Part 5 – Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning

***Chad’s Ranch***

The moment Chad closed that door behind them, Rose became intensely nervous. It was not that she did not want this. Want him. But she was not that young, pretty thing anymore. Fifteen years and pregnancy had taken their toll on her body. Her breasts sagged. The muffin top, that roll of disgusting skin just above her pubic bone, never went away, no matter how many crunches she did. And the stretch marks on her stomach and tits were like a road map of Texas – that included all the little dirt ones, too. And even without the lights on, the moonlight was much too bright through the huge bay window.

She stared out that window. This far out of the city, with all its lights, you could see a million stars against the blue-black sky. Their light traveling across time and space, distances her brain could not even fathom, to reach her at this moment. That was how she felt. As if she had been given some incredible gift. A second chance at love and happiness that she had thought as fleeting as a shooting star.

She sat on the edge of that wooden four-poster bed. This was no reproduction. Someone had lovingly craved it, perhaps from wood they had chopped themselves. The full moon was so bright that it illuminated another of those intricate quilts. This one had a stars and stripes pattern in red, white, and blue. She ran her hand over it as well.

“We don’t have to….” His voice was as rough as she felt at that moment.

She looked up and smiled. His face was a raw reflection of the insecurities that she felt. She held out her hand. Chad looked at that door for a long moment, then nodded his head. He walked a couple of steps to the bed and sat down beside her. Rose laced her fingers through his, resting them on his thigh. She leaned her head against those broad shoulders. For a couple of moments, they sat in companionable silence.

He wrapped his arm around her and drew her even closer. His fingers squeezed hers, “It’s alright, darlin.’ Now is probably lousy timing anyway.” He turned to face her and smiled down, “I can just hold you for a bit. Then you can slip back to your room without Grace knowing. Heck, you can sleep here if you need to. I’m man enough to control myself.”

Rose’s heart pounded with what she now recognized as love, genuine love. And maybe some sanctimonious, self-righteous people would condemn her, him, them, but she had never had a real marriage. She had a business deal, negotiated between men more than twice her age at the time. Her body had been sold just as surely as a slave’s. It was only that the price for her virginity had been high.

At that conference and others, she had learned the plight of young girls around the world bartered by their families into marriage with much older men. To the people in those rooms, forced marriage happened in developing nations, thousands of miles from the good old USA. Even those that knew about her older husband never made the connection. It was unthinkable. And perhaps she was a few years older than some of those girls, certainly much more mature than the youngest victims, but at nineteen and away from her sheltered home, Cassie had just begun to live, when… Sure, she had followed Aunt Rose’s advice. She had honestly tried her best in that first couple of years to make her marriage work. But marriages take two people, and she could never do it alone.

Her fingers traced the lines around his mouth. He had not shaved since that morning. His cheek was rough. She ran the pad of her mouth over those lips. “You’re the only man I’ve ever loved,” she spoke the truth in the silence like a prayer.

He scooped her into his arms and turned them so that they lay facing one another on top of that quilt. He propped his head on the one hand and draped his other arm over her. “I know that people would say this is wrong. Especially now, tonight, your husband just dead….”

“Gerald was never my husband, not in the ways that counted. Any more than he was Callie’s father.” She lifted her hand, moved it to the front of his worn and dusty flannel shirt. It was easier to study the small silver snaps than looking into those Wilson green eyes as she spoke. “And I meant what I said earlier. I need you, Chad. Right now, tonight, with everything so fucking uncertain, I need the one thing that has been consistent in my heart and mind for fifteen years.” She lifted her eyes, “I need you.”

He inhaled deeply and smiled as he bent and pressed one of those heart-stopping kisses right in the middle of her forehead. A forehead that she also knew had lines and wrinkles that had not been there fifteen years ago. This man had laid his heart and soul bare to her on that front porch last night and tonight. He deserved nothing less in return.

She exhaled deeply and bit her lower lip as she began, “My reluctance was not some misplaced sense of loyalty or guilt to a man that controlled my life more than he ever cared for me.” She found the courage that was his due and looked him directly in those eyes as she continued, “My reluctance earlier had more to do with vanity.”

She hesitated for a moment. She heard Gerald’s voice in her mind, all those times that he had called her out of shape, old, disgusting. It had been years since she had subjected herself to his abuse. So long that she had forgotten the last time she was even partially naked in front of the man. One good thing about his wealth, there were plenty of bedrooms to choose from in that mansion. Heck, most of their ‘friends’ slept in separate rooms too.

But Chad was not Gerald. She knew in her heart that he would never say those things. Would never hurt her like that. That did not mean that he would not be disappointed. And as hard as she knew he would try to cover it, she feared that she would know. Could she survive that? That truth. She sucked up her courage and studied that silver snap again. “I’m not young and pretty like I was then.”

She fought to keep the tears back, but her voice was a hoarse whisper as she forced the rest of those demons from her mind and out her lips. “The years and my pregnancy have taken their toll. I’m afraid you won’t…” She closed her eyes and screwed up every single bit of courage and strength inside of her, “I’m afraid I’ll disappoint you. That you won’t find me desirable.”

There. She had done it. She had brought forth her deepest fears, well other than losing this man or their daughter, but she had spoken them aloud. Cleared the air.

Chad shifted and pulled his arm from beneath her head. She steeled her heart for whatever was to come. She believed they would get through this. Somehow. They had to. For Grace’s sake. Maybe they would never have the future they might have if things had been different. But they would get through this too.

She started to roll over, excuse herself, slip from the bedroom, or just get up and close the curtains. Perhaps that would be enough? She wanted to believe it would be. Because despite all those insecurities, all Gerald’s nasty words echoing in her mind, she still loved and wanted this man.

Chad’s hand captured hers, held her in place as he brought it to his lips. Damn, even kisses in the palm of her hand did something to her when they came from this man. Then he pressed that hand lower. Until it came to rest on his midsection, his words were soft in the darkness. “Just in case you have not noticed, sweetheart. You are not the only one.”

She met his gaze, and her heart exploded at the love and adoration she saw there. “I intend to make love to the woman I love, not a body. Whether that be tonight or another is up to you.”

Even nose kisses were sexy when they came from him, “And for the record, when I saw that photo of you on the news, all I thought was how kind time had been to you.”

“Then let’s see if you still feel that way,” Rose rolled over and came to her knees, kneeling beside this man on the bed.

Her eyes remained glued to his as she lifted her shirt over her head. His words could not magically erase all those others or the years of insecurity, but they gave her courage to at least try. She reached behind her and unsnapped the bra, allowing it to slide down her arms.

Her breasts, though they had never been overly large, had been firm. Now they were anything but. She knew that the way they sagged had nothing to do with nursing her daughter the way Gerald had claimed. It came down to genetics.

Not that her mother’s had ever sagged. Not with that much silicone in them. Hell, the woman had perfect tits in her casket. And Gerald had offered, no, he had begged, pleaded, and bullied her into having plastic surgery as well. But she would not. To her, it just was not worth it. Especially since she knew it would never make her ‘husband’ interested in her again.

But they were what they were. She bit her lip and searched his face in that bright moonlight that did nothing to hide the silvery streaks that marred them either. Rose did not even realize she had been holding her breath until his rough hands cupped her right breast. His thumb brushed across the nipple, and heat raced to dampen her panties.

“Beautiful,” he breathed the single word as he lowered his head and captured the nub between his lips. Rose swore she almost came from that alone.

***Grandfather’s***

Laura rolled over at the sound of that damned kitten meowing. Every fucking muscle in her body hurt. Whoever this new personal trainer was, they were fired. And damn it, what was that kitten caterwauling about now? But damn, the cover model sitting on the side of her bed holding that baby was almost worth waking up for.

Then, it came back to her, “Ryan, is Chloe okay?” Before the words were out, the rest came crashing down on her, too. “Have you heard from Mama? Mercy?”

His smile was incredibly tight and forced as he fluffed the pillows, helped her sit up a bit, and get their daughter settled into feeding. “We heard from your Mama right after you fell asleep.”

“And you didn’t fucking wake me, asshole?”

“I didn’t want to fucking wake you up now. I was going to give Chloe a bottle myself, but Jaycee said I shouldn’t, that it would make breastfeeding harder for both of you.” The way his hands ran through that wavy light blond hair that was so like their daughter’s made it damned hard to stay mad at the man.

“Thank you. She’s right.” Laura kissed the top of her daughter’s head as the tears gathered again in her eyes. Damn it, fucking hormones. “What did Mama say?”

“She’s heard from your sister. Mercy did not say where she was, but she’s with another agent….”

She shook her head and tried to get up, but that only irritated Chloe, who came off her nipple with a loud wail. Ryan helped them get settled again. She hated how dependent she was on the man. What about all those women who worked in the fields, went into the bushes, had their babies, and went right back to work? Why couldn’t she be like them? Probably because loads of those women died in the process, she reminded herself that reproduction had enslaved women for eons.

Of course, not her sweet Chloe. This baby was her choice. And she did still believe in that. Every baby should be as planned and wanted as her daughter. Okay, so things might not be going to that plan. They had not since the morning after her baby was conceived, and this man, her daughter’s father, had ripped her world apart. Okay, so that was not totally Ryan’s fault. McBride and her own greed and hubris were more to blame than he was. Damn those tears.

“Isn’t that just as dangerous as Kerr, though? You say there’s a leak.” She tried her best to relax. She knew that if this breastfeeding thing was going to work, then she needed to remain calm. Maybe Ryan was right, perhaps she should just give up and bottle feed their daughter. It might come to that anyway if she turned herself into the feds to save her family. She stifled the small cry of fear and loss that the thought of going to prison, or worse, brought. To think that Ryan or Mama or someone else would have to raise the child she had fought so hard to have, ripped her heart and soul apart.

As if he could tell how dark a place her mind had gone, Ryan leaned over and brushed a soft kiss on her forehead. “We will get through this, sweetheart. All of us.” But this time, Laura noticed he did not dare add the words, ‘I promise.’ There were no promises or certainties in this fucked world.

How had she, of all people, forgotten that? Too many dinners in the ‘right’ restaurants, too many shopping trips to the Galleria to buy the ‘right’ clothes, spending more money on a single outfit than Mama used to make in a month, and too many hours in the gym when she used to keep in shape by running around town after her sisters and Jack. She had gotten soft. Laura had forgotten that you passed the same people going down as you had stepped on rising up. And for the first time, she questioned it all.

“Answer my question, Ryan. Isn’t Mercy in just as much danger in the hands of your former employer as she would be with Kerr?”

“No one could be in as much danger as with that man. Honestly, I’m still trying to get to the bottom of it all. Most of what Mercy told your Mama did not make any sense.” His fingers gripped her chin, and their eyes met over the top of their baby’s head, “But the one thing that reassures me is that your sister is with someone I know. Caleb Williams is one of few people I would trust at this point, sweetheart.”

“Why? How do you know that he is not the leak?”

“I have known Caleb Williams since I joined the agency. We went through training together at Quantico. He’s former Houston PD. Though he’s young, he made quite a name for himself in narcotics. Honestly, sweetheart, like I told your Mama, I have met very few men with a stronger moral compass than that man. He’s a hell of a lot more of the good guy than I am. And yes, I’d trust him with her life.”

He brushed his finger over their daughter’s cheek, and Chloe turned to look at him. Laura knew from reading all those pregnancy and baby books that it was much too soon for her daughter to smile, but she swore that was what Chloe did to her daddy.

“I guess I can’t argue with that one. But how did he get messed up with the whole Kerr and Mercy thing? And why did Kerr go after my sister?”

