Laura was feeling far less confident or hopeful when he came back into the room. She had spent those moments he was conferring with Mama, rehearsing what she would say. But no matter how she put it, the truth was she used this man. Used him to get what she wanted. Her only solace was that he had not been forthright with her, either.
“So, what is your name? Really?” The attorney in her went on the defensive. It was as good a tactic as any.
He crossed the room and climbed into the double bed next to them. “Ryan Paul Ranger is my real name. When I went undercover on this assignment, they had to change very little about my background.”
She nodded and looked at their sleeping daughter. It seemed they both had kept some pretty big secrets from one another.
“My turn. Were you on the pill?”
She blew out a long breath. This man was not an opponent she would want to meet in the courtroom. He cut straight to the chase with that one. “What law school?”
“Yale. After I finished the Naval Academy. But that is two answers, counselor, and you still have not answered my question.”
She tried to find the right words, but in the end, did what she had been taught was best – stick to a simple yes or… “No.”
He nodded, “You finally heard your biological clock ticking and wanted a baby. I don’t even need to ask why me.”
He brushed his finger lightly over Chloe’s little hand, and even in her sleep, their daughter reached for her daddy. “Maybe I should feel angry or used, but damn, looking at her, all I feel is incredibly blessed.”
She smiled at his answer, that at least was a beginning. “I take it you knew who I was in the pub that night, counselor?”
“Yes, in fact, I followed you from the office.”
She should have assumed that, perhaps, but had not. It made everything that happened seem so much more cold-blooded. But the other thing she had learned, never show weakness. That lesson was not learned at Stanford Law, but kindergarten in Sebida, Texas. Kids could be incredibly cruel when the biggest gossip in town was the fact that your parents’ marriage was not legal. “Why?”
His fingers gripped her chin, forced her head up, as those blue eyes sought hers. “It is not as bad as you think. I’d spent ten hours on a plane reading through both your McBride personnel file and the folder that the agency gave me on you. And honestly, sweetheart, you got under my skin.”
He broke their gaze for a moment and looked down at their child, the product of that one night stand. “We have a lot more in common than you think. I know how much that word hurts too. I got a black eye and was suspended on my first day in kindergarten.”
“Of course, the bully who called me a bastard got a broken arm for his troubles. I didn’t go back to school until I was sixteen and wanted to play football. By then, my mama figured between my size and the whispers from those kids who remembered what happened, I could handle myself.”
“Girls aren’t supposed to fight.”
“But you beat the hell out of that boy, didn’t you, sweetheart?”
Her eyes widened, “Damn, how much did those files contain?”
“More than you can ever imagine. Enough to fall in love with your strength and intelligence before we even met. I didn’t follow you expecting to…”
“Fuck my brains out and make a baby, counselor?”
He shook his head, “No, make love to you. I hoped you had felt the difference.”
Damned pregnancy hormones, shouldn’t they be better now that she had given birth? But she remembered that according to the books, they sometimes actually got worse. Although it was too early for post-partum depression, she was going to blame the tears on hormones anyway. “I thought I did, but then…”
“But then I disappeared from your bed, and walked into your office? Jerking the carpet right out from under you?”
She still could not meet his gaze, so she only nodded and turned her head into the pillow, hoping to dry at least some of those tears.
“You have no idea how incredibly hard either of those was. But I was pretty sure you knew nothing about what was happening, and at that point, I convinced myself I was doing you a favor, getting you out of the line of fire.”
She sniffled, “You might be right there. I have thought the same thing myself several times. Especially when it all came out, and they started freezing and confiscating everyone’s assets.”
“Yeah, about that…”
“So, that’s why you’re here?” She finally looked up and met his stare, preparing for battle.
“No, yes, sort of.” He fumbled over his words for the first time.
She should have honed in on this show of weakness, “But?”
“Since Stephen McBride’s suicide, Gerald has become a reluctant witness at best.”
