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Desperation mounting, Caitlyn Wakefield stared at her accounting ledgers. There was no way she could make her next mortgage payment to Sheik Hassan Bin Najjar. No way.
So, what would she say to Hassan's mysterious honorary son, Raffi Bin Najjar, when he showed up today to check on her operation?
She had no clue.
She'd gone over the books numerous times, hoping she'd figure out how to make her next payment and get her ranch on a viable financial footing, but all she saw were too many fixed expenses without enough income.
Even if she asked Hassan for more time, which she believed he would give her, she needed to make some serious and painful adjustments or she'd just be deeper in debt down the line. She couldn't expect Hassan to bankroll her forever.
The awful numbers began to blur and her head to pound.
She hated disappointing Hassan. She wanted to make him proud of her. But the sales she'd counted on hadn't materialized. And she was again on the verge of losing her ranch, just as she'd been six months ago when Hassan had helped her by buying her mortgage.
It was nothing short of a miracle that Hassan, one of the world's richest sheiks, had become her friend, benefactor and banker. The fact that he was wealthy and she was not and that he spent most of his time in the Middle East and Europe while she lived in Texas would have been more than enough to keep them from ever knowing one another but for their mutual passion for Thoroughbreds.
They'd met by chance at the September yearling sales in Keeneland, Virginia, more than a year ago. Her timely advice had saved Hassan from buying an overpriced animal that had gone lame a mere four months later during a race, causing a jockey's death. The animal had been destroyed. The sheik had written her a note, thanking her, saying he would have hated being involved in a tragedy of that magnitude.
Then, six months ago, he'd phoned her again when Sahara, one of his most promising Thoroughbreds, developed a problem with starting gates. Caitlyn had been stunned by the sheik's offer to come to his stables in Deauville to work with the animalfor three times her normal fee.
It was just after her success with Sahara that he'd gotten to the bottom of her financial distress over a dinner they'd shared. Soon after, he bought her note from the bank.
Considering how much Hassan had done for her, she hated disappointing him. What could she say to his honorary son that would reassure Hassan?
Frustrated, she slammed the books shut. Only when her gaze fell to the small snapshot of her son, Daniel, riding bareback did her expression soften.
He'd been forbidden to ride the horse by himself, of course. Smiling, she picked up the picture and stared at his slim, dark likeness. Even when he was driving her crazy by being too curious or foolhardy, he filled her long days with joy. He was five, all boy and way too big for his britches a lot of the time, but she remembered how proud she'd been of him at Keeneland last year. Hassan, too, had been impressed with Daniel. So much so that he'd told her about his only biological son, Kalil, whom he'd nearly lost to a kidnapping in Paris a few years earlier.
"That's when I made Raffi, the man who rescued Kalil, my honorary son," Hassan had said.
She had smiled politely, her mind on the animals in the various pens and on Daniel, who'd been darting about under their feet.
"Your son reminds me of Raffi. So much energy. Once that energy is harnessed, he will be formidable."
"Really?" she'd replied, not paying much attention to Hassan's remark.
"Yes, even Daniel's eyes resemble Raffi's. They are the same shade of green. It's an unusual color in my part of the world."
"In ours, too," she'd said absently. "His father had green eyes."
They'd talked more, about Texas and her ranch. He'd asked for a card.
"Raffi once lived in Texas in your vicinity, I believe." Hassan's gaze, more intent than before, had been on Daniel.
Ever since that first meeting at Keeneland, in all his calls and notes, Hassan always asked about Daniel. His grandfatherly interest in her son had become one of the chief reasons she liked the sheik so much.
Setting down Daniel's picture, she tried to refocus on the problem at hand. She hated that she could think of nothing that would turn Wild Horse Ranch around. Not that she wasn't used to being broke. When she was a child, her parents had constantly worried about bills and creditors. Never would she forget the day her father had told her and her mother that he'd lost their ranch. When they'd been forced to move into town and lease land for their ranching operation, she'd felt shattered. Nearly as shattered as she'd be if she couldn't win Raffi Bin Najjar's sympathy.
Chewing a fingernail, she went to the window and stared out at the sea of brown grasses. The early December air had been cool and crisp an hour before dawn, when she'd arisen. Her only indulgence before coming to her office was a single cup of strong black coffee.
