Laura chuckled as she came awake to that soft meowing once again. She looked up into his smiling face as he passed her the squirming bundle that was crying even harder now. “We have to stop meeting like this, counselor.”
His eyes were glued to her chest as she opened the flap on her nursing top and got Chloe attached to her breast. “I don’t know; it’s my favorite time of the day, counselor. Just us and our little girl.”
She found it hard to argue with that summation. Instead, she focused on their daughter. She was feeling better. After their morning phone conference, Ryan had not only insisted that she get some more rest, he had gone so far as to pick her up and carry her to the bedroom they were sharing.
She hated to admit it, but he was probably right. She did feel much better after her nap. “How long was I asleep?”
“Less than two hours. The little lady insisted on her lunch before Jaycee feeds us ours. How are you feeling?”
“Better, much better, actually. I think those damned hormones are settling down a bit. My mind is clearer than it has been since she was born.”
His laughter was an upbeat country two-step to her ears. “If you have been off your game this past couple of days, I am scared to imagine what’s to come.”
He reached out, and Chloe grabbed her father’s finger. It was becoming a ritual that closed their little family circle. There was something so intensely reassuring about it.
“I don’t know how you do what you do. You managed to care for your sisters, work two part-time jobs, keep straights As, serve on the student council, and get into Stanford. You not only survived a misogynistic corporate culture such as McBride Industries but beat those good ole’ boys at their game and rose to the top.”
Ryan bent over and kissed her forehead, brushing away the tears that as much as she fought them seemed to come anyway. “It just blows me away. Baby, I’m amazed by you.”
Silence wrapped about them like a comfortable quilt for long moments. The only sound was Chloe snorting and snuffling at her nipple. Laura used the time to try and regroup. “So, what next, counselor?”
“By the time you’re finished nursing Chloe, Jaycee should have lunch ready.”
“That’s not what I meant. What’s our next move?”
“That’s what I was telling you. Jaycee wants to talk to us some more over lunch. She says she has an idea.” He picked up Chloe after she broke the seal of her greedy little monster on her nipple. “Do you need…”
“To pee?” It was another reassuring ritual they had just fallen into. “No, I’ll nurse her on the other side after you change her. Then, I’ll stop by the loo on the way to lunch.”
“Loo? You weren’t in London that long.” Laura could not stop staring at his broad shoulders and tight ass as she managed to turn over on her own this time.
“Yes, but I collected a few choice words while I was there, counselor. Do you realize that shag is not just a type of carpet?” She could tell by his groan that he already knew that one. His smile was beaming as he turned back to her with their daughter in his hands.
“Do you have to taunt me, counselor?”
She took Chloe and got her settled, “I thought I took care of your little problem this morning?”
His laughter caressed her mind once more, “Little is not a descriptor I’ve heard in regards to that particular problem. Of course, problem isn’t either. You’re going to kill my ego, counselor.”
“But if you must know, as much as I enjoyed you taking care of it, it just isn’t the seem when it isn’t mutual. Not saying I didn’t appreciate it, but…”
His fingers caressed her cheek, “It’s you I want, not just my balls emptied. Everything about you drives me crazy. The smell of your skin. The taste of your kiss. Your hair all around me. It’s like you surround me.”
“You bored your way under my skin even when it was just those files. That’s why I followed you to the pub that night. I had to meet that woman…”
He hesitated, and Laura noticed that his eyes clouded a bit too. “I wanted to get to know that woman before I stole away her dreams.”
She reached out and gripped his hand, “You didn’t, Ryan. You gave me the most precious one of them all.”
She could see that her words made him uncomfortable. She wasn’t exactly sure why. But what hit her then was the realization of how rare these moments were between them. For two people who barely knew one another, it was shocking just how comfortable and natural they were with one another.
He tidied the room as Chloe finished feeding. When he came back to the bed, she was surprised to see the multi-color baby sling across his chest. “Is she finished?”
Ryan frowned at her fit of giggles as he picked up the baby and attempted to insert her into the contraption gently. Laura finally took pity on them both. “If you take it off and put her inside first, then strap it on you, it is easier.”
She loved the pink that glowed in his cheeks. She had not seen this man blush often. Not even when it came to their discussions of pee. Speaking of which, “If you can manage, I need that pee now. I’ll meet you in the dining room.”
“Are you sure you can manage? This won’t take me but a moment. I hope. I can help you. I mean down the hall, not to pee.”
