The Ransom

WE HAVE YOUR SON!The ransom for five-year-old Matthew was one million dollars cash. And in a terrifying instant all of Kathryn Conner's dreams of a new life at her family's Texas ranch, far from the scandal of her failed Hollywood marriage, were blindsided by the only thing that mattered: saving her son.A desperate mother will do desperate things, even turn to a man who loved and left her long ago, a man whose touch still haunted her dreams. But Clay Turner was her last–her only–hope at finding Matthew. Clay knew what was at stake, shared her pain and understood what it took for her to seek him out. Because the look in Kathryn's eyes reflected the same searing memories fighting their way back to his heart, as well.This time, he won't let her down.
Содержание:

The Ransom

   

Praise for MAGGIE PRICE’s LINE OF DUTY miniseries

   “A quick paced, action packed romance.”

   —The Romance Reader’s Connection on Sure Bet

   “Maggie Price’s riveting, intense plot makes this

    an exciting reading experience.”

   —Romantic Times BOOKreviews on Hidden Agenda

   “Get ready for chills, thrills, and shivers of delight

    as a super-stud cop and his sexy, stubborn,

    soon-to-be-ex wife go after a murderous cop.”

   —USA TODAY bestselling author Merline Lovelace on Shattered Vows

   “The cleverly developed plot is filled with

    unexpected twists and turns.”

   —Romantic Times BOOKreviews on The Cradle Will Fall

   “Combines romance, mystery and crime into one

    page turning, exciting and sensuous story.”

   —Reader 2 Reader on Trigger Effect

   “A taut, romantic drama.”

   —The Romance Reader on Most Wanted Woman

MAGGIE PRICE

   A former police-crime analyst for the Oklahoma City Police Department, Maggie Price has never tried to distance herself from her dark “cop side” when writing the riveting romantic suspense that has become her trademark. If anything, that meshing of the cop side with the romance side is a natural blending…and her stories show us that sometimes, love can kill.

   The authenticity of police work and sizzling passion she brings to her novels have earned Maggie numerous awards, including a National Readers’ Choice Award, a Booksellers’ Best Award and a coveted RITA® Award nomination. Other honors received include a Romantic Times BOOKreviews Career Achievement Award for series romantic suspense, and a Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Silhouette Intimate Moments.

   Maggie invites readers to contact her at 416 N.W. 8th St., Oklahoma City, OK 73102-2604. Or reach her on the Web at www.MaggiePrice.com.

The Ransom




Maggie Price


   

   Dear Reader,

   While a civilian crime analyst for the Oklahoma City Police Department, I snagged an assignment to a task force investigating the abduction of two preteen girls from the state fair. During that time, I was in contact with the distraught parents. Their despair and suffering touched my heart and gave me an insider’s view of what it means to lose a child to an unknown evil.

   That experience inspired me to tell the story of a divorcée whose small son is kidnapped for ransom. And the only person she dares turn to for help is the ex-cop who walked away a decade ago with a piece of her heart.

   The Ransom is the story not only of the struggle to save a little boy’s life, but of the rekindling of a love that refuses to die.

   Warmest regards,

   Maggie Price

   To Pam Hopkins, my supersonic agent whom I’ve

    been blessed to have in my corner for over a decade.

CONTENTS

   PROLOGUE

   CHAPTER ONE

   CHAPTER TWO

   CHAPTER THREE

   CHAPTER FOUR

   CHAPTER FIVE

   CHAPTER SIX

   CHAPTER SEVEN

   CHAPTER EIGHT

   CHAPTER NINE

   CHAPTER TEN

   CHAPTER ELEVEN

   CHAPTER TWELVE

   CHAPTER THIRTEEN

   CHAPTER FOURTEEN

   CHAPTER FIFTEEN

   CHAPTER SIXTEEN

   CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

   CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

PROLOGUE

   Cross C Ranch

    Layton, Texas

   KATHRYN CONNER was coming home.

   Kathryn Conner Mason, the man sitting on the ranch house’s shady front porch amended. He had one hand clenched around a coffee mug and that morning’s newspaper draped across his blue-jeaned thigh.

   He could hear himself breathe.

   Feel the sweat trickle from the pores of his underarms.

   Taste his fear.

   His spine stiff, he propped a shoulder against one of the porch’s vintage white columns and stared out across the pristine lawn.

   The July sun beat down without mercy, but the smothering heat couldn’t touch the icy fear that crouched darkly inside him. He owed a Dallas gambling syndicate over a half million dollars and he had less than three weeks to come up with the money. In full.

   He could no longer sleep. Had lost interest in food. Could barely breathe. For weeks he’d been popping pills that did little to ease the smothering sensation of being buried in a pit from which there was no way out.

   And then he heard about Mrs. Devin Mason’s imminent return to Layton, Texas. Kathryn was coming home.

   And bringing her son.

   Dropping his gaze to the newspaper, he focused on the picture that showed the smiling images of Kathryn, her pretty-boy actor husband and their son. Ex-husband now. The divorce had become final just weeks before Senator Sam Conner’s death.

   Kathryn hadn’t even come home for her grandfather’s funeral. Had never stepped foot on the Cross C after she went off to college ten years ago.

   Why, he didn’t know. Couldn’t care less. All that mattered was she would arrive the following day.

   And she was filthy, stinking rich.

   Kathryn was his lifeline. She would save him.

   And so would her son.

CHAPTER ONE

   KATHRYN CONNER HAD vowed to never again set foot on the Cross C Ranch until her bastard of a grandfather was dead.

   Now he was.

   “You’re home,” Owen Daily remarked, braking his black Cadillac beneath the massive oak that shaded one end of the porch of the two-story ranch house.

   Home. The word leaped into Kathryn’s mind while she sat in heart-pounding silence beside the man she’d hired to handle her Texas legal affairs. Staring out the windshield, the knots in her stomach clenched tighter while she struggled to come to terms with her surroundings.

   Bathed in afternoon sunlight, the house with its wraparound porch looked welcoming. For Kathryn, it had only felt that way when Sam was away in Austin dealing with senate business.

   Always the wood had been painted white with butter-yellow trim. The wide porch had latticework at the eaves and long, sturdy columns. The swing—where she had sat so many evenings writing stories and spinning her private dreams that always took her far away—still hung from chains at the porch’s far end.

   Racked by emotion, she swept her gaze across the immaculate lawn toward the distant barn, the stables, the out-buildings, all surrounded by post-and-rail whitewashed fences. In her ten-year absence she had forgotten the Cross C’s beauty—and only remembered her pain.

   Her gaze returned to the house where yellow roses wound their way through the porch trellises. The bright blooms blurred in her vision while a nagging unease moved around the edges of her awareness, undefined, barely formed, a gray shadow.

   She lifted a hand to her throat where a choking dread had settled.

   “Something wrong?” Owen asked.

   “I just…” Kathryn ran her other hand over the hip of her red linen slacks. “For a second it felt like someone stepped on my grave.”

   Owen gave the house a considering look. “You haven’t said as much, but I have to figure your not coming home since that summer you left for college means not all your memories of the Cross C are good.”

   That summer. If only she had been wiser, more mature, she might have avoided making a fool of herself. Even now humiliation crawled through Kathryn, as hot as the hunger she’d felt for a man who’d been rumored to have an unlimited number of willing women on speed dial. But she had wanted Clay Turner since she’d been a starry-eyed schoolgirl who was stupid enough to think she would be the one who could change him. And by the time she turned eighteen that crush had transformed into love. So she’d made sure to ride over to the Double Starr the day Clay showed up to work on his uncle’s neighboring ranch like he did every summer. She could still see him that day, leaning against the corral’s top rail, all tough and rangy and fit in a white T-shirt and faded jeans. Still see his dark eyes, focused like a laser on her as she sat astride her mare. “Well, look who’s all grown up,” he drawled.

   There’d been no love in his gaze. Not even affection. Just dark, dangerous lust that slammed her heart into her ribs and zinged its way right to her toes.

   And even though he made it clear he wanted only good times and fast rides, she leaped off the cliff.

   As if pulled by some unseen force, Kathryn’s gaze shifted to the east. From talking to the Cross C’s longtime housekeeper, she knew Clay had moved to Layton two years ago after his parents’ tragic deaths at the hands of their kidnappers. He now managed the Double Starr, so it was inevitable they would cross paths.

   Ten years had passed since she laid eyes on him. A decade, during which she had married another man, given birth to his son, agonized over Matthew’s health, won an Emmy for screenwriting and had her crumbling marriage to Hollywood’s “heartthrob” dissected by the tabloids. Yet the thought of seeing Clay again had a dark foreboding surfacing inside her with such corrosive force it seemed as if no time had passed to dull the pain.

   “Well, there’s someone who’s anxious to see you,” Owen said.

   Kathryn looked back toward the house. All the pain of the past winked away as she watched Willa McKenzie—short, stocky and clad in the usual gray dress and white apron—bustle across the porch. Just the sight of the housekeeper who’d raised and loved her had Kathryn’s heart swelling.

   Willa was one of the good memories. And one of the people Sam had done a truly good, unselfish thing for.

   Turning, Kathryn looked over her shoulder. Matthew hadn’t stirred since he’d fallen asleep almost before they’d driven out of the airport. He was a sturdy five-year-old with thick blond hair and brown eyes that sparkled with mischief. Now, though, he looked almost cherubic, stretched on the back seat in his jeans and Western shirt, his miniature dachshund, Abby, curled against his stomach.

   No one would suspect he’d been near death two years ago.

   She gave him a gentle shake. “Wake up, Matty. We’re here.”

   Thick blond lashes fluttered off his cheeks. Yawning, he pushed up off the seat, fists rubbing his eyes. The movement had Abby stirring. The dachshund levered up on her short legs and shook her head, the sunlight turning her reddish coat a deep mahogany.

   Willa pulled the car’s back door open and leaned in. “Is there anyone who can help me find a missing chocolate chip cookie?”

   “Grandma Willa!” Grinning wildly, Matthew unhooked his seat belt then propelled himself into the housekeeper’s arms. Abby rocketed after her master.

   Kathryn climbed out, wincing as a gust of hot wind and dirt hit her in the face.

   “Welcome to Texas,” she murmured, shoving her sunglasses farther up the bridge of her nose.

   “Bet I can find that cookie,” Matthew insisted to Willa.

   Willa’s eyes sparkled. “Think so?” A wayward strand of gray hair that had slipped from the bun at her neck waved like wheat in the breeze.

   Standing on tiptoes, Matthew poked a hand into one apron pocket, then the other. “Right here!” he exclaimed, pulling out a cookie the size of a man’s fist.

   “How do you suppose it got there?” Willa slid a hand into a pocket on her dress and pulled out a rawhide chew bone. “Well, I’m carrying around all sorts of surprises today.” Abby barked, her entire body waggling like a bass on a hook. “Guess you’ll make good use of this,” Willa said before tossing the bone a short distance away.

   Owen grinned at Kathryn, his denim shirt and jeans making him look more ranch hand than attorney known for his scorched-earth tactics. “They’ve done this before, right?”

