THREATENED, Hill Country Lawmen, 2

/ / 58
$3.99

Marie-Nicole Ryan was born in a small western Kentucky town, but after college and marriage, she said, “Goodbye” to small town life. After spending three years as an army wife, she landed in Nashville, TN, where she spent several decades working as an R.N. and case manager. Finally, in 2002, she achieved her dream of becoming a published author.

She loves writing about lawmen and detectives and writes contemporary romantic suspense, as well as erotic historical western romance. TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, won a 2008 EPPIE for erotic romantic suspense. In addition, her mystery/suspense novel, ONE TOO MANY, was a 2009 EPPIE Finalist.

She was an active member of RWA® for many years, as well as PAN, MCRW, and PASIC. Currently, she lives in western Kentucky. When she’s not slaving away at her current work in progress, you might find her walking her dog Kelsea, a Sheltie rescue, or at the Y. But you won’t ever find her in an airplane. No, not ever.


Private Message
Advert #265


Do blondes really have more fun? Not when danger lurks around every corner.

Texas Ranger Ben Rasmussen had his heart broken by a beautiful blonde once, and no way is he interested in repeating the experience. Still, there’s something tough, yet fragile, about a certain young business owner, and yes, dammit, she’s a blonde. And beautiful to boot.

Co-owner of Wheaton’s Mercantile and Bistro, Beth Wheaton has had a thing for Ben Rasmussen since the seventh grade when he protected her from some bullies. She isn’t just any blonde. And she’s nothing like the bimbo who trashed Ben’s marriage. But she is determined to break through his reserve to find their happily ever after.

But when the Houston mob and a deadly drug cartel threaten business owners in the Texas Hill Country, Beth’s business is bound to be one of their targets. Ben finds himself drawn more and more to the beautiful blonde who’s willing to do anything to save her home town. Even if it means risking her life.


 

Chapter One

 

Wednesday

“Ranger Rasmussen calling for Sheriff Tate.” Ben
waited, his fingers drumming the oak desktop.

“Sorry, Ranger. The Sheriff’s in a town council
meeting right now. Can Chief Deputy Rasmussen help?” Ben smiled at the
dispatcher’s formality. Must be new. The deputy was his younger brother Will. His
smile deepened. “He’ll do.”

Will picked up, his cheerful tone in Ben’s ear.
“Hey, big bro. What’s going on?”

He took a deep breath. Might as well just come
right out with it. “The Houston Makarov gang is making serious inroads into the
Hill Country.”

His brother let out a ragged breath. “Shit. Not
those fuckers, again.”

Bad history there. One of the mom’s enforcers had
murdered his brother’s girlfriend last year. “Yeah. Looks like protection
rackets—to start with. Given there’s going to be a casino opening in Los Marcos
County in the near future, I need to shut the mob down before they get
entrenched in the Valley and the Hill
Country. Have Vince call me. I’ll be in town all day tomorrow talking to
business owners. I want Mayor Briggs and the town council involved before we’re
knee-deep in rattlers.”

Where you had protection rackets, drugs, vice,
and human trafficking followed. Plus, there’d been increasing chatter about Los
Malos Dias
drug cartel increasing their presence in the region. The last
thing the Texas Hill Country needed was a mob war between the Russians and a
drug cartel.

“You got it. Say, you gonna see the folks while
you’re in town?”

“Hell, yes. I’ve been craving some of mom’s fried
chicken.” He chuckled. “Don’t worry. I already gave her a call.”

“Good deal. I happen to know she misses her
favorite son.”

Smiling, Ben let the good-natured jibe pass.
Everybody in Kenton Valley knew Will was the baby of the family. And their
mom’s favorite, even though she hotly denied it whenever anyone brought up the
subject. “See you then.” He paused, “But—”

“Don’t worry. I won’t forget to give Vince your
message.”

His little brother could just about read his
mind. “Yeah. Yeah.”

Still, keeping the Valley clean of the mob and a
drug cartel would be no easy task. It would take every resource the sheriff, town
council, and the business owners could muster.

And courage. Live and let live didn’t work with gangs
like the Makarovs. As for Los Malos Dias cartel. Better to chop off the head of
the snake before it could strike. And that snake went by the name of Reynaldo
Reyes.

*

Beth adjusted the can of green peas so the label
faced outward. Setting her hands on her hips, she surveyed the shelf and nodded.
Everything just the way she liked it. Neat and orderly.

“Nice store you have here.”

Startled, Beth spun around. “Sorry, I didn’t hear
you come in.” A new face. Nice. “How
may I help you?”

The handsome stranger reached inside his coat
pocket and produced a business card. Matthew
Freeman, District Vice-President, Helmsman Security. Your protection is our
business. Our only business.

She ran her thumb over the surface. Embossed. Expensive. “I haven’t seen you in here before. Am
I right?”

“Just call me Matt. Yes and no.” His smug smile
ruined the initial favorable impression.

 “My
business is new—in Kenton Valley, anyway—but I’ve been in the Mercantile
before. A dark-haired woman waited on me. She mentioned I was just in time for
lunch. Very nice Bistro, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Beth said with a curt nod. “That was
my sister, Lola. We’re the co-owners.” She glanced around the store she’d
worked so hard to make quaint as well as appealing to modern customers.

“Ever consider installing a more up-to-date
security system?” His ever so slightly elevated brows indicated his disdain for
her current arrangement.

“Really?” Very few merchants in the Valley
bothered with fancy security systems. “The one we have has always been sufficient.”
Okay, so her system consisted of an old-fashioned bell over the door and fake
cameras. He didn’t need to know that.

“But will it meet your future needs?” His voice
deepened, his dark eyes boring into hers. “Seems to me Kenton Valley is ripe
for change.”

