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Swarms of black flies tried to find a way past the netting around Bree Nicholls's head. Every inch of her body was swathed in some kind of covering in an effort to foil the insects, but from the stinging at her ankle, she knew some had breached her defenses. She paused and swatted at the biting pain. Michigan's Upper Peninsula might be the best place to live at other times, but June was pure misery in the deep woods.
Her German shepherd-chow search dog, Samson, wagged his curly tail in an effort to dispel the clouds of black flies buzzing around his head. He raced ahead of her, pausing occasionally to look behind as if to say, "Are you coming?"
Naomi O'Reilly, Bree's best friend and search-and-rescue partner, panted to keep up. "You think he's dead?" she asked.
Bree didn't pause to answer. It was a useless question anyway. The only way to answer that would be to find the body. She thrashed her way through the clinging blackberry bushes onto a small beach fronting Lake Michigan. The beach had managed to hold back the encroaching north woods and seemed almost hidden by the sunlight-choking tall trees surrounding it. The sandy area was already full of deputies and searchers. She scanned the shore for her brother-in-law, Sheriff Mason Kaleva, and saw his bulky form directing the searchers about to begin dragging the lake.
She almost groaned when she saw who was standing beside him. Ranger Kade Matthews's gaze met hers, and she wished she could leave. But this was a small community, and people already talked enough about their breakup. She tried to smile but feared it was more of a grimace when Kade's own expression darkened.
Samson bounded across the damp sand to greet him. Kade scratched the dog's ears, then walked away to join other rangers and Mason's deputies at the water's edge. As head of security on the Kitchigami Wildlife Preserve, he had every right to be here, Bree told herself, hurrying to join Mason and Samson. At least she wouldn't have to pretend nothing was wrong. But if this breakup had been the right thing, why did it hurt so much?
"Anything?" she asked Mason.
Mason shook his head. "This is a heck of a way to introduce the new residents to Rock Harbor. The chamber of commerce coaxed the lab to open here by painting a pretty picture of all the recreation in the Keweenaw. Now it will look like the area is unsafe."
"He might just be lost," Bree reminded him. "Maybe he never went out on the lake."
"He was due home four hours ago," Mason said. "His fishing gear is still by the water. Besides, he's a no-show at his son's fifth birthday party. Not like him at all, according to his wife."
She couldn't argue with that, and it didn't bode well. She glanced at her watch. Two o'clock. Her son, Davy, was at the party with his friend Timmy, Naomi's stepson. The sound of the waves seemed louder, and a few raindrops hit her arm. "Storm's coming. We'd better get out there."
Naomi and her dog, Charley, hurried toward her. None of the other Kitchigami K9 Search and Rescue members had arrived yet. Bree turned back to Mason. "You have a boat for us?"
Mason nodded his head toward a dinghy. "I thought you'd like something low to the water. It's got an engine as well as oars."
"Perfect. You have the scent article?" Mason handed her a paper bag. She unrolled it and then another paper bag inside the first one. "Come, Samson."
The dog eagerly sniffed the sock inside the bags then woofed softly. Bree handed the bag to Naomi, and Charley sniffed it as well. Both dogs turned and looked out toward the lake. Not a good sign. Bree had hoped the man had put in to shore somewhere. He was a scientist, not a sailor. Only people experienced with Lake Superior had any business out on its capricious waves.
Once they were in the boat, Mason shoved them off. Samson immediately went to the bow. The wind blew his thick, curly fur back from his head. "Find him, Samson," Bree urged. The dog whined, and his tail dropped between his legs. The hope of finding new resident Phil Taylor alive began to wane.
Naomi had the motor barely putt-putting along. She steered it slowly back and forth across the inlet near the beach. The clouds were already turning darker, and a drop or two of rain plopped into the water. Charley and Samson had their noses in the air. Samson gave a howl, then strained toward shore near an outcropping of rock called Three Indians.
"Over there!" Bree pointed and Naomi turned the boat.
Charley whined and turned his head back to look at Naomi. Samson howled again then launched himself into the four-foot swells. Biting at the water, he paddled toward the rocks.
