En route to investigate an illegal crossing, Border Patrol agent Dante Thunder Horse's helicopter goes down in a fiery blaze. He makes it out of the wreckagejust barelyand tackles his assailant to the ground. Paleontologist Emma Jennings is no killerbut she's now in the crosshairs of one. Sworn to protect the woman who saved him, Dante needs to find out who shot him down and why.
When Emma accompanies Dante back to his Badlands ranch, where a vengeful enemy threatens his family and their proud heritage, she's in even more danger of falling for the brave Lakota pilot. But can there be a future with a man haunted by the past?
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check. Flat plains
check. Storm clouds rolling in
Like ticking off his preflight checklist, Dante Thunder Horse reviewed what was in front of him, a typical early winter day in North Dakota before the first real snowstorm of the season. It had been a strange December. Usually it snowed by Thanksgiving and the snow remained until well into April.
This year, the snow had come by Halloween and melted and still the ground hadn't yet grown solid with permafrost.
Based on the low temperature and the clouds rolling in, that first real snow was about to hit their area. The kids of Grand Forks would be excited. With the holidays just around the corner, they'd have their white Christmas after all.
A hundred miles away from base, flying the U.S.Canadian border as an air interdiction agent, or pilot, for the Customs and Border Protection, Dante was on a mission to check out a possible illegal border crossing called in by a concerned citizen. A farmer had seen a man on a snowmobile coming across the Canadian border.
He figured it was someone out joyriding who didn't realize he'd done anything wrong. Still, Dante had to check.
He didn't expect anything wild or dangerously crazy to happen. The Canadian border didn't have near the illegal crossings as the southern borders of the United States. Most of his sorties were spent enjoying the scenery and observing the occasional elk, moose or bear sighting.
Chris Biacowski, scheduled to fly copilot this sortie, had come down with the flu and called in sick.
Dante was okay with flying solo. He usually liked having the quiet time. Unless he started thinking about his past and what his future might have been had things worked out differently.
Three years prior, he'd been fighting Taliban in Afghanistan. He'd been engaged to Captain Samantha Olson, a personnel officer who'd been deployed at Bagram Airfield. Every chance he got he flew over to see her. They'd been planning their wedding and talking about what they'd put on their dream sheet for their next assignments.
After flying a particularly dangerous mission where his door gunner had taken a hit, Dante came back to base shaken and worried about his crew member. He stayed with the gunner until he was out of surgery. The gunner had survived.
But Dante's life would be forever changed. When he had left on his mission, his fiancée had decided to go with a few others to visit a local orphanage.
On the way back, her vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. Three of the four people on board the military vehicle had died instantly. Samantha had survived long enough to get a call through to the base. By the time medics arrived, she'd lost too much blood.
Dante had constructed images in his mind of Samantha lying on the ground, the uniform she'd been so proud to wear torn, a pool of her own blood soaking into the desert sand.
He'd thought through the chain of events over and over, wondering if he'd gone straight from his mission to Bagram, would Samantha have stayed inside the wire instead of venturing out? Had their talk about the babies they wanted spurred her to visit the children no one wanted? Those whose parents had been collateral damage or killed by the Taliban as warning or retribution?
Today was the third anniversary of her death. When Chris had called in sick, Dante couldn't cancel the flight, and he sure as hell couldn't stay at home with his memories haunting him.
For three years, he'd pored over the events of that day, wishing he could go back and change things so that Samantha was still there. How was he expected to get on with his life when her memory haunted him?
The only place he felt any peace whatsoever was soaring above the earth. Sometimes he felt closer to Samantha, as if he was skimming the underbelly of heaven.
As he neared the general area of the farm in the report, movement brought his mind back to earth. A dark shape exploded out of a copse of trees, moving swiftly into the open. It appeared to be a man on a snowmobile. The vehicle came to a halt in the middle of a wide-open field and the man dismounted.
Dante dropped lower and circled, trying to figure out what he was up to. About the time he keyed his mic to radio back to headquarters, he saw the man unstrap what appeared to be a long pipe from the back of his snowmobile and fit something into one end of it.
Recognition hit, and Dante's blood ran cold. He jerked the aircraft up as quickly as he could. But he was too late.
The man on the ground fired a rocket-propelled grenade.
Dante dodged left, but the grenade hit the tail and exploded. The helicopter lurched and shuddered. He tried to keep it steady, but the craft went into a rapid spin. Realizing his tail rudder had probably been destroyed, Dante had to land and if he didn't land level, the blades could hit first, break off and maybe even end his life.
The chopper spun, the centrifugal force making it difficult for Dante to think and move. He reached up and switched the engines off, but not soon enough. The aircraft plummeted to the ground, a blade hit first, broke off and slammed into the next blade. The skids slammed against the ground and Dante was thrown against the straps of his harness. He flung an arm over his face as fragments of the blades acted like flying shrapnel, piercing the chopper's body and windows. The helicopter rolled onto its side and stopped.
