From the author: Gabe and Ruby's first Christmas together is a wee bit...fraught, one might say. Follows FIRST MEETINGS. Rough draft limited availability story.
FIRST CHRISTMAS TOGETHER
(Timeline: 2029-30, 30 years before the opening of INHERITANCE)
Sneaking out of his girlfriend’s small barn apartment early in the morning was becoming a predictable pattern. A potential problem.
Gabe Ramirez started the coffee before he got dressed. Not just to fortify him for the long day ahead at the Christmas tree farm preparing last-minute shipments for those who could afford real trees these days, but for Ruby as well, so she’d have it while doing the morning feed and check for the horses at the training barn. At least the last two weeks she hadn’t needed to juggle school and work. The senior year ag robotics program at Oregon State was tough. One reason he’d started spending weeknights with Ruby was to give her a break and help her out while finishing the term.
Coffee finished. Dressed (and noticing that Ruby had rolled over to her side to watch, pretending sleep—at least his scars didn’t repulse her). Overnight bag packed again. Nuked the breakfast bar to make it more palatable. Time to kiss Ruby and go, before anyone else showed up—especially Justine.
He lingered over the kiss. With the weekend coming up, there would be too many people at the barn for him to stay with Ruby. This kiss needed to hold them until Monday.
She stirred and opened her eyes. “Morning.” She reached up to pull him close. “Do you have to stay away this weekend?”
“Can’t risk the bounty hunters,” Gabe sighed. “But I will be with you for Christmas.”
His cover was that he owed a massive pile of student debt that would ram him directly into indentured servitude. And that the bounty hunters for the Martiniere Group’s indentured division were after him for just that reason.
Well, the part about the bounty hunters was true. Only the Martiniere bounty hunters wanted Gabe because he’d gone rogue and betrayed the family’s secrets to the Feds, not because of any debt. And since his cousin Justine had bought one of the high-end show horses under Ruby’s care, there were too damn many bounty hunters lurking around this stable on weekends.
Why the hell didn’t Justine take her horse to California or Florida? Granted, a new explosion of Covid had shut down winter competitions in both places. And Lora Smith, the trainer and barn owner, was a damn good hunter-jumper trainer. But did that mean Justine had to park herself in Corvallis—or Eugene—or wherever the hell it was she was staying right now—and interfere with this most interesting relationship?
“Sorry,” Ruby said, throwing aside the covers. “I’m surprised she’s still here. I wouldn’t expect a Martiniere to hang out in Western Oregon this time of year.”
Well, there was one Martiniere hanging out here willingly, even if he was in hiding.
Gabe allowed himself a moment to savor Ruby’s beauty. Natural dark auburn hair, with that faintly glowing pale redhead’s skin. Lanky, long-waisted, muscular, long-legged. Enough curves to earn herself several rodeo queen and princess titles, coupled with equestrian ability that could take her to the highest levels in either rodeo or hunter-jumper—if she had the financing.
That hair coupled with her skill handling a tough palomino mare had first caught his eye. Then he’d gotten to know Ruby Barkley better and become captivated. Not a rich spoiled horse girl, but someone who had to work hard for every honor she won. And smart. A brilliant programmer. He was sure that the Martiniere Group would want to employ her—but she had plans to go back to her family ranch in Northeastern Oregon after graduating, so hadn’t signed up for recruitment.
He wondered what her reaction would be if he told her who he really was—and it was tempting to reveal himself, just to be able to finance Ruby.
Philip would kill you and take it away from her. His uncle was why he didn’t do that.
He kissed her again. “See you Monday night.”
“Don’t kill yourself working the trees.”
He laughed. “I’ll make sure I don’t get taken out by a rogue bundle.” The problem was real. He’d almost gotten clobbered by a drone hauling a bundle of trees yesterday.
“I’ll kick your ass if you let that happen.”
“Can’t have that.” He kissed her again and headed out the door.
A light frost coated the still-green grass and gravel as Gabe walked to his sedan. Beat-up, old, but mechanically sound. The horses in the barn heard him and began nickering for their morning hay and grain. He ignored them as he surveyed the little brown car. The alarm he’d set was quiet, but he still examined the guards he set around it, both cyber and physical.
Safe to start it.
Another quick look underneath the car. No tampering. Lora’s barn should be safer than his sleazy studio apartment but it wasn’t worth taking a chance.
He froze halfway through straightening up. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. He did have both knife and derringer in his boot tops, but that wouldn’t be sufficient defense if Justine had support.
Might as well face what’s coming, damn it. Gabe rose to his full height and turned toward his cousin.
