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Brandon Randell sat in a booth at the coffee shop, toying with his mug. Anything to keep from looking across the table at his dad. Lately they hadn't even been able to share a meal without ending up on this same subject. The same argument. And Brandon couldn't tell him what he wanted to hear.
"I'm not sure I want to take over the running of the ranch."
"Well, son, when do you think you will know?"
Brandon hated being cornered about this…again. He met his father's piercing, dark gaze. Though in his mid-fifties, he looked much younger. Still big and intimidating, the years of physical labor had kept him in great shape. Some gray mixed in with his coal-black hair, and weathered lines around his eyes were the only differences he'd seen in the man in the past twenty-five years. That had been the day Cade Randell walked into his life and claimed him as his son.
Brandon leaned back in his seat, feeling the sudden weight of his sidearm, reminding him of his responsibility to the people of Tom Green County, Texas. He'd barely had a chance to stop for supper tonight.
He'd hoped the pressure to follow in the family's ranching business had eased ten years ago when Cousins Luke and Brady Randell returned to the valley and helped form the Randell Corporation.
"I have commitments, Dad." He hesitated, then rushed on to say, "This is my last week on patrol. I start as a detective on Monday."
Cade blinked, then quickly covered his surprise. "When did this happen?"
"I got the news this morning. I didn't want to tell you and Mom about the promotion until I was sure it was a done deal."
"Well, congratulations, son. We've always been proud of your work with the sheriff's department." There was a hint of a smile. "And your mother will be happy you're off patrol."
"Thank you, Dad. That means a lot to me."
Again his father nodded. "All the more reason to settle this situation. You have a commitment to the family, too. Your grandfather willed the ranch to you," he stressed. "I've been running things along with your brother, but you're past thirty, son. You should take it over, or sell."
Hell, even more pressure. Well, he was the eldest. The next generation of Randells. "Sell part of Mustang Valley! Isn't there a law against that in this family?" he tried to tease, but his dad didn't show any sign of humor.
"Joke all you want, but since your last birthday, legally you own the land that the Randell Guest Ranch and the cattle operation grazing pastures are on. It's not fair to ask your brother to keep running things on his own. He's been working as the foreman. You need to make a decision, Brand."
Before Brandon could speak, his radio went off. "A possible 10-14 in progress," the dispatcher said over the radio. "Officer needed at the location of Burch and Maple, the West Hills Emergency Center parking lot."
Brandon reached for the radio and identified himself. "10-76 en route to West Hills Emergency Center. Arrival less than five minutes."
He slid out of the booth. "I've got to go." He was out the door and jogging to the patrol car before his dad could say anything.
Brandon shut everything else out of his head. It was all about his job now.
He had found her.
Nora Donnelly tried to draw a breath, but fear froze her. It wouldn't do her any good to fight, given the steely strength of the man who'd grabbed her and had her pressed against the car in the dimly lit parking lot. She was trapped.
"Thought you could get away with it, didn't you?" the attacker whispered harshly against her ear. "Well, I got you now."
"P…please, don't hurt me," she pleaded, thinking about her son. Oh, Zach. Who would take care of him? "Take whatever you want. I don't have much money on me, but I can get you some."
His hold tightened. "It's good hearing you beg. I don't want your money, but you are going to pay for what you did."
He swung her around. She faced the burly man, who towered over her own five-foot-five height. She didn't recognize him, but that didn't mean he wasn't sent here to find her.
Nora didn't have a chance to react before the man backhanded her across her face. The pain caught her off guard as she stumbled to the ground. He came after her as she tried to crawl away. He landed on top of her, trapping her against the asphalt. She screamed, trying desperately to fight him off. No, she wasn't going to be a victim again. She bucked and squirmed, until he grabbed one of her arms and twisted it behind her back. She cried out.
He straddled her from behind, knocking her head against the ground. She fought the pain and to keep conscious.
"Have I got your attention now?" he snarled.
"Please," she whispered, feeling his hands move over her. Bile rose in her throat.
Then came the distant sound of a siren. The attacker cursed. "I'm not done with you, yet." He climbed off of her and was gone.
Fighting the pain, Nora stumbled to her feet and searched around for her purse. She had to get away.
That was when she heard the siren cut off then footsteps. She glanced up at the large shadow. "Please, go away. Leave me alone."
"Ma'am, I'm Officer Randell with the sheriff's department." She saw his calming hand in the darkness as he brought his flashlight up to his shirt, showing her his badge.
Nora had always been good at holding it together. She had to, to protect her son. But suddenly her head began to pound and she closed her eyes against the pain. All she remembered was feeling the officer's arms coming around her and holding her close.
"Please…He can't find me again. Don't let him find me again."
"It's okay, you're safe now."
She wanted to believe his reassuring words, but knew no one could ever keep her safe.
Brandon shifted the woman's weight before she sank to the ground. He called for assistance and waited for help to come.
Don't let him find me again. He ran her words through his head as he brushed the woman's dark hair away from her face. Even in the shadowed light he could see she was young and pretty. Most abuse victims were, before some man got his hands on them. He should say fists.
Brandon took a breath to fight off memories of his early childhood, and the pain his mother suffered until finally she left her abuser, Joel Garson.
"You're safe," he assured her.
The woman groaned and turned her head toward his chest. A strange feeling came over him seeing the scrape along her jaw and the blood.
"You're going to be all right," he assured her again.
"Zach…" she whispered as tears flooded her eyes. "Oh, Zach, I'm sorry."
Had that been the guy who worked her over?
He heard footsteps and looked up to see people running toward them. "Over here," he called as he stood, lifting the small woman in his arms and carrying her to the gurney. He laid her down on the padded surface and started to step back when the woman opened her eyes. She gasped, and he could see the fear in her eyes and the tremble in her voice.
