Maybe it was bad luck or part of the good Lord’s divine plan. At any rate, I was one of the unfortunate two hundred that called Pistol Rock, Texas home. And today was panning out to be less peachy with each wad of donut deputy Elroy Sampson shoveled down his grub hole. Ordinarily, I would havebeen smitten with the idea of no work for us law enforcement types. It just wasn’t good for my self-esteem or my waistline to be left with Elroy for an extended period of time. I got up and headed for the pastry box just as the station door burst open and stopped me dead in my lazy tracks.
“Sheriff Dobbs,” I greeted him.
“Another shootout at the O.K. Corral… Any takers?” Dobbs’s eyes landed on me.
“Can’t you send Elroy this time? You know Luke Wagner’s in the middle of that sparring match and would get a kick out of tormenting me. It’d be really shitty to make me take this call, Dobbs.”
“I’m a shitty old boss, Laney. Now hurry up, and get out to Arrowhead Range,” Dobbs said and straggled over to the empty chair next to Elroy.
I slung my gun into the holster strapped at my waist and stamped toward the door. I stopped with a hand wrapped around the knob at the sound of Dobbs and Elroy snickering. “What’s so funny?”
Dobbs hacked at the floor. “Nothing. We were just wondering, if Wagner calls you cutie, are you going to shoot him?”
“Don’t hold your breath,” I said, pushing through the station door.
I tucked my auburn hair up under my straw cowboy hat and lifted a hand to hide my eyes from the record-breaking May heat. If luck was on my side, then the two guys might have already put an end to the shootout, but I was feeling as desperate as the button holding up Elroy’s pants. I went out to get behind the wheel of the ’99 Chevy Malibu assigned to me by the department only to discover someone had stuck a purple Post-it on the windshield. I plucked it off and read the message, Watch yourself, bitch. A chill ran down my spine. This was the second weird thing I’d found this week, the first being a bunch of daisies—my favorite flower—mangled and shredded all down my front porch steps. I’d cleaned that up, not thinking much about it since it was the sort of thing kids from the area might do, but now I wasn’t so sure.
Puzzled and a little uneasy, I glanced around at the mostly empty street. Then I shrugged, crumpled up the note, and pitched it into the cruiser’s back seat. I climbed into the car, thinking that I couldn’t allow myself to get wobbly over every dickweed who wanted to play games with me, and gunned it away from the station. The swirling buildup of cow manure floated through the air-conditioner vents. I fought the urge to gag and pressed a heavy foot down on the gas pedal, quickly leaving behind the malodorous remnants of Pistol Rock.
Five minutes later, I turned onto Spoke Road. Two barbed wired pastures down, and Arrowhead Range came into view. I slowly pulled down the drive and prayed the gunfire had stopped. I turned on my siren, alerting them to my approach. The dust from the gravel drive whirled around my windows, making it hard to see. I’d just veered around the corner gate when I heard a shotgun blast. These boys really did think they were cowboys. I slammed on my brakes and put the cruiser in reverse, retreating behind a cactus. Another shot went off. I swung open my door and drew my Glock from the holster around my waist and perched down in the dirt.
“Deputy Briggs,” I shouted.
I heard whispering, then the sound of a shotgun butt hitting the ground.
“Laney, is that you?” Bosley Conrad yelled.
I waved. “Yeah it’s me. Are y’all done?”
“Yep, I suppose we’re done,” Bosley grumbled.
“I’m gonna need you boys to put down those guns.”
“You know you ain’t getting my gun, Laney.”
“I wasn’t thinking about it.”
Taking a man’s gun in Texas was like castrating him. I stuffed my 9mm into the holster and stepped around the door. Luke Wagner was slumped up against a tree, rustling a toothpick around his mouth. A white cowboy hat dipped low over his smoldering deep blue eyes, and a dirt-smeared white T-shirt clung to his wide chest and strong arms. His tight-assed Levi’s pretty much had my tall, smooth-talking, and handsome cowboy fantasy all wrapped up into one, neat denim package.
