***Agartha, Sedona, AZ***
“Wake up, sleepyhead.” That rough, gravelly voice pulled Stacey out of the dark abyss. At least this time, there had been no dreams or nightmares to disturb her sleep.
She stretched and looked around. It was still dark outside the cabin of Reb’s truck, “Where are we?”
She shook her head, trying to make sense of any of it. They had left Chad and Rose’s ranch in East Texas yesterday evening. After their rough beginning, Rose had insisted they stay for dinner once the guys had finished installing the computer software for the security system. Rose’s daughter had not been that thrilled, though, barely saying two words during the whole meal.
The other woman, who Stacey might have once considered an enemy, had tried to get them to stay the night. But Reb insisted that night was the best time to travel, especially through Texas. He might have been right, too. They had made it to Oklahoma City in barely more than six hours. They had stopped for breakfast just before they once more crossed the state line through the Panhandle.
Reb had spent most of the meal with his eyes glued to his phone, scanning all the news stations for any updates. There had been none. That was good news, or Stacey liked to believe it was. At least, it meant that the authorities had not found her daughters. But she still worried that the ‘bad guys’ might have.
She had tried to get Reb to let her drive Elvira for a bit. Instead, they had crawled into the back and slept on the comfortable mattress there. It was probably better than any they would have found at a motel. And no one thought anything of it. Since it was a truck stop, half the people there were doing the same thing.
Stacey had been uncomfortable, almost panicked about the whole thing. But since they both remained fully clothed and the bed was queen-sized, she had finally managed to relax enough to fall asleep.
She had not woken until dinner time. They were out of Texas once again, and Reb had relaxed. They had found a nice Mexican place, and for the first time in days, her appetite had returned.
Once again, she had tried to convince the man to allow her to take a turn driving. But it seemed, despite what the man had said that first night, he was determined to baby his machine.
Stacey would have sworn that she was not tired. But somewhere before Alburquerque, she must have fallen back to sleep. “Here? Where is here, Reb?”
The man opened his door and stepped out, “Agartha. Welcome to Agartha, Stacey,” he waved his arms about. Even in the dark of early morning, she could see the almost pristine beauty of the pine trees and lower shrub bushes.
She tried to clear her head. It simply did not seem real. After all the stress and anxiety, they had just driven straight to the place without any trouble. Almost as if this were some vacation. But it was not. This was serious, deadly serious, and her whole family was in danger.
At least until they could figure out this whole damned situation. Even if Laura and Ryan did manage to negotiate a deal with the feds, and given what they knew about the leaks, that might not even be a good idea. That still left the uncertainty of Mercy’s situation.
Kerr might have survived practically unscathed, but Stacey, of all people, knew how vengeful the man was. He had murdered at least one man for double-crossing him on a drug deal. What would he do to a woman that shot him? Those were the latest of Stacey’s nightmares.
She reached for the handle of her door and pulled it open. Reb was around the truck and holding out his hand to help her down. She gave him one of her stares, the ones that usually sent men scurrying for cover, but he only smiled and waited. She debated shoving him aside, but the fact that she had no idea where she was or where she would go put a kibosh to that idea.
When she held out her hand, he took it in his large, calloused one. The zing she felt was almost physical. Sure, they had touched a couple of times. Hell, this man had held her naked in that damned shower while she fell to pieces. So, what the fuck was that? And why now? Rather than ask those questions and draw attention to the matter, Stacey decided that bluffing her way out of the awkward situation would be better.
She looked around more closely, trying to find something to comment on or complain about, but this place was truly unique in its natural beauty. Even the large stone and glass building that stood in front of her seemed to blend into its surroundings. She could not wait to get a better look at it in the morning light. “Impressive,” was all she could manage.
The excited feminine voice drew Stacey’s attention away from the building as a svelte woman with what must be premature gray hair descended the steps towards them. For a moment, Stacey felt an unexplainable sense of betrayal, anger, and jealousy. This man had brought her all this way, said all those things about kindred spirits, hell, he’d seen her naked, and he had another woman stashed away here all along.
She was so lost in those thoughts that it barely registered when Reb turned towards the woman with a tight smile and responded, “Mother.”
Stacey was glad that Reb still held her hand, that something seemed to cue the man to her needs as he stepped closer and wrapped his arm around her waist, almost holding her up. She looked from his weathered and chiseled visage to the woman’s ethereal beauty, trying to see any resemblance. She failed as the woman rushed toward them.
She tried to do some quick calculations in her head, but this woman looked her age, maybe even younger. How could she be this man’s mother? But Stacey did not have any further opportunity to ponder the matter as the petite woman somehow managed to wrap them both in her arms.
If that zing when she took Reb’s hands had been shocking, then the utter calm, peace, and tranquility that she felt in the other woman’s embrace stupefied her. Stacey tried to remember even one time she had felt anything like it. The closest she came was those first moments when she held her babies in her arms. But even those had been marred with worry and fear. In this woman’s embrace, she felt neither, even in this uncertainty.
The woman held them both for a long moment before she drew back. Her dainty hand caressed his cheeks, and Stacey recognized the loving look of a mother on the woman’s face. “Welcome home, my son.”
Reb might shake his head and sigh at her words, but Stacey could see something, some tension, relax in the man. “Thank you, mother. But can explanations wait until morning, please? I’m exhausted. Do you have a place we can stay?”
The woman shook her head and frowned, “You know that your cabin is always available.”
She turned towards Stacey, “I am Celestine Rainbow Moonmother. But you can call me Cellie. Those closest to me do.”
Stacey studied the woman again. Her hair was cut unfashionably short, forming almost a cap of tight white spikes on her skull. Looking closer, she could see the map of lines around her eyes, mouth, and forehead, as well as the deeper ones on her neck. Maybe she was a bit older than Stacey had first thought. A few years older than she was? Her sixties, perhaps? She must have been almost as young a Stacey when she had him.
“Thank you,” she managed to mumble at last.
The woman studied her as well. As if taking some measure of her. It was an uncomfortable feeling, as if the woman could see inside her soul. Stacey held closer to Reb. He drew her tighter against his body as if he sensed her unease. “Well, good night, Mother. I promise I’ll explain everything tomorrow.”
Her face lightened as she gently squeezed his shoulder, “This is your home, Reb. You don’t owe me any explanations, and you should know that.”
“This time, we need to talk.”
Those lines deepened as his mother frowned at his words, “Of course, Rebel. But nothing you can say will change that.”
“I hope you’re right, Mother. But honestly, I just need sleep right now.”
“Of course, I’ll let your father know you’re here. I’m sure they will be glad to see you.”
“Which ones are here now?” Seemed an incredibly odd question to Stacey.
“Barry is. Edward is back in England. And, well, I have some news to discuss with you tomorrow, too.” Did the woman look nervous? That seemed strange, somehow.
“Malcolm and Indie?”
“Your sister will be as happy to see you as I am.” Again, Stacey saw some dark shadow cross the woman’s beautiful face, “And Malcolm stays mostly in London these days.”
“We’ll speak tomorrow, Mother. But if I don’t get to bed soon, I’m going to collapse.” Looking at him in the faint light that filtered from the open double doors, Stacey could see the price this man had paid for their adventures. She felt guilt eat at her heart.
“Do you need anything, son? Some food? I can see if the chef has anything in the fridge?” Chef? Stacey wondered just what sort of place this was.
“No, Mother, we stopped in New Mexico for dinner. I just need my bed.”
The woman stood on her tiptoes. Her hand once more caressed his rough cheek as if it were the most precious gemstone. It was a feeling that Stacey could understand. What would she give to have that same opportunity with any of her girls?
“Go, get your sleep, Rebel Zappa Moonchild. And welcome home.”
Stacey watched as the woman turned and ascended the steps with some inherent grace with which she had never been blessed. She turned back towards this man, who she still had not figured out. “Rebel Zappa Moonchild?” She could not manage to hold back the laughter.
Reb did not bother getting anything out of Elvira. He would do that in the morning. He had been running on pure adrenaline for over forty-eight hours. Sure, he had been trained by the Marines and Rangers to do just that, for more extended periods even. But it had been years since he had done so.
And honestly, the stakes had never been this high. Her life, Stacey’s life. Her family’s. Those were more precious to him than some esoteric, misplaced, and idealistic belief in duty and country. But they had made it. They were safe, at least for now.
At Agartha. He looked around at the mostly familiar surroundings. While they were continually expanding the center to meet the ever-growing demand for the serenity that this place, his mother, and the others provided, they ensured that such expansion fit with its natural beauty.
Reb had honestly never believed he would come back here. Well, not for more than the occasional night to visit his mother and sister. He shook his head as Stacey continued to laugh. Leave it to his mother. The woman always had to get that one in somehow. Not even when he left the Marines and legally changed his name had she wavered.
He could not blame that all on his mother. He had never felt comfortable sharing the real reason that he had changed his name with her. Or anyone else, for that matter. Only a handful of people knew. Chad because of the nightmares that had almost derailed his sharpshooter training.
And the guy who had found him half-dead in the sand on that beach, his jeans around his ankles. Mike had been another Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, but they had not known one another. He had wanted to call the police and an ambulance, but Reb refused. The guy would not take no for an answer, though. They had compromised on Mike driving him to the emergency room.
Reb thought that would be it, but he walked out to discover the other man waiting when he finished with the doctors. Mike had driven him back to the base. Hell, the guy had gotten into trouble for being late for duty. They had stayed in touch, off and on, over the years.
Was it exhaustion or this place? Reb knew he could not afford to go down that hole yet. Sure, it was coming. He and his woman needed to have that talk. Come clean with one another. But not yet.
“Are you done laughing?”
The tears that glistened in her eyes this time were lightened by the genuine smile that erased the lines and took away years. Hell, maybe that damned name was good for something. If anything made her laugh, then what the hell did it matter?
Stacey nodded and straightened to her full height, close to a foot shorter than he was. But even in the darkness, he could see a faint smile and a new lighter mood. “So, where is this cabin?”
“It’s a bit of a hike, I’m afraid. My mother knew that I prefer my privacy, so when she built one for me, it was on the edge of the compound.” He held out his hand for her.
She looked at it for a long moment before slipping hers into it. He laced their fingers together and gave a gentle squeeze. He understood. It had taken him three years before he could manage even the most casual touch.
Of course, then he had thrown himself into the deep end of sensuality. Hedonism really. First, he had fucked any woman that looked at him, trying to prove his masculinity. When that did not work, he had thought perhaps he was hiding from himself. Maybe he was gay? Perhaps that was why it happened? Maybe he gave off some gay vibe that he was not even aware of. So, he had gone the other direction. Experimenting with dozens of men. But always as Top. He could never bear the idea of being bottom, of being that vulnerable again. But that had left him even more hallow.
