The van had hardly pulled to a full stop before the back double doors were thrown up. It was not that late, but it was already dark. Nonetheless, the greeting party was out in force, and they were all talking at once.
The little girl that Ryan barely recognized bounced into the cabin of Jack’s van, “Can I see the baby, please?”
“Angel, let them get out. They’ve been on the road for hours, and I’m sure that they need to stretch their legs, get something to eat and drink, and wash up.” His cousin did his best to curtail his step-daughter’s enthusiasm. “They’re gonna be here for a while. You’ll have plenty of time to see the baby.”
But Laura had already pulled the blanket back from their daughter, who was fast asleep once again. “Her name is Chloe.”
“She’s a pretty bird baby,” Angel reached out and gently ran her finger down his daughter’s cheek. Chloe woke instantly and turned her head without a cry. The girls stared at one another as if sizing one another up. As if silently communicating the secrets of the universe to one another. Secrets too deep or profound for mere adults to comprehend.
Jaycee stepped forward and drew her daughter out of the van. “As your Daddy said, Ryan and his family will be staying with us for a while. And I am sure that they won’t mind you helping out with Chloe now and again.”
Ryan could sense a new peace and acceptance that had not been in the woman, the last time he had seen her, almost ten months ago. She held out her hand to Laura, “I’m Jaycee Ranger, Rex’s wife.”
“I’m Laura.” Ryan was surprised at the uncertainty and insecurity that he heard in Laura’s voice as she took the other woman’s hand. Although he supposed this situation was a bit overwhelming. It brought out his protective instincts as he stepped closer to his woman.
Angel giggled and tugged at Grandfather’s arthritic hand as he stepped closer to the van. “His bear growled at Mommy.”
The old man smiled and nodded, “Welcome to our home. I am Raymond Greywolf, but most people just call me Grandfather. I would be pleased if you would too, my daughter.”
Ryan saw the tears that gathered in the corner of Laura’s eyes. He could barely remember his maternal grandfather, and of course, since he never knew who his father was, he never had a paternal one. In many ways, this man had filled that roll in his life, even though they shared no blood bond.
Grandfather gripped his shoulder and squeezed surprisingly hard, “I am glad you realize that now, my son.”
He saw the shocked expression on Laura’s face. He could only imagine what she must be thinking of their seemingly one-sided conversations. Maybe he should have spent some time on the trip explaining it all to her.
“That might have been a good idea, son. She would not be questioning our sanity or hers, if you had,” Ray grinned reassuringly at Ryan’s mate, who looked back and forth between them all, as if she were trying to come up with an escape plan.
“You are perfectly safe here, my daughter. But I do think it would be best if those explanations waited until we were inside. These hills can get cold at night, especially for a new baby. May I take her while Ryan helps you into the house?” He smiled reassuringly.
Laura’s eyes sought his for assurance. Ryan nodded his head as he reached for his baby girl. Grandfather was one person that he would trust with her little life. That was why they came here. He kissed Chloe’s head and passed her to Grandfather. The man accepted his daughter, and he felt some energy, something unexplainable course through them.
The man closed his eyes for a moment, “Yes, a guardian, like her father. But in another spirit form. Prophesy. New beginnings. And adventure. You are falcon child, Chloe Ranger.”
He opened his eyes and looked first at Ryan and then Laura, “You have done well, my children.” Then he turned and, with Angel skipping beside him, walked towards the house.
Ryan did not need to be able to read the thoughts of others to know what was inside Laura’s beautifully brilliant head as he scooped her into his arms and followed the man. “I’m sorry. I should have prepared you for all this. We’ll talk just as soon as I get you inside.”
Jaycee and Rex caught up with them. The other woman reached out her hand and took Laura’s with a smile, “I understand. It takes some getting used to, but I promise Raymond Greywolf is the best man I have ever met.”
His cousin nuzzled his wife’s neck and pouted, “I thought I was, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”
“Well, Grandfather has a headstart on you. Something to be said for age and experience.”
Rex laughed and rubbed his wife’s pregnant belly. “I’m not arguing the experience, darlin.’ But don’t forget the value of more youthful stamina.”
