Jada and her three best friends, all avid bow hunters, are attacked by unknown creatures while on vacation during elk season. One of her friends is killed outright and two others are taken captive. She wants to fight to get them back, but a stranger blocks her path.
Bryce is a tracker of rogues for the Laizahlian Council. He has worked for the Hunter Vaughn for almost three hundred years. The last person he expects to find on this backward planet of Earth is his destined mate. He barely arrives in time to save her from the two rogues he and his partner were sent to track down, but he can’t save Jada and her three friends.
Bryce knows the greatest threat to his mate will come from Vaughn himself, a powerful vampire. It is forbidden by the Council for their kind to take a human mate. If Bryce can’t convince Vaughn that Jada is a born shapeshifter, his partner will kill her. He can’t allow this, even if it means he must go rogue himself to protect her.
Jada Talbot kneeled behind the thick trunk of a Ponderosa pine, heart racing as she listened for the approaching bull elk. With winter knocking on fall’s door, the air had a strong bite to it, especially this early in the morning. The cold excited her, because with it arrived breeding season. The bull was close, only a couple hundred yards away, hidden among the heavy timber on the ridge above them.
She misted the air with powder to check the wind direction. If it changed, the bull might catch their scent and bolt. When the powder blew back over her shoulder, away from the steeper part of the mountain, she breathed a sigh of relief. They were downwind. Perfect.
Jada raised up enough to catch the eye of Beth, making sure her hunting partner was set up and ready to shoot. Beth was a better shot with a bow, so Jada usually lured the bulls in and let her friend bring them down. She didn’t mind. The fun part of bow hunting elk came from calling in one of nature’s most majestic animals. Her part was every bit as important as the person who made the kill.
Satisfied the wind would stay in their favor because of the early morning thermals, Jada picked up a sturdy limb and thrust it against the brush beside the pine, thrashing the branches as a bull would do with his antlers when challenged by another bull. It was a myth that hunters needed to stay dead silent in the forest. She smiled when the rustle of brush from above continued to work toward them. So far so good. If the god of hunting stayed with them for the next twenty minutes or so, she and Beth would bag their first bull of the season.
Jada raked the limb against the trunk of the pine, then reached for the bugle she kept looped around her shoulder. When the strap hooked around the holster for her pistol, she was forced to take her eyes off the timber to release it. Damn, she thought, reminding herself to loop the strap over her left shoulder next time. This was not the time for stupid distractions.
The pistol was a necessity out in the wild, like the can of bear spray attached to the other side of her belt. They all carried a gun just in case they ran into a predator like a bear or cougar. She and her friends preferred to hunt with a bow, much more fun than a rifle because it required them to get in close. However, a bow wasn’t so great for fending off an attack by some wild animal. Usually it only took one shot in the air to frighten them away. Jada had never been forced to kill in self-defense before . . . and hoped she never would.
She lifted the bugle to her mouth, releasing a call she’d spent months practicing. Like a person, each bull had a little different voice, making it easier for her to fake it. After the last of the echo faded away, she held her breath, waiting to see if the bull would respond. Goosebumps broke out over her arms when his sharp cry filled the air, the little hairs on the back of her neck standing up.
Rocky Mountain elk were enormous animals, weighing upward of seven hundred pounds. One would think their bugle would be deep and low, but it wasn’t. When her challenge was answered, the pitch remained low to start, but quickly built in strength, almost piercing when it reached its peak. She grinned as the echo faded into the forest around her.
Birds began to chirp again as Jada exchanged the bugle for a cow call—a small piece of plastic, a little larger than a guitar pick, that fit like a diaphragm against the roof of her mouth. It sounded like a loud chirp, alerting the approaching bull to the possibility of cow elk in the area. All he would need to do is fight the herd bull for breeding rights. A challenge he would readily accept.
She raked the brush again, pretending to be an agitated bull preparing to defend his herd and territory from this challenger. She wanted to build the animal’s rage so he wouldn’t notice the two hunters who waited patiently for him to make an appearance.
