"Uh-huh," Thomas said. "Yeah, he doesn't even have a passport, no indication he knows anyone in the Caymans or anywhere else down there, no unexplained money, no unusual debts...and none that are putting a strain on him or his business. If he's part of it, he's damned good."
Ryan told Consuela of the visit, using his pre-paid cell phone, that night. She was wondered nervously what the agents knew, but Ryan dismissed her fears.
They were just fishing, he told her. If they'd had anything, they would have asked specific questions about his work, where he'd been during the important dates when the funds had gone missing, who he talked to on those days...stuff like that.
He told Consuela he'd waited for even a hint of a suspicion about his connection with her but none had come. He put it stronger. They'd asked no questions that might even possibly develop any information leading in her direction. He'd made sure of that.
It was clear there was nothing to the visit, he told Consuela. They were just filling squares in the investigation so the defense could not say they'd "rushed to judgment." Ryan and Consuela would need to be concerned only if they came back armed with search warrants wanting to search his office or something like that.
However, that really wasn't a problem, he told her...not when you thought about it. Even if they did come back with search warrants, Ryan said, they would find absolutely nothing.
What was there to find? The only incriminating physical evidence was the laptop a hundred miles away out on the prairie under Cousin Richard's guardianship. Everything else was smashed, burned to oblivion, and the unidentifiable remains dumped in lakes for a hundred miles around.
Even if they found out about Consuela, whatever anyone had seen would be assumed to be an affair of the heart and not at all suspicious, given the state of Ryan's marriage. There would be some people at the café who could testify Ryan had had breakfast with her a couple of times, but that was all they could say.
None of her relatives would talk, and few of them knew anything anyway. The cars had been arranged through her aunt and no one else had a clue. Her aunt wouldn't even consider cooperating with the police. She still seethed at the treatment her son had received in a DUI arrest seven years ago.
Everything considered, he didn't expect anyone would ever to Consuela with questions. He assured her he wouldn't allow even a hint of suspicion to come her way.
The bank's senior negotiators asked for Ryan and his attorney to a conference to discuss an early settlement on Ryan's suit. Ryan had no problem meeting with the bank's representatives. He was relaxed and completely at ease when he strolled into the bank's conference room.
"Mr. Gilchrist, my clients feel your claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress does not, in fact, have any merit in a legal sense, but we agree there may have been some minor irregularities in the supervision of some employees and I..."
"Mr. Gilchrist? Is there something wrong?"
Ryan had gotten out of his chair and was straightening his suit coat and buttoning it. He looked at the attorney for the bank. He'd introduced himself as Darrin Estrada.
"Well...you said the lawsuit doesn't have any...uh...merit, right? Isn't that what you said? Heck, if that's the case, I figured we were all done. I was just going to go home and wait for the judge to set a court date," Ryan told Mr. Estrada.
"Ah...perhaps you would like a moment to confer with your counsel?" Estrada asked nervously.
Ryan looked around at his attorney. Mr. London was also standing, having risen an instant after his client. He'd been surprised, but not overly so, that his client was taking the lead in the discussion.
"Nah," Ryan replied. "I know Mr. London pretty well now. He's been working for me since late last year. Good man. He's given me all kinds of good advice," Ryan said contentedly.
"Ah...yes, I'm sure," Estrada replied. "Well, I'll get right to the point if you'd like. Would you care to have a seat, Mr. Gilchrist?" Ryan shrugged.
"If you're through wasting everybody's time...sure."
"Fine," Estrada said in a jovial voice. "I'm sure we can conclude our business shortly," he added.
"Good," Ryan responded, "I'm scheduled to testify in a sexual harassment case up in the Dallas Federal Court building this afternoon. If we can wrap things up here purty quick, I'd sure 'nuf be obliged. I've kinda taken an interest in that case, if you know what I mean." The exaggerated southern accent provoked a faint flush to creep up Estrada's neck.
Estrada's lips tightened and a nervous tic started on the left side of his neck. He knew the case Gilchrist was referring to. A man in a chair set in the corner of the room shifted in his seat. He didn't say a word but Estrada reacted to the slight movement.
"Yes, I'm sure we can get you out of here in plenty of time, Mr. Gilchrist," he remarked, shuffling through a mass of documents in his briefcase.
"Mr. Gilchrist, let's...uh...get to the bottom line, here, okay? My clients would like to offer you--"
Ryan made a chopping gesture with his right hand. He let his irritation show.
"Come off it. Look, this bank is being whipsawed," Ryan said impatiently, "between the United States Attorney for this district and Texas Attorney General on the issue of sexual harassment on the part of senior officials in this lending institution, Mr. Estrada. It's grown to epidemic proportions in the last three years and now all it's all coming home to roost. On top of that you've got Federal agents crawling all over your offices, trying to find a zillion dollars one of those same senior officials sent to secret banks overseas.
"You didn't have your investment divisions and personal wealth divisions sufficiently separated like normal banks do and, as a result, you've got auditors coming out of your ears. On top of all that, I come along and I want a chunk of your ass because I can trace, with great specificity, sir, the failure of my marriage to your senior officers' failure to supervise her and one of your vice-presidents."
Ryan leaned back in his seat and looked coldly at Mr. Estrada's pale features.
"I can read, Mr. Estrada," Ryan told him, "and darned nearly everything I mentioned is in the newspaper. The part that isn't is on the public record in the documents filed in the harassment case or my own suit. Why are you so surprised I have a good handle on all this? Is there anything I missed, Mr. Estrada?"
"Err...I think you've summarized some of the issues quiet well, Mr. Gilchrist. I--"
The man sitting in the corner groaned and sat up straighter in his straight-backed chair. His face had been partially hidden in a shadow; it was now visible. The man stood and came to stand beside the table.
"I'm Parker Winston," he said by way of introduction. He didn't offer his hand. "I'm from Chicago," he said. He didn't explain the implications of that statement. Ryan knew the corporate headquarters were in Chicago. Ryan looked at attorney from the big office with interest.
"Estrada," Winston said coldly, "you just told our friends Mr. Gilchrist and Mr. London we have so many problems we don't know where to start fixing them."
Estrada's face took on a stricken look.
"Get out," Winston ordered harshly.
For a long moment, the attorney and his assistant didn't move. Then Estrada and the man with him...Estrada hadn't introduced the man...hurriedly gathered their papers and left the room.
Winston looked at Ryan for a long moment without speaking. He was a man used to power. He expected Ryan to look away after a short time. When Ryan did not, he began to speak in a precise, measured tone.
"In ten minutes you can walk out of here a rich man," Winston told Ryan. "You get rid of your lawyer...make it just between us two and we can do this in a lot less time than it takes to say," he offered. Ryan looked in the man's eyes for a long moment.
"Mr. London?" Ryan said without looking at his attorney. "I wonder if you'd mind excusing us for just a moment?" London nodded, stood, and walked to the door. He left his briefcase behind. He intended coming back. The door closed with a solid thump.
Winston sat in the unused chair at the head of the conference table. He was relaxed, confident.
"What will it take, Mr. Gilchrist?" he asked suddenly. "I want you and your suit to go away and we'll pay you well to make that happen. That idiot Estrada thinks you're a damned cowboy but you're smart enough to know this bank can't handle much more bad publicity. You have us by the short hairs and we know it. How much?"
Ryan gazed at the man for a long moment. Judging by Estrada's reaction to the man's preemptory order, this man was an extraordinarily powerful man in the bank's head office. He wanted this case to "go away," as he put it and he wanted it bad.
"I don't believe in being too greedy," Ryan said, "but I want this to hurt bad enough that your fine institution learns a real good lesson," he mused. Winston's lips thinned another micro millimeter.
"My price is four million dollars," Ryan said quietly. " One lump sum...tax free. That is...you pay the tax on it by giving me enough over that to leave me four million when it's all over" he told the banker. "Unless, by some miracle Congress revises the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 so IIED cases are not taxable again," he added.
"Have they done that today and I haven't heard about it?"
Winston's eyes narrowed. The man hadn't stumbled over the lengthy name of the applicable act and the acronym for "intentional infliction of emotional distress" had rolled easily off his tongue. This minor contractor knew an awful lot, when you got down to it. He reaffirmed his judgment this country bumpkin needed to be out of the bank's business...now.
"Done," Winston said.
Ryan shook his head and held up his right hand. His pinky finger was folded into his palm.
"Don't be so quick to agree, Parker, old bean. You might not like the whole package. That was just the first condition...and that one is in addition to paying my lawyer's fees, by the way. Any objection so far?"
Mr. Winston waited a moment, staring Ryan in the eyes and trying to read the mind behind them. He shook his head.
"Okay, second, the bank settles out of court with all eleven of the men and women who've alleged sexual harassment in the case up in Dallas without making them go through a trial," Ryan said.
"Out of the goodness of your heart, their compensation for their suffering will be five hundred thousand dollars, one lump payment...and tax free in the same fashion mine is, and you'll pay their attorney's fees too." The ring finger on Ryan's right hand was wiggling slowly in the air to show Winston the condition was still unfinished.
"In addition, if they've quit or been terminated, you'll offer them their jobs back and restore them to their previous positions if they want them with suitable promotions they would have otherwise have been eligible for. They're entitled to back pay for the entire period backdated to the date of termination.
"Those who stayed with the company are due all the back wages up to the present date for the difference in what they did earn and what they would have earned with promotions they weren't considered for because of the harassment recriminations.