To give me strength, she thought as she circled the cold cup with her fingertips.
What could she say to a stranger who probably knew little about ranching, even if he'd spent time in Texas? How could hea wealthy, sophisticated man, who lived in Londonpossibly appreciate the calamity the worst drought in decades had wrought on her ranch and horse farm? How could a bachelor sympathize when she told him she'd been distracted and unfocused after her husband's death, when she'd had her grief, his work and hers and her son to take care of? How could a billionaire understand the effect of an entire country mired in recession? Everybody wanted to sell their horses, not buy hers. Her income had diminished while her expenses had continued to mount. Business was picking up. But not quickly enough.
Swigging back the last of her cold coffee, she tried not to think about being the second Cooper to lose the ranch despite all her sacrifices to save it. The biggest sacrifice being her marriage to Robert, when she'd found herself pregnant and alone nearly six years ago. Not wanting to remember what had led to her wedding day, she fled to the stalls to feed her beloved horses.
Sensing her anxiety from the rapid ring of her boot heels on the concrete floor of the barn, Angel and the other horses swung their necks around and watched her with their concerned brown eyes. Their tails lifted and swished expectantly while the barn cats swirled at her feet.
Odd, the profound comfort she always felt when alone in the barn with these huge animals. Their soulful silence as she stroked them brought her peace during times of stress.
Angel nuzzled Caitlyn's hand with her whiskery muzzle, searching for a treat. "Robert was a bad manager," Caitlyn whispered to the horse, "and I'm no better. I spend too much money on all of you, my precious darlings." Angel nickered softly as if she understood. "I need a miracle, and soon."
"Well, it's possible! Hassan says his son is a billionaire, that there's nothing he can't fix. Raffi made his fortune in a mere five years, you see, by buying distressed companies."
Perhaps she could convince him that a distressed ranch wasn't that different from a company in trouble. She felt a faint twinge of hope as she remembered what Hassan had said when he'd shamelessly bragged about his son.
In a recent phone conversation, when she'd complained of her escalating expenses, Hassan had told her she was a woman of talent who shouldn't have to worry about money.
"I will send my son to devise a plan to put you on sound footing. He will know just what to do once he takes a look at your operation. He is a brilliant businessman."
She'd been scheduled to meet this brilliant businessman six months ago, when the sheik had flown her to Deauville to work with Sahara. Hassan had told her that Raffi would dine with them, but his son had been unexpectedly called away on business.
To prepare for their meeting today, she'd researched Raffi, but there hadn't been many articles about him or a single good photograph. Most of the stories rehashed the event that had brought Hassan and Raffi together, a tale she'd heard from Hassan.
Five years earlier, after Raffi had singlehandedly confronted three terrorists to rescue Kalil, Hassan had hired him. Raffi advanced rapidly and, with the sheik's money behind him, had soon branched out on his own. The sheik had sealed their bond by making Raffi his honorary son. During their shared dinner in Deauville, Hassan had confided that he would like to see Raffi settle down and raise a family.
From what she'd gleaned on the internet about the younger Mr. Bin Najjar's private life, he went through women the way some men ran through cigars. But a woman like hera horse trainer who wore old jeans and rarely bothered with makeup wouldn't interest him.
"What do you think, Angel? Should I go the extra mile and put on lipstick?"
Angel whinnied enthusiastically, probably because Caitlyn was holding a carrot.
"Lipstick it is, then. Maybe Mr. Raffi Bin Najjar will give us our very own miracle."
As Caitlyn stroked the mare, she relaxed.
Only later would she wonder why she hadn't had the slightest premonition that Raffi Bin Najjar was no stranger to Wild Horse Ranchor to her.
By the afternoon, Caitlyn had forgotten all about the need for lipstick. All it had taken for her day to spin hopelessly out of control was one phone call.
Lisa, her best friend and owner of the neighboring ranch, had sounded so desperate. "You know bees stung Ramblin' Man in his trailer last week, and he hasn't been himself. I have to move him to Mom's stud barn to cover a couple of mares, but he simply will not load. I don't know what to do. Can you help me?"
"Only if you can ride him over here, and get someone to drive the trailer to my round pen," Caitlyn had said. "Daniel's ridden off somewhere with Manuel, and I've got an important business meeting in a couple of hours with Mr. Bin Najjar's son."
