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Matt Parker stepped outside Irina Castle's ranch house, the headquarters for Black Hills Search and Rescue in Sundance, Wyoming, and headed for the helipad a few hundred yards to the east. He lifted his head and took a deep breath of crisp, fresh Wyoming air.
The day before, for the first time in a year, he'd set foot on American soil, on Wyoming soil. He was back home, where he belonged. He loved the Black Hills. Even though they'd tried to kill him and his three best friends twenty years ago, he loved them. They sustained him.
He'd done his best to track down any rumors of Americans in the remote mountain province of Mahji-dastan, which was located in a disputed border area shared by Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. His objective had been to find Rook Castle, Irina's husband. But ultimately, he'd failed, as had BHSAR specialist Aaron Gold before him. And now Irina had called off the search.
As he circled the Bell 429 helicopter that was BHSAR Specialist Deke Cunningham's baby, another fellow specialist, Brock O'Neill, appeared in the doorway of the hangar.
"Parker," he said as Matt approached. The terse greeting was typical of the ex-Navy SEAL. He held out his hand and cocked his headthe only indication Matt had ever seen that the patch over his left eye bothered him.
Matt shook his hand. "Brock. How're you doing?"
"Hmph. Watch out. Your buddy's in a mood." Brock broke the handshake and headed toward the ranch house.
Matt suppressed a smile as he continued toward the hangar. For Brock, that was a warm greeting.
When he stepped through the open door, Deke was leaning back in his desk chair with his feet propped up, tossing a steel bearing from hand to hand. A small TV was tuned to a morning news show, its sound muted.
"Hey, Deke," Matt said. "Playing catch with yourself?"
Deke's feet hit the floor and he set the silver ball on his desk. "That goober I just hired overtightened a bolt and ruined this ball bearing. Brock offered to take him out for me."
"How're you doing?"
Matt took Deke's hand. "Been a while. Can't say I'm glad to see you."
"Man, I hate this," Matt said, nodding back toward the ranch house. "The place feels like a funeral home. I didn't see Irina. How's she holding up?"
Deke shook his head. "She's trying to act like she's fine, but she's not. She's in bad shape." Deke wiped a hand over his face and then pushed his shaggy hair back. "She's in town this morning, talking to her accountant again."
"So it's true?" Matt asked. "All her funds are wiped out?"
Deke nodded. "All her personal funds. Damn Rook for not signing everything over to her when they got married. I'd like to kill him" Deke stopped and clamped his jaw.
Matt snorted. "Too late. But it's not like he knew he was going to die."
"No?" Deke's brows lowered and his blue eyes turned black. "He spent his whole life stepping in front of bullets for other people. He had to figure one would hit him sooner or later."
"I don't get it. She's his wifewidow. Why doesn't she get his money?"
"It's all about the suspicious nature of his death. Just because they don't have a bodygreedy bastards."
"Hang on a minute," Matt said as he glanced at the TV. "Turn that up."
Deke scooped up the remote control and tossed it to him. "What is it?"
"Check out the pink dress. It's Margo Vick."
"Bill's mother? Opening another Vick Resort Hotel?"
"Not this time. That's FBI Special Agent Aaron Schiff standing next to her." Matt hit the volume control.
"I am personally offering a reward for any information leading to the kidnapper."
Kidnapper. Alarm pierced Matt's chest as Margo yielded the microphone to the FBI special agent. Among the dark suits, her brightly colored dress drew all eyes to her.
"We plan to hold press conferences on a regular basis, and we'll update the media as we have more information," Special Agent Schiff said. "Meanwhile, please let us do our job. Our primary concern is getting Mrs. Vick's grandson back home safe and sound."
"It's Aimee's baby. He's been kidnapped." Matt sat on the edge of a folding chair and propped his elbows on his knees, listening as Schiff answered questions from reporters. The cameras pulled back to reveal the front of the Vick mansion, located just outside Casper, Wyoming. Besides Schiff and Margo, several uniformed police officers stood on the marble steps, along with a couple of men in suits.