Luke pulled off his hat, running a hand through his messy, chin length blonde hair.
“Luke, how you doing?” I tossed him a tight smile, darting my eyes about the barren land. “Mitch wouldn’t happen to be around?”
Luke lifted his hat and sent a slick smile back at me.
“Nope.” He placed the hat back on his head, “I haven’t seen my dad all day.
Bosley spit into the dirt and gestured at Luke. “He poisoned my cattle.”
Luke huffed, spit his toothpick onto the ground, and crunched it with the tip of his brown cowboy boot. “You cocksucker,” he snarled.
“You spoiled son of a bitch,” Bosley spat back and hiked his pants up over his fat roll.
I pushed my way past the village idiots. “Oh… for heaven’s sake, let’s go see your cattle.”
If Luke being the heir to the Wagner’s Fours Spurs Ranch wasn’t enough for these two to go sparring against each other just about each and every day, they had to pull me into the middle of their long, ongoing feud over who held the water rights to the spring that straddled both their ranches. They were constantly accusing each other of this misdeed or that one—and sometimes I was pretty sure it was just to get under their rival’s skin. I was sick of it, but being a sheriff’s deputy didn’t give me a lot of choice about what calls I did or didn’t answer.
Fifty acres. That was all I had to trudge across. No problem, except for the endless dirt mounds with goat head stickers attached to every blade of grass. The sun beat down on the nape of my neck. We passed a stock tank where a couple of horses were taking a drink. There were a couple of stalls off to the left and then an iron fence that enclosed the perimeter against a small spring flowing through Bosley’s land. I cursed myself the whole way for having that doughnut earlier. I could feel it sticking to my ribcage as I stomped across the unforgiving land. I looked back over my shoulder. Luke was watching my ass. His blue eyes blazed in the sun’s rays, heightening my already frazzled state. “Luke, do you have a problem with me being here?”
“Absolutely not.” He grinned crookedly. “You sure beat staring at a cow’s ass.”
I flipped him the bird and kept walking. Cow turds plastered the burnt grass. I pinched my nose and pressed on. Bosley abruptly stopped. My boots caught on his heels. I wiped the sweat from my forehead, tipped my hat up, and holy shit! At least half a dozen cattle were toppled over dead.
Bosley motioned me closer by flapping his hand in my face. I decided that it was best to stay put.
“I’m fine here,” I assured him.
“You see.” He went over and kicked a cow head. “Dead.”
I wasn’t going to argue. I mean, he was the expert and all. “Looks like it to me.”
“Well, are you going to arrest the bastard or just stand here and look all pretty?” Bosley asked, completely dumbfounded.
The flattery wasn’t wasted on me. This morning I had felt sort of frumpy. So there was no harm in accepting the compliment.
“Arrest him for what?” I looked at Luke.
He grinned, tipping his hat. “Thanks, Laney, for looking out for me.” Luke threw me an indecent wink, which I ignored. He was a looker, but there was something about him I didn’t like. Plus—I fiddled with the engagement ring that was making my fingers itch—I was taken.
Bosley whipped his hat off his head and stroked a wrinkly hand through his thin, silver hair. “You mean to tell me Luke is going to get off scot free on account of you not knowing what the hell you’re doing?”
I threw my hands up in the air. “Sorry.” I shrugged. “I can order Nathan to do tests and find out what killed your cows, but beyond that… there’s no evidence Luke did anything. Hell, they mighta gotten into some poison parsley for all we know.”
The old man started snorting uncontrollably, turning his face crimson. I watched his nostrils flare as he kicked a pile of dirt in the air, flinging some ants in the process. He was sizing me up with that coldhearted glare. I nervously shuffled to the side—then started. “Holy cow.”
“Laney, I thought you knew what a cow looked like,” Luke cracked.
“No, there’s a hand under that one.” I pointed at the body member.
Bosley looked utterly shocked at the idea of a dead body on his land. This despite the number of dead cows already lying about.
