First Chapter of WILD REFUGE
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To begin with, the dead body was not my fault.
I’d been daydreaming, the sun beaming through the rustling tree branches onto my hat, when I smelled it. The air around me blossomed with the subtle rotting scent of meat left on the counter too long, or a squirrel decaying under the porch. I inhaled deeply, letting the smell fill my nostrils.
With a gasping wheeze, I sneezed. This was not a squirrel.
I paused, cocking my head, and tried to trace the origins of the stench. While patrolling the backcountry trail as a Yellowstone Park Ranger, I had a handful of jobs. I needed to make sure the trail was navigable, which it was. And I needed the trail to be safe, which it probably wasn’t, not if animal remains rotted nearby. Bear-kills shut down trails in the park; it was never a good idea to go near a carcass guarded by a 600-pound predator.
I took a few more steps along the trail before I froze. A low growl rolled forward from the bushes to my left and I watched the bushes part as a very large black bear stepped into view. Its snout gleamed red and behind the bear’s imposing body, I saw a bloody mass, bones glistening wetly, lying on the forest floor.
Staring into the watchful eyes of the animal, I debated my odds. If it was a wild bear, I needed to get out of its vicinity immediately without triggering its chase instincts.
If it wasn’t a wild bear, I was in trouble. I was on national park property, neutral ground, but I was the only person around to enforce that rule. Pack shifters stayed in their territory, which was anywhere outside of the park, and I stayed in mine. Only lately, I’d been catching more and more of them where they weren’t supposed to be. So far, I’d avoided a confrontation, but maybe that was the problem.
If the bear in front of me was a shifter, they were trespassing and I could chase them off, if I wanted to take on a bear. I knew I could do it easily if I assumed my secret shape, my Beast, but that would lead to a lot of questions that I didn’t want to answer.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know that much about shifters, despite the fact that I was one, sort of. This bear appeared to be fully animal, with dark sable fur, a narrow snout, and rounded, furry ears. It stood on all fours in the middle of the hiking trail, taking up the space aggressively. It snorted, crimson gristle flossed between its teeth, and I caught another strong whiff of decay.
Calling my own wild nature to the surface, I sucked in a deep breath, sampling the scents of the forest around me. My puma’s sensitive nose filtered out the pine and spruce trees, the sap, the decomposition, and focused on the musky, heavy smell of the bear.
I’d been in Yellowstone now for four months and I’d encountered a lot of bears. The wild ones smelled natural, like sweet nuts and thick fur. The one bear shifter that I knew pretty well, Darcy, in her bear form smelled like the same fur and nuttiness, plus her basic human scent.
This bear on the path smelled spicy, like it had rolled in yarrow. That smell told me nothing helpful.
Eyeing it, I made a decision. My heart beating fast, I pulled the canister of bear spray from my belt and advanced. Banking on the fact that a shifter would know exactly what the contents of the can could do, I pointed it at the bear on the path.
It didn’t move. Okay, I decided, that’s a real bear. I stopped my forward movement as it lowered its head and pawed at the ground. It didn’t like that I was closer now. Me either, buddy, I whispered to myself.
Now that I was closer though, I could make out more clearly the carcass it guarded. Beyond the bear’s ruffling fur I saw a sneaker and a ripped flannel shirt, dark green, beside the gory remains. My stomach sank and goosebumps popped up all over my skin.
Keeping the bear spray in front of me, I backed up again.
I needed the bear off of the body and that wasn’t going to happen unless I really, really irritated it. I was going to have to spray it.
The bear made a moaning sound and laid back its ears. I dropped my eyes from its face, trying to appear less aggressive, but it was too late. With a sharp woof, the bear charged me.
Adrenaline flooded my body and I had to fight back my nearly overwhelming urge to shift. Inside, my puma screamed. My hands trembled on the can in front of my face as the bear’s hugely muscled body rippled with every rushing stride toward me.
I stood my ground, waiting until the bear was close enough, its heaving breath like an open oven blasting my face, before I sprayed it in the eyes and nose. The spicy cloud enveloped the bear in a grayish-red haze and it abruptly skidded to a halt, letting out a high-pitched squeal. I winced in sympathy.
Backing up, it pawed at its face, bawling. I advanced, starting to shout at it, and waved my arms in the air. That was enough. With a parting bellow, the bear took off into the bushes on the far side of the trail.