Suspended by his harness, Dante tried to key the mic on his radio to report his aircraft down. The usual static was absent, the aircraft lying as silent as death.
Dante dragged his headset off his head. Frigid wind blew through the shattered windows and the scent of fuel stung his nostrils.
The sound of an engine revving caught Dante's attention. The engine noise grew closer, moving toward his downed aircraft. Had the predator come to finish off his prey?
He scrambled for the harness releases, finally finding and pulling on the quick-release buckles. He dropped on his left side, pain knifing through his arm. Gritting his teeth, he scrambled to his knees on the door beneath him and attempted to reach up to push against the passenger door. Burning pain stabbed his left arm again and he dropped the arm and worked with his good arm to fling the passenger-side door open. It bounced on its hinges and smashed closed again, nearly crushing his fingers with the force.
He hunched his shoulder and nudged the door with it, pushing it open with a little less force. This time, the door remained open and he stood, his head rising above the body of the craft. As he took stock of the situation, a bullet pinged against the craft's fuselage.
Dante ducked. A snowmobile had come to a stop a hundred yards away, the rider bent over the handlebars, pointing a high-powered rifle in his direction. With nothing but the body of the helicopter between him and the bullets, Dante was a sitting duck.
He sniffed the acrid scent of aviation fuel growing more potent as the time passed and more bullets riddled the exterior of the craft. If he stayed inside the helicopter, he stood a chance of the craft bursting into flames and being burned alive. If the bullets sparked a fire, the fuel would burn. If the flames reached the tanks, it would create a tremendous explosion.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the bright orange flicker of a flame. In seconds, the ground surrounding his helicopter was a wall of fire.
Amid the roar of flames, the snowmobile revved and swooped closer.
Debating how long he should wait before throwing himself out on the ground, Dante could feel the heat of the flames against his cheeks. If he didn't leave soon, there wouldn't be anything left for the attacker to shoot.
The engine noise faded, drowned out by the roar of the fire.
With fire burning all around him, Dante pulled himself out of the fuselage one-armed and dropped to the ground. His shoulder hit a puddle of the flaming fuel and his jumpsuit ignited.
Rolling through the wall of flames, Dante couldn't get the flame to die out. His skin heated, the fuel was thoroughly soaked into the fabric. He rolled away from the flame, onto his back, unzipped the flight suit and shimmied out of it before the burning fabric melted and stuck to his skin.
Another bullet thunked into the earth beside Dante. Wearing nothing but thermal underwear, Dante rolled over in the snow, hugging the ground, giving his attacker very little target to aim at.
Covered in snow, with nothing to defend himself, Dante awaited his fate.
Emma Jennings had spent the morning bundled in her thermal underwear, snow pants, winter jacket, earmuffs and gloves, one of them fingerless. Yes, it was getting colder by the minute. Yes, she should have given up two days ago, but she felt like she was so close, and the longer she waited, the harder the ground got as permafrost transformed it from soft dirt to hard concrete.
The dig had been abandoned by everyone else months ago when school had started up again at the University of North Dakota. Emma came out on weekends hoping to get a little farther along. Fall had been unseasonably warm with only one snowfall in late October that had melted immediately. Six inches of snow had fallen three days ago and seemed in no hurry to melt, though the ground hadn't hardened yet. The next snowfall expected for that evening would be the clincher, with the predicted two feet of snow.
If she hadn't set up a tent around the dig site months ago, she never would have come. As it was, school was out and she'd come with her tiny trailer in tow, with the excuse that she needed to pull down the tent and stow it for the winter. If not for the steep roof, the tent would easily collapse under the twenty-four inches of white powder. Not to mention the relentless winds across the prairie would destroy the tent if it was left standing throughout the wicked North Dakota winter.
Each weekend since fall semester began had proved to be fair and Emma had gone out to dig until this weekend. Some had doubted there'd be snow for Christmas. Not Emma. She'd lived in North Dakota all her life, and never once in her twenty-six years had the snow missed North Dakota at Christmas.
So far, the dig had produced the lower jawbone of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Emma was certain if she kept digging, she'd find the skull of the animal nearby. The team of paleontologists and students who'd been on the dig all summer had unearthed neck bones, and near the end of the summer, the jawbone. The skull had to be close. She just needed a little more time.
There to tear down the tent before it was buried in knee-deep drifts, she'd ducked inside to find the ground smooth and dry and the dirt just as she'd left it the weekend before. She squatted to scratch away at the surface with a tool she'd left behind. Before she knew it, she'd succumbed to the lure of the dig. That had been two days ago.
