He wrapped his arm around her waist, and Stella rested her head on his shoulder. She couldn’t get enough contact with his body. It was as if her mind needed more reassurance that he was alive.
They turned into the hallway. Lance was sitting in a chair in a waiting area.
“Can you give me one minute?” she asked Mac.
“Sure.” He moved toward the elevator.
“Why are you here?” Stella asked Lance.
“I drove Morgan.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “I heard Horner got his hair wet.”
“He did.” Stella noticed her boss also made sure he’d appeared on camera in his body armor, but he’d still surprised her. That night was the first time she’d seen him not behind a desk, mirror, or microphone. “Did you really quit?”
“Look, Stella. I can’t control my temper. Physically, I’m not a hundred percent either. I’m a mess. I can’t take the risk of another cop getting hurt because of me.”
“Go back on disability. Get better.” She touched his forearm. “You don’t have to quit.”
“I really do.” He met her eyes. His gaze wandered to the doorway, where Morgan straightened Gianna’s blanket. “I need—I don’t know what I need, but this is the first step in a long time that has felt right.”
Stella glanced back at her sister. “All right, but don’t be a stranger.”
“I have no intention of doing that.” Lance kept his eyes on the doorway. “I promised your grandfather I’d install some security cameras at your house tomorrow. The tech guys came and took theirs back. Art said something about trespassers.”
“Did he?” Stella wondered if Grandpa was still determined to catch the errant dog owner or if he wanted Lance around the house for another reason. Like Morgan. Stella wouldn’t put it past Grandpa to play matchmaker. He’d do anything to alleviate Morgan’s sadness. Stella only hoped Lance didn’t get hurt in the process. He had enough of his own troubles. She needed to have a conversation with her grandfather, as if she had any control over him.
“So I’ll see you tomorrow, Stella.”
“Bye.” She returned to Mac.
They went back to his cabin, took a long hot shower, and fell into bed. The storm had broken the heat. Mac closed and locked all the windows and turned on a fan. He tugged her into his arms. “For a guy who once royally messed up his life, I’m feeling pretty lucky.”
Stella stroked his bare shoulder. “You should.”
He kissed her deeply.
“I’m the one who feels lucky.” Stella rolled him onto his back and spent the next hour showing him just how much she loved him.
The sun shone with staggering brightness over the cemetery.
Grant, Mac, and four members of the local honor guard carried the flag-draped casket to the grave. Dozens of army officers and servicemen lined up behind the grave. Some had served under Grant. A small, older contingent had served under or with the Colonel. Craig and the crew from the shooting range stood in the back, their mixed bag of dress uniforms starched, their medals shiny. The sea of uniforms extended beyond the graveside rows of folding chairs.
They set the coffin on the platform over the grave. The soldiers saluted. Mac stepped back.
In a tiny navy-blue suit, Carson sat next to Hannah, a crumpled rose clutched in his fist. Ellie and her daughter filled out the rest of the row. Brody hadn’t been released from the hospital. A few rows back, Stella sat with some of the SFPD that had come to pay their respects. Mac took the seat on Hannah’s other side with the rest of the civilians, while service members stood and saluted.
As the firing party lined up for the twenty-one gun salute, Carson scrambled over Hannah to sit in Mac’s lap. When the shots retorted over the quiet span of green, they both jumped three times. “Taps” sounded over the silence, the bugle poignant and stirring.
Mac’s eyes blurred as the soldiers folded the flag with precision. Each movement rehearsed and perfect and exactly what the Colonel would have expected.
What he’d deserved.
He’d given himself to his country, body and soul.
The leader presented the tri-folded flag to Hannah. Mac didn’t hear the chaplain’s speech or Grant’s short eulogy. Memories of his childhood flooded him, and he felt strangely calm.
The service ended and he stood. Carson tugged him over to the row of headstones. To the two that read LEE BARRETT and KATE BARRETT. Carson rested the flower on Kate’s grave, then turned and leaned against Mac’s legs.
