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Fly Me Home


By Victoria Flynn

Acknowledgements


To my editors Dawn Yacovetta and Karolyn Henick, you guys did a stunning job on this manuscript. Not only was I so comfortable working with you, you both knew these characters as well as I did. To Alecia Harrington, Megan Guiler, and Grace Brennan, y’all gave me the best advice and made this book spectacular. It’s your suggestions that brought Talon and Genevieve’s story to life. To Amber Shepherd, your tireless work on this cover gave me a masterpiece. You knew what I needed before I even knew myself. To Becca Vincenza, you have given up so much of your time to teach me this business and how to make the best book I possibly can. You’ve dropped everything to help format when I was in a pinch. You’ve been not only a fabulous mentor, but one of my absolute best friends. All of you women have been invaluable to me and I can’t thank you enough. Thank you to my husband and family for putting up with my crazy writing routines and sprinting marathons. Lastly, thank you to all of the readers. You guys make my job fun and love my characters as much as I do.

Copyright


©2018 by Victoria Flynn

All rights reserved.


This book or parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical,

photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without prior written permission of the copyright owner and/or the publisher of this book, except as provided by United States of America copyright law.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Dedication

For Love.




Chapter 1

Talon

It’d been a long night, and the stress of it all was beginning to wear me down. Two days. That’s how long it’d been since I’d slept or had any rest at all. There wasn’t time. Another winter storm was rolling in, threatening to dump nearly a foot of snow over the search area.

Two hikers had strayed from the trails and gotten turned around. They’d been out there for two days, and being Search and Rescue, I wouldn’t give up until I found them. Time was against us though. We’d lose all traces of their trail if we didn’t find them before the storm rolled in.

“T, what’s your coordinates?” Justin’s voice crackled from my radio.

“I’m at the base of the peak, west side. Moving higher. Any sign of them from above?” I asked.

Justin was my eyes in the sky for the time being. He was combing over the mountain with the chopper, but the forest was too thick to make much out clearly.

“Negative. We’ve only got an hour before I’ve got to put this damn thing on the ground. The wind’s going to start kickin’ up,” Justin radioed.

Shit.

“All right, can you get Barry back to base? It’ll be faster if I go alone.”

Barry was the chief and, like the rest of the town, was oblivious to the things that went on in the small town of Elk Springs. Justin knew exactly what I was talking about. He’d known all my secrets since I’d been a boy, my only friend. He was the only one I could trust.

“Yeah, I think so. It’s going to have to be a fast pass though. This is turning into a shit show real quick.”

Justin was right. The pressure was changing along with the wind direction. The storm was getting worse and picking up speed.

“Justin, we’re out of time. I’ve got to go now.”

Up ahead, an old pine had fallen. The termites and ants had hollowed it out, leaving a perfect hidey hole. Shrugging off my orange vest, I stuffed it into the space and kicked out of my boots. The wind whipped around me, whistling through the trees. Stripping out of my clothes, I stood naked in the forest and felt for wind direction.

Northwest.

The wind held the icy chill of the harsh early winter storm. Not for the first time, I was grateful I ran hotter than humans. I moved further into the dense copse of trees, searching for the perfect place that would provide enough cover to ensure I wouldn’t be seen from above as I used my last option.

Not too far from where I’d stopped was a large pine with enough high branches to provide the cover I was looking for. Crouching under it, I let the bird have my body. The tiny downy feathers pushed their way out of my pores. Bones broke and reformed; joints popped and cracked as my other form took hold. It was agony, but if I pushed it, made it go faster, the whole thing was over fast. Time was the enemy, so I pushed damn hard.

The eagle exploded from me, taking flight mid shift. I caught the updraft and soared higher, feeling the wind lift me like I was weightless. If I’d had the time, I’d savor the peace and freedom flight gave me, but there were lives on the line. If these folks didn’t get off the mountain, they’d be facing almost certain death.

My eyes were trained on the ground, scanning for tracks or signs of the missing hikers. I could hear the chopping of helicopter blades as they headed back to base.

I stayed low, close to the tree tops, as I searched for feet impressions in the snow. The wind blew hard, whipping the snow around and covering any traces of them. Movement caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. Giving the object my full attention, I realized it was only a fox running for cover with the coming storm.

The needles of the pine trees almost scraped my belly as I soared over them. It wasn’t enough. I needed a higher vantage point if I was going to have any luck finding the hikers. With a powerful thrust, my wings caught the air current, and I pushed, forcing it all behind me, and shot another thirty feet higher, but it still wasn’t enough.

I could see the helicopter retreating in the distance, the chopping of the blades fading as Justin and Barry got further away. I was on my own, which was exactly the way I preferred it. The wind was brutal, making it hard to stay on course. The pressure and temperatures were dropping quickly.

A faint whiff of smoke reached me, but before I could tell which way it was coming from, it was gone. I circled around, trying to find it again. Just as I was sure it had been a mistake or my mind playing tricks on me, a plume of red smoke began to billow above the trees.

Rescue smoke flares.

That had to be them.

Sure enough, when I got closer, I found a man and a woman, fitting the description, huddled between a felled tree and a massive boulder, trying to keep out of the wind. They were further off course than we’d anticipated, and it would take me at least twenty minutes to reach them from where I’d left my clothes. We’d need an airlift out, but that would require an area large enough for the helicopter to land and take off, and that was no easy feat on this sort of terrain. The ground was uneven, and I was certain there were more trees on that mountain than people in the entire state of Colorado.