"Thank you," she managed to mumble as the nurse tugged a blanket over her to ward off the autumn chill.
Before Brandon could speak, a nurse stepped forward. "Nora," she whispered. "Oh, Nora, what happened?"
"Let's get her inside," someone else called.
Brandon would have followed the victim but another patrol car pulled up and rookie officer Jason Griggs emerged.
"We couldn't find anyone," the officer said.
"Did you secure the area?"
Together they walked back to the scene. "Yes, the security guards blocked off the exits and we're checking IDs. But we don't know who we're looking for." Griggs nodded toward the gurney being wheeled through the doors of the center. "Is the victim okay?"
"She was roughed up, but conscious." He found he wanted to see for himself. He shined his flashlight on the ground, then picked up an abandoned purse and found a wallet still inside along with the car keys.
Brandon opened her wallet and read her license. "This Nora Donnelly was lucky someone saw the man grab her."
Griggs joined in the ground search. "If the man wanted money, why didn't he just grab her purse and take off? He held her a lot longer than needed—unless he had other plans, like a sexual attack."
Brandon couldn't get the victim's words out of his head. Don't let him find me again, she'd begged him. Then she whispered the name "Zach." He glanced toward the emergency center. "I think I'll go see if Ms. Donnelly is up to answering some questions. Maybe give us a description."
Jason nodded as Brandon walked off. He had a strange feeling about this. When a man used a woman as a punching bag, it was more likely to be personal. Did Nora Donnelly know her attacker? Was Zach a husband or lover?
Once inside the sliding doors, he went to the large desk where a thin, middle-aged woman met him.
"Are you the deputy who saved Nora?"
He nodded. "I take it she works here?"
"Yes, she's a nurse," the receptionist said. "She'd just gotten off her shift…" The woman sighed with a worried look. "I knew that parking lot wasn't safe. They need to put in more lights."
"Wouldn't hurt. Has there been trouble before?"
The woman shook her head. "No, but you haven't caught this man, yet. He's still out there."
"Then make sure the security guard walks you out at night. At least until we find this guy. Could you please tell me where they took Ms. Donnelly?"
"It's Mrs.—Nora's a widow and has the sweetest little boy." She smiled, then it slowly faded. "It's a shame she lost her husband so young."
So the attacker wasn't her husband. A boyfriend? Maybe. He shook his head. He had to stop speculating and talk to Nora Donnelly. "Where did they take her?"
"She's in examroom four. The doctor is with her now."
"Thank you," he told her.
"No, thank you…" She leaned in to read his badge. "Deputy Randell."
"Just glad I arrived in time." Brandon started off in that direction. His gut told him this was more than just an attempted robbery. This guy wanted to punish her, to hurt her.
Brandon stopped by the closed exam room door. He took a seat and waited, making notes about the incident and calling in to the station. It was another twenty minutes before a nurse came out. He stepped into the open doorway to see Nora Donnelly sitting up in bed. There was still a doctor and a nurse with her. When the doctor said something she gave him a teary smile, and Brandon couldn't seem to get enough air into his lungs.
In the light he could finally get a good look at her. She had a heart-shaped face with startling sapphire-blue eyes. Her nearly black hair hung to her shoulders in waves. His attention went to her mouth, full and inviting, especially the pouty bottom lip, giving him ideas he had no business thinking about right now. If ever.
She suddenly looked in his direction. He swallowed the dryness in his throat and managed to speak. "Mrs. Donnelly. Remember me, Deputy Randell?" He walked in, trying to exhibit authority as the nurse moved out of the way.
She tilted her head slightly. "Yes, Deputy, I remember you. You helped me. Thank you."
He shrugged. "It's my job. I believe this is yours." He handed her the oversize purse.
She hugged the bag close to her like a shield. "Oh, thank you."
Brandon found it hard not to stare at her. She was beautiful—even with her jaw bruised and bandaged. The only other imperfection on her skin was a faint scar along her eyebrow.
He finally managed to tear his gaze away and turned to the young doctor. "How is she?"
"She's doing fine, considering the slight concussion. She has some bumps and bruises, but I expect a full recovery."
"Then you don't mind if I ask her some questions?"
"Why don't you ask me if I mind?"
Nora Donnelly's soft, sultry voice lured his attention back to her. "I apologize, Mrs. Donnelly. Would you mind answering a few questions?"
When Dr. Jenson and Gloria tossed a wave as they left the room, Nora wanted to call them back. She didn't want to talk or think about the attack. It was her next move that was important. And what could possibly keep her and Zach safe.
She glanced up at the serious-looking deputy. He wasn't going to leave until he got answers.
"I'm not sure what I can tell you, Deputy."
"There are just a few questions." His gaze met hers. "Did you know your attacker?"
She hesitated, and knew he saw it right away. "No." It wasn't exactly a lie since she hadn't recognized him.
"Can you describe the man?"
"He was big, really big." She examined the deputy closely. No way she couldn't notice his dark good looks. Piercing brown eyes, coal-black hair and square jaw. "Much burlier than you." She shivered, recalling his body pressed against her.
"White, Hispanic, African-American?"
"Did he say anything?"
"Mrs. Donnelly." He stepped closer to the bed. "I know this is difficult but anything he said could be a possible clue to finding him."
Nora shut her eyes. She knew she couldn't lie—not about this. "He said, 'You thought you could get away with it.'"
She opened her eyes to find him watching her.
"You're widowed, correct?" the deputy asked.
She tensed, but managed to nod. "Two years."
He wrote in the notepad. "Could I get a list of your most recent male friends?"
"I can't give you one." When he started to press the issue, she stopped him. "There hasn't been anyone in my life since my husband. Only my son."