"You'll expunge any and all poor performance reports if they were given during the period, or immediately after the alleged time of harassment. If the bank gave any poor recommendations to any of the eleven who quit, those recommendations will be rescinded and new ones issued with apologies for the misunderstanding to the businesses where they now work."
Ryan let his ring finger fold itself into his palm.
"Third, you will pay Mrs. Sharon Michaels an amount equal to ten years of his salary, plus any other compensation he would, or most likely would have earned, had he remained in the position he held before he was indicted for fraud and money laundering. It will be, as with the rest of us, a one-time payment and "tax free" like we've already discussed.
"Fourth, Mr. Winston, I and everyone concerned will get a written apology from the CEO of this bank for the pain inflicted on us because you people can't keep your house in order.
"Fifth, in return, Mr. Winston, we will agree to not pursue any future litigation in connection with the incidents alleged in the documents already submitted to the court and we will agree to sign nondisclosure agreements and not go public with any part of the settlement...including the apology."
All five of Ryan's digits were doubled into his palm. His let his fingers and thumb tighten into a clinched fist he held motionless for a long moment. Then he dropped his hand gently to the tabletop.
Winston was silent, staring at Ryan for a long while. He clearly didn't like the terms that were being dictated to him.
"Come on, Mr. Chicago lawyer-banker man," Ryan said in a derisive tone. His eyes were cool, mocking. His lips were curved slightly in an amused smile.
"You know damn good and well, the award to me for the IIED isn't limited by any current statuette," Ryan said.
"I've got a real good lawyer working for me. If you don't go for this, my award alone will be twenty or thirty million...maybe more, and you know it won't be overturned on any appeal. I've looked at the stats on the last fifty such cases and they were all confirmed except for that one with incomplete documentation. You've also got to pay your own attorney fees on top of that...I know you can draw this out for years, but it'll be costing you an arm and a leg just to keep the lawyers working. You can avoid all that. Don't pass up the chance, pardner."
Winston was still silent, considering his alternatives. The man across from him was laughing at him. Gilchrist had the bank, and its officers, by the scruff of the neck and he knew it. Still, he delayed, hoping against hope something would happen to turn this all around.
"What's the bad publicity worth that you're going to get every day though my trial and theirs, Mr. Winston?" Ryan said softly. He leaned closer.
"I promise you," Ryan almost whispered, "my attorney will be giving a press conference out on the courthouse steps every single day right after court adjourns. Can you think he'll forget to mention the evil bankers from the north who've come down to corrupt our innocent women and idealistic young men in any of those little talks, Mr. Winston?"
Parker Winston glared at Ryan with menacing eyes until it was clear it had no affect.
"Agreed," Winston said abruptly. He didn't look any happier than he had a moment earlier. He had an air of resignation about him though.
"Let's get London back in here," Winston said. "You tell him what he's supposed to know and he can draft up the paperwork. We'll have to get the individuals who filed lawsuits alleging harassment to agree, but I expect they'll accept that deal in a heartbeat. Estrada will call them up in Dallas as soon as we're done here. I think we can get to them before the first one goes into the courtroom.
"I'll tell Estrada and the people upstairs they're to sign the agreement with you without delay. All payments will be computed and delivered by courier made not more than ten work days after that signature...same for the harassment cases. Agreed?"
Ryan hesitated, looking at Winston intently for a long moment. He nodded.
"I'm going to get five hundred thousand dollars?" Consuela asked wonderingly.
"Yep," Ryan assured her. She looked at him with a bemused expression.
"Actually something more than that...for lost wages and stuff," he added.
"And you're getting four million?"
"Pretty cool huh?" he said.
Consuela nodded. She still had a dazed expression on her face. She looked around the living room in a too-small house she would not have to live in again. She didn't know what to say, or do.
"What do we do now?" she asked.
"Well," Ryan said reflectively.
He untwined Belinda's arms from around his neck for a moment. She was holding on so tight he was having trouble breathing. It had been a long time since Ryan and Consuela had thought it safe to meet and Belinda was afraid he was going to leave again.
"How about we go see what dinner's are like at the café these days?" Ryan suggested.
Consuela's eyes widened. She knew the significance of being seen in public together. It was no longer dangerous to be together. She smiled happily.
"Yaaaaaaeeee..." Belinda caroled.
It took almost longer than the four-year-old's patience could bear to transfer Belinda's car seat from her mother's sedan to the big pickup. Eventually, it was installed and they got on their way. It was a happy ride.
The café regulars watched the trio's arrival with surprise. This was not a chance meeting at breakfast, and anyway, Ryan and Consuela hadn't had breakfast together there for a long time. When everyone saw how contented and affectionate the three were with each other, even the most doubtful was won over. Smiles were directed at them from all corners of the room.
Ryan was accepted without question into their midst. Several couples and families dropped by on their way out to chat with Consuela and to be formally introduced to Ryan. Everyone told them they shouldn't be strangers.
They got home just before midnight. The dinner had led to a visit to Baskin Robbins, and that evolved into a trip to the movies to see a children's movie for Belinda. Everyone had been having a good time and no one wanted it to end.
Exhausted, Belinda fell asleep in the truck on the way home and only murmured faint protests when Ryan took her out of the car seat and carried her into the house. Consuela loosened the small girl's clothing, took off her shoes, and tucked her into bed while Ryan watched with an affectionate smile.
Ryan backed away to give Consuela space to come through the doorway. Consuela closed the bedroom door behind her and looked up into Ryan's smiling face without saying anything.
Releasing the doorknob, she moved close to Ryan and wound her arms around his neck pulling his head down for a long kiss. The movement was so smooth, so natural, Ryan had no time to step away...even had he wanted to.
His hands went to the small of her back so he could pull her tighter against him. They broke the kiss, only to start another. It wasn't their first kiss, but this time it was special and they both knew it.
"I've wanted that for a long time," Ryan told her when they stopped to breathe. Consuela smiled up at him without speaking.
"Me too," Consuela said. She touched his cheek with her right hand and traced the outline of his jaw with her fingers. Ryan caught her hand in his and tenderly kissed her fingertips.
"This wasn't supposed to happen, you know," she said quietly, unexpectedly. Ryan looked down at her and cocked his head to one side without saying anything.
"We were just going to work with each other to testify for each other," Consuela explained. "I'd tell the judge at your divorce hearing Sean made a lot of passes at me...and you'd tell the judge when my suit came up that he seduced your wife and we'd each get what we wanted."
She raised her lips for another kiss, stopping her explanation for a long while.
"Then we were going to teach them a lesson by getting them in trouble...and the bank too," she said softly. This time Ryan started the kiss.
"We did it," Consuela said, resuming after a moment. "We did exactly what we set out to do and we got away with it. And all the time, you stood there like a big wall to make sure if they did ever figure out anything about you, they'd still never find out about me."
Ryan shifted slightly. Consuela was a strong-minded woman. He hadn't thought his attempts to see nothing would ever lead back to her in all of this had been all that obvious. There was a chance she would resent it.
"Foolish man," she whispered when she saw the momentary hesitation in his expression. "I saw what you were doing and I knew you were doing it for Belinda and me. Did you not know I would see that?" she asked gently.
Ryan didn't know what to say, so he said nothing.
"You were so strong all along," she said in a wondering voice, "so gentle and kind to me and my baby. Did you think I wouldn't see how Belinda was beginning to love you...and you her?"
"How could I not love her?" Ryan countered in a soft voice. "She's a part of you...and I love you more than living...you didn't see that?" he whispered tenderly. "Didn't you know what was happening to me?" She nodded, laying her head on his chest for a long moment, listening to his heartbeat.
"You know I love you that way too?" she asked after a short, comfortable silence. She pulled back and looked up so she could see his eyes. Ryan shook his head slowly.
"I was only hoping," he said gently. He bent to kiss her again, more firmly this time. His tongue slipped between her lips to find a welcoming tongue ready to dual eagerly with his. Their bodies were suddenly straining together.
Breaking away from him, Consuela stared up at the man she loved and who she knew loved her. Smiling tenderly, she took his hand in hers and led him into her bedroom.
She stopped just short of the bed and turned around to face him. Suddenly shy before him, she raised her hands to the back of her neck to unbutton her dress. It was awkward and she did not want it to be this way the first time with Ryan. The button would not come undone.
Ryan saw her frustration and immediately guessed the reason. Taking her hips in his hands, he turned her gently around. The buttons quickly yielded to his fingers and he soon had the top of her dress off her shoulders and draped about her waist. With his hands caressing her shoulders, he bent to trail butterfly kisses up her neck to just behind each ear. Her deep sigh and quickened breath told him he was doing the right thing.
Stroking her back, he found out her bra was one that fastened in front. He reached around her to unfasten her bra with fingers whose deftness would have amazed him if he'd taken time to think of it. He lifted the cups from around her breasts and spread it wide. The straps slid off her shoulders and the bra fell to the floor between them.
He massaged her breasts gently and returned to kissing her throat. He'd known Consuela had large, well-formed breasts, but the knowing was so much less a thing than finally feeling their soft firmness in his hands. He cupped them, hefting them in his big hands.
Her nipples began to swell. They hardened and lengthened as his thumbs fondled them. He captured them between a thumb and finger of each hand and twirled them slowly, pinching them gently every so often.