Drawing in a deep breath, nearly choking myself on the remnants of the pepper cloud in the air, I tucked the spray back into my belt loop and pulled out my radio.
As I cleared my throat, about to report my location to the ranger base, a new, unnatural sound penetrated my adrenaline fog.
Looking to the left, beyond the body, I saw a man step out of the trees, clapping his hands slowly and smirking at me. He had a neat, brown beard, dark, curly hair, and very hairy forearms.
“Well done,” he said, “Ranger Barbie.”
Blinking at him, I tried to regroup. Who was he? Was he a threat? How did his presence relate to the dead body? And why had he called me that name? Only one other person had called me that before, and she was bad news.
Coughing, my eyes tearing as the last of the pepper spray dissipated, I said, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The man, dressed in jeans, hiking boots, and a dark blue t-shirt, pointed at the pieces of the human body in between us. “I brought that for you. Unfortunately, you were slower hiking here than I thought. So now our friend is a little tainted with bear spit.”
“Brought it for me?” I repeated, confusion making my voice higher than usual. “A dead body? Why?”
“Just following instructions,” the man answered. He tapped the side of his temple. “We found this one, badly hurt but still alive, in our territory. He seemed determined to head this way, so my alpha sent me to follow him and see what happened. He died this morning, still crawling in this direction, and I carried him the rest of the way to the border.”
The man brushed his hands together briskly. “So, there you go.” He turned like he was about to disappear into the trees again.
“Wait!” I called out, moving to intercept him. “Who are you? Why should I believe you didn’t kill him?”
The man paused, baring his teeth at me and I hesitated. “My name’s Soren. I’m a West Yellowstone pack beta. My alpha can vouch for me. I didn’t kill this man, nor do I know who did. He’s one of the exiles, we believe, so we won’t be investigating.”
I started to step closer again, determined to get more answers, when his cooperative demeanor changed. He flexed his shoulders, showing off rippling biceps, and glared—a sheen of golden-green rolled across his irises. “Stay back. Or I’ll make that beat-down the Jackson Hole betas gave you look like a game of patty-cake.”
I caught a hint of his changed scent—a wolf.
My hackles rose and I resisted the instinct to bare my own teeth. I didn’t want to engage any further. I wasn’t sure who would win a fight between us, either in our human or animal forms, and my third form was my secret weapon. I wouldn’t be showing it off that day.
Soren snorted at me as I took a step back. “That’s what I heard about you, Ranger Barbie,” he said dismissively. “All talk and no action.”
“Sienna,” I growled out. “My name is Sienna.” I swallowed hard, pushing my puma down inside of me. She hissed and spat, eager to fight, but it wasn’t worth it. I was hiding out for a reason.
The stranger tossed up a careless hand, turned away again, and melted into the trees.
I watched his form disappear into the green landscape and my puma snarled while my brain whirled in confusion. The West Yellowstone pack found a wounded man, presumably another shifter since they didn’t call the human police, and followed him here, into the park, where he died. Why?
Huffing out a breath, I rolled my shoulders. The human police would investigate, of course, but they didn’t know what I knew about the packs and the territory wars.
Stepping closer to the bear-stripped remains, I eyed the scene. Although the man’s rib cage lay split open, his head appeared to be mostly intact. He was a young man, with a shock of reddish-blond hair, but I didn’t recognize him.
I felt relieved that I didn’t know him. I could just walk away, I argued with myself. I didn’t need to get involved. My track record was hit or miss for helping the exile shifters in the park anyway.
The gore of the scene churned my stomach. Turning around, I pulled my radio from my belt once more and called into ranger headquarters, reporting my find.
“Copy that, Ranger Wilder. Sit tight. We’ll send a response team immediately. Watch for that bear to circle back.”
Clipping the radio back into its holster, I looked around the wooded area where the man’s body lay. I didn’t want to contaminate the crime scene, if forensics could get anything from the body after the bear’s predations, but I desperately wanted to figure out what was going on. If there was a shifter territory war brewing on Yellowstone’s western border, I needed to know so I could steer clear.
I had some time before the other rangers arrived, I reasoned. I could sniff the scene.
I glanced around the forest—it was all new growth. I could see the tall, blackened lodgepole trunks, like matchsticks, amid the vibrantly green seedlings and small shrubs filling in the empty spaces. Yellowstone fire management protocols stated that natural fires, like those started by lightning, were allowed to burn as long as they didn’t threaten people or structures. Letting the woods burn periodically kept the forests healthy and diverse. This forest had burned within the last couple of years, I decided.