“I thought he made a plea bargain, surely?”
“Oh, he agreed to plead guilty. But that’s about it. He won’t testify or provide any information on who else was involved. The agency has been trying to trace the money trail, but even that isn’t going so well.”
“So, they sent you here to clean up loose ends? See how much I really did know? Threaten me with jail and seizure of my assets too?” She asked the question though she already knew the answer.
“Sort of. I volunteered. When they started asking questions, I said I would come to speak with you.”
“Thought you’d charm your way back into my bed, counselor?”
He waved his hand, “Seems to have worked, counselor.”
She laughed, “But not as you expected, that’s for sure.”
“No, sweetheart, that’s for damned sure.”
Laura sighed; only one question remained to ask the witness, “So, what now?”
Ryan knew that his whole future and that of his daughter rested on the answer to her question. “I quit.”
“What do you mean, you quit?”
She shook her head, and once more asked the most profound question of them all. “Why?” The only one that ever mattered.
“We both know the answer to that one. Conflict of interest. I can’t do my job when my first loyalty is to you and our daughter, not the agency.”
It was time to come completely clean with her, and see if they could find some compromise that worked for them and Chloe. “I knew what I was doing was wrong that night. I knew that I was compromising myself and possibly the case when I went back to that hotel with you.”
She once more asked the obvious, “Why did you do it then?”
“That one goes deeper than you can imagine, sweetheart.” He shifted on the bed so that he lay parallel to them, his whole world. His arm rested under her neck, and his other hand lay on top of their baby. He could feel each of her breaths like a miracle.
Over the past nine months, Ryan had asked himself that same question thousands of times. The only answer that he had ever come up with made no sense to him. How do you say because “It felt so damned right.”
What kind of excuse was that? Sure, he had always been envious of his cousin. The Native American blood that ran through Rex’s veins, not only made him a skinwalker, but meant the moment he had met Jaycee he had known who she was, what she was to him. His mate. But Ryan was no skinwalker. It made no sense.
He stroked his little girl’s cheek. He could not look into Laura’s eyes. He did not want to see her reaction to his words. It was his turn in this charade of twenty questions. So he cut to the only one that mattered. “What are we going to do? I don’t think either of us wants Chloe growing up with the Big B-word hanging over her head like we did.”
He heard Laura’s heavy sigh, but he still could not bring himself to look at her. “You know I lied about that. I hadn’t planned on ever coming back to Sebida. I’m still not sure why I did. Or at least, why I stayed. Maybe it was because once I found out I was pregnant, I just wanted to be near Mama. Or that’s the best excuse I’ve come up with so far.”
He inhaled, and with that breath, drew up his courage to meet her gaze. It was more insecure than censuring. “I’m glad you did. But that’s not good enough, Laura. We need to do the right thing by her, by Chloe. You know how it feels when suddenly your security is ripped out from under you. I can’t imagine you’d want someone to find out the truth one day?”
He knew he was strong-arming her, practically blackmailing her into acceding to his plans, but he would make it up to her later. They’d have their whole lives for that. Right now, their daughter was what mattered more than either of them.
He could see tears gathering in those dark eyes that he had dreamt about for nine months. “So, what? We go off to Vegas and elope or something? How’s that gonna help? People in Sebida might be small-minded, but they ain’t stupid, they can do the maths.”
“Pretty, intelligent, strong, and funny. You’re all a man could want, sweetheart.” He dared to draw her closer and kiss the top of her head.
“I can get the people I work for to cover our tracks. A forged marriage certificate from some small European country that most of Sebida never heard of, let alone find on a map, should do the trick. But yeah, just to make sure, we do it right, legal. Vegas or wherever you want.”
“It’s probably best if we go to Mexico or maybe get Elena’s husband to do it in one of the countries they visit as missionaries. Don’t worry; he’s an ordained minister.”
“Sounds like a good plan, keep the details in the family, and as untraceable as we can.”
