Nothing stands between ranger Adan Harrison and justice. Guided by his principles, swayed by no one, he'll do anything to protect the law. Even if it means tracking a suspect through a winter storm to quirky Crescent Mountain, Arkansas. But Sophia Mitchell, a woman with secrets in her eyes and a shotgun in her hands, stops him cold.
Sophia puts Adan's suspicion and attraction on high alert. Being snowed in with a lovely stranger isn't his holiday wish, but whatever she's hiding could help him locate a criminal. Or it might reveal that she's someone the lawand his hearthas been searching for.
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The barrel of a shotgun pressing into his back stopped him in his tracks.
"Don't take another step."
The feminine voice surprised Adan Harrison. He had not been expecting that. What he had been expecting was a wanted fugitive he'd been tracking for three long, cold days.
"I'm not here to harm you," he said, hoping she'd put the shotgun down. He held his hands up and went to reach inside his sheepskin-lined coat. "I'm an officer of the law. I'll show you my badge and ID."
"Don't do that."
Adan stopped, waited. He could hear her shifting in the slush and the snow. Freezing in his boots, he didn't dare turn or make a move for his own gun. He'd been around enough prickly females to know you didn't mess with a woman with a loaded shotgun. Especially if you were in the deep woods of a treacherous mountain terrain in western Arkansas.
"Let me show you my badge," he said. "Look, I got lost and it's cold and I didn't think anyone was inside the cabin."
"Did you bother knocking?"
She was so close he smelled something clean and fresh through the scent of wet, frozen trees and decaying wood.
"I did knock, yes, ma'am." He took a chance at looking over his shoulder. "Can I turn around so we can talk face-to-face?"
She made another movement, quick and sure. "Okay, but slowly. And keep your hands up."
Adan did as she asked, pivoting in the snow and dirt to face her. Another surprise. She was young and pretty, but she was so covered in her big coat and dark blue scarf that it was hard to tell anything else. Her eyes matched the scarf and bits of stray hair hung in light auburn tufts around her face and ears.
"Show me your badge," she said, the gun now aimed at his heart. "And I won't hesitate to shoot if you try anything."
Adan didn't argue with her. He believed she'd shoot him in a heartbeat. Something about her stance and the dark fierceness in her eyes told him this woman was either hiding something or running from something. Or someone. Maybe she was hiding someone, now that he thought about it.
The someone he wanted to take back to Texas?
He slowly reached to unbutton his heavy jacket. She stepped closer, her unyielding eyes burning him to the spot. The damp hulking trees dripped with softly falling snow as night begin to descend on Crescent Mountain. If he didn't get himself out of this soon, he'd be stuck here in a December snowstorm.
Keeping his eyes on the woman with the gun, Adan opened his coat and showed her the badge attached to the left pocket of his flannel shirt. "I'm a Texas Ranger, and I'm looking for a man," he said. "A very dangerous man."
She got all skittish and then her gaze moved from his face to the badge. "What if that's fake? What if you're a dangerous man?"
Was she trying to deflect attention away from herself by accusing him?
Aggravated and losing patience, Adan stepped closer. And found the barrel of the gun digging deeper into the middle of his chest.
"Look, lady. It's cold and I'm tired. I thought the cabin was empty. I'm here for one reason, to find this man before he hurts someone else. I have it from a reliable source that he might be either headed here or already here, hiding out on this mountain."
The fierce gaze he'd seen earlier was replaced with what looked like fear. He could feel the gun trembling against his ribs. And because he knew she was afraid of something besides him, he took advantage of that slight distraction by grabbing the barrel and holding tight as he pushed it up enough that she had to either shoot into the sky or drop the shotgun.
She stared into his eyes with a white-hot anger while they stood so close he could smell that sweet, fresh scent tickling against his cold nose. She pulled the trigger and sent scatter shots into the trees before he was able to wrench the gun out of her control. The woods vibrated with the sound of the gun going off and the trees shook down patches of snow and leaves.
Adan's eyes held hers as they stood nose to nose. He saw a certain horror there in her startled gaze. She held onto the gun with surprising agility, but Adan was stronger. He wrestled the gun away and stared over at her.
