Authors: Jodi Linton
“So, how good of a screw was your wife?” Colt asked, direct even by my standards.
“Excuse me?” Coach Granger asked, dumbfounded.
“Come on, Colt,” I interjected. “That’s unnecessary.”
He ignored me. “Tell me, Rip.” His voice ran cold and lethal. “I’ll bet she gave you whatever you wanted, didn’t she? Front door, back door, you name it.”
Coach Granger appeared ready to explode. “You son of a bitch!” he roared.
“It looks like I struck a nerve,” Colt responded. “I guess I’m hitting pretty close to home, aren’t I?”
Elroy and I looked at each other, dumbstruck. I couldn’t imagine having the balls to call a perfect stranger out on his bedroom proclivities. Sweat rippled down Rip’s nose. He squirmed in the wooden high-back chair and turned toward me, wide eyes pleading for salvation.
“We’re just trying to figure out what’s going on, Rip,” I started. “We found you passed out at the football stadium, dressed the way you were.”
“And it appears that you enjoyed yourself a little retreat with a few of the ladies from Bristol Mills,” added Elroy.
“And your wife is nowhere to be found. So, do you wanna tell us what’s going on?” finished Colt.
“She’s not at home?” Rip asked, befuddled.
“Nope,” Colt replied. “I looked your place up and down, and she’s gone without a trace.”
“You were at my house?”
“Yep. You can pretty much learn everything you need to know about a person just by looking in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. I’ll bet there were some nights the two of you made quite a mess in the bedroom.”
“I was there, too, Rip,” I said, trying to settle him down, “and he didn’t make it past your living room. He’s just trying to mess with you for some reason.”
“Oh,” Rip replied.
“Why don’t you start by telling us how you ended up at the football field tonight in that there sexy lingerie,” Colt suggested, not letting it go as he slapped the plastic bag stuffed with the unsightly getup that he’d swiped from Elroy’s desk.
“Can I talk to you instead, Laney?” Rip asked politely, giving Colt a sideways glance. “I don’t really like that guy very much.”
This was true. Colt had a way of making everyone’s skin itch. Talk about a cowboy problem. Gunner wasn’t even in town and I was irritated with him and every other fancy boots-wearing lawman in the vicinity. “Sure.” I let out a resigned sigh and shrugged off the marshal’s pissed-off look. “What do you have to say?”
Rip pinched his mouth into a thin line. His eyes darted between Colt and me, slowly popping his knuckles. I was fixing to kick the chair out from underneath him if he didn’t hurry up and tell me something I could use. Finally, he sighed deeply before letting it all fall out.
“We’ve been having marital troubles. Missy was bored and wanted more.” Rip turned toward me. “She wanted kids.”
Colt slammed his fist down on the table. “That’s bullshit.”
I cut an eye over Colt. Any minute now, he was going to explode. “Don’t mind the federal marshal,” I said, patting Rip’s hand. “He’s just been out of commission with the ladies lately, and it’s starting to make him a little cranky.”
Rip flinched at my touch. He jerked his hand away and stuffed it under his thigh. “Tonight was supposed to be us turning over a new leaf,” he confided. “The lingerie was Missy’s idea. She’s wanted to role play and told me that a man in drag really did it for her.”
Colt crossed his arms, slid back in the chair, and snorted. “I bet.”
I gave Colt a questioning look. “Go on, Rip.”
Rip shifted uncomfortably in the chair, taking in all the eyes around him ready to pounce at the slightest wrong answer. He mumbled something indecipherable.
“Huh?” I asked.
His lips moved again, but I still couldn’t make out what he was saying. “Rip, you’re going to have to speak up,” I told him.
Before the man had a chance to respond, Colt laughed and spoke up for him. “I do believe what Mr. Granger was trying to say was that his dick”—his eyes shot down to Rip’s pants—“wasn’t in the mood to play.”
My mouth fell open. “Hey now.” I pointed a finger in Colt’s face. “I’m about to kick your ass out of here if you don’t mind your manners.”
He gave me a shit bag of a smile and slid back down in his seat.
“Well,” Rip said, apparently emboldened by my response to the marshal, “she knew I’d be uncomfortable with the whole idea, so she had the whiskey waiting for me alongside the, uh, unmentionables. Of course, she was right. I was uncomfortable with the whole dressing-up thing, but I wanted to save our marriage, so I dove right into that bottle. The next thing I remember is waking up at the football stadium with you and Elroy standing over me.”
