Never in her whole life had Laura felt so weak, so confused, so vulnerable. She knew it was wrong. Cursed herself for not finding her big girl panties and pulling the damned things up to her neck. All she could seem to do was lean against him, and rest her head on his shoulders as he carried her down the hall.
She wasn’t sure where they were going, didn’t even know how he knew where to take her, but he opened a door down the hall. He rested her on her feet, but he kept one arm wrapped about her the whole time as he leaned down and pulled backed a thick woven blanket in red, black, and not-quite-white. Her hand caressed its roughness.
Ryan smiled at her as he settled her back against the pillows and pulled the bedclothes up over her. “Grandfather supports a lot of Native American artisans. He helps the old woman who made those to run classes for young people. So, traditional arts, crafts, and their heritage aren’t lost.”
She was too tired to do more than nod. It was a bone-tired of not just body, but mind and spirit. But Laura knew it was a luxury she did not have right now. Her Mama and sister needed her. She should not be lolling about in bed. She should be on the road back to Sebida.
“Knock, knock,” the soft feminine voice called from the doorway. Jaycee came to sit on the side of the bed. Her husband was right behind her, carrying a tray of something that smelled surprisingly good. “I brought you some food. It isn’t much, just some chili and cornbread. But it should be enough to fill you up before bedtime.”
Laura started to shake her head, but Ryan took the tray from his cousin and sat on the bed next to her. He had managed to shove two spoon fulls into her mouth and a sip of water before her muddled brain even realized it. “I am capable of feeding myself, counselor.”
She wanted to smack that grin off his face as he passed her the spoon, “I’m glad to hear it, counselor.”
Jaycee chuckled as she sat down on the other side of the bed, “Oh, this is gonna be good. There ought to be a law against two attorneys marrying one another.” Her face suddenly darkened, but her husband was there. Rex gently squeezed her shoulder and smiled down at her.
Then Laura remembered, this woman was Sean Riley’s ex-wife. Not only had the man been a friend and business associate of her former boss, Gerald McBride, but he was also an attorney. If she remembered correctly, so was his wife. Perhaps that explained the look the other couple shared.
Another bite was shoved between her lips, and she gave Ryan one of those looks. “If you don’t want me feeding you, then do it yourself.”
She wanted to argue. Hell, she had spent her whole life defending one thing or another. That was why she had become a lawyer. To right the world’s wrongs. Then she had seen the money she could make, been seduced by the status, and justified it all in the name of doing what was best for her family. Look what that had got her.
“He’s right. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but you need to eat. You have to take care of yourself if you’re gonna take care of that baby,” Jaycee reached over and gently squeezed her hand with a smile.
The knot rose in Laura’s throat, threatening to block not just the food but air as well. Chloe. Her baby. Her daughter needed her. Needed her to eat, drink, and sleep so that Laura could make milk to feed her.
But her baby sister needed her, too. She was alone. On the run. God only knew where. And, she had practically raised Mercy. At five, she had changed as many diapers as Mama had.
And Mama? She must be going crazy now. The woman had lived her whole life for them. Done whatever it took to keep her family together. But they weren’t now. Her girls were scattered, and it was all Laura’s fault.
“Stop it.” It was not Ryan’s voice, but the other woman’s. “This is not your fault. None of it. It is McBride’s, and whoever else is behind this crap.”
Laura shook her head as tears fell again. She never cried, and here she was doing it in front of strangers. God damned hormones. “No, if I hadn’t…”
The woman reached out, took her shoulders, and shook her gently, “Don’t. That is a rabbit hole you can’t afford to go down. I know that.”
The woman sighed, “Life doesn’t come with crystal balls. When we make decisions, we never know where they will lead. And the best that any of us can do is to own our shit. But that does not mean being the dumping grounds for other people’s as well.”
“You took a job, a good one, with what seemed to be a top firm. You worked your butt off and blazed trails for other women. How were you to know what the McBride’s were doing?”
“Hey, can I interrupt?” Jack asked from the doorway. “Someone is a bit hungry. And I’m afraid Grandfather and I are a bit lacking in the equipment to feed the little lady.”
Laura held out her arms. Her daughter felt so incredibly right in them, but the burden was intense. Would she have to choose? Her child’s life or her sister’s? How could she? Fresh tears sprang to her eyes as she drew her baby towards her chest.
