Part 2 – Sunday Night

***6 p.m. Wilson ranch in East TX***

Cassie watched as the SUV kicked up a cloud of red East Texas dust. She was not sure what she felt as she watched her husband of almost two decades drive off to face whatever his future held. Anger? Certainly. Betrayal? Assuredly. But above even those, she felt confusion and numbness.

Almost all of the past fifteen years had been a lie. Oh, she supposed, her life and their marriage had been a lie, even before that fateful night in New Orleans. And she certainly had her part in crafting that lie. She had known even before she went to that club, what she planned was immoral. She could hear Aunt Rose’s voice in her head, ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right,’ especially as she had opened that hotel door to Chad Wilson.

How had Gerald found out? She thought she had been so careful. She chuckled; it seemed that no matter how hard she had tried to be careful, she was caught in her sin. That was just it; no matter what had happened, she could not bring herself to think of that night in his arms as ‘sin.’ Living out her fantasy. An escape. One moment that was indeed her own. But not a sin.

Oh, she knew that Gerald saw it differently. After dozens of his affairs, her one indiscretion was somehow worse. Yes, she had gotten pregnant by another man. But she had not known that. Obviously, Gerald had. But why had he never told her the truth before today? Why had he allowed her and the whole world to think that Callie was his?

So many unanswered questions. Cassie supposed that she should have talked with her husband. Demanded answers to those and other matters. But she was just too tired. Tired and stressed, not only from the months of the investigation but from a lifetime lived by someone else’s rules.

What did it matter, really? What did it matter if she had not played by their rulebook? It was not like she had any voice in setting the society’s rules or the circle of it in which she had been born, raised, and lived. But fuck that shit. No more. She was tired of living by other people’s rules. It had gotten her nowhere.

She saw her daughter, hanging onto the rails of the rough-hewn wooden fence, leaning over with something in her hand, trying to coax the stallion to her. That was not right. She had gotten something from life. Her daughter. And that was all that mattered now. Keeping her child safe and protected from the lies, deception, and bullshit of the world that the adults had fucked up.

She stepped off the front porch and walked across the open field towards her child. Time to start picking up the pieces of their lives that Gerald had shattered. Time they started making decisions for themselves.

“Hey, Grace,” she would have usually used some endearment like sweetie or suga, but they both needed to become accustomed to new names. A new life.

Her daughter turned and forced a smile, “Is he gone?”

“Yeah, he just left.”

“I hate him.”

Cassie felt like a complete failure as a mother as she watched the huge tears coast down her daughter’s smooth cheeks. She could not find it inside herself to defend the man or herself. So, she only nodded and admitted as much of the truth as she dared. “He ain’t my favorite person, either, right now.”

Grace chuckled, sniffed, and wiped her face with the back of her hand, leaving red mud streaks across much of her face. Cassie resisted the temptation to wipe them away. This was not a skinned knee. She could not kiss this boo-boo and make it all better. This went much more in-depth.

“Who is he?”

Cassie was confused at first. Who was whom? Then she realized her daughter was asking about Chad. But the girl had had enough shocks. Lately, she was hardly ready for the truth – your real father. So, she kept the story as close to that as she could. “An old friend that I haven’t seen in a long time.”

“Do you trust him?”

She did not hesitate to nod her head, “Yeah, yeah, I trust him.”

Silence hung like the sinking sun in the sky. She wished she knew what her daughter was thinking. That she had some magic words to make everything all better this time, but she was as lost as her child.

“I guess it ain’t too bad a place to hang out for a while. It’s not like I have any friends I’ll miss.”

The big red stallion slowly approached the carrot that her daughter held in her hand. Grace must have snuck a couple off the plate of sandwiches and raw vegetables that she had made for lunch. She had known that it would take Chad some time to find everything on her list, and they had not eaten more than a doughnut at the gas station where Gerald stopped right outside of Houston.

She knew that Chad had said to make herself at home, but she had felt incredibly uncomfortable rummaging through cupboards and his refrigerator to find the things she needed. But the lunch that she, Gerald, and her daughter had shared in silence was even more uncomfortable. She did not know what her husband had said to Grace, but the anger resonated off them both.

The moment that she was finished eating, her daughter had made her excuses and fled the house. Gerald had called after her to put her plate in the sink. Cassie had stiffened as her child stopped with her hand on the back door from the utility room, which was obviously part of the same addition as the study they had been in earlier.

Grace turned, and her blood froze at the vitriol she saw in those green eyes. “You don’t tell me what to do no more, old man. You want to dump us here, fine. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re not my father anymore.” She had turned back, opened the door, and slammed it so hard that the window next to it rattled, and Cassie feared it would shatter.

“That should just about do it. It’s up to you and that man to pick up the pieces now. You can’t do any worse than I did with Stephen, that’s for sure.”

She had heard the pain in Gerald’s voice, but they had long since passed the rubicon, where she tried to offer the man any care, comfort, or solace. So, she had merely picked up all three plates from the table and taken them to the sink to wash. She had watched as her daughter lumbered across the field. Maybe Chad was right; perhaps there was something in the girl’s blood when it came to horses.

“I should be going. The drive back is long. I could only bribe a couple of the FBI guys. So, I want to get back before the prosecutors find out. Don’t want half the state looking for me. Who knows what ‘accident’ might happen to me then.”

She ignored his remark. Gerald and Stephen had made bad choices. Choices they needed to pay for. Did Stephen deserve to die for those choices? Did Gerald? She seriously doubted that she had enough information even to guess that answer. She could almost hear Aunt Rose, ‘They made their beds, now they gots to lie in them.’

She had walked him to the front door in silence. She stood on the top step as he walked alone to the rental car that had brought three people to this place. Words were lost to her, if there were even any for such moments as this. But Gerald found ones, ones that she knew he meant to worm inside her head, leave her with another layer of guilt. Gaslighting was the new term for the mental abuse she had lived with for her whole life.

“I did care for you both, Cassie. In my own way. No matter what happens now, know that I did the best that I could by you both in the end.”

This time she had not risen to the bait. “Good luck, Gerald.”

He had stood there a moment more as if considering what else to say, perhaps to regain the upper hand, to get under her skin. But she was through letting this man or any other do that to her…or her child. Finally, he had nodded and gotten into the car. Just driving away. Almost two decades of her life, just drove off down a dusty East Texas road, and she was left alone to pick up the pieces of her life and her child’s. Well, not exactly alone.

That was a couple of hours ago, as she looked up from watching Grace bond with her new friend, one truer than those they had left behind in Houston. There was another cloud of red dust rising. A moment later, a relatively new red truck came into view. No, she was not alone. But neither would she allow a man, any man, to determine their futures again.

The horse yanked the carrot from her daughter’s fingers, barely missing them. Perhaps ‘new friend’ was a bit hopeful, but then again, she could understand the need to be leary. “Hey, looks like Chad’s back. Wanna go see what he bought?”

