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“We shouldn’t indulge ourselves. Whatever happens between us can’t be long-term. I’m career military, Ellie. An infantry officer. Wherever the army is fighting, that’s where I’m sent. The base in Afghanistan was bombed a dozen times. Snipers and suicide bombers are a constant threat. Even though I see less actual combat now that I’m a major, there’s still no guarantee I’m coming home alive or in one piece.”

“There are never any guarantees in life. Look at what happened to Lee and Kate.”

“I know. But we both know that the fact that Lee is dead instead of me is backward.” He paused and looked away for a few seconds. “Until he was disabled, I saw very little of my dad. It wasn’t just the military. It was his ambition that kept him from us. I don’t want to leave anyone behind because I’m too focused on my career.” He leaned down and gave her a gentle kiss on the mouth. Lifting his head, his gaze locked with hers. “But I can’t resist.”

Neither could she. His honesty and desire to do the right thing touched her.

Ellie placed her hand in the center of his chest. Under her palm, his heart beat steadily beneath muscles as hard as iron. “My eyes are wide-open. I don’t have any expectations that our relationship is permanent.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“I know, and I appreciate that.”

He kissed her again, his lips lingering on her mouth for one wistful breath. “Good night, Ellie.”

“Good night.” She watched him walk away. But even though she knew he’d be leaving in a few weeks, it was going to hurt to say good-bye.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Ellie finished loading the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher and drank a third cup of coffee. Walking the baby half the night had fuzzed her brain. Not that she could have slept anyway. Last night’s conversation—and kissing—with Grant had boosted her adrenaline for hours. The near-giddy excitement his simple kiss stirred in her belly was more appropriate for a teenager. Actually, she couldn’t remember ever reacting to a man in this way. She could easily imagine sharing years of memories with him, and frankly, she felt a little cheated that those years weren’t a possibility.

Grant was in the office reviewing paperwork with Mac. Hannah was upstairs with the kids. Nan snored on the sofa. The pain pills made her tired.

Her cell phone vibrated in her pocket. She glanced at the display. The number was familiar. Not Hoodie Man. She answered the call. “Hello.”

“What are you up to?”

Now she recognized the number. “Frank?”

“Yes. What the fuck is going on, Ellie?” Why was Frank Menendez calling her cell from his?

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I know you copied my hard drive.” Frank’s voice dropped. “And I saw you searching desks.”

Damn it. Frank’s computer skills were more advanced than she’d thought.

“And now you’re taking a day off? You never take days off.” Anxiety reverberated through Frank’s voice.

“My grandmother needs me,” she said.

He paused. “Why aren’t you in work today?”

“You know what, Frank? That isn’t any of your business.” Ellie wondered why he was so upset over her personal day. He barely let her do any work for him.

“Did you know there was money missing from the firm?” he whispered.

“Yes.”

Frank was quiet for a few seconds, no doubt digesting the fact that she knew more than he did. “You’d better not screw with me, Ellie.”

The line went dead.

What. The. Hell?

Seated at the desk in the office, Grant pointed to the screen of Mac’s laptop. “Is that him?”

Mac pulled the old chair closer and leaned over Grant’s arm. “That’s what the caption says.”

An online search had yielded a mug shot of Donnie Ehrlich attached to a short news article from the day of his arrest a few years ago. Detective McNamara hadn’t left a copy of the photo, so they’d conducted their own search. Donnie had been arrested multiple times, though he’d only been convicted once as an adult.

“He’s only a couple of years younger than you. Do you recognize him?”

“No,” Mac said. “But those prison tats make me glad I got out of the gang before I ended up in jail.” He shook his hair off his face in a dramatic movement. “I’m way too pretty for prison.”

“Your stint on the dark side is nothing to joke about.” Grant flicked a paper clip at him. “Neither was rehab.”

Mac caught it. His expression turned somber. “I owe my transformation to Lee. He never gave up on me. I bet he’s the one who put Mom up to making her final request that I straighten my ass out.”