Damn it, he needed sleep. He was on the verge of losing his shit. And now was not the time for that. He tugged her gently down the virtually hidden path. They walked for a few minutes in comfortable silence. Reb drew to a stop in front of the small dwelling that had been hewn out of the mountain itself; he hesitated. He had forgotten how tiny the place was, only a couple hundred square feet, like all the individual cabins at Agartha.
That was one way his mother encouraged communal living. None of the outbuildings had kitchens. Just the barest basics, a bathroom and one room that doubled as a living and sleeping area. Meals were eaten in the dining hall or, on rare occasions, brought back from the kitchen. No, like the ancient monasteries, these cabins were places of refuge and meditation.
The only furniture inside his cabin was a chair, built-in bookcases on two walls, and a futon that doubled as a couch by day and a bed at night. A double bed. Sure, they had managed to sleep on the queen mattress in the bed of Elvira earlier, but as tired as he was, he did not relish the idea of going back to the floor as he had that first night in the motel.
“It’s pretty sparse.” He warned her as he opened the door. The light on his phone illuminated the place he had not seen in over a year. He should have known. It was pristine like he had just left yesterday. No dust, everything exactly as he left it.
He stood back and ushered her inside. Some weird feeling rose inside his chest as she passed. Like some force in the universe shifted, something inside of him changed forever as she stepped across the threshold. But that was ridiculous, more of his mother’s esoteric mumbo jumbo. And despite being raised by the woman and even his dreams, Reb had never been comfortable with the unknown.
He shone the light around so that she could take it all in. He noticed her eyes kept going back to that futon/bed. “I’ll take the floor.” He found himself offering despite the tiredness that beat at him like those rare downpours on the desert.
He watched her bite her lower lip before she shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I’m sure it’ll be fine. We shared the mattress in the back of Elvira.”
Reb heard the hesitancy in her voice. Was she trying to convince him or herself? But the truth was he wanted this woman sleeping by his side for the rest of his life. Even if all they ever did was sleep. Well, maybe a bit more than they had managed so far. Cuddling.
Yeah, sex might no longer do much for him. Hell, he sometimes wondered if it ever really had. He had been a nineteen-year-old virgin before that night….
He drew his mind back. That was not something he needed to be thinking about before bed. Especially not if she were going to share this cabin. He did not want to wake her in the middle of the night with his screams.
That was why he rarely allowed himself more than a couple of hours of light sleep. But this time, he knew he did not have that luxury. He was crashing hard. The endorphins that he had been running on for over two days were depleted. He needed sleep, real sleep, to replenish them. And he had to refill them. They may have made it to Agartha, but that did not mean they were safe.
He pointed to the door in the corner, “The bathrooms there. You can change.”
Stacey nodded her head and clutched that backpack closer than ever. But she did as he suggested, slipping inside it.
Reb turned to the futon, unfolding it and grabbing the bedding from the drawer underneath. It took him only a moment to make the bed. He pondered taking a shower once Stacey was done in the bathroom, but he was just too fucking tired to care. He would worry about that shit tomorrow.
He stripped his t-shirt over his head. He unbuttoned his jeans, then paused. Should he keep them on? Would it make her more comfortable? Probably. But he knew that he would not rest as well. Hesitantly he unzipped them and pushed them down his legs. This time he did leave his boxer briefs on, though he generally preferred sleeping naked. When he knew he was safe. Which was rare enough.
But for tonight, he was almost sure they were as safe as they could be in this world. How long they stayed that way? Well, that was the question. But if he was going to face that, he needed sleep. He barely made it beneath the blanket before his eyes closed. All those thoughts were jumbled and mingled in his fucked up brain, but exhaustion won this battle.
***Grandfather’s Ranch, Hill Country, TX***
Ryan stared down at Laura while she slept. In his hand, he held two cups of steaming hot, black coffee. He knew Chloe would be awake soon, and he wanted to be prepared. He had been awake for over an hour already.
He had done a quick run around the immediate vicinity as much for reconnaissance as exercise. Sure, Jaycee had negotiated a deal with Tyler to drop the material witness warrant against Laura in exchange for those files, but that was only half their problem.
In fact, the decision for Jaycee to approach the US Attorney’s office left a trail that could lead straight back to them. Especially since they had no idea who McBride was working for… Hell, they did not even know for sure that Diego Garcia was behind this whole mess. That was conjecture based on hearsay evidence and ‘magic gut.’
Ryan sat the cups down on the table next to the bed. He took a seat on the edge of it as he ran his hands through his still-wet hair. He looked back and forth between his girls, his family. Nine months ago, he would have never imagined that. Family. After growing up the privileged town bastard, he had practically foresworn the idea.
But he had one now. And it was his job to keep them safe. But safe from whom? And how?
He felt the warmth and gentle squeeze of her soft hand over his. “Is that coffee I smell, counselor?”
He picked up a cup and passed it to Laura once she finished arranging the pillows and got herself situated, ready to feed their daughter when Chloe awoke. She took it with a smile, “If there is coffee, it can’t be that bad.”
She blew across the surface, and all Ryan could think about were those lips wrapped around his cock. He cursed himself. She had just given birth to his child four days ago. What kind of misogynistic pervert did that make him? But this woman had captured his mind, and he feared his heart, from the moment he had opened that file. She was never more beautiful to him than now. Her hair mussed with sleep, her eyes still a bit groggy, and the front of her gown wet?
“Laura, I think you might be….” He stuttered over the words as she brought the cup of decaffeinated coffee to her mouth.
Her eyes widened, and she set the cup back on the nightstand with a gasp as she noticed where his eyes had strayed, “Fuck! I’m leaking.”
“But isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that mean your milk has come in? That we won’t need to bottlefeed Chloe?”
“Yes, yes, and yes. But right now, it fucking hurts. It feels like someone is stabbing my tits with a hundred little needles.” She winced, “Wake her up and hand her to me, please.”
He nodded as he walked to the other side of the bed and lifted their still-sleeping daughter from the Moses basket. He passed Chloe to Laura, who, rather than struggling to free one breast at a time from a soaking nightgown, had tossed the thing on the floor. Only the blanket covered her lower body as she brought the baby to her breast.
Unfortunately, Chloe was blissfully asleep. Laura thumped on their daughter’s feet, but that met only with a few angry cries. She finally managed to get the baby attached to her nipple correctly, but after less than half a dozen sucks, Chloe drifted back to sleep.
Tears were coursing down Laura’s cheeks, but he was unsure whether that was from frustration or the pain she described as needles. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Take her,” Laura pushed the baby towards him between giant sobs.
He quickly settled their daughter back in the wicker basket and turned around to her sobbing mother. He gathered Laura in his arms and held her until the tears seemed to give way to hiccups. Slowly he drew back just enough to stare down into her red and swollen face, “What do we do now? What about one of those breast pump thingies?”
Laura seemed a bit shocked at just how much reading he had managed to do, but without a job and the two of them still sleeping half the day away, there was only so much reconnaissance he could do.
“I forgot to pack one in the bug-out bags.”
“Shit, I can text Rex and see if they have bought one yet?”
She chuckled, and it made his heart soar, “That isn’t the kind of thing you borrow, Ryan.”
“So, we’ll get Jaycee another one. We have what six or seven weeks before their baby is due. That’s plenty of time.”
“I know, but your cousin and Jaycee have been so amazing to us. I just don’t want to disturb them this early in the morning. I know she must be exhausted from that journey. And dealing with Tyler…for us. Well, me.”
He brushed the tears away from her cheeks with his thumbs, “Nope, counselor, you had it right the first time – us. But what are we going to do? I would feel funny just rummaging through their stuff looking for one.”
He made the mistake of looking down. Laura’s breasts were huge. Those perky B-cups that he had enjoyed so much that one night in London had swollen with pregnancy to Cs and possibly Ds, but those… Damn, they were double-Ds, at least. And those blue veins that had formed a road map across them were even more prominent this morning. His cock hardened painfully at sight, and he hated himself for his insensitivity.
“Is there anything we can do?”
Laura nodded as she drew the blanket up to cover them, but she quickly dropped it again as the milk started to leak through it, too. “Yeah, let me just get a warm shower. Hopefully, that will relieve some of the pain and pressure. I just don’t want them to get too engorged. That will make it harder for Chloe to feed. And if the milk doesn’t….” Her cheeks flamed even redder.
“What? What is it?”
“If too much milk backs up, I could get a plugged duct or even get sick. That can be just as bad as my milk not coming in at all.”
“Damn, I’ll go into town. They’ll have one at Wally-world, right?”
“You know that it is too risky. We can’t be seen. And you going into town to buy a breast pump is just asking for trouble, especially if….”
“Especially if Garcia’s men were alerted when Jaycee went to Houston? Damn it, what do we do then?”
Stacey was drying her hair with the towel as she stepped back into the main room. She had decided a quick shower was just what she needed after over twenty-four hours on the road. She felt better than she had since Laura’s baby shower. Was that only a few days ago? She had lost all track of time. How late was it anyway?
She stopped; her face broke into a wide smile when she saw him stretched across most of that tiny bed. He was lying primarily on his stomach. His arms stretched out above his head that was turned to the side. In sleep, those worry lines that creased his ruggedly handsome face were less pronounced.
Stacey tiptoed across the small space before she realized that from the loud buzzing coming from the man’s half-open mouth, a bomb could go off, and he would not wake up. Maybe that wasn’t a fair assessment. This man was a former soldier. She was almost sure that a bomb would wake him or gunshots. But not a woman walking across the room.
Reb turned over. The blanket slipped low on his hips, and she was blessed with a view of his bare chest and abdomen. Even though the very idea of sex was petrifying, she could appreciate the raw male beauty, much as she did with the male models on her romance books.
It might seem odd that she read the genre, but Stacey figured fiction was fiction. Most fantasy readers did not believe in trolls, fairies, and leprechauns. So, what was the problem with her escaping into a love story when she did not believe in the emotion?
She studied him closely. She still was not sure what to think about this man. Why was he helping her?
Sure, he was Jack’s friend. But her family had not even been close with Jack in over a decade since he joined the Army. She could understand why the man would agree to help his friend when it was just guarding them at the casino. But he had dropped everything. For her? Why?
Reb turned to his side this time. That sheet slipped lower, revealing a tight ass covered in those boxer brief things that seemed to be in fashion these days. But obviously, she had overestimated how deeply the man slept.
The problem was that, after sleeping practically the whole way from East Texas to Arizona, she was wide awake. Stacey pulled the cell phone from the pocket of her backpack as quietly as she could, but he rolled onto his back this time. She had to admit the chest hair was appealing. Neither Iggy nor asshole had any.
