It was a routine case—until his only suspect became his deepest desire.

Ranger Colton Jennings isn’t trying to piss off an entire town. He just wants the uncover the truth. And if that makes him unpopular, he’s man enough to stand his ground. Until the woman at the top of his suspect list pulls it out from under him, and he’s left scrambling for sure footing. He shouldn’t want to protect her—but his heart is determined to break the rules.

As a medic for an organization called the Watchmen, Bryony Wilson readily puts her life on the line to save others. Whether it’s hiking a treacherous trail or hanging beneath a helicopter on the side of the mountain, there aren’t many risks she won’t take—except where her heart is concerned. Relationships are a no fly zone. So, taking a chance on the ranger who breezes into town is wildly out-of-character. And shaping up to be a colossal mistake.

There’s no denying their mutual attraction. But Colton has a murder to solve. Becoming Bryony’s lover might ease the ache in his chest—or it might just get him killed.

Damn, she’s pretty.

Colt shook away the thought as he watched Bryony move through the crowded bar, hips swaying, lips lifted into a stunning smile. She stopped at one of the tables, laughing as she placed a couple of beer bottles in front of the men before winding her way back to the counter. The guy on the other side placed four more drinks on her tray, nodding at something she said before she turned and left, heading to the far side of the room.

Colton wove his way through the tables, taking a seat at the bar. He’d been in town for several days, and despite the fact he’d spent the first thirteen years of his life there, he’d never felt like more of an outsider. Of course, investigating the town’s “star” organization hadn’t garnered him any points. While he’d made it abundantly clear that he was only trying to ensure he hadn’t missed anything, and that Darren had, indeed, fallen to his death, most of the locals seemed to believe he was doing everything he could to shut down the Watchmen.

He glanced at Brie, again. Who was he trying to fool? It wasn’t the Watchmen folks were worried about. It was her. So far, every member of the Watchmen he’d interviewed had all but threatened him if he so much as looked at Bryony the wrong way, let alone accuse her of anything. And he’d had similar reactions from the townsfolk. It seemed she’d helped more than a few people, medically speaking, and no one had been willing to say anything remotely unkind about her.

He sighed. While he didn’t want to believe she’d been involved in Darren’s death, there was just something about the entire incident that didn’t feel right—made his skin crawl. Not that he was targeting her, specially. But with the bits of history between Bryony and Darren he’d picked up, and the fact she didn’t have a concrete alibi for that night…

It all added up to her being a viable suspect—his only suspect. And like most people, she was capable of far more than anyone thought, especially if her life had been in jeopardy. Or maybe the status of the Watchmen.

“I thought you’d left, already?”

The gruff voice drew Colton from his thoughts. He looked up, sighing at the furrowed brow and narrowed eyes of the man standing behind the bar. A short beard shadowed his jaw, the jagged edge of a few scars disappearing into the scruff.

Everyone called the guy Sweeney, though Colton wasn’t sure if it was a short form of his last name, Swenson, or if it had another meaning from his time with the Marines. Either way, he’d been telling Colt to pack up since he’d first walked into Rope’s End to grab a room. And it appeared the man hadn’t changed his mind.

Colton grinned. “Soon.”

Sweeney leaned forward. “Apparently, not soon enough.”

“Easy, Sweeney.” Brie shuffled in beside Colt, her thigh brushing against his. “Ranger Jennings is only doing his job.”

Colt groaned inwardly at the title. After spending all week hanging around Rope’s End just for a chance to talk to her, get to know her a bit better, he’d hoped they were past the “ranger” part, not that he’d done anything in particular to make her trust him. But damn it…he was just doing his job, even if that fact wasn’t welcome in town.

Sweeney frowned. “Darren was a narcissistic, thrill-seeking asshole who was more concerned with getting his face on the front page of the local newspaper than doing his job. He was a poor excuse of a man, and we never should have trusted him to be in charge.”

Colton arched a brow. “Then, why did you?”

Sweeney glared at him. “He was a Marine—we tend to give our own the benefit of the doubt. And it’s not like I didn’t make a few calls—but none of my buddies knew much about him, other than they’d heard he was decent. The guy seemed sincere, and hell…we wanted to believe. We were fresh out of active duty, with no prospects for work, and far too much baggage. Most of the guys in the group were barely keeping it together. All of us were pretty desperate to latch onto something we could call our own. Find a way to matter, again.”

He sighed, shifting his gaze to Bryony, placing one large hand over hers before giving her fingers a squeeze.