My gaze narrowed on the area where I’d left my clothes. Pushing myself to the brink of my limits, I soared back toward the hollow. Angling my wings, I attempted to slow when I got close enough to see the tree, however with the wind at my back, it was nearly impossible. I was going too fast and being tossed about by cross winds. Unable to decelerate enough, I slammed into the branch above where I was aiming for. The force of it spun me around and slung me off the limb. I tucked my wings and began the shift as I plummeted the last twenty feet toward the ground below.

The pain was blinding, and I slammed into the dirt with enough force to knock the wind out of me. With the last of my feathers receding, I laid there gasping for air. My diaphragm didn’t want to cooperate, and my lungs refused to inflate. After a minute of flopping around like a suffocating fish, I could finally drag enough oxygen into my body that I could manage to get to my feet.

Still breathing heavily, I pulled on my clothes as fast as I could manage while I started to move in the direction the smoke was coming from. I could smell it from where I was, but I had to hurry. The smoke flare would only last so long.

I grabbed my radio as I moved along the mountainside and radioed Justin.

“J? It’s T, man. I’ve found them. It’s getting a bit hairy up here, and I haven’t been able to assess their condition yet. We’re going to need a lift out of there.”

The radio crackled as I waited for his reply. Seconds ticked by as I got closer to the missing hikers. I changed the frequency so I could reach the base.

“Becker to base. I’ve got the hikers. The conditions won’t allow for an on-foot extraction. We need a lift out of here.”

“Base to Becker, we’ve got the smoke flare and your coordinates. Dispatching a chopper now. Walker is already on his way. Projected touchdown in ten minutes. Update us on the conditions up there, Becker,” Pauly, the dispatcher, crackled over the device.

“Wind speeds are picking up, and the pressure’s dropping quick. We don’t have much time before an airlift will be too dicey. We’ve got to go now.”

I picked up my pace, racing toward the smoke and the hikers. If we missed the last lift window, we’d not only be placing the hikers in harm’s way but Justin as well. High winds and helicopters don’t tend to mix well.

Scanning the dense forest, I zeroed in on the massive boulder peeking through a narrow gap in the trees. I’d found them.

“Hello?” I called out, straining to hear any sort of response.

“Hello? Please, help us! We’re over here!” a scared feminine voice shrieked.

In the matter of a couple minutes, I closed the space between myself and the missing hikers. I rounded the shed-sized boulder and almost tripped over a booted foot.

A large man laid unconscious, his head resting on a hysterical blonde’s lap.

“Ma’am, are you alright? Can you tell me what happened?” I asked, dropping down beside her to evaluate the man’s condition.

The coppery tang of his blood filled my nose. Pressing my fingers to the side of his neck, I felt a strong pulse, but that didn’t rule out the possibility of a head injury.

“We came out here to check out the view. Dillon thought he might get a better view from the top of the rock. He tried climbing the tree and jumping over, but he slipped and hit his head on the way down.”

“How long has he been unconscious, and has he come to at all? How long ago did he fall?” I hurled the questions at her, becoming increasingly worried about the man’s injuries.

Inspecting his head closer, I pushed aside his near black hair to get a better look at the wound. A gash nearly two inches long split his ivory scalp, not bleeding profusely yet enough to need to be stopped.

“It’s been almost an hour since he fell, and he hasn’t woken up since. Is he going to be alright? Is he dying?” she sobbed.

“We’re going to airlift you out of here. Dillon, here, needs to get to the hospital as soon as possible. The helicopter will take you both there immediately.”

I ignored the fact that we’d been searching for the pair for almost four hours since their camp reported they had missed their rendezvous time. With the impending storm, they’d raised the alarm.

“Is he going to be okay, though? Oh my God, he’s going to die isn’t he?”

“Ma’am, what’s your name?” I asked.

“Tricia. Oh my God, Dillon.”

“Tricia, listen to me. I need you to follow my directions exactly as I tell you. Can you do that? If you get yourself worked up, Dillon here could go downhill fast. I’ll be honest with you; it’s serious. He’s not out of the woods, but he has a strong pulse. The doctors will be able to tell you more, but we’ve got to get him there first. Here,” I explained, handing her a gauze patch I’d pulled from my pack. “Put this over the cut on his head and apply pressure. We need to get that bleeding stopped.”

Her hands were shaking almost uncontrollably though she grabbed the gauze and followed my directions.

“Now take some deep breaths, and calm down. I have to radio the helicopter.”

I snatched the radio from my hip and flipped to the frequency Justin always used.

“J, are you there?”

“I’m here, T. I’ve got your coordinates. Evac in five minutes. You gonna be ready?”

“Yeah, we should be, but there’s no landing area in the vicinity. It’s going to have to be an aerial evac. I’ve got an unconscious white male, mid-thirties, with likely closed head injury. I’ll need the backboard and a harness.”

“I’ve got you covered, man. Send up a flare for a better pinpoint.”

“Roger.”

I snatched my pack from where I’d dropped it and fished out the flare gun, loading the cartridge. Aiming for the narrow gap in the trees, I fired. The flare flew high into the sky, thrown off course by the wind. It exploded, sending a shower of short lived sparks raining down on the forest above us.

In the distance, I heard the chopping of the helicopter blades getting closer. Checking over the man, I noted his temperature was good, despite the near freezing conditions. Nothing else appeared to be injured, but we couldn’t take the chance with him also possibly having a neck injury.

“Tricia? I’ve got this,” I said as I replaced her hand with my own on the gauze. “In my bag over there is a neck brace. I need you to grab it out of there and bring it here.”