He sighed heavily and leaned against the pillow. For the first time, Laura noticed the dark smudges beneath those striking blue eyes. Had this man slept at all since he arrived at her house and delivered their baby yesterday? If so, it could not be more than an hour or so nap, here and there. He had been the one handling it all. Making plans with Mama, coordinating everything with Jack, and honestly, doing more of the caring for Chloe than she did, except for feeding, of course. And caring for her, too.

It was not something that Laura was used to. She loved her Mama, and she understood how hard the woman had worked to keep them all together, with a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. Hell, it would not surprise her one bit if Mama had sometimes gone hungry herself to feed them. But the truth was that as the eldest, there had never been any time for Mama to baby her. Not that she could remember, of course.

So, the way Ryan had carried her, fed her, and pampered her was a new experience. She blushed at the memory of how he’d even washed her. Those damned tears rose to her eyes again as she reached out and caressed his face. It was rough; obviously, shaving was not his top priority at the moment. Her heart almost stopped when he closed those eyes and turned his head into her touch, kissing the palm of her hand.

“So, what do we do now, counselor?” She wished she could answer that one herself. But at the moment, she was so torn that she had no idea if she was coming or going, as Mama said.

He opened those striking eyes, and his were as cloudy with tears as she knew hers were. That should have scared the shit out of her, but somehow it reassured her. To know that this man felt her burdens, not merely with his brilliant brain, but his heart too, meant more to her than she would have ever imagined.

Laura did not know what love was, not love between a man and a woman. Sure, she knew well the love that her mother had for her daughters. Maybe that was why Laura had not stopped to consider her decision to have a baby on her own. But Mama had never had time for a man. Laura could not remember her going on a single date or even just having casual sex. Not in her whole life? At least not since Mercy was born, that she was sure of.

As for her relationship with Stewart Childress, she was not even sure how that happened. Convenience? They worked together and saw one another every day. They moved in the same social circles. Was it just that it? As their friends paired off into couples and families, had everyone just assumed they were a couple too? She certainly hoped part of her motivation had not been Stewart’s close friendship with Stephen. She hated to think that she was that shallow, or worse yet, that she had ‘slept her way to the top.’ But one thing she did know, she had never ‘loved’ Stewart. And she was reasonably sure the man had never loved her either.

That one night in London was as close to anything that resembled the love and romance in the books her baby sister wrote as Laura had ever come. Was she falling for this man? Hell, had she fallen for him in the pub that night? Now was not the time to think about it.

“Rex, Jack, Grandfather, and I talked a bit after I spoke with your Mama. I should tell you that when Jack was looking for news about your sister, he discovered that McBride is dead.”

“What?” Laura felt panic rising inside her. If Gerald McBride was dead, then that meant someone truly was cleaning up loose ends. Was she next?

The look on Ryan’s face worried her even more. The way that he bit the inside of his cheek and would not look her in the eye told her there was more to the story. “Out with it, counselor. What aren’t you telling me?”

“McBride’s rental was found in a ditch just outside Sebida.”

“Sebida? Are you sure? Fuck!” Chloe quit sucking and started to scream. That was precisely how Laura felt at the moment, too. But unlike her daughter, she knew she could not give in to those urges.

He sat up and took their daughter as he passed her a glass of juice, “Drink this while I change her. Then you can switch sides.”

Damn, she would not want to be on the other side of the table from this man. The way that he took charge hung like a cloak of authority from those broad shoulders. She found herself obeying his orders without even thinking. By the time she had finished the juice, he had brought their daughter back and held out his arm. Laura used it to roll over, embarrassed that she had forgotten to put her breast away after feeding the baby.

It was a strange juxtaposition. The normality of a young couple working together to care for their new baby. Two people, lovers, who barely knew one another, adversaries even. Forced by circumstances beyond their control. Fighting for their lives. It was more than overwhelming. Hell, she might enjoy reading a Jon Frisham novel now and then, but she had never been under the illusion that practicing law was anything other than mundane and boring. She had assuredly never thought she would end up in the starring role in that kind of crap. But here they were.

“Do they know why he was in Sebida?” She forced the words out as she used his arm to turn over, this time putting away her breast before revealing the other for Chloe and his eyes.

He shook his head as he helped her get the baby settled and properly latched on. “No. It could just be a coincidence. His wife and daughter were not in the vehicle with him. So, they are missing, and the US Attorney has issued an APB for them too. As material witnesses. Same as you, sweetheart.”

“Do you think that he was coming to see me?”

“You could answer that one better than me. Why would he? Did he even know where you were?”

She shook her head as she watched her daughter nurse, the noose tightening around her neck and heart. “I don’t know. Of course, the address would be in my personnel file for tax forms and insurance stuff. As for anything else, I just don’t know. As I said, I don’t know how or who copied me into that email and those files that came from Stewart. It could have been Gerald. Or Stephen? Maybe even Stewart? I just don’t know. It was a blind cc. That should have alerted me to something.”

“But then I came in and tore your world apart. Of course, some email and encrypted files from your former employer weren’t your top priority.” He held out his finger, and Chloe grasped it again. “Especially when you found out about this one.” He smiled at his daughter, and Laura was almost sure all those books had to be wrong. That was a smile, no doubt about it.

“So, we’re back to my earlier question, Ryan. What do we do now?”

“It’s after midnight. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. We know that Elena and Bradley got out of town before any of this kicked off. We know your Mama is safe with Jack’s friend. And I honestly believe that Mercy will be alright with Caleb. I don’t believe there is much that we can do right this minute. Grandfather thinks we should try to contact everyone in the morning. Maybe work out a plan together?”

As much as she wanted to argue, she knew that what he said made sense. Good sense. She was too tired right now to think straight. Indeed, a couple more hours of sleep could not hurt anything, right? Maybe in the morning, she would be thinking clearer, find a pair of her big girl panties or knickers as they had called them in London, perhaps even find a backbone to stand up to this man.

Except as much as she wanted to condemn him for being chauvinistic or misogynistic or domineering, she knew that would not be fair. This man had not taken her choices from her. He had stood by her side, offered his advice and options, and done everything humanly possible to take care of not only his child but her and her family. He had certainly earned a bit of a break and some sleep.

But the moment she moved to put Chloe in the basket that now sat next to the bed, he was alert. He took the baby from her and settled their daughter with another of those tender kisses to the top of her little head. When he finished, Laura noticed him biting the inside of his cheek once more. She smiled, so the man was not as wholly self-confident and in control as he looked. “Aren’t you coming to bed, counselor?”

He turned and smiled at her with a nod as he stripped his shirt over his head and unbuttoned his jeans. Ryan walked to the other side of the bed in nothing but a pair of too-fucking-tight boxer briefs that hung to him so tightly she could only think about how good his cock looked.

Fuck, what was wrong with her. She had just given birth. His amazing cock, and fingers, and oh, that tongue should be the last thing she was thinking about. Instead of filling her dreams as she fell asleep with her head resting on his chest as it gently rose and fell. Those strong arms, were they called pythons or guns, wrapped about her felt so right. But tomorrow would be soon enough to think about any of that.

And they certainly had lots to think about. Tomorrow.

***Cheap hotel in East Texas***

Reb pocketed the metal key on the plastic keyring. The number seven was almost worn away. He knew that she was not going to like this. But this was their best option. He had passed half a dozen or more of those chain hotels. Those places wanted credit cards, ID, and license plate numbers. This run-down hole in the wall that had not even upgraded to card key locks and probably saw more business by the hour than the night did not require any of those things. Just cold, hard cash. He was also betting it was the kind of place where the old man behind the counter minded his own business. Reb was not sure the man had even looked up from that old hunting magazine long enough to get a decent look at his face. What’s more, a quick look at the camera in the corner as he walked in told him that the system was not even operational.

Of course, the downside was that the television was unlikely to work, and internet connections were out of the question. He had three and sometimes four bars of reception on his phone. That should be good enough to check the various newsfeeds and figure out their next steps.

He knew he was procrastinating. She might not like it, but he knew that Stacey Reynolds would understand. And he was wasting precious time he could be sleeping, not to mention the fact that MacDees fries tasted worse than MREs when they got cold. “Suck it up.” He opened Elvira’s door and slid behind the wheel.

She had already opened that greasy bag and was chowing down on those fries. She gave that incredibly tight smile and held out the bag, offering him some. He took a couple and used that as an excuse to delay even further. But he felt those sands slipping through the hourglass. It was best with this woman to be direct and honest. “They only have singles.”

The moon was full, so he had no trouble seeing the way her eyes widened at his words, but before she could say anything, he explained. “You can take the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor by the door. It’s better that way anyway.” She started to shake her head, but he continued. “I would sleep on the mattress in the back of Elvira like I usually do, except we should remain as close to one another as possible.”

“If there’s a mattress back there, why didn’t we just pull over on the side of the road or in a parking lot somewhere?”

“I did not want to run the risk of some security guard, deputy, or Ranger doing a random vehicle check. Once we are out of Texas, maybe we can. Or even stay in a real motel. But for now, until I can check the news feed and see just how much they know, this is our best option.”

She nodded her head and held onto that bag tighter as he started the engine and drove to the back of the dilapidated one-story building. As he hoped, he could pull Elvira around to the side so that no one could even see her from the road. There was a small alley back there too. Nothing more than a couple of industrial trash bins, but it could be helpful if they needed to make a quick escape.

As they got out of Elvira, Reb gave their surroundings another quick going over. Maybe once he got her settled, he should do a bit more recon? The room was about what he expected. Water-stained wallpaper from at least the seventies. The television was a twenty-six-inch boxy CRT that sat on an old dresser. It was questionable if it could even pick up newer signals. The only other furniture in the room was the double bed with one of those scratchy, polyester bedspreads with ugly brown, red, and orange leaf patterns all over it. Hell, he might be more comfortable on the floor than she would be on that thing.

He walked over to the nightstand and turned on the old lamp. At least, there was no dust on the shade. The place did seem to be cleaner than he hoped. Maybe the sheets were fresh? He could always pray, for her sake.

Stacey clutched her bag tightly to her chest as she closed the door behind her. Reb sat the MacDees bag on the nightstand. “I’ll check out the bathroom while you finish eating. If it looks okay in there, maybe you could shower before you go to bed.”

She nodded her head. She had barely said a word in the last hour as they got their food and found this place. He knew she was scared and scarred, but this quiet worried him. He had seen it before, once or twice, in old friends from his Army days. Resignation – they had given up. Life had just become too much for them. The only thing he hoped was that her evident love for her daughters would draw her out.

She plopped onto the bed and reached for the bag. Her nose crinkled in a cute sort of way. Unfortunately, there was not much open at this time of the morning. Besides, drive-thrus were their best option for staying under the radar. He was hoping that MacDees had not recently upgraded its camera system. That would make it harder for the authorities to trace them.

If they even realized who Stacey Reynolds was with. Almost no one in Sebida knew him. He slept in the back of Elvira, though Jack had offered him one of the dozen or so rooms at the casino, mainly for the occasional high roller. He took his meals at the restaurant there as well. About the only person he had much contact with was that nosy old lady at the convenience store where he bought gasoline. But he never answered her questions. That got a real snub from the woman. As for the regulars at the casino, his job was not the kind that drew much notice. Who even bothered with the guy installing new cameras? If Jack or George did not mention him, then chances were no one in Sebida was even aware of his existence. Or so he hoped.

The bathroom was tiny. It did not even have a tub, just a shower in the corner, a small sink hanging on the wall, and a toilet. He lifted the lid and then walked over to the shower. Yeah, this place was clean for what it was. There was not even any mildew at the bottom of that cheap plastic shower curtain. He turned back to the other room.

