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Wild Horses

The road to forgiveness is long and hard. For troubled ex-cop Zeke Winslow, it means coming to terms with killing a child in the line of duty. For Jessalyn Montrose, it means overcoming false accusations that have ruined her reputation and left her career in shambles. Seeking respite from his recurring nightmares, Zeke heads up into the hills outside Reno for a long walk with his dog. Instead of peace, he finds a slaughtered band of horses and a beautiful woman left for dead. He just wants to investigate the crime and be left alone, but his efforts are hampered by a surprising need to protect Jessalyn. He discovers she's being threatened by a stalking ex-boyfriend and obscene telephone calls. When her apartment is ransacked, Zeke takes her to the house he shares with his grandmother to finish her recovery. Danger escalates when her childhood friend is found murdered. Certain Jessalyn is the real target, Zeke will risk his solitude, his heart, and possibly his life to catch a killer.

A Hard Shell Word Factory Release

Nancy Lynn

Nancy's always been a writer, although she didn't always know it. Reading her first Nora Roberts novel convinced her that she wanted to write novel-length fiction, so she jumped in with both feet. Nancy is a member of both the Outreach and Mystery/Suspense (Kiss of Death) chapters of Romance Writers of America, and the Desert Rogues Romance Writers Group--a collection of wonderful friends and supporters. Nancy's work has won or placed in numerous writing contests, and her articles have appeared in ByLine Magazine and various newsletters. Nancy is an almost lifelong resident of Las Vegas, Nevada. She earned a Bachelor's degree in History from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and works in local government. She is married to her hero, and together they care for a collection of foundling critters. Visit her website at www.authorsden.com/nancylynn


5 beacons

"I liked this book. I love page-turners and this is a good one. Nancy Lynn has a wonderful way with words and writes a highly emotional book about two flawed characters that are simply trying to survive. Together, they learn to live. If you like romantic suspense as much as I do this is a must read."

Lori -- Lighthouse Literary Reviews

Chapter One

ZEKE WINSLOW PULLED his battered old Chevy Blazer off the dirt road and killed the engine. He slipped out the driver's door and gave an involuntary shiver as the cool morning air wrapped around him.

"C'mon, Max." He held open the door until his dog scrambled from the back seat and leapt to the ground. The full moon lit their way along the trail at the base of Settlers Peak. Max sniffed with enthusiasm and urinated on every bush he encountered along the path.

Zeke inhaled the rich fragrance of pine and sagebrush, and took a long sip of coffee from an insulated mug, cracked and faded from riding too long on the dashboard of his truck. He burrowed his free hand into his pocket and hunched deeper into his fleece jacket to ward off the morning chill.

Rest had once again eluded him during the night, every moment of slumber ragged with the sharp-edged nightmare he knew by heart. He'd finally given up his bed, made a pot of coffee, and headed for the mountains -- the only place that still held a scrap of peace.

Below him, thousands of streetlights winked in the darkness, and in the distance the bright lights of the Reno casino district twinkled in never-ending patterns of purple and pink. Early morning was his favorite time of day, before the start of the morning commute, when night creatures were settling in for a good day's sleep.

He strode along the shadowy trail, noting the evidence of a skunk's defensive action lingering in the cool air. At the top of a rise he stopped to look down on the Truckee Meadows, and the city that covered much of it. Reno was still small, as cities went. In spite of that, Zeke was glad to be looking at it from his vantage point in the next county. Several hundred thousand people lived in Reno now, but it was a far cry from the million-plus that choked the Las Vegas Valley.

People moved to Vegas by the thousands every month, drawn like moths to the glitter and money of the city in the desert. So many people, too many with no morals, no boundaries. He'd quit his job as a Metro police officer when the criminals kept getting younger and more vicious, and nothing he did seemed to matter. The malevolent face of a certain 14-year-old kid would haunt him until he died.

Faint gray light crept across the sky, turning the landscape shades of pewter and silver. Zeke stopped to watch fingers of gold and pink stretch along the ground as the sky took on a rosy cast. He held his breath. Sunset in the desert was often a dramatic affair, boldly painting the sky with strokes of red and gold and magenta. In contrast, sunrise crept in without ceremony, and every day it caught him by surprise.

Suddenly, Max bayed and yapped in a frenzied panic.

"Max! What is it?" Zeke broke into a run, zigzagging up the trail. "Max! Stay!" His boot caught on something firm and he nearly pitched headfirst into a tangled mass of vines and weeds. After regaining his balance and uttering a few choice curse words, he turned to see what had blocked his way.

