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. No. No. No. Tara knew exactly what was coming next. The baby sucked in a deep breath and let loose. Flustered, Tara scooped up the bags from the end of the counter and dumped 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 up 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.
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.
Heartbeat. 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.”
Tara signed the discharge paperwork, scooped up her jacket, and winced. Her scraped palms stung, and her body ached with already sore muscles. Yet, she thanked God the injuries were minor. Things could have been so much worse.
In the parking lot, she’d regained consciousness with Grady hovering over her. The first thing he’d done was reassure her that Maddy was okay. The ER doctor had also thoroughly checked the baby over. Only then had Tara allowed treatment of her own injuries.
She bolted toward the waiting room. Although she knew Maddy was safe with Grady, she longed to hold her in her arms. She breathed a sigh of relief when they came into view through the glass doors.
Grady was leaning against the wall. His light brown hair was hidden underneath his white cowboy hat, and a five o’clock shadow darkened his square jaw. Blood—hers?—stained the sleeve of his sports jacket. In his arms, he cradled a sleeping Maddy.
He closed the distance between them. “Are you okay?”
“Fine. A few stitches but that’s all.”
She held out her hands, and he carefully shifted Maddy to her arms. Tara cuddled her close and kissed the riot of curls at the top of her head. To think of what could have happened….
“Grady, I don’t know how to thank you. I can’t—”
A lump formed in Tara’s throat and hot tears burned the back of her eyelids. She hadn’t cried once. Not in the ambulance, not in the ER, not even when she’d given her statement to the detective. But now, with Maddy in her arms and the danger behind her, the emotions were overwhelming.
His warm hand grasped her upper arm and squeezed it gently. “There’s no need to thank me. God put me in the right place at the right time. I’m glad you and Maddy weren’t seriously hurt.”
“Come on.” Grady picked up the diaper bag and the carrier from a nearby chair. “Let’s get the two of you home.”
“That sounds like a good idea.” She paused. “Wait, how are we going to get home? You rode in the ambulance with me.”
“A couple of officers were nice enough to drop off my truck.”
He hustled them outside. The temperature had dropped and Tara’s hands were icy by the time they got Maddy’s car seat situated. She climbed into the cab. “I’m exhausted.”
“It’s normal after the night you’ve had.” He pulled out of the hospital parking lot. “Seriously, are you okay? Any pain? I was worried you would have a concussion.”
She was lucky she didn’t after taking two knocks to the head. One when she hit the car’s bumper and another when the attacker slammed her head against the ground.
“I’m okay.” Ice had helped, as had the numbing medication, but she knew aspirin was in her future. “It’s a good thing I’m hard-headed. It would’ve been difficult to spend the night in the hospital. I hate them.”
His mouth twitched. “You’re a doctor.”
“Who doesn’t work in a hospital. Besides, it’s entirely different to be a patient.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
The street lights played with the edges of his strong profile. Her stomach fluttered. No matter how much she wished otherwise, he had an effect on her she couldn’t shake. She’d never once thought of him romantically—not even when they were teenagers. But since her move back to town last year, whenever Grady walked into a room, her heart beat a touch faster. It was new and unfamiliar and horrifyingly similar to attraction. She didn’t know what to do with it except pretend it wasn’t happening.
“Do you want me to call Janet?” he asked. “I could have her meet us at your house.”
Her best friend, Janet, was also Grady’s younger sister.
“No, it’s late. There’s no need to bother her.”
Silence descended. Despite the late hour, Grady’s attention was laser sharp. His hands were firmly on the steering wheel and he kept checking the mirrors.
Tara fiddled with the cross around her neck. “When did you get back into town?”
“Tonight. The case was a rough one. Sorry about running out of the adoption proceeding straight after. I didn’t have a lot of time to spare.”
“I wasn’t expecting you to come at all. It meant a lot you did.”
Grady was part of her support system, which also included his parents and sisters. The West family had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember. Yet another reason why she refused to indulge in this fleeting attraction. To have the relationship go down in flames wouldn’t just threaten her friendship with Grady, it would put the only family she had left at risk.
“It looked like everything went off without a hitch.”
“It did. Vikki naming me as Maddy’s guardian made the process straightforward. I wish her murder investigation was going as quickly.”
Maddy’s mother had been shot in cold blood on a deserted stretch of country road five months ago. Tara hated to think of Vikki’s last moments. Now that she’d faced down a gunman herself, her imagination filled in the blanks far too well. Goosebumps broke out along her arms, and she hugged herself.
“I’ve been staying in touch with the detectives,” Grady said. “They’re running down every lead.”
“I know.” She sighed. “Do you think I should increase the reward? I can’t believe no one saw her in the hours before her death.”