Stacey held out the bag for him. He took one of the remaining cheeseburgers and unwrapped it. “The place is surprisingly clean, darlin.’ When you’re done eating, why don’t you get that shower? I’ll check the news on my phone and maybe have a better look around outside.” He stopped himself from adding ‘just in case.’ She was already on edge.

She grabbed the bag that sat on the floor at her feet and disappeared into the bathroom. A moment later, Reb heard the water running. He bit into the burger as he pulled up the newsreader on his phone. “Shit,” he was not happy with what he discovered as he finished off the burger.

He knocked lightly on the bathroom door, “I’m taking that walk now.” He waited a moment for a response. He thought he heard an ‘okay,’ but he was not sure. Picking up the bag, he grabbed the last burger. Hers sat half-eaten on the nightstand anyway. He would try to convince her to finish it when he came back.

But for now, he had other things to worry about. Exit strategies. How to convince Chad to loan him that gun without revealing the trouble they were in. The best route from Chad’s ranch to Sedona, obviously the less time they spent anywhere in Texas, the better. How to convince his woman that Sedona was their best option. And especially how to break the latest news to her without sending her over the edge. Not to mention his issues with his beloved mother.

But first things, first. Making sure they were safe here and had a good exit strategy was a top priority. One step at a time.

***Chad’s***

Rose’s moans were a blessed relief for Chad’s tortured mind. Her earlier words, that look of pain and insecurity in her eyes, they were another reason for him to hate that man. But that would be easy. The truth was that he bore as much blame as Gerald McBride. He had known that night. He had heard the other pains in her voice as they drank those beers. But he had done the ‘right’ thing. He had walked out of that cheap motel room and left the woman he knew was his to that man’s tender mercies.

And now he had a price to pay. He had all those years to erase. If he even could. But he knew he would spend the rest of their lives doing his damnedest to make it up to her. He just hoped that they had years and years and decades for him to try. But right now, he had this moment, and he was going to make the most of it. Not allow the ghosts of their past to intrude on their present or mar their future.

His tongue worked her nipple, and his hand gently squeezed and caressed her soft flesh. Chad chuckled softly. That was not the best thing to do at the moment as Rose drew back. Her arm crossed over her chest, trying to hide what she had only a moment before offered so freely.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” He pulled her arm away even though she turned her head so that he could not see her face. “It isn’t what you think. I’m not laughing at you.” He gently turned her face towards his and kissed away the tears. Tears that he had caused this time. “I was thinking of my Grandmother and biscuits.”

Her face went from sad and insecure to angry and horrified in an instant. He laughed this time, “Let me explain, please?” Rose nodded though she fought to bring that arm back up to her chest. “When my Grandmother tried to teach me to cook biscuits, she told me that the way you knew the dough was ready was when it felt like a woman’s teet.”

He was relieved to see Rose chuckle a bit, “It wasn’t until she was gone that I wondered how my upright Christian grandmother knew how women’s tits felt. I mean other than her own.” His face scrunched up, “Oh, that did not come out right.”

This time it was Rose who was laughing at his expense as she shoved him back on the bed and straddled his hips, “What you don’t want to think your Grandmother might have done this.” She closed her eyes, threw back her head, and kneaded her breasts, plucking at the nipples until she was moaning.

Unfortunately, that was not all she did. Her hips moved too. It seemed that Wilsons were not the only place that their daughter got her horsemanship. In the past fifteen years, he had forgotten just how good a cowgirl this woman was. Chad found himself moaning and lifting his hips, rubbing against her. Though both his jeans and hers separated him from the heaven he sought, Chad was afraid he was about to embarrass himself. His hands gripped her hips, and he tried to still her movements as he pleaded, “Please, darlin,’ please stop.”

But Rose had other ideas as she leaned forward. Her breasts dangled just out of his reach as she slowed her pace to a canter. He lifted his head to capture her nipple between his teeth, but she drew back. “Not yet, cowboy. We have to make sure the biscuits are gonna rise.”

She shifted her weight to the side and tugged at his belt buckle, “Rise nice and high like this fat, juicy sausage,” she teased as her hand moved over his hard cock. Chad could feel the warmth even through the layers of his jeans and boxers.

“It’s gonna get damned juicy in a minute if you don’t stop that, woman,” his hand covered hers.

He loved the sound of her laughter. Even here, in their bed. And it was their bed now. They might need to keep that from their daughter for a bit, though. Especially now, with that man’s death and Grace’s misplaced guilt. But they would find a way to be together. Somehow.

They worked together to discard his jeans. He tackled the belt, Rose managed the button, and he unfastened the zipper. But when her soft, little hand slipped inside the warm cotton of his boxers, Chad almost lost control.

The only way he would survive this was to take control. He rolled them so that Rose lay cushioned against the pillows. His mouth captured her startled cry. Waking Grace was the last thing they wanted right now. His hand grasped her breast, his thumb brushing that hard point until that cry became a moan.

His other hand was struggling with her jeans. It had seemed much easier to get his open. He cussed under his breath as he felt the button finally spring free. He ripped her zipper down and pushed the rough material down over her hips and legs. Somehow, magically, her panties had gone with the jeans so that she lay completely naked and exposed beneath him.

Chad knew that he would not last two minutes once he was inside her, not this time, at least. But he’d be damned if he left her hanging. Her pleasure was more important than his own as he kissed his way down the side of her neck. His fingers covered her lips as he made his way lower. This time it was the other nipple that he suckled deep into his mouth. “Shhh, sweetheart. We don’t want to wake the baby.”

He was confident that she would have nursed Grace. And that thought got him even harder. He had missed so much that they could never get back. Maybe that was some just punishment for leaving them to the abuse and neglect they had suffered. But now was not the time to think about all that. He could ponder the imponderables after he had got her off a few times, then made love to his woman, and had her fall asleep in his arms.

Chad looked up and saw Rose’s eyes widen as his tongue joined the dance, flicking across the nub even as he continued to suckle. He loved the way she was biting the fleshy part of her hand to keep from crying out. He wanted to push those limits even harder. He turned his attention back to the other breast, repeating the process as she moaned and moved beneath him. When he bit down tenderly on the nub, he thought she might throw him like a bronco at the rodeo.

But as much as he enjoyed her softer, fuller tits, that was not his ultimate goal. He allowed his fingers to continue the torture that his mouth had begun as he kissed his way lower. Rose shook her head and brought her arm down to cover herself as he ran his tongue around the outside of her belly button.

“Please, just fuck me,” she pleaded between gasped.

He lifted his head and read those insecurities once more. “Maybe one day, I’ll get around to ‘just fucking you,’ darlin.’ But not any time soon, I have fifteen years of makin’ love to my woman to make up for.”

He knew he was pushing her harder as his fingers began to trace the silvery lines that covered much of her stomach. “I’m sorry. Maybe I should have done that laser stuff, after all. It was just that I wasn’t… No one would see except me… It just didn’t seem worth it.”

Those words told him so much about this woman that his heart knew inside and out. But his mind had a lifetime of specifics to learn and understand. “I’m glad you didn’t. They’re badges of honor. Reminders of our child.” Chad bent his head and traced those lines with his tongue. He heard her sobbing softly. Maybe he should have just moved on, not said anything. But he did not want those kinds of secrets between them.

He kissed her navel and laid his head on the soft pillow of her stomach as he looked up at her, “I never got to see my child growing inside of you. Chances are, I never will. But these… these marks make that real. They make you real, darlin.’ And I wouldn’t have you any other way.”

He saw those tears; they glistened in the moonlight like diamonds. He wanted to kiss away each and everyone and all the others that this woman had cried alone all those years. But all he could do was make the most of this moment, and all those he hoped they would have to come.

To come? He kissed that soft flesh one more time and resumed the journey to the ultimate prize he sought. He shifted his weight and slipped off the bed to kneel on the hard floor. He lifted her hips. Yeah, those were wider and softer too. That mixed-up man-child might have enjoyed the young, firm, hard-body, but the man he had become much preferred these softer, gentler curves. He angled her body and drew her down so that her bottom rested right on the edge of the mattress. He lifted one leg and wrapped it around his shoulders as he pushed the other out to the side.

“Fuck,” he breathed at her open beauty. Like Inferno, he caught a whiff of his mare’s need for him. It was a heady fragrance. Wet, wild, sweet, and tangy. But Chad wanted far more than to smell her need. He needed to taste it. See for himself that it was real, that after all these years, she was real.

He was not gentle or subtle. There was no table manners or etiquette. Not when he was tasting heaven itself. He gorged like it was an all-you-can-eat-buffet on Sunday after a sermon that ran too long. He licked and suckled on the tiny button of her desire that hardened with each stroke. His tongue lapped the entire length of her slit. He tasted her creamy ambrosia from the source. And he went back for more, plateful after plateful.

He watched her writhe on the bed. Her fingers grasped that quilt, bunched it tightly, twisted it. Her face turned red; her mouth formed a perfect ‘O’ as her hips lifted to meet his caresses. He felt the strong contractions that shook not just her body but the whole solidly made bed. He held on and rode out the quake. His mouth never surrendered its heaven.

He pushed her up that slope and over the precipice again. And again. He lost count. He was not bothered with numbers, to begin with. Chad knew that infinity would never be enough. Heaven was not someplace in the sky. It was this moment. Right now, with his head buried between her quivering thighs. Knowing that he had done this to his woman. That she could not stand if she had to. But that did not matter; he would carry her. Carry her burdens as he should have all these long years. And she would…

“Please. Please, Chad, I need you.”

Those were the sweetest words in the universe. And if he died right now, and he might if he did not bury himself in heaven soon, everything was perfection. He rose slowly over her. That nectar of the gods welcomed him and cushioned his invasion. She was tight, incredibly fucking tight. It was mind-blowing. And threatened to snap what little control he had left.

But this was heaven on the earth, and there were miracles. He held on; somehow, he managed to maintain his control, to go slowly for her sake. He sank deeper and deeper into her body as her arms wrapped about his shoulders, drawing him down into her depths like a siren. Chad moved slowly, each stroke like a waltz. Soft and gentle gliding to the music that only the two of them could ever make. The sweetest country ballad he had ever known. A song he had not heard in too long. He savored each note and bar. He could spend a lifetime lost in its melody.

But then the song changed. Rose lifted her hips, drew him deeper. Her fingers sank into the muscles of his upper back as her whimpered pleas sank into his soul. This beat was more frantic. Its steps faster. Fifteen years of need and denial were riding them both as they reached together for the stars.

Rose buried her face in his neck as he felt that sweet sheath tighten like a noose around his heart. It was the most delicious torture he had ever known as her body milked the life out of him. He buried his face into that quilt to keep from crying out his release. That seemed to stretch towards eternity.

He wondered if it was going to kill him as he rolled to the side, taking his weight off her petite body. There were no words for what had just happened. All he could do was draw his woman into his embrace and hold her tight as his heart and breathing slowed to normal. He was sticky and sweaty, but he hoped that it did not matter.

He had even started to drift off to dreams that he knew could never equal this moment when he felt her pull back from his arms. He frowned and stared up at her as Rose looked about the room, “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

She bent and pressed her lips to his as she whispered, “I should go. We don’t want Calli… We don’t want Grace to find out about this… About us. Not now.”

Chad knew that she was right. But he sensed that it was something more profound as well. Looking over at the old clock on the nightstand, he saw that he only had a couple of hours to sleep before it would be time to get up and start the chores. One thing about living on a working farm and ranch, there was no sleeping in. Horses needed to be fed, and cows milked no matter what.

