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The defunct air-conditioning spit out its last puffs of cool air about an hour ago. Since it was July in Dallas the office was hotter than the hinges of hell. An opened window only stoked the heat in the room. Alex Donovan, private investigator, squirmed in her chair and swallowed back a curse word. She never thought being hot could make her so damn irritable.
"I believe this is my son."
The lady sitting across from her desk pushed a dogeared newspaper clipping toward Alex.
Sweat trickled down Alex's back and pooled at her waistline. One more minute and she would have been out the door. Now she was caught.
Pushing back her frustration with the heat, the office and life in general, she studied the picture of a cowboy astride a bucking bull. The massive black animal looked too menacing to tangle with"that is, to a city girl like Alex. The colored clipping was dated a month ago and was taken at a rodeo for charity in Fort Worth. The caption read: Brodie Hayes, bull rider and three-time world champion gives another stellar performance.
His record was impressive. As was the man himself. The lady pulled a folder out of her purse"more photos"and carefully laid them in front of Alex. They were of the same man; on a horse, with two other cowboys and one head shot that gave a closeup of his features. Several were rodeo photos with PRCA stamped on them"Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
But Alex's eyes were drawn to the clipping of the cowboy on the bull, which best showcased his broad shoulders and long, muscled body. One hand stuck high in the air as he strove to stay on the required eight seconds. His hat lay in the dirt and dark hair fell across his forehead. The sharp angles of his face were set in deep concentration, yet a glimmer of a smile shaped his lips. She had a feeling this man thrived on winning. Thrived on a challenge.
Handsome, tough and fearless were the three words that came to her mind. He was also likely a charmer who had a way with the ladies, but was hell in a fight with a man or a bull. Damn. He was goodlooking. Heat centered in her lower abdomen and she began to wonder if the high temperature was getting to her brain.
Having lived in Texas all her life, she'd seen lots of cowboys, but none quite like this. What was it about him? He had the looks, definitely the sex appeal, yet there was something else about him that she couldn't define.
Alex glanced at the lady, waiting for her story, because she knew there was one. The woman had sad green eyes"that was the first thing she'd noticed. A younger woman who looked to be somewhere in her thirties sat beside her. Probably a daughter or a relative because they had the same facial features, except for black hair untouched by gray, and blue eyes.
"My name is Helen Braxton and this is my daughter, Maggie Newton."
"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Braxton. Maggie. You said you thought this was your son?" Alex fingered the clipping and stared at the daughter. The striking color of her eyes held Alex's attention. Baby-blue. The bluest blue"the same as the cowboy's. Or very close.
Mrs. Braxton handed her another folder. "My son was stolen from the hospital when he was two days old. That was almost forty years ago." She tapped the folder. "The information's all in here."
A feeling of déjÃ vu came over Alex. She'd dealt with cases like this when she was on the Dallas police force, where desperate parents saw the face of their missing child in every newspaper clipping, their fate in every headline.
One particular case still haunted her. The suffering of the parents had gotten to her and she'd put her heart and soul into finding their missing child. She'd given them hope, which was all they had left. But it hadn't been enough.
Was Helen Braxton one of those parents? Even after forty years, was hope all she had?
Alex licked her dry lips. "Why do you think this is your son?"
Mrs. Braxton dug in her bag and Alex wondered what else she had in that suitcase of a purse. She laid three photos on the desk while juggling the purse on her lap. "After I saw the photo in the paper, I couldn't get it out of my mind. I checked out Mr. Hayes on the Internet. I bugged Maggie until she helped. That's how I got all the photos." She pointed to the pictures on the desk. "This is my husband and my other two sons. Look at them, then look at the cowboy."
Alex did as instructed and saw they indeed shared a striking resemblance"the same structure of the face, the same black hair. But it was the eyes that affected her the most. They had a bluer than blue quality"as clear and as riveting as the beaches of Padre Island. From the close-up of the cowboy she could see that his eyes were the same. Just like Maggie's.
"We named our first son Travis, after my husband. Maggie is our second child, then we had Wesley and Will. Will drowned when he was nineteen and we lost Wes a year ago. His truck was hit by a drunken driver and!" She pulled a tissue out of the bag and dabbed at her eyes. "Wes helped run the ranch, and now my husband has sunk so far into depression that neither my daughter nor I can reach him." Her watery eyes looked directly at Alex. "Ms. Donovan, please, I need you to find my only remaining son."
The plea in the woman's voice worked to accomplish what her father always warned her about"it touched her heart.
Mrs. Braxton fished out a checkbook. "What do you charge? We don't have much, but we'll pay whatever you ask."
Alex had to be completely honest. "Mrs. Braxton. The odds that this man is your son are very low." She clasped her hands on the desk and felt the waistband of her jeans stick to her skin. Couldn't they feel the heat? Neither seemed bothered by it.
"I've tried to tell her that, but she won't listen to me." These were the first words the daughter had spoken.
"I know I'm a foolish old woman," Mrs. Braxton said. "I have to know, though, why he looks so much like my husband and my other sons. It's been almost forty years and not a day goes by that I don't think about Travis. When he was kidnapped, there was a huge investigation. My husband and I haunted the police station, but our baby had disappeared without a trace."
