Will stared at the man in the foggy bathroom mirror. He knew he was procrastinating. He’d finished his shower fifteen minutes ago. But he was not ready to face her…yet.
The entrance wound in his shoulder was healing nicely. He tried turning around but could not see much of the nastier exit wound on the back. But Mercy had cleaned it and changed the bandages daily. Surely she would have said something if there was a problem. Besides, he felt fine.
Something that could not be said for his temporary partner that night. Mason was still in the hospital. The doctors had removed the bullet from his spine, but there was still no sign of feeling or mobility returning to his legs.
That could have been him. Hell, it probably should have been. The whole damned thing had been his shit show. He was the one who had destroyed the only career he ever had or wanted. Put the woman he loved into danger. Kidnapped an innocent girl. And cost a man the ability to walk.
Not to mention all the other lives lost. Anna Garcia. Consuela. Rafael Dominguez. All those men in both the cartels. And, of course, Roberto Garcia. With the possible exception of Diego Garcia’s wife, he had little sympathy for the others. Even Bobby as his cousin and Mercy called the man.
They might have some conflicted feelings about him. Might see him as some poor tragic figure who never stood a chance. But he did not have such illusions. The man was a killer and a pedophile. No different than his brother. Perhaps better looking, definitely more educated, but there was no excuse for the things he had done.
But Will knew that attitude was creating problems with the women he loved. Sure, Mercy knew the things that her ‘baby brother’ had done were wrong. But she kept coming back to the fact that in the end, he had kept his word, helping them to escape. And it had cost him his life. Bebe was even worse. She claimed to love the man who…
He leaned against the bathroom countertop. He could feel the pull in the wound as he stretched his shoulder more than he perhaps should. But that twinge of pain was nothing compared to that in his mind and heart. Had it been worth it?
His cousin would not talk to him. Or to her parents. She refused to go back to Dallas. Of course, he could not blame her. Knowing what he did about the investigation into her disappearance, he was sort of glad about that. His Aunt and her husband would never win any prize for their parenting skills, either. But what was to become of that honor roll student with dreams of Harvard and the White House?
Hell, what was to become of him? His career was over. He would never work in law enforcement again. He was probably lucky that he did not face prison time alongside Garcia. That was probably due as much to Tyler’s guilt about what had happened to his cousin as it was the fact that they had taken down two of the world’s largest cartels. The man had some warped sense of justice. Of course, he was a fine one to judge anyone’s moral code.
Chad Wilson had dropped by while they were still in the hospital. How the man had gotten into the isolation ward Will had no idea. But they had made their peace, sort of. The man had said that he understood, that he would have done the same. But not even Cassandra McBride’s forgiveness was enough for him to absolve his choices. All he could think about was how disappointed his grandparents would be in him.
It bothered him too that Tyler had begged Ryan Ranger to come back to the agency. The man had broken the rules also. He had become involved with a material witness. Hell, Laura Reynolds was a suspect back then. Was helping McBride get his wife and child to safety, away from dirty agents like Stephens and Saunders, really that much worse? Or was it the same old double standard that had run this country from the beginning? Will knew he should be grateful not to be behind bars. But there would always be the thread of doubt in his mind.
What was he to do now? He was not even thirty-five. And they had a baby on the way. He had no job. He had likely been evicted from his apartment in Houston while he was gone. What the hell were they going to do tomorrow? Where would they even go when this quarantine ended?
He should go out there and talk to Mercy about it. But it wasn’t like the part-time librarian of Sebida, Texas, who lived at home with her Mama at thirty-three, would have any answers. “Might as well get this over with, buddy,” he faced that man in the mirror.
When he opened the door, Will was not prepared for the squeal of delight or the way that his woman propelled herself at him, dragging them both to the bed. He was even less prepared for her words.
Mercy knew that Will had been struggling the past few days. He felt intense guilt for kidnapping Grace and what had happened to the other man. What happened with her sister’s man did not help either. She was more than a little glad that Ryan had turned down the promotion that they offered him. She was not certain if they could have withstood that kind of pressure on these new familial bonds.
