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Jackson Champion stood on the Bayport Container Yard loading dock, sleeves rolled up, his cowboy hat tipped back on his head. Overhead illumination eclipsed the moon, making the busy container yard brighter than day with light reflecting off the low ceiling of clouds.
Despite the solid concrete beneath his feet, Jackson's body still swayed to the rhythm of the ocean. It usually took more than twenty-four hours for him to get his land legs back after several weeks at sea. His two-month reprieve, delay of the inevitable, call it what it wasokay, escape was the right wordhad come to an end.
The time had come to face the consequences of a night spent in Ysabel Sanchez's arms. Yet here he was delaying the face-to-face he owed her by sticking around to direct the offloading of cargo from his ship. A task the stevedores and deckhands normally managed quite well without his presence.
Cranes lifted containers from the ship, stacking them in the container yard with artful precision. He didn't have to be there, but he told himself he wanted to supervise the unloading of the special cargo he'd shipped for his remaining friends and founding members of the Aggie Four Foundation, Flint and Akeem. Just one more delay tactic. A twinge of regret passed over Jackson. One of their four had died recently; the pain still ached like an open wound.
The crate full of expertly designed Rasnovian saddles would bring a good price at Akeem's auction. But the money wouldn't buy a replacement for Jackson's pending loss. An inevitable defeat from any angle he chose to view it.
The woman was sure to leave him. No doubt about it. She had every right. Hell, she had the right to sue him for sexual harassment if she wanted to get legal on him. Not that Izzy would do that. She was one classy lady, grown from the same stock as he was. The stock of hard knocks. A grin threatened to spill across his face. She hated being called Izzy.
No, Ysabel wouldn't sue; she'd walk out on him. The two months enforced reprieve could be viewed as running away from his problemalthough the problems he'd encountered while away had needed his on-site decision power. Jackson chose to call it delaying the inevitable. He'd missed her and he'd miss her even more when she was gone entirely out of his life.
He rolled the kinks out his shoulders and located the stevedore superintendent, the one man on the dock with a clue as to where the container holding the saddles was located and when it would be unloaded.
Being the owner didn't make him any more anxious to interrupt the complicated task of unloading a cargo ship. Weight distribution meant everything to the successful completion of the task.
His skin twitched in the side of his jaw, impatience settling in like a case of poison ivy, making him want to scratch all over. Now that he was back in Houston, he was anxious to get to the office and see what had happened in his two-month absence from the corporation he'd built from the ground up, Champion Shipping, Inc. Everyone would have gone home for the evening, except perhaps Ysabel. If he could catch her alone, maybe he could apologize and promise not to let it happen again.
His groin tightened at just the thought of that one night of the most incredible sex he'd ever experienced. Rebound sex, he'd called it. And it could cost him his most valuable employee. Ysabel Sanchezexecutive assistant, master planner and right-hand man
er, woman. Ysabel was the one person he could count on to ground him in reality, tell it like it was and pick the right tie for every occasion. Even in his absence, she managed the day-to-day operations without a snag. She'd kept his schedule straight, reminded him of his social obligations and arranged his itinerary long-distance. The woman was phenomenal in more ways than he could enumerate.
Then why was he so hesitant to head back to the office?
Because he knew as soon as they were face-to-face, she'd hand him her resignation and walk out. Ysabel wasn't a one-night-stand kind of woman. She'd want the happily-ever-after, something Jackson hadn't believed in since his mother left him and his father twenty-seven years ago.
And after the fiasco with his ex-fiancée, Jackson was even less inclined to commit to that particular lifestyle than before. Not that Ysabel was anything like Jenna Nilsson.
The stevedore superintendent, Percy Pearson, glanced his way, Jackson's cue he could ask his question without interrupting the man's concentration.
Jackson closed the distance and held out his hand to the man. "Percy, good to see you. Have you seen the container with the special cargo yet?"
The man checked his handheld cargo tracking device. "Unloaded fifteen minutes ago. Should be in the second row of containers in that section." He pointed to a row of containers on the dock.
"Thanks." Jackson strode to the end of the row and found the container marked "Special." When he circled behind the container, he noted the container door had been opened and part of the shipment had been removed. "What the hell?"
