Chapter One


“So, you’re ten?” Porter “Oz” Reed asked his nephew, wracking his brain to try to come up with something to talk about with the little boy currently standing in his living room.

Logan nodded, but didn’t elaborate.

The kid had just been dropped off at his apartment by Texas Child Protective Services. Oz had discovered his sister was dead…and she’d apparently had a child. A kid he’d never known about. Oz was an uncle.

The problem was, he knew next to nothing about kids. How the hell could he be a parent to a ten-year-old? Inwardly, he was freaking out but trying not to let this kid see he was floundering. Logan had to be traumatized after abruptly losing his mother then getting dropped off at a stranger’s house and being told it was his new home.

Doing the math in his head, Oz realized that his sister had to have been pregnant the last time he’d talked to her, probably at their dad’s funeral, but she hadn’t mentioned it to him. It was crazy that he hadn’t even known about his nephew, but he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised.

After he’d learned Becky was spending the money he’d sent her on drugs—and was using while at their dad’s funeral—he’d kind of lost it. Yelled at her. Told her she was throwing her life away. That she needed to get her head out of her ass. It was no wonder she hadn’t told him she was pregnant.

And his nephew looked exactly like his sister, except for his eyes. They were gray like his own. Becky’s eyes had been hazel. But the little boy had his mother’s hair, brown and wavy—short to Becky’s long—and it was obvious he’d also inherited the Reed height. At six-five, Oz towered over most people. His sister hadn’t been a slouch at five-eleven. He didn’t know how tall a ten-year-old boy should be, but he had a feeling Logan was taller than most other kids his age.

“Are you hungry?” Oz asked, trying again to communicate with the boy.

Logan shook his head and refused to meet his gaze.

Mentally sighing, Oz tried to think of something else to say. At the best of times, he wasn’t exactly great with kids. It wasn’t that he didn’t like them, he just hadn’t been around them often. He’d never felt like much of a kid himself. With his childhood, Oz had grown up fast.

His eyes drifted down to the plastic bag in his nephew’s hand. He frowned. “What’s that?” he asked.

Logan’s eyes met his for a second before dropping to the floor again. “My stuff,” he said with a shrug.

“Your stuff?” Oz echoed, confused.

“Yeah. I don’t have a suitcase and this was all I had to hold my stuff.”

Oz stared at his nephew. Then it hit him—all Logan had in the world was in that bag. A damn garbage bag.

Anger welled up inside him. Anger at his sister. Anger at the people from Child Protective Services. Anger at the entire situation. He was the last person who was qualified to raise a kid. But he was all Logan had left in the world, he needed to get his shit together and figure this out.

“Right,” he said, doing his best to control the anger in his tone. He strode over and sat on the couch near Logan, not missing that the kid sidled away from him, putting plenty of room between them.

“When’s your birthday?”

“October twenty-second.”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Blue.”

“Do you like sports?”

“Yeah.”

“Favorite food?”

“Don’t have one.”

Oz sighed. “I know this is weird. And…I’m very sorry about your mom.”

“Why? You didn’t even know her. Didn’t even know I existed. Why would you care?”

As much as Oz didn’t like the kid’s attitude, he couldn’t blame him. And he had a point. “I care,” he said.

“Could’ve fooled me,” Logan muttered.

“The relationship between me and your mom was strained, I won’t lie. I hadn’t had any contact with her since before you were born. She was doing some stuff back then that wasn’t good. I’d just joined the Army and wasn’t living in Texas anymore. I wanted to help her, but she had to want to help herself.”

“Drugs,” Logan said sadly.

Oz hated that his nephew knew that. “Yeah. I guess she didn’t kick the habit,” Oz said regretfully.

“She was trying to stop,” Logan said.

Oz stared at his nephew, not sure he could believe him. It wasn’t that he thought the kid was lying, but adults hid a lot of shit from their kids, and if Becky wanted her son to think she was trying to quit, she probably could’ve hidden the worst of her habit from him.

“I know you don’t believe me, but she was. She went to a program and everything. We were doin’ good,” Logan said.

“What happened?” Oz asked, hating himself for asking. He should be asking Child Protective Services, not a ten-year-old kid. But the question had popped out.

“Someone broke into our apartment. Killed her. Stole anything they could sell. I was at school.”

“Shit! I mean…shoot, I’m sorry,” Oz said, making a mental note to try to curb his swearing.

Logan made a sound in the back of his throat.

Looking at his watch, Oz saw that it was after nine. It seemed odd that CPS would drop a kid off so late in the evening, but it was what it was.

Then something else occurred to him. He had a two-bedroom apartment, but the second bedroom was currently a catchall room for his shit. He had a set of weights in there and a ton of boxes. He definitely didn’t have a bed for a ten-year-old kid.