“He knew you’d do it for her,” Grant said quietly. How typical of Lee to keep trying until he found a way to turn Mac around. That dogged determination had made him a good lawyer. Had it also contributed to his death?

“Yeah. I was a real asshole at the time, but not enough of an asshole to deny Mom her dying wish.”

Grant studied his brother. Mac had been fifteen when Grant went into the army. Lee had been in school and dealing with Dad’s declining health. When Mom got sick too, Mac had rebelled. Lee had been split in too many different directions. A man could only be in so many places at once. Maybe if Grant had been around, he could have kept Mac out of trouble.

Grant would be carrying a convoy of regrets back to Afghanistan.

“Any idea where we might find Donnie?”

Mac scratched his chin. “I can ask around. I know a guy who might be able to help.” He pressed Print. The printer on the credenza chugged, squealed, and spat out a copy of the photo.

“You aren’t going to visit someone from your old gang?”

“It’s our best shot.” Mac frowned.

“Isn’t it dangerous?”

He shook his head. “Nah. I’ll be fine.”

“How do you still know this person is still in your old gang?” Grant couldn’t stop his voice from turning parental. “You haven’t seen him, have you?”

“I’ve run into him a couple of times over the years.” Indignation filled Mac’s tone. “You don’t think I’d go back to that life, do you?”

“I’d hope not.”

Mac laughed. “Grant, I camp with otters for a living. That’s quite a distance from working for a drug dealer.”

Grant winced. “I’m sorry. I should trust you.”

“We haven’t seen each other much in the years since you left.” Mac shrugged.

“I know, and I’m sorry about that, too.”

“You’ve been fighting a war. So I’ll give you a pass.” His brother snatched the picture from the printer output tray.

But guilt nagged Grant. He could’ve been around more. He didn’t have to take every assignment and move he’d been offered. He’d let his desire to advance in rank take precedence over his family’s needs. He’d left Lee to deal with their father’s dementia and Mac’s foray into crime, once a year swooping in for two weeks like some BFD. When in reality, Lee had been the big fucking deal, quietly getting unpleasant shit done on a daily basis. But it seemed Lee had also fallen prey to the Barrett family weakness: blind ambition.

Mac put a hand on his shoulder. “Really, Grant. It all turned out all right. If you hadn’t done the military thing, Dad would have pressured me or Lee into it. Let’s face it, neither one of us was army material. Lee was too sensitive, and I was too lazy. You did us a favor by living the old man’s dream so we didn’t have to.”

Mac had a point. Lee could never have shot a man in the face, not even to protect a fellow soldier. It wasn’t a fault, just a fact. Lee had believed in people’s inherent goodness. No man went to war and came back the same person. Grant would have nightmares for the rest of his life, but combat would have destroyed Lee.

Mac folded the picture in half. “Enough of this touchy-feely crap. I have to go. It’ll be easiest to find Freddie early in the day.”

“I’m going with you.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” Mac scanned Grant from head to toe. “You don’t blend it with that crowd. They’re an ugly bunch.”

“No worries. I’ve seen plenty of ugly.”

“Yeah. I guess you have.” Mac shrugged. “I know you’re used to giving the orders, but you’ll have to follow my lead this time out.”

“OK.” As if anyone in the family followed Grant’s orders anyway. He closed the Internet browser. His Beretta was as heavy on his hip as his current control issues weighed on his mind. Weapons and instability were a bad combination, but the cops hadn’t been able to find Donnie Ehrlich. Grant couldn’t go back to Afghanistan with his brother’s killer on the loose, still a threat to his family. Donnie needed to be stopped. Carson deserved to sleep without nightmares.

Mac tucked the folded picture into his pocket, then ran upstairs for his wallet. Grant ducked into the kitchen. The scent of fresh coffee teased his nostrils. Ellie sipped from a mug as she folded a load of baby laundry.

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