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A single gunshot rang out, shattering the quiet tranquility of the remote African watering hole. The ground beneath the vehicle where Josslyn Benoit was standing began to shake violently when the small herd of elephants she and her team were observing stampeded back into the bush. Hundreds of birds rose up from the savanna, forming a dark cloud overhead, the frenzy of their wings nearly deafening.
Their sound wasn’t loud enough to drown out the second gunshot, however.
From her perch in an open-air Land Rover, concealed behind a grove of elephant grass and two towering river bush willow trees, Josslyn peered through her binoculars as a cow stumbled. Blood trickled down the female elephant’s chest. A third shot cracked through the air, hitting the wounded animal in the hind end. Josslyn grabbed hold of the seatback as the earth shook again when the elephant stumbled before finally falling to the sand. A young calf circled wildly behind the fatally wounded elephant, its anguished wails resonating throughout the bush.
“I thought you said there wasn’t any hunting permitted here?” Josslyn hissed at their guide.
“Them be poachers, miss.” He shrugged, clearly unfazed by the illegal actions of his countrymen.
“Poachers?” Trevor Kearn, the representative from Global Wildlife Conservation who was traveling with them, sounded almost giddy. “Hugh, keep that camera rolling. If we can get this on film, it will go a long way to strengthen our argument that legalized hunting has done absolutely nothing to stem the poaching trade here in Zimbabwe.”
The big Scottish cameraman grunted in exasperation. Still, he combat-crawled to the edge of the tall grass to get a better shot.
The pitiful cries of the baby elephant cut through the thick afternoon air like a machete, the sound making Josslyn’s stomach roll. As a scientist, she understood the circle of life. But that didn’t mean she had to like it. Or the role her fellow humans played in it.
A band of ragtag tribesmen emerged from the bush on the opposite side of the watering hole. Josslyn was relieved to see that only one of them was armed. He was carrying a high-powered military-grade rifle with a telescopic sight, perfect for shooting accurately over long distances. She abhorred poachers and hunters, but she despised guns and everything related to them more. Still, she reasoned with herself, in this situation, a single gun was preferable to the men poisoning the entire herd in order to steal the elephants’ tusks.
“They don’t look very friendly,” Alyssa whispered.
Josslyn was instantly regretting putting the biology grad student in harm’s way.
“They’re poor and they’re desperate to feed their families,” Josslyn explained quietly, not bothering to hide her disgust at the situation. “Their government is charging hunters exorbitant fees to come here to track big game, but none of that money ever reaches the hands of these tribesmen. That leaves poaching as their only option for survival.”
“I need a shot of them hacking out the ivory tusks with the machete,” Trevor whispered to Hugh. “The more gruesome it is, the better we can make our case that this has to be stopped.”
An Australian surfer turned animal rights’ activist, Trevor lived for these types of confrontations. At one point in her life, so had Josslyn. But as the shine wore off her relationship with Trevor, so too had her desire to constantly embarrass her family by doing something radical and dangerous.
One of the tribesmen withdrew a lethal-looking blade from his side. Alyssa sucked in a sharp breath next to Josslyn. The baby calf kept its distance from the poachers but continued its frantic pacing and wailing. Another of the tribesmen gestured at the calf. Josslyn’s heart began to beat faster. The locals poached the elephants as a last resort to feed their families. They wouldn’t kill for no reason. Especially a calf that had the potential to grow tusks in the future.
“Just take the damn tusks and leave the baby alone,” Josslyn muttered through her clenched jaw.
These particular men had other intentions, however. The one with the rifle aimed it at the despondent calf.
“No!” Josslyn shouted just as the gun discharged.
Five pairs of eyes turned their way, including those belonging to the man holding the gun.
“Now you’ve done it, lass,” Hugh exclaimed as he jumped back into the Land Rover.
Their guide was furiously trying to get the engine to turn over. Hugh pushed Alyssa down to the floor of the vehicle. Trevor was bouncing up and down still swearing at the men.
“You bastards,” he yelled. “We’ve got all that on film. We’re going to find out who’s behind this ring and when we do you’ll be hit with so many sanctions, you won’t be able to wipe your asses much less buy bullets to hunt a defenseless animal!”
“Get down, you two,” Hugh ordered, yanking Josslyn behind one of the padded seats.
