Ranger Loyalty

No way to escape...

After the death of her fiancé, Olivia Leighton takes solace in her work as a wedding planner—until she receives threatening messages. Hiding out isn’t an option if she wants to keep her business afloat. But when she’s attacked and almost kidnapped during a reception, it becomes frighteningly clear the lengths her stalker will go to.

Texas Ranger Cole Donnelly is horrified by the assault on Olivia. In order to keep her safe, he agrees to go undercover as her assistant. But being close to the stunning woman, and witnessing firsthand her kindness and fortitude, leaves him questioning the reasons he’s locked away his heart.

With each bridal gown fitting and cake tasting, the peril mounts as Olivia's stalker grows bolder. Cole will do anything to protect her, but their forced proximity creates its own complication as he and Olivia grow closer. Can he capture her stalker before it’s too late? Or will the next event Cole plans be Olivia’s funeral?


Chapter One

The window rattled.

Olivia Leighton jumped, glancing over her shoulder at the dark alley beyond the windowpane. The motion detection light on the side of the building clicked on.

As if someone was moving out there.

Fear crimped her insides. She rose from her desk chair, her heels silent on the plush carpeting as she drew closer to the window. Weak yellow lighting spilled from overhead. It illuminated the pavement directly outside, but cast long shadows near the dumpster. Shadows big enough to hide a person in.

Was her stalker out there? Watching her?

She’d been receiving notes for weeks. When the first one appeared in her mailbox, she’d thought it was some kind of sick joke. But then another was slipped under the door of her office. A third tucked under the windshield wiper of her car while she was running errands in town. Olivia had reported them to law enforcement and Police Chief Sims had taken it seriously, but without knowing her stalker’s identity, nothing could be done.

She’d installed a new security system for her home and office. Slept with a knife in her nightstand. Changed her routine. She was doing everything possible to protect herself, but the constant stress was wreaking havoc on her mental state.

I’m watching. I’m waiting. Soon it will be time for us to be together forever.

Those parting words in the stalker’s last letter haunted Olivia. A shiver raced down her spine as she peered into the alley. Her heart thumped in an irregular beat, blood rushing through her veins, filling her ears with the noise.

Suddenly, a shape flew out of the darkness.

Olivia yelped. She jerked away from the window as the creature flew down the alley. Dark fur and black eyes.

A raccoon.

She pressed a hand to her racing heart as the animal ran through the beam of light before scrambling under a broken fence board into the neighbor’s property. Olivia sagged against the wall in relief. She closed her eyes. Then sucked in a deep breath and mentally berated herself for freaking out. She was losing it. Yes, her stalker had sent letters, but to her knowledge, he hadn’t done anything more than that. She couldn’t keep jumping at every shadow.

Olivia snapped her eyes open. Her office was bathed in warm light. Mood boards for a string of weddings coming up this spring and summer lined the far wall. For the first time since opening Blessed Events, Olivia was fully booked. It’d taken three years of hard work to get her event-planning business off the ground. In the beginning, she’d done birthday parties and corporate dinners. Her passion was always weddings though. One or two clients gave her a chance for a deep discount. Word spread. She was now the most sought after wedding planner in the Texas Hill Country.

It was a dream come true. But it would all fall apart if she didn’t get it together. A wedding planner’s job was to remain calm during chaos. Be a problem solver. She couldn’t accomplish any of that if fear and anxiety crippled her. Enough was enough.

Olivia snapped the blinds shut on the window, symbolically closing off her concerns about her stalker. The police were looking for him. And God was protecting her. She would continue to use caution, but fear would not run her life.

A loud chime came from her desk. Olivia hurried across the room. She searched for her cell phone among the seating table charts and wedding cake photos, finally unearthing it from under a pile of catering menus. “Blessed Events, this is Olivia.”

“Hi, Olivia.” A deep voice with a slight Texas twinge rumbled from the speaker. “It’s Cole.”