Thankfully, Rex and Jack felt a sudden need to converse quietly at the other end of the room. That might have had something to do with the look that Ryan gave them both as he helped her to find a comfortable position to nurse their daughter.
Once he had her settled, Ryan cleared his throat. “Any more news, Jack?”
The man turned around as he nodded. He and Rex came to stand at the foot of the bed, “Yeah, Reb called back a couple of minutes ago.” He looked Laura in the eye, “Your Mama is with Reb. She made it to the casino.”
Laura closed her eyes as relief washed over her. That was something, right? “And Mercy? Do we know any more about my sister?”
“Not much. Your Mama told Reb she had no idea who the Ninja on the bike was.” His eyes shifted to Ryan and then back to her, “But he hung up on me again. He said your Mama was on the phone to someone, and he thought it might be Mercy. You know she would not go anywhere with just anyone, right?”
“I hope so, Jack. Where are my bags?”
Rex brought them from the corner of the room and sat them by his cousin’s feet. “Ryan, grab the phone out of the front pocket of my bag,” Laura commanded. “Mama will call me when she knows more.” Or she hoped so at least.
“And when she does, we will have a better idea of what we are dealing with. Until then, I’m getting these guys outta here, so you and that baby can eat and sleep in peace,” Jaycee smiled reassuringly at her.
Yeah, this woman had attorney written all over her as she dragged her husband and Jack from the room. “Ryan, let us know if you need anything. Otherwise, we’ll catch up over breakfast tomorrow.”
He nodded as they all disappeared down the hall. Laura broke Chloe’s seal on her nipple, and Ryan took the baby, helping her to roll over at the same time. He even changed her diaper while Laura forced a few more bites of the chili down. As good as it was, and as hungry as she should be, she did not have the energy or will to eat. She moved with rote for her daughter’s sake.
Ryan handed the baby back to her and took the tray. “I’ll take this to the kitchen, sweetheart. You get some sleep.”
She started to shake her head as she felt the strong pull of the baby nursing. “Not until I hear from…” were the last thing she remembered as exhaustion won.
Ryan watched over his girls until Chloe’s little mouth stopped sucking and came off her mother’s nipple. He lifted her gently and kissed the top of her head. Genetics was funny. Statistically speaking, their daughter should have inherited her mother’s darker hair and coloring, but somehow she was his spitting image with almost white-blond hair. Of course, that could change as she got older.
It was the strength and intelligence of the Reynolds women that he hoped she inherited more than anything else. He could tell that Laura was upset and disappointed with herself that she had broken down and cried, that she found herself relying on him. He knew too that he was going to have hell to pay tomorrow morning when she woke up and discovered what he had done.
He kissed the top of Chloe’s head and laid her in the car seat/carrier that sat next to the bed. It could not be comfortable. He would check with Jaycee and Rex about getting something else. Not a crib, there was not enough room for that, but maybe one of those basket things that Laura had at her house. He covered her in the blanket and could not resist one more kiss on that soft downy head.
This is not how he had imagined bringing a child into the world. Hell, he had never been sure that he wanted to. It was not just all those years of small-town whispers behind his back, but he had seen things no man ever should. Done things that haunted his nightmares. Made choices that no one ever should have to. Ryan Paul Ranger knew more than most how fucked up this world could be.
But looking at that innocent little scrap of humanity, he wondered – did it have to be? Was it too late? Couldn’t we make different choices? But how did that even begin? He ran his hands through his short hair and turned back to the woman sleeping next to him.
In sleep, Laura looked as innocent as their child. That hurt, jaded, and tough counselor was ripped away. He fumbled with that damned gown and pulled it up around her breast as best he could. Then he adjusted the blanket and kissed her forehead before picking up the phone and tray of food.
Ryan slipped out of the room. He knew that Chloe would wake them in a couple of hours to feed again. And he hoped that by then, he would have more information to share with Laura. He wanted to believe that he was a modern man, that he would support his woman whatever she decided was best. But he knew better. The need to protect them both overrode everything else.
