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"¡Dios mío!" Gabriella del Toro hissed under her breath. Blood welled up from the cut she'd inflicted upon herself with the can opener. She sighed. As if anything else could have gone wrong.
From his seat at the breakfast table, Joaquin, her bodyguard, looked up from his tablet. "I'm fine," she said, answering his unspoken question. "Just a cut."
She looked down at the injury. She had not anticipated that fixing some broth and toast for her brother, Alejandro, would be so difficult. But then, everything was difficult right now. While she had spent time in the kitchen back at Las Cruces, the ancestral del Toro estate west of Mexico City, she'd never actually prepared anything more than tea and coffee. Their cook had thought that preparing meals was beneath the lady of the house, even if the lady had been only twelve. No one had thought to teach Gabriella the first thing about cooking since her tía had tried to show her how to make tortillas from scratch.
Gabriella had been seven the last time Papa had taken her and Alejandro to see their mother's sister. A full twenty years had passed since then.
As Gabriella rinsed the cut under the faucet and wrapped her wounded finger in a towel, she mentally bemoaned how this must look. She was the daughter of Rodrigo del Toro, one of the most powerful legitimate businessmen in all of Mexico. She was one of the most sought-after jewelry designers in Mexico City. She regularly transformed hunks of metal and pieces of rock into wearable art with a Mayan influence.
But at this moment, she was every heiress stereotype rolled into one. She couldn't even open a can of soup.
The bleeding staunched, she went looking for a bandage. She heard Joaquin stand and trail her out of the kitchen, although he kept a polite distance. She'd rarely been apart from the large, mostly silent man since her father had hired him to protect her when she had been thirteen. She was now twenty-seven. Joaquin Baptiste was nearing forty, but he had showed no signs of slowing down. Secretly, Gabriella hoped he never would. He was far more concerned with her happiness than her father-or even her brother-had ever been. That, and he had never let any harm befall her. Even if it did make dating challenging.
She walked to the bathroom and found a box of bandages in a cabinet, mentally cursing her clumsiness the whole time. The cut was on the edge of her index finger. It would make holding pliers while she shaped wire almost impossible.
Gabriella caught herself. Her pliers were not here, nor were any of her other jewelry-making supplies. It had not been possible to pack up all her tools. Besides, she had been under the impression that they would only be in America long enough to collect Alejandro.
Her poor brother. Her poor father, for that matter. The del Toro family was forever haunted by the specter of abductions, but they'd all thought Alejandro would be safe in Texas. Kidnappings for profit weren't nearly as common in America as they were in Mexico, Alejandro had argued when Rodrigo had hatched this scheme to send him north to America to "investigate" an energy company he wanted to acquire. Alejandro had refused to bring Carlos, his personal guard. He had told Rodrigo he would not go if he weren't allowed to do things the American way.
The thing that Gabriella still could not believe was that their father had relented and Alejandro had been allowed to live alone, as an American would. Alejandro had assumed the identity of Alex Santiago and come north alone a little more than two years ago.
Gabriella had suffered a bout of jealousy at that. She longed to be free to come and go as she pleased, but her father would not hear of it. She had stayed at Las Cruces, under constant watch of Joaquin-and Rodrigo.
At least, she had been jealous-until Alejandro had been kidnapped. However, the kidnappers had not demanded an exorbitant ransom, as was the usual custom. Instead, there had been no word from them-or Alejandro, until he had been found in the back of a coyote's truck. Coyotes smuggled immigrants. Alejandro, the son of Rodrigo del Toro, had been thrown in with the poor things desperate to start a new life in America.
The kidnappers had not treated Alejandro well. Although his wounds were healing, he had no memory of the attack, which meant he had no information to give the lawenforcement officers who occasionally checked on him. The case had stalled. Alejandro had returned, mostly whole, to his home in Royal, Texas. Now that his life was no longer in immediate danger, Gabriella had gotten the sense that the police weren't as dedicated to finding the criminals who had abducted him in the first place. Still, they were "requesting" that Alejandro remain in the country. Truthfully, Alejandro had showed no signs of wanting to go. He stayed in his room, resting or watching football- what the Americans called soccer.