   “A standing routine,” she answered. “It started about the time I flew Willa out to California for Matthew’s third birthday.” Her heart brimming, Kathryn stepped into the housekeeper’s welcoming embrace.

   “Lord, child, it’s good to have you home.”

   Kathryn shot a furtive glance at the house. In a flash of memory, she pictured herself the last time she crossed the threshold, bruised, bleeding and lying on a stretcher.

   No, she told herself and ruthlessly forced away the harsh image. She couldn’t allow herself to think about that. She’d returned to the Cross C because doing so was in Matthew’s best interest. She could do this for her son.

   Inching back, Willa cupped a palm against Kathryn’s cheek. “Every time I see you, you look more and more like the pictures I’ve seen of your momma.”

   To Kathryn, the parents who had given her life and died when she was an infant had only ever been faded names in the Conner family bible. With her grandmother already deceased, it was Willa who had raised her when Sam took in his only grandchild.

   After giving Willa another hug, Kathryn slipped an arm around her waist. “Matthew has chattered for weeks about living on a ranch with Grandma Willa.” Kathryn glanced back toward the house. “Did our things get here?”

   “I should say so. Pilar and I have spent days unpacking boxes.” She ruffled the boy’s blond hair while he munched on his cookie. “I expect you can wage a small war with all the tanks and toy soldiers.”

   “A big war.” He glanced around in expectation. “Can I see the outlaw tunnel?”

   “After supper,” Kathryn answered. The tunnel, connected to the basement, had been dug by her great-great-great-grandfather Conner so his bandit son could sneak into the house for visits. Matthew took exceptional pride in the fact one of his ancestors had been a real life outlaw.

   Willa gave Kathryn another squeeze. “The decorator finished up the remodeling you wanted done yesterday. You won’t recognize your old bedroom.”

   That’s the idea, Kathryn thought. She knew she would never walk into that room again without thinking about the final vicious fight she’d had with Sam. So she had instructed Willa to put her clothes and other belongings in one of the spacious bedrooms that the senator had reserved for guests.

   Willa looked toward the porch. “Pilar, come get re-acquainted with Kathryn.”

   Pilar Graciano came down the porch steps where she paused and gave a polite nod. “Señorita Conner, it is nice to see you after so long,” she said in the hesitant, accented English Kathryn remembered.

   “Thank you, Pilar.” Kathryn smiled at the thin, small-boned woman with black hair plaited into a braid. The maid had always been as skittish and shy as a newborn colt. “How is Nilo?” Kathryn asked, referring to the swarthy ranchhand who’d won Pilar’s heart.

   “My husband is well.”

   Willa patted Matthew’s shoulder. “This is Pilar. Do you remember me telling you she has a boy named Antonio?”

   Matthew nodded. “You said he has a horse named Gringo.”

   Pilar quietly welcomed Matthew. That done, she slid her hands into the pockets of her dress and stood in silence as if awaiting orders.

   A distant shout drew Kathryn’s attention beyond the vast lawn to the stables. She recognized Johnny Sullivan’s lean, craggy build. The Cross C’s longtime foreman appeared to be involved in an intense discussion with a tall, blond man who looked distinctly out of place in a gray suit.

   Kathryn turned to Willa. “Is that Brad Jordan with Johnny?”

   “It is.” Willa shrugged. “I expect the banker’s fussing at Johnny for not getting permission before calling Doc Silver out to look at the horses you shipped here.”

   Kathryn’s eyes narrowed. “Johnny doesn’t need to check with Brad before calling the vet.”

   “Tell that to Brad.” Willa blotted her damp brow with the back of her hand. “Everything changed once Sam’s will was read and the bank got control over the Cross C.”

   The reminder of the last-minute codicil Sam added to his will before cancer killed him had Kathryn setting her jaw. Because all Conner land and money was held in a series of age-old trusts, there was no way Sam could disinherit her or Matthew. So her grandfather had done all he could to hobble her when it came to running the ranch. It was Sam’s way of reaching out from the grave and slapping her one last time, just to prove how totally he had loathed her every day of her life.

   Even now, Kathryn had no idea why her grandfather had hated her like poison.

   “The bank doesn’t control Cross C business,” she said, forcing back the anger she’d carried with her since she learned the contents of Sam’s will. “It oversees expenditures, is all.”

   “Well, Brad’s been doing a lot of overseeing,” Willa commented. “I have to show him receipts for the groceries and everything else I buy. Waste of time when I’ve got a house to run. I expect he’ll bring all that up at the meeting you said you’ve got scheduled with him in the morning.”

   “No doubt.” Kathryn looked back toward the stables in time to see Brad slide behind the wheel of a blue Jaguar. A moment later, he steered the car toward the road.

   “Well now,” Willa said, cupping Matthew’s chin. “How about we find some milk to wash down that cookie?”

   A smear of chocolate on the boy’s cheek lengthened when he grinned. “Okay.”

   Willa and Matthew walked hand in hand toward the house, Pilar and Abby following in their wake.

   Kathryn waited until they were out of earshot to turn to Owen. “You’re sure about the codicil? Positive the terms will stick?”

   “They’ll stick,” her lawyer confirmed. “You know how Sam was—he didn’t do anything without thinking it through. Same thing goes for the codicil. And don’t forget the clause that states if you contest the will, a corporation made up of your grandfather’s political friends has authority to take over the running of the Cross C.”

   “Meaning, everything stays in the Conner name, but there wouldn’t be a Conner at the helm.”

   “Basically.” Owen raised a brow. “Do you want me here in the morning when you meet with Brad?”

   Kathryn pulled in a deep breath, drawing in the scents of mown grass, fresh hay and animal flesh. It was a shock to discover that the scents and the land itself still called to her.

   That land—and all the responsibilities that went with it—were now hers. There were always cattle that needed to be rounded up, fences to mend, grain to be planted or harvested. No matter the barriers Sam had erected in his will, it was up to her to deal with every aspect of running the ranch. She understood full well that all of Layton would be watching to see if the Hollywood screenwriter had enough of her grandfather in her to operate the Conner empire.

   Watch me. Standing there, she could almost feel the mantle of her new responsibilities drop onto her shoulders. Those responsibilities would be in addition to the writing career she’d worked so hard to establish and intended to continue.

   Turning, she looked back at Owen. “Yes, since I’m not familiar yet with all the terms of the financial noose Sam put around my neck.”

   “That’s what you pay me for.” Owen checked his watch. “You need me for anything else before I head back to Layton?”

   “No. Thank you for picking us up at the airport. It was good to have a chance to discuss business face-to-face.” Kathryn squeezed his arm. “I’m sorry, Owen, I got so caught up talking about Cross C matters that I haven’t asked after your father.”

   A muscle ticked in his cheek. “The stroke left him weak, but his mind’s as sharp as ever. I expect he’ll be back in the office in a couple of weeks.”

   “I’m glad to hear it.” She wondered, but didn’t ask, if Owen partly blamed Sam for his father’s stroke. How could he not, the way Sam had so suddenly and ruthlessly jerked all his legal dealings away from the man who’d not only been his attorney for decades, but a close friend since childhood?

   While Owen’s car headed down the driveway, Kathryn turned toward the house. It was hers now. Hers and Matthew’s. She would make him a good home here, a happy home. And over time she would wipe away the darkness of the past.

   A past that, right now, hung heavy around her as she scaled the steps. Her pulse beat dull and thick as she moved across the porch toward the massive front door. She knew there would be ghosts. But if she was going to make a good life here for Matthew, she was going to have to face them.

   Better to get that over with she told herself, then eased the door open and stepped inside.

   And was instantly flung back in time.

   Her breath shallowed as she remained unmoving in the dim entryway. The same drop-leaf table still stood against the wall holding her late grandmother’s crystal vase that was eternally filled with yellow roses. The familiar antique mirror in the gleaming brass frame hung over the table. The long rug still ran muted colors along the length of the wide hall that stretched from the front door to the back.

   Gathering her courage, she shifted toward the staircase that swept up two stories. As always, the wooden railing and newel post gleamed with polish.

   The ghosts of the house circled around Kathryn, whispering taunts, making her feel as if her nerves were crawling under her skin. An ache settled in her heart. Yet, she couldn’t cry. The tears had frozen inside long ago.

   Damn you, girl, you’ll do as I say!

   She pressed a hand to her stomach while the memory of that last awful fight snapped out at her like fangs.

   Squeezing her eyes shut, she reeled against the onslaught of pain and remorse that pounded her with the force of a sledgehammer. Two of the most important men in her life had rejected her. Sam had taken her in after her parents died solely for the sake of appearances. Clay Turner had wanted her only for a good time, a pleasant diversion during a searing-hot summer. Then he headed back to Houston and his job as an agent in the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic security service.

   She had seen him only one time after that when she woke to find him sitting beside her hospital bed. He hadn’t had to speak the words for her to know he regretted her fall, but nothing more. The child she had lost would have been a complication, one of those strings he’d told her up-front he didn’t want.

   But she had wanted. Oh God, she had wanted both Clay and their child.

   She grimaced as she realized what she was thinking. Everything about that summer was a part of the past, she reminded herself. She had Matthew now and she’d come back to the Cross C for his sake. Not only because he deserved a life away from the fishbowl of his father’s fame—she could have taken Matthew to live any number of places where he’d be sheltered from the unrelenting media attention that was a byproduct of Devin’s stardom. No, she’d brought her son to Texas because this had been Conner land for nearly two hundred years. The Cross C was Matthew’s heritage. His future. His right. She would make it their home and run the ranch to the best of her ability until Matthew was old enough to take over the reins.

   For her son, she would deal with the memories that taunted her, the pain she’d buried deep and anything else that came along. Including the inevitable unavoidable encounters with Clay Turner.

   Squaring her shoulders, Kathryn gripped the banister with a damp palm, then headed up the stairs.

CHAPTER TWO

   “POW! POW! You aim the staple gun like this ’n pull the trigger. Pow!”

   Matthew pointed a finger at an invisible target as he bounded down the staircase beside Kathryn. Abby followed in their wake, the dachshund’s short legs taking her down each step in a seesaw swagger.

   “Sounds like important work.” Kathryn held back a smile at the sight of her son in his desert-camouflage shorts and a T-shirt. As fashion statements went, the cowboy boots he’d begged to wear didn’t quite make the outfit.

   She paused to slick back his blond hair, still wet from the shower she’d had to insist he take after his outing to help mend a fence. Above them, Kathryn caught sight of Pilar Graciano moving as silent as death along the hallway, a stack of linens in the maid’s arms. It had been Pilar’s husband, Nilo, who’d taken his own son and Matthew out that morning.

   Kathryn felt immense relief that in the three days they’d been at the Cross C, Matthew was fast on his way to making a new friend in Antonio.

