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“No.” Mac sat up and reached for his shirt. “They have enough to deal with right now.”

Her eyes softened. “Again, I’m sorry for your loss. Isn’t your family going to be angry that you didn’t call them?”

“Maybe.” Definitely. “But I’m not ready to deal with them.” Mac almost wished for the pain in his side to return.

“I can’t keep this from Brody, and you know he’ll tell Hannah.”

Mac sighed. Relationships interfered with subterfuge. “He will.”

“They care about you.”

“I know.” The tightness returned to Mac’s chest. “This isn’t about them. I’m the one with the problem. Our family history is complicated.”

“Aren’t they all?”

Mac hated the sadness that clouded her eyes, but every family had its issues. “I’ll talk to them tomorrow. I’m just not up for it tonight.”

“Fair enough.”

He reached for his stained shirt. Stella’s gaze drifted down over his torso. Female appreciation lit her eyes, and a lick of heat warmed Mac’s belly. As much as he wasn’t ready for an interrogation session with his siblings, for the first time in his memory, he didn’t want to be alone. “Give me a ride home, and I’ll tell you everything.”

A wry smile turned up the corners of her mouth. “Deal.”

What would she think when he told her the truth?

Chapter Nine

Stella blinked and turned away as Mac tugged his shirt over his head. Staring at the man’s bare chest, no matter how fine, was beyond inappropriate.

It was, however, perfectly professional to be excited about the prospect of a real conversation with the mysterious Mac Barrett, one in which he did not spend every second evading her questions. She’d been exhausted when she’d left the Millers’ house, but the prospect of getting to know Mac better had energized her. A little caffeine would keep her going for a couple of hours, long enough to satisfy her curiosity. His family seemed to think he was scatterbrained, but Stella knew there was more to Mac than he allowed to show on the surface.

A nurse came in with discharge papers and a small prescription bottle. Mac ignored the bottle and shoved the folded papers in the back pocket of his cargo pants. As he headed for the door, Stella picked up the medicine.

“I won’t need those,” he said over his shoulder.

Stubborn man.

“But you’ll have them if you do.” She slipped the bottle into her pocket.

He was in front of her, so she felt rather than saw his amusement.

They left through the sliding doors. The rain had stopped, but humidity hung in the air. Crickets chirped as they crossed the parking lot and climbed into her cruiser.

Stella started the engine. “When did you get in from Brazil?”

“Left Manaus yesterday. Flew into New York today.”

In the course of two days, he’d been shot, traveled from one hemisphere to another, lost his father, and crashed his car. How was he still conscious? Exhaustion was fuzzing Stella’s brain. She checked the dashboard clock. Nearly midnight. With Missy’s case turning into a homicide investigation and Dena Miller’s strange disappearance, Stella’s day had been long before she’d run into Mac.

“Do you have coffee at your place?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I haven’t been home yet.” He eased the seat belt across his torso and clicked the latch. “Do you know were my Jeep was towed?”

“Probably to Thompson’s Garage. I’ll call in the morning.”

“Thanks. My phone and bags are still in it.”

At the edge of town, Stella pulled into a strip mall and went thru the drive-thru of a Dunkin’ Donuts. “Coffee?”

“Coffee would be great.”

Stella’s stomach rumbled, and she assumed Mac hadn’t eaten recently. “Food?”

“I’m OK.”

She added three sandwiches and a dozen donuts to the order. Even if he wasn’t hungry right this minute, she bet he would be soon. “Well, I’m starving.”

“Sounds like it.”

The cashier handed Stella the food, and she passed the bags and box to Mac. Back on the road, he directed her to the rural highway where he’d crashed. The only sign of his accident was a muddy path of bent weeds and a few broken pine trees.

She drove a mile farther and pointed to a turnoff on the right-hand side of the road. “I live down there, on the river.”

“We’re practically neighbors, though you live on the developed side of the road,” said Mac.

“I live with my grandfather. My sister and her three kids live there, too.”