What was she doing standing here admiring a man’s body? It wasn’t like she could ever do anything about it, even if she wanted to. No, she was much too damaged. Besides, sex was highly overrated. At least with men. She had never once orgasmed that way. Not that she had much interest in masturbating either. Once in a while, she watered her desert. That was enough.
But she supposed you did not have to be an artist to appreciate a fine painting. Or, in this case, she thought sculpture would be more accurate. Lean and hard but not over-the-top muscles the way….
Not going down that rabbit hole.
As if he sensed her line of thought, the man rolled over in his sleep again. She would say perhaps Reb was like her and just a light sleeper, but he had not been like this last night in the back of Elvira.
Stacye bit back a chuckle at the name he had chosen for his truck, hell, at naming a damned machine at all. Although, to be fair, all her vehicles had gone by the generic name of Betsy.
He kicked at the covers, and they slipped lower, revealing more of the sexiest ass she had ever seen on a man. Even on the covers of those ebooks.
But there was no doubt her presence was disturbing his sleep. And after all those hours of sleeping on the way here, Stacey knew there was no point lying down next to him. She would not be able to get back to sleep. Besides, having spent most of her adult life working the night shift, this was the body clock that she gravitated towards naturally.
She pushed the button and looked at the notifications on her phone. One new message. Brad and Elena had made it to their sister church in Belize. They were as safe as they could be for now, at least.
She had heard from Mercy earlier when they crossed safely into Mexico. Her youngest had told her that was likely to be the last message she could send for a while. They were taking the SIM card out and hiding it until they needed it. She was supposed to text Laura as soon as they arrived. Stacey looked at the time – a bit after five. The sun would be up in another hour or so.
Reb moaned in his sleep and rolled over, giving her the full view of the first erection she had seen in a quarter of a century. Even if those shorts mostly covered it, she felt her chest tighten, like a baby elephant sat squarely in the middle. Even if she knew he was asleep, she could barely breathe. Stacey reminded herself it was nothing more than a physiological reaction. Besides, this man would never be interested in someone as old as she was, or with her kind of problems. She was safe.
Or as safe as she had been in days, maybe weeks or months, if Laura had been on those people’s radar all along. She should get out of this cabin before she woke him. From what little she had seen of the place when they drove, it was beautiful. Maybe just walk a bit, do some thinking. She was confident that they were as secure as they could be. Otherwise, she knew this man would not be sleeping now.
Stacey turned and slipped from the door into the early morning darkness. The sky was just beginning to lighten with that false dawn. Stacey was not that much of an outdoors person. She had never had the time to go off exploring the wild. She had three girls to raise alone. While she had worked a couple of odd jobs on farms, this is not one of those.
So, she stuck to the path. She looked back the way that they had come, but she knew what lay that way. While it narrowed and appeared a bit rougher in the other direction, it was enough for her to make it out the way, especially if she used her phone as a flashlight. She could not tell that much about the land in the darkness, just enough to know she wanted to explore it more once the sun came up.
She had walked a good five or ten minutes when the path came to an end at the edge of a cliff. The sun was just beginning to lighten the horizon a sliver. It was perhaps the most breathtaking thing Stacey had ever seen. Except, of course, her newborn girls when the doctor put them in her arms.
Then she noticed that she was not alone. A lone figure, female she was pretty sure from the shape, knelt at the very edge of the cliff. Stacey could not make out much in the dim light, but from what she knew growing up as the child of a preacher man, the woman was preying. She started to back away.
“Don’t go,” said the voice that Stacey recognized. Reb’s mother turned to face her. In this early morning light, the woman looked younger than her son.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb your praying or anything,” Stacey stuttered. The woman could not be much older than she was, so why the hell did she make Stacey so nervous? Maybe it was the religion thing? Stacey had never been comfortable around it. Even with Bradley.
The woman threw back her head and laughed. The sound echoed off the canyons that stretched out before them. Stacey was not sure what the woman was laughing about. What had she said that so funny?
She turned and looked behind her, “I’ll just head back. Reb was sleeping, and I did not want to disturb him. So, I thought….” She was rambling even more now.
Celestine Rainbow Moonmother quieted and patted the ground next to her. “Come join me.”
Stacey looked back towards the cabin. Maybe she should go back. But she really did not want to wake him. He had gotten so little sleep the past couple of days. She did not want to offend the woman either. Especially since Reb still had not spoken with his mother about the trouble she was in. Reluctantly she took the few steps to the edge of that ravine.
The ground was incredibly rocky, so the woman knelt on some kind of quilt or blanket. It was still hard to make things out in the dim light. Stacey noticed a small boulder nearby and sat on it.
The woman studied her for a long moment before speaking, “So, my son still has trouble sleeping? The nightmares still plague him.” There was an unmistakable sadness to the woman’s voice as her words ended on a heavy sigh.
It was still hard to imagine that this woman was Reb’s mother. She looked much, much too young. “How old are you?” Stacey could have kicked herself as the words just slipped out. But she had always been like that. Unless she kept her guards incredibly high, thought about every word that she said, things just popped out of her mouth. It had gotten her into lots of trouble as a child.
The woman laughed again, “I am seventy-three, soon to be seventy-four.”
“No fucking way,” Stacey’s hand flew to cover her mouth as words once more bypassed her brain and came unbidden from her lips.
“Yes, I am afraid so,” she rubbed her knees. “Trust me, no matter what the mirror says, these remind me several times a day of my mortality. At least on this plane.”
Was this woman’s mumbo jumbo any different from her father’s or Bradley’s? Not really, and Stacey was much more comfortable dealing with the here and now. The things that she could be sure of. She always had been.
But what would they do if this woman refused to allow them to stay? She had not spoken with Reb about that. She supposed they could head back to the old cabin near Lubbock that had been her original plan, but Reb and the others did not feel Texas was safe for any of them.
As if the woman could sense her thoughts, “I want you to know that you’re welcome here. Agartha is always a place of peace and refuge for those who need it.”
“Agartha? I’ve never heard of that name before. What does it mean?” It seemed a safe enough question in the situation. She would let Reb deal with his mother over the particulars of her situation later. She had no idea how much of the truth he even planned to share with her.
“Like heaven, Olympus, Nirvana, Zion, or Asgard, Agartha is a place of legends. But unlike most of those, it was hidden deep within the earth.”
“Like some sort of hell?” That did not make sense for a place of peace or refuge.
“No, not at all. Agartha was the capital city, an advanced civilization, in the Buddhist tradition of Shambalayah. But they were not the only ones with this idea of a hollow earth. Many of the indigenous cultures of North America believed that man crawled up through a series of caverns from the center of the earth. Even writers like Poe and Jules Verne wrote about ancient cultures. There was even a children’s movie about it a few years ago.”
Her words reminded Stacey of the older man on that conference call, who owned the ranch where Laura and Ryan stayed. She got the feeling that even if these two did not know one another, they would have a lot in common. But before she could say anything more, the woman looked out at the horizon and began to rise.
“I’m sorry I can’t stay and talk with you more. I hope we can find more time to speak before you and Rebel disappear. But I lead the morning meditation group at dawn, so I really must get going. You’re welcome to join us if you like.”
Stacey shook her head and made her polite excuses, “Nah, I ain’t much for religion.”
The woman laughed again, “Good. Neither am I. I’ll see you later then. Breakfast is in the dining hall of Shangrila. That’s what we call the main building. Even if Reb is still sleeping, I hope you’ll join us. Just follow this trail back.” The woman picked up the blanket and gave Stacey a parting smile.
Leaving her alone with the demons. Her mistakes, the pain, and her fears for her daughters and granddaughters. Maybe it would have been better to go to some stupid prayer meeting, meditation, or whatever you wanted to call it than to face all those things alone.
Then again, she reminded herself, she had always borne those burdens alone. Her little girls were not little anymore. And though they were scattered about, she was grateful they were not alone. Each of them had what she never had – someone else to rely upon. Even if she did not even know where they all were, that was some comfort.
Laura stood under the hot spray of water as it jetted over her face, neck, and swollen breasts. The shower was helping at least a bit. She had realized last night that her milk had come in when she felt those ‘pins and needles,’ as Lupe described the let-down reflex. Chloe had struggled a bit to swallow her new bounty but had fallen asleep contentedly after twenty minutes or so. Her newly full tummy was probably why her daughter was sleeping longer this morning.
But that did not help this situation. She had read all about engorgement. She had even purchased two different types of breast pumps. An electrical one and a smaller manual one for travel. She was kicking herself now that she had forgotten to pack either of them. She closed her eyes as more of those cursed tears began to flow. What was she going to do?
“Are you okay? Is it helping?”
She was so caught up in her thoughts that she had not even heard the door open and close. As she turned towards Ryan, she was struck by how the cloud of steam wrapped about his broad shoulder. He still wore only a pair of those skin-tight boxer briefs that left nothing to the imagination.
Down, girl. She had been cursed for months with the hornies. Once the morning sickness and tiredness had passed at the end of her first trimester, she had battled this new malady of pregnancy. It turned out that increased libido was as common as its opposite. But she would have thought that particular affliction would have abated. What woman in her right mind got turned on less than a week after giving birth?
Her, it seemed. Or maybe it was just his presence back in their lives. Until that night in London, she had never considered herself that much of a sexual person. It was like food or shelter, something to be taken care of with the minimal of fuss.
Damn it, why now?
She observed Ryan more closely. She could see his cock thicken and harden beneath the dark material. And while she knew that she was physically not up to the things in her dirty mind, her hormone-laden brain did not seem to agree. Then she noticed where his eyes were glued.
Looking down, she cursed, but the words had not even left her mouth before that stabbing began again. The flow increased from a drop or two to a slight trickle. But it still was not nearly enough to release the intense pressure and pain.
“Fuck!” It was his deep voice that drew her eyes back to his face. He was running his hands through his hair again, his face beet red as he whisper-growled, “I should go.”
“No, don’t.” The words were out of her mouth before she could think. Her blush was as deep as his, though perhaps her deeper olive coloring made it less noticeable, or she hoped so anyway. “Is Chloe still asleep?”
He nodded as he continued to stare at her tits, which caused them to tighten even more painfully. “Damn it, that hurts.”
“Fuck it. I’ll have Jack go into town and….”
“Buy a breast pump? You know that isn’t any better. We have gotten him deep enough into my shit as it is, Ryan.”
“Then finish the shower, and let’s wake up the baby….”
She shook her head, “It isn’t that simple now.”
“What do you mean? You need Chloe to feed, right? Then everything will go back to normal.”
Her breasts felt like boulders attached to her chest. Even though she knew this was perfectly natural and was even prepared for it, that did not help in this situation. “My breasts are too full right now.”
