Prologue – Trouble Brewing

***New Orleans, 15 years ago***

Cassandra McBride stared at the woman in the mirror. She was virtually unrecognizable from the usual designer-suited, diamond-clad, and haute couture trophy wife of the millionaire oilman who graced the society section’s pages in every newspaper from Waco to Houston.

But tonight was special – different. Tonight she was not the twenty-five-year-old wife of a powerful man. Tonight she was Cassie. Just Cassie. Tonight she was living out her deepest fantasy. For this one night, she was going to be ‘just a good ole’ boy’s girl.’

It might seem a strange fantasy for someone who had been born with a silver spoon in her mouth. But Cassie never had fit-in. She had never been the daughter that her mother wanted or the son that her father needed. She was a disappointment all around. Not pretty enough nor talented enough to win the beauty contests that her mother had. Not driven enough or ruthless enough to follow in her father’s footsteps, even if she were just a ‘girl.’

Instead, her daddy had done the only thing he could think of to ensure her future and her mother’s. He had bartered the nineteen-year-old virgin to the highest bidder. Perhaps she was not fair to the man who had given her life, but being the poison pill of a corporate merger had not been part of her life’s plan.

She chuckled as she thought about how the dying man had used guilt and responsibility to entrap her into marriage. “What will happen to your Mama?” Why her daddy had not simply arranged a marriage between his widow and his rival had once perplexed her. Wouldn’t that have been simpler? But, over time, she came to understand. Her Mama wasn’t young enough to attract or keep Gerald McBride’s interest in the company.

Instead, her life had been bartered away. Her dreams crushed. Her plans buried. Called home from her second year at A&M, her dream of becoming a teacher was sacrificed to provide financial stability to her father’s business and her mother’s expensive tastes.

In the past five years, Cassie had come to terms with it all – accepted that this was her life and made the best of the situation. She had made her place in the social circles which her husband dominated. Found some solace in her work with underprivileged children.

But still, something was missing. Some piece of herself. Some purpose and meaning. Finally, she had convinced Gerald to have a baby. A child of her own. Their own, she supposed. However, she doubted that it would work out that way. Her father had certainly never been an active part of her life. And from what little she knew of Gerald’s involvement in his son Stephen’s upbringing, it was improbable he would take any interest in this child either. That did not deter her, though.

Before she settled down, took that final step, which would tie her forever to her husband, there was one thing she wanted to do. For herself. One fantasy to fulfill. And tonight was the perfect chance. Her trip to New Orleans for the national conference on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provided her the window of opportunity she never thought she would get.

Tonight, she was going to become ‘just a good ole’ boy’s girl.’ A woman. Not a child bride exchanged for security. Not a trophy wife whose charity work reflected nicely upon her powerful husband, softening his cut-throat image and deflecting at least a bit of criticism. Just a woman. An unknown quantity. A mystery.

She pirouetted before the mirror in the bathroom of her motel. Motel. That alone was a first for her. Not some five-star, posh, sterile, and overly expensive prison of the soul.

Just a run-of-the-mill, cookie-cutter, overly done, chain motel. One of the thousands across the country, almost exactly the same as this one. While the room itself was just as sterile as its higher-end cousins, she had found the staff’s down-home attitude refreshing and heartening. Cassie had even gone so far as to check in under her maiden name, paying in cash, something unheard of at those other places.

This was her chance, though. Perhaps her last. And she was not going to waste it. New Orleans, even in the off-season, was a place that beckoned a wildness in the soul. A place where you could lose yourself, let down your hair, and forget the tight reins of societal strictures.

And that was just what Cassie intended doing tonight. Her last in the Big Easy. Laissez les bon temps rouler – “let the good times roll” epitomized the city’s joie de vivre. A joy that had been missing for most of her twenty-four years on this planet. Was one perfect night too much to ask of Fate?

Cassie sighed as her trembling fingers lifted the cardboard box. Condoms. That was the question. How far was she going to take this fantasy? It was the unanswered query that had plagued her since she hatched this plan weeks ago. She still had no answers. But just in case, she slipped the box into her purse.

One last turn before the mirror, a final inspection. She wore tight, well-worn jeans that she had bought at a thrift store. Her blond hair fell about her face that sported markedly more dramatic make-up than usual. A touristy t-shirt completed the ensemble. Her one splurge had been the shiny red cowgirl boots, but she could wear those again, perhaps to the Livestock Show & Rodeo.

Ensemble? Cassie chuckled nervously. Tonight she would have to watch that. Her vocabulary. Not that it would be too much of a challenge. After all, she had been raised more by Aunt Rose, the old ‘negro’ housekeeper and cook, than either of her parents.

Cassie still shuddered at that word. How easily her parents, her husband, and their friends dismissed people simply because of the color of their skin or the size of their bank account. She would never get used to that.

Perhaps that was the root of this fantasy? All those hours, days, a childhood spent in the presence of a simple woman with an earthy honesty, warm cookies, and open arms for the little girl who had no one else to love.

She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye before it could trail down her painted cheek, ruining her make-up and delaying this night further. Perhaps that was what she was doing? Procrastinating? Because deep inside, Cassie knew that Aunt Rose would disapprove of this escapade.

Cheating. Whether Cassie had sex with a man other than her husband or not, she knew that Aunt Rose would consider this adventure ‘hanky-panky.’ Something the woman had never condoned in her parents and would be scandalized over in her ‘honey child.’

That was the issue. Cassie felt guilty. And she had not even done anything. Yet. Oh, Gerald might not realize it, but she was more than aware of his little peccadilloes, usually with Latina girls. Most barely legal. Others? But as Aunt Rose said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

She closed her blue eyes, sent up a prayer seeking forgiveness. Whether to a god she had never believed in, even though they made a show of attending church weekly, or the woman who had been more mother to her than the one who birthed her, Cassie was unsure.

Despite the delay, she knew that this was a chance she had to take. Just this once. An opportunity that she could not pass up. “I’m sorry, Aunt Rose. But just this once, I want something for myself. I hope you can understand that?”

With that entreaty to the woman who had been dead for more than three years, she slipped out the door into the waning light of a muggy fall night in the Big Easy. And whatever Fate awaited her. This was her one chance to live out a dream.

Chad Wilson took his place at the podium by the door of the dive nightclub. What the hell was he doing here? He had been working security, a glorified word for ‘bouncer’ since he retired from the Marines two months ago.

He should have probably gone home, back to East Texas. His grandfather needed his help on the old homestead. But after years spent traveling the world, the places and spilled blood that he had seen, some part of him was unsettled. Unclean. And he did not want to contaminate the one good thing that he had in this world.

The trouble was Chad had no idea how to cleanse his mind and soul of the stain. So, as much as he longed for the clean air scented with pine, the solace that place brought his soul, and the warm love of his grandparents, he just was not ready to go back. Yet.