Consuela moaned softly. She couldn't help it. Her pulse began to race every time her lover touched her in a different place. Her chest began to heave in her need for more air.
Ryan tugged her dress down her hips and down her legs to pool around her feet. Consuela stepped out of it and took a moment to kick off her high heels. They thumped on the carpet somewhere in the corner as she turned around to face Ryan and stepped back up to him. Her lips sought out his in the dim light coming from the living room and captured them in a demanding kiss.
His hands came up to cup her breasts again, but he found he could only do one at a time, standing as they were, so close together. With his left hand cupping her right breast, his right hand began stroking her back and ass. He squeezed her left butt cheek, fondling it and massaging while pulling her lower body more tightly against his. After a moment, he let his right hand find its way to her left breast and his left explored her back and buttocks.
Abruptly he tired of such half-measures. He knelt and planted little kisses down the middle of her body to her bellybutton while pushing her panties down to her ankles. They fell to the floor and Consuela slid her right leg a few inches to the side after pulling her foot out of them. Consuela's satin-smooth legs needed no stockings or pantyhose; she rarely wore them and had not tonight.
Ryan continued kissing her soft underbelly and beyond. His hands stroked the back of her bare thighs and calves. When his lips touched the top of her damp slit, she shuddered with pleasure.
"Darling," she whispered, "I can't take too much of that. Please...?" She caught his forearms in her hands and gently pulled upward, urging him to rise. He stood without a word and began to unfasten the buttons on his shirt.
"No..." Consuela said softly, "I want to..."
Ryan dropped his hands to his sides and let her remove his clothing as he had hers. While she unbuttoned his shirt, he worked his boots off somehow and kicked them away. He couldn't explain how he'd gotten them off when she asked him later.
Consuela worked more quickly than Ryan had. There was a feeling of urgency building in the little bedroom.
His shirt and slacks joined her dress somewhere on the carpeted floor. Consuela sat on the edge of the bed. They laughed together when she tapped each knee in turn so she could remove his socks. It could have been an uncomfortable moment. Instead, it was a warm, loving one.
She half-rose to meet his lips in a long kiss. Her hands caressed his chest muscles and paused to thumb his nipples into instant hardness. She stroked down across strong abdominals and hooked her thumbs into the waistband of his boxers. She slowly slid them down over his hips and let them fall. Balancing briefly on his right foot, he nudged the boxers out of their way. Consuela didn't notice.
Her attention was on Ryan's erection. It bobbed in front of her, longer and much thicker than she had thought it would be. Wrapping the fingers of her right hand around it, she bent forward slowly and kissed the tip of it. Ryan groaned.
"Honey, I can't take too much of that either...I'd love for you to keep going, but..." Ryan said quietly.
"I love you," Consuela whispered.
Without waiting for him to tell her what she already knew, she scooted slowly backwards on the bed. She hadn't released her hold on his penis and drew him after her down onto the surface of the bed.
"No," she said softly when he would have knelt to let his lips explore the place where her slim legs met. She put her hands on the sides of his face and urged him higher.
"I need you inside me," Consuela murmured. "Please...now?"
Ryan knee walked his way between Consuela's spread thighs until his groin was poised above hers. Consuela reached between them and grasped his hard cock again. She guided the tip closer and rubbed it gently up and down her slit. Her pussy juices were flowing and had been for a long while. Her vagina was more than ready to receive him.
Consuela positioned him at the entrance to her vagina and adjusted her position slightly. She pulled him into her and lifted her legs so her knees lightly touched the outside of his hips.
Ryan let his weight fall slowly. He pressed inside her smoothly and firmly. He felt his cock enveloped in a heated tightness that spread open for him as he plunged deeper.
Consuela moaned softly as her lover's cock drove into her. Her hands caught the back of his arms and pulled him tighter against her. She locked her heels behind his back and dragged him deeper inside.
In a short moment, they found a rhythm of thrust and withdrawal that suited them. Ryan repositioned his knees, moving his body higher so there would be even more contact between his cock and her clitoris as he rammed his hardness deeper inside Consuela's cunt.
She groaned out loud and threw her head back. Her eyes stared unseeing at the ceiling overhead. Her hands were on his hips now, yanking him forward with each down stroke and lifting him slightly as he withdrew.
Their pace quickened. Ryan tried for a slow tempo. He wanted to make this first loving last as long as he could make it, but their bodies' needs began to overwhelm them.
Consuela's breath came quick and shallow. Control of her body was slipping away, lost in the passion and pleasure of their coupling. Her hips began to rise, thrusting upward to meet Ryan's cock ramming deeper into her cunt. She ground her pubic mound against him, seeking even the slightest increase in contact.
Ryan could feel his climax coming fast. He panted harder; his lungs were beginning to starve for oxygen. His lower body was on fire as he drove his cock inside Consuela's vagina harder and faster. He wasn't able to slow himself much. She didn't want him to.
Her hot cavern was squeezing his cock, gripping it as it slid inside and only reluctantly releasing it when he pulled back. Her cunt seemed to be trying to milk Ryan's cock; the undulations of muscles rippled rhythmically from back to front and back again. Consuela began rotating her ass in a tight little circle. After a couple of circles in one direction, she stopped and went the other way and then back again.
Suddenly, Consuela's orgasm was almost there, full-blown and irresistible in its power. She bucked, surprised that she'd not felt it coming. Losing her momentary wonder, she shuddered, her hips writhed uncontrollably.
Ryan's caught his lover's new excitement. He began to plow his cock remorselessly into her. They were animals now; the slow buildup to making love had been forgotten. They were caught up in the sheer pleasure of the sex and pounding each other hard in order to cum.
Ryan was sent into a delirium. The sensations emanating from his cock overpowered his conscious mind. The exquisite sensations of having his cock squeezed tightly in her cunt in motion almost made Ryan cum right there. Somehow, he managed to hold off.
Powering in and withdrawing slowly in a quick, steady rhythm, he let Consuela sling her ass around any way she wanted. Every time he slammed his hips forward, she gave out a low moan or grunt as his pole rubbed against sensitive nerve endings.
After another moment, Consuela stopped whipping her hips around so wildly and began to simply thrust back up at Ryan as hard as he was shoving into her. There was no art or grace to it. The rhythm built faster and faster until both of them were having considerable trouble breathing. Had there been anyone to see, their faces would have been flushed a dark red.
"Unnngh, unnngh, unnngh, unnngh, unnnnnngh..." Consuela was gasping for air now. She couldn't get enough. She began to strain hard for her release.
Ryan was almost at the end of his endurance too. The violence of their exertions dictated a quick ending, simply because they couldn't sustain it for much longer. He plunged his cock into Consuela's cunt at a faster pace, striving to jam himself even deeper inside her.
Ryan could feel the tightening in his balls as his semen pumped upward. He felt the muscles in his groin and lower abdomen nearly cramp as the thick fluid was channeled into the tubes inside his penis. He couldn't stop it; the liquid heat was propelled down the length of his cock as he pushed into Consuela's pussy.
"ARRRRGGGGHHHHHH!" Ryan tried to muffle his bellow as he found release. He buried his face in the pillow beside Consuela's head.
A great gob of his cum spurted out and splashed against the walls of her vagina deep inside. Ryan hunched his hips once, twice, and then again. A second spurt fountained out to spew across her cervix. He managed to hold back a third gushing for a time, but it was only long enough for Consuela's climax to begin to take hold.
Her orgasm built until she was beside herself with the need for completion. Her legs splayed wide on the mattress as she shoved her groin up at her lover while he thrust down into her cunt. She was doing everything she could to get the cock inside her rub harder against those especially sensitive places just inside her pussy. When her Ryan's hot cum began to spurt into her, she screamed out her need, pushing back and rotating her hips one last time.
Ryan's hips jerked and a fourth upwelling of sperm squirted inside Consuela. In truth, it was more a flow than a forced eruption. It was thinner than the previous ones had been. Consuela had milked everything he had out of him.
Consuela jolted to a stop, her body freezing in place with the intensity of her ecstasy. Unable to consciously move any of her limbs, she felt her tummy muscles contracting in time with the ripples spreading through her cunt. Her leg muscles spasmed, jerking uncontrollably. The intense sensations emanating from her vagina slowed, lessened, and finally gave up their lock on her body. She drew in as much air as she could, gasping desperately in her need for oxygen.
Exhausted, Ryan slipped his cock out of Consuela's pussy and collapsed to the bed beside her. It was a long while before their hearts slowed and their lungs finally filled with enough air.
"So...?" Ryan asked lazily. "Think you'll want to keep me around...you reckon there's a chance we could be...compatible?" Consuela patted his arm and turned to face him. Their breath mingled. Their passion gone for the moment, they kissed gently.
"Mmmmmmm," Consuela purred. "You just try and get away from me."
Ryan chuckled quietly. They were quiet for a time.
"Ahhhhhhh?" she murmured.
"In a minute...when you're ready...can I be on top?" She giggled in the dimness.
"I'm ready," Ryan whispered enthusiastically, "anytime you are."
There was no more talk for a long while.
The trials for Sean Michaels and Carrie Gilchrist were relatively short. There wasn't much evidence for the United States Attorney to present, but it was all extremely compelling, very damning. The first witnesses were banking experts called to testify on the process of setting up accounts in overseas banks and how it was usually done to hide income otherwise taxable in the United States or send fraudulently obtained funds out of U.S. jurisdiction.