Beth frowned. “You almost make that sound like a
threat.” Jerking her gaze from his, she brushed an infinitesimal speck of dust
from the counter. “The Valley is fine the way it is. And so is my security
system.” True, she hadn’t heard the bell when he’d entered, but she’d been
distracted—right?

“Keep the card.” Except for the barest trace of a
Spanish accent, his voice reminded her of a TV newscaster’s. “You never know
when you might change your mind.”

She set her hands on her hips and glared. “Now
that really sounds like a threat.”

“I didn’t mean—” He held up his hands in a
gesture of surrender. “We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. Let me try again.
Have dinner with me tonight. I’m sure there’s somewhere in the Valley where
even a newcomer like me  can share a
steak dinner and a bottle of wine with a potential client.”

“There is. But—”

“Come on… give me another chance. I’m trying to
find my feet here, so to speak.”

His have-pity-on-a-stranger-in-town attitude—way
more appealing than his self-satisfied security salesman pitch. What did she
have to lose? Besides tall, dark, and
handsome. What more was there to say? And the accent was sort of sexy.

“All right,” she sighed. “Steak and Texas go
together like white on rice. I suggest the country club. Best wine cellar in
town.”

His broad shoulders shrugged. “I haven’t been
here long enough to join.”

“No problem. Make the reservation in my name.”
She hesitated. She’d been about to say, ‘Pick me up at eight. I live over the
store, and use the rear entrance.’ But what did she know about this man? Not a
damned thing. “I’ll meet you there at eight.”

He flashed a smile. “It’s a date then.”

“Yes, it is.” What the hell? Pickings were slim
when it came to eligible men. Ben Rasmussen wasn’t going to take up residence
anytime soon. No, he was occupied with Ranger duties in Waco. Truth be told,
she’d rather be having a nice dinner with him.

His purposeful stride from the store didn’t help
to calm her nerves. Hadn’t mama always said, “A stranger is just a friend you
haven’t met yet”? Yes, she had. And mama was usually right, but the Valley was
changing. Her daddy frequently added, “a little caution goes a long way.” She
missed having her folks nearby, but they were living their dream retirement
fantasy in RV land.

Yet, there was something to be said for giving
someone the benefit of a doubt. Besides, what harm could come to her at dinner,
surrounded by the Valley’s elite?  

Walking to the front of the store, she watched
him enter the hardware store next door. What was he up to? Drumming up more
business?

“What on earth are you doing?” Lola elbowed Beth,
interrupting her spying.

“Ouch.” She rubbed her rib. “Just checking where
that fine piece of manhood is headed.”

“No. You made a date with that guy. You don’t
know a single thing about him.”

“Honestly, there isn’t a man in this town I don’t
know something about. Either I went
to school with him and know him all too well, or he’s married to someone I
know. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a dire shortage of available men in the
Valley.”

“Believe me, I’ve noticed.” Lola’s gaze traveled
in the opposite direction toward the sheriff’s office.

“Besides, I’m meeting him at the country club.
Nothing—and I mean nothing’s—going to happen there.” Beth slipped her arm
around her sister’s waist. “Don’t pull that hangdog expression on me. I know you’re
still pining over Will. Give him time to heal.”  

“It’s already been a year.” Lola gave a sniff. “I
never know quite what to say. Whenever he’s in the store or the Bistro, I can
tell from his expression he doesn’t see me as anything more than a friend.”

Beth sighed and squeezed her sister tighter. “Just
our fate: the Wheaton sisters and the Rasmussen men. On one side, we have
Deputy Will, pining over a dead girlfriend, and on the other Ranger Ben,
definitely not pining over his ex and
totally uninterested in dating another blonde, or so the rumor mill says.” She
fluffed her light unruly locks. “Maybe I should try dying my hair dark.”

“No way.” Lola reached over and tousled Beth’s
hair. “Go ahead. Have your date with the handsome stranger. And while you’re
gazing into his eyes and playing footsies under the table, ask if he has a brother.”

“I can certainly do that for my baby sis.” She
returned the favor, but Lola’s sleek dark bob was impossibly resistant to tousling.

Glancing at her watch, Lola scurried away. “Time
to open the Bistro,” she said over her shoulder.

*

Time to get ready for her date and panic had set
in. Hands trembling, Beth yanked her hair back in a ponytail and let out a
groan. “I really ought to have this mess straightened.”

“You’ll be sorry,” Lola said from the doorway. “I’d
give anything to have your hair. Besides, the way you’ve let it grow out, it’s
more wavy than curly.”

“Agh!” She yanked the scrunchy from her hair and
tossed it.

Lola bent over to pick up the red scrunchy.

“Don’t bother. I’ll get it later.”

In the mirror, Beth caught Lola’s disdainful
gaze. “What are you wearing tonight?”

“My usual version of understated elegance? Black
slacks. White silk blouse.”

“Boring.” Lola wrinkled her nose. “Don’t you
think that little black dress you bought in San Antonio would be better?”

“No. I don’t want him to think I’m trying too
hard.” Beth sighed. “I don’t know why I agreed to meet him in the first place.”

“Frankly, I don’t, either.” Lola walked over to
the ornate walnut jewelry box atop the low boy chest. “Jewelry?”

“The gold chain I always wear and the gold hoops
mom gave me for graduation.”

“Simple, but nice. Not too much. Now for your
hair. Let me see.” Lola rooted around in Beth’s jewelry organizer and produced
two gold combs. “Slick your hair back from your face with these, and let the
rest of it do what it always does.”