“I have no idea what your schedule’s been, when you go to bed and that kind of thing,” Oz said. “But it’s getting late and you’ve got to be tired.”

Logan didn’t respond.

“Since I didn’t know about you, I don’t have your room set up, so you can sleep in my room tonight and tomorrow we’ll see about setting up your bedroom.”

“I don’t want your bed,” Logan said, sounding fiercer than he had since Oz had known him…which admittedly was only about forty-five minutes.

“It’s a good thing,” Oz said, refusing to rise to the kid’s bait. “Because I’m not giving it to you. I’m a big guy and that California-king bed fits me perfectly.”

“I’m not sleeping in it with you!”

This time, Oz heard fear in his nephew’s tone.

He tamped down his dismay at what that fear meant. “And I wouldn’t ask you to. You’re not a baby, and you need your own bed, just like I do. I’ll sleep out here on the couch. You’ll be safe in my room.”

Logan frowned, and Oz saw his eyes go from the couch to Oz’s large frame and back to the couch. “You won’t fit,” he said finally.

Oz shrugged. “Trust me, this isn’t the worst place I’ve slept in. Not even close. I’ll be fine.”

“Is it comfortable?” Logan asked, not dropping it.

“Not particularly.”

“Is your bed comfortable?”

“Yup. Extremely.”

“I don’t understand,” Logan said in a tone that nearly broke Oz’s heart.

“What don’t you understand?” Oz asked gently.

“Why you’re giving me your comfortable bed when you’ll have to sleep out here on the uncomfortable, too-short sofa.”

“Because you’re in a new place and are probably overwhelmed. You’re missing your mom, and are probably very sad about what happened to her. Because I’m your uncle, and it’s my job to look after you now, and because I care about you. I know that might be hard to believe, considering we just met tonight, but you’re my flesh and blood. I regret not knowing about you until tonight, but now that I do, I guarantee that I’ll do whatever I can to make your life easier, not harder. And that starts with tonight, giving you a nice bed to sleep in and a space of your own until I can get your room set up.”

Logan’s head came up and he stared at Oz for a long moment. Then he asked, “Aren’t you afraid I’m gonna look through your stuff? Steal something?”

Oz shrugged. “If you want something in my room or bathroom, help yourself. There’s nothing in there that I’d be pissed about you taking. Although I have to say, you’ve got some growing to do before you’ll fit into my clothes or shoes. I don’t have any nudie magazines, and I’ll make sure I remove my pistol before you go to sleep.”

Logan’s eyes got big. “You have a gun?”

“I’m in the military, so yeah, I have a gun.”

“Have you ever killed anyone?”

Oz shifted uncomfortably. But he didn’t want to lie to his nephew. “Yes. But if it helps, they tried to kill me first.” He couldn’t tell what his nephew was thinking. For just a second, Oz thought he saw interest in Logan’s eyes, but then his expression blanked and he shrugged.

“How about we get you ready for bed. You have pajamas in your bag?” Oz asked.

Logan nodded.

“Okay. Come on. I’ll show you where everything is.”

Almost thirty uncomfortable minutes later, Oz was back in his living room, feeling more emotions than he’d felt in a very long time. He was worried, heartbroken, and pissed at his sister. He couldn’t believe Becky had a son and hadn’t tried to reach out. She’d been living in Austin for years, according to Logan, so close to Fort Hood. Oz wasn’t sure she’d even known where he was, but he still couldn’t shake the anger.

Logan hadn’t said much as Oz changed the sheets on his bed so the kid would have a clean place to sleep. He hadn’t unpacked his fucking garbage bag of clothes in front of him, and it was obvious he was waiting until Oz left to get settled.

He wanted to hug the kid, tell him that he was safe, but they were strangers. He didn’t think his nephew would find his embrace comforting. And asking if he was expected to sleep in the same bed as him? God…had someone abused him?

Oz had so many questions, and no answers.

He supposed they would come in time, but he needed his nephew to feel safe and loved now. Not a week, month, or year from now.

For the next hour, Oz paced the small living room, his mind whirling with everything he needed to do. He had to get ahold of his commander and let him know about his situation. His team needed to know as well. He knew without a doubt, Trigger, Brain, Lefty, Lucky, Doc, and Grover would do whatever they could to help him. Not to mention Gillian, Kinley, Aspen, and Devyn.

He also needed to get a family care plan set up with the Army; it was especially important since he was Delta Force.

An FCP would ensure a service member’s family was taken care of when a soldier was deployed. And since Oz deployed more frequently than the average soldier, and since he was now essentially a single parent, the plan needed to get filed as soon as possible.