I wagged a finger at Bosley, ordering, “Don’t move a muscle.”
“Shit,” Bosley wheezed, pointing at the body the hand was attached to. He stared for an ungodly moment, locking eyes on the red bandana mangled beneath a pink-pig-inked bicep. “That’s Pacey Monroe. Dear Lord,” Bosley pressed a shaky palm to his forehead, “You see that pig tattoo on the arm,” his hand waved over the body, “the boy got the tattoo after we won best in show at last year’s national pig calling contest.
Pacey Monroe was Bosley’s ranch hand. He had the IQ of a seven year old, but he sure did know how to beef up a cow. I watched the two hotheaded guys take off their hats. They kneeled and gave a silent prayer. I kneeled also, but there was no way in hell I was taking off my hat. My hair could have quite possibly raised the dead, including Pacey Monroe.
Pulling my cell from the back pocket of my jeans, I dialed the sheriff station. The signal died on the first ring. It was unlike me to leave my walkie-talkie in the cruiser, but I’d been distracted by two big boys thinking they were the Hatfields and McCoys of west Texas.
I glanced at each of them while shoving my cell deep down into my back pocket and said, “I need to call for back up, so don’t touch anything.”
“Will do, Deputy,” Luke said, cocking me a sly grin.
I tugged at the waistline of my jeans and took off in a hot sprint. Sweat dripped from my cheeks, hair matted to my forehead, and my jeans stuck to my crotch. I whipped the cruiser door open and leaned over the seat, catching my breath at the same time I untangled the radio cord and pressed the switch on the mic.
“Elroy, I need back up.”
“Having trouble corralling the bastards?” he asked, munching on what sounded like a mouthful of chips.
“No, dumb ass. I just found a dead body.”
“Well shit…” his voice faded.
“Elroy,” I shouted, squeezing the radio mic’s hard plastic in my hand.
“Yeah…yeah, Laney,” he responded, “I’ll be right there.”
The line went dead. I shook off the thought that I’d heard someone other than Dobbs in the background and made the burning run back to the guys. Luke had parked himself on the crunchy grass. I plunked down next to him. Stickers poked through the worn seat of my jeans, biting me on my biscuits. His blue eyes immediately drifted toward my chest.
“A little winded, Laney?”
I sent an elbow to his ribs. “Don’t look at me that way.”
“Darling, you used to enjoy it.”
He sent me a look and tossed his arm across my shoulders. There was no use trying to defend myself, so I whipped my head back and waited. The blistering sun pounded my face. I’d given into the idea of a long wait when a black Yukon came billowing across the land. It stopped two feet in front us, screeching tires grinding down the caked dirt. Dobbs jumped out of the passenger side, with Elroy tagging his behind. I would like to say it didn’t get to me, but hell, it pissed me off when I caught sight of that Route 44 soda in Elroy’s hand.
“Come on, you stopped for a coke and didn’t bring me one,” I shouted.
Elroy took a long slurp. “You weren’t at the office.”
I was still glaring coldly at him when the driver’s door popped open. No, it couldn’t be… that son of a bitch. I wiped the bubbles of sweat from my nose and shot to my feet. Then I marched up to him. He’d cocked his black cowboy hat to the side and stuffed his hands into the back pockets of tight Wranglers, stretching the black T-shirt around his big biceps. That damn black rattlesnake tattoo rippled along the hard muscles of his right forearm as he walked to the front of the Yukon. With my stomach climbing up my throat, a spark that definitely didn’t belong there fired in my chest as I watched him kick some dirt then step out in front of me.
“Well,” Gunner Wilson drawled, “if it isn’t Laney Briggs.” He threw a dirty wink at me.
I ignored him, still trying to figure out what the hell my personal Texas Ranger nightmare was doing riding shotgun with Elroy and Sheriff Dobbs. “What are you…?”
“Still tongue tied at the sight of me?”
