Ryan sat in the old rocker. His baby daughter Chloe nestled against his bare chest. Skin-to-skin contact was best for bonding, or so Lupe had informed him.
He knew nothing about babies or children. He was an only child. His cousin Rex was, as well. Though the man had recently met his mate, and while Rex had inherited a daughter in the deal, Ryan had been too busy investigating the corporate corruption and money-laundering that his cousin had accidentally uncovered to visit the young family. He had never even paid much attention when he visited the few friends who did have children.
No, he was utterly unprepared for this one. But he would not be for long. He had already downloaded a dozen books on the subject of babies and parenting while Lupe tended to Laura and their daughter.
The woman had arrived within half-an-hour of the birth. But Laura’s mother and younger sister had made it first. The two women were there within fifteen minutes of the text that Laura had sent. He had struggled to remember the women’s names from the files. And Laura had seemed to want to ignore him, now that the crisis had passed.
But he was having no part of that. As soon as he remembered Stacey and Mercedes, he had introduced himself. The younger woman had smiled and told him to call her Mercy since they were family. Laura’s mother seemed less pleased to meet him. It made him wonder how much the woman knew of the truth.
The moment that Lupe had arrived, she had checked the placenta, which Laura had spontaneously delivered almost the moment that Chloe had begun to nurse. Then she had examined the baby, cleaning her with some sweet-smelling oil rather than soap and water. She had passed his daughter to him with the briefest of instructions on bonding and holding a baby.
Then the women had worked together to get Laura, first to the bathroom, then, once she was cleaned up and dressed in a fresh gown, into bed. The woman had insisted that she drink cup after cup of some foul-smelling tea that she assured them would minimize the risk of bleeding.
Lupe had helped Laura to breastfeed the baby once more before she and Mercy had tackled the major clean up in the living room. They had done a pretty good job on the amniotic fluid from the couch and floor. His jeans were almost dry now too.
He supposed he should go out to the rental car, bring in his suitcase, and change into fresh pants. He was not bothering to check into a motel as he had planned. He was not leaving them unprotected.
Leaving them unprotected? Ryan sighed, as stupid as he knew he had been, he could not bring himself to regret the tiny bundle of pure innocence that slept contentedly on his chest.
He stared down at his daughter through the haze of tears, but there were other things he lamented. The biggest of which was that after all he had been through, all the promises he had made to himself, his child was a bastard.
Thankfully, Laura had had the foresight to at least lie about that fact. He had almost laughed when he discovered how incredibly accurate her cover story was. The soldier that she had met while on assignment. A whirlwind romance and elopement only days before he was deployed.
He was confident that, at some point, she had intended to kill him off in action. Neatly tying up her story and protecting their child from the stigma of bastardy that they both knew still existed, especially in small towns like this one.
But that was not going to happen now. He was determined about that.
No, he was as much to blame for this situation as she was. Well, maybe. They had not had time to talk about that.
Lupe had stayed a couple of hours to make sure that everything was going as it should. Laura’s sister, the other one, had arrived an hour afterward. Elena had to get someone from their church to watch her toddler, but she, too, had left half-an-hour ago. Her mother was the only one remaining. Stacey Reynolds was in the bedroom with Laura, just in case she woke and needed anything.
He knew that they would have to confer soon. The sooner, the better. The reason he had come here was just as relevant now, maybe more so. Though he was not the man for the job, he had known that it was a conflict of interest that night, but this situation only deepened that.
His first priority, his loyalty, was to them now.
He needed to make things right for them and the agency. He shifted gently in the chair, as he reached in his pocket for the phone, but even that was enough to rouse the baby. Chloe whimpered in her sleep but quieted back down as he rubbed her back beneath the quilt that covered them both.
He did not have long. She would need to be fed again soon. Lupe had said that she would need to nurse every couple of hours, especially until Laura’s milk came in, whatever that meant. Ryan added it to the ever-growing list of questions that he needed to look up in those books.
He chuckled, remembering that Lupe said to read the one by Dr. Spock first. He had not known that Vulcans were such experts on babies.
He punched the button; he did not need to wait long, the man answered on the first ring. “About damned time, Ranger.”
He did not care much for the man that had been assigned as his handler midway through this assignment. The previous one, a woman that he knew well and would have trusted with his life – and theirs – had been in a car accident. She would live, but it was doubtful if she would ever again be up to the task of returning to her job.
