“It’s a different world now,” he argued. “She needs a male protector in her home. We all need to be able to defend ourselves.”

“Then teach her how. Frankly, I don’t know what there is to teach her.” She looked at Rose, surprised she couldn’t see steam coming out of her sister’s ears. “You’ve done every self-defense class you could get your hands on, right?”

“Absolutely.”

“It didn’t keep her safe two months ago!” Owen snapped.

Silence filled the diner.

“See?” Owen lowered his voice. “You know I’m right. She’s vulnerable.”

“Did you forget it was your friend who attacked her?” Mercy hissed. “I wouldn’t trust any man you recommend. Your track record stinks. And you’re recommending a guy you just met? How do you know he’s not a wife-beating asshole? Your protective instinct is screwing with your judgment.” She glared. “Or maybe it’s not. Maybe that’s what you truly believe . . . that any man is better than none.”

“Can I say something?” Sarcasm filled Rose’s tone.

Both Owen and Mercy looked at her.

“You’re both overreacting and both trying to protect me in your own way. Get over it. I’m perfectly capable of speaking for myself. Owen, give it up. Don’t ever talk to me about men again. Mercy, settle down. I can fight my own battles.”

Mercy took a deep breath and pressed her lips together, determined not to speak. Rose was right. It was as if they were children again and Rose were taking her siblings to task for trying to ease her way. She’d always been capable of getting things done; she didn’t need Mercy to defend her.

But sweet Lord above, it’s damn hard to keep my mouth shut.

Mercy eyed Owen and saw he was fighting the same battle. Recognition flowed between their gazes. Rose didn’t need the two of them for anything.

“Sorry, Rose,” Owen mumbled. “I feel like I’m a teenager trying to protect my little sister again.”

“No more husband talk,” she ordered.

“Agreed,” Owen said gruffly, looking as if he’d just agreed to never eat red meat again. “But the baby—”

“Owen!”

He wisely said no more.

“I can’t wait to meet my new niece or nephew,” Mercy said. “You’re going to have more help than you know what to do with.”

Owen said his good-byes and strode out of the diner. Mercy slid into the booth across from Rose, enjoying the flush of color on Rose’s cheeks. She’s going to be an awesome mother. Fear still struck Mercy when she thought about Rose having the baby of her rapist. But the moments of fear were outnumbered by her moments of pride in her sister. She knew people would talk behind Rose’s back, but if Mercy got wind of it, they’d never utter a word again.

If they treated Rose’s innocent child any differently because of who its father had been, they would have Aunt Mercy to deal with. If anything was left after Mother Rose handled them.

“Owen is different,” Rose said. “He’s always been overprotective, but I’ve never heard him so angry before.”

“He was angry with you?”

“No, it’s not directed at me, but I hear it in the way he says his words. It’s like he needs to vent . . . get a million things off his chest. It’s been like that since Levi died. He hasn’t been the same.”

“I know.” But I don’t really know. I didn’t have time to get to know Owen again before Levi died. “I still carry a lot of guilt about that,” Mercy whispered, suddenly overwhelmed by images of her murdered brother.

“Don’t,” ordered Rose. “It had nothing to do with you.”

“I know,” Mercy repeated, lying for the second time. But it will always feel that way.

“Hello, ladies!” Ina Smythe, Barbara Johnson, and Sandy from the bed-and-breakfast greeted the sisters, and Mercy slid over in the huge booth to make room. A few seconds later Pearl showed up and took the last bit of room in the booth. Mercy was silent as she let the conversation flow around her. Rose had invited her to join the small group of women who met every few weeks to chat and gossip. It sounded self-serving, but they also discussed who in the town needed help. The hidden power of the town sat at the table, Mercy suddenly realized. These women knew everyone, knew about their situations, and were driven to help. Since Mercy had joined the group, they’d raised money for school supplies and clothes for a young family. They’d also supplied three weeks of dinners when Sarah Browne’s husband died.

Families were their priority.

“How’s that baby treating you?” Sandy asked with an envious look in her eyes. Mercy didn’t know why the tall redhead wasn’t married and didn’t have children. She had one of the most nurturing personalities Mercy had ever encountered. It was perfect for running her business.

“I’m feeling great,” said Rose with her usual sweet smile. “Lots of energy.”

This answer triggered mutters from Ina, Pearl, and Barbara. “I was exhausted from day one,” said Pearl. “With both kids. And it didn’t go away until they left for school.”

Ina and Barbara nodded emphatically.

Mercy glanced at the time, knowing she couldn’t spare more than just a few minutes with the group before heading back to her office.

“Celie Eckham says her son, Jason, needs a job,” Sandy said. “Anyone have any leads?” She looked around the table hopefully.

“I heard Tom McDonald is hiring,” Barbara said. “But it’s a bit of a drive out to his place.”

Mercy was instantly alert. “I’ve met Tom,” she said casually. “What’s he hiring people to do?”

Her old high school English teacher frowned. “I think he’s looking for construction workers. I overheard someone say he’s planning to house quite a few hands eventually.”

“Does he have some herds? What’s he raising?” Mercy asked.

Barbara raised a brow at Ina, who shook her head and scowled. “I don’t know and I don’t like him,” said Ina. “Let’s not send anyone out his way. Young Jason can find a job somewhere else.” She looked at Mercy. “I don’t know what he’s got going on out there. He’s only been in town for a year or so. Him and the guys who moved out there with him.”

“Why don’t you like him?” Ina Smythe knew everyone, and Mercy trusted her judgment of character. That she didn’t like someone was a big black mark in Mercy’s book.

The older woman thought for a moment. “I was in line behind him at the grocery store. He berated the poor checkout clerk, who was doing nothing wrong. Rudeness is uncalled for. When I ran into him on the street, my Scout growled at him and tried to hide behind my legs. Scout likes everyone, and I trust that dog’s instinct.”

Mercy didn’t know what to say.

“You can’t go by a dog’s opinion,” Barbara countered. “I’m sure Tom McDonald’s money is as green as anyone else’s. Sometimes you have to do a job you hate to pay the bills. Celie says Jason barely gets off the couch and eats junk food while watching TV all day long. It’s wearing on her, not to mention expensive.”

“He needs a swift kick in the tush,” Ina stated. “Celie’s never been one to discipline her boys. Now look at them.”

“What brought McDonald to the area?” Mercy asked, wanting to know more about the man. She knew from research on McDonald that he’d bought the ranch a year ago and had spent most of his squeaky-clean, law-abiding life in northern Idaho. His record was disappointingly dull. As she’d studied his driver’s license picture on her computer, she’d thought he looked good for his seventy years of age, but some people are gifted with good genes. He’d also never married or had children; maybe that was the key to looking young. Most of the women at the table would probably agree.

The women exchanged more looks among them. No one seemed to know the answer to Mercy’s question.

“I heard he had a falling out with a neighbor in Idaho,” Pearl finally said in a quiet voice.

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