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Excerpt - Body of Evidence by Lenora Worth

Body of Evidence
Lenora Worth

When Texas Ranger Anderson Michaels goes undercover at an animal rescue farm in Texas Hill Country, he lands right in owner Jennifer Rodgers's path. Before long, he realizes that tracking down his target—a deadly drug-trafficking ring that was responsible for the murder of his captain—may be easier than winning this jaded woman's trust. Experience has taught Jennifer to keep her distance from adventure seekers. But her life will depend on her ability to push aside her fears—and trust Anderson to keep her safe.

Excerpt of chapter one:

She was caught between a hungry alligator named Boudreaux and a tall drink of water named Anderson. And they both had way too much attitude.

Jennifer Rodgers had had better days.

And worse ones, too, come to think of it. Someone didn't want her to build her alligators a fancy new pen. Maybe that was why the handsome Ranger, who'd discreetly flashed his badge for her eyes only, was here.

Deciding to do things in the order of greatest urgency, she ignored Mr. Tall, Blond and Texas while she finished feeding chunks of raw chicken to cranky old Boudreaux. It didn't take long for the younger alligator sharing this temporary pen with Boudreaux to slide toward the evening meal.

"C'mon, Bobby Wayne," Jennifer called. Tossing some of the meat toward shy Bobby Wayne, she smiled. "Don't worry, Boudreaux will save you a bite or two. I hope."

Boudreaux didn't seem worried about his buddy. He was too busy tearing at the meal. Jennifer threw the last of the bucket of stinky meat into the water hole then turned on the nearby spigot and pulled the big water hose toward the bucket to give it a good rinse. Then she pulled off the heavy rubber gloves she always wore to feed her animals and tossed them in the bucket. She'd soap the whole thing down later.

After she got rid of the Texas Ranger waiting a little too impatiently to talk to her.

Ranger Anderson Michaels used the time waiting at the Rodgers Exotic Animal Rescue Farm to analyze both the place and the woman running the big compound.

Jennifer Rodgers was cute and just about as exotic as some of her animals. Her long curly dark brown hair was caught up in a haphazard ponytail that kept shifting around to her face each time she leaned over. She was fit, her figure almost boyish, but Anderson could tell she was all woman even if she did have on grungy khaki pants and an old brown work shirt. Her brown eyes gave away her feminine charm. So did the way she grinned at that nasty-looking alligator lunging toward the meat she held down over the rickety old fence.

Surprised to see yet another gator opening his snout to snap at the raw chicken, Anderson strolled closer to the chain links surrounding the makeshift pond.

"Do they stay in there?" he asked, wondering if he could outrun old Boudreaux. He'd always heard an alligator could get up to forty miles per hour in speed. Anderson didn't want to test that theory.

Jennifer laughed, then turned to wipe her wet hands on a towel draped over a post. After pulling a small bottle of hand sanitizer out of the deep pocket of her baggy pants, she squirted some on her hands and rubbed them together. The fruity scent of the sanitizer filled the crisp October air while her laughter filled Anderson's head.

"Boudreaux is too old and lazy to even try and get out, but Bobby Wayne…well, let's just say he doesn't like surprises. Even though he's shy and reclusive at times, he's been known to turn aggressive if you look at him the wrong way."

Her expression challenged Anderson to do just that. And suggested she might do the same thing as the gator.

"I'll keep that in mind," Anderson said, grinning at her. "But right now, I need to talk to you."

Jennifer nodded, then started up the dirt lane toward the long square log cabin where, according to his notes, she worked and lived. "Is this about the incident with the fence on the back end of my property?"

Anderson's radar went up. "Has something happened back there already?"

She frowned. "Yes. I thought maybe that was why you were here. The local authorities said there wasn't much I could do but fix the fence."

Anderson's gut tightened. Had the cartel and the Lions already made her a target?

He glanced around, then pushed at his tan cowboy hat. A teenaged boy and a middle-age woman were working down a hill inside the goat pen and a few curious visitors milled around watching and asking questions about the "Closed for Renovations" sign. No one was paying him much attention. He'd purposely changed out of his official uniform into a sportscoat and jeans and his own hat. "Could we talk somewhere private?"

