A Rancher's Brand of Justice (Harlequin Intrigue #1220)

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Overview


Rugged rancher Nick Raymond didn't take orders from anybody

There was no way some city girl—not even a knockout blonde—was going to tell him what to do. Nick had finally been reunited with his son, and he was not about to bring the boy back to the city where he'd witnessed a murder.

Investigator Melissa Anderson was just doing her job. But the rough-and-tumble cowboy wasn't making it easy…and neither was the attraction building between them. ...

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A Rancher's Brand of Justice (Harlequin Intrigue #1220)

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Overview


Rugged rancher Nick Raymond didn't take orders from anybody

There was no way some city girl—not even a knockout blonde—was going to tell him what to do. Nick had finally been reunited with his son, and he was not about to bring the boy back to the city where he'd witnessed a murder.

Investigator Melissa Anderson was just doing her job. But the rough-and-tumble cowboy wasn't making it easy…and neither was the attraction building between them. Nick and his son needed police protection, so getting attached was out of the question.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780373694877
  • Publisher: Harlequin
  • Publication date: 7/13/2010
  • Series: Harlequin Intrigue Series , #1220
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 4.20 (w) x 6.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Three long years he'd looked. Three years.

Staring at the parking garage's concrete wall, Nick Raymond gripped the steering wheel of his pickup to still his shaking hands. He'd spent half a fortune on a private investigator, mortgaging the ranch to pay his bill, and had come up with nothing. Not a trace.

Until yesterday.

He switched off the ignition and glanced into the backseat of his king cab. The seat belt was hooked into the booster seat. The DVD player was loaded with Disney movies for the long trip home, and the gas tank was full. He'd stocked up on snacks and juice boxes and had even picked up a stuffed buffalo. He was as ready as he was ever going to be.

He yanked the keys from the ignition. They jangled in his fingers and dropped to the floor mat.

He was a mess.

Leaning his forehead on the steering wheel, he pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He hadn't been this nervous since the trip home from the hospital after Jason was born. Heart pounding and palms sweating, he'd been sure something horrible would happen to the little tyke on the road back to the ranch. Gayle had laughed at him, though she was just as anxious.

Gayle. A dull ache centered in his gut. He'd imagined finding her for three years, mapped out every bitter word he'd throw at her, every curse he'd level for stealing his son. And now, he'd forgive it all if she were here.

If she were still alive.

He still couldn't absorb that she'd been bludgeoned to death by a man who'd tried to rob her late at night in her own apartment. He hadn't even thought of funeral arrangements. He couldn't think of them now. Now he only wanted to focus on reuniting with Jason. On bringing his four-year-old son home.

He retrieved his keys and dismounted from the truck. Hitting the lock button on the remote, he strode through the parking structure, the thud of his boot heels echoing off concrete, heading for the nearest red exit sign. This nervous quake that had a hold of him was ridiculous, but he couldn't stop it.

Jason probably didn't remember his dad or the Circle J. Had he ever ridden a horse? Did he like horses? After spending the past three years in the city, would he hate living on the ranch as much as his mother had?

Nick made his way down two flights of stairs. Of course, he was getting ahead of himself where Jason was concerned. There was a lot to think about before he'd get a chance to introduce his son to life in Wyoming. A lot to sort out with the Denver police. A lot to move beyond. But no matter how long it took to cut through the red tape, Nick wouldn't be going back to the ranch alone. He would be bringing his boy with him.

And nervous as he was, that fact brought a grin to his face and a warmth to his chest that he would make sure he never lost again.

Breaking out onto the street, he squinted against Denver's mile-high sunshine. Even the day seemed to be celebrating his fresh beginning. The air felt dry and a little crisp, a taste of fast-approaching fall. The sky was blue. The city pulsing with energy. It was going to be a good day. He could feel it.

It had to be.

He'd memorized the map he'd printed out from the hotel's Web site, but he pulled the paper from his back pocket just the same. It rattled in his hand as he looked over the familiar two-block distance he'd walked in his mind countless times on the drive down from Wyoming.

