Page 41 of Stinger

Maria started talking and Yoselin listened, her eyes growing sadder.

"She says that her mama always told her that us women are the gatekeepers of the world. Only we get to decide whose genes are passed on, which men become fathers. And we must choose wisely. She say that the boy is the spawn of an evil man."

I glanced at Grace and something fierce lit her expression.

She moved to the side of the bed and sat down next to Maria. She looked at Yoselin. "Will you translate for me?" she asked gently, and Yoselin nodded yes.

"Maria," she said, and Maria jerked slightly but continued to stare out the window. "I agree with your mama. But I also think that in our broken world, sometimes things happen that we don't control, or maybe don't plan. I agree that us women should be the gatekeepers, but I also believe that this world needs strong, good men, men who are raised by mamas who have seen what weak men do. You overcome by making your son everything his father was not."

Yoselin finished speaking quietly, and Maria's eyes darted quickly to Grace and then to the baby in her arms and then away.

My chest felt tight and I knew it wasn't only because I loved the woman speaking with such tenderness and conviction to a woman she didn't even know. It was also because my story began in a similar way to the unwanted boy lying in Grace's arms. And I knew Grace realized that too by the way her eyes landed on me repeatedly as she spoke, her voice soft, and filled with love.

Sometimes therapy takes years and years, and sometimes it can happen in one miraculous instant, a lifetime of doubt and self-hatred healed in a moment of astounding love.

Maria spoke, but she sounded a little unsure now. "He is half of him," Yoselin translated.

"He is half of you," Grace countered and Yoselin repeated.

Maria looked fully at Grace's face now, studying it.

"He's so precious, so beautiful," Grace said softly, her eyes falling on me, "Beauty from pain, a gift. Do you want to hold him?" she asked.

When Yoselin repeated, Maria shook her head no and spoke softly.

Yoselin said, "She wants to see him though."

Grace held the sleeping baby toward Maria so that she could peer down into his face. She looked at him for a minute and her face softened as she spoke. "She says he looks like her papa," Yoselin translated, smiling.

Grace smiled and held the baby toward her. After a minute, she reached out her arms and took him. She looked at him for long minutes as we watched her and then she snuggled him to her chest, a tear falling down her cheek. Yoselin and Gisella sat down on the bed next to her, snuggling both of them from either side, and the little girls climbed up on the bed and sat at Maria's feet, watching the women and the baby.

After a minute, Yoselin started to show Maria how to nurse him.

Josh moved toward the door, and I looked at Grace and smiled as she stood up and took my hand.

"Wrap a towel around his bottom for now," Josh said. "Someone will be back shortly with some diapers and clothes and other necessities."

The women looked up from the baby, smiled and nodded and moved their gazes down to his little face again.

Once we were all three on the elevator heading back down to Leland's office, Grace looked between me and Josh and asked sadly, "How do you do it?"

I looked at Josh and said, "How can we not?" Josh nodded, but didn't say anything, stepping off the elevator first when the doors opened.

Dylan rushed out of his computer room, a look of sheer excitement on his face. "Suit up boys," he said, "I got him."

CHAPTER 35

Grace

My heart was beating out of my chest as Carson rushed into Leland's office with the other guys. I stayed back, not wanting to get in the way. I knew that it all came down to this.

Leland glanced over at me, and Carson saw his movement and nodded at him, indicating it was okay to talk in front of me. My heart squeezed with love for him. He trusted me with everything.

"You gotta move, guys," Dylan said first. "He's in a warehouse in Henderson, but you know this guy, he doesn't stay anywhere very long. He f**ked up–maybe he figured because it's Christmas, we'd be off duty."

"You got the location of the family too?" Leland asked.

"Yeah, that's how I got him. F**ker went through his estate gates in a delivery truck. Only, that particular delivery company doesn't deliver on Christmas day. Sloppy. I knew he must be inside and so I tracked it back to Henderson. And get this, he only has two guards with him–must have given the other three Christmas day off. He's quite the benevolent fellow."