He took the tray down the hall to the kitchen. He washed the dishes and put them in the drainer to dry. He stared at the phone that sat on the countertop next to him, willing it to ring. But it remained ominously silent. Maybe he should just check up on things, walk the perimeter. It bet waiting for a call that might not come at all tonight.
He headed towards the door but was surprised to find Grandfather, Rex, and Jack all congregated back in the living room, “I thought you would be back on the road by now, Jack?”
“No, I wanted to stay until I heard more from Reb. See what would be best from there. Grandfather agrees that no one will think much of me stopping by to see him on this odyssey.”
Ryan supposed that made sense. As much as anything did right now.
“You made the right decision, son. Bringing your family home.”
Rex shook his head at the old man’s words. Right decision. Family. Home. Were those things even real in this fucked up world?
“They are the only thing that is, Ryan,” Grandfather smiled.
Ryan wanted to argue, or at least question the man who had been his lifeline, but that phone rang. He did not let it ring a second time; just in case, it woke Laura or the baby.
He pushed the button. “Stacey?”
For a moment, there was nothing but silence. He heard the hesitation in her voice as she spoke, “Ryan? What are you doing with my daughter’s phone? Where is Laura? Is she okay? The baby?”
“They’re fine. Just sleeping right now. How are you? Where are you?” He answered quickly before panic overwhelmed the woman.
“I need to talk to Laura.”
He was not sure how to play this one. As of yesterday, he could understand on a visceral level this woman’s need to speak to her child, to know that they genuinely were safe. But he heard the near hysteria in this woman’s voice. Would talking to her mother just upset Laura more?
“Stacey, she’s exhausted right now. We just traveled several hours in the back of a van with a newborn. You have my word; I won’t keep anything from her when she wakes up. Hell, I’ll have her call you then if you want. But please, will you trust me, I’m trying to do what’s best for them both?”
There was nothing but silence. After a moment, Ryan feared he had blown the whole damned thing. That not only had the woman hung up but that she would do whatever she could to make his life with her daughter hell. Just when he was about to hang up, he heard a long sigh.
“You’re right. We all need to keep Laura and that baby safe.”
“That doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned you or Mercy. Stacey, please. Have you heard anything more?”
“Yeah, Mercy called me.”
“What did she say?” The heavy sigh and long pause on the other end of the line seemed so unlike the brash and determined women that had faced him down just yesterday.
“The hell if I know. She wasn’t making any sense. Do you know an Agent Williams?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t say. She wouldn’t tell me where they were. Just that she was with some Agent Williams, but not to worry that she knew she could trust him. And the man wasn’t even an agent anymore. Does any of that make sense to you?”
Ryan pondered how much to tell the woman, not just how much was national security, but what would reassure her, and what might upset her more. She seemed just about as vulnerable as her daughter and granddaughter at the moment.
“If it is Caleb, then yes, I promise you Mercy can trust him.”
“That is fancy doublespeak, Ryan. You didn’t tell me a damned thing about the man. How do you know that he is not the leak? Working for McBride or whoever is behind it all?”
Ryan knew his next words were going only to make things worse, but if she found out some other way, there would be hell to pay. “Stacey, there are only a handful of people that I would trust in the agency, but Caleb Williams is one of them. The last I heard, he was one of the agents assigned to guard the McBrides. And I know that right now that does not look good.”
He paced back and forth, trying to find the right words to reassure her. “Hell, you know as well as me that nothing is as it seems right now. Laura is wanted for questioning about something she was never involved in. Mercy is wanted for shooting a cop. And if I am not wanted, I am at least persona non grata with the agency.”
“So, until we know more, we need to trust Mercy’s instincts, and what I know of the man. Caleb Williams has one of the strongest moral compasses of anyone I know. Yeah, I would trust the man. Not just with my life, but Laura’s and Chloe’s too. And at this point, that’s pretty much the same thing.”
Once more, the silence was deafening. But Ryan was not sure what more he could say, especially as he had no idea how the hell Caleb Williams had ended up in any of this mess.
Was he wrong? The man had been assigned to the McBrides for a couple of months. Had Gerald managed to get to him somehow? Or worse, was he working for the people that McBride was mixed up with? Did he have something to do with McBride going missing? There were too many fucking unknowns in the most critical mission of his life, and Ryan did not like any of it.