Beth sat dead still a short distance away, an arrow nocked, ready to draw when the bull finally started to step out in the open.
Jada chirped again and then waited for a response. When nothing happened, she raked the limb against the trunk of the pine. Yes! An answering rattle told her the bull was almost there, still cautious on his approach.
A shadow of movement drew her eye to the left, and she held her breath, waiting, adrenalin lacing her veins. This was the most exciting point, when the huge animal would step out into the open, expose himself only forty or fifty yards away. Jada gasped inside when the magnificent beast pushed through the brush, only his dark head and shoulders exposed, his impressive antlers curved up and over his broad back. The rest of the animal stayed hidden in the trees. She immediately noted he was a mature six-point bull. Not a trophy elk, but certainly nothing to thumb their noses at.
But first she needed to get him to step out into the open, give Beth better access behind his front shoulder. The last thing they wanted was for the bull to suffer because of a poor shot. Before Jada could decide what to do, the bull jumped, startled by something she couldn’t quite make out in the distance. He started to turn, and she quickly chirped a couple of times, hoping to stop him. Nostrils flared, he tipped his mighty head back toward her and took a tentative step forward, finally exposing his side. Jada held her breath, waiting, hoping.
A sharp twang told her Beth had released an arrow. The bull jumped again when it struck, but Jada quickly chirped, trying to get his mind off the wound. Thankfully, bulls tended to have a one-track mind during breeding season. He stumbled and turned back to face her, obviously confused. She knew he didn’t understand what had happened, still searching for sign of the cow that had called to him. If they could keep this animal calm, eventually the adrenalin would dwindle away, and he’d likely find a place to lie down and die. If he decided to run, they could be stuck tracking him for hours.
A rattle of brush to the left startled both Jada and the bull. Jada stepped out into the open as the elk bolted up the side of the mountain, quickly moving out of sight. No point in trying to be stealthy now, the damage already done. She stood upright, her hand dropping to the butt of her pistol. She flipped open the snap, but didn’t draw the weapon, waiting to see what, or who, approached them.
Beth stepped out from behind another pine and started to work her way closer to Jada. Beth was both tall and muscular, unusual physique for the typical woman. As a body builder, she far outweighed most of the men they knew, not an ounce of fat anywhere on her. Still considered a beautiful woman, Beth had shoulder-length red hair that tended to frizz in humid weather. She also had a dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheeks. Most women Jada knew would have tried to cover them with makeup, but not Beth. Her friend had always been comfortable in her own skin.
“What the hell happened?” Beth asked, stopping next to Jada, bow carried in her right hand, a quiver of arrows over her massive shoulders.
“Beats me. Something spooked him. Thought I heard someone laugh.” She motioned with her head toward the left. “I was just going to check it out.”
“Damn, I just saw a big-ass wolf a few minutes ago. Thought he’d worked his way around us or something. Sucker was gigantic. Kinda spooked me, if you want to know the truth.”
Jada frowned. Beth spooked by a wolf? Odd. Before she could say anything more, a strange man called out to them.
“Don’t shoot us, ladies. Me and my buddy are gonna step out in the open, okay?”
Jada and Beth both turned to face the two men as they walked out, both dressed in full camouflage gear, same as them, one carrying a bow, one carrying a rifle, both their faces streaked with green and brown paint. The hair had raised on Jada’s neck when she noticed the rifle in the shorter man’s hands. He wasn’t pointing it at them, but she worried he’d thought it necessary to carry one at all. Most bow hunters preferred to carry a pistol on their hip, like her and Beth, not a rifle. She sensed trouble from these two.
“You two girls out here all alone?” the taller man asked, obviously the one in charge. Both were in shape, though not overly muscular. Typical bow hunters.
Beth answered for them. “No, we got two more with us. They drove the bull down, the one I just shot when you two yahoos showed up and scared it away.”
“Well, isn’t that a coincidence,” the man said, chuckling as he and his buddy bumped fists. “We just shot a nice six-point ourselves. Was tracking him this way when we ran into the two of you. Tracks are headed straight over yonder. You two probably saw him run by.”