“But isn’t that a good thing?”
Laura was unsure whether she wanted to laugh or cry at the lost boy look on his handsome face. Ryan Ranger took this whole protector thing to a new level. And while the feminist in her protested that it was an archaic throwback to the Neanderthals, she could not deny that some part of her loved the gentle giant that always placed her needs and Chloe’s above his own.
But that was not helping in this situation. Yes, she had been stupid not to remember to pack one of the breast pumps. But hell, she had just given birth less than twenty-four hours before, and she was running for their fucking lives. She would have to give herself a break this time.
That did not solve this problem, though. He could not risk going into town; neither could they send Jack. Grandfather was a possibility. But wouldn’t even that seem weird and raise questions? Breast pumps were not generally the type of baby gifts that old men gave their grandchildren. Besides, at this point, things were getting critical. A three-hour or more roundtrip into town was a long time as uncomfortable as she was now.
“Laura, what do you want me to do?” When she looked up, Ryan was closer, just on the other side of the glass shower door. Her heart hitched at the genuinely pained expression as if he could not stand helplessly by.
“Relieve the pressure,” again, those words bypassed her brain.
He frowned, “How do I do that?”
She looked down, noticing that she could see the tips of her toes for the first time in over three months. But that did not help her to get out of this uncomfortable situation. “Never mind, just check on Chloe, please. I’ll be there in a couple more minutes.”
Maybe once he left, she could try the manual expression again. Perhaps the warmth of the shower would help. If she could just manage to express enough so that it was not painfully full, it would make it easier for Chloe to feed and do the rest.
She felt those fingers firmly beneath her chin, lifting her face until she got lost in those remarkable baby blues. She knew that genetically it was unlikely their daughter would inherit blue eyes, but she could hope.
“I’ll do anything to help, Laura. I can’t stand seeing you in pain like this. At least when Chloe was born, I was too busy delivering her. I didn’t feel useless and helpless….” She felt the conviction in each word he spoke. “Just tell me what to do, please.”
Laura was not sure what prompted her to say it aloud. Perhaps it was that frustrated and powerless look in his eyes, “Suck my tits.”
But his quick intake of breath had her doubting herself and on the edge of tears as she turned her head to the wall.
Jack watched the sunrise over the rocky hills. He had been here far longer than he intended. Of course, he knew that George Strongbear had everything well under control, probably better than he could. After all, the man and council elders had run the whole damned thing for weeks while he finished out his enlistment. It was more that they needed a set of eyes and ears in Sebida to keep a watch on Kerr.
Besides, his time was ticking away to find his bride. He brought the cup of steaming black coffee to his lips. It was no longer even about his grandfather’s will and maintaining control of the casino. Hell, between the economy, this new virus, and Kerr’s harassment, the damned thing was losing money. Maybe it was time to let it go. It was a relic of another era. Certainly not a part of his heritage that he took great pride in.
“I know my son, but Joseph thought he was doing the right thing.”
Jack shook his head. He should have known. His great uncle always seemed to know when he was troubled. “I know. I listened to that speech often enough. Only right to use the white man’s greed against him. But it never was like that. Most of the people that come to the casino are hardworking, barely getting by. They buy into a fantasy and a few brief moments of escape. More often than not, with money, they can’t afford to lose. How is that upholding our proud Native American heritage, Grandfather?”
The old man nodded as he brought his cup of coffee to his lips. Ray Greywolf stared off, too, as another day of uncertainty began. “I am not the best person to ask, Jack. My brother and I had that same conversation many times. We never did agree. All I can say is that he believed that what he did was for the good of our people.”
“Maybe. Perhaps it was – four decades ago. But that was before I was even born. I know that my mother… I remember how much she resented….” Jack seldom spoke about the woman who had given birth to him.
That was all she was to him. She had certainly not been any kind of mother, so eaten up with anger and hatred towards the man who would raise him that her life was wasted in the bottom of a whiskey bottle or whatever drugs she could get her hands on.
That was another part of his dilemma. Jack hated dealing with drunks. Especially drunk women. It always brought back those feelings of inadequacy and helplessness.
“Your mother never stood a chance, my son. A sapling cannot grow strong and straight when the winds of hatred buffet it. We were always grateful that you were so young….”
“When she died?” The laughter ate like acid at the back of Jack’s throat. “Maybe it is all for the best. Perhaps I’m just not cut out for….”
“Love? Oh, my son, we are all created to love. The problem is hatred is its dark twin. It can be so alluring, so easy to succumb to its wiles. But we all have that choice to make, Jack. Do we hang on to love, or do we give in to the call of hate?”
“We face that choice every day. Sometimes in big ways that we recognize, but more often than not, it is in little choices that we make without thinking. Don’t give in to the hate, my son.”
Jack’s throat tightened even more, his vision blurred, and his hands shook as he sat the cup on the porch railing in front of him. “Maybe we’re cursed? Have you considered that, old man? Perhaps this family, or at least my side of it, isn’t meant for marriage, love, and happiness? Hell, the only ‘love’ I ever saw destroyed one of the greatest men I knew. I believe it even killed him in the end.”
“I should get going. The drive back won’t be as long, but it will still take a couple of hours. Will you tell Laura and Ryan I said goodbye?”
“Don’t you want to stay for breakfast? Tell them yourself, Jack?”
Jack choked on envy and jealousy that ran so deep it bordered on the hatred about which this man spoke. The last thing he wanted or needed right now was to watch helplessly from the outside, looking in on the love and happiness that Rex and Ryan had found. Then again, he had always been the one lagging behind. The one that never measured up. The average kid surrounded by heroes.
He passed the cup to the old man as he shook his head, “No.”
“Your day will come.”
He wanted to scream, rant, and rail. When? When would anything good ever happen to the unwanted little boy of the unwanted woman? She had never even known which of her Johns fathered him. No, those things just were not meant for the likes of him. No matter how much he wanted them.
He turned his back and walked towards the van before his great uncle could see the tears that he did not even bother to hold back. Sure, the old man knew he was crying. Hell, Raymond Greywolf probably knew all his secrets, and he had some doozies, but knowing them and seeing them were two different things.
No, he would go back to Sebida. He would keep an eye out on Kerr. Hell, maybe he should give the man what he wanted? It would certainly provide them with an insider’s view. But once this was over… Once his cousin’s family and Laura’s were safe, perhaps he should re-enlist? Maybe he’d get lucky, and bullet or bomb would end it all? Hell, maybe Kerr would do the honors first?
Because as brilliant as the old fucker was, he got this one wrong. Love was not for everyone. Sometimes, for some people, it was a dream that was never meant to be. He would be the last of a long line of them. But he would be the last. Except for that one small glimpse, but he refused to dwell on that. On her. On the sweetest of traps.
Ryan felt like his head would explode. The only question was – which one. “Fuck.”
The feminine chuckle from beneath the spray lightened the load in his heart and mind, at least a little bit. But Laura’s words did nothing to assuage the need racing through his blood, “Trust me, I wish we could. Probably more than you do.”
He ran his fingers through his hair as he tried to figure this one out. “I don’t think that is possible, sweetheart.”
His gut tightened with self-loathing when she turned back towards him. He could see the tears running down her cheeks. Laura even felt it necessary to cover her tits with her arms and place her hands over the place that was as close to heaven as he would ever come.
“No one tells you that pregnancy hormones make you horny as hell. I’ve killed three rabbits.”
“This conversation is killing me, counselor.” He watched as a thin line of whiteish liquid trickled from beneath her arm. “Were you serious?”
“It’s just….” Her skin turned redder from her cheeks to those tits that were the center of this debate. And Ryan knew that had less to do with the water temperature and more to do with this topic.
“The only thing is….” He laughed. It seemed this subject was just as uncomfortable for both of them. Maybe it wouldn’t be if they had been together longer. But hell, this was the mother of his child. The woman that had captured his mind and heart from the pages of an agency file. Hell, they had managed to pee in front of each other. Was this any different?
“Okay, so how does this work?” He blushed this time as their eyes met, “I mean, I know… Or I think I….”
Laura’s laughter rolled over him like a gentle caress, “Oh, trust me, you know, counselor.”
He joined her in laughter that surged from his gut like a dam bursting, taking the tension and unease with it. “That’s good to know. And in a bit more than five weeks, I fully intend to remind you of that fact, sweetheart. But this isn’t exactly the same, is it?”
“I mean, Chloe will wake up in a bit. I want there to be enough for her.” He was back to that uncomfortable territory.
“Tell you what, counselor, how about you strip and get in the shower. If you’re serious about helping out, that is.”
Ryan looked down at his boxer briefs that were already stretched taut over his erection. “Just remember what I said that first night in the shower, okay? There’s not much I can do to stop how my body reacts to you.”
“And that’s a problem, how? Yes, my girlie bits might be out of commission for a bit longer. But would it help you to know that my brain isn’t? That I want you, too.”
Those words only fanned the flames to the point that he no longer cared if they consumed him. He shucked the briefs and stepped into the shower with her. The water was warm but definitely not hot enough to account for the rosy tint to her olive skin.
“So, counselor, how do we do this? I mean, as I said, I don’t want to….”
“On your knees, counselor.”
Fuck, why did those words make the traitor twitch with need? But Ryan did not hesitate to kneel before her. It felt surprisingly natural.
“Okay, the objective is to release enough of the pressure that the damned things don’t feel like boulders, so Chloe will be able to latch on properly. You don’t have to swallow if it freaks you out too much. It’s okay if you need to spit it out,” she stammered.
“Don’t think that’s happening, darling. Any more than you spit yesterday morning.” His hands reached out to cup her breasts. Laura was right. They were hard as rocks, not at all the sweet apples they had been that night so long ago. But no less tempting.
“Let me know if I hurt you. If I do it wrong.” Ryan looked up at Laura for reassurance as he lowered his head and captured her tight nipple between his lips. The sweetness almost exploded on his tongue. He understood then what she meant as even he had trouble swallowing the richness fast enough. No way that their daughter could have.
But he was not prepared for the loud moan that rumbled beneath his hands. He could feel it from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, but in one particular part of his anatomy especially. He might need to find a couple of moments alone after this.
Her fingers laced through his hair as she drew him closer. Forced him against her bursting flesh, “That feels so fucking good.”
Something in the way Laura said those words made him think that it was more than just the fact that he could feel a slight softening in the breast that he suckled. But her next words shattered what was left of his brain and willpower.
His mouth dropped open in shock, but the milk that he had unleashed continued to spurt into his open mouth as she stared down into his eyes, “Rub your cock.”
“Fuck, woman,” he sputtered through the haze of surprise and milk that continued to drench his face.
