Authors: Leslie North
By Leslie North
The Slade Security Team Series
Slade’s priorities are his job and his security team. He’s never been interested in a picket fence, or answering to the same woman for the rest of his life. Those are attachments he doesn’t need. But when he goes to check on the boy left behind by the death of his employee’s ex-wife, Slade isn’t expecting to find Bethany Simmons. The computer programmer is smart as a whip and classically beautiful, and Slade can’t help but to take notice.
When Bethany contacted Slade Security to let them know of her sister’s death, she never thought it would be Slade himself who would show up. The hulking mass of hotness, with his tanned skin and gray-streaked hair, instantly makes her insides melt. Despite her attraction, though, Bethany worries that he’s come to take away her nephew—and she’s not going to let that happen.
It’s in Slade’s nature to protect people; but when the ex-Navy SEAL barges into Bethany’s life, she doesn’t know how to handle him. She’s used to settling her own affairs and her priority is finding a way to adopt little Jason. But soon, a secret could change everything for both them…
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Table of Contents
Slade pulled up in front of the address Bethany Simmons had given him and turned off the engine. The SUV sat there, pinging, warmth drifting in from the open window, a light breeze scented with pine. Oregon was dry this year. Brown pine needles littered a fenced front yard, almost covering the dry grass. Colored toys lay strewn around like a hurricane had left them there.
Bethany’s children must still be young
and Tayra’s ill and having to deal with little kids?
He shook his head. His sarcasm meter was peaked, but he’d better put a lid on that. No sense making things worse. He also shouldn’t be making assumptions. Bethany Simmons might run a day-care for all he knew, or could be looking after the neighbor’s kids. He glanced around. Not many neighbors here.
The house stood back from the main street, just off of a winding road. It looked rustic—logs and a green metal roof. An orange Volkswagen that had seen better days stood in the driveway. There wasn’t any garage. Bright flowers of some kind in boxes off of the front porch danced in the light breeze. The front door opened and the most beautiful woman he’d seen in a long time stepped out. The screen door banged shut behind her.
This had to be Bethany Simmons.
His first thought was that she looked a lot like her sister, Tayra. His second was that Bethany had the kind of beauty that would age well. High cheekbones, sharp jaw line, wide hips on an otherwise slender frame. Even though he judged her to be in her thirties, she had the look of someone weathered—like teak that had aged, the edges all a little softened, the colors mellowed. Her shoulders slumped a little and Slade wondered if he shouldn’t have made it a higher priority to get here faster.
He’d had to spend four days in San Diego before he could get up here—business had demanded his time, in the form of a tangle only he could smooth. He’d worried the whole time. Bethany—Tayra’s sister—hadn’t sounded good on the phone when he’d spoken to her. She hadn’t sounded as if she had urgent business, but she had sounded troubled. She’d also wanted Brock, but Slade wasn’t going to pull Brock away from his honeymoon—not when the guy had barely gotten a good relationship going. Finally.
Now, Slade was wondering what the little something was that Tayra had forgotten to mention in her ‘Dear John’ letter that she’d written all of those years ago to Brock.
Slade didn’t know the full details of what was wrong now, but Tayra was ill. He knew that from what Bethany had let drop. It seems Tayra had been sick for a long time, and fighting. Bethany had said that if Brock couldn’t come, someone needed to come to Oregon. Well, he was here. Now what?
Bethany stood on the porch, shading her eyes with one hand. She was dressed in black, but the skirt and shirt looked old, a little brown on the edges. She had on black pumps and her brown hair curled around her face, tugged at by the breeze.
Behind her, a young boy came out of the house in a black suit and white shirt. His narrow tie looked crooked. He slipped his hand into Bethany’s, and she helped him down the three steps to the sidewalk. Slade watched them, frowning. The boy had something wrong with his legs. A surge of compassion for the kid tugged at him.
He got out of his car and headed toward Bethany. She looked like she’d been crying; her eyes were swollen and red, her cheeks splotchy. He caught a faint hint of perfume—lilacs, something as delicate and heart-stopping as she was. Slade halted in the shade of a large pine, his face damp with sweat. The boy looked up at him, watching, with his head tipped back and his eyes bright.
He looks like… Tayra. He even has her eyes.
Tayra’s eyes had been as unique as the woman herself. They’d changed color with her moods. Tick her off and icy gray slipped in. When she was happy, the color shifted to an almost moss green. She’d put Brock through the ringer, and Slade had developed a dislike for the woman because of that. His people were his family and he looked after family. Tayra might be the ex-Mrs. Brock Wells, but she’d still been married to one of Slade’s people. That made her family, too. Still.
The question was—what was Bethany?
Slade glanced at her again. Her expression hadn’t changed from wooden, but he was stunned at the grief he saw in her eyes. He knew at once that he’d come too late. At least, too late to see Tayra alive.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. What else could he say?