Reluctantly, he nodded as he watched her searching for items of clothes that they had tossed about the room. He watched her dress. He frowned when he realized that she kept her back to him the whole time. It seemed that some lessons would need to be repeated. As tired as his old body was, he forced himself to sit up on the side of the body. He held out his hand to her as she finished buttoning up those cheap Walmax jeans that still looked damned good on her rounder ass. She hesitated for a moment, and Chad feared that she would leave without…

But she did not. Rose took his hand. He drew her close and buried his head between her breasts. He listened for a moment to the sweet sound of her heart beating just beneath his ear. Then he turned and looked up into her face. The tears were back, and this time he did brush them off her cheek.

Chad wanted to erase the pain and the uncertainty that was their future right now. But he knew he could not do either. All he could do was, “I love you. I fell in love with that tiger in those tight fittin’ jeans. Fifteen years could not get her out of my mind or heart.”

His eyes sought and held hers as he continued. “But those feelings that screwed-up jarhead had for some millionaire’s dream can’t hold a candle to how this old rancher is coming to feel about the incredibly strong, loving, and adaptable woman that I get to know deeper every moment. The woman that girl became may be scarred in her body, mind, and soul, but I meant it. I cherish each and every one of those, darlin.’”

“I want to take away all those years and that pain. Promise you that nothing will ever hurt you or our daughter again, but I can’t. Because I can’t lie to you or make promises, I know I can’t keep. All I have to give you is my heart, my life, and my love. And I want you to know I cherish every moment we had here tonight. The laughter, the tears, and the lovin.’”

He was not sure that it was enough. It certainly wasn’t those fifty-cent words or fancy poetry, but he hoped that it was a beginning. And that he would have more opportunities to say and do it better. But he felt the exhaustion overtaking him. Replete with her good lovin’, he embraced those dreams that could never come close to reality, that left him cold and insecure because they were not had in her arms. But hopefully, one day, someday – it could not come soon enough for Chad.

***Cheap motel in East Texas***

Stacey allowed the water to flow over her as her mind drifted. The shower felt incredible. She had not had time for one since just before Laura’s baby shower. Less than two days? How had her life gone to shit so quickly?

Sure, it had always been far from perfect. “A victim of circumstance. The one who ought to give up, but she’s just too hard-headed. A single mom who worked two jobs, who loves her kids, and never stops. With gentle hands and the heart of a fighter, I’m a survivor.” Stacey sang what she had for almost twenty years considered her theme song in life. “I don’t believe in self-pity. It only brings you down. I  may be the queen of broken hearts, but I don’t hide behind the crown. When the deck is stacked against me, I just play a different game.”

Those words had gotten her through so fucking much. “My roots are planted in the past, and though my life is changing fast, who I am is who I want to be.” That was the problem. It wasn’t anymore. Two days ago, she had the best job of her life. One daughter was happily married. Another was expecting her first baby. Even Mercy was relatively secure with her job at the library and the writing stuff. Yes, the McBride shit loomed in the background. But none of them expected THIS.

The water went cold. Stacey leaned her head against the hard tile wall as the tears came faster. She could feel the difference on her skin. The shower was cold. Her tears scalded her skin.

It was all her fault. Her father’s words mocked her, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation.” But that was nothing. It seemed that mothers and daughters never got a break. Were they forever doomed to be caught in this cycle of violence and abuse? The idea of those grandbabies, Rahab, Chloe, and the little girl that Elena carried now, enduring any of the things that she had, sickened her. Hell, as much as she had tried to protect them, her girls had suffered the abuse of bastardy and poverty.

Why had she stayed? She should have taken her daughters and left Sebida long ago. But go where? Do what? With no money or education, what life did she have to give them? Yes, it was her sins, her choices, that Laura, Elena, and Mercy were paying for.

She wanted to pray, to plead, not for herself. She was beyond all hope, but for her girls, and especially those grandbabies. Except she could not. She could not bring herself to submit or bow or plead with that angry, vengeful bastard that her father extolled from that pulpit – usually after beating her and her mother the night before. And the church? They turned a blind eye. Even when she had gone to them, told the bishop what her daddy had done, they did nothing. Same with her school and social services. No matter where or who she reached out to, no one believed her. Hell, what had she expected? Her own mother denied it. Denied it still. Why would they believe a sixteen-year-old kid who was skipping school, failing half her classes, and drinking already?

Looking back, she realized just how ripe she had been for the picking with Ignacio Garcia. But then? A seventeen-year-old woman/child who thought she knew it all but didn’t know shit. With a thirty-five-year-old man? A foreigner and drifter with money and time to spend on her? She had fallen hard and fast. Before she even realized what had happened, she was pregnant. Iggy had convinced her to elope across the border with him. He had a cousin who was a priest. But he did not tell her that his cousin would never file the marriage license she signed because he knew the truth – that the man already had a wife and three sons in Torreon.

Stacey’s knees buckled as more tears came. Sobs wracked her body as she remembered the day she had come home from work. The trailer was a mess as usual. Elena’s diaper was so full that she doubted it had been changed since she left that morning.

But it was the way the man sat in front of the television with Laura on his lap. Their daughter was crying to be let down; she wanted to go outside and play. Stacey held Elena on her hip, even though pee now soaked through her uniform top, as she pulled Laura from her husband’s grasp. Her world ended when she saw that he wore only his underwear…and that he was…

She did not even have the energy or awareness to crawl to the toilet as every bit of that MacDees and a lifetime of broken dreams spewed all over the bottom of that shower stall. That was probably a good thing, though. Because it also meant she no longer had the reserves to fight as those hands lifted her.

Stacey was only vaguely aware as the man lifted her off that floor. She thought he cussed, but she had no idea what he said. Her mind was far away. In another time. Running to doctors. Laura was okay, down there. She had considered pleading with her parents to take the girls until she could think of something, but the thought of that ‘rod’ her father never spared was too much. In the end, she had called INS, turned her husband in, and called in sick to her jobs as she waited for them to come.

The water ran down her face. It was freezing, but she did not care. They had finally come. With guns. Why did they have so many weapons for one man? Why had it taken them so long? She had lost her jobs. How would she work? With two toddlers and another on the way, who would look after her children?

She smelled soap and felt hands on her head. When was the last time she had been to the beauty parlor? But these hands were larger, rougher, and surprisingly more gentle than Sybil May’s were at the only beauty parlor in Sebida.

The cold water ran down her head. Her eyes stung. That was enough to break the spell. Stacey pounded her fists on him. She fought him as she had fought that first time.

“Okay, it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you, Stacey.”

The voice? It was not Kerr’s or Iggy’s or her father’s. It was vaguely familiar. She struggled to focus through the tears and stinging of the soap.

The man. What was his name? Jack’s friend. It was something unusual. Reb, that was it. “What are you doin’ in my shower?”

He held out the showerhead, “Can you take it now?”

She reached out and jerked it from his fingers. He nodded, held up his hands, and walked backward from the small room.

Stacey’s hands were still shaking, but somehow she managed to hold on to the damned thing long enough to finish rinsing her hair and body. She washed down most of the barf on the floor of the shower before she turned off the water. But those fingers would not work well enough to manage to get the damned thing back in its holder. Fuck it; she’d come back tomorrow morning before they left and finish cleaning up her mess. She just wished it would be as easy to clean up the mess she had made of her life and her daughters’.

“Are you okay in there?”

“I’ll be out in a minute,” she forced the words out, though her voice sounded hoarse and weak. But she got the impression that the man would barge back in if she did not respond.

Stacey sat naked on the toilet as she practiced that deep breathing shit again. It took her a couple of minutes, but she finally had enough control that she could stand up and brush her teeth. Thankfully, she had brought everything she would need into the bathroom with her. She toweled off and wrapped the too small and rough thing around her hair before pulling on the nightgown. She almost started crying again when she saw that it was the one that said ‘World’s Best Mama.’ Her girls had given it to her last Mother’s Day. She looked in the mirror as she pulled up the Wonder Woman panties that Mercy had given them all last Christmas.

“Enough, you’ve cried more in the past twelve hours than you have in the last twelve years. You have made it through hell. Your daddy’s beatings. Iggy’s bullshit. And forty-seven…” She drew in a long breath. She always struggled with the word but just saying it had restored a tiny bit of something inside of her. “Forty-seven rapes.”

She did not bother collecting all the clothes that she was usually meticulous about. She’d get those in the morning too. Just as soon as she and her girls’ came up with a plan. But right now, she had a battle all her own to wage. She had to face the only man who had seen her naked in well over a quarter of a century.

***An abandoned barn, Nowhere, TX***

They made better time than Will had expected. They could have probably made it to Laredo already if he had taken the highways. But sticking to those county roads, they had still managed to cover close to three-hundred-fifty miles, including two stops for fuel. Those had been hard for him because he needed to find a safe place for his Mercy outside of town and leave her alone, unprotected.

Yeah, he knew she had that gun, but shooting a deputy somewhere was the last thing they needed when she had already shot the sheriff. Hell, the next one might just be a good cop doing his job. But luck had been with them. So far.

They had skirted around Pearsall. He could not believe how disappointed Mercy was that they could not stop in some singer’s hometown. Who the heck was George Strait anyway? He definitely had to cue his girl in on some new music. Hadn’t she ever heard of Aretha, Marvin, Smokey, or James Brown? His friends might think his taste in music was old school, but it was the songs he had grown up on. Besides those Sunday hymns, of course.

The weight of his helmet rested between his shoulder blades. She had probably fallen asleep. This ride could not be comfortable for her. Hell, even he was not used to covering over four hundred miles in a day on the Duchess. If Mercy was going to have trouble walking, he could think of better ways of getting there.

It was mostly dark still, though he could see the horizon was beginning to lighten a bit off to the side. They were mainly heading south now. Another hour on the road max. He was a bit surprised when he felt the tap on his shoulder. He turned and noticed her pointing to something in the distance. It looked like nothing more than a shadow at first, but as he got closer, the form of an old barn took shape. It looked abandoned.

The trouble was that south of the Hill Country, the land had gotten flatter, drier, and browner. There were hardly any trees to be found. That meant finding a place to hide Mercy while he checked things out or fueled up was becoming more and more difficult. He checked out the rearview. Nothing on the road, but a woman alone on a country road would immediately raise alarm bells if something did come along. He had no choice. He’d have to take her with him while he checked it out.

He took the Duchess offroad. And though the ride got rougher, her traction held as they kicked up a dust cloud. He circled it once, then stopped the motorcycle around back. At least no one could see them from the road now. She was off the bike before he could say anything.

“I told you,” were the last words any man wanted to hear from his woman. But this time, he was glad that she seemed to be correct.

“You stay with the Duchess while I check things out.”

“Please.”

Damn, she was sexy with that look on her face and her hand on those curvy hips. For a little chick, she had those in all the right places. “Please? Please, what?” He could think of a few ways he’d like to please his woman.

“Please stay here. You do realize that this is the twenty-first century and that women no longer need men to save them, right?”

“Sweetheart, I was raised by one of the strongest women you’d ever find. Etta Mae Williams faced down firehoses, police, and national guard armed with nightsticks and teargas. But she did it all alongside my Grandfather Walt. Black women stand side-by-side with their men. Sometimes they even take the lead. But now is not a good time for a revised history lesson. My apologies if I sounded condescending.”

Will was not sure which he loved more, the way she bit her bottom lip or the rosy blush to those cheeks. He was pretty sure, though, that was not the response she had been expecting. Hell, maybe she was even correct. But that did not lessen his need to keep his miracle safe.

