Her father’s gaze shifted to Truman, and Mercy managed to take a breath. “It’s done and over. Let them get on with their lives. We’ll keep watch over them. We don’t need outsiders sticking their noses in things. Seems to always end bad.”

Truman stood and glanced at Mercy. “We’ll be headed out then. Rose, I’ll start asking some questions around town.”

Mercy glanced at her mother and Rose. Both women were silent, her mother avoiding eye contact. She caught a movement of Rose’s hand below the table, out of sight of her father’s gaze. Rose shifted her fingers into a thumbs-up. Something she’d done as a child when any of them were in trouble with their father; her silent gesture of support, meant to show she’d comfort them later.

Their father had never caught on.

Rose has been attacked, but she reaches out to make me feel better.

Fierce love for her sister threatened to make Mercy cry. “Thank you, Rose.” She let her gaze linger on her father before she led Truman out of the house.

When will he forgive me?

Even though I did nothing.

She grabbed handfuls of her hair and pretended to pull it out.

“I hear you,” Truman said. “I really don’t know what goes through your dad’s head.”

“I suspect it sounds a lot like ‘Levi is dead because of Mercy.’”

Truman stopped her. “Don’t talk like that.” He moved in front of her, his countenance deadly serious.

“I don’t believe it,” Mercy pointed out. “I’m stating what I think is on repeat in his brain.”

“He’ll come around.” Truman pulled her to him, wrapping his arms tightly around her. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. It was hard enough hearing Rose’s story.”

“Enough about my dad.” Mercy pressed her nose against his shoulder, inhaling the icy scent of fall from his coat. “All I care about is protecting Rose. I can’t believe someone would attack her. This town has always loved Rose.”

“They still do. Like she said, I don’t think they’re from around here.”

“But how would they know those things about her?”

He didn’t answer. Neither of them knew.

“You should have seen the look on your face when I first got there,” Truman said. “You looked like a mother bear whose cub was in danger.”

“Rose does that to me.”

“Anyone in your family does it to you. I saw the same look with Levi and Kaylie.”

“Hurt my family and I’ll make you pay.”

He pulled back and smiled at her. “I like that about you. Your world is very black and white, isn’t it?”

Mercy thought. “About some things. My family is the same way. It’s the inability to see the shades of gray that keeps my father from accepting me. He’s always insisted that there is no middle ground in most issues.”

“Everyone needs to bend a little,” said Truman.

“I’d like to buy my dad a bumper sticker with that quote.” She quickly kissed him. “Thank you for taking Rose’s report. That meant a lot to me.”

He gave a sheepish grin. “I was the only person available.”

“Hmmmph. I’ll let you keep the kiss anyway.”

He grinned and she gave him another.

TWENTY-FIVE

Tom weighed his choices.

Al and Deke would do whatever he said. No questions asked. And he trusted them to keep their mouths shut. They’d already proved themselves several times, so they were scheduled to handle the second part of today’s task.

He eyed Owen Kilpatrick out of the corner of his eye. He wanted more from the man. He needed to know where Owen stood once and for all. No doubts.

Pounding sounded on the front door. Tom waved off Deke as he got up and opened the door himself. Jack Howell stood on the front stoop, looking annoyed that he’d been summoned to the ranch. His timing is perfect. Usually the real estate agent acted as everyone’s best friend, but the FBI’s hounding had taken his level of enthusiasm for Tom’s friendship down a notch. But he was here; Jack was still hungry for the sale.

“Let’s take a walk, Jack,” Tom suggested. “I need to get out of the house for a bit.” He glanced back at Owen. “Why don’t you come with us? I think this might interest you.”

Owen glanced at Al and Deke as he slowly stood, a questioning expression on his face. Tom’s usual companions sat motionless. Tom had already told them he’d use Owen as an escort for his conversation with Jack Howell. Neither man had questioned his decision.

He liked that.

They had a different assignment while he was out with Jack and Owen.

Tom, Owen, and Jack headed toward the east side of the property, following a path that led through a dense copse of pines. All three of them wore heavy coats to combat the chill in the air. Tom glanced at the sky and saw no sign of rain, just high, thin clouds against the pale blue. The men were silent as they walked, and Tom enjoyed the tension he’d created. He could feel their questioning glances on his back, but neither man asked where they were going.

Respect.

The path went up a gradual slope, and Tom’s lungs burned as he pushed himself. He wasn’t ignorant of the extra energy it took him to walk the path while the other two men seemed not to exert themselves at all. Both were younger, with lean builds. He’d tried for years to lose weight and had finally given up. He was what he was. He’d rather eat the food he enjoyed than spend years restricting himself. But there were times, like right now, when he despised the extra weight that made him sweat and strain.

“How far are we going?” Jack finally asked. “I need to get back to the office. It takes quite a while to drive out here, you know.”

Subtext: I’m spending a lot of time on you, and you haven’t put money in my pocket yet.

“You know the FBI might be waiting in the parking lot at your office to ask questions.” Tom glanced back at Jack and spotted a hitch in Owen’s stride at his words.

“I won’t say anything,” Jack said. “If that’s how you want to carry out this deal, I’m good with that. I don’t have to reveal your identity to anyone. You’ll be glad to know that Tilda Brass left me a voice mail about an hour ago,” he added in a more chipper voice. “She wants to know if I’m still interested in the property.”

“I told you she’d come around,” said Tom.

“So you definitely want to move forward with the offer we made? Or do you want me to lower it a bit? Now, since she came back to us, we have a bit of an upper hand.”

“I’m a man of my word,” answered Tom, puffing heavily. “I’ll honor the first offer.”

“When I leave, I’ll call to let her know.”

“You’re sure my name isn’t floating around on documentation in your office anywhere? And Tilda doesn’t know that I’m behind the offer, right?”

“Absolutely. I already told you this,” Jack said.

Anger shot through Tom at the exasperation in Jack’s tone. He didn’t tolerate his orders being questioned, and he didn’t like the signs that Jack’s respect for him had taken a hit.

Tom stopped to study their forested surroundings. Beside him Jack also stopped, annoyance still on his face.

I’m done tolerating that.

Tom took a long look at Owen. Time to find out exactly what Owen thinks.

Clearing his mind, Tom drew the pistol out of his deep pocket and shot Jack in the forehead.

The man’s body slumped to the ground. His eyes still open in surprise.

I’ll never get that image out of my brain.

“Holy shit, Tom! What the fuck?” Owen shouted as he jumped back from the body. He stumbled over his own feet and fell backward on his ass, his legs moving in crablike motions as he scrambled to put more distance between him and Jack. “What did you do?” Owen’s face went pale as he stared at the body and then at Tom. “What did you do?” he repeated, his eyes wide.

The sound of the shot continued to echo in Tom’s ears, and a wave of cool relief surged through him.

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