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Agent Sawyer Ryland caught the movement from the corner of his eye, turned and saw the blonde pushing her way through the other guests who'd gathered for the wedding reception.
She wasn't hard to spot.
She was practically running, and she had a bundle gripped in front of her like a shield.
Sawyer's pulse kicked up a notch, and he automatically slid his hand inside his jacket and over his Glock. It was sad that his first response was to pull his firearm even at his own brother's wedding reception. Still, he'd been an FBI agent long enough-and had been shot too many times-that he lived by the code of better safe than sorry.
Or better safe than dead.
The woman didn't draw only Sawyer's attention. Nope. His brother, Josh, and their six Ryland cousins were all Silver Creek lawmen, and while Sawyer had his attention pinned on the woman, he was well aware that some of his cousins were reaching for their guns, too.
She stopped in the center of the barn, which had been decorated with hundreds of clear twinkling lights and flowers, and even though she was wearing dark sunglasses, Sawyer was pretty sure that her gaze rifled around. Obviously looking for someone. However, the looking around skidded to a halt when her attention landed on him.
"Sawyer," she said.
Because of the chattering guests and the fiddler sawing out some bluegrass, Sawyer didn't actually hear her speak his name. Instead, he saw it shape her trembling mouth. She yanked off the sunglasses, her gaze connecting with his.
And he cursed. Some really bad words.
For Pete's sake. He didn't need this today. Nor any other day for that matter.
"Cassidy O'Neal," he mumbled, and he made it sound like the profanity that he'd just spouted.
Yeah, it was her, all right. Except she didn't much look like a pampered princess doll today in her jeans and body-swallowing gray T-shirt. No makeup, either. Maybe he'd missed the memo about Hades freezing over, because Cassidy was not the sort to go without makeup, fine clothes or anything else fine, for that matter.
Despite the fact that he wasn't giving off any welcoming vibes whatsoever, Cassidy hurried to him. Her mouth was still trembling. Her dark green eyes rapidly blinking. There were beads of sweat on her forehead and upper lip despite the half dozen or so massive fans circulating air into the barn.
"I'm sorry," she said, and she thrust whatever she was carrying at him.
Sawyer didn't take it and backed up, but not before he caught a glimpse of the tiny hand gripping the white blanket.
That put his heart right in his suddenly dry throat. He'd always been darn good at math. Not now though.
Not with the air just sucked right out of his lungs. But he didn't need to do the math to know that while there was no love lost between Cassidy and him, there had been love.
Or rather, sex.
It wasn't love by any stretch of the imagination.
Using just his index finger, Sawyer eased back the blanket and saw the curly mop of brown hair on the sleeping baby's head. A lighter color than his own hair but maybe a mix of Cassidy's and his. A cherub face that resembled every baby he'd ever seen.
Including his own cousins' babies.
And there were plenty of them around for him to do a split-second comparison.
"No." Cassidy shook her head so hard that her ponytail came unhooked and her hair dropped against her shoulders. "The baby's not mine."
Which meant it wasn't his, either.
That gave him a much-needed jolt of breath to stop his head from going light. A light head was hardly the right bargaining tool for a lawman, and even though Sawyer had no idea if what was going on would require any of his lawman skills, he figured he'd at least need to be able to think straight for this.
Sawyer wasn't the only one with breathing issues. Cassidy's was gusting now, and she pushed the bundled baby toward him again. "You have to take her."
Again, Sawyer backed up.
"Is there a problem?" someone growled.
It was his cousin Mason, a deputy sheriff of Silver Creek and possibly the most unfriendly looking person on earth.
And he walked up right behind Sawyer.
When Mason and he were kids, people used to say they looked like twins, and their combined badass presence, glares and scowls should have been enough to deter a wedding-crashing heiress from staying put.
"I don't have much time," Cassidy insisted. "You have to take her, and I have to get a picture of you holding her."
Mason and Sawyer exchanged a glance. They were on the same page in thinking their visitor was a couple of cans short of a six-pack.