He heard a muffled groan and reached for his flashlight, not sure whether to use it as a beacon or as a weapon. The beam found its target, and Zeke dropped to his knees while Max loped down the path. He heard his dog barking frantically in the distance.

Under the edge of the brambles lay a heap of filthy blankets. Zeke lifted a corner and pulled it up. A harsh cry sprang from his throat when he saw a woman's face, bruised and dirty. She whimpered and drew up her hands as if to push him away.

"It's all right," he said. "I won't hurt you. I'll get help. Just hang on, okay?" He felt for a pulse, finding it slower than normal, but strong. The woman flinched at his touch.

"Max, come!" he called, rising to his feet and reaching for his cell phone. Atrophied skills kicked in automatically, as if they hadn't gone unused for nearly two years. He punched nine-one-one and reported his location, answering the dispatcher's questions in a calm, direct manner.

Seconds later the dog appeared. He whined and nudged Zeke with his nose.

Zeke flipped shut his phone and squatted down, hoping to soothe both the dog and the woman. He remained still, despite a torrent of adrenaline urging him to action.

The sun eased over the eastern rim of the valley, gold and glowing, and the sky overhead became a luminous, cerulean blue. Just above the western horizon, the moon hung like a shimmering Christmas ornament, not quite ready to leave the heavens.

And in the clear light of day, Zeke saw that his dog's paws were covered with blood.

"Oh God," Zeke whispered, knowing he sounded more than desperate. "What happened?" He ran his hands up and down the dog's legs, but found no wound. His uneasiness intensified. If the blood didn't belong to Max, then who. . . .

Apprehension clawed at his gut.

A rustle from the pile of blankets snagged his attention, and he looked down to see that the woman had opened her eyes. She stared at him in confusion, a frown creasing the spot between her eyebrows.

"Can you hear me?" At her slight nod, he smiled. "My name is Zeke. I won't hurt you."

He reached out carefully, knowing the importance of not making any sudden moves. The pounding of his heart, the steady pumping of adrenaline, made slow, deliberate motion nearly impossible. His fingertip touched the bruise on the side of her face. "Does that hurt?" Another slight inclination of her head.

"Help is on the way." He felt the pulse in her neck, noting her dilated pupils -- drugs or shock, or both. Uneasiness had him looking up the hill toward whatever disaster Max had discovered. "Can you tell if you're hurt, other than this bruise?"

"I think. . . I'm okay. Sore. How'd I get here?" Her voice was ragged and weak.

"Beats the hell out of me. I tripped over you on the trail." He studied her. Green eyes. Brown hair. Slender. She seemed lucid, but disoriented. "What's your name?"

She concentrated a moment, then replied, "Jessalyn. . .Jess."

"Jess, I need to go up the trail a little further." At her frightened look, he hastened to reassure her. "I'll be back, don't worry. I'll leave Max with you. But I think someone else is hurt up there, and I need to check it out, okay?"

She gazed at him for several long seconds. "Okay," she whispered.

Zeke rose to his feet and commanded Max to stay. Feeling jerky and uncoordinated, he ran up the hill like a man possessed, bracing himself for whatever lay ahead. He rounded a bend in the trail. It opened onto a wide meadow, where tall grass waved in a slight breeze. And dotted across the pasture were mounds of. . . .

"No! No, no, no," he chanted. At least half a dozen horses lay crumpled on the ground. Heart pounding and breathing ragged, he dashed from one to another. He stuck one hand at an animal's neck, the other high on the chest, checking for signs of life. There were none.

Concentrating fiercely, he listened for any sound from Max or from the woman. The chatter of birds and rustling leaves were the only sounds breaking the stillness, but a lurking threat hung heavy in the air, sharpening his senses with instinctive awareness. Knowing Max would alert him to any sign of trouble, he focused on the horses.

He saw gunshot wounds and blood, more than he'd ever wanted to see again. His emotions swung from heartbreak to fury and back again. He wanted to throw up. He forced his investigator's eye to observe details.

Two of the horses had brands. The other four appeared to be strays -- unclaimed, unbranded stock that lived on the open range, romantically known as wild horses. Since he now worked as a livestock brand inspector, they were his responsibility. His horses. He would find whoever destroyed these animals -- and they would pay.

