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Hawk: A Rough Romance by Piper Stone – Serialization (Part Four)

Did you miss the Prologue and Chapters 1-4? You can find them here.

Did you miss Chapters 5-8? You can find them here.

Did you miss Chapters 9-12? You can find them here.

Chapter Thirteen

Hawk

Pop. Pop. Pop.

The shower of gunfire seemed to be coming from everywhere.

“Fuck!” Vader hissed. “We’re boxed in.”

“Like hell we are,” Mustang chided. “Over there.”

I studied where he was pointing, the dense foliage backing up to the fence that we’d just cut through. The prisoners were sequestered in small huts surrounded by steel wire that was usually live with electricity. I hadn’t calculated that short circuiting the voltage would be detected, at least immediately.

I’d been wrong.

We had one chance of getting Snake out alive.

The odds were shit and I’d never been a betting man, but I refused to leave one behind.

No matter the circumstances.

“This is shit, Sergeant,” Reaper stated in his official tone. “We shouldn’t do this.”

I studied his face in the moonlight, finally shaking my head. “We are doing this, soldier. We go on three. One. Two…”

I jerked up, dragging myself out of the dream, shaking all over. Fuck. It seemed so fucking real. Even my ears continued to ring from the gunfire. Exhaling, I threw back the covers, planting my feet on the floor, trying to rid the cobwebs as beads of sweat trickled down both sides of my face. The moon spilled in through the open slats on the blinds, but there was no other light.

Then I remembered.

Bryce.

I jerked around, wanting nothing more than to touch her. Maybe that would ground me. Only she wasn’t there. I shifted my gaze around the room, both scanning and listening for intruders. I stood slowly, shifting my gaze to the darkened bathroom before struggling to reach my jeans, jerking them on. Moving swiftly, I yanked the duffle onto the bed, searching for the Sig. Thank God it was still inside.

I checked the ammo before moving toward the cracked bedroom door, slowly opening it and darting my head out once. There was no outward sign of anyone in the house, including Bryce. What the fuck was going on?

Both anger and fear settled into my system as I eased down the stairs. There were no lights on, the darkness now overwhelming. Taking long strides, I moved into the kitchen, flicking the switch on the wall. Even from where I stood, I could see what appeared to be a note placed under a magnet on the refrigerator.

Bristling, I stormed toward it, jerking it down. The handwriting was a direct reminder of the woman who’d gotten under my skin, the one I wanted to protect with my life.

The one I was falling in love with.

Damn it.

Hawk,

The time we’ve shared has been magical, even if you’re a rough and tumble kind of man. But I can’t see a future for the two of us. We’re two entirely different people. My heart can’t take going down that path and now I think you know why. You have a beautiful little soul to take care of and that’s more important than anything else. Please just let this go. You never know what will happen in the future, but for now, this is the best.

Bryce

I was shaking from adrenaline after reading the note, unable to process why she’d do this now. What we’d shared had been special, the intimacy more than I’d shared with any woman. I couldn’t believe that she’d do this. Something had to be off, wrong. Think. Think straight.

That wasn’t going to happen, not now. Honoring her wishes? Fuck. Despair as well as another round of fury wrapped its ugly claws around me as I balled the piece of paper, tossing it against the kitchen window. Fine. If she didn’t want to see me any longer, that would work. She was right. I had Ashley to think about and she was the most important thing in my life.

I hissed seeing the sun starting to rise. Neither the past nor the fact I’d fallen in love with Bryce were going to derail me. It was time to fucking get to the bottom of what was going on, then bringing my little girl back to her home.

To my home.

Our home.

Fuck the rest of the world.

Anger.

I’d spent almost my entire life angry. Maybe it was time to let it go. I snorted after the thought entered my mind. How the hell was I supposed to do that?

At least I was putting things into motion. I had a couple of meetings, then I’d go back to the ranch to meet with the foreman and crew leaders. At this point, the bank was going to have to wait. I had to keep things going in order to provide Ashley a good home.

Then I’d hunt down the fucking murderer.

First stop? To see Jaime’s father.

The townhouse was not what I’d expected to see, although I could understand not wanting the care of maintenance of a large ranch. As I walked to the door, I realized I hadn’t seen Mr. Weatherby in almost fifteen years. The last time had been when he’d chased me off his property, threatening to call the sheriff if I showed my ugly mug around his parts ever again.

With a rifle in his hand.

For some crazy reason, I remembered it fondly.

I hesitated before knocking, uncertain how he’d react, but I needed some answers that only Jaime’s father could provide.

Or so I hoped.

“Yes?” he asked, taking him two full minutes to answer the door. He’d aged but I suspected that grief had truly taken its toll, his eyes devoid of anything but sadness. I certainly didn’t expect that he’d recognize me, but when his eyes opened up wide, a slight smile crossing his face, I felt honored.

“Mr. Weatherby, I’m—”

“God, son. I know who you are. Jake Travers. Or should I call you Sergeant Travers? Your brother spoke of your accomplishments in the Marines highly.”

I was taken aback, offering a grin. “Hawk will do. Do you have a few minutes?”

“Sure. Time is all I got, son, but if you’re here, you already know that.” He closed the door behind me, pointing his shaking hand toward a chair in the small living room. “Please, sit down. My legs aren’t what they used to be.”

“Thank you, sir.” I moved toward the chair, glancing at the various pictures on the walls. When I noticed one of Jaime and Drake, I was forced to look away. “Sadly, I know you lost your wife and I heard about Jaime. I’m so sorry.”

“And of course, I know about Drake. He was a good boy, turned into an even better man. Kinda sad that I thought you boys would turn out to be nothing special, but you sure fooled this old man. What brings you here?” He had difficulty as he eased onto the couch.

“A couple of things. I’m surprised you didn’t want to take care of Ashley.” I knew the words held a hint of sharpness, but I had to know some truths.

He gave me an intense stare before answering. “You can already tell that I couldn’t handle taking care of a little girl, not one with so much life in her. That doesn’t mean I don’t check on her every day, but she’s in good hands. The question is why isn’t she by your side already?”

“You once told me while holding a shotgun in front of my face that I had demons inside of me.”

Mr. Weatherby snorted, laughing softly. “I did, didn’t I? Well, the truth was you were one troubled kid and I just knew you were on a path to a life of crime. I’m happy to say I was wrong.”

“Well, the truth is that you were right on several levels. I do have demons inside of me, including why my brother died. I need to figure them out before I bring his daughter back home. She deserves the best.”

He swept his gaze across my face, nodding. “I respect that. My understanding is that Drake died tragically. Do you know something I don’t know?”

“Maybe. I’m not certain, but I think it may be the reason Jaime was murdered.”

His face clouded, his lips pursing. “Jaime died in a tragic fire as well. There’s nothing else to that.”

Before he looked away, I noticed not only the fear in his eyes but the hard grip on the arm of the couch. “Mr. Weatherby, I’m not trying to bring up horrible memories, but I have some information that leads me to believe that Jaime was working with her boss to discover information on incidents that were similar to the recent fires. I think she was possibly in the wrong place at the wrong time, but she must have talked with Drake about her concerns, which is why he joined the fire department in the first place. If what I believe is true, the arsonist has escalated his methods, which led to my brother’s death. In other words, he and another firefighter were murdered. I will find out the truth.”

Everything about his demeanor had changed, his body stiff. “While I wondered about that, Drake never told me anything. He was a private man and truth is he and I weren’t that close. I respected the way he cared about Jaime, but that’s all we really ever talked about. I wish I could help you, but Jaime didn’t share her work with me.”

“Did she possibly leave any records here?”

“No. She took everything with her.”

I sighed, glancing once again at the pictures on the wall. “She was a beautiful girl. Ashley looks just like her.”

“Yes, she does,” he choked. “I hope you plan on taking good care of her, Hawk. She means the world to me. I wanted to stay close, but I’m getting too old to even take care of this place. Put a deposit down on a nice villa in Tucson. You know the kind of place I mean.”

Sadly, I did. I wasn’t getting anything additional from him. “I appreciate your time and when I get Ashley settled, I’m going to bring her by.”

His face lit up once again. “I’d really like that.”

I stood, waving my hand to keep him from getting up. “Got one last question, Mr. Weatherby.”

“Jim. I think after all this time you can call me by my first name.”

“Jim. Why didn’t you and my father get along?”

The grin on his face was almost one of mischief. “You really want to know the truth?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“Your pappy was one card shark. He won that piece of property he owned during a brutal poker game. Hated him ever since.”

Laughing, I shook my head. “So, what my father said was true. Amazing.” I moved toward the door, tipping my head once again. “Then why sell your land to Drake?”

“Well, he gave me a fair price.”

“A fair price?”

“Yep. Your brother was one sharp businessman. It was also time for me to move on. Plus, my daughter mighta had somethin’ to do about it.” His grin was genuine.

“Huh. Well, then I’m glad to hear that. I’ll be in touch… Jim. Thank you.”

“You do that, son. And, um, I hope you find your answers. Just know that Jaime and Drake were extremely close. They told each other everything.”

He looked me directly in the eyes and I knew without a doubt that the man had lied to me. He knew more than he was willing to tell.

Because of fear.

Emotions.

Hell, it was obvious I was terrible expressing them in any way a woman could understand. I’d seen the pain in Bryce’s eyes when she told me about her sister. I honestly couldn’t imagine how difficult that had been for her. While I’d tried to make her feel better, maybe I’d inadvertently put pressure on her. What did I know?

Romance wasn’t my gig.

Guess I didn’t have to worry about it any longer.

My hands were clammy as I turned down the picturesque driveway leading to the house where Ashley was staying. The conversation with her caretaker, Brenda, had been pleasant, the caretaker providing a few details about how Ashley was doing. The little girl was reserved, had yet to speak and had difficulty sleeping. At least she was eating. I didn’t know much about Brenda Marks except that she’d already been vetted by Drake after Jaime’s death, the woman serving as a babysitter when he’d been on duty at the firehouse. I’d told her about my plans, leaving out anything about Drake, only that I had to get things in order, and I’d come visit Ashley every day until I did.

The entire conversation speared my heart even more than before.

