The cabin waited for them just as been promised to them by an old friend.
Matt drove the car up around the last bend and saw it straight ahead, perched near the edge of a bluff that overlooked the Gulf of Mexico. C.J. sat alongside him but she'd spent most of the drive staring at the window not saying very much.
They'd left the ranch house back just outside of Houston with neither of them talking much. The trip had been his idea and after he'd gone to his neighbor with his plan, she'd offered him the keys to her cabin. Since she'd been getting older, it hadn't seen much use given that her three kids had grown up and spread themselves thin over the continent.
So it had been the perfect place for the two of them to get away from their busy lives for a few days. After giving Matt the keys, Cattle Annie had told him it'd be just what they both needed after everything that had happened with them and little Gracie.
She'd be taking care of the toddler during the time her parents were gone. She didn't mind the quad of burly looking men who would be part of the package as long as they didn't scare any of the animals on her farm.
C.J. had hugged her daughter goodbye, holding her tightly…so not wanting to hand her over but knowing she had to do it. Gracie would be just fine with Annie, a woman who always been a crack shot herself and who'd broken up quite a few brawls in her time…just before patching up the wounded. At least that's what C.J. told herself over and over but damn, it was hard to say goodbye to her daughter even for a long weekend.
"We'd better hit the road before the traffic."
She'd looked back at her husband and nodded. So she handed Annie a couple bags of everything she thought Gracie might need and then some. If Annie thought the bags quite heavy she didn't say anything just that Gracie would be just fine.
So she and Matt had gotten in the car to make the trip which would last several hours and end at Annie's cabin. She got out of the car after Matt parked it and walked up the stone lined path to the edge of the bluff. The house had been shored up enough to protect it from sliding on down onto the beach and the view from the back deck…beautiful to the point of taking one's breath away. The sandy beach strung with larger rocks, the bluish water tinged green breaking on the shore and out in the distance, sail boats and further away the outline of an oil rig or two.
"Ready to go inside…?"
She turned to look at him and nodded. She could have stayed out longer and taken in that view for hours but she knew he wanted to get settled. He carried her bags for her and after they unlocked the front door, they walked inside the cabin.
It was small and cozy, decorated old-style as if it had been that way for years. Photographs in frames lined the walls including in the hallway to the master bedroom. There was a stone fireplace in the living room and a couple sofas which looked more recently upholstered and were covered with woven blankets. The floor was hardwood but decorated with colorful patterned rugs.
The bedroom looked similar, masculine in décor but with a dose of femininity too. Matt put her bags down and went to get his own. She looked at them and decided to unpack later. They'd hit the grocery store in the last town before their cabin and had enough food to keep them well fed this weekend.
God, she still felt so tired even though she'd slept the last several nights. Not as well as she wanted but she'd been without it for days previously. She wanted to take a nap but she knew that she and Matt had to think about dinner. He had bought some steaks to grill out back but maybe they could keep it simple the first night.
She wanted simple right now.
He walked back into the room with his bags and dropped them next to hers. She glanced at him. He looked tired too.
"Maybe I should call…"
Matt went over to fiddle with the curtains on the window which provided more of that gorgeous view.
"They're fine," he said, "I'm sure Gracie's having a great time. She loves being on Annie's ranch…"
That seemed apt, C.J. thought because she'd been born there during one of the fiercest storms to hit that area of the state in recent memory. Annie hadn't asked her why she suddenly showed up at her doorstep, bent over from the pain of labor. She'd brought her inside, got her as warm and dry as possible and then delivered her baby.
Matt had been there too. If it hadn't been for him…she didn't know if she could have made it. He'd been so calm, holding her tightly when she needed it. When he'd held their baby for the first time, she wanted to capture that moment and tuck it away in Gracie's baby book. Never had a father so loved his daughter she thought but that love had nearly broken him.
Some nightmares repeat themselves from one generation to the next one. The one she hoped they could cheat had happened anyway.
Just thinking of it now again made her want to pick up her daughter and hold onto her again. Her rational side chided her for thinking that way. She had to let her daughter grow up into a world they couldn't protect her from in order for her to see the good that existed alongside what was evil.
