Watched by Wolves - a work in process

PROLOGUE

Eighteen years ago…

  Sam Wright sat behind the wheel of his SUV, admiring the trees blazing with color while he guided the truck around a bend in the road. Fall in northern Maine had yet to disappoint him, and today was no different with the red, yellow and orange leaves looking like they belonged on a postcard. Branches crossed over the pavement ahead, hiding the sun as shadows rippled across the windshield.

  Sam felt at peace in the idyllic New England mountains he'd called home all his life. He smiled as he reached his gravel driveway, made the turn and continued up the hill. Not a soul was in sight, just wilderness everywhere he looked. Birds flew across his path, and squirrels scampered up the trees. But nothing gave him more pride and joy than his two children in the back seat. His five-year-old son was buckled in behind him while his infant daughter slept soundly in the car seat on the passenger side. At four weeks old, she had already stolen his heart.

  Sam eased the SUV over deep ruts in the gravel, not wanting any jarring bumps to wake the baby. Seconds later, the trees ahead parted, revealing a two-story house with gray siding, black shutters, and a pinecone wreath hanging on the door. Bright red bushes lined the mulch beds and a freshly cut lawn extended in front of the sidewalk. Sam pulled up to the garage, shifted into park, and shut off the engine. Before he made another move, his son unbuckled his seat belt and jumped out of the car, leaving the door open while he took off around the house.

  The little boy with soft brown hair and a red shirt matching the leaves in the background disappeared from sight within seconds. But Sam wasn't worried about him. The sand box behind the house filled with toy bulldozers and dump trucks would keep him busy for hours.

  Silence filled the SUV, and Sam paused, listening for the baby to stir since the movement had stopped, but she didn't make a sound. A moment later, he stepped out of the car and gently shut the door, cringing at the noise and hoping she’d sleep through it.

  Sam walked around to the other side and opened the back passenger door, the sight of his baby girl sound asleep in her pink onesie making his heart glow.

  Not wanting to wake her, he pushed the door until it touched the frame without clicking into place and went to the back, about to reach for the cargo door handle when footsteps crunched on the gravel behind him. Surprised, he whipped around to see a man standing about ten feet away. A thick beard hid his jaw, and a scar extended from his forehead over his bald scalp. His green eyes were bloodshot, and tattoos covered his arms from his wrists to his shoulders. A black tank top outlined every muscle in his beefy chest, dirt smudged his army green pants, and his hiking boots were scuffed.

  Sam swallowed, uneasiness gnawing at him. He probably weighed half as much as the guy facing him. Straightening his shoulders and forcing himself to appear confident, he met the stranger’s eyes dead on. “Can I help you?” he asked.

  “Yeah,” the guy replied, his voice hoarse and raspy. He cleared his throat. “I’m looking for the highway.” He shifted his gaze to the SUV behind Sam before glancing back at him with eyes glazed over.

  “Sorry to tell you this, but you’re a long way from the closest one. Mind telling me how you ended up here?”

  “I just wanted to take a walk and get some fresh air. There’s plenty of it around here. Beautiful country.”

  “Yes, it is,” Sam agreed, still not sure what to think about the man who looked more like an escaped convict than a hiker getting back to nature. After five years of teaching high school, Sam was never one to judge the students by their appearance, but something told him this guy was trouble. “If you want to find the highway, you'll need to head into town and get a ride. Then go about sixty miles south on Route Fifty-one. It’s a three-hour walk from here to town, so you should probably get started." Sam gestured down the driveway. "Just make a right when you get to the road and follow it for eight miles. Once you get to town, you’ll be able to find anything you need.”

  The man nodded but made no move to turn away.

  After a few seconds, Sam spoke again. “Is that all? Or is there something else?”

  “No,” the man said, snapping out of his trance, although the glaze never cleared out of his eyes. “That’s all. Thanks for the directions. I’ll be on my way.”

  When the man turned and headed down the driveway, his footsteps on the stones too loud for comfort, Sam watched until he disappeared from sight. Even then, Sam remained in place like a protective father, wanting to be sure the guy was gone. Never before had Sam encountered a drifter on his property. Black bears and moose wandered through the yard all the time, but people were a rare sight this far from town.

  Sam took a few deep breaths and tried to shake his apprehension. He’s gone, he told himself, wanting to forget about the bearded man. He’s probably just looking for a hot meal. He’ll find everything he needs in town. No sense worrying about him now. Forcing his thoughts back to the task at hand, he was about to turn around to the SUV when a scream pierced the silence.

  Alarmed, Sam forgot about the groceries in the back of the SUV as fear for his son rattled him. He took off, heading around the side of the house. As soon as he turned the corner, he saw his son rolling a toy dump truck in the sand box. Sam scanned the yard and woods, seeing nothing out of place. His pulse returning to normal, he rushed over to the box and knelt beside the edge.

  “Aaron,” he said, waiting until his son turned to look at him before continuing. “I heard you scream. What happened?”

  “There was a bee,” the little boy replied. As though nothing had happened, he turned to the bulldozer, scooped up the sand and dumped it out.

  Sam smiled with relief and gave his son’s head a loving pat. For all he’d known, Aaron could have seen a bear, a definite possibility in the woods behind the yard. After rising to his feet, Sam turned and retraced his steps to the front of the house.

  Humming softly, he approached SUV's rear door, about to reach for it when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the back passenger door was wide open.

  His heart nearly shutting down with fear, he ran around the door and stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of the empty car seat. His pulse sped up, and adrenaline raced through him. He whipped around, barely able to catch his breath as he noticed the branches of two trees swaying. Without hesitating, he charged into the woods, running like he’d never run before, fearing his baby girl’s life was at stake. Tears filled his eyes, but he blinked them back, knowing he had to stay strong for her.

  Sam stopped a few seconds later, watching every movement in the woods, studying every tree, listening to every sound. Leaves fluttered in the distance, and the snap of a twig told him he was heading in the right direction. He took off again, pushing his legs to move faster, harder, until his muscles burned. But he didn’t feel the pain. He didn’t feel anything except panic, afraid that he’d never hold his baby again.

  Anguish spread through him, crushing his heart with a swift blow. He didn't see any sign of the drifter, and he was nowhere close to finding his daughter. He tried to keep running, but was beginning to tire when a huge white wolf emerged from the underbrush and planted its paws on the trail about twenty feet ahead. Standing tall and square, it was bigger than a Great Dane, possibly reaching four feet at the shoulder and weighing over two hundred pounds. Sam slid to an abrupt halt, his gaze locking with the wolf’s light brown eyes. His heart thumping in his chest, he swallowed, wondering if the animal sensed his fear.

  Feeling paralyzed, his legs heavy as though bricks were tied to his feet, Sam remained perfectly still while a stranger carried his baby farther away, making him lose any sliver of hope of getting her back. Before he could snap out of his trance, a light brown wolf the same size as the white one appeared on his right. Then a black one slipped out from behind a tree on his left. More of them appeared and, within seconds, several wolves surrounded him, their eyes locked on him.

  Sam turned in a circle, looking for a way out, but the wolves blocked his path in every direction. Trapped, he had nowhere to go. His one chance to find his daughter and bring her home stolen in that very moment, he closed his eyes and prayed for a miracle.