a man. No, not just a man. An outstanding member of the male species. He was tall and muscular, the two coming together in a way that commanded the space around him and alerted the area between her legs. He wore a short-sleeved new dress shirt and worn jeans, the combination saying he didn’t give a damn about fashion. His arms hung easy at his sides. At the same time they gave out the silent warning that he could and would instantly bring them to use if need be.
He was an Elite. His stance alone said he had no doubt of his status within the world everyone called the Society. He’d always known he was in a position of power and wealth. He accepted the condition without question, used those things to his advantage, gave no quarter, and most important at least where she was concerned, expected Others to accept his leadership. He might be cruel. Some Elites were.
Those dark brown eyes of his. If only she could dismiss them. But they held her as firmly as ropes or chains could. He was judging her, taking his measure of the submissive Other he’d come across. She was female and he was male, which further highlighted the difference between them. He was in control while she could only dream of having a real say in her life. She wasn’t a slave in the traditional sense, but neither was she free. Bottom line, Others did what was expected of them, and if they didn’t—
Just thinking about punishment made her shiver. Her parents hadn’t spared the rod, on the rare occasions when they thought about their children that is. Also she’d been swatted a couple of times when she first entered the work world and had been trying to figure out her role. A quick learner thanks to her upbringing, she’d done everything she could to stay under the radar. So far she’d been able to do that here.
But things might change with new zoo management. Instead of the middle-aged couple who’d run things for decades, their replacement might start by making sure everyone did things his or her way. She’d go from being trusted to do her job to being treated like a misbehaving child. If he or she ordered her to bare her ass for some real or perceived infraction, she’d have no choice but to grit her teeth and submit to being spanked.
Was this the new owner? If so, his unrelenting gaze and squared jaw served as the only warning she needed. If he wanted to place his hands on her backside he would.
“I’m sorry,” she belatedly thought to say. “I didn’t mean anything when I told Luna I didn’t know who’s in charge of the preserve he’s going to.”
She indicated the jaguar who was keeping his distance. “That’s my name for him.”
The way he looked at her, she felt as if she was on display. There wasn’t much to her, five foot three and about a hundred and twenty pounds with small, firm breasts and hips that hopefully one day would shelter a baby. Her physical job called for jeans and casual shirts, but she held onto a measure of femininity by keeping her straight, medium brown hair long. Today, as she always did when she was working, she’d corralled it into a ponytail. She seldom wore makeup but if she’d known the brown-eyed man would be here, she might have put on lipstick and let her hair flow. Something about him increased her awareness of herself as a woman.
That wasn’t all.
“Can I do anything for you?” She slid her hands into her back pockets. Doing so highlighted her breasts more than she’d intended. The last thing she wanted was for him to think she was coming onto him. “Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t take you for a visitor. You’re—if you want, I’ll take you for a tour.”
“I already know everything I need to about this operation. How well do you know Luna?”
Taken aback by the question, she shoved her fingers deeper until denim stroked the back of her hands. “I was there the night he and his litter mate were born. Sadly the female only lived a few hours. Fortunately Luna was stronger.” She blinked repeatedly. “His mother rejected him so I took him to my place and hand-fed him around the clock until he was old enough to be weaned.”
“Does Luna think of you as his mother?”
The sense that there was more to her reaction to the stranger than sexual awareness increased. His presence had touched an untapped need deep inside.
“He did when he was younger.” Much as she loved talking about Luna, she was distracted by the man’s six foot plus height, the muscles straining his clothes, his nearly black and unkempt hair. In some respects he reminded her of the zoo’s meat eaters. He was strong, restless, always assessing his surroundings. He might be the most uncivilized man she’d ever met, not that she’d been in his presence long enough to know for sure.
“He doesn’t anymore?” he pressed.
“He’s sexually mature.”
“In other words, he’s primarily interested in fucking?”
Because she spent her work days and then some around animals, she wasn’t shy when it came to discussing the role sex played in their makeup, but she didn’t even know this man’s name.
