An ex-soldier who prefers dogs to most humans must protect a nature photographer from an extremist group hunting wolves in Yellowstone.
Nate “The Edge” Edgerton prefers dogs to humans, like Pierce, the retired war dog who saved his life in Afghanistan, because he prizes loyalty above all else. He trusts his team and his dog but has learned to be cautious trusting women. After Pierce rushes to the rescue of a nature photographer being threatened by wolf poachers, Nate earns his first assignment as a Brotherhood Protector. He’ll keep her safe but keeping his heart secure will prove to be the hardest part of the job.
Hannah Mackey, a nature photographer tracking wolves, photographs poachers in the act of killing a wolf, and she’s a second away from being shot herself when a large black dog rushes to her rescue, followed by a very handsome and angry man.
When Nate brings her to the Brotherhood Protectors, she’s dismayed that they’re insistent on providing her protection from retaliation by the well-organized poachers who are part of an extremist group, especially when they assign Nate as her protector. She has a job to do, and she’s not going to let the threat from a criminal gang stop her from doing it. She also doesn’t need the big, brooding man following her around. His dog, she’ll take, but Nate? Hell, no. Been there. She can take care of herself, thank you very much.
Read an Excerpt
Nate “The Edge” Edgerton preferred dogs to most humans.
Treat them right, and dogs were loyal to a fault—even heroic in their efforts to please their humans. Edge’s proof was trotting right in front of him, sniffing the air and then the ground, looking for dangers that lurked in the forest—or maybe, this time, he was simply taking in the scents of the varied wildlife.
Pierce, his all-black German shepherd working dog, compliments of the U.S. Army, was proof of Edge’s belief that dogs were better creatures than most humans. Pierce had lost an eye defending his handler and had been retired just before Edge had left the service. As the dog’s active-duty handler, he’d been offered the military dog. Edge still felt it was kind of repugnant that a dog like this had to have an “owner” when Pierce was by far the more responsible member of their partnership.
Yeah, if people were dogs, Edge wouldn’t be tromping through the forest, seeking some “alone time.” Sometimes, he had to get away from the noise and get out of his head. Even when they’d been on active duty, Edge had preferred spending weekends and short periods of leave as far as he could get away from crowds. He’d rather face a bear than a rowdy crowd inside a bar. Out here, he could turn off his brain and just be.
He was grateful Alex “Ridge” Ridgley, the old man on their team, had noticed Edge’s edginess. He’d read the signs and had arranged a four-day weekend for him and Pierce to get away.
He guessed his “tell” was the way he couldn’t keep his heel from tapping through meals and briefings. Or maybe it had been his surliness. Not that he wanted to be that way with his teammates. His team was the exception to his “dogs are more loyal than humans” conviction. But his team liked to hang out. They’d drink some beers and talk trash. Smile and laugh. He’d even join in. However, there would always come a point when all that camaraderie wore on every last one of his nerves, and he had to have some space.
Maybe it was because he’d been raised on a ranch with a father who’d been silent and taciturn and a mom who’d forever been singing—offkey—while she’d done all the things a rancher did, plus kept the house and kids fed and clean. Still, there’d been plenty of quiet time. Plenty of space to roam. And he’d always had some lop-eared hound following him around while he’d done it.
Whenever he’d been done with chores, he’d show up at the back kitchen door and just look at his mom. She’d smile, shake her head, then tell him, “Get on out of here, but you better be back in time for dinner.”
He guessed Ridge was “Mom” now. A thought that made him smile because Ridge would flip him off and laugh if Edge ever called him that to his face.
Edge wouldn’t have minded one of his team members joining him for this little getaway, but they were pretty busy these days. They had the odd security assignment and were still working on finishing out the office. It was nice that they’d all landed at the same agency. He’d be forever grateful to Stone Jacobs and Hank Patterson for inviting the team to join them to staff up the Brotherhood Protectors’ West Yellowstone office. They were just getting “out there,” letting folks know they existed. Jobs would come, or so Hank had said.
