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As an active Ranger in Uncle Sam's service who had performed more tours of duty than he could remember, Seth McCutcheon was used to seeing terrible things. But watching his mother die was definitely the worst.
"Mom, you need to rest," he chided softly, his throat thick. Lamplight glowed against the side of her face, illuminating her smooth cheeks, the faint laugh lines around her eyes. She was fifty-two. Too young to be at the end of her life, a vibrant one that had been spent making sure that he and his little sister had been provided for. His gaze slid to the vase of daisies on her nightstand, her "happy" flowers, and his lips twitched in a weary smile.
"Tired of losing to me, are you?" his mother asked, a weak laugh shaking her unbelievably frail shoulders. She looked up from the cards in her hand and eyed him shrewdly. "You're not letting me win, are you?"
Under the circumstances he would have, but it hadn't been necessary. She'd always been able to beat him at poker, one of the few people who had, if he was quite honest. She'd taught him, after all. It only seemed fitting.
"You know damned well I'm not letting you win," he told her, rolling his shoulders against the ache that had settled there. He'd been sitting at her bedside for hours, afraid to leave, afraid to miss a single second with her in case the next might be her last. "You're trouncing me," he complained good-naturedly. "If I were letting you win, I'd at least put on a good enough show that you wouldn't know it."
She hummed under her breath, consulting her cards. "True enough, I suppose, but I do wish you'd make more of an effort, Seth. I'm about to up the ante in a way that's going to seriously impact your future. You'd do well to get your head in the game." Her tone was deceptively light, but he knew better.
Seth stilled and looked up. "Up the ante? What are you talking about?"
She smiled wearily. "I have little use for money," she said. "Soon enough I'm not going to need it. I"
"Mom," he interrupted, panic and dread making his heart race.
She set her cards aside, then reached over and took his hand. Her bright blue eyes were soft and full of compassion. Comforting him, when it should have been the other way around. Jeez God, how was he going to get through this?
"Seth, I know that you don't want to have this conversation, but it's one that has to take place. There are things we have to talk about before I shuffle off this mortal coil," she said in an attempt to season the terrible conversation with humor. "You know that. Please just listen."
She was right. He didn't want to have the conversation, he'd never imagined that they'd be having it so soon. They'd only found the cancer four months agoin her brain, no less. She'd undergone high doses of chemotherapy, causing her to lose more than twenty pounds and all of her hair. She currently wore an outrageous long blond wig, one that put him in mind of a Barbie doll. He'd been shocked when he'd first seen her in itthe first of manybut she'd merely laughed and said that the good Lord hadn't blessed her with long hair of any sort and that this provided the perfect opportunity to try out different styles. Her glass was firmly half-full, even in the midst of this horrible disease. Seth looked heavenward and gave a grunt, his chest feeling as if it were locked in Satan's vise grip.
Only his mother.
His eyes burned, but he tried for a smile all the same and gave her hand a squeeze. She was right. They couldn't put it off much longer. She was getting weaker every dayin part, he was sure, because she refused to sleep more than a couple of hours at a time. She'd even made both him and his sister promise to wake her. She didn't want to waste whatever time she had left by sleeping, she'd said. Were their positions reversed, Seth knew he'd likely feel the same way. Still
He finally nodded, silently encouraging her to go on.
"Let's get the grisly part over first, shall we? I don't want a traditional funeral."
He snorted before he could stop himself.
She laughed. "Yes, yes, I know. I'm predictably unpredictable, but I don't care. The idea of all my friends and family gawking over my dead body lying in a coffin, talking about how 'good' I look while I'm dead, for pity's sake, is just more than I can bear. Cremate me and scatter my ashes among my roses, where I'll do some good."
So that she'd still be useful and still here. How was he going to get through this? he wondered again. How was the world going to go on when she was no longer a part of it? She'd always been there for him. Bandaging scraped knees, nursing colds, tossing the football with him in the backyard. A constant source of love and encouragement, one he'd realized too late he'd taken for granted.
"My will is in the desk over there," she said, jerking her head in that direction. She picked up her cards once more. "It's simple enough. I don't have much, but what I have is yours and your sister's." She paused. "I want Katie to have the house. Since Rat Bastard left she's been having a hard time making ends meet and I don't want that for her and Mitchell."
Seth was in full agreement there. "Rat Bastard's" real name was actually Michael, and he'd recently left Seth's sister and child and moved in with the girl who worked as the jelly doughnut filler at the local pastry shop. When the time was right, Seth fully intended to pay a visit to Michael and give him a lesson in how to treat a lady, most specifically, his sister.
He'd already given that same lesson to his father, the faithless, miserable, weak-willed son of a bitch.
"I've had the house appraised," his mother continued. "And I've made provisions in the will to offset what your part would have been if I hadn't left the house to Katie."
"Mom, you didn't have to do that. She can have it all. I don't want"
"Fair is fair," she insisted. "I've been paying those life insurance premiums all these years just in case something happened and it's a comfort for me to know that your sister will have this house and you'll have a little money to put toward your own."
Because he didn't want to upset her, he didn't point out the obvious. Seth didn't need a "home." His home was in the military.
