Date Published: Sep 2020
“You’ve got exactly two seconds to drop your weapon and reach for the sky, Mister, before I fill you full of more holes than a pair of fishnet stockings.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Dixie Leigh Meriwether lowered the gun and stared in complete and utter annoyance at her reflection in the mirror. “Fishnet stockings? Good Lord, Dixie Leigh, do you think a criminal is going to take you seriously if you start talking about women’s hosiery?”
She narrowed her eyes, lifted the gun, and tried again. “You’ve got two seconds to drop your weapon and reach for the sky before I blow your bee-hind to smithereens.” She rolled her eyes and did a little foot stomping dance of frustration. “Bee-hind? Dirty Harry would not say bee-hind! Come on, now. Concentrate. You got this.”
She shook out her shoulders, adjusted her tan felt cowboy hat at just the right jaunty angle, then took a nice deep breath and slowly released it like she did before she stepped out on a beauty pageant stage. Except now, she wasn’t playing the part of a perfect southern lady vying for a crown. She was playing the part of a steely-eyed deputy hoping not to get shot.
Although getting shot by a criminal in this town was extremely unlikely. Which is why Dixie had chosen to be a deputy here. Simple had one of the lowest crime rates in the state of Texas. Probably the world. Still, her mama had always taught her to expect the best, but prepare for the worst.
She narrowed her eyes at her reflection and was about to deliver her lines once again when she noticed the red bump on her chin. “What in the name of Sweet Baby Moses is that?” She lowered the gun and leaned closer to the mirror. “No . . . just no. A pimple!” She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a pimple. Probably at thirteen, right before her mama had started her on a daily skin care regime that Dixie had stuck to religiously ever since.
As her mama always said, “If the Lord was nice enough to bless you with a gift as precious as the human body, then you needed to take good care of it.” And Winona Meriwether believed in taking care of her body. At almost sixty, Dixie’s mama was still mistaken for her big sister. She had great hair, great teeth, great nails, and great skin due to her diligent care—and the diligent care of an experienced team of hair stylists, dermatologists, dentists, and plastic surgeons. Dixie intended to be just like her mother.
Although it was hard to find a team of professionals in a town that didn’t even have a nail salon. And the hair salon they did have didn’t exactly meet Dixie’s high standards for hair care. Which was why, in the last six months of living in Simple, Dixie had been forced to handle her own personal crises.
Holstering the gun, she walked to the Miss USA tote bag that hung on a hook by the door and searched through it until she found the skin-tightening facial mask she’d ordered from Amazon. Since she wouldn’t have anything else to do while she let the mask do its job of exfoliating, she also pulled out her pedicure kit.
“Alexa, play me some Kelsea Ballerini,” she called to the black cylinder setting on the filing cabinet. But as soon as “Miss Me More” came on, the white Persian cat sleeping on the purple satin pillow on the desk got to her feet and started arching and hissing. Dixie looked up at the ceiling in silent prayer. “Fine, Queenie! Alexa, play Luke Bryan.” When “Drunk on You” came on, Queenie stopped hissing and nestled back down in her pillow and closed her eyes contentedly.
Dixie sat in the chair behind the desk. “I don’t know what you have against women singers, but you need to get over it. No one likes a catty woman who can’t get along with other women. I won the title of Miss Congeniality twice because I followed mama’s golden rule—‘Don’t let misters get in the way of sisters.’” She took off her hat and tossed it to the desk before she opened the mask package. “Although I must admit that I do love me some Luke. Did I tell you I met him when I was at that pageant in Memphis?”
By the time Dixie finished retelling the story, her face was covered in a cooling mask that left only her eyes and mouth uncovered and her feet were propped up on the desk getting a coat of pretty coral nail polish. Luke had moved on from his speakers going boom-boom to knocking boots.
“Shoot!” Dixie said as she once again got polish outside her toenails. Coloring within the lines had never been her forte. She grabbed a tissue to wipe it off when a sharp rap sounded on the office door.
Dixie froze in stunned surprise. No one ever came to Sheriff Willaby’s office—except for the mailman and the cleaning lady. But the mailman put the mail in the slot of the front door and left with only a wave, and the cleaning lady came on Friday nights. If someone in town needed the sheriff, they usually called. And even that was infrequent.
