Stone Cold Christmas Ranger

Harlequin Intrigue

Print: September 19th/ Digital: October 1

(Texas Ranger Bennet Stevens & Alyssa Jimenez)

“You don’t have to trust me, Texas Ranger. You just have to stay out of my way.” 

Bennet Stevens will do anything to prove himself—and stand apart from his powerful political clan. But the Ranger never expected a cold case lead like Alyssa Jimenez, a wild-card bounty hunter. Or that someone would target her. The only safe place she can hide is in Bennet’s elite world. But Alyssa’s gutsy maneuvers and surprising vulnerability are putting Bennet’s heart at passionate risk…

Alyssa barely survived her drug-cartel family’s machinations. She knows all too well that trusting anyone can get you dead. Still, Bennet is the only way she can finally put her mother’s unsolved murder to rest. But posing as his lover is keeping the dashing Ranger up close, seductive—and dangerous. And exposing the truth could guarantee they won’t live to celebrate Christmas.

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Bennet Stevens had learned how to smile politely and charmingly at people he couldn’t stand before he’d learned to walk. Growing up in a family chock-full of lawyers and politicians, and many of the Texas rich and powerful, he’d been bred to be a charming, cunning tool.

His decision to go into police work had surprised and perhaps not overjoyed his parents, but they weren’t the type of people to stand in someone’s way.

Everything was far more circumspect than that, and after five years as a Texas Ranger, easily moving up the ranks beyond his counterparts, Bennet was starting to wonder if that’s how his parents were attempting to smoke him out.

Make everything too damn easy.

He was as tired of easy here in the Texas Rangers headquarters in Austin as he was of political parties  at his parents’ home where he was supposed to flirt with debutantes and impress stuffed suits with tales of his bravery and valor.

Which was why he was beyond determined to break one of the coldest cases his Texas Ranger unit had. The timing couldn’t be more perfect with his partner in the Unsolved Crimes Investigation Unit taking some extended time off giving Bennet the opportunity to solve a case on his own.

He glanced over at said partner, Ranger Vaughn Cooper, who was leaning against the corner of their shared office talking on his cell in low tones.

No amount of low tones could hide the fact taciturn Ranger Cooper was talking to his very pregnant wife. Bennet could only shake his head at how the mighty had fallen, and hard.

Vaughn said his goodbyes and shoved his phone into his pocket before he turned his attention to Bennet, assessing gaze and hard expression back in place. “Captain won’t go for it,” Vaughn said, nodding at the file on Bennet’s desk.

“He might if you back me up.”

Vaughn crossed his arms over his chest, and if Bennet hadn’t worked with Vaughn for almost four years, he might have been intimidated or worried. But that steely-eyed glare meant Vaughn was considering it.

“I know you want more…”

“But?” Bennet supplied, forcing himself to grin as if this didn’t mean everything. When people knew what it meant, they crushed it if they could. Another Stevens lesson imparted early and often.

“I’m not sure this case is the way to go. It’s been sitting here for years.”

“I believe that’s the point of our department. Besides that, I’ve already found a new lead,” Bennet returned, never letting the easy smile leave his face.

Vaughn’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You have?”

“There was a murder around the same time as this case that the FBI linked to the Jimenez drug cartel. The victim’s wounds were the same as the victim’s wounds in our Jane Doe case. If Captain lets me take on this case, I want to find a connection.”

Vaughn blew out a breath and nodded. “You have the FBI file?”

Bennet turned his laptop screen so Vaughn could read. Vaughn’s expression changed, just a fraction and just for a second, but Bennet caught it. And jumped. “What? What did you see?”

Vaughn sighed heavily. “I didn’t see anything. It’s just…Jimenez.”

“What about it?”

“Alyssa Jimenez.”

“I know that name.” Bennet racked his brain for how because it hadn’t been in any of the files he’d been poring over lately. “The Stallion. Oh, she was with Gabby.” Vaughn’s sister-in-law had been the kidnapping victim of a madman who called himself The Stallion. Vaughn had worked the case to free Gabby, and the handful of other girls she’d been in captivity with.

Including Alyssa Jimenez. “Wait. Are you telling me she has something to do with the Jimenez drug family?”

“I don’t know that she does. But based on what I do know, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“But you haven’t followed up?” Bennet asked incredulously.

“Natalie and Gabby took her in after Gabby’s release. They’ve adopted her like a sister, and I have yet to see anything that points to her being involved with any of the many members of the Jimenez drug cartel family.”

“But you think she is,” Bennet pressed, because Vaughn wouldn’t have brought it up if he didn’t.

“Alyssa is…different. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had connections to this family. She’s built something of an underground bounty hunter business, and the contacts she has?” Vaughn shook his head. “I promised Gabby and Nat I wouldn’t interfere unless it was directly part of my job.”