A forklift carrying a pallet with a crate on it headed away from the ship and the open container, moving faster than was authorized in the chaotic structure of the container yard.
"Mr. Champion? I'm Tom Walker, the super said I could find you here." A young man probably in his early twenties hurried up to Jackson. He wore a crisp new business suit and shiny black wing-tipped shoes, fresh off the shelves. "Miss Sanchez sent me over. I'm the new management trainee on the executive rotation."
Was this Ysabel's idea of a joke? Not that he had time to worry about it when someone had pilfered his goods. "Did you see that?" Jackson pointed to the forklift. "I think that forklift driver took off with my property."
"Was he supposed to?" Tom asked.
"No." Jackson's gut tightened, anger rocketing through his bloodstream the farther away the forklift moved.
"You want me to chase him?" Tom stared down at his wing tips and shrugged. "I could probably catch him if I was wearing my running shoes."
"No, I'll take care of it." Jackson ran for an idle forklift he'd spotted standing between the containers. He hopped aboard and in seconds had the machine running. With the skill of one who'd done his share of stevedoring in his younger days, he backed out of the containers and turned toward the disappearing forklift. With a flip of a lever, Jackson shifted into forward and pushed the accelerator all the way forward.
Before the forklift moved two yards, Tom jumped on the back and held on to the cage surrounding the seat.
"What are you doing?" Jackson asked.
"Miss Sanchez told me I should stick to you like glue, no matter what."
"She did, did she?" Jackson pushed the vehicle faster, swinging around the corner the other forklift had taken.
"Yes, sir. Wow! I didn't know this rotation would be this exciting!" he shouted over the whine of the engine pushing the forklift to its limits.
Jackson didn't know his return would be as eventful as his two-month trip. He could use a little calm and boredom about now.
The thief had a lead of at least a football field's length, maneuvering past containers and personnel, narrowly missing several longshoremen unhooking a pallet from a crane's cable.
The forklift made a sharp left turn, sliding between rows of neatly stacked containers in weathered shades of orange, red and silver.
Rage spurred on Jackson. When he reached the spot where the other forklift had spun to the left, he didn't slow down. His forklift skidded to the right, skinning the side of a metal container, the clash of metal on metal sending sparks flying.
"You all right back there?" Jackson called out, a quick glance back at the young man made him smile.
The guy's suit was dirty, his face smudged with grease from the forklift and his teeth shone white in a face-splitting grin. "I'm still here, aren't I?"
Jackson could admire a tough kid. "You passed your first test."
"Oh, yeah? What test is that?"
"Keeping up with the boss!" He poured on the juice and sent the forklift shooting forward, but he could no longer see the other machine. "Where the hell did he go?" Slowing his own vehicle, he was about to give up and get the police involved when a shout behind him made him jump.
"There!" From his perch on the back of the forklift, Tom could see farther. He waved his arm back behind him, jabbing his finger to the right. "He went down that aisle."
Jackson slammed the forklift in Reverse and spun around, heading back the way Tom pointed. Like the young man said, the runaway forklift was making tracks across the container yard and would have gotten away if not for Tom's sharp eyes and quick response.
As he closed in on the other forklift, Jackson prepared for a fight, but he didn't get the chance.
The forklift jerked to the left, crossing Jackson's path.
Jackson stomped the brake and swerved to the right.
The forklift skidded back to the right and then left. Clearly the driver had lost control and was headed straight for a container.
"Look out!" Jackson called out, but the forklift driver drove full speed into the twenty-foot container. A small explosion blasted wood crating and metal in all directions.
"Get down!" Jackson threw himself off the forklift and dragged Tom off the back. Before they could hit the ground, another explosion shook the earth as the propane tank on the wrecked forklift erupted in a fiery ball of flame.
"Well?" Delia's voice carried through the wood paneling of the bathroom door.
Ysabel stared down at the wand, blood rushing from her head, making her dizzy. As she'd suspected, but prayed otherwise, a blue line.
"Izzy? Are you all right?" Delia's voice was soft but insistent, bringing tears to Ysabel's eyes. She'd need her sister more than ever now.
