And took your own sweet time.

Mercy wondered what she had against the pregnant woman. Vera’s frequent criticism of Cindy felt personal. Not that she treated the other women any better.

“I’m stopping at the supply depot.” Mercy jogged past Vera toward the little building straight ahead. She’d seen gauze and antibiotic cream among the meager supplies. That would help if Cindy had second-degree burns, but if they were third degree, there wasn’t much Mercy could do.

She could picture the recommended treatment for third-degree burns in her first aid manual. Call 911.

Her knock brought Beckett instantly to the door. He looked past Mercy at Vera. “What?” he asked the older woman.

Vera pointed at Mercy. “Cindy has a bad burn. Give Jessica what she needs.”

Thank you.

Beckett promptly brought the beat-up medical box. Mercy snatched the gauze, medical tape, and tube of antibiotic ointment. She squinted at the date. Two years expired. It was better than nothing, she decided. Rooting around in the box, Mercy found nothing else of help.

I’ve got nothing for her pain.

She handed back the box. “Vera will fill out the log. I need to go.”

Beckett glowered. “Now wait a minute.”

Vera glanced at the supplies in Mercy’s hands and lifted one shoulder in acquiescence.

Mercy darted away, cursing both stubborn people under her breath. No empathy. If Cindy went into labor, how many people would Mercy have to beg to get her to a hospital?

At the mess hall she bounded up the few steps and burst in the door. The benches were empty, dinner not starting for another hour. She hit the swinging door to the kitchen and found Cindy sitting on a stool in front of the sink, running cold water over her hand. Two other women worked close by and looked up with expressions of relief.

Cindy’s face was pasty. Sweat dotted her temples, and her stomach seemed impossibly large to Mercy. As if it’d doubled in size overnight.

Please don’t go into labor.

There was no avoiding it; that baby would come at some point. Soon.

Mercy forced a smile onto her face and gently pulled Cindy’s hand out of the water. Giant blisters laced her palm, and her fingertips were white. Damn. “How are you feeling?”

“My palm is killing me,” she said through pale lips. “The fingers don’t really hurt.”

The nerve endings had been severely damaged. Third-degree burns were often less painful at first. At least the burns on her fingertips were small.

Mercy returned the hand to the stream of water and pulled up another stool for herself to keep an eye on Cindy. Without any pain reliever, the cold water was the best she could do. “How’s the baby?” she asked tentatively.

“Okay. Kicking lots.”

“Good. Any contractions?” Mercy held her breath for the answer.

“I’ve had a few single, light ones recently. I assume they’re those fake ones, you know?”

“Right.” Mercy hoped.

“You should pop the blisters,” one of the women suggested. “Get that nasty fluid out of there.”

Cindy went another shade paler.

“I don’t want to risk any infection,” Mercy told her. “They’ll deflate with time. How did this happen?”

The pregnant woman sighed. “I was stupid. I grabbed the pan in the oven without a mitt. I don’t know where my brain is these days.”

“Pregnancy brain,” Mercy commiserated. “My sister complained about it nonstop the last few months of her pregnancy.”

She froze, and panic pummeled her brain.

Jessica doesn’t have a sister.

Her gaze flew to Cindy’s, but the woman was focused on her hand under the faucet.

Cindy wouldn’t know that.

It wasn’t as if Jessica’s personal profile had been passed to every resident.

“How’s the injury?” Vera spoke behind Mercy.

But Vera might know. Mercy couldn’t breathe, wondering if the woman had overheard.

“Hurts,” answered Cindy. Her eyes were wet.

“Hmmmm.” Vera’s tone was accusatory. Her presence was like a ticking bomb behind Mercy’s back. “I guess you’ll be off duty for a few days.”

“This sort of injury will take more than a few days—” Mercy started.

“My left hand is fine,” Cindy cut in. “I’ll be slow, but I can still do stuff.”

Mercy bit her tongue.

“Of course you can,” answered Vera. “I’m sure you’ll feel better soon. Let’s see the hand.” Vera held her position behind Mercy but bent forward over her shoulder, her coat brushing Mercy’s back. She suppressed a shiver at the touch.

Vera disturbed her on many levels.

