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Sunlight bathed the golden eagle's half-opened wings, making them appear to be liquid bronze. Katie Bergstrom steadied the sixteen-pound bird on her leather gauntlet, facing him into the cool mid-morning breeze. She stood on the grassy floor of a wide valley, the magnificent Teton Range nearby. The sky was a fierce cobalt blue, the sun glaring at the snowy slopes.
Katie felt Sam's eagerness to fly, his round yellow eyes transfixed on the sky above. He loved getting out of his mew, or cage, and flying the familiar territory near the main highway leading out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Giving him a smile, Katie said in a conspiratorial whisper, "Just one more moment, Sam.. " and spotted Donna, her foster mother, standing a quarter mile away. Her mother held up her hand, a signal for Katie to go ahead and release the raptor.
Every morning, except on days when it was raining or snowing, her educational raptor was flown. These were raptors with a medical condition that did not allow them to be set free in the wild. Golden eagles were large, and Katie could feel the weight of the bird. Her arm started to ache. His curved talons gripped the thick leather of her glove. Sam's black pupils became pinpricks in the field of gold. He flapped his wings, opening them fully, ready to launch off her arm.
Katie didn't know who looked forward to these flights more: her or Sam. "Okay," she said in a quiet tone, "off you go
." and she heaved her arm and shoulder upward and forward in order to successfully launch the raptor.
Sam knew her body's signal. He quickly unfurled his massive seven-foot wingspan. With a snap of his wings, he lifted away from her glove, piercing eyes focused on the sky above.
Katie felt instant relief from his weight. Gusts of wind created by Sam's massive wings swirled around her head. Her shoulder-length black hair, tied into a ponytail, lifted momentarily away from her back. The wind buffeted her and her heart swelled with joy as Sam climbed into the sky. The five-year-old golden eagle made powerful sweeping motions with his wings. The sun glinted off his dark brown feathers. Remembering her love of Greek mythology, Katie saw Sam as a modern-day Icarus heading straight into the sun. Unlike the Greek youth, whose waxy wings were unable to withstand the heat of the sun, Sam's feathers wouldn't melt. And the eagle wouldn't fall to earth and die, as Icarus had.
Looking across the grassy, rolling field, she saw Donna witnessing Sam's power-climb into the near-freezing morning air. Like herself, Donna had an eagle license, a very rare certificate given to raptor rehabilita-tors across the U.S.A. Only falconers who had this valued license could actually fly any type of eagle found in the country. Katie waved joyfully to the forty-nine-year-old redhead who stood downrange. Donna waved back.
A thrill went through Katie. She felt the weight on her shoulders lift as Sam climbed higher and higher. Eagles were known to fly over ten thousand feet high in the wild. Sam wouldn't do that because he knew Donna had a juicy meat morsel waiting for him on the top of her gauntlet.
A gentle sigh issued from Katie's lips. This was her favorite morning routine: flying her raptors. Not all of them could fly, of course, because they'd been injured in one way or another. But those that could, she flew daily unless the weather hampered her efforts. Squinting against the sun, she saw Sam level off at about five thousand feet. He began to glide as he discovered invisible columns of heat rising from the green earth. Early June could bring sudden snow squalls to this part of Wyoming. The Grand Tetons made their own weather and raptors would not fly in rain or snow. They had no eyelid to close in order to protect their eyes from the harsh elements. Instead, until the weather cleared enough for them to hunt, they were earthbound.
The radio on her belt sputtered to life. It was a necessary form of communication between falconers who were often a mile or more apart when flying a raptor.
"Sam's flying high today," Donna said with a laugh.
Grinning, Katie pulled the radio from her belt. "Isn't he, though? I think three days of rain and snow has left him feeling a little frustrated in his mew."
Donna chuckled. "Oh, I agree. He might be hungry, but right now, he's sailing and just enjoying being out in the embrace of his real motherthe sky."
"He's got excess testosterone to burn off, too. Grounded for three days because of rain has made him antsy to get back into the air."
"Isn't that the truth!" Donna said, humor in her tone. "Let me know when to put the food out on my glove."
