A high-pitched wail reverberated through the grocery store, loud enough to shatter glass.
Tara winced. She tried rocking the shopping cart, but seven-month-old Maddy had no patience when she was hungry and tired. The baby’s body was rigid in the car seat carrier hooked to the front of the shopping cart. Her puckered hands formed into fists and her eyes were squeezed shut, tears leaking from the corners. She resembled a furious boxer giving up a war cry.
“Sixty-nine fifty, ma’am.” The clerk’s brow furrowed. Tara fumbled with her wallet while fishing for the pacifier buried somewhere underneath Maddy. Why hadn’t she hooked it to the baby’s outfit using the string? Her fingers brushed against the plastic. She yanked it out and wiggled it between Maddy’s lips. The baby latched on, her wail replaced with furious sucking.
Tara took the few seconds of reprieve to swipe her credit card across the machine, then shoved her wallet back inside her purse. It rustled against the slew of dry cleaning slips from the last couple of weeks. Another errand left undone. A last-minute patient had arrived at the clinic, setting her entire schedule off-kilter. She’d barely made it in time to pick up Maddy at daycare. The grocery store had been a necessary stop. They’d scraped the bottom of the formula can this morning and she had only three diapers left.
Maddy spit out the pacifier and her chin trembled. Oh, no. Tara wiggled the cart and willed the receipt to print faster. The baby sucked in a deep breath and let loose. Flustered, Tara hastily grabbed the receipt and scooped up the last of the bags from the end of the counter, dumping them into her cart. She rushed out the sliding doors into the cool October night.
Shoot, where was her car? She scanned the parking lot. She’d come in on the right-hand side. Weak spotlights illuminated hulking vehicles. The enticing scent of french fries from the fast-food restaurant across the street tickled her nose, and Tara’s stomach rumbled. It was way past dinner time for both of them. She tucked Maddy’s blanket around her as she moved to the far side of the parking lot. The loose wheel on the cart wobbled.
“It’s going to be fine, honey. Promise. Two minutes and we’ll be home.”
Her little sedan was hidden in the dark between two SUVs. The overhead light next to her parking spot was out. No wonder she hadn’t been able to find her car. Tara dug her keys out of her purse and hit the fob. The trunk swung open.
A piece of paper fluttered across the space between two vehicles. Tara shivered in the chilly wind. She considered putting Maddy in the car, but the baby would only scream, and for the moment she was quiet. Better to load the car first.
Tara grabbed the diapers from the cart and tossed them into the trunk. Her purse strap slid down, and she threw it in as well before turning back to scoop up a couple of canvas sacks. Formula and baby food knocked together. Maddy fussed.
“Sweetheart, please, give me just a minute—”
Glass crunched. The hair on the back of her neck stood up and she spun. A man dressed in black with a ski mask over his face materialized out of the shadows. He lifted his arm, and she was looking down the barrel of a gun.
What did he want? Money? Her car? Or—she swallowed hard—did he want something else? From her seat on the cart, Maddy whimpered. The masked man’s attention slid to the left. It lingered on the baby and Tara’s heart galloped. Her gaze darted around the parking lot, but it was empty.
She backed up half a step, putting herself between the man and Maddy. The shopping cart handle bumped against her back. Tara’s breath came in shallow spurts.
“Here.” She lifted her car keys. Her hand shook. “Take it. My purse is in the trunk.”
His mouth, visible through a cut in the mask, twisted into a sinister smile. It iced her blood.
He stepped closer. The canvas grocery bags were wrapped around her wrist. The weight of the baby formula pulled them down. She gripped the handles.
“Please.” Her voice trembled. “Just take the car and go.”
She threw the keys at him. He instinctively reacted by trying to catch them. In one quick flash, she swung the canvas bags. The combined force of the baby formula cans knocked the gun from his hand. It clattered against the pavement. She swung again, aiming for his head. He stumbled and fell back.
Tara spun on her heel, gripped the shopping cart, and took off. The loose wheel vibrated violently. The sacks she’d stupidly hung on to banged between the metal grate of the cart and her knees. She opened her mouth to scream.
Something tackled her. She released the cart, and it skittered across the parking lot. Maddy’s wails turned frantic. Tara hit the asphalt and pain exploded across her hip and shoulder. The attacker slid across her. The air fled her lungs and tears pricked her eyes as she struggled to breathe. Maddy’s cries echoed across the lot.
She struggled to her feet, but he grabbed her ankle. His gloved hand gripped hard enough to bruise bone. She twisted and kicked out with the other foot. The defensive move was meant for his nose but caught him on the shoulder instead. He yanked.
