27 October
The choppers were landing as we left the ruined building. I buried my face in his neck as the sand blew up around us and he held me tighter against him. I almost laughed that in all my dealings in the past years, this was how I was going to die. At least our mission had been successful and the good-guys were now here to take us home.
Someone yelled something, but I was beyond hearing now. All I could see were the backs of my eyelids as I rested against the coarseness of his garb. I wanted to hold on until we were at least back on home territory, but I didn't think I could hold a care much longer. I no longer hurt. I knew that everyone else was okay and that was all that mattered. In my line of work, everyone dies. I had used up my nine lives and now it was my turn.
If I hadn't deserved this ending I would have sworn aloud because now everything was going right in the world and I wanted to be part of it. Maybe I should have thought about that a long time ago; back when I still had a shot of staying out of Hell. Instead, I barged right into it, teasing the Prince of Darkness enough that he himself had risen from the flames to get me. Well, nothing so dramatic, but at least now it would be over and I could rest.
What a wonderful idea.
Oh, wait, don't let go, you were warm, and I am becoming so very cold.
Come back.
I never wanted to die alone.
Then again, I deserve no better.

Chapter One

September 8th

"So, we're good?" he asked as I counted the money he'd just handed me. I'd dealt with him before and he hadn't jilted me yet, so I was pretty sure that it was all there, but there was a first for everything so I counted it and would count it again later in the back room.

"You'll want the book on the history of Egyptian explorers on the upper Nile. Book case six. Middle of the bottom row," I told Dorian. The chimes above the door sounded and he and I both glanced over before concluding our deal. He nodded and went straight to the history section. "There's hot cider in the back," I told her, not taking my eyes from the ledger that I was working on.
She laughed and I knew that she was truly amused. No matter how long nor how far we're apart she is my best friend. I can't help it. Girls like us have to stay together.

"What, I don't even get a hug?"

I grinned then, finally looking at her. "Now, why would I give you a hug when I had to drag your ass out here in the first place?" But I got up and moved around the table to hug her. Bending down I looked at the little kid next to her. "Can I hug you, too?" He seemed to look at me a while longer before nodding and stepping out so I could hug him, which of course I did.

"You've gotten so big!" I told him. I ruffled his dark hair. The last time I saw him was when he was first born. I'd had to fly all the way to Melbourne to see him.

I looked up at Arabella and took a moment to really look at her. I hadn't seen her in seven years and here she was standing right in front of me. Her hair was just as dark brown as I remember it, except with an extra white hair or two, and she was just as slender. Her eyes were just as dark and her smile was just as warm. Of course, she looked older, but Hell, at our age that was to be expected, wasn't it?

She looked around. "So, you've done it." I watched her eyes glance over the shelves lined with books of all kinds with worn leather chairs interspersed amongst the book cases. In the corner sat my desk, with a cash drawer and most of my everyday ledgers. "I should have known better."

I had only been dreaming of opening the Rusty Cricket since I was in high school with her back on the east coast. "Indeed, you should have." I leaned back against the desk and folded my arms across my chest. I was actually quite proud of my li'l store. I'd always wanted it and now I had it. I prided myself on being able to get any book no matter how rare or hard to find, although, in this town there wasn't too much of a need for those skills, but it was still nice to know I could. The store was a revamped house so the bottom front rooms were nothing but sales floor which made it easy for me to live in it, too.

"So, tell me," she said, looking around, "How did you find this town? I mean, really? We're talking middle of nowhere Montana."

I chuckled, "I searched until I found what I was looking for." I stood up, checking to see the car outside the window. It was full and there was a cart behind it. "So, now that you're staying," she laughed softly, "Let me show you to your rooms."

The next few days I helped her unpack what things she brought with her from Washington DC. Most of it was clothes, but there were Brian's toys and some books. One box held some dishes and silverware. She'd brought a little bit of everything with her. I just put her stuff mingled with mine. I figured she wasn't going anywhere any time soon.

Arabella stood out gazing across the flat valley where the town was situated. From where she sat on a boulder she could see for miles and, for once in a long time, felt secure. The mountains that rose around them were like silent sentinels guarding the valley from all the evils and unnecessary hatred in the world. She eyed the land that would become her ranch. Surely, she wouldn't be able to use all of it for the horses, there was just too much, but the thought of being able to ride out there and to just be at peace was very settling. For a brief moment she wondered what this area would have been like hundreds of years ago before the west was settled, when there was an abundance of every kind of animal and where there was no knowledge of things yet to come. Oh, the age of innocence! Even as she watched, she saw a coyote pad through the rangeland. It stopped momentarily and eyed her, but soon resumed its activities.
"Yeah," she said softy to herself, "I'm not going to hurt you."
Pulling her sweater closer around her, she felt the evening roll in. The sky was already washed out with reds and oranges, securing the blue until tomorrow when it would come to play again.
"Hey, Mom!" Brian urged as he crawled onto the rock next to her. "Look what I found!" Arabella turned to her son as he held out a gnarled piece of wood. "Isn't it cool?"
She smiled at him and ran her hand gently through his soft hair. "Yep, that's really neat! Where did you find it?"
"It was right over there!" he pointed to some location off to the left and she nodded.
"Wow, that's cool. I bet it's been here a long time."
"You mean like during the Indians?"
She laughed, "Yes, I bet it's even from the Indians."
He stared at the wood with a newfound respect. "Cool."
She hugged him to her, pulling him in front of her so he leaned back into her. She let her chin rest on the top of his head. "So, sweetie, what do you think? Do you like it here?"
He nodded vigorously and she looked down at him.
"Yeah? Do you wanna stay here a while? Aunt Alex is letting us move in with her."
"Is that why we went to school today?"
Arabella grinned and kissed his temple. "Yup, that's exactly why we went to school today."
As if way beyond his years, he turned to face her. "Mom, do you like it here?"
She looked out over the expanse of land held within the timeless security of the mountains. "Yeah, sweetie, I do."
He nodded as if this solved everything. "Yeah, so do I."

"Alex!" I shook my head. I was never to have a quiet life again, was I?
It appeared Arabella and Brian were back from their venture around town.

"I'm in here!" I called back as I locked the safe and returned the carpeted floor back to its original place, turning to meet her in the storeroom.

"I stopped by the schoolhouse. They seemed to be willing to take Brian in."
"Oh sure! Mrs. Gray runs it. She's the sweetest lady!" I led her back out into the kitchen, closing the door behind me. "She loves the kids. Sure, the education won't be the same as those you're used to, but he'll be taught well."

Arabella seemed satisfied with that. A giggled rang out and we turned to see Brian running in the field behind the house.
"He seems to have settled in well," I commented, unable to suppress the grin that spread over my face watching his dark hair bounce as he played.
"He's a good boy."

I heard the hitch in her voice and turned to look at her. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. It's just," she sighed, "well, I've been in the center of everything so long. I mean, between having him and then jumping right in the State Department, I mean, it's been crazy! I don't remember a time I was able to really settle and call somewhere home. It was always one city or another. One country or another. Ya know?" She shook her head. "Of course you know. You've been on the go as much as I have." She really turned to look at me then. "But I still don't know what you were doing all these years. You disappeared the same time I left to go study in Australia. I mean, when I was raped you hopped on a plane from Scotland! What were you doing in Scotland? Then when he was born you came in from Singapore! Every time I talked to you you were somewhere else!"
I laughed and gave her my best smile. "I was working." I turned my attention back to the little boy. "I was doing the only thing I knew to do."

She shrugged. "Well, I'm just glad you got off the island."

"I did," I said, "Man, did I."

"Do you have pictures?"

"Of course."

"I'd love to see them if you don't mind."

I nodded and went upstairs, bringing down two albums I'd made with several years worth of stories and adventures. I put them out on the table and as she flipped through the pages my mind wandered through the mountains, the deserts, the rain forests, and the cities from which those pictures came. Most of them seemed so long ago. A different lifetime.
"So, how's the family?" I asked, taking a gulp of my coffee.

"Typical. Saraphyna is off in a courtroom complaining about environmental rights in Brazil. Sean is good. I'm not quite sure where he is, but I got a letter not to long ago saying that he was alive and well. I still worry about him, though." She laughed softly. We both knew that her brother had gone into the underside of the government. There was no surprise in it of course. Her family had traveled from one country to another while her father was back in the State Department. He'd died a few years ago in a simple prison inspection gone wrong. It had been a matter of time before the reckless, youthful idealist joined the ranks to avenge his father. The youngest sister Isabelle had taken over caring for their mother and they lived down in Florida surrounded by some of the other family. At least I didn't have to worry for her.

"So business has been going well, then?"

"I don't know if I'd say it was going well, per se, but it is indeed going. I mean, I didn't start this to make any money. I just love doing it. I mean, it's like having my very own library, but letting others enjoy it, too. That makes sense?"


A blood curdling scream broke out and we both raced for the door running outside just in time to see the little boy stomping his feet, his face bright red and scrunched with tears, his arms flailing. I jogged out to him with Arabella, but I could already see the brindle beast that had frightened the child.