“There better be a new iPad,” Grace pouted.

“It was on the list. Maybe not as nice as the old one, but it should be fine for your YouTube and games. And don’t forget to say thanks.”

Her daughter shrugged, “Yeah, I suppose the guy didn’t have to take us in like this.” Grace looked up at her and smiled. “He must have been one heck of a friend. To take us both in after all these years.” She winked those Wilson green eyes, “Friend? Oh, really, Mom. That man had enough affairs. I think you deserve at least a little bit of happiness, don’t you?”

It was on her lips to deny everything. Then she realized that if, or maybe when, Grace might hold the lie against her when the truth came out. So, she ignored the innuendo, “Let’s go check it out. Christmas came a bit early this year?”

***6:00 p.m. Sebida, TX***

Laura blew out as the pain that had been a nagging backache for three days spread across her hips and tore at her womb. The second pain in less than three minutes. She had dismissed the first one as a strain from rising from the chair too quickly when someone knocked on the door. But there was no mistaking this one. She was in labor.

And the man standing in the doorway was the absolute last person on the face of the earth that she wanted to see. The man that had destroyed her career. The lover that had rocked her world as no one ever had. The father of her baby. “Bastard.”

He shook his head as he forced his way inside the house, “I never denied that. But what the hell…”

Another time she would have reveled in the shocked and pained expression in his eyes, but at the moment, nothing registered except the pain. Would it never fucking end? She inhaled, trying to clear her mind enough to put two coherent words together. “Phone,” she managed just one as she pointed towards the coffee table.

He shook his head as if her words were unintelligible. Maybe they were. “My cell phone,” she managed as the pain began to recede around her abdomen into her lower back.

He moved past her as she gripped onto the door for support. He was back with her phone in a heartbeat. Her fingers trembled as she attempted to take it from him. All she managed was to punch in the access code, though.

“Guadalupe,” she commanded as she took one tentative step towards the chair from which she had risen a lifetime ago. She did not make it as another hard contraction forced her to her knees.

The man seemed frozen to the spot, right in the middle of her living room. She supposed she could not blame him. The deer in the headlights look on his handsome face told her that he had put two and two together and come up with a very accurate four. Or, in this case, one and one equaled three.

But she had no time for explanations. She had a baby to deliver. And from the frequency and intensity of the contractions, she was having since she woke from that brief nap, sooner than she wanted. Lupe was at least half an hour. Her mother and sister had gone into town for some shopping, so they were at least fifteen or twenty minutes away. Right now, her only choice was him.

“Help me to the chair,” she pleaded as she lost herself in pain.

He scooped her up and deposited her on the couch instead. She would worry later about the mess she was going to make on Esther’s sofa. Right now, there were more pressing matters.

“Hand me the phone,” she battled to focus on something other than the pain.

He passed it to her. By some miracle, she managed to locate the number and push the speaker button. Lupe picked up on the second ring, “Hola.”

“Lupe, the baby is coming,” she got straight to the point.

“Si, senora Lara. I leave now,” the woman’s calm voice reassured her.

“No, Lupe, I mean…NOW!”

“Should have called me sooner.”

Laura had no time for admonishments. The contractions were almost constant. “What do we do?”

“Is someone there with you?”

Laura nodded her head. It was Ryan who found the presence of mind to answer, “Yes.”

“Who are you?”

His eyes held hers, “The father.” They seemed to challenge her to deny the truth. But she was much too far gone for that.

“Si, senor. I need to see. See how far along la senora is. I need you to hang up. We have video calling on the phone. Take off las bragas, her panties. Then call me back on video,” her midwife instructed him.

Laura feared she would not be much help. Her body refused to move at the moment, even to lift her hips.

Ryan chuckled nervously as he pushed her dress up her thighs to reveal her plain white maternity underwear. “Not the sexy lace, it was the last time I did this, sweetheart.”

Laura was not sure what to make of his attempt at humor, but nothing was registering in her brain at the moment except pain. She did her best to lift her hips, but that only intensified the burning sensation across her abdomen. Somehow he managed to pull the material down her legs and press her thighs open.

A moment later, Lupe’s soothing voice filled the uncomfortable silence. “Hola, senor, I am Guadalupe. Your wife’s midwife. I am glad that you made it back in time for the birth of your little girl.”

Laura brushed back the tears as she watched Ryan quickly cover the shocked expression at her convenient lie. Her mysterious ‘soldier’ husband suddenly had a face for the woman, even if it were only a half-truth.

“Me, too, Lupe. Now, tell me what to do. My first aid did not go into much detail on this one,” he played along with her lie.

“Do you see anything?”

“The top of the baby’s head, I think.”

“Put the phone down between your espousa’s legs. I need to see.”

His eyes met hers as he complied. “Ah, I see. La nina es especial. She comes in the caul.”

“What does she mean?” She searched his face for answers.

“Nothing to worry about, senora. Senor, you must wash your hands. Now. Prop the phone somewhere that I can see.”

Ryan used a pile of baby clothes that she had been folding earlier to do as her midwife ordered. She was in too much pain to care about such things as modesty. It was not like either of them had not seen it already.

Laura pointed to the small doorway and watched as he disappeared through it. Her brain was too muddled at the moment to even consider what he was doing here.

“Lupe, you are on your way, si?” she questioned.

“No, senora. Es muy tarde. I cannot drive and talk your espouso through the birth. I will come after la nina is born,” she explained as Ryan came back into the room.

“So, what do I do now?” his deep voice came from across the room.

“You must break the caul, senor. There may be a gush of fluid when you do.”

“Get some towels from the bathroom,” Laura protested, once again concerned about the mess this was going to make of her friend and former teacher’s couch.

He laughed and shook his head as another contraction robbed her of all thought about propriety. This one was so strong that she screamed out.

“It is like opening a tough plastic bag, senor. Do it now. Get your fingers under it wherever you can and tear it open.”

***6:15 p.m. Wilson ranch***

Chad had forgotten just how many bags were crammed into the cab of his truck. It took the three of them two trips, each fully loaded down, to bring all the stuff into the house. They dropped it all in the living room. It was as good a staging area as any.

“Ya’ll get settled? Find what you needed?” He looked around. The black SUV was gone, so he assumed that man was as well.

“Yes, thanks. I made us all a bit of lunch. I can fix you a sandwich or something, too, if you’re hungry.” Cassie seemed nervous, but he supposed that was only natural given their situation.

“I’m fine for now. And I brought back a couple of pizzas. We can pop them into the oven later. And Blue Bell,” he motioned towards a couple of the thick, padded cold bags. “I suppose we should put that stuff away first.”

Instead, he picked up a smaller bag and passed it to his daughter, “I hope this is the right thing. The young man behind the counter assured me that I had all the stuff you’ll need. But as you’ve already discovered, the internet around here ain’t the best. I’ll see about upgrading it first thing tomorrow. But the boy there said we might want to go with satellite instead.”

