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Rae Benton could not believe who had just walked into the mortuary chapel. The man who'd killed her father had the gall to attend his victim's funeral.
With hands clenched as tightly as her jaw, she lifted her gaze from the inexpensive casket, up Hunter Gordon's lean frame to meet his eyes. In the muted light, she couldn't see the vivid blue, just the intensity that carried both empathy and wariness. She could buy the wariness; after all, he couldn't expect to be welcomed here. But empathy? Hunter might not have pulled a trigger, but he was responsible for her father's untimely death. He had no right to show any compassion.
He came to stand near her. "I'm sorry, Rae." His voice had deepened during his years in prison, yet she could barely hear it in the quiet chapel. His words were obviously meant for her alone. "I wish I could have been here sooner."
"Because you've just been released?" she muttered. "How did you get here so fast? Dorchester Penitentiary is a two-hour drive from here. They don't release inmates at dawn."
"I hitched a ride with a guard coming off duty."
"Who told you Dad had died?"
His compassionate expression faltered slightly, but his voice stayed calm. "We stopped for gas up the road. The clerk told me. I came straight here."
Edith Waterbrook owned the only gas station in the small New Brunswick village of Green Valley. Which meant if she'd recognized Hunter after ten years, everyone would soon know he'd been released. And had headed straight to the funeral.
Rae found herself fighting back the conflicting urges to smack him, and to feel again the comforting embrace he'd given her that day a decade ago when her family's shop had burned to the ground.
Correction. The day Hunter had burned the workshop to the ground and destroyed Benton Woodworking, a livelihood the family had relied on for nearly a century. The day the police had arrested him for arson.
She recalled the savage blaze, how she'd come home to find the family business overcome by heat so intense that all the firefighters could do was hose down her nearby home so it, too, wouldn't catch fire.
After all these years, the memory of those burning joists and beams still devastated her. A knot formed in her throat. Dad, why didn't you have the strength to fight the cancer? I need you. I have no one now.
A scene from three days ago flooded back. Rae hated the memory. Her dad, in the hospital, weakened and bone thin, had grabbed her hand with surprising strength and forced her to agree to the unthinkable. He'd asked her to forgive Hunter and let
Robert Benton had collapsed, unable to finish his sentence.
To placate her father, she'd agreed. But forgive Hunter? Never.
All she wanted was to be left alone to mourn her dad's death, and to continue to build the business. And forget she ever knew Hunter Gordon.
The organist started playing some soft, sad music. Rae felt the touch of the funeral director's white-gloved hand and allowed him to direct her to her seat.
Sitting, she watched Hunter scan the crowd, his suspicious eyes probing each face. When he reached hers, he swung around to find a chair as far away as possible.
His presence, however, filled the chapel, overpowering the somber mood with an emotion Rae refused to analyze.
Rae looked into her cousin's red-rimmed eyes. Annie Dobson had spent the last three days crying. Rae appreciated the sentiment; after all, Dad had been Annie's favorite uncle. But with her own emotions roiling like oil and water, Rae could barely answer.
She finally forced the words through gritted teeth. "Hunter Gordon."
Annie's jaw dropped. On her other side, her husband swore. With his thick, dark brows knitted together, Kirk tried to locate Hunter in the crowd.
"Never mind him," Rae stated quietly.
"We can ask him to leave," Annie suggested.
"Or kick him out," Kirk muttered.
The ideas tempted her, but Rae shook her head. There had been no collective gasp of recognition, and she didn't want to make a scene. "Let him be. I don't care if he's here or not." Despite her words, she stole another glance around. Andy Morrison had just slipped in and was making his way to the only available chairbeside Hunter.
Quickly, Rae faced the front, not wanting Andy to catch her eye. Of course he'd come. Thinking himself her suitor, he'd find any excuse to be near her.
Hot tears stung her eyes during the service. Battling them turned her body into a tight bundle of quivering nerves. And the whole time, she felt Hunter's heated gaze fixed on her.
Perhaps she should ask the director to remove him. But she really didn't want to cause a scene at her father's funeral. Dad deserved better.
Rae dared another short glance over her shoulder. Hunter had matured in prison, into a handsome man who wore wariness as easily as she wore the loose navy suit Annie had loaned her for the funeral.
His nose looked as if it had been broken a few years back. On one side a scar ran from his nostril to the dark blond hair at his temple. His closed eyes and bowed head added a secrecy to his demeanor. Was he praying?
She snapped her attention to the front, where the pastor was finishing his short message.