“He doesn’t think about sex twenty-four/seven but wanting to reproduce is hardwired into him.”
The not-quite-a-stranger nodded, the gesture disrupting the hairs trailing over his forehead. The thought of brushing them back weakened her a little. “Considering my plans for him,” he said, “that’s good to know.”
“Your plans—you’re talking about the preserve Luna is going to?”
“Then you aren’t—”
“Connected with the zoo? Hardly.”
Still aware of him as a man, she focused on what she’d just learned. “How will you get him there? When will the move take place? This is the only place he’s ever been. New smells, sights, and sounds are going to—”
“I’m aware of how he’ll react. The last thing I need is a lecture from you.”
A warning bell went off inside her. If she was wise, she’d keep her mouth shut. However, no one, not even this self-confident man, knew Luna as well as she did. Making sure she got her point across was worth being on the receiving end of his disapproval.
“He’s particularly sensitive to sounds,” she continued. “Earlier I told Luna there probably won’t be as many visitors where he’s going. I’m hoping that’s true because he’s never gotten used to being the center of noisy attention. It’s part of his solitary nature.”
Instead of responding, the man studied her. He had to be aware of the impact his gaze had on people, particularly women. He was challenging her in ways she didn’t understand.
“What’s your job description?” he asked.
“My title—I don’t have one if that’s what you’re getting at. I’m considered a handler with a focus on young animals. I’ve worked for the zoo for nearly three years.”
“What about big cats, the mature predators?”
“I’ve always wanted to get more involved with them, but the couple who used to own the zoo decided I was better suited for the various nurseries.”
“Because you’re a woman.”
“More than guess. We both know how the Society runs things. How did you wind up here?”
People meeting her for the first time were almost always interested in what she did so the explanation shouldn’t be hard, but she was having trouble thinking of anything except him. She was physically attracted to him. What woman wouldn’t be? But her guard was up like it always was when she was around predators—which was what she likened him to.
“One of my brothers worked for a zoo. When things at home—he’d often take me with him. After I’d done my homework, he’d let me help him clean empty enclosures, stuff like that.”
“Your parents approved?”
They didn’t care what I did. “It didn’t bother them. That might sound strange but—”
“Not strange so much as dangerous. Predators are hard-wired to kill.”
As serious as he’d been, he became even more so, making her wonder if he’d spoken from personal experience. He showed no sign of having been injured. Of course not all scars showed.
“I’m well aware of the danger,” she said. “Even so I’ll admit there’ve been a couple of times when things nearly went sideways.”
He, an Elite, was pushing for the truth. She, an Other, knew how she was expected to respond. “I entered a tiger’s cage without double checking to make sure she was in the adjacent holding area. Thank goodness a keeper saw her start for me and threw some meat at the tiger. One time something distracted me, and I let my hand slide into a cage.” She showed him the back of her hand where a white line ran from knuckle to wrist. “Fortunately I jerked back before she could do any real damage.”
All but glowering, he shook his head. “Your parents were crazy to let you run loose.”
I was out of their hair. That’s what mattered to them. “Nothing bad happened,” she blurted. Damn it, she knew better than to argue with an Elite. “Believe me, my brother’s lecture made an impact. Between that and being scared, I got it.”
“I hope the hell you did.”
Luna had been watching the interplay between her and the newcomer, but something about the man’s tone might have bothered him because he headed toward the far end of his enclosure. She didn’t blame him.
“I knew I wouldn’t be given another chance at getting a job working with predators, which is what I’ve wanted to do for years, if I screwed up again. I’d be blackballed,” she said even though he surely knew. “There aren’t many zoos. Word gets around. Elites have their choice of Others. They don’t have to put up with someone they can’t depend on.”
In a few words she’d detailed the difference between them. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything, but he understood how the Society functioned as well as if not better than she did. Fortunately she wouldn’t have to spend the rest of her life around him.
“Does your brother still work at a zoo?” he asked.
“No. He and my other brother have a landscaping business.”
“What about your parents?”
