Part 6 – Crazzy Tuesday World

***Grandfather’s ranch***

Laura leaned on Ryan’s arm as they had made their way to the dining room for breakfast. It was frustratingly slow for her. The only solace was how adorable he looked wearing a sleeping Chloe on that chest.

Overall, she felt surprisingly good. He had left her to sleep a couple more hours, then helped her nurse the baby and get dressed. Oh, and pee, she could not forget that, with a smile at their unique team-building exercises.

“Okay, what has you smiling, sweetheart?”

“Team-building exercises, counselor.”

His laughter was deep and rich like it came not just from his belly but his soul. He had chuckled and teased and perhaps laughed once or twice, but not like this. He was devastatingly handsome when he did. The way those tiny lines around his eyes crinkled was adorable. Laura knew that it was a sound she wanted to hear over and over again.

But when they stepped into the dining room with its rough-hewn table and benches that had almost certainly been handcrafted, Laura was utterly bowled over. Not only was there a mountain of delicious smelling food, especially that massive platter of crisp bacon that had her name on it, biscuits, gravy, and was that grits? What astounded and reassured her most was the whiteboard that leaned on an easel with an array of colored pens. Laura felt like she had stepped back into a board room after almost a year, and damn did that feel good.

Rex brought in a platter of scrambled eggs, “Good morning. Hope you slept well? And sorry, but Jaycee insisted I bring that in from her office. She says it’s how she thinks best,” he nodded towards the board.

“No apologies necessary. I love it,” Laura smiled at the man.

His wife appeared from the kitchen, “See, I told you.” The other woman smiled at her. Laura had never had many women friends, other than her sisters, not since high school anyway.

She might have never survived her first year had it not been for Miss Esther’s English class and an older girl. Jolene Monroe had been a senior, and despite coming from the most influential family in town, she had been just as poor and outcast as the Reynolds. Thanks to her parents’ acrimonious divorce and her deadbeat dad, who rarely paid child support, even though he held himself out as a pillar of the community, coaching tiny league sports and running for the school board.

Jo had been the one who planted the seed in her mind that the law was her ticket out of Sebida and poverty. The girl had gone even further than she had. Though she had not heard from her in over a year. What could you expect from a woman living her LA dream as a partner in a prestigious firm?

This woman reminded her of Jo. And herself. Perhaps given time, and if they were stuck here, there should be plenty of that, they could become friends. Especially since her husband was Ryan’s cousin.

Jack dragged himself down the hall. He looked a bit rough, like he had not slept well or was hungover. But the sight of food worked its magic on him, just as it always had when he was a little boy. He reached for one of the biscuits and bit into it with a loud moan.

“My sons, it has been too long since we were together like this,” the old man and little girl joined them around the table.

Laura reached for the bacon, but Ryan shook his head as Grandfather lifted his arthritic hands. “We thank the Great Spirit for the resources that made this food possible. We thank the Earth Mother for producing it, and we thank all those who labored to bring it to us. May the wholesomeness of the food before us bring out the wholeness of the Spirit within us.”

Praying for anything was a foreign concept to her. Her only experience with prayer or religions of any kind was the couple of times she and her sisters had gone to vacation bible school at the Baptist church. But they had gone for the free lunch and fun crafts, not some god that obviously didn’t give a damn about them. But whatever.

She reached for the bacon again as Jaycee filled her daughter’s plate, and the three men seemed to fight over each dish. Whatever it was about him, the way the old man sat smiling at the head of the table brought some odd sense of calm to the whole thing.

Once plates were piled high, and the men were busy devouring a delicious Southern breakfast, Jaycee turned to her. “I thought we could use the whiteboard to map out the things we know…and what we don’t. If you’re okay with it, my office number can manage conference calls. Or we could try one of the apps on our mobiles if you have them?”

Laura finished chewing the last bite of bacon, “Your office line should be fine.” It seemed strange allowing this woman she barely knew to take control of something so critical to her. But perhaps that was the point; she was too close to the situation. Maybe even Ryan was.

“Let me just take Angel and get her set up on the computer with her schoolwork. Here’s the number. Why don’t you text it to everyone? Have them call in about ten minutes?” The woman reached over and squeezed her hand. “Angel, if you’re finished, let’s start on your schoolwork?” Jaycee addressed her daughter.

But Grandfather shook his head, “No, my daughter, let the child stay. Her gifts grow more every day. Perhaps they can be of some use.”

“With all respect, I don’t think that the things we’re going to be discussing are appropriate for a seven-year-old, Grandfather.”

The man laughed, “Jaycee, in most of this world, Angel would be caring for her siblings, cleaning, working in the fields, or carrying water for miles. That may seem harsh. But let me challenge you. Does our distinctly privileged Western illusion of a perfect childhood truly serve them well? Does it prepare the next generation for the realities of this life?”

The man’s words struck a deep chord in Laura. When she had decided to have a baby, she had all those dreams of how much better and easier a life she would provide than the one she had. But wasn’t this man, right? Hadn’t the very responsibility and work ethic that their poverty had forced on her given her a distinct advantage over most of her peers for whom the whole adulting thing was relatively new?

Well, other than the likes of Stephen McBride and Stewart Childress, who had been born to wealth and privilege, for whom everything was just given and taken for granted. But then, too, was that also part of this mess? Had that privilege impaired the man’s decision-making process?

The old man looked at her and smiled. “All very valid observations, my daughter. I hope that you will reflect upon them.”

She threw up her hands, “Okay, that shit is just freaky. Doesn’t it bother any of the rest of you?”

Everyone laughed, and it broke the tension. Jaycee spoke again, “You will get used to it. But yes, it freaked me out at first, too. I would offer to teach you some mental blocking exercises, except I often wonder if they work with Grandfather.”

The man picked up his cup of coffee with a smile, neither confirming nor denying her words. The woman sighed and met his gaze, “Alright. For now. But if I think things are too… Rex will take her from the room.”

Grandfather nodded his head, “Then let us fill your board with truths, my daughter.”

Laura sent a group text to Merry J. Austen, Marmee Wilder, and Mary March with the number as the men began to clear the table of primarily empty dishes. It was a bit after eight, so she could only hope that they were all awake.

The phone rang, and Jaycee answered, “J. Ranger, Esquire, how may I help you?”

There was silence for a moment. “Who is this? My sister sent me this number.”

Laura smiled and answered for the woman, “Elena, it’s me. It’s a long story….”

But before she could continue, the phone rang again. “Hold on a moment. Let me answer. We’re hoping to have a conference call with everyone.” Jaycee did not wait for a response before answering the other line on the third ring.

“Baby girl, is everything alright? Whose number is this?” Her Mama did not even allow Jaycee to say anything before jumping in.

“Everything is fine, Mama. I’ll explain in a minute. We’re trying to get everyone together on a conference call,” Laura explained.

“Okay, have you heard from Mercy?”

“Not yet, Mama, but we have Elena on the other line. Give Jaycee a moment, and she’ll connect us all.” Jaycee smiled and nodded.

“Hello?” Elena’s voice came back on the line.

Laura heard her Mama gasp, and she could almost picture her with her hands over her face, trying to fight back the tears. Mama never cried, at least not around them, but there were times that she knew it was by sheer willpower. She fought her own tears as she thought again what a great CEO the woman would have made, but the decks were stacked against her Mama from birth. Still, the woman had performed miracles, making sure that her girls had choices she never did.

Damn straight, the old man was right. She’d have to rethink this parenting shit. Protecting Chloe from everything the way she had hoped might not be in her daughter’s best interest. Damn it, when she looked up, why did the man have that knowing smile on his face? “Mama, you still there?” She would have time later to ponder all that. For now, they had other business to attend to.

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Where is here? How far did you get? Did you have any trouble?”


Ryan patted his daughter’s back as she fidgeted a bit in the baby sling. He liked the damn thing. It gave him a chance to connect with Chloe in a unique way. He could almost empathize with what it must have been like for Laura to be pregnant. Though, obviously, it was not the same. If Laura didn’t have one of these things back home, he’d have to buy one.

She shone; Laura actually glowed. He’d never gotten to see the woman in action. Not in the corporate world. Not as an attorney. But damned was she good at taking charge. He had listened to most of what they said as Jaycee used her colored pens to begin drawing on the whiteboard.

Any man who didn’t think women were just as capable, well, he’d love to see him after those two were through with him. He knew that some men would feel uncomfortable in his position, but he had no problem being the primary carer for his child or following his woman’s brilliant lead. He knew his skills, and he’d use them… when they were needed. But they weren’t now. Those two had things more than under control.

He could see that one thing was bothering Laura – they had been on the call for over half an hour, trying to piece everything together, and still no Mercy. He knew Will; he trusted the man, but it was beginning to make even him uncomfortable. Where were they?

“Well, I guess that’s about….”

Before Jaycee could finish, the phone rang again. “Ya’ll hold the line, okay? Let me just answer that.”

Ryan felt the tension. It was almost nine. That call could be anyone looking to hire Jaycee’s legal services. There were no guarantees.

“J. Ranger, Esquire. How may I help you?”

“I’m sorry, I think I have the wrong number….”

“No, Mercy. It’s me, Laura. Where are you?”

“Wait a minute. Let’s get everyone back on the line before you answer that one. And it’s nice to finally hear from you, Mercy. I’m Ryan’s cousin-in-law would be the best description, I suppose. We had you all call my office number so we could conference call. Just let me get your mother and sister back, okay.”

A moment later, Stacey Reynold’s almost distraught voice came through the phone, “Was it her? Was it Mercy?”

“Yes, Mama, it’s me.”

“Damn you, girl, where have you been?”

“I’m sorry, Mama, I was a bit… indisposed.” Mercy seemed to stammer over her words.

Ryan’s respect for Jaycee’s skills increased as she intervened. “Mercy, we’ll get you up to speed on what we know in a moment. Where are you? Not specifics. It’s best if none of us knows those about the others’ positions. That way, if something did happen, we could not share the information. I hope you understand.”

“We’re in South Texas. Like I told Mama yesterday, we’re heading for the border and Torreon.”

“Torreon? No, Mercy, please don’t go there.” Ryan had considered their middle sister Elena as… Well, it might not be polite to say it, but weak. Not at all the feisty type like her mother and sisters. But the tone of her voice then made him reconsider that.

“Like I told Mama last night, Elena, not only will they have to go through the whole extradition process to bring me back, but something Kerr said yesterday….”

“What did Sheriff Kerr say exactly? Think very carefully. Word for word if you can,” Jaycee was damned good at coaching her witnesses, too.

“Kerr came directly to the library, probably while Mama was still with you, Elena. He said he had been to Laura’s house, and there was no one there.”

“Okay, so if Kerr moved that quickly, it means either Stephens used the Patriot Act and did not go through the warrant process. Or…” Ryan spoke for the first time. But he did not like the alternative, “Or whoever the leak is got to him first.”

“And he was sent to clean up loose ends,” Jack added.

“Well, Will says he knows who the leak is.”

“Will? Is he there with you now?” Ryan asked.

“Hold that thought, Ryan,” Jaycee interrupted. “If we could stick with Mercy’s story first, please. What else did Kerr say?”

“Of course, I’m sorry. You’re absolutely right,” Ryan knew the importance of keeping the witness focused during questioning. It probably was a good thing that Rex’s wife was taking the lead on this one. Both he and Laura were much too close to this one. And he knew that could be deadly.

“He tried to arrest me. Some material witness bullshit, can he do that? I mean, I’m not the one that worked for McBride. Sorry, sis.”

“He should not have. That’s what worries me, Mercy. And why we hadn’t planned for it. Sure, we all expected me to be questioned again at some point. Certainly, since Stephen’s suicide. But they should not be able to use my family against me.”

Ryan squeezed Laura’s hand. It was all he could do. He knew she felt guilty, but as she said, there was no reason to expect this.

“Since when has that bastard ever played by the rules. I taught you, girls….”

He could hear both the vitriol and worry in Stacey’s voice, but there was more than just that. Panic? Fear? Was there something that she was not sharing with them?

Jaycee’s eyes sought Rex’s across the table, but Angel did not even appear to be listening to any of it. Perhaps this time, Grandfather had been wrong? Maybe these were just much too adult issues to even register with the child? But both his cousin and Grandfather shook their heads. But it did not matter; for whatever reason, his future mother-in-law stopped her tirade without explanation or interruption.

“Yes, Mama, I know. Which may be why I pulled my gun on the man.” A heavy sigh filled the silence, “But that only made him madder. Kerr said that he would make me regret doing it. That he would send me so far down the hole that no one could ever find me.”

There was another long silence, but Jaycee was remarkable at her job. “Were those his exact words, Mercy? What else did he say?”

“Yeah, those were his exact words. He said…” There was a low sob on the line, “I’m sorry I can’t. I can’t repeat what he said.”

“I understand, Mercy. But it would help to know everything you remember. Could you text it to your sister when we’re finished here?”