He looked her directly in the eye, “Since you’re the one that will be using it most, I thought that should be your decision. There’s a brochure in there comparing the options. Look it over and let me know which you think is best.”

The look of shock on her face confirmed his suspicions. The man had sheltered her as he had her mother. But it did not take long for a smile to spread across her face, “No problem.”

He motioned towards his study, where his computer and the wi-fi were set up. “If you take it in there, you should be able to get enough of a signal to get it set up for now.”

She pulled the box from the bag, “Wow, the Pro? You bought me the iPad Pro? I’ve been asking for this for months.”

He shrugged his shoulders, trying not to make too big a deal of it. “The guy said it was the best option; that it would not need upgrading anytime soon. It even has a terabit of memory, whatever that is.”

He watched her step forward, then reluctantly drop back. She looked down at the ugly brown carpet that had not been changed since he was young. “Thanks,” she mumbled as she shifted from foot to foot.

Cassie looked at him, then their daughter. “I suppose you can go ahead and set it up in the study like Chad suggested. We can finish unpacking the rest of this stuff.” She paused and sighed, “But you have to create new accounts. Do you understand me? We can’t take the risk that someone could trace us through them.”

“Oh, Mom, you don’t buy Da…” Anger and hurt showed in his daughter’s face as she paused, “You don’t really believe what Gerald said about people being out to get us, do you? He’s just paranoid.”

Cassie stepped forward, placing her hands on Grace’s shoulders. “I don’t know what I truly believe, Grace. But they hurt a lot of people. Gerald and Stephen didn’t just make illegal business decisions. They lost money, lots of it. Other people’s money, sweetie. Some of those people think that Gerald is lying, that he has money hidden away somewhere. Is it possible that they might hurt us to make him tell them where it is? Yes, knowing people, it is.”

She brushed the hair out of their daughter’s face, “It just isn’t worth the risk. I’m sorry. I know that you are on the leader board of a couple games. But if you did it once, I’m sure you can get right back up there.”

“But, Mom, you don’t understand. It took me months to get there,” his daughter pouted.

Cassie shook her head, “I’m sorry, but no.” She squared her shoulders, and he could tell the following words took all her strength. “If I can’t trust you on this one, then I’m afraid you can’t have the iPad.”

“But, Mom…”

He read the shock in the girl’s face – and the anger.

“No, but Momming me, Grace. This is not negotiable. New iPad, new login, new account, starting those games fresh, or not at all. The choice is yours.”

He looked back and forth between the women in his life. This silence was tense. Perhaps it was the first time that Cassie had said no to their daughter? Obviously, it was more important an issue that he realized. “There’s some card in there, too. The guy said that you’d need it to buy the games.” He hoped to defuse the situation.

Grace shook her head and looked at him, “I had hundreds of games on the old one. Worth hundreds of dollars.”

“Yeah, he said some of them were free, but some could be expensive. Five hundred should be enough to get you started, though. When that is gone, he said I could load more money on the card or buy a new one?”

“Five hundred? Five hundred dollars? Man, how well did you know Mama?”

“Cal…” Cassie’s eyes danced with fire. She stiffened, her hands on her hips. “Grace, apologize to Chad. That was rude.”

Their daughter looked from one of them to the other as if sizing them up, looking for some weakness, trying to figure out her next plan of attack. It reminded him of himself when he was younger. He saw her shoulders slump a bit, then she shrugged.

“Whatever. Thanks for the iPad and the iTunes card. I do appreciate it,” she smiled at him apologetically.

“And you’ll create new accounts?” Cassie pressed.

Grace looked back at her mother, paused for a moment, then nodded. “I don’t see what the big deal is, but yeah, I’ll do it your way.”

“We’ll need new emails to get things started, and Chad will have to put it on the wi-fi too. So, how about we all unpack a bit more, then we will help you set it up?”

“Whatever,” seemed to be their daughter’s favorite word.

But the crisis was averted for now. He and Cassie had won this first battle, but he knew there would be more to come. This was just the opening skirmish in what might be a long and bloody war between the generations.

Considering that he had begun the day lamenting that he had no family, no child, it was a small enough price to pay. They would get through it all, at least if he had any say in the matter.

***6:15 p.m. Sebedia, TX***

Of all the things that he had imagined doing in his life, tearing the amniotic sac away from his baby’s head was not one of them. But the same calm that has made him a good SEAL prevailed at this moment as well.

It was not as easy as the woman made it sound, though. The seemingly thin silvery-white fibrous sac was much tougher than it appeared. It took at least three tries before he found a spot weak enough. Even then, he was not prepared for the amount of clear fluid that gushed onto the couch, floor, and his jeans. All were thoroughly soaked.

The moment that the sac gave way, a fully formed and perfect little head slipped into his fingers. The face was bluish-gray and scrunched, lined like an old man’s. “The head is out. What now?” he pleaded with the voice on the other end of the phone.

“Use your fingers to clear her mouth and around her nose, Senor Ryan.”

He frowned at the women’s use of his name. What lies had she told these people? Hell, had she lied to him? She had assured him that she was on the pill. Had it failed? Or had she used him to have this baby?

His baby. He had a lot more questions for the woman than the ones he had been sent to ask. But all of them would have to wait. Delivering this baby took precedent.

“Her?” Though he was not sure to whom he directed the question.

“You did not tell your espouso that he was having a little girl. Muy travieso, Senora Lara. Si, Senor Ryan, a little girl.”

A little girl. He had a daughter. Or he would. Right about now as he saw Laura’s face scrunch with pain once more. She bore down without being told. He was shocked at how quickly and with what force the baby shot from her mother’s body. Only quick reflexes kept him from dropping the tiny bundle of slime. Though it was less than a two-foot drop to the rug on the floor, that was not how he wanted his baby girl’s life to begin.

Then again, none of this was how he wanted his daughter to enter this world – from her conception and all that had come after, to this moment. As he lifted the tiny creature towards his chest, he swore that things were going to be different. He could barely breathe past the lump in his throat as he watched her try to take her first breath.

“Put her head in your palm, senor. Si, si, excellent,” the voice on the phone encouraged him as he followed her directions.

“Now, lower your hand. Keep her little bottom higher than her head. Turn her face to the side more. Si, si. Now, rub her back. Don’t be afraid to use some force. Babies are not as delicate as we think. La bebita will not break.”

Her words were coming so fast that they barely registered in Ryan’s addled brain. Somehow his body followed her instructions exactly. His reward was an ear-splitting scream that was sweeter than any rock ballad ever.

He had a baby — a daughter.

He looked up at the woman he had not seen in nine months. The woman with whom he had spent one perfect night. His only one-night stand. All the questions, personal and professional, floated away. Only one thing mattered now. Keeping his family safe.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“Senor, get a towel or blanket. Wrap the baby in it. And give her to her mama. I will leave in dos minutos. Let me tell you what to do until I get there.”