Not understanding why he cared, she dodged by saying they lived in another state. Most times people didn’t ask for more information, but she had the uneasy feeling this man would be different.
“Why don’t you live closer to them?”
Darn him for the intrusive question. How would he like it if she asked if he was married or had a lover, whether he preferred men to women?
“This zoo had openings. I’d hoped I’d be able to specialize in predators. Unfortunately that really hasn’t happened yet.”
“What appeals to you about killers?”
A moment ago she’d wanted to end the conversation. His question changed that. “They’re more complex than prey animals, at least that’s how I see it. Most prey animals belong to herds or other groupings. They depend on each other. In contrast creatures like jaguars are loners.” Kind of like me. “They live or die depending on their hunting skills.”
“Lions and wolves are pack animals.”
“True, but lions and wolves aren’t endangered.”
His attention, which had gone to Luna, zeroed in on her. “You want to specialize in endangered predators?”
“Definitely, but I might never have the opportunity. “
“And if you don’t?”
“I’m not sure. I guess I’d have to look at other options for employment. A job’s a job. I can never forget that.”
“Let me get something straight. Are you saying you’re here mostly because it’s a paycheck?”
What are you getting at? “No. I want to be around creatures like Luna.”
“Do you consider yourself an expert when it comes to immature jaguars and other young predators?”
He respected her personal space, at least so far he had, but something about him was sucking her in. Without so much as a touch, he’d left an impact she wouldn’t soon forget. Every part of her was on alert.
“I’d like to say I am. Luna taught me a lot. I spend as much time as I can around the zoo’s predators learning what makes them tick. Have you seen the black panther or the cheetahs? Until recently we had three cougars, but last month one gave birth to two cubs.”
“I just left the panther. How do you think the cougar cubs are doing?”
“Fine, thank goodness. It was touch and go for the first few days because they were premature, but the vet prescribed antibiotics and I managed to get the drugs into them.”
“What about whoever is in charge of the predators? Isn’t that his job?”
“He’d been in an auto accident and had broken both arms. Besides, I’d already had experience caring for Luna.”
“How did you administer the antibiotics?”
She explained about snatching the cubs when their mother briefly left them. She’d forced drug-enhanced milk down the little ones’ throats. She held up the hand she hadn’t already shown him so he could see the faint scratches. “They weren’t happy about what I was doing to them.”
He grabbed her wrist, pulled her arm close, and examined the slight injury. Her heart kicked up as did the awareness between her legs. Much more contact and the man would turn her inside out—which maybe he knew he was doing. Perhaps he was deliberately testing her self-control.
She stood. Tried to keep her breathing regular. Felt too much.
“That looks infected.” He stroked the back of her hand where the skin around a knuckle had been torn.
“It looked worse yesterday.”
“Hmm. In other words, no big deal. Part of the job.”
He nodded. Still holding her wrist, he asked what she used to treat the scratches. Forcefully holding herself in check, she answered. His frown said he didn’t think much of her choice. Darn the man. How she cared for her body was none of his concern. After all, she’d all but raised herself. Next to that, this was nothing.
“You said something—” Not sure she was going at this right, she swallowed and started again. “I got the impression you’re here to see the predators. Can I ask why?”
Smiling with his mouth but not his eyes, he released her. She concentrated on lowering her arm to her side despite the desire to stroke where his fingers had been.
“I suspect I don’t have to give you the spiel about endangered species.”
“No,” she whispered, “you don’t.”
“Figured not.” His tone was pensive. “However, I’m going to tell you something. It’s taken me years to put all the pieces together, but I’ll be running a sanctuary with the sole purpose of stabilizing and hopefully increasing the population of predators that are on the brink of extinction. It won’t be open to the public, and I’ll limit the press’s access. Some of the predators you’re so taken with will be given the privacy and opportunity they need to reproduce.”
“You’re the one I—that’s wonderful.” She took a deep breath of air that seemed full of him. Whatever it took to put him into perspective, she had a long way to go. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. “At least it will be if the project is successful.”
“If? You sound like you have doubts?”