“We lost a lot of family that last tour—men we considered our brothers. Darren showed up just after Aaron’s funeral with a vision we knew would help us find a way to fit in. Do some good. We jumped without considering he had ulterior motives. And by the time we figured it out… He might have been a good Marine, but the guy that showed up here wasn’t the same man.” Sweeney shrugged. “It was as simple as that.”

He straightened. “But as much as we disliked the creep, no one here would have wasted the effort it would have taken to kill him. He fell. End of story. So, feel free to pack up your bags and head back to Spokane.”

Brie sighed as Sweeney turned and marched off, stopping to talk to someone farther down the counter. She gave Colton an apologetic smile. “I know Sweeney comes across pretty rough, but…he’s really very sweet. And one hell of a pilot. The guy can make that chopper dance like no one else I’ve ever seen. Risks his life on a regular basis to access places we probably shouldn’t even try.”

Colton glanced at the guy for a moment. “Sheriff Johnson mentioned your brother was killed overseas when his convoy got ambushed. Was Sweeney involved in the incident, too?”

The muscle in her jaw twitched before she broke eye contact, moving to dart past him.

He hooked her elbow, careful not to make her stumble. “Bryony. I didn’t mean to pry—”

“All of the guys working here, except Darren, were involved. Same company. Same squad. They were heading to a new base. Normally, Sweeney would have been flying, but he was on his way home. There were three hummers en route when the explosion happened.”

“Was only one hit?”

The muscle twitched, again. “Two. And Sweeney was the only guy who walked away from either one of them alive. So, you might want to cut him some slack. From what I heard…” She looked at the floor. “It wasn’t pretty.”

She eased her arm free. “Are you ordering?”

He cursed under his breath at the way she fidgeted, looking more past him than actually at him. While he didn’t know the entire story involving her brother’s accident, he should have known better than to bring it up, especially when it was painfully obvious she hadn’t come close to dealing with it.

He gave her a small smile. “You’ll be happy to know I have to head back to Spokane tomorrow. They’re short-staffed, and I can’t do much more until I get all the test results back. Things have been moving a bit slowly.”

She nodded, though he didn’t see the relief he’d expected. “Grab a seat. I’ll bring you a drink and some food.”

“You don’t know what I like.”

“You’re partial to the local dark ales, and the only special you’ve finished was the burger and fries.”

He chuckled as she walked off, yelling his order to Sweeney before heading for another table. Colt found an empty spot then kicked back the chair, angling it so he had a better view of the room. The legs creaked as he sank onto the seat, leaning against the back and crossing his feet at the ankles.

Music sounded above the raucous laughter, the upbeat country song taking a few of the patrons to their feet. Couples moved onto the small dance area, two-stepping to the beat vibrating through the wooden floor.

He watched them move for a while, wondering how long it had been since he’d done anything remotely close to dancing, when a bottle settled in front of him, the glass beaded with water. He looked up, but Bryony had already walked off, greeting another round of newcomers. He tilted his head to the side, unable to draw his gaze away from the hypnotic sway of her hips and the curve of her ass. God, she filled out her jeans perfectly.

A throat cleared behind him a moment before a plate clattered on top of the table. Sweeney arched his brow when Colt met his gaze, shifting a quick look at Bryony before glaring down at him. “She’s way out of your league, Ranger.”

Colt laid his arm across the chair back. “Are you always this nice to your patrons, or am I just special?”

Sweeney clenched his jaw, making his temple pulse. “Brie’s like a little sister to me.”

“You’ve made that abundantly clear. All of you.”

“That’s because we care. With Aaron gone…” He shook his head. “It’s my job to protect her.”

“From what I’ve heard, the lady is more than capable of taking care of herself. Not that it matters. I’m not here to crucify her.”

“You think we don’t know what’s going on? You’ve had her on your shit list for Darren’s death since you found out they were together.”

“I’m just checking the facts.”

“The woman’s dedicated her life to saving people. Do you really think she’d risk everything to kill some asshole lover because she discovered he was fucking every piece of ass he could get his hands on?”

“I think she cares about you and your fellow Watchmen even more than you care about her.”

Sweeney leaned forward then stopped when Bryony headed toward them. “Go home before you do any permanent damage.”

He walked off, nodding at Brie as he edged past her. She paused to follow his progression back to the bar, glancing between Sweeney and Colt a few times before releasing an audible breath.

She pulled out the chair opposite him then slid onto it, placing her elbows on the table as she rested her chin on folded fingers. “And here I thought having one big brother was a pain in the ass.”

