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Sylvia Michaels balanced tenuously on one long strand of barbed wire as she slung her leg over the fence. So far so good. Sweat dripped from her hairline, running down her forehead toward her eyes. No chance of brushing it away, not when she needed both hands to hold on.
Bowing her legs around the jagged barbs, she perched one foot on the wire and swung her other leg over. As she dropped to the ground, her jeans snagged on a sharp barb, ripping open the denim and tearing into her flesh. She screamed and fell the rest of the way, landing facedown on the ground, coughing up dust, bleeding and wishing this nightmare would end.
Overheated, tired and scared, she worried that this was just one more wild-goose chase she'd rack up on her quest to find her child. Adding to her stress, someone had been following her for the past couple days since she'd left the coroner's office in San Antonio. She choked not only on the fine Texas dirt, but a sob welled in her throat, despair threatening to take control.
Six months. She'd given up six months of her life to find the son stolen from her in Monterrey, Mexico, last March. He'd be ten months old now. She'd missed seeing him sit up for the first time, missed watching him learn to crawl. Possibly even missed his first word.
Damn it! She pushed to her feet, wiping the tears and dust from her eyes with her dirty hand. She hadn't come this far to fail. She hadn't risked her life investigating a potential baby-theft ring terrorizing mothers from Mexico to Texas. She'd been the only one to come forward and give a detailed description of the person who'd stolen her child. None of the other witnesses in Monterrey had seen the man's face or had the guts to identify the perpetrator if they had. She'd gone to the U.S. Embassy in Monterrey when the Mexican police had done nothing.
She should never have brought Jacob to visit her ex-husband. So what if his work made it impossible for him to travel to the States for his scheduled visit? She should have insisted he come to the States. And he'd blamed her when a man had knocked her down and taken Jacob from his stroller in broad daylight in a crowded marketplace.
After six months, a half dozen dead ends and completely draining her savings, she'd reached her limit, her last hope—the Vincent Ranch in Texas hill country. She'd followed every lead imaginable from a frightened Mexican woman who barely spoke English to an adoption agency in San Antonio. A child matching her son's description was adopted by Texas multimillionaire Tate Vincent two weeks after her son was abducted. When she'd tracked down the woman who'd signed over the child, she'd found she'd died in a hit-and-run the day before.
Sylvia had tried to get an appointment with Tate Vincent, but his personal assistant made excuses every time and flat-out told her to buzz off. It didn't help that she couldn't be openly honest with his assistant. What chance did she stand against a millionaire in claiming the son he'd adopted was in fact her son? She didn't have money left to fight a lengthy court battle to request an opportunity to even get close to the boy. All she had was the cash left in her wallet, beneath her car seat.
After all this time, Sylvia wanted desperately to see Jacob, to hold him in her arms, to hear his baby voice.
Sylvia had hidden her car a mile away behind brush, near a creek along the highway. She moved among the shadows to avoid detection, keeping close to a stand of dwarfed live oaks. A large field stretched in front of her, rising up a hillside with only scattered clumps of cedar and live oak. She hurried from shade patch to shade patch, sweat oozing from every pore.
When she'd left her car, her temperature gauge read ninety-eight. It felt more like well over one hundred. Her gaze darted from side to side, and she listened for sounds of people, horses or motor vehicles. As she topped the rise in the terrain, the Vincent Ranch house came into view, a large, sprawling, white limestone, one-story with a wraparound deck.
Her gaze panned the exterior, searching for movement. Careful to stay out of sight, she made a wide circle around the homestead until she rounded the front of the house. She paused in the shade of a tree, leaning against the gnarly trunk and squinting in the haze of dust and heat. Then she gasped, exhaustion, dehydration and hope bringing her to her knees.
There in the shadow of a large red oak stood a playpen. Leaning against one side was a baby tossing toys onto the grass. The wind ruffled the leaves on the shade tree, and a ray of sunlight found its way through the branches to the baby, gleaming off his head.
Sylvia clapped a hand to her mouth to keep from crying out. The baby had a cap of pale blond hair, highlighted by the sun's beam. It had to be Jacob. Her baby had spun-gold hair just like hers.
