Branding Iron, Texas
Friday, November 26
essica Ramsey mouthed an unladylike curse as her aging Pontiac coughed, sputtered and stopped dead on the deserted two-lane road. Hoping for luck, she cranked the starterâagain, then again. Nothing happened.
What now? She couldn't be out of gas. The gauge hadn't worked in months, but she'd filled up two hours ago in Amarillo. Maybe it was the fuel pump. Or worse, something like a blown head gasket, whatever that was.
She cranked the starter one last time. The engine didn't even try to turn over. Fighting tears, she slumped over the steering wheel. She'd trusted the old car to make it all the way from Kansas City to Branding Iron, Texas. It had come close, but not close enough. The green highway sign she'd just passed told her she had fourteen miles to go. It was too far to walk with her suitcaseâlet alone all her possessions stuffed in the trunkâand she had more sense than to hitchhike. She was stranded.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, she saw a battered-looking red pickup approaching. It was coming fast; and her stalled car, she realized with a lurch of panic, was right in its path. She punched the hazard light, praying it would work. But the truck didn't even slow down. The horn blared. Tires squealed as the pickup swung around her, missing the rear bumper by inches. Jess glimpsed two male teenagers in the front seat. Both of them gave her the finger before the truck roared on down the road. So much for chivalry.
Jess released the brake, shifted into neutral and wrenched the steering wheel hard to the right. She had to get the Pontiac off the road before another vehicle came along and crashed right into her. Since the car wouldn't start, her only option was to push it.
After glancing up and down the road, she opened the door, climbed out and walked back to the rear of the car. The sky was overcast. Empty fields of yellow-brown stubble spread on both sides of the road. The flat horizon was broken only by a distant barn and a silo. Jess was a city girl. It was as if she'd set foot on some alien planet, peopled only by distant farms and rude boys in pickups.
The cold November breeze whipped tendrils of her russet hair around her face. She clutched her light denim jacket around her ribs. The sooner she got the car off the road, the sooner she could get back inside. Without the engine to run the heater, the car wouldn't stay warm long, but at least she'd be out of the wind.
Bracing her arms above the rear bumper, she planted her sneaker-clad feet on the asphalt. At five-three and 119 pounds, Jess was no Wonder Woman. Determinationâor more likely, desperationâwould have to make up for her lack of muscle power.
The road's narrow, graveled shoulder sloped down to a grassy barrow pit. If she could push as much as one front wheel onto the incline, the car's momentum should do the rest. How hard could it be?
Steeling her resolve, she threw her whole weight against the car. Her jaw clenched. Her muscles strained. Nothing moved.
Spent for the moment, she straightened to catch her breath. Maybe she was doing this wrong. It might work better to brace her back against the car and push with her legs. At least it was worth a try.
Jess turned around. Only then did she see the big, tan SUV that had pulled up a dozen yards behind her, the lights atop its cab flashing red and blue.
And only then did she see the big, tan person climbing out of it. He strode toward her, a take-charge expression on his face. Wearing a khaki uniform topped by a leather jacket with a sheepskin collar, along with a pistol holstered at one lean hip, he looked capable of lifting her car with one hand. He was also flat-out gorgeous, with dark brown hair, a square-jawed face and stern coppery eyes.
But she wasn't looking for gorgeous here, Jess reminded herself. In her roller-coaster life, the hot men she'd known had turned out to be nothing but bad news. Besides, there was no way a male as spectacular as this long, tall lawman wouldn't have some woman's brand on him.
“Having trouble, Miss?” His drawl was pure Texas honey.
Jess willed herself not to sound like a helpless whiner. “My car broke down. I was about to push it off the road, so nobody would hit it.”
A faint smile deepened the dimple in his left cheek. “Could you use some help, or should I just leave you to it?”
“As long as you're here, I guess you might as well give me a hand.” Jess spoke through chattering teeth.
“Here.” He stripped off his leather jacket and laid it around her shoulders. It was toasty warm. Man warm. Now that he'd taken it off, she could see the badge on his khaki shirt and the name tag below it.
Sheriff Ben Marsden.
“What seems to be the trouble with the car?” he asked.
“I don't know. It just stopped dead, and now it won't start. It can't be out of gas. I filled the tank a couple of hours ago.”
“Well, let's get it off the road. Then I'll take a quick look under the hood. Maybe it'll be an easy fix.”
Ben Marsden was definitely a breed apart from the brusque city cops Jess had encountered. Following his directions, she climbed back into the driver's seat to steer while he pushed. The car rolled forward as if Superman were behind that bumper. No surprise there.
“That's far enough.” She heard his voice through the open window. “Now pull the handbrake and pop the hood release.”
By the time Jess climbed out of the car he had the hood up and was peering into the Pontiac's dim interior with the aid of a pocket flashlight. After a minute or two, he closed the hood and switched off the light. “I can't see anything wrong,” he said. “But it smells like you might have a fuel leakâmaybe a broken line. Nothing I can do here, but it shouldn't be too expensive to fix. There's a good, honest mechanic in town. Want me to call him for a tow?”
Jess thought a moment, then reluctantly nodded. She'd promised herself she wouldn't break into the fifty thousand dollars she'd inherited from her adoptive fatherâmoney she'd set aside for a new start. But the cash she'd saved from her waitressing job was almost gone, and she had to have a working car. For now, she'd put the tow and repair on her credit card and hope for the best.
