Rob Brady knew three things. His sister was dead, he was the guardian to her two boys, and he was stuck in Hell.
And why am I fixating on Hell?
Oh yeah, the room, the kids, the crushing grief of absolutely fucking everything.
If Hell was a small, airless room with no windows, a flickering light, and two utterly silent children staring at him as if he’d personally murdered their mother.
Oh, and a thin-lipped woman from Child Protection Services looking at him the same way.
Of course, he hadn't killed his sister because he only ever took out the bad guys. With ruthless efficiency, he’d carved out the poison in the US and kept its citizens safe. Most people would’ve described him as an assassin, but he was more than that; the last resort when normal lines of defense failed.
At least, he used to be until he caught a bullet things went pear-shaped.
“How long have they been on their own?” Rob Brady didn’t know what else to ask. He wanted to be angry with the DCFS but how could he be? Instead, he wavered between anger and guilt, and it was guilt that was winning.
“Mr. Brady, they were never on their own.”
“My sister—” He stopped talking when he realized he was just about to state how long ago his sister died when her children were sitting right there in the room. Lowering his tone, he then turned to Sylvia from the DCFS, efficient and steady, and just ever so slightly pissed at him. “A year. They’ve been on their own a year.”
Sylvia inhaled sharply and clutched her folders to her chest.
“And for a little less than that, we have tried to track down their uncle and been unable to find anything.”
“I know. I get that.” Anyone trying to find him would reach several dead-ends whichever way they went. First of all the navy and his time in the SEALs, then when he joined the team combatting mainland terrorism. At every turn, his existence was classified, and in the end, he'd become nothing more than a ghost. “That isn't my point.”
Sylvia tapped a finger on the files in a steady rhythm. “Then please, can you enlighten me as to what exactly is your point?”
He opened the door and gestured for her to go into the hallway, following her out and shutting it behind them. He had questions and didn’t want to ask them in front of his nephews.
“Why has no one adopted them? Why don’t they have a forever home with a new family?”
“Because your sister’s intention was that you would take the boys. It’s explicitly stated in every legal form we have, and it was her dying wish.”
“But she couldn’t have known I would ever come back. Or that I was even alive…” He floundered for something to say. He’d come back to town on the off chance he’d see what was left of his extended family from a distance, and instead, he’d learned his sister was dead, after losing a battle with cancer, that there was no father in the picture, and that his nephews were in the system.
“Nonetheless, they are legally your responsibility. Given you worked so hard to get authorization from Governor Chilton, something I’ve never seen before, along with psych evals that no normal person would have access to, you are now in a position to leave with your nephews.”
The minute he’d heard about the boys, he'd realized he needed to get things done. He’d called in favors, had people who owed him create a backstory so tight he seemed like Mother fucking Teresa, and now he was here. His nephews needed a home, and he thought on his feet because he only had another three good months to put anything in place for them. He wanted them looked after, safe, and so he had one more mission before leaving. He’d have to delay spending his last weeks on a beach in Aruba, sipping cocktails and sleeping with anything that moved.
“I can take them today?” he asked. A small, hesitant part of him wanted her to say no, that there were more details to be ironed out.
“Yes.” She pursed her lips as if it were against her better judgment. But he'd passed all the checks, and the references were sound, he had the governor's endorsement. It was done.
He pushed back into the room. Bran, the older of his two nephews, stared at him steadily. Toby, the youngest, sniffled and gripped his brother hard. Any ordinary uncle would’ve hugged them close and told them everything was going to be okay. But he wasn't a regular uncle, and he swore Bran knew that because there was accusation in his eyes.
You don’t even know us; he seemed to be saying.
Was it right for Rob to be taking them from their new foster home? They’d been placed with a family currently fostering six kids, and on the surface, everything seemed okay. He’d done his due diligence, and the parents checked out, but there was a weird vibe in the house, a rule of fear, and he didn’t like it.