“Yeah, yeah, I think I can do that,” her voice was still trembling, and Ryan could hear sobbing from somewhere. Whether it was Stacey or Elena, he could not tell, but even Laura was incredibly tense. He had not let her hand go, so he gave it another reassuring squeeze. “Anyway, Kerr said that he would send me to Mexico. To Torreon. That they’d sell me….”

Jaycee gave his cousin a more stern look this time. “Angel, why don’t you let your dad take you out to see your pony?”

Her daughter shook her head as she continued to draw. “No, Mommy, the girl wants me to stay.”

“What girl, Angel?” Grandfather asked with the patience that had marked this man in Ryan’s mind from the moment he met Raymond Greywolf.

“The girl that talked to me in my dreams.” She passed the paper to the old man, “This girl.”

“She’s very pretty, Angel. How long has she been talking in your dreams?”

The little girl looked at them, though Ryan felt that was not quite right. She looked through them, or perhaps inside of them. “Just last night. Since they came.”

“And what did the girl say?”

“I don’t know. It makes no sense, Grandfather.”

“What makes no sense, my child? As your Mommy told the other lady, we need to know exactly what she said, Angel.” The old man reached across the table and put a reassuring hand on the child. Ryan could see Rex’s step-daughter had become his latest ‘project,’ just as his cousin, he, and Jack had once been.

Her curls danced as she nodded, “It’s so noisy there. And I can’t understand what the other people are saying.”

“What other people?” This time, his cousin spoke as he wrapped his arm around the chair where his stepdaughter sat. Though that was inaccurate, Ryan knew that Rex loved that little girl every bit as much as he loved the baby his wife carried or as Ryan did Chloe.

Angel looked up at her daddy, “I can’t see them. But I know they are they. And they speak funny. Sort of like Lupe sometimes does, but it is so fast I can’t understand the words.”

“Good girl,” Rex smiled at his daughter.

“You said the girl spoke to you. Did you understand what she said, sweetie?” her mother asked.

“Yes, but that is funny too, Mommy. She just keeps saying the same letter. Over and over again.”

“Letter? What do you mean? Like the alphabet?”

“Yes, Mommy.”

“What letter?” This time the voice came from the phone.

“B.”

“Shitpisscockcuntmotherfuckinsonsofbitches.”

“Mercedes Reba Reynolds, there is a child present,” her mother scolded, but Angel was only giggling behind her hand.

“Is she going to have a time out, Mommy?”

Ryan could see that both his cousin and Jaycee, hell, all of them, were having trouble keeping a straight face.

Another voice came on the line, “She might need a spanking for that one.”

“We don’t do spankings. Right, Mommy?”

The look that passed between the woman and her husband made even Ryan blush. “I’m sure that Mercy is very sorry, Angel. Can we all please watch our language?”

“Hello, Will,” Ryan stepped in as Jaycee seemed intent on her husband and Grandfather. “I don’t know what Mercy has told you. She hasn’t even gotten around to telling us how you got messed up in this.”

“It’s a long story. And she didn’t tell me anything. She just burst into tears and handed me the da… blessed phone.”

“I’m not sure what is going on. But what the he… Heck, were you doing in Sebida?”

There was another long pause, and Ryan could hear the sobs and talking in the background. Finally, Will came back online. “I need to make this quick, Ryan. Mercy needs me. Long story short. Tyler fired me because I was one of the agents that let McBride escape.”

“You let that bas… McBride go? And you have my daughter? I want to talk to Mercy. Now!”

Ryan was almost as shocked as Stacey Reynolds at this latest. That was so unlike the man he had known. Or thought he did?

“Listen, Missus Reynolds; it isn’t what you think. Right now, my Mercy is in no better shape to talk than you are.”

“Hey, Stacey, it’s me, Jack. Is Reb with you?”

“Yes, so what? That’s not his daughter with some traitor willing to sell himself out for a few bucks.”

“Please, Missus Reynolds, will you let me explain?”

“Hey, buddy, what shit has hit the fan now?” Another masculine voice came on the line.

Jack laughed, “Hey, Reb, can you keep this one G-rated?”

“Sorry, but something is sure pushing the lady’s buttons.”

“Okay, things are getting out of control here, folks,” Jaycee turned her attention back to the conversation at hand. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but where I come from, someone is innocent until proven guilty. So can we please back the f… Back off and let the man have his say? Hello, I’m Jaycee Ranger. I take it that I am now speaking with Agent Williams and Jack’s friend Reb?”

“Yeah,” Jack’s friend could barely be heard over the screaming and crying. Ryan was glad that it was garbled because he was reasonably sure that Mercy had learned to curse from her mother.

“Yes, Caleb Williams, but I prefer Will.”

“Okay, Will, would you continue? And Reb, could you make sure that Missus Reynolds knows what is being said? If you have speakerphone and mute, that would be ideal.”

“No problem.”

“Ryan, we both know that there’s a leak. That Stephen McBride did not kill himself, right?”

“We suspect, Will.”

“No, I know. Don’t ask me how because you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“I know, I know, he’s a hawk man, and he knows things, doesn’t he, Grandfather?” Angel looked up from her drawing again.

The old man nodded, “You may speak plainly, my son. Though I do not know you or your gifts, the child is right. Some of us understand that there are things beyond that which we can touch, see, hear, smell, or taste. It is safe here to speak of such things.”

There was a long sigh and silence on the other end of the phone. “Okay, I don’t know what it is or how, but I have always just known things. Not like a psychic or anything. I just know what’s in people’s hearts, good or evil. My Grandmother called it a discerning of spirits. It’s how I just sensed which informants I could trust and which I couldn’t, Ryan.”

“I understand better than you realize, Will. I call it my gut. Grandfather says it is my berserkr heritage. But it’s not quite the same. It’s more about situations than people, some sense of danger.”

“Gees, so everyone here is some Z-men superhero, except me? Oh great,” Jack shrugged.

Ryan and Rex laughed, thinking how like the Jack they had always known. Would he ever grow up? How many times had Grandfather counseled him to have patience, to seek peace, that his time would come? But that was Jack.

“Anyway, I’m not sure how to explain it, but I got close to McBride’s kid. Callie is special. I don’t know how or what, but I felt something. The old man could see I had a soft spot for his kid. Then… When my Grandmother died, well, I lost it a bit. He must have seen that, or maybe he was just desperate. He came to me, offered me money, said he just wanted to get the girl and her mother somewhere safe.”

“And you believed him?” Jaycee asked.

“Yeah, I knew he was telling the truth about that. It may be the only decent thing that man ever did. But he wasn’t lying about that. I don’t know how he ended up dead. Especially in Sebida. That’s the thing; almost three years ago, my cousin was kidnapped on her way to school. But the Dallas police dismissed the whole…blessed…thing. They told her mother that she had probably just run away. Bebe had never missed a day of school in her life, she was an honor roll student, but because she was black, they couldn’t be bothered…”

Grandfather smiled as he held up Angel’s stick figure-ish drawing in brown crayon, with black spirals for hair, a blue skirt, and a bright red backpack.

***Old Barn in Nowhere, TX***

Will sat on that pile of hay, his back leaning against the barn wall as Mercy finished speaking with her Mama and sisters on the phone. He brought the bottle of water to his lips and sucked down half of it as he studied her. He knew he should be listening carefully to what was said.

Right now, he was too fucking confused, guilty, and screwed in the head to think of anything other than the fact that he had taken the virginity of the woman he loved in a pile of old, musty hay on the dirt floor of a barn in the middle of Nowhere, Texas. And now he was going to take her straight into the devil’s den.

But what fucking choice did he have? Did they have? If finding Bebe in Torreon had been a long shot before, well, now? Sure, his gifts, that child’s, might be something that others scoffed at. That was how people were with anything they did not understand. They dismissed it, or if they could not, then they ridiculed it. In some cases, that went so far as hate. In that way, it was no different than any other prejudice, -ism, or -phobia.

Knowing that they had to do this did not make it any easier, though. In fact, it made it more complicated. If the things he knew about Diego Garcia before were not bad enough, this scared the ever-loving shit out of him. Why would a man like that even care that Mercy was some long-lost sister? Wouldn’t he see her as just another commodity?

Once they were in Torreon, they were on the man’s territory. That meant protecting Mercy would be almost impossible. With odds of hundreds against just the two of them. But hunches and dreams were not evidence that they could take to the authorities. Not that they could take any evidence to them right now. Not when those same authorities wanted both of them.

Despite all that, all they faced, his body still craved her. He was hard as a fucking diamond. Just watching her pace that dirt floor and bite her nail as she said what was perhaps her final goodbyes to her family turned him on. Sick! But not as sick as what had happened earlier, before that fucking call with Fate. What had he been thinking? Fuck, he knew he had been thinking with his little head. But he never had for a single minute considered that Mercy might be a fucking virgin – quite literally.

He was angry as hell with her right now for not telling him. And the way she acted afterward was no better. Well, after they had both managed to stop shaking and their hearts no longer pounded so loudly that it was all you could hear. His woman dared to smile, give him a peek on the cheek and say, “Thanks, City Boy. That was all I ever imagined.”

Without another single word, she had pushed him off her. Stood up, naked as the day she was born, but certainly, with a lot more exciting curves, she had walked over to that magic bag of hers and pulled out a packet of baby wipes. She had proceeded to clean up, even studying the stains of blood and semen on the damned thing when she pulled it from between her legs. “Nothing to worry about,” she pronounced as she tossed the packet of wipes to him. He was too stunned at first to even clean himself. How old was she? Not as old as his thirty-four, but at least old enough… That she should not have been a… Virgin.

His woman had until an hour ago been a virgin. Why? Why would a woman that looked like her still be a…virgin? Will was confident that it was not for lack of offers. She did not seem like the religious type? Besides, most churches these days, besides the fundamentalists’ ones, did not bother with the chastity and purity thing. So, why?

Not that he minded that much. Hell, a massive part of him, neanderthal though it might be, wanted to beat his chest and swing through a jungle, yelling that he would be the only man ever to touch her. Yeah, she’d probably kick his ass right now if she could read his thoughts. And rightly so. He considered himself a modern man. He hoped like hell that his female colleagues did not find him chauvinistic, misogynistic, or one of the ‘good ole’ boyz.’

So, why this reaction? What did it matter? But it did. It mattered both ways. Why? Why had this woman never had sex? Why him? Why here and now? And why the hell had she not said anything?

“Okay, Brad, you take good care of them, or I’ll kick your ass. You understand me?” She nodded her head and smiled as Will finished off the bottle of water. “You give that baby a big kiss from me, Laura.” She turned her back, and he could almost hear the tears in her voice as she spoke this time.

“Mama, I want you to know that you will always be my hero. All that you have done, been through, and gone without for us girls. There is no way I can ever pay you back for all that. I know you don’t agree with me or this plan. But please know this, no matter what happens, I love you and admire you. You are all I ever want to be when I grow up.”

She sighed, “I need to get the hell off this phone and update Will. I love you all.” She held that phone away from her body. Her shoulders slumped, and her head down. He could not see her face, but he knew she was crying.

“Dammit,” he cursed as he got up and rushed to her.

He was still angry with her, but he could not stand to see her in pain even then. His hands gripped those tiny shoulders, and he turned her around. She buried her face in his t-shirt before he could see those tears, but he felt the wetness drench the material and almost burn his skin like acid.

He held her like that for a couple of minutes. It was not those body-shaking sobs like when she broke down before. No, this was like gentle spring rain that scrooched the hard ground. A downpour would wash away, but that mist settled into the field, bringing new life and causing things to grow. Like his love for her.

His hands brushed her hair back from her face as she swiped at it with the back of her arm. “What else did they say?”

She tried to pull away, but instead, he guided her back to the scene of the crime. They sat on the hay, and he wrapped his arms around her. Her head rested over his heart as her fingers skipped across his abdomen. He was beginning to think he would have to ask again, demand a response, when she finally spoke.

She looked up at him and gave him a tight smile, “If it weren’t for Ryan, I’d had a lot more trouble out of Mama, that’s for sure.” Her fingers moved over his heart, “He said you’re one of the good guys.”

Will kissed the top of her head, “He is too. He keeps to himself a lot. Doesn’t exactly share much with anyone, but I know.” It always came back to that. It always had. Until now, he had thought it some fluke. That he was some freak. But if those people were to be believed, his gifts were not as unique as he thought. It was certainly something to consider. Some other time.

“Your mother? Is she okay?” What he wanted to ask was ‘is she okay with us,’ not that they had told anyone the truth about their relationship. Perhaps that should not bother him. What was the point when they might never make it back anyway? But honestly, yes, it bothered him. He wanted the whole freakin’ world to know.

She laid her head against his chest again, and he tightened his arms about her. “Mama don’t like our plan. Heck, neither do Elena and Laura. But Ryan was in my corner. I got more information about this Diego and where to find him from Brad and Elena. That’s good.”

He nodded as he stared at the ceiling, once again questioning the advisability of it. His mind warred with itself and his heart until he felt Mercy begin to relax in his arms. He knew she was half asleep already as he kissed her forehead, “Why, sweetheart?”