Laura took the squirming bundle from his large hands. She nestled her daughter close to her chest. She stared into the little face. It was hard to see the details of her baby’s features through the tears. The baby squirmed and cried as she turned towards Laura’s chest.

She was a mother. She had a baby girl – a daughter. She leaned forward and kissed the smattering of almost white-blond hair that covered the baby’s head.

An inheritance from her father – this man who knelt before her. The man who had ignited her passions as no one else ever had. Then destroyed all she had worked to build. The man who had suddenly reappeared when she – no, they – needed him most. But what now? How could she explain? Did she owe him one after all he had done?   

The baby squirmed harder. Rooting was the term she had read in all the books. Even then, she was shocked at the strength of her daughter’s natural instincts. As she almost crawled the inches across her chest towards her breasts.

“Welcome to the world, Chloe Reynolds,” her finger brushed the side of the baby’s cheek, causing her daughter to turn her face and root even more.

“Chloe Ranger,” his blue eyes met hers.

She might have dared to argue the point with him had not the baby grown tired of her futile efforts, emitting a lusty and angry cry.

His finger brushed their baby’s cheek as she had done. Chloe turned her head the other direction and met the gaze of her father. “You get that appetite from your Daddy, Chloe.” He reluctantly dragged his eyes from his daughter’s and up to hers. “Are you planning to breastfeed her?”

She nodded and blushed as she fumbled to push the neckline of her dress back with her other hand. This would have been so much easier in the cotton nursing gown packed with all the other birthing supplies in her bedroom.

She swallowed back the trepidation as she addressed him again, “Bring me the blue bag from beside my bed, please. The door on your left down the hall,” she pointed. He nodded. Though she could see the questions in his face, he obeyed, disappearing down the hall.

Laura took a deep breath as she lifted the tiny bundle towards her, placing another kiss on the top of her daughter’s head. “Oh, the tangled web we weave,” she smiled at one of her favorite lines of verse.

She knew that Miss Esther would appreciate the irony, and it seemed only right somehow that she honor her mentor, who had so graciously rented her this house all those months ago. She added the woman to her long list of entreaties to whatever was out there. She hoped that things were going smoother for her friend than they were for her at the moment.

What the hell was he doing here? At her home? At the very moment, she went into labor with her baby? His baby. And what the hell did she say now? ‘Oh, sorry, I was not really on birth control. I just wanted a baby. And you seemed like superior genetic material.’ Or at least he had. Until the following day. When he fired her and took the job that she had spent fifteen years working for.

Not that things had worked out that badly. Honestly, he probably did her a favor. All of the other executives had either been arrested or were under investigation. So why not him? How had he escaped the wide net that the government had cast in its attempts to stamp out corporate corruption and money laundering? Hell, she had half expected someone to show up at her door. Not that she knew much. But they did not know that. Still, they might find something she had not thought of in that email file on her laptop.

She had been so busy these past few months, between her pregnancy and trying to develop a plan for their future, that she had not thought about those files. Not until her former boss’s son and the company’s Chief Financial Officer had committed suicide a few weeks ago. As the former general counsel, she would have been the one spearheading their defense, but she supposed that all had fallen on his shoulders. She could almost pity the man.

As if she had conjured him up, Ryan came back down the hall, holding her birthing bag. Though it might seem a bit late, several supplies in the kit would still be helpful. “Put it on the floor by the table and open it, please.”

He stared at the baby, whose screams seemed to be quieting a bit. “Is she okay?”

Laura smiled as she looked at her daughter. “She seems perfect. But I suppose we won’t know for sure until Lupe gets here.”

“Should I call an ambulance to take ya’ll to the hospital or something?” He seemed to consider a bit too late.

Laura chuckled at the confused look on his face. She had forgotten how handsome he was. She looked back down at her daughter, noting the resemblance to the man. “No, I had planned a home birth. Lupe is my partera, midwife. That is my birth supplies.” She pointed at the bag he had opened on the floor next to her.

“Can you reach into the pocket on the left? There should be a plastic bag with two clamps for Chloe’s cord in there. Can you get that out?” She pondered and added, “And a few packs of gloves as well. I suppose you should wash your hands and put on those before we open the clamps.”

“Should we wait until the midwife gets here?” He knelt and brushed a finger across the baby’s cheek. She turned her head, and their gazes locked again.

Laura’s throat tightened at the look which passed between father and daughter. The baby was only moments old, and already, she could feel the bond between them. What had she been thinking? She, who had grown up without a father? How had she ever thought she could do this on her own?

“I’m sorry.”

“We’ll talk later. Once things settle down. For now, just tell me what needs to be done now. Lupe said something about the cord pulsing and afterbirth. I’m hoping you know more than I do.”

***9 p.m. Sebida, TX***

Ryan sat in the old rocker. His baby daughter Chloe nestled against his bare chest. Skin-to-skin contact was best for bonding, or so Lupe had informed him. He knew nothing about babies or children.

He was an only child. His cousin Rex was, as well. Though the man had recently met his mate. Rex had inherited a daughter in the deal. Still, Ryan had been too busy investigating the corporate corruption and money-laundering that his cousin had accidentally uncovered to visit the young family. He had never even paid much attention when he saw the few friends who did have children.

No, he was utterly unprepared for this one. But he would not be for long. He had already downloaded a dozen books on the subject of babies and parenting while Lupe tended to Laura and their daughter. The woman had arrived within half an hour of the birth.

But Laura’s mother and younger sister had made it first. The two women were there within fifteen minutes of the text that Laura had sent. He had struggled to remember the women’s names from the files. And Laura had seemed to want to ignore him, now that the crisis had passed.

But he was having no part of that. As soon as he remembered Stacey and Mercedes, he had introduced himself. The younger woman had smiled and told him to call her Mercy since they were family. Laura’s mother seemed less pleased to meet him. It made him wonder how much the woman knew of the truth.

The moment that Lupe had arrived, she had checked the placenta, which Laura had spontaneously delivered almost the moment that Chloe had begun to nurse. Then she had examined the baby, cleaning her with some sweet-smelling oil rather than soap and water. She had passed his daughter to him with the briefest of instructions on bonding and holding a baby.

Then the women had worked together to get Laura, first to the bathroom, then, once she was cleaned up and dressed in a fresh gown, into bed. The woman had insisted that Laura drink cup after cup of some foul-smelling tea that she assured them would minimize the risk of bleeding.

Lupe had helped Laura breastfeed the baby once more before she and Mercy had tackled the major clean-up in the living room. They had done a pretty good job on the amniotic fluid from the couch and floor. His jeans were almost dry now too. He supposed he should go out to the rental car, bring in his suitcase, and change into fresh pants. He was not bothering to check into a motel as he had planned. He was not leaving them unprotected.

Leaving them unprotected? As stupid as he knew he had been, he could not bring himself to regret the tiny bundle of pure innocence that slept contentedly on his chest. He stared down at his daughter through the haze of tears, but there were other things he lamented. The biggest of which was that after all he had been through, all the promises he had made to himself, his child was a bastard.

