Ranger Integrity

Framed for murder...

Private investigator Sienna Evans is searching for a missing woman when a tip leads her onto a boat with a dead man. He’s been shot with her gun, and the police believe she’s the killer. Arrested and charged, Sienna is shocked when she’s bailed out of jail by her ex-fiancé, Eli. She hasn’t seen him in five years, not since he walked away from her and their relationship.

Texas Ranger Elijah Goodwin doesn’t give second changes. His childhood taught him a strict adherence to the rules leads to success. Failing in love with Sienna was the only time he deviated from doing the smart thing—and it blew up in his face. Still, when he discovers she’s been charged with murder, nothing will stop him from coming to her defense. The infuriating woman is many things—gorgeous, brave, and stubborn—but she’s no killer.

Digging for answers thrusts Sienna and Eli into a case with far deeper implications that either anticipated. As the threats increase, Eli vows to keep Sienna safe, but protecting her may cost him everything. His heart. His career. Even his life.


Chapter One

Was she making a terrible mistake?

Sienna Evans hesitated, her fingers on the gearshift. The bright beam of her headlights cut across the mostly empty parking lot, illuminating the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Beyond the gate, moonlight gently caressed the ocean water, and the boats moored in the marina. It was nearly midnight. Not another soul in sight. Exactly what Albert Greer was hoping for.

The fisherman was jittery when he’d phoned earlier in the day claiming to have information about a missing person’s case. Ruby Morales. The police hadn’t located the twenty-two-year-old administrative assistant, but that hadn’t stopped Sienna from taking the case. As a private investigator, she rarely said no. Persistence and determination helped her succeed where the police failed. She’d find an overlooked clue, or more often than not, a witness who refused to speak to authorities would provide information to her.

Someone like Albert. Given his criminal history, Albert wasn’t fond of law enforcement. He’d insisted on meeting Sienna on his boat in the marina. The rusty vessel wasn’t designed to be a house, but Albert had recently been evicted from his apartment and was temporarily crashing there.

Sienna suspected the sly fisherman wouldn’t give her the low-down until she’d slipped him some cash. She’d stopped by the ATM on her way to the marina. Her bank account was running dangerously low, but money was a small price to pay if it meant uncovering the truth about what’d happened to Ruby. The young woman had been missing for three weeks, and while most victims were killed within hours of their abduction, there was evidence Ruby was alive and being held captive. Albert’s information could break the case wide open. Sienna prayed it would.

Lord, please guide my words and actions. Help me convince Albert to share what he knows.

Fortified, Sienna killed the engine of her SUV and exited the vehicle. Wind whipped through her thick mane of curls. Goosebumps pebbled on her skin, and she quickly zipped up her coat. January in Sandalwood, Texas didn’t bring snow, but temperatures dropped at night and the ever-present humidity added a dampness to the cold that cut right to the bone.

Loose gravel crunched under her boots. The entrance gate to the marina was cracked open, exactly as Albert had promised it would be. Sienna slipped inside the fence line. The boat rental office was dark, as was the tackle supply shop. Her footfalls were silent as she stepped off the pavement and onto the floating dock. The wood and steel structure shifted underneath her, gently rocked by the waves rippling across the water.

Boats of every shape and size rested in their slips. She passed several dinghies, a few speedboats, and a houseboat before turning toward the industrial side of the marina. Small fishing vessels lurked in the water, hidden from the moonlight by several warehouses built on the shore. At one time, Sandalwood maintained a healthy fishing community. Industrialization and large conglomerates had driven most of the independent fishermen out of business. A few, like Albert, hung on though.

The darkness enveloped her as Sienna followed the floating dock to a remote area of the marina. The eerie sense of being watched tickled the back of her neck. She turned and looked. A shadow slipped into one of the nearby warehouses.

Was she being followed?