But a sleazy one-bedroom apartment in a cheap complex, a job that was going nowhere, and no real friends to speak of, was no kind of life either. His only companions were a couple of mutts that he had saved from the local pound that first week.

He should walk away from this place. And never look back. Maybe he would. After this shift, he would speak with the manager and give his notice. Hop into his old battered pick-up and drive home. First thing tomorrow morning.

The decision brought some relief to his troubled mind as he turned his attention to his job and getting through this final night. It was not even eight, and already a line was forming outside the country music club. He would focus on that for now. On making sure that the line moved smoothly and no fights broke out. After all, that was what they paid him for.

She was stunning. Absolutely beautiful. Chad looked at the woman who had just reached the front of the line. She clearly did not belong here. From her tight-fitting denim jeans to the rock on her finger right down to the pointy toes of her expensive cowgirl boots. This lady shouted money, lots of it. And class too.

“Excuse me; I think you have the wrong place, Miss.”

She stared at him for a long moment. Her blue eyes, or at least he thought they were blue, scanned him from the top of his cheap cowboy hat down to his battered boots and back up to meet his eyes.

Then she looked around the club from the packed bar with Friday night boozers to the dance floor that was empty except for one older couple that regularly came to dance to the slow songs before going home early. He saw the place through her eyes and found it lacking.

Then she turned those baby blues back to him, “No. No, I have the right place.” She opened her purse, “What’s the cover charge?”

“Nothing. It’s Ladies’ Night,” Chad lied as he promised himself to keep an eye out for the little lady for the rest of the night. No matter how busy the place got.

And it did get busy. It was Friday in New Orleans, after all. By midnight, the dance floor was packed — some couples dancing arm and arm. More than a few single ladies line dancing to the latest country song. He looked them over, but she was not among them. He scanned the room once more, looking for her. He had kept his promise, checking up on the little lady often during the night.

His stance stiffened as he noticed her chatting to one of the Friday night cowboys at the bar. Chad worried about the trouble she could get herself into in a place like this. Although he supposed it was none of his business. Still, he could not get her out of his mind.

“Hey, buddy, I’m here to relieve you,” said his friend Mike from behind.

Chad thought about telling him to keep an eye on the lady wearing tight fittin’ jeans. Then he thought better of it, better he stuck around instead of heading home to his dogs and that empty apartment, the way he usually did. Tonight he would hang out for a bit, get a couple of beers, and keep an eye on the little lady himself. Make sure she didn’t get into any trouble.

Chad took up a spot at the end of the bar and grabbed a cold bottle of beer, opening it himself. He tried not to be too obvious as he watched the lady sip her pink frozen drink with the dumb umbrella in it. After a couple of minutes, he could see her body tensing as the Friday night cowboy, as they called the doctors, lawyers, and accountants who dressed up and came in on the weekend to pick up women, kept pushing closer to her. Enough was enough. Chad put the empty bottle of beer on the bar and walked over to them.

“Excuse me, Miss, but would you care for a dance?” Tight Fittin’ Jeans, as he had come to think of her, smiled up at him, and his heart dropped to the toes of his dusty cowboy boots. She nodded and held out her hand, making her excuses to the other man.

Chad cursed under his breath as the music switched to a slow country classic just as they stepped onto the dance floor. But he took the princess into his arms and drew her close anyway. The feel of her ripe, soft curves against his hard body was maddening, and after a moment, he looked for something to say – anything.

“So, what’s a lady like you doing in here?” he reddened as the dumb line bypassed his brain and right out his mouth.

She laughed then, and the sound was like fingers running softly up and down his back after a night of making love. “You think you have me figured out, don’t you, cowboy? Well, I’m not what I seem, and for a beer, I’ll tell you bout these tight fittin’ jeans.”

The song came to an end, and Chad led her into a dark booth in the corner reserved for VIPs. He figured this little lady was the classiest one this place had ever seen. Way classier than the occasional athlete that stumbled in here drunk and looking to get laid. He ordered them a couple of beers and listened as she unloaded her life story over a couple of them.

It was pretty much what he expected. Spoiled little rich girl marrying the moneyed older man that daddy had chosen for her. Her blue eyes swam with unshed tears as she emptied the second bottle of beer, “So there you have it. Except that I have always fantasized about being just a good old boy’s girl. So, tonight while I’m out of town on business, I thought, what the hell. It might be my last chance to live out my fantasy.”

Chad frowned at her final words, “Last chance? Why’s that? You dying of cancer or something?” He tried to laugh and lighten the mood, but her story had touched some protective instinct deep inside of him that had been raging like wildfire across the West Texas brush since the moment that Tight Fittin’ walked in.

She shook her head and giggled nervously, “Nothing that bad. Just that we are thinking about starting a family and…”

Her fingers tightened nervously around the neck of the bottle as she looked down. “Well, I know cheatin’ wives are a favorite subject for country songs, but it isn’t something I ever thought I would do.” She looked up and met his gaze almost like a shy little girl, “I take vows seriously, especially where children are involved.”

Her eyes dropped to the table once more, “It is just that this fantasy won’t leave me. Every time he touches me, it is like something wild inside of me wants to break free. Some tiger or something.”

A tiger in tight fittin’ jeans, Chad chuckled at the image. It just about summed up the lady sitting so close to him. “Well, little lady, I ain’t makin’ no promises, but how about we dance the night away, and you live out at least that much of your fantasy.” His fingers gripped her chin, and he lifted her face until their eyes met, “For tonight, consider yourself, this good old boy’s girl.”

He was a fool. A damned crazy-ass fool. He cursed himself as he lowered his face slowly to press his lips against her soft ones. The kiss was gentle. Not quite what you would give a little sister since it was full on the lips. It was more like one you would give a goddess whom you worshipped, someone you knew was so far out of your league—someone you could never have.

But Chad did hold his fantasy as they drank, danced, and laughed until the bar closed early the next morning. He walked her outside. “You shouldn’t drive,” he mumbled, not knowing what to say or do now that the fantasy was coming to an end.

She reached into her purse and pulled out a keycard, “I thought of that already. I checked into the motel across the street before I came here.”

Was it his imagination, or was she as nervous and uncertain as he was at the moment? Of course, being a real cowboy and gentleman, there was only one thing he could do. “I’ll walk you back there then. It ain’t safe for a lady alone this late at night.”

She slipped her arm inside his. They walked across the busy highway in silence. Battles, as bad as any that Chad had seen over there, waged between his head and his heart. He should say good night and leave before it was too late, before things got out of control. Before he did something they both would regret, he decided as they stopped in front of a door. She looked down at her boots for a long moment. Chad tried to gather the strength to walk away. To say goodbye to what he knew would be the best thing that ever happened to him.

