Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace
Eve Gaddy

April 2012 $11.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-132-6

It's a match made in Heaven with the Sheriff from Hell--Hell, Texas, that is.

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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

It's a match made in Heaven with the Sheriff from Hell--Hell, Texas, that is.

Grace O'Malley is the sheriff of Bandido County in southwest Texas. Posing as an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) investigator, Max Ridell is an undercover Texas Ranger, looking to bust an illegal-alien smuggling ring, and the Sheriff's office is high on the list of suspects.

Max can't reconcile the honest, hardworking Grace with a smuggler of illegal aliens, nor can he ignore his immediate attraction to her. As for Grace, she can’t seem to fit the sexy Max into the role of a nerdy, EPA agent. That doesn’t keep her for falling for him, a man who doesn’t believe in love. He’s been down that road before and knows it never works out.

When the truth about Max’s real reason for being in Hell comes out, Grace feels hurt and betrayed.Still, they must work together to bust the smuggling ring, without either of them getting killed

Can she forgive him for lying to her? And if so, can she make him see that what they have can last a lifetime?


"With a good mix of action, suspense and romance, Amazing Grace is one of those books that I found hard to set down!" -- Sarah Quick, Exploring All Genres

"...was entertaining and pleasurable to read." -- Christa Pitcock, NetGalley



Some days it just wasn’t worth getting out of bed.

Hell, Texas. Population 892, if you counted cows and chickens. Since it was hardly big enough to be a pinprick on a map, most people didn’t know that Hell even existed.

Max Ridell wished he was one of them.

He lay on his back in the middle of a dusty asphalt street, blood trickling from his nose. The hot July sun beat down, cooking the tar beneath him to blistering. To top it off, he thought one of his ribs was broken.

Groaning, he rolled over, spit dirt from his mouth, and opened his eyes to see a pair of cowboy boots firmly planted firmly an inch in front of him. Black, shiny—so shiny he could almost see his incipient black eye in them. His gaze crawled up long khaki-clad legs, past a decidedly female chest, to a woman’s face.

Mirrored aviator sunglasses glinted in the bright sunlight. She stared down at him, her jaw moving in a slow, rhythmic motion, chewing what he hoped was gum. Her right hand rested on the butt of a businesslike .357 Magnum, and a five-pointed star lay pinned to her khaki shirt above her left breast. A white felt cowboy hat sat on her head, covering short mahogany hair and shading much of her face, except for a wide, full mouth.

She opened that mouth and drawled, "You’re under arrest.”

Great. Busted by the Sheriff from Hell when he hadn’t been half an hour in the armpit of the universe.

Max pulled himself painfully to his feet and stared at her, hands on his hips. She was tall for a woman, just a few inches shy of his own six feet one.

"What the hell are you arresting me for? He started the fight.” Max gestured toward the diner behind her. They both turned to see Max’s attacker, Hugo the Hulk, rushing toward them, brandishing a vinyl café chair and cursing like a lunatic.

Damned if she didn’t step back and give the sucker a clear shot at Max. He ducked the chair, kicked out and landed his foot dead-on in the guy’s crotch. Even though Max wore running shoes rather than his customary boots, it should have leveled the guy. At least it made Hugo drop the chair. But judging by the hands getting acquainted with Max’s neck, it hadn’t fazed him much. None of the blows Max had landed earlier had bothered him either.

Everything but the maniacal face with bulging eyes faded from Max’s field of vision. The hands tightened. A roaring sounded in his ears as black dots danced before his eyes. His breath cut off.

Is the dumb broad just going to stand there and watch the turkey strangle me?

Dang, Grace O’Malley thought,frowning at the dust speckling her clean uniform. She ought to remember to stand farther back when folks went at it like that.

"I’ll teach you to go after my woman, you sumbitch,” Jim Bob yelled.

That explained it, she mused. No telling if the dark-haired stranger had actually made a pass at Doreen, Jim Bob’s girlfriend, but knowing Jim Bob’s temper, all the other man would have had to do was speak to her and he’d be toast. Gracie watched with interest as Jim Bob squeezed tighter and the stranger’s eyes glazed over, his face taking on a blue tinge. Better do something or Jim Bob’s latest victim would pass right out. She stepped to her patrol car a few paces away and reached inside for the fire extinguisher.

