DANGEROUS SECRETS

BY GAGE39 (gagefrancis@yahoo.com)

All characters belong to CBS Entertainment and I claim all the usual legal disclaimers.  This story was written solely for my enjoyment and I refuse to claim any responsibility.  This story cannot be printed, published, or anything else like that without express permission by the author (s).

                                                            DANGEROUS SECRETS

This book is dedicated to: Chuck Norris (Cordell Walker), Sheree J. Wilson (Alex Cahill-Walker), Clarence Gilyard (James Trivette), Judson Mills (Francis Gage), Nia Peeples (Sydney Cooke), Tammy Townsend (Erika Carter), Danilee Norris (Angela Walker), Janine Turner (Kay Austin), and Andre Kristoff (Rhett Harper).

                                                        PROLOGUE

Houston, Texas

            Stella Meyers clutched the back of the seat in front of her as best as she could since her hands were handcuffed.  Prison guards did not know how to drive she decided after the bus had hit another pothole.  She was the only prisoner being transferred from a state penitentiary in Houston to one in El Paso although that would change soon.  She looked out the window and watched the roads fly by. 

            Suddenly a brown station wagon pulled out in front of the bus and the driver swerved to avoid hitting it.  Stella winced as the bus hit a tree head on.  She rose from her seat and moved toward the front of the vehicle.  A man entered the bus and went straight to Stella.

            “Are you all right, Stella?” his voice was foreign but so was hers.

            “I’m fine, Johann, I just want out of these handcuffs.”  Johann Dupree laughed as he used one the keys hanging on the guard’s belt to release her.

            “What do you want me to do with her?” he gestured toward the unconscious guard.  Stella thought hard for a second.

            “Did you bring those grenades I asked for?” after he nodded affirmatively and she had confiscated the guard’s gun she suggested “let’s blow up the bus.”

            Johann simply looked at her then nodded.  The two exited the bus and Stella proceeded to take one the grenades out of the box.  She and Johann ran off several feet and then she threw the bomb and they watched the bus explode into a volley of flames.  It was a spectacular sight in her opinion.

            “What are you going to do now?” Johann broke the silence.

            “Kill those two Rangers that locked me up,” she said simply.

            “I wish I could help.”

            “You are helping, Johann, you got me out of prison.  I will probably need your help in the future though.  I hope you brought me some more clothes.”

            “I did,” he smiled at her as he said that and she felt a red tinge traveling up her cheeks.

            “Thank you.  After I change it’s off to Dallas to take care of Ranger Gage and Ranger Harper.”

                                              CHAPTER 1

One Week Later                           

Dallas, Texas

            Six masked men emerged from the jewelry store each one of them carrying a black cloth bag filled with stolen jewelry.  One of the men stopped and fired into the store, shattering the front windows then he followed his fellow thieves and they ran down the sidewalk.  They saw a Ranger Reality truck driving slowly down the street and they shot at it.  They watched in glee as the truck slammed on its brakes and the silver truck behind it rammed into it.

            “Let me get this straight.  You want two jumbo double-Texas-burgers with extra onions, a large fry, two regular hamburgers and two regular fries,” the restaurant employee inquired dubiously.

            “Right,” Captain Texas Ranger Cordell Walker could easily understand why the man was unsure.  Even he hadn’t thought Ranger Francis Gage could eat so much but they were talking about Gage.  It was Walker’s fault though; he had asked his partner Ranger James Trivette and Gage if they were hungry since it was twelve o’clock.

            “Your total is twenty-two seventy.  Drive around to the window.”

            Walker put the light silver truck into gear and slowly pulled away.

            “Twenty-two dollars and seventy cents?” Trivette exclaimed, shock written all over his black face.

            Gage pulled out his wallet and started counting money.  Then he handed some of the bills to Walker.  “This should be enough to cover everything.”

            “Gage, you don’t have to pay.”

            “Let him, Walker.  It’ll save us some money.”

            Walker didn’t argue.  He was raising his daughter Angela practically by himself since his wife, Assistant District Attorney Alexandra “Alex” Cahill-Walker, had been shot in the chest during a courthouse shooting and had been in a coma for nearly four years.  Walker wasn’t poor but he wasn’t wealthy either and the hospital bills had been taking their toll on his bank account despite the fact that an anonymous donor had donated money to be used for the medical expenses.

            They got their food and by the time they had pulled back onto the road Gage had devoured his two Texas-burgers and fries while Trivette had barely started on his.

            “How on earth can you eat so fast?” Trivette demanded.

            “Easily, Trivette.  I’ve had lots of practice.”  Gage drank from the plastic cup which was sweating.

            “How on earth did your foster parents stand you eating that fast?” Trivette asked next.

            “They never paid any attention to what I did and if they did it was to get onto me.” Gage’s parents had been killed in a car accident when he was little and so he and his sister Julie Gage had ended up in foster care.

            Trivette looked like he was about to comment but Walker caught his eye and shook his head.  It only upset Gage when they asked about his past and Walker didn’t want him so mad that he refused to watch Angela when Walker visited Alex in the hospital since eight-year-olds weren’t allowed in the rooms.

            Suddenly gunshots rang out and the eighteen-wheeler in front of them slammed on its brakes.  Walker put his booted foot on the brake but it was too late and the truck hit the back of the Ranger Reality truck.

            Gage was silent for a second then he spoke.  “Walker, you hit the Ranger Reality truck!”

            “I know, Gage.  I don’t need you to point that out to me.”  Walker struggled to get his seatbelt off.

            “Do you know how expensive that’s going to be to fix?” Gage yelped.

            “Thank you for being so concerned about my truck but…”

            “I wasn’t worried about your truck I was worried about the eighteen-wheeler!  The owner will probably sue you and everything.”

            Walker hadn’t even thought of that.  He could just see the headlines now.  RANGER CAPT. GETS SUED BY OWNER OF TRUCKING COMPANY.

            “But don’t worry, Walker, I won’t sue you.”

            The reality of Gage’s words sank into Walker’s brain like a sponge soaking up water.

            “You own the Ranger Reality Trucking Company?” Walker asked in surprise.

            “Yeah.  Well, I own the majority.  A few people I know own some stock in it but that’s about it.”  Gage unbuckled his seatbelt as well and poked Trivette in the back.  “Move, Trivette, we need to see what the trouble is.”

            Grumbling, Trivette obeyed and got out of the truck with Gage right behind him, weapon in hand.  Walker had got out too and the driver of the big truck had come around to them.

            “What happened?” the driver, a big burly man with brown hair, demanded.

            “I don’t know.  We heard gunshots and…”

            Suddenly more gunshots rang out and the men ducked behind the truck.  Walker peered around the side to see who was shooting and saw six men firing at them.  He fired a shot and then threw himself back against the truck.  He, Gage, and Trivette then proceeded to exchange fire with the three men until they used up all of their bullets.  Then the Rangers dashed out from behind the vehicle and chased after the criminals.  In a spectacular flying tackle Walker took down two of the men and then rose to his feet.  One of the men got to his feet as well but the other stayed down on the ground, probably unconscious.

            Gage meanwhile had used a football tackle on another of the guys who immediately got to his feet.  The man swung at Gage who easily ducked the blow and retaliated with one of his one to the man’s jaw, rendering him unconscious.  Another man had stopped running and faced Trivette who used a roundhouse kick on him, knocking him down.  The man got to his feet somewhat unsteadily and one of his buddies came to help him.  Together the two men used several of their kicks and punches to take down the slender black Ranger. 

            Walker got in the defensive position and faced his adversary who was also in the position.  The thief moved first, sending a punch toward Walker’s stomach.  Walker moved back a step then delivered a well-aimed kick at the man’s face and he fell down to join his comrade on the ground.  Gage looked around and spotted Trivette on the ground, one man was standing over him and the other one was on his back about to strangle the Ranger.  Gage ran to help his friend yelling, “Get off of him!”  The two thugs turned to face the blond man while Trivette took the opportunity to jab one of them in the stomach with his elbow.  The man grunted in pain and Gage hooked his leg around the other one’s knee, pulling him to the ground.  He hit his head on the ground and lay still.  Trivette fought with the man on his back and managed to roll on top of him.  Trivette then handcuffed the man and hauled him to his feet.

            Gage handcuffed his prisoners while Walker took the sixth man into custody who had decided it would be better not to fight after seeing what had happened to his friends.  The Rangers lined them up against the wall when Walker glanced over at Gage and saw him staring further down the street.

            Walker followed his gaze and saw a woman looking at them.  She had on blue jeans and long black hair fell on top of her yellow shirt.  She had one hand in her purse and pulled out a small round object while Walker and Gage watched her.  Carefully she removed something from the object and then threw it at them and yelled, “Heads up, Ranger Gage!”

            “Grenade!” Gage screamed then took off running in the opposite direction.  Walker looked at the object which did indeed resemble the deadly bomb and decided to follow him.  Trivette and the driver followed suit while the handcuffed prisoners did their best to run as well.  Together all of the men crouched behind a metal bench and watched as Walker’s truck exploded in a glorious display of fire and metal.

            Gage was the first to break the silence.  “At least it makes up for you wrecking my Hemi.”

            Walker turned his gaze on him.  “Do you know anything about this, Gage?”

            “About what?” Gage said innocently.

            “That woman who yelled at you,” Trivette picked his white Stetson off the ground where it had fallen in the mad rush to get to safety.

            “What woman?”

            “The woman in black,” the driver was getting perturbed.

            “There was no woman in black yelling at us.”

            “Yes, there was,” the driver’s red face was turning really red now.

            “No there wasn’t,” Gage insisted, “and that’s all I’m going to say.”

            Not much later the place was swarming with cops, firefighters who were trying to put out the blaze, and the other Texas Rangers.

            Ranger Sydney Cooke was asking Walker what he had seen.

            “You say you had just arrested six jewelry thieves when you saw a woman and she yelled ‘Heads up, Ranger Gage’ after throwing the grenade?”

            “Yes, I’m positive, Sydney.”  Sydney was Gage’s partner and had been transferred to Dallas with him at the same time.

            “Hmm, I’ll say what Gage has to say.”

            “He is denying that there was even a woman.”

            Sydney looked at him with interest on her slight Hispanic-looking features. “He said that?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then I definitely need to talk to him.”  With that she turned away and headed over to Gage who was leaning against a lamppost with his arms crossed over his brown shirt.

            Ranger Kay Austin and her partner Rhett Harper went after Sydney and Trivette came over to Walker.

            “What are they talking about?” Trivette jerked his thumb in the direction of the four Rangers in a circle.

            “I don’t know but when I told Sydney that Gage was denying there even was a woman she got excited and said she had to talk to him.”

            “I wish her luck.  Gage is one close-mouthed fellow.”

            “Not to Sydney.”

            Walker and Trivette edged closer and they could make out some of the conversation.

            “Was it Stella?” Kay asked.

            “Yep,” Gage replied.  “At least she gave us a warning.”

            “How could she have gotten out of prison?  She was sentenced to life.”  Rhett looked a little worried.

            “I don’t know, Rhett.  If I had known she was out I would have skipped town long ago.” Gage scratched the back of his neck.

            “Well, you’re going to have to tell them, Gage.  You should have told them when Alex got shot.”  Sydney looked indignant.

            “By then it was a little late, Syd.  But we promise we will soon.”

            “You’ve been saying that for years, Gage, and you haven’t told yet.”  Kay glared at him.

            “We’ll tell them by Saturday, we promise,” Rhett looked at Gage in shock.

            “You better or else I’m going to tell them all about your past, Gage, and I mean it,” Sydney sent him a scowl as well.

            “Hey you promised you wouldn’t but we will don’t worry.”

            “Whenever you say that, Gage, it means to worry.”

            “However you want to interpret it, Syd,” Gage winked and gave her a grin.  Sydney rolled her eyes and turned around.

            “What was that all about, Walker?” Trivette wanted to know.

            Walker frowned.  “I don’t know but I have a feeling we’ll find out by Saturday.”  

            The rest of the day passed without incident and Walker was grateful for it gave him time to look for a new truck since his was irreparable.  He searched through some car magazines which Gage loaned him but everything was out of his price range.  Finally he decided to get a GMC Truck just like the one he used to have before he bought the light silver truck.  He was wandering how much his insurance would go up when Gage entered the office carrying some papers in his hand.

            “Walker, here you need to sign these papers.”  Gage thrust the papers in Walker’s face and hesitantly he took them.  One had to be careful about accepting stuff from Gage.

            “What are these?”

            “Papers stating that the accident was unavoidable.  I’ve already signed them and now you and Trivette need to sign them.”

            Walker read through the papers.  They stated that the accident was unavoidable and had been the fault of the driver of the Ranger Reality Truck and that the Ranger Reality Trucking Company would pay for any and all damages done to Walker’s truck and for a new vehicle.

            “Gage, it isn’t necessary for you to do this.  I can afford a truck.”

            Gage snorted.  “Go ahead and say that all you want but sign the papers and don’t argue.”

            “Since when did you become so bossy?” Walker joked as he put his name on the line below Gage’s name.

            Gage grinned.  “Since I became a Lieutenant Ranger and now I need to get Trivette to sign.”

            Gage left the room and went into the outer office and Walker sighed.  He grabbed his day planner and looked through it to see what he had planned for that day.  Nothing was planned.  He smiled in relief and called through the door.  “Gage?”

            Gage reappeared with the papers still in his hand.  “Yes?”

            “Do you have anything planned for tonight?”          

            “Well I was planning to watch a baseball game and eat a bowl of popcorn but that was it.  Why?”

            “I want to visit Alex at the hospital tonight and I was wandering if you minded watching Angela.”

            “Not at all.  I can watch the game later and I like watching her except for the time she came down with chicken pox and I caught it for the third time.”

            “Thanks.  I’ll probably drop her off around six if that’s all right.”

            “Fine with me.  You’re welcome to leave her all night if you want.”

            “I’ll take you up on that.  Now get back to work.”  Walker leaned back in his chair.

            “Yes, sir.”  Gage saluted and left.

            Stella leaned against the tree feeling the rough bark biting into her back through the black turtleneck.  The lights in Gage’s house had finally gone off.  He had had little Angela Walker stay with him.  Probably trying to make up for his guilt over Alex Cahill-Walker getting shot.  It was good that he felt guilt since it was his fault. 

            She lit a cigarette, inhaled, and held it between her index and middle fingers, little puffs of smoke spiraling up into the sky.  She stood there for a few more seconds then snuffed out the cigarette.  She had work to do.

            She climbed up the ladder she had leaned up against the house until she reached a window she knew to be Gage’s.  Three years of having the house watched had paid off.  Tugging at the window she wasn’t surprised to find it locked.  Her henchmen had told her he kept it locked.  She used a crowbar until finally it opened and she climbed through.

            Inside the room she pulled a flashlight out of her belt and flicked it on, careful to keep it pointed away from the bed.  The room was large with a dresser against one wall close to the door and the closet was several feet away.  An overflowing clothes basket set next to a door she presumed led to the bathroom.  The nightstand was next to the bed and on the bed was one of her greatest enemies.

            Shining the flashlight at the window she stopped when the beam hit something and reflected back in her eyes. A mirror?  Since when did Gage keep a mirror on his nightstand?  Moving closer she could see that it wasn’t a mirror at all but a picture of a little girl who had dark brown hair.  Stella realized that it was Melissa; a very close relative of Gage’s who had died several years earlier of leukemia. 

            She withdrew a narrow tube of black lipstick from her pocket and stepped closer to the dresser and was just about to open the tube when the phone rang and Gage moaned.  Stella dropped the lipstick on the floor and glanced nervously at the bed.  Gage was definitely stirring, there was no doubt about that considering the phone kept ringing.

            Quickly she moved to the window and exited, making sure she closed it back and waited until she got down on the ground before giving in to her urge to curse Gage and all Texas Rangers.

            Gage woke up the next morning feeling somewhat groggy as he usually did when he woke up. He got out of bed and stopped when he saw something on the floor next to the dresser that hadn’t been there the night before.  He picked it up and realized it was a tube of black lipstick.  He closed his eyes and recalled the times before he had seen lipstick this color before.  It had always been a message of some sort left in his house or apartment.  There had been: DIE RANGER, TRAGEDY HAPPENING SOON, and ITS YOUR FAULT.

            He placed the tube in a Ziploc bag and sealed it.  Sydney would have to hear about this and she would not be happy.

            “You say it was on the floor this morning?” despite the fact that they were jogging Sydney wasn’t breathing hard nor was there any sweat on her black stretch Capri’s and red t-shirt.

            “Yes,” Gage was in good shape but jogging could make him tired.  Sweat was already staining his gray tank top.

            “How did it get there?”

            “I don’t know,” he replied irritably.  “I didn’t ask it but she probably dropped it trying to leave me a message.”

            “Why would she have dropped it? It doesn’t make any sense,” Sydney shook her head and her black ponytail bounced.

            “A telemarketer called me around one a.m. and she could have been there at that time and the phone startled her.”

            “Telemarketers call you at that time of morning?  I would ask to be taken off their list.”

            “I‘ve asked them at least twelve times but they don’t pay any attention.”

            “You do realize that Walker’s going to have to be told don’t you?”

            “Yeah, I do.  I’m just lucky that Angela didn’t ask why I was calling to ask if you wanted to go jogging.  I managed to get her off to school safely which is good.”

            “So when are you going to tell him?” Sydney refused to take the bait and go off on another subject.

            Gage thought hard then spoke.  “I’ll tell him tomorrow morning at work.”

            “Tomorrow morning?” Sydney looked surprised at that.

            “Yes, tomorrow.  We’re getting fitted for the tuxedoes today,” Gage slowed his stride just a little.

            “Really?  We’re getting fitted for the bridesmaids’ dresses,” Sydney made a face as she accepted the offer to talk about something else.

            “What’s wrong with that?  You look gorgeous in a bridesmaid dress.  Although you should have seen your face at Walker and Alex’s wedding when you caught the bouquet.  You were so mad.”  Gage laughed at the memory.

            “Why shouldn’t I have been upset?  I had absolutely no prospects for marriage and I still have no prospects for marriage.”

            “What do you call me?”

            “A bachelor and my partner,” Sydney answered promptly.

            “I’m not a prospect for marriage?” by now they had stopped running and were standing on the sidewalk, facing each other.

            “Gage, let me recap our relationship for you.  We have known each other for eleven years and we have argued the entire time, kissed two times and one time was only because I was excited about Walker and Alex’s plane landing safely, and the other was because we were undercover.  We went on one date which was just you taking me to your high school reunion where you flirted with your old girlfriend and I had to dance with her fiancée and you ended up in the hospital halfway before the night was over!”

            “That was an accident,” Gage protested.

            “I will admit your ending up in the hospital was an accident but we would have to go on more dates and kiss more before I would even think about considering you as a marriage prospect.”

            “So I gotta kiss you and date you more before you’ll consider marrying me?”

            “Yes,” Sydney thought that ended the conversation but instead Gage leaned down and kissed her on the mouth.  Sydney was shocked at first but she quickly responded and leaned in the kiss.  It lasted for a few seconds before Gage pulled back, an unreadable expression on his face.

            “Aw, man, I shouldn’t have done that.”

            “Gage,” Sydney put a hand on his arm.

            “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have kissed you, Syd.”

            “Listen to me, Francis Gage.  Don’t you dare apologize for kissing me or else I’ll slap you.  Do you hear me?” before Gage could respond Sydney continued. “And if you ever, I mean ever, apologize for kissing me I really will slap you and I mean it.  Besides I-I enjoyed it.”

            “You did?” Gage stepped closer to her.

            “Yes, I did.”

            “Then would you mind if I kissed you again?” he asked, his blue eyes full of emotion.

            “Not at all,” Sydney tilted her face toward him and once again they kissed.  This one was a little longer and probably would have lasted a long time had it not been for the bullets whizzing around their heads as she caught a glimpse of Stella Meyers out of the corner of her eye.

            Sydney threw herself down to the ground and Gage dropped next to her.

            “I can’t believe she interrupted our kiss,” he grumbled.

            “Stella Meyers is shooting at us and you’re worried about a kiss?”  

            “Yeah, by the way you’re going to owe me another one.”

            “Sure.  Whatever.” Sydney pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed the number for Ranger Headquarters.

            Soon the other four Rangers were there, questioning Gage and Sydney.

            “We had stopped and all of a sudden someone started shooting at us,” Gage brushed a leaf out of his blond hair and it fluttered to the ground.

            “Why did you stop?” Trivette asked.

            “Uh…” Gage started to speak but Sydney interrupted him.

            “We were just talking,” she said, her voice firm.  Gage nodded.

            “Did you get a look at the shooter?” Walker wanted to know.

            Gage and Sydney looked at each other then back at Walker and shook their heads.

            “Nope.  Are we through yet?  I need to take a shower.”  Gage did need a shower.  Even Trivette could tell that.

            “Why were you jogging in the first place?  You and Sydney both should have been at work.”

            “You’re not my boss, Trivette, and Walker told me when I watched Angela I could take all the time I wanted in the morning.”

            “Fine, but what about Sydney?”

            “Counseling session,” Sydney smiled at Trivette.

            “You’re my counselor?  I thought she had blond hair and her name was Pam.  I guess I was wrong.”  Gage frowned as if thinking.

            “Pam is your counselor, I just had to come up with an excuse as to why I was jogging with you instead of working and that was the only one I could come up with.”

            Counselor?  Gage was seeing a counselor?  Trivette was about to ask another question when Walker told Gage and Sydney that they could go home, shower, change, and then come to work but they had to be there by lunchtime.

            In a few minutes Walker and Trivette were the only ones standing there and Trivette voiced some of his questions.

            “Gage sees a counselor?” he said in surprise.

            “Well, we knew that Gage has had some bad experiences in his life and that’s probably why he sees a counselor.”

            “Do you think they were telling the truth about not seeing the shooter?” Trivette abruptly changed the subject.

            Walker didn’t hesitate.  “No.  They were lying but for what reason?”

            “Think it could have anything to do with your truck getting blown up yesterday?”

            “Possibly but I don’t see why Gage would lie about the woman.  She called him by name and I don’t think it was to just to let him know a grenade was coming his way.  I think she wanted him to know she was there for some reason.  Let’s get back to the office.  We should see if we can get a picture of the woman and find out her name.”

            Kimberly Miller pulled the pink backpack from her locker and sat it on the floor as she dumped books into it.  Her best friend, Kara Roche, opened her locker which was next to Kimberly’s.

            “How do you think you did on the quiz, Kim?” Kara asked.

            Kimberly shrugged.  “I don’t know, Kara.  It was really tough but Mrs. Duggan helped me study for it.”  Kimberly referred to her foster mother.

            “When are the adoption papers getting signed?” Kara frowned at a brown paper sack that was wet at the bottom.

            “Not for a while.  They have to find my aunts who are my legal guardians but they can’t because they don’t know their names.”

            “You have aunts?” Kara exclaimed in surprise.

            “Yes, two of them, Aunt Sydney and Aunt Kay.  I remember Daddy telling me their first names once.  He said Aunt Sydney had a weird name that had something to do with a kitchen.”

            “A kitchen?”

            “Uh-huh.  Come on, let’s go to the garage and watch Mr. Jackson work on cars.”  Kimberly swung the backpack on her shoulders and closed the locker.

            “All right.”  The two teenage girls walked down the hallway of the public school toward the door.

GIOVANNI’S TUXEDO SHOP

            Walker, Trivette, Gage, and Rhett climbed out of Trivette’s black Mustang convertible and walked across the concrete parking lot towards the tuxedo shop.

            “What is the big deal about tuxedoes?  I’ve never been able to figure out why everybody goes berserk over them.” Gage remarked.

            “Gage, when a man gets married his fiancée wants to see him wearing a tuxedo.  They would have a fit if he showed up at the altar in jeans.”  Trivette looked at Gage’s jeans meaningfully but Gage didn’t seem to get the hint.

            “Really?  I wore jeans and tennis shoes to my wedding and my wife didn’t say a word.  Of course that could have been because we were getting married at the courthouse but still.”

            “Your wedding?” Walker and Trivette said simultaneously.  “You were married before?” Trivette sounded shocked.

            “Once.  A very long time and it lasted less than a year.”

            “Why did it last less than a year?” Trivette quizzed.

            Gage looked straight ahead at the building.  “She died.  And if you’re going to express condolences you better express them to Rhett as well since she was his sister.”

            “You and Rhett are brother-in-laws?” Trivette seemed to have trouble comprehending what Gage was saying.

            “Unfortunately,” Rhett’s voice was gloomy.

            “Don’t sound like a martyr, Rhett.  It’s not that bad being related to me.  How else do you think you got cleared of those murder charges?”

            “What?” Rhett stopped and turned on Gage. 

            “Uh…nothing.”

            “You meant something.  Now tell me how being related to you got me cleared of murder.”

            “Well actually money got you cleared,” Gage investigated the top of his blue-and-white tennis shoes as he spoke.

            “Did you pay money to get me cleared?” Rhett accused.

            “No but someone you and I both know who’s got more money than me and is very protective of the family name paid money.”

            Rhett thought for a few seconds then exploded.  “Your grandfather paid that Cleat guy to tell Walker that Garrett Evans hired him to frame me for murder!”  Right before Alex had been shot, Garrett Evans who was also Alex’s assistant, had hired somebody named Cleat to frame Rhett for the murder of two people after Garrett’s sister, Charlotte Evans, had killed herself because she was in love with Rhett and he didn’t return her feelings.  Garrett had been killed while trying to escape from the courtroom.

            “Yeah,” Gage looked up at the sky, obviously finding it better than looking at Rhett.

            “But we’re not even related anymore,” Rhett protested.

            “Doesn’t matter.  ‘Once a relation, always a relation.’  At least that’s what Grandfather says.”

            “Who’s your grandfather?” Trivette asked.

            The expression on Gage’s face said he’d rather accept a ride from two woman murderers again than answer the question but he swallowed and said, “Harrison Williams.”

            “Harrison Williams?  As in the owner of Williams Soap and Clothing Manufacturing?” Even Walker was surprised at that.  Harrison Williams was a billionaire.  An eccentric billionaire who lived by himself in a huge mansion with his simple-minded daughter and eighty-something butler.

            Gage nodded glumly.  “Are we going to get fitted for the tuxedoes or not?  If we’re not then I’m going back to the office.”

            “We’re going,” Walker told him but deep inside Walker realized the conversation was far from over.  If anything it was only beginning.

            “Do you, Francis Gage, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, for poorer or richer, till death do you part?” the minister asked.

            Gage swallowed and answered, “I do.”

            “Do you, Tina Harper, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband to love and to cherish, in sickness and in health, for poorer or richer, till death do you part?”

            “I do,” Tina seemed assured unlike Gage who was scared to death.

            “You may exchange the rings,” the minister waited while they put the rings on and then continued speaking.  “I pronounce you man and wife.  You may kiss the bride.”

            Gage leaned down and kissed Tina who responded eagerly.  When they pulled away from each other Rhett slapped Gage on the back.

            “Congratulations, Gage!”

            “Thank you, Rhett,” Gage told his new brother-in-law.

            “Take good care of her,” Rhett warned.  “Or else I’ll kill you.”

            “You do and I’ll haunt you.”

            “No talk of killing people, Rhett Harper, or I’ll kill you.  And I would hate for that to happen on my wedding day,” Tina huffed as Gage laughed.

            Walker woke up to the sound of Angela screaming.  Instantly he was out of bed and in the hall where Angela stood.  Water was streaming through a crack in the wall down to the floor gathering in a puddle.

            “What happened, honey?” Walker asked.

            “I was coming to sleep with you when I saw the walls raining so I screamed.”

            “Looks like a pipe burst,” Walker said grimly.  “Come on.  I need to turn the water off and call a plumber.”

            Unfortunately no plumbers could be reached at twelve-thirty at night so Walker decided that, since Gage lived a few houses down, they would ask him if they could stay overnight.  So Angela and Walker threw a few clothes in a bag and headed out the door.  Walker carried Angela in his arms until they reached Gage’s house and he sat her down on the porch and rang the doorbell.

            “Ring again,” Angela advised with the superior wisdom of an eight-year-old.  Walker rang again and again and finally a light flashed on in one of the upstairs windows so he stopped ringing.

            “Who are you and what do you want?” an irate Gage demanded a few minutes later. “Oh, Walker, it’s you.  What’s wrong?”

            “Sorry, Gage, but we had a slight problem.  Did we wake you up?” After Walker said it he realized it was a dumb question.  Attired in a rumpled gray sweatshirt and faded blue jeans there was no doubt Gage had been asleep.

            “Yes, but I was fixing to wake up anyway, so what do you want?”

            “A water pipe burst and I couldn’t reach a plumber so I thought…”

            “You thought you would see if I would let you stay the night,” Gage finished. “You’re more than welcome to stay.  Come in.”  Gage moved out of the way and Walker and Angela stepped in.

            The front room of Gage’s house was actually a somewhat round hallway where you wondered down the hall until you got to a big room that was just a collection place for junk that Gage drug in during the week next to the stairs.   Before you got to that room there was a doorway on the left that went to the kitchen and a doorway on the right that led to the living room.

            Gage led them down the hall and up the flight of stairs.  “You can sleep wherever you want but I’m afraid you’re going to be on your own for breakfast, Walker.  I can make her a sandwich but I can’t cook and you can help yourself to anything in the fridge.”

            “Thanks.  I think we better go to sleep now.”

            “Good idea,” Gage tried unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn but didn’t quite make it. “Good night,” he went into his room and shut the door. 

            Angela chose the room she always slept in which was right across the hall from Gage and Walker crashed in the room next to her.

            The next morning Walker went down the hall and nearly tripped over Gage who was sitting on the top step talking on the phone and tying his tennis shoe.  Walker went around him and found Angela sitting at the kitchen table, still in her white pajamas with pink roses, eating a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich.

            “Morning, Daddy,” Angela’s words were muffled from her food.

            “Good morning, Angela, and it’s not polite to speak with your mouth full.”  Walker opened the fridge and scanned its contents.

            “But Uncle Gage speaks with his mouth full,” Angela protested.

            “I don’t even want to know what I do,” Gage commented as he entered the kitchen and placed the phone back on the base.

            “You eat with your mouth full,” Walker sniffed the carton of milk dubiously and made a face.  “Mind if I throw this out, Gage?”

            “Not at all.  If it’s expired or has an extremely bad smell you can throw it out.”

            “Thanks,” Walker poured the milk down the sink and then threw the empty carton into the white trash can next to the blue marble counter.  He finally settled on a piece of toast which Gage offered to cook but Walker said no thanks and made Gage a piece as well and then they both sat down at the table to eat.

            Gage chewed his food for a few seconds then said, “You’re more than welcome to stay as long as you like, Walker.  At least until your water pipes get fixed.”

            “Thanks, Gage, but I’m sure it won’t be that long before I find a plumber.”

            “Uh-huh.  The offer still stands but whatever you do don’t get the Marx Brothers Plumbing or the Roscoe Plumbing.  Both of those companies aren’t exactly honest.”

            “Okay.  Which one of us is going to watch Angela until she goes to school?  Oh, I guess both of us since I don’t have a truck anymore.”

            “When’s your new truck getting here?”

            “I can go pick it up Thursday.”

            “All right.  Josie at the Help Our People Excel Center can watch Angela until school.  She said we could drop her off on our way to work.”

            Walker and Gage weren’t late for work although Walker was convinced it was because Gage had a guardian angel or someone watching out for him since he didn’t wreck even though he drove like a maniac through the streets and screeched to a halt in front of the Ranger Headquarters Building just short of hitting a lamppost.

            Walker climbed out of the beat-up white car very thankful to be alive and resolving to only ask Gage to drive him somewhere if he needed to get there fast.  He still wondered though why Gage was almost always late for work if he drove like that.

            The two men entered the building and went up the flight of stairs to where the Ranger office was located.  Trivette, Rhett, Kay, and Sydney were already sitting at their desks and busily working.  Not really but as soon as they saw Walker they dived for their desks and started doing something. 

            Gage went over to Rhett and whispered something in his ear.  Rhett looked at Gage and whispered back.  Walker shook his head, went into his office, and sat down at his desk.

  Gage and Rhett appeared in the doorway almost immediately afterward.

            “Can we talk to you, Walker?” Gage asked.

            “Sure.  What do you want to talk to me about?” Walker motioned toward the chairs in front of his desk and they moved forward after Gage shut the door.

            “It’s kind of a long story,” Gage began but was interrupted by the sound of Walker’s office windows shattering.

            Walker jumped up out his chair and Gage and Rhett pulled out their guns.  Trivette, Sydney, and Kay came running in with their weapons pulled out.  A man lay groaning in the pile of shattered glass then he got to his feet.  He was dressed in blue jeans and a green pullover sweater. 

            “Malrosky,” Gage yelped.  “What in the world are you doing here?”

            “Oh, hello, Gage, Rhett.  Nice to see you again.  Why are you pointing those guns at me?” the man inquired as he brushed glass shards off his clothes and out of his moustache.

            “You just burst the window and you’re asking us why we’re pointing our guns at you?” Rhett asked incredulously as he lowered his weapon and put it back in his holster.

            “Yeah, you’re the one that taught us to pull our weapons at the first sign of trouble,” Gage crossed his arms and glared at the man.

            “True, very true.  I suppose I’m reaping what I’ve sown right?”

            “Who are you?” Walker felt confused.  Who was this man and how did he know Gage and Rhett?

            “Malrosky, this is Cordell Walker.  Walker, this is Robert Malrosky head of the Secret Service,” Gage said. “To put it short, Malrosky is in charge of this nation’s security.”

            Trivette frowned.  He had never heard of Robert Malrosky and apparently neither had Walker but before they could ask any questions Gage continued speaking.

            “Why are you here, Rosky?” he deliberately shortened the man’s last name and Malrosky glared at him.

            “Do I have to have a reason to visit two of my best former agents?” he frowned as he picked some glass out of his hand.

            “Yes, you do.” Rhett seemed to have gotten over his initial shock.

            “Actually I came to see you, Gage.”  Malrosky crossed the room to where Gage stood.

            “You know there is a door downstairs.”

            “What’s dramatic about coming through a door?”

            “You always did like dramatic entrances.  At least you didn’t come through the roof like last time.”

            Malrosky winced.  “My doctor advised me not to do that again after I broke three ribs.  Anyway I came to tell you something.”

            “Why do I get the feeling I don’t want to hear this?” Gage shifted his weight.

            “Stella Meyers escaped from prison a few days ago.”

            “Thanks for telling us,” Gage said dryly.  “Especially since she tried to kill me and two other Rangers Thursday.”

            “And I wanted to give you this.”  Malrosky crossed the room and handed Gage a yellow file folder who took it reluctantly.

            “What’s this?” Gage looked at the file like he thought it was going to bite him.

            “Evidence proving Stella hired Darren Gibbs to have that courthouse shooting,” Malrosky said proudly.

            Walker was grateful he wasn’t drinking anything because if he had been he would have choked.  Trivette looked like he was close to it anyway.

            “Really?  You found evidence proving that she was behind it?” Gage sounded thrilled.

            “Yes.  It took a while and it cost a lot (ahem) but we found it.  And if you can catch her the state says they’ll execute her.”

            “If we catch her?  We will catch her or we’ll die trying.”  Rhett frowned at Gage’s determined words.

            “I thought you would say that.  Before I go let me express my condolences for the loss of Melissa.”

            “Considering the fact that she died over ten years ago it’s a little late to be expressing condolences, besides if I remember correctly you sent flowers to the funeral.”

            “I did and that was the first time I ever received a thank-you note from you written in a female handwriting that wasn’t Tina’s.”  Malrosky had a look of amusement on his face.

            “Thank-you note?  I didn’t write a thank-you note.” Gage frowned, trying to remember-er.

            “I wrote the thank-you note,” Sydney said.

            “Why did you write a thank-you note from me?”

            “Because you were too drunk to know which way was up and Rhett was no help and by the time you sobered up you would have had so many thank-you notes to write you wouldn’t have written them.”

            “I wondered why my aunt called me the week after and asked if you had moved in with me.” Gage chuckled.

            “Farewell,” Malrosky stepped out the window onto the ledge and whistled.  Almost immediately a helicopter hovered next to the ledge and the man climbed into it and waved good-bye as he flew away.

            “Every time I see that man he gives me a headache,” Gage commented.

            “I know,” Rhett agreed.

            “All right what was that all about?” Walker asked.  “And don’t even tell me nothing.  He was here for a specific reason and unless I miss my guess it had something to do with my truck getting blown up a few days ago.”

            “It does.  It’s kind of a long story though.” Gage’s tone was hopeful as though saying that would make Walker not want to hear it.

            “Should I leave?” Trivette queried.

            “You’re going to hear this story anyway and I sincerely doubt Gage wants to repeat it twice,” Sydney sat down in one of the cream colored chairs in front of the desk.

            “Twice?  I don’t want to repeat it once but I will,” he added hastily when he saw the look on Sydney’s face.

            “What are you talking about?” Walker was getting fed up.  If Gage didn’t tell him what he was talking about Walker was going to throttle him.

            “It’s my fault that Alex got shot,” Gage announced quietly.

                                                                        CHAPTER 2

JACKSON’S GARAGE

DALLAS, TEXAS

            “Hey, Mr. J,” Kimberly called as soon as she and Kara entered the small concrete building.

            Reynold Jackson, owner and sole mechanic of Jackson’s Garage, merely grunted in response from his position underneath the Ford car he was working on.

            Jackson’s Garage had been operating in downtown Dallas for over thirty years.  The only person who knew how long it had been there was Mr. Jackson and he wasn’t telling since that would mean giving out his age.  There was probably a gang member or two who knew how long it had been in business but since Mr. Jackson stayed out of their way and wasn’t above providing an alibi or two if he felt the gang members deserved one they kept quiet.  The garage was also one of the few places in the neighborhood that wasn’t regularly terrorized by gangs since it was under protection of La Cruz, the absolute worst gang in Dallas and one of the few that hadn’t been taken down by Texas Rangers.  Rumor had it that Mr. Jackson had been good friends with one of the worst members and that was why he hadn’t been harmed.

