Texas: Children of Destiny (The Jacksons) Book 3
Dawn Hayden is a world-renowned ballerina at the peak of her career … but her childhood is shrouded in darkness. She has no memory of the abduction they tell her happened. Ballet is her life, filling her every waking moment, the only thing on which she can depend. Love, she wants nothing to do with, for it means trusting another with her heart … a terrifying concept. Until a handsome, hauntingly familiar stranger enters her life.
Kirk McKay is determined to do whatever he must to keep the beautiful dancer safe … for his own memories are all too clear. A young girl was abducted from his care, and he carries a burden of guilt for failing to protect her. When Dawn is threatened, he crosses the globe to save her from the same terror. This time, he won’t fail. This time, he’ll bring a beautiful woman out of darkness and into the light.
Together they’ll face the danger … and together, have a chance at the love of a lifetime.
A powerful story that is as equally compelling, intense and emotional as the first two. The entire trilogy offers a wonderful reading experience.
~ KW Rendezvous
Ann Major’s stunning conclusion to her Children of Destiny series, NIGHT CHILD (4+) powerfully blends romance and danger…. The fiery romance will win a reserved spot on many a bookshelf.
~ RT Reviews
The sky was flat gray, the washed-out color of old zinc. The trees were bare and dead looking; the windows shut against the cold. It was a day like any other of the season, a day without the slightest warning that the familiar pattern of her life was about to change, completely and irrevocably.
Dawn Hayden’s toe shoes banged against oak flooring.
She wore a white leotard and tights. A gold medallion in the shape of a tiny sun flashed at her throat. It was the only piece of jewelry she ever wore. Where it had come from, who might have given it to her, she did not know. She only knew that of all the things she possessed, the necklace was the most precious. She never took it off—even when she performed. Lincoln had objected at first, but even he now regarded it as some sort of talisman, some secret ingredient in the formula of her phenomenal success.
A cold northern light filled the studio and blazed from the cool glass mirrors. Dawn’s long black hair was down, soft and caressing against her exquisite neck. She was dancing alone to the crashing discord of rippling piano notes, her shapely legs whirling in a series of endless turns. Other girls in layers of sweaters and leg warmers were lined against the wall, watching her in a state of breathless awe.
No one in the company danced as Dawn danced. No one was like her. No one worked as hard, sacrificed as much for her art. In the studio she worked until she dropped. On stage she was an electric presence. The night before when she had danced Ondine, she’d received numerous curtain calls. Her dressing room had been packed with telegrams and flowers.
Dawn Hayden was Lincoln Wilde’s darling.
There was magic in her dancing. When she danced, one had the feeling in the pit of one’s stomach that something momentous was happening. Even during rehearsals.
But not a single one of the girls envied her.
Because she had no life, none at all, outside the theater.
“Miss Hayden is the ice princess of dance,” one critic had exclaimed, and the label had stuck.
The studio door slammed, and the piano music faltered and then stopped abruptly as a tall golden man in a black turtleneck and slacks strode inside the huge studio and propped himself onto a stool dead center. All the girls sat up a little straighter and cast smiles in Lincoln Wilde’s direction, hoping to catch his attention. But he frowned, cocked his head back, crossed his legs and watched Dawn.
Dawn stopped dancing and glared at him for a long moment. Then she limped toward him on her bad ankle.
“So,” Lincoln murmured, “the rumors are true. You’ve gone behind my back and learned my new ballet when I told you I would never give it to you. Who taught you those steps?”
Blazing dark eyes met his, and as always he was struck by her intense charisma. She was a small woman, her bone structure as fragile and delicate as a bird’s, and yet she was a creature of infinite grace and loveliness. A power in his theater, on stage and off. She was white skinned, black haired, long necked. Not so different from the other ballerinas and yet completely different. When she danced, she was incomparable. Lincoln had lived his adult life surrounded by beautiful young women, all vying for his favor, but even he had been irresistibly drawn to her ever since she’d come to his ballet school as a lonely child on a scholarship and had thrown herself into ballet with such energy.
She was perspiring, and she whipped the heavy mass of her hair forward over her shoulder and let it tumble loosely over her gently heaving bosom to her waist.
“I watched you showing Marguerite,” she said, leaning down and picking up a white sweatshirt.
“You waste your time, and your time belongs to me. You should have been rehearsing for the gala.”
One of the girls along the wall hiccupped. There were nervous giggles. These battles between the artistic director and his ballerina were common. With an impatient wave of his hand Lincoln dismissed the other girls, and they quickly fled. The pianist grabbed her sheet music and scurried after them.
“They scare so easily,” Dawn murmured dryly, yanking her sweatshirt over her head.
“And you constantly rebel,” he whispered fiercely. “You do so in front of the others to incite them, I think.”
