Apache Protectors, Book 1
He wanted justice. For his family. For her.
Elite tracker Kino Cosen is hunting for the drug lord who murdered his father. After a decade of searching, he's finally got the Viper in his sight—until a woman gets in the way. Now Kino has a new lead. Aid worker Lea Atlaha has seen the Viper face-to-face…and lived.
But now Lea's a target. And while Kino thinks he's protecting her because she can help him get justice for his father, he soon realizes that she's not just another witness. As the Viper moves in for the kill, Kino has to choose between his need for vengeance, the traditions of his tribe and the woman he has grown to love.
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4 1/2 STARS
"Kernan's story is just flat-out good. There are some imaginative and heart-stopping scenes..."
Susannah Balch, RT Book Reviews
Lea Altaha lay flat out on the truck seat as glass from the windshield showered over her like hard rain. She folded her arms over her head to protect herself from the falling glass. Her arms offered no defense from the bullets that shattered her rearview mirror and then something behind her.
What was going on?
First that guy in the red pickup had pointed a rifle at her and ordered her out of the truck and the next moment the shooting had started.
Her heart jack hammered in her chest and she breathed in the tang of her terror mixed with sweat.
The engine of the other truck revved. Next came the crunch of gravel as the tires spun sending sand and rock flying. The guy with the rifle was leaving. Had he been the target of the shooter?
She didn’t know. All she did know was that she was staying here on the seat until she knew it was safe.
The shots sounded again, but not at close range. Far off now, she could hear the familiar pop, pop, pop of someone taking deliberate aim. The sound recalled her time hunting with her father. But that was where the similarity ended.
Dust poured in through the open windows, the result of the man’s hasty retreat. She eased open the passenger’s-side door, thinking to take cover under her truck. But the sight that greeted her caused her to give a yelp of fear. Lea stared through the swirling dust at the figures on the ground. Grit coated her mouth and filled her nose. Her skin prickled as the hairs on her neck lifted. Suddenly her mouth was as dry as the desert surrounding her.
There, prone upon the sand, were bodies. All but one was facedown. That one lay with arms sprawled wide, shirt open and eyes staring sightless at the sun. No one could stare like that for long, not without risking blindness. The chest showed a dark wet stain of blood.
Had that man shot him, too?
She shivered with cold, her fingers and face feeling numb despite the heat of the day.
“What’s happening?” she whispered to no one.
She crawled forward, sending cubes of glass cascading onto the floor mats and crunching painfully under her knees. The second man lay just as still, but he was prone, his arms spread wide as if in surrender. From her new position she could make out two other bodies.
Lea reached for the door handle and pulled. The solid metal shut with a satisfying thump. She slipped into the wheel well and tucked her knees to her chest. Where was the satellite phone? She scanned the seat where it had been, found it empty and reached for the radio still clipped to the waistband of her jeans.
She got it switched on, despite the fact that her hands were shaking so badly and were so slick with sweat that she could barely hold the thing. She hit the button to transmit.
Her area supervisor, Margaret Crocker, answered immediately, as if she’d been holding the radio that usually sat on her desk. “Lea! I’ve been trying to reach you. Radios must remain on.”
Lea didn’t try to interrupt because there was no use. She couldn’t speak until Margie finished and released her transmit button.
Margie’s voice crackled on. “Where are you? Ernesta just called in and that means you’re alone, again. I’ve explained this to you. Everyone rides with a partner.” Her voice went to an angry whisper. “I can’t believe you pulled this today of all days when you know I’ve got the regional director here! I do not need this.”
Finally, Margie stopped talking so Lea could speak.
“Dead,” she squeaked. Was that even her voice? It sounded completely unfamiliar to her own ears.
“What? What was that? Repeat.”
“He shot them. They’re dead.”
“Who’s dead? Lea, where are you?”
She told her.
“Indian land? What are you doing there? We have no stations there. It’s too dangerous. Lea, that’s where the cartels are moving.”
“I-it’s on the map.” She blinked, glancing up at the clear blue sky that had no more pity for her than for the migrants who’d tried to cross the desert.
“What map? Oh, no! Where did you get it?” asked Margie. “Are you hurt?”
A man stepped into view, blocking the sky. He looked tough and dangerous.
The radio slipped from Lea’s fingers as she opened her mouth and screamed.
The door swung open as the air left her lungs. She scrambled onto the seat, bounced off the steering wheel and smacked into the closed driver’s-side door.
“I’m not him,” said the stranger. “Look at me. I’m not him.”
She did look at him. He had a rifle slung over his shoulder and a pistol in his hand. He wore body armor and an expression of fury. His dark eyes narrowed as she clung to the door latch, deciding if she should run or face him. He looked fit and heavily muscled and far bigger than she was.
“B-border patrol?” she asked, her voice going all airy and breathless. She felt dizzy as she dragged scorching desert air into her lungs.
He gave a quick shake of his head that sent his single braid flashing over his shoulder before it snapped back like a whip. Then he rotated his torso and tapped the patch on his tan-colored shirt. “Shadow Wolves. I’m with ICE. The good guys.”
Good guys? Right. To some, he was a worse sight than the cartels. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the ones who hunted the immigrants like prey. She knew about the Shadow Wolves, of course. Their reputations preceded them.
“Are you injured?”
The humming in her ears made his words hard to understand. He waited for her reply but she only blinked stupidly at him, past the spots that danced in front of her eyes like fireflies. He reached a large hand in her direction and she pulled the latch, falling backward into space and hitting the ground hard. But not so hard that she couldn’t roll, which she did, under the truck.
This unfortunately put her at the same level as the bodies. My God, she thought, this morning they were alive with dreams and a future. Now they were carrion bloating in the heat. How long before the buzzards found them?
Lea began to cry. The passenger door slammed and the man’s footwear crunched as he took two steps along the side of the truck. He didn’t wear the usual hiking boots or the army boots many of the border patrol officers wore.
Lea stopped crying. She knew those moccasins, or she knew what they represented. The upturned decorative toe-tab marked them and the wearer. The boots were high, to protect against the ever-present rattlesnakes and thorny vegetation, but soft and supple. Cactus kickers, her father called them. The man was not only an Indian. He was Apache, like her.
“How long you gonna stay under there?” the man asked. His voice held a hint of irritation.
She switched to Apache and asked him his tribe.
He squatted, resting on one knee to peer beneath the vehicle at her as he answered in Athabascan, speaking in the formal way of introductions. His voice was rich and deep and held a calm that made it easier for her to breathe.
“I’m Kino Cosen. My parents are Tessa and Henry Cosen. I am Bear Clan, born of Eagle. How are you called?”
“Lea Altaha.” Her voice only shook a little now. She hesitated, her lips pressing together as she decided what to say. “My parents are Oscar and Maria Altaha. I am…” Her words fell off. I am nothing. No one. The familiar shame seized her but she pushed it away.