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Deputy Sheriff Kathlene Baylor steered down the narrow, tree-lined lane toward the entrance to Clifford Cabins, a rustic motel a few miles out of town. She was driving her personal car, a silver SUV, rather than an official Clifford County, Montana, Sheriff's Department vehicle, despite being in uniform. It was late afternoon, and she was off duty. If she'd had time to go home and change, she would have.
But she was too eager for the pending meeting to incur any further delay.
This outing was definitely not an official activity, though. In fact, it was just the opposite. Even though it should look, to anyone who might be paying attention to her, as if she was just dashing off to go meet up with an old friend.
Kathlene always considered herself a by-the-book, dedicated lawenforcement officer. But that was before.
Now she was too concerned about what was going on in Clifford County to do nothing, even though her boss, Sheriff Melton Frawley, was certain that she was wrong. That she was "worrying her pretty little head about nothing," was the way he put it.
She sniffed at the very thought of the way the whole department was encouraged by Melton to return to old, antiquated ways, when women weren't skilled and respected officers of the law, but handy cooks and cleaners who also entertained their men in bed.
She would have complained, claimed discrimination to the County Counsel, the City Attorney of Cliffords-ville, or anyone else who would listen. Problem was, no one with any clout cared.
Well, maybe she had no clout, but she wasn't about to just sit there and let her county be overrun by anarchists.
She slowed down when she saw a small deer darting through the underbrush toward the road. Good move, she thought as the animal stopped, then leaped back into the woods. She wasn't a hunter but there were a lot of them around. Some legitimate.
The others were the ones who worried her.
At least their encampment was a few more miles down this road. And that deerplus, much more important, the humans around heremight survive if what she believed was true, and the people she was going to see helped her do something about it.
There. She had reached the sign identifying the winding drive to the Clifford Cabins. She turned and headed toward them.
She'd received a call. Help had arrived.
She only hoped they would really figure out what was going onand the situation was thereafter fixed appropriately.
A knock sounded on the cabin door. Right on time, Lieutenant Jock Larabey thought.
"Want me to get it?" His aide, Staff Sergeant Ralf Nunnoz, glanced toward Jock. Like his superior officer, he was dressed casually, with no indication that either one of them was in the military, let alone part of Alpha Force. Ralf had on well-worn jeans with a Seattle Sea-hawks T-shirt, since they were supposed to have driven from Washington State to drop in and see Jock's supposed long-term friend Kathlene Baylor before heading for Yellowstone National Park. Ralf's hair was short, of course, as was Jock's, but there was no other indication of their background.
"You're sure Click is hidden well?" Jock asked. He didn't want his cover dog seen, particularly this early in the assignment.
All Alpha Force shapeshifting members had cover dogs that resembled them in their changed forms, and Click looked a lot like a wolf, which was ideal. Jock was a werewolf.
"He's locked in the cabin next door with some beef jerky treats to keep him occupied for now." Even though Kathlene had reserved this cabin on their behalf, Jock had Ralf book another one next door in case they needed additional space. And cover. Like now.
"Good. Then let her in."
Ralf approached the wide wooden door attached to the cabin's fake log walls and opened it. "Jock?" said a woman's voice in a low, husky tone.
"You must be Jock's friend Kathlene," Ralf said more loudly, obviously in case there was anyone outside eavesdropping. "Come in. I'm his good friend Ralf Nunnoz."
"Good to meet you, Ralf." The female voice was louder now, too. Higher in tone, as well, in her apparent embarrassment.
The woman who had to be Kathlene Baylor, deputy sheriff of the local Montana county and seeker of Alpha Force help, walked in the door, looked around and approached Jock.
Not that she truly knew what Alpha Force was about. Jock was certain of that.
"Hi," she said, sounding relieved now as Ralf shut the door behind her. "Jock? I'm Kathlene."
"Good to see you, buddy," he said, donning their cover as if it was who they all truly were. He strode over to the woman and, ignoring her unappealing lawenforcement uniform, gave her a big hug.
She was tall, though not as tall as he was. She was slender. And those curveshis body reacted immediately as if their cover was that they were long-separated lovers instead of friends.
Hell, if he had known her in the past they would have been more than friends. He'd have had sex with her as fast as he could have seduced her.
But not now. They had a joint mission to accomplish. One that, if she was correct about what was going on around here, definitely needed Alpha Force's unique touch to straighten it out. And if Kathlene found out the truth about him, he felt sure that making love with him would be the last thing she would ever want.
