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“You can work with us, Mr. Neisson, or you can work against us—something I do not recommend. But standing to the side and doing nothing is not an option.”
Ignoring the other suit seated at the interrogation room table and the county sheriff leaning against the wall, Ian Neisson kept his gaze locked on the striking green eyes of the black-haired beauty seated across the table from him as she spoke. It was clear FBI Special Agent Jessica Martin was the one in charge today. Had she not researched him—or his family, for that matter—at all before calling him in here? The residents of the Wright Ranch weren’t exactly the standing to the side and doing nothing type.
He leaned forward in the hard chair, all too aware of the thick metal loop protruding from the tabletop to which handcuffs could be attached, and resisted the urge to bury his unshackled hands in his barn jacket pockets. “I’m still not clear on what you want from me, Special Agent Martin.”
She leaned forward too. A shimmer of gold at her throat caught his eye. The neckline of the simple white collared dress shirt she wore beneath her charcoal suit coat had parted just enough to reveal a tiny gold horseshoe charm hanging from a delicate gold chain. For luck?
“We need access to the ranching and rodeo community in the area. According to Sheriff Jenkins, you’re the man to give it to us,” she said.
The statement made Ian jerk his gaze back up to hers. There was gold there also, and the hard glint it gave her eyes made him think she created her own luck. “Access? What sort of access?” he asked.
“The kind that will help us catch the rustlers working the Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada—ION—territory,” she said.
Ian looked to Sheriff Alan Jenkins, who was watching passively. “The FBI investigates stolen cattle?”
Alan shrugged. “When they’re transported across state lines they do.”
Ian returned his attention to the agents and asked with no small amount of incredulity, “You want me to help you catch rustlers?”
“We will be doing the catching, Mr. Neisson,” the other agent, Peter Beck, a thirtysomething personification of a cliché FBI agent said with no amount of condescension.
Ian halfway expected the slender, dark-haired man to reach into the breast pocket of his black, well-tailored suit jacket, produce a pair of sunglasses, and don them in punctuation.
Instead he simply arched a brow and stared steadily at Ian with intense brown eyes.
Ian wasn’t impressed. “Leaving me to do . . . what, exactly?”
“This is your community, Mr. Neisson,” Special Agent Martin said.
“A small community where the presence of two federal agents will not go unnoticed,” Ian countered.
“Exactly.” Special Agent Martin sat back. “Which is why we need you to facilitate our undercover operation.”
Ian glanced again at Alan.
Alan shrugged in a she’s not wrong kind of way and said, “She’s right.” The sheriff straightened away from the wall and hooked his thumbs in his utility belt. “You know as well as I do that while Oregon might not be the Wild West anymore, at least not most days, the rodeo folks and ranchers here in the high desert are a tight-knit bunch. They respect you, Ian. And not just because of your grandpa.”
Special Agent Beck flipped open the file folder on the table in front of him and read from the top document. “Thomas Wright.”
Ian opened his mouth to answer in the affirmative but the sheriff beat him to it.
“That’s right. The Thomas Wright. And short of going straight to him, if the FBI wants to get close enough to the main players in the region to learn who is involved, they’ll need you, Ian.”
“I’m not convinced enlisting the aid of a family member of one of our susp—”
Special Agent Martin held up a hand and stopped her partner short, but not before Ian straightened in his seat, instantly on high alert.
“Excuse me?” Ian said. They suspected his grandfather of some sort of illegal activity? Ian’s heart started to pound. From fear or anger, he wasn’t sure.
There was no doubt Thomas Wright was a hard man. He was not above holding a grudge if he thought he’d been wronged. But he lived his life by the cowboy code of honesty, integrity, and courage and expected those around him to do the same. There was no way he could be involved. He liked winning fair and square too much.
The woman across from Ian folded her hands atop the interrogation room table, the picture of icy control. Except for her eyes. The gold-flecked green glowed with a fiery intelligence and strength of will. “We have no suspects at this time. But what we do have is millions of dollars’ worth of cattle, rodeo rough stock, and bull sperm going missing and then being sold to . . . well, that is what we are here to discover. If some of the ranchers around here have amassed their fortunes through illegal activity, we intend to uncover those activities.”
Ian clenched his jaw. The only rancher in or around Pineville who could be described as having a fortune was his grandfather.
“And as I said, you can either help, or—”
“And as you also said, you need my help, Special Agent Martin.” Ian had dedicated himself to his family’s—and by extension their community’s—welfare ever since his grandfather’s prized bucking bull had trampled his mom. The agents had no way of knowing about the promise his mother had extracted from him before she’d finally passed, nor did he intend to tell them. He wasn’t about to let them poke around in the lives of those he cared for without him there to keep them safe.
Five Months Later
What have I gotten myself into?
