About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Her condo was at the end of the empty hallway, near the stairwell. Meghan slipped out of her shoes about halfway to her door and let her aching tootsies sink into the deep carpet. She slowed enough to bend over and hook the leather shoe straps with a crooked finger.
It was nice to live in luxury, thanks to the generosity of a former client who owned the complex. The fancy handbag was a bit of overkill for this time of day, but it and her dress had done their job. He'd given her a heck of a deal after she'd been instrumental in finding his daughter's killer. The depraved maniac had been arrested and tried and was now serving a life sentence. Case closed.
If she ever married and had a family, the condo would be too small. But if her love life kept to the same trajectory it was on now, that might never happen.
The door to the stairwell opened as she retrieved her key fob from the silver clutch. She fit her key into the lock before looking up, certain it was Mr. Muscles who lived two doors down.
A bodybuilding fanatic, Bill Mackey claimed elevators were for wimps. But then again, Mr. Muscles didn't own one pair of stilettos.
Meghan spun around at the sound of heavy breathing and running footsteps. A man bound into the hallway, masked and dressed in black. Definitely not her neighbor. She pushed through her door and tried to slam it shut behind her.
His foot stopped it. Two strong gloved hands closed around her neck, pressing so hard they blocked her airway.
Her P.I. self-defense skills were ingrained and automatic. She jerked upward, bucking hard with her head while she reached into her purse for her pistol. One of the attacker's hands left her throat, but before she could aim, her body started jerking uncontrollably.
She spotted his stun gun as her pistol fell from her shaking fingers. The attacker kicked her weapon in front of them as he pushed her flailing body into the condo, knocking her to the floor. When she tried to stand, he shoved her and sent her slamming into the wall.
The room began to spin. The scone and coffee she'd just eaten came up, mixed with blood. The last thing she saw was his body coming at her like a demolition ball bent on destruction.
The last thing she heard was her own terrified scream for help.
Durk Lambert stepped out of Lambert Towers and was greeted by blinding sunshine and a brisk breeze. The perfect fall afternoon, low seventies and not a cloud in sight. Just the kind of weather he needed to kick off his much-needed vacation.
His black Jaguar was waiting for him in front of the towering skyscraper, motor running with Miguel behind the wheel. Durk shed the jacket of his suit coat as Miguel climbed out of the car.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Lambert. Great weather to start a vacation."
"Couldn't ask for better," Durk agreed.
"Are you leaving town?"
"I'm leaving the city but going no farther than the Bent Pine Ranch." He loosened the knot in his tie, yanked it from around his neck and tossed it in the backseat with his jacket. "Goodbye, ties. Hello, boots and jeans."
"Good for you, boss man. Have a nice Thanksgiving."
"Thanks, Miguel. You, too. Do you have plans?"
"I'm driving down to Brownsville to spend a couple of weeks with my daughter and her family. Plan to do some fishing and roast one of their farm-raised goats over a spit. Now that's eating."
"Nothing like good cabrito," Durk agreed. He shook Miguel's wrinkled hand and climbed behind the wheel. He waited until Miguel had rounded the car and was back on the sidewalk before pulling into traffic.
The man was thin and slightly stooped, his weathered face showing the strain of seventy-seven years of living. He'd been a fixture around Lambert Inc. as long as Durk could remember.
He'd retired as maintenance engineer eight years ago when a heart condition had forced him to slow down. He'd come back on the payroll five years ago when his wife died.
He claimed he hated the empty house after so many years of marriage and he liked to keep busy. As long as he wanted to hang out at Lambert Inc., Durk would make certain they found a few non-stressful things for him to do.
The afternoon traffic was heavier than usual. It was still one full week before Thanksgiving, but already the stores were decorated and pandering for holiday shoppers to give into their whims and the store's enticements.
Shopping was the furthest thing from Durk's mind. After the summer and autumn he'd had, he needed to get back in the saddle again. And to reacquaint himself with his family.
While he'd been traveling back and forth to the Middle East working on a new project that was a go and a merger that wasn't, his brother Tague had taken the plunge into wedlock and instant fatherhood.
No one had been more shocked at that than Durkunless it was Tague himself. But Tague had adjusted well and had never seemed happier. Neither had his brother Damien, who'd been married for four months now.
Marriage and family weren't in Durk's foreseeable futureif ever. Some men were cut out for family life. Some weren't. He fell into the latter category.
Besides, the one time he'd let himself fall hard for a woman, it had ended badly. Talk about messing with his mind. No way would he go there again.