“Sounds crowded.”

“I don’t mind. They’re family.” Stella took the coffee cup he handed her. “Morgan’s husband was killed in Iraq. She and the kids need us.”

“I’m sorry.” From a military family, Mac would understand.

“I wish I could help more, but I can’t grieve for them.” Sadness spread through Stella’s limbs, weighting them down.

“No, you can’t.” The news quieted Mac. He didn’t speak again until they’d driven another two miles. “Take the next left. Watch the mud. My lot is a little more rustic than yours.”

Stella had neighbors around the lake. Mac had no one close to him. She might be his closest neighbor.

She slowed the car. Her cruiser splashed and lurched down the rutted dirt lane. “Some road.”

“Keeps out the riffraff. I like it quiet.”

“You must.” Stella’s teeth snapped together as the car lurched through a lake-size puddle.

The narrow lane ended in a small clearing. Her headlights swept over a log cabin. Except for the beams of her headlights, the clearing was black as pitch. She could see the dark outline of a small outbuilding behind the cabin. “You really like your solitude.”

“I do.”

She fished her flashlight from her glove box, but Mac was already out of the car and striding into the darkness. Clicking on the flashlight, she followed him up onto a wooden porch. He dug keys out of the front pocket of his pants and opened the door.

The overhead light went on, illuminating a cozy but dusty combined kitchen and living area. The air was stuffy and hot. The scents of must and mildew tickled Stella’s nose. She sneezed.

“Sorry.” Setting the food on the kitchen table, he went to the kitchen window and wrestled it open. The wood groaned. “The place has been closed up for weeks.”

“No air-conditioning?”

“Nah.” He opened three windows in the living area. “I spend a lot of time in the jungle. I’m used to serious heat, and I like the sounds of the forest at night.”

Warm and humid air flooded the cabin, and the scent of pine freshened the room. Something moved in her peripheral vision. A gigantic brown spider skittered across the floor. Stella jumped sideways.

“There are always a few squatters when I get home from a trip.” Mac laughed. “Relax, he won’t hurt you. He’s probably terrified.”

“You could saddle that thing and ride it.” Stella didn’t take her eyes off the spider for fear that it would move out of sight, and then she wouldn’t know where it was. Somehow that would be worse than having it right in front of her. Goose bumps rose on her arms.

“Wolf spiders only bite if they feel threatened, and they eat a lot of other insects.” He picked up a magazine, scooped up the spider, and released it on the porch.

“They can balance the ecosystem outside.”

Mac contemplated the food. “Would you mind if I took a quick shower?”

Stella gestured toward the discharge papers he’d tossed onto the table. “You should read those. The doctor said you’re not supposed to get your stitches wet for forty-eight hours.”

He sighed. “I need a shower.”

“Do you have plastic wrap?”

“Probably.” He opened a kitchen drawer and seemed surprised to find some. He handed her the box.

“Take off your shirt.” She probably should have phrased that differently.

“Yes, ma’am.” Humor glinted in Mac’s clear blue eyes, but his movements were slow and careful as he eased the shirt over his head.

Stella refused to admire his impressive physique as she began to wind clear plastic around his ribs. Not one bit. Except maybe the hard ridges of his tanned twelve-pack. Eyes up.

“You’re pretty good at that.”

“My mother was an ER nurse, and my brother was a regular customer. He didn’t grasp the concepts of gravity or mortality until our dad died.” She walked around him, keeping the wrap snug and her gaze off his muscles. Mostly.

“When was that?”

“He’s been gone fifteen years.”

“Must have been hard.”

“Yes. I still miss him every day. Dad was a great guy. He was an NYPD detective. Killed in the line of duty.” Stella swallowed the grapefruit in her throat.

Mac tilted his head. “I bet he’d be proud of you.”

How did he know the exact question she’d asked herself every day since the shooting? Would her dad be disappointed that she’d missed the opportunity to stop a killer before he hurt more innocents?

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