            “Hand me the socket wrench, Kim,” Mr. Jackson had out his hand until Kimberly placed the tool in his hand and then it disappeared back underneath the vehicle.

            Jordan Wallace, M.D., walked down the litter-strewn sidewalk.  He had gotten called out to see a La Cruz gang member who had been stabbed in the leg during a fight.  The boy had bled all over the place while Jordan had sewn him up and given him a lecture about gangs.  He hadn’t had such a bad case like that since The Kid had quit twenty-six years ago.  He sighed as he turned down another street.  He was getting to old to be handling cases like this.  Thank goodness he could retire in another three months.

            “What do you mean it’s your fault Alex got shot?  She was shot when Darren Gibbs came in trying to kill Rhett,” Walker demanded.

            “Actually it’s both Rhett’s fault and my fault that she got shot,” Gage corrected.

            “What do you mean our fault?” Rhett turned on Gage.

            “Well, it is our fault.”

            “Just tell us what you’re talking about, Gage,” Walker ordered.

            “Before we became Rangers Rhett and I worked for the Secret Service.  Not long after we joined we went undercover to catch someone who was selling U.S. military secrets to foreign countries.  Stella Meyers was the head of the operation.  The criminal operation that is.  Anyway we got the evidence we needed to arrest her and she was sentenced to life in prison but before they locked her up she said she would get even with us even if it took the rest of her life.”

            “If she’s trying to kill you why did she shoot Alex?” Trivette was puzzled. “It doesn’t make sense.”

            “Getting even with us doesn’t mean killing us.  It means killing and hurting those close to us because that will inadvertently hurt us and affect us more deeply than just killing us.”  Gage explained.

            “The people in this room, plus Erika, Alex, Angela, and one or two other people, are those closest to us.”  Rhett continued where Gage had left off.

            “She had no trouble getting Darren to start shooting.  He hated Rhett’s guts and was probably planning to do it anyway.  All the information is in this file.” Gage picked up the thread of the conversation again.

            “Does that mean Erika and everybody else is in danger?” Trivette looked worried at the thought.  “I mean with our wedding coming up in three months we have enough to do without worrying that somebody’s going to try to kill us.”

            “Don’t worry, Trivette.  Mostly what she’s doing right now is trying to scare me.”  Gage leaned against the wall.

            “Why is she after you more than she is Rhett?” Trivette was curious.

            Gage grimaced while Rhett grinned and explained.  “While we were undercover she fell big time for Gage and even when we told her that he was married to my sister she wouldn’t leave him alone.”

            “She tormented me more than ever.  If we hadn’t been trying to arrest her I would have said enough and moved.”

            Walker had listened to the entire narrative and Gage turned to look at him anxiously.  “Look, Walker, I didn’t mean for anybody to get hurt.  I didn’t take her very seriously which was a big mistake.  I thought she would leave it at leaving messages at my house for me.  I’m sorry Alex got hurt.  I was going to tell you but after she got shot I figured it wouldn’t make any difference.”

            “It’s all right, Gage, but next time tell us if someone’s trying to kill you,” Walker picked up his blue mug and took a sip of the steaming black coffee.

            Kimberly and Kara walked down the trash covered street toward the road that would lead them to Kimberly’s house.  They were discussing what they were going to wear to school the next day when they heard voices.  They looked straight ahead and saw a black-haired Korean woman talking to a man that they didn’t recognize.

            “Remember me?” she asked.  “You sent me to prison for life.”

            The man paled.  “Stella Meyers?”

            “The one and only and would you believe I’ve waited almost twenty years to get even with you?”

            “Are you going to kill me?”

            “What a stupid question.  Of course I’m going to kill you.”

            After saying that she pulled a switchblade knife from her purse and stabbed the man in the stomach with it.  The man doubled over in agony and then fell to the sidewalk.  The woman felt his pulse and straightened up to see the teenagers watching her.  She smiled and started toward them.  Instantly the two girls turned and ran back down the street the way they had come.  She didn’t come after them but merely watched them.

            “Do we have to watch baseball?” Sydney complained.

            “If you don’t like my choices then why did you ask me to channel-surf?” Gage flipped a channel.

            “The News?” Kay ran a hand through her red-brown hair.

            “Stuff it, Kay,” Gage told her.  Before he could change the channel again a news bulletin came on.

            “Jordan Wallace of Dallas County was found dead in an alleyway this afternoon.  According to police he was stabbed to death.  They also think that Kimberly Miller and Kara Roche, two teenage girls, witnessed the murder and are now on the run.  If anyone has seen these girls please call the police or the Texas Rangers.”  The news woman disappeared and Sydney choked.

            “Kimberly witnessed a murder?” she gasped.

            “You know Kimberly?” Trivette leaned back against his desk chair.

            “No, we don’t know her but she’s our niece,” Kay announced.

            “You two are related?” Walker stepped out of his private office into the main Ranger office.

            “We’re sisters,” Kay’s voice was indignant.

            “Sisters?  But you look nothing alike,” Trivette protested.

            “Julie and I don’t look alike either,” Gage said.

            “Kay looks like our father and I look like my mother,” Sydney explained.

            “Was your mother Hispanic, Sydney?” Walker questioned as he leaned his hip against Trivette’s desk.

            “She was half-Hispanic so that would make me twenty-five percent Hispanic but I inherited her Hispanic looks.”

            “And the Hispanic temper,” Gage grinned mischievously then quickly backtracked when Sydney turned on him.  “I mean, your temper isn’t that bad and your looks make up for it.”

            “Good save, Gage,” Rhett commented.

            “Thanks.”

            “I hope you two realize we have a very real problem here.  That is our niece is missing!” Kay managed to bring their attention back to the problem at hand.

            “Whose kid is she?” Trivette inquired.

            “Our younger brother Bobby’s kid,” Sydney said.

            “Brother?” Walker and Trivette exclaimed simultaneously.  Rhett and Gage didn’t look the least bit surprised.

            “I think you’re going to have to explain it to them, Syd,” Gage sipped at his coffee.

            “Do I have to?” Sydney pouted.

            “If I had to tell them about Stella you have to tell your family history.”

            “But you didn’t have to tell your entire life story.”

            “Neither do you and Kay.  Just give them the main highlights.”

            “Should I sit down?” Walker asked and Gage nodded.

            “To understand this story I’m going to have to tell you about our father, Peter Hicatha.  He married three times.  The first was to my mother and after she had me she was killed in a car accident.  Four years later his second wife had Kay and died in childbirth.  Four years after that Bobby was born and Dad and Bobby’s mother argued for months about who would get him and the judge finally said Dad could have him.”  Sydney stopped.

            “If your Dad ended up with each one of you how did you end up with different last names?” Trivette realized that by asking that question he was giving them grounds to chop off his neck but Sydney answered.

            “When I was twelve the three of us were kidnapped and held for ransom.  They wanted five million dollars apiece for us and Dad was only willing to pay the ransom for Bobby.  Mom’s father, Jeffrey Cooke, offered to pay the other ten million and Dad accepted.  The kidnappers got the money and told the authorities that we were in a cabin somewhere in Port Arthur and that’s all they would tell them.  The Texas Rangers searched extremely hard for us and they finally found us in an abandoned cabin.  They took us home and after they did some more investigating they discovered that Dad had been the one to instigate the kidnapping.  His business was going under and he needed ten million to get it back on its feet and he knew that kidnapping us and saying he didn’t have enough money to pay the ransom would make my Grandpa offer to pay the rest.  So Dad got arrested and Grandpa offered to take me to Wisconsin and adopt me, Kay’s mother’s sister and her husband who lived in California adopted her, and Bobby went to Michigan with his mom and her second husband.”  Sydney took a deep breath.

            Kay picked up the story.  “Bobby got married but she died so he moved back to Texas with their little girl and then he died and he left her to Sydney and me but we didn’t know how to raise a child so we put her in foster care with a family who had already been helping take care of her.”

            “Do you realize what a disservice you did that poor kid by putting her in foster care?” Gage demanded.

            “Just because you ended up with a rotten foster home doesn’t mean all foster homes are bad, Gage,” Sydney explained.

            “Two,” he corrected.  “I ended up with two rotten foster homes and that wasn’t even counting the ones where they didn’t want me.  Wait a minute that would have been all but the last one.”         

            “I don’t really want to hear the history of your foster homes again.” Sydney crossed her arms.

            “I’m not going to give you the history with Walker and Trivette sitting there.”

            Walker and Trivette looked at each other.  For some reason they couldn’t fathom Gage didn’t feel comfortable sharing his past with them but Walker had the bad feeling that that was about to change big time.

            “We need to go to the scene of the crime,” Rhett said logically.

            “You’re right.  Did the news say where that was?” Gage looked at Walker hopefully like he thought Walker was going to consult the spirit of a long-departed Cherokee relative and get the answer.

            Walker thought the best course of action was to ask Liz, the Rangers secretary if she knew anything so the six of them exited the office and went to Liz’s desk.

            “Liz, we’re looking for a murder scene,” Gage told her.  Liz’s hands stilled over the computer keyboard.

            “Try the Ranger office,” she replied before resuming her typing.

            “Very funny.  It happened in an alleyway.  The murdered man’s name was Jordan Wallace and two teenage girls witnessed the murder.”

            “West Avenue 24 North,” she told them, not pausing a single second in her typing.

            “Thanks,” Gage said.

            West Avenue 24 North was swarming with police officers and other law enforcement officials.  Detective Mike Burton was in charge of the investigation and he was not at all averse to letting the Rangers look around.

            “Look around all you want.  We could use all the help we can get,” he said thoughtfully.

            “How did they figure out Kimberly and Kara witnessed the murder?” Gage asked.

            “We found a backpack just a few feet from the body.  Somebody identified it as Kara Roche’s and that meant Kimberly Miller was probably involved since they were inseparable.  They way I figure it out they were just walking or something and saw it happen.” 

            “May we see the backpack?” Walker asked.

            “Of course.  Just tell Millie I said you could.”  He started talking to another officer and they went to talk to Millie.

            “Here it is,” Millie sat a brown canvas backpack in front of Kay with a thump.

            Kay put on a pair of blue latex gloves and knelt in front of the backpack.  She unzipped it and pulled out a small green book that said My Journal in flowing script.

            “Interesting color for a journal,” Gage commented.

            Kay ignored him and withdrew two steamy romance novels.  She eyed them with distaste and set them aside.  Next she pulled out a camera and examined it. “Three pictures left,” she announced.  Then came out a fuzzy green notebook.  She opened it up and on the front page it said,

            What to Do to Find Kimberly’s Aunts

1. Get a copy of her birth certificate.  (Shouldn’t be too hard.  Mr. D. has a copy in his desk drawer.)

2. Ask Josh (graduated last year) to help find aunts after we get birth certificate.

3. Talk to Ranger Gage (the man who sold the D’s their house).

4. Internet!

            “You sold Kimberly’s foster parents their house?” Sydney looked more than annoyed; she looked furious.

            “Maybe.  I didn’t realize we were talking about the same Duggan’s,” he said.

            “Why didn’t you tell me you knew them?  If you had told me we could have signed the adoption papers a long time ago.”  Sydney scowled at Gage.

            “I really did just realize that we were talking about the same people.”

            “Never mind.  I don’t want to get into this argument.  What do you think we should do next, Walker?” Sydney turned to look at him as she asked.

            “Talk to the Duggan’s,” Walker replied.

            Gage turned white.  “But Mr. Duggan works at the Mason Stone Juvenile Detention Center,” he protested.

            “Then we’ll go there and talk to him.”  Walker couldn’t understand why Gage was so reluctant to go there.

            “Why me?” Gage sighed.

            The Mason Stone Juvenile Detention Center was just a few blocks from the murder scene.  As they neared the place Gage grew pensive.  He stared out the window for the last part of the drive and spoke only to give directions.

            “Turn right here,” he pointed and Kay turned right.  The cream colored blazer bounced on the dirt road and Walker gritted his teeth.  At least she drove the speed limit.  Two death-defying rides in one day was tempting fate just a little too much.     The six climbed out and walked to the front gate, Gage dragging his feet somewhat.

            “What are you people doing here?” the guard demanded.  His name tag said Henry.

            “Just visiting.  Is that all right with you?” Sydney gave him a glare.

            “Syd, don’t talk that way to him.  It’s not nice,” Gage cautioned.

            “Is that you, Gage?”

            “Yeah, it’s me,” Gage said gloomily.

            “What are you doing back here?  I thought when you got out of here you wouldn’t come back again.”

            “I didn’t want to believe me.”

            “Did you get arrested again?” the guard wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

            “Even if I did I’m a little too old to be put here.”

            “You were almost too old at fifteen.  The only you ended up here was because the judge knew your foster parents and you didn’t have a record.”

            “I know.  We want to see Archie Duggan.”

            “Sure.  Just go down the hall and then down the first flight of stairs and he’s the second door on the left.”

            “The state still hasn’t torn down the stairs yet?” Gage said in disbelief.

            “Nope.”

            They went inside the building and Trivette turned to Gage.  “Why did you end up in here?”

            “I got arrested for robbing a convenience store and so I got two months.  I would have gotten more but my gun wasn’t loaded so I wasn’t slapped with armed robbery.”

            “You robbed a convenience store?”

            “Yes, Trivette, I robbed a convenience store and I don’t really want to get into it.  Ok?”          

            They went down the flight of stairs and knocked on the door that read ARCHIE DUGGAN: EXECUTIVE ADMINISTRATOR.

            “Come in,” a voice called. 

            They entered the small office.  A red-headed man sat behind the desk filling out paperwork.  He wore blue jeans and a green t-shirt that said University Of Texas.

            “Hi, I’m Archie Duggan.  What can I do to help you?  Oh, Gage, what are you doing here?”

            “Hi, Arch.  I’m investigating Kimberly’s disappearance,” Gage explained.

            “Are these some of the other Rangers?” Archie inquired.

            “Yeah.  That’s Cordell Walker, his partner James Trivette, Rhett Harper and Kay Austin, and my partner Sydney Cooke.”

            “Nice to meet you.  I’ll help you in any way I can.  I’ll do anything to get Kimberly back.”  He seemed sincere enough Walker decided.

            “Who are her best friends?” Sydney took the lead in questioning Archie.

            “Kara Roche,” he said automatically.  “Some kid named Joshua from school.  That’s all the people that I know of.  If you want you can talk to our pastor, James Menno, he might know more people.”

            Gage groaned and Archie glanced at him.  “Is he all right?” Archie asked in concern.

            “He’s fine.  He just ate something that didn’t agree with him,” Sydney explained.

            A few minutes later, after obtaining directions on how to get to James Menno, the Rangers were on their way.

            “Why me?” Gage complained.

            “What’s wrong about seeing James Menno?” Walker spoke up from the middle seat.  He didn’t care if he made Gage upset.  This had gone on far enough.

            “Gage, didn’t you once tell me that he used to be your pastor?” Sydney asked from the seat where she and Gage were sitting scrunched next to Walker and Rhett.

            “Yes he did.”

            “I thought you didn’t believe in Christianity or churches.” Trivette twisted around in the front seat and faced Gage.

            “I don’t.  The majority of Christians are a bunch of lying hypocrites but Reverend Menno was the pastor at one of the churches I attended while I was in foster care and I don’t really want to discuss this anymore.”  Gage crossed his arms and stared out the window in silence.  His stance reminded Walker of a defiant teenager but despite that Walker could see Gage’s jaw flexing as he struggled to keep some emotion at bay.  Sydney obviously noticed it too for she put her hand on Gage’s shoulder and kept it there.

            The members of the Dallas Community Church were certainly not poor or else if they were they didn’t show it.   Stained glass figures covered the windows and they certainly didn’t look artificial.  After telling the brunette secretary they wanted to see Pastor Menno they were shown into a humongous office filled with expensive mahogany furniture and gold figurines.

            “I wonder how much of the money that paid for all of this was gained illegally,” Gage commented and Sydney smiled.

            The door behind the massive desk opened and a fat, bald man wearing a black suit that was a little tight entered.

            “I’m James Menno.  Pleased to meet you,” he shook hands after all of them except Gage who refused to introduce himself.

            “I prefer to remain anonymous,” Gage said.

            “Of course, now what can I do for you, Rangers?” the man sat down and his large bulk filled the chair.

            “We were told that you might be able to help us come up with a list of Kimberly Miller’s and Kara Roche’s best friends,” Walker told him.

            “I don’t know the Duggan’s or the Roche’s that well.  I can’t help you,” the man spread out his large hands and smiled at them placidly.

            “Can you really not help us or are you covering up for them?” Gage asked.

            “I never cover up for parishioners,” Pastor Menno said indignantly.

            Gage snorted.  “What about Eric Buchanan in 1981?  You told the Texas Rangers that he wasn’t capable of child abuse or illegal activities.”

            James Menno laughed hollowly.  “You can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.”

            “Oh but I didn’t read it in the newspapers.  The Rangers told me themselves.”

            “Why would the Texas Rangers tell you that?”

            “You don’t remember me, Rev?  I’m Eric’s foster child, the one that had to be forcibly removed from the home when the Rangers raided the house and arrested him.”

            Walker felt shock travel down his spinal cord.  Gage had been abused? But now that he thought about it, it made perfect sense.  Gage exhibited all the normal symptoms of child abuse: not getting close to people emotionally, being uneasy around people he didn’t know, and he had built up a happy-go-lucky facade that had taken Walker a while to realize it was a facade.

            The man’s fat face turned pale.  “Gage?”

            “The one and only, Rev.”

            “Your foster father was the only person I ever covered up for and that was a mistake.  I never covered up for anybody again.”

            “It’s sad isn’t it that the innocent are usually the ones to suffer for our mistakes?”

            “I lost my job over that.”

            “You lost your job?  Somehow I think you ended up with the better end of the bargain.  Now listen to me, Rev, I’m fixing to go wait outside because if I stay in here much longer I’m going to kill you but if I hear that you didn’t tell them everything you know I’m going to come in here and make you think my foster father got the better end of the bargain.  Understand?”  Halfway through his speech Gage had leaned over the desk and was now in the Reverend’s face.

            “I understand,” the reverend said weakly.

            “Good.  Walker, do you mind if I go wait outside?”

            “Not at all, Gage.”

            Gage walked toward the door but before he left he turned around and made a slitting motion with his right hand, winked, and then exited.  As soon as he was gone the reverend breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed slightly.

            The outside of the abandoned warehouse was covered with graffiti and broken bottles lay scattered on the ground.  The inside wasn’t much better; a layer of inch thick dirt covered the concrete floor and a broken beer bottle lay on the floor next to a wall.  The desk was the only item of furniture in the room besides a wooden chair that creaked when Stella sat down in it.  Several pictures hung on one of the walls and she stood in front of them.  A knife was sticking out of Jordan Wallace’s picture and the words TAKEN CARE OF were written in red lipstick.  She held another knife in her hand as she looked at the next picture which was of a red-haired woman smiling.  She ran the knife lightly over the surface of the photograph and a smile curled around her lips and entered her black eyes.

            “You’re next, lady.  You better be ready.”  She looked at the picture she had of Gage hanging up.  Gage was sitting on his motorcycle and a brown-haired and brown-eyed little girl was clinging to his waist and grinning at whoever was taking the photo.  “Don’t worry, Gage.  I haven’t forgotten about you or Rhett.  I’m just saving you for last.”

            Gage was leaning against Kay’s blazer when they emerged from the church.

            “Did he cooperate fully?” where the first words out of Gage’s mouth as they drew closer.

            “Yes, it seems that your little talk put some fear in him,” Walker observed.

            “Figured it would.  Threats scare the rev terribly.”  Gage grinned.

            “What happened to your foster father?” Trivette asked as they climbed into the vehicle.

            “He was killed in a prison fight,” Gage started to buckle his seat belt then realized there wasn’t enough room to do so.

            For once Trivette was quiet and didn’t follow up with a comment or question like he normally did.  The idea of Gage being abused had probably got him thinking which would be a new experience for Trivette who didn’t believe in thinking before he spoke.  A fact which had often gotten him into trouble.

            “Where to now?” Gage’s voice intruded on Walker’s thoughts and he scrambled for a response.

            “Kimberly’s house, I’m going to assume you know how to get there.” 

            “I should hope so,” was Gage’s only comment.

            The Duggan’s house was just a block or two away from where Jordan Wallace’s body had been found.  Despite that fact the neighborhood where it was located was rather nice.  Trees lined the street and the yards showed signs of having been mown recently and gardens decorated nearly every lawn.  The Duggan’s had a rather large garden that was filled with bright flowers and not a single weed was in sight.

            As soon as he saw the flowers Trivette started to sneeze and everyone looked at him.

            “I’m allergic,” he explained in between sneezes and Gage nodded sympathetically.

            As they drew nearer to the front door of the white clapboard house it swung open and a blond haired woman appeared in the doorway.

            “Hello, Gage,” she smoothed her red skirt with one hand.  “Archie called and told me you were in charge of the case.”

            “I’m one of the investigating officers,” Gage corrected.  He went through the preliminaries of introducing the rest of the Rangers and Mrs. Duggan offered to show them Kimberly’s room.

            Kimberly Miller obviously liked pink since the entire room was pink.  Pink carpets, walls, and even the ceiling were pink.  A pink comforter covered the wooden bed and Gage winced at the sight of the color.

            “I can’t believe this used to be my bedroom,” he said, shaking his head.

            Walker ignored him and crossed to the computer sitting on the desk.  He turned it on and a screen popped up saying he needed a password.

            “I need a password to get in.  Got any suggestions?” he asked.

            Gage came and stood beside him.  “Let me see that,” his fingers paused a second on the keyboard then he typed in a word that Walker couldn’t figure out and the screen saver which was a pink flower appeared.

            “How did you do that?” Trivette asked in astonishment since Gage didn’t seem very computer savvy.  In fact Gage didn’t seem savvy about anything at all except annoying Sydney.

            “Easy.  This is a MACY computer.  All MACY computers have this thing where if you type in the main password for the computer that manufacturers and repairmen use it reacts like you used the regular password.” Gage grinned.

            “How did you learn that?” Trivette pressed.

            “I learned it from a guy I met at juvenile detention.”

            “You learned that at juvie?” Trivette’s tone indicated he didn’t believe what Gage was saying.

            “Yes, Trivette, I learned that at juvie.  I also learned how to hotwire a car, break into a house without setting off the security alarm, how to turn off a security alarm, pick locks, and how to kill someone.”

            Trivette swallowed and inched away from Gage who grinned again.

            “Don’t worry, Trivette, if I was going to kill somebody it wouldn’t be you.”

            “The two of you can continue this fight later but right now we have two missing teenagers to find,” Walker informed them.

            “Sorry, Walker,” Gage apologized.  “What are we looking for anyway?”

            “I have no idea,” Walker admitted “but I would guess that we see if we can find the names of anymore of their friends.  Reverend Menno was only able to tell us one name and that person was already on the list.”

            “Try that right there,” Sydney pointed to a document icon.

            Walker clicked on it and the password screen came up again.  Gage typed in the password and a list of documents in that particular system popped up.  Walker selected the one that said My Diary.

            “Whatever happened to writing in a diary by hand?” Gage wanted to know.

            “To make it harder for someone to get into it probably but they didn’t count on you knowing the password.” Walker told him.

            The document showed up on the screen and they started reading.

            “It mentions someone named Mr. Jackson right there,” Kay said.

            “Mr. Jackson?” Gage exclaimed.  “Let me see that,” he read the section Kay had pointed out and sighed.

            “Do you know him?” Trivette’s question was sarcastic.

            “Unfortunately, I do.  He owns Jackson’s Garage, it’s a car repair place and it’s only a block or two away from where Jordan Wallace was found.”

            Kimberly climbed off the tree branch and into Kara’s bedroom.  They had run for several miles and had ended up taking the back way out of the alleyways near Kara’s house and used the giant oak tree next to her room to get into the house.  Kara was already inside pulling stuff out the dresser and throwing it on the bed.

            “What are you doing, Kar?” Kimberly asked.

            “Changing.  You’re welcome to borrow something as well but I have to change because I don’t want to get these clothes dirty.”

            Kara found a pair of blue jeans and a blue t-shirt to wear while Kimberly chose jeans and a black shirt. 

            “Are we going to tell the police?” Kara asked suddenly.

            “No, you know what’ll happen to us if we do.  The murderer will hunt us down and kill us.” 

            “Don’t you think you’re being a little over-dramatic?” Kara pulled off her shoes and her socks and reached for a pair of blue socks.

            “No, I don’t think I’m being over-dramatic at all.  Look, if we can find my aunts they’ll protect us I’m sure of it.  If we haven’t found them by Friday we’ll at least talk to Ranger Gage.  He likes me.”

            “I don’t like it but I will go along with it.”  Kara sighed reluctantly.

            Once again the six Texas Rangers were back in the Dallas streets looking for Jackson’s Garage.  Gage led them down one street, up another, and back down again until Walker was convinced they were lost.   Gage seemed to know where he was going though so Walker didn’t ask and thankfully Trivette didn’t either.  Walker could see the building up ahead when all of a sudden they ran into an obstacle in the form of a teenager wearing a black and red doo-rag-rag and a scowl.

            “What are you doing here, Ranger?” the boy demanded.

            “Just looking for some information, Steve,” Gage replied easily.

            “What kind of info?”

            “I need to talk to Mr. Jackson.  I’m not here to harass him or anything I just need to ask him a couple of questions.”

            “I didn’t do nuthin’” the teen rubbed the black tattoo on his arm that said La Cruz.

            “About like you didn’t slit the tires on that woman’s car last week?”

            “You said you wouldn’t tell anybody about that.”

            “And I won’t if you let me see Mr. Jackson without any trouble,” Gage met the teenager’s eyes squarely and the boy looked away uneasily.

            “You can go,” he said at last.

            “Thank you.  Oh, Steve, have you heard about those two missing girls?”

            “Kimberly and Kara?  What about them?”

            “Do me a favor and get the word out that they’re under protection of The Kid.”

            Steve nodded and went in the direction they had just come from.

            “Who’s The Kid?” Trivette asked as soon as the boy had disappeared around the corner.

            “The Kid is a former gang member.  He was part of La Cruz the toughest gang in Dallas.  He was one of their worst members.  He had a reputation of not minding if he killed people or not and he did kill at least three people in gang fights.”

            “Nice guy,” Trivette’s voice was sarcastic but Gage seemed to pay no attention to him.

            “He was.  Eventually ended up in juvie after he robbed a convenience store.  Stayed there two months and when he got out he quit La Cruz and he’s in law enforcement now.”

            “Really?” Walker noticed that Rhett, Kay, and Sydney didn’t seem to be paying any attention to what Gage was saying.  They had probably heard it all before.

            “Uh-huh.  Became a professional sniper for the government but he quit that job and joined the Texas Department of Safety and then he joined the Rangers.”

            “Notice anything similar about The Kid’s history and Gage’s history?” Trivette whispered to Walker.

            “A lot.  Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the same person,” Walker whispered back.   

            The inside of the building looked like a garage.  A car was sitting in the middle of the floor and a pair of men’s legs stuck out from underneath.  Various tools were lying on the floor within reach of whoever was under the vehicle.

            “Hey, Mr. Jackson,” Gage said.

            “Give me a crescent wrench,” Mr. Jackson said.  Gage looked at the tools, selected one, and handed it to him.

            The sound of metal grinding came from underneath and Kay looked alarmed.  Gage merely picked up another tool and it too disappeared under the yawning black caravan.  Then a man slid out from under the car and sat up.

            “What are you doing here, Gage?” he asked without preamble.

            “Do I have to have a reason to visit an old friend?” Gage held out a grease stained rag that he had gotten off the floor which Mr. Jackson accepted gratefully.

            “Gage, the only time you ever visited me was when you were in trouble at school, in trouble with your foster parents, on the outs with your girlfriend, or when you needed an alibi for something La Cruz was involved in.”  Mr. Jackson wiped his hands on the rag and stood up.

            “As far as I know I’m not on the outs with my girlfriend, my foster parents are dead, and I’m no longer with La Cruz.  I’m here for some information.”

            “Kimberly and Kara?”  Mr. Jackson asked.

            “Yeah.  You know anything?”

            “No.  If they came here I’d call you immediately.”

            “I didn’t figure you knew where they were, Mr. J, I was just wondering if you knew of any place where they would go or who their friends were.” 

            “Well there was some kid from school that was involved in that case where your friend, Alex Cahill-Walker, got shot.  His name was Josh something-or-another.”

            Joshua Whitley was involved in this?  Great.  Just great.  After Josh’s best friend, Jeremy Hopkins, had gotten hold of a military weapon his father had been killed and Josh had hid Jeremy while the Rangers had searched for him.  They had eventually found Jeremy and the weapon had been returned to the military who had been very eager to get it.

            “Anybody else?” Walker could hear the eagerness in Gage’s voice.

            “The Duggan’s had a distant cousin who’s a private investigator that works for the Secret Service now I believe.  His name was something funny.  What was it?” Mr. Jackson frowned then smiled.  “Trent.  That was it.  His name was Trent Malloy.”

            Trent Malloy was an old friend and protégé’s of Walker’s.  He had become a private investigator and martial arts instructor.  His childhood friend, former police detective Carlos Sandoval, had quit the police to help Trent run the investigation business.  Walker hadn’t heard from either one of them in years.  He could see shock written all over Trivette and Gage’s face.

            “Thanks, Mr. J, we better go now,” Gage edged toward the door.

            “Don’t mention it.” Mr. Jackson disappeared back underneath the car and they left.

            As soon as they were out of the building Gage clenched his fists and looked up at the sky.

            “How come everywhere I go I have to meet somebody I know?”

            “You know Trent Malloy?”  Trivette asked.

            “I know him and his friend Carlos Sandoval.”

            “Have you done anything bad recently that would make this happen to you?”

            “Not that I know of.  I mean, I pay my taxes, I don’t smoke or curse in front of women, I talk to my grandfather once a month whether I want to or not, I let Walker and Angela move in with me,” Gage could have continued but he was interrupted by Trivette.

            “You and Angela have moved in with Gage?” Trivette turned to Walker.

            “A water pipe burst at our house last night so we stayed with him and it’s only temporary.  As soon as we get the pipe fixed we’ll go home.”

            “Walker, it’ll take a month for you to find a plumber and another month to get it fixed.  You’ll be with me for another two months at least.  Unless you try to fix it yourself in which case it’ll take you three months.”

            Walker tried to think what two months of living with Gage would be like.  The only thing that popped up in his mind was two words: lunatic asylum.

            “Two months?” Kay repeated dubiously.  “That’s a long time.”

            “You’ve obviously never had to get a water pipe fixed,” Gage told her. “Believe me it takes a long time but especially if it’s in a house.  Then the plumbers have to inspect the rest of the house which will take another month.”

            “I have to live with you for three months?” Walker felt a vague sense of alarm rising in him.  That would be the equivalent of joining the loony bin.

            “It’s hard to believe that you know how to raise children,” Kay said.

            “Why is that hard to believe?  After all I raised,” Gage stopped and clamped his mouth shut.

            “You raised who?” If Trivette kept up that annoying habit of asking people questions about their past he was going to get slugged by somebody and it was beginning to look like Gage was going to be that somebody.

            Sydney and Rhett looked at each other then at Gage.  If they knew who Gage was talking about they certainly weren’t going to say.  Sydney stepped closer to Gage and held his arm.

            “Nobody,” was all Gage would say and Walker decided not to press him.  Finding out about Gage being abused and that Sydney and Kay were sisters was Walker could take for one day.  He wanted to go home or rather to Gage’s house, eat supper, and relax for an hour or two before going to bed.  Unfortunately it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.

                                                                        CHAPTER 3

            “A motorcycle?” Walker looked up at the sound of Sydney’s voice.  Gage and Sydney had gone out to lunch together an hour earlier.

            “What’s wrong with it?” Gage wanted to know.

            “Nothing, but it doesn’t even work.”

            “Yes, it does.  It just needs a few minor adjustments.”

            “A few?  Gage, it doesn’t even have an engine, brakes, seat, handlebars, or pedals!”

            “It has the chassis,” Gage protested weakly.

            “It’s held together with duct tape,” Sydney smiled triumphantly as if that proved her point.

            “So?”

            “Why don’t you buy a brand-new motorcycle?   It’s not like you can’t afford it.”

            “I would have to pay at least fifteen-hundred dollars on a brand-new motorcycle and I only spent a hundred dollars on this one.”

            “You’ll still have to spend fifteen-hundred for repairs.”

            “Even if I got a brand-new one I would still have to repair something and it would be something that cost two thousand bucks.  This way I save a couple thousand plus I like working on motorcycles.  Especially since I have plenty of room at my house.”

            Sydney threw up her hands in despair.  “Why do I bother?”

            “Because you like to argue with me,” Gage grinned and winked at her.  Walker shook his head and went back to filing paperwork.      A few minutes later Gage came in and asked if he could go home early to watch Angela since Josie from the Help Our People Excel (H.O.P.E.) Center who usually watched her didn’t have any openings in the daycare center that afternoon.  Walker told Gage he could and that someone else would probably give Walker a ride home.

            When Trivette dropped Walker off at Gage’s house later that afternoon a broken down motorcycle that everybody in the office had heard about from Sydney was sitting in the middle of the driveway and Gage was on one knee, playing with it.   There was no sign of Angela at all but she was probably inside.  As Walker drew closer the gravel crunched under his brown cowboy boots but Gage didn’t look up.  Instead he twisted a wrench one way and then another.

            “Do you even know what you’re doing?” Walker asked.  Startled, Gage dropped the wrench on his knuckles and yelped.

            “Walker, you startled me,” Gage rubbed his knuckles ruefully.

            “Sorry,” Walker apologized.  “Where’s Angela?”

            “She’s inside trying to add odd and even numbers.  I told her you would help her when you got home.”

            “Thanks, Gage.”

            “Oh, you’re welcome.  By the way one of her friend’s mothers wants to know if Angela can spend the night tonight even though it’s Thursday.  I told her you’d call her back.  Her number’s written down next to the phone.”

            “Okay.  You really don’t care if we stay until the house gets fixed?”

            “I told you I didn’t mind.”  Gage used the wrench on another bolt.

            “What you say and what you think are two very different things.”

            “True.  I really don’t mind though but I will have to warn you about one thing.”

            “What?” Walker asked hesitantly.  When Gage warned you about something you had to be ready to head for the hills if necessary.

            “I’m not a good cook so must of the time you’ll have to fend for yourself.”

            “That’s fine.”  Walker climbed the porch steps and entered the house to help his daughter add numbers.

PLANO, TEXAS

            Stella watched the red-haired woman go into the grocery store.  Perfect.  Now she just had to wait until she came back out then she could carry out her plan.  She lowered the binoculars and sat them on the white wicker table.  From the small trendy café otherwise known as Rilla’s Coffee Cafe she had a good vintage spot of Winn Dixie and a few other small businesses.  So that meant she could watch her victim going about her daily business not knowing that it was going to be her last day alive.  At least she would get to see the woman’s face when she realized that.  It was so much more satisfying when one got to see fear reflected on people’s face before you killed them.

            She could see the woman at the checkout line so Stella hurriedly got up from her chair and headed toward the Winn Dixie door.  The woman exited the store and Stella bumped into her.

            “Oh, I’m sorry.  Please forgive me.  I always forget to watch where I’m going,” Stella pretended to flustered but was inwardly calm although excited at the thought of another kill.

            “It’s all right,” the woman said smiling.

            “Good, then you won’t mind if I kill you.” 

            “What?” Before the woman could comprehend what she was saying, Stella had pulled a knife out of her purse and held it to the woman’s stomach.

            “If you make a single sound I’ll kill you.  Understand?”

            The woman nodded her green eyes wide with fear.  Pretending to be a friend, Stella wrapped her arm around the woman in a seemingly friendly gesture but really holding the knife to her torso.  She walked the woman to some garbage bins behind the store where she then stabbed her.  The woman staggered back, clutching at the knife sticking out of her stomach.   Stella gave her a push, sending her into the garbage bins.  She then proceeded to cover her up with trash until nothing of her could be seen.  Hopefully she wouldn’t be discovered until morning so Stella could have time to get away.

            Walker woke up at 5:50 a.m. on Friday morning.  He decided to go jogging and so he put on blue jeans and a gray zip-up jacket.  He went downstairs and was surprised to find Gage sitting at the kitchen table trying to read the newspaper.

            “What are you doing up so early?” Walker asked.

            “Bad dream,” Gage said shortly.  “Couldn’t fall back asleep and by the time I did it would be time to go to work.”

            “Then come jogging with me,” Walker said impulsively.

            “It’s not even six in the morning,” Gage protested.

            “You just said you wouldn’t be able to fall asleep until time to go to work,” Walker reminded him.

            “I didn’t say I wanted to go jogging.”

            “I’ll buy you a donut,” Walker had discovered the easiest way to get Gage to do something was to offer him food.

            “Well,” Gage hesitated.

            “Three donuts,” Walker tempted.

            “With cream filling and chocolate icing and sprinkles on top?”

            “Plus a cup of coffee.”

            “Give me five minutes,” Gage said.

            It actually took Gage fifteen minutes to come down the stairs in his workout clothes and with a towel thrown around his shoulders.  Walker handed him a water bottle which Gage accepted with a mumbled thanks.

            They started off slowly since Gage was still half-asleep and Walker was quiet.  He sensed that if Gage wanted to talk Gage would talk but only when he was ready.

            “Thanks for not making a big deal about my bad dream or asking about it,” Gage said abruptly.

            “Gage, dreams, good or bad, are private.  They belong to you and you alone.  It’s none of my or anybody else’s business what you dream about.  If you want to talk about it you’ll talk about it but if you don’t then I’ll leave it alone.”

            “I wish everyone felt the same way you do.  All of my foster parents were nosy.  They always wanted to know what I thinking, where I was going, what I was doing, or what I was dreaming.”

            “They could’ve been asking because they cared about you,” Walker said.

            “If they cared about me why didn’t they say so?  Why did they say I was a burden?  A state obligation that they got paid to take in, that’s all I was.”  Gage’s voice was full of bitterness.  Walker wished he wasn’t telling the truth but he was.  Foster parents really thought that foster children were an obligation that they got paid to take care of.  Very few foster parents cared about the children placed in their care.

