This is it. They’re going to kill me.

His legs felt like pudding; his heartbeat was the loudest sound in the room.

“Do it in the woods,” McDonald ordered.

The men faltered. Out of his good eye, Cade saw a questioning glance on the face of one of his handlers.

McDonald saw it too.

“Get it over with and you’ll get the woman for your trouble.”

The smile on his handler’s face made Cade nearly vomit again. His legs gave way as the men yanked him toward the door, and a loud roar started in his ears. Beyond the noise in his head, he heard Mercy vehemently argue against his fate.

She’s powerless.

The man on his right kicked open the door, and together the two of them hauled Cade out into the freezing night.

He started to scream.

THIRTY-ONE

He’s still alive!

Truman silently jogged behind the two men, a sickening feeling in his stomach as they pulled Cade toward the woods. There were no other buildings in their path. Wherever they were taking the young man, it wasn’t to make him comfortable. Cade shouted and fought, but the men handled him with ease, ignoring his cries. Truman crept closer, trying to see if either man was armed.

“When he said the woman, he meant the FBI agent,” said the man on Cade’s right.

“But he didn’t say specifically that woman,” argued the other. “For all we know he was talking about that bitch Shelly. I’m telling you, when McDonald isn’t specific, it’s for a reason.”

“Well, I don’t want anything to do with Shelly. Nearly every guy in this place has been between her legs.”

“She’s not so bad.”

“I want a chance at that fed woman. She’s hot, just like her blind sister. Too bad that blind bitch done got herself pregnant. But we made sure she paid for that.”

“She had it coming,” added the second man.

These two threw the rocks and mud at Rose? Fury fueled Truman.

“Please don’t kill me.” Cade’s plea ripped at his heart. His shouting had been replaced with begging for his life.

“Sorry, kid. Boss’s orders.”

Fuck!

Both men had Cade’s upper arms firmly in both hands. Cade thrashed with every step, fighting them as they drew deeper into the woods. I’ve got to stop them. Truman glanced around, looking for any witnesses.

It’s now or never.

He took four running steps, sucked in a loud breath, and kicked the man on Cade’s right in the side of the knee with his metal-toed boot, putting all his weight and momentum behind the kick.

The man made a sound like a strangled dog and let go of Cade as he collapsed in agony. Truman whirled on the second man and delivered a blow to his nose, appreciating the crunch of the cartilage as it was crushed under his fist.

He spun back to the first man on the ground and shot a swift kick to his abdomen. The first man gave another suffering-dog noise and curled in on himself. Broken Nose was doubled over with his hands over his face, so Truman administered a brutal kick to that one’s knee, and then both men writhed in the dirt in pain. “That was for Rose.”

Cade had fallen to his knees and dived out of the way.

Panting hard, Truman quickly checked each swearing man for weapons. He removed two knives, thankful neither had a gun.

He knelt behind Cade and struggled to untie his hands. He considered cutting the rope but knew that in the dim light he’d only cut the young man. After a minute of fumbling, he loosened the knots. Leaving Cade to massage feeling back into his hands, Truman turned to the two men in pain.

“Sit back to back,” he ordered.

“Fuck off,” said the one who’d sounded like an injured dog.

Truman stepped on his hurt knee and the shrieks hurt his eardrums. “Shut up,” he ordered. “Or I’ll silence you myself.”

Broken Nose scooted over to press his back against the other man’s. Truman quickly bound their wrists together behind their backs with the rope from Cade’s hands. It wasn’t a foolproof job, but he figured the knee injuries would slow them down more than anything, and they were too far away for anyone to hear their shouts for help.

“Where’s the police?” Cade asked in a weak voice. He breathed hard through his mouth. The blood on his face looked black, and Truman realized he had one eye swollen shut.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Where’s the police?” Cade repeated.

“It’s just me,” said Truman.

Dear Lord. There’s no one else.

Mercy.

He turned away, stumbling a few steps, and dry heaved in the dark.

If Mercy breathed wrong, the entire room might explode.

Tempers were short and anger hung heavy in the air of the mess hall. Everywhere she looked, fury and impatience were written on the faces of McDonald’s followers. There was also an eagerness, a need to see something dreadful shining in their eyes, reminiscent of the look of rabid fans watching a car race, hoping to see a crash. The tension had escalated as Cade left the room, and now their focus had returned to her.

A situation near boiling. A millimeter away from a trigger pull.

She breathed slowly and evenly, her mind considering and rejecting plans to safely escape.

Owen held up his hands to the audience. “Quiet down!” A hush fell over the crowd, and the abrupt silence did little to calm Mercy’s nerves. Don’t let them see I’m scared.

She briefly met Owen’s gaze before he turned it on Tom McDonald. Something was different about her brother. When McDonald had called on him to defend Cade, there’d been a calm in his eyes she hadn’t seen before. A different attitude. And just now she swore she’d seen a need to stop McDonald in his gaze. Had he finally seen the light?

“Did you just order Cade’s murder?” he hissed at McDonald.

Anger flitted across the large man’s face. “You’re out of line, Kilpatrick.”

They stared at each other as the rapt audience watched, and Mercy worried for her brother’s life. Be careful!

Owen turned to the men. “Is this who you want for a leader? Someone who orders another man to be killed because he thinks he’s a threat? Did we ever hear any concrete evidence against Cade Pruitt?” Conviction rocked his words as he made eye contact with several McDonald men. “That was no trial! That was an injustice. Another murder ordered by a man with too much power.”

Restless murmurs sounded in the crowd.

Mercy saw eyes flicker and nervous feet shuffle.

“Stand down, Kilpatrick!” shouted a voice from the crowd. “We didn’t sign on to follow you. We’re with McDonald! The boy had it coming!”

Several voices chorused in agreement.

“Did Joshua Pence have it coming?” Owen asked.

Heads bobbed in agreement. “He didn’t follow orders,” said a man in the front row. “He could have brought the entire state’s police forces down on our heads.”

“Fucking pigs!” shouted a man from the back.

Mercy winced, feeling the room’s anger refocus on her. She kept her head up, watching Owen and judging the temper of the crowd. They were a hair’s breadth away from erupting.

“Did Jack Howell have it coming?” Owen asked. He pointed at one of the men. “You dealt with the Realtor in the past. Did he deserve to be shot in the head at McDonald’s whim?”

Mercy caught her breath. That’s what happened to the Realtor?

The room went silent, confusion crossing several faces.

McDonald gestured at Owen. “Get him out of here!” McDonald’s face was the dark red of new bricks, and sweat beaded his temples. His chest heaved with each breath. “You’re lying, Kilpatrick!”

A few men stepped forward to follow McDonald’s orders, but hesitated to grab her brother.

“He shot Jack Howell right in front of me,” Owen continued. “And then ordered me to take care of the body. I can see by your faces that you didn’t—”

“Shut up!” McDonald roared. “Howell got sloppy and was about to ruin all our plans.” He looked to the group. “Was I to let one man put asunder all that we’ve worked for?” His face darkened to a deeper shade. “Get Kilpatrick out of here before he does the same thing!”

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