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NATE MURDOCK stared at his cluttered desk and wondered if anything else could possibly go wrong. His staff photographer was out of commission with a broken leg, a pile of term papers awaiting grades covered his desk, and somehow, over the next six weeks, he had to figure out what was decimating the peregrine falcon population in his research project.
At least he'd managed to line up a decent photographer to take Will's place for the study, a last minute replacement with impeccable credentials. Nate rested his elbows on the stack of papers and studied the neatly framed photo on the opposite wall of his office, a life-size print of a peregrine falcon in flight, personally signed with a sweeping "A. Petersen."
The photographer, Andrew Petersen, had captured life and death in motion, the falcon's long pointed wings arrowed back along its sleek body as it launched its dive after prey, the black mask and dark eyes enhancing the impression of deadly predator.
The tables, though, had turned on the falcons. The hunters were now the hunted. The International Falcondai Foundation, the organization supporting Nate's research, mandated he find out what, or who, was violating the falcons' nesting site in the Trinity Alps, with the investigation documented on film. Luckily, after Will's accident, the department secretary had hired Petersen, a man who obviously appreciated and understood the majesty of birds of prey.
Nate dug through a stack of magazines piled haphazardly on the cracked linoleum floor next to his desk and pulled out a tattered issue of National Geographic, the cover folded back to an article on eagles and other raptors. A pictureof the famed photo-journalist appeared on the first page of the story. From the look of him, Nate figured he must be close to sixty, but the man was a professional and wouldn't have accepted the job if he couldn't handle it.
Nate wasn't looking forward to working with a stranger, especially under the rigorous conditions the project required, but Petersen had as much experience studying birds of prey as Nate. That experience could prove invaluable over the next six weeks.
There was just so much left to do if he was going to be ready to leave by morning. The research project in northern California's Trinity Wilderness was a dream assignment, but leaving before the end of the spring semester was a headache. He'd left the details up to the department secretary, everything from securing the grant from IFF to hiring the photographer.
Darlene could be a complete flake sometimes, but at least when it counted she'd come through. Just in time, too, because it was already April, well into the falcons' nesting season.
Sighing, Nate picked up the first of the term papers and began to read.
"ARE YOU SURE you'll be okay, Andy? I can't believe you're taking off for six weeks to share a tent with some guy you've never met. What if he's psychotic, or a serial killer or...?"
"I'll be fine, Donna. Don't worry. The man's a professor of ornithology at UC Berkeley, for crying out loud. The worst he can be is knock-kneed, bald, and old as the hills."
Andy Petersen pulled her thick, waist-length hair back in a ponytail, then searched through her jeans pocket for a rubber band. Failing to find one, she tied the mass of hair into a loose knot, then, hands on hips, faced her friend.
"Besides, Donn, they don't give tenure to serial killers. Anyway, I want this job." Narrowly avoiding ladders and saw horses, the wild movement of her hands punctuating her words, she paced restlessly around the cluttered room. "It's exactly what I need to build my reputation. It'll be good for the studio."
"Andy, the studio's just coming together. We've got at least two months of remodeling before we can open and--"
"And you're perfectly capable of handling it." Andy took a deep breath and looked directly into Donna's soft brown eyes. "I have to do this, Donn. Can't you see?" she pleaded. "This is the first time anyone of importance has wanted to hire me instead of my father. It's my chance."
"In spite of your father, you mean." Donna held up one hand, forestalling Andy's rebuttal. "I know that's not very nice to say, Andy, but it's true and you know it. He's taken jobs away from you. And we both know he's claimed credit for your work! He's not a very nice man even if he is your father."
"That's not fair, Donna. It only happened once."
"Well, it was a big once, and I don't know why you think you have to defend him."
"I don't know. I just do." Andy turned away. She knew what was coming next, and as usual, Donna didn't fail her.
"He should have married your mother."
Andy had her standard response ready. "My mother was a seventeen year old housekeeper. She'd never been out of her village. She didn't even speak English. She was no more ready to get married than he was. He could have left me in her village on the Yucatan Peninsula when she died, but he didn't."
"He could have treated you with a little more affection than he would a stray cat...but he didn't do that either."
"He didn't have to, Donna," Andy answered softly, knowing exactly how to end every argument the two of them had about Andrew Petersen. "I had you and your mom and dad and all the affection I needed."
"It just ticks me off. When he does notice you, he acts like he's invented you or something. He's such a control freak. You're better off living as far from him as you can. It's like he has to compete with you and always let you know he's better. And you know what, Andy, you're better than he ever was!"
Donna flipped her blond hair back over her shoulder and glared at Andy. Andy couldn't help but laugh at her best friend's righteous anger. They had always argued like sisters. Short, blond, brown-eyed Donna. Tall, dark, blue-eyed Andy. Sisters in every way but blood.
"I know," Andy finally said. "It is frustrating, always living in someone's shadow, especially when he doesn't even know I'm there. I used to think Dad was embarrassed by me, but I don't think having an illegitimate daughter bothered him in the least. Mainly because he never thought about me. He still doesn't. He's always left that responsibility to your folks."
"When you were small, he called you Shadow."
"Yeah," Andy laughed. "But that's only because my skin is so dark. I know better than to think of it as a term of endearment."
"You may have gotten your mother's coloring, but you are definitely your father's daughter," Donna answered wryly. "The world is not heavily populated with blue-eyed, five foot ten inch Latinas. I think you're more hard-headed than he is. And you know what?" Laughing, Donna pointed her finger at Andy. "You're just as much a control freak as he is. Worse!"
"Well I'd rather be in control of my life than give it up to some man. That's what my mother did, and look what it got her. Pregnant, unmarried, and dead at seventeen."
Fighting angry tears, Andy grabbed both of Donna's hands and squeezed them tightly. "Don't you see? That's why this job is so important. I'm the one the university wants, not my father. The secretary said my peregrine poster is the professor's favorite. My photo, not my father's. I know it's a last minute thing, but it's my opportunity to do something important on my own."
"You might as well go," Donna finally conceded. "The contractor and his crew will be here in the morning. I guess I can handle the remodeling...and all those handsome young, half dressed construction workers."
"You can have 'em. I'm through with men." Andy grinned at Donna, then grabbed a stack of documents off the counter.
"This contract is my ticket. I can feel it. I don't care if Professor Murdock is short or tall, bald or hairy, or even if he has his bird watching binoculars surgically attached to his eyeballs. I'm going to spend six whole weeks in the Trinity Wilderness climbing mountains and taking pictures and doing what I love most. And getting paid for it! Wadda ya say?"
"I say go for it, kid." Donna laughed, pointing an admonishing finger at Andy. "But ya better take your own tent!"
Copyright © 2000 by Kate Douglas