Laura folded the tiny white scrap. But it was difficult seeing anything as the moisture gathered in her eyes. She laid it on top of the growing stack and lifted her trembling hand to brush the tears away. She had not expected this — a baby shower.
But her sisters and mother had pulled one together nonetheless. Women from the warehouse where her mother worked, a few stalwart patrons of the town library that her baby sister ran, and even a few tight-lipped women from her middle sister’s church.
It was not that Laura needed the gifts they had brought for the baby. She was not that desperate, not yet anyway. In this case, it really was the thought that counted. In her almost two decades away from this place, she had forgotten that there was some good to be found in Sebida, Texas.
She sighed as she leaned back in the rocking chair that had been one of her first purchases. Her hand caressed the cyclopean mound that had once been her relatively flat abdomen. The baby was quiet. After four and a half months of gymnastics, dance, and Olympic training in there, the past couple of days, her daughter had been exceedingly well-behaved.
So much so that she had called her curandero, twice, to make sure that nothing was wrong. The first time the older wise woman had made the half an hour trip fully laden with gear to check up on her client. It only took a moment with the fetoscope to quash all her fears. Her daughter was very much alive. All would be fine, Guadalupe assured her.
The bebita was merely finding her position, getting ready for her entrance into the world. That could not come soon enough for Laura. Her back hurt. She had not slept in months. She simply could not find a comfortable position.
Not that she was not eternally grateful for this little blessing. Especially now. When she had felt lost and adrift for the first time in her life, this baby had given her existence purpose and meaning.
She knew too how incredibly lucky she had been. Most women her age took months, years to conceive. She had managed it in a single night.
She shook her head as she lifted a cup of the nasty herbal tea that Guadalupe had recommended she drink to help her body prepare for this birth. There was not enough sugar in the whole state of Texas to make this stuff palatable. Maybe she would discuss that metaphor with her shrink at their next video session.
Her life had changed so much in the last nine months. None of this was how she planned it. Which was why she had gone back into ‘therapy.’
She looked around her small, but neat little wooden frame house. Who would have ever thought she would be back here? Sebida, Texas. When she graduated high school two decades ago, she had run so far and so fast from this place. And until nine months ago, she had never looked back.
It was incongruous the twists that her life had taken. She fought back those tears once more, swallowing the bitter bile that rose in her throat every time she thought about him. Ryan Ranger. Her baby’s father. Backstabbing, supercilious, duplicitous bastard.
But would she have done any different? The woman that she had been then, anyway. That hardened, career-driven, self-sanctimonious bitch was a far-sight from the person she had become these past few months.
That morning played like some bad movie in her mind. His only answer had been, “It’s just a job.” Whether that was his justification for his actions or some paltry offer of condolence, she never knew.
Laura had gathered her composure along with her personal laptop and the few belongings in her temporary office. She had been able to fit them all into the over-sized purse she carried. With her head held high, she had left the building without another word to the man or a backward glance. She had gone back to her hotel room and packed. She had opened her laptop to book a flight to Houston.
Then, she realized there was nothing back there for her. She had no job. No apartment. She could not even count the few people, who she had kept in touch with over the past few months with likes, emojis, and the occasional comment on social media, as friends. She had even gone so far as to sell her car before this temporary move. Nothing and no one was tying her to the city that she had called home for over a dozen years.
But where did she belong? What would she do next? And the most pressing question at the time, where did she go?
As she sat on the plane for ten hours, a plan had begun to form. By the time she stepped into the terminal at George Bush, she knew exactly what she was doing. For the next week anyway.
She had rented a car, found a Mexican restaurant, and stuffed her face as full as her stomach would allow. Even though it was after nine by the time she finished, she drove straight through. It was only a couple of hours after all.
It was almost midnight when she drove up to the small trailer just outside of town, on the wrong side of the train tracks. Her courage had faltered then. She questioned what insanity had pushed her to come back to this place. Of all the places on the earth that she could have gone, why here?
She was just about to start the car and drive off again when her baby sister, wearing a ridiculous t-shirt style nightgown that said ‘Book Boyfriends are the best,’ appeared on the front porch. Mercy had squealed, and her mother had come running in an equally outrageous nightgown that proclaimed ‘Life is what you make it.’
The die was cast. That was how Laura found herself back in Sebida, Texas. Well, sort of.
She leaned her head back against the cushion that her mother had sewn for the antique rocker. Her hand still resting on her baby mound, she closed her eyes and welcomed the brief respite of a nap. Even if it was filled with lustful fantasies of the man, she should hate, but could not bring herself to do so.