   With the staircase behind them, she and Matthew walked hand in hand, he swinging her arm to-and-fro as they traversed the hallway’s glossy wood floor. Abby trotted beside Matthew, her toenails tap-tapping lightly as she went. After turning a corner they came even with the door of Sam Conner’s study. Although Kathryn felt her grandfather’s heavy presence each time she walked into the room, she was determined to use it for her own office. After all, generations of Connors had ruled the Cross C from inside those dark-paneled walls. She had already set up her computer on the massive desk and was in the process of organizing files on the screenplay she was currently writing. In time, she would go through all of Sam’s files and purge him, page by page.

   Arms swinging, she and Matthew continued down the hallway. The kitchen was at the back of the house, a cheerful room eternally filled with the heady aroma of Willa’s cooking. The room’s ash walls were painted white, butcher blocks covered the countertops and work island. Chains hung from the high-vaulted ceiling, suspending racks heavy with brass and copper pots. The kitchen was as modern as Sam Conner’s money could make it; the oversize refrigerators, dishwashers and ovens had been installed to ease Willa’s supervision of the extra help brought in for the lavish parties hosted for constituents and anyone else deemed capable of furthering the senator’s various agendas.

   Still, Kathryn had to admit that not everything Sam did had some political motive behind it. When Willa’s husband suffered a heart attack, Sam had kept the ranch hand on the Cross C’s payroll until his death three years later. It was only his granddaughter whom Sam never opened his heart to.

   “Lunch is almost ready.” Willa sent a bright smile across the center island while spreading peanut butter on bread.

   Kathryn’s gaze flicked to the oak table in the alcove where Brad Jordan sat, a half-eaten piece of apple pie on the table before him. Beside the banker was a stack of receipts. Kathryn supposed Willa was trying to use her take-you-to-heaven pie to ply some goodwill from the man who now had his hand on the Cross C’s purse strings.

   Not his fault, Kathryn reminded herself when heat rose under her skin. Brad wasn’t to blame for what was in Sam’s will.

   Matthew lifted his chin and sniffed. “What smells so good?”

   Brad pointed his fork at his plate. “Willa’s apple pie.”

   Matthew’s face brightened as he peered around the center island. “Hi, Mr. Jordan!” He tugged from Kathryn’s hold and headed across the kitchen. “What are you doing here?”

   Brad feigned a look of horror as Matthew climbed onto a chair. “You’ve got a serious case of the wet look, son.”

   While Abby settled beneath his chair, Matthew scratched his head. “Mommy made me take another shower.”

   “Two in one day?” Brad asked, meeting Kathryn’s gaze.

   “Couldn’t be helped,” she replied. “Matthew had a pound of prairie dirt on him.”

   Brad Jordan was tall and wiry with dark hair and intense eyes. The smile he now flashed at Kathryn was the same one that had once had handfuls of females at Layton High School melting. But the star quarterback had eyes only for head cheerleader Felicia Smith. Their wedding had been the social event of that long-ago summer.

   It was Brad’s father-in-law—a crony of Sam’s—who owned Layton National Bank. And it was Garner Smith who insisted the codicil be enforced with microscopic exactness. Brad had assured Kathryn he would work with her to make their transactions painless. She knew that wouldn’t be the case if she were forced to deal with Brad’s dour-faced father-in-law.

   She retrieved a carton of milk from the refrigerator. “Brad, did we have an appointment I forgot about?”

   “No. I had to go by the Double Starr this morning to discuss business with Clay Turner.”

   Kathryn tightened her grip on the carton. Dammit, the part of her that had loved Clay was hollowed out. So why did just the mention of his name put a hitch under her ribs?

   “Since I had to be out this way,” Brad continued, “I decided to drop off the check that you’ll present to the hospital board at the fund-raiser on Friday night.” He winked at Willa. “I got lassoed into having pie.”

   “In a movie, my daddy tied up a bad man with rope,” Matthew said. He smiled up at Willa when she served him. “Can I have some pie?”

   “I think your momma is taking you for dessert after you meet Dr. Teasdale.” She finger-combed his damp hair before moving back to the counter. “Kathryn, I almost forgot to tell you two things.”

   Kathryn rolled her shoulders, trying to ease the tension that the mention of Clay had settled there. “What things?”

   “First, Johnny needs to update you on what Doc Silver found when he checked that mare with colic. Second,” Willa continued, pulling a piece of paper from her apron pocket, “Shannon Burton called again. The Layton Times is sending her to the fund-raiser, and she wants to interview you about the wing you’re funding for the hospital.”

   “Thanks.” Kathryn took the paper from Willa. “I’ll talk to Johnny before Matthew and I drive into Layton.” As for the reporter, Kathryn knew Burton had written articles in the Times that put a harsh light on her missing Sam’s funeral. Marriage to the country’s top box-office actor had taught Kathryn numerous ways to deal with that type of reporting.

   Brad gave Matthew a considering look. “Are you going to see Dr. Teasdale because you don’t feel good?”

   “No.” Matthew took a bite of sandwich. “This is a…Mommy, what kind of ’pointment is this?”

   “An introductory appointment,” Kathryn said while opening a carton of yogurt. Even after two years, she still found herself gripped by a terrible panic when she thought about how ill Matthew had been when his kidneys had failed. After months of hospital stays and dialysis, a transplanted kidney had saved his life.

   Now, a daily dose of an antirejection med and an occasional checkup kept Matthew on a healthy, even keel.

   Glancing Brad’s way, Kathryn pulled a spoon out of a drawer. “Matthew and Dr. Teasdale are going to get acquainted today.”

   “I’ve got two girls of my own,” Brad told Matthew around a bite of pie. “They both go to Dr. Teasdale.”

   “Is he nice?”

   Brad nodded. “He’s so nice, he has permission to deputize little boys. And give out special deputy badges.”

   Matthew swiveled in his chair. “Mommy, can I be a deputy? And get a badge? Then I can arrest the outlaws in our tunnel.”

   “We’ll ask Dr. Teasdale.” Kathryn slid into the chair beside her son, and pretended not to notice the bite of pie Brad snuck onto Matthew’s plate. Yes, when it came to banking, she much preferred dealing with him than with his father-in-law.

   

   CLAY TURNER strode out of Layton City Hall into the fiery heat of the late afternoon sun. He was tall, nearly six foot four with a rangy, disciplined build more accustomed in the last few years to a rancher’s denim than the body armor and holstered weapons that were a part of his past. A well-worn Stetson shaded a tanned face that was lean and square-jawed. A scar slashed across his right cheek, disappearing into the dark hair at his temple. The scar was a reminder of a time he would never leave behind.

   By the time he’d crossed the town’s busy main street, Clay’s white dress shirt was damp with sweat and he was sucking in air as dry as old bones.

   He glanced at his watch, frustrated that so much of the day had gotten away from him. He’d spent the morning repairing fence near the road bordering the north side of Double Starr property. Fortunately he’d been able to continue working while talking financial business with Brad Jordan. Then he’d had to clean up and drive into town where he’d just wasted a couple of hours in a meeting of the Layton Municipal League, of which his uncle was chairman.

   While an agent for the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic security service, Clay had attended so many meetings he’d grown to hate just the thought of sitting through another one. But his uncle was out of town on ranch business and he’d asked Clay to attend in his place. Since Les Turner was also his employer, Clay couldn’t very well say no. So he’d crammed the tail of his dress shirt into a clean pair of jeans, lashed on a damn tie and driven to town.

   The tie was now loosened, his shirt’s upper buttons undone and its sleeves rolled up on his arms. He glanced toward the end of the block where a digital display scrolled beneath the bank’s sign. One hundred two degrees. Clay gritted his teeth. No man was supposed to live in these temperatures.

   Lucky for him he’d been as good as dead nearly two years.

   His eyes narrowed against a blast of hot wind and brutal memories. He feared he would hear his mother’s screams, his father’s shouts for the rest of his life.

   His parents were dead. He was at fault. Blame weighted his shoulders, a heavy, unyielding albatross.

   He dragged an unsteady hand across his jaw, swallowing the bile that rose like poison in his throat. The only thing that held back the guilt was work. Physical and mental labor, preferably to the point of exhaustion.

   Clearly he hadn’t done near enough work today.

   With his uncle out of town and the cook off, Clay decided to pick up his supper before he left Layton. When he got back to the Double Starr he would eat while he inputted the banker’s latest figures into the spreadsheets he maintained on the ranch’s finances.

   Since his pickup was parked in front of a new place that featured sandwiches, ice cream and designer coffees, that’s where he headed. Pulling open the door, he stepped into the brightly lit glass-and-tile-lined café. To his left was a glossy black counter and a display case full of pastries and cookies the size of hubcaps. The tables that dotted the floor were covered with butcher paper and in the center of each was a glass holding colored pencils. The place looked good. And the air conditioner was set on arctic.

   Clay glanced toward the far corner. Six teenage girls, each licking on her own ice-cream cone, were clustered around one of the tables, giggling and sharing secrets. A man and woman whom Clay didn’t recognize sat at one of the booths that lined the front window.

   Easing back the brim of his Stetson, he scanned the menu board on the wall behind the counter.

   “Afternoon, Clay. Glad you came in.”

   He nodded to the plain-faced middle-aged man behind the counter. Norman Adams and his wife were teachers at the high school. Clay recalled hearing talk that a bad investment in the stock market had tumbled the couple into debt, and they’d opened the café to supplement their incomes. “The place looks great, Norman.”

   “Thanks. So far, business has been good.” He sent Clay a smile that was shaky around the edges. “What can I get for you?”

   While he ordered, Clay heard the café’s door open and close. He pulled money out of his billfold at the same time a child’s voice said, “Mommy, look at the football player in the window.”

   “That poster he’s on lists the high school football games. We’ll have to go to some this fall.”

   Clay froze. That voice. For an instant, he thought it was just another from his past, come to haunt him.

   Throat tight, he forced himself to turn toward the door. A hot ball of awareness settled in his gut as he took in the woman clad in slim white slacks and a sleeveless crimson blouse who was leaning down, one arm around a small boy’s waist. She spoke to him softly while nodding toward the poster in the window.

   He’d known she was coming back. With the newspaper running pictures and articles, and all of Layton buzzing about Kathryn Conner Mason’s return, there was no way Clay couldn’t have known.

   What he hadn’t known was that studying every picture of her he’d come across had been the easy part. Seeing her in the flesh was the equivalent of a fist smashing into his solar plexus.

   The eighteen-year-old girl he’d walked away from was now a woman. The raven-black hair she had worn to her waist now barely skimmed her shoulders, framing a face that had become more fine-boned with maturity. The slender, angular body that he’d known every dip and hollow of had developed a woman’s seductive curves. Studying her, Clay felt his heartbeat spike. His mouth went dry. And the floor beneath his boots shifted due to some age-old emotion, coupled with regret. Dragging regret over the choices made by a young man who had not fully understood repercussions, hadn’t thought long-term. Hadn’t wanted to.

   A band tightened around his chest. On nights when his nightmares woke him he lay alone in a cold sweat, thinking about Kathryn Conner. Wondering which direction their lives would have taken if back then his mind hadn’t automatically done a quick sidestep at the thought of a woman, any woman, tying him down.