He smiled at the easy symmetry of her face—the brilliant green of her eyes. He’d been wrong before—she was breathtaking. “I’m really not trying to target anyone, or close you down.”

She shrugged, though it was obvious she didn’t truly believe him. “Arguing would be a waste of time.”

He frowned. “What happened to ‘I’m just doing my job’?”

She pursed her lips, the pressure bleaching some of the pink color out of them. “You’re right, and you are. It’s just…” She shoved at the wisps of hair escaping her ponytail, pushing them back from her face. “Darren’s still a raw wound around here. The man had us all fooled. Having you poke around, make it all bleed, again… I can’t really blame the guys for being less than forthcoming with information.”

“It’s not Darren they’re uptight about.”

“They’re a bit…overprotective.”

“Just a bit?” Colt eased forward, placing his hands on either side of his plate. “Call me crazy, but you don’t seem like the type to get played that easily.”

Any hint of amusement vanished. “We all make poor choices. Darren was mine.” She stood. “You’d best eat that before it gets cold. Let me know if you want another beer.”

“Bryony… Shit.”

He grabbed the beer, taking a long pull as she marched off before placing it on the table. He shouldn’t care what she thought about him. Sweeney was right. While there wasn’t a lack of people who hated Darren, she was the only one who hadn’t been in town, either at the bar or with a crowd of people, which had put her somewhat in the limelight from the beginning. Once the sheriff had informed him they’d been a couple, and that their falling out might have had a bearing on the group’s eagerness to boot Darren out—it made everything else seem suspicious. And Colt hated that his gut told him the man’s death had been so much more than a simple climbing accident.

The food settled uncomfortably in his stomach as he forced himself to eat. Chances were, he wouldn’t get a spare moment once he reached Spokane, and it seemed stupid to pass up a good meal, even if it did feel like a rock inside him.

He nursed his beer, wasting as much time as he thought he could before finally rising. He needed some sleep if he was going to head out at dawn and make the drive through the Cascades without veering off the road on the slick curves. He downed the last of his drink then tossed some money on the table. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he made his way to the rear stairs. Despite everything, he wasn’t looking forward to leaving. He just wasn’t sure if it was the town or Bryony that had him wanting to stay.

He sighed. Even if everyone hadn’t treated him as if he carried the plague, hooking up with a woman like her would have been a pipe dream, at best. She wasn’t just out of his league, she was an entirely different species. The kind that didn’t fall for men like him. More likely than not, she’d end up with one of the guys from the Watchmen—someone who’d never questioned her integrity.

Indecision weighed him down as he climbed the stairs then made his way to his room. At least the suite had been a pleasant surprise. Tastefully decorated, with a clean, comfortable bed—it had been a welcomed break from the tents and cabins he’d been staying in lately.

Colt grabbed his bag from beside the door and chucked it on the bed. If he packed up most of his stuff tonight, he’d have enough time to grab a cup of coffee and still make it to Spokane shortly after his shift started.

No rest for the weary.

Not that he’d expected any time off, but it would have been nice. A couple of days to get caught up on sleep, maybe go on a date…

He laughed. He hadn’t been on a date in months—never seemed to make the time—but he certainly liked the thought of it. Holding hands. Kissing. Maybe eventually a round of hot sex…

Images of Bryony danced through his mind as he folded his clothes and placed them in the bag. She was definitely the kind of girl he’d break a few rules for. Hell, all the rules. While he didn’t know her all that well, he felt pretty confident that she was just as much of a wildcat in bed as he’d seen her be outside of it.

A hint of regret soured his stomach as he continued packing, not worrying about folding the garments, this time. He just couldn’t seem to catch a break—with the case or with women like her. It seemed the more calls he worked away from home, the more acutely aware it made him of how much he didn’t have one. That while he had friends, a place to stay, it had never felt like his. Not the way he’d felt growing up, and he was starting to think it was time to have more to show for his life than just endless nights on the road or in a tent. He loved being a ranger, but surely, he could have that and still have a life—one with a woman who meant more to him than a short-term distraction. A temporary attempt at a relationship.

Who was he kidding? In the end, the obvious issue was him, not the job or the women he’d dated. Just. Him.

His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he frowned when he read the partial text, finally opening it. Apparently, the doctor had discovered additional injuries and had emailed him the report.

He switched apps, choking back the crest of bile in his throat as he read through the pages. A numb feeling settled in his chest, making it hard to breathe. Looked as if his trip home would have to wait.