THE RANGER

West Texas Watchmen, Book 3 (March 2015)

Chapter One

Mitch cracked one eyelid open, staring at pavement. The last thing he remembered was palming his .45 and soundlessly skirting the back wall of Junior's garage. He'd been about to open the office door, tripped and then nothing but stars. God bless `em, but he'd seen enough pinpoints of light in the past couple of minutes to last a lifetime.

Texas Ranger Mitchell Striker had been an undercover mechanic in Marfa going on six months. Too long in his humble opinion, but no one asked him. He couldn't see a blasted thing from his position on the cement. He concentrated on the sounds around him. Shuffling of smooth-soled shoes inside the office. Papers falling to the floor. Excited breathing.

It didn't make sense that he'd fallen. If anything was out of place where he worked, he would have been the one to leave it there.

Nothing was ever left out of place. He hadn't tripped.

He'd been hit on the back of his head. If he concentrated any harder, he'd hear the lump pushing through his hair. Inching his left hand, minutely extending his arm, he tried to find his gun.

A noise like someone bumping the chair, followed by muffled voices awakened him from a light sleep in the back room. He'd come to the office but must not have been as quiet as he'd thought. The guy with the smooth shoes had gotten the drop on him.
"You didn't have to hit him with a wrench."

Mitch froze, recognizing the woman's voice. Daughter of the garage owner and his boss, Brandie Ryland. She should be at home with her son not rustling through files in the middle of the night. Files she had access to anytime she asked in the daylight.

"What if you've seriously hurt him?"

"Good. We told you to clear him out for a while. Why's he here in the middle of the night? You got something on the side?"

Male voice with a bit of a northern nasal. Clearly not from south of the border or Texas.

"He's my mechanic and sleeps in the back room." Brandie moved next to him. Tiny bare feet, he could see she'd painted her toenails herself and had missed a spot on the outside of her pinky. The color was her, calm blue with festive glitter. She knelt beside him and her toes were replaced with cartoon characters covering her knees.

"Where do you hide the cash around here?"

She wanted to rob her own garage? She didn't need muscle for that.

Cool, shaky hands gently parted the hair where he'd been hit. Just a lump or she would have hissed at the sight of blood. Mitch had seen her practically pass out when Toby had gashed his shin falling from his tricycle. She stroked his longish hair covering his face to tuck it behind his ear. He was forced to completely close his eyes and couldn't see where her partner was located.

"I don't keep cash here." Brandie was lying. Mitch knew she put it in the safe overnight and drove it to the bank after the breakfast crowd thinned out.

"I can't get it to work," the male voice accused, shaking something.

"I told you it wouldn't. We got rid of the phone line back here," she whispered. "Help me get Mitch to my car. I should take him to the hospital."

"You ain't for reals. For a bonk on the head? I ain't helping you do nothin'. You're lucky I didn't give him a kick or two in the face. What a waste of my time."
Kicking anywhere would wake him up and warrant a reaction.

"You need to leave. Tell him I was right and you shouldn't come out here."

Mitch risked cracking his lids again.

The points of well-polished, expensive shoes came toward them. Nice, not super mart quality and definitely not from around here. He was ready to take this guy down. But Brandie's fingers curling his hair around his ear didn't seem frightened, just nervous.

"I think he's waking up," fancy shoes said, inching closer.

If Mitch moved, would he put Brandie in danger? Was it worth potentially blowing his cover? His superiors would say no. He'd been Mitch the Mechanic for going on two years now. Yet, his personal answer was an emphatic yes. He couldn't let anything happen to Brandie.

She stood, her bare feet right next to his torso. He didn't need to open his eyes to know what she looked like. Tiny compared to him, she was a redheaded spitfire on most days. She stood up to problem customers by sweet-talking them into agreeing with her.

"You aren't going to touch him. I said leave and I meant it."