“Afraid that will have to wait a while, counselor. But I want to watch you come. I told you to stroke your dick. And I meant it….”
It was an order that he longed to obey. His hand wrapped around his shaft as he leaned back in to suckle more.
“No, the other one.” Laura lifted her other breast and presented it to him.
Now he was the one who was groaning and whimpering as her sweetness filled his mouth, heart, and soul. Only his mind raged in conflict as he suckled and stroked. The pleasure was intense, but then again, everything was with this woman. His woman.
It did not take him long before ropes of thick semen spurted onto her calf and flowed down her leg to pool in the tub before being washed down the drain.
Her fingers in his hair tightened almost painfully as she jerked his head up. Ryan held on to her nipple and continued to swallow more of the richness, but it was not easy.
“Did I tell you that you could come, counselor?”
His cock twitched in his hand, and he moaned around the engorged nipple as her dark eyes never left his. “Next time, you will not come until I give you permission, is that understood?”
He nodded his head against her flesh, but Laura was not satisfied. She took a single step back, and her nipple slipped from his mouth. “Do you understand me, Ryan?”
“Yes, ma’am,” was all he could manage to blubber as she turned off the water.
“Okay, that should do. For now.” She reached for the towel that she had hung nearby and wrapped it about her.
He wasn’t sure what to do, or hell, even what had just happened. But he knew one thing, his cock liked it. The damned thing was hard again, even though he would have sworn he just drained his balls of a lifetime of cum. He looked around for another towel but did not see one.
His next thought fled his addled brain when he felt those soft hands wrap around his flesh. “Good. Then since he seems more than ready, what say we practice. Back in our room, counselor. I want to suck your cock the way you sucked my tits. But this time, you can’t come until I say so. Now, put your shorts back on and follow me.”
At the moment, he would have followed her to the ends of the earth. Hell, he would anyway. But damn, this side of her did something to him. Something he was not ready to explore too closely, not yet. He had better things to do, like concentrating on not coming too quickly. He had a feeling that might require all his efforts if that look in Laura’s eyes was any indication.
Reb would kill for a cup of coffee. But he knew the best he could hope for was some intense herbal tea crap here. He did not care what his mother said, that Yerba Mate and Rooibos shit would never be as good as a cuppa Joe. And bacon. He was going to miss his bacon and burgers. His mother employed the best chef, but nothing made tofu, beans, or mushroom mush taste like a good juicy burger.
It would have to do for now, though. There was no way he could risk one of his usual jaunts into Sedona for ‘real’ food. Now that they were safely here, this was where they stayed. Until the shit settled, and he heard from Jack or that Ryan guy. Or until…
Damn, he needed to talk to his mother. He looked across the dining room to the ‘family’ table, where she and whichever of his fathers and siblings were around, usually took their meals. He knew he should not be, but he was a bit shocked to see Stacey laughing at something his sister Indie said.
He was happy to see that Barry was there, but not Edward. Would he ever get over his anger with that man? Probably not. He had done his best to destroy their family, after all. But Reb knew he really should not allow his issues with the man to taint his relationship with his younger brother. But it did. Or maybe it was the fact that Malcolm was so much like his father?
None of that mattered, though. Reb could not allow his fucked up family history to confuse this situation. He needed his mother and this place. That meant he was prepared to play nice for once, even with Edward and Malcolm if he must.
But who was the youngish guy with them? He was probably with Indie. However, his little sister had always been more into her studies of the metaphysical than men. Then again, she was what? Thirty-nine? Forty? Not that she looked it. The women in his family aged well.
He, on the other hand, had gotten his looks from Barry or perhaps Mike. Though he had always believed that Barry was more likely to be his father. It was not just that they looked more alike, but they had similar personalities and likes. The whole working with your hands and building shit thing must have come from somewhere.
Though, he knew his mother would point to nurture over nature. Barry had undoubtedly had more to do with raising him and Indie than either his mother or Mike, who were always off to some dig or conference somewhere.
Either way, it was time to face the music. And without fucking coffee, no less. Damn, he knew there were reasons he never fit in this place. He did his best to force a smile as he crossed the room to the ‘family’ table. Barry sat to one side of his mother and the other guy on her other. Indie was on the other side of the new guy, and Stacey sat next to Barry.
“Good morning, Mother.” He greeted her as he nodded to the older man, “Barry.”
“Good to see you, son.” Reb knew that DNA had nothing to do with the man claiming him, that the love and care of a lifetime meant more.
He walked over to his little sister and held open his arms. “Indie,” he was not prepared for the giant bulge that obstructed their hug. “Wow,” was the extent of his vocabulary.
His sister laughed and punched him lightly in the stomach, “That’s what happens when you don’t come around very often, Rebel.”
He held out his hand to the man that sat next to her, “Congratulations.”
The guy shifted nervously in his chair, and his mother blushed. “I’m sorry, Rebel. There has been some confusion. This is Mason. He’s my….”
Reb shook his head as he looked at the man who might be his age but was probably closer to Indie’s. “What the fuck, Mother?”
His sister chuckled, and Barry gave him one of those stares, “Son….”
It was Stacey, who looked down at the bowl of granola and whatever passed for milk around here these days, that made Reb hold his tongue. He inhaled and held out his hand to the man who was probably screwing his mother. He cringed at the thought. But they needed his mother’s help. Agartha was the safest option.
“Mason, this is my son, Rebel Za….”
“Reb will do just fine,” he stopped his mother’s little speech this time. There was only so much a man could handle.
He walked around the table, bending to kiss his mother’s cheek before taking the chair next to Stacey. She bit her bottom lip and looked up at him. They would have to talk later. It might be good that he wanted to get away for a couple of days to reacquaint himself with the M40. Not only did he need to come to terms with using a gun, having someone in his life, and all the other shit that was happening, but now this. And that did not even take into account the ‘little’ chat he needed to have with his woman.
He had no sooner sat down than some young girl brought over a steaming cup of… Maybe it was best if he did not know. He picked it up and took a sip. This one almost tasted like coffee. Almost. The bowl of grass flakes, fruit, and nuts that the woman sat in front of him made his stomach plead for bacon and eggs. But he knew it was futile to even think about it.
He had to admit that whatever passed for milk these days was a vast improvement on the last time he had visited. It was thicker, creamier, and sweeter. Almost edible even. He was on his third bite of purgatory when his sister spoke, “So, how long are you going to be with us this time, big brother?”
Reb finished chewing, which with grass took longer than expected. He turned towards his mother, “I don’t know. I need to discuss some things with Mother.”
Celestine Rainbow Moonmother shook her head, “I figured we could talk about whatever is bothering you now, Rebel. You know, decisions are always communal.”
“This is not the place, Mother.”
“Then, whenever you are done, we can all go to the office. But as I told you last night, this is your home. You and your friend are welcome for as long as you want or need. No matter what.”
He nodded as he put his spoon down. Four bites of grass and too sweet goop was about his limit anyway. One good thing was that stuff sat on your stomach all day, filling you up or at least making you think you were. “Let’s go then,” he stood.
Stacey started to step away. This was family business. Maybe she could explore a bit more of this place.
Even her dark thoughts this morning had not been able to diminish the sheer natural beauty of the sunrise over that red desert. She had always thought of deserts as brown and lifeless, but this one seemed to sparkle with reds, oranges, and the purples of dawn, at least from a distance. She had rarely seen anything as beautiful.
Hell, she probably never had. She had to admit this place had a serenity about it. Something she had never known in her almost six decades on this planet.
She had to remind herself that it was all an illusion. There was no peace or solace to be found on this earth. At least not for her. And whatever hocus-pocus this woman was peddling was just as fake and useless as her father’s Jesus bullshit.
So, why did the woman exude such calm, tranquility, and composure? It was something her father definitely lacked. Though Bradley had the beginnings of the same, perhaps given time, he too would develop such presence of peace.
But there was nothing tranquil or peaceful about the situation she and her girls found themselves in. She could not forget that. Not even here. And she knew that Reb wanted to speak to his mother to explain that.
Maybe they were wrong? Perhaps they should not have come here at all? She hated the danger and potential violence that they brought with them to this place that, if there were such a thing, Stacey would call it sacred.
She reached out her hand and placed it on his arm, “Maybe we should just go….”
Reb smiled tightly and tugged lightly until she stood next to him. He casually draped his arm across her shoulder. It was strange, but for the first time, a man touching her did not bother her. Hell, it was sort of nice. Whether it was this place or a bit of his mother in the man, she felt that same stillness and peace.
“Come on, sweetheart.”
“This is a family thing. I don’t want to intru….”
His laughter sent those funny tinkles shooting up her spine, “I have no idea how that one feels, do I? Now, get your cute butt up those stairs.”
He used his head to indicate another spiral staircase just outside the open patio doors. Though his mother remained nearby, greeting people as she made her way across the room, his sister and the other two men were already heading that way.
Stacey contemplated arguing, but he was right. She had dragged him into this mess, well, Jack had, on her behalf. Reb had been just as vocal as she had been in the teleconference with her girls and those other people. No, it was only fair that she face whatever was to come by his side.
She nodded and made her way across the intricate terracotta tile floor. It was easier to keep her head down, looking for some pattern in the seemingly random arrangement of hues, than it was to think about what was to come.
She did not belong here. These people were primarily rich executive types like Laura used to work with. They were probably trying to get away from that stress for a few days. And she was….
Trailer trash. She had never let that word bother her before. She had not worried about what anyone else thought about her. Not since that day outside the courthouse in Houston, when the government attorneys had revealed Iggy’s other family, and her parents had walked out. To hell with what anyone thought. She had done whatever she had to keep her daughters safe.
Stacey shivered, and it had nothing to do with the early morning mountain breeze that blew off that desert. She stopped outside the door, at the foot of those stairs that climbed to the second floor of this stone and glass edifice. No, she did not belong.
“Please, just take me back. Drop me off at the cabin near Lubbock.”
He stared down at her, and then he brushed his finger tenderly down her nose. It should have irritated her, whether the touch of man or the familiarity of the caress, but she found herself leaning into him. And that scared her more than just about anything except losing her girls.
This man was getting to her. But now was not the time to consider why. Despite all those hours of sleep, Stacey was tired. Exhausted in a way that slumber could never quench. Bone tired of life itself. Defeated by it. If it weren’t for her girls….
Then she felt it. That balm of repose and reconciliation. She turned and gazed into the smiling face of love itself. Maybe that was why this woman did not look her age? Perhaps such things were timeless?
Stacey shook her head; what the fuck was she thinking? She knew better than to believe or trust such bull shit. The only thing you could rely on was yourself.
But the hand that rested firmly at the small of her back and that smile called her a liar.
