Copyright 2014 by Lisa Mondello
Order LEAVING LIBERTY:
Today was just one more day in a long string of stormy days Liberty Calvert wanted to erase from her memory. As she sat in the passenger seat of her father’s truck, wiggling her toes in shoes that cramped her feet, she realized any relief she craved was futile. Her father was dead. And the expression on the face of the Texas Ranger leaning against his truck in her driveway as they pulled up to the house let her know he wanted to find out why.
She turned to the man driving the pickup truck. “They didn’t waste any time, did they,” she said with a slight groan.
“Do you really want them to?” Cole Rivers was more than a ranch hand on the Bucking Hills Ranch. He’d become family, even if it weren’t legal.
Liberty considered Cole’s words a second. “I wish they never showed up here at all. The least this ranger could have done was wait until my dad’s memorial service was over before charging in here with questions. It would have given us time to …”
“Figure things out?” Cole shook his head. “The time for that is long past. You know all about facing a storm head on, Libby. This is just one more storm.”
“What I wouldn’t give for some pleasant weather for a little while.”
Cole chuckled, reaching across the seat and squeezing her hand before looking at the man standing in the driveway. “He’s not going away.”
She stared at Cole for a long minute, weighing the situation back and forth until she made her decision.
“If you want, Lib, I’ll get out of the car first. Maybe he just wants to talk to me.”
Tears that had eluded her the past few days suddenly weighed heavy in her eyes. She was Texas stock right down to the bone, and there was no way she was going to let this intruder, even if he was a Texas lawman, get the best of her or take away more than she’d already lost.
“Thanks. But I can hold my own.”
Cole shrugged. “I just thought it might be easier.”
The truck pulled to a stop. Libby waited long enough for the dust from the gravel drive to blow forward and then settle around the Texas Ranger before she stepped out.
The man tilted his tan hat in greeting as she slammed the truck door. “Good afternoon, ma’am.”
Libby remained silent. She was already wearing shoes that were cramping her toes and a dress that … well, the last time she’d worn a dress was at her cousin’s wedding. That was six years ago. She was going to have to await changing into her comfortable jeans and worn-in boots until she dealt with the man.
Work. That’s what she needed. Not questions or probing. Work kept her grounded. Work made her forget. Well …
Despite saying she’d take care of it, Cole stepped out of the car first. Libby waited. The tall Texas Ranger who’d come to investigate her father’s death wasn’t a stranger. She’d seen him a few days after her father’s limp body was found up in the back pasture. Jackson Gentry was his name. He was an authentic navy hero, if she were to believe some of the whisperings about him in town, and now he worked as a lawman in Texas.
As she climbed out of the car, she finally had herself a good look at the man. Now that she was standing, she could see just how tall Jackson Gentry really was. The slight creases along his eyes told her he was a good eight to ten years older than her. His nose wasn’t exactly straight as if he’d had it broken at least once. But it didn’t take away from the rugged features that made him look appealing.
He tipped his tan cowboy hat at her once again. “Good afternoon ma’am.”
Libby laughed bitterly. “What’s so good about it?”
He gave one long look at the way she was dressed and his expression fell to the ground, his skin as gray as a dry riverbed.
“I … I thought the funeral for your father was weeks ago.”
“It was,” Cole said. “Today was private, to spread Buck’s ashes. Just for family.”
Jackson Gentry’s solemn eyes looked down for a brief moment. “I’m sorry for your loss, Miss Calvert. If I could, I would have picked a better time to call on you.”
Cole turned toward Libby, taking her by the arm as they started to walk toward the house, passing the Texas Ranger without answering.
“Unfortunately,” Jackson continued, stopping them. “This is too important for me to wait any longer. There are some loose ends in your father’s death, and I need to complete my report, ma’am.”
Libby stopped and turned toward Jackson, wishing like hell she could keep the unshed tears that had eluded her all day from flowing now. She sniffed back a sob.
“If you must, then at least let me get changed out of this dress.”
“It’s a nice dress. I’m sure you get lots of compliments when you wear it.”
She frowned. “I wouldn’t know. Last time I wore it was to my mother’s funeral. No one was really in the complimenting mood that day.”
He didn’t reply. Instead, he nodded.
“I’ll just be a minute. Make yourself comfortable in the living room.”
* * *
Jackson followed Libby into the house. The man she’d been with, Cole Rivers, had disappeared somewhere, and he wanted to know why. Talk in town was that the ranch hand was quite protective of Buck Calvert’s only daughter. He couldn’t say he blamed him. Liberty Calvert was as pretty as a Texas flower.
“It’s cooler in here,” Libby said, extending her hand to invite him into the living room.
Cathedral ceilings planked with natural wood soared above him. In the center of the room was a seating area in front of a stone fireplace that was big enough to fit him and the leather chair he sat down in.