He knew he would have to deal with those feelings, though. If Mercy got her way, and she very well might, then they were going straight into the mouth of the lion as his grandfather had preached. Of course, he was still debating that one. As much as he wanted, or needed, to follow this lead, to do right by Bebe, was it worth putting this woman at that kind of risk?

The old doors creaked loudly as he forced them open. That was a good sign. This place probably had not been used in a while. It would also mean that no one could sneak up on them easily. The spaces between some of the broken boards would allow him to see in all directions without being seen.

Of course, it was not the St. Regis. Heck, there was no bed or running water. And who knows how old that little bit of hay in the corner was? Or what lived there? He did not want to think about it.

She might be right about that too. Mercy probably would handle this better than he did. His grandmother had always kept their home meticulously clean. He could almost hear her say, ‘Just because the good lord made mice, spiders, and cockroaches don’t mean we need to invite them in the house.’

But he could almost imagine his country girl keeping a spider or snake as pets. Oh, sweet Jesus, he hoped not snakes. That was one compromise he was not sure he could make, even for her. “It seems all clear. At least in terms of two-legged vermin. As for four, six, eight, or slithering, I can’t say. We could keep going for another hour, maybe, if you think we could find better.”

The way she leaned against the Duchess made him wish he had his phone with him. That was a photograph worthy of screen saver status. His favorite girls together had his cock hardening in those too-fucking-tight leathers. Damn, they would be hot and uncomfortable to sleep in. But he did not dare sleep naked this time. Not that the idea of doing so with this woman bothered him. He could never remember actually sleeping with any woman. Oh, well, always a first for everything.

She looked straight at him. Or was she staring at his crotch? No way, not the little librarian. “This place is as good as any. Probably better. We can hide your ‘duchess’ inside the barn with us, city boy. Want me to help you get her inside? Or should I do the ‘little woman’ thing and set up house?”

He shook his head with a smile. Life with this one would be a hell of a ride – a fun one at that. He just had to make sure they survived for another fifty years or so. “If it bothers you that much, I’m happy to switch with you. You manage the Duchess, and I’ll make the bed. And for the record, yes, I cook and clean. My grandmother believed that we should all know how to do those things and share the responsibilities for them.” He laughed at a memory.

“What’s so funny?” Her hands were back on those hips. He’d much rather his hands were on them.

“I just remembered a story my Grandfather Walt told me when I asked why he always did the ironing.”

“Okay, now you have me curious. Out with it, city boy, this I gotta hear..”

“When they were first married in the late fifties, Grandfather Walt had just finished seminary and had his first church. Looking polished in his suit, tie, and dress shirt was expected. Not just on Sunday, but every day.” She nodded her head as he continued, “My grandfather had the temerity to tell my grandmother that her ironing was not quite up to par. She threw his shirts in his face and told him that he could iron his own blessed shirts from then on.”

Will’s throat got incredibly tight at the memories, “Blessed was my grandmother’s way of cursing, mind you. But from that day on, ironing was my grandfather’s chore. You know what he told me? He learned that ironing was not as easy as it looked. And to never criticize the way anyone does something until you have done it yourself.”

She adjusted the backpack on her shoulder and walked by his side as he pushed the motorcycle inside. “Your grandparents sound like pretty amazing people. My grandfather was a Methodist preacher, too. He disowned Mama and called her a whore the day they deported my sperm donor.”

“I can’t even imagine. My grandparents would have never done or said anything like that. They always preached about not throwing the first stone or turning the other cheek. Seven times seventy. That’s four-hundred-ninety.”

Had he? He had not kept count, but Will was reasonably sure that he had turned his cheeks to racism and prejudice way more than four-hundred-ninety times. He opened the door further and guided the Duchess inside. The anger, hurt, and confusion that he had been feeling so intensely since his grandmother’s death was still there, but there was something else as well – hope. Since the moment that his Mercy walked out that library door, the despair had been shunted aside.

Yes, they still faced insurmountable challenges. Yes, this world was still a suck-ass place that was not fair or just. Yes, they and their children might face discrimination and prejudice. But with her by his side, they’d face it all. Maybe even find some way to make the world a better place, or at least their little corner of it.  Wasn’t that what he’d watched his grandparents do for his whole life? Hadn’t it been enough for them? Another of his Grandfather Walt’s old adages flitted through his mind – fight the good fight. Watching her, he knew this was a warrior woman that he’d always be proud to have by his side.

Mercy sat that bag down and began to unpack things. More water, what looked like energy bars, what all did she have in there? Those innocent eyes looked up at him, “Can I ask you something?”

He leaned the Duchess on her stand and knelt beside her on that dirt floor. His hand reached out and tenderly cupped her cheek. He loved the way she closed her eyes and leaned into that caress. But it only made those damned pants more uncomfortable. “Sweetheart, you can always ask or tell me anything.”

“Why did your grandparents raise you? What happened to your parents?”

Surprisingly, it was never a question that had bothered Will. It was what it was, that simple. “If you call Ignacio Garcia your sperm donor, then I suppose the best description of Mariam Williams is the woman who gave birth to me.” He said the words without any hint of animosity because he had none. He felt nothing for the woman, one way or the other.

“Dr. Williams is a professor of history at Howard. She never bought into Dr. King’s non-violence. She thought, thinks, it does not go far enough. Her doctoral dissertation was on the history of the Black Panthers. She did hundreds of hours of interviews, especially the more militant members who were in prison or on the run.” It was the one thing that he did have a problem with. “I don’t know who my father was. She never told my grandparents and won’t tell me, either. Other than a revolutionary, I can be proud of.”

“Honestly, I’m surprised she chose to have me. Other than the fact that my grandparents promised to raise me, it was convenient for her since she was writing her dissertation anyway. None of her friends even know about me. Or if they do, they think I’m her baby brother.”

“That must have been hard growing up.” Mercy reached over and gently squeezed his hand.

He stared at their fingers woven together. The play of shades of brown, darker on pale, was visually appealing. Ironically, they were almost the shades that decorated his tiny one-bedroom apartment in Houston. But he knew that it would not matter what color her skin was, it could be plaid or polka-dotted, hell that alien gray, and this would be the only woman for him.

He lifted their hands to his lips and kissed the back of hers. “Honestly, I never gave it much thought when I was little. My grandparents treated me like their child. Most of my teachers and friends just assumed that they were my parents. What about you? What was it like growing up in Sebida?”

The way she turned her head and began to fidget with the bag told Will more than any words could. “I should set up somewhere for us to sleep. Then we can eat a couple of energy bars, some trail mix, and water. I promised Mama I would call her this morning. Then we can get some sleep before we get back on the road. Will we make it as far as Mexico tonight?”

He figured they had a lifetime for him to learn her secrets, and he would. For now, she was probably right. “Yes, actually, we’re only a couple of hundred miles from there. Once we are over the border, then we can travel the main roads. Stay in hotels and eat in restaurants even.”

She layout one of those metallic emergency blankets. “What, city boy? Didn’t you ever camp out under the stars as a kid?”

“Afraid not, my country girl. Oh, and one thing, no rats, spiders, or snakes for pets either. Dogs are cool. I can possibly tolerate a cat. But that’s it.”

“Awww, and Mama would never get me that bearded dragon I always wanted. I might have to keep looking. See if I can find a better deal.”

Will turned and drew her into his arms. This time when his lips touched hers, there was nothing tentative or sweet about it. It was a claiming, pure and simple. By the way that Mercy collapsed against him, rubbing like that kitten, he did not think she had any argument against it either. He was not even sure which of them took it deeper. Did it even matter as their tongues engaged in the sweetest of duels?

His cock was throbbing in those damned tight leathers. His mind was close to exploding with the taste and smell of Mercy. Neither seemed in a hurry to break the kiss or take it any further. Hell, he could kiss this woman until Jesus came back. If it wasn’t for all the other things they faced. It seemed that revelation occurred to them both at the same time. They drew back simultaneously, but neither could bring themselves to move very far.

Mercy smoothed wrinkles from that damned blanket, even though they both knew that was futile. She passed him another bottle of water and an energy bar. “For the record, this probably tastes better than my cooking. Frozen pizza and ramen noodles are the extents of my culinary expertise.”

He practically spewed water with the laughter that bubbled in him, “Then I’ll do all the cooking like Grandfather Walt did the ironing.”

***Grandfather’s***

Laura heard that soft meowing again. She was getting used to waking to it and realized instantly that sound was more precious than a kitten. Her daughter. Chloe was awake. She tried to shift out of those strong arms wrapped about her shoulders without waking Ryan. The man must be shattered as she had heard it called in London. She lifted her head from the comforting sound of his heartbeat and stared up at the man.

Too late. Those spectacular blue eyes were open already. Ryan leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “Good morning, sweetheart. How do you feel?”

Laura frowned as she considered his question. “Much better than yesterday, that is for sure. Did we hear any more from Mama or Mercy?”

He reached for the phone on the nightstand beside him as the baby’s fussing got louder. He shook his head, put the phone down, and reached for Chloe in fluid movement. How he managed that without ever loosening his hold on her was a miracle. He helped her get the baby attached before grabbing his jeans on the floor.

“I’ll be right back. I need to pee,” that smile challenged her. “Then, I’ll help you to the bathroom and change her diaper.”

“Are you for real?”

Ryan leaned down and captured her lips in a slow-burn kiss, “Morning breath and all, counselor.”

She was still laughing as he pulled the door closed. The very fact that she could laugh at all, given everything that had happened and all the unknowns, was thanks to that man. And the little girl in her arms. Laura had to admit; he had been right. Sleep had made all the difference. She felt more positive this morning. They were safe, at least for now. And although Grandfather and the little girl were a bit odd, she could tell these were ‘good people’ as Mama said.

Mama was safe with Jack’s friend, and Ryan believed Mercy was as well. Perhaps this morning, they could contact them and come up with some sort of plan? The fog had cleared from her brain enough that maybe she could even contribute. A couple cups of coffee would help, but that was still a big no-no, at least until Chloe was weaned. Almost two years without the elixir of the gods, she must love the little thing. Laura placed a kiss on her daughter’s head just to prove it. Yeah, she was worth going without her six or more cups of coffee per day. And wine. And Poopsi. Yeah, still worth it.

“What are you smiling about, sweetheart?” He came to lie beside them on the bed. Laura smelled the mint, so much for that morning breath hero.

“I was just thinking that she is worth everything I gave up to have her.”

The quiet was uncomfortable as Ryan held out his finger, and Chloe grabbed it once more. Laura considered apologizing again, but what was the point? How many times could they have that same conversation? Besides, honestly, what would have happened to them – her baby, her, her sisters, and Mama, all of them – if this man had not shown up when he did.

Laura was not the type to believe in some god. She would not have said she even believed in karma, fate, or destiny. You controlled your life, your choices, the paths you took determined the outcomes. Perhaps that was so, she had chosen him after all, but at this moment, she felt damned lucky she had.

“Do you think you can walk?” His calm voice interrupted her thoughts.

She nodded her head, and Ryan reached down to pick up Chloe, who had fallen asleep and come off her breast. He put their daughter back in that basket, “Where did the Moses basket come from?” He frowned and shook his head as she explained, “The thing that Chloe is sleeping in?”

He tucked the blanket around the baby, “Jaycee. I asked Rex last night if they could get something more comfortable for her to sleep in than that car seat. I thought maybe they could go to a store or something today, but evidently, we don’t have to worry about anything. Rex has bought out the stores.”

He stood up and held out his hands. Laura rolled to her side, surprised at how much easier that was this morning. But she did still need his help to stand. “I’ll walk you down the hall to the bathroom. Then come back here, burp and change Chloe, while you pee,” Ryan winked and kissed the tip of her nose.

