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His best friend, Prince Viktor Romanov, and the entire royal family had been killed.
Grief welled in Flint McKade's chest as he strode through the atrium to the airport bar to meet his friends and business associates, Jackson Champion and Akeem Abdul.
Flint's Aggie Ring winked beneath the fluorescent lights, reminding him of their college days at Texas A&M and that the four men had called themselves the Aggie Four.
But now one of them was gone.
Emotions clogged Flint's throat. How could they be the Aggie Four with only three men? It wasn't right .
And to think that when he'd first met Viktor, he'd scoffed at his title. Hell, he'd been a poor cowboy with a bad attitude and a chip on his shoulder, a kid who'd grown up with no chance for a future.
Unless he made it himself.
A cowboy and prince as friendsnever.
After all, he'd never lived anywhere but on the ranch where his parents worked. Viktor had grown up as a middle-class boy in London and had gone to schools all over the world. His entire family had been exiled from their country, Rasnovia. So Viktor had gone to school on scholarships, with the goal of giving his life to his country.
That had impressed the hell out of Flint. Seeing Viktor so determined had inspired Flint to believe that he could accomplish big goals himself. Then he'd learned that Viktor had lost his father when he was a teen, and they'd bonded over shared grief.
Viktor had introduced him to Akeem, a sheik from Beharrian, and another unlikely friendship had formed. In their fraternity, their tight-knit brotherhood had spread to encompass Jackson, sealing the Aggie Four.
Each of them had had to overcome almost insurmountable obstacles to achieve success. But they were driven, ambitious and determined.
Instead of future business leaders of America, they'd vowed to become future billionaires. Self-made billionaires.
And each had succeeded.
Once they'd built their financial empires, they'd decided to give back by creating a nonprofit foundation to raise money for charities.
Flint spotted his friends' dejected faces as they sat slumped at a bar table, a pitcher of beer untouched in front of them, with three mugs waiting.
Three, not four.
One member of their brotherhood was missing.
Killed, of all times and places, in a violent explosion at the palace on Rasnovian Independence Day.
Sweat trickled down his jaw. It couldn't be true. It couldn't have happened.
Akeem caught his eye as he approached, the devastation on his face mirroring Flint's. They were supposed to be celebrating their latest venture tonight, not mourning Viktor's death. Although Flint's five-hundred-acre ranch bred and trained thoroughbreds, quarter horses and beef cattle, Akeem had convinced him to try his hand at Arabians, and he was expecting the shipment within the hour. Jackson's company Champion Enterprises had handled the arrangements.
Flint always met his shipments in person.
He claimed a chair across from Akeem, with Jackson on his right. In the midst of the crowded airport terminal, the strained silence grew tense. No one wanted to speak.
Saying the words out loud would make it all too real.
Flint lifted the pitcher and filled the three mugs, then watched the head on the beer fizzle as he contemplated what to say.
"I can't believe it," he finally said.
Akeem scraped his hand over his chin. "The country isn't releasing any details."
"Do you think the rebels in Rasnovia killed the royal family?" Jackson asked in a gravelly voice.
Flint shrugged. "That would be my guess. Once the democracy was established, the royal family had intended to stay on as ambassadors."
Viktor had been an icon to his country; he'd worked diligently to repair Rasnovia's infrastructure and jump-start its economy.
The Aggie Four had also invested in Rasnovia's businesses. But money wasn't the issue tonight. Their friend's death was all that mattered.
Flint raised his mug to toast their departed buddy, and Jackson and Akeem followed, but then Flint's cell phone trilled.
His pilot. He connected the call, frowning at the sound of static popping over the line.
"T-trouble," Reuben said in a choked voice. "Help ."
Flint's heart pounded, and he lurched up. "I'll be right there."
"What is it?" Jackson asked.
"Something's wrong. Let's go." He tossed some cash on the table to pay for the beer; then the three of them raced toward security.