“And I suppose you don’t know anything about Missy being missing or who trashed your house?” I asked, already knowing the answer I’d get.
“Not a thing. I swear.”
“It’s no biggie, Rip,” Colt said. “You aren’t the first guy she’s pulled this stunt on.”
Rip straightened up, offended by the assertion. “Beg pardon?”
Colt pushed his Stetson up so he was eye to eye with the coach. “It’s Kate Matthews’s modus operandi,” he said in a low and steady voice. “She uses those showgirl looks to wrangle the men in, and then
!” He clapped his hands and shot forward in his chair. “She takes you for every penny tied to your name.”
For a moment there, I thought we’d need a shovel to scrape Rip’s tongue off the floor.
“You sure do know a lot about this Kate woman,” I said, feeling pretty damn suspicious. “I have one tiny question.”
He diverted his attention from Rip back to me. “Shoot, honey-pie,” he drawled, setting every nerve in my body on end.
Even though I itched to dump him on his ass for that
, all I said was, “Well, why don’t you tell us how long you and Kate were together, and how much cash she swindled out of you?”
For a second the smug smile fell from his rugged, cowboy face.
. That’d hit a nerve. He shook off the thoughtfulness, scrubbing his jaw as his gray eyes narrowed at me. “I don’t have a clue as to what you’re hinting at, Deputy Briggs.”
If he wanted to play the dumb card…well, I’d give him a pass—at least for now. I decided to change the line of questioning until he was ready to spill the beans. “I think you might’ve forgotten, but the case we’re working is about Missy Granger.”
That smooth talker’s smile returned. “Darling, they’re one and the same.”
“Come again?” we all asked in unison.
Colt uncrossed his arms and knuckle tapped the table. “Missy Granger is Kate Matthews,” he told us. “And Kate Matthews is wanted statewide for fraud. She scopes out unsuspecting dumbasses”—he cut an eye over at Rip—“gets them to fall head over heels for her, and then
! She’s cleaned out their bank account and hit the trail for the next idiot in line.”
Okay, I’ll admit I didn’t see that one coming. I gnawed on my bottom lip, contemplating my next move.
Shit! Why did I always have to get strapped with the crazy ones?
“How do you know all this about Missy…I mean, Kate?” I asked Colt. “Did you happen to be one of the idiots in line?”
He pushed back from the table and tugged the Stetson dangerously low. “I’ve been following this case for a while now. Almost eight years, to be exact. I’ve been chasing her all over the state, always a couple of steps behind her. Is that good enough for you, Deputy Briggs, or would you like to stop by my room at the motel and take a look at the files I have on her?” He winked, making my heart flip and flop inside my chest. “I wouldn’t mind the company.”
That’s when my thighs went numb. I have problems, and I’m still looking for a solution. It’s been a real nail biter. It’d been two weeks since I’d last stroked Gunner’s boner and not having him to take away my nightmares was making me antsy. I knew I had to get a handle on that aspect of myself, but it was a challenge—sometimes more than others.
Now, for instance.
I pulled a tight smile. “Nope.” I shook my head. “I think I’m all good here.”
“Just checking.” He gave me a sly grin. “You look like you could use a stress reliever.”
My eyes narrowed as my temper did an uncharacteristically slow burn. I was
going to let this asswipe get the better of me just because I missed Gunner’s teasing—and body. Jumping to my boots, I cocked a brow at him. “Shooting at you is the most fun I intend on having with you,” I gritted out and stormed past him. “Elroy, you think you can hold down the fort?” I asked, looking back over my shoulder at my partner. “And don’t forget to let Rip sleep off the booze in the drunk tank.”
Elroy mindlessly nodded while food fell from his mouth.
“I’m gonna head over to Abby Sims’s place early tomorrow morning to see if Mrs. Granger spilled her guts to her bowling-league partner.” I pushed open the door and added, “Will you call Clark Woodville and ask him if the Grangers’ bank account has been drained?” I tilted my head back to look at Colt. “We need to check and see if the marshal’s story adds up.”
Elroy nodded again.
Personally, I figured that was the best I was going to get. “Okay, then.” I stepped outside.
