The sheikhs twin baby su.., p.33
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       The Sheikh's Twin Baby Surprise, p.33

         Part #1 of The Sheikh's Baby Surprise series by Holly Rayner
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  FIVE

  Morgan yawned.

  She’d been driving for nine hours, all the way across Texas. The highway had been one long stretch of black pavement cast against barren landscape and an enormous, blue sky.

  Between meeting Ahmed and Almera at eleven at night and waking up at three in the morning, Morgan was beyond exhausted. Still, she was used to functioning on very little sleep, and pressed on through waves of drowsiness.

  It paid off. By the time she pulled into the gas station to fill up one more time outside of Lubbock, it was nearly noon. Stepping out of the car, Morgan reached her arms high into the air in a satisfying stretch.

  Somewhere between Houston and Lubbock, all of the moisture had been sucked out of the air. Her hair whipped around her head in the swirling wind, and the air seemed somewhat cooler here. How strange, she thought, that one state could have such vastly different climates. She inserted the gas pump into her car and headed into the old gas station building.

  An ancient-looking man sat behind the counter, surrounded by cigarettes and candy bars. Morgan reached for a Snickers and placed it in front of the man, who sat up with a creak to enter her order into the register.

  “Good morning,” Morgan said with a smile.

  The man said nothing. Instead, he pointed at the register where the price of the candy bar was displayed and waited to Morgan to hand over her money, which she did—one of the twenty dollar bills her benefactors had so graciously provided.

  The man cashed out her bill and handed her the change, still not making eye contact.

  “I wonder if you could help me with something,” she said, undeterred by his attitude. She’d dealt with reluctant talkers before; this was nothing Morgan Springfield couldn’t handle.

  The man sat back in his chair. This time he did look at her face, though not directly into her eyes.

  Morgan pulled out the picture of Hassan and pointed to him, showing it to the man.

  “Have you seen this gentleman around here in the past few weeks?”

  The man’s cloudy gray eyes darted to the picture, then back up to Morgan. She could tell he didn’t even take a look at it.

  He glared at her, slowly, and shook his head. Then he sat back in his seat and turned to face a television that was showing some kind of gameshow.

  Morgan grabbed her candy bar and left, replacing the gas pump and sliding into the driver’s seat of her car. She reached her arms up into the air and twisted from side to side, stretching one last time before the next stop.

  Already, this wasn’t looking good. While the man had said nothing, his eyes had given something away. His glare at seeing the picture had made it plain that there was something there he didn’t like.

  Turning the key in the ignition, Morgan continued westward toward the New Mexico border. Ahmed had said that Hassan had called them from a phone booth outside of Bledsoe, which was a short hour away from her current location.

  The road continued on, straight and flat, and Morgan watched as a tumbleweed floated across the road. She was literally in the middle of nowhere.

  Why would a sheikh with a fortune to inherit choose to come here?

  When the town sign for Bledsoe came up on the left, Morgan glanced around at a series of old, withering buildings. The wind seemed to be blowing everything slowly into dust.

  She noticed a small convenience store on the right, and pulled over on the side of the road. Parking clearly wouldn’t be an issue here—there were maybe one or two cars parked on the entire main road. It felt like a ghost town.

  Small bells jingled on the door as Morgan entered the store. Inside were shelves filled with dusty nonperishables, canned ravioli and the like. Behind the register was an old white man reading a newspaper, his large gray mustache twitching slightly.

  Morgan approached, clearing her throat, and slowly, the man lowered his paper and raised a bushy eyebrow.

  “I’m looking for someone,” Morgan said, getting straight to the point. No one seemed particularly amenable to small talk out here, and it was clear that strangers weren’t well-received, either.

  The man’s eyebrow didn’t lower. “And?”

  “And I’m hoping you might be able to help me find him,” she said, pulling out Hassan’s picture once more and showing it to the man.

  This time the gentleman took his time looking at the image. He stared at it for a few minutes before looking up at Morgan.

  “Looks like some terrorists to me,” he said.

  Morgan bit back a sigh. Clearly, a woman looking for a Middle-Eastern man was not something that happened in this part of the world very often.

  Replacing the picture back into her purse, Morgan flashed a forced smile.

  “You have a good day, sir,” she said before turning her back on him and heading out the door.

  When she got back to her car, she kicked the tire, stubbing her toe in the process.

  “Dammit,” she cursed, casting weary eyes around the desolate town. No one was walking on the cracked sidewalks. No one was doing anything. Where were all the people? How had the trail gone cold this fast?

  Morgan caught sight of a flashing neon sign down the road. It wasn’t too hard to read, even if it was written in pink cursive.

  Curl Up and Dye!

  It was a hair salon. Maybe she might have more luck there.

  Morgan reined in her frustration as she pressed the glass door forward, entering the salon.