"Baxter!" I called to him. Instantly the dogs head perked up and he came charging at me, tail wagging. "Stop terrorizing the poor kid!" I mockingly said to him. I knelt down to hold the massive dog and Arabella picked Brian up in her arms.
"Are you okay, Brian?" I asked. He nodded, but buried his face against his mothers neck.

"He's fine, just a little scared, I think."

"Here," I said to him, "Come here, Brian."

Arabella knelt down next to Baxter and me, placing Brian between her legs as she held him around his waist.

"Brian, this is Baxter. My dog. Baxter, this is Brian. He doesn't know you're a big oaf yet." I turned my attentions to the boy. "You can touch him. He won't hurt you. He likes to play out in the fields."

Slowly Brian reached out a hand and, although he trembled as the dogs nose came out to sniff him, he managed to pet the dogs head.

"Good dog," he said.

I smiled. "There ya go. See, he's a good boy. He's just a puppy and hasn't calmed down yet."

I stood and let the dog go, leading us all back to the house for some dinner.
"Where did you get him?" Arabella asked. "When did you get him?"

I held open the door as everyone walked into the kitchen. "I picked him up on my last trip out to Holland. I found him outside the place I was staying and he seemed to follow me everywhere. He was just a pup then. When I left, I asked if he belonged to anyone and the locals told me he was just another stray that was eating out of their trash. I ended up taking him back stateside with me."

"Of course!"

"Hey, that's how you got your cats when I first met you!"
She laughed. "So true."

"Yeah, that's what I thought!"

I left Arabella in charge of the store while I went to the butchers and picked up some beautiful steaks for dinner. The grocery store was next for some greens and bread. This was the small town life I thoroughly enjoyed.
After dinner and she put Brian to bed in the third bedroom, she and I sat out on the back porch watching the sun set.

"I can't believe I'm retiring and twenty-seven," she said softly.

"Why? Did you really love DC life that much? You really enjoy all the politics of it all?"

"No, but I just feel that I should be bothered that I just left it all."

"Self preservation, babe. That's all there is to it."

A few moments pass before I felt her looking at me. "What now?" I groaned. She always started trouble when she looked at me!

"I don't see a man around these parts."

I grinned and took a puff of the cigar I held in my hand. "There are plenty of men in town if you want."
"That's not what I meant and you know it! Haven't you found someone yet to steal your heart away?"

My heart seemed to stop beating for two seconds as it clenched and I had to remember to respond. "Have you?" I silently willed her not to notice my hesitance.

That shut her up for a moment, but only a moment, "But I haven't given up. When was the last time you went on a date?"

"When was the first time I went on a date?" I traveled. I worked. I did whatever I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it. Who wanted a girl as boisterous as they were and one who had actually learned to walk on razor blades when she was in Cambodia a few years ago. I was no soft gentle girl. Why did I want a guy that I could dominate? Nah. Anyway, with my work over the years, the last thing I needed was a guy sniffing about.

The silence stretched. "It's good to have you home," I said, getting to my feet as the sky turned black with night.

"It's good to be home."

Chapter Two

21 October
Arabella made her way over to her usual practice space, an open area set slightly apart from the tents. At night, the men had their bonfires here; during the day they ignored it completely. It was an odd segregation of work and leisure among people who loved the weapons at their sides more than many parts of their bodies. She was simply grateful for the solitude the strange habit afforded her. Stepping lightly in the sand, Arabella began her warm-up exercises, letting her mind wander as her muscles flowed through the familiar motions. It eventually settled on a seven-year-old memory of her brother.

Back in the States after a year abroad, she had tried to downplay the rape, so only family and friends knew the story behind her pregnancy. One day at work, one too many cruel comments from acquaintances on her unwed status had sent her running away in tears. Sean had found her sobbing in a corner, arms wrapped tight around her belly. He hadn't said anything, simply lifted her onto his lap, surrounding her with quiet love. When the sobs began to subside, he lifted his head from atop hers to find the source of the episode.

"Moynihan. He said…" she took a deep breath to steady her voice, then, "he asked if I decided not to wait til marriage because I was just really horny, or if there was money involved." The tears welled up again, distracting Arabella enough to not notice how dangerously still her brother had gotten. "I wanted to wait, Sean, at least for the right guy or God even just one who cared about me…" The rest was lost as she buried her face in his neck, cursing the hormones that made her so emotionally unbalanced. Sean forced a chuckle.

"Oh come on, you've always been an insanely sentimental girl. Either that, or sentimentally insane, I've never been quite sure which." He was rewarded with a muffled laugh, and a halfhearted poke to the ribs as she drew back far enough to blow her nose before cuddling back in close.

"He's a dick and you know it. This just gives me the perfect excuse to get all your buddies together and have a good old-fashioned tarring and feathering." He wasn't joking, but it got a full giggle this time, and a ghostly resemblance of her usual smile. Then it faded as she became more serious.

"It's not just Moynihan. Who am I kidding, thinking I can be a single mother? No child should grow up without a father, Sean. And what if I end up resenting it? My life's about to change so much, what if I blame the baby? I can't do this. I can't do this alone."

The last miserable whisper wrenched his heart. "Bella, Bella, you're never alone. We're all here. Mom and Dad are looking forward to having a grandkid to spoil, and I can't wait to be an uncle." Actually, the thought terrified him. His sister, a mother? He moved on quickly. "And you know Saraphyna will love telling you what to do." A watery smile encouraged him, so he voiced the thought he hadn't been able to shake since seeing her again. "But most of all, Bella, I've never seen you so happy. You used to get hyper and goofy sometimes, but it was a mood, nothing more. This…you glow. They say that about all pregnant women, but you really do. The way you rub your belly when you think no one's looking, and get that little smile on your face. You're not jumpy or afraid around men, just careful. This baby's given you so much to think about, and forced you to look ahead and get over what that bastard did to you. And you are thinking about the baby, worrying about it, wanting what's best for it." He shook his head, marveling at the transformation in his sister. "That baby may be a few months away, but Bella, you already are a mother. You're ready for this. And knowing you, no baby will ever be so loved." He stopped in consternation as Arabella's eyes again flooded with tears.

"You really think so?"

He wiped her cheeks, framing her face with his hands. "I know so. And since I am the center of the universe, what I say, goes."

She laughed, mentally comparing the teenager who'd originally started that joke with the young man currently holding her. He'd done some growing up of his own while she'd been in Australia.

"You're just glad you don't have to play matchmaker for me anymore."

"I'll say, now I don't have to try to find a guy who's good enough for you. You've saved me a lot of trouble, skipping straight to the kids part."

He'd continued the light teasing and jokes while she washed her face, gently directing her attention back to work and the life she had ahead of her. That day was only the first of many his steadfast reassurance had gotten her through, becoming the foundations of a fragile new self-confidence. When an oddly anxious Moynihan had later come and apologized profusely, Sean's too-bland innocence just confirmed his streak for what he called justified vengeance.
Arabella slowly unsheathed her knives for a full workout, remembering his interventions to save her feelings. This time, it was her turn to do a little saving.

Chapter Three

13 September

"No, Mrs. Hensley, this book is not about the stars in Kingston. This book is about pirates."

The older lady had her hands on her hips. "It says Kingston by Starlight."

"Yes, it does, but if you notice that you're in the fiction area it'll be much easier to understand."

She looked around, her mouth closing. "Well, I'll be damned."

Arabella smiled and placed the book back on the shelf. "Now, would you like a book of stars in Kingston?"

"Yes, I think I would."

"Then why don't you follow me and I'll go find one that we can order for you."

Mrs. Hensley seemed satisfied with this and followed her to the desk in the corner.

I nodded to myself and went back to balancing out the accounting. We were doing fine. Our banking was in the plus and we'd soon have a bit more to start talking to a contractor to work on getting a stable built in the back. Sure, Arabella and I would have to use some of our own backdoor stash to pull it off, but heck, that's what I was in the business for, right? Seriously, who ever got rich by spending money without profit? I guess I had to tell Arabella about it first, though.

When I heard the chimes above the door and then the following silence I knew that the older lady had left.

"Arabella!" I called, standing up and heading into the bookstore. "You need a new car."

"I have a perfectly good car!"

I shook my head. "Not for the winter that's coming up on us. You have a small little compact car that might have been good when you were in Washington or whatever, but it's not going to hold up in Montana during a blizzard."

"Oh," she said rounding the corner to stand in front of me, "That makes sense. Well, what do you drive?"

I laughed. "Me? I have an old pick-up that I got when I first moved back stateside." I looked at the clock and figured it was about lunch time. "Come on, we're gonna go talk to Brandt. He'll know if something's around."

"Who's Brandt?"

"He owns a shop just around the corner. Always under the hood of a car somewhere if not doing house touch ups for some of the older folk."

So we left the store, placing an 'out for lunch' sign in the door. It was a short walk over the garage and the wind hadn't really picked up yet so it was pretty nice outside. Sure enough, as we rounded the corner we could see the hood of a car propped open with a body deep in it singing to whatever country music seemed to be playing, if only in his head.

"Brandt!" I called out as we neared.