The FCP was essentially written instructions and legal documents for when he was sent off on a mission. It would specify where Logan was to go and who would be his legal guardian while Oz was overseas. It also contained medical care information, contact information for everyone who would assist with Logan, important documents like life insurance papers, financial details, and guidance on the everyday activities of the child. Of course, Oz didn’t know anything about Logan’s preferences or life yet, but he would.

The thought of leaving Logan while they were getting settled wasn’t pleasant. For the first time in Oz’s life, something else was more important than the Army.

It was surprising that he felt that way so soon, but he hadn’t lied to the boy. He cared about him. He was his family. That meant something to Oz.

Oz knew Logan would come first from here on out.

He’d talk to his team and commander about what having Logan in his life meant as far as missions went. He wasn’t ready to quit the team, not by a long shot, but he needed to be a stable force in Logan’s life.

The pain in his nephew’s eyes was as clear as day. More than just from his mother dying. He hadn’t had an easy life, and that hurt Oz more than he could say. He wanted to give Logan everything, starting with stability and the knowledge that he was now safe. That he had a home with his uncle.

Oz sighed, his head spinning. He had a lot of shit to get done and he wasn’t sure where to start. Tomorrow, he’d need to see about getting Logan added to his Tricare account and make sure he was covered healthcare wise. Then he needed to see about getting him enrolled in school. He’d probably need a physical as well.

And that started Oz thinking about how Logan might be tall, but he was extremely slender. He began to worry that he hadn’t been eating well…which made him think about what he had in his own pantry.

“Shit,” Oz exclaimed, getting up to check. What did little boys even eat? What did Logan like to eat? He had no idea.

As he searched his nearly bare pantry, the thought of being responsible for his nephew’s well-being was suddenly overwhelming. What did he know about being a parent? Nothing! More than one girlfriend had accused him of being completely clueless when it came to other people.

He’d been called a selfish bastard when he hadn’t bothered to call a woman after getting home from a mission. He had a hard time remembering his girlfriends’ favorite foods, their favorite flowers, or even their birthdays. How the hell could he take care of a kid?

Knowing he was panicking, but unable to stop himself, Oz walked down the hallway and put his ear to his bedroom door. He heard nothing. It had been forty-five minutes since he’d left Logan inside, and he quietly turned the knob and peeked in.

His nephew was in the middle of his king-size bed, his legs and arms completely outstretched, as if he was trying to take up as much room as he possibly could. Weirdly, he had on a pair of pink pajamas with unicorns. They were too short, only hitting him about mid-calf, and his stomach was exposed where the shirt had ridden up. Oz assumed they were secondhand and maybe all his sister could afford.

But most importantly, Logan was fast asleep. Oz could hear his slight snores from where he stood in the doorway.

Making a decision he was sure he’d probably regret, Oz left the bedroom door open and headed for the front door of his home, which he also propped open, then made a beeline for his neighbor’s apartment. Riley, that was her name.

They’d never had a real conversation, just exchanged greetings here and there. But he wasn’t sure where else to turn at this hour. He could probably call Gillian or one of the other women who were dating his teammates, but he didn’t want to disturb them so late. Besides, he could hear the TV on in Riley’s apartment, so he was pretty sure she was still up.

And after what had happened earlier that evening, Oz hoped Riley would be willing to help. He’d overheard his neighbor kicking her verbally abusive boyfriend out of her apartment. Oz had stood in the hall to make sure the man left without getting physical, and at the time, Riley had seemed grateful.

He wouldn’t go inside her apartment, that wouldn’t be safe for her, but more importantly, he wanted to keep an eye on his apartment.

Knocking on her door, Oz held his breath. A good Delta operative knew when to ask for help—and he hoped Riley would be willing to lend him a neighborly hand.

​Porter “Oz” Reed knows as well as anyone the damage words can do. So while he’s not looking for a relationship, he has no problem standing outside his apartment looking intimidating as his sweet neighbor finally kicks her verbally abusive ex to the curb. Just in case. But it’s Oz who’s punched in the gut when, at that precise moment, his ten-year-old nephew Logan is dropped on his doorstep.

After finally ditching her ex, Riley Rogers is ready for a break from men. But her plan to stay single takes an immediate hit when Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome from next door comes knocking, panicked at the prospect of caring for a nephew he never even knew existed. Riley’s only too happy to help. After all, Porter had her back when she needed him. And she feels a kinship with Logan…whose story hits a little too close to Riley’s own.

As they team up to make Logan feel safe in his new environment, Riley and Oz quickly fall hard for the boy, and each other. But they’ve barely adapted to their altered lives when Logan shares a secret that changes everything—again.

New York Times Bestselling Author

Shielding Riley