Thankfully, Laura had had the foresight to at least lie about that fact. He had almost laughed when he discovered how incredibly accurate her cover story was. The soldier that she had met while on assignment. A whirlwind romance and elopement only days before he was deployed.

He was confident that, at some point, she had intended to kill him off in action. Neatly tying up her story and protecting their child from the stigma of bastardy that they both knew still existed, especially in small towns like this one.

But that was not going to happen now. He was determined about that.

No, he was as much to blame for this situation as she was. Well, maybe. They had not had time to talk about that.

Lupe had stayed a couple of hours to make sure that everything was going as it should. Laura’s sister, the other one, had arrived an hour afterward. Elena had to get someone from their church to watch her toddler, but she, too, had left half an hour ago. Her mother was the only one remaining. Stacey Reynolds was in the bedroom with Laura, just in case she woke and needed anything.  

He knew that they would have to confer soon. The sooner, the better. The reason he had come here was just as relevant now, maybe more so. Though he was not the man for the job, he had known that it was a conflict of interest that night, but this situation only deepened that.

His first priority, his loyalty, was to them now. He needed to make things right for them and the agency. He shifted gently in the chair as he reached in his pocket for the phone, but even that was enough to rouse the baby. Chloe whimpered in her sleep but quieted back down as he rubbed her back beneath the quilt that covered them both.

He did not have long. She would need to be fed again soon. Lupe had said that she would need to nurse every couple of hours, especially until Laura’s milk came in, whatever that meant. Ryan added it to the ever-growing list of questions that he needed to look up in those books. He chuckled, remembering that Lupe said to read the one by Dr. Spock first. He had not known that Vulcans were such experts on babies.

He punched the button; he did not need to wait long, the man answered on the first ring. “About damned time, Ranger.”

He did not care much for the man that had been assigned as his handler midway through this assignment. The previous one, a woman he knew well and would have trusted with his life – and theirs – had been in a car accident. She would live, but it was doubtful if she would ever again be up to the task of returning to her job.

“Stephens,” was his only reply.

“So, what does the woman know? Is she going to be cooperative?”

“I don’t know yet. Things were more complicated than your file let on. Why was the fact that she was pregnant not in there?”

“Pregnant? What the fuck? Wait a minute.”

Ryan wanted to cover his daughter’s tiny ears just in case she could overhear, but he did not dare move again.

“That’s not right. There’s nothing in her medical records to indicate a pregnancy. She’s still covered under Cobra, of course. But she’s not used her insurance even once. Wait, here is a purchase of a car seat on one of her cards, but that’s it.”

Ryan waited; letting the man take the lead in this conversation was best for now. “So, how far along is she? As you said, this complicates things. The father? Is he making trouble then? Is it that former fiancee of hers?”

“Listen, Ranger. I’m sorry you got caught with your pants down on this one. But until Junior bit the dust, the woman was not of much interest to the investigators. There was no reason to believe she knew anything about what was going on. And honestly, there still isn’t. But we have to be sure of that, especially now.”

The man paused for a moment on the other end of the phone. “McBride is missing. No one outside the agency knows yet. We are trying to keep this quiet, obviously.”

Ryan pondered the man’s words. This changed things. It meant that any information Laura might have was more valuable. That was good; they could use that to their advantage. But it also meant that whoever was behind this whole mess was looking to tie up loose ends. Would they see Laura as one of those?

“How? When?”

He could hear the reluctance in the man’s voice, knew that Stephens probably was not telling him the whole story. “We don’t know. It seems that he, his wife, and daughter just drove away in a rental car sometime this morning.”

“So, what now?”

“We find the bastard, of course. And we put him behind bars for the rest of his life. But that isn’t enough. We need to find out who else is behind this. You know that. That’s why you’re there. And pregnant or not, you have a job to do. So, fucking do it.”

Ryan considered how much he wanted to reveal to this man, but the truth was – he needed a huge favor, and the only way to get it was the truth. Perhaps not all of it, but he had to take the risk. As much as the sudden suicide of Stephen McBride and now Gerald McBride’s disappearance bothered him, he needed Stephens’s help at the moment.

But something was not right. He felt it. Deep in his gut. That ‘golden gut’ that Grandfather had trained him to trust, the one that had saved his life and others. This time the stakes were higher. Higher than they had ever been, it was not just his life or other soldiers. It was hers – the one woman he loved – and his daughter’s. He had no other choice.

“I’m off the case, Stephens. In fact, consider this my resignation.”

“Wait…”

“Don’t worry; I will talk with Laura Reynolds. I will find out what she knows, and then we’ll be in touch with you to make a deal. But until then, I need a favor.”

“And why should I do you any favor, Ranger? You just dumped a load of shit on my plate that I have to clean up.”

“I meant what I said, Stephens. I’ll find the truth, and I’ll get it to you. Not because it’s an assignment, but for the sake of my family.”

“What the fuck? What fucking family?”

This time there was no doubt that his little girl overheard those words as she woke with a scream. “See what you did, Stephens. I’ll call you back later. Once I get my daughter fed, and her mother and I have an opportunity to clear some things up.”

“But…”

Ryan hung up the phone, shifted to put it back in his pocket, and managed to soothe his daughter just a tiny bit by rubbing her back, all at once. Maybe he could handle this daddy thing?

“Who the hell are you?”

He looked up to see the older woman standing at the end of the hall. If Stacey Reynolds had not been warm and welcoming before, she was openly hostile now. And he could not blame her.

“I’m Chloe’s father.” He should keep things simple until he had the chance to speak with Laura,  see where they stood, and formulate a plan from there.

“I know that. I know the truth about what happened to my baby girl in London, too. And you’d have enough to answer for that alone. But I want to know who you were talking to on that phone. My daughter and granddaughter are not some ‘assignment.’”

Chloe shifted on his chest, and her cries increased in volume, but the woman stood blocking the hallway with her hands on her hips. “Listen, Miss Reynolds,” from the deep scowl on the woman’s face, that was not the proper way to address her. But he doubted that Mom would have been welcome either. It might never be. His relationship with his future mother-in-law was going to require some serious work.

“I need to take Chloe to her Mom for feeding.” Ryan attempted to get up from the rocker while still supporting his daughter’s tiny head. Maybe this fatherhood thing was not that easy, after all?

The woman came towards him, “Just give me my granddaughter. I’ll take her to Laura.”

“And what then? You’ll call the sheriff? Not even a corrupt one like Kerr wants to mess with the people I work for.”

“Worked for. Remember? Will they save your sorry ass now?”

The woman stood toe-to-toe with him. Though she stood almost a head shorter and was petite, she did not back down, would not be intimidated by his size or authority, it seemed. He liked her even more. So, this was where Laura got her spirit, her gumption as Grandfather would call it. He hoped that Chloe inherited it from these incredibly strong women who had withstood so much.

