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Dave Firestone was a man on a mission.
The future of his ranch was at stake and damned if he was going to let scandal or whispered rumors ruin what he'd spent years building. It had been months now since Alex Santiago had disappeared and Dave still felt a cloud of suspicion hanging around his head. Time to find out one way or the other what the law in town thought of the situation.
He climbed out of his 4x4, tugged the collar of his brown leather jacket up around his neck and squinted into the East Texas wind. October was rolling in cold, signaling what would be an even colder winter. Nothing he could do about that, but Dave had driven to the border of his ranch to get at least one part of his life straightened out.
A tall man wearing a worn, black leather coat and a tan, wide-brimmed hat was patching the barbed-wire fence that separated Dave's ranch, the Royal Round Up, from the neighboring ranch, the Battlelands. Behind the man in black, another man, Bill Hardesty, a Battle ranch hand, unloaded wire from a battered truck. Dave nodded a greeting to Bill, then focused his attention on Nathan Battle.
Nathan looked up as Dave approached. "Hey, Dave, how's it going?"
"Going fine," he said, because Dave Firestone never admitted to having a problem he couldn't solve. "I went by the main ranch house and Jake told me where I could find you. Didn't think I'd find the town sheriff out fixing fence line."
Nathan shrugged and glanced out over the surrounding land before shifting his gaze back to Dave. "I like getting out on the ranch. Gives me a chance to think. Clear my head. My brother does most of the heavy lifting on the Battlelands, but I'm a full partner and it feels good to get back to basics, you know?" Then he grinned. "Besides, Amanda's on a remodeling binge, getting ready for the baby. So we've got one of Sam Gordon's construction crews at the house all the time. Being out here " he said, then sighed in pleasure. "Quiet."
From his spot on the truck, Bill snorted. "Enjoy it while it lasts, boss. Once that baby comes you can kiss 'quiet' goodbye forever."
Nathan chuckled, then said, "Just unload the wire, will ya?"
Dave ignored the byplay. He wished he'd found Nathan alone out here, but he was going to have his say whether Bill was listening in or not.
Things had changed a lot around Royal in the past few months, Dave thought. Nathan and Amanda were married and expecting a baby. Sam and Lila were expecting twins. And then there was the reason Dave had come to see Nathan on his day off.
The disappearance of Alex Santiago.
He wouldn't claim to have been friends with Alex, but he'd never wished the man harm, either. This vanishing act of his was weird enough to keep the people in town talkingand most of them were talking about how Dave and Alex had been business rivals and wondering if maybe Alex hadn't had some help in disappearing.
Dave had never been one to give a flying damn what people had to say about him. He ran his life and his business the way he saw fit, and if people didn't like it, screw them. But like he'd just been thinking, things had changed. Irritating to admit that gossip and the threat of scandal had chased him out here to talk to the town sheriff, but there it was.
"Yeah, I get that. My foreman's the best there is, but I like doing ranch work on my own, too. Always have," Dave said, snatching his hat off to stab his fingers through his hair. "And I hate to ruin your peace and quiet "
Nathan hooked his pair of wire cutters into the tool belt at his waist and looked at Dave. "But?"
"But," Dave said, with the briefest of glances toward Bill, who wasn't even bothering to hide his interest in the conversation, "I need to know if you've got anything new on Alex's disappearance."
Scowling, Nathan admitted, "I've got nothing. It's like he dropped off the face of the earth. No action on his credit or debit cards, either. Haven't got a clue what happened to him and, to tell you the truth, it's making me nuts."
"I can imagine," Dave said and tipped the brim of his hat back a bit. "It's not doing much for me, either."
Nathan nodded grimly. "Yeah, I've heard the whispers."
"Great." Just what he wanted. The town sheriff listening to rumors about him.
"Relax." Nathan waved one hand at him and shook his head. "I know what the gossips in this town are like, Dave. Hell, they almost cost me Amanda." He paused for a second as if considering what might have been. Then he shook his head again and said, "If it helps any, you're officially not a suspect."
