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Sabriel Mercer guarded the church's arched doorway, nodding curtly at each arriving guest, wishing he were anywhere but there. He rolled his shoulder against the starched stiffness of the rented tux and tugged at the noose-tight shirt collar with a finger. Only for a fellow Seeker would he endure such torture.
Church bells pealed, echoing with joy in Wintergreen's Currier-and-Ives town square. Indian summer spiked the air with warmth on this first weekend of October. With their explosion of gold and red, even the trees got in to the celebration.
A perfect day. His hands itched to plane the maple planks he'd joined for the kitchen cabinets of the cabin he was building. Instead, there he was holding a basket with a big cranberry bow. He wasn't sure what he'd done to deserve this public emasculation.
"Cell phone." Sabriel shoved the basket at Hale Harper, straggling in late, as usual. Rumor was Harper was Falconer's cousin, which would explain the slack Falconer cut him. "It's off." Harper held the device up so Sabriel could verify his claim.
"Orders from the boss. Hand it over."
Harper glowered, his dark brows and eyes pinching much like Falconer's did when he wasn't pleased.
Without another word Harper dropped his cell phone with the dozen already in the basket and made his way into the nave. There was no point arguing with Liv. Even the newest Seeker understood that Sebastian Falconer's wife always got her way.
Standing in the refuge of the vestibule, Sabriel scanned the crowd seated in the wooden pews. Most were strangers, people from the bride and groom's hometown in Massachusetts. With no desire to join the crush, he melded deeper into the shadows.
The organ overhead in the loft stopped its nasal whine midbar, then burst into "The Wedding March." The notes plucked at memories he'd thought he'd reconciled. But was there ever a way to explain a senseless death?
His jaw knotted. Eyes ahead.
On the arm of her former WITSEC inspector, Abrielle Holbrook glided down the aisle. She glowed in champagne silk. Sabriel knuckled the tender spot at his breastbone, grinding down until the serrated pain dulled. His wife had done that, too—chosen an off-white dress because she'd wanted to shine on her wedding day. She'd said that pure white made her look dead.
If only he'd known…. He shook his head and forced himself to concentrate on Reed and Abbie's moment of happiness.
Grayson Reed looked as if he'd swallowed the sun as his bride made her way up the crimson carpet.
Noah Kingsley, Seekers, Inc."s computer wiz, stood at Reed's side, red suspenders visible under the black him—and probably had.
Falconer and Liv, wrapped arm in arm, beamed at the bride.
The newly engaged Dominic Skyralov held hands, fingers twined with Luci Taylor. His other arm looped around her son's shoulders. There was a settled air about the blond cowboy that had been missing before he'd found Luci and Brendan. The corner of Sabriel's mouth twitched. Watching Skyralov play Mr. Mom when Luci started at the police academy next month was going to be a kick.
Sabriel squeezed his nape and the portrait of joy before him turned into mist. Had he ever been that happy? He couldn't remember. He'd thought so once. But his few months with Anna were nothing more than a dream, eclipsed by the nightmare that had followed. He'd barely survived the Colonel's revenge. But he'd kept Anna's secret.
A phone warbled a tinny melody. His? He frowned down at the pocket of his tuxedo jacket. Other than the Seekers gathered in this church, only his mother and Tommy had this number.
And neither would dial it unless he was their last recourse.
Tommy Camden had many faults, but the one quality he had in spades was patience.
In the cold of night, he squatted by the Camden estate's iron-and-stone fence, watching, waiting. He'd zapped the CCTV with a program to loop already filmed footage. His father had always underestimated him. Lack of military motivation didn't equal lack of brains.
Caesar and Brutus, the German shepherd guards, were chowing down on Benadryl-laced hunks of moose. Tommy had spent months priming them to override their training to be fed only by their handler—whose own free lunch had proved soporific. When he woke up, he wouldn't tell. Not if he wanted to keep his job. Tommy smirked. And where else was there to work in this butt-end-of-nowhere town except for the Camdens?
The balls of his feet were going numb and Tommy willed one more set of lights to blink out.
Nora had protected their son for the past ten years, but if the conversation Tommy had overheard on his last visitation with Scotty was already in motion, then Nora would soon be caged in a loony bin, drugged to the gills, so far off the map that Scotty wouldn't even appear in the margins. Then nothing would stand between the Colonel's cruel hand and Scotty.
Scotty was too good, too sweet to be broken. He should have a chance to make choices. He should get to laugh and play and be an ordinary kid.
Nora would understand. She always had—even when Tommy had betrayed her. She knew what the Colonel was capable of doing. She'd see that Tommy had to save their son from this circle of hell.
At precisely eleven, the Colonel's bedroom light snapped off, and Tommy leaked out the breath he hadn't even realized he'd held prisoner. Only the security spots lit the perimeter of the I-shaped English country estate. For all his unbending rhetoric on tradition and heritage, the Colonel had all but gutted the interior of the house after Grandpop's death eleven years ago. He'd modernized the gray stone house, with its slate roof and steeply pitched gables, to an inch of its original design—and destroyed everything that had comforted.
What would Grandpop think of what the Colonel had done to his grand old home? Or to his business?
Tommy shook his head. It didn't matter. None of it mattered. Only getting Scotty out before it was too late mattered.