“But, you forget one small detail, counselor.”
“You don’t work for those people anymore. You quit. So, why should they help us out?”
“That’s where you come in, sweetheart. I might not work for them anymore. My first priority might be you and our baby, but that doesn’t change why I came here. To find out the truth. And hopefully, somewhere in that beautiful brain of yours is something we can use as leverage. To get them to help us with this little problem, and to keep them from seizing your assets.”
“And why exactly should I trust you? You lied to me, spent a night in my bed, then show up here prepared to bully me into submission? Maybe I’m better off handling this one on my own.”
His next words knocked the breath from her, “Gerald McBride is missing.”
“What? I thought he was on virtual house arrest awaiting trial?”
“I don’t know the details. Chloe started to cry, and your Mom came into the room before I could find out any more from my handler. Just that he drove off with his family this morning and hasn’t been seen since. They were supposed to announce the plea bargain tomorrow. So, you see, now the agency has even more interest in anyone who might know more.”
Laura was uncertain if this latest development in the ongoing drama that had become her life gave her more bargaining power or made her more vulnerable. Something about the way Ryan held himself bothered her, too. “What aren’t you telling me?”
She could almost see the gears turning in his head, “If you want me to trust you, then you need to be completely honest with me from here on out.”
His shoulders slumped, “I can handle the agency. But we have never been able to unravel who else is involved fully. Whose money McBride was laundering.”
He held her gaze for a long moment, “Stephen McBride had agreed to turn state’s evidence, to tell us everything. In exchange for a lighter sentence, served in protective custody, and a new identity when he was released.”
“Then why did he kill himself?” She sucked in a deep breath as it hit her, “He didn’t?”
“We don’t think so. The timing was just too suspicious. He agrees after lunch to talk and name names. But he wanted it all in writing and his attorneys to go over the deal first. He was going to give his full deposition the next morning.”
“But he was killed before he could. That means…”
“That they, whoever they are, have someone on the inside. Someone high up.” He paused for a moment, staring at Chloe, “The guard that was on duty that night was killed in a car accident three days later.”
Laura drew the baby closer to her. Chloe whimpered and fidgeted in her sleep. She knew the answer before she asked. She did not want to hear it, but she knew she needed to. “Are we in danger?”
The silence hung about them like a shade. “Without McBride, then whoever is behind this may want to clean up loose ends.”
Laura had not survived her childhood, risen to the top of the corporate world, given birth to her daughter, and come this far, just to die. For something she may or may not know. She had lived her whole life as a fighter, from that first moment of kindergarten when she had flattened the bully for calling her a bastard. She kissed her daughter’s head and swore that she would keep her safe, no matter what.
“Are you sure we can trust your people? The ones you used to work for.”
He was silent for an incredibly long time. Laura thought perhaps he was looking for another convenient lie.
“No, no, I’m not. I wish I could say I was. But there is a leak somewhere. Maybe that is within McBride’s defense team or the attorney general’s office, but it could also be within the agency.”
“Thanks for being honest with me. Even if that wasn’t what I wanted to hear.” She wanted to get up from the bed, take Chloe, and run. But where to? Besides, she was not in much condition to be on the run, all alone with a baby.
The hardest question of all for her was – could she trust him? He had already let her down once, more like pulled the rug from under her. Now he shows up here with this story just as she was giving birth. How could she know he was not the mole?
She studied him in the dim light and silence for a long moment. Chloe had gone back to gripping his finger in her sleep. He looked down at their daughter like the moon and stars set over her little head. Maybe that should have answered her question, but there was no guarantee. Perhaps it would be easier for him if she was out of the way?
But that was not what her gut told her. She had risen as far as she did by listening to those instincts, as much as her knowledge and talent with the law. She had known when to step on people and when to go around them – except once.
“Right before the London assignment, I confronted Stephen. Some land deals in West Texas did not make any sense.”
