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It had been a jarring encounter.
Callie Kirby felt chilled, and it wasn't just because it was November in south Texas. She watched the stepbrother she worshiped walk away from her as casually as if he'd moved around an obstacle in his path. In many ways, that was what Callie was to Micah Steele. He hated her. Of course, he hated her mother more. The two Kirby women had alienated him from the father he adored. Jack Steele had found his only son wrapped up in the arms of his young wifeCallie's motherand an ugly scene had followed. Callie's mother, Anna, was sent packing. So was Micah, living mostly at his father's home while he finished his last year of residency.
That had been six years ago, and the breach still hadn't healed. Jack Steele rarely spoke of his son. That suited Callie. The very sound of his name was painful to her. Speaking to him took nerve, too. He'd once called her a gold digger like her mother, among other insults. Words could hurt. His always had. But she was twenty-two now, and she could hold her own with him. That didn't mean that her knees didn't shake and her heartbeat didn't do a tango while she was holding her own.
She stood beside her little second-hand yellow VW and watched Micah bend his formidable height to open the door of the black convertible Porsche he drove. His thick, short blond hair caught the sunlight and gleamed like gold. He had eyes so dark they looked black, and he rarely smiled. She didn't understand why he'd come home to Jacobsville, Texas, in the first place. He lived somewhere in the Bahamas. Jack had said that Micah inherited a trust fund from his late mother, but he'd sounded curious about his son's luxurious lifestyle. The trust, he told Callie privately, wasn't nearly enough to keep Micah in the Armani suits he wore and the exotic sports cars he bought new every year.
Perhaps Micah had finished his residency somewhere else and was in private practice somewhere. He'd gone to medical school, but she remembered that there had been some trouble in his last year of his residency over a lawsuit, stemming from a surgical procedure he refused to do. Neither she nor his father knew the details. Even when he'd been living with his father, Micah was a clam. After he left, the silence about his life was complete.
He glanced back at Callie. Even at a distance he looked worried. Her heart jumped in spite of her best efforts to control it. He'd had that effect on her from the beginning, from the first time she'd ever seen him. She'd only been in his arms once, from too much alcohol. He'd been furious, throwing her away from him before she could drag his beautiful, hard mouth down onto hers. The aftermath of her uncharacteristic boldness had been humiliating and painful. It wasn't a pleasant memory. She wondered why he was so concerned about her. It was probably that he was concerned for his father, and she was his primary caretaker. That had to be it. She turned her attention back to her own car.
With a jerk of his hand, he opened the door of the Porsche, climbed in and shot off like a teenager with his first car. The police would get him for that, she thought, if they saw it. For a few seconds, she smiled at the image of big, tall, sexy Micah being put in a jail cell with a man twice his size who liked blondes. Micah was so immaculate, so sophisticated, that she couldn't imagine him ruffled nor intimidated. For all his size, he didn't seem to be a physical man. But he was highly intelligent. He spoke five languages fluently and was a gourmet cook.
She sighed sadly and got into her own little car and started the engine. She didn't know why Micah was worried that she and his father might be in danger from that drug lord everyone locally was talking about. She knew that Jacobsville mercenaries Cy Parks and Eb Scott had been instrumental in closing down a big drug distribution center, and that the drug lord, Manuel Lopez, had reputedly targeted them for revenge. But that didn't explain Micah's connection. He'd told her that he'd tipped law enforcement officials to a big drug cargo of Lopez's that had subsequently been captured, and Lopez was out for blood. She couldn't picture her so-straitlaced stepbrother doing something so dangerous. Micah wasn't the sort of man who got involved in violence of any sort. Certainly, he was a far cry from the two mercenaries who'd shut down Lopez's operation. Maybe he'd given the information to the feds for Cy and Eb. Yes, that could have happened, somehow. She remembered what he'd said about the danger to his family and she felt chilled all over again. She'd load that shotgun when she and Jack got home, she told herself firmly, and she'd shoot it if she had to. She would protect her stepfather with her last breath.
