THE RENEGADE RANCHER

Texas Family Reckoning, book 2

 Chapter One

 

Tall, blond, and deadly gorgeous.

Brian Sloane knew that Lindsey Cook was a looker. One glance would let any male with eyes know that fact. Platinum blond hair that hung to her waist, classic blue eyes that would disappear next to a clear summer sky and a body that should be gracing covers of magazines. A looker all right.

This is the longest he'd ever been with a woman and he hadn't met her yet.

He knew how old she was, where she'd graduated from college, that her best friend's name was Beth. All that information was on her Internet site. He knew she lived in Arlington, drove an sports car, kept two goldfish, and was allergic to cats. She'd had five jobs in the past three years and did freelance web designs. He also knew why she'd migrated to Texas after burying her cousin. Jeremy had drowned while they'd been on vacation together about six months ago and she'd stayed after settling his affairs. Her cousin's female lawyer had been extra chatty during happy hour.

Unfortunately, accidents happened everywhere, leaving one question he couldn't answer. How long she would live.

Brian entered the sandwich shop and tried not to zoom all his attention on her. Searching the remaining tables, he noticed no one else was alone, so it was probably safe to assume she was his appointment. "Lindsey?"

"You're Brian?" she asked, extending her hand. Her smile could mesmerize him. He'd watched her work that magic on several customers–male and female–over the past couple of weeks.

"That'd be me." He took a slender palm in his own, gave a quick squeeze and sat at the table. A well-chosen table in the middle of the very empty sandwich shop. The red silky blouse clung everywhere and plunged just enough to make his imagination go a little wild.

"So, you said that Jeremy's lawyer recommended me for a job. Your email said something about a ranch website?"

"Yeah, about that. This might sound strange, but I've been doing some research and–" Was that sudden look in her eyes a surprise? An alert? How had he messed up?

"No website?"

He stared, thinking hard on what his answer should be. It was important she listen to him. Her life depended on it. He couldn't just say that. Could he? He'd avoided the truth long enough. "To be honest–"

"Excuse me just a sec." She looked into her purse. She brought her keys to the tabletop. Hooked to the ring–now pointed at his face–was a small can of pepper spray. "Who are you and why have you been following me? I saw you in front of the store yesterday and you were in line behind me when I got coffee last week."

"Whoa there." He raised his hands trying not to jump away from that can. "I really am Brian Sloane. I'm a Fort Worth paramedic, just like I said on the phone. I've got ID."

She shook her head slowly from side to side. Was she thinking about believing him or shooting that pepper spray into his eyes? Okay, so he'd slipped up and not only let her see him a couple of times, but he'd made eye contact at the coffee shop. Who could have resisted? She was smoking hot.

"I'm going to leave," she said, "and you better stop following me. Just so you know, I took your picture when you walked in and if I see you again–even by accident–I'll report you to the police as a stalker."

He leaned forward, and she jerked to attention. Skittish as a newborn colt. "I know this is a weird way to meet."

"To say the least." She kept the nozzle pointed at his eyes. Extremely close to his eyes.

"But I do have information regarding your family."

"I don't have any family."

"What I mean is… I've been doing research and I think Jeremy was murdered."

"I thought you were an EMT. You sound like a reporter." She brought her finely shaped eyebrows into a straight line, showing her scrutiny and distrust. Not knowing she'd just delivered an insult to highly trained paramedics everywhere by calling him an entry level EMT.

With a new sister-in-law around his house he was picking up on a lot of subtle feminine looks that he'd had no clue about before. This look? Well, it didn't leave any room for interpretation.

He shifted. She jerked.

"Just getting my wallet. Okay?"

"Is there a problem, Lindsey?" The guy behind the sandwich counter stopped wiping the display cases.

"I'm fine. Just dealing with another jerk reporter."

"I'm not a reporter." He shook his head, looked at the big fellow who was very defensive of the woman in front of him and repeated, "I'm not a reporter."

"Then why are you following me?"

"It's a long story that I'd rather not have pepper spray aimed at me while I tell."

Lindsey's long straight hair gently framed a delicate, expressive, beautiful face that he'd been attracted to since the first picture he'd seen of her online. It sort of took him by surprise when she leaned back in her chair, dropped her hands to her lap and waited. The key ring in plain sight. Her protector returned to cleaning. The shop's patrons went back to business as usual.

"I'd like the short version please," she said, pushing her hair behind her ear. "You've got five minutes and then I'm leaving."