“You know this peeing thing is getting old?”

He laughed and stopped outside what she thought she remembered as the bathroom door. “I don’t think so, sweetheart.”

He opened the door and helped her inside, “It shows trust. A level of trust that some couples never achieve. I don’t know about you, sweetheart, but in this crazy situation, that reassures the fuck out of me. That one day we will be like all those other couples.” He paused, and that smile ripped her heart out. Guilt and hope warred in her head. “Shit, I forgot. Can I get you something from the bags before I take care of our little girl?”

Laura was so stunned by the accuracy of his observation. Those damned tears misted her eyes again, but not in fear or despair. She was not sure she could find her voice to answer. She cleared her throat and tried anyway. “One of the pads from the Walmax bag, and fresh underwear and my toothbrush from my bugout bag. The toothbrush is in the front pocket. Actually, just bring the plastic bag of toiletries that it is in, please.”

He was only gone a moment or two before that blond head popped back into the bathroom with everything she had asked for, “Are you sure you’ll be okay alone?”

This time she knew she could not respond without breaking into more of those tears, so she turned her head, nodded, and shooed him away with her hand. Once she heard the soft click of the door, she managed to stand on her own and disrobe enough to take care of business. To pee – as he insisted on calling it.

She sat there way longer than necessary. It hit her then. How very different things might have been had she chosen anyone else in that pub that night. She could be in federal custody right now, separated from her baby, or in Kerr’s jail, heaven forbid. Or worse. Because even with all Mama’s plans, there was no way she could have made it to the cabin. Ryan had given them the heads up. Otherwise, they would have been caught by surprise and unable to flee.

It was so much more than that. It was how Ryan looked at Chloe. Laura did not doubt that if the worst happened, the man would make sure that their daughter was cared for, and more importantly, loved. If that was not enough, how he was as worried about Mama and her sisters as she was, tore her heart to shreds. And the gentle way he watched over her: made her eat, drink, sleep, and yes, pee, spoke volumes.

As much as she hated to admit it, this guy was her hero. A knight in shining armor saving the damsel. The problem was she was not sure how to play that role. All her life, or at least for as long as she could remember, she had been the one that everyone turned to…when Mama was not around.

She remembered one of the women that Mama had left them with when she worked. Laura could not remember her name or, more likely, did not want to. But the woman had ten children, four of them her own, running around the little house that was in as bad a shape as their trailer.

There was no way that one person could look after that many kids. At six, Laura had been the one who changed and fed Mercy and made sure that Elena ate. That had not been a problem, but when the woman’s son had broken Elena’s favorite doll out of pure meanness, it was Laura who the woman had spanked for pushing her son down. She had gotten better at hiding the nasty things she did to that little boy after that, but he never messed with her or her sisters again. By the time she was ten, she finally convinced Mama she could care for Elena and Mercy.

Yeah, she had no idea how to let anyone look after her. But this past couple of days, she had not had much choice. She managed to stand and brush her teeth, even run a brush through her hair and pull it back into a ponytail. Heck, she also put on a bit of deodorant. It was about the best she would get for a while, especially this early in the morning.

The gentle tap at the door drew her attention, “It’s just us, sweetheart.”

Laura smiled at her reflection and how very much she liked those words. She reached over and opened the door. Her breath whooshed from her lungs at the sight of him, naked except for those too tight boxer briefs. Ryan held their daughter in the crook of his arm and smiled as he held out the other arm for her to take. She did not need to lean on him as much as she had before; that was a good sign. And each step she took down that hall was more confident.

By the time they made it back to the room they were staying in, and she got settled back in bed with Chloe happily feeding on the other breast, a plan was coming together in her mind. Well, coming together may have to wait for a few weeks, but there was no reason he could not now. Ryan leaned his head against the palm of his hand and observed them. As usual, he held out his finger, and Chloe grabbed for it immediately. “What time is it?”

“A bit after six. I heard Grandfather go out earlier for his morning commune, but I did not want to disturb him. Breakfast is usually around eight, so we can all talk and try to develop a plan then. Maybe call your Mama and sisters for updates?”

That sounded like perfect timing for her plan. “I need to speak with Mercy, make sure that everything is really alright with her. Are you sure about this Williams guy?”

He nodded as Chloe’s little eyes began to drift close. Laura appreciated how he met her gaze directly as he answered, “Yes, I honestly am. I don’t know the details or how the hell Will came to be involved in all this shit, but I know the man, his character, and yes, I do trust him.”

His promises would have to do, at least for another couple of hours. Chloe’s suckles were becoming weaker and less frequent. Her daughter was drifting back to sleep, but she was wide awake. Her mind was rushing in a million different directions. But her next move was clear. “You want to put your daughter in the basket, counselor?” Ryan nodded and gently picked up the sleeping baby, “You’re good at that. Where did you learn so much about babies?”

He laid Chloe in the basket and arranged the blankets, “Lupe showed me how to hold her. Everything else is from those damned books. I bought half a dozen from Walmax, but Lupe was right. I like the Dr. Spock one best. But it turns out he is not a Vulcan.” He came to lay back by her side. His arm scooped her head onto his shoulder, and he kissed the top of her head, “You should get a couple more hours sleep, counselor.”

“What about you? Aren’t you going to sleep some more, Ryan?”

“Nay, I was trained to run on almost no sleep. I can go forty-eight or sometimes seventy-two hours without sleep or food and still make half-decent decisions, sweetheart. Those few hours were more than enough for me.”

“Then you get night duty if she has colic.”

“No way. That would wreck me, bring me to my knees in complete surrender. Seeing her in pain, not being able to do anything to make it better. No fucking way, sweetheart.”

“Our hero,” Laura reached up and caressed his cheek. He was right; those dark circles beneath his eyes were almost gone.

But they got a far-off look as he shook his head, “No, sweetheart, I’m no hero. I’m not even sure that such a thing exists in this world. We all do shit that we are not proud of, that we wish we could change. Sometimes we even have good reasons for doing it, but that does not make it any easier to live with the guilt or regret.”

Her fingers traced the deep crevices in his forehead. She felt the tension inside of him. She did not know specifics of those things, but she would damn well bet those reasons had been fucking compelling for this man to make those tough decisions. The very fact that they still weighed on his conscience was what made him a hero in her book.

He sighed and forced a smile as he tried to pull his arm back. “I should go. Let you get some sleep, sweetheart.”

Laura wrapped her arm around his neck and drew him closer, “I have a counteroffer, counselor.”

He chuckled but did not try to break her hold, “Oh, really, and what would that be, counselor?”

Laura felt her insecurities rising once more. Honestly, she was not as sexually experienced as all that. She had been in college before she lost her virginity. And besides Stewart and Ryan, she had had only a couple other lovers. She had always found BOB, her collection of battery-operated boyfriends, to be a more straightforward and effective solution to satisfying her relatively healthy libido. Until this man…

At least, her relationship with Stewart had taught her to take the lead. She called on that now, “I think a good morning blow job is in order, don’t you?”

***Abandoned barn, Nowhere, TX***

Mercy watched him as he bit off more of the energy bar. Actually, she could cook. A bit more than frozen pizza and ramen anyway. She might not be gourmet, but all the Reynold’s girls had learned to pull their weight early. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, and as they got older, each had taken jobs to get by.

The way this guy talked, their childhoods could not have been more different. Sure, they might both be bastards. But she would bet that he never knew that gnawing in the belly. Mama did what it took to make sure that her daughters had three meals a day. Still, it was never quite enough to fill the belly and stop that gnawing.

Sure, she got the whole black in America thing. A bit too well. Not only had she overheard all the gossip when Elena and Brad started to date, but she had taken her niece shopping in College Station a couple of times. It was the big city for them, a university town. You would think that people would be more broad-minded than Sebida. To be fair, most of them were. Still, she had gotten more than her fair share of sideways looks and whispers. It made her mad that people, complete strangers, did that to people. At least in Sebida, everyone knew you before they started talking shit about you.

Mercy had trouble breathing as she watched the muscles in his throat move up and down as he finished off his bottle of water. She felt her nipples tighten and did not even want to think about the mess in her panties. She would most definitely need to change those before they got back on the road. Especially if they shared the makeshift bed. She looked over at it as that debate raged in her mind once more.

She was scared. Plain and simple. The idea of sharing her body with a man always frightened the bejesus out of her. Will was the first man she had ever seriously considered doing that with, but what happened if she could not follow through? What if she had another of those flashbacks? Would he hate her? Hell, the question she did not want to consider, would he even stop if she asked?

Then there were the practicalities. Condoms were one thing that was not in her bugout bag. And as one of the Vestal Virgins, she was not the pill or other contraceptives. Not to even mention sexually transmitted infections. Those photographs in high school were enough to make anyone cringe.

She finished her energy bar and drained the last of the water. But she knew none of that mattered. She was going to do it. Or at least try to. At the ripe old age of thirty-two, Mercedes Reba Reynolds was going to get her V-card punched. Or she hoped so anyway.

“It’s probably too early to call your mother or sister. Do you want to get a couple of hours of sleep first? Then give it a try?”

Mercy bit her fingernail; she could take the easy way out. Get some sleep like he said, wake up, talk to Mama, then jump his bones. The problem with that was she knew the longer she procrastinated, the harder this would be. Well, that might not be so bad in some ways.

But she was sure of this decision. She had waited all these years for a man that was worth the risk, that did more for her, and got her hotter than any ‘book boyfriend.’ That was not going to change. And frankly, she was still shaken by Kerr’s words. Hell, it was more than his words. She had come close to vomiting when he touched her. The other stuff that he said to her that did not bear thinking of.

The truth was that tomorrow, they were going straight into danger. What if the things that Kerr said were true? What if this ‘brother’ saw her value only in terms of what he could get for her body? Hell, what if this Diego turned her back over to Kerr? And the idea of ending up a prostitute? NO! Her body was hers to decide what she did with it. Her virginity, especially, was hers to give to the person that she chose. Not a commodity to be auctioned to the highest bidder.

For all this guy’s sweet words about the future, they might never have anything more than this one night. And if she ever faced the things that Mama had, Mercy wanted one sweet memory. A place where her mind could escape when her body could not. She felt those tears rising again. And yes, a tiny bit of fear. Even if she technically knew precisely how this was done. Hell, she had written more love scenes than you could count. This was still going somewhere she never had before.

She jumped in; she had always preferred cannon-balling into the deep end over wading into anything. “Or we could find something else to occupy our time and tire us out before those calls?” She hoped the look she gave him passed for seductive. That, too, was not something she had any experience with.

Will leaned back with a sexy smile on those sexier lips, “Did the little librarian have something specific in mind? Chaucer? Shakespeare? Milton? I know I bet you prefer Jane Austen for your bedtime stories.”

She tossed the bottle aside and slid across the dirt floor until she straddled his lap. Mercy wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him closer, zeroing in on those kiss-ass-able lips. “I was thinking more along the lines of those trashy ebooks with naked people on the cover. Maybe even the ones behind Kingle’s porn wall?” She lowered her head and began to nibble on his bottom lip as her hips dry-humped what she was almost sure was a damned impressive erection. Hopefully, she would find out for herself soon.

***Chad’s Ranch in East Texas***

“Dammit,” Rose cussed as she reached for the iron skillet without the potholder. It only took a moment for her to register her error, but that was enough for the pain to shoot up her arm to her addled brain. The tears gathered in her eyes, but were they from the pain or the scars that went much deeper? She wanted to believe him. Believe the sweet words that Chad had said last night. But it was not just Gerald. If it had been, perhaps she could have dismissed it as gaslighting like all the rest.