***Cheap motel in East TX***

She was a mess. Stacey Reynolds was utterly and completely down the hole right now. And Reb recognized that. Last night when she had come out of that shower, he knew that she would be uncomfortable, possibly embarrassed. However, she had no reason to be. Everyone lost their shit sometimes. It was healthy. Or so those stupid docs at the VA had told him.

Reb had figured the easiest thing for her would be to pretend it had never happened. And for now, he was good with that. He was an expert with bottling his shit, keeping it all safely in storage, under lock and key just to get through each fucking day. He’d bet his last dollar that this woman was, too.

These were extraordinary circumstances. Worry for her daughters weighed heavily on top of all that other shit from the past. He knew that he did not understand half of it, hell, probably a lot less than that.

But they didn’t have time for debriefing and strategizing during the middle of a battle. They just had to fight their way out. And right now, from the sound of that phone call, they were in a bigger fight than he had imagined. Cartels. Corruption. Murder. Fucking hell, kidnapping kids and human trafficking?

The other bit had been a real shocker, too. Sure, his crazy, tree-hugging, free-love, hippie mother with her three husbands always claimed that everyone had these gifts. It was just that some had more than others. But if someone could step away from the culture in which we lived that devalued and ridiculed such things, then anyone could tap into theirs, whatever it was.

But a kid, who had dreams like his, one guy who sensed danger, and another who knew if someone was good or evil, that shit was more a Hollywood movie than reality. Of course, he was not going to judge those people. Other than Jack, he did not know any of them or their stories. Sure, they seemed legit enough, but trust had not come easily for him since he was barely more than a kid himself. But he sure did not put enough credence in these people to reveal that other side of himself.

In his mind, though, there was no denying those dreams and this woman. Reb watched her pace the tiny space in the shitty motel room. He knew they should get on the road to Chad’s ranch. It was almost ten. He knew his friend would have been up for hours. Reb wanted to make this stop as quickly as possible. Hell, they needed to. Get his friend’s security cams installed and get the fuck out of Texas. As soon as possible. Yesterday would have been good. Damn, if he did not need that gun.

But where they were going, he would have clear sight for close to a mile, and if anyone came for them, he damned well wanted to be able to take them out from a distance. While it had been years since he held such a weapon, Reb knew his skills well. A couple of days of target practice, off on the mountain somewhere, away from the rest of them, and it would all come back.

Not that that might not be a problem in itself. That was one of the reasons he had sold his gun collection – too many memories. And way too much temptation, especially when comrade after fucking comrade ate their guns and became one of the twenty-two. He knew it was the right choice back then. But it left him in a hell of a bad place now.

He and his mother might have their differences, but he respected her work, her calling. It was bad enough that he brought this trouble to that place of calm, peace, and tranquility. He sure did not want it tainted with blood. Especially the blood of innocents. He had enough of that shit on his hands as it was.

But those thoughts, too, would have to wait for another day. Maybe while he was alone on that mountain and away from everyone else, that might be a good time to let his shit out. Right now, he had much more pressing concerns. Chief among them was helping his woman put the cap back on her shit – for now.

He knew this drill. He had been on both sides of it often enough. The one in need and the one doing his best to save another friend before it was too fucking late. This time the stakes were even higher. This time, Reb could not afford to lose. Because he knew deep in his soul that to lose Stacey Reynolds was to lose himself. He kept his distance and his voice low and calm, “Stacey, I know that you’re upset and worried. But we need to go soon.”

The woman stopped pacing. She turned and stared directly at him as if she did not recognize him. Hell, maybe she didn’t. He’d been that far down the hole a couple of times himself. To the point that friends became enemies. Those times were what frightened him the most, why he kept his distance from people. Especially the people he cared about. But he knew there would be no keeping his distance from this woman. At least not emotionally. Physically? Well, they’d have to deal with their shit someday. But not this day.

“Stacey, darlin’, we need to get back on the road.”

She nodded her head but did not move. Reb stood up from the bed, but he did not attempt to approach her. He backed up towards the bathroom. “You sit down for a minute. I’m going to finish up cleaning the bathroom. Then we are going to leave. Get some coffee and breakfast at a drive-thru. And go to my friend’s house. Okay?”

He did not like the silence, but at least she obeyed the command in his voice. That was something, right? But goddammit, he needed that wildcat that fought him at every turn back. Not his fawn in the headlights, not right now. He would deal with that later – when they were safe. He was just hoping that giving her some space worked as well as it did with him when he lost his shit. He prayed it worked, or as close to prayer as Rebel Zappa Moonchild had gotten since that night in the sand.

***Barn in Nowhere, TX***

Mercy wanted to brush his question aside, play dumb, or give him one of her hallmark smart assed remarks. But she could not. Between the intensity of that conversation with her family, how incredible the whole experience had been with him, and yes, the raw fucking fear she felt at what they were all facing, honesty was all she could muster.

“Because for the first time in my whole fucking life, I met a man that made me hotter than Mr. Darcy. But that’s not fair either, because it is not just your looks or sex, it’s some fucking connection I can’t explain, that scares me to death and makes me feel whole, like I’m not alone, for the first time in my life.” She could not stop her fingers from caressing those kiss-ass-able lips, any more than she could stop the tears from flowing, “And because as much as I love that picture, you paint of years and years of love and happiness, the honest truth is this might be all we ever have.”

Mercy swallowed hard just to force the words past that knot in her throat and the tears that refused to abate. “One or both of us may never come back from this crazy-ass shit that I know we should not even attempt. But neither of us could live with ourselves if we don’t try. If there’s any chance that your cousin, or other women, are there, are….”

She could not bring herself to say those words at all. “And because if something did go wrong. If I went down that hole the way Kerr threatened, I didn’t want my virginity to be nothing more than a business deal, sold to the highest bidder. It was mine to give. Mine. And I choose you, Will. If the worst happened, then I have one sweet memory of what love is supposed to be. One thing to hold onto for eternity. Something to close my eyes and escape to no matter what….”

“I will never regret any of it, Will,” she finished, though she was not sure how she managed to get those words out. If she believed in miracles, that was undoubtedly one. But the even bigger one lay just beneath her, the steady strum of his heart reassuring her that for this single moment in time, the world is right. Or at least it was for them, hidden in this old barn in the middle of nowhere.

Her throat was still tight as Will lifted her face to his. Mercy was unsure what touched her more deeply: the tears she saw glinting in his eyes, the tender way he brushed hers away, or his words. “It’s not that I regret it, Mercedes. It’s that you deserve so much more than smelly hay in a dirty old barn. Your first time, our first together should have been rose petals, champagne, chocolate, and strawberries in the honeymoon suite of the St. Regis.”

She brushed his tears away too. “No, I can’t swig that sweet champagne. I’d rather drink beer all night in a tavern or in a honky-tonk.” The look he gave her was priceless, “City Boy, I really do have to edu-me-cate you on good music.”

“I was thinking the same thing earlier, woman. Jazz, R&B, the good stuff.”

“Ain’t happening. But that aside, Will, I’m not those things, except for the chocolate. You’ll never go wrong with chocolate. But I am more comfortable here in the hay than I ever would be in some fancy pantsy hotel. Laura took us to those things once or twice, but it just made me and Mama uncomfortable. Honestly, the only thing that matters is who you’re with. Not where.”

“I get that, but it’s just that I….” He sighed so heavily like Sisyphus watching that stone roll back down for the millionth time, knowing he had to push it right back up again for all eternity. His fingers brushed across her cheek, and he kissed her so tenderly. Mercy brought her fingers to her lips to seal that kiss as if to keep it deep inside of her for all time. As she knew, she would his following words.

“I know this is crazy. You probably won’t even believe me. But I love you, Mercedes Reba Reynolds. I honestly love you. I’m not saying that to make you uncomfortable or anything. I know those are just words to some people. But other than my Grandmother, I’ve never said that to any other woman. Maybe now isn’t the time, and this sure isn’t the place. But like you said, as much as I want to promise you all those sweet tomorrows, this might be all we have.”

“And if it is Mercy, then I want you to know that. Know that I loved you with everything inside of me. And whether there’s a heaven or hell, karma, or nothingness, I know inside that love is eternal.”

Mercy kissed the tears that had streamed down his cheeks as he spoke those words of love. For a writer, she could have never dreamt of a more perfect scene or a hero larger than life like Caleb Williams. And as strange as it was, for her as a writer, she could never find words as eloquent or profound as his. So, Mercy decided that sometimes actions did speak louder than words. “Make love to me, Caleb,” she pleaded as she lifted that shirt over her head once more.

She loved the way his eyes flared when he realized that she wore nothing beneath it. She had not seen the point in putting her bra on just to make a phone call. But this time, she wanted more. She wanted heated skin against heated skin. She pushed at his jacket; she would keep him warm. She almost ripped his t-shirt over his head.

When her hand went for his zipper, he stilled it. “Patience, sweetheart. We may not have forever, but we have this moment.” But his hands made quick work of her jeans and panties.

This time he kissed his way down the side of her face and along her neck. He seemed determined to make up for being denied access to her breasts before, lavishing them with caresses, kisses, tiny nips, and suckling her nipples deep within those lips. His tongue laved and licked until Mercy swore she had lost her mind. Then he began his journey again. While his fingers continued to torture those needy points, his tongue swirled around her belly button. “Damn, woman, if I hadn’t loved you before, I would now for sure,” he proclaimed as his teeth tugged at the ring through her belly button.

Will had not reached his destination, not yet, as he trailed those kisses lower. This time he knelt between her thighs, lifting her ass as he buried his tongue between her folds. In less than a minute, he had sent her over the edge once more. But he was not satisfied with a single orgasm this time, he licked, nibbled, sucked, and tongue fucked her until Mercy had lost count. She was nothing more than a mindless love zombie, ready to follow him anywhere for another fix of that talented tongue.

His tongue was not enough, though, “Dammit, Will, fuck me. Please fuck me.”

He lowered her back to that cold, dirt floor, covered in that thin layer of musty straw. “Tut-tut, sweetheart, such a pretty little potty mouth.” His finger outlined her lips for a moment, “Maybe I need to teach it something else dirty?”

Mercy felt the excitement course through her. She knew just what the man was talking about, and she did not need a second invitation. Her fingers fiddled with those tight leather pants once more, but it was not as hard this time. The pants, not him. Will helped her to push them down.

When his cock sprang free, Mercy could only stare at it for a moment. “Holy fuck,” she whispered as she gently reached out her hand and wrapped it about him. It was so cliché, but damn, that had fit in her? Okay, so it was not porn star huge, but she knew enough to recognize that it was definitely on the upper side of average, probably a bit above average.

She stroked it. She was not sure if it was too hard or too light. From the way that Will closed his eyes and leaned back with a smile, it couldn’t have been too bad. But this was not a forced handjob in the front seat of a jerk’s car in ‘payment’ for dinner. This was her first real blow job, and that required more than just hands. Mercy leaned forward; she loved the way it twitched and moved in her hands. For the first time, she felt powerful, like a real live woman. A woman who could bring this man to his knees with…

But all those videos deserted her; Mercy could not remember a single thing from them. It was just her and that cock that was staring her in the eye. Well, there was also a magnificent set of balls. One hand reached out to cup and weigh them, as he had with her breasts, while the other continued to stroke the entire length of his cock.

She saw a drop of clear fluid appear at the slit every time she stroked upwards. It fascinated her. She had tasted herself on him, but what flavor was he? She leaned her head forward on the next upwards stroke and licked it away, savoring it on her tongue. Salty, not bad, definitely more delicate than those dill pickles.

She felt his fingers wrap through her hair. His other hand gripped her ponytail and pulled her face back so that she stared up at him. “Have Mercy. You’re killing me, woman.”

She laughed; she loved how much they did that together, even like this, even during sex. She had never been comfortable around men, except for Jack, but he did not count. He was almost like her brother. But she was with Will, like her favorite old nightgown that just fit. It was so comfortable that she never even realized she was wearing it. Like she was naked. And she was this man, naked and exposed, not just her body but her heart and soul too. Maybe that should have made her leary, but it did not. It was just so damned natural.

And this was, too. All those damned videos finally kicked in as his hand in her hair brought her closer. First, her tongue snaked out to swirl about the thick head as her hands tightened and increased the tempo just a bit. Mercy felt it twitch in her hand again, and that told her she must be doing something right. Of course, the low growl from Will confirmed that, as his fingers tightened in her hair and guided her to a new song.

Mercy opened her mouth and swallowed it. Just the head at first. She had never conquered tying the cherry stem trick like Lizzie, but this was a bit easier to get her tongue around. The way his fingers flexed on her scalp and that thing hardened even more in her mouth told her she was not too far off.

His hands in her hair guided their dance, but it was her mouth that did all the singing as she moved up and down, taking as much as she could. With each downward stroke, she tried to get him just a bit further down her throat. That was not as easy as it looked on those videos, a couple of times, she even gagged. But she just backed off and reminded herself to breathe through her nose and relax her throat muscles. Then she’d try again.

She was proud that she got much more than halfway down. Okay, so she would not be able to bury her nose in his balls, but this was her first real blow job, and he was much bigger than any of the pickles they had sucked, significantly longer. But maybe she’d get there.

