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Kayla Brennan sure didn't look like a killer.
That was Deputy Sheriff Dade Ryland's first thought when his glare landed on the blonde who was running down the staircase. His second thought went in a different direction.
A bad one.
More specifically to her dark purple dress that hugged every curve of her body. Real curves. Something that always got his attention even when it shouldn't.
Like now, for instance.
Sex and Kayla Brennan shouldn't be occupying the same side of his brain.
He'd seen her before, of course, from a distance. Just over a year ago at the Silver Creek sheriff's office where she was being questioned about her husband's suspicious fatal car accident. That day Dade watched her from the doorway of his office. But she'd been pregnant then and had hidden those spicy blue eyes behind a pair of designer sunglasses. She'd shown no emotion of any kind.
He saw just a flash of fear before she closed down. That pretty face became a rock-hard wall.
Dade cleared his throat and kicked up his glare a notch, hoping both would give him an attitude adjustment. It did. But then it wasn't hard to remember that this curvy blonde might be partly responsible for the death of someone he loved.
"I heard the doorbell," Kayla announced. She paused on the bottom step when she spotted Dade in the doorway, and her attention flew in the direction of the other man in the foyer. "Who's he?" she demanded.
Because Kayla apparently didn't recognize him, Dade tapped the badge clipped to his rawhide belt. "He has a name, and it's Deputy Sheriff Dade Ryland." He nudged the other man aside and stepped into the foyer so he could close the door.
Her left eyebrow rose, and her gaze slipped back to Dade. "You're a deputy?" She didn't wait for him to answer. "You look more outlaw than lawman."
Yeah, he got that a lot, but Dade wasn't about to let Kayla get away with the observation. "You'd know all about outlaws, wouldn't you?"
She flinched a little. Just enough to make Dade wonder exactly how raw that nerve was he'd hit.
Her flinch quickly turned to a scalpel-sharp glare, and she was almost as good at that particular expression as he was. "What are you doing in my house?"
House. That was a loose term for what was actually the Texas-sized mansion on the outskirts of his hometown of Silver Creek. A mansion she'd inherited when her husband had been killed. Dade had been raised nearby in a big ranch house with sixteen rooms, but he was betting the Brennan place was double that size.
The same probably went for Kayla's pocketbook, although Dade had some one-upmanship on her in that particular department. His family had earned their money through hard, back-breaking, honest work on the ranch. Kayla had married her millions, and those millions were as dirty as she no doubt was.
"I'm here on official business," Dade informed her. He glanced at the bald, gorilla-sized man who moved a few steps away. Dade knew his name was Kenneth Mitchell.
Kayla's so-called bodyguard.
Probably more like a hired gun as dirty as the woman paying his salary, and that's why Dade kept his hand on his gun tucked in his shoulder holster.
"The deputy says you're in his protective custody," Kenneth relayed to Kayla. His bulky body strained against his black suit, just as the muscles in his face strained against his skin.
She studied Dade, her eyes narrowing. "How did you know I was here? I led everyone to believe that I'd be at my house in San Antonio."
Dade shrugged, figuring the answer was obvious. "The district attorney, Winston Calhoun, called the sheriff and told him."
The way she pulled in her breath let him know that the answer had not been so obvious to her after all. "Mr. Calhoun assured me that he would keep my whereabouts a secret."
Dade tipped his head to the badge again. "He didn't exactly announce it to the press. He told me because you're in my protective custody."
Her eyes narrowed even more. "Protective custody?" she repeated. "How do you figure that?"
Dade walked closer to her. "Easy. You're the state's material witness, and the D.A. wants you alive long enough to testify against your father-in-law."
There it was in a nutshell, but that didn't begin to cover what Dade wanted from this woman. Yes, he wanted her to testify against her late-husband's scummy father, Charles Brennan. He wanted her to take the stand and spill her guts about the extortion and murders that Brennan had committed. While she was at it, Dade wanted to know if Brennan had killed his own sonKayla's husband.
But those were just the icing.
What Dade really wanted her to admit on the stand was that she'd had some part in another crime.
Dade had to take a deep breath as those memories crashed through him.
Ellie hadn't been just his sister-in-law and his twin brother's wife. Dade had loved her as deeply as he did his blood family. Kayla Brennan and her scumbag father-in-law were going to pay for killing Ellie.
"Don't worry," Kayla said with a sappy sweetness that couldn't be genuine. "I didn't come out of hiding just to let someone silence me."
No, but Kayla had come out of hiding after nearly a year. So she could testify, she'd told the D.A. But Dade wondered if there was more to it than that. He knew the D.A. had been trying to contact her for months, and she hadn't responded.
Until three hours ago.
Then, Kayla had called D.A. Winston Calhoun and told him that she would testify against her father-in-law in an extortion and racketeering trial. A trial that could send Charles Brennan to jail for several decades.
Hardly the death sentence Dade wanted for him.
However, Dade was willing to bet that Brennan had no plans to spend one minute behind bars, much less a decade. And he probably wouldn't. From what Dade had read, the case was weak at best, and witnesses kept backing out or disappearing.
But now Kayla had arrived on the scene.