A severely dressed woman from the State Department testified none of the accounts to which the funds were funneled had a dime in them any longer. The governments in the various Caribbean countries had cooperated to the extent of confirming that, though they would not go further. It was typical of those countries, she said.
Special Agent Williams got on the stand to explain he and his partner had noticed a bank-owned laptop computer in defendant Michaels' possession when they took him into custody. They'd taken possession of it and labeled it as evidence. Yes, that was the evidence label and that was his signature on it.
A computer and software expert testified there was a variety of programs loaded on the laptop and one of them was a proprietary program used by the bank to connect to the bank's server from remote locations. He explained how it worked and showed the jury a few shots of some of the initial screens, including the one where the user entered their login name and password.
A representative from the phone company presented the telephone records for the phone registered to Ryan and Carrie Gilchrist and pointed out specific periods when the phone line had been in use for periods ranging from twenty-one to twenty-three minutes. The prosecutor wrote the times and dates on a big whiteboard brought into the courtroom for that purpose. No, he told the jury, there was no evidence the Gilchrists had ever had a wireless network setup.
A representative from the cable company told everyone the modem given to the Gilchrists was only connected to the big Dell computer in the home office. There were no connections set up for modem use on any of the other cable outlets in the house. Besides, their records showed there had been no traffic over that modem except for network initiated pulses during the times on the whiteboard.
Then, the Information Technology manager for the bank testified that Mr. Michaels' login name and password had been used to access a number of high-dollar accounts he was responsible for managing. Wire transfers, some of them set up programmatically to continue after the laptop's operator had signed off, had been started during specific timeframes. Yes, those exact times were the ones annotated on the whiteboard. The funds from the looted accounts had been forwarded to IP addresses identified as belonging to offshore banks.
The defense objected, saying the IT manager could not know that for a fact. Such things were outside his field of expertise. The IT manager was annoyed and said he could look up an IP with the best of them and what he'd just testified to was God's own truth. The judge allowed the testimony.
In any event, the next witness, a specialist dispatched from the Treasury Department reiterated the same information. He said he spent half his time creating lists of bank IPs of interest and the identified addresses most certainly did correspond to the offshore banks in question. The defense did not object. They had no questions for this witness.
When the prosecution finished with their presentation, the defense had little room left in which to maneuver. They tried to make the point no one had seen Sean Michaels actually enter the transfer information into the system. They said it could as easily have been Carrie Gilchrist who did it...or maybe someone else. The Gilchrist home didn't have a security system. Anyone could have been in the house. Who knew?
In the process, the defense conceded Sean and Carrie had been involved in lengthy affair. It was unavoidable. Sean and Carrie had given videotaped statements early on and both had readily admitted it.
There was no point in denying it. The TV show had been played numerous times by now. Excerpts had been shown several times on local commercial TV. The network had privately told the prosecutor when a copy was delivered to him, that it was one of the most watched episodes every time they replayed it.
The defense took every opportunity to slip in questions about whether anyone actually thought people going somewhere to have sex would actually take breaks to work on a computer? Mr. Michaels and Mrs. Gilchrist could have conducted the fraudulent transfers from the office, counsel for the defense said. They didn't need to sneak off to the Gilchrist home for that. What kind of sense did that make?
The prosecution didn't bother to answer the defense's question about why the adulterers had gone to the Gilchrist home to commit their fraud. There was no need. The facts were what they were.
The circumstantial evidence had mounted too high for the defense to answer. It was overwhelming. That none of the funds could be shown to have been forwarded to an account either party was known to have personally established made no difference. Nor was it pertinent that there was no evidence to show the two had actually spent any of the gains from the theft. The assumption was they hadn't had time.
In their rebuttal case, the prosecution brought an FBI criminalist in from Quantico, Virginia, to testify they had found no fingerprints anywhere in the house which couldn't be accounted for. None of the doors or windows had been forced open and there were no footprints below the windows or around the doors to indicate anyone had loitered there, waiting an opportunity to break in. There was absolutely no forensic evidence of any kind, he said, that even might support the defense claims there had been someone else, other than the home's occupants, known visitors, and Mr. Michaels, around the house at any time.
In the end, Michaels was found guilty on all counts. He broke down at the defense table and cried piteously. He was a broken man when the Bexar County sheriff's deputies took custody of him from the bailiffs and marched him off to the jail to await sentencing.
Carrie had been smart in her initial interview with investigators and absolutely denied knowing Michaels' login and password. Though Michaels' lawyer did everything she could to show Carrie actually did have both...several people at the bank were sure they'd seen her enter Michaels' information into the system on occasion...the attorney was never able to shake Carrie's denial. It probably saved Carrie from a charge of conspiracy in Michaels' fraudulent scheme.
Carrie's only real problem was that she got caught in a lie by one of the investigators interviewing her a month after the inquiry had begun. It had been a silly thing to do. Her lie was about a trivial matter and the charge about the false affidavit had been put on the list of other charges at the last moment just to be complete.
The jury was pretty sure Carrie had been in on the fraud but there just wasn't any evidence to show that Carrie even knew it was going on, though they tried hard to find some in the prosecution's case. The false statement was firmly established and they found her guilty on that one count. There was no deliberation on that charge beyond a call by the foreman for a vote on her guilt.
In the sentencing hearing for Michaels, the only mercy the jury offered was a recommendation to the judge that the sentences all run concurrently. The judge agreed and sentenced the man to twenty years with the location of his incarceration to be determined by the prison system. Carrie got one year.
As Michaels walked disconsolately from the defense table toward the side door leading to the holding cell, he came close enough to Ryan for easy conversation. At that moment, one of the bailiffs was preoccupied looking over his shoulder at one of the reporters who had thrust a microphone in his direction. The bailiff's steps slowed and he fell behind. For one short moment, Michaels had only one man escorting him and he was on the opposite side. Ryan leaned over the railing.
"That's what you get for fucking another man's wife," he said softly. Only the convicted felon heard.
Michaels took two more steps before the words penetrated. He stopped, making the chains on his feet jangle musically. Not believing what he'd heard, he turned around to stare at Ryan. His eyes widened and grew wild. Alarmed by the rattling chains, the bailiff lagging behind made a belated attempt to catch up. It was too late.
Michaels lunged at Ryan. Brought up short when the bailiff still with him yanked him back, Michaels began screaming imprecations no one could understand. He was dragging the much bigger bailiff across the hardwood floor.
It eventually took four officers to control him as he struggled to get to Ryan. He was still shrieking at the top of his lungs and fighting his restraints as they carried him out.
"Well, good afternoon, Special Agent Williams. What can I do for you today?"
Answering the knock on the outside door to the office, Ryan had been a little surprised to see the FBI agent, but not overwhelmingly so. His eyes flicked down the hallway in each direction to see if the agent was accompanied by his partner...or a whole crew of Federal agents. Other than the one agent, the hallway was empty.
"Come in, come in," Ryan urged. "You mind if I lock the door again?" It was well past normal business hours and Ryan had secured the door when his secretary left. He didn't like open doors when there was no one in the outer office. He had a problem with people coming up on him unawares.
"Not at all," Williams replied courteously. "Just wanted to clear up a couple of things, if that's all right with you?"
"Sure, whatcha got?" Ryan shot back briskly. "Want some coffee?" he added. The urn on the side table in the secretary's office was still half full.
The FBI agent hesitated. The first time he'd been here, he'd sampled some of the strong brew and it had nearly done him in. He decided to go for it. He was tough; he could handle it.
"Thank you...yes," Williams said. He took the heavy mug filled to the brim with the dark liquid and cradled it in his hands. It looked almost as strong as it had the first time he'd visited here. He tentatively took a sip. It was scalding hot. He tried another swallow.
"What I'm here for, Mr. Gilchrist, is a statement you made to Mr. Michaels. It's been relayed to us through his attorney."
"Oh?" Ryan answered. His brow furrowed in concentration and surprise, he waited for Williams to continue.
"Michaels says you told him at his trial that you wanted him to know you arranged for all of this to happen. He accuses you of having set him up by stealing his laptop and entering the wire transfers to offshore accounts."
Williams stopped and watched Ryan Gilchrist closely for his reaction. There was nothing for a moment. Not for the first time, Williams made a note Gilchrist would make a fine poker player.
Ryan let his eyebrows rise.
"That's it?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, that's the meat of the information," Williams answered. Ryan snorted derisively.
"Bull shit! First of all, I never spoke to him at his trial. I was never anywhere near the asshole. Now, at his sentencing hearing, I did remark, as he passed by, that...uh...what was it...something to the effect that 'this was what you get for fucking my wife' or something like that. That's all I said. He went ballistic right then and they carried him out and...that's the last time I saw him."
"I see. Would you care to explain that statement, Mr. Gilchrist?"
"Statement?" Ryan asked. "What I just said?" He let a confused expression settle over his features.
"No, that what...well, that the sentence was what he got for having sex with your wife."
"Well...I don't know what you want from me. I think what I said was pretty self-explanatory, Agent Williams. I'm not real happy with the jerk and I think the time he's going to spend in a Federal prison is absolutely fantastic. What goes around, comes around...isn't that what they say? Damn straight!
"I thought it was damned ironic he was getting twenty years for crimes he committed while he was having nooners and quickies with my wife and I told him so. Does that explain it any better?"
Ryan let his eyes flash a little with suppressed anger.
