Circle Eight Millennium 1
Lazarus Graham has always been the black sheep of his family. Leaving behind the ranch his family had owned for nearly 200 years, he lives life as a Texas Ranger. Tough, hard and inflexible, he has no time for life's fripperies.
Beatrice Cartwright never expected to run into her childhood nemesis again. Yet Laz Graham sauntered into her store to investigate a crime nearby. Then the man had the nerve to not remember her.
Being a Graham isn't easy, and it's about to get a lot harder for one stubborn lawman and the woman who still owns his heart.
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The sun kissed the horizon with pink and orange licks as Laz drove into Brier Creek. His gut tensed at the sight of the familiar sight of the large magnolias his ancestors had planted so long ago. They had grown wider in the years Laz had been gone. Their blossoms’ sweet scent drifted through the vents in the car.
He pushed away the memories, unwilling to get drawn back into his old life. Yet here he was driving back to Cartwrights to face the woman he’d not done right by. Perhaps it was a salvation for him, to right the wrongs of his past. That meant confronting who he’d been and what he’d done. That wasn’t exactly what he wanted.
Fate seemed to have intervened, regardless of his plans. It yanked him back into his past. The emotions of the day before had left him exhausted and he hadn’t slept well. His thoughts ranged from the softness of her lips, to the violence of the crime against her store, then they swung back to the brief moment her breasts had been pressed against his chest.
He was a complete fool to think simply helping her solve a crime would grant him atonement. Laz hadn’t just burned bridges when he left Brier Creek. He’d blown them sky high, along with everything around them.
He sipped at the coffee, but it was bitter and lukewarm, as hotel coffee usually was. If Laz was honest with himself, he’d left early to avoid seeing anyone. Bea thought they were meeting at eight but she was wrong. He was arriving at six and they were going to get started on this foolish partnership. He’d updated his case files and told his boss he was working a new angle but failed to mention Bea.
No, he needed to keep that little tidbit to himself, safe and sound, away from the prying eyes of the rangers. His coworkers would latch onto the idea he had accepted her help and never let it go. In the years he’d been working for the rangers, Laz hadn’t lasted more than three months with a partner. It was why he was assigned to a county-wide investigation. He was good at sleuthing out seemingly disparate events and data.
Laz also hadn’t had a relationship with anyone in all that time. He dated on and off, had sex on occasion but he continued to be alone. Some might call it self-flagellation. He called it giving back to the world in his own way by being a ranger. Being happy was never a guarantee for anyone.
Especially Lazarus Graham.
He had nothing to complain about since he’d grown up on a ranch with enough money for anything he wanted. Laz worked hard at helping his father on the Circle Eight, but it hadn’t meant anything except more allowance. He hadn’t connected with the land and what it meant. Truth be told, he was a failure as a Graham. A family with a legacy of fighting for what they believed in, no matter the odds, true Texans through and through.
Laz had skated through the first eighteen years of his life. If he allowed himself to look back, he could get lost in regrets and then he would never be able to move on. But had he? Beatrice Cartwright reminded him quite plainly that he hadn’t moved on. Laz had simply stepped to the side and walked on, leaving behind the steaming pile of shit he’d created of his life.
He pulled into the parking lot beside the gun shop and got out. Bea lived above the shop, which meant the burglary occurred while she was asleep, unprotected, upstairs. The thought of her catching the violent criminal in the act made his jaw ache from clenching it so hard. She no doubt had several guns upstairs and would have defended her store if she’d heard the intruders. He wondered if she slept hard or if the insulation was spectacular. Either way, she hadn’t heard the crime.
Laz had no business protecting her from herself, but he would protect her from further harm. That was his job, along with solving the crime. His feelings for Bea, the nonexistent ones, were of no consequence. There was no emotional connection to her. Or at least there shouldn’t be. Couldn’t be.
He closed the car door and walked toward the side entrance. It was an indistinct steel door painted a dark green. A doorbell with a speaker had been installed beside it, but there was no sign indicating what, or for whom, a visitor would ring for. Yet he knew it was Bea’s private quarters, but he wasn’t sure how he knew.
He rang the doorbell, glancing at his watch and noting it was barely ten minutes past six. Laz hoped she was an early riser. Belatedly, he remembered he should have brought coffee and breakfast in hand as he’d promised.
A full minute went by before the speaker crackled.
“It’s Ranger Graham.” He winced at the formality in his voice but he was there in an official capacity.
“Son of a bitch! Lazarus?” Her voice was husky, either from sleep or distorted by the speaker. “You said eight. It’s barely past six. Is the sun even up?”
“I thought we could get an early start.” He leaned against the wall, regretting the impulse to avoid his past.
“And you forgot how to use the phone? Don’t they teach you that at ranger school? I thought you were done being an asshole.” Her annoyance seemed to grow by the second.
He deserved it, but in for a penny, in for a pound. “I brought all my notes with me.” Perhaps he could appeal to her with a bribe. “I thought we could go over them together.”
A few moments passed.
“Shit, that’s dirty pool, Graham. I can’t resist seeing your notes and you know it. I don’t suppose you brought the coffee and food?”
“No, I didn’t know where to buy it, but I thought we could get some together.” Oh, how low he had fallen. Ridiculous that he felt the need to tell half-truths. “Let me revise that. Will you join me for breakfast and we can review my notes?”
This time more than a few moments passed. “Fine, but you’re fucking paying. Give me ten minutes. And you’re still an asshole.”