Branded by Lust: 4 (Night Seekers)

BOOK: Branded by Lust: 4 (Night Seekers)
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Branded by Lust

Desiree
Holt

 

Book four in the Night Seekers series.

 

Logan Tanner is on a mission to
track down the legendary Chupacabra. Part of Night Seekers, a group of former
law enforcement members who’ve lost loved ones to the terrifying devil beast,
Logan will stop at nothing to find and eliminate the threat. Until a
complication arises—a
sexy
complication by the name of Rebecca Black, a
recent addition to the team, equally determined to kill the monster wreaking
havoc in the Montana wilderness.

Bound by purpose, neither Logan nor
Rebecca are prepared for the red-hot chemistry between them; the lust that’s
turning into love. But hunting the Chupacabra is dangerous work…perhaps a task
too dangerous for their passion to endure.

 

A
Romantica®
paranormal erotic romance
from Ellora’s Cave

 

Branded by Lust
Desiree Holt

 

Prologue

 

The cold Montana wind blew across the desolate landscape.
The area was dotted with giant ponderosa pines and the peaks of the many
mountain ranges that made up the rugged Continental Divide glistened in the
sun. In the summer, grasses grew fragrantly in prairies between the mountains,
the green softening the harshness of the land. But in the winter it was a cruel
setting, covered with snow that piled in deeper and deeper drifts.

The area was sparsely populated—miniscule towns, often with
a population of less than a thousand, with just a few widely scattered larger
cities. The people ranched either sheep or cattle and a few other hardier souls
provided support for those industries. Nearly a third of the state was national
forest, protected by government regulations with hunting severely regulated.

There just wasn’t a lot of traffic anywhere, making it a
fertile hunting ground for feral beasts. Like the devil, the legendary
Chupacabra, which was creeping from the cave in one of the mountains where it
had been sleeping after temporarily slaking its bloodlust on a bighorn sheep.

The ugly, weirdly shaped creature stretched and looked
around casually. The sight of its unholy body alone was enough to scare both
animals and people. A head resembling a coyote’s was distinguished by blood-red
pupils and sharp fangs that extended over the lower lip. Its chest appeared to
be a series of metal-like bands and its short arms and longer, more muscular
legs were covered with a thick growth of fur. It was definitely the stuff of
nightmares.

Drawing in a deep lungful of air, it filtered the different
scents carried by the wind, seeking the distinct aroma of humans. In this
desolate wilderness it hadn’t found very many. Foraging in the closest small
town was a last resort, the taboo programmed into its brain circuits. But
approaching any of the widely scattered ranches was also difficult, the absence
of trees made stealth almost impossible. But the urge was growing stronger
every day. If it wasn’t satisfied soon the results might be devastating.

As it stood in the buffeting force of the winter wind a
faint sound reached its ears, the sound awakening something familiar. The devil
beast cocked its head and waited as the growling sound drew closer. Then it
came into sight and the beast almost roared with satisfaction. Here was the
prey coming directly into its lair. Backing slightly into the opening of the
cave, the Chupacabra watched. And waited.

* * * * *

Randy Parker cursed steadily as he maneuvered his four-wheel
ATV up the rocky path. With the track kit he’d added for the winter the snow
wasn’t a deterrent and he could go pretty much anywhere. Most of the time he
loved his job as a park ranger. He even loved the fact that he got to work in
his home state. He and four other rangers were responsible for the more than
one million miles that comprised the magnificent Glacier National Park and he
took pride in the way they patrolled and maintained it. But on days like this
when the bitter Montana wind could chill you to the bone he wondered if
someplace warm like Hawaii might not have been a better choice.

Today he was checking on the bighorn sheep, known as the
true monarch of the Rocky Mountains. This was not a task for the timid.
Bighorns lived amid cliff faces and scrambling talus slopes at altitudes that
caused most mortals to gasp for oxygen. Among all North American game species, this
animal exemplified the essence of wilderness and dignity. Most hunters
considered bighorns to be the most regal of all big game animals. Few creatures
could survive where they thrive. In the space between forests and sky, between
earth and the heavens, there is a place where dreams come true and memories are
etched indelibly on the mind and in the heart of the hunter.

A party of extreme hikers had reported finding the carcass
of a bighorn on their path, which pissed Randy off big time. Hunting season for
the majestic animals was limited to September, for both guns and bow and arrow.
To Randy that meant poachers were roaming his national parkland and that really
got his back up. He considered the land and the animals his personal obligation
to protect and he wasn’t about to let some assholes think they could get away
with it.