“Come in.” Chad thought he must have heard her wrong. But as she lifted her beatific face, he saw the tears swimming in those blue eyes once more as she whispered, “Please.”

For the rest of his life, Chad would replay every single moment of that night. He had taken the keycard from her trembling fingers and opened the door. Some romantic silliness had egged him into scooping her into his arms and carrying her through the doorway like a bride on her wedding night.

She had wrapped those tiny arms about his shoulders and held tight as he lowered her to bed. She had tightened them, drawing him closer to her. Then she had pressed those soft lips to his once more, and all sanity had fled.

Clothes had been thrown about the dingy room in their haste to be skin against skin. The first time was rushed. The whole night had been foreplay, and both of them were consumed with a burning need and passion. He had almost come the moment he was inside her tight cunt. But his little trick of replacing her face with his drill sergeant’s from boot camp had kept him from embarrassing himself until the little lady reached her peak. They had collapsed in one another’s arms and dozed for a bit.

But it was the second time in the middle of the night when he had awoken to her astraddle his hard cock, lowering herself slowly onto it. The neon lights drifted through a crack in the curtains, bathing her soft skin in the candlelight that this woman deserved.

She had ridden him then. Like a cowgirl at the Livestock Show and Rodeo, she had ridden him like a prized pony. She had put him through all the loops around the barrels. She had ridden him hard into the home stretch. Until she cried out like that tiger, they had spoken of earlier. She had collapsed forward onto his chest and into his arms after they had both come.

They had woken twice more that night as if some demon reminded them both that the sands of the hourglass were slipping away. This fantasy would end for both of them with the first rays of morning light. But for this one night, a cowboy held a millionaire’s dream – and she could be just a good ole’ boy’s girl.

Chad never knew what possessed him to look at the society page of the paper that morning. Sure, it was just lying there on the table as he slid into the booth of his favorite diner. He came here with his grandfather when they went into town to the Seed and Feed. He had thought he would rifle through it until he found the sports section while the old man went to the bathroom. But when he picked it up, that familiar smile greeted him.

Except this one was not genuine. No light in those blue eyes that appeared a dull shade of gray in the grainy photograph. Some demon, the one that had haunted his dreams for months, drove him to read the article beneath it. His chest tightened as hope, what little he had ever had, died. He knew her name now. And he learned too that she and her husband were expecting a baby.

He remembered her words that night as he flagged down a waitress and ordered hot, black coffee. He wished he had a bottle of whiskey to pour into it. But he knew that all the whiskey in the world would not erase the memory of his tiger in tight fittin’ jeans.

He lifted his cup of coffee just as you might a glass of champagne, “You’re still a lady to me.” The first rays of the morning light appeared through the window just as they had that morning. His heart had ripped in two when he slipped out of the room then. But for one night, he had held more woman than most men ever see. The night he held a lady wearing tight fittin’ jeans.

His grandfather joined him at the table, and Chad plastered a smile on his face as he listened to him chatting with another rancher at the next table.  But he could not focus on a word the men said. His mind and a part of his heart would always be in that dingy motel room. Not many cowboys got the chance to hold a millionaire’s dream, but he had.

***London, 9 months ago***

Ryan Ranger stared out the plane window at the dark clouds. They matched his mood. He should be at his cousin’s wedding, standing beside Rex as his best man. Instead, he was on a damned redeye flight to London to fire an innocent woman and rip her world apart.

“God bless America,” he muttered as he brought the glass of Scotch to his lips. This flying business class sure beat the hell out of all those military transports he had jumped out of as a SEAL. Or the crappy economy ones that the agency booked him on. But he was not the type to trade his soul for a reclining seat and a surprisingly tasty steak meal, or even unlimited single malt, though one was his limit on this flight. He had a job to do. Two of them, actually.

The one that McBride Industries was paying him for was to fire his predecessor. Not exactly his style, but he supposed it beat the hell out of an email from that arrogant little putz Stephen McBride.

Ryan glanced at his laptop. Her dark hair and eyes seemed to stare into the depths of his soul. Laura Garcia Reynolds. Thirty-eight. Born Sebida, Texas. He scanned the rest of the details, but the information he sought was not there. Only two questions mattered to him. Was the woman dirty? More involved in this stinky cow patty of corruption and money laundering than the agency believed?

And more importantly, why did her guilt or innocence mean a god damned thing to him? He had a job to do. Just like all the other times. Not all of them were pleasant — greater good versus collateral damage. And this was a farsight less messy than some of his missions had been.

Yes, he was going to jerk the rug out from under her. Destroy the career she had worked her whole life for. But it was just a fucking job. With her credentials and experience, she’d find another one. So, why did it bother him? What was it about the woman that got under his skin?

Ryan did not allow women to get to him. They wanted equality – fine, that meant no special privileges either. No damsels in distress and no knights in shining armor. No heroes on white chargers racing to save the poor woman. He was sure that Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds could appreciate that as much as his single mother had.

Maybe that was it? Perhaps the way the woman had overcome poverty and the stigma of her birth to rise to the top of a Fortune 500 company reminded him of Ingrid Ranger? Not that he or his mother had ever been able to put the stigma of bastardy aside. Maybe that was it? Did he identify too closely with this woman? Two bastards against the world?

He drained the glass and sat it on the table next to his laptop. He should get some sleep. By the time his plane landed, it would be too late to do ‘his job.’ He would check into the posh hotel. Order room service. Get a decent night’s sleep. Wake up early. And fire the woman.

Then he could get down to his real job, finding the evidence that the agency needed to arrest and convict Gerald and Stephen McBride for money laundering, embezzlement, corruption, and a dozen other things. Hell, he was probably doing Laura Reynolds a favor. She would be gone before the shit hit the fan, at least.

Laura Reynolds studied her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Could you notice the tiny lines forming at the corners of her eyes? For her birthday six months ago, she had bought some of that fancy cream, which was supposed to slow their spread. She had even had her hair dyed to cover the few grays which were beginning to appear at her temples. Of course, she drew the line at botox or cosmetic surgery. Or at least she did for now.

She squinted, which only made those lines appear more pronounced. No, she was confident that she could pass for much younger. Perhaps not twenty-nine. But at least her early to mid-thirties. Not a woman who was fighting back the hands of time and racing against her biological clock.

Laura looked around the bar. The pub, she corrected herself. It was a Tuesday night just after six. Usually, her business day was not even finished. But today was special. She had a reason to break off early and troll the posh pubs near the offices and hotel where she was staying. She was looking for something. Someone. A donor.  Of genetic material. Maybe it was cold and calculating, but that was how Laura played the game at work and in her relationships.

Since Stewart Childress, her perfect fiancée of five years had proven to be a lying, cheating, and sterile bum, she had moved on to Plan B. Well, Plan Z was more like it. She had gone to a sperm bank, but two rounds of artificial insemination had proven unfruitful. Further research showed that its success rate was less than half of the natural method.