Beth snorted. “No one will ever mistake me for Zoe
Briggs Rasmussen Vayden, that’s for sure,” she said, referring to Ben’s ex who
seemed to find it necessary to wear every piece of jewelry she owned at the
same time. Beth stood back from the mirror and shook her head. “You know I’m
tempted to call and cancel.” She nodded. “Yes, that’s what I’ll do.”

Her sister’s eyebrow rose. “After he made
reservations in your name at the club? That’s just tacky.”

“Crap. You’re right.” She faced Lola. “Okay. Here’s
what we’ll do. I’m meeting him at eight, so call me at twenty after and tell me
there’s a problem with the store. I should know by then if I want to stay for
the entree. Deal?”

“Deal.”

*

Finally
dressed and perfumed—just a spritz mind you—Beth strode to the front entrance
of the Kenton Valley Country Club, familiarly known as the KVCC. She hesitated,
then squared her shoulders. It was dinner. Nothing more. Nothing less. Dinner
she could do.

Matt
waited near the reception desk. “You look great.”

Hm. Nice manners. “Thank
you.” She nodded to the maître d’ and smiled. “Good evening, Dominic.”

“Good
evening Ms. Wheaton. Your table is ready. It’s on the terrace overlooking the
rose garden. I hope you and your guest have a lovely meal. James will be your
server tonight.”

“I’m
sure we will. And thank you.”

“You are
definitely known here,” Matt said.

“Mom and
dad belonged. My sister and I have been coming here since we were kids.”

“And
your parents, are they still living?”

“Yes,
they retired south of Houston and live in what I call RV land.” Actually, her
parents lived in an upscale gated community, but they frequently took the RV on
the road for long trips.

Before
she could give the server her wine order, her phone rang.” Dang it. Lola wasn’t
supposed to call this early. “Sorry, I have to take this.” She rose, walked
away from the table, then answered, “Too soon. I haven’t decided yet.”

“No,”
Lola said. “You need to come to the store now.
There’s been a break-in.”

“Very
funny. Thanks. I’ll be sure to rush
right over.”

“No
really. I’ve already called the Sheriff’s Department.”

“Okay…”
What was Lola going for? An Oscar? “So, you’re not kidding. It’s not funny—”

Seriously. Get over here now.”

The
intensity of Lola’s panic flooded through the phone. She wasn’t kidding. The
phone trembled in Beth’s hand as she returned to the table. “I’m sorry. I have
to go. There’s been a break-in at my store.”

Matt
stood. “I’ll settle the bill and go with you.”

She
shook her head. “No, go ahead and have dinner. They can put it on my account.”

“No.” He
stood. “I’m coming with you.”

“Fine.”
Even as she said the words, her distrust of this man returned, stomping around
in her brain.

Today, he came to my store, warning
me I might need his services, and tonight my store’s broken into. Coincidence.
Maybe not.

“On
second thought,” she said. “We came in separate cars, I’ll take mine, and if
you still want to come, you should drive your own vehicle.”

*

Heart racing, Beth sped to the Mercantile and
parked. The street in front of her store was cordoned off by three Sheriff’s
Department vehicles. She jumped from the Maxima and ran to the nearest deputy.
“What happened, Will? Is Lola all right.”

“Your sister’s fine, just a little shook up.”

Shards of glass, remnants from the front store
windows, crunched beneath her shoes. Bastards! “May I go in and see what other damage
they did?”

“Sure.” He raised the crime scene tape, and she
ducked under it. “Just kid stuff. They made a heck of a mess. Watch your step
though.”

“What about our apartment upstairs? Did they
break in there?”

“No. I think your sister surprised them.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s upstairs. Deputy Longworth is taking her
statement.”

“Good.”

Gingerly, she entered the store, Will on her
heels. What a mess. A quick scan showed cans and other goods had been knocked
off the shelves, kicked hither and yon. “Pretty gutsy to this do right after
closing. Did anyone catch a glimpse of who broke in?”

“A gang of four or five. Males. That’s the best
description Lola could come up with.”

“The Valley doesn’t have gangs. I don’t
understand.” Or maybe she did. “My store cameras are fake, but what about the other
stores along the street? What about the pharmacy? I’m pretty sure Abbie
installed real cameras after the trouble last year.” Other than the drug store,
most of the stores probably had fake cameras like hers. A lot of good they
would do.

Will’s brows drew together. “That’s on my list to check. I’ll get in touch with the other owners
as soon as I get back to the office.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to tell you your job.” She
turned around and sighed. “What a mess. I’ll have to call Bob at the hardware
store. I need to board up these windows with plywood.”

Someone called her name. She spun around.

Matt stood on the far side of the crime scene
tape. She’d forgotten all about him. Sort of. “Excuse me. I need to speak to someone.
We were on—well, a date.”

“Go ahead.” Will nodded. “But he needs to stay on
the other side of the tape.”

“Sure thing, Deputy.” She gave him a saucy salute
which resulted in one of Will’s rare smiles.

Beth picked her way through the broken glass,
went outside, and joined Matt. “I’m sorry. You might as well go on home. I’ll
be here for quite a while with the deputy. All in all, it’s a major mess. Except
for the front windows, it’s pretty minor.”

“That’s a relief. And your sister is okay?”

How
thoughtful
. “She’s fine. Thanks for asking.”

“I feel so bad.” He sounded sincere.
“Honestly, when I approached you earlier, I never expected anything like this.
It’s clear proof the area is changing. More rapidly than you might like.”                               

And that should suit his business model just
fine.

*

Up in the apartment she shared with her sister,
Beth found Lola and Deputy Longworth sitting in the living room.  The deputy scribbled notes on a pad while Lola
pressed an icepack to her right cheek.

Beth’s heart rate spiked. She rushed to her
sister’s side. “What happened? Will told me you were all right.”