Unless his seduction could convince her otherwise
She backed up. Quickly. Her face was flushed. She was one good-looking woman, despite how severely her dark hair was pulled back from those reddened cheeks.
That face didn't need adornment. It was smooth, with sexy, full lips and sparkling eyes that peered out from beneath black brows that helped to frame them.
Her gray uniform wasn't the sexiest thing he had ever seen a woman wearand yet Kathlene filled it out in all the right places. A definitely appealing bustlineas he had felt pressed against him. A small waist.
Of course the holster she wore at her hip didn't exactly turn him on, but it went with the rest of her gear. He wondered where her weapon was, figured she'd locked it up since she wasn't currently on duty, or so he assumed.
But admiring heror notwasn't why Ralf and he had come.
Right now he needed to get this woman's description of what was going on here.
And then Alpha Force could get to work.
Jock Larabey. Her old college buddy. Or so the rest of the world should believe.
The guy did look military, muscles bulging from beneath his snug University of Montana T-shirt. It appeared that he had indeed come here prepared to play the cover-story role they had decided on. They were supposed to have gone to the U of M, Missoula campus, at the same time and become friends there.
That was, in fact, the part of the state where she had grown up. And then had her life turned utterly upside down, when her parents
No. She wouldn't think about that now. It was why she hadn't actually remained friends with people she had known back then, but she didn't tell anyone that.
And at the moment, she had something a lot more pressing to think about. But she hadn't expected someone as hot-looking as this man, with his wide shoulders, chiseled face and sexy hint of pale brown facial hair. His piercing hazel eyes surveyed her as if assessing whether she, too, was all she was cracked up to be. She forced herself to smile and was rewarded with a grin that suggested he had been assessing more than that about her.
And that hug? Appropriate for the situation, sure, but it had set her insides very inappropriately on fire.
She had to back away from those kinds of thoughts. Cool off. Or at least try to.
"We need to talk, Kathlene," Jock said.
She glanced toward the door. It was closed, and the other man, Ralf, stood nearby. They could, in fact, talk now.
"I know what the story is that you described to get Alpha Force's interest," Jock continued, "but I want to hear it directly from you."
This could take a while. She glanced around for someplace to sit. This cabin was as rustic in here as it was outside. Near one wall there were a couple of narrow beds with green plaid blankets, pale green sheets and pillows with matching covers.
Beds? Her mind again darted to that hug and the feel of his body against her. She quickly looked away.
In one corner was a kitchenette, and beside it a small table with two chairs. Should she sit there with Jock to go over the situation? Safer than anywhere near the beds, of course.
But what about Ralf?
Good thing he was still around. That also helped Kathlene focus on what was important, and not how her libido had been stoked.
Ralf stood near Jock, arms crossed, watching her. He was shorter than Jock and not quite as muscular, but he, too, looked strong. The gray in his black hair was surprising since he didn't look older than mid-thirties, only a few years older than Kathlene. Ralf's facial features were wide and suggested, like his last name, a Hispanic background. Like Jock, his casual outfit didn't even hint that he was currently in the military and on assignment.
Jock must have caught her indecision. He gestured with one muscular arm toward the table. "You and I can sit there, and Ralf will hang out near us."
Ralf strode toward the nearest wall and leaned against it, arms crossed over his chest. It appeared that he was used to taking orders from Jock. All Kathlene had been told about them was that they were members of a covert military unit called Alpha Force, her "friend" Jock was a lieutenant and he would be accompanied by a noncommissioned officer.
She only hoped that the two of them could at least provide whatever juice was needed to bring in more help if needed.
And she expected it would be.
For now she, like Ralf, followed the sort-of instructions that Jock gave and sat at the table.
And decided how best to begin this conversation.
Jock sent Ralf to the kitchen area to grab bottles of water for all of them. Until he rejoined them, this would be a good time to learn Kathlene's background.
Like, did she believe in shapeshifters?
He laughed internally at the thought. That was a question that would never get asked.
As she spoke, she told him she had always lived in Montana, moving from Missoula after college.
Despite their cover story, Jock had never been in Montana before. He had grown up in Wisconsin, another state where there were more rural areas than city life. Where wilderness was the primary topography.
That was where his family had settled long ago. The remoteness helped to hide what they were. But what he was had made him gravitate toward the U.S. Military as soon as he first heard of Alpha Force.
Ralf returned and placed a bottle of water on the smooth but unpolished wooden table before each of them.
"Here's to our success in resolving the Clifford County situation," Jock said, raising his bottle.