Since the stranger was getting the worst of it, she aimed the nozzle at Jim Bob’s chest and let loose with a steady stream of CO2. Satisfied, she watched the pair break apart. The stranger put his hand to his throat and sucked in air for all he was worth while Jim Bob stepped back, choking and coughing. As soon as Jim Bob got his breath back, he set up a storm of cussing. Gracie let him have it with the spray again until he shut up.

"Well, now,” she said, waiting to see if she had their attention. They stared at her in silence, the stranger glaring while he wiped blood from his face and goop from his shirt. Even though she hadn’t been aiming at him, he’d taken more than his share of foam. Tempted to laugh at the picture the two men presented, she figured she’d succeeded in snagging their notice.

"You’re both under arrest. Disorderly conduct.”

"What?” the stranger shouted. "I didn’t do anything except defend myself.”

At the same time Jim Bob yelled, "That pervert was hittin’ on my woman.”

Motioning with the fire extinguisher hose, she paid them no mind.

"Let’s go,” she said. They didn’t look real cooperative, particularly Jim Bob, so she tucked the fire extinguisher under her arm and fondled the butt of her pistol before walking behind them and herding them toward the patrol car.

"Spread ’em, fellas,” she ordered as they reached the front quarter panel, "and keep your hands on the hood.”

Jim Bob, naturally, jerked around until she had to shove him up against the car. "Don’t make me get ugly,” she warned him as she patted him down.

"I don’t have to make you get ugly, Sheriff,” he said, turning his head to give her a nasty glare. "You’re already ugly.”

Gracie clenched her jaw so she wouldn’t speak, not wanting him to know he’d touched a nerve. Ordinarily, she didn’t let that kind of thing bother her, but something about the way Jim Bob always harped on her looks rankled. Besides, she might not be a raving beauty, but the face she saw in the mirror every morning wouldn’t turn a person to stone, either. Shrugging off the insult, she pulled a set of handcuffs from her belt.

Jim Bob didn’t tick her off major league until he spit at her. Lucky for him he missed. She slapped the cuffs on him and made sure she forgot to double lock them. The more he squirmed, and if she knew Jim Bob he’d fight every step of the way, the tighter the cuffs would get. He ought to know better by now than to rile her, but his middle name was Dumb. In the eighteen months she’d been sheriff of Bandido County, she’d run him in for everything from public intoxication, to petty theft, to domestic violence. Every time she hauled him in he gave her trouble, and every time, she turned it right back at him.

After shoving Jim Bob into the backseat, she turned her attention to the stranger. He was a big cuss, but he stood still and didn’t hassle her, though she could tell he wanted to. Even though she didn't scare easy, he was a stranger, so she took her time and was extra careful patting him down. You could never tell who was packing a weapon, and Gracie didn’t intend to wind up dead due to carelessness.

Satisfied the newcomer was clean, she handcuffed him, loaded him into the front seat and set off for the jail, a couple of miles away. Either the stranger was smarter than Jim Bob or he knew the process well enough to realize she could make him a whole lot more uncomfortable if she wanted. Could be he’d been arrested a time or two in the past.

Having heard it all before, Grace ignored the sewage spewing from Jim Bob’s mouth and called the arrest in over the radio. Not only her tenure as sheriff, but six years as a city cop had guaranteed there wasn’t much left that could shock her. After a while, though, she began to get irritated. The familiar throb of a headache pulled at her temples.

She hit the brakes hard. Jim Bob’s head twanged against the cage separating the front seat from the back.

"Darn,” she drawled, glancing in the rearview mirror to see his eyes bugging out with fury. "Armadillo.”

The man beside her bit off a curse but didn’t say anything else. Smart one, she thought again, feeling a little sorry for him. His head would’ve hit the dash, except his seat belt had jerked him back before that happened. It had tightened around him, of course, and she suspected he was pretty uncomfortable. She wished things were different, since she was nearly certain he hadn’t started the fight. Besides, if anybody deserved to get punched, Jim Bob Mulligan did. But she couldn’t prove her point to Bigmouth Mulligan without getting to the stranger as well.

Jim Bob kicked the back of her seat, causing a loose spring to poke her in the back. Hoping he’d quit when she didn’t react, Gracie ignored him, but he kept on until the blasted coil dug into the small of her back and hurt like the dickens. The kicking, along with his never-ending garbage-mouth, annoyed her to no end. She slammed on the brakes again.

"Dadgummit,” she said cheerily, hearing Jim Bob’s head rebound from the bars with a gratifying thud. "Another ’dillo. That’s two in one day.”