“Yes. In the time I’ve been here,” she said, “Luna’s mother and the cougar are the only predators that have given birth here.”
“Why do you think that is?”
He’d switched from contemplative to defensive, at least that’s how she interpreted his tone. Wondering if he really cared about her opinion, she swallowed. “Living in captivity impacts animals in ways I’m not sure we’ll ever understand. Zoos the world over are dealing with population concerns. A lot of caged animals seem to have lost the instinct to reproduce.” She shrugged. “Maybe it’s their way of keeping some of what they do private. So much of their lives are on public display.”
“You’re saying they don’t want anyone watching them mate?”
The corners of his mouth lifted. “I can’t believe you think it’s that simple.”
He folded his arms over a chest no mortal man should have. If she’d seen more potent chests, she couldn’t remember. “I don’t have to answer you.”
Damn it. Why did he have to choose now to point out the undeniable difference between them? “No, you don’t but considering your goal, I believe you owe yourself the truth.”
Looking as if he wanted to run her down and pin her to the ground, he glared. “Don’t push me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I’m not interested in apologies any more than I am in hearing ‘oops, I messed up.’ I’m dealing with several financial backers who will pull their support if they so much as suspect there’s a chance of physical harm for anyone working at the preserve. They’re concerned about legal ramifications, which puts all the pressure on me. That’s why I demand absolute compliance with my rules.”
How had the conversation gone from animal reproduction to him making it clear why he’d never allow risky behavior? As intrigued as she was about his project, she was better off with him out of her life. She just needed a few minutes for the message to reach her body.
“I believe I understand why you’ve instituted the rules you have, not that I know what they are. I’m just saying I’ve spent a great deal of time with Luna. He’s pretty representative of predators. In his own way he thrives on routine and consistency.”
Certain he truly cared, she explained that she fed him at the same time every day. “He likes seeing me. I know he does because he comes right up to the bars, which he doesn’t do if it’s anyone else. Maybe because I was his substitute mother he lets me do things no one else can.”
“He’ll open his mouth and let me examine his teeth if I tap the top of his nose.”
“How did you get him to do that?”
“Consistency. I kept tapping his nose until he started opening his mouth. Then I’d reward him.”
“So he associates you with a full belly and tasty treats.”
“Pretty much.” Talking to him was getting easier. “I believe he knows I’d never hurt him.”
“Maybe. But touching him runs a hell of a risk.”
“Not for me. I fed him, held him before his eyes opened. Our bond—it’s special and unique.”
“Yeah, unique. Not something I’d ever allow at the preserve.”
“Who’s that near the jaguar?” Darek asked Dominick Rostel about a half hour after dismissing the young woman who might be responsible for keeping the zoo’s only male jaguar alive.
“Who?” the new zoo owner asked. “Oh, you mean Callie.”
“She makes the old body itch, doesn’t she? Believe me, I’ve fantasized about having her under me.”
“I’ve only been aware of her existence for a few days. To answer your question, she came with the sale. What I mean is, she was working for the zoo’s previous owner when I took over. After watching her for a couple of days I had no doubt I’d keep her on. Calm as she is around the predators, I’m surprised she hasn’t had more contact with them.”
Darek brought the whiskey Dominick had given him to his lips and swallowed. Even with everything he had on his plate including taking a close look at this zoo’s predator population, Callie interested him. Despite her explanation of why she lived so far from her family, he had the feeling that wasn’t the whole story. He was pretty sure there wasn’t a man in her life. The subject hadn’t come up, but he had an instinct about such things. Hell, even married women came onto him. As a result, he sensed the difference between those who were alone and those who weren’t.
“There isn’t much to her. Do you think the previous owners were concerned with her safety?”
“They told me they were. However, it doesn’t matter who works with the meat eaters. The danger’s always there. The first time I saw her, granted it was from a distance, I thought she was a kid. Have you talked to her?”
“Briefly. I ran into her near the jaguar’s enclosure. He’s perfect for my needs.”