As she turned down the street and drove out of town, toward the adult day care center where Jack Steele stayed following his stroke, she wondered where Micah was going in such a hurry. He didn't spend a lot of time in the States. He hadn't for years. He must have been visiting Eb Scott or Cy Parks. She knew they were friends. Odd friends for a tame man like Micah, she pondered. Even if they ran cattle now, they'd been professional mercenaries in the past. She wondered what Micah could possibly have in common with such men.
She was so lost in thought that she didn't notice that she was being followed by a dark, late model car. It didn't really occur to her that anyone would think of harming her, despite her brief argument with Micah just now. She was a nonentity. She had short, dark hair and pale blue eyes, and a nice but unremarkable figure. She was simply ordinary. She never attracted attention from men, and Micah had found her totally resistible from the day they met. Why not? He could have any woman he wanted. She'd seen him with really beautiful women when she and her mother had first come to live with Jack Steele. Besides, there was the age thing. Callie was barely twenty-two. Micah was thirty-six. He didn't like adolescents. He'd said that to Callie, just after that disastrous encounteramong other things. Some of the things he'd said still made her blush. He'd compared her to her mother, and he hadn't been kind. Afterward, she'd been convinced that he was having an affair with her mother, who didn't deny it when Callie asked. It had tarnished him in her eyes and made her hostile. She still was. It was something she couldn't help. She'd idolized Micah until she saw him kissing her mother. It had killed something inside her, made her cold. She wondered if he'd been telling the truth when he said he hadn't seen her mother recently. It hurt to think of him with Anna.
She stopped at a crossroads, her eyes darting from one stop sign to another, looking for oncoming traffic. While she was engrossed in that activity, the car following her on the deserted road suddenly shot ahead and cut across in front of her, narrowly missing her front bumper.
She gasped and hit the brake, forgetting to depress the clutch at the same time. The engine died. She reached over frantically to lock the passenger door, and at the same time, three slim, dark, formidable-looking men surrounded her car. The taller of the three jerked open the driver's door and pulled her roughly out of the car.
She fought, but a hand with a handkerchief was clapped over her nose and mouth and she moaned as the chloroform hit her nostrils and knocked her out flat. As she was placed quickly into the back seat of the other car, another man climbed into her little car and moved it onto the side of the road. He joined his colleagues. The dark car turned around and accelerated back the way it had come, with Callie unconscious in the backseat.
Micah Steele roared away from the scene of his latest disagreement with Callie, his chiseled mouth a thin line above his square jaw. His big hands gripped the steering wheel with cold precision as he cursed his own lack of communication skills. He'd put her back up almost at once by being disparaging about the neat beige suit she was wearing with a plain white blouse. She never dressed to be noticed, only to be efficient. She was that, he had to admit. She was so unlike him. He seemed conservative in his dress and manner. It was a deception. He was unconventional to the core, while Callie could have written the book on proper behavior.
She hadn't believed him, about the danger she and her stepfatherhis fathercould find themselves in. Manuel Lopez wasn't the man to cross, and he wanted blood. He was going to go to the easiest target for that. He grimaced, thinking how vulnerable Callie would be in a desperate situation. She hated snakes, but he'd seen her go out of her way not to injure one. She was like that about everything. She was a sucker for a hard-luck story, an easy mark for a con artist. Her heart was as soft as wool, and she was sensitive; overly sensitive. He didn't like remembering how he'd hurt her in the past.
He did remember that he hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. He stopped to have a sandwich at a local fast-food joint. Then he drove himself back to the motel he was staying at. He'd been helping Eb Scott and Cy Parks get rid of Lopez's fledgling drug distribution center. Just nights ago, they'd shut down the whole operation and sent most of Lopez's people to jail. Lopez's high-tech equipment, all his vehicles, even the expensive tract of land they sat on, had been confiscated under the Rico statutes. And that didn't even include the massive shipment of marijuana that had also been taken away. Micah himself had tipped off the authorities to the largest shipment of cocaine in the history of south Texas, which the Coast Guard, with DEA support, had appropriated before it even got to the Mexican coast. Lopez wouldn't have to dig too deeply to know that Micah had cost him not only the multimillion-dollar shipment, but the respect of the cartel in Colombia as well. Lopez was in big trouble with his bosses. Micah Steele was the reason for that. Lopez couldn't get to Micah, but he could get to Micah's family because they were vulnerable. The knowledge of that scared him to death.