"Do you have to do that?” the stranger snarled at her.

She shot him a sideways glance and bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. With blood, dirt and CO2 dripping off him, he was a mess, but kind of cute all the same. With black hair and gorgeous blue eyes, she didn’t doubt he’d clean up to be a nice-looking man. When he wasn’t mad as heck, that is.

Wishing for the millionth time that she hadn’t quit smoking, she picked up yet another piece of gum, unwrapped it, and popped it in her mouth. "Yep,” she said.

They rode the entire way to jail with a brake check every minute or two. After the second one the stranger braced himself, but poor Jim Bob never did figure it out.

An hour later Gracie looked at the report she’d pulled up on Mr. Max Ridell, Jim Bob’s sparring partner. No rap sheet. She was glad to know he hadn’t been in trouble with the law, even if he did have a bad-boy look about him. Not even a traffic ticket, according to his driver’s license record. Could be that bad-boy look had more to do with women than the law. When she’d called Connie May Pritchett, the waitress at the diner and Gracie’s best friend, to find out what had gone on from a bystander’s viewpoint, Connie had told her he was a charmer.

Max Ridell had made a big mistake, trying to make time with Jim Bob’s girl, but he wouldn’t have known that. Lucky for him she hadn’t put the two in the same cell, or Jim Bob would’ve wiped the floor with him. He had the fact that he’d cooperated with her to thank for that.

Gracie decided it was time to talk to the man himself. Hopefully she’d be able to let him go, which would do two things: tick Jim Bob off and save her a lot of paperwork.

When she went to get him she found him pacing the concrete floor of his cell. She noticed he’d used the sink to clean up. The bruises, along with the swollen lip and bright red nose, highlighted those bad-boy looks, she thought, seeing his face clearly for the first time. Except he was no boy. He was definitely all man—every smooth muscled inch of him.

Whoa, Gracie, what’s the matter with you? As a rule, she didn’t drool over men. Never had before. She shook her head, taking a firm grip on her unruly thoughts.

"Come on, mister,” she said as she unlocked the cell. "Let’s see if we can figure out what to do with you.”

She led him to the gray metal booking desk, seating herself in the wooden rolling chair behind it.

"I can answer that,” he said, taking the other chair. "You can let me go. I keep telling you, I didn’t start the fight.”

She picked up a piece of spearmint gum and popped it into her mouth. Her jaw moved. The gum popped.

"How about you tell me what happened,” she said, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms over her chest, getting comfortable.

He smiled—a roguish smile, full of promise—and Gracie knew that Connie had been right. A charmer, from the sky-blue of his eyes to the come-hither dimple in one bruised cheek.

"I must have interrupted a lover’s quarrel,” he said. "I asked one of the diner’s customers what was good. She made a couple of suggestions, and we hit it off. We started talking, just”—he spread his hands—"passing the time, you know?”


"Her boyfriend”—he continued, jerking a thumb at the drunk tank where Jim Bob resided—"didn’t like it. Next thing I knew he was pounding my face in.”

He gingerly touched his finger to his swollen lip and frowned.

"Picking up strange women can be dangerous, all right,” she said, as deadpan as she could get.

"I wasn’t picking her up. All I did was talk to her.”

He tried to look innocent, but in Gracie’s opinion he looked about as innocent as a dog on the dinner table. Right, she thought, a smile pulling at her mouth.

"I know Doreen,” she said, her eyes crinkling with her smile.

He grinned. "Okay, I’ll admit, she’s a looker.”

"That’s a fact.” And boy howdy, could Doreen cause trouble when she wanted. Gracie’s chair squeaked as she rocked forward to pick up a paper from the dented desktop. "I ran a check on you, Mr. Riii-dell,” she said, drawing his last name out in her West Texas drawl. "No rap sheet.”

"That’s because I’m no criminal. I’m just a bystander who got attacked by a lunatic.”

Since the word lunatic summed up Jim Bob to a tee, she let that pass. "Mind telling me what your business is in Hell?”

"I work for the Environmental Protection Agency. I’m here to investigate the effects of the pollution from the maquiladoras on the Rio Grande and the land bordering the river.”

She stared at him and blinked.

"You’re a biologist?” In her experience, biologists were soft and stuffy, pale-faced bureaucrats. This man, with his tanned skin and hell-raiser looks, was no more her idea of an environmentalist than she was anyone’s notion of a debutante.