She staggered to her feet and pushed away from the tree, stumbling down the hillside toward the ranch house.
Tate Vincent slipped his right foot out of the stirrup and slid from the back of Diablo, his black quarterhorse stallion, one of the many horses he'd raised from a colt, since they could afford quality horses on the ranch. When his boots hit the dry Texas soil, a cloud of dust puffed up around him. "Need rain."
His foreman, C. W. Middleton, snorted. "Needed rain a month ago." He reached for Tate's reins, his own gelding tugging to get into the barn. "Let me take Diablo. I thought I heard Jake out in the yard. You go on—I'll manage the horses."
Tate grinned. "I'll take you up on that as soon as I get Diablo's saddle off. And remind me I owe you one."
"You don't owe me nothin'. You're the boss. I'm just hired help."
"Bull. We both know who runs this place." Tate followed C.W. into the cool shadows of the barn, tying Diablo to the outside of his stall. "You've been more than hired help since Dad died." He pulled at the thick leather strap, loosening the girth around Diablo's belly. When the strap dangled free, he lifted the saddle off the beast. The saddle blanket was drenched in sweat and coated in a heavy layer of fine Texas dust from their ride along the northern fence line. "Jake was asleep when we left this morning. I would like to see him again before he goes down for the night."
"Go on. Get out of here." Brush in hand, C.W. took over the care and grooming of Diablo, urging Tate out the door. "That boy thinks the sun rises and sets on you. 'Bout time you spent a little more daylight with him."
C.W. had been his friend since they'd met as army recruits. They'd gone on to Special Forces training and Afghanistan where they'd tracked down the al-Qaida rebels in the desert hills. Ranching in Texas seemed tame in comparison. But C.W. had fit right in, learning all the responsibilities of a good ranch hand. He'd learned how to ride, rope, brand and mend fences in a matter of weeks, too stubborn to admit defeat. Just like the boss. When the foreman had passed on, C.W. stepped up to the plate, assuming the role like he'd been born to do it.
Tate crossed the hard-packed ground between the barn and the Vincent homestead established by his great-greatgrandfather in the mid-eighteen hundreds. He had to remind himself that he could hire people to do the work he did out in the field. The ranch wasn't what made him the money. His investments had taken him from struggling rancher to multimillionaire in just five years. Too bad his father hadn't lived longer to enjoy his son's success.
Richard Vincent had passed on five months earlier, his presence still missed by his son and the ranch staff. He hadn't gotten to know Jake a little better and Jake wouldn't know his grandfather.
Tate flexed his muscles, rolling the tension and weariness from his shoulders. Sure, he had the money to hire more ranch hands, but he liked the hard work. It kept him humble. At one point in his struggle to rise from rags to riches, he thought for sure he'd lose the ranch. He'd lost nearly everything else, including his wife.
Tate's mouth pressed into a thin line. Laura didn't have the stomach for the hard times. When cattle prices had plummeted and the creditors came knocking on their door, she'd packed up and left, stating that she'd only married him because she thought he was a wealthy landowner. Not that he was sad to see her go. He was more upset at having wasted two years of his life on chasing her dreams instead of his own.
When he rounded the corner of the house, he spied a bright blue playpen situated in the shade with his son standing up against the inside of the pen. The child pushed a plush toy over the edge and watched it drop to the ground. Pickles, the black-and-white border collie, barely waited for it to leave Jake's hand before she grabbed it and shook it. Jake giggled and tried to get a leg up over the side of the pen. He liked playing with Pickles.
A swell of love and pride filled Tate's chest. Jake was his reason for living. He would never have thought he'd become so completely besotted over a kid. At the urging of his dying father, he'd arranged to adopt a baby boy. He'd paid big bucks to skip over the usual routine of social services snooping around his home, going directly to an adoption agency his executive assistant had located, one that specialized in quick adoptions. Pricey, but quick.
Now he couldn't put a price tag on what Jake brought to the Vincent household. Disappointed that Tate hadn't remarried and had a dozen grandchildren for him to spoil, Richard Vincent's dying wish was to hold his grandchild in his arms.
Tate stopped in front of the playpen.
When Jake saw him, his smile widened and he gurgled, reaching up with one hand.