            “One or two of them might have thought so but most of them probably did care about you but didn’t say it.”  Walker knew that he was lying and Gage knew it too. 

            “Two sets cared enough about me to abuse me,” Walker risked turning his head to look at Gage and saw Gage blinking rapidly.  Oh, boy.  He hoped Gage didn’t burst into tears in the middle of the street.  When women cried Walker could handle that but when men cried Walker was utterly helpless.  Gage was so closed off emotionally that the only time Walker had seen him cry was when they received word of C. D. Parker’s (a retired Ranger and good friend) death.  Otherwise Gage was as closed as an oyster.

            “Is that why you don’t talk about your past a lot?” Walker asked.

            “Yes.  It’s not because I didn’t trust you because I do but it’s a very painful subject for me.”            Walker could imagine so.  He had had the good fortune of being raised by his Uncle Ray after his parents were murdered but Gage hadn’t had that luxury.  He had been placed in foster care where he was abused in two homes and had probably been moved from home to home which wasn’t good for kids with parents let alone those who had lost their parents and been separated from their older sisters.

            “Why didn’t your grandfather take you in?”

            “He was mad at Mom because she married Dad who refused to accept any of her money and he was also below her social level plus Grandpa didn’t want to raise any more children.  So when they died he said good riddance and refused to take Julie and me in.  He said he would let us be raised in foster care and then he got mad when I became a Texas Ranger.”

            “Did you become a Texas Ranger because of your abusive foster homes?”

            “That was one reason.  You see, C. D. Parker was one of the Rangers that arrested my first foster father for drug trafficking and weapons smuggling.  And then he arrested my fifth and second abusive foster father for fraud.”

            “Why didn’t they arrest them for child abuse?” as soon as the words came out of his mouth Walker wished he could take them back.

            “Each time they weren’t aware that any abuse was going on until they arrived to arrest them.  And each time C. D. was fit to be tied when he discovered they had a case of child abuse on their hands.  He was ready to kill the police officers who were supposed to investigate because they didn’t inform him that there was a foster child in the homes.”

            Walker decided it was time to move onto a little bit safer ground before he asked the wrong question.  “Did your wife know about the abuse?”

            “Are you kidding?  She refused to marry me unless I told her about my past.” Gage’s stride slowed as he remembered one day when she had confronted him about it.

            “I don’t see what the big deal is about your past,” Tina crossed her arms and scowled at Gage.

            “Tina, the big deal is that it’s a very painful subject for me and I would prefer not to discuss it.”  Gage kept his gaze on the road ahead.  The pickup truck belonged to Rhett and Gage had offered to drive Tina to Dallas and keep her company but he was heartily regretting his offer.

            “Everything is a painful subject to you, Gage,” Tina picked a piece of lint off her denim skirt and dropped it on the floorboard.

            “I’m so sorry, Tina, if I had known it would upset you I would’ve avoided having a bad life.”  Gage’s grip on the wheel tightened and he mentally counted the hours until he could go back to his dorm room and throw something at Rhett.

            “You don’t have to be so mean.”  Tina lowered her head and her long light brown hair covered her face like a burial shroud.

            “I’m sorry but I don’t want to talk about it.  All right?”

            “Not talking about isn’t going to make your issues going away, Gage,” Tina turned in the seat and looked at him.

            “Talking about it isn’t going to make them go away either.  I prefer to leave the subject alone.”

            “Fine, we’ll leave it alone for now but we are going to discuss it sometime, Gage, you can count on that.”

            Unfortunately he probably could.

            “Gage,” Walker had to speak twice before Gage realized he was talking to him.

            “What?”

            “The donut shop is right up ahead.”

            “Okay,” Gage headed toward the small brick building with a sign that read FRAN’S DONUTS.

            “Gage,” Walker waited until Gage turned to look at him before he spoke. “If you ever want to talk I’m here.”

            “I know.  Thanks for listening earlier.”

            “You’re welcome,” Walker said just before Gage disappeared into the shop.

            They had eaten their donuts and drank their coffee before going back to Gage’s house.  They had avoided all unpleasant personal subjects and instead discussed Gage’s new broken-down motorcycle which he insisted just needed a little fixing up and it would be all right.  After going home they headed toward the bathrooms to shower before time to head to work.  Walker came into the kitchen to find Gage on the phone again.  For some unknown reason which probably had to do with previous experiences Walker had thought Gage was hard to get up in the mornings.  Apparently it wasn’t true this week.  Gage seemed to be arguing with whoever was on the other end of the line.

            “But why do I have to be there, Trivette?” Walker froze with his hand on the refrigerator handle and turned to face Gage who was pacing back and forth.  Trivette was up this early?  Must be a dire emergency then Walker decided as he checked the wall clock.  Trivette didn’t believe in getting up before seven o’clock if then and it was only six-forty-five a.m.

            “Is Sydney there?” Gage asked and Walker guessed Trivette answered affirmatively since Gage sighed and said, “Walker and I will be there in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half.  Is this the Winn-Dixie next to that trendy coffee shop in Plano?  All right.  See you then.  Bye.”  Gage hung up the phone.

            “What did Trivette want?” Walker looked dubiously at the cheese he had found and threw it in the trash can.  Gage obviously didn’t know how to check expiration dates.

            “There was a murder yesterday.  The body of a woman was found in a dumpster behind Winn-Dixie and Trivette says we need to come.”

            Walker closed the refrigerator door.  “I’m ready when you are.”

            “Come on then.”  Gage headed toward the kitchen door then made an abrupt turn and got some beef jerky from the cabinet.  “Want some?” he extended the jerky to Walker who graciously declined.  No telling how old it was.

            The Winn-Dixie parking lot was filled with police and law enforcement officers’ vehicles.  An ambulance was parked near the store entrance and two paramedics leaned against it, waiting to be told they could move the dead body.  Sydney and Trivette were already there when Walker and Gage arrived.  Detective Mike Burton was there again.  He waved the two Rangers to the back of the store.

            “She was found in the dumpster,” he said by way of greeting pointing to the figure on the ground covered by a black tarp.

            “Has she been identified yet?” Walker asked.

            “There was a driver’s license issued to Lucy Randall in her purse.  The woman’s description matches the license so she’s probably Lucy Randall but we have to wait for a positive identification first before we can be one hundred percent certain.”

            “Is something wrong, Gage?” Walker asked.  Gage was frowning.

            “It’s just that her name sounds familiar to me,” he said.

            “Want to see the body?” Detective Burton offered.  Walker couldn’t believe that Detective Burton (who had accused Rhett of murdering two people) was being so helpful.  But with two murders in a short amount of time would make any police officer helpful.

            Burton pulled back the tarp and Walker looked at the woman.  She had bright red hair and her eyes were closed.  Fear was written on her face and a switchblade knife was sticking out of her stomach.

            “I’ve seen her somewhere but I don’t remember where,” Gage scowled.

            “You’ve seen who before?” Walker and Gage turned to see Kay and Rhett standing there.

            “This woman,” Gage gestured toward the body at his feet.

            “I’ve seen her too,” Rhett said.       

            Kay ignored both men and stepped closer to the body.  “Isn’t this the same kind of weapon that was used to kill Jordan Wallace?” she asked Burton who nodded.

            “Yes, it was.”

            “Are we dealing with a serial killer?” Gage asked.

            “More than likely.  Same MO.  Killed with a single stab to the stomach.  Don’t worry, Ranger Harper, we won’t blame you with this murder.”  Burton rubbed his black face with one hand.

            “Thank you, Detective Burton.”

            “A serial killer is just what we need to make this week perfect,” Gage said.

            “Is something wrong with him?” Burton asked.

            “I refuse to comment,” Walker told him.     

FORT WORTH MILITARY BASE

            Johann Dupree shut out the sounds of the other guards around him as he looked at the picture taped in his locker.  Stella Meyer’s smile warmed him from the inside out.  He reached out a finger and traced the image.  Beautiful Stella.  If those two Secret Service Agents, Francis Gage and Rhett Harper, hadn’t arrested her they would have been married by now and probably had kids.  He had asked her to marry him and she had said she would love to but she wanted to take care of the two men first.  She had tried to take care of them but she had ended up getting arrested. 

            He wanted to bust her out of prison or kill the men but she said no.  She wanted to take care of them in her own way in her own time and he had to be patient.  Well she was out now and he was helping her take care of them.  Hadn’t he helped bust her out of prison and gotten her the grenades she wanted?  Soon they would be married and they could leave Texas and go back to Korea where their parents had from.

            The Rangers decided to go talk to Thelma Roche, Kara Roche’s mother.  They didn’t go in one vehicle, having learned their lesson the day before.  Walker and Trivette drove in Trivette’s black Mustang while Gage drove Sydney, Kay, and Rhett.  Walker had decided he didn’t want to ride with Gage any more than necessary.

            Kara Roche’s house was a direct contrast to the Duggan’s house.  Weeds grew in the cracks of the sidewalk and one of the front windows was boarded up.  Walker knocked cautiously on the front door twice and then a woman opened the door.

            “What?” she snarled.  Walker could smell the alcohol on her breath from over a foot away.

            “Thelma Roche?” he asked.

            “Who else would it be?”

            “I’m Cordell Walker with the Texas Rangers and…”

            “But I returned the money.  He said if I returned it he wouldn’t call the cops,” she protested. 

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about…” Walker started to say but she interrupted him again.

            “If you’re here about the check that bounced I already paid for it.”

            “Mrs. Roche,” Gage stepped forward and spoke firmly.  “We’re not here about stolen money or checks that bounced.  We just want to talk to you about your daughter that went missing.”

            “I don’t know where she is,” Thelma said quickly.

            “We know but we were wondering if we could look at her room and get a clue about where she is.” Thelma thought about it for a second then stood aside.

            “I guess you can come in and look for her if you have to.”

            “Thank you,” Gage told her.

            “Second door on the left at the top of the stairs,” she disappeared into the kitchen.

            As soon as she disappeared Gage started laughing.

            “What’s so funny, Gage?” Walker asked as he started walking up the rickety staircase.

            “That she thought you were here about the check and stolen money,” Gage gasped amidst his laughter.

            “I’m glad it amused you,” Walker didn’t hold onto the banister since it didn’t look very sturdy.  None of the house did.

            If Kimberly’s favorite color had been pink Kara’s was green.  The cream colored comforter had green thread running through it so crookedly that someone had obviously sewed it by hand.  The desk looked as if it could use a coat of varnish and the walls a coat of paint. 

            Two blue and gray skirts and white shirts lay rumpled on the bed as if they had been thrown there.  A pair of white socks were on the floor.

            “We’re too late to find them,” Trivette commented.

            “Trivette, if you were running away from a killer would you stay here?” Gage gestured.

            “You have a good point,” Trivette paused.  “Did I just say that?”

            “Yes, you did, Trivette,” Sydney tried hard not to laugh.

SAN ANTONIO

            Secret Service Agent Carlos Sandoval read the newspaper article a second time then looked up at his friend and co-worker Trent Malloy who was sitting opposite him at the kitchen table.

            “What did you want me to see, Trent?” Carlos asked.  If there was something he was supposed to be seeing he was missing it.

            Trent got up and came behind Carlos and pointed at the article.  “Right there, Carlos, where it says ‘foster child of Archibald and Mary Duggan’.”

            “What about them?”

            “Mary is a distant cousin of mine,” Trent explained.

            “Oh.”

            “I was planning to visit her sometime anyway but now I think I need to go see her immediately.”

            “Would you like some company?” Carlos offered.

            “You’d really like to come?”

            “Of course.  Besides we haven’t seen Walker, Trivette, and Alex in ages.”

            “We couldn’t go to Walker and Alex’s wedding because we were trying to take down a group of terrorists.” Trent said.

            “I know and we couldn’t go see them when Alex got shot because we were protecting three murder witnesses.”

            “I’m sure they understand but…” Trent’s words trailed off as he started looking through a stack of mail on the table.

            “What are you doing?” Carlos got up and stood next to him.

            “I thought I remembered seeing something from Dallas in the mail yesterday.  Ah, there it is!” Triumphantly Trent held up a white envelope.

            “Well, open it,” Carlos urged.

            Trent ripped open the envelope and withdrew a small white card that read:

                        You Are Cordially Invited To The Wedding Of James Trivette and Erika Carter.

             Date: September 19, 2009

            Time: 3:15 pm

            Place: Dallas Lutheran Church

            Please RSVP if going to attend.  All gifts are to be sent to James Trivette and/or Erika Carter. 

            The ceremony will start at approximately three-fifteen pm.  If you wish to attend you must be there by three pm so as to ensure there will be room for you.     

            “Trivette’s getting married!” Carlos exclaimed.

            “Uh-huh.  Come to think of it I remember reading about his engagement eight years ago.”

            “I probably have one of these invitations at home right now,” Carlos said.

            “Now we have another reason to go to Dallas.”

            “Like looking for the foster child of your cousin wasn’t a good enough reason?  I need to pack.  I’ll be ready in an hour.  Are you driving or am I?”

            “I’ll drive.  If Amy wants to come you can bring her too.”

            “Do you know how much luggage Amy will have?” Carlos stopped at the door and looked at Trent.

            “You got a good point.  Wait, we have to ask Malrosky if we can take off.  You know how he is about that.”

            “True.  Let’s call him first and see what he says,” Carlos came back into the kitchen while Trent picked up the phone and started dialing.

            Stella sat on the sidewalk, cigarette in her left hand.  She watched as the smoke curled in the air.  She turned her head to look at the dead man she had stabbed with a knife.  People were so stupid.  They walked in gang country and didn’t even know how to defend themselves.  He had tried to struggle a little when she had wrapped her arms around his waist and drove the knife into his stomach.  He was even a gang member but that hadn’t stopped him from being stupid; on the contrary it meant he was even more stupid than the average person.  All gang members were stupid.

            Almost all gang members were stupid she corrected.  Francis Gage had been a gang member and he wasn’t stupid.  He acted like a total idiot but he wasn’t.  He had an IQ of one hundred and forty-five.  He had been smart enough to take her down and nobody had done that before and nobody would ever do it again.  Not even Gage.  She would kill herself before she would let him take her down again.

            “There was another murder,” Gage said cheerfully as he hung up the phone.

            “Another one?” Sydney asked.

            “Yep.  Killed with one stab in the stomach.”

            “Let’s go,” Kay’s voice sounded weary as she got up from her desk.

            “Go where?” Walker wanted to know.

            “Another murder by our serial killer,” Gage announced.

            “Gage, we don’t know if the same person is killing all these people or not.”  Trivette brushed some lint off of his gray tie.

            “Would you prefer a serial killer or several different killers?” Gage demanded.

            “A serial killer, I suppose.”

            Once again the back streets of Dallas were crawling with law enforcement personnel.  Several people who Walker took to be gang members stood next to the buildings as if protecting them from the cops.  They blocked the Rangers way and Walker was about to fight them when they caught sight of Gage and hastily moved out of the way.

            “Looks like you’ve got a reputation, Gage,” Trivette commented.

            “Actually The Kid has a reputation.  He was a good friend of mine you see and the gang members don’t want to mess with him.”  Gage explained.

            Mike Burton brightened up at the sight of them and hurried over.  “I’m glad to see you.”

            “What’s wrong, Detective Burton?” Gage asked.

            “No one will identify the dead man.  Would you Rangers mind looking and seeing if you know him?”

            “Not at all,” Walker assured him. Burton led them to the tarp-covered body and pulled back the tarp.  Gage gasped at the sight of the man’s face.  A black-and-red doo-rag was on his head that matched the one worn by Steve, the gang member they had seen the other day plus a La Cruz tattoo was on his arm.

            “You know him?” the black police detective asked hopefully.

            “Yes, I do.  His name is Karl Balbo.  He’s a member of La Cruz, one of the gangs down here.”

            “But I thought we saw him at.  Ow.” Rhett hollered as Gage stomped on his toe.

            “Shut up, Rhett,” Gage whispered through clenched teeth.

            “But…” Rhett tried to explain.

            “Not in front of him,” Gage pointed at Burton who was watching the scene with interest.  Even Sydney and Kay were looking at them.

            “Okay, okay,” Rhett grumbled.

            Detective Burton said he needed to talk to another officer and moved away.  As soon as he was out of earshot Sydney turned on Gage.

            “What was that all about, Gage?” she demanded.

            “I didn’t want Rhett to talk about it in front of Burton.”

            “Talk about what?” Trivette questioned.

            “Stella Meyers.”

            “What does Stella Meyers have to do with that dead man?” Sydney wanted to know.

            “He was one of the jury members that put her away and so was that Lucy Randall lady,” Rhett made sure his feet weren’t anywhere near Gage when he said that.

            “We just realized where we had seen her before,” Gage ran his fingers through his short blond hair.

            “Stella Meyers is involved in this?” Sydney groaned.

            “Jordan Wallace was one of the jury members too, Syd,” Gage watched Sydney’s face as he spoke.

            “What?” Sydney yelped.

            “Keep your voice down, Syd.”

            “Stella Meyers is our serial killer?” Trivette frowned as he considered that. 

            “Oh, no,” Gage said as his blue eyes widened.

            “What now?” Walker decided that this was the last time he was going to work on a case with Gage.

            “That means she’s probably going to kill all the jury members and judge,” Gage’s voice rose slightly.     

            “So?” Trivette shrugged his shoulders.

            “My aunt was one of the jury members and so was a friend of mine.”

            “Yikes,” Kay said. 

            “And she’ll have added incentive for killing my aunt and friend because that will be revenge against me,” Gage looked slightly worried.

            “I think we better warn your aunt,” Walker said.

            “Good idea,” Gage headed down the street and Sydney followed him.

                                               CHAPTER 4   

            “Go left,” Gage’s instructions came in over the radio.  Trivette turned left.  Walker wasn’t entirely sure where he was going but Gage should know so he didn’t ask.

            “Turn left again,” Trivette turned the steering wheel to the left again.

            “Where are we going?” Trivette wanted to know.

            “I don’t know, Trivette, but Gage should know where his aunt lives.”

            “He should but that doesn’t mean he does know where she lives,” Trivette pointed out logically.  Gage’s brain worked differently from everybody else’s.  Walker had discovered that not long after they started working together.

            Finally they reached the house where Gage’s aunt lived.  Correction: they reached the mansion where she lived.  The house was five stories tall and white clapboard with black shutters.  A black limo was parked in front of the six car garage.  Walker couldn’t help but be impressed by the richness of the neighborhood.  He noticed that while Gage was dressed in jeans and a brown jacket he didn’t seem self-conscious at all about walking up to the house and ringing the doorbell.

            After Gage had rang the doorbell six times it was opened by a man dressed in a black suit.  He didn’t appear to be very old, Walker would guess about fifty.

            “Hello, Johnson, may we come in?” Gage spoke loudly and Walker noticed that the man seemed to be reading Gage’s lips, not listening to what he said.

            “Yes, Mr. Francis, you may come in.  Hello, Mr. Rhett, Ms. Sydney, Ms. Kay.”  The man nodded to each of them as they entered.  Gage winced at the use of his first name.

            “Is Aunt Zulu here?” Gage asked.

            Johnson nodded.  “Would you like to speak to her?”

            “If it’s not too much trouble,” Gage told him.

            Johnson moved to the bottom of the polished ornate staircase and called, “Miss Zulu!  Someone’s here to see you!”

            Trivette winced as the call wound through the room and up the staircase.  Walker could hear it reverberating off walls and pieces of furniture.

            Johnson turned to Gage and started speaking.  “She just got through reading a magazine article about a motorcycle gang.”

            Gage groaned.  “She didn’t.”

            “She did.  Your grandfather refuses to come out of his room until she stops wearing that doo-rag.  He says she looks just like you did when you wore one.”

            “How is Grandfather doing anyway?”

            “Not good.  The doctors said that last heart attack nearly killed him.  You wouldn’t know though to look at him though, sir.  He seems in perfectly good health. Especially when he and Miss Zulu are having one of their rows.”

            Suddenly there was a loud clanging sound from above.  Gage looked at the ceiling in concern and so did Johnson.  Then there came the sound of footsteps and a few seconds later a woman appeared at the top of the stairs.  She looked at Gage and even from that distance Walker could see the smile spread across her face.  She put her hand on the banister and hurried down as fast as she could in her long black sweeping skirt with fringe hanging from the hem.  As soon as she reached the foot of the stairs she ran across the floor to Gage and enveloped him in a hug despite the fact that Gage had a good five inches on her.

            “Gage, darling, what a surprise!  I thought you were working today,” she said.

            “I am, Aunt Zu, but I came to see you,” he explained.

            “How nice of you but you should be working,” Zulu Williams frowned up at him.

            “I am working,” Gage’s tone was patient.  “Do you remember Stella Meyers?”

            Zulu stepped back a step and frowned as she tried to remember.

            “Rhett and I arrested her,” Gage prompted.

            “Of course.  She was that dreadful woman you arrested for trying to sell the United States secrets a few months before your wife was killed and you had to raise…”

            “Aunt Zu,” Gage said hastily.  “Let’s not go there please.”

            Zulu looked up into Gage’s face and her smiling features softened.  “Of course.  It’s too painful for you.”

            “It’s not painful for me,” Gage said.  Whenever someone stated something Gage liked to challenge it even if it was the truth.

            “Yes, it is.  Now stop telling me that rigmarole.  What is this about Stella Meyers anyway?”

            “She escaped from prison a few days ago and has already killed three of the jury members who put her away.  I thought I’d just warn you.”

            “Thank you, Gage, for warning me.  But don’t worry I’ll be fine.  I’ve got your grandfather and Johnson to protect me.”

            “No offense but since Johnson is nearly ninety and Grandfather is in a wheelchair I doubt their going to be much protection. No offense, Johnson.”

            “None taken, sir.”  Johnson was nearly ninety?  He hid his age extremely well then.

            “Does this mean I get to carry around that gun you got me for my birthday?”

            “Yes,” Zulu clapped her hands with childish excitement as Gage continued speaking.  “But no shooting at anybody, Aunt Zu.  Especially police officers, ok?  You’re lucky you didn’t hurt him.”

            “For all I knew he was going to kill me, besides he looked at me funny.” 

            Gage looked at his aunt attired in biker apparel and murmured “I wonder why.”

            “Why are you wearing that, Aunt Zulu?” Sydney asked.

            Zulu patted the black scarf she had tied over her blonde hair with pride. “Do you like it?  I just got through reading a magazine article about motorcycle gangs plus I found some old photo albums with pictures of Gage in them and I decided it would be fun to dress up like this.”

            Gage just shook his head.  “Just because I did something, Aunt Zu, doesn’t mean you have to do it too.”

            “You did lots of things I would never even dream of doing.”

            “That’s true.  Now I gotta go back to work.  I just came to warn you,” Gage gave his aunt a hug.

            “Thank you, Gage.  It’s time for tea so I better go.  I hate being late.  Johnson?” Zulu turned to the butler who was still standing there.

            “The tea and cookies are ready, Miss.  I presume we’re having the tea in the study?”

            “Yes, I think so.  Farewell, Gage.”

            “Bye, Johnson.  Bye, Aunt Zu.  Love you,” Gage said as he stepped closer to the door.

            “Love you too, Gage darling.  Would it be too inconvenient to use the blue china tea set, Johnson, or would you prefer me to use the pink plastic set?”

            “Whichever you prefer, Miss,” they heard Johnson say as they exited the mansion.            As soon as they were safely on the sidewalk and out of hearing of the house Trivette turned on Gage.

            “That was your aunt?”

            “Yes that was my Aunt Zulu.”

            “What’s wrong with her?” was Trivette’s next question.

            Gage sighed before he answered.  “Aunt Zulu is what you would call simple-minded.  She has the mind of a child and thinks like a child.  She inherited the family curse.”

            “Family curse?” Walker repeated dubiously.

            “In every generation at least one person is born who is simple-minded.  Because she and my mom were twins Aunt Zu inherited the full strain of being simple.  I ended up with the diluted strain.”

            “They let a simple-minded person be on a jury?” Trivette seemed to be a little surprised by that.

            “They let a gang member be on the jury too, Trivette,” Gage sounded annoyed. “Now can we please stop discussing my aunt before I punch you?”

            “Didn’t you say that you had a friend on the jury as well, Gage?” Walker endeavored to bring peace to the conversation before Gage made good on his threat to punch Trivette.

            “Yeah, I did.  His name is Richard Everett.”

            “Let’s go warn him next.  Assuming he lives in Dallas.”

            “He does,” Gage continued glaring at Trivette.

            “How about you tell us where he lives and we’ll go there?” Walker suggested.

            The Dallas Martial Arts School was not a very big building.  In fact it was small Walker would have missed it if Trivette hadn’t been following Gage who was going the speed limit for once.  Walker and Trivette followed Gage, Sydney, Kay, and Rhett into the martial arts studio.

            A man dressed in white karate pants and shirt stood in the middle of the linoleum floor.  A group of kids in karate outfits stood facing him.  A boy Walker recognized as Steve was directly in front of the man.  They appeared to be sparring.

            “No, Steve, you kick hard,” the man urged. 

            Steve kicked with his left leg.  “Like this?” he asked.

            “Harder.”

            Steve kicked even harder and the man sighed.

            “Like this, Steve,” the man lashed out and came off the ground as his leg shot out in the air and hit the boy in the chest.  Steve fell down and the man stood over him triumphantly.  “Like that.  Now keep practicing while I take a break and talk to my visitors.” 

            He came over to where the Rangers were standing next to the wall.

            “You’re still hard on them, Richard,” Gage said.

            “If I wasn’t hard on them they wouldn’t get anywhere.  You know that, Gage.”

            “I know.  Walker, everybody, this is Richard Everett.  Richard, this is Walker, Trivette, Kay, Rhett, and you already know Sydney.”

            “Yes I do.  I take it you’re not here to workout are you?”

            “No, I’m not.  I’m here in an official capacity.”

            “As far as I know none of my students have done anything wrong or is this about Stella Meyers escaping from prison?”

            “You’re still as sharp as you used to be, Rich.  Nobody could put anything over you but if they did it wasn’t for long.  But yes this is about Stella escaping from prison.  We believe she’s killing off the jury members who sentenced her.”

            “Did you already warn your aunt?” Richard asked.

            Gage nodded.   “Yes we did.  I decided to warn her first since you can take care of yourself pretty good and it’s doubtful Stella would be able to surprise you.”

            “You have to be good at taking care of yourself if you’re going to live down here.  You found that out.”

            Gage winced.  “Yeah I sure did.  Well I need to go, Richard.”

            “All right.  Take care for yourself, Gage.  Steve, you need to work on your punches next,” Richard turned and went back to his class.  Gage shook his head.

            “That man is a complicated piece of work,” he said.

            “Did he teach you karate?” Walker asked.

            “Yes he did.  At least he taught me for about three years until I went to college in Houston.  Then I found a martial arts school down there to attend.”

SAN ANTONIO

            “What did he say?” Carlos asked as Trent hung up the phone.

            “We cannot take our vacation time right now since Joe is on vacation.  We have to wait until he comes back before we can take any time off.  I managed to arrange for us to be able to go to Trivette’s wedding though.”

            “Joe won’t be back for another two weeks,” Carlos protested.

            “That’s what I said.  He said if I wanted to complain then we could have no time off at all.”

            “I’m beginning to wish I had never asked my friend for a recommendation to get into the Secret Service,” Carlos moaned.           

            “It’s not your fault, Carlos.  Being a private detective was getting a little boring anyway.  Both of us wanted to experience a little more action.  We just didn’t count on not getting any time off.”

            “So we have to wait two weeks to go help your cousin.  Better call and express your condolences,” Carlos advised.

            “I will but it’s just so irritating.”  Trent sighed and picked up the phone again.

            Stella sat opposite Johann at a fancy restaurant that he had taken her too for dinner.  He liked taking her to fancy places. 

            “This is a lovely restaurant, Johann, thank you for bringing me here,” Stella said sincerely.  The restaurant was lovely.

            “You’re welcome.  I figured you’d like it,” he said with a boyish eagerness.  “I know I asked you out for a romantic dinner but do you need anything else?”

            Stella thought for a second.  “You got me out of prison but yes I do need something else.”

            “What?” Johann asked.  Whatever Stella wanted he would get for her if possible.

            “Some sniper rifles,” she answered simply.

            “How many do you need?” he pulled a note card out of his wallet and started scribbling on it.

            “Two should do the trick,” Stella replied thoughtfully.

            “Any specific brand you want?”

            “SR-16s,” she told him.

            “Two SR-16s it is.”

            “Now do we really have to discuss business, Johann?  I would much prefer to discuss our future together.”

            “Of course, Stella, whatever you wish.”  He put his wallet back in the pocket of his brown slacks and smiled at her.

                                                CHAPTER 5

Dallas Courthouse

            The next day started out as a quiet day and Walker hoped it would stay that way.  The past few days had quite hectic and he just wanted to relax for a few minutes.  Unfortunately it didn’t sound like he was going to get to.  Trivette was reading a book and Gage was making fun of the title.

            “Why are you reading How to Have a Perfect Marriage?” Gage asked.

            “Considering the fact that I’m going to get married in two months I have a good reason to be reading it,” Trivette explained.

            “Trivette, if you want to get advice on how to have a good marriage then talk to somebody who’s been married before.”

            “Like you?” Trivette said sarcastically.

            “Considering the fact that I was married for less than a year I wouldn’t advise asking me but I will give you one piece of advice.”

            “What’s that?” Trivette sounded bored as if he thought Gage wasn’t going to give him any sound advice about marriage.

            “Discuss whether or not you’re going to want to have children.  Believe me that is vital,” Gage warned.

            “Why is it vital?” Trivette risked asking.

            “Because my wife, Tina, and I nearly got divorced over that subject.”

            “Really?”

            “Uh-huh.  I didn’t know she didn’t want children and she didn’t know that I wanted children.  Neither one of us found out until she was pregnant and we had a huge blow-up,” Gage’s look became distant as his mind flashed back to that time.

            “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted children?” Tina yelled.

            “I didn’t know you didn’t want children,” Gage was confused.  He had thought that all women wanted children but Tina was proving him wrong.

            “Well, I don’t,” she screamed, “and I don’t want this one either!”

            “What are you suggesting we do then? Because I want this baby and I don’t believe in abortion.”

            “Start thinking then because I have no intention of giving birth to this baby!” Tina was furious as she turned and headed up the stairs.

            “Tina, be reasonable,” Gage pleaded.

            “I’ll only be reasonable when you decide you don’t want to have a baby either,” she informed him.

            “I’ll never decide that, Tina.”

            “Then I guess I won’t be reasonable,” she told him as she placed her hand on the banister post at the top of the stairs.

            “Tina!” Gage called but she continued down the hall and soon Gage could hear the sound of the bedroom door slamming.  “Women,” he exclaimed.

            “You’re wife was pregnant?” Gage was pulled back to the present by Trivette’s question.

            “Yes she was and she was not happy about it.”

            “Did the two of you make up?”

            “Eventually.”

            Tina stood at the bottom of the stairs and clutched her pink robe tightly to her.  She couldn’t hear Gage’s even breathing which meant he probably wasn’t sleeping.  The only sound she could hear was the humming of the refrigerator.  She moved forward into the living room and saw Gage lying on the couch.  As she got closer she stepped on a board and it creaked.

            “Who’s there?” Gage asked.

            “Me, Tina.” Tina moved to the side of the couch.

            “What are you doing up?” he asked sleepily.

            “I couldn’t sleep,” she told him which was the truth.   She had lain awake for hours thinking about what was the best way to apologize him.

            “Have a seat,” he offered sitting up and holding out the blanket toward her.  Tina hesitated a second then climbed in next to him.  It felt good to be sitting next to Gage again, feeling the warmth of his body as he sat next to her.

            “I’ve been thinking,” she said in a whisper.

            “About what?”

            “The baby.”

            “What about it?” she could feel him tensing and it hurt.  Had she ruined their relationship because she hadn’t wanted to give him a child?  Most women thought it was a privilege to have a child but she hadn’t and still didn’t think so.

            “I thought about it a lot and I decided that, if you still want it, I’m willing to give birth to the baby.”

            “You’re not just doing this because of me are you, Tina?” his voice sounded concerned.  Sweet, sweet Gage.  He wanted a child and when she was somewhat willing to give him one he made sure she wasn’t doing it for his sake.

            “No I’m not.  I’ve been thinking it over and I decided that I really do want a baby.  I just had to think about it a little first.”  She wondered if he knew she was lying. Hopefully not.  Gage had been deprived of enough in his life he didn’t deserve to be denied this chance to have a child to love and that would love him.

            “Well if you’re sure,” he said hesitantly.

            “I’m sure.  Now would you like to move back to our room?  I’m getting a little lonesome and cold in there by myself.”

            “I’d love to.  You have no idea how difficult it is trying to sleep on a couch that is several inches shorter than yourself.  Especially when you’re nearly six feet tall,” he rose off the couch and offered her his hand which she readily accepted. 

            “I’m really sorry that we fought, Gage,” Tina said as the two of them headed up the stairs.

            “Me too.  I just hope we don’t ever have another argument as bad as this one.”

            “I agree,” she whispered.

            “So did you keep the baby?” Trivette wanted to know.

            “Yes we ended up keeping the baby.  Tina said she changed her mind but I wonder if she really did or if she just said that because I wanted the baby.”

            “Was it a boy or girl?” Walker came out of his office.

            “A girl,” Gage said softly.  “Melissa Julie.  Tina picked Melissa and I picked Julie after my sister.”

            “Where is Melissa now?” Sydney, Rhett, and Kay entered the Ranger office in time to hear Trivette’s question.

            “In a Houston cemetery,” Gage said shortly before going to sit down at his desk.

            “Melissa died of leukemia the year he joined the Rangers,” Sydney explained.

            Walker watched Gage intently and saw the younger man blink away something that looked like tears. 

            Stella Meyers stood on the corner of the street and watched Gage’s white car coming driving down the street toward her.  This was the perfect chance to give Gage another warning.  The first warning hadn’t been enough.  She opened her long gray coat and withdrew the pistol that she had concealed in the small of her back.  She raised it and fired at the car.

            Gage drove slowly through the streets of Dallas because Walker had finally asked him if he would mind slowing down a little.  Walker watched the buildings as they headed toward Gage’s house.

            “Gage?” he said hesitantly.

            “Yeah?” Gage said.

            “You told me that your abusive foster homes were one reason you became a Ranger.  What were the other reasons if you don’t mind my asking?  If you don’t want to answer I understand.”

            “I don’t mind.  You were the second reason I became a Ranger.”

            “Me?  But you didn’t even know me then,” Walker had to admit that he was surprised by Gage’s answer.

            “True I didn’t know you but I knew C.D. Parker and sometimes when he came to visit me he would tell me stories about this new half-Cherokee partner he had and he loved to tell me that if I didn’t straighten up and get out of trouble you would end up arresting me.  You see when I was fifteen I got involved with a gang and so I was constantly in trouble but C.D. told me that you would take me down even if I was under eighteen and from what I heard I didn’t want that to happen.”

            “I’m certainly glad I had some influence on you even if I didn’t know it.”  Walker was glad.  He hadn’t known he had influenced Gage when he was fifteen.  C.D. had certainly never mentioned it.

            “The third reason was my last set of foster parents: Grant and Evelyn Everett.”

            “You knew Senior Ranger Captain Grant Everett?” Texas Ranger Grant Everett had been a legend in the Rangers for several years before Walker joined and he had heard a lot about him.  Grant had joined the Rangers at thirty and was quickly promoted to Captain of all of the Texas Rangers.  He rarely ever came to the Dallas courthouse but spent his time traveling around to the various headquarters and helping out wherever needed.  Walker had met the man a few times and had come away from each meeting with a desire to do his best at his job.  And Gage had had the man as a foster father?  No wonder Gage had become a Ranger.

            “Yes, I did.  I went to live with him and Evelyn when I was fifteen.  That was one interesting year.”

            “Why?”

            “Because that was the year I joined a gang and got arrested for robbing a convenience store.  I was a total pain believe me.”

            Walker certainly could believe it.  Being abused in two homes and getting moved around for a few years did not make for a very pleasant foster child.  Gage had probably done his best to deliberately irritate them.

            “I thought I was just going to be there for a few weeks since that was how long I usually stayed at a foster home.  But when it became obvious I was going to be there for a while I decided to make them earn the right to get close to me.  I feel sorry for them now.  They didn’t know what to do with me.  Especially when I came home from school wearing a doo-rag and looking like I just got in a fight.”  Gage chuckled.

            “You must have been a joy to raise,” Walker told him.

            “Oh, I was.  I did everything I could to make them regret they had taken me in and I came very close to it.  Evelyn hadn’t wanted to take me in at all but she agreed because Grant was so set on it.  It was no trouble to make her regret taking me in.  Grant however was a different story.  He wanted me and didn’t mind fighting me.”

            “Did you argue a lot?”

            “We sure did.  We argued over everything there was to argue about and when I joined the gang the arguments got really bad.  Although I never told them that I was in a gang.  That would have been disastrous.  Grant got a little worried about me and asked his brother Richard to teach me karate and find out why I was acting like a pain.”

            “Is Richard Everett the man we met the other day at the karate school?”

            “Yes, that’s Richard.  He wasn’t thrilled but he did it for Grant.  He was the one that figured out what gang I belonged to and Evelyn nearly went into hysterics when he told them.  Grant wasn’t much happier but they didn’t confront me about it.  That’s also when I met Carlos Sandoval.  He was constantly picking me up for something but he never formally arrested me on any charges because I didn’t mind giving him a tip or two and he never caught me.  The only time he arrested me was when I got caught red-handed robbing a convenience store.  Grant and Evelyn were both ready to kill me that time.”

            “I can’t say I blame them.  I probably would have killed you before then.”

            “I know.  The most surprising thing to me was that when I got put in juvie they visited me and said that they were willing to take me back in.  I didn’t really expect that.  That’s when I decided that they were all right but even then I didn’t quit the gang.”

            “Why did you quit the gang?”