Edge would’ve hated signing on with a new bunch of guys. He was comfortable with the men from his old active-duty team with the 10th Mountain Division. Ridge, Gabe Walker, Wade Fielding, Justice Kane, and Edge were tight. They’d even stuck together after leaving the military and had worked in the Adirondacks, forming a search and rescue team that had helped different agencies in the region, lending their support. However, they’d only been able to use a portion of their hard-earned skills. They had mountaineering skills, medic training, and of course, combat training, and Hank’s Brotherhood Protectors was a much better fit. The money was damn good, too.
Edge hadn’t returned to Wyoming after the death of his parents. He’d let the ranch go, selling it to settle debts. He’d split the proceeds with his sister, who was a nurse in Cheyenne. Neither had wanted to hold onto the homestead. Edge had felt guilty about leaving the ranch all those years ago, but his dad had wanted him to “see the world” before deciding whether he wanted the burden of the ranch he’d built from nothing. While he’d been on his first enlistment, they’d both been killed, their truck sliding off the road in a blizzard. They’d frozen to death; despite all the precautions his father had always taken. They’d been found huddled together on the bench seat, blankets covering them, their hands entwined.
Edge had figured that was the way they would have wanted to go—not the freezing to death part—but together. He’d never seen a more loving or loyal couple. He’d certainly never dated a woman who’d been so loyal she’d be willing to follow him all over the world or wait on some Army post while he was gone. He’d tried monogamy once.
He’d found a pretty blonde named Tammy, and she’d said all the right things. The first time he’d shipped out for a six-month stint in Afghanistan, she’d written to tell him that she’d found a job in Seattle, and she’d really, really miss him, but she didn’t want him to think that she’d be waiting for him when he returned.
He’d learned his lesson and hadn’t put much stock in women’s promises ever since. Sure, he dated. He liked a woman’s company now and then. He was a healthy male with a healthy sex drive, but he wasn’t interested in investing himself, his inner thoughts and emotions, in another person.
He preferred Pierce’s company. The dog only “talked” when he sensed Edge was restless or grumpy. Then he’d run for his leash and settle with it at his feet, looking up at him with his dark eyes until Edge smiled and reached down for the braided leather. Not that the dog needed a leash. He was trained to walk at his side, or as he was now, roaming ahead of him, never out of sight. Pierce lived for praise, a pat, or to chase a ball. He was easy to read. Never lied. Never wandered toward another human seeking attention.
They had an unbreakable bond, although it had almost ended violently. Pierce had accompanied the team on a patrol through a village where intel had said Taliban soldiers were gathered. Pierce had been doing his thing as they’d entered from the outskirts, avoiding the main roadway. He’d been scenting for explosives, ready to react if he detected any movement. When they’d come across a workshop at the back of one house, Pierce had alerted on a small cement mixer, sitting his tail down and waiting for Edge to check it out.
As Edge had drawn near, he’d seen a curtain in the back of the house move. Instantly, he’d slipped next to the back wall of the house and called Pierce to him, but it was already too late. The bomb inside the mixer was detonated. The explosion sent shrapnel in a directed blast toward the house’s back door. Pierce was at the edge of that directed blast and took shrapnel to one eye and throughout his body. After they’d secured the house, setting C-4 to breach the front door and sweeping through the splintered back door, Edge had waited for the medevac helicopter with Pierce.
Pierce had survived but still had several metal shards inside his body, and he’d lost his right eye. He’d been medically retired, and since Edge had still had a few months left on his enlistment, he’d arranged for him to be kept until he’d mustered out and was able to claim him.
They’d been together ever since. Never apart. Pierce didn’t seem to be suffering from any PTSD either. Gunfire and loud noises didn’t faze him. He did seem a little more protective of Edge than before, which Edge found a little odd, but maybe the dog had feared for him in the moment of that blast, and that was what had stuck in his mind.
Edge was just grateful the dog had survived. They’d trained together at Lackland in San Antonio and then been assigned together to the 10th. Their friendship was battle-tested. Solid. Unless Edge could leave his dog in sight when he stepped into a store or restaurant, he just didn’t go inside. Sure, it was a little inconvenient, but Pierce was his best buddy. He’d earned Edge’s complete loyalty; the least Edge could do was make sure Pierce was a happy dog.
Happy was taking a long hike through the forest with vegetation softening their steps, a light wind stirring the leaves on the trees around them, and the crisp scent of pine trees carried in the air. So far, the trail hadn’t been challenging. Rolling hills, vistas overlooking burbling streams and rivers. Pure heaven for them both. It was restful. Meditative, if he was into that kind of thing, which he wasn’t.
