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Excerpt - Night Prey by Sharon Dunn

Camy here: Because I know you're not yet tired of Christmas stories, make sure you get this before it's no longer on the shelves!

Night Prey
Sharon Dunn

Jenna Murphy wants to ignore the anonymous, puzzling note. How could she leave the work she loves at the ranch's Birds of Prey Rescue Center? But when someone attacks the birds under her care, she starts to worry. And when Jenna is attacked, she knows she's in over her head. She never expected Keith Roland to come to her rescue. They were childhood friends before he fell in with the wrong crowd. Now the former troublemaker is a soldier, and a changed man. Yet has he really reformed? Can Jenna truly trust him with her safety—and her heart?

Excerpt of chapter one:

"What are you doing on this land?" The male voice pelted Jenna Murphy's back like a hard rain.

She dropped the empty pet carrier and raised her hands slowly, not wanting to spook whoever had called out to her. Most of the locals knew her, but a lot of strangers were moving in and buying ranches. If she had stumbled on an overzealous landowner with a rifle, the situation could get sticky. Her skills lay in soothing birds, not people.

"Please, I can explain." She struggled to get the words out, already winded from running up and down hills.

"Explain away." The silky smooth quality of the voice behind her did nothing to diminish the threatening tone.

Chances were, she was trespassing. When she got focused on something, she tended to space out everything else. Whose land had she wandered onto anyway? She'd been too busy trying to catch an injured hawk to notice if she had crossed boundaries. She had started her chase out on the King Ranch.

A glance at the mountain range to her left helped her orient herself. She was still on Norman and Etta King's ranch. Both of them were getting up in age. Maybe they had hired some help. The man's voice had a distant familiarity to it. If he wasn't barking orders, she might be able to place it.

His voice softened. "I didn't mean to scare you. You can put your hands down and turn around."

Jenna pivoted. She studied the man in front of her. He didn't have a gun. Instead he held a tool that was used for digging fence posts. His forehead glistened and the front of his shirt was stained with sweat. So the Kings had hired help…or had they? She looked closer.

"Keith? Is that you?"

Twelve years of her life fell away. He had changed quite a bit, but there was enough of the old Keith Roland for her to know this was her childhood friend and the Kings' grandson. The gray eyes that appeared blue in intense light were the same. "It's Jenna Murphy," she added when he didn't respond. "We used to play together when you spent summers with your grandparents, remember?"

The man standing in front of her bore little resemblance to the boy she had rafted the river with. Together, they had built a tree house that attracted a neighborhood of kids, summer after summer. His features were the same, though his muscular frame was a sharp contrast from the skinny kid she remembered. Keith's wavy brown hair now fell past his ears. The long-sleeved shirt he wore was a little out of place considering what a hot summer day it was. The almond shaped eyes still held the same gentleness, but something about this man seemed.haunted.

Keith blinked as if she had stunned him. He shook his head and furrowed his brow. "Sorry."

Did he really not remember her? Jenna's spirits sank. Funny, he had been such an important part of her childhood, the highlight of her summer. Yet, she hadn't even been a blip on his radar. Maybe she had just been the scraggly little tagalong kid to him. Somehow, she couldn't believe that. She touched her palm to her chest. "You almost gave me a heart attack when you shouted at me like that."

"I didn't mean to frighten you." His voice held a warm quality. "We had a trespasser yesterday, too. I was concerned Gramps's place had become Grand Central Station."

Jenna laughed. Now she understood why he had been so quick to confront her. "That was probably me you saw. I'm the director of the Birds of Prey Rescue Center up Hillcrest Road." When she got a call on an injured bird, there usually wasn't time to inform landowners. All the locals knew if they saw her on their land, she was probably just taking care of a bird. She always dressed in bright colors, so she could be spotted from a distance.

"So that was you I saw tromping around yesterday when I was mending fence. Do you make a habit of trespassing?"

"The bird I rescued yesterday was an eagle with buckshot in her wing." Finding that bird flapping its flightless wings had broken her heart. Hopefully, she had gotten to the bird quickly enough to prevent infection but only time would tell. And now, she had an injured hawk to catch in the same area. It was unsettling to have two injuries occur so quickly. If someone was hurting her birds on purpose, she would get to the bottom of it. "I don't suppose you know anything about people using shotguns on eagles around here?"