She seemed dazed by everything that was going on. Tricia quickly did as I asked without saying anything. Handing me the brace, she took back over applying pressure to the man’s head.

Snowflakes began to fall all around us. The storm was arriving right on time. I fastened the brace around the man’s neck and checked his pulse again. It was still beating steadily though he still hadn’t regained consciousness or shown any signs of coming to. That was worrying and could easily be a sign of some sort of brain damage. My business mask slid into place so as not to alarm his partner. The bleeding had begun to slow.

No more than two minutes later, Justin finally arrived overhead, dropping a rope with a harness. A second later, the back board was lowered. Barry’s ruddy face peeked out the chopper’s open door.

Justin was busy trying to keep the helicopter steady though I could tell he was having a difficult time. We were protected on the ground with the tree cover, but he was catching the full force of the storm.

Standing, I grabbed the harness and loosened the straps.

“Tricia? I need you to come here. Step into this. They are going to lift you into the helicopter, and while they’re doing that, I’m going to get Dillon secured and ready for his turn. All right? Can you do that?”

She shakily nodded and stepped into the harness.

I helped tighten everything down and made sure she was secure before giving the rope a tug. Barry began to lift the woman to safety.

I turned my attention to Dillon. Any other member of the rescue squad would need an assistant to lift and move a patient onto the backboard. Luckily, strength was a useful trait I’d inherited with the eagle. I heard my father’s voice in the back of my mind telling me, “One day, you’ll see what a gift the eagle is.” He’d been right even if my stubborn teenage mind couldn’t accept it at the time.

Without wasting any more time, I grabbed the backboard and situated it next to the man. His neck was stabilized; I just had to watch for any other unexpected injuries. There didn’t appear to be any as I got my arms under him and moved him to the board. Crossing his arms over his chest, I laced the straps through their holders and secured him. Once I was sure he wouldn’t be going anywhere, I shouted up to Barry.

“Lift!”

Barry nodded and began to lift the man while he tossed another harness rope down for me. When I was secured, I gave another tug and was immediately lifted to the relative safety of the helicopter. Justin didn’t wait to head out. By the time I’d cleared the trees, he was already heading toward the closest hospital.

It was a good day by my standards. We’d rescued live people instead of not finding them and launching a body recovery mission. When we’d almost reached the medical center, Dillon was beginning to show signs of regaining consciousness, and we delivered the couple to the care of the waiting trauma team.

Another successful mission in the books.

Chapter 2

Gen

I glanced at the next name on my list for close to the twentieth time in as many minutes.

Talon Becker.

He was the last name on my list of residents in Elk Springs to talk to, if you could call most folks avoiding me like the plague talking. I reached for my coffee cup, which was sloshing away in its holder as I made my way over the broken concrete of the road. The hot liquid warmed me to my bones. I hoped it would perk me up a bit after a very long and grey day. I’d been in town for about a week and had yet to see a day of sunshine. As a California girl, I couldn’t understand why you’d voluntarily live someplace where the sun was so scarce, but different strokes and all that jazz.

My belly was in knots, anxious to be done with the list, or so I thought. I’d been anxious since I’d arrived in the small town even though I didn’t have too many reasons to be. My thoughts were re-examining the nuances of the conversations I’d had with my superiors before I’d taken this assignment when the road narrowed to a single lane. It was only wide enough to fit a full sized truck through; anything larger would get stuck on the thick swath of trees on either side. The road curved and began to climb. If it was my guess, this was the start of Mr. Becker’s driveway.

The reclusive man was much harder to find than I would have thought, and by the looks of the dozen No Trespassing signs I’d passed, he liked it that way. The road to his solitary mountain cabin wasn’t much more than a two track trail over more gnarled roots than I could count, but trudging up the side of the mountain had to be done.

That was fine by me. If the old mountain man wanted to be a hermit, who was I to stop him, but I needed to know if he’d seen anything strange. I’d been tracking a small group of exotic animal smugglers and poachers across four states already, and all the evidence pointed to this little blip of a town in the mountains of Colorado. These poachers were the ruthless sort, leaving behind several bodies of federal agents and civilians who’d gotten in their way. After coordinating with multiple agencies, both foreign and domestic, I’d come to know exactly what I was dealing with.

André Tekin.

He was the ring leader of the group and had an INTERPOL rap sheet a mile long. His partner was still a mystery, but I’d managed to narrow down my list of suspects to no more than five. I was waiting to hear back on the whereabouts of several of them since they’d dropped off everyone’s radar.

As an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, I knew I wanted these guys behind bars before they did any more damage than they already had. It didn’t help that my ass was on the line. Higher ups don’t like it when criminals slip through your fingers more than once. Even without my career on the line, this case had gotten to me and driven me to a near obsession with the capture of Mr. Tekin. One of his last jobs had taken a prized gorilla from the zoo I’d frequented in my college years. The animals had always given me a sense of calm when my world was hectic and full of stress, which had been almost always.

My bosses were expecting me to fail again, and that was something I just couldn’t stomach. I’d been a shining star throughout college; it was a large part of why I’d been selected to join the FBI. Few attachments to the outside world, a solid work ethic, and a high level of intelligence…that’s me. What did all that get me? Stuck in the middle of freaking nowhere, going from door to door while I try to figure out whether or not anyone’s seen André or someone who didn’t belong in the area.

Fuck my life.

The driveway to the hermit’s cabin was a long one, private and winding back and forth up the steep incline. The engine of my ford whined as I shifted into a lower gear, and I kept on chugging.

