Part 4 – Come Monday Night

***5:30 p.m. a cornfield in Bumfuck, TX***

Will looked for some half-decent dirt road to pull off. He knew his girl’s sweet ass must be numb by now. Besides, they really should talk. He had no idea who the fuck she even was. Why the ‘good’ sheriff was harassing her. Or what the hell the man had said that had frightened her so much she had shot the bastard.

The only things that he knew were that this woman was innocent, and if Kerr had gotten his hands on her, then she would have been as lost as Bebe was. Okay, he knew one more thing – that was something he could not allow to happen.

If he could find a quiet side road, they should be relatively safe. It had taken him far less than ten minutes to cover the twenty miles it took to get the hell out of Sebida County. That’s why he loved the Duchess so much. With a top speed of one-hundred-thirty miles per hour, she could outrun almost anything except helicopters.

But from the way that Kerr dropped when his boot connected with the man’s jaw, Will knew he had at least a few minutes to get them the hell out of Dodge. Even then, Sebida did not have its own police helicopter. The ‘good’ sheriff would have to go through the process to get the Texas State Troopers involved, and he knew that might not be as easy as it sounded. Even after that damned acquittal, the tensions between the state and federal authorities and Sebida County still ran high, and trust low.

But then again, this woman had shot a police officer. Yeah, the man would get the copter, eventually. Of course, by then, Will hoped they would be far beyond whatever search perimeter they set. He was reasonably sure that Kerr had not noticed him following his police cruiser. And he had moved so quickly that Will knew the man had not gotten a good look at his bike. With the helmet and gloves, Kerr would not be able to give them any lame description about the ‘random black male.’

Still, they were racing the clock. He knew that. Even a shithole like Sebida would have dashcams on its police cruisers. That meant eventually, the Troopers might identify the Duchess. So, they needed to come up with a plan. But a lot of that depended on who the woman was.

Or did it? Was he willing to just let her walk away? Hell, no. That was not one of the options. It never would be. Just when things were looking their bleakest, he suddenly had a new fucking reason for surviving?

Will had spent the last hour and a half trying to ignore how perfectly right it felt to have her arms wrapped about his waist. Her head rested just between his shoulder blades. Not to mention those tits, they had to be 38C at least, pressed tightly to his back.

Having a raging hard-on in leather pants was not as much fun as people thought. And when she shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position, damn, her crotch rubbed right up against his ass. Though he would prefer it was his face. He could spend a few days with his tongue buried between those surprisingly long legs for a short chick.

He was so lost in that thought he almost missed the little county road. But that was good. If he could miss it, then others might too. The other good thing about the Duchess was that her suspension could handle rough terrain. Like Will, she performed to her best when pushed to her limits. And he knew that he was doing that today.

He did not know where this road took them, so he did not dare go too far. A couple of miles, and it opened onto some cornfields. You could not get much more perfect than that for hiding a motorcycle and a couple of people. He drove straight into the field even though he knew it meant the husks were hitting her in the face. Right now, that was a minor inconvenience.

About twenty feet in, he stopped the Duchess and turned off the engine. He had to practically prise the girl’s arms away from his waist. She staggered a bit as she got off. Was that because of vertigo? Most people were not used to the sensation of riding a motorcycle, especially not at the speeds he had pushed the Duchess to that first half an hour or so. Hell, some people did not even like bikes. Was she one of those? Damn, guess no woman could be perfect. Her face looked even paler than it had back at the library. If that were possible.

Not that Will had a problem with white chicks. He had never put much store by race, not when it came to the women he dated. Though dated was not quite right – fucked. Will had spent way too much time and energy building his law enforcement career for anything even close to a relationship. No, it was always strictly fucking, at least as far as he was concerned. At least until now.

“Who the hell are you?” Her soft brown eyes flared almost as much as her nostrils. Hellfire and damnation, Will could get lost in the passion in those eyes.

He took off his helmet and watched her face. Good, she did not seem phased one way or another by the color of his skin. “I was just about to ask you the same question.”

Her hands rested on those curvy hips, “Well, I asked first.”

“Will. My name is Will,” he kept his explanation simple. For now, at least.

“Well, that tells me a whole hell of a lot, don’t it?”

Damn, he could think of better uses for that sassy mouth. But now was not the time, and his tastes had never run to sex outdoors. Though for her, he might make an exception.

“It’s more than you’ve told me, darling.’”

She paced back and forth for a moment. He loved the way she bit the nail of her pointer finger as she thought. “Mercy.”

He laughed, “I just thought it would be nice if you had some on me.”

“No, smart ass, my name is Mercy. Mercedes Reynolds.”

Why did that name ring a bell? “Mercedes, I like that name, by the way. It fits you. All sleek and fine.”

“Oh please, is that the best you can come up with? In case you have not noticed, now isn’t the best fucking time for pick-up lines.”

“Okay then, why the hell was Sheriff Earl Kerr arresting you? How overdue was that romance novel anyway? I didn’t think even Sebida was that strict.” He loved the rosy blush in those cheeks that spread down her neck to those, correction, D-cups.

“It isn’t. Especially as I am the librarian.”

Will would not have thought anything could have gotten him hotter or harder, but those words did. This woman was no prim and proper virgin librarian, but the fantasy was still hot.

“Embezzlement then? Did you forget to pay the fine sheriff his cut of those late fees?” He knew that was not the case. But something about her pushed every single one of his buttons. And this game of cat and mouse was teasing his brain as much as his cock.

She paced back and forth for a moment, sucking and biting that nail again. “Listen, you can trust me. I’m a federal agent.” Or I was until this morning, but he wasn’t going to share that tidbit just yet.

She looked up at him; her gaze met his. “Do you know Ryan Ranger?”

“Yeah, it’s been a while. He went deep undercover about a year ago, and I ain’t heard of him since then.” Something clicked then. He laughed until his sides hurt. Of all the fucking gin joints in the world.

She took a couple of steps back towards the road and stared at him. He supposed he did look crazy. “McBride. Reynolds, that’s where I recognize the name. Laura Reynolds was McBride’s General Counsel.”

“She’s my sister. And that’s why Kerr came to the library today. Looking for her.”

“Where is she?”

“I don’t know, for sure. With Ryan somewhere. He’s her husband and the father of her new baby.” She paced back and forth some more. “He just showed up yesterday. And all hell broke loose. I mean, Laura always figured that the feds might come for her. Hell, we made S-H-T-F plans, just in case. But now all that has changed.”

She ran her hands through her hair; most of it had come loose from the ponytail anyway. “Ryan took Laura and the baby somewhere. She sent Elena and Brad off on another mission trip to Central America. And I was supposed to meet Mama at Jack’s casino. But Kerr came before I could get there. I don’t know what the fuck is going on. If any of them are safe.”

Will could tell that shock was setting in. He bet it was not every day that the little librarian shot a man. Even if Kerr did deserve far worse. But right now, they did not have time for her to break down. He got off his bike and walked over to her. He wrapped his arms around her and drew her against him. Damn, it felt perfect the way her head fit just under his chin.

“I promise it’ll be alright. We’ll figure something out.” He said though he knew it was a promise he might not be able to keep.

S-H-T-F was a phrase that Will was more than familiar with. And over the past couple of weeks, the shit had definitely hit the fan. His life. And hers. But it went much deeper than that. It was this nation and world too. Something was brewing, and Will knew that. Every bit as much as he knew that nothing would ever feel more right than holding this woman in his arms.

***On the road in Jack’s Baby, 6 p.m.***

Laura came awake to the soft mewing of a kitten. That did not make sense. She did not own a cat.

“Hey, sweetheart, we’ve pulled over for a bit. Chloe needs to be fed. Jack has gone into the store to see what crap he can find for us to eat as well.” Ryan held their crying daughter out towards her.

She tried to shift into a more comfortable position on the mattress. Jack’s ‘Baby’ had been quite a surprise – a classic 1965 Volkswagon Type 2 microbus. He had ‘won’ it in a poker game over a decade ago while stationed at Fort Bragg. It had not been much when he got it, rusted out and not running, but he had worked to restore it over the years. Right down to a killer hippy flower paint job. He had explained the whole thing on their trip to meet Lupe in Navasota.

The best thing was that he had fitted it out for road trips. There was a mini-fridge as well as the old mattress at the back. It even had curtains on the side windows to give them added privacy.

Before leaving Old Man Ledbetter’s garage, Jack had thrown his surfing board on the rack up top. The cover story was he needed some time away, a break to come to terms with his grandfather’s death, and make some decisions about the terms of his will. So, Jack was heading to Corpus Christi for some surfing. Of course, they had avoided the interstate, mainly taking smaller country roads towards the Hill Country.

Laura groaned as she turned on her side and reached for the baby. Lupe had warned her that staying in one position too long could be painful, but they did not have much choice. Until they reached Grandfather’s ranch, she, Ryan, and the baby needed to stay out of sight.

He held out the squirming bundle, “Anything I can do to make you more comfortable?”

She shook her head as she pushed aside the loose top of Elena’s dress and got Chloe properly attached to her nipple. She would kill for a pee, but the porta-potty thing in the van was only a last resort due to the decided lack of privacy. “How much further?”

“Another two hours or so. We needed to stop for gas and food but bypassed Austin. Too many closed-circuit cameras there. Jack ran across this place just as Chloe woke up and started to fuss, so it seemed as good a place as any.”

She could not see anything from where she lay in the back. But one thing was for sure – she could not go another two hours without peeing. “Any chance I can get out, stretch my legs, and use the bathroom once I get Chloe fed?”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but we can’t take the risk of either of us being seen. Afraid, that is your only option,” he replied, motioning to the raised square container that was built into the far wall.

Laura started to shake her head, but Ryan interrupted. “Laura, I know the idea is embarrassing, but it can’t be healthy for you to go almost eight hours without….”

She laughed, “Peeing. Look, if you can’t even say the word, how do you expect me to….”

“Pee?” He bit into his cheek once more, “I get it. I know lots of couples who have been together for years who don’t,” he sucked in a deep breath, “pee in front of one another.” He smiled reassuringly at her as she adjusted her position again. But there was no way she was going to get comfortable, or as he said, wait another two hours to pee.

“How about we consider this one of those stupid corporate team-building exercises? I mean, if we’re gonna get through this mess and build a family for Chloe, we need to trust one another, right? So, a bit of intense team building might be just what we need.”

She stared at him for a long moment as their baby nursed, “Fine, then you go first, hotshot.”

She had thought that would be enough to send Ryan fleeing. She had even used her best man-eater voice, the one she had honed for mansplaining misogynists. So, she was shocked when Ryan shrugged, “Fair enough, counselor.”

She was so stunned that she could not find words, something that she could not remember happening before. Ryan turned his back and lifted the lid. She watched his tight ass, almost spellbound, as he seemed to fumble with his jeans. Laura was almost relieved when the only sound was Chloe’s sucking. She was just about to make another smart-mouthed remark when the unmistakable tinkle proved her wrong. She looked away from that tight ass as it clinched. She was sure that her cheeks were flaming as Ryan turned and pulled a wipe from the bag near her head. She was uncertain what to say now.

Ryan was not, “As soon as she is through on that side, I’ll take the baby and help you up. I’d rather we finish our team building before Jack gets back.”

Laura wanted to argue the point, but she knew that her bladder would not agree. She inserted her pinky in the corner of Chloe’s mouth and broke the suction. Her daughter scrunched up her face as if she was considering arguing too, but did not manage to get a cry out before Ryan scooped her into his arms and up to his shoulder. “Here, take my hand,” he held it out towards her.

Laura did not have any other choice. She could not meet his gaze as she slowly used his arm to pull herself to a sitting position. There was not enough room to stand in the van. Instead, she made it to her knees and crawled towards the potty. “Move out of my way and turn around,” she barked.

Ryan nodded as he brought Chloe to his shoulder and began to gently pat her back to burp the baby. Laura was eternally grateful that Elena always preferred dresses. It was hard enough to get the bulky maternity panties down, especially with the pad. She examined it; Lupe had changed it in Navasota, but that was hours ago. She was relieved that the amount of bleeding seemed to be expected.

She sat on the toilet, trying her best to concentrate on relieving her bladder rather than the man, who was crooning to their daughter. Ryan was so close that if she reached out, she could touch him. She was just about to say that this was not going to work when nature won out. When she finished, she faced another challenge. She needed a wipe to clean up, and she should probably change the pad while she was at it. But how did she ask him, a man, for such things? A man she barely knew — a man who was the father of her child.

“Are you okay?” he turned around a bit.

She blushed and pulled the dress even further down her knees. She supposed, given the fact that this man had been her lover and spent more than the perfunctory three licks down there that night and had, in fact, delivered their daughter, maybe she was overreacting a bit? She stared at the floor of the van. Her voice was barely a whisper, “Could you hand me a wipe, please?” He reached into the bag, passing her a couple. “And a…” She was not sure she could bring herself to say those words.

“One of those maternity pad thingies?” he shifted Chloe to his other shoulder and reached into another bag, passing her the whole box.

“Thanks,” she mumbled. More embarrassed now that Ryan was handling this challenge with more grace and aplomb than she had. It took her only a couple of moments to get settled. Thankfully the packaging of this brand doubled as disposal as well. But she blushed as she added it to the bag of chip wraps and a couple of diapers. “You changed her diaper?”

He grinned as he held out his arm again, “I’m not making any promises that I did it right. But you can find videos on anything on the internet.”

“Your cell. Fuck, they can trace us.” How could a man like him, a federal agent, forget such a simple thing?

“I used Jack’s. Mine is halfway across the state by now in the back of some semi that was parked at Walmax in Madison.”

He handed Chloe to her as she lay down on her other side and pulled the loose top aside once more, “I gave mine to Lupe. She promised to drop it off at the hospital in Bryan on her way home.”

“You think of everything, don’t you?”

“I had good training. Mama always had a plan for everything – fire, tornado, flood, robbers, even alien invaders,” she laughed.

“Like mother, like daughter. So I was your emergency backup plan.”

She blushed, “I guess I should say sorry for lying to you.”

“Don’t you dare. I might wish things had happened differently than they have, but I will never regret my daughter.” He bent down so that they were eye to eye, “Or that night. Only the job I had to carry through with afterward. If anyone should say sorry, it’s me.” He shook his head, “I’d like to say I was doing it to protect you, but the truth was….”

He did not get to finish as the driver’s door opened, and Jack slipped behind the wheel. He looked in the rearview mirror for a moment before turning the key. The van hummed to life as if it were new. He pulled out onto the road before he spoke. “Sorry, they did not have much other than cardboard sandwiches. The girl behind the counter asked too many questions. I think she was just flirting, but I hope she bought my story about not wanting to stop again until I hit the Gulf.”

Ryan looked at her before reaching out to take the bag that Jack passed over the seat. “Good thing we stayed out of sight then.”

Laura watched Chloe nurse; tears filled her eyes as an afterpain hit her. Lupe said that was perfectly normal, but it hurt like a bitch as it sliced through her abdomen. “Oh, the tangled web we weave,” she kissed the top of her baby’s head and closed her eyes. Even if she did not sleep, at least if her eyes were closed, they would not expect her to engage in conversation.

***Of all the cornfields in Bumfuck, TX***

Why now, of all times? Why did Mercy finally meet a man that did as much for her as those ‘book boyfriends?’ Why when her world was falling apart?

She began to laugh. And once that dam broke, there was no turning back. She pushed out of his arms. She did not need that distraction on top of everything else that she was dealing with. She just kept laughing until she doubled over with pain in her side. Even then, she could not stop. She laughed until the tears began to flow. She laughed and cried until her whole body shook as violently as if she were having a seizure.

The man leaned against his motorcycle, just staring at her. It did not take a psychic to read his mind. And he was probably right – she had lost her mind. She had to have, right? Hell, her whole fucking life had become worse than some cheesy plot in her romances.

Except she was no fucking damsel in distress; let Elena play that role. Hell, even Laura seemed to be embracing the position now that Ryan had shown up. But she was too much her Mama’s daughter. She didn’t need no man. Even an uber-hot one that she’d pay good money to pose for a cover.

Oh, sure, this was just how those fucking tropes went. A seemingly strong woman faces an insurmountable problem. White knight, although in this case, her knight wore dark damned fine, rides in on his charger. She supposed a Ducati Scrambler 1100 was the modern equivalent. And saves the damsel and the day. Still, dei ex machina had never been her favorite plot device.

But Merry J. Austen never wrote to those fucking tropes. That was why she had given up looking for an agent or book deal and just self-published her stories. No, her books were different. Her heroines took no shit and always kept the upper hand. So, how did she get that upper hand back now?

Mercy drew in a deep, cleansing breath and wiped the tears from her face with the back of her hand. She looked around them, “Where the fuck are we?”

He shrugged, “I’m not sure exactly. Bumfuck, Texas. About a hundred miles or so, southwest of Sebida.”

She slipped the backpack off her shoulders. She clutched it in front of her, though she did not mind this man staring at her tits. She opened the top and reached inside for a bottle of water. She grabbed one for him as well. “Where are you going?” She asked as she tossed him the water.

He unscrewed the cap and brought the bottle to the sexiest lips she had ever imagined kissing. Fuck, now was not the time for this shit. But if those lips weren’t enough to unnerve her, then those soft brown eyes that never left her face would have. Were those green flecks around the outside? Shit, this was bad. And his following words only made it worse. “I have no fuckin’ idea. I was hoping you could tell me, sweetheart.”

“What do you mean, you have no idea? I thought you said that you were a fed?” But was that a good thing? Hadn’t Mama told her that Ryan thought there might be a leak? Wasn’t that why they were going into hiding? Could she trust this guy? She unconsciously slipped her hand into the front pocket of the bag.

He held up his hands, “Mercy.” He smiled, and her name sounded like some sweet caress, like a Chicks ballad. “Mercedes, there’s no reason to go for your gun. I’m one of the good guys, I promise. Well, if there is such a thing.”