Fucking. Stop being so polite, she chided herself. Laura blamed her six-month assignment in the London office for the false politeness. When her company asked, well more like ‘told,’ her about it, the timing had seemed idle. She had just broken up with asshole and had been staying in a hotel while she looked for a new apartment or, more likely, a house to buy.

She had a substantial savings account since there would be no wedding to waste it on. She might as well use it as a  down payment on a house. But finding what she was looking for in Houston was proving more difficult than she had thought. Hell, finding what she was looking for was proving challenging in life. Period. And this was no exception.

The pub was packed. But everyone was drinking and laughing with friends from work. Paired off in neat little groups that made approaching someone virtually impossible. Damn, Brits. The problem was that these people went to pubs to drink and socialize, not find someone to screw at the end of the night. It was pretty rare for someone to ‘pull,’ as they called it, after a night drinking in the pub.

If someone wanted casual sex, they turned to the Internet. But Laura was not that desperate. Yet anyway. For one thing, she did not purchase anything sight unseen from the World Wide Web. Hell, she was one of those types that read the whole preview section and all the reviews before buying an ebook. She, sure as hell, was not going to select a sperm donor without a bit of polite conversation and getting to know the person. That shit could be dangerous. Especially for a woman like her.

But the task was proving more difficult than she had anticipated, finding one handsome, intelligent, athletic, and perhaps nice guy in this city of over eight million, thirteen if you considered Greater London.

Laura scrunched up her face the way she did when she pondered a problem. Would this have been any easier in Houston? Finding the right guy – maybe not. Picking someone up in a bar for casual sex…most definitely. She would have been out of here before she finished her first glass of wine back home.

A deep baritone from just over her shoulder broke her reverie. “Excuse me. Is this seat taken?”

His American accent was the first thing that caught her attention. She struggled to pinpoint it. But that was not always easy. She liked to think that she did not have an accent at all. It was something she had worked very hard to conquer the moment she escaped small-town Texas.

Growing up on the wrong side of tracks in Sebida had been a nightmare that Laura had spent almost two decades trying to live down. And most days, she did pretty well. A law degree from Stanford, vice-president of Fortune Five Hundred company, seven-figure salary, and a six-figure savings account offered a hell of a lot of cushion and validation to the little girl that had grown up as ‘trailer trash.’ Laura refused to dwell on her past. It was the future that she was here to think about and do something about too.

She studied the man for a long moment — over six feet with light blond wavy hair. The guy was no stranger to the gym. He had the look of a former athlete, perhaps? Bright blue eyes with a spark of intelligence. She could not decide whether she would categorize him as All-American or Viking.

Either way, the man would fit nicely on the cover of one of the raunchy romances her baby sister Mercy wrote, under a pen name, of course. Looking closer at the tiny lines around his eyes and forehead, perhaps one of the seasoned genre, definitely not ready for silver fox, at least not yet. But damn, would she like to see him when he was.

Of course, she would have to spend a bit of time talking to him. She wanted to make sure this was the right one, at least as much as she could given the situation. But like Mama always said, beggars can’t be choosers. So, unless she wanted to wait another four weeks or so, he was her best shot. And being American, the concept of hooking up in a bar would not be an utterly foreign concept to him. Her night was looking up.

“No. Please join me.”

Ryan knew this was a bad idea. He was confident that his handlers would not approve. His task was straightforward: fire the woman, take her place in the company as General Counsel for McBride Industries, and spend as long as it took scanning her files for the proof that they needed of the illegal activities and money-laundering. So, what was he doing here?

After spending hours on the plane going over the files on her, both the personnel one McBride had given him and the one the agency had given him before he went undercover. He knew things about this woman that few people did, including her full name: Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds.

She was the oldest of three daughters. While her mother claimed to have been married to her father before he was deported, it was not valid. He had another wife and family back in Mexico. Something he never told the innocent, eighteen-year-old daughter of a Methodist preacher. After what she believed was five years of marriage, the woman had been devastated to learn the truth at an immigration hearing.

To give Stacey Reynolds credit, she had picked herself up and done the best she could to keep her family together and raise her girls with no help from her family, who had disowned her. Of course, that had not been easy with nothing more than a high school education. Laura’s mother had worked a string of minimum wage jobs, sometimes two or three of them at a time, to pay rent on a dilapidating trailer, buy food for her children, and keep the utilities running, most of the time anyway.

As the bastard son of a single mother, it was a struggle Ryan could empathize with, even if his mother and he had it a bit easier. At least, Ingrid Ranger had the support of her middle-class family. That had enabled her to finish her final year of college and begin her career as a historian at the local museum in Fredericksburg.

But even the Ranger family’s reputation as founding members of the community had not insulated Ryan from the stigma of being a bastard. It was a word he learned on the first day of kindergarten. And one he had spent the next three decades trying to live down. Just as he knew, this woman had run from her own humble beginnings. Not that he blamed her.

The only reprieve he had from those demons was the summers he spent with his cousin on his grandfather’s ranch near Comfort. From the time he was thirteen and his cousin Rex first invited him, Ryan had found a refuge and a mentor in Grandfather. Though he was not related to the man by blood, that was what Raymond Greywolf had insisted the angry young teen call him.

He smiled as he remembered all the summers to come. That ranch was still more home to him than his mother’s suburban Fredericksburg house ever would be. Though the woman tried, sometimes she tried too hard to be both mother and father to him. Ingrid had never revealed who his father was. Maybe she never would. That lie of omission had become a wall between mother and son. One he could not overcome.

But it was not his family history that mattered. When he had followed her from the London office of McBride Industries to this pub, he had convinced himself, it was his opportunity to find out the truth. To discover how much the woman might know or not know. He was hoping it was the latter. But he did not want to examine the why too closely.

He would spend a couple of hours casually talking with her, getting to know more than those files could tell him about who Laura Reynolds was as a person. It was all he would need. ‘Golden gut’ was what his SEAL commander had called his instincts for uncovering hidden agendas and danger.

It was a special gift that he had discovered during those summers with Grandfather. It might not be as spectacular as his cousin’s talent, but it had kept him and others alive in some very tense situations. And he owed much of that to the old man who had taken him under his wing. Who had helped him discover and take as much pride in his berserkr heritage as his cousin did in his First Nations one.

No, a couple of hours with this woman would be enough for him to know if she knew more than they thought. He hoped not. “May I buy you a drink?” he offered with a smile.

Laura studied her reflection in the bathroom mirror. They had been talking for close to two hours. They had even ordered some of the notorious pub food, bland and tasteless. It was far from her favorite Mexican. But a bit of salt made anything palatable.