“What did he say?”
She chuckled, “Misogynistic bastard said for me not to worry my little ole’ head about such things. That my job was general counsel for a reason. If they wanted advice on business strategy, they would have hired a Chief Legal Officer instead.”
“What did you do then?”
“I considered taking my concerns to Gerald. These were worthless pieces of land, former oil fields mostly. But McBride Industries was paying way too much for them. I know there are new technologies that enable you to revive dry fields, but usually, it just isn’t worth it. Especially not for the price they were paying for this land.”
“Do you know who owned them?”
“Dead people, estates, and dummy corporations.”
“Why didn’t you take it to McBride?”
“I never got the chance. Three days later, McBride called me into his office. Before I could open my mouth, he told me that they were sending me to the London office for a few months. That he needed me to re-train on the complexities of European law post Brexit.”
“And you bought it?”
“I didn’t have much choice. Besides, my relationship with my fiancée had just ended. I was already living in a hotel room. I saw it as a chance to get away,” she stuttered over her next words, “to re-evaluate some things.”
“To decide if you wanted a baby?”
Laura kissed the top of Chloe’s head, “Oh, I knew that one already. It just made things easier.”
He laughed, “Yeah, I was too easy, wasn’t I, sweetheart?”
“That’s not what I meant.” She hesitated, but if she needed honesty from him, then it was only fair she gave it as well. “I had tried artificial insemination and IVF in Spain a couple of times already. There were more options in Europe and more privacy, too. No one needed to know what I was doing.”
“Were you aware that McBride had begun to headhunt for your position then?”
“No, but I guess that makes sense. So, they sent me to Europe to get me out of the way, while they looked for my replacement? Is that because I was asking questions? Or because my relationship with Stephen’s best friend had ended badly? Or just because I am a woman?”
“Or are those all related?” he asked. “And we don’t know for sure that those land deals have anything to do with money laundering and corruption. Maybe Stephen McBride did not like having his decisions questioned?”
“Especially by a woman?”
“Do you have any evidence? Records of the transactions? Emails? Anything solid we can take to the agency other than suspicions and one conversation with Junior.”
“My laptop has an encrypted file on it. That last morning, just before you came into my office that morning, I had received an email. I thought it must have been a mistake, that someone had cc’d me in accidentally. Especially since I was not privy to the passcode to unlock that file. But I downloaded it anyway. I was going to make some inquiries, see if I could get the access code, or at least find out why I had received it.”
“Might have been a very good thing I fired you when I did, sweetheart.”
“What? Questions like that might have gotten me killed?”
“Let’s just say that McBride’s life insurance company ain’t pleased.”
“So, what do we do then? If we can’t trust your agency, who do we trust?” She looked around, “And if you found me easily, then they can too. I’d kinda like to be around to see Chloe grow up.”
Laura put into words his deepest fears. But Ryan was not about to surrender the family, and yes, the love, he had just discovered. Not that easily.
“I won’t let that happen, sweetheart. You have my word on it.”
Her fingers reached out and brushed his cheek. He wondered why he had not realized his feelings sooner, but he supposed that ‘under my skin’ felt safer than the L-word. It still did; he definitely needed time to come to terms with that – on top of all the rest.
“I’m kinda getting used to the idea of Chloe growing up with the father I never had too. So, don’t think you can go all hero on us either, Ranger.”
Perhaps they both needed time to come to terms with this thing. And he had a good idea where. But first, he needed to deal with some things.
“We need to get away from here. Someplace safe and defensible. I have an idea, but need to make a couple of calls first.”
He did not want to alarm her more, but if they had any chance of making this work, they needed complete honesty. Reluctantly he added, “I spoke with your mother earlier; warned her that maybe she and your sisters might be safer getting out of town.”
“Let me guess, Mama pulled out her shotgun.”
“Not quite, but she may have mentioned a Smith & Wesson and how accurate Mercy is with it.”
