Ever since I was a little girl I have been fascinated by wolves. A huge part of that might relate to an early childhood memory of listening to Jack London’s Call of the Wild on my grandparent’s record player (yes audiobooks book were once on vinyl too!) I have also watched a number of wonderful documentaries over the years to include National Geographic’s The Rise of Black Wolf and the PBS documentary In The Valley of the Wolves, but my current interest in wolves didn’t surface until the summer before last while I was in Montana researching my cowboy series. After meeting several ranchers who’d told me about recent troubles with wolves preying on livestock, I felt compelled to write a story about it.
Those of you who have read my books already know that I enjoy incorporating a strong dose of reality into all of my stories – whether historical or contemporary. Given the current controversy of wolf conservation I wanted to write a romance featuring two strong and passionate characters who stand on opposites sides of this issue (and everything else). I knew I would be taking a huge risk when I chose this potentially polarizing topic, but felt a deep desire to show how intelligent and caring people can always find a way to meet in the middle. This spirit of compromise and mutual respect is the overriding theme of my forthcoming release SHARP SHOOTIN’ COWBOY (June 2, 2015).
TAKE YOUR BEST SHOT, COWBOY…
Weary warrior… After eight years as a Marine sniper, war-scarred Reid Everett is back in his native Wyoming. He knows and loves this rugged land, so working for wildlife services to reduce the booming wolf population suits him to a T.
Caring crusader… Wildlife biologist Haley Cooper is desperate to make a difference. Leaving the world of academia behind, she accepts a position as a wolf advocate to protect the animals she loves.
Raw attraction… Their jobs set them on a collision course, but chemistry sparks like wildfire between Reid and Haley. They’ll have to brave some rough territory if they hope to reconcile their polarizing views with a passion that won’t be denied.
Haley had been scanning the GPS reports all morning, correlating every collared wolf with its last tracked position on her digital map. She did this daily, notifying Wildlife services whenever a wolf encroached on areas occupied by grazing livestock. It was a tedious task but necessary to protect both wolves and cattle. She also hoped her efforts would help to build a better rapport with the ranching community, not that she’d expected much progress on that front.
She paused with a frown when she came to number four hundred forty two, the main breeding female she’d studied for her doctoral dissertation. She shoved the report aside to pull out the one from the day before that showed four forty two deep in the Whiskey Mountains. Impossible! Although a wolf on the hunt could easily cover fifty miles in a day, there was no way in hell she’d travelled into the city of Jackson.
Haley’s throat tightened. The positioning signal could mean only one thing—Cinderella was dead.
With only seventy two hours to report the wolf incident, Reid drove into Jackson. He’d already filed the compulsory report to the Board of Outfitters in Cheyenne Although an investigation would still follow, the Board had assured Reid that the hunter would be charged, but there wouldn’t be any upshot for Reid’s mercy kill. He knew the board had gone easy on him due to his family’s upstanding reputation, but he still had to turn in the collar to Wyoming Game and Fish.
“Ah, Reid! I’d heard you were back.” Jim Banks, the regional chief of WGF extended his hand with a smile. “I’m glad to see you home safe.”
“You might not be so happy to see me once you know why I’m here,” Reid replied.
“And why’s that?”
Reid held up the radio collar. “An over-zealous trophy hunter. I’ve already made my report to the Board of Outfitters.”
“I see.” Jim accepted the collar with a grimace. “Unfortunately, I’m not handling wolves anymore. We have a new federal liaison who’s overseeing wolf management. C’mon. Let me introduce you to her.”
Reid didn’t relish meeting the new liaison with news of a dead wolf, but he figured the circumstances were best explained in person. There was no honest way around it. Jim continued with a few more trite remarks as he led Reid down a short hallway of offices.
They stopped at the last door where a tiny blonde sat behind a desk frowning over a stack of papers. Jim knocked. She looked up. Her gaze flickered from Jim to Reid and then stuck. Her eyes widened and her smile froze.
Holy shit. It couldn’t be.
Reid’s chest seized as he honed in on a face he’d never forgotten.
She was a few years older now, wore her hair differently, and hid her pretty green eyes behind ugly glasses, but he’d recognize her anywhere. He’d never expected to see her again. “Reid,” Jim’s voice jarred him out of his shock. “I’d like to introduce Dr. Haley Cooper. Dr. Cooper, this is Reid Everett. His family runs one of the oldest backcountry hunting outfits in the region.”
Oh my God. It’s him. I can’t breathe.