She scrambled to find purchase as the ground rushed her. Her palms scraped against the asphalt and her head wacked against the side of a car’s bumper. A red-hot flash of pain exploded across her vision.
The attacker loomed over her.
He grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head against the pavement.
Everything went black.
Grady joined the back of the checkout line and scanned the grocery store. Two people waited in front of him, and a lady and her five-year-old were in the next aisle over. No threats. Not that there would be many in Sweetgrass, Texas. A fact he’d reminded himself of over and over again. Still, years of working undercover had made him hyper-aware and extra vigilant. Becoming a Texas Ranger had intensified those habits.
He rubbed his palm against the ache in his bum leg. It hurt more today, probably due to all the driving. He’d spent the last two weeks working a murder case several counties over. At the end of the counter, the employee bagging groceries paused.
Tommy lifted a canvas sack. “Doctor Sims forgot her bag.”
Tara? His heart skipped a beat. He hadn’t seen her since Maddy’s adoption proceeding.
“She must have been distracted by the baby’s crying. I’ll run it out to her,” Tommy said to the cashier.
“And leave me without someone to bag my groceries?” The woman in line frowned. “She’ll come back in and get it when she sees it’s missing.”
Grady stepped out of line and placed his items on the next register. “I’ll take it to her, Tommy.”
He grabbed the bag, his long strides eating up the distance between the register and the sliding doors. The moment they opened, Grady tensed.
The baby’s scream carried on the wind. It was frantic. There was no way Tara would leave Maddy crying like that. He lowered the bag, silently dropping it on the sidewalk. His heart pounded as he ran toward the sound in a crouched position. A shopping cart sat against an unfamiliar vehicle at an odd angle. The baby’s hands and feet waved from the carrier still resting on top.
Tara was nowhere in sight.
His heart broke for the baby and he wanted to comfort her, but first he had to find her mom. He pulled his gun and kept moving, keeping to the shadows. Canvas bags were spread around, a dented can of formula under a car's wheel. A few vehicles down, Tara came into view, lying on the ground. A man in a ski mask crouched over her.
“Police!” He pointed his gun at the attacker. “Freeze!”
The man raised his head. Their eyes met across the distance. It was too far to see clearly, but Grady sensed the attacker was weighing his options. Tara didn’t move. He didn’t know if she was breathing, and it killed him.
The attacker bolted. He scurried between two cars and grabbed something from an open trunk.
“Freeze!” Grady ordered. He could shoot him, but there was no way to know if anyone else was in the parking lot. He didn’t want to run the risk of accidentally hitting an innocent bystander. The man disappeared into the shadows, his footsteps fading fast.
Grady’s instincts were to take off after the attacker, but he couldn’t leave Tara and the baby. He dropped to his knees next to her prone form. Holding his breath, he checked for a pulse on her delicate wrist.
She had a heartbeat. “Thank you, Lord.”
There was so much blood on her face. He pulled out his phone. He rattled off his identification, requested an ambulance and additional units. He also gave them a description of the attacker—what little there was—and the direction he’d fled. They had to get him off the streets. If he was willing to attack a woman and child, who knew what else he would do?
Voices filtered across the parking lot. Tommy came around the corner. He was pushing a cart, the woman from earlier by his side. They spotted Grady and Tara at the same time and both stopped in their tracks, mouths dropping open.
“Tommy, check the baby.”
The young man raced to the shopping cart.
“Is she hurt?” Grady barked out.
“She looks okay.” He steered the entire cart over. Grady got up from his crouch, his leg screaming in protest. Maddy’s wails had quieted. Her face was red from her efforts, and she’d shoved a tiny fist in her mouth. As Tommy had said, she appeared unharmed.
“Go inside and get me your first aid kit.”
Sweetgrass was a small town with limited resources and the grocery store was on the outskirts. The police or ambulance might take fifteen minutes to get there. He needed to tend to Tara now.
The diaper bag was still inside the cart. He pulled out a burp cloth, and bent down to examine Tara. Other than the wound on her face, she seemed unharmed. Of course, it was impossible to know for sure until she was conscious or checked out by a doctor.
So much blood. Where was it coming from? Careful not to jostle her, he brushed his fingers along her skull. There was a wound hidden in her hair. He pressed the cloth to the gash.
Her eyes fluttered but didn’t open.
“Tara, can you hear me?”
She didn’t move and his tension racketed up. Head wounds could be deadly. The baby whimpered in her carrier.
“Stay with me, Tara. Maddy needs you. She can’t lose you too.”