Strong

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Mercy heard the shuffling and whispers. Her heart beat faster. Had Diego tired of these games? Sent someone to… Well, death would be preferable. And with Will gone, she was on her own. Without so much as a gun or even her phone to get a message to him or her family. Not that they could help this far away and deep inside her brother’s territory.

As she became more alert, her fears abated. Some unexplainable sense of peace overcame her. It was still dark, but moonlight drifted through the windows. Mercy could not see much, only shadows. Two of them, one large – a man, and the other smaller, an older child, perhaps a teen? Was it Bebe? But why would she be here in the middle of the night, unless Diego had sent her?

Enough of this speculation. She was not going to wait for whatever these people had planned. “Who are you?” She clutched the blanket higher about her neck and brought her knees up to protect her abdomen, in case she had to fight.

“Shh, sweetheart, it’s me.”

Mercy sighed with relief and tossed the blanket aside as she launched herself at the larger shadow. Her curiosity about the smaller one was forgotten for the moment. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Her hands ran over his head, feeling the roughness of his hair against her skin.

Her mouth sought his, and for a moment, she forgot where they were, the dangers they faced, even the exciting news she had to share with him. All she knew was this man. The other half of her soul. Mercy lost herself in the flavor and smell of him.

But she could feel something else too. Exhaustion. Not merely physical tiredness. Will had been gone for more than twenty-four hours. Had he slept? Where had he been? Who was the other shadow?

It was more than that, though. Despair. Doubt. Fear. They all clung to him as tightly as she did. “What’s happened, Will?”

He pushed her aside and leaned down to turn on the bedside lamp. “Mercy, meet Callie. Callie McBride.”

She turned to see a young girl. The first thing she noticed was the pastel rainbow hair, but how could she not? The girl’s head was down, the hair fell about her face. It was all she could see. She shook her head, “I don’t understand. What’s McBride’s daughter doing here? I thought they were missing?”

Will turned to the girl, “Callie, this is my…”

Mercy was not sure whether to be hurt or laugh. How did you explain these things to a teenager? Girlfriend seemed so utterly inadequate for what they shared. “I’m Mercy. Mercy Reynolds, my sister used to work for your dad.” She smiled and held out her hand, despite the unusual situation in which they found themselves.

The girl looked up and took her hand. Mercy was met with the most remarkable green eyes and a sense that there was something much more profound behind them. “Hi,” the girl mumbled.

Mercy was not sure what to say. If McBride’s daughter was here, it could not be good. Had she been here all along? Oh, god, she did not want to think about…

“Diego sent us back to Texas. His idea of testing my loyalty was to kidnap an innocent child.”

“I am not a child.”

Mercy wanted to laugh. The girl had been kidnapped by a drug cartel, and she was ready to fight over being called a child. Oh, she remembered the joys of being that rebel teen. She hoped like hell they could keep this girl safe and that spirit alive.

“Trust me, such subtleties are lost on old men, Callie.”

“Grace. My name is Grace now.”

“That’s a pretty name. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Is there anything I can get you?”

The girl shook her head, but it was Will who spoke. “Can you get some blankets or a pillow or something? Your brother sent her here. You’re supposed to take care of her…”

“Until that bastard has my mother in his control, too.”

Mercy saw the fire in the girl’s eyes. Though it was directed at the man she loved, it would serve her well. It was better Callie, or Grace, be angry than scared. But Mercy did not like what those words seemed to do to Will.

Now, it was his head that dropped to stare at the rust-colored floor tiles. His shoulder slumped, and she felt his burden. That despair, fear, and guilt. Now there was guilt as well as hopelessness. She reached for his hand, but it was cold and limp. He barely looked up, “Please, Mercy, just do what you can to make the girl comfortable.”

“Of course.” There was not much in the studio apartment they had been staying in. The old wrought-iron bed, a small table, and two chairs, and the ratty-old sofa. She supposed the girl would have to sleep there. “What was Diego thinking? This place is barely large enough for two people.”

“Yeah, well, it is better than where your brother wanted to send her.”

Mercy looked up from collecting the spare blanket that she had been using. It was cold during the nights, but with Will back, his body heat would keep her warm. She shook her head as their eyes met. But she saw the truth in his dark eyes as he nodded slightly. “Fuck.”

“If it hadn’t been for Roberto…”

“Asshole, like he was doing me any favors. He’s the one…” But before the girl could finish the statement, the dam broke. Anger seemed to disappear, replaced by tears. Lots of them.

“Dammit,” Will cursed, and Mercy would have sworn that she saw tears in his eyes as well. As much as she wanted to go to him, she knew that the girl needed her more. At least at that moment. “I’ll go see if I can find any more blankets or pillows. Clothes. I don’t know. Stuff to make her comfortable.”

Mercy nodded her head as Will opened the door and slipped into the night. She drew the young girl down on to the sofa. It wasn’t like she had no experience with crying teenagers. Her friend Lizzy had been barely out of her teens when her parents had been killed in a drunk driving accident. She had spent weeks holding her friend when she could finally let go of some of the responsibilities of the diner and her caring for her younger brother. And Abby Jean? It only took one word to send that girl into hysterics – Jack.

