ExcerptReidar Falke took a swig of ice-cold beer and leaned back in their usual U-shaped booth with a satisfied sigh. “That hit the spot.” He pushed his emptied plate aside and waited for his brother Kelan to finish off the last of his own meal.
The Tap ‘n Tine was their favorite Leavenworth hole-in-the-wall and the preferred Falke family rendezvous point after long hours spent catering to tourists at Catamount Outfitters.
His two youngest brothers, Sindre and Torsten, arrived and slid into the booth, each one with matching mugs of golden, foam-topped heaven. Gunnar had been invited too, but he’d opted out to check in with their eldest sibling, Axel, who’d taken the day off-an advantage to being the alpha and majority owner of the family business.
“You’re late,” Reidar told the new arrivals. “We decided not to wait.” Torsten and Sindre both scowled at him.
Kelan grinned and glanced at their younger brothers. “Lookin’ a little damp around the collar, guys.”
Sindre narrowed his eyes. “You misled us about the Kramers and their rafting trip.”
“Yeah,” Torsten added, “those ‘beautiful daughters’ you raved about, Kel, are preteens.”
“Hey, I don’t recall anyone asking me how old they were, and I didn’t lie. They’re pretty.” He cast a smirk at Reidar. “Cute as a button.”
Reidar chuckled and drank his beer. As part of their jobs, the brothers often teamed up in pairs to take tourists on guided hikes into the national forest or on white water rafting expeditions down river. In most cases, the trips were routine, easy. But when children were added to the mix, easy was seldom a description that fit.
“Cute… Sure they’re cute!” Torsten glared. “And totally useless when trying to steer a raft through rapids.”
“God, the squeals.” Sindre cringed at the memory and ran fingers through his damp hair. “My ears are still ringing.”
Reidar shook his head. His youngest brothers were so dramatic and always fun to tease. “At least you got to be outdoors today. You could’ve been cooped up at the store facing flashbulbs all day.” With the two of them conned into taking the rafting job, and Axel taking yet another day off for reasons he wouldn’t share, Kelan and Gunnar had manned the store, leaving him shifted into catamount form as Falke, the store’s furry and fanged security system. “That new ad campaign has really brought in the traffic. I swear I’m still seeing spots.”
“Quit whining.” Kelan rolled his eyes and then pointed at their siblings. “You two survived. Besides, you won the job fair and square. I asked for best two out of three, and you both said no.”
The game of Rock, Paper, Scissors had become a family tradition, started by their mother, to resolve disputes in the Falke household. With six rambunctious boys, all with the ability to turn into fierce cougars, settling conflicts in non-violent ways had been a must to preserve individual health and the family unit, not to mention furniture and windows.
Now as men, somewhat more mature in handling their wilder natures, the brothers honored their mother’s memory by using the game as a fun way to settle matters at work.
“How were we to know-”
“Maybe next time,” Reidar said, interrupting Torsten, “you’ll make sure to know what the clients look like and how old they are before you do battle over who gets the job.”
The brothers grew quiet as they continued imbibing. Garth Brooks’s voice filtered from the corner jukebox near the bar, and a few couples swayed to the beat in a small open area designated for dancing. The Tap ‘n Tine’s cold beer, good food and usual lack of curious tourists made the pub a traditional after-work destination.
Six brothers who all looked strikingly similar were guaranteed to attract attention, which was great for business, but at the same time, their family secret warranted caution. They liked the notoriety, but being on constant guard could prove taxing. Reidar enjoyed moments like this when the brothers could hang out together and relax.
“Pretty good crowd tonight,” Kelan observed, finishing off the last of his beer.
“Mmm-hmm,” Reidar agreed, not bothering to look around. “So, have you spoken with Ax, yet?”
Kelan set his glass down with an audible thud. “How? You know he wasn’t at work today.”
“Speak to him about what?” Torsten wanted to know.
When Kelan refused to answer, Reidar said, “Kel has a great idea that could open up our sales distribution beyond the city limits and generate more revenue.” He turned to his twin, the brother he’d grown closest to over the years. “We closed up a while ago. You had plenty of time to drop in on him at home.”
“What’s the matter, Kel?” Sindre teased. “You scared?”
Kelan snorted. “Scared of Ax? You wish.” He picked up his mug. “I’m empty. You dolts need anything from the bar?”
“Sure,” Reidar responded with a knowing grin. Kelan could evade, but he’d have to pay for it. “You can buy us a second round.”
Kelan just nodded and headed for the bar, which meant he seriously didn’t want to discuss the topic.
Sindre muttered, “He’s scared.”
“No,” Reidar said, “he’s worried.”
Reidar had his suspicions but didn’t care to share them with his younger siblings. Although, he figured they’d suffer similar concerns when they began feeling the urge to break from the family. Ever since Axel and Gunnar settled down with their mate, Reidar had noticed a change in Kelan, an antsy irritability that manifested into increased confrontations with Axel whenever the family’s alpha was around. Being closer to Kelan than any of the other siblings, Reidar recognized his alpha impulses. He wondered if Kelan did. And worried about what might happen when those natural instincts grew too strong to ignore.
He watched as Kelan made his way to the bar, and then scanned the mass of patrons. Most of the faces were familiar to him-locals with whom he and his siblings had grown up. But one face weaving through the crowd caught his eye. Her dark hair was pulled back into a tight bun, and the stylish copper-colored frames of her glasses made her look like a sexy school marm. A very sexy one, he thought as she stepped into his unobstructed view and he caught a better glimpse of her body. All long, slim legs and womanly curves showcased by snug jeans and a T-shirt.
“Reidar?” Torsten asked, turning to see what had attracted his attention. When he spotted the lone female, he let loose a low whistle and jostled Sindre with an elbow.
One look and Sindre popped off with, “I say we do battle.” He and Torsten faced Reidar, fists at the ready.
Growing up in a small town, the uniqueness of their births-a set of quadruplets followed by triplets-meant the Falkes were well known. He couldn’t speak for his baby sister, but with the community being a year-round tourist hub, that also meant finding companionship of the opposite sex came rather easy. However, being brothers and shifters, competition had always been a natural part of the dating scene.
Tonight, though, Reidar was in no mood to play a child’s game over the right to approach the stranger. He fought the urge to smile when he saw Kelan’s reaction the moment she neared the bar. Instead of returning to their booth, his twin did what any hot-blooded single male would do; he slid onto a barstool next to the beauty.
When his brother also removed and pocketed his collar, Reidar lost his fight and grinned. Although they followed tradition by wearing the collars with their family crest, both men usually removed them before approaching a potential date, especially out-of-towners unfamiliar with the Falke family eccentricities.
They wore them because the town required the Falke puma to wear one, and any one of the brothers could be required to shift into that role at any time, so it was easier to always have it on. But collars were also considered symbols of submission by some folks, and there was nothing submissive about him or Kelan. Better to avoid potential confusion from the start.
“Come on, Reidar,” Sindre said with a chuckle, “or do ya forfeit without a fight?”
“Too late, boys. First come, first served.” Reidar removed his own collar and watched with avid interest as the scene at the bar unfolded.
His younger brothers both turned to see what he meant by his remark, and then Torsten groaned.
“Shit,” Sindre said, “if Kelan gets his claws into her, there’s not a chance in hell for any of us.”
“Speak for yourself, whelps.” He and Kelan had shared women before. A female fantasy the pair happily indulged whenever a tourist with the right interests came along. The only question was whether this woman would be interested.
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