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What he needed was to be truly challenged. But who would give him what he needed? It would have to be someone who was both physically and emotionally strong. Someone intelligent.

Wait.

He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before.

He’d been selecting victims when he should have been seeking heroes.

Detective Dane was in for a big surprise.

Chapter Thirty-Five

Mac sat in the waiting room, his hand linked with Hannah’s. Grant sat on her other side, his arm wrapped around her shoulders. Mac’s eyes kept straying to the open doorway of the surgical waiting room. Stella had called to say that she was all right, but until he saw her, touched her, he couldn’t believe it. He needed to put his hands on her body and feel her alive and warm.

A green-scrubbed surgeon stepped into the doorway, his mask pulled down around his neck. Sweat beaded his brow below his green surgical cap. He scanned the room. “Who’s here for Detective McNamara?”

Hannah stood. Her hand trembled in Mac’s. He squeezed her fingers as the doctor approached.

“He’s going to be OK,” the doctor said. “He lost a lot of blood, but he got lucky. The bullet missed the brachial artery. He’s asking for Hannah. Is that you?”

“Yes.” Hannah’s voice was weak and shaky. This was the second time in his life that Mac had seen her truly terrified.

The doctor pulled the cap from his head. “I’ll have a nurse come for you as soon as he’s settled in recovery.”

Hannah dropped into the chair as if her legs gave out. Tears poured down her white face. Mac gently pushed her head toward her knees. “Breathe.”

“He’s OK, Hannah.” Grant rubbed her back.

She sat up and wiped the tears from her face with both hands. “I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. I’d be in the same shape if something ever happened to Ellie,” Grant said. “You too, Mac. I know you feel like you owe us—and the world—a debt of some sort, but we feel the same way about you. We abandoned you. Mom and Dad were both sick. You had no one, and we were both so caught up in getting the hell out of Scarlet Falls that we didn’t see that.”

“We didn’t want to see it,” Hannah added. “We failed you, and we’re sorry.”

“What?” Mac was incredulous. “I pretty sure I’m the one who failed.”

Hannah shook her head. “You were a kid. We went off on our merry way, all full of the conquer-the-world Barrett ambition.”

“I know I should have been worrying about you, instead of single-mindedly concentrating on my military career.” Grant shook his head. “Dad gave us a lot of good qualities. We’re determined. We don’t believe in failure.”

“We’re honest and honorable to a fault.” Hannah added. “We know how to work together as a team.”

“But he never taught us unconditional love.” Grant put a hand on Mac’s shoulder. “That’s what raising Carson and Faith has taught me. You love your family without judging them for their faults.”

And Mac realized that Grant was right. The only person Mac judged was himself. He would do anything for his Carson and Faith. Nothing they could ever do could diminish his love for them.

Footsteps in the hall approached. Stella appeared in the doorway. Rusty red-brown stains streaked her white blouse and black slacks. Dried blood spotted her face and crusted in her hair. Mac jumped to his feet, fear sprinting through him.

He crossed the room in two steps. His eyes traveled over her body, looking for injury. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head. Her face was too white and her eyes too dark. “I don’t think so. How’s Brody?”

Think?

He steered her to a seat. “The doctor was just in. Brody’s going to be fine.”

“Thank God.” Relief seemed to weaken her. She rested her head against the back of the chair.

“How about letting the ER docs have a look at you?” Mac didn’t like the shiver that passed through her body or the stunned look in her eyes.

She shook her head. “I want a hot shower.”

Grant nudged him. “Why don’t you take Stella home? I’ll stay here with Hannah.”

“Are you sure?” Mac asked.

“Go.” Hannah nodded. An exhausted smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “She needs you.”

Did she? Mac turned back to Stella. She looked totally beaten. She definitely needed someone.

Her eyes opened and locked on his. “I’ll be all right if you need to be with your family.”

There was no way he was letting her drive home alone, covered in her partner’s blood. He didn’t want anyone else to comfort her. He wanted her to need him, for the bone-deep connection between them to go both ways.