She couldn’t afford the money. Opening her own medical practice had taken most of her savings and the adoption had been an unexpected expense. But what could she do? Vikki didn’t deserve to die that way, and Maddy, when she got older, would need answers.
“Hold on. Let me talk with the detectives more. Maybe I’ll see some thread they haven’t considered pulling yet.” He glanced in the rearview mirror at Maddy in the car seat. “I’m just afraid the answers may not give her—or you—any comfort.”
She wanted to disagree, but couldn’t. Vikki, by her own admission, had a troubled past. Becoming pregnant with Maddy had been a catalyst for the single mother to turn her life around, but Tara was wise enough to know Vikki’s past could have something to do with her murder. It was a heartbreaking proposition.
She bit her lip. “I never understood those parents who call in the middle of the night because the kid gets hiccups. I mean, I got it but I never really got it. Now, I do. Parenthood changes you. It’s a messy ball of amazingness wrapped up in fear and paranoia. I want to smother her in cotton balls and keep her safe all the time, but logically, I know I can’t. It’s…I don’t know. It’s hard to describe.”
“From what I can tell, it’s normal. Happened to my sister. Lauren was the calmest of us all until the twins were born. Then she turned into a walking encyclopedia of warnings and dangers.” He glanced at her. “It just means you care.”
She did care. So much it was terrifying.
“I don’t know when it happened, Grady. Sometime between Vikki’s death and the adoption, I fell in love with her.”
And she would do anything to keep Maddy safe. Anything.
Grady snuck a glance at Tara out of the corner of his eye. Her head rested against the back of the seat and her eyes were shut. Silky strands of hair played with the delicate curve of her cheek marred with a faint bruise. Ten to one, she was hurting and too stubborn to admit it. His jaw tightened. Whoever had attacked her was going to get his due.
Grady would make sure of it.
He pulled into her neighborhood. Tara’s house was a small two-bedroom clapboard with blue shutters and a porch swing. Parking in the driveway, he scanned the area.
Tara opened her eyes, winced, and lifted a hand to her hair.
Grady put the truck into Park. “I’m calling Janet to come and stay the night.”
She placed a hand on his arm, stopping him. He swore the heat of her touch went straight through the sleeve of his sports jacket.
“I need some pain medication and rest. That’s all.”
He hesitated, but it was the second time she’d said no. He wouldn’t dismiss her wishes. Grady turned off the engine. “Let’s get you guys inside.”
He rounded the truck to open her door. She removed Maddy’s car seat. The baby was still sleeping.
“I’ll take her.” His fingers brushed against Tara’s as he grabbed the handle of the carrier. His heart skipped a beat. “You have your house keys?”
“Yes. The deputy found them in the parking lot.” She frowned. “My car is still there. I need it to get to work tomorrow morning. And my groceries. I didn’t even think about them.”
“I have your groceries. They’re in my truck, although not everything survived. Is Mom watching Maddy for you tomorrow?”
“Yes. She’s been amazing. I couldn’t open the clinic on Saturdays without her help and it’s made a huge difference for my patients with nine-to-five jobs.”
“I’ll pick you up in the morning and take you to your car. Then I’ll drive Maddy out to the ranch.” His boots thumped against the entry tile. “That way, you can sleep in a little longer. Problem solved.”
He set the baby carrier on the dining room table. Tara’s gaze bounced around, and she hurried to flip on several lights before unstrapping Maddy. The baby didn’t stir.
“I’ll do a quick check of your doors and windows before I leave. Make sure everything is secure.”
“Thank you, Grady.” She bit her lip. “It’s probably silly to be worried—”
“Not at all. You’ve had a serious scare. I’ll start in Maddy’s room. That way you can lay her down and I won’t accidentally wake her up.”
He knew firsthand the dangers of waking a sleeping baby. Being shot had left him recuperating with a ridiculous amount of time on his hands. His older sister Lauren had twins around the same time. Helping to take care of his niece and nephew had saved his sanity and given him purpose during a period of his life he’d desperately needed it.
In the nursery, Grady checked the windows. All locked up tight. He moved on to the other rooms, methodically inspecting every entry point. When he circled back to the front door, he opened it.
He scanned the street, noting everything. The wind chimes on the porch, the beat-up truck two doors down, Vikki Spencer’s empty house across the street. It smelled of damp grass and leaves. Somewhere a dog barked.
He went down the drive and opened his truck to retrieve Tara’s groceries. Flashes of what might’ve transpired had he not interrupted the attack made his stomach churn. While waiting for Tara at the hospital, he’d alternated between worrying for her and running through the events in his mind. Something about the robbery was bothering him, but he couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was.
