Tempted by the Lawman: A BBW Western Romance (Men of the West Book 1)

 

CHAPTER ONE

“Crap,” Chloe’s hand shook as she pulled the multi-copy form from the typewriter and wadded it into a tight ball. It was her third attempt to get the warrant completed. Each time, she’d messed up either the name of the witness or the address. It wasn’t like her. Chloe was known for being cool under pressure. That ability, along with being able to type one hundred and twenty words per minute, take dictation, speak fluent Spanish and keep her mouth shut about case files, had moved her quickly through the ranks to her current position as administrative assistant to U.S. Assistant District Attorney, Clay Montgomery, in the satellite office located in Grand Junction, Colorado.

The main U.S. Attorney’s Office was located in Denver, just a little over five hours from Grand Junction and a little over four hours from Glenwood Springs, the home base of the FBI Special Agent and certified SWAT team leader currently in her boss’s office waiting on the subpoena. She understood why the cause of her distress hadn’t gone there for his paperwork, but she certainly wished he could have. Ethan Hollister was dark and swarthy; standing six-foot-three with wavy black hair, sinful brown eyes and a smile that was lethal to any woman’s pulse. Although she pretended to be unmoved by his blatant maleness—which seemed to be a thorn in his perfect backside—she could admit the truth to herself. He made her nervous. He flummoxed her normally sedate demeanor and turned her into a bumbling mass of nerves.

She’d die before she let him see it, though. Besides, it wasn’t his lethal charm or his dark good looks that was getting to her today. It was the thought of his next mission—whatever it was. She’d heard him telling Clay about something that had been in the works for several months. At any time, in any circumstance, one wrong piece of information could put him on the other side of the dirt. It wasn’t something Chloe could think about rationally, especially lately. She’d been in love with the dratted man ever since she’d laid eyes on him a year ago. Her feelings deepened every time he came into the office.

Even though he looked at her with those sinful brown eyes as if he could eat her up with a spoon, she didn’t—couldn’t—let it go to her head. He looked at every available female that way. Besides, she wasn’t stick thin like most of the women she’d seen him with at one time or another. Her curves, like the gorgeous Rocky Mountains, were numerous and abundant. She embraced them, took pride in them. Her style, mostly skirts, blouses and heels in the office, showed them off to the very best advantage. Of average height, with thick honey-brown hair and eyes the color of caramel, she wasn’t lacking for romance. Heck, she’d even been engaged once. Unfortunately, her fiancé had decided he liked her best friend and maid-of-honor better.

Still, she wasn’t about to go all gaga over the sexy FBI agent. She knew that if she ever gave in, he’d take his fill and walk away without a backward glance. Although the memories would be life-long, it wasn’t worth the heartache. She was a forever kind of girl. She wanted the kind of love her parents had and wasn’t about to settle for anything less.

Putting another form into the machine, she closed out the sound of Ethan’s deep voice as he spoke with Clay and concentrated on each line until she came to the end of the document. With a smile of triumph, she pulled out the completed, error-free paper. Rising from her desk, she walked to Clay’s office, giving a perfunctory knock before walking in. She handed the form to Clay, intensely aware of Ethan’s imposing presence with every fiber of her being. She watched him from the corner of her eye, noting his big body sprawled indolently in a chair across from Clay’s massive desk.

The languorous look was deceptive. Idle was not a word in Ethan’s vocabulary. He was like a…a snake. Always waiting. Always watching. Always ready to strike.

“Thanks, Chloe.” Clay scrawled his name across the bottom of the warrant and handed it back to her.

Willing her hands not shake, she separated the form and handed the top one over to Ethan.

“Thanks, Dollface.”

Damn the quirk of that lush upper lip of his. Everything feminine in her quivered in response even as the modern woman she was balked at the silly endearment. “You sound like a bad version of a 1920’s gangster.”

“Aw, sweet Chloe, if your sexy self didn’t already make my head spin, your honeyed words surely would.”

“A head as big as yours would wobble, Agent Hollister, not spin.”

“Ethan was telling me more about his upcoming operation,” Clay intoned quickly, breaking the tension he could feel building between his best friend and the finest assistant he’d ever had. Every time the two of them were in the same room together, it didn’t take long before the very air felt explosive. Whatever was going on with them, it was best to divert the energy before it got to be too much. “It’s a sting.”

