He pulled her into his embrace, and she didn't resist, but she smiled when he began kissing her neck.
"So you really forgive me," he asked.
She placed her hands on his where they had wrapped around her waist.
"I'm thinking about it."
"Well keep on at it, if this is how you do your thinking," he said.
She grew silent then and he drew her closer in response.
"I've been doing a lot of that lately."
He felt her shrug in his embrace.
"A lot of things," she said, "Getting this ranch together, helping the ranchers with the bank and if I'm ever going to figure out what to do with my life."
He caught the wistfulness mixed with resolve in her voice.
"I thought you loved what you do," he said.
She shifted in his arms to look at him.
"I do Walker," she said, "I've loved what we've built together as business partners but I needed to step back from it for a while."
"Because of Zack?"
"No…I'd moved on from him," she said, "I just wanted to be able to combine what I love about work with having something to come home to at the end of the day."
"So you are coming back to work…eventually?"
She stroked his face with her fingers.
"As soon as I finish making myself home here," she said, "You'll be welcome anytime of course."
He kissed her lips, accepting that invitation.
"You've done a great job with the ranch," he said, "but what do you think about coming home to someone?"
She smiled at that.
"I'm open to that," she said, "got anyone in mind?"
Oh he did, but he didn't say anything, not with words anyway.
She paced the bedroom which had become her cell, until Cord had returned from the mission that he had been sent on, which had been to help Steel pull off a con job. The last memory she had of him had been several days ago when she had agreed to do what Steel had ordered to save his life.
Since then, Cassidy had tried hard while spending most of the day cooped up alone in her room trying not to think, to imagine where Cord had gone. She focused instead on staying alive for his return. the meantime, she'd do it.
But there had been that one time she had been ordered to come to Steel's suite. The guards accompanied her on the long walk and when the door swung open, he stood there waiting for her.
"You have one minute to change my mind…"
His voice reverberated inside of her head even months later.
She woke up with a start and pulled her covers closer to her. The spot next to her, empty. She looked around the sunlit room but no one waited, or stood at its doorway. Sighing, she reached for her robe and slipped it on.
"Where do you think you're going," a voice asked.
She looked up and saw Cord dressed in faded sweatpants and nothing else standing there holding a tray with plates of food and orange juice on it.
"What's that," she asked.
He placed the tray on the table next to her bed and the odors of eggs and bacon hit her pleasantly.
"What does it look like," he asked her, "Breakfast."
She smiled at him and made room for him on the bed where he joined her.
"It looks great," she said, after he handed her a plate and she dug in.
"Larson helped," Cord said, "It was his idea to add the cayenne."
She loved those little red peppers and had made sure she kept plenty growing in her garden.
"This is great," she said, "Just what I need to jump start my day."
His lips pursed in amusement.
"Didn't we just spend most of the night doing that?"
Her cheeks flushed and damn, if he didn't want to reach out and remind her.
"I guess we did," she said, "I guess I should be tired but I'm not."
Cord started in on his bacon.
"So what's on the schedule today?"
She thought about that, after looking at him for a long moment in a way that caused him to blush.
"I know what I'd like to do…but I've got to go out and check some fencing bordering Slade's ranch and then check on the paint on the stable."
He nodded at that.
"Sounds like a full day," he said, "I guess I'd better check on a few things myself."
She sipped her juice.
"What about your men," she said, "What are you going to tell them?"
He studied her face and didn't see anger there. She had slipped into her pragmatic mode which worked much better in crisis situations but didn't allow her to see what she kept hidden inside.
" Cassidy …they'll be doing the job I gave them to do."
She nodded thoughtfully.
"He's really running around out there somewhere."
He reached to draw her closer after they both put their plates aside. She slipped into his embrace easily enough but kept a part of herself at a distance. He could feel that as surely as he could feel the warmth of her body against him.
"They're going to find him before he has a chance to do anything."
"He's been wandering around loose for nearly a week now and he's been busy…"
He frowned as something slipped across her face.
"What do you mean," he asked her.
She shook her head.
"Just that a man like him isn't going to sit around and wait for something to happen," she said, "He's out getting recruits to reactivate his old cell or…"
He knew she didn't want to say it, that Steel could be plotting to come after them.