And the company was definitely above average. Ryan was proving to be everything she was looking for. Former college football quarterback and Navy guy, probably a SEAL. He had the grace not to brag about that shit, which only made her more certain of it. He was witty, if perhaps a bit too right-wing for her tastes. But did such things matter? It was not like political preference was an inherited trait, was it?

No, they had finished their food. It was almost nine, and except for a few drunks, the pub was clearing out rapidly as most of the post-work crowd hit their two-pint limit, finished unwinding, and headed home for the night, so they could get up early and do it all again. No, Laura was reaching the point that, as Mama would say, ‘shit or get off the pot.’

“Damn it. There are no guarantees in life. You know that,” Laura admonished the woman in the mirror.

She studied the image. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Ryan was not the only one with tail-tell lines around his eyes, forehead, and mouth. Then again, at almost thirty-nine, most women did have them. And hers were much less than most, thanks to her ‘good genes’ as her Mama called it.

Good genes, that was what this was all about. Laura knew better than most what she was doing. Being a single mother, even an older, more stable one, was not her first choice. But she had wasted her twenties and almost all of her thirties telling herself that her career was more important than having a baby. That was how she came to waste five years dating the wrong man. Only to discover that Stewart did not want children. And had had a vasectomy before they even met, to make sure.

To be fair to him, having children had not been on her list of priorities when they first met either. But he should have at least mentioned the fact he was sterile at some point over those five years. Stewart hadn’t. Not until after her thirty-eighth birthday party, when she had announced to her ‘friends’ that she felt her biological clock ticking. After the party, he had calmly explained that one of the reasons he had been interested in her was that ‘women like her put their careers over children.’ They had fought, Stewart had accused her of changing the rules of the game without consulting him, and they had broken up when he told her everything.

Maybe she had. Perhaps she had changed the rules of the game without consulting him? But when exactly was she supposed to do that? They both worked long hours, had social obligations, and their own interests. They had not had a real relationship but an arrangement that furthered their careers and social standing.

That was the past, though. And precious moments were ticking away on her biological clock. If she did not want to wait for another cycle, waste this precious egg, of which she was well aware they were probably few viable ones left, then she had a decision to make.

She might not be able to give her baby a stable, two-parent family, but she had spent time and good money on a shrink coming to terms with the fact that, yes, career-driven Laura Reynolds wanted to be a mother. She knew she was ready for this. It was not that being a parent scared her. Hell, she had raised her sisters, Mercedes and Elena, as much as her mother had, given the woman’s long hours – perhaps more so. She knew, too, that she had love to give her child. Her mother had taught her girls what that meant, sacrificing so much for them.

No, this was what she wanted. A baby. Of her own. Before it was too late. And if she could not give it a real father, just as she had never had one, then she could at least offer it the best possible chance in life – at least genetically.

“Yes. Yes, I’m going to do it.” She was filled with new resolve as she turned to walk out the bathroom door. She looked up to discover the smiling face of her dinner companion.

“I wasn’t sure if you were trying to give me the slip or what,” he joked with a wry smile. He looked at the watch on his wrist.

Laura’s eyebrows knitted together. Who wore a watch in these modern days of cell phones? It was another point in his favor.

“Look, it is getting late. Tomorrow is the first day of my new assignment, and I don’t expect it to be easy. My first task is to fire my predecessor. So, I need to get going. It has been a pleasure getting to know you.”

It was not how she wanted the night to end. “Actually, I was wondering if you would care to join me back at my hotel for a nightcap.”

The way that the man’s eyebrows shot straight up told her that he knew exactly what she was offering. And another drink was the least of it. He silently studied her for a long moment. From the top of her dark brown hair in its tight bun, down her tailored navy suit and white silk blouse, which were understated and professional, to her black pumps that were heeled but not over the top. Everything about Laura was functional.

She felt the need to shift from foot to foot under his direct examination. It was not a feeling to which she was accustomed. Not in a very long time. As she always did, she met the challenge head-on, lifting her chin and staring him directly in the eye.

“Look, let’s cut to the chase. I have a busy day tomorrow, too. Do you want to come back to my room for a bit of consensual, no strings attached sex to help us relieve both our tensions?” Her brown eyes met his directly in a challenge, “Or not?”

Ryan Ranger held her gaze. The woman was every bit as ballsy as they said she was. It was a pity. He liked her. She was intelligent. But then he would expect nothing less given her resume. It was not just knowledge, though. This woman had that rare quality of depth. She was good at reading people. She carefully thought out and planned her actions. And perhaps most importantly for him, she seemed to retain at least a bit of a moral compass. It was a scarce combination in the corporate world in which they lived.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, it was that moral compass that was getting her into trouble. Real trouble. And worse yet, he was the hatchet man. The decision was a no-brainer, as they say. He was sent here to fire and replace her. Even though McBride Industries had no corporate fraternization policy, he had always followed the old adage, ‘don’t shit where you eat.’ And the agency certainly would not condone such a no-strings arrangement. So, why the hell was he even considering it?

Because she’s under your skin, as Grandfather would say. Even before he had set foot off that plane, this woman had been turning his guts inside out. The confidential file that he had received laid her whole life bare for his inspection. And for the first time in his life, he had not found a woman lacking.

She had grown up rough. At least, he had summers on Grandfather’s ranch in the Texas Hill Country. He and his cousin Rex had been free to run and explore, as children should, under the watchful eye of the old wizened medicine man.

Laura had had nothing. Except for the responsibility of her younger siblings while her single mother worked the night shift at the local convenience store to pay the rent on their two-bedroom trailer that was falling apart around them. Even then, she had managed to make straight A’s in school while holding down a part-time job of her own and serving on the student council. She had graduated as valedictorian with a full scholarship to Stanford.

And except for monthly checks back home, she had never looked back. She had risen higher and faster within the company than most of her male peers. And it had nothing to do with affirmative action. No, it was her intelligence and hard work that got her where she was.

Unfortunately, this time, she had managed to step in that stinky, steaming cow patty of corporate corruption. The one that Ryan was here to clean up. After the past couple of hours, he was sure that this woman was not privy to the details of the schemes that were a threat to national and international security. But that would not save her job.

Besides, this was probably for the best. Laura Reynolds would be safely out of the mess before the deck of cards came toppling down around all their heads. Ryan knew what he should do. Politely refuse her generous invitation. Send her back to her hotel room alone. And then tomorrow, quickly and as cleanly as possible, bring down the hatchet.

But that was not what he was going to do. For once in his life, Ryan’s cold and calculating head was going to lose out to his equally passionate heart. Even though he knew that after tomorrow, this woman would hate and despise him, he just had to have her. Just this one night, he wanted to taste what it was like to give in to the needs of his heart and body that he had repressed for a lifetime.

And more importantly, he wanted that with her. With Laura Valeria Garcia-Reynolds. She would hate him even more if she knew that the file the agency had given him as part of this undercover assignment included that.

