Authors: Jodi Linton
Kenny gulped, rolling his beady eyes from my face back onto Colt’s stoic expression. He tugged at the ripped hem of his tank and began to fill in the dots. “A couple of weeks back, Mrs. Granger”—he frowned when he noticed Colt move a little closer—“I mean
came by needing some help.”
Colt nodded. “Go on.”
Kenny pulled at his shirt and continued. “I’m telling you first that I had nothing to do with all this.” He waved his hands in front of his face. “Nothing at all, do you hear me? But that woman is in for a shit storm. She owes some shitty folks a shitload of money, and I figure it’s better you find her before they do.”
I moved in and looked Kenny straight in the face. “Are you talking about the Perez gang?”
His Adam’s apple lodged in his long giraffe neck. “Yep,” he said, swallowing. “Kate told me she needed a passport.”
Colt slammed him in the chest, forcing Kenny back against the wall. “Are you sure?” he asked, desperation apparent in his voice.
Kenny choked but finally found his voice. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure. She was pretty damn clear on that and what she needed it for.”
Taking into account that Colt was fixing to lose his marbles, I decided it was best I took the reins on this case. I nudged Colt in the arm and gestured for him to stand down. It wasn’t an automatic release, but eventually he clued in and backed away, giving me room to interrogate Kenny.
I poked him in the shoulder. “Where was she going?” I asked in the most genuine, soothing voice I could muster up. “I know she told you. I also think she’s running with a lot of money that belongs to Coach Granger, and if I don’t find her soon, I’m worried what might happen if the Perezes get to her.” I pushed a boot between his feet and got really damn close to his stinky beard. The beer stench alone almost made me hurl up my nonexistent breakfast. “Now that wouldn’t be good, would it, Kenny?”
His head shook, and his lips trembled, and then he finally caved. “She’s taking a one-way trip to South America tomorrow afternoon. She said she needed to get out of Dodge before she crossed paths with her ex-husband.”
Ex-husband? As far as I knew, Missy and Rip hadn’t filed divorce papers, so…
Light dawned. I looked at Colt, who was practically racing around the room, hat in one hand while the other dug finger-trenches through his hair.
“Damn it!” he yelled finally. His cold, determined eyes locked on Kenny, who looked like he’d taken all he could handle. “What airport is she flying out of?” He stalked toward our resident pimp. “Tell me, you sorry bastard. Tell me now, or I’ll see to it you never piss out of your dick again.”
“I don’t know…” Kenny stuttered. He threw an arm in the air. “I swear, Marshal. It’s best I don’t ask too many questions when people come around. The less I know, the better.”
“Bullshit,” Colt said, stomping into the living room.
Kenny was momentarily rendered speechless. He looked at me for help. I looked at Colt, who stormed toward him, wearing a “wrath of God” look.
“What the hell did you do to Kate?” he asked tightly. “If you hurt her or put her in danger or said a fucking word about her to the Perez gang, I’ll kill you.”
I stepped into Colt’s path and threw up my hands to hold him back. “Whoa, hold on here.” I shoved hard at his chest. “I think Kenny’s telling the truth.”
He cocked an eye. “You can’t be serious, Laney. I can’t believe you’re taking that piece of shit’s side.”
“I’m not taking anyone’s side,” I said. “I just think you’re barking up the wrong tree.” I grabbed hold of his hand. “Come on, I’ll buy you coffee. We’ll talk about it and our next move.”
A half hour later we were seated at my kitchen table, hashing over the loose ends that were making our ongoing case a hair puller. Neither one of us really felt like coffee, but I made it anyway.
“So,” I said, plunking a mug on the table in front of him, “when were you going to tell me about Kate?”
He stared at me, saying nothing. I stared right back.
“Is she your ex-wife?” I asked.
His brows narrowed. “You think you have me pinned.”
I picked up my coffee, took a sip. “Yep, I suppose I do. It’s written all over your face how you’re still hung up on her. I can see the hurt hiding behind your eyes. There must be a reason you’ve been chasing her for so long.” I got up to get an apple out of the fridge, washed it, took a bite, and sat back down. “Time to come clean, cowboy,” I said.
Colt shifted uncomfortably. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said defensively but unconvincingly.
“And you know what else I think?” I pressed further.
“Why don’t you tell me,” he said, no longer looking me in the face.
“After the way you acted at Kenny Perkins’s when he implied something about Kate maybe being willing to cock-rock him for a set of passports, I think you still love her.”
“Nice try, Laney Briggs.” He poured another drink. “But that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” He took a sip while gazing across the room.
“Ridiculous, huh?” I leaned in closer, demanding his attention. “Then I guess it wouldn’t bother you if Kenny Perkins really did run his cock up her cooch in exchange for papers.”
