Authors: Jodi Linton
“And it all had something to do with her needing money?” I asked, smacking my lips after a sip of her rocket fuel coffee.
“Yep,” she said from behind her mug, “and I’ll tell you what I suspect is going on.”
“What’s that?” Colt asked, picking at some coffee grounds stuck in his teeth.
Abby leaned forward on the balls of her bare feet, making sure she made eye contact with each of us. “I have a feeling she’s gotten herself in some gambling trouble at one of them Indian casinos in New Mexico. She wouldn’t be the first person that’s happened to.”
I looked at Colt. His neck was strained, his lips were tight, and if his brows reached any higher they would have been hitting the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if it was the caffeine or his nerves getting the best of him. He might’ve been one slick son of a gun, but the man did not like being at Horseshoe Trailer Park. He saw me looking at him and composed himself, then casually finished off his coffee in one smooth gulp.
“Do you have any idea where she might be, Abby?” he asked, his voice deep and forceful. “Surely she told you something.”
Abby finished off her coffee and lit another cigarette. “She left early because she needed to run to the post office in Odessa. She wanted to get home before Rip did.”
That little bit of information sparked my interest. “Why?” I questioned.
“She didn’t say, and I didn’t ask,” Abby answered.
Colt abruptly knocked his fist against the table and stood up, causing me to almost spill my coffee as I was taking a sip. “I think it’s time we said our good-byes, Deputy Briggs.” He pulled at my elbow, making me put down my mug. “Mrs. Sims probably has lunch to fix and, my God, a million other things to tend to.” He let go of my elbow and moved closer to Abby, towering over her. “Mrs. Sims, if you happen to remember anything else that might help us find your friend”—he handed her a business card—“you can call me anytime, day or night.”
Then he shook her hand, took me by the arm, and pulled me out the door. Colt half dragged, half mall-walked with me clutched to his side as he hustled across the dirt lawn. After we climbed inside the Jeep, he drove out of Horseshoe Trailer Park.
The Jeep picked up speed as we barreled down FM 167, heading back into town. Endless miles of flat, sun-kissed patches of land flew past the windows. I glanced over at Colt, noticing his knuckle-whitening grip on the steering wheel. Something had him on edge, and whatever it was had me unhappy about being kept in the dark concerning the details of this case. I had a hunch that his hunt for Kate Matthews was much more personal than he was letting on.
“Hey,” I said, nudging his elbow. “What the hell was all that back there? Is there something you’re not telling me, Colt Larsen?”
“What are you talking about?” he asked gruffly.
“From an outsider’s point of view, I’m starting to think that Kate Matthews means a lot more to you than she does to me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, shifting the Jeep into fifth.
“It means, did you and Kate Matthews have a little something-something?”
“Oh my God,” he exclaimed. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
I slapped the dashboard out of pure frustration, half wishing I’d have aimed a little better when I shot at him the night before. “Listen up, Colt,” I said, pointing a finger at him, “I’ve been pretty nice so far, but you oughta know that things don’t work out all that well for people who try to fuck with me.”
He slammed the brakes, and the Jeep came to a whiplashing stop. I jolted forward, the seatbelt pressing uncomfortably hard between my breasts.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, Laney,” Colt drawled, cutting the engine. He whipped the Stetson off and turned toward me, his intense face looking incredibly sexy. “You’ve been nothing but a pain in my ass since the moment you shot at me,” he said. “I’m simply trying to solve a case, and you’ve been reluctant to cooperate with me from the start. I really don’t know what it is about me that you don’t like.”
I stiffened. “I didn’t even come close to hitting you,” I reminded him. “I don’t like strange men who don’t identify themselves sneaking up on me. Maybe if you hadn’t done that from the start, things would be different.”
“You shot at me,” he argued. “Before you even gave me a chance to speak.”
“Your problem is that you’re so used to getting your way that you don’t know what to do when a woman comes out of nowhere and owns your ass.”
“You’re right. I don’t know how to handle it,” he admitted with a hard slap to his leg. “I don’t know backward from forward anymore. If you wanna know the truth, Kate Matthews has had me running in circles since I first laid eyes on her eight years ago in Shreveport.”
