Laura stood on the front porch of the little house where it had all begun. Was it just six weeks ago? Well, almost. She kissed the top of her sleeping daughter’s head. Chloe would be six weeks tomorrow. But it seemed a lifetime ago.
So much had changed. Her baby sister and her mother had found men they cared for and loved them in return. Laura had never thought that would happen. Screw them; she never thought she would find a life partner. Someone more than a mere social convenience. A man that loved and respected her. Someone intelligent and strong enough that she could love him in return.
But she had. That impulse decision in the pub half-a-world away had given her more than just the baby she wanted so desperately. It had given her the type of love she thought only existed in Mercy’s books. And goodness knows that man could grace one of those covers.
Laura tilted her head from side to side, trying to work the kinks out of muscles taut with stress. Even in the relative safety of Grandfather’s ranch, anxiety and worry for her sisters and mother had taken their toll. And those few days when Ryan was gone with the others had been the worst.
It was over now. Diego Garcia was behind bars. The man who had fathered her but whom she did not remember was dead. So too was the younger half-brother that she had never met. Her name was cleared. The threat of seizure of her assets was lifted. They were safe. Or as safe as they could be, considering Earl Kerr and her former fiancée were both out there somewhere.
She could begin her life anew. But what did that mean? She did not want to go back to practicing corporate law as she had for her whole career. She was almost sure she did not want to work for anyone else again. She had seen first hand the advantages Jaycee had, taking only the cases she wanted to, setting her own hours. And with a new baby and Ryan, maybe that was for the best.
Ryan? So, where did they stand?
The moment that they had left J. T. Tyler in that park, the women had headed to Jack’s casino. They had hidden out in one of the rooms there, just as her Mama and Mercy had planned to do. Jaycee, Rex, Angel, and Grandfather were still there.
Though Kerr’s wife had preferred to go with her Mama. She would have never thought those two would become friends. But then again, she had only her suspicions about the bad blood between Mama and that man.
Laura knew that she was delaying. Ryan had already gone inside the little house that she was renting from Miss Esther. She was damned lucky the woman had not cleared their stuff and leased it to someone else while they were gone. But when Laura texted the woman, telling her that she would be sending the arrears, her former teacher had seemed happier to know that she was safe than worried about the money.
She looked across the street. There was a light on in Sandy Monroe’s place. Laura did not know the whole story, but rumor was the woman had something to do with her former teacher leaving Sebida.
On the back of a motorcycle. With some former Marine that had been a friend of her son Tommy. The whole thing had fed the gossip mill for months. Half of them whispering about how disgraceful and sinful it was – and much worse. The other half applauding her for taking the opportunity when she had it.
But Laura knew the town had something else to gossip about now. Of course, it would not be the first time. Her family had been a favorite topic of their gossip for almost her whole life. Certainly, from the moment her ‘illegal alien’ father was deported, and word of his other family got out. But this? The fact that ‘other family’ ruled a drug cartel? That she and Mercy were ‘living in sin’ with men? That Chloe was illegitimate. And that did not even take deeply-held racial prejudices into account…
Why had she come back here? She was still asking herself that question.
“Do you want me to take her? Put her to bed inside, where it’s warmer.”
Laura battled those damned tears, again, as she kissed the white-blond down on the top of her little girl’s head. How could she look so much like her father? Weren’t dark hair and eyes supposed to be dominant genes?
She passed her precious cargo to him. She had never imagined sharing her child with its father, but now that she had seen the tender way this man held their child, the way his eyes lit up at the least little thing, that frown of worry at Chloe’s cries, she could not imagine it any other way.
But where did that leave her? What now? Where did they stand? Sure, once upon a time, they had talked about marriage. For Chloe’s sake. So she would not be a ‘bastard.’ As both of them were. But with their story all over the news, that was a moot point now. In this place, her daughter would always be just another Reynold’s ‘bastard.’
She was still asking herself that ‘why’ question when she felt those strong hands grip her shoulder. How long had she stood there just staring at those stars?
“Are you sure about the job? It’s a great opportunity, Ryan?” Though it would mean a move back to Houston, perhaps that was for the best? Did her voice sound as tight to him as it did to her? She needed to get her shit together. Pull up her big girl panties and get on with life. Start making her own decisions for her and Chloe. That had been the plan all along, right?
Ryan pulled her closer. He felt the resistance. Laura had barely said two dozen words since he, Jack, Rex, and Grandfather had shown up at the casino earlier.
He still wasn’t sure what the plan was with his cousin. Jaycee was due any day now. He remembered well that journey with Laura and Chloe just hours after his daughter’s birth. He hoped that Rex would see the wisdom of staying here and not try to go back until after the baby was born. And more than a day old.
But whatever his cousin decided, he had his family to worry about now. And right now, he was. Very worried. Had she changed her mind? About them? About him?
He did not want to be some part-time, every other weekend dad. And he sure as hell did not want to lose her again. “Laura, look at me.”
Ryan thought for a moment that she would refuse him. She hesitated that long. Then she brushed her hand across her face and turned. But he could still see the tears glistening in those dark eyes. And it broke his heart.
