Project Description

Beneath the Badge

The Silver Star of Texas Series

Beneath the Badge

As a Texas Ranger, Hayes Keller was used to tough assignments. But protecting Taylor Landis after a recent attack and keeping his professional distance was the most challenging job Hayes had ever faced. Every instinct told him not to let her get under his skin, but sticking by her side—all day and through the hot summer night—was pushing him to the limit. Still, he needed to keep his cool until her attacker was caught. No matter how much she insisted there was more beneath Hayes’s badge than just a sexy, masculine Texas Ranger.

“Taylor Landis needs protection.”

Sergeant Hayes Keller pushed his half-eaten blood-red steak away, his appetite vanishing. He knew Brody McQuade, his lieutenant, was still pissed at him for sleeping with his sister, Kimberly, and forcing him to babysit the richest, prissiest heiress in Texas must be his way of punishing him.

“But Montoya killed Kimberly,” Hayes said, “and Carlson tried to kill Caroline, and you took care of him.”

Brody cleared his throat. “We have to tie up loose ends. I’m at the crime lab in Austin, and we got the results of Carlson’s autopsy. Egan said Carlson acted as if he’d been drugged, and the coroner found ketamine in his system.”

“Ketamine—that’s Special K on the streets. I’m not surprised,” Hayes said. “Carlson had money. He ran with the party crowd.”

Brody sighed, sounding weary. “We need to search Carlson’s place, see if we find evidence of the drug.”

“Why? He’s dead. Good riddance.”

“Yeah. But during the shoot-out, when Egan confronted Carlson about being on drugs, he denied taking anything.”

“So you think someone else drugged him?”

“That’s what I want to know.”

Hell. He wouldn’t be at all surprised that someone else wanted Carlson dead.

“And we still aren’t sure who planted that bomb that blew up Taylor’s car. It looks as if it was intended for her, not for Caroline. Which means that if Carlson tried to kidnap Caroline because she had him fired and he didn’t commit all these murders, someone else wanted to hurt Taylor.”

“So she’s still in danger.” Hayes slapped his beer down on the bar. He so wanted this case to be over, so he could leave Cantara Hills. “Carlson probably set the bomb.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Carolineis worried sick about Taylor. She said that Taylor admitted that Kimberly and Kenneth Sutton had argued before the hit-and-run. I want to know what that argument was about.”

Damn. Kenneth Sutton—the powerful and ambitious chairman of the City Board who was now running for governor. Kimberly had been interning in the man’s office before her murder.

And she had been upset about something that had happened with the board, that was the reason Hayes had been comforting her the night they’d ended up in bed. Although she’d refused to confide the reason.

Brody was right. They had to tie up every unanswered question. He owed Brody, and he owed Kimberly.

The waitress glanced at his beer to see if he wanted a refill. He did, but he shook his head and indicated he needed the check. Duty called.

“So who would want to hurt Taylor Landis?”

Brody grunted. “That’s what you need to find out. Could be related to her family’s foundation, or Sutton’s hiding something.” Brody hesitated. “Miles Landis is also suspect.”

Miles, Taylor’s half brother. The snotty brat had rubbed him wrong the moment he’d met him. “Yeah, I heard he’s had money troubles.”

“Right. And Taylor is supposed to inherit a boatload of money in four weeks, on her thirtieth birthday,” Brody continued. “That’s motive for Miles.”

Hayes grabbed the check and tossed down some cash, then strode toward the door. Tonight he’d wanted to drown himself in cheap beer, listen to country music and hang with the real people.

Instead, he had to head back to the neighborhood of the rich and greedy and Taylor Landis.

Could this day get any worse?

First the confrontation with Kenneth regarding his possible tampering with the bid for the new city library, then that ordeal with Miles at the restaurant.

The only highlight was the excitement about her best friend Margaret Hathaway’s upcoming wedding. Margaret had been alone a long time, had never gotten over giving her son up for adoption when she was fifteen. She’d even hinted at hiring a P.I. to look for him, but her father, Link, had insisted against it. Poor Margaret. Her friend’s pain had prompted Taylor to hire the P.I. herself. Finding out that her son’s adopted family loved him would make a perfect wedding gift to Margaret. Then she could finally have the happiness she deserved.