Ryan sat behind the wheel of the rental SUV. Less than eight hours ago, he had been comfortably ensconced in a safe house, deep in the woods of Vermont. Waiting there for Gerald McBride and the rest of his cronies to go to trial would be no hardship.
What he was going to do with the rest of his life was another matter altogether. He had been in hiding for two months as the agency built its case against the men. He had nothing to do but fish and ponder his future. He had not had much luck at either.
In all those weeks, he still had not managed to get her out of his mind. In one brief night, Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds had gotten under his skin in a way that no woman ever had. She was in his blood, and as scary as it was to admit, his head and heart too.
So, when his handler from the agency began to ask questions about just how much the woman might know about the money trail they had been unable to trace fully, Ryan had been more than happy to volunteer to find out those answers.
Now, that seemed like a bad idea. Their parting had been anything but ideal. What made him think that the woman would share anything she knew with him? If she knew anything, at all.
A one night stand, followed by being the hatchman who destroyed her dream career, hardly engendered him as someone she would trust.
But Ryan would take any opportunity he could to see her just one more time. He had been seeking a way to renew their acquaintance for weeks. His every dream filled with memories of that night, fantasies of the things they had not done, but would.
Though, he had been careful to avoid too close an examination of the other – whatever that other sense had been. Ryan dealt with facts, theories, and practicalities. Not in some sixth sense, other-worldly shit. He left that stuff for Grandfather and his cousin Rex, their natural, or more accurately super-natural side, gave them a much better perspective on such things.
But warm, fuzzies aside, that night had been unforgettable. And he had tried. Every single day – and night – for the past nine months. He still could not get her out of his mind or heart. It was as if in the short space of a few hours, the woman had stolen some part of him. Of his soul – if such a thing existed.
That morning had been the hardest thing he had ever fucking done – and considering some of his missions, that was saying something. He had lain awake, holding her, even as she drifted off to sleep.
He had looked for any way out. Hell, he had even toyed with the idea of waking her up, coming clean about the whole damned thing, begging her to forgive him, and to wait for him. But he knew that was not an option. Too much rode on this assignment. Besides blowing his cover would have only put her life at risk — something he could not do.
Still, his words haunted him. ‘It’s only a job,’ had taken on new meaning these past months as he pondered the whole thing. She had deserved so much more than those lame words. What did they even mean? Even he was not sure. And he had had months to think about it.
He knew he was stalling, avoiding the confrontation that was to come. He might justify it as meticulous planning, but it was procrastination.
Some strategy for gaining the woman’s trust was not going to magically appear, any more than it had on the three-hour flight to Houston, or the almost two-hour drive to this hellhole of her hometown.
Sebida, Texas, was the last place that Ryan would imagine her coming after losing her job. But he supposed it made sense. Her mother and two of her sisters still lived here, though no longer in the dilapidated old rental trailer.
No, one of the first bonus checks that Laura had earned went towards buying her family a new trailer home. Though in the decade since then, she had not visited them here even once. Instead, she had them come to Houston or took them on family holidays, something that her mother had never been able to give her daughters.
Ryan could certainly understand the need to reconnect with your roots. He had been feeling the same restlessness calling him back to Grandfather’s ranch for weeks. It was only a couple hours west in the Hill Country. Maybe when he finished here, he would pop in for a brief visit.
Then, perhaps he would even check in with his mother in Fredricksburg. Though, he doubted that Ingrid would be any more forthcoming with the answers that he sought than she had been for the past thirty-five years.
No, he supposed it made sense that Laura would come back to her roots. What did not make sense was why she had stayed. Nine months, three-quarters of a year. Sebida did not seem like the place a woman like that would want to settle down.
He would not get those answers, or the more important ones that the agency sent him to find, sitting in the car. He steeled his resolve for whatever was to come. He would not be surprised if she slapped him or slammed the door in his face. Nonetheless, he had a job to do, just as he had all those months ago.
And time was running out. The attorneys would be announcing the plea bargain with McBride tomorrow. When they did, all those close to the man would be in grave danger. Whether or not, Laura Reynolds had information that could help them did not matter as much as whether they believed she did. And ‘they’ were a lot less scrupulous than the agency. His job was simple: make a deal with the woman and keep her safe.
Ryan stepped from the car, his eyes automatically scanning the area for anything out of the ordinary. He knew that the small house across the road was a rental — a month-to-month arrangement with a former teacher, who was traveling at the moment.
He crossed the road as quickly as he could. If this place were like the small town where Grandfather lived, then news of the ‘strange’ man visiting her would be circulating before dinner was over.