“I meant it. I don’t want any job so demanding that I can’t make you and Chloe my top priority.”
Her shoulders slumped, and she dropped her head. She did not even look at him as she spoke, “But you don’t have to. I know none of this was your idea, your plan. I never gave you any choice. You don’t owe…”
His fingers beneath her chin lifted her face. He looked for the words to explain how he felt. But there weren’t any. So he used his mouth to convince her another way. He held her gaze as he lowered his lips, capturing hers. His tongue was determined to sweep all those nasty insecurities, words of doubt, and thoughts of leaving from her mind.
The only problem was this woman held power to scramble his brain and jumble his thoughts as well. Beyond the one that called for him to carry her into that house and make love to her until her legs weren’t capable of walk away from him.
But that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted Laura to choose. Choose him. Not because he was some superior breeding stock. But because she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Wanted to fight the darkness by his side like those shieldmaidens of his ancient ancestors. Damn, he could almost see her with a shield and sword.
He slowly drew back and dropped to one knee. He pulled the box from his pocket, “Laura, you’re right. I don’t have to do anything.”
He sighed heavily, “Unfortunately, neither do you. We can’t lie or cover things up. We can’t change the things that some people will say about our little girl. Not anymore.”
“And maybe you are right. Perhaps you did not give me any choice that night. Maybe you used me. But I wasn’t honest with you, either. And we can’t change those things.”
“But I know this much. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. Yes, I love my little girl. I will always be grateful to you for giving me Chloe. But even before I knew about our daughter, it was her Mama that I couldn’t get out of my mind. It was you that captured my heart in that London pub.”
“I know that the things I did the next morning hurt you. And the fact that I knew who you were that night, I know that’s hard for you to forgive. But from the moment I opened that file, something inside me awoke. And when I walked up to that bar, I was…”
“I was yours. And every night, I dreamt of you. Every day I thought about you. I planned and schemed about how I would win you back. Then I showed up here…”
“And found a fat, pregnant lady…” Her laughter gave him hope. Though the tears streaming down her cheeks worried him.
“The most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” He dropped his eyes, “I’m sorry. Sorry that I got you messed up in all this. Sorry that I’ve used our child to keep you by my side.”
It was probably one of the hardest things he had ever done, but he forced himself to look her in the eye as he finished his confession. “But I don’t want you to be with me because of our perfect little girl. I don’t want you to feel that you owe me anything for not telling me the truth. We both kept secrets from one another that night.”
“I want us to move past those lies and secrets. Honestly, I want you to choose me. Not because I’m the father of your child. Not because you feel you owe me for anything that happened in Mexico.”
“But because you love me. Even if it’s only a tiny fraction of how much I love and adore you. And if you can’t, or don’t, I’m begging you, please give me another chance. Time to prove to you that I’m the right man, hell, the only man, for you.”
Those tears were running faster down her cheeks. Then again, it was hard for him to tell for sure through his own. She reached out for the ring, wrapping her hands around his. She tugged at him until he stood. That was a bad thing, right? If she were going to accept, she’d want him on his knees?
“Okay, counselor, time to negotiate.”
“Anything. You name it.”
“Gees, you know that’s not very good representation for your client.”
“Yeah, well, my client’s guilty.” Ryan smiled as he sang, “Baby, you left me defenseless. I’ve only got one plea. Lock me away inside of your love, and throw away the key. I’m guilty of love in the first degree.”
“The first clause, no singing.”
“The second is no more talk of kinky key shit.”
“I don’t know. My cousin tells me that it can be kind of fun.” Lauren’s face scrunched into such a cute mask of distaste, he had to bend and kiss her nose.
“No, just no. Why would you even put those images of Jaycee in my head?”
“I’m still waiting for your answer, counselor. Though I’m hoping for a life sentence.”
“Do you have any idea how cheesy you are?”
“I have no dignity left, woman. Just put me out of my misery. Please, Laura Reynolds, do me the honor of being my wife?”
She shook her head and sighed, “Okay, counselor, I’m sure we can come to some mutually beneficial terms. Yes, Ryan. Yes, I’ll marry you.”
“Tomorrow?” He knew he was pushing his luck but as far as he was concerned, he was almost a year too late already.
“Hell, no. A wedding takes time to plan. There are invitations, a dress, venues, a reception, and loads of other shit to organize.”
“One week. Your sister and her husband should be back then. He’s a preacher. You have one week to get all that done, Laura.”
“Are you shittin’ me? Come on, Ryan. I can’t plan a wedding in a week. It’ll take months.”
“Nope, one week. I’m not having this whole town talking about us living in sin for months. If they’re going to gossip, let them talk about how beautiful you look in some silly dress.”
“Living in sin? This is the twenty-first century. And besides, what sin? I…”
“You want sin, counselor? Let me remind you of some advantages that come with this deal. I’m going to curl your toes and make you scream.”
He scooped her into his arms, kicked open the door, and carried her through to the bedroom where their daughter was sleeping in another of those basket things.
“Okay, so maybe not the screaming bit. We don’t want to wake our daughter. Oh, I remember one more clause. She needs a brother or sister.”