"I know she does," she said finally, "I'll call Annie later tonight after she's put Gracie to bed."
Matt looked at her and she knew what he was thinking. But he was only partly right; she didn't blame him for what had nearly happened to their daughter.
She blamed herself.
If she'd paid more close attention but she'd been so busy with her caseload including what Simon had wanted her to do. One lapse of attention had turned into another's opportunity, someone who'd been watching and waiting.
"I found some fishing tackle in the closet," Matt said, "I think I'll go try to catch us a mess of fish for dinner."
"I can make a salad with the fixings," she said, "and there's some chicken to bake if you come back empty handed."
He started to leave and then turned to look at her.
"You are going to be okay while I'm gone."
She smiled though it didn't come easily.
"Why shouldn't I be? I'll be fine…I'll put everything away in the kitchen then I might take a nap."
Matt didn't say anything because they both knew she needed one.
He took off and she went to do that, her mind racing with all the things she wanted to tell them but hadn't been able to get them out.
That's how things had been since they got Gracie back again.
Matt walked down the trail which wound around a glen of trees towards the river. He'd fish upstream of where it widened into a mouth that flowed out into the ocean. These parts had plenty of steelhead and other species of fish. Getting out of the cabin gave him time to think.
It'd been like eggshells in there with his wife. He'd talked about it with Annie and she told him in that firm but gentle way of hers that he had to be patient. Losing a child was a parent's worth nightmare and they'd come so close…the reality being that it could always happen again. Their lifestyles past and present had left them wide open to a horde of criminals out there with grudges against them, some of them very dangerous. The problem was determining which of their pasts had come back to haunt them.
When it first happened, his first thought had been Andre…or Stefan…or someone from the nightmare that had taken her from him when he hadn't been there to stop it. Andre had been killed back on Sapphire Island but he still had powerful men out there loyal to him not to mention a brother who could engineer it from inside his prison cell.
Marquis Duval, jr. still lived, rotting away in a federal prison in Florida but his father had died of a disease that had eaten away at his body. Stefan…not in a position to hurt them directly but again, a litany of men only too willing to carry out his will to get back at those who had knocked him down.
Matt and C.J. had their own army of people to help them go against either men's legacy and they'd known what to do before panic had a chance to find its spot inside them. Jonathan's division of the FBI had been the first phone call followed by the U.S. Marshals and ICE. But even though they'd been helped even by the bureaucrats, it hadn't been that simple as it turned out and they'd been wrong.
He reached a nice spot on the river, where it ran deeper, etched into the sandy banks which were lined with trees providing shade. He knew that the fish would seek out those spots during the heat of the day. So he sat down and prepped his pole to try his luck fishing. He didn't care much if he caught anything as they'd bought more than enough food but fishing was great for helping him think without feeling he had to work hard at it.
It helped him to get out of the cabin to get some perspective. Away from the woman he loved more than life but who right now…they weren't communicating very well. Before Gracie had gone missing, they had been getting ready to give her a sibling, add another child to their growing family. Their first daughter had been an accident, conceived while they'd been holed up inside Houston Enterprises during a hurricane named well, Gracie of course. She'd been the most welcome of unexpected gifts and since Matt had just proposed to C.J. and she'd just accepted…she'd been a seamless addition to their lives.
This baby would be planned and of course he'd been looking forward to the enjoyable act of conception and he knew how much she did. But after what happened, they had shoved that discussion aside until he had brought it back up the other night…something that hadn't gone over well.
Something tugged at his pole and he pulled back but whatever had done it hadn't swallowed the hook so he cast the line back into the river. His mind wove its way through a minefield traveling backward.
"Hey if you don't tell me what's going on, how can I help you?"
He'd been sitting on their bed watching her move around the room putting the laundry away that she had done after they got back. She spun around to face him.
"Houston…why do you think there's always something wrong?"
He chose his words more carefully so she wouldn't decide to leave the room to clean the kitchen or something.
"I know there's something wrong now…and it's not just Gracie."
Their daughter lay in her crib right now, sound asleep. It hadn't taken her long to settle down once they got her home again. But they both knew that she might not sleep soundly.