Sheriff Willaby was not a favorite with the townsfolk of Simple. Probably because he was an arrogant bully—something Dixie had figured out in their very first phone interview. But since she’d had no intentions of working for him longer than a few months, she’d figured she could handle him. Handling men was her forte. Within weeks, she’d wrapped the sheriff around her little finger. Although it was still hard to work for such a petty, small-minded man and she wasn’t the least upset when he’d been suspended for a misogynistic response he’d made on his social media page about a female sheriff.
And she could end up in the same boat as the sheriff if she didn’t move quickly.
“Just a second!” she yelled as she scooped up Queenie and shoved her and the purple pillow into the cat carrier. After slipping the carrier under the desk, she quickly peeled off the mask and threw it into the trash before using the tissue she still had in her hand to wipe off her face as she wheeled the chair over to the filing cabinet and unplugged Alexa. Then she wheeled back and shoveled all her pedicure supplies into the top desk drawer. Once she slammed it shut, she pulled on her hat, pinned a smile on her face, and called in a breathy voice, “Come in.”
There was a long stretch of silence, and she thought that whomever it was had given up and left. But just as she was about to relax, the door opened. A man stood in the doorway. A big man. And Dixie was no wilting violet. Even in short-heeled cowboy boots, she was usually as tall, if not taller, than most men. While all her pageant friends complained about being taller than men, Dixie had no problem with it. In fact, she kind of enjoyed looking down.
But even in her five-inch bathing suit competition heels, she wouldn’t be able to look down at this man. The crown of his cowboy hat was only inches from the top of the doorway. And height wasn’t the only thing oversized on the man. He had shoulders as wide as the Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dixie had once dated, and if he had been a woman, he would’ve needed a C-cup for the hard pectoral muscles that pushed out the pockets of his heavily starched white western shirt.
The shirt was snapped all the way up to the man’s thick neck where a black tie was perfectly knotted between the sharp points of the stiff cotton collar. Two belts encircled his fat-free waist. One looped through the waistband of his razor-edge pressed khaki pants and the other held the low-riding holster resting on his right hip. While lots of folks walked around with guns in Texas, usually only lawmen had them holstered on the hip.
Well, crap on a cracker. She could be in trouble.
But as her mama always said, “The bigger the man, the harder they fall.” And Dixie was an expert at getting men to fall.
She brightened her smile to the highest wattage as she rose to her feet. She would’ve loved to step out from behind the desk and sashay over to him. Her sashay had always been a showstopper. But she couldn’t leave the desk with smudged naked toes. “Well, good mornin’. What can I do for you?” She drew out the “you” into a nice long Texas “ye-e-ew.”
There was a slight hesitation before he spoke. “Who are you?” His “yew” sounded much more country than hers. And sexy. Extremely sexy in his rough baritone voice.
She rested her hands on her hips and tipped her head. “I believe that should be my question, seeing as how you are in my office.”
“Your office? This is Sheriff Willaby’s office.”
“True, but since the sheriff . . . has taken a short leave of absence, I’m the one in charge.”
Beneath the brim of his low-tugged hat, she watched as his square jaw flexed and his lips pressed into a thin line. “You’re Deputy Meriwether?”
Blistered biscuits! If he knew her name, she was in big trouble. Still, she tried to bluff her way through like she had bluffed her way through high school, college, and the police academy. “That would be me. And you are?”
He swept off his hat. “Lincoln Hayes, Texas Ranger.”
Dixie could count on one hand the times she’d been struck speechless, but she was speechless now. Not only because he was a Texas Ranger, the elite of Texas law officers, but also because he was hot. Not hot in a Brad Pitt pretty boy way, but hot in a rugged, manly way. If he were a dog, he’d have been a pit bull. His dark eyes were deep set and his nose broad and his jaw square. The only things that weren’t masculine were his long, dark lashes, the dimple in his chin, and his soft-looking lips—although even those were marred with a jagged white scar in the top right corner.
A shiver of sexual awareness tiptoed up Dixie’s spine. She wasn’t surprised by her body’s reaction. The man was more virile and studly than one of her daddy’s prize stallions. She wouldn’t be at all surprised if women threw themselves at his big-booted feet for just a chance to be his mating mare.
Just not Dixie Leigh.
If anyone was going to be throwing themselves at someone’s feet, it wouldn’t be her.