“Be good, or you’ll scare the poor woman, even more, Rex.” Jaycee smiled an apology or perhaps a look of understanding to Laura as she swatted her husband’s hand away.
Jealousy streaked through Ryan. How much he had missed – her whole pregnancy, the first nine months of Chloe’s life really. He pushed open the front door and carried Laura inside. But now was not the time to dwell on that. Right now, they had more pressing matters to attend to. Like keeping his family safe… and straightening a few things out.
Which might be a top priority considering how incredibly quiet Laura had gotten in his arms.
Overwhelmed. That was the only word to describe it. Outside of her family, the only places where Laura had ever managed to get by, in terms of peopling, were school and corporate offices. And there, she had succeeded mostly by barreling ahead of everyone else. Overwhelming them before they could her.
That did not seem right here, with these people, in this situation. They were opening their home to her and her daughter. Putting their lives and families at risk. Yes, for Ryan’s sake, sure, but also for theirs. Having grown up the little bastard girls in Sebida, it was not something she was either familiar or comfortable with.
Except for Injun Joe. He had always been kind to them. Not just giving her that first job, looking after Jack, or feeding her and her sisters after school at the casino, but the way he treated them like they were equals, people of value too.
She looked at the older man from beneath her lashes, trying not to stare. He looked different than Joe, but she could see pieces of his brother in him, too. Still, things were weird here. With him. Like he was carrying on one-sided conversations or even reading Ryan’s mind. Joe had not been like that or Jack, either for that matter.
And Ryan’s cousin? Rex, that was his name. She could see the family resemblance between him and Ryan much more than between Rex and this old man or Joe or even Jack.
The woman seemed nice enough. About her age, maybe a bit older. She had to admit it would be good having another woman around, especially one who was an experienced mother, especially if they were staying here for a while.
But her little girl seemed as strange as the old man. Maybe she just imagined it all? She had just given birth a little more than twenty-four hours ago. Her hormones were everywhere. She was already sleep-deprived. Add in the whole McBride mix, was it any surprise that she was overreacting? Reading things into people or situations that were not there.
She clung tighter to Ryan, even as he lowered her to the couch. She looked around; the house was rustic but comfortable. A log cabin but not one of the pre-fab kind or those pseudo-modern designers showcase monstrosities. No, this place felt genuine as if it might have been built by loving hands.
“That is because it was, my daughter.”
Laura could not stifle the gasp of shock to have the man answer her as if she had spoken the words aloud. She shook her head, maybe she had.
“No, child, it is just a bit of ancient magic, the old ways that are left in me.” His smile was kind and reassuring, even if the idea of this man or anyone running around in her thoughts was not.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” she scrunched closer to Ryan and held tighter to his hand. The old man held her baby in his arms as he rocked back and forth in a chair that looked older than he was.
“I’ll take her now. Thanks,” she held out her arms. She would feel better if her daughter was with her or Ryan.
Ryan’s cousin and his wife, she was still having trouble remembering names, sat on the larger couch across from them with the strange little girl. The stone fireplace cast a soft glow on the whole scene. She looked around, where was Jack?
“My nephew is on the phone with his friend. He will come in when they are finished. He has updates.”
Laura felt her throat tighten, her muscles tense. She turned to Ryan. She wished this mind-reading crap were real. Then she could plead with him to get them out of there, but all she could do was try with her eyes to convey her fears.
Those were not helped at all by the older man laughing. “You should have spoken with your woman before you arrived, my son.”
The whole thing got more surreal as the front door opened, and Jack walked inside. The look on his face told Laura that things were about to get worse. Maybe it was a good thing that someone else was holding Chloe. “What is it, Jack?”
But Jack was looking back and forth between Ryan, Rex, and the old man. “Hey, over here, Andrew Jackson Greywolf. Whatever you have to say, you fucking say it to me. That’s my family, my Mama and sisters. And I’m the one you need to deal with.” Laura found some of that old spunk inside her muddled brain, when she needed it the most.
Then it hit her. She raised her hand to cover her mouth as she looked at the other woman, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have cussed around your daughter.”