Texas Ranger Cole Donnelly. Olivia’s heart skipped a beat, this time for an entirely different reason, as an image of the last time they’d seen each other formed in her mind. At a tux fitting. Cole was strikingly handsome on a good day, but in formal wear… he was stunning. His chiseled jaw was clean-shaven, leaving all the focus on his arresting mouth and strong cheekbones. Tousled dark hair curled at the collar, adding a charming and almost boyish touch to his otherwise purely masculine features. If his face didn’t make every single woman in visible range screech to a stop, then the rest of him did. Muscles were visible even though the thick fabric of his jacket and slacks hugged slender hips that gave way to powerful thighs.Cole was a groomsman for a wedding she was in the process of planning for Elijah Goodwin and Sienna Evans. He was also the reason Olivia was still in the office at eight o’clock on a Tuesday night. She was waiting for him so they could discuss his speech for the wedding. Something Cole was incredibly nervous about.

She hoped he wasn’t calling to cancel. The wedding was in a couple of weeks and Cole’s schedule was hectic due to his job.

“I’m running late.” Cole sounded stressed, a note of exhaustion peppering his tone. “It was unavoidable, and I’m sorry, but I’m on my way. Can you wait? I should be there in about fifteen minutes. If I don’t speed.”

“Don’t get pulled over by the Serenity Police Department. They take speeding in town seriously, and as an outsider, you’ll be given a lecture on top of it.”

He chuckled. “A well deserved one too. Okay, I won’t speed.” He paused for a moment. “Have you eaten dinner? Cuz I haven’t and I’m starving. There’s an Italian place on the outskirts of town I’ve heard is very good.”

She knew exactly which one he was talking about. “Romeo’s.”

“That’s it. If we meet there, it’ll shave five minutes off my drive time. My treat. What do you say?”

For half a moment, Olivia wondered if this was Cole’s way of asking her out on a date. A riot of butterflies fluttered in her stomach. It caught her off-guard with its intensity. They’d seen each other several times in the last year and there was definitely a spark between them. One Olivia wasn’t sure she wanted to pursue. Since losing her fiancé three years ago, she’d put romance on the back burner.

She needed to keep things professional. Olivia busied her hands by clearing her desk. “Dinner would be great. But I’ll pay. It’s a business meeting after all.”

“No, ma’am.” Cole’s tone brooked no argument. “My grandmother would box my ears if I let a lady pay for her meal. Besides, I’m the one running late. And I’m pretty sure helping a groomsman with his speech isn’t one of your duties as a wedding planner.”

He was right. It wasn’t part of her normal duties, but Olivia always went the extra mile for her clients. “I don’t mind.”

“And I don’t mind paying for dinner. See you there.”

Olivia hung up, a smile on her lips. She spent the next ten minutes running through tomorrow’s schedule, and then hurried through her nighttime ritual of locking up. Cool night air stroked her cheeks as she stepped onto the sidewalk. The end of February carried a nip in the air, but in a few weeks, the nights would be warm enough for outdoor receptions. One of the benefits of living in Texas. Spring and fall were mild with glorious sunshine and riots of flowers. They paid for it in the summer—June through September was brutally hot—but Olivia always considered the trade-off worth it.

She hummed a tune while locking the front door to her small shop on the corner of Main Street and Elm. At this time of night, Serenity was quiet. Most of the residents were nestled snug at home.

Olivia hiked up her laptop bag on her shoulder. Then groaned. Her car was parked on the other side of the playground. There hadn't been any spots available near her office, thanks to today’s craft fair. Visitors from adjacent towns ate from food trucks, bought handcrafted items, and let their kids play in the inflatables near the park.

It wasn’t a long walk, but the dark shadows lingering beyond the cheery glow of the streetlights made Olivia nervous. She moved to the center of the road. Stoplights flashed yellow, warning drivers to be cautious, but at this hour, the streets were empty. Her heels tapped against the asphalt. Another gust of wind fluttered the strands of her hair and iced the tops of her ears. She pulled the collar of her jacket up to ward off a chill.

Footsteps echoed behind her.