   If only he’d responded differently when Kathryn pressed for a commitment. If only he’d taken time to explore the emotions he’d been so quick to deny that had drawn him to the spirited dark-haired girl. Maybe then he would have taken her to Houston with him when his vacation ended. Doing so might have saved their child. If so, his parents would have moved back to the States like they’d always promised they would when he settled down and gave them a grandchild.

   His gaze went to the boy. Kathryn’s son. He was blond and brown-eyed, the image of his superstar father. Matthew Mason, five years old, Clay thought, his cop’s mind pulling back the information he’d read in the newspaper.

   And in the People magazine he’d secretly bought to sate his curiosity about the woman who’d brutally clung to his thoughts over the past two years.

   Her laugh drifted on the cool air as she cupped her son’s chin, gave him a kiss, then straightened and turned toward the counter.

   With her gaze locked with Clay’s, Kathryn went still while everything around her slipped out of focus. A shudder shot down her spine and onward to bury itself behind her knees.

   If she took two short steps she could reach out and touch him. Touch the man whom she had once wanted more than she’d wanted even to breathe. The man she had made such a fool of herself over.

   She fought back humiliation along with the urge to grab Matthew into her arms and run as fast as she could away from Clay Turner, away from the past. The pain.

   But all she could do was stare back at him while she struggled for words that wouldn’t come. His face was thinner than she remembered, the hollows of his cheeks deeper. Lines were scored into the corners of his eyes and mouth. His body was trim, muscled and looked hard as granite. A white dress shirt, open at the neck, revealed curling black hair as rich in color as the hair that brushed the shirt’s collar. Beneath the brim of his Stetson, his dark eyes looked as sharp as a sword.

   Her gaze slid to his right cheek, now marred by a thin scar that slashed upward across his temple. A memory came: her own fingers stroking a similar scar on his back as they lay on rumpled sheets.

   “Hello, Kat,” he said quietly.

   “Clay.” Despite the blood pounding in her cheeks from his use of his private nickname for her, she kept her voice casual and controlled.

   “Been a long time,” he said.

   Not long enough. “It has,” she managed to say through stiff lips.

   “Mommy, you’re squeezing my hand too tight!”

   Jolting, she loosened her grip. “Oh, Matty, I’m sorry.”

   “You going to introduce us?”

   Her gaze whipped back to Clay. She needed to breathe, but she couldn’t quite remember how. “This is my son, Matthew. Matthew, this is Mr. Turner.”

   Matthew tipped his head back so far in order to meet Clay’s gaze that the boy rocked on the heels of his cowboy boots. Kathryn placed a steadying hand on his shoulder.

   “Hi, Mr. Turner.”

   “Hello.” Clay stepped closer and crouched, putting them eye to eye. He noted that Kathryn kept her son’s hand firmly in her own.

   “Nice to meet you, Matthew.” Clay skimmed a fingertip across the plastic badge pinned in the center of the boy’s T-shirt. “You the new law in these parts?”

   He nodded, his brown eyes sparkling. “I got to spit into Dr. Teasdale’s hand and that made me a deputy.”

   Clay raised a brow. “Sounds like the doc knows a good man when he sees one.”

   “Now, I can arrest the outlaws in mommy’s tunnel. Have you seen the tunnel?”

   The outlaw tunnel. Lifting his gaze to Kathryn’s, Clay saw that her face had paled. Was she thinking about all the nights she’d used the tunnel to sneak out of her house? About how he’d ride over to the Cross C after dark and wait for her in the stand of scrub oaks that hid the tunnel’s outer entrance so it couldn’t been seen from the house? Did she remember the time when a rainstorm whipped in and they’d had hot, wild sex in the tunnel?

   When she tore her gaze from his, Clay had his answer. Yeah, Kat, you remember. He struggled against the urge to tell her there was no way she could detest him more than he detested himself for the way he’d treated her.

   Instead he looked back at Matthew. “I’ve seen the tunnel. It’s a long stretch of land. Are you sure you can rustle up those outlaws all on your own?”

   Matthew nodded. “Me ’n Abby can do it.”

   “Who’s Abby?”

   “My weenie dog.”

   “Clay, your order’s ready,” the café owner said.

   “Thanks, Norman.” As he spoke, Clay kept his gaze on Matthew’s compelling face. “Time for me to go, Deputy. I’ll be sure I stay on the right side of the law so you and Abby won’t have to come arrest me.”

   “Okay.”

   “Matthew,” Kathryn said while Clay rose, “you can look in the display case and choose one cookie.”

   “Okay, Mommy.”

   Realizing the café had gone quiet around them, Clay checked across his shoulder. The man and woman in the booth, and all the teenage girls were staring holes through Kathryn. Since she didn’t seem to notice, he assumed her years of marriage to the heartthrob actor had made her immune to that kind of attention.

   When he looked back, her expression was impenetrable, her eyes unreadable.

   “I was sorry to hear about your grandfather,” he said quietly.

   “Thank you.” She closed her eyes for an instant. “And I’m sorry about your parents. Losing them that way must have been devastating.”

   Clay felt the bright, swift pain twist inside him. There was no way she could know how closely linked she was in his mind to their deaths. He tightened his jaw.

   “Guess we’ve both had our share of loss to deal with,” he said. “You’re doing a good thing by building the wing onto Layton’s hospital in Sam’s memory. He’d have been proud of you for continuing all he did for folks around here.”

   She smiled now, her lips as thin as a blade. “I’m sure,” she said then looked toward the counter. “Hello, Mr. Adams, how are you?”

   “Fine. I’m just fine, Kathryn. Seems like only yesterday you were sitting in my English class.” A blush settled under his skin and a muscle ticked in his cheek. “It was real nice, you mentioning my name when you won your Emmy award.”

   “You taught me about writing. I owe a lot of my success to you.” She looked back at Clay. “You mentioned you were leaving. Don’t let us hold you up.”

   Clearly she wasn’t interested in letting bygones be bygones. Couldn’t say he blamed her.

   He touched a finger to the brim of his Stetson. “See you, Kat. Bye, Matthew. Norman.”

   “Bye,” the boy responded. Norman nodded. The fact that Kathryn said nothing sliced Clay into a thousand pieces.

   With guilt and regret sitting in his stomach like jagged rocks, he snagged his sack off the counter.

   He headed for the door, deliberately distancing himself from Kathryn Conner for the second time in his life. This time, though, he was the one who felt all the pain.

   

   KATHRYN WOKE the following morning feeling as if a spider had woven a thick, sticky cobweb inside her brain.

   The sun’s rays slanted into her second-floor bedroom through the gauzy curtains, reflecting off the brass bed’s ornate grillwork. The light felt like ice picks stabbing into her eyes. She shoved at her tangled hair, thinking surely she hadn’t overslept. In the time she’d been back at the Cross C she had woken each day before dawn. As had Matthew.

   She told herself to get up, willed herself to, but her eyelids felt heavy and refused to stay open. On top of her lethargy, faint waves of nausea lapped at her stomach. Sick, she thought hazily. She’d picked up a bug. Since Matthew hadn’t been in to pounce on her bed like he did almost every morning it was possible he’d come down with it, too. The thought shot a sharp pang through her. Her concern wasn’t just a mother’s general worry that her child might be ill. Any sort of bug—even a cold—could have devastating effects on his transplanted kidney.

   That knowledge had Kathryn swallowing the sick taste in her mouth and drawing on all her inner strength. She forced her eyes open, instantly squinting against the sun’s glare. Her concern took on added weight when she focused on the clock on the nightstand. Ten o’clock. Good God, sick or well, she never slept this late!

   Nor did Matthew.

   She knew the distress she felt wouldn’t be rocketing toward the ozone if Willa were home—she sometimes kept Matthew occupied before breakfast in the kitchen. But just as she had done every Wednesday since Kathryn could remember, Willa had driven to Dallas yesterday evening to spend the night with her daughter. Today was her day off. And Pilar wasn’t coming this morning to clean because she had to take Antonio to the dentist. It was just Kathryn and Matthew in the house.

   Matthew, she thought as she clamped her teeth on her bottom lip.

   She pushed herself up against the bank of pillows lining the headboard, which intensified the nausea. A headache worked its way up from the base of her skull. Swallowing convulsively, she put her head back and waited for the sick feeling to pass.

   Several long, slow breaths later she shoved back the sheet and antique wedding-ring quilt. Not trusting her legs to hold her, she flattened one palm against the nightstand and pushed herself up. Beside the clock sat the empty wineglass she’d sipped from the night before. She wished the glass was full of water so she could ease the dryness in her mouth. Thoughts of stopping in her bathroom to get a drink dissipated when her bedroom whirled once, then righted itself. She’d be doing good just to get down the hallway to Matthew’s room without adding a side-trip. Working hard to even her breathing, she forced her unsteady legs to take tentative steps, feeling like a drunk staggering against a current.

   Although her head still felt like it was packed with gauze, her stomach seemed to be settling now that she was on her feet.

   Good. This is good.

   Dressed in a yellow cotton camisole and sleep shorts, she left her robe on the bed’s footboard and made her way across the bedroom, the wood floor cool beneath her bare feet. Her hand shook when she reached for the doorknob. She stepped into the hallway; except for the low hum of the central air-conditioning the house was ominously silent.

   “Matthew?” Her shout seemed to hang in the air around her.

   From down the hallway came Abby’s muffled bark. The dachshund’s toenails scraped against the closed bedroom door.

   Since Abby stuck loyally to Matthew, Kathryn reasoned both dog and boy were still in his bedroom.

   Her movements felt hazy, almost dreamlike as she made her way along the hallway. Although the distance between the bedrooms was short, she had to stop several times when the trembling in her legs worsened.

   The closer she got to Matthew’s room, the more urgent Abby’s barks. The instant she swung open the door the dachshund leaped out, weaving frantic circles around her mistress’s bare feet.

   “Matthew?” Kathryn stumbled over the dog into the large, airy room with windows that looked out over the front driveway.

   Her gaze swept the bed. The jungle-theme sheets and spread were rumpled, as if her son had just climbed out. His robe lay on the end of the mattress. Kathryn swiveled toward the waist-high bookcases built into the far wall. Toy tanks, airplanes and platoons of soldiers crowded the shelves. Several Jeeps and Humvees lay in a jumbled pileup on the braided rug.

   “Matty, where are you?”

   Pain pulsing behind her eyes, Kathryn walked toward the adjacent bathroom, Abby on her heels. Glancing down, Kathryn frowned. There was something odd about the way the dog moved, as though she had a slight catch in one hip.

   “Matthew?” The silence that pressed like fingers against Kathryn’s eardrums told her before she got to the bathroom that she’d find it empty.

   It was.

   Her concern growing, she shoved at her hair. Considering it was past ten, she wasn’t surprised Matthew was out of bed. What bothered her was Abby. Matthew never went anywhere without the dachshund in tow. Unless, Kathryn reasoned, he hadn’t gone far.

   “Are we playing hide-and-seek?” she asked, stepping to the closet.

   When she slid the door open, Abby darted inside, snuffling into each shadowy corner. A whine rose up her throat when she failed to locate her master. Kathryn lifted her gaze to the closet’s shelves, but she saw nothing out of place.