"It's amazin' anything gets done out here in this Texas hell hole. Back home we wouldn't think twice about gettin' rid of this guy. Anyway a stinkin' mechanic ain't worth the trouble you'd cause me. But you should think about the next time you's asked for something. Maybe be more serious tryin' to get hold of it," the unidentified man threatened. "You know I'll be back when he needs some'tin' else. Oh and, Brandie, you've got a really gorgeous kid. His blond hair really makes him easy to spot."

A light step over Mitch and the man–and his shoes–were clip-clopping out the back door and down the gravel drive.

"Leave my son out of this," she threw out the door behind him. "You can tell your boss if he has something to say, he can come here and deliver the message himself."

She paced a couple of times in the small office. On the trip away from him, he looked to see where her arms were. Yep, fingers digging into the side of her neck. She was worried.

As she should be.

"Threatening him was such a dumb move. What am I going to do if he does show up? And how am I going to explain this to you?" She vented, faced him and flung her hands toward him. "Or anyone else for that matter? At least you aren't bleeding. But I can't just leave you lying there. I'll be right back with the first aid kit from the café."

Did she know he was conscious? He'd remained motionless, kept his breathing regular. She didn't stick around for confirmation, popping to her feet and running through the dark garage.

He rolled to his back, searching for his weapon. He took a quick look around the office. The bastard walking away must have taken it. He rubbed the lump on his head, cursing that a runt who threatened kids had gotten the drop on him. He did have to use a wrench. He heard Brandie's feet slapping against the concrete of the garage and quickly drew the door closed, locked it and then sank, resting against it.

The night sky actually lit up the outside more than the cloaked dark inside the shop. It was all those dang stars. Over two years undercover along the border and he still couldn't get used to the millions and millions of them.

"Thank God, you're awake," Brandie said, dropping to her knees again and riffling through the first aid kit. "Are you okay? Maybe we should get you to the hospital in Alpine?"

"I should be asking you that. You don't look so good. How did you know you needed to come rescue me?" He rubbed his head and watched her carefully for any type of reaction. "Got any ice in there?"

"Let me get some from the café." She put a hand against the ground to stand.

He covered it, keeping her where she was. "Naw, it can wait. Tell me what happened and why you're here. Was there a break in? I thought I heard a noise, got up and then there's nothing."

"I…um…" Her eyes darted everywhere except directly at him.

Sign of a guilty conscience?

"Brandie? Did you see anything? Have you called the sheriff? And you still haven't said what brought you to the garage?"

"How hard did they hit your head? Those are the most words you've ever said to me at one time before."

"Sorry."

"Don't be. I like the sound of your voice. Makes me feel safe." She twisted her fingers in the bottom of the loose skimpy pink shirt. "I got a phone call that the door was open. When I pulled up you were unconscious."

"Where's your cell?" he asked, hiding his disappointment that she had to lie.

"Why?"

She had to have gotten a call or visit from the mystery man. She was barefoot and still in her pajamas. His superiors could get a warrant for a phone dump, but it was just easier to take a look. He couldn't alert her to why he wanted to know.

This entire time, he'd had his ear to the ground listening for pertinent news about someone helping the Mexican cartel. He'd never suspected he might be working for that very person. Brandie Ryland was a liar? He couldn't trust her. Didn't want to believe she'd been fooling him with a struggling single mother routine.

"I'm going to call the sheriff," he answered.

"Is it really necessary? I mean, it doesn't look like they took anything."

"It's up to you, but someone did hit me over the head. Knocked me out cold."

"Are you going to sue me or something?"

"Hell, no. I want to press charges when they catch the guy. What if he does it again? Let me call 9-1-1 and I'll deal with it."

She slid her hand away from his and stood. Her phone had been tossed to the back of the desk. While she searched for it she destroyed evidence by picking up the papers and putting them back exactly where her friend had shoved them aside.

He held his hand out for the phone.

"I can make the call. I'm the manager. It's my responsibility." She dialed. Left a message with the Sheriff's Department. "It'll be a little while before someone gets here. I should get you that ice."