"Nothing's going to happen," Cord said, "and if he has any plans to come out this way, I'll stop him."
She rubbed the bridge of her nose.
"How, if you can't even see him," she said, "I know you believe you have my ranch heavily fortified with your best men but he could slip right through anything and what about your father…"
"He's as well guarded as we are," Cord said, "They're in a safe place spending very valuable time together."
She nodded at that, knowing that the father and the son had wanted dearly to make up for the years that they had lost together. And she felt that she and Cord were making up for some valuable time as well.
"So everything's going to be okay…"
His voice sounded confident and she believed that he meant it when he said those words but she knew Steel as well as he did and in ways that Cord did not and she knew she could never ever underestimate him. To do so, would be a costly mistake in a world that didn't always offer second chances.
"You can't know that," she said, "You have to remember what he's capable of doing."
He heard the worry tinged in her voice.
"I don't think either of us could ever forget that…not after last time."
She felt those words in her heart and knew that if he only knew the extent of Steel' treachery, but he had taken all the precautions that he could to protect everyone he loved. And she would have to do the same in her own way.
She rode Chelsea out to the fencing and she wondered if the trees that sprung up in groups on her ranch spread hid more than just the security men that worked for Cord. But she had to stop seeing Steel everywhere she looked or she would drive herself crazy.
The fencing ahead of her needed mending and she went to tie up her horse, grab her tools and set to work. She saw that Slade had been aware that it needed to be fixed and had ridden out as well.
"So you think it will stay up this time," he said, as they both started working on opposite sides of it.
She ran her hand through her hair.
"I'm hoping that this will do the trick," she said, "I think we've replaced every piece of aged wood."
"And then some," he agreed.
They worked quietly for a while and as Cassidy watched him, his body honed by years of playing racquet ball at the gym beginning to show new edges to it. Ranching had been good for her ex-boyfriend in more ways than one. He seemed less driven to get ahead and more content to just watch the days unfold.
"So how are you and Cord working this thing out?"
She shot a look at him from her work.
"What do you mean?"
He shot her a knowing look.
"What's going on between the two of you," he said, "I've been in the singles game a long time and I know when a man's marking his territory."
"How do you know it's him that's doing it?"
He looked chagrined.
"Look I didn't mean anything," he said, "If we can't work it out between us, then I'd rather see you with someone like him."
My, that was awfully generous of him, Cassidy thought but didn't say anything, focusing on the fence rather than the idea that she was something that had to belong to one man or the other.
"So is he going to be moving in or commuting from L.A.?"
She hammered in a nail.
"It's up to him," she said, "We're just taking each day as it comes but I've never been happier."
His smile dimmed a bit. She didn't have to look at him to know that.
"We were happy together."
She sighed and put the damn hammer down and then she looked at him.
"Maybe we just thought we were Slade," she said, "but there's something to be said about building a great friendship with someone first before taking it further."
"We were friends…"
She shook her head.
"No Slade, I think we were just as they call it, hot for one another and then when that faded, one of us began looking elsewhere."
She knew defensiveness would come next.
"How many times can I tell you that I'm sorry for what I did," he said, "I slipped, what can I say?"
Which time had been that, Cassidy wondered, which woman had he "slipped" with and which ones had been more deliberate decisions on his part?
"More than once, if that's how you want to call it."
He paused, unable to deny that.
"It doesn't matter how many times it happened Slade," she said, "You made that choice every time between those women and what we shared together."
"Haven't you ever done anything that you regret," he said, "That would hurt someone if they found out about it?"
She didn't know what to say to that.
Cord picked up his cell phone at the dock. He didn't need to check it to know it was Stone calling to update him on Steel.
"So what's up Stone," Cord asked, "Anyone caught up to Steel yet?"
"Nada, but his financial trail is growing stronger," Stone said, "He's definitely going to reorganize at some point and he might already be recruiting."
Cord looked out at the lake, the birds soaring across it. He had plans to haul his sailboat over to attach to the dock when it was finished. Stone continued feeding him details but there still remained nothing concrete on Steel' whereabouts which is what interested Cord. How close Steel had gotten to the people he cared about and what his ultimate plans were because he had the feeling that Steel had unfinished business with Cord before returning to his life as a terrorist and eluding authorities once again.