He’d stayed alive this long by listening to his instinct, and his gut told him he should take Bran and Toby, that he was the boys’ kin. He also knew where he could find them a better home. In the mountains, with rivers and horses, and a whole group of people who would look out for them.
“Everything will be okay.” Was he reassuring himself or the boys?
If anyone who knew him had seen he was being handed two children to take care of, they'd call the cops.
Of course, he could handle the cops. He’d done it before, but the kids would slow him down. Unless he strapped them to his back and—
Sylvia talked to him, or at him, and from her expression, she wasn't impressed he'd stopped listening.
“Sorry, say again?” He glanced at Toby who was sniffling harder and snuggling deeper into his brother. I should go to Toby and…
Do what? Say what? Scare the kid rigid by being all up in his face?
“We need an address for our records. Unless you reside with Governor Chilton?” The last she added sarcastically.
Oh yeah, a house, an address, he probably needed those. He’d managed to fool them with his credentials so far, and the recommendation he'd gotten from the governor for a favor owed had cut through the red tape. The address was easy; it was the only place he had on his to-do list, the one where the kids could maybe have a home. He just needed to hire a lawyer, update his will, get Justin to agree to his proposal, and he'd be able to leave without any worries.
“Crooked Tree Ranch, outside of Helena, Montana.”
She dutifully filled it in.
“And a phone number?”
He gave her his private cell number.
“Okay then,” he said enthusiastically, causing Toby to jump a mile.
Bran immediately gripped his brother’s hand and sent Rob as much of a condemning look as an eight-year-old could muster.
“Sorry,” he apologized, meeting the stern gaze of a not-at-all-amused Sylvia. He gave her his best smile, the one that got him into the beds of men and women all over the continental US. She didn't smile back or thaw in any way. Maybe he was losing his skills.
Probably a side effect of lead leaking from the fragments of the bullet lodged in his thoracic vertebrae.
“Come on kids." He stood, and the boys, holding hands, left the room first. He followed, but as he was about to walk past the caseworker, she stopped him, and he found himself under the scrutiny of her dark gray eyes.
“Tell me what you’re doing now,” she demanded and then softened it with a, “please.”
He could’ve lied his way out of there, he could’ve tried to charm her, but she cared for the kids she had on her books and needed him to be entirely honest, and that was something he’d forgotten how to be. So he spoke from the same heart that wouldn't turn away his flesh and blood, despite the world of limited possibilities he was trying to live in.
“Bran and Toby are my family; I will protect them for as long as I live."
Okay, so that was a bit melodramatic, but sue him. It felt as if the occasion called for it, and he wasn’t lying. No one was getting past him to the kids. Not bullies or the authorities or even political assassins. Not while he could still stand, anyway.
She squeezed his arm, and he waited for more questions, but she released him. “You will be contacted by a local office near you. Welfare checks, not even you can avoid."
“I’ll welcome them,” he murmured.
She dropped her hold. “Okay,” she said and then watched them as Rob gathered up his new family and left.
He’d bought everything Sylvia had said he needed to get. She’d given him the list a week ago when he’d first found out what had happened. Everything was crammed into his brand-new SUV. He'd handed over a credit card at a store and told them to go mad. There was the correct size booster seat for Toby, along with numerous bags of things that the lady told him boys of eight and five would need. Everything except clothes because she didn’t know their sizes, and Rob couldn’t give her those. The bill was massive, but he felt more in control knowing he’d ticked all that off the list.
Of course, Bran and Toby had their belongings. Not too much, but a couple of boxes and a small suitcase each. Toby carried a ratty old bunny around with him on a permanent basis, and Bran kept telling him he needed to take good care of it. Bran didn’t appear to have anything he needed to keep hold of. Except for his little brother of course.
Rob helped strap them in, tested everything twice, then surrounded them with the softer things like blankets and boxes because there was absolutely no room for it all in the trunk. Then he shut their doors, climbed into the driver’s seat, and locked them all in.