The sparseness of the adult trees made it easy to see in all directions. There was no one nearby.
Making up my mind, I moved back toward the trail, away from the body, and quickly stripped off my boots and clothes.
I knelt on the brown and green pine needles along the path, reaching deep inside myself for my calm. Taking deep, steady breaths, I bowed my head and opened the door to my secret soul.
Inside of me, my puma strode forward, her powerfully muscled body gleaming in shades of brown, tan, and gray. I called her forth and we merged. My hands turned to paws with sharp claws before my eyes and I felt my body shift, bend, and break into my second form.
The pain was sharp but brief and when I blinked again, I looked through keen eyes as new sounds flooded my ears. I could hear the trespassing shifter walking west, the bird calls of chickadees and warblers in the forest canopy, and my cell phone ringing on vibrate in my pants pocket. My paws pressed into the dirt of the trail with delicate strength.
Padding back to where the broken body lay in the dirt, I looked at the scene through my puma senses. The stench of blood and bear musk drenched the air. Nosing closer to the man’s untouched face and hair, I inhaled, catching aftershave and some familiar animal. My human mind wanted to identify it as a cow scent, but my puma knew better. It was an elk odor.
This dead young man smelled like an elk. Was he an elk shifter? Did he live in the national park, like me, finding it a place of refuge from the packs? Why and how had he been murdered?
I investigated the body as best as I could without touching it. Where the bear had been gnawing at him, in the stomach area, there was a scent of lead and steel. He’d been shot, I guessed.
My ears rotating, I heard the distant sound of a helicopter approaching, still several miles away.
Backing away from the body, I paced to my pile of clothes and shifted once more into my human form, grimacing through the pain.
After I dressed, I saw a missed call on my phone from Nick. Grimacing again, I wondered what I could tell him. Nick Ryan was a law enforcement ranger in Yellowstone and my sort-of boyfriend. We’d been seeing each other off and on for a few months now, whenever we were both free and feeling social. I was a loner and Nick was busy, so it didn’t happen often, though I liked him well enough. He was handsome and solid, and he didn’t ask me for more than I could give.
He’d probably heard my name associated with this situation and was calling with questions. It wasn’t the first body I’d found in the park since I started working there this spring.
When I picked up the phone again though, I didn’t call Nick.
“Jordan, hey, quick question,” I said when my friend answered. Jordan was a backcountry ranger like me, and a lynx shifter. “Do you know of any elk shifters living in the park?”
Jordan took a long moment to think. Finally, she hesitantly said, “Maybe? I think I heard about a volunteer at Old Faithful this summer that’s an elk? Let me call Darcy and check with her. I’ll let you know.”
I thanked her and hung up, staring at my phone.
I shouldn’t do it. I’d been dodging his calls for months now. But he might have answers. Sighing, I dialed anyway.
The phone rang for a few seconds and I debated hanging up, my finger hovering over the red button.
“Sienna,” a masculine, voice answered, purring with satisfaction.
“August,” I replied, successfully keeping the tremor out of my voice when I heard those growly tones again. “I need some information.”
“You don’t call; you won’t meet with me; you ignore my gifts—”
I rolled my eyes.
“And now you want a favor?”
“Thank you for the pretty stones,” I said carefully, deliberately avoiding thinking of the gorgeous, polished tiger’s eyes stones he’d been sending me periodically, which I’d carefully hidden away in my bedroom. “You know why I don’t call or meet you. It’s not safe for me.”
I drew in a calming breath. August was an alpha. I couldn’t be around him. He would uncover my secrets and then I’d have to kill him, or kill for him. Neither was acceptable.
“Can you help me or not?”
A long pause filled the line before August finally answered. “Sure. What’s the question?” His tone turned businesslike and I quelled the itch to miss his earlier, warmer inflection.
“Is there a reason you can think of why a pack to the west of the park would kill an elk shifter?”
“An elk?” August repeated, sounding confused. “What happened?”
Quickly, I ran through the scenario with the bear, the body, and the West Yellowstone beta.
“Soren,” August growled once more. “Stay away from him.”
“I’m trying to stay away from all of you,” I retorted. “Why was he out of his territory? Why am I finding so many shifter trails in the park? You’re not supposed to be in here. This is a safe, neutral space.”
August sighed heavily and I felt foreboding fill my chest. “Times change. I’ll talk to you later.”
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