He hadn't really thought he was, but it was good to hear anyway. It didn't solve his problem, but knowing that Nathan believed in his innocence was one less thing to worry about. Dave knew how it must have looked to everyone in town. He was among the last people to have seen Alex before he went missing. And the argument they'd had on Main Street had been witnessed by at least a dozen people.
Plus, it was pretty much common knowledge around Royal that Alex had snapped up the investment property that Dave had had his eye on. So yeah, Dave had been furious. But he hadn't wanted anything to happen to Alex.
"Glad to hear you say that," Dave finally said. "In fact, it's what I came out here to ask you. Feels good knowing I'm not a suspect, I'll admit. But it doesn't change how people in this town are looking at me."
He'd been in Royal three years, and he would have thought people would know him by now. But apparently, one whisper ofjuicy gossip was all it took to have people looking at him with a jaundiced eye.
Nathan dropped one hand to the top of the fence post and said, "People talk, you can't stop it. God knows I've tried. And in a town the size of Royal, that's about all they've got to do to fill the time, you know? Doesn't mean anything."
"Not to you, maybeand I'm grateful, don't get me wrong," Dave told him. "But I'm trying to land a contract with TexCat and"
Nathan chuckled and stopped him. "No need to say more. Hell, Texas Cattle is legendary. Everyone in the state knows about Thomas Buckley and how he runs his company. The old man is such a straight arrow " He broke off. "That's why the concern over the gossip."
"Yeah, if Buckley hears those rumors, I'll never get the contract with him to sell my beef." Scandal could sour the deal before it was made, and damned if Dave would let that happen.
TexCat was the biggest beef buyer in the country. But it was a family-run company and Buckley himself ran it along the narrowest lines possible. No scandal had ever touched his company, and he was determined to keep it that way. So if he got wind of rumors about Dave now, it would only make all of this more difficult.
"Ol' Buckley is so worried about what people think," Bill pointed out from his spot on the truck, "I hear he sleeps in a three-piece suit."
Dave frowned and Nathan shot Bill a look. "Is that wire unloaded?"
"Almost," Bill said and ducked his head as he went back to work.
"Sorry," Nathan said unnecessarily, then grinned. "Everybody's got something to say about everything around here. But you already know that, don't you?"
"You could say so," Dave muttered.
Still smiling, Nathan added, "Where Buckley's concerned, it's not just the rumors you've got to be worried about."
Dave frowned. "Yeah, I know."
Nathan's smile widened. "Buckley only deals with married family men. Last time I looked, you were single. I figure the rumors and whispering should be the least of your problems. How're you planning on coming up with a wife?"
Dave huffed out a disgusted breath. "Haven't figured that part out yet. We're just at the beginning of negotiations with TexCat. I've still got some time." He jammed his hat back on his head and hunched deeper into his jacket as a sharp, cold wind slapped at them. "I'll think of something."
Nathan nodded. "If not, TexCat isn't the only beef buyer in the world."
"No," Dave agreed. "But they're the best."
He wanted that contract. And what Dave Firestone wanted, he got. Period. He'd clawed and fought and earned his success the hard way. Not a chance in hell he'd stop before he was finished.
Mia Hughes opened the pantry door and stared inside at the nearly empty shelves as if expecting more food to suddenly appear. Naturally, that didn't happen. So, with a sigh, she grabbed another package of Top Ramen and headed for the stove.
"Honestly, if I have to eat noodles much longer " She filled a pan with a cup of water, turned on the fire underneath and watched it, waiting for it to boil. She glanced at the package in her hand. "At least this one is beef flavor. Maybe if I close my eyes while I eat it I can pretend it's a burger."
Well, that image made her stomach growl. She slapped one hand to her belly as if to appease it somehow. It didn't work. She was on the ragged edge and had been for a few weeks now.
As Alex Santiago's housekeeper, she'd had access to the household account at the bank. But she'd been using that money to pay utility bills and the hundreds of other things that had come up since Alex had disappeared. She hadn't had any extra to waste on trivial things like her salary or food. So she'd made do with the staples that had been in the pantry and freezer. But the cupboards were practically bare now and only ice cubes were left in the freezer. And it wasn't as if she had money coming in. Even her intern position at Royal Junior High was ending soon. She couldn't go out and get a job, either. What if Alex called the house while she was gone?
