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The Perfect Outsider

By´╝ÜLoreth Anne White

Chapter 1

Eager was trained to alert on human scent.

And that’s exactly what his handler, June Farrow, was hoping to find as she worked her four-year-old black Lab in a zigzag pattern across the wind, the glow from her headlamp casting a pale beam into blackness. It was 4:00 a.m. Cold. The cloud cover was low, and rain lashed down through trees.

As June and her K9 worked their way up the thickly forested slope, the terrain grew treacherous, with steep gullies and hidden caves. June prayed that Lacy Matthews and her three-year-old twins, Bekka and Abby, were holed up in one of those caves, dry and safe from the storm.

Safe from Samuel Grayson’s men.

Because if Samuel’s men had found them, they were as good as dead.

Swaths of mist rolled down from the peaks and June’s hiking boots began to lose traction. More than once she had to grab onto brambles to stop from slipping down into one of the ravines hidden by the darkness and bush. Sweat prickled under her rain jacket and moisture misted her safety glasses. Water ran in a stream from the bill of her hat and it trickled uncomfortably down her neck.

While Eager was able to barrel like a tank through the increasingly dense scrub, the twigs began to tear at June’s clothes, hooking into her hair, clawing at her backpack, slowing her progress. This, she thought, as she stilled a moment to catch her breath, was why search-and-rescue teams used dogs—they could access places with ease that humans could not, especially a dog like Eager, who, with his stocky, deep-chested frame and thick coat, was impervious to the claw of brambles. And, having been bred from gundog stock, he was able to remain calm in the presence of loud rescue choppers and the big excavation machines often present in urban rescue.

June listened carefully to her surroundings, hoping to catch the faint sound of a woman’s cry on the wind. But a forest was never quiet, and in a storm like this, trees talked and groaned and squeaked as their trunks and branches rubbed together in the wind. Pine cones and broken branches bombed to the ground, and rain plopped from leaves. The pine needles in the canopy above swished with the sound of a river.

She could detect no cry for help amid the other sounds of the stormy night.

Tension coiled tight in her stomach.

Working solo was foolish, particularly for an experienced SAR tracker who knew better. But a desperation to find those three-year-old twins and their mother burned like fire in June’s chest, outweighing all caution.

Her own son had been three when he’d died.

If June had managed to dig deeper into her own reserves, search harder, faster, sooner, all those years ago, she might have arrived in time to save Aiden. Now she had to save Bekka and Abby. The reason they were lost in the woods was partly June’s fault, and they’d been missing for two nights now. The clock was ticking and guilt weighed heavy.

“Eager!” she yelled over the wind. “Go that way, boy!”

Eager more sensed than saw his handler’s directional signal, and he veered in an easterly direction, moving across the base of glistening-wet rock. All June could see of him was the pale green glow of his LED collar, and every now and then the wet reflection of his coat as he cut across the beam of her headlamp.

The moisture was actually working in Eager’s favor—it enhanced his scenting abilities, but the wind was confounding. It punched down through holes in the canopy and swirled in eddies around the forest floor, carrying any scent that might have been pooling on the ground or in gullies with it.

June saw her dog hesitate a moment, then suddenly the green collar bobbed as Eager went crashing off in a new direction across the flank of a cliff.

He had scent.

June rushed after him, heart pounding as she shouldered through bushes and skidded over wet deadfall. Then she lost sight of the fluorescent light. She stilled, catching her breath as she wiped rainwater from her face. Her hand was shaking, and June realized she was exhausted.

She was going to make a fatal error like this.

She willed herself to calm. Life depended on it, and not just hers.

But as she dug deep for self-control an image hit her hard and suddenly of a search gone wrong five years ago. A search that resulted in the dramatic deaths of her husband and son. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to shake the accompanying and familiar sense of sheer and utter desperation.

It had happened because of a cult.

Her husband, Matt, had been sucked in by a religious organization, and when June had pressured Matt to leave, he’d kidnapped Aiden from day care, planning to take him to live on the cult compound.

Thunder crashed and grumbled in the mountains and another gust of wind swished through the trees. June’s nerves jumped. She braced her hand against the trunk of a tree.