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A year after their family was brutally torn apart, the Graham siblings begin to put their lives back together at their ranch in East Texas. Olivia Graham has strived to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. But their family circle was broken when their young brother Benjy disappeared. She can’t shake the feeling that he must be out there, somewhere.
Brody Armstrong, a handsome but rough-around-the-edges Texas Ranger, has been working on their case for months, and now he has a promising lead. As Liv follows him across the rugged Texas landscape and into Mexico, she’ll begin to find the answers she needs—as Brody finds a passion he didn’t know he wanted…
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Olivia Graham was about to melt into a puddle in the late summer heat. Bees droned incessantly over the wildflowers nearby, while katydids buzzed from the trees. It was a lazy Tuesday afternoon, which she might have enjoyed if she wasn’t yanking up weeds from the garden. Her hands pulsed with blisters, irritated by dirt and stickiness the weeds left behind on her skin.
The garden was small, built beside the ashes of what had been her mother’s garden. No matter how uncomfortable she was, Liv would nurture those plants until every last vegetable was harvested. It would help feed the clan for the winter, and with twelve of them living on the ranch, there were many to be kept fed. Her mission didn’t make the work any easier though.
If there was any justice in the world, it would rain. She would give up just about anything for relief from the heat. The summer had sunk its claws in deep and refused to let loose. Even now when fall should be in the air, shimmers of heat hung all around her.
She used her sleeve to wipe the sweat from her forehead, dislodging her hat. It fell to the dirt below, allowing the scorching sun to hit her square in the face. She mumbled a curse beneath her breath and snatched it up, succeeding in spraying the loamy earth into her mouth.
Olivia wiped at the dirt, her teeth coated in grit. She reached for the mason jar of water nearby only to discover someone had knocked it over, spilling the precious liquid into the parched ground.
“That’s no way for a lady to speak.”
The slow drawl instantly put her back up.
“Ranger Brody Armstrong.” He was the last person she wanted to see.
She spit as much of the dirt out as she could. Right on his boot. “Oh, I’m sorry about that.” Inside she grinned.
The Texas Ranger was supposed to be helping them with their parents’ murder investigation, but he’d done nothing as near as she could tell. Nothing except for get their hopes up. Now three months after his big promises, Liv didn’t believe a word the man said.
She glanced up at him, dressed in his standard black trousers and a black coat, white shirt with a silver string tie. Did the man own any other clothing?
A flat-brimmed black hat shaded his face, but she didn’t need to see his cold blue eyes or the jagged scar on his jaw. She knew exactly what he looked like, even with her eyes closed. To her chagrin, Liv had nurtured an infatuation for the man for at least a month before she’d realized he had lied to her. And in her opinion, he was a poor excuse for a man of the law.
“I think your apology has a few holes in it.” He wiped his boot on the tall grass nearby. “But I won’t call you on it.”
“If you’re looking for Matt, he’s not here. He and Hannah went to Houston for a couple days.” She spat out another mouthful of gritty dirt after explaining the whereabouts of her brother and sister-in-law. “I’m in charge while he’s gone. What do you want?”
She could’ve been nicer about it, but she was feeling gleeful to know she could tell the ranger to get off the Graham ranch. She had no use for him or any man for that matter. Not since her fiancé had talked her into giving up her virtue, then backed out of the wedding after she lost her parents and little brother. Men were fickle and faithless. And occasionally as annoying as Brody Armstrong.
The ranger frowned, as she knew he would. “When will he be back?”
“Thursday, maybe Friday. They left early this morning.” She rocked back on her heels, a grin on her face.
“Damn. I needed to talk to him.” To her consternation, the ranger turned and walked away.
“Where are you going?”
Without even slowing down, he threw his answer over his shoulder. “Inside out of this heat.”
She wanted to be mean to him, but she wanted to know what he had to tell Matt even more. “Wait.” He slowed down but didn’t stop.
“Please.” The word was ripped from her throat. It was the last one she wanted to use in the ranger’s company.
This time he swung his head to look at her over his shoulder. “I’ll wait for you inside with Eva and Mrs. Dolan.” He pointed at her mouth. “You might want to wash the dirt off your teeth before you join us.”
Olivia’s cheeks heated at his observation. She would have used her sleeve to scrub her teeth but that would have made it worse. She left her garden implements lying on the ground and went over to the well pump. After using the pump handle to get the water flowing, she leaned down and opened her mouth. The water was warm, a testament to the summer heat. However, it was clean and she rinsed her mouth four times before the grit was gone. She cupped her hands and rinsed her face, then finger combed her hair.