She did not take her hand off the gun, though she left the safety on this time. For now. “I’m asking you again. Who the fuck are you? And what the hell were you doing at my library? Were you there to arrest me too?”

“My name is Caleb Williams, but as I said, most people call me Will. And until this morning, I was a federal agent assigned to the McBride case. And no, my former employer did not send me to arrest you. Hell, I did not even know that they were all that interested in your sister. Though I suppose it makes sense since McBride is dead.”

“As for what I was doing at the library? That was just Fate. I was following Kerr.” He brought the bottle back to those kiss-ass-able lips and drained it.

“Why were you following Kerr? What do you mean, former employer? McBride is dead?”

He began with the most straightforward question. “They found McBride and his rental in a ditch. Just outside of Sebida earlier today.” Will saw the shock and concern in her innocent eyes. But he did not want her to make those same connections he had, so he continued.  “I had personal business with Kerr. And United States Attorney James Travis Tyler fired my ass this morning.” He screwed the lid back on the bottle and tossed it back towards her.

But she was not biting. It landed at her feet, and she kept her eyes on his face. “Why did he fire you? And what personal business?”

“Damn, woman, maybe you should have gone to law school like that sister of yours. Cause you’re better than Tyler at cross-examination.”

“I always preferred fiction to legal briefs. Now answer my fucking questions, or the safety comes off my gun.”

“I was one of the agents guarding McBride when he escaped.”

Fuck. That made him crooked. As bad as Kerr. She took off the safety and pulled the gun out of the pocket, aiming it at him. Well, at his kneecap. She might have had the courage to shot Kerr through the heart if he had not moved, but she knew she could never kill this man. No matter what. And that bothered the fuck out of her. But she could make damned sure he did not follow her. She took another couple of steps back towards the road.

“It’s not what you think. I’m not the leak, and I didn’t do it for the money.”

The way those eyes met hers almost made her believe him, or maybe that was just because she wanted to? Either way, she found herself asking, “So why then? Why would you let that man escape?”

“Like I told Tyler, I didn’t. Well, not McBride himself. He promised he’d come back. He just wanted to take his wife and child someplace safe.”

“And you believed him?”

“About coming back? No. But I did about getting those women someplace safe.” His shoulders slumped as he dropped his hands to his side at last. “I’m guessing from what you said about your sisters and Mama that Ryan had figured it out, too. There’s a leak in the agency.”

It was one thing to know that her brother-in-law suspected that, but this man spoke as if it were fact. “How do you know that for sure?”

“Because I know who it is.”

“Who? And how do you know? Are you some hotshot double agent working both sides?”

***6 p.m. Chad’s ranch***

Rose brought the old wooden spoon towards her lips. The homemade spaghetti sauce was steaming hot, so she took a moment to blow on it. The garlic bread was ready to go into the oven, and she had made the salad earlier.

She smiled, pleased that this, their first day here, had gone better than she expected. Not only had Grace done most of her studies without complaint, a miracle in itself, but over a couple of sandwiches for lunch, the three of them had negotiated what all considered reasonable chores.

She, of course, would take over most of the housework. Even if that did seem sexist, the truth was that she had always found peace and solace in such things. Of course, Gerald had always dismissed it, ‘Let the maids get that. That’s what we pay them for.’ Maybe it was being raised by her parents’ housekeeper? Perhaps she felt connected to her childhood and Aunt Rose in those simple tasks like folding the laundry, mopping the floor, or especially cooking dinner?

She had to admit that she was a bit shocked at how readily Cal… Grace had acceded to the whole chore thing. Perhaps it was the novelty of it all? Her daughter would help Chad out with the horses. Rose was not surprised at that per se. The girl loved horses. But loved had amounted to riding them. Perhaps brushing and feeding them afterward, but cleaning up horse shit was another thing that McBride women were not expected to do. Rose’s mouth had dropped at how quickly her daughter had consented to muck out the stables.

But what had almost floored her was the fact that her recently petulant teen had agreed to ‘getting up with the chickens,’ as Chad called it. If Grace had been shocked that anyone actually got up at five a.m., she had not said it. Not a single smart-mouthed remark had marred their simple lunch.

It was after lunch that brought a smile to Rose’s lips. He had kept his word. Chad had fulfilled his promise. As soon as he had dried the last plate and put it away, the man had suggested that they practice a bit of self-defense.

Grace still believed that it was all just Gerald’s melodrama and said as much. Even Rose could not convince her daughter of the dangers, not without revealing far more of the truth than she was ready to – just yet anyway. Chad had intervened, asking what it would hurt to know a bit about defending yourself. Grace had shaken her head, shrugged her shoulders, and replied, “Whatever.”

Her daughter might have been reluctant at first, but she had rapidly gotten into it all. Within half an hour, Chad had taught them both three different ways to disarm someone with a knife. Guns were a bit more of a challenge. For a native Texan, her baby girl was a pacificist. They had not been victorious on that one. But Grace had stuck around to watch Chad instruct Rose in the use of a handgun.

It had been over two decades since she had held a gun, and then it was rifles and shotguns, not revolvers. But even she was surprised at how quickly it had come back. She might not be able to hit the bullseye, but she had only missed the target once. Which meant she could at least slow them down, even if she could not kill someone. She hoped it would be enough. Hell, she hoped it never came to that.

Afterward, they had done the afternoon chores together. Then come back to the house. Chad had disappeared into his study, said he needed to check emails and order stocks. Grace had gone into her room to game or watch YouTube. And she had begun dinner with a smile. She should call them both soon, so they had time to wash up first.

Rose was lost in her thoughts, the pan of garlic bread in one hand and the other on the oven door.

“Did you know?”

She turned with the pan still in her hand. Grace stood just inside the kitchen doorway. Her iPad was clasped tightly to her chest. Her beatific face marred with purple and blue streaks where freshly dyed hair had fallen into her face as she cried. Rose had heard the term ‘dear in the headlights’ many times, but this did not even come close.

She took a step away from the stove towards her daughter, but Grace held up her hand and shook her head as hair flew about her face, more catching in the wet tears that fell like a Galveston thunderstorm on a hot August day.

“Did you know, Mama?”

There was anger, desperation, and something else intangible in her daughter’s words. Whatever it was, Cassie wanted to make it right. Something told her that this was not a boo-boo she could kiss all better. Rose fought back the need to rush to her child, scoop her into her arms, and never let go. Grace was in no mood for that right now. So, she did the only thing she could. She responded to her daughter’s question – as best she could. “Know what, Callie?”

She took another step away from the stove, approaching her child like you would a wounded animal. “What are you talking about, Grace?” She had to be more careful. They were home this time, but what if they had not been? She could not afford to slip up. Even as new as this all was.

“He’s dead.” Her daughter’s words were barely a whisper. The pan in her hand clattered to the floor. The buttered garlic bread slices stuck to that old yellow and green linoleum. Rose was not even sure that she had heard Grace.

She did not need to ask who. “Are you sure? Where did you hear that? Maybe he just ran away?” It was something Gerald would do. Drop her and her daughter here. Then run off without facing justice. Hell, he had probably been lying all along. He must have millions stashed away on some tropical island.

Her daughter nodded her head and turned the iPad to face her. Rose recognized the woman immediately. Most Americans would. After all, Kelly Marsh had spent most of her life in the spotlight. First, as the daughter of the first female Vice President, a woman who herself had been forced to resign due to corruption. But that had not stopped the woman, who must be about her own age now, maybe a bit older, from building a life of her own as a reporter and now the nightly news anchor at one of the top-rated cable stations.

“Good evening, America. This is Kelly Marsh.”

“And I’m Connor Ryan,” the middle-aged man next to her beamed.

“Tonight’s top story is the death of billionaire businessman Gerald McBride. McBride and his son Stephen were indicted on federal RICO charges three months ago. We go live now to our reporter in Houston. Megan, what’s the latest?”

Whether it was genuine or not, the woman’s face showed a gravitas lacking in most of the media these days. For some reason, Cassie had always liked her. Heck, she had even spoken to the woman once or twice at various charity events.

“Yes, Kelly, I am outside of the federal courthouse in Houston now. Prosecutors had scheduled a press conference for noon. But that was delayed until just half an hour ago.” The younger woman seemed to look down at her notes before lifting her flawless face back to the camera. “The rumor, of course, was that they would be announcing a plea agreement with McBride on over fifty charges of money laundering, embezzlement, bribery, and extortion under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.”

The screen switched to a podium outside the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse. Rose recognized the aging limestone façade immediately. She had spent enough time there these past few months. She also recognized the man at the podium and many federal agents and local police standing behind the man. The United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas was a man around her age. But that baby face masked a keen intelligence, a fierce ambition, and, surprisingly in this day and age, a deep passion for justice.

His deep East Texas drawl cut straight to the chase, “At twelve-fifty-four p.m. this afternoon, a black rental SUV with the body of Gerald McBride was discovered by local authorities on Route Fifty-Nine just outside of Sebida, Texas. The badly damaged vehicle was located in a ditch. It appears that McBride, the sole passenger in the car, died upon impact.”

“An APB for McBride’s wife and daughter as material witnesses has been issued by Federal Judge Martin Hall. An internal review and full investigation into how McBride’s circumvented house arrest is underway at this time. Cassandra McBride is not wanted for a crime, and it is feared that she and their daughter may be in danger. Anyone with information on their whereabouts is asked to call 9-1-1. Thank you, that’s all we have at this time.”

The man had read the whole statement with a blank face, barely taking a breath and avoiding contact with the camera as much as possible. But Cassie had come to know enough about the man to see the tick in his cheek, which betrayed his anger and frustration.

“Thank you for that, Megan. Are authorities there saying if they suspect foul play?” The camera panned to the cultured and articulate façade of the KNN anchor.

“There has been no word on whether McBride’s death is being treated as accidental or murder. Of course, his son, Stephen, committed suicide just a couple of months ago while in federal custody. McBride’s attorneys used that as grounds for a compassionate release for their client pending trial. They said that the sixty-four-year-old father and businessman was suffering from depression and grief over the death of his only son,” responded the younger reporter.

“Do investigators believe McBride’s death might be suicide?” interjected the middle-aged male anchor.

The reporter shook her head, “As U. S. Attorney for the Southern District James Travis Tyler said McBride’s wife and their fourteen-year-old daughter are also missing from their Piney Point mansion. Their disappearance would complicate that issue.”

“Are the women believed to be in danger?” asked the other woman.

The reporter nodded her head, “That is what they are saying at this time. Socialite and charity benefactress Cassandra McBride has remained above suspicion throughout this investigation. There has been no evidence that Mrs. McBride was involved in any of her husband’s business dealings or even aware of them.”

The screen filled with pictures of them coming out of that same federal courthouse months when Gerald was first indicted. But what sent her heart racing was the picture that filled the other half of the screen.

“Viewers are asked to contact their local authorities if they see either of the women,” added the reporter.

She had worked so damned hard to keep photographs of Callie out of all the papers, even to the point of pleading with Tyler for an injunction against paparazzi. But damn it, the photo on the screen was her daughter’s school I.D. She had no doubt provided by the elite academy they had once trusted with their child. “Damn it.”

“Yes, but to reiterate what the U.S. Attorney said, this is a material witness warrant. McBride’s wife and surely a fourteen-year-old child are not considered dangerous or even under suspicion of wrongdoing at this time.” Rose wanted to cheer for the anchor’s calm voice of reason.

But the next moment, she was filled with rage at the smug face of the young reporter, “Yes, Kelly, I am sure that you of all people would understand what Calypso McBride is going through at this time.”

“Damn it, dammit, double dammit,” Rose stomped her foot as she looked at her only child. She had until that moment been able to keep her daughter’s name out of things.

She was trembling as the male voice droned, “Keep us updated with the latest, Megan.”

“What’s going on in here?” The deep male voice seemed to break through that moment as mother and daughter stood frozen in time, uncertain what to even say to one another.

Her daughter, their daughter, turned to flee, but Chad moved quickly to block the stairway. Grace tried to push him aside, but he calmly gripped her shoulders and looked down into her face. “What is it, Grace? What’s wrong? I thought things were going pretty well.”

Her child’s face was a mask of pure rage, anger, and now Rose recognized that other emotion – fear. Her tiny fists pounded her father’s chest. “Let me go! We have to get the fuck out of here, old man. He’s dead. My daddy’s dead. Someone killed him.”

Rose was not sure which of the people she loved that she wanted to run to first. Both of their faces were filled with a pain that ripped her heart in two. She wanted to take them in her arms and tell them it would all be okay. She wanted to scream, ‘No, your daddy is not dead. He’s right here.’ But she knew now was not the time for those words. With this latest development, it might never be.

Instead of any of that, all she could do was go to them, dinner forgotten, that pan of garlic bread sticking to the kitchen floor. Rose wrapped her arms around her daughter and drew her into her embrace as Calypso Grace McBride burst into soul-wrenching sobs for the man who, for whatever reason, had claimed her as his daughter. Cassie was unsure what or how she felt, but she would do whatever it took for her child. That had not changed. It never would.

***That cornfield in Bumfuck, TX***

Will began to pace back and forth in front of the Duchess. He did not believe that Mercy would shoot him. He was pretty confident that she could not bring herself to do it. Strike that, he was sure of it. That was just it, though. How the hell did he explain any of that to this woman? Other than his Grandmother, he had never told anyone. Hell, it was Etta Mae’s idea not to. And that said something.

He had screwed the pooch on this one, for sure. So, what did he say to her now? How did he explain how he could know something that no one else did? “I can’t tell you that.” Maybe he could play the national security card?

She cocked the gun. Will looked at her. No, he was still sure she would not shoot him. He would even bet that she felt the connection between them. Maybe not like he did, but then again, he had never felt anything like it before either.

“Try again, buddy. And you never answered my other question. What is your ‘personal’ business with Kerr?”

Will ran his hands over his hair. Damn, he was in this deep. And this time, he had no exit strategy. Hell, with this woman, he did not want one. But he damned sure needed to come up with a stick-around plan to earn her trust, and something told him that was not easily done. He shook his head and looked at her, met those dark eyes once more, damn, he could get lost in those things. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” And that was the truth.

“Try me,” at least she lowered the gun as she crossed her arms over those spectacular tits. Damn, now was not the time to dream of motorboating those things. But he was sure they would become his favorite pillow for the rest of his life.

“I just do.”

“What kind of answer is that?”

“An honest one. I don’t know. I never have. I just know things.”

“What you’re like psychic or something?”

Damn, the woman was even sexy when she frowned. Though he would much rather see her smile. What he really wanted was to make her moan. “No, nothing like that. Nothing so specific. I just get these feelings about people when I meet them.”

“Yeah, well, we all have those.”

“Yes, but most peoples are based on assumptions. Stereotypes. Fears,” He held himself back from using the word prejudices. They had a lifetime to discuss the weightier matters of the universe. And he looked forward to that. Laying in bed next to this woman after making loving and talking about everything, anything, and nothing. “And loads of people don’t trust their guts either.”

She nodded her head, and he loved the way that ponytail at the back bobbed. Yeah, he liked that style on her. Not that he did not want to see her soft brown hair falling about her face. But at the moment, he was too caught up in imagining what it would feel like to wrap that ponytail around his fist and pull her head back as he slammed his cock deep inside her. Spilling his seed and his soul and, in the process, creating a new life.

What the fuck! Where the hell had that one come from? It was the one thing that Will had sworn he would never do. Not in this world. He would never bring a child into this fucked up world. But when he looked at her, he could almost see her body round and ripe with his child. Now, he was fucking scared.

She frowned as she watched him, “Okay, say I buy that. Not that I do, mind you. But that still does not answer my other question, what is your business with Kerr?”

“I’m not sure.” He began to pace again, to work off the nervous energy that was strumming through his body. Though he could think of better ways to burn it off, he did not believe Mercedes was up for that just yet. And he doubted he was any closer to earning that trust either. In fact, he might have just blown any chance of it. Well, not any chance, but he certainly had not helped his case. But maybe he could redeem himself a bit with more of the truth.

“I’m not certain, really. But my cousin disappeared from a bus stop in Dallas over two and a half years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” and he could see that she meant that.

“Bebe was only twelve, and she was waiting for the bus to school.” He felt that same righteous indignation, as his Grandfather Walt called it, surfacing, but Mercedes was not the cause of issues that went back hundreds of years. He was not going to take that anger out on her. So, he pushed it out of his mind, right along with the breath in his lungs.

He looked at the ground as he put his hands in the pocket of his leather jacket. “The police told her mother that she probably just ran away. An honor roll student that had never missed a single day of school in her life just ran away?” He met those warm brown eyes; he did not even have to say the words.

“Because she was black, you mean?”

He nodded, glad that he had not had to say them to her. He swallowed down the lump that rose in his throat every time he spoke about her, “Nine-hundred-ninety-eight days and the Dallas Poice Department’s file on her is only three pages.”

Was it his imagination, or had Mercedes taken a couple of steps in his direction? Not that his vision was all that sound right at the moment. A lifetime of tears seemed to be welling up in his heart and spilling into his eyes. He swiped at them with the back of his hand, but the damned leather only chafed and made his vision more blurred.

“The only thing in that file that was of any use was a tip from the anonymous police hotline. All it said was to check out Sheriff Earl Kerr in Sebida that dozens of young women and girls went missing there.”

“But Dallas is over two-hundred miles away from Sebida. What makes you think that Kerr had anything to do with your cousin’s disappearance?”

“I didn’t. Well, I couldn’t be sure. But it was all I had, and DPD had never bothered to follow up.”

The next part was incredibly hard. He felt raw, like some wounded deer struck by a car on the road, bleeding out and just laying there waiting to die on the roadside. How could she understand? Hell, he did not want her to. He never wanted this woman touched by the nastiness of hatred and prejudice that ruled this world.