She twisted the strap of her purse. "The detective said that most babies are found within twenty-four hours because the perpetrator is usually a woman who's desperate for a child and she's eager to show off the baby. Friends and neighbors usually recognize the person wasn't pregnant and contact the authorities. We waited and waited but no such person was ever found. Every lead was a dead end. For years we hounded the detective and he finally told us that we needed to go on with our lives. I laughed at him. How do you go on without your child?"
Helen blinked back a tear. "But life did go on. I had other children and tried to have a normal life for them. Every so often something happens, though, like seeing this photo in the paper, that gives me hope that some day I will see my son."
"He lives somewhere around Mesquite. That shouldn't be too hard to check out."
The sad eyes now turned desperate and Alex felt herself being pulled in against her will. So much heartache for one family.
"They do a lot of things with DNA these days. A simple test is all I'm asking."
Say no. Just say no. But somehow Alex found she couldn't. She scooted closer to the edge of her chair. Something about Helen's sad eyes was about to make her break one of Buck's cardinal rules. Do not get emotionally involved.
She'd been told her head was as hard as a crowbar, but this wasn't about being stubborn or strong-willed. This was about proving she could take the difficult cases and stay emotionally detached. This was her own personal test.
"You do realize we'd be invading this man's privacy, turning his world upside down."
"But you're a detective. Can't you do it discreetly?"
"Just name your price. I'll write you a check."
"Mom, please." Maggie touched her mother's arm. Mrs. Braxton covered her daughter's hand for a moment, then glanced at Alex. "Ms. Donovan, this is my last chance to save my husband, my family and my sanity." She pointed to the clipping. "That is my son. I just know it. I've been looking for years and I've never had this feeling before. Please."
Buck had warned her about taking these types of cases, but she never paid too much attention to her father her partner in the agency. He'd say they were too emotional and too time-consuming. Tell her that she shouldn't put herself through that again. To go with the cases that bring in the big bucks and leave the gut-wrenching cases to detectives with more grit in their gizzards.
In his own way, she knew her father was trying to keep her from getting hurt again. While working on the Dallas police force she'd found a missing child murdered. She realized then she didn't have steel-coated nerves. It had been a tough decision to quit the force and join her father in the detective agency. If she wanted to be tough as nails, she had the perfect teacher"Buck Donovan. But she hadn't worked a missing person's case since. It was time to get back into the swing of things.
She stared at the photo of Brodie Hayes. There had to be a way to do this discreetly and put Mrs. Braxton's mind at rest once and for all. And she could make sure that no one got hurt, especially one very good-looking cowboy.
"I'll do some checking, but I'm not promising anything." Alex told her the retainer fee and Mrs. Braxton wrote out a check.
"Oh, thank you, Ms. Donovan." Relief filled Mrs. Braxton's face and Alex wished with all her heart this case would turn out the way the woman wanted. The odds were against her. Still, she'd do her best.
"Please call me Alex." She rose and was grateful for the flurry of air the movement circulated.
"And please call me Helen." Helen slipped the strap of her purse over her arm. "My phone number and everything is in the folder."
"Thank you. I'll be in touch." Helen walked out, but Maggie lingered.
"Ms."Alex, my parents don't have a lot of money. My father used to raise cutting horses, but after Wes's death he sold most of them. They live off their social security now. I'm powerless to stop my mother in this search. Since we lost Wes, it consumes her whole life. And when she saw the photo, well, our lives haven't been the same."
"I can imagine that losing a child is something a woman never gets over."
Maggie brushed back her dark hair. "Yes. I have two children, a son, Cody, and a daughter, Amber. If someone took them from me, I'm not sure how I would handle it."
"Your mother seems very strong."
"Yes, but please don't indulge this fantasy of hers. Travis is gone and Iwe have to accept that. After all these years my mother has to find a way to let him go." Her blue eyes pleaded for Alex to understand.
"I'll do my research and be very honest about my findings."
"Thank you." She turned to leave, then reached into the pocket of her two-piece suit. "I live here in Dallas and my parents live in Weatherford. Here are my numbers." Maggie laid a card on the desk. "If you find anything, please call me first so I can be with my mother when you tell her."
"I will," Alex promised, and Maggie walked out. She studied the card"an accountant. What a load Maggie carried being the only remaining child. That had to be hard for her, but she also seemed like a strong woman.
Alex gathered everything and put it in her briefcase. Her goal now was to breathe fresh air"cool fresh air.
The offices consisted of four rooms"a reception area, her father's office and hers, then a storage room. With her briefcase in hand, she headed for the front door. It opened before she reached it and her father, Dirk Donovan, walked in.
"What the hell? It's like an oven in here. Why in the hell don't you have on the air-conditioning?"
Buck, as he was called, was an ex-police officer who stood over six feet and had a hefty frame and a sour disposition. To say they never saw eye-to-eye on anything was an understatement. Sometimes Alex questioned her sanity in going into partnership with him, but after her last assignment with the Dallas police department she needed someone who would not treat her with kid gloves. Buck certainly had never done that.
And a part of her was searching for a closer relationship with her father. She felt she barely knew this man who most people seemed to fear, including her at times. Her mother died when Alex was two so she never knew her. She yearned for a family connection, a normal life and a deeper father-daughter relationship.
They'd been partners for two years and Buck criticized, ridiculed and browbeat her at every turn. She gave as good as she got, but what did that say about her"that she was a glutton for punishment? Or maybe, like Mrs. Braxton, she still believed in fantasy, fairy tales and a happy ending.
She placed one hand on her hip. "You're a detective. Can't you figure out why it's so hot in here?"