“I kind of figured that. Callie talks to the jag, and I swear he understands her.”
“According to what she told me, she may have saved some cougar cubs’ lives. Same thing with the jaguar a year or so ago.”
“That’s what I was told. I don’t know the details. I more than have my hands full since taking over the operation.”
“Why did you? This place needs a lot of work.”
Dominick, who Darek took to be at least ten years older than him, shrugged and took a healthy swig of his drink. “Probably much the same reason you’re involved with the preserve. If we want to be considered a top tier Elite and thus have a say in politics, we have to log time in public service.” He chuckled. “We both wound up being locked up with animals. At least I have diversions, if you get my drift.”
He did, as Darek had spotted the lovely young woman who’d set out the drinks and the differential way she acted around Dominick. “It wasn’t a matter of taking on the preserve’s directorship for political reasons for me. This is something I have to do.”
“I get that, which is my way of letting you know I actually read the policy paper you put out,” Dominick said. “No doubt about it, there’s a lot of need when it comes to preserving certain wild animals and not many Elites are qualified to deal with that need. I just hope I have what it takes to do this job.”
Darek silently applauded Dominick’s honesty but saw no reason to further detail why he’d gone after governmental funding and donations for his program. From childhood, wild animals had fascinated him. His well-heeled parents had indulged his passion by arranging for him to spend his teenage summers with wildlife researchers. He’d studied wolf pack behavior, watched a grizzly teach her cubs how to catch fish, and helped manage a mustang herd. He’d even seen a giraffe being born. And yet he’d gone to college to get a degree in business administration so he could take over the family business.
Then he’d gone camping with his uncle Clark. What had happened during their time alone in the wilderness had changed everything.
“What about it?” Dominick pressed. “Do you ever ask yourself if you’re in over your head?”
“I don’t take on anything I don’t believe I’m qualified for.” Or drives me.
The look the older man gave him said he wasn’t sure Darek knew what he was talking about, but Darek felt no desire to explain. Some things were best kept to himself. If pushed enough he would explain he’d turned his back on the family business because he couldn’t give it his all. In contrast he maintained, he was passionate about everything that had to do with saving certain species with an emphasis on predators. The explanation satisfied most people. Only his uncle truly understood.
“All right,” Dominick said. “So you’re here to take possession of several of the zoo’s meat eaters. I take it your list has the Society’s official approval.”
Dominick held up his free hand. “Don’t take my question the wrong way. I’m just covering my ass, making sure neither of us does anything we have to justify down the road.”
“We won’t.” Much as he wanted to get the conversation over with so the task that had brought him here could begin, he needed to treat Dominick like a colleague. “Don’t you have a copy of the list the Society signed off on? I’m surprised they haven’t sent it to you.”
“Maybe they have.” Dominick sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Straightening out a mix up with a hay delivery this morning took too damn long. So how do you want to handle this? You’ll be bringing your own trucks, right? What about staff?”
“I’ll have both.” He paused long enough to make sure he had Dominick’s full attention. “I also want to make use of several of your staff including the woman we were talking about. Callie’s her name?”
“Your call. The previous owners told me they never saw her act scared.”
“Sometimes fear keeps a person alive. What I have no use for is anyone who believes he or she fully understands animal behavior. There’s no such thing.”
“That sounds like the voice of experience.”
Instead of answering, he told Dominick he was ready to pay for the jaguar, leopard, and one of the three female cheetahs. As they discussed how to handle payment, his thoughts returned to Callie. It helped that she was familiar with the jag and could feed a cub, but that didn’t mean she knew how to handle sexually mature predators.
However if she proved to be as competent as he needed her to be, he had plans for her. And if she had flaws he knew how to get rid of them.
Three flatbed trucks with solid metal cages affixed to them arrived a little before ten on Thursday. Callie, who had been looking for them since breakfast, took note of the cages’ size. She would have selected smaller ones. To her way of thinking, the less room the predators had to move about, the less likely they were to injure themselves. However, no one had asked her. At least having a few days in which to emotionally prepare herself for Luna’s loss as well as two other predators had given her time to learn something about where they were going and who was in charge of the facility.