"Por favor, don't pick him up, Señor Vincent." Rosa Garcia hurried forward, a frown on her pretty dark face. "Usted está muy sucio. Dirty. You are dirty."
"A little dirt never hurt a kid." Despite her admonishment, Tate lifted his son from the playpen and tossed him in the air.
Jake screamed and giggled, drool slipping from the side of his mouth to plop against Tate's shirt.
"Poor baby is still teething." Rosa reached out with a burp cloth to wipe up the drool.
Tate didn't care. He loved Jake more than anyone on God's green earth. Besides, a little spit was an improvement to his dust-caked clothing. "Hey, buddy. Have you and Pickles been playing fetch?"
"Da, da, da," Jake said.
Tate's eyes widened and a grin spread across his face. "Did you hear that? He just called me Dad."
Rosa's dark brown eyes rolled skyward. "He says that to me and mi madré."
Tate frowned. "Give a guy a break, will ya?" He tossed Jake into the air again, making the boy squeal with delight.
"Madré de Dios." Rosa hurried forward, reaching for Jake. "He just had a bottle of juice. Unless you want to wear the juice, don't shake him up so much."
Tate held Jake away from Rosa. "It's a little hot for him outside, isn't it?"
"We've only been out for quince minutos. Mama is cooking supper, Señorita Kacee drove to town to drop off papers at FedEx. Por favor, let me have Jake. You should shower before dinner is served."
Tate handed the child over to his caregiver, chucking him beneath his chin. "Okay, for now. I guess I am a little dirty."
Rosa plugged her nose, shaking her head. "Understatement." She balanced Jake on her hip and headed for the porch steps.
"Wait!" A shout from the field behind him made Tate turn.
A woman wearing jeans and a smudged white shirt— her hair flying out in long, blond strands—ran across the field, yelling, "Wait!"
Tate's brows dipped low. The fences along his property were posted with no trespassing signs. Only people with legitimate business were allowed access past the gate with clearance from his security service.
The woman's face was red and streaked with dirt and sweat. Her jeans were torn with blood staining the ragged edges, and she had a wild look in her eyes.
Tate shot a glance at Rosa. "Take Jake inside."
"Who do you think she is?" Rosa asked, clutching the baby to her chest.
"Do as I say," Tate bit out.
"Sí, Señor Vincent."
Rosa had been his buddy since childhood, having grown up on the Vincent Ranch alongside him. Why she insisted on calling him Señor Vincent was beyond him. With a wild woman crossing the field toward them, now wasn't the time to argue the point.
Rosa climbed the steps and hurried inside the house, Jake reaching over her shoulders, a wail rising from his little mouth.
"No! Please! Don't take him away!" The woman came to a halt at the wooden fence surrounding the yard. She grabbed the top rail and hauled herself up.
"Stop where you are." Tate didn't want her anywhere close to the house and his son. A crazy man who'd gotten past security had ultimately been the cause of his father's death five months ago. He refused to take any intrusion onto his property lightly. Without waiting for the woman to cross the fence, Tate marched across the manicured lawn.
Perched precariously on the top rail, the blonde swayed and fell over the fence, landing with a crash, her head hitting the post with a sharp crack.
When Tate reached her, she lay on the ground, her eyes staring up at the sky, blinking.
For a moment, Tate forgot to be angry with her.
Dirty and sweat-soaked, she was still a beautiful woman beneath the layer of smeared dust. When fat tears rolled out of the corners of her pale blue eyes, Tate couldn't help a sudden swell of protectiveness. He chalked it up to the fact that her eyes were the same pale blue as Jake's.
He dropped down beside her, forcing his voice to sound stern and distant when his instincts urged him to pick her up and carry her into his house. "Who the hell are you, and what are you doing on private property?"
She raised a hand to her head, and scraped it over her eyes. "Please. I only want to see him."
Tate's brows furrowed. "See who?"
"My son," she said, her voice wavering, dropping down to a whisper. Her eyes closed, and the woman had the nerve to pass out.
"Damned woman." His gut knotted and Tate swore. What did she mean by "my son"? He reached down and shook her. "Wake up."
She didn't budge.