Reality intruded for a moment – if they had time. She redoubled her efforts, desperate to try it all. To fulfill every single one of her fantasies in this single day. His hand tightened around her ponytail, and he drew her back. Mercy whimpered, “What did I do wrong? Why’d you stop me, Will?”

He pushed her back into the hay once more. His lean body covered hers, “That’s the problem, woman. You didn’t do a damned thing wrong. That could not have been your first time sucking cock,” his fingers brushed along her bottom lip, and Mercy playfully nipped at it.

She nodded her head, “Oh, but it was, my City Boy. It’s just that these days even the vestal virgins watch porn and practice on pickles.”

He laughed, and all that weight, the pain, and worry vanished from his handsome face. Her hands cupped his cheek as he leaned his head against hers, “Are you sore, sweetheart?”

“From your damned Duchess, maybe, but even if I can’t walk straight tomorrow, I want you.”

It was all the encouragement he needed as he guided himself inside her slowly. Mercy’s fingers tightened into the corded muscles of his shoulders at the feel of his cock filling her. “Please, Will,” she whimpered.

Those kiss-ass-able lips did just that, kissing her so deeply that their tongues seemed to meld into oneness just as their bodies did. It was stupid, ridiculous even, but Mercy indeed was not sure where she ended, and he began. And she knew at that moment that she had been right to wait. That it could have never been like this with anyone else.

Will was her man, the only one for her. She lifted her hips and met his next downward thrust. She ground against him in slow circles that seemed to heighten both their needs and their agonies. She had not even completed that second circle when she felt this world slipping away, her body climbing towards that nirvana as it convulsed around him. He groaned into her mouth as she felt the muscles in his shoulders tighten. He trembled in her arms, and she took this man deeper into her heart, her soul, and her body. They reached that heaven together as she felt his cock thicken and twitch inside her. Then he filled her once more.

Mercy would not have cared if he collapsed on top of her if she were crushed beneath him. But he rolled to the side, taking most of the weight off of her. They stayed locked like that for long moments. She began to relax as bright sunlight drifted through those broken boards. Maybe this was heaven? It was indeed as close as her crazy smart-mouthed ass would ever get.

She was just drifting deeper when he rolled over onto his back, wrapping his arms tightly about her shoulders and drawing her back so that his chest once more became her favorite pillow. Her fingers danced and played across his chest and stomach as she listened to the sweet rhythm of his heart. His body was more than hot enough to keep her warm.

As sleep began to overtake her, she kissed the skin over his heart, “Caleb Williams, I’m glad I waited because you are so much better than any book boyfriend.” She heard that soft rumble and felt his laughter beneath her cheek, but she was too far gone to care. As sweet dreams overcame her nightmares. Just for this once. In this man’s arms.

***Crappy motel in East TX***

Stacey sat, shaking at the end of the bed. She knew that she had to pull her head out of her ass. She had to get herself together, but that was not as easy had it had always been. As it was when she had her girls and grandbabies to live for. It was not so easy to be that strong, independent fighter without them to center her. But she knew she needed to. Knew that this was not the end. Not yet

But facing your demons head-on was more laborious than staying ahead of them, pretending they were not on your heels. They had all caught up with her now. Or caught up with her baby. Mercy had not only faced off against Earl Kerr, but now she was headed straight into the hellfires that were Ignacio Garcia.

And despite her protests, there was not a damned thing she could do to stop her baby girl. All she could do now was be there to pick up the pieces… If her baby even survived. That man made a mess of everything. She knew that probably was not fair. It wasn’t like her life had been a rose garden before she met the man.

She had first met Iggy while working her weekend job in the café. Of course,  instead of saving money for college, Stacey spent her money on beer and pot to numb the pain. No, in some ways, Iggy or at least his daughters had saved her from that life. From the moment she knew she was pregnant with Laura, she had never smoked or gotten drunk again.

But without those girls or the crutch of alcohol and drugs, how the fuck did she survive? How did she make it through each day with those memories and regrets? Hell, forget each day. How did she get through this day? This fucking moment without curling up in a ball in the corner and crying herself, quite literally to death. No time for eating, drinking, or certainly sleeping. The nightmares were the worst.

“Stacey, we need to go, darlin’.”

She shook her head at the words. The voice was almost familiar, like she ought to recognize it. But it was not one of her girls, so what the fuck did it matter? They had been the only thing in her world for four decades. The one thing she lived for.

A hand gripped her shoulder. A male hand. She could tell but the force of that touch. It was enough. It was too much. And she came out fighting. She jerked away, though it hurt her, probably more than it did him. She would have run. Run for the door, but he blocked her way. So, she did the only left to her. She fought. She pounded her fists against a brick wall that might have been a chest. And when that did not work, she tried to scratch his face, but his hands captured her wrists before she could. That left her only one weapon, her teeth. She sank those into those hands that held her. Determined to get free. She would not, could not, go through that again. Not another rape. But those hands did not let her go. No matter how hard she bit, they held tight.

“Stacey,” the voice was louder, and her body shook. Yet, something inside of her shifted. The way he said her name. That voice. Something called to her. Drawing her back from the precipice, just a couple of steps away.

She looked up, prepared to see that dirty blond hair and sneering face. Or perhaps the almost black with steel gray at the temples that she had once found so alluring. Or maybe the graying red hair and its stern, the unmoving gaze of god. Instead, it was brown. The soft brown of autumn leaves or rich loam. Again something registered in her brain.

Stacey drew a deep, cleansing breath. Then another. And another. She stilled, and that grip loosened just a bit. It was not painful anymore. Another breath, and she forced her eyes to focus. “Reb?”

He smiled and nodded, “Yeah, it’s just me, darlin.’ I lost you there for a few minutes. But we need to go now. Remember, we agreed that the best thing for your girls would be to get you somewhere safe? You don’t want anyone being able to use you against Laura, now do you? Remember, she just had a baby, and she can’t be worrying about her Mama, too.”

“Why won’t Mercy listen, though?”

The man dared to laugh, “Probably cause she is all hellion like her Mama. Besides, sometimes in life, you have to do the right thing. No matter what the costs. I bet you’ve done that a lot, haven’t you, darlin’?”

“Maybe too often. I’m tired. Without them, watching everything I do and say, needing me to be the strong one, I just don’t know how. I don’t know what to do now.” She rubbed her hands back and forth against one another. But even that brought back old memories. How many times had she seen her mother do that same thing? Usually, when she knew another beating was coming.

He released her arms and stepped back, “Then will you let me? Will you allow me to help? To carry you through this tough spot? Please?”

His words drew her back again. Back from that rabbit hole of fear, pain, and regret that she could not afford to keep jumping down. She sighed as she stared at the man. He had walked off his job. Traveled almost halfway across the state. Hidden her away in this hell hole. Been hit, scratched, and bitten. Hell, the man had seen her naked and cleaned up her vomit. And he still had not run. It made no sense. “Why? Why the fuck do you care? Why not just leave me here and get the hell out of Dodge while you can, Wyatt Earp?”

Stacey loved the sound of his laughter. She had not liked anything about a man in so long that it was a shocking revelation. But this one, there was something about him that was growing on her.

“Besides the obvious fact, that it is the right thing to do. Or how much alike the two of us are. I don’t want to freak you the fuck out, darlin’. But I care. I give a damn about what happens to you. And I don’t have the time right now to explain anything more than that. So, get your bag and get that sexy butt out the door. We should have been in Elvira and on the road hours ago. We can’t risk any more time in Texas than we have already. Move it, woman.”

Two days ago, if any man, even her boss, had spoken to her like that, Stacey Reynolds would have taken him down a notch, but right now, it was just such a fucking relief not to have to be the one always in control, that she did as he said. Without questioning. That might have been the first time in four decades or so.

***On the road again in Elvira***

Reb risked looking away from the road for a moment. This part of Texas was relatively flat, and the traffic was sparse. Stacey was still staring out the side window. He was unsure what told him more, the stiff way she held herself, or the silence. She had not said anything since they left the hotel. In the end, he had not even bothered with breakfast. Instead, he had gotten them both pisswater coffee from the gas station, where he stopped to fill up Elvira’s tank.

They could worry about real food once they were out of Texas. He kicked himself again for getting rid of his gun collection. If he did not need an M40, they could have headed due west. Perhaps even been in New Mexico by now. This was risky. He liked Chad, counted him and Jack among his few friends. But with this woman, his woman, he trusted no one.

His woman – Reb chuckled under his breath at the mere idea. What was he going to do with a woman? Hell, he could not remember the last time he had sex, certainly not in this decade. But maybe that was a good thing, with her demons. Even before – that night – he had not been the ‘relationship’ type. And now? He liked his life. Drifting from place to place, answerable to no one, and responsible for nothing more than himself and Elvira.

But he had known that was coming to an end. Even before Stacey stepped into Jack’s casino, Reb had known she was there. From the moment he arrived in Sebida to help his friend, the dreams had begun. He had seen that face in them every night. And always the same, that wild-eyed, far-off stare against ashen skin, covered in blood and soot.

Reb’s hands trembled; he forced his full attention back to the road. Since he left the Rangers seven years ago, he had spent his life outrunning those dreams. If he did not allow himself to get close to people, he would not be haunted by visions of…

“I know you’re relieved to hear your girls’ voices this morning, huh?” He tried to break the silence. The quiet was when those dreams and thoughts always bred in his mind. “They sound nice. It’s obvious they all love you very much and one another. You must be one hell of a mother to raise three daughters like that all alone.”

Maybe if he focused on her success as a mother, he could also forget his troubled relationship with his own. Not that he doubted that Celestial Peace Moonmother did not love him as much as this woman loved her daughters. It was her life choices that always bothered Reb. For a scientist, an archaeologist, and historian with two Ph.D.s, the last time he heard anyway. His mother had eschewed every societal stricture there was. From her three husbands to her hinky pseudo-science theories of human pre-history to the commune that she and his fathers had built, there was nothing ‘normal’ about his mother.

And he had paid the price. Now was not the time to go down that rabbit hole. If they did not have time or the safe space to go down Stacey’s, they sure as hell did not with his, which went every bit as deep, perhaps even more so. Time to refocus.

“As I said, Chad is an old friend from my brief Marine days. He lives alone on the ranch that he inherited from his grandparents. So, it should be relatively safe. But so far, at least, your and Elena’s faces have not appeared on any news reports. Heck, even the link between Laura’s involvement with McBride Industries and Mercy’s….”

“Shooting the sheriff,” Stacey finally spoke.

Reb turned his head long enough to nod and smile, “Yes, Mercy shooting Kerr. Even the link between your daughters has been nothing but speculation on the part of reporters.”

“Why?”

It was a good question. A damned good one, one that he had been pondering since that phone call. And the answers he kept coming up with were not the ones he wanted. But for now, the fact that an APB had not been issued for either Elena Williams or Stacey Reynolds was to their advantage.

He shook his head as he kept his eyes on the road. He never wanted to lie to her. But this was another worry, and right now, Stacey had more of those than she could handle.

***Grandfather’s Ranch***

Laura chuckled as she came awake to that soft meowing once again. She looked up into his smiling face as he passed her the squirming bundle that was crying even harder now. “We have to stop meeting like this, counselor.”

His eyes were glued to her chest as she opened the flap on her nursing top and got Chloe attached to her breast. “I don’t know; it’s my favorite time of the day, counselor. Just us and our little girl.”

She found it hard to argue with that summation. Instead, she focused on their daughter. She was feeling better. After their morning phone conference, Ryan had not only insisted that she get some more rest, he had gone so far as to pick her up and carry her to the bedroom they were sharing. She hated to admit it, but he was probably right. She did feel much better after her nap. “How long was I asleep?”

“Less than two hours. The little lady insisted on her lunch before Jaycee feeds us ours. How are you feeling?”

“Better, much better, actually. I think those damned hormones are settling down a bit. My mind is clearer than it has been since she was born.”

His laughter was an upbeat country two-step to her ears. “If you have been off your game this past couple of days, I am scared to imagine what’s to come.” He reached out, and Chloe grabbed her father’s finger. It was becoming a ritual that closed their little family circle. There was something so intensely reassuring about it.

“I don’t know how you do what you do. You managed to care for your sisters, work two part-time jobs, keep straights As, serve on the student council, and get into Stanford. You not only survived a misogynistic corporate culture such as McBride Industries but beat those good ole’ boys at their game and rose to the top.” Ryan bent over and kissed her forehead, brushing away the tears that, as much as she fought them, seemed to come anyway. “It just blows me away. Baby, I’m amazed by you.”

Silence wrapped about them like a comfortable quilt for long moments. The only sound was Chloe snorting and snuffling at her nipple. Laura used the time to try and regroup. “So, what next, counselor?”

“By the time you’re finished nursing Chloe, Jaycee should have lunch ready.”

“That’s not what I meant. What’s our next move?”