"We have to talk," Cassidy continued, and she freed her other hand from the baby bundle so she could catch onto Sawyer's arm. "Please," she added.
Sawyer had known Cassidy on and off for over a year now. Mostly off. But he'd never heard her say please. And he'd never seen that look of pure fear in her eyes. He pushed her hand off his arm and instead caught onto her wrist.
"I'll be right back," he told Mason. "Obviously our visitor and I need to have a word."
"You know what you're doing?" Mason asked.
Nope. But Sawyer figured he was about to find out something he didn't want to know. Actually, anything that Cassidy had to say to him would fall into that didn't want to know category even if she hadn't been carrying a baby in her arms.
Sawyer led her back through the crowd, weaving in and out of the kids running around and the couples dancing. Nearly every one of his cousins shot him a glance to make sure he was okay, and Sawyer tried not to respond with anything that would cause the party to end. His brother Josh, and his bride, Jaycee, didn't deserve to have their happy day spoiled.
There was a storm brewing, and it was just starting to drizzle, so Sawyer didn't pull Cassidy out into the open.
Instead, he took her to a long watering trough that had a tin awning overhead.
"Let's start with some questions," he told Cassidy. "I ask them and you answer them," he snapped when she opened her mouth to interrupt him.
Of course she just continued with that interruption. "We don't have time for a Q and A."
"Obviously, you missed the part about me asking the questions. Make time."
It hit Sawyer then. Even though Cassidy had said the baby wasn't hers, that didn't mean he'd leaped to the right conclusion about the little one not being hi*. He hadn't been seriously involved with anyone in several years, but there had been some short hookups. Like the attorney in San Antonio and the woman he'd met at a party.
Was the timing right for either of them?
He just didn't know.
He looked in the blanket again. At that little cherub face. At the hair. "Is she mine?"
No more gusting breath for Cassidy. It just streamed from her mouth, and she shook her head again. "I have no idea."
Well, that didn't help.
Sawyer wasn't exactly proud of the fact that he didn't know if he'd fathered a child.
Time for some direct questions. "Who is she, and where'd you get her?" Sawyer demanded.
"I honestly don't have time for this." She looked over her shoulder at the beat-up blue truck just a few yards away. There were more dents and dings on it than smooth surface, and the roof was blistered with rust. The engine was running. The wipers, still going. It was hardly her usual ride, but then nothing about this little visit could be labeled as usual for Cassidy.
Sawyer cupped her chin, lifted it, forcing eye contact. "Where. Did. You. Get. The. Baby?" Best to slow down his words and see if that helped.
"From two men. They were both wearing cartoon masks and they were armed."
Now, that was an answer he sure as heck hadn't expected. He drew his gun and positioned himself in front of Cassidy. Even if she was lying-and he couldn't figure out why she'd do that-he had to treat this like a crime in progress.
"Did the men bring you here to the ranch?" he asked.
"No. I drove in the truck they told me to use." She huffed, glanced at the phone she had clutched in her left hand. "They gave me the baby, said to bring her to you and take a picture of you holding her. I'm supposed to leave the baby with you and then get back so I can give them the picture."
Say what? That still didn't make a lick of sense.
"Where are these men?" Sawyer went on full alert, his gaze firing all around the grounds. And it was a lot of ground to cover. What didn't help was there were guests coming and going, and there were vehicles parked everywhere.
"I don't know." Cassidy's eyes were wild, a different kind of storm brewing there, and every muscle in her body was rock hard.
Sawyer got right in her face. "The sooner you answer me, the sooner I can help. Where are these men, and where are you supposed to meet them?"
"I don't know," she repeated. "They said they'd call me in thirty minutes and tell me where to drop off the photo. It's already past the time." Her voice broke, and a hoarse sob tore from her throat.
Okay. He could add sheer terror to her panic. That wasn't helping his own reactions, and while Sawyer wanted to know if this child was his, he needed to figure out if any danger was imminent.