FBI Special Agent Jessie Martin squeezed and released the steering wheel of the unmarked SUV she’d borrowed from the sheriff’s department. Though they had spent the majority of the past five months at the bureau’s Bend office, she and Peter had set up a temporary office at the sheriff’s station under the guise of being auditors from the state checking the department’s books. Not at all a stretch considering both of their backgrounds in forensic accounting and law.
But rather than auditing the sheriff’s department, they were actually poring over the currency transaction reports the local banks were required to file for every transaction greater than ten thousand dollars made by the area’s ranchers.
Trying to get a grip on her breathing and heart rate, she stared out of the truck’s tinted front windshield toward the front entrance to the quaint little Pineville Diner. Ian Neisson, the heir apparent to the Wright Ranch, had suggested they meet at the popular eatery.
Though there was street parking available in front of the diner, she’d parked the black SUV in the middle of the grocery store parking lot at the end of Main Street. At 9:45 a.m., there weren’t too many people on the wooden boardwalk fronting the local businesses, their western facades on both sides of the two-lane Main Street. But there were more locals going about their business than she would like. She and Ian really needed to be cautious about being seen together, and she was beginning to think the choice of their meeting location was a mistake.
But not nearly as big a mistake as her seeking Ian’s help in the first place. He was, after all, the quintessential cowboy. The exact type of man she’d left home to get away from. The type who put his dedication into his land, livestock, or rodeo career above all else.
What was that saying about best laid plans? She’d intended to live and work in the big city. Any big city. She didn’t care which one, as long as it was the opposite of the remote isolation of her childhood. She’d graduated from the largest university and law school she could afford and jumped at the chance to work for the bureau when the opportunity presented itself. But as soon as her superiors learned she had grown up on a remote Nevada cattle ranch they’d wasted no time assigning her to the task force investigating interstate transportation of cattle, which led to her being sent here.
And she would be stuck in little Pineville, Oregon, with her fellow agent, Peter Beck, until they dug up enough evidence on the multimillion-dollar cattle rustling operation in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada—collectively known as the ION territory—to garner interest from the attorney general’s office.
It was a task that was proving difficult without going undercover, which they couldn’t do without SAC approval. And without an assistant attorney general on board, the special agent in charge wouldn’t approve an undercover operation. Even after one of the men Ian had facilitated in the arrest of had claimed there was an electronic record of the livestock thefts held by “one of the rich guys.”
She could be stranded here forever, chasing her tail, unless she risked taking matters into her own hands. As much as she dared. Doing so would be worth the risk if it allowed her to get back to the city that much faster.
Barring the modern-day rustlers driving their stolen herds down Main Street or hawking filched breeding straws on the boardwalk right in front of her, she had no choice but to work with the handsome cowboy, who, despite what she’d told him during their first meeting, would remain on her suspect list until she had concrete proof to the contrary.
She released her grip on the steering wheel, swallowed down the displeasure bubbling up inside of her, and exited the SUV. Though she’d dressed in hopefully less conspicuous jeans, a long-sleeve white Henley, and a tan leather jacket that matched her well-worn cowboy boots—the only thing she’d kept from her days on the ranch—she still kept an eye peeled for anyone who might notice her as she made her way to the diner. Fortunately the few people going about their business on Main Street didn’t spare her a glance.
She entered the modest-sized restaurant and paused to allow her eyes to adjust to the dimness after the brightness of the clear sky on this early fall morning. The décor was what she’d expect from a western-themed town’s Main Street diner—wagon-wheel chandeliers, hammered brass accents, dark red faux-leather upholstery, and ladder-back chairs. A handful of empty tables filled the front of the space and booths lined the walls on either side.
Only two of the booths were occupied, both by people she didn’t know. Not that she’d met many locals outside of law enforcement and a couple members of the Neisson clan in the five months she and Peter had been here. That wasn’t their purpose.
The booths were being tended by a lone waitress. Jessie caught a glimpse of the line cook when he placed two food-laden dishes on the pass-through window counter.
Ian Neisson hadn’t arrived yet. Not a surprise, seeing as she was fifteen minutes early.
Heeding the seat yourself sign on the hostess’s pedestal just within the threshold, Jessie made her way to the very last booth on the left. The waitress, an attractive twentysomething brunette with an open smile, followed her to the booth. The name tag pinned on her white shirt read Meg.
Sliding onto the bench seat facing the door, Jessie declined the offered menus and ordered two cups of coffee. She didn’t want Meg disturbing them while she convinced Ian to go along with her plan for gaining entry into the local ranching and rodeo world and hopefully discovering the whereabouts of this supposed record of the thefts.
Jessie had barely settled herself into the booth, pushing the unnecessary utensils to the side, when Ian slid onto the seat across from her. He placed his cowboy hat on the bench next to him and ran a tan hand through his thick, wavy blond hair.
