Thursday, December 29, 2022

Guarding Leah: Brotherhood Protectors World by Regan Black

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Some battles don’t have a winner--only survivors.

Wade Fielding turned tragedy into a career--going up against man and nature as a search and rescue specialist with the 10th Mountain Division. He and his team have saved countless lives through the years, yet the scars on his heart remain.

For Wade, joining the Brotherhood Protectors of West Yellowstone means a fresh start in brand new territory with unexpected challenges, both natural and man-made.

So why does the camaraderie leave him feeling more alone than ever?

When Leah Williams, a local wolf researcher, goes missing during a storm, Wade is tasked with her rescue. The trail leads him to a nearly-frozen woman who refuses to come in from the cold, despite the gunman trying to kill her to guard dangerous secrets.

Wade is fascinated by Leah’s determination to save wild wolves from an illegal breeder creating hybrids for an elusive buyer. Her courage and passion ignite his protective instincts as well as an unprecedented desire.

To rescue the wolves essential to the natural order and the captivating woman he’s falling for, Wade will push himself to the brink.

This time, he vows to do more than survive.

Chapter 1

It was murder, pure and simple. Her heart cracked, sorrow spilling through her entire body, leaving her stomach in knots and her hands balled into fists. Never easy to bear witness to a senseless death. Didn’t matter that the lifeless body was four-legged rather than human. Worse yet, this was murder compounded by kidnapping. 

As the hot lick of temper burned through her first layer of grief, Leah Williams silently vowed to find justice.  

She’d been working undercover in and around Yellowstone National Park for months in an effort to find and break up an exotic pet ring. The secretive, criminal team had stolen young wolves, selling them to people with more money than sense as unique pets and status symbols. That was dreadful enough, considering the ongoing struggle for healthy wolf conservation, but lately, new hybrid wolf-dogs had shown up in veterinarian offices across the country.  

The leads were wispy at best. As the days passed, Leah worried the case was slipping through her fingers. Most days she felt as if she were chasing ghosts and rumors that would never amount to justice for these beautiful animals. 

Experience had taught her how difficult it was to overcome rumors.  

Tears blurred her vision as she knelt beside the body of the dead wolf. Male, prime of his life. She swiped at her face. “I’ll find them, I promise.” And she would make them pay for this horrid, inexcusable destruction. 

People had all sorts of opinions about gray wolf conservation. For Leah, daughter of a veterinarian and an ecology professor, the bottom line was simple: healthy predators were essential for balance within every ecosystem. Incidents like this only twisted an already delicate issue and cast more shadows over the ongoing efforts to protect the wolves. 

She sniffed back another wave of tears and looked up at the hazy sky. Crying had to wait. Right now she needed clear vision to study the scene and, with luck, pick up a trail. There were prints all over, mature wolves along with the smaller tracks of younger pups. They had been ambushed as they came out of the trees. 

The dead male wouldn’t have led a training hunt alone, which meant it was likely other mature wolves were either wounded or had been taken along with the juveniles that fetched the highest prices for the poachers. The wolves didn’t know it, but Leah was their best chance of being reunited with the pack. 

It was a brazen person who shot and killed a GPS-collared wolf. The device was impossible to miss. The lure of the payout for the wolves clearly overrode all common sense. The brutality and greed of such a wasteful act scraped against everything Leah held dear.  

A cold wind pushed at her as she scanned the area, trying to get a sense of how the thieves had attacked this hunting party. In addition to tracking collars, the Yellowstone Heritage Research Center used trail cameras and drone flights to locate and track the wolf packs. A drone operating a regularly scheduled sweep of the area had spotted the dead wolf. Leah had volunteered to come investigate. 

She stalked back to where she’d left her ATV and pulled a camera from her supply kit. Documenting the scene took time and focus. There were tracks everywhere, including flattened areas where wolves must have sluggishly dropped from being hit with a tranquilizer. There was no sign of a dead animal laced with a sedative to lure the wolves here. For Leah that meant two shooters, minimum. One to kill, one to tranquilize. And how did they haul away the drugged wolves? 