Ahead, Pierce lifted his nose. As Edge watched, a ridge of hair lifted in a line down the center of the dog’s back. He wondered what Pierce had scented that had raised his hackles so fast and so high. A bear, maybe? He used his thumb to unclip the strap on his holster and paused, listening.
Then he heard it—the long ululating howl of a wolf. No, two. Were there more?
Pierce made a whining sound and jumped on his paws, wanting to rush ahead but glancing back to see whether Edge was okay with that—which he was not. Pierce was fearless but not invulnerable. Edge still held the vision in his mind of Pierce bleeding and his head listlessly lolling as he’d rushed with the dog in his arms to the helicopter.
“Not this time, bud,” he said softly. “Let’s just sit here for a minute and let them pass. Fuss!” With a finger pointed to the spot beside him, he watched as Pierce shot toward him, did a quick circle, and planted his rear end in the dirt beside him.
The wolves sounded as though they were having a high old time, their voices rising then slowly moving farther away. Edge smiled as Pierce gave another little whine, so he reached down and scratched behind his ear. “I know you think it’s playtime, but they might eat you right up, boy.”
Just as the wolves’ calls ended, he heard something else—the sharp report from a weapon. “Motherfuckers,” he bit out.
Then he moved forward, giving Pierce another firm command to remain by his side as the two ran through the forest.
Hannah Mackey felt lucky today. Sure, luck wasn’t the only thing in play. She’d done her due diligence, getting advice from the forest rangers regarding spots to set up. She’d scouted this particular area, looking for recent evidence of wolves moving through the valley, and she’d found signs of them in abundance before setting up camp just beneath a ridge overlooking the meadow. She’d spent two days sitting and sleeping inside her blind, letting the scent of the grass mask her human scent. Her camera sat on a tripod to keep it ready for when the pack returned.
It was just past midmorning—morning and early evening being the best opportunities to catch the movement of animals through the valley—and she had just decided to head to the other side of the ridge to take care of business when she saw a small herd of deer race from the stand of lodgepole pines on the opposite side of the clearing. She bent to gaze into her viewfinder and quickly snapped some photos, hoping their race had been instigated by the predator she’d come here to film.
Her wish was fulfilled when she heard the sounds of wolves howling in the distance. So, she concentrated her attention on the last of the herd, an older doe that darted into the open followed by a large gray wolf, its fur a mottled gray and its muzzle pure black. Her heart sped as she held down the shutter button, hoping that one of the dozens of photos she captured would be the gold she sought.
Though she mourned the outcome for the doe, she understood wolves had to eat, too. Her body tensed, and she grimaced just as the wolf drew alongside the slower deer.
A shot rang out, and Hannah jumped, her eyes lifting from the camera for a moment before lowering again and looking through the lens. The doe was escaping. The wolf was lying on its side. A loud whooping cry and laughter echoed in the valley.
Her heart raced. Poachers were somewhere here in the woods. She knew there was a dangerous element among the poachers who hunted illegally inside the park for the money the wolves’ pelts would get them on the black market, so she held her breath and listened, hoping her camouflaged blind, which she’d covered in leafy limbs would conceal her from hunters who might recognize the outline of the small frame.
She patted the ground beside her, feeling for her rifle but not wanting to take her gaze away from the dying wolf because that was where the footsteps hurrying down the hillside beside her were heading. They passed within thirty feet of her blind, but their gazes were on their prize.
There were two men; both dressed in camouflage pants and flannel shirts, rifles slung over their shoulders, handguns holstered against their thighs. They were both large and lean with bushy beards and straggly hair.
Still hoping she could continue to avoid detection but get evidence of their crime, she bent to her camera again and held down the shutter button. The soft clicking whir of her camera wouldn’t be detectable above the stomping of their boots and their voices as they congratulated themselves on their kill.
She watched, pausing her finger when they grew quiet, as they quickly cut the wolf’s throat to quicken its end, something she was grateful for. Then they promptly began processing the animal, cutting away its beautiful pelt.
