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"Sir, we have an intruder on the grounds," the housekeeper warned Dylan Greer.
Dylan's stomach clenched into a cold, hard knot. He silently cursed, said a brusque goodbye to his business associate in London and dropped the phone back onto its cradle.
An intruder. Well, the person had picked a good day for it.
It was Thanksgiving morning, barely minutes after sunrise, and he'd given most of his household help time off for the holiday. He was understaffed. Plus, there was a snowstorm moving in. With the already slick, icy roads, it'd probably take the sheriff at least twenty minutes to get out to the ranch.
"Where is he?" Dylan asked Vergie, the housekeeper, through the two-way speaker positioned on his desk.
"The north birthing stables."
In other words, too close to the house. That meant Dylan had to take care of this on his own.
"Call the sheriff," Dylan instructed Ver-gie as he unlocked his center desk drawer and took out the Sig Sauer that he'd hoped he would never have to use. He grabbed his thick shearling coat from the closet and put his gun and his cell phone in the pocket.
"You want me to tell Hank to go out there with you?" Vergie asked.
"No." Hank, the handyman, was seventy-two and had poor eyesight and hearing. Besides, this might be Dylan's chance to have a showdown with the person who'd made his life a living hell.
Dylan worked quickly to get the information he needed. He used his security surveillance laptop to bring up the camera image of the exterior of the birthing stables. It wasn't the most vulnerable spot on his six-hundred-and-thirty acres, but it did have one major security flaw.
Anyone could have parked on the dirt road a quarter of a mile away from his property, climbed the eight-foot-tall wooden fence and made their way across the pasture to the stables. Not an effortless undertaking in the cold, but it was doable.
And, on his computer screen, he saw the person who'd managed that feat.
There, next to the birthing-stable doors, was a shadowy figure holding a pair of binoculars. The person was dressed all in black. Black pants, bulky black coat and a knit cap. That attire and those binoculars weren't positive signs. Whoever it was hadn't dropped by to wish him a happy Thanksgiving.
Mercy, did he really have a killer on the grounds?
With everything that'd happened, Dylan couldn't take the chance that this was all some innocent intrusion.
"Lock up when I leave," Dylan instructed the housekeeper from the intercom. "And call me immediately if our guest moves closer to the house."
He left through the French doors of his office and stepped into the bitter cold. It wasn't officially even winter yet, but the weather obviously didn't know thatit was a good twenty degrees below normal. The wind howled out of the north, slamming right through his jacket, shirt, jeans and boots. A few snowflakes whirled through the air.
The birthing stables were on the opposite side of the house from where he'd exited, so Dylan knew the intruder hadn't seen him with those binoculars. He ran, following a row of Texas sagebrush and mountain laurel, hoping the shrubbery would conceal him for as long as possible. He wanted the element of surprise on his side. Correction. He needed that. Because this person might have already committed murder.
With that brutal reminder crawling through his head, Dylan took out his gun so that he'd be ready. He had to protect his son at all costs, and if necessary, that would include an out-and-out fight. He wasn't going to lose someone else he loved to this nameless, faceless SOB.
Though the cold burned his lungs and his boots seemed unsteady on the ice-scabbed pasture grass, he didn't slow down until he reached the stables. Dylan went to the rear of the building so he could approach the intruder from behind, and peered around the corner. The person in black hadn't moved an inch and was about fifty feet away.
He checked his watch. It'd been nearly fifteen minutes since the housekeeper had called the sheriff, and there was no sign of him. Dylan decided not to wait.
The wind worked in his favor. It was whipping so hard against the stables that it muffled his footsteps, and he halved the distance before he was heard. Dylan already had his gun aimed and ready when the intruder dropped the binoculars and spun around. It was a woman.
She was pale and trembling, probably from the cold, and she reached inside her jacket, as if it were an automatic response to draw a weapon.
"Don't," Dylan warned. He wanted her alive to answer the questions he'd wanted to ask for twelve years.
She nodded and without hesitation lifted her gloved hands in surrender. "Dylan Greer," she said.
It wasn't exactly a question so Dylan didn't bother to confirm it. "Mind telling me why you're trespassing on my property?"
She didn't answer. She just stood there staring at him.
Dylan didn't want to notice this about her, but she looked exhausted and fragile. He didn't let down his guard, though. There was too much at stake for him to do anything but stay vigilant.
He inched closer, so he could get a better look at her face. Definitely pale.
And definitely attractive.