But that was not getting him anywhere at the moment. Chloe was crying louder, but Ryan did not like his choices. The idea of pushing this woman aside was as unpalatable as that of handing over his precious cargo.

***9 p.m. Wilson ranch***

Cassie stood on the front porch leaning against the old wooden railing almost precisely as he had been when they drove up this morning. This morning? How was it possible that her whole life could shift and change in little more than twelve hours?

She closed her eyes to fight back the tears that had been threatening to fall all day. Hell, for months. Sometimes it seemed she had a lifetime of them bottled up inside. But she did not have the time for tears or the luxury of weakness.

After their little confrontation with her daughter, things had gone surprisingly smoothly. They had worked together to put away all the stuff in the bags. She had allowed Grace to pick which room she wanted.

She did not mind the smaller bedroom. Its big paned window looked out over the field. Chad had apologized for the sewing machine and table by the window. It took up half the room. He had offered to move it all to the attic, but she had insisted he leave it. Learning to sew had always been on her bucket list. With better internet and the Kindle he had bought for her, now seemed a good time to start.

He really had bought too much stuff. In addition to the iPad and Kindle, there was a decent-sized television for Grace’s room and a laptop that they could share. Chad had promised that he would have cable installed in her room, but Grace explained how that was no longer necessary with casting.

There were clothes and food, too. He had gone overboard there, as well. Grace was delighted to discover pink, blue, and purple hair dye among the dozen or more options. She had wanted to dye her hair for over a year. But her former school had a firm dress-code policy against such things.

When she began homeschooling, she had begged to be allowed to do so, but Gerald had refused, calling it ridiculous. Cassie was not sure that she approved something that might damage her daughter’s hair in the long term, but hair grew back. And they did need to disguise themselves. Grace had gotten into the whole idea of reinventing herself then.

But it had been getting late by then. They had, though, managed to set up her new iPad or at least the basics. So, her daughter had taken the tablet up to the bedroom she chose, where Chad had set up some box to boast the internet signal until they could make other arrangements. Grace was going to research hairstyles, preferably rainbow ones, she said.

The whole evening had been surprisingly comfortable, almost mundane. She had cooked the pizza and made a salad while Chad and Grace brought the horses into the barn for the night and fed them. He had insisted that they do the dishes since she had done the cooking. Grace would have argued, but he said it was only fair.

Cassie lost the battle, and a couple of tears spilled from the corner of her eyes. Had it been just twenty-four hours since she went to bed alone in the Houston mansion that she had shared with her husband of almost twenty years? It seemed like a lifetime ago. So much had changed.

Of course, it did not help, realizing that everything she had known had been built upon a lie. She was still trying to unpack it all. To figure out how she felt about this day’s revelations. She fully accepted her part in it all. She had cheated on her husband. She had lied to him. And there was no excuse for that. As Aunt Rose said, ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’

Except thinking about her beautiful daughter asleep safely upstairs, or more likely watching some YouTube video on how to dye your hair, it seemed that it had. That her ‘sin’ had made something that was perfectly right.

She was shocked at the relief she felt, knowing that Grace did not share her husband’s DNA. She had tried to convince herself that nurture was more important than nature. That if she raised her daughter with the proper morals, the ones that Aunt Rose had instilled in her at the kitchen table, then Callie would turn out alright.

But she had never wholly succeeded. Stephen had been very much his father’s son. And Gerald had virtually nothing to do with raising him. It was not just the fact that, at least, according to Gerald, it was his son that had instigated their dealings with ‘those’ people. She could never forget or forgive Stephen for the other. She shuddered to think what might have happened.

Warmth enveloped her. It was not merely the denim jacket that wrapped about her shoulders. She could almost feel the heat of his body radiating out to cocoon her in its warmth and comfort.

It might be wrong. Aunt Rose might think it some unpardonable sin, but she was glad that this man was the father of her child. It seemed more a miracle than an unforgivable sin.

She wanted nothing more than to lean back into the warm welcome of those strong arms, to turn all of it over to him. To let him deal with the mess that was her life, her daughter’s. But that was not fair. This was not his problem. They were not.

But he had taken them on nonetheless. When Gerald just showed up here, announced that her child was Chad’s, and dropped them off on the man, he had taken up the burden. Not only that, but he had done all he could to make things as easy as possible on them. And while she could live without a whole new wardrobe, a Kindle, and all the rest, she knew that those things made a massive difference to Grace.

“Thank you,” she whispered, though whether it was for the thoughtfulness of the jacket or all those other things, she was not sure. Hell, maybe it was for the most memorable night of her life. A night that her body was all too eager to remember…and to repeat.

“It’s the least I can do.”

She brushed the tears away with the back of her hand before she turned to face him. “No, you don’t owe us anything.” The truth was that she needed this man’s help to keep her child safe; she knew that. But she did not like that he was doing all this out of some mistaken sense of obligation and guilt.

She sought the right word to communicate that. “I know that right now, I, we, really need your help. Not for me, but Grace. I need to keep my daughter safe. And this may be the only one of Gerald’s decisions that I do trust. I believe you are my best chance of doing that. But I want you to know you don’t have to do this out of some warped sense of guilt. Because you think you owe it to me, or even her.”

“That night,” she paused as she battled to get her emotions under control. “That night, as special as it was, and is, to me. I never meant for this to happen. I never planned to trap you like this. I’m sorry.”

***Sebida, TX***

“Mama, let Ryan through.” The idea of facing this man, of answering his questions, was not something she wanted to face. But it would not get any easier the longer she delayed. Perhaps it was best to get it over with and get him out of their lives.

But looking at the way he cradled their daughter tore at her heart. Laura had thought it was so simple. A one-night stand with a man with superior genes, and she would have the baby she wanted. She had practically raised her younger sisters, so single motherhood did not scare her. And even once this man brought the hatchet down on her, she still had more in savings than many people earned in their whole lives.

Things turned out to be anything but simple. “It is Ryan, isn’t it?” She speared him with one of the glares that she had perfected early in her career, one meant to intimidate the most misogynistic of her colleagues.

Maybe it would have worked, too, if the room had not started to spin around her. She gripped the wall to keep from falling. She need not have bothered. In the space of a heartbeat, he had surrendered the baby to her mother, crossed the room, and scooped her into his arms. He carried her down the hallway to the bedroom and lay her gently back among the warm pillows and quilt.

“Should we call Lupe?”

She shook her head, though that too made the room spin. Her mother passed Chloe to her, “Here, get her started feeding.”

Laura blushed as she pushed the flap of her nursing gown aside and brought their daughter to her breast. She sucked in a deep breath at the strength of the tiny baby’s suckling.

“I told you, like father, like daughter,” he chuckled as he held out a finger. Chloe turned her eyes at the movement. Without ever releasing her mother’s nipple, the baby took her father’s thumb. “Give your mama a break, princess.”