Her cell phone rang, and she checked the number as she turned into Cantara Hills. Miles.

Not again.

She let it ring until it went to voice mail, but a second later, it started all over again. Knowing he wouldn’t give up, she hit the connect button.

“I knew you were there,” Miles snarled.

“Listen, I already told you that I’m not giving you any money right now. Grow up and start being responsible.”

“You’ll be sorry for turning your back on me, Taylor.”

A chill swept up Taylor’s spine. “Is that a threat?”

His bitter laugh echoed over the line. “It’s a promise.”

The dial tone buzzed in her ear as he abruptly ended the call.

Taylor shivered. After her mother’s death, her father had quickly remarried. But his marriage to Miles’s mother hadn’t lasted long, and both she and Miles had been bitter and had tried repeatedly to milk him for money. But she’d never heard Miles so out of control. As she pulled down the drive to her mansion, she saw the crime scene tape in her driveway, and her senses jumped to alert.

The tape and the smoky, charred debris that had stained the imported Italian brick reminded her that someone had tried to kill her. That her body parts, instead of her BMW’s, could have been all over the lawn?.

If she hadn’t rescheduled her appointment, she would have been driving home at the time the bomb exploded. According to Sergeant Egan Caldwell, the device had been set on a timer. Which meant that someone had known her routine and had intentionally planned for the car to explode with her inside.

Could Miles have done it? Or was Carlson Woodward responsible?

But why would Carlson have wanted her dead?

Hugging her arms around herself, she scanned the front of her estate, feeling paranoid as she let herself in and checked her security system. Ever since the break-ins had started in Cantara Hills, she’d been nervous. Had expected to be hit. After all, her mansion held expensive furniture, paintings, vases, collectibles, and she had several exquisite customized one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry her father had given her over the years.

All tucked away in her safe because she rarely wore them. She enjoyed the advantages money offered, but didn’t flaunt her wealth. In fact, that money was sometimes a curse. While most girls had to worry about men wanting in their pants, she had the added hassle of wondering if they wanted to get into her bank account. Even her father used his wealth to replace his feelings for her with expensive gifts.

And the break-ins—did the police believe that Carlson Woodward was responsible for them? She frowned and walked through the kitchen to the foyer and the spiral staircase, then wound her way up to her suite.

But why would Carlson steal from the neighbors? He didn’t need the money. Her little brother, Miles, was a different story. He was so desperate for cash and angry with some of her friends who’d begun refusing him loans, that he might resort to theft.

She slipped into a bathing suit, sighing as her bare feet sank into the plush Oriental rug. Padding barefoot down the steps, she exited through the sunroom, grabbed a towel from the pool house and dropped it, along with her cell phone, onto a patio chair. The last vestiges of sunlight had faded hours ago, but the pool lights illuminated the terrace, bathing the intricately patterned stonework in a pale glow. The smell of roses from the garden along with hydrangeas bordering the patio scented the air, disguising the hint of chlorine, and she stared into the shimmering aquamarine water.

Still, thoughts of Carlson’s attack on Caroline haunted her. She and Caroline had been neighbors and friends for years now. Apparently, Carlson had spread rumors in the community about Caroline having an affair with Sergeant Egan Caldwell, and had even called her father to stir up trouble.

Then he had attacked Caroline. Thankfully Ranger Caldwell had rescued Caroline and shot Carlson. Unfortunately Egan had been injured in the confrontation. Now Caroline had accompanied him to Austin to take care of him while he recuperated. Taylor still couldn’t believe that Caroline had fallen for the surly ranger.

She dove into the water and began a crawl stroke. She and Caroline had joked about the three cowboy cops who’d invaded their country club community with their big bodies, hard attitudes and?guns. They’d dubbed Lieutenant Brody McQuade, Kimberly’s brother, the intense one. Sergeant Egan Caldwell, the surly one. And Sergeant Hayes Keller—he had a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas.

Still, an odd tingling rippled through her as she thought about him—he was all bad attitude. Big, brawny, muscular, with eyes as black as soot and a temper as hot as fire. He was just the kind of man she normally avoided because he looked as if he could snap a person into pieces with just one look. But still, he was dangerously sexy?.

