Authors: Delores Fossen
“Drop the gun, Sheriff.”
Discovering Kendall O’Neal being held at gunpoint at his ranch isn’t the homecoming sheriff Aiden Braddock expects. And now Kendall’s captors are demanding he destroy evidence in an upcoming trial in exchange for the Texas attorney’s life…
And the life of their unborn baby.
Three months ago, Aiden and Kendall gave in to their long-simmering attraction. Now, with a child on the way, the stakes have shot sky-high. But even after he pulls off a daring rescue, Kendall isn’t safe. Before long, they find temporary haven in each other’s arms—which could be even more dangerous than facing down a killer.
“You could have been killed.”
Her voice was strained, barely a whisper, but he heard the emotions loud and clear.
That wasn’t ordinary concern for a fellow human being. That was concern for her baby’s daddy. Maybe even for him.
It only added another layer of complications to their already complicated situation.
Kendall was pregnant with his baby. They were a Texas version of Romeo and Juliet. Star-crossed lovers. And since that story hadn’t had a happy ending, this extra layer only made him worry more.
He’d clearly developed a fondness for complicated layers. Apparently, a fondness for having Kendall in his arms, too.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Kendall stared at him, those eyes so green that they looked like spring itself. Spring with heat, of course. Even now the heat was there.
TO THE SHERIFF
bestselling author, has sold over fifty novels with millions of copies of her books in print worldwide. She’s received the Booksellers’ Best Award and the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award, and was a finalist for a prestigious RITA® Award. You can contact the author through her webpage at
Books by Delores Fossen
Sweetwater Ranch series
Cowboy Behind the Badge
Rustling Up Trouble
Kidnapping in Kendall County
The Deputy’s Redemption
Reining in Justice
Surrendering to the Sheriff
The Lawmen of Silver Creek Ranch series Grayson
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for more titles.
Sheriff Aiden Braddock—
When two men kidnap his former flame Kendall O’Neal, Aiden comes face-to-face not only with old dangers from the past, but also a new secret that could tear his family apart.
For years she’s tried to avoid Aiden because of their family feud, but a one-night stand brings the past to a head and ends up threatening both of their lives.
Aiden’s mother. She’s very bitter about Aiden and Kendall’s relationship, but how far would she go to stop it?
Kendall’s half sister who’s in jail awaiting trial for murdering Aiden’s father. She’s the reason the Braddocks and the O’Neals are locked in a fierce family feud.
A wealthy rancher who had plenty of bad blood with Aiden’s family, but he also has some secrets. Those secrets could be the reason Kendall and Aiden are now in danger.
Jewell’s lawyer. He’s in love with Jewell and would do anything to clear her name. That might include risking Kendall’s life to destroy evidence that could incriminate Jewell.
FBI Agent Seth Calder—
Jewell’s stepson. He’s very protective of Jewell and Kendall and doesn’t trust the Braddocks.
Excerpt from Under Fire by Carol Ericson
Sheriff Aiden Braddock shut the door behind him, tossed his truck keys on the kitchen counter.
And stopped cold.
He didn’t hear anything unusual. The whir of the A/C and fridge. The April breeze rattling the oaks outside the window over the sink. All the sounds he should be hearing, but he still got the gut feeling that something wasn’t right.
Since that gut feeling had saved his butt a time or two during his time as county sheriff, Aiden listened to it.
He drew his Glock from his holster.
Aiden didn’t move yet. He just stood there a few more moments. Listening. And then he heard the thing that didn’t belong. A whisper, maybe. Or somebody breathing. Because he lived alone, there darn sure shouldn’t be anyone else whispering or breathing in his house.
“Mom?” Aiden called out just to make sure. Though it’d been longer than a blue moon since she came out to his place. Too far in the sticks, she had always complained.
“Laine? Shelby?” Aiden added in case it was one of his sisters. Again, a serious long shot, since they rarely visited, either.
No answer. But he hadn’t expected one.
Whatever was going on, this likely wasn’t a social visit and could even involve some attempted bodily harm. After all, he was the county sheriff and had riled more than a person or two over the past decade. One of those riled people had perhaps come to settle an old score.
Aiden huffed. He was so not in the mood to bash some heads, but he might have to do just that.
“Let’s make this easy for you,” Aiden called out. “I’m a damn good shot. Plus, I’m hungry, tired and not feeling up to any idiot who’s stupid enough to break into a lawman’s house.”
“Aiden,” someone said in a hoarse whisper.
Even though the person hardly made any sound when she spoke, Aiden thought he recognized the voice.
But that didn’t make any sense. This was the last place on earth she’d come.
Especially after...well, just
Aiden didn’t lower his gun, but he inched his way toward the sound of her whisper—in his living room. It was just a few yards away past a half wall, but he kept watch all around him. Kept listening, too. Until he could move into the arched opening that divided the rooms, and he snapped his gun in the direction where he’d pinpointed Kendall’s voice.
His heart slammed against his chest.
Because it was Kendall O’Neal all right, but this definitely wasn’t a social visit. She was on her knees in the center of the floor, and there was a hulking man on each side of her. The men were wearing black ski masks, and both had automatics pointed right at her head.
“Drop the gun, Sheriff Braddock,” the bigger one on the right growled.
Aiden held on to his Glock, trying to figure out what the devil was going on here. He didn’t get many clues from Kendall. She only shook her head. Like an apology or something.
But that was pure fear in her wide eyes.
He didn’t see any signs of injury, but then most of her body that he could see was covered with a pale blue shirt, skirt and business jacket—her lawyering clothes. However, her hair was a mess, her blond locks tangled on her shoulders.
So maybe she’d been in a scuffle with these guys after all.
Kendall wasn’t the messy-hair type. Nope. All priss and polish for her and never a hair out of place. People didn’t call her the ice princess for nothing.
However, that wasn’t an ice-princess look she was giving him now.
“What do you want?” Aiden asked the men.
“Your gun on the floor.” Again, it was the one on the right who answered. No unusual accent. He was a Texan. And the nondescript dark pants and T-shirt didn’t give Aiden any clues, either.
