Chapter 1 – Plan Z

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Ryan Ranger stared out the plane window at the dark clouds. They matched his mood. He should be at his cousin’s wedding, standing beside Rex as his best man. Instead, he was on a damned redeye flight to London to fire an innocent woman and rip her world apart.

“God bless America,” he muttered as he brought the glass of Scotch to his lips. This flying business class sure beat the hell out of all those military transports that he had jumped out of as a SEAL. Or the crappy economy ones that the agency booked him on.

But he was not the type to trade his soul for a reclining seat and a surprisingly tasty steak meal, or even unlimited single malt, though one was his limit on this flight. He had a job to do. Two of them actually.

The one that McBride Industries was paying him for was to fire his predecessor. Not exactly his style, but he supposed it beat the hell out of an email from that arrogant little putz Stephen McBride.

Ryan glanced at his laptop. Her dark hair and eyes seemed to stare into the depths of his dark soul. Laura Garcia Reynolds. Thirty-eight. Born Sebida, Texas. He scanned the rest of the details, but the information he sought was not there. Only two questions mattered to him.

Was the woman dirty? More involved in this stinky cow patty of corruption and money laundering than the agency believed?

And more importantly, why did her guilt or innocence mean a god damned thing to him? He had a job to do. Just like all the other times. Not all of them were pleasant — greater good versus collateral damage. And this was a farsight less messy than some of his missions had been.

Yes, he was going to jerk the rug out from under her. Destroy the career she had worked her whole life for. But it was just a fucking job. With her credentials and experience, she’d find another one.

So, why did it bother him? What was it about the woman that got under his skin?

Ryan did not allow women to get to him. They wanted equality – fine, that meant no special privileges either. No damsels in distress and no knights in shining armor. No heroes on white chargers racing to save the poor woman. He was sure that Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds could appreciate that as much as his single mother had.

Maybe that was it? Perhaps the way the woman had overcome poverty and the stigma of her birth to rise to the top of a Fortune 500 company reminded him of Ingrid Ranger? Not that he or his mother had ever been able to put the stigma of bastardy aside. Maybe that was it? Did he identify too closely with this woman? Two bastards against the world?

He drained the glass and sat it on the table next to his laptop. He should get some sleep. By the time his plane landed, it would be too late to do ‘his job.’ He would check into the posh hotel. Order room service. Get a decent night’s sleep. Wake up early. And fire the woman.

Then he could get down to his real job, finding the evidence that the agency needed to arrest and convict Gerald and Stephen McBride for money laundering, embezzlement, corruption, and a dozen other things. Hell, he was probably doing Laura Reynolds a favor. She would be gone before the shit hit the fan, at least.

Laura Reynolds studied her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Could you notice the tiny lines forming at the corners of her eyes? For her birthday six months ago, she had bought some of that fancy cream, which was supposed to slow their spread. She had even had her hair dyed to cover the few greys which were beginning to appear at her temples. Of course, she drew the line at botox or cosmetic surgery. Or at least she did for now.

She squinted, which only made those lines appear more pronounced. No, she was confident that she could pass for much younger. Perhaps not twenty-nine. But at least her early to mid-thirties. Not a woman who was fighting back the hands of time and racing against her biological clock.

Laura looked around the bar. The pub she corrected herself. It was a Tuesday night just after six. Usually, her business day was not even finished. But today was special. She had a reason to break off early and troll the posh pubs near the offices and hotel where she was staying.

She was looking for something. Someone. A donor.  Of genetic material. Maybe it was cold and calculating, but that was how Laura played the game at work and in her relationships.

Since Stewart Childress, her perfect fiancée of five years, had proven to be a lying, cheating, and sterile bum, she had moved on to Plan B. Well, Plan Z was more like it. She had gone to a sperm bank, but two rounds of artificial insemination had proven unfruitful. Further research showed that its success rate was less than half of the natural method.

Fucking. Stop being so polite, she chided herself. Laura blamed her six-month assignment in the London office for the false politeness.

When her company asked, well more like ‘told,’ her about it, the timing had seemed idle. She had just broken up with asshole and had been staying in a hotel while she looked for a new apartment or more likely a house to buy.

She had a substantial savings account since there would be no wedding to waste it on. She might as well use it as a  down payment on a house. But finding what she was looking for in Houston was proving more difficult than she had thought.

Hell, finding what she was looking for was proving challenging in life. Period. And this was no exception.

