Warning Shot (Protectors At Heart Book 3), page 1part #3 of Protectors At Heart Series
When an agent teams up with a local sheriff,
she doesn’t realize his secret could endanger their lives...
With Homeland Security on high alert, Rylee Hockings heads into the field to thwart a foreign threat. But local county sheriff Axel Trace doesn’t want the newbie federal agent treading on his turf. As he learns to accept her help, the stakes rise as he realizes he’ll have to reveal a secret that could jeopardize her case—and cost them their lives.
Rylee twisted in her seat so that she was facing him.
Her smile was sad and her eyes luminous. He thought of their kiss and wished he could kiss her again.
“Is this a fresh start?” she asked.
“I think so. I’d like it to be.”
She reached out and took his hand. He stroked the back of hers with his thumb.
“And you’re willing to work with me?” she asked.
“I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
“Wonderful. One of the groups we are now targeting is the Congregation of Eternal Wisdom. You’re familiar?”
Despite the warmth of the room, a chill rolled up Axel’s spine and into his chest until his heart iced over. He drew back, leaning against the armrest.
Was he familiar? He was. But he did not want to be the one to bring Rylee to them.
Jenna Kernan has penned over two dozen novels and received two RITA® Award nominations. Jenna is every bit as adventurous as her heroines. Her hobbies include recreational gold prospecting, scuba diving and gem hunting. Jenna grew up in the Catskills and currently lives in the Hudson Valley in New York State with her husband. Follow Jenna on Twitter, @jennakernan, on Facebook or at jennakernan.com.
Books by Jenna Kernan
Protectors at Heart
Apache Protectors: Wolf Den
Black Rock Guardian
Apache Protectors: Tribal Thunder
The Warrior’s Way
Gold Rush Groom
The Texas Ranger’s Daughter
Wild West Christmas
A Family for the Rancher
The Vampire’s Wolf
The Shifter’s Choice
Visit the Author Profile page at Harlequin.com.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Axel Trace—Decorated Army MP turned local sheriff of Onutake County in New York State with a troubling past that he will do anything to keep buried.
Rylee Hockings—Ambitious Department of Homeland Security agent on her first field assignment who aims to make a break in her investigation.
Sorrel Vasta—Acting executive director of the Kowa-Onaharie tribe of the Mohawk nation.
Stanley Coopersmith—Head of a colony of doomsday survivalists living on the New York side of the US-Canadian border.
Hal Mondello—Community leader and moonshiner.
Father Wayne—Leader of a religious order with radical end-of-times beliefs.
Kurt Rogers—Former sheriff and Axel’s mentor.
Lloyd Futterman—Head of the motorcycle gang the North Country Riders.
For Jim, always.
Excerpt from Rules in Deceit by Nichole Severn
Homeland Security Agent Rylee Hockings paused on the way into the sheriff’s office at the foul language booming from the side of the building. The deep baritone voice continued in a colorful string of obscenities that made her think the speaker had been in some branch of the armed services.
A military brat herself, she had heard her fair share of cussing during her formative years while being dragged from one base to another, Kyoto to Hawaii to Germany and back to Hawaii. The youngest of six, she had the distinction of being the only one of her family not to join the US Marines. Some of the military upbringing had worn off on her because she still believed that one was judged on performance. It was one of many reasons she planned to kill this assignment and show her supervisor she had what it took to be a field operative.
It was just past noon on Labor Day. Because of the federal holiday, she had not expected to find the sheriff in his office, but stopped as a courtesy. The second day of September and sunny, but the sunshine did not warm this frozen block of a county in upstate New York. Here it already felt like November. The leaves were pretty. Already at peak leaf-peeping season.
She rounded the building and found a tall man with strands of honey-blond hair falling over his flushed face as he jammed a coat hanger in the slot between the weather stripping and the driver’s side window of the vehicle before him.
The vehicle was a white SUV and on the side panel in gold paint was the county seal and the word Sheriff.
The man had his back to her and he had not heard her approach due to the swearing and stomping of his feet on the frozen ground. His breath showed in the blast of cold air. The collar of his jacket was turned up against the chill. His distraction gave her a moment to admire an unobstructed view of one of the nicest looking butts she had seen in some time. His uniform slacks were just tight enough and his posterior just muscular enough to keep her interest for a little too long. He wore a brown nylon jacket, heavily padded and flapping at his sides as he threw the coat hanger to the ground.
“Unsat,” she said, using the US Marine jargon for unsatisfactory.