Dade couldn't believe Kayla had doing her civic duty in mind. No, this was probably some kind of revenge move to get back at her father-in-law. No honor among thieves in the Brennan clan.
"I wasn't worried about you," Dade corrected. "Just doing a job I was ordered to do." And he had indeed been ordered by not just the sheriff, who was his brother, but by the D.A. Kayla was a star witness in every sense of the word, and a lot of people wanted her alive.
She made a sound of sarcastic amusement and breezed past him to head toward the double front doors. "I'll stay alive so I can testify, and I don't need you or anyone else in your family to protect me. That's why I hired Kenneth."
Dade stared at her. Well, he stared at her backside anyway because she was already walking away from him. Her low thin heels made delicate clicks on the veiny marble floor.
"I don't care how many guns you hire," Dade informed her. "You're still in my protective custody."
Kayla stopped and glanced at him from over her shoulder. The corner of her rose-tinged mouth lifted just a fraction, but it wasn't a smile on her face. "Protective custody, you say? Right. Those two words don't go together when it comes to you or any member of your family. The Rylands hate me."
Dade didn't deny it. "We have reason to hate you."
"No." She huffed, causing a wisp of her hair to move slightly. "You have reason to hate someone for your sister-in-law's murder, but I didn't have anything to do with it."
"Got proof of that?"
"Do you have proof to the contrary?" she fired right back at him.
He leaned in a little. "If I did, your butt would be in jail right now."
Another smirk. A short-lived one. She turned away so that he couldn't see her face. Her head lowered slightly. "Well, because I'm here and not in the Silver Creek jail, you obviously have no proof. So you can leave."
"I wish." Dade went closer while keeping an eye on Kayla's bodyguard. "Nothing would make me happier than to walk out that door and leave you to deal with the wolves, but I have my orders."
"You can take your orders and get out." She reached for the doorknob, but Dade snagged her wrist with his left hand.
The wrist snag obviously didn't sit well with her bodyguard because he reached for his gun. Dade reached for his, too.
"Stop this!" Kayla practically yelled. She jerked her hand away from Dade and shook her head. "Please," she said. Her voice was softer now but edged with the nerves that were right beneath her skin. "Just leave."
Dade's nerves were too close to the surface, too, and touching Kayla certainly hadn't helped. He felt ornerier than usual, and that wasn't good because he was the king of ornery. Best to go ahead and lay down some ground rules.
Dade aimed his index finger at Kenneth. "You draw that gun and I'll shoot you where you stand. Got that?"
Oh, the man wanted to argue all right. Dade could see it in his eyes, but he knew what was in his own eyesdetermination to finish this damn job so he could get the heck out of there.
When Kenneth finally eased his hand away from his weapon, Dade turned back to Kayla. "Where's your baby?"
She pulled back her shoulders. "That's none of your business."
He tapped his badge in case she'd forgotten. "This isn't personal, lady. I'm asking because I need to establish some security measures." He got closer, violating her personal space and then some.
Not the brightest idea he'd ever had. His chest brushed against her breasts, and he got a fire-hot reminder that Kayla was a woman.
Dade held his ground and met her eye-to-eye. "Where's your son?" he repeated.
She didn't back down, either. "He's sleeping upstairs. Now tell me what this is all about."
Dade ignored her question. "Is your son away from the windows?"
She stepped back and her breath rattled in her throat.
Dade gave her a flat look. "Because my protective custody extends to your son, Robert."
"Robbie," she corrected, although she looked as if she wanted to curse for giving him even that little bit of personal information about her child. A kid who was supposedly just eleven months old. A baby. And it was because of the baby that Dade had quit arguing about this assignment so he could drive out to the Brennan estate.
He didn't care a rat's you-know-what about Kayla, but he would do everything within his power to protect an innocent child.
Even her child.
"The deputy's trying to scare you," Kenneth interjected.
"Yeah, I am," Dade readily admitted. He looked at her again to make sure she got what he was saying. "And if you have any sense whatsoever, you'll be scared because you can't believe Brennan is going to let you get anywhere near that witness stand tomorrow morning."
Her bottom lip trembled a little, but she kept her chin up and her expression resolute.
"Your baby's safety is one of the main reasons for the protective custody," Dade informed her. "I have to take your son and you to a safe house. Sheriff's orders."
She started the head shaking again. "I've already had someone upgrade the security system, and I can hire more bodyguards." Kayla looked at him. "I wouldn't have come back here to Silver Creek if I hadn't thought I could keep my son safe."
Dade made sure they had eye contact again. "You thought wrong."
She glanced out the sidelight window. "I don't believe that. Charles wouldn't do anything that would risk hurting Robbie."
"That's a chance you're willing to take?"
She didn't answer that. "Besides, I don't trust you any more than I trust Charles."
Dade couldn't blame her. The Rylands hadn't exactly been friendly since Ellie's murder. Things would stay that way, too, but it wouldn't stop Dade from doing his job.
Kayla stepped closer to him. So close that he caught her scent. Not perfume but baby powder.
"I'll call my attorney," she said with her voice lowered. "But I'm certain you can't force protective custody on me."
She was right. Well, unless he thought she was going to run. But because she'd arrived voluntarily, he didn't exactly have reason to believe she would leave.