“I never quite measured up, did I? Maybe someday . . .” Mac’s next breath sliced his lungs like shards of glass. Ripping them to shreds from the inside out.
This was one of the reasons he avoided his hometown. It was easier to leave the trappings of his childhood behind than to relive them. Every time he returned to Scarlet Falls, he drowned in memories.
Mac turned toward the door. The quick movement sent a dizzying wave of agony through his injured side, but he plowed forward, using the white-hot pain as an anchor. Physical discomfort he could handle, which made him frighteningly like his father.
“Mac!” Grant came after him, grabbing hold of his shoulder.
“I’m OK. I just need some air.” Mac shrugged off his brother’s grip and bolted for the exit. Luckily, the door was only locked from the outside and it opened automatically to let him out. Rain drummed onto the pavement. The smell of death was embedded in his nostrils. Mac turned his face to the storm and breathed in its cleansing scent. His heart rate slowed, and his lungs relaxed. He looked back at the nursing home. Through the rain-streaked glass doors, he could see Grant waiting for him in the brightly lit lobby.
Like the Colonel, Grant was an imposing figure, and it wasn’t his size that intimidated Mac. Grant was as honorable as a man could be. Fifteen months ago, after their brother Lee had been murdered, Grant had left his military career to raise Lee’s two young children. Grant had also inherited their father’s determination, and it was damned hard to refuse him any request. Grant wanted to fold his wayward brother back into the family, but Mac wasn’t ready to make any commitments.
His chest constricted and panic clawed at his throat like a beast at a cage door. He couldn’t go back in there. Grant would never let him go if he did.
Lightning blazed across the sky as he strode across the wet pavement toward his Jeep. He was failing his family one more time. Running away from his responsibilities. He tossed his cell phone on the passenger seat, started the engine, and roared out of the lot. He’d call Grant tomorrow.
The downpour—and the tightness in Mac’s chest—eased as he put a few miles between him and the nursing home. He turned onto the narrow road that led toward his home in the woods. Thick forest lined the rural route and cast dark shadows over the shiny blacktop. Mac slowed his wipers as the rainstorm subsided. Approaching a curve, he eased off the gas. A dark shadow lying in the road sent Mac’s foot to the brake pedal. His headlights swept across a person. A woman.
Impossible. Shock jammed his foot to the floorboards, and he yanked the wheel hard to the right. There was nowhere for the vehicle to go but into the trees, but Mac didn’t care. He couldn’t run over her.
His tires skidded. The Jeep lurched though the sharp turn and slammed nose-first into a thicket of trees. The air bag punched Mac in the face and chest, knocking the air from his lungs. His vision went black.
With a vicious gasp, he lifted his head. Dust swirled in the damp air. The deflated air bag blanketed the steering wheel. Beyond the spider-webbed windshield, pine boughs covered the front end of the Jeep. He’d driven into a stand of evergreens.
Had he blacked out? For how long?
His face and chest ached, but the new pain was no competition for the roaring agony that burst through his side. Darkness encroached on his vision. No. He couldn’t pass out again. He needed to get the woman off the road before someone ran over her.
Closing his eyes, he breathed through it. He needed help. She needed help.
But she’d looked dead . . .
Dead like Cheryl.
He shook off the doubt that sprouted like an invasive species.
Mac turned on the dome light and scanned the inside of the vehicle. The phone had been on the passenger seat. Who knew where it was now? Both the passenger seat and the floor were empty. The phone’s battery was probably dead anyway. He hadn’t charged it since his layover in Manaus.
He reached for the door handle. The door stuck. He shoved at it. It gave suddenly, and he fell halfway out of the Jeep. Pain sent him to his knees for a minute. Then he took a breath and wobbled to his feet. Wiping the rain out of his eyes, he squinted into the darkness. Rain fell in a steady downpour. Thunder rumbled and a few flashes of lightning illuminated the trees like a strobe light before the woods returned to pitch black.
He leaned into the Jeep and fished in the center console for his Maglite. With a click of his thumb, he pointed the beam at the ground and stumbled toward the road. He swept the light back and forth. Rain sluiced across the slanted blacktop, puddling on the gravel and dirt shoulder of the road.