She lifted her chin. Her hand touched her necklace and then fell away. “You constantly hold me back.”
“Because I, not you, am the artistic director here. I know what you can do better than you do.”
“I’m not a child any longer. I can’t accept that.”
“You never come to my class.”
She would not look at him. “I have found my own teacher.”
“That broken-down Russian windbag, Princess Sonya. She hasn’t danced a leading role in twenty years.”
“Sonya was the greatest dancer who ever lived.”
“She was only on top for six years.”
“Which underscores the problem.” Dawn sat down and pulled on her leg warmers. “A dancer’s life is short. I’m running out of time.”
“You’re a child. Twenty-five. You have years and years—”
“I have nothing except ballet.” She stood up once more. “Do you understand? Nothing. You go home to a wife. I go home to a cat that turns away when I call him. When I can no longer dance everything will be over for me. I will have nothing. You will have some new, younger ballerina. Marguerite, perhaps. You’re wasting my time. Lincoln, unless you give me the role of Beauty, I’m leaving the company.”
He was thunderstruck. “What?”
“Just for a while. To dance abroad. Then I want to go to Ali Naid and dance for that goodwill troupe to raise money for those people starving in—”
“You’ve given me your last order, Lincoln.”
“Damn it! Why don’t you take a lover like the other girls? That’s what’s wrong with you!”
Her eyes darkened. “You would think that!”
She turned and walked out of the room.
From the highest box in the domed theater a lone sharpshooter in black robes and a flowing dark kaffiyeh watched the glittering ballerina through the cross hairs of his scope.
The girl swirled, leapt, seemed to hang suspended in the air, only to land light as gossamer on the brilliantly lit stage. Aslam Nouri squinted over his rifle as he struggled to follow her flight downstage. His cold black eyes gleaming with the predatory thrill of a fanatic, he zeroed in on Aurora’s sparkling tiara, her pink satin, pink tulle and gold glitter. On the medallion at her throat. There! If he squeezed the trigger, his bullet would find her heart.
His finger twitched, vibrating with his impatience. It was not time. Not yet. And the girl with the golden coronet was not his target even though he despised all western women with their liberal ideas.
She was dancing the finale to the trombones in Act One of The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky’s decadent Russian work, which would have no place in the new world Aslam and his followers envisioned. Having just pricked her finger on the spindle, she was spinning wilder and wilder with the pain to the mad presto of Carabosse’s theme.
The girl began a dazzling feat of seemingly endless fouetté turns. Five thousand Arabs sprang to their feet, and the thunder of their applause swept the theater. The assassin grimaced, set down his rifle and stole a swift impatient glance at his watch. Then his eyes flicked to the darkest regions of the balcony where he thought he detected the shadowy forms of his men and the faint glint of light off a gun barrel.
The constant bursts of applause were throwing all his careful calculations off, but it was almost time. The music began to build. His finger tightened as he waited for the cymbals.
He lifted his rifle again, but this time it was not the fragile girl, but the corrupt Prince Ali and his equally corrupt cabinet in the royal box that he studied.
Despite his lavish uniform, Prince Ali was a coarse, arrogant man with coal-black hair and a thick curving mustache who’d begun life as a Bedouin. His dark eyes were deep-set and slightly bulging. Unfortunately, oil money and power had made him lose touch with his conservative religious values.
Aslam would have known that cold face anywhere, even if it weren’t emblazoned in every public square. It was the face that had haunted his nightmares for more than a decade. It was the face of the man who had ridden into Aslam’s village, a small peaceful place on a barren slope dotted with mud huts. It was the face of the one who had obliterated his boyhood, who had rounded up every man, woman and child and shot them in the back of the head—Aslam’s mother, his sisters, his only little brother.
Hatred washed over Aslam in a thick, blinding red wave. The cymbals crashed. Now! He rubbed his eyes, but it didn’t help. He couldn’t see through the scarlet haze of his fury.
He pulled the trigger anyway.
On stage the hag Carabosse threw back her hood and cackled with evil laughter. In the prince’s box, the bullet slammed a man in uniform backward. Aslam screamed with agony and frustration. The wrong man! He’d shot the wrong man!
In the royal box, blood was everywhere. A chair was overturned as a man in a resplendent uniform leapt to the stage. Other men in uniforms were running, shouting. Panicked, Aslam dashed from his box. The prince was escaping.
On stage, four costumed princes unsheathed their swords and fell upon the evil witch, but in a burst of flame and smoke, she suddenly vanished. Aurora was placed on a litter as the real prince ran past them. There was a tremendous crash on the tam-tam and ffff chords from the brass. A rising mist seeped upward, veiling everything.