It was Chloe who felt as if her head were spinning now. “A…a sting?”

Ethan nodded. “We were tipped off about a drug operation in Blessing about a year ago. After a bit of surveillance, one of our guys infiltrated the ring. Seems their supply is coming from a pipeline somewhere in Texas. We figure that supplier is getting their goods from across the border in Mexico. Ramon Valdez was also spotted at the coke house in Blessing a few weeks ago.”

Her stomach sank. Ramon Valdez was a notorious drug lord, a very dangerous man. He’d been on the FBI’s most wanted list for at least eight years. Her brow furrowed. “You’re going to Mexico?”

“No, our legal attaché office in Mexico City will handle that part of the operation as will the FBI office in Texas. We’re going to take care of the cartel in Blessing.”  He rose from the chair. “Which is why I’d better get going. It’s not a good idea to go to a possible shootout while I’m still sleepy.” He winked and stretched, the move straining the crisp white shirt he wore across his broad shoulders, impressive pecs and washboard abs.

“How can you be so blasé about the possibility of getting shot or—”

“Dying?”

His expression turned serious and Chloe could see the formidable man beneath the easygoing façade. At moments like this, she could very well understand why he’d been made the leader of his unit. “Yes.”

“We all have to die sometime, honey. That’s why you have to make life count while you’re living.” He reached for the Armani jacket that went with the neat suit he wore with his usual cowboy boots. He slipped the jacket on, meticulously adjusting the cuffs of his shirt. “So why don’t you come over to my place tonight and give me a proper send-off?”

The smirk was back and so was Chloe’s anger. He’d never change. “You know what you can do with your—”

“Chloe?” Clay interrupted, hoping to stave off World War III.

It took her a moment to answer as she and Ethan held a staring contest. “Yes, sir?”

“Did you get my reservation confirmed for tomorrow night?”

“Yes, I did.” Chloe directed her ire into what she did best—her job. “You have a suite at the Cambridge Inn for the rest of the week. Check out is Friday at eleven. I also took the liberty of ordering a car and driver for you.”

“Thanks, Chloe. I knew I could count on you.”

Ethan turned his attention to his friend. “You’re going out of town?”

“Depositions in a murder case that’s going to trial in a month,” Clay nodded. “I’ll be gone at least two days, but I want to hear all about the raid when I get back.”

“Drinks at the Copper Lounge Friday night?” Ethan grinned.

“Sounds like a plan.”

“Maybe we’ll even find a couple of honeys that’ll help us…relax.”

Chloe didn’t need or want to hear this conversation. Raucous laughter followed her all the way back to her desk. Forcing her mind away from the dialogue going on in Clay’s office and the thought of Ethan with a willowy blonde, Chloe gathered the morning mail to be filed and busied herself at the filing cabinet. As she was closing the last drawer, Clay’s office door opened, and Ethan came walking toward her. She took her time replacing the manila folder, willing her heartbeat to stop its runaway galloping. When she turned, she was surprised to find him standing close behind her.

“Is there something else I can do for you, Agent?”

Like, kiss you senseless. Lick that beautifully full lower lip…

Ethan moved closer, enjoying the way Chloe’s big eyes widened. He got to her even though she tried to pretend he didn’t. It amused him to taunt her. Or it had until about a month ago when he’d suddenly found himself thinking about her at the oddest moments. She’d become a distraction he couldn’t afford. “How about a kiss for luck?”

Had he read her mind? Chloe should be used to his irreverent remarks by now but this one, bringing thoughts of his lips on hers, of his big body, pressed intimately to hers—images that already walked through her mind during the day and as she slept at night—shocked her speechless for a moment. Finding her voice, she glared up at him. “Whatever woman you pick up Friday night can take care of that.”

“Jealous, honey?” A grin split his mobile lips. He lifted a hand to her hair, rubbing a silky strand between his fingers. “Soft,” he murmured, his eyes catching hers, buoyed by the helpless look she couldn’t hide. His head lowered until his mouth was almost touching her lips. “Friday will be too late.”

Why did those words sound ominous? Chloe wondered, mesmerized by the gold flecks in Ethan’s deep brown eyes. She felt like a deer trapped in the headlights of an oncoming car. As he pressed forward, her hand moved instinctively to his broad chest, the feel of his warm body and the beat of his heart beneath her palm adding to the surreal moment. For a split second, she couldn’t process what was happening, then she felt the heat of Ethan’s kiss and her world exploded.