He set the canvas bags on the dining room table. A flare of headlights made their way down the street. The vehicle slowed. Grady parted the curtains near the front door with the edge of his finger. The street light reflected off a Sweetgrass Police Department logo. He relaxed. The cavalry were here.
Footsteps came down the stairs. “What are you looking at?”
“Patrol car. I asked for special rounds around your house tonight.” He dropped the curtain back into place. “It’s nothing to be worried about. Just an extra precaution.”
Her shoulders dropped. “You thought of everything.”
“Believe it or not, it’s my job.” He tapped on the ranger badge pinned above his shirt pocket. “If you were to ask me to read an X-ray or prescribe antibiotics, I’m at a complete loss.”
Her lips turned up at the corners. His breath hitched. Gosh, she was beautiful. It hit him every time he looked at her. She used to be his younger sister’s pesky friend. Now, he saw her as anything but. Her hair was cut short, framing mahogany eyes and a face that was leaner and more defined than he remembered. But it was her personality that truly held him captive. Smart, honest, and unrelentingly kind.
He’d debated coming clean about his feelings, but held back. Getting involved with his sister’s best friend was a hazardous proposition. Plus, Tara had an I’m-not-interested-so-don’t-ask wall he couldn’t quite figure out how to bypass.
“I’m going to make a cup of tea,” she said. “Would you like some? I can scrounge up some of those buttery cookies you like so much.”
“Well, if there’s a cookie involved, I’m there.”
She laughed. “Green tea, okay?”
He wouldn’t know green tea from any other kind. He was a coffee man. But Tara obviously didn’t want him to leave yet and he wasn’t going anywhere until she was ready. “Whatever you have is fine.”
He leaned against the divider between the kitchen and rest of the living area. Tara pulled out a container of cookies from the pantry and removed the lid. The scent of butter and vanilla wafted out. A warm feeling lodged in his chest to see the square ones with the sugar sprinkles—his favorite—hadn’t been touched. Had she saved them for him?
Don’t be ridiculous. He gave himself a mental shake. They’re Janet’s favorite too.
“Some night, huh?” Tara filled an electric kettle with water. “I bet you didn’t think a quick run to the grocery store would end with saving a damsel in distress.”
He snorted, fishing a cookie out of the pile. “You’re no damsel in distress. The detective told me you knocked the gun out of the perpetrator’s hands.”
Her cheeks turned pink as she pulled two mugs down from the cabinet. “With the grocery sacks. Thank goodness the formula cans were heavy.”
“Well, the weapon was recovered from the scene. Hopefully, we’ll get forensics from it.”
“The detective who took my statement said it was a solid lead. Apparently, they’ve had several similar robberies in Conroe. He’s hoping the gun will help them get this guy.”
His phone beeped. He tossed the last bit of cookie in his mouth and read the text.
“They found your purse.” The dessert turned sour in his stomach. The lingering sense of unease he’d been fighting with since the parking lot grew. “The money and credit cards were gone, along with your cell phone, but the rest of it appears to be intact. You won’t have to replace your driver’s license after all.”
“Well, that’s one small favor.” She blew on her tea then took a sip. “I called the bank from the hospital and they hadn’t had any fraudulent charges yet. All of that for the twenty dollars in cash in my wallet and my dry-cleaning slips.”
Tara’s shoulders were tense and her mouth tight. Continuing to talk about the attack wasn’t going to help her sleep tonight. Time to change the subject.
“Tell me the truth. How stupid is the tux for my sister’s wedding?” He arched his brows. “Are we talking bow tie and suspenders or just that silly thing that wraps around your waist?”
Her mouth quirked up. “You’re in luck. No tux, just a suit. Plus, you get to keep your cowboy boots. At least, that’s what I heard last. Now, if your mother gets involved, all bets are off.”
He groaned. “I don’t stand a chance against both Janet and my mother.”
They joked and told stories. Twenty minutes later when Tara yawned, he set his mug down.
“Let me get out of here so you can get some rest.”
She followed him to the door. “Thank you, Grady. For everything.”
“No need to thank me.” He paused on the stoop, resisting the urge to touch her one last time. “That’s what friends do for each other. I’ll see you in the morning. Don’t forget to arm your security system.”
The door closed behind him. He waited on the front porch until the snick of the lock slid into place, then went back to his truck and started the engine. He pulled out of the driveway and, slowly, circled the block.
Everything was quiet. Chances were, the loser in the parking lot was looking for a quick buck and had attacked Tara for her jewelry. Chasing down rabbit holes and improbable theories didn’t often make sense. Yet the incident left a bad taste in Grady’s mouth.
Something about this wasn’t right.
He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed. “Hey, Luke, sorry to call so late, but I have a favor to ask.”
This concludes the sample of Ranger Protection. Thank you for reading! If you’d like to purchase the novel, please click on the button below.