“You don’t have to do that,” he said.
“I need to keep busy.” She folded the last tiny sock and set the basket aside. The sight of her brightened the darkness inside him. He wanted to scoop her up and take them both to bed. Pathetically, he actually wanted to sleep with her. For some reason, he couldn’t get the thought out of his head that his nightmares would be easier to take with her at his side. He had no doubt making love to Ellie would be amazing, but his attraction to her ran deeper than sex. It was a completely foreign feeling for him.
“Coffee?” she asked.
“No, but thanks.”
Nan snored on the couch. Hannah came down the stairs and went directly for the coffee pot. She set the baby monitor on the counter.
“Where are the kids?” Grant asked.
“They both fell asleep.” Hannah dumped milk into her coffee and downed half the mug. “I feel like I’ve been run over by the minivan.” She’d taken the third baby-walking shift. “Didn’t Carson get any sleep last night? He looks beat.”
“He crawled in with me about midnight.” Grant hadn’t minded. The boy had interrupted a nasty nightmare.
“So you didn’t get to sleep all night?” Sympathy creased Ellie’s face.
“It’s all right,” Grant said. “I’ve gone without sleep before.”
“But it isn’t ideal,” Ellie said.
“Mac and I are running to the store,” Grant lied. “Need anything?”
Hannah squinted at him in suspicion.
“Milk and bread.” Ellie refilled her mug. “And coffee.”
“Milk, bread, coffee. Got it.” Grant headed for the door. Hannah was right on his tail.
“Where are you really going?” she whispered.
“Just taking a drive.”
“Not buying it.” Hannah crossed her arms. “You’re going after Donnie.”
Grant didn’t answer.
“I should go with you,” she said. “I’m a better shot than Mac.”
“You’re a better shot than me too, which is why I want you here to protect them.” Grant nodded toward the back of the house, where the family was gathered. “One of us has to be with them all the time.”
Her mouth twisted into a frown. “I don’t like it.”
“I know.” He kissed her on the cheek. “And that’s why I love you.”
Her brow creased. Their family wasn’t big on emotional pronouncements or public—or private—displays of affection, but maybe being so tight-assed was a mistake. He wished he’d told Lee at least once that he loved him. Now it was too late.
He put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “I trust you to take care of them.”
Her head bobbed in a tight nod.
“We’ll be back soon.” Grant grabbed his jacket from the closet.
His sister’s eyes softened with the affection she couldn’t vocalize. “You’d better be.”
“We will.” When this was all over, the Barretts were going to start spending time together whenever possible.
Mac jogged down the stairs into the foyer. “Ready.”
“Let’s do this.” Grant opened the door. He scanned the street before leading the way to his rented sedan. The neighborhood looked quiet.
Mac jerked a thumb toward his SUV. “Would you rather take my truck?”
“No. I don’t want anyone to recognize it or us unless it’s necessary.” Grant slid behind the wheel. “Besides, I paid for the damned rental insurance.”
“All right then.” Mac got into the passenger seat.
“Where are we going?”
“Let’s try the rail yard first. That’s where Freddie’s been hanging lately.” Mac checked the clip on his 9mm and returned the weapon to his shoulder holster.
They were both quiet while Grant drove across town. He stopped in front of a closed gate marked with Private Property, No Admittance, and other threatening signs. No one paid any attention. The abandoned rail yard had been hosting illegal activities for decades: underage keggers, teenage sex, drug deals, and more. They got out of the car.
Mac pulled a set of wire cutters out of his pocket. “In case I can’t find the entrance, we can make our own.”
Grant eyed the six-foot chain link barrier topped with three rows of twisted wire. “Make sure the fence isn’t hot.”
His brother rolled his eyes. “Like this is my first break-in.”
“I’m not going to respond to that.”
“The electricity on this fence hasn’t been live in years.” Mac led the way down the fence line. Behind a patch of scraggly bushes, he found a crudely snipped hole in the wire. He tossed the cutters at the fence. No flash or sizzle. The power was off. “See?”