   When two short beeps sounded, she stepped to the bookcases. Her heart tattooed in her ears while she waited for the beeps to sound again as she scanned the shelves, trying to figure out what toy had emitted the unfamiliar electronic signals.

   When the beeps sounded again, she whipped around toward the bed. Her gaze settled on the nightstand and her eyes widened. A cell phone lay beside the miniature airplane that doubled as a lamp. Matthew didn’t have a cell phone. And even if he’d found one that had been laid aside, she knew for sure the phone hadn’t been there last night when she’d tucked him into bed and dropped a kiss on his rumpled blond hair.

   She crossed the room in two strides, grabbed the phone and flipped up its cover. The screen displayed the text message icon.

   Kathryn’s fingers made trembling, fumbling stabs at a series of buttons. When the message displayed, its first line sent fear pressing against her heart so she could hear the panicked beat of it roaring in her ears.

   WE HAVE YOUR SON.

CHAPTER THREE

   “MATTHEW…” Terror crimped Kathryn’s voice. A growing pressure around her heart made it beat in hitchy strikes. Her entire body shaking, she forced herself to read the entire text message.

   We have your son.

   We will kill him if you contact the police. We are watching you. Get one million dollars in various denominations. Keep the money and this cell phone with you. Don’t change your routine. We will call and tell you what to do. Screw up, the kid dies.

   The words blurred while heat traveled in a wave up Kathryn’s spine.

   “No, no. Matthew…” Panic clawed at her throat; for a moment, the shapes and colors in the room seemed to shift. She felt herself sway.

   With a flurry of barks, Abby raced to the bedroom’s door, her right hind leg lifting out of sync with the others. Turning, the dog rocketed back, tramping across Kathryn’s bare feet. The contact snapped her back. She forced herself to breathe. Struggled to think.

   Think. Whipping around, she dashed into the bathroom, moving so fast she plowed one hip into the sink. The pain didn’t even register as she wrenched open the door on the medicine cabinet.

   A ball of ice dropped into her belly as she stared at the large amber bottle containing the antirejection pills Matthew took daily. Had to take daily. Missing even one dose could jumpstart his system into an attempt to reject his transplanted kidney.

   “Oh, God.” The terror burning in her had her stomach heaving. She leaned over the sink and gagged. Nothing came up but a stream of saliva.

   Rinsing her mouth, she heard Abby dashing in and out of the bathroom, felt her nipping at her ankles. The doxie’s frenzied barking had Kathryn’s brain clicking to the possibility that whoever had taken her son might still be in the house.

   Did she still have time to save Matthew?

   Fueled by that hope, she jammed the cell phone into the pocket of her shorts and darted out of the bathroom. As if connected to the dachshund by an invisible leash, Kathryn sprinted after Abby.

   Her incessant barks now deep, throaty rumbles, the dog shot down the hallway, a discernible limp in her gait as her long, thin nose skimmed the wooden floor, then lifted as if scenting the air for her master.

   Kathryn ran, shouting her son’s name while her chest tightened and the breath sobbed out of her lungs.

   Her heartbeat battered her ribs, her temples in a savage, pulsing rhythm. She couldn’t face the possibility of losing her child. Refused to think it. She would find Matthew. Save him before some faceless monster carried him away.

   Abby bounded off the staircase, her paws skittering across the waxed floor. She turned a corner, scurried along the hallway toward the rear of the house, her snout sweeping to and fro.

   “Matthew!” Kathryn ducked into the living room, Sam’s study, then the dining room, searching for some sign of her child.

   Abby slowed, turned and began retracing her zigzagging steps along the hallway. At the bottom of the staircase, she looked up at Kathryn and whined.

   She’d lost Matthew’s scent. Breath sobbed out of Kathryn’s lungs. “We can’t give up looking.” Turning, she dashed toward the kitchen, her shouts for Matthew echoing through the empty house.

   

   AFTER SEARCHING the kitchen and Willa’s rooms, Kathryn hammered down the basement stairs, grabbed a flashlight and checked the outlaw tunnel, desperately hoping that she’d wake up from this nightmare and find Matthew playing there.

   He wasn’t.

   With the tunnel’s dank, musty air still in her lungs, she sprinted back upstairs, yelling his name while she checked each room, closet, looking beneath every bed. She found no sign of her child.

   As she raced back down the staircase, the fear that had been pounding at her now screamed into her mind, bursting through her body like a storm of ice.

   Matthew was gone. Taken by some faceless someone.

   We have your son.

   The pain inside her was so huge it reached to the bone.

   Intent on searching the stables, she bolted off the bottom step and plowed into a solid, unyielding frame.

   “Sweet Jesus!” Reece Silver’s voice was as hard as the hands he clamped onto her shoulders.

   “Where is he?” Half-crazed, Kathryn shoved at the veterinarian who’d tended the Cross C’s animals since she was a teen. “What have you done with him?”

   “Who?” Reece loomed over her, controlling her with hands well-used to keeping strong horses in line. His face was slender, almost gaunt, and the brown eyes staring down at her were filled with confusion. “Johnny? He and I came up here to talk to you. About the mare that came down with colic yesterday? He went down the hall to the kitchen to see if you were there.”

   “Not Johnny,” Kathryn gasped. “Matthew! He’s gone.” The hallway with its dark wood walls and floor seemed to be closing in on her. In desperation she fought against Reece’s hold. “Let go!”

   “Not while your eyes are glassy and your face is as pale as a boiled egg.” While he spoke, the vet half-nudged, half-dragged her into the living room. “You need to sit, catch your breath.” His face was grim as he prodded her into one of the wing chairs that ringed the fireplace.

   “Can’t…” She tried to pull in air. “Breathe.”

   “Lean over.” Crouching beside her, Reece placed a palm against the back of her head and shoved it between her knees. The movement forced the air out of her lungs. Staring at the colorful braided rug, Kathryn pulled in a deep breath, then another.

   “More,” Reece said. “In and out.”

   She gave a vague nod. There were steel wires around her chest, around her head. Tightening, tightening.

   The echo of boot heels coming down the hallway had Kathryn jerking her head up. When the Cross C’s foreman stepped into the room, she nearly sobbed. Johnny Sullivan had put her up on her first horse, he’d taught her to ride, how to use a rifle, to rope a steer. He, along with Willa, had taught her how to love.

   Dressed in worn jeans, a plaid shirt and scuffed boots, Johnny gripped his sweat-stained straw hat in one arthritic fist. When he spotted Kathryn, the clear blue eyes in his leathery tan face narrowed. “God Almighty, girl, you look sick as a dog.”

   “I’m not sick.” She straightened in the chair. “It’s Matthew. He’s gone. Johnny, they took my baby.”

   “Who?” He moved to her, exchanging an uncertain look with Reece when the vet rose to his feet. “Who took our boy?”

   Reece scrubbed his palms down his jeaned thighs. “I think she thought I did.”

   “I thought they might still be in the house,” Kathryn said, her breath coming in pants. “When I ran into you…” She shook her head. “They left a cell phone in Matthew’s room with a message. They want money. They’ll kill him if…” Kathryn’s entire body trembled. “His medicine. He has to take it every day. He could die if he doesn’t.”

   “We’re not gonna let that happen.” Tossing his hat onto the nearby coffee table, the foreman settled a hand on her shoulder, squeezed. “I’d best get Sheriff Boudry over here.”

   “No!” Kathryn grabbed his hand, felt the familiar rougher-than-sandpaper calluses. “They’ll kill Matthew if I go to the police.” She dug the cell phone out of the pocket of her sleep shorts, and gripped it tight, the sole lifeline she had to her child. “I have to do what they say, or they’ll kill him.” She paused, her mind reeling in a hundred directions. “Devin. I have to call Devin and tell him. Call the bank.”

   Reece’s concerned gaze skimmed over her face. “My advice is bring in a security expert before you do anything.” He stepped around the leather couch and headed to the wet bar. There, he opened the small refrigerator, pulled out a bottle of water and twisted off the cap.

   “A security expert,” Kathryn repeated. Watching Reece walk back toward her, she struggled to control her thoughts. “Devin uses a security company in L.A., but I don’t know the name. I’ll find out.” She squeezed her eyes shut. “Devin’s in Tibet, making a movie.”

   “You don’t want rent-a-cops or bodyguards.” Reece set the bottle on the table next to Kathryn, then settled on the chair beside her. “You need someone who knows how to deal with kidnappers. A negotiator.”

   “He’s right,” Johnny said and gave a curt nod. “I can call over to the Double Starr and talk to Clay Turner.”

   “Clay?” For a crazed moment, Kathryn stared up at the foreman, wondering if he’d somehow found out about what happened between her and Clay during that long-ago summer. “No, Matthew isn’t… I lost…” She clenched her jaw. Matthew.

   Reece leaned in. “Did you hear about Clay’s parents getting kidnapped in Colombia a couple of years ago?”

   Kathryn nodded. Right now, she could remember only one detail. “They died. His parents died. Horribly.”

   “T’wern’t that negotiator’s fault.” The foreman’s hand tightened around hers. “A lot of things went wrong then. This is now. Clay was on duty in Colombia when his parents got taken and he got shot. The state department sent in some fella who knew how to deal with kidnappers to work with Clay. He can tell you how to reach that man. Say the word, I’ll get Clay on the phone.”

   Kathryn picked up the bottle, took a long, slow drink of the cold water. She wasn’t going to fall apart, wouldn’t let herself. Doing so could cost Matthew his life. She would do whatever she had to do. Deal with whomever she had to in order to get her child back. Just get him back.

   Setting the bottle aside, she met Johnny’s gaze. “Find out where Clay is,” she said levelly. “I’ll go talk to him myself.”

   

   “TRACTOR THREW A ROD,” Eddie Woodson informed Clay. “Second time this year.” His straw hat shading his eyes from the straight-up-noon sun, the young, muscled ranch hand with corn-colored hair lapping across a sunburned neck used a rag to scrub smears of grease off his stubby fingers.

   Clay sent the tractor a disgusted look. “Ever wonder why equipment always breaks down when it’s in the middle of a field instead of near the work shed?”

   Eddie shot Clay one of his good-natured grins. “My ma says stuff like that happens to people who have black clouds hanging over their heads.”

   Thinking about his past, Clay couldn’t disagree.

   Glancing down, he tested the soil with the toe of one boot. Too dry, he thought and made a note to turn on the system that irrigated this section of pasture earlier than programmed. Also on his mental to-do list was assigning a couple of the hands to start rotating cattle from pasture to pasture.

   The designation of chores, the buying and selling of cattle and horses had been his province for the past two years as his uncle gradually turned over the day-to-day operation of the Double Starr to Clay. Ironic, he thought, that the work he’d had no real heart for during his youth was now his whole life.

   “Guess we can also blame those black clouds on how things break down when we don’t have parts on hand to fix stuff.” Eddie jammed the rag into the back pocket of his worn jeans. “You want me to drive into Layton now and pick up what we need?”