“Stephens,” was his only reply.
“So, what does the woman know? Is she going to be cooperative?”
“I don’t know yet. Things were more complicated than your file let on. Why was the fact that she was pregnant not in there?”
“Pregnant? What the fuck? Wait a minute.”
Ryan wanted to cover his daughter’s tiny ears just in case she could overhear, but he did not dare move again.
“That’s not right. There’s nothing in her medical records to indicate a pregnancy. She’s still covered under Cobra, of course. But she’s not used her insurance even once. Wait, here is a purchase of a car seat on one of her cards, but that’s it.”
He waited, letting the man take the lead in this conversation was best for now. “So, how far along is she? As you said, this complicates things. The father? Is he making trouble then? Is it that former fiancee of hers?”
“Listen, Ranger. I’m sorry you got caught with your pants down on this one. But until Junior bit the dust, the woman was not of much interest to the investigators. There was no reason to believe she knew anything about what was going on. And honestly, there still isn’t. But we have to be sure of that, especially now.”
The man paused for a moment on the other end of the phone. “McBride is missing. No one outside the agency knows yet. We are trying to keep this quiet, obviously.”
Ryan pondered the man’s words. This changed things. Yes, it meant that any information Laura might have was more valuable. That was good; they could use that to their advantage. But it also meant that whoever was behind this whole mess was looking to tie up loose ends. Would they see Laura as one of those?
He could hear the reluctance in the man’s voice, knew that Stephens probably was not telling him the full story. “We don’t know. It seems that he, his wife, and daughter just drove away in a rental car sometime this morning.”
“So, what now?”
“We find the bastard, of course. And we put him behind bars for the rest of his life. But that isn’t enough. We need to find out who else is behind this. You know that. That’s why you’re there. And pregnant or not, you have a job to do. So, fucking do it.”
Ryan considered how much he wanted to reveal to this man, but the truth was – he needed a huge favor, and the only way to get it was the truth. Perhaps not all of it, but he had to take the risk. As much as the sudden suicide of Stephen McBride and now Gerald McBride’s disappearance bothered him, he needed Stephens’s help at the moment.
But something was not right. He felt it. Deep in his gut. That ‘golden gut’ that Grandfather had trained him to trust, the one that had saved his life and others. This time the stakes were higher. Higher than they had ever been, it was not just his life or other soldiers, it was hers – the one woman he loved – and his daughter’s. He had no other choice.
“I’m off the case, Stephens. In fact, consider this my resignation.”
“Don’t worry; I will talk with Laura Reynolds. I will find out what she knows, and then we’ll be in touch with you to make a deal. But until then, I need a favor.”
“And why should I do you any favor, Ranger? You just dumped a load of shit on my plate that I have to clean up.”
“I meant what I said, Stephens. I’ll find the truth, and I’ll get it to you. Not because it’s an assignment, but for the sake of my family.”
“What the fuck?”
This time there was no doubt that his little girl overheard those words as she woke with a scream. “See what you did, Stephens. I’ll call you back later. Once I get my daughter fed, and her mother and I have an opportunity to clear some things up.”
Ryan hung up the phone, shifted to put it back in his pocket, and managed to soothe his daughter just a tiny bit by rubbing her back, all at once. Maybe he could handle this daddy thing?
“Who the hell are you?”
He looked up to see the older woman standing at the end of the hall. If Stacey Reynolds had not been warm and welcoming before, she was openly hostile now. And he could not blame her.
“I’m Chloe’s father,” he needed to keep things simple until he had the chance to speak with Laura, to see where they stood and formulate a plan from there.
“I know that. I know the truth about what happened to my baby girl in London, too. And you’d have enough to answer for that alone. But I want to know who you were talking to on that phone. My daughter and granddaughter are not some ‘case.’”
Chloe shifted on his chest, and her cries increased in volume, but the woman stood blocking the hallway with her hands on her hips.
“Listen, Miss Reynolds,” from the deep scowl on the woman’s face, that was not the proper way to address her. But he doubted that Mom would have been welcome either. It might never be. His relationship with his mother-in-law was going to require some serious work.
“I need to take Chloe to her Mom for feeding,” he tried to get up from the rocker while still supporting his daughter’s tiny head. Maybe this fatherhood thing was not that easy, after all?