“He did it, didn’t he? When you saw him today, you knew?” Her eyes reminded him of that doe just before the crunch of the grill sealed its Fate. And he knew then. He knew that this young woman, his woman, knew a depth of pain equal to his own. Perhaps not the same pain, but wasn’t all pain the same at its core? He nodded his head at her words. He could not find words, and even if he could, Will wasn’t sure he could make his mind put them together or his throat speak them.

***Lucky Wolf Casino, outside Sebida, 6:30 p.m.***

Reb Smith scanned the video feed on the dozen monitors around him. He just needed five more minutes to brief the man, who he was leaving in charge, about the latest upgrades he had done to the equipment. Given the trouble they had lately with the local Sherriff, his friend, Jack, wanted as much of the hotel, bar, and casino floor covered as possible.

So, if Jack was worried about the ‘good’ Sheriff Earl Kerr, why was his friend pulling him from his work to handle glorified babysitting duties for two local women? It made no sense. But then again, he didn’t really work for Jack. He was just helping out a friend and lending his security expertise. Until it came time to move along. So, if this favor was more important to Jack than those final checks on the system, what was he to say?

Reb was not the type to stick to one place for long. That’s why he had started his own security company. But he had already been in Sebida for almost two months, over twice as long as he stayed in most places. Then again, Jack was more than just his client; he was as close to a friend as a man like Reb got. He could not just abandon the kid when they knew that trouble was brewing in this small Texas town. He owed Jack more than that. So, if that meant he was babysitting some small-town librarian and her middle-aged mother, well, how hard could that be?  

Reb checked the time on the video feed closest to him. Deep lines, probably far deeper than a man of forty-two should have, creased his forehead. Then again, life was never easy when you were born to a free love hippie and her three husbands, especially when your mother named you Rebel Zappa Moonchild. He knew his mother loved him, and maybe one day, he would even forgive the woman.

But today, he had other things to worry about. Like why the women were almost two hours later than Jack told him to expect them. It could be anything, of course. Jack did not even fully brief him on why he needed the women to ‘stay out of sight’ at the casino. Or especially what a librarian and a middle-aged woman could have done or known that would put them in such danger that they needed a former Army Ranger sharpshooter to play bodyguard.

All Jack said was that he would be away for a day or two, and he needed Reb to drop everything else and keep a close eye on Mercy Reynolds and her mother, Stacey. His friend had said that he would try to call later to check in on things. He’d give him more details then. But that was almost five hours ago, and Jack had said the women should get to the casino within a couple of hours, three max.

He wound down the debriefing. Other than the women, there was nothing all that special happening at the casino. Certainly, nothing that George Strongbear could not handle. The man might not be all that tech-savvy, which is why Jack had brought in Reb to make these upgrades to the security system, but the guy knew the casino and this town. George had lived around here his whole life. That was a terrifying thought for a man who had spent his entire adult life moving from place to place and town to town.

Reb was just wondering if he should head over to the library in Sebida, check things out a bit when his phone rang. “Hey, boss, what can I do you for?” He liked teasing Jack with the title because he knew it got under the guy’s skin. After all, the kid was almost a decade younger than Reb and had served under him in the Army for most of Reb’s final tour of duty.

“Just checking in. Making sure that Stacey and Mercy Reynolds arrived safely. I know you have it all under control.” Was Jack’s voice unusually tight and stressed?

Or maybe it was that Reb did not look forward to sharing the news with his friend. “Nope. Neither one of the little ladies has arrived. I was just wondering if I should head over to Sebida, check out the library, or something.” Reb frowned at the display on the monitor, “But the library should have closed hours ago.”

“Fuck!” It was not that Reb was not accustomed to hearing such words from Jack’s mouth. Like most of the guys in their unit, that word was universally used. As a verb, an adjective, a noun, an adverb, hell, even a conjunction sometimes. No, what shocked Reb was how Jack uttered that word. He knew that tone too. And it meant only one thing… the shit had hit the fan — big time.

If that were not bad enough, the police band radio that they kept in the office, just to sometimes get a heads up on the ‘good’ sheriff’s surprise visits, crackled to life. The slightly slurred but all too familiar voice came out of the old speakers. “Officer down, officer down. Sebida County Library.”

Another voice, this one feminine, responded, “Is everything okay, Sheriff?”

“Fuck, no, everything is not okay, Dottie. That little cunt shot me. And some Ninja dude on a motorcycle clocked the hell out of me.” This was not looking good, and Reb was about to confer with Jack when the radio blared back to life. “Fuck, I’ve been out cold for almost two hours. Little fucking cunt.”

“I’ll send an ambulance now, Sheriff.”

“Fuck the ambulance. I want every fucking deputy we have called in. I want every corner of this county searched. I want that little bitch found. NOW!”

“Who, Sheriff? Who shot you?”

“That fucking librarian, Mercy Reynolds. I want a statewide, fuck that, nationwide APB out on that little bitch. And make certain it says that the suspect is armed and considered dangerous.”

“Fuck,” this time, it was Jack who was cussing again.

“I take it; I don’t have to ask if you heard that, Jack?”

“No, I heard. Fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck, fuck, Fuck.”

Reb would have laughed if the situation had not been so dire. Then again, Jack only blared curse words when it was. “So, what you want me to do now?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll need to talk to Ryan and Laura. I don’t fucking relish that one. But for now, I need you to find them. Find Mercy and Stacey Reynolds before our ‘good’ sheriff does, Reb.”

So that was it? Laura Reynolds. McBride Industries. Not that that surprised Reb. The moment that Jack called him, he had googled his charges. Of course, the first hit had been the Sebida County Library personnel page. But the second had been Mercy Reynold’s connection to her older sister.

Reb was not even surprised about the timing of things. He made it his business to stay current on the news. Local, state, national, and international. He had learned long ago that being aware of such things gave you an advantage, a bigger picture perspective.

So, he knew that McBride had been found dead. That meant the feds would be rounding up everyone vaguely connected to the man, trying their damnedest to find any leads, any information they might have missed. Unfortunately, that also meant that sometimes innocent bystanders like family got pulled into the shit. He had figured that was what this was all about.

Reb half-listened as the dispatcher issued an all-points bulletin for Mercedes Reba Reynolds and an unidentified person on a motorcycle. He knew that the woman’s next task would be calling in every deputy and auxiliary in Sebida County. That meant a lot of men with very little professional training and itchy fingers would be after the girl. And the armed and dangerous bit was basically a license to commit murder. All of them would be looking to shoot first and ask questions later. He ran his hands through his thinning hair as he tried to figure out some plan of action. He could hear voices in the background on Jack’s end too.

“Hey, Reb, you should see this.”

He turned to the monitors, and his blood froze. Reb gripped the metal desk until his knuckles turned white, and he feared that there would be permanent marks on its cold surface. George’s voice and Jack’s on the phone became nothing more than a jumble of incomprehensible high-pitched whines and whirls. He could not breathe, and the room spun around him.

He knew that face. That panicked and frightened face. It was the same one that he had seen in his dreams every night for the past month. Though there was no blood covering her nor fires licking around them, Reb knew there would be. It was just a matter of time. His dreams were never wrong. Dreams that he thought he had left behind him. Over there. Dreams that always came true. No matter how hard he fought Fate. What was the fucking point of premonitions if he was powerless to change things?

And this time, the stakes were even higher. Because this time, Rebel Zappa Moonchild knew that the petite, curvy redhead looking around the casino like she had seen a ghost was his destiny. “Who is she?” Reb did not doubt that George would know. The man knew everyone around here. Hell, if he had been listening, the man had probably told him her whole fucking life story by now.

By the look of George’s face, the way the wrinkles around his mouth tightened, he was confident the man must have, “Stacey Reynolds.”

“Fuck,” this time, it was Reb who cussed. And that was unusual. For the man who had grown up with virtually no rules or boundaries, he had never seen the point in that word. It was nothing special. A word like any other. Until that moment.

He pushed himself off the desk where he had been leaning. He picked up the phone, “I’ll be in touch when I can, Jack.” He did not wait for a response before disconnecting. He did not hear anything else that George said as he headed out the office door and down the dimly lit aisles of the casino towards her.

Stacey Reynolds. His Fate.

***Cornfield in Bumfuck, TX***

Mercy lost it. Will’s tale bounced in her head like sub-atomic particles setting off a nuclear reaction. Stirring up memories that Mercy tried to keep buried. She was that little girl once more. Five years old. Back in that trailer. It was late, and mama had just come home from work. She had pretended to be asleep so that Laura would not know, but she had waited up for mama, crying. She had something to confess.

She could hear voices down the hall. One of them was mama. But she didn’t sound right. Maybe she had found out from someone in town. Mercy’s guilt only deepened. She couldn’t let Laura take the blame for her. It was all her fault. She knew better than to steal. No matter how much she wanted that chocolate bar.

She would tell mama the truth. Mama would know what to do; she always did. Then she could make things right. So, Laura did not get into trouble. No matter what her sister said, it was not her fault.

But something stopped her just before she left the safety of those shadows. Mercy would never forget her mother’s face. Fear. Mama was never afraid of anything. But she was.

Then she heard him. She saw the new deputy. She did not remember his name, but he was the one that had come to the store when Miss Patsy called. He was the one that had talked to Laura. She did not know what the man said because her sister had pushed her, Elena, and Jack outside. Mercy heard his words now, though. “I’m sure we can work something out.”

That sounded good. Until he grabbed mama by the hair. “Don’t make a fuckin’ sound, bitch. I’d hate for anything; I don’t know like a fire to happen to those pretty little girls of yours.”

She had not seen what happened. And she knew how hard mama tried to keep quiet, but Mercy heard her whimpers of pain. That little girl sat there, frozen in the hall. She was not sure for how long. It seemed forever. Then she heard the door close and mama’s sobs.

Somehow that little girl found the strength and courage to step from those shadows. “Mama?”

Her mother reached for the blanket that covered the rips and tears in their Salvation Army couch. She wrapped it about her half-naked body as quickly as she could, but not before Mercy saw the red welts, white teeth marks, and purple bruises that were already forming. Mama turned her head and wiped her tears.

When she turned back to face her daughter, she had that smile plastered on her face. She pretended nothing was wrong and that there had never been any tears. “You should be in bed, sugar.” She wrapped that old quilt tighter and walked on wobbly legs over to Mercy, “I’ll get you some water and put you back to bed.”

“I’m sorry, Mama. It was all my fault.” Mercedes dropped the bag and the gun. She turned her head away from the man and fell to the ground. The water, the stale tuna sandwich she had eaten for lunch, and twenty-seven years of pain, anger, and self-hatred spewed forth, fertilizing that ground and its crop.

Then arms, strong arms, broad shoulders, and the rapid beating of his heart wrapped around her. She was not sure if it was that five-year-old little girl or the thirty-two-year-old virgin that held him tighter as a lifetime of bottled tears poured forth.

***Lucky Wolf Casino near Sebida***

What the hell was she even doing here? Stacey had asked herself that question with every mile she took out of Sebida. This was not the plan. They had all agreed on a bug-out location months ago. They would gather there together – if the shit hit the fan.

But the shit had more than hit the fan. And none of it was going to plan. They were scattering to the four winds — her babies and grandbabies. And Stacey felt the panic rising along with the bile in her throat. Her eyes darted from side to side, looking for just one thing – her baby girl. But she saw no sign of Mercy.

She should leave. Get out of here. Head to the old abandoned cabin that had been the original plan. Maybe Mercy had gotten confused. These changes were last minute, and she had not fully answered the girl’s questions. She had been in too much of a rush to get Elena and her family on the road and out of danger.

This was not a good idea. Too many people. Too visible. The cabin would be much better to hide out – until they could figure out a plan. Or until Ryan and Laura came up with whatever the feds were looking for and made a deal with the people. But Stacey knew it was not that simple. She had read that in Ryan’s eyes.

But Laura was right. No matter what, she trusted the man with her daughter’s and granddaughter’s lives. Jack, too. It might have been years since they had much to do with the boy, though he was no longer that, her gut told her she could trust him. The problem was that Jack was not even here. He was with Ryan and Laura wherever they were heading. That bothered her too. Not even knowing where her family was.

But what bothered her most was that she had waited at Laura’s for almost two hours for the sheriff to show up. She had rehearsed her whole performance over and over, but the man never came. She had even run by her trailer on the way here, but no sign of the man there either.

Had Kerr managed to intercept Brad before they made it out of Sebida County? That wasn’t likely. They had met almost at the county line. No, Elena and her family should be okay. Of course, Kerr might have found Laura before they made it to meet Lupe in Navasota? But surely she would have heard something from Jack or Ryan by now.

She wrung her hands as she scanned the darkened room one more time. No, what worried her most was Mercy? The county library was just blocks from the jail. The sheriff could have, likely did go straight there, first. Why hadn’t she thought of that earlier? Why had she allowed Mercy to go into work at all? She knew that answer too. They were all trying to appear as close to ‘normal’ as they could. To give Ryan the best chance of getting Chloe and Laura someplace safer.

But dammit, not at her baby’s expense. She shook her head when she saw no sign of her youngest daughter. Jack had said that someone, some friend of his from the Army, would meet her there, but she could not even remember the man’s damned name. And going to the bar to ask for him would only draw attention to herself.

No, it was better to head towards the cabin. It was fully stocked, and she still had her bug-out bag with a couple of grand, the gun, and, most importantly, the burner phone. The only real numbers in it were the other burners that her girls carried with them. Hopefully, she would hear from Mercy or at least Laura soon. Her mind made up, she headed back towards the door.

“Keep heading that direction but turn right just before the door,” the voice lacked that distinctive Texas drawl. It had virtually no accent at all. And the hand on her elbow that guided her towards the door was firm but not so tight as to be painful. She shivered as she always did at any man’s touch. But for now, she allowed it. In this case, it was not worth creating a scene.

Stacey turned her head to look at the man. Chiseled, until that moment, she had never understood what that word even meant when she read it in her trashy romances. But it was the only word she could think of to describe the firm planes and deep valleys of this man’s face. He was older than Jack by at least a decade. Perhaps somewhere in his mid-forties. The deep creases and lines around his mouth, eyes, and forehead told her that.

She had not seen the man around Sebida before. He was definitely not one of Kerr’s crooked deputies. Unless the man had hired someone new. But she had no idea who was looking for Laura. Could this be the Stephens guy that Ryan spoke to? Another thought occurred to her, “Who are you?”

“Reb, Reb Smith, Jack’s friend,” the man did not smile. His eyes seemed to be scanning the room, especially the door, as he turned them down an even darker hallway.

His words should have reassured her, but something about his demeanor, the urgency, and the caution that he exuded, actually made her even more nervous. “Where are you taking me?”

“Somewhere that we can talk without being seen,” he opened the door to a black room.

“I don’t know you from Adam. I sure as hell ain’t going in a dark room with a man I don’t know. Even if you do say, you know Jack.”

He ran his free hand through his thinning but longish brown hair. Stacey took a moment to study the man closer. He had a mustache and closely termed goatee that covered his strong chin. But even his firm jawline wore a five o’clock shadow. She could tell the man was thinking, perhaps considering what to say next. But she was not prepared for the words that came from those, sort of, sexy lips.

“There is an APB out for your daughter. She shot the sheriff.”

Stacey collapsed against the wall. If not for the man’s firm hand on her arm, she would have slid to the floor, “How did he find Laura?”

He shook his head, “Not Laura. I just heard from Jack. They are fine. Or they were.” His eyes met hers directly for the first time. Amber like good Scotch, and just as heated. “Mercy. It was Mercy who shot Kerr.”

“No,” she shook her head in denial. “If it were Mercy, the man would be dead.”

His grip on her arm tightened just the slightest bit, “How many men has your daughter shot? How many have you shot, sweetheart? Cause let me fucking tell you, looking a man in the eye and pulling the trigger is a helluva lot harder than some fucking black and white outline on a piece of paper.”

Stacey wanted to deny his words, argue about all the hours she had spent drilling her girls in gun safety, and shooting those targets. But he was right. As much as she hated Kerr, even she had wondered if she would have the courage to carry through with her plan…one day.

But this was today. And her baby girl had shot the man. She took a deep cleansing breath, “So if there is an APB, that means he does not have her under arrest, right? Not yet, anyway.”

He shook his head again and sighed, “I don’t know. It all just came over the police band radio we keep in the office. Right before you came in. I left George in the command room while I came for you.”

She stood up, “Okay, then let’s get back in there. Find out what’s going on.”

“Nope, we need to get the fuck out of here. Now. While we still can.”

“Hell, no. I’m not going anywhere without my little girl,” she stood her ground, her hands on her too broad hips.

“Your daughter is long gone. According to Kerr, there was some Ninja dude on a motorcycle? He knocked Kerr out cold. And I mean cold. The sheriff was out for two hours. And let me tell you that ain’t normal or good.”

She stared at him, “We don’t know anyone who owns a motorcycle.”

He shrugged, “Maybe it was some good Samaritan who just happened by and saw something. We both know that Kerr harasses the hell out of women. But if she isn’t there, and you or Laura have not heard from her, then the best we can hope is that whoever she is with is one of the good guys.”

His fingers gripped her chin and lifted her face to his. Stacey froze; a man’s touch always did that to her, no matter how casual. But shock and warmth flooded her mind when she met his gaze. She could get lost in those eyes. She shook her head; what the fuck was she thinking? She was not into men or sex or relationships. She had not been for twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, and over seventeen hours.

“But, Stacey, you won’t do any of your girls any good if Kerr finds you.”

She was not sure which frightened her more that warmth, which settled in the bit of her stomach when she heard this man say her name, or the idea of once more being at the ‘tender mercy’ of the man who had robbed her of all that.

***Grandfather’s ranch, Hill Country, TX***

The van had hardly pulled to a complete stop before the back double doors were thrown up. It was not that late, but it was getting dark. Nonetheless, the greeting party was out in force, and they were all talking at once.

The little girl that Ryan recognized bounced into the cabin of Jack’s van, “Can I see the baby, please?”