,” the man added, and he jammed his gun against Kendall’s head. “Or else she’ll pay the price.”
The last thing any lawman wanted to do was surrender his weapon, but Aiden was wearing his usual backup gun in a boot holster. Maybe he’d be able to get to it in time if things turned uglier than they already were.
Of course, things were already plenty ugly enough.
Aiden didn’t make any fast moves. He eased his gun onto the floor. “Now, what’s this about?” he demanded. Thankfully, he still sounded like a sheriff even though it was hard to sound badass and in charge with guns pointed at Kendall.
“You’re going to do us a favor,” the gunman said. Even though the ski mask covered most of the gunman’s face, Aiden could have sworn the guy was smirking. “And if you don’t, then we’ll hurt Kendall here. Won’t kill her at first. But we’ll use her to make sure you cooperate.”
The threat was real enough—the
guns were proof of that—but Aiden had to shake his head. “You do know that Kendall O’Neal and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms, right? Everybody in town knows it. So why use her to get me to do anything for you?”
But his question ground to a halt, and Aiden’s gaze snapped back to her.
“This is some kind of sick game, isn’t it?” Though he couldn’t imagine why Kendall would be playing it with these two armed thugs. “Is this connected to your sister?”
Aiden didn’t wait for an answer. His attention went back to her captors. If they were indeed linked to her sister and not paid help trying to trick him into doing something crazier than what they were already doing.
“Just in case you don’t know,” Aiden told the men, “Kendall’s half sister, Jewell, is about to stand trial for murdering my father twenty-three years ago. If this was a real hostage situation, you’d have taken someone that I actually care a rat’s you know what about.”
Kendall flinched at his stinging remark, but she quickly recovered. The fear, or fake fear, was still in her green cat eyes, and she hiked up her chin in that way that always riled him to the core. She looked darn haughty when she did that.
“There are things you don’t know.” Her voice cracked on the last word. A nice, theatrical touch.
“Clearly,” Aiden said with a boatload of sarcasm. “But let me guess. You’re a thousand steps past the desperate stage, and you’d do anything to save your precious, murdering sister. So you want me to try to fix the trial or something.”
Aiden rammed his thumb against his chest and had to finish through clenched teeth. “You picked the wrong mark, Kendall. I don’t break the law for anybody, especially the likes of you.”
And he got another lightbulb moment.
A very bad one. One brought on by the
likes of you
comment. It hadn’t been that long ago that he said those very words to her.
Not in the heat of the moment like now.
Yeah, Kendall and he had had the hots for each other since middle school. Forbidden fruit and all that crap. Aiden had always resisted her because he’d known it would tear his family apart.
Until three months ago.
He’d had to kill a man that day. A domestic disturbance gone wrong. Then he’d had a run-in with his mother. Then another run-in with one of Jewell’s smart-mouthed daughters. To make matters worse, he’d dropped by the Bluebonnet for a drink or two. Which had turned into four. All right, five.
And he’d run into Kendall.
Aiden hadn’t asked her what kind of bad day she’d been trying to erase with those shots of high-end whiskey she was downing like water. But the drinks had dumbed him down just enough that he’d gone over to talk to her. A mistake.
A big one.
Because the next thing Aiden knew, they were doing more than talking. They’d landed in bed for some drunken sex, and he’d committed one of the worst mistakes he could ever have made.
Did that night play a part in this, too?
Aiden hadn’t been very nice to her the next morning what with his hangover and regret. That was where the
likes of you
comment had come into play. Because he’d wanted to leave immediately, find a big rock and hit himself in the head with it. But maybe Kendall thought she was a woman scorned, and paired with her obsession to clear her sister’s name, perhaps the desperation had spilled over to this.
“Get out,” Aiden ordered them, and he reached down to pick up his gun.
Aiden didn’t get far before the shot blasted through the room and sent his ears ringing. The bullet hadn’t been aimed at him.
But rather at Kendall.
She screamed out in pain. Not a whimper, but a full-fledged, blood-chilling scream. For a good reason, too. The bullet had gone into her arm, tearing through her jacket sleeve and into her flesh.
Almost immediately, a bright red patch of blood started to spread over the fabric. She struggled, trying to clamp her hand over it, but he realized then that her wrists had been bound behind her back with plastic cuffs.
Aiden’s instincts were to rush to her, to make sure she was okay. He would have done that for anyone. But when he started toward her, the guy on the left shifted his gun to Aiden.
“Move and she gets another bullet in the other arm,” the man warned him.
Okay. So maybe this wasn’t fake after all.
“You’ve got my attention,” Aiden said. “But let’s hurry along this little chat so I can get an ambulance out here for Kendall.”
The talking guy shook his head. “Her injury isn’t serious. Just a flesh wound. That doesn’t mean the next one will be, though. We need her alive but not necessarily in one piece.”
Aiden’s heartbeat hadn’t settled down since he first saw Kendall kneeling on the floor, and that didn’t do much to slow it to normal.
“What do you want?” Aiden repeated.
“For you to destroy evidence lot BR6847-23.” The guy didn’t hesitate.
Normally, Aiden wouldn’t have known what evidence that was. But he did in this case. It was recently found bone fragments.
His father’s bone fragments.
And it was key evidence in the murder case against Jewell.
“So this is about your sister,” he said to Kendall. Even though he no longer believed Kendall had orchestrated it. Not after taking that bullet.
She moaned, the sound of raw pain, and clamped her teeth over her bottom lip for a moment. “I don’t know who hired these men,” Kendall said, her voice shaking. “I was leaving work late, and they grabbed me in the parking lot. They brought me here.”
Even though there weren’t a lot of details in that, Aiden could almost see it, and it turned his stomach a little. Kendall wasn’t a large woman, and these two goons towered over her. She had to have been terrified.
No one was that good an actor.
“Jewell’s daughters could be behind this,” Aiden said just to see what kind of reaction he’d get from them. No one argued. But then, he didn’t see anything in their body language that he’d hit a home run, either.
