When Jade Dalton escapes a ruthless kidnapper on the trail of a multimillion-dollar necklace, she flees to the one place no one will find her: her estranged father's Texas ranch. Booker Knox is also on his way to Dry Gulch. After a potentially dangerous situation thrusts her into his arms, the navy SEAL appoints himself Jade's personal bodyguard.
It isn't every day Booker finds himself being kissed by a gorgeous stranger. Except Jade's a fugitive from justice who's also being hunted by a determined killer. Now Booker will do whatever it takes to protect the beautiful big-city event planner. Failure isn't an option. Neither is walking away when this is all over.
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"This is the crown of my collection, the surprise revelation I promised for my final US showing."
Jade Dalton stared in awe at the necklace. A cascade of flawless diamonds, separated by pure green emeralds dangled from Quaid Vaquero's fingertips.
"It's magnificent. It's " She paused. "Mere words cannot do it justice."
"I'm glad you're impressed. It took over a year to find the perfect gems, almost three hundred of them, hand cut and set in platinum."
"I'm afraid to even ask the price," Jade said.
Quaid smiled. "Two twenty-five. No price bickering. I won't part with it for anyone who doesn't appreciate not only its quality but its beauty and artistic value."
"Two hundred twenty-five thousand?"
He smiled as if amused by her naivete. "Two hundred twenty-five million, my sweet."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Not at all."
"Now you're scaring me. What on earth are you doing with this in your hotel suite? I need to call someone from security immediately. I think Officer Reggie Lassiter is in charge tonight. He'll make sure this is placed in the showroom where he and his security detail can guard it."
"Relax. No one knows it's here but the two of us. Besides, it's well insured."
"Still, this isn't wise, Mr. Vaquero. Had you mentioned this to me, I would never have approved it. Neither would Reggie. And if I were your insurance provider, I would be in a state of pure panic."
"A piece such as this is created to be worn by an equally beautiful woman, not locked away. And not to change the subject, but you've worked closely with me for two weeks now. Don't you think it's time you start calling me Quaid?"
"Quaid it is. But I work for you, not with you. And as your event planner, I am very nervous now."
"I can tell." He put a hand to the small of her back and nudged her toward a full-length tilt mirror. The mirror support and frame were dark polished wood and, like everything else in his luxury suite, looked antique and no doubt far more expensive than it actually was.
"Look at yourself," Quaid urged. "I've never seen you this flustered."
Her nerves were edgy and with good reason. People didn't just walk around a New York hotel with a two-hundred-million-dollar-plus necklace in their pocket. Her ex-stepfather number three had worked as a hotel food manager. He'd told her plenty of stories about professional hotel thieves robbing guests, though admittedly, this was usually when they were out of their room. But you never knew when thieves would become emboldened.
Who'd inspire risk taking more than a world-renowned jewelry designer?
She turned and looked into the mirror, but it wasn't her uneasiness that she saw reflected in the glass. It was the incredibly handsome Spaniard standing behind her with his dark, soul-searing eyes and seductive glances. The man who had mesmerized her for the past two weeks.
His hands brushed her shoulders as he fastened the sparkling work of art around her neck. The shimmering jewels fell into the swell of her cleavage just above the spaghetti-strap red cocktail dress she'd splurged a month's wages on for tonight's event.
"It's breathtakingly beautiful," she murmured truthfully.
"It's you who is breathtaking, Jade. The jewels merely accentuate your natural beauty."
Charm oozed from Quaid every time he opened his mouth. Yet she sensed something more poignant in his manner tonight. Probably just more relaxed because it was the end of his visit to America.
Or could he possibly be interested in a romantic interlude now that their business association was reaching its conclusion? Would he invite her to visit him in his lavish lakeside villa in Spain or perhaps to sail around the Greek Islands on his massive yacht?
Don't even go there, she cautioned herself. The man had supermodels and royalty at his beck and call.
Tonight's event promised to be his best-attended showing to date. His reputation had skyrocketed since his arrival in New York. Wearing jewelry from Quaid Va-quero's collection had become the rage among the ultra-wealthy society set.
Quaid put his mouth to her ear as if they were exchanging secrets. "I would be honored if you'd wear the necklace this evening."
His warm breath on her neck was intoxicating. His offer was incredibly tempting. It was also a terrible idea. Her job was to make certain the night went without a snag, not to model and play princess.
"I'd love to wear this necklace, Quaid. As it is, you might have to pry it from my neck. But anything this valuable must be under one of the museum-quality glass domes for tonight's showing."
"You've assured me there will be cameras and plain-clothes security personnel in abundance."
"Yes, but there are other drawbacks to my wearing it."
Quaid's fingers trailed seductively from the back of her neck to her bare shoulders. He was not making this easy.
