Determination crossed the faces of the men who’d come forward to handle Owen. Two men grabbed his arms, and another removed her brother’s gun, shoving it in the back of his jeans. “I’m not tearing this group apart,” Owen yelled, attempting to jerk his arms away. “You’re letting McDonald do it for you.” His guards held firm and looked to McDonald for their next orders.

“No! This isn’t right! He could do the same to any of us!” shouted a man Mercy recognized from her first visit to the ranch. “He’s written off Cade and now Owen because they dared to have a different opinion!”

“That’s not what we want in a leader,” argued a second voice. Several men nodded emphatically.

The mob turned on one another, slowly dividing into two groups as they argued. Mercy held her breath, eyeing the high number of weapons on hips.

This could turn ugly very fast.

And then it did.

A man tried to pull away one of Owen’s guards and got a fist in the jaw for his effort. Owen landed a blow on the mouth of his guard and the room erupted. Shoving, hitting, pulling, shouting. Mercy slowly stood and, with her wrists still bound, backed toward a door.

A hand grabbed her arm.

McDonald. His face was no longer red; it was gray, and sweat ran down both sides of his face. He looked ready to vomit.

“I’ll get you out,” he said in an unsteady voice, shocking her with his offer. “This way.” He headed for the same door, towing her behind him. Mercy stumbled, trying to reverse direction.

I’m not going anywhere with him.

He held tight to her arm. “Mercy! This way!”

“Forget it,” she grunted as she tried to jerk out of his grip. Her arm came loose and she planted her feet to regain her balance, planning to kick him in the groin.

An elbow from the brawl behind her nailed her in the back and she lurched forward. Back into McDonald’s grasp.

Noooo!

He grabbed her upper arms and shook them, making her look at him. “Listen to me!”

“Like hell!” She twisted, trying to wrench out of his tight hold.

He swayed and grabbed at his chest with one hand and then fell to a knee, panting for breath, nearly pulling her to the floor. He looked up at her, his eyes terrified and his face radiating pain. Mercy suddenly understood.

“He’s having a heart attack!” she yelled, scanning for anyone who would help. The melee was in full force, and her shout was swallowed up in the sounds of the fighting. McDonald yanked heavily on her arm as he fell completely to the floor, and she was forced to her knees beside him. “He needs CPR!”

Someone bent over beside her. The familiar man who’d just protested about Cade and Owen.

“Give him CPR!” she ordered. McDonald was gasping for breath, clawing at his chest with one hand, terror in his eyes. His hand had her upper arm in a death grip.

“I don’t know how!” The man fished in McDonald’s pocket and dug out the key to her cuffs, his hands shaking.

She bent close to McDonald, trying to give the helper easier access to her hands.

“You look like your mother,” McDonald croaked, as the other man fumbled with her cuffs.

Mercy froze and met the dying man’s eyes. “What?”

“I would never have let them do anything to you,” he said in a hoarse voice, his eyes red and earnest. “My heart broke at the path you chose, but I’d hoped you’d come around.”

Her arms fell to her sides as the cuffs came off. She pressed her fingers against the folds of flesh in McDonald’s neck, searching for his pulse. She found a rapid fluttering beat, but he fought to breathe.

His heart is still beating, so I don’t do compressions. He’s still breathing, so I don’t do rescue breaths.

Or do I?

Panic scrambled her brain.

“I wouldn’t have let them hurt you,” he repeated, holding her gaze. “Niece.”

Niece? She searched his face, but it was unfamiliar. “Who are you?” she whispered.

Disappointment filled his eyes. “I’d hoped you’d know me. Did they let my memory go so easily?”

Confusion racked her. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m your uncle Aaron.”

The sounds of the fights around her faded as a loud buzz clogged her ears. My mother’s younger brother? The Mount St. Helens eruption victim? The high school portrait of a smiling teenager shot through her brain.

He looked nothing like the old picture. But she saw her other uncles around his eyes.

“You’re dead,” she whispered.

He gave a weak smile. “Only on paper.”

Explosions and flashes of light filled the room, and Mercy covered her ears as she squeezed her eyes shut.

Flashbangs.

“THIS IS THE DESCHUTES COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE,” was announced on a bullhorn.

The cavalry made it.

THIRTY-TWO

Truman shoved his way through the throngs of deputies and McDonald followers. He’d been ordered to stay back as the SWAT team threw in flashbangs and then breached the mess hall. The abrupt attack, in conjunction with the confusion from the explosions, had brought the fighting inside to an immediate halt with no shots fired.

A success.

He spotted Mercy on her knees next to Tom McDonald’s prone form at the front of the hall. Two deputies administered aid as Mercy watched.

She wasn’t hurt.

Relief made his knees shake as he strode toward her, his gaze locked on the back of her dark head.

What would I have done if she hadn’t . . .

He refused to let his mind go there.

“Mercy.” He stopped beside her, and his heart double-skipped as she looked up at him. Relief and joy shone in her eyes. He helped her to her feet and pulled her to him, hiding his face in her hair.

“Dammit,” he muttered.

“I know,” she answered against his neck. “What happened?”

“The sheriff’s department got stopped by McDonald’s men at a roadblock on the property. A few men were injured, but none too badly. They backed off but had already sent a second group to enter the compound through the other road from the Brass property. When they showed up, I told them what was going on, and they immediately breached the hall.”

“Come on, Tom!” hollered one of the deputies as he started CPR on the big man.

Mercy jerked out of Truman’s arms and spun back to the frantic deputies.

“His breathing has stopped!”

“Get the oxygen mask!”

Truman grabbed her shoulders before she could kneel again at the man’s side. McDonald’s face was gray and his mouth slack. His eyes stared into space. “Let them work.”

Mercy stopped struggling. “He’s my uncle,” she whispered.

“What?” Truman froze. How can that be?

“He’s one of my mother’s brothers. Everyone thought he was dead . . . Well, I thought he was dead.” Her voice sharpened. “I wonder who knew he was still alive.”

Truman was stunned. “You recognized him?”

“No. I’ve never met him, but he knew who I was.” Her gaze was glued to the silent man on the floor. “He tried to get me out of here at the last second.”

Truman tried to grasp what she’d just said. McDonald tried to get her out?

After all his bluster?

“He would have killed you if he needed to. Family or not,” Truman stated slowly, not ready to accept any good intentions on McDonald’s part. “No one was going to stand in his way. Especially cops.”

She turned her head in Owen’s direction. Her brother sat in a line with a dozen of McDonald’s men, being questioned by deputies. Cade was receiving medical attention from a county deputy who’d covered his eye with gauze and requested an ambulance. Other than a few bloody noses and fat lips, McDonald’s men seemed to have survived the brawl with few injuries. Except for the two men Truman had tied up outside. They were currently being loaded into patrol vehicles by deputies. Neither could walk, and they had to be carried.

Truman spotted Eddie and Jeff Garrison among the interviewers, intently taking notes, and he gave a sigh of relief that they hadn’t been injured in the shoot-out at the roadblock. The evening could have had a much deadlier outcome. For both sides.

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