She leveled her gaze at him and asked him, her voice cold, “Don’t you think it’s a little too late for that, Slade?”
Bethany watched the man in her yard. She knew his name was Slade, but had no idea if that was his first name or last. She knew he owned and ran Slade Security, where Brock Wells worked—Tayra’s ex-husband. She’d called the company since it was the only number she’d had for Brock. Now she had Brock’s boss in front of her, not Brock, and had no idea what to say or do.
She’d rehearsed a speech for Brock, not his boss. She chewed on her lower lip and hung onto Jason’s hand. This was supposed to be about her being able to adopt Jason as her own—and about righting a wrong Tayra had left behind.
Just one more mess
, Bethany thought. She shook her head. She shouldn’t be thinking ill of the dead.
Pulling in a breath, she dragged back her temper, stomped it down. She was good at that. “I’m sorry. That was unbearably rude of me, but it has not been an easy day.”
“I’m sorry for your loss…”
“As am I.” She muttered the words, and from the flash of confusion in his eyes, she knew he had no idea what she was talking about.
. “Jason and I were just going out for ice cream.”
“Great. I’ll drive you.”
Bethany glanced at his gleaming SUV, then at her ancient VW. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be in the same vehicle as this man—if even half of what Tayra had said were true, he was a dangerous man, in an even more dangerous line of work. But the SUV would have air conditioning and seats without springs that poked you in the butt. It would also have gas in it, which made it a no-contest decision.
She glanced down at Jason. “Jason, this is…Mr. Slade.”
“Just Slade will do. Hi ya, buddy.” He gave Jason a smile, and that wasn’t fair. Not fair at all that he’d have charm he could turn on like a light. Not fair when he had so much else going for him, and she didn’t mean a fancy, obviously new SUV, or an expensive-looking suit.
He was tall, as in towering over her, with broad shoulders. Sweat gleamed on his face; and no wonder, given that he had on a dark blue suit, a wilting white shirt, and a tie. When was the last time she’d seen a man in a tie? She couldn’t make out the color of his eyes—green maybe, or hazel? But his rugged, tan face spoke of years being outside, and of worries that lined his forehead. She pegged him as being in his forties, but with his face it was hard to tell. He had gray streaked light-colored hair, so he could be older or younger.
Jason clung a little closer to Bethany and she wanted to yell at Tayra all over again. She untangled Jason’s hand from hers and gave him a small push forward. “It’s okay. Slade knew your mommy. And he knows your daddy.”
She saw Slade’s right hand twitch and then bunch into a fist—and she suddenly knew that Tayra had lied about that, too.
Dammit, Tayra, was Jason the only thing you didn’t fully screw up?
She faced off with Slade. “Tayra never told you…never told Brock, did she?”
Slade’s mouth tightened and thinned. He had a wide mouth with a small crescent scar near one corner. “Tell him what?”
Jason tugged on Bethany’s hand and asked in a hushed voice. “Can’t we go now?”
She put an arm on his shoulder. “Just a minute.” Facing Slade, she said, “Jason’s Tayra’s son. He’s also Brock Wells’ boy.”
Slade thought of a few curses he’d like to let loose, but he couldn’t—not in front of the kid and not in front of Bethany Simmons.
He hadn’t begrudged Tayra wanting out of her marriage to Brock. It’d torn Brock up, Slade knew—boy had it ever. Brock had always been more like a brother, not an employee. But Slade had seen the problem right away—Tayra had wanted a normal relationship with a nice guy who worked a boring nine-to-five job. She should have married an accountant, not a Navy SEAL who lived for the action.
Slade studied the boy—he kept trying to see Brock in the kid, but he couldn’t find the resemblance. Was this some kind of shakedown? Was Bethany out to scam some money? If she was, she’d picked the wrong target.
He wanted to grill her, but not in front of the kid. “Let’s get that ice cream,” he said. He strode back to the SUV, unlocking it with the key pad button. He opened the passenger door and turned back.
Bethany still stood where he’d left her, her blue eyes huge and her hand still on the boy’s shoulder. Jason was looking up at her.
“Well? Chocolate or vanilla?” Slade asked.
His words seemed to startle Bethany into action. She came forward, Jason’s hand back in hers. “Jason likes Rocky Road.”
“Figures,” Slade muttered. What road wasn’t rocky these days?
He got Jason settled in the back. Bethany slipped into the passenger seat up front and fussed with her seatbelt. Getting in, Slade started the engine and glanced at her. “Where’s this ice cream parlor?”
She gave him directions back to the nearest town. He’d come in from the highway and had missed the main drag, but if you blinked you’d also miss what passed for a town. He spotted a gas station, two churches, a grocery store that sold just about everything, including bait and hunting supplies, and a small drug store, which seemed to double as an ice cream parlor.
Getting out, Bethany helped Jason undo his seatbelt, then lifted him from the SUV.
