“The case is not over,” Ranger Lieutenant Wyatt Colter announced to the task force gathered in the courthouse in Comanche Creek. “We still have a murderer to catch.”
Ranger Sergeant Cabe Navarro frowned. The last place in the world he wanted to be was back in his hometown. When he’d left it years ago, he’d sworn never to return.
But he couldn’t disobey an order. And so far, the multiple murder case had been a mess. National media was starting to take interest, and if they didn’t solve the case soon, the Rangers would be usurped by the FBI and look incompetent.
None of them wanted that.
Still, if they thought he could be a buffer between the Native Americans and Caucasians in town, they were sorely mistaken.
Cabe had never fit in either world.
Ranger Lieutenant Colter introduced the task force members. Forensic anthropologist Dr. Nina Jacobsen. Ranger Sergeant Livvy Hutton who absentmindedly rubbed her arm where she’d just recently been shot. And Reed Hardin, the sheriff of Comanche Creek.
Hardin cast a worried and protective look at Hutton, cementing the rumor that Cabe had heard that they had gotten involved on the case and now planned to marry.
“Okay,” Wyatt said. “Let’s recap the case so far. “First, two bodies were found on the Double B, Jonah Becker’s ranch, property the Native Americans claim was stolen from them. The first body was Mason Lattimer, an antiquities dealer, the second, Ray Phillips, a Native American activist who claimed Becker stole the land from the Natives.”
“They have proof?” Cabe asked.
“Supposedly there is evidence that suggests Billy Whitley forged paperwork to make it appear that the land originally belonged to Jonah Becker’s great-greatgrandfather. That paperwork overrode the Reston Act which had given the Natives ownership.”
Cabe made a sound of disgust in his throat. “No wonder the Native Americans are up in arms.”
Lieutenant Colter nodded, then continued, “Marcie James, who worked at the land office, had planned to testify against Jerry Collier, the lawyer who brokered the deal, but she went missing two years ago. Evidence indicated she was murdered and buried on the property and construction of the road going through was halted.”
He paused. “But we now know Marcie faked her kidnapping and murder. She resurfaced though, but someone caught up with her, and killed her at a cabin on Becker’s property.”
Sheriff Hardin stood, a frown on his face. Cabe had heard that Hardin was protective of his town and his job. “My deputy Shane Tolbert was found standing over Marcie’s body holding a Ruger. He claimed he was knocked unconscious and someone put a gun in his hand. We arrested him, but forensics indicated that the blood spatter and fingerprints were consistent with his story, so he was released.” Hardin rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “But his father, Ben, was certain we were gunning to pin the crimes on his son, and tried to kill me and Sergeant Hutton.”
“Ben Tolbert is in jail?” Cabe said.
“Yes. He copped to threatening us and destroying key evidence, as well as setting fire to the cabin where Marcie was murdered, but not to murder.”
“Daniel Taabe, the leader of the Native American faction, was also murdered?” Cabe asked, knowing Taabe’s death was the trigger for bringing him into the case. Everyone in town thought the Rangers were trying to cover up the crime.
“Right.” Lieutenant Colter’s eyes snapped with anger. “So far, our suspects include Jonah Becker, his son Trace, his lawyer Jerry Collier who brokered the land deal, the mayor Woody Sadler who could have been protecting Shane as Ben did, and possibly Charla Whitley, Billy Whitley’s wife.”
Holy hell. Half the town were suspects. Between that and the war raging between the Caucasian faction and Native American faction, he had his job cut out.
Especially since both sides detested him.
He’d get this case tied up as soon as possible, and leave town. And this time, nothing would bring him back.
Anxiety plucked at Cabe as he parked at the Double B where the murder victims’ bodies had been found. He scanned the area, half expecting an ambush.
Someone had been sabotaging the investigation at every turn, and he had to be on guard every minute.
According to the lieutenant, Jonah Becker was furious at having the Rangers on his property. And he certainly wouldn’t welcome Cabe in town or on his ranch.