"The necklace must be displayed appropriately so that your potential customers can examine it thoroughly through the glass and hopefully request to try it on."
"Point made. But let me enjoy it on you for the moment."
"For a moment," she acquiesced, "but we really should be going soon. I'm sure the first of your guests are already arriving. They're here to meet you as much as they are to see your creations."
"They can wait. First, I have a gift for you."
"Honestly, that's not necessary."
"Gifts are never necessary, Jade. They should always come from the heart."
He turned, tugged her around to face him and took both her hands in his. Her heart pounded. He was going to kiss her. This was a working assignment. She should step away.
Instead, she lifted her lips toward his. The moment was interrupted by a light tapping. "Room service."
Quaid didn't hide his annoyance as he walked over and opened the door. "I didn't order anything."
"I've got the ticket right here. Room 2333. Champagne for two."
"Someone wishing you luck," Jade said, "not that you'll need it. Your talent speaks for itself."
Quaid stepped aside as the young, uniformed hotel employee pushed in a table holding a bottle of chilled champagne.
The attendant lifted the bottle from the crystal bucket for them to examine. Jade recognized the label and knew from previous events at this hotel that the champagne sold for over five hundred dollars a bottle.
"Can you at least tell me who sent this," Quaid asked the server, "so that I'll know whom to thank?"
The young man looked at the ticket again. "The only information on here is that it's for Mr. Quaid Vaquero at this room number. No charge to you. If you call room service, they may be able to tell you."
"Yes, I'll check with them later."
"Shall I pop the cork and pour?" the server asked.
"You're already here," Quaid said, "so you may as well."
Quaid turned back to Jade, took her hand with an unexpected familiarity and led her to the window that offered a magnificent view of the city. "I could have done without the interruption."
"Yes, but you have a very generous friend," Jade said. Odd timing, though, unless the person who had it delivered knew he was unveiling the necklace to her in his suite.
The cork popped loudly.
Quaid ignored it and slipped his arm around her waist. "I expected to hate New York, but I have loved every minute of my visit. I owe most of that to you."
"You give me far too much credit. New York has a magic all its own. I was only sixteen when I first visited here with my mother. I knew then I was a big-city girl."
"Can I get you anything else?" the server asked.
"That will be all." Quaid turned back to him, pulled a money clip from his right front pocket and placed a tip on the cart. He waited until they were alone again before he handed Jade a flute of the sparkling bubbly.
"To successful ventures of business and of the heart," he said, lifting his glass.
Jade clinked hers with his, though she was afraid to even guess what he meant by the last part of the toast.
Now that she thought about it, she wondered if he had ordered the champagne himself. This supposedly impromptu meeting was feeling more like an orchestrated seduction scene by the minute.
What was he looking for from her? A sexual hookup on his last night in the States? One-night stands were not her style.
But what if he offered more? A visit to his lavish Barcelona villa to get know her better? A few weeks on his yacht?
They'd almost finished their champagne before Quaid reached into the pocket of his tailor-made sport coat. He pulled out a small shiny red box tied with silver ribbon, the trademark wrapping for a custom-made Vaquero jeweled creation.
Surely he wasn't planning to give her anything that priceyunless he really was interested in pursuing a relationship. As tempting as it all sounded, she didn't know that she was interested. She loved her life just as it was.
Quaid handed her the box.
She finished off her champagne, suddenly too nervous to even tug the ribbon loose from the package. Finally, she eased the silver bow from around the corners and lifted the lid. She stared, too overwhelmed to speak. "Do you like them?"
"I love them. How could I not?" She gingerly lifted one of the earrings from its nest of black velvet. A dangling emerald shimmered with a thousand pinpoints of light.
"I don't know what to say. They're exquisite. I've never owned anything like this, but "
"Say thank you," Quaid suggested. "I designed and had them made especially for you."
She was stunned. Emotionally touched. Light-headed.
"They're absolutely exquisite, but I really can't accept " The emerald began to dance in front of her eyes. Her tongue grew thick, slurring her words.
She reached for the back of a chair to steady herself as the room began to spin. A second later her legs gave way and she crumpled to the floor.
"Jade, what's wrong?"
She tried to answer but couldn't form the words. Quaid lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed. As he laid her down, she felt his hands at her throat.
She closed her eyes and when she opened them, he was floating above her in an opaque mist as if he were being swallowed by the suffocating vapor.
He wasn't alone. Reggie Lassiter was there, as well. Shadowy figures lurked in the background.
Loud voices. Reggie pointing a gun.
And then it all whirled away in a cloud as dark as midnight.
* * *
R.J. Dalton stepped through the front door, sipped his coffee and stared out over his front lawn. It was getting harder and harder to recognize the place where he'd spent all his life. Almost eight decades.