"He's got plans Stone," Cord said, "I'm sure of it and I'm sure I'll be bumping into him sooner than later."
Stone sighed on the other end.
"I hope you're wrong but you know this man and what he's capable of more than anyone and certainly more than me."
Cord knew that Stone had little experience in dealing with criminals from outside the country but he had filled him in on Steel exploits including those involving Cassidy and him not long after the two men met.
"How's Cassidy doing?"
Cord smiled on his end.
"She's doing just fine," he said, "She's been very busy fixing up my ranch and doing…other things."
"She's helping those ranchers still?"
"It's been a little quiet on that end lately," Cord said, "but she's been working with them. They wrote some letters to the bank and are waiting to hear back."
Stone paused a moment.
"We miss her out in L.A.," he said, "Is she planning on remaining a stranger?"
"I don't know Stone," Cord said, "She's fallen in love with my spread here and I can tell you from experience, that's a very formidable thing."
"What about you," Stone said, "You regret your father selling it?"
Cord had given that some thought but no, he had no qualms about his actions.
"Not after I realized who bought it."
"I'm looking forward to her barbecue…when this is all over with Steel."
"She's been looking forward to having you all out here," Cord said, "That's why she's been working so hard to whip the ranch into shape."
"She keeping its former owner in line too?"
Cord didn't know where that question had come from, unless Stone had proven to be as astute as his ranch hands had proven to be about him.
"She's keeping me on my toes," he said, "I'm out putting the final touches on the dock so I can move the boat here."
After that, he knew that he wouldn't rest until he had lured her onto the boat to sail with him across the lake to that diner that they both loved. He knew it wouldn't take much persuasion on his part.
"That sounds like you've been kept pretty busy," Stone said.
Cord swore he could hear a trace of amusement in the cop's voice.
"I've always had a great work ethic."
"Yes you have," Stone said and now Cord knew his friend was struggling to keep a straight face.
"Anything else," Cord asked, "because boss lady's expecting this dock to be finished today."
Stone chuckled then.
"No, but if I hear anything I'll get back to you," he said, "Have a nice day and tell Cassidy I sent her my best wishes."
Cord clicked off his phone and shook his head, absolutely sure that Stone had figured out that he and Cassidy hadn't just been working together. He wondered to himself just what it had been that everyone had been picking up on involving the two of them. They had been discreet after all, not wanting to let everyone in on what had changed between them while they navigated through the early steps of their burgeoning relationship.
He shook his head as he returned to work, counting the minutes until he could see her again. And as always keeping a sharp eye for the return of Steel.
After she and Slade had finished repairing the fence, he had ridden back to his ranch house and she had headed towards the stable. As she approached, she had marveled at its improved appearance after the final layer of paint had been applied. She dismounted and tied up Chelsea and walked inside the stable, inspecting the stalls and the food storage area, her nose picking up the odor of fresh paint which still permeated the structure. She walked into the tack room and sat at the chair near the desk, next to some empty boxes which she had gotten to use to store the contents of the desk.
She set to work on that, moving through each drawer which had been filled mostly with documents and letters that had been written by Cord's father and his cousins while they had been serving in various wars. Letters between Cord's father and his mother, sent during the spans of time they had spent apart, first divided by war and then by the business trips that Bill had taken during the years he spent building his empire. Soon enough, she had filled two boxes which she would later move to store in the attic in the ranch house if it was okay with Cord.
The room grew warm and she had gotten up to open the windows to allow some air to circulate inside it. She grabbed her water bottle and sat at the desk, sipping it. Her thoughts turned to everything that had been happening in the past week. She and Cord trying to find their way together in the midst of her work on the ranch and Steel' escape from prison. Impulsively she reached for her cell phone to check it to see if any more emails had appeared since she had received the photograph. She sighed in relief when she realized that no more had arrived in her inbox. Not that this didn't mean that Steel wasn't out there planning his next move.
And Cord had surrounded the people with security men when he had found out about Steel' escape but she knew that would never be enough because Steel most definitely wanted a piece of Cord and her as well. The emails had made that clear but she still hadn't even told him. And now that she knew she must, she didn't look forward to it but she had to tell him. And not just about the emails but about everything. Inside her, she felt the resolve but also the fear that what she told him might change everything. But she would do it today.