He inhaled deeply and sent a silent plea into the universe, a prayer to the goddess, a call to the great spirit, Odin, or perhaps Loki of his ancestors, fate, destiny, whatever the fuck you wanted to call it. ‘Please don’t let me screw up.’

Then he smiled and nodded his head. “I’d like that.”

Laura sighed. She was not even aware that she had been holding her breath until it escaped in a great whoosh of relief. He was coming back to her room. Some tiny part of her wanted to jump up and down like a little girl, who opened the present under the tree to discover the doll that she had asked Santa for. But that had never been Laura. No, each year, she and his sisters always got last year’s toys that other children had donated at the mall to make way for their new stuff.

Oh, don’t get her wrong, she was grateful to have anything under the tree, at least as far as her little sisters were concerned. For her, it had never really mattered. She was one of those who had been born old, which was why that feeling was unusual. She could never actually remember having it before. It was even better than the day her acceptance letter from Stanford arrived in the mail.

She hoped it boded well for this little endeavor. Because this time, she asked Santa or fate or whatever for a lot more than a doll for Christmas. This baby was the culmination of all she had ever worked for or wanted. And with only a few months before her thirty-ninth birthday, she knew time was running out.

She reached out and took his hand in hers. It was the first time they had touched, and if Laura did not know better, she would swear that she felt a tingle run up her arm. It was nothing more than static electricity from the ugly, dated, old carpet that seemed the same in every pub she had been in for the past six months. She would be glad to get home.

The British people’s polite veneer hid a coldness and superiority complex that was wearing thin on her. Couldn’t they see the shallowness of it all? Or were they indeed as caught up as it seemed in maintaining the status quo of their social order? She knew beyond a doubt that, if even one of her colleagues knew the truth of her birth, it would fuel the gossip mills for months.

There were no self-made men, let alone women, in their closed ‘polite’ society where it was all about who you knew and never what you knew, no matter how good you were. And she was good. Much more qualified than any of the Etonian upper crust that populated her downline at the company.

But was Houston any better? The city that she had called home for the last fifteen years was just as shallow. Except there, it was the perfect body, sculpted in the most popular gym, the perfect tits from the latest and hottest plastic surgeon, and of course, the perfect smile crafted from porcelain by the best cosmetic dentist. Hair, make-up, and clothes. Or the car you drove or the house you lived in.

Even Sebida, though, had been ruled by the old school, its founding families. The Monroes chief among them. Only as an adult had Laura learned the truth. It was all a façade — a shambles. The Judge’s family was as broke as her mother had been. Worse even, because they were too proud to apply for the welfare check and food stamps that her mother had used to feed her and her sisters.

And his beloved daughter, that paragon of virtue and deaconess of the biggest church in town, the one that brought their basket of food and presents each Thanksgiving and Christmas, the principle of the school Laura had attended, Miss Myrtle was warming up the sheets with old Injun Joe, the owner of the local Indian casino and bar. And she had been for Laura’s whole life.

Maybe she was becoming cynical in her old age. But it seemed that everything, even the success and big bank account that she had fought a lifetime to achieve, meant nothing. That was why this baby was so important to her. It felt like her last chance. A chance to find the meaning and happiness in this world that she had been looking for her whole life. A chance to have something that indeed was her own.

It was silly, really. To put so much stock into something that all her female friends in the corporate world considered beneath them. It was a bodily function to ensure the continuation of the species and spread their superior DNA. Sometimes they reminded her of the heifers that the Judge bred with his prize bulls. Motherhood to them was nothing more than producing a distinguished bloodline and stock. That was how they selected the men they married and made babies with. Of course, most of them had a string of bad boys on the side to satisfy other urges.

Laura did not want to follow that line of thought. Was she any different with her Plan Z and good genes? The night was getting away from her. And it was a special night. At least the little stick that came with the ovulation predictor kit and the app on her phone that charted her cycle said it was. The night that offered her the greatest hope of changing it all. The promise of achieving this final item on her to-do list of life. The one that was slipping through her fingers with each passing tick of her biological clock.

Looking at her companion, she smiled. If some crazy part of her wished for a simpler time, when a man and woman met, got to know one another at the church socials, held hands as they walked and talked, then walked down the aisle to make vows that indeed were ‘until death do us part,’ well, that was just another victim of the shallowness that had become a modern society.

No, this was for the best. It would be simpler this way. A night of burning up the sheets with a handsome and intelligent equal, and Laura would have what she wanted. Or she hoped she would anyway. A no-strings-attached one-night stand would give her the baby, which would be the beginning of the next phase of her life.

She nodded her head and tugged at his hand. “Let’s go then.”

Ryan studied his reflection in the mirror while he waited. He did not know what he expected when he agreed to this ‘one night stand’ with the woman who had been eating at his craw for hours now. But being left waiting in the hotel room that was practically a mirror image of his own just two floors above was not it.

He shook his head as he once more considered the sanity of this course of action. It was nothing like him. Hell, even if McBride Industries did not have a fraternization policy, the agency that was his actual employer did. What the fuck was he doing sleeping with what amounted to a suspect or, at best, a witness?

The thing was, he had never actually had a ‘one night stand.’ Not even back in the days when he was a ‘pup,’ and he and his friends trolled the bars in Coronado. The idea of casual sex with someone you barely knew did not appeal to him. It probably came from never knowing his father. His mother would never so much as give him a name.

As odd as it was in this world, he was a relationship kind of guy. Love and commitment were what he craved. If his career, first with the Navy and now the agency, had limited his ability to find such a thing, he was only thirty-four. There would be plenty of time for that later, or so he told himself.

Maybe it was the jealousy that he had felt watching his cousin Rex with his mate and her daughter? He loved his cousin and wished the man nothing but the happiness he so richly deserved. And goodness knows that Jaycee Riley and her little girl deserved a few breaks in this world.

He would not even be here now if not for the woman’s help. The agency had been trying for years to connect her ex-husband and McBride. But knowing that the men were corrupt and having the evidence to get the warrants to further their investigation was another matter. Jaycee’s testimony had given them that link. At least enough of one to justify putting him undercover for a few months.

Whether it was his fatherless childhood or seeing his cousin’s loving relationship should not matter. He should put all of that aside — all his hopes and dreams for the kind of family he had never had. He had been lying to himself for years that he had time. What were a few more months at this point? He should walk out that door now. He should focus on the job he came here to do. And not on a woman that had his guts in knots and his cock harder than a diamond.

But none of that mattered, not this once in his life. This one night, he was going to follow his gut and not the rules. Or he would if she got the hell out of that bathroom. What was taking the woman so long? Because every moment that she spent preening in front of the mirror in the bathroom was one more his logical brain had to argue with his heart. And he was hanging on by a thread.