Something he shouldn't have noticed, but it would have been impossible not to observe that about her. Her eyes were dark chocolate-brown and a real contrast to the strands of wheat-blond hair that had escaped her black stocking cap.
"I don't know you," he said.
Funny, he thought he would. Well, if she was the person responsible for two deaths. But he was beginning to doubt that she was the monster he originally believed her to be.
She didn't look like a killer.
And he hoped his change in attitude didn't have anything to do with those vulnerable brown eyes.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Collena Drake." She studied his face as if her name might mean something to him.
But Dylan kept pressing. "What are you doing here?"
She looked away. "I needed
to see you."
That hesitation and gaze dodging made him think she was lying. "The sheriff will be here any minute to arrest you for trespassing."
"Yes. I figured if you spotted me that you'd call the authorities. I don't blame you. If our positions were reversed, I would have done the same thing."
Her rational, almost calm response confused and unnerved him. "Then why come? Why risk certain arrest?"
And he was positive he wasn't going to like this answer. What would make this visit that important?
But the answer didn't come after all. He could see that she was breathing hard. Her warm breath mixed with the cold air and surrounded her face in a surreal opal-white fog. Mumbling something that Dylan didn't understand, she reached out with her right hand, grasping at the empty space, until she managed to catch on to the side of the building. The grip didn't help steady her.
She crumpled into a heap on the ground.
Dylan didn't let down his guard, or his gun, but he rushed to her to make sure she was okay. She'd apparently fainted, and when he touched her face, he discovered that her skin was ice-cold. After cursing, hesitating and then realizing there was nothing else he could do, he scooped her up into his arms and took her into the empty birthing stables.
He deposited her onto the hay-strewn concrete floor and flipped the switch on the wall to turn on the lights and the heater. Still, the place wouldn't be warm for hours, so he grabbed a saddle blanket from the tack shelf and covered her with it.
Dylan checked the time again. The sheriff was obviously running late, and he debated calling an ambulance. Her color wasn't great, but her breathing was steadier now and she had a strong pulse. This didn't appear to be a life-threatening situation.
Since she had no purse, Dylan stooped down beside her and checked her coat pocket for some kind of ID. He found a wallet, a small leather flip case and keys. He looked inside the wallet and located her Texas driver's license.
If the license was real, and it certainly looked as if it was, then her name was indeed Collena Drake. She was twenty-eight, five-feet-nine-inches tall, and she lived in San Antonio, a good two-hour drive away. Also in the wallet were credit cards and about three hundred dollars in cash, but no photos or other personal mementos to indicate exactly who this woman was.
However, the flip case gave him a clue.
It was a private investigator's badge.
That didn't answer any of Dylan's questions, but it did add some new ones to the list of things he wanted to know about this fainting trespasser.
He pulled open her jacket and immediately saw the shoulder holster and gun. Since he didn't want to take the chance of being shot, he extracted the weapon and put it in his own pocket.
"Miss Drake?" Dylan said, tapping her cheek. He took out his phone to call for an ambulance, but he stopped when she began to stir. "Are you all right?"
Her eyelids fluttered open, and she ran her tongue over her wind-chapped bottom lip.
"You passed out," he informed her. "Are you sick?"
She hesitated, as if giving that some thought. "No. I don't think so."
"Are you pregnant?" Not that there were any visible signs of a pregnancy, but then it would be hard to see a baby bump behind that loose sweater.
Something went through those intense dark eyes. Something painful. "No. Not a chance." Collena Drake held on to the blanket but maneuvered herself to a sitting position. In the process, she brushed against a post, specifically a raised nail head that caught onto her stocking cap. "It's been a while since I've eaten. I'm light-headed."
Dylan shook his head. "For a trespasser, you didn't exactly come prepared, now, did you? You nearly froze to death and you're starving. Is this your way of asking for an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner?"
"No," she snapped. She pulled off her stocking cap, and her blond hair spilled onto her shoulders. She untangled the yarn from the nail and slipped the cap back on. "I didn't come here for food."
He hadn't thought for a minute that she had. "Then, maybe it's a good time for you to tell me why you did come?"
"Because you're Dylan Greer." She inched away from him. "I saw you yesterday. You were in town."
That was true. He had gone into town the day before to do some early Christmas shopping. However, during all his errands, Dylan hadn't seen this woman.
That caused his concern level to spike again.
Because Dylan wanted to make sure she understood that he didn't approve of her, her presence or what she'd done, he leaned in closer. Too close. So that they were practically eye-to-eye.
She didn't cower from him. In fact, her chin came up, and instead of fatigue and frustration, he saw some resolve in her expression.