But this was different. This was not stress and grief, or unrequited love. This was life and death. For all of them. Still, the same principles applied. Just hold the girl, rub her back, and let her cry it all out before you try to reason with her or fix anything. Too bad someone didn’t give men lessons in that shit.

Finally, she heard the soft hiccups that she recognized meant the worst was over. Mercy pulled back and smiled at the girl. “Let me get you some water.” Grace nodded and wiped at her face and swollen eyes with the back of her hand.

There was no kitchen in this place, only a small bathroom. If Mercy had to take a guess, she’d bet this was one of the rooms the brothel used for entertaining its customers. How had they been this close to Bebe for weeks and never known? But she knew the answer to that one, too. Mercy filled a glass with water from the sink and grabbed a washcloth, wetting it also.

When she went back into the main room, Grace had curled herself into a ball, her knees drawn tight to her chest and her arms wrapped about her legs. Her head leaned against them. Mercy sat back down next to her, and the girl looked up with a weak smile as she took the glass. “Thanks.”

Mercy watched her drink a couple of swallows before holding out the washcloth. “I thought you might like to wash your face.”

The girl nodded and took it too. “You know, it’s not their fault. I want to be mad at Will. But I understand. He’s just doing what he needs to keep you and his cousin safe. Heck, even that other one, Roberto. He went to bat for me with that guy.”

Mercy only nodded, knowing that sometimes all a woman needed was to talk. “It’s all my own fault, actually. If I’d listened to Mama, to Chad, hell, even to Gerald, none of this would have happened. We’d still be safe on Chad’s ranch, if I hadn’t gotten so mad at them and broken the rules.”

The girl’s words were like an arrow piercing her heart. Suddenly, she was that little girl again, hiding in the shadows and listening to her muffled cries. Mercy wanted to burst into tears then, but she knew she could not. This young woman needed her to be strong. And so did the little peanut inside her. She was beginning to understand how her own Mama had felt that night.

“Mamas just want to keep their babies safe,” Mercy reached for the girl and wrapped Grace in her arms. The tears were not so strong this time, and by the time that Will came back with more blankets, pillows, and what looked like clothes, Grace was asleep in her arms.

With his help, they got her settled on the sofa with a pillow under her head and a couple of blankets to cover her. Mercy brushed a stray lock of electric blue hair out of the shockingly innocent face. Their little girl would have darker skin and curly hair. And there was no way in hell that she was letting her ruin her hair with those kinds of harsh chemicals.

Mercy smiled, thinking about a little girl that was the size of pinky nail now. She turned to where Will sat at the end of their bed. His head was in his hands, and his elbows rested on his knees. She swore that she could see a gentle trembling of those broad shoulders too.

It looked like Callie McBride was not the only one she needed to be strong for this night. Wearing nothing but one of his shirts that she had stolen from the dirty clothes because it smelled of him, Mercy sat down next to him, wrapping her arms about those shoulders and pressing her face into the one closest to her.

“I have faith in you, Caleb Williams. We’ll get out of here. I don’t know how or when. But we will.”

He lifted his head and turned to face her. There were definitely tears glistening in those brown eyes, and others ran down his cheeks. She leaned in, her forehead pressed against his now.

“How? How can you have faith in me when I don’t have it in myself?”

“Because I love you. I know that you love me, too. And I have always written about love that was stronger than anything the hero or heroine faced. I never believed I would find that kind of love, but now that I have, I’ll be damned if I let anyone or anything take it away from me.”

He shook his head and tried to pull away. His words stung, “You don’t understand. I don’t deserve your love. I betrayed everything I believe in today. I helped a man I know is a killer, a drug dealer, and worse, to kidnap a little girl. I spent hours, more than a day, locked in a car with another man that thinks there is nothing wrong with having sex with a fifteen-year-old or betraying his own family. How, Mercy, how can you possibly love someone like that?”

“And why? Why did you do all that?” She held tighter to his shoulders. Mercy was not letting this man, her only lover, and the father of her baby, get away that easily. “I’ll tell you why. To protect your cousin. Bebe is here, by the way.”

She grasped his hand and brought it to her lips, pressing a tender kiss to it, “And me.” She lowered their entwined fingers to her stomach, resting just above her pubic bone. She held his hand in place, “And your little girl. How could I not love a man who would do all that for us?”

His fingers squeezed hers and pressed a bit deeper into her abdomen. He inhaled deeply and those dark eyes met hers as he nodded, “Whether I deserve you or not, you’re right. Whatever it takes, I’m not letting anything happen to you. Either of you.” He looked across the room to the sleeping girl, “Or her either.”

Mercy knew she should feel relieved, but instead, something dark and foreboding gripped her heart. She shook her head. Hell, no. She had meant it. She had waited thirty-two years, thinking she would never find a hero that made her feel like this. She was damned if she was going to let her half-brother or even god, Fate, whatever the fuck tear them apart now. She was a Reynolds. And hadn’t her Mama taught her – Reynolds women were strong.

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