"So, you don't know who the men are?" Not sure he believed that, but he pressed for details. He figured the devil was in those. "How'd you meet them?"
"I didn't meet them. They kidnapped me two days ago and have been holding me blindfolded."
All right. So, there had been a crime, and he believed her-about that anyway. It was hard to fake that kind of body language, the broken breath and the sob.
But he immediately rethought that.
This was Cassidy, and she'd lied to him before. In fact, it was the reason their very brief affair had ended. And it was that reminder that caused his stomach to start churning.
"Does this have anything to do with your brother?" he asked. Except Sawyer didn't just ask. He demanded it.
She swallowed hard. Nodded. "Yes." It was one of the first direct answers she'd given him since her arrival, and it wasn't a good time for it.
"Bennie's behind this," Sawyer grumbled, and he would have cursed some more, but he didn't want to do that in front of the baby.
Bennie, her low-life, scheming younger brother. There were about a hundred more labels he could have slapped on the idiot, but the bottom line was that Bennie was really bad news. Always one step ahead of the law and the crooks that he dealt with. And big sis, Cassidy, was always there to bail him out.
But if the baby was Sawyer's, then why the heck was Bennie involved?
He didn't have an answer to that, either. Yet.
Cassidy's phone rang, the sound shooting through his thoughts. He didn't have to tell her to answer it. Bob-bling the baby in her arms, Cassidy fumbled to press the answer button. Sawyer hadn't really planned on it, but he took the child so Cassidy wouldn't drop her, and he waited. The first thing he saw was the blocked caller ID on the screen. Not a good sign.
Even though his entire focus should have been on the call, he glanced down at the baby again. Soon, very soon, he'd have to know the truth about her paternity. For now, he pressed the speaker button on Cassidy's phone so he could hear what the caller was saying.
"You got the picture?" the man on the phone growled.
"I'm getting it," Cassidy assured him. "What about my brother? Where is he? How is he?"
"You'll get to see him as soon as you bring us back that picture."
Sawyer huffed. "Genius, she wants proof that her brother's still alive," he spelled out to the person on the other end of the line. He didn't bother to take the sarcasm out of his voice, either. "Now, here's the part where you provide that proof, or this conversation ends."
Silence. For a long time.
Grabbing on to his jacket sleeve, Cassidy frantically shook her head. Probably because she wanted him to stay quiet.
Sawyer ignored that.
In the next couple of minutes, he was going to have to ignore a lot of head-shaking and just about anything that she was saying. Because there was no way he was going to let her leave to face these kidnappers alone-no matter how much proof of life they provided.
There was some mumbling and cussing on the other end of the line. "Here he is," the man snapped, and the phone dinged, indicating there was a message.
Cassidy hit the button, and a moment later the video loaded. There was Bennie, all right. His hands were tied with a rope to what appeared to be wooden beams on a ceiling. He was stretched out like a moth in a science experiment.
"Oh, God." Cassidy pressed her fingers to her mouth, but she didn't manage to silence the gasp. "You've hurt him."
Sawyer had to agree with her on that point. His face was bloody and bruised, as if he'd taken a good beating. His hair was matted, maybe with more blood, and even though he was moving and mumbling, he looked like a man on the verge of losing consciousness.
"Why are they doing this to you?" Sawyer asked Bennie.
But just like that, the video ended. "That's all the proof you'll get. Now, it's your turn. Get that photo here," the caller demanded. "You got thirty minutes, or we finish him off."
"Why?" Sawyer repeated. He needed to keep them talking. Needed to find out their location and anything else he could learn about them. He spotted his cousin, Sheriff Grayson Ryland, in the doorway of the barn, and Sawyer motioned for him to come over.
But Grayson had barely made it a step when there was a flash of light. Since his body was on full alert, it took Sawyer a second to realize that it had come from the camera.
Cassidy had snapped his picture.
With the baby.
"I'm so sorry," she said, and Cassidy took off running.