Ryan’s sleeves were rolled up as he carried the folding tables from a storage closet outside. Laura had made him leave his coat and tie at the house, telling him they were going to a country church, not a board or courtroom. She had worn a loose-fitting sundress to make feeding Chloe easier. The baby was the only one dressed up for church in a cute blue outfit and tiny booties.
It might be a good thing he had not worn the suit too. She and her Mama had put him, Jack, Reb, and Rex all to work carrying tables, a few chairs for those who might have trouble sitting on the ground, and setting out blankets on the ground, always a reasonable distance apart. Stacey and Laura were busy in the kitchen organizing the food.
His future wife might not be much of a cook, but the woman could clear out the deli at Wally World at 2 a.m. Lunch meats, fancy loaves of bread and cheeses, and all the condiments. Her mama had warned her not to bring any of that store-bought-crap when it came to fried chicken, potato salad, and coleslaw. Evidently, Stacey, Mercy, and Rose had that covered. As well as home-made biscuits.
But it was not just their family. Others had bought food too. Cakes, cookies, and things that he had no idea what they were. The two tables that he and Rex had set up filled with bowls, platters, and casserole dishes so quickly that they had added two more. And from the looks of it, they might need another one or two. There was more food here than even this many people could eat.
He was proud of Laura. She had used the same organizational skills that she used as Chief Counsel in defense of her family. But what surprised him was just how much he felt a part of the whole thing, of her family, hell, even this screwed up little town.
They had had several long conversations these past weeks, especially since coming back here. Sebida was even smaller than Fredericksburg, where he had grown up with that label, ‘bastard.’ Laura understood as well as he did the prejudices of small towns. But when balanced against the positives of being close to family, a slower pace of life, and more in touch with nature, well, small-town living had its own advantages.
They were staying. And while they could not continue to rent her former teacher’s house in town forever, they were already looking for a place to build their home. Tyler had assured them that Laura’s assets would be released, not that the man realized all the cash his woman had squirreled away. And his savings was not exactly paltry.
No, they had already decided to call Sebida home, though he liked the sound of this Reconciliation his future brother-in-law spoke about. He had never been the ‘church type.’ But maybe, now that they were putting down roots, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing? At least every now and again.
“Excuse me. You’re Ryan Ranger, aren’t you?”
He turned to see the slightly older woman, maybe late forties or early fifties, holding out her perfectly manicured hand. She was definitely overdressed for this place. A designer suit that screamed Houston, maybe Dallas or Austin. Her dark hair was pulled back from her tight-face. Perhaps a bit older? With some work?
He shook his head at her extended hand. Obviously, the woman had not gotten the memo about spreading this damned virus. But he had a family to protect. “Yeah, I’m Ryan. What can I help you with?”
She looked decidedly uncomfortable as she shifted from foot to foot, not something easily done on the grass in those heels. “Just a few moments of your time…”
“Listen, if you’re another reporter, I’m not interested. We’ve said all we have to. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” He started to turn away as he saw Laura approaching with more plates.
“No, I’m not a reporter. My name is Renata Esparza-Cruz. I’m from the governor’s office,” she held out her hand yet again.
“Didn’t vote for the man. Don’t intend to. So, as I said, I have work to do, ma’am.”
“Yes, well, the governor asked me to speak with you.” She looked at Laura, who now stood at his back with a dessert of some kind in her hands. “Privately. A matter of a sensitive nature.”
“Okay, ma’am, let me make this clear,” he put his arm around Laura. “This is my fiancée and the mother of my child, Laura Reynolds. And come Friday, my wife. So, if you or the governor have anything to say to me, you’ll say it to us both.”
The woman nodded with a look of begrudging respect, “Fine, but can we go somewhere more private?”
Ryan was about to tell the woman exactly what he thought of her governor, but Laura’s hand on his arm and the way she looked up at him stopped him.
“As Ryan says, Ms. Esparanza-Cruz, we’re a bit busy right now.” Laura looked around at the crowd, milling about, “If you could let us know what the matter pertains to, then we can perhaps schedule some time to talk later.”
Damn, he loved this woman. Especially as he watched the other woman hem-and-haw.
But Ms. Cruz finally nodded her head reluctantly, “As you are aware, it is the governor’s responsibility to appoint an interim sheriff for Sebida county. Until a special election can be organized. He would like to offer the position to you, Mr. Ranger.”
Ryan frowned and started to shake his head, but those fingers on his arm squeezed gently. Laura turned to a young woman nearby, “Lizzie, can you finish up here? Ryan and I need to speak with this woman for a few moments.”
He tried to place the face. He knew he had seen this woman around town. Then the name registered. Lizzie Patterson owned the diner in town. She was also one of Mercy’s best friends. He was a bit shocked to see her here today. Sundays were some of her busiest at the diner, once church was over anyway. But she just smiled and nodded. “No problem.”
Laura laced her fingers through his and motioned with her head to the woman, “If you’ll follow us.”
She led them through the side door into the kitchen, “Mama, there’s not much left. Why don’t you go outside and double-check everything? I asked Lizzie to help out, but it seems pretty much done. Just need to find Bradley and have him say grace. I’ll finish up in here and join you in a bit.”
Stacey Reynolds didn’t miss a thing. Her dark eyes going from her daughter to his, then to the woman before nodding. “Sure thing, sweetie.” She leaned and kissed her daughter’s cheek. He was sure she whispered something to Laura, but he could not hear what.