"Of course," she reassured herself aloud, "the upside is you've lost five pounds in the past couple of weeks. Downside? I'm ready to chew on a table leg."
Her voice echoed in the cavernous kitchen. The room was spotless, but that was due more to the fact that it hadn't seen much action in the past few months than to Mia's cleaning abilities. Though she took her duties as housekeeper seriously and kept the palatial mansion sparkling throughout. Still, since Alex went missing a few months ago, there hadn't been much for Mia to do in the big house.
The water came to a boil and she stirred in the dried noodles and flavor packet before putting the lid on the pan again then moving it off the heat to steep. While she waited for her lunch, she wandered to the wide windows overlooking the stone patio and the backyard beyond.
From this vantage point, she could also see the roof-lines of Alex's neighbors, though the homes in the luxurious subdivision known as Pine Valley weren't crowded together. Each home was different, custom designed and built by the owners, and each sat on a wide, wooded lot so there was plenty of privacy.
Right now though, Mia had too much privacy. She'd been alone in the house since Alex's disappearance. Alone with a phone that hadn't stopped ringing in weeks. Reporters hounded her anytime she left the house, so she rarely left anymore. Since Pine Valley was a gated community, only a few reporters had managed to sneak past the gate guard to annoy her. But she knew that wouldn't last. The longer Alex was gone, the more brazen reporters would become.
A wealthy man going missing was big news. Especially in a town the size of Royal.
She tapped her short, neat fingernails against the cold, smooth, black granite countertop. Mia's stomach did a slow turn and she swallowed hard. Alex had been good to her. He'd given her a job when she'd most needed one. He'd allowed her the space to continue her education and because of that, she was close to getting her counseling degree.
Not only did Mia really owe Alex, she liked him, too. He'd become a good friend as well as her employer, and Mia didn't have many friends. She stared blankly out the window and absently noted the treetops whipping in the cold October wind. She shivered involuntarily and turned her back on the view. She didn't want to think about winter coming and Alex still being gone. She hated not knowing if her friend was safe. Or hurt. But she had to keep positive and believe that Alex would come home.
She also couldn't help worrying about what she was going to do next. The bills had been paid, true. But her tuition was due soon and if Alex wasn't there to pay her
When the phone rang, she jumped and instinctively reached for it before stopping herself and letting it go to the answering machine. Weeks ago, she'd decided to let the machine pick up so she could screen her calls, in an attempt to avoid reporters and the unceasing questions she couldn't answer.
Still, she was always hoping that somehow the caller might be Alex, telling her he was fine, and sorry he'd worried her and oh, that he was wiring more money into the household accounts. Not very realistic, but Mia's innate optimism was hard to discourage.
The machine kicked on and after the beep, a female voice asked, "Mia? You there? If you're listening, pick up."
Smiling, she snatched up the receiver. "Sophie, hi."
"Still dodging reporters?"
"Every day," she said and leaned back against the counter. Her gaze slid to the backyard again and the trees waving and dancing in the wind. "They don't give up."
"At least they can't get past the gate guard there to bother you in person."
"A few of them have managed, but one call to security and that's taken care of." Though she hated feeling as though she was living through a medieval siege. And she had to admit that living alone in this big house made her a little nervous at night. Yes, Royal was a safe place, and a gated community should have made her feel even more secure. But with Alex gone and the world wondering why, Mia was always worried that someone might come sneaking around the house at night, looking for clues or a story. But Mia didn't want her thoughts to go to the dark side. Alex was missing, yes. But she couldn't allow herself to think he was gone forever.
"My offer to come and stay with me for a while still holds, you know."
Sophie Beldon was a good friend. She was also Alex's assistant, and since his disappearance, the two women had become even closer friends. Together, they'd done all they could to search for Alex, and still had come up empty. But they had another plan now. One that had Mia looking for more information on Dave Firestone, a business rival of Alex's. Of course, she hadn't actually started on that plan yet, since she had no idea how to go about it.