            Gage was silent for a minute as he stared out the windshield and then he spoke. “One day my gang got in a fight with another gang and a teenage girl was killed.  I didn’t kill her but I still felt guilty about it and I decided right then and there to quit.  I mean, that could’ve been my sister Julie and so the next day I quit.  I decided to go into law enforcement mostly because of Grant.  I figured if he could make such a big influence on me then I could at least do my best to make an influence on somebody else.  Even if I only convinced one kid not to join a gang or something like that that was one less kid in danger.”

            “Thank you for telling me, Gage,” Walker said quietly.

            “You’re welcome,” Gage said.

            Just then bullets rang out and hit the passenger door with a thud.  Gage jerked the wheel to the side and the tires squealed as he hit the brakes.  The two men unbuckled their seat belts and were out in a flash.  They held their weapons in their hands as they went to the sidewalk where a woman was in hysterics.

            “Did anybody see the shooter?” Walker demanded.

            The hysterical woman nodded and pointed.  “She ran that way,” she sobbed.

            Walker and Gage took off in the direction indicated but to no use.  The woman whoever she was had had too much of a head start on them.

            “I sincerely hope it wasn’t Stella Meyers,” Gage sagged against the side of a building and struggled to catch his breath.

            “Unfortunately it probably was but just to make sure we need to get a description from the witness.”

            “Good luck.  I’m sorry you got shot at by the way.”

            “I’m used to getting shot at.  I just hope your car is still drivable.”

            “Thanks for reminding me.  I had forgotten all about that.”

            “I got the description of the shooter from the witness,” Trivette announced as he sat his laptop on a metal bench and then sat down himself.

            “And?” Gage prompted as the Rangers gathered around Trivette to see.

            “Just a second, Gage,” Trivette’s black fingers flew over the keyboard and a picture of a woman popped up. 

            She was obviously Korean; her coloring and face told that.  Her black eyes matched her hair and she was wearing a long gray coat that was ideal for hiding a firearm.

            “Stella Meyers,” Gage groaned.

            “Is that really her?” Trivette asked.

            “Yep that’s her,” Rhett’s voice was not filled with enthusiasm.

            Stella Meyers sped down the sidewalk until she reached a black Ford car and climbed in.  She buckled her seat belt and took off down the street until she reached a highway that would take her to Fort Worth where Gage’s sister lived.  It was time to make him realize just how serious she was.

            Gage closed his cell phone with a snap and Walker looked at him.  “Who was that?” Walker wanted to know.

            “My sister Julie.  I thought I’d give her another warning that she might be in danger.”

            “What did she say?”

            “She laughed and said it was ridiculous and that she didn’t believe I could be a threat to anybody much less a criminal.”

            “No one would have thought that she could be a threat to a criminal either,” Walker reminded him. 

            “I told her that and she said that she was more dangerous than I was.”

            “Somehow I don’t think so.”

FORT WORTH

            Julie Gage exited the building that housed the Fort Worth newspaper and walked toward the parking lot where her car was parked.  She couldn’t believe that her brother thought that she could be in danger.  Just because she had gotten kidnapped by a crime boss the time she visited him in Dallas he thought she was a target for some murderer he had locked up years ago.  Honestly, little brothers could be so annoying and so protective that it was ridiculous.

            She laughed as she unlocked her red Chevrolet.

            “What’s so funny?” a voice behind her asked.

            Before Julie had a chance to scream a hand was wrapped around her mouth and a knife pressed into her belly.

            “Now listen to me, Julie Gage.  I’m going to assume your brother warned you about me and he was right to warn you because I am going to kill you,” the voice whispered in her ear.

            Julie had been petrified at first but now she was simply furious.  How dare someone go after her brother and then try to kill her as well.  She jabbed her elbow into her attacker’s stomach and was rewarded by a grunt.  She then swung her purse and managed to hit the person in the head.  Whoever it was dropped their hand from her mouth and Julie took advantage of the opportunity and let out a scream.  The person cursed and took off running in the opposite direction.  As they passed under a street lamp Julie saw realized it was a woman.

            A security guard came running toward her with his weapon in his hand.

            “Are you all right, ma’am?” he asked.

            “Someone just tried to kill me,” Julie said breathlessly. 

            “Which direction did they go?”

            “She went that way,” Julie pointed.  “But you’ll never catch her now.  She’s had too much of a head-start.”

            “I’ll call the police,” he pulled the cell phone out of his belt and started dialing.

            “Call the Texas Rangers as well.  My brother’s a Ranger.”

            “Are you all right?” was Gage’s first question as soon as he saw Julie.

            “Other than being shaken up a little bit I’m just fine.”  Despite her words Julie shivered.  Gage noticed and gave her his jacket which she gratefully accepted although the brown leather swallowed her.

            “Julie, I know it’s a little painful to talk about but can you tell us what happened?” Sydney asked.

            “I had just come out of the newspaper office and I was unlocking my car when all of a sudden somebody grabbed me.  She covered my mouth and pressed a knife into my stomach and said that she was the woman you warned me about so I jabbed her in the stomach and then I screamed and hit her with my purse and she took off running.  Then the security guard showed up and…” Julie stopped.

            “Its okay, Julie, that’s enough information.  Isn’t it, Sydney?” Gage put a protective arm around his sister as he gave his partner a warning look.

            “That’s enough for now.  After all it’s late and I don’t really want to discuss Stella Meyers anymore than we have to.”

            “I hate to interrupt but I think we’re being left out in the cold, Rangers,” they turned to see Detective Burton standing there.  “You’re holding out on something and I think it’s time we were told everything.”

            “So you see that’s why she tried to kill Julie,” Gage concluded.       

            They were sitting in a conference room of the newspaper office and Gage had just got through explaining everything to Detective Burton.

            “Stella Meyers,” Burton mused.  “Isn’t she the woman who escaped from prison a few days ago?”

            “Yes although it feels like weeks ago,” Rhett nodded in agreement with Gage’s words.            “We’ll get an APB out on her.  Attempting to kill a Ranger’s sister is serious along with killing three other people.  At least we have a good description of her.”

            “We should since we’ve chased her several times over the past few days,” Gage said.  “Can we go now, Detective?  I need to get my sister home.”

            “What do you mean you have to get me home?  I can see myself home just fine,” Julie seemed to have recovered from her ordeal.

            “If you think I’m going to let you go home by yourself you’ve got to be kidding,” Gage informed her.   

            “Are you going to stay with me?” she retorted.    

            “No you’re going to stay at my house.”

            “What?” Julie was outraged.

            “You can stop by your apartment long enough to get some clothes but then we’re going to my house.”

            “All right, all right,” Julie grumbled.

            By the time they arrived at Gage’s house it was nearly eleven o’clock at night.  Gage said he was going to bed and so did Julie.  Walker decided to follow suit and they all went up to their rooms.  A few minutes later however the doorbell rang. 

            “Who could that be?” Gage wondered as he went down the stairs.

            “I don’t know,” Julie said irritably from right behind him.

            Gage opened the front door and Zulu Williams entered.

            “Hello, Gage, Julie, Ranger Walker,” she said cheerfully as she sat down her suitcase.

            “Aunt Zu, what are you doing here?” Gage asked in disbelief.

            “Well your grandfather and I got in a fight and…”

            “And he threw you out again,” Gage finished.

            Zulu beamed at him.  “Exactly and I was wondering if I could stay with you for the night or until I can find another place to stay.”

            “I don’t care if you stay with me, Aunt Zu, but I will warn you that’s going to be a little crowded though with Julie, Walker, and his daughter Angela staying here.  You’ll probably have to sleep on the couch unless you want my bed.”

            “I’m fine with the couch, Gage, really,” Zulu assured him.

            “All right I guess it’s time for me to go to bed then.  Oh, Aunt Zu, you’re welcome to use the kitchen whenever you want and you’re welcome to clean the house as well.”

            Zulu’s face brightened.  “Thank you, Gage.  I love cooking and cleaning.”

            “Good night,” Gage told her as she sat her suitcase on the floor next to the couch.

            “Good night, Gage, Julie, Ranger Walker.”

            “Night, Aunt Zulu,” Julie stifled a yawn as she turned toward the stairs.

            “See you in the morning, Miss Williams,” Walker went toward the stairs as well with Gage behind him.

            “Good night,” Gage yawned as he said it.

            “Night,” Julie and Walker said then they all went to bed.

FORT WORTH MILITARY BASE

            Everything was quiet on the Fort Worth military base as it should be.  Almost all the guards were at their proper places and everybody was sound asleep.  Only one guard wasn’t where he should have been.  Johann Dupree looked up and down the long narrow hallway making sure no one saw him.  If they did he would merely say he was making sure Carson wasn’t asleep at his post.  Fortunately no one saw him so he slipped down the hallway and to a door that read WEAPONS STORAGE.   This was the room where the sniper rifles Stella wanted were stored.  He took his ID card and slid it into the slot.  He waited until a green light flickered and then he opened the door and was inside the room.  He closed the door and walked over to a row of boxes against the wall.

            He opened one of the boxes and withdrew two sniper rifles.  He wrapped them up in his camouflage jacket and closed the box back.  Once again Johann looked up and down the hallway before making a run for it.  He went up and down various hallways before making it back to his room.  He shoved the weapons in his red duffel bag and zipped it.  He stood in the middle of the room and listened.  Everything was silent.  No one must have him running down the hall.  He breathed a sigh of relief and climbed into his bunk.   

            Walker woke up at five a.m. to the sound of vacuuming.  He tried to go back to sleep without success.  Finally around six he gave up and went downstairs after getting dressed.  He nearly stepped on Julie who was sitting on the bottom of the staircase typing on her laptop and talking on her cell phone.  Gage was sitting at the kitchen table looking as if he could use a couple more hours of sleep and Angela was trying to help Zulu with something but was mostly getting in the way.

            “Uncle Gage really chased Aunt Julie around the yard with a frog?” the little girl asked.

            “More than once,” Zulu told her. “Julie hated frogs so Gage loved to pick one up and chase her.  She would give the loudest screams and always scared my sister Katherine who was their mother.  Gage would always get in trouble for it with Katherine but their father thought it was funny.  Sometimes he would laugh for hours on end.”

            “You thought it was funny too didn’t you, Aunt Zu?” Gage spoke up from the table.

            “Yes I did.  Even that time you threw the frog at me.”

            “Uncle Gage threw the frog at you?” Angela looked at her uncle with new respect.  If she had done something like that she would have gotten in a lot of trouble.

            “It was an accident,” Gage protested.  “She got right in front of me just as I was chasing Julie and the frog jumped in her hair.  Fortunately for me Aunt Zu likes frogs.”

            “I don’t,” Angela exclaimed with a shudder.  “They’re slimy and gross.”

            “That’s why I like them,” Zulu explained.  “Everybody says they’re disgusting and nobody likes them so I figure I should try to make up for that.”

            “You like anybody that’s not wanted.  Even me,” Gage grinned.

            “You were too wanted, Gage, nobody just ever told you that you were wanted except of the Everett’s.  They were the only ones to tell you that besides me.”  Walker realized that Zulu was a lot like Gage.  They both liked to argue over things although Zulu was doing it more in defense of her nephew than anything else.  Gage liked to argue simply for the sake of arguing.

            “Good morning, Walker,” Gage said so brightly although Walker suspected it was the influence of the caffeine.

            “Good morning, Gage, Miss Williams, Angela,” Walker stepped all the way into the kitchen.

            “Morning, Ranger Walker, and please call me Zulu,” Zulu flipped whatever it was that was in the frying pan.

            “Okay, Zulu, I hope Angela’s not in the way.”

            “She’s not in the way.  I like having someone to help me in the kitchen since Gage was never too keen on it.”

            “The last time I cooked while you were here you asked me not to cook again.”

            “No offense but that toast was pure black.  I didn’t see how you could even eat it,” Zulu turned the frying pan upside down and what looked like a pancake fell onto a plate.       “But before we argue about anything else breakfast is ready.”  She sat three plates heaped high with pancakes down on the table.

            Gage pulled one of the plates toward him and proceeded to cover the pancakes on it with butter and syrup.  Walker gave the second plate to Angela who resented being taken away from her duties as kitchen helper.  He had just started on the third plate when Julie came in and sat down at the table.  Zulu put a plate in front of her and Julie looked at it askance.

            “Uh, Aunt Zulu, I’m on a diet,” she said.

            Zulu merely snorted.  “Julie, you don’t need to be on a diet.  You’re scrawny enough as it is.  In fact you could stand to gain some weight if you ask me.”

            “I didn’t ask you but I guess I’ll eat them.”

            “What article are you working on now, Julie?” Gage asked his sister.

            “Just how the sister of a Texas Ranger was nearly killed last night by an old enemy of her brother’s,” Julie replied airily.

            “Julie, please tell me you’re joking,” Gage pleaded.

            “I’m not and don’t even argue with me, Francis.  This is a good opportunity to warn all of the jury members and judge about her.”

            “Julie has a good point, Gage,” Walker pointed out which only got him a glare.

            “Just make sure you spell my name correctly,” Gage said with a sigh.

            “Francis is spelled with an e right?” her eyes twinkled wickedly.

            “That’s for a girl.  For a boy you spell it with an i,” Gage told her.

            “I got you.”  Julie laughed and Gage just looked at her.

            Gage got up from the table. “That was good, Aunt Zu, thank you and yes I got enough.  I’ll be in my office, Walker, when you’re ready to go.”

            After the table had been cleaned off Walker went in search of Gage.  It took him a few minutes to find his way to Gage’s office since he had to go through the living room to get to it.  He knocked on the door and then went into the office where Gage was methodically tearing a piece of paper into shreds.

            “What are you doing?” Walker asked.

            “Tearing a piece of paper into tiny pieces so I won’t go berserk,” Gage replied.

            “If Angela and I are going to be a problem then I’m sure Trivette won’t mind letting us move in with him,” Walker offered.

            “You’re not a problem, Walker.  You don’t drive me batty.”

            “But your aunt and sister do?”

            “Yes.  Julie’s always been annoying and Aunt Zu’s a little simple so I can’t get mad at her or else she’ll cry.  She always does if you get too harsh with her,” Gage sighed and another fragment of paper fluttered to the desk.

            “I wish you would let me pay you back,” Walker frowned.

            “Walker, I have more money than I know what to do with now and I certainly don’t need any money from you.  If you really want to pay me back find out where Trivette wants to go for his bachelor party.”

            “He wants to go to a secluded lake with good fishing, no bears, and a camping store nearby.”

            “If anybody wanted to go somewhere with no bears it should be me since I’m the one who got mauled by the bear at your bachelor party.”

            Walker winced as he remembered that event. Gage and Trivette had taken him to Lake Ebby for a quiet week of fishing but Gage had gotten attacked by a blood-thirsty bear that had already killed two other people.  It had taken a miracle to get him back to civilization and even then he nearly hadn’t made it.  “At least you survived.”

            “Just barely and I still have the scars on my chest from where he clawed me.  So does Trivette have a specific place in mind?”

            “Someplace called Lake Memory,” Walker said.  Gage stilled and the paper particles stopped falling.

            “Lake Memory?”

            “Yes he said he heard about it from somebody.  Gage, is something wrong?” Gage looked shocked.            “No.  Lake Memory huh?”

            “Yeah.  I think he said it was a privately owned lake and it would be all right if he had to go someplace else.”

            “Since I know the guy who owns Lake Memory it won’t be a problem for us to go there.  We’re leaving in two weeks right?”

            “Right.”

            Walker was about to say something else when a picture sitting on the desk caught his eye.  He picked it up and studied it for a second before asking Gage, “Is this your daughter?”

            “Yes, that’s Melissa,” Gage’s voice was extremely soft.

            “She’s very pretty,” Walker told him as he looked at the picture again.  It was of a little girl.  She had short dark brown hair and brown eyes.  She was sitting on a motorcycle and grinning at whoever had taken the picture.

            “Thank you.  She must have gotten the hair from Tina’s side of the family.  Everybody on my side has blond hair.”  Gage fell silent and Walker put the picture back on the desk.

            “Let me know when you’re ready to go to work.”

            “I’m ready whenever you are,” Walker smiled in amusement as Gage jumped up from his desk.

            “Let’s go then,” Gage said eagerly.

            “Don’t forget my truck’s coming in today,” Walker reminded Gage.

            “Okay I’ll take you by the car lot on our way home from work.”

            The day passed without incident.  Gage’s friend said they could stay at Lake Memory so Trivette was thrilled and didn’t even tease Gage about anything which made it a good day.  Sydney made fun of Gage’s motorcycle some more but that was about it.  After work Gage drove Walker to the car lot so Walker could get his truck.  The salesman was thrilled to get the money in cash as Gage had gone to the bank during lunch so Walker was able to drive off the lot in his brand new Dodge Ram GMC.

            Finding somewhere to park it in Gage’s driveway was a bit of a challenge so Walker parked it on the street.  Gage didn’t eat much supper and worked on his motorcycle for the rest of the evening.  Walker helped him a little bit and Zulu kept Angela out of the way by telling her stories about when Gage was a little boy much to his dismay.

            That night while Walker was sleeping he woke up to hear the phone ringing.  He tried to find it but remembered that he wasn’t at his house anymore.  A few seconds later someone pounded on his door and Walker opened it.

            “What is it, Gage?” he asked.

            “The hospital just called.  Alex is stirring and they think she’s waking up.”

            “Thanks for telling me.  I’ll head over there in just a second.”

            “I’m going to tell everybody that you’re not coming in to work today.  Is that all right?”

            “Sure.  Sorry you had to get up.”

            “It’s all right.  I hope she wakes up.  Night,” Gage stumbled down the hallway and disappeared back into his room.

            Walker dressed hurriedly and was soon on his way to the hospital.  Doctor Clark sent him to Alex’s room and Walker sat by her bed and waited.

            She was moving her fingers a little but seemed to be it.  Walker didn’t care since even the slightest movement was better than none.  Then she moved her head from side to side and then her eyelids fluttered and opened and her blue eyes looked straight into his.

            “Have I been asleep long?” she asked.

            Walker chuckled and squeezed her hand.  “Only about four years, Alex.”

                                               CHAPTER 6

ST. MATHEW’S HOSPITAL

            “So Darren Gibbs shot me because this Stella Meyers lady paid him to do it because she wanted to get back at Gage and Rhett for putting her in prison almost twenty years ago,” Alex was sitting up in her hospital bed since she claimed she felt well enough to do so.

            “Right and she also blew up my truck as a warning to Gage, shot at us and tried to kill his sister.”

            “I’m sure that made Gage happy,” Alex commented.

            “Especially when he told her she had to move in with him.”

            “He didn’t,” Alex sat straight up.

            “He did and then his aunt showed up because his grandfather kicked her out the house.  At least that was my understanding but I never really understand anything about Gage that much.”

            “I’m a little confused.  I thought Gage told us he didn’t have any family except for Julie,” Alex frowned as she tried to figure everything out.

            “He did tell us that.  According to him his grandfather didn’t want to raise them because their father was poor and his aunt is so simple minded she couldn’t have taken them in.”

            “Who is his grandfather?”

            “Harrison Williams,” Walker waited and saw Alex’s eyes widen when the realization sank in.

            “The billionaire?” her voice was little more than a whisper.

            “Apparently and Gage is also the owner of the Ranger Reality Trucking Company.  I didn’t find that out until I ran into the back of one of his trucks.”

            Alex leaned back against the pillows.  “But nothing else bad has happened right?”

            “Well Stella Meyers has also attempted to kill all the jury members who put her away and we also discovered Gage was abused as a child, was married to Rhett’s sister, and had a daughter who died after he joined the Rangers.”

            “Gage was… Oh never mind, I’m too tired to ask.  Where’s Angela?”

            “Gage is watching her.”

            “Gage is?”

            “Trivette had the same look on his face when I told him that.  I had a meeting one night and wouldn’t get home until late so Gage volunteered to watch her.  I will admit I was a little apprehensive and called him every hour until he threatened to take the phone off the hook but it worked out fine.  Now he watches her whenever either I or Josie at the Help Our People Excel Center can’t.”

            “That’s good.  Now if you don’t mind I’d like to go to sleep.  I’m tired,” Alex scooted down a little bit in the bed.

            “I don’t mind, honey.  Sleep all you want, I’m not going anywhere,” Walker told her as he adjusted the pillows.

            “That feels good, Walker.  Thanks. Wait a minute; there’s something you’re not telling me isn’t there?”

            “A lot but I’ll tell you tomorrow when you’re not so tired.”

            “Thank you.  I love you by the way,” she murmured.

            “I love you too. Sweet dreams,” he leaned down and kissed her on the lips then settled down in the chair again to watch her sleep a natural sleep.

            The Ranger office was quiet.  Walker and Gage weren’t there yet and Trivette and Rhett both were not quite awake yet.  Sydney and Kay were discussing the latest fashions when Gage came in and yelled, “Alex is awake!”

            All four Rangers jumped as Gage yelled then Sydney gave her partner a reproachful look.

            “Gage, if you have something to say then say it in a civilized manner, not yelling like a maniac.”’

            “Sorry, Syd, but Alex is awake.  She woke up last night.”

            “That’s wonderful,” Rhett said for them all.

            “By the way, Walker’s not coming in today,” Gage poured himself some coffee.

            “I figured he wouldn’t.  It would be like if Sydney had been the one shot, Gage wouldn’t leave her bedside for a single second,” Trivette teased.

            “I would too.  When it was time to eat but then I would come right back since I care a lot about…” Gage’s voice trailed off as he realized what he was saying.  Sydney was looking intently at something on her desk and the other three were staring at him.  “Well she’s my partner,” he said defensively.

            “Sure, Gage, sure,” Trivette grinned at him knowingly.

            “When did she wake up?” Kay ignored Trivette’s teasing and turned to Gage.

            “Sometime after midnight, I think.”

            “You think?” Rhett raised his eyebrows at his brother-in-law.

            “I didn’t look at the clock when the phone rang.  I simply told Walker the hospital called and went back to bed.”

            Sydney just shook her head in disbelief.  “Gage, sometimes I wonder about you.”

            “What do you wonder?” he asked as he came and stood at her desk.

            “How you became a Ranger.”

            “How did you become a Ranger anyway?” Trivette wondered.

            “What do you mean?” Gage gave Trivette a puzzled look.

            “How did you become smart enough to join the Rangers?” Kay explained.

            “Easy.  I simply listened, learned, and kept my mouth shut.  Now I need to do some paperwork.”  Gage sat down and started filling out various pieces of paperwork that were scattered about on his desk.

            The other Rangers agreed and started working on various things that required their attention.

ST. MATHEW’S HOSPITAL

            Alex was awake once again and so Walker was filling her in on what had happened over the past few weeks.

            “Kay and Sydney are sisters and they were kidnapped when they were little by their father and now their niece Kimberly who is their brother’s daughter is missing after she and a friend witnessed a murder believed to have been committed by Stella Meyers.  Did I get it right?” Alex asked.

            “Yes you did.  Detective Burton is investigating the murders again but this time he’s being very cooperative.”

            “I’m sure he is.  Has Jimmy come back from training CIA recruits?”

            “Uh-huh, he said he got tired of training a bunch of green guys plus he missed all of us.  Although that changed after about five minutes,” Walker said with a chuckle.

            “Have he and Erika gotten married yet?”

            “Not yet.  Their wedding is almost three months away in September and we’re taking him on his bachelor party in a few days although I suppose we could postpone it.”

            “Don’t you dare postpone it, Cordell Walker.  I’ll be just fine by myself.  Have Gage and Sydney started dating yet?”

            “No, why would they?”

            “Because they’re in love with each other,” Alex said patiently.

            “They are?  I never knew that.”

            “Walker, even Jimmy can tell they were in love with each other.  Men are so dense sometimes it hurts.”

            “Now you’re sounding like Sydney when she’s mad at Gage about something,” Walker teased.

            “Did Gage stop acting weird?”

            “Weird?  What do you mean, Alex?” Walker frowned at his wife.

            “You told me that he kept calling you sir and jumping every time you talked to him.  Has he stopped that?”

            “He sure has.  He told me that Robert Malrosky from the Secret Service taught him that when somebody, even a good friend, was put in a position over you that you were supposed to treat them like a boss not a friend.”

            “Did you threaten to punch him if he didn’t stop it?” Alex was smiling.

            “I didn’t threaten as much as warn him.”

            Alex laughed and Walker was happy to hear it.  She had been in a coma far too long but at least she was awake now.

            “Was Gage really married to Rhett’s sister?”

            “Apparently so.  From what I heard she died less than a year after they got married and they had a daughter named Melissa who died of leukemia not long after he joined the Rangers.”

            “Who would have thought that?  I wouldn’t have.”

            “Trivette and I were just as stunned as you are.  I think Sydney and Kay already knew.”

            “I wouldn’t be surprised.  Sydney knows almost everything there is to know about Gage.”  Alex commented.

            “I’m going to lunch now,” Gage announced as he stood up with his car keys in his hand.

            “One hour,” Sydney didn’t even look up from the clothes magazine she was browsing.

            “One hour?  Syd, you’re not my boss.  Trivette, can I have two hours for lunch?”

            “Why do you need two hours?” Trivette wanted to know.          

            “I gotta go visit my grandfather today and I’m going to need two hours to get there and back plus blow off some steam,” Gage explained.

            “You can have two hours, Gage; just don’t come back in a bad mood,” Trivette told him wishing that he didn’t have to play boss when Walker was gone. It was no fun refereeing the fights between Gage and Sydney although the job did have its perks at time.

            “What are you doing here?” Harrison Williams asked as soon as Gage entered his room and sat down in a brown leather chair.

            “It’s time for my annual visit, Grandfather.”

            “I didn’t ask you to come see me,” Harrison grunted.

            “How are you doing today?” Gage ignored his grandfather’s grumpiness as best as he could.

            “As well as could be expected considering I don’t have anybody to take over the family business when I die.”

            Gage rolled his eyes.  Whenever he visited him, his grandfather liked to use the guilt tactic so he would quit the Rangers and take over the business.

            “You could let Aunt Zu take it over,” he offered.

            Harrison’s snort filled the entire room.  “Let your simple-minded aunt run the business?  She would run it into the ground in five seconds flat.”

            “It’s not Aunt Zulu’s fault that she was born like that anymore than it was Mom’s fault she was born normal.”

            “Well your mother should just be as simple as Zulu since she threw away her life on your father,” Harrison’s words were full of fury and Gage stood.     

            “If you’re going to insult Mom and Dad then I should just leave.  What is your problem with Dad anyway?”

            “Besides the fact that he was an arrogant young idiot nothing.”

            “You mean he refused to take your money and a job working for you,” Gage interrupted.

            “An arrogant young idiot,” Harrison repeated.  Gage sighed and walked over to the window and looked out of it.

            Stella Meyers sat in an apartment in the building next to Harrison Williams’ house.  She didn’t know why they had put an apartment complex there but she wasn’t complaining.  It gave her a perfect view into Harrison Williams’ sitting room through the binoculars.  She could see Gage moving around and then he came to the window and looked out.  A second later his grandfather moved his wheelchair toward him and Stella seized the chance.  She threw the binoculars to the floor and grabbed one of the sniper rifles Johann had stolen for her.

            She raised it to her shoulder, adjusted the scope, and fired.

            “When are you going to let Aunt Zu move back in?” Gage asked.

            “When she stops being such an idiot and not before then.”

            “Grandfather,” Gage started to say something when the sound of bullets rang out and the glass window exploded.  Gage tackled his grandfather and the two men and Harrison’s wheelchair hit the floor.  The older man grunted in pain when Gage landed on top of him.

            The bullets rang out for several more seconds than stopped and Gage looked up cautiously.

            “I think it’s safe to get up now,” he said as he rose from the floor.

            “You're going to have to help me up, Francis.”  Gage looked at his grandfather in concern.  His face was white and his breathing was ragged.

            “Johnson!” Gage yelled as he knelt on the floor.

            “I don’t need a nursemaid,” Harrison gasped weakly.

            Gage just ignored him and yelled again, “Johnson!”

            “If somebody shot at you from that angle they would have to have been directly across from you,” Trivette was saying.

            “Then they would have been in the apartment complex,” Gage said.

            “Why is your Grandfather’s house in the middle of town?” Kay asked.

            “Because he wanted to be able to keep tabs on all of his businesses,” Gage’s voice indicated he was bored of talking about his grandfather.

            “Let’s go check it out then,” Rhett suggested.

            They obtained the master key from the manager and went to check out all the apartments that overlooked the mansion.  Three of the rooms proved a blank until they came to apartment number 314. 

            They went inside and found that it was totally empty except for a pair of binoculars on the floor and a high-powered rifle lying next to it.

            Gage picked it up and Rhett looked at it over his shoulder.

            “That looks like the one you used to have, Gage,” he commented.

             “I used to have an SR-04.  This is an SR-16.  That’s a twelve model difference,” Gage’s voice was filled with contempt for Rhett’s stupidity.

            “Yours was just as fancy though wasn’t it?”

            Gage shook his head.  “The only thing mine had was a scope and it was bent.”

            “Really?  I never would have guessed from the way you shot.”

            “What are you guys talking about?” Trivette felt lost.

            “The first two years Rhett and I worked for the Secret Service we did a lot of undercover work but we finally got promoted.  I became a sniper and he was my assistant,” Gage looked at the rifle intently.

            “Ah,” Trivette nodded in non-understanding.  “So did she do this?” he gestured toward the rifle Gage was holding.

            “Only one way to find out,” Sydney pulled out her cell phone and started dialing.

            “This rifle and another one were stolen from a military base in Fort Worth a day or two ago.  Also two week before that a box of grenades went missing and the interesting thing is that Johann Dupree is a security guard there,” Gage hung up his cell phone.

            “Who is he?” Trivette could see by the puzzled look on Kay’s face that she didn’t know how he was either.

            “Stella Meyer’s boyfriend,” Gage smiled.

            “I don’t know anything,” Johann Dupree was obviously scared as he sat in the small interrogation room at the military base while the Rangers interrogated him.

            “Look, Johann, Stella is your girlfriend and she’s out to get revenge on two Rangers and someone shot one of the Rangers with a rifle that was stolen from this military base.  I would advise you talk,” Trivette rested his foot on the table.

            “I promise I don’t know anything,” Johann said although his voice wasn’t defiant.

            “Stella killed three people, attempted to kill three others, and ordered a shooting that resulted in someone getting wounded.  That’s three counts of murder plus four counts of attempted murder.  You’re looking at the execution sentence right there even without stealing the weapons,” Gage spoke up from his position next to Trivette.

            “So?  I don’t care if I get executed.  I love Stella and I would do anything for her,” Johann’s voice was sincere.  Trivette looked at Gage and could see the look of understanding on his face.  Even Trivette could understand what Johann was saying.  Trivette would do anything for his fiancée Erika Carter except murder.

            “Johann, love isn’t going to do you any good when you’re rotting in a prison cell,” Sydney did her best to explain as she stood next to her partner.

            “I don’t care.  I will not betray Stella and I’m happy she nearly succeeded in killing your sister, Ranger Gage.”

            Gage’s eyes blazed and for a second Trivette was afraid he would physically attack Johann but he merely swallowed and gave Johann a hard look.

            “We’ll talk later, Johann, but we will get the truth out of you sooner or later,” Gage stepped back from the table.

            “I can go?” Johann rose from his chair and looked at Trivette inquiringly who nodded.  The door closed softly behind Johann on his way out.

            “We’re not going to get anything out of him,” Gage said.

            “Sure we will, Gage, it’ll just take a little time,” Sydney sounded optimistic.

            “No we won’t, Syd.  He loves Stella too much to betray her to us.  I mean if the woman I love was wanted by the police I wouldn’t tell them where she was either.”

            “The woman you love?” Kay repeated.  “And who would that be?”

            “It’s none of your business,” Gage’s face had a slight red tinge to it.  Sydney just looked at the wall behind Trivette’s head but he could still see a slight color in her cheeks as well.

            “Thanks, Trivette,” Walker closed the cell phone and slid it back into his pocket.

            “What did Jimmy want?” It was just a little difficult to understand Alex since she was chewing on something that the hospital had tried to pass off as a salad.

            “Someone tried to kill Gage and his grandfather today using a sniper rifle that was stolen from a military base that Stella Meyer’s boyfriend works at.”

            “Did anybody get hurt?”

            “No.  Gage tackled his grandfather before he got hit but apparently he has a heart condition so they brought him to the hospital.  Everybody is on their way over here if you’re up to company.”

            “Of course I’m up to company,” Alex said indignantly.  “I’ve only been in a coma for four years, Walker.  That doesn’t make me an invalid.”

            “It’s so good to see you guys again,” Alex smiled at all of the Rangers and Erika Carter standing in her hospital room.

            “It’s good to see you awake,” Erika Carter declared.  Everybody else agreed with her.

            “Where’s Angela?” Alex wanted to know where her daughter was.

            “At the H.O.P.E. Center,” Gage answered.  “I figured you would want to see her so Josie is going to bring her later if that’s all right.”

            “That’s perfect.  I haven’t seen her for so long.  I bet she’s grown a lot.”

            “She has.  She’s just as stubborn as her mother,” Walker squeezed Alex’s hand and everybody with the exception of Gage and Rhett laughed.  The two men had been extremely quiet since they had come in.  Alex could guess what was bothering them but she wanted to wait until they were alone before confronting them.

            They all stayed a few more minutes then said it was time to go back to work. “Gage, Rhett, I want to talk to you two privately for a minute,” Alex shot a look at Walker who escorted Sydney, Kay, Trivette, and Erika out of the room.

            “What is it, Alex?” Rhett asked as they came closer to her bed.

            “I know you guys are feeling pretty guilty about what happened at the courthouse…”

            “You got that right,” Gage interrupted.

            “…and I would feel the same way but it wasn’t your fault.  Stella Meyers did not have to hire Darren Gibbs to shoot me and she didn’t have to blame you.  The only thing you two did was your job which was to arrest her.  I’m perfectly fine and still alive and at least Gage and Kay killed Darren.  I would like to enjoy getting out of the hospital but I can’t if the two of you are going to blame yourselves for something that you had no control over and even if you had told us nothing would have been accomplished.  We couldn’t have prevented the shooting, okay?  I forgive the two of you now I want you to forgive yourselves, all right?”

            Gage and Rhett looked at each other then back at Alex.  “Since you’ve forgiven us then I guess we’ll do our best to forgive ourselves,” Gage said finally.

            “Thank you and thanks for watching Angela, Gage.  I know she can be a handful.”

            “You’re welcome, Alex.  We gotta go back to work now.  Bye.”  Rhett and Gage waved good-bye to Alex as they left the room.

            She leaned back against the bed and closed her eyes.  A few seconds later the door opened again and Alex cracked open her left eye to see her husband come in and sit down in the chair.

            “Gage and Rhett both looked happy enough to dance.  What did you say to them, Alex?” Walker asked her.

            “I told them it wasn’t their fault I got shot and that I forgave them,” she replied closing her eyes again.

            “Somehow I figured that’s what you what you’d say.”

            “Did you forgive them as well?”

            “What do you think?”

            “You forgave them.  I on the other hand may not forgive you if you don’t come keep me company,” Alex patted the space next to her and Walker needed no encouragement to climb in the bed beside her.

            “Ranger Headquarters Ranger Gage speaking,” Gage said into the phone.  After leaving the hospital they had come back to the courthouse so they could figure out what to do next.

            “Ranger Gage, its Kimberly Miller,” the frightened voice on the other end of the line said.

            “Kimberly?” Gage exclaimed.  He motioned with his hand for Sydney and Kay to come over, Trivette and Rhett weren’t far behind.

            “Where are you?” he asked.

            “Somewhere in Dallas,” Kimberly said. 

            Gage sighed and whispered, “Tracer,” to Trivette then went back to the conversation.  “Are the two of you all right?”

            “We’re fine.  Almost all of the gangs have left us alone.”

            “What do you mean almost all of the gangs?” Gage inquired.

            “Every time we try to go to Mr. Jackson’s car shop La Cruz chases us away.  We were lucky to get to a phone.”

            “They should be leaving you alone,” Gage said grimly.  “I told them to.”

            “They haven’t hurt us yet.  The woman we saw kill that man was somebody named Stella Meyers that’s been all over the news the past few days.  I think she tried to kill your sister.”

            “She did.  Is Kara with you?”

            “Yes, she is.  I gotta go now.  Just let the Duggan's know we’re all right, please?”

            “I’ll tell them but…  Hello?  Hello?” Gage slammed down the phone.

            “I didn’t get the trace,” Trivette told him.

            “I’m not surprised.”  Gage stood up.

            “Where are you going?”  Sydney wanted to know.

            “To put up some missing posters.  Want to come?”

            “This place stinks,” Kay commented as she drove a nail into the missing poster that was on the lamppost.

            “This is an alleyway, Kay.  What did you expect, candles and perfume?” Gage finished hanging up one poster and picked up another.

            “How many more posters do you have left, Gage?” Sydney asked as she ignored the banter between her partner and sister.  “I’m out.”

            “I’ve got five hundred left and you can have this stack,” Gage handed Sydney the stack of missing posters which she accepted.

            “How much longer are we going to spend doing this?” Trivette put down his stack of missing posters and looked for an empty lamppost to hang them on but he couldn’t.  Reluctantly he gave up and taped one on the side of a brick wall with some duct tape Gage had brought along with them.

            “Until we get all these hung up.  Ow!” Gage accidentally brought the hammer down on his thumb and dropped the hammer which fell on his foot.

            “You’re going to seriously hurt yourself one of these days,” Sydney shook her head at her partner’s clumsiness.

            “Who are those guys down there?” Kay asked.

            “What guys?” Gage asked as he bent his thumb making sure he could still move it.

            “Those guys,” Kay pointed with her hammer and Gage followed her gaze and then he paled.

            “That’s La Cruz,” he said quietly.

            “Is that bad?” Trivette couldn’t see why Gage was so upset.  It was just a gang.

            “They told me that if I ever set foot down here again they’d kill me.”

            “Looks like they’re coming this way,” Rhett observed.

            “Get ready for a fight,” Gage told them as the gang approached.

            “I thought we told you not to come down here again or we’d kill you,” one person that looked to be the leader sneered.  He was a little older than Gage and wore faded blue jeans and a black t-shirt that had a skull and crossbones on it.  Tattoos covered his arms but most prominent was the black one that said La Cruz.  The rest of the gang members were similarly attired and all of them wore the red and black doo-rag that seemed to be common down here.

