***Noon, Courthouse steps, Sebida, TX***
Laura fidgeted with Ryan’s tie. He growled; the man actually growled. “Why did you go into law if you don’t like the damned things?”
“Only dress blues have the fucking things,” Ryan reached up and pulled the tie from beneath his collar. “No, I’m not wearing the damned thing.”
“You sound like a five-year-old getting ready for a family picture.”
He bent and kissed the top of Chloe’s head. The baby had fallen asleep in the sling on Laura’s chest after being fed. “Hold out your arms.” Ryan frowned but did as she commanded. She loosened that strap about her waist and slipped the sling from her chest to his. “There. No one will notice you aren’t wearing a tie when you’re wearing our daughter.”
He smiled and bent to kiss her lips, “You’re scary with this political shit, counselor.”
Laura brushed her finger over Chloe’s cheek, “This is important, Ryan, and you know it. You are just what Sebida needs now. And it’s my new mission to make sure they know that. Even if my face fucking cracks. So, smile.” She stood on her tiptoes and used her hand at the back of his neck to pull him down, “Be a good boy, and I’ll let you fuck my tits after the bachelorette party.”
He growled again and turned his face into hers, whispering back, “Damn you, woman. Now, I’ll have a hard-on in every last one of those photos.”
She was still laughing when the woman approached them, “The governor will be here in two minutes. Where’s your tie?”
“Any man can wear a cheap tie. But this is the image we want. The burly cop promising to clean up this county – while wearing his baby daughter. It will go viral,” Laura placed herself between Ryan and Renata Esparza-Cruz.
The woman stepped back and studied them from the top of Ryan’s six-foot-three frame to the toes of his new cowboy boots, “You have good instincts.”
Laura smiled at the woman, “And you would be wise to remember that.”
The older woman gave the barest of nods as she waved them into position on the right-hand at the foot of the courthouse steps. She and the governor would be at the podium on the left side, an appropriate distance away. “Remember to stop a couple of steps lower than the governor for the interview and photographs. He’s here.” She raced off.
“If you ever become like that, I’m spanking your ass, counselor.”
“I won’t. For the simple reason that this is not about politics or winning for me, Ryan. This about doing the right thing. For this county, our family, and you. I believe that, and I believe in you.”
“Damn it, woman, you say shit like that, and I’m going to ruin that damned photo op with tears.”
“Count on it, counselor. That’s what we’re going for. A new kind of masculinity. One that is strong and compassionate. And I decided you are its poster boy. You have yourself a new PR person and campaign manager.”
“I told you I’m not…”
“And I told you you are the right man for this job. You can’t root out almost a decade of corruption in a few months. Since we’re calling this place home, it’s your job to make it a safe place for Chloe and whoever comes…”
“You’re pregnant?” Those blue eyes lit up just as the governor reached the podium at the top step of that old courthouse. And unshed tears glistened in them.
“It’s too early to know, Ranger, but someone told me I owed him…”
“A great man said, ‘Corruption is a cancer: a cancer that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy, diminishes the instinct for innovation and creativity. It wastes the talent of entire generations.’ For a decade, corruption has stolen the future of Sebida, Texas. It has kept her people in the chains of fear and tyranny.” The man’s distinct drawl interrupted them.
“But no more. It’s a new day for this county. And that requires a new man…”
“A new person…” Laura shouted from the foot of the steps with a sickeningly sweet smile and wave at the man. Renata Esparza-Cruz looked like steam was rising from her ears. But dammit, as far as Laura was concerned, the governor should know better than that misogynistic shit. That woman should have checked his speech herself.
To give him credit, the man had the dignity to pause, nod in her direction, and begin again, “And that requires a new PERSON to lead the way. A PERSON of integrity, above not only the temptations of power, greed, and corruption, but beyond the bounds of politics as well.”
“When I asked U. S. Attorney for the Southern District, Texas, James Travis Tyler, for his recommendation as interim sheriff of Sebida County, he said there was only one ma… PERSON for the job. The ma… The person responsible for bringing justice back to this county. It is my pleasure today to introduce to you the new sheriff of Sebida, Texas, former US Navy SEAL, Judge Advocate General, and federal agent, Ryan Paul Ranger.”
The man waved towards them, and Laura burst into applause like everyone else, though perhaps hers was a bit more enthusiastic than most. But the strong hand that gripped her wrist stopped the clapping, “You got me into this woman. So if you think you’re waiting on the side lines, you got another think coming.”
She smiled and nodded, “For that, I’m swallowing.”
“Like you ever spit. Now come on. Wow, these people with your beauty and brilliance,” together they climbed those steps. Laura stopped on the same step as the governor. Ryan would have followed the woman’s instructions, except Laura tugged him up one more step. He wouldn’t tower over the man too much, but neither would those photos give the impression of subservience that the other woman wanted.
They stood a few feet from the man as they removed their masks. A few weeks ago, Ryan would have shaken the man’s hand, but that was just another way the world was changing faster than they could keep up, it seemed.
“Thank you, governor,” Ryan instead nodded to the man before turning to the crowd of only a few dozen, mostly reporters. This was still big news. They were still news. “When the governor’s office came to me about this, I won’t lie, my first reaction was no. I’ve had enough of following orders. Trying to do the right thing but always getting caught up in those political games. More often than not, questioning whether it was worth it in the end.”
He smiled over at her while rubbing their daughter’s back, and Laura knew the cameras were eating it up. “But yesterday, we went to this small church where my future brother-in-law preached a different kind of message. Bradley Williams reminded me that we need to be the change we want to see in this world. He held up a vision of new Sebida that I can buy into.”