I pulled the truck next to another car, gazing out the windshield. The house was small but well maintained, flowers in several boxes on the front porch. As I cut the engine, I realized my stomach was churning. Hissing, I ran my hand over my chin. I should have shaved before leaving the house. Between my size and the tattoos, the poor girl would likely be terrified.

Opening the door, I found it difficult as hell to get out. This was so far removed from my comfort zone that I knew I’d fuck it up. When the front door opened, a woman walking onto the porch, I told myself there was no turning back. The oversized stuffed bear I’d placed on the passenger seat just reminded me that I had no clue what the hell I was doing.

I yanked the stuffed creature into my arms, chastising my selection. The damn thing was huge, but I’d taken what Bryce had said to heart. As I walked closer, I could see the scrutinizing look on Brenda’s face.

“Mr. Travers,” she said, offering a tense smile. “I’m sorry, Sergeant.”

“Hawk. No need for formalities. Besides, I’m just a ranch owner now.”

Her smile grew wider. “I’m actually glad to hear you say that. I can’t imagine Ashley’s life if she was forced to move.”

I walked closer, holding out my hand. “I wouldn’t dream of destroying any more of Ashley’s life. How is she? Does she know I’m coming?”

“She does. I told her as much as I knew. She’s right inside watching a movie. Come on.” Brenda stopped before opening the door. “Just remember, Sergeant, I mean Hawk, that she’s very scared and doesn’t understand.”

“What was told to her about her daddy?”

“I told her that her daddy loves her and wants to be with her, but he can’t be.”

Another thing that Bryce had been right about. I sighed; Brenda certainly didn’t deserve to be chastised for trying her best to care about the baby. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

She led me inside and to a brightly decorated sunroom, the colors reminding me of the tropics. Ashley was sitting on the floor a few feet from the television, her legs crossed. She was wearing a little sundress with bright sunflowers and the moment I saw her, I had to glance at the ceiling, unable to handle the rattle of my emotions.

“Take your time, Hawk. This has been devastating for the entire family. I’ll bring in some lemonade in a little bit. She loves pink lemonade. Ashley, honey. This is your uncle. Remember me telling you about him?”

Ashley turned her head, the blank expression on her face jerking me into various points of pain. While I wanted to crush her against me, telling her that everything was going to be all right, I wasn’t entirely certain I’d be giving her the truth. She looked at Brenda as if for affirmation before slowly turning her eyes in my direction, even cocking her little head. I could swear there was an instant connection until she shifted, facing the television once again.

Brenda squeezed my arm then walked away, leaving me feeling lonelier and more terrified than I had in my entire life. I took quiet steps closer, still keeping my distance. “How are you, Ashley? I’m Uncle Jake.”

The silence was wretched, her eyes barely blinking as she watched the cartoon. Swallowing hard, I sat down on the floor, pushing the bear in front of me, one of the plush paws lightly touching her knee.

“I brought you something. This is Mr. Bear.” My whisper would terrify even me. “Hi, Ashley. I’m Mr. Bear. I thought I could come live with you if that’s okay.” The disguise in my voice I used was lame, but I could have sworn I saw a glimmer in her eye. “What are you watching?” I kept the voice going, lifting the bear’s arm.

Ashley darted a single very quick look at the bear, her brow furrowing.

“I love cartoons. Do you think it would be okay if I watched it with you?” Mr. Bear asked.

After a few seconds, I was totally discouraged. Then she shrugged and I almost jumped for joy.

“Yay!” Mr. Bear exclaimed then shifted closer.

While she didn’t push him away, she didn’t grab onto him either. “If it’s okay, Ashley, I’d like to sit with you for a little bit.” This time, her uncle asked the question.

There was no response of any kind.

I shifted only a few inches closer, paying attention to the television and nothing else, although it killed me not to be able to even take her hand into mine. We watched together in silence until I realized her arm was moving, slowly reaching for the bear. I held my breath as she stroked Mr. Bear’s arm, finally dragging the stuffed creature between her legs.

The exhale was quiet although my heart was rattled as fuck.

“How about some lemonade?” Brenda asked as she brought in a tray with cookies and two glasses.

For a few seconds, I saw a hint of animation in the little girl, her eyes shimmering as she reached for a glass. Then something amazing happened. She turned to look at me, her lovely eyes falling to the tattoos on my arms. After blinking several times, she reached out, jerking her arm back.

I heard Brenda’s slight gasp and I smiled, slowly moving my arm in Ashley’s direction. “It’s okay, Ashley. You can touch them. It’s just ink.”

Her little brow furrowed and she reached out, allowing the tip of her index finger to trace the pattern on my arm. She jerked back once again, glancing into my eyes before turning her attention to the television, the same arm wrapping firmly around the bear.

Brenda walked out and for a few precious minutes, I sat quietly enjoying the best chocolate chip cookie and pink lemonade in the world.

And I was almost content.

Almost.

Maybe I could be if my heart wasn’t breaking into a thousand little pieces. But one thing I knew, this beautiful little girl would want for nothing her entire life. She would know the love of her parents and a wayward uncle who likely had no business caring for something so precious.

But nothing was going to stop me from trying.

I stood on the porch of the ranch, gazing over at the horses, the men expected at any minute. The phone remained in my hand where it had been since I arrived back at the place. I’d taken the liberty of memorizing Bryce’s number after she’d texted the person responsible for the threat, programming the digits into my phone that morning. While calling her wasn’t what she wanted, I needed to hear her voice.

And so, I dialed.

Her voicemail came on after three rings, her lilting voice the very one I couldn’t get out of my head. I couldn’t leave a message. And why? What the fuck was I supposed to say to her? I shoved the phone into my pocket as three trucks pulled in, several people getting out.

“Sergeant Travers?” the man walking in front asked. I recognized him from his work with my father. The guy had once been a hothead. “Don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Tanner Reese.”

“Just Hawk, Tanner, and you’re not the kind of guy I could forget.”

I’d taken the time to go over the various employment records. Everyone Drake had hired seemed to know what they were doing, the majority having been with him for years. Hell, they knew more than I did at this point. Tanner was an excellent choice to run the crew.

As we shook hands, he grinned. “I remember you too.”

“I bet you do.” I eyed the others as each once moved forward, introducing themselves. “Good to finally meet all of you. I know my brother relied on you and I’m still going to need to. Nothing is going to change.”

“Well,” Tanner said as he looked at the others. “We heard you might sell the place.”

“Word travels fast,” I huffed.

“Just something your brother said,” Tanner commented. “He wanted you to be a part of the ranch and I think he knew you always wanted to sell.”

I glanced around the property, taking a deep breath. “I came here with full intentions of doing just that, but I don’t think I could ever have it in me. Big Meadow is a special place.”

“Woo hoo!” Michael whistled, grinning from ear to ear.

Shaking my head, I was glad I’d given someone a smile. “In other words, get back to work.”

Tanner nodded to the others, waiting until they’d walked back toward two of the trucks, their conversations light. “I’m real sorry about Drake. He was a good friend. I know some of the other ranch hands will want to give their condolences.”

“How good, Tanner?”

He narrowed his eyes as he looked at me. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”

“Did he tell you anything about why he joined the fire department?”

“Just that he felt closer to Jaime. Why? Is there something wrong?”

“I don’t know, to be honest with you. Just surprising that he’d do something like that when he had so much here.”

Tanner followed my gaze. “You knew Drake well enough to know he was very private. What I do know is that he adored Jaime. She was the sun and moon and then some. When she died, a piece of Drake was lost forever. When he joined the fire department, he came alive again. Besides, he only took a shift a week.”

One shift. To honestly think that on the night of the fire he’d been working was unfathomable. “I appreciate you telling me. Anything I should know?”

“You should receive the week’s report tomorrow. I liked to go over it with Drake, but if you’d prefer, I can try and email it.”

I gave him another smile. “No, I need to get to know the ranch. I’d like to get a tour in a day or so. I do plan on being hands on.” Even if I had some business to take care of with the military.

“There is one thing. We’re short a man. My second in command left a couple weeks ago when his wife was transferred. I’ve already put out feelers, but pretty much all those who know how to run a ranch are spoken for. If you hear of anyone, let me know.”

“I’ll see if I can think of anyone.” Who the hell did I know who could run a crew?

“Good enough,” Tanner said. “I’ll let you go. We’ll talk tomorrow then.”

“Sounds good. One other question. Did Drake have anyone cleaning the house?”

Tanner laughed. “Yeah. He was the most organized man I knew but couldn’t clean worth shit. He had a lady come in once a week.”

“Okay. Thank you. See you tomorrow.” That at least solved the issue of why the house was in such good condition. Unfortunately, I could place trust in very few people. Maybe all this was a wild goose chase, but as long as the nagging remained, I was going to look hard into finding answers.

I remained on the porch, watching as Tanner drove away, still rattled from seeing Ashley. While I had no evidence to speak of, I wanted nothing more than to have a long chat with the fire investigator. Maybe he or she could shed some light on the situation. My instincts were still on a roll. The fact Drake had worked that fire far too suspicious in my mind. However, I had a feeling no one was going to talk to me. Why would they?

As I turned to go back inside, I heard the rumble of another vehicle approaching. Curious, I waited, leaning against the porch railing. Maybe this was another crewmember. Maybe this would add to the freaking mystery. I huffed from the thoughts alone, already weary of the entire situation. As the Bronco drew closer, I felt a moment of tension and I had no idea why.

While I wasn’t certain from where, I immediately recognized the guy who stepped out of the cab. I walked down the stairs, studying him intently.

“Hawk. Not sure if you remember me but I was at the fire station yesterday when you came in.”

Yeah, now I knew who he was. He’d seemed curious yet hadn’t bothered to approach me.

“I remember.” He’d been up front washing one of the engines, watching our every move. “Although I don’t know your name.”

“Calen Porter. I knew your brother pretty well.”

“Calen.” I studied him as he approached, could easily tell he was nervous. “What can I do for you?”

He glanced from side to side. Why did I have a feeling there was some kind of conspiracy in town? “Look, I kinda heard what you were asking the chief. I know he gave you Drake’s things.”

“He did. It seems the chief doesn’t know anything other than what’s on the report.”