His daughters-in-law, Hadley and Faith, had spent hours sprucing up the place. New flower beds bordered the freshly painted porch. A dozen or more blooming plants he couldn't name were tucked in with the morning glories, zinnias, marigolds and petunias. Hanging pots overflowed with geraniums.
Colorful pillows and cushions not only brightened the porch swing and outdoor rockers but made them a lot more comfortable.
He appreciated the effort, but still more often than not, it was flashes of the past that gripped him when he settled in his favorite rocker. The memories ran roughshod through his mind, good and bad, hit and miss, the events in no coherent order.
His short-term memory was even less dependable. Countless times a day he walked from one room to another only to forget why or what he was looking for. Some of that he figured was just old age.
But the gaps in time, the shaky hands and the dizzy spells he chalked up to the inoperable tumor in his brain. The dang thing was growing again, according to his neurosurgeon.
Not that R.J. had any right to complain. The cancer should have killed him over a year ago. Hell, his lifestyle should have killed him long before he got to be an old man.
Boozing. Wild women. Aces up his sleeve. Bar fights. Not that he was proud of his past. It just was what it was and regret couldn't change it. Wallowing in guilt wouldn't change it, either, so he didn't waste his time trying.
He planned to spend his remaining days enjoying the good life he was lucky enough to have now. Four sons Adam, Leif, Travis and Cannonall making their homes with their families right here on the Dry Gulch Ranch, though only Cannon and his wife and baby girl, Kim-mie, lived in the big house with R.J.
Sons who had no reason to give a damn about R.J., yet they'd forgiven him his sorry parenting. Or at least they were making a stab at it and doing a bang-up job of not following in his footsteps.
R.J. walked over and dropped into the old wooden rocker. The floorboards creaked as he rocked, about the only sound around this morning. Not that he minded the quiet, especially since he knew it wouldn't last for long.
One or the other of his sons, daughters-in-law or grandchildren were constantly stopping by to check on him. When they couldn't, they made sure his housekeeper and friend, Mattie Mae, was around to see that he was taken care of.
Only, Mattie Mae was off at her granddaughter's college graduation this week. Lucky her. It would take a miracle for R.J. to live long enough to see one of his grandchildren graduate from college.
The sound of a car's engine interrupted R.J.'s reverie.
He leaned forward, shielding his eyes from the sun's glare with his wrinkled right hand as he tried to figure out who was coming down the ranch road.
A surge of warmth washed through him when he recognized the silver Mercedes. Feeling much sprier than he had minutes ago, he stood and walked to the edge of the porch to greet his favorite neighbor.
Carolina Lambert stepped out of the car and started up the walk to meet him. In her early fifties, she was still one of the best-looking women in the county. Rich, smart and a damn good cook, too.
"You're mighty dressed up to be making neighborly house calls," he said.
"I'm on my way to Dallas."
"Got a date?"
"You know better than that. I have a meeting with some of the major donors for my for my Saddle-Up charity."
"How's that going?"
"It's gaining speed. I'm hoping to enlist at least a dozen additional ranchers to join the program this year. It's truly amazing what a month in the summer spent on a working ranch can do for troubled inner-city kids."
R.J. smiled. "Always the do-gooder."
"I'm blessed. It would be a travesty if I didn't share."
"So, what brings you to the Dry Gulch this morning? Not that I'm complaining, mind you."
The smile disappeared from her lips. "Let's sit," she said, joining him on the porch.
He spied a brown envelope she was holding in her right hand. "If that's bad news you're bringing, I'm not sure I want it." But he sat back down in his rocker as Carolina settled in the porch swing.
"Have you ever heard of a man named Quaid Vaquero?" she asked.
"No. Should I have?"
"He's a well-known jewelry designer from Spain."
"Last piece of jewelry I purchased was this here Timex." He pushed up the sleeve of his cotton shirt to show her the watch. "Not likely I'd know some wealthy diamond peddler. What about him?"
"He was murdered last night in his New York hotel room."
"That's a tough way to go."
"The young woman who was in charge of scheduling and planning his New York exhibitions has disappeared, along with jewelry valued at two hundred and twenty-five million dollars."
"So she killed him, stole the jewels and went on the run. It's about what you'd expect these days. Can't trust those big-city people. So what does this have to do with me?"
"The name of the young woman who disappeared is Jade Dalton."
His stomach knotted. "Not my Jade?"
"Take a look for yourself." She opened the envelope, pulled some folded sheets of paper from it and handed them to him.
He glanced at the headline of the printed article:
Famed Jeweler Murdered in New York Hotel.
A picture of Quaid Vaquero and an article followed. Jade Dalton's name jumped out at him.
"Where did you get this?"
"Off the internet," Carolina said. "I was checking the national news while I drank my coffee. There's a picture of Jade on the next page."
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