But one thing he did know. One thing that Grandfather had taught him – trust his gut. And that intuition that had saved his life and others, more times than he could count, said that Caleb Williams was one of the good guys. “Did Mercy say anything else?”
“Yeah, and that worries me even more. She said they were headed to Torreon.”
Her laugh was tight as Stacey Reynolds answered, “Yep, that’s what I thought too. You know that’s where their father is from? Where his family still lives, I believe. I can check with Elena when I call. Reb says they will probably be looking for all our vehicles. So I need them to ditch their car as quickly as they can.”
“I agree. But what will they do? Shit.” None of this was going to plan. And he had no idea what even to tell the woman. It was not a feeling he had in a very long time.
“Tell her you will call her back, son.”
Ryan looked over to the old man. He wanted to scream and argue, but something in those dark eyes was the anchor he needed. They calmed him in these stormy seas.
“Stacey, I’ll call you back. Maybe in the morning? It would be best, since everyone is safe for the moment, if we all got some sleep. We’ll all make better choices after some rest.”
“And I promise I will tell Laura everything. But I meant it, if Mercy is with Caleb, she is as safe as Laura is with me.” He knew he spoke the truth. The question was with the shit hitting the fan faster than they could clean up the mess – how safe was any of them?
Laura rolled over at the sound of that damned kitten meowing. Every fucking muscle in her body hurt. Whoever this new personal trainer was, they were fired. And damn it, what was that kitten caterwauling about now? But damn, the cover model sitting on the side of her bed holding that baby was almost worth waking up for.
Then, it came back to her, “Ryan, is Chloe okay?” Before the words were out, the rest came crashing down on her, too. “Have you heard from Mama? Mercy?”
His smile was incredibly tight and forced as he fluffed the pillows, helped her sit up a bit, and get their daughter settled into feeding. “We heard from your Mama right after you fell asleep.”
“And you didn’t fucking wake me, asshole?”
“I didn’t want to fucking wake you up now. I was going to give Chloe a bottle myself, but Jaycee said I shouldn’t, that it would make breastfeeding harder for both of you.” The way his hands ran through that wavy light blond hair, that was so like their daughter’s, made it damned hard to stay mad at the man.
“Thank you. She’s right.” Laura kissed the top of her daughter’s head as the tears gathered again in her eyes. Damn it, fucking hormones. “What did Mama say?”
“She’s heard from your sister. Mercy did not say where she was, but she’s with another agent…”
She shook her head and tried to get up, but that only irritated Chloe, who came off her nipple with a loud wail. Ryan helped them get settled again. She hated how dependent she was on the man.
What about all those women who worked in the fields, went into the bushes, had their babies, and went right back to work? Why couldn’t she be like them? Probably because loads of those women died in the process, she reminded herself that reproduction had enslaved women for eons.
Of course, not her sweet Chloe. This baby was her choice. And she did still believe in that. Every baby should be as planned and wanted as her daughter. Okay, so things might not be going to that plan. They had not since the morning after her baby was conceived, and this man, her daughter’s father, had ripped her world apart. Okay, so that was not totally Ryan’s fault. McBride and her own greed and hubris were more to blame than he was. Damn those tears.
“Isn’t that just as dangerous as Kerr, though? You say there’s a leak.” She tried her best to relax. She knew that if this breastfeeding thing was going to work, then she needed to remain calm. Maybe Ryan was right, perhaps she should just give up, and bottle feed their daughter. It might come to that anyway if she turned herself into the feds to save her family.
She stifled the small cry of fear and loss that the thought of going to prison, or worse, brought. To think that Ryan or Mama or someone else would have to raise the child she had fought so hard to have, ripped her heart and soul apart.
As if he could tell how dark a place her mind had gone, Ryan leaned over and brushed a soft kiss on her forehead. “We will get through this, sweetheart. All of us.” But this time, Laura noticed he did not dare add the words, ‘I promise.’ There were no promises or certainties in this fucked world.
How had she of all people forgotten that? Too many dinners in the ‘right’ restaurants, too many shopping trips to the Galleria to buy the ‘right’ clothes, spending more money on a single outfit than Mama used to make in a month, and too many hours in the gym when she used to keep in shape by running around town after her sisters and Jack. She had gotten soft. She had forgotten that you passed the same people going down as you had stepped on rising up. And for the first time, she questioned it all.