He knocked on the door and waited. It took much longer than he had anticipated. He double-checked that her used car was in the driveway. She certainly was being frugal for a woman with well over half-a-million dollars in savings.
That was his strongest bargaining chip. Seizing all her assets, right down to her mother’s trailer if necessary. The government had the right to do so with all proceeds of illegal activities. Forfeiture was undoubtedly one of the consequences that the others had faced.
The only things that had kept her assets safe, so far, was her presumed innocence. And the fact that he had fired her before the shit hit the fan. But all that could change now, if she did not cooperate. It was not tactic he wanted to utilize, but he would if necessary.
He was just about to head back to his car when the door opened. He grabbed the door frame to keep from fall to his knees. He thought he had prepared himself for whatever he encountered when he saw her again after all these months.
But the heavily pregnant belly that she clutched as her face scrunched in pain was not one of the options he had considered. Especially not considering this was the same woman he had unprotected sex with…nine months ago. Nine months. Something inside of him did not even need to ask. “My baby?”
Laura blew out as the pain that had been a nagging backache for three days spread across her hips and tore at her womb. The second pain in less than three minutes. She had dismissed the first one as a strain from rising from the chair too quickly when someone knocked on the door. But there was no mistaking this one. She was in labor.
And the man standing in the doorway was the absolute last person on the face of the earth that she wanted to see. The man that had destroyed her career. The lover that had rocked her world as no one ever had. The father of her baby. “Bastard.”
He shook his head as he forced his way inside the house, “I never denied that. But what the hell…”
Another time she would have reveled in the shocked and pained expression in his eyes, but at the moment, nothing registered except the pain. Would this damned pain never end? She inhaled, trying to clear her mind enough to put two coherent words together.
“Phone,” she managed just one as she pointed towards the coffee table.
He shook his head as if her words were unintelligible. Maybe they were. “My cell phone,” she managed as the pain began to recede around her abdomen into her lower back.
He moved past her as she gripped onto the door for support. He was back with her phone in a heartbeat. Her fingers trembled as she attempted to take it from him. All she managed was to punch in the access code, though.
“Guadalupe,” she commanded as she took one tentative step towards the chair from which she had risen a lifetime ago. She did not make it as another hard contraction forced her to her knees.
The man seemed frozen to the spot, right in the middle of her living room. She supposed she could not blame him. The deer in the headlights look on his handsome face told her that he had put two and two together and come up with a very accurate four. Or, in this case, one and one equaled three.
But she had no time for explanations. She had a baby to deliver. And from the frequency and intensity of the contractions, she was having since she woke from that brief nap, sooner than she wanted. Lupe was at least half an hour. Her mother and sister had gone into town for some shopping, so they were at least fifteen or twenty minutes away. Right now, her only choice was him.
“Help me to the chair,” she begged as she lost herself in pain.
He scooped her up and deposited her on the couch instead. She would worry later about the mess she was going to make on Esther’s sofa. Right now, there were more pressing matters.
“Hand me the phone,” she battled to focus on something other than the pain.
He passed it to her. By some miracle, she managed to locate the number and push the speaker button. Lupe picked up on the second ring, “Hola.”
“Lupe, the baby is coming,” she got straight to the point.
“Si, senora Lara. I leave now,” the woman’s calm voice reassured her.
“No, Lupe, I mean…NOW,” she protested.
“Should have called me sooner.”
Laura had no time for admonishments. The contractions were almost constant. “What do we do?”
“Is someone there with you?”
Laura nodded her head. It was Ryan who found the presence of mind to answer, “Yes.”
“Who are you?”
His eyes held hers, “The father.” They seemed to challenge her to deny the truth. But she was much too far gone for that.
“Si, senor. I need to see. See how far along la senora is. I need you to hang up. We have video calling on the phone. Take off las bragas, her panties. Then call me back on video,” her midwife instructed him.
Laura feared she would not be much help. Her body refused to move at the moment, even to lift her hips.
Ryan chuckled nervously as he pushed her dress up her thighs to reveal her plain white maternity underwear. “Not the sexy lace, it was the last time I did this, sweetheart.”
Laura was not sure what to make of his attempt at humor, but nothing was registering in her brain at the moment except pain. She did her best to lift her hips, but that only intensified the burning sensation across her abdomen. Somehow he managed to pull the material down her legs and press her thighs open.
A moment later, Lupe’s soothing voice filled the uncomfortable silence. “Hola, senor, I am Guadalupe. Your wife’s midwife. I am glad that you made it back in time for the birth of your little girl.”