As I neared the top of the climb, the trees suddenly parted to reveal a quaint cabin situated amongst the giant trunks of an old growth stand of trees. The lights inside were dim but on, and smoke billowed from the chimney. The wood was almost as dark as the surrounding forest though not quite. The planks were rough and hand hewn. In fact, the whole place looked like it was built by hand, without the clean edges of most conventional homes.

I shifted into park and stepped out of the truck. As soon as my foot touched the packed dirt of the driveway, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. It wasn’t the feeling of danger, despite the B-rated horror flick vibes the whole situation was giving off. The weight of my firearm on my hip was reassuring. I bet this guy was harmless even if he reeked of musty old man.

I stepped onto the front porch which was much sturdier than I’d thought from afar. The boards creaked under my weight. Stepping up to the door, I put on my public friendly face and knocked loudly. Without hearing movement inside, I lifted my hand to knock again. I jerked with shock as the door swung open quickly. My hand went to my holster, ready to draw if I needed to.

A mountain of man filled the doorway. Unlike the elderly mountain man I was expecting, this man couldn’t have been more than thirty. His piercing blue eyes narrowed into slits as he stared down at me. I cleared my instantly dry throat, remembering why I was there to begin with.

“Hello, sir. I’m Agent Mendoza. Are you Mr. Becker?” I asked.

The behemoth grunted affirmatively. His nostrils flared like he’d just realized he’d stepped in a heap of cow dung, and his eyes went wide. If he hadn’t been shooting daggers at me with his eyes, he’d almost have been cute. Really cute if you were into meatheads who spent all their time in the gym. His body filled the frame of the door, and I tried to look anywhere other than gawking at his impressive physique. My eyes landed on his striking baby blues. Maybe it was the alpha male quality he gave off, but regardless, I found myself drawn to him. The man crossed his arms over his chest, breaking the trance and forcing me back on task.

“I’m new to the area and looking into some suspicious big game kills. Have you noticed any new faces around town or any suspicious activity?”

It took him a moment to lose the irate expression and begin to seem only slightly less hostile.

The man’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Nope.”

Stepping back, he gave the door a shove and slammed it in my face. Letting out an irritated breath, I rolled my eyes.

“Great. Nice to meet you too, dickwad.”

What the hell was it with the people in Elk Springs? Were they all allergic to common decency and respect? Or did they just lack manners entirely?

I knocked again, not even expecting an answer, but I knew the man could hear me. Pulling my badge wallet from my pocket, I slid out a business card and wedged it into the frame. Turning, I glided off the porch and marched toward the truck, muttering curses about the whole damn town.

I jerked the door open and hopped into the seat. Angrily, I jammed the key into the ignition and threw it into reverse. Casting one last glance at the cabin, I caught a glimpse of the curtain moving back into place.

“Paranoid much?” I muttered to myself as I turned my big Ford pickup around.

Shifting into low gear, I made my way back down the trail to the road. The only silver lining was that there weren’t any more houses on the list to visit. So far, my experiences with these people told me that the residents of Elk Springs weren’t too keen on outsiders. I couldn’t count on their help.

Bumping along the roads back toward the Elk Springs Police Station, I couldn’t help thinking about the reclusive, Talon Becker.

Talon. An unusual name for an unusual man.

Asshole? Yes.

Delicious to look at? Also yes.

I tried not to think about the way his shirt pulled tightly across his broad chest, but I couldn’t help it. He was tall and muscular but not so much that he was grossly bulky. Talon reminded me a lot of a lumberjack, solid and sturdy. His eyes were sharp and piercing, but they didn’t make me feel like I was only an inch tall like my boss did. It was a carnal attraction that called to my baser needs.

Just as my thoughts turned to naughtier things, the local police station came into view. Fred’s car was parked diagonally across my space and the spot next to mine where he usually parked. Fred was the Sherriff’s deputy and a misogynistic asshole. I hadn’t been in town more than a couple days, but he’d somehow made it his mission to run me right back out of town.

He could have the damn spot. I didn’t give a shit. Two could play that game, and I had never claimed that I wasn’t petty as hell when someone tried to put me in my place. Maneuvering the truck so that there was no possible way for him to get out of the spots without me moving first, I shifted into park and climbed out.

I resisted my urge to leave a note on his window that read something along the lines of eat shit and die. My post in town was temporary, and I thanked my lucky stars that hopefully it wouldn’t be too long before I could get the hell out of that backwards po’ dunk town. However, in the meantime, I needed maps.

Topographical ones.

I needed to know the terrain like a local. Bagging these assholes depended on me succeeding where I had failed before. To be honest, this was my last chance. It would make or break my career. Hell, this particular group shouldn’t have taken me through four states over the previous four months. It had been close a few times, but each time, they disappeared when I made my move. It was unusual – like someone had tipped them off.

Those were suspicions I kept to myself, not knowing who I could and could not trust if that was indeed the case.

I marched through the doors, inhaling the stale fumes of an old office.

“Well, look who’s back with her tail stuck between her legs,” Fred crooned from where he was reclined in his office chair.

His feet were kicked up on his desk like the lackadaisical attitude he had toward his job. It was men like him who gave the profession a bad name. Saying Fred was lazy was an understatement. I doubted he’d worked a solid day since getting his badge, a badge that had long since gone to his head and turned him into an entitled asshole. That was coming from an out-of-towner who barely knew the man beyond a fleeting introduction. I loathed to think of what the locals had to say about the man charged with keeping the town safe.