He looked up and smiled. "Hey! How are you?"

"I'm good. Brandt this is Arabella, she's come to run the Rusty Cricket with me. Arabella this is Brandt, our mechanics man."

They shook hands, but I knew that Arabella didn't miss everything that Brandt was. Brandt was hot. That's all there was to it. Brandt was turning twenty-nine this year, but my God his body was fresh out of college. I happened to know that he'd been in the marines for a few years when he got out of high school. He'd gone over and fought for his country before getting out when his fiancée had given him an ultimatum. He'd gotten out and she'd left him anyway. I felt sorry for him. Getting out for a girl who never even really wanted you? How shitty! Anyway, he was a little over six foot with a nice solid body, beautifully sculpted arms and rough hands. His hair was a lighter brown and his eyes a dark green. Oh yeah, he was a hottie.

"We're looking for a car for Arabella," I said, breaking the spell. "Her car isn't good for this weather and since winter is fast approaching we need something that will hold up in the blizzard."

He nodded. "Okay. Well, let's see. I think Nick and Jamie are trying to sell the suburban and Paul has his pick-up."

Arabella began to grin. "You wouldn't happen to know anyone who has a Bronco, would you?" I could all most hear the giggle in her voice. She'd always wanted a Bronco – for as long as I can remember.

He just stared at her for a moment before nodding. "You know, I might just be able to come up with one. It doesn't really run right. It needs a lot of work, but if you really want…" he turned and started walking to the back of the garage. Arabella and I looked at each other before turning and following him. We found him standing at the back door staring out to the left.

"There!" he said, pointing. "It's a bit rusty and beat up, but she'll run."

We poked our heads out the door and I heard Arabellas breath catch just before she moved out of the doorway and started leading us out to where a big hunk of once-was-a-car sat. She was in love. No doubt about it.

"This is perfect!" She ran her hand over the hood of the car and peered inside.

"As I said, it needs work, but she'll run."
"This is great."

She turned to us. "I'll take it."

I laughed and looked to Brandt. "It appears we'll take it."

"Oh," she frowned, "Wait. I don't know how to fix it."

It was Brandt's turn to laugh at that. "I'll help you with that. I don't mind. I kept meaning to fix her up and get her going again but I just never had the time. I'll help you if you want."

Arabella beamed. "That'd be wonderful!"

I felt like smacking my forehead. Get a room! I said to myself. Chuckling, I shook my head and walked back to the bookstore. Arabella hooking up with Brandt!

She walked in the door a few minutes later. "Where'd you go?"

"I wanted to leave you lovebirds a few minutes."

"It's not like that."

"No, of course it's not."

"No, really, it's not."

"Don't you dare! Don't even try and tell me you didn't notice his arms."

She, at least, had the decency to turn a bright shade of red.

"Yeah, that's what I thought."

"Look, it's just been a long time and-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, you don't have to explain. Trust me. I, of all people, understand." And I did. Aside from a night my senior year of high school I spent with a guy named Bill who had exploring hands and a bit more a few years ago in Latvia, I could probably still be considered a virgin! A virgin at twenty-seven. Soon to be twenty-eight. Yeah, I think I could understand. "Anyway, Brandt is cute." I grinned. "A pretty stand up guy, too."

She nodded and flipped over the open sign again. "Well, it doesn't really matter because I have Brian and for the moment he's all the man I can take!"

I laughed and gave her a hug, but I knew it wasn't just that stopping her. Australia took a toll on her when she was raped. I mean, it's understandable. She just wasn't quite ready to deal with guys right now. But, it had been seven years and she needed one. It'd been long enough and I tried to suppress a grin because I knew that Brandt was just the man for her.

"Mom! Mom!" Brian came running in the door. "School was so cool!"

She and I raised an eyebrow at each other.

"Tommy has his own four wheeler and Jason has his own horse! Mrs. Selms says that we're gonna take a field trip to the butchers next week! Can I, Mom, can I? I have the permission slip! Can I?"

"We'll see," she said, ruffling his hair. "Now, go get ready for dinner."

"Oh, are you making dinner?" I asked when Brian had run into the other room.

She just laughed. "I'll come up with something!"

"You'd better because I'm tired of cooking!"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah."

I'll have to admit that the next few days went relatively quiet and uneventful. Between the buying of the car and the routine running of the bookstore we were pretty set. All of that was about to change though. If I'd only known.

Arabella came down the stairs in the morning, scowling and frowning at me. "I don't know how you drink that stuff!"

I looked down at my coffee and shrugged. "I like it."

"Whatever." She sighed. "So, you have your bookstore. It appears that I just need my ranch."

I put my mug on the table. I guess I'd better tell her now that the back forty was for just that purpose. All the land needed was the buildings, etc., and even that was being accounted for. "So, uh," I started, unsure how I wanted to tell her, "What would you say if I happened to tell you that maybe by chance there's a possibility that when I bought this house, I bought the land behind it, too, just for some horses to run around on, thinking that a nice ranch would look good in my back yard?"

She squeezed her eyes shut and grinned before straightening out and turning to me. "If I were told all that, I'd have to say that I'd better start looking for a way to take what money I have and put it to good use building a stable."

I nodded. "Yup, I think that's a good idea."

I felt like Arabella was about to jump out of her skin. Slowly a giggle erupted from her throat. "Are you serious?"

"Yup, yup."

Suddenly Brian burst into the room. "Momma, can I take Baxter for a walk?"

Arabella ruffled his hair, "Why don't you ask Aunt Alex?"

Brian turned his eyes on me. Oh, he'd be a heart breaker one day. "Of course!"

He cried out in glee and went running out the door. "Come on, Baxter!"

"Cute kid," I told Arabella when we were alone again.

"Yeah, he is." Her smile trembled. "His sparkling eyes came from his father."

"Good job in raising him."

"Thanks. I would hope you appreciate your Godson."

I knocked my elbow against hers. "It's not just that and you know it."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah."

The chimes above the door sounded and we looked up to see Mr. Masterson walking into the door. "You or me?" I whispered.

"You can do it. His eyes wander too much for me."

I grinned. "You're going to have to get used to it, you're cute."

"I'm not interested."

"In him? Of course, but Brandt is another subject."

"Stop, I'm just not ready."

I stood up to go deal with my customer and hugged her. "I know, babe. Just don't waste your life over what happened almost a decade ago. I want to see you happy."

"I am happy."

"Okay," I said with a sigh.

Chapter Four

7 Years Ago

I gently trace the backs of my fingers down the side of his face. His shadow was starting to grow in and it was rough against my skin, but I didn't mind. His hand came up to cover mine, turning his head so he could kiss my palm.

I wasn't ready to give him up yet. Sure, that was part of the deal and I really wasn't ready to be married, but I wasn't ready to go. Slowly, I stroked his face one last time before taking my hand back and clutching it to my stomach.

"Thank you," I whispered softly, "for all of this."

He nodded his head and it was as if I could feel him distancing himself from me. I wanted to cry out for him to come back, but it wouldn't work like that. We had a deal.

"It's no problem at all."

It was my turn to nod. I looked down at my hands, ringing the dress that I had worn for today. "Gavin, look," finally looking at him, "if you ever need anything at all-" but I couldn't finish because soon the tears would well in my eyes and I couldn't let that happen. I could not be emotional about this. I could not be weak.

"Good luck," he said as I climbed into the limo. Without looking back I told the driver to take me to the airport. I was going to Australia.

Chapter Five

17 September

Brandt stopped by the bookstore as I was cleaning out one of the shelving units for a new display that was coming in. I grinned to myself as he looked around, opening a book on perennial flowers.

"She's bringing Brian to school."

He looked and smiled. "I was just here looking for a book."

"Right," I said, "Hon, I know you a bit better than that."

He came to stand next to me. "You just think you do."

"No, I know I do."

Brandt leaned back against one of the shelves and folded his arms across his chest. "So, how long have you known her?"

Shaking my head, I put some more books into boxes. "I met her my freshmen year of high school, so that's what? Thirteen years? Something like that."

"So, a while then."

"You could say that."

There was a brief silence before he started up again, "You knew that there was a car show in Idaho this month where she'd be able to find a Bronco like she wanted and yet, you didn't take her, or even tell her. You brought her to me."

"What car show? I didn't know about any car show."

"Don't give me that shit."

"You're reading too much into this."

"Am I?

The chimes sounded above the door and Arabella strode in with groceries. She stopped when she saw Brandt.

"Oh, hi. I didn't know you were coming."

He stood up and ran a hand through his hair. "Well, I was just telling Alex to tell you that some of the parts for your truck just came in."

"Oh, great!"

"Yeah, so whenever you want, just stop by and we'll get to work." With one final nod back at me, he strode out.

Arabella walked over to me. "You're keeping something from me."

I chuckled softly. "What's new?"

"Whatever," she said as she walked off.

Ok, ok, so I was a bitch, but that'd never changed. I'd always carried an attitude problem. I just used to hide it better. I sighed and followed her into the kitchen.

"You know, you keep pushing Brandt on me, I'm going to refuse him out of spite."