Matt's gaze zeroed in on a pale face behind Bill's mother. It was Aimee, dressed in something dark that blended with the suits and uniforms. Her eyes were huge and strands of hair blew across her face.
"There's Aimee." He didn't take his eyes off her until the camera switched back to Schiff. Then he shot up off the chair and paced, rubbing his thumb across his lower lip.
"There's something more going on here," he said as dread pressed on his chest like a weight.
"Whatwith the kidnapping?"
"About a month ago, my journal disappeared from my room."
Deke frowned and picked up the ball bearing again. He tossed it back and forth. "You mean on your laptop?"
Matt shook his head. With every passing second, pressure in his chest grew. "I keep notes in a small leather journal just for my use. I write my reports to Irina from my notes. You know, rumors of Americans in the area, anything I can glean about what Novus Ordo or his terrorist friends are up to, lists of expenses."
"You think it was stolen?"
"Okay. How does this have anything to do with the grandbaby of one of the wealthiest women in Wyoming being kidnapped?"
Matt glanced back at the TV, but there was a commercial on. "Work stuff wasn't all that was in the journal."
He turned toward the window, letting his gaze roam over the jagged peaks in the distance. "It's been a year since Bill died, and I haven't talked to her."
Deke didn't comment.
Matt rubbed his lip. "I just couldn't face her. So I was trying to compose a letter. A way totell her how sorry I am."
"I don't follow."
"Novus knows we've been searching for any clue that Rook survived his sniper attack. I've been followed ever since I got over there. I'm sure whoever stole my journal was sent by Novus, so now"
"Now he knows how you feel about Aimee," Deke supplied. He set the ball bearing down and sat up straight.
"How I feel?" Matt frowned. "Well, yeah. He knows about her baby and about me being William's godfather. And now Irina's stopped looking for Rook. What if Novus thinks she stopped because I found him?"
"And what? You think Novus had Aimee's baby kidnapped"
"To get to me."
Deke blew out a long breath. "Kind of a stretch. Why wouldn't he have grabbed you before now if he thought you knew something?"
"Think about it. I've been in Mahjidastan for the past year, searching for information about the only man on the earth who could identify Novus Ordo. And before me Aaron was there for a year. There hasn't been a day since Rook disappeared off that boat that a BHSAR specialist hasn't been looking for him. Suddenly, Irina pulls me out and doesn't replace me. Novus didn't have a chance to get his hands on me. I left within four hours of Irina's phone call."
Deke gave a short, sharp laugh. "That's quite a conspiracy theory. But it makes sensesort of. What now?"
Matt met Deke's gaze and set his jaw. "If Novus Ordo has taken Aimee Vick's baby to try and get his hands on me to interrogate me about Rook, I'm going to make it easy for him."
So far everything was working well. Not bad for a plan that had been put together in less than twenty-four hours.
The Vick baby was already in safe hands. The FBI was on the case. And, most important, Parker was acting exactly as predicted. He was inserting himself right into the middle of the kidnapping investigation.
A warm sense of satisfaction spread through him. It was immaterial whether Rook Castle was alive or dead. He had a larger goal. And finally, it was in sight.
He looked at his watch. Almost time. He had a telephone call to make.
THURSDAY 1430 HOURS
Aimee Vick paced back and forth across the living room of her mother-in-law's house. The room was crawling with FBI special agents, uniformed police officers, and technicians trailing spools of wire everywhere.
She looked at the grandfather clock for the hundredth timeor the thousandth. Two-thirty p.m. It had been eight hours. Eight miserable, terrifying hours without her baby.
When she'd woken up this morning and discovered that William was gone, she'd have sworn she couldn't survive eight hours without her baby. But she was still alive, and still rationalbarely.
William Matthew was only seven months old, and she'd never spent a night without him. Hardly even an hour. He was her anchor, her life since her husband's death.
She didn't notice that someone else had come in the front door until she heard her name called.
She turned and found herself face-to-face with Matt Parker, her husband's best friend, her baby's godfather, and the last man on earth she expected to see.
"Matt," she croaked. Her voice was hoarse and sounded harsh to her ears.
The last time she'd seen him was a year ago, when he'd brought her husband's body home. He looked just as stricken as he had that day.