Laura brushed back the tears as she watched Ryan quickly cover the shocked expression at her convenient lie. Her mysterious ‘soldier’ husband suddenly had a face for the woman even if it were only a half-truth.
“Me, too, Lupe. Now, tell me what to do. My first aid did not go into much detail on this one,” he responded, playing along with her lie.
“Do you see anything?”
“The top of the baby’s head, I think.”
“Put the phone down between your espousa’s legs. I need to see.”
His eyes met hers as he complied. “Ah, I see. La nina es especial. She comes in the caul.”
“What does she mean?” She searched his face for answers.
“Nothing to worry about, senora. Senor, you must wash your hands. Now. Prop the phone somewhere that I can see.”
Ryan used a pile of baby clothes that she had been folding earlier to do as her midwife ordered. She was in too much pain to care about such things as modesty. It was not like either of them had not seen it already.
Laura pointed to the small doorway and watched as he disappeared through it. Her brain was too muddled at the moment to even consider what he was doing here.
“Lupe, you are on your way, si?” she questioned.
“No, senora. Es muy tarde. I cannot drive and talk your espouso through the birth. I will come after la nina is born,” she explained as Ryan came back into the room.
“So, what do I do now?” his deep voice came from across the room.
“You must break the caul, senor. There may be a gush of fluid when you do.”
“Get some towels from the bathroom,” Laura protested, once again concerned about the mess this was going to make of her friend and former teacher’s couch.
He laughed and shook his head as another contraction robbed her of all thought about propriety. This one was so strong that she screamed out.
“It is like opening a tough plastic bag, senor. Do it now. Get your fingers under it wherever you can and tear it open.”
Of all the things that he had imagined doing in his life, tearing the amniotic sac away from his baby’s head was not one of them. But the same calm that has made him a good SEAL prevailed at this moment as well.
It was not as easy as the woman made it sound, though. The seemingly thin silvery-white fibrous sac was much tougher than it appeared. It took at least three tries before he found a spot weak enough. Even then, he was not prepared for the amount of clear fluid that gushed onto the couch, floor, and his jeans. All were thoroughly soaked.
The moment that the sac gave way, a fully formed and perfect little head slipped into his fingers. The face was bluish-grey and scrunched, lined like an old man’s. “The head is out. What now?” he pleaded with the voice on the other end of the phone.
“Use your fingers to clear her mouth and from around her nose, Senor Ryan.”
He frowned at the women’s use of his name. What lies had she told these people? Hell, had she lied to him? She had assured him that she was on the pill. Had it failed? Or had she used him to have this baby?
His baby. He had a lot more questions for the woman than the ones he had been sent to ask. But all of them would have to wait. Delivering this baby took precedent.
“Her?” he asked. Though he was not sure at whom he directed the question.
“You did not tell your espouso that he was having a little girl. Muy travieso, Senora Lara. Si, Senor Ryan, a little girl.”
A little girl. He had a daughter. Or he would. Right about now as he saw Laura’s face scrunch with pain once more. She bore down without being told. He was shocked at how quickly and with what force the baby shot from her mother’s body. Only quick reflexes kept him from dropping the tiny bundle of slime. Though it was less than a two-foot drop to the rug on the floor, that was not how he wanted his baby girl’s life to begin.
Then again, none of this was how he wanted his daughter to enter this world – from her conception and all that had come after, to this moment. As he lifted the tiny creature towards his chest, he swore that things were going to be different. He could barely breathe past the lump in his throat as he watched her try to take her first breath.
“Put her head in your palm, senor. Si, si, very good,” the voice on the phone encouraged him as followed her directions.
“Now, lower your hand. Keep her little bottom higher than her head. Turn her face to the side more. Si, si. Now, rub her back. Don’t be afraid to use some force. Babies are not as delicate as we think. La bebita will not break.”
Her words were coming so fast that they barely registered in Ryan’s addled brain. Somehow his body followed her instructions exactly. His reward was an ear-splitting scream that was sweeter than any country ballad ever.
He had a baby — a daughter.
He looked up at the woman he had not seen in nine months. The woman with whom he had spent one perfect night. His only one night stand. All the questions, personal and professional, floated away. Only one thing mattered now. Keeping his family safe.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“Senor, get a towel or blanket. Wrap the baby in it. And give her to her mama. I will leave in dos minutos. Let me tell you what to do until I get there.”
Laura took the squirming bundle from his large hands. She nestled her daughter close to her chest. She stared into the little face. It was hard to see the details of her baby’s features through the tears. The baby squirmed and cried as she turned towards Laura’s chest.