Which is why she had left a note in his saddlebag for him to meet her here.
She felt too restless to sit waiting for him so she returned to looking through the papers and photographs stored in the old desk, just to keep her occupied until he arrived at the stable. Sitting on the floor, she pulled the bottom drawer completely out, placing it in front of her and close to the boxes that she had brought over to store the contents. The papers looked worn and faded, tinged with yellow so she knew they had been stashed away for a long time. She deftly pulled them out and straightened them out including their edges and placed them neatly in a box, planning to place the photographs on top. Then she would replace the drawer back from where it came from in the desk, but as she prepared to do that, she noticed a piece of thicker paper which rested where the drawer had been and she picked it up to add to the box.
But after glimpsing at it, something made her decide to open it and she did so gently as not to tear the old envelope that had been stained long ago by some liquid, coffee perhaps. As if someone had rested the mug on top of the edge of the envelope while examining what had been inside it. She unfolded the tripartite paper and her eyes widened as she saw what had been written on it, not to mention the stamped notations.
She was looking at a birth certificate that had a very familiar name at the top of it. That of her best friend who she had grown up with and she saw the name of the mother that he had barely known in the proper place and so she looked for the name of the man whose last name he shared, his father and that's what shocked her. Instead of the name of the man she had grown up knowing as her friend's daddy, she saw another man's name instead.
And thinking back to another time, she recognized that man's name too. It had been that of one of the who had helped Cord during a time when he had been estranged from his family for a brief period. This man had helped him bridge that gap and then somehow he had died. But why did he now appear on this strange copy of Cord's birth certificate that had been filled out long ago? She searched the envelope again and gingerly pulled out a very thin sheet of folded paper with handwriting on it that looked like a letter.
What the hell had she just discovered? Did this mean that the father who had raised Cord all his life hadn't been a blood relative after all, and was the man who had guided him during a difficult time had been instead? She reeled as she put everything back in the envelope and set it down. What did this all mean, and then she wondered, did Cord know?
He had never said anything about it to her and he rarely kept secrets but perhaps he didn't believe that the decision of what to do with this one involving his parentage rested just with him. After all, he had his father who had raised him to consider and what his knowledge of the truth would do to him.
So many questions filled her mind and the answers didn't really belong to her. But to him.
Cord finished his job with the dock and declared it strong enough for mooring boats. Before long, if Cassidy wanted, he would haul his sail boat out here so that they could take it on the lake if they felt like it. The heat had been hitting him hard and he had spent the latter hour wiping the sweat off of his face and the back of his neck. He went to his saddlebag to get some refreshment and that's when he found the note. Opening it up, he smiled as he read it.
He decided he was done with his work for the day as he got on his horse and rode out toward the stable.
She sat on the cot awaiting his arrival and she could hear his boot clicking down the hallway towards the office.
"Took you long enough," she said, with a smile.
He grabbed hold of her when she walked to meet him and swung her in for a kiss.
"The dock's ready for the sailboat."
She looked into his eyes.
"I can see you've been busy then.
Cord looked around the office and saw the boxes on the floor, some empty and some stacked with papers and other items.
"So have you."
She looked at him then and remembered why she had written the note for him to meet her, knowing that if she hadn't put it on paper, she didn't know if she could have told him what she had kept hidden. Only now she had uncovered a secret of her own that he had kept for several years.
She looked down at her boots, her hands in her pocket.
"I brought you here to tell you something…"
He followed the expression on her face as it changed and he grabbed hold of her upper arms to get a better look.
"I figured that," he said quietly, "Whatever it is, you know you can tell me."
She just smiled and took his hand and they sat together on the cot, which creaked beneath their weight.
"I was going to do that, really," she said, "Until I found something while I cleaned out the drawers."
He looked at her puzzled and she just handed him the worn envelope. Looking it over first, he pulled the contents out and looked at him. And she watched his eyes widen as hers had done but he quickly looked back at her.
"My birth certificate," he said, "The real one."