The Land Rover jerked to life just as another shot from the rifle echoed over the water. Trevor continued to rail at the poachers before suddenly clutching his chest and sinking to his knees. A dark stain was already spreading across his T-shirt by the time Josslyn reached him.
“Trevor!” she shouted over the crunch of the tires and the rush of the wind.
The Australian grimaced at her touch. “The asshole shot me!”
“Well no surprise there,” Hugh muttered as he pulled the first aid kit from under the passenger seat. “You practically dared him to do it.”
“He killed that baby elephant for no reason!” Trevor let out a low moan when the Land Rover practically went airborne over a ridge in the unpaved road. “Listen, Hugh. Don’t let my death be in vain. Tell me you got images of what those brutes did?”
Hugh exchanged a look with Josslyn before rolling up a sweatshirt to put beneath Trevor’s head.
“You’re not going to die,” the Scotsman gruffly reassured him.
Josslyn tried to summon up the same amount of confidence as their cameraman. The fact was there were fifty miles of rough, unpaved road between them and competent medical help. A wave of guilt had her rocking back on her heels. If only she hadn’t yelled out like that, the poachers would have never known she and her team were watching, much less filming. Trevor would still be smiling the cocky smile that made smart women stupid.
Growing up, her father frequently warned her about keeping her emotions in check. Easy for him to say. He’d been a stoic surgeon. She, on the other hand, had a natural talent of not thinking before speaking. Making matters worse, lately there always seemed to be a hot microphone nearby when her tongue went rogue. Still, she never let her emotions get in the way of her staunch defense of the little guy. Even if in this case the little guy was a three-thousand-pound wild animal.
Alyssa tore at Trevor’s T-shirt, frantically applying pressure with gauze she’d pulled from the first aid kit. “The bullet hit his shoulder,” she said with remarkable calm considering their circumstances. “We just need to keep him from going into shock. Or losing too much blood.” Her face was determined when her eyes glanced up to meet Josslyn’s. “I spent two summers shadowing interns in an ER. He’s not going to die.”
Trevor moaned when they hit another bump in the road. His face was pale and drawn. “Thank God they were on foot and couldn’t follow us,” he choked out.
Hugh exchanged a look with Josslyn. He indicated the replay monitor on the camera. She watched the video as one of the tribesmen seemed to be speaking into a walkie-talkie just before the gunman fired at Trevor.
Damn it. Josslyn looked over her shoulder, but the road was blessedly empty.
After gathering her long hair into a ponytail, she crouched down beside Alyssa, mostly to distract the young woman from the fact that Hugh was pulling a long gun from beneath the bench seat and moving to the back of the Land Rover, but also to help Trevor however she could. As a doctor of zoology, she didn’t quite have the extensive medical training the rest of her family possessed, but at least she wasn’t squeamish around blood.
“What can I do?”
“Move the sweatshirt from beneath his head to his feet,” Alyssa commanded. “I think there’s a Mylar blanket in the first aid kit. We’ll need it to cover him to keep the shock at bay.” The younger woman’s hands were now soaked with blood from where she was applying pressure to Trevor’s wound. “And I’m going to need your T-shirt.”
Doing as she was told, Josslyn stripped off her shirt, exposing her skin to the harsh African sun. Hugh tossed his T-shirt to Alyssa as well. Between the two of them, they did their best to keep Trevor comfortable while the Land Rover barreled ahead, seeming to find every rut in the road as they sped toward help.
“We’ve got company,” Hugh announced forty minutes into their mad dash.
A small dust cloud rose up along the horizon behind them. It was difficult to judge their distance, but whoever they were sharing the road with was coming at a fast clip. Josslyn glanced down at Trevor. A sheen of sweat covered his face despite the fact he was shivering beneath the blanket. Except to change out the T-shirts, Alyssa’s hands never let up their compression on the wound. Her expression was fierce.
Josslyn checked the GPS screen on the dashboard. They were still some twenty miles from the capital. But twenty miles could take another hour on these roads. It was a crapshoot whether their guide could outrun whoever was chasing them. Hugh hefted the long gun into his lap.
Pulling her cell phone from her shorts, Josslyn fingered the app her brother-in-law insisted she install on her phone. There would be hell to pay, but she couldn’t justify putting the others at risk. The one time in her twenty-eight years Josslyn was actually doing something worthwhile with her career, yet she still managed to potentially touch off an international incident. Her older sister’s lecture was already playing out in Josslyn’s head when she tapped the button.
