“Teresa went to school with you and Pearl?”
“And Gwen, who was two years behind us, but we didn’t know her that well. But seriously, Mercy. It was high school mean-girl stuff between Jennifer and Teresa. Jennifer grew out of it, but Teresa never did. I was married, for gosh sakes, and Teresa acted like I wanted to steal her boyfriend. We were twenty-four, but Teresa seemed to have gotten stuck on age eighteen.” Pearl tapped the table. “I’ll say it again: that doesn’t mean she killed anyone.”
“I know,” agreed Mercy. Exhaustion swamped her. She was operating on little sleep, and her conversation with her sister had taken emotional turns she hadn’t expected.
Mercy ran out of questions, but she wasn’t ready to leave. Something inside her made her want to linger. She wanted to see pictures of Pearl’s children—all twelve years of school photos—and hear what activities her kids loved to do. She wanted to enjoy her cup of tea and simply gossip, the way they used to.
She didn’t deserve it.
Mercy stood and put away her notepad. “That’s all I have. I need to get back to work.”
Pearl stood but didn’t say anything. Mercy avoided her gaze.
They walked to the front door, and Mercy finally looked at her sister. “I’m staying at Sandy’s Bed & Breakfast if you remember something about Jennifer that might be helpful.”
“How long are you staying in town?”
“Shouldn’t be long. Just until we get some answers.” She fiddled with her bag, unable to hold eye contact for longer than a few seconds. She sensed an opportunity rapidly fading, never to be offered again.
Then she was caught up in Pearl’s arms again. “Don’t be a stranger, Mercy. You’re welcome here.” Scents of home and family overwhelmed her, and she leaned into her sister’s embrace.
Mercy struggled to see the road as she drove back to town.
Mercy parked in front of the Coffee Café.
Is this a bad idea?
Her conversation with Rose had made her certain she needed to talk to Levi. She needed to know that the man who’d attacked her and Rose was dead.
The image of the man’s bleeding body on her parents’ kitchen floor clogged her mind. She shuddered. The murder had always clung to her like a bad scent she couldn’t wash away. She knew no one else could smell it, but it always felt acutely evident. Some days it faded. She’d spend a few weeks without stress, and life would plod forward. She got up, she went to work, she came home.
But she still felt its stain.
Especially at work when her coworkers searched for a killer.
She was a killer.
Bile burned in the back of her throat. She climbed out of her vehicle, putting all thoughts of that night out of her head, and strode toward the cheery building. She hoped Levi was covering the shop and not Kaylie. If he wasn’t alone, she’d order a coffee and leave. She’d managed to talk to Rose and Pearl; she could handle Levi.
She entered, not surprised to find the coffee shop empty in the middle of the afternoon. Mornings were the time for refueling.
Levi stepped out of the back room at the sound of her footsteps and froze as he spotted her.
“Are we alone?” she asked before he could tell her to get lost.
“No.” Levi looked over his shoulder. “Hey, Owen?”
Mercy wanted to dash back out the door. She’d been mentally prepared for one brother, not two.
Owen appeared in the doorway, his eyebrows raised in question. “Yeah, Levi . . .” His voice trailed off as he focused on Mercy.
Her oldest brother looked like her old recollections of her dad. Lean, but ready to explode with power when provoked. She met his gaze, startled to see her own eyes in someone else’s face. Even though she’d lived with him for most of her childhood, today it felt brand new.
“Crap,” her oldest brother said. He looked from her to Levi. “You two look like you have something to talk about. I don’t want any part of it.” He ducked back through the doorway and then reappeared with his hat in his hand. He strode around the counter, his attention focused on the front door, his boot steps ringing with determination.
“Owen,” Mercy started.
“Don’t talk to me, Mercy. You nearly ripped this family apart. I hope you’re not back to finish the job.” He shoved his hat on his head without a glance in her direction. The door slammed behind him.
She wanted to melt into the floor. She looked at Levi, prepared to see condemnation. Instead there was sympathy.
She grasped the thin olive branch. “I don’t have a choice.”
“I mean don’t let his words and actions affect you.”
“Easier said than done,” she whispered. “Was what I did that bad? Seriously? After fifteen years, no one is ready to forgive me for making a personal choice?”
Levi didn’t answer. He picked up a cloth and started to wipe down the espresso machine, averting his eyes. “It’s water under the bridge. For me.”
“Then why wouldn’t you talk to me on Monday? You acted like you’d never met me.”
His hand halted midwipe and his gaze flew to hers. “I was following your lead. You didn’t say a word when I appeared. I didn’t know who you were with or what he knew about you. When you didn’t acknowledge me, I figured it was for a good reason.”
Mercy pressed a hand against her forehead. “Oh shit. I was following your lead. I assumed you didn’t want Kaylie to know who I was. Plus I was floored to find you in here. We only stopped because we wanted coffee.”
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