Slade watched them, still looking for something in the boy that looked like Brock.
His buddy from his SEAL days was a big guy, red headed, with a touch of Viking somewhere in his background. Jason had dark-brown hair, those blue-gray eyes like Tayra’s, and he seemed small for his age, which would have to be about nine if he really was Brock’s kid. Tayra and Brock had gotten divorced almost ten years ago.
The kid also walked funny—as if he had stiffness in one leg. Had he broken it in the past?
Following Bethany into the drug store, Slade glanced around. The assessment habit was automatic these days—you hit a new location, you took in the exits, possible threats, and sized up the locals. In this hick town that wasn’t hard.
An elderly woman with a helmet of gray-blue hair stood behind the counter. A girl of maybe eighteen, with too much garish makeup on her face, leaned against the register, texting on her cell phone. That took care of the staff. He, Bethany, and Jason were the only customers.
Heading to the counter with the ice cream sign, Bethany ordered up a scoop for Jason, a bowl of strawberry, and turned to Slade. He shook his head. “I’ll pass.”
Bethany’s eyebrows rose high and the look in her eyes had his face warming. Okay, they’d come for ice cream, so it seemed everyone was having some.
Nodding at Jason, Slade said, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
Bethany nodded and turned back to the elderly woman behind the counter.
When the woman handed over the ice cream, her voice thickened with sympathy. “So sorry to hear about your sister, dear. I heard the funeral was lovely. Plenty of flowers. Such a hard thing…breast cancer. Took my sister, too. I hope you’re getting regular checks. Runs in the family, you know.”
Bethany took a deep breath. She blinked hard, and Slade saw her nod. “Thanks, Maggie. I should get Jason home for a nap.” She took Jason by the hand and headed back outside. Slade followed, with his ice cream melting onto his fingers.
Outside, Bethany sagged against a wooden pillar holding up the overhang that shaded the front of the drug store. She glanced at Slade. “It’s the sympathy that’s the worst. I hate anyone feeling sorry for me.” She dug into her ice cream like it was an enemy to take down, stabbing it with her spoon. With her mouth full, she asked, “Do you want Jason to finish his ice cream before we get into your car? I’d hate to have him drop it on new upholstery.”
Slade shrugged. “That’s what car washes are for.”
Her mouth twitched. “Around here, the car wash is the hose in the front yard, unless you’re lucky enough that the high school in Went, which is the next town over, is having one as a fundraiser.”
Slade nodded. “Okay, we’ll finish them here.”
She ate her ice cream in silence, just about bolting it down. Slade couldn’t imagine she tasted any of it. Jason obviously took his ice cream seriously—he methodically licked the cone down to the baked confection holder, then set about biting off chunks, working around it counter-clockwise. When he finished, Slade took Bethany’s cup and tossed it and his unfinished cone into the trash.
“Mama says…said wasting food was a sin.” The boy’s eyes filled with tears. “She’s gone to heaven.”
Slade nodded. “Sure hope so, son.”
Silence filled the vehicle on the drive back. Bethany knew that all too soon she was going to have to face Slade—she could feel the tension radiating from him. He had no legal right to Jason—she wasn’t even sure Brock Wells had a right, even if Jason was his biological son. But Bethany knew she needed support from these men. She wanted the adoption to go smoothly. She wasn’t up to legal battles, but she had to make sure Jason got not only what he needed, but what he deserved.
Her irritation with Tayra spiked again. Tayra had insisted that she’d told her ex-husband about his son. By the time Jason was two, Brock had left the SEAL’s and had started working for Slade Security…and Tayra had been adamant that Brock didn’t want his son. What else had she lied about?
Tayra had said that Brock sent regular checks for Jason. But if Slade didn’t know about the boy, there was little possibility that Brock knew anything about him. So the checks had been a lie, too, and Tayra really had been scraping by. Tayra had told Bethany how tight the two men—Slade and Brock—were, which was why Bethany had been okay with Slade coming up here to sort things out.
Now she wanted to chew on her thumbnail, she was so nervous about what was to come. Would Slade want to take the boy? Could he? Would he call for Brock to come and take Jason away? She couldn’t have that—she wasn’t going to allow it. She’d raised Jason, more so even than Tayra had. She wasn’t giving him up without a fight.
Slade pulled up in front of Tayra’s house—well, her house now, or maybe Jason’s. Tayra hadn’t been great about laying down clear instructions in her will. Climbing out, every muscle tired, Bethany helped Jason unbuckle. She swung him out of the SUV. He was already yawning. Taking him inside, she glanced back and asked, “Would you care to wait on the porch?”
It wasn’t friendly of her, but she didn’t know this man and she didn’t want him inside the house. Not until she knew if he was a friend or not. He nodded and Bethany headed inside. She’d bring out some lemonade with her—a peace offering. Then she’d settle down and tell Slade what Jason needed—and that she was keeping him, no matter what.