Her lips tightened.

“I think you just want everyone to be happy.”

“I do.”

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” he asked.

He might as well have poked her with a cattle prod.

“Probably going to my oldest’s house.”

“You don’t have plans yet?”

Pearl shifted her weight from foot to foot. “It’s a given. It’s what we’ve done the last couple of years. We haven’t really talked about it yet.”

Truman found that hard to believe. He remembered when his mother would plan Thanksgiving dinners. She had the menu delegated among family and the grocery list written down two weeks before the date. Pearl struck him as the same type of organizer.

“Perhaps you and your family can swing by my place for dessert. I’m cooking for Mercy and Kaylie, but we’d love to have everyone come by.”

She relaxed a fraction, as he’d expected. He knew dessert would feel less threatening than the entire meal.

“I’ll check with everyone and let you know.”

Truman held her gaze. “Please do. Kaylie will be baking, and I’m sure there will be ton of goodies.”

Pearl looked thoughtful. “In that case I may skip baking any desserts. Kaylie always outbakes all of us. Even my mother.”

Relief flowed through Truman. She’s considering it. He didn’t want to overwhelm Mercy with a crush of family, so Pearl’s family was a good choice. He’d heard about Mercy’s last conversation with Owen and knew better than to try to contact him. He didn’t know what to do about Mercy’s parents. Maybe a quick word with Rose would shine some light on the question. “Thank you, Pearl. It means a lot to me.”

Contemplative eyes regarded him. “You’re a different man, Truman Daly. In a good way. My Rick would never consider stirring any pot but his own.” She laughed. “That’s a good thing for me most of the time, but sometimes I wish he saw beyond his dinner plate.”

Truman wondered if Pearl dished up Rick’s plate for him. Twenty years ago he’d had dinner at an aunt’s home where she’d done that for her husband. His mother had rolled her eyes, but his father had liked it. It’d led to an interesting car ride conversation on the way back home. “What’s he think of your hours at the coffee shop?”

“Mmmph.” Her lips turned up the littlest bit at the corners.

“That good, huh?”

“He’ll get over it. With one kid out of the house and the other nearly independent, I needed this. It feels good that I’m adding financially to the household. I know Rick likes that part too . . . it’s just taking him a while to come around.”

“Good luck.”

“Thanks.” She turned again to leave but stopped and glanced back. “Take care, Truman,” she said awkwardly, dipping her chin as if slightly embarrassed.

He watched her leave, feeling good about their conversation. He’d do whatever it took to smooth Mercy’s transition back to Eagle’s Nest. He wanted her to stick around for the long term.

Mercy had received a call from Truman to tell her that Joshua Pence had been seen in town with Tom McDonald over the past few months, so she immediately found his address and recruited Eddie for the ride out to the McDonald ranch. Eddie had been supervising the evidence processing from all the fires, which he stated primarily involved a lot of emails and phone calls begging people to speed up their work.

Following her GPS, Mercy turned off a highway, and her Tahoe bounced through deep ruts on a dirt road.

“Are you sure this is right?” Eddie grabbed the “oh shit” handle above his door. “It looks like no one has driven here in a few months.”

“I suspect that’s exactly how he wants it to appear.” Sure enough, after a minute the rough road was replaced by a well-tended gravel road. “Maybe there’s a back way in that gets used more often.”

“Why does everyone out here spend so much effort trying to avoid people?” Eddie muttered.

Mercy grinned. “I don’t have an answer for you.”

“They’ve got too much time on their hands,” Eddie mused. “And I think they watch too much conspiracy TV.”

“Maybe.”

They drove between two buttes as they climbed in elevation. The vegetation around them was dry and scarce, giving the area a dull beige tone amid the rocky landscape, typical of the Deschutes County high desert. The road took a sharp turn and Mercy drove into a large level area of several dozen acres. A small old farmhouse sat far off to one side, looking as if it’d been lonely since the 1950s. Barbed-wire fences surrounded multiple pastures. Fresh lumber framed several outbuildings, and a dozen pickups indicated that humans were around somewhere.

Mercy parked next to the pickups and hopped out, studying the new construction. A few older buildings sat beyond the new ones, looking as old as the farmhouse. Mercy glanced at the farmhouse and then back at the buttes they’d driven past, feeling a sense of déjà vu.

She was positive she’d never driven out to the ranch before, but it had the same aura of another place she’d visited. She continued to scan the buildings, searching her memories for the connection and waiting to see who’d greet her and Eddie.

My uncles’ ranch.

That was it. Satisfaction curled through her. Her mother’s five brothers had owned a similar ranch in southeast Oregon. Three of the uncles had passed away over the years. Two had died from heart problems, and the youngest had been killed in the eruption of Mount St. Helens back in 1980. The two remaining uncles now lived somewhere in eastern Washington, and Mercy hadn’t given them a passing thought since she’d left home fifteen years ago.

She remembered long car trips from her childhood that had ended at her uncles’ ranch on the far side of the state. She and her siblings had been let loose to explore the property while the adults talked for hours. Thinking hard, she figured their last trip had occurred before she turned twelve. She wasn’t certain why the trips had stopped, but once two of the brothers had died, she knew the others agreed it was time to sell and go their separate ways.

Her memories were of a property dominated by men. With so many uncles and their numerous ranch hands, that was understandable. She couldn’t remember much interaction with her aunts outside of helping with cooking and chores. Her remaining uncles’ contact with her mother seemed to dissolve once they moved to Washington, and Mercy suddenly wondered if there’d been a falling out on that side of the family that she’d been blissfully unaware of.

A perk of being a child.

“This reminds me a lot of my uncles’ ranch,” she told Eddie. “I used to visit it when I was a kid. A great place for playing hide-and-seek with my siblings.”

“Was it this remote?”

“More so.”

The look on Eddie’s face said he wasn’t surprised.

Someone stepped out of the closest new construction building. The young man was wearing a tool belt and glanced around as if looking for someone more senior to take charge of the visitors. Mercy took pity on him and strode over, deciding to make the first move.

“Good morning,” she said. “I’m Special Agent Kilpatrick and this is Special Agent Peterson.”

The young man stared at her for a moment and then blanched as he ducked his chin. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to get her in trouble.” His words tumbled over one another.

“Excuse me?” Mercy was lost. He was a good-looking kid who had clearly misunderstood the reason for their visit. She saw Eddie stifle a grin out of the corner of her eye.

“Can you tell us what happened?” Eddie asked in a serious tone.

Mercy wanted to elbow him for harassing the man.

The young man straightened and turned to Mercy, meeting her gaze directly this time. “I really like Kaylie,” he said with a quiver in his voice, and nervously licked his lips. “I’m sorry I talked her into sneaking out at night. That was on me, not her.”

Comprehension dawned. “You’re Cade?” Mercy exclaimed, as she realized this was the young man she’d seen exchange a brief look with Kaylie at the memorial service. She didn’t know whether to give him a piece of her mind or admire his guts for standing up to her.

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