Laura was groggy and disoriented as she came awake. Where was that loud cry coming from? Who had left their baby with her?
Then it all came back as she looked down at her red-faced daughter screaming to the top of her lungs. She was a mother. A mother. After all she had been through this past year, Chloe was finally here.
And so was her father. She still was not entirely sure how she felt about that. After planning for almost fifteen months to be a single parent, to have Ryan Ranger turn up on her doorstep as she went into labor, was confusing as hell.
Especially when she saw the bond that already existed between father and daughter. She barely remembered Ignacio Garcia, and her sisters did not at all. What little she did remember of the man, almost made her glad that he had been captured and deported.
He never worked. Of course, now she knew it was because he did not have the necessary paperwork. But it was not just that. He was with them all day, but still, her mother had to come home to cook, clean, and do the laundry. Because that was woman’s work.
She knew that Elena had contacted his other family in Mexico during one of their mission trips, but Laura had stopped her sister before any details of that trip left her lips. She had no desire to know, or even know about, the man who had sired her.
But Ryan Ranger was different. Well, the Ryan that she had spent that one beautiful night with, and the Ryan that took charge and delivered their daughter, the baby he knew nothing about. Of course, the cold bastard who showed up that morning in her office and fired her was not on her happy list.
She loosened the button that kept the flap of her nursing gown closed and shifted to release her breast, but that was not as easy as it sounded. Her whole body was sore. It felt like a Mack truck had driven between her legs. And the rather strong contractions, which Lupe assured her were not only perfectly normal but good, well, those were a bitch.
Two strong hands reached out and lifted her daughter. At first, panic rose along with bile in her throat. But she followed those hands up muscled arms to his face. His pale blond hair was darkened as it curled tight to his head. Obviously, he had taken a shower.
She could use one, too. Lupe and her mother had helped her to wash up after the birth, but she would almost kill for a long bath. Even a quick shower would do for now. He wore another dark t-shirt and jeans that were not stained with amniotic fluid. He looked way too good, especially as rough as she felt.
“Shhh, princess, Mommy’s getting your food,” he crooned in a low, comforting voice to the baby as he held her to his shoulder and softly rubbed up and down her back.
Yeah, he was definitely different than her sperm donor, or even most of her friends’ husbands. She certainly could not imagine Stewart Childress with his designer suits and Ivy League degrees cradling a baby with such care. Yeah, she was well rid of that one.
But did she trust Ryan? Did she dare? Did she have any real choice at the moment?
Freeing her breast, she got into a more comfortable position for breastfeeding Chloe. She noted that each movement pulled and tugged. While there were no sharp pains of those after-birth contractions, her whole body ached. To be fair, birth was more strenuous than any gym workout. Although it did little for her figure.
“Hand her to me.”
He kissed the top of Chloe’s downy head before passing their daughter to her. “You’ll be nice and full soon, sweetie.”
“Not likely. She is only getting a few drops of colostrum right now. It’ll be a couple of days before my milk comes in properly.”
She did not add – if it came in at all. She would not allow those thoughts to take root. Even if she knew that this stress made that more likely. She had wanted to breastfeed even when she planned to return to work. The thought of bottle feeding her only child seemed like such a defeat.
Like her Mama, she was more than just a survivor. She would not be defeated in this. Any more than she had been when the bottom fell out of her career. Thanks to this man. Well, not entirely, the McBrides had more to do with that, she supposed.
She got the baby settled and well attached to her nipple. It took a couple of tries to get it just right. But she managed without her Mama or Lupe’s assistance this time.
When that was accomplished, she forced herself to face other dilemmas. Raising her face to his, “So, what did you find out?”
She could tell he was hesitating, and she steeled herself for what was to come. Chloe must have sensed her unease because she broke her latch on Laura’s nipple with another piercing cry, and the whole process began again.
By the time she had their daughter settled again, he had sat on the edge of the bed. His wet hair looked like he had run his fingers through it a couple of times. But she gave him credit; he met her gaze head-on.
“We need to leave here.”