My blood was blazing as I glared at him. I thought when I’d sent a load of rock salt into my ornery ex-boyfriend’s ass over things I preferred not to think about, he’d never show his face in Pistol Rock again. I’d thought wrong, because holding me prisoner with those deep, assessing brown eyes was the only man who could light my panties on fire in eight seconds flat. We’d duked it out before, and I reckoned this time would be no different. The problem was I had a damn job to do, and folks were watching my every move, making damn sure to jot down each misstep I made. Taking a good step back from the panty-stroking cowboy’s pulse-charging, leathery-vanilla aftershave, I swallowed hard and pulled up my big girl panties to play the part of the deputy I knew I was capable of being. “Why the hell are you here? I thought you were in Houston.”
His grin widened. “I’ll tell you later, sweetheart.”
Dobbs sidled up between us, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s not jump to conclusions, Laney”—he continued the heavy petting of my shoulder—“I invited Gunner to come along on the morning joyride after he wandered into the station looking for you.” He looked at Gunner, smiling. “Don’t you remember me filling you and Elroy in on the Rangers investigating a case out here in Pistol Rock?”
That memo must’ve slipped through the cracks. I nodded anyway, allowing my gaze to linger on Gunner’s sinfully good-looking, rugged cowboy face. He hadn’t missed a beat since I’d seen him last. I, on the other hand, could’ve slapped on an extra layer of foundation and ditched the sheriff’s department issued uniform shirt with “Pistol Rock Sheriff Station” embroidered across my upper left breast.
“Yeah, I remember.” I kept nodding mindlessly as I watched Gunner’s smile grow. This was so not good. I always turned to putty in that Texas Ranger’s hands. He’d been my first lover and, for a while, I was sure he’d be my last, too. That had changed, but Gunner’s effect on me hadn’t. I steeled myself and looked him directly in the eyes. “It’s just that I didn’t figure the Rangers would let him,” I jutted my chin at Gunner, “anywhere near this jurisdiction after last time.”
Dobbs only grunted at that, but Gunner’s deep, throaty ‘I’d do your body good’ laugh threw me off my high horse. I grabbed him by the elbow. Bad move. Just the feel of him underneath my fingers made my heart skip a beat. I steeled myself not to look at the third finger of my left hand where the diamond Nathan had given me seven months ago seemed to stare at me. “Dobbs, will you excuse us?”
Dobbs smiled some more. “I’ve never been one to deny a good old fashioned reunion.”
Give me a break, I thought, tugging on Gunner’s arm.
We trudged across the dead grass, coming to a stop next to a weather-eroded fence post. He inched closer, placing a boot in my personal space. Our eyes locked into that old swoon girl gaze. Once upon a time, I’d stripped him of his tight Wranglers and had my way with my own personal good-timing Texas Ranger, but we’d all grown out of our school yard crushes.
I swallowed down my cotton mouth, took a good step back, rear-ending the termite infested wood, and jammed my finger at Gunner’s broad chest. “If you think for a minute I’m going to let you make my life a living hell again just because you take a notion, you have another think coming.”
He started to flick my finger away but stopped mid-slap, grabbing my hand instead, staring from my ring finger to me. Abruptly, he let my hand fall. “Getting hitched?” he asked, displeased.
“What’s it to you?” I began, but lost my train of thought at the sight of the truck tagged with a white and green Bovine Health Services sticker pushing twenty our way. I’d like to say I didn’t give a hoot that Gunner felt the need to poke his nose in Pistol Rock business. But damn I did. My fiancé was approaching us in that red Dodge Ram. I let out an exacerbated sigh and watched the driver’s door fly open.
Nathan had taken over the local veterinarian practice, Bovine Health Services, after our previous vet, Dr. Beasley, died three years back. I’d met him at the Piggly Mart when our carts crashed into each other. He had asked me where the ketchup aisle was. Two months later, I was engaged. Hard to believe I’d be moving to Dallas after we said “I do”, but still, maybe a fresh start would help mend old wounds. Timing could be such a bitch. Gunner kicking up a cloud of dust this close to my nuptials had really put a hitch in my plans.