Where was she?
She’d been lying near the bend. Mac backtracked. Each step felt like a knife was slicing him in two. He reached the curve and shone his light on the road. No woman. Nothing.
What the hell?
He blinked hard, but his vision was clear. He could clearly see the raindrops bouncing off the empty street.
She was gone.
Stella had stayed at the Miller home longer than she’d planned. It was nearly nine-thirty before she’d left. Halfway to her home out on the Scarlet River, the rain increased to a torrent. Squinting through the windshield, she slowed the car to a crawl on the rural highway. A light in the trees just beyond the shoulder of the road caught her attention. It was the dome light of a car. Someone had run off the road and hit the trees. She didn’t see an occupant in the vehicle, but she needed to make sure no one was injured inside. She pulled over onto the shoulder, reported the vehicle’s location, and requested a backup unit.
There was no sense calling an ambulance if the driver had walked away.
Taking a flashlight from her glove compartment, she left her phone in the car to keep it dry. Hunching against the driving rain, she made her way to the other vehicle. By the time she jogged across thirty feet of muddy ground, her hair was plastered to her head and water ran into her eyes. She wiped at her face. The vehicle was an older model Jeep. Once bright yellow, the SUV was covered with scratches and dings that attested to many miles of four-wheeling.
And it looked familiar in a way that made her more uncomfortable than her soaked clothes.
The door was unlocked. She opened it. No driver, and the backseat was empty as well. The driver had probably walked away or called someone to be picked up.
Stella shined the light around the interior. Shiny drops of blood glistened on the gearshift, the driver’s seat, and the deflated air bag. More blood was smeared on the door handle. She rounded the Jeep and took note of the license number. Once back in her cruiser, she’d have the owner’s name and contact information in a few seconds.
But as Stella pointed her light at the wet ground, her discomfort grew. Something was wrong. Instinct—and raindrops—pricked the hairs on the back of her neck. She turned in a circle, slowly moving her beam across the ground. Her light fell on a boot sticking out of the tall weeds halfway between the road and the car.
She crossed the muddy ground and crouched beside him. Shock paralyzed her for a second. It was Mac Barrett. She knew that face even soaking wet and in the dark. Especially in the dark. She’d thought of him often during her middle-of-the-night bouts of insomnia.
He lay on his side in the mud. She placed her fingers on his neck. His pulse rapped against her fingertips, and relief swept through her. She straightened and turned back toward her car. Her phone was inside, and she kept an emergency blanket and first-aid kit in the trunk.
“Wait,” he croaked, his voice barely audible over the storm.
“I’m not leaving. I’m going to call for help,” she shouted.
“I’m OK,” he said.
“Let me call for an ambulance. Then you can tell me what happened.” She leaned over him and put a hand on his unshaven cheek. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
He grabbed her wrist. “No. I’m fine. There was a woman lying in the road. I swerved into the trees to avoid hitting her.”
Had someone been hit by a car? Stella turned her head and scanned the road. “I don’t see a woman.”
“She was there.” He struggled to sit up as the rain slowed to a drizzle.
Stella stopped him with a hand on his chest. “Slow it down. You were unconscious.”
“No.” He shook his head. “I just tripped.”
Bullshit rang in Stella’s head, but she held her tongue. She and Mac had met the previous November and numerous times since. In addition to being hotter than a solar flare, he was frustratingly closed off. An intense person, he elevated self-control to an art form.
“I need to find her.” Tonight, his eyes were wild, and his self-control looked tenuous.
“Easy. Stay put. I’ll go double check the road.” She raced back to the bend. Sweeping her light across the wet pavement, she saw nothing that indicated a person had lain there. She checked the weedy area on both sides of the road in case a wounded person had crawled off the pavement. But there was nothing.
“She was there.”
Stella turned. Mac stood behind her, scanning the ground, one hand pressed against his side. “At the bend.”
How had he sneaked up behind her without making any noise? She shined the flashlight on him. Its beam highlighted the sharp planes of his face. With his control back in place, he’d returned to his usual countenance: lean and lethal.
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