"That’s right.” He shifted in the straight-backed chair and groaned. "I planned on contacting your office as soon as I finished eating to alert you to my presence and ask for your cooperation.”

"Cooperation?” He’d need that all right. The ranchers around Hell didn’t cotton to the EPA.

"Yes. I’m also investigating illegal dumping. If you know of any suspicious sites...” He let the sentence trail off and waited for her to speak.

"You want me to tell you if I know of anyone dumping illegally? Don’t you think I’d have brought them in for questioning if I knew of anything like that going on?” Did he think she couldn’t do her job?

He smiled at her again. He sure knew how to use that smile to his advantage. What would it be like if he smiled at her because he meant it and not because he wanted something?

"It’s a big border,” he said. "You can’t be everywhere at once. Your office is small, isn’t it?”

She took her time answering.

"One deputy,” she finally said, "and a few reserve officers. When we need them. A jailer and a dispatcher too. So tell me, Mr. Riii-dell, what exactly are you planning to do?”

"Call me Max.” That lady-killer smile flashed again. "Take soil samples, water samples. Look around for anything suspicious.”

"You plan on tromping around folks’ ranches?” That ought to be something to watch.

"Yes. Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”

She couldn’t help grinning. "Not if you don’t mind a seat full of buckshot.”

"I’ve got every legal right to inspect these lands.”

"Sounds like it,” she agreed. An EPA agent. So he’d be sticking around awhile. The thought pleased her, though she couldn’t have said why. She doubted she was Max Ridell’s type.

The phone rang and she answered it.


"Dogfight, Sheriff,” a muffled voice said. "Out at the Washburn place.”

"What?” Her grip tightened on the receiver. "Who’s—?”

The line went dead. She barely stopped herself from slamming the phone down. She’d warned those sons of guns that if she caught them fighting dogs again, she’d throw the whole law library at them, but obviously her threats hadn’t done anything to discourage them. Her stomach rolled when she thought about those poor animals. Gracie knew how vicious those fights could be.

"Sheriff? Are you all right?”

The deep male voice jerked her back to the present business. Before she could leave she had to do something with Max Ridell. She didn’t answer him, but rose and pulled a clear plastic bag out of the middle drawer of the desk and tossed his belongings down in front of him. "Check that it’s all there and you’re free to go.”

"Thanks,” he said, sifting through his things and putting on his watch. He glanced up and smiled. "Looks like everything’s here. But there’s one problem, Sheriff. My truck’s back at the diner. Is there a taxi service?”

The question made her forget about the dogfight long enough to laugh.

"No taxis in Hell. Come on. I’ll drop you by there on my way.” She started for the door, expecting him to follow.

"Does this mean I can count on your help if I need it?”

She glanced back to see him slipping his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans, stretching the denim tight across his rear. She’d never really understood why Connie talked about men’s rears being cute until that moment.


She looked up at his face. The teasing glint in his eyes and the smile lifting one corner of his mouth indicated he’d noticed the direction of her gaze. Flushing, she glanced away, comforting herself with the certainty that she wasn’t the first woman to look at him that way.

Belatedly remembering he’d asked for her help, she answered. "I imagine so.”

"Thanks. I appreciate that.”

A short while later she let him off at the diner, feeling vaguely regretful as she watched him walk away. She’d see him again, though, probably sooner than he expected. Knowing that the ranchers had as much use for the EPA as a cat does for a bath, she figured Max Ridell would be in hot water pretty dang quick.




"Atta girl, Izzy. You’re just about well,” Gracie said, giving the small black-and-white spaniel mix a pat. "Tomorrow it’s out with the troops.”

Izzy thumped her tail and gazed at Gracie with big brown soulful eyes. She suspected Izzy liked her position of honor, curled up in a box in the kitchen, but the dog would adjust quickly enough to the rest of the animals.

Hearing a pounding at the back door followed by muffled cursing, Gracie went to answer it.

Connie May Pritchett blew in with a hug and a complaint. "When are you going to train those damned rejects of yours, Gracie?” she asked. "Look at my skirt.” She swept a hand over the garment, long red nails gleaming. "It’s ruined.”

"Be reasonable, Connie.” She glanced down at her own jeans and faded blue T-shirt. "You know better than to wear anything nice out here. Besides, it’ll wash.” Except if Connie shrank that flimsy thing she called a skirt any more, Gracie would have to arrest her for indecent exposure. But there was no changing Connie, so Gracie didn’t try.

