“It’s nothing that can’t wait.” Mercy closed the door, slipped off her jacket, and sat on the bed with a silent sigh, facing the teen. “Did your dad tell you who I am?”

“Yes.” Kaylie’s gaze still tracked Mercy from head to toe. “After you guys left with your coffee on Monday, I asked him why he was being weird. I hounded him until he told me this afternoon.” Her brows narrowed as she stared. “I can see a resemblance. People always say I look like Aunt Pearl, but I think I look more like you. Dad said you were kicked out of the family, but he won’t tell me why.” She looked at Mercy expectantly.

“I think if your father didn’t share that story, then he has a good reason. I’m not ready to talk about it.”

Disappointment covered Kaylie’s face. “I thought you’d say that.”

“Why are you here, Kaylie?”

The girl looked down at her clenched hands. “I want to leave town when I graduate from high school.”

Mercy waited.

“My father doesn’t want me to.”

Mercy didn’t know what the girl expected from her, the estranged aunt. “What about your mother?”

“My dad has full custody. My mom remarried. She has another family now.”

The pang in the girl’s voice made Mercy’s heart break. “I’m sorry, Kaylie.”

The girl waved her hand, brushing all thoughts of her mother to the side. “I’m over it. But you left town after high school, right?”

Caution flooded Mercy. “That’s right.”

“You went to college and now you’re doing your own thing. I want that! Dad wants me to attend the community college in Bend.”

“That’s not a bad idea—”

“But I want to get away! I can’t live here. I want to see stuff and travel and meet new people!” Her eyes pleaded with Mercy.

She took a deep breath. “Kaylie, I’m not sure this is any of my business. Your family and I—”

“I know. I know. You haven’t spoken in forever. But could you help me figure out how to pay for a college that’s farther away? I want to do what you did . . . leave this crappy town behind and learn about different things. I don’t want to be a mom, grow a garden, store food, and raise a crop of kids. I want to do things.”

“I’m not sure you should be talking to me—”

“I don’t care if you’re shunned by the family.”

Mercy held up a hand. “That’s not what I meant. You should be talking to your counselor at school. It’s their job to help you find the best route to college. There’s financial aid and scholarships. Stay in state and you can probably afford it. How are your grades?”

“Mostly As.”

“That’s a good start. You’re a junior, right? Keep the grades up and start doing your scholarship research.”

“I’ve talked to my counselor about college. He always asks what my dad wants me to do.”

Mercy took a strong dislike to Kaylie’s counselor. “Then lie.”

Kaylie stared at Mercy for a long moment. “Why will no one talk about you? There are no pictures of you at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I’ve looked.”

Mercy couldn’t speak.

No photos. As if I don’t exist.

Kaylie looked down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I assumed you were over it.”

Mercy blinked a few times, wondering what the teen had seen in her expression. “It’s a long story. It’s complicated.”

Annoyance crossed Kaylie’s face as she met Mercy’s gaze. “You’re definitely related to Dad. That’s exactly what he said.” She studied Mercy intently. “Do you have kids? Are you married?”

“No and no.”

“How did you come to work for the FBI?” Kaylie tipped her head in concentration. A movement reminiscent of Rose when she was listening closely.

“I applied a few years after college,” Mercy said. “I’d studied criminal justice believing I wanted to be a crime scene investigator. Then the FBI caught my eye.”

Kaylie nodded, her brows still together. Mercy knew she was memorizing every word she said and felt the heavy weight of giving life advice to her niece. “Do something you love,” she told the teen.

The teen’s posture relaxed. “I love food,” she said in a dreamy voice, gazing into the distance. “I love to cook, but I especially love to bake. I make all the pastries at the coffee shop. I’d be happy doing that all day long.” She straightened. “But I don’t want to do it in Eagle’s Nest. I want to do it where it’s busy and the atmosphere is electric. I see the same people over and over here.”

“Obviously you don’t need a college education to follow that dream, but I’d recommend getting a degree first anyway. College would be your opportunity to expand your horizons and see more of the world. Then you can figure out where you want to pursue your passion.”

“But how did you do it? How did you pay for all that?”

Images from her college years flashed and faded, reminders of how meager her resources had been. “Money was tight, but that was nothing new to me. What was new was learning to hustle. I learned how to ask questions, dig for answers, and swallow my pride. I knew if wanted to make it on my own, I had to learn how to make things happen. No one was going to hand me anything . . . I had to go get it. Before I went to college I worked three different jobs, lived in an apartment with three other people, and ate a lot of ramen noodles. I haunted my financial aid advisor’s office and constantly searched for ways to get the most value for my dollar. It was definitely a new world for me. It wasn’t Eagle’s Nest.”

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