On her litter, above the fog of swirling vapors, as she was borne solemnly aloft offstage, Dawn’s heart pounded from the exertion of her recent dancing. Her body and costume were drenched with sweat. Her tightly wound black hair felt loose, as if she’d lost half her pins during those dizzying turns and it was about to come down. A prong of her tiara cut into her scalp, and her right ankle cramped with the old pain. She needed an ice pack and a drink of water. Only she couldn’t drink the water here because Lincoln had warned her not to until she got back to New York. He hadn’t wanted her to come here at all. Lincoln always thought he was an authority on everything, and he had said this tiny Arab kingdom that had warring countries on both sides of it was too unstable. It had been delicious fun to thwart him for once and promise to dance the benefit. What did Lincoln know of Arabs? They had loved her.
Suddenly there were shouts. The music stopped abruptly at the crack of gunfire. Her litter careened madly, and she felt her body toppling even as she grappled wildly for something to hang on to.
Her injured foot hit the wooden floor first, and she screamed. But brown arms caught her, breaking her fall, saving her fragile ankle. She was about to thank her rescuer when his brutal hands cut into her flesh.
A hand clamped over her mouth, smearing her lipstick.
“Don’t make me kill you, pretty American girl,” the man whispered into her ear in an accent so terrible, in a tone so vicious and filled with hatred, it was amazing she could understand him.
She stared up into blazing obsidian eyes, into a face, cold with maniacal hatred.
Suddenly she remembered another man with a vicious face staring at her before muttering, “Kill her!”
“But she’s only a little girl.”
Dawn blinked in confusion.
“Stand you still,” her present abductor ordered.
She understood every garbled word.
She felt the icy barrel of a gun against her hot perspiring skin. His long nose curved like an Arabic dagger above sensual-cruel lips. His savage features were those of a barbarian. If she lived a hundred years, she would never, never forget his face.
“Please,” she begged, her own voice a broken rasp she no longer recognized.
Those merciless black eyes glittered above that dagger nose, and he smiled faintly, if one could call that menacing twist of his cruel lips a smile. He could slice her to pieces and relish doing so. His hand tightened around her throat, and he squeezed so hard she almost lost consciousness. The edges of the golden pendant she always wore dug into her neck, and a trickle of blood slithered in a greasily glimmering rivulet down her pale throat. Then he dragged her across the stage as if she were a sack of sand, shouting in Arabic, holding his gun to her head, using her slim stumbling body as a shield so he could escape. Her tulle skirt snagged on something and tore.
Desperately she twisted her head and stared at him again. Then it happened.
His dark face blazed at the center of fire.
Fresh terror engulfed her.
Cruel features whitened and blurred fleetingly into that other equally cruel face from a long-forgotten past before vanishing altogether in the mists of her mind.
Afterward she would remember that image, and it would inspire terror. She would think of it again and again during those long days and endless nights in that filthy stinking cell the Arab would throw her in, but she would not be able to understand. A long time ago that other man had commanded another man to murder her.
Why? What did it mean?
Her mind flooded with dazzling light, a blinding whiteness brighter than a million stage lights that obliterated everything. She could see nothing, but she was terrified. And she knew that this was an old fear. She had felt this utter helplessness, this utter aloneness, this terrifying sense of loss somewhere, sometime before. It was so terrible she’d never wanted to know that kind of fear again.
In a flash she knew that it was this secret fear at the bottom of her soul that drove her. This was why she worked so hard, why she had no life, why she danced.
She began to tremble.
“No! It can’t be happening again! I won’t let it!”
Her voice was choked with tears. She didn’t even know what her words meant.
“No!” she cried.
She was frantic to escape this man who provoked such terror.
His hands were manacles of iron. She was powerless to move.
The old nameless fear was welling up.
Someone was shouting, shaking her. She heard her own voice, shrill and unrecognizable, louder than all the rest of the pandemonium.
Brutal fingers ground her windpipe into the bone, and she was silenced. She fell back, limp in the Arab’s arms, and he bundled her up, running with her, carrying her outside into the smothering furnacelike heat of the desert.
Inside the cozy living room of a huge red-roofed mansion on one of the biggest ranching empires in all of Texas, Jeb Jackson was holding his fiery-haired baby son proudly in his arms. Jared made loud guzzling noises as he sucked voraciously at the rubber nipple.
“Don’t feed him so fast,” Megan instructed softly.
It was amazing how often it took the two of them to tend Jared properly. They were like a surgical team, hovering anxiously, ministering to the baby’s slightest need as if these routine activities were of mammoth importance.
Jeb tried to pull the bottle away, but Jared only sucked all the harder with a frantic determination.
“Honey, he’s a Jackson and a real Texan cowboy. He’s not about to let a woman boss him.”
“He’s only six weeks old! Don’t tell me he’s already a lost cause—like his father!”