He reached out and snagged her hand. "What's really going on, Brandie?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"If you're in trouble, I can try to help."

The phone rang. "Great. My parents. I should take this. I'm fine, Dad. Mitch got hit on the head. He's fine, too." She placed the phone between them and pushed speaker. "Mitch is here in case you'd like to ask him anything."

"What happened? Peach just called from the police station and said there'd been a robbery. What did they take?"

"Nothing that we can tell, sir." Only his pride after that runt of the litter got the drop on him.

"I don't know what you're doing at the café at this hour, little girl. Who's watching Toby? Oh, he's here? Well how was I supposed to remember that?" he mumbled to someone in the background, probably his wife Olivia. "We'll be right there."

Her parents would interrupt them in less than five minutes.

"I should get a shirt."

"That's probably a good idea. Mom hasn't seen that much muscle since we went to the car show in Abilene," Brandie teased.

"We were robbed and the lady makes jokes." Her hands circled her neck again, protecting herself or maybe a subconscious sign she felt like she was choking?
She waited at the garage entrance. He had to turn sideways through the door to pass. She looked so worried that his hands cupped both of her petite shoulders before he remembered she was now his primary suspect. She tilted her head back to get a look at him and he saw a tear silently fall before she brushed it away.
"What if something had happened to you?" she whispered.

"It'll take more than a lug wrench to keep me down." He wasn't good at joking or conversation. And exceptionally not good at being cared about. "I guess I better get that shirt."

She nodded. "How do you know they hit you with a lug wrench."

Damn, he was slipping. "It's on the floor."

"Oh. Everything's just gotten so weird. I'm just really glad you're okay. I, um—"

The red and blue of police lights spun just outside the window.

"Brandie! You in there?" Bud Quinn shouted from the parking lot.

"Your dad got here fast." Mitch pointed toward the old storeroom where he bunked. "Hey, do you need a…a shirt?"

"Oh my gosh. I…" She wrapped her arms across her breasts, hiding the pert nipples. "Yes, please."

"I'll be right back."

He grabbed two shirts and his shoes, hanging back while Brandie explained things to her father. After their initial hug and his "thank God you're okay," Brandie's dad was all business and confronting the deputy and then the sheriff before he made it through the door.

Sheriff Pete Morrison had been on Mitch's back from his first day in town, keeping a close eye on his movements. Admittedly, Mitch had come into Marfa a self-proclaimed drifter looking for a job. This incident wouldn't make it easier to get around unnoticed. At least Morrison didn't look the type to try to run him out of town.

The deceit was a necessary evil. No one could know he was a Texas Ranger. Mitch would find the rat–or ratette–and move on without anyone knowing. It was his job and he'd move up and down the border as long as the cover held.

He watched the men in the parking lot from inside the garage. The window opened toward the main road. Just a standard looking gas station with a two-bay garage.

"That pole you're leaning on used to be covered in grease." Brandie handed him ice wrapped with a bar towel.

He shrugged, knowing it had taken a full day to clean it up. "I didn't have a lot to do until word got around I could tune an engine."

"I wish I could give you a raise."

Would she offer him money to keep his mouth shut? Was that dread creeping into his mind that she might actually be the cartel's contact? His job would be over if she was supplying the information. He could move on to the next assignment. Leave.

There was no way she was responsible for the drug and gun shipments getting across the border without detection. She couldn't be. His head was ready to memorize her words and something else grounded him to the pole he'd worked hard to clean up.

"I like it here." The word amazed passed through his mind. First that he'd admitted it out loud and second that it was true.

"That's good because I'm paying you more than I can afford as it is. Dad and I argue about it all the time. Thank goodness nothing was stolen or I'd never hear the end of it." She pulled the T-shirt over her pajama top and greeted the sheriff.

Funny, he didn't remember handing it to her. Just like he didn't remember exactly when he'd realized he was glad she wasn't married. Damn, he needed to catch this informant and move on before something emotional happened to him.

 

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