Justine appeared to be alone, thank whoever, and dressed in running clothes. Didn’t mean she wasn’t armed—she was a Martiniere, and Philip’s daughter, after all. She brushed back her long brunette hair and smiled sadly. “I thought that was you.”
He sagged against his car. “All right, Tine. Just do me a favor. Don’t have your minions kill me where Ruby will find out. You owe me that much.” He didn’t know where Justine’s loyalty lay these days, but given the number of Martiniere security staff flocking around her, he was willing to bet that Philip had somehow managed to override her husband Donald’s influence.
“Gabie, really.” Justine scowled. “Why do you think I’m here this early?” She glanced around. “I don’t have much time. Ducked away from Daddy-poo’s guards but they’ll figure it out soon enough. Luckily, I have a habit of slipping out to jog first thing in the morning. Pisses them off.”
Relief of a sort. He exhaled heavily. “How did you find out?”
“Caught a glimpse of you in Corvallis with Ruby,” Justine said.
Oh God. He’d have to move on, damn it. And he’d promised her Christmas together. “Shit. And I thought I was being careful.”
“So far it’s just been me,” she said.
“Yeah, but if you’ve made me then it won’t be long before your entourage figures it out as well.” He shook his head. “Damn it.”
“I’m sorry. But I thought I’d better warn you.” She glanced around. “Look. Don’t get too spooked. We’re heading to Paris for the Family Christmas on Monday. That gives you time.”
The Family. He heard the capitals in her voice. Like every high-level Martiniere, he still thought in those terms despite eighteen months on the run. The Family. The Group. The Martiniere—Philip, damn it. His fist clenched for a moment, then relaxed as he exhaled. Justine’s leaving would give him a chance to say goodbye to Ruby before disappearing.
“Thanks for the warning.”
Justine gave him one of her arched-brow, measuring looks. “Gabie. If you want to come back there are ways. Daddy-dearest does not have a lock on the Family. Even if he is the Martiniere, you still have allies.”
“So did my father. And now he’s dead.” His father Saul, Philip’s twin, had been the Martiniere. Then Saul died in a private plane crash, along with Gabe’s mother Angelica and his sister Louisa. Gabe had been thrown on Philip’s not-so-tender mercies—and bore the scars to prove it.
“I’m just saying it’s an option.” Justine sighed. “Donald’s getting sick of Daddy-poo and his controlling behavior. I’m transitioning from Martiniere security to Atwood security. It will be different when I come back. But you’d best lay low this weekend.”
He shrugged. “I’ll be working my ass off.”
She shook her head. “Manual labor, I suppose.”
“It’s a waste of your talents.”
“But at least I’m my own person, not what Philip wants me to be. Or dead, which is what he really wants.” Gabe sighed. “I do have to get to work, Tine. Is Joey part of this entourage?” God, he hoped not. Justine’s brother Joseph was as nasty as her father, only cruder.
“God, no.” She wrinkled her nose. “Joey hates horses just like Daddy-dearest. He’s still in Los Angeles.” She paused. “Gabie. Be careful. If I could figure out your pattern….”
“I appreciate it, Tine.”
He climbed into the car and drove off, regret already dumping on him. Damn it, he liked Ruby.
Oh well. I’ll say goodbye Monday night. So much for Christmas together.
And he’d been looking forward to that, damn it.
Another solitary holiday. Merry fucking Christmas.
“You got tipped off?” Ruby looked tired and worried even before he brought this up.
Gabe nodded. “I—uh—went to military school with one of Justine’s cousins. She warned me.” Close enough to the truth, and there had been a Gabe Ramirez at Northview Military Academy that wasn’t him.
“Too bad she can’t help you financially so you don’t have to worry about the bounty hunters,” Ruby said, her voice bitter.
“Let’s not worry about it right now,” Gabe said. He took her in his arms, brushing back a tendril of that lovely hair. God, he’d miss her. “But what’s bothering you?”
“Granma isn’t doing well,” Ruby said. “Gramps called me over the weekend.” Her parents had died when she was young and her grandparents had raised her. He’d met her grandfather—tough, protective old coot. “I was gonna have to tell you I had to go home for Christmas. Already told Lora. Leaving tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry.” And that was worrisome. The major freeway that passed near Thunder County was having raider problems and people had disappeared. Been killed. Possibly kidnapped into indentured servitude. “I’m gonna be worried about you on that freeway.”
“I’ve not had issues before.” But she still frowned. “Then again, I’ve not needed to go home over Christmas until now. I’ve heard it’s worse in the winter. Still, my truck’s pretty sturdy.”