   “Yeah.” Clay adjusted the brim of his Stetson lower to shade his eyes. “I want to check Cimarron, so you can drop me at the barn,” he said, referring to a mare near her time who always had difficulty foaling.

   “Doc Silver’s planning on being here for the birth, right?”

   “Right.” Studying Eddie, Clay slid the fingers of one hand into the back pocket of his jeans. Because he knew all too well how a young man with a circus going on in his pants operated, he inclined his head in the kid’s direction. “I want this tractor running again today. Which means you can drop by the drugstore to rub up against that cute blond checker. What you can’t do is spend a couple of hours there.”

   Eddie’s sunburned face turned even redder. “I enjoy talkin’ to Andrea, is all.”

   “Nothing wrong with talking when you don’t have a tractor sitting idle.”

   The sudden thunder of hooves had both men looking across their shoulder. Clay narrowed his eyes. He didn’t recognize the chestnut galloping flat-out over the rise, but he had no trouble identifying its rider.

   He would know her if he’d spotted her five miles away. Kat had always looked more natural on horseback than she did on her own two feet. Still did.

   As the chestnut thundered closer Clay noted Kathryn was hatless, her dark hair flying behind her as her boots pumped against the horse’s sides. Its hurtling hooves puffed clouds of dust into the still air.

   Since she’d made her feelings for him clear during yesterday’s impromptu encounter, he couldn’t even guess at what had brought her riding his way, hell bent for leather.

   “That looks like…” Eddie squinted, then looked at Clay. “Is that Kathryn Conner?”

   “Mason. It is.” Clay noted that the kid was ogling Kathryn the same way the customers had in the café.

   “Ma’s gonna drop into a dead faint when she hears I met Devin Mason’s ex.”

   “Put a lid on it,” Clay ground out. Frowning, he watched Kathryn jerk the reins back so sharply the chestnut nearly skidded into the side of his pickup. Before the horse came to a full halt she slid out of the saddle, a movement as graceful as ballet. Still holding the reins, she turned his way.

   And Clay’s gut tightened. Her face was pale. Tense. Lines of stress fanned from the corners of her mouth. Shadowy smudges clung beneath her eyes.

   Something was wrong. Bad wrong.

   “Ma’am.” Oblivious, Eddie dragged off his straw hat and stared with undisguised curiosity at the woman who’d been the talk of Layton for the past weeks. “Welcome to the Double Starr, Mrs. Mason.”

   Giving Eddie a vague nod, Kathryn released her grip on the reins. While the chestnut trotted a few feet away, she kept her gaze locked with Clay’s while she clenched one hand on the cell phone clipped to the waistband of her jeans.

   “I need to talk to you.” Her voice shook. “Alone.”

   Clay shifted his gaze. “Eddie, go on now and run that errand.”

   “Sure.” Cramming his hat back on his head, the young ranch hand walked to the pickup, swung open the door, then paused. “How you gonna get back to the barn, Clay?”

   “I’ve got my cell. I’ll call one of the other hands.”

   “Okay.” Eddie shot Kathryn another look of interest. “Ma’am.”

   Clay sliced a hand toward the kid. “Take off.”

   Eddie slid behind the wheel and turned the key; the powerful engine rumbled. Clay noted the way Eddie lifted his chin in order to keep Kathryn framed in the rearview mirror as his drove off.

   “I need your help,” Kathryn blurted, at the same instant Clay stepped toward her.

   “What—”

   “They took Matthew. My baby. He’s gone.”

   Clay furrowed his brow. His first thought was that she and Mason had some sort of custody dispute going over their son. “Who took him?”

   “I don’t know.” She jerked the phone off her jeans, flipped open its cover and jabbed buttons. Her hand trembled so badly the phone shook when she handed it to him. “Johnny and Reece Silver said you could help. You have to help.” Her voice shuddered as badly as her hands and her words tumbled over each other. “Matthew needs his medicine. They left it. He could reject his kidney. They said you can help me. They left the phone.”

   Struggling to makes sense of her jumbled words, Clay looked down at the phone’s display. His lungs stopped working the instant he began to read. His gaze whipped up to meet hers. “When did you get this?”

   “Two hours ago.” She wrapped her arms around her waist. “I overslept. Woke up sick. I could barely make it to Matthew’s room. He was gone. Abby tracked them downstairs, but lost his scent. He’s gone. They took Matthew.”

   Dread clamped a vise on Clay’s chest as he pictured the compelling little boy with sparkling brown eyes and a plastic deputy’s badge pinned to his T-shirt. He knew all too well what could go wrong during a kidnapping. Which was the last thing Kathryn needed to hear.

   “How far did Abby track Matthew’s scent?”

   “Just to the bottom of the staircase. They shut her in Matthew’s room when they took him. She’s limping. I think they kicked her.”

   Clay rescanned the text of the ransom message, hoping to find something that might dull his initial fear for the boy’s well-being.

   He didn’t.

   “They’ll call soon, won’t they?” Kathryn asked, her voice reedy with terror. “Tell me how to get Matthew back. He needs his medicine. I’ll do whatever they say. Give them anything they want. I have to get him back.”

   “They’ll call, but I’m not sure when,” Clay said while his thoughts veered to his parents. His father had been the number two man at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, his mother the ambassador’s executive assistant. The rebels who’d snatched them had believed the U.S. would put pressure on the Colombian government to release jailed compatriots. A patient group, the rebels had waited two weeks to make initial contact. The hostage negotiator brought in by the State Department had told Clay that kidnappers knew every minute they delayed contact made those left behind more desperate. More afraid. More willing to pay.

   And so Clay had waited for the call, then after that for his parents’ safe release while his mind replayed the instant the rebels ambushed his parents’ car while he was at the wheel. To Clay, it didn’t matter that he’d taken a bullet during the attack—he’d been a cop, he should have sensed the danger closing in, should have protected his family. Should have done something. He knew he would never be rid of the guilt nor the mistrust of his own instincts that prompted him to turn in his badge. And there was no way in hell he’d risk Matthew’s life by letting Kathryn rely on those faulty instincts.

   “I can help you only so far.” Closing the phone’s cover, he offered it to her. “You need someone who knows how to deal with kidnappers. That isn’t me.”

   From under the brim of his hat he watched her face, saw fury flare in her eyes so white-hot it could have sparked a pasture fire.

   “Damn you, Clay Turner, I know I meant nothing to you.” She tore the phone out of his hand with the intensity of an erupting volcano. “But if you think I’ll let you turn your back on me a second time when my son’s life is a stake, think again.”

   He said nothing for a moment. How could he when her words sliced to his core?

   “I’m not turning my back,” he countered levelly. “While I worked for the State Department, I had some training on what to do right after a kidnapping occurs. Which is how to keep things calm until someone who knows what they’re doing arrives on the scene. The best way I can help you is to put you in touch with a hostage negotiator I know. A man who does this for a living. His name is Forbes. Quentin Forbes. He’s the best there is. He knows kidnappers in and out. Knows how to negotiate—”

   “I don’t want to negotiate,” Kathryn hissed. “I want to pay the million dollars. I’ll pay whatever they want as long as I get Matthew back.”

   The desperation in her voice tightened the knots in Clay’s gut. Another lesson Forbes had hammered into his head was that to pay too much too soon was to make kidnappers think they could squeeze more money out of the family. That doing so sometimes resulted in the extortion of a second ransom for the same victim. And prolonged the heart-wrenching wait. Not to mention they had no proof of life, which would be the first thing Forbes would demand.

   Clay scrubbed a hand over his jaw, his callused fingertips scraping across the scar on his right cheek. The scar was visual proof of how cold-blooded a kidnapper’s determination could be. Better to let Forbes deal with Kathryn on the issue of negotiating the ransom, Clay decided. With everything. Considering his own track record, the farther he stayed from this, the better chance Matthew had of getting out alive.

   “Whether or not to negotiate the ransom amount is something you can talk over with Forbes. He’ll also advise you on what to say and what not to say when the kidnappers call.”

   The wind picked up, slapping strands of her dark hair against her cheeks. It seemed to Clay that she swayed beneath its force. Her face was white as death now, the gleam of shock in her eyes subsiding as realization set in.

   Knowing the fire that had pushed her this far was fading fast, he gave thought to taking hold of her arms and shoring her up in case her legs gave out. Suspecting she would prefer a rattlesnake bite to his touch, he opted to tug his cell phone out of his shirt pocket.

   “Forbes can help get Matthew back safe,” he repeated. “You can trust me on this.” And she could. After all, he had always been honest with her. Brutally so.

   “It’d probably be best if you talk to Matthew’s father first,” Clay added. “Better if you both decide what to do about Forbes.” And if the unthinkable happened, she wouldn’t have to live with the hellish guilt that the sole responsibility for her child’s death lay with her.

   She shook her head. “I tried to call Devin. He’s in Tibet, shooting a movie. I couldn’t get a good connection. It might take hours to get through to him.” She pressed her fingertips to her eyes. “I can’t just wait and do nothing. If the man you know, this…”

   “Forbes. Quentin Forbes.”

   “Forbes.” Dropping her hand, she looked up at Clay, her eyes dark pools of anguish. “I feel like I’m going crazy. I can’t concentrate. All I can think about is Matthew. Clay, they might kill my baby.”

   “No.” Because he could no longer stop himself, he reached out, played a hand down her arm. It had to be ninety degrees, yet her flesh was ice-cold. “They don’t want to hurt him. They only want you to believe they will. The kidnappers want money,” he continued. “Keeping Matthew unharmed is their only guarantee of getting it. Hang on to that, Kat.”

   Nodding, she looked away. Clay watched as she raked her fingers through her hair, leaving it a dark, rumpled frame around her ashen face. He remembered, perfectly remembered, the silky softness of that hair against his hands.

   Again, he felt the hard knot of regret for how callously he had treated her. For all that he’d given up. Thrown away. Lost.

   When Kathryn remet his gaze her eyes were expressionless, her face as calm as carved stone. “Call him, Clay. Call your Mr. Forbes.”

   “All right.” Clay’s chest tightened. He would do everything he could to save Kat’s son. Just as he’d done all he could to try to save his parents.

   Beneath his hand, he felt Kathryn shudder. Until Forbes arrived, Clay knew he was the only man who could help her.

   And the last man who should.

CHAPTER FOUR

   AFTER LEAVING a message for the negotiator, Clay swung up into the saddle on Kathryn’s mare, then held out a hand to her. When he saw her hesitate, he felt a quick, nasty slice to his heart that he struggled to ignore.

   Hard to do when on its heels came a flash of memory: Kat at eighteen, slim and leggy, with black hair to her waist, a young woman not entirely aware of her effect on him. Granted, her schoolgirl crush had her chasing after him for years, but one look at her that summer and he’d let himself be caught…not captured. Still sowing his wild oats, he’d refused to admit there was more to the relationship than the lustful, sweaty need of a man for a woman. Yet, when he reported back to work in Houston, Kat had stayed on his mind. And still he denied his feelings, telling himself he had time to get a handle on things.

   Time ran out when she phoned and told him she was pregnant. He’d headed for Layton, his emotions warring. Age-old emotions of the rounder he’d been with those of the man whose heart was trying to lead him for the first time.