Knowing she had to leave before the storm hit, she'd given herself half of the last day to dig. Immersed in her work, the sound of a helicopter cut through her intense concentration and she glanced at her watch. With a gasp, she realized just how long she'd been there and that it was nearing sunset of her last day on the site.
She still needed to get the tent down and stowed before dark. With a regretful glance at the ground, she pushed the flap back and ducked through. High clouds blocked out any chance for warmth or glare from the sun.
The thumping sound of blades churning the air drew her attention and she glanced at the sky. About a mile away, a green-and-white helicopter hovered low over the prairie.
From where she stood, she couldn't see what it was hovering over. The ground had a gentle rise and dip, making the chopper appear to be almost on the ground. Emma recognized the craft as one belonging to the Customs and Border Protection.
There was a unit based out of Grand Forks and she knew one of the pilots, Dante Thunder Horse, from when he'd taken classes at the university. A handsome Native American, he had caught her attention crossing campus, his long strides eating up the distance.
He'd taken one of her anthropology classes and they'd met in the student commons on a couple of occasions and discussed the university hockey team games. When he'd finally asked her out, she'd screwed up enough courage to take him up on it, suggesting a coffee shop where they'd talked and seemed to hit it off.
Then nothing. He hadn't called or asked her out for another date. He must have finished his coursework at the university because she hadn't run into him again. Nor did she see him crossing campus. She'd been disappointed when he hadn't called, but that was at the end of last spring. The summer had kept her so busy on the dig, she wouldn't have had time for a relationshipnot that she was any good at it anyway. Her longest one had lasted two months before her shyness had scared off the poor young man.
Emma wondered if Dante was the pilot flying today.
She marveled at how close the helicopter was. In all the vastness of the state, how likely was it that the aircraft would be hovering so near to the dig? Then again, the site was fairly close to the border and the CBP was tasked with protecting the northern border of the United States.
As Emma started to turn back to her tent to begin the job of tearing it down, a loud bang shook the air. Startled, she saw a flash in her peripheral vision from the direction of the helicopter. When she spun to see what had happened, the chopper was turning and turning. As if it was a top being spun faster and faster, it dropped lower and lower until it disappeared below the rise and a loud crunching sound ripped the air.
Her heart stopped for a second and then galloped against her ribs. The helicopter had crashed. As far away from civilization as they were, there wasn't a backup chopper that could get to the pilot faster than she could.
Abandoning her tent, she ran for the back of the trailer, flung open the utility door in the rear, dropped the ramp and climbed inside. She'd loaded the snowmobile on the off chance she couldn't get the truck all the way down the road to the dig. Fortunately, she'd been able to drive almost all the way to the site and had parked the truck and trailer on a hardstand of gravel the wind had blown free of snow near the edge of the eight-foot-deep dig site.
Praying the engine would start, she turned the key and pressed the start button. The rumble of the engine echoed off the inside of the trailer but then it died. The second time she hit the start button, the vehicle roared to life. Shifting to Reverse, she backed down the ramp and turned to face the direction the helicopter had crashed.
A tower of flames shot toward the sky, smoke rising in a plume.
Her pulse pounding, Emma raced across the snow, headed for the fire.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Emma Jennings is a professor and an independent young lady, used to relying only on herself, who is swept into a deadly situation that she is not skilled to handle. Dante Thunder Horse is a Border Patrol agent performing a routine investigation, when things spiral out of control, and a man who is used to being in control is left at the mercy of others, including Emma. There are wonderful twists and turns in this book that will keep you on the edge of your seat, asking yourself "what is going on?" Elle James' books always have wonderful plots, great characters, and just enough romance! Christmas at Thunder Horse Ranch has all of this and more and is a fantastic book. Christmas at Thunder Horse Ranch is Elle James' fourth book in the Thunder Horse series. However, you can read this as a stand alone book and will not have any problems following along with the characters or the plot. But, be forewarned, if you read this book, you will likely want to go out and buy the other books in this series as soon as you are finished. Just saying.... I received this book for free in exchange for a honest review, and it is a must read!
Dante Thunder Horse is out doing a border patrol on the North Dakota/Canadian Border solo, when an unknown enemy crashes his helicopter. Dante makes it out alive but the person trying to kill him hasn’t given up and starts shooting at him. Luckily Emma Jennings is in the area and stops the attack. Unfortunately this may now put her in danger as well. Dante and Emma head back to his ranch to lay low and figure out what is going on. As the two work together to keep everyone safe and find out who is doing this Emma discovers she has feeling for Dante but is he ready to move on from the loss he had in his past. Great well rounded story. Fast paced and action packed. The characters are colorful and fun. The chemistry between Dante and Emma is wonderful. I loved it.