“Mmm.” And yet it had broken down several times. Easy enough for him and Ruby to repair, but it was worrisome. “Maybe I should follow you. At least until you turn off from the freeway.” It would get him started toward a new location and this way he’d be certain she got as far as Grande City safely.
“Or you could park your car here and go with me. Gramps suggested that I bring a friend along for safety’s sake. You’d still have to get out of here fast when we come back, but—we’d have Christmas together at least.” She shivered. “And I could sure use a friend along above and beyond the raider danger. I don’t think it’s just Granma who has problems.”
It might not be the smartest thing to consider doing, but…a few more days with Ruby. Including Christmas.
It was well worth the risk.
“When do we leave?” He had given notice at work and his apartment. Everything he owned was in his car. He could throw it into the back of Ruby’s crew cab. “I’ve got everything in my car already.”
That eased her worried expression. “First thing. I’ll tell Lora that my friend’s car is gonna be here. She’ll be happy to hear I’m not traveling alone.”
“Thanks.” He went out to switch everything he cared about—not much these days—from his car to Ruby’s truck. He wasn’t going to tempt fate by leaving valuables in an unattended car with no one staying at the stable for a couple of weeks.
His weapons bag came inside. He wanted to make sure that everything was loaded and ready. They might have an uneventful drive to Northeastern Oregon—or they might not.
Gabe planned to be ready. Serg and Piotr Vygotsky would kick his ass if he wasn’t and they found out. And while he was faster than old Cousin Piotr, he was definitely not faster than Cousin Serg.
They rose before sunrise to driving hard, cold rain. Ruby scowled as they quickly threw hay to the horses and doled out the morning grain, then loaded what was left in the pickup.
“Hope to hell this doesn’t mean freezing rain in the Gorge,” she muttered as they climbed into the truck. “That could be a problem.”
“It gets bad?” Last year he’d spent a lonely Christmas in a rough backcountry camp in southern Utah, spooked by someone tossing his cheap motel room in Las Vegas. And the year before had been his final Martiniere Christmas in Paris, where he’d been fighting with Philip, Joseph, and a couple of the cousins. Justine, Piotr, and Serg had kept him from making it worse. If Donna-gran had been healthy enough to be there maybe things would have been different—but that couldn’t change now. If his grandmother was even still alive. She’d been pretty sick, last he’d heard.
He didn’t know anything about the Pacific Northwest in winter. Paris, yes. The desert Southwest, yes. Los Angeles, yes.
Ruby nodded grimly as they drove off. “One reason why I’ve not planned Christmases at home while going to Oregon State, as much as the winter raider threat. The Gorge gets horrible ice storms. Blizzards. Even if it’s just raining it can be pretty nasty.”
He pulled up the road conditions link. “So far it looks good. Just wet.”
“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Ruby said. “Then we can worry about the Plateau and the Blues.”
Gabe paid for full fueling in Troutdale, at the mouth of the Gorge, despite Ruby’s objections that she could afford it. The west wind-driven rain battered him as he filled the truck’s tank. He used the time to assess the other travelers while Ruby grabbed snacks and drinks in the mini-market after using the restroom.
Too many shifty-eyed sorts studying vehicles. Raider scouts? He didn’t get back in the truck but stood in front of it for whatever shelter it could provide from that hard, battering rain, waiting for Ruby. She got too much attention from those worrisome drifters when she came out, even though she wore a shapeless insulated coverall and her hair was tucked up under a cap.
He made a big deal out of meeting her with a huge kiss and hug, raising his head to fix the drifters with a predatory glare.
“Something wrong?” Ruby asked, her voice low.
Oh God, he loved this woman. She’d picked up on the vibe without being explicitly told. If only he could have her as a partner while on the run.
“I think we’re being scouted by raiders,” he growled.
Her lips pressed together and she nodded.
Once they were back on the freeway and settled into the road, Gabe started preparing. Clear pathway to driver’s side back window. Meant stacking some of his stuff higher—which might attract raiders by itself, but couldn’t be helped. Not if his instincts were correct and they’d been scouted. He wanted to be able to access the back window quickly so he could shoot from that side if necessary.
Rummage in his weapons bag. Pull out his favorite pistol, attach it to the glove box. Make sure refill magazines were fully loaded and also attached. A moment’s hesitation, then he did the same with his backup.
“Didn’t realize you were loaded for bear,” Ruby said, quickly glancing sideways before refocusing on the road, her lips held tight as she wrangled the truck through the cascades of standing water on the freeway.
“Military school training,” he said. And a Martiniere upbringing, though he didn’t say that.