"I see," Williams said, shifting the coffee mug from his right to his left hand before taking a sip of the hot liquid. It was a delaying tactic, something to distract Ryan's attention for a moment and give the man time to cool down.
"So if Mr. Michaels alleges you had anything to do with appropriating his computer and actually committing the offenses he's being imprisoned for, you deny that?"
Ryan snorted again.
"Yuh think?" he said contemptuously. "You're darn right I deny it," he said formally.
Williams watched Ryan over the lip of his mug as he took a couple of swallows. Other than irritation, he saw nothing in Gilchrist's body language to indicate Gilchrist was lying.
He toyed for a moment with the idea of asking the man to come down for a polygraph examination. Then he discarded the suggestion. In his present mood, Gilchrist would refuse out of hand...and it wouldn't mean anything except he was pissed off.
"Okay!" Williams said abruptly. He stood up. "I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me, Mr. Gilchrist. If we have anything else, we'll get in contact with you, okay?" He looked around for a place to leave the mug.
Ryan nodded, still visibly annoyed, but trying to suppress it. He took the mug from Williams' hand and put it on the credenza at the side of his desk.
"Oh!" he said. "I'm going to be taking a few weeks off and I won't be here in the office."
"Where will you be, Mr. Gilchrist?" Williams asked automatically.
Ryan's eyes narrowed.
"Why do you care, Special Agent Williams?" he asked aggressively, ready to explode again.
"I was told I should stay in town as long as there was an active investigation going on, but that was months ago. The trials are done, two people are going to prison, and it's all over, right? Are you investigating me, Agent Williams?"
"No, sir," Williams answered forthrightly. "I--"
"Are you telling me I need to stay where you can find me at a moment's notice?"
"No, sir," Williams replied. "There's no need for that. You're quite correct. There is no active investigation being conducted by the joint task force at this time. The Treasury and State Departments are still trying to find the funds down in the Caribbean banks, but they aren't having any luck...and that's all that's happening."
Ryan stared at the FBI agent for a long moment. He sucked in a long breath and held it. His jaw muscles clinched and then relaxed. He let out the air he'd been holding in.
"Okay...sorry. One reason that I'm taking some time off is that I'm losing my temper too often and for really trivial reasons when I look back on them. I really need to recharge the batteries...know what I mean? It's been a pretty rough year, everything considered. Uh...if I was out of line, I apologize, okay?"
"No, no...not at all," Williams hurried to reassure Ryan. "I understand completely." He did, he realized. The man had had to deal with a cheating wife, had been involved in a devastating exposé on that TV show, actually seeing video of his wife screwing that Michaels guy, the trials...yeah, Williams could see where he might be wound a little tight.
"Actually, you can always get hold of me," Ryan told the agent, unbending slightly. "I won't have my cell phone turned on all the time, but I'll check it regularly...you have the number, right? I don't know where I'll be...probably just driving up to my hunting cabin up by Marble Falls...but I may take off. Oh, heck, I don't know. I might even take a driving trip out to the Grand Canyon or something. I just want to get away, ya know?"
"I understand completely," Agent Williams said sympathetically.
After a couple more minutes of casual chat, Ryan let the FBI agent out and locked the door behind him.
It wasn't until Williams was fitting the key into the ignition that he became troubled.
"Shit!" he said vehemently.
He looked up the side of the building to the windows he knew opened into Gilchrist's office. Had Gilchrist just maneuvered him into revealing the status of the investigation into the lost funds? He couldn't decide, but Gilchrist had definitely gotten Williams to feel sorry for him and completely deflected Williams' inquiries into a safe zone. He started the engine. He shook his head, still looking up at the windows. Was Gilchrist that smart...that good at manipulating people?
A germ of doubt was planted in his mind. There was no basis for it beyond an unsupported...he admitted it...an unsupportable suspicion. The investigation was dead, but Special Agent Williams would play his hunch. He'd be looking for anything coming down the pike that didn't look right. He put the transmission in gear and drove out of the parking lot and into the late evening traffic.
Ryan leaned against the wall near the door for a long while after the FBI agent left. It took some time before his racing heart calmed enough for his pulse to quit pounding in his ears. He'd been concerned he might be giving something away to Williams so he'd let the anger swell up and take control. The anger had been real, but it had been at himself for being afraid, not the agent or the circumstances. It seemed to have worked.
After a while, he was composed enough to return to his desk and finish the last stack of papers he needed to sign. His secretary would be in tomorrow for half a day and was specifically expecting them to be finished. It was the last thing he was going to do before leaving for the few weeks he'd told the agent about.
In a way, he was glad the FBI agent had come by. It had given Ryan a glimpse into their operation and thinking. It was clear the agent hadn't had anything substantial to go on. If Williams had anything at all, he'd have brought the long awaited search warrant with him. He hadn't. That was a good sign. With all their resources, law enforcement hadn't been able to collect enough probable cause to get a judge to sign off on even a preliminary search.
In fact, the only search warrant ever served on him in all of this had been for his home and that had been expected. After all, that had been where the crimes had been committed. The house had been turned back to him months ago.
On top of that, Consuela hadn't been contacted by anyone connected with the investigation. There was no sign the authorities knew she existed. He thought they might be able to start relaxing a little more...not much...just a little. He looked forward to seeing Consuela and Belinda more often.
"Quiet honey," Consuela told her daughter. "Momma needs to talk to Ryan right now. Ryan will look at your drawing in just a minute."
Belinda wasn't happy with that. She wanted to show Ryan a picture she'd drawn of her mommy and Ryan. To her mind, it needed to be seen immediately. She flounced through the doorway into the kitchen. Climbing back up on her chair, she began embellishing the drawing by coloring in the clothing of the figures she'd drawn. In moments, she'd forgotten her mother had preempted the drawing's presentation.
"So...you don't think he had anything to go on?" Consuela asked Ryan.
"Nah...he wasn't even really fishing," Ryan answered. He was relaxed and unconcerned.
"If they thought they really had anything, they'd have come to the office with search warrants for my office, home, pickup truck, every jobsite I've got working, and probably the hunting lease up at Marble Falls too. He doesn't have a thing to go on and I don't see how he could ever show enough probable cause to get search warrants for any of those places.
"He even admitted the investigation is closed as far as San Antonio is concerned. There's still some work going on overseas, he said, but I gathered there wasn't a chance in hell it was going to go anywhere. All he really asked was what I'd meant by what I'd said to Michaels at the trial, I told him, and that was the end of it."
"Okay...that's good," Consuela whispered in a preoccupied tone. Then she brightened.
She'd grown wary over the last few months. More often than not, she regretted her initial enthusiasm to cut that cabron down to size. The plan had worked, but she'd still been worried most of the time there would be a preemptory knock on her door one day. Today, the possibility of that happening seemed very remote. She relaxed and tilted her face up for a kiss from her man.
"But, Mommy," Belinda pleaded with Consuela, "ever'body else's 'll be there."
The little girl, her fifth birthday was only two months ago, was almost in tears when Ryan walked in the kitchen door. It was his fifth day here. He'd given up even the pretense of staying at the hunting lease.
He'd been next door talking to the old woman who lived there. She used a walker almost constantly and had taken a break trying to get up the steps to her porch. She'd nearly fallen and Ryan had left Consuela's front door on the run to help the woman.
"Uh oh," he said, concerned at the obvious unhappiness in the room. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, it's her kindergarten class," Consuela said, giving him a troubled glance. "They're having a "dad and daughter" event tomorrow morning and she...well...you know. She doesn't understand..."
Ryan nodded. He did know.
Now he was as dejected as the other two. He knew Consuela had divorced Belinda's father more than four years ago...just after the toddler was born, in fact. She'd immediately moved back to her hometown with her baby. There were half a dozen attempts by the father to see the child early on, but there'd been no calls or letters...much less visits...in the past three and a half years.
Ryan looked away, pretending an interest in a dog barking outside. There was a thing he'd been planning to do. He took a breath, held it, and let it out slowly. There really was no point in prolonging it. Belinda was so unhappy. She was heartbroken. It was so unfair...so completely beyond her control. He hated that.
Deciding abruptly, he walked back out the kitchen door and around the house to the driveway. He opened the passenger door and retrieved a small box from under the front seat. He checked it to make sure the contents were okay before carrying the box back inside.
Consuela and Belinda met him at the back door, curious about his sudden departure. He hadn't said a word before walking out and it concerned both mother and daughter.
"What...?" Consuela started to ask. Ryan smiled enigmatically and took her hand to pull her gently into the living room. He sat on the couch and patted the sofa cushion beside him.
"Honey, what is it?" Consuela insisted, wondering what was on Ryan's mind. He didn't normally act so enigmatically.
Ryan cleared his throat. He wished he'd thought to grab a coke from the fridge or something. It was too late now.
"I uh...we...well, we've come a long way since that day when we met in the...at breakfast in the café," he stammered. "I haven't been real good about asking you what we should do next, or whether you wanted to do it. I mean...I never asked you how you felt about things much. We just seemed to slip from one thing to the next without a lot of discussion or anything. Uh...I think I made it pretty clear though...anytime you didn't want to start something new, you knew I wouldn't push you into it...right?"
"Ryan, I've never said you were "pushing" me into anything," Consuela told him. "You couldn't make me do anything I didn't want to do...I wouldn't let you," she assured him.
"Yeah...I know," Ryan said. "I've counted on that all along."