“I am
all right. I did this to myself.” She made a face.

“Tell me—” She stopped short when the tall blonde
deputy stopped writing and raised a single brow. “Sorry, Darby, I didn’t mean
to interrupt.” Deputy Longworth was one of only two female deputies in Los
Marcos County, as well as a friend from school.

Darby smiled. “That’s all right.” She closed the
notepad. “We’re through. Mainly, this is the hand-holding and reassurance phase
of the interview.”

Beth nodded, redirecting her attention to her
sister. “Okay, tell me everything—start to finish.”

Lola set the icepack aside. “After you left, I came
downstairs to double-check everything was locked up. I was afraid we’d
forgotten something in the flurry of getting you ready for your first date in over a year.”

Beth gave an eye roll. “Really, do you have to
tell everyone about the sad state of my love life.”

Darby gave short bark of laughter. “Don’t worry
about me. I know too well this town is decidedly short on available men.”

“Did you see them—the gang?”

“I was on my way down from the apartment when I
heard a noise—actually, a lot of
noise. The back door was open, and I saw one of them acting as the lookout. He
was wearing a black ski mask. He saw me and started up the steps, so I turned
around and ran back upstairs. That’s when I missed my footing and bumped into
the open door. I managed to get inside and lock it. Then I called 911. The gang
wasn’t inside more’n three or four minutes.”

“Long enough to make a hell of a mess.”

“What about damage in the Bistro?” The café was her
sister’s pride and joy. She shook her head.

“I didn’t notice any damage. I guess they didn’t
take time.”

“Thank heavens for small favors.” Lola picked up
the ice pack, shook her head, then set the ice pack aside.

After Beth retrieved her phone, she called Bob
Cherry at home. He agreed to come right over and board up the front windows. “You’re
the third business vandals have hit in the last two weeks.”

“What?”

“The Tidy-Kleen on Oak got broken into earlier
this week. And a week before that, the Sleepytime Motel just off the
Interstate.”

“Actually, I’d heard about the cleaners,
something about clothes strewn all over the place.”

“That’s right. And they removed all the
tickets from the clothes waiting to be picked up. Owners had a heck of a time
figuring out what belonged to who. And before the vandals left, they busted out
the store window. Guess that was just for pure damn meanness ’cause Sheriff
Tate said they broke in from the back of the store.”

“What about the motel? Isn’t someone always on
duty?”

“Yeah, scared the life out of the clerk.
Barricaded him in a closet and took the money from the register and the reservations
computer. Anyway, guess I’d better quit jawing and get busy.”

“Appreciate it, Bob.” And she did. More than
that, she appreciated the way everyone cooperated in the Valley. It was a fact
she’d always counted on. And losing the comfortable hometown feel wasn’t a good
thing in her book.

After hanging up, Beth turned to the deputy. “Do
you think we’ll be safe here tonight, Darby?”

“Lock your doors. I’m guessing you have a weapon
or two handy?”

“You’d be right.” Jerry Wheaton had
taught both his girls how to handle a weapon. Even now, she and Lola met once a
week at the shooting range. Lola was the better shot of the two, but Beth was
still a damn fine shot.

“You should be all right then. You’d
have a strategic advantage over anyone trying to come up the back stairs.”
Darby leaned forward and lowered her voice. “One thing you might want to do,
get some real cameras for the store,
and a couple in the back alley wouldn’t hurt.”

“That’s on my to-do list for
tomorrow.” Now would she call one Matthew Freeman or not? Maybe she would. What
better way to keep an eye on the new man in town. “Are they through downstairs?
I need to get a start on clearing up the damage.”

“I’ll check. If they’re through,
we’ll leave a deputy out front until you get those windows boarded up.”

“Thanks, Darby.”

The deputy rose from the sofa. “I
have to get back and write this up, but I’ll tell them to let you know when you
can get to work.”

Feeling considerably less than her
five-feet, four-inches tall, Beth watched Darby leave and sighed. If a woman
who looked more like a supermodel than a deputy sheriff had trouble finding a
date, what hope was there for the Wheaton gals?

 


Chapter Two

 

Thursday

The next day Ben drove into his old home town,
noting the changes since his last visit. He shook his head. Kenton Valley was
already showing signs of rapid growth. A new retirement community of condos
going up. An industrial park on the approach to town. Construction had already
begun on the new casino. Several large bulldozers and backhoes were hard at
work moving earth. And one damn big sign: Briggs Construction—hmph, should’ve
known his ex-father-in-law would have a hand in any project that would make him
richer than he already was.

As much as the town needed new business to
survive, he hated the negative influences that progress often brought with it.

He drove to the city office park, adjacent to the
courthouse, parked, and entered the two-year-old structure.

Striding to the Sheriff’s Department located on
the first floor, he nodded to the receptionist. An attractive blonde. Right.
Easy to see why she was hired. “Ranger Rasmussen to see Sheriff Tate.”

The blonde smiled prettily. “He’s expecting you.
Go right in. Down the hall—”

“Thanks. I know the way.” He strode to Vince Tate’s
office door and knocked.

“Come on in.”

Vince rose and extended his hand. “Good timing.
Town Council is all excited about the new casino.”

“And you’re not.”

“Hell, no, I’m not.” Tate sat and leaned back. “Crime
is up. We’ve already had three attacks on local businesses. From the one
witness statement, they’re only in the business four minutes or less. Very
organized. Efficient. And they create a nuisance. They enter from the rear but
break out the front windows before they leave. According to the motel clerk,
they worked with military precision. Four young males. Armed. Never spoke a
word.”