Making herself at home with the ease of someone who’d been a life-long friend, Connie headed straight for the refrigerator.

"So tell me about yesterday,” she said, pulling out a pitcher of tea and pouring a couple of glasses. "Why in the world did you arrest both of them? I told you Jim Bob started it.”

"Didn’t have a choice. Couldn’t bring Jim Bob in without bringing the other one too.” Gracie picked up her tea and added, "I’m surprised you weren’t over here last night wanting to know everything I could tell you.”

Not to mention everything she couldn’t tell her. Connie was a gossip with a capital G, though she never meant any harm.

"I had plans,” Connie said.

"With Reese?” Gracie asked, referring to her friend’s fiancé. "I thought the Chapmans were busy with those new cattle.”

Connie flung up a hand. "Don’t talk about cattle. I’m so sick of hearing about that damned ranch, I don’t know what to do. I want to know about this stranger. Heard him telling Doreen his name was Max and he was going to be in town awhile.”

Dodged that question, Grace thought. She suspected things weren’t going well for Connie and Reese, but her friend would talk to her when she was ready and not before.

"Looks that way. Max Ridell,” she said. "He’s a biologist with the EPA.”

"A biologist?”Connie stared at her. "Didn’t look like a biologist to me. More like—hmm...” She tapped a finger on her temple, narrowing her eyes. "I’ll have to think about that. He’s no cowboy, that’s for sure. Looks like he could be a lot of fun, if you know what I mean.” She raised her eyebrows and wiggled them suggestively.

Gracie had an idea, though not from personal experience. She suspected her friend was right about Max Ridell being fun, but Connie was wrong about him not being a cowboy. A slow smile spread over her face. He’d look right at home in boots and a Stetson.

"Prettiest blue eyes I ever saw,” she said, thinking aloud. Not to mention that come-and-get-me smile of his. He’d been nice, too, which had surprised her considering she’d just thrown him in jail. Most people reacted like Jim Bob and cussed her out. She appreciated a man who could hold his temper.

"Gracie! I’ve never heard you talk about a man’s eyes before.”

Startled out of her reverie, she glanced at her friend.

"Sure I have.” She frowned, then took a sip of tea.

"Not with that goofy smile on your face.”

"It wasn’t a goofy smile.” Okay, so maybe it was, she admitted silently. "For Pete’s sake, Connie, I’m not blind. He’s a good-looking guy. So what?”

Connie cocked her head and studied Gracie, her expression giving her the look of an eager robin waiting for a worm. Her teased red hair only strengthened the impression.

"Are you interested in this man?”

Was she? "Maybe,” Gracie said. "Not that it matters. Look who he was trying to pick up.”

"Oh, Doreen.” Connie dismissed the prettiest woman in town with a sniff and a wave of her hand. "If you ask me, she was a sight more taken with him than he was with her. Don’t talk that way, Gracie. You’re too hard on yourself.”

"Nope.” Gracie shook her head and rose. "I’m a realist. And this realist needs to feed the mob. Come talk to me while I do.”

Connie followed her out the door, scolding all the way to the barn. The pack’s enthusiasm made for slow going. Between swatting at noses and dodging smelly obstacles, Connie managed to fit in a week’s worth of nagging about Gracie’s low opinion of herself, finishing up with, "If you’d give a man half a chance instead of automatically assuming he couldn’t possibly want—”

"Con,” Gracie interrupted, "we’ve been through this before. Men—most men, anyway—don’t see a woman when they look at me. They see the sheriff, or a friend, or even an enemy, but they don’t see a woman.”

It didn’t particularly bother her, because to tell the truth, she hadn’t yet met a man she thought would be worth the trouble, judging from most of her friends’ love lives. Still, her own parents had had a good marriage, and something about Max Ridell made her question that belief. It wasn’t just his looks, though he was cute enough. And it wasn’t the fact that he’d been decent to her when she’d arrested him, though that had helped. Maybe—

"Only the fools around here can’t see you as a woman,” Connie said, intruding on her thoughts again. "They’ve known you forever and still don’t have a clue about the real you. Stop that, Caesar.” She broke off to shove at the Great Dane poking his nose up her skirt.

Gracie bit her lip to keep from laughing.

"Sorry, Con. But he always has liked you. See, he’s trying to apologize.”

"He’s sorry, all right,” Connie said, glaring at him.