She stood and swept off her own hat, making sure to give her long, blond, highlighted hair just enough shake so it fell nicely around her shoulders. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Officer Hayes.”
His eyes widened, and she couldn’t help doing a mental fist pump. That’s right, Mr. Big Shot Texas Ranger. Don’t think you can strut in here and get the upper hand. This is my turf. She reached her hand over the desk.
It took him a full minute to finally stop staring and step closer to take her hand. His hands were as big and masculine as everything else on him and she steeled herself for a bone-crushing shake. Instead, he held her hand gently in his huge paw, as if it were a flower he was worried about crushing, and released it quickly.
“Nice meeting you, Deputy Meri—”
Queenie started to scratch at her carrier to get out. Dixie tried to cover it up by talking loudly. “So what can I do for you, Officer Hayes?”
He stared at the desk as he answered. “I stopped by to check on things. Being a new deputy, I thought you might need some help. I’m surprised the sheriff’s department haven’t sent someone to take over for the sheriff.”
They had tried, but she’d done some fast-talking and assured them that she didn’t need any help. The last thing she wanted was another arrogant male bossing her around.
“As you can see,” she waved a hand, “I’m doing just fine and dandy. Simple isn’t really a hot spot for crime, now is it? So there’s not a whole lot to do besides make my morning and evening rounds.” Not that she had been doing her morning and evening rounds. Simple might not have a lot of crime, but if some criminal activity did take place, she’d just as soon not be around for it.
He studied her for a moment before he cocked a jet-black eyebrow. “And give yourself a facial.”
He made a loop around his face with his finger. “There’s some kind of blue goop hanging off your face.”
She wanted to stomp her foot again. But a beauty queen never threw tantrums or showed her frustration in front of people. Or owned up to her flaws and mistakes. “Oh, that. It’s just a new sunscreen—the sheriff’s department is big on protecting their officers from the damaging rays of the sun.”
“Are they also big on their officers painting their toenails dark pink while on duty, Deputy Meriwether?”
Her eyes widened. She glanced at the window, but the shades were drawn tight so he couldn’t have been spying on her. Then how had he known she was painting her toes?
As if reading her thoughts, he looked down at her hand. “There’s a smudge of nail polish on your right thumb. And more on the desk calendar where your feet must’ve rested as you painted them. Couple that with the strong smell of nail polish and the goop on your face and it wasn’t difficult to figure out that you were playing spa day.”
Great. She had gotten the Sherlock Holmes of the Texas Rangers.
“You know a lot about spa days, do you, Officer Hayes?” she asked.
“Only that a deputy could get fired for enjoying them while on duty—especially in the office of their immediate supervisor.”
Most people would be scared at this point and start begging for their job. Dixie Leigh wasn’t most people. She had grown up with a hardheaded daddy and a steel magnolia mama who taught their only daughter to fight rather than give in. So she fought. “I don’t believe I read anything in the sheriff’s manual about spa days. But I did read that officers should practice good grooming at all times.”
His other eyebrow swept up. “Does it also say it’s okay to bring your pet to work?”
“A pet? What pet?”
He picked up the bag of cat treats that Dixie had completely forgotten to hide. “You like Kitty Heaven tuna treats, do you?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. They’re tasty and high protein.”
“Really?” He held out the bag. “Then you won’t mind proving it.”
A dare? Ha! He didn’t know who he was dealing with.
She didn’t hesitate to take the bag, open it, and pop a cat treat in her mouth. It was a little too salty, but overall not so bad. He looked nonplussed for a second before he tipped back his head and laughed. Everyone always said that Dixie had the sweetest nature this side of the Mississippi. But if there was one thing that could dissolve that sweet nature in a hurry, it was being laughed at.
No longer concerned that she didn’t have her boots on, she moved from behind the desk and held the door. “If we’re through here, Officer Hayes, I need to get back to work.”
He sobered. “Okay, Deputy Meriwether, I’m going to let your complete disregard for the sheriff’s department slide this time. After being Willaby’s deputy, you probably needed a little down time. But from now on, you better keep your beauty salon and your cat at home.”
