Cat Keeper of Weeping Falls. It sounds like a joke, right? Cat Keeper… What the hell kind of job is that?
“The best job in the mothereff”—burp—“ing world!” Lucki Collins raised her almost empty pint of beer and cheered the crowd of rowdy townspeople who were seated all around her. The burn of too much booze heated her cheeks, and the ache from so much laughing had her cradling her side. She was being treated like a queen and didn’t care if she was making an ass of herself.
“Cheers to our new Cat Keeper. May your time here be ever filled with joy.” Mr. Rose an elderly man with a bright red nose and long white whiskers, raised his glass, which was filled with…milk. It was the only thing he’d been drinking all night.
Lucki figured it had to be mixed with bourbon or something. The man was way too cheerful to be sober. They’re all way too cheerful. The entire town of Weeping Falls, a population of a hundred at most, had welcomed her with open arms the second she’d cleared the town line—and hadn’t stopped welcoming her.
“To our blessed Cat Keeper!” Everyone cheered, raising their glasses, thumping on the tables, laughing, singing.
They were in the tavern, a throwback to the old West, complete with its swinging doors and long curved bar, plank wood floors that were scuffed and dented and an old-time piano that one of the residents had been playing since Lucki had gotten there. Everyone was dressed in the fashion of the time too—from the cowboy hats to the heel spurs, corsets and billowing skirts. Lucki truly felt like she’d stepped into the olden days—and she loved it.
Weeping Falls had been an actual mining town back in the day. Now it was barely hanging on as a ghost town tourist attraction—the Wild West in Alaska. There wasn’t much in the way of bookings, from what she’d gathered. The only visitor was her, and she was soon to be a resident too. She’d be Lady Clover’s Cat Keeper, responsible for tending to a massive cat colony who’d been bequeathed a mansion and a trust fund and who called Weeping Falls home.
When she’d been offered the job, she’d thought she’d heard wrong.
“Cat keeper? What kind of job is that?”
Scout, the man who’d found her, had answered her simply and honestly. “We can’t afford a trained vet to come. You have almost all the requirements and a lot of experience working with animals. You’ll do.”
Lucki had been working at shelters her whole life. Always a tender heart around those injured or in need of love, she’d solely manned a cat sanctuary in her hometown until a fire had taken out the entire colony the past summer. It had nearly destroyed her heart to lose all those precious lives.
Scout had come knocking on her door one morning, claiming he’d heard about her compassion toward the felines and had wanted to offer her a new job as Cat Keeper for Lady Clover’s Cat House in Weeping Falls, Alaska.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time—a windfall, actually. Everyone knew she was destined to be a crazy cat lady anyway, and now she was going to be paid to fulfill that dream. It sounded pretty freakin’ perfect to her.
Besides, she had another reason to leave home—a big, six-foot-two, built-like-a-brick-house reason whom she wanted no reminder of ever again. He’d be in jail for another year at least, and by the time he got out, he’d find no trace of her. That gave her some measure of peace.
Her heart had been crushed, battered and beaten enough over the last ten years. She needed this escape, and Scout’s offer had come at the perfect moment. Time would heal all wounds—or so she’d heard—but cuddling with a bunch of cats would make that time sweeter.
And there hadn’t been a moment of regret—not one. She’d spent more than a day on the road with only a brief stop to rest, travelling all the way from her hometown in northern British Columbia.
It was a long way to come for a bunch of cats.
Best decision ever!
She downed what was left of her beer then snorted in the most unladylike way when another full pint slid in front of her.
“Oh boy, no way!” She laughed. “You people are going to get me totally wasted.”
“Aww, lass, no harm,” Andy Crawlie drawled. “We’re just happy yer finally here. We’ve been waitin’ on ya fer a vera long time.”
That had been what it had been like the entire night. They’d fed her delicious food until she was stuffed, then they’d started pouring the beer, keeping her glass full while they sang and laughed and told stories. There were enough people in the tavern that she lost track of all the names and keeping everyone straight. But she had plenty of time to learn them.
Lucki giggled but pushed the glass away. “Thank you for all your generosity, everyone.” She had to raise her voice to be heard over the music playing. “I think I should head back to Lady Clover’s, though. It’s late… Wait! How late is it?” Her phone had stopped working at some point during the night. She imagined that cell service was spotty at best around here anyway. She made a mental note to ask someone about it in the morning when her thoughts were clearer.