But Will was intelligent, dedicated, and driven. Some door would open for him. She had no doubt. There was one worry, though, that she could alleviate.
She bent and kissed him. She had lost count of the number of times they had made love these past few days. It wasn’t like they had much to do, stuck in a hotel room. At least not until this morning when the agency dropped off that bag outside the door.
She got it. That one sack contained almost everything the two of them had in the world. Except for her tablet back home and some clothes. The notebooks that she had written in, a couple of old romance paperbacks she had managed to buy in the village, the keys to the Duchess that the agency had collected and delivered to the hotel. And that burner phone. That was it.
Hell, until she had turned on that burner phone and logged in to her accounts, she had been almost as concerned about their future as Will was. The two of them and a baby crammed into a trailer with Mama? She barely made enough as a librarian to cover her own expenses, let alone a baby. She relied on the tiny bit of money she made from her books to pay her cellphone bill.
She had logged in to make sure there would be enough to do that since she had not been promoting or marketing her books for these past weeks. What she saw shocked her. She was absolutely giddy.
She turned them and pushed Will back onto the bed, landing atop him and straddling his hips. Her lips taking his. The fire and passion in that kiss still took her breath away. She was so incredibly glad she had waited for that passion. For this man. After a long moment, their lips parted. Will’s dark eyes danced with mirth as his fingers caressed her face.
“Woe, sweetheart, what was that for?”
“I shot the sheriff.”
He chuckled, “Yeah, we’ve been down that road, Mercy. But you know Tyler still has not been able to locate Kerr or arrest him.”
“It’s okay. My aim will be better next time.”
He frowned and shook his head, “Let’s hope it does not come to that. The agency is tracking down all the man’s friends, hoping to find where he’s hiding out.”
“Maybe we can find him first?”
He shook his head and tried to dislodge her. “I don’t think so, darlin.’ I want you and her safe.” His hands rubbed tenderly over her flat jean-clad tummy.
She threw back her head and laughed, “But shooting that piece of shit was the best publicity my books ever got.”
“What?” Will frowned.
She picked up the phone, unlocked it, and brought up the web browser that tracked her book sales. “You’re looking at a best-selling author.”
Will stared at the phone for a long moment then handed it back to her. “Congratulations?”
“I had half a dozen emails from agents wanting to represent me. Of course, we won’t see any of the money for another couple of months. It’s another of their games with authors. But by my estimates, I’m guessing close to ten grand.”
“That’s all a best-selling author makes? Ten thousand a year?”
She leaned down and kissed the tip of his nose, “No, silly, per month. Of course, I’ll need to capitalize on this whole thing. I’ve never really wanted to go the whole agent and publisher route. I prefer the freedom of self-publishing. But maybe one of these agents will be willing to work with me anyway. TV or movie rights? Audiobooks? Foreign sales? I have no idea about any of that. But what I need most is a good publicist. Someone who can arrange the right interviews. There were dozens of requests for those too.”
She was rambling, but she had barely managed to contain herself, to keep from bursting into that bathroom the moment she had seen her sales. She had only skimmed her emails. This was the kind of success that most indie authors dreamed about. Yet almost no one ever achieved.
“Hell, if I had known that shooting that asshole was so lucrative, I would have done it sooner. Of course, the fact that I was cleared of all charges makes it easier. I know that you have loads of time for writing in prison, but I’d rather not lose my freedom just to have more writing time.”
“Oh, my god, the new books. I wrote two new books while we were in Mexico. But they’re in longhand.” She reached for the pack next to the bed, pulling out the notebooks and thumbing through them just to reassure herself. “I need to get these typed into my tablet as soon as possible. Hell, I can even afford to hire an editor and cover designer now. I always enjoyed doing those things myself, but maybe my time is better spent writing.”
“What about my job? Assuming they haven’t closed down the library permanently. I’ve been battling the town council on that one for years. But do I want to go back there? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that time writing more books?”
His fingers covered her lips, “Shhh, Mercy, you have time to think about all those things. Maybe your sister can help you with some of it. At least have Laura look over any contracts before you sign them.”