All the men snorted.

"What else?" Josh asked.

"I downloaded the layout of the warehouse to your glasses."

"Okay, wait," Carson said, "we need at least three men to go in after Bakos. Takes that many of us just to clear a room properly. Any less would be too risky. That means we need you to film the family, Dylan."

"Who's gonna be the driver then?" Dylan frowned.

They all looked over at me and my eyes widened.

"No way," Carson gritted out. "No f**king way. We drive ourselves this time."

"We need a lookout, Carson," Leland said.

Carson shook his head. "We forgo a driver and a lookout this time. I won't risk Grace's safety. I'd be no good to you if I knew she was sitting outside waiting for us," he said, his jaw ticking.

The guys nodded. "Okay, no lookout this time," Leland said. "We capture Bakos, and Josh can go sit in the car while we question him and get what we need."

"Oh, hell no," Josh said. "If anyone gets the pleasure of talking to Bakos, it's me."

Leland paused. "Fair enough. Let's go get dressed. It's already dark out. We need to move."

Everyone nodded, starting to move toward the door. Apparently they had already made some kind of more elaborate plan and were just working out the details. At least I really hoped that was the case.

As we all walked out the office door, I noticed Leland's slight limp and recalled Carson's story of their team's ambush. It was a reminder to me that they were both lucky to be alive, and fear at what they were about to do, slid down my spine.

Carson took my hand and I followed the men down the hall to another room. Leland opened the door and he and Josh went inside. I saw lockers and showers and figured it must be where they "suited up," whatever that meant.

Carson faced me and pulled me into his arms.

"I'm scared," I said against his chest.

"Don't be, Buttercup. We won't make the same mistake twice. What happened with Josh was some strange fluke and we're gonna figure out what happened. But in the meantime, you have to trust that we're good at our job and we work together well. We know what we're doing."

I nodded, squeezing him tighter.

"Be careful, okay?"

He tipped my chin up with his finger, looking into my eyes. "No way I'm going to find you again after all these years and not get to enjoy you."

I smiled weakly.

"I love you, Grace," he said solemnly, almost reverently.

I closed my eyes for a brief second. "I love you too," I whispered.

He looked into my eyes for a couple beats and then smiled before he said, "Now, I'm going to bring you to a room where you can wait for me, maybe try to nap–"

I shook my head. "No way. I'm not staying alone in some hotel room going crazy."

"Baby, you can't leave this hotel. I can't be worrying about you when I need to be focusing on what I'm doing."

"I'll wait with the women and girls. The baby needs diapers anyway and some clothes."

He studied me for a second. "Okay. I'll walk you down to the gift shop. It's closed, but Leland has the master key. Then you stay on the forty-fifth floor. No leaving."

I nodded. "No leaving."

"Okay, come on."

Ten minutes later, I had a bag containing whatever baby products the gift shop had–diapers, wipes, five small I heart Vegas onesies, a pacifier, and a couple bibs. It would have to do until tomorrow.

Carson dropped me back off at the room where the women and girls were, kissed me one final time, and left.

I sank down onto the couch, a tear falling down my cheek. Yoselin gestured for me to join all of them, still on the bed, the baby and Maria fast asleep. Good thing it was a King.

And so that's where I waited for Carson, surrounded by those who had survived far worse than me, but were still able to give comfort when they saw another person in need of it. And if that wasn't a thing of beauty, I didn't know what was.

**********

Carson

We all pulled out of the garage together, Dylan turning in the opposite direction to go to Bakos' family estate. I hoped to God he'd be all right. He wasn't trained for this part of it. He didn't need to get very close, but still, the risk was always there. We couldn't ever afford to get complacent–especially after what had happened on our last mission.