“I’ve got nothing stuck between these legs, just like you, Fred. So kindly, fuck off,” I said as I passed his desk to head for my makeshift work area in the far corner of the room.

I heard the squeaky wheels of the rolling chair as he scrambled to his feet and followed after me. Fred hiked his pants up, trying to stuff his oversized flab under his belt so it wasn’t as obvious how overweight he was. It left him huffing from the effort.

“You uppity bitch. Haven’t you figured out yet that I run this fucking town? You’re nobody. A federal reject who’s on her way out the door. If you knew what was good for you, you’d be kissing my boots and begging for me to take you on once the agency throws you away.”

He was hot on my heels, and venom dripped from his words. Fred was harboring serious mommy issues and more than a little rage.

“I think you forget that you aren’t in charge, bud. You’re a subordinate. Until that fancy little badge you like to wave around says Sherriff on it, you’re not shit but a bully with a chip on your shoulder. So excuse me while I do real police work instead of sitting on my ass and feeding into that cops and donuts, good ol’ boy stereotype.”

The vein by Fred’s receding hairline threatened to pop, and his face was growing redder by the second. I gave him my sweetest smile, my final fuck you, and turned on my heel.

I was a woman who liked to do her research, especially when dealing with someone like him. Running through financials was like a walk in the park, a very advantageous walk at that. If I absolutely had to, I’d be willing to bet the Sheriff would be very interested in knowing the amount of money Fred liked to spend on hookers or the bar tabs he has to regularly pay to support his habit. There was probably more, but I hadn’t dug too far. It was enough to keep him from being all bark and no bite.

“You better watch your back. You’re painting targets a mile wide.”

“You know, Fred…how’s the sobriety coming along? Met any nice girls at the Ruby Slipper Motel?” I asked, playing it cool like I already had him all figured out.

His eyes went round, and his maw popped open as if he was going to spew something nasty at me. The Sheriff’s office door creaked open, letting the Sheriff’s one sided phone call filter out. I stared Fred down, not backing down an inch.

“Just stay out of my way, and we won’t have an issue,” I said, turning back to my desk and mostly ignoring the man’s choked astonishment behind me.

“Fred! Why aren’t you out on patrol?” Sheriff Jergen hollered from his office doorway.

The man was in his fifties and close to retirement but still held the authority of someone younger with more stamina. He would’ve been a force to be reckoned with in his younger years if he wasn’t just about the kindest person in town.

Fred scrambled for an answer, however nothing more than garbled vowels poured from him.

“You should get on that, Fred. Wouldn’t want the nice citizens of Elk Springs to really wonder where their tax dollars are going,” he said, giving me a quick, sly wink.

My first night in Elk Springs, the Sheriff and his wife, Valerie, had invited me over for a welcome dinner. They’d been almost the only two people in the damn town who had been remotely nice to me. Aside from them, there’d been one local who made me feel somewhat welcome.

Justin Willard.

He was a heartbreaker if I ever saw one. He had been flirtatious, but I’d also come to the conclusion that’s just his personality. From what I had learned, he was best friends with that recluse, Talon Becker. How? I wasn’t sure. Becker was about as prickly as a porcupine.

It was hard to turn my brain off to the job at the end of the day. Most days, I’d just fall into bed and call it a night, but that night? I was on edge and craving something to take the edge off.

The sun dipped below the ridge of mountains in the distance, casting the valley town in darkness. Like most old-school towns, the businesses shut down by six, leaving the local watering hole as just about the only place to hang out after the sun went down. The Moose Jaw was the only bar in town, but there was no way I was walking in there with my badge and firearm. As if everyone didn’t already know I was a member of law enforcement, I wasn’t about to flaunt it. I needed to blend in as much as possible. I turned into the parking lot of the Pine View Motel and was pleased to see that I was the only tenant for the night. I’d had to put up with listening to a couple a few doors down in the throes of passion for most of the previous night. I mean, honestly, no one has that kind of stamina. My nether regions were sore just thinking of it.

I pulled the key out of my wallet and unlocked my room. My boots were being kicked off before I could even shut the door behind me. The room was dark and reeked of old cigarettes. I didn’t even want to think of what was hiding in the old carpet. At the foot of the bed, against the wall, was a mini-fridge which I’d stocked with water, produce, and the essentials to make a lunch. It didn’t offer a kitchen or anything so I had to keep it simple and stick with meals that didn’t need to be cooked. Luckily, the front office had a microwave that they let me use when needed. I grabbed a sandwich and tore into it. Sandwiches and frozen food were my normal, though not because I wasn’t capable of some basic skills. I just didn’t see the reason to put too much effort into cooking for just myself.

I hadn’t come from a stable home with a doting mother who taught me the extra touches to family recipes or the secret trick to the perfect roast. Nope, I’d bounced from foster home to foster home until I aged out of the system. Most everything I’d learned had come from the cooking channel or Youtube. Cleaning, I knew. I’d always had a hefty chore list to complete, but very few people had taken an interest in me growing up, and most folks had no interest in investing more than the bare minimum like food, shelter, clothes, and enrolling me in school.

The longer I sat in my motel room in the dark, the more my solitary life began to weigh on me. I was closer to thirty than I cared to admit and had nothing real to show for myself. I had a job and an apartment of my own waiting for me back in California, but what did any of it mean when I had no one to share it with. No friends, no family, no pets. Most days, I was okay with it, but today wasn’t one of those days.