“Hm.” Taking a seat, Ben rubbed his chin. “Knew
about the first two break-ins. Heard about last night’s right before I left
Waco. That kind of precision doesn’t sound like teenage gang activity.”

Vince nodded. “Not to me, either. Now, the
Mercantile received the most damage. Store was closed. No one hurt. But it’s a
trend, and I don’t cotton to those kinds of trends.”

“I agree. Here’s what I want to do. Call a
meeting. All the business owners, the town council, merchants’ association, what
have you. We’ve got to work together. I’ve seen this before. First minor stuff.
Then attacks escalate. Next thing you know, someone is telling owners they have
to pay for protection.”

“A protection racket? That’s what you think we’re
looking at here in the Valley.”

“Yep.”

“Houston mob?”

“Or Los Malos Dias.”

“The cartel?” Vince frowned. “We’ve never had much
of a drug problem around here. Some weed. A little meth once in a while.”

“Opioids. That’s Los Malos Dias’s specialty.
Heroin, too.”

“Are you sure?” Vince shook his head. “We can’t
afford to let that crap get a foothold in Kenton Valley.”

“What do you think having a casino is going to
bring with it? On the way into town, I saw where they’ve already cleared land
and started construction. A year from now, you won’t recognize this town.”

Tate’s face reddened; he averted his gaze.

Might as
well go for the jugular
. “Why on earth did your wife donate
that parcel of land to the Bureau of Indian Affairs?”

Vince bristled but then took a deep breath. “Abby
thought she was doing something good for the tribe who used to live around here.
Believe me, I did my best to talk her out of it.”

“She could’ve donated that land to anyone. Or
just held on to it.”

“What she wanted was to right a wrong. She didn’t
want the land. It was a daily reminder of her father’s mistake, one that,
however indirectly, ended the life of an innocent young woman.”

Ben shook his head. “What’s done is done.” He
stood. “Call that meeting. Let me know when you set the time. I’ll be out at my
folk’s place tonight. Right now, I’m headed over to the Mercantile to talk to the
Wheatons.”

“Will do.”

Walking back to his pickup, he regretted challenging
the sheriff so directly. Vince Tate was an old friend. So was Abby. To Ben’s
way of thinking, she’d screwed up. Or to put it another, maybe kinder, way: no
good deed goes unpunished.

*

From the moment Ben walked into the Mercantile,
he spotted Beth Wheaton, her nicely-rounded butt in the air. He smiled,
appreciating the heat that sizzled up his spine. He leaned against the counter
and narrowed his gaze as she bent up and down, picking up cans of corn and
tomatoes, replacing them on the store shelves.

 Stop it. You’re here to do a job, not admire
the scenery. Very nice scenery it is too.

“Ahem.” He cleared his throat to catch her
attention.

She straightened. On turning, her cheeks flushed
a pretty pink. A riot of blond waves tumbled about her shoulders. Beth wasn’t one
of those bottle-dyed blondes, like his ex, Zoe.  Instead, natural highlights streaked her
tresses in deep golden tones of honey. His hands fisted as he fought back the
urge to bury his fingers deep. He took a deep breath and banished the image of
those silken strands spread across his pillow.

 “Well,
Ranger…” She set her hands on her curvy hips. “Do you have a reason for being
here? Or did your pony run out of oats.”

Snarky, too. He smiled.

 “I was
stunned by…” What in hell had he meant to say? “…the damage. Impressive.”

“Yes. In the few minutes they were here, they
managed to make a real mess.”

“Efficient. Organized.”

“Pfft.” She gave an eye roll. “I don’t know about
that.”

“Um,” he hesitated, remaining off-kilter. “More
nuisance than true damage, except for your front windows.” He nodded toward the
sheets of plywood. With the front of the store boarded up, the interior was
dark, even with lighting. “How long before you can get ’em replaced?”

She gestured with her thumb. “Let’s go back to
the office. I’m ready for a break.”

He followed, admiring the gentle sway of her hips
as she strode through the store. His mouth dried. He swallowed.

In the small office, papers were stacked in
precise piles upon a heavy oaken desk or on shelves that appeared a century, or
more, old. His gaze swept the tidy room. Nice
place.
  On one wall,  a bulletin board contained notices and sales
receipts arranged in an orderly fashion. His attention settled back on Beth,
now sitting behind her desk. She gave him a tight smile. “I’ve called a glazier
in Austin. With the double glazing, it’ll take them a couple of weeks to
fabricate.”

He eased into the closest chair and sat. Wouldn’t mind having all day to while away,
right here
. “I understand you don’t have an alarm system or cameras.” He
stretched out his legs and relaxed back into the soft leather chair.

She shot him an impatient frown. “Never saw the
need till now. But I will have soon. I’ve already contacted someone.”

The shape of her lips. Lush. Kissable.

Focus.

“Good answer,” he drawled.

“In the meantime,” she continued, “Will said he
would check on camera footage from surrounding stores.”

Getting way too comfortable in her presence and
the coziness of her office, he squared his shoulders and straightened. “No use.
The culprits entered from the rear, and none of the other businesses had the
foresight to place cameras in the alley. That might change.”

“That’s definitely going to change,” she said
with an emphatic nod. “I plan on having a couple set up back there since that’s
where Lola and I park and enter our apartment. We’ll both feel safer with
additional security.”

“I’m sure you will.”

Keep on
track
. Damn good thing Beth was so straightforward and
business-like. That way he could keep his mind on the job instead of her.

A shuffling sound over his shoulder drew his
attention. Lola entered the office carrying a broom and a long-handled dustpan.

“Oh,” she said, startled.  “I didn’t realize you were in here.” Tall,
slender, and as tan as a California beach babe, her blue eyes lit up a room
when she smiled. Beth, on the other hand, was shorter. And when she stood, the
top of her pretty head barely reached his shoulder. His gaze returned to the
older of the two, noting again Beth’s rounded curves and big brown eyes the
color of milk chocolate.