Recognition simultaneously numbed her mind and struck her dumb. What were the chances of running into Reid Everett after all this time? She’d never even considered the possibility when she’d accepted the job.
Haley cleared her throat, but her voice still emerged as a barely audible croak. “Mr. Everett and I are already acquainted. We met several years ago in California.”
Reid raised a brow. “So you haven’t forgotten?”
“No,” she said. “I haven’t forgotten.” Although she’d done her best to, his image had never faded in her mind. It was still there as crystal clear as it had been at their parting. But this man, the one who seemed to use up all the air in her office, was so changed that she might not have known him without the introduction.
His hair was longer and lighter, and his face was leaner, the angles sharper. There was a hardness to his mouth and gone was the hint of humor from his hazel eyes. He’d always dwarfed her, but now seemed so much bigger. But it wasn’t just his appearance, there was something different in his whole demeanor, an edge that he’d never had before.
“What a coincidence,” Jim remarked oblivious to the tension that charged the air. “Since you know each other, perhaps Reid here would like to orient you to the region in my place? Dr. Cooper has yet to get the lay of the land,” he explained to Reid, who still hadn’t even blinked.
“There’s really no need,” she blurted. “I know the area quite well already. I spent two years in Yosemite and Grand Teton National Parks when I was working on my dissertation.”
“Maybe you know the geography,” Jim countered, “but you don’t know the people. The ranchers and outfitters here are a close knit community. The Everetts know them all. I can’t think of anyone better suited to be your guide.” He chuckled. “No pun intended.”
“I’d be pleased to show Dr. Cooper around,” Reid replied in a soft, deep baritone that sent ripples over her skin.
“Another time, maybe,” she replied tightly. “I have a lot to do. I’m really swamped.”
“Then I’m sorry to add to your burden,” Jim said.
“What do you mean?” Even as she asked, her gaze tracked to the radio collar in his hands. “Oh my God! What happened?”
“Reid here can fill you in. No doubt the two of you have a lot of catching up to do anyway. Guess I’ll leave you to your business now. Good to see you again, Reid.” Jim laid the collar on her desk, tipped his hat, and left.
Haley stared helplessly after him, struggling to maintain her equilibrium and silently cursing him for leaving her alone with Reid. First she’d received the shock of seeing him again and now had a dead study subject to deal with? And not just any subject. She picked up the collar, tracing the number with her fingers, shutting her eyes on a whisper. “Cinderella.”
Reid’s brows pulled together. “Come again?”
“This collar belongs…belonged… to four- forty- two F. I was part of the team who captured and collared her as a pup. We called her Cinderella.”
“Unusual name for a wolf,” he remarked. “I could see maybe Red Riding Hood, but Cinderella?”
“She was an unusual specimen, an underling who rose to become the alpha female of one of the largest and most powerful wolf packs in the Tetons. Thousands of wolf-watchers loved her. National Geographic even made a documentary about her. She did so many things wolves don’t do. I built my entire doctoral dissertation around her.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said softly.
Haley stared at the GPS collar fighting back tears. “You couldn’t possibly understand.”
“Why would you say that?” Reid propped a hip on the edge of her desk. “Do you think I don’t care about animals just because I hunt? You couldn’t be more wrong, Dr. Cooper. I happen to love all animals and have a special regard for wolves and bears and big cats. But I also adhere to the belief that apex predators need to be kept in check for their own safety as well as humans.”
“By killing them, Reid?” she snapped. He was so different. They both were. But some things hadn’t changed. They were still opposite poles of the magnet.
“Sometimes. But only when the numbers require it. Hunting itself isn’t evil. It’s humane if done responsibly. In the end, I think you and I both want that the same thing—for people and wildlife to coexist. We just go about it in different ways.”
“This wolf was central to the project I’m working on,” she continued tersely. “She’s part of the reason I came here. I had hoped for several more years to study her.” She looked up at Reid with a sick churning in her gut. “Wait a minute. What do you have to do with all this?”
“I’m the one who turned the collar in.”
“You were there?”
“Yes. I was there.”
She fired off the next question before even taking a breath. “What happened to her?”
He doffed his hat and raked a hand through his hair with a heavy sigh. “She was shot during an elk expedition.”
“Shot? But it’s illegal to hunt wolves in Wyoming. In fact, it’s a felony. The ESA is very specific about this. It prohibits harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing or collecting any listed species. I promise you, if this was a willful rather than accidental kill, someone’s gonna pay.”