Nathan smiled at me, pulled his vet kit out from the truck bed, and walked on over.
“Hi, honey. Heard there’s a few dead cows,” he said kissing me.
I shifted uncomfortably and peered a look Gunner’s way. He was twirling a piece of hay around his tongue and slowly dropping his gaze over Nathan. His eyes narrowed, and then he stuck out his hand.
“Texas Ranger Gunner Wilson. You’ve probably heard of me.”
Nathan reached awkwardly over his equipment to shake Gunner’s hand. “Don’t think I have.”
Gunner’s eyebrow’s raised half an inch. He spit the hay into the dirt and shot to a stand. “You mean Laney here hasn’t told you about us?”
Nathan gave me a narrow-eyed look that let me know he was pissed. I shrugged and pushed the brim of my hat back, shuffling from one boot to the other and crossing my arms over my chest. Damn it, I thought, I don’t have time for this bullshit.
“Nathan, this is Gunner Wilson, an old friend of mine.”
“An old friend,” Gunner snorted. “Hell, Laney, you shot me in the ass.” He scowled at Nathan. “I bet you’re even sleeping in my old bed.”
I desperately tried to keep my cool. Instead, I lost it. “How dare you claim Aunt Faye’s house or anything in it is fucking yours,” I said tightly.
Gunner pinched the brim of his hat, narrowing his dark eyes at me. “You told me you didn’t want me around,” he said mildly.
“Damn you, Gunner Wilson!”
The hard line that had earlier outlined Gunner’s mouth softened as he looked on me with pain-streaked eyes. There’d been a helluva lot more between us than a shotgun load of rock salt and me finding him in our bed with another woman—even after five years, the wound was so raw I thought it would never heal. I sure as hell didn’t want to touch it. I turned and stepped back from the ridiculous fight, glancing at Nathan. He’d cautiously begun to ease a few steps backward from Gunner and me. Never let it be said the man liked to confront an issue head on. That was one of the things that made me gravitate toward him when we met—that don’t ask, don’t tell attitude. Watching him trying to leave me instead of…oh, hell, I didn’t know. But it did make me start to wonder what else he’d back away from when we were married.
I grabbed his arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Nathan picked up the black tote bag he dropped and headed toward Dobbs, who was hunched over a stiff cow. “Don’t mind me. I just came to stick my arm up a cow’s butt.”
Stony-faced, I watched him leave, then spun back on Gunner. “You have problems,” I told him.
“Only one,” he said, and pushed past me, shouldering me hard.
For lack of a better option, I fell in line behind him, hating myself for gawking at his tight ass even though I could barely stand him. Dobbs was swatting flies out of his face when we both approached while Nathan rolled a used latex glove off his hand. I’d watched him do this very thing plenty of times before and thought nothing of it—or tried to. This time, especially with Gunner here, the whole idea of where that gloved hand had been just made me squirm. While Nathan wandered off to see, I assumed, if he could spot any reason that so many cows died at once, I watched Gunner strut on over to the dead cows and kneel next to Pacey’s corpse. He peered into the dead boy’s eyes and stood back up, dusting off his jeans. “Looks like the cow tipping party didn’t go as planned,” he observed.
I leaned over the cow shrouding Pacey’s mangled body for a look at his crushed skull. There was a gash in it the width of a horseshoe. Murder then. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Nathan walking our way. He had his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his arm was wet, and he had a plastic bag and syringe in hand.
“This was in the watering tanks.” He waved the bag at me.
Gunner reached out and snagged it before I had a chance. He stuck a finger inside, sniffed, and quickly jerked the bag away. “I’ll be damned. That’s poison parsley.” He tugged at his belt buckle and directed his attention at Luke. “Looks like the sort of stupid prank you used to pull in school, Wagner,” he said, “so start talking.”
