The last thing Texas Ranger Tucker McKinnon expects to find in his pantry is two sleeping newborns. But it's the woman who spirited the infants to his ranch who stirs the lawman's blood, along with haunting memories. Once, Tucker and Laine Braddock were inseparable until murder divided their families. Now, with a killer on Laine's trail, Tucker has never felt more powerless. Or been more determined. Desperate to keep her and her innocent charges safe, Tucker uncovers some shocking truths. Including the feelings they still shareand the desire they're finding impossible to resist.
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Tucker McKinnon heard the sound the moment he stepped from the shower. Someone was moving around in his kitchen.
He opened his mouth to call out to his brothers, the only two people who would have let themselves into his house, but then he remembered. His older brother, Cooper, was on his honeymoon, and his kid brother, Colt, was working at the sheriff's office in town.
So, who was his visitor?
He didn't like most of the possibilities that came to mind. Heck, it could even be someone connected to the arrest he'd made just hours earlier. The dirt-for-brains fugitive that Tucker had tangled with could have sent someone out to settle the score with the Texas Ranger who'd hauled his sorry butt off to jail.
If so, the score-settler wasn't being very quiet, and had clearly lost the element of surprise.
Tucker dried off, wincing when he wiped the towel over the cuts and bruises. He wasn't that old, just thirty-four, but he was too old to be getting into a fistfight with the fugitive who'd gotten the jump on him.
Hurrying, Tucker pulled on his jeans and eased open the door so he could peek inside his bedroom. No one was there, so he grabbed his gun from the holster he'd ditched on the nightstand and stepped into the hall. The sounds continued.
Someone mumbling. Other sounds, too. He heard the click of the lock on the back door. His intruder, whoever it was, had locked them in together.
Probably not a good sign.
Since he was barefoot, his steps didn't make any noise on the hardwood floors, and with his gun ready, Tucker inched down the short hall, past the living room, so he could look into the kitchen.
There was still plenty of light outside, but the trees next to his kitchen window made the room pretty dark and filled it with shadows. None of the shadows, however, looked like an intruder.
He saw the pantry door slightly ajar. A door Tucker was darn certain he'd shut because he was always stubbing his toe on it.
Someone was in there.
He glanced out the window. No vehicle other than his own truck. The sky looked like a crime scene, though. Bruise-colored storm clouds with a bloodred sunset stabbing through them. He hoped that wasn't some kind of bad sign.
"Not very bright," Tucker tossed out there. "Breaking into the house of a Texas Ranger. We tend to frown on stuff like that." He slapped on the lights.
"No," someone said. It was a woman, and even though her voice was only a whisper, there was as much emotion in it as if she'd shouted the word. "Turn off that light. I don't want them to see us."
"Them?" Tucker questioned.
Okay. That got his attention in more ways than one. Despite the whisper, he recognized the voice. "Laine?"
As in Laine Braddock, a child psychologist who sometimes worked with the Rangers and the FBI. Since they weren't on good termsnot on speaking terms, in fact Tucker had worked with her as little as possible. After all, his mother, Jewell, had been charged with murdering Laine's father. That didn't create a warm, fuzzy bond between them.
Not now, anyway.
Once, when they were kids, Laine and he had played together almost every day. And she'd been on the receiving end of his very first kiss.
That wasn't exactly something he wanted to remember at this moment, though.
Tucker went closer to the door, and despite the fact he knew her, he didn't lower his gun. Everything inside his severely banged up body was yelling for him to stay alert so he wouldn't be on the receiving end of another butt-whipping. Especially since Laine might not be alone.
"What killers?" he asked.
"The ones who could have followed us here."
Tucker didn't miss the us.
There was no us when it came to Laine and him. Except they had run into each other about a week before, when he was called to assist the FBI with investigating a black-market adoption ring. Laine had been there on standby in case any of the children were recovered, but Tucker and she hadn't exchanged anything other than some frosty glares.
And that told him loads.
Even if so-called killers were involved, he was the absolute last person on God's green earth that Laine would have come to, and yet here she was.
"How'd you get in?" he demanded.