"But now," he shifted on the couch, moving to the edge of the cushion and facing the woman more directly. "Now, I have to ask you something because we both have to know where we stand before we do this...next thing." Reaching across her body, he captured her right hand and held it in his, then released it. He felt around on the couch behind him with his other hand.
Consuela's eyes searched his. She was a little impatient. Suddenly, her eyes widened. She yanked her hand from his and covered her suddenly quivering lips with both hands.
"Oh my God," she whispered.
"Consuela," Ryan said huskily, "I've found out...over the last few months...that I love you more than I know how to say. I want you to be...I...I mean...will? I wonder if you will be..."
"Yes," Consuela whispered softly.
Ryan stared at her blankly for a long moment. He'd nerved himself for a longer, far more coherent speech and maybe some coaxing too. He couldn't adjust all that quickly.
"You will? I mean..." he asked awkwardly, just to make sure he hadn't misunderstood. Consuela nodded, her eyes beginning to fill with tears.
Ryan found the small box with his left hand and brought it around his body. He fumbled the box open and pulled out the diamond ring. It had looked good in the jewelry store, the stone was big enough, he thought...but suddenly he wasn't sure. Maybe he should have...
Screwing up his courage, he took Consuela's left hand in his and began to slip the ring on her ring finger. When it was settled into place, Consuela began sobbing.
Nonplussed, Ryan put his arms around her and patted her on the back. He didn't quite know what he'd done, but she wasn't rejecting his touch. That was probably a good thing, he thought. He wasn't sure.
"Mommy, what's wrong?" Belinda asked. She had suddenly appeared at Consuela's knee. She looked ready to cry herself.
Belinda had wandered down the hall to her bedroom to play when it appeared her mother and Ryan were going to sit on the couch and talk for a while. She'd come back when she heard her mother crying.
Consuela turned to her daughter, still crying. She took the little girl in her arms to pull her up on her lap.
"See what Ryan gave me?" Consuela asked her young daughter, holding her left hand out to display the white gold ring with the big diamond. "Isn't it pretty?"
"Uh huh," Belinda said dubiously. "Why did Ryan give it to you?"
"Because we're going to get married, honey," Consuela said, kissing Belinda's cheek. "Isn't that great?" Belinda thought about it for a moment.
"I guess. What does 'marri'd mean?"
Consuela laughed and hugged her daughter tighter.
"It means you and me and...Ryan are going to live together from now on. Is that okay?"
Belinda understood that. She began to smile.
"Ryan won't ever have to go home at night again?" she asked happily.
Ryan and Consuela had settled on a routine in which Ryan spent the night with her, but got up in the predawn darkness each morning, took a quiet shower, changed clothes from the cache he kept in Consuela's closet, and laid down on the sofa in the living room. When Belinda awoke, it was as if Ryan had just arrived and was waiting for her and her mother to wake up.
Consuela shook her head at Belinda's question.
"Never again," she promised, "our home is going to be his home too."
"Okay," Belinda said brightly. She thought for a moment, her eyes on her mother's face.
"But why were you crying, Mommy?" she asked again.
"'Cause I'm so happy," Consuela said, smiling down at the child. Belinda considered the answer for a long moment.
"Well, I won't ever cry when I'm happy," she decided almost crossly. "I laugh when I'm happy," she added. She started to get down from her mother's lap. Ryan stopped her.
"Belinda?" Ryan said gently. The five-year-old looked around at him.
"There's something else."
"What?" she asked.
"Well...if I marry your mother, then that means I'm going to be..." He let the words tail off and looked at Consuela over the little girl's head. His eyebrows arched with an unspoken inquiry. Consuela nodded, her eyes brimming with tears once more.
"What?" Belinda demanded. Five-year-olds are impatient. Ryan took a deep breath.
"Well, that means I'm going to be your daddy," he said slowly, "if that's all right with you," he added.
Belinda looked at him with a serious expression on her little face. Her eyes looked enormous. She looked up, leaning back to look at her mother for confirmation.
"Really?" she said, coming back to Ryan. "You'll be my daddy?" She said it so sweetly, Ryan could only nod. Abruptly, he was too choked up to speak. He cleared his throat.
"If you want me to be," he replied at length. The child had no problem deciding.
"I do," little Belinda said.
She held out her arms and leaned toward him. Ryan took his stepdaughter into his arms for the first time. He kissed the top of her head and she looked up smiling. Impulsively, she wiggled around until she was on her knees and able to throw her arms around his neck and hug him tightly. Ryan lost his ability to speak again. The lump in his throat didn't go away for a long while.
When Consuela was tucking Belinda into bed, she reminded the little girl that now she had a daddy to take her to father-daughter day the next morning.
Belinda's eyes got huge. She'd forgotten. It took her nearly an hour to calm down enough to sleep.
When Belinda woke the next morning, she immediately made her way into her mother's bedroom. Consuela and Ryan had decided to discontinue their usual routine and Ryan had spent the whole night with his new fiancé. It didn't faze Belinda in the least. Tommy and Maria and Lisa, she said...they were friends of hers at kindergarten...had all told her that their mommies and daddies always slept in the same bed.
Ryan was tempted to ask how the subject came up but Consuela's elbow in his ribs dissuaded him. In retrospect, he was glad he hadn't been able to get the question out. It was probably best not to know.
Belinda could hardly contain her excitement long enough to eat breakfast. She played with the bowl of fruit loops long enough to convince her mother she wasn't going to eat anything more. She managed to drink all of her milk, but that was the extent of Belinda's patience. She danced down the sidewalk to Ryan's pickup.
At the school, she refused to release Ryan's hand for even an instant. She marched the two of them around the room, introducing all the young children and her teachers to him.
"This is my new daddy," she proudly told everyone.
"I...I don't know how to start, Ryan...I guess...just thanks for coming?" Carrie said hesitantly. She was sitting at the small picnic table in the shade of the big pecan tree. The visitor area for the prison camp was a pleasant, well-maintained grassy area between headquarters building and one of the dormitories where the inmates were housed.
"The only condition your attorney insisted on finally was that I was to deliver your copy of the decree to you personally," Ryan replied in an even tone.
He was trying hard not to interject any acrimony into what he was sure would be the last time he would see his ex-wife. The provision for him to deliver the documents to Carrie had, in fact, been the only thing she'd asked for.
She hadn't attempted to get in touch with him after the night she and Sean Michaels had been ambushed at the nightclub. Even when she'd been indicted, she'd never tried to contact him. That had been Ryan's wish, though he'd been a little surprised she hadn't at least tried.
"And now I find out I can't actually do what you wanted me to do," Ryan remarked. "The visitor regulations won't allow me to bring in any paperwork or...well...anything but about what I've got on," he explained.
"Yes, I learned about that after I got here," Carrie replied, "and they already told me you got special permission to just drop it off with the staff instead of mailing it like the rules say. I appreciate that. I really do."
Ryan shrugged uncomfortably. What Carrie appreciated was of no concern to him anymore. Her betrayal had pushed him away from her and he no longer cared.
He glanced around the visitor's area. Bryan Women's Federal Prison Camp was a minimum-security prison. There weren't any of the watchtowers, tall fences, and barbed wire he'd thought he would see. The only thing separating the facility from the surrounding community was a standard chain link fence no different from those found dividing one back yard from another in a suburban neighborhood.
The outside walls of all the buildings were a beige stucco with red tile roofs, typical of southwest architecture. The grass was lush and green, the trees tall with spreading boughs that provided abundant shade beneath them. The grounds were well kept. He couldn't see a scrap of paper or debris of any kind. The place looked pleasant and low key. Ryan wondered what it was like from the inside.
"So...what do we do now?" Carrie asked softly.
Her hands were in her lap and she sat erect with her back straight. According to the rules, she wouldn't have been allowed to touch Ryan after a brief hug. She'd known Ryan wouldn't have put up with that, so they'd settled for murmured hellos. Carrie was highly conscious of being under the scrutiny of the prison staff.
"We don't do anything, Carrie," Ryan replied quickly, shifting his gaze back to her. "There is no "we" anymore. That's what a divorce is all about."
Carrie's eyes dropped. She was disappointed but not devastated. It had been expected.
"Ryan, I'm really, really sorry I've screwed things up for us. What I did was wrong and I'm sorry for having done it. I didn't mean to hurt you. Please believe me...I never meant to hurt you."
Ryan shrugged. He adjusted his sunglasses. The sun was high overhead and reflected off the pale walls into his eyes.
"I'm a little confused, Carrie," Ron replied. "Since you want to talk about it...exactly how did you think screwing your boss would not hurt me?"
Carrie winced. She bit her lips for a moment.
"You weren't ever supposed to find out, Ryan. I know that sounds stupid now, but I thought if you didn't know about it...then it was like..."
She broke off, trying to find the words to express what she was feeling.
"No harm, no foul?" Ryan suggested.
Carrie nodded slowly after thinking about the phrase for a bit. She wasn't happy with the expression, but it did say sort of what she'd felt at the time.
Ryan snorted softly. He swiveled his body around on the bench and tucked his knees under the table. For the first time, he faced his ex-wife head on. He didn't know her. In her neatly pressed, issue khaki pants and green shirt, she was alien to him. He didn't know if he'd ever seen her in a shirt with all the buttons done up before.