The name Darek Dalton didn’t ring a bell, but then she wasn’t on a first-name basis with any Elite. Knowing she’d have to spend a chunk of the day in his presence made her uneasy. She tried to tell herself her nerves were tied into the loss she’d have to weather but she’d done more thinking about the man himself than she wanted to admit. His eyes, those deep and dense orbs, had a lot to do with her reaction to him. There was also the undeniable matter of his no-doubt-about-it sexy body. Most of the Elites she’d been in contact with were white collar types. Their clothes, how their hair was styled, even their manicured nails yelled money. What most weren’t was in good physical shape. She figured it had to be all the time they spent behind desks, not that she really knew how they spent their days.
Mr. Dalton was self-confident and yes, domineering. He expected to be obeyed as witnessed by his edict that the zoo employees do nothing out of the ordinary so the predators he’d acquired wouldn’t be on the alert. She wasn’t sure what he meant by out of the ordinary since every day was different. He was in charge at his preserve, but the zoo was beyond his command and control.
“All right already,” she muttered as one of the trucks jockeyed into position near Luna’s enclosure. “Let’s get this over with. Luna deserves better than he’s getting here, namely a mate. Hopefully.”
To her surprise, Mr. Dalton emerged from the truck’s cab. She hadn’t expected him to do more than issue orders, from a distance. He shook hands with the zoo’s new owner and acknowledged the helpers as they gathered around him. When she joined them, he granted her a nod.
He didn’t waste time spelling out how he wanted things handled. He’d left the two other trucks in the visitor parking lot because he wanted to minimize the animals’ agitation as much as possible. They’d start by loading Luna. Immediately after, he’d be taken to the preserve, a journey that would take until evening.
“I want to get all three out of here as quickly as possible,” he said. “Not give the leopard or cheetah time to get worked up. Ideally I’d take one at a time so I can concentrate on each animal, but I have too much on my plate for that.”
“Will you tranquilize them?” someone asked.
“Not if it can be helped because of the effect drugs can have on wild animals.”
At his words, she relaxed. Maybe he knew more than she’d given him credit for. He directed the workmen to unload the portable cage, position it next to the entrance to Luna’s enclosure, and slide both doors open. When they were done, he ordered them to step away.
“All except for you.” He pointed at her. “The jaguar knows you.”
“Yes, but I’m not the only keeper who—”
“That isn’t the point. You let me know you were his mother.”
“With you around he’ll be less wary.”
Although she felt as if she was being ordered to deceive Luna, she didn’t say anything. What mattered was keeping the jaguar’s stress level as low as possible.
“You still touch him, hopefully with bars between you.”
Wondering if he disapproved, she nodded. She’d deliberately placed herself at a distance from the man so she wouldn’t feel his essence, but it wasn’t helping. He gave off a sensual vibe she’d never felt. To complicate things, he had a commanding presence. The man wouldn’t stand for opposition or defiance from an Other.
“Stand at the far end of the cage. See if you can entice him to go through the opening and into the cage. I left orders not to feed the animals I’m picking up today.” He speared her with a hard stare. “I trust you complied.”
“Even though you didn’t want to.”
“Luna paced much of the night.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“I spent the night with him.”
His expression left no doubt he didn’t approve of what she’d done. As fascinated as she was by what would take place at the preserve, she was glad she wouldn’t have to spend any more time around him.
“You shouldn’t have.” His mouth barely moved.
“I don’t see—”
“Don’t you? I didn’t think I’d have to spell out everything you should or shouldn’t do. Because you let him see you, the jaguar blames you for his empty belly. Always before you provided for his needs. Last night you failed him.”
One night won’t destroy our relationship. However, wise in the ways of her status in the Society, she lowered her gaze and waited.
“The damage has been done. Nothing to do but see if we can still get this done.” He pointed at the truck. “There’s fresh meat in there. Get it and see if there’s anything you can accomplish.”