If the man watching her breastfeed, taking in every suckle of their child, and all her bare skin was not embarrassing enough, her mother proceeded to raise the bottom of her nightgown and lower the maternity panties she wore. “Mama,” she protested.

“What? Someone needs to check and make sure you aren’t hemorrhaging. Would you rather it be your one-night stand?”

She drew back at her mother’s harsh words, but that was how Stacey Reynolds had survived without a legitimate husband or the help of her self-righteous family and three daughters to raise all alone. Mama worked jobs that were demeaning and sometimes less than safe. At least, her mother was no longer forced to work two or three of them to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Her job in the computer factory was far easier and safer than working the late shift in some convenience store that seemed to get robbed every other weekend.

But that look which she alternated between her daughter and this strange man must have been the same one that she used on those robbers. No wonder more than one of them had left without a dime. Laura wanted to slink away, as well. But it was time she paid the piper, as Mama said. She must face the music. And this was no sweet country ballad.

“Everything is alright, by the way. We should get you changed once you have finished feeding the baby. But the amount of bleeding is perfectly normal.” Her mother pronounced as she pulled her panties up, her gown down, and covered her with the quilt.

Stacey Reynolds stood at the foot of the bed, looking from one to the other of them before announcing. “I should call in. Let work know that I won’t make it tonight, that you had the baby.”

“That’s not necessary, Miss…” Ryan began, but her mother’s look quashed his protest.

Laura wanted to laugh; her mother’s talents had been wasted on those menial jobs. That look would have been golden in the boardroom.  “Ryan’s right, Mama. We’ll be fine.”

“What? Here alone with THAT man? Need I remind you, he lied to you. Fired you and took your job. And from what I just overheard in there, that’s not half the story. If you think that I’m gonna trust my daughter and granddaughter to…”

When her Mama got going, it was not easy to stop her, but Laura had learned how early on. A full-frontal attack, it was another of the corporate skills she had learned in a trailer park. “Mama, I know neither of us has good track records with men, but Ryan is Chloe’s father.” Her mother humphed at that, but Laura was not being stopped. “I know that does not always mean much, but have you watched him with her?”

She dared to look directly at the man who had shared the most memorable night of her life, only to stab her through the heart the following day. “I know that Ryan and I have some serious talking to do. Neither of us is without blame in this mess.” Her throat tightened around the truth of those words.

Then she turned back to face her mother, her best friend and sometimes worst enemy, the only person that knew the whole truth, or at least as much of it as she knew. “I built a career on reading and knowing people as much as the law. Every good attorney does. And one thing of which I am sure, Mama – Ryan would never do anything to harm Chloe.”

Her mother looked from her to the man, then to the baby, and back again. Her shoulders slumped. Laura could tell that her mother was not entirely convinced, but she would concede, give the field over to her daughter’s wishes. “If you’re sure, sweetie? I’ll just be a phone call away.”

“Thank you, Mama.” She glanced sideways at the man once more, “I think Ryan and I should have a bit of time alone.”

Her mother laughed as she bent to kiss her daughter’s forehead and then her granddaughter’s. “Yeah, look how well that turned out last time.”

“No matter what happens between your daughter and me, Miss Reynolds. I think that it turned out pretty damned perfect.” The man boldly met her mother’s stare.

Stacey Reynolds nodded, “All I’ll say is you better damned well see that it does. For both of them.”

Those blue eyes that she had seen in her dreams hundreds of times since that night met hers. “Oh, that’s just what I intend. You have my word on that.”

And as convoluted as this mess all seemed at the moment, Laura believed him. He rose from the side of the bed next to her and saw her mother out as she finished nursing their daughter. She tried very hard not to overthink the situation. It was best if they both just came clean. Or that was as far as her plan got.

***Wilson ranch***

Chad heard the fear, the guilt, and the pain of this day and more years than he wanted to think about in her voice. He wanted nothing more than to take her in his arms and make it all better. To set the whole world right for them both. But then he would be no better than her father or that man.

No, if he wanted to do the right thing by his girls, he needed to empower them, show them both that they had the strength within themselves to face whatever came. And the only way to do that was with honesty. Complete and total honesty. Even if it laid his soul bare, he placed his battered old heart in this woman’s hand and gave her the power to crush it.

“I’m glad to know that night was special to you, too.” He battled the desire to take her in his arms, but if he did, he was not sure he could let her go. “That night was everything to me.” He chuckled, trying to lighten the impact of the words he said next, “You ruined me for all other women.”

She looked up at him, her mouth opened, and she took a step closer. He reached out, his fingers covering the lips he longed to taste again. “I know that you weren’t trying to trap me. Heck, we were both damned careful that night.”

“But I am more glad than you will ever know that Fate had other plans. Our daughter is beautiful, smart, compassionate. Everything that her Mama is. Everything that captured my heart in a single night. And this old Marine thinks she is a miracle, the best thing he ever did or probably ever will.”

He let the truth roll out of his soul and mouth. “I’m sorry I didn’t know. Sorry, I was not there for you before now. I might not have been able to give you all the things that man did. But I believe I could have offered you something better.” Chad knew this was perhaps the most challenging thing he would ever say or do. Riskier than marching into an enemy ambush. “Love.”

He saw her eyes widen at his words, but he did not allow either of them to dwell too deeply on his admission. “I hate to admit it, but I owe that old bastard a huge debt of gratitude. He could have taken the easy route, placed ya’ll in witness protection. Hell, he could have just abandoned you both to whatever or whoever is out there.”

“But he didn’t. He brought you here to me. He allowed me to step up. To be a man. To take care of you both when he couldn’t. And that took courage and compassion on his part. I ain’t denying he’s a bastard. But when the chips were down, he did the right thing by us all. And I, for one, am grateful he did.”

“I ain’t gonna lie. I’m gonna put my cards on the table here. I want this to be permanent. I want you and my daughter in my life forever. I might have missed mid-night feedings and dirty diapers — her first words and steps. I might have missed a million other moments that most fathers take for granted. But we can’t change that.”

“It ain’t guilt that makes me want to help out now. But there ain’t a damned thing wrong with a man, or a woman, feeling responsibility. And, hell, yeah, I feel responsible for that girl. And you. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

He hoped the silence and pause would tell her as much as his words, how he truly felt. “But I don’t intend that responsibility to strangle you either. Real relationships, real families, aren’t about one person controlling or dictating to another. It’s about working together, making hard decisions together, laughing, and crying together.”

“That’s what I want. What I want with you both. I want to be there for you both. But I want ya’ll to be there for me, too. I’m tired of being alone.” He stared up into the vast darkness, watched the stars twinkle, bringing light and warmth to his heart and soul, as she had.

“I want to watch my daughter grow up. I want to see her walk across the stage at her graduations. I want to cheer her on when she runs the barrels. And if I’m damned lucky one day, I’ll get to walk her down the aisle and place her hands in those of a man I know and trust will see her inner beauty and strength, and value it as much as I do. Maybe one day, I’ll even get the chance to do those feedings and dirty diapers with a grandbaby.”