"Through the back door. It wasn't locked."
Not locking up was a bad habit that Tucker would remedy the moment he got her out of there. "So you let yourself in. Not a smart thing to do, since you knew I'd be armed."
"It was a risk I had to take," she mumbled.
That only added to the whole puzzling situation. Why come here? What risk was worth a visit with the enemy?
Maybe she hadn't come here by choice.
"Come out so I can see you," Tucker ordered, because he wanted to make sure that someone wasn't holding a gun on her. Maybe it was those killers she'd warned him about.
"Turn out the lights first, please. I don't want them to see us."
Her presence, combined with the fear in her voice, was enough to make Tucker do as she said. He turned off the light, let his eyes adjust to the darkness and moved closer in case he had to fight off someone holding her hostage.
The hinges on the pantry door creaked a little when she fully opened it, and she stepped into the doorway. Yeah, it was Laine all right, and even in the dim light, Tucker could see that something was wrong. Everything about her was disheveled, from her brown hair to her clothes. There was mud or something on her jeans, shoes and white top.
She made a slight gasping sound and reached out to touch him, but then she jerked back her hand. "You've been hurt. Did they come here already?"
"No one's been here. I got this while making an arrest."
He must have looked downright awful for her to notice something like that at a time like this. "How'd you get out here? Where's your car? And why would someone have come here already?"
Laine pressed her hand to her head as if he'd just doled out too many questions. Heck, he was just getting started.
"I parked in the woods by the road and walked through the pasture to get here," she finally said. "I didn't want them following me, but they could come here looking for me."
Her voice was shaking. So was she. And she latched her hands onto the doorjamb as if that were the only way she could keep on her feet.
That unsteadiness sent a new round of concern through him. "Are you hurt? Do you need a doctor?"
"I wasn't hurt."
She swallowed hard, pushed herself from the doorway and came toward him. Despite the fact he still had a gun pointed at her. She landed in his arms before Tucker could stop her, and she started to cry. Not just any old crying, either. Sobs punctuated with hard breaths that made a hiccupping sound.
Whatever this was, it was really bad.
Tucker would've needed a heart of ice not to react. And he reacted, all right. He slid his left arm around her. He kept his grip loose. Very loose. But it didn't matter. Basically, Laine was plastered against him, and he wasn't wearing a shirt. He could feel pretty much every inch of her trembling body.
"They killed her right in front of me," Laine said through the sobs.
That pushed aside anything he was feeling from the unexpected hugging session. "Who was killed?"
"A woman. I don't know her name."
Tucker eased back, met her gaze. "Start from the beginning. What happened?"
And then he'd want to know why she hadn't taken this to the local cops. After all, his brother was the sheriff, and his brother, Colt, the deputy. Yet, Laine had come all the way there to his family's ranch, which wasn't exactly on the beaten path.
"Remember that undercover assignment I was on last week?" She didn't wait for him to answer. "We were working on it together, but you got me fired."
Yeah, he remembered. "Not fired. I just asked for you to be reassigned somewhere not near me."
"You got me fired," she repeated, sounding not too happy about it. "Anyway, about an hour and a half ago, I got a call from a woman who wouldn't tell me who she was. She said she'd been held captive by guards at the place we were investigating. But she escaped today."
Laine stopped, shuddering, and pressed her fingers to her mouth.
Good grief. He hoped this wasn't going where he thought it was. "Please tell me you didn't go out to meet this woman alone?"
"I didn't have to go anywhere to meet her. She was in the parking lot outside my office in town. Hiding behind my car. She said she was making the call from a prepaid cell phone that she had stolen from her captors."
Tucker groaned and hoped the rest of this conversation would go a whole lot better than what he'd heard so far. "And at that point, you should have called my brother.
Colt's been on duty all day, and he would have responded immediately."
Laine didn't argue with that, even though Tucker was dead certain she didn't trust Colt any more than she trusted him or the rest of his family.
"The woman said not to contact the cops, that I had to see her alone. So I went out to the parking lot," Laine continued.