He slammed his fist on the table and glared at me. “She would never do that!” he hollered as he shot upright, sending his chair toppling over. “He’s a lying sack of shit, and he knows it.” His fist smacked the table again.
I stood up and leaned against the counter. “See, what did I tell you?” I dried my hands on a dish towel. “You still love Kate Matthews, and it’s driving you insane that she left you.”
“I never said…” He stalled in midsentence, pushed his hat back, and just stared at me. “I don’t love her.” He shook his head. “Well, not anymore. But it’s a little more complicated than us just patching things up.”
“Like the fact she’s a wanted criminal on the run and you’re the marshal trying to catch her,” I said, hanging the towel on the handle across the oven door. “That’s sure gotta put a damper on things.”
He kicked a boot at the table leg. “Actually…” he began, but I shushed him with a finger to his face as I saw the screen on my phone light up.
“Hold that thought.” I peered down at my cell vibrating on the kitchen table. A text from Gunner scrolled across the screen. “Shit.”
“What?” Colt demanded.
Looking up, I pulled a tight smile. “Gunner just texted me. He did some digging around and found out you’re on forced leave from the marshal’s office.”
I hunched over the table. “How many other secrets are ya keeping from me, Marshal Larsen?”
“We need to find Kate,” he said, his eyes full of concern. “She means everything to me. We’ve had our ups and downs, and yeah, I probably shouldn’t have been shacking up with a known felon.” He scrubbed his face. “Love can make you do some crazy shit, Briggs.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I’ve seen and caused more than my fair share of crazy shit to last a lifetime.” I smiled. “So I guess we’d better see about making sure she’s all right.” I tossed the apple core in the trash and grabbed my cell off the table.
Colt looked surprised as he stood and walked toward me. “You’ll help? Even with all the secrets I’ve been keeping from you?”
I looked back at him, then shrugged. “We all have secrets we’d like to bury and be done with. I don’t know anything about the Perez gang, but if they’re after Kate, then we need to do something to fix it.”
I rocked forward on the toes of my boots and eyed him down. “But I’m telling you, Colt, you fuck this up and things go bad with the Perezes, you’ll not only be dealing with your conscience but with me. And you really don’t want that.”
A muscle in his jaw tightened and ticked, but all he did was nod and tug at his shirt collar. “I guess I underestimated you.”
“Damn right you did,” I replied, then yanked my keys off the wall peg before turning back to him one more time. “I got one more thing to say, and you better listen, Colt Larsen.” I stared into his sober face. “It’s your ex-wife’s life on the line, but I’m done working with you. I can’t work with someone I don’t trust. I hope for your own benefit you beat me to Kate, because if I lay hands on her before you do, I’m turning her ass over to the district attorney, no matter what you try to do to stop me.”
His gray eyes narrowed underneath the brim of his Stetson. He hitched his thumbs in his belt loops and moved toward me. Before he could say anything, his cell phone buzzed and our standoff was put on hold. After a brief conversation he hung up and looked at me, urgent and desperate. “It’s Kate.” His eyes turned dangerous. “She’s being held hostage by Carlos Perez.”
Well, shit. If that didn’t beat my little pile of disasters all to hell. I grimaced. “Tell me what you need from me.”
He shoved the phone in his jeans pocket. “Help me rescue Kate, Laney Briggs.”
How could a girl say
to such a sweet request?
I dusted my hands down the seat of my pants. “Let me get my gun.”
It was getting late, and Colt had kept a tight lip the whole way to Odessa. It irked me, since I reckoned he should’ve at least been polite enough to fill me in—especially when I did my best to drill him full of holes with my questions. I’d phoned Gunner during the drive and gave him the complete rundown on the messy situation I’d managed to get myself involved in. After a grunt of disapproval, he’d asked to speak to Colt. That conversation had ended rather abruptly but was followed by an approving thumbs-up from Colt, though I highly doubted the conversation had been friendly.
Fifteen minutes later, my eyes locked on the same orange Harley Davidson Switchback that had been used during the shootout Colt and I were involved in. It was parked outside Hot Rod Alley as we approached the Perez gang’s lair, and what I was about to be up against began to settle in: extreme emotion, anger, wild confusion, and the real practicality of getting a kidnapped woman away from a gang on which I had zero intel. I was patiently waiting down the street from Hot Rod Alley in Colt’s rental with him and the barrel of a twelve-gauge shotgun rubbing up against me in the front seat. Colt nervously drummed the steering wheel, fixing to make me come undone. I leaned forward.
“Could you stop? You’re giving me a headache.”
His hand slipped in mid-finger roll, and he turned to look at me. “I thought you said he was on his way.”
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” I shot back. “You should be grateful Gunner’s willing to drop everything to help your ass.”