He turned at the light and headed toward I-45. He was almost to the freeway when his cell phone rang. He punched on his hands-free receiver. "Durk Lambert."
"Glad I caught you, Durk. Are you still in Dallas?" He tensed at the apprehension in his mother's voice.
"I just left the office. What's up?"
"Sybil's friend Bessie George called. She said Sybil started having chest pains while they were out shopping. She called an ambulance and they took Sybil to Grantland Hospital."
"How long ago was that?"
"I just got the call. Bessie was on her way to the hospital to be with Sybil, but she's stuck behind a fender bender and traffic's at a standstill."
"That's Dallas for you. Traffic's moving here. I'll stop by the hospital now and check on Sybil."
"Thanks, son. Call me on my cell phone as soon as you see her. I'm driving in as well, but it will take me over an hour to get there from the ranch this time of day."
"Just hang tight until I call you back, Mom. No use for you to make the trip unless they're going to admit her. The last two times that Aunt Sybil rushed to the emergency room, it turned out to be acute indigestion."
"Yes, but you never know, Durk."
"I'll know after I talk to the doctor. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and try to relax. I'll get back to you as soon as I find out something."
"I guess that does make more sense than rushing into the city before I know if it's serious."
"Perfect sense," he agreed.
Durk's hands tightened on the wheel, the tension returning to his muscles. In spite of his reassurances, he was concerned about his aunt. She was his father's older sisternot that she was old. Her sixty-fourth birthday was coming up in a matter of weeks. She had lived with them for years, ever since her husband had died from a massive heart attack at the young age of fifty-eight.
The rambling old ranch house that had been in the Lambert family for generations served them all well. Aunt Sybil and his grandmother each had a private suite on the first floor. His mother was still in the master suite that she'd shared with his father before his untimely death, though she'd offered it to Damien and Emma when they'd married. They'd decided the west wing was the better choice for them, probably because it offered more play space for their foster daughter, Belle. Tague and his new wife, Alexis, and stepson, Tommy, had the suite on the second floor above Damien's, though they were already planning to build their own cottage on the ranch.
Durk's quarters were just off the huge billiards and game room on the second floor in the east wing of the house. He didn't need much space since when he wasn't traveling he spent most of his time in his penthouse condo in downtown Dallas.
In less than twenty minutes, he was standing at the admittance desk in the E.R. The young blonde nurse on duty looked a bit harried, but she managed a smile when she looked up at him. "How can I help you?"
"My aunt, Sybil Ratcliff, should have arrived by ambulance in the last few minutes. I'd like to check on her."
"Yes. I think the doctor is with her now." The nurse rifled through a half-dozen admittance slips. "She's in Room Four. I'll have someone escort you back there. You say she's your aunt?"
"Yes, I'm Durk Lambert."
"Durk Lambert." She repeated the name as she placed her hands on the counter, showing off her perfectly manicured nails and her ringless wedding band finger. This time her smile lit up her face. "Actually, I'll walk you to your aunt's room. If there's anything I can do to help, don't hesitate to let me know. My name's Pam."
She looked around and motioned to a middle-aged nurse who was adding information to a chart. "Can you man the desk for a minute, Ethel? I need to see that Durk Lambert finds his aunt."
Ethel eyeballed Durk, nodded and smiled conspira-torially. "Sure. Take your time."
He felt like a participant in The Bachelorette. No doubt the nurse had read the stupid article in a local publication that had named him the wealthiest and most eligible bachelor in Texas.
It amazed him what people posted in the name of entertainment.
They passed several partitions and had almost reached the fourth one when Durk had to step aside to permit a gurney guided by two paramedics to pass. The patient was muttering and fighting the restraints that kept her from propelling herself to the floor. Blood stained the white sheet.
Another nurse rushed over to meet them.
"We called ahead as soon as we got her on board," one of the paramedics explained. "Patient was attacked in her condo. She was unconscious when we got there and blood pressure is roller-coastering. A Taser was found on the premises. Not sure if it was used on her or not, but somebody's fists definitely were."
"Trauma unit is expecting her. Did she call for the ambulance before she blacked out?"
"No. A neighbor dialed 911. Apparently he heard her yell for help and went to her rescue. Huge guy with bulging muscles. Just the kind you want around when you need help. He took a couple of blows himself, but he refused to come in."
The gurney's occupant groaned and tried to sit up.
"You can relax. You're safe now," the nurse said. She walked beside the patient as they hurried off.
"Who's driving my car?" the woman asked.
"You're not in a car. You're in a hospital."
"Someone has to drive."