Short? How did he explain such a complicated story?

"All right. Twelve years ago I thought my brother caused the accidental fire that took the life of one of our former teachers and your second cousin, Gillian Cook. But I was wrong. She was murdered."

"Take it to the police." She pushed back her chair and scooped her keys into her purse, clearly taking off.

"You said I had five minutes."

She stood. Her long hair swayed at her waist drawing his attention to the fraction of flat belly he could see above her jeans as her shirt rose up as she took a deep breath.

"You have five seconds to remove your hand from my arm or I'll let Craig," she tipped her head to the sandwich guy who threw down his bar towel, "deal with you. Four. Three."

Craig dashed to the end of the counter. Brian dropped his hold. Lindsey stared at him as her friend reached for his shirt. He'd been so caught up in her leaving that he hadn't realized he'd grabbed her arm to stop her.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

"Wait. Craig, wait." She waved off the man's attempt to lift Brian from the chair–through the table. "Look, I'm very tired of people hounding me about my accident-prone family. There have been terrible emails from someone thinking I'm a jinx." She hid her eyes behind slender fingers, then shoved her hair behind her ear again and straightened her back. "I know what happened to my family. I live with it every day and to have it in the paper or on a blog is disrespectful. It's mean and I've had enough. Just leave me alone."

She titled her face toward her chest, hiding behind her hair.

"Your family didn't do anything wrong." Brilliant blue eyes opened wide to search him? Why was she ashamed? "Besides, I don't think they were accidents. And I'm fairly certain you're next."

"Seriously? You think someone's out to kill me?" Her long nails were the exact color of one of the flowers on her shirt. It was easy to see with her hand nervously rubbing her collarbone.

"I haven't been stalking you, Miss Cook. Our paths crossed while I was looking into your cousin's life," he explained. It was true enough. He had been looking into Jeremy Cook.

Craig stood guard at her shoulder, ready to do battle, his arms crossed over a massive chest. It was plain why Lindsey had chosen this location to meet a stranger. "Take it to the cops," Craig said. "You ready for me to throw this jerk out?"

One cross look would have Brian's face pulverized before he could defend himself. Well, Craig could try. Brian had fought with the best around his home town for a long time. So he shrugged. He'd never convince her while including muscle man in the conversation. She didn't believe him. Hell, he hardly believed himself. His theory was so far out there he hadn't even shared it with his family.

He'd tried, right? That was all he could do. He pressed on the table to push his chair back and long bright nails tapped quickly near his hand, gaining his attention.

"It's okay, Craig. I'm okay." She looked up at her protector and winked at him, immediately relaxing the big guy and getting her way.

Brian waited until they were alone and lowered his voice, leaning closer across the table. "Look, I'm not a cop or a detective or a reporter. I really am just a horse rancher who pays the bills as an paramedic."

"You're wowing me with so many reasons to believe you." She laughed. Her eyes sparkled and were sad at the same time.

He understood that. How an enjoyable moment could catch you off guard and you forget–just for an instant. Then the reason you don't laugh comes rushing back to blur the happy. Yeah, he understood.

"You have every right to wonder about my motives. You should be careful. I should have left this info with your lawyer and never bothered you in person. I'll be on my way."

"Why did you? Come here, that is."

The tap on the tabletop drew his eyes back to her hands, then up her tanned arms, to her shoulder and neck. The slow tap and arch of her eyebrow showed him she knew he'd been taking a long look. He expected a wink any second and probably would do whatever she asked. He was that attracted.

He pushed himself straighter in the chair and caught her doing a little looking of her own.

"I can't convince you to trust me. I'll drop everything off at your lawyer's office after I get out of your hair."

"Wait. I uhm… If you're really not a reporter, can you begin again? Take five more minutes?" She brought part of her hair in front of her shoulder and began twisting strands into a tiny braid. "Start with what the police said."

"That I was crazy."

"I can't imagine why." She smiled, sliding back into the chair next to him. "I'm sorry and really trying to understand why you think someone's trying to kill me. You have to admit, it's not news you get every day."

He'd give her that point. He also liked her sassiness. "When you look at each family the deaths seem to be open and shut accidents. But a friend of mine who's big on genealogy did a search. And then there's the regular intervals of the accidents. My brother caught that when–"

"Why do you think I'm next?" She interrupted, eyes worried, her breathing rapid.

"You're the only one left."

 

 

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