“I have a weapon in the glove box,” she said. “Might be nice if you can attach it within my reach with whatever it is that you’re using for your pistols. What the hell is that, anyway? Looks like something from Vygotsky Security.”
“It is,” he said. “Serg Vygotsky was one of my classmates at Northview, and he was generous in handing out tech to friends.” And Serg had been friends with Gabe Ramirez as well as being Gabriel Martiniere’s cousin.
But that Gabe had disappeared. A goddamned indentured foot soldier in some corporate war in South America, a most undeserved fate. Easy enough for him to slip into that Gabe’s identity as a result. Even if Serg had thought it tacky.
Rodeo cowboy and agricultural worker, Gabriel? Both Serg and Piotr knew the truth about his disappearance—he couldn’t have done it without them after the witness protection program blew up in his face. That’s a fucking waste of your abilities, Piotr had said.
No one will look for me, he’d said in answer. And I’ll get practical life and ag experience.
If you survive, Serg had said.
Idealistic fool, Piotr had said.
But they had helped Gabe and not betrayed him. Yet.
He rigged up pistol and backup magazines where Ruby could reach them, checking everything as he went along. Then he settled back in the seat.
“If you’re tired, I can drive,” he offered.
She shook her head. “This truck has quirks. And I know where the bad spots are through this area. Hidden potholes that you won’t see in this fucking deluge.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
Ruby half-grinned. “Hand me a ratbar, will you?”
He dug in the bag of snacks. “Chocolate or blueberry?”
“Chocolate, of course.”
Gabe unwrapped it and handed the bar to her. Then he settled in for a long and hopefully uneventful ride.
The rain faded out after they took a quick rest stop at Biggs Junction and were well into the desert. But the wind switched so that it came from the north, blowing hard.
Gabe fed Ruby water and snacks. This long, barren stretch of road reminded him of the Southwest, especially after they climbed away from the river. He’d offered to drive after Biggs, and again after they passed Arlington, but she’d refused both times.
“I’m all right, Gabe.”
But that worried expression furrowed her brow. They’d both spotted suspicious characters at Biggs. She kept glancing at the mirrors.
“We got problems?” he asked.
“Maybe. Couple of rigs pacing us since Arlington. Might be other travelers.”
He looked in the side mirror, then fished out binoculars and turned to peer through her tinted rear window with the small slider opening. Big black rigs with crash guard front bumpers. No front license plates. Security vehicles of some sort—or raiders.
Could be fucking Martiniere bounty hunters, too.
But he didn’t think so. And as he watched, they accelerated, the one in the left lane rolling slightly ahead of the other.
Showtime. Calm descended on him now that he knew it was going to happen. “They’re gonna crash us,” he said.
God damn it, he should have insisted on taking the wheel—the slight difference between his strength and Ruby’s might matter when it came to sticking on the road. Or not. Oh well. Left him free to shoot. He moved their water bottles out of the center console, grabbed his favorite pistol and slapped it on top of a box, fished out his rifle case, and climbed into the back. He assembled the rifle and slid both the back window and driver’s side back seat window open. Take out the rear rammer first. Then the side guy. Should be easy-peasy, Gabriel.
If they weren’t well-trained Martiniere security, that was. But they were fucked if that was the case.
He waited, breathing deep and steady to keep calm. Too soon and the side rig would have enough warning to take evasive action. Too late and the following rig would still crash them. And it all depended on how reinforced those windows were.
Gabe waited. Waited. Then carefully slid the rifle into the back window opening. Switched on the sight. Focused.
No sign that they were Martiniere. Good. He aimed for the driver and shot. Had to empty the magazine before that rig swerved off the road and crashed through a barbed wire fence before careening to a stop. One down.
But that fucking side rig accelerated and smashed into the truck bed. Gunshots took out the driver’s side mirror as Ruby wrestled with the wheel.
“Gabe…” Worry in Ruby’s voice.
“I’ve got them.”
He switched to pistol and side window. This time he didn’t bother with precision but emptied the first magazine quick. They still kept coming. Ruby tossed him her pistol. He emptied it—and this time when the windows blew, their pursuers swerved off of the freeway, this vehicle flipping and rolling down the canyon side.
Gabe climbed back in front, dragging the weaponry with him. “Raiders,” he said. “For sure.”
“You doing okay?”
She nodded but he saw blood on her lower lip where she’d bitten through it. “We’d better report it.”
“You need to be the one calling in. Is there a safe stop nearby?”
She nodded again.
Gabe flipped up the center console so that the front was now a bench seat. He slid over so that he sat next to her and put his left arm across Ruby’s shoulders. She quivered under his touch but that and the bitten lower lip were the only apparent sign of the impact that the raider encounter had on her.