"Yeah, I know." And I did! She'd never been one to be pushed into anything. Trust me, I'd tried over the years. "I just like him."

"Then you date him!"

"Me? But I don't like him!"

We laughed and let the topic drop. Instead, I helped her make unpack the food and put it away. It was her night to pick what we were going to eat. She ate weird things. I just smiled, as long as I wasn't cooking it and I could eat it, I was happy. Anyway, afterwards I went back to my shop and she went back into town.

Arabella glanced down at herself. She had to go look for someone to help her draw up plans for the stables. Who the heck would she talk to about getting stable work done? She didn't even know anyone in this damn town! Hell.

Brandt would probably know! Nodding to herself, she walked into town. It wasn't until she was halfway to the garage that she realized that she'd just been able to say hi to almost everyone she'd passed. She was becoming a real local! Almost grinning, Arabella couldn't help but think that she enjoyed being a local. She hadn't been a local since back on the island! She'd always wanted to raise her son in a small town and now she'd be able to do it! Maybe this was really going to work!

Maybe she was going to get her life after all. Her nice horse ranch where she could muck out her own stalls whenever she wanted and if she felt like going for a midnight ride she could. She didn't have to ask permission to do anything or go anywhere and she was done with all the political bullshit. Arabella let out a giggle, quickly looking around to see if anyone noticed. She couldn't help it though! She was now free to travel whenever and wherever she wanted! Oh! What a wonderful thought. A life that was hers where she and her son could live peacefully.

She found Brandt talking to Mrs. Hensley in the small little room one might call an office. He looked up, bestowing on her a smile that made her heart do back flips, and gave her a small gesture that would let her know that he'd be with her in a moment. Arabella sat down in one of the chairs facing the counter and watched how the conversation was going. To her, Mrs. Hensley was just a crabby old lady who didn't know what a car was let alone be able to explain to Brandt what he'd done wrong with hers!
"Now see here, young man," Mrs. Hensley warned, and although Brandt was young than she was, he was no fresh school boy either, "my car-"

"Your car just needs a winter oiling because of the dry cold air."


"And you're not warming up your car like you should in this cold and it's going to crack your engine block like your last car."

Mrs. Hensley snatched the keys from the counter and stormed out of the office, grumbling to herself. "Why, I never-"

Brandt leaned onto the counter with a lazy smile. "And how can I ruin your day?"

Arabella laughed. "I was hoping you'd make mine instead. Is that an option?"


She stood up and walked towards the counter. "I'm trying to start a small horse ranch. I can't have horses without stables. Therefore, I was wondering if you might know where I might just happen to find someone who could build me a stable and take me to a horse show that I've been hearing about."

At this he really smiled and she began to think that he was just a tad younger than she thought he was. Was it possible he was younger than she was? "As a matter of fact," he said while chuckling, "that horse show? My family runs it every year."

She stilled. "What?"

Laughing, he watched as she hopped up to sit on the counter. "I said, my family runs it."

"Your family deals with horses?"

"My family runs a horse ranch in northern Wyoming, not too far from here. They put on this horse show and auction once a year. If you're looking to get into the business, they're the ones to talk to. I don't know too much, but they'll know whatever you're looking for."

"So, does this mean you have brothers and sisters?"

"I'm one of three. I'm the middle. I have a younger brother and an older sister. You?"

"One of four. An older sister and a younger brother and sister."

"Where are they?"

"My oldest sister is in Brazil. My younger one is back in Florida with my mom. My brother is somewhere." A small sardonic laugh rippled through her, "I'm not sure where. He's off traveling the world."

"So, the adventurous type, eh? Sounds like my sister. She did a bit of traveling for a while. At home now with my brother and folks. Anyway, what brings you all the way here from Florida?"

She shifted, getting comfortable. "It's kind of a long story."

"I like long stories."

"Okay, well, I'm not originally from Florida. Growing up, my dad worked for the State Department so I traveled around a lot. I lived in Venezuela, Paraguay, and a few other places. We'll just say I come from Maryland though to keep it simple. I went to high school there with Alex. We were best friends. Anyway, after high school we kind of went our separate ways. She moved around the world doing whatever she wanted, however she wanted and I went to work for the government. I worked in DC for a while, but I've lived in a few other cities around the world, too. Politics will do that to you."

She stopped, fiddling with her hands.

"Go on."

"You can't possibly want to hear all this!"

"If I didn't, I wouldn't have asked."

She felt herself blush. "Okay, well, don't say I didn't warn you. Anyway, Alex and I had this crazy dream when we were younger that we were going to open a bookstore and a ranch. It was her idea for the bookstore and she told me that I could have my ranch then! I never believed her. It was just a dream." She laughed softly. "So, not too long ago I got an envelope. All that was in it was a business card for the Rusty Cricket. She'd done it. She started a bookstore. Now, it was my turn!"

She felt giddy. Here she was with a hot guy telling him about her and he was listening. She gotten used to people not listening to her in DC, but to really talk to someone who didn't already know all her little nuances was really a lost feeling for her.

"Wow, that's quite a story."

Arabella shrugged. "Yeah, well, that's the gist of it. What about you? You always lived here?"

"No, actually. I've been around a bit. I just bought this place about a year ago from the previous owner. It's a nice change from everything. Anyway, so, why don't you come with me to my family's farm tomorrow?"

"What?" Did he just say what she think he just said?

"Come with me tomorrow to the ranch."

"I can't!" She slid from the counter.

"Why not?" He came around the counter.

She looked at him standing in front of her. What a good height! He had to be at least six and a half feet tall.

"Because! Look, I have a son. His name is Brian and he's seven years old."

Brandt looked at her for a moment and she tried to read his look, but she couldn't.

"Look, I've got to go." She turned and headed for the door.

"Bring him."

She stopped and slowly turned. "Did you just tell me to bring him?"

"Yeah, I did. Bring your son. I'm sure he'd love to play with everyone. Has he ever ridden on a horse?"

She was about to answer that he had when she realized that she hadn't. What type of mother was she? She loved horses and yet had never taken the time to take him!

"No, he hasn't."

"Then he can tomorrow!"

Arabella looked at him. "Are you sure?"

"Will you stop asking me what I would and would not like to do? I'm fully capable of thinking for myself."


"Good. Then you'll come with me tomorrow?"

"Sure. What time?"

"Meet me here around six?"

"Sounds good."


"Well, I'll see you tomorrow then," she said, backing out the door.

"Yeah, I'll see you tomorrow."

She gave him a small wave and then turned, walking home. Halfway there she broke into a run.

I heard the music upstairs with the closed door and I briefly wondered if this was a moment I was supposed to give her her privacy. I opened the door wide open and leaned into the door jamb.

"So, having a moment, are we?"

She stopped and stared at me. The box that held her knives was open, but the blades were still inside. She mustn't have finished her warm-ups yet.

"Do you need something?" Arabella asked me in a tone that definitely told me I wasn't quite invited.

"No, not really." I looked around a bit before my eyes settled back down on the case laying in the corner. "I'm glad to see you still practice your Pekiti-Tirsia."

When we were younger, she'd always said that she'd love to learn to knife fight. It was her big thing. She wanted to learn martial arts, she wanted to knife fight, she wanted a lot of things, but she had other things in her life that took precedence over picking up such an out-there hobby. When she was raped that all changed, though. After Australia she found a group of people heading for the Philippines to study various martial arts and she jumped at the chance to go. I remember her telling me later about how she and Brian fell into a camp where he was taken care of by the elders while she studied. I knew she used to go back every year to refresh, but I hadn't heard about it in quite awhile. I though she'd given it up. Obviously not.

"Yeah, well, it's something that I enjoy."

"That's important."

"It's a good way of relieving stress," she snapped at me.

"Are you stressed?"


I refused to press the matter. If she wanted to have a bitchy moment, I'd let her have her bitchy moment.

About an hour later she sat down in the chair across from me in the bookstore.

"I'm going to Wyoming with Brandt tomorrow to meet his family."

"Wow, so soon?" I tried to joke. She scowled at me.

"I don't really know how it happened. Well, I mean, I do. We were talking about the ranch and I was asking for suggestions and he started telling me all about his own family and their ranch and it just happened."

I nodded. Oh, yes, good choice.

Chapter Six

18 September

"So, what are their names again?"

"My sister is Carrie Anne. My brother is Tate."

Arabella took a deep breath and waited as Brian climbed down from the pickup truck. "Okay."

"It's going to be fine!" Brandt reassured her. "You're going to be great. They are just people."

Arabella knew she was being silly. It was her career to meet new people on a regular basis. Why would this one be any different? Because this one is meeting the family! Wait! They weren't even going out!

"Is that my little boy come to visit?"

She turned her head toward the house and saw a woman standing on the front porch.

"No, that can't be my son Brandt! Why, he never even calls his poor ol' momma!"

Brandt jogged up to his mother and gave her a hug, kissing her cheek as he took off his hat. "You know I love ya, Momma."

Another woman walked out the door and this one Brandt picked up and swung around. This must be the brother and sister, Arabella thought as she watched a man follow the woman onto the porch. He, too, hugged Brandt. She was walking toward the house with Brian tucked under her arm when they all turned to her.