Given all the other signs, Ysabel shouldn't have been surprised at the results of the test, but she'd hoped that maybe she was wrong. Maybe she'd missed her period because of stress and maybe that same stress had caused her stomach to be upset every morning for the past month. Yeah, and maybe pigs could fly.
So she was pregnant. She'd handled bigger problems for Champion Shipping; she could handle the matter of a baby, no problem. Ysabel opened the door and holding the wand up for her sister to see, stepped out of the bathroom.
Delia squealed and hugged her sister so hard she couldn't breathe. "I'm so excited. I get to be an auntie!"
Ysabel pried her sister loose and stepped back. "I'm glad someone is excited. You know it changes everything."
Delia's smile stayed in place. "So? Is that such a bad thing?"
"Only when the baby happens to be Jackson Champion's." Ysabel turned and paced the short length of Delia's living room floor in her Houston apartment. "Jackson's back in town." She stopped and sucked in a long shaky breath. "Holy Mary Mother of God, I'm about to be jobless."
"And pregnant. Why resign now? It's just not like you to quit anything, mi hermana. You sure you want to give up the best job you'll ever have?"
"I can get another." Ysabel ran a hand through her sleek light-brown hair that had worked its way out of the normal tight ponytail at the nape of her neck.
"Paying as well as the rich gringo pays you?" Delia huffed. "Not likely."
"Don't call him gringo" Ysabel automatically defended, dropping her hands to her sides, her fists tightening almost as much as the knot in her gut. "I'll find another job."
"So when are you going to tell him?" Her sister's brows winged upward. "The man has the right to know."
"I know, I know. I just can't risk letting him find out until I get far enough away from him."
"You really think he'll sue for custody? A playboy like Jackson Champion?"
Ysabel snorted. "The man keeps what's his. How do you think he got so rich?" He kept everything but the women in his life. For some reason he seemed to go through women like an addict goes through drugs. As far as Ysabel knew, she'd been around longer than any of the females close to him because she hadn't slept with him. Up until she made the Big Mistake.
"Ysabel, a child is different. It'll only slow him down."
"Not if he hires a nanny to raise it."
"Madre de Dios!" Delia crossed her arms over her chest. "No niece of mine will be raised by a perfect stranger. She has more than enough family in the area to raise her properly."
A sad smile lifted the corners of Ysabel's lips. "If all goes as I intend, I won't be in this area much longer."
Delia's eyes glistened. "But where will you go? Mama will be devastated if she doesn't get to spoil her first grandchild."
"It can't be helped. I won't lose my baby to anyone and I refuse to let him live a disrupted life of joint custody. He deserves a chance to be normal."
"Without a father?"
A pang of regret hit Ysabel square in the chest. "You and I both know Jackson rides life in the fast lane. He doesn't slow down long enough to notice anything but the business."
"He took enough time to get engaged."
"Only because it was on his scheduled time line of 'things to do before I die.' I penciled that in on his goals sheet when he wasn't looking one day. The man wouldn't have bothered if I hadn't." He'd totally missed the point, too. Ysabel could still feel the pain of watching him court woman after woman to find one who could provide the right corporate-wife image. He'd thought he'd found it in Jenna Nilsson. The witch. He'd even had Ysabel order an engagement ring for the woman. Wow. She shook her head. The memory still made her chest ache.
"Still, he did get engaged," Delia offered, wincing when Ysabel glared at her.
"For what it was worth!" Ysabel threw her arms in the air. "She was cheating on him from day one with an old boyfriend."
Heat filled her cheeks. "Yeah, but I didn't have the heart to tell him. The man is clueless when it comes to women. He deserved her."
"Wow, and here I thought you were in love with the guy."
"Emphasis on past tense." Ysabel tossed her long, straight hair behind her shoulder. "I'm so over him."
"Right, that's why we've been talking about him for the past
" Delia glanced at her wristwatch, "thirty minutes."
Anger surged in Ysabel's chest. "Of all people, I thought you'd understand." She grabbed her purse and keys. "I'm going back to my place."
"You mean you're going back to the office, don't you?" Delia stood and followed Ysabel toward the door. "I don't know why you bother to keep an apartment, you practically live at the office. What are you going to do when you aren't working there anymore?"