Hard to believe I still had six more hours until daybreak. Tonight was starting to eat at me. If I could wrap up all the loose ends, then maybe my head might hit the pillow before the night was over. I pulled out my keys as I pounded down the sidewalk. God, I was tired, my head hurt, and I was so regretting that half a beer at Rusty’s when a hand coiled around my elbow.
I jumped, dropping my keys, and whirled to face the man who was probably Pistol Rock Motor Lodge’s only guest. The Stetson stepped into my line of sight and then a tan hand scooped my keys up off the pavement.
“I think you dropped something,” Colt said, tossing my keys in his hands.
I reached for them, but he skipped backward, shaking his head.
“Oh no you don’t, Deputy.” He shoved my keys deep into the front pocket of his jeans and pinched the brim of his hat back at me. “I think you might want to hear what I have to say.”
I looked at him, waiting. His high-handedness reminded me too much of Gunner, and that bothered me more than a little—mostly because whenever Gunner got this way, I tended to do my best to one-up him, which frequently landed us in bed. I was good with that when it came to my Wrangler-wearing cowboy but hated the thought that Colt Larsen, a federal marshal, could make a reasonable substitute just because my lethally sinful, bad boy Texas Ranger was out of town. It was not something I liked to admit about myself—that one arrogant, barking-mad cowboy might be as good as another when it came to a certain kind of itch.
“Why would I want to do that?” I said finally when it was clear one of us would have to give in and go first, and he clearly didn’t plan to. His grin was smug. “Because maybe I can help you solve this case.”
The man had finally said something I wanted to hear.
“Go on,” I said, straddling the curb. “Although I’m not sure how you plan on solving this case when our only lead is probably right now swimming across the Rio Grande.”
“Folks have a way of talking to federal marshals.” He rocked back on his heels. “Plus, I have a feeling that you and this Sims gal aren’t exactly close.”
I extended a hand. “Meet me at the station at ten.”
Colt smiled and dropped my car keys into my palm. “Early risers are my kinda of women.”
My cruiser clipped the mailbox as I drove down the gravel path leading up to my house. I watched the dead grass roll past the window and listened to the night air beat and whip against the car doors. At that moment, I was so antsy to flop back on my pillow that I had to force my eyes to stay open. I coasted to a stop out back by the shed, killed the engine, and stepped out under the humid Texas night sky.
The storm door burst open and out strutted a pair of black cowboy boots, and then that infamous black cowboy hat filled the doorway.
“Holy shit!” I gasped, surprised. “I wasn’t expecting to see you for a couple more days.” I slowly dropped my gaze down the length of his toned, ripped body. For a moment there I zoned out. When I heard his signature deep, throaty “I’ll give you the ride of your life” laugh, I snapped back to topic. “I’ve missed you so much. So damn much, Gunner.”
“You and me both,” he drawled. “If I didn’t have you to come home to, Laney Briggs, I’m not sure I’d have made it through these past few weeks.” Then he threw me a wink.
Okay, I’ll admit it. There’s no shame in a little cowboy indulgence. Once or twice I’d been a sucker for a good wink.
I smiled and slung both hands on my hips. “Well…”
“Well…” He cocked his head as he lounged back in the doorway, and the way those pussy-electrifying Wranglers were stretching over that firm ass was so unfair. My throat immediately went dry. He tugged at his massive belt buckle, lowered his dangerous brown eyes on me, and stretched that black rattlesnake-inked arm above his head as he tossed me another sinful wink. I ran across the yard and up the porch steps to grab hold of him.
“This is exactly what I’ve been needing—you,” I said, resting my head against his broad shoulder.
“Perfect.” He kissed me on the forehead. Then looked me in the eyes. “Ready for bed, sweetheart?” he asked, slipping me that lady-killer grin and pulling me into the comfort of his strong arms.
I turned my cheek into his chest and stared into the moonlight washing my beaten-down front porch. I don’t know why, but it suddenly irked me that Gunner hadn’t taken the time to whitewash my porch swing. I mean, by the time spring rolled around, the termites would have their icing and cake, too. I forced irritation away, telling myself that I was an idiot who’d been itching to get him back into my sack for the last fourteen days. Bickering with him over the damn swing we’d made love on more than once wouldn’t get him there faster.
“Yes, I’m beat. You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had.”
He kissed me on the head, pulling me tighter against his rock-hard chest. “Well, are you gonna keep me in the dark?” he asked.
I titled my head back to look him in the face. “Do you want the long or short version?”