Just like when they’d first met, Jessie was struck by what a big man Ian Neisson was. While she’d seen his stats on paper—blond, blue eyes, six feet three inches tall, two hundred twenty pounds—nothing could have prepared her for the breadth of his shoulders, the sun-kissed streaks in his hair, or the crystalline depths of his eyes. The man had a presence to him that had nothing to do with his family’s wealth or position in the community. Though, the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death might have something to do with the deep lines bracketing his mouth.
Meg returned with two white porcelain mugs filled to the brim with hot black coffee. She lit up at the sight of Thomas Wright’s eldest grandchild. “Hey, Ian! What are you doing in here so late in the morning?” Meg’s gaze slid briefly to Jessie, the speculation clear.
“Hi, Meg. Just having coffee with a friend,” he answered with an easy smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Meg didn’t seem to notice, being more enamored with the motion of Ian’s muscled chest beneath his chambray work shirt as he shrugged out of his oiled canvas barn jacket. Jessie had been that girl once. Never again.
The waitress nodded vaguely. “Ah.” Another quick glance Jessie’s way that had her wondering how a man like Ian—stunning good looks, wealthy family, and by all accounts, chock-full of integrity—remained single in such a small town. A mystery Jessie had no intention of solving. She’d already had her helping of cowboy back home on the ranch in Nevada. No, thank you.
Unfortunately, she’d have to stick close enough to Ian to prove whether or not Thomas Wright and the Neissons played by the rules. If not, it was her job to uncover exactly which rules they were breaking.
Meg lingered a moment longer in clear expectation of more information or maybe even an introduction, but when neither Jessie nor Ian said more in elaboration she said, “Alrighty. Just give a holler if you change your mind about eating or are ready for a top off.” She gestured to their full coffee mugs then went to fetch the meals for the other diners from the pass-through.
“Mornin’,” Ian said, his deep, rumbling voice drawing her attention away from the waitress.
Jessie met those compelling blue eyes of his. “Good morning, Mr. Neisson.”
She acknowledged his request with a nod of her head. “Thank you, Ian, for agreeing to meet with me.” She tilted her head toward the rest of the diner. “Charming establishment.”
“I thought meeting here was wiser than me going in and out of the sheriff’s station again. Me meeting a pretty lady for coffee will draw less interest than if I’m seen going to the sheriff’s.” This time, though the smile was slight, it crinkled the skin at the corners of his eyes.
Jessie brushed aside his pretty lady remark because he was, after all, a cowboy who by definition was fluent in flattery. But she found herself snagged on the fact he was apparently in the habit of meeting with pretty ladies and that he didn’t spend much time in the company of police. Because he didn’t want to risk being associated with them? Or because he didn’t want to risk slipping up and being caught in illegal activity?
“Where’s your partner?” Ian asked.
She forced herself to focus. “Beck is at the station, reviewing financials.”
All traces of his smile fled. “Whose?”
“I am not at liberty to say, Mr. Neisson.”
He sat back against the padded bench seat and didn’t remind her to address him as Ian. She couldn’t say she was surprised.
She couldn’t deny it, so she simply stared at him.
“So why did you want to meet?” he asked.
“Because I still need your help.”
His sun-bleached blond brows dipped. “You imply the FBI is investigating my family, even though we literally handed you Karl Fletcher after he tried to sell me stolen bull straws and attempted to hurt my sister, Caitlin, again. And after I called you for help retrieving my brother Liam’s fiancée’s stolen horse. Then, in the next breath, you ask for my help?”
“I implied no such—”
“Do me a favor, Special Agent Martin. Cut the crap.”
Jessie reflexively glanced toward Meg, the cook, and the handful of other diners as her heart rate spiked. None were paying her and Ian the least bit of attention.
She pulled in a deep, calming breath because Sheriff Jenkins’s prediction had been correct. In the five months she had been in and out of Pineville, she had learned firsthand that if she wanted to get close to the main players in the ranching and rodeo community in the region, she would need Ian Neisson’s help.
Folding her hands atop the table, Jessie said, “I’m sorry. Of course we are looking at the currency transaction reports for the Wright Ranch. I wouldn’t be doing my job if we didn’t.”
He nodded, clearly already deducing as much. He didn’t appear overly concerned. But it wouldn’t be the first time she’d seen a cowboy lie with absolute conviction.
Devon had promised he would take her with him when he joined the rodeo circuit. Instead he took her beloved horse, sold to him without her knowledge by her stepfather. She had yet to forgive either of them.
“Exactly how am I supposed to be of help?”
“By giving me more, Ian.”
His incredulity gave her pause, but she got over it. She was going to bust the ringleaders in this rustling gang and earn an urban assignment regardless of what it might cost her.
End of Excerpt