"Okay, now that we've settled that, I'm not here to hurt you," Adan said, holding the twenty-gauge down. "If we could just go inside and talk this through, I can prove to you that I'm who I say I am."
"You never said your name," the woman replied, a kind of triumphant gleam in her eyes.
In the next second, Adan heard the whack of something hitting him. And then he felt the intensity of a hard sharp pain. Her face was the last thing he saw before the world went black.
Sophia grabbed the gun back and stared down at the tall man lying at her feet. "Miss Bettye, I hope you didn't kill him."
Sophia's seventy-year-old neighbor, Bettye Scott, stood over the big man, her hands tight on a cast-iron frying pan, her braided gray hair falling around her shoulders. "He ain't dead. I see his chest rising and falling. Is he the one?"
"The one?" Sophia was used to her neighbor's strange ways and quirky attitude on life, but sometimes Miss Bettye really didn't make any sense. Then at times like this, the woman zoomed in on the glaring truth.
Miss Bettye tugged at her moth-eaten wool hat and smiled over at Sophia. "The man you're hiding from, honey."
Sophia had shared lots of secrets with her feisty neighbor but Bettye didn't always remember the details. Sophia decided now was not the time to jar Bettye's memory. But Sophia hoped the man she'd gotten away from wasn't the man this Ranger might be looking for. Because as far as she knew, that threat had been neutralized. She thought. She hoped. She prayed.
She shook her head and gave Bettye what she hoped was a calm glance. "He says he's a Texas Ranger, and he is wearing a badge."
Bettye squinted, her chin dipping as she pushed her hat back. "Is his badge over his heart?"
Sophia glanced down at the unconscious man. His heavy jacket lay open to expose his plaid f lannel shirt. The round badge with the star-shaped Texas Department of Public Safety emblem winked at the growing dusk. And scared her into backing up a few steps.
She nodded to Bettye. "Yes. Is that a good thing?"
Bettye stomped one of her booted feet. "Dang, I done hit a Texas Ranger over the head. And he's a mighty pretty thang, at that. I guess I'll be hauled off to jail." She shook her head and held down the frying pan she'd used to hit him, her attitude resigned and nonchalant. "You don't ever mess with a Texas Ranger."
She said that with a little too much assurance. Sophia had learned to never ask any of her neighbors about their past and in return, she didn't have to tell anyone much about hers. It was an unwritten rule of this isolated mountain of misfits and outcasts to keep things to themselves and to protect each other. They'd helped her when she'd first arrived. Helped her and welcomed her, no questions asked.
"What should we do?" Sophia asked, glancing around.
If the Ranger was telling the truth, then she had to be on watch. She should have asked him the name of the man he'd come looking for before she'd let Bettye knock him out.
But it can't be him. He's he can't hurt me again, ever.
"Let's drag him inside your cabin," Bettye suggested in a meek voice. She sounded as if they'd just discovered a kitten.
"Why?" Sophia didn't like that idea. She'd stared into this man's golden-colored eyes and well there was something about him. Something that made her think of a big tiger about to pounce, and that could be even more dangerous than running from your crazy ex-husband.
"We gotta hide him until he wakes up," Bettye said. "We need to convince him that we meant him no harm. After all, we're two innocent, helpless women living in a wild and wondrous world."
Sophia would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so serious. But with a shotgun and a frying pan, they didn't look all that innocent or helpless. "I tried to shoot him and you knocked him out. How do we explain that?"
Bettye stared down at him, then kicked one of his snowencrusted boots with her foot. "I got a plan. Let's get him inside where it's warm and I'll explain."
Adan heard a band beating a marching tune somewhere close to his ear. Over and over the thump, thump struck at his consciousness until he could feel the hit of a big bass drum inside his brain. He really wanted it to stop. Now.
He woke up with a killer headache and two women staring down at him. One of them was old and scrawny and full of what looked like a daring glare.
The other one was young and pretty and full of what looked like apprehension.
And then he remembered.
He tried to speak and realized his mouth had been taped shut. He tried to sit up and realized his hands were tied with rope to the old iron bedposts just above a sagging mattress.
Had he been dropped into a century gone by? That movie The Beguiled with Clint Eastwood came to mind. That thought did not bode well for Adan. He'd left Austin in a hurry to get this man and get home to his five-year-old daughter by Christmas Eve. Adan didn't intend to break the promise he'd made to Gaylen.