“Answer my question, Ryan. Isn’t Mercy in just as much danger in the hands of your former employer as she would be with Kerr?”
“No one could be in as much danger as with that man. Honestly, I’m still trying to get to the bottom of it all. Most of what Mercy told your Mama did not make any sense.”
His fingers gripped her chin, and their eyes met over the top of their baby’s head, “But the one thing that reassures me is that your sister is with someone I know. Caleb Williams is one of few people I would trust at this point, sweetheart.”
“Why? How do you know that he is not the leak?”
“I have known Caleb Williams since I joined the agency. We went through training together at Quantico. He’s former Houston PD. Though he’s young, he made quite a name for himself in narcotics. Honestly, sweetheart, like I told your Mama, I have met very few men with a stronger moral compass than that man. He’s a hell of a lot more of the good guy than I am. And yes, I’d trust him with her life.”
He brushed his finger over their daughter’s cheek, and Chloe turned to look at him. Laura knew from reading all those pregnancy and baby books that it was much too soon for her daughter to smile, but she swore that was what Chloe did at her daddy.
“I guess I can’t argue with that one. But how did he get messed up with the whole Kerr and Mercy thing? And why did Kerr go after my sister?”
He sighed heavily and leaned against the pillow. For the first time, Laura noticed the dark smudges beneath those striking blue eyes. Had this man slept at all since he arrived at her house and delivered their baby yesterday? If so, it could not be more than an hour or so nap, here and there.
He had been the one handling it all. Making plans with Mama, coordinating everything with Jack, and honestly, doing more of the caring for Chloe than she did, except for feeding, of course. And caring for her, too.
It was not something that Laura was used to. She loved her Mama, and she understood how hard the woman had worked to keep them all together, with a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. Hell, it would not surprise her one bit if Mama had sometimes gone hungry herself to feed them. But the truth was that as the eldest, there had never been any time for Mama to baby her. Not that she could remember, of course.
So, the way that Ryan had carried her, fed her, and pampered her was a new experience. She blushed at the memory of how he’d even washed her. Those damned tears rose to her eyes again as she reached out and caressed his face. It was rough; obviously, shaving was not his top priority at the moment. Her heart almost stopped when he closed those eyes and turned his head into her touch, kissing the palm of her hand.
“So, what do we do now, counselor?” She wished she could answer that one herself. But at the moment, she was so torn that she had no idea if she was coming or going, as Mama said.
He opened those striking eyes, and his was as cloudy with tears as she knew hers were. That should have scared the shit out of her, but somehow it reassured her. To know that this man felt her burdens, not merely with his brilliant brain, but his heart too, meant more to her than she would have ever imagined.
Laura did not know what love was, not love between a man and a woman. Sure, she knew well the love that her mother had for her daughters. Maybe that was why Laura had not stopped to consider her decision to have a baby on her own. But Mama had never had time for a man. Laura could not remember her going on a single date or even just having casual sex. Not in her whole life? At least not since Mercy was born, that she was sure of.
As for her relationship with Stewart Childress, she was not even sure how that happened. Convenience? They worked together and saw one another every day. They moved in the same social circles. Was it just that it? As their friends paired off into couples and families, had everyone just assumed they were a couple too?
She certainly hoped part of her motivation had not been Stewart’s close friendship with Stephen. She hated to think that she was that shallow, or worse yet, that she had ‘slept her way to the top.’ But one thing she did know, she had never ‘loved’ Stewart. And she was reasonably sure the man had never loved her either.
That one night in London was as close to anything that resembled the love and romance in the books her baby sister wrote, as she had ever come. Was she falling for this man? Hell, had she fallen for him in the pub that night? Now was not the time to think about it.
“Rex, Jack, Grandfather, and I talked a bit after I spoke with your Mama. I should tell you that when Jack was looking for news about your sister, he discovered that McBride is dead.”
“What?” Laura felt panic rising inside her. If Gerald McBride was dead, then that meant someone truly was cleaning up loose ends. Was she next?
The look on Ryan’s face worried her even more. The way that he bit the inside of his cheek and would not look her in the eye told her there was more to the story, “Out with it, counselor. What aren’t you telling me?”