She smiled weakly. "I know what you're thinking, son, and that's where my ante comes in. When I'm gone, your sister and Mitchell aren't going to have anyone" She swallowed, betraying the first crack in her resolve. That single fissure absolutely shattered him. "And I'd feel a whole lot better if I knew that you'd be coming home when your contract runs out."
"Mom," he said, shaking his head. Not this, anything but this. "You know"
"I do know, Seth," she interrupted. "I know that you love your job, that the military has been your life. I do know," she repeated softly. "It pains me to ask and hurts even more that I have to." She swallowed again. "But I also know that if something happened to you, Katie and Mitchell would be completely, utterly alone and I just can't bear that. And neither could they."
It was a terribly bleak picture, but one that was equally accurate, should the worst happen. He thought of his sister, hardworking and funny. His nephew, only two years old, with curly blond hair and big brown eyes.
"Play me for it," his mother said, glancing shrewdly at him above her cards. "If I win this hand, then you come out as soon as you can. If you win, then you do whatever you feel is right."
A bark of laughter erupted from his thickening throat and he watched her lips twist. "Meaning if I don't come out, then I'm a selfish, uncaring bastard." He shook his head. "Excellent. Great choices there."
His mother chuckled. "I'm being shamelessly manipulative, I know, but."
He looked up at her. "And you're also holding a winning hand, otherwise you wouldn't have brought it up now."
His mother merely stared at him, betraying nothing. "Are you in or out?"
Seth consulted his own cards. He was pretty confident, not that it would matter. He'd already lost. "In," he said.
"Let's see what you've got," his mother said. Seth laid his hand down. "Three of a kind, kings high."
His mother quirked a brow. "You and those wild cards," she tsked, noticing the one in his hand. "Those one-eyed jacks always find their way to you, don't they?"
Yeah, they did. He'd actually been given the nickname the Wild Card when he'd been in Jump School, and had a tattoo of one on his right shoulder to commemorate the moniker. Of course, considering that Seth's methods were occasionally deemed unorthodox at best and reckless at worst, the name served double duty.
He merely shrugged, smiling. "They do seem to favor me."
His mother's lips lifted in a grin that made a sick feeling in his belly take hold. She laid down her cards. "They favored me with this hand, too," she said, sliding a finger over the edge of the jack of hearts.
Four of a kind, aces high.
His lips twisted. "Well played, Mom," he said, mentally watching his future roll out in a direction he had never anticipated, never wanted.
She arched an eyebrow, but the relief in her face was so stark it was painful. "I have your word?"
He nodded, struggling to speak. "Of course."
Seemingly satisfied that she'd completed an important task on her last to-do list, every muscle in her body relaxed and she settled more firmly into her bed. "Good," she said, her voice thin. "Thank you. You're a good man, Seth. My sweet boy," she murmured. Her eyes drifted over his face with affectiona look he'd seen hundreds of timesthen fluttered shut.
"You should rest," he chided, his eyes stinging. "I'm tiring you out."
She laced her fingers through his. "I do think I'll take a little nap. Wake me in two hours," she said, giving his hand a firm squeeze. "Don't forget."
"I won't, Mom."
Exactly one-hundred-and-twenty minutes later, he tried but didn't succeed.
Seven months later
"Payne has impeccable taste and Jamie lets his better half dress him, but no onenot even his lovely wife, evidentlycan convince Guy McCann that camouflage isn't proper wedding attire," the slim man behind the desk was saying when Seth approached. The office manager, he presumed, held up one finger, indicating that he would only be a moment longer, and shot Seth an apologetic look. The man's gaze dropped down to a photo on his frighteningly immaculate desk and he gave a delicate shudder. "Yes, Terrence, yes. He's wearing camo pants and a black t-shirt. That's what the cretin wore to the wedding. Tanner gave me a photo this morning. I'm looking at it right now." He exhaled mightily again, as though the camo-wearer's sin against fashion was almost more than he could bear. Seth couldn't quite reconcile this outraged put-upon Latino as an employee of Ranger Security. "You're right, of course, but camo?
At a wedding? Yes, yes. All right. I'll see you later, then."
The man uttered a swift goodbye, then disconnected. His quick gaze snapped up to Seth's. "Sorry about that," he said, his tone immediately professional. "I don't ordinarily take personal phone calls on the job, but in this case I made an exception. You're Seth McCutcheon, correct?"
Seth nodded, making an effort to flatten his twitching lips.
"I'm Juan-Carlos, the office manager here at Ranger Security." He selected a file from the corner of his desk and gestured for Seth to follow him. "Come with me, please. They're waiting for you in the boardroom." The last sentence was delivered with a curiously sarcastic bent.
And thirty seconds later, Seth understood why.
The boardroom, as it were, didn't have the traditional table and rolling executive chairs. Instead, it more resembled a high-tech clubhouse, complete with a pool table, a huge, flat-panel television anchored to the wall and lots of comfortable leather furniture. A stainless steel side-by-side refrigerator stood in the kitchenette and a host of different snacks were lined up in old-fashioned candy jars along the counter. Everything from biscotti to Pixy Stixhis childhood favoritewere represented, bringing a smile to his lips.