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A half-dozen men were dead. And some of the clues pointed to a business associate of his, a man he had vouched for. If even the hint of terrorist involvement surfaced, it would end Texas Double A Auctions, the business Akeem Abdul had built from the ground up, the one thing most important to him. Jabar was a friend which was the most difficult part of the whole damned affair to accept.
The darker side of his nature bubbled close to the surface, but he quelled it as he always had.
"I want a name, Mike." Akeem drove along the deserted Texas country road faster than he should have, sending up a cloud of dust behind him.
"I'm working on it," his head of security responded via the speaker on his cell phone. "I'm checking into who has the most to gain by messing with us."
Akeem stared ahead, barely seeing the road. He'd been turning that question over and over in his head all morning. Having enemies was nothing new in his book. At thirty-one, he was old enough and successful enough to have acquired a few. When his equine auction house grew to be the largest in the state, not everyone celebrated with him. In Texas, horses were serious business, about serious money, whipping up plenty of emotions.
And he was an outsider, which some people seemed determined not to let him forget.
"I want to be contacted the second there's any development," he told Mike, then thanked the man and hung up as he turned onto the tree-lined private road that led to Diamondback Ranch.
A dozen or so exceptionally fine quarter horses grazed on either side of the road. And as he got closer to the heart of the ranch, reaching the first group of paddocks then passing them, his mind began to clearuntil it was no longer filled with thoughts of betrayal or security concerns. One image scattered all other thoughts without effort: Taylor McKade. They'd ridden fence together not far from here back in the day, her golden hair flowing in the wind. A smile on her lips
He blinked his eyes to dispel that vision.
Their fence-riding days were over. He would do well to remember that.
He had seen Taylor only a handful of times in the past five years, briefly each time, exchanging only the most polite pleasantries. Their meetings had left him cut off at the knees. Damned if he knew how anyone could stand being next to the only woman he ever loved, knowing she was married to another man.
He shook his head and spoke toward the horses in the distance. "Here we go again."
His standard operating procedure was to stay away every time Taylor came to the ranch, which hadn't been too difficult until now. She didn't visit her brother's place all that often, and Akeem's business here was only occasional. Flint McKade, his best friend, the man who had built the five-hundred-acre Diamondback, did considerable business with Akeem's auction house, but they tended to meet in Houston for that. Especially of late.
But Taylor had left her husband and was now staying at the ranch with her four-year-old son, for good. And the business that had brought Akeem here could not be postponed this time. Which meant they were going to meet again.
He drove his white Lincoln Navigator down the gravel road, noting the quiet of the ranch. Two horses danced in the nearest corral, kicking up dust that flew high and wide. The ground was as dry as it ever got, rain desperately needed but not in the immediate forecast. Flint had worried about that last night when they had talked. Not that his friend didn't have his hands full enough with other things just now. Most of the men killed had been his employees.
The straight, empty road didn't require much attention, so Akeem could allow his gaze to roam the rolling land. Not a ranch hand in sight. Nothing unusual about that around lunchtime. But with all the trouble the ranch had seen lately His muscles tensed again. He couldn't shake the sense of unease that filled the air. His instincts had been honed in the wilds of the Arabian Desert as well as in Houston's corporate arena. Something was off.
He rounded the last building, mentally preparing himself for facing Taylor as the main estate house finally came into view. He bypassed the circular drive in front and drove to the back, to the entry used by family and friends.
Two police cars sat in the drive.
Gravel crunched under the tires as he stepped hard on the brake. He caught himself, eased his feet off the pedal and rolled up next to the police cruiser on the right.
Took his time looking.
He'd talked to Flint last night. They'd agreed not to call in the police yet on the latest clues that had surfaced. They had decided to try to sort things out on their own first, not knowing who their enemies were, resolving not to trust anyone for now, not even the police. Brody Green, the detective assigned to investigate the murders, had been only too quick to assume that Flint had been involved in the sabotage at the ranch as part of an insurance scheme. Flint had since been cleared, but now suspicion stood a chance of falling on Akeem and his company, and he was wary of how fair-minded the good detective would be. And Flint had backed him up on that a hundred percent.
Flint's pickup wasn't even here.
So what were the cops doing at the ranch? The sense of unease he'd picked up driving in grew into full-blown foreboding. Maybe they brought news about the murder investigations. The killer had been caught, had died in the final confrontation, but nobody knew yet who had paid him to accomplish his grisly deeds.
Akeem pushed the door open, the wall of heat hitting him in the face. His designer leather loafers barely made noise as he stepped out of the car.
He inhaled the scent of yellow roses that bloomed near the back of the house and caught sight of a silhouette behind the screen door as he headed up the stairs. He would have recognized her a mile away.
His heartbeat sped.
Crazy. He wasn't a penniless, tongue-tied twenty-year-old with a crush on his best friend's little sister anymore. He was a grown man, successful in his own right, more than able to provide for a family of his own. He drew a slow breath on that thought. One of these days, he was going to seduce Taylor McKade so thoroughly that she'd agree to marry him, and then he was going to spend the rest of his life making her and her son happy.
But not yet. He said the words in his mind so every part of him would be clear on that. First he needed to exonerate his company from any suspected involvement in the sabotage at Flint's ranch. Then he had to get around the fact that she was his best friend's little sister. In the off-limits category. Firmly.
Not that knowing that made him think about her any less.
But he wanted only the very best for her, to make her life easier, not more difficult. So for now, as they had been for the past couple of years, whatever feelings he nursed were his problem. Taylor's life, with the divorce and all, was enough of a mess. He didn't need to add to it.
He expected a polite encounter of "How are you?" and "Fine," the way it went between old friends who had come to feel awkward around each other.