Jada frowned, but Beth showed no reaction whatsoever. “Afraid not, fellas,” Beth said. “Only bull we saw was the one I just put an arrow in. We can wait an hour or so and follow the blood trail. It’ll be my arrow inside him. I mark mine. How about you boys?”
The man smiled, nothing friendly about it, blue eyes ice cold. “That bull is ours, ladies. I shot him down the hill, yonder.” He motioned with his head. “We’ve been tracking him for the past hour. Isn’t that right, Wade?”
“Yep.” Wade shifted the rifle so it was aimed more in their direction, though still pointed at the ground, his message clear.
Bastards, Jada thought, wondering what they should do. Was an elk worth getting shot over? They could let these assholes take this one and find another bull tomorrow. She glanced over at Beth, her friend’s face still completely unreadable.
“Well,” the man said, his grin widening when he sensed he’d won. “Times a wastin’, ladies, so I guess we’ll leave you to it. Good luck. Me and Wade here need to carry on. Appreciate you two pointing out the way. You wanna tell us where you and your menfolk are camped, we’ll swing by with a couple of fresh steaks for ya later.”
Jada gritted her teeth, and he laughed.
“Guess not. Okie-dokie then, your loss. You girls be careful out here. There’s all kinds of dangerous critters running around.” He clapped Wade on the shoulder, and they started to walk over to where Beth had shot the elk. He turned back, grinning. “Yep, there’s our blood trail all right. See ya.”
“Fuckers,” Beth said under her breath.
“What should we do?” Jada asked. “We just gonna let them take it?”
“It’s not worth a life, Jada. Not much else we can do.” Beth pulled out her walkie-talkie and called Shelbie, one of their other two friends. They’d purposely let those assholes believe they were out hunting with men.
The truth was, they were a group of four women who’d all been raised to love bow hunting. Every year they packed up their horses and mules, making the trek into the backwoods of Oregon for two weeks during bow season. This was the first time they’d ever run into any serious trouble.
Beth told Shelbie and Uma to pack it in for the morning and meet them back at camp. They’d make plans for an evening hunt and decide then whether to move camp to a new location. This far in was only accessible on foot or horseback, so their elk thieves were probably going to be around for a while.
As they walked back to camp, Jada remembered what Beth had said about a wolf. “You sure it wasn’t a coyote you saw?” There were a lot of coyotes around, though they rarely spotted one of the elusive creatures. Wolves, as far as Jada knew, had been hunted out over a hundred years before in Oregon.
“No fucking way,” Beth said. “I only saw it a second, but that thing was enormous. Must’ve been close to two hundred pounds. Hell, maybe more. I swear his damn head would’ve reached my chest.” She held her hand up to show size.
Jada raised her eyebrows. “Where was he?”
“Off to the right of where that bull stepped out. That’s what spooked him the first time. You saw him jump, didn’t you?” Jada nodded. “I almost didn’t see it except it twitched an ear. Sucker was camouflaged better than us, fit right in with the leaves and brush, kind of a silvery-gray color with black and red on his back and shoulders. Weird eyes too. They looked yellow. Kinda spooky looking, but I guess yellow eyes are normal for wolves.”
This was the second time Beth mentioned being spooked. Jada laughed, her heart finally beginning to slow after her fright with the hunters. “You, spooked? I don’t believe it.” She breathed in deep of the country air, a cedar tree nearby overpowering everything else.
“Ha, ha, go ahead and laugh. I know it’s hard to believe, but that freakin’ wolf spooked me more than those two idiots who showed up afterward. Where there’s one there might be more. A pack of em, you know.”
Jada frowned, turning quiet as she stepped over a rotten log. They weren’t trying to be careful anymore, hunting finished for the morning. The wolf worried her, because nothing much scared Beth, not even asshole elk thieves. “I didn’t think we had wolves in Oregon.”
Beth didn’t immediately answer. “I think I heard they were considering releasing a few packs. I guess they must have because they’re definitely here.”