“Angel, let them get out. They’ve been on the road for hours, and I’m sure that they need to stretch their legs, get something to eat and drink, and wash up.” His cousin did his best to curtail his step-daughter’s enthusiasm. “They’re gonna be here for a while. You’ll have plenty of time to see the baby.”

But Laura had already pulled the blanket back from their daughter, who was fast asleep once again. “Her name is Chloe.”

“She’s a pretty bird baby,” Angel reached out and gently ran her finger down his daughter’s cheek. Chloe woke instantly and turned her head without a cry. The girls stared at one another as if sizing one another up. As if silently communicating the secrets of the universe to one another. Secrets too deep or profound for mere adults to comprehend.

Jaycee stepped forward and drew her daughter out of the van. “As your Daddy said, Ryan and his family will be staying with us for a while. And I am sure that they won’t mind you helping out with Chloe now and again.”

Ryan could sense a new peace and acceptance that had not been in the woman, the last time he had seen her, almost ten months ago. She held out her hand to Laura, “I’m Jaycee Ranger, Rex’s wife.”

“I’m Laura.” Ryan was surprised at the uncertainty and insecurity that he heard in Laura’s voice as she took the other woman’s hand. Although he supposed this situation was a bit overwhelming. It brought out his protective instincts as he stepped closer to his woman.

Angel giggled and tugged at Grandfather’s arthritic hand as he stepped closer to the van. “His bear growled at Mommy.”

The old man smiled and nodded, “Welcome to our home. I am Raymond Greywolf, but most people just call me Grandfather. I would be pleased if you would too, my daughter.”

Ryan saw the tears that gathered in the corner of Laura’s eyes. He could barely remember his maternal grandfather, and of course, since he never knew who his father was, he never had a paternal one. In many ways, this man had filled that role in his life, even though they shared no blood bond. Grandfather gripped his shoulder and squeezed surprisingly hard, “I am glad you realize that now, my son.”

He saw the shocked expression on Laura’s face. He could only imagine what she must be thinking of their seemingly one-sided conversations. Maybe he should have spent some time on the trip explaining it all to her. But he wanted to let her sleep and recover as much as she could in the cramped back of Jack’s ‘baby.’

“That might have been a good idea, son. She would not be questioning our sanity or hers, if you had,” Ray grinned reassuringly at Laura, who looked back and forth between them all as if she were trying to come up with an escape plan.

“You are perfectly safe here, my daughter. But I do think it would be best if those explanations waited until we were inside. These hills can get cold at night, especially for a new baby. May I take her while Ryan helps you into the house?” He smiled reassuringly.

Laura’s eyes sought his for assurance. Ryan nodded his head as he reached for his baby girl. Grandfather was one person that he would trust with her little life. That was why they came here. He kissed Chloe’s head and passed her to Grandfather. The man accepted his daughter, and he felt some energy, something unexplainable course through them.

The man closed his eyes for a moment, “Yes, a guardian, like her father. But in another spirit form. Prophesy. New beginnings. And adventure. You are falcon child, Chloe Ranger.” He opened his eyes and looked first at Ryan and then Laura, “You have done well, my children.” Then he turned and, with Angel skipping beside him, walked towards the house.

Ryan did not need to read the thoughts of others to know what was inside Laura’s beautifully brilliant head as he scooped her into his arms and followed the man. “I’m sorry. I should have prepared you for all this. We’ll talk just as soon as I get you inside.”

Jaycee and Rex caught up with them. The other woman reached out her hand and took Laura’s with a smile, “I understand. It takes some getting used to, but I promise Raymond Greywolf is the best man I have ever met.”

His cousin nuzzled his wife’s neck and pouted, “I thought I was, Nʉ Sʉmʉ.”

“Well, Grandfather has a headstart on you. Something to be said for age and experience.”

Rex laughed and rubbed his wife’s pregnant belly. “I’m not arguing the experience, but don’t forget the value of more youthful stamina.”

“Be good, or you’ll scare the poor woman, even more, Rex.” Jaycee smiled an apology or perhaps a look of understanding to Laura as she swatted her husband’s hand away.

Jealousy streaked through Ryan. How much he had missed – her whole pregnancy, the first nine months of Chloe’s life, really. He pushed open the front door and carried Laura inside. But now was not the time to dwell on that. Right now, they had more pressing matters to attend to. Like keeping his family safe… and straightening a few things out.

Which might be a top priority considering how incredibly quiet Laura had gotten in his arms.

***Lucky Wolf Casino***

Reb made some quick calculations in his head. Things were changing fast. What was supposed to be nothing more than bodyguard/babysitting two women had suddenly become much more complicated. And one thing he knew for sure – Sebida, Texas was not the place for this woman. Hell, nowhere in Texas was.

He ran through the list of his favorite places. Most were isolated, but that was not enough. He needed somewhere outside of Texas where they could hide in plain sight. With this latest, he was sure it was just a matter of time before all the Reynolds’ women had their faces plastered all over the television.

“Fuck,” he turned her towards Jack’s office at the end of the hallway. He felt her shiver as his hand rested at the small of her back.

He had seen that wild look in her eyes at the mention of Kerr, the way that she froze or pulled away when he touched her. Of course, there could be any number of explanations, but Reb knew the most likely one. But they did not have time for that now. “The door at the end of the hall. It’s Jack’s office.”

She nodded and kept walking. Reb moved past her to open the door and turn on the lights. He waved his hand at the chairs in front of Jack’s desk as he walked around and sat in the boss’s chair. Reb kept his eyes towards the computer screen as it booted up, but his peripheral vision told him the woman was still on edge. Why wouldn’t she be?

Reb logged into the computer using his login and password. He was already half a dozen steps ahead in this cat and mouse game and lying a false trail all the way. He pulled up the security system and typed a bit of code. If they pulled in the feds, their forensics team would catch it quickly enough, but Reb was betting that he would have them safely away from this place before that happened. It took him only a couple of minutes to do what needed to be done.

He dared to make eye contact with the woman before his next move, “I need to call Jack.” No one would think anything at first if Reb called his boss from the office phone, especially since the new security system had gone down.

She gripped her hands tightly in her lap, “I need to talk to Laura.”

Right now, he was not sure that was such a good idea. This woman was barely hanging on by a thread. Would speaking with her daughter reassure her or push her over the edge? He would deal with that in a moment. He picked up the phone and dialed Jack’s cell.

“What the fuck is going on, Reb?” Jack’s voice blared into his ear.

“I was hoping you could fill me in some, boss man.” It was a standing joke between the men, especially since Reb was almost a decade older than Jack and had been his non-commissioned officer in the Rangers for a couple of years. Still, it was technically accurate. Well, sort of. Reb did not work for the casino. He was an independent contractor. Even if he did like Jack, he was not the type to ‘work for’ anyone.

He could almost see the younger man pacing back and forth, running his hands through his hair, and cussing under his breath. The kid was good, calm under pressure, but he was always a fucking emotional wreck before and after missions. Hot-headed. Impetuous.

“How much of it did you overhear?”

“Most of it, I think. But fuck, we didn’t expect Kerr to go after Mercy. We figured he’d go to Laura’s house then maybe her mama’s. Stacey was supposed to talk to the man. Feed him a line about Laura hemorrhaging and taking her to the hospital. Then she was to join Mercy there with you. Fuck, where’s Stacey?”

Reb smiled across the desk to the woman, “That I can ease your mind over. I hung up on you earlier because she had just arrived.”

“Does she know? About Mercy, I mean?”

“Yeah.”

“Fuck, I bet that woman is ready to be tied. She’ll want to go after Kerr and finish the job herself. You can’t let her do that, buddy.”

“I know. So, what’s the plan?”

The long silence on the other end of the phone was not reassuring. “Fuck, if I know at this point. Are you still at the casino?”

“For now.”

“You should get her out of there.” Reb bit back a smartass retort as Jack continued, “Does Stacey know who was on the bike?”

Reb looked at the woman as he spoke, “Nope, she said they did not know anyone with a motorcycle.” He hesitated over his next words, but the truth was she was already thinking it, “Hell, for all we know, it was someone that the people McBride was messing with sent.”

The shake of her head agreed with Jack’s words, “Nay, I grew up with Mercy. She’s the closest I have to a little sister. That girl would not run off with someone she did not trust.”

Reb wanted to argue with them both. The girl had just shot the sheriff. No one was thinking clearly after just shooting someone, especially the first time. Not even all his sharpshooter training had truly prepared him for that first kill. And even if Mercy had not killed Kerr, she had shot the man. Watching Stacey now, Reb knew that he could not speak his concerns aloud. She needed to hold onto that belief, and maybe Jack did too. Hell, even he hoped they were right. After all, he didn’t know the girl at all.

If Jack did not have a plan, then he would take charge, at least for now. “Listen, man. Sebida County is about to become the hottest place on earth soon. And everyone is going to be looking for anyone connected to the Reynolds. I need to get her out of here. Half an hour ago.”

“I need you to call and square things with George. The security feed went down a couple of minutes ago. I also erased the last half an hour. I can’t say who else might have seen Stacey Reynolds come in the casino, but without tapes and George denying it, that should at least slow them down a bit.”

“Yeah, agreed. I guess you could bring her here….”

“No,” Reb was quick, perhaps too quick to cut the man off. “At this point, it is more dangerous to have them together. Hell, maybe we should not even know where we each are.”

He heard that quiet again. He hoped that the floors were solid wherever Jack was, as much pacing as the kid was probably doing. “Do you have someplace secure?”

“Yeah, it ain’t my favorite place. But it’s quiet, remote, and I know I can trust the people there. Hell, they don’t own a tv or a computer, last I heard. So, they won’t even know what’s happening.”

Jack sighed as another phone rang. Stacey practically tore the front pocket on her pack open, getting to it, “Where are you?”

“Jack, I’ll call you back. Stacey’s on the phone, and I think it might be her daughter,” he disconnected without waiting for Jack’s reply.

***Cornfield in Bumfuck, TX***

Will sat on the slightly damp ground with her head resting against his chest. His arms wrapped tightly about her until the crying and hiccups stopped. The sky was that dark red and purple that came just before dark in Texas. He wanted to protest when she pulled back. It felt like she had ripped away his security blanket, the most precious thing in his world. But he chuckled as she wiped tears and snot from her face with the back of her arm. Damn, he already loved this woman. Strong, beautiful, and down to earth, what more could any man want or need.

“I need to call Mama.”

“That isn’t a good idea, sweetheart. They’ll be able to trace the call. Use it to locate us.”

She reached into another of the pockets on that pack, “Not if they don’t know who owns the phone.”

“A burner?”

She nodded as she scrolled through the contacts and hit the buttons. “Yeah, we all have them.” She turned her attention to the phone as she spoke, “Mama.”

Will could not hear what was said on the other end, but he could guess from the look on her face and her following words, “I’m fine. Or as fine as I can be.”

“No, Mama, I’m safe,” she looked at him for a moment. “I’m with a federal agent.”

She frowned and shook her head, “No, Mama, I know I can trust him. Besides, he’s not with the feds anymore.”

Her eyes looked to him, almost pleading as she continued, “Listen, Marmee, I can’t go into all the details right now. I just need you to trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

He snickered as Mercy held the phone away from her ear. Though he could not make out the words, he heard the yelling. After a moment, she put the phone back to her other ear this time, “Are you done screaming, Mama? I knew you would be worried. So, I wanted to call you and let you know I’m okay.”

“We haven’t worked out a plan yet. But we’re heading to Torreon. Yes, I know. But not only does it mean I can fight international extradition, but something Kerr said makes me think… Hell, I don’t know.”

“Mama, I’ll try to call you later. Let Laura know I’m safe. And tell Ryan that I’m Agent Williams. You got that? I love you, Marmee.”

Will could hear her voice breaking over those final words. He knew their power. Less than two weeks ago, he had held his grandmother and repeated them over and over again as if those words alone could heal her heart and right the whole fucked up world. But they had not. His world had just gone to hell in a handbasket.

Or it had until the moment he laid eyes on her. When he followed Kerr to that library, he had thought his life was over. But with this woman sitting in his arms in the middle of a cornfield in Bumfuck, Texas, he knew he would move heaven, earth, and hell itself to have a long, loving life with Mercedes Reynolds. He just had to convince her of that. Then keep them all safe. Get to the bottom of the whole fucking McBride shit. Oh, and clear his name enough that he did not spend his life in prison or on the run as his father had. Simples, right?

She pushed a button and dropped her head. Another of those tears cascaded down her cheeks. He was not going to tell her how dirty and grimy it was. But that did not matter; she was still the most beautiful woman in the world to him.

“Torreon, why there?” Will was more than familiar with the place. Any federal agent or narcotics officer was. Most of the drugs that came into the states went through the city at one point or another. It was the corporate headquarters, you could say, of a couple cartels.

She looked at him, and something in those eyes wrapped about his heart, “Something that Kerr said when he….” She shivered again, and he drew her back against him, wrapping his arms tighter again. “He threatened me. He said that he could make me disappear. ‘So far down the hole, no one would ever find me.’ He said that I would pray to die.” Her voice became distant and quiet, “He said they would auction me off. That if I were lucky, I would end up in a harem somewhere.”

Her words ripped his heart to pieces. Of course, he was not naïve. He knew that human trafficking, even in the twenty-first century, was still very real. Slavery and sexual exploitation had not died with Thomas Jefferson or Sally Hemings. Despite international treaties on slavery, the estimate was that over forty million people were enslaved worldwide. It was believed four million, mostly women and girls, were forced into the sex trade. One in seven runaway girls was thought to end up victims of it. Will was never sure which frightened him more, the thought of Bebe lying dead and buried somewhere, the victim of a serial killer, or that she might still be alive and forced to…

She turned in his arms, her soft hands captured his face, and she looked deep into his eyes. “I am not saying there is a connection. But there are just too many coincidences here. Not only did Kerr specifically say Torreon, but…” She shook her head, “My sperm donor, I won’t use the word father because that man was never that to any of us. Hell, they deported the man before I was even born. But Ignacio Garcia was from Torreon. And I know that my sister Elena and her husband visited his family there once.”

Will heard the hesitation. What was Mercedes not telling him? But before he could ask, her answer floored him. “They never went back. His oldest son, our half-brother, is some big wig in one of the cartels there.”

“Diego Garcia?”

She nodded her head slowly, “Yes, I’m pretty sure that was the name Elena said.

“Fuck,” Will wanted to grab his woman, hop on the Duchess, and head in the exact opposite direction. Canada, maybe? Alaska? Somewhere that no one would ever find them. But he knew there wasn’t such a place. Not when it came to Diego Garcia and the Torreon cartel. And if there was a connection to Kerr, and that tip was right? And McBride? The Torreon cartel was one of the possibilities that were behind that as well.

“Fuck!” The idea that his baby cousin… That he would take his woman into that quagmire. “Fuck, no! I’m taking you to your sister or mother.”

She shook her head again, and Will knew he was going to lose this argument the moment he saw her face. “And what? You’ll go to Torreon alone? I don’t think so. I’m your ticket. The key to open that door. If what Elena said was true, then someone like Diego Garcia won’t think anything of a little sister he never knew showing up on his doorsteps if she got into trouble.”

“And Kerr? What if the man is working with Kerr? How well do you think Garcia will take to having you shoot one of his men?” Will demanded.

That smile was lethal, and he hoped like hell his grandparents were whispering in god’s ear because it just might work. Hardass and innocent were a deadly combination. “I don’t know. Maybe big brother will consider it funny. After all, blood is thicker than water.”

He had lost, and he knew it. “Okay, I’m not going to waste time arguing with you now. It’s best if we travel at night. I’m guessing your face will be all over the news by now. I am sure Kerr never got a good look at me, and it’ll take a bit longer to analyze the video from his dashcam and run the plates if it even captured anything.”

“We need gas and food before we get back on the road. But since they might already be looking for you or two people on a motorcycle, it’ll be best if I go alone. You stay here. Sleep if you can. I’m not sure what I will find or how far, but I’ll come back as quickly as I can.”

She gripped the backpack tighter. Reaching into it, she pulled out a stack of twenties and handed Will a couple, “How much do you have in there, sweetheart? Wait, I don’t want to know. Just promise me, no more phone calls until I get back. You have my word. We will call your mother back before we pull over to sleep tomorrow morning.”

“How long will it take?”

“To get to Torreon?” She nodded, “Since it’s only safe to travel at night, a couple of days.”

“But if they’re looking for me, for us, how will we cross the border?”

Will chuckled, “The same way that Diego’s people do coming this way. I began my career with HPD in narcotics, sweetheart. I know all the best border crossings. Now, try to rest. Is there anything you need? Anything I can get you?”

Her eyes twinkled as that sweet laughter caressed his mind, “A raunchy historical romance, or some shapeshifter, vampire action? I can’t use my Kindle now.”

He bent and tasted those sweet lips for the first time. He kept it light, like a kiss on the front porch when you knew her daddy was watching through the window. “I’ll see what I can find, sweetheart. But in terms of food, you aren’t vegan or allergic to dairy or wheat or some such shit?”

“Hell, no, I’m all redneck woman. Beer, burgers, and chocolate are major food groups for me.”

He shifted her weight so that she was sitting on the hard ground. It felt all wrong, but he knew he had to get going and get back. They would have maybe eight hours of riding before the sun came up, and they needed to get as far away from this place as they could.

He hopped on the Duchess and winked, “I think I can handle those, sweetheart.” He put on his helmet, started the engine, and though it killed something inside of him, he drove off without her.

***Grandfather’s ranch***

Overwhelmed. That was the only word to describe it. Outside of her family, the only places where Laura had ever managed to get by, in terms of peopling, were school and corporate offices. And there, she had primarily succeeded by barreling ahead of everyone else. Overwhelming them before they could her.

That did not seem right here, with these people, in this situation. They were opening their home to her and her daughter. Putting their lives and families at risk. Yes, for Ryan’s sake, sure, but also for theirs. Growing up the little bastard girls in Sebida, it was not something she was either familiar or comfortable with.