"What's a P.I. from San Antonio doing following me around town?" he demanded.
Her resolve increased even more. "I've been looking for you a long, long time, Dylan Greer."
And it sounded a little like a threat.
"I'm not a hard man to find. I've lived in Greer all my life. The town is named for my great-great grandfather. And I own a fairly well-known horse-breeding business. My name is even on the mailbox at the end of my driveway."
She made a soft sound of frustration. "You weren't easy to find because I didn't know I was looking for you."
He heard the sheriff's siren in the distance. Finally. It was about time. In five minutes, maybe less, he could turn all of this over to the authorities. But he couldn't do that until he learned more about his visitor.
Tired of answers that weren't making sense, Dylan decided to cut to the chase. "Did you kill my sister and my fiancée five years ago?"
Her eyes widened. "No. God, no."
Collena Drake sounded adamant enough, but it didn't satisfy Dylan. "Are you telling me that you didn't know about their murders?"
"I knew. I mean, I ran a background check on you. Their deaths popped up on the computer records. But the computer records didn't say anything about murder."
"Trust me," he snarled. "It was murder. Now, I want to know what you had to do with that."
"Nothing. Until three days ago, I'd never even heard of you."
Yet something else that didn't make sense, especially since she'd said she'd been looking for him for a long, long time. "So, what changed three days ago?"
The single word that left her mouth was more breath than sound.
Dylan didn't need the winter to chill him, because that comment put some ice in his blood. He stood and stared down at her. Waiting for an explanation. And not at all sure that he really wanted to hear it.
"I'm a cop," Collena Drake said, getting to her feet.
It was another crazy twist in this crazy encounter. "If you thought that would stop me from having you arrested, you thought wrong."
"I have no expectations about how you will or won't react to me." She hugged the blanket tighter to her chest and waited a moment until her teeth stopped chattering. "Last year I took a leave of absence from the San Antonio PD so I could work full-time on the Brighton case."
"Brighton?" he repeated. Dylan shrugged. "Am I supposed to know what that means?"
"You should. I'm talking about the Brighton Birthing Center investigation. Last year, the police discovered that the center was a front for all sorts of illegal activity." She paused. "Including illegal adoptions."
His heart felt as if someone had clamped a meaty fist around it. Because last year he'd adopted his own precious son, Adam. And he wasn't just a part of Dylan's life, Adam was his life.
"I didn't go through Brighton to get my son," he informed her.
"No. But Brighton still supplied the newborn that you adopted through the law firm you used."
"What makes you think that?" Dylan fired back.
Her jaw muscles stirred. "Because for months I've investigated every detail, every file and every person who had any association whatsoever with Brighton. Then, three days ago, all the pieces finally came together, and I was able to figure out what'd happened."
The siren grew closer, and Dylan knew that the sheriff was now on the ranch itself and headed straight for the birthing stable.
"Are you saying you believe that my son was illegally adopted?" Dylan asked.
"Yes," she answered without hesitation.
Oh, the thoughts that went through his mind. Nightmarish thoughts. Had the birth parents changed their minds about the adoption? Did they want Adam back? If they did, it wasn't going to happen. Adam was his son in every way that mattered, and he wasn't going to give him up.
Dylan pushed aside all the emotion he was feeling and focused on one glaring hole in her theory. "If you thought the adoption was illegal, then why did you come? Why aren't the San Antonio police here instead?"
She met his regard head-on. "I came because I have a personal stake in this."
Outside, the siren fell silent. Dylan heard the tires crunch on the frozen ground as the patrol car braked to a sudden stop.
"Is this your case?" he clarified.
Collena Drake shook her head. "It's not just that I'm the investigating officer. I, too, was a victim of the Brighton Birthing Center. After giving birth there, my baby was stolen."
Dylan was about to ask what that could possibly have to do with him, but the doors burst open. It wasn't the sheriff but Deputy Jonah Burke, a hulk of a man who was armed with a semiautomatic. The deputy definitely wasn't the person that Dylan wanted to see and, judging from Jonah's expression, he felt the same about Dylan.
"Everything okay?" the deputy asked, his attention nailed to Collena Drake.
She let the blanket fall to the floor so that she could again lift her hands in a show of surrender. However, she kept her gaze pinned on Dylan.
"Sixteen months ago, I gave birth to a son," she continued. Her voice cracked on the last word and her bottom lip began to tremble.
Dylan wasn't trembling, but he felt some of that raw emotion himself.
"So?" he challenged.
"So, you illegally adopted him. I'm Adam's mother."