"I can't be worried about whether my…our daughter is going to have nightmares over what happened? I'm so thankful that she's back safe again but we both know it's not over…it wasn't over when it happened to you when you're a little boy."
He didn't respond to that because no it hadn't been over just because the "Nightmare Man" had let him go. The woman in front of him knew that better than anyone aside from his own father.
"We'll get more security…"
She shook her head.
"We couldn't shield ourselves from our pasts and now they've come after our children and we can't stop it."
C.J. had left the room not long after that leaving him there. He'd hired a couple more security men anyway and they'd faded into the background including back on their ranch. Bo and Lamar had taught them the ropes about how to fit in better by helping out with the chores. But they were both city slickers.
He'd woken the next morning with her lying in bed next to him, one of her arms holding onto him as she'd snuggled against his warmth. Her face relaxed in sleep and she moved closer to him when he stroked her hair.
A fish swam away from the hook that snagged it, bending his pole and he focused on reeling it in, giving an inch, taking a foot doing what his daddy had taught him to do until he landed the steelhead on the bank. He smiled to himself as he removed it from the hook as it wiggled and in a few minutes, he'd baited his hook up again. Fishing helped him look at things differently in other areas of his life and he knew he had to do that with his wife.
He didn't want to lose her.
C.J. had packed away the kitchen and then grabbed an iced tea to settle on the couch in the living room. She had stashed away her cell phone to avoid giving into temptation to call Annie to check on Gracie. Reception was pretty good up here, Annie had told her, but not always reliable. C.J. wouldn't need her phone, the doctor counseled; she'd be busy with her husband. C.J. had blushed slightly because she had told Annie that she and Matt were working on adding to their family.
Annie nodded her approval.
"Gracie needs a sibling," she said, "It's hard being an only child."
C.J. knew how much given that when her parents had passed one after the other, she'd felt so isolated when she went to live with her uncle on a ranch next to Matt's. If she'd had a brother or sister to share that with…but her parents had only had her before their deaths.
"I know…I told Houston I'd stop taking the pill," she said, "I'm doing what he wants me to do."
"What do you want C.J.?"
She grew silent.
"I want Gracie to grow up in a world that's safe for her. I don't want her to keep paying for what her parents did."
Annie smiled widely.
"The two of you did more good than you know. You helped so many people including me."
C.J. knew that, the rational side of her reminded her of that constantly when the rest of her doubted whether it had been worth it. Sure, their investigative work had cost them. Both had been shot and nearly died from it, both had been kidnapped and had their lives threatened when they unmasked a killer. But when it had been them, they called it an occupational hazard.
Not so with Gracie…the moment she'd been caught in the undertow of their histories, all that had changed. At least for her, she didn't know about Matt.
For her at least, there was no going back.
She had thought about that when she'd drifted off to sleep. How he seemed to have emerged from the episode surer of himself and what he wanted than she did. She envied him the ability to do that, to put it behind them and think ahead of the future…and more children. But to her, the larger their family became, the greater the danger.
When Gracie had been taken, she'd lost the ability to sleep. Because even when she wore herself out enough to slip away, to surrender to sleep was to dream and she couldn't face that. She'd had plenty of nightmares about herself and Matt but never about her children.
Andre had returned in her dreams too from the dead. He had taunted her about the babies she would never have as his slave. Her place in his world wasn't to have bastard children but to keep him happy until he sold her off to pay a debt to a competitor.
Her first pregnancy test she took had almost made a liar out of him. Not that it would have necessarily been his child, since there had been another man she hadn't know existed until later. Andre's lieutenant, Semour Piser another blast from her past had plenty to tell her about what lay ahead.
"You don't remember him do you," Semour had said, "He made sure you wouldn't remember."
Her mind had still been foggy…from the drugs they'd given her she knew now. But it had seemed sometimes if she'd dreamed most of it.
Semour had chuckled, so much enjoying his revenge against her for busting up his fun and games house in the Arizona desert. He loved toying with her head even if he was forbidden from touching her body which belonged only to Andre.
"The man who wants to buy you…he was here last night brokering the deal."
She'd felt nauseous when Semour first walked in her room, even more so when she heard his words. Damn, she just couldn't remember everything that happened. Did she really want to remember? All she knew was that her wrists ached; they looked bruised to her and her mind flashed with images that made no sense.