The problem was a world where perfection was expected. Women must be model thin. But even that was not good enough. There was no room for things like muffin tops, stretch marks, wrinkles, or gray hair. How many plastic surgeon’s business cards had well-meaning friends passed to her? Hell, even her personal trainer had kept on about how she could only go so far with diet and exercise like a tummy tuck was some life-saving medical procedure. Heck, one of her friends had even had her… Down there, rejuvenated.

She knew where her aversion to cosmetic procedures came from, of course – her mother. The woman had it all nipped and tucked. Though Rose knew that those procedures had improved somewhat over the decades. She still feared looking as plastic and artificial as the woman who had given birth to her. Hell, growing up, the only time her mother paid her any attention was if she took her to the salon to have her hair curled or a mani-pedi. But Cassie could never sit still for long, and once her mother discovered that her only child would never be a raving beauty queen, well, even those rare interludes vanished.

So, how could she? How could she believe what he said? Oh, sure, when they laughed in bed, something she had never done like that before, or when he touched her and sent her whole body into overload, she could forget it all for a moment. The things that man did to her, had always been able to do to her, were mind-blowing. When he touched her, there was no room for any thoughts, even those.

But the before, getting naked with someone for the first time in over a decade had been almost insurmountable. A couple of years after Callie was born, she thought it would be a good idea for her daughter to have a little brother or sister. Though she had to practically hog tie Gerald and force him to have sex with her, she had wanted another baby badly enough to endure the humiliation. But after a couple of years of trying, he had told her no more. That she had one brat, that would have to be enough. Of course, now she understood why.

Her throat tightened, and more tears welled in her eyes as she tried her damnedest not to burn the bacon. After a few months at the gym, she had gotten into the habit of showering and changing at home. Those sly looks of superiority and pity from the perfect silicone Barbies in the locker room were just too much.

Chad’s words had been incredibly sweet. And the way he kissed, touched, and held her, even afterward, made her almost believe it. She heard what he said about that tiny bit of extra padding around his middle, but things weren’t the same for men. The pressure for that perfect body was not as intense. Besides, she kind of liked it.

The problem was, what was she going to do? As uncomfortable as she was in her skin, she could not see herself turning down any opportunity she might get for a repeat performance of last night. Damn, the before and after aside, it had been every bit as good as she remembered. Maybe better. And while she might have relatively little to compare it to, at least in real life, that was hotter than most of her romance novels.

If she were in Houston, if she had access to all Gerald’s money, or whoever’s, the answer would be easy – Vicky’s Engima. Sexy lingerie, corsets, you name it, would cover the flaws nicely. But she could not ask him to spend even more money. No matter what he said, she was sure that taking them in like this had made a severe dent in his savings. Of course, she had the five grand that Gerald had given her, but she could not risk a shopping trip, and online stores did not deal in cash. Besides that, indeed, was her Plan B. More like Plan Z now.

“Dammit,” she cussed again as she smelled the bacon start to burn. She managed to clear her eyes enough to see that it was only a couple of pieces. She would eat those herself. She placed the pan on the back burner to keep it warm. Once more, she debated waking Grace. But it had been so late when she finally managed to calm her daughter. What would one more morning of sleeping in really matter?

Rose added fresh butter to the smaller skillet. Chad had promised to teach her how to churn it. She hoped that it went smoother than picking eggs. Old Maude had gotten her a couple more times this morning. She looked down at her hand as she cracked the eggs into the pan. What would those ‘friends’ back in Houston think if they saw her hands now? Red welts from burning herself on the pan, a half dozen or so minor scratches from Maude, and they were already well on the way to being chapped from dishes and chores.

The thing was, she would not trade it for the best mani-pedi at the Galleria. It was not just the honesty of hard work and this lifestyle. There was some calm here. Some solace of the soul that could never be achieved when you needed to be richer, prettier, thinner, more powerful than everyone else.

Rose was so lost in her thoughts, trying to reconcile it all, that she did not hear him come in. Until those strong arms wrapped about her waist and drew her back into his embrace. His freshly shaven face buried in the side of her neck as he sweetly sang, “Hey, hey, good lookin,’ what ya got cookin’?”

She burst into tears and turned into his arms as all those fears and anxieties flooded out. Thankfully, Chad had the sense to reach over and turn off the burner. The eggs would not be burned, even if they were cold by the time they got around to breakfast.

***That barn***

It was not that Will did not want Mercy. He did. More than he had ever wanted any woman. But here? Now? As odd as it might seem, even to him, that after just a few hours in her presence, he knew – he loved her. Caleb Jefferson King Williams loved Mercedes Reynolds. He drew back reluctantly from those sweet lips. His hands cupped her face as his gaze met hers. He could read the need in those innocent eyes. This was a stupid idea; his woman could not hide her emotions worth a damned. They had no business going to Torreon.

“What’s your middle name?” Somehow he managed to force the words out. He was not certain how, given that her hands had pulled his t-shirt from those fucking-too-tight leathers, and her fingers were already trailing up his abs towards his chest. But if he released his hold on her face, then she would go back to those mind-numbing kisses. And if he was going to do this, here, now, with the woman he loved, dammit, he at least wanted to know, “Your middle name, Mercy?”

Those hands stilled for a moment, just beneath his heart that was beating much, much too fast. She shook her head, “Reba. After Mama’s favorite singer. But why the hell does it matter?”

“Because if I’m fucking making love to you in a run-down barn in the middle of nowhere, the least I want to know is your full name.”

She smiled, and those fingers came to rest right over that pounding. He lost control as she bent closer to him. Surprisingly, though, this kiss landed on his cheek rather than his lips. More surprisingly, he was not even disappointed.

“Mercedes Reba Reynolds. My sisters are Garcia-Reynolds, but with me, Mama did not bother. I was born at six-fifty-two p.m. on June third. I ain’t telling you the year, and you better not ask. It ain’t polite. I came ten weeks early. Mama blames herself; she thinks it was the stress of his immigration hearing and her parents. I tell her it was because I ain’t got no patience.”

She leaned her head against his and smiled, “That was an adorable thing to say, Will. But if you don’t shut the fuck up, I’m gonna figure out some way of tying you up and taking what I want. Us, redneck women, are both stubborn, impatient, and bossy. Get used to it.” Mercy matched actions to words as she jerked his jacket from his shoulders, effectively imprisoning his arms and hands as she pushed him back onto the stack of hay. But he did not protest when she reached for the bottom of her t-shirt and lifted it over her head.

Damn, the girl had good taste in lingerie. That black scrap of lace, if you could even call it a bra, barely contained the most magnificent pair of tits Will had ever seen. He struggled to get his hands out of the tight cuffs of his jacket.

Her hand landed firmly in the center of his chest as she held him down. “Did I say you could touch? Look, don’t touch.” The fingers of her other hand reached between them as she cupped his throbbing cock, “If you’re good, I might even let you taste.”

His heart pounded faster as she shifted in his lap. Maybe he could have or should have, taken the opportunity to remove the leather jacket that imprisoned him. Still, he was simply too stunned to do anything more than lay back against that stale straw and stare as Mercy stood up and slowly peeled those skin-tight jeans down legs that were way too long for such a short chick.

Damn, the woman; she knew just the buttons to push too. Keeping her back to him as she shucked her jeans, his eyes remained glued to an ass that was almost as nice as those tits. This girl had curves. Nice ones too. Not fake from a surgeon or crafted by a personal trainer in a gym, but all sweet womanhood, almost enough to make him believe once more in the good lord.

And Will was insanely jealous of the string of black lace that followed the deep groove in her round bottom. He would much prefer to sleep with his cock nestled between those round, porcelain globes.

When she turned back around with that sexy smile, she reached behind her, and before Will could figure out what was happening, he wore that scrap of black lace on his head. “If you aren’t a good boy, I’ll use that as a gag.”

Her fingers ran beneath the thin strip of lace on the side of her hips as those eyes that looked anything but innocent at the moment challenged him. “Come to think of it; perhaps this would make a better gag.” She pushed that minuscule piece of nothing down those legs and stepped out of them.

Will’s eyes never faltered from that mostly bare, pink, and glistening flesh at the top of those legs. “If you want to gag me, I can think of something far better. Get that sexy ass over here and ride my face.”

It was Will’s kink. Eating pussy. He had played the trumpet since elementary school. It had not taken him long, once he became sexually active, to realize that those same skills, strong tongue, and the ability to hold his breath could set him apart as a lover. Hell, he loved pleasuring women as much or more than getting off himself. And especially this one. The need to taste Mercy was intense. Primal and overpowering. “Plant that sweet cunt on my face, sweetheart,” he pleaded like a man crawling from the desert and dying of thirst.

It wasn’t far off. Since joining the feds, Will had not had time for women or sex. Hell, more than anything, he realized, he had grown tired of the casual fucks. What was the point when he could stroke one off easier, quicker, and with much less hassle than involving some woman who, no matter what she said, usually wanted more than he could give?

At least until this one. He watched her slowly walk closer. She was biting that nail again. Where had his confident siren of a moment before gone? Maybe no guy had ever gone there with her. It always shocked him at how common that was. Guys had no problem demanding that a woman suck their cocks, even wanting them to swallow. But too many did not see the need to reciprocate.

Fuck that; Will had always thought suffocating while between a woman’s legs was the perfect way to go. Especially if it was her. “Come on, baby,” he pleaded as he watched her studying the dirt floor. “I promise I’ll make it really good for you.”

***Grandfather’s***

Ryan knew he was out of his ever-loving mind. He could not have heard her right. There was no way that Laura Reynolds just offered to suck his cock. Not that it was not a fantastic fantasy. That was it, he’d fallen back to sleep, and this was all a dream. His fantasy come true. Cum true?

But the tiny hand moving between their bodies, finding his morning wood and wrapping around it, squeezing and stroking it, that could not be his imagination, right? Fuck, that felt good. Better than anything had since the last time he had cum inside of her that morning, nine, almost ten months ago. “Laura?” His hand covered hers as he stared into those dark eyes, “What are you doing?”

“I thought that would be obvious,” her voice had an edge to it. But what? Anger? Hurt? Disgust?

“You don’t have to do this. I mean, you just had a baby. I know you’re not…” This is even more difficult to discuss than peeing. But he sucked it up. Fuck, why did his mind use that word? “I know you aren’t… That you can’t…” Damn, he was screwing this one up.

“You don’t have to. Just because I… I’d do anything for you and Chloe. You shouldn’t think I expect…” His hand tried to pull hers back, but her fingers wrapped tighter about his dick. Damn, that was amazing, and the fucking traitor hardened even more.

“First of all, counselor, I offered. Of my own volition. Secondly, I’m not doing this simply out of gratitude. Yes, I am grateful for all you have done for us. Yes, I want to show you how appreciative I am. And no, I can’t have sex for a while. But that does not mean you can’t. So, are you going to be stupid and turn down a half-decent blow job when your cock is hard as a rock? Or are you going to take off those damned briefs and bring your dick over here?”

Damn that stare; he’d hate to face this woman across the table. Her negotiation skills were excellent. When she put it like that, Ryan felt even more ridiculous. “Are you sure?” Damn, what was wrong with him?

“I would not have offered otherwise, counselor.”

What was he to do? He was not totally crazy. He pushed his underwear down a bit, freeing his erection. He considered the situation a moment. If they were going to do this, and suddenly it didn’t seem like such a bad idea, especially since he had fallen asleep last night without that relief he had promised himself.

But if he was, they were, then her comfort mattered most. He got to his knees next to her. He had not even reached the pillows to adjust them under her head before her mouth joined her hands. “Fuck, woman,” was the limit of his vocabulary at that moment.