Mr. Rostel was watching from a couple hundred feet away. If he had a problem with someone else ordering one of his employees around, he gave no indication. Mr. Rostel hadn’t been in charge of the zoo for long. Maybe he hadn’t decided on which of the staff members he’d inherited he intended to keep. For all she knew, she could be unemployed before the end of the day. If that was the case, she’d be wise to do everything she could to please Mr. Dalton. Not knowing whether she’d have a roof over her head knotted her stomach.
She was used to being alone, darn it. She’d survive.
Mr. Dalton’s sober expression was still in place when she returned with a bucket of raw meat. No matter how many times she’d done this, it never got easy. For one animal to live another had to die.
She positioned herself where Mr. Dalton had ordered her to, picked up a piece of whatever it was, and slid her arm through a space between the bars. A big cat’s sense of smell was finely tuned. She had no doubt Luna had smelled what she was holding the moment she opened the cab door, maybe before. Mr. Dalton backed away from the cage, leaving her to wait for the hungry predator.
She knew to be patient but she’d barely slept last night. Her head was heavy and her legs ached. It probably would have been different if she’d had someone to share the bed with, but reality was reality. Arm dangling, she leaned against the fencing. She’d started to lose focus when a warning went off inside her. She jerked upright. Luna was slinking toward her. His body language said he knew something was different about his world. Ordinarily, he would have avoided going into an unfamiliar space, but hunger was getting in the way of his caution.
“Come on,” she whispered. “It’s me. You know me. A little late with dinner, but you’ll like it.”
Stopping, Luna issued a series of hoarse roars. She’d heard the eerie sound countless times but it still thrilled her. He extended his nose.
“What is it?” She waved her hand about. “You don’t like the smell?”
The predator opened his mouth, exposing powerful fangs.
“I know what the problem is. All those strange sounds coming from those trucks. And you’re smelling people you aren’t used to. Mostly you want to know what the hell this contraption I’m trying to get you to step into is about.”
As if he understood what she’d said, he smelled all around the opening.
“You aren’t used to the door to your enclosure being open. We’ll talk about it once your belly’s full.”
Luna shook his head and backed away. Disappointed, she racked her mind for something reassuring to tell him. Unfortunately, her elbow chose that moment to cramp. Groaning, she jerked her arm back. Luna took several more backward steps.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she massaged. “I didn’t mean—no, don’t leave.”
To her disappointment, the predator didn’t stop until he was back in familiar-to-him territory. Her teeth clenched against the ache in her elbow, she again extended her arm.
“I think you’ll like the seasoning. I tried not to make it too spicy. Probably should have warmed it more. Changing the subject, you’d really have a problem with what’s going on if you’d been born and raised wild.” She paused as her awareness of Mr. Dalton threatened to get between her and what she had to do.
“We can all use a few surprises,” she continued in a monotone. “I promise you’re going to like how today turns out.” She waved the red slab about. “About what I was saying, if you’d spent your life in the wild your mother would have taught you how to hunt. You’d know all about stalking and lunging, about using those incredible teeth and powerful jaws to sink a fang in something’s brain.”
One of the drawbacks about being interested in jaguars and other predators meant she’d learned a great deal about their killing techniques. She chanced a glance at Mr. Dalton to see if he’d reacted to what she’d said. Before she could make sense of his expression, Luna roared again. The jaguar’s tone was almost conversational.
“Well, yes,” she said, “that’s pretty much how I see it. I would have preferred to wait until December, but it’s hard what with everyone’s schedule.”
Luna didn’t know she was speaking nonsense. The words didn’t matter, just that she remained calm.
“I thought you were in charge of the agenda, but I don’t mind helping. Hmm. I think we should start with planning the menu. If we give them too much to eat, they’ll fall asleep, not pay attention to the presentation.”
His large head a bit to the side, Luna slunk toward her. Mentally moving with him, she kept talking about some imaginary meeting. She wished she didn’t have to speak so she could try to catch the whispering sound the jaguar’s big paws made. No matter how many times she’d watched Luna and the other predators, their stealth awed her.