“I figured that much. When? How long do we have? Where will we go?” This time she kept her voice low and tried to remain as calm as she could. Breastfeeding her daughter was important to her, though perhaps not as important as staying alive.
“As soon as possible.”
She watched him bite the inside of his cheek and knew whatever came next was not good news.
“Stephens, my handler, isn’t willing to play ball. He’s threatening to send the sheriff to arrest you if I don’t turn you in.” He held her stare, “I don’t need to tell you how corrupt that man is, you grew up here. I can’t protect you if you’re in his custody.”
She shivered, and her eyes glazed over with tears. The man had stood trial for murdering a drug dealer when the man would not cut him in on his profits. Worse, he had been acquitted, despite overwhelming evidence. And even though the trial had been moved to another county. No, if she ended up in that man’s jail, she was as good as dead.
“How long do we have?”
“As soon as you can get packed, I’m gonna call Jack Greywolf. He’s my cousin Rex’s cousin on his mother’s side of the family. The three of us used to spend summers together on Rex’s grandfather’s ranch in the Hill Country.”
Ryan met her gaze, “My cousin Rex says Jack’s back in Sebida and thinks we can trust him to help. But I wanted to talk with you before I made that call, sweetheart?”
She nodded her head, though she did not trust her own judgment at the moment. This was all so surreal. Like a nightmare or horror movie. And she was the star. “How well do you know Jack?”
“As I said, Jack is my cousin’s other cousin,” he chuckled. “Yeah, I know how odd that sounds. But Rex is my cousin on his father’s side. Jack is his second cousin or something on his mother’s. His grandfather and Rex’s were brothers, though they were separated and adopted by different families when they were little boys.”
“The brothers found one another in their middle years, quite by accident, as both had become active in Native American issues. They got to comparing notes and realized the truth,” he explained.
“When we were in our teens, Rex, Jack, and I would spend our summers on his Grandfather’s ranch in the Hill Country. That’s where I want to take you. If you’re okay with that.”
“Why there? Won’t the agency, at least, know about this place? Even come looking for us there?”
He bit the inside of his cheek again. His tell, she would have to remember that. “Yeah, it is a possibility. But for one thing, I trust the sheriff in that county. And for another, I know those hills better than I know my own mind sometimes. Besides, if we go there, then I have Rex and Grandfather as backup.”
“And you’ll have another woman to talk to and rely on. Rex just found his mate. Jaycee has a little girl who is six or seven and is pregnant with Rex’s first child.”
“Then, should we be taking our troubles to them?”
“Taking it back to them. Jaycee’s ex-husband was Sean Riley. I don’t need to tell you that his death started all this.”
She frowned, “Then isn’t that even more reason not to?”
His shoulders slumped, “I won’t lie to you, sweetheart. I don’t like involving my cousin and his family in this mess, especially with Jaycee pregnant.”
“But we need someplace defensible and close. Even the few hours drive that it is between here and there is probably longer than you and Chloe should be traveling right now. You got any better ideas?”
Laura rifled through the shortlist of possibilities that she had already compiled for such an eventuality. The cabin that had been Mama’s bugout plan was almost eight hours away. As for the other options, those were not close enough, either. “Okay, so what do we do next?”
“Are you good with me calling Jack, sweetheart?”
It had been over twenty years since she babysat him. She was eighteen, and he was thirteen the last time. When he tried to put his hand up her t-shirt, she had told Injun Joe. The old man had forced Jack to apologize, and they had agreed that perhaps Jack was old enough not to need a babysitter anymore. But something told her that was a story best kept to herself.
She knew that, like Ryan, Jack had enlisted in the military. Though he was not the academy or officer type, the rumor was that he had been special forces, too. He had left the army after his grandfather’s death and come back to Sebida. She had even seen him, or she thought it was Jack, once or twice in the dinner, when she was feeding her country-fried steak and bacon cravings.
Yeah, she had no reason not to trust the man, especially if Ryan and his cousin trusted him. “Yeah, I guess so,” she nodded her head as she broke Chloe’s seal on her nipple. She winced as she tried to scoop the baby up and roll to the other side.
