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The three-legged dog with one torn ear raised his head, sniffing the air. When he looked at Kelly McKenzie, she could have sworn he gave her a canine smile. Kelly had rescued the mixed breed three months ago from the filthy backyard where he'd been kept, chained to a tree and nearly starved to death.
A bottle of Jack Daniels and ten dollars had been all it'd taken to persuade the mean-faced owner to part with the starving pup. No doubt the fury simmering in Kelly's green eyes had helped convince him. The guy was lucky Kelly hadn't shot him. Only the urgency of the dog's condition and the fact that she couldn't help any animals if she was locked in jail had prevented that. The rescue, the dog took precedence.
With skill and care and love, Kelly had nursed the abused canine back to health. After all, that's what she did. Her calling. She rescued hurt dogs, some of them so mistreated that they lashed out in kind, unable to accept or understand love or kindness.
But not this one. This one had wagged his crooked stump of a tail as Kelly'd unchained him from the tree and lifted him into her arms. Normally, a dog of his type would weigh at least fifty pounds. He'd probably tipped the scale at thirty, at most. He'd felt like a bag of bones.
Bringing him first to her vet, then home, she'd tended to him, with the same quiet patience she gave all of her bruised and battered animals. This one she'd named Lucky and he'd responded to food and lovemost likely received for the first time in his short lifewith a single-minded devotion. Fully healed both inside and out, he'd proven to be smart and sweet and forgiving. He appeared to have completely forgotten his horrible past. Always at her side, Lucky became Kelly's constant companion.
Or one of them. Glancing around at the six or seven dogs roaming the hilltop near her, she smiled. She always had several rescues she couldn't let go of and didn't rehome, because in one way or another, they were part of her. These beloved animals made up her personal dog pack, all the company she wanted or needed.
To say she kept to herself might have been the understatement of the year. But, by virtue of what she was, her solitary lifestyle wasn't even a choice, it was a necessity. Actually, she'd grown used to it. Truthfully, she was happy and didn't need anythingor anyoneelse.
She stood on her land, with her dogs, watching as the sun began to brighten the horizon, and knew that life was good and full. Here in Wyoming at sunrise, even in late summer, the early-morning breeze skated down off the mountains, snapping at her skin with a chilly bite. If any time of day made Kelly want to wax poetic, sunrise would be it.
Her cell phone rang, startling her. Fumbling to get it out of her pocket, she answered.
"Kelly McKenzie?" The thick Scottish brogue was instantly recognizable even though she hadn't spoken to her cousin Ian in years. Worse, this call was not only unprecedented, but strictly forbidden. Except in dire emergency.
"Ian? What's happened?" Kelly asked, gripping the phone. "Is my mother all right?" The last time she'd seen Rose, she'd been grieving over the death of Kelly's father, while faced with the necessity of sending the rest of her family away for good.
"Your mother is as well as can be expected, considering what's happened. It's Bonnie." Ian took a deep breath, audible over the crackling phone line. "Your sister's been captured. And no one can figure out who has her or where she's been taken."
Mac Lamonda despised driving in the rain. And of course, while on this assignment that he'd had to pull strings to get, right after his plane landed in the middle of nowhere Wyoming and he picked up the rental car, rain had begun to fall.
Big fat drops, the kind that almost hurt when they hit your skin. Cold, even though it was the end of August.
Naturally. He would have laughed at the irony if he wasn't so damn exhausted. Exhausted and on edge, verging on furiously giddy. Driving in the rain was bad luck. A frisson of remembrance skittered up the nape of his neck. People died. People had died, and he let himself remember that since, after all, he was on his way to finally start the wheels in motion to regain part of what he'd lost.
His wife, Maggie, had been killed in a car crash in the rain. The car had exploded and the fire had killed her. Her loss alone had nearly destroyed him, but when he'd emerged from the depths of grief to realize that her family had stolen their two children, their combined loss certainly had. The one thingthe only thingthat had kept him going was knowing he would get them back. He had to. Or die trying.
His target, the woman he was on his way to see in his official capacity of Pack Protector, this Kelly McKenzie, was a distant cousin to his wife. She also had a history of being resistant to anything Pack. Since he wasn't going to offer his help, like those who'd come before him, he really didn't care. It didn't even bother him that the very organization he'd taken an oath to serve had now become one he'd willingly betray.
He planned to use Kelly McKenzie as leverage to regain his children. Her for them. If need be, he'd eliminate her, just to show the rest of her thieving family that he meant business. He hoped it wouldn't come to that.
Getting her to let him in might be difficult, but subduing her would be easy. These Tearlachs tended to be a peaceful lot, or so his wife had always claimed.
As he pulled out onto the feeder road heading for the interstate, the rain became a steady downpour, then an outright deluge. In the space of thirty seconds, visibility went from fifty feet to ten, if that. Rain lashed at his compact rental car and he slowed to a crawl, wishing he had the luxury of exiting the freeway and holing up in a motel until the storm was over.
But no, with a fatalistic shrug, he knew he couldn't. Time was of the essence now. She'd let him in. She had to. Failure simply wasn't an option.
Heading east on I-25 out of Casper, he switched on the GPS unit. Though it took some time for the thing to hook up to the satellite, it finally did and the metallic voice came on, announcing his location and the instructions that he should remain on I-25 for 76.3 miles.
Of course. With a sigh, he switched on the radio and forced himself to mentally review the case file one more time, even though he already had the contents memorized.
Subjectfemale, age 28. NameKelly McKenzie. Single, no children, owner of a dog sanctuary and rehabilitation center in Wyoming.