Of course, who else would it be?
Jewell had abandoned her husband and three sons all those years ago when she left town under the cloud of suspicion of murdering Aiden’s father. The suspicion had finally been confirmed when the case was reopened, and those bone fragments had been discovered. Jewell was finally where she belonged.
And she hadn’t exactly mended fences with her own sons and ex-husband.
Still, she had two daughters, a stepson and a now-shot half sister on her side. Once Kendall was safe, Aiden would go to Jewell’s spawn and step-spawn and demand answers.
First, though, he had to get Kendall out of this.
“I guess you’ll hold her until I destroy the evidence?” Aiden asked.
The talker nodded. “The sooner you do it, the sooner you can have her back.”
Except that didn’t make sense, either. Jewell’s kids knew she loved her much younger half sister. In fact, word was that Jewell thought of Kendall more like a daughter than a half sister.
So why would Jewell’s kids have put Kendall at risk like this?
“Why?” Aiden repeated out loud and shook his head. “And that
covers a lot of territory. There’s plenty about this that doesn’t make sense.”
Kendall opened her mouth. Closed it. Then swallowed hard. “I thought Laine might have said something.”
Aiden shook his head. “My sister? What does she have to do with this?”
“Laine saw me coming out of the doctor’s office. I swear, Aiden, I was going to leave town next week. I wasn’t going to put any of this on you. I know how you and your family feel about me.”
There was a gun trained on him, but Aiden went some steps closer so he could look Kendall straight in the eye. “What the heck are you talking about?”
She made a sound. Sort of a helpless moan that came from deep within her chest. “They took me because I’m pregnant. Because they knew they could use that for leverage.”
Kendall’s breath shuddered. “Aiden, the baby I’m carrying is yours.”
It was hard to think through the pain, but Kendall braced herself for Aiden’s reaction. She expected him to curse or yell. To ask what she’d already asked herself—how could this have happened? But other than a few moments of silence, that was it.
Those moments of silence were his only physical response to the baby.
She was sweating now. Not because it was hot but because her arm was throbbing. Yes, it was just a flesh wound, but she was bleeding, and she needed the wound cleaned and tended. Later, if there was a later, she’d deal with Aiden’s reaction.
Heaven knew what that would be.
“How do you think this is going to work?” Aiden’s attention shifted from her to the gunman who’d been doing all the talking.
“You’ll leave now. Go to the evidence storage room. You shouldn’t have any trouble getting in there, since you’re the county sheriff. Tell them you need to look at something else that involves another case. And once you’re inside, destroy the evidence.”
Aiden shook his head. “It won’t be that simple. There are surveillance cameras.”
“Then figure out a way around them,” the gunman snapped. “After all, your kid’s life depends on it.”
Now Aiden cursed, but it was under his breath. “And what about Kendall? You shot her. It can’t be good for my
to have his or her mother injured like that.”
“Don’t worry about her. We’ll get her to a doctor. The only thing you have to worry about is doing what you’ve been told.” The man took something from his shirt pocket and tossed it to Aiden.
A cell phone.
“It’ll take videos,” he explained. “Film yourself destroying the evidence and send it to the number already programmed into the phone.”
“And then you’ll let Kendall go?” Aiden asked with plenty of skepticism in his tone.
“Eventually. In a day or two. We got no reason to keep her, and truth is, she’s a pain in the butt. I, for one, will be glad to give her back to you. She bit me,” he growled, glancing down at his wrist.
She had indeed resorted to biting and clawing. She’d done everything to try to escape. But when he threatened to hurt the baby, Kendall knew she had no choice but to stop fighting and look for a better way out of this.
So far, she hadn’t come up with one.
This definitely didn’t qualify as
“Hate to burst your bubble,” Aiden said, “but if you hold Kendall for a day or two, someone will report her missing. And people will look for her. You really want to raise those kinds of red flags, since half of her kin are lawmen?”
Kendall groaned softly. “I’ve already told my friends, Jewell and the rest of my family that I’d be leaving town tomorrow morning. I said I needed some downtime and for them not to be surprised if they didn’t hear from me for a while.”
The gunman laughed. “She tied it up in a pretty little bow for us, didn’t she?”
Yes, she did, but Kendall intended to shove that proverbial bow down his throat the first chance she got. She wasn’t in any position to win a physical fight with him, but sooner or later, he’d let down his guard.
Aiden’s gaze came back to her. “I’m figuring you didn’t ask to be here, but I know you won’t shed any tears over this evidence being destroyed.”
“You’re wrong,” she let him know after she choked back another wave of pain. “I don’t want my sister convicted of murder, but I don’t want her free like this, either. And neither would Jewell.”
The corner of Aiden’s mouth lifted in an expression she knew all too well. The Braddock smirk. As an O’Neal and Jewell’s sister, she’d been on the receiving end of it a lot since their families were at odds for twenty-three years.
“Time for you to leave,” the gunman said to Aiden. “Oh, and don’t bother to pull some kind of stunt like pretending to leave so you can double back and rescue her. Kendall will be tucked away someplace safe, where you can’t find her.”
There was no telling what they’d consider someplace safe, but she seriously doubted these snakes had her safety in mind beyond using her to try to prod Aiden into committing a felony.
Aiden stood there, his glare shifting among them, and he cursed again. “Give me at least two hours, and you’ll have your video of me destroying the bone fragments.”
Oh, mercy. He was going to do it.
Kendall had thought he’d be able to negotiate his way out of this. Or else fight his way out of it. She figured the last thing on earth Aiden would do was destroy evidence to protect her.
Except it was not just her.
Even though they were enemies, she knew that Aiden was an honorable man. He wouldn’t risk an unborn child’s life.
Still, honor aside, he’d have a heck of a time dealing with the consequences. And worse. Kendall was terrified that destroying the evidence wouldn’t even help the baby and her. She hadn’t seen either of the men’s faces. Had no idea who they were. But they might not let her live anyway.
The thought of it broke her heart.