“You? You, Mr. By-the-Book, promised not to investigate something?”

“She hasn’t done anything wrong, and believe me, I’ve watched. If she’s connected to that family, it’s biology only. Not criminal. She’s been through a lot.”

“Wait. Wait. Isn’t she the one who fought the FBI when they raided The Stallion’s compound to release the women?”

Vaughn stood to his full height, disapproval written all over his face, but Bennet wouldn’t let it stop him. Vaughn’s family leave started tomorrow, and he couldn’t stand in Bennet’s way for weeks.

“She didn’t fight them off. She just didn’t exactly drop her weapon when they demanded her to do so. There is a difference. Now, Bennet, I need you to understand something.”

Bennet held himself very still, especially since Vaughn rarely called him by his first name. They were partners, but Vaughn was older, more experienced, and Bennet had always looked up to him like something of a mentor.

“Do not let your need to do something big compromise your job, which is to do something right.”

The lecture grated even though Bennet knew it was a good one, a fair one. But he didn’t particularly want to be good or fair right now. He wanted to do something. He wanted a challenge. He wanted to feel less like this fake facade.

He would do all that by doing that something right, damn it. “I want her contact information.”

“I didn’t say I’d back you up. I didn’t say—”

“I want her contact information,” Bennet repeated, and this time he didn’t smile or hide the edge in his voice. “I have found a lead that no one else has found, and I will rightfully and lawfully follow up on it once Captain Dean gives me the go-ahead. Now, you can either give it to me and smooth the way and let this be easy—for me and for her—or you can stand in my way and force me to drag her in here.”

Vaughn’s expression was icy, but Bennet couldn’t worry about that. Not for this. So, he continued.

“You’re out for a month to spend with your wife and your upcoming new addition. Take it. Enjoy it. And while you’re gone, let me do my job the way I see fit.”

Bennet couldn’t read Vaughn’s silence, but he supposed it didn’t matter. Bennet had said his piece, and he’d made it very clear. He would not be dissuaded.

“If you get Captain Dean’s go-ahead, I’ll give you Gabby’s contact information. It’ll be the best way to get ahold of Alyssa.”

When Bennet frowned, Vaughn’s mouth curved into the closest it ever got to a smile on duty.

“Best of luck getting anything out of Gabby Torres.”

Bennet forced himself to smile. “I can handle your sister-in-law.” And he could handle this case, and the potential to crack it wide open. Starting with Alyssa Jimenez.

*

Alyssa never knew what to do when Gabby went into full protective mode. While Alyssa had grown up with five intimidating older brothers, they had protected her by throwing her in a room and locking the door, by teaching her to use any weapon she could get her hands on. They had protected her by hiding her.

Not ranting and raving about some half-cocked Texas Ranger wanting to talk to her.

Not that Alyssa needed Gabby’s protection, but it was still interesting to watch.

“The nerve of that guy, thinking he can question you about something that doesn’t even have to do with you!”

Alyssa sat with her elbows rested on her knees on a folding chair in the corner of her very odd little office. It was a foreclosed gas station in a crappy part of Austin, and Alyssa hadn’t made any bones about making it look different from what it was. Shelves still stood in aisles, coolers stood empty and not running along the back wall. The only thing she’d done was added some seating—mostly stuff she’d found in the alley—and a desk that had a crack down the middle.

Her clientele didn’t mind, and they knew where to find her without her having to advertise and attract potential…legal issues.

The only time this office space bothered Alyssa was when Gabby insisted on showing up. Even though Alyssa knew Gabby could take care of herself—she’d recently graduated from the police academy, and she’d survived eight years as a prisoner of The Stallion to Alyssa’s two—Alyssa hated bringing people she cared about into this underworld.

“Alyssa. Are you listening?”

Alyssa shrugged. “Not really. You seem to be doing an excellent job of yelling all by yourself.”

Gabby scowled at her, and it was moments like these Alyssa didn’t know what to do with. Where it felt like she had a sister, a family. People who cared about her. It made her want to cry, and it made her want to…

She didn’t know. So, she ignored it. “I can talk to some Texas Ranger. I talk to all sorts of people all the time.” Criminals. Law enforcement. Men who worked for her brothers, men who worked for the FBI, including Gabby’s fiancé. Alyssa knew how to talk to anyone.

Maybe, just maybe, it made her a little nervous someone so close to Natalie and Gabby had possibly discovered her connection to one of the biggest cartels operating in the state of Texas, but she could handle it.

“Crap,” Gabby muttered, looking at her phone. “Nat went into labor.”

“Well, hurry up and get to the hospital.”

“Come with me.”

“No.”

“Alyssa, you’re ours now. Really.”