“Mama made sure we all were.”
“That’s good to know, sweetheart, because if anyone gets through my outer perimeter, I’m counting on you to keep Chloe and yourself safe until I get there.”
“There won’t be much for you to wipe up. I might have been climbing the corporate ladder while you were a SEAL, but I can put one in ‘the sweet spot’ just as well as you can,” she boasted, and he believed her.
“I’m hoping it never comes to that. And it would be damned good to keep one or two of them alive to fill in some holes. But right now, you should get some more sleep before Chloe wakes you up to feed again in an hour. Let me make those calls. Then, we’ll talk some more while she feeds.”
“Elena and her family? I think it would be best if they went on another mission trip.”
He could see her eyelids were already drooping, but her mind was still sharp. “Your Mama thought the same thing,” he said as he kissed the top of her head. “She said she would call them.”
“I’ll need to get some money to them before we leave.”
“Assuming that the agency hasn’t already frozen your accounts after my last phone call.”
Maybe he should have waited to speak with Stephens until after they had spoken. But the truth was that he had only been thinking of one thing – that he never wanted Chloe to be called that word. But that call might have ramifications he had not considered at the time.
She laughed as she closed her eyes, “Then they are in for a surprise. I didn’t work for McBride Industries for almost fifteen years without learning a trick or two. Your former employer will discover that my accounts are far smaller than they had thought.”
“I think it is better if I don’t know anymore, for now, sweetheart.”
“Brains as well as brawn. That’s why I picked you.”
“Yeah, well, as long as you know right now, that this time, I am not walking away. You’ve had your last one night stand, sweetheart. And you owe me another baby. I missed your whole pregnancy,” his throat tightened over each word.
“Owe? I see I have some work to do on your negotiation skills, counselor. But we can talk about that once all this is over.”
“Damn straight; we will, counselor. But for now, get some rest.” He brushed a kiss across her head and his daughter’s as he slipped out of the room. He would begin with a quick reconnaissance while he grabbed his bag out of the rental car.
Ryan gave one more quick glance around the street. Thankfully, this place set at the major crossroads in Sebida. That meant it was well lit, at least. He had not seen anything suspicious as he unloaded his suitcase from the car. He had even dared a patrol around the full perimeter. It was to their advantage if the enemy knew his presence, maybe it would buy them some time if they knew it would not be as easy as they thought.
They? That was the biggest problem. It was hard to plan a strategy when you did not know who your enemy was. And he was playing almost blind here. The list of suspects for who was behind McBride was at least half a dozen major cartel players. But what concerned him, even more, was not knowing who he could trust within the agency.
Before he dealt with that, there was another call he needed to make.
A rather sleepy, gruff voice answered on the second ring, “What’s up, cousin?”
The fact that Rex got straight to the point reassured him. He did not like doing this – bringing danger to the doorstep of his cousin’s new family and Grandfather. But the ranch was one of the best defensible positions he knew, and that was part of it, he knew the land. If worst came to worst, that, as well as Rex and Grandfather’s help, would give them a real advantage.
But there was no denying; he was taking this mess back to where it all began almost a year ago. And that put people he cared about in danger.
“I need your help,” he cut to the chase as well.
“You have it.”
He chuckled, “Don’t you think you should hear what I need first?”
“Nope, because if you’re asking, I know it is important. Just give me a minute. I don’t want to wake Jaycee.”
Ryan played his options over in his head again as he heard his cousin shuffle about the room. He did not like this. Yes, Rex had special skills that could make a difference, if it came to that. And though Grandfather was no longer a young man, his knowledge of the land, his skills with a bow, and his mind for strategy had not dulled with age.
But Rex had a step-daughter, a young girl that though she was gifted, was still recovering from the trauma of losing her father, an event that set this all in motion. Add to that, the fact that Rex’s wife Jaycee was pregnant with their child, and it made them vulnerable. Not to mention, he was bringing two more weak points, though he knew that Laura would skin him alive if he said that.
