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Gabe Coulter bolted upright in bed at the shrill ring of his bedside phone. When the person on the other end confirmed what Gabe had been waiting months to hear, he switched on his bedside light.
"And you're certain you found them?"
"I'm positive," the private detective said. "She and the kid are living in Conrad, Texas, a two-bit town just north of El Paso. She waits tables in a diner next door to a motel where they live. The boy stays in a back room at the diner while she works."
"She hasn't married?"
"Nah, she's still single," the detective said. "Still goes by the name Sara Watson. The kid's name is Ben."
"Ben," Gabe half whispered.
Finally, he had a name.
He raked a hand through his hair, slowly processing the information. Finding them hadn't been easy. The next step would be even harder.
"What do you want me to do now, Mr. Coulter?"
"Give me a second to get to my office," Gabe said.
Grabbing his jeans from the bottom of the bed, Gabe pulled them on. With the phone still to his ear, he hurried downstairs in search of a pen and paper.
He found what he needed on the massive mahogany desk that had served three generations of ranchers at the Crested-C.
What Gabe didn't need was looking up to find that the late-Monday-night phone call had also awakened his foreman. The old man was standing in his office doorway, a worried expression on his gray-bearded face.
"I finally got a few photos of the woman and the boy," the detective said. "But everything in Conrad is already closed for the night. I'll have to drive back to El Paso before I can fax them to you."
"That won't be necessary," Gabe said, jotting down the name and address of the diner. "I'll leave assoon as I get my gear together. If I drive all night, I should be there in time to surprise her tomorrow."
"That's not a bad idea, Mr. Coulter," the detective agreed. "She runs every time I pick up her trail. Conrad is nothing but a mud puddle in the middle of nowhere. It won't take long before word gets around town that I was asking questions about her and the boy tonight."
"You've earned that bonus we talked about," Gabe told the detective. "I'll be in touch as soon as I get back."
"Good luck," said the detective.
And Gabe knew he was going to need it.
He lowered himself onto the chair behind his desk, staring at the address he held in his hand. He purposely ignored the presence still looming in his office doorway. It should have been a subtle hint for Smitty to leave Gabe alone and go back to bed. But Smitty never had been good at doing what other people wanted.
"You just can't let sleeping dogs lie, can you, Gabe?"
Gabe and the old man traded scowls.
"Spare me the lecture, Smitty. I'm fully capable of making my own decisions."
"Well, you sure can't prove that by me." Smitty snorted. He pulled his suspenders up and over his stooped shoulders before he pointed a gnarled finger in Gabe's direction. "The search for that boy should have ended when your brother was killed, and you know it."
A muscle in Gabe's jaw clenched.
The pain of Billy's death was still as raw as the day of the accident. Images he usually kept at bay clicked through Gabe's mind like a horror film: Billy waving to the cheering crowd as he lowered himself onto the back of eighteen hundred pounds of raw muscle; cheers turning to terrified gasps when the angry bull reared; every bull rider's nightmare coming true as Billy fell backward into the stall; cowboys running from every direction trying to rescue their trampled hero.
A cold shiver passed straight through Gabe.
He shook it off and forced the memories into the shadows where they belonged. He only wished he could do the same with Smitty's damn opinions. But the old man had more than earned the right to speak his mind, and they both knew it.
Had it not been for Smitty, Gabe never would have been able to hang on to the ranch after his folks died. Smitty had stepped in as surrogate father when Gabe needed him most. Smitty had helped run the ranch, and he'd helped raise Billy. The old man just kept forgetting Gabe was thirty-three years old now, not the inexperienced kid he'd been fifteen years earlier when his parents died.
"Billy told you himself that gal never even told him she was pregnant," Smitty said, finally forcing the argument Gabe had known was coming from the day he took over the search for his brother's son. "She didn't want anything to do with Billy then. What makes you think she'll let you near the boy now?"
"There's a good chance the boy's mother won't let me near him," Gabe admitted. "But I wouldn't be much of a man if I conveniently forgot I have a nephew because my brother is dead."
"Might have a nephew," Smitty reminded him. "You don't even know if that boy belongs to Billy."
"Billy thought the boy was his," Gabe said. "Unless I find out otherwise, that's good enough for me."