Throwing the plastic wrap into the trash like it was a basketball, I turned my attention to my bag of clothes. I still hadn’t unpacked and didn’t see any reason to. Unpacking bags meant I was settling in, and I was certainly not settling in Elk Springs. I fished out my old UCLA t-shirt and a worn pair of jeans. There was no point in dressing up; it wasn’t like I was trying to impress anyone. Besides, I was off the clock and to hell with formality when I was just going to grab a beer.

I changed quickly and stuffed my feet into my worn Converse sneakers before slipping out the door. I was almost to my truck when I felt like I wasn’t alone anymore. I couldn’t really put a finger on what it was specifically, but I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched. Turning around, I scanned the parking lot. It was still empty. Even the front office seemed to be void of life.

Strange.

It had to just be my head playing tricks on me. Forgetting about it, I climbed into the truck and tore off down the road to The Moose Jaw.

Chapter 3

Talon

The woman’s scent lingered, invading all of my senses. I stood rooted to my spot by the window as I watched her drive away and out of sight. Something about her was different and called to the animal within. It was so overwhelming that I did the only thing I could think of, and I ran.

Okay, slamming the door in her face wasn’t my finest moment, but what else was I supposed to do when I was about to Change involuntarily?

Mate.

The word repeated over and over in my head. It was like a mantra but deeper. It was a call from my soul as it cried out for its other half. In the blink of an eye, my world shifted on its axis. She was now the center of my universe, and I had nothing more than a last name and her face committed to memory.

Officer Mendoza.

Feisty and fierce. Both were qualities I admired in a woman. It was only suitable that my destined mate was tough as nails. The drawback was that she was human. Physically fragile. Exactly the wrong sort of woman for me. Humans didn’t survive shifters, and it would be unfair of me to ask her to. I didn’t know what to do. I certainly hadn’t been looking for a mate, but now seeing mine, things were different. She held the potential to give me a life I’d never considered a real possibility, and she could also reject me completely.

Deciding it was best to wait and see how events transpired, I turned my thoughts to the reason behind her visit. The woman hadn’t needed to tell me outright. It looked like Elk Springs had a poaching problem. Poaching problems were shifter problems. Too easily, one of us could be mistaken for a trophy animal. I was larger than the average eagle. Most shifters were on the larger side when their animal had their skin. It was far too dangerous. They had to go before they discovered more than just a trophy bear.

As much as I didn’t want to involve anyone who didn’t need to be, Justin needed to know what was going on. The man had guarded my secrets far longer than I liked to think about, and he had long since earned my trust and honesty.

I went searching for my phone. If I was truthful, I didn’t find much use for the damn thing outside of emergencies. My circle was virtually nonexistent, and that’s the way I liked it. The phone was nestled into a drawer in my kitchen, out of my way. Snatching it up, I scrolled through my contacts. It didn’t take long to find Justin’s name. After several rings, he finally answered.

“This is Justin,” he yelled from the other end of the line.

Background music blared into his phone. Wherever he was, it was damn noisy. The twangy country assaulted my eardrums, making me wince. Shifter hearing wasn’t made to deal with things that loud.

“It’s me, Talon. Can you turn that shit down, or step outside for a minute? I can’t even hear myself think.”

“One second,” he said. The background noise disappeared. “What’s up?”

“I had an officer stop by my place earlier.”

“Was it Officer Hottie?”

“Officer Hottie?” I asked, not sure who the hell he was referring to.

“Yeah. The new girl. God, I’d let her put me in cuffs any time she wants-”

A low growl tore from my throat as an unfamiliar churning of rage ignited within me. I kept picturing Justin’s hands trailing up my mate’s thighs as she writhed in pleasure. The man was my best friend, and I was picturing a thousand different ways to kill him.

“Not another fucking word about her. Do you understand me? Not one fucking word, or I won’t be able to stop myself from breaking your god damn face.”

“Whoa, T. What the hell man?”

I ran my hand through my hair with a huff. He didn’t understand the concept of mates or the complex bond that had already begun to form, linking me to her. Jealousy and protectiveness was just part of the territory. A man could turn on his best friend if he thought his mate was in jeopardy of being stolen away before the bond could be completed.

“It’s complicated. Just…just don’t be disrespectful. She’s a lady and deserves to be treated like one.”

Having a mate wasn’t something to be taken lightly. With the very real possibility that Ms. Mendoza could walk away from me and not feel the pull of our connection, I didn’t want to share the news and have things not pan out.

“You got dibs on the girl or something? You’re acting weird as fuck, dude.”

“Dibs? I don’t even know the woman’s first name. Just leave her alone.”

Justin grunted, “Is that what you called for? To stake your territory? Or did you need something else?”

“Yeah, it’s actually about the reason behind her visit. She’s been looking into some suspicious kills around here. Thinks it’s the work of some poachers.”

“Shit,” he huffed.

Justin knew just as well as I did the importance of keeping my secret. Not just mine but others’. Elk Springs was a quiet town, safe. We had families and an entire community to keep safe. There were predators in the forests surrounding the town, and adding a few more to the list was unacceptable in my book. They had to go.

“If you’ve got some time between shifts, we can take a hike and see what we can find. I doubt these guys would be set up in a motel; it would draw too much attention. We need to search for their camp.”

“Would you have us show them just how hospitable we can be here in Elk Springs?” Sarcasm dripped from every word.

I knew how Justin could be. I’d dragged his ass out of more bar fights than I could count. He was a brawler by nature and damned lucky he didn’t have an animal in him to ramp up that aggression until it overtook him.

“I’m sure we can convince them that there’s nothing worth hunting in the area and let them be on their way,” I replied.