That retaliation did not go over well. The vein in his neck bulged, and the wrinkles in his forehead pulsed. He opened his mouth to tell me off, but a thump on the car window derailed our impending war of words. We both turned, taking in the black shadow lurking outside. Colt rolled down the driver’s-side window.
“Gunner,” he said and nodded. “Mighty grateful you could lend a hand.”
Gunner slung an arm on the door and leaned his head inside. “Ladies,” he said passively, but he looked at me.
I smiled tightly and reached for my door, the loaded twelve-gauge in my hand. “Can we just get on with this?” I asked, feeling antsy. “It’s been a long night, and I’m ready to send this outsider packing.”
Gunner pushed his hat up, narrowing his eyes at Colt. “I’m only helping you out because Laney needs to solve this case.” He scowled, leaning further into Colt’s personal space. “But if you ever put
girl in the kind of danger she was in yesterday because your panties were in a wad, the next thing you’ll see is my fist rearranging your pretty face.”
Colt gulped. “It was a mistake,” he told Gunner, pushing open his door, “one I wish I could undo.” He cut an eye my way as he slid out of the rental, gun drawn and ready for action. “I have enough problems as it is.”
Doing my best to ignore what sounded like a slur against my abilities, I slung the shotgun over my shoulder, got out of the car, and slammed the door shut. “Well, if y’all are done talking about me like I’m not here, I’d like to get this show on the road.”
I pulled back the bolt on my weapon to load a round into the chamber. “You boys mind filling me in on the plan y’all two talked about on the phone?”
Gunner grunted and unclipped his gun from the holster strapped around his waist. “Maybe you should keep watch, sweetheart. It’d be better that way.” He glanced sideways at Colt. “Colt will guard the front door while I go around back”—he cocked an eyebrow—“and truthfully, I’m not in the mood to have to watch your back and mine.”
Neither patience nor staying put had ever been my strong suit, but I sucked it up anyway and joined them behind the car.
Colt crouched next to me, popping his head up every so often as he scanned the area around Perez’s garage. “We all thought it would be best if you stayed by the cars,” he said, as though Gunner hadn’t already said as much, “seeing as Perez is dangerous. Gunner and I will signal you if—
,” he amended hastily, “we spot Kate.”
my ass. Colt had nothing to do with making this plan. His brain had been pussy paralyzed ever since he’d heard Kate had been kidnapped. Gunner had been the one who masterminded this whole shebang the minute I’d dished about the cluster fuck—though why he’d let Colt in on things and not me was something we’d have to address in the privacy of our bedroom, if we all got out of this in one piece.
We all perked up when a male voice echoed across the street. Gunner peeked around the bumper, and Colt elbowed me as he scrambled to get a better view.
“Boys, y’all wrap it up.” The smoke-laced male voice sounded dry and winded. “I’m ready to call it a night, seeing that I have myself some company to warm my bed tonight.”
I felt Colt flinch. “If he touched a single hair on her head, I’m going to kill him with my bare hands,” he growled, raising his gun and starting to get up. “This ends now.”
I looked at Gunner, silently urging the damn man to do something. It just wasn’t like him to sit like a bump on a log. He shrugged, clearly suggesting this wasn’t his party, he was only along for the ride.
I grabbed Colt’s arm. “Come on, guys. You can’t just go in there all guns a-blazing.” Both men looked at me, perplexed.
, I thought.
Men always use their brains as a last resort
. “How about we let Perez lock up first? For all we know, Carlos has no clue that Kate alerted the feds. He doesn’t know her ex-husband is a federal marshal, right?”
Colt frowned and placed his gun back in the holster. “Well, Kate’s never been one to keep my job title a secret.”
“Oh,” I said, keeping my voice calm in the hope that he’d seen the whole picture. “Maybe she’s a smarter cookie than we give her credit for.”
Both cowboys mumbled something that was muffled by the brims of their hats.
“What?” I demanded.
Gunner tipped his hat up, stating, “It’s not like I wanted to be here, sweetheart. After all, I do have my own caseload besides cleaning up your messes.”
He was dead. He just didn’t know yet.
I smiled insincerely. “Then by all means, Gunner, tell me how an asshole would handle this situation.”
Before either man had a chance to get out a comeback, a woman screamed. We all turned as our spur-of-the-moment plan smacked into a speeding semi. I caught a glimpse of Kate/Missy stumbling around inside the garage, and Perez’s hand noosed around her neck right before the heavy wooden double doors clapped shut.
I was still staring at the doors when I heard Gunner and Colt arguing. I glanced sideways. Colt was already on the move, gun aimed and finger on the trigger. Gunner was muttering under his breath as he charged after him. This was going from bad to worse fast—as evidenced by Gunner taking off in a full-blown sprint.