He whirled and met her gaze by pinning her with eyes so blue they should have belonged to a husky. Her smile dropped with her stomach. Straight nose, square chin and a sensual mouth, the guy was the complete package, and then he opened his mouth.
“Sneaking up on a sheriff is a bad idea.”
“As bad as locking your keys inside?” She squinted her eyes and dragged her sunglasses down her nose. “I could have had an entire unit with me, and you wouldn’t have heard.”
He stooped to retrieve his twisted coat hanger, snatching it from the ground with long elegant fingers.
“FUBAR,” she said.
“You in the Corps?” he asked, referring to the US Marine Corps.
“Lost them,” he admitted.
“Why not use a Slim Jim?”
He scowled and thumbed over his shoulder. “It’s in the back.”
She wished she’d checked into the background of the sheriff of Onutake County before this meeting, but time had been limited. Knowing what he looked like would have been helpful right about now. For all she knew, this guy was a car thief.
She made a note to do some background checking as soon as she found a moment.
“You Sheriff Trace?”
“Rylee Hockings, Department of Homeland Security.” She retrieved her business card case from her blazer and offered him a card, leaning forward instead of stepping closer. There was something other than his vocabulary that urged her to keep her distance. She listened to that voice instead of the one that wondered if he were single. But her traitorous eyes dropped to his bare hands and the left one, which held no wedding band.
He nodded, not looking at her card.
“Didn’t expect to find you on the job today, Sheriff.”
“More calls on weekends and holidays. Just the way of the world.”
He’d have trouble responding without his car, she thought.
“What can I do you for?”
“Just an introduction. Courtesy visit.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, his expression turning skeptical. “So, you plan on treating me like I’m still a marine?”
“Muscles are required, intelligence not essential,” he said, choosing one of the tired jokes members of the army often leveled at the marines.
“So you were army, then.” She knew that much from the jibe toward her family’s branch of the military.
“Once.” He smiled and her heart jumped as if hit with a jolt of electricity. The smile and those eyes and jaw and, holy smokes, she was in trouble. She forced a scowl.
“You know, you should always run a check of your equipment before you lock up.”
“You a newbie, reading manuals, going by the book?”
She was and the assumption was insulting.
“Why do you ask?”
“You still have that new car smell.”
Her scowl was no longer forced. What did that even mean? “I’m not the one locked out of my unit.”
“It isn’t even locked. The alarm is just on and I didn’t want to set it off again.”
Again. How often did he do this? she wondered. “I’ll be doing some investigating in your county.”
“What kind of investigating?”
She smiled. “Nice to meet you, Sheriff.”
“You want an escort?”
“From a sheriff careless enough to leave his keys and—” she glanced through the windshield to verify her suspicion “—his phone in his unit? Thank you but I’ll manage.”
She turned to go. New car smell. She growled and marched away.
“You got a Slim Jim in your vehicle, Hockings?” he called after her.
“I do, but I wouldn’t want to chance damaging yours. Maybe try Triple A.”
“Where you headed?”
“Kowa Nation,” she said and then wished she hadn’t.
Rylee turned back. Throwing her arms out in exasperation. “What?”
“They know you’re coming?”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“Agent Hockings, I advise you to call the tribal leadership and make a formal request to visit.”
She cast him the kind of wave that she knew was dismissive. Those damn blue eyes narrowed. They were still enthralling. As blue as the waters of the Caribbean.
Rylee straightened her shoulders and kept going. When she reached the front of the building, she heard the sheriff’s car alarm blare and then cut short.
From her official vehicle, Rylee logged in to the laptop affixed to the dash and checked out the sheriff’s official records. Sheriff Axel Trace had been taken into state custody at thirteen and listed as orphaned. She gazed at the entry. There was a hole there big enough to drive a truck through. No birth record or school records. His paper trail, as they used to call it, began with the entry by the sheriff of this very county when he took custody of the lad. Axel’s parents were listed as deceased, but no names for her to search. No cause of their deaths or circumstances, no guardians noted, no relatives. Just record of Axel’s temporary placement with Kurt Rogers, the county sheriff at the time. The placement lasted five years until Axel enlisted out of high school. Rylee scanned and clicked and scanned some more. Impressed didn’t quite cover it. There were plenty of records now, and all exemplary. She’d read them more carefully later. But on a fast pass, the man had distinguished himself in the US Army as an MP and reaching the rank of captain in Iraq. She scanned his records and noted his transfer to Hanau, Germany.
