PROTECTING THEIR CHILD

 Chapter One

 

"Your wife is a dead woman." Jorje Serna, as he left the courtroom a free man, pointed directly at Cord McCrea.

          The evil words closed Cord's throat in a moment of fear. Just a moment that pierced him as fast as the bullet that had broken his back. The ache around the scar was real enough. He recognized it. Fought it. Shoved it aside.

          Free on a technicality after three years in prison. Short years for the crimes Serna had committed. Incredibly long years as Cord's life as a husband and Texas Ranger unraveled.

          "He's serious, you know." The lead prosecutor, Paul Maddox, tapped Cord's shoulder with one hand, and dialed his cell in the other. "You and Kate should take extra precautions.

          "Get her protection. The local sheriff can get to the ranch faster." Cord pulled his phone from his uniform pocket. "We may already be too late."

          "On it. Go. You can meet them there."

          Cord hit his speed dial as he turned toward the back stairs. "Come on, pick up."

          No answer. He began running. Pain jarred him to a slower jog and taking the stairs slowed him to a limp--the angle going down was torture.

          "Kate. No time to explain. Get out of the house and call me."

          He hadn't accepted a phone call from her in five months and doubted she'd reciprocate, but maybe she'd listen to the message. Why? You don't. That inner blabbing in his head kept at him until he pushed the exit door open.

          The small county court appearance equaled close parking. Cord was in his truck within minutes of Serna's promise. Even at high speeds and running a couple of stop lights, he was at least forty-five minutes away from the ranch…and Kate.

          Coming from a member of a vengeful gang with long tentacles in west Texas, Cord had no doubts the words were a serious threat.

          He dialed his ex-wife's numbers again. Land line, cell. Ranch foreman. No answers.

          Cord wished the next hour would be the longest of his life, but it wouldn't be. He could recall every grueling minute after they'd been ambushed and shot. Each moment of his wife driving the opposite direction down this same road yelling at him to stay with her that he dare not leave her alone. Every tortured second of the next week as he mourned the loss of their unborn child.

          Yeah, minutes crawled by stuck in a hospital unable to walk through a cemetery to bury your partner, his wife or your daughter. They completely stopped when he'd realized he could no longer protect Kate and must let her go.

          The bastard Serna wouldn't take anything else from him. He flipped the radio on and listened, petrified he'd hear a notification by the Sherriff's department. Hear the dreaded words.

          "Shots fired. Ambulance and backup needed at Danver Ranch."

          Serna's men had probably been waiting at the ranch.

          The truck skidded turning onto the gravel drive. Cord yanked the steering wheel the opposite direction, forcing the car to move straight. He punched the gas pedal to the floor. Sixteen minutes. That's as fast as he'd ever driven the private road to the house.

          "Don't be dead, Kate."

          Two cars, lights swirling on top, sat near David's front porch. The closer he got, the worse the fear grew. He couldn't swallow. A fear he didn't understand gripped his heart and wouldn't let go. He slid to a stop, slammed the truck into park and didn't bother to kill the engine or shut the door. "Kate!"

          Two officers stood on the porch. One kneeling over an inert male, the other with his shotgun resting on his shoulder. He recognized Griggs, he'd been around the county five or six years.

          "Where is she?"

          "Shot this guy making a run for it from the house. He must have surprised Frank in the barn. We found him beaten, throat slit."

          "Where is she?"

          "No one else is here, Cord."

          He recognized the voice of the guy kneeling, Sheriff Mike Barber, but Cord wasn't looking anywhere except inside the open door. "Your certain? Searched the sheds, the storm cellar?" he shouted over his shoulder.

          "All clear. Car, two trucks still parked out back."

          "No one took her? He didn't have a partner that may have abducted…" He couldn't finish the thought, but the horrific image of what Serna would do to her was already in his mind.

          "Griggs came from the east and I came in from the west. One road in, McCrea and it was empty." Barber had followed him inside the house. "Take a breath, Cord. She wasn't here. She's still safe."