Alejandro showed almost no signs of memory, except his love of football. He didn't seem to remember her, or Papa. In fact, the only reaction they'd gotten out of him beyond a mumbled thank-you when she brought him his meals was when Papa had announced they would be returning to Las Cruces within the week. Only then had Alejandro sparked to life, insisting that he was not going anywhere. Then he had locked himself in his room.
So Rodrigo had set up temporary headquarters in a set of rooms in Alejandro's home in Royal that had recently been home to Mia Hughes, the former housekeeper. Papa was simultaneously running Del Toro Energy and utilizing his vast resources to identify the culprits that had taken Alejandro. Rodrigo was not about to let anyone get away with assaulting any member of his family. Gabriella could only hope that, when he caught the perpetrators, he wouldn't do something that would land him in an American prison.
Which meant that Gabriella had no idea how long the del Toro family would be trapped in this house together.
This was also why Joaquin was standing outside the bathroom as Gabriella tended her injury. If she had ever hoped of having the kind of freedom that Alejandro had tasted for two years, those hopes were now dashed. Her father would not allow her to go unguarded. Not after nearly losing his son.
Still, she was in America instead of in Las Cruces, and that was something. True, she had not seen much of America beyond the small private airport where the family jet had landed, or the dark night sky that had made it almost impossible to see this country where she suspected her brother had been his happiest. No, she'd mostly seen the Royal Hospital and then, the inside of Alejandro's house.
Thus far, she was underwhelmed by America.
She longed to do something besides tend to a frustratingly silent Alejandro or to defuse her father's angry outbursts. As much as she never thought she would say it, she missed Las Cruces. True, she had not been allowed to leave the estate's grounds, but within its securely patrolled borders, she'd had far more freedom than she'd had in Royal, Texas. She'd been able to chat with the maids and the cook. She'd been able to go to her workshop and work on her jewelry designs. She'd been able to saddle up Ixchel, her Azteca horse and, with Joaquin, ride wherever she pleased on Las Cruces' extensive grounds. It hadn't been true freedom. More like a reasonable facsimile of freedom.
But it was still more than what she had at the moment. Here, she was trapped with an invalid, an irate father and Joaquin, who, bless him, had never been much for conversation. The only break in the monotony had been the brief appearances of Maria, Alejandro's maid, as well as Nathan Battle, the local sheriff, and Bailey Collins, the state investigator who had been assigned to Alejandro's case.
Honestly, she wasn't sure how much longer she could stand it.
Gabriella wrapped the bandage around her finger, wishing she could wrap her head around the situation. For as long as she could remember, her world had been a safe, if constrained place. Now, with Alejandro's kidnapping, discovery and subsequent memory loss, everything was turned upside down.
In the midst of feeling sorry for herself, the doorbell chimed.
Perhaps Maria had returned. Gabriella liked talking to her. It was a relief to have a normal conversation with another woman, even if it was mere small talk about the weather and groceries. Anything to break up the monotony of the days in Alejandro's house.
She hurried out of the bathroom. Joaquin followed her to the door. They'd already reached an understanding that, in lieu of hiring more help-something her father was not interested in-Gabriella would answer the door and Joaquin would stand guard, ready to spring into action.
The bell chimed again, causing Gabriella to hurry. It couldn't be Maria-she wasn't that impatient. Which meant it was either the sheriff or the state investigator. Which meant her father would spend the better part of his afternoon raging at American injustices.
Resigned to her fate, Gabriella paused to catch her breath at the front door before opening it. She was, for the foreseeable future, the lady of the house. It was best to present the del Toro family in a positive light-all the more so because Maria had indicated that some members of the community were suspicious of the family of Alex Santiago. She checked her reflection in the hall mirror, thankful that the only thing out of place was the bandage on her finger, and affixed a warm smile to her face. She'd played the hostess for her father's business dinners before. She knew her role well.
Neither Sheriff Battle nor Agent Collins stood on the front stoop. Instead it was a cowboy-a tall, broad cowboy wearing a heathered sports jacket, a dark gray shirt and a dark pair ofjeans over his gray ostrich cowboy boots. The moment he saw her, he whipped his brown felt hat off of his head and held it to his chest.