“I know,” Alyssa replied even though it had been almost two years since escaping The Stallion and she  still wasn’t used to being considered part of the family. “But all that pushing and yelling and weird baby crap? I’m going to have to pass. I’ll come visit when it’s all over, so keep me posted. Besides, I have some work to catch up on. My trip to Amarillo took longer than I expected.”

She’d brought a rapist to justice. Though she’d brought him in for a far more minor charge, the woman who’d come to her for help could rest assured her attacker was in jail.

It wasn’t legal to act as bounty hunter without a license, but growing up in the shadow of a drug cartel family, Alyssa didn’t exactly care about legal. She cared about righting some wrongs.

Some of that pride and certainty must have showed in her expression because Gabby sighed. “All right, I won’t fight you on it. Get your work done and then, regardless of baby appearance, at least stop by the hospital tonight?”

“Fine.”

Gabby pulled her into a quick hug, another gesture Alyssa had spent two years not knowing what to do with. But the Torres sisters had pulled her in and insisted she was part of their family.

It mattered, and Alyssa would do whatever she could to make sure she made them proud. She couldn’t be a police officer like Gabby, or a trained hypnotist assisting the Texas Rangers like Natalie, but she could do this.

“See you tonight,” Gabby said, heading for the door.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Gabby left, and Alyssa sighed. Maybe she should have gone. Natalie had had a difficult pregnancy, enough her husband was taking almost an entire month off work to be home with her and baby these first few weeks. And, no matter how uncomfortable Alyssa still was with the whole childbirth thing, they were her family.

Her good, upstanding chosen family. Who don’t know who you really are.

Alyssa turned to her work. There was some paperwork to forge to collect her fee for the last guy she’d brought in, and then she had to check her makeshift mailbox to see if any more tips had been left for her. She worked by word of mouth, mostly for people who couldn’t pay, hence the forging paperwork so she could pretend to be a licensed bounty hunter and collect enough of a fee to live off of.

Her front door screeched open, as the hinges weren’t aligned or well oiled. She glanced over expecting to find a woman from the neighborhood, as those were usually her only word-of-mouth visitors.

Instead, a man stepped through the door, and for a few seconds Alyssa couldn’t act, she could only stare. He was tall and broad, dressed in pressed khakis and a perfectly tailored button-down shirt, a Texas Ranger badge hooked to his belt. He wore a cowboy hat and a gun like he’d been born with them.

Alyssa’s heart beat twice its normal rhythm, something unrecognizable fluttering in her chest. His dark hair was thick and wavy, and not buzzed short like most Texas Rangers she’d come into contact with. His eyes were a startling blue, and his mouth—

Wait. Why was she staring at his mouth?

The man’s brows drew together as he looked around the room. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, are you… You are Alyssa Jimenez, aren’t you?”

“And you must be the Texas Ranger Gabby’s trying to hide me from,” Alyssa offered drily. “How did you find me?”

“I followed Gabby.”

She laughed, couldn’t help it. She’d expected him to lie or have some high-tech way for having found her not-publicly-listed office. But he’d told her the truth. “Awfully sneaky and underhanded for a Ranger.”

His mouth curved, and the fluttering was back tenfold. He had a movie-star smile, all charm and white teeth, and while Alyssa had seen men like that in her life, she’d never, ever had that kind of smile directed at her.

“You must know Ranger Cooper, antithesis of all that is sneaky and underhanded. We aren’t all like that.”

Something about all that fluttering turned into a spiral, one that arrowed down her chest and into her belly. She felt oddly shaky, and Alyssa had long ago learned how to ward off shaky. She’d grown up in isolation as part of a criminal family. Then she’d been kidnapped for two years, locked away in little more than a bunker.

She was not a weakling. She was never scared. The scariest parts of her life were over, but something about this man sent her as off-kilter as she’d ever been.

It wasn’t fear for her life or the need to fight off an attacker, but she didn’t know what it was, and that was the scariest thing of all.

“Why are you here?” she asked, edging behind her cracked desk. She had a knife strapped to her ankle, but she’d prefer the Glock she’d shoved in the drawer when Gabby had stormed in an hour earlier.

She wouldn’t use either on him, but she didn’t want him to think she was going to do whatever he wanted either. He might be a Texas Ranger, but he couldn’t waltz in here and get whatever he wanted. Especially if what he wanted was information about Jimenez.

“I have some questions for you, Ms. Jimenez, that’s all.”

“Then why is everyone trying so hard to keep you from meeting me?” Alyssa returned, sliding her hand into the drawer.

The Ranger’s eyes flicked to the movement, and she didn’t miss the way his hand slowly rose to the holster of his weapon. She paused her movement completely, but she didn’t retract her hand.

“Maybe they’re afraid of what I’ll find out.”

She raised her gaze from his gun to those shocking blue eyes. His expression was flat and grim, so very police. Worst of all, it sent a shiver of fear through her.

There were so very many things he could find out.