We needed more men, but for now, we'd have to do with what we had. Preacher would be joining us in the next year. He had agreed to move his family in order to work with us. And Noah would join us as well, as soon as his tour was over. It'd make the whole operation that much safer. But for now, we had to work with what we had–there wasn't much of a choice.

We followed the GPS to the location Dylan had given us and parked a couple blocks away.

We walked the several blocks to the warehouse, sticking to the shadows of the other buildings. The area was mostly industrial, and deserted due to the holiday.

Just like Dylan had said, there were no outside guards. We moved toward the building carefully and quietly, ducking behind anything we could upon our approach.

Josh and I watched behind us as Leland picked the backdoor lock. He had the door open in roughly thirty seconds. We all put our night vision goggles down and activated the building layout Dylan had downloaded. It showed up in the upper portion of our goggles.

Thankfully our budget was such that we had the most high-tech devices available.

We had already cleared several rooms without hearing any noise, when Leland halted in front of us. We all listened carefully. Was that music?

At Leland's command, we moved forward. Well, holy shit, it was music. Christmas music. We had showed up for a regular party.

I looked back at Josh and he gave me the thumbs up sign, grinning.

We moved in closer and I gestured to Leland to move to the right of the door. Josh took the left. The door was old and wooden, with a cheap, builders grade lock. Whether it was engaged or not, I wasn't worried.

I held up my fingers, counting, and when I got to three, Leland and Josh looked away as I used all my force to kick the door open. It flew inward, splinters flying, and we moved in before it could swing back toward us.

The guard closest to the door turned to us, raising his gun, but Leland moved on him and had him in a choke hold, his weapon skittering across the floor, before the other two men in the room had even fully turned around. He might not be able to run as fast as he used to, but Leland McManus was still a badass.

Josh scooped up the guard's gun, stuck it in the back of his pants and, with one swift movement, brought his knee up and made contact with the other guard, just starting to stand. He fell to the floor, unconscious.

I went for the third man who I recognized immediately by the pictures I had seen. Bakos. He was backing up across the room, going for something in the waistband of his own pants. I rushed at him and spun him around, removing the gun from his waistband and taking him in a chokehold as I held my own weapon to his side. He grunted as I pushed it into his soft flesh.

"Jesus. That was almost too easy," Josh said, not even breathing hard.

"I don't think you need to take the Lord's name in vain on his birthday," Leland offered.

Josh halted as he went toward the guard lying unconscious on the floor. "I wasn't taking the Lord's name in vain. I was praising him. Let me rephrase. Thank you, Jesus, for making that so easy!" he said, raising his arms to the sky.

I rolled my eyes. "Hey guys, can we focus here?" I asked. "We need to separate them." I gestured to the two guards and Bakos.

Leland said, "I'm going to tie these jokers up in the room next door and make sure they don't move.

I nodded and stood up straight. Bakos was fully restrained. I did one more quick pat down of his legs for weapons and sat on the edge of the one table in the room.

"Can we cut that shit off?" Josh asked indicating the music. Bing Crosby was crooning about a White Christmas from an iPod on a shelf in the corner.

I walked over and turned it off as Leland dragged the second guard out of the room, his limp just slightly more exaggerated under the guard's weight.

I gestured to the half-empty liquor bottle sitting next to three shot glasses. "That's one of the reasons, taking them down was like a cake walk," I said to Josh, shaking my head.

Josh turned to Bakos. "I'm disappointed, old man. I expected more."

Bakos narrowed his eyes, looking at Josh with disgust.

Josh now sat down on the edge of the table where I had been a minute before, pausing as he studied the fat man with the graying mustache tied to a chair in front of him. "So Bakos, turns out this probably won't be a very Merry Christmas for you. In fact, it's probably gonna be real shitty," Josh said, a bored expression on his face.

Bakos remained silent, his eyes moving back and forth between us.

"Here's how it's gonna go, jackass. I'm gonna press record on this little device here and you're going to tell the story about framing me for a murder that I didn't commit."

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