Oh. Green eyes. jDios mio! she had never seen eyes so green in her entire life. They were beautiful-the color of the spring grass at Las Cruces. For a moment looking into his eyes felt It felt like coming home. His gaze affected her in a way she'd never before experienced.
"Howdy, ma'am." His voice was rough around the edges, as if he'd been outdoors in the February wind for some time. As he looked at her, one corner of his mouth crooked up, as if he were not surprised to see her, just pleased. "I'd like to talk to Alex, if he's up to it."
She was staring, she realized too late. Perhaps that was because she hadn't seen too many outsiders recently. But the way this cowboy-for there could be no doubt that was what he was-was looking at her had rooted her to the spot.
His smile deepened as he held out one hand. "I'm Chance McDaniel. I don't believe I've had the pleasure, Miss ?"
Any homecoming died in the air between them. Chance McDaniel? What she knew of this man was limited, but it did nothing to endear him to her-or her father. According to Sheriff Battle and Agent Collins, Mr. McDaniel had been close friends with Alejandro-or rather, with Alex Santiago. However, he was also one of the leading suspects in Alejandro's disappearance-a crime of which he had not been cleared.
What was he doing here? More to the point, what was she going to do about it?
Behind her, Joaquin moved, his hand slipping up under his jacket. Gabriella quickly remembered herself. She could not imagine what would have led a leading suspect to ask to speak to the victim of a crime, but she also couldn't have Joaquin pulling a weapon on him. This wasn't Mexico, after all.
With a quick look that had Joaquin stopping in his tracks, Gabriella remembered her warm smile. "Hello, Mr. McDaniel. Won't you please enter?" Instead of shaking his outstretched hand, she stepped back, narrowly missing Joaquin, and motioned for Chance to enter.
He stood there for a beat too long before letting his hand fall to his side as he took long strides into the foyer. He moved with a confident ease, projecting strength with each step. Of course he was confident. Otherwise he wouldn't have dared ask to see Alejandro.
Upon seeing Joaquin glowering off to one side, Mr. McDaniel offered up a, "Howdy, señor."
Behind his back, where he could not see it, a small smile danced across Gabriella's lips. She had not believed that real cowboys would actually speak in such colloquial language. It should have sounded ridiculous, but with Mr. Mc-Daniel's rough-edged voice, it sent shivers down her spine.
Joaquin did not respond, of course. He stood like a statue at the edge of the room, his gaze trained on Mr. McDaniel.
Mr. McDaniel obviously knew his way around the house. He headed straight for the living room before seeming to remember himself. He paused and turned back to her. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name, Miss ?" As he said it, his gaze worked its way up and down Gabriella.
She could see him taking in her crisp white shirt- thankfully unstained with the failed efforts at lunch-and her slim black pants underneath the knee-length, coral-colored sweater-coat that contrasted perfectly with the heavy rope of turquoise and silver she wore around her neck, with earrings to match. He was trying to determine if she was the new housekeeper or not, Gabriella decided, as if every woman of Hispanic origins came to America to be a maid. However, she knew that very few maids dressed as she did. Which assumption would he go with?
If this man had been anyone other than the prime suspect in Alejandro's disappearance, she would have hurried to put him at ease. She decided to let him wait. After all, she'd had to wait to learn if her brother was even alive. Someone else should feel as anxious as she had, even for a solitary minute.
She said, "May I get you some tea?" in her nicest tone.
Instead of looking irritated or even uncomfortable, Mr. McDaniel gave her the kind of grin that he probably used to get the average woman to fall all over him. Well, he was about to learn that Gabriella was not the average woman, even if she did suddenly feel a bit unsettled at the warmth in his eyes. "Much obliged, ma'am."
Gabriella motioned him to the living room and then walked slowly and deliberately into the kitchen. Thankfully, making tea was her specialty and she already had a pitcher of iced tea steeping. It only took a minute to assemble a tray of two glasses and some biscuits. The whole time, she strained to hear any other noise coming from the house. If Alejandro had heard the door, he gave no indication of venturing downstairs to see who it was. But it also appeared that Papa had not heard the visitor arrive, which was probably for the best.
If Mr. McDaniel had had something to do with Alejandro's disappearance, there was a chance that Gabriella could "sweet talk" it out of him, as the Americans would say. If Papa stormed into the room and began making accusations, who knew what would happen?