In an effort to look properly penitent, the big dog had rolled over on his back and waved his paws in apology. "It’s rude to go about sticking your nose in people’s—Oh, never mind. I’m talking about men, not one-eyed Goliaths.”

When Connie launched into a lecture there was no stopping her, Gracie thought, and resigned herself to hearing it.

"I’ll tell you what it is about men,” Connie went on. "You have to beat them over the head with a stick to get their attention. Why don’t you ever dress like a girl? You’d be surprised at what a short skirt can accomplish.”

She wiggled her hips for emphasis.

Gracie snorted. "I’d look pretty silly feeding these guys in heels and a skirt. Besides, I’d be six feet tall if I wore heels.”

Hauling out a fifty-pound sack of dog food, she pulled the seal-string and poured the contents into a large trashcan. Then she grabbed a scoop and started dumping the kernels into smaller pans. Her troops went through dog food like Sherman had gone through Georgia, but with twelve, no make that thirteen—she’d forgotten about the newest addition—dogs, it took a lot to feed them.

"Some men like tall women,” Connie argued. "Besides, that’s just an excuse and you know it. Your boots make you taller, and you wear them all the time. Why do you waste yourself out here on all these”—she gestured at the adoring mob of furry bodies, slopping doggie breath and dog hair everywhere—"rejects? You have so much to give.”

"Why don’t you feed the cats instead of nagging me to death?” Grace asked, finally getting irritated.

Grabbing the sack of kitty feed, Connie did as she was told. But she kept on yakking, which didn’t surprise Gracie. Sometimes she wondered if Connie had nagged her first husband into a divorce, but she squelched the thought because she loved her friend, even with her faults.

"What about Bill?” Connie asked. "Wasn’t that his name? You know, the cop you dated for a while when you were in El Paso. He thought of you as a woman, didn’t he?”

It took her a minute to remember who Connie was talking about.

"Oh, him. Yeah, I guess he did.” Her eyes crinkled as she thought about it. "Nice enough guy, but I don’t think he was any more fired up about me than I was about him.”

And that was the problem, she mused. She’d dated a few men, mostly other cops, between leaving home and returning, but the relationships had been more lukewarm than fiery. She had never wanted to go to bed with a man simply because neither of them had anything better to do. It seemed to her that making love ought to be more... well, more important than that. When the men found out she wasn’t interested in sleeping with them, they hightailed it out of her life quick as spit.

"So everybody runs across a few duds now and then,” Connie said. "Try for once, instead of giving up before you even get started. Do something about this new fellow. He’s going to need all the friends he can get, once everyone finds out what he’s doing here.”

That was true, Gracie acknowledged. The ranchers thought that environmentalists made for good buzzard bait and not much else. Funny, Max Ridell didn’t strike her as a typical EPA agent. She couldn’t put her finger on why, though. But as for Connie’s great idea of trying to get his notice—nah, it wouldn’t work. He’d been nice to her because he wanted out of jail and he wasn’t dumb. Still, being the object of Max Ridell’s undivided attention was a tempting thought.

An hour later, Connie left, claiming to have a date with Reese. That must have been a lie, though. Half an hour after that Grace got a call from Reese, and it was plain from his conversation that Connie wasn’t with him. He was calling about a trespasser on the ranch, and to tell her his father had gone after the man with his gun.

Poor Max, Gracie thought, grinning as she strapped on her belt. Since the Chapmans’ land bordered the river, she’d bet the ranch he was the trespasser. He hadn’t gotten a very warm welcome in Hell.

Ass-deep in the Rio Grande, Max cursed the day he’d agreed to take this assignment. The old man stood six feet away from him on the bank of the river, the business end of a shotgun pointed at Max’s chest. If he moved the rancher would plug him as full of holes as a sieve.

One more time, he tried to reason with him.

"Mr. Chapman, all I want to do is take a few soil samples.”

And look around for halfway stations while he was at it, but the old geezer didn’t need to know that.

"You got no business nosing around on my property. I don’t give a rat’s be-damned what you want.”

So much for his legal right to be there. The wiry old goat looked like the type to shoot first and ask questions later. It irked Max to think that he was in exactly the position Sheriff Grace O’Malley had predicted, with that surprisingly lush mouth of hers curving upward as she spoke. "A seat full of buckshot” looked like the best he could hope for at this point. She’d be rolling on the ground laughing if she could see him now.