Jonah had always made it clear that he thought the Comanches were beneath him.
Not that Cabe cared what the rich bastard thought. He’d dealt with prejudice all his life. Prejudice from both sides.
But his Native blood ran deep. So did his cop instincts.
And as he climbed from his SUV, the scent of death surrounded him.
According to Dr. Jacobsen, the forensic anthropologist brought in to study the bones of an unnamed cadaver that had also been found here, one grave held ancient bones belonging to a Native. That grave suggested that this land was a Native American sacred burial ground. Worse, the body had been moved.
Dr. Jacobsen was right.
The ancient war cries and whispers of the dead bombarded him as he walked across the dusty, rock-strewn rugged land. There were other graves here. Graves of Natives who’d been buried long ago. Spirits who were upset that their sacred grounds had been disturbed.
Noting the plywood platform the forensic anthropologist had built to excavate the first finds, he muttered a silent thanks that Dr. Jacobsen had respected the grounds.
The image of the most recent corpse in the morgue flashed back, jolting him to the past and the reason he’d left years ago. The way the legs had been bound with chord, the face painted red, the eyes glued shut with clay—all part of the Comanche burial ritual. Just the way Daniel Taabe’s had been.
And exactly the way his little brother had been buried as well. Pain and grief suffused him. His little brother had died because his father had relied on the Big Medicine Ceremony to heal him instead of taking him to the hospital as Cabe had begged.
The moment they’d buried Simon, Cabe had left town, and he hadn’t spoken to his father since.
Shaking off the bitter memories, he studied the area where the bodies of the antiquities dealer Mason Lattimer and Native American activist Ray Phillips had been discovered. Forensics had already combed the area and bagged everything they’d discovered. He didn’t expect to find anything new, but took a few minutes to search himself. Yet as he touched his finger to the ground, a sense of violence and pain assaulted him full force.
He could always sense death. It was part of his Comanche heritage.
Now the stench, the anguish and suffering, the cries of the fallen Native Americans filled the air as if they still walked the land. He heard their footfalls, the stampeding horses, the screams of women and children and battle cries echoing from the ground. He saw their ghostly spirits gathering as one.
Their collective shouts that this land belonged to them.
With his gloved hand, he pushed aside a clump of thorny brush and pushed at the dirt below, then dug a sample of the clay from the ground. The lab could verify if it was the same clay used in the burial ritual.
“You’re going to jail, Becker,” he muttered. Tipping back his Stetson, he collected a sample and bagged it.
Horse hooves pounded against the ground, the sound coming closer. He glanced up, half expecting to see more spirits, but instead a woman wearing a black Stetson with silver trim approached, riding a palomino, her long curly red hair flowing in the wind.
Dammit. Jessie Becker, Jonah Becker’s daughter. He’d heard about her, seen pictures of her. She was not only a knockout but supposedly the brains behind the ranch’s recent rise in success.
And she hated the Rangers being on her land, had thwarted their attempts to interrogate her father, protecting him at every turn.
She galloped toward him, rage and anger spewing from her aura as she brought the horse to a halt barely inches from his side and glared down at him. The morning Texas sun was nearly blinding him, and he shifted his own Stetson to shade his eyes so he could see her more clearly.
God, she was a sight for sore eyes. Her nose was dainty, eyes a crystal shade of green like fresh spring grass, her body full of sexy curves. And those legs…
Her lean legs hugged the horse’s flanks just the way they would a man.
His body tightened, his sex hardening against his fly.
Double damn. He didn’t need or want to be attracted to the rancher, not when they were on opposite sides of the land issue—and perhaps the murders.
“What in the hell are you doing here?” she asked.
In spite of the anger in her voice, Cabe bit back a smile at her sassy tone. He hated pansy, whiny women and judging from her attitude—and the way she rode—she didn’t fit that category.
But he had his priorities straight. His work as a Ranger. His people—the Comanches.
In that order.
The spitfire redhead giving him a go-to-hell look was a complication. But now the damn sex kitten—rather, tigress—was part of the job, part of the task force the Rangers had put together, and he had to deal with her.