“Oh, it’s hardly after midnight, dear,” Sandy Evernight said as she picked up Lucki’s beer and took a sip for herself. “But if you must go, we’ll send you with an escort, to make sure you get back to the house in one piece.”
“An escort?” Lucki pushed her chair back. The wood feet thudded across the floor, giving Lucki a bit of a fight to stand.
“It’s always a good idea around here.” Sandy shrugged, her cheeks bright. She had a glint in her eyes that made Lucki question if there was a punchline coming. “‘Cause of the wild animals and such.”
“Wild animals?” Lucki frowned, her good mood taken down a notch. Not a joke, then. Right, because you’re in the middle of freakin’ Alaska! Spring is coming. Of course there are animals roaming around.
“Och, Sandy, quit scaring the girl. You want her to pick up and leave before she’s even settled in?” Mr. Rose said. “Rueben’s out there watchin’ for her. He’ll make sure she gets home safe.”
“Oh, Reuben’s around?” Sandy winked, aiming another sly smile at Lucki. “Didn’t know. Hadn’t seen him.”
“Don’t be daft, woman.” Andy tsked.
“You’ll be fine, Lucki,” Mr. Rose said with a reassuring pat on her arm. “Just be sure to put your coat on. The nights are still bitter cold around here.”
Someone handed Lucki her giant parka as she stood on wobbly legs, the beers rushing through her system worse than she’d first thought. “Thanks.” She slipped herself inside the warm down coat and instantly shivered as the heat embraced her. It would soon be too hot to be wearing inside the tavern. That was for sure. “I’ll see you all in the morning.”
Everyone mumbled something at her in response, but as she moved toward the door, she realized they just as soon returned to their drinking and joking, seeming to forget all about her. Looking over her shoulder at the group, she smiled once again. Such a fun bunch of folks. Unusual, sure, but also warm and embracing. Their unquestioning friendliness was like a comfort blanket around her heart. And that was something she really, really needed.
She pushed through the doors and blinked against the cold bite of the air. Icy wind shot up her nose and stung her brain. Sandy had said it was spring and she wasn’t wrong, calendar wise, but the weather up here was not any kind of spring that Lucki had ever experienced. Even in Canada, where the winters could get brutal, May usually came with milder temperatures, even at night.
But today was only May first, she reminded herself. Beltane. The familiar stir of longing rattled through her. In years past, Beltane was always a night she’d enjoyed with others. With him. Marking the coming of spring, Beltane was a celebration of new growth and fertility, and usually involved a night of ritual, song and dance, bonfires and, in her adult life, a lot of sexual exploration. This was the first time in many years that she would be alone.
But the past is the past, and it’s better to be alone and happy than with someone and miserable.
“Blessed be,” she said with a sigh.
She let her eyes adjust to the night then looked up at the impossibly bright stars overhead. She’d never seen so many in her life. She scanned the sky, hoping to see the Northern Lights, which she’d read about when she had been trying to research what to expect in Alaska, but the only light was from the stars and the moon, which was near full. Beautiful. She took in a deep breath, ignoring the burn of the cold air as it ripped up her nose again, freezing her nostrils. Refreshing, sure, but also painful. She chuckled to herself then took a few steps off the porch.
The gritty earth crunched under her feet. It was a strangely comforting sound that broke up the silence of the night and gave Lucki something to focus on other than the shadowed buildings.
The town consisted of a main strip with all the old ghost-town amenities—a barbershop with its candy-cane stripe, a hotel down the road, grocery store, shoemaker, blacksmith and even a church. There was a carriage without its horses and bundles of hay off to the side. It was so old-world and yet not. There were modern amenities as well—like the streetlamps, which were a little too far apart for Lucki’s liking, and a few cars parked here and there.
She flipped up her hood, suddenly feeling the cold worse as it whipped down the back of her neck, making her shiver right to her bones. Lady Clover’s Cat House was at the other end of the strip. The lights of the mansion shone from almost every window, a guiding beacon, so it would be impossible to not find her way there.