The moment the door closed behind his future mother-in-law, Laura nodded her head to the woman, “Proceed.”
The woman cleared her throat, “As I was saying, the governor would like to appoint you as the interim sheriff until the special election can be called. Although, to be honest, there is no rush for that.”
“Why? Why me?”
“Tyler recommended you. When the governor asked, who he could trust to clean up this county, yours was the first name on the list.”
His first reaction was a resounding ‘no.’ He had a family now. And while this position was not as dangerous as going undercover or being a SEAL, it was not without risks. Especially as he, Tyler, and others believed that Kerr was not the only crooked cop around here. On the other hand, if they were going to make this their home, did he really want to raise his family in a place where you could not trust the legal system?
He looked to Laura. The nod of her head was almost imperceptible. But those eyes told him she was thinking the same thing. He turned back to the woman, “I want complete control of personnel.” He would not work with anyone that his gut told him he could not trust. It was his deal-breaker.
“I understand your concerns, Mr. Ranger, but it is the governor’s hope that any other corrupt law enforcement officers can be brought…”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Cruz, but this is not open to negotiations. Texas is an at-will employment state. I will not put my life at risk working with anyone that I do not feel I can trust. Thank your boss for me, but…”
“The governor would like you to give this matter serious consideration, Mr. Ranger.”
“I did. And those are my terms. The governor can take them or leave them. Oh, and that goes for who I hire, too.”
The woman looked from him to Laura at his side. If she thought to appeal to his woman, she’d have another think coming. He knew that Laura would support him on this one. As he would support her, whatever she decided to do.
“Alright, Mr. Ranger. You have a deal. The governor would like to make the announcement tomorrow at noon on the steps of the courthouse.”
“One more thing, I need Friday off.” He lifted Laura’s hand to his lips and kissed the knuckle with his ring on it. “I’m getting married.”
The woman’s smile was tight, “Congratulations. I assume your fiancée will be joining us on Monday then.”
“You bet your sweet ass I am, Ms. Esparanza-Cruz.” Laura smiled at the woman. “Our daughter, too.”
This time the woman’s smile was genuine, “I see that one of you knows how to play this game.”
“No, I know how to beat the system. Don’t make the mistake of under-estimating my husband again. We’re not taking this job to make the governor look good for the next election.”
“We’re doing it for this town. For our daughter, so she can walk or bike these streets safely. We’re doing it to bring justice to Sebida. And if you missed my brother-in-law’s sermon to transform Reconciliation. Texas-style.”
“Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have a luncheon to attend. The first of many, I’m sure. You’re welcome to stay. Of course. Please have my husband’s employment contract emailed to me this afternoon. I’ll get back to you with any changes before tomorrow.” Laura reached for her purse and hand the woman a card. Then they walked from the kitchen hand-in-hand.
Ryan noticed people were already at the tables helping themselves. Coming up in family groups, one at a time. Beginning with those with children and older adults. He looked out at the sea of mostly masked faces, though a few had taken them off to eat. But that’s why they had placed the old quilts so far apart.
It hit him then. The weight of the responsibility he had just accepted. These people deserved a safe place to call home. A town where you knew you could trust law enforcement to apply justice fairly regardless. It was a heavy burden.
She leaned against his back and squeezed his fingers tightly, “You did the right thing. And I promise it’s not a burden you’ll bear alone. This is my town, Ryan. Once I thought, happiness was Sebida, Texas in my rearview mirror.”
“But I learned the hard way. People are the same wherever you go. Houston. London. Los Angeles. Hong Kong. Some are bad. But more of them are good. As Edmund Burke said, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’”
“There are a lot of good people in this town who have done nothing for way too long. Maybe because they were afraid. Or because they did not think they could make a difference. Or because they believed that’s just the way this world worked.”
“Like you told the woman, this is about those people, this town, about Chloe, Rahab, Mercy’s and Elena’s new babies. Brad was right. We can reconsecrate this town. Make it a better place for them.”
Her fingers caressed his face as tears shone in those dark eyes, “I’m proud of you, Ryan. Proud of the man that does the right thing, even when it’s hard. And I’ll be proud to stand by your side on the steps of that courthouse tomorrow. And proud to walk down the aisle on Friday. I didn’t know it, but that night in the pub, I made the smartest decision of my life.”
He bent his head and tenderly kissed her lips. “I will always be guilty of love in the first degree. ”
She smiled and chuckled, “I love you too, counselor. Just remember that this job comes with handcuffs. And if you keep talking about this locking you away inside of my love, you’re gonna give me some kinky ideas.”
“No, if anyone is using those handcuffs, it’ll be me.”
“We’ll see, counselor. Although it looks like I’m going to have to get used to calling you sheriff.”
“Not for long…”
“No, that’s where the governor has it wrong, Ryan. If he thinks this is a safe, non-political appointment, and he’ll bring in one of his people to run this town, once you have straightened all the shit up, he’s wrong. This town needs a sheriff it can trust, and you are that man.”
“You realize that usually means I win, right?”
He pressed another kiss to her lips, “Nope, counselor, as long as I have you by my side, we both win.”
“In this case, I think it is Reconciliation that wins. Now, let’s go tell my family.”
Ryan smiled, “Yeah, I know just who my first deputy is, too.”