And a Tearlach. Rarest of the rare, virtually an anomaly among their kind. So rare, few had even heard the term. Mac had, of course, though he didn't let on.
During the initial briefing, which had been highly classified, he'd pretended to be surprised to learn that Kelly McKenzie came from an entire family of her kind. When the Pack had learned of them twelve years ago, they'd begun negotiations with the Patriarch, one Douglas McKenzie, Kelly's father, now deceased.
Talks had reportedly been going well until tragedy had forced them to disperse and go into individual hiding. No one knew of Mac's connection with the Tearlachs, and for now, he wanted to keep it that way.
Once the family had scattered to the winds, Kelly was the only one they'd been able to locate, and only because of a chance encounter with a Pack newspaper reporter who'd known her father and had recognized her. The rest of her extended family had managed to stay hidden, despite extensive searches.
Mac knew how extensive. He'd searched privately as well, aware he'd never find his missing children unless he found them.
Meanwhile, the Protectors silently kept an eye on the lone representative of the McKenzie clan, attempting to make contact from time to time, always rebuffed, and always retreating to observe from a distance. Mac had pulled strings to be allowed to be sent to talk to her, preparing to go on his own if his request was denied. Luckily, it wasn't.
The Protectors wanted to have the Tearlachs as allies. After Douglas McKenzie's death, no one had emerged as a new leader, no one had stepped forward indicating they were willing to resume negotiations. So they had begun contacting Kelly, with the plan of remaining in the background, and letting her know they were available should she wish to form an alliance.
After all, they were The Protectors, the Pack equivalent of the CIA and FBI, all rolled into one. They were highly respected among all the Pack, especially now that they'd vanquished the corruption inside their own organization. They were certain that sooner or later, surely even Kelly McKenzie would welcome their assistance.
This time, Mac had been successful with his machinations and he had been sent as their representative. He was supposed to wine and dine and charm her, talk her into agreeing to take a tour of the Protector headquarters.
No one knew that he planned to get the truth out of her, one way or another, use her in whatever way possible to enable him to find his children and bring them home again.
After hanging up the phone, Kelly paced, restless. She had to come up with a plan, since apparently the rest of her family wanted only to continue their passive lives, remaining in hiding, doing nothing. Ian had said that as far as he knew, they were making no attempt to rescue her sister.
This shouldn't have surprised her. After all, these were the same people who'd refused to organize and avenge her father's death. Green and gullible at sixteen, Kelly had let them talk her out of her pain-filled, planned vendetta, aware as they so carefully pointed out that her father would have wanted her to live.
But no longer. This time, she refused to roll over and play dead. As long as there was a chance she could save Bonnie, she'd take it. Now all she had to do was formulate a method of attack and go for it. Since her father had taken pains to engineer their reputation as peace-loving sorts, no one would even expect it.
The Protectorsor whoever was responsiblewould pay.
The weather mirrored her mood, almost as though the downpour with its booming thunder and flashes of lightning fueled her inner turmoil. She blazed through one pot of coffee, started another, then mentally yanked herself up by the scruff of her neck and made herself stop. Overindulging in caffeine would only make things worse. She needed to be calm and focused in order to come up with a coherent plan of action.
The first thing she did was go online and purchase plane tickets to Canada. According to Ian, Bonnie had been living on Vancouver Island when she vanished.
Outside her window, nature raged. Still. Odd.
The force of the rainstorm didn't bother her. The duration did. In Wyoming, a sudden, swift downpour was common. One that lasted all day was not. An omen of things to come? She hoped not.
Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that something else was about to happen. One of her premonitions. Her family had called her the witch of the wood for that reason. Her premonitions usually were accurate.
Finding herself at the front window for the sixth time that day, she frowned. What the ? A soft blur of headlights cutting through the murk as they swung onto her long, narrow driveway.
Immediately, every nerve on alert, she located her pistol and loaded it with silver bullets. Were her sister's attackers now coming to attempt to take her? Holstering the gun, she shook her head and bared her teeth. Let them. She'd make sure they died trying.
As the unfamiliar vehicle slowly approached, one by one her dogs came to attention, climbing to their feet, cocking their heads and adapting various poses of alert anticipation. Eerily still, they listened as though they could hear what, in her human form, she could only anticipate.
Closing them off in the den, she went to the front door and opened it. Standing in the doorway, under the overhang, she drew her weapon and watched as the rain-lashed car coasted to a stop in front of her garage. Since she didn't know exactly what to expect, she was ready for just about anything.
She knew one thing. If her visitor thought she'd go without a battle, they had another think coming.
Annoyed and tense, she watched as her unwanted visitor opened the car door. Without an umbrella, the tall, broad-shouldered figure, unmistakably male, pulled up the hood of his jacket as protection against the downpour before striding up the path toward Kelly. She noted he didn't even flinch as the brisk wind slapped the cold rain at him like a sodden whip. Something about his bearing said military. Great. Another one of those Protectors. The last thing she wanted or needed.
As the stranger stepped up onto her covered porch and lowered his hood, Kelly got her second shock of the day. Even drenched, the man was beautiful. Breathtakingly, stop-your-heart gorgeous. Worse, she'd seen his face somewherein her dreams perhaps? She didn't remember.
To her disbelief, she felt her body stir to life deep inside. While she tried to grapple with this unpleasant surprise, she drew her weapon, pointing it directly at his heart.
"Inside," she ordered. "Hands where I can see them."
He blinked, clearly shocked. As he raised his hands, she saw a muscle working in his jaw, revealing his anger, as he stepped into her foyer.
"Who are you and what do you want?" she snarled, kicking the door shut behind him.