She was a mother. She had a baby girl – a daughter. She leaned forward and kissed the smattering of almost white-blond hair that covered the baby’s head.
An inheritance from her father – this man who knelt before her. The man who had ignited her passions as no one else ever had. Then destroyed all she had worked to build. The man who had suddenly reappeared when she – no, they – needed him most. But what now? How could she explain? Did she owe him one after all he had done?
The baby squirmed harder, rooting was the term she had read in all the books. Even then, she was shocked at the strength of her daughter’s natural instincts. As she almost crawled the inches across her chest towards her breasts.
“Welcome to the world, Chloe Reynolds,” she said as her finger brushed the side of the baby’s cheek, causing her to turn her face and root even more.
“Chloe Ranger,” his blue-eyes met hers.
She might have dared to argue the point with him, had not the baby grown tired of her futile efforts, emitting a lusty and angry cry.
His finger brushed their baby’s cheek as hers had done. Chloe turned her head the other direction and met the gaze of her father. “You get that appetite from your Daddy, Chloe.” He reluctantly dragged his eyes from his daughter’s and up to hers. “Are you planning to breastfeed her?”
She nodded and blushed as she fumbled to push the neckline of her dress back with her other hand. This would have been so much easier in the cotton nursing gown packed with all the other birthing supplies in her bedroom.
She swallowed back the trepidation as she addressed him again, “Bring me the blue bag from beside my bed, please. The door on your left down the hall,” she pointed.
He nodded. Though she could see the questions in his face, he obeyed, disappearing down the hall.
Laura took a deep breath as she lifted the tiny bundle towards her, placing another kiss on the top of her daughter’s head. “Oh, the tangled web we weave,” she smiled at one of her favorite lines of verse.
She knew that Miss Esther would appreciate the irony, and it seemed only right somehow that she honor her mentor, who had so graciously rented her this house all those months ago. She added the woman to her long list of entreaties to whatever was out there. She hoped that things were going smoother for her friend than they were for her at the moment.
What the hell was he doing here? At her home? At the very moment, she went into labor with her baby? His baby. And what the hell did she say now?
‘Oh, sorry, I was not really on birth control. I just wanted a baby. And you seemed like superior genetic material.’ Or at least he had. Until the next morning. When he fired her and took the job that she had spent fifteen years working for.
Not that things had worked out that badly. Honestly, he probably did her a favor. All of the other executives had either been arrested or were under investigation.
She frowned, so why not him? How had he escaped the wide net that the government had cast in its attempts to stamp out corporate corruption and money laundering? Hell, she had half expected someone to show up at her door.
Not that she knew much. But they did not know that. Still, they might find something she had not thought of in that email file on her laptop.
She had been so busy these past few months, between her pregnancy and trying to come up with a plan for their future, that she had not thought about those files. Not until her former boss’s son and the company’s Chief Financial Officer had committed suicide a few weeks ago.
As the former general counsel, she would have been the one spearheading their defense, but she supposed that all had fallen on his shoulders. She could almost pity the man.
As if she had conjured him up, Ryan came back down the hall, holding her birthing bag. Though it might seem a bit late, several supplies in the kit would still be useful. “Put it on the floor by the table and open it, please.”
He stared at the baby whose screams seemed to be quieting a bit. “Is she okay?”
Laura smiled as she looked at her daughter. “She seems perfect. But I suppose we won’t know for sure until Lupe gets here.”
“Should I call an ambulance to take ya’ll to the hospital or something?” He seemed to consider a bit too late.
Laura chuckled at the confused look on his face. She had forgotten how handsome he was. She looked back down at her daughter, noting the resemblance to the man.
“No, I had planned a home birth. Lupe is my partera, midwife. That is my birth supplies.” She pointed at the bag he had opened on the floor next to her.
“Can you reach into the pocket on the left? There should be a plastic bag with two clamps for Chloe’s cord in there. Can you get that out?” She pondered and added, “And a few packs of gloves as well. I suppose you should wash your hands and put on those before we open the clamps.”
“Should we wait until the midwife gets here?” He knelt and brushed a finger across the baby’s cheek. She turned her head, and their gazes locked again.
Laura’s throat tightened at the look which passed between father and daughter. The baby was only moments old, and already, she could feel the bond between them. What had she been thinking? She, who had grown up without a father? How had she ever thought she could do this on her own?
“We’ll talk later. Once things settle down, just tell me what needs to be done now. Lupe said something about the cord pulsing and afterbirth. I’m hoping you know more than I do.”