“Uh-huh.” Kaylie knew he was trying to convince himself. The whole situation made her uncomfortable, and she didn’t want to talk about the ranch anymore. “You’re supposed to be here for dinner at seven. Are you going to make it?”

“I swear I’ll be on time,” Cade told her. “I don’t want to miss it.”

“Does meeting my aunt here scare you? She’s very nice once you get to know her.”

“She doesn’t scare me. Sure, I’m a little intimidated, but I like that she’s insisting on this dinner. It shows me she cares about who you hang around with.”

“She’s the best.”

“I’ll see you in a couple of hours,” Cade promised. “I love you, Kaylie.”

She caught her breath. “I love you too.”

Cade ended the call, and Kaylie fell backward on her bed, arms outstretched and adrenaline pumping through every muscle. Glee made her brain spin in a heavenly, intoxicating manner.

He told me he loved me!

She couldn’t wait for dinner.

TWENTY-SEVEN

At 7:05 p.m., Kaylie texted Cade. WILL YOU BE LATE?

At 7:10 p.m., she tried to call him and got his voice mail. As Mercy watched, she left a message asking what time he thought he’d arrive at dinner.

At 7:30 p.m., she hid briefly in her room and shed a few tears. He didn’t mean to tell me he loved me, and now he’s staying away. Mercy knocked on her door and suggested they eat.

By 7:45 p.m., dinner was over. More than two-thirds of the pizza that Kaylie had made from scratch and baked on her new pizza stone still sat on the table. Mercy stood and started to wrap up the pizza. To her credit she didn’t ask why Cade had stood them up. She didn’t seem too concerned about his absence. In fact, her aunt appeared extremely distracted.

Kaylie wallowed in self-pity in her chair, tracing the pattern in the tablecloth as her aunt cleared the dishes, unable to bring herself to jump up and help.

We’re over. I pushed too hard.

She knew some guys were unable to break up with girls, so they simply went silent. Stopped texting, stopped calling, stopped showing up. End of relationship. Is this the first phase?

But why did he say he loved me?

She checked her phone again, and her finger hovered over the app to locate Cade’s phone. They’d exchanged passwords a month ago to be able to trace each other’s location. Cade had suggested it for emergencies, and she’d immediately agreed, flattered that he cared about her safety. Looking back now, she saw the creepiness factor. No doubt some guys used it to track their girlfriends, but it sent a notification to the missing phone if a search was activated. No one could secretly search with this app.

Would he think I’m a stalker if I check his location?

He could be hurt in a roadside ditch somewhere.

She tapped the screen and ran a search.

The app told her it couldn’t locate his phone.

She stared at the screen. What does that mean? Is he avoiding me? Did his battery die? A million thoughts raced through her head. Some good, but mostly bad. Most circled around him trying to dump her.

Who is he seeing?

Mercy turned on the kitchen faucet and rinsed out her wineglass. Kaylie watched, torn between wanting to beg her aunt for advice and wanting to hide under her covers for the next month. At least Cade didn’t attend her school, where she’d see him with some other girl, but her friends would ask how the relationship was going. What would she tell them?

Placing her wineglass in the dishwasher, Mercy glanced her way and did a double take. “Kaylie? Are you okay?”

She couldn’t speak. She bit her lips together as tears ran down her face.

“Oh, honey.” Mercy closed the dishwasher and sat in the chair next to Kaylie, taking her freezing hands in her warm ones. “I’m sure there’s a good reason he’s not here.”

“But he’s not answering my texts! And I checked the location of his phone.” She swallowed hard, humiliated she’d admitted her stalking behavior to her aunt.

“Where is he?” Mercy didn’t blink at her confession.

“It can’t find him. His phone must be off,” she whispered. “I think he turned it off on purpose.”

“Oh, honey.” Mercy leaned forward and pulled her into a hug.

Kaylie buried her face in her aunt’s long curls. “He told me he loved me a few hours ago. Why would he do that if he planned to break up with me?”

Her aunt stiffened in the middle of the hug. “He told you that? You’ve only been together a little while. Even I haven’t—” She abruptly cut off her words. “I’m so sorry, Kaylie. That’s horrible.”

Kaylie took a few deep breaths, getting her voice under control. “I believed him,” she said softly. “Part of me still believes him. Maybe he was in a car accident and he’s out of cellular range. Maybe the app can’t connect with his location.”

Mercy patted her on the back and didn’t say anything.

She knows I’m grasping at straws.

“He was driving out to the ranch before coming here for dinner. There are a lot of isolated roads out there.”

Mercy pulled back and met Kaylie’s gaze, her eyes sharp with questions. “Why did he go out there? You told me today was his day off.”

Kaylie wiped her nose with the back of her hand, unable to meet her aunt’s intense stare. “He’s nervous about something. He said he found a big stash of dynamite and then it disappeared. He also heard some of the men talking about your visit. He wouldn’t tell me what they said, but I think he’s scared they’re involved with those murders.”

“Shit.”

Kaylie blinked.

Her aunt pulled away and grabbed her phone off the kitchen counter. “You haven’t heard from him since he said he was headed out to the ranch, correct?” She tapped a few buttons on her screen, not looking at Kaylie.

Mercy’s tone unnerved her. Her aunt had suddenly shifted into FBI-agent mode. “That’s right.”

Holding her phone to her ear, Mercy met Kaylie’s gaze. “You need to tell me everything he’s told you about working out there. Everything. No matter how inconsequential it seems to you.”

Nearly an hour after Mercy called him, Truman took the final turn onto the long road that led to the McDonald ranch. He’d nearly missed it in the dark, but beside him in the vehicle, Mercy had been watching, her gaze glued to the side of the road. He’d called Deschutes County to request backup at the ranch and to request the county’s patrols keep an eye out for Cade’s pickup. The state police had also been notified and warned that the truck might have gone off the road between the ranch and Bend. The entire trip to the ranch, Mercy had studied the side of the road, watching for skid marks or signs that a truck had disrupted the brush.

The pitch dark made for difficult searching. Twice he’d pulled over because she’d seen something, only to discover no truck. Each time Truman had recalled the image of Pence’s abandoned truck. Would they find Cade’s truck in a similar situation? And what did that mean for Cade?

“I don’t think he would have stood her up. I think he’s in trouble,” Mercy repeated for the third time. Her gaze was laser sharp, searching for the truck, but he felt her distraction, her brain considering every situation they might encounter when they arrived at the ranch.

“Sounds like their relationship is serious,” Truman said.

“As serious as you can be at seventeen,” replied Mercy. “I think it’s mostly hormones and heartbreak at that age, but if he’s purposefully avoiding her, he’s going to get an earful from me.”

A sideways glance showed she was deadly serious. Her baby had been hurt, and Truman enjoyed seeing her mama bear instincts. Kaylie had exposed a whole new side of Mercy that he deeply appreciated. When Mercy had first come to town, she’d hid behind a professional unemotional wall, and immediately Truman had felt challenged to chip away at it. He’d succeeded, but her relationship with Kaylie had ripped away bricks only a daughter could reach, exposing a tender side of Mercy that made his heart warm.

“How far out is our backup?” she asked.

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