“Fuck,” he cussed. But almost immediately, he was by her side, taking their daughter in one arm and holding out the other for her to use as leverage to turn over. “I’m sorry, babygirl. Daddy should not cuss like that around you.”
Laura got herself settled, closing the flap of her nursing gown on one side and opening it on the other, as she held out her arms for the baby. “My first word was ‘ah, shit,’ and I turned out alright.”
“Ah, shit?” his brow shot up.
“Well, thankfully, it came out more like ‘watch it.’ So Mama wasn’t embarrassed all over town,” she smiled. “We can hope hers is ‘duck,’ maybe?”
He kissed Chloe’s smattering of hair again and handed her to her mother. Laura’s heart tightened a bit as she watched the two of them. “Yeah, well, I’m way behind on this father shit. Oh, damn. Sorry.” He sighed, “I’ll do better, I promise.”
As Chloe latched on to her other nipple, she winced. Who knew babies had such strong suction? “I don’t know, counselor, it seems to me, you’re doing a damned fine job.”
He seemed to blush at her words, but she could not tell between the soft glow of the bedside lamp and the sunrise that was beginning to filter through the sheers. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Let me call Jack. Then you need to tell me what to pack for the two of you. We should call Lupe too, see what advice she has to offer. I know you should not be traveling right now, but we don’t have any other choice. I’m sorry, sweetheart. Maybe I should not have quit or come clean with Stephens when I did. Perhaps I could have bought us some time if I’d…”
“Lied? No, Ryan. Don’t blame yourself. Any more than I can. We are just caught up in this mess.”
She forced the cobwebs from her brain. “Okay, you call Jack. I’ll call Lupe while Chloe finishes her breakfast.”
“Then, you can tell me what to pack while we wait for Jack.”
“There’s two bug-out bags with the essentials on the top shelf of the cupboard in the hallway. At the back, hidden behind some of Miss Esther’s Halloween decorations.”
His eyes widened at her words before he bent to kiss her forehead. “Damn woman, I knew I loved you for a reason.”
Laura’s mind was still reeling from those words. Though she doubted, Ryan meant them the way they sounded. Was that even what she wanted? She looked down at their daughter, who had once again fallen asleep on her nipple. Maybe? Maybe that was what they both needed. But right now, she had more important things to do, as she scrolled through her contacts looking for Lupe.
Ryan followed her instructions and searched on the top shelf for the bags behind a couple of boxes marked Halloween. Sure enough, he pulled out two rather heavy bags. One a sizeable pink shoulder strap bag that he supposed had Chloe’s things. The other was a much larger gym bag that felt incredibly heavy.
While he admired her forethought in packing them, there was no way Laura would have been able to reach or carry them. Let alone drive right now. He shuddered to think what would have happened to her and his daughter if he had not volunteered for this mission.
He dropped the bags by the front door, as he pulled out his phone and dialed the number that Rex had texted him. It was close to a decade since he had spoken to Jack. They had run into one another by accident at a joint DoD awards ceremony on Washington.
Before dialing, he quickly went over their options once more, looking for any viable alternative rather than involving his cousin, Grandfather, and Jack in this mess. But this was the best option they had, maybe the only one.
He pushed the button and waited.
“Damn it! This better be good. Who the fuck are you?” came the cranky voice on the other end.
“Hi, Jack, this is Ryan. I know it’s early, and I’m truly sorry for waking you, but Rex said I should give you a call. I’m in Sebida, and I’ve run into a bit of trouble.” There that should explain it, at least to begin with.
“Ryan?” He heard the confusion in the other man’s voice for a moment. “Ryan? Rex’s cousin? Oh, yeah. Long time no hear, buddy. So, what’s up? What you doing in Sebida?”
“Listen, I don’t have much time to go into all the details. Do you remember Laura Reynolds? She used to work as general counsel for McBride Industries. She’s from Sebida.”
The low whistle on the other end of the phone took Ryan by surprise. “No red-blooded man forgets Laura. She was my ‘babysitter.’” Jack said disparagingly, “And my first crush.”
“I saw her at the diner the other week. I would have gone over and renewed our acquaintance, but she looked like she had swallowed a beach ball. But, damn, that woman is enough to give a man a pregnancy fetish.”