The pub was packed. But everyone was drinking and laughing with friends from work. Paired off in neat little groups that made approaching someone virtually impossible. Damn, Brits. The problem was that these people went to pubs to drink and socialize, not find someone to screw at the end of the night. It was quite rare for someone to ‘pull’ as they called it after a night drinking in the pub.

If someone wanted casual sex, they turned to the Internet. But Laura was not that desperate. Yet anyway. For one thing, she did not purchase anything sight unseen from the World Wide Web. Hell, she was one of those types that read the whole preview section and all the reviews before buying an ebook.

She, sure as hell, was not going to select a sperm donor without a bit of polite conversation and getting to know the person. That shit could be dangerous. Especially for a woman like her.

But the task was proving more difficult than she had anticipated, finding one handsome, intelligent, athletic, and perhaps nice guy in this city of over eight million, thirteen if you considered Greater London.

Laura scrunched up her face, the way she did when she pondered a problem. Would this have been any easier in Houston? Finding the right guy – maybe not. Picking someone up in a bar for casual sex…most definitely. She would have been out of here before she finished her first glass of wine back home.

A deep baritone from just over her shoulder broke her reverie. “Excuse me. Is this seat taken?”

His American accent was the first thing that caught her attention. She struggled to pinpoint it. But that was not always easy. She liked to think that she did not have an accent at all. It was something she had worked very hard to conquer the moment she escaped small-town Texas.

Growing up on the wrong side of tracks in Sebida had been a nightmare that Laura had spent almost two decades trying to live down. And most days, she did pretty well. A law degree from Stanford, vice-president of Fortune Five Hundred company, seven-figure salary, and a six-figure savings account offered a hell of a lot of cushion and validation to the little girl that had grown up as ‘trailer trash.’

She refused to dwell on her past. It was the future that she was here to think about and do something about too.

She studied the man for a long moment — over six feet with light blond wavy hair. The guy was no stranger to the gym. He had the look of a former athlete, perhaps? Bright blue eyes with a spark of intelligence. She could not decide whether she would categorize him as All-American or Viking. Either way, the man would fit nicely on the cover of one of the raunchy romances her baby sister Mercy wrote, under a pen name, of course. Looking closer at the tiny lines around his eyes and forehead, perhaps he was a tad too old.

She would have to spend a bit of time talking to him to make sure this was the right one, but unless she wanted to wait another four weeks or so, he was her best shot. And being American, the concept of hooking up in a bar would not be utterly foreign to him. Her night was looking up.

“No. Please join me.”

Ryan knew this was a bad idea. He was certain that his handlers would not approve. His task was clear: fire the woman, take her place in the company as General Counsel for McBride Industries, and spend as long as it took scanning her files for the proof that they needed of the illegal activities and money-laundering.

So, what was he doing here?

After spending hours on the plane going over the files on her, both the personnel one that McBride had given him and the one that the agency had given him before he went undercover. He knew things about this woman that few people did, including her full name: Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds.

She was the oldest of three daughters. While her mother claimed to have been married to her father before he was deported, it was not valid. He had another wife and family back in Mexico. Something he never told the innocent, eighteen-year-old daughter of a Methodist preacher. After what she believed was five years of marriage, the woman had been devastated to learn the truth at an immigration hearing.

To give Stacey Reynolds credit, she had picked herself up and done the best she could to keep her family together and raise her girls with no help from her family, who had disowned her. Of course, that had not been easy with nothing more than a high school education. Laura’s mother had worked a string of minimum wage jobs, sometimes two or three of them at a time, to pay rent on a dilapidating trailer, buy food for her children, and keep the utilities running, most of the time anyway.

As the bastard son of a single mother, it was a struggle Ryan could empathize with, even if his mother and he had it a bit easier. At least, Ingrid Ranger had the support of her middle-class family. That had enabled her to finish her final year of college and begin her career as a historian at the local museum in Fredericksburg.

But not even the Ranger family reputation as founding members of the community had insolated Ryan from the stigma of being a bastard. It was a word he learned on the first day of kindergarten. And one he had spent the next three decades trying to live down. Just as he knew this woman had run from her own humble beginnings. Not that he blamed her.

The only reprieve he had from those demons was the summers he spent with his cousin on his grandfather’s ranch near Comfort. From the time he was thirteen and his cousin Rex invited first him, Ryan had found a refuge and a mentor in Grandfather. Though he was not related to the man by blood, that was what Raymond Greywolf had insisted the angry young teen call him.

