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By Debra Brown
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA flash of camouflage through a stand of spruce, gunmetal reflecting afternoon sun. That's what had caught his attention, and was the reason he now found himself out of breath, scrambling up a hundred-yard stretch of loose volcanic scree toward a ridge topping eleven thousand feet.
This was not how he'd planned to spend his Sunday.
He sized a muddy boot print and considered that tracking a man was a hell of a lot easier than tracking an animal, especially over rugged terrain. Dead easy when the target was as green as this one obviously was.
A bald eagle circled overhead, checking him out. There were nests in the area, but those didn't concern him, not today. He paused and watched as the majestic bird dipped out of sight below the jagged tree line flanking the scree field.
The storm that had been building all morning had come to a head. Dark clouds slammed together in the sky above him. A whiff of ozone cut still air. Not unusual for late August. He resumed his climb, picking up the pace. When he topped the ridge and the sky opened, letting loose a torrent of rain, his effort was rewarded.
Twenty yards below him his prey crouched on a slab of basalt jutting into space over a thousand-foot drop-off. The man was as small as the muddy bootprint had indicated. Dressed in khaki, a baseball cap pulled backward over his head, he looked wrong, somehow. Certainly not what he'd expected.
Then again, it was hard to tell much about him from this distance. Freeing the forty-five holstered at his hip, he picked his way carefully down the loose rubble.
Wind shrieked up from the canyon below, eddying wildly, forcing rain into horizontal sheets that changed direction without warning and threatened to knock him off balance. He was drenched in seconds.
His target fared no better. The man used his hands for balance as he edged farther out onto the precipice. As the distance between them was swallowed up, the man's intention became clear, and his own suspicions were confirmed.
A black case, the kind used to house a high-powered rifle, held his attention as he negotiated the last few feet and stepped silently onto the wet volcanic slab where the man now crouched dangerously close to the edge.
It wasn't a straight shot to the bottom of the canyon, he remembered. Jagged rocks protruded from the cliff face all the way down, providing a natural staircase for animals. But no man, to his knowledge, had ever attempted the climb.
The rock was slippery, and the rain an icy torrent that pummeled him from every direction as he edged out behind the intruder. They were both soaked to the skin. He paused, a stride away, to swipe a hank of wet hair from his eyes.
Something wasn't right.
Khaki, he thought, tightening his gaze on the man's narrow shoulders. Khaki from head to toe. The target he'd been tracking for the past two hours had worn camouflage. He was sure of it. Predator gray, flecked with green and brown, perfect for their surroundings.
Lightning flashed as a bone-white hand shot toward the black case.
"Hold it right there!" He leveled his weapon. The man whipped his head around, and he found himself staring into clear blue eyes gone wide with shock.
A woman's eyes.
Thunder cracked behind them in a detonation so powerful it threw him off balance. He pitched forward, scrambling for purchase. The woman jumped back, realized her mistake, then grabbed his shirt to keep from slipping over the edge.
It was no good. She screamed as she went over. He hit the rock hard, prone. Just in time, he dropped the gun and caught her wrist.
This kind of thing wasn't in his job description.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught another movement, one he'd expected. Below them, on another basaltic slab, a rare woodland caribou leaped clear of the impending danger their presence forewarned.
The woman's cap blew off, jerking his attention back to their predicament. A tumble of blond hair whipped violently in the wind, framing her heart-shaped face. She gazed up at him in mute terror. He watched as her whole life flashed before her eyes.
A heartbeat later he pulled her up and rolled with her to safety. She was on top of him; they were both drenched. Lightning shattered the sky around them, rain beat down in sheets. She'd nearly killed them both, but all that registered was how warm she felt. Warm and soft.
"Wh-who are you?" Her voice was thin and shaky, her face inches from his. He stared at her, silent, as water dripped from her trembling lips onto his mouth.
After a quick fantasy about her with him in a dry place that was anywhere but here, he came to his senses. "Game warden," he clipped. He rolled her over, pinning her under his weight. "You're under arrest."
The terror in her eyes vanished. Confusion replaced it, then rage. "Get off me!"
She fought him, but knew it was useless. He outweighed her by a good eighty pounds. Straddling her, he gripped both her wrists in one hand, pinioning them over her head, then retrieved his gun.
"Wh-what are you doing?" Fear returned to her eyes. "Let me go!"
"Woodland caribou are protected. Poachers are prosecuted."
Rain beat at them. Another clap of thunder rent the air. The storm was a good one. He liked storms.
They made everything clean again, absolved nature of her sins. Too bad it wasn't that easy with people.
She blinked through a hank of dripping hair that obscured part of her face as his words sank in. "Poachers? You mean you think I'm a hunter?"
"Don't play me, lady, I'm not in the mood."
"Where is he?" She tried to get up, but he wouldn't let her. For a moment he thought she meant the man he'd seen earlier through the trees. Then she twisted around, her gaze sliding to the narrow protrusion of rock where the caribou had stood.
"That bull's long gone."
She swore. It surprised him. She didn't look like the swearing type. "It's your fault. If you hadn't - hey, wait a minute!"
Ignoring her protests, he dragged her, one-handed, away from the edge, propped her against a boulder, then motioned with his gun toward the black case. "I suppose you're going to tell me that's not a rifle."
She looked at him as if he were crazy. "That's what this is about?" She nodded at the case. "You think I'm a hunter and that's a rifle."
"A poacher," he corrected.
She sucked an angry breath, and he was suddenly aware of her small breasts pushing against the wet fabric of her shirt. She caught him looking, and abruptly crossed her arms over her chest.
"Open it." She nodded at the case.
"I intend to." His weapon still trained on her, he knelt in front of the case and flipped the latches. What he saw inside didn't register.
"That's right," she said. "It's a tripod."
Excerpted from Northern Exposure by Debra Brown Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.