While her stomach churned at the gruesome sight, something from beyond the pair caught her attention. A large black animal. Another wolf? She held her breath, hoping it would fade into the tree line, but it was rushing forward and barking… A dog?
The two men glanced behind them, then snagged the weapons they’d laid on the grass beside them. As one man raised his gun, a figure rushed out of the trees.
She tilted her camera, refocusing the lens on the man running behind the dog, a handgun held in one hand as he raised the other to point at the men.
“Don’t you fucking try it!” he shouted at the men. “Pierce! Fuss!”
The dog halted abruptly, spun, and rushed back to the man who raised his handgun, placing the butt in his palm and holding his weapon closer to his body than most actors in cop shows did. He looked like he knew what he was doing as he glared at the men rising from beside the wolf they’d just slaughtered. Although dressed similarly to the two poachers, and bearded as well, something about his stance said the man was military or law enforcement.
The pair, the man and the dog, advanced slowly. When they halted a few feet away from the hunters, he bit out a command, “Pass Auf!”
The dog’s body tensed, his gaze darting between the two hunters.
“He won’t go for your nuts unless you move,” the man said without a hint of humor.
The poachers glanced between them, but something about the deadly glare of the man who held them in his sights must have swayed them from deciding to fight. They tossed their weapons to the ground and held up their hands.
“Man, we don’t have any beef with you,” one of the poachers said.
The man with the dog glanced at the partially-processed wolf. “I think park rangers might have a problem with what you’re doing.”
“It’s a goddamn wolf,” the other said, spitting at the ground beside him. “Fucking menaces. They eat our livestock, attack our pets—”
“You two have ranches?” the man said, his hard stare daring them to lie.
“Our friends do,” one of them said and shrugged.
“So, you have no skin in this game. You just come to a national park to hunt because it’s fun?”
“’Tis the season,” one said, then laughed. His gaze narrowed on the man with the dog. “You might wanna be careful, hiking with a dog like that. A man could confuse it with a wolf.”
The other poacher shifted his feet. “Man, you just gonna keep us standing here like this?”
“I got no signal this far into the woods,” the man with the dog said. “Partly why I’m out here. You two have pissed the fuck out of me. All I wanted was peace and fucking quiet. Now, I have to deal with you two.”
Shit, shit, shit. She did not want to reveal her position, but the lone man couldn’t continue to hold those two guys in place. And she had a satellite phone…
As quietly as she could, she picked up her rifle in one hand, her phone in the other, and slowly backed out of her blind.
She cleared her throat, which had all three men and one dog craning their necks to follow the sound. With her rifle held in the crook of her arm, she held up her phone. “I can make a call.”
“Fuck,” one of the hunters said.
“Goddamn photographer,” the other whispered harshly. “Saw her at the ranger station a couple of days back.”
“Probably got us on fucking film,” the other said. His hands started to lower.
“Goddammit,” the man with the dog said a second before one hunter drew quickly from his holster and the other dove sideways to the ground.
The dog launched at the man who’d raised his gun and grabbed his extended arm. The sound of crunching bone was followed by a surprisingly high-pitched scream.
The man who’d pitched sideways pushed up from the ground, grabbed the rifle he’d dropped, and ran straight at her.
Hannah dropped her phone and raised her weapon. Maybe the guy thought she wouldn’t pull the trigger, but she’d just witnessed what he’d done to a wolf. She aimed for his torso and pulled the trigger.
He halted, making a deep grunting sound, then glanced down at his chest. Buckshot pellets had ripped through his shirt, peppering his torso, but the ammo wasn’t meant to kill anything but birds. She’d only brought it with her in case she needed to scare away a bear.
She’d made her single shot, and it wasn’t stopping him. He moved toward her again, his rifle coming up. A shot rang out, and the man crumpled to his knees, screaming as his hand went to his thigh.
“Pierce, aus!” the man shouted to his dog and quickly removed the weapons from the man whose arm was now mangled. Then he moved toward the man who was sobbing as he held his thigh.
“I’m gonna bleed out. You fuckin’ killed me.”
The man with the dog shot a glance at the poacher’s leg. “I didn’t hit an artery. If you stop cryin’, you can use your belt to tie a tourniquet.” He removed the poacher’s weapons and tossed them away. Then his gaze shot to her. “Lady, make that call.”