A moment later he heard sirens approaching, and with a final glance, turned away from the desolation scattered in the grass. Accompanied by a sense of lingering danger, he tried to wipe the blood from his hands, but still managed to get it on his phone when he flipped it open. Striding toward the woman, he first called his boss, then the Comstock County sheriff's office to report the horse kill and request assistance securing the area.

He feared he'd never enjoy another sunrise.

JESSALYN MONTROSE STRUGGLED to a sitting position, pulling the edges of a dusty woolen blanket around her shoulders. The morning chill had seeped into her bones and left her aching and bitterly cold. Disoriented, lost, she felt as though she fought to move in a river of molasses. She closed her eyes against a rising tide of panic.

She tried to focus her attention on the dog beside her, but her mind was scattershot. After a moment, she gave in to distraction. Heart still pounding, she registered the scratchy, smelly blanket against her cheek. Distant birdsong accompanied the crunch of the man's footsteps hurrying away. Was it early morning or sunset? Where was she? How had she gotten here? With eyes closed and forehead rested against her knees, she tried to remember the night before, but her mind seemed full of cotton. She'd gone to Charlie's Bar to meet Cecile, ordered a glass of wine. . . and had awakened here -- feeling as if she'd been thrown from a moving train.

"What happened?" She placed a hand on the dog's shoulder and stroked his silky black-and-white coat, her thoughts punctuated by the occasional thump of his tail. The animal quivered, anxious to follow his master. She wished he could answer.

The man frightened her. Every move had been quiet and gentle, but she was aware of a fierce intensity behind his outward calm. Presuming he'd been her rescuer and not her attacker, apprehension still skittered down her spine.

She'd nearly cried out when his foot struck her, terrified that he'd come to harm her. She heard a harsh shout, the stomp and scuffle of his boots as he tripped, then regained his footing. She'd made as little noise as possible, tried to make none at all, but a sound had escaped before she could stop it. When he pulled the blanket away from her face, she'd tried to play dead, become invisible. She was usually good at that. Thankfully, he hadn't hurt her, but had called for help.

She gave up on the mental puzzle and opened her eyes, squinting to see in the bright sunlight. The dog glanced at her, then at the dark-haired man, whimpering when his master disappeared around a bend in the trail, straining to see where he'd gone. Jess touched the dog's head, scratched behind his ears, and prayed he wouldn't dash off and leave her alone.

Panting, the dog settled on his belly with legs outstretched. She noticed stains on his paws, dark patches matting his fur. Her fingers came away wet when she touched the wavy black hair on his foreleg.

It took her a moment to recognize the color and sticky consistency as blood.

Tears blinded her and she nearly choked on fear. Something terrible had happened here, and the stranger who had found her was walking right into it. It might still be dangerous for both of them.

Jess began to shake. Someone had left her here to die.

The dog must have sensed her alarm. He nuzzled her face, reassuring with nudges of his cold nose and laps from his rough tongue. Sirens wailed in the distance, growing louder every second. Help was really coming.

After a couple of minutes, the man reappeared on the trail. He ran toward her, his rugged face frozen into an expression of anguish so intense it took away her breath.

"What is it? What did you find up there?" Her voice came out so weak he couldn't have heard her. She tried to stand, but her knees buckled before she'd risen halfway. When she saw the blood on his hands and jeans, terror filled her, stole her voice, until all she could do was stare at him.

Still running, he drew closer, his sorrowful gaze coming to rest first on her, then on his dog. His jacket flapped open to reveal a cell phone hanging on a tooled leather belt. And to her surprise, right next to it, a shiny gold star winked in the sunlight -- a badge. Her blood ran cold. He was a cop.

He stopped in front of her, out of breath, but still watchful. "You okay?" he huffed.

At that moment, the sirens stopped, and fear threatened to overtake her. Had they turned back?

"You okay?" he repeated, studying her with concern.

She nodded. "Yes. What did you find?" She didn't want to hear it, didn't want to know, but had to ask.

His expression was tortured as he replied, "Horses. Dead horses. Gunshot. . . damn." She swore his voice broke on the last word.

She registered the crunch of tires and rumbling engines that abruptly stopped. Doors slammed and a cadre of footsteps accompanied by clanking metal came up the trail. Someone called, "Zeke! Hey, buddy, you up there?"

A sob well up from somewhere deep inside. She nearly choked on it. Then another came, and another.

Trembling, confused, she cried while strong arms gathered her close and rocked her. The man murmured soothing words and cushioned her in his embrace while she wept for forgotten hours and dead horses.