Calen took a couple of steps closer. “That’s because he’s been paid well not to say anything.”

“What are you getting at?” Now my hackles were raised.

“Drake knew there was something going on with several well-known officials. That’s why he joined the fire department.”

“What kind of things, Calen?” I kept my tone from shifting to anger. Was there some kind of ridiculous conspiracy?

“The buildings are worth more burned than standing the way they are.”

“Yeah. That much I already gathered.”

He sighed, scanning the perimeter again. “While I don’t know who all is involved, Drake was certain that the chief was paid to accept the report on this last fire. I don’t know if I buy that.”

“Why?” I asked, studying him carefully. He was pensive as fuck, beads of sweat forming on his upper lip.

“Brad Kincade has been a friend of my father’s for years. I just can’t see him as part of the problem.”

Exhaling, I thought about what he was saying. “There are times people aren’t who we hope they will be, surprising us to the point we have difficulty believing that they aren’t who we believed them to be.”

“Sounds like you’ve experienced this before,” he said as he shifted from foot to foot. He was nervous as fuck. Nah, I didn’t like this one bit. If the chief had anything to do with Drake’s death, I would string him up to the tallest tree.

“Yeah, I know something about it. Drake wasn’t supposed to be working that night, was he?”

“No,” he said quietly. “A couple of the guys called in sick. Drake was pulled in and of course he said yes. He was sent in after being told there might be a victim inside. You know the rest about what happened.”

“So, you’re saying he was murdered.”

“I’m saying that Drake got in the way, asking too many questions. My guess is that he got too close.”

I took a deep breath, studying him intently. “Why burn the buildings then?”

“I don’t know all the details. I honestly don’t. Drake only mentioned it about a week before the fire where he died. He said he’d found something that confirmed there would be a few more fires before it was all over. He alluded to the fact this had been going for a long time and that a hell of a lot of money was involved. I tried to get him to talk to me, but he was nervous, and I don’t blame him with needing to take care of his little girl and all.”

“Was this evidence in his locker?”

Calen shook his head. “I don’t think so. Drake was smart, although I could tell he was scared and didn’t know who to trust. I told him to go to the sheriff. He said he thought the sheriff might be involved. That’s the only person he mentioned then he clammed up. My guess is that he kept the information here, but he never told me one way or the other. You didn’t find anything?”

“Nope. Is there a chance these fires could be set in such a way that even an experienced fire inspector wouldn’t be able to tell the cause?”

He sighed, rubbing his hand through his hair. “Yes, it’s possible, but it would take a hell of a lot of expertise and I couldn’t begin to tell you what kind of explosives could be used. What I can tell you is that the fire inspector is damn good at his job.”

“So, you don’t think the fire inspector is involved.”

“I’d bet my life on it.”

“Why do you care, Calen? Sounds like this is a bad situation to find yourself in.”

He seemed taken aback. “You mean other than the fact Drake was a friend of mine? I care because some good men have been injured or killed over the last few years and if there is some serial arsonist out there, then I want him found. The other reason? The fire inspector is my father.”

I laughed softly, shaking my head. “You’re the informant. Aren’t you? You’ve given information to a reporter that hasn’t been in town long so you expect that she’s certainly one that can be trusted. Isn’t that right, Calen? You are trying to do the right thing.”

An immediate flush crept up along his jaw, his eyes locking with mine. “I’m not certain what you mean, Sergeant Travers. However, if there is information to provide and you don’t know who to trust, how in the hell could anyone get it out there? At least enough so that hard questions are asked?”

I could tell by the look on his face that he’d made the calls to Bryce and I knew the reason why. I also realized that he wasn’t the one who’d made the threats. “If someone were to expose this group of individuals, would they be in danger?”

“Yes, they would, which is why I hope anyone who asks questions treads lightly, including you. Your brother thought the world of you. He certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen.”

I hissed, my anger increasing.

“Did you have a call last night, a fire occurring somewhere?” I asked, catching the news.

“No. Why?”

“Just curious.”

Calen inched even closer. “Be careful, Hawk. Things have changed since you’ve been away. While there are some good people in various commands, there are some who want nothing more than to take over the world. There’s a lot of money in pushing this town to grow. If Drake was right about his fears, this thing needs to get blown wide open. But powerful people will stop at nothing to get what they want, including murder.”

That much I knew without a shadow of a doubt.

There was no way I was allowing Bryce to remain out of my sight and my protection.

I’d chain her to the bed if necessary.

Chapter Fourteen

Hawk

Soot and char.

I’d know the stench anywhere. As I climbed out of the truck, the nasty odor hit me immediately. Something was smoldering on the property. My thoughts drifted to the fire she’d heard about from the night before. Whoever was threatening her had wanted to send a message. Well, I’d received it loud and clear.

I glanced at the little house Bryce was staying in. Her truck wasn’t parked in front and there was no sign of any disturbance. Goddamn it. Where the hell was she? She wasn’t at work and Jason hadn’t seen her. Unless the fucker was lying to me, she’d called in sick. I didn’t buy that shit for a second. She’d gone off halfcocked again, trying to play amateur sleuth. I had no doubt.

I walked around the house to the back, walking up the deck stairs and trying the door. Locked. Damn it. And it was stuck tighter than before, preventing me from getting inside. Peering inside did little but irritate the hell out of me. The furniture was just as I’d remembered, nothing turned over or broken. I doubted anyone had tossed the place, but the nagging feeling that she was in danger remained. Had another threat been sent to her? I couldn’t rule anything out.

Where the fuck would she go?

The list of people she would consider suspects was a mile long.

I searched the rest of the property, finding nothing that would give me any idea as to her whereabouts. Then I found an open window, but only by a crack. Bryce would have been very careful making certain every door and window was locked before considering leaving. Growling, I pushed the sash open, easily crawling inside, my nerves on edge as I scanned the room. I’d been in the military long enough to know when things seemed too tidy, as if extreme care had been used to make certain everything was in its place.

Easing the gun into my hand, I moved through the rest of the house, finding everything exactly where it should be. With a single exception.

A broken glass.

I hunkered down, lifting one of the larger pieces into my fingers. There was no doubt in my mind there was blood on the edge. While Bryce could have cut herself accidentally, leaving the remnants for when she returned, my gut told me something else. I didn’t like this on any level.

When I stood, I noticed a blood smear on the counter, the location where I’d seen her keys. Now my stomach churned, anger turning into rage. Something had happened to her. God help the asshole who hurt her. I grabbed one of the towels, wrapping the glass inside before slamming my fist on the counter. Even Calen’s words hadn’t resonated completely with me. He had certain doubts himself, creating more in my mind.

There had to be someone Bryce would have talked to. Fuck me.

Her friend.

Becca something.

Huffing, I realized I knew someone by that name from one hell of a long time ago. Was it possible it was the same girl I’d spent some time with years before? I couldn’t rule out anything. I jumped in the truck, making a call to 4-1-1 as I turned over the engine. “Operator, I need the number for Becca Sampson, a local attorney in Missoula, Montana.”

When the computer generated the number, connecting me immediately, I pressed down on the accelerator as I dialed the number. I didn’t believe in coincidences. Maybe fate was working overtime.

The sultry voice was one that brought back memories, the time I’d shared with her special even if there’d been no way we could maintain the limited relationship. Still, I felt as if karma was ripping a hole in my ass. “Becca, this is Jake Travers. I think we have a mutual friend, Bryce Myers. I need to meet you immediately. Period. This meeting will happen.” After rattling off one of the local bars I remembered, I almost laughed. I hoped like hell it was still there.

As I drove, I tried Bryce’s number again. Voicemail. “Bryce, it’s Hawk. Don’t shut me out. I have some new information that you will find very interesting. Call me.”

I tossed the phone as I turned onto the entrance for the highway. There could be a very good explanation for why Bryce wasn’t answering her phone. Yeah, like she had no intention of talking with me again. Sucking in my breath, I reminded myself that the one thing I’d always been good at were my instincts with people. I’d known when they were lying or if they’d been too afraid to ask for help.

I barreled down the highway, another memory surfacing, one I’d prefer to leave in the dark hallows of the past. A guttural sound rushed up from the tight confines of my throat as I thought about Snake. Ricardo Garcia, although the nickname suited him well. He’d been able to slither into any size hole or dark confines, his expertise in explosives making him invaluable. Damn, he was good at what he did. He’d been two years younger than the rest of us, a kid hell bent on trailing behind the posse, no matter the kind of trouble we might get him into. I’d been the only one to give him the time of day. I’d also been a bad influence on him, even introducing the guy to smoking weed.

I laughed as I shifted past several of the slower moving vehicles. Now, I couldn’t fathom smoking a joint.

Hell, Snake had been a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet when he’d gone to boot camp, just a scared little kid in search of the same kind of answers the rest of us had been.

His superiors had said he’d never survive the first day.

But he had.

Others joked he’d run home to Mommy after a single week.

But he’d remained, even on top of the leader board on several of the tough physical tests he and his fellow recruits had been given.

By week four, he’d been given a small amount of respect for tolerating the extensive heat and excruciating pain he’d been forced to endure. I gripped the steering wheel hard, twisting my hands and I remembered seeing him for the first time after several months. He’d been almost unrecognizable from his weight gain and three additional inches in height.

When he’d been called to serve, he hadn’t hesitated. I glared into the rearview mirror, trying to expel my disturbing thoughts. This was the last thing I needed today. My mind was already muddled. Still, maybe part of my penance was remembering every detail about him.

The day he’d been assigned to my platoon years later, the man who’d already earned his moniker was entirely different. Dark and foreboding, whatever he’d seen in combat experience he hadn’t been forthcoming with. Then again, none of us wanted to talk about our wretched experiences, the darkness surrounding our very souls.

I noticed a sign for the exit and moved into the right lane. I had to find a way to fight the demons that remained lurking inside or I’d be useless in attempting to help the beautiful woman who’d touched my heart.

I was surprised that after all these years Razzies still existed. It had been the bar I’d retreated to the day before I’d left for boot camp. I’d been the one to leave for the service last, fighting my way through two years of college while working on my father’s ranch. I’d barely hit twenty-one, but I was determined to make a damn difference.