Not for her own life but for the baby’s. This child hadn’t been planned. Heck, it hadn’t even been on her personal radar. But she’d loved the baby from the moment that she’d known she was carrying it. However, she never expected Aiden would feel the same.
“Get her to the doctor,” Aiden growled.
And he reached for his gun.
“Nope,” the man said while Aiden was in mid-reach. “I’m sure you’ll have no trouble coming up with another one. We’ll keep this one for now.”
Kendall’s imagination started to run wild. Once Aiden had destroyed the evidence, they wouldn’t have a reason to keep her alive. They could use Aiden’s gun to kill her and then somehow set him up to take the blame for the crime.
The baby would be motive.
Because an autopsy would reveal the pregnancy, and a DNA test would prove he was the child’s father. These men could make it look as if Aiden had completely lost it when he learned of the baby and killed her in cold blood.
“Oh, and, Braddock?” the man said to Aiden. “We’ll know if you call your buddies at the county sheriff’s office. Or any other law enforcement agency in the area for that matter. Because we’ve got
in all those places.”
That was probably a bluff. Unless, of course, these guys had managed to plant some listening devices.
“Aiden,” she said before she could stop herself. Kendall hated to beg for his help, but she would. To save the baby, she’d do anything.
A flash of something went through his eyes, but Kendall had no idea what it meant. Aiden gave the men, and her, one last look before he strolled out.
Kendall tried to tamp down the panic. They wouldn’t kill her until they were sure Aiden had destroyed the evidence, and he’d said that would take about two hours. Not much time. But during those two hours, she had to find a way to escape.
One of the men stayed next to her, the gun still pointed at her head, and the other went to the window and peered out. Watching Aiden, no doubt.
Another sound only spiked the panic building inside her.
Aiden’s truck engine.
She heard it start, and then he pulled away from the house.
His place wasn’t that large by Texas standards, just a couple of acres of pasture for his horses, a barn and the house. From the man’s vantage point at the window, he would be able not only to see Aiden leave, but also to see him drive out onto the road.
“He’s out of sight,” the man said a moment later.
Still, they didn’t move. The time seemed to crawl by, and her throbbing arm and building panic didn’t help. Finally, the one who’d been silent latched on to her shoulder and hauled her to her feet.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the other one snarled, “or you’ll get another bullet.”
Kendall was positive that wasn’t a bluff, but before this ordeal was over, she would almost certainly have to do something
. Or at least risky.
As soon as they started moving, she tried to work the plastic cuffs that bound her wrists behind her back. They were loose, but strong for mere plastic, and they seemed to tighten with each tug.
Those tugs also didn’t help the jolts of pain going through her arm. And the pain didn’t help the dizziness. She’d been light-headed since this whole ordeal started, but it was more than just a light head now.
The gunshot and the fear were no doubt to blame.
Kendall drew in several hard breaths and forced herself to look down at the wound. At the gaping hole in her jacket. It turned her stomach, but she tried to make sure she wasn’t bleeding out.
There was blood all right, but there didn’t seem to be much more than when he’d initially shot her. That was something at least. A serious blood loss could cause her to miscarry.
The men finally led her out the front door, the same way they’d brought her in after one of them had jimmied the lock. Aiden had a security system, but it hadn’t been on. He probably hadn’t felt the need because he was the sheriff.
If the system had been armed, Aiden might have been alerted and could have nipped this in the bud.
They went onto the porch, down the steps and through the yard toward a thick cluster of trees to the right where the men had left the SUV they’d used to kidnap her from the parking lot of her law office. After they’d grabbed her, they’d stopped several miles outside town to change the license plates and to make a call. Kendall hadn’t learned a thing from that call, because they’d said only one thing to the person on the other end of the line.
“We have her.”
No names used. No hint of the identity of the person they’d called.
So, who had put all this insanity into motion?
Despite Aiden’s accusations and suspicions, it wasn’t Jewell or her daughters. Not Jewell’s stepson, Seth, either. Yes, the three of them loved Jewell, but they wouldn’t resort to this. Unfortunately, other than those three children, Kendall and Jewell’s lawyer, Robert Joplin, there weren’t many people who wanted Jewell to beat this murder charge.
But clearly someone wanted just that.
When they were about ten yards from the SUV, Kendall stumbled just to see how fast the men would react, and she got her answer.
Both of them grabbed her, and within a second, she had a gun jammed against her left temple again.
“Keep it up, and you’ll be sorry,” one of the men growled.
No matter what she did, she could be sorry, but Kendall cooperated.
She continued toward the SUV and didn’t resist when the men practically shoved her inside. As they’d done on the drive there, they buckled her into a seat belt in the middle, and the man who’d spoken only a few words dropped down behind her. The one who’d been doing all the talking walked around the front of the SUV toward the driver’s side.
But then he stopped.
That certainly got her attention, but it got his partner’s, too. “What’s wrong?” the man asked. Unlike the other one, he had some kind of thick accent.
The man still outside raised his finger in a wait-a-second gesture and lifted his head. Listening for something.
Kendall hoped and prayed that it was someone who could get her away from these goons.
“Don’t move,” the guy with the accent said to her, and he stepped out of the SUV. Not far. Just a few inches outside the open door, and he, too, listened. His gaze also darted all around the heavily treed area.
Kendall looked, as well. She tried to pick through the trees and underbrush, but it was spring with everything in full bloom, so she couldn’t see anything.
However, she thought that she might have heard something, like a twig snap. The men didn’t miss it. With their guns raised, they pivoted in the direction of the sound.
For several seconds anyway.
Then the shot zinged through the air. It hadn’t been fired by one of her captors but had instead come from the area of that dense underbrush.
It had to be Aiden.
He would have known to cut through the woods and come back after them.
Her captors immediately lifted their guns to return fire, and Kendall sank down into the seat as far as she could. She also looked for something, anything, she could use to cut through the plastic cuffs.
Outside, both men fired, their bullets blasting through the air. She quickly added another prayer that Aiden hadn’t been shot.