He stood and tugged Stella to her feet. In the hallway, he turned her to face him. Cupping her face in both hands, he kissed her on the mouth. “You scared the hell out of me.”

“That makes two of us,” she said. “Did you think I wouldn’t hear about the incident in the alley near Gianna’s apartment?”

“It was nothing.”

“It was two armed men trying to kill you.” The no bullshit expression in her eyes demanded the truth.

“Freddie has put a bounty on me.” He kissed her again. “I’m going to deal with it.”

“How?”

“I’ve already called the local DEA office.” Wrapping an arm around her waist, he steered her toward the elevator. “All I have to do is stay alive until they raid the compound.”

“Is that all?”

The door opened and they stepped in.

Stella turned to face him. “You are not expendable.”

“OK.”

“I mean it, Mac.” She splayed a hand in the center of his chest. “I care about you. You have to promise me to use the same caution that you expect from me.”

She cared about him.

“All right. I promise.”

The tension left her body in one exhalation. “No more skulking around dark alleys alone?”

“No.”

The doors opened. She leaned on his shoulder as they walked arm in arm to the exit. Despite her clear exhaustion, her pallor, her distress, he absorbed strength from her embrace.

Outside, they walked to her vehicle. Mac took her keys and then drove out of the parking lot. “Do you want to go home?”

Stella held her hands out and looked down at her clothes as if just realizing she was covered in dried blood. “Not like this. I’ll scare the kids. Where’s your bike?”

“I came with Grant.” Mac drove to his cabin, where he took her into the bedroom. Piling clean towels next to the sink, he began undressing her with efficiency. No pausing to enjoy the show this time. He wanted to inspect every inch of her skin for wounds. Adrenaline was almost as good as lidocaine for numbing injuries.

She stared at the opposite wall, her eyes vacant as he peeled off her blouse. Red patches blooming on her skin would probably be bruises tomorrow. But no bullet holes. Unzipping her slacks, he slid them down her legs. A trickle of red ran from her ankle into her shoe. “You’re bleeding.”

“I didn’t feel that.” Her brow knitted.

Mac knelt to inspect her foot. An inch long splinter of wood was embedded in the soft skin just above her ankle. “This is going to hurt if I pull it out. Do you want me to run you back to the hospital?”

“No. Just do it.”

“You’d better sit down.” Guiding her to the edge of the tub, he reached under the sink for his first aid kit. The wound was shallow but it was going to bleed when he removed the chunk of wood. He guided her foot over the edge of the tub and put on the surgical gloves from the kit. “Are you sure?”

She nodded.

Mac gripped the edge of the splinter and tugged it free in one pull. Breath hissed from Stella’s lips and her face went as white as the porcelain sink. “Now it hurts.”

He’d rather have a hundred chunks of wood dug out of his own skin than ever see her in pain again. Blood rushed from the wound. Mac let it flow for a minute to flush any dirt from the wound.

“If the bleeding doesn’t stop, we might have to get it closed with a stitch.” He started the water in the tub. When it ran warm, he guided her foot under the stream and cleaned the injury with soap and water.

“Can I just get in the shower?”

“Of course.” Mac yanked the curtain across and switched the water to the overhead spray.

Stella unsnapped her bra, shimmied out of her panties, and with Mac’s help, stepped into the shower.

“Do you need help?”

“No.”

Mac peered around the edge of the curtain. She stood with her back to the spray, head tipped back, water sluicing over her long limbs. Pink ran from her body into the tub. She opened her eyes and caught his gaze, as if just noticing he was watching her. “What?”

“I was afraid you would fall down.”

“Me, too.” Stella reached for the shampoo. “But I’m all right.”

“You and Brody weren’t wearing your vests.”

“We were just going to interview an old man.” Stella rinsed her hair.

Mac handed her the soap. She scrubbed her entire body twice. She started lathering for a third round, and he took it away. “You’re not going to have any skin left.”

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