Discovering Kendall O'Neal being held at gunpoint at his ranch isn't the homecoming sheriff Aiden Braddock expects. And now Kendall's captors are demanding he destroy evidence in an upcoming trial in exchange for the Texas attorney's life
And the life of their unborn baby.
Three months ago, Aiden and Kendall gave in to their long-simmering attraction. Now, with a child on the way, the stakes have shot sky-high. But even after he pulls off a daring rescue, Kendall isn't safe. Before long, they find temporary haven in each other's armswhich could be even more dangerous than facing down a killer.
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Sheriff Aiden Braddock shut the door behind him, tossed his truck keys on the kitchen counter. And stopped cold.
He didn't hear anything unusual. The whir of the A/C and fridge. The April breeze rattling the oaks outside the window over the sink. All the sounds he should be hearing, but he still got the gut feeling that something wasn't right.
Since that gut feeling had saved his butt a time or two during his time as county sheriff, Aiden listened to it.
He drew his Glock from his holster.
Aiden didn't move yet. He just stood there a few more moments. Listening. And then he heard the thing that didn't belong. A whisper, maybe. Or somebody breathing. Because he lived alone, there darn sure shouldn't be anyone else whispering or breathing in his house.
"Mom?" Aiden called out just to make sure. Though it'd been longer than a blue moon since she came out to his place. Too far in the sticks, she had always complained.
"Laine? Shelby?" Aiden added in case it was one of his sisters. Again, a serious long shot, since they rarely visited, either.
No answer. But he hadn't expected one.
Whatever was going on, this likely wasn't a social visit and could even involve some attempted bodily harm. After all, he was the county sheriff and had riled more than a person or two over the past decade. One of those riled people had perhaps come to settle an old score.
Aiden huffed. He was so not in the mood to bash some heads, but he might have to do just that.
"Let's make this easy for you," Aiden called out. "I'm a damn good shot. Plus, I'm hungry, tired and not feeling up to any idiot who's stupid enough to break into a lawman's house."
"Aiden," someone said in a hoarse whisper.
Even though the person hardly made any sound when she spoke, Aiden thought he recognized the voice.
But that didn't make any sense. This was the last place on earth she'd come.
Especially after well, just after.
Aiden didn't lower his gun, but he inched his way toward the sound of her whisperin his living room. It was just a few yards away past a half wall, but he kept watch all around him. Kept listening, too. Until he could move into the arched opening that divided the rooms, and he snapped his gun in the direction where he'd pinpointed Kendall's voice.
His heart slammed against his chest.
Because it was Kendall O'Neal all right, but this definitely wasn't a social visit. She was on her knees in the center of the floor, and there was a hulking man on each side of her. The men were wearing black ski masks, and both had automatics pointed right at her head.
"Drop the gun, Sheriff Braddock," the bigger one on the right growled.
Aiden held on to his Glock, trying to figure out what the devil was going on here. He didn't get many clues from Kendall. She only shook her head. Like an apology or something.
But that was pure fear in her wide eyes.
He didn't see any signs of injury, but then most of her body that he could see was covered with a pale blue shirt, skirt and business jackether lawyering clothes. However, her hair was a mess, her blond locks tangled on her shoulders.
So maybe she'd been in a scuffle with these guys after all.
Kendall wasn't the messy-hair type. Nope. All priss and polish for her and never a hair out of place. People didn't call her the ice princess for nothing.
However, that wasn't an ice-princess look she was giving him now.
"What do you want?" Aiden asked the men.
"Your gun on the floor." Again, it was the one on the right who answered. No unusual accent. He was a Texan. And the nondescript dark pants and T-shirt didn't give Aiden any clues, either.
"Do it now," the man added, and he jammed his gun against Kendall's head. "Or else she'll pay the price."
The last thing any lawman wanted to do was surrender his weapon, but Aiden was wearing his usual backup gun in a boot holster. Maybe he'd be able to get to it in time if things turned uglier than they already were.
Of course, things were already plenty ugly enough.
Aiden didn't make any fast moves. He eased his gun onto the floor. "Now, what's this about?" he demanded. Thankfully, he still sounded like a sheriff even though it was hard to sound badass and in charge with guns pointed at Kendall.
"You're going to do us a favor," the gunman said. Even though the ski mask covered most of the gunman's face, Aiden could have sworn the guy was smirking. "And if you don't, then we'll hurt Kendall here. Won't kill her at first. But we'll use her to make sure you cooperate."
The threat was real enoughthe real guns were proof of thatbut Aiden had to shake his head. "You do know that Kendall O'Neal and I aren't exactly on speaking terms, right? Everybody in town knows it. So why use her to get me to do anything for you?"
But his question ground to a halt, and Aiden's gaze snapped back to her.
"This is some kind of sick game, isn't it?" Though he couldn't imagine why Kendall would be playing it with these two armed thugs. "Is this connected to your sister?"
Aiden didn't wait for an answer. His attention went back to her captors. If they were indeed linked to her sister and not paid help trying to trick him into doing something crazier than what they were already doing.
"Just in case you don't know," Aiden told the men, "Kendall's half sister, Jewell, is about to stand trial for murdering my father twenty-three years ago. If this was a real hostage situation, you'd have taken someone that I actually care a rat's you know what about."
Kendall flinched at his stinging remark, but she quickly recovered. The fear, or fake fear, was still in her green cat eyes, and she hiked up her chin in that way that always riled him to the core. She looked darn haughty when she did that.
"There are things you don't know." Her voice cracked on the last word. A nice, theatrical touch.
"Clearly," Aiden said with a boatload of sarcasm. "But let me guess. You're a thousand steps past the desperate stage, and you'd do anything to save your precious, murdering sister. So you want me to try to fix the trial or something."