He stood to his full six-four and pasted on his most intimidating stare. “Sergeant Cabe Navarro,” he said. “I’m investigating the recent murders.”
She slid one leg over the side of the palomino and dismounted as if she’d been born in the saddle, then planted her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders. Still, her head barely came to his chest, and he could pick her up with one hand tied behind his back.
“When are you Rangers going to stop harassing my family?” she barked.
His gaze settled over her, intense and suspicious. Since the Rangers had arrived, she’d been more or less the spokesperson for the Becker family. What was she hiding?
“When we find the evidence we need to put away your father for stealing Native American property.” He paused for emphasis. “And for murder.”
Jessie Becker ground her teeth in frustration at the tall, dark-skinned Ranger’s threat. She knew exactly why he was here, and she had about as much use for him as she had for the other Rangers and the sheriff who’d been traipsing all over her property the past few days.
No, she had no use for him. They’d brought out the big guns now. This one was Native American, a sexy broad-shouldered hunky one at that. But his heritage meant that he would definitely be out to slaughter her family.
And her as well.
She had to protect her family.
“My father didn’t steal this land, and he certainly never killed anyone.” Her tone matched his, and she dug the silver toe of her boot into the dirt.
“Are you sure about that, Miss Becker? Maybe you don’t know your father as well as you think.” He stepped closer, tilted his head sideways and pierced her with his laser eyes. “Or maybe you’re covering for him.”
Her stomach fluttered with awareness, but she steeled herself against his accusations—and his sinful looks. The fringed rawhide jacket he wore gave him a rugged look that matched his brusque masculinity. Shoulder-length, thick black hair brushed his neck and his eyes were the darkest color of brown she’d ever seen. Brown and sultry and mysterious.
They were also as cold and intimidating as his thick, husky voice.
Both of which could melt the clothes right off a woman. Even hers and she was a hard sell when it came to men.
But she had to stay on her toes and couldn’t let down her guard—or her bra straps—for a second.
“Or maybe you arranged to buy the land illegally,” he said, “and you’re responsible for murder.”
“How dare you?” She raised her hand back, balled it into a fist, tempted to slug him, but his eyebrow went up in challenge, and her sanity returned. She had to get a grip. She couldn’t attack the law or she’d end up in jail. Then what would her father do?
“How dare I what?” he asked. “Try to find out the truth? Try to solve the murders that occurred on your property?”
He inched closer, so close his breath brushed her cheek. A breath that hinted at coffee and intimacy and…sex.
She folded her arms, ignoring any temptation to take another whiff. “I thought Billy Whitley killed Marcie James, Daniel Taabe, and those others?”
He shrugged. “We have reason to believe that someone else might be responsible, that Billy Whitley’s suicide note might have been forged.”
“What makes you think that?”
“The handwriting analysis didn’t pan out after all, and the blood used in the ritualistic burial doesn’t match Billy’s.”
“What blood?” Jessie asked.
“The Comanches bury their dead in a ritualistic style. They bend the person’s knees, bind them with a rope, then bathe them. Then they paint the deceased’s face red, and seal the eyes with clay. The red face paint is made from powdered ochre mixed with fish oil or animal grease and blood.” He paused again to make his point. “Human blood.”
In spite of her bravado, Jessie shivered slightly.
“After that, they dress the deceased in the finest clothing, lay them on a blanket, then wrap the body in another blanket and tie them with buffalo-hide rope. The body is placed in a sitting position on a horse and taken to the burial place west of the Comanche settlement and buried.”
“So you really think this land is sacred?”
He gave a clipped nod. “Yes. The cadaver found was definitely Native American, the bones years old.”
Jessie rubbed her arms with her hands. “But why would Billy admit that he killed Marcie and Daniel if he didn’t?”
Sergeant Navarro’s eyes darkened. “Because someone forced him to write that confession, or forged it.”
Tension stretched between them as she contemplated his suggestion. “If you think my father did all that, you’re crazy.”