"Andre wouldn't sell me to anyone."
Semour didn't miss a beat.
"He has no choice," he said, "He doesn't, this man will take everything from him including his prized whore."
C.J. woke up suddenly in a sweat. The room had been warm but her clothes still were damp. The dream clung to her even as the intricate details of it started slipping away. Why was she dreaming about Semour or Andre for that matter?
Despite what she thought, they hadn't been responsible as it turned out. But then she remembered what she'd told Matt, about going off the pill so they could have another baby. She remembered too what she'd learned about the man who would have owned her if she hadn't run away and kept running until the day she fought back.
What he did to his women and their dreams. Gracie's birth and her life had been the best response to him. A slap on the face to what he had wanted for her mother. But it hadn't been him who had been involved either.
She heard the door open and Matt walked in with a bucket which she knew to be loaded with fish. He'd always been a great fisherman. All those times spent with his father when he wasn't too busy and later on her when he caught her fishing in his spot.
"Did you take a nap?"
She nodded and stretched her arms. He didn't need to know about her dreams.
"I got some fish for dinner."
"I see that," she said, "I'll go make the salad."
They both walked into the kitchen and while he cleaned and fried up the steelhead, she worked on the salad and a side dish of roasted potatoes. That would go nicely with the fish which Matt put on plates for both of them when finished.
"You feel any better?"
She looked at him without saying anything then she realized he wanted to know if she felt less exhausted.
"I slept well. Really I'm almost caught up."
Hardly, but she was getting there. After the fish was done sizzling on the stove, he scooped them up onto their plates next to the rest of the meal. They moved out onto the back deck that looked over the ocean, sitting on chairs set up near an old wooden table.
The tide was coming in, consuming more and more of the beach. It would hold it in its grasp before retreating again. For some reason she couldn't take her eyes off of it.
Matt was feeling amorous she could tell as he pulled her into his arms on the couch while they both watched the movie. Something light, a comedy with more than a slice of romance, a story she'd been trying to follow. He pulled her closer to him and embraced her, holding her against him.
She loved the way he touched her with a form of playful reverence, as if he knew that he had nearly missed out on the best that life offered even as it took away.
He turned her face towards his to kiss her mouth. She responded because she loved the way his lips felt, the way he tasted. The way he could turn her into putty in his hands without even trying…as he slid her arms around him as they tried to find a comfortable position on the cramped couch.
They kissed for a long moment, before remembering to breathe. His hands caressing her skin beneath her shirt, making her heart beat quickly. She rested her hands on his back as they kissed again, longer this time.
He broke for air still touching her, heating up her skin.
"C.J. maybe we'd better…"
She sighed against him.
"I like it here…"
She closed her eyes as his lips left her mouth and scorched a trail down to where they stroked her jaw line and then that sensitive area of her neck under her jaw.
Her mind returning to simpler times…
Matt loved kissing his wife, which went without saying. Anytime he had the chance to do that he didn't let it pass him by. Like right now when he had his arms wrapped around her while they were lying on the couch watching a movie neither could remember. He slid his hands underneath her shirt to stroke her soft, silky skin while kissing her.
She'd always been the most beautiful woman he'd ever laid eyes on going back to when she'd blossomed into a teenager replacing the little bean sprout of a girl he'd known since the sixth grade. Not that even then she'd been someone to mess with as she proved her first day of school when she took on the school bully and pinned him in nothing flat.
They'd grown up spending much of that time together and yet they led separate lives parallel to one another. Even as they became best friends who built a business empire together, they had never shared more than a handful of passionate kisses.
But there'd come a time in his life when it hit him suddenly what he'd wanted during his sabbatical from his own life. Not long after he'd been stung by a stingray, he'd had visions of what life could be like, a story unfolded before him that he'd never known. He saw himself walking down a flower strewn aisle to meet up with a woman in white waiting for him at the end and when he saw her face…it had shaken him to see his best friend there. He'd seen her with a young girl with curly dark hair and eyes just like his own.
The vision had been enough to change his life. He vowed to himself that as soon as he recovered, he'd go back home to reclaim his life including what he'd seen in his dreams.