Walking inside the aging joint brought back even more memories. None of them were the kind I wanted to remember, my father hunting me down, expressing his anger once again at the fact I was leaving town. Then there’d been my brother remaining in the car like the dutiful son, watching as my father issued the only punch in the face he’d ever given me.

As I searched the scraggly bunch at the bar, I had to smile. Everything appeared exactly the same after all these years. The one good thing about the location was that I doubted it was frequented by anyone who might be on the suspect list.

I finally noticed Becca sitting on the edge of a chair, her body pensive as she glared at one of the old televisions hanging on the wall. In front of her was a glass of wine and what I knew had to be bourbon. She remembered. Her body stiffened more when I approached, her entire face as tense as her body language. At least she offered a smile.

“Jake,” she said half under her breath. “It’s good to see you.”

The awkwardness between us was just as I’d expected, especially since I hadn’t said goodbye before leaving. “You look amazing.” I eased the folded towel containing the shard of glass onto the table and her eyes were immediately drawn to it.

She licked her lips then looked away, no longer the demure young woman I’d known before. Her suit was expensive, her long blonde hair woven tightly into a bun. Even her manicure screamed of power and wealth, although I figured she was dressing the part for her job. “You called me sounding desperate. What’s going on with Bryce?” She tentatively took a sip of wine, wincing afterwards.

The way she issued the words meant she already knew that Bryce and I were close. At least that saved a part of my explanation. I also suspected given her amount of tension that she had a general idea why I’d called her. I eased onto the chair opposite her, first scanning the room to make certain I didn’t recognize anyone. As if I could after all these years.

“Have you seen Bryce today?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation casual. I swirled the glass, not interested in the least in consuming any alcohol.

Not until Bryce was found.

“No. Why?”

“But she did come to see you before.”

Becca gave me one of the very glares I remembered her for. At least her saucy personality hadn’t changed. “Yes, she came to see me. We’re friends. Why?”

“Let’s not do the usual dance, Becca. Bryce is in trouble, but I think you already knew that.”

“Bryce can take care of herself. Don’t you dare think otherwise. She’s a good girl, so why don’t you leave her alone?”

Her caustic words were just what I would have expected. “Look. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“You never promised me white picket fences and puppy dogs, Jake. I moved on and so did you.”

I shook my head, frustrated the conversation was so damn adversarial. “Fine. You’re right. We both moved on. We were both too young and I certainly wasn’t the kind of guy you needed or deserved. As far as Bryce, you need to tell me not only what you told her, but what you didn’t tell her. I’m not leaving here until you do.”

Becca crossed her arms. “And just why should I do that?”

I leaned forward, narrowing my eyes. “Because Bryce is missing.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“She left my house early this morning. When she did, she left the kind of note that just didn’t sit well with me.”

“You mean you pissed her off,” she retorted. “I wouldn’t worry about her. She seems to be able to take care of herself.”

I cocked my head, trying to control my breathing. “You might not be taking this seriously, Becca, but I am. Bryce is in danger and if I have to turn this entire goddamn town upside down, I’m going to do it. Now, I am very well aware that you told her just enough, including about my sister-in-law’s death to put a fuse up her ass. As you might have figured out, she’s tenacious as hell. While she didn’t write that damn article, her name is splashed all over it. That means that if there is some group of individuals behind not only the recent fires but ones that occurred in the past, then you are going to tell me every detail of what you know.”

I allowed the words to settle in as her mouth twisted both out of frustration as well as fear. “She didn’t write the article?”

“No. Her boss put her notes into some kind of report and sent it out without her permission. What was mentioned on the news broadcast was supposed to be expanded on. Bryce refused since she didn’t have anything concrete to report. Now, are you going to help me?”

“I don’t know if I can do that, Jake.”

“You mean you won’t.”

She rolled her eyes. “You just don’t understand.”

“I think I do. You and whatever team you have working with you are investigating the people behind the fires. Maybe the sheriff. Maybe the fire chief of one of the firehouses. Hell, my guess would be this bullshit goes all the way to the city government.”

“You can’t go spouting off shit like that, Jake,” she hissed under her breath, but I knew her tone well enough to enough the DA was looking closely at all the parties I’d mentioned.

I lifted an eyebrow. “You’re afraid.”

“Of course I am. This has been ongoing for a long time.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Jaime was murdered for what she’d learned two years ago. Wasn’t she?” When she didn’t answer right away, I yanked the glass of wine out of her hand. “My brother lost his life trying to put the pieces together. Nothing is going to happen to Bryce. Do you hear me? Tell. Me.” The volume of my voice had increased enough that several of the customers glanced in our direction. I shrank back, still giving her a harsh glare.

She smoothed down her blouse, looking in every direction but at me. “I care about Bryce. She’s a good friend.”

“Then fuckin’ talk to me.”

“Just hold on. You have no idea what kind of a position you put me in.”

“Damn it, Becca. You know as well as I do that the kind of people who wouldn’t give a damn about killing firefighters and risking an investigation by an independent source would have no issue eliminating loose ends.”

Another ten seconds passed.

“Yeah, you’re right. I tried to warn her to stay away but she doesn’t have any regard to rules or even danger. The people involved with this are dangerous with a capital D,” Becca whispered.

“They killed Jaime?”

Exhaling, the sound scattered, she bit her lower lip. “I don’t think she was supposed to be inside the building. It was late. Jaime was doing a favor for her boss because they had a court date the next day, at least from what I was told. As you might imagine, the case had to be dropped. Then things went very quiet.”

“Interesting.” And exactly what Calen had told me. “Why did your office start the investigation two years later?”

“An anonymous tip. Names spouted off. My boss wanted nothing to do with it until the first fire occurred four months ago, but no connection was found. With the recent fires, the investigation became full blown, but we have to be very meticulous about collecting evidence.”

“Because many of the players involved are part of the rich and famous in Missoula?”

Nodding, she placed her hands on the table, fidgeting. “Very much so. Their power and influence stretches far and wide.”

I could only imagine the kind of people she was talking about. “Including the owners of the buildings?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s our belief they are actually pawns, paid to have their names placed on forged deeds.”

“What it is about these buildings, the land? Why not just tear them down?”

“It’s not that simple either. Yes, the land is far more valuable than the buildings, but if an owner tore the building town, they’d have to replace it with something approved by the historical society. There’s an updated clause in the city’s building codes that states if a building burns, the owner can start from scratch.”

I laughed. “Let me guess, this new clause was pushed into law by a politician who might or might not have something to do with this.”

“It’s not funny. It’s terrifying the way a group of individuals have been able to manipulate various departments over several years in order to push forth a monstrous agenda. The buildings are just the tip of the iceberg, at least that’s our belief.” Her hand was shaking.

“I’ll well aware of just how dangerous this situation is, Becca. My niece lost both her parents to this asshole. What I want from you is a list of who is involved.”

“You know I can’t do that.” Her upper lip twitched just like it had when she wasn’t telling the truth.

“My God. You don’t know everyone, you only suspect.”

“I told you we had to be meticulous but no, we aren’t certain.”

I pushed away the glass, more frustrated than before. “You must have some inclination. Even if all the evidence was lost two years ago, what about the other people involved in working on the case?”

“We have suspicions, Jake, but if we don’t have evidence to convict everyone involved, they’ll shut down their operation. With the fake owners in place, they’ll be able to get away with it. No judge in the world will allow us access to bank accounts or other financial records on suspicions.” Even in the dim lighting of the bar, I could see her face paling.

“And the attorneys involved before?” I whispered in a hoarse tone.

Becca closed her eyes before answering. “Jaime’s boss was killed less than two weeks later, hit and run. The legal assistant quit her job and moved out of town shortly thereafter. They were the only three with knowledge regarding what was in the files.”

“That’s why the case was dropped.” Jesus Christ. These assholes were prepared to kill anyone who got in their way.

“Absolutely. So you see, our office has to be certain before we act and we’re not ready to do that. We just don’t have enough evidence.”

“There was a witness at the last fire.”

Becca laughed. “You’ve been busy, Jake. Yes, there was a witness and I assure you that she’s been questioned. Oddly enough, she changed her story when the detectives went to see her.”

“The bastards got to her. Cleaning up loose ends.”

She nodded, her jaw clenching.

“Fuck.” I thought about what Calen had told me. “That’s why they’re after Bryce. They think she found something.”

“And my guess is that they’ll come after you too. Your brother wasn’t tight-lipped about the fact he was gunning for whoever was responsible for burning down the building where Jaime died. He certainly didn’t make any friends by tossing around accusations. The people responsible might think Drake left you with whatever he claimed he was working on. I’d watch your back.”

Exhaling, I had to face the realization that without any scrap of evidence, the group could continue working in secrecy. “I’ll see what I can do to get you that evidence.”

Reaching over, she grasped my hand. “Jake. You can’t do anything stupid. You have Ashley to think about.”

I gazed down at her hold then pulled my hand away. “That’s exactly why I’m doing this. We need to locate Bryce. Her truck isn’t anywhere to be found.”

“I’ll ask around, see if anyone has talked with her, but even the sheriff’s office won’t take it seriously until it’s been at least twenty-four hours. I can also have a few of the buddies on the force I know keep a watchful eye for her truck. That’s all I can do at this point.”

Not that I wanted to talk to them at this point, but I would if I needed to.

After pushing the towel in her direction, I lowered my voice. “I found this in her house. There’s blood on the glass. You need to have this analyzed to see who it belongs to.”

Gasping, her eyes opened wide. “Oh, my God. You really think she was taken?”

“Yeah, I do.” I eased to my feet. “And that pipsqueak of a producer is to blame for it.”

“Why don’t you let me talk to him?” she asked, a look of defiance shifting into her eyes.

“Fine with me. I’m done talking with him. Name’s Jason Keller.”

“Keller,” she mused. “I wonder if he’s any relation to Nathanial Keller.”

“Which is?”

“Jaime’s boss.”

I’d always known there were secrets within every family and organization, ugly things that if they got out into the public, could ruin people. Reputations shot. My stomach turned at the thought of just how many existed in Missoula. The pieces were starting to fall together.

