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Melora Hudson punched in her alarm code to turn the security system off, then tossed her keys on the kitchen counter. All she wanted to do was sink into a chair and drink a cup of hot tea after her exhausting week. But as she moved toward the kettle on the stove, a soundsomething hitting the tiled floorcame from the living room and froze her in mid-stride. Tension whipped through her. Until her cat shot through the doorway and launched himself into her arms.
"Okay, Patches, what have you gotten into this time?"
His crylike a baby'sprotested her scolding.
Melora cuddled the fifteen-pound white cat against her chest and started for the living room. Just what she neededanother broken lamp or, like the last time, a crystal vase. As she approached the entrance, she mentally prepared for the devastation, realizing she could never get rid of the animal because her daughter loved Patches. And so did she.
A few steps into the room, Melora stopped, scanning the large expanse for any sign of what had made the crashing noise.
The desk chair was overturned at the far end. Strange. How had Patches done that? She placed the large cat on the tiled floor and headed across the room. Nothing he did should surprise her anymore. She began to pick up the chair while Patches weaved in and out of her legs, but stopped. Her nape prickled; unease streaked down her spine. The quiet of the house, usually a balm, was now ominous. She glanced toward the study. She wasn't alone.
That thought bolted her to the floor for a few precious seconds before she whirled and ran toward the back porch off the great room. Halfway to the exit, she noticed the lock wasn't turned right.
The door was unlocked. Alarm squeezed her chest.
She peered sideways and spied a wiry, medium-sized man wearing a black ski mask barreling toward her. Pushing herself faster, she reached for the knob. Two feet away.
He tackled her. The impact of the cool tiles knocked the breath from her, pain radiating through her. His body trapped her beneath him. All the fear from that break-in two years ago came to the foreground.
She twisted and bucked, trying to shove him off her. She drew in a gulp of air. Finally, her protest ripped from her throat and ricocheted off the tall ceilings, filling the room with her terror.
He slapped her across the face. "Shut up."
Texas Ranger Daniel Boone Riley turned his white Ford 150 truck down the road that led to the Hudson's house in Lone Star Estates where many wealthy San Antonians lived. He should know. His family mansion wasn't but a mile from here.
He'd seen Melora Hudson, the widow, at her husband's funeral a couple of days before. A picture of a five-foot, six-inch, willowy woman materialized in his mind. While she'd stood at the gravesite, her red hair with golden highlights had caught the sun's rays, accentuating the long curls about her beautiful facea solemn face, appropriate for a funeral. Until he'd locked gazes with her for a few seconds and something akin to fear had flashed into her sea-green eyes. She'd immediately looked away, but he'd seen the apprehension.
What did she know about her husband's death? What was she hiding?
He was here to find out. He'd spent the last few days learning everything he could about the woman. Although Axle Hudson had been murdered two years ago and his body only found last month and not identified until the previous week, the man's death was tied to the recent murder of Captain Gregory Pike of the Texas Rangers' Company D. Daniel would stop at nothing to discover that link. Gregory had been a good friend as well as his boss. There was no way any Ranger in Company D would allow his murder to go unsolvedeven though few leads had been uncovered in the month since Greg's death. They knew his murder was connected to an elusive group of people called the Lions of Texas who dealt in illegal activitiesdrugs among them. Had Axle Hudson been involved in drug dealing? One of many questions Daniel wanted answered.
He parked his truck in front of the large, Spanish-style house with stucco accents and a tile roof. It fit into its surroundings and shouted wealthtypical of what he'd known of Axle Hudson, a flamboyant playboy who had finally married Melora Madison, the niece of prominent businessman Tyler Madison, in a wedding that had been the event of the social season in San Antonio six years ago.
As he strode toward the porch, a scream rent the air. A woman's scream coming from the house. He pulled his Wilson Combat pistol from his waist holster and rushed toward the porch. When he tried the handle, the door was locked. He took a few steps back, started to lift his leg to kick the heavy solid door and realized he wouldn't be able to budge it.