“That’s what I was telling you. Jaycee wants to talk to us some more over lunch. She says she has an idea.” He picked up Chloe after she broke the seal of her greedy little monster on her nipple. “Do you need…”

“To pee?” It was another reassuring ritual they had just fallen into. “No, I’ll nurse her on the other side after you change her. Then, I’ll stop by the loo on the way to lunch.”

“Loo? You weren’t in London that long.” Laura could not stop staring at his broad shoulders and tight ass as she managed to turn over on her own this time.

“Yes, but I collected a few choice words while I was there, counselor. Do you realize that shag is not just a type of carpet?” She could tell by his groan that he already knew that one. His smile was beaming as he turned back to her with their daughter in his hands.

“Do you have to taunt me, counselor?”

She took Chloe and got her settled, “I thought I took care of your little problem this morning?”

His laughter caressed her mind once more, “Little is not a descriptor I’ve heard in regards to that particular problem. Of course, problem isn’t either. You’re going to kill my ego, counselor. But if you must know, as much as I enjoyed you taking care of it, it just isn’t the same when it isn’t mutual. Not saying I didn’t appreciate it, but….”

His fingers caressed her cheek, “It’s you I want, not just my balls emptied. Everything about you drives me crazy. The smell of your skin. The taste of your kiss. Your hair all around me. It’s like you surround me. You bored your way under my skin even when it was just those files. That’s why I followed you to the pub that night. I had to meet that woman…” He hesitated, and Laura noticed that his eyes clouded a bit too. “I wanted to get to know that woman before I stole away her dreams.”

She reached out and gripped his hand, “You didn’t, Ryan. You gave me the most precious one of them all.” She could see that her words made him uncomfortable. She wasn’t exactly sure why. But what hit her then was the realization of how rare these moments were between them. For two people who barely knew one another, it was shocking how comfortable and natural they were with one another.

He tidied the room as Chloe finished feeding. When he returned to the bed, she was surprised to see the multi-color baby sling across his chest. “Is she finished?”

Ryan frowned at her fit of giggles as he picked up the baby and attempted to insert her into the contraption gently. Laura finally took pity on them both. “If you take it off and put her inside first, then strap it on you, it is easier.”

She loved the pink that glowed in his cheeks. She had not seen this man blush often. Not even when it came to their discussions of pee. Speaking of which, “If you can manage, I need that pee now. I’ll meet you in the dining room.”

“Are you sure you can manage? This won’t take me but a moment. I hope. I can help you. I mean, down the hall, not to pee.”

“I don’t know what I said, counselor, but I like getting you flustered. I’m going to add that to my daily goals, get Ryan to blush,” she managed to get up on her own this time. “I’ll be fine. You take care of her.”

***Elvira***

Stacey realized there was something he was not telling her. But right now, she was not confident she could handle anything else. She still was not satisfied that this was the right choice for her – to go with this man. She did not even know him. All she had was Jack’s word. And she had barely seen that kid since he retired from the Army and came back to Sebida after his grandfather’s death. She was not sure she even trusted him anymore.

She wanted to laugh but was afraid that it would spiral out of control into one of those hysterical fits of laughter and tears if she did. Stacey did not trust anyone. Not in a very long time. Certainly not since the first time Iggy had backhanded her. She, sure as hell, did not rely on anyone. Other than her girls. They had always had one another’s backs. But that was why she sat in this damned truck, heading god only knew where to meet another stranger. Another person who might put her girls at risk.

Damn, Laura. She had worked out a plan. A damned good one, too. They should all be in that old abandoned cabin outside of Lubbock. All of them – together. That was how this was supposed to be. Then Ryan showed up, and the shit hit the fan harder and faster than they had ever imagined. Now, her girls were scattered across the continent, perhaps even the world. None of them even knew exactly where to find the other. And that bothered her, too.

“Where are we going?”

He shook his head and frowned, but those dark eyes stuck to the road. “I told you my friend’s ranch. It’s only another few minutes.”

“No, where are we going after that? Where are you taking me? You did not give any details earlier. And you haven’t told me much either. Just to trust you. I might not be myself right now, but I still have enough sense not to go somewhere I don’t know with a complete stranger.”

This time he turned his head and smiled at her. He fucking beamed as if she had just told the idiot he won the lottery. He took one hand from the steering wheel and reached for hers. She tried her damnedest to jerk away, but the man’s reflexes were quicker and his grip stronger than hers. He squeezed her hand gently. “That’s my girl.”

She shook her head, “Are you fucking crazy?”

“Yeah, probably. But I’m damned glad to see that fight back in your eyes. It tells me you’re going to be okay.”

Stacey thought about those words for a heartbeat, then burst out into laughter. Not the hysterical kind either. The cleansing kind that she and the girls shared at those moments when you either laughed or you cried. They consistently choose laughter. “Yeah, yeah, I am.”

For the first time since she walked into that casino and discovered that her baby was not there, she felt that old fight coming back into her. She had survived her daddy’s beatings, Iggy’s betrayal, and Kerr’s rapes – forty-seven times. She and the girls had survived those bread and butter Thanksgivings, old doll and threadbare Teddy bear Christmases, and almost as many nights without power as ones with it. They would survive this, too. They had not come this far to give up and let the bastards win now.

“So, answer my fucking question, or I throw myself out of this moving vehicle. Where are you taking me?”

“A fucking hippie commune in the mountains just outside Sedona, Arizona, where they don’t have television or the internet.”

Was it his answer or the way he said it that bothered her most? But before she could even ask more questions, he turned left off the two-lane county road onto a red dirt one.

“We’re here.”

If the man thought that was going to end this matter, he had better think again. Stacey Reynolds was not leaving this place, not getting back into that damned truck, Elvira, or whatever he called it until she was satisfied he had answered her questions truthfully.

“I won’t be long, or I hope not anyway. You just wait here for now.”

Stacey considered arguing with him, but he was probably right. Even if her face was not all over the news the way that Laura’s and Mercy’s were, it was probably best for these people to know as little as possible. She nodded; she had had never been the type to fight just for the sake of it. There was enough real shit in life that you had to battle; you did not need to go picking more.

She looked around as he got out of the truck. A man slightly older than Reb approached the truck, and they started to talk. But she noticed the young teen; she thought it was a girl, but she could not be sure. All she could see was pink, blue, and purple hair flying across the open yard between the barn and the house. What kind of parent allowed their kid to dye their hair like that? And was that a curtain she saw move in the second-floor window? She thought Reb said the man lived here alone? This was seeming less and less like a good idea by the second. Who were these people?

She hunkered down in her seat. Wrapped her arms about herself and dropped her head. Damn, coming here was a bad idea. Was going to some fucking commune any better? At least the cabin near Lubbock was isolated. But she could not discuss, or more likely argue, any of that with the man now. Not when it looked like he was already engaged in some heated debate with his friend.

They should get the hell outta here now. She was about to open the door and say just that when Reb approached the truck again. The other man moved towards the house. Okay, so maybe they were leaving. But not to some damned hippie commune, not if she had anything to say about it. And she would.

Reb had just opened the door, and even before she could ask him any more questions, a woman appeared on the porch. She looked vaguely familiar, but that was beside the point at the moment. “Hey, folks, sorry for Chad’s bad manners. Why don’t you come in and have a cup of coffee?”

Stacey felt the panic rising again, “Oh, hell, no.” Her eyes met Reb’s. Things were getting out of control way too quickly – again.

***Chad’s Ranch***

Chad noticed the cloud of red dust as he and Grace brushed down Folly. His daughter had barely said three words all morning. He supposed that was to be expected. But the flashy silver truck coming up his driveway was not. “Grace, get inside.”

He could see that she wanted to argue. When she followed his line of sight, she just nodded and turned, “Tell your Mama to stay in her room until I say it’s safe, you understand?” She nodded her rainbow head but did not bother to look back at him.

Dammit, what was he thinking? Especially after last night. He should be armed at all times. He knew there was no time to get to his grandfather’s shotgun over the door, and he had stupidly not brought any of his other guns from the safe where he kept them in the basement. His excuse had been Grace, of course. Having loaded guns around the house with a volatile teenager was a recipe for disaster. But in this situation, not having one at hand might be even worse.

He glanced towards the house and saw the sheers in Rose’s room move a bit. He hoped whoever it was, did not notice, or see Grace as she had run across the yard. He put down the brush and forced a smile. For now, dumb and friendly was probably his best option.

He should have taken those damned cameras out of the boxes when they arrived an hour ago. He might be shit with this technology stuff, but maybe Grace could have figured it out. Again, it was too late now. He’d just have to hope for the best and deal with whoever it was. But as soon as that was done, he was talking with his daughter. Convince her to give the jarhead a hand with that damned security system and then cover gun safety.

He sighed just a bit when the man stepped from the vehicle, “Hey, Reb, I wasn’t expecting you.” His old friend looked almost as tense as he felt.

“Yeah, I know I told you I didn’t have the time to help you out right now.” The way the man did not meet his gaze told him more than words. “But things have sort of changed.”

“Yeah, well, now isn’t the best time for me. I’m right in the middle of….”

His friend finally looked up and met his stare. “Listen, to be honest, I need a favor, and I was hoping that I could trade you some help with your problem for your help with mine.”

Chad’s shoulders dropped as he relaxed some. “Reb, you know it don’t work like that. If you need anything, all you have to do is ask. That’s what friends are for.”

Reb dropped his eyes and stared as his boot kicked at the red dirt. “Yeah, well, this is a pretty big favor to ask.”

Chad frowned as he noticed the woman that still sat in the truck. He could not see much since Reb stood directly in front of her as if he were protecting her. Or maybe he was projecting his own situation on his friend. “What can I do for you, Reb?”

“I need a gun. An M40, to be exact.”

“You know that isn’t legal. I can’t just let you have one of my guns, especially one of those. And why do you need it anyway? I know they are expensive and not easy to come by, but why not buy your own? What’s up, man?”

Reb ran his hands through his hair. It was much longer and considerably thinner than it had been over twenty years ago. But Chad knew – that was the man’s tell – what he did every time he was nervous. Usually, he’d invite his friend inside, make them both a cup of strong, black coffee and talk over whatever was bothering Reb. But right now, he had his secrets. And while he trusted Reb as much as he did anyone, he did not truly trust anyone with their lives.

“Chad, please, I can’t explain right now. All I can say is shit’s hit the fan, and I need to protect the people I care about. And right now, I can’t draw attention to myself by filing all that paperwork.”

His words resonated with Chad. He could empathize viscerally with that need. “I thought you had your own collection, though.”

There it was again, the fingers in the hair as he spoke, “Guns and me weren’t such a good combination when I got out of the Rangers.”

Chad understood precisely what the man was saying. He had had more than one friend be among the twenty-two per day statistic. Sadly, he knew that far more than combat fatigue or survivor’s guilt tormented this man. Chad was probably one of the few people who knew the whole story.

And any other time, he would do anything for this man. In some ways, Chad believed he had failed the kid. He had pleaded with him to tell the command chain what had happened. But even he had to admit, Reb was probably right. It was a dark side that no one wanted to see or acknowledge. And it could have just as likely backfired on his friend.

That did not make things any easier. The man’s story had been one of the factors that prompted his retirement. Chad knew that such things were rare, but that was no excuse. That shit should never happen, and if it did, it should be dealt with swiftly and brutally, but that was not the reality. Oh, he was still proud to be a Marine, but his Oorah was never entirely as unconditional.

He turned and looked back at that window. Why now? Why did Reb have to come now of all times? He wanted to help the man. Hell, call it like it was; he felt guilty, like it was the least he owed the man. But his obligation to them ran deeper. Did he just hand the gun over to the man and send him on his way? Did he tell him no? Neither of those seemed quite the right thing. But he did not have the luxury of time to find out the depths of the hole his friend was in. Not where his girls were concerned.

He turned back to his friend, words of denial on his lips. Until he saw the way that Reb was watching the woman. It was like fucking staring in the mirror. Chad remembered that call, the way this man had offered advice, no questions asked. “Wait here. I’ll get it from the gun safe.” If his friend thought it strange that he did not invite them in, Reb did not say anything.

“Thanks, man,” he simply nodded and smiled tightly.

Chad headed back into the house. He was barely inside when Rose assailed him, “Who is that? What do they want?”

He gripped her arms; he could see the panic rising in her eyes. “Relax, darlin.’ It has nothing to do with you and Grace. Reb’s an old friend from my Corps days. He’s the guy I told you about, the security expert that I asked about the cameras. He just needs to borrow something. It’s okay, I promise.”

Rose shook her head, “But who is the woman with him?”

“I don’t know, and I didn’t ask, sweetheart.”

“That woman is in trouble, Chad.”

‘Tell me something I don’t know’ was the first response that popped into his mind, but that was not the reassurance Rose needed right now. The best thing for all of them would be to get Reb and the woman gone as quickly as possible, no questions asked. He almost chuckled at the irony of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

“That’s not our business, Rose. I’m sure that whatever is wrong, Reb will handle it. He’s one of the good guys.” He knew he was in trouble when those hands went to her hips, her feet spread apart just a bit, and that chin came up. He was guaranteed that he was not going to like whatever came out of her mouth. And he was right.