"Samson, no!" The way the waves were pounding the rocks, Bree was afraid her dog would be tossed against the granite and killed. The dog hesitated then turned and paddled back to the boat.
"Over here," Bree shouted to Mason. "Bring the nets here." She tossed the anchor overboard and hauled Samson back into the boat. The average water temperature in Lake Superior was only forty degrees, and she shivered when seventy pounds of cold, wet dog landed next to her. She pulled a towel out of her ready-pack and began to dry him off.
Anything was better than facing what her dog's reaction might mean. Though she'd had her share of searches ending badly, she was never prepared when it happened. Rubbing the towel rhythmically over her dog's wet fur, she prayed for Phil Taylor's family.
"He's got a wife and three kids," Naomi said, her gaze on the boats beginning to drag the lake.
Bree nodded. "I met her at the Suomi last week when she invited the kids over for the birthday party. She seemed so sweet. Poor woman."
"You don't suppose he went swimming here, do you? It's too early in the season to even think of getting in that water. I wouldn't get in it until July."
"I don't know. Some people new to the area just don't know any better." Bree watched until one of the searchers shouted, then she turned her face away as the nets found what they were looking for.
Mason pulled his boat alongside Bree a few minutes later. "It's Phil. Your boys are at their house, right? You might as well come with me to tell his wife. I think she'll need a familiar face. She's so far from her family."
Bree wanted to refuse, but she hunched her shoulders and nodded.
The Taylors lived in a small cottage at the edge of Rock Harbor. A rental, the cottage seemed to cling for dear life to the thick woods behind it as it looked over a small cliff at Lake Superior's seasonal fury. The storm had passed by but the effects still lingered; monster waves crashed against the rocks below.
Children squealed in the yard, and Bree could see Davy stomping in a mud puddle. No matter how often she looked at her son, she marveled at the perfection of his compact body, a miniature version of his dead father. Her vision blurred as her gaze wandered to Adrian. He was fatherless now, too, but just didn't know it. Life seemed so unfair at times.
"Those boys are covered in mud." Naomi's voice was resigned.
Adults mingled with the children, and Bree glanced at her watch. "It's pickup time. Maybe we should wait until most of the people are gone to break the news to Denise."
Mason hesitated, then nodded. "I hope the storm didn't flood the mine where the new lab is set up. It's the craziest thing I've ever heard. Who in their right mind would try to grow plants inside a mine? And for what purpose when there are perfectly good places to grow it outside?"
"They're sure tight-lipped about it," Naomi agreed. "But MJ Pharmaceuticals must know what they're doing."
"You'd think so. Hilary was ecstatic when she heard they'd be employing nearly fifty people. Especially with her reelection coming up in a few months."
Naomi nodded. "She's always on top of everything. I wish she'd slow down."
Bree knew her sister-in-law would never do that. She and Rob, Bree's deceased husband, were as alike in temperament as they were in looks, both focused and driven when they attacked a project. "How is Hilary feeling? I haven't seen her since last week."
"Sick of taking it easy, but feeling pretty good. You should see the bedroom. She's transformed it into an office complete with fax machine. Her secretary comes there every morning. She's nearly four months along now. Just another two months, and we'll all breathe easier."
Denise was giving prizes out for the last game. She turned, and her expression changed when she saw Bree's Jeep. The one-year-old twins clutched her legs, one on each side. Kneeling, she scooped them up and came toward the car. Bree and Mason got out and waited for her.
"Did you find him?" Her lips trembled, and she pressed them together.
"Maybe we should go inside." Mason said.
She didn't seem to hear him. "Phil isn't usually so irresponsible. Did he say why he didn't let me know he would be home so late?"
Little Abby had her thumb in her mouth and smiled winningly at Bree. Alex began wailing, his fists rubbing his eyes.
"May I?" Bree held out her hands for the crying child. To her amazement, Alex came right to her and cuddled against her shoulder. With Davy now nearly five, it was hard to remember when he'd been this small.
"He's not usually so outgoing with strangers," Denise said. She shuffled Abby to the other hip. "Did Phil say what time he'd be home?" Her voice was high and jerky, and she didn't look at either Bree or Mason.