            “Nice to see you to, Pete,” Gage sounded calm but Trivette could tell he wasn’t.

            “What are you doing down here?” Pete asked.

            “Looking for these girls,” Gage tapped the missing poster that Trivette had taped to the brick wall.

            “Why do you want them?” Pete questioned.

            “They’re missing and we need to find them,” Gage explained.

            “Well you’re in La Cruz territory now, Ranger, and I told you what would happen to you if I caught you down here again.”

            “I have just as much right to this neighborhood as you do, Pete.  All former members of La Cruz do.” 

            Trivette stared at Gage in shock as did several of the gang members.  They obviously hadn’t been informed about this.

            “You squealed on us to the cops.  You’re a traitor.”

            “At least my brother didn’t quit and join a rival gang like yours did, Pete.  Was it Karl or Sean who quit?”

            “Sean,” Pete hissed.  “He would have come back if you hadn’t killed him first.”

            “Pete, you know the rules.  All’s fair in love and war especially if the person you’re fighting against used to fight with you.  Besides if I hadn’t killed him he would have killed me,” Gage crossed his arms as he looked Pete in the eye.

            “I don’t care you still shouldn’t have done that and now you’re going to pay,” Pete lashed out with his leg and Gage sighed.

            “And to think I tried to avoid this,” he mumbled as he hit Pete in the nose.

            The other seven gang members came to their leader’s defense but were faced with the rest of the Rangers.  Sydney used a roundhouse kick on one knocking him into another and the two got back on their feet.  One of them rushed Sydney while the other came at her from behind.  She managed to kick the one in front in his solar plexus and he stumbled backward while she spun on her foot with the practiced ease of a ballerina and caught the second one in the chest.

            Trivette was having just as much fun as Sydney.  He knocked down one with an old-fashioned punch to the jaw, rendering him unconscious.  Another man delivered a glancing blow to Trivette’s chest causing him to stagger a minute before he regained his balance and kicked the gang member in the face with his left leg.  The man fell to the ground clutching at his nose which was bleeding profusely.  A third one lunged at Trivette’s back knocking him down to the cold alleyway.

            Someone kicked Rhett in his kneecap and he spun around to face a giant of a man.  He didn’t know karate but his bulk made up for that.  He rushed Rhett who had no choice but to go flat on his back.  The giant black man had just wrapped his beefy hands around the Ranger’s throat when Kay came up behind him and hit him in the head with the hammer she had been using to hang up missing posters.  Rhett managed to get out from underneath the unconscious guy and they looked to see who needed help.  They spotted Trivette underneath a Hispanic man who was hitting him for all he was worth.  Kay kicked the man in his side with her high heeled boots and he rolled off Trivette groaning the whole time.

            Gage and Pete were still hashing it out near the entranceway to the alley.  Pete delivered a painful blow to Gage’s ribs and his stomach.  Gage fell to his hands and knees but he didn’t stay there.  He raised himself up on his hands and did a flip landing on his feet in front of Pete.  Pete pulled out a knife and lunged at Gage who sidestepped him.  Out of the corner of his eye Gage saw Sydney brandishing a metal rod she had found at a white man who was trying to get close enough to take her down.  Gage was so distracted watching her hit the guy over the head that Pete nearly stabbed him but at the last moment Gage grabbed Pete and spun him around so that he had Pete in a chokehold.  Gage turned the hand that held the knife into Pete’s chest causing his eyes to bulge out with fear.

            “Listen to me, Pete, because I’m only going to say this once.  I am not The Kid anymore.  Understand?  If I were I would have killed you right now without a second thought.  I am a Texas Ranger who’s simply trying to find two missing teenage girls who witnessed a murder.  That is the only reason I came down here today.  I’m sorry that I killed Sean and I’m also sorry that Karl got murdered the other day but I’m also trying to catch his killer.  If you promise not to try anything I’ll let you go, got that?”

            Pete nodded, showing that he understood what Gage was saying.  Just then there came a shout from further down the alley.

            “Hey, what’s going on here?” the Hispanic man striding up the alley toward them asked.  “Kid, what are you doing down here?”

            “I’m looking for two girls,” Gage replied not loosening his hold on Pete for a single second.

            “It seems to me that you’ve already got two girls,” the man gestured toward Sydney and Kay.

            “Only one of those is mine, Raoul.”  Gage grinned as he said it and Sydney stared at him as did Kay.

            “Are those the girls that saw Dr. Wallace get killed?”

            “Yes, they are and we’re trying to find them.”

            “We’ll do anything to help you find them.  Dr. Wallace was a good friend of ours.  Whoever killed him will have to pay.”

            “The woman who killed him also killed Pete’s brother, Karl Balbo,” Gage said.

            “All the more reason we’ll help you out.  Now what started all of this ruckus?” Raoul asked as he surveyed the area.  Gage followed his gaze.  Sydney was holding a metal rod and was standing over the man she had walloped.  A humongous black guy was sitting on the ground holding his head from where Kay had attacked him with the hammer.  Two men lay unconscious, a third was clutching his bleeding nose, and a fourth was holding his ribs.

            “He attacked me first,” Gage released Pete who retreated behind Raoul before saying that.

            “What?  You refused to let me pass, said I had no right to this neighborhood,” Gage moved toward Pete who put up his fists for another fight. 

            “Is that true, Pete?” Raoul turned to face him.  Pete looked down and was silent. 

            “Pete really refused to let him pass, Raoul.  The Ranger tried to avoid the fight but he had no choice,” one of the guys on the ground answered.

            “Pete, Gage has as much right to this alley as any of us do.  More in fact,” Pete opened his mouth to protest but Raoul continued speaking.  “If this is about your brother who joined the rival gang Gage was perfectly justified in killing him.  It was self-defense and you know it.  Since I am still the leader of La Cruz I’m giving the Texas Rangers and all law enforcement officers’ permission to come through here.  I don’t want you to give them or those two missing girls any trouble and as my second in command I expect you carry out my orders or you’ll be the one in trouble.  Got that?”

            “I got it,” Pete mumbled.

            “Good, now, Gage, I’m sorry about all of the trouble.  Pete’s always been difficult.”

            “It’s all right, Raoul.  I don’t mind.”

            “Then I need to get all of my men out of here,” Raoul and Pete started helping the wounded men to their feet and then they left the alley.

            “Who was that Raoul guy?  I thought Pete was the leader,” Kay said.

            “Raoul Gonzales is the leader; Pete Balbo is the second in command.  Although when I was in the gang Pete was just one of the regular guys.”

            “Did you really kill Pete’s brother?” Trivette asked quietly.

            “Yes, I did.”  Gage stared at the brick wall.  La Cruz had gotten in a fight with a rival gang, the one Pete’s brother had joined and Gage had found himself fighting him.  Sean had tried to kill him but Gage had killed him instead.  He had accidentally strangled him.  He hadn’t meant to.  He had just wanted to scare Sean but he had died.  Pete had furious with Gage.  He had threatened to get back at him if it took the rest of his life.

                                                   CHAPTER 7

St. Mathew’s Hospital

            Alex sat in her bed and waited for Walker to come back.  He had gone down to the lobby to get Angela.  Alex was nervous; she hadn’t seen her daughter in four years.  Angela would be eight by now.

            The door opened and Walker entered leading a beautiful blond little girl by the hand.  The girl seemed slightly shy and Alex understood.  Not having a mother for four years and then all of a sudden getting her mother back had to be confusing.

            “Hey, Angela,” Alex smiled at her daughter.

            “Are you really my mother?” Angela asked coming up next to the bed.

            “Yes, I really am your mother.”

            Angela considered her for a moment then asked, “May I get in your bed?”

            “Of course you can,” Alex said as Walker picked her up and placed her on the bed.  Once up Angela sat at the foot of the bed and looked at her.

            “You’re prettier than I remember,” she said finally.

            “Thank you, Angela, and so are you.”

            “Do you remember me?”

            “Yes, I remember you.”

            “Did you know it was Uncle Gage’s and Uncle Rhett’s fault that you got hurt?”

            “They told me about that and I forgave them.  But it wasn’t really their fault.”

            “Then whose fault was it?” Angela challenged.  Oh, boy.  It was going to be tough to explain this to an eight-year-old girl.

            “Years ago your uncles put a bad lady in prison and she said that she would hurt them if she ever got out and she escaped a few days ago.  But even though she was in prison she could still do bad stuff and so she hired a bad man to shoot me.  The bad man got killed but before he died he managed to shoot me,” Alex explained hoping Angela understood.

            Angela thought about it a second then nodded.  “Are you mad at them?”

            “No, sweetie, it wasn’t their fault.  Your father and I both forgave them.”

            “Can I go to sleep now?” Angela asked yawning.

            “Of course you can,” Alex told her.  She expected Angela to fall asleep there but instead the little girl curled up next to Alex and promptly fell asleep.

            “Join us, Walker,” Alex invited and so Walker did.  He climbed in next to Angela and pulled the blankets up around them and in a few minutes all three of them were sound asleep.

            “Carlos Sandoval and Trent Malloy can come to my wedding,” Trivette said as he hung up the phone.

            Gage looked up from his desk.  “Malrosky actually gave them time off?” his tone indicated he didn’t believe what Trivette was telling him.

            “Yes, he did but they can’t come to help us find Kimberly and Kara until two weeks from now.”

            Gage looked at the calendar on the wall, “Looks like they’ll get here not long after we get back from your bachelor party.”

            Trivette looked at the date circled in red and smiled.  “I can’t wait.”

            “Wait for what?  To go camping in the wilderness where it rains all the time?” Sydney didn’t even look at them as she spoke.

            “Just ignore her, Trivette; she doesn’t know anything about camping.  Just because I took her camping one time and it rained the entire time she thinks all camp sites are the same,” Gage explained.

            “And don’t forget getting bit by the mosquitoes and having a chance to catch the West Nile Virus and the cold, hard bumpy ground that you have to sleep on,” Sydney was on a roll now and nothing could stop her.  Well, almost nothing.  Her sister walking through the door waving a newspaper and looking very annoyed stopped her.

            “What’s up, Kay?” Gage asked.

            “Your darling older sister is what’s up.  Have you seen the front page of the Fort Worth News?” Kay wailed.

            “No and something tells me I don’t want to,” Gage held out his hand for the newspaper which Kay gladly gave him.  He scanned the paper and then groaned.  “My sister, my older sister who is staying with me right now wrote this?”

            “Apparently so since that’s her name right there on the byline.”  Kay ran a hand through her short brown hair and scowled at Gage.

            “What does the article say?” Trivette asked.

            “Does the headline ‘TERRORIST ATTEMPTS TO KILL RANGER’S SISTER’ tell you anything?” now Gage was the one that looked annoyed.

            Trivette, Rhett, and Sydney came and stood behind Gage’s desk to read the article over his shoulder.  There, on the front page of the paper, was a splendid picture of Gage hugging Sydney for the entire world to see plus the headline.  Also there was a picture of Alex in the courthouse a few minutes before she was shot.

            “Please tell me your sister didn’t just tell the world or at least all of Texas that we’re partially responsible for Alex getting shot,” Rhett begged.

            “Sorry, Rhett, but that’s what she did.  I can’t believe it, my own sister betrayed me and on the front page!”

            “The press and the governor are going to have a field day with this,” Sydney sighed.  “They’re already trying to abolish the Rangers because and I quote ‘the Texas Rangers are very expensive to keep up and they haven’t done any good.’”

            “Haven’t done any good?  Have they talked to all of the gang members we’ve helped?  And what about the people whose lives we’ve saved?  My sister wouldn’t be alive today if the Rangers didn’t exist and neither would Syd and Kay.”  Gage was getting mad.  The Rangers were doing a lot of good and everybody knew it.  Even those tight fisted money grabbing government officials who wanted the money so they could keep wearing their suits and sitting in their air conditioned offices knew it.

            “Can’t your grandfather talk to the governor and get him to stop trying to disband us?” Trivette suggested and received a black look in return.

            “My grandfather does not believe in helping the Texas Rangers out if he can help it,” Gage’s voice was tight.

            “I’m not even going to ask why,” Trivette said as he sat back down at his desk.

            “Probably a good idea, Trivette,” Sydney smiled as she said that but her attention remained on her partner.

            “The banner’s still not straight,” Sydney pointed out from her place in the driveway.  Gage, who was standing on the porch, gave her a look.

            “What do you mean it’s still not straight, Syd?  It can’t get any straighter,” he argued.

            “Actually, Gage, it can.  Right there you can bring it up a little and right there,” Rhett pointed at a corner of the banner that was still lopsided.

            “Do you want to hang this up?” Gage demanded holding out the hammer.

            “Not at all,” Rhett said honestly.

            “Then be quiet.  Besides I doubt Alex will care whether or not the banner’s straight.”  Gage got off the porch and handed the hammer to Trivette who simply looked at it and wondered what he was supposed to do with it.

            “She probably won’t is right,” Kay agreed, “but it’s the principle of the matter.”

            “There are principles to  hanging up banners?” Gage frowned at his partner’s sister.  Sometimes he just didn’t understand women.

            “Where is your aunt?” Trivette asked in a desperate attempt to stop the argument. “I didn’t see her.”

            “She went grocery shopping.  She decided for some unknown reason that my cabinets needed restocking and she wasn’t too sure about her welcome.”

            “She’s perfectly welcome.  I know Walker and Alex wouldn’t mind having her here,” Sydney said.

            “I tried to tell her but Aunt Zu didn’t care,” Gage shook his head and then spotted something.  “Hey, Walker and Alex are here.”

            “You ready to leave, Alex?” Walker asked as he helped his wife get settled in the truck three days later.

            “More than ready,” she told him.

            “Then let’s go,” Walker climbed in the other side of the truck and drove slowly toward Gage’s house.

            “Why aren’t you stopping at our house?” Alex asked him.

            “You see, Alex, there was a slight accident with the plumbing at our house.  A tree root got too big and burst five of the water pipes and so we’re staying with Gage until the house gets fixed,” Walker explained to his wife as he passed their house.

            “We’re living with Gage?” Alex didn’t look very happy about it.

            “Either that or we could have stayed with Trivette but I decided Gage would be the lesser of two evils.”

            Alex let out a deep breath.  “All right, that’s fine with me.  I just was a little surprised to hear it, that’s all.”

            “Good,” Walker pulled into the driveway.

             “What in the world is going on?” Alex asked as Walker parked the big truck.

            Gage, Sydney, Rhett, Kay, Trivette, Erika, and Angela were standing in the front yard and a big sign that said WELCOME HOME, ALEX was hanging above the front door.

            “It’s a welcome home party.  I hope you don’t mind,” Walker said hesitantly but Alex squeezed his arm.

            “I don’t mind at all,” she said as he got out and opened the door for her.

            “Welcome home, Alex!” they all called out as she exited the vehicle.

            “You guys didn’t have to do this but I’m glad you did,” she smiled at all of them.  She was so blessed to have such good friends, beautiful daughter, and an utterly handsome husband. 

            “It was Syd’s idea,” Gage told her as he winked at his partner.  Alex could see Sydney’s face turn slightly red.  Hmm.  It looked like they were thinking serious if not getting serious.  It was only a matter of time though she was sure of that.

            “I figured you would be bored to death since the guys are going to leave in a few days and thought you might like to see all of us together before then.”

            “That was very thoughtful of you, Sydney, and I did want to see all of them before they left for Jimmy’s bachelor party.”

            “Oh, Trivette, I just have a word of warning for you about your party before we leave,” Gage said.

            “What’s that?” Trivette asked.

            “If I get hurt I’m going to kill you.”

            “You’re not going to get hurt, Gage.”

            “I better not.”

            “When are you leaving for that anyway?” Alex turned to Trivette in an effort to stop the light-hearted threats.

            “Friday.”

            “But that’s tomorrow,” Alex protested.  “You’re going to leave me all alone for a week?”

            Walker started to look a little uncomfortable but before he could say anything Gage spoke up. 

            “Alex, you’re more than welcome to have the other girls come over and stay with you as long as you want them to while we’re gone and my Aunt Zulu will be here to keep you company.”

            “I was just teasing Walker but thank you, Gage, for that offer.  Well, ladies, want to have a ladies day?” Alex turned to the three women to see what they would say.

            “We have to work Friday and Saturday but Sunday will work for me,” Sydney said.  Kay and Erika agreed with her and it was settled.  At ten a.m. the four women would have a ladies day at Gage’s house and his aunt was welcome to join them if she wanted.  Gage said that was very unlikely but thoughtful of them.

            “Is that everything, Rhett?” Walker asked the next morning.  They were using his truck and had already picked up Trivette at his house and were now picking up Rhett at his apartment. 

            “That’s it except I don’t have a tent and I didn’t have time to go buy one.”

            Walker and Trivette looked at each other and groaned.  The same thing had happened at Walker’s bachelor party only it was Gage who had forgotten his tent.

            “It’s nothing to worry about, Rhett,” Gage said slapping his friend on the back.  “Our tents got ruined at Walker’s party and we have to get new ones too.”

            “In the truck, we don’t have all day,” Walker reminded them.

            “We get the back,” Gage told Rhett and the two of them climbed in the back of the double cab vehicle as Walker and Trivette got in the front.

            “Do you have the map, Gage?” Walker asked.

            “Let me see,” Gage looked through his wallet and triumphantly held up a piece of paper.  “Here we go,” he handed the paper to Trivette who tried to decipher it.  “Don’t try to figure it out, Trivette, you’ll hurt yourself.  Just tell Walker which way to turn and you’ll do fine.”

            “If you say so,” Trivette sounded doubtful as if he questioned Gage’s ability to tell them how to get somewhere.

            Alex woke up to a knock on her door and frowned as she glanced at the clock on the bedside table which read 7:00.  “Come in,” she called.

            The door opened and a woman attired in biker apparel came in bearing a tray that was loaded with food. 

            “Mrs. Walker, I’m Zulu Williams, Gage’s aunt,” Zulu said as she shut the door behind her.

            “It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Williams, and please call me Alex.”

            “Only if you call me Zulu.”

            “All right, Zulu.  What’s that tray for?”

            “This is your breakfast.  I tried to get Gage to tell me what you liked to eat but he wasn’t very helpful.  So I hope you like biscuits, sausage, and eggs.”

            “I do but you didn’t have to go to all that trouble,” Alex protested.  “I could have come downstairs to eat.”

            “It’s all right.  I love to cook and wait on people besides Gage told me that you just got out the hospital and whenever my father gets out he’s always as weak as a baby although he doesn’t like to admit it.  He’s a very stubborn man.”

            “It must run in the family,” Alex eyed the tray.  It certainly looked good.

            “Oh, it does.  Let me help you sit up,” before Alex had a chance to argue Zulu had propped up the pillows and helped Alex to a sitting position.  Then she handed Alex the tray who took it gratefully.         

            Zulu started to leave the room but Alex stopped her.  “If you don’t have anything you need to do then please stay with me.  I hate to eat alone.”

            “I don’t have anything to do and I don’t mind staying with you.  I think you’re nice,” Zulu pulled a chair over to the bed and sat down in it.

            “Zulu, would you think it rude if I asked you to tell me about Gage?” Alex asked hesitantly.

            “Not at all.  It’s only natural that you should wonder about him since he’s your host and my nephew is a very closed mouthed man.  Where would you like me to start?”

            “Wherever you want to.  How about you start with his parents,” Alex suggested as she took a bite of the biscuit.  It was as good as she had thought and better.

            “My sister Katherine and I were twins.  She was the oldest and Father’s favorite mostly because she had a mind for business and I didn’t.  He was livid when she decided that she wanted to marry Gage’s father, Frank.  He disinherited her so she wouldn’t get a penny when he died but our mother who had died years earlier had left each one of us a sizable amount of money so Kath had some money but Frank didn’t want to take any of it. Father refused to have anything to do with them until after Julie and Gage were born and even then it wasn’t much.  When Kath and Frank were killed in the car accident he said he didn’t want to raise any more kids but I think he was just trying to get back at Kath.”

            “Why didn’t you take them in?” Alex’s question was direct.

            “I don’t know anything about children and I thought it would be better for them to have a two parent family but obviously I was wrong.  At least in Gage’s case.  He was the only one that ended up with an abusive family.  Although he finally did end with a good home at the end.  The Everett's really cared for him.  Evelyn, his foster mother, was one of the few people to ask me about him.”

            “Why didn’t Gage ever mention to us that he had more family than his sister?”

            “Even though he won’t admit it I think it hurt that neither one of us would raise him so he just pretended we didn’t exist.  Plus if a criminal was trying to get back at him he didn’t want them to know about us because they would go after us instead of him.”

            “Did you know his wife and daughter?”

            Zulu sighed and nodded sadly.  “They were nice.  It was a shame that Tina died before she could see what Melissa turned into.  Tina was a very pretty woman but I always felt she wasn’t my nephew’s type but I accepted her for his sake and I grew to like her.  He was broken-hearted when she died but he did have the baby.  Melissa was a sweetheart.  Even Father liked her although he would never admit it to anybody.  When she died Gage went over the edge I guess you could say.”

            “What do you mean by that?”

            “He refused to get close to anybody and still refuses to,” Zulu said.

            “Thank you for telling me this, Zulu, and I don’t think Gage blames you for not taking him in,” Alex said.

            Zulu stared at her for a second then laughed.  “My nephew said you were smart and he was right.  How on earth did you know I blamed myself that he got abused?”

            “I’m an assistant district attorney it’s my job to know things.  Besides it showed in your eyes.”

            “Think you, Alex, even though I do blame myself.  I know it’s silly but still,” Zulu clasped her hands in the folds of her black skirt.

            “It’s not silly and if it was me I would still be blaming myself,” Alex smiled at the older woman and impulsively gave her a hug.  Zulu was surprised at first but responded eagerly.

            “Would you like any more food?” Zulu gestured toward the empty tray.

            “No thank you.  It was very good but I’m stuffed.  By the way would it be all right if a few friends of mine came over Sunday?”

            “Of course it would be all right.  If you’ll excuse me I need to clean this up.”  Smiling Zulu exited the room and Alex exhaled deeply.  Gage’s aunt was definitely a little overwhelming this early in the morning.

Houston, Texas

            “We’re here,” Walker announced five hours later.  He and Trivette got out first and Gage and Rhett got out as well.

            “This place is gorgeous,” Trivette sounded slightly surprised as he looked at the humongous trees and pretty flowers.

            “And we haven’t even got to the lake yet,” Gage said.  “That’s the prettiest part of all.”

            “Let’s go get our tents,” Walker suggested and the four men went into the small camping store.  In a matter of minutes they had picked out their tents and left. 

            Walker drove down a bumpy dirt road for another thirty minutes before pulling to a stop in front of a forest.  There was a well worn path winding through the trees that Walker assumed was the way they were supposed to go.  They got their gear and started off, Gage leading the way.  He led them down twisting pathways and over tree roots that threatened to trip them.  After hiking for over an hour they came to a clearing.

            “Wow,” was all Trivette could say.  Walker had to agree with him.  The sight was impressive.  They stood on top of a hill and below them was a little valley with a humongous lake.  From their viewpoint the grass looked like shiny green ribbons wrapped around big clumps of sticks.  They stood there for a second marveling at the beauty then Gage became all business.

            “We still have to get down the hill,” he said and started down the path again.  The other three men followed him grabbing at trees on their way down so they wouldn’t fall and slide into one of the others.

            Once at the bottom of the hill Gage ordered them to set up camp and Trivette didn’t argue with him which was a first.  In record time they had the tents set up and then Trivette and Gage decided to do some fishing while Walker and Rhett gathered wood for a fire.  It didn’t take them long to get wood and then they joined in the fishing.  Trivette was the first person to catch something. 

            “You got something, Trivette,” Gage said excitedly as the black man’s line started jumping and jerking like crazy.

            “I know that, Gage,” Trivette panted as he struggled to reel his catch in.  The battle lasted a good ten minutes with somewhat encouraging remarks from Gage.  Finally Trivette pulled his line out the water to reveal…a big fat fighting mad bass covered with hooks on the other end of the line.  Gage and Rhett burst out laughing.

            “And what pray tell is so funny about my fish?” Trivette demanded.

            “You caught the decoy fish,” Gage managed to gasp before he let out a loud burst of laughter.

            “Decoy fish?  What’s that?” Trivette asked puzzled.

            “It’s not really a decoy fish it’s just a fish that’s been here as long as I can remember and whoever catches her first has to clean the dishes that night,” Gage explained once he had calmed down a little bit more.

            “Clean the dishes,” Trivette repeated.

            “Yeah and if nobody else catches Belinda while we’re here you get to clean them all week.”

            “Belinda?  Since when is a fish and a decoy fish at that named Belinda?”

            Gage shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It’s always been called that.”

            “So now I gotta clean the dishes until somebody else catches Belinda?” Trivette scowled at the still flapping fish.

            “That’s right,” Gage told him.

            “Why don’t we just kill it and eat it for supper tonight?” Trivette wanted to know.

            “Because by the time you got all of the hooks out it there wouldn’t be anything left but a pile of bones.  Just throw it back in and try to catch some more fish,” Gage advised before going back to his line.

            Trivette scowled at the fish again and then he threw it into the lake and heard a satisfying splash.  “My bachelor party and I have to clean the dishes,” he muttered before he put another worm on his hook and tried again.

            “Would you like some more, Rhett?” Walker asked later that evening as they sat around a campfire on some logs they had found.

            Rhett nodded and held out his plate and Walker dumped another fish on it then he gave Gage another fish.

            “This is good, Walker,” Gage said as he chomped on his fish.

            “Anything’s better than your cooking,” Rhett retorted.

            “Nothing was wrong with the fish I cooked,” Gage argued.

            “Even Melissa wouldn’t eat them.”

            “Rhett, she was only six years old and it’s not my fault I forgot to put salt on them.”

            “I still can’t believe that I asked you to cook the fish.  That was a big waste of five fish,” Rhett grumbled.

            “The only reason you asked me to do it was because you had gotten your finger caught in the fishhook and it hurt.”

            “Would you like another fish, Trivette?” Walker asked.

            “Thank you,” Trivette said before he took a big bite out of it.  “And thank your friend for letting us stay here.”

            “That was no problem since he owns this place,” Rhett said then stopped when he noticed Gage scowling at him.

            “You own this place?” Trivette asked in surprise.

            “Yes, I do,” Gage replied while glaring at his brother-in-law.

            “How in the world did you get the money to own this place and the Ranger Reality Trucking Company?  I mean no offense but you don’t act like a rich guy,” Trivette said.

            “When my grandmother died she left this lake to my mom and she left it to me.  I got some money from her and when I got removed from my first abusive foster home he was rich so the judge awarded me a million dollars.  As if that would make up for the scars on my back,” Gage said bitterly.

            Helplessly Trivette looked at Walker.  He hadn’t meant to bring up any bad memories.  He had simply been curious.  Silently Walker gave Gage some more fish and poured him another cup of coffee.

Dallas, Texas   

            Thelma Roche stood in the shadows of the big brick building and helped herself to some more cocaine inside the paper bag she was holding.  She could get in a lot of trouble if she was caught but she didn’t care.  It was the only thing that kept her sane although it was hard to get the money to supply her.  Soon she would have enough money to keep her supplied for a whole year.  She just had to be patient.  There!  She leaned forward and saw Stella Meyers step out of the Quick Photography Shop.  You could get your pictures developed there for an outrageous price but it was very handy if you were wanted by the police.  You could also get false ID’s and other stuff.

            Thelma scurried forward and grabbed Stella’s arm.  “You’re Stella Meyers aren’t you?  The woman the Texas Rangers are looking for.”

            Stella turned and faced Thelma.  “What if I am?”

            “I need money.”

            “And if I don’t give you some what will happen?”

            “I’ll tell the Texas Rangers that you’re staying in that abandoned warehouse on Twelfth Avenue.  I’m sure they’ll be very interested to know that.”

            Stella sighed and reached in her purse.  “This of course is just a gift that I’m giving you because I feel generous.  Not because you are blackmailing me,” When her hand reemerged it was holding a knife.  She raised it and stabbed Thelma.

            Thelma fell to the ground in a crumpled heap, blood staining her abdomen.  Stella sat her purse down and picked Thelma up and threw her body in a dumpster.  She covered her up with trash, picked up her purse and left the alley.  Behind her a young boy peered around the corner of a building and then quickly ducked out of sight.

Houston, Texas

            “Hey, Trivette, are you going to help me gather some more wood?” Gage called the next morning.

            “Sure,” Trivette agreed in an attempt to make up for the night before and the two men set off to find some wood.  Walker and Rhett stayed at the campsite.

            Gage and Trivette both had an armful of wood and Gage shifted all of his wood to one arm while he knelt to get another piece when he heard a very familiar rattling sound.  He froze and looked around.  There, on the ground right in front of him, was a large rattlesnake.  His blood ran cold.  There was no way whatsoever he could get away without getting bit.  The snake was hissing and coiled up in the striking position. 

            “I think I got all the wood I can carry,” Trivette announced as he entered the small clearing.

            “Trivette,” Gage said trying to keep his voice calm.  “Don’t come any closer there’s a rattlesnake here.”

            Trivette stopped where he was.  “A snake?” Trivette yelped.

            “Keep your voice down, Trivette.  This thing’s ready to strike.  I don’t need you making it anymore mad than it already is.”

            “Sorry.  Where is it exactly?”

            “Right in front of me.  Now I want you to listen to me.  Set down your wood very gently and quietly and then back away.”

            Trivette did as he was instructed and sat down the wood, his eyes never leaving the rattlesnake.  “What about you?”

            “As soon as you get out of the way I’ll leave too.  Just back up.”

            Trivette backed up, keeping his eyes on the snake the whole time.  Since his eyes were occupied he didn’t see the tree root behind him until it was too late.  He fell flat on his back.  Gage turned to look at him and that’s when it happened.  The snake lunged forward and sunk it’s fangs into Gage’s arm.  Gage screamed and Trivette grabbed a piece of wood that was lying next to him and threw it.  Gage yelled again as the wood hit him on the arm and the snake released its hold on Gage and slithered away.  Gage fell to the ground clutching his arm and Trivette went to him.

            Walker and Rhett were at the campsite discussing the old Ranger Headquarters building.

            “I still can’t believe the old courthouse caught on fire like that,” Rhett shook his head in disbelief.  “It was a brick building.”

            “I know,” Walker agreed.  “At least no one was killed when it burst into flames although Gage nearly got himself killed rescuing Angela.”

            “He was watching her while you and Alex went out to lunch right?”

            “Right.  It scared both of us half to death when the news came on while we were eating saying that Ranger Headquarters had caught on fire and a Ranger had been severely injured.  We ran quite a few red lights that night trying to get to the hospital.  Fortunately Gage only had a few first-degree burns and some smoke inhalation and Angela wasn’t hurt at all.  And we were able to get a new courthouse.  I’m definitely grateful for that although I must say I certainly liked the old one better.”

            Just then a scream echoed through the forest and Walker’s head jerked up.  It sounded like Gage.  Then Trivette’s yell was heard, “Walker!  Rhett!  Somebody, help!”

            Walker and Rhett ran toward the sound and burst into a small clearing.  There they found Gage on the ground holding his left arm.  Trivette was bending next to him and had a worried expression on his face.  Wood lay scattered on the forest floor.

            “He got bit by a rattlesnake,” Trivette wasted no time in saying.

            Walker bent down next to the younger man and tried to move Gage’s hand but encountered only resistance.

            “Gage, if you don’t move your hand I can’t see how badly you were bit,” Walker said firmly and Gage’s hand slipped away.  Walker winced when he saw the wound.  Two deep puncture marks showed on Gage’s upper arm.  It appeared the snake had certainly injected a lot of its venom.

            “Does anybody have a handkerchief?” Walker doubted anybody would so he was surprised when Trivette and Rhett both handed him one.  Walker tied one of the handkerchiefs tightly on Gage’s arm right above where he was bit to prevent the poison from spreading and the other one below the bite.  Then he grabbed Gage by the arm very gently and pulled.

            “Help me get up, Trivette.  Rhett, you go grab his backpack and mine.”  Rhett nodded and ran off toward camp to do Walker’s bidding.  Trivette grabbed Gage’s right arm and helped Walker pull him to his feet.  The men managed to get Gage back to camp where Rhett had already grabbed the two backpacks.  Trivette took one of them in his right hand.

            Walker took the keys to his truck and slipped them into his pocket.  Then Rhett did his best to direct them out of the forest with Gage occasionally gasping out a direction.  They managed to get out in less than an hour which was good progress.  Once at the truck Rhett and Trivette got in the back while Gage was situated in the front with Walker.  He held his arm the whole time and his face was deathly pale.  Walker could only hope they would get him to the hospital in time.

            He drove like a maniac down the streets of Houston, running red lights and breaking speed records.  The Dodge Ram truck took a very sharp corner and nearly hit another car.  Rhett and Trivette were getting a kick out of the whole thing.  Walker just ignored them however and concentrated on getting to the hospital.  Walker screeched to a stop in front of the Houston Hospital and the three men helped Gage out of the vehicle and inside the emergency room.

            “Our friend got bit by a rattlesnake,” Walker told the nurse who looked startled at the sight of four men bursting into the emergency room.

            “Do you have his ID?” she asked.

            Walker sighed and pulled Gage’s wallet out his backpack and withdrew his driver’s license.  The nurse took it and examined it.

            “I’m sorry,” she said, “but this expired three months ago.”

            “You mean to tell me that Gage has been driving me to work with an expired license,” Walker muttered then his mind was snapped back to reality by Gage groaning. “Look, ma’am, I don’t care if his license expired two years ago he still needs medical attention.  Now you can either check him in or you’ll be the one being checked in.”

            The nurse looked taken aback but she checked Gage in and he was whisked away by a doctor.

            The three Rangers sat down in hard plastic chairs to await word on their friend.

            “Should we call the women and tell them?” Rhett inquired.

            “And worry them to death?  Absolutely not.  But if you would like to call them you are more than welcome to,” Trivette offered.

            “No thanks,” Rhett said hastily.  “Besides they’re probably having loads of fun right now anyway.”

DALLAS, TEXAS

            “This is disgusting,” Kay said as she scraped the remains of a banana peel off of the bottom of her high-heeled boots.  “They should clean this place up more often.”

            Sydney smiled as her younger sister complained about the state of the alleyway. “Kay, it’s an alley.  They never clean it up.”

            “I can see that, Sydney, I’m not blind.  I think somebody made up seeing Stella Meyers down here just so we would have to wade through this mess.”

            “I’m not so sure about that,” Sydney frowned as her nose caught whiff of a very unpleasant odor.  “Kay, do you smell something?”

            Kay sniffed the air and nodded.  “It smells like a dead body.  It probably hasn’t been here long.  It’s coming from over there,” she gestured toward a dumpster next to the alley wall.

            “Kay, you never cease to amaze me.  Are you a bloodhound in disguise?’ Sydney joked as the two of them went to check out the dumpster.

            “Nope.  Just a Ranger and an expert in forensics,” Kay said airily.

            Sydney opened the dumpster and both women groaned and looked at each other.

            “Want to take back that statement about Stella not coming down here?” Sydney asked.

            “Looks like somebody’s been down here anyway.  I better call Detective Burton,” Kay sighed as she flipped open her cell phone.  She stepped away from the open dumpster and Thelma Roche’s body to make the call.

                                                            CHAPTER 8

Houston, Texas

            Quite a few hours had passed since Gage had been taken to the emergency room but still they had received no word on his condition.  Rhett had fallen asleep in his chair and Walker had to admit he was pretty near exhaustion himself.  Once the adrenaline rush had passed he had been tired.  Trivette had gotten them coffee and sweet rolls from the hospital cafeteria once it became obvious the wait was going to be long.

            “Walker, do you think he’s going to make it?” Trivette asked.

            “I don’t know, Trivette.  He’s strong so he might make it but they have been in there for a long time.  We just have to hope.”  Walker was feeling too tired to sugar coat anything.

            “I hope he does.  I need to apologize for being so nosy yesterday about where his money came from.  I just hope he’ll forgive me.”

            Hearing the sadness in Trivette’s voice Walker turned to his partner. “Trivette, you were just being curious.  I was wondering where he got the money too.  I honestly believe that Gage will forgive you.”

            “I hope you’re right, Walker, but even if he does he’s still going to kill me.”

            “Why is he going to kill you?”

            “I told him he wouldn’t get hurt and look what happened.  He got bit by a rattlesnake.”

            “Is anybody here for Francis Gage?” a voice inquired loudly.  Walker and Trivette looked up to see a doctor standing in front of them.  Rhett woke up and the three men rose to their feet.

            “The three of us are here for him.  How is he, doctor?” Walker asked. 

            “We had a pretty close call once but he’s going to be just fine.  His arm is going to be sore for a day or two but we gave him something for the pain and to make the swelling go down.”

            “Can we see him?” Trivette wanted to know.

            “Of course and I hate to ask but would one of you mind staying with him?  We might have a problem and need someone to sign some papers and he just needs someone with him in case he needs something.”

            “I’ll be more than happy to stay with him tonight.  What room is he in?” Walker inquired.

            “214,” the doctor told them.  “Now I have other patients to see but let me know if I can help out at all.”  He turned and disappeared down the hallway.

            Walker led the other two men down the various hallways until they found Gage’s room.  Walker pushed open the door and they entered. 

            Gage was lying in the bed and to all appearances was asleep.  However when they drew closer his eyes flickered open and he turned his head toward them.

            “Hey, Gage, how are you doing?” Walker asked softly.

            “Like I just got bit by a snake,” Gage replied weakly and then turned to Trivette.  “You lied to me, Trivette.  You said I wouldn’t get hurt at your bachelor party.”

            “Sorry, Gage, but I didn’t take snakes into consideration,” Trivette apologized.

            “It’s okay,” Gage whispered.

            They stayed a few more seconds until Walker saw Gage struggling to keep his eyes open.  Trivette and Rhett took Walker’s wallet with his credit cards in it to go find a hotel since it was getting pretty late.  Walker sat by Gage’s bed until sleep overcame him and he fell asleep.