"Everyone, this is Arabella and Brian. Arabella, Brian, this is Momma, Tate, and Carrie-Anne."

Arabella shook hands with them all and then told Brian to do the same. He was shy, but what had she really expected?

"Brian, do you want some cookies? I just made a fresh batch of cookies and if you don't eat them then they'll just go bad."

"Yes, please."

Brandts mom took Brian into the house with a wink. Now she was all alone with the siblings. She just smiled. Brandt came to her rescue by saying that he'd show her around the place.

"We'll come," Tate said, elbowing his sister.

Arabella could immediately tell that the three were close. She felt a slight pang of homesickness. They all looked alike. Together there was no denying that they were related. Where Tate and Brandt were tall and solidly built, Carrie Anne was petite and gentile. Surely, she had a way about her that left no doubt that she could handle herself, but she was still small. The boys were also loud and playful, she seemed more calculating. Carrie Anne seemed to be a less devious Saraphyna.

It took until dinner for her to absolutely fall in love with the ranch and the people who ran it. They were all getting ready to sit down to the table when Brandts dad walked in the door. Talk about a weathered cowboy! Arabella tried not to laugh. He looked so stereotypical.

"You'll go wash up before you sit down to my table!" Brandts mom said as his dad patted his wife's bottom and headed for the table.

"Of course, darlin'!" He nodded at the table. "I was just coming to meet our guests!" He laughed and turned to Arabella. "Hi, I'm Hawk McGregor."

"Arabella Schafer and my son Brian."

"It's nice to meet you both!"

Arabella immediately liked him as much as she liked the others. She grinned as he walked off to wash his hands after smiling at his wife.

"So," he said when he'd come back and they'd started dinner, "Brandt tells me that your looking to start a horse ranch."

Arabella would have thought that her idea would have been dwarfed after having looked at this ranch started by these people, but it wasn't. She felt just as justified. "Yes, I do. Only, I don't have a stable. I'm hoping to find someone to build one for me and I am looking for a horse and a way to get my name out as a place for borders."

Mrs. McGregor nodded, "Of course! You'll have to come see the horses that are ready to be auctioned off. You'll be given first choice!"

"Oh, no! I couldn't-"

She was waved off, "Hawk will show you the horses right after supper, won't you?"

"Of course, dear."

"Momma, Arabella and her friend Alex own a bookstore in town."

"Do you, now? Well, isn't that nice?"

"It's actually really cool. We have a bit of everything and if we don't have it we can order it. We even hunt for rare or out of print books."

"What's it called?" Carrie Anne asked.

"The Rusty Cricket."

"Interesting. What kind of name is that?"

Arabella laughed. "I have no idea. Alex picked it."

She helped clear the table only to be shooed away by Brandt's mom. "Go on! Go look at the horses!"

So, Brandt took her and Brian outside.

"Brian? Why don't you ask your mom if you can ride a horse?" Brandt asked as they walked into the stables.

The little boy's face lit up. "Oh, Mom, can I?"

"Sure, sweety."

Who would have thought that seeing her son on a horse with Brandt would have made her heart do flip flops? There was something that wouldn't let her eyes tear away from the scene. She watched her son and his delight as well as nervousness at sitting up on the mount. Brandt was talking him through it, calming him and exciting him.

Arabella climbed onto the fence and was only mildly surprised when she was joined by Carrie Anne.

"So, you and my brother, huh?"

Yeah, I wish! Arabella thought. "No, it's not like that."

"Sure. Tell him that."

She turned to the woman. "It's really not like that. He's just helping me out."

"If he was just helping you out he wouldn't be riding your son around on his favorite horse." There was a pause. "So, how long have you known my brother?"

"Not long at all. I've only known him for about a week. I've only just moved here."

"Do you like it so far?"

Arabella nodded. "Yeah, I do. I really do."

They sat in silence as the sun set. Arabella listened to the owls and the coyotes. The ranch was everything she'd wanted. It was just as relaxing and just as wonderful as she'd hoped. Sure, she could tell it was work, but it was still worth it.

A little bit later Carrie Anne left to go work on some chores before all the sunlight disappeared and Brandt brought the horse into the stable. Brian was talkative as he helped Brandt unsaddle and rub down the horse. She could hear his voice carry through the air. She hoped Brandt didn't mind. Slowly, she walked back to the house to say goodnight to his parents.

"Now, you come back!" his mother said and gave her a hug.

"I will."

"I'm serious."

"So am I."

"Good girl."

She sat with Brian in the truck as Brandt said his goodbyes. Did the day really have to end now? They drove back home without talking, but she could tell he was just as thoughtful as she was. By the time he dropped her off at the house she was half giddy with having a great day, half sorrowful that it was over.

"Well, thank you for taking us with you."

"I hope you had a good time."

"Oh! I did," she said, lifting Brian from the seat. "I know this little one did, too."

"He's a good kid."

"Yeah, he is."

"Well, thank you again."

Brandt smiled at her. "Can I take you to dinner Friday night?"

Arabella nodded, "Yeah."

He laughed. "Cool. Have a good night."

"You, too."

He drove off and she just stared at the fading truck lights for a moment before walking to the house. He seemed so nice and sweet and genuine. Part of it scared her and the other half sent thrills through her. He was big and could easily overpower her. Well, he might have been able to, but hopefully her training had put them at equal odds. She shook her head. She didn't want to fight him! She wanted to love him. A sudden shudder ran through her. No, she wasn't quite ready for that either. Maybe she'd never be ready. Maybe it was just her and Brian forever. She looked down at the sleeping boy in her arms. Yeah, she could handle that.

Arabella took Brian upstairs through the darkened house and to his bed. She'd managed to decorate the room with trucks, planes, and ships. His bed was an old wooden bunk-bed decked in nautical sheets. She tucked him in, kissing his forehead as he rolled onto his side.

"Mom, I liked Mr. Brandt."


"I liked the horses, too."

"Good because Mommy is going to get us our own horse ranch."



Arabella watched him as he closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep. He was her God send. Her little angel. For how he came into this world, he'd certain given her more joy then she could have ever imagined. Even now, just watching him sleep, put a smile on her face.

Then there was Brandt. What the heck was she going to do about him? She'd thoroughly enjoyed the day. His family was great and watching him with them just convinced her more about what a great guy he was. Oh, she'd better watch out. The last thing she needed right now was a guy. Her life was as full as she needed right now. Although, maybe now was the right time? She'd just moved out here to settle down, hadn't she? To put the fast pace portion of her life aside and to open a door for herself?

Chapter Seven
20 October

No, surely he'd gotten the name wrong! Better yet, this was just a coincidence; there must be others with that name! But I knew the moment I saw him that there was no doubt. That was him. He looked up from his desk and I saw his eyes take in the sight. I hadn't seen him in seven years.

He was still as gorgeous as he was back then except time had hardened him. I didn't want to think about what he'd seen or been through. He was in the military and that's what happened. I'd used him for my own purposes and then spat him out. Granted, that was what we'd both agreed to, but I don't think he thought I was serious. Now look at him. I did want him. Even back when I first met him. He was a fierce display of masculinity. Every angle in his body screamed threatening and power and his voice was just as commanding, just as rough.

To see him again after all these years brought a tremor through my body. How could I have walked out on him when he did nothing but help me.

"Sir," the young grunt said, pathetically whining that he'd failed, "she wouldn't listen when I told her no. I couldn't stop her."

"No one ever could," he said softly, but I knew he wasn't talking to the soldier. His gaze barely left mine, "You are dismissed."

The grunt left and I think he knew as well as everyone else in this tent that he would shortly be receiving transfer paperwork. If he couldn't keep a mere woman out of a commanding officers tent, what good was he out in this desert?

He rose from the desk. "So you had to see me? Couldn't be held back?"

"As soon as I heard your name I had to see for myself. I had to know if was really you who was going to run my operation." I paused. I didn't know what. I was officially speechless. "And now that I've seen that it is you, I am satisfied that this will be carried out successfully. You come highly recommended."

"So, now you have faith in me?"

The barb hit home, but I refused to acknowledge it. "I'm sure you got the list of names I sent over as possible field team members?"

"I did, but I've come with my own team for this operation. I kept one that you suggested because you seemed adamant that he be included and the man that I would have for that position has recently left to go home since his wife went into labor and I was short a man."

I didn't think he'd choose my men, but I had allotted him the power of decisions like these since he would be my manpower to go in for this mission.

I watched him run a hand over his cropped hair. After all these years and yet still, all I wanted to do was run my own hands over it. It was then that I noticed the ring that he wore. It shook me that he wore it, for I had picked it out myself to match the one that I now wore under my shirt, resting against my breast.

Chapter Eight

20 September
"I totally think we made a great idea by building these stables ourselves!"
Arabella wiped the sweat from her forehead using her arm. She grinned at me from across the roof. "Yeah, let's just hope it stands!"
"Of course it will!" I laughed. It would stand. Brandts family gave us the plans for it. "I mean, come on, we're building it!"
"That's my point."