Or worse, was Albert setting her up in some way? What if he had something to do with Ruby’s disappearance and was luring Sienna here for nefarious purposes? The thought sent a chilling spiral of fear coursing down her spine. She hadn’t uncovered a connection between Albert and the missing woman, but her investigation was in its early stages.

Her ex-fiancé’s frequent warning popped into her mind.

Refusing to play by the rules may get you killed.

Eli had always delivered the words with his trademark scowl, normally after discovering some risk she’d taken in pursuit of justice. Sienna never heeded his words. She couldn’t. The families that hired her were desperate for answers, and she knew firsthand what it was like to be left praying for answers. Her own sister’s murder case had lingered unsolved for years before Sienna finally caught the killer. She refused to let another family go through that pain.

Some things are worth the risk.

That had always been her reply to Eli, right before planting a kiss on his lips to erase the worry etched on his handsome features.

It’d been five years since they’d last spoken. Not since they’d broken up. A pang of sadness tangled with regret at the turn their relationship had taken. She shoved it back. It was better Eli had walked away. Marriage would’ve meant a lifetime of compromise with a man who didn’t see the world in the same way she did. At the very least, he would’ve urged her to take fewer risks.

Like this one.

Sienna glanced over her shoulder again. This time, nothing stirred. Nerves jittered her insides, signaling some unknown danger she couldn’t see. Or maybe she was simply creeped out by the dark buildings, the soft lap of the water against the hulls, and the eerie scent of rotten fish floating in the air. The shadow she’d seen earlier could’ve been a figment of her imagination.

It probably had been. Creeping around the marina in the dead of night was enough to give anyone the willies. Especially since her primary suspect in Ruby’s disappearance had a houseboat on the other side of the large and intricate floating dock. Sienna didn’t have proof Dallas Redding had anything to do with the young woman’s kidnapping, but she hoped Albert might be able to shed some light on his fellow seaman’s whereabouts on the night Ruby went missing.

Then again, Albert might lie through his teeth from the beginning of his statement to the last. He wasn’t a trustworthy individual. He’d been arrested for blackmail and fraud. Violence wasn’t part of his criminal past, but still… people could be surprising.

Sienna’s fingers brushed against the small of her back before she remembered her holster wasn’t there. Her Glock had been stolen this afternoon from the glove box of her SUV while she’d visited her father at the hospital. He’d suffered from a heart attack three days ago. Thankfully, he was on the mend, but the hours in surgery and the days since had been emotionally draining for everyone in her family.

Coming out of the hospital and seeing her SUV’s broken window was a complication she hadn’t needed. The thief had stolen her radio, her handgun, and her battery. All things that were easy to sell. Sienna couldn’t have cared less about the radio and the battery. Those could be replaced easily.

The stolen Glock was a different matter altogether. Guns were sold on the black market to criminals who later used them to commit horrible deeds. She’d immediately reported the theft to the local police department. Then placed calls to the local pawn shops in the slim chance the engraved weapon was sold for immediate cash. No such luck.Sienna was trained in karate and could hold her own in a hand-to-hand fight, but it was times like these, she appreciated having her Glock as well. Although there was no obvious sign of danger, it was hard to shake the feeling of foreboding crawling across her skin.

Ropes creaked as she drew closer to Albert’s fishing vessel. The street lamps were a distinct memory, the only illumination a faint light emanating from the cabin below deck. The mast, even without its sails, cast a long shadow. A muffled plop emanated from the water. It skated along the edge of Sienna’s heightened nerves. She peered into the darkness at the far end of the boat. “Albert?”

Her voice was hushed but strong enough to carry across the distance.

Silence answered.

Once again, the weighted sensation of eyes watching her swept across Sienna. Her heart rate picked up speed. The warehouses lurked on the shore like ghostly sentries. A person could be hiding nearby and she wouldn’t know. It sent her nerves jittering. She didn’t like this. A part of her was tempted to abandon this risky meeting, but Sienna shook off the urge. Ruby’s grandmother was worried sick about her only grandchild. She deserved answers.

Sienna intended to get them.