She nodded, though she didn't fully understand. But she reached for his hand and took it in both of hers, rubbing it. Letting her know she was right there if he needed her.
"That man Cody Austin was your father."
Her brow furrowed.
"He came back to help you didn't he," she said, "When you were having problems."
Cord rubbed the bridge of his nose with his other hand.
"I didn't know the truth until not long before he died," he said, "That my mother had a relationship with him…a brief one that left her pregnant with me."
Cassidy felt her eyes sting.
"So he gave you to Luke then," she said, "so he could raise you as his son."
"I was angry with him when he told me the truth," he said, "I guess I had all the questions any child would have in that situation but it wasn't the right time to address them because he was dying."
"I'm sorry, I didn't know."
He looked at her then.
"You didn't know because I never told you," he said, "I couldn't…it wasn't…"
"It wasn't your secret to tell…I know Walker…you didn't want to hurt your father."
Cord looked away for a moment.
"I don't know what my knowledge of the truth would have done to my daddy," he said, "and his health you know wasn't very good."
Cassidy guessed that Luke still didn't know that his son had learned the truth that had been kept hidden from him by two men out of love for him.
"I grew up believing I was born and raised a Walker," he said, "It took a while for me to accept that I was one in name only."
She shook her head at that.
"That's not true."
The absoluteness of her words drew his attention to her face.
"You were and you always have been Luke Walker's son," she said, "He took you into his home, he raised you to be the man that you are and he loved you. Just like we all do Walker."
He digested her words and there wasn't much to say about them because they made sense. And he had waited his whole life to hear them and not even knowing it.
"I guess I was lucky to have two fathers," he said finally.
She gave his hand a gentle squeeze.
"I never really knew my own father before he died," she said, "but I'd like to think that he would be happy with how his daughter turned out."
"How could he not be, a business woman like him?"
She tilted her face.
"I remember he wanted me to be happy," she said, "and to do what I loved."
"And is that what happened?"
"I've got a great career and great friends," she said, "and now this great place."
He moved in closer.
"Am I a friend?"
She pushed him away gently, laughing.
"My best friend…and…"
He interrupted her words by brushing his lips over her own and pulling her closer to him. The cot creaked dangerously.
"Walker…I don't really think…"
"Then stop thinking…."
And so she did.
Cord and she had ridden back to the ranch…eventually and she had stayed in the barn while he had gone into the house to cook dinner for both of them. Buck and Larson had gone into town to check out a film at the small theater, taking the two teenaged ranch hands with them. Cord had made a quick phone call to his security men and they had told him that there was no sign of Steel or anyone else for that matter. His shoulders and his mood felt lighter from what he had shared with Cassidy and that the secret of his parentage didn't stand between them. In her usual fashion, she had taken what he told her and had made it clear to him that no matterwhat, he had been and would always be her best friend.
But Cord knew that the boundaries set by their friendship no longer existed and that the relationship itself had changed. At least as far as he had been concerned but when it came to Cassidy, he didn't know. She seemed determined to build her life on her new ranch and hadn't committed to whether or not she would even return to working in L.A. He couldn't blame her, the ranch had seduced him with its charms as quickly and surely as it had when it had belonged to him and the woman who owned it, naturally had worked her charms on him as well. And life in L.A. just wasn't the same without her in it.
Another thought nagged at him and that had been why Cassidy had asked him to meet her at the stable. When he read the note, naturally he thought it was to get some action considering the last time they had been there together but his libido aside, he had read something on her face that had been there a lot in the past couple of days. Something she kept saying she wanted to tell him and she wasn't sure that it had been her discovery of his birth certificate. But after their most recent interlude at the stable, she had been pretty quiet on whatever it was that had been on her mind.
But he knew he had to come up with a way to find out.
Cassidy spent some time after she put Chelsea in her stall, sweeping the barn. That had been Dylan's job but he had left with Buck and Larson and she didn't mind doing it because it gave her time to think. Not that her mind worked on all cylinders after she and Cord had been…well doing other things besides thinking. The discovery of his birth certificate had thrown her through a loop and she felt that she had done the right thing to be direct with Cord about it because she hadn't been certain at all that he had even known about this chapter of his past. But he had been told as it turned out and had kept it to himself. She didn't begrudge him that because she knew who he was trying to protect. And she had seen a trace of fear along with uncertainty in his eyes when he told her, that she wouldn't be able to accept it or him, fear that he knew was unwarranted but that had also kept him quiet. Cord had always been so certain of who he was and what he wanted and a lot of that identity had been built through his relationship with his family and the expectations that came along with his last name. It had to have shaken him up a lot to learn that everything he thought had been true had been a charade. Maybe one that had been built out of love, but the truth had remained hidden from him most of his life.