Joey Stamos, the chief of security, met them at the gate and transported them to the plane, which had already taxied up to the loading dock. The runway lights had been cut as well as the exterior lights, pitching the plane into total darkness.
"What the hell is happening?" Jackson muttered.
"You think someone's trying to steal the Arabians?" Akeem asked.
Flint cursed. "Over my dead body."
Suddenly all hell broke loose, and gunfire exploded outside. The security guards at the loading dock scurried into action, crouching down as they surrounded the plane.
"Stay down and inside!" Stamos ordered as he slid from the vehicle.
Flint reached for the door handle, but Stamos grabbed his arm. "I mean it, McKade. Those are automatic weapons."
Dammit, Stamos was right. He hadn't exactly come packing to the airport.
Another round of bullets pinged back and forth. The guards exchanged fire, their bullets pelting metal, dust flying, for what seemed like hours as Flint and his friends waited.
Finally, things settled down, and Stamos returned. "It's clear, but not good."
Flint imagined the worst as he climbed out of the vehicle. "I have to see."
Stamos put a hand to his chest to stop him. "No, wait on CSI."
"Stamos, those are my people in there," Flint growled. "And I have to check the Arabians."
Stamos finally nodded but ordered Jackson and Akeem to remain behind and wait for the local police and forensic team.
Fear and anger gnawed at Flint as he followed Stamos to the plane and climbed on board.
The moment he stepped up to the cockpit, the coppery scent of blood assaulted him. Then he glanced inside, and his chest clenched at the sight of the bloody massacre. His pilot had been shot in the head at close range, his blood and brain matter splattered across the instrument panel.
He spun around, fury churning through him, then spotted two ranch hands sprawled on the floor, dead in the galley. One was an older guy he'd known for years. The other was a young man, but his face had been shattered during the massacre and was unrecognizable. Multiple gunshot wounds marked their chests and limbs, their blood running like a river down the aisle.
Choking back bile, he sidestepped the bodies and rushed to the stalls to check the horses.
Normally sedated, now they were kicking and whinnying madly, the small plane rocking with the force.
"Shh, guys. It's over." He gently soothed the animals, scrutinizing each one for injuries, but thankfully, they appeared to be unharmed.
"We got the shooters," Stamos said as he came up behind Flint. "There were two, both with heavy artillery."
Flint's jaw tightened. "I want to question them."
Stamos shook his head. "Too late. They're dead."
Flint fisted his hands, wanting to pound something. A dozen questions raced through his head. Questions the cops would ask. Questions he wanted the answers to himself.
Who were the shooters? Had they been working alone, or had someone else orchestrated this attack?
"Looks like someone either wanted the horses or wanted to hurt your business," Stamos said quietly.
Flint nodded. Damn right, they had. And he'd find out who had endangered his Arabians and killed his men.
Then the SOBs would pay.
Dr. Lora Leigh Whittaker hated Flint McKade. Yet here she was, driving past the giant live oaks flanking the private road to the Diamondback RanchMcKade's mega-conglomerate estateto work for him. He'd named the huge operation after his prized stallion, Diamondback Jack, a thoroughbred that had won him millions in races and stud fees, and not, as she'd first thought, after the diamondback rattlers so prominent on the rugged Texan land.
Bitterness swelled inside her. He was a snake himself. Always coiled and ready to strike and take advantage of the small-time ranchers.
She had to suck up her pride and hatred, though, because she needed answers.
Her younger brother, Johnny, was missing.
The last time she'd spoken to him, he'd been working incognito on the Diamondback.
No matter how brilliant McKade seemed through the lens of the press, she was convinced he'd made his money by cheating small-time ranchers and farmers out of their homes and property and built his empire like some sort of shrine to himself. He probably had a gargantuan ego to match that fat bank account of his, too.
She'd read the business sections, the numerous features of him in various magazines and newspapers, and knew he was worth at least a billion.
And to think what he'd bought her father out for.