“Then, if you’re so all-fired sure of that, invite them in. I’ll make lunch. Maybe he can help you with those cameras while I talk to her.”

“Are you crazy? So far, no one knows that you are here. I want to keep it that way. Yes, even from the few friends I do have. I might trust Reb with my life, but darlin,’ I don’t trust anyone with yours and Grace’s.”

She stepped forward, and her soft hand caressed his cheek. She stood on tiptoes and placed a sweet kiss on his cheek, “And that is why I love, my hero and fantasy.”

He wanted to savor those words. Memorize the moment. But there were things he needed to be doing, “Just let me get the M40 he needs from the gun safe in the basement, and they’ll be on their way.”

“Not happening. Chad, I know fear when I see it. I’ve worked with enough domestic violence and rape survivors to recognize that look. You say you trust your friend, well, I don’t know the man, and I am not letting that woman leave here until I’m sure that she is safe. So, let’s hope that you’re right about the man,” she pushed right past him and opened the front door.

***Grandfather’s Ranch***

Ryan was still struggling to get his daughter back into that damned baby sling a couple of minutes later. Was she moving more than last time? Or was his mind merely not focused on the task? “What are we going to do about your Mom, my little Falcon?” He brushed his finger across her cheek, and her arms flailed even harder. When his finger got within her reach, she grasped it.

“Hey, buddy, we were wondering where you were,” his cousin’s voice sounded from the doorway.

Ryan turned to the man, who, in some ways, had launched him on this journey. “Sorry, I’m having a bit of trouble getting her into the damned thing. It seemed so much easier the first time.”

Rex nodded and came to stand beside him, next to the bed. “Want some help?”

Ryan laughed, “How would you know? Yours isn’t here yet.”

“Shhh, don’t tell Jaycee, but I borrowed one of Angel’s dolls to practice all this fatherhood crap on. I can change a diaper in less than five seconds. I can dress it. Of course, I’m not sure how well I am with the whole burping thing, but I have the theory down. Maybe you’ll let me borrow Chloe to see if I’m doing it right? And yeah, I watched like a dozen videos to learn how to get a baby into that contraption.”

Ryan felt the pang of jealousy and anger to the core of his soul. This was how it should have been, months and months to practice all those things. Watching each new change in Laura’s body. Feeling Chloe kick. Of course, he wasn’t sure who he was mad at – Laura or himself. There were months before they busted the case, and he went into hiding. She could have come to him then, told him he was going to be a father. But that had never been a part of her plan. His throat tightened as the realization of how much she had used him hit him squarely in the face.

But he had his part in that, too. When Laura had fallen asleep that morning, before he slipped out of her hotel room and took the stairs up to his own room, he had held her in his arms and watched her sleep. Something had told him then to wake her, tell her the truth, beg her to go someplace safe, and wait for him. But he hadn’t. And it had cost him all that. Maybe this whole thing was both their doing. That did not make it any easier, though.

“I’m here if you need to talk, too, cousin.” Rex’s hand gripped his shoulder and squeezed.

When Ryan turned to face his cousin, he did not give a damn that the man would see the tears that clouded his vision, making wrangling with that damned contraption impossible. “You wouldn’t fucking understand. You were always the lucky fucking bastard. You always knew that you would recognize her.”

“Jack and I both hated you for that. It’s not so fucking simple for us mere humans. Dating sucks. Trying people on like you would a suit, to see if they fit. Hurting people, sometimes genuinely nice ones, just because they don’t. And being hurt in return. But you never had to deal with any of that crap. You knew you had a mate. You knew who Jaycee was the moment you met her. And you knew not to just fucking walk….”

Ryan could not finish; his throat was too tight to push any more words out. Besides, he knew he was not fair to his cousin. Rex was not the one he was angry with. That was the bastard, quite literally, that was in the mirror.

His cousin knelt next to him and wrapped his arms around his shoulder. Ryan knew it wasn’t the ‘manly’ thing to do, but he was past the point of fucking caring about such bullshit as he laid his head on his cousin’s shoulders and let the tears come. He wasn’t sure how long he cried like that with his little girl kicking her tiny feet right into his abs and Rex gently patting his shoulder.

But when he did begin to come around, he was hit with that embarrassment. He did not even have fucking hormones to blame for it. He tried to pull away, to focus back on that damned baby sling, but his cousin was not going to let him off that easily. “Feel any better?”

Ryan shrugged; what was the point? Nothing could change the past. He had not listened to that voice. Hell, even if he had, it might not have changed anything. That Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds was so focused on her career and getting her baby, she probably would not have even listened.

“Thanks,” was all he said as he turned back to a smiling Chloe. Those damned books did not know everything. He swore his daughter could smile already.

“You know, Grandfather believes that we all have mates. Humans, as well as skinwalkers. He thinks that the difference is humans have lost touch with that part of themselves.” Rex reached over and began slipping Chloe’s little legs into the appropriate slots.

“I’m not sure I agree completely. I think that humans do have the instinct to sense their mates. But they have been conditioned not to trust such things. So, they put themselves and other people through these stupid and sometimes harmful mating rituals. They spend months and years hiding who they are. Pretending to be someone they aren’t. Just to attract someone who isn’t who they think they are either.” Rex looked up from the task to meet Ryan’s stare, “That’s why I quit dating in my early twenties. If she wasn’t my Nʉ Sʉmʉ, it wasn’t worth the risk of hurting her or wasting my time just for sex.”

“But I know you, cousin. I don’t believe for a second that you did not recognize your mate. But that’s the other advantage or curse of being a skinwalker – we know what is at stake. We know there is only one shot at this. So, when it comes, if it ever does, we fucking take it. No questions asked. Because losing your mate is not an option.”

Rex slipped Chloe’s final arm into the hole and patted her tummy. “I think that ‘golden gut’ as you call it, knows that, too. So, for what it is worth, here’s my advice. Forget all those things that society has told you about relationships and love. Forget all the past hurts of your previous relationships. Hell, forget the pains of watching other people try and fail at it. Then, step out in faith. Forget all those masks. All those things that you’re supposed to be and say and do. And just be you. Be honest. Say what you mean and feel.”

Ryan laughed, “You make that sound so fucking easy, Rex. And what happens when you jump off that cliff and go splat? When she doesn’t return those feelings? When you get hurt? It’s not the same with us ‘mere humans.’”

“You think winning Jaycee’s love has been easy? She grew up shuffled from place to place, never even knowing the love of one parent. She was rejected time and again by families that wanted the ‘perfect’ child. Then she spent years married to a man, another skinwalker that had given up his soul to the darkness, that was incapable of true love for her, or even Angel to some degree.”

“You think she even recognized the love I offered her? Hell, cousin, there are still potholes in that woman’s heart that I am trying to fill. Every single day I have to prove to her all over again that I’m not going anywhere. That my love is real and unconditional. And you know what? That is a war I may never win. There are parts of my mate that I may never have because she’s too afraid to trust me with them. But every day, I climb that cliff, and I jump off. Sometimes I fucking soar to the skies. Our souls touch, and I know the closest thing there is to heaven.”

“And other days, I fall flat on my face. Sometimes I hit that ground so hard that I feel I can’t do it anymore. But the real difference is I know I don’t have a choice. If I lose her, I lose me. My soul. I become what he was. And I won’t do that to her or Angel or this world. So, I go off alone, and I lick my wounds. Or Grandfather comes to me, and we talk.”

“But somehow, I find the strength to climb that cliff again. The faith to be real with another person, the most important one in this world to me. Even if she does hurt me, I realize that it isn’t me. Jaycee doesn’t hurt me because she doesn’t care, but because she does. Because she’s been hurt so badly that she’s afraid to believe. Afraid to believe in me. In us. In a love that lasts for all eternity.”

“The thing is you don’t have any choice, either, Ryan. Not really. Maybe if you choose to play it safe, to protect yourself, you won’t become a Chupacabra if you lose Laura. But your soul will be just as lost, your pain just as deep.”

Rex picked up his daughter and kissed the top of her head before passing her to Ryan. “And that’s not even considering this precious gift. But they’ve been waiting for us long enough. I know that Grandfather or Jaycee will send out a search party if we don’t get our butts in gear. So, if what I said isn’t enough, we can have that discussion another time. Because my wife….”

“Is going to make that sexy ass pay for taking so long,” Jaycee stood in the doorway.

Ryan saw how red his cousin’s cheeks flamed at her voice. He watched as Rex swallowed, then inhaled deeply. He knew that his cousin wondered just how much of their conversation his wife had overheard. But Ryan had to admire the way the man turned and smiled at her. A smile that was open and adoring as he rose and walked over to his pregnant wife. “I’m sorry.”

“You better be. Not only is lunch getting cold, but you know I want to talk to Laura and Ryan about my plan.” The woman turned and smiled at Ryan, “Have you two he-men managed to conquer one tiny scrap of material and a squirming baby yet?”

Ryan nodded as he lifted the baby sling with his daughter securely inside and strapped it about him. “I think so. Thanks to your husband.” His eyes turned to his cousin, and he hoped that they conveyed his gratitude for much more than a lesson in how to operate a baby sling. Rex’s words might have hit home, but the man’s actions spoke volumes.

“Then, come on. I have something to discuss with you and your mate.” Jaycee turned to his cousin and tenderly caressed Rex’s cheek, “I’m so relieved to know that you understand. And you’re right. I never mean to hurt you. I would never do that willingly, but sometimes…” Tears spilled down the woman’s cheeks, “I’m trying. I hope you know that. I’m climbing that same cliff, Rex.”

His cousin drew his wife into his arms and held her close to his heart. Rex kissed the top of his wife’s head, “I know that, Nʉ Sʉmʉ. And that is all I can ever ask.”

Ryan felt like the worst kind of voyeur. His cousin and Jaycee were stripped barer than if they stood naked before him. But he was incredibly privileged and humbled by the experience. Words of gratitude would have been meaningless for such a profound spiritual experience. So he did not bother, and he followed them down the hall to…his mate.

His cousin was right. He had recognized Laura every bit as much as Rex did Jaycee. And the man was right about the rest too, losing her was not an option. And if that meant taking the risk of telling her all those things inside his heart. He had no other choice than to do it. And keep doing it. Just as his cousin did.

Besides, that porn-worthy blow job this morning had to mean something, right? After all, Laura didn’t have to do that. Maybe it was a ray of hope? He kissed the top of his daughter’s head as he followed the couple and took a seat on the bench next to his partner. Of course, this little one was more than a mere ray. Chloe was the whole fucking sun, an eternal bond they shared. One that he would build on.

He reached over and squeezed Laura’s hands as Grandfather raised his hand in blessing. Ryan swore that he could feel something, some indescribable power travel from their joined fingertips through his whole body. Then the blessing came to an end. And the reality of this world, food, and crisis, took center stage, but in his heart and mind lived that tiny spark of power. He knew that it was the ember he would feed into a roaring fire that would warm them and light their way through this darkness. Because losing her was not an option.

***Chad’s Ranch***

Rose was petrified. Despite her brave words to Chad, she knew exactly the risks she was taking. And that scared the ever-loving crap out of her, not so much for herself, but for Grace. Still, sometimes you just had to do the right thing. Even if it was a risk, even if it brought you trouble. Aunt Rose had taught her that. And she had to believe that as the old woman said, ‘The rest is in the good lord’s hands.’

The man shook his head, “It’s alright. Really, we should be getting on the road as soon as possible anyway.”

She noticed that he moved to stand between her and the woman. Was that because he was protecting her? Or because he did not want her to see something? Was he the cause of this woman’s distress or, like Chad, this woman’s jarhead in shining armor?

She wanted to simply take Chad’s word for it. Believe that the man was, how did he put it, ‘one of the good guys.’ But as she had told her lover, she had seen too many survivors. She had to be sure. Or she could never live with herself. Even if that meant putting herself and Grace at risk.

“Aww, it’s only a few minutes. I’m sure that you and your friend could use the chance to get out and stretch your legs, some hot coffee, and a homemade biscuit. Chad said you’re the friend that he talked to about the security system. He won’t admit it, but I know that thing is driving him insane.”

The man stared at her for a long moment. Stalwart, that was the word. Was he studying her because he recognized her? Or because he was trying to come up with another excuse? She stepped off the front porch and brushed past him before he could say or do anything. Her hands were on the door handle when she felt the strong hand on her shoulder. She was unsure what she would have done or said. Thankfully, she did not have to.

“Rose is right. My manners were lacking. And yes, Reb, I could use your help with those damned cameras. Bring your lady friend into the kitchen for that coffee. The women can chat while you and I handle our business.”

She watched the consternation on the man’s face as he made his decision. But she was already ahead of him; her fingers tightened on the handle as she pulled. “Hey, sugar, I’m Rose. Why don’t you come in for a cup of coffee while the guys handle things?”

The woman’s frightened eyes flew to the man’s face. But she was still uncertain if that was a sign of trust or fear. Slowly, he nodded his head, “Come on. We shouldn’t be too long.”

Rose noticed that the man had not bothered to use the woman’s name or introduce them, which only added to her suspicions. But she would do her best to find out more while he and Chad talked.