“I’m headed over to the Bistro,” Lola said,
setting aside the cleaning implements. “Coffee anyone?”

He glanced back, startled. “What?”

“Coffee?”

Jeez. He’d already forgotten she was there. His
cheeks grew warm. “That would be good. Black. Thanks.”

“Make it two, sis,” Beth said.

“On it.” With a wink, Lola left the room.

Clearing his throat, Ben said, “I came by to let
you know Sheriff Tate will be calling a meeting for all the business owners.
You and Lola really ought to attend. The town will have to band together to
fight what’s coming.”

What
do you think is coming?” Her expression grew worried. “Surely last night was a
one-off kind of thing.”

“No way. Crime. Drugs. The cartel. The Mob. That
damn casino will attract ’em all.”

She took a deep breath, her breasts rising and
falling. “I was afraid you were going to say something like that.”

“We have to stop it before it starts.” Get out of here before you make a fool of
yourself
. “The Texas Rangers will support all your efforts.” He stood,
ready to make his getaway.

“You’re making this sound like an invasion.”

“It is.”

Beth combed her fingers through her curls, then
leaned back and heaved a sigh. “Mom and dad were right to retire. Sometimes, I
wish I could.”

“You can’t give up. This town wouldn’t be the
same without you…and Lola.”

“We’ll definitely be at the meeting,” she said
with a brisk nod.

Lora entered and set two steaming cups of hot
coffee on the desk. “Here you go.”  

Ben nodded his thanks and grabbed the cup. “I’ve—uh,
got to move on and talk to the others who’ve already been hit. I’ll be talking
to everyone when Sheriff Tate gets the town together.”

Steeling his nerve, he strode from her office. No
good could come from getting involved with another blonde—not even a smart,
sexy, snarky one like Beth Wheaton.

*

Beth waited until she heard the front door close,
then let out a sigh. Was she mistaken or had she detected a note of warmth from
the usually taciturn Ranger? Damn her blond curls. No. Damn Zoe Briggs for
breaking his heart, in the first place. His turning up was so unexpected. At
first sight, of him, her throat had closed. Her mouth dried. Her face blazed. The
image of him lingered. Tall. Long legs encased in crisp jeans. Slim hips and
wide shoulders. The rest of him wasn’t bad either. Piercing blue eyes bore into
her soul and a thick head of chestnut-colored hair topped off a handsome face,
marred only by his usual stern expression. Now, they could make some beautiful
babies.

Stop it.

“Oh no. He’s gone, the man of your dreams.”
Lola’s teasing brought Beth back to reality.

“Taking up mind reading are you?” she scoffed. “Besides,
you’re more his type than I am.” She lifted her lip in a sneer.

“As if.” Her sister let out a burst of throaty laughter.
“Honey, he only looked at me long enough to nod thanks for the cup of coffee I
brought him. He couldn’t take his eyes
off you.”

“Don’t be silly. We were discussing all the crime
he thinks the casino is going to bring. It was a serious conversation, so of
course, we had eye contact.” Beth clenched her fists to keep them from shaking.
She scanned the desk. That stack of papers could be neater. She rearranged
them, once more. “I’m definitely calling Matt Freeman to install a security
system. Up-to-date, high-res cameras, the whole nine yards.”

“Having two men after you isn’t fair.”

“Hah,” Beth scoffed. “Don’t act like you’re
interested in either of them. Besides, Ben Rasmussen doesn’t know I’m alive.” In
spite of her casual words, deep inside, a glimmer of hope flickered that
someday soon, Ben would get over his heartbreak and appreciate the woman before
him.

As for Matt Freeman, she could care less. No comparison.

“You’re right about one thing. I could care less
about either one of them, but you are so wrong about Ben’s not knowing you’re
alive.” Lola plopped into the chair the ranger had just vacated, then leaned
forward. “So, what about our apartment? Are we going to get an alarm for that
too?”

Beth twisted around to the file cabinet behind
her and began rummaging through the folders. “I’ll see what Matt recommends,
but I think door and window alarms should be sufficient for the apartment. Plus
the two cameras in the alley.”

“Hmm, this is really starting to sound expensive.
Don’t forget about those front windows. An arm and a leg come to mind.”

“I know,” Beth said with a quick nod. “I’m pretty
sure our insurance will cover most of the cost of replacing the windows.” She
pulled the insurance folder from the file drawer. Scanning the policy, she jammed
her finger at the third clause. “See. There it is. I was right. Vandalism is
covered.”

“You’re right…as usual. Are we going to open
today? The Bistro is untouched.”

“I thought we’d open the Merc at eleven. I should
have everything in order by then, and the Bistro can open at eleven-thirty as
usual.”

Lola popped up from her seat. “Then I’d better
get busy. Sandwiches and salads don’t magically make themselves, you know.” She
turned to leave.

Beth stared down at the insurance document with
hope swelling inside her. Maybe she hadn’t imagined the warmth in Ben’s baby blues,
after all. Even Lola had noticed. Was he getting over his aversion to blondes?
Only time would tell.

*

Ben spent the rest of the morning talking to the
other business owners on Main Street. As a group, they were evenly divided over
the coming of the casino. Half of them were excited about the increase in
business. The rest dreaded the negative results of increased crime.

Shortly after one, a hunger pang rumbled through
him. Might as well grab lunch at the Bistro. He hadn’t eaten since hoovering a sausage
biscuit early that morning. Besides, he wouldn’t mind running into Beth again.