“So, what do you need, Ryan?” Rex’s voice broke through his thoughts as the sun began to peek over the horizon.
“A place to lie low. But before you say yes, I need to tell you that it will bring trouble back to your doorstep.”
His cousin laughed, “Since when have the two of us together, not spelled trouble?”
“I would not ask if I could think of a better option. I mean with all that Angel has been through and Jaycee pregnant. But…”
How did he explain everything that had happened to him in the past twelve hours over the phone? He had shown up to interrogate a woman whose life he had destroyed in the name of national security, a woman with whom he had unprotected sex. Only to discover that she was about to give birth to his child. His bastard. What words covered all that?
“It’s complicated. But I need to bring…” He looked for the right words.
With Rex, it had been clear. Jaycee was his mate; they both knew that. But it had never been that straightforward for him.
Or had it? He thought back to how something on those pages had driven him to meet this woman outside of work. And yes, some something had almost forced him to take risks he never had before. That feeling, the one that he had been avoiding all those months – that, too, came into it all.
Now was not the time to think about that, though. Hopefully, he would have days and weeks of endless peace and quiet on the ranch in which to contemplate it all. Perhaps even seek Grandfather’s wisdom?
“I’m bringing my newborn daughter and her mother.” Was that simple enough? He would have time later to explain it all to his cousin and best friend.
“I would say congratulations, and I do. But it seems, as you say, things are more complicated than that.” Without a pause, Rex added, “Of course, you’re welcome here. I’ll tell Grandfather. Where are you? When can we expect you?”
Ryan did some quick calculations, “Sometime tomorrow, strike that today. This afternoon or early evening, maybe. If we don’t have any trouble. I’m in this small East Texas town called Sebida. So, it’s only a few hours’ drive. But Chloe was just born, and I don’t know how easy it’s gonna be to travel with her and Laura.”
His cousin sucked in a deep breath, “It must be damned bad if you’re traveling with a newborn baby and a woman that just gave birth. Remember, we know Sebida pretty well, it’s near where Grandfather’s brother Joe lived.”
“Yeah, I remember meeting him a couple of times when he brought Jack to the ranch.”
“That’s what I was about to say. The old man died a few months ago, but Jack retired from the Army and took over the casino his grandfather built. At least, until he can decide what he wants to do with the damned thing.”
“But that means he’s around there somewhere. And it sounds like you could use someone to ride point for you. I’m gonna text his number to you when we hang up. You know you can trust him as much as us. Hell, it’ll almost be like old times. The three of us making trouble for Grandfather.”
Ryan considered what Rex said. He hated involving anyone else in this situation. But he knew that Rex’s other cousin on his mother’s side was almost as well-trained as he was. And Rex was right. Having another gun on this trip might be a good idea.
“Alright, thanks. I’ll give Jack a call.”
“Okay, and we’ll get things ready here. It’ll be nice for Angel to be around a baby. Maybe prepare for her job as a big sister.” His cousin’s voice was steady as he continued, “And cousin, relax. We’ll get through this, whatever it is. Just the same as you helped us through the whole mess with Sean Riley.”
“Yeah, well, I should tell you, I’m bringing that mess right back with me.”
“Now, you do have me curious. But you can fill me in when you get here. Call Jack. And get your family on the road. The sooner you are all here, the better.”
“That’s what family is for, Ryan.”
Family. It had been a long time since Ryan had thought about family. The Navy and then the agency had been more his family for over a decade. But the truth was – Rex was right. He knew that he could trust his extended family – Rex, Grandfather, and even Jack, though they were not related by blood – when he did not know who he could not trust in the agency.
But he still had to deal with them, and the sooner he made that other call to Stephens, the sooner he could wake Laura and Chloe, and get his family out of this immediate danger. Yes, Stephens first, then a quick call to Jack.