He took a shower and stretched out on the bed in a towel, his hands under his damp blond hair while he stared at the ceiling and wondered how he could keep an eye on Callie Kirby and Jack Steele without their knowing. A private bodyguard would stick out like a sore thumb in a small Texas community like Jacobsville. On the other hand, Micah couldn't do it himself without drawing Lopez's immediate retaliation. It was a difficult determination. He couldn't make himself go back to the Bahamas while he knew his father and Callie were in danger. On the other hand, he couldn't stay here. Living in a small town would drive him nuts, even if he had done it in the past, before he went off to medical school.
While he was worrying about what to do next, the telephone rang.
"Steele," he said on a yawn. He was tired.
"It's Eb," came the reply. "I just had a phone call from Rodrigo," he added, mentioning a Mexican national who'd gone undercover for them in Lopez's organization. He'd since been discovered and was now hiding out in Aruba.
"What's happened?" Micah asked with a feeling of dread knotting his stomach.
"He had some news from a friend of his cousin, a woman who knows Lopez. Have you seen Callie Kirby today?" Eb asked hesitantly.
"Yes," Micah said. "About two hours ago, just as she was leaving her office. Why?"
"Rodrigo said Lopez was going to snatch her. He sounded as if they meant to do it pretty soon. You might want to check on her."
"I went to see her. I warned her
"You know Lopez," Eb reminded him somberly. "It won't do her any good even if she's armed. Lopez's men are professionals."
"I'll do some telephoning and get back to you," Micah said quickly, cursing his own lack of haste about safeguarding Callie. He hung up and phoned the adult day care center. Callie would surely be there by now. He could warn her.
But the woman who answered the phone said that Callie hadn't arrived yet. She was two hours late, and her stepfather was becoming anxious. Did Micah know where she was?
He avoided a direct answer and promised to phone her back. Then, with a feeling of utter dread, he climbed into the Porsche and drove past Kemp's law office, taking the route Callie would have taken to the adult day care center.
His heart skipped a beat when he reached the first intersection outside the city. At this time of day, there was very little traffic. But there, on the side of the road, was Callie's yellow VW, parked on the grass with the driver's door wide-open.
He pulled in behind it and got out, cursing as he noted that the keys were still in the ignition, and her purse was lying on the passenger seat. There was no note, no anything.
He stood there, shell-shocked and cold. Lopez had Callie. Lopez had Callie!
After a minute, he phoned Eb on his car phone.
"What do you want me to do?" Eb asked at once, after Micah had finished speaking.
Micah's head was spinning. He couldn't think. He ran a hand through his thick hair. "Nothing. You're newly married, like Cy. I can't put any more women in the firing line. Let me handle this."
"What will you do?" Eb asked.
"My man Bojo's in Atlanta visiting his brother, but I'll have him meet me in Belize tomorrow. If you have a number for Rodrigo, call it, and tell him to meet me in Belize, too, at the Seasurfer's Bar. Meanwhile, I'll call in the rest of my team." He was remembering phone numbers and jotting them down even as he spoke. "They're taking a holiday, but I can round them up. I'll go in after her."
Eb suggested calling the chief of police, Chet Blake, because he had contacts everywhere, including relatives in positions of powerone was even a Texas Ranger. Micah couldn't argue. If Eb wanted to tell the man, let him. He was going to get to Callie while she was still alive.
"Just remember that somebody in law enforcement is feeding information to Lopez, and act accordingly. I've got to make arrangements about Dad before I leave."
"I'm sorry, Micah."
"It's my fault," Micah ground out furiously. "I shouldn't have left her alone for a minute! I warned her, but what good did that do?"
"Stop that," Eb said at once. "You're no good to Callie unless you can think straight. If you need any sort of help, logistical or otherwise, I have contacts of my own in Mexico."
"I'll need ordnance," Micah said at once. "Can you set it up with your man in Belize and arrange to have him meet us at that border café we used to use for a staging ground?"
"I can. Tell me what you want."