“That’s fine by me, but could it maybe wait a day? I’ve got someone I’m meeting up at The Moose Jaw around six, and really, what difference is one day going to make?” Justin rationalized.

“You have a date?” I asked, reading between the lines.

“I don’t know that I’d call it a date, but who knows, and I don’t want to hear any shit about it. You were the one telling me I needed to try to get back in the game.”

“Fuck, man. It’s been 5 years since Lanie left. You should’ve been back in the game at least 4 years ago.”

The other end of the line was quiet. I knew it was a sore spot for him, but how long could someone let their lives pass them by waiting for someone who wasn’t coming back? I’d been the loyal friend and stood by him, not pushing for him to move on with the hope he’d get over it on his own, but he never did. After a couple years, I let it go. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. So Justin having a date without someone interfering on his behalf was a big deal, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to stand in the way of it.

“No worries, dude. Hell, I might even swing out to the bar. Gotta know what sort of lady caught your attention enough to break your self-imposed celibacy,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood.

“All right, well, if you do stop out, don’t hesitate to come on over and say hi. I’ve got to go. Later,” Justin rushed out.

“See you later,” I said, ending the call.

I turned and took in my home. It was modest, and I’d built it myself after my father passed when I was nineteen. I’d never had a complaint about it, and now it just felt so empty. I knew exactly what was missing. It was her. In a matter of seconds, my whole world shifted and readjusted. The eagle was restless to lay eyes on the woman who’d captured our attention. Before I could stop myself, I was taking off out the back door and shedding my clothes as I went.

I let the eagle have my body. Luckily, I had been blessed with the gift to shift almost instantly if I really pushed it. Where my skin and hair had been was now long sleek feathers. My powerful wings beat hard, lifting me higher into the air until I broke through the trees. I could hear animals scurrying for shelter for almost a mile, knowing a predator was near, but I wasn’t hunting them. I was hunting her.

There were only two motels in town. Both sat on opposite edges of the town’s limits and frequently housed less than honorable folks. Mostly, it was a whole lot of unfaithful spouses and the occasional junkie or drunk holed up on a bender. If I was honest, the Ruby Slipper Motel was the dive between the two, and I hoped with everything in me she was intuitive enough to steer clear of that motel, but what did I really know about her?

Taking a chance, I headed to the Pine View Motel. The cold night air rushed over my feathers, carrying me to my destination like fate’s hand was guiding me. Everything was in razor sharp focus, and if I tried really hard, I could almost make out the spicy scent I’d come to know belonged to my mate. Agent Mendoza smelled like cinnamon and rich vanilla.

The wind was in my favor tonight. I could make out the faint glow of the Pine View Motel’s neon sign by the roadside in the distance. I needed to get closer to see if her truck was there, however it was imperative I stayed out of sight. When I got close enough, I ducked below the tree tops, dodging limbs and branches as I descended to the forest floor.

I came to a stop almost fifty yards from the road’s edge. The motel lay on the far side of the road, but it was the perfect vantage point. My talons dug into the soft dirt, holding me in place as I prepared to fold the bird back inside.

The popping was quick, and the pain, blinding. I bit down on the inside of my cheek to stifle my agonized cries. My bones and joints ached from shifting as much as I already had in the previous couple days. Most of the time, I’d only shift once a week, but with the last mission I’d gone out on and now, I’d shifted four times in two days, and I already knew I’d shift more.

Pushing through the mass of ferns and saplings, I made my way closer to the road while I tried to stay hidden. There’s no good explanation to give someone if they find you hanging out without a stitch of clothes on.

Her truck was parked at the end of the row of rooms. Billy, the motel clerk, was sneaking out to his car with a joint hanging out of his mouth. Not that I could expect much more from a twenty-year-old who had never grown up. Billy climbed into his rusted out Buick and took off down the road to the gas station. It was his nightly munchies run. Officer Mendoza’s room was dark, and from my distance, I couldn’t hear anything going on inside. Had she already gone to bed? It hadn’t been more than two hours since she’d been standing on my front porch.

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to imagine her sleeping form laying on her bed. I could see every feature perfectly; I’d already memorized every freckle and curve of her face. I pictured her face slack with sleep as her chest rose and fell gently. I wanted more than anything to be able to lay next to her and feel how perfectly she fit against me, but this would have to suffice until then.

She was safe, and that was all that mattered. If I could get away with it, I’d sit there and make sure she stayed safe. I’d gladly be her sentinel, but that wasn’t how life worked. Responsibilities weighed on me and demanded my time. Knowing she was tucked away for the night, I turned and strode deeper into the trees. I was about to shift when I knew I wasn’t the only creature here anymore. The woods fell silent all around me, but despite all of my attempts, I couldn’t catch a scent or glimpse of whatever was out there. It was probably just a bear down wind I told myself. Without giving it another thought, my body folded in on itself.

I was vulnerable on the ground, unable to move easily like I would in the air. Smelling the beast a little too late, I sensed something move in and swipe at me just as I got off the ground. Claws brushed my tail feathers, missing flesh. Even with my eyesight, I couldn’t see what was stalking me. I climbed higher into the air as I tried to put as much distance between it and me. The scent of fur filled my nostrils.

The animal moved quickly, slipping away before I could make out what it was. It had been massive, whatever it was, and without leaving marks, there was no way to figure out what it had been. It was a close call, too close. I’d been distracted and let my guard down, and in this world, letting your guard down meant you died. Survival of the fittest was very real to me.