I stuck my tongue out at her from over the roof. "I think we've done a great job."

"You just like it because it saved us money."

"Hey, I'm not the frugal one!"

She couldn't argue with that one! I wasn't as sensible as she was. She was way more practical than me. "True." She chuckled, "At least it's fun."
"If it weren't, I wouldn't be doing it. Your sorry ass would be alone on this roof."
I didn't duck fast enough. The nail hit my shoulder, even as I tried to dodge. "Booger!"
She laughed and yelped as I threw one at her.
"Dude, you are, like, so ten years old!"
Arabella mockingly gasped, "Oh!"
"That's it! Deny it! You can't."

"I deny it!"

"Do it with a straight face!"

But she couldn't. She tried, but ended up scrunching up her face and sticking out her tongue at me.
"Yup, there you go again- ten years old."

"You know what…"

I laughed. "No, I don't. Tell me."
Once again, a nail came flying at me, this time nailing me in the chest.
"You little booger!
"Now who's ten years old?"

Nodding, I recalled our ever present joke. "You facetious booger!"
Giggling, she replied, "Obsequious poopey-head!"
"So maybe there's a bit of kid in both of us." I took a moment to think about the two of us and everything that we'd gone through together and what lay ahead of us now that we were retiring. "I guess there always will be."
She nodded, a sobering silence passing over us.

"Mommy, what's for dinner?"

She and I both looked down to see Brian standing on the ground, looking up at us with Baxter sitting obediently next to him.
"Baxter! Go make dinner!"
With a flurry of tail fur, Baxter barked at me before running away.
"Baxter, come back!" Brian went running after him.
"Alex, you are so mean!" his mom teased me.
I laughed. "I didn't do it!"
Arabella started climbing down the ladder. "You never do, do you?"
As soon as we reached the bottom of our ladders, I raced her to the house, sticking my tongue out at her after I locked her out. Since it was a Sunday and the store was closed, I didn't have to worry about customers, so I locked the doors and stuck my tongue out at her as she pounded on the doors. Suddenly she stilled and she cocked an eyebrow, a slow grin spreading over her face.
Oh shit, what was she up to?
I watched her run from the back porch and instantly knew that she was going to the other doors so I ran to the front, but, no, she wasn't there! Where was she? I stilled, listening for her while I stared out the window. That sneaky little crap! I was about to walk to one of the other windows where I might see her when I heard it. I couldn't help but laugh.
"That's so cheating!" I yelled upstairs.
"It is not!" I heard before seeing her appear at the top of the steps. She had a smug grin on her face. "Just admit it, you were out maneuvered."
"Ouch, woman! Are you trying to wound me? Take what's left of my pride?"
"Mommy?" Brian stepped out of the kitchen, Baxter at his side licking his chops, making me wonder what they'd been into. "Why are you taking Aunt Alex's pride?"
I laughed and walked over to him, lifting him into my arms and placing a kiss on his chubby cheek. "She's just teasing me, babe. Now, let me see those hands!"
His mouth slowly pursed and his eyes got big.
"Come on, let me see them!" I turned and eyed Baxter in the doorway. "What were you guys into, huh? Did you make us dinner?" Baxter wagged his tail and barked. I looked back at Brian. "So, did you make all of us dinner?"
"No!" he giggled, squirming against my side.
"No? Why not?" He just laughed.
Arabella came to stand next to me and ran her hand down his back lovingly. "Did you make yourself dinner?"
"Just a snack."
Arabella and I looked at each other before starting to walk towards the kitchen. "Oh?" I asked. "And what kind of a snack did you make?"
Once in the kitchen, I saw the bottom cabinet open and boxes sprawled all over the floor. Baxter was happily licking and chewing the various items that had spilled.
"Brian!" Arabella surveyed the room, immediately going for a broom.
I put Brian down and began picking up the boxes. "What were you trying to make, babe?"
He walked over to the corner of the room by the door we'd just walked in and picked up a baggy of crackers. "We always have crackers for a snack."
I tried desperately not to laugh, but it was really hard because as long as I could remember Arabellas family always had club crackers floating around.
Arabella looked up from her crouched position. "Next time, when you want a snack you should ask either your Aunt Alex or me and we'll find you a snack, ok?"
He nodded, frowning. Oh, man, don't cry. Don't cry!
"Here," I picked up one of the boxes and put it back together, placing inside one of the lower cabinets, "See that box? That's your box. If you ever want crackers then you can have that box, okay? But if that box is empty or you want something else, then you've got to ask."

He seemed to accept this and handed me his baggy of crackers. I smiled and winked, putting his baggy of crackers inside the box with the others. He beamed at me and helped us picked up the mess with Baxter the whole time just staring at us while he feasted on the discarded food.
"So, what's for dinner?" I asked when the kitchen was back to its rightful state.
"Uh," Arabella looked around, "well…" her voice trailed off and I knew she was as lost as I was. There was nothing to eat in this house! So what if we'd just gone shopping? There was nothing to eat!
"I got it!" I said with my hands in the air, drawing their attention. I knelt in front of Brian. "Hey, you!"
"Ya?" he grinned in response to my animation and clapped his hands together, giving me the cheekiest smile I'd seen in a long time.
"Have you ever eaten a-" I looked at his mom and winked before looking around the room innocently and finally looking at him again, "-a buffalo burger!"
"No!" he laughed and giggled more.
I mocked shock with my hand to my chest. "No!" I gasped. "No?"
"Well," I said, appearing to be affronted, "then tonight we'll just have to go down to the grill and have one, huh?"
He giggled and started jumping up and down.
I stood up and stared down at him. "Why don't you go ask your Mommy if she wants a buffalo burger for dinner?"
He went running over to his mom. "Mom! Do you want a buffalo burger for dinner?"
She picked him up with a light groan. Yeah, he was getting pretty big. She smiled and rubbed her nose against his. "As a matter of fact, I do!"
Brian looked at me, placing his arms around his mom's neck. "She wants one, too!"
"Okay," I said, grabbing my house-keys from the counter, "then let's go get some buffalo burgers!"
We walked into town singing some kids tune that Brian had learned at school. He was very adamant that we learn how to sign that song because it was the one that they were going to be singing in the fall concert. He was going to be a leaf. He wanted to be a pinecone, but one of the other kids got that one.
"Hey, a leaf is cool, too." Arabella told him, ruffling his hair.
He nodded in agreement. "I want to be a blue leaf!"
Arabella looked at me over his head and smiled. "But, silly, leaves aren't blue!"
"Why not?"
"Because the sky is blue!"
It was as if a light bulb had gone off over his head. "Oh, okay."
I just grinned and led them to a quaint little restaurant a few blocks away. The porch on the restaurant had two older men smoking pipes, a bloodhound sleeping between them. They tilted their heads to us as we walked up. Actually, they could summarize the whole town. At least inside the restaurant was a little livelier with some music on. We found a table against a wall.
Shortly a lady came up and greeted us. "Hi, there. My name's Rhonda and I'll be your waitress tonight."
"I think we're just going to take two buffalo burgers," Arabella offered.
"But, Mom! There's three of us!"
"You don't want to share with your mom?" I asked.
The waitress grinned down at him. "Well, I'll tell you what, I think that I had some small buffalo patties somewhere that came in by accident. We can't use them because they're too small. What if I made you your own burger out of one of those?"
"Oooh!" he turned to Arabella, "Can I?"
We soon learned that Brians most favoritest food ever was a buffalo burger and he could eat a million of those every night.
Arabella and I were still laughing about it after he went to sleep that night.

Chapter Nine

25 September

I let the cold seep into my skin where my cheek touched the window in the dark bedroom. I didn't bother to wipe away the tears as they fell, spattering against my breast. I forced myself to breathe as I closed my eyes and hugged my arms closer around my body. I couldn't suppress the onslaught of trembles or sobs; I'd stopped a long time ago when I realized how futile the effort was.
The emptiness never really goes away, the feeling of missing something. That hole called loneliness was ever-present, occasionally erupting in me so fiercely that I had to take scalding hot showers just to try and relax my muscles. I'd learned to live with the hole, the emptiness, the loneliness, letting it reside within the darkness of my soul. I didn't remember too many times when I didn't feel its presence, but I tried not to think of those few, precious times because then it only rolled over me two fold and at that point it seemed like my whole body would turn in on itself. No, it was safer just to give into it and allow it to flow through me, accepting it as who I was and who I was going to be.
I ran a shaky hand through my hair and briefly reminded myself that I, and only I, had done it to myself.

Chapter Ten
21 October

I lay in my tent and felt the warm desert air drift over me. The last time I'd been to the desert had been a few years ago when I was selling aircraft. I had never been captivated by the desert life. I hated the heat and tried to stay as far away from it as possible.

There was a knock as the tent entrance.

"Ma'am, Lt. Pawlak would like a word with you."

"Coming," I told the grunt as I rolled from my cot.

I followed the soldier to Gavins command tent. Inside, lanterns lit the small workspace. He was hunched over it, looking up as I walked in the door.

"I thought you might want to see what information just came in."