Laura stared at the woman in the mirror. The same way that she had all night. Hell, for months, perhaps since before her last birthday. She was sure that her shrink would find some Freudian or maybe Jungian meaning in that. But hadn’t she spent enough time and money on the damned woman exploring all this already? Now, it was time for action, not more fucking reflection.

“What’s your problem?” Her hand trembled as she brought it up to her face. She pushed her hair back for a moment, studied those tiny lines that were barely visible around her eyes. There was nothing wrong with her appearance as she stood wearing nothing but matching bra and panties from an upscale lingerie shop.

The black bra lifted her b-cup tits, pushing them together to form a decent cleavage. The matching lace panties both fully covered and were sheer enough to reveal. There was no point in touching up her make-up. Hopefully, it would get smudged soon from the sweaty exertion of sex.

That was the problem. In the two decades since she had lost her virginity at a frat party to her boyfriend of six months, she had never once engaged in casual sex. The double fear of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy had been more than enough to keep her celibate between her two relationships.

If you called a drawer full of vibrators celibate. Laura was neither frigid nor a fool. Battery-operated boyfriends were the most intelligent and economical way to go for the modern career woman. Even the hassle of storing and changing batteries or recharging was minuscule when stacked against… Well, against this.

The very idea of walking out there  – wearing nothing but her underwear, and having sex with a man she had met just two hours ago – was more daunting than the interview that had landed her an internship with McBride. Or even her first presentation before the board.

This was truly terrifying, which was why she had been hiding in the bathroom for the past ten minutes. Ten minutes? Was he even still out there? In his position, she was not sure that she would be.

She shook her head at the woman in the mirror, “If you want this baby, then you better get your butt out there before he leaves.” The idea of waiting another four weeks only to repeat this whole damned process was more than Laura could handle.

Ryan had just about convinced himself that this was all a sign from Fate that this was a bad idea. He had even picked up his coat and turned towards the door to leave when the bathroom door opened. The jacket slipped from his numb fingers as the air left his lungs in a giant swoosh.

She was stunning. Perhaps the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Petite…was that the word? She would barely reach mid-chest, now that she had shed the heels. While her breasts were not large, they would fill his hand nicely. But it was the soft roundness of her womanly hips that held his gaze. And those legs that were surprisingly long for someone so short. He imagined what they would feel like wrapped about his waist as he buried his cock inside of her. Yeah, this woman had his number.

She dropped her head as she walked the short distance to stand in front of him. Her hair that she had kept so neatly hidden in that tight bun at the back of her neck fell about her face, neck, and shoulders like a soft, chocolate fountain. Its rich browns laced with deeper burnished reds. He ached to touch it. To entwine it around his fingers and never let it go.

She looked up at him with those soft brown eyes. Gone was the confident, self-assured feminist he had met in the bar, the one in the file. Before him stood a woman, a real one. Someone that you loved and protected. Someone you cherished and cared for. He wanted to scoop her up in his arms and run as far and as fast as he could from this place. He wanted to spill the whole can of beans about McBride, wanted to warn her of the corruption and deception that was to come.

That scared the shit out of Ryan. It was a completely new and foreign concept. Not at all like the lukewarm feelings that he had for his handful of previous girlfriends and partners. But something in his ‘golden gut’ told him that this woman and this night were special. Unforgettable. Once in a lifetime.

But even then, he knew he could do none of those things he wanted so desperately. He could not blow his cover, endanger national security, risk their lives, and others. Not even for her.

No, this night was all he would have. All he could ever have of this woman. Just a taste of heaven that would have to last him a lifetime. Because when tomorrow came, when he fired her from the career that she had spent a lifetime building, well, there was no doubt – Laura Valeria Garcia Reynolds would never want to see him again.

He cursed Fate that had shown him what he was missing, even as he reached out and touched her hair for the first time. He rubbed it between his fingers for a moment. Nothing had ever felt as soft or silky. He wondered how her olive skin would compare. His hand started at her shoulder, skimmed softly down her arm to her fingertips. He laced his fingers through hers and slowly raised her hand to his lips. “Beautiful,” he whispered as her eyes held his.

Laura smiled; a tiny bit of the tension left her shoulders. She had not been sure what she expected. But this was not it. The man, Ryan, she corrected herself, stared at her. His eyes were tender almost. Hell, the whole thing could have been a chapter in one of her sister’s tawdry romance novels. She wondered what her colleagues and friends would think if they saw her tablet.

But this was no story. There was a purpose to this night — something she wanted to get from it. And romance had nothing to do with that. However, it might be sweet icing on her cake. She needed to get this show moving, though. As cold as that sounded, the minutes and hours that were ticking by diminished her chances of getting what she came for from this man. Her baby.

Laura might not have had many lovers or be the sexual barracuda that some of her friends were, but luckily for her, she had learned to be the aggressor with Stewart. Although she may have wished the man were more passionate, she was thankful now for the skills she had learned. Laura stepped forward just a bit until her body brushed against his. She stared up at the man. She was still a bit shocked by that passionate gaze, but she managed to whisper, “Kiss me.”

And the world tilted on its axis as those strong arms closed about her like chains. His lips were soft against hers — firm but teasing. Her hands wrapped about his shoulders, holding on as the room spun about her. She moaned softly in frustration. She wanted, needed, more from this man. She wanted things that no other lover had ever given her.

She got them as his tongue forged into the depths of her mouth. Her nipples hardened as they brushed the hot cotton and thin silk layers that stood between them. It was too much, too many clothes between them. Her hands slipped from those broad shoulders and began to tug at buttons, tear at the material.

His hand moved from the hollow of her spine up to her bare back, sending more electrical sparks skittering to her brain. He found the snap of her bra and fumbled with it as she managed to free his shirt from the waistband of his pants. Four hands pawed and pushed at the offensive clothing.

At last, he managed to undo the clasp as she conquered the final button. She pushed at his shirt, and the motion sent her bra sliding along her arms. Her nipples brushed against the wiry hair of his chest. They tightened even more, sending butterflies flying straight to her clitoris. She knew that she had never wanted a man this badly.

Her fingers began to fumble with his belt, the buttons, and the zipper on his pants. This was no delicate seduction. This was a frenzied need that Laura had never felt before. It took her far longer than she would have liked to finish the job as she pushed pants and underwear down. He shifted from side to side as he kicked off his shoes. The pants followed them. Only his mouth upon hers, his tongue inside it, made it bearable. Just barely.

Then she was falling, falling through time and space into the clouds. His body covered hers as he pushed her panties down one leg. He lifted it and wrapped it around his waist. He ground against her. She moaned and arched into him. He was considerably larger than her former fiancé had been, about the size of her special friend as she called the rabbit vibrator, which she used when she was her horniest. And she was definitely her horniest.