“So I was right. There is something between the two of you,” I began.
something between us,” he corrected me. “I met her in Shreveport back when I was a rookie working a case. Too green on the job and too horny as a man to see how much trouble she was. My boss even told me she was trouble, but I didn’t wanna listen.”
I let out a resigned sigh. It wasn’t like I hadn’t faced similar issues—early this past summer, in fact. “How’d you go from screwing her to trying to arrest her?”
He scrubbed his face in consternation, then added, “I finally saw the light.”
He shrugged, staring straight ahead. “Long story, so all I’m gonna say is that Rip Granger ain’t the first man to get bested by that woman,” he curtly replied, letting me know not to press him any further on the matter. “So my boss is gonna have my ass if I let this case slip through my fingers again.” He raked a hand through his hair and looked at me, triggering a case of cottonmouth.
I swallowed hard, waiting for him to finish. When he didn’t, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and changed the subject. “You haven’t told me how you know Gunner so well.”
Colt undid the top two pearl snaps on his shirt, unlatched his seatbelt, and turned my way. “Gunner and I crossed paths a few years ago in Houston. An old buddy of mine, also a marshal, was getting married so I was in town. I got to drinking with Gunner at the reception, and the drunker the poor bastard got, the more he got to talking about you and his past life in Pistol Rock. I knew who you were when you tried to shoot my ass,” Colt told me. “The man went on all night about how his sweetheart plugged
ass full of rock salt over some fucking misunderstanding. When he showed me a picture of you, I could see why he was so torn up over losing you.”
I gulped. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He draped an arm across the console, leaning way too damn close. My stomach did a somersault. “You’re smoking hot, and that dipshit screwed you over.”
I looked out the window. Flattery always worked on this girl. “I’m not gonna argue with that first thing you said, but I think Gunner and I both played our parts in that breakup,” I said, looking back into those magnetic gray eyes.
Colt slapped the Stetson onto his head and smiled. “Well, I still stand behind both statements.” He let out a sigh and slumped down into his seat, then reached inside his front jeans pocket and pulled out his phone.
I sat back and watched him punch in a number. “Who are you calling?”
“The Odessa post office,” he replied. “I have a hunch Kate was looking to get a passport.”
“Ah, and Odessa is the closest place to get one around here.”
“Only if she went the legal route,” he said, “which I doubt.”
“Probably not, given that she’s a criminal,” I responded. “But it doesn’t hurt to try.”
“Exactly,” he admitted, smiling at me.
I listened to his side of the phone conversation. A minute later he’d said good-bye and stuffed the phone back in his pocket, which was a feat, given they fit him like a second skin. Then he leaned into the space between us and said, “Well, it looks like I’m going to need another favor from you, Deputy Briggs.”
“Do tell, Marshal Larsen.”
He tipped the Stetson up, giving me a look I could’ve done without. “Bertha Maxwell, who runs the passport office, was kind enough to tell me that no one by the name of Kate Matthews or Missy Granger has applied for a passport.” His grin widened, and I knew what he was getting at. “So where would someone on the wrong side of the law looking for a passport go for one out in the middle of west Texas?”
This one was going to hurt. Cowboys were a dime a dozen, but most hadn’t met Luke Wagner. He’d received a get-out-of-jail-free card last May after evidence proved he wasn’t involved in an area-wide crime spree. We’d been two-stepping around each other ever since. I’d thought when I arrested him he’d taken a clue. Fat chance. Until he did, I intended on keeping my friends close, and my enemies on an even shorter leash.
“Hang on a minute,” I said and pulled out my iPhone and tapped in a text to him.
Where would someone go for an illegal passport?
It took a mere second to get a response. Luke really did need to get a life.
Ah, you missed me.
You wish. Now about that passport?
Let me make a call. This is gonna cost you.
I ignored that last bit and placed the phone on my lap. “He’s making a call,” I told Colt. “So it might be a minute or two.”
“That’s fine,” he replied, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. No sooner had I told Colt to hang tight than my phone buzzed.
Luke’s text read.
How do you know these things?
I texted him back.
