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Blue Springs Ranch, Texas
Houston Sadler climbed down from his horse, eased off his Stetson and smacked it against his jeans to get rid of some of the dust he'd accumulated on his ride. Bear, his buckskin gelding, snorted in protest, and Houston led the horse into the stables so he could brush him down.
Neither of them got far.
"Don't move," someone said.
Houston didn't have time to move, or think, before he felt the barrel of a gun jam against his back.
"Lift your hands so I can see them," the gunman added. Or rather the gunwoman, because that was a female's voice.
Now the question was, what the hell did she want?
"If you're after money, there's none in the stables, and I don't have my wallet with me," Houston let her know.
He lifted his hands, releasing Bear's reins so the gelding would get out of the way. He damn sure didn't want his horse to get hurt when he took down this would-be robber. And there were no ifs, ands or buts about it, he was going to take her down. No one got away with pulling a gun on him.
"I'm not after your money," she spat out, as if he'd insulted her. Her voice was clogged and hoarse, and he thought he heard her sniffle.
"Are you thinking about kidnapping me?" he asked, trying another tack.
If so, she wouldn't get far, because his ranch hands were all over the place. In fact, one could and probably would come into the stables at any moment. All of Houston's men knew his schedule and knew he'd be at the tail end of his daily ride. At least one would likely come in and offer to groom Bear.
"I'm not here to kidnap you." Her voice was little more than a whisper now, and she didn't add anything else to tell him her intentions.
So, if this wasn't about money, then it was about love or revenge. But those were the likely reasons if he was dealing with a semisane person. He could rule out love, since he hadn't had more than a basic, no-strings-attached sexual relationship with a woman since his wife died three years ago.
That left revenge.
And if that was the case, then she probably intended to kill him. Or at least try.
"Do I know you?" he asked. Houston angled his head just slightly and looked over his shoulder. Then he cursed.
Oh, yeah. He knew her.
"Gabrielle Markham," Houston grumbled, and turned to face her.
He also dropped his hands. His mouth dropped open, too. She was the last person he expected to see in his stables with a gun on him.
But he rethought that.
The last time they'd crossed paths was…what?…a year ago? Maybe longer. She'd been dressed in a dove-gray business suit in the Bexar County courthouse, where she'd tried to sue his jeans off on behalf of her client, who also happened to be her brother, Jay.
She'd lost the case. Or rather, it'd been dismissed for lack of evidence.
Which meant Houston was back to the revenge motive, even though this was a pretty extreme measure for someone sour over losing a legal battle. People lost legal battles to him all the time.
Houston stared at her, trying to make sense of this situation and her. She certainly wasn't wearing a business suit today. Khaki pants and a pale pink shirt that was bulky and loose. She was also pale, no makeup, and the whites of her brown eyes were red.
She'd been crying, all right.
Her short, blond hair was spiky and uncombed, and it didn't look as if she'd done it to make a fashion statement. The cool October breeze rustled through it, messing it up even more than it already was.
"What happened?" Houston wasn't just alarmed now, he was concerned. Not so much for the woman who was holding him at gunpoint, but for whatever had driven her to come out to the Blue Springs ranch and commit a felony.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "You tell me what happened. I want answers, and I want them now."
He gave her a flat look. "You took the words right out of my mouth. Since I'm the one at gunpoint, I think I deserve an answer or two."
Those teary brown eyes narrowed. "Don't play games with me, Houston Sadler. You might have half the money in Texas, but I won't let you get away with this. Why did you do it? Why?"
Houston shrugged and tried to stay calm. Hard to do with that gun on him. "Because your brother was wrong to try to sue me, that's why. He was fired for a legitimate reason. Because he abused one of the cutting mares. Jay's damn lucky I didn't go after him the way he did that mare. Instead of beating him senseless, I fired his sorry butt. There was no wrongful dismissal involved. End of story."
Gabrielle shook her head. "This doesn't have anything to do with my brother." She paused, blinked. "Does it? Did you do this to get back at him by using me?"
Houston huffed. He was tired of these nonsense ques tions and having a Saturday-night special aimed at him.