"Sure. I was just finishing up for the day, anyway." She nodded toward where the two other workers were busy with the goats. "That's Jacob—he's my part-timer and the woman with him is a volunteer. They'll close up and leave when they finish up with the goats." Giving him another bold stare, she said, "C'mon in and I'll pour you a cup of coffee."

Anderson looked toward the approaching orange-red sunset. "Sounds good. Now that the sun is setting, it's kind of nippy out here."

She pushed at the double screen doors on the long back porch, then guided him up a hall past the big open oak door that had a sign saying "Office". "Yep, after that rain earlier in the week, it's a little cool for October. Those two fellows out there will go into a kind of hibernation if it gets any colder. We've just started building them a new pond, so I hope to get them moved before winter sets in. That is, if I can stop whoever it is that keeps damaging what we've already built."

She motioned toward another open door. "This way. Coffee's in the kitchen. Oh, and I have a very old dog in here, but he probably won't move a muscle to bark at you." Pointing to the sand-colored dog on a plaid bed by the fireplace, she said, "Roscoe, this is Anderson. Say hi."

Roscoe opened his doleful brown eyes and grunted. "Some watchdog."

"He used to be the best. But he's arthritic and ornery now. My dad gave him to me when I was a teenager. He keeps me company."

After offering Roscoe his knuckles to sniff, Anderson noted that the place wasn't all that secure. No alarm system that he could see. And standard windows and doors that creaked and groaned each time the wind hit them. Everything looked a little frayed and run-down, but the place was clean. Looking through the big open door toward the front, he noticed long shelves of supplies along with pamphlets about various animal causes lining the wall behind the battered desk. A standing sign gave the cost of daily tours, stating that all students got in free.

His advance research on her website mentioned an aviary, a turtle house and pond and several other outbuildings and animal shelters, including a barn and stables. And as she'd mentioned, he had discovered she was building a bigger, better pond for the alligators. Obviously, Jennifer Rodgers was as dedicated to protecting animals as her famous late father Martin had been.

But even though her site indicated donations were always needed and welcome, it looked like she was struggling to keep things going on this remote compound.

Anderson hated to add to her troubles, but she had to know she might be in danger, especially if someone had already messed with a fence. Her rescue farm was located in an isolated spot just off I-10, about twenty miles from San Antonio. A perfect location for a drop site in drug trafficking, just like the suspect they had in custody had claimed. And he wondered now if that new alligator compound was being built too close to the alleged drop site.

Jennifer poured two cups of coffee, then motioned to the rectangular dining table on one side of the big den behind the office room. "Take a load off. And start talking, Ranger."

Anderson watched as she turned her own chair around so she could straddle it, her hands dropping over the high back, her dark eyes centered on him.

Her fingernails were painted a brilliant candy-apple red.

Interesting. And distracting.

Taking off his hat, he ran a hand over his hair and pulled out a chair. "Ah, well, I'm here because we have reason to believe some suspicious activity has been transpiring on the south end of your property, Miss Rodgers."

She nodded. "Yes. The brand-new fence around the pond we're building back there was cut. It needs to be redone before we can get on with the construction. We just started last week, so I'm not happy about being set back already. I saw a man with a mustache running away, but I didn't get a good look at him."

"I'm not here about that, specifically," he said. "But this could be connected to my reasons for being here, Miss Rodgers. Did the man see you?"

"He glanced back at me, then ran." Her expression went still. "Call me Jennifer. And talk in plain English—not Ranger-speak, if you don't mind. What kind of suspicious activity?"

Anderson didn't need to tell her everything but he had to make her see this was important. And urgent. He only knew how to do that in Ranger-speak. But he tried to use layman's terms. "Our captain was murdered last month. You might have heard about it—Gregory Pike?"

"I read about it in the paper and saw the story on the news. His daughter found him, right?"

"Right. Corinna interrupted the murder and found another man unconscious beside her father. That man is still in a coma in the hospital but we've released his photo to the media, hoping to get a lead on his identity."

Pulling a copy of the picture out, he showed it to Jennifer. "Have you ever seen this man?"