"I'll drink to that," Kathlene said. Ralf joined them in their alcohol-free toast. The look on Kathlene's face nevertheless appeared strained, as if she doubted they in fact would be successful.
If so, he intended to surprise her. In many ways.
Right now it was time to really get down to business. And talk.
And make sure he ignored how much lust he felt for this lovely, obviously determined woman.
Kathlene started their conversation after downing a drink of water. "I chose this motel for you to stay in," she said, "because the former ranch where the people I believe are anarchists are gathering isn't far from here."
"Yes, the anarchists," Jock said. "Why we're here. I'd like you to tell us why you think that's who they are. I've looked at the file that was started on this matter before Alpha Force was called in, but as I said I want your version."
"Of course." She seemed to hesitate, but only for a second. And there was nothing at all hesitant in the strong, sure glare of her blue eyes. "I could be wrong about the whole thing but I don't think so. The number of people at the apparent conclave, all men as far as I can tell, keep increasing. They stay mostly to themselves but when I've headed in the direction of the formerly abandoned ranch where they live, I've sometimes heard gunshots."
"It's late summer," Ralf said from behind them. "Isn't it hunting season for something?"
"The season for large game like elk, moose and all tends to start in late September. But when any members of this group have come into town, they seem to make it a point of saying they've been holding target practice to be ready when the season starts."
"That target practice could also be with the intent of hunting more than wildlife," Jock said.
That was the crux of their involvement here. They would find out about what these hunters, or whatever they were, were up to.
And stop them if necessary.
Perhaps in the form of an animal they otherwise would hunt. A wolf.
Jock glanced at Ralf, who nodded. He undoubtedly knew exactly what Jock was thinking.
The sudden glance between Jock and Ralf stoked Kathlene's curiosity. This man wasn't a fan of hunting? His look of displeasure actually pleased Kathlene. She might have gone into law enforcement, but her intent was to save as many lives as possible, human and animal.
Especially human. That was the reason she had become a deputy sheriff. She knew more than most people what it was like to lose loved ones to unanticipated and unnecessary violence.
"What about wolves?" Ralf asked. "Are they fair game?"
"Yes, sometimes," Kathlene said. "I'm not sure what the season for them is this year."
"Oh," Jock said.
Kathlene couldn't quite figure out what his tone meantirony? Anger? A challenge of some kind?
But she had been saving her biggest concern for last. "It's not only multiple rounds of gunshots I've heard near that old ranch area," she said. "And I think this is what actually got the military's attention. There have been explosions, too. Small ones, but more than just shots being fired."
Her boss, the sheriff, had only shaken his head when she'd mentioned them. Told her she had one hell of a female imagination.
In essence, told her to bug off and maybe respond to some phone calls from senior citizens who called the cops claiming they heard things because they wanted some attention.
Like she supposedly was doing despite her lesser age.
"Interesting," Jock said. He asked her questionscogent ones that indicated he actually believed her, which made her feel a lot better than it should.
But she managed to explain her own patrol dutiesboth assigned by the department and assumed by herself because of her concern about the growing number of apparent hunters hanging out at the old ranch that had been unused for years but apparently had been purchased recently by a relative of one of the men now living there, according to public records. Or at least it had been purchased by someone with the last name Tisal, but not Nate Tisal, the guy who apparently was in charge of the group.
"If anything, they could be terrorists and not also anarchists," she said, "but when I've spoken with any of them, which is rare, their comments suggest that they hate any kind of authority, not only local."
"If they're either," Jock said, "we need to confirm it and shut them down before anyone's hurt."
"Definitely," Kathlene said. "One thing I'm particularly concerned about is that there have been threats made against at least some of the Clifford County Commissioners. A friend of mine who's a commissioner told me about some anonymous emails with sources that couldn't be traced, as well as actual letters mailed to the County Administration Building from other parts of the country. They apparently tell the commission to back off from enacting some laws currently under consideration that would help enforce state regulations to protect wildlife and require the arrest of poachers. The sheriff said he's got some officers looking into it but nothing's been found so far. It's not certain that the anarchists are to blame, of coursebut with the timing and all, that's my suspicion."
"Got it," Jock said. "We'll look into that, too. Right now, though, let's go over our cover story."
"Yeah," Ralf said. He'd been leaning against the cabin wall beside the table sipping water. "Jock's your old buddy, and we're both insurance salesmen from Seattle, which is where Jock supposedly lives these days, too. Don't we look like insurance salesmen?" He mugged a little toward Kathlene and she laughed.