            When Walker woke up it was still dark and he couldn’t tell what time it was.  He could hear Gage having an argument with the nurse though.  That was probably what had woke him up.

            “Go back to sleep, Ranger Gage,” the nurse was saying.

            “Why when you’re going to come back in an hour to poke and prod some more?” Gage pointed out very logically.  At hospitals, starting at three in the morning, nurses came in to take vitals and other stuff every hour.  Then they expected a patient to get rested.

            “Go to sleep,” the nurse said and departed.  Walker could hear her shoes clacking on the hallway outside the door.

            Once she had left Gage tossed and turned for a little bit until Walker couldn’t stand it anymore.

            “What time is it?” Walker asked sleepily.

            “Three in the morning,” Gage replied grumpily.

            “Tell me about Melissa,” Walker rested his elbows on his knees and propped his chin in his hands as he prepared to listen.

            “She was adorable,” Gage said.  “There were a lot of complications with her birth though so she only had one lung and was really weak.  When a disease came through town she was the first one to catch something and the last one to get over it.  I wasn’t too surprised when she caught leukemia.  That’s when I decided to quit the Secret Service so I could spend more time with her and I joined the Texas DPS where I worked for two years and then it was the Rangers.”

            “How long did she live after you joined the Rangers?” Walker asked quietly.

            “About ten months.  She died on Christmas day.  She was only seven years old.”  Walker could hear the pain in Gage’s voice and wished there was something he could do for him.

            “I’m sorry, Gage.  I really am,” Walker said sincerely.

            “I know and thanks for listening.”

            “You’re welcome,” Walker yawned and then he fell back asleep.

            He didn’t wake up until it was seven and he had to get the kinks out his neck.  Those hospital chairs were a lot more uncomfortable than they looked.  Gage was already awake and complaining about the hospital food although Walker couldn’t blame him.  Even Gage’s cooking tasted better than that stuff.

            “Ranger Gage, you can leave this morning,” the doctor announced after showing up in the middle of Gage’s complaining.

            “All right,” Gage crowed and pushed away the tray attached to the bed.

            “But that doesn’t mean do anything strenuous,” the doctor cautioned.

            “Is sitting behind a desk and filling out paperwork strenuous?” Gage asked hopefully and Walker turned to look at him. 

            The doctor sighed reluctantly and said, “No it’s not.  However no breaking your neck doing something idiotic understand?”

            “Yes, doctor, I understand.” 

            “As soon as Ranger Walker signs these papers you can go,” Walker took the proffered papers and read them over before signing them and handing the clipboard back to the man. 

            “You can go now, Ranger Gage.” 

            Gage looked extremely satisfied as the doctor left the room and then swung his legs over the side of the bed.  “Walker, can you hand me my pants?”

            “Here,” Walker handed Gage a pair of jeans that had been in his backpack.  Gage got up and managed to pull them on before he sank back down on the bed.   He winced as he pulled off the hospital gown and ruefully rubbed the sore spot on his arm.

            “Do you need some help getting your shirt on?” Walker did his best to hide a smile as Gage nodded.

            Walker stepped next to the bed with the green t-shirt and ignored the sight of the scars on Gage’s chest which were mementos from Walker’s bachelor party.   Gage got his right arm in just fine but Walker had to help him a bit with the left arm.  Silently he helped Gage finish putting on his shirt then handed him his tennis shoes.  As Gage put them on the door opened and Trivette and Rhett came in. 

            “Hey, guys,” Gage said cheerfully and then grimaced.

            “Did the doctor say you could leave?” Rhett asked suspiciously.

            “Rhett, you sure are being suspicious of me.  I only snuck out of the hospital that one time,” Gage complained.

            “After you got shot in the leg,” Rhett shot back.  “Malrosky was ready to kill you when he discovered that you had forged my signature on the release papers.  Both of us nearly got fired that day.”

            “Oh knock it off, Rhett, and yes the doctor said I could leave and Walker signed the release papers.  There was no forging going on today.  Can we leave now?”

            “We still have to get the rest of the stuff from the campsite,” Walker reminded him.  Gage let out a groan.

            “Actually, Rhett and I just got back from the campsite.  We packed up all of the stuff and the tents.  All of it’s in the truck,” Trivette said then laughed at the look of horror on Walker’s face at the thought of somebody else driving his precious Ram.  “We only took off one strip of paint,” Trivette told him.

            “Let’s go, Gage.  I need to check out my truck.”

            “Trivette’s teasing, Walker, the truck is still intact,” Rhett picked up Gage’s backpack and followed them.

            The truck was still intact.  Walker was thankful for that.  After they all got in Gage promptly fell asleep and slept the whole way home.

Dallas, Texas

            “This cake is good, Alex, thank you,” Erika ate another bite of the coconut cake and closed her eyes blissfully.

            “Thank you, Erika, but Zulu made it not me.”

            “Where is Zulu anyway?  I haven’t seen her,” Sydney commented.

            “Some man named Johnson showed up for her earlier.  He said her father was willing to talk to her if she would come home and take off that ridiculous doo-rag,” Alex chuckled.

            “Erika, have you decided on what kind of flowers you want at the wedding?” Kay asked from her position on the floor.

            The women had come over around eleven a.m. to help Erika plan her wedding.  She had already picked out the bridesmaids dresses and her wedding dress and booked the church but she still had to find flowers, arrange bouquets, and a lot of other stuff.  Kay sat on the floor next to the coffee table with Sydney and Erika sat in an overstuffed armchair while Alex reposed on the couch.  Angela was upstairs sleeping.

            “I want wildflowers,” Erika said determinedly.  “I don’t care if they’re not traditional I want them.”

            “Fine with us,” Kay wrote something down in her purple notebook which lay open on her lap.

            “How many do you want?” Sydney asked.

            “Around five dozen I think,” Erika said thoughtfully.

            “Actually you’ll probably want more than that.  For my wedding I had to have twelve dozen and I still didn’t have enough,” Sydney leaned forward as she spoke.

            “Were you married, Sydney?” Alex asked.

            “I was engaged once and I even made it all the way down to the altar but at the last minute he decided to run off with a strip-dancer.”

            “He told my sister that he didn’t want to marry anyone who was interested in law enforcement,” Kay explained.

            “Did you and Kay decide to become Rangers after you were kidnapped?” Alex questioned.

            “Yes, we did.  Bobby was only four when it happened so he didn’t remember it at all.  But us two girls did,” Sydney said.

            “Where did you get your singing abilities and everything?” Erika leaned forward in her chair, her cake forgotten for the moment as she listened intently.

            “Dad wanted me to be a lady so he made me take ballet and singing lessons.  When I went to live with Grandpa in Wisconsin he thought it would be a good idea if I learned self-defense so I did.  I had my black belt by the time I was eighteen plus I took gymnastics and ran track.  After college I was a police officer for five years then I worked for DPS for three years then joined the Rangers when I was twenty-nine.  Gage was my first partner and even though I was a woman he didn’t mind working with me.  He wasn’t sexist like some of the officers and Rangers that I knew were,” a smile spread across Sydney’s face as she remembered their first meeting.  It had been somewhat… interesting.

            “I promise you’ll like this man,” Henry Lane, captain of the Houston office, said as he led Sydney down the hall. 

            She listened paying close attention to what he said.  She didn’t like him; his eyes roamed over her far too much for a married man.

            “He’s very professional,” Captain Lane said and flung open the door. 

            A little girl was sitting on the floor; beside her was a man Sydney assumed was going to be her partner since a Ranger badge was pinned to his shirt.  The girl was holding a Barbie doll and telling the man something and he was listening attentively.

            “Professional huh?” Sydney asked Captain Lane dryly.

            “Gage!” the captain spoke sharply and the man rose to his feet.  “This is your new partner Sydney Cooke.  Sydney, this is Francis Gage.”

            “Nice to meet you, Ranger Cooke,” Ranger Gage extended his hand and Sydney shook it.

            “Nice to meet you too, Ranger Gage,” she noticed he hadn’t called her by her first name but had instead used her last name.  At least he wasn’t paying her the same attentions the captain had.  His eyes stayed on her face, not on her shirt.

            “Please call me Gage,” he said.

            “Only if you call me Sydney,” she countered.

            “All right, Syd.  This is my daughter Melissa,” the little girl on the floor had gotten up and stood behind Gage, her pixie face pressed into his jeans as she peeked shyly at Sydney.

            “Hello, Melissa,” Sydney smiled at the adorable little girl and then turned back to her new partner.  “If you dare make a single pass at me I will kill you.  Understand?”

            “Hey, I’m not going to make a pass at you.  One woman in my life is enough, right, Melissa?” Gage picked up his daughter and held her in his arms.

            “I just wanted to get that straightened out.”

            “Who are your bridesmaids, Erika?” Alex’s question pulled Sydney back to the present time.  Guiltily she began paying attention hoping that her lapse of thought hadn’t been noticed.  Her younger sister’s smile however told her that it had been duly noticed and recorded.

            “Sydney, Kay, Carlos Sandoval’s’ wife Amy, and Trivette’s sister, Lindsey,” Erika answered.

            “I assume Simon is coming as well?” Alex asked, referring to Trivette’s brother, FBI Agent Simon Trivette.

            “Yes, he is and I was wondering: would you mind being my matron of honor?”

            “I would love to be your matron of honor, Erika.  Thank you for asking me,” Alex looked delighted at the thought of being a matron of honor for the second time. Although the first time she had been a matron of honor she had gotten shot and ended up in the hospital in a coma.

            “You’ll have to try on a dress,” Sydney warned.  “The rest of us have already tried on our dresses.”

            “But I thought the Sandoval's weren’t in town yet,” Alex frowned in confusion.

            “They’re not,” Sydney explained, “but Amy got measured at a place in San Antonio and at the same time Carlos got fitted for the tuxedoes and whoever took their measurements sent them down here.  We weren’t sure if you would wake up in time for the wedding or not but we still have a few months.  The wedding’s in September and it’s only June.”

            “When are you and Gage going to get married?” Alex asked point-blank and smiled at the look of surprise on Sydney’s face.

            “I doubt we ever will.  I mean we’ve never confessed our true feelings to each other.  Well he hasn’t at least.”

            “But you have?” Erika asked slyly.

            “So what if I have?” Sydney demanded.

            The women just smiled at each other and just then they heard the sound of a truck door slamming in the front yard.  They looked at each other in surprise.  The men weren’t supposed to be back until Friday which was almost a week away.  The front door opened and Trivette and Rhett came in.  Besides his backpack Rhett carried Gage’s backpack and Trivette carried Walker’s.  The women stared at them.

            “Move out of the way, Trivette, Gage is coming through,” Rhett warned and Trivette moved in the nick of time.

            Walker and Gage came in the house next.  Gage was pale and breathing extremely hard.  As soon as he got inside he looked at the women who looked back at him and at his slightly swollen left arm. 

            “What are you guys doing back so early?” Erika demanded, finding her voice.

            “Gage got bit by a rattlesnake and the doctor said he had to take it easy so we came back,” Trivette said.

            “You got bit by a rattlesnake?” Sydney got up and crossed the room to where Gage stood next to the wall.

            “Sure did but it wasn’t my fault,” he told her.

            “He saved my life,” Trivette chimed in, earning a black look from Gage which would have been more effective had it not been for the spasm of pain that crossed his face.

            “How did he save your life, Jimmy?” Erika was looking a little worried now.

            “He wouldn’t let me get anywhere near the rattlesnake,” Trivette told his worried fiancée.

            “Poor Gage, does it hurt?” Sydney asked him.

            “It sure does,” Walker could see a grin that he normally reserved for practical jokes spread across Gage’s face and wondered what he was up to.

            “Is there anything I can do for you?” Sydney inquired solicitously.

            “As a matter of fact there is,” as he said that Gage leaned down and kissed Sydney on the lips.   Walker was surprised and a quick look at Trivette and Rhett’s mouths hanging open told them they were surprised too.  If the women were surprised they didn’t act like it.  They merely smiled and winked at each other.

            “I’m kind of tired I’m going to bed,” Gage announced once he had pulled back from the kiss.

            “I’ll carry your bag for you,” Rhett offered as he picked up Gage’s backpack and the two men went up the staircase.

            Down on the first floor Sydney seemed to be in a state of shock.  She stared at Gage as he headed up the stairs.   Her fingers were pressed to her mouth and a weird look was on her face.  That’s when Walker realized that Alex had been right; Gage and Sydney were head over heels in love with each other and he was going to have to do what he had dreaded doing and had put off for a long time.  He was going to have to talk to the head of all the Rangers and see if there were any rules concerning Rangers getting involved in relationships.

            A few hours later everyone else had left, the women had decided to plan Erika’s wedding another time since Sydney had been rendered incapable of doing anything due to Gage’s kissing her.  Kay had said she would drive Rhett back to his apartment and Erika took Trivette home.  Walker and Alex were sitting on the couch.

            “Do your really have to tell Captain Briscoe about Gage and Sydney?” Alex had been pouting since Walker had informed her of his decision to tell the head Ranger.

            “Yes, Alex, I do.  If there are rules about this sort of thing then we need to know,” he said firmly.

            “But I won’t be able to bear it if they’re kicked out of the Rangers or even spilt up,” she wailed.

            “I doubt they’ll get kicked out of the Rangers,” Walker told her but he didn’t believe his own words.  If the two of them were split up it would be disastrous especially if one of them remained in the Dallas office.  Walker shuddered as he considered that possibility.  Sydney would pitch fits and Gage wouldn’t work with anybody else and life would generally be one big chaotic mess.  If Captain Briscoe did decide to do that Walker would seriously have to consider calling him an idiot.

            “Wasn’t Sydney’s face a hoot when he kissed her?” Alex giggled as she changed the subject.

            “It certainly was.  I wondered what he was up to when he grinned like he does while playing a practical joke,” Walker smiled as he remembered the look on Sydney’s face.

            The Dallas Courthouse was quiet on Monday morning when Walker went in.  He and Gage had both taken the rest of the week off while Trivette and Rhett had decided to go back to work.  The doctor had ordered Gage to rest and Walker was more than happy to stay at home with Alex.

            Instead of going to his office Walker headed up to Captain Briscoe’s office.  As much as he dreaded doing this he didn’t want to put it off any longer.  After knocking on the door he entered.

            Senior Ranger Captain Horatio Briscoe had gray hair and green eyes that didn’t miss a thing.  Despite the fact that he was fifty-five he could still fight with the best of them and had been one of the people who convinced Walker he needed to ask Gage and Sydney to stay and work in the Dallas office with him and Trivette.

            “Hello, Walker, what a pleasure to see you.  Sit down,” the captain waved a hand and Walker sat down but remained at attention.

            “I didn’t come to see you on pleasure, Captain,” Walker said.  Immediately the captain was alert.

            “What is it?”

            Walker took a deep breath and plunged into his question.  “Are there any rules about Rangers getting involved romantically?”

            If the captain was surprised he didn’t show it, instead he merely leaned back in his chair.  “I assume you are referring to Gage and Sydney.”

            “Yes, sir, I am.  They’ve always been good friends but recently it’s gotten more serious.  A week ago Gage kissed her in front of my wife and me plus a few friends.”

            Captain Briscoe chuckled then quickly became serious.  “There’s not any rules because we’ve never had this situation before.  There are very few female Rangers and most of them work with other females.   I don’t know Gage and Sydney that well, Walker.  If I let them start a relationship do you think they would endanger anybody’s lives?”

            “No I don’t.  In fact if they weren’t allowed to start a relationship they would probably endanger everybody’s lives but the two of them are professional enough to keep their relationship outside of the office.  They might kiss each other every now and then here but that would be it.”

            “As long as they don’t endanger anybody’s lives I see no problem in letting them have a relationship but I will live the final decision up to you.”

            “I see no harm in it either,” Walker agreed and stood up.  When he was nearly to the door he turned back and asked, “Does that rule apply to Rhett Harper and Kay Austin as well?  I have a feeling they’ll be asking too.”

            “Of course and I’m going to make this an official rule.  Just make sure I get an invitation to the weddings,” Captain Briscoe smiled.

            “You will,” Walker promised.  “I assume you’re coming to Trivette’s wedding?”

            “I wouldn’t miss it,” the captain promised.

            The door of the Ranger Headquarters office opened and Secret Service Agents Carlos Sandoval and Trent Malloy entered the room.

            “Carlos!  Trent!  What are you guys doing here?” Gage asked as he rose from his desk.

            “If you’re not happy to see us we’ll be more than happy to leave again,” Trent joked.

            “I was just wondering what you guys were doing here,” Gage said.

            At the same time Trivette said, “Don’t you guys dare leave.  We were just wondering why the two of you were here.”

            “Well let’s just say it’s the fact that Kimberly Miller disappeared that interested us,” Trent explained.

            “Oh yeah because her foster mother, Mary Duggan is your cousin isn’t she, Trent?” Trivette said.

            “She sure is and I wanted to come help find her,” Trent said.

            “But we had to wait until one of the other agents got from vacation before the two of us could take off and help out.  Because otherwise Malrosky wouldn’t have let us take off,” Carlos finished.

            “Yeah Malrosky is pretty bad about not letting people take any vacation time,” Gage said.

            “You’re telling us?  We’ve been working for him for over ten years and we’ve taken a total of six weeks of vacation so far and we got promised six weeks of vacation per year,” Trent complained.

            “You’ve got a lot of spare vacation then.  Cause you can use all your extra vacation time at once you know,” Gage told them.

            “You mean we can still use the vacation time we haven’t used yet?” Trent asked in disbelief.

            “That’s what I did,” Gage said.

            “Well either that you would have had to bring Melissa to the office.  Malrosky would have done anything to avoid that after that one time you brought her,” Rhett spoke up.

            “Don’t remind me, Rhett.  She was just a baby.  It wasn’t her fault she screamed for two hours straight.”

            “Okay we’re getting off track here,” Trivette said.  “So the two of you are here to help out in an un-official capacity?”

            “Right,” Trent said.

            “Where’s your wife, Carlos?” Gage asked him.

            Carlos smiled at the mention of his wife Amy.  He had met her when Walker had asked him to counsel Amy’s son from her first marriage.  He had ended up falling in love with her and they had gotten married several months after that.

            “Oh she and Sienna are at the hotel,” Carlos said referring to their daughter Sienna Noel Sandoval who had been born not long after he joined the Secret Service.

            “Sienna’s your daughter right?” Trivette asked after thinking hard for a second which was an unusual occurrence for him.

            “Yes,” Carlos smiled with pride, “she’s ten.”      

            “Can she be a flower girl?” Trivette asked hopefully.  “We’ve only got one.”

            “She would love to be a flower girl.”

            “Good, then that’s settled.”  Trivette leaned back contentedly.

            “Sorry we haven't been in touch at all,” Trent apologized.  “This job’s very secretive.”

            “Malrosky doesn’t like you to talk to anybody at all since he’s afraid you’ll spill a national secret or something like that.  But one plus about the job is that you get good driving skills,” Gage commented.

            Rhett laughed as Trent said, “Oh yeah.  You should see us driving that limo.  It’s fun.”

            “It’s really fun when Gage is the one driving,” Rhett said.  “One time when he drove he scared the President so bad that he said he would rather be shot at by a bunch of terrorists than have Gage drive again.”

            “It wasn’t my fault,” Gage protested.  “There were five terrorists shooting us and it was all I could do to get us out of the way.”

            “You know, Gage, it’s kind of scary thinking of you protecting the President,” Trivette told him.

            “Hey guys,” Sydney said cheerfully as she entered the office.

            “All right I have a complaint to make,” Kay announced as she entered the office behind her sister.

            “What is it this time, Kay?” her partner inquired.

            “What in the world do we need three Secret Service Agents for?” she asked as she came to stand beside Rhett’s desk.

            “Three?” Carlos and Trent exclaimed at the same time.  “Carlos and I make two.”

            “Malrosky from the Secret Service just called.  He’s sending down another agent,” Kay told them.

            “What on earth for?” Gage asked.

            “Well, Gage, it seems that he is very upset about all of the recent attempts made on your life.”

            “He’s upset?” Gage repeated.

            “He’s also upset about the attempts on everybody else’s life as well.  Your grandfather’s a billionaire!”

            “I’m a billionaire too,” Gage argued.

            “You’re not a public billionaire, Gage, you keep your billions private.  Trying to kill your grandfather was a very serious offense as was attempting to kill your sister, Alex, yourself, and Walker.”

            “I know, I know,” Gage said glumly.  “Everything’s a serious offense.”

            Kay laughed.  “So he’s sending us another agent.  Her name is Rebecca Gold.”

            “We know Rebecca,” Carlos said.  “She grew up in Dallas.”

            “You guys aren’t talking about the Rebecca Gold that I went to high school with are you?” Gage asked.

            “She graduated in 1986,” Trent offered.

            “Than that is the Rebecca I know.  In high school she wore thick Coke bottle glasses, braces, she had long greasy stringy hair,” about then the door opened again and a woman entered.  Nobody paid any attention to her because they were listening to Gage.  “She wore clothes that only a hippie would wear and she was the funniest looking girl in school.”

            “Thank you, Gage, and I notice that you still stick your foot in your mouth.”

            “Uh, Rebecca, I didn’t know you were standing right behind me,” Gage said as he spun around to face her.

            “That’s obvious,” she said drily.  If Rebecca Gold had been an ugly duckling in high school she was now a full-fledged swan.  She was absolutely gorgeous and knew it.  She wore blue jeans and a long-sleeved, low cut purple shirt obviously designed to show off her curves.  Her long black hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her features told of Jewish ancestry.  Her black eyes looked at Gage demurely from underneath her long lashes but Sydney suspected the demure look was an act.  Bright red lipstick covered her lips and she was wearing a good deal of makeup.

            “So where do I start work?” she asked in a smooth, husky voice.

            Since there were so many of them they decided to split up and see if they could find anything else out.  Kay offered to stay at Ranger Headquarters and answer the phone so Walker and Trivette went to go interview one of Stella’s former inmates who was in the Dallas jail, Rhett and Trent went to talk to the Duggan’s again, Sydney and Carlos went to talk to Johann Dupree’s friends and neighbors, and, much to Sydney’s dismay, Gage and Rebecca went to go see if any witnesses could place Stella Meyers in the alleyway the night Thelma Roche had been murdered.  Sydney wondered what her partner saw in Rebecca. She was a flirt that was all.  But then again, Gage had never had good judgment when it came to women.

            Rhett and Trent had no luck at all.  Mrs. Duggan was pleased to hear that her cousin had come to town to help find Kimberly and both of the Duggan's said that they would take in Kara if she was found.  Sydney and Carlos didn’t have any better luck.  One of Johann Dupree’s neighbors, an elderly lady who had nothing better to do than look out the window, said she had seen him leaving his house carrying a box the day Stella had escaped but that was it.

            Gage and Rebecca found a young boy who had seen Stella talking to Thelma a few minutes before she had been killed.  After taking down his statement the two got back in Gage’s white car and started back to Ranger Headquarters.

            “You’re in love with that Ranger Cooke woman aren’t you?” Rebecca asked.

            “What makes you say that?” Gage wanted to know.

            Somewhat amused, Rebecca laughed.  “Your eyes, Gage, but I bet you haven’t told her yet have you?”

            “Nope, I sure haven’t,” he said.

            “Then I guess you better not tell me if you’re in love with her.  Have you asked her out on a date?”

            “Not yet but I plan to soon.”

            “Do you need any help?”

            “What kind of help?” Gage asked suspiciously.

            “I’ve got an idea.  Do you want to hear it?”

            “Sure,” Gage turned down the radio as Rebecca told him her idea.

            At first Walker and Trivette didn’t have much better luck.  The man didn’t seem willing to talk.                 

            “What’s in it for me?” Harold Pope wanted to know as he leaned back in the chair with comfortable ease.  At twenty-seven he was already a pro and this was his second stint in a federal penitentiary.  The first time had been for manslaughter and he had served five years.  Now he was in for armed robbery and it looked to be a long prison sentence.

            “If you help us we’ll put in a good word with the DA,” Walker said.

            “A good word,” Harold snorted in contempt.

            “If you don’t want to cooperate then we’ll go.  Come on, Trivette,” the two men started to leave but Harold’s words stopped them.

            “I didn’t say I wouldn't cooperate, I just had to think it over for a second.  What do you want to know?”

            “You were in the Houston penitentiary for five years.  Did you talk to Stella Meyers while you were there?” Trivette took the lead.

            “Talk to that terrorist?  Of course I talked to her.  She may have been a terrorist but she was good looking.  If you know what I mean,” he said.

            “We know what you mean,” Trivette assured him.

            “Harold, did she ever talk about getting revenge on anybody?” Walker asked.

            “She mentioned getting revenge on two guys who locked her up but I didn’t pay too much attention.  Everybody talks about doing that.  But I did pay attention to one thing she told me.”

            “What was that?” Walker tried not to appear too eager as he listened to Harold.

            “She said she had already gotten even with them a little bit by bumping off somebody close to them.  I think the woman’s name was Tina.”

            Walker did his best not to let the surprise show in his face. 

            “Thanks, Harold, we better go,” Walker headed out the door again.

            “So did I help you guys out?” he called after them.

            “You sure did and we need to go talk to the DA,” Trivette said then hurried after Walker.  “All right, Walker, what was the big deal about the woman named Tina?”

            “That was the name of Gage’s wife.”

            Now Trivette was  the surprised one.  “Do you think Stella killed Gage’s wife?”

            “Why not?  What better way to get back at Gage and Rhett by killing the one woman who connected the two of them.”

            Soon all of them were back at Ranger Headquarters and gathered in the parking lot.  Gage and Rebecca got out Gage’s car and headed toward them.  The two of them were walking extremely close.

            “What did you and Carlos find out, Sydney?” Walker asked.

            “Nothing except that some old lady saw Johann carrying a box the day Stella disappeared,” Sydney sounded somewhat discouraged.

            “The Duggan's weren’t any help either,” Trent informed them.

            “Rebecca and I found a witness who can place Stella in the alley at the time of Thelma Roche’s death,” Gage said proudly.

            “Congratulations,” Sydney muttered.

            “So did the two of you enjoy yourselves?” Trivette asked.

            “We sure did,” Rebecca said with a sly smile at Gage then excused herself and went inside.  On her way in however she patted Gage on the arm and winked at him.

            Walker noticed that Sydney had a look of fury on her face and wondered what Rebecca had done.  Then it occurred to him that Rebecca had gotten extremely close to Gage and was an exquisite beauty.  Sydney was most likely suffering from a case of jealousy.

            “Are you jealous, Syd?” Gage asked teasingly.

            “Why should I be jealous?  If you want to flirt with that…that shameless little tramp it’s your business,” Sydney told him.

            “I say you’re jealous,” he said.

            “I’m not jealous,” she protested.

            “I’m going to tickle you until you say that you are,” Gage started toward her and Sydney backed up a step.

            “Uncle, I give.  I’m just a little bit jealous but I don’t see that…” Sydney’s words trailed off as Gage leaned down and, for the third time in a few weeks, kissed her on the lips and when he pulled back Sydney just stared at him.

            “Are you still jealous?”

            “Not in the least little bit,” she said.

            “Then would you like to go on a date with me tonight?” he asked.

            Sydney nearly swallowed her tongue in surprise.  A date?  With Gage?  There was only one thing to say.

            “Are there any rules about Rangers getting involved romantically?” she asked Walker.

            “As a matter of fact there is one rule.  As long as you don’t endanger anybody’s lives and your captain agrees you are more than welcome to start a relationship and I don’t have a problem with the two of you getting involved romantically.  The same applies to Rhett and Kay.”

            Rhett looked stunned as if the idea of getting involved with Kay hadn’t even occurred to him.

            “So will you go out with me?” Gage asked again.    

            “Is it going to be a boyfriend/girlfriend date?” Sydney turned back to her partner.

            “It’s going to be a let’s-talk-about-work date,” he said but at the look of disappointment on her face added, “I’m just teasing, Syd.  Of course it’s going to be a boyfriend/girlfriend date.”

            “Then I’d love to go out with you.”

            “I’ll pick you up.  Is six-thirty fine?”

            “It’s perfect but where are we going?”

            Gage winked and said, “I’m not going to tell you but regardless of that I’m going to be wearing a suit and tie if that says anything.”

            “It tells me a lot,” and it did.  Gage absolutely hated to wear ties.  “Walker, I hate to ask but can I get off just a few minutes early today?  I’m going to need a lot of time to get ready for this date.”

            “Syd, we get off work at five and I’m picking you up at six-thirty.  That’s an hour and a half to get ready.”

            “Gage, it normally takes a woman a week in advance to get ready for a date.  It took me two weeks to get ready for your high school reunion.”

            “I couldn’t tell; you looked fabulous,” even though he didn’t show any reaction Sydney could have kicked herself for bringing that event up.  While at the reunion his old flame, Marilyn Elkins, and her fiancée, Ted Maron, had been killed by a carjacker and Gage had witnessed the murder and gone deaf.  While Walker and Trivette had searched for the killer Sydney had done her best to help Gage cope with his disability even going so far as to learn sign language to communicate with him.  Eventually the killer had been put behind bars and Gage had gotten his hearing restored after undergoing an experimental surgery.

            “You can get off at four,” Walker told Sydney.

            “Thank you, Walker,” suddenly her eyes flew open in alarm.  “I need to go talk to Kay!”  She turned and ran into the courthouse as fast as she could.

            “I must say, Gage, that was impressive.  I’ve never seen somebody flirt with one woman then ask another one out on a romantic date,” Trent said as he slapped Gage on the back.

            “You just have to have the skill, Trent,” Gage told him.

            “So who’s idea was it to set up that whole scene with Rebecca?” Rhett asked.

            “It was Rebecca’s idea.  Rhett, how did you know that was a set-up?”

            “Gage, I know you.  You were just doing that to make Sydney jealous besides I saw that twinkle in your eye.  Whenever you have that twinkle it means you’re up to something.”

            “Kay!” Sydney yelled as she burst into the Ranger office.  “Kay, I need to talk to you,” she said breathlessly.

            “First thing you need to do is catch your breath,” Kay informed her.  “Sit down and tell me what’s wrong.”

            “Gage asked me to go out on date with him tonight,” Sydney said.

            “What are you going to wear?” Kay remained calm although she was almost as excited as her sister.

            “I have that dress I wore to his high school reunion,” Sydney offered.

            Kay brushed away the dress with a wave of her hand.  “He’s already seen you in it.  Do you have anything else in your closet that’s just going to make him stare at you all night long?”

            “Wait a minute.  I have a dress that I bought one time while I was visiting Grandpa.  I’ve never worn it before.  It’s black with red squiggles.”

            “That’ll do,” Kay told her.  “Shoes?”

            “I have a pair of black flats.”

            “Jewelry.”

            “I have a pair of gold earrings shaped like stars that I bought because they reminded me of my badge but I haven’t worn them yet.”

            “What are you going to do with your hair?” Kay fingered a strand of Sydney’s black hair.

            “I figured I would leave one strand hanging down on either side of my face and I would pull the rest up with a gold clip that belonged to my mother.”

            “Are you going to wear any makeup?” Kay asked.

            “Just a touch of lipstick,” Sydney answered.

            “Good,” Kay nodded approvingly.  “When Gage kisses you he isn’t going to want to get a mouthful of blush or something.  Do you have a little purse?”

            “The dress came with a handbag.”

            “Perfect.  Now make sure your weapon is fully loaded but keep the safety on and that you take a pair of handcuffs and a bobby pin.  You never know when you’re going to need one.”

            “Don’t worry, Kay, I will although most women carry makeup in their purses; I carry weapons,” Sydney sighed as she said it.  Despite her remark she loved her job and wouldn’t give it up for anything or anybody except maybe Gage.  He would be the only reason she would ever quit but fortunately she didn’t have to quit to have him.  She could have both her job and the man she loved.

            Just then the door opened and the men came in, laughing about Gage asking Sydney out.  Kay rose from her desk and stood in front of Gage, blocking the path to his desk.

            “Are your intentions concerning my sister honorable?” Kay demanded.

            “Kay!” Sydney gasped from behind her. 

            “Not in the least little bit,” Gage assured Kay.

            Kay nodded, “That’s all I wanted to know.”  She sat back down at her desk and Sydney confronted her.

            “Kay Elizabeth Austin, what in the world were you doing?” Sydney hissed.

            “Making sure he would treat you right that’s all, sis.”

            “I don’t need a bodyguard and certainly not you.”

            “You would have down the exact same thing,” Kay said.

            “But I’m older; it’s my job to do that.”

            “Just because I’m your little sister doesn’t mean that I can’t watch out for your back.”

            “Why did I do to deserve you?” Sydney said sarcastically as she went to her desk.

            “Gage and Sydney are going on a romantic date?” Alex squealed.

            “Yes, Alex, they are.”

            “I’m so excited for them,” Alex sighed contentedly.  “I just can’t believe they’re finally going out.”

            “I can’t either, especially when he kissed her after flirting with another girl,” Walker chuckled as he said it.

            “That sounds like something Gage would do all right,” Alex agreed.

            They heard the sound of feet coming down the stairs and a second later Gage came into the living room tugging at the left sleeve of his suit jacket.

            “Are you sure you don’t mind if I go out with Syd?” Gage turned to Walker who sighed heavily.

            “Yes, Gage, I’m certain that I don’t mind.  In fact we all think it’s way past time that the two of you get together.”  Alex nodded in agreement with her husband’s words.

            Gage looked at his watch and his eyes widened.  “I better or I’m going to be late.”

            “Don’t keep her out all night,” Alex called.

            “I’ll have her back home by two a.m.,” Gage said as the door slammed shut behind him.

            Sydney stood in front of her dresser mirror surveying her reflection.  The black dress fell to right below her knees.  Little red squiggles covered the soft black material.  A black satin sash was tied around her slim waist.  The dress wasn’t as tight as Rebecca Gold wore her clothes but it still showed off her figure.  It didn’t hug her entire body but flared slightly away from her below the waist.  The gold star earrings swayed slightly when she moved her head.  Her long black hair had been pulled up in a gold clip and a single strand of hair hung down on either side of her face.

            Suddenly she heard a knock on the door and, startled, glanced at the clock on the wall.  It was six twenty-five.  Gage was actually five minutes early for a change.  He was normally a few minutes late.

            “Coming!” she called as she gave herself one last look, grabbed her sweater and purse, and opened the door.

            Gage had his mouth open to say something but when he saw her remained quiet and instead stared.

            “Is something wrong?” Sydney asked nervously.

            Gage shut his mouth and said, “Uh, no nothing’s wrong.  You just look drop-dead gorgeous.”

            “Thank you,” Sydney wasn’t accustomed to this sudden shyness she felt.  Gage was her partner for crying out loud.  But now he was also a romantic interest and a very handsome romantic interest.

            “I was afraid this wouldn’t go with the outfit but it looks like it will,” as he spoke he handed her a small white envelope.

            “What’s this?” Sydney opened the envelope and practically fainted.  A gold heart-shaped locket fell out of the white paper and into her hand.  “Gage, it’s beautiful.  Where on earth did you get it?”

            “It belonged to my mother.  I thought you might appreciate it.”  She noticed that he used the word appreciate not like.  He was very sensitive about his mother and his family belongings. 

            “I do.  Help me put it on,” Sydney shivered as she felt Gage’s fingers on her neck as he hooked together the two ends of the delicate golden chain.

            “I’m glad you like it,” he said sincerely.  “It’s over a hundred years old.”

            Sydney froze.  “What do you mean?”

            “It’s a family heirloom,” he explained.  “It’s a tradition in my family for a man to give the locket to a woman that he wants to marry.  Julie had it boxed up somewhere and I asked her to dig it out for me.”

            Sydney couldn’t decide what to be more stunned about; that Gage had given her a family heirloom or that Gage had just admitted that he was interested in marrying her.

            “Let’s hurry, our reservations are at seven,” he slipped an arm around her waist and turned her toward the stairs.

            “Are you going to tell me where we are going?”

            “Come on, Syd, you know how much you like surprises.”

            “I hate surprises,” she said.

            “I know, that’s why I’m keeping you in the dark,” he told her.

            He escorted her to his white car and within thirty minutes they had arrived at the Lone Star Buffet & Dance the fanciest restaurant in Dallas.

            The interior was new.  Green carpet covered the floor and pictures of famous Texans lined the wall.  Most of the pictures were autographed and there were even some pictures of U.S. Presidents.  Gage spoke to the head waiter who led them to a semi-private booth in the back.  He laid down two menus and then disappeared.

            The two sat down and Sydney ran a hand over the green suede seat.  How in the world had her partner managed to get a reservation here?  It was an upper-class restaurant.  True, Gage was rich but still.  He much preferred McDonald’s.

            “Gage, before we start eating or get much more involved I have a question,” Sydney hated to bring up unpleasant subjects before eating but it had to be done.  Gage lowered his menu and looked at her warily.   “Are you over Tina and Melissa?  Because if you aren’t then I need to get out of this relationship before I get hurt.”

            “If you had asked me that question a few years ago or even last month I would have said no but now I have to say…yes.  I am over them and now I have another confession to make.”

            “What?” Sydney asked uneasily.

            “I’m head over heels in love with you.”

            Sydney stared at her partner.  He sure was turning out a lot different than she thought. 

            “Do you remember when I went on the seven month road trip not long before Alex got shot?”

            “Yes, I certainly do,” Sydney’s mind flew back to the day he had announced his intention to go on a road trip.

            “Why are you leaving?” Sydney stood in the middle of the Ranger office.  Gage was in front of her.

            “I’m tired,” he said simply.

            “I’m sure Walker won’t mind giving you some time off,” Walker had recently been promoted to the position of Captain of the Dallas office.

            “I’m not that kind of tired, Syd.  Every day when I come in everybody expects me to be happy-go-lucky.  And if I’m not then they ask what’s wrong.”  Gage put his hand on his forehead and shook his head.

            “When are you coming back?” Sydney asked, hoping that he wouldn’t be gone long.

            “When I can continue pretending to be happy and not a moment before,” Sydney knew that he meant it. 

            “At least give me a call every now and then just to let me know you’re still leaving, okay?”

            “I’ll call every now and then,” Gage promised.  Sydney sighed with relief.  At least she could count on that.