“I don’t know what I said, counselor, but I like getting you flustered. I’m going to add that to my daily goals, get Ryan to blush,” she managed to get up on her own this time. “I’ll be fine. You take care of her.”
Ryan was still struggling to get his daughter back into that damned baby sling a couple of minutes later. Was she moving more than last time? Or was his mind merely not focused on the task?
“What are we going to do about your Mom, my little Falcon?” He brushed his finger across her cheek, and her arms flailed even harder. When his finger got within her reach, she grasped it.
“Hey, buddy, we were wondering where you were,” his cousin’s voice sounded from the doorway.
Ryan turned to the man, who, in some ways, had launched him on this journey. “Sorry, I’m having a bit of trouble getting her into the damned thing. It seemed so much easier the first time.”
Rex nodded and came to stand beside him, next to the bed. “Want some help?”
Ryan laughed, “How would you know? Yours isn’t here yet.”
“Shhh, don’t tell Jaycee, but I borrowed one of Angel’s doll to practice all this fatherhood crap on. I can change a diaper in less than five seconds. I can dress it. Of course, I’m not sure how well I am with the whole burping thing, but I have the theory down. Maybe you’ll let me borrow Chloe to see if I’m doing it right? And yeah, I watched like a dozen videos to learn how to get a baby into that contraption.”
Ryan felt the pang of jealousy and anger to the core of his soul. This was how it should have been, months and months to practice all those things. Watching each new change in Laura’s body. Feeling Chloe kick.
Of course, he wasn’t sure who he was mad at – Laura or himself. There were months before they busted the case, and he went into hiding. She could have come to him then, told him he was going to be a father. But that had never been a part of her plan. His throat tightened as the realization of how much she had used him hit him squarely in the face.
But he had his part in that, too. When she had fallen asleep that morning, before he slipped out of her hotel room and took the stairs up to his own room, he had held her in his arms and watched her sleep. Something had told him then to wake her, to tell her the truth, to beg her to go someplace safe, and wait for him. But he hadn’t. And it had cost him all that.
Maybe this whole thing was both their doing. That did not make it any easier, though.
“I’m here, if you need to talk, too, cousin.” Rex’s hand gripped his shoulder and squeezed.
When Ryan turned to face his cousin, he did not give a damn that the man would see the tears that clouded his vision, making wrangling with that damned contraption impossible. “You wouldn’t fucking understand. You were always the lucky fucking bastard. You always knew that you would recognize her.”
“Jack and I both hated you for that. It’s not so fucking simple for us mere humans. Dating sucks. Trying people on like you would a suit, to see if they fit. Hurting people, sometimes genuinely nice ones, just because they don’t. And being hurt in return.”
“But you never had to deal with any of that crap. You knew you had a mate. You knew who Jaycee was the moment you met her. And you knew not to just fucking walk…”
Ryan could not finish; his throat was too tight to push any more words out. Besides, he knew he was not fair to his cousin. Rex was not the one he was angry with. That was the bastard, quite literally, that was in the mirror.
His cousin knelt next to him and wrapped his arms about his shoulder. Ryan knew it wasn’t the ‘manly’ thing to do, but he was past the point of fucking caring about such bullshit as he laid his head on his cousin’s shoulders and let the tears come.
He wasn’t sure how long he cried like that with his little girl kicking her tiny feet right into his abs and Rex gently patting his shoulder. But when he did begin to come around, he was hit with that embarrassment. He did not even have fucking hormones to blame for it.
He tried to pull away, to focus back on that damned baby sling, but his cousin was not going to let him off that easily. “Feel any better?”
Ryan shrugged, what was the point? Nothing could change the past. He had not listened to that voice. Hell, even if he had, it might not have changed anything. That Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds was so focused on her career and getting her baby, she probably would not have even listened.
“Thanks,” was all he said as he turned back to a smiling Chloe. Those damned books did not know everything. He swore his daughter could smile already.
“You know, Grandfather believes that we all have mates. Humans, as well as skinwalkers. He thinks that the difference is humans have lost touch with that part of themselves.” Rex reached over and began slipping Chloe’s little legs into the appropriate slots.
“I’m not sure I agree completely. I think that humans do have the instinct to sense their mates. But they have been conditioned not to trust such things. So, they put themselves and other people through these stupid and sometimes harmful mating rituals. They spend months and years hiding who they are. Pretending to be someone they aren’t. Just to attract someone who isn’t who they think they are either.”
Rex looked up from the task to meet Ryan’s stare, “That’s why I quit dating in my early twenties. If she wasn’t my Nʉ Sʉmʉ, it wasn’t worth the risk of hurting her or wasting my time just for sex.”