   But when he arrived in Layton, Kathryn had miscarried. And the pale young woman lying in the hospital bed no longer gazed at him with love shining in her eyes, but with hurt and indifference.

   So he kept his uncertain feelings to himself, took her to the friend’s house where she wanted to stay, then left when she told him to go.

   And tried to put her out of his mind. Which was something he’d done pretty well, until his parents died and all the guilt and regret flooded over him.

   Clay’s thoughts jerked from the past when Kathryn slid her hand into his.

   With ease that came from a lifetime of climbing onto a horse, she fit her left foot into the stirrup and settled in front of him in one smooth move. The scent of her hair filled his head. When her backside nestled into his thighs, he felt his insides jolt, like a boulder teetering off a cliff.

   Ah, hell. The last thing he needed was a reminder of the heat that had always arrowed straight to his loins whenever they touched.

   Thinking of Matthew in a kidnapper’s clutches, Clay set his jaw, reined the mare around and moved off.

   After reaching Cross C property, they left the mare to graze and approached the house from the rear where a flagstone terrace spilled out of tall French doors. Yellow mums sat amid the wrought-iron furniture; the clear water in the swimming pool glittered like diamonds beneath the bright sun.

   “Did you notice if any doors were unlocked this morning?” Clay asked while studying the house. “Any windows open?”

   “I didn’t check the doors.” Kathryn dragged her fingers across her damp forehead. “If a window had been open, I probably would have noticed, but I’m not sure.”

   “What about Willa? Did she hear anything last night or early this morning?”

   “She’s not home. Willa spends every Wednesday night at her daughter’s house in Dallas.”

   “Every Wednesday?”

   “Yes. She’s done that for as long as I can remember.”

   “Is there any other live-in help?”

   “No. Pilar Graciano comes in daily and helps Willa.” Kathryn met his gaze. “You might remember her or her husband, Nilo. Matthew went with Nilo and his son, Antonio, to string fence.” She pressed her fingertips to her lips. “Yesterday. It was just yesterday morning.”

   When her world was still on an even keel, Clay thought. “Did Pilar come to work this morning?”

   “No. She had to take Antonio to the dentist.”

   Interesting, Clay thought, that the kidnapper struck the one night of the week Willa was gone. He wondered if the kidnapper knew the maid wouldn’t show this morning. Forbes would want to give everyone privy to that kind of info a hard look.

   Thinking of the negotiator reminded Clay how out of his league he was. But until Forbes returned his call, he could at least look around and at the same time keep Kathryn busy. Giving her as little time as possible to think about the uncertain fate of her child was the best thing he could do for her.

   “Kat, I need you to walk me through everything you did this morning, starting from when you woke up. Retrace your steps.”

   “I looked for Matthew everywhere. Even the outlaw tunnel.” She closed her eyes. “I didn’t find anything.”

   Clay gripped her elbow, turned her to face him. She looked afraid. Vulnerable. “You were searching for Matthew. We need to see if we can find a trace of himself the kidnapper might have left. Something that may lead us to him. To Matthew.”

   “All right.” Her lips trembled. “He needs his medicine. We have to find him, Clay. We have to.”

   “We will,” he said. And hoped to hell that when they did, Matthew was still alive.

   

   BY THE TIME Kathryn finished walking Clay through the house, it was late afternoon. Now, she stood in Matthew’s bedroom, her arms wrapped around her waist while she stared out the window at the distant stables and barn. Beyond them sat two houses. Nilo and Pilar Graciano and their son resided in the larger of the two. Johnny Sullivan lived next door to them.

   Behind the houses land stretched toward the horizon. Matthew was out there. Somewhere. Scared. Wanting her. Needing her. Crying for her.

   She closed her eyes. The helplessness—the awful knowing she could do nothing to lessen her child’s terror—wrapped around her like a suffocating strait-jacket. She felt ill from the fear burning inside her. A horrible, all-consuming fear that she was destined to stand at this window for the rest of her life, wondering what had happened to her child.

   “So, after you talked to Reece Silver and Johnny, you changed clothes,” Clay said. “Then rode over to find me.”

   “Yes.” Kathryn turned. Clay stood across the room, studying the cork board on the wall above Matthew’s desk. Pinned to the board were drawings of odd-shaped horses sketched in a rainbow of crayons. A snapshot of Matthew, grinning ear to ear while propped in the crook of Devin’s arm, was pinned in the board’s center.

   She studied Clay, his profile tough, contained, grim. Being with him, having him here when he’d been gone from her life for so long made everything seem even more surreal. Yet she knew his presence was the only thing keeping her sane.

   “Do you think Mr. Forbes will call soon?” she asked.

   “If he doesn’t, I’ll try him again.” Clay moved to the braided rug beside the bed, crouched and rubbed Abby’s head. The dachshund’s tail worked like a metronome set on high.

   “Kat, when did Willa leave for Dallas?”

   “Before supper. Matthew and I made pizza….” Her voice caught as she pictured her son’s mischievous grin while he formed pepperoni slices into a happy face. She couldn’t bear the thought that she might never see him grin again. Laugh again.

   “After that?” Clay prodded.

   She clamped down on emotion. “We watched TV. Later I put Matthew to bed.”

   “Then what?”

   “I checked the doors.” She paused, thinking. “Poured my glass of wine, then went to bed and read. I couldn’t keep my eyes open so I turned off the light after about ten minutes.”

   Clay cocked his head. “You said, ‘I poured my glass of wine.’ Do you always have wine before you go to bed?”

   “Yes.” She’d needed something to help her relax when she learned Devin was having an affair with his then leading lady.

   “Who knows you always have a glass of wine before bed?”

   “I guess Willa. Before we arrived, I asked her to add a couple of bottles of Merlot to her shopping list. She said it was too bad Sam got sick before he had time to stock the wine cellar he’d had built in the basement.”

   “Where’s the bottle you filled your glass with last night?”

   “The living room. In the cooler behind the bar.”

   “Was last night the first time you’d drank from that bottle?”

   “No, I opened it the first night I was here.”

   “Since you’ve been back, have you woken up sick any other morning?”

   “No. Clay, why do you want to know about the wine?”

   “Because you said you felt sick this morning and overslept.” He gave Abby a final rub of her ears, then rose. “I don’t think you picked up a bug. More like someone laced your wine.”

   Kathryn’s mouth went dry. “That would mean whoever took Matthew knows my habits.”

   “And a lot more. If I’m right, the kidnapper knew Willa would be gone. With you drugged, the threat of exposure was minimal. Then there’s Abby.”

   Kathryn looked down at the doxie. “What about her?”

   “You said she was limping, like she’d been kicked.”

   “Yes. You don’t think she was?”

   “No. One reason is how she greeted me when I got here. She’d never seen me before, but she trotted over and licked my hand. It’s logical to think she acted the same way when the kidnapper showed up. If Abby knew him, she would have been more welcoming. And if they wanted to keep her quiet, why kick her?”

   Kathryn shoved a hand through her hair. “Doing that wouldn’t make sense.”

   “You told me Abby would have had a barking fit over being left behind when they took Matthew. The kidnappers couldn’t be sure you’d pour yourself a glass of wine last night or how much you’d drink if you did. So they wouldn’t want any noise that might wake you. The sole threat Abby posed was barking when they left with Matthew. The best way to deal with that would be to give her a shot of a fast-acting sedative. It’d keep her quiet for hours, and cause the limp you saw.”

   Guilt descended over Kathryn like clammy heat. “Matthew was virtually unprotected. It would have been nothing for me to have an alarm installed before we arrived here. I could have hired a security company to patrol the ranch—”

   “It’s not your fault, Kat.”

   “He depended on me to keep him safe. He’s gone because—”

   “Some greedy bastard came in here and took him,” Clay said as he gripped her shoulders. “Another thing I learned from Forbes is how committed kidnappers can be. That whomever they plan to take, they take. If you’d had this place secured like Fort Knox, they would have gotten Matthew some other way.”

   “Devin has bodyguards,” she tossed back. “I should have hired someone to watch Matthew.”

   Clay gave her a firm shake. “Your blaming yourself won’t help your son.”

   She gripped his wrists. “I don’t know how to help him.”

   “You stay calm, is how.” Clay felt the knots in his gut jerk tighter. Dammit, every hour that went by put Matthew into greater peril. Why hadn’t Forbes called?

   Beneath his palms, he felt Kathryn tremble. Her face was chalk-white, her eyes gleamed with a mix of fear and absolute helplessness.

   Easing out a breath, he thought about the conclusions he’d come to. If he was right about the wine and the dog, whoever took Matthew had done a lot of research. “Kidnappers,” Forbes had once told Clay, “plan to the last inch.” The articles Clay had read in the Layton Times and People magazine about Devin Mason had mentioned his son’s kidney transplant.

   “What type of medicine does Matthew take?”

   “An immunosuppressive drug. Transplant patients take them to prevent rejection of their transplanted organ.”

   “So, with research, the kidnapper would know that,” Clay reasoned. “This guy came prepared. Maybe he left that way, too.” He looked toward the bathroom. “You said you saw the prescription bottle with Matthew’s medicine. Can you find out if extra pills are missing?”

   “I had the prescription refilled two days ago. There should be only two pills gone from the bottle.”

   “Count the pills, Kat.”

   “You think the kidnapper took some? To give to Matthew?”

   “I think we’d be smart to check.” When she started to turn, he held her in place. “Even if all the pills that should be in the bottle are there, it doesn’t mean Matthew won’t get his meds. Not when it’s easy to buy drugs over the Internet.”

   “Okay.” Kathryn closed her eyes. “If I could just be sure Matthew’s taking his medicine.”

   “It’s my bet he is.” At least Clay hoped so.

   His phone rang just as Kathryn stepped into the bathroom. Relief rolled through Clay when he saw Forbes’s name displayed.

   That relief lasted only until Forbes advised he was in England, negotiating the release of an earl’s kidnapped wife.

   With tension coiling through him, Clay briefed him on Matthew’s abduction. And the conclusions he’d come to.

   “I think you’re right about Mrs. Mason and the dog being drugged,” Forbes said in his perpetually calm voice. “And that a check needs to be run on everyone with access to the Cross C.” Clay pictured the gray-haired, scrawny-necked man who never showed emotion, even in the face of impending disaster. Forbes’s air of quiet confidence went a long way to soothing and calming.

   For three months, the man had kept Clay sane.

   “What about the cell phone the kidnapper left?” Forbes asked. “Can it be traced?”

   “No, it’s a brand I’ve never heard of, so I went online and checked it out. The phone’s a disposable one, sold by a company that doesn’t require a purchaser to sign a contract or have a credit card. All someone has to do is walk into any convenience store, lay down cash and they’ve got a phone with a preset amount of calling minutes on it.”

   “With no audit trail assigned to the phone there’s no way to trace who bought it. So, that’s a dead end.”

   “Right,” Clay agreed.

   “The ransom amount puzzles me,” Forbes continued. “Devin Mason is wealthy. Why ask only one million dollars for his son’s safe return?”