Both men continued to fire. Kendall continued to struggle, and even though it made the pain in her arm much worse, she managed to move her hand so she could pop the button on the seat belt. It slid off her, and she got to the floor. Not just for protection but so she could look under the seat.
There was a first aid kit.
She fumbled through it as best she could and found a pair of scissors. They were small, the kind used for cutting bandages and not restraints. Still, they would have to do.
It was hard enough just to pick them up with her hands behind her back. Harder still to try to make any cut. But she had to try.
Kendall glanced out. Both men were now at the front of the SUV and they were tearing up the woods with their bullets. Even though Aiden’s nearest neighbor was a half mile away, maybe he would hear the noise and report it if Aiden hadn’t already called for backup.
The man with the accent looked into the SUV. His gaze connected with hers through the gap between the front seats, and he said something to his partner that she couldn’t hear. But the man must have realized she was trying to escape, because he hurried toward the driver’s door.
Coming for her.
Her heart was pumping now. The adrenaline, too. Kendall worked even harder at trying to cut through the plastic. She could feel them giving way. Little by little. But the man was practically right on her.
The plastic cuffs gave way, finally.
Just as the man crawled across the seat and grabbed for her.
But Kendall brought up the scissors and stabbed him in the face. Because of the ski mask, she wasn’t sure what part of him she hit, but he howled in pain and came at her.
Kendall hit him again with the scissors. This time in his neck.
He made some kind of strangled sound, and she saw the blood. Nothing like her gunshot wound. There was lots of it, and the agonizing sound that he made sent his partner running to him.
Kendall knew she had mere seconds at best. The side door was already open, and she barreled through it. She hadn’t realized just how dizzy and weak she was until her feet touched the ground.
Everything started to spin.
And she would no doubt have fallen if someone hadn’t caught her by the arm. She could just barely make out Aiden’s face.
“Come on,” Aiden said.
He turned, fired a shot at the men, and then he and Kendall started running.
Aiden pulled Kendall behind the nearest tree, shoving her against it so that he could lean out and try to stop these guys from coming after them.
And they were coming all right.
Well, one of them anyway.
The other one had his hand clamped to his neck and was slumped against the SUV. Aiden hoped that whatever the heck his injury was, it would kill him. Harsh, yes, but maybe necessary for Kendall’s and his survival. One armed man was enough to deal with, considering that he had an injured, pregnant woman to rescue.
That one little word came with a boatload of emotions attached and packed a wallop. Especially since Kendall was the one who was pregnant.
With his baby, no less.
That sounded about as unright as something could sound, but he had indeed slept with her. He’d also used protection. However, something had clearly gone wrong other than them just landing in bed together.
Fate had to be laughing its butt off about that. Whitt Braddock’s son and Jewell’s sister together, making a baby.
The town, and his family, would have a field day with it. That’d be minor, though, compared to the firestorm going on inside Aiden, but he pushed all those feelings aside for now. It was going to take every bit of his concentration to get them out of this alive.
Aiden had already called for backup. Not using normal channels in case these brainless wonders had indeed managed to plant bugs in his office and others. Instead he’d used his personal cell to phone his deputy Leland Hawks.
With any luck Leland would be here within twenty minutes.
That was way too long for Leland to help save Kendall and him, but Aiden had told the deputy to make a loud approach. Lots of sirens. Hopefully, the noise would send the guys on the run so that Aiden could track them down.
If this fight didn’t end with the men’s deaths, that is.
Aiden wanted one of them alive, though, if at all possible. Because when this was all said and done, he wanted answers as to who was really behind this.
Another shot smacked into the tree. Though it was hard to hold back, Aiden didn’t return fire yet. He didn’t have a lot of ammo and didn’t want to waste any bullets in case this went on too long. But he did glance out at the pair to check on their latest position. They were in front of the SUV again. Where they were well protected.
Aiden couldn’t say the same for Kendall and him.
The tree wasn’t that wide, and he figured these two had brought enough firepower with them to tear right through the young oak. Added to that, there weren’t any wider, thicker trees nearby for Kendall and him to move behind. Just plenty of underbrush and wildflowers, and none of that would stop bullets.
Kendall looked up at him, her eyes wide. Her breath gusting. Her body trembling. “Thank you for coming back for me.”
That riled him. Of course he’d come back for her. It was his job, and there was no way he’d let something personal get in the way of the badge. She probably hadn’t meant it as an insult, but it was.
“I found some scissors in the SUV, cut off the plastic cuffs, but then I got so dizzy,” she added.
She was still terrified, just as she had been kneeling on the floor of his house. Aiden didn’t want to know what kind of effect this was having on her unborn child.
It couldn’t be good.
But it was better than the alternative. If those men had gotten Kendall away from his place, they would have killed her. Even if he’d done what they asked, that wouldn’t have saved her life.
Then they would have come after him.
“You’ve lost some blood,” he reminded her. “That’s why you got dizzy.”
No need to mention that it could be shock, but he hoped that wasn’t the cause. He might need Kendall’s help before this was over, and something like shock could incapacitate her.
“When the smaller one came at me, I stabbed him with the scissors,” she said. “Twice.”
She looked a little sick about that. Understandable. Most people were never in a position where they were forced to do bodily harm, but Aiden was thankful for the scissors and the stabbing.
“You did what you had to do,” he let her know and then cursed himself for sounding so sympathetic.
He didn’t want her to suffer. Not over some injury she’d managed to inflict on this homicidal idiot, but each kind word from him, each thought about this pregnancy nipped at barriers that had to stay in place when it came to Kendall.
“Leland’s on the way,” Aiden whispered when her trembling got worse. “That means we’ll have backup soon, and we’ll be okay.”
Kendall nodded, and he figured she was trying to look a lot stronger than she felt right now.
Another bullet flew at them. Then another. And soon they were coming nonstop. Aiden had hoped it wouldn’t come down to this, but the men were no doubt getting desperate, since they knew he probably had help on the way. That meant they had only two choices.
Escape or try to recover their hostage.
They appeared to be going for the latter, though the two had to know they could kill Kendall in the process. Of course, they could be doing cleanup.
