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Eli (Montana Bounty Hunters: Dead Horse, MT Book 6)

Authentic Men… Real Adventures…

An ex-SEAL sniper, who has spent his life experiencing everything from a distance, finds his self-imposed solitude challenged by the one woman in the world who might have been made just for him.

Eli Pope left the SEALs when he feared that he was losing his humanity. Now, he’s the latest new hire at the Dead Horse branch of the Montana Bounty Hunters. However, working with the tight-knit hunters hasn’t broken through his reserve. He’s still the man on the outside looking in.

Then a chance meeting with Sheriff’s Deputy Kira Ennis sets him on a new path, leaving him hopeful for a brighter future. She’s unlike any woman he’s ever met—independent, smart, brave, and strong in her own right. He begins to believe that she’s the one person in the world meant to end his loneliness, but he hesitates, wondering if it’s right to pursue her when she’s so much younger than he is.

Read an Excerpt

“Damn, I can’t feel my balls, man,” Chase Kudrow grumbled into Eli Pope’s earpiece.

They’d found their target’s camp after getting a tip from one of Gary Hochstetler’s relatives. The hunting lease was deep in the woods on the edge of Gallatin National Forest and only accessible by an overgrown logging trail. Snow had fallen two nights ago and was hardpacked inside the clearing. Eli and his teammates had been careful to sweep away footprints at the edges of the camp when they’d spread out to wait for their quarry to return.

“Didn’t you remember to pack your long johns?” Lucas “Cowboy” Brown said, his voice barely above a whisper. “I gotta pack your go bag, too?”

At least his two partners for this takedown were bellyaching quietly. Eli Pope wished they wouldn’t speak at all. All this chatter in his ear felt too familiar, sparking memories he’d just as soon never dredge up.

“I’m wearin’ them. But I should’ve worn my ski pants, too. Fuck, who goes huntin’ in zero degrees?”

“Someone who needs food because their face is plastered all over the news,” Cowboy said.

“Don’t see our film crew followin’ us around in this,” Chase muttered.

Cowboy snorted. “Because they’re smarter than the average criminal.”

“What’s that say about us? It’s just too convenient they hightailed it out of here before the temperatures dropped.”

Eli’s mouth twitched.

“Eli! Man, you fall asleep?” Chase asked.

“I’ve got my eyes on the trailer,” he said softly.

“Hmph. No wonder you ’n’ Cage get along so well. He’s a man o’ few words, too.”

“It’s kind of hard to get a word in edgewise,” Eli murmured dryly.

The sound of Cowboy’s soft laughter tugged Eli’s mouth into a one-sided smile. He could see why Cowboy and Chase were so popular with their cable show’s viewership. Their patter was natural and proved their close kinship.

For himself, Eli was the guy whom viewers couldn’t quite remember his name. He planned to keep it that way even though the money the producers offered for him to “step up” was mighty tempting. However, he liked his privacy. The others could put up with people recognizing them on the streets and asking for autographs. Just last week, the skip Cowboy and Chase had cornered had been so starstruck, he’d surrendered in order to get their autographs. Fellow hunters Hardman and Marti had their own fanbase, too, mostly the male demographic, because guys admired Marti’s kickass ways and foul mouth. Even their newest hire, Colleen, who was now Cowboy’s wife, had a growing fan club. Women wanted to know what products she used on her hair and face and where she shopped for her cute plus-sized clothing. When she left the office to add her expertise during a takedown, primarily her distracting sex appeal—with Cowboy following close on her heels to keep her safe—readers typed “sighs” on their Facebook feed.

Nope. Eli didn’t want any of that. When he wasn’t on a hunt, he liked his solitude. He’d found a rough cabin on a small lake outside Dead Horse, and he was renovating it himself to make it more livable, including adding a shed to house his motorboat, his 4-wheeler, and his snowmobile. When he finished the shed, he’d have all a man could want. Or at least, a man like him. Eli was used to being alone and observing life from a distance. It was a quality that had made him perfect for his former military specialty.

Shoving aside those thoughts, he trained his gaze on the hunting camp with the dilapidated trailer sitting at the edge of the clearing, its roof bowed by age and the weight of the snow sitting four feet deep on top of it. They’d already searched inside it, holding their noses because, apparently, Gary Hochstetler didn’t like heading out into the snow to take care of business, and he hadn’t bothered dumping his shit bucket in a couple of days.

During their search, they’d found empty boxes of ammo for a shotgun and 9mm rounds for a handgun. Something that had them all frowning as they’d left everything in the trailer just like they’d found it, deciding to hunker down and wait for the man who’d been arrested for committing two home invasions, and then bolted before he was due to stand in front of the judge for his crimes.