He stepped forward, his fingers brushed her lower lips, watched as it trembled. And he thought perhaps he saw the beginnings of the passion they had shared that one night in her eyes. “I want to hold you in my arms and never again have to walk away. It killed me to leave you sleeping that morning. But I knew if I stayed, if I made love to you one more time, I’d never find the strength to walk away.”

She stepped forward, pressed her body to his, and looked up into his eyes. “Maybe you shouldn’t have?”

He leaned his forehead against hers, “Maybe I shouldn’t have. But we can’t change that, Cassie. But I want you to know, going in, what my intentions are. I’m going to marry you one day. I’m going to spend the rest of my life making up for those lost years. I’m gonna fall asleep next to you every night and wake up next to you every morning. We’re gonna laugh, and cry, and love for as long as Fate gives us.”

He stepped back and sighed heavily, “But that will be your choice. Your decision. All I can do is my best to convince you that this is where you belong. That I’m the man for you. You choose me once. And I’m gonna do all I can to be worthy of you choosing me again. This time, not for a single night. But for the rest of our lives. As partners. Full partners in life, for life.”

He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. Turning it, he repeated the action to her palm. “But not until you’re ready. So, good night, sweetheart. The day starts damned early around here. And in addition to all my regular chores, I have to work with a teenager to get ‘decent’ internet out here in the boonies, as Grace said.”

He wanted to lean in and kiss her, but he knew that if he did, he would not find the strength to walk away, to spend another night alone in his bed with only dreams of her to keep him company. But this night, unlike all the others for the past almost fifteen years, for his whole damned adult life, he had something precious, something else to keep him warm…hope. Hope that one day, one day soon, he would not be sleeping alone in that bed.

“Good night, Cassie.” It was like a prayer on his lips.

“Rose. Good night, Rose. I figure that Callie ain’t the only one that needs a new name,” she whispered as she squeezed his hand.

“I like it. Rose. It suits you. You are certainly my rose. Sweet and I’m sure with a few thorns to keep things interesting. Good night, Rose.”

***9:15 p.m. Sebida, TX***

Ryan knew that Stacey Reynolds only wanted what was best for her daughter and granddaughter. He could see now where Laura got her fierceness, and he did not like being on the wrong side of it. But this was bigger than all of them; he had to remember that too. “Look, Miss Reynolds, I’m sorry I can’t tell you more right now. But I meant it; I intend to do the right thing by both of them.”

The woman turned and nodded, looking him directly in the eye as if taking his full measure, “This has to do with McBride, doesn’t it?”

Ryan did not think it would compromise national security too much to confirm the obvious with a slight nod of his head.

Laura’s mother stared off into the night, “I always knew that job cost her soul more than it should. I blame myself. If I had been stronger, protected her better, then she would not have valued money and position so much. Enough to sell her soul to that man.”

“I don’t believe she did that, Miss Reynolds. There was never any evidence to suggest she knew anything about what was happening. Most of their senior executives didn’t.”

“Are they in danger? Will she have to go to prison?”

“As I said, there is no indication she knew enough to send her to prison. As for danger, we don’t know yet how much. But just in case, do me a favor, pack a bag for you and Mercy. Elena and her family too.”

“That bad?” her eyes widened as the depth of danger hit her.

He did not want to frighten her unnecessarily, but he needed them prepared. “You could all be used as leverage against her.”

“Elena and her husband go on regular mission trips to Central America. I’ll suggest that now would be a good time for one. But as for me and Mercy, I have a Smith & Wesson with their name on it. And like Reba says, ‘little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun.’”

She laughed and patted his cheek when she saw the look of shock. “This is Texas, and I was leaving my three little girls alone in a trailer at night. You’re damned right; those girls know how to take care of themselves.”

She tilted her head towards the house, “But that one ain’t in much shape to do so right now. So, I’m leaving it up to you to do it. But trust me, if anyone comes messing with me or Mercy, we have a shoot first, ask questions later policy. I need to get to work, but I’ll call them on the way. Now, get that cute ass back in there and make things right with my daughter. There’s enough bastards in this family as it is.”

Her words could not have cut him any deeper. He dropped his head in shame and stared at the cold concrete porch, “I’m sorry. I knew better…”

Her laugh broke the cool night air, “Oh sweetie, didn’t anyone ever teach you that it takes two to tango? And I know that girl in there. When Laura wants something, nothing stops her.” She gave him another of those intense stares, “She could have done lots worse.”

He smiled and nodded his head as she walked in the dark towards her older model SUV parked in the driveway. Maybe, just maybe, he stood a chance with his future mother-in-law. But right now, he had his future bride to deal with. He turned back towards the house with resolve. He would untangle this mess, professionally and personally. His daughter was NOT going to be called a bastard.

***Wilson ranch***

Cassie stood on that front porch, staring up at those stars and thinking about all Chad had said until her fingers and toes went numb with the cold. She wanted to open that front door, race up those stairs, and barge into his bedroom. She wanted to seduce him.

But she knew he was right about this too. She needed time. They needed time. She had spent her whole life under the thumb of one man or another. While this could hardly be considered standing on her own, it was the closest she had come. She needed to learn to make decisions on her own.

Maybe she did know how. It certainly seemed that the one time she had made a decision on her own had turned out pretty damned well. Her choices when it came to men seemed pretty damned remarkable.

It was more than just that, though. She…they needed to think ahead to the day that Grace found out the truth. No matter what her daughter said about her having the right to a bit of happiness or the number of women that Gerald slept with, Grace had still considered the man her father for her whole life. It would hardly seem right for her mother to hop into bed with another man immediately. No, they needed to take things slowly. Get to know one another properly this time. Learn to work, as Chad said, as full partners. And prepare their daughter for the truth one day.

She turned towards the house with new confidence and determination. Last night she had gone to bed frightened, insecure, and alone. Tonight she might be in a strange house, but she felt anything but afraid, abandoned, or weak. She might have only been in this place for hours. But it felt like coming home already. Yeah, she could most definitely sign on to that dream Chad presented of the happy family.

***9:30 p.m. Sebida, TX***

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, she did what she had been taught was best – stick to a simple yes or… “No.”

“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 tiny 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. At least that 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 to show weakness. That lesson was not learned at Stanford Law but in kindergarten in Sebida, Texas. Kids could be incredibly cruel when the biggest gossip in town was that your parents’ marriage was not legal. “Why?”

His fingers gripped her chin and 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?”

“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.”

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?”

“I resigned.”

Laura 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, his cousin 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.”

“What’s that?”

“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 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 following 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 had 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?”

“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 new technologies 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 the following 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.”

“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? 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 perfect timing that 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? 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 Ryan knew 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 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 head 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 was 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 entire 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.”

“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. 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…” Ryan 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 his grandfather’s casino. At least until he can decide what he wants to do with the damned thing. 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.”

“Thanks, Rex.”

“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.

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