          "Serna seemed certain she was… That she'd been…" His unsteady legs threatened to buckle under him. He locked his knees, standing next to the desk used by three generations of Kate's family for ranching business. "Were the ATVs out back?"

          The sheriff shoved the curtains aside on the nearest window. "Only one. Do they have a pair? Is David Sr. in town?"

          "Her dad's up with David Jr.'s family. Been there since a colt broke his arm in September." He may not talk to Kate directly, but he'd overheard his doctor mention the break at the clinic during physical therapy. And how stubborn David Danver had been about resting the compound fracture. "It's possible she's out checking fences. Where does she keep that dang schedule?" He flipped through the stacks of papers. "Come on, Kate."

          "Griggs wait on the Coroner," Barber called over his shoulder. "We'll take your truck, McCrea."

          "Quickest way is the four wheeler, Sheriff. Faster if I go after her. I can still find my way around here." He scanned the work schedule Kate's father had been meticulous about keeping. "Got it. Should be in the northwest quadrant today. I'll call as soon as I find her and get back into cell coverage."

          "You sure you're up to it?" the sheriff asked. "That's an awful lot of ranch to cover."

          "I got this."

          He didn't wait for permission. He didn't need explanations of what had happened when the sheriff and his deputy had arrived. He didn't care. Serna's assassin was dead, but he'd send another. And another. Until Kate was dead.

          It didn't matter to the gang that they were divorced. The soulless hatred Cord had seen staring at him throughout the proceedings this week confirmed that a war of sorts had been declared. A war that wouldn't end until Cord had been stripped of everything he held close and then was dead himself.

          Revenge was a powerful venom and since the attack hadn't happened in the last three years, Cord had accepted Serna wanted it delivered in person. Damn technicalities and the scumbag lawyers who found them.

          He snagged the keys from the peg at the back door along with a thick coat. Jumping on, he gunned the ATV engine and shot around to the front yard to his idling truck.

          "We'll be a while," Griggs said from near his vehicle. "Got an extra rifle in the trunk. Think you'll need it?"

          "You never know." Cord cut his engine and retrieved his own 9 mm from the lockbox under his seat. Grabbed his hat, cell and extra clips. "Make arrangements with Maddox for Kate's protective custody. I want her out of here fast."

          "You got it. Hey, watch your back, McCrea. This guy came out the door shooting. We didn't have a choice taking him out."

          "Thanks for getting here fast." He tossed his keys to Griggs and took the offered rifle. "Lock those inside the house, will ya?"

          "Anything for you guys."

          Cord knew that look. Pity. He'd faced it for the past three years. Everywhere he went in town, all the interviews and therapy sessions to make sure his head was screwed on straight. How could it be? He'd lost his unborn daughter and his wife. Nearly lost the use of his legs, his job, his life.

          He straddled the seat, powered up again and left before anything else could be said. It was easier to leave with a curt nod of acknowledgement. After about a year he'd learned what to say to get around the questions. Learned how to avoid the dialogue.

          At least with everyone except Kate.

          He couldn't fool Kate.

          He couldn't protect her before and now she was in danger again.

          "No more!" he shouted down the trail to God and anyone else who could hear. "This is going to end!"

* * *

Today was like every day on the ranch but then it wasn't. Kate McCrea finished the repair on the barbed wire, picked up the tools and put them back in the satchel on the four wheeler.

          She'd grown up stretching and repairing fence, taking care of the stock, cleaning and cooking for a houseful of men alongside her mom. Not that her brother didn't have to jump in and help with the biscuits or bacon.

          The thought brought a smile to her heart and curved her chilled lips. A welcome change after the week of tense updates regarding Jorje Serna's appeal.

          Working the fence was solitary and peaceful. Lord knew she got enough of that around the house, but it was different with nothing else except the base of the Davis mountains in sight. The wind was the only roar in her ears. No airplanes, no tractors, no whine of the refrigerator driving her crazy.

          Silence.

          Completely interrupted by a racing engine heading toward her. She missed using horses to ride the fence, but they'd made the switch like most ranchers.

