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Caitlin O'Donahue nearly wept in relief as the O'Dona-hue ranch house came into view. The past two weeks of her life had been the worst kind of nightmare, and all that had kept her going, all that had kept her sane, were thoughts of home.
The large two-story ranch house with its wraparound porch and cheerful white trim instantly filled her with a sense of safety, of security that had been absent from her life over the course of the past couple of weeks.
Coarse male laughter. Big rough hands holding her wrists her ankles. And pain. The kind ofpain and fear no woman should ever have to endure.
She shook her head to banish the terrible memories. She was safe now. She was home and the last thing she wanted to do was dwell on the nightmare she'd so recently escaped.
She parked the car and got out, then walked to the trunk and pulled out her suitcase. Setting the case on the ground, she paused a moment to draw in a deep breath of the sweet California air and allowed her gaze to sweep over the pastures and rolling hills.
It was a beautiful November evening. Horses dotted a distant pasture, grazing peacefully and presenting a pastoral scene. There was a faint breeze and the sinking sun was coloring the western horizon. Caitlin drew in another breath as she continued to peruse the area.
That's when she saw him, a tall man standing just outside the barn door. Despite the distance she could tell his shoulders were broad beneath the white T-shirt, and his slim hips were encased in worn, tight jeans. His long, shaggy blond hair sparked in the fading autumn sunlight and she knew she'd never seen him before. If she had, she was sure she would have remembered.
It wasn't unusual for her not to know all the ranch hands that worked on the place. The turnover was huge and they came and went with a regularity she knew her father found frustrating.
Still, she could feel his piercing gaze on her as she carried her suitcase up the stairs to the front door. Of course, Caitlin was fairly accustomed to garnering male stares. You couldn't have her fiery red hair and an hourglass shape and not have men stare at you. It had never bothered her before, but now she found the male attention a bit upsetting.
She relaxed as she opened the door and stepped into the foyer. "Dad?" she yelled.
Esmeralda, the housekeeper, appeared and with a shriek of happiness hurried toward Caitlin and embraced her in a warm, tight hug.
Caitlin closed her eyes and relaxed even more as the scent of yeast and lavender surrounded her. It was the familiar scent of love. Caitlin's mother had died when she was three, and Esmeralda had been the mother figure in Caitlin's life.
She was finally released and Esmeralda stepped back, her black eyes filled with both love and concern. "I'm happy to see you but why are you home now? I thought you'd planned to be with the Doctors Without Borders program much longer."
"I got homesick." The lie fell smoothly off her lips. "Where's Dad?" As much as she adored Esmeralda, she was eager to see her father.
"Gone on business." Esmeralda linked arms with her. "What a pleasant surprise you are. I'm so happy to see you. The house has been far too quiet since your father left. Come into the kitchen where we can catch up."
They walked through the great room with its oversize leather couch and love seat, a stone fireplace that was rarely used and a wall full of electronic wonders that her father loved. The room smelled of the cigars he refused to give up and a slight lingering scent of his woodsy cologne.
She was bitterly disappointed that her father wasn't home. She needed him not just for emotional support, but she also had some hard questions to ask him.
"Where did Dad go on business?" she asked when they'd reached the kitchen. She sat in a chair at the round oak table as Esmeralda went to the cabinet and took down two cups for tea.
"He didn't say." Esmeralda's plump features fell into a frown. "He left over a week ago and said he'd be in touch, but I haven't heard from him since then."
Tell your father his old friends say hello.
The words thundered in Caitlin's head, part of the memories she didn't want to revisit but that refused to leave her alone. What did it all mean? What had her father gotten himself involved in while she'd been out of the country?
Esmeralda put the teakettle on the stove burner and then carried the cups with tea bags to the table and sat across from Caitlin. "Poco uno, tell me what's happened. I see dark, unhappy shadows in your eyes."
Caitlin forced a laugh. "At thirty-four years old I'm not exactly a little one anymore, Esme."
"You will always be my poco uno," Esmeralda replied firmly. "And I know my girl and something has happened to you. Talk to me, Caitlin."
A sudden thick emotion surged up inside Caitlin, but she shoved it away. She wasn't ready to talk of the horrors that had brought her home. It was all too fresh, too raw. "I'm just worried about Lana," she finally replied. "Has there been any word?"
Lana Kelley, Senator Hank Kelley's daughter, a close friend of Caitlin's, had been kidnapped two months before. Caitlin had grown up with all the Kelley kids. She'd had a crush on the twins, Dylan and Cole, had treated the youngest boy, Jim, like a baby brother and had enjoyed Chase's company. She'd adored Jake before he'd left for a life in New York and had babysat for Lana. The babysitting had cemented a friendship between the two, a big sister/little sister relationship that Caitlin cherished.
The Kelleys had lived in California on a spread near the O'Donahue place for years, but as the years had gone by the children had grown up and sought their destinies away from the California mansion where their parents, Hank and Sarah, lived. While Hank split his time between Washington, D.C., and here. Lana had been the only one who had stayed at home.