They slipped through, the knee-high weeds brushing the legs of Grant’s jeans. Soggy spots squished underfoot, and mud sucked at their boots. They walked between the tracks, rows of cast-aside freight cars forming a tunnel. His skin itched. He could feel eyes on them. Grant crouched to look under the cars. Their blind flank spooked him. Ahead, a thin plume of smoke curled into the overcast sky. They moved past the serviceable cars into the realm of the abandoned. Weeds grew waist-high through the corroded, unused tracks.
“Wait a minute.” Grant climbed a ladder on the back of one of the cars. From the roof, he scanned the back of the rail yard. He didn’t see anyone, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched. He returned to the ground. “You sure we should just walk in like this? I’d feel better if we had Hannah and a sniper rifle covering us.”
“It’ll be OK.” Mac kept walking. “This is Freddie’s realm. He owes me. I guarantee someone’s been watching us since we went through the fence. If Freddie wanted to kill us, we’d already be dead.”
“That is not a comforting thought.” Adrenaline warmed Grant’s body, and nerves jittered up his spine. What if they were ambushed? What if this Freddie guy Mac claimed owed him one decided to cancel his debt with a bullet? Sweat soaked Grant’s back. He unzipped his jacket to let the heat out, and to give him better access to his weapon.
Mac stopped, slapping his arm. “You should have left the gun in the car.”
“No way.” Grant followed his brother over a set of tracks. “This isn’t the first time I’ve met with people of questionable loyalty. I’ll be fine.” Meetings with Afghan tribal leaders had been dicey. Allegiances were hard to predict and could shift as quickly as a dust storm. But Grant wasn’t feeling like his usual disciplined self.
“We will be significantly outnumbered. Drawing your weapon might get us both killed.”
Discarded cars lined up like vertebrae. A dog barked and a chain rattled. Two men leaned out of the rusted door of a black car. Next to the opening, smoke and flames swirled out of a barrel. One of the men wore motorcycle boots and a leather jacket. The other was decked out in cargo pants and a black zip-up. Their accommodations suited the homeless, but the men appeared fit and well-fed rather than indigent.
“Do you know them?” Grant asked quietly.
Mac shook his head. “No.”
The two men jumped down, their shoulders squared, backs straight, and postures aggressive.
Leather Man hung back and let his buddy take the lead. From under a black knit cap pulled low on his brow, the leader eyed Grant and Mac with suspicion. The men moved apart, covering Grant and Mac from both sides.
“You want something?” the leader asked, his tone suggesting they should say they were lost, then get the fuck out of there before they got hurt.
“Maybe,” Mac said. “Is Freddie around?”
Grant let Mac take point on the conversation. He stepped away from his brother to cut off the flanking maneuver and keep a collapsed freight car at his back. No one was sneaking up on them.
The leader leaned forward and tilted his head. “You know Freddie?”
“I do.” Mac kept his gaze on the leader. “Tell him Mac is here to see him.”
Interest glimmered. Grant scanned their surroundings. The hairs on his neck waved in a batshit frenzy. He could feel the weight of other eyes on him. They shouldn’t be out in the open while the enemy had cover. His hand twitched, but pulling his weapon was the wrong move. He had no idea how many armed men were watching. Damn it. He shouldn’t have let his brother talk him into this. They were in the middle of nowhere. Two shots and a shovel, and no one would ever find their bodies.
The leader turned and went back to the freight car. Two minutes later, he reemerged. The man following him was at least six foot six with a heavily muscled body that had to weigh three hundred pounds, none of them fat. A mix of blond and gray hair fell from a receding hairline to his shoulders. His bushy mustache and scraggly beard matched.
He strode toward Mac without hesitation. Mac’s eyes clouded with anxiety for the first time. Grant’s lungs locked down. He curled his hand into a fist to remind himself not to go for his weapon.
“Mac!” The giant enveloped him in a bear hug. With one hand still on Mac’s shoulder, Freddie’s gaze shifted to Grant and darkened. “Who the fuck is that?”
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