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Cops, federal agents and the people who wrote glamorous stories about them, were all crazy. There was freaking nothing glamorous about undercover work, Ryder Colton mused as he stubbed out his last cigar.
In fact, he thought wryly, the only difference between his life right now and his life seven months ago was that now he was sitting in the dark in a stand of scrub brush, unable to leave, instead of in a cell at the Lone Star Correctional Facility, unable to leave.
Well, that and the cigar, he amended silently. He'd missed the taste of the Texas-born Little Travis cigars he'd gotten attached to when he'd started running with the older and greatly admired Bart Claymore at fifteen, and bummed them from him.
Bart was one of the men who'd left him holding the bag the night that had started him on the road to prisonan irony that wasn't lost on him. Then there was the irony of his entire situation: that he, the bad boy of the Texas Coltons, was here pretending to be one of the good guys. Near the endor so he hopedof his search. A search that had brought him back to, of all places, the Bar None ranch. Now that was irony.
And irony was a word he'd never used in his life before now. He only vaguely remembered a discussion of it in some class in school, before he'd landed himself in juvie detention the first time. He must have paid more attention than he'd thought, because now, all of a sudden, it made perfect sense.
You're smarter than you want to believe.
Boots's words echoed in Ryder's head. The first time he'd said them, Ryder had laughed in his face; he never would have pegged the leathery, prison-toughened convict as a do-gooder. But BootsJohnson hadn't been the first one to tell Ryder he was smarter than he was acting. He'd heard the litany countless times before, from teachers, counselors, and familyespecially Clay.
Ryder winced inwardly at the memory of his straight-arrow, stiff-spined brother. Clay had done his best when their mother had died, leaving the eighteen-year-old with a fourteen-year-old sister and a sixteen-year-old brother he had tried to take care of. Georgie had turned out okay, her only mistake was falling for that city slicker. But that had given her little Emmie, the pride and joy of her life.
He remembered the moment when he'd told Boots about her.
So, you're an uncle, the old man had said.
He'd blinked, opened his mouth to say "What?" then shut it again. Emmie had been born well over a year before he'd landed here, and until that moment he'd never thought of himself as an uncle. A relative. Connected.
Not that his sister would want her now five-year-old little girl connected to him. Georgie was too determined that her little girl have a good life, and somehow he doubted that plan would include an uncle convicted of a felony who'd been in the federal pen most of her young life.
He considered lighting another cigar and decided against it; he only had a few more, and they were hard to come by. If nothing else, he'd learned in prison that his live-as-if-there-were-no-tomorrow philosophy wasn't always the best policy. And his mottohave your fun todayhad landed him in a very tight spot.
Thankfully, the sky was getting lighter now, so he had to pack it in. He was tired from lack of sleep, also from the endless hours of sitting, watching, waiting for something that didn't happen.
And thinking. Most of all, he was tired of the thinking, the contemplating, the pondering. His brother had been the thinker of the familynot him. But sitting out here all night long, there was nothing else to do.
And he knew now why he'd always avoided it. It was much easier to just live his life, doing what seemed like a good idea at the time
"And look where that landed you," he told himself as he buried the stub of his last cigar and headed back to the ten-year-old, battered pickup he was driving these days. They'd offered him a standard-issue, plain-wrap sedan, which he had wryly told them would stand out in Texas ranch country like a neon sign.
"Why don't you just paint Narc on the side and be done with it?" he'd said, earning him a frown from Furnell, his main handler.
Handler. That's actually what they called him. That had been the sourest bite in this whole stupid meal. Ryder Colton, the man who never let anybody, man or woman, "handle" him, not even his own family, was now owned by a dark-suited, overly tense type A. At least, he was for now.
And if that wasn't bad enough, he wasn't even watching for drug runners or murderers, nothing dramatic or exciting like that.
No, Ryder Colton, the bad boy of the Texas Coltons, was on baby patrol. Now there was some irony.
He got into the truck and started it, the smooth purr of the motor belying the battered exterior, exactly the reason he'd wanted it. He, the guy who'd worked so hard at not doing what his father had done, leaving a string of bastards across the country, was now trying to earn his way out of prison and a felony record by helping some über-secret government agency crack, of all things, a baby-smuggling ring.
If they'd purposely searched out someone less suited, they couldn't have found him, Ryder had thought when they'd first approached him. Not only had he never had anything to do with babies, his life experience didn't include any knowledge whatsoever of what it would be like for a loving parent to lose a child. He'd never known anyone like that.
Well, Georgie. He had to admit that his sister obviously loved little Emmie. But he couldn't help thinking that was because she'd had the same experience he had, and was trying to make up for it. Or maybe she loved Emmie like she loved her horses, only more. Maybe that was what it was like.
God, he was going slowly insane. He'd laugh if he weren't so tired. And bored.
He drove carefullyand as quickly as possible through Esperanza, on his way back to San Antonio, where he was staying. He hadn't wanted to take the chance that someone in Esperanza might recognize him. While he looked a little different nowhis hair was shorter and he'd filled out a bithe'd been too well known, even notorious he supposed, in this little town to skate by unrecognized. It was much safer to lose himself among the million-plus population of the second largest city in the state.
The thought of doing it for real, taking this chance and just losing himself, dumping this crazy assignment he'd taken and making a break for it, starting over somewhere else, occurred to him, and not for the first time. East, to New York and the big city? Hell, he could lose himself forever there. Or L.A., maybe, warm, and thankfully dry weather, the beaches, paradise, right? He could lose himself there, too.
You can lose yourself anywhere. It's finding yourself that takes effort. You throw yourself away often enough, and one day you don't get it back.
Boots hadn't been talking about New York or L.A., but his words echoed in Ryder's head all the same. He didn't think he'd forgotten one single thing the older man had ever told him.