He made sure Bear was out of the way first. The gelding was. So he lowered his head and dove right at Ga-brielle. He didn't hit her with his full weight, and cursed himself for being a gentleman at a time like this.
They landed hard, against the stable wall, and her hand smacked right into his groin. She probably hadn't planned to do that, but it worked. Houston saw stars and growled in pain. He also grabbed her hands, pinning them to the wall so she couldn't fire that gun.
Gabrielle fought back. No surprise there. Houston hadn't expected her to give up without a struggle.
He maneuvered his body so that he held her in place.
It wasn't that hard to do. She was five-four, if that, and her feeble attempts to hit him landed like weak thuds on his chest. She was what his father would have called a "pretty little thing." Houston figured he could add "desperate" to that particular description.
"Now, tell me why you're here," he insisted. "And I'm not giving you another chance. Talk now, or I yell for my ranch foreman. He'll come running, then call the sheriff, who'll haul your butt off to jail. Got that?"
Her breath gusted against his face, and she continued to glare at him before she finally started to relax. When she nodded, Houston nodded, too, and eased away from her. While he waited for her explanation, he checked the Saturday-night special.
"Forget something?" he asked, showing her the empty chambers. The gun wasn't even loaded.
"I didn't want to hurt you. I only wanted answers."
This was getting more and more confusing with each passing moment. "And you thought this was the way to get them? Guess a phone call or e-mail would be too simple?"
"Too risky," she mumbled.
Okay, that got his interest. "Why?"
"Because I knew you'd just let them know where I was. Please, call them off. Tell them what you did was a mistake. Don't try to take him away from me. Please, don't." The tears started to stream down her cheeks again.
Well, he'd demanded an explanation and had gotten one…of sorts. But Houston still didn't have a clue who she meant by "them" or "him." Was she talking about her brother now? Was someone after Gabrielle and him?
Before he could press for clarification about the mistake she thought he'd made, he heard his ranch foreman, Dale Burnett, call out to him.
"Houston? You in there?"
He also heard Dale's footsteps coming straight for the stables. His ranch foreman wasn't alone, either. There were at least two sets of footsteps.
"The sheriff's with me," Dale added. "He says it's important and he needs to speak to you."
Gabrielle immediately ducked behind a tack shelf. "Please, don't tell anyone I'm here," she whispered. She added another "please," and he saw the color blanch from her face. Her fingers trembled as she caught onto the shelf.
Again, Houston cursed his upbringing. He was a sucker for a pretty little thing in trouble, and while Ga-brielle and he might have had their differences, she was indeed in trouble.
Even though he figured he'd regret this, Houston shoved her gun into the back waist of his jeans and walked to the stable entrance to meet Dale and Sheriff Jack Whitley.
Dale's weathered face was ripe with concern, and he looked at Houston as if he had answers. Houston didn't. But he hoped to remedy that soon.
"Mr. Sadler," the sheriff said, in greeting.
"Houston," he offered, for the umpteenth time, though he figured the sheriff would probably never call him by his first name.
None of the townsfolk in Willow Ridge did. That was almost certainly due to Houston's surly father and grandfather who made sure everybody knew the Sadlers were stinkin' rich and should therefore be respected.
"What can I do for you, sheriff?"
Sheriff Whitley didn't jump right into an explanation. In fact, he looked downright uncomfortable when he turned to Dale. "Could you give Mr. Sadler and me some time to talk, alone?"
Dale looked at Houston, and he gave his ranch foreman a nod, to let him know he could leave.
"Is someone hurt?" Houston demanded, the moment Dale walked away. "Dead?"
"No. But I just got a visit from two detectives from the San Antonio Police Department. It's related to the maternity hostage situation that happened at the hospital about six weeks ago. You remember it?"
"Of course." It'd been all over the news. Masked gunmen had stormed into the San Antonio Maternity Hospital and held a group of women hostage for hours. People died, including a cop's wife. If Houston remembered correctly, the gunmen had been killed in a shoot out with the police, but there were rumors that they might have had an accomplice who was still at large.
"One of the former hostages, a woman, is missing, and SAPD wants to question her," the sheriff explained.
