Watched by Wolves - a work in process

PROLOGUE

Eighteen years ago…

  Sam Wright had found peace. The young father of two guided his SUV along the familiar road winding through the woods of northern Maine. Leaves blazing with color framed the pavement ahead, the hues of red, yellow, and orange creating a vision that belonged on a postcard. Branches crisscrossed over the road, and shadows rippled across the windshield. Maple, oak, and white birch trees lined the shoulder, extending deep into the mountains on both sides.

  Sam couldn’t have been happier as he drove around a bend before slowing to turn into his gravel driveway leading up a 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 five-year-old son strapped into the booster seat behind him and his infant daughter sleeping in the car seat on the passenger side.

  Sam eased the truck over the ruts, careful to keep a slow speed. The last thing he wanted was to hit a jarring bump and wake the baby. At four weeks old, she had already stolen his heart with her cooing noises and fresh powder smell.

  Earlier that morning, Sam hadn’t batted an eye when his wife accepted a new client’s request to tour available homes for the day. Without hesitating, he’d taken charge of the children, enjoying every minute his daughter spent in his arms while his son played with toy trucks and bulldozers in the sand box Sam had built in the backyard over the summer. After lunch, he’d packed up the kids and headed out to the grocery store to grab a few things before returning home.

  The trees ahead parted, revealing a ranch house made of wooden shingles surrounded by a neatly kept yard. Crimson bushes lined the mulch beds, and a wreath with a gold bow hung on the door. Sam pulled up to the sidewalk, 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 through the grass and ran around the house.

  The little boy with short brown hair and a red shirt matching the leaves in the background disappeared from sight within seconds. But Sam didn’t waste any time worrying about him. The sand box behind the house filled with toy dump trucks and other construction equipment would keep him occupied for hours.

  Silence filled the SUV, and Sam paused, waiting for the baby to wake up from the lack of movement. But she never stirred. 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 infant sound asleep in her pink onesie with a kitten’s face and whiskers sewn on it making his heart glow.

  Not wanting to wake her, he left the door open and moved to the front, about to reach for the handle when footsteps crunched on the gravel behind him. Surprised, he whipped around to see a man standing about ten feet away. Thick stubble 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 around the toes.

  Sam swallowed back the uneasiness filling him. In his khakis and white button-down shirt, 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 as though he was caught in a drug haze.

  “Sorry,” Sam replied. “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 at the local high school, Sam was never one to judge the students by their appearance, but something told him this guy was trouble. “The highway runs just east of town. It’s about a three-hour walk, so you should probably get started. If you head down the driveway, make a right on the road. Then it’s about eight miles to town. Once you get there, you’ll be able to find the interstate.”

  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 you need?”

  “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 grinding the stones under his boots, 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 a drifter set foot in his front yard, at least that Sam was aware of. Black bears and moose crossed the property all the time, but people were a rare sight this far from town.

  Sam took a few deep breaths and tried to shake the apprehension taking hold of him. He’s gone, he told himself, wanting to forget the encounter. But the man had unsettled Sam, more than he expected. 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 air.

  Alarmed, Sam’s attention snapped to the side, fear for his son in the backyard rattling him. Without a moment to spare, 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 a normal rate, 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, Daddy,” the little boy replied. As though nothing had happened, he turned to the bulldozer, contented to scoop up sand and dump it out over and over again.

  Sam smiled with relief and gave the top of his son’s head a loving pat. For all he’d known, Aaron could have seen a bear, a distinct 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 the passenger side of the SUV and came to an abrupt halt when he noticed the back door shut halfway. He was certain he’d left it 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 when he noticed the branches of two trees swaying from a disturbance. Without hesitating, he charged into the woods, running like he’d never run before because his baby daughter’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, fearing the worst, that he’d never hold his baby again.

  Anguish spread through him, crushing his heart in one swift moment. He hadn’t seen the guy since he ran into the woods, and he was nowhere even 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 any wolf Sam had ever seen – 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 ever getting her back. Before he could snap out of his trance, a light brown wolf the same size of the white one appeared on his right side. 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.