Night Child(5)

By: Ann Major

Kirk rushed to her side. Mercedes was as white as if she'd seen a ghost. He looked back at the swirling dancer. There was a strange sensation of impending doom in the center of his gut.

An enlargement of a pendant Dawn Hayden always wore blazed across the television screen. It was a tiny golden sun.

Mercedes' eyes widened. She made a little sound, and Kirk was suddenly afraid she was having a heart attack. She gripped Kirk's hand as she studied the pendant and whispered, "Julia! My baby!" Her wild eyes pierced Kirk's, but she wasn't seeing him. "Julia's alive!" she murmured faintly. "She's alive! They didn't kill her!"

Jeb and Wayne came running just as she collapsed in Kirk's arms crying, "Julia, Julia... Kirk, you have to save her. You have to!"

His face gray with alarm, Wayne tried to pull his wife from Kirk and cradle her in his arms. "Darling. Julia was kidnapped twenty years ago. She's dead. She has to be—"

Mercedes grasped Kirk's lapels and struggled to hang on to him. "No.. .that's her... A mother knows. The Longoria necklace... It's the same."

Wayne was smoothing the waves of her hair. "A coincidence, my darling."

"It's exactly the same as the one she was wearing the day she was lost."

Wayne lifted his worried gaze to Kirk, but Kirk was no longer aware of either of them. His immense muscled body was bent low over the television. He was listening to the commentator, avidly studying the pictures of the ballerina.

That tingling feeling was back in his gut, and Kirk had learned early in his career never to ignore it. Again and again it had proved to be the heartstring of his destiny. In his business, a man lived or died by hunches, by some inner sixth sense that had nothing to do with reason.

Kirk's mind reeled. Julia! Was it possible? After all these years?

Julia Jackson, Wayne's and Mercedes' only daughter, had only been five when she was kidnapped.

The girl's coloring was right, and she was the right age. She was a great dancer. Mercedes had been one of the best in the world before she'd given up her career to marry Wayne. Anna Montez, Mercedes' sister, had been a renowned ballerina. It could all be coincidence, and yet Kirk believed in coincidences and in things like a mother's intuition.

Mercedes was not a hysterical woman.

Until this moment, he had always believed Julia was dead. It was his fault she had been lost. He had been teaching her to ride at the Jackson stables when the men had come and taken her. He'd only been fifteen, but he'd fought like a demon to save her. In the end, they had beaten him senseless, and yet for a time the police had considered Kirk an accomplice and even gone so far as to lock him up.

The Jackson tragedy had haunted Kirk all his life. He had blamed himself. He had joined the marines to run away from the guilt, to make himself so tough he could handle himself in any situation. He'd even been in the CIA for a while. Since he'd come back to the ranch, he had rescued dozens of kidnap victims both at home and abroad, and every time he'd saved someone, it had been Julia he was saving. Only it hadn't been her, and the nightmares had always come back to haunt him.

It was his fault she had been lost. His fault.

The line of Kirk's lips was taut and white as he regarded another clip of Dawn Hayden dancing. His green eyes were slitted. In the golden lamplight his mother's Comanche blood showed in the high cheekbones that were highlighted where the skin stretched tightly over his hawk nose and beneath the hollows of his eyes. His was a harsh face, its dark handsomeness aged beyond his thirty-five years by the bitter experiences of his life.

If that girl wasn't Dawn Hayden, if there was even a chance she really was Julia Jackson, he had to go after her.

Damn! He didn't want to go. He must be getting soft. Lately life had almost been pleasant, now that Megan had settled down into a happy marriage with Jeb, now that he had his nephew Jared to be interested in. Kirk had had enough of the Middle East and its brutality to last him forever.

Images and impressions bombarded him. Latticed windows, goats, camel's thorn, women swathed in black, sandstorms, winding crowded streets, bazaars, thick black coffee, perfect blue skies above the golden petrified geometry of the desert. Always there was the dry scorching heat, the grit of sand in his mouth, his eyes, his nose. And the danger.

And camels. He hated those foul-natured, humpbacked miscreations.

Ali Naid! He hated the country as well. It was a country simmering on the verge of revolution, a nation filled with different factions of medieval-minded fanatics, all of whom hated each other with warlike ferocity, although they hated Westerners even more fiercely. It would be suicide to go in there alone.

Suicide to go up against a band of armed terrorists.