Ryan’s cousin just laughed, “It’s alright. You can’t raise kids in this world without them hearing that shit.”
Even as upset as she was, Laura had to smile at the way the man’s wife elbowed his ribs hard enough to make him humph. “I’m sorry, truly, I am. It’s just that…”
The other woman smiled, “Such misogynistic bullshit gets to me, too. It’ll be nice to have another woman, another attorney, to help me try to educate the neanderthals.”
The old man cleared his throat, “Not all of us, daughter of my heart.”
“I’m not that bad, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, you know that. And whether or not, my cousin needs a lesson in your Feminism 101 or not, I think it needs to wait until we hear what Jack has to say,” the man added.
Dammit, she needed to remember his name. Rob? Randy? It was another R-one. Rex. That was right, Rex. She nodded her head, “I agree. Jack, who was on the phone, and what did they say?”
Laura did not like the way that Jack shifted nervously from foot to foot. As a little boy, that usually meant he was hiding something. And she tried her best to ignore the way his eyes kept shifting between her and Ryan, as if pleading for the man’s help. But as Rex said, she could read him the riot act later about that misogynistic bullshit, and she would. “The truth, Jack.”
“That was my friend Reb.” His eyes once more shifted to Ryan’s before he continued, “I don’t want you to worry, Laura. But your Mama and Mercy have not made it to the casino.”
“Shit,” she cussed again. Then sought the other woman’s eyes in apology.
“Did he say anything else, Jack?” The shuffle that Jack was doing with his feet told her the answer before he opened his mouth.
“As we were talking, I could hear the police band radio we keep in the office in the background.”
Her heart pounded even faster; the room began to spin. Only Ryan’s arms wrapped about her shoulders kept her upright. “And?” Ryan’s deep baritone voiced the words she could not.
“There is an all-points bulletin out for Mercy. She shot the sheriff.”
Laura fought back the fog. She could not have heard Jack right. This was too surreal. All of this was a fucking dream. That was it. Pregnant women had weird dreams. The past twenty-four hours were just that. Like that silly season of Dallas, she would wake up in the shower, and none of this would be real. Except for the broad shoulders against which her head rested. Those she would not mind being real again.
“What do you mean, Mercy shot the sheriff? Earl Kerr? What did your friend have to say?”
Jack shook his head and met Laura’s eyes once more. “I’m sorry, I don’t know much more than that. I called Reb; just to check up on things. He told me that your Mama and Mercy had not arrived yet. We were talking about whether or not he should go looking for them. When I heard Kerr’s voice in the background.”
Ryan’s arms tightened about her, and he looked down into her face as he spoke. “If he’s issued an APB, that means she is not in his custody. That’s good news, sweetheart. We have to hold onto that.”
Somehow she found the strength to nod at Ryan’s words. However, scant reassurance they were at that moment. She looked back at Jack, “What did he say exactly, Jack?” She was not sure where she found the strength even to form the words.
“I couldn’t hear everything, and Kerr was not making much sense. He said that Mercy had shot him. But what I don’t get was, he was talking about some Ninja on a motorcycle that knocked him out. The good thing was he said he had been out cold for almost two hours. That’s a helluva a headstart for your sister.”
“Maybe she called your Mama? Maybe Stacey came and picked her up, and they’re together?” Jack looked at her hopefully, “Heck, Reb hung up the phone on me suddenly. Said he would call me back. Maybe they had made it to the casino?”
That was an awful lot of maybes when the truth was that they had no idea what was happening. She turned to Ryan, “We have to go back. We have to go back to Sebida. Now. Or call your government contacts. I’ll turn myself in.”
Ryan shook his head. He knew he had to argue with her, but he also knew that she was going to hate him for it. But he could not let her do it. He knew that she loved her mother and sisters, but they needed her more now. Chloe and yes, him too.
Before he could open his mouth, the other woman was across the room. She knelt in front of his woman, gathered Laura’s hands in hers, and the women’s eyes met as she spoke. “Sweetie, I know you’re worried about your mother and sister. But you can’t go anywhere right now.”