She squinted toward the grainy picture of the unconscious dark-haired man with a scar on his face. "No. He looks rough. Hard to say. I don't think that's the man I saw the other day."

Anderson decided to go on that for now. Maybe she'd remember something once they got into the particulars.

Jennifer took a drink of her black coffee. "I'm sorry about your captain and that man in the picture. But I don't think it has anything to do with whoever cut my fence."

Anderson saw the impatience in her expression. He'd have to talk fast, he reckoned. "We managed to bring in a suspect, Eddie Jimenez, who was captured after breaking into Corinna Pike's house. He gave us information regarding a drop site—a designated meeting place where, allegedly, some Texas citizens are conspiring with a Mexican drug cartel. But he couldn't identify anybody. Or so he said."

Jennifer held out her hand. "Wait a minute. Are you saying what I think you're saying? Do you believe this drop site is on my property? That these drug runners are the ones trespassing back there? Are they the ones who messed up my fence?"

Anderson tried to answer all of her questions with one statement. "If someone's tampered with your fence, you can bet it's probably these criminals, yes, ma'am. And if that man thinks you saw him, he might come back."

She hit a palm on the table, causing Roscoe to open one eye. "And that's why you're here? Do you think I have something to do with all of this? I'm the one who called the local authorities but the deputy sheriff didn't seem all that concerned. Now you show up—obviously very concerned."

Anderson didn't think she was a suspect, but that couldn't be ruled out. "No, we don't think you're involved, but your property could be part of some illegal activity, and that activity could lead us to the man who murdered my captain. We need to keep tabs on your land, see who's coming and going. And that means I need to be on site for a few days. I'll call the sheriff and compare notes. I'll need a list of everyone who works with you and volunteers for you or any returning visitors who might seem suspicious."

Her eyebrows lifted like dark velvet butterfly wings. "As in—you want to hang around and…spy?"

Anderson wasn't one to mince words. "As in—I need to work here with you—undercover—until I can find out what's going on in the back forty."

She held so tight to her chair, Anderson thought she might snap the wood. "Say that again?"

"I need to go undercover, here on your compound, twenty-four-seven, for the next few days. I've been assigned to find out anything I can, based on the information the suspect taken into custody gave us. Which wasn't a whole lot, by the way. But if we couple that with your recent vandalism, I'd say something's going on here and we're on the right track."

She put one hand on the table then moved the other over her tousled ponytail. "So when you say go undercover, you mean you want to stay here and pretend to work for me while you're watching this property?"

Hadn't he just told her that? "That's it, yes, ma'am."

"Stop with the ma'am stuff, okay?"

"Okay, ma—" He smiled. "Okay, Jennifer. I noticed you have a bunkhouse for volunteers. I can stay there."

"We aren't using it right now, but yeah, you'd better believe you'll stay there. I don't like people underfoot."

Anderson could tell that. Her whole stance practically shouted for him to go away. "Are you here alone after hours?"

"I have the part-time helper you saw earlier—the kid who comes in after school. And a rotating list of volunteers. And we have a local vet who comes by about twice a week. Our work hours vary according to the animals' needs, of course." She shrugged. "But yes, for the most part, I'm here alone after hours. Just me and Roscoe there."

He noted the sadness and the resolve tracing through her eyes. "I'm sorry about what happened to your daddy in the Amazon. My mom used to watch his local show on one of the cable channels."

"Thank you." Jennifer looked down at the wooden table. "My father loved what he did and he taught me to feel the same way. I'm planning to honor his dream of making this place into a full-fledged exotic animal haven, with lots of hands-on teaching. You know, children touring the place, volunteers being able to educate people on endangered animals and how to protect them. We can learn a lot from nature and that was my dad's greatest hope.

"He wanted people to respect nature and abide by the laws set up to protect animals and he was well on his way to becoming known the world over for his work, it's up to me. He left me a little money and I used part of it to buy up the acreage behind this place. Like I said earlier, I've already started clearing that area so we can build a better-equipped pen for the gators. I guess the drug runners beat me to it, but that—and a little vandalism—won't stop me from building my alligator preserve."

Anderson saw the passion and the sincerity in her eyes. She would work hard to complete her father's dream. And she might even do that at the risk of everything else, including her own safety.

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