But she stopped, and the tears returned. Worse, her hands twitched as if she might reach for him again. She didn't, thank goodness. Instead, Laine held on to the counter by the sink.
"What happened?" Tucker pressed. He hated to sound impatient and insensitive, but if a murder had truly taken place, he needed to report it.
"The woman was scared. Terrified," Laine corrected. "And she only had a chance to say a few words to me when a car came screeching into the parking lot. She told me to run and hide. So I did. She said I was to stay in hiding, no matter what happened. I ducked behind the Dumpster."
Tucker knew that parking lot and the position of the Dumpster. Laine's office was on the far edge of Sweetwater Springs, in a small cottage that shared a back parking lot with three other small buildings. Two were empty, and the third was a law office. Tucker hoped someone else was in that office to witness what'd gone on, in case this turned into an investigation.
"If I'd known what was going to happen," Laine continued, "I wouldn't have hidden. I would have tried to get help." She pulled in a long breath, and the trembling got worse. "The car came to a stop, and two men jumped out. They were wearing police uniforms."
That gave him a moment's pause. "What kind?" The cops in Sweetwater Springs didn't often wear uniforms, but when they did, they were khaki-colored.
She shook her head. "I'm not sure. They were blue, and they had badges and guns."
Maybe they had been from another town or jurisdiction and they'd tracked the woman to Laine's office. "Did they try to arrest the woman?"
A sob tore from her throat. "No. She motioned for me to stay put and she ran. She bolted toward the street, and they shot her. Oh, God. Tucker, they shot her."
It didn't matter that he was a lawman. Hearing about a shooting hit him hard. Except something about this wasn't adding up. "Why didn't anyone report the shots? Why didn't you report them?"
"They used guns with silencers." She pressed her fingers to her mouth a moment. "They shot her in the back as she was running. She was dead. I could tell by how limp her arms and legs were when they picked up her body and threw her in the trunk of their car."
Since it hadn't started raining yet, there'd be blood. Maybe even some other evidence.
Tucker's cell phone was in the bedroom by his holster, and he didn't want to leave the room to go get it. Instead, he reached for the landline on the kitchen wall. He had to call Colt and get him to the scene ASAP.
"Don't." Laine latched onto his wrist. "They had a police radio in their car. I heard it. And if you call the sheriff's office, they'll hear it, too. They'll know I came here."
Tucker blew out a long, frustrated breath. Not good about the police radio, but like uniforms, they could be faked or stolen. It didn't mean cops had actually killed the woman.
"Why did you come here?" he asked.
Laine let that question hum between them for several moments. "Because I knew the lawman in you would help me."
Tucker let her answer hum between them a couple of moments, too, even though he couldn't argue with it since it was the truth. "The murder has to be reported, but I'll tell my brother not to put any of this on the police radio. Did you get the license plate on the car?"
"No. Sorry. I wasn't thinking straight." Another sob. "I should have done something to stop them."
"If you'd tried, they likely would have killed you, too." It was the truth, and even though Laine and he were essentially enemies, he didn't wish that on anybody. As it was, this nightmare would be with her for a long time.
He reached for the phone again, but once more Laine stopped him. "I stayed hidden like the woman told me to do. I did everything she insisted that I do." Her voice was frantic now, and she sounded like she was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack. "And the words she said to me keep repeating in my head."
Everything inside Tucker went still. "What words?"
"'Hide them. Protect them.'" She turned, maybe to bolt out the door, so he took her by the shoulders.
"Who's them?" He groaned. Were there more women still being held at the baby farm? That wouldn't be good, because if everything Laine had told him was true, their captors were cold-blooded killers.
She pried off his grip and went back to the door of the pantry.
Tucker braced himself to see his pantry crammed with women who were on the run from the men who'd gunned down one of their fellow captives. But there were no women.
In fact, because the lights were off, Tucker couldn't see anything other than the food on the shelves.
"I have to protect them," Laine repeated, her voice breaking.
Tucker went closer to the pantry and looked around. On the floor was a rumpled blanket.
Except it wasn't just a blanket.
Wrapped in the center of it was something he'd never expected to find in his pantry.
Two sleeping newborn babies.