Except for Injun Joe. He had always been kind to them. Not just giving her that first job, looking after Jack, or feeding her and her sisters after school at the casino, but the way he treated them like they were equals, people of value too. She looked at the older man from beneath her lashes, trying not to stare. He looked different than Joe, but she could see pieces of his brother in him, too. Still, things were weird here. With him. Like he was carrying on one-sided conversations or even reading Ryan’s mind. Joe had not been like that or Jack, either for that matter.

And Ryan’s cousin? Rex, that was his name. She could see the family resemblance between him and Ryan much more than between Rex and this old man or Joe or even Jack. The woman seemed nice enough. About her age, maybe a bit older. She had to admit it would be good to have another woman around, especially an experienced mother, especially if they stayed here for a while.

But her little girl seemed as strange as the old man. Maybe she just imagined it all? She had just given birth a little more than twenty-four hours ago. Her hormones were everywhere. She was already sleep-deprived. Add in the whole McBride mix. Was it any surprise that she was overreacting? Reading things into people or situations that were not there.

She clung tighter to Ryan, even as he lowered her to the couch. She looked around; the house was rustic but comfortable. A log cabin but not one of the pre-fab kind or those pseudo-modern designers showcase monstrosities. No, this place felt genuine, as if it might have been built by loving hands.

“That is because it was, my daughter.”

Laura could not stifle the gasp of shock to have the man answer her as if she had spoken the words aloud. She shook her head; maybe she had.

“No, child, it is just a bit of ancient magic, the old ways that are left in me.” His smile was kind and reassuring, even if the idea of this man or anyone running around in her thoughts was not.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” she scrunched closer to Ryan and held tighter to his hand. The old man held her baby in his arms as he rocked back and forth in a chair that looked older than he was.

“I’ll take her now. Thanks,” she held out her arms. She would feel better if her daughter was with her or Ryan.

Ryan’s cousin and his wife, she was still having trouble remembering names, sat on the larger couch across from them with the strange little girl. The stone fireplace cast a soft glow on the whole scene. She looked around; where was Jack?

“My nephew is on the phone with his friend. He will come in when they are finished. He has updates.”

Laura felt her throat tighten, her muscles tense. She turned to Ryan. She wished this mind-reading crap were real. Then she could plead with him to get them out of there, but all she could do was try with her eyes to convey her fears.

Those were not helped at all by the older man laughing. “You should have spoken with your woman before you arrived, my son.”

The whole thing got more surreal as the front door opened, and Jack walked inside. The look on his face told Laura that things were about to get worse. Maybe it was a good thing that someone else was holding Chloe. “What is it, Jack?”

But Jack was looking back and forth between Ryan, Rex, and the old man. “Hey, over here, Andrew Jackson Greywolf. Whatever you have to say, you fucking say it to me. That’s my family, my Mama and sisters. And I’m the one you need to deal with.” Laura found some of that old spunk inside her muddled brain when she needed it the most. Then it hit her. She raised her hand to cover her mouth as she looked at the other woman, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have cussed around your daughter.”

Ryan’s cousin just laughed, “It’s alright. You can’t raise kids in this world without them hearing that shit.”

Even as upset as she was, Laura had to smile at the way the man’s wife elbowed his ribs hard enough to make him humph. “I’m sorry, truly, I am. It’s just that….”

The other woman smiled, “Such misogynistic bullshit gets to me, too. It’ll be nice to have another woman, another attorney, to help me try to educate the neanderthals.”

The old man cleared his throat, “Not all of us, daughter of my heart.”

“I’m not that bad, Nʉ Sʉmʉ, you know that. And whether or not my cousin needs a lesson in your Feminism 101 or not, I think it needs to wait until we hear what Jack has to say,” the man added.

Dammit, she needed to remember his name. Rob? Randy? It was another R-one. Rex. That was right, Rex. She nodded her head, “I agree. Jack, who was on the phone, and what did they say?”

Laura did not like the way that Jack shifted nervously from foot to foot. As a little boy, that usually meant he was hiding something. And she tried her best to ignore the way his eyes kept shifting between her and Ryan as if pleading for the man’s help. But as Rex said, she could read him the riot act later about that misogynistic bullshit, and she would. “The truth, Jack.”

“That was my friend Reb.” His eyes once more shifted to Ryan’s before he continued, “I don’t want you to worry, Laura. But your Mama and Mercy have not made it to the casino.”

“Shit,” she cussed again. Then sought the other woman’s eyes in apology.

“Did he say anything else, Jack?” The shuffle that Jack was doing with his feet told her the answer before he opened his mouth.

“As we were talking, I could hear the police band radio we keep in the office in the background.”

Her heart pounded even faster; the room began to spin. Only Ryan’s arms wrapped about her shoulders kept her upright. “And?” Ryan’s deep baritone voiced the words she could not.

“There is an all-points bulletin out for Mercy. She shot the sheriff.”

Laura fought back the fog. She could not have heard Jack right. This was too surreal. All of this was a fucking dream. That was it. Pregnant women had weird dreams. The past twenty-four hours were just that. Like that silly season of Dallas, she would wake up in the shower, and none of this would be real. Except for the broad shoulders against which her head rested. Those she would not mind being real again.

“What do you mean, Mercy shot the sheriff? Earl Kerr? What did your friend have to say?”

Jack shook his head and met Laura’s eyes once more. “I’m sorry, I don’t know much more than that. I called Reb; just to check up on things. He told me that your Mama and Mercy had not arrived yet. We were talking about whether or not he should go looking for them. When I heard Kerr’s voice in the background.”

Ryan’s arms tightened about her, and he looked down into her face as he spoke. “If he’s issued an APB, that means she is not in his custody. That’s good news, sweetheart. We have to hold onto that.”

Somehow she found the strength to nod at Ryan’s words. However, scant reassurance they were at that moment. She looked back at Jack, “What did he say exactly, Jack?” She was not sure where she found the strength even to form the words.

“I couldn’t hear everything, and Kerr was not making much sense. He said that Mercy had shot him. But what I don’t get was, he was talking about some Ninja on a motorcycle that knocked him out. The good thing was he said he had been out cold for almost two hours. That’s a helluva a headstart for your sister.”

“Maybe she called your Mama? Perhaps Stacey came and picked her up, and they’re together?” Jack looked at her hopefully, “Heck, Reb hung up the phone on me suddenly. Said he would call me back. Maybe they had made it to the casino?”

That was an awful lot of maybes when the truth was that they had no idea what was happening. She turned to Ryan, “We have to go back. We have to go back to Sebida. Now. Or call your government contacts. I’ll turn myself in.”

***Lucky Wolf Casino near Sebida***

The moment that the burner phone rang, Stacey knew that it was one of her girls. Only the three of them had this number. Burner phones had been Mercy’s contribution to their plans, well, the details of them anyway.

These were not like most burners. If they fell into anyone’s hands, they would look like any other phone. With apps, photos, though not of themselves, flowers, dogs, and especially food, but no selfies for identifying their owners. But they also had a few dozen names and numbers in the contacts folder. So, nothing looked amiss unless you dialed those numbers. Most were pizza places, a few stores, even a couple of hotlines.

But when Stacey saw the display – Merry J Austen – she almost peed her pants.

“I’m fine. Or as fine as I can be.” How like Mercy to not even answer her question.

“That is not what I asked, Mercedes Reba Reynolds. Where are you? I’ll come and get now.”

“No, Mama, I’m safe.” There was a pause. A long one, as if her daughter were trying to think of what to say. Or was someone telling her what she should say? Stacey felt that anxiety rising again.

But when Mercy’s voice came back on the line, her words were not what Stacey wanted to hear. “I’m with a federal agent.”

“Listen to me, Mercy. You need to get out of there.” Stacey felt her heart beating so fast that she feared it would explode from her chest at any moment. For four decades, she had lived for one thing – her girls. Everything she had done or survived had been for those three. But just when things were going good. When Laura’s career was at its height, when Elena had found someone who truly did love her, when even Mercy was beginning to build a life of her own, just when all was coming together, now this. And this time, her girls were scattered to the four winds, and she could not protect them.

She felt the tears. What did it fucking matter this time? Her daughter could not see her cry. And this guy, he was a stranger. What did she fucking care if he saw her break down, if he realized just how fucking fragile and weak she really was? Even though the tears slipped from her eyes, she cleared her throat and managed to keep them from her baby girl.

“Ryan says there’s a leak in the agency somewhere, Mercy. Not even the feds can keep you safe. So, you need to get out of there somehow. Make an excuse and go to the bathroom, then find some way to escape. We’ll go back to our original plan. I’ll meet you at the safe house. Do you hear me, Mercy?”

“No, Mama, I know I can trust him. Besides, he’s not with the feds anymore.”

Like that was supposed to reassure her. Her youngest daughter was with some stranger. She did not even fucking know his name. What if he was the leak? What if he was working for whoever was behind all this?

“You can’t trust anyone, Mercy. We can’t trust anyone that’s not family. You should know that. I thought I taught all of you that.” Stacey felt panic welling inside of her. She stood up from the chair and turned her back to the man.

Those words had reminded her of the truth. She knew that she could trust Bradley. As much as she hated that church, she knew that he was the real thing, unlike her father had been. That man might not know how to fight his way out of a paper bag, but she knew that Elena could.

Her daughter might be the ‘softy’ in their family, but that did not mean she could not fire the Smith & Wesson Magnum .357 that was at the bottom of that bugout bag. All of her girls knew how to shoot. Except as the man said, firing at a moving human target was very different than those white paper sheets. And if Mercy could not, shit…

But Laura would be okay. Surprisingly, Stacey had almost instantly liked and trusted her future son-in-law. It was the way he looked at Chloe. And at her daughter. She did not doubt that Ryan had the skills to protect them or that he would lay down his life to do it.

No, it was Mercy that she had to worry about. And she was. “You have to listen to your Mama. Get out of there, Mercy.”

“Listen, Marmee. I can’t go into all the details right now. I just need you to trust me. I know what I’m doing.”

For a moment, Stacey was stunned into silence with the use of that word. Growing up, one of the ways that she had instilled the family values in her girls was reading to them. She might not have been able to do it every night. But since the power to their trailer seemed to be off as much as it was on, reading had taken the place of television for her family. Those books were among her favorites. And she knew Mercy’s too. It was a special term of endearment between the two of them. And the fact that her daughter used it now was almost as if she were saying goodbye.

“Dammit, girl, I taught you better than this. I have not worked three jobs, gone to bed hungry, and….”

She caught herself. Stacey clutched her stomach. Her whole body shook at the memory. That was the real problem – the idea of that man anywhere near any of her girls frightened the ever-loving shit out of her. But he had been. Earl Kerr had gone after Mercy. What would have happened if…

“Are you done screaming, Mama? I knew you would be worried. So, I wanted to call you and let you know I’m okay.”

Stacey wanted to argue. She might even plead. But right at that moment, her mind was stuck in the past. Twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, and almost eighteen hours, to be exact.

Mercy’s voice, on the other end, did anything but reassure her. Especially her following words. “We haven’t worked out a plan yet. But we’re heading to Torreon. Yes, I know. But not only does it mean I can fight international extradition, but something Kerr said makes me think….”

She had not thought that things could get any worse. But the mention of that place and that man in almost the same sentence ratcheted up her fear and anxiety. Torreon – the place where her girls’ father had come from. And Stacey always assumed he went back to after the extradition hearing. Mercy had been born that night. Almost three months too early.

Maybe that was why mother and daughter were so close. She blamed herself for it. The stress of turning her ‘husband’ into INS, sleepless nights watching over her other girls, and of course, the run-in with her parents outside the federal court building in Houston. It had been too much. But the thought of her baby going to that place was worse. And what did Earl Kerr have to do with Torreon?

“Hell, I don’t know.”

Stacey opened her mouth, tried to make her brain translate those jumbled thoughts into words. Words that her too-tight throat could say. Words that would change her daughter’s course. Bring Mercy back to her and keep her baby safe. But before she could conquer that latest battle, her daughter’s voice came back on the phone.

“Mama, I’ll try to call you later. Let Laura know I’m safe. And tell Ryan that I’m with Agent Williams. You got that? I love you, Marmee.”

The line went dead. Stacey just stared at it for a long moment. Then even the screen went black. She wanted to throw the damned thing at the wall, but she couldn’t. It was her only link to her girls. Any of them. All of them.

“What did she say?” His voice was calm. Too calm, and that irritated her. What did this man fucking care if her daughters’ lives were in danger? He was just some friend of Jack’s. And while Jack was almost family and Stacey knew that she could trust him, well, as much as she could anyone. She did not know this man. This hireling that Jack had sloughed her off on.

“I need to call Laura.” She hoped that would cut him off.

But instead, his hands gripped her shoulders. Stacey was wired too tightly this time to control her reactions. She came out swinging. With the phone gripped tightly in her fist, she turned and connected with the man’s jaw. He stumbled back towards the desk.

It was the opening that she needed. She turned and fled, running back down the dim hallway. She had to get out of here. She needed to get to her baby. Somehow. She heard him calling after her, but her brain was so engaged in the fight or flight mode that she did not register his words. She kept running out the door and as far as her old SUV.

“Dammit,” she cussed as she fumbled with the keys. Stacey willed her hands to stop trembling. Why now? After twenty-seven years, three months, twenty-nine days, and eighteen hours. Hell, after practically sixty years of life’s fucking bullshit. Why fucking now?

If she could just get the damned keys in the fucking door. Why hadn’t she allowed Laura to buy her one of those new-fangled things where you only had to hit a button to unlock the fucker? Then the worst happened, she fucking dropped the damn keys. And when she came back up, he was standing a few feet away. His arms crossed over his broad chest. Just staring at her.

***That Bumfuck cornfield***

Mercy sat on the cold, hard ground. She had already pulled the hoodie from her bugout bag. Not only would the damned thing keep her warm, but it would make identifying her more difficult.

She knew America was not as bad as some places in Europe, but since 9/11, you couldn’t get too far without being captured on camera somewhere. Americans that would have once balked at such invasions of privacy just sloughed it all off in the name of national security.

She wrapped her arms about herself tighter. Was that from the chill since the sun had gone down? Or was it from the disjointed thoughts and feelings that she had been trying to piece together since the man left? The man? Will. Since Will left to get food and gas.

She did not bother looking at the burner phone to check the time. It would not mean much to her since she had lost all track of such things. She did not bother wondering if he would come back. She knew he would. It was not just that the whole McBride-Torreon-Bebe-Laura thing wrapped about them both tighter than Jane Russell’s sweater. No, there was something else between them.

She had felt it. She would say from the moment he took that helmet off, but that was not right. From the moment he had driven up on that motorcycle. Except that sounded way too fucking cheesy. Something worse than she would ever write in even her paranormal romances.

But if he were telling the truth, if his ‘feelings’ or intuition or gut were as accurate as all that, then he would have felt it, too. Of course, he did. She brought her fingers to her lips. Mercy would almost swear the damned things were still tingling. And that kiss had been nothing.

Except that was not right, either. That kiss, as simple as it was, had been hotter than the time she had made out with Jack behind the trailer. Of course, as good a kisser as Jack was, there had been that ugh-factor for them, like making out with your cousin. As for the other boys she had made out with in high school or college, none of them had come even close.

“Don’t go there. Do NOT go there, Mercy. Not now…”

It was her mantra. It had been for so long she could not remember when it began. Probably about the time in sixth grade when she found out how babies were made and what had really happened to Mama that night. Damned health class.

Sure, Mercy had graduated from the sweet romances of Little Women and Little House to those paperback romances where the hero and heroine did not kiss until after he proposed. But since the advent of ebooks and racier genres, she had jumped wholeheartedly into the sex thing. Well, at least in book form. But she had always believed the adage ‘book boyfriends are best.’

Not that she had not had opportunities. She got asked out at least once a week. Usually, by the same Sebida losers, but even when she visited Laura in Houston, she had gotten hit on. It was just that after kissing a couple of dozen frogs in high school and college, and one or two since, she had given up on finding Prince Charming. Or maybe she just was not princess material. Or maybe…

“Don’t go….”

The sound of an engine saved her. As it got closer, she was almost sure she recognized that vroom. The damned thing gleamed in the full moonlight as it broke through the tall stalks of corn. Shining armor be damned, the tight black leather was way fucking hotter.

As he took off that helmet, Mercy could not help but admire those kiss-ass-able lips. The way that neatly groomed hint of a mustache and goatee ran together and framed the damned thing perfectly. He walked straight to her. Maybe swaggered would be more accurate. Only the greasy MacDees bag in his hands broke the spell.

But the magic came back the moment he wrapped his arm around her. Her eyes were glued on those lips right up to the last moment. The feel of them was even better this time. This kiss was more prolonged and firmer than the previous, but he did not attempt to take it to the next level. Why did that disappoint her?

“Guess I don’t need to ask if you missed me, too, sweetheart. That has been all I could think about since I left you, woman.” But before she could question or protest his assumptions, Will passed her a bag. “Sorry, it took so long. It’s almost half an hour to the next town.”

Mercy nodded as she took a bite of the double cheeseburger. It reminded her that she had not eaten anything but six cups of coffee and that stale tuna sandwich since Laura’s baby shower. Fuck was that only yesterday?

“We’re about a hundred and twenty miles west of Sebida now. It’s another hour or so until we hit the hill country. We’ll head south towards the border from there. We need to avoid big cities and highways.”

Mercy could see he was not telling her everything. She took a long sip of the chocolate milkshake that was mostly melted but had not begun to get warm yet. “And? What ain’t you telling me?”

He finished chewing a bite of his food. “Your pretty face is all over the news. It’s not every day that librarians go shooting the sheriff. Even in Texas.”

Damn, that smile was sexy. She would have sworn that she preferred her men beefier, like Laura’s husband Ryan, or those cover models on her books. But this one wore tall and lean like the finest silk. “So, what do we do, mister hot pants agent?”

His chuckle washed over her like that perfect setting on the showerhead. You couldn’t come just from listening to someone laugh, right? But damn, did her puppies perk up and stand at attention when he spoke in that deep sultry voice.