“Oh, no,” she said.
Captain Axel Trace had broken up a brawl in a bar that had resulted in the death of two servicemen. She would read all the details later. For now, she skimmed and noted that Trace had been attacked and engaged with appropriate use of force.
“And two months later, you chose discharge rather than reenlistment.” She wondered if the incident had been the cause of his decision to leave the service and his prospects behind.
He seemed to have had a great opportunity for advancement and she wondered why he had instead elected discharge and returned to his home county to run for sheriff, replacing the man who had held the position until retirement six years ago. It seemed an odd choice.
Perhaps it was just her ambition talking, but the sheriff could have done a lot better than this frozen Klondike Bar of a county. The entire northern border was Canada and, other than the St. Lawrence River, she saw nothing but trees and more trees. She didn’t understand why anyone with his training would allow himself to get stuck in a crappy, freezing county where you reached the highest possible position at thirty. Sheriff Trace had no family up here, none anywhere according to his records. And now he had nowhere to go but sideways and no increase in salary unless the good people of the county wanted their taxes raised.
Meanwhile, Rylee had nothing but advancement in her sights. Her plans included filling in that blank spot in her résumé under field experience. Eliminating the possible terrorist threats up here was a good start. She wasn’t fooled that this was a great opportunity. This county had been tagged by the DHS analysts as the least likely spot for the crossing. But that didn’t make it impossible. This morning she had gotten her break. Her initial assignment was to speak to four groups who might be connected with the terrorist organization calling itself Siming’s Army. Just initial interviews, but it was a start. But en route, Border Patrol called her to report an illegal crossing: a single male who was carrying a canvas duffel bag. The contents of that bag were her objective. Until she knew otherwise, she’d act as if the contents of the bag was the object for which her entire department hunted. They had abandoned pursuit when the target entered onto Mohawk land. She had a chance now, a possible break in the search for the entry point of this threat.
Her attempt to reach her boss, Catherine Ohr, ended in a voice mail message, and she had yet to hear back.
She had lost the GPS signal with her directions to the Kowa Mohawk Nation just outside of town. Not that it mattered. One of the things her father had taught her was how to read a map.
Federal officers investigating leads did not need appointments to visit federal land. Sheriff Axel Trace should have known that, but it wasn’t her job to tell him what he should know.
Newbie. New car smell. First field assignment.
Rylee lowered her chin and stepped on the gas.
Homeland Security Agent Hockings didn’t look like trouble, as she sat small and sullen in the seat beside the desk of the Kowa Mohawk Reservation’s acting chief of police. But having already met her, he could not help but take in the moment. Having ignored his advice and dismissed him like the help, there was a certain satisfaction in seeing her in wrist restraints.
He didn’t know the exact point when his moment to gloat changed into a completely different kind of study, but he now noticed that Rylee Hockings had a heart-shaped face, lips the color of the flesh of a ripe watermelon and large, expressive brown eyes with elegant arching brows that were the brown of dry pine needles. Her straight, fine blond hair fell forward, making her flushed cheeks seem even pinker. Their eyes met, and her brow descended. Her lids cinched as she squinted at him with open hostility.
Axel could not resist smiling. “The next time I ask you if you’d like an escort, maybe don’t flip me the bird.”
“I didn’t flip you off.” Her reply was a bark, like a dog that might be either frightened or angry but either way sent clear signs for him to back off.
“No, I believe you said that when you wanted the help of a sheriff who was dumb enough to lock his keys in his cruiser, you’d ask for it.”
He glanced at her wrists, secured with a wide plastic zip tie and hammering up and down on the knees of her navy slacks as if sending him a message in Morse code. He wondered why federal agents always advertised their profession with the same outfits. A blazer, dress shirt and slacks with a practical heel was just not what folks wore up here.
“I didn’t say dumb enough. I said careless enough.”
He glanced to the acting chief of police, Sorrel Vasta, who said, “Potato, Pa-tot-o.”
“I also mentioned that the Kowa tribe does not do drop-in visits,” said Axel.
“Especially from feds,” added Vasta. He folded his arms across his chest, which just showed off how very thin and young he really was.
Other author's books:
- Wild West Christmas: A Family for the RancherDance with a CowboyChristmas in Smoke RiverWarning ShotWarning Shot (Protectors At Heart Book 3)Defensive ActionDangerous ConditionsHigh Plains BrideGhost StalkerMoon Shadow
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