The voice was slurred, the tone bordering on delirious, yet the familiarity of it cut through Durk like a knife. He caught up with the gurney and caught a glimpse of the battered, confused patient. The right side of her face was red and swollen and her hair was matted with blood.
His insides rolled violently. "Meghan."
She showed no response. He reached for her hand.
"It's Durk, Meghan."
"The car is going to wreck."
She was so out of it that she wasn't aware he was standing there, nor even where she was.
Pam caught up with him. "Do you know this woman?"
"Are you related?" the other nurse asked. "No, just friends."
"Then please stick around in case we need some information about her that she's not coherent enough to give."
He followed the gurney around the corner.
"You'll have to wait out here," the nurse said as they rolled Meghan through a set of double doors.
"I'd like to make sure she's okay."
"Someone will talk to you after she's been examined. There's nothing you can do now. She doesn't even know you're here."
He took a few steps back and then leaned against the wall while he struggled for a grip on reality.
Meghan Sinclair, the one woman he'd never been able to forget. Brutally attacked. So confused she didn't know where she was. Likely suffering from a concussion. Possibly much worse.
Durk had never sought vengeance before, but this was different. Whoever did this to Meghan would live to regret it. He would make damn sure of that.
"They'll be awhile. Would you like to see your aunt now?"
Pam's question jerked Durk back to the situation that had brought him to the hospital in the first place. He nodded his agreement and followed her back down the hall, though his concern for Meghan didn't let up.
"How qualified is the trauma unit to handle head injuries?"
"We have one of the best in Dallas. Your friend is in good hands."
"Is there a neurologist on duty?"
"There is and several others they can call in if your friend's condition warrants it."
"You seem very concerned. The patient must be a very close friend."
He let Pam's comment go without a response while he tried to deal with the emotions bucking inside him. It had been two years since he'd seen Meghan. But he doubted there had been a day since then that he hadn't thought about her. Not a night that he hadn't ached to hold her in his arms again.
He heard Sybil's voice even before they reached her curtained cubicle. She sounded a bit croaky, but her words were distinct.
Pam shoved the curtain back enough to peek inside. "You have a visitor, Mrs. Ratcliff."
"Who is it?"
"Your nephew, Durk Lambert."
"Durk. Really? My sister-in-law must be calling the whole family."
"He can come in," another female voice said.
Pam pushed back the curtain and ushered Durk inside. "I'll be back to check on you and your aunt in a bit," she said. "But don't leave before the trauma team can talk to you."
"No, I won't." That was a definite.
A female in a white doctor's coat looked up from the chart she was reading. "I'm Dr. Preston. And this is Bill Henley," she said, motioning to the nurse who was adjusting a blood pressure cuff on his aunt's arm. "We'll be looking after your aunt."
"Except that I don't need looking after," Sybil protested. "What I need is to go home."
"If you keep saying that, you're going to hurt my feelings," Bill teased.
"It's not you. In fact, you should go home with me," Sybil said. "A few days on the ranch and away from all these sick people would do you good."
"Amen to that," Bill agreed. "Where do I sign up?"
"As you can tell, she's feeling better," Dr. Preston said. "The good news is she didn't have a heart attack."
"That's a relief," Durk agreed.
"I never thought it was a heart attack," Sybil said. "But when I told Bessie I was having chest pains, she insisted on calling for an ambulance."
"Always better to err on the side of caution," Dr. Preston said. "Chest pains are nothing to fool around with."
Sybil nodded. "I lost my husband to a heart attack almost eleven years ago."
"I'm sorry." Dr. Preston handed the chart to Bill. "But that means you know how important cardiac care is."
Bill took the chart and left the room.
Durk stepped to the side of the bed, leaned over and gave his aunt a peck on the cheek. She looked a bit frail and her thick black wig had twisted on her head so that it looked as if it were trying to crawl away.
"When did the pains start?" Durk asked.
"About an hour ago."
"And you were feeling okay before that?"
"I haven't been feeling great the last few days, but I haven't really been sick, eitherjust tired and out of breath easily. Then, like I just explained to Dr. Preston, Bessie and I were walking to my car in the parking lot outside Neiman Marcus when all of a sudden I had stabbing pains in my chest. I told Bessie what was going on, and she called 911."
Durk turned to the doctor. "But you're sure that wasn't her heart?"
"No. I'm only sure she wasn't having a heart attack. The symptoms could have been caused by any number of things. We won't know for certain until we run some tests. Bill's arranging for those now."
"Pshaw. It was just indigestion," Sybil said. "I don't need any tests."
Durk took her hand in his. "I think we should leave that decision to Dr. Preston."