He was pale, and wet tracks covered his cheeks. He killed his brother. For me.

Mercy’s lungs wouldn’t work. “Christian . . .”

Christian gave her a sickly smile as he tightened the wrap on her thigh. “I guess I had it in me after all.”

“That’s not funny.” The weight of what he had done made Mercy’s brain want to shut down.

“He would have killed you,” Christian stated.

Salome nodded in agreement. “And he wouldn’t have stopped with just you.”

“You got him too,” Mercy told her, remembering the knife handle in Gabriel’s chest.

The woman shrugged. She would kill to protect her daughter.

Mercy abruptly jerked straight up. “The girls!” She dug for her radio, her fingers uncoordinated. I’m freezing. Lack of blood to keep me warm. The realization didn’t bother her. I’m not important. The girls and Truman are important.

Truman took the radio, and she was relieved to hear Kaylie’s voice as Truman told her to come back in.

Mercy closed her eyes. My people are safe. She was dimly aware of Truman shaking her again, ordering her to open her eyes, but she was too tired. I’m just going to nap for a little bit.

“Damn you, Mercy! Open your eyes!”

She smiled, her lids too heavy to cooperate.

It feels good to have people who care.


One week later

One week out of surgery and Truman wanted to strangle Mercy. She was the worst patient ever. After two days she’d stopped her pain medication even though she still had pain in her leg. Now she wanted to drive up to her cabin. He had told Mercy he wouldn’t drive her, so she’d sworn she’d drive herself.

Driving was still out of the question, whether she was on painkillers or not.

After she scared the crap out of him by passing out that day, Truman and Christian had loaded her into the back of the Lexus, and Truman had stayed in back next to her, unwilling to leave her side. Kaylie and Morrigan had cried on the drive, terrified Mercy would die, and with extreme calm Salome did her best to comfort them.

Truman had kept his fingers at her neck during the entire slow drive out of the forest. As long as there was a pulse under his fingertips, he promised himself he wouldn’t panic.

But damn, it’d gotten slower and slower.

They’d driven about ten miles when they’d spotted the responding county sheriff and ambulance. On Truman’s suggestion Christian had blocked the two-lane highway as the vehicles came toward them, worried they’d not stop.

The EMTs had immediately taken over, placing an IV and pumping who the hell knows what into her veins.

It was over. And he didn’t want to repeat it.

But she’d been asking to return to her cabin for the last three days. He’d refused. She was still weak, and he didn’t need the sight of her destroyed hopes and dreams breaking her down more.

But she was strong enough to annoy the hell out of him. Even Kaylie had been short with her aunt, ordering her to rest.

Mercy wasn’t one to sit still.

He’d given in and driven her to the cabin. A weeklong warm spell had melted nearly all the snow in the lower elevations, but the rough road that led past the Sabins’ cabin and hers was still covered with packed snow. The drive had been silent.

Now he watched as she stared in awe at the mess.

Her cabin had collapsed in on itself. An entire loss.

Blackened beams jutted out of the debris. The only recognizable parts were the fireplace and woodstove. The fireplace had stubbornly stood in place, refusing to submit to the flames. A few pines had been singed, but the snow and distance had kept them from fully burning and starting a forest fire. The smoky stench still hung in the clearing. It wasn’t the good wood smoke smell that everyone loves; it was a harsh, burned-chemical-and-plastic smell with an undertone of wood.

Truman shoved his hands in his pockets as Mercy stood four feet away, her back to him. He wanted to see her face, but he knew she needed a private moment. “I can’t even see a solar panel,” he heard her softly say. She took a few steps closer, and he followed. She kicked at some burned wood and watched carefully where she placed her feet on the scarred piles. She stopped in the middle of the mess and crouched next to a pile of ash and burned boards. Picking up a small piece of wood, she started to dig.

He wanted to yank her away from the destruction, worried she’d insist on searching through the entire heap at that moment. But he stayed in place.

This is her way of mourning.

If she wanted to dig, he’d get a shovel and help her.

She dug out a plate, blew off the ash, and studied it before tossing it to the side. Truman knew the plate had been blue, but now it was scorched and unrecognizable. Mercy poked around some more, and he figured it was time to grab a shovel from the barn. Suddenly she stood and brushed the debris off something in her hand. She turned and showed him a six-inch scarred metal handle attached to a round scooped end. Her lips quirked. “I never got a chance to thank you for this.”

He studied the thing on her soot-covered palm, clueless.

She turned it over and made the motion of packing something in the round end.

It clicked. It’s from the espresso machine I bought. “I have no idea what they call that part,” he admitted. “But I’m glad you saw the machine before the fire. I’ll get you another one. When we rebuild.”

Her shoulders sagged, and she looked back at the mess. “It might be too big of a project.”

“Are you in a hurry? Because I don’t think we have anything we need to do for the next year or two.” He’d never seen her overwhelmed, and he didn’t like it. She faced every challenge head-on; she couldn’t be beaten by this one.

Could she?

This uncertain Mercy rattled him almost as much as bleeding and unconscious Mercy.

She’s broken on the inside too.

Her thigh would heal. It simply needed time and rest. But what would it take to heal this?

Truman felt as if he were flying a plane with no instructions.

All he could do was take one day at a time.

Mercy had asked Truman what she should say to a man who had killed his brother to protect her. “Just be his friend,” Truman had suggested. “He’s lost most of his family.” She’d nodded, a determined look on her face, and Truman knew she’d keep Christian close, consider him one of her growing family. That was fine with Truman. Christian had saved her life; Truman was forever indebted to him.

If Gabriel Lake hadn’t died, Truman would have hurt him very badly.

Gabriel had been punishing people for destroying his family, but his actions had hurt his own family even more. Christian had to bury his father and his brother, and Truman suspected his relationship with his mother was permanently broken. Christian had told Truman that he’d always known his mother was poison, and that Gabriel harbored a lot of anger, but he’d never dreamed it would come to murder. Her poison had amplified Gabriel’s shortcomings and created something very deadly.

Gabriel Lake had taken away Salome’s mother and Morrigan’s grandmother; their lives would never be the same. “I’ve had enough deep snow and forest for the rest of my life,” Salome had told Mercy and Truman. “I want a tiny yard and a picket fence. Morrigan will go to school like any other kid.”

“What about Antonio Ricci?” Mercy had asked. “I thought you were scared of being found.”

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