A truck roared past spewing black exhaust into the air. A dog yapped from an apartment window. A dark blue car full of young tattooed men blasting music from open windows pulled to the curb behind him. He could see all of it. Hear all of it. But he couldn't seem to focus on anything. His mind was tuned totally to the hotel rising on the corner ahead, its colorful flags flapping in the breeze.

This was it.

For a second, his legs felt weak. Maybe he should have waited, met his son at the police station, the way the detective who'd called had wanted. But that had seemed so official. So dry. In that setting, Jason might be afraid of this man he didn't remember. And Nick didn't want to start out that way.

But now he wasn't sure this idea was better.

He glanced around. So much noise. So much bustle. This would confuse the boy for sure. And after all Jason had been through in the past few days, he'd probably had enough confusion. Nick needed to find a way to make things easier.

He was still more than half a block away when the light shifted on the glass doors leading into the hotel lobby. A broad-shouldered man wearing a sports jacket pushed his way out. He glanced from side to side, the sun sparkling on his gray hair and the nearly white mustache tickling his upper lip. At first he looked like a regular businessman, then a wind gust blew back his jacket, revealing a holster on his hip.

Nick's pulse spiked. The detective. It had to be. And that probably meant…

The man reached behind his back and grabbed the door handle, holding it open. A woman with golden-blond hair brushing her shoulders stepped out behind him, a small brown-haired boy at her side. Another woman followed behind, also dressed professionally, but Nick was no longer looking at the people surrounding his son.

His son.

A hum rose in his ears and the whole universe seemed to scope in until it included no movement, no sound, no city smells, nothing but him and the boy he'd been looking for for so long.

His son.

Jason's eyes flared wide as he took in the city street. From this distance, they looked blue, like his mother's. But everything else—the slope of his nose, the cleft in his little chin, the way his ears stuck out from his shorn head—all of it looked so much like photos of Nick at age four, that for a second he couldn't quite breathe.

His son.

He dodged around the few people on the sidewalk until no one was between him and his boy but the three people with him. A roar rose from somewhere far away. Something dark glided past him on the street. Someone shouted. But all he could see was Jason. All he could think about was reaching him. Hearing his voice. Taking him in his arms. Holding him and never letting him go.

He was still thirty yards away when the shooting started.

Melissa Anderson had been on the force for ten years before she got her job as investigator with the district attorney's office, but except for training at the range, she'd never fired her gun. Not on the streets. Not for any reason.

But she knew what it sounded like.

The first shot was a sharp pop, the noise diffused by other noises and distance. But by the time the second exploded close up, she was already reacting.

She grabbed the boy, his little arm thin under her fingers. She had to get him out of the line of fire. She had to make sure he was safe. The hotel's glass doors wouldn't protect him much, but to the right a concrete planter sprouted from the sidewalk, red blooms cascading from the top. She half ran, half dove, dragging Jason with her. Her knees hit the sidewalk, the force shuddering up her legs and into her hips. Her hand scraped raw against concrete, breaking her fall and the boy's. She pushed him behind her, between the planter and the hotel wall, and reached for her gun.

Pulling it free from its holster, she froze, heart stuttering in her chest. Jimmy lay on the sidewalk. Essie behind him. Everything was eerily quiet.

She focused on the street. She was sure she'd seen a dark car from the corner of her eye. Maybe blue. She swore it was there when the shooting started. Now it was gone.

She shook her head, as if that would help her remember, help her sense where the car was now. Her mind was numb. She couldn't think. She couldn't feel.

Training. She had to rely on her training. Take one step, then another.

She checked the boy. His blue eyes were as wide as a mountain sky but he wasn't hurt. She reached for her cell phone. Her hands trembled. Her voice too high, too frantic. She called in what she'd seen. The words officer down stuck in her throat.

It couldn't be. It couldn't be. Not Jimmy.

Only seconds had passed, but it seemed like minutes. Hours. No movement from Jimmy or Essie.

"Where is he? Oh, my God. Is he okay?" A man in cowboy boots, jeans and a button-down shirt barreled down the sidewalk toward her.

Instinctively, she raised her weapon. "Stop."