Keith shook his head. "Gramps has a rifle, not a shotgun." He narrowed his eyes. "He wouldn't shoot at a bird anyway."

He seemed protective of his grandfather. She hadn't intended to accuse. "That means you have trespassers."

"Trespassers?" He rubbed the five o'clock shadow on his jaw. "You mean other than you, Jenna Murphy?" His tone lightened; all the suspicion she had heard earlier was gone.

Jenna's breath caught. Something in the way he had said her name made her think he remembered her more than he was letting on. But why had he tried to hide it? Was her perception of their friendship so much different than his? True, he had been two years older than her, but she had felt such a special bond with him until that disastrous summer when he had changed so much.

The last time she had seen Keith, he had been seventeen and deeply troubled. That was the summer his visit had ended abruptly with an arrest for drunk driving. Etta and Norman King had been heartbroken about sending their grandson away, but the arrest had been the final straw. Keith's drinking had led to wrecking farm equipment, nearly running over his grandfather and stealing from his grandparents. They had had no choice. His wildness had put everyone at risk. Jenna shook off the memories and returned her focus to the task at hand.

"That eagle went down on your grandfather's property. Any idea who might be doing something like that?"

He drew his eyebrows together and his voice intensified. "No, but I will find out who it is. It's not right to do that to my grandparents."

Jenna turned her attention to the pet carrier she had dropped. "If you don't mind, I have an injured hawk to catch." She scanned the shorter trees and the undergrowth. No sign of the bird. The wounded hawk couldn't get airborne, but had managed to bounce for miles as she'd tried to chase him down. A flightless bird didn't stand much of a chance of survival. She had to find him before nightfall.

Jenna picked up the carrier and stalked a few feet away. She turned back around. "Good running into you, Keith Roland. I didn't think I'd ever see you again."

He lifted a chin in acknowledgment of her comment but offered nothing in return, no explanation of what he was doing in town or how long he planned to stay. He must have mended his relationship with his grandparents, but when? What had he been doing for the last twelve years?

Shortly after the summer Keith left, Etta King had run into Jenna in town. She'd shown Jenna a picture of a clean-cut soldier, Keith. Etta had expressed hope that enlistment in the marines would "straighten that boy out." Jenna didn't run into Etta very much, and talking about Keith was painful for both of them. She had no idea if the military had been good for Keith or not.

She strode a few feet up the hill.

"Do you need some help finding that bird, Jenna Murphy? " Keith shouted after her.

For someone who didn't remember her, he seemed to like saying her name.

A gust of wind wafted down the mountain, causing the limbs of the evergreens to creak. The breeze caught Jenna's long brown hair and plastered it against her face. She shoved the wayward strands behind her ears. "That would be nice."

After staking the post hole digger in the ground, he walked toward her with large even strides.

The wind settled. Something crashed in the forest, breaking branches. The injured hawk? No, it sounded like something bigger. Heavier. More dangerous. Jenna caught a flash of movement up the hill.

A noise she had never heard before shattered the silence. A sort of explosive snap pounded against her eardrums.

Keith's eyes grew wide. He leaped toward her. "Get down." He wrapped an arm around her, pulling her to the ground.

Her palms hit the hard earth; vibrations of pain surged up her arms. "What is going on?" She scrambled to get to her feet; he yanked her again down to the ground.

His arm went across her back like an iron bar. "We're being shot at. Stay down."

"Shot at?" Jenna shook her head in disbelief. Why would someone be shooting at them? Could it have anything to do with the injured birds?

Still on his stomach, Keith scanned the landscape around them.

A second popping explosion stirred up a poof of dirt five feet in front of them, confirming Keith's words.

Jenna's heart revved into overdrive. Her mouth went dry. "I've never been shot at before."

He put his lips close to her ear. "I have. I know what to do. Those rocks up there will give us some cover." He rose to a crouch, pulling her with him by grabbing the back of her shirt. "Stay low."

Jenna's mind reeled; she fought for a deep breath. What was happening? Why would anyone want to shoot at them?

Keith wrapped his arm around her waist. "You have to keep moving."

The strength of his voice in her ear freed her from the paralysis of panic. At least somebody knew how to respond.