He'd thought at the time that it was just typical of his misbegotten life that he'd find the first human being who really gave a damn about himthe real him, not the impossible ideal Clay had always expected him to live up to in a place like the Lone Star Correctional Facility. And that it would be a reformed armed robber who'd drawn the max because two people had died as a result of his crimes.
But regardless of all that, for the first time in his life, he started to see the way he was living it as a waste. He'd never worried about that before, rarely thought about it, but somehow Boots made him care. Made him want to change, to try another way.
He'd just never figured it would be such damn hard work. And he wasn't thinking about the job he'd taken on. That was the easy part.
He shook his head wearily, and drove on into the rising sun.
Ana Morales stood on the front porch of Jewel Mayfair's precious Hopechest Ranch house. She rubbed at her aching back with one hand as she gazed out over the ranchland bathed in the morning sun. To the east was San Antonio, she knew, although she had not ventured into that city the whole time she had been here. She could not risk it.
To the north was the vast, rolling, beautiful hill country of Texas. She would like to see it someday; she had heard so much chatter about everything from inner-tubing down the Guadalupe River to Saturday nights at the state's oldest honky-tonk. She smiled with a linguist's pleasure at the word; and Americans thought Spanish was odd!
Her pleasure at the word faded as she wondered if she would ever get to explore her love of languages again. Becoming a teacher had been her dream since childhood and now here she was, nearly ready to bring a child into the world herself.
And by herself.
She turned to go back inside, back to the room Jewel had given her, no questions asked, at Ana's request; the room that looked out onto this porchand gave the occupant a chance to see anyone who arrived. Before being seen herself.
She had been useful here. She had found purpose, something to focus on as she waited for the precious life within her to come into the world. And she had found someone else to worry about, she admitted; Jewel had been kindness personified to her, but Ana knew Jewel was deeply troubled. Too often, when Ana got up in the nighttime hours, suffering from the inability to find a comfortable position for her expanded body, she would find Jewel already up and walking the house. Sometimes Jewel had clearly been up for a while, sometimes she had the slightly wide-eyed look that told Ana she had been jolted awake by one of her nightmares.
It was those times that Ana felt rather small; this woman, who was working so hard here to provide the hope of the ranch's name to troubled kids, had had so much tragedy in her life. And yet she found solace in her work herealthough not peace.
Ana instinctively smoothed a hand protectively over the mound of her belly; she could not begin to imagine the horror of losing this child before it had a chance to live, as Jewel had lost hers. This life within her had been the impetus for everything she had done in the past seven months, since the day she had first suspected that she was pregnant.
"Getting heavy, that little one?"
Ana whirled around as quickly as she could, given her current bulk, chastising herself for getting so lost in her thoughts that she was caught off guard. That Jewel sometimes moved like a wraith around this place was no excuse in her mind.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
"It is all right," Ana assured her. "I was actually just thinking about you. Did you finally get to sleep last night?"
"Some," Jewel said, but her weary brown eyes beneath the tousled cap of golden-brown hair told Ana that "some" had not been enough.
Doctor, heal thyself, Ana thought, although strictly speaking she knew Jewel was a psychologist, not a physician.
"Is there any more word?" Ana asked, turning to the subject that concerned her most; the very thought that a baby-smuggling ring was operating in the area terrified her. More than once she had thought she should move on, take her unborn child to a safer place, but she knew the folly of that; she had found shelter here, in a climate where most looked upon her as an enemy, just another illegal come to milk the American system. Of course, she was nothing of the kind.
She was secure here at the Hopechest Ranch, and it was simply up to her to keep her baby safe.
"Not that I've heard," Jewel answered. "But Adam will probably stop by later, and then I'll know for sure."
Ana smiled at the woman seventeen years her senior, and painfully wiser. "He is visiting more and more, Deputy Rawlings."
At first the sheriff's deputy had made Ana nervous, given her shaky immigration status. But the tall, strong man with the perfectly groomed dark hair and the always razor-creased uniform seemed only to have eyes for Jewel, which suited Ana just fine. Jewel deserved some happiness and his attention provided her benefactorand herself, she admittedwith firsthand information on the ongoing investigation.
Jewel smiled, but absently. "Yes, he is."
"You do not like him?"
"Of course I do. He's been very kind to me."
"I'm not ready for that."
She didn't clarify, and Ana didn't ask. She had her own problems and wasn't about to counsel anyone in an area where she had made so many mistakes herself. She had trusted where she shouldn't have, and now she was paying the price. That one of the men she had trusted had been her own father didn't absolve her. Once she had found the evidence of his true character, it seemed the signs had been so clear she couldn' t forgive herself for having missed them.
As for Alberto she could not forgive herself for that, either. Yes, he was smooth, convincing, but so was her father.
Her baby kicked, mightily, as if the thoughts of traitorous men were unsettling to more than just her. She smiled as she put a hand over the spot.
"Kicking?" Jewel asked.
"Yes," Ana said, her smile widening. And then, suddenly remembering, her smile vanished. "Oh, Jewel, I am so sorry. It must be terribly hard for you to have me here, to see me, with my baby."
Jewel waved her to silence. "It's all right, Ana. I will never get over the loss of my baby, but I don't expect the world to stop turning and other women lucky enough to be pregnant to hide, just to spare my feelings."
Ana studied the benefactor who was rapidly becoming a friend. "You are very wise," she said.
"What I am," Jewel said frankly, "is very tired."
"I know," Ana said. "Is there anything I can do for you? Something else I can take over, so you can rest? Perhaps you might have better luck sleeping in the daytime?"
If Jewel was offended at the suggestion, or bothered by Ana's knowledge of her sleepless nights, she didn't let it show.