“Come on, you two. The others are waiting. Let’s get whatever needs to be said out in the open so we can get on with our lives.” The woman ascended the stairs. Her loose, gauzy dress flowing about her made it almost appear as if she floated.
He leaned his forehead against hers, “You know that isn’t a good idea, darlin.’ Trust me; I understand how you feel. My mother’s Age of Aquarius shit has never sat well with me, either. But this is the best option. You know that.”
He did not understand. He did not get it. It was not that all of this did not ‘sit well’ with her, but that its false veneer appealed too much to her. She found herself wanting to give in to those illusions of serenity, hope, and love that this place and this man brought forth in her.
But life had proved to her that shit was not real. Or if it was, then it was not meant for the likes of her. Plain old trailer trash had no place in this world. Especially as broken and damaged as she was.
But she found herself climbing those stairs anyway. His hand at the small of her back guided and reassured her.
Reb’s mind was shattered. He had not really slept. The dreams were back. More vivid than ever. This place always did that to him.
Reb could not remember ever having those kinds of dreams until they moved here. He had been nine, and Indie was six or seven. They had lived their whole lives in the Bay Area. Mike was completing his Ph.D. in sociology, and their mother was lecturing and doing research in what would today be called gender studies or some such shit. While Barry played Mister Mom to them and tinkered with his sculpture on the side. They had been happy. Well, as happy as any family with one mother and two fathers could be.
Then he had gotten into a fight at school. Some older kid was picking on Indie about their ‘unusual’ family. The bullies had learned quickly not to screw with him, but this one was new, and he did not realize that she was Reb’s sister. He had broken the little shit’s nose and been expelled in the process. He was probably lucky. These days he might have ended up in juvie for assault. But back then, it was more boys will be boys.
Except that shit never flew with his mother or even Mike. Their whole academic careers had been centered on discovering some link to our utopian past in pre-history. Hell, his mother’s thesis had become a best seller. Her vision of a more egalitarian society, which was matriarchal rather than domineering, hierarchal, and paternalistic, was eaten up by the feminist tide.
That fight had been the impetus. His mother had been feeling unsettled in the city for some time. Not even their urban homestead with its lush garden of organic produce that she and Barry grew together brought her calm anymore. It was time to move on, she said.
So, they had. Almost the moment that Mike walked in that fancy gown across the stage to get his degree, they had packed up the essentials in a battered old VW van and set out to find their ‘home.’ They had headed north first, to Oregon and Washington. It had been a great adventure. At first.
But by the end of the summer, they had traveled much of America. And the adults were as weary and unsettled as the children. Barry had talked their mother into returning to Oakland, at least for the time being. He would home educate them while she returned to her teaching post and writing. Maybe Mike could find something as well. It was all agreed.
Until they stood on this mountain.
None of that ancient history mattered, though. Right now, all that mattered was her. Keeping Stacey safe. And for that, he would eat all the crow necessary with his mother.
His eyes drifted to the younger man. Mason, that was it. Reb resented the hell out of his presence at this ‘family’ meeting. What right did the man have to be here? Usually, he would have said just that.
And if his mother would not listen, he’d pack up and leave. Not speak to her for months or years. It was what he had done with Edward. As soon as he was old enough to go, he had. How could such an otherwise intelligent woman have such shitty taste in men?
This time he could do none of that. He needed his mother’s help. And for Stacey, he’d do anything. Even bite his damned tongue around the woman who had given birth to him.
He stood back and motioned Stacey into the office. Or what passed for one around here. The walls along each side were lined with shelves and thousands of books that his mother had collected over the years. Many of them rare. Their subjects ranged from ancient history to mythology to magic to metaphysics, psychology, and philosophy. Of course, there were others on sociology and anthropology as well.
Even more spectacular than her book collection was the window wall that looked out over the painted desert punctuated with a lush waterfall oasis. Glass doors opened onto a balcony filled with vibrant green edibles. The last time he had been here over a year ago, Indie boasted that Agartha was practically self-sufficient now. It had been his mother’s and Barry’s dream for as long as he could remember.
Damn, this was a bad idea. But as many painful memories as this place held, Reb knew that it was their best option, perhaps their only viable one.
His mother took one of the oversized cushions by the window. There were probably a dozen of them strewn about the area. Barry and that man sat on others. Reb was worried about how Indie would manage, but he had forgotten how fully his baby sister had embraced the life that their mother espoused, unlike either of her sons. After a lifetime of yoga, she made sitting crossed-legged on the overstuffed pillow look easy, even as pregnant as she was. A thought occurred to him, “When is the baby due?”
“Babies. I’m having twins. And not for another two months, but they will probably come early. I’m hoping to make it another month.” His sister truly did glow. He wanted to ask her dozens of questions about the father, but that too could wait.
One disadvantage of not keeping in touch with your family seemed to be surprise nieces or nephews and your mother’s new lover that was younger than you. He wondered what else was in store.
“Okay, Rebel, what is this all about?”
It was Barry’s baritone that brought him back to the issue. But now that everyone’s attention was centered on him, he was not sure what to say. Maybe he should have spoken quietly to his mother last night? But it was too late to worry about that.
He drew Stacey towards the cushions, and they took ones across from his mother. “We need a place to hang low for a bit, Mother.”
Reb turned and stared at the man. He fought back a retort. Thankfully, his mother handled that question.
“This is Rebel’s home. As I told him already, he and whoever he wishes to bring here are always welcome. No questions asked. For as long as he wants or needs.” The look that she gave the man said that settled the matter.
Nonetheless, Reb needed to explain in detail the risks they brought with them, especially now with Indie pregnant. “Stacey’s family has run into a bit of trouble in Texas. And I need a safe, quiet place for her to stay until things get settled.”
“What kind of trouble, son?” Once more, Reb was relieved that it was Barry who asked the tricky question.
He looked over at Stacey, uncertain how to explain it to them. But she decided to tackle that issue herself, “My oldest daughter was General Counsel for McBride Industries until nine months ago.”
She looked his mother in the eye as she spoke, “She was not part of any of it. But the feds, and whoever McBride was messing with, don’t know that. A few days ago, a federal agent showed up to question her.”
Stacey smiled at his sister, “Just as she went into labor. With the man’s baby. They had met when he was undercover.”
She dropped her head and began to fidget with her hands. He could see that this part was incredibly hard for her. He turned to his father, the only one in the room that he was comfortable sharing these details with, “The shit hit the fan. There’s a leak in the investigation somewhere, and Ryan, the agent, could not trust the government with his family.”
His father nodded. Reb knew that the man understood. It might have been almost fifty years, but Reb was not the only Marine in the room. This man has always been his hero as much as his father.
Honor, Perseverance, Spirit, and Heart. This man embodied all of the highest ideals of the unit to which he belonged. What few people other than he and his mother knew was that Barry had spent close to a decade not merely in the Corps but was part of the legend that was MCTU #1, Marine Corps Test Unit #1. Those boots were incredibly large ones to fill. Ones that his son never had or never would.
But his failures as a Marine was not the issue here either. “He took his family into hiding. At least until they can figure out who they can trust and cut some deal.”
His father nodded, “But he’s worried about collateral damage?”
“Yes, sir. Ryan tried to get all of Laura’s family safely into hiding. That worked fine for Stacey’s middle daughter and her family, but her younger daughter ran into a bit of trouble.”
He was unsure how to proceed with the next bit, especially as he was reluctant to trust the new guy. What did anyone know about him?
“It’s okay, son. Mason was a mere SEAL, but the man can be trusted.”
Reb was not sure what to think about this latest revelation. He had taken the man for another of his mother’s gym-rat executive types looking to destress, but just because he had a military background did not mean he could be trusted. Reb had learned that lesson the hard way, and sometimes he swore he could still taste the grit of that sand in his mouth.
But he did not have much choice. He might not trust the other man, but he did his father. “The sheriff where they live is as crooked as a mountain road switchback. He came after Stacey’s youngest daughter. Whether the feds wanted her as leverage to use against her sister or it was someone working with McBride’s people who gave the orders, we don’t know.”
He glanced to Stacey, and she nodded before speaking for herself once more, “Mercy shot the man.”
He watched the look of shock, especially on Indie’s face. There had always been something naïve about his baby sister. The girl always saw the best in everyone and everything. Stacey must have noticed as well, “She didn’t kill him or even hurt him that bad. But he went after her. Put out APBs nationwide.”
Reb saw his mother, who had remained mostly silent, nod. “Is she somewhere safe?”
He reached across and took her hand, squeezing it gently as he watched the tears begin to fall. Stacey could only seem to shake her head, so he continued the story, “No. Some of the things that the sheriff said, well, her daughter went undercover.”
He looked once more at the one man he knew would understand this situation, “I’m sure you understand why I can’t say any more.”
His father nodded, but Reb once more battled that rage as the younger man interjected, “Is she wanted too?”
“Mason…” At least, his mother seemed to keep this new puppy on some sort of leash. Maybe the woman had learned that lesson. Even if the last one had almost torn their ‘family’ apart.
Still, Reb found it almost impossible to remain seated when the man nodded and lifted his mother’s hand, bringing it to his lips in a blatant show of ownership. The man obviously wanted to make this a pissing contest over his mother’s loyalties. Not that Reb cared enough to bother.
“I know, Cellie, but you realize we have others to consider here as well.”
“It’s okay. We’ll leave. I don’t want to bring anyone else into my mess….” Reb was on the verge of strangling the man as Stacey’s tears fell harder.
But it was the one person in the room that he adored who finally spoke, “Let me explain, Reb. A few months ago, Agartha joined a network of safe houses. With the way things are going, we felt that it was important that this place of refuge be more than just a retreat for the wealthy. That we put into practice the beliefs and ideals that mother has always stood for.”
He nodded, a bit too shocked at this latest to respond as his sister continued. “Mostly, we provide shelter, safety, and a place to recover for victims of domestic abuse. Occasionally, we also house refugees, political or economic, families, or single mothers and their children.”
Indie turned to Stacey, “So, you see, you have come to the right place. Whatever we can do, whatever support you need, we are here for you. In addition to my mother’s yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, I head up a team of three counselors with special training in abuse, rape, and PTSD. If we can be of any help while you’re here, please let us know.”
Reb turned so that his back was mainly towards the others. He loved his sister, even his mother. But sometimes, it was hard not to scream and wail. Rape was a crime against women. It was how society saw things. And most definitely, how feminists such as Indie and his mother perceived the whole thing.
Then the ‘experts’ wondered why there were no reliable statistics on the male victims of rape. Because the stigma made him a victim every single moment since that night. There was no way in hell he’d ever tell anyone about what happened.