The sheriff made a quick call on his cell phone, then turned back to her. “Silas is busy right now, but he says he can pick up the car in a couple of hours.”
Jess suppressed a sigh. “I suppose I can wait here that long.”
He gave her a scowl. “That's not a good idea. Get what you need out of the car and leave the keys under the floor mat. I'll drive you into town. At least we can find you a warm place to wait.”
“Thanks.” Jess retrieved her purse from the front seat and her suitcase from the trunk. All the way from Kansas City, she'd imagined driving into Branding Iron and carrying out her planâa plan so audacious that, on the way here, she'd almost lost heart and turned back.
Now she was here. But getting around would have to wait until her car was fixed. She'd need a place to stay. But even a small town like this one should have a cheap motel or some sort of rooming house where she could crash until she found a job and an apartmentâor left town, if things didn't turn out as she'd hoped.
Meanwhile it would be smart to get her hormones under control and stop ogling the hot Texas lawman who'd come to her rescue. The man was off limitsâfor more reasons than she even wanted to think aboutâstarting with
He opened the door of his SUV and took her suitcase while she climbed in and fastened her seat belt. The custom dashboard, complete with a police radio, a GPS, a dash cam and a computer, was impressive. The last time Jess had ridden in a police vehicle, she'd been handcuffed in the backseat. But those days were long behind her. After a few rough patches, she was starting a new lifeâand part of that new life, she hoped, was waiting right here in Branding Iron.
The engine purred as he pulled back onto the highway. “I don't suppose I should worry about anybody stealing my car,” she said.
He chuckled, his dimple deepening. “No, I don't suppose you should.”
“I'm not hearing much on your radio. Is it always this quiet around here?”
“Pretty much. We get an occasional drug bust, a few bar fights, some domestics and a runaway kid now and again. That's about it. It's a pretty easy place to be sheriffâmost of the time.” He glanced at her. His eyes reminded her of homemade root beer, just poured, with the bubbles still sparkling. “I don't believe I caught your name,” he said.
“It's Jessica. Jessica Ramsey. But everybody calls me Jess.”
“Well, welcome to Branding Iron, Texas, Miss Jess Ramsey. Where do you hail from?”
Jess thought. But was she ready to tell him that? “I drove here from Kansas City,” she said. “I was hoping my old beater would make it all the way, but no such luck.”
“Were you planning a stopover in town, or just passing through when your car decided to take a vacation?”
Jess gazed out the window a moment. They were passing more fields, some dotted with black Angus cattle and framed by barbed-wire fences. Here and there, a windmill towered above the landscape, its vanes turning in the breeze. The clouds in the vast Texas sky were darkening.
“This isn't just a stopover,” she said. “Branding Iron is where I was headed.”
“Here?” His laugh was incredulous. “Nobody comes to Branding Ironâunless, maybe, they've got family here.”
“Maybe that's what I have.” Given that perfect lead-in, Jess decided to tell him her storyâat least the important part. As sheriff, he probably knew the townspeople as well as anybody. Maybe he could help her.
“I was born right here in Branding Iron, at the old clinic,” she said. “My mother put me up for adoptionâI don't know her circumstances, but I'm guessing she was unmarried and in trouble. My adoptive parents were far from perfect. They divorced when I was nine. He disappeared, and she died when I was sixteen. It's been a long, rough road, but a few months ago I decided it was time for a new start.” Jess took a breath before getting to the bottom line. “The first thing I wanted to do was find my birth mother.”
The sheriff took his time, as if weighing what he'd heard. “That's quite a story,” he said. “Did you find her?”
“I think so. I haven't met her, but I'm hoping that's about to change. The private investigator I hired found my mother's name and her address. She's still here in Branding Iron.”
“Have you contacted her?” he asked. “Does she know you're coming?”
Jess's hands tightened on her beat-up leather purse. “I was afraid she wouldn't want to see me. That's why I decided to just show up and surprise her.”
“Is that wise?”
“Maybe not. But that way, if she slams the door in my face, at least I'll get a look at her. It's important. She's the only real family I've got.”
“What if she's married, with children? Maybe she won't want them to know about you.”
“I've thought of that,” Jess said. “And I wouldn't want to cause her any trouble. But she's still using her maiden name. That could mean she's single or divorced.” She turned toward him, straining against the seat belt. “I'm only telling you this because you might know her. If you do, maybe you can tell me what her situation is and how to approach herâor even arrange a meeting if you think that would be best.”
Saying nothing, he guided the SUV around a road-killed rabbit. Two ravens feeding on the carcass flapped skyward against the darkening clouds.
He was quiet for what seemed like a long time. Maybe he suspected Jess of being some kind of con artist, out to win the poor woman over and fleece her of her savings. “I can't promise,” he said. “But I'll try to do what's best for both of you. What's your mother's name?”
“Francine. Francine McFadden.”
The SUV lurched slightly, crunching gravel on the shoulder of the road before he regained control of the steering wheel. Something about the name had clearly startled him.
“Do you know her?” Jess asked. “You do, don't you?”
“Then you must know where she lives. Can you at least drive me by her house?”
“No need for that. I know for a fact she isn't there.”
“Well, where is she?” Jess demanded. “Is she out of town?”
“Nope.” He shot her a narrow-eyed glance. “Francine is doing time in the county jail.”