Damn, how did that feel so incredible? The gentle suction on the head of his dick, the way her tongue swirled the head, and those soft hands moved up and down the shaft combined into a cacophony of stimulants to his already overwrought body and mind. Ryan knew he would not last long. Though, he wanted to stretch this unforgettable sensation out for eternity.

He could not stop his hips from gently rocking in time with the motions of her hands. Each thrust took him deeper into her mouth. He watched her face; he wanted to remember every single fucking moment of this for all eternity. Those dark eyes danced in challenge as her hands increased the tempo, and her mouth took him even deeper. Fuck, did the woman just manage to smile around his damned cock?

“Laura…” His breathing became faster. His heart was pounding so fast that he could hear the damned thing like some hard rock or techno beat in his head. But none of it mattered when one of those soft, tiny hands slipped lower, and her nails wracked over his balls. “Fuck, woman. What are you doing to me?”

She released his cock from those incredible lips, just long enough to stare up at him with laughter in those eyes, “I thought that was obvious, counselor. But if it isn’t, then I guess I need to try harder.”

He felt like he had been sucker-punched to the solar plexus, or tackled by a three-hundred-pound lineman, or taken a bullet to his Kevlar. With a pleased and knowing smile, her mouth wrapped even tighter around the head of his cock, and her tongue licked at the slit. He gritted his teeth, “Dammit, sweetheart, you have to stop. I’m going to come if you don’t.”

She did not even fully release his dick as she laughed. The vibrations were incredible, pushing him even closer as she muttered around his cock, “That’s the idea, genius.”

“No, you don’t understand….”

She stopped once more, except for her damned hands. Those alone felt better than anything he could remember, other than that night. “I understand perfectly, Ryan. Now, shut the fuck up and feed me a morning snack.”

Her words sucked all thoughts from his brain, as surely as her lips and tongue were sucking the cum right up from his balls. Then her fingers on his balls moved lower, pressed on something, he had no fucking idea what, just below. “Fuck,” he screamed as he lost the battle to hold back and won the biggest fucking orgasm of his life in return.

It seemed to last forever as he watched her swallow each spurt. Fuck, that was a spectacular sight, to see the woman he loved take each drop of his cum down her throat. The spasms continued for several moments, leaving him weak in the knees as he gripped tighter to the headboard of the bed. He reached down and caressed her cheek as she released his cock and licked her lips. Did she actually lick her lips?

“All better now, counselor?”

Ryan shook his head and leaned down to kiss her sweet lips. When she moaned, he could not resist the need to take it deeper. His tongue swept inside her mouth. Though he tasted himself on her, it was not unpleasant. In some way, it only heightened the need he already felt for this woman, strengthened their growing bond.

He drew back reluctantly, caressed her cheek, then tugged his shorts back up. “Get some more sleep, sweetheart. I’ll wake you for breakfast, and we can talk to the others then. Call your Mama and sisters, and hopefully, come up with some fucking kind of a plan for what we do next.”

Her eyes began to drift closed, “After the sleep and that perfect breakfast of champion sluts, I think I’ll be ready to face the world, counselor.”

He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, “Together, counselor. We make a hell of a team -together.”

Laura opened her eyes; though they were sleepy, he loved the smile on her lips. “That we do. I give you Exhibit A in the Moses basket.”

He laughed and felt like the weight of the world lifted for a single heartbeat from his shoulders, “As soon as this shit is over, we’ll discuss Exhibit B, counselor.”

“Maybe…” her voice faded as those eyes drifted back closed.

He sat for a moment just watching them sleep, his girls. He did not consider himself a chauvinist or one of hers and Jaycee’s misogynists. He did not mean those words like that. They were a team, and he would be perfectly content to be her ‘boy’ for the rest of his fucking life. And if he wanted that to be very long for either of them, then they needed to get their shit together and come up with a plan.

He kissed the top of her dark head, then grabbed his jeans and pulled them on. He bent and ran a finger over their daughter’s sweet cheek. She moved into his touch but did not wake. He grabbed one of the t-shirts from his to-go bag and pulled it on. He glanced back at them both, sleeping so peacefully before he closed the door quietly.

She’d been right. That blow job, combined with those few hours of sleep, was just what he needed, besides coffee and then food. Then they’d be ready to conquer the world or at least take down whoever McBride had been working with and keep their family safe. Because Stacey, Elena, and Mercy were his family now too. Every bit as much as Rex, Jaycee, and Grandfather were hers. And between them, they would come up with something.

***The Barn***

Standing there, butt ass naked, Mercy wondered what the hell she was doing? Hell, from the time she was six and Laura stopped bathing her, she was almost sure she had never been entirely naked around anyone. She was that girl in high school gym class that refused to shower after class. She just sort of wiped off and got dressed in pieces. Top first, so it would cover the private bits when she took off those ugly gym shorts.

And the closest she had come to sex, other than that one time in college when that jerk would not let her out of the car until she at least…

Well, her only other real experience was that once in high school, when she had spent the night at Lizzie’s. They had all been reading bodice rippers and talking about sex. She and her best friends. Playacting their favorite Mertrice Biggs book. Being the bold one, she had taken on the role of hero. When they got to that part in the book, she had grabbed Lizzie and french kissed her, even going so far as to feel up her tits while Abby Jean looked on. But the Vestal virgins never talked about that one time. After Lizzie insisted that Abby Jean play the heroine next, they had all agreed sex must be better with a real guy. Yet, none of them had taken that plunge.

Less than a handful of years later, Lizzie had become too burdened with running the restaurant and caring for her three younger half-siblings after that drunk driver had killed her mother and step-father. Abby Jean was the youngest and most idealistic of them all. The girl had a major crush on Jack. Jack of all people. So, none of the other boys had ever stood a chance. And her? Well, she could not blame either too many responsibilities or idealism, not really. The truth was that no matter how many of those romances she read or wrote or the porn she watched, Mercedes Reba Reynolds was scared. Frightened of intimacy.

Looking at him, her sexy-as-fuck city boy leaning back into that bed of hay, she still was. What if it was not as good as her books? Or he promised? What if she freaked out? What if those memories came back? What if he did nothing more for her than Lizzie or Abby Jean had?

She bit her fingernail again. She always had when she was nervous, ever since…

That was not entirely fair. It was not only Lizzie, Abby Jean, and Jack that she had kissed, but a half dozen or so guys in college and even that lawyer she had dated briefly. None of their kisses had gotten her hot and bothered as he did. Hell, more hot and bothered than any ‘book boyfriend.’

No, she had made up her mind. If she did not take this chance now, she really might never get another one. Or worse…

She bit down harder on her nail, but how? How did she? She was much more prepared for fellatio. She had studied those videos carefully. Research for her writing, she had called it at those times when Mama worked the night shift. But she could not remember any of the videos having that…

As if he sensed her dilemma, Will smiled. “Come on; it’s easy, sweetheart. Just sit on my handsome face.”

“Handsome? Arrogant is more like it.” But it was enough; whether it had been his intent or not, those words broke through her insecurities just enough to get her moving. “What if I…” She could not even bring herself to say the words.

“You are tiny, sweetheart. You couldn’t hurt me if you tried. Just sit that sexy ass on my chest. Bring that pretty pussy to my lips. Then close your eyes and feel up those sweet titties since I’m kind of tied up at the moment.”

Was it as simple as he said? Like one of the recipes from the internet or those old cookbooks from the library, she sometimes tried. Only one way to find out as she straddled his shoulders. Mercy was careful to grab the cross beam on the wall above his head with one hand. She was not as petite as he said. The scales made sure she knew that every Monday morning. She did not want to crush him.

As she closed her eyes, she tried desperately to calm her nerves. Think happy thoughts. Remember all those hot romances. But never, not once, in those hundreds of books that she read had the heroine… Not this way. Ride his face, he had called it.

Mercy inhaled deeply; she could do this. She leaned closer to his face just a bit as she brought her other arm across her body to cup and knead her breast. She had been masturbating almost since she found Mama’s stash of Mertrice Biggs, Raquel Graffen, Lude Marvouz, and Polly Ann Chinsey porn for women. One thing she had learned straight off the bat, she could not come without nipple play.

“That’s right, baby girl. Next time, I get to feel up those tits as you come all over my face.”

The image of his words in her mind was nothing compared to the feel of his tongue as he buried it between the lips of her cunt. Mercy sucked in a deep breath and moaned. This guy did not need a map to find her clitoris as she had heard so many women complain. He went straight at it, licking, sucking, and even gently biting it.

But damn him, just when she was about to do like he said and come on his face, Will shifted beneath her. His movement forced her forward more onto her knees. He took the chance to lick her thoroughly from the top of her slit to her… Then he made his way back in the other direction. Mercy pinched her nipple harder, anticipating his tongue on another hard nub, but damn him, he denied her again. This time he pointed that incredible tongue and used it like a cock to fuck her virgin pussy. Mercy practically fell forward against the wall. She hoped like hell it was not as rickety as it looked, that it would hold under her full weight. Damn, that should not feel so good.

So, when his tongue grazed back to her clit, Mercy was already on edge. And when he suckled it between those lips, his tongue encircling it at the same time. Mercy flew. Higher than she ever had. Stars did not come close to the nebula into which she spun out of control, gravitating towards the black hole ahead.

Her head was spinning so fast that she did not even realize at first that they had switched positions. Now she lay on her back among the straw, and his dark, handsome face, so tight with an intensity that was both frightening and empowering, loomed over her. His lips met hers, and she tasted herself on them.

Her hands gripped his shoulders to steady herself for a moment. But this was far from over. She trailed one hand down his shoulders and along his side until she managed to wedge it between them. She fumbled with the button on his leather pants. She hesitated over the zipper. What if she…

But Will must have gotten the message because his hand joined hers. He took care of the zipper as she pushed and tugged them and whatever he wore beneath over that tight ass. Then before she could think, he was inside her. Mercy cried out, and Will froze. His cock buried to the hilt in her no-longer-virgin cunt.

She looked away; she wanted to die of embarrassment. She had no idea. She had been using tampons since she was thirteen. She rode bikes, ATVs, and did splits as a cheerleader. She even masturbated, granted she stuck to her bullets direct on the clit. But still, that should not have been there.

Mercy did a quick analysis as she shifted her hips beneath him. Okay, so it didn’t hurt anymore. But damn, it was tight in there. She was definitely feeling the burn and not in her thighs on a stair master either. That was a muscle she was not accustomed to using.

His words brought her quickly back to reality. “Mercy? What the fuck was that?”

She laughed at his outrage, and his cock somehow went deeper, “City boy, if you have to ask, I ain’t telling.”

Will tried to pull back, but she was having none of that. “Damage is done now. So, if you don’t mind, shut up and fuck me.” Her arms laced about his neck. The confused and pained look on his face was almost comical. But Mercy knew only one way of handling things that made her uncomfortable, and that was to brashly take control of the situation, “Finish what you started, city boy.”

She lifted her hips and slowly circled them. She smiled at the low moan that movement elicited from his throat like that old wound dog they once tried to save behind the diner. Mercy did it again, this time a bit bolder as she pulled his face down towards hers. She lifted her head and captured those kiss-ass-able lips as she found some rhythm that magical seemed to dance in her soul.

Will moaned into her mouth as his tongue and cock caught the tempo of her music. And sweet Mary, mother of god, did that boy know how that dance went. This time Mercy hurtled right past that nebula and into the middle of that black hole. The only thing she had to cling to was those incredibly broad shoulders. She felt him trembling, or was that her? Those moans were most definitely sung in perfect harmony as together they found heaven or the closest damned thing to it.

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