After rustling in her purse, she looked up at me before sliding two business cards and a pen in my direction. I could tell her eyes fell to the weapon I was wearing. “I know you have my work number, but this is my cell. Why don’t you write down your number so I can let you know about the DNA? I’m worried about both you and Bryce. Don’t do anything stupid.”

I glanced at the card before pulling the one into my fingers and tucking it into my back pocket. Leaning over, I scribbled my number. “I have no intention of it.”

Unless protecting the woman I loved by any means was stupid.

Everything.

I thought back to what Mr. Weatherby had said about how close Jaime and Drake were. If I had to make an assumption, I’d say he’d provided a hint. Drake wouldn’t have started anything with the fire department unless he had a damn good reason, not just because of despair.

Evidence. What if Jaime had brought her work home, sharing what she’d found with her husband? And what if Drake had insisted that certain copies be made? I wouldn’t put it past my brother to wipe his own computer in case something happened, but he wouldn’t destroy the information either.

There was no other choice but Ashley’s room. As I walked up the stairs, I felt the same pang as I had before, although this time I had no difficulty walking inside. I couldn’t wait to have her here. In her own space. In the little room her parents had created. While a part of me was still uncomfortable searching through her things, doing so was something I had to do. Every instinct told me that Bryce’s life depended on it.

After a few minutes of searching, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in the room itself, which left the closet. After removing the various boxes on the top shelf, I was able to see a small access panel in the ceiling. I was just able to reach the outside edge and by using the knife on my switchblade, I managed to pry it open. Nothing fell out. Damn it.

Turning toward the room, I grabbed Ashley’s vanity chair, hoping it would hold my weight. While barely managing to get it just inside the doorway, the lift was just enough to allow me to place my hand several inches into the darkened space. When my fingers hit some kind of a small box, I took a deep breath.

I wasn’t a praying man, had never been, but on this afternoon, I did just that.

The box was metal, the clasp unlocked. I eased it onto her vanity, opening it slowly. I issued a husky growl seeing two jump drives, a key to something as well as several folded pieces of paper. Stapled to the front was a note from Drake.

Jake,

I have no doubt you’re the one who found this. You know me too well and I know you will search until you find answers. If you are reading this, it means that I was right in my assumptions and I’m gone. I’ve provided evidence that I trust you will know what to do with. You were always an honorable man, someone I looked up to. I know you’ll take good care of my little girl and I hope in time, you’ll tell her about me. I placed Jaime’s things in a storage unit. The key is inside the box. You’ll find the unit number and address in my corporate papers in the office. You’ll know the right time when to show Ashley her mother’s things.

I hope you’ll find your way, Jake, and I am so sorry about the last time we talked. I hope you’ll forgive me.

Your brother always, Drake

There was no way to hold back the tears or the flood of memories as they crushed in on me. I held the paper to my chest, longing for just a few minutes to spend with him. The emotions were too raw, my heart aching for time lost and guilt that had kept me from reaching out. As another round of anger took over, I shoved the key and the drives into my pocket then yanked the papers into my hand.

As I walked down the stairs, I shifted from one document to the other, scanning the contents. When I got to the last page, I froze, my heart racing.

“No.” Jesus fucking Christ. No fucking way.

I ran outside, jumping into the truck, starting the engine as I struggled to yank Becca’s card into my hand. Another goddamn voicemail. “Becca, I have all the evidence you need. I know exactly who has Bryce.”

After rattling off the information, I dialed another number, slamming my foot on the accelerator. I would find the asshole’s address, no matter what I had to do.

I only prayed to God it wasn’t too late.

One way or the other, the motherfucker was going down.

Chapter Fifteen

Bryce

Help me.

I mentally called out to Hawk, the only thing that I could do. I only hoped his instinct was as good as I knew it to be. He had to find me. Please, God. Please. I shifted in the chair, the simple twist managing to tighten the ropes surrounding my wrists. A cold chill shifted down my spine, my entire body aching, my legs beginning to cramp from being tied to the legs for several hours.

All I could think about was Hawk.

I should have listened to him.

There was no way of knowing when the asshole would return. He’d grilled me before leaving, insistent that I had information that would expose him. I’d been so stupid going back to my house. I’d fallen into a trap after receiving the last text. The jerk had known I’d be incensed, furious enough that I would continue trying to find out who the hell he was. That he hadn’t killed me meant one thing.

He wanted to find out what I knew before doing so.

Then he’d left in a hurry.

I tried once again to maneuver the rope, but the pain shooting up my arms was biting. There would be no one to come to my rescue. No one would hear me if I screamed. I’d been able to see out the front window before he’d yanked the blinds closed. The house was surrounded by woods. I also couldn’t be certain Hawk wouldn’t be angry with me, shutting everything off, including his sixth sense.

But God, I hoped not.

I closed my eyes, thinking about the night we’d shared, the glorious feeling of being in his arms. If only I’d stayed with him. If only I’d trusted what we’d already shared together.

If only.

I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit here and wait to die. Scanning the room, I tried to figure out if there was anything that I could use to get myself free. The edge of the bricks on the fireplace. It was worth a try. I had eight feet or so to scoot. After taking a deep breath, I planted my feet against the floor, hoping I could get enough leverage. Then I willed myself to move.

Four inches later and my legs stiffened. Hell, no, I wasn’t stopping. I shifted again, making it another four or five inches. Fuck. At this rate the asshole would be back.

No doubt to kill me.

I sucked in air then attempted to lift my hips, this time able to scoot almost an entire foot. Yes. Yes!

“Come on,” I whispered, my throat parched, shocked at the amount of exertion I’d already expended. I repeated the move, making it well over a foot before being forced to take a break. A laugh bubbled to the surface as I thought about Hawk being tied to the chair. Hell, no. He’d free himself in thirty seconds, likely managing to dig out a pocketknife or some kind of dangerous weapon. Then again, he wouldn’t have been so stupid as to tussle with a bad guy.

At least I’d cut the fucker with the glass. That had been the last thing I’d remembered until I’d awakened tied to the damn chair.

I made it another foot then a second. I was almost there. Hell, yes, I could do this. Keep going. Keep going. After few deep breaths, another six inches. More air, another eight inches. Excitement surged through me as I drew closer. I was forced to rest again then lunged toward the fireplace, making it to within a few inches. Almost. Come on, girl. You can do this.

By the time I jerked around so my back was to the fireplace, I was nearly spent, my heart racing. I looked over my shoulder then stretched my arms as far as they would go, rubbing the rope up and down. The angle was atrocious, my shoulders instantly killing me, but I had to continue. After several scrapes, I realized I was rubbing off portions of skin.

But I kept going.

A minute passed. Then two.

Three.

I dropped my head, gasping for air, my hands and wrists aching like a son of a bitch.

A few seconds later, I heard the crunch of gravel. The bastard had returned. Fuck. I worked the rope desperately, ignoring the cries of anguish in my arms. The slam of the vehicle door made me jump, but I refused to stop. When the door opened, the jerk didn’t bother to look in my direction. He was on the phone.

“Yeah. I know exactly what I have to do. I doubt I’m going to get anything out of her.”

He seemed exasperated as he paced the floor, rubbing his hand through his hair.

“Hell, no. I’m getting paid more for this shit then I’m out. I’m finished being your lackey.” He slammed his fist against the wall. “Goddamn you! I’ve done everything you asked. This is going too fucking far. You can find somebody else. You…” His words trailed off and he smashed his fist against the wall several times, screaming his frustration.

“Fuck all of you! Fuck. You!”

I could see his shoulders heaving as he took several deep breaths. Very carefully I continued the process. The slight tug made me realize I’d cut through a portion of the rope. I worked faster, trying desperately to remain as quiet as possible.

Then he turned around.

Oh, no. Fuck.

“What the fuck did you do?” Storming toward me, his face riddled with fury, he snarled before lifting his arm. “You bitch. I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing, but I am finished with this.” He fisted my hair, prepared to drag me away.

The rope snapped and on adrenaline only, I shoved my hands against his chest, the force and surprise just enough to pitch him backward.

He roared, the sound of his bellow like a caged animal.

I hunkered over, keeping my eye on him as I struggled with the rope attached to my legs. Please. Please. Please…

Stumbling to his feet, he lumbered forward, yanking a gun from his waistband. “I guess you and me need to get this going. Where’s the evidence?”

“I already told you, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, you do. I can see you’re going to play games with me.” He lifted the gun, removing the safety and pointing the barrel toward my head. “You better start talking.”

“I don’t know anything. I was guessing. Okay?”

Pop! Pop!

My scream floated into the air, my entire body shaking. He’d purposely shifted his aim, the two bullets going just over my head. Jesus. Stars rushed in front of my eyes, my mind reeling. There was nothing I could do but stall. “Okay. I can take you to it.”

“Where the fuck is it, Ms. Myers? I’m finished playing games.”

“You won’t be able to get access to the building without me.” Dear God, I only hoped he believed me.

“I know better,” he said, laughing. “You wouldn’t be so stupid as to keep it in your office.”

“I didn’t say the office. Did I?”

He cocked his head, lifting his arm to strike me. “You need a lesson in manners.”

Boom!

The rumble was enough to draw his attention. I swung my head around, a silent scream now pushing past my lips.

Hawk…

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Calen.” Hawk took long strides into the room, the front door nearly ripped off its hinges from his force.

Calen swung the weapon back in my direction, a grin crossing his face. “You can either put that gun down, Hawk, or I’ll have no choice but to shoot her. There is no way you can kill me and save her.”

“It would seem that you’ve underestimated my skills, Calen. After all, I am a crack shot.”

I held my breath, able to hear the sound of sirens in the distance.

“You know what?” Calen asked as he inched closer to me. “I think I’ll take that chance.”

Pop!

The single shot was followed by an intense wail, the asshole screaming as he was tossed to the floor, blood already soaking through his jeans. I blinked several times in an effort to focus as Hawk rushed over, kicking the gun out of Calen’s reach. I finally recognized the man from the fire station. Oh, my God. Another firefighter.

As Hawk stood over Calen, I remained frozen.

“You’re an asshole, Calen. You really thought you could fool me? You weren’t the informant. You were the man hired to set the fires. What happened, buddy? Did you learn the expertise from your father?”