"Mark my words, Gabe. You're borrowing trouble."
"Maybe so. But there's a five-year-old boy in Texas who could be my nephew. Trouble or not, I'm going to see him."
Smitty shook his head in disgust. "You know the type of woman you're dealing with, Gabe. You have her whole life story in a file in your top desk drawer."
"All the more reason to check on the boy."
"All the more reason to let the boy go!" Smitty shouted. He frowned at Gabe again. But he lowered his voice when he added, "You've worked hard holding on to this ranch. And for what? To let some one-night stand Billy met on the rodeo circuit lay claim to half the ranch your pa and your grandpa spent their whole lives building up?"
Gabe didn't answer.
He got up from his chair, walked across the room and took down the framed portrait of his parents on their wedding day. When he opened the wall safe hidden behind the picture, Smitty let out a weary sigh.
"Don't do this," Smitty said. "If you hand Billy's insurance money over thinking you'll be rid of the boy's mother, you're kidding yourself. She'll be holding her hand out for the rest of your life."
Gabe still didn't answer. He wrote out a check to Sara Watson for fifty thousand dollars and placed the checkbook back inside the wall safe. After he rehung his parent's picture, the old man was still blocking his path.
"I shouldn't be gone more than a few days," Gabe said, putting an end to any further discussion.
Defeated, Smitty finally stepped aside.
But as Gabe started up the stairs to pack, Smitty called out after him, "Watch your back, you hear me, Gabe? That little gal's liable to scratch your eyes out if you get within shouting distance of them."
Gabe threw a hand up to signal he'd heard the warning.
But by noon tomorrow, he intended to be in Texas.
If the boy did turn out to be his nephew, Billy's fifty thousand dollars in insurance money would be well spent if it meant bringing his brother's son home to Colorado where the boy belonged.
Gabe pulled his truck to a stop in front of a shabby diner called Dessie's at exactly ten minutes past noon on Tuesday, May twenty-ninth. The irony of the date wasn't wasted on Gabe. Had Billy lived, it would have been his brother's twenty-sixth birthday.
The fact that the motel beside the diner was nothing but a string of rundown buildings in an equally rundown town gave Gabe hope. Offering fifty thousand dollars to a woman stuck in a place like Conrad could be the big break he needed.
He grabbed his Stetson sitting on the bench seat beside him and jammed it onto his head. The second he stepped out of the truck, the unbearable Texas heat took his breath away. Why anyone would choose to live in such a dry, hot and desolate place was something Gabe would never understand. But then, he suspected most people wouldn't understand why he chose to endure the bitter cold mountain winters on the West Elk Slope in Colorado.
Different strokes for different folks, Gabe decided and nodded politely to the two old men sitting outside the diner beneath a faded awning. A small table and a checkerboard between them, these two Conrad citizens didn't appear to be affected by the sweltering heat at all.
"Dessie's is always packed for lunch," one of the old men told him. "But the home cooking is worth the wait."
"Thanks for the tip," Gabe said, and opened the diner door.
The second he stepped inside, Gabe saw her.
She was on the flashy side just as he'd expected. Bleached-blond hair. Too much makeup. Her sexy figure more than emphasized by the tight-fitting uniform she wore.
He walked past her, heading to a booth in the back the only empty seat in the place. By the time he slid into the booth and placed his Stetson on the seat beside him, she was busy taking orders from three men sitting at a table near the diner's front window.
Gabe watched as she openly flirted with each of the men, a come-on smile on her cherry-red painted lips. He smiled inwardly, knowing, if his gut instinct was correct, she'd hand the boy over the minute he flashed the money in her direction.
And thinking about the boy, Gabe took a quick look around the diner, surveying the situation. The detective had mentioned a back room. The best Gabe could tell, a sign pointing down a hallway to the restrooms was the most likely place for this room.
He'd give this Sara Watson a chance to let him see the boy first. If she refused, Gabe had already decided he was not leaving Texas without seeing the child who could very well be his nephew. Despite Smitty's doubts, he'd know if the boy belonged to Billy the second he saw himCoulter genes were hard to hide.
She glanced in his direction and gave another come-on smile. "Be with you in a minute," she called out.