Daniel needed an entrance into the house other than the sturdy front door. Swiveling to the right, he jogged toward the side, placing a call to the sheriff for back up. He found a flimsier door next to the three-car garage and put all his strength behind kicking in the wooden structure. It exploded inward, and he burst into the mudroom.
The pressure on Melora's chest caused dots to dance before her eyes. Sweat coated her face, her body.
Her attacker's dark gaze trailed down her, leaving her chilled. With her arms pinned to her side and the man's heavy weight on her, fear drenched her like her perspiration.
"I won't hurt you if you keep quiet." The raspy voice, as if he'd smoked one too many cigarettes, didn't give his words a ring of truth.
His smelly odor assailed her. Nausea roiled in her stomach. "What do you want?" she managed to squeak out, so glad her daughter was playing at a friend's. If Kaitlyn had been here The thought chilled her blood.
The intruder withdrew a switchblade and flicked it open. "Information. It was about time you got home."
Melora's eyes grew round, focused totally on the knife he held before her. Not far from her heart. Her throat.
"Where's the flash drive your husband always had on him?"
"I don't know." The flash drive Axle wore around his neck? What had he done to cause this continual nightmare?
The blade came closer. "There are two dumb things you can do. Not give me the flash drive and talk to the police about this or anything concerning your husband's affairs. Are you smart? I'd hate your little girl to be without a mommy. Where's the flash drive? It wasn't found with your husband's body. It has to be here."
The gleaming metal commanded her full attention. Until a boom rocked the air. It sounded as though something had slammed against the wall.
The intruder jerked up, his focus on the entrance into the living room.
Melora grabbed the split second of distraction and shoved upward with all her strength. The man, taken by surprise, teetered above her, the knife clanging to the floor.
Totally in cop mode with his gun clasped in his hand, Daniel quickly assessed the kitchen and moved toward the hallway. A noise to his rightlike a scuffledrew him into the living room. On the far side, a man with a ski mask leaped to his feet and spun around.
"Halt! State Police," Daniel shouted, aiming his gun.
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Melora sprawled on the floor, her eyes huge in her pale face, a knife a few feet from her on the floor. She scrambled back from her attacker.
As though he had nothing to lose, the intruder sprang for the porch door, wrenched it open, then plunged through the opening.
As Daniel raced toward the exit after the man, he glanced at Melora. "Are you okay?"
"Yes." Her answer came out with a shaky rasp, her face leached of all color.
"I called the sheriff. Help is on the way."
He hurried after the attacker who swung over the railing and landed in the grass below, then shot toward the side of the house. Daniel took the same route. The second his feet touched the ground, he sprinted forward, rounding the pool and cabana not far behind the assailant.
When the man scaled the fence separating the Hudson's property from the neighbor's, his foot caught on a wooden railing, and he tumbled over. Daniel pushed himself faster, eating up several yards between them before the intruder hustled to his feet and continued toward a vehicle parked on the street.
Daniel sailed over the same fence, adrenaline spurring him on. Determined to catch the burglar, he raced across the neighbor's front lawn. When the assailant reached a white Honda Accord, he dragged the door open and lunged inside.
The car started, and the intruder floored the gas, shrieking away from the curb. Daniel zeroed in on the license plate and got a partial number, the rest obscured by dirt. He lifted his gun to aim at the back left tire, knowing the possibility of stopping the car was slim.
Too late. The vehicle disappeared around the corner.
Daniel dug into his pocket and withdrew his cell, calling the suspect's car and partial plate number into the sheriff's office. Then he trudged back to the Hudson's house, which sat on several acres of land. The picture of Melora on the floor, afraid, her shirt pulled out of her slacks, her long hair tousled, her body quaking, haunted his thoughts. The visualization rocked him with anger.
What was going on? That question plagued him the whole way back as he retraced his steps to see if the suspect had dropped anything in his mad dash to get away. Nothing.
Climbing the steps to the deck, Daniel holstered his pistol. When he entered the living room, he discovered Melora standing not far from where she'd been attacked. Her shirt was tucked into her pants, and she was running her trembling hand through her hair. The pale cast to her face, and the large, round eyes spoke of a woman who had been frightened for her life.