The woman came towards him, “Just give me my granddaughter. I’ll take her to Laura.”
“And what then? You’ll call the sheriff? Not even a corrupt one like Kerr wants to mess with the people I work for.”
“Worked for. Remember? Will they save your sorry ass now?”
The woman stood toe-to-toe with him. Though she stood almost a head shorter and was incredibly thin, she did not back down, would not be intimidated by his size or authority it seemed.
He liked her even more. So, this was where Laura got her spirit, her gumption as Grandfather would call it. He hoped that Chloe inherited it from these incredibly strong women who had withstood so much.
But that was not getting him anywhere at the moment. Chloe was crying louder, but Ryan did not like his choices. The idea of pushing this woman aside was as unpalatable as that of handing over his precious cargo.
“Mama, let Ryan through.” The idea of facing this man, of answering his questions was not something she wanted to face. But it would not get any easier, the longer she delayed. Perhaps it was best to get it over with and get him out of their lives.
But looking at the way he cradled their daughter tore at her heart. Laura had thought it was so simple. A one night stand with a man with superior genes, and she would have the baby she wanted. She had practically raised her younger sisters, so single motherhood did not scare her. And even once this man brought the hatchet down on her, she still had more in savings than many people earned in their whole lives.
Things turned out to be anything but simple. “It is Ryan, isn’t it?” She speared him with one of the glares that she had perfected early in her career, one meant to intimidate the most misogynistic of her colleagues.
Maybe it would have worked too, if the room had not started to spin around her. She gripped the wall to keep from falling.
She need not have bothered. In the space of a heartbeat, he had surrendered the baby to her mother, crossed the room, and scooped her into his arms. He carried her down the hallway to the bedroom and lay her gently back among the warm pillows and quilt. “Should we call Lupe?”
She shook her head, though that too made the room spin. Her mother passed Chloe to her, “Here, get her started feeding.”
Laura blushed as she pushed the flap of her nursing gown aside and brought their daughter to her breast. She sucked in a deep breath at the strength of the tiny baby’s suckling.
“I told you, like father, like daughter,” he chuckled as he held out a finger. Chloe turned her eyes at the movement, without ever releasing her mother’s nipple, the baby took her father’s thumb. “Give your mama a break, princess.”
If the man watching her breastfeed, taking in every suckle of their child, and all her bare skin was not embarrassing enough, her mother proceeded to raise the bottom of her nightgown and lower the maternity panties she wore. “Mama,” she protested.
“What? Someone needs to check and make sure you aren’t hemorrhaging. Would you rather it be your one night stand?”
She drew back at her mother’s harsh words, but that was how Stacey Reynolds had survived without a legitimate husband or the help of her self-righteous family, with three daughters to raise all alone, and working jobs that were demeaning and sometimes less than safe. At least, her mother was no longer forced to work two or three of them to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Her job in the computer factory was a far sight easier and safer than working the late shift in some convenience store that seemed to get robbed every other weekend.
But that look which she alternated between her daughter and this strange man must have been the same one that she used on those robbers. No wonder more than one of them had left without a dime. Laura wanted to slink away, as well. But it was time she paid the piper as Mama said, faced the music. And this was no sweet country ballad.
“Everything is alright, by the way. We should get you changed once you have finished feeding the baby. But the amount of bleeding is perfectly normal,” her mother pronounced as she pulled her panties up, her gown down, and covered her with the quilt.
Her mother stood at the foot of the bed, looking from one to the other of them before announcing, “I should call in. Let work know that I won’t make it tonight, that you had the baby.”
“That’s not necessary, Miss…” he began, but her mother’s look quashed his protest.
Laura wanted to laugh; her mother’s talents had been wasted on those menial jobs, that look would have been golden in the boardroom. “Ryan’s right, Mama. We’ll be fine.”
“What? Here alone with THAT man? Need I remind you, he lied to you. Fired you and took your job. And from what I just overheard in there, that’s not half the story. If you think that I’m gonna trust my daughter and granddaughter to…”
When her Mama got going, it was not easy to stop her, but Laura had learned how early on. A full-frontal attack, it was another of the corporate skills she had learned in a trailer park. “Mama, I know neither of us has good track records with men, but Ryan is Chloe’s father.”
Her mother humphed at that, but Laura was not being stopped. “I know that does not always mean much, but have you watched him with her?”
