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Authors: Stacey Joy Netzel

Evidence of Trust

BOOK: Evidence of Trust
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EVIDENCE OF TRUST

Colorado Trust Series, book 1

 

by

 

Stacey Joy Netzel

 

Having grown up under the excessive expectations of her CEO father, Brittany Lucas is as resistant to authority as the mustang she’s training for her boss. It’s a fault that lands her in more danger than she bargains for while camping in the back-country of the Rocky Mountain National Park.

 

Ranger Joel Morgan is used to having the upper hand in all his cases—until he runs into the headstrong blond while investigating disturbing incidents of poaching in the park. Brittany’s imprudent lie of omission awakens ghosts in his past, making the sizzling attraction between them unwelcome.

 

As he searches for evidence he can trust her, the monster mutilating wildlife turns his sights on Brittany, and Joel discovers he’ll do whatever it takes to protect her—even give his own life.

 

Dedication

 

This one goes to:

 

Cheryl, from Colorado

Robert, from Texas

 

Cheryl and Robert picked me up from the train station in Denver and gave me my first unofficial tour of the awesome Rocky Mountains as we drove to the lodge in Estes Park. They also made fun of my Wis-
con
-sin accent. I’ll never forget the guy with a Texas twang telling me, “Ya’ll talk funny.”

 

Still…those two summers were amazing!

 

Prologue

 

Trophy size horns. He’d sold one slightly smaller to some pompous blowhard last fall and made a bundle. He didn’t understand the ego trip the idiots got by making up a story to go with their illegally purchased kill, but as long as they were willing to pay top dollar, he didn’t give a shit.

A satisfied sneer curled his lips as he sighted his .22 rifle on the ram. This set of horns would bring in double the money and make at least one house payment and two of his new truck payments. This summer, she’d see he was good enough.

The ram lifted its head in his direction, seventy-five yards out. He sucked in a breath…held completely still once the crosshairs dissected his target…and squeezed the trigger. The animal jumped, then fell to the ground.

When he arrived at the body, his pulse leapt with anticipation. The ram was still alive. He kneeled next to the animal, and the panicked look in its eyes triggered a potent tide of euphoria. It’d been over a week and all he’d been able to think about was this moment. He’d tried to fight the urge, but it called more insistently after each kill.

He slid the razor-sharp blade across the animal’s throat, then closed his eyes in ecstasy as warm blood pumped over his hand and spilled into the damp earth below. Adrenaline raced along his spine, leaving that invigorating tingle in its wake.

Because sometimes…it wasn’t about the money at all.

 

Chapter 1

 

Britt Lucas closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath of crisp mountain air. Clean. Fresh. The cold ground was hard beneath her shoulder blades while the late afternoon sun warmed her face. In the middle of May, spring was definitely in the air, although the higher altitude kept the temperature brisk. With the sun descending toward the snow-capped peaks of her beloved Rockies, and the possibility of snow in the forecast, she’d need a parka over her sweatshirt tonight.

Paelo and the pack mare she’d borrowed from the resort stables grazed on the sweet spring shoots growing where the sun had managed to thaw the winter snow drifts. The mare was hobbled, but her stallion grazed free; a testament to his training.

As her hearing became more acute, she began to distinguish sounds of other animals in the underbrush surrounding the small meadow. Birds chirped and warbled, and she imagined the light wind through the trees was the swish of their wings navigating the budded branches. Across the creek, a squirrel scolded another forest creature.

Every once in a while, with the gentle twitch of the breeze, the sweet fragrance of crushed grass from the grazing horses tickled her nose. Stress seeped away, bit by tiny bit.

Thank you, Mark.

God, she’d needed this after the past month. Time alone to escape the pitying looks of her co-workers, and Daniel moving on with his life as if he hadn’t just turned hers upside down. He had a new girlfriend to go with his new promotion from the same boss who always put business above family. Her father.

Six years ago, more than anything, she’d wanted to work by his side and had no doubts about what her future held. One week ago, she’d graduated with a double degree in her hands, then stood in her brand new office at Lucas Technologies’ Chicago headquarters, dreading the next day, the next week, the next twenty years.

Mark Jennings’ desperate plea for her to give him one last summer at the ranch had given
her
a sanity-saving reprieve. A chance to do some soul searching. She squeezed her eyes tight with the memory of her father’s reaction to her decision, then resolutely pushed him to the back of her mind. His betrayal had been as devastating as Daniel’s, and pleasing him had always been difficult no matter how hard she tried. No sense dwelling on his disapproval.

A faint noise registered on her consciousness. As her brain processed the sound of a zipper, she opened her eyes and turned her head with a frown. Ten yards away, Paelo stood alert, nostrils quivering, his attention focused in the direction of her campsite.

Her pulse leapt at the sight of a man crouched down by her small tent. Her initial thought was one of the park rangers had stopped to say hello, but the black jeans and shirt threw her off—along with the fact he was rummaging through her stuff. Her pulse flared again, this time at the nerve of the man.

A split second before she lunged upright to confront him, his hand rose to adjust his black cowboy hat, and sunlight glinted off metal. Her heart pounded a new, panicked rhythm even as she froze.

A gun.

No ranger uniform.