He had pushed the ATV almost two miles up the trail before
he found what was left of the sheep. One look told him whatever had gotten the
animal sure wasn’t poachers. They might have cut off the head for the trophy
horns and left the carcass, but this…this was something more. Whatever had
attacked the animal had ripped it from stem to stern. There wasn’t a drop of
blood anywhere, very unusual for this kind of attack. At this temperature it
would have frozen practically at once. The entrails had been yanked from the
body and were frozen to the pelt.

Randy felt sick. He had to wonder what kind of animal had
done this. There were certainly enough grizzly bears around, but a grizzly
would have devoured the meat and there would have been evidence of blood. There
were also two unexplained puncture wounds at the center of the animal’s throat.

Sighing at the wanton destruction, Randy turned back to his
ATV to pull his camera out of its weatherproof bag. He’d take pictures to
document this along with his report, then check with the other rangers to see
if they’d found anything similar. He heard the roar only seconds before the
creature from hell leaped from the cave and was on him. He dropped the camera,
eyes wide with shock, as it sank its fangs into his neck.

Chapter One

 

The sounds of hammers and saws were silent for a change at
Desolation Ranch. It was Sunday—a day off for the workers, as well as a day for
celebration. Night Seekers and their founder, Craig Stafford, were enjoying a
champagne brunch after the ceremony uniting Sophia Black and Clint Beltaire in
marriage.

“This place is getting to be a regular marriage central,”
Stafford joked, lifting his champagne flute in a toast. “I want you to know I
couldn’t be more pleased for all of you. Our core family continues to grow and
each one of you has brought something special to it. I salute you.”

They all raised their glasses and drank.

“I just wish we were celebrating the end of the hunt for the
Chupacabra,” Sophia said, her arm linked through Clint’s.

“Don’t we all,” her sister Rebecca echoed.

Rebecca was another of the newest additions to the team. She
had worked with Sophia and her partner Logan Tanner, investigating the recent
Chupacabra killings in the north of Maine. Craig was smart enough to know the
sisters wanted to be together and also that Rebecca had special skills Night
Seekers could use. Besides, she was already aware how many of the team were
shifters and took their transformation into wolf form matter-of-factly, a real
plus.

Craig himself was a shifter who had lost his wife and child
to the devil beast. When all normal channels had failed to track down the monster
and kill it, he’d created Night Seekers and funded it from his vast financial
resources. Eradicating the nightmarish creature was now his main mission in
life.

Recruiting key people in various branches of law enforcement
who had also lost someone to the Chupacabra, he had put together the original
team of eight people—two humans and six shifters. Since then Jonah Grey and
Mark Guitron had married. Chloe, Mark’s wife, was also a shifter. And now here
came Clint, a black wolf in his other form, who could run with the pack when
needed and who had bought a local bar, giving them someplace to hang out
besides the ranch.

All the building going on was to provide private living
quarters for the married couples. The original idea had been to add suites onto
the main house but realizing they needed privacy, especially considering the
strains of their job, he’d scrapped that and was building each of them a small
house. It was important to him that they be as comfortable as possible. The
work they did was grueling and horrifying.

“I don’t suppose there’s been any word on Melinda?” a soft
voice asked.

Craig turned to see Chloe Guitron beside him, her eyes
clouded with perpetual sadness. She and her closest friend Melinda had been
putting together a photography book in Zapata County in South Texas when
Melinda disappeared.

“We’re still searching,” Craig told her. “I have men tracing
every possible lead and clue.”

“It happened just at the moment those Chupacabra killings
occurred in Zapata,” she reminded him, “and Mark was the only one who believed
she’d been taken by the beast.”

Craig nodded. “With no body it was a hard case for the
sheriff to wrap his mind around.”

“But Mark believed me. So did you. Only…”

“Yes, only our theory now is that someone is breeding these
creatures from hell and whoever it is has taken Melinda.”

No trace had been found of the woman although Craig had
pulled out all the stops. Now he had people out in cyberspace tracking and
tracing every mention of the devil beast and trying to find where its master
lair might be.

Chloe brushed at a tear that tracked down her cheek. “I know
this is a terrible thing to say, but if that’s the case I’d almost rather she
was dead.”

Craig squeezed her shoulder gently. “Let’s not go there yet.
And I’ll keep you in the loop on everything. I promise.”