Her face was thinner than he remembered. The faint freckles across her nose seemed darker somehow. Her green eyes seemed too big for her face now. Her blond hair, cropped even shorter than she'd worn it on the outside, was limp and lifeless. He'd noticed her five foot, three-inch frame seemed slightly stooped, as if she carried an enormous load. She was a stranger, a stranger who had wronged him.
"What you did was still wrong, Carrie," he said brusquely, "whether I knew or not.
Ryan stopped and shut his eyes. He tried to control his breathing. This wasn't getting anyone anywhere.
"Sorry...I don't know why I bother," he said after a bit. "I get pissed when I hear people say what someone doesn't know won't hurt them. It does hurt, it's just that someone hasn't realized it yet."
"I know," Carrie said delicately. "I didn't know it then...but I do now."
"Too little, too late, Carrie," he said. There was no sympathy in his voice. Carrie winced.
"Yes...you're right," she said unhappily. "I can't change what I did, hon...Ryan. But, I'm being punished big time now. I guarantee you, it won't happen again."
Ryan shook his head.
"Huh uh. You're being punished for lying to a Federal investigator, not for wrecking our marriage...and Sharon Michael's marriage. Don't even go there."
Ryan shifted his body around and prepared to get to his feet.
"And if you're talking about our divorce...that's just an administrative detail...that's all there is to it. It's not punishment. You killed our marriage. I just got a judge to confirm it with his signature on a piece of paper, that's all." His face held compassion at all.
Carrie looked at him unhappily. Unshed tears glistened in her eyes.
"I know, Ryan, I know. I've really screwed things up and there's nothing I can do to fix it," she said in a low voice. She was trying to keep from crying.
Ryan's shoulders lifted and fell in a long shrug.
"Life's about choices, Carrie. You made a bunch of bad ones and now you have to live with them," he said. He made sure his tone wasn't accusatory. There was no point.
"There's no chance we...after I get out...could...?" Carrie blurted.
Ryan shook his head decisively. He took off his sunglasses for the first time. He put them carefully down on the tabletop.
"I don't really want to be cold and...mean spirited, I guess are the words to use," he said slowly. "There's nothing to be gained and it would be a waste of time."
"Look, Carrie...uh...I'll be getting married next week."
Carrie was taken aback, shocked at the news. She hadn't expected this. It had never occurred to her Ryan would move on...and if it had, she wouldn't have thought it would be this soon.
"I...I don't know what to say," she choked out. "I hope...I hope you'll be very happy," she finally said. The tears were threatening to cascade from the corner of her eyes and down her cheeks.
"I didn't mean it to come out like that," Ryan said in a half-apologetic tone. "I thought I'd seen you a letter some time in the future and...oh, hell...I don't know what I thought."
After a long silence, Carrie got control of herself. It was something she couldn't have done before. The discipline here at the prison was having an effect on her only a short time into her sentence.
"I...I do hope you and...what's her name?" she asked. "If that's not too...?"
"Consuela," Ryan answered. "Consuela Robertson."
"Consuela...that's a beautiful name," Carrie said with no bitterness in her voice. "I really do hope you'll be very happy," she said, trying to smile.
A confused expression came over her face and Ryan nodded when he saw it.
"You know her," he said quietly.
"She used to work for the bank. She was one of that group of men and women who filed sexual harassment suits against him and the others. My lawyer dug up a lot of information on them. We...Consuela and I...met, and the rest is history, I guess."
Ryan had half-expected the subject of his impending marriage to come up in his meeting with Carrie. Any comments would naturally have included his fiancée's name. The well-crafted statement was not technically incorrect in any respect. Neither was it in the least accurate.
Carrie looked at Ryan a long time without commenting.
"Well...I still...I hope you'll both be very happy," she said finally. "I'm sure she won't hurt you like I have," she added. A trace of bitterness was in her words this time as well as her tone.
Ryan ignored it. Carrie had lost the right to be bitter about his choices. He stood but didn't immediately leave.
"I won't be coming here again," he said. "Consuela and I ...well...you know." Carrie nodded her understanding. "Well...goodbye, Carrie," he said. "I hope...I hope when you get out of here, things turn out good for you."
"Thank you, Ryan. I appreciate that," Carrie replied. She stood also but made sure to keep the picnic table between them.
Ryan nodded and turned away. He took a step and halted. After a long moment, he turned back to face his ex-wife.
"Carrie...there's something I don't understand. You don't have to answer if you don't want to...but...why? Why did you even take up with that jerk in the first place?"
Carrie had expected this to be one of the first questions Ryan asked. She'd thought she would be a little careful with her answer, but there was no longer any reason for that. Ryan had made it clear there was no future for their relationship as she'd hoped. Still, she hesitated for a short while.
"I didn't start out to cheat on you," she said frankly. "I was happy. It looked like we were getting back to where we were before...before the first time."
She glanced up at her ex-husband guiltily. So far this afternoon, they hadn't explored the fact that this was the second adulterous affair she'd engaged in.
"I concentrated on just us for the longest time," she said, plowing on.
"Then I got a nice promotion at the bank...and then I lucked into a couple of other things...more responsibility and the perks to go along with them. I...well, Ryan, I liked being in charge of things and I could see where I could go higher in the...management there."
She lifted her hands helplessly. Her face was twisted with distaste.
"It was so wrong, but I figured out Sean Michaels was my ticket upstairs and I...I decided I'd let him...that I'd have sex with him. The money was getting better--almost as much as you were bringing home, you know?
"It wasn't like he was a very good person, Ryan. I never thought he was. I was never in love with him. In fact, he was a pretty rotten individual...I read somewhere that people always "affair-down." They...we...have affairs with people who make ourselves look good by comparison. I guess that's true. It's what I did.
"Once involved with him...it was easy to get on an ego trip, Ryan," she said wearily. "I started to believe the world I shared with just him was fine. I thought he and I knew who we were and exactly what we wanted out of life. I had this confidence I didn't have before...you see? It wasn't true, but that's how I felt." Carrie's face and tone showed a deep unhappiness.
"It...I can't justify it, Ryan. I was caught up in getting that next promotion and being happy with someone else giving me attention. I think I went a little crazy. I'm sorry, I really am."
Ryan took a moment to digest what she'd said. He shook his head.
"And the things people have told me about the way you talked about me...about our life together?" he asked carefully. He had to phrase it that way. There was no way he could even hint he'd heard her spiteful remarks on the tape recorder and the videos he'd made of her and Sean early on.
Carrie stared at him in surprise. She'd not anticipated this. She thought for a minute.
"I...well...guilt, I guess," she said finally. "I didn't feel good about what I was doing at first...I think I started picking fights with you and stuff so I could just keep going. After a while, it didn't...I didn't feel so guilty anymore if I could blame you...you know?"
"I began to see everything a different. Every time you were short with me or didn't agree with me...whether it was real or imagined...it gave me an excuse to see one more thing in a bad light. It got to be easy to make myself the victim. I started seeing you as holding me back, pressuring me to be something I couldn't be. I saw you still weren't trusting me from the first affair and I began to resent it. I thought you were trying to control me.
"Then, in my mind, what I was doing wasn't so bad. I mean, if I made myself believe you were the bad guy, then how could I be at fault, right? It helped make my guilt a little less each time I did something I shouldn't. I needed that. I couldn't have kept on without it...and I had to keep on. It was like an...uh...a compulsion or something.
"I...I don't know what else to say, Ryan. It was wrong, but I couldn't see it at the time. It was like being in a fog...and I couldn't find my way out. I didn't mean to put my husband second to another man, but I was delusional. I did it...and I'm so ashamed."
Ryan gazed at her a moment longer. He shook his head.
"You rewrote most of our history together," he told her, "from what I've been able to gather. Some of our former friends have told me a lot of what you said was pretty damned vicious." He looked at her unhappily. "And it was all because you were wanting to prostitute yourself to get ahead huh?"
"What?" Carrie protested, shocked. "I never..."
"Sure you did," Ryan shot back angrily. "A hooker fucks other men for cash; you fucked Michaels...and whoever else...because you wanted a bigger paycheck. There's no difference. You just did it with a better dressed clientele, that's all."
Ryan's voice was heavy with revulsion and suppressed anger.
"My wife the whore," he said thickly. "Good riddance..."
He turned and strode quickly across the yard to the nearest control point. He didn't look back.
In the middle of the night, Carrie sat bolt upright in the darkness on her cot.
"YOU SON OF A BITCH!" she screamed. In her sleep, her sub-conscious mind had made a connection she hadn't seen while awake.
Carrie had realized almost immediately Ryan's fiancé once worked in Sean Michaels' division when Ryan gave her Consuela's full name, but it hadn't seemed worthy of comment. It had taken her until now to remember Consuela had the knowledge to access the bank accounts and would have been able to do what everyone said Sean had done.
Now, while she slept, Carrie's unconsciousness connected that fact to what her lawyer had relayed to her weeks earlier. Sean Michaels had claimed Ryan was somehow responsible for everything. His attorney had tried to get a new trial for Sean based on the new "evidence," but the motion had been summarily dismissed by the judge who heard it.
Her shouts created a disturbance in the dorm. There was a restless stirring. A number of the women got up to use the restroom and a guard came to Carrie's room. Carrie was warned. She would be punished. Would she like being transferred to a higher security institution?
It took her forever to get back to sleep. She wondered if her attorney would come up to Bryan if Carrie called and asked for an immediate meeting. She was excited for the first time in a long while.