“Thank you,” he said. But Libby had already disappeared out of the room.
With nothing better to do than twirl his cowboy hat in his hand, Jackson glanced at his surroundings and saw nothing of the girl he’d met a few short minutes ago. The great room was furnished with a man in mind, most likely decorated for the very man whose death he’d been sent here to investigate. Above the mantel hung a painted portrait of who Jackson presumed was Buckland Calvert. He stared at the picture, at the stern face and stiff posture, and then looked at the chair the man was seated in. It was identical to the one he was sitting in. It was almost as if Buck was scolding him from the grave for intruding on his daughter while she was grieving.
“You couldn’t have picked a better time?” he said quietly.
“What was that?”
Jackson turned to find Libby standing at the doorway to the living room. She had changed out of her black dress and jacket and was now wearing a fresh T-shirt and jeans. Her feet were bare as she walked into the room and plopped down on the sofa opposite him. In her hands she had a pair of clean argyle socks and a pair of cowboy boots. She proceeded to put them on as if he wasn’t even sitting there. Jackson wondered how many times in her life Libby had repeated this same action sitting in front of her daddy’s portrait.
“Nice socks,” he said.
“First the dress? Now the socks? You’re really stretching for conversation, Ranger.”
“You have to admit the socks stand out.”
“Hmm, but not the woman wearing them?”
He’d walked into that … or she’d led him there. Either way, he couldn’t really say exactly what type of impression the woman had made on him in the short time since they’d met. Liberty Calvert was not exactly a woman a man wouldn’t notice. Unlike some women who always checked to see if a man was favoring them, Libby went about her business as if she simply didn’t care.
There was something intriguing about that and made Jackson all the more interested in learning more. But now wasn’t the time to find out the answers to all those questions about Libby that had nagged at him since he’d first laid eyes on her. And it wasn’t the right time to flirt with a woman whose eyes were as blue as the Texas sky. He was here on official business.
Her lips lifted on one side, giving him a half grin that quickly disappeared. “They were a gag gift from my friend Hannah. But I like to wear them, especially now that she’s serving overseas. Makes me think of her.”
“Your friend is in the military?”
“Yes. I’m hoping she’ll be home soon.” She slipped her foot into her cowboy boot and dropped it to the floor with a thud. “I dread telling her about my father. It’ll devastate her. She doesn’t need that now.”
“Is she in a dangerous position?”
“She’s in Afghanistan, and she’s in the army. That’s dangerous enough for my liking. But she won’t tell me where she is. Or can’t tell me. I’m not really sure which. I wish she were here now. So, what questions do you have about my father’s death that are so important it couldn’t wait?”
Jackson’s stomach dropped. He hated this part of his job. “I think your father’s death wasn’t an accident.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Of course it was an accident.”
“Did you know that your father’s ranch was in trouble?”
“It’s my ranch now. And no, the ranch isn’t in trouble. It won’t be either. Not if there’s a single breath left in me.”
“It’s mortgaged pretty high. The note is recent. Yet your father’s bank account doesn’t seem to have much in it to account for the money he took out. Do you know why that is? Or didn’t your father trouble you with ranch business?”
Libby shifted uncomfortably in her seat, yet kept her eyes steady on him.
“This ranch is neither a trouble to me or in trouble, Ranger. I’d be careful where you take this.”
He twirled his cowboy hat in his hand slowly before he spoke. “You can call me Jackson.”
“I’d rather keep this professional, Ranger. Quite frankly, after the investigation last week, I thought you’d be only too happy to finish your paperwork and rid yourself of Liberty, Texas. Nothing ever happens here. It’s just a small Texas town where one day looks like the last. It’s not even a dot on any of the Texas maps.”
“Sounds like you’re eager to get rid of me.”
“Eager? Don’t flatter yourself. I simply want to move on and get back to work. As you can imagine, my father’s death was a devastating blow, especially so soon after my brother’s death.”
“And your mother?”
Her eyes widened and immediately glistened with unshed tears. “My mom,” she said, softly. “She died ten years ago. It’s just me here now, and I have a lot of work to do to keep this place up on my own.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. You have no other relations in town?”
“No. My father’s family came from Mexico. Most are still there.”
“And your mother’s family?”
“What does all this have to do with the investigation?”
He looked at her sincerely. “Nothing. I just wondered … It’s tough being alone at a time like this.”
“I’m not alone. Cole is here.”
He pulled out his notepad and started flipping through it. “That’s right. That would be Cole Rivers.”
“You know it is. You just saw him outside.”
“Yes. I knew he worked here as a ranch hand. He lives here?”
“Yes. We have a small bunkhouse on the other side of the barn. He stays there.”
“He’s not originally from Liberty, is he?”
“I imagine any questions you have about Cole are best directed to him.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t understand why this line of questioning is so urgent for me to answer today of all days.”