Olivia’s heart jumped in her throat and she glanced over her shoulder. No one was there. Still, the feeling of being watched caused goosebumps to rise on her arms. Real or imaginary, Olivia couldn’t tell. She’d jumped at a raccoon earlier tonight. Her instincts weren’t finely tuned. Still, she slipped a key between her fingers as a makeshift weapon and picked up her pace as the park came into view. Her car was just on the other side.

The swings rocked on the playground as if pushed by invisible hands. It added to the intensifying fear knotting her insides. Darkness embraced her as she stepped onto the path cutting across the park.

Footsteps came from behind her once more. Olivia dared a peek over her shoulder. Her pulse skyrocketed.

Standing in the street, under the bright lights, was a man. His face was shrouded, hidden by the hoodie pulled over his head.

Her stalker? No, it couldn’t be. Her mind rejected it, even as horror sank into her with icy claws. Olivia broke into a run. Her laptop bag bounced against her hip. The thunderous sound of her own racing pulse blocked out everything else, but she could feel him. Closing in. Her SUV came into view and she dared another peek over her shoulder. He was in the park. Less than a dozen yards away.

She tripped. Olivia’s hands immediately shot out to break her fall. The keys in her left hand jabbed the delicate skin of her palm as they collided with the ground. The laptop bag slid from her shoulder into the grass. Hysteria sent her scrambling to her feet. She left her computer where it was. Getting away was all that mattered. Her breath came in rapid gulps as her anxiety heightened. She was going to have a panic attack.

“Sweetheart, don’t run.”

His voice came from right behind her. It was smooth and haunting, with just the barest hint of a Southern accent. Bile rose in her throat. Her fingers shook so hard Olivia couldn’t hit the button to unlock her vehicle. The headlights flashed as the car finally responded to her desperate demand. She flung the driver’s side door open and clambered inside, slamming the locks closed again immediately. Her gaze shot to the park beyond the windshield.

He was there. Still standing in the shadows.

Olivia struggled to shove the keys in the ignition. Sweat gathered on her brow and her heart beat like a drum against her ribcage. She couldn’t breathe. The terror and panic were all-consuming. Almost debilitating.

The key finally slipped into the ignition and Olivia twisted it to start the engine.

Nothing happened.

“No!” Shock stole the last of her breath. She tried to start the car again, but the engine didn’t make a sound. Olivia glanced out the windshield. The shadowy figure was closing in. Fresh anxiety coursed through her as a horrifying thought burst into her mind. Maybe he’d done this to her car. Disabled it so she couldn’t get away.

Olivia yanked her cell phone from her pocket intending to call the police, but in her panic, dialed the last person who’d called her. Cole answered on the first ring.

“He’s after me.” The words spilled from her mouth in a frantic rush. “I can’t start my car and he’s here—”


“A man.” Tears pricked her eyes. He’d come for her. Just as he promised. “Someone’s been sending me letters. A stalker.”

If he was surprised by her revelation, Cole didn’t waste time remarking on it. “Where are you?”

“Henderson Park. The west side.” Her gaze shot to the grassy area in front of her vehicle.

The figure was gone.

She twisted in her seat, trying to figure out where he went, but there was no sign of him. A fresh burst of terror flooded her veins. “Cole, I can’t see him. He was right in front of me, but now he’s gone.”

Had she imagined him?

“Listen to me.” Cole’s tone was authoritative. “I’m three minutes away. Are your doors locked?”

“Yes.” Olivia double-checked them with trembling fingers. Her gaze swept across the park once more, but there was no sign of the shadowy figure. Where had he gone? What kind of game was he playing? As terrifying as it was to have him chasing her, this disappearance act was more frightening. She was trapped in her vehicle without a weapon and with no idea where the danger was.

Lord, please help me.

“Put me on speaker and try to start your car again,” Cole ordered.

Shakes overtook her body, but Olivia got the call on speaker. She reached for the keys still hanging in the ignition. Maybe the SUV would start now that she wasn’t in a panic. Then something shifted in the corner of Olivia’s vision. Her head swiveled.

A shapeless face appeared in the driver’s side window, right next to her, dark eyes boring into hers.

She screamed.

@Creative Thoughts 2021

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