Eli lay atop a bed of white spruce needles, concealed beneath the low branches of the tree, the barrel of his rifle supported by his backpack, which he’d shed when he’d taken his position. The chilly weather was beginning to make his feet tingle. Eli moved his toes inside his boots, and then methodically began tightening and relaxing his muscles—first his feet, legs, abdomen—working his way upwards without making any discernible noise. Why he bothered keeping so quiet, he wasn’t sure, other than the fact those slow, furtive movements were an old habit. A necessary one, when a man had to resist fidgeting while peering over a mountain pass or lying on top of a multi-storied building, waiting for a particular target to appear. Movement got you seen, or worse, killed.

The distant sound of snow crunching under boots sounded from the ravine twenty feet to the west of him. A few moments later, Gary Hochstetler appeared in his rifle sights, carrying dead rabbits on a string over his shoulder and a shotgun held tightly in the opposite hand. Although dressed in thick layers of clothing and wearing a knit beanie pulled over his ears, there was no mistaking Gary. His large, beak-shaped nose was very red.

“It’s our guy,” Eli said softly.

“Let him get into camp. Maybe he’ll dump his weapons,” Cowboy whispered.

Eli forced himself to withdraw his finger from the trigger but studied the man as he strode closer. Gary’s features were taut, his expression grim. He’d lost weight in the two weeks he’d been hiding, and his clothing looked filthy.

Eli kept his breaths shallow as Gary stomped past him. Once within the clearing, the man dropped the rabbits beside the fire pit and headed into his camping trailer. The floor groaned as he stepped inside; the sounds of drawers opening and closing echoed through the doorway.

When Gary stepped back outside, he’d shed his thick outer coat to reveal a holster on his hip and a large knife strapped to his thigh. The shotgun had been left inside.

Gary stepped to the side of the trailer and picked up three logs and smaller pieces of kindling.

When he turned to head toward the fire, Cowboy said, “It’s as good a time as any…”

Eli crawled from under the tree and pushed up from the ground, crouching low as he moved closer to the clearing, using leafless bushes to break up his silhouette and hoping the gathering dusk did the rest of the work keeping him hidden. He watched as Cowboy slipped around the side of the trailer and Chase stepped out of the tree line behind Gary.

He took another step, and a branch snapped beneath his boot. Fucking hell.

Gary froze, threw down the stack of wood, and reached for his holster.

“Better stop right there,” Eli said, his tone stern. “We have you surrounded.”

Gary’s hand hovered over his hip; his thumb had yet to unsnap the retention strap holding his gun in the holster.

“We’re bounty hunters,” Chase said, his voice graveled and menacing. “We’re taking you in one way or another.”

“Better raise your hands,” Cowboy said, his voice pitched low and mean. “We’re all really good shots, but the guy standing in front of you was a sniper for the SEALs. He doesn’t miss.”

Eli grunted. Not often, anyway.

“I’ll just take off my gun belt,” Gary said, keeping one hand high while the other flicked open the buckle, allowing the belt to drop to the hard snow.

Eli was watching Gary’s eyes and knew the moment the man decided to bolt. His gaze shifted to the woods a millisecond before he ran.

Eli dropped his rifle and followed him.

“Goddammit,” Cowboy called after him as they all took off running after the man. “Gary, you know you’re not gonna get away. Stop this shit now!”

Gary didn’t pause; he slipped into the woods. With the sun setting, Eli figured Gary was hoping the darkness would save his ass. And it might.

Eli was nearest, swatting away branches of dried bushes as he closed the distance between them. Then Gary disappeared, followed by a clattering sound and a splash.

“He’s in the ravine,” Eli said to the others.

“Motherfucker, don’t you know it’s zero fucking degrees?” Chase shouted loud enough to leave Eli’s ears ringing.

Eli reached the ravine and turned sideways before stepping off and sliding down mud and rocks, landing with his boots crunching on the surface of the half-frozen water, and then hesitating for a second as the ice cracked and his boots sank. He glanced to the left and saw Gary wading as fast as he could, moving at a diagonal toward the opposite bank.

Above the bank was a line of trees and thick brush—plenty of places to lie down and hide when it got too dark for them to see him.

Eli moved across the creek, cussing under his breath as his boots filled with water and sank into the sludgy bottom. Each time he lifted a boot, he fought against suction, but he made it across the creek, climbed the bank, and entered the trees where he’d seen Gary disappear.

He paused for a moment, listening for any sounds that would give away his target’s location.

Branches creaked with a sudden gust of wind. Then he heard a scritch sound from behind—like a boot grinding on snow and gravel—and Eli wondered whether they’d underestimated Gary. He was close.

Then suddenly, the wind changed direction, and he caught a whiff of overpowering body odor. Before he could react, something cold pressed against his left cheek. Gary’s lefthanded, Eli thought.

“Now you know how it feels, huh?” Gary said, his tone sly.