He halted, staring at her. His hands splayed at his sides, his eyes wild. He glanced around. At Jimmy. At Essie. "Jason? Where's Jason?"

His words clicked into place in her mind. The father. He was the father. He wasn't supposed to be here. But he was. She lowered her gun. "Your son is behind me."

He took ragged steps toward her. "Is he hurt?"

"No." She shifted to the side. At least with the father there, she could rely on him to care for the boy. She could focus on helping Jimmy and Essie. Be ready in case the shooter circled back before backup arrived.

Oh, God. Could this really be happening? Heat welled up in her chest and flushed over her skin. She wanted to scream. She wanted to sob.

She forced the feelings down. Later she could absorb this. Now she had to do her job. She shifted to the side and peered at the boy.

Impossibly huge eyes stared back. Tears streaked little cheeks. His chin trembled and teeth chattered as if he was horribly cold.

She wanted to hug him, to hold him, to let him know everything would be all right. The boy needed all those things. She'd have to trust the father would provide them. "Remember the man we talked about, Jason? Your daddy?"

His head moved in an almost imperceptible nod.

"He's going to take care of you now."

The boy's hands closed around her arm.

"It's okay. It's okay. He loves you more than anything. He'll take good care of you." She didn't know why she said it. She just hoped it was true. "I have to go help Detective Bernard and Essie. They're hurt. I need you to be brave now. Do you understand?"

Another small nod.

She looked back to the father. After her promises to the boy, he'd better be up to the task. He'd better not let her down. "Take my place. Right now."

As she stepped out from behind the planter, he slid into the spot she'd vacated. Without looking back, she raced to Jimmy B.

He was lying on his side, curled inward, his gun still in hand. She smelled the blood before she saw it. The copper-sweet tang clogged the back of her throat and mixed with her tears.

Jimmy was wearing his bullet-proof vest. He hadn't been hit in the head. So where was the blood coming from? She brought her fingers to his throat, feeling for a pulse. Her hand came away sticky.

No. No. No.

The neck. Maybe the upper chest. Vulnerable tissue the vest didn't cover. Not good. He had to live. He had to. What would she ever do without him?

She clawed his blazer out of the way and ripped open his shirt. His vest was intact. Not damaged in the least. And right above the top edge, blood pulsed from a hole in his upper chest.

Pulsing blood meant his heart was still beating. He was still alive.

She ripped free the Velcro holding the vest in place and shoved it to the side. She shucked her blazer and wadded it up, pressing it to the wound. Looking up from her mentor and friend, she scanned the sidewalks for help.

Several people stood fifty feet away, either too afraid to approach or too selfish to get involved. "Can I get a hand here?"

No one moved.

Damn. What was wrong with these people? "I have two people hurt here. I need assistance."

"I'm here." A deep voice came from behind her.

She spun around without lessening the pressure on Jimmy's chest. The boy's father stood over her, the morning sun glaring behind him, his face in shadow.

"Where's Jason?"

"Here. What can I do?"

She didn't want the boy to see this nightmare. Not after all he'd already been through. But she couldn't just let Essie lie there bleeding. Jimmy was still alive. Essie might be, too. She needed help. "Hold this. Keep up the pressure." She grabbed his rough hand and pressed it to the blazer, already sticky with blood.

The man hunkered down over Jimmy. The boy huddled behind his father, his side pressed to the man's hip as if they were attached. He held his hands over his face.

The sight hit Melissa like a kick to the chest.

Function. She couldn't let herself feel. She had to function.

Melissa moved to Essie. A victim's rights advocate with the D.A.'s office, Essie wasn't wearing a shred of Kevlar. The stain of blood spread over her blouse and seeped through her suit jacket. Melissa pulled back the jacket and fumbled with the blouse's lower buttons until she had it partially undone. She peeled saturated cotton away from skin and located the bullet wound.

She had to stop Essie's bleeding. She had to—

"Here." A woman's voice this time.

She looked up to see a maid from the hotel leaning over her. In her arms, she cradled a stack of bleached-white towels.

"Thank God."

Somewhere a siren screamed. Help was on its way. She just prayed it would come fast enough. She just prayed it wasn't already too late.

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