            “And do you remember when I came back and how I said there was something I needed to tell you?” Gage asked.

            “Uh-huh,” Sydney replied.

            A knock sounded on the door.  Sydney looked up from the box she was digging through.

            “Coming,” she called and opened the door.  Gage stood there.  He was even more handsome than she had remembered.  “Gage!” she cried and threw her arms around him and squeezed hard.

            Gage squeezed her back.  “Maybe next time I should stay away longer,” he teased.

            “Don’t you dare,” Sydney said then realized he was still standing in the doorway.  She moved aside and he entered.

            “Are you moving?” he asked.  Sydney followed his gaze.  Open boxes covered every available surface.  Sydney winced as she looked at the mess.  She had been looking for an old photo album that had pictures of her mother in it.

            “No, I’m not moving.  My grandfather is sick so I’m going to Wisconsin to visit him.”

            “Oh,” something that looked suspiciously like disappointment flickered in Gage’s blue eyes then he turned back to her.  “Are you leaving right now?”

            “Tomorrow,” she told him.

            “When you get back I need to talk to you.”

            “About what?” she asked him.

            “You’ll just have to wait until you get back,” he said.

            “What did you want to tell me?” she asked.

            “That I’m in love with you,” he said quietly.  “While I was on that trip I realized that I could either let my past continue to rule our relationship or I could do my best to get over it.  I decided that you were more important than anything else to me.”

            “I love you too, Gage,” Sydney said quietly as she looked at him.

            He smiled.  “I know.  That day in the hospital when you were waiting for me to wake up after my surgery you started talking about how much you loved my voice and then you insulted my socks.”

            “Well, they had a humongous hole in them,” Sydney protested while trying to smother her laughter with her white linen napkin.

            “I never learned how to sew.”

            “You never learned how to do anything related to housework,” Sydney browsed through her menu.

            "What song is the band playing?” Gage asked after he finished his steak.

            Sydney cocked her head and listened for a second before replying.  “It sounds like ‘Groovy Love’ by Phil Collins.”           

            “Want to dance with me?”

            “Sure,” Sydney rose from the table and let Gage escort her to the dance floor.

            It was eleven thirty at night when they finally left the restaurant and closer to midnight when they arrived back at Sydney’s apartment.

            “I really enjoyed tonight, Gage,” she told him sincerely.

            “I did to.  So would you like to go out with me on Wednesday?”

            “I would love too.”

            “Six o’clock all right?”

            “That’s fine with me,” she said.

            “But don’t wear that.  I think it’s gorgeous but you’ll probably be a lot more comfortable in jeans.”

            “Are we going somewhere on your motorcycle?” she looked doubtfully at him.  While she loved Gage dearly he wasn’t the best at fixing stuff.  A fact that had proven itself when he had tried to fix his light fixture after going deaf.

            “Walker said he’d help me fix it.  Don’t worry it’ll be ready by Wednesday.”

            “Six o’clock and you better not be late,” she warned.

            “I won’t.  Can I kiss you good night?”

            “Gage, you don’t have to ask my permission whenever you want to kiss me,” she had barely got the words out before Gage leaned down and kissed her.  She wrapped her arms around him and they remained that way for several seconds before she reluctantly pulled back.

            “I guess I better go,” he said.

            “I guess.  I love you,” she said.

            “I love you too,” Sydney watched until Gage’s back had disappeared from sight and went into her apartment.  After shutting the door she leaned back against it.  It had been worth every moment of waiting.  She pushed herself away from the door and headed toward her bedroom.  Tomorrow couldn’t come fast enough to suit her.

            Walker and Alex were sitting in the living room on the blue couch.  She had wanted to wait up for Gage so she could find out how the date had gone.  Walker had protested but not very much.  He wanted to get all of the details too although he would never admit it.  Alex was working on a crossword puzzle and Walker was reading the Dallas Chronicle for the tenth time when they heard footsteps and then the front door opened and Gage entered.

            He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw them.  “Are you guys waiting up for me?”

            “Yes we are,” Alex replied as she lay down her puzzle book and pen.  “So how was it?”

            “Let’s just say it went better than I expected and that’s all I’m going to tell you other than if you want any more details you’re going to have to talk to Syd.  Night,” Gage disappeared and they could hear his footsteps going up the stairs and he was whistling some tune that sounded very familiar to Alex.

            “Walker, is he really humming ‘Here Comes the Bride’?”

            Walker listened and nodded, “He sure is.”

            “They’re finally getting serious,” she said and then yawned.

                                       CHAPTER 9

            Sydney was at the Ranger office bright and early but she still didn’t beat Gage and Walker.  Walker was down the street getting some Starbucks coffee and Gage was already seated at his desk.  When he saw Sydney come in he leaned back in his chair and smiled at her.

            “Good morning, Syd,” he said.

            “Morning, Gage,” instead of going to her desk Sydney went to Gage’s desk and perched on the edge of the polished wood.

            “What are you doing?” he asked.

            “Just sitting here.  Got a problem with that?” she challenged.

            “Not at all.  I just thought you’d be more comfortable in the chair,” Gage leaned forward, grabbed her wrist and pulled her across the desk and into his lap.

            “What did you do that for?” Sydney demanded.

            “I just wanted to see if you really did go on a date with me last night,” he replied, his arms encircling her waist.

            “I did and we agreed to go on a date tomorrow night,” she reminded him.

            “Just making sure and now you look like you could use a good morning kiss,” he teased.

            Sydney looked around to make sure they were alone before saying, “I sure could.”

            Just as their lips met in a kiss the door opened and someone cleared his throat.  The two looked up to see Walker standing in the doorway holding a plastic coffee cup.

            “Good morning, Captain, um sir, I mean uh Walker,” Sydney stammered as she got off her partner’s lap and headed for her desk.

            “Morning, Sydney,” Walker said as a smile spread across his face.

            Rhett, Kay, Trivette, Carlos, and Trent showed up an hour later arriving in pairs.  Walker waited until they had gotten settled before coming out of his office.

            “Gage, I have a question for you,” Walker said.

            “What is it?” Gage asked.

            “How did your wife die?”

            Gage looked slightly surprised by the question and he thought carefully for a second before answering.

            “She was shot in a drive-by shooting.  She went into premature labor and died at the hospital an hour later.”

            Tina and Gage walked down the sidewalk, side by side.  Gage carried two shopping bags in his hand, evidence of the morning’s activities.  Since Tina was now six months pregnant and visibly showing he had insisted on carrying them himself and she hadn’t argued with him for long.

            A black car raced past them and two teenage boys leaned out the windows holding automatic rifles.  They fired and people screamed as they raced for cover.  Tina wrapped her arms around her stomach as she fell heavily.

            “Tina!” Gage yelled as he knelt next to his wife and withdrew his weapon.  He fired at the car which was now speeding away and then turned his attention to his wife who was bleeding very badly by now.

            “Why do you want to know, Walker?” Rhett asked.

            “When we visited Stella Meyer’s old inmate yesterday he said that she had bragged about bumping off a woman close to the two of you by the name of Tina,” Walker watched for their reactions. 

            Rhett looked he was going to be sick and Gage’s hands clenched into tight fists and he looked around for something to take a swing at.

            “Were the people who shot her ever caught?” Trivette asked.

            “Yes, they were.  They ended up with thirty years apiece.  They probably wouldn't have gotten that long but all three of them had previous offenses plus killing the wife and sister of two Secret Service Agents is a federal offense,” Gage said.

            “What prison were they put in?” Walker questioned.

            “Dallas penitentiary,” Rhett answered.

            Walker sat in the interrogation room of the Dallas state penitentiary building.  Three men sat across the metal table from him. 

            “Who hired you guys to kill Tina Gage?” Walker wasted no time in asking.

            “We weren’t hired to kill her,” a huge black guy said.

            “Then why did you shoot her?”

            “For fun,” a white man who obviously spent his spare time lifting weights answered.

            “You thought it would be fun to kill a pregnant woman and go to jail for thirty years,” Walker repeated.

            “Yeah, man,” the slender Mexican man in the middle said.

            “Somehow I don’t think you guys are that stupid.  I’m going to give the two of you five seconds to tell me who hired her or else I’m going to ask two other Rangers to step in here.”

            “We’re real scared,” the white man taunted.

            Walker looked at his watch and counted down five seconds.  When the murderers still refused to say anything he rose and went to a small gray intercom system on the wall.  “Ranger Gage, Ranger Harper, will you two step in here for a second?”

            “You called us, Captain?” Gage said as he and Rhett entered the room.

            “These gentlemen refuse to talk,” Walker pointed to the three lowlifes sitting in a row.  “I’m going to give you men another chance to talk.  This is Ranger Gage, it was his wife you killed and this is Ranger Harper, she was his sister.  If you don’t tell me the name of the person how hired you I’m going to let the two of them beat the truth out of you.”

            The three glanced at each other uneasily.

            “Don’t forget that they could get five years taken off their prison time,” Gage added.

            “Five years?” the black man blurted.

            “That’s right,” Walker told him.

            “Johann Dupree.  That was the name of the guy who hired us although he said he was acting on behalf of some woman.  Her name was Stella Meyers,” the black guy said.  The other two lowlifes glared at him.

            “Thank you,” Walker said.  “You’re the only one who will be getting out of prison five years early.”  The three Rangers turned and walked out of the interrogation room.

            Stella and Johann sat in the warehouse.

            “Can they come?” Stella asked.

            “The assassins will be here a week before Ranger Trivette’s wedding,” Johann replied.

            Stella nodded in satisfaction.  “Good.  That will be more than enough time to prepare them for their task.”

            “Are you sure you really want to have a shooting at the wedding, Stella?”

            “Don’t tell me you’ve had a change of heart about all of this.”

            “Not at all but you’re risking your life just to get revenge on them.  There are other things more important than revenge you know.”

            “Don’t even start on that again, Johann.  I already said I would marry you after I got this taken care of.”

            “I’m sorry,” Johann apologized.

            “I know you are,” Stella came from behind her desk and slid her arms around him.  He returned the embrace and then she struck.  Like lightning she pulled a knife from her pocket and stabbed him in the back of the neck.  His eyes bulged out and he swayed for a second before falling to the hard concrete floor.  Sadly she looked at him and knelt down next to his lifeless body.

            “I hated to do that you know, Johann.  I really do love you,” she told him as she pushed the black hair out of his eyes.

            By five fifty-five p.m. on Wednesday night Sydney was ready to go.  Wearing black pants and a red long-sleeved shirt and with the locket Gage had given her around her neck she was more than ready to leave for the date.  She checked her wallet one more time to make sure she had her ID and some money just in case Gage forgot his wallet.  It wasn’t very likely but she just wanted to be prepared.  She didn’t have her gun with her this time because there wouldn’t have been any place to conceal it.  She looked in the mirror one last time to make sure that half of her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and the other half hung down to her shoulders.  She slipped on her black leather jacket and waited.  At approximately six o’clock a knock sounded on her door.

            She opened it to reveal Gage standing there in jeans, a blue shirt and a leather jacket like her own.

            “Ready to go, Syd?” he asked.

            She nodded and stepped out of her apartment, closing the door behind her.  They walked down the stairs and to the parking lot where his motorcycle was parked.  He put on his helmet and handed her the other one.  She strapped the chin strap and waited until he had gotten on before getting behind him.  She wrapped her arms around and held on tightly.

            “Do you mind if we don’t eat fancy tonight?” he asked as he started revving up the engine.

            “Not at all,” she told him.     

            “Hold on tight,” he said and the engine roared to life.  They pulled out of the parking lot and Sydney held on for dear life.

            They pulled up in front of a restaurant that was more Gage’s style.  She got first and then he climbed off as well.  They left their helmets on the motorcycle and entered the restaurant, Gage holding open the door for her.  They walked to the counter and told the woman in a denim shirt behind the counter what they wanted.  Gage got two hamburgers which was no surprise and Sydney ordered a burger as well, noticing that Gage got his without onions and when she asked him about it he told her that when he kissed her he didn’t think she would want his breath to smell like onions.

            They ate their food and talked.  They discussed how many kids they would want if they got married and they both wanted a whole bunch.  Then they discussed how they arrange the finances and generally exhausted all topics related to marriage in general.  Sydney nearly lost it however when Gage asked if she would mind if Alex helped pick out the engagement ring.  Hypothetically speaking of course but she assured him she didn’t mind which was true.  She wouldn’t care if Gage paid an absolute stranger to pick it out as long as she got one.  After finishing he went to the men’s room while she remained sitting at the table.  Throughout the whole meal she had observed three men in camouflage jackets at a table not far from them watching her.  As soon as Gage left the men rose from their table and came over to her.

            “Hey, sweetie,” one of them, a Caucasian with a crew cut, said.

            “I’m not your sweetie,” she told him.  “Now beat it.”

            “She got you, Ray,” a red-headed man laughed as he said it.

            Ray unfortunately was not to be deterred.  “Wanna dance?” he asked.

            “No, I don’t.  Look, my boyfriend’s going to be back in a second and he’ll get very upset if he sees the three of you with me.”

            “I don’t care about your boyfriend, sweetheart.  Wouldn’t you rather be with me anyway?”

            “Frankly I’d much prefer to be with a corpse than with you,” Sydney said.

            The red-head laughed again and Ray scowled at him.  “Shut up, Wayne,” he growled then turned back to Sydney.

            “Listen to me, pal, I don’t want to hurt you but I will if you don’t leave me alone,” she threatened.

            “A little thing like you?” Ray laughed.  Sydney’s black eyes blazed.  True she weighed about one hundred and twenty pounds and was only five foot two but she was a black belt in karate after all but this idiot didn’t know that.  “And just what can you do to me?” he taunted.

            “This,” Sydney turned in her chair and lashed out with one leg knocking Wayne to the ground.  She rose from her chair and shoved it toward Ray who didn’t see it coming until it had already hit him.

            Gage emerged from the restroom just in time to see a bald man grab Sydney around the waist.  He ran and wrapped his arm around the bald man’s throat causing him to start choking.  Somebody with red hair rose from the floor and came toward Gage who kicked backwards and caught him in the shin.  He stumbled into Ray who fell to the floor.  The bald guy decided to let go of Sydney so he could struggle with Gage and she stumbled forward.  Wayne and Ray came toward her and she picked up a chair and threw it at Ray who ducked it.

            Gage released the bald guy and he sank to the floor unconscious.  Gage just barely managed to duck the chair that Sydney had thrown and threw a punch at Ray.  Ray didn’t pay attention to the blow to his nose and struck back at Gage who pretended to be falling backward.  When Ray came closer to deliver a punch Gage leaped into the air and his right foot caught Ray in the chest.  Ray fell, slid across the room and crashed into a table, breaking it.  He didn’t get back up.

            Sydney spun on her leg and managed to hit Wayne in the chin with her black shoe.  He tripped over the unconscious bald man and hit his head on the counter as he fell.  Sydney dusted off her hands and her partner came to her.

            “Are you all right, Syd?” he inquired solicitously.

            “I’m just fine,” she smiled up at him.

            Gage gazed at the mess and then turned to the frightened waitress who was hiding behind the counter.  When the fighting had broken out all of the other people had taken refuge in various places.

            “I’m sorry about the mess,” he apologized.

            “It’s all right.  Those boys are trouble makers.  They do this all the time,” she said as she rose to a standing position.

            “Here,” Gage withdrew his wallet and counted out some bills which he handed to her. “Take these since I doubt you’ll get any money from them.”  She didn’t protest as she folded the cash and slid it into the pocket of her jeans.

            “I’m sorry about that, Syd,” Gage said as they left the restaurant.

            “Don’t be sorry, Gage.  It doesn’t quite feel like a date unless we get into a fight sometime during the evening.”

            “Are you ready to go home?” he asked as he got back on his motorcycle.

            “Are you?” she asked.

            “I was thinking maybe we could take the long way back home,” he turned and smiled at her.

            “Fine with me,” she put on her helmet.

            Meanwhile Rhett and Kay were sitting in Rhett’s black Ford car watching the Duggan's house.  Lights shone from the house and illuminated the back yard and sidewalk.  Walker had thought Kimberly and Kara might try to come there so the two had volunteered to watch since Gage and Sydney were going on another date.  Kay was envying her sister right about then.  It wasn’t fair that Sydney was prettier, better at karate, and actually got to go on a date with the man she loved.  Kay was smarter and taller but that was about it.  As children the two of them had competed for their father’s attention and had tried to outdo each other all of the time but he had paid no attention to either of them.  He had preferred Bobby mostly because he was a boy and the one person who would pass on the family name and take over the family business.

            “Kay, would you be interested in starting a relationship with me?” Rhett blurted out.  Kay looked at him in shock and he continued on speaking hurriedly as if he wanted to get the words out before he had time to think about what he was saying.  “I think you’re a very intelligent, pretty, courageous woman and I would be interested in knowing you better.  I know the two of us have worked together for five years now and during that time I’ve grown to like you a lot.”

            “Did you decide to ask me this because of my sister and Gage?”

            “Partially.  I’ve wanted to ask you out for a while but I didn’t know if there were any rules about it and then Monday when Walker said that we could have a relationship I decided it was time to ask you.  I know it’s a little soon but,” Kay was sitting in her seat in a state of shock and then realized Rhett was still speaking.   “So would you be interested in getting involved in a relationship with me?”

            “Yes, Rhett, I would,” Kay said, recovering from her earlier shock.  “You just took me by surprise that’s all.”

            “And I know it’s a stakeout but,” Rhett reached into the backseat and pulled out a white takeout box with red symbols on the sides.  He handed it to her and retrieved another one.

            “Rhett, it’s Chinese takeout,” Kay exclaimed.

            “I remembered how much you like Chinese food.  It’s still pretty hot and here’s a napkin,” he handed her several of the white squares and a pair of chopsticks which she accepted.        

            She opened the box and received yet another pleasant surprise.  “You managed to get the rice burned!”  She loved burnt rice.  Regular rice was all right but she much preferred burnt.  She scooped up a bite with her chopsticks and closed her eyes, savoring the taste.  “It’s very good, thank you, Rhett.”

            “You’re welcome,” he said.

            They ate in silence and then Kay noticed something or rather someone in the Duggan’s yard. Two shadows broke away from a tree and headed toward the house.

            Kay threw open the door of the car and got out.  “Freeze!  Texas Rangers!” she yelled. 

            The shadows turned away from the house and headed toward the sidewalk.

            “Stop!” Kay called again but when they didn’t she sighed and started running after them.  Rhett was behind her but she didn’t pay any attention to him.

            “Kimberly, Kara!” she yelled but the girls still didn’t stop.  Kay was having a hard time keeping up with them as her heels sank into the hard earth.

            The four of them ran for ten minutes down the alley before Kay finally gave up. “I ran track,” she gasped leaning against a brick wall.  “I was the fastest runner in high school, won medals, awards and even a college scholarship.  I’m only thirty-seven and already I can’t even keep up with two teenagers.”

            “I think it’s your shoes,” Rhett told her as he caught up with her.

            “What’s wrong with my shoes?” she asked.

            “Nothing but they have heels.  You can hardly walk in them, let alone run in them.”

            “Rhett Harper, you are about two seconds away from getting yourself killed.  Now call Walker and tell him that the girls were here but left before we could catch them.”

            “You saw the two of them enter the alley and you pursed them,” Walker was saying.

            “Yes, sir, we both did,” Kay said firmly, “and I’m positive that it was them.”

            “I believe you, Kay,” Walker frowned.  “I think we should put it in the paper about you and Sydney being their aunts.  That might encourage them to come out in the open.”

            “Julie will be more than happy to write the article,” Rhett said.

            “I’m sure she will be and Gage is going to be thrilled.”  Walker smiled.  Gage would be anything but thrilled.

            Once again the women were gathered at Gage’s house for an hour or two of wedding planning.  Only Alex, Erika, and Amy Sandoval and her daughter were there though.  Angela was at school and Sydney and Kay were on their way.  Books and magazines were spread across the floor and Erika was circling things with a black ink pen she had found.

            “Twenty dozen bouquets of wildflowers should be enough,” she remarked as Amy wrote the number down in Sydney’s wedding notebook that she had loaned Erika.

            “How many guests are you going to have?” Amy asked.

            “A thousand,” Erika answered promptly.  “And we’ve already sent out all of the invitations.”

            Sydney and Kay came in the front door just then.  As soon as Amy caught sight of Sydney she rose to her feet and as the notebook fell to the floor several papers fluttered out.

            “Hello, Sydney-girl,” she said shyly.

            Sydney stopped and stared at the other woman.  “Ames?  Ames, is that really you?” when Amy nodded Sydney ran across the room and embraced her.

            “Do you two know each other?” Alex asked.

            “We went to high school together,” Sydney explained.  “We would have graduated but Amy’s family moved to Texas.  I moved here a year after that but I didn’t know where she lived.”

            “I had gotten married by then and I couldn’t find your address anywhere,” Amy said.  “When Carlos told me the name of Gage’s partner I thought it might be you but I wasn’t one hundred percent sure.”

            “Well it is and you haven’t changed a bit.”

            “You look prettier than ever and you’ve got the look of a woman in love,” Amy told her friend but before Sydney could respond to that Amy pulled a little girl closer to her.  “This is my daughter Sienna Noel.”

            “Nice to meet you, Sienna,” Sydney said sincerely as she bent to the little girl’s height level.

            Erika cleared her throat.  “I hate to interrupt this but, Sydney, if you and Kay have to be back at work in an hour we need to get cracking.”

            “Right,” Sydney sat down cross-legged on the floor next to Amy and Kay followed suit.

            “Walker is taking Alex out for a romantic dinner Saturday,” Gage told Sydney. “They’re leaving at five-thirty.  You’re more than welcome to come over and keep me company.”

            Sydney looked up at her partner who was standing in front of her desk.  “Are you going to be cooking?”

            “I thought we could just order a pizza and watch a movie.”

            “I’d love to keep you company and I’ll come over as soon as they leave.”

            “See you at five thirty-five,” he smiled.

            All of the Rangers plus Carlos, Trent, and Rebecca Gold were gathered in another alleyway.  Johann Dupree’s body had been found there.

            “Why would she kill Johann?” Sydney frowned in confusion.

            Gage shrugged.  “I don’t know, Syd.  Maybe she had gotten all she could out of him and she decided to get rid of him.”

            “What did she get out of him, Gage?” Trent asked.

            “He busted her out of prison and got her rifles and grenades.  That’s all.”

            “He must have done something else, though.  Something that we don’t know about,” Sydney’s black eyes met those of her partner and both groaned simultaneously.

            “That must mean she’s going to do something else.  Something big probably,” Gage said.

            “Wait a minute, I got it,” Kay said excitedly.  “What’s the biggest thing coming up where all of us are going to be together?”

            “Trivette’s wedding but what does that have to do anything?” Rhett wanted to know.

            “Rhett, if you wanted to kill two Rangers and everybody close to them and a wedding was coming up what would do?” Kay sounded slightly exasperated.

            “I’d hire some assassins and have a shooting at the wedding and…  Oh no,” Rhett’s voice trailed off as he and everybody else got what she was trying to say.

            “There’s going to be a shooting at my wedding?” Trivette groaned.  “That’s it; we’re eloping.”

            “Oh no you’re not, Trivette, not after we've already gotten fitted for the bridesmaid’s dress,” Sydney informed him.

            “Plus Erika would kill you,” Gage added. 

            “Then what are we going to do?” Trivette asked helplessly.

            Walker and Gage looked at each other then Walker spoke.  “We’ll just have to wear our weapons to the wedding.  Hidden of course but we’ll definitely wear them.”

                                         CHAPTER 10

            At approximately five minutes after five-thirty Sydney arrived at Gage’s house.  As a rule she didn’t generally wear purple since red went better with her hair but she had made an exception and worn a purple shirt to go along with her blue jeans and locket that Gage had given her. 

            “You look pretty, Syd.”

            “Just pretty?” Sydney pretended to pout at Gage’s words.

            “So pretty in fact that I could kiss you,” Gage teased.

            “Why don’t you?”

            “I might,” with that he leaned down and she stood on her tip-toes, a trick she had learned in ballerina school, and their lips met.  Unfortunately, as seemed to be the case, they were interrupted once again.

            “Sorry,” Alex apologized as the two of them pulled away from each other.  “I forgot my purse.”  The truth was Alex had had a feeling that Sydney would be coming over and had deliberately left her purse behind so she would have an excuse to come back in.  She scooped it up from where she had left it sitting on the kitchen counter and hurried out the door.

            “Was she there?” Walker asked as Alex slid back in the truck.  

            “Oh, yeah, and I even walked in on them in the middle of a kiss,” she smiled.

            Walker smiled as well and pulled out of the driveway and toward the restaurant where they were going to be eating.

            Inside Gage’s house the pizza had arrived and Sydney placed two slices of pepperoni on her plate, picked up her glass of iced tea, and headed toward the living room where Gage was already sitting on the couch with his feet propped up on the coffee table.

            She set her drink on the coffee table and sat down on the couch before moving the glass to the side table next to the lamp.

            “What are we watching?” she asked.

            “Kay told me that the movie President’s Man is really good so I thought we might watch that,” Gage answered.

            “Fine with me,” Sydney took a bite of the pizza and smiled at him.  “Would you like me to turn off the lights?”

            “But then I can’t see my food,” Gage protested.

            “I’ll leave a lamp on, Gage; I just figured we would be more comfortable with the lights off.”

            “You’re probably right, so go ahead and turn them off.”

            Sydney rose and flipped the light switch next to the doorway; the lampshades cast a blue glow on the walls.  She made her way back to the couch and sat next to Gage.  He crooked his finger at her and motioned for her to come closer, she did so snuggling up to him and his right arm rested comfortably on her shoulders as the movie started.

            It was Sunday morning and Rhett had come over to help Walker get some stuff out of his house since the plumber had said they could go in to get some things.  Alex had been politely but firmly forbidden to go in the house since there was no telling how dangerous it was.  Also no telling how much damage had been done to the furniture.  Alex hadn’t argued much, she simply curled up on Gage’s couch with a book.

            “Alex, can I talk to you for a minute?” Gage asked hesitantly as he entered the room.

            Alex laid aside the book and said, “Of course, Gage.”

            “I hate to ask but would you mind doing me a favor?”

            “What is it?”

            “I want to ask Sydney to marry me and I was wondering if you would mind helping me pick out the ring,” at the stunned look on Alex’s face Gage hurried on.  “I mean, I already have a pretty good idea of what I want to get her but I need somebody to sound off of.”

            “I would love to help you pick out an engagement ring for Sydney,” Alex was sincere.

            “Thanks, Alex.  I’m off Thursday so can we go then?  Say one-thirty?”

            “Thursday at one-thirty is fine with me, Gage.”

            “Great, I gotta go help Walker and Rhett now,” with that Gage disappeared from the room.

            “After eleven years he’s finally going to ask her,” a smile spread across Alex’s face.

            Just then Rhett came in.  “Alex, I hate to do this but I need to ask you a favor.”

            “What is it, Rhett?”

            Rhett struggled for a few seconds then said, “Will you help me pick out an engagement ring for Kay?  I have a good idea of what I want but…”

            “You just want somebody to sound off of,” Alex finished.

            “Right.  Is Friday at one-thirty fine with you?”

            “Yes it is.” 

            Alex watched as Rhett left the room and leaned into the couch and closed her eyes.  It seemed that when things happened around here they happened quickly.  Just a few months ago nobody had been involved in a relationship and now they were picking out engagement rings.

            She heard footsteps and then a voice said, “Alex.”

            “Yes, Walker, I would be more than happy to help you pick out an engagement ring on Saturday at one-thirty,” Alex didn’t even open her eyes.

            “Alex, I’m already married to you,” Walker pointed out.

            “Sorry, Walker, it’s just that Gage and Rhett both asked me to help them pick out engagement rings this week.”

            “They both did?” Walker repeated in disbelief.

            “Oh, yes, they sure did.  I’m going with Gage on Thursday and Rhett on Friday.”

            Walker shook his head and said, “Those guys sure don’t waste any time.”

            “They sure don’t,” Alex agreed.  “Now will you hand me that magazine?”

            Walker complied with her request and then asked why she wanted it. 

            “If I’m going to be picking out engagement rings I’m going to need to know some stuff about them.”  Alex opened the magazine and started reading.

            Richard Everett closed the door of the martial arts school behind him but he didn’t lock it.  Nobody bothered it and sometimes a homeless person would take up refuge there.  He didn’t care if they did since it would provide them a safe place for a few hours.  He walked down the street.  The alley was dark and deserted.  A single street lamp shone down a few feet ahead.  Richard was passing underneath the lamp when he paused.  A slight rustling sound had caught his attention.  It wasn’t a rat; he knew that much.  He had heard them too many times before.  That was the sound of a person.

            He turned around and saw a woman standing in front of him.  She wore black jeans and a long-sleeved black shirt.  Her black hair was cut short and framed her face.  He recognized her as Stella Meyers.

            “Stella Meyers,” he said.

            “You know me?” Stella raised an eyebrow.

            “Not personally but I recognize your picture from your wanted posters.”

            “I should be flattered that I’m so famous but I’m not,” she took a step toward him but Richard refused to move.

            “Are you going to kill me?” he asked.

            “Yes, I am,” she smiled and reached toward her belt. 

            Richard never gave her a chance to get to her weapon.  His fist went toward her jaw but she was too fast for him and ducked, sending a blow of her own toward his midriff.  Just before she delivered the blow his left leg swung out in an arc and hit her arm.  She paid no attention to his attack and hit him in the nose.  Richard then kicked her in the stomach with his right leg and she fell on her back.  Instead of staying there, however, she rolled herself into a ball and came up, knife in hand.  Somewhat surprised that she was still up Richard was caught off guard and the knife came at him.  He turned at the last second and it cut into his arm, blood started pouring out of the wound and he clasped his hand to it to try and stop the bleeding. 

     A siren wailed and Stella cursed.  Abandoning Richard she ran down the alley and disappeared around a corner.  Richard didn’t even attempt to go after her.  It would be futile and he had to stop the bleeding before he bled to death.

            Gage and Walker arrived at the scene fifteen minutes later.  The two men climbed out of Walker’s truck and headed toward where Richard was sitting on the edge of the ambulance while Paramedic Jerry Kelsey stitched up his arm.

            “Are you all right, Rich?” Gage wasted no time in asking his friend.

            “I’m all right,” Richard assured him.  “Just a little scratched up but I’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.”

            “I’m sorry about all this,” Gage started to apologize but Richard cut him short.

            “Don’t apologize, Gage, it wasn’t your fault.  Stella didn’t have to come after me and at least I’m still alive,” Richard said cheerfully.

     “As long as you’re sure,” Gage began.

     “I’m sure,” Richard interrupted again. 

     On Thursday morning the Ranger office was strangely quiet.  It was Gage’s day off and Sydney hadn’t arrived yet.  She walked in the door and stopped short.  Sitting on her desk was a large bouquet of a dozen red roses.  She went and sniffed them.  They certainly weren’t fake and the vase they were in looked to be real china.  A white card attached to the bouquet caught her eye and she opened it and read it.

     Syd- Pretty flowers for an even prettier lady.  Can’t wait to see you tonight!  Have a good day.  I love you.  Love, Gage.

     A smile spread across Sydney’s face as she read the simple message.  It was just like Gage to say something like that.  She couldn’t wait to see him either.

     The phone rang and she answered it, “Ranger Headquarters, Ranger Cooke speaking.”

     “Good morning, Syd,” at the sound of Gage’s voice she pressed the phone closer to her ear.

     “Good morning,” she said carefully as her sister had just come in the door and she didn’t want to give Kay a reason to tease her about Gage anymore than she already did.

     “Did you like the flowers?”

     “They’re beautiful; roses are my favorite kind and especially the red ones.”

     “I knew you’d like them.  Are we still watching a movie at your place tonight?”

     “Yes, we are.”  Since Gage was off that day and Sydney wasn’t they had decided to meet at her apartment and watch a movie together.

     “Not a chick flick please,” he begged.

     “Runaway Bride is not a chick flick, Gage, but don’t worry.  There’s a movie coming on tonight that’s a sequel to the one we watched Saturday.”

     Gage breathed a sigh of relief, “That’s good.  Well I better let you get back to work.  I love you.”

     “I love you too.”  Sydney hung up the phone and refused to meet her sister’s gaze.  Instead she re-read the card and slipped it into the top drawer of her desk so she could read it later without an audience.

     “Do you think Syd would prefer a gold band or a silver one?”

     Alex looked at the display of bands at thoughtfully considered her answer.  “I think Sydney would prefer a silver band.”

     “You’re probably right,” Gage agreed.  “Would she like the ring with the band that twists or a plain one?”

     “A plain one,” Alex told him.

     Gage nodded in agreement and the girl behind the counter disappeared into the back to get the band while Gage moved on to the stones.

     “I know Syd would like a red stone but would she rather have the bright red ruby or the dark red garnet?”

     “She would probably want the garnet since she likes dark red a lot.”

     “A dark red garnet with a little blue stone on each side of it,” Gage told the girl and she nodded.

     “Would you like to put a message on the band?” the girl suggested and Gage thought about it for a second before replying.

     “Can you put ‘Syd and Gage-Forever’ on the outside?” he asked.

     “Of course we can.  Is that going to be all for you?”

     “I think so.”

     “All right, then.  Your total is seven thousand, three hundred.  Cash, check, or charge?”

     “Charge,” Gage said and slid the credit card through the little machine and then scribbled his name.

     “Would you like to wait for the ring?  It’ll only be an hour or you can come get it another day.”

     “Alex, is there anything you have to do today?” Gage asked before answering the clerk’s question.

     “No, Gage, I don’t mind waiting for the ring."

     “We’ll be back in an hour,” Gage said and then he and Alex left the small jewelry store. “I need to get Trivette and Erika a wedding present.  What about you?”

     “I need to get them something as well,” Alex frowned.

     “Since we’re at the mall why don’t we go to that wedding store over there and get them something,” he suggested.

     “Fine with me.  You didn’t want to get them salad forks did you?” she smiled at him and he grinned back at her.  Because he had waited until the week before her and Walker’s wedding he had had to get them salad forks.  He had attempted to trade with everybody else but they all refused.

     “How about some glasses?” Gage picked up a box of glasses and Alex followed suit.

     “I’ll get them a box too.  They can’t have too many.”

     The two carried the glasses up to the counter and paid for them.  Then they wandered around the mall until it was time to get the ring.  Gage was scared to look at it because he was afraid they might have messed it up or something like that.  Alex smiled at him tolerantly and opened the red jewelry box it was in.  The ring was gorgeous and absolutely perfect.  Gage breathed a sigh of relief and they left the mall with the ring tucked safely in Alex’s purse.

     “Did you have fun on your day off?” Sydney asked as she wrapped her arms around her partner’s waist.

     “Definitely.  But I’m having a lot more fun with you right here,” he said as he bent down to kiss her.

     “I made popcorn,” she said when the kiss ended.

     “Extra butter?”

     “Yes, Gage, it has extra butter.  You make yourself comfortable and I’ll get it and our drinks.”

     When Sydney came back from the kitchen with a bowl of popcorn and two cokes in hand Gage had already plopped down on her couch obviously taking her word on getting comfortable.  She handed one can to him and then sat down next to him.

     “Only one bowl of popcorn?” Gage raised his eyebrows at her.

     “I figured we could share.  Unless you don’t want to.”

     “I don’t mind sharing everything with you, Syd,” Gage said honestly.

     “Everything?”

     “Everything.”

     “Maybe we should finish this conversation later.  The movie’s starting,” Sydney said as Gage took a handful of popcorn and put it in his mouth as the opening credits of President’s Man: A Line in the Sand rolled across the screen.

     “Silver or gold?” Rhett asked.

     “Kay’s more of a silver person,” Alex answered.  It was Friday and she was helping Rhett pick out Kay’s engagement ring.

     “Twisted band or plain?”

     “Definitely twisted.”

     “The emerald or the ruby?”

     “The emerald,” Alex could only imagine what would happen if both Gage and Rhett got the sisters identical rings.  The two men would be in a whole lot of trouble and so would she.

     A few minutes later Rhett had picked out an emerald on a twisted band with the words ‘Kay and Rhett’ and Alex breathed a sigh of relief.  Both engagement rings had been picked out and neither she or Rhett and Gage would get in trouble.  Hopefully.

     Pete Balbo stood in the shadows, waiting for Stella Meyers to show.  He had found out where she was but didn’t bother to call the Texas Rangers.  They wouldn’t have been able to do anything.  When Stella came down the street toward him he moved from his hiding place, blocking her way.

     “Do I know you?” she asked when she came to him.

     “You killed my brother, Karl Balbo.  He was one of the members on the jury that sentenced you to prison,” Pete said through clenched teeth.

     “I remember him.  You know he wasn’t very smart.  In fact he was absolutely stupid.”

     That had been the wrong thing to say.  Pete lunged at Stella but she sidestepped him and stuck out her foot and he fell to the ground.  Instantly she stabbed him in the back with one of her ever-present knives and turned and left the alley.

     Over the next few months Gage and Sydney continued to work on their budding relationship.  The two went on many dates which included trips to the zoo, movies, picnics, walks in the park, rides on Gage’s motorcycle, and even a trip to the ice skating ring.  Rhett and Kay also worked on their relationships.  It seemed that when the four had finally decided to get serious, they moved fast.

     In addition the Rangers, Alex, Erika, Carlos, Amy, and Trent managed to get Trivette and Erika’s wedding planned all the way down to the last detail.  Trivette was still worried about it though so he made a phone call and Corey Mimms, renowned wedding planner, came to help.  The last time Corey and Trivette had planned a wedding it had turned disastrous when Karl Storm, an enemy of the happy couple and Alex, had decided to have a shooting and Alex had ended up in a coma.  Walker and Trivette had hunted down Karl and killed him.  When Alex woke up Walker had asked her to marry him.  Corey, scarred from the experience, had refused to ever plan a wedding again.  He had changed his mind after Trivette had recommended him to a very wealthy senator whose only daughter was getting married.

     Corey came over to the Dallas Lutheran Church which was where the wedding was going to be held.  As soon as he saw Trivette he said, “James, there better not be any trouble at this wedding.”