Cindy pulled the hand out of the water with a wince, showing Vera.

“We don’t have any ice, but you could try snow for the pain,” said Vera.

Mercy weighed the suggestion. Snow wasn’t clean, and she wouldn’t put it on the fresh wounds. But Cindy’s face had lit up at the suggestion, and her eyes pleaded with Mercy.

“We can put it in a plastic bag,” Mercy stated, kicking herself for not thinking of it earlier.

Taking Cindy’s arm, she gently dried the hand as Cindy winced. She spread the expired antibiotic cream over the blisters. I hope the cream hasn’t degraded into something harmful. She loosely wrapped the whole hand with gauze.

One of the women handed her a gallon sealable bag. The inside was lightly smeared; it’d been cleaned and recycled. Mercy didn’t mind as long as it didn’t leak. She tested it with water and was satisfied. “I’ll be right back.”

She stepped out the back door, instantly aware of the crisp, clean scent of the air compared to the heat and meat smells of the kitchen. Both were good, but she closed her eyes for a long moment and inhaled, hoping to slow her rapid pulse. She still didn’t know if Vera had heard her slip about her sister’s pregnancy.

What’s done is done.

She scouted for a pristine area of snow. People had been in and out of the kitchen, tracks leading in every direction. She spotted an undisturbed area at the far corner of the building. As she crouched to scoop handfuls into the bag, she heard a voice from around the corner.

“Pete moved up the timeline.”

Mercy went rigid, her bare right hand in the snow.

“Bloodthirsty, is he?” came a second male voice.

“This isn’t about blood,” the first voice lectured. “It’s about principles. What they’re doing is unconstitutional, but we’re down two drivers. Soon as they get back tomorrow, we’re in business.”

Get back to the kitchen.

She didn’t move. Details of Pete’s plan were more important.

More important than her safety.

“Hope Pete knows what he’s doing.” The second voice was worried.

Mercy couldn’t connect faces with the voices. She listened harder as she slowly scooped snow into the bag.

“You questioning his leadership?” The tone was hard, full of steel and condemnation, and the hair rose on Mercy’s neck.

“Fuck no,” corrected the second man. “I just want it to go as planned. Lots of things could go wrong. Speeding it up can mean mistakes.”

“Everything is packed. We’re heading out the morning after tomorrow.”

Is Chad one of the drivers they are waiting for?

Does he know their plan?

“By the next day, people across the country will be grateful for the risks we took. It’ll be covered by every network.”

It’s big. Are they using the stolen weapons? Explosives?

“Are you sure they’ll never know it was us?”

Mercy tentatively eliminated a plan with the stolen guns. Anything with gunfire probably wouldn’t end up anonymous. Explosives could be set and detonated after everyone left the area.

“Yep. Pete’s planned it perfectly.”

Boots crunched in the snow, their steps growing fainter, and Mercy blew out a breath of relief. Her knees wobbled in her crouch, and she sat hard in the snow, her pulse still racing.

The day after tomorrow was The Day.

But she didn’t know what or where or how. And she had no way of communicating with anyone. She had to get out of the compound to warn the ATF.

“What the hell is taking so long?” Vera snapped from the kitchen’s back door.

“Sorry, Vera.” Mercy rapidly filled the bag and jumped to her feet.

The woman’s nose and mouth were scrunched up in anger. “Doesn’t anyone hustle anymore?”

Mercy scurried past Vera.

Like you hustled to get help for Cindy?


Driving with one hand, Ollie took a long sip from his thermos, attempting to avoid burning his tongue on the hot coffee. He turned onto the country highway out of Eagle’s Nest that headed toward Bend and his community college. He sped up, appreciating the sight of the crisp white-topped mountains against the blue sky to the west. The range had received fresh snow recently, its gray summer silhouettes a thing of the past for the next eight to nine months.

Winter was definitely coming.

Which meant Truman and Mercy’s wedding was less than three months away. Ollie shifted in his seat. He’d spent a lot of brainpower to think up a wedding gift that symbolized how important they were to him. It was impossible. If only—

Suddenly distracted, he leaned forward to get a better look at the large birds circling in the sky to the right of the highway.