He had lost count of the number of military shrinks they had sent him to. The only reason they had not given him a dishonorable discharge was his one-hundred percent kill rate. They needed his skills. No one was better at the distance shot than he was. No one.
But once they began to withdraw from the mess, the Army had been just as happy as the Marines to wash its hands of the problem. Then again, Reb had not wanted their ‘help.’ But just once, he’d like to see some attention and resources given to other men like him. Especially the young ones. Even if it was much too late for him.
Hell, he’d lived with that shit over half his life. He had relived every single painful, helpless moment thousands upon thousands of times. Without a single shrink ever questioning why. All of them just assumed his job was the source.
Reb knew, though. He was so damned good at that job because every damned time he had someone in the site of his gun, their faces transformed in those others. He had killed those three over and over again. He had even pulled the trigger a few times on that DI that he was almost certain had encouraged the attack.
Not going down the hole…
Reb did not have time for that shit now. And never around his mother or sister. What would be the fucking point? They’d just quote those inaccurate fucking statistics that showed women so much more likely to be victims of sexual assault.
He breathed deeply, cleared his mind, and turned back to the group. “Thanks, Indie, maybe when we get back.”
“Back? You just got here, Rebel.”
He was not letting his mother get started, “I am taking Stacey and going off camping for a couple of days.”
His mother shook her head, “The woman has been through so much….”
“Cellie, I’m sure that our son knows what he is doing.” He could always count on his father, but he was not sure what to make of the look that he exchanged with the man.
“Thank you all for your support.” For the first time, Stacey reached for him. Her fingers laced with his and squeezed. She even forced a smile, “But Reb is right. Some time away from people is just what I need right now.”
His mother looked from him to Stacey, then back again, “Alright, well, if you’re sure. When did you want to leave, Rebel? What can we do? What supplies do you need?”
“Don’t worry, Mother. I have all we’ll need in the back of my truck.” He looked to Stacey, “We’ll leave as soon as you’re ready.”
He could see that Indie wanted to argue, perhaps even his mother. But it was his father that ended it, “Well, whatever the reason, you know I’m always glad to see you, son.” The man rose, perhaps more slowly than he had the last time Reb had visited, but probably much better than most men his age.
The other man approached him if a bit cautiously. Mason held out his hand, “I’m sorry if we got off on the wrong foot somehow. It’s just that….”
“This project is special to Mason,” his mother placed her hand on the other man’s shoulder and smiled softly at him. “Mason’s younger sister and her children were murdered by her husband.”
Reb saw the man stiffen at those words. He understood; he got the point. Maybe women were more often the victims of domestic violence and rape, but why the hell did it have to be some fucking competition? And why the hell were male victims turned away from the support they needed just as much as the women did? Where were the shelters and support groups for men? A handful in big cities. That was it.
Male victims in prisons or the military, as he had been, had virtually no recourse to justice, even if they did find the courage he had lacked to report it. And at least one study had shown when the definition of sexual assault was modified to include coerced or too drunk to consent, there was no difference between men and women. But that evidence did not meet with society’s preconceived notions of gender roles.
Trans persons were at the highest risk, but where did they go for support? The women’s services, such as his mother’s and sister’s, usually excluded those not born with penetrable vaginas. And how discriminatory to force a transwoman to access that handful of male support services?
Reb felt his leg begin to twitch. He felt the utter helpless anger and frustration rising inside of him. Yes, he was glad that they had offered his woman the support that Stacey had not been able to find or access in Sebida. He did not begrudge her or other women that. But dammit, would anyone ever realize men could be raped too?
He knew that he needed to get the hell out of there. Before he exploded. And ruined everything. He could do this. For her sake. Stacey was what mattered now. The only damned thing that did or had since that night in the fucking sand. He could feel the grit in his nose. How much longer would he be able to breathe? But maybe that was for the best? If he just died here…
He felt the hand on his shoulder, and he moved without thinking. Did what they had trained him to do…
Until he found himself with his hand wrapped around his father’s throat. Barry’s lips were turning blue. The other man was trying to pull him off. He released the chokehold. He scanned the faces in that room, seeing disgust in each of them. But none as deep as the self-loathing he felt at that moment.
He looked at her. Stacey’s head was down, but he caught glimpses of the tears trailing down her cheeks. What was he fucking thinking? He was no good for anyone or anything. But he had gotten her here. They would keep her safe. Protect her. Maybe that was why he had stuck around this long? To bring her here.
But no more. He would not put her, his father, or anyone else at risk ever again. “I’m sorry. Take care of Stacey.” He stared into eyes so like his own. The only ones that were not full of shock, fear, and loathing. “I’m sorry, dad,” were Reb’s final words as he punched the other man in the solar plexus and ran out of the room.
The room was utter chaos. Everyone was speaking at once. The older woman, Reb’s mother, had her arms wrapped about the man that, as much as Stacey could tell, was his father. The younger woman had her hand protectively cupping her abdomen as if the babies had witnessed it all. And the other man just hovered.
She was not sure what had happened exactly. But she knew one thing. He needed her. The man that had been her salvation was in as much trouble as she was. And something told her that she was the only one that could reach him now. That the two of them, though broken, were stronger together.
Stacey turned to leave without saying a word. The younger woman reached for her, “Where are you going?”
She shook the hand off her arm, “To find Reb.”
Indie, that was her name, shook her head, “No, you can’t. Obviously, it’s not safe. Better if we just leave it. Give my brother some time. He has always done this. Gone off on his own to think.”
Stacey felt the anger rising at the callousness and complete lack of compassion in the woman. No wonder he had not wanted to come back here.
But it was the older man, his father, who responded. “For all those fancy degrees, sometimes you can be foolish, girl.” He turned to the older woman, “I’m going with her after my son. And maybe while we’re gone, you both ought to do a bit of meditating on things.”
“That boy has been running from something most of his life. And it don’t add up. His problems with Edward, his military career, I understand all of that leaves its mark. But this goes deeper. And it’s about damned time, someone found out the truth.”
His eyes seemed to drill into the woman that, as improbable as it seemed, was Reb’s mother, “Before we lose him for good, Cellie.”
The woman started to shake her head in protest, but he held up his hand. “That boy is on the brink. And I’m not sure that he’s talking about running this time.”
The younger man, she forgot his name, stepped forward, and placed his hands on the older woman’s shoulders. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Pray to whoever the fuck you want that we’re in time.”
Reb’s ‘father’ turned and stared at her, “If his truck is still here, I think I know where he might be heading.”
That was the first good news that Stacey had heard in the last hour. “Then, let’s go.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” the younger woman grasped hold of the man’s arm as he walked past her.
“I know you mean well, Indie. But you and your Mama get so caught up in saving the whole damned world that you forget what’s really important. Family. Friends. The people that are there for you every day.”
His eyes traveled to his daughter’s swollen abdomen, “I hope you’ll think about that before those grandbabies arrive. I don’t want to see another….” He looked back to the woman Stacey supposed was his wife or something like that and just shook his head.
“Let’s get going. Reb’s already got a head start on us. And I don’t think we have time to fool around.”
Stacey nodded and turned back to see the older woman collapsed in tears in the man’s arms. While Indie seemed frozen in place, her hand on her babies and her face a mask of pain. Maybe she should feel sorry for them, but right now, all that mattered was the man who had held her naked in that shower as her world crashed around her. Now, his world was crashing in on him. And she was damned well determined to be there for him as he had been for her.
Reb stopped at Elvira only long enough to get his gun. He loved this damned truck. He reached a bit deeper and pulled out an old journal and pen. Those damned doctors at the VA had suggested it. Not that it helped much, but then again, nothing had.
He had thought….
He shook his head; no, Stacey was better off without him. Just look at what happened this time. He had never lost his shit like that. Not on an innocent, like his dad. Maybe he should have done this sooner. But he knew that was not right. Fate had him stick around long enough to help her.
But she was here now. As his sister said, they’d make sure Stacey got the help she needed. That was what was important. All that mattered.
He grabbed his Baretta M9 and a full magazine for it. He looked at the rifle he had gone out of their way to borrow from Chad and shook his head. He’d have to make sure that they knew to return it to his friend.
Gun. Bullets. Paper and pen. That about covered it. He closed the back of Elvira and ran his hand over her shiny silver surface. “You’ll take good care of her, won’t you, girl?” He would feel better knowing that his girls were together and that Stacey would not have to rely on that piece of shit they left parked at the casino.
Why was he procrastinating? Hell, it was what he had been doing over this shit for over a quarter of a century. But he did not have a choice anymore. He had always known he was dangerous. A ticking time bomb. But now, he had gone off. On one of the people that he loved most. Hell, what if that had been Stacey? No fucking way.
This stupid survival instinct could bite it. This time he had no choice. It was for the best anyway. The dreams would stop, and the people he cared about would be safe. So, why was he still dragging his feet?
He knew where he was going. His spot. From the moment they had stopped here late that summer, it had been his refuge. A red rock cliff that overlooked the stream that ran through Agartha. There was always a peace there that spoke to his soul. Even in the worst of times. And this was definitely that.
But it was over an hour hike from here, and he had loads to do. Writing those letters would be hard enough. He turned and looked back at the place that had been his family’s home for three decades.
While it was constantly changing, there was something ethereal and timeless about this land. He knew its history well. Even before she bought this land, his mother and Mike had done their research. The vast majority focused upon the Paliatki at the Coconino National Forest, but they had been more interested in the Paleo-Indians of the Archaic era. She and Mike had spent years excavating the land and writing about that pre-history period.
His mother had always been such a fucking dichotomy. A child of one of this country’s wealthiest families, two, or was it three, Ph.D.s, speaking at numerous scientific conferences, and bestselling author. ‘Married’ to two, then three men, at the center of numerous conspiracy theories regarding ‘lost civilizations,’ a believer in holistic healing, and power of the mind bullshit. She named her first son Rebel Zappa Moonchild.
Maybe he needed to forgive her that one…before he faced whatever was to come – if anything. It was not her fault. Any more than it was Barry’s for inspiring his idealistic belief in the Corps.
Not that the Corps was the problem. Someone had to do it. Even his mother’s life work had concluded that it was the lack of defensive preparedness that had resulted in the fall of many matriarchal and egalitarian cultures to the domineering and patriarchal ones that had controlled this world throughout the last five-thousand years of written history.
The problem was that nothing was black and white in this world. There was good and evil in all of it. And Reb had gotten caught up in that. Become both the victim and the perpetrator. But maybe that was all of us. No one completely good, and maybe, just perhaps, no one was evil either? Though he had indeed seen enough human monsters in his day to wonder about that.
Time to find those answers was running out with each step that he took closer to that cliff. He would use those precious moments left to him to try and make some sense of it all. But the only thing that had made sense to him since the moment those dreams began was her. Stacey Reynolds.