Without wasting time, I headed straight for home. The woods were unsettling tonight. Even a few miles away, the forest was unusually quiet. Agent Mendoza’s words came back to me. She’d mentioned poachers. Perhaps they were in Elk Springs after all. If they’d already taken a kill, it would be reason enough for everything to fall quiet until it was safe. Still, something felt off, yet I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

I landed on my back deck and shifted before I’d come to a complete stop. Naked, I slipped into the house and picked up my discarded clothes. They smelled of wood and sweat, not the best thing to wear out in public. Close call or not, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to check out the new girl who’d piqued Justin’s fancy. Tossing the clothes in the hamper, I strode to my room and pulled a clean shirt and jeans from the dresser and quickly dressed.

Within fifteen minutes, I was in my truck and heading toward the Moose Jaw. The drive was a short one, but it was practically instantaneous with my mind so filled with images of Agent Mendoza. I didn’t even know what her first name was, but the connection was a real one. I hadn’t missed the way her eyes roved over every inch of me when I’d answered the door. Nor had I missed the faint scent of arousal that seeped from her. It had almost driven me to shift on the spot.

Before I knew it, I had rolled into the parking lot of the crowded bar. In such a small town, there wasn’t anything else to do but go to the Moose Jaw. It was almost always a high school reunion, but none of us had ever left the area and were so used to seeing each other out and about, no one batted an eye.

It was a small brick building that had been painted at least a dozen times with grey being the most recent choice. The parking lot was full like it was every night. Cars had even begun to spill over onto the grass. Justin’s jacked up Jeep sat on the edge of the pavement, sitting a good foot taller than any other. I parked my truck on the grass and strode for the door.

When I’d almost reached the door, I froze. There was that tantalizing scent again. Cinnamon and vanilla. It was gone as fast as it came.

Shaking my head, I pulled open the door and walked into the bustling bar. A band of middle aged men were playing something twangy I’d never heard before. A dozen different scents assaulted my senses; it was exactly the reason I tended to avoid places that were so crowded. It put me on edge.

The tables were full of chattering people and abandoned bottles of beer. Stickers and metal signs covered the walls of the Moose Jaw with only a few lights left still working. It was a dive if I’d ever seen one.

Squeezing between throngs of people, I made my way to the bar and ordered a beer. Justin was in the far corner of the room with a brunette whose back was to me. He caught my eye and gave a little nod. I raised my beer and winked. I hoped for his sake it worked out for him.

Taking a quick swig of my beer, I was about to go check out who was with Justin and give her a proper introduction when I saw him heading in my direction. When he was almost halfway to me, a small woman stepped in front of him. The two collided. I snorted back a chuckle until I noticed who he’d bumped in to. His face was full of shock for about half a second before his notorious shit-eating grin slid into place.

Agent Mendoza put her hand out, making sure Justin was all right. She looked to be apologizing, and so was he. He gave me a quick glance and shrugged. I couldn’t make out what they were saying with the noise from the crowd. Justin’s charming grin made the dimple in his cheek really pop. My blood was close to boiling. She laughed at something he said. Acid churned in my gut. If I didn’t like him so damn much, I’d have ripped his throat out through his ass.

I didn’t think, just moved. I strode right for the pair of them. She giggled, full blown school girl giggles…at him. I couldn’t fault her, but Justin, on the other hand, knew exactly what she was to me. I’d made myself explicitly clear that she was mine.

“Can I get you a drink?” Justin asked sweetly, leaning in closer to her so she could hear him easily.

“I need to talk to you,” I growled at Justin, gritting my teeth together. “Now.”

“I’ll be right back sweetness,” he said as smooth as caramel.

Motherfucker was just daring me to knock him the fuck out.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I demanded, ensuring we were far enough away Agent Mendoza wouldn’t hear.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t play stupid, J. I’m barely holding onto control here, and with the mood I’m in right now, I would fucking end you.”

“T, you were never going to make a move and talk to the girl. You fucking know that. If you weren’t going to grow a pair and talk to your mate, then someone fucking had to.”

“Is everything all right here?” Agent Mendoza asked, sliding around me and coming to a stop between Justin and me.

“Fine,” I fumed.

“Oh, would you look at that! He talks,” she teased.

When I didn’t respond, her light mood shifted, and she began to smell angry.

“I guess not saying anything is better than slamming a door in my face. So, what do you say, Justin Willard? Would you like to buy me a drink?” she suggested, trailing her fingers up Justin’s forearm seductively.

“I’ll never turn down the opportunity to buy a pretty lady a drink,” Justin said, holding his arm out for her to take.

That’s when I lost it. I saw red. Images of Justin going to town on my mate ran rampant in my head, visions of him touching her in ways that were meant for me and me alone. My fist flew hard and fast, colliding with Justin’s jaw.

He crumpled and dropped, dazed and confused as to what happened. Agent Mendoza stood there, mouth agape and eyes wide. The room fell silent momentarily while everyone waited to see what would happen next. To hell with it, if they wanted a show I was more than willing to give them one…especially if Justin got up and said the wrong thing.

“What the hell was that for?” Agent Mendoza screamed, dropping to her knees and checking over Justin. “What’s wrong with you?”

I shrugged. “Sorry, but he had it coming.”

Agent Mendoza looked at me like I’d spoken Greek and she couldn’t comprehend what I was saying.

Justin finally regained his bearings and staggered to his feet. His lip was split and bleeding. It took everything in me not to hit him again.

“It’s all right. I was out of line, and he had every right to hit me although, I’m not sure he needed to draw blood,” Justin chided. “I’m sorry, Genevieve. I need to get back to the person I came here with.”


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