Calen moaned in pain, holding his shattered arm.

“You okay, baby?” he asked, tipping his head in my direction.

“You’re late,” I managed as tears slipped from my eyes.

“Yeah, I had a few things to do.”

I could hear the slam of several doors, footsteps as people rushed into the room.

“Put your gun down!” one of the deputies shouted.

“It’s okay. He’s the good guy,” I offered meekly.

“I said, put your gun down!” the deputy repeated.

Hawk winked then reached behind him, waiting until someone took the weapon from his hand before raising his arms. “Don’t worry, baby.”

“Turn around,” the deputy instructed as others rushed forward, moving over Calen.

As directed, Hawk turned around and I was able to see one of the deputies smiling. “I’ll be damned. If it isn’t Jake Travers. I heard you were back in town. Same troublemaker as always, I see,” he chortled as he lowered his weapon.

“You know some things never change, Steve,” Hawk answered.

“What the fuck happened here?” Steve asked as he moved closer.

“The answer to who started the recent fires. I think Calen might be helpful and I’ve got some evidence for the district attorney.”

“I heard you had something big.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to untie the woman I love.” Hawk shifted his gaze in my direction and for the first time, the darkness had been lifted from his eyes.

“Yeah, I think that’ll be all right,” the deputy said as he smiled. “Hey, boys, we got ourselves a regular hero in our midst.”

Hawk huffed then moved toward me, scooting the chair away from Calen. As he took my face into his hands, he shook his head. “You gave me an awful scare.”

As I placed my hands on his, the tears refused to stop falling. “You know me. Once a brat, always a brat.”

“That you are,” he whispered as he pressed his lips against mine. For a few precious seconds, there was no one else in the room, the only sound the rapid beating of my heart. And for those amazing seconds, I could feel love mixed in with the astonishing electricity.

He eased back, his eyes glistening. “Let’s get you out of here.”

I could only smile as he untied my legs, lifting me into his massive arms.

My lover.

My protector.

The man who’d captured my heart.

Three days later

“Famous,” Hawk half whispered as he glanced in my direction.

“What does that mean?” I asked as I studied him. The day was just as beautiful as the last time we were here, fluffy white clouds in the sky, the water trickling over the rocks by the shore, and Gracie munching on grass near a large oak tree. What could be more perfect?

I certainly didn’t take Hawk as being romantic. After all, he was a big hulking Marine with a chip on his shoulder, but he’d surprised me by suggesting a ride to the lake. Granted, he’d been reflective over the last few days, likely still attempting to put Drake’s death into some perspective. I wasn’t entirely certain what to say to him. What we’d been through had brought us closer together, even if he’d talked very little, often going outside to stare at the sky.

He pushed his phone toward me, his eyes shimmering and his grin full of mischief.

“This is a gorgeous day and you have your nose buried in your phone?” I asked quietly as I tingled all over from the sultry look he was giving me. The horrible events were behind us, three full days passing, the man more protective than ever. The truth was he refused to let me out of his sight. I had no idea where he got the idea that I was fragile, but he would only allow me so much space.

While my abduction had been frightening, the firefighter turned arsonist had pissed me off more than anything. At least he’d offered corroborating evidence to the sheriff, who as it turned out was one of the good guys. Along with the evidence that Hawk’s brother had kept, the sweep of arrests had stunned the city. Two city council members and several prominent business leaders had been arrested, their involvement still coming to light.

Sadly, Calen had taken my truck, forcing the gear into drive then watching as it tumbled down the side of the mountain. He’d planned for my complete disappearance.

While the fire inspector had been shocked that his son had been the arsonist as well as kidnapper, I’d gathered the poor man had blamed himself for not figuring it out. After all, he’d taken Calen on several of his investigations, explaining in detail what he looked for in arson cases.

Then there’d been the informant. The fire chief, the man I’d believed to be one of the culprits. While he hadn’t been certain who was involved, he figured it had to be a firefighter. He’d taken a significant risk in order to do the right thing.

“You never know what kind of an important call that I might receive, sweetheart,” he said as his nostrils flared.

“Uh-huh. You’re all that and a bag of chips, I see.”

He studied me intently as I reached for his phone, another shiver trickling down my spine from the light touch. The man had the ability to turn up the heat without trying. As I glanced at the screen, I exhaled. The article I’d written had reached several mainstream news locations, including Philadelphia. While I was happy for the extensive coverage, being on the front pages didn’t have the same effect I thought it would. Maybe fame and fortune didn’t have the same glow as it once did. I’d even managed to laugh when an email had arrived on my business account from my sister congratulating me. As my mama always told me, what goes around comes around.

At least I’d done the right thing and provided my best wishes on her recent marriage.

Yeah, they’d be divorced in a year.

“Does that mean you’re angry with me?” I asked, trying to keep my tone full of innocence. The fact he’d packed a light picnic, including remembering to bring a blanket had given me another moment of pause. The man seemed to be full of surprises, enticing me even more. I slid the phone onto the blanket, dragging my tongue across my lips on purpose

He leaned over, placing his index finger under my chin. “I’m angry with you for lying to me.”

“When? Who, me?”

Shaking his head, he pulled the hair behind my shoulders before gripping them. “When you left here early the other morning. Remember the note you placed on the refrigerator? Remember the words you said, as if you didn’t care about the fabulous sex we’d just had?” He narrowed his eyes, his breathing scattered.

“Oh, that.” I rolled my eyes on purpose. “You know I didn’t mean what I said.”

He snickered but kept his authoritative look. “That may be true; however, it’s not going to get you out of one hard spanking.”

“But I’m injured,” I said, pouting as I held up my chafed hands.

“Let me think,” he said, glancing toward the sky for a few seconds. “Nope. That’s not gonna do it either.”

“What if I promise to suck your cock?”

“Well…” he muttered. “You will be doing that later but the attempt at bribery is just going to garner you several additional smacks across that beautiful backside of yours.”

“Pu-lease?” I teased and shifted onto my hip, pressing a series of kisses over his mouth and cheek.

“You do drive me crazy.” His whisper tingled every part of me, goosebumps rising on my arms. Every time he touched me, my body sizzled from the heat and desire. Today was no different. I wanted to feel his cock buried inside, his hands exploring every inch of me. And God, I wanted to taste him.

I yelped when he yanked me over his lap, his hand coming down in rapid motions. “Ouch!”

“Didn’t I tell you before that spankings are supposed to hurt?”

“You are so mean.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, sweetheart.” He continued the spanking, moving from side to side.

While the sting was harsh, my pussy quivered, my nipples pushing against my tight tee shirt. I closed my eyes, my mind falling to delicious and very filthy places. Tonight, I just might beg him to ravish my body.

“I think you need to lower your shorts. No, I know you do.” He slipped his fingers under the edge of the material, ticking my thighs.

Moaning, I knew there was no way to get out of this. He’d been lenient over the couple of days, but I knew that was about to end for good.

After all, I belonged to him.

Every. Square. Inch.

“I think someone is very wet,” he whispered as he managed to slip the tip of his finger past my swollen folds.

Another whimper left my mouth as I opened my legs further, my heart skipping beats as the desire began to build. “Yes.”

He gave me another hard swat. “Yes?”

“Yes, sir!” I quickly correctly, a smile crossing my face.

“Suck a naughty little brat,” he mused. He issued a couple of additional swats. “Go on. Do as I say.”

I crawled off his lap and onto my knees, keeping the pout on my face.

“That’s not going to do a thing, brat girl. I suggest you do as you’re told, or your punishment is going to be a lot worse.”

“So mean,” I huffed, glaring at him as he reached for his belt.

The sound of the phone made me squeal inside. A reprieve.

Hissing, Hawk reached for his cellphone, smiling when he noticed the caller before answering. “Brenda. I was going to call you in a little bit.”

I bit my lip as I watched him. Every time he called about Ashley, he wore a huge smile. I couldn’t wait to meet the precious little girl who’d already stolen a portion of his heart.

“Hmmm… Ashley. Mr. Bear told me what a good girl you’ve been. Have you been sharing Brenda’s famous chocolate chip cookies with him?” he asked, darting a look in my direction, a wry grin on his face. “He has a very big appetite so make certain you give him a bite of your food.”

I could see the mixture of concern as well as a heightened level of anxiety. Even his shoulders sagged after a full thirty seconds. “Well, just remember that you can talk to Mr. Bear anytime. No one else has to hear what you’re saying. He does love you, Ashley, just like Unkie Jake does.”

He shifted his gaze in my direction, shaking his head slightly.

“Give her some time,” I whispered, knowing that his heart was breaking from not being able to get through to her.

“Okay, honey. I’ll come see you really soon. Okay? You be a good girl for Ms. Brenda.” After ending the call, he held the phone against his head. “What if I can never get through to her?”

“I don’t have any doubt you will. Mr. Bear, huh? Seems like you took my advice.”

Chuckling, he tossed the phone onto the blanket. “You might have a few good ideas.”

“Might, huh?” I asked as I slowly eased the tee shirt over my head, immediately sliding my hands down to my breasts, cupping both. Closing my eyes, I undulated my hips as I pinched my nipples.

“That’s still not going to get you out of your spanking,” he muttered, the tone husky and dripping with lust.

I kicked off my shoes, laughing when both hit him in the chest. “You sure about that?”

He pushed the shoes away, folding and hugging his knees as he watched me. “What do you have in mind?”

I kept my eyes pinned on him as I unfastened my jean shorts. There was nothing like seeing a man in a tight shirt accentuating his bulging muscles. Let alone the faded jeans that refused to hide all the juicy goodness that God had given him. I was fueled by my own raging hunger, a longing to have our naked bodies melded together.

“You’re going to have to wait to find out,” I whispered before shimmying the material down my hips, the tug taking my thong at the same time. When I stood naked in front of him, I concentrated on his guttural low-slung growls as I twisted my hair into a makeshift bun. “Are you game?”

“For anything, sunshine. You forget who you’re talking to.”

Winking, I backed up several steps before turning and heading directly to the water. I could tell by the slight gasp he was shocked at my boldness.