Her heart pounded wildly. Keith dragged her up the mountain.

Another shot shattered the air around her. She screamed. She stumbled.

Keith pulled her to her feet. "Stay with me, Jenna."

She gasped for breath as he nearly carried her the remaining feet to the outcropping of boulders. Keith guided her in between two large rocks. The massive rocks allowed them both to crouch unseen and safe for the moment. Jenna pressed her back against the hard surface while Keith faced her.

Her pulse drummed in her ears. A tingling chill spread over her skin. She placed a hand on her somersaulting stomach. She could have died.

He touched a warm hand to her cheek. "You all right?"

Every muscle in her body trembled. "No. I'm definitely not all right. Maybe you get shot at all the time, but I don't."

"Jenna, look at me and take a breath." He clamped his hands on her shoulders.

She shook her head, unable to focus. Her thoughts moved in a hundred directions at once.

His palms pressed against her cheeks forcing her to look at him. "You're safe here. You are out of the line of fire. Do you understand?"

The warmth of his touch and the steadiness of his gaze calmed her. She stared into the deep gray of his eyes. She nodded. Not only did he have experience with being shot at, obviously he had dealt with someone falling apart, too. As he had said, he knew what to do.

The forest fell silent. Keith scooted away from her and scanned the sky above them.

"Why…why would someone be shooting at us?" Her throat was parched. An intense craving for a cup of cool water overwhelmed her.

"I don't know, but they didn't do a very good job of it. Either they are really bad shots or they weren't aiming to kill. Maybe they are trying to scare us away." He leaned forward to see beyond the protection of the rocks.

"Be careful." She grabbed his arm, feeling the hardness of muscle beneath fabric.

"I don't see anything out there." He settled back, pulling his knees up to his chest. "We'll wait a while."

Their feet intertwined in the small space. Pebbles pricked the skin on Jenna's hand as she rested her palm on the ground.

"I wonder what the trespassers are doing on Gramps's land."

"You mean besides shooting at us…and shooting at eagles and maybe hawks, as well?" A shudder ran through her body. She pressed her feet harder into the ground in an effort to get beyond the trauma of what had happened. They would have to report this to the sheriff when they got out of here. If they got out of here.

Minutes ticked by. Her heart rate returned to normal. Searching for something to take her mind off the gunshots, she studied the man in front of her, looking for signs of the boy who had been her summertime friend. The scar over his left eyebrow was new. She wondered what other scars he carried. Had they made him want to forget his past? Maybe for him the pain of what had happened when he was seventeen overshadowed any of the positive memories. She had chosen to remember the good things about those summers.

"So where did you learn how to dodge bullets like that?"

Keith shifted his feet and looked away from her. "It's the second lesson they teach you in the marines."

"What is the first?"

"How to shoot them."

The vagueness of his answer and the icy tone indicated that he didn't want her probing. She stared down the hillside where she had left the cage intended for the hawk. With any luck, the bird hadn't gotten too far away.

Keith combed his fingers through his hair. "You think the people that just shot at us shot at your eagle?"

Jenna shrugged. "One eagle doesn't mean there is a pattern. I don't know what is going on with this hawk." She sucked in a breath as concern about the eagle ate at her stomach. Her vet friend had helped her dig out the buckshot. The female eagle, who she had named Greta, was on antibiotics. Hopefully, she would make it. But at least she was getting treatment. The hawk was still there on its own.

He rubbed at a spot of dirt on his worn jeans. "You take care of birds?"

"Just raptors, birds of prey. We rehab them and release them back into their habitat. I landed the job after I finished my degree in wildlife management."

He studied her for a moment. The corners of his mouth turned up. "You always did attract wild things."

Warmth pooled around her heart. "So you do remember me?"

"I remember you liked wild things. You were the only girl in town who thought feral cats made good pets."

Jenna lifted her chin. "All they need is love and for their food to be in the same place every day."

Keith laughed. A familiar twinkle returned to his eyes.

A connection sparked between them, and she leaned closer. "Is it all coming back now?" she teased.

The change in mood was short-lived. A veil descended over his eyes, and he pulled away from her. "You look different, that's all."

"People grow up. They change." How much had he changed over the years? Was he still battling the same demons that had driven him to drink at seventeen?

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