Male black eyes locked with defiant green ones, but as he studied his wife, Jeb’s expression softened. This woman had filled his nights with passion, his days with excitement and happiness, and now she had given him a son. “He’s old enough to go after what he wants.” Jeb reached out and fingered a strand of Megan’s red hair. It pleased him that it was the exact shade of his son’s, just as it pleased him that every time she looked at him her face was transformed with love and gentleness.
For years she had fought him. Now she was his. Forever.
Across the room Jeb’s parents, Mercedes and Wayne Jackson, were watching the news as they sipped cocktails. As always, Megan’s brother, Kirk MacKay, stood apart from the others, wrapped in his own brooding silence, a lone wolf apart from the pack. Tall and swarthy, dressed in tight jeans and a black shirt that was slashed at the throat and hugged his lean body, he towered behind the older Jack-sons. Every muscle in his body felt taut, caged in. He had accepted the dinner invitation only because Megan had begged him to.
Kirk turned his back on the television, bent his powerful body over the bar and poured himself a bourbon on the rocks. A brown hand restlessly swirled the crystal glass, but he did not bring it to his lips.
A young maid in a black-and-white uniform came into the vast room and cast slanting flirtatious eyes in his direction. Kirk looked up from his drink. He had danced with her at a country-and-western dance last weekend. He remembered her pressing her body into his, just as he remembered the hot invitation in her eyes. All his life women had chased him. He smiled faintly, cynically, and she blushed to the roots of her hair at his attention, barely managing to announce dinner in a tiny faltering voice before stumbling from the room.
Mercedes arose to switch off the television, but just as she did, the commentator started talking about the latest kidnapping in the Middle East. Mercedes’ hand hovered on the button.
“Leave it on,” Kirk commanded. His attention was caught, rapt, as was Mercedes’.
“And now our latest on the Dawn Hayden abduction in Ali Naid, tiny oil sheikhdom of Prince Ali Hufaz. Miss Hayden is a principal dancer for the New National Theater of Dance and Ballet in New York City, and at twenty-five, she is one of America’s prima ballerinas. On the night before last, Miss Hayden had just finished the finale of the first act of The Sleeping Beauty for one of Prince Ali’s gala charity events when seven gunmen interrupted her mesmerizing performance and attempted to assassinate Prince Ali. Though the attempt failed, one of the prince’s top aides, Mussa Assad, suffered chest wounds and is in critical condition. Miss Hayden was kidnapped by the alleged leader of the terrorists as he was escaping. There has been no word of Miss Hayden in over thirty-six hours, and all efforts to locate her have failed thus far.”
A color photograph of the dancer flashed across the screen. She was dark, slim, graceful, with the long-necked, ethereal beauty so common to ballerinas. Her pale face was a delicate oval. High black brows winged above enormous shining dark eyes. Her smile radiated warmth. She had an unruly mane of thick, ebony hair that cascaded over her shoulders in wrinkled waves. Even in that still picture, there was something wild, something vitally, irrepressibly and eagerly alive about her, something undisciplined and unruly that had no place in the face of a classical dancer. Hers was no polished, emotionless cameo. She was a maverick, and it showed.
Kirk found himself unaccountably drawn to the girl. Maybe it was because she bore a vague resemblance to Mercedes. Maybe it was because of her haunting vulnerability. He wondered where she was, what was happening to her.
He slammed his glass on the gleaming bar, and everyone turned to look at him. He flushed darkly. “Sorry.”
They knew too well his dislike of kidnappings and terrorism, respected his privacy and turned their attention back to the television.
Acid chewed a bitter path through him as he thought of that slim pale woman brutalized and murdered by lawless terrorists. Kirk’s green eyes, so like his sister’s, hardened. It was better not to think of the girl. With an effort, he forced himself to relax. It wasn’t as if he knew her, as if he could do something about her, as if it was his fault—this time.
“Too bad they got her,” he muttered grimly. “She’s probably dead by now. If she’s lucky.” He bolted his bourbon and poured another.
“Dear God!” Mercedes bit into her knuckles. A former dancer herself in her youth, she was always interested in any story however remotely connected to the ballet world. She had been following this one closely.
“Damn fool idiot!” Kirk muttered. “Girls like her don’t have any business over there in the first place. Prince Ali is a brutal and total dictator, and many factions in his country have sworn to kill him.”
As the news story unfolded, only Mercedes and Kirk remained to watch. There were more photographs of the girl and a clipping of her dancing Ondine.
Transfixed Mercedes watched. “Her dancing isn’t perfect, but it is wonderful. Really beautiful. I once knew someone else, who danced Ondine almost exactly like that! My sister Anna...” Mercedes shivered and moved closer to the television set. Unconsciously her hand had lifted to her heart. “No...” Her voice was low, strangled. “It can’t be...”
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 go over there!”
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...t hat’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 there was even a chance Dawn Hayden 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 miscreants.
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.