Pronouncing herself presentable, Olivia stepped into the shade of the house. The cooler air inside hit her wet skin and she sighed in relief. Goose bumps danced down her skin and she closed her eyes at the welcome sensation.
“Ahem.” Eva’s amused tone told her she had done something she would be embarrassed about.
Olivia opened one eye and saw the housekeeper, Granny Dolan and the ranger sitting at the large table in the kitchen. The man’s gaze was glued to her chest. Mortified, she realized goose bumps were not her only reaction to the cool air.
Olivia crossed her arms and looked for a hole in the floor to fall into. “It feels good in here.”
“Apparently.” The ranger’s drawl made her want to hit him. Brody watched her, his hat lying on the bench beside him. She’d never seen him without it. His hair was straighter than a pin; so thick and black, it probably shone in the sun like a blackbird’s wing.
“You’ve been working hard this afternoon. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you a drink?” Eva shepherded her to the table, pushing her into her sister-in-law Hannah’s chair, which was right beside where the ranger sat. What in the world was the housekeeper doing?
“You are a passionate girl, Olivia.” Granny Dolan’s observations usually brought a smile or a chuckle, but today, her comment just made Olivia’s discomfort worse. “No need to be embarrassed by what your body does.”
Oh, where, oh, where was that hole in the floor when she needed it?
“Martha, would you go check on the girls? They’re supposed to be practicing their reading.” Eva came to the rescue, shooing her old friend, and Hannah’s unorthodox grandmother, out of the kitchen.
“You have an interesting family.” Armstrong’s tanned fingers fiddled with the tin cup in front of him. They were slender but strong, with blunt and surprisingly clean nails.
“You’ve no idea.” Olivia put her face in her hands, again wondering how she could still be obsessing about the ranger. He was an obnoxious ass.
“I have some idea, but I’m sure you know better.” He tapped the table. “I have news I wanted to tell Matt, but I have to be someplace on Friday so I can’t be here when he comes back.”
She waited, oh, so impatiently, while Eva set down a cup of buttermilk in front of her.
“Drink, hija, you need to refill your body.” The housekeeper retreated to the stove again.
Olivia took a big swallow of the buttermilk, its sweet rich flavor coating her tongue. She swallowed half the glass before she realized she had groaned. Out loud.
His blue eyes didn’t look cold anymore. They were warm as his gaze moved over her face. What was it about this man that set her off kilter so easily?
“Good milk, hmm?”
“Uh, yeah, it is good.” Olivia licked the milk off her top lip and witnessed his gaze drop straight to the movement. A jolt of something hot flashed through her. She managed to take in enough breath to gather her wits. “What news did you need to tell him?”
“Huh? Tell who?” Brody squinted at her.
“Matt. What news did you need to tell him?” She gripped the cup, its smooth curves keeping her grounded in reality while her traitorous body kept bouncing off into strange, dark pockets of sensation.
He looked down at the cup and took a swig of the coffee before he spoke. She didn’t prompt him again, holding onto her patience by a thread.
The next time he looked at her, the ranger’s cold gaze had returned. “I found out some information about your brother.”
“Something about Matt?” She didn’t understand what Brody possibly could have found out about her older brother that would warrant a visit to the ranch.
“No, not about Matt. About Benjamin.”
Olivia could hardly suck in a breath. Benjamin. The youngest of the eight Graham children. The precocious five-year-old who had been missing for more than six months. His absence had left a hole in their family, a break in the circle of eight.
“What about Benjamin?” She could hardly take in a breath, her heart beat so hard.
“I need to talk to your brother. I’ll wait until he comes back.” The taciturn ranger sipped at his drink, making her want to upend the cup right in his lap.
“When Matt isn’t here, I am in charge. I’m only a few years younger than he and I take care of the books for the ranch.” She gritted her teeth to keep from cussing the man out. “Whatever you can tell him, you can tell me.”
“Nope, won’t do that. We had a deal, him and me, and it doesn’t involve you.” He glanced at Eva. “Your coffee is good, as always. Do you have any bread to go with it?”
“Don’t you dare give him any bread.” Olivia knew she was more likely to catch flies with honey than vinegar, but the man’s refusal to talk with her was infuriating.
“He needs to tell me what he knows before he gets anything else from the Grahams.“
She folded her arms across her chest and gave him her best “you will do what I say” look. He only shrugged and kept sipping his coffee.
Eva frowned at her. “Hija, you must be nice to Ranger Armstrong. He is a good man.”
Olivia snorted. “I’ll believe that when he treats me like a person instead of a pain in the ass.”
“You are a pain in the ass.”
At first she could hardly believe he’d said it, but then when it sank in, a chuckle burst out of her mouth. She didn’t want to be amused by his smart mouth, but she was.