          "Dang it, Frank. I told you I could handle this today." She complained into the chilling wind, watching the approaching four wheeler bounce across the pasture a little faster than usual.

          With her extra scarf wrapped back around her neck, she pulled on warmer gloves, shoving the worn leather work pair deep into the pockets of her work coat. "Gosh darn it, I really wanted to be alone."

          He must have news about the trial since she was explicit about her return to the house. She'd had a feeling when Jorje Serna's case had been accepted for appeal that he'd be released. His threats scared her to death. Frightened her enough to consider leaving the ranch. But the only way to keep her father from mending fences with a broken arm had been to send him to her brother in Colorado.

          She debated whether to go or stay every day.

          Especially now.

          She had another life to think about. Even through the thick jacket she could feel the small swell to her belly. She wouldn't be able to hide it much longer. Her family knew and she'd be forced into a face-to-face confrontation with Cord soon since he wouldn't return her calls. Even their lawyers couldn't get a response.

          She couldn't believe he knew and had rejected them. No matter what happened and the chasm that had grown between them, they were going to be parents. In spite of their differences, he was a good man. Stubborn, silent, stoic…but a good man who would be a great father.

          The far pasture had been perfect today. Thinking. Pondering big decisions and the advice from everyone who wanted to help. It was up to her though. She was alone with this decision, especially since Cord wouldn't talk to her.

          The sting of tears heated her eyes and cooled her cheeks. Too often, too fast and much out of her control. She turned back to face the mountains, swiping at the tears, getting herself in hand.

          The engine grew louder, idled a moment and cut off.

          "What's happened?" she asked.

          "Kate?"

          Cord? So Serna had been released. That was the only reason he would come here. Today. "Frank shouldn't have told you where I was."

          "Kate, Frank's dead."

          She couldn't move and grabbed the fencepost for support. "Serna?"

          "One of his people. He was released going on three hours now."

          "I'm surprised he waited this long to make a move." She wiped the tears for Frank off her face. The last time she'd seen Cord she'd been crying, silently watching him stand in their doorway as she drove from the house. She refused to face him again still falling to pieces and pushed her sunglasses into place. There'd be time for tears later. "Frank was a good man. He'll be missed."

          "Kate--"

          "Don't. Let's just get back. I have to call Dad and the guys. How soon can we have the funeral?"

          "You won't be here."

          She couldn't avoid looking at him any longer and couldn't believe what he was insinuating. "I'm not leaving everything and running away."

          "Protective custody isn't running, Kate."

          He was closer than she had anticipated. Only a couple of steps separated them. His six foot two shadow fell across her eyes, thankfully hidden behind dark glasses. He couldn't see her notice how lean he'd become.

          He'd traded out the Ranger hat for his favorite Stetson, held now in his ever-polite hands. His hair was department regulation short, just like when they'd met, fell in love, married and been happy. Completely different than their last night when she'd shoved her fingers through the longish length. The day before the divorce.

          No matter what the circumstances, watching him stand on his own two feet gave her a lump in her throat. "I see you're back in uniform, but you need to remember you can't tell me what to do anymore. We're not married."

          "I could never tell you what to do, babe."

          Habit. Wanting to run to the protection of his arms was just a habit that needed to be broken. No sniffles. Stand strong. "Let's go. I have things to do."

          She stepped toward her ride and his hand wrapped around her upper arm. Keep it together.

          "I mean it, Kate. I can't protect you and take out Serna."

          He's going to kill him.

          "First off, I can protect myself." She pulled her arm free. "And you can't possibly think you're going to win this thing. Are you planning a suicide visit to 'take out Serna' or depend on another verdict that's supposed to keep him in isolation the rest of his life so the rest of his gang doesn't come after us?"

          She threw his words back at him. She'd known Cord for seven years, been married to him for five. The determined angle of his head slightly cocked to his right, that sharp-angled nose of his pointing over her shoulder. Straight full lips pressed flat across his teeth. All signs he was making a stand.