My new home. Hard to really fathom. It was three stories of old-world charm. Painted yellow like the sun, it had stained-glass multicolored windows with white shutters to frame them and a wraparound porch that could fit a hundred people with no problem. There was even a swinging chair there for her to lounge on in the warmer months, and she so looked forward to reading a few books out there with some cats on her lap. It was a house she could only dream of living in one day, and here she was walking down a dirt road, on her way to spending her first night in a castle of cats. Bliss.
Although this particular bliss included a pretty frosty walk. The cold bit at her cheeks and stung her eyes, so she walked faster. The noise from the partiers dimmed behind her. The silence of Alaska greeted her with each step she took toward her new home. She could fall in love with a place like this. It was so peaceful. So simple. She didn’t miss the buzzing white noise that she’d grown accustomed to back home or the constant urgency to check her phone for messages. She was unplugged. Calm. At peace.
Lucki stopped in her tracks. Ohhhhhhh, one of the cats? She hadn’t met any of them yet, but she was eager to.
She shifted her hood so she could look all around. “Here, kitty. Come here, kitty. Let me see you!” She felt no shame in her excitement over meeting the cats. She looked forward to bonding with each of them. She’d been warned it was quite a large colony, a hundred at least. “Here, kitty!”
She felt a nudge against her boot and shifted her hood to look down. The coat was so bulky that she could hardly see her own feet.
“Mr. Whiskers?” she said, as she swooped down to pick up her own cat. “What are you doing out here all alone, baby?” The only cat to have survived the fire was one of her favorites, a mangy brown tabby she called Mr. Whiskers. She’d brought him with her to Alaska but had left him safe and sound in the house—or so she’d thought. “How’d you get out here?”
“Muuuuurrrrow!” He purred like an engine and nuzzled into her arms as she stroked him.
“Well, you silly boy, let’s get you back inside where it’s warm.”
She walked, the crunch of her feet on the gravelly dirt road a distraction again. She pulled her attention from the ground and scanned the buildings around her.
“It’s awfully dark.” In between the streetlights was pitch black, and unusual shadows had collected in those places, keeping just out of reach from the lights. In each of those in-between spaces were alleys that were so opaque that they were impenetrable without a flashlight.
Creepy. The sobering reality of being completely alone in the middle of a town where she didn’t really know anyone slithered down her spine. If she called out, would anyone hear her?
The faint sound of music from the tavern drifted toward her. Nope…probably not.
She also kind of felt like she was being watched. Paranoia? Maybe. The tickling at the back of her neck had her scrunching her shoulders, and she picked up her pace all the same.
“Where’s this Reuben guy everyone is talking about?” she whispered to Mr. Whiskers, but he didn’t say anything back. He just purred in his contented kitty way. No fucks given.
The cat house was only about thirty feet ahead, if that. The urge to bolt the rest of the way poked her from all sides, but she was scared that if she did that, she’d drop the cat or freak him out enough to make him claw his way over her face.
Just one more alley to cross. She moved a little to the center of the street, putting some distance between her and the black maw of nothing on her left.
As she crossed the alley, she heard a noise. Low and quiet at first, it was a rumble of sound that she didn’t know quite how to place. It froze her in her tracks, though. There was definitely a menacing tone to it, like a warning. A growl.
“Do you hear that, Mr. Whiskers?” She couldn’t keep the quiver out of her voice. Keep walking.
Mr. Whiskers stopped purring. In fact, he stopped moving and was frozen in her arms, his body rigid as he stared down the alley, a murmur of a hiss growing in his belly.
The growling from the alley came again. It was definitely not friendly. Oooooh nooooo…
Something dazzled, a blink of light, then twin orbs of blue appeared to be floating in the darkness. So pretty. The slow grind of gravel under foot, deliberate careful movements, didn’t bring Lucki any comfort. “What is that?”
She unlocked her knees then took a step back. Then another. The sound got louder. The growl grew in strength with each step toward her until it was a warning she couldn’t ignore. She moved back quickly, almost stumbling on her own feet. Out of the shadows came a giant dog, its teeth bared, eyes menacing.
No, not a dog.
“H-h-holy shit,” Lucki stammered.
The wolf crouched, ready to pounce.
I’m going to die.