I went over to the table, trying to ignore how even after all these years he could still make me feel vulnerable just by standing next to him. He smelled of sweat. I leaned to look at the table and I watched him point out certain points on a map. His hands were just as rough and large as I remember.

Chapter Eleven

3 October

I jolted awake, sweat clinging to my back. Sitting up, I swung my feet over the side of my bed and dropped my head into my hands. I couldn't keep doing this! Rolling my shoulders, I tried to work the tension out of my muscles. Slowly I stood up, stretching my legs a bit as I made my way down the hall to the bathroom. I needed a hot shower to loosen myself up. Stripping out of my clothes, I turned on the shower and let the water heat up. Brushing my teeth, I stared at myself in the mirror. I wasn't getting any younger and I was starting to look it.

My phone rang in the bedroom and I grabbed my towel, dashing back down the hall before Arabella and Brian woke up.

"Hello?" I answered.

"I'm looking for Alexandra Schueller."

I sat down on the bed. "This is she."

"I'm calling for a business proposal."

There was a knock at the door and Arabella stuck her head in the door.

"Look, I'm not doing business right now."

"This is a good deal."

"Part of what I am and why I am who I am is that I don't have to take all jobs." I hung up the phone. I would pay for that one. I could have used an extra deal or two.

I turned to Arabella. "Hey, babe."

"You okay?"

"Yeah, of course." I stood up. Time for that shower!

"Ok, you just seemed like you've been up for a while. You want to talk about it?"

"No, I'm good." She nodded and I knew she wasn't fooled, but I just wasn't ready to talk about this quite yet. "I've got the shower running." I walked back to the shower and climbed in, dropping the towel on the floor. The scalding hot water felt great against my skin. Burning down my back, my legs.

I heard the slight squeal of the bathroom door open and then shut. Fuck!

"So, come on, talk to me."

"There's nothing to say."

"When was the last time you slept a full night?" Arabella asked.

"When was yours?"

"We're not talking about me."

"Why are we talking about me?" I stuck my head out of the shower, took one look at her sitting on the edge of the sink grinning at me, and ducked back into the shower.

"Because there's something up your ass and I want to know what."

"I always have a bug up my ass."

"Yeah, but this is something else. It's the way you change the subject or hesitate every time we start talking about guys. What's up?"

I turned off the water and stuck my hand out from behind the shower curtain. "Hand me a fucking towel." I wrapped the towel around me and opened the curtain, sitting myself on the bathtub ledge. "You know I hate you."

"No, you don't. Now, spill."

I sighed and rubbed the back of my neck. "It's not that easy."

"Well, make it that easy."

"I can't just-"

"Do it."

With a grumble I finally looked at her square in the eye. "Arabella, the reason that I don't want to talk about me finding a guy is because," I paused, how was I suppose to tell her this!


"-because I'm already married."

I clamped my eyes shut and listened to the silence that ensued. Pure silence.

She was the one that spoke first. "Can you repeat that, just a bit slower?"

I pulled the chain around my neck from my towel so that she saw the ring that dangled from it.

"Jesus Christ," she muttered under her breath. "You don't think you should have told me that fact? When the hell did that happen?"

I took a deep breath, so the story begins. "Look, when you went down to Australia that spring, I had no way of visiting you. I knew that I was going to start traveling and getting into some stuff and I had to see you first, but there was no way that I could afford a plane ticket and living expenses on my kind of paycheck."

"You didn't have to come and visit."

I held up my hand. If she didn't let me finish I might not. "So I got this crazy idea that I should take an M-Flight down there because it would save me a lot of money, ya know? Well, the only way I could do that was if I was a spouse." I shrugged my shoulders. "I obviously wasn't, but I figured that was easily fixable. So, I, uh-"

"So, you, uh, got fucking married?"

"Yeah. I made a deal with a guy that I knew. See, we'd get married and on our wedding night I'd fly down to see you. He'd get his bonus for being married. It was a deal, straight out. Then, we were going to get a divorce as soon as I got back."


"I guess it just didn't happen that way. We never got a divorce."

"So, you're married?"

"Well, it's not quite like that. I mean, I haven't seen him since the day we got married. I don't talk to him, I don't know anything about him."

"You didn't tell me!"

"No, because why would I? I figured you'd get pissed and try to talk me out of it and this was something I had to do."

"Fucking hell!"


"Oh, don't even go there! I am allowed to be angry now! Seven years later and you never told me! How could you keep something that big from me?"

Arabella stormed out the door, slamming it behind her.

Yeah, I deserved that. So, I did what any pathetic friend would do and I went chasing after her.

"Arabella, wait!"

"Go finish your damn shower!"

I followed her back to her bedroom. "Arabella, look, it's not like there's a husband around that you should know about!"

She spun around. "But there is! You've been married for seven years! I think that's something!"

"Look, it's only a technicality."

She suddenly stilled. "Oh, my God. You're married."

"Only on paper, really. It's not like we consummated it or anything. It was a business arrangement."

"Is that was marriage means to you? It's a deal? A business deal? Christ, who are you? I don't even know you."

She slammed and locked the door, kicking me out. I slid down the wall, clutching the towel around me. "Arabella, please."

"What's wrong, Aunt Alex?"

I turned to see a little brown headed kid looking at me, peeking out from his doorway. "Come here, sweety," I said softly, feeling the tears beginning to well. I got up and took his hand, leading him back to bed. "Let's go back to bed."

I pulled down the blankets and helped him crawl into bed, tucking him in before crawling onto the bed with him. Gently, I ran my fingers through his hair.

"Nothing's going on, honey. Your mommy and I are just having an argument."

"Are you right or wrong?"

I smiled at him. "I was wrong. Your mommy is allowed to be angry with me."

He nodded as if that was all he needed to know. "Okay." I watched him close his eyes and fall back to sleep. Oh, to be that innocent again! I spent a few more minutes just watching him sleep before kissing his forehead and closing the door softly behind me as I walked back to my bedroom.

I climbed into an old tee shirt I had and got into my own bed. I looked at the clock. It was only two in the morning. I needed my sleep. I tried to close my eyes, but sleep eluded me. I had a bad habit of doing that to Arabella. I'd use her when I needed her, but that's it. I really was a terrible friend. I should have told her in the first place and we would have dealt with it. How was I supposed to tell her, though? How was I suppose to say, 'Yeah, I'm thinking about getting married in order to come and visit you'? Hell, an even better one! I should have walked up to a State Department employee and I should have told her, "Oh, just so you know, I'm becoming an illegal arm trafficker because I'm good at it and I enjoy it. I'm determined to sell guns and various other weapons to impoverished countries and factions so they can murder each other and save us the hassle." I can't try and justify it to her by telling her that all my jobs in some way or other benefit our soldiers. Usually trucks would arrive carrying equipment, armor, or any other materials or supplies needed with the official paperwork and signatures, but there'd be no record of where it came from or who gave the order to do it.
That's me. I'm that go getter. You need something? Come and find me. We'll talk.
But to your supposed best friend? Where is that line? Where do you fess up to the one person who you've been to hell and back with? How do you finally get to that point in life where you decide, 'yeah, this isn't something I'm going to tell them'? I know how I did it. Honestly, I don't quite regret it, but I think some things can be told. There was no reason for me not to tell her I got married. Hell, even though I haven't told her I'm and arms dealer, I'm sure she has her suspicions, after al, she's the one who knows me best, right?
About two hours later I felt the bed shift next to me. I rolled over. In the dark I could make out Arabellas features.

"I'm still upset with you."

"I know."


"But what's done is done."

I nodded.

"Is there anything else I should know?"

"I don't think so," I whispered.

"Don't keep stuff like that from me. I'm supposed to be your best friend. I've known you a long time. If you can't trust me by now then we have bigger problems."

"I'm sorry, but I didn't know how to really deal with it."

"Well, it's done now. You're married-"

"But I'm not-"

She kept going as if she hadn't heard me, "-and that's it. Okay?"


I slept the rest of the night peacefully. It was good to have my friend back.

Chapter Twelve

5 Years Ago

"The deal was three mil. I won't take less."

The gun was cocked and put to my head.

"I don't give a rats' ass. Pull the fucking trigger. Get another dealer, but you and I both know you won't find a deal like this from anyone else. You kill me; you don't get the goods. Cause and effect."

The eyes that stared back at me were hard, but not stupid.
"Go ahead," I said slowly, enunciating every word. "Pull the trigger."

"One day, someone is going to kill you."

"Yes, someday someone will, but it won't be you and it won't be today." I nudged the gun away from my face without taking my eyes from his. "Now, do I get my three mil or am I walking?"
I stood there. I won't say that I was fearless that he would shoot me anyway and I wasn't cocky enough to say he wouldn't, but by then I'd dealt with him and I'd dealt with his type enough to be bored with the situation. If you were going to kill me- kill me. If not, let's get down to business. If I was going to die, I was ready, but otherwise I had money to make, arms to sell.

He didn't holster his gun, but he nodded and barked an order in some language that I only learned to speak years later. A man came out with an oversized duffel bag and dropped it on the floor in front of me.