He smiled as he remembered all the summers to come, that ranch was still more home to him than his mother’s suburban Fredericksburg house ever would be. Though the woman tried, sometimes she tried too hard to be both mother and father to him. Ingrid had never revealed who his father was. Maybe she never would. That lie of omission had become a wall between mother and son. One he could not overcome.

But it was not his family history that mattered. When he had followed her from the London office of McBride Industries to this pub, he had convinced himself, it was his opportunity to find out the truth. To discover how much the woman might know or not know. He was hoping it was the latter. But he did not want to examine the why too closely.

He would spend a couple of hours casually talking with her, getting to know more than those files could tell him about who Laura Reynolds was as a person. It was all he would need. ‘Golden gut’ was what his SEAL commander had called his instincts for uncovering hidden agendas and danger.

It was a special gift that he had discovered during those summers with Grandfather. It might not be as spectacular as his cousin’s talent, but it had kept him and others alive in some very tense situations. And he owed much of that to the old man who had taken him under his wing. Who had helped him to discover and take as much pride in his berserkr heritage as his cousin did in his Native American one.

No, a couple of hours with this woman would be enough for him to know if she knew more than they thought. He hoped not. “May I buy you a drink?” he offered with a smile.

Laura studied her reflection in the bathroom mirror. They had been talking for close to two hours. They had even ordered some of the notorious pub food, bland and tasteless. It was far from her favorite Mexican. But a bit of salt made anything palatable.

And the company was definitely above average. Ryan was proving to be everything she was looking for. Former college football quarterback and Navy guy, probably a SEAL. He had the grace not to brag about that shit, which only made her more certain of it. He was witty if perhaps a bit too right-wing for her tastes. But did such things matter? It was not like political preference was an inherited trait, was it?

No, they had finished their food. It was almost nine, and except for a few drunks, the pub was clearing out rapidly as most of the post-work crowd had had their two-pint limit, finished unwinding, and headed home for the night, so they could get up early and do it all again. No, Laura was reaching the point that as her Mama would say, ‘shit or get off the pot.’

“Damn it. There are no guarantees in life. You know that,” she admonished the woman in the mirror.

She studied the image. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Ryan was not the only one with tail-tell lines around his eyes, forehead, and mouth. Then again, at almost thirty-nine, most women did have them. And hers were much less than most; thanks to her ‘good genes’ as her Mama called it.

Good genes, that was what this was all about. She knew better than most what she was doing. Being a single mother, even an older, more stable one, was not her first choice. She had wanted her child to have a stable, two-parent family, which was why she had wasted five years dating the wrong man. Only to discover that Stewart did not want children. And had had a vasectomy before they even met, to make sure.

To be fair to him, having children had not been on her list of priorities when they first met either. But he should have at least mentioned the fact he was sterile at some point over those five years. Stewart hadn’t. Not until after her thirty-eighth birthday party, when she had announced to her ‘friends’ that she felt her biological clock ticking.

After the party, he had calmly explained that one of the reasons he had been interested in her was that ‘women like her put their careers over children.’ They had fought, Stewart had accused her of changing the rules of the game without consulting him, and they had broken up when he told her everything.

Maybe she had. Perhaps she had changed the rules of the game without consulting him? But when? They both worked long hours, had social obligations, and their own interests. The truth was they had not had a real relationship, but an arrangement that furthered their careers and social standing.

That was the past, though. And precious moments were ticking away on her biological clock. If she did not want to wait for another cycle, waste this precious egg, of which she was well aware they were probably few viable ones left, then she had a decision to make.

She might not be able to give her baby a stable, two-parent family, but she had spent time and good money on a shrink coming to terms with the fact that, yes, career-driven Laura Reynolds wanted to be a mother.

She knew she was ready for this. It was not that being a parent scared her. Hell, she had raised her sisters, Mercedes and Elena, as much as her mother had, given the woman’s long hours – perhaps more so. She knew, too, that she had love to give her child. Her mother had taught her girls what that meant, sacrificing so much for them.

No, this was what she wanted. A baby. Of her own. Before it was too late.

And if she could not give it a real father, just as she had never had one, then she could at least offer it the best possible chance in life – at least genetically.

