Stone Cold Texas Ranger
[Texas Ranger Vaughn Cooper & Natalie Torres]
A Texas Ranger puts it all on the line for a woman who has everything to lose
Texas Ranger Vaughn Cooper doesn’t need or appreciate the “help” of some frivolous civilian on his case. Yet even this seasoned lawman can’t argue that Natalie Torres is on her game. She might even unlock the answers he needs to crack this kidnapping…if the bad guys don’t erase Natalie first.
With her home burned to the ground, Natalie has no choice but to hide out with Vaughn in a remote cabin. Spending time with the stone-cold officer should keep her mind strictly on the case. But there’s an unseen fire burning deep within Vaughn, and it’s making Natalie wonder just where the true danger might lie.
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Vaughn Cooper was not an easy man to like. There was a time when he’d been quicker with a smile or a joke, but twelve years in law enforcement and three years in the Unsolved Crimes Investigation Unit of the Texas Rangers had worn off any charm he’d been born with.
He was not a man who believed in the necessity of small talk, politeness or pretending a situation was anything other than what it was.
He was most definitely not a man who believed in hypnotism, even if the woman currently putting their witness under acted both confident and capable.
He didn’t trust it, her or what she did, and he was more than marginally irritated that the witness seemed to immediately react. No more fidgeting, no more yelling that he didn’t know anything.
After Natalie Torres’s ministrations, the man was still and pleasant.
Vaughn didn’t believe it for a second.
“I told you,” Bennet Stevens said, giving him a nudge. Bennet had been his partner for the past two years, and Vaughn liked him. Some days. This was not one of those days.
“It’s not real. He’s acting.” Vaughn made no effort to lower his voice. It was purposeful, and he watched carefully for any sign of reaction from the supposedly hypnotized witness.
He didn’t catch any, but he could all but feel Ms. Torres’s angry gaze on him. He didn’t care if she was angry. All he cared about was getting to the bottom of this case before another woman disappeared.
He wasn’t sure his weary conscience could take another thing piled on top of the overflowing heap.
“How are you today, Mr. Herman?” Ms. Torres asked in that light, airy voice she’d hypnotized the man with. Vaughn rolled his eyes. That anyone would fall for this was beyond him. They were police officers. They dealt in evidence and reality, not hypnotism.
“Been better,” the witness grumbled.
“I see,” she continued, that easy, calming tone to her voice never changing. “Can you tell us a little bit about your problems?”
“You know, you’re safe here, Mr. Herman. You can speak freely. This is a safe place where you can unburden yourself.”
Vaughn tried to tamp down his edgy impatience. He couldn’t get over them wasting their time doing this, but it hadn’t been his call. This had come from above him, and he had no choice but to follow through.
The hypnotist inclined her head toward Vaughn and Bennet. It was the agreed upon sign that they would now take over the questioning.
“It’s not a bad gig,” Herman said, his hands linked together on the table in front of him. No questions needed.
Yeah, Vaughn didn’t believe a second of this.
“Don’t have to get my hands too dirty. Paid cash. My old lady’s got cancer. Goes a long way, you know?”
“Rough,” Bennet said, doing a far better job than Vaughn of infusing some sympathy into his tone. “What kind of jobs you running?”
“Mostly just messages, you know. I don’t even gotta be the muscle. Just deliver the information. It’s a sweet deal. But…”
Vaughn could feel the hypnotist’s eyes on him. Something about her. Something about this. It was all off. He wasn’t even being paranoid like Bennet too often accused him of. The witness was too easy, and the woman was too jumpy.
“But… Man, I don’t like this, though. I got a daughter of my own. I never wanted to get involved with this part.”
“What part’s that?”
“The girls. He keeps the girls.”
Vaughn tensed, and he noticed the hypnotist did, as well.
“Who keeps them?”
Vaughn and Bennet whirled to face Ms. Torres. She wasn’t supposed to ask questions. Not after she gave them the signal. Not about the case.
“What the hell do you think—”
“The Stallion,” Herman muttered. “But I can’t cross The Stallion.”
Vaughn immediately looked at Bennet. He gave his partner an imperceptible nod, then Bennet slipped out of the room.
The Stallion. An idiotic name for the head of an organized crime group that had been stealthily wreaking havoc across Texas for ten years. Vaughn had no less than four cases he knew connected to the bastard or his drug-running cronies, but this one…
“What do you know about The Stallion?” Vaughn asked evenly, though frustration pounded in his bloodstream. Still, hypnotism or no hypnotism, he wasn’t the type of ranger who let that show.
“You don’t cross him. You don’t cross him and live.”
Vaughn opened his mouth to ask the next question, but the damn hypnotist beat him to it.
“What about the girls?” she demanded, leaning closer. “What do you know about the girls? Where are they?”
Vaughn was so taken aback by her complete disregard for the rules, by her fervent demand, he couldn’t say anything at first. But it was only a split second of shock, then he edged his way between Ms. Torres and her line of sight to the witness.
“Get him out,” he ordered.
Big brown eyes blinked up at him. “What?”
“If this is hypnotism, unhypnotize him.” Vaughn bent over and leaned his mouth close enough to her ear so he could whisper without the witness overhearing. “You are putting my case at risk, and I will not have it. Take him out now, or I’ll kick you out.”
She didn’t waver, and she certainly didn’t turn to Herman and take him out. “I’m getting answers,” she replied through gritted teeth. Her eyes blazed with righteous fury.
It was no match for his own. Vaughn inclined his head toward Herman, who was shaking his head back and forth. Not offering any answers to her too direct line of questioning.
Vaughn nudged her chair back with his knee. “Take him out, or I’ll arrest you for interfering in a criminal investigation.”
Her eyes glittered with that fury, her hands clenched into fists, but when he rested his hand on the handcuffs latched to his utility belt, she closed her eyes.
“Fine, but you need to move.”
When she opened her eyes, he saw a weary resignation in her slumped posture, a kind of sorrow in her expression Vaughn didn’t understand—didn’t want to. Any more than he wanted to figure out what scent she was wearing, because when he was this close to her, it was almost distracting.
“If you say one word to him that isn’t pulling him out of the hypnotism, you will be arrested. Do you understand?”
“I thought you didn’t believe in it?” she snapped.
“I don’t, but I’m not going to have you claiming I didn’t let you do your job. Take him out. Then you will be talking to my supervisor. Got it?”
She sneered at him, like many a criminal he’d arrested or threatened in his career. He wasn’t sure she was a criminal, but he wasn’t affected at all by her anger.
She’d ruined the lead. The Stallion wasn’t nearly enough to go on, and she’d stepped in with her own reckless, desperate questions, invalidating the whole interrogation.
She was going to pay for this.