Laura shook her head in denial, and massive tears that tore out his heart escaped her eyes. His mate was a strong woman. She did not cry easily.
“You just gave birth. Then you travel several hours in the back of a cramped van with a newborn.” Jaycee reached up and wiped away the tears, “This is life and death, Laura. Not just your sister’s, but yours and that baby too.”
“Right now, we don’t have enough information to go on. To make that kind of decision.” The other woman paused and squeezed Laura’s hands tighter.
“All jokes about Feminism 101 aside, I have discovered the hard way that we all need to rely on other people sometimes.” Jaycee smiled up at him, “And one thing I can promise you is that this man is one of the good guys. He helped us out of a load of hurt. It doesn’t make you weak to lean on him a bit, right now. To lean on any of us.”
Laura started to shake her head in denial, but Ryan had forgotten that this woman was every bit as strong, determined, and competent as his own. Jaycee proved that once again as she took charge of all of them.
“Grandfather will watch our girls. Rex, you and Jack clear out the van and try to find out what the hell is going on.”
She looked back at the two of them, “And I know just what you need. A shower. A nice warm shower. I’ll get you and Ryan set up. Then I’ll make us all something to eat. Hopefully, by then, we’ll know more. And can make some rational decisions. But no one can think clearly when they’re dirty, hungry, and tired.”
Jaycee turned to him, “Pick her up and follow me.”
Like all the others, he knew when it was best to follow orders. He was rewarded when Laura closed her eyes and rested her head against his shoulder.
Jaycee opened the door at the end of the hallway. She rummaged through the cupboards and pulled out a couple of big bath sheets as well as smaller towels and wash clothes. “I’ll just grab one of my nursing nightgowns, for now, sugar. You can deal with going through your stuff later.”
“I’ll leave the nightgown outside in the hall, Ryan. Why don’t you get the two of you undressed and into the shower for now?”
Laura lifted her head and protested, “No, Ryan can help Jack and your husband. I can manage on my own.”
He was prepared to argue, but once again, the voice of feminine reason beat him to it. “No, you can’t. You should not be left alone right now.” She waved her hand at her own distended belly, “And right now, I’m not in any shape to manage you if you fell. So, enough with the false modesty. I’m assuming that if Ryan is that baby’s daddy, then he’s seen it all before.”
He loved the way Laura bit her lower lip and looked down at the mild rebuke. She might not argue with Jaycee, but he knew one was coming the moment that door closed.
And he was right, “Put me down and turn around so I can get undressed.”
He lowered her to the floor but did not release her. He kept one hand firmly wrapped around her waist as he bent to lift the bottom of the dress up. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I thought that would be obvious, counselor. I’m undressing you like the woman said. Showers generally work best that way.” Before she could get her next words out, he had wrestled the damned thing over her head.
The white bra was unsnapped by the time that she managed, “I can get the rest. And I need to…”
“If you say one word about god damned corporate team-building exercises, I swear I’ll knock that smirk right off your handsome face.”
Ryan smiled, “So, you do think I’m handsome?”
“Quit fishing for compliments. I’m too tired and worried to deal with it right now. And turn around.” Laura demanded as she reached out and held on to the lavatory for balance.
He knew he could argue, but sometimes it was better to give your opponent a bit of ground. He turned around and focused on adjusting the taps on the shower. Then he began to strip off his clothes. He kicked off his shoes, had his shirt off, and his jeans unbuttoned when he heard her gasp.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Like I said, counselor, showers work best when you are naked.” He turned to face her and pushed his jeans the rest of the way down his legs to pool at his ankles. He was not sure if the bright red in her cheeks and down to those fuller breasts was because she sat on the toilet with her white cotton underwear around her ankles or the fact that his cock was half hard.
He kicked his jeans aside, “Are you finished?” Damn, he loved that blush, as Laura nodded her head without ever meeting his gaze. He lifted her in his arms and stepped into the tub, lowering her to her feet as he picked up the soap.
She tried to turn around and reached for the bar, “I do know how to wash myself, counselor.”
“I never doubted it, sweetheart, but would you deny me the pleasure of exploring your new curves?”