“Yes. Yes, I’m going to do it.” She was filled with new found resolve as she turned to walk out the bathroom door. She looked up to discover the smiling face of her dinner companion.

“I wasn’t sure if you were trying to give me the slip or what,” he joked with a wry smile. He looked at the watch on his wrist.

Laura’s eyebrows knitted together. Who wore a watch in these modern days of cell phones? It was another point in his favor.

“Look, it is getting late. Tomorrow is the first day of my new assignment, and I don’t expect it to be easy. My first task is to fire my predecessor. So, I need to get going. It has been a pleasure getting to know you.”

It was not how she wanted the night to end. “Actually, I was wondering if you would care to join me back at my hotel for a nightcap,” she offered as an alternative.

The way that the man’s eyebrows shot straight up told her that he knew exactly what she was offering. And another drink was the least of it.

He silently studied her for a long moment. From the top of her dark brown hair in its tight bun, down her tailored navy suit and white silk blouse that was understated and professional to her black pumps that were heeled but not over the top. Everything about Laura was functional.

She felt the need to shift from foot to foot under his direct examination. It was not a feeling to which she was accustomed. Not in a very long time. As she always did, she met the challenge head-on, lifting her chin and staring him directly in the eye.

“Look, let’s cut to the chase. I have a busy day tomorrow, too. Do you want to come back to my room for a bit of consensual, no strings attached sex to help relieve both our tensions?” Her brown eyes met his directly in challenge, “Or not?”

Ryan Ranger held her gaze. The woman was every bit as ballsy as they said she was. It was a pity. He liked her. She was intelligent. But then he would expect nothing less given her resume. It was not just knowledge, though.

This woman had that rare quality of depth. She was good at reading people. She carefully thought out and planned her actions. And perhaps most importantly for him, she seemed to retain at least a bit of a moral compass. It was a scarce combination in the corporate world in which they lived.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, it was that moral compass that was getting her into trouble. Real trouble. And worse yet, he was the hatchet man.

The decision was a no brainer as they say. He was sent here to fire and replace her. Even though McBride Industries had no corporate fraternization policy, he had always followed the old adage, ‘don’t shit where you eat.’ And the agency certainly would not condone such a no-strings arrangement. So, why the hell was he even considering it?

Because she’s under your skin as Grandfather would say. Even before he had set foot off that plane, this woman had been turning his guts inside out. The confidential file that he had received laid her whole life bare for his inspection. And for the first time in his life, he had not found a woman lacking.

She had grown up rough. At least, he had summers on Grandfather’s ranch in the Texas Hill Country. He and his cousin Rex had been free to run and explore, as boys should under the watchful eye of the old wizened medicine man.

Laura had had nothing. Except for the responsibility of her younger siblings while her single mother worked the night shift at the local convenience store to pay the rent on their two-bedroom trailer that was falling apart around them. Even then, she had managed to make straight A’s in school, while holding down a part-time job of her own, and serving on the student council. She had graduated as valedictorian with a full scholarship to Stanford.

And except for monthly checks back home, she had never looked back. She had risen higher and faster within the company than most of her male peers. And it had nothing to do with affirmative action. No, it was her intelligence and hard work that got her where she was.

Unfortunately, this time, she had managed to step in that stinky, steaming cow patty of corporate corruption. The one that Ryan was here to clean up. After the past couple of hours, he was sure that this woman was not privy to the details of the schemes that were a threat to national and international security. But that would not save her job.

Besides, this was probably for the best. She would be safely out of the mess before the deck of cards came toppling down around all their heads. Ryan knew what he should do. Politely refuse her generous invitation. Send her back to her hotel room alone. And then tomorrow, quickly and as cleanly as possible, bring down the hatchet.

But that was not what he was going to do. This one time in his life, Ryan’s cold and calculating head was going to lose out to his equally passionate heart. Even though he knew that after tomorrow, this woman would hate and despise him, he just had to have her.

Just this one night, he wanted to taste what it was like to give in to the needs of his heart and body that he had repressed for a lifetime. And more importantly, he wanted that with her. With Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds. She would hate him even more if she knew that the file the agency had given him as part of this undercover assignment included that.

He inhaled deeply and sent a silent plea into the universe, a prayer to the goddess, a call to the great spirit, Odin, or perhaps Loki of his ancestors, fate, destiny, whatever the fuck you wanted to call it. ‘Please don’t let me screw up.’

Then he smiled and nodded his head. “I’d like that.”