“But I know you, cousin. I don’t believe for a second that you did not recognize your mate. But that’s the other advantage or curse of being a skinwalker – we know what is at stake. We know there is only one shot at this. So, when it comes, if it ever does, we fucking take it. No questions asked. Because losing your mate is not an option.”
Rex slipped Chloe’s final arm into the hole and patted her tummy. “I think that ‘golden gut’ as you call it knows that, too. So, for what it is worth, here’s my advice. Forget all those things that society has told you about relationships and love. Forget all the past hurts of your previous relationships. Hell, forget the pains of watching other people try and fail at it.”
“Then, step out in faith. Forget all those masks. All those things that you’re supposed to be and say and do. And just be you. Be honest. Say what you mean and feel.”
Ryan laughed, “You make that sound so fucking easy, Rex. And what happens when you jump off that cliff and go splat? When she doesn’t return those feelings? When you get hurt? It’s not the same with us ‘mere humans.’”
“You think winning Jaycee’s love has been easy? She grew up shuffled from place to place, never even knowing the love of one parent. She was rejected time and again by families that wanted the ‘perfect’ child. Then she spent years married to a man, another skinwalker that had given up his soul to the darkness, that was incapable of true love for her, or even Angel to some degree.”
“You think she even recognized the love I offered her? Hell, cousin, there are still potholes in that woman’s heart that I am trying to fill. Every single day I have to prove to her all over again that I’m not going anywhere. That my love is real and unconditional. And you know what? That is a war I may never win.”
“There are parts of my mate that I may never have because she’s too afraid to trust me with them. But every day I climb that cliff and I jump off. Sometimes I fucking soar to the skies. Our souls touch, and I know the closest thing there is to heaven.”
“And other days, I fall flat on my face. Sometimes I hit that ground so hard that I feel I can’t do it anymore. But the real difference is I know I don’t have a choice. If I lose her, I lose me. My soul. I become what he was. And I won’t do that to her or Angel or this world. So, I go off alone, and I lick my wounds. Or Grandfather comes to me, and we talk.”
“But somehow I find that strength to climb that cliff again. The faith to be real with another person, the most important one in this world to me. Even if she does hurt me, I realize that it isn’t me. Jaycee doesn’t hurt me because she doesn’t care, but because she does. Because she’s been hurt so badly that she’s afraid to believe. Afraid to believe in me. In us. In a love that lasts for all eternity.”
“The thing is you don’t have any choice, either, Ryan. Not really. Maybe if you choose to play it safe, to protect yourself, if you lose Laura, you won’t become a Chupacabra. But your soul will be just as lost, your pain just as deep.”
Rex picked up his daughter and kissed the top of her head before passing her to Ryan. “And that’s not even considering this precious gift. But they’ve been waiting for us long enough. I know that Grandfather or Jaycee is going to send out a search party if we don’t get our butts in gear. So, if what I said isn’t enough, we can have that discussion another time. Because my wife…”
“Is going to make that sexy ass pay for taking so long,” Jaycee stood in the doorway.
Ryan saw how red his cousin’s cheeks flamed at her voice. He watched as Rex swallowed, then inhaled deeply, he knew that his cousin wondered just how much of their conversation his wife had overheard. But Ryan had to admire the way the man turned and smiled at her. A smile that was open and adoring as he rose and walked over to his pregnant wife. “I’m sorry.”
“You better be. Not only is lunch getting cold, but you know I want to talk to Laura and Ryan about my plan.” The woman turned and smiled at Ryan, “Have you two he-men managed to conquer one tiny scrap of material and a squirming baby yet?”
Ryan nodded as he lifted the baby sling with his daughter securely inside and strapped it about him. “I think so. Thanks to your husband.” His eyes turned to his cousin, and he hoped that they conveyed his gratitude for much more than a lesson in how to operate a baby sling. Rex’s words might have hit home, but the man’s actions spoke volumes.
“Then, come on. I have something to discuss with you and your mate.” Jaycee turned to his cousin and tenderly caressed Rex’s cheek, “I’m so relieved to know that you understand. And you’re right. I never mean to hurt you. I would never do that willingly, but sometimes…” Tears spilled down the woman’s cheeks, “I’m trying. I hope you know that. I’m climbing that same cliff, Rex.”
His cousin drew his wife into his arms and held her close to his heart. Rex kissed the top of his wife’s head, “I know that, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. And that is all I can ever ask.”