He needed answers, ones his fellow Ranger Oliver Drew hadn't gotten when he had interviewed her last week after Axle Hudson's remains had finally been identified. "Did this have anything to do with your husband's murder?" Daniel covered the short distance between them.
She backed up, her arms crossing her chest. "I think " Her tongue ran over her lips. "I think it was just a burglar."
He couldn't shake the feeling something was going on here beyond a mere robbery, especially since Melora kept evading eye contact. "What was he after?"
Her mouth pinched into a frown. "I don't know. He didn't give me a rundown while he had me pinned to the floor."
Her body languagerubbing her eye, looking away for a couple of secondsshouted at deception. She knew what the man was after. Why didn't she tell him? Was there a connection to her dead husband?
"You're Daniel Riley with the Texas Rangers. I told the other Ranger last week I don't know who would have killed my husband or why someone would want him dead. Why would you think this has anything to do with Axle's murder?" She drew herself up straight, dropping her arms to her sides, her chin tilting up a notch.
They had casually met before since their families moved in the same social circles, and she was on the Alamo Planning Committee for the 175th anniversary celebration of the Battle of the Alamo in March. He'd spoken to the committee a few months back. But he really didn't know her. That would change after today. "Why are you so sure it doesn't? Your husband's remains were finally identified after he'd been missing for two years and the next week your house is broken into. Just a coincidence?"
"Yes. I've told Ranger Drew everything I know, which is nothing. Axle went out one evening and never returned.
That's all I know."
"Did anyone have a grudge against your husband?"
"Why are the Texas Rangers involved in the investigation? I would have thought the sheriff would be conducting the murder investigation. He's the one I reported to when my husband went missing two years ago."
"Your husband's murder may be tied to an investigation we're running."
The doorbell's chime cut the tension vibrating between them.
"Excuse me." Relief washed over her face as she headed toward the foyer.
"That's the sheriff. I called in the make of the getaway car and its partial license number." Daniel trailed behind her, just in case it wasn't the sheriff.
She halted and looked back at him. "Good."
But that fear he'd glimpsed at the gravesite flickered across her face momentarily. She quickly continued her trek toward the door and opened it to the sheriff and a deputy.
Sheriff Karl Layton moved into the house after indicating to his deputy to check the grounds. "Melora, I understand there was a break-in here today."
"A man was here when I came home a little while ago."
"Where are your housekeeper and daughter?"
"Juanita took Kaitlyn to a play date with a friend. I had a meeting at the hospital with the ladies auxiliary."
"When will they be back?"
"Not for another hour."
"I'll try to make this quick. I'd hate to upset Kaitlyn any more."
"Thanks, Karl. I appreciate that." Melora indicated to the living room and Daniel standing in its entrance. "Ranger Riley managed to thwart the man. Nothing was taken that I can tell."
How would she know? She couldn't have checked. There hadn't been enough time. Daniel got the distinct feeling the woman wanted both him and the sheriff gone as quickly as possible. That wasn't going to happen. She wasn't getting rid of him that easily. Her husband had been involved in what was going on with the Lions of Texas. His body had been found buried at one of the organization's drug drop sites. Had he been a member of the group? Had he crossed them somehow? Did Melora know something about the Lions of Texas?
Daniel strode to where the knife lay on the floor and pointed at it. "The intruder dropped this before fleeing."
The color that had returned to Melora's face drained again as she looked at the weapon. She turned away, hugging her arms across her chest.
"Good. We'll check for fingerprints." The sheriff donned a latex glove and carefully picked up the knife to drop into an evidence bag.
"You probably won't find anything since he wore gloves, but maybe he was careless and we'll catch a break."
"It's happened before, and I'm always grateful when it does." Karl removed his cowboy hat and held it in his hands as he sat on a beige couch while Melora took the wingback chair across from him. "Can you tell me what happened? Anything about the man?"
She ran her long tapered fingers along her chin. "It happened so fast. I thought Patches had knocked over something in the living room. I came in to investigate. The next thing I know a man tackled me to the floor. The rest is a blur."