Mr. Whiskers hissed a growl of his own then leaped from her arms and she, the stupid fool, chased after him—right up to the wolf, within feet of the menacing beast. Mr. Whiskers stood between them, his fur fluffed out and back arched. He gave a hiss of warning with a paw raised, ready to strike.
“Mr. Whiskers, are you nuts?” Her voice was barely loud enough for anyone to hear. It was a croak instead of a scream. No one would come to her rescue. “Help!” Her voice failed her once again, coming out as a half whisper, strangled by her fear. The wolf watched her, its eyes searing deep inside. It ignored the cat completely.
What is the right move? Why didn’t I research this?
What to do if a wolf stalks you…yeah…that.
The wolf took a menacing step in her direction, its predator glare never wavering. Lucki’s legs shook with an alarming sway. Her knees were literally knocking together. If she tried to run, she’d fall flat on her face for sure.
Running with a predator giving chase was probably not a great idea anyway.
The cat launched itself, jumping toward the wolf.
Her voice unlocked. “Mr. Whiskers, no!”
But it was too late. The cat struck a clawed paw against the wolf’s muzzle, causing it to growl and lower its head. Lucki thought for sure Mr. Whiskers was gonna lose all nine lives in one go, but Mr. Whiskers didn’t get the memo on that. He struck again, quick and determined, a claw swipe against the wolf’s nose.
Lucki quickly calculated the odds of snatching the cat up as she ran. It didn’t look good. She was not that coordinated.
She sucked in a deep breath, then opened her mouth to scream.
The wolf took a step back, its head bowed…in…submission?
What the…? Her scream died on her tongue.
Mr. Whiskers, still all puffed out, still defending his human, was no longer on the attack. He even seemed to have a smug grin as he tossed a glance in Lucki’s direction. The wolf stayed down, muzzle lowered to the ground, its eyes blinking rapidly.
“Get outta here if you aren’t going to be civilized,” a booming voice said from behind.
The wolf flicked its eyes up, looked behind Lucki for a moment, then it bolted away into the darkness of the alley.
“Sorry, hon. Got caught up in a conversation and didn’t realize you were leaving so soon.”
Lucki glanced behind her, then did a double take. A huge, burly man stomped toward her. He had to be at least six-five, six-six. He wasn’t wearing a coat, just a blue lumberjack shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, that showed some impressively muscled forearms. His brown hair was parted to the side and his soft eyes crinkled with what kind of looked like amusement. The lower half of his face was covered with a beard, close cropped and well kept. This guy was a bear—a huge, lumberjack bear. He had an easy smile and a dimple, and he was so disarming that Lucki smiled back, that and her panties melted right then and there.
“I’m Reuben.” His voice had the kind of husky depth that stroked her soul.
Her legs quivered.
She cleared her throat to get the lusty lump of drool out of the way. “There’s a wolf…” She turned her head to the alley, but the wolf was definitely gone. Mr. Whiskers nudged her to be picked up.
“Yeah, I saw.” Reuben radiated heat. It literally steamed off him. He came up next to her then placed a firm hand on her back, which instantly steadied her legs. “Let’s get you to the house before you freeze to death.”
“A wolf, though…” She turned her head from side to side, scanning the area as she bent down to pick up the cat.
“He’s gone now. Don’t worry about him.” Reuben’s voice was so sure, so confident, so soothing. “Happy to finally meet you,” he added.
“Was that real?” The adrenaline that had coursed through her body crashed out of her in a whoosh. She took a step but her legs crumbled out from under her.
“Whoa there!” Reuben swooped in and held her upright. “They been pouring drinks into you? Those beasts don’t ever learn.”
Her head was clear. Any buzz she’d had from the booze had burned through her. It had to be shock that was making her dizzy and disoriented now. She could have died. Mr. Whiskers had done his best, but really, that wolf could have eaten her in a few bites.
“I got ya.” Reuben picked her up then cradled her and the cat in his arms.
She gasped, more to herself, as she looked up at him. “You’re a big guy.” She was in the arms of a mountain.
He chuckled. “I am.” He hitched her up higher. “Let’s get you home, shall we? Then we can properly introduce ourselves. It’s Beltane, you know, a good night for introductions.” He smiled, his dimple popping and his eyes glistening.
His wink to follow undid her completely.