Fifteen minutes later, the dust cloud was closing the distance on them. Josslyn could make out two Jeeps filled with military-looking personnel likely belonging to the tribal militia. Hugh turned to say something when the sound of a propeller roared overhead. She let out a sigh of relief at the sight of two Blackhawk helicopters coming their way.
“Slow down,” she called to the guide as one of the choppers went on to circle the group following them.
The other helicopter landed on the roadway a half mile ahead of the Land Rover. Four United States Marines, dressed in full-battle dress uniforms leaped from the cabin before it hit the ground. Guns at the ready, they surrounded the Jeep.
Hugh and the driver quickly lifted their hands into the air. Alyssa’s mouth dropped open in what was either awe or hysteria, Josslyn wasn’t exactly sure.
“We need a stretcher,” Josslyn shouted over the noise of the helicopter rotor. “We have an injured man here.”
In a matter of minutes, the marines expertly loaded Trevor and the rest of her team onto the helicopter. The militia following them was reduced to specs on the sand as the chopper took to the air.
“Dr. Doolittle has been retrieved,” the mission commander relayed to whoever was listening. “ETA five minutes.”
Josslyn flinched slightly at the ridiculous code name she was assigned. Alyssa shot her a bewildered glance before leaning down to help the medic attending to Trevor.
“We were set up,” Hugh muttered from where he sat on the bench beside her. “Ngoni had no intention of bringing the supplier to meet us.”
“Or someone got to him,” she whispered back, hoping they were both wrong.
Ngoni was eleven, a young African tribesman doing whatever he could to survive in a hierarchal economy stacked against him. Even if it meant selling exotic, endangered animals, dead or alive. Josslyn hoped he hadn’t become a tragedy in her quest to get justice for the animals by exposing the international ring.
“All the same,” Hugh replied. “We need to lay low for the time being.”
“Nonsense. We have the perfect cover studying the African elephants’ diminishing habitat,” Josslyn reassured the cameraman. “Anyone could have stumbled over poachers. As far as anyone knows, today was a horrible accident. We can’t stop now that we are so close.”
“Don’t be daft, lass,” he whispered. “These thugs are nasty individuals. Animal trafficking is big business right behind trafficking illegal drugs and guns. They don’t want anyone poking their noses in their lucrative operation. Especially someone with your family’s connections.”
Your family’s connections. Those “connections” loomed over every aspect of Josslyn’s life. It didn’t matter that she was a top-notch zoologist. She was forever defined by the people who shared her DNA. And she didn’t like it. Not one bit.
“No,” Hugh continued, his tone adamant. “It’s getting too dangerous to have you helping us any longer. You best go home and attack this from the other direction. Chase the clues leading to those people funding this organization.”
Josslyn squared her shoulders. Saving animals was her passion, her cause, her reason for getting up in the morning. This syndicate only cared about making money. And lots of it. Whether or not an animal suffered or a species became extinct had no bearing on their illegal enterprise. The animals needed someone to stand up for them. And Josslyn never backed down from a fight—no matter her family connections.
“Our first priority is to make sure Trevor gets medical attention,” she answered. “That will give us time to regroup and ‘lay low’ as you suggest. But I’m not going anywhere. I answer to no one but my own conscience. And my conscience won’t rest until these criminals are revealed. My family thinks I’m here with the Smithsonian filming a documentary.” She patted Hugh’s thigh. “Everything will be fine.”
Hugh gave her a look that clearly said he didn’t believe her. Not that she blamed him. This wasn’t the first time Josslyn found herself at the mercy of the US military and, based on past experience, there would be a long mea culpa period before her family let her forget it.
But at least this time, she was in no danger of getting her heart broken by her rescuer.
She glanced around at the men and women aboard the helicopter. Despite feeling decidedly vulnerable dressed only in khaki shorts and a black lace bra, she was relieved the crew remained stoic and professional. There would be no earth-shattering kisses this time around. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or dismayed. Josslyn stifled the urge to wave at the commander’s body camera which was likely broadcasting her scantily clad image back to the States. But only because she meant what she said to Hugh about staying to see this thing through. Aggravating her family further wouldn’t get her a longer hall pass.
The helicopter touched down on the rooftop of the US Embassy in Harare where a medical team was waiting to transport Trevor to a local hospital.