Trying to eliminate
If so, these next few minutes were going to be bad, because Aiden had no intention of making an elimination easy for them. Nope. He was fighting back along with being fighting mad. How dare these morons pull a stunt like this in his own yard and house!
Now the problem was trying to figure out how to stop them from getting lucky with their elimination attempts.
Aiden knew every inch of his property, and there was a dry narrow gully about ten yards behind Kendall and him. Not as close as he would have liked, but maybe if he could distract these guys long enough, Kendall would be able to crawl to the gully, where she’d be better protected from the bullets.
“I didn’t have any part in this,” she said. Another look up at him.
Damn. He had enough uncomfortable things running through his mind right now without adding her emotions.
“Yeah. I figured that out.” Too bad he had plenty of other things to figure out.
“And I meant what I said about leaving,” Kendall added. “I had no intention of ever telling you about the baby.”
The woman knew how to rile him. In the middle of a gunfight no less. Aiden didn’t have a clue how he felt about this pregnancy, yet, but he darn sure hadn’t wanted her to hide it from him. And Kendall had rattled that off as if he’d be pleased about her plan to sneak off.
Well, he wasn’t.
Of course, right now he wasn’t pleased about much of anything except that Kendall and he were still breathing.
Aiden glanced out at the two men again. They were still in place where he couldn’t blow off any of their body parts. Then he glanced at Kendall.
But not at her face.
Too much emotion there for him to deal with, but he needed to see how her arm was holding up. The bleeding had stopped. That was something at least. But that gash was deep, and it had to be throbbing like a bad toothache.
“How does your arm feel?” Aiden asked, and he fired a shot at the men just so they wouldn’t try to move closer.
A lie, for sure, but Aiden would take it for now. He’d already asked Leland to bring out an ambulance, but the medics wouldn’t get close to the place with shots being fired. That was yet another reason for Aiden to put an end to this.
“I need you to get to the ground,” Aiden said. “Stay behind me and stay down. Crawl to the gully.” He tipped his head in that direction.
Kendall glanced over at the gully. Then at him. “But what about you?”
“I won’t be far behind.”
Possibly a lie as well, but Kendall had enough fear running through her without his spelling out that there’d be no one to cover him if he tried to move from the tree to the gully. No, it was best for him to make his stand for as long as he could behind the tree.
She finally gave a shaky nod and inched herself lower to the ground. It wasn’t easy. They were plastered against each other—her backside sliding against a part of him that needed no such touching. Especially from her. He got a split-second jolt of the blasted heat that’d always been there between them.
Thankfully, the fresh round of bullets slugged that heat aside.
He pushed Kendall all the way down until she was practically on her belly and then crouched by his side. “Move slowly if you have to.” Because of her injured arm and the pregnancy. But Aiden was really hoping that she could do this fast.
Aiden leaned out, took aim at the front of the SUV and fired a shot just as Kendall started crawling.
She stayed down just as he’d ordered, and she moved through the wildflowers and other underbrush. Thankfully, fast. Still, Aiden fired another shot at the gunmen just to keep their attention on him. He breathed a little easier once he saw Kendall slide down and into the gully.
She was safe.
He’d parked just on the other side of the gully. Off the road and behind some trees. Aiden hadn’t seen any other hired guns lurking around, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t have been some hiding.
The big talkative guy lifted his head, fired a couple of shots. Not the nonstop barrage like before. And in between the shots, Aiden heard the men talking. Or rather arguing.
Clearly, their plan had gone to Hades in a big ol’ handbasket by losing their hostage and what with one of them being on the business end of Kendall and her scissors. Now they were no doubt trying to figure out a way to salvage this, and it was possible the injured one needed some medical attention, too.
In the distance Aiden heard a welcome sound.
That got the men chattering even more, and Aiden braced himself for whatever they were going to try to throw at him next.
And lots of them.
The men fired into the tree. A volley of gunfire. All of it aimed at Aiden.
He ducked down, trying to shelter his body as best he could, but he was getting pelted with flying pieces of wood from the tree and other debris that the bullets were kicking up from the ground. There was no way he could lean out and try to get off a shot of his own. It’d be suicide, so he stayed put and prayed that he got a break soon.
He got it.
But it wasn’t the break he had in mind. The shots slowed to a trickle, but even over the sound of the blasts, he heard another one.
One of them had started up the engine.
No. It was too soon for this to happen. Judging from the sirens, Leland was still a quarter of a mile out. Maybe more. These guys could get away before Leland even arrived.
Aiden moved to the other side of the tree, leaned out just a fraction and saw the two men already in the SUV. Only one, the injured one on the passenger’s side, was firing through the open door, and even though his aim seemed wobbly, he still hit the dang tree.
Aiden had to dive back behind it for cover.
“Stay down!” Kendall yelled.
He wanted to curse when he saw her lift her head. “
stay down,” Aiden snarled right back at her.
Aiden leaned out again. Took aim at the guy who was firing. And he pulled the trigger.
His bullet smacked right into the man’s chest, and just like that, the guy tumbled out of the SUV and onto the ground. If he wasn’t dead, he soon would be. But that wasn’t Aiden’s concern now.
It was the driver.
The chatterbox gunman hit the accelerator and flew out onto the gravel road that fronted Aiden’s property. He fishtailed, the tires bobbling over the uneven surface, but that didn’t slow him down nearly enough.
Aiden raced out from cover, bracketing his shooting wrist with his left hand, and he kicked the injured gunman’s weapon aside. In the same motion, Aiden took aim at the SUV.
The bullet Aiden fired slammed into the back window, shattering the glass into a million little pieces.
But the driver kept going.
Aiden ran after him, took another shot. He missed. Then another. That one hit the SUV. At the right angle to have injured the driver, but Aiden couldn’t be certain of that.
Because the SUV sped away.
Kendall watched while the medic dabbed the wound on her arm with antiseptic and gave her a shot. The throbbing pain quickly turned to fire, but she clamped her teeth over her bottom lip so that Aiden wouldn’t hear the groan bubbling up in her throat. He already had enough to handle without adding more concerns about her injury.