Great. The Merc open for business. Crossing the
threshold, he stopped short. His hand tightened on the doorknob as his gaze
narrowed on Beth and a tall stranger discussing the proper placement of
cameras. Even worse, she smiled prettily and nodded as he talked. Too damn
comfortable with the salesman or whoever the hell he was.

He walked over to the pair. “Sorry to interrupt.”
Not at all. “Ranger Ben Rasmussen,” he said, offering his hand to the stranger.

“Matt Freeman.” Freeman shook Matt’s hand and
shook it. “How may I help you?” he asked, with just a trace of an accent.

Mexican?

“What about a couple of hidden cameras? Thieves
tend to spray paint cameras if they’re obvious.”

An expression of annoyance flickered across
Freeman’s face. “We were discussing that very topic.”

Before I
interrupted.
“Good. You know what you’re doing then. We don’t want
a repeat of last night’s business.”

Matt nodded. “We certainly don’t.” He smiled down
at Beth.

“No, we don’t,” she replied with a smile that
brought out her dimples.

Damn. Why was she awarding Freeman with her
smiles? Who was he to her? Were they involved? A flash of fury hit his gut.

Freeman handed Ben a business card. “Helmsman
Security,” he said. “I’ve been contacted by several business owners since last
night’s event.”

A few
nuisance break-ins and his business takes off
. The first
thing he’d do after lunch would be to check out this asshole’s record and
business. Whether he didn’t like the man because he was just too right-time, right-place,
or if he really resented the free and easy way Beth acted around him, he wasn’t
sure.

Not sure? Hell, yes, he was. Jealous. And no
right to be.

He gave Freeman his own card. “Excuse me. I’ll
grab some lunch.”

Nodding, he shoved open the door and strode into
the Bistro. Most of the late lunch crowd had already left. Red-checked table
cloths along with fresh daisies in pots made the Bistro an inviting spot to
chow down.

Lola stood behind the counter, smiling. “Hey,
there Ranger. Nice to see you in my little café.”

“Can a man get it real meal here, or is it all
salads and green stuff?”

Lola chuckled, leaned forward, and assumed a conspiratorial
expression. “Just for you, I’ll rustle up a grilled ham and cheese.”

“Easy on the cheese and heavy on the ham, and you’ll
have a customer for life.”

“Will do. And how about a bowl of healthy vegetable soup?” Lola’s blue
eyes sparkled with mischief.

“Sounds great.” He settled onto the red
vinyl-covered stool, then glanced over his shoulder at Beth and the slick
sonofabitch who blocked his view. At least one sister was glad to see him. Just
the wrong sister.

A cup of coffee slid across the counter and he
grabbed it, a lopsided smile kicking up his lips. His hand curled around the
handle. Black, just like he liked it.
Still, he couldn’t keep his damn mouth shut. “How long have y’all known
that Freeman dude?”

Lola glanced toward the store. “Him?” She wrung
out a wet cloth and wiped the counter. “Beth met him yesterday. In fact, they
had gone out to dinner when the break-in
happened.”

His gut twisted with rage. He gripped his coffee
cup to keep from throwing it. He sucked in a deep breath. “She’s dating that
clown?” Dammit. He’d waited too long to ask her out. Living in Waco kept him
out in left field when it came to Beth’s social life.

She patted his forearm. “Don’t worry, Ranger. It wasn’t
much of a date.” She leaned her elbows on the counter and lowered her voice to
a stage whisper. “They didn’t even get to order their entrees.” Why shouldn’t
she go out with someone since he’d made no prior claim? And why hadn’t he made
a claim? The knife in his heart twisted deeper.

Once burned, twice shy?

Yeah.

But Beth was different. Nothing like Zoe.

He bit into the grilled ham and cheese, then
chewed and swallowed. The glob of food thickened in his throat as he heard Beth
and Freeman enter the Bistro.

“We need to do the same in here,” Beth said, “but
on a smaller scale.”

Freeman passed behind Ben. “Two cameras should be
sufficient, as well as another panic button in case of any problems that might
arise. The man stopped behind Ben’s stool, then clapped him on the shoulder. “That
suit you, Ranger Rasmussen?”

“Fine by me.” Only by focusing on the buttered
slabs of French bread he gripped could he avoid shrugging off Freeman’s hand. Ben
straightened, turning to look at Beth. “No. You need a third panic button for your
office, easy to get to and unobtrusive. Gotta keep you safe, Beth.”

The flush that crested her high cheekbones likely
matched the one that heated his.  His
gaze slid to Freeman’s hand still on his shoulder. 

A moment later, the bastard dropped his hold and
smiled.

And he’d
betterget out of here before I bury my fist in this asshole’s smug face.

Freeman nodded. “Will do.”

Ben polished off his soup and sandwich, wiped
across his mouth with a napkin, then turned around and stood. “Thanks, Lola. Great
food.”

“Come back anytime, Ben. You know Beth and I always enjoy your company,” she added
with a cheeky smile.

Beth was over in the far corner debating about the
placement of the hidden cameras. Dammit. The woman was a mystery, and now she
had this Freeman dude hanging onto her every word.

She placed her hand on Freeman’s arm and said
something too low for Ben to hear. Dammit. She was flirting with him. She was.

He swallowed the knot in his throat. “Ahem. Don’t
forget. Town meeting, Beth. It’s important.”

Her coffee-brown eyes were level with his and
narrowed as she tipped her head sideways. “Of course, we’ll be there.”

“I’ll let you know as soon as the sheriff sets a
time and place.” He gave an emphatic nod. He strode from the Bistro, ready to chew
nails. If Beth would just give him a sign she saw him as more than a friend…

Women.

*

Peering over Matt’s shoulder, Beth watched the
hunky ranger stride away, his long legs taking him farther from her.