His lips explored hers softly, tentatively.

Tentative? As her mind tried to process what that meant, Ethan lifted his head, an odd smile playing at his chiseled lips. “I’ll see you later, Sweet Thang.”

Just like that, he was back to his old mocking self, acting as if the kiss hadn’t mattered at all. As if he hadn’t been the one to corner her.

“Not if I see you first,” she muttered at his retreating back. Aggravated at herself for allowing him to get past her defenses, Chloe forced her weak knees to carry her to her desk. Plopping into her chair, she stared blankly at the computer screen. It was going to be a long afternoon.

******

Ethan was still burning from that kiss hours later as he stood before the small dilapidated house in the pre-dawn morning. His thoughts should have been on the mission at hand, on surveillance, on the perimeter, on making sure his men were in place and ready to go. Instead, as they had all night, his senses were focused on the softness of Chloe Barnes’s lips and the sweet fragrance that was uniquely hers. As stupid as it sounded—even to himself—something about her made him feel…safe.

It was the last thing he should be feeling right now. He should be filled with excitement, punch drunk on adrenaline, and laser-focused.

“We’ve counted seven going in so far, boss. How much longer do you want to wait?”

Forcing his mind to the task at hand, he lifted the high-powered binoculars to take another look at the small house. Dawn was just beginning to break and a streak of light in the sky over the top of the mountain range made it possible to make out more than just images in the shadows. Lights were on but pulled shades made it impossible to see inside the dwelling.

From the FBI infiltrator information, agent Jake Ruiz, they knew that the front door led into what used to be the living room but was now set up as a packing station. The narrow hallway led to a bigger room that was once a kitchen but had been turned into the distribution center where the pure cocaine was cut, ground into powder, and mixed with acetone to be re-bricked for sale or mixed with baking soda and water to make small ‘rocks’ or crack cocaine. There was also a bedroom used to crash in between making the drugs as well as a bathroom.

There were two ways in and out, the front door and the back door. The windows, three in the kitchen, one in the bedroom and two in the living room, had bars on the outside.

The hope was that surprise would be such a factor that not one shot would have to be fired. A firefight inside the tiny space would be disastrous. In spite of his flippant words to Chloe, Ethan had no desire to die today or anytime soon.

Lowering the binoculars, he turned toward his second. Tom Meade was several years his senior, a seasoned agent with a stellar record. His blonde buzz cut and thin build made him appear much younger than his forty-five years. He’d turned down unit chief, Ethan’s current position, so that he could spend more time with his wife and kids. His oldest boy, Thomas Junior, would be going off to college in the fall.

“How many did you say have gone in?”

“Seven,” came the ready reply.

“Do we have any idea how many were already inside?” Ethan lifted the field glasses once more, taking a more deliberate look around the perimeter.

“According to Collins at least four in the kitchen and two in the living room that we know of.”

Unlucky thirteen.

“Valdez?”

“Unknown, sir."

Dammit, Ethan swore silently. The drug lord was a ghost, moving from place to place and hiding in plain sight. He could be in the house or he could be back in Mexico. Ethan hated that they didn’t know. He wanted Valdez off the streets.

Streaks of sunlight were beginning to lighten the eastern sky. Several blocks away, a garbage truck rumbled along the empty streets. The small town, just twenty-five minutes outside of Grand Junction, was coming to life. He couldn’t afford to wait any longer to move. “Are the men in position?”

“Yes, sir.”

On his command, two agents would break down each door with agents entering swiftly from either end of the home. Outside, four members of his team would guard each corner of the dwelling, making sure no one came in and only those in cuffs or body bags came out.

“Let’s get into position.” Moving stealthily, both men entered the yard through the broken gate connecting the chain link fence around the premises. Separating quickly, Ethan took his position outside the front door and slowly counted to fifteen. Pressing the mike located on the shoulder of his bulletproof vest, he spoke softly. “On my mark, guys. Three, two, one…” The door imploded, and he ran in, his mind completely focused now.