The moment I placed a single foot into the cool stream, shivers rushed into every inch of my body, the water freezing cold. But I knew one hunk of a man would keep me warm. I continued walking, biting back a moan as the ripples lapped at my legs. When the water was finally deep enough, I lowered all the way down, swimming several lengths away before turning to face him.

“Are you chicken?” I asked. Oh, I’d pay for that later.

He shook his head before rising to his feet, grabbing the neck of his shirt and yanking it off. Within seconds, he was fully naked, allowing me to enjoy the sight of him for only a limited time before stalking toward the lake.

His cock was fully engorged, the tip glistening in the bright sunlight. My mouth watered at the thought of sucking on him, draining every delicious drop of cum. I knew that would have to wait.

For now.

He would have his way with me and there was nothing I wanted more.

When he was close, I shifted, diving into the water in an effort to keep him on the run. I should have known better, his strong arms wrapping around me within nanoseconds. He dragged me toward him as he pulled me to the surface.

His face reminded me of the big bad wolf that he believed himself to be. Sexy.

Seductive.

Dangerous.

He shifted his hand to my hair, further untangling the bun. “I like your hair long, wild like the woman I know and need to tame.”

Why was every word that came out of his mouth dripping with possession? I rolled my hand over his shoulder to his neck, sliding my fingers into his short cropped hair. “I think you should allow yours to grow, now that you’re a cowboy and all. You already have the beard.” I gave him a naughty girl grin as I shifted my gaze to his face. He’d yet to shave, as if attempting to corral his rebellious side.

A side of him I definitely adored.

“I guess I’ll have to keep that in mind,” he said under his breath. “Cause I am definitely not leaving. Someone needs to keep you in line.” He pulled me closer, wrapping his hand under my bottom.

“I’m glad,” I managed as I wrapped my legs around him, my smile fading. “I heard what you said when you rescued me, you know. You can’t deny it.”

“I said a lot of things, sweetheart. Which comment are you talking about? That I’d kill Calen if he ever came within one hundred yards of you or that I wanted to do more than shatter his arm?” His smile faded when I didn’t react immediately.

“You know exactly what I mean, Hawk. I know this is crazy between us, but I have to know if what you said is true. It’s important to me. I can’t go through with another betrayal. I just don’t have it in me. If you don’t want this, I can understand. Just let me know.”

“Did anyone ever tell you that you talk too much?” Hawk shook his head.

I hated the nervous tic that appeared in the corner of my mouth, a weakness that I’d fought to eradicate, like the majority of the woman I used to be. He brought everything to the surface.

Every joy.

Every pain.

Every longing for the future.

He cupped my chin, rubbing his thumb aimlessly back and forth. “You mean the world to me. I can’t imagine spending another day without you in my life. As long as you understand that I’m no longer alone. I have Ashley to think about. That might be too much baggage for you. I also have demons, Bryce, and they’re not going away. The nightmares are real to me.”

“Maybe I can help you.”

“I wish you could, but this is my burden to bear, not yours.”

“Remember something, Hawk. When you care for someone the way I care about you, you’ll do anything to take away the anguish, no matter how difficult it might be. When you’re ready to talk to me, I’m here to listen.”

Sighing, he slid his hand under my hair, wrapping his fingers around my neck. “I do love you, Bryce. Maybe I shouldn’t. I definitely don’t know how to be good at this, but I can tell you that I’d like to spend the rest of my life with you.”

His words were chilling. While I knew there was no such thing as perfect, I wanted nothing more than to enjoy every day with the man I loved.

“Then make love to me.”

Everything about Hawk was powerful, including the way he held me, his fingers digging into my skin. I was safer in his arms than anywhere else in the world. I kept my legs tightly wrapped around his hips as he lowered his head, holding me in place as he blew across my mouth and chin.

“What am I going to do with such a naughty girl?” he whispered.

“Anything you want.”

As he crushed his mouth over mine, pulling me even closer to the head of his body, I closed my eyes. The shared moment of passion sizzled just under the surface, the kiss so controlled. He shifted his hips back and forth, making certain I knew exactly what he wanted to do to me.

Everything about his hold screamed of domination, a man who’d never let me go. I clung to him as our tongues entwined, slicing back and forth. I could do this for hours, simply enjoying the moment.

And I’d been right. He’d heated up my body within seconds, driving shots of raw electricity into every cell and muscle. As he twirled me in circles, the light breeze and delicious scents added to the incredible atmosphere. I couldn’t believe we were here together, enjoying the simple act of being in each other’s arms.

A moan slipped from my mouth into his, my nipples aching to the point of pain, the weight of his body adding fuel to the fire. I swished my hips, scattered prickles dancing along every inch of naked skin.

He broke the kiss, entangling his fingers in my hair as he shook his head. “You’re being naughty.”

“And you’re complaining?”

He yanked my hair, exposing my breasts from the water. “Oh, not at all, lady.”

I noticed the look in his eyes before he dropped his head, suckling on my nipple. Gasping, I gazed at the gorgeous blue sky, wondering if there could ever be anything better than this. I felt like I was floating, the water tickling as it rolled over me, no longer chilly in the least. He sucked and nipped on my tender flesh before brushing his lips to my other hardened bud, taking his time swirling his tongue in lazy circles.

My mind was empty, my heart bursting from the series of emotions, yet my hunger knew no bounds. I crawled my hand down his chest, able to tease the tip of his cock with the end of my index finger. His shaft throbbed and was scorching to the touch, searing my fingers.

“I keep telling you to be careful, little girl, but you don’t seem to want to listen.” Hawk lifted me by the hips, immediately bringing me down on the full length of his cock.

“Ah. Yes. Yes!” I threw my head back, watching as droplets of water flew into the air. I could feel him swelling inside, filling me completely. Everything was a beautiful image, the colors suddenly brighter and the chirping birds more musical. I gasped as my muscles stretched then clamped around his thickness, drawing him further into my aching channel.

“God, you feel so good. My tight little pussy,” he huffed.

“Yours, huh?”

“All. Mine.”

He jutted his hips forward, thrusting into me hard and fast, the water splashing over our heated bodies. We were on fire together and I could swear there was steam rising from the surface. As he turned us around and around, we became as one, our bodies a beautiful cataclysm of fire dancing in the breeze.

“I want you to come for me, baby. Come with me,” he commanded as he rubbed my cheek, his eyes darting back and forth.

There was no holding back for either one of us. I placed my hand on his chest, the hard thumping tickling my fingers. For a few seconds, we were both pulled into a vacuum. I wanted this to last forever but my body betrayed me, the dazzling sensations rushing up from my toes, a climax exploding jolts of electricity. “Oh. Oh. Oh!”

“That’s it. Come, baby.” His breathing ragged, the second I squeezed my muscles, he threw his head back and roared.

Love was something I’d hungered for my entire life, the preciousness of knowing you could get through any ordeal together.

But I wasn’t certain that his demons would ever be exorcised and even if they were, could I handle the man in their aftermath?

Chapter Sixteen

Hawk

“Go around to the right,” I instructed. We were almost there, the building where they kept Snake just up ahead. “Make certain none of the bastards are coming.”

Vader and Scorpion moved off, leaving Mustang and Reaper by my side. We would have a single shot at this. As we crept closer, I could hear the beating of my heart, the echo just as draining as the ordeal, but I refused to fail. We would get him back. Hearing a noise, I threw out my hand, stopping our progression. Hunkering down, I scanned the perimeter, prepared to strike. Through the night vision goggles, I was unable to detect any sign of movement. After waiting another thirty seconds, I motioned them to flank the building as I headed toward the door.

I raised my weapon, aiming at the lock. All time seemed to stand still. I glanced at the others, nodding then pulled the trigger.

Boom!

The bright flash was blinding, the force of the explosion tossing us into against the fence. Rattled, I blinked several times until I realized the entire building holding the prisoners was on fire.

“Jesus!” Mustang called.

“We have to get out of here,” Reaper added, scrambling toward me.

“No. We go in!” I insisted, struggling to get to my feet even as I heard the sound of Afghan soldiers, their boots thudding over the crackling of wood, the screams of the prisoners inside.

“No!” Mustang hissed, yanking my arm. “We can’t get to him, Jake. He’s gone. We have to get out of here.”

“No. No!”

“No!”

I jerked up, panting, unable to see clearly. When I felt something against my arm, I yanked hard, prepared to throw a punch.

“Hawk. It’s me. It’s Bryce. You’re okay. Baby, it’s okay.”

Horrified, I tried to focus as a wash of pain and terror flooded my system. I grabbed at whatever was holding me down, scrambling then falling down on the floor. No. No. No. No. No. “No!” I held my head in my arms, gasping for air.

“It’s okay, baby. Everything is going to be all right.” Bryce’s soft voice filtered into my mind as she wrapped her arms around me, pulling me against the heat of her body.

Nothing was going to be all right.

As the vision of Snake’s face filtered into my mind, I realized I had to finally let him go. I eased back against the wall, shifting my arms over my knees. And I began to talk.

“There were six of us in what we called a posse. We did everything together including getting into trouble. We got the crazy idea that we’d join the military in order to get the hell out of Montana. We even signed up at the same time, were sent to the same boot camp. Then we were stationed in different parts of the world, but we kept in touch. Finally, when several opportunities occurred to become military contractors, one by one we accepted the assignments. Who would have thought we’d ever end up in the same place but we did. We all had a different and useful expertise, both for training purposes as well as a few frontline missions.”

Bryce shifted closer, remaining quiet.

“Anyway, we were stationed overseas for sixteen months. While we rarely saw the frontline, we had no choice because it came to us. An Afghan informant provided some intel that I believed was true, a group holding prisoners while they prepared for an attack. We went in. Snake was a lone wolf, angry that his fellow soldiers were being kept like animals. He ventured too far against my orders. Then we were attacked. The majority of soldiers got out safely, but Snake hadn’t returned. I refused to leave him. They were my orders. Mine.”

“Jesus,” she whispered.