Speak of the devil, he thought as movement beyond the old man caught his eye. Or in this case, the Sheriff from Hell. Wasn’t that her patrol car topping the rise? He squinted into the gathering twilight as the white, boxy vehicle drew closer, throwing up a cloud of dust on the sorry excuse for a road that bordered the rancher’s field.

Chapman turned around to look behind him.

"Ha. Now we’ll see. Here comes the sheriff. Gracie’ll arrest your tail right quick.”

Just dandy, Max thought. Bad enough to be on the receiving end of a shotgun, but why did Grace O’Malley have to show up? He doubted she’d arrest him, but this was the second time she’d caught him looking like an incompetent fool, and he didn’t much care for the experience.

The patrol car ground to a halt. She got out, glanced at Max, then ambled over toward Chapman. Though slow, her stride was sure and confident. Competent, he thought, watching her. Instead of a uniform, she wore jeans. But even without the gun belt and cowboy hat she’d have looked like a sheriff. A take-charge kind of woman. She’d handled Jim Bob, she’d handled him, and he didn’t doubt she’d handle Chapman as well. But how?

Reaching the rancher, she tipped her hat and said, her voice a sociable drawl, "Evenin’, Mr. Chapman. Reese tells me you’re having a little problem here.”

"Not a problem. I fixed it for the most part, and I’m waiting for him to leave.” Chapman lowered the gun long enough to add, "How about you arrest him and save me some buckshot?”

"Well now, it might not be that simple.”

Thank God for sensible women, Max thought. His best course, he decided, would be to keep his mouth shut and let her handle the matter, though it went against the grain to do so. Fisting his hands beneath the water’s surface, he waited.

"My land, my gun,” Chapman said, "He ain’t welcome. Sounds simple to me. Arrest the bugger.”

"Did he tell you what he wanted?”

"Said he was a damned biologist with the damned EPA.” With his free hand, Chapman hitched up his overalls. "I didn’t need to hear more.”

Raising his gun again, he aimed it at Max.

"Well now.” She took off her hat, ran a hand through her short dark red hair, replaced the hat. "I’m afraid that isn’t all there is to it. You can’t stop the EPA from being on your land.”

"Wanna bet? My shotgun says different.”

She ignored the threat and continued as if he hadn’t spoken. "My dispatcher put in a whistle to the EPA. She’s supposed to call and tell me if he checks out. If he does, and I expect he will, you’ve got to let him do his job, Mr. Chapman.”

"What if I don’t?” The old man thrust out his whiskered chin belligerently. The gun didn’t waver from its position.

Max took comfort from the fact that the gathering darkness made it unlikely Chapman could see well enough to hit him.

The sheriff shook her head regretfully.

"Then I’m sorry as can be, but I’ll have to take you in.”

He’d been glaring fixedly at Max, but at that comment he jerked his head around to stare at her.

"Grace O’Malley, I can’t believe you’re talking to me like this. You’ve known me all your life. What’s got into you? Your daddy would never have acted this way.”

"You’re wrong, Mr. Chapman.” Her voice changed, hardened. "My father would’ve run you in because he did his job. And that’s what I’ll do if I have to.”

She planted her feet apart in a now-familiar stance. Not threatening, but determined. It made those long legs of hers look even longer—and definitely female, definitely enticing.

"Knew no good would come of electing a female sheriff,” Chapman muttered, but he lowered his gun. "Might just rethink my vote come next election.”

"Your privilege,” she said. Then she spoke to Max. Aside from the brief glance when she’d arrived, it was the first good look she’d taken at him.

He could still see well enough to note the smile tugging at her mouth, and it fanned the embers of his already strained temper.

"You can come on out now, Mr. Riii-dell. We’ll just wait until I get the nod on your credentials.”

Gritting his teeth so he wouldn’t tell her to stuff it, Max climbed out and started for his truck. Full of sludge and water, his shoes squished unpleasantly as he walked. His jeans clung to his legs, wet, clammy, and feeling like they’d been dipped in lead. Probably had. God only knew what was in that water.

"Where are you going, Mr. Ridell?” she called after him.

Chapman, his voice rising, said, "See? He’s gettin’ away. Arrest the bugger, I say, shoot him.”

Max turned and glared at her. "I’ve got papers in my truck to prove my business here. Besides, I told you yesterday why I’m here.”

"Yep.” She nodded agreeably. "But I’ve got to have confirmation. Not that I don’t believe you,” she added. "Something like that’s pretty simple to check.”