“You okay, sweetheart?” Mark had come up to stand beside
her, looping his arm around her shoulders. “Thinking of Melinda?”

She nodded. “I’m sorry. I just can’t help it.”

He kissed her forehead. “No apology necessary. We’ll find
her. I promise.”

Dakota Grey, Jonah’s wife, came up to her and handed her a
tiny satin bag tied with a ribbon. “For you. Some special herbs to help with
the stress.”

One of Dakota’s special skills was as an herbalist. Behind
the ranch house she had planted the special herbs the shifters needed to
maintain biological balance in their bodies. They were especially helpful when
they found themselves in places where shifting was impossible for long
stretches of time.

“Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

“I think it’s time for me to make the official toast to the
bride and groom,” Craig said.

But before he could move to the center of the patio a loud
bell went off inside the main room of the ranch, its sound floating out through
the open patio doors. Everyone froze in position.

“That’s an incoming message,” Ric Garza, the team leader,
said. “Everyone hold on while I check it.”

He put down his champagne and headed to the massive
communications setup. He’d rigged it so when a fax or email or video message
was coming through and they were out of the room—like now—a warning bell let
them know something important was coming through.

Impatience ran through the group as they all waited for him
to return. In seconds he was back holding a sheet from the fax machine.

“Logan?” He looked up at the former Montana sheriff. “It’s
from your brother-in-law. Greg Mattison.”

Logan’s brother Wade and sister-in-law Julie had been killed
by the Chupacabra. Logan had never heard of the beast until the sheriff’s
department couldn’t figure out what had killed them and Logan started doing
research on his own. All searches led to the stories of the devil beast, with
graphic details of the condition of the different bodies. But no one had been
willing to listen to him, brushing his information off as unsubstantiated
legends. He’d been looking for someplace to put his rage when the call came
about Night Seekers.

Now he held out his hand. “Let me see?” He scanned the page
quickly, grim lines etching his face. “He says there’s been another killing in
the area. A ranger in Glacier National Park.” He looked at everyone watching
him. “About fifteen miles from Greg’s ranch.”

“He’s setting up a video call in fifteen minutes,” Ric told
him. “I hate to break up the wedding festivities but I think we all need to be
present.”

“Clint? Sophia? I’m sorry to break up the wedding reception
this way.” Logan kissed her on the cheek. “But I know both of you are as
dedicated to this hunt as the rest of us.”

“Absolutely,” Sophia assured him. “You know that better than
anyone.”

They had worked together on the killings in Maine—fighting
police skepticism as usual—until there was no other answer to be had. And they
thought once again they’d killed the beast. But Melinda was still missing and
now here was another body.

“I think we should all go inside and be ready for Greg’s
call.”

Craig began urging them into the main room. The living and dining
rooms of the house had long ago been gutted and a state-of-the-art
communications setup installed. No matter where any Night Seeker was,
connection could be made with some kind of electronic means.

Each member of the team carried both a regular cell phone
and an encrypted one. If one of them was going to be in an area where cell
phone reception was expected to be spotty or nonexistent, the team had a full
supply of satellite phones and a dish on the roof that the military would envy.
Craig had also had his technical people set up each of their laptops to connect
with the sat phones so no matter where any of them were a video link could be
established if necessary.

In what they jokingly called the “war room” a shelf had been
installed the length of one wall. It held a variety of keyboards, all connected
to the central system so more than one team member at a time could work.

They had just recently installed components for surface
computing, a process where users worked on touch-sensitive screens rather than
standard keyboards, and the information could be swiped to a designated screen,
visible to everyone. Mounted on the wall was a massive monitor screen, with
smaller screens to the left and right of it. The arrangements allowed more than
one image to be displayed at a time and different users to work on simultaneous
projects.

At the moment text was scrolling rapidly down four different
screens, displaying the results of the various ongoing searches. The central
monitor screen was blank, but in seconds Ric had it live and ready to receive. Everyone
had just taken a seat at the conference table facing the monitors when the
alarm rang again and in seconds Greg Mattison’s rugged face appeared on the
screen.

He cleared his throat. “Sorry to break in on everyone this
way,” he apologized. “But I thought this was important enough to pass along
right away.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Logan assured him.

“Hey, bro.” Greg forced a smile. “Sorry I’m bringing bad
news into your life again.”

“That’s what we’re here for. So what have you got?”