  Everything was pink. The chairs, the hairdryers, the brushes, the walls. Morgan nearly went blind staring at it all.

  The front windows let in the bright afternoon sun, and a voice from the back called out.

  “I’ll be with you in just a moment!”

  Seconds later, Morgan watched as a large lady waddled her way to the front of the store, smiling broadly. Morgan bit back a grin at the trace of white donut powder still clinging to the woman’s upper lip.

  “How can I help you today?” the woman said, still smiling as she looked Morgan up and down, examining her. “Looks like you could use some highlights, especially with the summer season upon us! A nice cut wouldn’t hurt either. We’ve got a great deal on a color and cut,” she said, gesturing to a poster on the wall with prices and options written on it.

  Morgan cleared her throat. “Um, actually I’m looking for someone, and I was hoping you might be able to help me.”

  The woman’s penciled-in eyebrows shot up at this. “Help? Me? Well isn’t that exciting! I’m so glad you came in—this will be the best gossip I’ve had in months!”

  “Right. Well, I’m looking for someone, and I was wondering if you might be able to identify him,” Morgan said, pulling out the picture and holding it up for the woman to see.

  The woman plucked the image from her with meaty fingertips and looked closely at the picture. She examined it for several minutes while Morgan waited in silence, trying not to look around lest she infect her eyes with any more pink. Then the woman looked up.

  “I’ve never seen them before, but you don’t get too many Arab folks around here, you know. Still, if it’s a Middle-Eastern gentleman you’re looking for, I think I might know of one who was around not too long ago.”

  Morgan’s heart leapt, but she kept her face neutral. How lucky was it to find the town gossip? She might have everything Morgan needed!

  “Please, go on,” Morgan encouraged, and the woman rubbed her chin and gazed up into space, thinking.

  “I think I might remember him a bit better if my hands are busy,” she said, gazing pointedly at Morgan’s split ends.

  Taking a breath, Morgan forced herself to maintain a neutral expression. “And how would you like to do that?”

  Again, the woman pointed to the sign.

  A color and a cut was fifty dollars, and Morgan imagined this lady didn’t get too many customers out here.

  “Fine. But just a cut. No color,” Morgan said, dropping her purse by one of the bright pink cha
irs and sitting down.

  The portly hairdresser was surprisingly light on her feet as she whisked around Morgan and sprayed water onto her hair, which had to be greasy after a day of going unwashed.

  The woman began clipping away, and, to Morgan’s relief, also began talking.

  “Yes, come to think of it I had one of my regulars in here not too long ago telling me all about some handsome rogue. Mentioned on the sly that he was from abroad or something, but I think she was just trying to cover up the fact that she was seeing an Arab gentleman. Of course I don’t see anything wrong with it. Love is love, if you ask me, but not everyone feels that way.”

  “So you know a woman who might have a connection to this man?” Morgan pressed. If she wasn’t careful the woman would go on chatting all day long, and she didn’t have that kind of time on her hands.

  The woman smiled, clipping up a section of Morgan’s hair and snipping at it. Morgan wondered what she was going to look like after this, but tried not to care. As long as she could put her hair back in a serviceable ponytail, it didn’t matter.

  “I just might. If you keep heading over on Main Street, you’ll eventually get to a bar called Ed’s Place. Can’t miss it—it’s the bright red barn on the side of the road. Ain’t no other buildings around. Ask for Channie, and you might just get the information you’re looking for.”

  Morgan smiled then, ecstatic to have something to go on. She sat impatiently as the woman finished her cut and pulled out a blow-dryer and a brush.

  It seemed to Morgan at least that she took her sweet time styling her hair, but when she looked into the mirror at the end she was relieved to see that she didn’t look all that different, though the style did compliment her face a little better.

  Morgan smiled. “That looks great, thank you. So Ed’s Place, you said?”

  The woman removed Morgan’s sheet and allowed the loose hair clippings to fall to the floor. “That’s the one. And Channie. She’s a great gal. Should be on shift right about now.”

  Morgan handed the woman a twenty. “Thank you, ma’am. You’ve been most helpful.”

  “Are you sure you don’t want a quick coloring, miss? It would really bring out the little green flecks in your eyes.”

  “Not right now, thanks. Another time, maybe,” Morgan said, even though she had no intention of coming back unless she needed more town gossip to help her case.

  The woman’s parting smile was friendly, and Morgan waved a hand as she departed and slipped into her car, heading straight to the bright red barn she could easily see from where she was parked. That was one good thing about this sparse location—everything was visible.

  Morgan entered the barn through two saloon-style doors, which swung back and forth behind her as she made her way to the bar and took a seat on an old wooden stool.

  A young woman with bleached-blond hair approached her right away. “Can I get you somethin’ to drink, miss?”