“So are you. Now tell me what you know. I won’t tell anyone. I just need to know.” She fiddled with the cup in front of her, embarrassed to be reduced to begging. “He’s my brother too.”
The ranger stared at her with his unblinking gaze long enough to make her squirm. Olivia didn’t look away though. She refused to let him intimidate her. Too many men had tried that, unsuccessfully.
“Please.” That she’d said please to the man twice— twice!—in one day stuck in her craw.
He finally looked away, out the window. “I found a man who worked for Jeb Stinson.”
That was a piece of news. Jeb was their neighbor, a friend who had betrayed the whole community by sending a gang to kill ranchers, then buying their land for pennies on the dollar. He had hanged for his crimes but had refused to name his accomplices.
The Circle Eight was one of the ranches that had been attacked, and Olivia had lost both her parents and her little brother that day. She still had nightmares about seeing her mother and father’s bodies. She also had a hard time trusting anyone, even her neighbors, because of Jeb and what he’d done.
“Did you arrest the man?”
“Only for being drunk, but he wouldn’t give me anything until I told him his neck would stretch if he didn’t tell me what he knew.” Armstrong looked back at Olivia. “He said Jeb had a place south of here where all the stolen goods were hidden.”
“What about the missing people from the ranches?”
She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer, but with Benjy still missing, there were hard choices everyone had to make.
Olivia’s stomach quivered at the word “Mexico.”
The war was still so fresh in everyone’s mind, the idea Jeb would have easily betrayed his country and the veterans who had fought, was unfathomable.
“My God.” She glanced at Eva, who looked as horrified as she felt. “He’s so small. What do you suppose has happened to him?”
The ranger shook his head. “I’ve said too much.”
“If you think for one minute you are not telling me everything, you’re mistaken.” She got to her feet and leaned toward him. “Tell me now.”
He regarded her for a few moments before the corner of his mouth kicked up. “Anyone ever tell you that you have brass balls?”
“No, and I don’t know what that means. Just tell me, for God’s sake.” She gripped the table to keep from shaking him.
“It means you are standing there yelling at a Texas Ranger, telling him what to do, without a bit of fear.”
He got to his feet and Olivia remembered just how tall Armstrong was. She had to crane her neck to look at him. “That takes brass balls.”
“Fine, then I’ve got brass balls. Now tell me what I want to know.”
His lashes were absurdly long and thick. They looked like a woman’s lashes, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. It was an awkward time to be noticing his features. She was too distracted to think straight.
“I’m headed out in the morning to follow my lead. You can tell Matt I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.” With that, the ranger stood up and nodded to Eva. “Much obliged for the coffee, señora. Es delicioso.” Pretty as he pleased, the ranger left the house.
“De nada.” The housekeeper gave Olivia a look that told her to pursue the man.
She already planned on it.
Brody Armstrong walked out of the Graham house and sucked in a breath of the humid air. No matter how sticky it was outside, it was better than staying in the house. Olivia Graham was as annoying as a tick burrowing into his skin. Even though she was pretty enough to make his eyes hurt, her mouth made his head hurt. She never shut up and the woman was bossier than any military general.
He really wanted to talk to Matt, but he couldn’t wait around for him. The shack he’d found out about was just a few miles outside of town. Brody planned to investigate the shack before his source woke up from his drunken stupor and was released from jail.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Armstrong didn’t answer her but his hands fisted at the sound of her schoolmarm tone. He kept walking toward his paint. The pinto was his best friend, confidante and the only companion he ever wanted to travel with.
“I asked you a question.”
“I don’t have to answer.” He untied the horse’s reins and had just put his foot in the stirrup when she clamped onto his arm like a hundred-twenty-pound cocklebur. There was no way he was going to notice just how soft her breasts were, or how she was tall enough that he didn’t hurt his neck looking down at her.
“You will not leave this ranch without telling me everything.” There was a frantic note beneath the annoyance in her voice. “I have to know.”
He had never been pressed up against her before. Her sweet breath spread across his face. Damned if her eyes weren’t almost the color of turquoise, the bluish-green color unique to the Graham family. Her skin was honey colored, perfect except for a mole right at the corner of her mouth.
He wanted to kiss that mole.
Holy hell. Where had that thought come from? Brody wanted nothing to do with Olivia. Nothing. Nada. She was trouble and more work than any man ought to put up with. He had no time for a woman, least of all one like her.
“There are things I don’t think you should know. And there are things I don’t know yet. I ain’t about to tell you partial truths or the drunken stories of a half-Indian I found in a tavern twenty miles from here.” He leaned in even closer until their noses almost touched. “I am a man of the law. Let me do my job or I will put your pretty ass in jail.”