Greg held up a color photo, moving it so it filled most of
the screen. Even though everyone in the room had seen the bodies of Chupacabra
victims it still didn’t immunize them to the horror whenever they saw one
again. And this one was no exception. The body of the park ranger was exactly
like all the others—puncture marks on the neck, body ripped open the length of
the torso, entrails pulled through the opening.

“He’d gone up one of the mountain hiking trails after a
report of a dead bighorn sheep,” Greg went on. “We found the information on his
desk. That’s how we knew where to look for him when he didn’t come back to his
station.”

“And the bighorn?” Ric asked.

“Same thing. We found the carcass practically next to
Randy’s body.”

“So it’s following the pattern,” Jonah put in. “Killing wild
animals until it finds its human prey.”

“Yes. I’m checking to see if there are any other remains in
the area.”

“You know it kills in threes,” Logan reminded him. Right
after he’d found the bodies of his sister Claire and her husband Jed, another
rancher had been found, his body in the same condition.

“I suppose it’s too much to hope the sheriff’s more willing
to listen this time,” Logan growled.

“I think it’s just too much for him to take in, Logan.” Greg
had removed the photo. Now he rubbed his hand over his face as if trying to
wipe away the image of what he’d seen. “We’re the only ones who discovered the
information to begin with and you know the old saying—if you can’t see it,
smell it or touch it then it isn’t real.”

“It’s damn real,” Logan spat. “He saw Claire’s and Jed’s
bodies just like we did. No one at the time could pinpoint any known animal
that kills that way.”

“Well, things haven’t changed. What I want to know is if you
can come up here. If your theory is right we can be expecting two more human
kills.”

“It’s more than a theory,” Ric broke in. “We have
statistical proof to back it up. I can email or fax everything to you if it
will help.”

Greg shook his head. ”I don’t think it will do a damn bit of
good. The sheriff already made it plain he doesn’t want any of what he calls
our weirdo theories. And he’ll still be singing that song when more victims
turn up. So. Do you think you can get up here?”

Craig leaned forward. “Greg? Craig Stafford here. I’m the
one who formed Night Seekers and got Logan involved. I definitely think he
needs to be up there working this. We’re learning what to look for and some
semblance of a tracking procedure. Give us a few minutes here and we’ll call
you back with details. Keep your computer on with the video.”

Everyone could see the visible easing of tension on Greg’s
face. “Thank you, sir. I really appreciate it.”

“That’s what we do. Stand by.”

Ric hit a button. The screen went dark and then he moved to
a seat at the table.

Craig looked at Logan. “How soon can you be ready to leave?”

“How soon can you make travel arrangements? I’ll stay at my
ranch so no accommodations will be needed.” His laugh was dry. “My ranch
manager will probably tell me to stay out of his business, I haven’t been there
in so long. But it will be good to get back there for a little while.”

“He does a good job for you?” Craig asked.

Logan nodded. “He’s been there since I bought the ranch ten
years ago. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

“Good. That’s good. Okay, first things first. I’m going to
send a partner with you. It worked out well in Maine and I think it will help
in Montana. Besides, it’s a good opportunity for some on-the-job training.”

“Sir?” Logan frowned.

“I’m sending Rebecca with you.” He looked at the slender
blonde. “Think you’re ready for your first assignment?”

She grinned. “I was born ready, Mr. Stafford.”

“Craig. Please. As you’ve seen we’re pretty informal here.
Can you be ready in half an hour?”

“Absolutely.” She glanced at Logan who was watching her with
a strange expression on his face. “Unless…Logan, are you okay with this?”

“You bet. We did well together in Maine.” He chuckled. “Even
if you were still with the staties at the time.” He turned back to Craig. “I’ll
let John Turner, my manager, know to expect us. His wife will make sure the
rooms are made up and the house is stocked. And we’ll only need transport to
the ranch. After that I’ve got my own vehicles.”

“All right. I’ll get the helicopter here in thirty minutes
and call the pilot on duty for the jet this week to gas up and be ready. You’ll
fly into Billings, right?”

“That’s correct.”

“Ric, get Greg back and have him scan and email those photos
to us right away. Someone get on one of the computers and search for anything
and everything that’s been picked up about this killing. Jonah, start with the
cases you worked in Maverick County and put a folder together for Logan and
Rebecca to take with them. Mark, get our team set up with laptops, tablets, cell
phones and sat phones and pack them in waterproof bags. Thirty minutes, people.
Let’s move.”

BOOK: Branded by Lust: 4 (Night Seekers)
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