He watched as she clipped the order she had just taken to a revolving wheel above an open window separating the diner from the kitchen. A skinny old woman with gray hair grabbed the order and pushed two plates back through the window at her. The blonde took the plates and placed them in front of a man and a woman sitting at the counter. Next, she walked to the register to take another customer's money.
"Give me just a few more minutes, honey," she called out to Gabe again, holding up a finger to signal she would be right back.
Don't worry, honey. I'm not going anywhere, Gabe thought as she disappeared down the hallway.
He'd been waiting over a year for this moment. He could wait a few minutes longer.
Sara peeked around the storage-room door and smiled when she saw her son sitting on the folding cot happily playing with his favorite toya plastic horse he'd named Thunderand his constant companion. Being able to check on Ben every few minutes was a huge relief. In fact, Sara sometimes wondered if her guardian angel had been responsible for making her worn-out car break down in Conrad, Texas.
She and Ben had been shown nothing but kindness here.
She'd sold the car for parts when the mechanic at the town garage broke the news that the vehicle wasn't worth what it would take to fix it. The mechanic had also sent her to see Dessie McQueen, a woman in her sixties who had seen her own share of hard times.
Dessie owned the town's only diner and motel.
Calling Dessie a godsend would be an understatement.
She'd allowed Sara to work in the diner in exchange for a motel room and three meals a day for her and her son. And no money exchanged meant no payroll records to leave a paper trail behind. It had also been Dessie's idea to fix up the storage room so Sara wouldn't have to pay for child care for Ben.
"Keep your tips and get back on your feet," Dessie had told her. "Until you do, we'll keep the same arrangement."
Sara had intended to do just that.
What she hadn't intended was leaving Conrad so soon.
She glanced at the packed suitcases sitting beside Ben's cot and felt like crying. The detective she'd been eluding for over a year had somehow managed to track her down again. As soon as the busy lunch shift was over, Dessie would be driving Sara and Ben back to her hometown of Houston. She and Ben would stay with her best friend Annie Riley for a few days until Sara could figure out where to go next.
And it was only fair that Annie should take them in.
Annie, after all, had been responsible for the detective being on Sara's trail in the first place. Had Annie not run into her son's father, Billy Coulter never would have known about Ben.
Billy Coulter, Sara thought. My first and last mistake.
She and Annie had been working the concession stand at the rodeo the summer before their senior year in high school when Sara met Billy Coulter. The handsome rodeo star had filled her head with empty promises then had ridden off with her innocence and not so much as a backward glance.
Sara had intended to keep it that way.
But in less than a week after big-mouth Annie told Billy he had a son, a private detective had arrived at Annie's apartment complex asking questions. Fearing a costly custody battle Sara couldn't afford, she'd taken Ben and left Houston before Billy could find them.
Then news of Billy's fatal accident at the World Champion Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas had been plastered all over the papers and the television for days. She'd assumed the search for them would end after Billy's death. But Sara really got worried when the detective tracked them down again in Fort Worth.
Someone was still searching for her son.
But she'd run forever if that's what it took.
She'd never let anyone take Ben away from her.
Gabe braced himself when the woman he'd come to proposition finally came around the corner and walked in his direction.
"What can I do you for, handsome?" she teased when she walked up to the table.
"That depends," Gabe said.
She leaned forward, her hands resting on the table. And whether Gabe was interested or not, he had a bird's-eye view of her more-than-ample breasts pressing against the thin fabric of her low-cut uniform.
She leaned even closer. "That depends on what, cowboy?"
"On whether your name is Sara Watson," Gabe said.
The blonde gasped and jumped back.
"Sara!" she yelled over her shoulder. "Run!"
Gabe looked past the blonde. He hadn't seen this waitress when he'd entered the diner. Staring back at him was someone who was anything but the type of woman he expected. Her face was scrubbed free of makeup and her dark hair was piled loosely on top of her head.
Beautifulthat's what she was.
And her dark brown eyes were now wide with fear.
She looked at him a second longer, turned and ran.
"Wait!" Gabe jumped up from the booth.
Every man in the diner stood when Gabe did.
"I don't want any trouble here," Gabe said, looking around at the frowning faces.
"Leave the same way you came in," a big guy near the front door said, "and there won't be any trouble here."