Her first impulse was to run to him and hug him. But she didn't. Her emotions were already in turmoil, and seeing Matt made things even more confusing.
She should be furious at him. After all, he hadn't shown up for Bill's funeral, nor for William Matthew's christening, even though she'd honored Bill's request to name him as William's godfather.
She'd spent a good portion of the past year filled with anger. At Matt for taking Bill skydiving. At Bill for going off and dying. At herself for not putting her foot down and refusing to let him go.
Matt looked down and rubbed the back of his neck. After a few seconds, he raised his head enough to meet her gaze. "Aimee, I'm so sorry about your baby. I've talked with Special Agent Schiff. He's agreed to let me help with the investigationif you'll agree."
Aimee clutched at her abdomen, where the hollow nausea that had been her constant companion ever since Bill died was growing, threatening to cut off her breath.
"How did you get here?" She shook her head. "I mean, it just happened this morning"
"It doesn't matter. I'm here. Will you let me help?"
Aimee looked at Special Agent Schiff, who nodded at her reassuringly. "I can't believeI haven't seen you since"
Matt's gaze faltered. "I know. I'm sorry, Aimee."
Aimee started when Margo laid a hand on her shouldera heavy hand. "Aimee, dear, why don't you get a glass of water?"
"Thank you, Margo, but I'm not thirsty." She tried to step away from her mother-in-law's grasp, but Margo held on.
"I'd like to speak to Matthew alone for a moment."
Aimee rubbed her temple, where a headache was gathering. She knew what Margo planned to do. She was going to tell Matt to leave. She could practically see the wheels turning in her mother-in-law's head. A lot of people in Casper knew that Matt had been with Bill when he died, and Margo didn't like the Vicks being the subject of gossip.
Appearances. They'd always been her main concern. The magenta suit she wore attested to that. Only Aimee and the owner of Margo's favorite dress shop knew that her first act upon hearing of her grandson's kidnapping was to have the suit rushed over in time for the press conference.
"Anything you have to say, you can say in front of me, Margo." Aimee stiffened her back and met her mother-in-law's gaze.
"If you're sure, dear." Margo turned to Matt. "Aimee is terribly distraught. I'd rather she not be upset further. Perhaps you should leave."
Matt raised his brows and gazed at Margo steadily. "I have every right to be here. William Matthew is my godson."
A godson he'd never seen, Aimee thought. To make matters worse, Margo had spent the year since Bill's death trying to coax Aimee to relinquish control of William's future to her.
I have the resources and the connections, dear. You don't.
Grief and fear and anger balled up inside Aimee, until she felt as if she were going to explode. She had to bite her tongue to keep from lashing out at both of them.
Aimee had loved Bill, but the six years of their marriage had been a tug-of-war between him and his mother. Now she was in the same position, standing between Margo and Matt.
"William is my child," she blurted out. "This is my decision."
Every eye in the room turned their way.
"Aimee," Margo said warningly as her fingers tightened on Aimee's shoulder. "Don't make a scene."
Aimee wasn't sure how she felt about Matt showing up after a yearalmost to the daysince Bill's death, but she didn't doubt his ability. As a weather expert and survival specialist, rescuing the innocent was his specialty.
If anyone could save her child, Matt could.
"If Special Agent Schiff agrees, I want Matt here. It makes sense for him to be involved. He's trained in rescue and recov" Aimee's throat closed on the word recovery.
"Rescue," she said as firmly as she could. No crying. She hadn't cried yet, and she didn't plan to start now. Crying never helped anything. She was afraid that if she started she wouldn't be able to stop.
Margo's dark eyes snapped with irritation as she drew in a sharp breath. Then, with a quick glance around the room, she consciously relaxed her face and nodded.
"Of course," she said stiffly. "I didn't mean to imply otherwise." Her grip on Aimee's shoulder loosened and turned into an awkward pat.
The shrill ring of a cell phone split the air. Aimee jumped.
It was him. The kidnapper.
She whirled, looking for her purse, and then remembered that the FBI had forwarded her cell to Margo's house phone. At that instant, the landline rang.