When she reached out to touch the woman’s arm, the other woman drew back. That was the confirmation she needed. Something was not right here, but what? And was this man the ‘good guy’ that Chad thought? She, of all people, should know how easy it was to be fooled by those closest to you.

“It’s okay, darlin’. We won’t be long,” the man reassured the woman.

The woman nodded and looked up at Rose, “Thank you, a cup of coffee would be nice.”

She could tell that the woman’s smile was tight and unnatural, but it was progress. “And don’t forget biscuits. I made them for breakfast, but I’m sure we can find some bacon or sausage and make a decent snack.”

The man nodded, his smile a bit more relaxed than it had been. “Actually, that sounds wonderful. We did not find any place I tr… We didn’t see anywhere open that looked appealing.”

“Come on in then, Reb. Let’s get started on those things while Rose makes those biscuits,” Chad motioned the man in.

Their eyes met, the woman’s and this Reb friend of Chad’s, and she could almost believe him. The way this guy gazed at the woman was almost precisely like Chad looked at her. Maybe she had it all wrong, but she had to be certain.

“Are you okay with that, darlin’?”

The woman’s eyes met hers. Rose smiled, trying to reassure this lost and frightened soul. But she realized no words could do that. Finally, after a long pause, the woman nodded her head slowly. “I’m Reba.”

Something told her that name was no more real than Rose was. It looked like both of them had secrets, but that did not stop the smile of welcome from her lips, “Hi, Reba. I’m Rose.” As the woman finally stepped from the refuge of the truck. “Follow me into the kitchen.”

The man had waited on the porch with Chad until they approached the door, “Are you sure you’re okay, darlin’? I promise I’ll be as quick as I can be, and we’ll get back on the road.”

Reba stared back at her for a moment, then smiled. As with the man, it was a bit less stressed, but it was still far from genuine. “I’ll be fine, I’m sure. Do what you need to, to help your friend.”

Rose led the woman through the parlor and into the kitchen, “Have a seat. While I make a fresh pot of coffee, then I can make that bacon and sausage. How long have you and Reb known each other?”

“Not long,” Rose heard the hesitancy and noted how vague her answer. “And you two?”

“Almost fifteen years,” she half-lied. “We have a teen daughter.”

“I have three girls, but they’re all grown now,” as she had hoped the woman had opened up a bit.

“Does it matter? Grace will still be my little girl even when she’s old and gray like me. That girl is the very reason for my existence, and there is nothing I wouldn’t do for her. ”

Rose had meant the words as further icebreakers, a sharing of the bonds of motherhood, so she was not prepared for the way the woman suddenly burst into tears. And even less ready for the vitriolic attack as the man burst from the study. “What the fuck did you say to her?”

He rushed to the woman’s side and knelt at her feet. He did not touch the woman at all, and his voice was the opposite of the one he had used when he screamed at her a moment before. It was calm, almost monotone, and quietly reassuring, “Stacey, I’m right here. Everything is alright, I promise.”

Rose’s eyes sought Chad’s as he came back into the room. He walked to her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. The tension in her kitchen was intense. She got the distinct feeling that the two friends might come to blows. She laid her hand over his heart and looked up at him with pleading eyes.

Maybe this had been a mistake. Perhaps she had been wrong. Maybe her loyalties should have laid more with her daughter than a woman she did not even know, no matter how much in trouble the woman obviously was. And maybe she should have trusted her partner’s assessment of this man’s character. But as Aunt Rose always said, ‘hindsight is twenty-twenty.’

All those maybes came back to bite her in the butt when that rainbow-haired head poked down the stairs, “Mom, is everything alright? I heard screaming.”

The man turned from whispering with the woman to stare at this latest interruption. Rose saw the quick look of recognition, even before the words slipped from his lips, “What the fuck?” Chad had definitely been right this time.

“Everything is fine, sweetie. Just go back to your room, please,” she tried to reassure her daughter, even if she felt anything but.

Instead, her daughter looked at the strangers, “Who are these people?”

“Reb is an old friend from my days in the Marines, Grace. As your mother said, please go back to your room.”

“Why are they here?”

“He’s gonna help me install the video cameras.”

Rose rubbed her trembling hands on her jeans. Usually, she loved and fostered her daughter’s inquisitive and independent spirit, but now was not one of those times. But she knew the one thing not to say was…

“Now, please, go back to your rooms. So, the adults can talk.”

She saw the storm clouds gathering in her daughter’s Wilson green eyes. She waited for the explosion. But her daughter’s reaction scared her more than any outburst ever could.

“Whatever, old man,” Grace shrugged and turned to go back up the stairs.

They were in for trouble now, big trouble, trouble the size of Texas from their daughter, and Rose knew that, but she did not have time to forestall that now. At the moment, the problem of Chad’s friend far outweighed the long-term damage they had just done to Grace’s fragile trust. She would do her best to heal that breach between father and daughter later.

They all waited a couple of moments. Rose was tempted to tiptoe up the stairs just to make sure their daughter was safely ensconced in her room and could not overhear this conversation.

Reb’s forehead leaned against the woman’s as they whispered. She looked to Chad, tears in her eyes, and whispered, “I’m sorry.” But he just shook his head and squeezed her hand.

Finally, his friend turned back towards them. His eyes scanned her from head to toe and back again before he spoke, “Chad, do you want to tell me what McBride’s wife and daughter are doing here?”

“Rose…Cassie and I are old friends. He brought them here to keep them safe because he was afraid there was a leak and did not trust witness protection. That’s all I can say. You’ll just have to trust me on the rest. Like I’m prepared to trust you with that gun.”

The couple exchanged a long look, she could not tell precisely what it meant, but the woman nodded her head slowly. “How about we get that damned security system operational, my friend? You’re going to need it.”

She saw Chad’s shoulders slump just a bit. She could almost imagine him as that Marine standing at attention being told ‘at ease.’ He nodded and squeezed her hand.

“Do you want to come with us, Reba?” Reb asked the woman, but she shook her head.

“No, I’ll be fine here.” Rose’s eyes met the other woman’s, and she nodded her head to reassure her.

“If you’re sure?”

“Go ahead. I think the woman and I need to talk. Mother to mother.”

Rose almost reached for Chad, begged him to stay. There was something icy about the woman’s gaze, but she was probably just being paranoid. He must have sensed it, too, though, because Chad echoed his friend’s question, “Are you sure, darlin’?”

Meeting the other woman’s eyes, she was not. But something told her that whatever this Reba had to say, she needed to hear it, and the woman needed to say it. So, she nodded her head and forced a smile. “Yes, you two go ahead.”

***Grandfather’s Ranch***

Laura was glad that the tension between them was gone. Although she still had no idea what caused it. What had she said or done that was wrong? Honestly, this relationship thing was new to her. Sure, she had been engaged to Stewart and had had a college boyfriend, but honestly, those felt more like arrangements of convenience than relationships.

But this? This was way beyond that, beyond her comfort zone. That night had been, too. She remembered the lie that she had planned to tell Chloe one day when her daughter asked about her father. Laura had the story all planned out, that Chloe had been made in love, that her father was the love of her life. These past couple of days had Laura wondering just how much of a lie that would have been.

Still, there were a couple of problems with her logic at the moment. The first one was its validity. She had pregnancy hormones from hell surging through her body and turning her brain to mush. Just how much of these feelings were real? And how much was some hormone-induced fantasy from one of Mercy’s damned books?

Damn, her baby sister. She had gone her whole life avoiding her Mama’s trashy book collection. But when Mercy self-published her first book, Laura had felt obliged to support her sister’s dreams. She had used Tenr to purchase a few hundred copies. If that weren’t bad enough, she felt the compulsion to read the damned thing.

Laura had been shocked. At the quality of her sister’s writing, yes, but also how much she enjoyed the story. It had pushed her to read other writers. And while some were total garbage, the porn for women that feminists labeled them, a good many were complex stories of human struggles for more than merely ‘a man’ but for self-actualization, acceptance, and understanding. She had been addicted. That was a good thing since she had nine months of pregnancy without a job or anything else to do.

But did such things happen to real people? That she was not so sure about. Then again, she could not blame that night in London on pregnancy hormones, could she? She snuck another glance at him as she reached for the platter of sandwiches that Jaycee and Grandfather had made, with Angel’s help.

There was a BLT that called to her. What was it with bacon? Chloe’s first sounds might be a snort like a pig, as much of the stuff as she had eaten during her pregnancy. But she needed to cut back. She was not eating for two anymore. And while she had never been what most people would consider beautiful, too short, too hippy, and with a face that was too angular, she wanted to get back to the point she was before her pregnancy. Damn, because the bottom line was she wanted that man back in her bed. She had to find out if that one night had been some fluke.

It was more than just the insecurities of not knowing where she stood with this man. Sure, Ryan threw the L-word around. But that did not mean he truly meant it. And no matter what he said, she was not marrying him for Chloe’s sake. She had done the math in fifth-grade health class and understood that Mama had married Iggy Garcia because of her. And look how that turned out.

Just thinking about Mama and Mercy reminded her of another reason why she could not trust these feelings. Her whole fucking life was a mess right now. And while she would not cast herself in the role of a damsel in distress, she hated to admit just how much she had come to rely upon this man. How much power and control she had acceded to him. She did not want that to continue.

That was not the woman she was or the woman that Mama had raised her to be. Reynolds women were strong. They dealt with their own bullshit. They didn’t need no man to save them. She needed to get her shit together and take back her life. Then they could see if this damned thing between them was worth pursuing.

“I wanted to speak with you, Laura, about an idea that I have,” Jaycee sat directly across from her. The timing of the woman’s words made her wonder if Grandfather and the little girl were the only ones with that freaky mind-reading shit.

And why was the old man smiling as he stared at the two of them? “Sure.”

“I know that both you and Ryan are attorneys, but you know what Abraham Lincoln said….”

“The man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” chuckled Ryan.

“Well, that is the modern paraphrase, and they aren’t even sure that Lincoln said it,” Laura added.

Jaycee smiled at her and nodded her head, “Good point, Laura.” The woman’s face became more serious, “But that does not change the fact that neither of you can just walk into J.T. Tyler’s office in the Federal building in Houston. Maybe they would not arrest Ryan on sight, but that would not make it a smart move.”

“J.T. Tyler?” Ryan lifted his brow.

“Yeah, we went to law school together at UT.” Jaycee leaned across the table and lowered her voice, “We might have even gone on a couple of dates.”

“I heard that, Nʉ Sʉmʉ,” Rex smiled at his wife.

“I never doubted that you would, cowboy,” she caressed his cheek.

Laura felt the pang of jealousy. Would they ever have that kind of comfortable interplay? She paused with the sandwich halfway to her mouth. Didn’t they already? At least some of the time, anyway. The question was more, could they build the solid foundation this couple had from that?

“But back to my point, I can,” the woman’s words drew Laura’s attention back to the pressing matter.

“Both Will and Ryan believe that Tyler can be trusted. And unless he has changed a lot from the man I knew fifteen years ago, I would agree. J.T. and I might not see eye to eye on politics, but the man I knew was an idealist. That was part of the problem; things were always black or white with him.”

Ryan finished his bite of sandwich quickly, “Yeah, they still are. As you said, that could be a problem.”

“Let me worry about that,” Jaycee passed two shifts of papers that were next to her plate across the table. She handed one to Laura and the other to Ryan.

Laura looked at it. A basic contract that would give the other woman the power to act upon her behalf in negotiations. That would make her this woman’s client. The things Jaycee said made sense.

So, why did she find herself turning towards Ryan for his approval? It was not like her. She did not need anyone else’s blessing to make a decision. She certainly would not have consulted Stewart when they were engaged. But it seemed there was no need for concern. They agreed on this decision as he nodded his head and reached for the pen that Jaycee held out.

“But one thing, before either of you sign those forms. I need to disclose a possible conflict of interest. Though I don’t believe it will be an issue. I want you to know that I represent Wanda Kerr in her ongoing divorce case.”

Laura lifted her eyebrows, “The sheriff told everyone that she and the girls had gone to take care of her dying mother. That they would be back in a few weeks or months.”

“That doesn’t surprise me. And I know that you both understand why I can’t say more. But my client and her children have gone underground. I placed them with one of the domestic violence support networks that gave them new identities. That’s all I can reveal.”

Laura pondered this latest news. It was unlikely that Wanda Kerr would know anything of value to the investigation. Earl Kerr was not the type of man to consult or share things with a wife or any woman.

The only female deputy in Sebida county was the dispatcher. Other than monitor radio transmission, the only police work the woman was involved with was rape and domestic abuse cases. The kind of thing that required a woman-to-woman approach. Though she was confident, Kerr resented even that.

No, the real issue was that as his wife’s attorney, that brought Jaycee, her family, and her actions under the ‘good’ sheriff’s scrutiny. Yes, that might present a problem. But did that potential issue outweigh the familiarity and inherent trust she had with the other woman?