No amount of money would have been enough. The Double W had been their home, her parents' dream. They'd poured blood, sweat and tears into the place, their entire life and soul into farming and ranching, and had raised her and Johnny to love the land as they did.
It was the only place Lora Leigh had ever called home. The place where she'd run and played with Johnny when she was little. Where she'd gotten her first horse, Miss Whinny, where she'd learned to ride and developed her love of animals. Where she'd decided she wanted to be a veterinarian.
In the house on that ranch she'd shared cozy Christmases with her family, stringing the tree they'd cut down themselves with popcorn and decorating it with handmade ornaments. There her mother had painted bird feeders for the yard and planted flowers in the spring.
It had killed Lora Leigh to lose her home.
Especially knowing her father had taken out a second mortgage to fund college and vet school for her.
She swiped at the flood of tears streaming down her face, gulping back grief and anger. Two days after her father had sold their home to Flint McKade, he'd killed himself.
All because of McKade. The bastard.
A choked sob tore from her chest, the tendrils of grief clawing at her. Life had taken an even nastier downward spiral then. Johnny had turned to booze and trouble. Even while grieving for her father, she'd tried to drag him up from the bottom of the barrel and convince him to straighten up. She couldn't lose him, too.
But when he'd finally sobered up, his anger had surfaced, and he'd started talking revenge.
Six weeks ago, he'd gone to the Diamondback and landed a job under another name. He thought he could find some dirt on McKade to destroy him, something to prove he had cheated their father out of his land. But she hadn't heard from Johnny in over two weeks, and he always checked in weekly.
What if he'd found something incriminating, and McKade had discovered what he was up to? Would McKade be so ruthless as to get rid of her brother to keep him silent?
Panic threatened, but she tamped it down, tightening her fingers around the steering wheel. If she found out he had, she'd go to the police.
She'd considered it already, but then she'd have to admit that her brother had gone to the Diamondback seeking revenge on McKade. And what if Johnny had done something or planned to do something illegal ?
Her gaze was drawn to the pastureland and the horses galloping in the pens as she neared the Diamondback' s main house. Nerves on edge, she parked in the circular drive in front of the house, noting the nearby corrals and bunkhouse, and inhaled a calming breath as she removed her compact to repair her tear-swollen eyes.
She'd wondered if McKade would recognize her name and refuse to hire her because of her father, but she hadn't dealt with him directly or even met him yet.
He probably didn't know half the names of the families he'd destroyed.
Money was obviously the only thing that mattered to him.
Well, family was the only thing that mattered to her. Family and her home.
He had already stolen two of those from her.
If he'd hurt Johnny, he'd be sorry.
"The Arabians are safe and in quarantine now on my ranch," Flint told Amal Jabar, the Middle Eastern contact who'd arranged for him to import the new breed. "I'm not sure if the attackers wanted to kill my men or steal the horses, but I intend to find out. I'm going to need a list of everyone who works for you, and anyone else who knew about the shipment."
"You're suggesting that one of my people sabotaged the plane?" Amal said, with an angry edge to his voice.
Flint was skating on thin ice here: Akeem had referred him to Amal and trusted the man. "I'm not implying anything," Flint said. "But men died tonight, so we have to investigate every angle."
Amal hesitated. "I'll fax you the list. And I'll also question each one of them myself. If I find anything suspicious, I'll let you know."
"Thanks, Amal. I appreciate it."
"Take good care of the Arabians," Amal said.
"Don't worry. I will."
He hung up, undressed, then climbed in the shower. He closed his eyes as the warm water sluiced over him and the images of the dead men haunted him. Three men had lost their lives on a job for him, which meant their blood was on his hands.
He would find the responsible party if it killed him.
Then the families could have some closure, knowing that the killer had been brought to justice. It was the least he could do for them.
He stumbled from the shower, then dragged on a pair of jeans and a denim shirt, tensing at the sound of the doorbell ringing. The last thing he wanted right now was company.