But when he got back to L.A., C.J. hadn't been there and it had taken a while for him to learn that he'd been abducted by two men in the parking garage not far away from her car.
It would take him weeks to find her again and for the next several months, they lived like fugitives until they finally came home.
That's when he realized he had stopped kissing her but still held her tightly in his arms.
"Houston I can't…"
His mind struggled to clear itself. Her body had tensed against his own and she didn't look at him.
"Not enough room here…"
She pulled away from him.
"No…I just can't…"
He positioned himself so he could look into her face using one of his fingers to tilt her chin upward. The emotions that swirled within her hazel eyes stopped him cold.
"What's going on here?"
She sighed not responding.
"What is it? You can tell me."
She relaxed then and he knew his words reached her. They both knew there wasn't anything they couldn't tell the other. It had been that way between them most of their lives but he read the conflict on her face.
"Just let me go…"
He didn't do that. He wanted to know what was going on here and if he let her get away…
"I can't…not until you tell me what's going on."
Her body grew more rigid against him, her voice more clipped.
"I have to call Annie. I have to know my little girl is all right."
Matt saw the concern on her face.
"Gracie's doing just fine," he said, "You know Annie would call us if there were any problems."
C.J. paused and then nodded.
"I know but I can't help it," she said, "I'd feel better if I called her."
She disentangled herself from him and headed to get her phone in the bedroom leaving him in her wake.
C.J. felt foolish for calling Annie who had still been up doing some proofing on her latest book even though she'd put Gracie down hours earlier.
"She's had a busy day," Annie said, "We fed some ducks by the lake and I took her to look at the new calves."
C.J. had smiled at that. She knew that Gracie loved spending time with Annie and probably didn't miss her parents much. Since she'd been back home, C.J. had watched her for signs that she knew to look for like nightmares and a need to be close or to cling to her parents but Gracie hadn't shown those signs of her experience so far.
"So how have you and Matt been enjoying your vacation?"
C.J. had sat on the bed thinking about her husband in the other room.
"Fine…I'm sorry if I got you up or disturbed you, I just wanted to check on her."
"She's doing just fine," Annie said, "but what about you?"
"I…I don't know Annie," she said, "I thought I was ready for this weekend."
"You needed the time away," Annie said, "You both did…the kidnapping got so much attention and you never had time to breathe let alone rest."
C.J. knew that Annie understood that part of it.
"I mean the part about having another child. That's what part of this trip was about, to get away and…"
"Let nature take its course," Annie said, "I can think of tougher assignments. So what's stopping you?"
C.J. hesitated again.
"I don't know…maybe it's not the right time for us. We just got our daughter back and maybe we need to focus on her instead."
"Oh don't you worry about Gracie…she's resilient. I knew that when she first came into this world that she'd be able to handle anything."
"But she's just a little girl," C.J. said, "When Houston was kidnapped…"
"He was a little older and able to create memories that could last forever," she said, "He had a very rough time coming to terms with it but look at everything he's accomplished. Look what both of you have done to help so many people."
C.J. couldn't deny that she and Matt's investigative firm had made a difference in the lives of those who had no one else to turn to, when even the police or FBI couldn't help them. Not to mention the Houston Foundation including the monies put into the Women's Crises Center in Houston.
"You've come a long way yourself from a nightmare that broke so many women and you've made something positive too. How the two of you handle the challenges you face, Gracie will learn a lot from the both of you through example."
C.J. hoped so.
"As will any of her sisters or brothers who come along," Annie said, "and I'm expecting to be hearing some good news coming from the two of you soon."
"I don't know…"
"Oh yes you do C.J…you never struck me as anything less than very smart…but I'm not the one to talk to when your husband's waiting…"
C.J. knew she was right and after thanking her, she clicked off the phone. She looked up and saw Matt standing in the doorway.
"Okay if I come in," he said, "or you still want to be alone?"
She smiled at him. He showed respect for the boundaries she sometimes thrust up between the two of them when she needed time without taking them personally. And he had more patience than any man had a right to during those times when she needed to be alone. But she shook her head and he came in and sat on the bed next to her.
"Look if you don't want to have another child right now, we can wait," he said, "Just don't keep me out of whatever's going on with you okay?"