Ryan cleared his throat. “Yeah, well, she just delivered MY daughter yesterday.”
Jack chuckled, “Guess I just stepped in a steaming cow patty. Congratulations, man. On your baby, and your good taste in women. I’ll mark her off my potential bride list.”
Ryan shook his head, “Potential brides? Never mind, I don’t have time. Listen, we’ve run into a bit of trouble here. I don’t have time to explain, but I need to get Laura and our baby to Grandfather’s ranch. Rex thought you might be willing to ride point.”
“But I need to be honest with you. This may be dangerous and isn’t strictly speaking legal. It isn’t illegal exactly either. At least not yet.” Ryan worried that he was revealing too much to the man that he had not seen in too long.
“Listen, let me put on some clothes. Laura’s living in our old teacher’s house a couple of doors down from the filling station and diner, right?”
He was reluctant to confirm their location, but he had to trust Rex and his gut. “Yeah.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. You can explain more then. Or at least as much as you can.”
“Alright,” why was he not surprised that Jack would have guessed national security was involved. Then again, the McBride case had been all over the news for months. He should have known that Jack would put one and one together quickly.
He hung up the phone and looked back towards the house. Chloe wasn’t the only one that could use a good breakfast. He hoped that the diner was open early, as most of these Mom and Pop places were in small towns. Not only could he feed their bellies before they hit the road, but maybe he could even lay a false trail.
If anyone came poking around, or more likely, when. He would bet that Stephens was even now typing up the material witness warrant. He was hoping that the man followed procedures and took it before a judge. If he used the Patriot Act to circumnavigate the law, then they might not have time to get Laura to safety.
He could not allow himself to consider what would happen if she ended up in that man’s jail. He was going to do everything he could to make damned sure that his little girl grew up with her mother. And her father.
Laura realized that she must have drifted off once again after chatting with Lupe. Something woke her. But what? She listened in the silence as she tucked Chloe underneath the quilt. She was careful to leave enough space around her tiny face for the baby to breathe.
She heard steps coming down the hallway. She listened closer — more than one set of feet. Too many nights alone in a run-down trailer, with sole responsibility for her younger sisters, had honed her survival skills.
Where was Ryan? Was he one of those sets of feet? Had she been wrong about him?
She clutched Chloe tighter and looked around the room for some way of escape or even a good hiding place, but trying to move was not easy. She was sore. Of course, she was sore. She had pushed something the size of a football out her vagina, just yesterday.
The door opened a crack. Laura reached for the drawer of the nightstand next to her bed and her Glock 19. She knew Mama loved her American made Smith & Wessons, but she had traded her ‘Made In the USA’ for an extra seven shots. She hoped she did not need them as she aimed at the door.
“Woooo, I’m really sorry. I was only thirteen, and those perky tits were my first fantasy.”
Laura eyed up the man as he stepped fully into her bedroom, followed close behind by Ryan, who was giving him a look that could kill.
The past couple of decades had been more than kind to Jack Greywolf. His dark hair might be much shorter than the long braids that had fallen down his back then. And he might have tiny lines around his dark eyes, but he had filled out his jeans. And his t-shirt from the way it stretched tightly across muscles, that while leaner than Ryan’s bulk, was still pretty impressive.
If it weren’t for Ryan, she might not be so quick to push his hands away these days. But that was not something she planned to reveal to either of them.
Ryan stared daggers in the man’s back. His hands were clenched tightly at his side, “I don’t think I want to know. At least not until this is all over with.”
Jack turned to him and smiled, “I was just a kid.”
“If you two are through with the pissing contest, what’s the plan?”
Ryan gave Jack one final glance before turning towards her. “What did Lupe say?”
“Besides not to go? But when I explained this was life or death, she said she would meet us at the truck stop west of Navasota. She wants to check Chloe and me out one more time. She would have come back today anyway. She’ll bring some more herbs to help me recover and to…” She blushed. How did she say bring her milk in?