“We avoid big cities and highways, travel at night, stick to the back roads, and obey the speed limits, mostly. I’m hoping we can still make it across the border in a day or two. But I think it’s best if you wear my helmet. With the changes in the law, it isn’t illegal for me not to. But there’s still a chance that some overly zealous deputy might pull us over just to make sure I have the proper insurance.”

“Especially if Kerr has the whole state looking for two people on a crotch rocket?” She used that term just in hopes of hearing another of those slow, low rumbles, and the man did not disappoint. She wondered if he would in other ways? Mercy doubted it. He brought a couple of fries to those lips. Bet the damned cold things would taste better from between his lips. Damn, she needed to get her libido under control. Or did she? “You don’t carry an extra one?”

He shook his head as he chewed. How could chewing food be fucking sexy as hell? “Nope, no one but me rides the Duchess.”

This time it was Mercy’s turn to laugh, “Good thing she ain’t a car, or you’d make me take off my shoes before you let me get in. Do you kiss her goodnight too?” He looked confused as he studied her for a long moment. “It’s a song,” she supplied. Okay, good to know the man was not perfect. Obviously, his tastes in music needed some adjusting. But nothing a true redneck woman couldn’t handle, right?

“I might have once or twice, but until today there wasn’t anyone else I’d want to kiss goodnight.”

Mercy did not miss that reference. So, she was right. He was feeling it, too. Whatever the fuck this thing was. That should make things easier, as she shoved the last bite of burger into her mouth.

“But, there’s one other problem, sweetheart.”

She stared at him and shrugged. Laura taught her that you did not talk with your mouth full. Sebida already watched them close enough; they did not give those people something else to talk about. Although this time, Mercy supposed they all had. Laura was wanted for questioning in the McBride mess, and she had shot Kerr. It would have been worth it if she had killed the bastard. Hell, even the needle would have been worth that shit.

He cleared his throat, and those smoky eyes met hers, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to rough it a bit. We can’t take the risk of stopping at a motel.”

Mercy finished off her milkshake and shrugged, “What part of redneck woman, don’t you understand? This is Texas. In the country, you can’t go more than a few miles without running across some old abandoned farmhouse or barn. I’ll survive. Probably better than you, city boy.”

He smiled as he handed her the helmet, “Okay then, my country girl. You ready to ride?”

This time Mercy took control. She grabbed the front of his jacket, pulled him close, and her tongue demanded entrance between those sexy lips. Not that the man fought her that hard. Especially when he wrapped his arm around her waist and drew her entirely against his body.

She knew they needed to get their butts on the road. But now that she had come to a decision, she wanted to make it unequivocal and give them both something to think about for the next few hours.

She slipped her hand between their bodies as she drew back. It did not entirely cover what was behind that zipper. Damn girl, good thing you never liked your bicycles with training wheels. Her fingers curved around it and squeezed. She hoped like hell that she got the pressure right. “I’m definitely ready to ride. But we need to get on the road and put a few more miles between Sebida and us before that, hot pants.”

He pulled her hand away from his cock and brought it slowly to those lips. He kissed the back of her hand, then turned it over and placed another kiss, or was it a lick, in the center of her palm. “Damn, now you tell me, woman? We need to work on your timing.”

That sweet roll of thunder sent more shivers from her girl bits to her nipples. She was glad that the helmet covered the eat-shit-grin on her face. Yeah, Kerr’s words had hit her hard. The idea that she might die a thirty-two-year-old virgin, or worse yet have something that she did not freely give sold to the highest bidder, then ripped away from her like it was some blue ribbon to be won at the county fair, had sent chills up her spine.

But Mercy knew it was more than that. She was not just throwing her virginity away to the first guy that came along. No, this was the right one. A guy that just might be better than her ‘book boyfriends.’ She’d find out soon enough. Although maybe not as fast as either of them wanted.

***Grandfather’s Ranch, Texas Hill Country***

“We have to go back. We have to go back to Sebida. Now. Or call your government contacts. I’ll turn myself in.” Tears welled up in Laura’s eyes.

Ryan shook his head. He knew he had to argue with her, but he also knew that she would hate him for it. But he could not let her do it. He knew that she loved her mother and sisters, but they needed her more now. Chloe and yes, him too.

Before he could open his mouth, the other woman was across the room. She knelt in front of his woman, gathered Laura’s hands in hers, and the women’s eyes met as she spoke. “Sweetie, I know you’re worried about your mother and sister. But you can’t go anywhere right now.” Laura shook her head in denial, and massive tears that tore out his heart escaped her eyes. His mate was a strong woman. She did not cry easily.

“You just gave birth. Then you travel several hours in the back of a cramped van with a newborn.” Jaycee reached up and wiped away the tears, “This is life and death, Laura. Not just your sister’s, but yours and that baby too.” “Right now, we don’t have enough information to go on. To make that kind of decision.” The other woman paused and squeezed Laura’s hands tighter.

“All jokes about Feminism 101 aside, I have discovered the hard way that we all need to rely on other people sometimes.” Jaycee smiled up at him, “And one thing I can promise you is that this man is one of the good guys. He helped us out of a load of hurt. It doesn’t make you weak to lean on him a bit right now. To lean on any of us.”

Laura started to shake her head in denial, but Ryan had forgotten that this woman was every bit as strong, determined, and competent as his own. Jaycee proved that once again as she took charge of all of them. “Grandfather will watch our girls. Rex, you and Jack clear out the van and try to find out what the hell is going on.”

She looked back at the two of them, “And I know just what you need. A shower. A nice warm shower. I’ll get you and Ryan set up. Then I’ll make us all something to eat. Hopefully, by then, we’ll know more. And can make some rational decisions. But no one can think clearly when they’re dirty, hungry, and tired.” Jaycee turned to him, “Pick her up and follow me.”

Like all the others, he knew when it was best to follow orders. He was rewarded when Laura closed her eyes and rested her head against his shoulder. Jaycee opened the door at the end of the hallway. She rummaged through the cupboards and pulled out a couple of big bath sheets as well as smaller towels and wash clothes. “I’ll just grab one of my nursing nightgowns, for now, sugar. You can deal with going through your stuff later.” Jaycee looked at him, “I’ll leave the nightgown outside in the hall, Ryan. Why don’t you get the two of you undressed and into the shower for now?”

Laura lifted her head and protested, “No, Ryan can help Jack and your husband. I can manage on my own.”

He was prepared to argue, but once again, the voice of feminine reason beat him to it. “No, you can’t. You should not be left alone right now.” She waved her hand at her own distended belly, “And right now, I’m not in any shape to manage you if you fell. So, enough with the false modesty. I’m assuming that if Ryan is that baby’s daddy, then he’s seen it all before.”

He loved the way Laura bit her lower lip and looked down at the mild rebuke. She might not argue with Jaycee, but he knew one was coming the moment that door closed. And he was right, “Put me down and turn around so I can get undressed.” He lowered her to the floor but did not release her. He kept one hand firmly wrapped around her waist as he bent to lift the bottom of the dress up. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I thought that would be obvious, counselor. I’m undressing you like the woman said. Showers generally work best that way.” Before she could get her next words out, he had wrestled the damned thing over her head.

The white bra was unsnapped by the time that she managed, “I can get the rest. And I need to….”

“Pee, darlin’?”

“If you say one word about god damned corporate team-building exercises, I swear I’ll knock that smirk right off your handsome face.”

Ryan smiled, “So, you do think I’m handsome?”

“Quit fishing for compliments. I’m too tired and worried to deal with it right now. And turn around.” Laura demanded as she reached out and held on to the lavatory for balance.

He knew he could argue, but sometimes it was better to give your opponent a bit of ground. He turned around and focused on adjusting the taps on the shower. Then he began to strip off his clothes. He kicked off his shoes, had his shirt off, and his jeans unbuttoned when he heard her gasp. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Like I said, counselor, showers work best when you are naked.” He turned to face her and pushed his jeans the rest of the way down his legs to pool at his ankles. He was not certain if the bright red in her cheeks and down to those fuller breasts was because she sat on the toilet with her white cotton underwear around her ankles or the fact that his cock was half hard.

He kicked his jeans aside, “Are you finished?” Damn, he loved that blush as Laura nodded her head without ever meeting his gaze. He lifted her in his arms and stepped into the tub, lowering her to her feet as he picked up the soap.

She tried to turn around and reached for the bar, “I do know how to wash, counselor.”

“I never doubted it, sweetheart, but would you deny me the pleasure of exploring your new curves?”

Her eyes flamed as they met his, “You’re damned straight, I would. My little sister and Mama are missing. We are on the run from god knows who. And you’re thinking about sex? That’s sick.”

“Did I say sex? Do you think I’m gonna molest you in the shower now? No, but need I remind you, counselor, that your little plan denied me the pleasure of watching my child grow inside of you. I never even got to feel my baby move. So, is it so fucking wrong for me to see a bit of those changes now?”

She shook her head, and drops of water flew from her wet hair, “But you’re….”

“Hard? Erect? Damn it, woman, you think I have jack shit control of what my body does? How it reacts to the woman I love? The mother of my child? Well, I don’t. But that does not mean I’ll ever pressure you for everything.”

He bent until his forehead rested against hers. He was pretty confident that some of the water cascading down her cheeks were tears. “I know that right now, you’re in no shape physically, mentally, or emotionally for anything. I just want to look at you, hold you, and be there for you, sweetheart. Will you let me? Please?” He was sure now that those were tears because they ran faster and more of them.

“But I’m disgusting.”

He hoped like hell he was not blowing his chance with her as he stepped forward and rubbed his now fully erect cock against her thigh, “Exhibit A, counselor. Seems pretty hard evidence to the contrary.”

She chuckled, though he heard how strained it was, “Just get on with it.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Ryan smiled as he lathered those breasts. He noticed that not only were they considerably large, but there was a road map of blue veins just beneath the surface. Her nipples puckered, and he thought he heard her moan. He lifted the showerhead from the holder on the wall to rinse her. Laura kept her eyes closed, perhaps so she would not have to see his raging hardon. Damn it; he might need a few minutes alone after he got her and the baby settled tonight.

Her nipples tightened even more as the warm water hit her breasts. Ryan almost lost his mind when he saw a drop of thick yellowish liquid appear at the tip. Laura lifted her arms, trying to cross them over so he would not see.

“Fuck,” he cursed. He wanted like hell to drop his knees, to suckle as he had watched his daughter do. He knew now was not the time, but he’d be damned if he was letting it go to waste. His finger collected the single drop and brought it to his lip. The taste was not like milk at all. Sweet, more like the honey that it resembled.

“Colostrum. It’s called colostrum. My real milk won’t come in for another day or two. If it does…” He heard the catch in her voice at those words and drew her into his arms once more.

He lifted the showerhead back into place and just held her for a long moment as those tears burst forth. He had read enough in those books to know that her hormones were all over the place. But these were exceptional circumstances. Most new mothers were not on the run for their lives with their babies, fearing for their family’s safety, and their whole lives uncertain.

He wanted to tell her everything would be alright. Hell, he wanted to play the hero and make things okay. But he had learned on his first SEAL mission that they were no heroes in this world. Things were never as simple as black and white. And sometimes even innocent women and children got hurt.

So, he did the only thing he could. He held her under that shower while she cried. Until the water got cold. Not that that helped with his raging hardon very much. But when her hiccups began to lessen just a bit, he picked up the bottle of shampoo, lathered her hair, and rinsed it as quickly as he could. Then he grabbed that bar of soap and promptly finished the rest of the job he had begun earlier.

He lifted her too quiet body from the shower. That worried him even more. He knew she was going into shock. He wrapped her in that extra large bath sheet and did his best to do the same for her hair with the smaller towel. He was relieved when she took it from him and did the job herself with a tight smile.

He sat her back on the toilet and reached back into the hall. He found a nightgown that Jaycee had promised and another pair of underwear and a pad, though this one was not as thick. Modesty and embarrassment were forgotten as he did his best to help her dress.

He quickly toweled himself off and reached for his jeans. He cursed as he tried to pull the zipper back up. The smile on her face at his discomfort offered him a tiny sliver of hope, “Problem with your exhibits, counselor?”

“Nothing I can’t handle myself later, counselor,” he teased as he lifted her back into his arms and opened the door. “But first, I’m taking you to bed.”

She rested her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes, “I wish that were as interesting as it sounds.”

He kissed her forehead, “We have a lifetime, sweetheart.’” And he hoped like hell that was a promise he could keep.

***Lucky Wolf casino, near Sebida***

“Dammit,” Stacey Reynolds cussed as she fumbled with her keys. The woman was more than skittish. The look on her face belonged in some B-grade horror movie, but Reb supposed that was pretty much what she felt.

Reb knew that look – too well. How many fucking times had he seen it in the god damned mirror or reflected somewhere? This woman, his woman, was not just frightened for her daughters.

She was whipped by life. He supposed it made sense. If he were ever to be with anyone, she or he would have to be as damaged as he was. It wouldn’t work any other way. But that did not help in this situation. They did not have time for swapping sob stories about life and the abuse that had damaged them beyond repair.

Right now, they needed to be on the road. Getting the hell as far away from Sebida, Texas, as they could. As fast as they could. But not in that car. If Sheriff Kerr had not already issued an APB on it and her, he would soon.

No, Reb had to talk her down. Use reason to make her see that. Because anything else did not bear thinking about. “Two minutes,” he held out his hands in surrender and pleaded. “Give me two minutes of your time. That’s all I ask.”

Though honestly, Reb was not sure that they had two minutes to waste. He knew he had to make the time. Trust was going to be incredibly hard to build between them. Hell, they may never truly get there. May never have what most people took for granted. But that was okay. They would have whatever they could handle, and sometimes that was more than a soul could hope for. And indeed, more than he deserved.

She clutched those keys to her chest and slowly rose to her feet, backing ever closer to her car. He feared that she would get inside and drive away at any moment. And what then? He had no fucking idea.

So, when she slowly nodded her head, Reb wasted no time. “I know you’re scared.” No matter how much she shook her head, her eyes told the truth. “Worried about your daughters. If it helps, Jack said that they had gotten wherever they were going. Laura is safe.”

She did not say anything. Not with her mouth, but he knew that feeling, too. Sometimes you got to the point where you just could not make your brain and mouth communicate. But he noticed that her shoulders relaxed a tiny little bit, and more tears came to those remarkable green eyes.

“I didn’t catch all that you said to Mercy. But we can talk about that once we get on the road. Away from Sebida.” Reb dared to take one small step towards her, but she stiffened, clutched those keys more tightly, and shook her head violently.

“I’m not going anywhere with you.” Her voice trembled. It was like each word, each letter, took all her energy to force them out. God, he knew that feeling. He needed to make her understand that. Make her see that she could trust him.

“Please. You can’t leave here in that thing. If Kerr has not already, he will issue a statewide, hell, probably nationwide, alert for your car, Mercy’s, and every other vehicle connected with your family.”

“Elena…”

“Can you call her or get word to her, somehow? Once we are safely on the road.” He had to keep chipping away at that point, slowly but steadily. She nodded. “Okay, that’s good. But you know what I’m saying is right, don’t you, sweetheart?”

He wanted to kick himself when he saw her stiffen again at that word. He knew better than to push her too hard right now, but it was just so natural that it slipped out. “I know you don’t trust me. I can’t blame you. You don’t know me.” And you’ve had horrific experiences with other men, but he could not say that to her right now.

“But you trust Jack, right?” He noticed a slight hesitation even on this one, but she did finally half nod. “I spent three years in the Rangers with Jack. We’ve been through hell together.” Just like you’ve been through hell. Like we’ll probably go through it over and over again for the rest of our fucked up lives, but he could not say that either.

Reb wasn’t sure what possessed him to do it. It was a risk. A huge fucking risk. And if he had been thinking straight, taken the time to analyze his options like he usually did, he never would have tossed his car keys towards her. “Those are the keys to my truck.”

In for an ounce, in for a pound, as his father said. He had no choice now but to play this one out. He motioned with his head towards his shiny silver, almost new F-250 pick-up with its capped eight-foot bed and extended cab. Damn, he loved that truck.

But not as much as he was sure he would come to love this woman. Hell, as much as he probably already did. But now was not the time for that shit either. “Take Elvira.”

She started to laugh. Until the tears in her eyes glistened in the florescent lights. When she looked up at him, the ice was broken, and some crucible passed. “Do I have to take off my shoes before you let me get in? Do you kiss her goodnight?”

He joined her in the joke as he inched forward a couple more steps. “No, but I wouldn’t mind seeing you in leopard print velour hotpants and a bikini top.”

She shook her head, “You are either blind, crazzy, or kidding me. At almost sixty and with stretch marks from three pregnancies, that is enough to make any man run for the hills.”

Reb shrugged; though sex had not been his thing in over a decade, this woman fascinated him. Flannel pajamas and cuddling under a thick blanket as they talked and laughed would be just as good in his book. But the way his woman reacted to the lightest of touches told him even that might be a challenge for Stacey Reynolds.

Now that the tensions were not as high, he took his chance. “You drive. Wherever you say. But would it really be so bad to have another gun along for this ride?”

She looked him in the eye, “Why? Jack wanted you to babysit Mercy and me here. Now that our plans have changed, why would you want to? Don’t you need to stay here and take care of your job?”

Her question was a hard one. He could not simply blow it off as a favor to Jack. She barely trusted Jack and had probably known him most of his life. But he could not exactly use words like love or forever, especially as he had no fucking idea where this thing was going or how the fuck either of them would manage any kind of relationship as damaged as they both were.

So, Reb settled for a half-truth, “Kindred spirits. Something tells me that we have lots in common. You’re in a bad way right now, and that’s what I do – help out when I can. As for Jack and my job? Elvira is as much my home as anywhere. I’m a drifter. I have been for most of my adult life. Jack knew that when he hired me. Besides, I don’t technically work for Jack. I work with him. I’m a contractor.”