Damn it; she did it again. Turning to Ryan with a raised eyebrow. He shrugged those broad shoulders that looked even sexier with that damned baby sling across them. “This is your family’s lives, sweetheart. I trust Jaycee. But it has to be your decision.”

Damn him, double damn him. Why did he have to give the perfect response? Laura nodded her head and looked across the table at the other woman. Jaycee had gone out of her way since they arrived to make her feel welcome, as well as help and advice about the baby. She was rapidly becoming the first female friend in more than two decades. Yeah, she trusted this woman to walk that line, to balance the needs of her clients if it came to that. Laura reached over, took the pen from her hand, and signed the contract that made this woman her attorney.

Ryan smiled and took the pen from the table where she had laid it when she finished. He, too, signed the document, “So, what now, J. Ranger, esquire?”

Was it so wrong or petty that Laura felt a surge of gratitude that Ryan had not used the word counselor? It seemed incredibly silly, but over the past couple of days, that word had become an endearment more personal and precious to her than all those sweethearts. Damn, those tears. When would these hormones give her a fucking break? They clouded her vision, but not enough that she missed the broad smile on her new friend’s face as Jaycee replied, “It’s time for Rex and me to take a little road trip to Houston.”

***Chad’s Ranch***

Chad watched as his friend connected the final cables to another camera. They had hardly said a dozen words to one another since the explosion in the kitchen. He knew they needed to clear the air, talk about what had happened, but he was not sure that he was in the mindset to do so.

He admitted it; Rose had hurt him deeply. She should have trusted him when he told her that Reb would never do anything to hurt a woman, especially not the things she had thought. The fact that she had not, that her actions had put her and Grace at risk, ate at his soul. Sure, logically, he got it. The woman had spent twenty years married to one of the biggest S.O.B.s there was. And it sounded like her father had not been any better. So, it was no wonder that she did not trust men.

But he had thought she realized he was different. He felt that they had been building something on a foundation of mutual trust. Now? He felt like someone had kicked his legs out from under him, sucker-punched him, and landed a hard right to his jaw…all at once.

“Okay, buddy, that should just about do it for the hardware. We’ll have to go back to the house so I can program the software. Then we can download the app to your phone, and you’ll be up and working,” Reb turned back to him.

It was what his friend was not saying that bothered him most, though. “Thanks, I appreciate the help. I don’t know if I could have done all this even with Grace’s help.”

“And you couldn’t bring in any of the techs I recommended.”

“No.”

“Why? I’m sorry, man. I know that is none of my business, but I can’t figure out why the man I thought I knew would get messed up with the likes of Gerald McBride?” At least the man dared to ask the question. The question was – did he have the courage to answer it honestly? That depended.

“What are you going to do, Reb?”

His friend sighed, looked back at the house, and shook his head. “I’m going to drive away from here and try my damnedest to forget what I saw. But that isn’t what you’re asking, is it? Am I going to turn them in?”

Chad nodded his head and held his breath for the answer that might determine the whole course of his life.

“No. Partly that is because I know that girl in there deserves better, but mostly because I have to believe that if you’re involved in this, then there has to be a damned good reason.”

It was the answer that Chad had been hoping for as he helped his friend down the ladder that leaned against the sloping front porch roof. He waited until the man was down, and they had folded the old ladder. They were too close to his daughter’s bedroom window. So, he waited until they had carried it to the barn to respond.

“She’s not McBride’s child. She’s mine.”

His friend shook his head, “What the fuck? That doesn’t sound like you. Are you sure?”

Chad sat down on a bail of hay. He looked at the dusty wood floor of the barn as he spoke, “I met Cassie in New Orleans at the bar I was working in, right after I got out of the Marines. It was just one night.” He looked up and stared out the opened barn doors at the house, “I never knew.” He still choked on those words. How much of his child’s life he had missed. How many more years of psychological abuse the woman he loved had endured. Yeah, maybe it was unfair to think she should trust him after only a few days.

“McBride showed up here a couple of days ago.” His laugh was bitter, full of the anger and remorse bottled inside him at that man and himself. “She didn’t even know. Rose had no idea until then that her daughter was not her husband’s child. He begged me to keep them safe.” He could feel the tears gathering in his eyes as he rubbed his dirty hands down his jeans. He did not give a damn if his friend saw them. For the first time since his story began, he met Reb’s gaze. He was thankful for the compassion in his eyes. “What could I do?”

“Exactly what you’re doing now, everything you can to keep your family safe, buddy.” The heavy sigh that Reb expelled, the way he glanced back at the house, told Chad there was something else on his friend’s mind. But the best course with Reb had always been to wait. The man had an ingrained sense of right and wrong, and no matter how hard the path was, Reb took the right one. Well, perhaps, except once, then again, that was questionable.

“How much does she know? Your woman.”

Chad had to laugh at the question, “I ain’t much for that misogynistic word. I think it is thrown around way too much these days. But if it was ever deserved, that man was it. So, what do you think, Reb? I mean, if the bastard did not even bother to tell her that her child was not his for almost fifteen years, how much you think he’s gonna share about his business dealings?”

“Fair enough.” The man ran his hands through his hair once more. Yes, his friend knew something he was not telling him. Chad wanted to push. This was too damned important to him just to wait. He opened his mouth to speak, but Reb beat him to it.

“It ain’t just them that McBride has hurt. Stacey…” Reb looked towards the house once more.

The silence stretched out so long that Chad feared the other man was not going to tell him whatever else he knew. Without a beating, but this once, he was considering slamming what might be his only real friend against the wall and beating the shit out of him. Hell, yeah, if his daughter’s and Rose’s life depended on it, he would.

Reb finally turned back and met his gaze, “Her real name is Stacey, Stacey Reynolds. Her daughter, Laura, was McBride’s General Counsel.”

Chad shook his head and frowned as his mind connected the dots, and the news reports from this morning came to his mind. “And her other daughter is the one that shot that sheriff? And you left her in the kitchen with Rose? Knowing that she recognized her?” He was off that hay and headed to the house before the words left his mouth.

Reb’s arms halted his forward momentum, spinning him around to face his friend. His fist shot up, and only the other man’s quicker reflexes saved him from that right to the jaw. “You want me to trust you. Well, you need to trust me. We both know things aren’t always as black and white as they seem. That woman in there has been through hell, and this is dredging her right back through those fires. But I promise you, she and her girls aren’t what you think.”

His hold slackened just a bit, “Please, I won’t betray you, but I can’t betray them, either. All I can tell you is that this shit is bigger than anyone realizes. That woman in there and her daughters are taking risks with their lives to uncover it all.”

Chad heard the pain behind his friend’s words. “How can you be sure? This is the lives of my daughter and the woman I love, Reb. How the hell can I trust that she won’t turn them in to save her own family?”

“Because you have the same power over me, buddy. As crazy as it fucking sounds, I love that woman in there. A woman I met less than twenty-four hours ago.”

Chad laughed as his friend released his hand, “Join the club. Sometimes a woman just gets under your skin. Fifteen years and I could never forget that one.” He paused for a long moment, contemplating the twists, turns, and quirks of life. Then he slapped his friend on the back, “Let’s go see if they’ve ironed things out or killed one another. Your woman don’t have a gun, does she? Never mind, if her daughter is any indication, mine is a better shot.”

“Don’t fucking count on it, buddy.” Reb held out his hand, “You have my word that your secret is safe with us. But I want you to know that you’re not alone. I can’t tell you who or what, but there are others, too. And if you ever need us, call me. I promise you; these are guys you can trust to have your back in a firefight.”

Chad took his friend’s hand, “Okay, but I’m hoping like hell it never comes to that.”

“Me, too, me, too,” as they headed back to the house and whatever remained of the kitchen and their women.


Rose fiddled around with the coffee pot. She felt the other woman’s eyes boring into her. Not merely her back but her soul. “Can I get you more coffee? I should get those biscuits started. They will be hungry when they get back.” She knew she was blathering, but she could not handle the silence.

“Did you know?”

Rose knew precisely what the woman was asking. She had been asking herself that same question since the day Gerald had broken the news to her of the federal investigations. Though she could shake her head to the negative, it did not absolve her. At least not in her own mind. How had she lived with, had sex with, eaten dinner with, and stood beside a man that had done the things Gerald was accused of and not known? She was not sure she could ever forgive herself for that.

“I have daughters, too. Three of them.”

Rose turned back to the woman with a smile, thinking perhaps this common bond would bridge this gap, whatever it was.

“My oldest’s name is Laura. Laura Reynolds.”

The name immediately rang a bell with her, but it took her a moment to remember why it was so familiar. A moment in which that woman just stared unblinking at her over the edge of her coffee cup. When it finally clicked, Rose gripped the countertop. What could she say? “I’m sorry,” seemed so utterly inadequate.

“Two days ago, she gave birth to my second granddaughter. Yesterday, she fled her home with the former agent, who is the baby’s father. Can you imagine? Being on the run, perhaps for your life, less than twelve hours after you gave birth? Losing the career that you had worked so hard to build?”

Rose felt the heat of each tear as it wound a trail down her cheek. They obstructed her vision, just as that tightness in her throat stifled any words. If she had any.

“Ryan says there is a leak in the feds. He thought it would be best if the rest of us went someplace safe. So, we could not be used against Laura. My middle daughter and her husband took their two-year-old and fled the country. Elena’s almost seven months pregnant.”

Rose’s hand flew to her mouth as the sob erupted. She lost her battle to remain standing, sliding to that aged linoleum floor.

“My baby girl and I were supposed to stay out of sight at a friend’s. But before she could get there, the crooked sheriff in our county came to arrest her. A man that may very well be connected to your husband. She knew what that meant and knew that she would never come back if Kerr took her to jail. She shot him. Now the whole fucking state is looking for my baby. They say she is armed and dangerous. Do you know what that means? Shot to kill, ask questions later.”

“Now, tell me again, how you’d do anything for your girl? What about all the other mothers and daughters that man destroyed? And you say you didn’t know? How could you not know? You can’t be married to a man, fuck him, and sleep next to him for twenty years and not know something was wrong?”

Rose shook her head as more tears poured down her cheeks, “I knew Gerald was ruthless. Hell, our marriage was the poison pill that my daddy forced on us both to try and stop him from taking over his company. But I swear, I promise on Grace’s life, I never knew the type of things that he and Stephen were involved in. And yes, yes, you can be married to someone and not know that sort of thing. When you’re nothing more than a trophy, a possession to them.”

Something she said must have registered with the woman because she dropped her cup. It shattered into hundreds of pieces. Each one was a reminder of the way her husband had betrayed and destroyed so much.

“What are you going to do? I’m begging you, pleading with you, one mother to another. I know that Gerald has destroyed your family, hurt innocent people. But Grace, Callie, is one of those innocents. She’s fourteen years old. What has she ever done? Please, please don’t turn us in. Not for my sake, but for hers.”

“Why? Why, if ya’ll are hiding out here, why did you take the risk to come down? Why didn’t you just hide away? Reb’s friend was going to send us away, but you invited us in. Why would you risk your life? Your daughter’s?”

“Because you looked scared. Not just scared, but deeply troubled. I know Chad said he trusted Reb, but I’ve worked with abuse victims for too long. I knew…”

“That look?”

Rose nodded her head, “I’m sorry that I read the situation all wrong. I’m sorry for the pain that Gerald caused. I’m sorry I didn’t know. But even if I had known, what could I have done?”

“Why did you stay? Why did you stand by your man like that? Especially once you knew.”

This, too, was the question that Cassie had laid in that huge bed, in her designer bedroom, in one of the best subdivisions in Houston, asking herself over and over again. “Because divorce was not an option where I came from. Not just my parents. Though, my daddy made sure I knew my obligations to his company and my mother. And the happiness of his nineteen-year-old daughter did not matter in his bottom line.”

“But even more so, it was the woman, who raised me, that instilled her values in me. Aunt Rose was our housekeeper, cook, and more mother to me than the one who gave birth to me. When she found out what daddy had planned, her advice was to make the best of a bad situation. And I tried,” she felt that knot in her throat tightening like a noose.

“I did what good I could with as much of Gerald’s money as he would allow me. And I did everything I could to make sure that my daughter did not grow up with that man’s values. I poured all my hopes, dreams, and love into her.”

The other woman nodded as her shoulders slumped, “You did your best and lived for your daughter.” Her smile was incredibly tight and pained as tears spilled down her cheeks, too, “Like I did for mine. Maybe we aren’t so different after all?” She held out her hand, “I’m Stacey, Stacey Reynolds.”

Rose reached for the old apron that hung on a hook next to the stove. She used it to wipe the tears from her eyes as she shook Stacey’s hand. “I’m Rose now. After that woman. It’s not just that I’m trying to hide. I sort of feel as if Rose is a new person, someone I hope to be when I grow up.”

The woman laughed, “I chose Reba after my favorite singer.”

“Really? She’s mine, too.” Rose reached for the broom and dustpan just inside the utility room.

“Here, let me help you with that. Then we can make those biscuits. As you said, they’ll be hungry when they finish.”

The women were laughing over coffee and swapping stories as Chad and Reb walked in the back door.

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