“But the one ya’ll really have to blame for this is my beautiful inside and out, over-the-top loud, obstinate, and totally all-around perfect soon-to-be wife, Laura Reynolds. She reminded me that one day in the not-so-distant future, this little one will be running the streets of Sebida just as Laura and her sisters did. And my obligation as a parent and a human being is to guarantee those streets are safe for Chloe, her cousins, and everyone else. Laura,” he held out his hand, “Say a few words to the good people of Sebida County.”
He would pay for this later, she swore, as she stepped forward to the microphone. But looking out on the crowd, she decided perhaps he deserved more of a reward than punishment. “Good people of Sebida County? I grew up here, and back then, I had serious doubts that such a thing existed. I studied and worked hard because to me, happiness was Sebida, Texas, in my rearview mirror.”
“Over the past twenty years, I have traveled the globe. New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Brussels, Rome, and a few places most of ya’ll never even heard of. I even lived in London for a few months,” she turned and gave her soon-to-be husband a dazzling grin.
“And I learned something. People are the same wherever you go. There is good and bad in everyone. But when my world fell apart, when everything I had worked for and thought I wanted was jerked away from me, Sebida, Texas, was where I came back to. Because when things get bad, as they have, and as they might get even worse, family and friends matter most. They are the only thing that you can count on.”
Laura searched the crowd. They had promised they would be there. All of them. But between the sun in her eyes and all those masks, it was not easy finding the faces she sought. Then a hand went up and waved from the very back. Tears filled Laura’s eyes, “My Mama was one of the hundreds of millions of single mothers in this country. She worked crappy jobs, sometimes two and three of them to feed us and keep a roof over our heads.”
She saw the tears running down her mother’s face and disappearing in the cloth mask that Elena had sewn with such love. Stacey Reynolds nodded her head, and Laura continued, “My mother was one of Sebida’s victims of that abuse of power. Because circumstances and just being a woman made her vulnerable.”
“This is the Twenty-First Century, folks. People of color, women, gays, lesbians, transpersons, the poor – no one – should be at the mercy of power, greed, and hubris. We are all the same. Good and bad, rich and poor, white, black, brown or purple and green polka-dots. Okay, maybe we need to double-check that one.” She paused as the laughter broke the tension. All those years behind a desk, only rarely speaking before the board, she had forgotten how much she loved this, how good she was at it.
She took Ryan’s hand and leaned down to kiss Chloe’s head, pausing long enough to make sure her parental concern made another excellent photo opportunity. It was easier to kiss him standing a step higher. “Rub her back again, counselor. Give these good people a show,” she whispered against those sexy lips.
He laughed but did as she commanded, returning the kiss. Making it more than a peck but not quite R-rated. The perfect PG one, bordering on PG-13. “You scare me, woman.”
“Just remember this job comes with handcuffs, counselor.”
“I’m leaving those at the office. You’ve been talking with Jaycee too much.”
Though she knew no one could hear what they said, it had just the effect she wanted. Showing to the world a family united and on a mission. “Now take this one home, Ryan.”
He nodded and stepped up beside her, level now with the governor, though the photographers would need a wide-angle lens to capture it. “Thank you, governor, for this opportunity. I might not have been born here. Some may even say I am an outsider. But Sebida is my home now. It’s where we’re going to raise our family.”
“And even if I might have come to this rodeo a bit reluctantly, I want to promise the good people of this county that I am committed to rooting out any corruption that remains in the sheriff’s department. This county will be a safe place for all, as my partner said, regardless of color, sex, gender, religion, or anything else. Because there is no place for anything other than equality in the Twenty-First Century.”
“Just one more thing, governor. Laura and I have spoken about this. We have decided to donate my salary to the Sebida food pantry. To seed back into this community. To help families that are struggling like hers did. Hopefully, one day, no person, especially no child, will ever go to bed hungry in this county or this world.”
The crowd exploded in applause as cameras flashed, waking their daughter. Ryan rocked from side to side, patting her back like crazzy, but nothing was working. Laura shook her head, “Give her to me, counselor. There’s still one thing you can’t do.”
“Hey, I watched that movie. I’m still thinking about ordering a Mr. Milker.”
Laura laughed, “Don’t bother, now I know what to get you as a wedding present, counselor.” She took the baby from him as the reporters began to raise their hands and do their dances. “Knock them dead.” She slipped to the side and down the steps a bit.
At the bottom, the other woman nodded, “I underestimated you.”
“I won’t do it again. But if you ever tire of the good little wife and mother routine, and want back in the game, let me know. You’d fit in nicely in Austin.”
“Doing the right thing isn’t a game, Ms. Esparza-Cruz. And that’s why I’ll kick your ass every single time. Cause like we said, it’s time for a change in this county, this state, this country, and this world. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my daughter needs a bit of comfort.”
Laura wasn’t certain what came over her. She had debated this one long a hard. She was not sure she wanted to make breastfeeding into some political statement. But wasn’t it? Hadn’t this society taken something natural and perverted it? She sat down on that bottom step, opened her blouse, and properly positioned her child. Chloe was getting good at this now and latched right on. “Like father, like daughter.”
She watched the other woman’s shocked face before Renata Esparza-Cruz began to climb the stairs. Laura still was unsure where she stood on this issue. She wasn’t ready to stand by Ryan’s side with her boob out for all the world to see, but she wasn’t going to hide in some dirty bathroom or put a blanket over her child’s head just to make someone else comfortable, either.
A new day was coming to Sebida, Texas…in more ways than one.