"Mrs. Taylor, I'm afraid I have some bad news," Mason began.
"Oh, don't tell me he wrecked the car." Denise gave a nervous laugh. "I told him he needed to get new tires before we moved up here."
"No, the car is fine. But I'm afraid Phil isn't. We found his body in Lake Superior, ma'am, just off Three Indians beach area."
Denise stared at them, her mouth slack. She blinked through glazed eyes. "Wha . . . what are you saying? Wait, I don't understand."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Taylor. I'm going to have to ask you to come down to the morgue and identify your husband's body."
Abby nearly slipped from Denise's grasp, and Naomi grabbed her.
Alex began to cry as his mother shrieked. "Shh, it's all right, little one," Bree whispered. But it wasn't. Nothing would be all right for this little family for a long time.
The adults and children turned at the sound of Denise's desperate cries. Mason took the widow's arm and helped her into the car.
"I'll take care of the children," Bree promised. "Just let the dogs out of the Jeep. I'll need Samson here."
Mason nodded and opened the back door for the dogs. Charley went to nose the ground at Naomi's feet while Samson jumped out and raced to join Davy. The little boy turned and caught sight of his mother. Worry rippled across his face, and he looked down at his wet, muddy clothes. Bree smiled at him, and his face cleared. He threw his arms around the dog and turned back to his friends.
"We should feed the babies and put them down for a nap," Naomi whispered.
Bree nodded. "Let's tell the others what is going on first. They have to be wondering."
Yancy Coppler lumbered toward her like a genial bear. Bree had liked the researcher the minute she'd met him. He reminded her of Santa Claus with his head of white hair and neatly trimmed beard. She'd heard he was still recovering from a nasty divorce, and she couldn't imagine a woman ditching him.
"Trouble?" he asked when he reached her.
She nodded. "Phil drowned in the lake."
He winced, and his pale blue eyes watered. "Ah, poor Denise." He glanced at the twins. "Is there anything I can do? The rest of Phil's team is here too." He blinked and rubbed his forehead.
"Just tend the kids until their parents pick them up," Naomi said.
"I can help with that," he promised. He hesitated. "Do we know what happened?"
Bree patted a wailing Alex on the back. "Looks like he drowned while fishing. Samson found him just off Three Indians rock."
A muscle worked in his jaw. "Phil was a great guy. We're going to miss him at the lab. He did all my computer work. I'm hopeless at it. I guess I'll have to break down and hire an assistant. But that's minor compared to what Denise and the kids will be going through."
Bree watched him walk slowly back to the adults huddled by the sidewalk. She recognized the other scientists on the team. Chito Yamamoto, the youngest of the researchers, took a step back when Yancy began to speak. A Japanese-American, Chito had a three-year-old daughter here at the party. Ian Baird, who had thinning blond hair and clothes that rarely matched, was distant and single, though from the glances he was sending Nora's way, he seemed eager to change that. Nora Corbit and Lola Marcos were also single, both in their fifties. Denise had told Bree they considered themselves grandmothers to the Taylor children. Bree hoped they'd be of special help to Denise now.
The head of the lab, Cassie Hecko, stood with her assistant, Salome Levy. They both stopped talking when Bree approached. The two older women glanced toward Bree and nodded, then turned to take charge of Adrian and his friends.
Bree and Naomi carried the squalling toddlers into the house. The kitchen's aromas of fresh-baked cake and hamburgers made Bree's stomach growl. She hadn't eaten today. After several minutes of rummaging through the cabinets for a cookie or something to distract them, she found saltine crackers. They both accepted one and began to quiet.
"Mum-mum-mum," Abby said.
"We'll go see Mommy in a minute," Bree assured her. It was nearly suppertime, so maybe they were hungry. Naomi found some jars of baby food in the cupboard and heated them in the microwave.
By the time they'd fed the children and settled them down with toys, the childish squeals and shouts from the front yard had abated. Bree and Naomi stepped onto the back porch. Davy, Timmy, and Adrian, the Taylor's five-year-old, played quietly with boats in a nearby mud puddle. The adults stood huddled together, talking softly.