But that was no vibrator throbbing against her clit, slipping back and forth between her wet folds. Playing and teasing, just holding back what she wanted most. She arched her hips to feel the tip move just inside of her.

Then his hand upon her hips stilled her. She opened her eyes to stare up at him in shocked surprise. “Fuck,” he cursed. “Condoms. Please tell me that you have some. I wasn’t planning…” He was stammering even as he began to withdraw.

Panic rose inside of her. She should have considered this possibility. Of course, in this day and age of sexually transmitted diseases, people did not engage in unprotected casual sex. She should have planned for this contingency.

She lifted her hips, trying to draw him back inside of her. “Don’t worry. I’m on the pill,” she lied.

Of course, a woman like this would be. Ryan remembered the fiancé. It made perfect sense. A career woman would not leave such things to chance.

“I’m clean.” Not that he could explain the regular check-ups that his job required. “I don’t usually,” he stammered. He felt her move beneath him, those hips that fit perfectly in his hands arched up. He sank deeper inside of her. Her warm, wetness swallowed half his cock. He moaned at how snugly she fit him.

He could not remember the last time that he had sex. His previous girlfriend had broken up with him well before his last assignment, so that was almost a year ago. At least that long. Besides, he could count on one hand the number of times that he had gone bareback. Actually, he could not remember a single time. As a bastard, it was not a risk he left up to the women in his life…not even girlfriends that he had known for months or years.

He was shocked as hell that he was even considering it with her. But who was he kidding? There was no way in heaven or hell that he could stop now. Not with the feel of her tight cunt wrapped around his hard cock. As crazy as it was, just once in his life, he was going to risk it. Risk everything to be with the woman he should not.

His hands tightened on her hips as she once more arched against him. Her hips moved in a slow erotic circle as if trying to convince him of that, which he had already decided. His fingers buried into the softness of her bottom as he drew her closer. Another couple of inches sank into her. They both moaned at the sensation.

He knew that this was not going to last long. It was too intense. But he knew too that even coming would not slake his thirst for her. He began to move then. Pounding into her. Deeper and deeper. Harder and faster. Her fingers sank into his shoulders, perhaps drawing blood, told him that the lady did not care. She welcomed the passion, the wildness that for once in his life, he had unleashed.

It was going to be a long night, as he felt the familiar tingling at the base of his spine spread to his balls. They tightened as he felt his orgasm fast approaching. He watched her face as she rode the waves of her powerful release. If she was pretty dressed in that power suit, if she were beautiful wearing just that damned matching bra and panty set, then she was ethereal with passion flowing through her into him.

Something shifted inside of him. Ryan had no words to describe it. Some knowing – some sense of something more profound. Some right. It was more than the gentle haze that seemed to envelop them in a warmth that spread not just from his raging hardon but through his whole body. It was like he had been asleep his entire life, and only in the arms of this woman could he awake.

It was all he could take as he plunged inside of her to the hilt. He exploded harder than he ever had, but Ryan did not stop as he continued to pound her like a battering ram against the gates of an ancient citadel. Not even her unconditional surrender was slaking his need to possess this woman – if only for a night.

But that was the problem. Ryan knew – it would never be enough. One night with Laura Reynolds would never be enough. He would never find this again. This connection. This sense of rightness. This oneness with another human being. His mate? Was that possible?

And he had fucked it all up. There was no way he would ever have anything more than this. Not after tomorrow morning. He roared at the injustice of Fate even as his body once more found the release and completeness that it craved with his woman.

Laura tried to focus on the words on her computer screen. They did not make sense. Then again, she did not understand why she had been cc’d into the email to begin with. It was a private communique between Stephen McBride and her former fiancé Stewart Childress.

She frowned, correct that blind cc’d. But from whom? Considering she was one of Stephen’s least favorite employees right now and likely the reason that she had been exiled here for the past four months, it really made no sense. Then again, nothing did this morning.

She lifted the coffee mug and swallowed. She almost spit out the hot liquid. She needed something more potent, much stronger than the herb tea that she had been drinking for the past month, just in case. As much as she craved the shot of caffeine that a strong cup of coffee would bring. That what-if kept her swilling this shit.

She thought back to last night. And this morning… They had stayed awake almost the whole night. They had had sex half a dozen times or more. Sex did not cover what happened last night. It was much more than merely scorching sex. She hesitated over the thought, but where her mind would not let her go, her heart forged ahead. Made love. They had made love all night long. And while that had not been part of the plan, she had to admit it made this whole plan seem…

Right. That was it. Right somehow. Perhaps that was why the artificial inseminations had failed. Maybe there was more than merely sperm meets egg to this whole thing? And while she had anticipated passion, welcomed it even, it was the tenderness that seemed to come so naturally between strangers that took her breath away.

So, why? Why had he left while she slept? The sun was beginning to stream in through the open curtain as she turned to her side and cocooned next to his big warm body. She had smiled as she thought about the possibility that she would conceive. She had fallen asleep to dream of babies with soft curly blond hair or at least a lighter brown than hers.

Only to wake to the alarm on her phone an hour later. Alone in that big cold bed. His clothes were gone. He had vanished like a ghost. She supposed it was for the best. She had not known how she was going to handle the morning after.

She had consoled herself with the hope that she might have achieved her purpose. Because after last night, there was every possibility that she was pregnant or perhaps soon would be. She had learned enough about human reproduction to know that it took hours, sometimes days, for the sperm to swim the few short inches to an egg. She could well be conceiving her baby at this very moment, sitting in her office in front of the computer screen. It was a surreal feeling as she protectively cupped her lower abdomen.

She heard the door open and responded without looking up, “Lizzie, I thought I told you not to disturb me this morning.”

“I am not Lizzie, and I do not take orders from you, Miss Reynolds,” her stomach dropped.

She knew that voice. It had crooned and caressed her all night long. This morning, his tone was anything but the gentle and caring lover he had been then. She knew that tone, too. It was the one she used when she needed to take charge, to intimidate her downline.

Except now, it was turned on her. By him. She looked up into the eyes that just a couple of hours before had caressed her slowly, passionately. “Ryan?”

“Mister Ranger, please, Miss Reynolds.” He passed an envelope across the desk to her.

Laura frowned as she studied the company logo and her name scrawled in bold letters across the front of it. Her stomach lurched as she opened it. She tried to focus as she scanned it. Then read and re-read it.

It was a termination notice. Effective immediately and signed by McBride himself. But none of it made sense. She tried to read it once more, but her stomach rolled, and her head pounded as the words blurred before her eyes.

This could not be happening. Not to her. Not now. She let the heavy piece of paper drop to the desk. She forced her gaze to meet his. He loomed over her. Last night, she had found his height and size reassuring, almost protective. But there was nothing protective about him this morning. He reminded her of a glacier, cold as ice and unmoving.

She finally found her voice enough to utter a single word, “Why?”

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