“Yes, of course, why didn’t I think of that? And I want to pay her back for my college and everything. She’s done so much for Mama and me all these years.”
He smiled as she continued to ramble, but she could see that smile did not reach his eyes. “What is it? What’s wrong, Will?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. I’m happy for you, sweetheart.”
“But? Is it the money? Does it bother you? You know this is the twenty-first century loads of women make more than their husbands?”
Her hand flew to her mouth. She had not meant to say that word. In all the weeks they had been together, and especially the past few days, locked in this crappy hotel room, they had not really discussed the future. Of course, with her pregnancy and Will’s honor, she had just assumed that they had one. But…
Will lifted his head and kissed her nose, “Was that a proposal, Mercy? I was going for something more romantic. Figured I’d wait until we stopped in Houston, until I went through my things and found my grandmother’s old ring. It isn’t fancy or expensive, but I liked the thought of you wearing it.” Tears clouded her vision as she leaned down and kissed him, sealing the deal.
It was several minutes this time before she freed her lips to ask the question at the back of her mind. “So, if you planned on asking me to marry you all along, what is it, then? Does the money really bother you that much, Will?”
Mercy tried to keep the pain out of her voice. She could not imagine that something so petty would come between them, not after all they had been through.
He shook his head, “It isn’t the money.” He paused for a long moment, and she tried to be patient, to trust that he would tell her the truth, share his soul with her as they had come to do so often during their brief but intense time together.
“Honest, the money does not bother me. It’s just that… I don’t know… What’s next for me, sweetheart? All my life, all I’ve wanted was to work in law enforcement. But that door is shut for me. Closed solid.”
“Decades. I’m relatively young, with more than half my life left. And I have no purpose. No idea what I want to do or be. Not anymore.”
She heard the pain behind those words. She felt them deep inside of her. This proud and dedicated man had lost so much. Much more than his career. His grandparents. His cousin. Perhaps even his faith in himself. It was a feeling she knew well. One she had seen her whole life. Her Mama. Even Laura when she came back to Sebida.
“You know Mama’s lost more jobs than I can count. Usually, when one of us got sick, and she had to call in or was late. A few times when the stores were robbed. Like they blamed her. As if a few dollars were worth more than Mama’s life. Do you know what she did every time?”
“No, darlin.’ But having met your Mama, I’m sure nothing kept that woman down.”
“You’re damned tooting. She’d buy pizza. That’s the only time we ever got pizza. Whether it was some awful frozen stuff or from a real restaurant. Us girls always knew what pizza meant. We’d eat, then Mama would tell us what happened.”
“Then she’d say, ‘Every time a door closes, a window opens somewhere.’ It’s a line from this musical she loved. Of course, that was a misquote cause Mama don’t believe in god. But you know what she does believe in? Herself. And us girls. I’m betting she believes in you, Ryan, and Bradley too. Mama would start singing a song from that movie then.”
“With each step, I’m more certain, everything will turn out fine. I have confidence the world can all be mine. They’ll have to agree I have confidence in me.”
“We’d all laugh. We knew things might get tough for a while. But we knew that Mama would come through. She always did. Those tough times taught us to have confidence in Mama and ourselves.” Her eyes met his as she caressed his cheek, “And I have confidence in you too, Will.”
“The money will buy us some time. But I know that you’ll figure it out. And I believe that whatever it is… You’ll love it just as much. And it’ll be just as fulfilling and rewarding as your career with the agency has been.”
She punched him in the shoulder, the good one, and laughed. “Besides, if I’m gonna spend all my time writing, who’s gonna take care of peanut?”
He laughed and rolled them so that he was on top, staring down into her eyes, and her heart skipped a beat at what she saw there. “Mister Mom? There could be worse things. But until peanut comes out, I suppose I’m stuck taking care of her Mama.”
“Did you have something in mind, handsome?” Mercy meant it. She believed in this man; she always would. Besides, she always preferred sneaking windows to dumb old doors anyway.