He reached in his pocket and pulled out his phone, “But if it bothers you, then call him. Ask him yourself. I’m pretty sure that Jack will not only vouch for me but tell you that he would rather I went with you.”

He looked around the parking lot. It was dark, and they were in a somewhat secluded section of it. Thank goodness she had had the forethought not to park anywhere more apparent. With the new security system ‘glitching out,’ there was a chance that no one would remember seeing her or her car here tonight.

Shit, her car? Reb considered the options for a moment. Taking it back to her home might make the most sense, but did they have time? Perhaps abandoning it across the county line? But that meant separating for a bit, and he was pretty sure that would not be a good idea. He did not want to have to chase her off the road and kidnap her when she got those second thoughts. He was not sure that getting George involved in this any deeper was a good idea.

That left leaving it here as the only option. Reb knew that it would bring more heat down on Jack and the casino when they found it. That kid had enough troubles as it was. But with the security cameras down, it was plausible they could deny seeing her. Was it all that much of a stretch to think that someone on the run might abandon their vehicle at such a public venue? Probably not.

Fuck it, let Jack decide. They needed to get their asses on the road, or there would be a video feed showing that Stacey Reynolds had been at the casino and left with him. “But we have been way longer than two minutes. I’d feel much better if we got on the road. We can make all those calls while we drive. Then if you decide you can’t trust me, drop me on the road somewhere.” He smiled and winked down at her, “I’m hoping without a bullet hole.”

Stacey looked around too. She pondered it way longer than he was comfortable with. He felt the seconds ticking away. There was no reason for Sheriff Kerr to look for the women here specifically. After all, Jack had not been close to the Reynolds in years. Still, Reb had been around Sebida long enough to know that no piece of this county would go unturned.

She finally nodded, then opened her vehicle, reaching across the seat to pull out a pack. The damned thing looked almost regulation. She shifted its weight on her shoulder, “Do you need to get anything from the casino?”

“Nope, as I said, Elvira is pretty much home. Everything I need is in the back of my truck.”

She laughed again, and it tickled something deep inside of Reb’s heart that he swore had died in the pouring rain over twenty years ago. He knew that eventually, they would need to get around to swapping those old war stories, but not tonight. Not until he had her somewhere safe. Because Reb knew damned good and well that when that time came, neither one of them would be in much shape to do any fighting or running for a while. “Okay then, like you said, we should get the hell out of Dodge.”

“Nope, always been more of a Ford man. As for that city, it was a far sight more lawful than Sebida, Texas, darling.’”

“I can’t argue that with you.”

Reb went to take the pack from her, but she shook her head and hung on to it tighter. He shrugged and kept walking towards his truck.

“Which one of these dangs buttons open the doors?”

“The one on the top. And if you hit the one in the middle with the two-x on it twice, the darn thing will start up.”

“You’re shitting me, right?”

“Nope, try it yourself.”

“Don’t that make it easy for someone to steal the damned thing?”

“Nope, it can be tracked, and remote stopped as well.”

“Tracked, don’t sound too good right now.”

“Then good thing you’re with a security nerd who disabled certain features long ago, darlin.’”

“Quit calling me that. Or I will put your ass out on the side of the road.”

“I’ll hang around as long as you will let me. I never minded standing in the rain. You don’t have to call me darlin,’ darlin,’” Reb sang.

“And if you sing again, I will shoot you. Hell, I’d be doing the world a favor and, by the sound of it, putting you out of your misery too.”

She tossed the keys back at him, “Here, you drive for now. You know Elvira better. And I can make those calls.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He turned his head as he got behind the wheel. If she saw his shit-faced grin, she would shoot him for sure.

***Grandfather’s ranch***

Never in her whole life had Laura felt so weak, so confused, so vulnerable. She knew it was wrong. Cursed herself for not finding her big girl panties and pulling the damned things up to her neck. All she could seem to do was lean against him, and rest her head on his shoulders as he carried her down the hall.

She wasn’t sure where they were going, didn’t even know how he knew where to take her, but he opened a door down the hall. He rested her on her feet, but he kept one arm wrapped about her the whole time as he leaned down and pulled backed a thick woven blanket in red, black, and not-quite-white. Her hand caressed its roughness.

Ryan smiled at her as he settled her back against the pillows and pulled the bedclothes up over her. “Grandfather supports a lot of Native American artisans. He helps the old woman who made those to run classes for young people. So, traditional arts, crafts, and their heritage aren’t lost.”

She was too tired to do more than nod. It was a bone-tired of not just body, but mind and spirit. But Laura knew it was a luxury she did not have right now. Her Mama and sister needed her. She should not be lolling about in bed. She should be on the road back to Sebida.

“Knock, knock,” the soft feminine voice called from the doorway. Jaycee came to sit on the side of the bed. Her husband was right behind her, carrying a tray of something that smelled surprisingly good. “I brought you some food. It isn’t much, just some chili and cornbread. But it should be enough to fill you up before bedtime.”

Laura started to shake her head, but Ryan took the tray from his cousin and sat on the bed next to her. He had managed to shove two spoon fulls into her mouth and a sip of water before her muddled brain even realized it. “I am capable of feeding myself, counselor.”

She wanted to smack that grin off his face as he passed her the spoon, “I’m glad to hear it, counselor.”

Jaycee chuckled as she sat down on the other side of the bed, “Oh, this is gonna be good. There ought to be a law against two attorneys marrying one another.” Her face suddenly darkened, but her husband was there. Rex gently squeezed her shoulder and smiled down at her.

Then Laura remembered, this woman was Sean Riley’s ex-wife. Not only had the man been a friend and business associate of her former boss, Gerald McBride, but he was also an attorney. If she remembered correctly, so was his wife. Perhaps that explained the look the other couple shared.

Another bite was shoved between her lips, and she gave Ryan one of those looks. “If you don’t want me feeding you, then do it yourself.”

She wanted to argue. Hell, she had spent her whole life defending one thing or another. That was why she had become a lawyer. To right the world’s wrongs. Then she had seen the money she could make, been seduced by the status, and justified it all in the name of doing what was best for her family. Look what that had got her.

“He’s right. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but you need to eat. You have to take care of yourself if you’re gonna take care of that baby,” Jaycee reached over and gently squeezed her hand with a smile.

The knot rose in Laura’s throat, threatening to block not just the food but air as well. Chloe. Her baby. Her daughter needed her. Needed her to eat, drink, and sleep so that Laura could make milk to feed her. But her baby sister needed her, too. She was alone. On the run. God only knew where. And, she had practically raised Mercy. At six, she had changed as many diapers as Mama had. And Mama? She must be going crazy now. The woman had lived her whole life for them. Done whatever it took to keep her family together. But they weren’t now. Her girls were scattered, and it was all Laura’s fault.

“Stop it.” It was not Ryan’s voice but the other woman’s. “This is not your fault. None of it. It is McBride’s, and whoever else is behind this crap.”

Laura shook her head as tears fell again. She never cried, and here she was doing it in front of strangers. God damned hormones. “No, if I hadn’t….”

The woman reached out, took her shoulders, and shook her gently, “Don’t. That is a rabbit hole you can’t afford to go down. I know that.” The woman sighed, “Life doesn’t come with crystal balls. When we make decisions, we never know where they will lead. And the best that any of us can do is to own our shit. But that does not mean being the dumping grounds for other people’s as well. You took a job, a good one, with what seemed to be a top firm. You worked your butt off and blazed trails for other women. How were you to know what the McBride’s were doing?”

“Hey, can I interrupt?” Jack asked from the doorway. “Someone is a bit hungry. And I’m afraid Grandfather and I are a bit lacking in the equipment to feed the little lady.”

Laura held out her arms. Her daughter felt so incredibly right in them, but the burden was intense. Would she have to choose? Her child’s life or her sister’s? How could she? Fresh tears sprang to her eyes as she drew her baby towards her chest. Thankfully, Rex and Jack felt a sudden need to converse quietly at the other end of the room. That might have had something to do with the look that Ryan gave them both as he helped her find a comfortable position to nurse their daughter.

Once he had her settled, Ryan cleared his throat. “Any more news, Jack?”

The man turned around as he nodded. He and Rex came to stand at the foot of the bed, “Yeah, Reb called back a couple of minutes ago.” He looked Laura in the eye, “Your Mama is with Reb. She made it to the casino.”

Laura closed her eyes as relief washed over her. That was something, right? “And Mercy? Do we know any more about my sister?”

“Not much. Your Mama told Reb she had no idea who the Ninja on the bike was.” His eyes shifted to Ryan and then back to her, “But he hung up on me again. He said your Mama was on the phone with someone, and he thought it might be Mercy. You know she would not go anywhere with just anyone, right?”

“I hope so, Jack. Where are my bags?”

Rex brought them from the corner of the room and sat them by his cousin’s feet. “Ryan, grab the phone out of the front pocket of my bag,” Laura commanded. “Mama will call me when she knows more.” Or she hoped so, at least.”

“And when she does, we will have a better idea of what we are dealing with. Until then, I’m getting these guys outta here, so you and that baby can eat and sleep in peace,” Jaycee smiled reassuringly at her.

Yeah, this woman had attorney written all over her as she dragged her husband and Jack from the room. “Ryan, let us know if you need anything. Otherwise, we’ll catch up over breakfast tomorrow.”

He nodded as they all disappeared down the hall. Laura broke Chloe’s seal on her nipple, and Ryan took the baby, helping her to roll over at the same time. He even changed the diaper while Laura forced a few more bites of the chili down. As good as it was and as hungry as she should be, she did not have the energy or will to eat. She moved with rote for her daughter’s sake.

Ryan handed the baby back to her and took the tray. “I’ll take this to the kitchen, sweetheart. You get some sleep.”

She started to shake her head as she felt the strong pull of the baby nursing. “Not until I hear from…” were the last thing she remembered as exhaustion won.

***Chad’s Ranch, east Texas***

Chad stood on the front porch staring at the stars. Whether he’d been there moments or hours, he was not sure. It seemed like an eternity. Yesterday. Just yesterday. Less than forty hours ago. His whole fucking world had been turned upside down.

Should he go back inside? Check up on them again? Cassie, no – Rose had been with their daughter since… Since they had learned about Gerald McBride’s death. It had taken them close to an hour to get Grace calmed down enough to realize that running was not their best option. Even now, he was not sure that his daughter believed that. He, they, would need to watch her for a bit, make sure she did not do anything stupid.

Rose had stayed with her, gotten her washed, changed, and into bed. He had finished up the dinner that she had cooked, cleaned up the mess in the kitchen, and taken plates to both of them. He knew they did not feel like eating, but as his grandmother always said, ‘you have to keep your energy up.’ He had checked to see if they needed anything else.

Then he had come out here to contemplate things. He knew it was late. Well past his bedtime. But getting any sleep this night was going to be difficult, if not impossible. A million questions danced through his mind. Had the man erased and disabled the GPS as he promised? Or were federal investigators or worse closing in on them even now? How was he going to protect his family?

He had not been sure how much he had believed the man’s story. But he had wanted the chance to be there for them. Needed the opportunity to get to know his child. So he had taken it. Chad knew that he could provide them with a more stable home than witness protection. That he had never doubted.

Hell, if there was a leak, and this latest certainly made it seem that way, then he could probably even protect them better. But none of that was what weighed heavily on his mind and heart right now. He had a plan, and it was already set in motion.

No, what had bothered him the most was those words, “My daddy’s dead.” It had been on the tip of his tongue to tell Grace, ‘no, your daddy is standing right here.’ As much as he knew, it was not the best time.

But what was really eating at his craw was jealousy. Pea-green envy. That man had no right to call himself her ‘daddy.’ Gerald McBride had certainly not called her his child. No, he had made it perfectly clear he had only one of those.

Standing in that doorway as he watched them pick at the food, waiting for them to finish so he could take the plates down and wash them up, he had listened to his daughter, his child, pour forth guilt, remorse, and self-loathing. Grace was torn up about her final words to the man. And while Rose had reassured her that she had every right to feel angry with the man, to say the things she had, it had not soothed their daughter.

Soft arms wrapped about his shoulders. Her warmth seeped into his back. Chad closed his eyes and breathed in the fresh air that now held a hint of citrus and woman to complement the pine and hay. For a long moment, they just stayed that way, then he pulled Rose in front of him and wrapped her in his arms. “How is she?”

She leaned back into his embrace. Her trust at that moment sent his old heart soaring. “Hurt. Confused. Guilty one minute and angry the next,” she shook her head that was now a rich auburn.

He missed the honey blond, but the color was not bad on her. It matched her skin and eyes, looking almost natural. “And how are you doing?”

She snuggled even closer, burying her face into his old flannel shirt as she wrapped her arms around his waist. “About the same. But add in betrayal.” She pulled back from the embrace and stared up at him, “Chad, I need you to believe me. I never once suspected that Grace was your child.”

He could hear the tightness in her voice and saw tears glistening in her eyes as she continued, “Now, I wonder why. Why I never saw it? Grace looked or acted nothing like Gerald. Or Stephen.” She sighed heavily, “I almost told her tonight. When she came into the kitchen saying that her daddy was dead, I almost let it slip.”

“Now isn’t the right time,” Chad said as he tightened his embrace. The following words were ripped from his soul, “Now, we may never need to tell her the truth, sweetheart.”

She shook her head and looked up at him again, “What? What do you mean?”

“The man’s dead. The father that she thought she knew is gone. Maybe it is best if we don’t dredge up the past. Perhaps we just build a new future.” He kissed her forehead, “Over time, of course.”

Rose frowned as if pondering his words. She was stiff and silent for a long moment before she nodded her head once again. Yeah, if her hair could not remain that lovely honey blond, this was almost as good. “I had not thought of that.” When she exhaled, it was as if strong winds were stirring up the red dust clouds.

“Every time Callie – Grace brought up some memory tonight, talking about all the times that man had come to this recital or that livestock show. The Girl Scout campouts, the PTA meetings, and all the other things that fathers do, all I could remember were the pleas and arguments. Gerald may have come to those things, but never without a fight. And honestly, he was never really there. He was always texting or on his phone the whole time.”

She chuckled, but he could hear the bitterness. “Of course, now I understand better. What I don’t get is why he pretended at all? If he knew that Callie was not his child all these years, why didn’t he divorce me? Hell, our prenup was never that generous. But there was a clause that if I cheated, I got nothing.” She wiped tears away with the back of her hand. Her voice was full of pain and vitriol, “My daddy should have put one in there that said the same for Gerald. But then, they were men. And men have ‘needs.’”

Chad shook his head. He was not sure that he had the answers she needed, but he had sworn that there would be no secrets. That, unlike that man or her father, he would tell her the truth and allow her to make her own decisions. “I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers to that one. But when I asked that question, he told me that his new business partners did not want the publicity of a divorce or lawyers looking through things.”

“That long? Gerald has been involved with these people that long?”

He could hear the shock in her voice. “Like I said, that’s what he told me.”

Her hands trembled as they came to his chest, resting over his heart. “The investigators don’t know that. They’re only looking for the past five years or so. Maybe that’s why they can’t find the evidence they need?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. But Rose, we have no way to get that information to them. Not without endangering the two of you, and that is not worth it.”

“What about an anonymous email or letter? I know that Gerald and Stephen are dead now, but still, there must be others. Maybe even higher up. And if these people did kill Stephen and Gerald, then…”

“Then, he was right. They will come for you and our daughter. They may assume you know where the money is or even have it with you. Or at the very least want to clean up those loose ends.” He saw the shock of realization dawning in her blue eyes. He understood; it was the same feeling he had been struggling with for hours — the recognition of the depths and breadths of their troubles.

“Maybe Callie is right. Perhaps we should run. I don’t want to bring our troubles to you. I don’t want anything happening to you,” she was trembling, and those tears were falling again. “Perhaps I am a horrible person, one of those disgusting cheating wives. My husband of almost twenty years is dead. And all I am worried about is the man I spent one night with. What’s wrong with me?”

He drew her back into the cocoon of his arms and pressed a tender kiss to the top of her head. “I don’t know, darlin.’ I’ve been struggling with these fucked up feelings of anger and jealousy all night. Like the man stole not just all that money, but all those years from us. Time we could have had as a family. And I know that ain’t right. My grandparents dragged me to their little Foursquare church often enough to know adultery makes the same list as killing and stealing. So…”

“Why doesn’t it feel wrong?” They said practically in unison.

She shook her head as she stared up at the blanket of stars. “I have been asking myself that same question for fifteen years. When my parents cheated on one another, not even bothering to try and hide it, one trying to outdo the other, Aunt Rose always told me, ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’ But every time I look at her, at our daughter, I think that this time it did. Lots of people, even people we loved and admired, might call that night a sin. Condemn us and look down their noses on us.”

“That night was the only thing that has gotten me through the last fifteen years. Even before yesterday, before I knew that she was your child and not Geralds, I carried the memories of that night in my heart. As the one time that I tasted true happiness.”

“I know how you feel. All I can think is that if loving you was wrong, then I don’t want to be right, Rose. But that does not help us right now. It does not make our little girl feel less guilty for things that she rightly said to the bastard she believes is her father. It doesn’t erase the confusion and guilt that either of us is feeling. And it sure doesn’t keep you both safe.”

“Are we safe here, Chad? Is this the best plan, like Gerald said? Or should I just take the money and run? I know that I said I wanted to make my own choices about what was best for us from now on. But right now, I’m confused and tired and a million other things. I’m not asking you to tell me what to do. I am asking you for the truth.”

“I don’t have that to give you. I don’t know whether ya’ll are safe here or not. Because I don’t know how much we can trust that man. Yes, he seemed sincere. Like he truly did want to do what was right by us all. But what if he had second thoughts after he left here? Or what if he did not have time to erase and dismantle the GPS in that rental before he died? What if he met with someone first? You know, sometimes a car accident can mask other injuries.”

“So, what do we do?”