  “Just a Diet Coke, please,” Morgan said, casually examining the woman. She was pretty—and the first person under fifty that she had come across in the small town.

  When the woman came back, Morgan caught sight of her name tag: Channie.

  Bingo.

  “Thank you, Channie,” Morgan said, turning on the charm.

  Channie smiled, her teeth straight and blindingly white. “You’re welcome,” she said, clearly evaluating her new customer. After a brief hesitation she said, “We don’t get too many strangers around here. It’s not exactly an exciting vacation destination.”

  Morgan grinned. “You mean people aren’t dying to spend a glorious week bathing in lotion, hiding from the winds and enjoying the abundance of tumbleweeds?”

  Channie laughed, and Morgan found that she liked the girl, which was saying something.

  “It’s not all bad. The people here are pretty decent, once you get to know them.”

  Morgan pointedly looked around the bar. At one table, a pair of old men sat playing checkers. At another, two young women were looking at their phones and giggling. That was it.

  “I’m sorry, what people?” Morgan asked.

  Channie smiled broadly. “They exist. It’s the middle of the day on a weekday; where do you think they are?”

  Morgan had to grant her that. Still, the bar seemed unusually empty—though maybe that was just her Houston upbringing surfacing. She was used to having people around her all the time and found it comforting, which was maybe one reason why she felt so uneasy in the middle of nowhere.

  When Morgan didn’t offer an answer to her rhetorical question, Channie pressed on, clearly looking for a conversation to pass the time.

  “So what did bring you here, miss?”

  Morgan pulled out her picture and slid it across the lacquered surface of the bar. She watched Channie’s expression carefully, catching the slight widening of her eyes as she looked at the image before glancing back up at Morgan.

  “Who’s this then? Your boyfriend? Ex-boyfriend” Channie asked, unable to mask the slight hint of jealousy in her voice.

  Morgan grinned. “Not at all. We’re old friends, actually. When I couldn’t get hold of him I thought I’d look into it,” she lied, not wanting the woman to suspect the truth.

  Channie’s expression closed. “Never seen him before in my life. Besides, how would you know to find him all the way out here?”

  Sensing that she was about to be rumbled, Morgan decided to tell the truth. “I can see you’re not one to be lied to, Channie, and I’m sorry about that. The truth is, I work for Hassan’s parents. They’re desperate to find him, just sick with worry,” Morgan knit her eyebrows, working to play the sympathy card.

  “I…I…” Channie stuttered, looking down at the picture of Hassan.

  Morgan placed a reassuring hand on Channie’s, her eyes pleading. “Please, Channie. His parents love him very much. All they want is to know that he’s safe. If you can tell me that, I promise I’ll leave you alone.”

  Channie continued to look at the picture, but when she raised her eyes to Morgan, they were full of tears.

  “I don’t know if he’s safe or not, if I’m being honest. We were together a few weeks ago, just for a night. He was so…” she gazed off into space, and Morgan could just imagine what she was thinking. Mesmerizing. Charming. Perfect. She’d thought all those things just looking at a picture of him, though she hardly wanted to admit it to herself.

  Channie focused back in on Morgan after a moment. “You’re really here to help him? I don’t think he deals with the cleanest of people, but I don’t want to get him in trouble. He’s a good man, miss.”

  “Call me Morgan,” she said, her smile reassuring. She could see Channie’s walls crashing down.

  The woman leaned in and began to whisper. “A few weeks ago we spent the night together. He was such a gentleman, so kind. He drove me home the next morning on his motorcycle, but I haven’t seen or heard from him since. He did say he was on his way to New Mexico, and he didn’t know when he’d be able to call…”

  Channie’s expression was sad. Morgan felt for her then. A young girl out in Nowhere, Texas.

  Channie continued after a pause. “He mentioned a friend of his. Daryl Trent, I think his name was? You don’t often forget names here—not enough of them, you see? Said Daryl was just across the border, maybe thirty minutes out from here. It might be worth looking into. Maybe if you find his friend, you’ll find him next.”

  Morgan gave Channie’s hand a squeeze. “Thank you, Channie. This is a huge help.”

  “Can you do something for me, when you find him?” Channie asked, squeezing Morgan’s hand back before letting it go and moving to wipe down the bar top.

  Morgan nodded, waiting for her request.

  “Can you tell him ‘thank you’ for me? Thank you and I’m sorry,” Channie said.

  Morgan lifted an eyebrow, but Channie’s mouth was firmly shut. She clearly had no intention of explaining more than that.

&nbs
p; Nodding one more time, Morgan rose from the bar and threw another twenty next to her still-full glass.

  “I will, Channie. Thank you for your help. I will keep you posted,” she said before making her way out of the bar and back to her car.

  It was time to go find out just who Daryl Trent was, and what he knew about the mysterious, handsome Sheikh.

 
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