"Oh, rightabout your mortgage."
"Bin Najjar's driver just phoned and said they're on their way from the airport. So, I'm stuck here."
"Oh. Okay. I guess I can make that work."
So now, instead of going over her accounts, preparing for her meeting or bothering with lipstick, Caitlyn was standing in Ramblin' Man's shadowy horse trailer, holding a lead rope attached to the stallion's halter. Wildeyed Ramblin' Man had only put a single hoof in the trailer and was staring at her as if she were a giant.
"It's okay, baby. Nothing to be scared of," Caitlyn said gently. Snapping the lead line, she backed Ramblin' Man out of the trailer before he grew more alarmed. "You were so brave to put a foot into the trailer."
When she gave the command to retreat, a relieved Ramblin' Man jerked backward and raced away. Caitlyn jumped out of the trailer and watched him run. She'd bring him back in a minute or two. He needed to build up his courage to work on what they'd already accomplished.
"Caitlyn!" Lisa squealed from the far side of the round pen. "Why didn't you tell me Luke Kilgore was your mysterious appointment?"
Caitlyn recoiled, the name of her former lover slicing her heart like a knife.
Luke? Luke, who'd left her pregnant at twentyone?
No Why would he show up today, of all days?
She jerked her head around and saw the tall, dark man in the flawlessly cut business suit lounging against the rail beside Lisa. The sight of him looking so virile and smolderingly masculine made her mouth go dry. Once, she had longed for Luke's return, dreamed of it. But now her dream felt like a nightmare!
Those gorgeous green eyes, the high forehead, the chiseled cheek and jaw, that classically straight nose and those mocking, sensual lips that had once kissed every inch of her bodythey could belong to no one but Luke. The shock of recognition made her shiver with torrid memories.
He was as handsome as ever, but this elegantly dressed man couldn't possibly be the same bitterly ambitious cowboy she'd loved.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"My driver said he called and confirmed. You and I have an appointment."
"You're Raffi Bin Najjar?"
He nodded. "I've been known to answer to that."
"What kind of man changes his name?"
"I have two names. The one I was born with and the one Hassan gave me when he asked me to be his honorary son. Hassan prefers to call me Raffi. So I let him. One of my weaknesses is indulging those I love."
"You're too old to be adopted," she said, lashing out with her words.
"Who said anything about adoption?" His lips smiled, but his eyes didn't. Obviously, he was a man of the world now.
"What exactly does it mean, then, to be an honorary son?"
"Ask Hassan. He probably made it up. Hell, for all I know I'm the only honorary son in the world." He moved away from the rail. "Sorry my showing up here is such a shock," he said.
"No, you aren't. You deliberately tricked me!"
"Think what you like."
"I don't like anything about this situation!"
"Maybe neither the hell do I."
Still, despite her fear and the nameless dark emotions engulfing her, his taunting, alltoofamiliar, husky voice drew her, just like it had that first day when he'd stood on her porch asking if he could see her daddy because he'd needed a job and nobody else in the county would even talk to Bubba Kilgore's son. She'd been a teenager and highly susceptible to the lure of the forbidden. Her crush had lasted several yearsright up until he'd gotten her pregnant and left the county for good.
Well, at twentysix, knowing what he was and what he'd done, she should be immune to his charms.
Right. If she was so grownup and mature, why had the pace of her heart accelerated?
Her gaze darted past him to the house. Where was Daniel? She hoped, prayed he'd stay out of sight until she got rid of Luke.
"You're looking good, Caitlyn," Luke said, but his lips didn't curve into the sexy smile that used to follow her name.
Not that she wanted it to.
"You, too," she said reluctantly. The last thing she wanted to do was flatter him. "How is this possible?" she said, motioning to him, standing in her yard.
"What? The son of the county's noaccount drunk making good?"
Lisa's sudden burst of flirtatious laughter was awkward. "Don't run yourself down. You've come a long way since then, Luke. You never were anything like Bubba."
"Caitlyn's told me how rich your honorary father is! And how rich you are!" She moistened her lips and glanced at him slyly through her long, dark eyelashes.
Luke looked away.
Caitlyn winced. Her friend's excessive interest in Luke bothered her. As did her words.