The women kept staring at him, their hands held down in a prim manner that belied the assault they'd landed on him. Okay, so this was a first. Tricked and hog-tied and now at the mercy of two obviously determined women.
This was why he didn't go on blind dates.
Adan closed his eyes and willed the pounding pain and this bad dream to go away. Neither did. So he opened his eyes again and grunted. Crescent Mountain had not been kind to him.
He'd left Austin during a massive winter storm that covered the whole state of Texas, and now he'd managed to get stuck on this mountain in the middle of a brutal chill. The icy roads and a raging snowstorm full of daring, crazy drivers had stalled him for hours. He'd slipped and slid his pickup right through that and taken way more time than he'd planned, but he'd at least found the last road up the mountain before nightfall.
Only to take a mean slide toward the left and into a towering rock face that dented and banged his truck, and then he got stuck in a snowdrift. So he'd walked uphill the rest of the way and spotted a cabin that appeared to be empty. He'd come up here to see if he could get help or at least get in out of the cold until he could continue to look for the fugitive he'd been tracking. Maybe he should have asked a few more questions in the process.
Now he'd been attacked and accosted by two fierce women.
It was about time for him to retire.
He tried to speak. Tried to sit up. Gave up and grunted again, his gaze passing between the two crazy women before he pinned his eyes on the young, pretty one.
Sophia watched him, her heart doing that warning clang as her pulsed picked up tempo. "I'm gonna take off the tape," she said. "But first, we need you to understand something." She got closer. "You have to remain quiet and calm. Nod if you can do that."
He nodded, glared, struggled with his ties. Bettye grinned, the shotgun in her capable hands.
"We didn't mean to hurt you," Sophia said, hoping he'd believe her. "We live close by and we watch out for each other. We have a few other neighbors but we're not used to strangers showing up. Usually we just get long-lost relatives or a few lost tourists, but not during the worst winter storm of the season. Do you understand?"
"You shook us up," Bettye said, bobbing her head. "She was over visiting me and saw you snooping around her cabin."
He grunted and gave Sophia a stare down.
Ignoring those tiger eyes, she continued. "Good. So if I take off the tape and untie your hands, you aren't going to haul us in or report us for assault with a deadly weapon or an attempt to shoot an officer of the law, are you?"
Bettye patted the shotgun, still grinning.
He grunted and shook his head, his golden-green eyes sending a different message from the docile grunt. He was probably bluffing, but she couldn't keep the man tied up inside her cabin. Her very small cabin.
Sophia looked at Bettye. Bettye nodded and leaned over the man. "Just for good measure, I'll shoot you if you try anything."
"Do you understand that?" Sophia asked, hoping they had properly handled this situation.
"We need you to understand we're just trying to protect ourselves."
She didn't intend to let Bettye shoot the Ranger, but she wanted him to know this was serious.
He nodded, tugged at his restraints.
Sophia placed one hand on his face and felt the brittle caress of his five-o'clock shadow. Her fingertips tingled with an awareness that skidded right up her arm. In an attempt to ignore the unusual, long-dormant feeling, she smiled and gave him a reassuring glance. "This might hurt a bit."
Then she pulled the duct tape off his mouth.
Adan gritted his teeth but to save face, he refused to scream. As soon as the tape was off, he let out a string of colorful words.
"No need for profanity," the old woman said, her smile as serene as a nun's.
Adan glanced from her to the woman now untying the ropes from around his wrists. "Don't you think y'all took this just a little too far? I mean, giving me a possible concussion, then taping my mouth shut and tying me up. What is wrong with you people?"
"We don't trust nobody," the old woman replied, still smiling.
He could hear that theme song, the one where the mountain people murdered the newcomer and buried him in an old well. His weapon had been removed and his cell phone had been confiscated. He hadn't reported in all day, so hopefully someone would realize he'd gone missing. Or there was the other possibilitybecause he was known for going off on his own to do his job and he always turned back up eventually, he might not even be missed until it was too late.
Nor found until the spring thaw. He'd either be frozen solid under a snowdrift or chewed into pieces by some hungry mountain varmint. Not exactly a noble death.