He almost hoped like hell that his baby sister was right about that reincarnation crap. And that next time, they had even half a chance at love and happiness that was denied them in this one.
He smiled as those cliffs came into view. His tree was still there. It hung precariously to that thin layer of eroding red dust. He always believed it was some miracle that it had stood for this long. The mesquite had been mostly full-grown when he was a boy. Now its thorny branches stretched outwards and upwards in all directions as if reaching to capture what sun and rain it could.
There was something right about it. About ending it here, where it had in many ways begun. Maybe that was better than in the sandy stretch of beach where he had always thought his final chapter would be written in blood. As it had been that night.
He ran his hand across his face trying to clear that grit from his nose and throat. Though his mind knew it was just an illusion, he could taste it. He had been choking on the damned stuff for almost a quarter of a century. But it ended. Here. Today.
Despite the breathtaking beauty of the land around them, Stacey could not focus on anything – except him. Reb. When had that happened? She had sworn off men, off all relationships, other than her family, long ago. Since when had she come to care so much about the man? And what the hell did ‘care’ even mean?
Were they friends? Reb had said they were kindred spirits. Maybe she had sensed that? Recognized on some instinctual level that he, too, battled demons? But it was more than that. He was the first person that she had been attracted to or felt any connection with since…?
Stacey had wondered for years if she had ever been genuinely attracted to Iggy. Or had she been desperate for the attention and ‘love’ that he represented? Not that that had been real or lasted very long.
“It isn’t much further now. Since his truck is still there, I’m pretty sure this is where the boy will go. It’s always been his special place. Ever since he was a kid….”
Stacey looked at the old man, though perhaps that assessment was not fair. Barry had walked and climbed the almost nonexistent trail easier than she had, even though the man had well over a decade on her, probably closer to two.
She was not sure how far they had walked or for how long. From how the sun was rising in the sky, she would guess at least an hour or more – close to mid-day. Most of that had been in silence. She was grateful for that, uncertain what she would even say to the man, whom Reb claimed as his father.
Stacey had spent most of that time trying to figure out what had happened back there. It did not make much sense. Reb had been her rock, which was a strange thing to say. She had spent the last thirty-two years being the strong one, doing whatever it took to raise three girls alone.
But it seemed from the moment that little eco-friendly piece of shit car had headed down that county road in a cloud of dust, she had lost her shit. She had always suspected that she would. When the day came when her girls no longer needed her, she had no reason to be strong anymore. She had planned, or perhaps fantasized would be a better word, for years.
The thing was that now was not that time. While she might not know precisely where her girls and those grandbabies were, they still needed her to be strong. And she had been failing them all.
If not for this man, for Reb, she did not know what she would have done. Probably attempted to finish the job that Mercy started. And what would that have accomplished? Even if she had succeeded at killing Kerr as she had planned for all those years, it would not bring her girls home, clear Laura’s name, or Mercy’s.
Of course, what was she doing about any of that now? Here? Maybe that was the problem? Perhaps they should not have come to this place? Perhaps Ryan and Laura were wrong? Maybe she should have headed straight to that old cabin outside of Lubbock like they had planned all along?
But it was too late to consider that as the man held out his hand for her. This last bit had been challenging. They had been climbing over rocks and brush for the past five or ten minutes.
She had no idea where they were going, or more importantly, what she would say when they got there. She only knew that when he walked away, something inside of her had shifted. Like some damned piece was missing. And she had known that she had to go after him. She had to.
As Barry pulled her those last few feet to the top of some plateau with a few trees seeming to grasp for dear life to its rocky red soil, she saw him. Reb sat, his back leaning against one of those trees. He alternated between writing in a notebook and looking out on what she could see was perhaps the most spectacular vista she had ever seen.
The sun glinted off of something shiny on the ground next to him. It took a moment for it to register that it was a gun. The man seemed to realize that, too, as he held out his hand to block her way. “I’ll go.”
“No. No, it needs to be me.” And though she had no idea why she said that, Stacey knew it was true. Knew that only she held the words that would stay this man’s course. She just wished like hell that she knew what those fucking words were as she stepped from behind the small clump of trees that had hidden them.
He looked up, and she could see that his eyes were red and swollen. It felt like an elephant sat on her chest. She found it incredibly hard to draw air past the knot that constricted her throat. She might not know what to say, but she knew what she had to do.
She raced to his side and knelt beside him. And for the first time in twenty-seven years, four months, and around twelve hours, Stacey Reynolds reached for a man. Of her own free will, she wrapped her arms about Reb as he collapsed into her embrace. His larger body shook with tears as her own began to flow onto the top of that receding hairline.
She knew. She understood pain like that. Because she had lived with it. Not just for the last twenty-seven years, four months, and twelve hours, but for as long as she could remember. And until this moment, the only respite she had ever had was her girls. But strangely, the peace she found as they clung to one another crying transcended even that.
She might not know the specifics of his pain, but that did not matter. She had no idea what happened next, but that did not matter either. This moment. Pouring out a lifetime of hurt, that was all that mattered. At least for now….
Reb clung to her for what seemed like an eternity but was not nearly long enough. Their tears ran together. Melding and combining, as perhaps their bodies never could. But that did not matter. What mattered was that Stacey held him. And he knew, in his gut and his heart, how incredibly hard that was for his woman. He treasured each moment as the gift that it was. Though he knew he did not and never would deserve it.
Had he known they would come? He noticed his father hanging back in the treeline behind him. Of course, Barry would have known where to come, where to look for him first. Had he done that on purpose? Chosen this place because he knew his father would seek him out here?
But her? Stacey was a precious gift he had not anticipated. He pulled back just a bit. His fingers brushed her tears from her cheeks, “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t have come.”
His heart shattered into microscopic pieces when he saw the pain of his thoughtless words and heard her breathy, “Oh.” She tried to draw back out of his arms, but now that she was here, he was not letting her go.
“But I’m glad you did.” The admission was more difficult than he imagined. How long had it been since he needed anyone?
Even during his time in the military, they knew his skills were not well-suited to teams. A sniper worked alone most of the time. Just as he had these past few years, drifting from place to place.
Stacey was different. He had known that even before she walked into that casino as damaged and broken as he was.
What was he doing here? How could he have forgotten? She needed him now. As much, even more, than he needed her. Maybe they always would. He had thought this was the right thing, a selfless act, but it wasn’t.
He wrapped his arm around her. He felt her stiffen and draw back. “Please, I need you,” he whispered into her hair.
Stacey nodded and shifted, tightening her arms about his waist and leaning into the ancient mesquite bush.
His father approached them cautiously, like they had so many injured animals on Indie’s rescues. He supposed his baby sister was still at it. She had just shifted to two-legged vermin instead of four, or winged, or slithering. He should not have envied her efforts. How was she to know? He had spent almost a quarter of a century making sure that no one knew. Well, almost no one.
His father knelt; Reb knew that must be an effort for the man closer to eight decades than seven. “I’m guessing you need that time alone even more now, son. So I’m heading back to Agartha.”
Reb nodded and half-smiled as he continued, “I know that you can live off this land, but the little lady? How about I pack up some stuff and bring it back on the ATV? Then ya’ll set up camp here or wherever you want.”
“Yeah, thanks, Dad. I wasn’t planning….”
Their eyes met, and Reb knew. His father had known. Barry knew why he came here. Reb started to drop his eyes, but the man shook his almost white head, “It don’t matter now.”
And he knew that his father meant that. Maybe one day, he would come clean to the man he had spent a lifetime trying to emulate. But today was not that day. Right now, he had something, someone, far more critical that he needed to address.
Reb smiled, a genuine one, and extended his hand. The one that clasped his was gnarled, the knuckles swollen and misshapen, the golden skin covered in darker age spots and paper-thin. But the grip was firm as if his father were trying to hold on to him, not just physically but in some more profound way. “You know I’m always here. When you’re ready.”
Reb nodded as he fought down that lump in his throat. It was the gentle squeeze of her arms around his waist that urged him to speak, “I know, dad. Just that right now, Stacey and I need some time. Alone. There’s lots we need to talk about.”
“I figured. I’ll bring that stuff back in a couple of hours. Anything specific you want or need?”
“Yeah, there’s an M40 in the back of my truck. I wanted to come out here, away from everyone, for a bit of target practice. It’s been….”
“A long time. I understand. But maybe it’s best if your mother and sister don’t.” Barry paused and looked off in the direction of the compound before he continued. “I’ll cue Mason in, too. I know that things are a bit strange. But trust me on this one, he’s no Edward.”
“Now isn’t the time, Dad.” Talking about his mother’s new boyfriend, or was this one another husband, was the last thing that he wanted to do at the moment.
If it weren’t for Stacey, he would never have come back here. Maybe they shouldn’t have? But he knew. As full of old memories and new troubles as this place was, it was still the safest place for her. And nothing else mattered. Nothing.
His father nodded and turned to walk away. Those arms squeezed gently once more, and he turned to stare down into her face.
The face of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Sure, the years and pain were etched in fine and deep lines across her forehead and around her eyes and mouth. He suspected that the rich reddish-brown color came from a bottle and that more than a couple of gray hairs lay beneath it.
But he had his own – lines and gray hairs as well as hurts and heartaches. They were well matched in so many ways.
“Want to talk about it?”
He shook his head and returned the hug, “Not right now. All I want is for you to hold me and me hold you.”
He knew that moment was coming. He had known since before he saw her on that video feed. But now was not it. He knew that a couple of hours was not enough time for this talk. And the last thing he wanted was for them to be disturbed once that dam broke. Inside both of them.
Besides, in some ways, things like this were so dark that they belonged hidden in the depths of night. No, he was confident he was right. Let his father bring the supplies. Then they would hike up the mountain a bit. There were some caves there that were perfect for his purposes.
Tonight would be soon enough. Alone. Undisturbed. With his woman. They would talk then. But for now, he sank back into the ancient embrace of the tree that had always been some symbol to him of the slow and steady movement of time and the inconsequential nature of man. This time though, he felt anything but. In her arms, he could move mountains. Which was a damned good thing because the ones they faced made Everest look small.
He leaned his face into her soft hair and kissed the top of her head. Her crown chakra. He could not have been raised by Celestine Rainbow Moonmother and not know that. The highest, the symbol of inner and outer beauty, our connection to the spiritual, and pure bliss.
He would have said it was all a bunch of hoowee, except pure bliss pretty much described this moment. And for a man who had known so little stability and joy in his over four decades on this planet, it was something to hold onto. Just as he held on to her, and she embraced him. Yeah, pure bliss about covered it.
“I love you,” he whispered into that thick, sweet-smelling silk.