“Hell, I’m just an innocent bystander. That raving lunatic over there”— Luke flicked his thumb at Bosley—“is the one who shot at me when all I did was ride over to check on Four Spurs cows.”
“Innocent my ass,” Bosley said as he heaved himself up from his spot in the dirt, mumbling to himself. I’d known Bosley Conrad my whole life. I’d seen him chop off a rattlesnake’s head with just a machete during a rattlesnake roundup without batting an eye, but right now, he was sweating more than a hog on the chopping block. He was truly anxious.
“Calm down—” I began, but Bosley was already charged up worse than a long haul trucker at an adult video store. Yelling, he rushed at Luke. Since I was standing between them, I stuck out a boot. Bosley tripped and planted his face in the dirt. He pushed himself up, spitting out muck.
“God damn it, Laney,” he heaved himself upright and lunged at me with open fists. I stepped out of the way of the punch, grabbed him by the arm, and twisted it around his back, making the damn man bite the dirt again. I pressed a knee into the small of his back and flicked open my cuffs. “I thought you said you weren’t going to arrest me.” Bosley looked at me, dumbfounded.
I shrugged. “You assaulted a sheriff’s deputy. Things change.”
I slapped a pair of cuffs on him and started to haul him off toward my cruiser. I still couldn’t fathom the idea of Bosley Conrad being capable of murder. But since I’d been a deputy, I’d found that folks had secrets. There were a lot of skeletons in the closets around Pistol Rock.
“Here, I’ll take ’im,” Gunner said, slipping up behind me. He took Bosley’s arm and ushered him into the backseat of the Yukon and slammed the door shut.
I was mindlessly gazing at Gunner cracking his neck and wondering why in hell I’d just let him hijack my collar when a hand fell on my shoulder, startling me. I spun around to find Nathan patiently standing behind me.
“I’ll see you tonight,” he said, using his fingers to slide a stray lock of hair off my face. “I have a few patients I need to check in on.” He looked at Gunner, then laid one hell of a kiss on me. “I love you, Laney,” he declared loud enough for everyone to hear.
Then he got behind the wheel of his Dodge and pulled away. I stared after him open-mouthed, wishing I had the nerve to wipe away that clearly
territorial kiss. Nobody owned me, whether I wore their ring or not. And that meant Gunner.
I turned to nip whatever snide comment he might make in the bud, but caught him watching Nathan go with an odd look on his face before turning to me. Then all he said was, “I’ll see you back at the station, Laney.” He winked and tipped his hat, then slid into the front seat of the Yukon and backed it out of the drive, raising a cloud of dust.
After touching base with Sheriff Dobbs and Elroy, I jumped behind the wheel of the old cruiser. It puttered and choked to a start. I clipped the iron gate with the side mirror as I flew past the entrance and gunned it toward the sheriff station. I’d just been fed a spoonful of horseshit by Gunner Wilson. The damn prick caught me off guard. He really knew how to get under my skin.
Welcome to Pistol Rock, Texas where everyone knows secrets last about as long as the sporadic west Texas rain showers.
Laney Briggs has long been considered reckless, but she’s turned herself around—she’s respectably engaged and she’s become a Pistol Rock deputy sheriff. Everything’s fine until a dead body turns up and her ex, Texas Ranger Gunner Wilson, decides to stick his boots into the town’s first murder case.
Laney will be damned if she lets Gunner trample all over her turf and her chance at a quiet, contented life. His seemingly endless ability to undermine her resolve and her libido was only outdone by her constant urge to butt heads with him. But when the bodies start to pile up, Laney has to ask the lethal bad boy for a hand—and a truce in exchange for his help.
Having an ex-boyfriend as an ally might not be the best idea, but Laney has always been pretty reckless…
Jodi Linton lives and works in Texas, with her husband and two kids. She can be found cozied up to the computer escaping into a quirky world of tall tales, sexy, tight jean wearing cowboys, and a protagonist with a sharp-tongue quick enough to hang any man out to dry. She is currently at work on her next Deputy Laney Briggs book.
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