“I’ve called in a favor. I called an old buddy of mine from the Marines. Reb’s some kind of security expert now. Runs his own company and all. Before you get worried, I didn’t tell Reb anything specific. But he’s the best with security, all that technology stuff I never understood. He’s been working at a casino a couple of hours from here. I called and asked him about installing a security system here. He said he couldn’t come himself, but he told me what to get and where. Even recommended someone to install it if I run into any trouble myself.”

She shook her head, “I don’t want anyone seeing us. Especially not now. Hell, they even showed Callie’s school photo on cable news. Everyone in this country, hell, probably most of the world, is looking for us.”

He heard the panic building in her voice. “I order the stuff online already. It should be here tomorrow or the next day. I’ll do my best to set it up myself. Reb said to call him if I ran into trouble, and he’d try to talk me through it. But if we need someone to come out and install the damned thing, it is worth the risk. Ya’ll will stay out of sight. I told Reb that I have some fancy stud coming to breed the mares. But that his owner won’t let me until I tighten the security around here. That should make sense.”

“Yes, but what if they come in the house? What if someone sees us?”

“We’ll need to set things up in the house, too, darlin.’ But I have a place that the two of you can hide for a few hours. A place that no one even knows about.”

“But isn’t moving us dangerous too?”

“Don’t worry. You won’t be going far. You won’t even be leaving the ranch. My grandfather fought in World War II. He was in the Marines, the Pacific theatre mostly. Iwo Jima, the Philippines, I don’t even know where all. He never talked about it much. But I know that one of the places he served was Japan after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Whatever he saw affected him for the rest of his life. When he came back here after the war, one of the things he did was build a bunker. Me and my cousins used to play there as kids when we visited. But Grandpa Jake never told anyone except family about the thing.”

He pointed to the tree line just a couple of hundred yards from the house, “It’s hidden over there. The steel door is always covered in leaves, limbs, and shit. I’ll show ya’ll tomorrow. If anything ever happens, I want ya’ll to go there. Stay inside and don’t come out. Short of bringing in backhoes and digging up something the size of a small trailer, that door is the only way in, and it locks from the inside.”

She stepped into his embrace, “But that is tomorrow. I want to talk about tonight.”

In the bit of his stomach, Chad knew what her following words would be. But he had no fucking idea what his answer should be. He knew that she was vulnerable right now. And he never had taken advantage of any woman. He sure as hell did not want to begin now – with her of all people. But the tightness in his jeans and the tingling at the base of his spine, hell, his whole body screamed for him to take what was his. To stake his claim on her body, and this time, her heart. He started to shake his head. He opened his mouth to respond. But those soft fingers covered his lips, and he found himself drawing them into his mouth, sucking them sweetly.

“Last night, you told me that it would be my choice, Chad. I won’t deny that I am confused about a lot of things right now. But one thing I do know, maybe the only thing I know besides that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep Grace safe, is that I want you. I have needed you for fifteen years. You are the only fantasy I ever….”

The night was incredibly dark, the light from the house did not reach this far, but he knew she was blushing. And he knew exactly what she was admitting. His heart soared at her words and the ones that she left hanging.

“Chad, answer me this. If you do the ‘right’ thing, if you push me away tonight, out of some misplaced sense of honor, aren’t you just as bad as Daddy or Gerald? Isn’t what you’re really telling me is that I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions?”

Her words floored him. Because of the truth they held. That was precisely what he would be doing. The one thing he had sworn he would not do. Was he using that as an excuse to justify what he had wanted to do since the moment she stepped out of the SUV? Maybe. But did it matter? Tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, or a year from now, they were meant to be together. And he would be a damned fool to look this gift horse in the mouth.

He took her hand, leading her inside, up the stairs, past his grandmother’s old sewing room, to the door at the end of the hallway. That room had been his grandparents. Maybe his grandmother would, as she said, condemn what was about to happen there as a sin.

But twenty years spent in places that his grandmother had never heard of, seeing things that perhaps even his grandfather could never understand, had taught Chad that this world was not that simple. There were no heroes and villains. No black and white. This whole world, all the countries, and people in it were both good and evil. A bit of both inside us all.

And at that moment, he found his answer. He understood what the man had meant when he said, ‘I cared, as much as I could.’ It might not make everything the man had done right, but holding onto that anger and bitterness for all the years Gerald McBride had stolen from them would only taint the future.

Their future, that began on the other side of that door. And McBride, his grandparents, Aunt Rose, or anyone fucking else had no place in their bedroom. Just the two of them. Perfectly imperfect human beings loving one another through the good and the bad. That was the only truth to be found in this fucked up world, and Buford ‘Chad’ Wilson was not about to let anything stop him from grabbing onto it. And this time, he was fucking holding on tight. No matter what happened.

***Grandfather’s Ranch***

Ryan watched over his girls until Chloe’s little mouth stopped sucking and came off her mother’s nipple. He lifted her gently and kissed the top of her head. Genetics was funny. Statistically speaking, their daughter should have inherited her mother’s darker hair and coloring, but somehow she was his spitting image with almost white-blond hair. Of course, that could change as she got older.

It was the Reynolds women’s strength and intelligence that he hoped she inherited more than anything else. He could tell that Laura was upset and disappointed with herself that she had broken down and cried, that she found herself relying on him. He knew too that he would have hell to pay tomorrow morning when she woke up and discovered what he had done.

He kissed the top of Chloe’s head and laid her in the car seat/carrier that sat next to the bed. It could not be comfortable. He would check with Jaycee and Rex about getting something else. Not a crib; there was not enough room for that, but maybe one of those basket things that Laura had at her house. He covered her in the blanket and could not resist one more kiss on that soft downy head.

This is not how he had imagined bringing a child into the world. Hell, he had never been sure that he wanted to. It was not just all those years of small-town whispers behind his back, but he had seen things no man ever should. Done things that haunted his nightmares. Made choices that no one ever should have to. Ryan Paul Ranger knew more than most how fucked up this world could be. But looking at that innocent little scrap of humanity, he wondered – did it have to be? Was it too late? Couldn’t we make different choices? But how did that even begin?

He ran his hands through his short hair and turned back to the woman sleeping next to him. In sleep, Laura looked as innocent as their child. That hurt, jaded, and tough counselor was ripped away. He fumbled with that damned gown and pulled it up around her breast as best he could. Then he adjusted the blanket and kissed her forehead before picking up the phone and tray of food.

Ryan slipped out of the room. He knew that Chloe would wake them in a couple of hours to feed again. And he hoped that by then, he would have more information to share with Laura. He wanted to believe that he was a modern man, that he would support his woman whatever she decided was best. But he knew better. The need to protect them both overrode everything else.

He took the tray down the hall to the kitchen. He washed the dishes and put them in the drainer to dry. He stared at the phone that sat on the countertop next to him, willing it to ring. But it remained ominously silent. Maybe he should just check up on things, walk the perimeter. It beat waiting for a call that might not come at all tonight.

He headed towards the door but was surprised to find Grandfather, Rex, and Jack all congregated back in the living room, “I thought you would be back on the road by now, Jack?”

“No, I wanted to stay until I heard more from Reb. See what would be best from there. Grandfather agrees that no one will think much of me stopping by to see him on this odyssey.”

Ryan supposed that made sense. As much as anything did right now.

“You made the right decision, son. Bringing your family home.”

Rex shook his head at the old man’s words. Right decision. Family. Home. Were those things even real in this fucked up world?

“They are the only thing that are, Ryan,” Grandfather smiled.

Ryan wanted to argue or at least question the man who had been his lifeline, but that phone rang. He did not let it ring a second time, just in case it woke Laura or the baby.

He pushed the button. “Stacey?”

For a moment, there was nothing but silence. He heard the hesitation in her voice as she spoke, “Ryan? What are you doing with my daughter’s phone? Where is Laura? Is she okay? The baby?”

“They’re fine. Just sleeping right now. How are you? Where are you?” He answered quickly before panic overwhelmed the woman.

“I need to talk to Laura.”

He was not sure how to play this one. As of yesterday, he could understand this woman’s need to speak to her child on a visceral level to know that they genuinely were safe. But he heard the near hysteria in this woman’s voice. Would talking to her mother just upset Laura more?

“Stacey, she’s exhausted right now. We just traveled several hours in the back of a van with a newborn. You have my word; I won’t keep anything from her when she wakes up. Hell, I’ll have her call you then if you want. But please, will you trust me? I’m trying to do what’s best for them both.”

There was nothing but silence. After a moment, Ryan feared he had blown the whole damned thing. That not only had the woman hung up but that she would do whatever she could to make his life with her daughter hell. Just when he was about to hang up, he heard a long sigh. “You’re right. We all need to keep Laura and that baby safe.”

“That doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned you or Mercy. Stacey, please. Have you heard anything more?”

“Yeah, Mercy called me.”

“What did she say?”

The heavy sigh and long pause on the other end of the line seemed so unlike the brash and determined women that had faced him down just yesterday. “The hell if I know. She wasn’t making any sense. Do you know an Agent Williams?”

“Caleb Williams?”

“I don’t know. She didn’t say.  She wouldn’t tell me where they were. Just that she was with some Agent Williams, but not to worry that she knew she could trust him. And the man wasn’t even an agent anymore. Does any of that make sense to you?”

Ryan pondered how much to tell the woman, not just how much was national security, but what would reassure her and what might upset her more. She seemed just about as vulnerable as her daughter and granddaughter at the moment.

“If it is Caleb, then yes, I promise you Mercy can trust him.”

“That is fancy doublespeak, Ryan. You didn’t tell me a damned thing about the man. How do you know that he is not the leak? Working for McBride or whoever is behind it all?”

Ryan knew his following words were going only to make things worse, but if she found out some other way, there would be hell to pay. “Stacey, there are only a handful of people that I would trust in the agency, but Caleb Williams is one of them. The last I heard, he was one of the agents assigned to guard the McBrides. And I know that right now that does not look good.”

He paced back and forth, trying to find the right words to reassure her. “Hell, you know as well as I do, nothing is as it seems right now. Laura is wanted for questioning about something she was never involved in. Mercy is wanted for shooting a cop. And if I am not wanted, I am at least persona non grata with the agency.”

“So, until we know more, we need to trust Mercy’s instincts and what I know of the man. Caleb Williams has one of the strongest moral compasses of anyone I know. Yeah, I would trust the man. Not just with my life, but Laura’s and Chloe’s too. And at this point, that’s pretty much the same thing.” Once more, the silence was deafening. But Ryan was not sure what more he could say, especially as he had no idea how the hell Caleb Williams had ended up in any of this mess.

Was he wrong? The man had been assigned to the McBrides for a couple of months. Had Gerald managed to get to him somehow? Or worse, was he working for the people that McBride was mixed up with? Did he have something to do with McBride going missing? There were too many fucking unknowns in the most critical mission of his life, and Ryan did not like any of it.

But one thing he did know. One thing that Grandfather had taught him – trust his gut. And that intuition that had saved his life and others, more times than he could count, said that Caleb Williams was one of the good guys. “Did Mercy say anything else?”

“Yeah, and that worries me even more. She said they were headed to Torreon.”

“Fuck.”

Her laugh was tight as Stacey Reynolds answered, “Yep, that’s what I thought too. You know that’s where their father is from? Where his family still lives, I believe. I can check with Elena when I call. Reb says they will probably be looking for all our vehicles. So I need them to ditch their car as quickly as they can.”

“I agree. But what will they do? Shit.” None of this was going to plan. And he had no idea what even to tell the woman. It was not a feeling he had in a very long time.

“Tell her you will call her back, son.”

Ryan looked over to the old man. He wanted to scream and argue, but something in those dark eyes was the anchor he needed. They calmed him in these stormy seas.

“Stacey, I’ll call you back. Maybe in the morning? It would be best since everyone is safe for the moment if we all got some sleep. We’ll all make better choices after some rest.”

“And I promise I will tell Laura everything. But I meant it, if Mercy is with Caleb, she is as safe as Laura is with me.” He knew he spoke the truth. The question was, with the shit hitting the fan faster than they could clean up the mess – how safe was any of them?  

***Elvira, heading to east Texas***

Stacey came awake with a start. She shook her head as she tried to remember what woke her. But it was almost always the same thing – the dream. Or, more likely, the nightmares and memories. But this time, she was not in her bed. It took her a moment to recall it all. When it did come back, she felt those damned tears rising again. She looked at the clock on his dashboard. It seemed that all twenty-seven years, three months, thirty days, two hours, and twelve minutes had decided to burst forth, and there was fuck-all she could do about it. Even around this man that she didn’t know from Adam.

Stacey turned to look out the window of the truck. It was dark outside as they sped by on what appeared to be a decent-sized road. She swiped her eyes with the back of her hand, “Where are we?”

“Highway 7, just the other side of Crockett. Are you okay?” He shifted his eyes for a moment from the road to meet her gaze.

“That’s the wrong direction. We need to head west. The safe house is outside of Lubbock.” She frowned as she remembered that she had fallen asleep after speaking with Ryan on the phone without giving this man any of that information. “I’m sorry. I should have told you before….”

He shook his head as those intense eyes turned back towards the road. “It wouldn’t have mattered. I need to pick something up from a friend before we go anywhere, darlin.’”

“You can’t just go making decisions without me, dammit.” She glared at him while she weighed her options. She realized now that she should not have left her SUV at the casino. Getting in his truck was her first mistake. But she did not want to examine those reasons too carefully at the moment. “Let me out now.”

“And what? What you going to do, Stacey? Where would you go?”

She considered her options. Laura and Chloe were with Ryan somewhere. Could she get Ryan or Jack to pick her up? Would she bring more trouble their way if she did? With some luck, Elena and Bradley had already crossed the border into Mexico. And Mercy? Lord knows what that girl was up to?

She still had a couple of thousand dollars in her bugout bag, but how long would that last her if she stayed in hotels? And there was always the possibility, if they released her photo in connection with Laura or Mercy, that someone would turn her in. What choice did she have? But that angered her too. She had begun to halfway trust this man. Something she should have known better than to do. “Where are we going? And what do you need, so all fired badly?” She let her tone tell the man how upset she was as much as her words.

“A small farm, just east of Nacogdoches. Chad’s an old buddy of mine from the Marines.”

“I thought you were in the Army with Jack. He was a Ranger?” She was almost sure of it. The man’s story was not making any sense. Stacey reached for the door handle. The truck was going way too fast, but she needed to be ready when it slowed down.

He turned back to her for just a moment and flashed that damned smile. “I was. But before that, when I was just a kid, I enlisted in the Marines. I had just completed my enlistment and was doing a bit of work with Americorps when 9/11 happened.”

He was silent for a long moment. Though his eyes stayed on the road, Stacey got the impression his mind was elsewhere. She watched his Adam’s apple move as he swallowed like there was some bad taste in his mouth. Or maybe she was reading too much into things. “I knew that I had skills that were needed, but well, let’s just say, my time in the Marines wasn’t the best.”

Something about the way he said that resonated with Stacey, though she wasn’t sure why. “So, you joined the Rangers?”

He nodded, and once more, silence ricocheted in that small space. It was another mile, or maybe more. Stacey had turned back towards the window. She still had her hand on the door handle, though she debated whether throwing herself out was her best option, then he spoke again.

“There aren’t many people from that time in my life that I would trust as far as I could throw them, darlin.’ But Chad Wilson is one of them. He was my drill instructor for sharpshooting. You asked what was so all fire important it was worth this detour and taking the risk of exposing us? An M-40. I need to get my hands on a high-powered rifle. Something that will take them out before they even get close to the people I care about.”

Reb paused again, and those silences told her more than his words. “When I left the Rangers seven years ago, I’d had enough of guns, war, and fighting to last me several lifetimes. Even before 9/11, I’d learned the hard way that the line between the good guys and bad were not always as clear as people think.”

There was a thickness to his voice that touched something inside of her. Stacey took her hand off that handle and reached across, placing it on his knee. She felt his whole body stiffen for a moment. She heard him, those deep, cleansing breaths in and slow ones out. She felt his muscles begin to relax a bit before he turned and faced her. His smile was taut and forced as his hand covered hers and squeezed, just briefly.

“But sometimes, sometimes, to protect those you love, you have to do things you swore you never would. Right now, even if I could get my hands on the gun I need legally, it might raise suspicions. I know Chad. He’ll have what I need. And I’m betting that I can convince him to let me borrow it for a bit. Especially since the man called me yesterday about a new security system on his ranch.”

He lifted her hand from his knee and brought it to his lips. He pressed a kiss to the back of it. Stacey stifled a gasp at the feel of soft lips and slightly scratchy face hair on her knuckles. She battled those tears again and turned her head when she realized that was the closest she had come to a kiss in almost thirty-three years. She did not have the time or energy to ponder the differences between this and those others that Ignacio had used to dupe and seduce that naïve and stupid young woman-child.

“I’m pretty sure I can trade Chad some expertise with installing his new security cams for a loaner. Or I hope so. Otherwise, this side trip has been a colossal risk and unnecessary waste of time.” He turned back to her with more of those forced smiles. “We’re less than half an hour from Nacogdoches now, then another hour or so to Chad’s ranch. It’s way too early to show up on his doorstep unannounced. I think the best plan would be to check into a motel. Get a couple hours of sleep, a hot breakfast, and then call your daughters again. What do you say, darlin’? Does that sound like a plan to you?”

Reb was right. She had agreed to call Ryan and Laura back in the morning when her daughter had recovered a bit. And she hoped to hear from Mercy and Elena too. A shower, sleep, and food might be just what she needed to pull herself back together and find her big girl panties. Who knows, maybe tomorrow they could all come up with some sort of plan? She nodded her head. This time when he took his eyes off the road and turned to smile at her, it was not as forced. Sad, maybe, but not forced. “I’ll look for something once we get to the other side of Nacogdoches. Until then, why don’t you try to get back to sleep, darlin’?”

Stacey nodded her head as she turned back to the window to watch the dark zoom past. But she had way too much to think about to sleep, at least for now.

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