I’m a Wagner :)
I shouldn’t have been surprised after all these years of knowing him, but Luke still had the ability to leave me shaking my head in disbelief. I turned off my cell and gave Colt the answer he’d be waiting for.
“Kenny Perkins,” I told him without enthusiasm. “Which makes today your lucky day.”
“All right,” he said, clearly clueless. “Who is he?”
“The slick son of a bitch who runs Bristol Mills.”
“And what is Bristol Mills?”
“A whorehouse he manages to run so that it’s just within the law. We keep waiting for him to slip up, but that isn’t likely to happen.”
His fist beat the steering wheel as he thought about that. Then he whistled, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. “Well, honey pie, I guess you can be my tour guide to the bunny ranch tomorrow.”
While we sat there and talked, the Jeep had taken it into its head to sink one giant wheel into the soft sand at the edge of the roadside ditch. Once again Colt Larsen proved he was no gentleman when he urged me to get out and try to push the damn thing while he steered—at which point I fell into the ditch on account of my door sitting right over the drainage trench, which only made the already high step a long way down.
By the time we finally had the Jeep back on solid ground, I was a dusty, aching, cursing mess and in no mood for what came next. I’d started to hitch myself back into the Jeep when I heard the throaty, gurgling sound of a motorcycle coming our way. I spun around just in time to see an orange Harley Davidson Switchback zip past. Once it was up the road, the driver U-turned and faced us and the idling Jeep.
And pulled out an automatic weapon.
“Get in, damn it! Get in!” Colt hollered at me, ducking and drawing his own semi-automatic.
I reached for my .9mm. The biker aimed his weapon at me, causing me to dive onto all fours, hitting nothing but gravel and stickers just as he began raining bullets in my direction. It occurred to me then that my life had completely gone down the crapper since Marshal Colt Larsen and his Stetson had decided to trample all over my turf. I crawled behind the Jeep and pushed up onto my hands. I was about to take aim at the biker when he turned the gun at me, once again sending me diving for cover on the gravel road.
“Stay down, Laney,” Colt yelled, firing another round from behind the driver’s door he was using as a shield. The deafening blast startled me and made me bolt upright. I stared ahead and realized I was directly in the path of the gun. Immediately, I threw myself face down on the side of the road, sucking in gravel and muck.
I’d made up my mind to take his advice just as the biker made a last attempt at nailing Colt before his clip ran out. He missed, nailing the front tire of the Jeep instead. With his gun emptied and not having anything but a motorcycle to hide behind, he took off down the long, bleak road. At the sight of him attempting to escape, I shot up, weapon in hand, hoping to tag him, but Colt was already locked on the target. He squeezed the trigger, hitting our biker friend smack in the shoulder. Before he could pop off another round, the biker kicked the throttle and fishtailed down the endless highway.
While I was stomping and muttering words that would’ve had my mother taking a bar of soap to my mouth, Colt called in the shoot-out to dispatch, asked them to check area hospitals for anyone coming in with a GSW to the shoulder, and changed the flat tire. He’d also found that the radiator had taken several bullets, concluding that we’d need a tow back into town. He made a few more calls, arranging for a tow truck to come by and pick up the Jeep. I stood, hands at my side, watching him rummage beneath the backseat, then turn his attention to the glove compartment box and dashboard. The Jeep door slammed closed, and he strutted my way with a shotgun slung over his shoulders, a briefcase strapped across his wide chest, and a laptop tucked under his arm.
He cocked his head. “What? You didn’t think I’d leave my equipment on the side of the road, did you?” he said, taking a stand next to me.
When I could finally stop stomping and cursing, I turned my temper on him.
“What the hell was all that?” I asked. “A biker hit man with an automatic? This isn’t just some game of cat and mouse over some chick who’s done you wrong, is it?” I shifted from one boot to the other, narrowing my eyes, and continued on with the rant. “A biker just used me for target practice, damn it, and you didn’t tell me anything like that might happen, even though I’m pretty fucking sure you knew it could.”
He slapped his precious Stetson against his pants, then plopped it back on his head, tucked the tails of his plaid pearl snap back inside those jeans, and cut me a look that made me regret pushing his buttons. He was pissed off worse than I was.