Stolen Hearts (MM)
Rafael Pederos is awakened in the middle of the night by his wheelchair-bound sister Pearl. Someone’s in the barn where they shouldn’t be. Rafael tells her to call the cops as he storms out to chase off the rustlers, but he’s too late. They’re already gone, and they’ve taken four pregnant mares with them. Now the future of the Pederos Ranch is up in the air.
This is where Chad Masters comes in. As a detective-ranger, he swears to track down the missing mares. But that’s easier said than done when he realizes there’s something about Rafael he can’t resist. Now if he can just get past the gruff exterior and teach Rafael how to love again.
“Ma’am, did you call in?”
“Yes,” she said, wheeling to the edge of the porch. For a moment he feared she might try to go down the steps, drawing up shy of the first step. There was a ramp a few feet away. “Please. My brother Rafael went to stop them and I’m worried. I heard the report of a gun. Please.”
“Okay. Where did he go and to stop whom?”
She gestured frantically toward the barn. “Someone was in there. Raf suspected rustlers.”
The word made his heart skip a beat. Rustlers, livestock thieves, he’d known most of them to be ruthless and always armed. Chad drew his gun. “Please, ma’am, go back into the house while I have a look.”
She glared at him. “I’m not helpless.”
“I’m sure you aren’t,” he attempted to humor her, “But I’d feel better if you were out of harm's way.”
“Bull patootie.” She made a beeline for the porch. “I only called y’all because Raf told me to.” She rolled down the ramp.
Chad found himself trailing after her, gravel crunching under her wheels, wondering how he’d allowed it to happen. He thought of grabbing the handle of her chair; would it be rude? Well, manners be damned, Chad did it anyway, forcing her to stop. The rifle slid off her lap.
“The name is Pearl.”
“Alright, Miss Pearl,” he addressed her, “if you insist on coming along, please let me go in first.” Chad was quick to add, “As a matter of protocol.”
She sighed. “I suppose.” She bent to pick up the rifle and again he wondered, should he help her, would it be appreciated? He was uncertain and it bugged him. Most time he knew how to handle himself around others. Before he could decide, though, she had the gun back in her capable clutches.
Leading the way, Chad approached the open barn door with due caution. A quick glance revealed Pearl hanging back a respectable distance. Good, it made his job a smidgen easier knowing she wasn't breathing down his back. Chad peered around the corner. There was no one in sight. He crept inside. The barn was laid out like an ‘L’ and he was on the shorter end. Horses stirred in closed stalls. Pearl came in behind him.
“Police, anyone in here?” Chad called out.
One of the horses nickered. Chad neared the turn, both hands on his gun. By now he was acutely aware of every beat his heart took, licking his lips, praying to avoid a fire fight. At the corner he paused, giving anyone inside one more chance to make their presence known.
“Last chance, buddy, this is the police.”
There was a shuffling sound. Chad was forced to step back as a horse charged passed, nearly knocking him over. The startled animal whinnied, disturbed from its usual evening routine. Pearl, with no issue, held out a hand and whistled. Ears flicked in her direction. While she dealt with the wayward horse, Chad took the opportunity to search the rest of the barn. When he returned he found Pearl scratching a velvety pink nose.
She looked at him, imploringly. “Did you find him, my brother? Rafael?”