Brutus groaned and stretched by the gate. Tommy petted the tan-and-black rump. "Sorry, boy, but I couldn't let you or your brother alert the Colonel. You'll both live to snarl another day."
Tommy stealed along the stone wall, a shadow among shadows, to the back of the mansion. He fished out a Maglite from his camouflage pants and signaled Scotty. The two quick flashes answering him told him Scotty was awake and ready—a gamble Tommy had hated to take.
Makes you just like the old man. Lie and cheat as long as it gets you what you want. Tommy shrugged away the guilt. Not the same thing. Not the same thing at all. The Colonel broke. I'm trying to fix.
Tommy had shown Scotty how to disarm the alarm system. Would he remember? Tommy had Scotty prepare an "adventure kit." Had he put everything in? Tommy had sworn the boy to secrecy—even from his mother. Had Scotty been able to keep their secret adventure from Nora? So many uncertainties. But Tommy had seen no other way around the Colonel's protective fortress.
He wished he could have taken Scotty during a visitation instead—cleaner, less dangerous. But two hours lead wasn't enough. Tomorrow being Saturday, he'd get at least eight, possibly ten. Long enough—if Nora understood the note.
The door to the back entry inched open. Pulse keeping jagged time, Tommy hoped that the Colonel's Glenlivet nightcap had put him under. Scotty's blond head poked through the door, and he looked left and right as if he were about to cross a street, then searched along the fence, into the darkness.
Tommy's gaze flickered to the bedroom windows. All black. His thumb hesitated on the Maglite's switch. Last chance, Tommy. No going back if you give him the all-clear.
With a guttural explosion of breath, Tommy signaled Scotty. Under the spots, Scotty's smile ate up his face. Red backpack flopping on his back, Scotty zipped across the manicured lawn. "Dad!"
Scotty slapped a hand across his mouth and kept running. He'd lucked into Nora's good brain and her laughing brown eyes, but had inherited Tommy's unruly blond curls and his lust for the outdoors.
Pride-swelled tears bruised Tommy's chest. God, he loved that boy. But love wasn't enough. He'd let him down so many times. With a flex of fingers, he tightened both hands into fists and rose to parade-review straightness. No more. He would do for Scotty what he couldn't do for himself: he'd set him free.
When Scotty reached the fence, Tommy lifted him, backpack and all—he was so light!—to the top of the stone wall, then changed his grip and helped him over the iron spikes.
As he checked his son over, as he looked into that innocent face, a chicken bone of breath lodged in Tommy's throat. What if he couldn't do this? What if he failed Scotty again? What if all he managed to do was lead his son into a deeper hell?
Tommy forced a smile. "Hey, champ, are you ready for our big adventure?"
Brown eyes bright with anticipation, Scotty patted his backpack. "I got everything, just like you said."
Well, what's it going to be, Ranger? Action—or another excuse?
Rangers lead the way.
Tommy folded Scotty's small hand in his. Time to set a proper example for his son. Be a man, Tommy. He did an about-face on his past and focused on his mission. "Let's roll."
"Hey, sleepyhead." Nora Camden pushed open Scotty's bedroom door and peeked in, anticipating her son's protesting grumbles. He wasn't a morning person.
Scotty had the covers up over his head, still hard asleep. He'd had a rough couple of days, and he'd desperately needed a decent night's sleep. She hated to wake him up, but the Colonel didn't have much patience with her interference or Scotty's asthma. He accused her of coddling the boy and making Scotty weak. As if a child could will himself well. As if a mother could watch her son suffer without doing everything she could to help him.
"It's almost nine." Nora added a lilt to her voice, hoping to lure Scotty out of hiding. "I talked the cook into letting me make some of your favorite blueberry pancakes. They're waiting for you in the kitchen. Come on. Up and at "em."
No movement from the bed. "Scotty?" Had his asthma flared up again? How could she not have heard? Heart knocking, she rushed across the golden oak floorboards. "Did you have a bad night, sweetie? Why didn't you wake me up?"
She reached down to shake her son awake. Her hands sank into the lump on the bed and a gasp sucked all of the room's air into her lungs. She whipped off the denim comforter and found a fleece blanket vaguely shaped
She dropped to her knees and skimmed a glance under the bed. "I know you don't want to go to James Enger's party, but that's no reason to hide from me."
Another of the Colonel's attempts to get Scotty to fit in to the proper social circles. She snorted. As if offering up his grandson as prey to a bully would win anyone anything. Unfortunately, Nora had to weigh her battles and, on this one, she'd retreated.
She dusted off the knees of her black wool slacks—Camden women are always proper, Nora—and tilted her head at the closet door standing ajar. Scotty liked to hide there to read forbidden comic books with a flashlight. She pressed a hand to her mouth to stifle her amusement at his act of civil disobedience. "You don't have to stay long. I promise. We'll go late and, as soon as you've had cake, you can call, and I'll pick you right up."
She jerked open the closet door. Empty. Frowning, hands on hips, she whirled toward the center of the room. "Come on, Scotty. It's time to come out."
Where would he have gone? It wasn't as if he could leave the grounds. Not with the dogs and the alarm system ready to betray any attempt at escape. Even in this 13,000-square-foot house, there weren't that many places to hide from the Colonel's all-seeing eyes.