While that sounded like a serious problem, Houston wanted to hurry up this conversation so he could finish his little chat with Gabrielle.
"You don't think the gunmen's accomplice or the missing woman is around Willow Ridge or the ranch, do you?" Houston asked.
The lanky sheriff shook his head, paused again. "SAPD and the FBI don't have actual proof that there was an accomplice. They don't know where the woman is, either, but you might be able to help with that."
Houston glanced at Gabrielle to make sure she was staying put. She was. But he didn't think it was his imagination that she was even more alarmed than she had been before the sheriff's arrival.
"How do you think I can help?" Houston wanted to know.
The sheriff took a deep breath. "After the hostage situation ended, SAPD tested the DNA of the newborns left unattended in the nursery during any part of the standoff. When they got the results, they realized one baby boy didn't match any of the mothers, so they repeated the test. Those results came back yesterday. The first test wasn't wrong. The child didn't match any of the mothers. And now, one mother and one baby are missing."
Was the sheriff talking about Gabrielle? And was a baby snatcher peering out at him from the tack blankets?
"Is this woman involved with the gunmen and the hostage situation?" Houston asked.
"SAPD doesn't think so."
"I see," Houston mumbled. So, she might not have taken part in the hostage situation, but she wasn't completely innocent, either. "She took a kid who wasn't hers." There weren't enough gentlemanly bones in his body to stop him from turning Gabrielle in to the sheriff. He couldn't let her get away with kidnapping.
Houston looked at her, to let her know that, but she was frantically shaking her head.
"Well, the baby wasn't hers, not biologically, anyway," the sheriff explained, before Houston could speak. "But she did give birth to it."
Houston snapped his attention back to the sheriff. "Excuse me?"
"There was surveillance video of her going into the delivery room. And the baby's ID bracelet matched the one on the woman's wrist. The only reason the cops did a DNA test was that they wanted to be a hundred percent sure that the right mothers got the right babies. They hadn't expected anything like this to turn up."
Another glance at Gabrielle. She was no longer shaking her head. She was looking at him with the saddest doe eyes he'd ever seen.
That wouldn't work, either.
"This woman was a surrogate of some kind?" Houston asked, figuring he'd finally worked it out. Gabrielle had been a surrogate and had changed her mind about giving up the baby. However, that didn't explain why the cops and sheriff would think this had anything to do with him.
The sheriff nodded. "Her name is Gabrielle Markham, an attorney I think you had some dealings with."
"I know her," Houston admitted. "Did she break the law when she ran with the baby?"
"Maybe. The police are still investigating it, but she might have become a surrogate through illegal means. And she might have done that so she could have some leverage over you. If all that's true, then, yeah, it would be obstruction of justice to take the child."
Gabrielle made a soft gasp, and even though it was soft, Houston thought it might be laced with outrage.
The sheriff glanced past Houston and looked around the stables. He even took a step forward, probably intending to go inside and have a closer look around to see what had made that sound. Soon, Houston would let him do just that. But he wanted to hear the rest of this little story first.
"How could Ms. Markham hope to gain any leverage over me with an illegal surrogacy?" Houston asked.
Sheriff Whitley met him eye-to-eye. "Mr. Sadler… Houston, this is going to be tough news for you to hear. I figured I should warn you about that upfront."
A lot of bad things went through Houston's mind, but he managed a nod. Oh, this wouldn't be good. In all his thirty-six years, the sheriff had finally called him by his first name, and his tone was that of pure sympathy.
The sheriff eased off his hat. "About five years ago, your late wife, Lizzy, and you used the Cryogen Clinic, in San Antonio, to harvest Lizzy's eggs so you'd have embryos for in vitro fertilization."
Houston held up his hand to stop the sheriff. "We did, but we never used the embryos. Well, not successfully anyway." They'd made a half dozen attempts, but in vitro had never worked for them.
Houston squeezed his hands into fists for several seconds, so he could hold on to his composure. Even now, more than three years later, it was hell talking about this.
"Your wife died of breast cancer," the sheriff finished for him.
"Yeah." And Houston left it at that. "So, what do our embryos have to do with Ms. Markham?"