“Something the matter?” Matt asked.

“Oh—uh, not at all.” She picked up a stack of
papers and rearranged them, then set them back down. “Sorry. Since the
break-in, I’ve had so much to deal with. I hope I can fit the sheriff’s meeting
into my schedule.” Oh, for Pete’s sake,
what drivel.
Could she sound anymore lame? Not likely.

“I’ll place the order,” Matt said, “as soon as I
get back to the office. I’ll order priority shipping and should have them tomorrow.”

“And the alarms?”

“I can install them this evening if it’s
convenient.”

Beth nodded. “Yes. That’s much more convenient
than a break-in. “I’ll close the store early at seven. Any time after that work
for you?”

“After seven will be fine.” He gazed down at her.
“You know, I still owe you a dinner.”

She dismissed his offer with a shake of her head.
“Time enough for that once we get the store alarmed and secured.”

A flicker of displeasure darkened his eyes. “Of
course. That has to be your priority.” He closed his notebook. “I’ll go back to
the office and I’ll see you at seven.” His handsome face pulled into a slow
smile. “Pleasure doing business with you, Ms. Wheaton.”

Why the switch to formality? Had she offended him
by refusing his dinner offer? “Beth,” she said. “Just Beth.”

“See you later, Beth.”

She watched him leave and shrugged. “Oh, well…”

“So not the man of your dreams then,” Lola said
into Beth’s ear.

She let out a huff. “I barely know him. It’s true
he’s good looking, speaks well. Obviously well educated, but—” She lifted her
shoulders in a shrug.

Lola filled in the blunt truth. “He’s not Ben.”

Beth looped her arm around her sister’s shoulder.
“Maybe… But I’m not the one for him. Vince told me that after Zoe took off with
her Houston Astros ballplayer, Ben said he’d never get involved with another
blonde.”

“I don’t think Ben sees you as a blonde, per se.”
Lola emitted an evil chuckle. “No, darlin’, he sees you as the woman whose bones he’d really like to jump.”

“Honestly, you’re
the one who needs to get laid and leave me the hell alone. Ben does not look at me that way.”

“And you’re blind as a bat.”

“Pfft.” As much as she wanted to believe her
sister was right, she really couldn’t. “I refuse to discuss this anymore. I
need to get busy and place a call to our insurance company.”

“Fine. I give up trying to talk sense to you. It’s
nearly two o’clock. Eva left an hour ago, so I’m going to close the Bistro. Is
there anything else I need to do over in the Merc?”

“Yes. You could check the par levels in the
storeroom and reorder anything we’re short on. After that, would you run to the
hardware store and pick up a new microwave. Those bastards broke the one in the
snack area.”

“Got it.” Lola turned and started clearing the
counter where Ben had eaten his sandwich.

Beth headed back to the office and sat. She
couldn’t help but compare the two men. Both handsome. Both intelligent. What
was it that drew her thoughts primarily to Ben? She’d known him longer. In some
ways, he was very much a known quantity. He’d always occupied a corner of her
heart ever since he chased off an eighth-grade bully on her first day of middle
school. Ben’s roots grew deep in the Texas Hill Country. The Rasmussen family
had lived here for over a century. Many of the Rasmussen men had served and
protected the area residents for over a hundred years. There was deep
satisfying comfort in knowing his history.

As for Matt, he was definitely an unknown
quantity. She’d known him less than twenty-four hours. Why had she even
accepted his dinner invitation in the first place? Was it her pathetically
dull, boring life that made her crave a little excitement? Going to dinner with
a stranger. Not something she’d ever done in her staid and ordered life. Given
that their dinner date had been cut short, there’d been no chance for that
oh-so-necessary kind of small talk where she could begin to find some answers. Matt
Freeman was the opposite of comfortable.

But comfortable,
as in Ben, hit all the right spots.

Her sister was wrong. Ben might not be the man of
her dreams. But that didn’t mean Matt was.

*

A loud
buzzing shattered the quiet/stillness at the dispatcher’s desk at the Sheriff’s
Department. The cop on duty swirled around to locate the source on his business
locator board. His eyes widened, and he hollered over his shoulder. “Hey,
Sheriff. The  silent duress alarm from
the pharmacy’s going off.”

Abby. Vince’s
heart nearly burst in his chest. His wife was due to deliver their son in
another month. “On it.” Heart racing, Vince grabbed his hat and sprang from his
chair. “Longworth, with me. Dispatch, let the Chief Deputy know. Send backup. No
sirens or lights.”

He ran
for the door with Longworth on his heels. The drug store was only four blocks
away. “No siren. No lights. What’s this town coming to?” He jumped into his
vehicle. Squealing from the parking lot, he turned toward Main. He parked the
Durango half a block away from the drug store.

“Let’s
do this.” Hunkered down and weapons drawn, he and Longworth approached the rest
of the way to the drug store on foot.

Upon
reaching the drug store, Vince motioned for Darby to take the far exit. Carefully,
he peeked through the front window.

Only
lights showing were in the far reaches of the store. Movement. Two individuals.
One had to be Abby. Only she could’ve entered the duress code. The other—bulky,
tall male. Signaling the deputy, he held up two fingers, then pointed at the
store interior.

Without
warning, Longworth stripped off her gun belt and ripped off her uniform shirt
leaving her wearing only a skimpy halter top. Tossing her belt and shirt aside,
she started banging on the door. “Abby! Someone! Anyone! My baby’s sick. I need
you to fill his prescription. I can see
you, Abby. Please help me.”

What the hell! Darby was going to get
his wife killed! 

Author Marie-Nicole Ryan
Buy Now Visit Link Here
Keywords