Mark had mentioned rumors of a poacher in the park, but that was months ago.

The man shifted to glance over his shoulder in her direction. She held her breath, eyes slitted to appear asleep while her mind whirled.
Shit. Shit. Shit
. Her phone was in her backpack, along with her emergency radio. Camping ax by the tree. Nothing of any help was within her reach.

The moment he returned his attention to her tent, she darted her gaze to Paelo. He stood half the distance from her as the man. No saddle, no bridle, but still, if she could reach him, she had a chance. A quick, sweeping glance revealed the man appeared to be alone, and no mount that she could see. Hopefully, he’d hiked in and didn’t have a ride nearby to catch up to her.

Don’t think about that! Move, before you lose the element of surprise.

After a deep breath to steady her frantic pulse, Britt leapt to her feet and bolted for her horse. He shied away from her headlong approach. Hands outstretched, she frantically murmured words to calm him until she could grab a fistful of mane to swing astride.

A shout sounded behind her. As the echo rang loud over the thunderous pounding in her ears, Paelo skittered sideways, his mane wrenched from her grasp and she slammed to the ground as he took off across the clearing.

“Hold!”
Her harsh command brought the stallion to an edgy halt. Scrambling to her feet, she made it halfway to his side when a brutal force struck from behind. Arms banded around her chest as the ground rushed up at an alarming rate.

Air whooshed from her lungs on impact. She lay dazed for a few seconds, desperately gasping for air. The man grabbed her shoulder to flip her onto her back. Any breath she’d managed to drag into her lungs seized in her chest at the sight of the dark, menacing figure looming above.

“Get off me!” She kicked and thrashed, and tried to scratch any part of him she could. “You’ll never get away with this, people know where I am!”

“If you would—”

Her knee connected near his groin, and his grunt of pain made her double her efforts.

“Damn it—knock it off
.”

With a low growl, he captured her wrists to pin her arms above her head. Then he covered her body with his, his weight pressing her into the cold earth from chest to ankle.

His face lowered, his nose barely an inch from hers as her chest heaved from exertion and the weight of his body on hers. She gulped back fear to find herself staring into the most startling pair of eyes she’d ever seen. Light brown, gold around the irises, framed by thick, dark lashes.

Annoyed determination flashed in those eyes, an instant reminder of her vulnerable position. He’d walked into her camp with a gun, tackled her, and now held her completely helpless. She had no idea what he might be capable of—and yet feared just how far he would go.

Moisture burned her eyes, and she closed them so he wouldn’t see her despair. His weight against her chest eased a tiny bit as he dragged her arms down to imprison them alongside her head. She snapped her eyes open to see him leveraging himself on his elbows. It gave her room to breathe, but made her aware of the rest of him covering her body.

No
. She would not give up and let him assault her without a fight. Tears evaporated in the heat of anger, and she glared up in defiance. The chilling intensity of those gold-flecked eyes made her swallow hard and think twice. Maybe it would be better if she appeared to be submissive. Catch him off-guard.

She lowered her gaze and caught a flash of gold against the black material of his shirt. Her pulse skipped again as she recognized the National Park Service badge. Sucking in a surprised breath, she jerked her head back up.

“You’re a ranger?”

“Yes,” he bit out. “Now—”

“Oh, thank God.” Relief flooded her body. “You had me scared half to death.”

His eyes narrowed. When she tried to pull her arms free, his iron grip remained firm. Annoyance took the place of anxiety.

“You can let me go now.”

“Not just yet. What’s your name?”

“Brittany Lucas.”

“And exactly what are you doing up here, Brittany Lucas?”

She frowned. “Isn’t that obvious?”

“Sometimes the obvious is too obvious.”

“What?”
He’s talking in riddles.
“Who are
you
?”

“I’ll ask the questions. Where’s your permit?”

“Permit?”

“Your park registration.”

“But…I don’t…” Confusion robbed her of words. The ranch had unlimited access to the park. She shifted to relieve the discomfort of his hard body pressing hers into the equally unyielding ground. The cold seeped through her sweatshirt, into her bones.

“You don’t what?” His gaze bore into hers. “Don’t want us to know you’re here, that you’re breaking the law and aiding in the destruction of protected animals?”

The accusation raised her eyebrows. “You think
I’m
a poacher?”

His lips curled upward with a hint of malice. “A pretty thing like you wouldn’t actually do the killing, but you’re a good diversion.”

She gave a short laugh of disbelief. “Oh, please.”

“You sure ran fast enough.”

“Because I thought
you
were one.”

“And what do you know about poaching?”

“Only that there have been rumors around town. I swear, I’m just up here camping for the weekend.”

“Right.”

She drew in a breath to hold her rising temper. “Obviously you’re new here. Maybe we should start over. What’s your name?”

“Ranger Morgan.”

He said it as if talking to a child, and she would’ve smiled if he hadn’t still been stretched on top of her. She was becoming aware of things she didn’t want to become aware of. And he’d said she was pretty.

“Well, Ranger Morgan, I would really appreciate it if you’d
get off me
.”

He didn’t move.

“I am not going to run again,” she promised, hoping her rising desperation sounded more like exasperation. “The only reason I did the first time is because I saw your gun when you were going through my things, and I was afraid you might try to…um…”

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