“I’m going with him,” Alyssa announced to no one in particular.
The grad student was Josslyn’s responsibility and she should order Alyssa to stay within the safe confines of the embassy until things were sorted out. But having succumbed to Trevor’s charm herself once upon a time, she was fully aware of the potent effect his blue eyes and wicked dimple likely had on the younger woman. After all Alyssa had done to save him, Josslyn didn’t have the heart to tell her to stay put.
“Let me find something to cover up with,” she said instead. “And I’ll come with you.”
“Not so fast.”
Josslyn froze in place, her ponytail swirling behind her as the helicopter lifted off again turning the rooftop into a wind tunnel. Spinning slowly on one heel, she turned to meet the exasperated glare of Christian Sumner, an old family friend of her brother-in-law’s and a colossal pain in Josslyn’s ass.
“Tell me again where they park those things,” she quipped. “It must be one hell of a garage.”
Christian shook his head in disgust. “Is there nothing you take seriously, Josslyn?”
She crossed her arms in front of her. Not so much as a defensive move but more to keep her nemesis from getting an eyeful of the cleavage he once so desperately wished to possess. Of course, he never really wanted Josslyn herself. Just the alliance with her powerful family that a marriage to her would bring.
“And here I thought nothing I could say or do surprised you, Christian. What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you’d gotten married and given up following me around.”
He snorted before closing the distance between them. “In case you forgot, I’m now the Undersecretary of State for Africa. I don’t need an excuse to be here. And I never followed you around.”
It was Josslyn’s turn to snort because both knew he was lying about the last part. “The word under in your title makes you sound so small and powerless.”
Definitely a cheap shot given Christian’s sensitivity about his five-foot-seven height, but the medics were long gone with Trevor and Josslyn needed an exit strategy from the embassy and the clutches of the American government. Christian’s sudden appearance meant Hugh had been correct to worry that her time in Zimbabwe might be cut short. But she wasn’t ready to leave yet. Not until she knew the names of the suppliers.
Only this time Christian was proving himself to be a formidable opponent. He didn’t so much as flinch at her insult. In fact, his shoulders seemed to rise up an inch. Or two. He was on a power high and confident he had the upper hand in their current standoff. The thought put her even more on edge.
“You’re in my house now, Josslyn. And you’ll show both my staff and me some respect. Rescuing you and your merry band of animal rights do-gooders from angry rebel militia wasn’t on anyone’s agenda today. As usual, your little stunt will cost the American taxpayers a small fortune. Let’s hope it doesn’t cost your boyfriend his life.”
Former boyfriend. Not that the change in their relationship status meant she didn’t care about Trevor’s survival. She did. But she also didn’t want to give the man standing in front of her any more ammunition than he already had. She couldn’t deny his accusations either because, well, she had been guilty of abusing her family’s power a time or two. Today wasn’t one of those times, though. In this operation, it was best for everyone involved if no one knew who she was. Explaining it to Christian was pointless, however. He was just another one of her family’s hired watchdogs.
“As usual, it’s been nice catching up with you,” she lied. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to go check on my team now.”
“The only place you’re going is back to Washington. Immediately.”
His pronouncement had Josslyn halting in her steps. “Excuse me?” A trace of unease ran up her spine.
Christian’s expression suddenly turned merciless as if to say “check-mate.” “There’s a C-one thirty taking off in fifty minutes. You’re to be on it if I have to drag you on board in restraints. I’m under orders from the commander in chief. You do remember him, Josslyn, don’t you?”
Damn. After using the nuclear option and calling in the marines, Josslyn knew she eventually had no choice but to go back to the States and play nice. But she’d thought she’d at least have a few days to follow up on leads and locate Ngoni. Clearly, her brother-in-law had other ideas.
Blowing out a frustrated breath, she stared past Christian, allowing the beauty of the African desert to wash over her. They were out there somewhere. Brutal men and women who would kill a baby rhinoceros for its foot, selling it later as a damn pencil holder to some sick individual around the world. She was determined to stop them, one by one if she had to. But apparently not today. Sometimes her goals felt like a mirage she’d never be able to reach. If only she could give in to her impulse to just turn on her heel and march away. She could then live her own life the way she wanted to, righting the wrongs against animals and protesting the injustice in this world.
That was easier said than done, however, when her brother-in-law was the president of the United States.
End of Excerpt