Lola Marcos squeezed Bree's hand when she and Naomi joined the group. "Bless your heart, chiquita. Those poor children." Her gray hair, straight as seaweed, swung against her shoulders.
Nora Corbit was the opposite of Lola. Where Lola was round and soft, Nora was thin and sinewy. But her stern face wore the same expression of compassion. "I still can't believe it," she said.
Bree nodded. "Thanks for staying to help out." She heard Samson growl, a hostile sound she rarely heard from her good-natured dog. She whirled to see what was wrong. He approached the woods and stopped in a stiff-legged stance. His ears laid back, snarls like she'd never heard issued from his throat. Her gaze went past him to Davy, and she gulped.
A gray wolf was five feet from her son. Its teeth bared, it crouched as if to jump on the unsuspecting boy. A crushing weight on her chest smothered her warning, and only a strangled cry emerged. Time seemed to stop as she saw every detail of the wolf's menacing approach. A patch of hair was missing from its back right leg, and the pointed teeth it bared at her son seemed to grow.
She felt as though she moved against the power of Superior's waves as she sprang to grab Davy, but with an easy bound, Samson put himself between the wolf and her boy. He planted his body as a guard. His feet sank in the mud, and the growl he uttered was unlike any Bree had heard from her placid dog. He lunged at the wolf, and the wild animal drew back just before Samson's teeth would have sunk into its throat.
Bree's feet finally carried her to her son. She snatched Davy to her chest and ran to the cottage. Naomi was on her heels with Timmy in her arms. Lola had Adrian. With the children safe, Bree turned to watch. The wolf fell back then circled the dog. Samson seemed no match for the heavier, more muscular wolf, but stood firm. Its teeth snapping, the wolf leaped on Samson. The two animals melded into a snarling ball of fur with occasional flashes of bared fangs. The sound of snapping teeth nearly froze the blood in Bree's veins.
"Stay here!" Bree told everyone. She thrust Davy into Yancy's arms. She needed a weapon. Frantic now, she charged around the house to the Jeep. Her bear spray was in her ready-pack. She flung open the door and dragged the sack toward her. The battle behind her reached a frenzy. She upended the backpack and dumped the contents on the wet grass. Her hand finally closed around the bear spray. She popped the top off then rushed back to her dog.
But Samson needed no help. With a last growling lunge, his teeth clamped down on the wolf's leg. The wolf yelped and managed to struggle away, then crashed headlong to the woods. Samson started to go after him.
"Samson, no!" Bree shouted.
Her dog shook himself, then turned toward her and whined. He looked toward the woods and gave a final growl, then trotted to Bree, satisfaction and triumph in every line of his body.
Bree fell to her knees and embraced him. "Good boy," she cooed, running her hands over him. He had some bites that would need treatment, but he was too proud of himself to flinch when her hands touched the injuries.
"Man, that was really something!" Ian Baird rushed to where she knelt with the dog. "I've never seen a dogfight like that."
"What an incredible animal," Nora said. "He saved your little boy. That wolf would have had him in another second."
"I've never seen the like," Yancy panted, rushing to join them.
Bree buried her face in Samson's fur. He smelled of wet dog and blood. She felt disjointed, like she would fall apart if someone said another word. "I love you, Samson." He licked her face, and she began to cry. It was either let the tears fall or faint, and tears seemed the stronger of the two reactions.
"He's going to need tending," Naomi said. Her face was the color of the white beach below them. "You take him to the vet, and I'll stay here with the kids."
"Thanks." Bree managed to get to her feet. "Let me check on Davy first." She wanted to run her hands over him the same way she'd just done with Samson, to make sure he was all right. She hurried to the back door where the boys stood peering out. They were more excited than frightened.
Samson followed her into the kitchen. She wanted to pick him up, but knew she couldn't transfer her own fear to her son. Samson nudged her hand then stopped, his ruff raised. He whined and went to the back door. Sniffing the floor, he whined again then lifted his muzzle and howled. He tucked his tail between his legs and hunched down.
He was signaling a death scent.