I could feel her eyes watching me, likely worried I’d lose my shit. “The Afghan soldiers were closing in on us. I waited as long as possible before I had no choice. I was one of the helicopter pilots responsible for a number of men, including my buddies. I was forced to leave Snake behind. That didn’t sit well with me, but my superiors weren’t given the orders to attack the facility. Too dangerous, they told us. I convinced my buddies that we would go in and save him as well as the others. I went against orders and I failed. The enemy got wind of what we were planning and blew up the buildings where they held the prisoners.”

“Oh, Hawk. I’m so sorry.”

Anger rushed to the surface and I closed my eyes, trying to control my breathing. “I got him killed and what’s worse, I don’t know if they ever retrieved the body.”

“You tried to save him. You and your friends, men you trusted and who trusted you attempted to save lives. You did everything you could. You’re a hero.”

Laughing bitterly, I shook my head. “I’m no hero, Bryce. I’m a monster.”

She took my hand, refusing to let it go, her grip firm. “No. You are a true hero, a man with such honor and integrity that I feel honored to be by your side. You need to forgive yourself because I have no doubt that Snake would have wanted that. He knew in his heart you’d try and save him. That’s what mattered most to him.”

I shifted my gaze and seeing the warmth of her smiling face created a series of flutters in my heart. I doubted I would be able to forgive myself, but a portion of the weight had been lifted.

As she crowded closer, placing her head on my shoulder, I could almost see Snake smiling from up above. How things had changed in such a short period of time.

I’d changed. Hell, we all had during the course of seven years.

I’d received the official notification that my contract with the government had been terminated. While it had been expected, seeing the papers signed by the senior ranking officers had been just another reminder of what had happened.

Of bad decisions.

Of failure.

But I’d do it all over again.

With the men I trusted with my life.

The sound of my phone was jarring, the early morning call churning my gut. As I grabbed it from the nightstand, I was surprised seeing the overseas number. I gazed into her eyes, able to see the kind of love that I honestly didn’t deserve. When she squeezed my arm, I was finally able to answer. “Hawk Travers.”

“Hawk. It’s Mustang.”

“Jesus. It’s good to hear your voice.”

“I know it’s early there, but I wanted you to know that I’m accompanying Snake’s casket. I’m bringing him home.”

“Let us bow our heads and pray.”

I closed my eyes as the wind whistled softly in the trees, the only sound on the beautiful late summer day. When I felt Mustang’s hand on my shoulder, I finally took a deep breath.

The moment of reverence passing, those attending Snake’s funeral began to disperse.

“It was a beautiful service on a gorgeous day,” Bryce said quietly as she took my hand, intertwining our fingers.

“Yes, it was,” I managed, wincing from the stream of sunlight.

“Snake would have said all this fuss was for nothing.” Mustang shook his head. “You know how he was.”

“Yeah, I do.” We remained in the back of the service. I’d wanted to keep our distance. Maybe that made me a coward, but Snake’s family deserved to have their time with their fallen son. Besides, I knew they must have such rage inside of them, anger that we’d failed. I didn’t blame them. But I had to pay my respects.

One of the most difficult things I’d had to do was go to the airport to meet Mustang, but it had been necessary. A closure, some would say. There’d been no way to prepare for seeing the flag-draped coffin or the emotions from being able to bring Snake back home. At least his parents had a place to visit and spend time with him. I was grateful for the dedication Major Wallace had given in retrieving the bodies of all the fallen soldiers.

At least orders had been given to eradicate the entire enemy camp and the informant had been arrested. He’d face harsh penalty for his treachery.

“Uh-oh. Don’t look now but Snake’s parents are headed in this direction,” Mustang said under his breath.

Both Mustang and I stood tall, a military stance, as they approached. There were tears streaming down their faces, their eyes bloodshot.

I felt the squeeze of Bryce’s hand offering courage.

“Sergeant Travers?” Mrs. Garcia asked, her voice barely audible.

“It’s just Jake now, Mrs. Garcia. I’m no longer in the military.”

Her hand shaking, she reached out for mine, taking it from Bryce. “Jake. Holt. I understand that you were both part of the group of soldiers who attempted to save my Ricardo’s life.”

I shot Mustang a quick look before nodding. “There were several of us who attempted to free him. I’m so sorry that we failed. I know how angry you must be at what happened.”

She tipped her head, searching my eyes. “Jake, in my eyes, you and the other men are heroes. You went in when the Marines refused to try and save his life. Major Wallace made certain that we were told the truth.”

I could hear Mustang’s ragged breathing.

“Ma’am, I served with some of the finest men and women, a true honor. I am proud to say that each of us would have given our lives in order to save him. Ricardo was one of the most honorable men I’ve been lucky enough to call a friend. You should be very proud of him.”

“We are. And we’re very proud of both of you as well,” Mr. Garcia said softly.

“We would love to have you as our guests at some point. I hope you will consider staying in touch,” Mrs. Garcia said as she smiled.

“We would love to,” Mustang said, his voice cracking.

As we watched them walk away, I realized how lucky I was to have friends who would have done the very same thing to save my life.

I watched as Mustang took a step forward, offering a heartfelt salute to a fallen soldier.

And to our friend.

As I joined him, I finally felt a sense of peace.

“Don’t forget. You have a homecoming to get to,” Bryce said after a few minutes. “And a party.”

While I wasn’t certain about having a party on the day of Snake’s funeral, Bryce had insisted and hell, she’d been right about almost everything else. I’d been able to explain to Ashley that her mommy and daddy were in heaven but that they would always be with her. The single tear sliding down her beautiful little cheek had offered hope.

“Think you can stop by or are you headed back?” I asked Mustang.

“Well, something I forgot to tell you. Word came down that the rest of us are allowed to work through the current contract. There won’t be another one. Mine expired a week ago. Looks like I’m staying around.” Mustang shifted his gaze in my direction, finally grinning. “And you know what? That’s just fine with me. I think I could use some mountain air, although I have no idea what I’m going to do. Not many calls for a ballistics expert in these parts.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure you’ll think of something,” I said, smacking him on the back. “It’ll be good to have you here. Come on back to the ranch. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

“Funny. I never figured you for a pink and purple kind of guy.”

Tensing, I adjusted the pillows for the third time on Ashley’s bed before turning around to face Mustang, his grin just like I’d remembered from days gone by. “Never thought I’d have a… niece either, but things change.”

He walked further into the room. “She’s your daughter now, Hawk, and I have to say, it looks pretty damn good on you. So does that gorgeous woman you have. Whewie.”

“Touch her and you die.”

Laughing, he rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t dream about it, but she’s good for you too.”

“Yeah, she is. She’s the light to my darkness.”

“Then don’t fuck it up.”

I gave him my middle finger, finally laughing. “Not a chance. She belongs to me.”

“Possessive. The old Hawk I know and love.”

“So, what are you going to do now that you’re back?” I lifted a single eyebrow.

“Honestly, I have no fucking clue. Why? Do you have something in mind?”

“Come on, cowboys. Ashley’s here,” Bryce said from the doorway. “You can be boys later. Right now, you have to be strong men.”

“Did you make the lemonade?” I asked, rolling my eyes hearing the tone.

She chuckled, giving me a mischievous look. “Pink, just as commanded. And the chocolate chip cookies.” Winking, she blew me a kiss before walking away.

“Yep. You got her just where you want her,” Mustang teased. “Pink lemonade. Boy, things have changed.”

“Them’s fighting words, my friend.” We both laughed even as the nerves were ready to rip my stomach into shreds.

“Seriously, you look like you have thoughts about what I can do, and don’t you dare say a mechanic. I refuse to follow in my father’s footsteps.”

“You know what?” I asked, chuckling. “I was thinking rancher. How would you feel about coming on board here?” A smile crossed my face as I thought it. I’d found Drake’s perfectly organized papers, including the various deeds for the adjacent properties. Mr. Weatherby’s fair price had been the biggest shocker.

One whole dollar.

There was a hell of a lot of work to do, but I knew it would be rewarding.

“Really? I know nothing about the ranching business. Zero.”

“Yeah, well, I have one tough foreman that will be happy to teach you. Just think about it.”

Mustang rubbed his jaw. “You know what? I will. You never know what kind of mischief we can get into together.”

“Okay, that worries me.” I laughed even as my stomach continued to churn. I was worried that Ashley would never adapt or speak again, but I was prepared with whatever I had to do in order to help.

And keep her safe.

My two beautiful girls.

As we walked downstairs, I thought about Drake. I had a feeling he was watching my every move. I only hoped he was smiling.

We walked outside as Brenda patted Ashley on the shoulders then lowered down to whisper in her ear. In Ashley’s little hands was the stuffed bear I’d given her, the creature almost as big as she was. I noticed Bryce standing in the shadows, as well as what seemed like every ranch hand waiting in the distance. I was also thrilled to see Mr. Weatherby, his face beaming. Except for the whinnying of the horses, there was absolute silence.

“Go to her, goofball,” Mustang whispered, punching me in the arm.

Swallowing hard, I took several steps forward, finally lowering down on my haunches. I wanted and hoped she wouldn’t run away.

Ashley studied me in silence, her eyes darting back and forth as she hugged Mr. Bear tightly. I’d never felt so awkward or incapable in my life. I realized I was holding my breath, my entire body aching from the tension. When she looked up at Brenda, I cringed. Ashley would never accept me as anything but a stranger.

When her tiny legs walked in my direction, I realized I was shaking. “Hiya,” I said. “Mr. Bear. I hope you’ve been taking great care of Ashley for me.”

She reached out, touching the same tattoo she’d been so fascinated with before, only this time she didn’t pull away. Instead, she smiled. Then…

“He sleeps with me at night,” she whispered. “Do you think he still can, Unkie?”

“I think that Mr. Bear would be honored to sleep by your side.”

When she flung her arms around my neck, I heard Bryce’s gasp of happiness as Mustang moved closer, squeezing my shoulder, joy sounding all around us.

I had a little family and a new life. As I held her tightly, I glanced toward the sky and there was no doubt in my mind that both men were looking down with smiles on their faces.

The posse.

Six boys who turned into men.

Cowboys.

Soldiers.

Sinners.

Saints.

Friends…

I lifted Ashley into my arms and Bryce wrapped hers around both of us, tears streaming down her face.

Soon, I would be a husband.

And a father.

Now my life was complete.

The End

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