Aiden rammed his thumb against his chest and had to finish through clenched teeth. "You picked the wrong mark, Kendall. I don't break the law for anybody, especially the likes of you."
And he got another lightbulb moment.
A very bad one. One brought on by the likes of you comment. It hadn't been that long ago that he said those very words to her.
Not in the heat of the moment like now.
More like after the heat.
Yeah, Kendall and he had had the hots for each other since middle school. Forbidden fruit and all that crap. Aiden had always resisted her because he'd known it would tear his family apart.
Until three months ago.
He'd had to kill a man that day. A domestic disturbance gone wrong. Then he'd had a run-in with his mother. Then another run-in with one of Jewell's smart-mouthed daughters. To make matters worse, he'd dropped by the Blue-bonnet for a drink or two. Which had turned into four. All right, five.
And he'd run into Kendall.
Aiden hadn't asked her what kind of bad day she'd been trying to erase with those shots of highend whiskey she was downing like water. But the drinks had dumbed him down just enough that he'd gone over to talk to her. A mistake.
A big one.
Because the next thing Aiden knew, they were doing more than talking. They'd landed in bed for some drunken sex, and he'd committed one of the worst mistakes he could ever have made.
Did that night play a part in this, too?
Aiden hadn't been very nice to her the next morning what with his hangover and regret. That was where the likes of you comment had come into play. Because he'd wanted to leave immediately, find a big rock and hit himself in the head with it. But maybe Kendall thought she was a woman scorned, and paired with her obsession to clear her sister's name, perhaps the desperation had spilled over to this.
"Get out," Aiden ordered them, and he reached down to pick up his gun.
Aiden didn't get far before the shot blasted through the room and sent his ears ringing. The bullet hadn't been aimed at him.
But rather at Kendall.
She screamed out in pain. Not a whimper, but a full-fledged, blood-chilling scream. For a good reason, too. The bullet had gone into her arm, tearing through her jacket sleeve and into her flesh.
Almost immediately, a bright red patch of blood started to spread over the fabric. She struggled, trying to clamp her hand over it, but he realized then that her wrists had been bound behind her back with plastic cuffs.
Aiden's instincts were to rush to her, to make sure she was okay. He would have done that for anyone. But when he started toward her, the guy on the left shifted his gun to Aiden.
"Move and she gets another bullet in the other arm," the man warned him.
Okay. So maybe this wasn't fake after all.
"You've got my attention," Aiden said. "But let's hurry along this little chat so I can get an ambulance out here for Kendall."
The talking guy shook his head. "Her injury isn't serious. Just a flesh wound. That doesn't mean the next one will be, though. We need her alive but not necessarily in one piece."
Aiden's heartbeat hadn't settled down since he first saw Kendall kneeling on the floor, and that didn't do much to slow it to normal.
"What do you want?" Aiden repeated.
"For you to destroy evidence lot BR6847-23." The guy didn't hesitate.
Normally, Aiden wouldn't have known what evidence that was. But he did in this case. It was recently found bone fragments.
His father's bone fragments.
And it was key evidence in the murder case against Jewell.
"So this is about your sister," he said to Kendall. Even though he no longer believed Kendall had orchestrated it. Not after taking that bullet.
She moaned, the sound of raw pain, and clamped her teeth over her bottom lip for a moment. "I don't know who hired these men," Kendall said, her voice shaking. "I was leaving work late, and they grabbed me in the parking lot. They brought me here."
Even though there weren't a lot of details in that, Aiden could almost see it, and it turned his stomach a little. Kendall wasn't a large woman, and these two goons towered over her. She had to have been terrified.
No one was that good an actor.
"Jewell's daughters could be behind this," Aiden said just to see what kind of reaction he'd get from them. No one argued. But then, he didn't see anything in their body language that he'd hit a home run, either.
Of course, who else would it be?
Jewell had abandoned her husband and three sons all those years ago when she left town under the cloud of suspicion of murdering Aiden's father. The suspicion had finally been confirmed when the case was reopened, and those bone fragments had been discovered. Jewell was finally where she belonged.
And she hadn't exactly mended fences with her own sons and ex-husband.
Still, she had two daughters, a stepson and a now-shot half sister on her side. Once Kendall was safe, Aiden would go to Jewell's spawn and step-spawn and demand answers.
First, though, he had to get Kendall out of this. "I guess you'll hold her until I destroy the evidence?" Aiden asked.
The talker nodded. "The sooner you do it, the sooner you can have her back." Not likely.
Except that didn't make sense, either. Jewell's kids knew she loved her much younger half sister. In fact, word was that Jewell thought of Kendall more like a daughter than a half sister.
So why would Jewell's kids have put Kendall at risk like this?
"Why?" Aiden repeated out loud and shook his head. "And that why covers a lot of territory. There's plenty about this that doesn't make sense."
Kendall opened her mouth. Closed it. Then swallowed hard. "I thought Laine might have said something."
Aiden shook his head. "My sister? What does she have to do with this?"
"Laine saw me coming out of the doctor's office. I swear, Aiden, I was going to leave town next week. I wasn't going to put any of this on you. I know how you and your family feel about me."
There was a gun trained on him, but Aiden went some steps closer so he could look Kendall straight in the eye. "What the heck are you talking about?"
She made a sound. Sort of a helpless moan that came from deep within her chest. "They took me because I'm pregnant. Because they knew they could use that for leverage."
Kendall's breath shuddered. "Aiden, the baby I'm carrying is yours."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Absolutely love the Sweetwater Ranch series! Each book has been excellent and this one was no exception. Loved it! Can't wait to read the next one! Highly recommend!
During all the non-stop suspense, and shooting bullets, a lot of questions were answered. Great book, now on the the final book in the series.