So he was caught off guard when the screen door banged open and Taylor flew barefooted down the stairs. Her eyelashes were wet, her eyelids swollen. His protective instincts rose as quickly as a sandstorm. And just like that, the business troubles that had brought him to the ranch were forgotten.
"Akeem!" She launched herself into his arms like old times and hung on for dear life.
"What is it?" He locked his arms around her in a protective position, barely daring to breathe for fear of scaring her off. His gaze cut back to the cop cars again. If someone had hurt her, so help him God
"We can't find Christopher." Her voice was a sea of pain. "They" She pressed her full lips together and pulled away to wipe the underside of her eyes with her fingertips. "The police say he might have been taken."
He could tell what it cost her to say the words, to even consider the possibility that her son was in the hands of a kidnapper. Cold anger filled his body until his muscles became rigid. "By whom?" His thoughts went to her ex, one scrawny neck he would be only too happy to have an excuse to wring. If that bastard
"They don't know." Her huge, cornflower-blue eyes swam in desperation. She'd pulled back a few inches, but stayed in the circle of his arms. She was just as im-
possibly beautiful as the first time he'd seen her, her mouth just as tempting, her curves just as perfector more so. Motherhood had given a subtle change to her shape, a change he loved. Even in the throes of distress, she was a stunning woman. But at the moment, she needed more than his admiration.
He filled his lungs. "What can I do?" She had to know that he would do anything for her.
"I'm sorry." She winced and pulled back a little more as the first thoughts of self-consciousness seemed to appear. "I'm falling apart, aren't I? I can't fall apart. Christopher needs me." She closed her eyes for a moment, but let him keep her hands.
There was a pause, then up came her gaze. She blinked away the moisture that had gathered in the corners of her eyes. "I'm a total mess."
Yes, she was, but she still stole his breath. He did his best not to show how hard he'd been sucker punched by the sight of her, by the feel of her hands in his. "Where is Flint?"
"Out looking. Everyone is, even Lora Leigh and Lucinda. I'm the only one here, with two officers."
That explained the conspicuous lack of ranch hands around the animals. "Kat?" he inquired, referring to the friend Flint had hired as a favor to him. It sure had to be hot out there.
She nodded. "Kat Edwards, too. They're out in the far pastures and combing the brush and the woods at the west corner of the ranch. Flint wouldn't let me come." Frustration stole into her voice.
"The boy might have wandered off. He could be sleeping in a hayloft. He could come waltzing back in," he said as he led her toward the door, getting her out of the merciless noon sun. Hell of a time of the year for anyone to get lost out there, especially a child.
"They already checked the central buildings," she said, but he could see a glint of hope in her eyes. "They started here as soon as I couldn't find him."
"Three hours ago." Tears welled but didn't spill to her cheeks, as if suspended by sheer will. The moisture had her eyes shining like a pair of rare blue diamonds.
He opened the door for her and ushered her in. Three hours and Flint hadn't called him. He couldn't help thinking of the damn information that tied the sabotage of Flint's business to his. The thought came as a sharp jab. He shook it off as his gaze fell on his Aggie ring. He might have often felt like an outsider with others, but he never had to feel that way with Flint, with his friends. Flint had his hands full. "What can I do to help?"
She pressed her lips together for a second, desperation clouding her eyes. "Bring him back to me." The small, sour smile borne on pain that twitched up the corner of her lips for a second said she knew she was asking the impossible.
"I will," he promised without thought. Because there wasn't anything on this earth he wouldn't do for Taylor. In this, he didn't know impossible. He was already on the phone, calling Mike back. "I need you over here at Diamondback. Drop everything else. Bring every man you can."
He hung up as he walked down the hall into the state-of-the-art kitchen that was the heart of the ranch.
"And you are?" The graying, slightly overweight police officer at the table set down his radio and looked Akeem over with open suspicion in his squinty eyes.
Being Arab-American, he was pretty much used to that of late, even if he had been born and raised in Texas.
The other cop stopped hooking some machine up to the phone line and checked him out, too. This one was half the other's age and size, with live-wire black eyes.
Akeem focused on the beige plastic unit: a recorder. Getting ready for the ransom call.
Taylor didn't miss that, either. She went a shade paler.
"Akeem Abdul. Friend of the family," Akeem said and kept her close.
The first cop's eyes went wide. "The Texas Sheik? No kiddin'." Then he snapped to. "Yes, sir. Officer Peterson."
"Officer Mills." The other one went back to his work after a thorough look that seemed half amused, half disappointed.
Even those who didn't know his face knew the Abdul name from Texas Double AAkeem AbdulAuctions. He ignored "Texas Sheik," the nickname given by his competitors who resented his rapid rise in the ranks and had trouble digesting his Middle Eastern background, that his parents had been Beharrainian.
He pulled a chair for Taylor. The cops were only a minor annoyance. He'd long ago learned to rise above things like that. "Let me get you a drink."
There had to be a hundred men out there already, combing the ranch. He could afford to wait with her until his security force got here and they rode out to meet Flint and join in the search. Christopher would be found. He would see to it.
Why would anyone take the kid? Who? If he could figure that out, they might have a better idea where to look. Which brought him to his next question. "Got a map of this place?"
"Right on the Web site." She sat on a bar stool next to the kitchen counter, her troubled gaze settling on the fridge that was covered with crayon drawings of horses, and got up almost immediately again to pace the floor along the windows that looked toward the back.
She accepted the glass of water he brought her, but didn't drink. The cops minded their own business. Seemed their orders were to stick to the house and wait, which they did with the efficiency of furniture.
Akeem strode to the PC on the kitchen isleLucinda, Flint's housekeeper, was addicted to online recipe swapsand shot straight to the Diamondback home page.
Taylor paused in her pacing. "Flint called you?"