Her eyes flamed as they met his, “You’re damned straight I would. My little sister and Mama are missing. We are on the run from god knows who. And you’re thinking about sex? That’s sick.”
“Did I say sex? Do you think I’m gonna molest you in the shower now? No, but need I remind you, counselor, that your little plan denied me the pleasure of watching my child grow inside of you. I never even got to feel my baby move. So, is it so fucking wrong for me to see a bit of those changes now?”
She shook her head, and drops of water flew from her wet hair, “But you’re…”
“Hard? Erect? Damn it, woman, you think I have jack shit control of what my body does? How it reacts to the woman I love? The mother of my child? Well, I don’t. But that does not mean I’ll ever pressure you for everything.”
He bent until his forehead rested against hers. He was pretty confident that some of the water cascading down her cheeks were tears. “I know that right now, you’re in no shape physically, mentally, or emotionally for anything. I just want to look at you, hold you, and be there for you, sweetheart. Will you let me? Please?”
He was sure now that those were tears because they ran faster, there were more of them. “But I’m disgusting.”
He hoped like hell he was not blowing his chance with her as he stepped forward and rubbed his now fully erect cock against her thigh, “Exhibit A, counselor. Seems pretty hard evidence to the contrary.”
She chuckled, though he heard how strained it was, “Just get on with it.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Ryan smiled as he lathered those breasts. He noticed that not only were they considerably large, but there was a road map of blue veins just beneath the surface. Her nipples puckered, and he thought he heard her moan. He lifted the showerhead from the holder on the wall on rinsed her.
Laura kept her eyes closed, perhaps so she would not have to see his raging hard-on. Damn it; he might need a few minutes alone after he got her and the baby settled tonight.
Her nipples tightened even more as the warm water hit her breasts. He almost lost his mind when he saw a drop of thick yellowish liquid appear at the tip. Laura lifted her arms, trying to cross them over so he would not see.
“Fuck,” he cursed. He wanted like hell to drop his knees, to suckle as he had watched his daughter do. He knew now was not the time, but he’d be damned if he was letting it go to waste. His finger collected the single drop and brought it to his lip. The taste was not like milk at all. Sweet, more like the honey that it resembled.
“Colostrum. It’s called colostrum. My real milk won’t come in for another day or two. If it does…” He heard the catch in her voice at those words and drew her into his arms once more.
He lifted the showerhead back into place and just held her for a long moment as those tears burst forth. He had read enough in those books to know that her hormones were all over the place. But these were exceptional circumstances. Most new mothers were not on the run for their lives with their babies, fearing for their family’s safety, and with their whole lives uncertain.
He wanted to tell her everything would be alright. Hell, he wanted to play the hero and make things okay. But he had learned on his first SEAL mission that they were no heroes in this world. Things were never as simple as black and white. And sometimes even innocent women and children got hurt.
So, he did the only thing he could. He held her under that shower while she cried. Until the water got cold. Not that that helped with his raging hardon very much. But when her hiccups began to lessen just a bit, he picked up the bottle of shampoo, lathered her hair, and rinsed it as quickly as he could. Then he grabbed that bar of soap and promptly finished the rest of the job he had begun earlier.
He lifted her too quiet body from the shower. That worried him even more. He knew she was going into shock. He wrapped her in that extra large bath sheet and did his best to do the same for her hair with the smaller towel. He was relieved when she took it from him and, with a tight smile, did the job herself.
He sat her back on the toilet and reached back into the hall. He found a nightgown that Jaycee had promised but also another pair of underwear and a pad, though this one was not as thick. Modesty and embarrassment were forgotten as he did his best to help her dress.
He quickly toweled himself off and reached for his jeans. He cursed as he tried to pull the zipper back up. The smile on her face at his discomfort offered him a tiny sliver of hope, “Problem with your exhibits, counselor?”
“Nothing I can’t handle myself later, counselor,” he teased as he lifted her back into his arms and opened the door. “But first, I’m taking you to bed.”
She rested her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes, “I wish that were as interesting as it sounds.”
He kissed her forehead, “We have a lifetime, darlin.’” And he hoped like hell that was a promise he could keep.