She dared to look directly at the man who had shared the most special night of her life, only to stab her through the heart the next morning. “I know that Ryan and I have some serious talking to do. Neither of us is without blame in this mess.” Her throat tightened around the truth of those words.
Then she turned back to face her mother, her best friend and sometimes worst enemy, the only person that knew the whole truth, or at least as much of it as she knew. “I built a career on reading and knowing people as much as the law. Every good attorney does.”
“And one thing of which I am sure, Mama – Ryan would never do anything to harm Chloe.”
Her mother looked from her to the man, then to the baby, and back again. Her shoulders slumped. Laura could tell that her mother was not entirely convinced, but she would concede, give the field over to her daughter’s wishes. “If you’re sure, sweetie? I’ll just be a phone call away.”
“Thank you, Mama.” She glanced sideways at the man once more, “I think Ryan and I should have a bit of time alone.”
Her mother laughed as she bent to kiss her daughter’s forehead and then her granddaughter’s. “Yeah, look how well that turned out last time.”
“No matter what happens between your daughter and me, Miss Reynolds. I think that it turned out pretty damned perfect,” the man boldly met her mother’s stare.
Stacey Reynolds nodded, “All I’ll say is you better damned well see that it does. For both of them.”
Those blue eyes that she had seen in her dreams hundreds of times since that night met hers. “Oh, that’s just what I intend. You have my word on that.”
And as convoluted as this mess all seemed at the moment, Laura believed him. He rose from the side of the bed next to her and saw her mother out as she finished nursing their daughter. She tried very hard not to overthink the situation. It was best if they both just came clean. Or that was as far as her plan got.
Ryan knew that Stacey Reynolds only wanted what was best for her daughter and granddaughter. He could see now where Laura got her fierceness, and he did not like being on the wrong side of it. But this was bigger than all of them; he had to remember that too.
“Look, Miss Reynolds, I’m sorry I can’t tell you more right now. But I meant it; I intend to do the right thing by both of them.”
The woman turned and nodded, looking him directly in the eye as if taking his full measure, “This has to do with McBride, doesn’t it?”
Ryan did not think it would compromise national security too much to confirm the obvious with a slight nod of his head.
Laura’s mother stared off into the night, “I always knew that job cost her soul more than it should. I blame myself. If I had been stronger, protected her better, then she would not have valued money and position so much. Enough to sell her soul to that man.”
“I don’t believe she did that, Miss Reynolds. There was never any evidence to suggest she knew anything about what was happening. Most of their senior executives didn’t.”
“Are they in danger? Will she have to go to prison?”
“As I said, there is no indication she knew enough to send her to prison. As for danger, we don’t know yet how much. But just in case, do me a favor, pack a bag for you and Mercy. Elena and her family too.”
“That bad?” her eyes widened as the depth of dangers hit her.
He did not want to frighten her unnecessarily, but he needed them prepared. “You could all be used as leverage against her.”
“Elena and her husband go on regular mission trips to Central America. I’ll suggest that now would be a good time for one. But as for me and Mercy, I have a Smith & Wesson with their name on it. And like Reba says ‘little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun.’”
She laughed and patted his cheek when she saw the look of shock. “This is Texas, and I was leaving my three little girls alone in a trailer at night. You’re damned right those girls know how to take care of themselves.”
She tilted her head towards the house, “But that one ain’t in much shape to do so right now. So, I’m leaving it up to you to do it. But trust me, if anyone comes messing with me or Mercy, we have a shoot first, ask questions later policy. I need to get to work, but I’ll call Mercy and Elena on the way.”
“Now, get that cute ass back in there and make things right with my daughter. There’s enough bastards in this family as it is.”
Her words could not have cut him any deeper. He dropped his head in shame and stared at the cold concrete porch, “I’m sorry. I knew better…”
Her laugh broke the cool night air, “Oh sweetie, didn’t anyone ever teach you that it takes two to tango? And I know that girl in there. When Laura wants something, nothing stops her.” She gave him another of those intense stares, “She could have done lots worse.”
He smiled and nodded his head as she walked in the dark towards her older model SUV parked in the driveway. Maybe, just maybe, he stood a chance with his future mother-in-law. But right now, he had his future bride to deal with. He turned back towards the house with resolve. He would untangle this mess, professionally and personally. His daughter was NOT going to be called a bastard.