Two weeks ago, in a brief phone call, Caitlin's father, Mickey, told Caitlin that Lana had been kidnapped while studying in Europe. He'd explained to her that the Kelleys weren't going to the authorities, but were negotiating with the kidnappers on their own.
"No news on Lana," Esme said, pulling Caitlin from her thoughts. "But there have now been six women who have come forward claiming to have been Hank's mistress."
"Six!" Caitlin shook her head, although she really wasn't surprised that the handsome senator had succumbed to what could only be considered a character flaw. There had certainly been plenty of politicians before him who had fallen to the same kind of demons.
Still, what a mess it had become for the entire Kelley family.
But she didn't care what consequences Hank faced for his infidelity. She was certain the handsome, powerful Senator would somehow survive his personal drama. What worried her was Lana.
The minute Caitlin had heard about Lana's kidnapping she'd contacted Cole Kelley to find out what was going on. What she'd learned had horrified her. According to him, Lana had been taken and nobody seemed to know what the kidnappers wanted or even if she was still alive.
"And according to the reports, one of those mistresses is pregnant and Hank has now disappeared from the public eye altogether. I don't know where he has gone," Esme said. "I quit paying attention to all the nonsense. But I think I heard he was at Cole's ranch in Montana."
"He's probably hiding out from his wife," Caitlin said drily. "She's got to be devastated by all this." Caitlin couldn't imagine that kind of betrayal by a man who was her husband.
"Caitlin, there is nothing that can be done about Hank and his problems, and we will pray for Lana's safe return." Esme jumped up as the teakettle began to whistle.
"You're right," Caitlin replied as Esme filled their cups with the hot water. "So, tell me what's happening around here." Caitlin definitely didn't want to think about Lana or Hank Kelley or anything but normal ranch gossip at the moment.
"That no-account Garrett Simms disappeared last week. Just didn't show up for work. He was nothing but a drunk anyway, but that left nobody in charge of the ranch, so I hired a new man." Esme looked sheepish. "I know it's really not my place, but your daddy was gone and this man showed up yesterday looking for work. He had good recommendations, so I told him we'd try him out."
"Is he tall with shaggy blond hair?" Caitlin thought of the man she'd seen when she'd first arrived.
"Blond and dimpled and absolutely divine," Esme said with an uncharacteristic girlish giggle.
"I hope he's as good with the livestock as he is at turning you into a giggling fool," Caitlin said drily.
"I think he's probably man enough to handle both jobs," Esme replied with a grin.
The very last thing Caitlin wanted to think about was any man. As she finished her tea and listened to Esme chatter about local gossip, she was struck by a weary exhaustion. She'd been traveling the better part of two days to get home and now all she wanted was the comfort of her room and a night of dreamless sleep.
"Do you want something to eat?" Esme asked as she carried their cups to the sink.
"No, I think I'll go upstairs, get unpacked and call it a night." Caitlin got up from the table and tried not to notice the ache of bruises that protested. Eventually they would heal, but she feared the scars inside her soul would be with her forever.
Minutes later she was inside her second-story bedroom. She should have moved out of her father's home long ago, but it had never really been an issue. Since her twenty-first birthday her father had always given her the freedom to come and go as she pleased.
She'd always enjoyed her father's company and knew he'd be lonely when she eventually decided to move. She'd respected him, a respect that had been recently shaken.
Tell your father his old friends say hello.
What had her father gotten himself mixed up in? And where was he now? She needed answers, but more than anything she'd needed his big strong arms around her, telling her she was going to be just fine.
It took her only minutes to unpack her suitcase and then she went into the adjoining bathroom and undressed for a quick shower.
Her father had raised her like a princess. She'd had the best that money could buy, the nicest clothing, the latest electronic toys, but she'd never cared about any of it. The best gift her father had given her was helping her fund the education that had led to her becoming a plastic surgeon.
Instead of opening her own practice she had opted to spend some time doing humanitarian work with the Doctors Without Borders organization.
She had loved the work, which had taken her to different places around the world. She'd felt as if she was making a real difference in the lives of the people she touched.
She had loved it until two weeks ago when she'd believed she was going to die in the jungles of El Salvador.
There was no question in her mind that she would have died if another doctor and several armed guards hadn't come looking for her. It was only as the band of men had been running away that the head honcho had said the words about her father. Tell your father his old friends say hello.
The hot water found each and every sore muscle she possessed. As she soaped her body she noticed the faint bruises that darkened her ribs. Thankfully they had almost disappeared, but the reason for them being there simmered inside her just beneath the surface, an agony she kept shoving away because she didn't want to deal with it.
Stepping out of the warm spray of water, she dried off and then pulled on a royal-blue silk nightgown. Outside the bedroom windows night had fallen. She moved to the window and stared out unseeing, her mind racing.
Where was Lana tonight? Lana, with her honey-blond hair and bright blue eyes. Was she even still alive? Caitlin didn't understand why the Kelleys hadn't gone to the authorities the minute Lana had been taken, but Mickey had told her that Hank was dealing with the situation in the best way to keep his beloved daughter alive. Caitlin made a note to herself to check in with Lana's brother Dylan the next day to find out the latest news.