Hanging on to his temper by the tips of his fingers, Max stalked to the truck, jerked open the door, and popped open the glove compartment.

"Got a permit for that gun?” her voice asked near his shoulder.

He turned to find her right behind him. He’d had no idea she could move that quickly or that silently. She wrinkled her nose and stepped back a pace, not that he blamed her. Stinkweed smelled better than he did right then. He didn’t want to think about the toxins that might have entered his system.

"Here are my credentials,” he said, handing them to her and silently thanking his boss for insisting he have the real things. "And here’s the permit for the gun.”

It wasn’t quite dark, but she pulled out her flashlight and shined it on the papers, taking her sweet time perusing them. Max bit his tongue, ground his teeth, and waited.

"Everything looks in order,” she finally said, and turned to the rancher. "Mr. Chapman, looks like you’re out of luck. I couldn’t find anything wrong with his credentials.”

"What? You mean I’ve got to let the dirty bastard nose around on my property?” he demanded incredulously. "Never heard of such a thing.”

" ’Fraid so,” she said, warm understanding in her voice. "But I’m sure Mr. Ridell would be willing to come back tomorrow.” She looked at him and raised an eyebrow in silent question.

Max ground his teeth again and counted to ten. That didn’t accomplish anything, so he counted to fifty. Losing his temper wouldn’t help—the sheriff was his only ally. Besides, she hadn’t sent him into the water. She might have predicted it, but she hadn’t actually done it. Still, he didn’t like being rescued by a woman, sheriff or not. Call him macho, but it galled the hell out of him. Twice, she’d come to his rescue. Twice he’d looked like a fool.

"Perfectly willing,” he gritted out.

Chapman stomped off, shotgun over his shoulder, muttering darkly as he went.

The sheriff contemplated Max, her mouth curving upward, her gaze taking in every miserable detail of his appearance. Her big brown eyes danced with enjoyment, yanking his chain still further.

"Glad you find this so amusing, Sheriff.”

"From my viewpoint it is pretty funny. And you do smell kinda like a dog who tangled with a skunk. Hope it fades faster than skunk smell does.”

He unclenched his jaw to speak. "It might, assuming I could shower.”

"Why can’t you shower?”

"Because nothing in this godforsaken part of the state works right. The water’s off at the motel. God knows when they’ll get it fixed. The owner said the well pump went out, and they don’t appear to be in any hurry to fix it.”

She nodded understandingly. "That would be because the pump repairman is hard to get ahold of. It’s a shame for you, though.”

He glared at her, not believing her sympathetic tone for a moment.

"Yeah, isn’t it? I’m sure it’s breaking your heart.”

She stared at him, not saying anything. After a long pause, she spoke.

"You can clean up at my house. Hell hasn’t been too hospitable to you, has it?”

Max laughed, surprised at the offer. "Thanks. Hospitable is definitely not the word I’d use.”

"Jim Bob was partly your fault, you know. If you hadn’t been trying to make time with his girl—”

He interrupted her. "All I did was talk to the woman.”

"So you said.” Her eyes glimmered with amusement before sobering. "As for this, the ranchers have good reason to dislike the EPA. No, better make that hate their guts.”

"Why’s that?”

She frowned, puzzled. "The bug thing, remember? You folks durn near bankrupted three-fourths of the families around here with that foolishness. As if things hadn’t been bad enough before that with the price of cattle dropping to rock bottom.”

Bug thing? Bankruptcy? What the hell was she talking about? Clearly something he was supposed to know. "I’m here on a different matter. I don’t plan to bankrupt anyone. I just want to do my job.” And get the hell out of Hell.

"That’s what the other fellows said. And look what happened.”

Research, you idiot, Max told himself. He’d better call the captain—or the EPA—that night and find out about the "bug thing”. "You obviously agree with them.”

She rolled her shoulder. "People and their livelihoods are more important than bugs, in my book. But try telling that to the EPA.”

Turning her back on him, she started walking toward her car. Still ticked off, he watched her go. He had to admit he liked the way she moved. He’d never seen anything quite like that walk of hers. Slow and almost... sultry, he decided, though he hadn’t thought her a sultry kind of woman.

"You can follow me in your truck,” she said over her shoulder.

Thank God something had finally gone right. Her hospitality made it easier on him. Of course, that was because she thought he was an EPA agent. He slammed the truck door, wondering what Sheriff O’Malley would do if she found out he was a Texas Ranger—and that she was under investigation.

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