"I'm sorry Houston…I'm sorry for everything," she said, "It's just that whenever I think of having more children, I feel…I don't know how to put it into words. I just feel…"
He found the perfect word, the one that had eluded her. All she could do was nod and in response, he sighed as if he'd been holding it deep inside him just like her.
"I'm scared too," he said, "I've run through every scenario in my head since she got taken…"
"Houston…it was my fault not yours," she said, "It might have been your past that came back but I should have been more careful…"
He put both of his hands on his arms looking straight at her. The guilt which washed over her face, didn't belong there. He didn't know what had put it there but it didn't matter. Life had intruded in what they'd built together with its ugliness but that was only part of what was out there waiting for them.
"C.J. you weren't responsible," he said, "Anyone who would kidnap a child…they're to blame. I saw how my kidnapping tore my father apart…put a rift between him and Uncle Roy…that I thought would never be mended."
She smiled. The two brothers had repaired the damage in their relationship not long before Bill had passed even though she and Matt only learned about it sometime after the fact.
"I don't want that to happen to us," he continued, "then I feel like the kidnappers win."
She looked down at her hands, mindful of the scars they bore from her past.
"I know but god, I just worry so much about her…where she is, what she's doing and how much a life can change when you let your attention lapse for just one instant."
He drew her closer to him and she let him do that and he felt her heart thudding in her chest against his own. He lay down on the bed bringing her down with him, always keeping her close.
"Life happens…bad things happen but we got her back…"
"I would never have stopped Houston…I would have done anything to get her back," she said, "and they took advantage of that too."
He knew the feeling. He didn't know how much one little person could wrap him around her finger so tightly but that bond formed as soon as he first laid eyes on his daughter being delivered by Annie. A squalling, reddened little bundle of energy and resolve that had been through so much to get there. His daddy warned him that fatherhood would change him forever, would force him out of his carefree playboy lifestyle or his incessant drive to the top of the corporate world.
His father hadn't been right about everything but about having a child…and that's when Matt realized how much his father had loved him. He saw that through the feelings that rushed through him when he first held his daughter after Annie had cleaned her up a bit. And through Gracie's eyes he saw his own family heritage.
Back to the two very different men who'd been his fathers. His mother who had died as a result of bringing him into the world…Uncle Roy who had returned into his life not to mention the cousin he thought he'd lost forever.
"She's the baby I thought I'd never have Houston…"
He closed his eyes remembering how she'd told him not long before Gracie's conception what she'd learned about the missing pieces of her life.
"He had all his whores sterilized you know," she said, "If I hadn't escaped…"
Matt knew what she didn't finish saying but she had gotten away from both men who had tried to enslave her. Then believing that she might be pregnant while holed up in some remote town in Colorado under another identity…all the time he'd been traveling around the world completely unaware of what happened.
"You did get away and those men are gone," he said, "and they can't hurt anyone again. They can't hurt our daughter."
She sighed against him knowing that but there were so many other dangers out in the world besides the two men who had come after her.
"I know…but I…all the time she was gone, I felt like I couldn't breathe…that if I stopped long enough…I'd lose her forever."
Matt felt that way himself and had learned more about himself than he wanted to know, how ruthless he could be to anyone who stood between him and his family. The darkness that had lived inside him since his own kidnapping had nearly consumed him.
"I know you felt that way too," she said, "but it's different when you carry a life inside of you for those months. I don't know if I can do that again…I want to more than anything but every time I think about it…I go back to those hours when we believed she might be lost forever."
He maneuvered himself so they lay side by side, their faces inches apart.
"C.J. I'll do whatever it takes to keep our children safe," he said, "We'll hire more security if we have to do it."
She sighed, shaking her head.
"That's no way to live. I don't want our children to live like that. Gracie doesn't understand that the men she sees everyday are there to protect her. But when she's older…she'll know."
He didn't know how to respond to that so he just held her tightly and felt her body relax as the exhaustion took hold of her. She hadn't slept in weeks really except a nap here and there. He had brought her out to the cabin, away from their lives so she could get plenty of rest and relaxation.
With those words, she fell asleep and that's when the dreams came…