“McBride’s rental was found in a ditch just outside Sebida.”
“Sebida? Are you sure? Fuck!” Chloe quit sucking and started to scream. That was precisely how Laura felt at the moment, too. But unlike her daughter, she knew she could not give in to those urges.
He sat up and took their daughter as he passed her a glass of juice, “Drink this while I change her. Then you can switch sides.”
Damn, she would not want to be on the other side of the table from this man. The way that he took charge hung like a cloak of authority from those broad shoulders. She found herself obeying his orders without even thinking.
By the time she had finished the juice, he had brought their daughter back and held out his arm. Laura used it to roll over, embarrassed that she had forgotten to put her breast away after feeding the baby.
It was a strange juxtaposition. The normality of a young couple working together to care for their new baby. Two people, lovers, who barely knew one another, adversaries even. Forced by circumstances beyond their control. Fighting for their lives.
It was more than overwhelming. Hell, she might enjoy reading a Jon Frisham novel now and then, but she had never been under the illusion that practicing law was anything other than mundane and boring. She had assuredly never thought she would end up in the starring role in that kind of crap. But here they were.
“Do they know why he was in Sebida?” She forced the words out as she used his arm to turn over, this time putting away her breast before revealing the other for Chloe, and his eyes.
He shook his head as he helped her get the baby settled and properly latched on. “No. It could just be a coincidence. His wife and daughter were not in the vehicle with him. So, they are missing, and the US Attorney has issued an APB for them too. As material witnesses. Same as you, sweetheart.”
“Do you think that he was coming to see me?”
“You could answer that one better than me. Why would he? Did he even know where you were?”
She shook her head as she watched her daughter nurse, the noose tightening around her neck and heart. “I don’t know. Of course, the address would be in my personnel file for tax forms and insurance stuff.”
“As for anything else, I just don’t know. As I said, I don’t know how or who copied me into that email and those files that came from Stewart. It could have been Gerald. Or Stephen? Maybe even Stewart? I just don’t know. It was a blind cc. That should have alerted me to something.”
“But then I came in and tore your world apart. Of course, some email and encrypted files from your former employer weren’t your top priority.” He held out his finger, and Chloe grasped it again. “Especially when you found out about this one.” He smiled at his daughter, and Laura was almost sure all those books had to be wrong.
“So, we’re back to my earlier question, Ryan. What do we do now?”
“It’s almost three a.m. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. We know that Elena and Bradley got out of town before any of this kicked off. We know your Mama is safe with Jack’s friend. And I honestly believe that Mercy will be alright with Caleb. I don’t believe there is much that we can do right this minute. Grandfather thinks we should try to contact everyone in the morning. Maybe work out a plan together?”
As much as she wanted to argue, she knew that what he said made sense. Good sense. She was too tired right now to think straight. Certainly, a couple more hours of sleep could not hurt anything, right? Maybe in the morning she would be thinking clearer, find a pair of her big girl panties or knickers as they had called them in London, perhaps even find a backbone to stand up to this man.
Except as much as she wanted to condemn him for being chauvinistic or misogynistic or domineering, she knew that would not be fair. This man had not taken her choices from her. He had stood by her side, offered his advice and options, and done everything humanly possible to take care of not only his child but her and her family. He had certainly earned a bit of a break and some sleep.
But the moment she moved to put Chloe in the basket that now sat next to the bed, he was alert. He took the baby from her and settled their daughter with another of those tender kisses to the top of her little head. When he finished, Laura noticed him biting the inside of his cheek once more. She smiled, so the man was not as wholly self-confident and in control as he looked. “Aren’t you coming to bed, counselor?”
He turned and smiled at her with a nod as he stripped his shirt over his head and unbuttoned his jeans. Ryan walked to the other side of the bed in nothing but a pair of too-fucking-tight boxer briefs that hung to him so tightly she could only think about how good his cock looked.
Fuck, what was wrong with her. She had just given birth. His amazing cock, and fingers, and oh, that tongue should be the last thing she was thinking about. Instead of filling her dreams as she fell asleep with her head resting on his chest as it gently rose and fell. Those strong arms, were they called pythons or guns, wrapped about her felt so right. But tomorrow would be soon enough to think about any of that.
And they certainly had lots to think about. Tomorrow.