Ryan felt like the worst kind of voyeur. His cousin and Jaycee were stripped more bare than if they stood naked before him. But he was incredibly privileged and humbled by the experience. Words of gratitude would have been meaningless for such a profound spiritual experience. So he did not bother, and he followed them down the hall to…his mate.
His cousin was right. He had recognized Laura every bit as much as Rex did Jaycee. And the man was right about the rest too, losing her was not an option. And if that meant taking the risk of telling her all those things inside his heart. He had no other choice than to do it. And keep doing it. Just as his cousin did.
Besides that porn-worthy blow job this morning had to mean something, right? After all, Laura didn’t have to do that. Maybe it was a ray of hope? He kissed the top of his daughter’s head as he followed the couple and took a seat on the bench next to his partner. Of course, this little one was more than a mere ray. Chloe was the whole fucking sun, an eternal bond they shared. One that he would build on.
He reached over and squeezed Laura’s hands as Grandfather raised his hand in blessing. Ryan swore that he could feel something, some indescribable power travel from their joined fingertips through his whole body.
Then the blessing came to an end. And the reality of this world, food and crisis, took center stage, but in his heart and mind lived that tiny spark of power. He knew that it was the ember he would feed into a roaring fire that would warm them and light their way through this darkness. Because losing her was not an option.
Laura was glad that the tension between them was gone. Although she still had no idea what caused it. What had she said or done that was wrong? Honestly, this relationship thing was new to her. Sure, she had been engaged to Stewart and had had a college boyfriend, but honestly, those felt more like arrangements of convenience than relationships.
But this? This was way beyond that, beyond her comfort zone. That night had been, too. She remembered the lie that she had planned to tell Chloe one day when her daughter asked about her father. Laura had the story all planned out, that Chloe had been made in love, that her father was the love of her life. This past couple of days had Laura wondering just how much of a lie that had been.
Still, there were a couple of problems with her logic at the moment. The first one was its validity. She had pregnancy hormones from hell surging through her body and turning her brain to mush. Just how much of these feelings were real? And how much was some hormone-induced fantasy from one of Mercy’s damned books?
Damn, her baby sister. She had gone her whole life avoiding her Mama’s trashy book collection. But when Mercy self-published her first book, Laura had felt the obligation to support her sister’s dreams. She had used Fivr to purchase a few hundred copies. If that weren’t bad enough, she felt the compulsion to read the damned thing.
Laura had been shocked. At the quality of her sister’s writing, yes, but also at how much she enjoyed the story. It had pushed her to read other writers. And while some were total garbage, the porn for women that feminists labeled them, a good many were complex stories of human struggles for more than merely ‘a man’ but for self-actualization, acceptance, and understanding. She had been addicted. That was a good thing since she had nine months of pregnancy without a job or anything else to do.
But did such things happen to real people? That she was not so sure about. Then again, she could not blame that night in London on pregnancy hormones, could she?
She snuck another glance at him as she reached for the platter of sandwiches that Jaycee and Grandfather had made, with Angel’s help. There was a BLT that called to her. What was it with bacon? Chloe’s first sounds might be a snort like a pig, as much of the stuff as she had eaten during her pregnancy.
But she needed to cut back. She was not eating for two anymore. And while she had never been what most people would consider beautiful, too short, too hippy, and with a face that was too angular, she wanted to get back to the point she was before her pregnancy. Damn her, because the bottom line was she wanted that man back in her bed. She had to find out if that one night had been some fluke.
It was more than just the insecurities of not knowing where she stood with this man. Sure, Ryan threw the L-word around. But that did not mean he truly meant it. And no matter what he said, she was not marrying him for Chloe’s sake. She had done the math in fifth-grade health class and understood that Mama had married Iggy Garcia because of her. And look how that turned out.
Just thinking about Mama and Mercy reminded her of another reason why she could not trust these feelings. Her whole fucking life was a mess right now. And while she would not cast herself in the role of a damsel in distress, she hated to admit just how much she had come to rely upon this man. How much power and control she had acceded to him.
She did not want that to continue. That was not the woman she was or the woman that Mama had raised her to be. Reynolds women were strong. They dealt with their own bullshit. They didn’t need no man to save them. She needed to get her shit together and take back her life. Then they could see if this damned thing between them was worth pursuing.
“I wanted to speak with you, Laura, about an idea that I have,” Jaycee sat directly across from her. The timing of the woman’s words made her wonder if Grandfather and the little girl were the only ones with that freaky mind-reading shit.