"I will. Out." Katie fixed the radio back onto her belt. Sam now flew around in a huge circle at least a mile in circumference above her. His path took him across the main highway leading south into Jackson Hole and north toward Grand Teton National Park. Several cars were now parked along the major road between the town and the two national parksGrand Teton and Yellowstoneto watch the eagle fly. A number of raptor-loving locals knew she and Donna flew the raptors inside the elk enclosure between June and August. The enclosure was fairly flat and safe. As people drove up the hill and spotted a magnificent eagle or hawk flying, they would pull over and watch them through binoculars. Right now, Katie saw three cars parked on the berm, the people standing near the ten-foot-high wire elk fence, simply watching and appreciating the raptor.
She understood their joy. Sam was the largest eagle in the United States. When he unfolded and stretched those bronze wings, all seven feet of them, it was an awe-inspiring sight. A good feeling moved through Katie. She was glad the people of Jackson Hole loved raptors, supported them through donations and came to watch them be flown.
Up above, Sam continued to fly in a one-mile circle. He wore a radio antenna placed on the quill shaft of one of his tail feathers. Should Sam get lost or not come in to be fed, Katie could use the radio to locate his whereabouts. At this distance, Katie couldn't see the short kangaroo-leather jesses wrapped around his thick yellow legs. One never flew a raptor with long jesses trailing because they could get entangled in a tree branch and trap the raptor. Short jesses insured Sam could safely land and take off from a tree branch without breaking his leg or wing in the effort.
Glancing toward the highway, Katie noticed a dark green car pulling off and park behind the other three cars. Usually, she recognized the people who stopped because they had come to her educational seminars about raptors in town. Over time, she'd gotten to know her raptors' supporters. But the man emerging from the green car, although half a mile away, didn't look like someone she knew. He walked over to the fence near the other spectators. Like them, he had a pair of binoculars in hand. That wasn't unusual at all. People who loved raptors always had a pair. It was the only way to appreciate the birds up close.
Katie looked up. Sam was wheeling above them, his circles growing a bit smaller.
"Looks like he's got most of his steam burned off," Donna called over the radio.
Pulling the radio to her lips, Katie said, "I think so, too. Now, he's decided he's hungry. When Sam starts making these smaller circles, he's ready to come in and get fed."
"Roger. Maybe another ten minutes?"
"Probably." Katie watched the eagle slide upward on an updraft, his wings spread. Beneath each wing were two white patches known as stars. They looked like Xs to the observer on the ground. The Native Americans referred to the golden eagles as spotted eagles and said the white stars symbolized the Milky Way from whence they had originally come. Katie loved the myths and legends about the golden eagle. The Native Americans revered the eagle and it was often at the center of their sacred medicine ceremonies. A golden eagle was seen as the symbol of the east. In the old days, eagle feathers were believed to bring a person closer to the Great Spirit. Because it flew the highest of all birds, feathers from an eagle were closest to the Great Spirit. The feathers carried the messages back to the human who wore them.
"Okay, I'm going to get Sam's food ready."
"Roger that." Katie tucked the radio into her belt, her gaze following the eagle. He was now flying lower and was purposely swinging over the highway where the people were watching him with rapt attention.
Something bothered Katie. It was a prickle of warning, the raising of hair on the back of her neck. What was she sensing? She turned toward the fence, feeling as if someone were watching her and not the eagle. All four people had binoculars. Three of them were lifted toward the sky. But the stranger who had arrived in the dark green car had his binoculars trained on her.
Katie knew people were curious about falconers, too. Perhaps it was their rather odd costume. Katie had a thick leather gauntlet fitted up to her elbow. When an eagle landed, he would dig his long, curved talons deeply into the material to halt his forward motion. The double-thick leather took the power of his grip without puncturing the falconer's lower arm. A tan canvas satchel hung diagonally across her upper body, the pouch hanging near her right hip. In it was raw rabbit meat to reward Sam for flying back to her. Taking off her black baseball cap, Katie smoothed some strands of her hair away from her eyes. As she settled the cap back on her head, she couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. It made no sense, so she ignored it, focusing instead on Sam's flight.