Jack laughed, “Don’t worry, I promise not to sneak peeks when you feed the baby. Not that a man ain’t tempted mind you, but I like my face the way it is right now. I’m counting on my good looks to find me, my own woman. One of the old man’s stipulations in his will. Must say I was disappointed to strike you off my list when Ryan called.”
Laura laughed as she noticed Ryan’s hands clenched even tighter. “I’m sure you’ll survive somehow, Jack.”
She was reminded of the winsome boy who had been her first job. She was just thirteen, and he was eight. He had just moved in with his grandfather, and the man needed someone to watch him after school. Since she already picked her sisters up from the same school, Injun Joe had suggested she could make a bit of money by watching Jack for a couple of hours as well.
Sometimes she had taken them all back to their trailer and put in a video; others they had all gone to the casino for an afternoon snack. Occasionally they had even run wild around Sebida, causing what trouble they could, without getting caught, of course. She smiled, remembering that growing up in Sebida had not been all bad.
“I parked the truck over at the diner. Ryan and I made a big show of getting reacquainted in front of the gas pumps. I’m sure that Patsy will remember the whole thing and be happy to share the story with the sheriff or whoever else shows up.”
“Since I’m sure they’ll be looking for both your vehicles and maybe even my truck, I thought it might be a good idea if we left town in my baby.”
“Your baby?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah, a little project that I have been working on for a few years. I store her in an old garage I rent from old Clyde Ledbetter. You remember him, Laura?”
She snickered at the memory of the four of them, letting his pig out of its pen one day. After he had tried to hit on her Mama, who was working his garage at the time. “Oh yeah. I’m surprised that he would even rent you one.”
“Money’s tight for him since he broke his back and had to close the old place. So, renting me the space gives him a bit of money the government can’t trace,” Jack explained, looking sideways at Ryan.
“I never worked for the IRS or Social Security Administration anyway. And right now, I’m not in very good standing with my former employer. So, your secret is safe with me. Not that I’m all that happy about how many the two of you seem to share.”
She was half tempted to reassure Ryan that he had nothing to worry about where Jack was concerned, but then again, maybe a bit of jealousy might serve her purposes.
“It would be best, of course, if we could wait for dark, but Ryan doesn’t think that’s wise. I already have my own trouble with the illustrious Sherriff Earl Kerr. So, if we can avoid more, I’m all for that.”
“So, how about you take off in your rental towards Madison, Ryan? Maybe even run into Walmax and buy some formula or diapers or something baby-like. I’ll take Laura and Chloe in my beauty. And you can meet us in Navasota.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. How are you going to get them to ‘your beauty’ anyway? And what about a car seat for Chloe?” Ryan argued.
“I need to see Elena before we leave anyway. I can have her drop off her old car seat at Ledbetter’s garage, Jack. Then, I can change clothes with her. From a distance, we look alike. And since she is pregnant again, no one will even think anything about my tummy.”
“Okay, but what about Chloe? Do I take her with me? What do I do if she gets hungry and wants to feed?” Ryan conceded though the look on his face was anything but happy.
“No, Jack needs to take Chloe when he leaves. I think there is one of Tommy’s old Marine jackets in the closet. I hate doing it. But if we put it back, I’m sure Miss Esther would understand. If you hunch over, you should be able to hide her nicely, at least no further than Ledbetter’s anyway.”
Jack grinned, “You always were a good strategist. That sounds like a plan to me. What about you, Ryan? Trust me with your little girl and her Mama?”
“What choice do I have, old friend?”
“Okay, you two get the hell out of here while I nurse the baby one more time. Ryan, make me another cup of that nasty tea Lupe left, while I call Elena. And bring me the gym bag out of the closet, please.” She issued orders to the two men as naturally as she once had to her legal team.
No, she might have been holed up in Sebida for her pregnancy. Still, as Jack had reminded her, she had always been a damned fine strategist, whether playing tricks on the fine upstanding citizens of Sebida for payback for some slight to her family, or in the boardroom.
And this time, she had something even more precious than revenge or money and status to fight for – her life and the life of her child. And who knows maybe even a future with her daughter’s daddy.
If not, Jack was looking for a wife. As if.