Gabe topped off the fuel tank at the truck stop while Ruby made the call. This time he took the wheel. Ruby squeezed up next to him, still occasionally quivering.
“Couldn’t get through to the authorities,” she said as they drove off. “Busy signal the whole time.”
Gabe nodded curtly. He’d managed to mock up a substitute for the driver’s side mirror. Don’t need any more attention than necessary.
Ruby’s phone chimed. She flicked it on.
“Ruby? You all right? We heard reports of problems on the interstate.” Male voice, worried. Gabe recognized it as that of Ruby’s grandfather, Ron Ryder.
“We’re fine, Gramps,” Ruby said, her voice a little shaky. “My friend Gabe is traveling with me. He’s driving right now.”
“Where are you?”
“Almost to Hermiston.”
“Did you see it? Multiple raider attacks near Arlington. At least four dead.”
Ruby drew a deep, shuddering breath. “We’re okay, Gramps. Really. We can talk when we get home, okay? Gabe and I have it under control.”
“This Gabe. Have I met him?” Ryder’s voice shifted from worry to protective.
“Last summer,” Gabe said. “Gabe Ramirez. Bronc rider. Little incident with Troy Ridley.”
“Ah. That Gabe.” The protective note in Ryder’s voice faded. “All right. We’ll have food ready when you get here.”
“Thanks, Gramps.” Ruby disconnected and burrowed further into Gabe’s side. “I didn’t want to tell them more and make them worried.”
“They’re gonna know something went down once they look at the truck.” Crumpled metal along the bed, the broken mirror, and a couple of bullet holes. They were lucky, awfully damn lucky.
“Better not to have them fuss while we’re still on the road,” she said with a shiver. “If I make it to Miss Rodeo Oregon this next summer they’ll have enough to be concerned about.”
“At least you’ll have some support then,” he said.
“They’ll still worry. But—we’ll see how Granma is. I may not be able to do tryouts.” Her voice quavered a little. “She’s more important.”
The road was good enough that he put his arm around her for a while, doing his best to provide consolation.
Ruby slept through the Blue Mountains once darkness fell, barely rousing when they turned off at Grande City to head for Lakeside. Gabe woke her for directions when they reached Lakeside. Soon enough they turned off down a snowy drive marked by a CENTURY FARM—RYDER FAMILY sign, heading toward a cluster of ranch buildings and a big old white farmhouse. Moonlight glowed on the snow and Gabe thought he saw deer in the fields—then cattle that raised their heads to watch the truck drive by.
“Welcome to the Double R,” Ruby said, straightening up as they pulled into the barnyard. She shuddered and put her head in her hands.
She raised her head. “I’m worried about what I’m gonna see with Granma.”
He took her in his arms. “It’ll be all right.”
The back porch light switched on. Ruby pulled away from him. “Better get inside before Gramps gets a good look at the truck.”
“He’ll figure it out.”
“Yeah, but I’d sooner wait until morning to deal with it.”
He grabbed his overnight bag, dropping the pistols into it, then grabbed his weapons bag and Ruby’s suitcase, following her up the trampled pathway to the house. Not shoveled, he thought. Surprising.
One thing to be done in the morning. Not a good sign, based on Ruby’s worries.
Ron Ryder met them on the back porch, craning his head as he hugged Ruby so that he could look past Gabe at the truck. “Looks a little rough for wear. Good to see you, Gabe.”
“We had a few issues,” Gabe admitted, setting down his bag to shake Ryder’s hand. “But we made it.”
Ryder raised his brows even as a thin, reedy voice called from the kitchen. “Ruby? Ruby honey, is that you?”
Ruby slipped past Ryder and into the house. Gabe bent to pick up his bag.
“How bad was it, Ramirez?” Ryder asked grimly.
“We made it,” Gabe said in an answering tone. “And neither of us got hurt.”
Ryder studied him, then nodded curtly. He grabbed a cane that had been leaning against the wall and limped through the door. Gabe followed him into the kitchen.
Plain. Floors worn. Counters worn. Faded paint. But something simmering on the stove smelled damn good and wasn’t a processed-food ratbar, the room was warm, and Ruby knelt by a frail old woman sitting in a wheelchair parked next to a Formica green and chrome table.
It wasn’t the Martiniere mansion in Paris, but it sure as hell beat a lonely motel room somewhere on the road. Besides, all things considered, this cozy and shabby kitchen looked pretty damn good to him in comparison to what he would encounter in Paris. Even with a suspicious and protective grandfather. Gabe set the bags down again as Ruby beckoned him over.