FBI Agent Joe Gannon studied Katie Bergstrom through his binoculars. He was glad there were three other people at the elk fence beside him. They were murmuring excitedly between themselves as the golden eagle swooped overhead. Joe was much more interested in the woman. Something odd happened to him as he continued to study Katie Bergstrom's profile: his heart expanded in his chest. What an unexpected sensation.
Removing the binoculars, Joe wondered what the hell was going on. He touched his brown leather bomber jacket, feeling a strange emotion: happiness. How odd. Since Zoe had divorced him while he was on his second tour as a Marine Corps captain in Afghanistan, women had left a very bad taste in his mouth. Oh, he liked to look at them. And right now, Katie Bergstrom was certainly worth his attention, but that wasn't why he'd been sent here by his boss in Washington, D.C. Rubbing his chest, Joe tried to will away the unfamiliar joy in his heart.
He hadn't felt this lightness since well before he and Zoe had had their problems. Then his ex-wife's lawyer had sent the divorce papers to him at his unit in Hel-mand Province in Afghanistan. Joe still remembered that traumatic morning mail call. Zoe hadn't said a word about divorce in their Skype calls to one another. The topic had never been brought up for discussion. Her ending the marriage had been a total shock. He didn't dare go through that again.
Scowling, Joe tried to shove away his divorce memories. He had a job to do here in Jackson Hole. He lifted the binoculars to his eyes and concentrated on Katie. She was definitely attractive. Standing five feet six inches tall, she was slender and all grace. Her black hair was drawn back in a ponytail, giving Joe a chance to see her clean profile. Her brow was broad, her nose reminded him of a statue of a Greek goddess. And those full lips would haunt him. Oh, he had photos of Katie, for sure, but seeing her in person made a different and far more powerful impression upon him.
Joe was stymied by his surprising emotional reaction to her. When his boss gave him her file, he'd stressed that Katie was likely part of a large drug-and-gun ring just starting to set up in this part of Wyoming. At the time, Joe had felt nothing. Seeing her in person, however, he discovered he was very much affected. Why now? Why her?
Mouth lifting, Joe figured it was because he'd sworn off women since the divorce. Zoe had married him just before he'd left for his first tour in Afghanistan, and he'd been gone a year. He'd missed her terribly. Zoe had had a tough time adjusting to becoming a military wife. There had been little Joe could do about it except listen during their conversations and tell Zoe he loved her. It hadn't been enough.
A shout from the man standing next to him jolted Joe out of his reverie. He watched the golden eagle flying in smaller, ever-tightening circles. The two women falconers stood at least a quarter of a mile apart. Joe knew from his own ongoing falconry training in Washington, D.C., that the raptor was getting ready to come in and land. He didn't care about the eagle landing as much as the opportunity to check out Katie. Training his gaze on her, Joe saw her smiling and talking into the radio to the woman who was likely her foster mother.
Then a warm sheet of heat moved through his heart. When Katie smiled, her whole face lit up with an incredible joy. For a moment, she turned toward him as the eagle flew low over her. His breath hitched. My God, how pretty she was! Her blue eyes, large and wide-set, shone with excitement. He understood to a degree her pure pleasure in watching the magnificent eagle fly. He'd felt the same way when Eddie, a falconer, had trained him back in D.C. There was a palpable bond between falconer and raptor. It was a living, vibrant connection and he saw it in Katie's eyes.
His gaze dropped to her curved lips. Joe felt his heart expanding in his chest, just a quiet goodness rippling through him. Right now, he had to ignore its significance. But how to ignore Katie Bergstrom's beautiful lips? Her face was oval and she wore no makeup. She didn't have to, Joe thought. At twenty-six, she was clearly in athletic shape. The flash of her smile momentarily stole his breath. Joe had never witnessed such a glow of happiness on anyone's face. "Raptor magic," as it was called by falconers, could bring almost saintlike elation to a person's face. Joe knew that firsthand from his own falconry training. And he was seeing it in spades on Katie's upturned face.