“I didn’t know about the private memorial for your father. I’m sorry.”
Libby stood up and smoothed down the denim of her jeans with both hands.
“No, you’re not.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me. You’re only sorry that you can’t get the information you want from me. And you’re not going to.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I don’t have any. You see, the way I see it is you’re not really here to uncover evidence about the accident that killed my father. You’re here fishing for information. Every few years someone from the law comes to Liberty fishing for something. I haven’t a clue what that is, and I don’t really care. I do know that I don’t have the time to wonder about it. In case you haven’t noticed, there is one less person on this ranch to do the work. So unless you have some direct questions to ask me about what I personally know about my father’s accident, I’d say we’re done.”
Jackson looked up at Libby as she propped her fists on her slender hips and glared down at him as he sat in her father’s chair. And suddenly Jackson knew who she’d gotten that stern and stubborn glare from. He wondered, too, if Libby Calvert would have ever had that much fire talking to her ol’ man.
Jackson stood up slowly. As he did, Libby kept her eyes fixed on his, and it became completely apparent how much taller he was than her. But she didn’t shrink back as he towered over her, and for that he couldn’t help but feel a little bit of admiration, even though the visit here was a bust. She was a pistol, for sure.
“I don’t believe your father’s death was an accident.”
She sighed. “What are you implying?”
“Were you good in math?”
“Yes. One plus one equals two?”
She folded her arms across her chest, clearly irritated. “You’ve come here to give me a math lesson?”
“No. But I can see this is a bad time for us to talk.”
She chuckled without any humor. “You think?”
He’d overstayed his welcome. If he’d ever really been welcome at all. Jackson propped his hat on his head and nodded to her. He’d give her a few days to work through her feelings and then he’d be back. There were enough people in town he still needed to talk to before he could wrap up this investigation and be on his way out of Liberty.
“I’ll just see myself out,” he said. Jackson started to walk toward the foyer, but then turned around. “I’m not leaving Liberty. One way or another, I will get the answers I need for my investigation.”
Liberty Calvert lifted her chin with determination and fire. “I would expect nothing less.”
* * *
Only when Libby heard the front door shut completely did she allow herself to breathe again. She slumped down into her father’s chair, leaning her head back and smelling the leather fabric that she’d come to recognize as his scent. But her thoughts were not on her father. The chair was still warm where Jackson Gentry had made an imprint. The strong features of his face consumed her mind as she closed her eyes and tried to steady her rampant heartbeat.
“Are you okay?” Libby opened her eyes to find Cole standing in the doorway. He was still dressed in the clothes he’d worn to the memorial service where they’d spread her father’s ashes.
“Don’t look so worried.”
“It’s kind of hard not to given all you’ve been through.”
“It’s been a trying day for you. This visit from the ranger didn’t help.”
Libby heaved a quick sigh. “I have a feeling this is only the beginning. He’s asking questions about you, Cole, and that can only mean trouble.”
“For who? Me or you?”
Libby thought about it for a minute while she rubbed the dull ache at her temple gently. What started out as a small, throbbing pain was now shaping up to be a full-blown headache.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Cole gave her a half smile. “Okay, fine. Why don’t you take a nap? You look wiped out.”
She didn’t need a nap, especially when she knew sleep was the last thing she’d get. Left alone with her thoughts, she’d think and she didn’t want to think about much of anything lately.
Especially not Ranger Jackson Gentry.
She’d spent more than just these past few minutes thinking about the man. How could she not? She’d seen him in town over the last couple of weeks. Any woman with a pulse would stop dead in her tracks the moment she laid eyes on his baby blues. Libby was no different. She may be damaged goods, but she wasn’t dead inside, and she still had stirrings that made her notice a handsome cowboy.
“Lib?” Cole was staring at her.
“He’s coming back.”
Cole simply nodded and dug his hands in the pockets of his coat. “Then I suppose I should get out of this suit so I can tend to the animals. Tomorrow, we should look into getting you some help around here.”
“Why would I need anyone else around here? We’ve been doing just fine on our own.”
“Lib?” She heard the same warning in his voice that he’d given her for the past few weeks. “We talked about this. And now the ranger is snooping around, wanting to dig deeper.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll be leaving soon.”
“But what if he doesn’t?”
“Tomorrow,” she said, shaking her head. She didn’t want to deal with any more today.
She heard the front door close as Cole walked out of the house. And then she was truly alone in her father’s house for the first time in her life.
If Jackson Gentry got too close to the truth, she’d be alone on this ranch as well. All the more reason to get him to leave Liberty as soon as possible. This home had dealt with tragedy before. Her family had weathered many storms through the years. She was all that was left. Just her and this ranch. But if Libby was anything, she was a survivor. And she would survive long after Jackson Gentry left Liberty.
Order LEAVING LIBERTY: