“You need to watch who you hang out with.” Truman finally broke the tension. “Cade seems like a decent-enough guy, but those others are trouble.”

“I know. I didn’t want to go to the pit. I didn’t realize what was going on until we arrived.”

“Then you need to speak up and say you want to leave. If Cade has any decency in him, he’ll not make you do something you don’t want to.”

“I know.”

“But you didn’t want to rock the boat.”

Her silence was his answer.

“How long have you been seeing him?” Truman asked in a gentler voice. For a girl who’d lost her father two months ago, she seemed mentally and emotionally healthy. But appearances could be deceiving. He’d told Mercy it was normal for teens to sneak out at night, but now that he’d caught her niece, he realized his view had changed a bit. Looking at it from a parent’s or guardian’s point of view was completely different: what if she’d gotten hurt?

He’d found her around alcohol and guns. Every cop’s and parent’s nightmare.

“A few weeks.”

“If you do . . . anything . . . with him, he could get in trouble. You’re under eighteen and he’s twenty.” His face grew warm in the dark.

Kaylie covered her face with her hands. “Oh my God.”

“It’s not something to take lightly.”

“We haven’t done anything!”

Relief flooded him. “Good. Then I don’t have to arrest him.”

“You wouldn’t!” She turned in her seat to face him. “What if I love him? That’s a stupid law.”

“Not my place to judge the laws,” Truman answered. “I just enforce and follow them.” He glanced over at her, and her eyes were wide and pleading. The sting he felt at the sight surprised him. “Stay on the right side of the law. No more sneaking out. You know there’s a curfew between midnight and four a.m. for juveniles, don’t you? I don’t want to catch you out again.”

She slumped back in her seat. “You hate me.”

Truman snorted. She sounded like his sister when she was in high school.

“I don’t hate you, Kaylie. Not at all. In fact, I like you quite a bit. Your aunt adores you, and I can see why. But by the good Lord above, I don’t want to be in your shoes when she finds out about this. You know she suspects you’ve been sneaking out, right?”

“She does?”

“Yep, she mentioned it to me yesterday.”

“I’m so dead.”

“Talk to her. Tell her how you feel. No one’s out to stop you from having fun, but she needs reassurance that you’re safe while you live under her roof. Hanging around with drunk idiots and guns isn’t safe.”

“Are you going to tell her that part?”

“You better believe it.”

NINE

Mercy steamed as she drove to Eagle’s Nest hours later.

Truman had called that morning before arriving at her apartment with Kaylie in tow, shocking her out of a dead sleep and gently breaking the news that he’d caught her wayward niece running wild in the middle of the night. When the two of them arrived, he’d given her a kiss, and Kaylie a thumbs-up, and then had nearly run down the stairs, leaving the girl in Mercy’s confused hands.

Chicken.

Her brain still spun with the story Truman had told.

Alcohol? Guns?

Mercy couldn’t get the image out of her head. And Kaylie was the only girl in a group with four guys?

She shuddered. Kaylie had claimed the guys were her friends, but it didn’t calm Mercy’s nerves.

“What if they’d decided to attack you?” she’d nearly shouted at the defensive teen. She’d amazed herself that she’d kept her voice even.

“They wouldn’t do that. I know them.”

“Well, I don’t know them. From now on I want to meet whoever you’re going out with. And I want to know when you’re going out. No more sneaking out at night. You can go out in the daylight like the rest of the human race.”

“I don’t want to go out at night anymore,” Kaylie had muttered. “I’m done with that.”

Mercy hoped she was telling the truth. Figuring out a punishment had been the hardest part. She could rescind the girl’s driving privileges, but then Kaylie wouldn’t have a way to get to school and work. She could take away her phone, but she needed it in case of emergencies, and Mercy liked being able to immediately reach her.

So that left extra projects.

Kaylie was now in charge of both bathrooms and the rest of the apartment for the next month. The teen had already proved she cleaned up after herself most of the time, so it didn’t feel like much of a punishment to Mercy, but she’d been at a loss about how to punish a kid who was usually very responsible.

Now she had to figure out a way deal with Kaylie’s relationship. According to Pearl, Mercy would make it worse if she forbade Kaylie to see him. “Keep him close,” Pearl suggested. “Invite him over and suggest they do things at the apartment when you’re there. Or take the two of them out to dinner.”

Mercy couldn’t imagine anything more uncomfortable. When she suggested it to Kaylie, the girl’s stunned look had said she felt the same.

Either way, there was a new understanding between Mercy and Kaylie: more communication.

Restless energy radiated through her. She hadn’t been to her cabin in over two weeks. Truman had assured her everything was in fine shape, but she liked having her weekends to get away and futz around in her own space. Kaylie had been to the cabin, and together they’d moved a lot of items from Levi’s house to the storage space in Mercy’s barn. Levi had laid in good supplies and had a wealth of equipment that thrilled Mercy. Everyone had agreed that his belongings should go to Kaylie, along with the proceeds from the sale of his home. Kaylie now had a nice college fund.

Kaylie had embraced Mercy’s cabin as if it were her own, and Mercy had started to think of it as belonging to the two of them. It’d been a rough mental transition at first. For several years she’d always pictured herself alone in the cabin if disaster struck, but now there was comfort in knowing her niece would be there. Kaylie was her family.

And there was Truman.

A smile turned up the corners of her lips. She liked having him around, but it was too soon to know if he would stick around permanently. Mercy wouldn’t allow her brain to travel down that path just yet. Caution and habit stopped her from relying on his presence. Maybe later. She needed more time.

She parked in front of the Coffee Café and went in, putting Kaylie and her punishment out of her thoughts. Rose smiled at her from a table as Mercy approached, her sweet face beaming.

“You knew it was me, didn’t you?” Mercy hugged her sister.

“I heard your steps outside. I know what you sound like.”

Mercy slid into a lime-green-painted chair. “Do my steps sound the same as when I was a teenager?”

Rose’s forehead wrinkled in thought as she wrapped her hands around her mug of coffee. “No. But after spending one evening with you, I learned your sound and it replaced the old file in my brain.”

“Old file?”

Her laugh was like sunshine. “That’s how I think of it. The sounds I hear open the correct file and tell me who’s coming.” She turned her face toward Kaylie as their niece came to their table, a white apron wrapped around her waist. She had dark smudges under her eyes, but Mercy didn’t feel the slightest bit sorry for her.

“Do you want your usual, Aunt Mercy?”

“Please. And one of your cacao oat bars too.”

“I’ll take one of those too,” said Rose.

“Yes, Aunt Rose,” Kaylie said as she walked away, and Rose immediately whispered to Mercy, “What’s wrong with Kaylie?”

Rose’s perceptiveness didn’t surprise Mercy. “She didn’t get much sleep last night. That’s what happens when you sneak out and are brought home by the police at two in the morning.”

Her face lit up. “Ohhh. Tell me!”

Mercy shared the story. Rose’s wide grins and questions helped her see a degree of humor in the situation. A very small degree.

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***