Not that Kendall expected him to be overly concerned about her, but at this point, anything and everything would feel like more weight on his shoulders.
The gunman who’d gotten away.
The dead one Aiden had been forced to kill in a shoot-out.
And then, of course, the bombshell about the pregnancy.
Aiden wasn’t dealing with that—yet. He was still on the phone with his deputy who had a team out searching for the man who’d shot her. It was his fifth call since they’d arrived at the Clay Ridge Hospital. She suspected there’d be plenty more before the night was over.
“I’ll just do a couple of stitches,” the medic said to her while he numbed the area around the wound with another shot. “Then I’ll get you to the tech for an ultrasound.”
A few stiches didn’t sound serious at all, but the second thing he said captured both Aiden’s and her attention. Until his gaze snapped to hers, Kendall hadn’t even been sure Aiden was listening to what the medic was saying, but he issued a quick “I’ll call you right back” to his deputy and stared at the medic.
“An ultrasound?” Aiden questioned. “Is something wrong?”
The medic shook his head and got busy doing the stitches. “It’s just a precaution, something Dr. Kreppner ordered because of the trauma Miss O’Neal’s been through.”
Kendall’s breath rushed out. The emotions, too, and she was no longer able to choke back that groan. Sweet heaven, there had indeed been trauma—both physically and mentally—and the baby could have been hurt.
Aiden shifted his attention from the medic to her, and even though she couldn’t fight back the tears, Kendall had no trouble seeing the conflict going on inside him. There was concern in his eyes, and the muscles in his jaw had turned to iron. Maybe because of the possible danger to the baby. Maybe because of her tears.
Or perhaps both.
“Don’t borrow trouble,” Aiden said to her, his voice a low growl. “You heard what he told you, that it’s just a precaution.”
Kendall nodded, but she wouldn’t breathe easier until she knew that all was well. She was only twelve weeks pregnant, and she wasn’t even sure what an ultrasound could tell them exactly. Hopefully, it would be plenty enough to rid her of this overwhelming fear.
Her tears continued, clearly something that didn’t please Aiden, because he huffed and handed her some tissues that he grabbed from the examining table.
“Thanks.” She blotted her eyes and cheeks, looked up at him. “And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
That apology covered a multitude of things, including his learning about the baby and this attack that could have gotten them all killed.
didn’t cause his jaw to relax, though. “We’ll talk about the baby later. For now, I want to know anything you haven’t told me about what those men said to you. And no, I’m not accusing you of being a part of it. I just need to know anything that’ll help us find that dirtbag who drove away in the SUV.”
Kendall didn’t especially want to relive the images of the attack or her kidnapping, but she also didn’t want to focus on the pain that the stitches were causing in her arm.
“I don’t know either of them,” she started. “At least I don’t think I do.”
Aiden latched right on to that. “You don’t
you do? Does that mean maybe there’s something you recognized?”
“Maybe,” she had to concede. “There was possibly something familiar about the one who did most of the talking, but I just don’t know what. The other, however...the dead one...he had an accent. Jamaican, perhaps, and he was black, because I saw his hands.” She paused. “I’m guessing he didn’t have an ID on him?”
“Nothing, but we’re running his prints now. Once we know who he is, we might be able to figure out who hired him.” Aiden stared at her, apparently waiting for her to suggest who that might have been.
“I don’t have a clue who hired them, but it wasn’t me or any of Jewell’s kids.”
“You’re sure?” he pressed.
She nodded. Prayed she was right about that. “Rosalie, Rayanne and Seth all love Jewell and want her cleared of the murder charges, but they wouldn’t put me at risk to do that.”
“They know about the baby?” he snapped.
Kendall shook her head. “Only your sister Laine knows. Like I said, she saw me coming out of the OB clinic. Since she’d also somehow heard rumors about us being together that night at the bar, she put one and one together.”
“And she didn’t tell me,” Aiden grumbled under his breath.
“Don’t blame Laine. I begged her not to tell you or anyone else.” Much to her surprise, it appeared that Laine had kept her secret.
That comment earned her a glare from Aiden. “She’s my sister, and she should have told me.”
Kendall was about to ask if he had actually even wanted to know, but the medic eased a bandage on her arm and stood.
“What you heard in this room stays in this room,” Aiden warned the medic. “Got that?”
Since Aiden could win an intimidation contest hands down, the guy was smart to nod. “Follow me to the ultrasound room.”
As she probably didn’t look too steady, Aiden took hold of her arm and helped her stand. Good thing, too, because the dizziness returned with a vengeance, and she had no choice but to lean against him. Judging from the way the muscles in his body stiffened, he wasn’t pleased about that. Still, he hooked his arm around her and led her up the hall.
“You were just going to leave town,” Aiden said, clearly not pleased about that, either. Of course, she hadn’t said anything yet that’d pleased him.
Kendall nodded. “I thought it was for the best.”
“Well, it wasn’t.” He probably said that a lot louder than he’d intended, because the medic glanced back at them. “I had a right to know that I made a baby with you that night,” Aiden added in a much lower voice.
as if it were profanity. Which to him it probably had been. Kendall had felt the same way, too, immediately afterward. Yes, Aiden and she had skirted around this attraction for years, but with their families at serious odds, a one-night stand had been a stupid thing to do.
“I won’t think of this baby as a mistake,” she clarified.
She figured he would disagree with that, but he didn’t. Kendall also figured he wouldn’t go into the ultrasound room, but once they reached it, Aiden waltzed right in.
“I’m staying,” he insisted before she could give him an out.
Again, the medic looked at them, his volleyed glances finally landing on Kendall. “The tech won’t be long, but I can wait here if you want.” There was concern in both his tone and expression. However, Kendall shook her head to assure him that it was all right for him to go.
“It’ll be okay.” Well, she’d be safe with Aiden at least, but Kendall could feel a mighty storm coming her way.
About the baby.
About her decision to leave him out of this.