     “Don’t worry,” Gage said.  “The only trouble is that there might be a shooting here since someone’s trying to kill us.”

     “What!” Corey exclaimed.

     “Knock it off, Gage,” Trivette glared at the younger Ranger who merely grinned unrepentantly.  “Corey, it’s true that someone is trying to kill us but we are taking a lot of precautions and we promise that this time you won’t get tied up and shoved beneath the bandstand.”

     “You better take precautions,” Corey sniffed.  “I refuse to get hurt simply because I helped plan a wedding.”

     It was a beautiful sunny day in Dallas.  The Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was crowded.  Stella leaned against a post and watched the people as they scurried back and forth trying to collect friends and belongings and find the right plane.  She straightened when she saw a group of people come off of a plane that had landed just a few minutes earlier and come toward her.  There were four of them: two men and two women and each one was carrying a small bag.

     “Hello, Stella,” one of the women, an Asian woman, said.

     “Nice to see you, Sheena.  You too, Mark, Reno, and Kena.”  The other three nodded as Stella greeted them.

     “What did you call us for?” Kena, a brown-haired Russian woman asked.

     “I got a little something planned for the Texas Rangers.  You guys interested?”

     “If it involves Texas Rangers we’re always interested,” David answered.  He was the only American in the small group and had sandy blond hair.  The four weren’t related but had met in Canada while trying to escape the law and decided to team up together and become a sniper team.  They would only accept assignments that paid a lot.  They were old friends of Stella’s and therefore she would be able to get away with paying them a small fee since she had helped them escape the law several times before.

     “Good.  Get your luggage and then I’ll take you to my place and tell you what I need you to do.”

     “We already got our luggage,” Reno said.  He was a big burly black man of few words.

     “Then let’s go,” Stella turned and led them out of the airport and to the black car that she had gotten from a friend.

     “So you want us to have a shooting at this wedding?” Sheena asked several minutes later.  They were now at the warehouse and were sitting around the table.  Pictures of the Rangers were nailed to the wall.

     “Yes, I do.  The wedding starts at three in the afternoon and Ranger Trivette and his wife’s plane leaves at six so I figure they’ll leave at five-thirty.  Just as they get ready to go on the honeymoon we start shooting.  Any questions?”

     “Who are our main targets?” David questioned.

     “See the pictures on the wall over here?” Stella rose from her seat and went to the wall feeling like a kid at school being told to go and demonstrate a problem at the board.  “This is Ranger James Trivette.  It’s his wedding and this is his fiancée Erika Carter.  Alex Cahill-Walker is the matron of honor and her husband Ranger Cordell Walker is the best man.  Simon Trivette, Trent Malloy, and Carlos Sandoval are groomsman and Carlos’s wife, Amy, is also a bridesmaid as are Lindsey Trivette, Kay Austin, and Sydney Cooke.  I want you to kill all of them but the two main targets are Rangers Francis Gage and Rhett Harper, also groomsmen.”

     “That’s a lot of groomsmen and bridesmaids,” Kena commented.

     “That just means more money for you because I’ll pay you five million for each one of the people I just mentioned that you kill.  Also there is a one million dollar reward for each guest that you kill.  Ranger Gage and Ranger Harper are mine though, understood?”

     “Understood.  So when do we start?” Kena asked eagerly.

     “The wedding is in a week and until then all of us lay low.”

            Kimberly Miller and Kara Roche walked down the street, the street lamp casting eerie shadows.  Kara saw an abandoned newspaper lying on the ground and picked it up.  She read the headline and her mouth dropped open.  Without saying a word she handed it to Kimberly who read the headline ‘TEXAS RANGER’S NIECE WITNESS TO MURDER.’  The article said that Kimberly Miller, the niece of Rangers Sydney Cooke and Kay Austin had witnessed a murder committed by Stella Meyers and was on the run.

            “Those are the two ladies who work with Ranger Gage!” Kimberly exclaimed.

            “What a coincidence that I happen to have found the niece of the woman Ranger Gage is in love with,” Stella Meyers said from behind them before she grabbed Kimberly.  Kara stood in shock as if not knowing what to do.

            “Run, Kara!” Kimberly yelled.  “Run!”

            Kara glanced around then followed her friend’s advice and ran as fast as she could down the sidewalk.  Stella let her go since she already had the person she wanted. 

            Kara ran down several different blocks, past buildings and gang members, before reaching her destination.  She ran up on the porch and knocked on the door as hard as she could and rang the doorbell.

            Mary Duggan opened the door a few seconds later.  “Kara, what are you doing here?  Where’s Kimberly?”

            “That Stella Meyers lady grabbed her.  I ran as fast as I could,” Kara tried to catch her breath.

            “Come inside,” Mary pulled Kara inside the house and shut the door. “Archie!” she called.  “Come down here now!”

            Archie came down the stairs two at a time and froze when he saw Kara.

            “Call the Rangers and tell them Kara’s shown up,” Mary said.

            The Rangers, Carlos, Trent, and Rebecca Gold were soon in the Duggan’s house.  Kara sat on the couch and Mary sat next to her.

            “So you had just picked up a newspaper and given it to Kimberly when Stella Meyers grabbed her?” Gage asked, clarifying.

            Kara nodded.  “Yes.  It was the article about those two Ranger ladies being Kimberly’s aunts.”

            Mary gasped and looked at Archie who turned to look at Sydney and Kay.

            “Kara, do you know that your mom was murdered?” Gage asked gently, having decided that the best course of action for the time being was to leave Kimberly’s kidnapping and move on to something else.

            Kara sniffed as she nodded again.  “Yeah, we heard about it from one of the street kids.  Did she really try to blackmail Stella Meyers?”

            “It looks that way,” Walker answered.

            “Where am I going to go?” Kara asked.

            “You’re going to stay here with us,” Archie answered.  “You’ve always been like a sister to Kimberly and a daughter to us.”

            Kara looked up with hope in her eyes.  “I can really stay with you guys?”

            “If you want to,” Mary replied.

            “I would love to.  Thank you,” Kara threw her arms around Mary and hugged her tightly.

            Sydney cleared her throat and said, “Kay and I have already started signing the adoption papers.  In just a few weeks Kimberly will be yours as well.”

            “Thank you, Ranger Cooke,” Archie said sincerely as he shook her hand.

            “And we’ll find Kimberly, Archie.  Don’t you worry about it,” Gage added.

            “I wasn’t worried in the least little bit.”

            The morning of Trivette and Erika’s wedding dawned bright and sunny.  It already looked like it was going to be a gorgeous day much to Alex’s relief.  By two-thirty everything was set up and ready to go.  The wedding was going to be inside the church as Erika hadn’t wanted to take any chances just in case it rained.  After the vows were said they would go outside to dance and have punch.

            Alex was already dressed in her pale pink dress and her blond hair was pulled back in a bun held into place by a clip.  She was re-arranging some flowers when Gage came and stood next to her. 

            “Alex, do you think Trivette and Erika would mind if I asked Sydney to marry me today?” he asked.

            Alex’s hands stilled as she replied, “No, I don’t think they will.”

            “Good,” Gage hurried off to return to his duties as one of the ushers.

            “Alex,” this time it was Rhett.  “Would anybody mind if I asked Kay to marry me?”

            “No, Rhett.”  Alex watched as Rhett hurried off as well then abandoned the flowers and went off in search of Erika.

            The nervous bride-to-be was wearing her white short-sleeve bridal gown and looking in the mirror at her black hair.

            “Erika, we have a problem,” Alex said.

            Erika turned toward Alex.  “Don’t tell me Jimmy isn’t here.”

            “He is but Gage and Rhett are both planning to ask Sydney and Kay to marry them today.  I told them you and Trivette wouldn’t mind.”

            “We don’t but why is that a problem?”

            “You have to throw the bouquet and Trivette has to throw the rose that he wears.  You’re going to have four people going after two things.”

            “You’re right; this is a problem.  What are we going to do?”

            “I already talked to Trent.  He promised to stay out of Gage and Rhett’s way.  When you throw the bouquet just give it a toss.  Don’t throw it to somebody specific,” Alex advised.

            “All right.  What time is it?”

            “Three twenty-eight,” Alex looked at her watch.

            Angela and Sienna Noel Sandoval started down the aisle first dressed in ruffled pink dresses.  The two girls plucked flower petals out of their baskets and strew them as they came up the aisle.  Carlos smiled at his daughter and Walker smiled at his.  The two little girls went and sat down on the groom’s side of the aisle.

            Next came Sydney, Kay, Amy, and Lindsey Trivette.  Gage grinned at Sydney and gave her a wink.  Sydney smiled back at him while Kay and Rhett smiled at each other as well.  Then Alex came down the aisle and smiled at her husband.

            Last of all came Erika on her father’s arm.  She gave him a kiss before he sat down then turned to face her future husband.  The two stood next to each other in front of Tom Brown, the minister who had presided over Walker and Alex’s wedding.

            “Dearly beloved we are gathered here today in the sight of God and all these witnesses to join together these two in holy matrimony.  Do you, James, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife, to love and to cherish in sickness and in health, for rich or for poor, for better or for worse?”

            “I do,” Trivette replied.

            “Do you, Erika, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love and to cherish in sickness and in health, for rich or for poor, for better or for worse?”

            “I do,” Erika said.

            “You may exchange the rings,” the minister waited while Trivette and Erika slid the rings on each other’s fingers before continuing.  “By the power invested in me from God and the state of Texas I pronounce you man and wife.  You may kiss the bride.”

            Trivette and Erika leaned toward each other and kissed.  They pulled away after a minute and faced all of their friends were watching them.  Well, almost all of their friends.  Gage and Rhett were eyeing Sydney and Kay who were eyeing them right back.

            Then it was time to throw the bouquet.  Erika closed her eyes and threw the bouquet hard.  Then she opened her eyes just in time to see Sydney and Kay holding a tug of war.  Sydney had one half and Kay had the other.  The two women pulled and then the ribbon holding it together came undone and each woman ended up with one half of the bouquet.  They looked at the bouquet and then at each other.  Alex was laughing.  This sort of thing had never happened before.  Trivette threw the white rose attached to his lapel and Gage and Rhett both made a lunge for it while all of the other men ducked which was a tradition.  The rose decided to follow the example of its predecessor and came in half.  Gage holding the petals and Rhett the stem.

            “Sydney and Kay jinxed us,” Gage declared which earned him a glare from both women.

     Then the dancing started.  Trivette and Erika started them off and had the whole first dance to themselves.  Then everybody else started too.  Gage asked Sydney to dance with him and she accepted.  Rhett and Kay went off as well.  Trent meanwhile managed to find Julie Gage who watching the proceedings with an envious look.

     “May I have this dance?” he asked.

     “Did my brother pay you to dance with me?”

     “Nobody would have to pay me to dance with a pretty woman.”

     Julie looked at him and then said, “Sure.  If I don’t then Francis will dance with me and he’s not fun to dance with since he would prefer to dance with Sydney.”

     Gage and Sydney were silently dancing.  Sydney could sense that Gage was nervous and was wondering why when he suddenly stopped dancing.

     “Syd, we’ve been partners for a long time now, right?”

     Puzzled, Sydney replied, “Almost twelve years.  Why?”

     “During these twelve years I’ve grown to care for you a lot and I would like to make you my partner for life.”

     Sydney’s breath caught in her throat.  Was he really saying what she thought he was saying?

     “Sydney Cooke,” Gage got down on one knee and pulled a red jewelry box out of his suit jacket pocket and opened it.  “Will you marry me?”

     “Yes, Gage, I’ll marry you,” Sydney said and he smiled.

     “Thank you,” he said as he rose to his feet and slid the ring on her finger.  Sydney looked at the ring.  It had a silver band and a red garnet with a small blue stone on each side.  She saw something engraved on it and so she twisted it and read the words ‘Syd and Gage-Forever.’

     Gage leaned down toward her and she lifted her head toward him.  As she did so the memories of all their past kisses ran through her head but none of them had been as sweet as this one she decided when their lips finally met.  She ignored the curious stares they were getting and concentrated on her fiancé.  That word in connection with Gage sounded so good.  But then she was interrupted by a shriek.  Startled, she and Gage turned to see Rhett bending on knee in front of Kay who had emitted the shriek.

     Rhett and Kay were dancing as well when Rhett suddenly stopped.  Kay frowned at him and was about to say something when he dropped to one knee and pulled something out of his pocket.

     “Kay, will you marry me?” he asked.

     A shriek emitted from her mouth as her mind tried to comprehend what he was doing.  He had just asked her to marry him, she finally realized.

     “Yes, I’ll marry you,” she managed to get out.

     The ring was slid on her finger and he rose to kiss her.  then they resumed their dance.  Kay was watching her sister and Gage over Rhett’s shoulder and she frowned when she saw the sun glinting off of something on her sister’s left hand.  Was that a ring?

     “So are some congratulations due?” Alex teased when she and Walker came over to where Gage, Sydney, Rhett, and Kay were standing at the punch bowl.

     “Gage and I got engaged,” Sydney thrust her hand out so everybody could see the ring.

     “So did Rhett and I,” Kay’s hand shot forward as well.

     “You weren’t supposed to ask her today,” Gage complained.

     “Sorry, Gage, but I didn’t know we where going to have to coordinate the engagements,” Rhett apologized.

    “When are you going to get married?” Erika asked as she and Trivette came up.

     “Sometime soon,” Gage said.

     “But long enough for me to have time to plan a fancy all-frills wedding,” Sydney added.

     “Right,” Kay nodded in agreement with her sister’s words.

     “We’re in trouble,” Rhett moaned.

     “No we’re not,” Gage argued.  “All we have to do is have a double wedding and it’s all taken care of.”

     “Gage, that is one of the most brilliant ideas you have ever had,” Sydney said. “What do you think, Kay?”

     “I love it.  Rhett?” Kay turned to her fiancé.

     “If Gage doesn’t mind then I don’t.”

     “I suggested it so why should I mind?”

     “How about October 19?  That’s soon but long enough to plan a fancy wedding,” Erika suggested.

     “Perfect,” Gage said then handed Sydney a folded up piece of paper.

     “This is just a blank check,” Sydney said after she unfolded it.

     “Not exactly.  It’s good for up to a million dollars and is for both weddings.  It’s an early wedding present.”

     “Kay, should we give it back to him?” Sydney asked.

     “Are you crazy, sis?  Absolutely not.”

     “Keep your voice down, Kay,” Gage hissed.  “I don’t want my sister to hear.”

     “And why not, Frankie?” they turned to see Julie and Trent standing on the other side of the punch table.

     “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me Frankie?”

     “Twelve million and one times.  So why didn’t you want me to hear about the double engagements?” she asked.

     “Because knowing you it would be all over the front page of the paper,” Gage answered.

     “It will be.  You’re just lucky though that Trent confiscated my camera otherwise I would take a picture of you,” she said gloomily.

     Gage looked at Trent with respect.  Anybody who could make his sister behave without a protest deserved a medal.

     “Just remember you promised me a dance and a glass of punch,” Trent reminded her. “And I would prefer to have my dance before the punch.”

     “We already danced though,” Julie protested.

     “You promised me another dance.  Now let’s go,” Trent pulled Julie away and Gage looked after him.

     “He is a very brave man,” he said a second later and Sydney laughed.

     Soon it was time for Trivette and Erika to leave for the honeymoon.  They were just about to open the doors of the black limo when the gunshots rang out.  Gage pulled Sydney down and Trivette pulled down his new bride while Walker made Alex and Angela get down as well.  All around them people were screaming as they ran for cover.

     Gage struggled and managed to get his gun out from he had hidden it in the small of his back.  He raised it and fired.  Trivette, Walker, Rhett, Carlos, Trent, and Simon Trivette pulled out their weapons as well and fired.  Sydney grabbed her purse and withdrew her weapon and Kay followed her sister’s example.  Two men emerged from the trees and came closer to them, shooting the entire time.

     Walker shot the gun out of the hand of a man who looked like an American.  The man howled and clutched his wrist in pain.  Gage rose from the ground and headed toward him but ran into an Asian woman who was also armed.  He punched her in the jaw and she fell to the ground.  He ignored her and moved on toward his quarry.  Sydney caught sight of another woman coming toward her out of the corner of her eye.  She turned and fired.  The bullet hit ht woman square in the chest and she also fell.  A big black man fired and Gage jerked slightly as the bullet hit him in the shoulder.  He shot the black man and then looked around.  The Asian woman was moaning as she rubbed her jaw and the American man was cradling his wrist.  The bodies of the black man and other woman lay on the grass, unmoving.

     “At least we took them all down,” Gage said.

     “Not all of them.  Stella’s not here,” Sydney said.

     “True she’s not but hopefully these find people will be able to tell us where she is,” the man and woman both glared at Gage.

     “Gage, are you all right?” Sydney asked.

     “What do you mean, Syd?”

     “There’s blood all over your left shoulder.  Walker,” Sydney raised her voice.  “Gage is hurt.”

     “I’m fine, Syd,” Gage protested.

     “You need to sit down,” she told him.

     Gage would have protested but he was feeling kind of funny.  A curious burning sensation traveled throughout his arm and he felt light-headed.  Just when he was about to sit down he felt the world falling.  He could hear Sydney’s voice calling out his name just before everything went black and he hit the ground.

                                                        CHAPTER 11

St. Mathew’s Hospital

            It was a curious group that was gathered in the hospital waiting room.  All of them were still dressed in their wedding finery.  Amy Sandoval, Lindsey and Simon Trivette had offered to take Angela and Sienna Noel back to Ranger Headquarters since that’s where everybody would go after visiting Gage.  Julie was typing furiously on her laptop, probably writing an article about it for the newspaper.  A double ranger engagement plus a shooting at a Ranger wedding was big news and destined to hit the front page.  Especially if the person writing the article was related to the Ranger who had been injured.  Fortunately Gage had been the only one to get hurt.  Some people had a few cuts and bruises but nothing serious.

            Trivette and Erika had decided to postpone their honeymoon until Stella Meyers had been caught.  Erika’s wedding dress was not white anymore.  It was now brown with grass stains.  Sydney twisted her engagement ring on her finger as she awaited word on Gage’s condition.  She couldn’t stop reliving the moment he had given it to her.  The memory kept playing over and over in her mind.  A bag sat at her feet.  It had been in Gage’s car and contained a fresh change of clothes which she knew he would appreciate.  He hated hospital gowns.

            Dr. Clark came around the corner just then and he had a smile on his face. “Ranger Gage is just fine,” he said without preamble.

            “Thank you,” Sydney whispered as she looked up at the ceiling.

            “Can we see him?” Walker asked.

            “Of course but just for a few minutes.  He needs his rest and not all of you at once,” the doctor warned.

            “I’ll stay out here,” Julie didn’t even look up from her laptop as she spoke.

            “I’ll stay with her,” Trent offered and Carlos said he would stay as well.

            Walker, Alex, Trivette, Erika, Kay, Rhett, and Sydney walked down the hallway and entered Gage’s room.  He was lying down and turned his head toward them.

            “Sorry about the wedding, Trivette,” Gage whispered.

            “It’s all right,” Trivette assured him.

            “We’re postponing the honeymoon until Stella Meyers is caught,” Erika explained.

            “Have they talked yet?” he asked.

            Walker shook his head.  “Not yet and we were waiting to see how you were doing before we questioned them.”

            “We brought you some extra clothes,” Sydney sat the brown duffel bag on the chair next to the hospital bed and Gage smiled at her gratefully.

            “We better go so you can get some rest,” Alex said and they all left.

            Ten minutes later Gage was still awake and staring at the ceiling.  How long had it been since they painted it?  With the bills they charged they could afford to paint all of the ceilings and with colored paint.  A ringing sound penetrated in his consciousness and he turned his head.  His cell phone which Sydney had thoughtfully left for him was ringing.  He picked it up, wincing as he did so.

            “Syd?” he asked groggily.

            “Not even close,” the voice on the other end said.

            “Stella.”

            “I’m pleased you still remember me, Gage.  Now listen I would like to make you a deal.”

            “What sort of deal?” he asked.

            “I have Kimberly Miller and if you give yourself up to me I’ll let her go.”

            “Me for Kimberly?” Gage tried to sort out what Stella was saying as he couldn’t understand her very well which was a side effect from the painkiller he had been given.

            “Exactly.  I’ll give you the address and I promise to let her go alive if you come.”

            “I’ll come,” Gage wrote down the address on a piece of paper and then tore it from the pad.  He sat up and tugged at his IV line and yanked it out of his arm.  He rubbed at the sore spot.  This case sure had him spending a lot of time in the hospital.  He swung his legs over the side of the bed and pulled the duffel bag closer to him.  He stood up and pulled on his jeans.  Then he took off the gown and replaced it with a blue t-shirt.  He slid his feet into the tennis shoes and peeked out of the door cautiously.  A police officer was sitting outside of the room which he had expected but he had a plan for that.

            A thick phone book on the bedside table would serve as a weapon.  Holding it in his hands he stepped out of the room and hit the officer over the head with it causing him to slump down unconscious.  Gage sat down the book and using all of his strength pulled the officer inside the room and dumped him unceremoniously on the floor.  Gage confiscated the officer’s gun, slipped it into his belt, and stepped out of the room again.

            He walked down the hallways and left the hospital by a back exit.  He went another two blocks where he found a taxi.

            “I need you to take me someplace,” he told the driver.

            “You look like you need me to take you to the hospital,” the driver said.

            “Can you take me to this address?” Gage handed the man the piece of paper with Stella’s address written on it.

            “Sure, but are you positive you don’t want me to take you to the hospital?”

            “Positive,” Gage climbed in and the driver pulled away from the curb.

            When they reached the abandoned warehouse Gage handed the driver two hundred dollars which had been in his wallet.

            “Keep the change,” he said as he climbed out.

            “Thanks buddy,” the driver looked at the money happily.

            “If you do something for me you can have another two hundred.”

            “What is it?”

            “Take that piece of paper to the Texas Rangers and tell them that Gage went to make a trade.  Got that?”

            “Texas Rangers and tell them that Gage made a trade,” Gage nodded and the driver held out his hand as Gage counted out another two hundred.

            Gage watched as the driver drove off.  He hoped the man delivered the message.  If not then he was a dead duck.  A very dead duck.

            He turned and headed toward the warehouse.  He sent a look to the sky before he opened the door and took a deep breath and entered.

            “Gage left the hospital,” Trivette reported as he hung up the phone.

            “How could he?  He could barely breathe let alone walk,” Sydney said in disbelief.

            “Apparently he knocked out the officer guarding him, took his gun, and left.”

            “I am so going to kill my partner as soon as I find him,” Sydney declared.

            “How about we interview Stella’s assassins?” Trivette suggested.  “You’re more than welcome to kill them.”

            “We don’t know anything,” the Asian woman who had proclaimed her name as Sheena said.

            “Then why did you have a shooting?” Walker asked.

            “For fun,” Reno, the black man said.

            Walker circled the table and wrapped his arm around the man’s neck.

            “You have exactly three seconds to tell me who hired you and I would advise you to do it.”

            “Stella Meyers,” Sheena replied.

            “Thank you, Sheena.  Do you know where she lives?” Walker released his hold on Reno.

            “There’s an abandoned warehouse on Twelfth Avenue where she’s staying.”

            “Is that where she’s keeping Kimberly Miller?” Sydney asked.

            “Yeah,” Reno growled.

            “Walker, Sydney, come here,” Trivette stuck his head inside the door and made a signaling motion to them.  The two left the interrogation room and joined Trivette in the hallway.

            “What is it, Trivette?” Walker asked.

            “A taxi driver just called.  He took someone matching Gage’s description to Twelfth Avenue.  This person paid him four hundred dollars to tell us that Gage had gone to make a trade.”

            “A trade?” Sydney frowned and turned to Walker.

            “I think Stella Meyers called Gage at the hospital and said she would let Kimberly go if Gage traded himself for her,” Walker said thoughtfully.

            “It wouldn’t surprise me,” Sydney said disgustedly.  “Gage is so chivalrous that he would do it.”

            “Let Kimberly go,” Gage said as soon as he entered the warehouse.

            “In due time, Gage,” Stella sat on a table pointing a gun at him.  “You can go ahead and untie her though.”

            Gage went to where Kimberly was tied to a chair.  Tear stains streaked her face.  Gage knelt next to her and using his pocketknife cut her bonds.  Then he looked at Stella who waved the gun toward an empty chair.

            “Have a seat,” she told him.  “It’s going to be a long wait.”

            Gage sat down.  Already he was tired and would give anything to be back in his hospital bed right that moment.

            The Rangers had the building surrounded.  Trivette peered through one of the windows at the back and through it he could see Stella Meyers.

            “Do you see anything?” Sydney asked impatiently.

            “I see Stella Meyers.  She’s holding a gun and she’s standing in front of Gage.  He’s sitting in a chair.  Kimberly is next to Stella and they look like they’re arguing about something.”

            “I can’t wait to kill you, Gage,” Stella said.

            “Let Kimberly go.”

            “I will.  After I kill you.  It’s going to be such a pleasure after all these years.”

            “Kill me if you want but don’t make Kimberly watch.”

            “I could just kill her to but I did promise that I would let her live.  And I always keep my promises.”

            “If you’re going to kill me just hurry up and get it over with,” Gage was getting very tired of this conversation.  It was utterly boring.

            “If you want me to I guess I’ll hurry it up a little” Stella raised the gun and Gage lunged.  He tackled her and both of them fell on the floor and the gun fell out her hand and clattered as it hit the concrete.  He struggled to reach it and managed to grasp it.

            “Go, Kimberly,” he commanded and Kimberly ran out of the building as fast as she could straight into the arms of the police who were waiting for a terrorist.  Not a frightened fifteen-year-old girl.

            Gage stood and pointed the gun at Stella.  She lay on the floor and watched him.  Memories of Tina ran through his head and he raised the gun to fire.  But then new memories took over.  Memories of Sydney ran through his brain.  He remembered the time when he had gone deaf and she had sat next to his bed and confessed her love for him and he sighed and lowered the gun just as the Rangers and police burst through the door.

            “What took you guys so long?” he demanded as he turned toward them.

            Rather unwisely he had turned his back on Stella.  She came up, feet first and he fell.  She grabbed the gun and moved so fast that everything else seemed to be in slow motion as the Rangers moved toward her.  She raised the gun and fired.  The sound of the single shot echoed through the building.

St. Mathew’s Hospital

            A few days later the Rangers, Alex, Erika, Carlos, Trent, Amy, and Julie were gathered around Gage’s hospital bed as he explained everything to them.

            “After busting her out of prison Johann gave her the grenades which she used to blow up your truck, Walker,” Gage said from his sitting position.

            “And she used the gun she had stolen from the prison guard to shoot at Gage and Sydney while they were jogging and Gage’s car and at Gage and his grandfather,” Rhett said.

            “Johann also gave her a bunch of knives which she used to try to kill the jury members and Julie with,” Kay continued.

            “It was a lucky break for her when Kimberly and Kara saw her kill Jordan Wallace and she found out Kimberly was our niece,” Sydney said from where she sat in the chair next to her fiancé.  “That was an even better way to get back at Gage.”

            “And Rhett getting arrested for murder helped a lot.  That was a prime opportunity for her to try to have him bumped off,” Trent said.

            “Did Garrett Evans really hire that trainer guy to frame Rhett?” Alex asked.

            “He really did.  Somehow my grandfather found out and paid him to tell the Rangers.  He was supposed to pretend to resist for a little bit but he would tell,” Gage explained.

            “Did Johann help her hire the shooters?” Amy asked.

            “Yes, he did.  He arranged a lot of stuff for her including hiring those three North Koreans to steal that rocket launcher,” Gage said.

            “She hired the three Koreans?” Kay gasped.  Three North Koreans had done their best to steal a rocket launcher from the military only, unfortunately for them, a teenage boy had ended up with it and Walker had searched for him.  Walker and Kay had managed to kill the Koreans and return the rocket launcher to the military.

            “They were actually her cousins and she also killed Johann,” Gage corrected.

            “Why did she kill him?” Sydney wondered.

            “He wanted to marry her.”

            “She killed him because he wanted to marry her?  She is definitely a nutcase,” Sydney shook her head.

            “Actually she killed him because he wanted a normal life and that was the one thing she couldn’t give him.  She was a killer and always would be and he wouldn’t have been happy.  So she killed him while he was still happy,” Gage told his fiancée.

            “What did she want with the rocket launcher?” Alex asked.

            “She was going to give it to North Korea so they could use it to destroy America and rule the world.”

            “A female Adolf Hitler,” Alex muttered.  “I suppose it was a good thing she killed herself after all. I have to admit that I was surprised she did that.”

            “I’m not.  She hates to admit defeat and she definitely would have gotten executed if she had gone back to prison,” Gage said.

            “So all of that is all taken care of right?” Alex said.

            “The government is still trying to disband the Texas Rangers,” Rhett reminded her.

            “Actually they’re not anymore.  My grandfather had a private word with one of the government officials and they’re going to leave us alone.”

            “Tell your grandfather we said thank you,” Trivette said.

            “I will,” Gage promised.

            “Rhett, are you and Kay looking for a house?” Alex asked.

            “As a matter of fact we are,” Rhett replied.

            “Well, Walker and I like our house but we really miss our old house so we bought it back and we’re moving back in it before the weddings.”

            “We’d love to buy it,” Kay said after she looked at Rhett for confirmation.

            “Guys, do you realize what this means?” Gage asked.  “We’re going to have six people moving at one time.”

            “We didn’t even think about that,” Alex said guiltily.

            The next few weeks were busy as they prepared for the double weddings amid trying to get everybody moved.  Trivette and Erika went on their honeymoon and came back just in time to help Sydney move almost all of her stuff into Gage’s house and to help plan the wedding.

            “Matron of honor,” Alex sat at Gage’s dining room table amid a pile of wedding planning books, notebooks, and magazines.

            “You,” Sydney and Kay said.  “As long as you agree,” Sydney added.

            “I don’t mind.  Bridesmaids?”

            “Erika, Julie, and Amy,” the two brides-to-be replied.

            “Flower girls.”

            “Angela and Sienna Noel.”

            “Best man,” Alex turned to Gage and Rhett who were sitting next to their fiancées.

            “Walker,” they said simultaneously.

            “Groomsmen?”

            “Trivette, Trent, and Carlos.”

            “How many guests are coming?” Alex asked.

            “At last count it was three thousand.  Give or take a few,” Kay said.

            Alex’s pen froze over the page.  “Three thousand guests,” she repeated.

            “We’ve already sent out all of the invitations,” Sydney told her.

            “The church is booked and we’ve ordered fifty dozen bouquets of flowers apiece,” Kay said.

            “Roses and lilies,” Sydney said dreamily.

            “The dresses are all picked out.  Measurements have been taken and even the guys went to their tuxedo fitting without too much fuss,” Kay smiled at her fiancé.

            “Is your grandfather coming, Gage?” Walker asked.

            Gage shook his head.  “No, he’s not.  Aunt Zu’s coming though and so is Johnson but not Grandfather.”

            “My grandfather’s coming though.  He’s going to walk Kay and me down the aisle,” Sydney announced proudly.

            As the motorcycle neared the cemetery it started slowing and eventually stopped.  Gage got off and walked through the various graves until he found the one he was looking for.  He bent down and placed the small bouquet of flowers in front of the double headstone and looked at the graves for a few more minutes before rising to his feet and leaving.

            The day of the wedding dawned bright and clear.  Everybody was relieved at that especially the brides.  The Dallas Lutheran Church was packed by ten-thirty.  The ceremony was going to start at eleven-thirty because Gage said he wouldn’t be able to eat anything if he had to wait after lunch to get married.  Sydney had rolled her eyes but had agreed with him and so the ceremony was before lunch.

            Walker got dressed in his tuxedo and left the ranchhouse.  He and Alex had successfully completed the transaction a few days before and were already enjoying being back home.

            Instead of going straight to the church Walker took a different route and drove to where Harrison Williams lived.  While Gage may not say so he would like his grandfather to attend or least give him his blessing.  Walker knocked on the door and Johnson admitted him to Harrison’s room.

            Walker didn’t even bother to knock, he just walked on in.

            “Who are you?” Harrison grunted from his wheelchair.

            “Cordell Walker.  I work with your grandson,” Walker told the old man.

            “So?  What are you doing here?”

            “Gage is getting married today.”

            “I know that.  He invited me himself and I gave him my answer.”

            “He would really like you to come.”

            “Did Gage send you here?” Harrison asked suspiciously.

            Walker shook his head.  “He doesn’t know anything about this visit.  I saw no point in getting his hopes up.”

            “You like my grandson?” Harrison’s question surprised Walker.

            “He’s like a brother to me,” Walker replied honestly and Harrison grunted.

            “I never liked his father.  He was a stubborn idiot and Gage unfortunately took after him in that.”

            “I think he takes after you in that respect too, Mr. Williams.  You’re a stubborn idiot as well.  Your grandson is fixing to get married and he would really like you to be a part of his happiness.  You can either stay here and ruin your grandson’s special day by acting like a selfish child or you can go to the wedding and make him happy.  Good-bye,” Walker spun on his heel and marched out of the room leaving a very furious Harrison Williams behind him.

            After Walker left Harrison sat in his wheelchair thinking.  Gage did take after him but so had Katherine.  She had gotten her stubborn streak from him and passed it on to Gage.  Harrison took a deep breath and bellowed, “Zulu!”

            Zulu came running into the room.  “Yes, Father?” she asked.

            “I assume that you’re going to Gage’s wedding?”

            “Of course, Father, Johnson is coming too.”

            “Is there room for me to come?”

            “Why yes, Father, there is room.  Let me get Johnson to help you into your suit.”  Zulu hurried out the room wondering what on earth Ranger Walker had said to her father to make him change his mind about going to the wedding.  Her father had never done that before in his entire life.

            People bustled around the church yard.  Since there were so many guests they were having an outside wedding.  Alex was wearing her red matron of honor dress and waiting anxiously for her husband.  He had told her what he was going to do.  She saw him coming toward her and her heart crashed when she saw the expression on his face.  He had failed and Walker hated to do that especially when it came to people close to him.

            “He’s not coming is he?” she said quietly.

            “No.  I hoped he would but,” Walker’s words trailed off as a black limo pulled up and Johnson emerged from the driver’s seat.  He opened the back door and Zulu stepped out.  Then the two of them helped Harrison Williams out and into his wheelchair.  Harrison wheeled up to Walker and stopped in front of him.

            “You right.  I’m a stubborn idiot as well and I can’t blame Gage for taking after me.”

            “What’s going on?  Grandfather?” Gage came rushing out of the front door and stopped short when he saw Harrison.

            “Hello, Gage,” Harrison said.  “May I still accept your invitation and come to your wedding?”

            “Of course.  There’s a seat at the front that you can have.”

            “At the front?” Harrison frowned at Gage.

            “Don’t complain, Father.  You’ll be able to see much better from up there,” Zulu said.

            “Don’t get smart.  Just because I’m putting you in charge of the business doesn’t give you the right to mouth off,” Harrison told her.

            “You’re putting her in charge of the business?” Gage asked in disbelief and Zulu looked stunned.

            “A little training and she’ll be just fine.  Now you better get in there before you miss your own wedding,” Harrison warned.  Gage chuckled and showed Johnson where the handicapped entrance was.

            Sydney and Kay were very nervous as they waited for their signals.  Sydney’s dress was long-sleeved and had delicate criss-cross patterns of lace on the bodice.  Her black hair was swept in a clip and Gage’s locket completed the outfit.  Kay wore a spaghetti strap white dress that trailed the floor like her sister’s. 

            Sydney’s grandfather was mexican which didn’t surprise Alex very much but he wasn’t much taller than Sydney which wasn’t surprising either. 

            Music started playing and the flower girls went first.  Then the bridesmaids and matron of honor and then Kay came down the aisle on Jeffrey Cooke’s arm.  She gave him a kiss on the cheek and stood next to Rhett.

            Minister Tom Brown conducted the ceremony and soon Rhett and Kay were Mr. and Mrs. Rhett Harper.  Sydney came down the aisle next.

            “Do you, Francis, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?  To love and to cherish in sickness and in health, for poor or for rich, for better or for worse, till death do you part?”

            “I do,” Gage said although it must be confessed that he winced at the use of his first name.

            “Do you, Sydney, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?  To love and to cherish in sickness and in health, for poor or for rich, for better or for worse, till death do you part?”

            “I do,” Sydney said loudly.

            “Then by the power invested in me by God and the state of Texas I pronounce you man and wife.  You may exchange the rings and now you may kiss the bride.”

            Gage and Sydney’s kiss put Walker and Alex to shame.  When they finally released each other everyone clapped and cheered.

            Sydney and Kay stood and threw their bouquets and Julie Gage ran as fast as she could and caught both of them in her outstretched arms.  Gage just shook his head and he and Rhett threw their roses.  Trent caught them and smiled at Julie who smiled back at him.

            “Another wedding,” Sydney whispered in Gage’s ear.

            “After the honeymoon,” he told her.

            “This has been the best day of my life,” she said later while then had gathered for the wedding pictures.  All of them including the bridesmaids and groomsmen were going to be in this one.  

            “Actually, Syd, the best is yet to come,” Gage said as he put his arm around her and the cameras clicked.

                                                                 THE END

                                                          EPILOGUE

            Julie Gage married Trent Malloy and they had no children.

            Rhett and Kay Harper were married for three years before Kay died giving birth to a baby girl that Rhett named after her.  Rhett died thirty years later of cancer.

            Francis and Sydney Gage’s marriage consisted of ten years and six children.  The two were killed in the line of duty while trying to stop a bank robbery.  Walker and Alex raised their six children; Christopher, Grace, C.D., Louise, Grant and Sydney Rose Gage.

            James and Erika Trivette were married for twenty years before Trivette was killed in a car accident.  Erika died of old age five years later.  They had two children: James Jr. and Pamela Trivette.

            Cordell and Alex Walker’s marriage lasted fifteen years before Walker was killed in the middle of a shootout.  Alex died on the day one year later of a heart attack.  They had three children besides Gage and Sydney’s kids.  Angela, Cordell Jr., and Alexis Walker.  Christopher Gage ended up marrying Alexis Walker.