Before fury could blind her, she forced herself to find any possible silver lining. At least the wolves stolen weren’t young pups. A few were surely young, but all were hearty. Every animal caught in this ambush was part of the greater pack. Each individual knew the rendezvous site and their place within the pack as a whole. And they would resume those places, those strong ties with the pack, once Leah rescued them. 

Bonus, she realized, the shooters were now stuck with the difficult task of moving the heavy, unconscious grown wolves. That would slow them down, giving her a welcome advantage. 

Leah cleared the emotion from her throat and chest before she radioed back to the research center. “I found the scene,” she said. “One wolf dead, possibly other adults injured. Wolf tracks lead southwest. I believe several wolves are gone.”  

“Gone?” Bobby Tremaine was on the other end of the radio and in that one word, she heard all the sorrow she felt pressing down onto her shoulders. “You mean killed?”  

“No,” Leah reported. “Taken. Stolen,” she clarified. “Only one wolf body is here at the scene. Very little scavenging so far.” 

Bobby swore. A graduate student, passionate about ecology conservation, he had joined the research team a few months before Leah. He had been operating the drone that spotted the downed wolf. “The crew was organized.” 

“Yes,” she confirmed. “They worked quickly. At least two of them, possibly more,” she added. “Though I haven’t sorted out the human tracks yet.” It made sense to her that the two shooters would’ve needed more help to move the wolves out so fast. The missing wolves probably weighed at least ninety pounds each. 

“Send pictures.” 

The flat, no-nonsense order from him made her smile. He wasn’t exactly her superior on the chain of command, but she understood the same need for justice pushed both of them. Bobby, along with pretty much everyone else in and around West Yellowstone, had been on her suspect list when she’d arrived. It hadn’t taken her long to rule him out, especially with an assist from one of the research and technology specialists her actual employers kept on the payroll. 

The Guardian Agency, a discreet personal protection and investigations service managed by the law firm of Gamble and Swann had reached out to her, giving her a fresh start when she’d hit rock bottom and been forced to give up her dream of becoming a veterinarian. The new career path had been an adjustment, but she liked the variety of the work and—finally—enjoyed the satisfaction of making a difference. 

Since becoming a protector, most of her cases involved watching over people, but she’d leapt at the chance to intervene on behalf of the wolves.  

Keeping her secrets had been easier than she’d anticipated as she adjusted and blended into the small town life of West Yellowstone. In general, the people were friendly without being too nosy and her cover story, thanks again to an agency specialist, was rock solid. 

“I will. And I’ll send them while I have a signal, before I move on,” she promised.  

“Move on? No,” Bobby protested. “You need to wait for backup.” 

Then what had been the point of her driving out here immediately? Of course, Bobby didn’t know that her interests, training, and orders went beyond her daily tasks at the center. 

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m only looking for any signs of a trail. I won’t go far.” 

“You’d better not. Weather is rolling your way,” Bobby warned. 

She studied the horizon, noticed the heavy gray clouds gathering. It was always a good day for snow in Yellowstone. “I’ll be careful.” 

Weather out here could shift in a blink. Her supply kit was stocked, she had the radio, and she knew how to protect herself from human and natural threats. 

The successful breeding and growth of this pack were a big win for conservation and the gray wolf population overall. She had to try and find the thieves, rescue the wolves. That was the first priority. Second was getting information. If she caught up with the thieves, caught them with the wolves, she’d have leverage that could get her to the next step of this operation. Even with the help from Guardian Agency researchers, they didn’t yet have a name or likely location for the cross-breeding operation. 

Rumors and ghosts. This was her best chance to change that. 

“Radio is on if you need me,” she told Bobby. But she was done discussing it. “Pictures on the way.”  

She clipped the radio back onto her belt and carefully walked another circuit of the scene. It wasn’t easy. There had been more snow overnight, and a few small scavengers taking advantage of the unexpected meal. At last, Leah found a boot print near one of the subtle depressions where a wolf had been knocked out. 

Oh, yeah. Taking more pictures, she spotted the bright pink tail piece of a tranquilizer dart. She photographed it carefully before she wrapped it to preserve any evidence and stowed it in her kit.  