Mac’s chest went tight and dry until he couldn’t swallow. Lee was missing so much. Carson losing his baby teeth. Faith learning to walk. He’d never see a first date or wedding or grandchild. Mac and Grant would fill in, but it wouldn’t be the same. On the other side of the Colonel’s open grave was Mac’s mom. At least they were all together.
Carson tugged on Mac’s pants. “Can we go now?”
“Whenever you’re ready.” Mac was more than ready to leave, but he hadn’t wanted to rush Carson.
The boy reached his arms toward Mac. He leaned over and picked him up. Carson’s arms tightened and Mac held him close. He’d do anything for the kids. Anything, even stand over Lee’s grave and relive all the pain of losing him as many times as Carson needed to visit.
Mac carried him back to the car. Hannah and Grant were waiting at the edge of the grass. Carson jumped from Mac’s arms and ran to Grant. Ellie joined them as they went to their car.
Hannah and Stella flanked Mac, each taking an arm.
“We made it.” Hannah wiped her eyes. “You all right?”
“I am.” Mac had finally made peace with his life. “Our lives were rough, but he prepared us. Got to give him that.”
Grant, Hannah, Mac, none of them would be alive without the skills their father had taught them.
Hannah snorted. “He did. If there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, we are so ready.”
One Week Later
Stella parked in front of Grant and Ellie’s farmhouse for a Fourth of July barbeque. The past week had her head spinning—in a good way. Sure, she’d had to type a thousand reports, but she’d been able to spend most of her free time with Mac.
In the passenger seat, he gestured toward the house with his splinted hand. “It might be nice to have a place like this someday.”
“Are you ready to emerge from the wild?”
He laughed. “Maybe you tamed me.”
“I seriously doubt you’ll ever be fully domesticated.” Stella reached for the door handle. “At least I hope not.” Remembering the night before, she glanced back at him, heat and humor filling her with happiness.
Flashing her a wicked grin, Mac opened his car door.
“But it is peaceful here.” Stepping out of the car, she breathed in the smell of freshly cut summer grass. The lawn surrounding the house was lush with green from the June rains. They’d just left her house, where Gianna was recuperating under the watchful eyes of Grandpa and Morgan.
“Uncle Mac! Uncle Mac!” Mac’s nephew raced around the side of the house and tore across the grass toward them. His large golden retriever loped at his side. The boy almost slammed into Mac’s legs. The dog slid to a stop and launched its body at Stella with a happy bark.
“Whoa, AnnaBelle.” Holding his splinted hand in the air, Mac caught the dog’s collar before she took Stella out at the knees. “Sit.”
Stella stroked the dog’s soft head. “Such a pretty girl.”
Wiry, tan, and covered in grass stains, Carson was a mini-Mac. Mud splattered the bare legs and feet that stuck out from under his black athletic shorts. A dinosaur, and something that might have been ketchup, decorated his T-shirt.
Carson squinted at her. “I know you. You work with Brody. You’ve been here before, and you were at my grandpa’s funeral.”
“I was,” Stella said.
“Look what I found!” He thrust his hand toward her. A small snake hissed in her face.
“Ah.” Stella started, falling backward and landing on her butt in the grass. She pressed a hand to her chest. Her heart protested the shock, and pain shot through her hip where she’d landed on a rock.
Mac extended a hand. She took it and he pulled her to her feet.
“Are you OK?” Concern—and humor—lit his eyes. He was pressing his lips together, as if trying not to laugh.
She rubbed her throbbing hip.
Carson’s smile dimmed, his gaze dropped to the ground, and he deflated. “I’m sorry, Uncle Mac. I didn’t know she was scared of snakes. Aunt Hannah isn’t.”
“It’s OK, buddy.” Mac squatted. “You didn’t know.”
“I’m fine,” Stella reassured him. “I’m not scared at all,” she lied. “Just surprised.”
“Let’s see that snake.” Mac reached out and took the creature. It was about two feet long, with a slender body decorated in orange and white stripes.
Instead of hissing at Mac, the snake wrapped its body around his tanned hand and forearm.
“What a beauty,” Mac said.
Carson stroked the snake’s head. “He likes you.”
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