“Colt,” Gunner called after him, quickening his pace. “Colt, God damn it. You’ll blow our cover.”
“I think we’ve already been spotted,” Colt answered back, eyes locked on a pair of beluga whale–sized men rounding the corner of the garage, shotguns propped beneath their brickhouse shoulders. “Shoot!” he yelled at Gunner.
In the blink of an eye, Colt fired, hitting his mark in the knee. Badass number one went down hard, his gun falling to the curb. Gunner planted a bullet in the second one’s shoulder, quickly dropping him to the pavement. I hurried across the street while Gunner and Colt cuffed the injured men and gathered up their weapons.
Gunner cocked his head back at me, gesturing at the front doors. “Laney, stand guard over there.”
I pulled my gun, keeping a steady finger on the trigger. “I’ll meet you guys inside,” I told him, and made a dash for the doors.
The last thing I heard was Gunner yelling as the door slammed behind me. I blinked, trying to gain some focus in the pitch-black room. I scooted a boot forward. The floor squished, the sole of my boots sticking to it as I inched deeper into the room. As I rounded a corner I heard footsteps behind me and immediately swung my gun around, aiming it at the noise.
Booted feet clambered hurriedly out of range, circling around my side. A flashlight blinded me. And then a pair of strong arms sank around my waist.
“You scared me shitless, Laney Briggs,” Gunner whispered as his hands checked out every inch of my body. “Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with you.”
“If y’all are done with this lovey-dovey shit, I’d like to find Kate,” Colt stated, steamrolling past us. “Now.”
Gunner had just unlatched his death grip on my waist, and I had just determined I should’ve heeded his advice and parked my ass outside when a gun blast caused my ears to ring. We all hit the floor, firing into the darkness. Bullets spit back and forth. The metallic taste of gunpowder filled the small space. I was belly flat on the sticky concrete, breathing rapidly, and scampering on all fours as I tried to find the nearest cover. If only Colt and Gunner hadn’t stormed off hotheaded and ready to the save the day. If only I hadn’t decided to one-up them by popping into the garage when Gunner told me to stand guard outside. Woulda-coulda-shoulda. Our backhanded attack hadn’t worked.
My back slammed into something cold and hard when I crawled under it, causing me to bite my tongue. My hands were trembling, and I could have sworn there was blood on my lips. I scanned the room as best I could between powder flashes, unable to see shit.
“Enough,” a skincrawler of a man’s voice echoed in the bleak space. “I have your wife, Marshal.” The lights came on, and the man I figured must be Carlos Perez stepped out of a dimly lit corner, pushing Kate before him. “Larsen, I suggest you and your partners stand down, or I’ll put my next round into her head.”
“Have at it. She’s my ex-wife,” Colt called through the dissipating gun smoke. The stubborn cowboy was still unable to suck it up, but I saw the pain and concern swimming beneath his cool, gray eyes. And then he gave Kate a look—that toxic love/hate mix, shaken up into one poisonous cocktail. It was a look I’d seen way too many times on Gunner’s face when he’d first strutted his boots back into Pistol Rock.
She squeaked, then fell silent.
I squinted through the haze. Gunner was posed for a quick takedown. He had his finger squeezing the trigger, weapon aimed directly at his oblivious target. He gave Colt a nod to let him know he had his back.
“Okay, then. We’ll have it your way, Larsen.” Perez pulled the hammer back on his gun and a shot rang out, followed by a blood-curdling scream.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Perez belly flop onto the concrete floor and Kate splattered from head to toe with blood. In the midst of all the drama, Kate’s face turned remote as she soaked in Colt clutching his gun. Not exactly what I would call a lovey-dovey face, but more like the look I’d sometimes caught my mother giving Gunner.
I was still contemplating what to do next when Kate shifted in her pink Converse high tops and retreated from the reunion Colt appeared to have in mind. Our eyes locked, and I recognized the deer in the headlights stare. She knew I knew.
She zeroed in on Colt one last time, then dropped me a pleasant finger-wave before hauling ass toward the back door.
What a fucking bitch
. I slipped and fumbled upright, and I booked it after her. She was faster than I took her for. She flung open the door and went through, me hot on her heels. Boots and sneakers pounded the asphalt. I was gaining on her when the stupid girl had the nerve to toss me another spiteful finger wave. Boy, she had no clue what type of bitch she was messing with. Not only had she almost gotten me killed, but she’d soured our high school football coach’s name—that alone was sacrilegious. I catapulted myself at her. We tumbled to the ground, legs twisting, hair pulling, and spit flying. Mean girls in action.
“You crazy bitch,” Kate hissed.
“So they say.”
Then I drilled her in the nose, knocking her out cold.