Laura sighed. She was not even aware that she had been holding her breath until it escaped in a great whoosh of relief. He was coming back to her room. Some tiny part of her wanted to jump up and down like a little girl, who opened the present under the tree to discover the doll that she had asked Santa for. But that had never been Laura. No, each year, she and his sisters always got last year’s toys that other children had donated at the mall to make way for their new stuff.

Oh, don’t get her wrong, she was grateful to have anything under the tree, at least as far as her little sisters were concerned. For her, it had never really mattered. She was one of those people who had been born old – which was why that feeling was so unusual. She could never actually remember having it before. It was even better than the day her acceptance letter from Stanford arrived in the mail.

She hoped it boded well for this little endeavor. Because this time, she was asking Santa or fate or whatever for a lot more than a doll for Christmas. This baby was the culmination of all she had ever worked for or wanted. And with only a few months before her thirty-ninth birthday, she knew time was running out.

She reached out and took his hand in hers. It was the first time they had touched, and if Laura did not know better, she would swear that she felt a tingle run up her arm. It was nothing more than static electricity from the ugly dated old carpet that seemed the same in every pub she had been in for the past six months. She would be glad to get home.

The polite veneer of the British people hid a coldness and superiority complex that was wearing thin on her. Couldn’t they see the shallowness of it all? Or were they indeed as caught up as it seemed in maintaining the status quo of their social order? She knew beyond a doubt that, if even one of her colleagues knew the truth of her birth, it would fuel the gossip mills for months.

There were no self-made men, let alone women, in their closed ‘polite’ society where it was all about who you knew and never what you knew, no matter how good you were. And she was good. Much more qualified than any of the Etonian upper crust that populated her downline at the company.

But was Houston any better? The city that she had called home for the last fifteen years was just as shallow. Except there, it was the perfect body, sculpted in the most popular gym, the perfect tits from the latest and hottest plastic surgeon, and of course, the perfect smile crafted from porcelain by the best cosmetic dentist. Hair, make-up, and clothes. Or the car you drove, or the house you lived in.

Even Sebida, though, had been ruled by the old school, its founding families. The Monroes chief among them. Only as an adult had Laura learned the truth. It was all a façade — a shambles. The Judge’s family was as broke as her mother had been. Worse even, because they were too proud to apply for the welfare check and food stamps that her mother had used to feed her and her sisters.

And his beloved daughter, that paragon of virtue and deaconess of the biggest church in town, the one that brought their basket of food and presents each Thanksgiving and Christmas, the principle of the school Laura had attended; Miss Myrtle was warming up the sheets with old Injun Joe, the owner of the local Indian casino and bar. And she had been for Laura’s whole life.

Maybe she was becoming cynical in her old age. But it seemed that everything, even the success and big bank account that she had fought a lifetime to achieve, meant nothing. That was why this baby was so important to her. It felt like her last chance. A chance to find the meaning and happiness in this world that she had been looking for her whole life. A chance to have something that truly was her own.

It was silly, really. To put so much stock into something that all her female friends in the corporate world considered beneath them. Or at most a bodily function to ensure the continuation of the species and to spread their superior DNA.

Sometimes they reminded her of the heifers that the Judge bred with his prize bulls. Motherhood to them was nothing more than producing a superior bloodline and stock. That was how they selected the men they married and made babies with. Of course, on the side, most of them had a string of bad boys to satisfy other urges.

Laura did not want to follow that line of thought. Was she any different with her Plan Z and good genes? The night was getting away from her. And it was an extraordinary night. At least the little stick that came with the ovulation predictor kit and the app on her phone that charted her cycle said it was. The night that offered her the greatest hope of changing it all. The promise of achieving this final item on her to-do list of life. The one that was slipping through her fingers with each passing tick of her biological clock.

Looking at her companion, she smiled. If some crazy part of her wished for a simpler time, when a man and woman met, got to know one another at the church socials, held hands as they walked and talked, then walked down the aisle to make vows that indeed were ‘until death do us part,’ well, that was just another victim of the shallowness that had become modern society.

No, this was for the best. It would be simpler this way. A night of burning up the sheets with a handsome and intelligent equal, and Laura would have what she wanted. Or she hoped she would anyway. A no strings attached one-night stand that would give her the baby that would be the beginning of the next phase of her life.

She nodded her head and tugged at his hand. “Let’s go then.”

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