“Okay, then.” The medic tipped his head to her arm. “If you need something for the pain, just let the ultrasound tech know, and I’ll have the doc write a script.”
Kendall thanked him, knowing that she wouldn’t be taking any painkillers even if she needed them. They’d be too risky for the baby.
The medic stepped out, finally, and Aiden didn’t wait long to get that storm started. “How long have you known you were pregnant?” he asked.
“For about two months.” She probably would have figured it out sooner if she hadn’t been in complete denial. Denial about a possible pregnancy anyway. The memories of that night had stayed with her.
She’d lusted after Aiden for so many years. Too many. They were both thirty-six now, and the heated looks had started about twenty-three years earlier. The heat clearly had some staying power, because even drunken sex had fulfilled more than a fantasy or two. Sadly, Aiden had lived up to those fantasies in spades. If any part of it had been lacking, she maybe could have finally pushed Aiden out of her head.
So much for that happening now.
Especially since he was right in front of her. And his scowl and bunched-up forehead weren’t the lust killers that they should have been. Probably because even with a scowl, Aiden managed to make most men look just plain ordinary.
“Jewell doesn’t know?” he asked.
Kendall shook her head. “I figured I’d tell her after the trial.”
That deepened his scowl. “A trial that might not happen if the goon in the ski mask gets his way.”
She hadn’t even thought of that. If whoever was behind this couldn’t get Aiden to destroy the evidence, then he or she might just hire someone else to do the job.
“I’ve had the evidence moved,” Aiden said. “It’s being couriered to the Ranger Lab in Austin. So Jewell’s out of luck when it comes to that.”
Maybe out of luck, period. The bone fragments had been identified as belonging to Aiden’s father, and that meant Jewell had means, motive and opportunity to have killed the man who was supposedly her lover. It certainly didn’t help that Jewell wasn’t denying the deed.
And now this.
If this was linked back to Jewell, the DA could tack on some obstruction of justice charges along with other assorted felonies like kidnapping and attempted murder of a county sheriff.
“Even you have to admit that it would be stupid for anyone connected to Jewell to try to destroy evidence,” she said.
Aiden made a sound of agreement. “Stupid, yes, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I’ll be looking at Jewell’s daughters and stepson. Joplin, too.”
Jewell’s lawyer, Robert Joplin. Of all the suspects that Aiden had just listed, he was the one at the top of Kendall’s list. Because Joplin was hopelessly in love with Jewell. Had been for years and would do anything to save her. However, that didn’t mean Joplin was the only one with motive for this attempted fiasco.
“I hope you’ll look at your own family, too,” Kendall tossed out there. “Your mother and sister Shelby aren’t exactly fans of Jewell, and they might have done something like this to make her look even more guilty.”
And while that wasn’t as strong of a motive as her family’s, Jewell knew that Aiden’s family had secrets.
Secrets that even Aiden might not know.
She braced herself for him to jump to their defense. Didn’t happen. “I’ll be talking to them and anyone else who hated Jewell and my father.”
Good. But then, she’d figured all along that Aiden would be thorough. He was loyal to his family. Well, mostly. He didn’t exactly have a friendly relationship with his mother, but Aiden would never forget that he was a Braddock.
Ditto for remembering that she was an O’Neal.
The door eased open, and Aiden automatically reached for his gun. After what’d happened with the gunmen, Kendall didn’t blame him, but she was thankful it was a false alarm.
“I’m Becky Lovelle,” the young blonde said. “I’ll be doing your ultrasound.”
Kendall certainly hadn’t forgotten about the ultrasound, but her strained discussion with Aiden had pushed the reminder of a possible problem to the fringes of her thoughts. No fringes now, though. Her heart went into overdrive.
“This won’t hurt,” the woman said.
But Kendall was already tuning her out, her attention nailed to the screen. It was blank now, but soon she’d see her precious baby. Hopefully, unharmed.
Aiden didn’t move closer. In fact, he leaned against the wall and watched from there. Even when the tech pushed up Kendall’s top and shoved down her skirt to expose her belly and coat it with some goopy gel, he kept watching.
Kendall suddenly felt way too bare with Aiden in the room, but there was no way she’d convince him to leave. There was no way to convince Aiden of a lot of things, and once she had the all-clear with the ultrasound, she’d need to figure out a way to handle him and this situation.
Aiden wasn’t going to like it when she insisted she leave.
But she would insist on it.
And maybe Aiden would soon see that it was the right thing for all of them.
The tech put the wand on Kendall’s stomach, and when she moved it around, Kendall could see the baby’s beating heart. Her breath rushed out.
“The baby’s okay?” Kendall immediately asked.
“Appears to be. That’s a strong, steady heartbeat.” The woman continued to move the wand, and even though it was hard to make out some of the images, Kendall definitely spotted two arms and two legs. All moving.
“Amazing,” Kendall said. “So much movement, and I haven’t even felt it yet.”
“Is that normal?” Aiden snapped.
The tech nodded. “Some women don’t experience quickening or movement until week twenty.”
That meshed with the maternity books that Kendall had been reading, but obviously this was all new to Aiden. He moved closer to the screen, his focus on the tiny baby.
Kendall saw and heard the moment that it finally sank in for him. Aiden made a hoarse sound that came from deep within his throat, and he mumbled something while his eyes tipped toward the ceiling. Maybe asking for divine help. She’d done that a few times early on, as well.
He dragged in a long breath. “Yeah, you should have told me.”
That didn’t sound like a man on the verge of rejecting fatherhood. Or even putting this in perspective. The bottom line was his family wasn’t going to embrace this child, and hers likely wouldn’t, either.
“Is that what I think it is?” Aiden asked.
Because he was looking gobsmacked again, Kendall’s gaze rifled back to the monitor, and she tried to brace herself for whatever had put that bleached-out expression on Aiden’s face.
“I’m sorry,” the tech said, sending Kendall’s heart into a tailspin again. “It’s usually not that clear this early on, and I should have asked first if you wanted to know the sex of the baby. This is a new machine, and it gives much clearer images than we used to get with the old one.”