          Was he even aware his body shouted his intentions? She knew him better than he did. His non-answer confirmed her fear, adding fuel to the apprehension she'd been fighting all week.

          "Dad blast it, Cord! I'm not going into protective custody. There are plenty of places I can be safe. Davy's house in Colorado is a fortress."

          "It's temporary. Maddox is arranging it."

          "And are you going?"

          "We don't have time to argue." He snagged her arm and gave a gentle tug. "Come on."

          "No." She yanked free a second time, stepping back out of his long reach. "I'm not going anywhere until you give me your word."

          "It's the only way you'll be safe."

          "Like Sarah and Shane? Like a week after you were in the hospital?"

          A direct hit below his belt. She knew it was a low blow as soon as the words spewed from her fear. He felt guilty enough and none of it had been his fault. He'd just been doing his job.

          Both Rangers had been with their wives when the double ambush happened three years ago. Shane and Sarah never had a chance against Jorje Serna when they'd pulled away from their favorite restaurant. Serna's younger brother had caught her and Cord on the ranch drive, shooting Cord before he returned fire and killed him. It was still hard for her to make the drive to town without reliving that traumatic emotion.

          The wind whistled through the tall brown prairie grass, vibrating the fence wire, echoing the void that had grown between them. There was so much they'd left unsaid.

          "I didn't mean that." She advanced a step toward him but he backed away before she could touch him. "You have to believe that I don't blame you."

          "Not a problem. Let's get out of here."

          She'd known the dangers of his job when they'd decided to marry. "I didn't mean to lash out, but I won't trust the police with my life."

          "Shane and Sarah were ambushed just like us. This is different."

          "Not really." Her hand went protectively across her belly, always remembering the feeling of emptiness after losing their unborn daughter.

          Cord was face to face with her in a blink of an eye. She couldn't back away again. In spite of everything, she needed him. She felt so all alone.

          "Trust me, Kate."

          His touch, wiping yet another tear from her cheek, forced her to look closer at him. The strain showed in his eyes. The hurt she understood too well. There was so much to say…

          And if she were in protective custody, the words would never happen. There was no guarantee when she'd be back or if she'd ever see Cord or her family.

          "No. I'll go to Davy's. He can send someone to get me."

          "Dammit, Kate. This is not the time to be stubborn."

          "I've made up my mind." She climbed on the four wheeler. "No more discussion."

          "You aren't going back to the ranch house then. It's one thing leaving with security, but you can't wait for David Jr. to come collect you at a place Serna's already attacked. Successfully." He pulled his cell phone from his shirt pocket. It was the first time she noticed that he actually had her father's work coat on. "Just verifying there's no coverage."

          "I have a walkie, but if Frank's--"

          "Right. No one's listening at the ranch. So we punt. We'll spend a couple of nights at Caliente Lodge until we know for certain when your transportation is showing up. They have a working Ham radio up there, right?"

          "I assume so. The guys check it out every fall along with stocking supplies. They went up three weeks ago. We'll have to have horses to get up there."

          "Horses at the line shed?"

          "When have they not been?"

          "Who's there?" His eyes were scanning the horizon. Making certain no one had followed him?

          "Juan."

          "I'll take the lead. When we get there, Juan can take a message back to Griggs or Maddox with the new plan." He swung his long legs over the seat as naturally as mounting a horse. No awkwardness from a man who couldn't walk two and a half years earlier.

          "No chance you'll change your mind?" he asked in his deep low voice.

          "None."

          "We're taking a huge risk." He replaced his hat, and shoved the top closer to his ears.

          "I know, but if we leave now, we'll make it just after dark."

          "Cord?"

          He acknowledged her with a pause while buttoning the jacket.

          "Your word please."

          "Want a Scout's honor, too?" He started his four wheeler.

          "Just your promise. And I know you were never a Scout."

          "No protective custody." He revved the engine, obviously angry. "I promise." As soon as the words were said, he shot forward in a cloud of dirt and grass.

          "I promise, too, kiddo." She tilted her head, comforting their unborn baby. "I'll keep you safe or die trying."


 

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