And why was the old man smiling as he stared at the two of them? “Sure.”
“I know that both you and Ryan are attorneys, but you know what Abraham Lincoln said…”
“The man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” chuckled Ryan.
“Well, that is the modern paraphrase, and they aren’t even sure that Lincoln said it,” Laura added.
Jaycee smiled at her and nodded her head, “Good point, Laura.” The woman’s face became more serious, “But that does not change the fact that neither of you can just walk into J.T. Tyler’s office in the Federal building in Houston. Maybe they would not arrest Ryan on sight, but that would not make it a smart move.”
“J.T. Tyler?” Ryan lifted his brow.
“Yeah, we went to law school together at UT.” Jaycee leaned across the table and lowered her voice, “We might have even gone on a couple of dates.”
“I heard that, Nʉ Sʉmʉ,” Rex smiled at his wife.
“I never doubted that you would, cowboy,” she caressed his cheek.
Laura felt the pang of jealousy. Would they ever have that kind of comfortable interplay? She paused with the sandwich halfway to her mouth, didn’t they already? At least some of the time, anyway. The question was more, could they build the solid foundation this couple had from that?
“But back to my point, I can,” the woman’s words drew Laura’s attention back to the pressing matter.
“Both Will and Ryan believe that Tyler can be trusted. And unless he has changed a lot from the man I knew fifteen years ago, I would agree. J.T. and I might not see eye to eye on politics, but the man I knew was an idealist. That was part of the problem; things were always black or white with him.”
Ryan finished his bite of sandwich quickly, “Yeah, they still are. As you said, that could be a problem.”
“Let me worry about that,” Jaycee passed two shifts of papers that were next to her plate across the table. She handed one to Laura, and the other to Ryan.
Laura looked at it. A basic contract that would give the other woman the power to act upon her behalf in negotiations. That would make her this woman’s client. The things Jaycee said made sense.
So, why did she find herself turning towards Ryan for his approval? It was not like her. She did not need anyone else’s blessing to make a decision. She certainly would not have consulted Stewart when they were engaged.
But it seemed there was no need for concern, they agreed on this decision as he nodded his head and reached for the pen that Jaycee held out.
“But one thing, before either of you sign those forms. I need to disclose a possible conflict of interest. Though I don’t believe it will be an issue. I want you to know that I represent Wanda Kerr in her ongoing divorce case.”
Laura lifted her eyebrows, “The sheriff told everyone that she and the girls had gone to take care of her dying mother. That they would be back in a few weeks or months.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. And I know that you both understand why I can’t say more. But my client and her children have gone underground. I placed them with one of the domestic violence support networks that gave them new identities. That’s all I can reveal.”
Laura pondered this latest news. It was unlikely that Wanda Kerr would know anything of value to the investigation. Earl Kerr was not the type of man to consult or share things with a wife or any woman.
The only female deputy in Sebida county was the dispatcher, and other than monitor radio transmission, the only police work the woman was involved with was rape and domestic abuse cases. The kind of thing that required a woman-to-woman approach. Though she was confident, Kerr resented even that.
No, the real issue was that as his wife’s attorney, that brought Jaycee, her family, and her actions under the good sheriff’s scrutiny. Yes, that might present a problem. But did that potential issue outweigh the familiarity and inherent trust she had with the other woman?
Damn it; she did it again. Turning to Ryan with a raised eyebrow. He shrugged those broad shoulders that looked even sexier with that damned baby sling across them. “This is your family’s lives, sweetheart. I trust Jaycee. But it has to be your decision.”
Damn him, double damn him. Why did he have to give the perfect response? Laura nodded her head and looked across the table at the other woman. Jaycee had gone out of her way since they arrived to make her feel welcome, as well as help and advice about the baby. She was rapidly becoming the first female friend in more than two decades.
Yeah, she trusted this woman to walk that line, to balance the needs of her clients if it came to that. Laura reached over and took the pen from her hand and signed the contract that made this woman her attorney.
Ryan smiled and took the pen from the table where she had laid it when she finished. He, too, signed the document, “So, what now, J. Ranger, esquire?”
Was it so wrong or petty that Laura felt a surge of gratitude that Ryan had not used the word counselor? It seemed incredibly silly, but over the past couple of days, that word had become an endearment more personal and precious to her than all those sweethearts. Damn, those tears. When would these hormones give her a fucking break?
They clouded her vision, but not enough that she missed the broad smile on her new friend’s face as Jaycee replied, “It’s time for Rex and me to take a little road trip to Houston.”