“Bastards,” she grumbled. “You’ll pay,” she vowed to the big, wide open sky stretching overhead. 

Her protection assignments had taken her to several fascinating locations. She’d enjoyed herself, but she’d simply fallen in love with this unexpectedly rugged and beautiful part of the world. When she’d taken on this assignment it had been a pure rush of wonder and joy. Working in Yellowstone was a gift in and of itself. Her parents always joked that she thrived out in the wild. A “natural-born” animal lover and perpetual champion of the underdog. 

Beyond the ideal work-life balance she found in this area, she was eager to make inroads and take down the exotic pet ring. Making things right made her heart happy. 

Years ago, when she’d been in a pit of despair, if anyone had told her she’d eventually be passionate about a new career with one of the best protection agencies in the business, she would have laughed hysterically. 

All her life, Leah had believed she’d been destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a veterinarian. It was a lifestyle she understood, a commitment she respected and loved. Plans changed and, though the shifting trajectory had not been her idea and had been quite painful at the time, she appreciated this new opportunity.  

When she joined the Guardian Agency she never thought it would lead her to working with animals again. Protecting wolves instead of people was a unique situation, although the two went hand in hand despite the resistance to that truth. Nature conservation was vital to human survival. She was proud to have this time here alongside the people working toward a peaceful coexistence. 

And she was thankful for the chance, at last, to track down the selfish killers and thieves who were attacking the wolves of Yellowstone for profit. 

On her belt, her radio crackled.  

“Leah? Leah, if you can hear me you need to come back to town.” Bobby sounded almost panicked. “Whatever you’ve gathered, we’ll make do.” 

Leah shook her head. She wasn’t leaving until she had a basic direction, preferably a trail. The wolves needed her to persist. The sooner they were found, the sooner they could be reunited with the pack. 

“The weather is changing, Leah,” Bobby said. “You need to get back here.” 

“I think I’ve found the trail.” Not a lie. She was close to figuring out where they’d gone. “I need a few minutes to confirm.” 

“Leah. Listen to me.” 

“Notify the closest airports,” she said. “They’ll want to get out of the area fast.” The fastest way to move the animals, without keeping them sedated too long, would be by air.  

“Already done,” he confirmed. “Don’t ignore the real issue. You need to get back here or find shelter.” 

She caught herself before she snapped at him. He was being responsible, trying to help. She was the one pushing the envelope. “I’ll be safe, I promise.” 

When she was satisfied with her documentation, she uploaded the photos to the center’s cloud storage and then tucked the camera into her coat. The wind had changed, kicking up with a bit of bite. Walking to the ATV, she zipped her coat against the elements. Adjusting her cap and pulling on her gloves and hood, she sat down and studied the terrain.  

The thieves couldn’t have moved out in just any direction. Going back to West Yellowstone would be foolish unless they had someone waiting at the airport, ready to go. The tranquilizers would keep the wolves quiet for a time, but it would be impossible to hide the transfer of several large animals from a truck to a plane. Although the gateway town didn’t boast a huge population, people noticed when things were out of place. And moving wolves would stick out. 

She could make Bobby happy and go back and confirm for herself that the thieves weren’t at the West Yellowstone airport. With those dark snow-filled clouds rolling closer to town, it was unlikely that a plane would escape tonight. Another drone flight wasn’t going to happen until the weather passed. 

Since being assigned to this particular case, she’d taken every opportunity to hike and explore the area in and around the park. Her bosses, Gamble and Swann, were aware that breaking up this particular criminal endeavor would take time. That had been another factor in sending Leah. Other than parents she visited primarily on the holidays, she didn’t have deep roots or connections. After the fiasco in vet school, she didn’t want to create any. These days, she trusted only a handful of people. 

“A loner and happier for it” had been her motto these past few years. And this loner was ready to take down the team that had ambushed the pack. 

Gray wolves were amazing creatures. Predators and opportunists? Absolutely. Also a beautiful, essential part of the food chain and the health of this corner of the planet. Intelligent animals with an admirable survival instinct.  