“Granma, this is my friend Gabe Ramirez. Gabe, my grandmother Ruth Ryder.”
“Pleased to meet you, Gabe,” Ruth said in a wheezy voice as she extended her hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Ruth.” He gently shook her tiny, mostly bony hand, then, in a vestige of the Martiniere manners that Donna-gran and his mother had pounded into him, bowed and delicately kissed the back of her hand, just like he had done with the elder women at the big Family Christmas.
Ruth giggled, just like the elders would. “Oh my. Ruby, this one’s a sweetie.”
“I think so,” Ruby said.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think we have an extra bed ready.”
“We’ll take care of it,” Ruby said.
Ryder snorted. “Not to worry, they’re probably sleeping together, Ruth.”
Ruby flushed. “We’ll take our things upstairs,” she said. “Then we’ll come back and eat. Okay?”
“I can carry them. Just show me where to go.”
He followed her through a swinging door and down a hallway. The rest of the house was noticeably colder than the kitchen. Ruby took him up several flights of stairs to a big bedroom on the third floor.
“This used to be Granma and Grandpa’s room until she got so sick that they had to move to the first floor,” she said in a low voice. She went over to a radiator under one of the windows and put her hand on it, frowning. “Not warm at all. I wonder if Gramps is having problems firing up the furnace?” She sighed. “Oh God, Gabe. I was afraid that things were getting problematic. Two more terms at Oregon State and then I’ll be back here for good. But I don’t know if they’ll hold out until June. I didn’t realize it was this bad. I thought their neighbors would contact me.”
He took her into his arms. “We’ll figure it out. You need to finish that degree.”
She sniffled into his chest, then gulped and looked back up. “Thank you for coming with me, Gabe. Not just for this but—”
“There was no fucking way I’d let you make this trip by yourself, based on what I’ve been hearing about raiders,” he said. “And I was right. But. Wait until the morning before you start thinking of problems. The situation may not be as dire as it seems tonight.”
Ruby pressed her lips together and nodded.
After a plain but filling meal that was, basically, gruel with some meat chunks and a couple of parsnips and carrots, Ron put Ruth to bed. That was Ruby and Gabe’s cue to retreat upstairs. Ruby dragged an electric heater out of the closet and fired it up. They both dove under the heavy covers on the bed, snuggling close.
Ruby cried into Gabe’s chest, whimpering about the incident and her grandparents, and he soothed her. At last, she settled and turned away, her breaths coming smooth and even as she fell asleep.
Gabe rolled on his back, staring up into the darkness. He was exhausted, damn it. But his mind kept spinning, replaying the encounter with the raiders. Had he actually hit anyone? Killed one or more of them?
Another group of people looking for me. On the other hand, if there was a big enough problem that Ryder had called them on the road once he’d heard about the incident, and Ruby couldn’t get through to authorities, they might not be searching very hard for whoever it was that had shot those damn raiders. There were bounties on the raiders’ heads as well.
And just how the hell to get Ruby back to Corvallis safely without another encounter like that? If she didn’t decide to drop out because of her grandparents.
Gotta be a solution to that situation too. Ron Ryder at least seemed to be mentally clear. Money could buy a solution—but he didn’t have access to his Martiniere funds, at least not without causing more problems. And after seeing the farmhouse, the odds were very high that the Ryders didn’t have the money to buy help.
Ruby’s too damn smart to drop out this close to graduation. Gotta find a way.
He tossed and turned, but it was clear he wasn’t going to sleep. Just too much to think about. Well, his weapons needed cleaning. He’d put the pistols—including Ruby’s—back in his weapons bag. Maybe he’d go downstairs and do that for a while. Might just be the thing to calm his skittery mind.
“Mmm?” Ruby muttered as he slipped out of bed.
He kissed her cheek. “Not sleeping well. I’ll be back.”
“Mmm.” She exhaled. He gathered up what he needed and pulled on his slippers and robe. Hopefully he and Ruby could get the furnace running tomorrow.
A light still showed under the kitchen door. When Gabe entered, Ryder sat at the table, scowling at a computer projection. Gabe set his bag down on the floor next to the table and went to the refrigerator. He’d grabbed a six pack of beer at the last stop.
“Want one?” he asked Ryder.
Ryder pointed to a glass half-filled with an amber liquid. “Get yourself a real drink and not that horse piss.”
Gabe raised his brows and put the beer back. One of those type of situations. All right. He could handle it. Close enough to the Family drinking sessions. At least Ryder didn’t impress him as someone who was a violent drunk.
