And the kid, asleep in the crib.
Lord, the kid.
For a minute that hovered on the brink of eternity, nothing moved. He stood there. Lara stood there. Then, finally, she made a sound that was almost a moan. When she did, he swung toward her.
“You have a child,” he’d said.
Slade groaned and put his head back. What a brilliant statement that had been.
Right about then the kid woke, sat up and clutched the crib railing. It was a boy, he’d thought numbly; he could tell by the fuzzy blue thing that covered it right down to its feet.
The kid had stared at him with a pair of huge, smoky gray eyes for a long minute, not crying, not making a sound, just—just sort of checking him out, if such a thing were possible. Slade had stared right back, a chill running down his spine. Lara had a son. It was all he seemed capable of thinking. Then the kid’s face dissolved and it began to cry. Lara flew past him, snatched the child in her arms.
“Michael,” she crooned, “sweetheart, it’s okay. Mama’s here, Michael. Don’t be afraid.”
Slade, with a tongue that felt too big for his mouth, took a step back.
“Lara?” he said, and she turned to him, her face white, her eyes wild.
“Get out,” she’d whispered, and then her voice rose, balanced on the edge of hysteria, and she’d screamed the words again…
Not that she had to.
He’d done just what she said, got out as fast as his feet could carry him, got out without looking back.
Slade closed his eyes. This changed everything. It had been bad enough, knowing Lara had belonged to other men. A hundred of them, for all he knew. But she had a child. Another man had given her a child…
He jerked his head around and saw a woman slipping into the seat beside his.
“Is this taken? I haven’t noticed anybody sitting in it, so I thought—”
“No, I don’t think it is.”
She smiled. “Well, then, I’m Janet.”
“Janet,” Slade said. “Pretty name. Pretty voice. Pretty face, too.” He cleared his throat. “The thing is, Janet, you’d be wasting your time. Or I’d be wasting it for you.”
Her smile froze. “I beg your pardon?”
“It’s a long, involved story, Janet, and I’m not much in the mood to tell it. So have a nice flight, and just don’t expect anything from me. How’s that sound?”
The woman sprang to her feet. “You’re crazy!”
Slade gave a short, harsh laugh. “Yeah,” he said wearily, “that, too.”
He turned his face to the window. The image of the baby’s face flashed against the dark glass. A shock of inky-black hair. Eyes the color of smoke…
Slade grabbed for the headset, jammed it on and punched in a track of hard, heavy rock. Anything, to stop his brain from whirling. Anything, he thought, and put his head back and closed his eyes.
* * *
He got to Espada in the middle of the night.
Carmen heard him come in the back door.
“It’s Slade,” he said, before she could shriek and set off enough noise to blast the entire house awake.
She smiled, waddled toward him and enclosed him in her arms for a hug.
“You are no different than when you were a boy,” she said, holding him at arm’s length. “Always sneaking into the house long after others were in bed.”
“And you always covered for me with my old man.” He smiled, kissed her cheek. “Just look at you. You’re more beautiful than ever.”
“And you are as good a liar as ever,” she said, but she blushed. “Are you hungry? I can heat something from dinner, or make you a sandwich, if you prefer.”
“All I want is a hot shower and a night’s sleep. Is anybody else here yet?”
“Your brothers, you mean? Travis flies in tomorrow, as does Gage.”
Slade grinned. “Gage, too, huh?” He bent down, kissed the housekeeper’s cheek again. “You know what, Carmen? It’s good to be home.”
And it was.
It was even better the next morning, when he turned from the sideboard in the dining room just in time to see Catie flying toward him.
“Slade,” she cried, and flung herself into his outstretched arms. “Carmen said you were here. When did you get in? Why didn’t you wake me? Isn’t it wonderful, that Travis and Gage are coming in today?”
“Whoa. That’s too many questions before I’ve had my coffee. It’s good to see you, darlin’.”
“I’m so happy you’re all going to be here.” Caitlin kissed him again, then stepped away and poured coffee for them both. “Right up until the last second,” she said, handing a cup to him, “I wasn’t really sure any of you guys would show.”
“And risk having you come after us with that mean little quirt of yours?” Slade grinned. “You don’t know your own power, honey.”
“Sure I do.” Catie grinned over the rim of her cup. “I’m lean. I’m mean…”
“You’re part of the team. The old Los Lobos cheer. Damned if I hadn’t almost forgotten it.”
“Well, not me. When I think of the rough time you all gave me before you let me join the pack…”
“You were a girl.”
“How astute.” Caitlin wrinkled her nose. “But I could ride a horse and swim that rough stretch in the creek as well as you guys by the time my mother and I had been here six months.”
“Yeah. But you were still a girl.”
“It’s just a
good thing the three of you idiots finally figured out that girls were okay.”
Slade’s smile tilted. “You are, anyway.”
Caitlin’s slender eyebrows arched. “Uh-oh.”
“As in, uh-oh, that sounds ominous. Don’t tell me my handsome brother’s having woman trouble.”
“Me?” Slade put down the cup, went to the sideboard and spooned some scrambled eggs onto his plate. “You know me, honey. I love ’em and leave ’em.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Slade sighed. His stepsister could be persistent. “I wouldn’t call it ‘trouble.’ Just a, uh, a rough patch.”
“What happened? Were you the one who got loved and left this time?”
He gave a choked laugh. “Catie, sweetheart, it’s not that I don’t appreciate your interest, but—”
“But you don’t want to talk about it.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. I told you, I just hit a little bump in the road.”
“Well, as you so cleverly pointed out, I’m female. Maybe I can give you some perspective on your, uh, your bump in the road.”
Slade looked at his sister. Catie’s smile radiated innocence. Oh, yeah. He could just imagine telling her about Lara. Well, he’d say, You see, kid, there’s this babe I went to bed with and then didn’t see for a long time, until just a couple of weeks ago. The thing is, I can’t seem to keep my hands off her and it’s the same with her, even though we don’t much like each other—and oh, did I mention, I just found out she’s got a kid? A little boy, with a thatch of inky-black hair…
“Slade?” Caitlin put her hand on his arm. “Slade, what’s the matter? You look as if you just saw a ghost.”
“Nothing. Nothing’s the matter. I’m fine.” He took a deep breath and flashed a smile. “My life’s been crazy lately, that’s all. A couple of days with you and Travis and Gage, I’ll be fine.”
“Amazin’,” a deep voice drawled, “how my own flesh and blood jes’ managed to leave any mention of his daddy out of that heartwarmin’ little speech.”
Slade stiffened and turned around. Jonas Baron stood in the doorway, as leathery, straight and tall as ever.