Her stomach clenched. Where had that thought come from?

She didn’t even like the guy. When he’d questioned her, she’d felt his disdain carving a hole through her.

She’d be glad when he left the area.

She swam another lap, counting strokes, but suddenly the lights flickered off, both outside and inside, pitching the terrace into darkness. Her breath hitched. There wasn’t a storm cloud in sight, no reason for a power failure.

Something was wrong.

Scanning the terrace and garden for signs of an intruder, she swam to the pool edge to get out and call security. Suddenly a movement at the edge of the gardens by the pool house caught her eye.

A man?

Panic shot through her. She had to call for help. But the chair where she’d put her phone was next to the gardens.

And the only unlocked door was the sunroom door. She’d have to pass the pool house to reach it.

Taking a deep breath, she took off running, but before she reached the door, someone clamped a gloved hand over her mouth and encircled her neck with the other.

She clawed at his hands, but he dug his fingers into her larynx, cutting off her air. Remembering the self-defense moves she’d learned, she jabbed her elbow in his chest, brought her knee up then stomped down on his foot.

He growled in fury and tightened both hands around her throat. Blind panic assaulted her. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see. Desperate, she reached for something to use as a weapon as they fell against a patio chair. Her hand closed around a garden shovel and she stabbed backward with it, but he knocked it from her hand and it skittered across the terrace.

Enraged, he punched her jaw so hard her ears rang and she saw stars.

She had to fight back. But he hit her again, her legs buckled and her knees hit the stone with a painful thud. He shoved her face down, and she tasted blood as her head slammed against the brick wall encircling the patio. Then he dragged her toward the pool.

Summoning her last bit of strength, she flailed and kicked, clawed at him, but they tumbled into the pool.

Gasping, she struggled to fight her way back to the surface, but he was too strong. She held her breath, but her lungs were on fire, and he squeezed her throat so tightly that she choked and inhaled water.

Then an empty darkness sucked her into its vortex.

Hayes pulled to a stop at the iron-gated entrance to Taylor Landis’s estate, and pressed the intercom button. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel as he waited, but she didn’t respond. Dammit, even if she wasn’t home, didn’t she have servants at her beck and call day and night?

He pressed the call button again, his impatience growing. What the hell was she doing? Lounging in some hot bath with cucumbers over her eyes, sipping champagne? Entertaining one of her rich guy friends? Maybe they were wallowing in bed with all their money.

Hell, maybe she wasn’t home. Probably out shopping.

Still, he had to make sure she was safe. Resigned, he scanned the key card through the security system. But the card didn’t work. Dammit, had she changed the system without informing them?

Or could something be wrong?

His heartbeat slammed in his chest, and he climbed out, removed his weapon, vaulted over the fence and jogged through the oaks lining the mile-long driveway, scanning the property for an intruder.

As the house slid into view, he searched the front yard, the sign of the crime scene tape a reminder that Brody might be right—that Taylor Landis might be in danger. He sped up until he reached the house, a cold monstrosity made of stone and brick with arches and palladium windows.

The hair on the back of his neck prickled. Why were the lights off?

The lingering odor of smoke and charred grass assaulted him, and he paused, a noise breaking the quiet. Water? A sprinkler maybe? But it had rained last night so why would Taylor have the sprinkler on?

He hurried to the front door and rang the doorbell. The sound reverberated through the cavernous inside, an empty sound that came unanswered. He pressed it again, then glanced through a front window. Nothing looked out of place. But it was pitch-dark inside. Quiet.

No movement. And there hadn’t been a storm to knock out the power.

What if someone had disarmed Taylor’s security or cut her lights?

Another noise jarred him, and he jerked his head toward the side of the house, then realized the noise had come from the back.

Sucking in a breath, he wielded his gun and slowly inched along the length of the house to the side, then around the corner where a terrace held a pool, sitting area, fireplace, cooking pit and a pool house. A clay flowerpot was overturned, dirt spilled across the stone.

Senses alert, his gaze swept the perimeter and the gardens. A water hose lay on the ground, spraying the stone. He shut off the water, wondering why someone would have directed it toward the pool instead of the lawn.

His breath caught as he neared the pool. A body was floating facedown inside.


It was Taylor Landis.