   “Good question.” Clay tightened his grip on the phone. “Look, I understand why you can’t come to Texas, but I need to get another negotiator fast. Who do you recommend?”

   “You.”

   Old memories, like the ghost of past sins, knotted Clay’s gut. “No way in hell.” For two years he’d lived with guilt over his parents’ death that gave him night sweats and a dull, skittering sense of panic. The last thing he wanted was to take on the responsibility of Matthew Mason’s life.

   “You know the normal goings-on in the community,” Forbes persisted. “Since the kidnapper insists Mrs. Mason maintain her regular schedule, we can assume he’s in a position to watch her. You’re a friend, a neighbor, you can place yourself near her without alarming the person holding Matthew. And perhaps spot someone who seems overcurious about her.”

   Clay set his jaw. From the instant Kathryn handed him the phone with the ransom message he’d had the sensation of having stepped in quicksand. Now, he felt himself getting sucked farther into a black hole. How could he help her when he couldn’t trust himself to make the right moves?

   “Kathryn is a celebrity,” he said. “Everyone is curious about her, so you’d have Layton’s entire population on your suspect list. The best way I can help her is from a distance.”

   “I disagree. Mrs. Mason needs someone she can trust staying close to her to assess the people she interacts with. Someone who will know if a person’s normal body language has changed, if they’re showing signs of nervousness and stress. You’re a former police officer, you’re trained to do that.”

   “Are you forgetting my instincts are so screwed I didn’t sense the danger closing in on my parents?”

   “What happened in Bogota was not your fault. And even if I were able to come there,” Forbes continued, “I would be dependent on you to advise me on the people, their backgrounds. You already know who, if anyone, on the local police force can be trusted to be approached. I can consult for Mrs. Mason by phone if you’ll agree to work with her there.”

   “Dammit.” Clay lowered his voice to a whisper. “I don’t want to be responsible for another person dying.”

   “You have never been responsible for that.”

   Just then, Clay saw Kathryn step from the bathroom, the pill bottle gripped in one hand. He explained to Forbes about Matthew’s medicine, then held the phone so that the negotiator could hear Kathryn.

   “Ten of the pills are gone.”

   “You’re sure?” Clay asked.

   “I counted them three times.”

   “Okay. Is there any chance Matthew could have gotten that bottle out of the cabinet? Taken the missing pills, thinking they were candy? Or maybe to hide them?”

   “No. He’s spent weeks in the hospital, years going to various doctors. He understands why he has to take medicine.”

   Clay put the phone back to his ear. “You hear that?”

   “Yes, ten pills,” Forbes said. “I wonder if that’s the kidnapper’s timetable? Ten days from the snatch to delivery of the ransom. Or do they plan to demand the ransom be paid sooner? They possibly took more pills as a cushion in case something unforeseen requires they hold the boy longer than planned. If that’s the case, why not just take the bottle?”

   “Would have made more sense,” Clay said.

   “You said Matthew’s father is in Tibet?”

   “Yes. He insisted on coming here to deal with the kidnappers. I talked him into staying put, at least for now.”

   “And you claim you can’t handle things?” Without waiting for a response, Forbes added, “Let me speak to Mrs. Mason.”

   Clay handed Kathryn the phone. “He wants to talk to you.”

   “He’s coming, right?” she asked. “Mr. Forbes is coming?”

   He met her desperate gaze. “No, Kat, he can’t come.”

   

   AFTER TALKING to Forbes, Kathryn handed the phone back to Clay, then clenched her hands to keep from burying her face in them and weeping. Because her legs had turned to water, she lowered herself onto the edge of her son’s bed.

   “We can bring in another negotiator,” Clay said.

   “How long will that take? Another day? Two? Three?”

   “There’s no way to know until I make a few calls.”

   Kathryn pleated the rumpled sheet. The bed was in the same condition as when she stumbled into the room that morning. She thought of the stories she’d read about parents who left the bedrooms of their missing children unchanged. Her heart had ached for those people. Now, she was one of them.

   She looked at the phone she’d placed on the nightstand. “Why don’t they call? God, why don’t they just call?”

   “They will,” Clay said. “When they do, remember what we went over.”

   “No matter what they…threaten, stand firm,” she said, her voice raspy. “Insist they get the ransom only after I have proof Matthew is alive.”

   “Staying calm while they swear they’ll kill your child will be the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”

   She met Clay’s grim gaze. “You know that, because of when your parents were taken, right? You had to stay calm while talking to the people who…” Killed them.

   Kathryn’s throat tightened when she saw the pain in Clay’s eyes a second before his expression hardened. Now that the stunning shock that had held her in its grip was subsiding, she realized how difficult her situation must be for him.

   “When Reece and Johnny said you could help me, I didn’t think twice. I just found you. It didn’t occur to me how dredging all this up would be for you. I don’t guess I cared. But it has to hurt, remembering what happened to your family.”

   Clay stared down at her. There was no way for her to know that his pain was twofold, that his parents might never have been kidnapped if only he’d made a different choice where she was concerned. So many regrets, he thought. So much pain.

   Pain that he was going to have to shove back into the dark pit inside him since the weight of responsibility for Matthew’s life had dropped like lead onto his shoulders. Though he’d wanted to avoid that, Clay knew this wasn’t about what had happened to his parents, or himself. This was about a five-year-old boy whose life was at stake.

   And the ashen-faced woman staring up at him.

   He crouched beside the bed, bringing his face level with hers. “Matthew’s situation is different,” he said evenly. “My parents were grabbed by rebels who wanted to force the Colombian government to release their imprisoned pals. A Colombian general lost patience and ordered an attack on the rebel camp. My parents got caught in the crossfire.”

   Reaching out, Clay tucked a wisp of dark hair behind Kathryn’s ear. When heat arrowed straight to his gut, he nearly jerked his hand away. He knew the only way Matthew would stay alive was for everyone involved to keep emotion out of the mix. For him, that wasn’t going to be easy.

   “Matthew doesn’t have opposing groups warring over him,” he continued. “His kidnappers want money. You’re willing to pay. We’ll get him back safe if we’re careful.”

   Kathryn pulled her bottom lip between her teeth. The man crouched before her bore only a vague resemblance to her lover from a decade ago. Then, there’d been no furrows creasing his forehead. No crinkles at the corners of those dark brown eyes. No lines fanning from the mouth that had so often curved into a cocky grin that had added to the instant, sexual punch. No scar slashing a diagonal line across his right cheek and temple.

   She had given him her heart and he’d shattered it. Her own fault, she conceded, since Clay had never pretended his feelings mirrored hers. Nor had he lied about his intentions, or anything else. Knowing that, she now pulled his words to her heart, clinging to them like a safety line to her child.

   “Was Mr. Forbes with you in Colombia? Advising you what to do?”

   “Yes. It would have been a lot worse if he hadn’t been there.”

   She looked toward the window. Already late afternoon shadows had set in. Evening would creep up, then darkness. She couldn’t bear to think about Matthew alone in the dark.

   “My appointment with Brad Jordan is in the morning. When I called to tell him Devin was wiring a million dollars to my account and I needed it in cash, I could tell Brad was holding himself back from asking me why. The hospital benefit is tomorrow night. Shannon Burton will be there. She keeps calling, wanting to interview me about Sam. She’ll ask about Devin. About Matthew.”

   Kathryn shook her head, overwhelmed by the prospect of making a misstep that might alert someone about her child’s plight. “The ransom message said not to change my schedule. I can’t cancel anything while we wait to get another negotiator’s advice.” She shuddered. “How am I supposed to act normal when I have no idea where my son is? No idea what he’s going through?”

   “You’ll do it for Matthew’s sake,” Clay said quietly. “I’ve got an idea how you can deal with Jordan so getting that much cash doesn’t pique his interest. We’ll talk about the best way to handle Burton. My uncle is on the hospital’s board of directors, so we’ll take you to the benefit, give you support there.”

   Kathryn stood and wandered to the far side of the room. She paused before the wall of built-in shelves crowded with tanks, Humvees and soldiers. To her right, her laptop computer sat on Matthew’s small desk. Yesterday she had sat there with him on her lap while they wrote an e-mail to his father.

   Her gaze went to the picture on the cork board; tears burned her eyes, blurring her son’s face. She took a choked breath. She hadn’t let herself cry. Couldn’t. With fear imbedded deep inside her she was afraid if she started sobbing she would never stop. And no amount of tears would get her son back.

   She turned to face Clay. “Mr. Forbes said I can put full confidence in what you tell me. That you know the right things to do.”

   She saw a flicker in Clay’s eyes. “I’ll do what I can to help. But you need someone here to give you expert advice.”

   “You’re the reason I’ve gotten this far without falling apart, Clay.” She wrapped her arms around her waist. “Mr. Forbes agrees with you that Devin should stay in Tibet.”

   “It’s the best thing for Matthew.”

   “Which is what you’ve kept in mind this whole time.” She rubbed her fingers across her throat. “If you hadn’t told me to count his pills, I wouldn’t know the kidnappers took any of them. I wouldn’t have the hope they intend to keep Matthew healthy.”

   “It was a guess on my part.”

   “A good one. Everything Forbes told me, I had already heard from you. He’s an expert and you know how he thinks.” At that instant she realized what it had been that reached so deeply inside her when Clay spoke to her earlier with soothing softness. Forbes’s voice had sounded much the same. Calm. Comforting. A voice that had taken an edge off her fear by instilling hope.

   Her gaze returned to Clay. Seeing him yesterday had been a stark reminder of the vow she had made after her marriage crumbled to never again place her hopes, her needs, her wants in the hands of another man. But it wasn’t her heart at stake now, it was her son’s life. Forbes had told her she could put her faith in Clay. That, coupled with a deep, intuitive certainty told her that depending on him was the right thing to do.

   Her mind made up, Kathryn retraced her steps across the room. “You’re the best person to fill Forbes’s shoes.”

   Clay shook his head. He hadn’t been the best man for anything since he wound up in a pool of his own blood while his parents got dragged away. “You can’t depend on my guesswork.”

   “Whatever you tell me won’t be guesswork,” she countered quietly, watching a muscle work in his jaw. “Because you learned from an expert.”

   “I wasn’t sitting in a damn classroom.” Clay scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “Forbes and I moved from one roach-infested hut to another while we followed rumored sightings of the rebels holding my parents. Inside, I felt as unsteady as you do right now. I picked up things from Forbes, but I can’t guarantee I know what he would do.”

   “You know how he thinks, Clay,” she countered. “And if you’re not sure, you can call him. You know Mr. Forbes, you trust him. I don’t want someone who neither of us knows guessing what I need to do to keep my son alive.”

   She moved forward until only inches separated them. The familiar salty clean scent of his skin slid into her lungs. She remembered the swirling fire that scent had once ignited inside her. Remembered, too, the passion that had fueled the man when he’d gone after something he wanted, whether it be the job at the state department, the breaking of a wild bronc—even her for a short time. That same passion would drive him to do everything in his power to help her bring Matthew home alive.

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