He remembered which cabinet held the glassware and picked out a squat lowball glass like Ryder’s. He raised his brows again at the weight of it in his hand. A good quality glass. Maybe the Ryders had some money after all. Or not. He didn’t think Ruby would be driving a beater pickup and working for Lora Smith to get through college if they did. Might be a legacy.
Ryder produced a quart jar. “Locally distilled by someone who knows what they’re doing.”
“Neat or with water?” Gabe asked as Ryder filled the glass.
He dipped a fingertip into the liquor and took a whiff. Nothing smelled wrong, but then again, as Donna-gran had always said when lecturing the young Martinieres about neurotoxins, it wasn’t what he could smell that could kill him. He raised the glass to his nose.
“Cautious one, aren’t you?”
Gabe shrugged. “I have my reasons.” He sipped it. “Not bad.” He set the glass down and pulled out his cleaning kit, then the pistols and the rifle case.
“So you two were mixed up in that mess on the Interstate,” Ryder said.
“Uh-huh. Like I said, we made it, and neither of us got hurt.” Gabe started with the now-disassembled rifle, swabbing down the barrel, the discipline of years of training taking over as he pulled each piece out of the case.
“One of Ruby’s friends wasn’t so lucky,” Ryder said. “I wasn’t gonna tell her until tomorrow.”
That made Gabe pause, looking over at Ryder instead of the rifle. “What happened?”
“Britt was beaten, raped, and killed,” Ryder said, his voice hard. “Found her up one of those little canyon roads between Biggs and Arlington. Traveling alone, on her way back from college.”
Damn it, he should have asked Ruby if she had other friends who needed a ride.
“Shit. Ruby didn’t say anything about friends needing a ride.”
“She was coming from Eugene,” Ryder said. “Overdue by two days.”
So not when they would have been coming through.
Gabe exhaled and went back to work. Ryder watched him.
“After they found her body, the police found two crashed vehicles east of Arlington,” he said. “Matches descriptions of rigs that were attacking women traveling alone or with small children. One matched the picture Britt’s dashcam took and sent before it went dead.”
“Good,” Gabe said. “Survivors?” He carefully squinted down the rifle’s barrel, then put it back in the case. Pistols next. He picked up Ruby’s first.
“Four bodies in the wreckage. Two shot, the others killed in the crash.”
Gabe nodded, unwilling to say anything. Well, that was one answer. He doubted the authorities would be looking very hard for a shooter now. He’d taken care of a problem for them.
“Sounds like it was a nice little job of shooting,” Ryder continued. “Took out both drivers.”
Huh. His aim was better than he’d thought. Gabe focused on Ruby’s pistol.
“You’re not real talkative about what happened.” Ryder paused. “That’s Ruby’s pistol, isn’t it? You two had to shoot yourselves out of a situation.”
Gabe sighed. “They tried to ram us. One from behind, one from the side. I took care of it.”
“There’s a reward. Doubly so if they connect the dead with Britt’s murder.”
“I didn’t think you were that well off. I talked to Vickie Chandler. You don’t have the rep as a rider with money.”
“I don’t have any money.” Or at least now I don’t. “That’s not the issue. Fact is, I’m dodging bounty hunters myself. College debt, and I refuse to go into indenture.” It was a good thing that Ruby’s pistol was similar enough to his own that he didn’t have to focus on safely cleaning it. His heart pounded hard. Ryder was too observant. Too knowledgeable. Too likely to make the connection between Gabriel Martiniere and Gabe Ramirez.
“I see.” A long, pregnant pause. “You look like you know what you’re doing with those weapons.”
Ryder snorted, drained his glass, and poured himself another drink. “Tell that to someone without actual military experience, bub. You didn’t learn that skill or that kind of shooting in military school. You’ve had training.”
Years of it, in fact. But Ryder had blown through his first cover. Damn it.
“Serg Vygotsky was a friend and one of my classmates. I spent summers in training with him.” Close enough to the truth.
“More like it,” Ryder said. “But you didn’t go with Vygotsky Security?”
“My degree is in agtech systems programming,” Gabe said. “And the only position the Martiniere Group would offer me involved indenture.” Another near-truth, both his degree and the work. Philip would have had him installing suspect body modifications tied to mind control in indentured agricultural workers without their consent.
“I see.” Ryder took a big swig off of his drink. “There’s a lot more to you than appears on the surface, Gabe Ramirez.”
“Just trying to get along and stay indenture-free.” He finished Ruby’s pistol and picked up his backup.
Gabe sighed. He set down the pistol and took a big swig of his own off of the whiskey. Smooth, without a bite, of a quality his uncle Gerard would serve in the library for the men after dinner. Whoever the distiller was knew their stuff, all right.