When she ran out of things to say about the meeting’s agenda, she started humming. Her arm throbbed as did her head. Dry as her mouth was, she realized she hadn’t had anything to drink today.
Step after wary step, his head sometimes uplifted and sometimes low, Luna approached. She imagined the chain fencing fading in his consciousness until it no longer existed. She’d held the jaguar against her chest when it was a newborn, longed to be able to do it again.
“I want to trust you,” she whispered. “And I need you to trust me. Maybe, if we’d been able to spend all of our time together, we’d be totally comfortable in each other’s presence. You’d stop thinking of yourself when you’re around me. I’d tell you my secrets and know they’re safe with you.” It isn’t as if I have anyone to share with.
He was nearly to where he’d been when she’d startled him. Determined to do better this time, she forced herself not to think about her arm and everything else that ached.
“I don’t want you as a pet. You aren’t hardwired to be one, but I wish our relationship was different from what we have.” Her throat tightened, silencing her. Luna stopped.
“No, please don’t leave. I just—I was thinking things I shouldn’t have. You’re almost there. A few more steps and you can sink your teeth into this delicious piece of whatever this is.”
Luna extended his nose, sniffed, and to her relief continued to approach.
“There you go. That was a joke about you being my pet. A bad joke. You’d never let me do whatever I want to you, which is pretty much what happens with pets. At least I think that’s how it goes seeing as I’ve never had one. I can’t see you ever willingly surrendering to my commands.”
Sorry she’d brought this up, she went back to humming. She wanted to lift her arm so Luna would have a better view of his meal, but her elbow protested. The jaguar was all the way in the cage but not quite close enough to her to grab the hunk of protein. Behind Luna and to his left, Mr. Dalton approached the open cage door. It was designed to slide closed, but whoever did it needed to be fast and strong. Otherwise, Luna would escape. There might not be a second chance.
“I should have gotten more than one piece of meat,” she said. “Fortunately there’s more where this came from. Trust me, you’ll get full.”
Maybe her promise got through to the jaguar but more likely his belly was calling the shots. She was surprised he hadn’t sensed the man easing closer. She was running out of time.
“No, that’s all right. You can have the first piece. I’ll wait. What about more seasoning? I think you might like—”
Mr. Dalton fairly threw himself at the door and shoved it into place as Luna whirled and charged. The jaguar hit the bars with all his strength, but it didn’t give.
“It’s all right,” she called out, her tone forceful. “Believe me, this is going to turn out all right. Pay no attention to what that crazy human is doing. Here. Dinner time.” She tossed the raw meat in Luna’s direction.
Snarling, the big cat pounced on the meat. The way he was going at it, he’d soon be done so she dug into the pail for more. Ignoring the activity around her, she concentrated on giving the jaguar what he deserved.
“You and I are going to talk,” Mr. Dalton said when she was done. “Not today because I don’t have the time but tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” He was making her nervous along with a bunch of other emotions.
“That’s right. At the preserve. I want you there by nine.”
“Nine? What about my job here?”
“The only thing you need to concern yourself with is obeying a simple order. You can do that, can’t you?”
No doubt about it, he was angry. Did he blame her for the cramp that played a role in delaying getting the big cat into the cage? She knew better than to go toe to toe with him, but darn it, didn’t he owe it to her to hear her explanation?
“I’ll be there.” She deliberately didn’t look into his eyes.
“One of my men will give you the directions. In the meantime…” He beckoned for the others. “Let’s get the jag on the road.”
The way the men worked together to drag the cage with a snarling Luna in it up a ramp and onto the truck, she surmised they’d done this before. Instead of attacking the bars like she thought he’d do, Luna stared at the humans surrounding him.
“You put something in his meat, didn’t you?” she asked Mr. Dalton. “A tranquilizer?”
“I had no choice…”
What he’d done made sense but she wished he’d told her. She knew the jaguar far better than he did.
It doesn’t matter. What does is making sure you’re at the preserve when he expects you.