He stepped closer and she wished she’d had her pageant heels on because she had to tip her head back to keep eye contact. “Your job is to protect and serve, and it’s a job that needs to be taken seriously. Simple might not have a lot of crime, but that doesn’t mean people can police themselves. Everyone needs to be reminded of the rules, and it’s your job to do the reminding.” His dark eyes pinned her. “Have I made myself clear?”
She nodded, but it wasn’t enough for the arrogant man.
“Have I made myself clear, Deputy Meriwether?”
“Yes,” she snapped.
She really wanted to tell him where he could stick his “sir.” But she knew if she did, she’d be looking for another job. He might not be her direct boss, but he was her indirect one. Texas Rangers’ jurisdiction covered the entire state. While she had no intentions of being a deputy for much longer, she had to keep her job for at least a few more months. Or until her daddy caved. If she wanted to win with her daddy and realize her dream, she needed to concede this round to Lincoln Hayes.
She pinned on a smile. “Yes, sir.”
His gaze lowered to her bare feet. “Let’s hope you’re better at law enforcement, Deputy Meriwether, than you are at paintin’ toes.” An annoying smile tipped up the corners of his mouth before he glanced at the computer sitting on the desk. “Now I need to take a look at Sheriff Willaby’s files. We’ve been working on a missing person’s case together and I want to see his notes.”
She should’ve just grabbed Queenie and left him to it, but this man had gotten her dander up. She might have to call him sir, but she wasn’t going to completely kiss his butt.
“I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t have Sheriff Willaby’s passcode.” It was a bald-faced lie. Sheriff Willaby hated paperwork and had turned over most of it to Dixie as soon as she became his deputy. Something Officer Hayes would find out if he called the sheriff. Luckily, it turned out that he disliked dealing with the sheriff as much as everyone else did.
His eyes narrowed on her for a long moment before he nodded his head. “Then I guess I’ll be on my way.” He pulled on his hat. “But I’ll be keeping an eye on you, Deputy Meriwether.” He turned on a boot heel and strode out of the office.
When he was gone, Dixie mimicked him in a peevish voice. “I’ll be keeping an eye on you, Deputy Meriwether.” She slammed the door closed and gasped when she saw her reflection in the full-length mirror on the back. A blue film of dried gel covered her face. “Just great, Dixie Leigh. You certainly know how to make a first impression.” She moved to the desk and grabbed some tissues out of the box. “Not that I wanted to make a good first impression on uppity Lincoln Hayes, Texas Ranger,” she said as she wiped off her face. “It’s obvious the man likes to throw his weight around like Sheriff Willaby. And my daddy.”
Although he could’ve reported her and gotten her fired. And yet, he hadn’t. Since he seemed like a straight-laced lawman who followed the rules to a tee, she had to wonder if there was another reason he wasn’t turning her in. Maybe he didn’t want Sheriff Willaby finding out he had stopped by to take a peek at his files.
After getting Queenie out of her carrier, Dixie scooted the chair closer to the computer and quickly pulled up the case files. There were only three missing person’s reports filed in the last year. One was for Ernie Finnegan’s missing Labrador retriever. The dog had been found three weeks later at a ranch twenty miles away with a pregnant female basset hound. One was for Mildred Hampton’s husband. It turned out Mildred was a seventy-three-year-old woman who had never been married and was hoping to change that. The last missing person’s report was for Sam Sweeney.
Dixie remembered this one. Sam’s daughter, Maisy Sweeney, had come in and filed the report with Sheriff Willaby. Afterwards, she’d stopped in the outer office to chat with Dixie. She was a sweet young woman who claimed she rode wide broncos for a living. Dixie couldn’t believe that a woman would want to spend her time being flipped off a horse. Just like she couldn’t believe Maisy’s daddy had met with foul play in Simple, Texas.
But that was exactly what Sheriff Willaby seemed to believe.
Or not in Simple itself, but on a ranch just outside of the small town. The Double Diamond ranch was the last place Sam had worked. The ranch had been a boys ranch for troubled teens at the time. In his notes, Sheriff Willaby wrote about his suspicions that the delinquent teens who had spent the summer there were somehow responsible for Sam’s disappearance. He’d even listed each teen by name.
Cru Cassidy. Logan McCord. Holden Lancaster. Valentine Sterling. Sawyer Dawson.
Dixie’s eyes widened as she read the last name.
And Lincoln Hayes. (Taming a Texas Devil Excerpt by Katie Lane)