She didn't care a whit who his father was and truth be told, she felt gratitude towards both the father who had raised him and the one that had reemerged from the shadows to help him.
The door creaked and she spun around but nothing greeted her. She put her hand on her chest, her heart thudding and shook her head. Expecting to see Steel appear at every turn, she would drive herself crazy. If he came looking for them here, Cord's men would stop him before he could wreak any revenge on the two of them. But she remembered the photo he had sent her from another time and knew that he would be coming for them soon enough.
And she had been so ready to tell him the truth, she had been preparing herself to tell him and then she had found another secret hidden inside an old desk.
Her cell phone ring and irritated at the interruption, she picked it up and saw it was her friend, Shelia.
"Hi Shelia, what's up?"
Her friend chuckled on the other end.
"You sound thrilled to hear me," she noted, "What's going on?"
Cassidy went to sit on a hay bale.
"Steel is running around loose but Walker and I made up."
She pulled the phone away while Sheila shrieked.
"I knew you couldn't stay away from him," Shelia said, "But then what woman could?"
Oh Cassidy already knew the answer to that but it didn't bother her.
"Okay so you're right," she conceded, "I don't think I've ever been happier."
"Are you so surprised," Shelia said, "He's the perfect guy for you and it's time you got that through your head."
"I guess it's a good time…"
"Better late than never, I'd say," she said, "Except then you have to think back to all that good sex that you missed…"
"Shelia, will you just give it a rest?"
Her friend chuckled instead.
"So when's he moving in or are you moving in with him?"
Shelia never missed a beat, Cassidy noted.
"What…well he's moved out of the guest house…"
"That's a start," Shelia said, "but I mean when are you going to go public with your relationship?"
Cassidy hadn't given that much thought because they had been so busy on the ranch and hadn't been paying much attention to the rest of the world.
"I don't think we can do anything until Steel is safely behind bars…"
"Oh I'm sure you'll keep busy," Shelia said, "Well send me an invite to that event when you do decide to spill to all those inquiring minds out there."
Oh, like the paparazzi, at least they didn't know where the two of them had been hanging out. But she knew how the gossip columnists like to detail all of Cord's escapades with the ladies as one of L.A.'s hottest and most eligible multi-millionaires.
"And then there's the wedding…"
Cassidy nearly fell off the bale.
"Baby showers and christenings and house warming parties…"
Shelia clearly was working off of some list.
"Aren't you thinking way ahead," Cassidy said, "We just got together and we don't know where this is going."
"Oh Cassidy you know what you've got in front of you, you're a smart woman," she said, "But the biggest obstacle standing in your path isn't a terrorist, or Cord's black book which I'm sure he's burned by now, it's you."
Shelia fought to be patient.
"You've just got this idea in your head that since he's your best friend since childhood that if you up the ante and do some frolicking together, it's the end of something great rather than the beginning of something much better."
Cassidy almost said something but stopped herself.
"Ah, you're quiet, so you must be doing some thinking…"
"Yes I am Shelia," Cassidy said, "So I guess I'll get back to you…bye…"
Cassidy clicked off her phone and thought about what Shelia had told her and she knew there was some truth to her words. Okay, a lot of truth but still…she felt that she had been chartering unknown waters by her burgeoning relationship with Cord. Not that she would undo anything that had happened between them including about an hour or so ago but she didn't know what to do next. And she had always been a woman who rarely felt so unsure of taking a step into the future.
And then she kept thinking of Steel and the chapter of her life that she thought had been closed when Cord and she had taken the steps necessary to put him away behind bars forever. But as it turned out reality hadn't come close to delivering anything close to that resolution and he would be returning into their life in some form or fashion.
Would she and Cord be ready for him when he did show his face?