There was no movement above deck. Albert was likely inside the cabin. Annoyed and cold, Sienna stepped onto the fiberglass hull. The deck was cluttered with paraphernalia. A pile of fishing nets clawed at her foot and she tripped trying to wrench it free. Her body slammed into the deck with a teeth-clattering jolt. Slime and salt water seeped into her clothes. Repulsed, she scrambled onto her hands and knees. “Albert!”

No movement from inside the cabin. Irritation flared white-hot. She was exhausted after a long day of work, creeped out by the clandestine meeting in the marina, and now was covered in leftover fish goo and salt water.

Sienna gritted her teeth and pulled her foot free of the net before standing. Her hands clenched. She shouldn’t let her emotions get the best of her, but Albert was in for several choice words if he’d dragged her out here for nothing.

Sucking in a breath, Sienna carefully crossed the slick distance between the edge of the boat and the cabin. The helm was nothing more than a few instruments and a steering wheel. A door led to a small interior area below deck.

She pushed it open, revealing a set of narrow stairs. Music spilled from the cabin. Body sweat and the faint hint of blood wafted across her nose. Sienna grimaced. It smelled like Albert was cleaning fish in the same place he was sleeping. Yuck.

A counter ran along the edge of the cabin. It was covered with various items. A hotplate rested next to a jagged knife. Hooks and fishing line mingled with discarded cans of soup. As Sienna descended the staircase, Albert came into view. He reclined in a fancy camping chair with a footrest attached. His eyes were closed, hands propped up on his lap.

For some ridiculous reason, the sight of him sleeping fueled her frustration and irritation. Sienna flicked off the nearby radio. “Wake up, Albert.”

He didn’t stir.

Sienna lifted her fingers to her mouth in preparation to whistle sharply, when something about his positioning stalled her movements. Dread slicked through her like a heat wave. She slowly lowered her hand to his shoulder. His skin was warm to the touch, even through the fabric of his shirt. Sienna shook him.

Albert pitched from the chair, nearly falling into her as he toppled to the floor.

Sienna recoiled. The back of Albert’s head was covered in blood. A dark stain coated his collar and the backside of his T-shirt.

Bile rose in the back of her throat as her backside slammed into the counter. The soup cans rattled. A bobbin toppled to the floor. It rolled slowly to the side of Albert’s arm. Her gaze followed its path. She’d seen crime scene photographs, but had never been in the presence of a dead body before. Horror swallowed her up and stole her breath. Her knees weakened. She couldn’t tear her attention away from the back of Albert’s head. It looked like he’d been shot.

A thump came from overhead.

The noise sliced right through Sienna’s shock. It sent her heart rate skittering as terror took hold. Albert’s killer. Had he come back?

Another scuffle overhead. Someone was definitely on the deck. Panic shot straight through Sienna as instinct took over. She searched the small space for something to use as a weapon. Her gaze snagged on a dark object on the floor.

A gun. A Glock 19.

She moved closer, her pulse roaring in her ears as she recognized the familiar engraving on the grip. The initials S.E. enclosed inside a round circle topped with a cross.

Her initials.

Her gun.

Her stolen gun.

Dizziness threatened to swallow her whole as black edges appeared at the corners of her vision.

More movement on the deck drew her gaze upward. Survival instinct overtook logic as Sienna scooped up the Glock from the floor of the cabin. She quickly ejected the magazine. One bullet was missing.She didn’t want to think about where that bullet was. Not now. Instead, she snapped the magazine in place, her movements smooth despite the fear coursing through her veins.

Whoever murdered Albert wouldn’t hesitate to harm Sienna. The only escape route was through the wooden cabin door, but she’d never make it outside without being noticed. She prayed whoever was on the boat wouldn’t come below deck.

The steps grew louder, thumping against the hull like a herd of elephants. Growing closer.

She kept the gun pointed at the cabin door. Said another prayer. Held her breath.

And waited.

@Creative Thoughts 2021

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