It took what felt like an hour but what in reality, was only minutes to round up the individuals inside the home. None of the low-level workers wanted to play hero and it made the job much easier. Unfortunately, the sting hadn’t resulted in netting a big name. He brought the last worker, a white female with a quiet demeanor, into the living room, lining her up quickly with the others. Although she looked decidedly out of place, Ethan didn’t think much about it. Some women were drawn to bad men and Alvarez was the worst of the lot. Choosing to ignore her, he performed a quick head count, looking up just as Tom spoke.

“We’re missing one, boss.”

“Dammit,” Ethan spat, feeling the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Something wasn’t right. He’d felt it earlier. “Get these twelve to the wagon. I’m going to do another walk through.”

“I’m right behind you, boss.”

Ethan nodded, the mere seconds it took to advise the other agents about the prisoners feeling like hours. Not that they didn’t know their jobs, but it was protocol. One wrong move—like going back through the house without backup—could mean getting the entire case they’d built dismissed or himself killed. Not only would it be a black eye to the agency, but the last few months of hard work would also have been for nothing.

With the van loaded, two agents took their place in the back of the dark vehicle while another stood at the front alongside the driver. SUVs would follow behind until the prisoners were delivered safely to the maximum-security cells awaiting them. That left only Tom, Ethan, and Robbie Collins, a fresh-faced agent only a year out of the academy at the home. With explicit instructions for him to stand guard outside the front door, Ethan and Tom began the painstaking and nerve-wracking task of searching the premises again.

The rooms had been torn apart by the agents looking for more than the obvious drugs and cash. In the small living room, cushions lay in the floor, ripped apart by razor-sharp knives and the couch and chair had been slashed to shreds. Broken pictures and shattered knick-knacks were scattered throughout the house. In the bedroom, the mattress and springs were just as ravaged, and the small wooden chest lay in splinters. The closet and bathroom doors hung limply on their rusty hinges. Water spilled from the broken toilet. In the kitchen, cabinet doors stood open, the contents littering the countertops and floors. The back door, strung with yellow police tape on the outside, was closed and locked. There wasn’t a space left untouched.

With a frown, Ethan turned to face his second. “I don’t get it. There’s no way we missed anything.”

“Maybe Collins miscalculated the suspects inside.”

With thermal imaging equipment being used, Ethan highly doubted it; however, it gave him an idea. “Have Collins bring in the heat sensor, would you?”

“Good idea,” Tom nodded, heading down the small hallway.

Alone in the kitchen, Ethan holstered his weapon and waited. A movement in a corner cabinet caught his eye. Stepping over several broken dishes and various cans of food, he reached to open the cracked door wider just as a soft thud sounded across the room near the back door. His mind registered the large mouse scratching frantically at the wood as he attempted to turn. Reaching for his weapon, he pulled it from his holster and stepped forward just as the man in front of him fired. Blinding pain shot through his left thigh as he discharged his own weapon. The satisfaction of the man’s pained grunt was short-lived as Ethan’s right foot came down on an overturned can. Flailing, he reached for the counter behind him and missed. Hitting the floor with a thump, he managed to fire his weapon once more as the wounded man disappeared like a flash through the back door, leaving the yellow tape broken and fluttering in the wind.

Footsteps rang on the hardwood floor and within seconds Tom and the young FBI agent entered the kitchen.

“It’s Valdez,” Ethan ground out, working feverishly to stem the flow of blood from his thigh.

“After him,” Tom ordered, turning to Ethan without watching to make sure Collins followed his order. Of that, he had no doubt. Grabbing a towel from the mess on the counter, he knelt, applying pressure to the gushing wound on his superior’s leg. With a minimum of fuss, he pressed the microphone attached to his vest and requested immediate assistance for an officer down.

“He was hiding in the damn ceiling,” Ethan groaned, pointing toward the empty space where the tile had fallen to the floor. “We almost had him.”

“Calm down, boss,” Tom urged, holding firm when Ethan tried to move. “If he’s still out there, Collins will take him down.”

As if he’d called the younger man, he appeared at the back door and walked quickly into the room. “No sign of him, sirs. Looks like there may have been a car waiting at the corner.”

“Dammit,” Ethan hit the floor with his hand, scattering several paper napkins and some loose straws. Sirens screamed, coming to an eerie silence as they reached the house. Within minutes, he was assessed, patched and loaded onto a stretcher where an I.V. poured fluids into him to help with the blood loss. Feeling decidedly weak, he gave in to the blackness that claimed him as sirens screamed once more, carrying him toward medical care.