Her optimistic mood didn't survive the first bright flash of sunlight the next morning. A feeling of impotent hopelessness came over her as she washed up. She'd heard Sean's accusation hadn't gone anywhere. This wouldn't either.
Carrie knew her husband...her ex-husband. He would never have mentioned his new wife's name if he'd thought something might come of it. He'd done it deliberately, knowing she'd make the connection eventually. Ryan was smart enough to have already made sure his tracks were covered. No one would be able to figure out how he and Consuela had managed this...no one would be able to prove it anyway.
She grimaced. Ryan had said the divorce was not punishment for cheating on him. It was just an administrative detail. That's what he said. The humiliation the night the TV show's lights and cameras had caught her and Ryan...that was just another detail. She saw that clearly.
No, this was her punishment. Along with spending a year in prison, she'd have to live with the knowledge he'd known all along about her cheating, that he'd somehow set her and Sean up, and she couldn't do one...damn...thing about it.
Biting her lips, Carrie made herself get up and walk to the dining facility. She would be on yard detail today and she needed the calories. They would be digging three new vegetable gardens and one flower garden in front of the main building.
This evening after dinner, she would permit herself to put a big black 'X' through today's date on her calendar. Three hundred and nineteen more days to go.
In accordance with Texas law, thirty-one days after Ryan's divorce was finalized, he and Consuela were married in the little town where Consuela had been born. Most of the town's residents attended the reception that immediately followed in the VFW hall down the road.
A few hours after he proposed, it had occurred to Ryan to ask when they would be married. What did they need to do to start planning the whole thing? Consuela told him her mother and she had already done most of that already. All they had really needed was a date. Smiling at the shock on his face, she assured Ryan she and her mother, and most of her other relatives, had known he was going to propose a long time ago. It had only been a matter of when.
Stunned, Ryan had begun to glimpse what he was getting into. After a while, it didn't bother him. Consuela loved him, he loved her, and they both loved Belinda. That was enough for any man. He did rent a copy of "Steel Magnolias" from the local video store though. He needed to know where to set his boundaries.
Three weeks after the wedding, Ryan and Consuela took the official copy of their marriage certificate to an attorney specializing in such things and Ryan began the process of adopting Belinda. The little girl's birth father was located easily enough near Santa Fe, NM. He'd fallen on hard times, as the saying went, and he was happy enough to sign the adoption papers for fifty dollars and two bottles of cheap Mogen David wine. Neither the money nor the wine appeared in the videotape the private investigators took the precaution of making of the event.
Belinda's biological father was found three years later, face down in a dry arroyo that had run brimful a week earlier with runoff from a heavy thunderstorm. His passing generated only a two-line obituary in the local newspaper.
Belinda adjusted easily to having two parents. Ryan and Consuela had worried for a while because the little girl had spent her entire life up to this point with only her mother around. While she couldn't articulate any such feelings...she was only five-years-old, after all...she obviously considered it an opportunity to be loved by two people rather than having two people around who were there to discipline her. She took full advantage of the situation.
After a year of Belinda having her new father all to herself...Consuela thought her daughter deserved that much time to "catch up," as it were...Consuela got pregnant with the first of three more children. Jeanette, Rosita, and Roberto were born fourteen to sixteen months apart from each other.
Belinda, instead of resenting them, considered them additions to the family as a whole. She told Trish at the café that "we" were pregnant again when Consuela started showing with Roberto. Trish blinked in surprise, then grinned delightedly.
Carrie Gilchrist served the rest of her time quietly at the confinement facility. Her sentence was too short to qualify for a furlough to a halfway house at the end, so she spent the entire 365-day sentence in FPC Bryan, TX.
When she got out, she found Ryan had been more than generous with her. Half of the proceeds from the sale of their house, its furnishings, along with some other property and vehicles was waiting for her in an interest bearing account. She took the money, bought a beauty salon in Fort Worth, and threw herself enthusiastically into a new career. The felony conviction on her record prohibited her from resuming her profession in the banking industry but in truth, she didn't miss it much.
Without completely understanding why, Carrie never mentioned her suspicions about Consuela. Many years later, she decided it had been a part of her atonement for the way she'd lived her previous life.
Sean Michaels didn't take well to prison life and he had a rough time of it at first. He didn't like the staff at the prison, particularly the management, and he treated the guards with ill-concealed contempt. After a few months in a medium security facility, and left unprotected from the general population by those guards a number of times, Michaels changed his tune and became a model prisoner.
He was transferred to a low security prison, and then a minimum-security institution where he spent the last sixteen years of his confinement. He found he enjoyed teaching other inmates such things as mathematics, along with reading and writing skills. Having found something more rewarding than anything he'd ever known before, he became an advocate for inmate rights.
Sharon Michaels stayed with her husband, primarily for appearance's sake, all the way through the trial. Once the sentence was imposed, however, she divorced him and moved back home to Colorado to be close to her parents.
A few years later, she met a Colorado State Patrol lieutenant and, after a lengthy courtship, married him. She made sure her new husband agreed with a number of limits in their marriage before she accepted his proposal. Specifically, she told the man if he ever strayed, she was going to do a "Lorena Bobbitt" on him...only no one would ever find the offending organ to sew it back on. It was unnecessary. He couldn't imagine cheating on her and never did.
Special Agent, later Special-Agent-In-Charge, Stan Williams never quite lost the itch at the edge of his consciousness that told him there was something about Ryan Gilchrist and the bank fraud that hadn't yet come to light. Even after being transferred to Bureau offices in other cities, he kept himself apprised of developments, of which there were few. None of them, even Ryan's marriage to Consuela, were sufficient to reopen the case. He eventually retired from the FBI and founded a small security firm in up state New York.
Consuela's Great-Uncle Roberto found out his niece and Ryan had named their youngest child after the old man and he was profoundly touched. He came north from Mexico City on every occasion he could to see the baby. He doted on the young boy and, indeed, formed tight bonds with Ryan and the other children too.
The bank never recovered any part of the nine million dollars that had flown from the bank's accounts to offshore accounts all over the Caribbean. Eventually they wrote it off and got on with the business of making more money. Administrative changes were made in the organizational structure of the San Antonio regional headquarters. Two years after the incident, none of the bank officers who'd been at the bank when the theft occurred remained in any level of management. Parker Winston became the Chief Financial Officer when the incumbent retired and he served in that capacity until he retired to the Bahamas.
The seven million dollars, give or take, that Great-Uncle Roberto collected in accounts he controlled in Mexico City never came north of the border. With the settlements from the bank, Ryan and Consuela didn't need the money and didn't want it. The retribution against the bank and the adulterers had been completed long since. Wanting to know what to do with it, Roberto had taken a number of suggestions from the Gilchrists and used it to promote some of Roberto's most ardent causes.
Three years after the case was closed in the United States, a tramp freighter crept close to the Venezuelan coast. Lighters unloaded a multi-million dollar cargo of modern arms and gear to equip a small, but growing, guerilla unit fighting the communist dictator's army. A few months later, the guerillas took a provincial capitol and began consolidating their gains. At last word, things looked very hopeful for them. The CIA and other intelligence agencies never discovered who funded the delivery of weapons. Of course, they didn't try that hard either.
Consuela's second cousin Richard had joined Ryan in cheerfully destroyed the laptop they'd left with him. The two men used the hard drive as a target, pulverizing it with rounds from three high-powered rifles. They buried the leftover bits of smashed metal at the bottom of an old mine and, using a few sticks of dynamite Richard had, caved the whole thing in on itself. They did that just for fun and because Richard wanted to get rid of the old explosive.
Ryan and Consuela were never quite able to feel guilty about having stolen the money. They'd done it more to get their revenge for wrongs committed upon them and they always believed they'd been completely justified. Just getting the pair fired when the TV show aired wouldn't have been enough. It was the prison sentences that were the important things and the bank fraud had been key in sending Sean and Carrie down that path.
That the two adulterers survived at all was a blessing, Ryan and Consuela decided...something the pair of cheaters should have been grateful for. The prison sentences were much easier to bear than what would have happened to adulterous couples a hundred years earlier in this same town. Ryan commented on a number of occasions that in an earlier day, he would have been expected to shoot both Sean Michaels and Carrie Gilchrist dead in the marital bed they'd profaned. The harsh retribution against the adulterers had been necessary for both Ryan and Consuela and now they could get on with their lives. All the accounts had been settled.
When the first baby arrived, Ryan and Consuela bought out one of the local ranchers and moved their family a few miles out of town. Ryan's little construction company leveled the existing buildings and built their first full structure, a rambling ranch style home designed by an architect Consuela hired and worked closely with until he had everything exactly the way she wanted it.
Once the children were old enough, the family began to spend some of their summer vacations camping in the most remote parts of the Llano Estacado where Ryan showed them the secret places his grandfather had shown him. Belinda came to love the high desert so much she studied archeology in college, specializing in old American Indian lore. She married another student in the same discipline a few years after they graduated and they spent much of their time in complete isolation up on the big plain.
Though he often got choked up when he saw how much his oldest daughter loved him, Belinda only made Ryan cry twice in her life. The first was when Belinda began introducing him to her kindergarten class as her daddy. That time, he managed to hold back well enough so only the closest of observers were able to detect the moistness in his eyes. On the second occasion, tears flowed down his cheeks when Belinda invited him into her hospital room to introduce the newborn child in her arms, a boy she said she was naming Ryan. End