His stomach rumbled. He hadn’t eaten since last night, and even though he was sure the kids had eaten breakfast somewhere, he decided it was his duty to keep them fed.
“So, Bran, Toby, are you hungry?”
Toby hid his face in his bunny, and Bran answered for both of them.
“We’re both hungry, Uncle Rob.”
“McDonald's?” he suggested, which got Toby to peer from around the rabbit. “I know it's not the healthiest food, and I should find you vegetables or something, but that can wait, right? A road trip deserves McDonald's. Am I right?” He was rambling, and Bran stared at him with what he was sure was disapproval and disappointment.
He turned back to face the front, holding the steering wheel so tight his knuckles whitened.
He’d stared down death.
Hell, he’d been death.
Keeping his country safe had meant he’d been in situations that others would run screaming from, but he couldn’t face the disillusionment in one little boy’s eyes.
He was so fucked.
* * *
They reached the edge of Crooked Tree land in the dark, after a solid day of driving, and Rob deliberately stopped at a gas station on the edge of town, so that they could all take a comfort break.
It was a little after eight in the evening, no more than five miles from the ranch, and he was so close he could taste the fear in him that Justin would send the three of them away.
He needed to make a small amount of time for himself to formulate a proper plan, as opposed to the one he was using right now. This mostly consisted of running to Justin and hoping for the best.
“Cute kids,” a woman with dark curly hair said to him in the queue, all kinds of friendly and smiling. He was probably supposed to say something back to her; objectively he knew that. So he channeled one of his undercover personas and became a man acceptable to socialize with.
That was the wrong move because it opened the floodgates for this very proud momma. “I remember when my Jillian was that age, and now we’re driving through the night all over the country visiting colleges. Time flies so fast.”
“Enjoy them this age while you can,” she added, then smiled at him again and finished paying. He felt himself smile in return and thought that if he’d been in front of a mirror, his lips would’ve curved into something more innocent than blank-faced suspicion. He even congratulated himself for acting normal enough that he hadn't scared the shit out of her as he grabbed random snacks, probably unhealthy ones, with high levels of fats and god-knew-what kinds of colorants. Along with cereal bars and cartons of orange juice because that was healthy for kids, right?
They’d eaten at drive-throughs the last day, journeyed through the night, with short breaks like this one, and he’d driven straight to Montana. He’d been so damn tired when he reached Helena but energized when he realized he was so close to a bed and maybe a real meal.
And somewhere the boys might one day call home.
His back ached like a bitch. Over-the-counter meds had taken the edge off, but he held back on the Fentanyl as he was driving. That was for when he was in his room and only had himself to consider.
Listening to the curly-haired woman had seemed so normal. The kids deserved better than an Uncle who didn’t have a freaking clue what he was doing. They deserved someone like her or Justin and his Sam or maybe one of the other families at Crooked Tree. Family and safety. Crooked Tree had all of that. He’d seen it. Brothers, sisters, family, friends; it was like some goddamned Little House on the Prairie. Only in the mountains. By the Blackfoot River.
And not on a prairie at all.
Justin would give him and the kids somewhere to sleep. He was sure of it. There was no way he would turn them away, right?
With the kids strapped back in the car and Toby looking as if he was dozing off, Rob pulled his cell phone out, intent on calling Justin, giving him a heads-up. It seemed only right that he offered at least that level of politeness. The curly-haired woman gave him a wave and climbed into the backseat of an old car, buckling up and leaning forward to talk to her husband or daughter, or whoever it was driving.
The car pulled forward, indicating to turn right, the opposite way to where he and the kids would be going. In that car was a normal family, doing normal things.
He was almost envious.
Then, right in front of his SUV, a semi hurtled out of nowhere and rammed into their car waiting to turn onto the main road. The world exploded into a chaos of fire and trapped civilians. Cursing, he reversed the SUV away from the carnage, parking it well back. Then instinct and adrenaline kicked in.
He didn’t hesitate to run toward the twisted burning wreckage.