She could relate to that focus on survival and the general plight of the wolves: being blamed for things that weren’t their fault. People were set in their opinions, many of them refusing to budge or open their minds to an opposing viewpoint. Leah expected the conservationists and ranchers would be butting heads over this until the end of time, unfortunately. 

The men preying on this pack were still close. Close enough to track and, hopefully, detain. 

What was the fastest path away from the crime scene? She wasn’t looking for the easiest route, just the option that gave the shooters room to escape.  

From her perch on the ATV, she examined the surrounding area. Recalling the drone footage, matching it with the ugly scene in front of her, she searched for the best line of sight for killing this wolf. He must have tried to defend the drugged wolves somehow. Maybe a tranquilizer failed. The wolf was in his prime and would’ve been a good candidate for the hybrid breeders. A shooter must have been covering the approach of the thieves collecting the animals once they’d succumbed to the tranquilizer.  

Starting the vehicle, she carefully advanced toward the treeline where the shooters must’ve been hiding, waiting for the pack to come through. The closest ridge was too far for a reliable shot with the ever-shifting winds out here. 

About one hundred yards east of the deadly ambush, she noticed something more than the boot prints closer to the scene. The flat slide resembled a toboggan track and had been cleverly used to hide most of the evidence of the shooters. Only a rare boot print remained uncovered, but now that she knew what she was looking for, she had an easy time trailing after them. 

She inched along following the path that became more evident as she reached the treeline. Two people, men based on the size of the boots, had worked hard maneuvering the heavy sleds through the trees.  

Stopping the ATV once more, she radioed back to update Bobby. “I’ve picked up the trail. They retreated east into the trees. Sedated wolves on sleds covered the tracks.” 

“So not headed to the airfield here in town,” Bobby said. 

“Not directly.” She wasn’t ready to rule out anything just yet. Two people couldn’t keep the sedated wolves indefinitely. There was a handoff point somewhere. A place they could load the wolves into some kind of vehicle to haul them out of the park. “I’m going to follow a bit more.” 

“Leah. The weather.” 

“It’s not here yet.” She didn’t want Bobby’s worry weighing her down. All her energy and focus had to be on the task ahead. “I’ve got this.” Leah couldn’t give up, not when she was this close to finally getting a photo or a name to connect with this dangerous crew.  

Her gaze returned to the evidence of the trail. Shoving her anger down deep, she headed into the trees after the thieves. Though it slowed her down, she paused frequently to take pictures and scan the area, listening for any threat. She couldn’t rule out the possibility that they’d left someone to guard the trail. She pressed forward, taking the calculated risk that the thieves would be more intent on getting away than protecting their exit.  

The little intel they’d gathered on the operation pointed to a small, discreet group. Maybe three or four people, probably men, working sporadically when called upon. They had one grainy photo of a man—white, mid-twenties, lanky, in a truck with stolen Montana plates—delivering a hybrid puppy to a family at a rest stop north of Des Moines, Iowa. 

Leah had been sure she’d seen a man bearing a striking resemblance to the grainy photo in West Yellowstone last week. So, no, she wasn’t giving up this chase. There was no telling when she’d be this close to such a valuable lead again. 

When her path was blocked by fallen trees, Leah parked the ATV. Taking the radio and a small pack that included her personal handgun, she followed on foot rather than move too far off the trail and lose it. 

Over the logs, moving slowly, the sound of her footsteps were swallowed by the soft, snow-covered ground. She peered up at the frosted white tree limbs tangled overhead. The drone wouldn’t have found a small ambush team in here unless they’d known exactly where to look.  

A loud crack shattered the eerie quiet. Leah jumped back, pressing close to a tree trunk as an icy limb crashed to the ground, kicking up a spray of stinging snow and debris.  

Dusting herself off, she took a breath and resumed her search.  

The next sound was the burst of gunfire. Leah dropped to the forest floor, scrambling to find cover as her heart pounded. 

“Make sure she’s dead!” a voice shouted. 

A moment later an engine rumbled to life in the distance. Leah held her breath, listening for any clue to the shooter’s position. Hearing him grumbling about the weather, she waited for an opening, no matter how slim. 

Then she ran.


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