"The first cut is there."

I looked at him and nodded. "Open it."
I had a bank account that two and a quarter million would go into. I always took the remainder in cash. The deal would be sealed when he opened the bag and counted the money in front of me and I got a magic phone call that would tell me there's new money in my bank account.
This guy knew the drill. I'd done enough business with him that he ordered the lackey to drop to his knee and zipped open the duffel. The man took out the bundles and started counting them. He was bald and the top of his head glistened with sweat. I was hot, too, in this damned country, but at least I didn't work for someone who would kill me as quickly as this boss would. I worked for myself and kept a temporary crew that did background work for me. Did I trust them? In this business no one is trustworthy, but I kept close tabs on those associated with me.
Normally I brought the goods and the person I was brokering with brought money. The gentleman standing in front of me, however, would just as likely shoot me, take the goods, and go before dealing with the hassle, so he sent out one man to meet with my one man and they did it in a place that was so deserted that any signs of treachery would be picked up at a distance. At least, that's how it had worked so far.
When he was done counting and the bag was re-zipped I grabbed the money and stood, ready to take my leave as soon as my phone rang.
"You are so young to be in this business," the dealer said.

"Age has nothing to do with anything."

"Truly spoken." He nodded thoughtfully. "Your name is being whispered in many circles these days."

I shrugged.
"Maybe you should, what do you call it, lay low for a while?"
He and I both knew that he wasn't concerned for my safety.
He was checking to see if I had the balls to face whatever was ahead of me. He was looking at the wrong chic. I wouldn't run. I didn't like running. I'd rather blow shit up. I was in the arms dealing. Pussies never lived long.
"I'll lay low when business dies down."
In other words- never.
"Either incredibly smart or incredibly stupid."

"Probably both." I jerked the bag over my shoulder, money wasn't light.

He rubbed his bearded chin with the barrel of the gun. "I like you. I like you a lot, but, maybe there is something else in your eyes."

"Maybe you're looking for something that's not there."
I was bored with the conversation, but what do you do when you're waiting for that much money? Have a friendly chat with your local tyrant, of course!
"Maybe you are too sure of yourself."


My phone vibrated in my pocket and I glanced down at the numbers that flashed on the screen. I had the 'okay' page. I had my money.
"It appears our deal is done. You have a great day."
I turned, beginning to walk when he called me back. "Maybe you are just too confident." Thankfully I was turning when he shot and so the bullet only tore through a part of my leg, but it was my first time having been shot through some muscle called the vastus medialis and not only was it terribly painful, but it would take me a lot of therapy to kink out. The bullet hole also ruined my new pants. Blood is a bitch to clean out.
He came to walk over where I had fallen, blood pouring onto the floor under me. "Maybe you should keep in mind that you are not," he turned to his lackey before turning back to me, "what's the word- invinsable, no?"
I ground my teeth and watched him walk out.
Not the best day ever.

Chapter Thirteen

18 October

The rumbling woke me up. What Gods hour was it? The clock read three AM. Okay, I thought to myself, now she's asking for it. Arabella and Brandt had been working on her Bronco almost nonstop the past few weeks and it sounded like they'd finally gotten it tuned right. I crawled out of bed and padded downstairs, the wood cold beneath my feet. I walked out the front door and stood out on the grass.
"Do you people mind? There are those of us trying to sleep!" I mockingly hissed.
Brandt and Arabella were laughing as they turned to me. "Sorry," Brandt chuckled. "We'll try to keep it down."

I just shook my head. "Why? Wake up the neighborhood!" I looked at the truck. It looked good. Sounded good. I was willing to bet it ran good, too. I watched them kiss and I felt my heart sink and Gavin flashed through my mind. I pushed it away because what-ifs were no good, but a face like that tends to haunt whether one wishes it or not. "Come on in, I'll make some drinks."
"Actually, I'm going to go," Brandt said, staring at Arabella with a crooked grin on his face, "but I'll see you tomorrow?"
She nodded and stood on her tip toes to bring her lips lightly against his lips. "Of course."
"Oh, get a room already."
They both laughed and Brandt started walking away. Arabella waved to him one last time before following me into the house. She sighed as she sank into one of the overstuffed leather chairs on the sales floor.
"So, the truck's done?" I asked, curling up into the chair across from her.
She nodded.
"Good, sounds like it would run well."

"It's great! And-"She was cut off by the sound of her cell phone. "Hello?" she giddily answered.
I took the moment to run into the kitchen and pour the coffee that I knew was probably cold by now. I didn't really care. I liked coffee anyway anyhow. I was thankful that I didn't drink it every day or else I'd be in serious trouble! I made myself a cup and then poured her one even though I knew she wouldn't drink it, but, hey, it's the thought that counted, right?
"No, no, wait! Don't hang up! Davin wait!"
I walked into the room as Arabella took the phone from her ear and stared at it. Her face was completely blank and I put the coffees down, sitting in the chair next to her.
"Hey, babe, what just happened?"
Slowly her eyes lifted to mine. I saw the gears shift in her head as she opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She closed her mouth and, once again, I watched on her face as various emotions passed over her features. Finally, she turned to face me.
"I-" she stumbled, "I think Sean has been captured."
My body tensed. "As in your baby brother Sean?"
She nodded her head and I sensed logic and reason starting to come back to her. She sat up in her chair. "Yeah, that was Davin and that's what he heard over the wires. He's going to call me when he hears more information." She flipped open her phone. "I need to make some calls…figure out what the hell is going on." She sighed as she punched in some numbers. "If this is some joke I'm going to kill him."
But neither she nor I thought this was a joke.

Chapter Fourteen
19 October

Within twenty-four hours we were meeting a helicopter that Arabella had managed to procure. That was one of the perks about growing up and then working in Washington DC. Connections. Everything in this world was about who you know.
Arabella introduced me to Jake who would be escorting us to the airfield back east where we'd meet my men. Jake was a born and bread patriot and it didn't surprise me in the least that Arabella would pick up with him. He seemed like the loyal-to-friends yet dangerous-to-enemies sort. I wondered what he really did for the government. Maybe he'd be interested in working on the side? As if she could read my thoughts, Arabella elbowed me and shook her head. Party-pooper.

"So, what are we looking at, Jake?" she asked, getting right to the point.
He shifted in his seat. "It goes without saying that all this is highly confidential and you didn't hear this from me." Arabella and I happened to snort at the same time. He continued. "Your brother was taken from this town." He passed us each a folder. Inside there was a sheet with coordinates as well as photos and some bios of people they considered suspects. "He was asking questions about people, trying to ferret out who was the leader of whatever organization was involved with your fathers death. He had reason to believe it was a Russian faction organized in Saudi Arabia. From what we can gather, he asked one question to many and pissed off the wrong person."
"Did anyone see him get taken?" I interrupted him to ask.
Jake shook his head. "If they did, no one is talking." He leaned forward towards us so we could hear him better over the props. "Look, I know you want to help your brother. I know I'd want to find one of my own if they went missing, but there's something really messy going on here, Arabella. Seriously, leave this to the professionals. We'll find him."
Arabella sat quietly looking at him a moment before asking, "So are you telling me you won't help?"
"Fuck," he muttered, running a hand through his hair. "No, I'm not saying that. You know I'll do whatever I can, but I'll lose my job for this if anyone finds out."
She leaned forward and took the mans hand. "Jake," she said reassuringly.
Being my normal bitchy self, I stepped in their heart to heart moment. "Listen, between my contacts and skills and hers, if we can't find him then no one can."
Jake seemed to be looking at me now. I knew he was wondering who I was and what I was doing here. I knew that if he looked in his records he wouldn't find much. I fell off the charts about seven years ago and only recently popped back up. He'll see that my drivers license is still out of Maryland from when I got it when I was 16 and that my bank account has had normal wear and tear on it. There's nothing incriminating about anything other than the question of my meager finances and where I was getting and spending them. By the look in his eye, I knew I had guessed right. He'd already looked me up. He'd dug into my profile already and had found jack shit.
I had opened a Swiss bank account when I got my first job. All my major money is in there. The passport I country hop with is a real fake. It's a legit passport issued by the US State Department to someone who doesn't exist. Do they know they don't exist? No. The papers were too good for that. I was safe from Jake. I watched his eyes and I knew that he saw me for the predator that I was and I knew then that he was one that I would want on my team if I ever went back into the business. Too bad I was trying to go straight. Small deals on the side, but nothing major.
He nodded and I silently applauded Arabella for the competent people she surrounded herself with.
"Anyway," he continued leaning back, "those folders have everything I could find about what he was doing. He was pretty deep in that world and kept most of his findings to himself."
I itched to get these paper sent to my own team that would meet us just outside of DC. The more time they had, the more they could prepare their operations.
He leaned back in his seat. "If you can, I'd catch some rest. I have a feeling," he paused and looked at me warily, "that you won't be getting much on your next connection."
Arabella and I nodded. We both knew that we were going to need as much energy as we could muster over the next bit. Sleep was a long time coming and when it did, it was filled with long forgotten memories that were always resurfaced with the pumping of adrenaline.