“She means a lot to me,” he said finally. “But I don’t know if it’s fair to saddle her with my issues. I’ve—I’ve gotta move on once she’s back in Corvallis. Been tipped off that I got spotted. But I didn’t want her coming here by herself—or going back alone.”
“I see,” Ryder said. He drained his glass and switched off his screen. He placed the quart jar close to Gabe. “Put that back in the cupboard over the fridge when you’re done, Ramirez. And don’t worry about how much you drink. There’s more where that came from. Figure that after the day you’ve had, you might just want a generous serving of it. Good night.”
“You got Ruby home safe. That’s what is important.”
“Good night,” Gabe called to Ryder’s retreating back.
“Good night,” Ryder repeated.
The next few days were a flurry of work that kept his hands and mind both busy. But it felt good to be working with Ruby and not needing to hide out. Gabe could almost forget the post-Christmas deadline bearing down on them, much less spend time fretting about where he was going to go from here.
Despite the impending separation after Christmas, he savored their lovemaking. Being able to pretend that this was a normal life. Looking with Ruby at the former dairy parlor from a hundred years ago and contemplating what it would take to remodel it into the sort of lab that would support Ruby’s biobot design dreams.
Christmas Eve came soon enough. He and Ruby showered and changed into nicer clothing before going downstairs for dinner. He had a brief moment of regret when he realized that the Martiniere emeralds—the one legacy he’d kept, now in an attorney’s custody, to keep them out of Philip’s hands—would look gorgeous on Ruby.
Could he go back?
Not as long as Philip lived and held the power of the Martiniere, he reminded himself. Going back was a death warrant now.
Ruby was solemn and silent as they dressed.
“Gabe,” she said finally, sitting on the end of the bed. “Can we talk a minute?”
“Sure.” His gut tightened. She’d taken the news about Britt’s death hard. But she hadn’t talked about that, or much else.
She took a deep breath. “I’ve been talking with people around Lakeside. Vickie Chandler and the other neighbors. My friend Remy Trask, who’s a lawyer. I’ve—got to do something about Gramps and Granma.”
“You can’t quit school,” he said. “Not and be able to do the stuff in the labs that you’re dreaming of. Even as an independent, you’ve got to have that damn degree for financing.”
She swallowed hard. “I know. But—things are rough here. I can’t—someone’s gotta be here. Gramps can’t do it all. Not take care of the ranch and Granma both.”
“Can you hire someone?”
Her lips tightened. “I—for Granma. Sure. But the ranch work—hands are very hard to find here in Thunder County. At least not anyone trustworthy. And I won’t bring in indentured workers. And Gramps is just too old to keep up with it. I’m afraid something will happen to him. ” Another long hesitation. “I know you need to move on. I know you don’t have any money. I can’t afford to pay you much, and maybe you might be worried about being linked to me if the bounty hunters make a connection.”
“You want me to come here?” God, that would be a solution. And it would keep him close to Ruby, at least for a while. “But what do your grandparents think?”
She smiled. “Granma has a monster crush on you and Gramps thinks you’re competent. That’s the other piece. He wouldn’t put up with a lot of available hands on the place. But my boyfriend…would be different. And he likes your work ethic.”
He leaned in to kiss her. “We’ll figure out compensation later. Just being able to have a safe place to stay—and help you—is worth it to me. Just don’t decide to come home by yourself, okay? Call me and I’ll come get you.”
“You’ll do it, then?”
“Yes,” he said.
Gabe hadn’t expected presents, but all the same had scrambled to pick a couple of things up from town. He got work gloves and a heavy scarf from the elders, and warm socks from Ruby. His own gifts were much the same—at least the public ones.
But the private gift to Ruby up in what was now apparently their room, not just his, was special. It had eaten up almost all of his remaining cash. A pair of silver earrings that matched her lucky silver locket.
And after making love to Ruby, snuggling in close to her to keep warm on that cold winter’s night, he decided that he wouldn’t trade this for any of his Christmases in Paris as Gabriel Martiniere.
Perhaps this life as Gabe Ramirez wouldn’t be so bad after all. Especially with Ruby in it.
Rancher Ruby Barkley and her ex-husband Gabe Ramirez are competing head-to-head for the AgInnovator game show’s new one-shot award, the Ag Superhero. The winner walks away with $3.75 million per year for five years. But issues face Ruby and Gabe. Fence cutting. Rogue biobots. Physical attacks. And the need to save their son Brandon from indentured servitude. Then the secret shadow of Gabe’s hidden inheritance reveals itself.
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