What was Hunter praying for? Dad was dead, and Hunter had better not be praying for her to find peace. He had no right! she thought with outrage.
A moment later, she felt contrition swooping in. That wasn't fair to Hunter.
After the casket was wheeled past, Rae let her cousin guide her out, keeping her head down to avoid the eyes of the crowd, and especially Hunter.
The interment half an hour later was pure torture. Autumn had provided a clear day with a warm wind, enticing well-meaning mourners to linger.
Relief washed over Rae when she and Annie entered the church hall, where refreshments waited. Hunter was nowhere in sight. If God had any mercy at all, she'd never see Hunter Gordon again.
"I believe Rae's in danger. We both are. You've got to help us, Hunter."
Recalling Robert Benton's last visit, just over a week ago, Hunter stopped at the edge of Rae's driveway. His mentor had shown him pictures of the new building.
Being here now felt so unreal. Hunter had been barely an adult when he'd gone to prison. Now he was nearly thirty.
One time, early on, when Benton had visited, he'd chided Hunter for fighting, saying it would lessen his chances at an early parole. Hunter hadn't wanted to see him that day, let alone listen to a lecture.
Things had changed.
Today, Hunter smiled humorlessly into the thick woods beside the driveway. He'd ended up serving the full sentence. He'd survived the "range," a place where cells faced each other across what was dubbed one of the meanest streets in Canada.
More than survived. After establishing a mean reputation, he'd done a 180, and given his life to Christ.
The warm breeze snaking through Green Valley waned in this sheltered corner near the top of the hill, but it still carried dampness from the nearby Bay of Fundy. Why was he really here? He owed Benton nothing, a part of Hunter argued. He'd kept Benton's secrets, even when Benton wanted to ease his conscience and tell Rae everything.
Again, that last visit returned to him. "You have to keep Rae safe, Hunter. She's in danger. I don't trust anyone else."
He'd straightened. "Why? What's going on?"
"I don't have all the proof yet." The old man had swiped a shaking hand across his gaunt face. "It's complicated. I tried to tell you in a letter once, but it was too dangerous."
"More dangerous than what we'd been doing?"
Benton had nodded. Hunter had folded his arms, then unfolded them. Help me forgive him, Lord. "What's going on?"
"Someone's lurking around the shop. I found gas-soaked rags there. I burned them in the woodstove before I told Rae. She didn't believe me. We need to figure out what to do when I come get you. It's only a week away." The man had coughed violently, drawing the attention of other visitors in the room.
Hunter knew then that the cancer was really bad. His chest had tightened. "You should go back to your doctor."
"After I'm done here. But first, listen. I talked to God last night. I know He's forgiven me, but I feel I should tell Rae about the fire."
Hunter had shaken his head. "Do you think that's wise?" He'd leaned closer as clarity slammed into him with shocking force. "You'd have to tell her everything. It'd be too hard on her."
"She deserves the truth. I only just told her about the cancer."
"You only just told her? How is that possible? I mean, you knew before I was arrested."
Benton looked contrite. "I went into remission, and I didn't want to worry her. She'd fuss, and with the business not so good, we couldn't afford for me to start taking time off."
Was that all? Hunter could tell his old mentor was holding something back. Something about the business, or maybe something about their little scheme?
"I know I'm not doing things your way, Hunter. But she deserves the truth, whether or not I told her about the cancer."
Dread trickled through Hunter. "At least wait until I'm out. I'll go with you."
Benton's lip had quivered, and remorse ripped through Hunter. The old man was dying. For all of his faults, and his late coming to faith, did he need to die now?
At that very moment, the buzzer had sounded throughout the cafeteria, ending the visiting hour. Benton rose wearily, and Hunter caught his arm. "Wait! What about this danger?You should tell Rae that. Or at least tell the police."
The old man had shrugged off his hand. "Believe me, the police can't be trusted. I think I'm being followed. Look, you'll be home soon. We'll figure something out." He threw a hasty glance toward the door.
"You have to tell the police now!"
Benton hesitated. Finally, he nodded. "I will."
With that, he'd shuffled out, and Hunter hadn't seen him alive again. According to the gas station clerk, Robert Benton had collapsed at his doctor's office, and four days later, semiconscious and delirious, he'd died in hospital.
Now, staring at Rae's house, with the graceful birch trees behind it, Hunter felt a sense of loss. He had nowhere else to go. With no family, no job, only an old man's confused warning, he'd come here.
The growl of an engine caught his attention. He stepped from the driveway to the grass, in time to see Rae's truck screech to a stop in a cloud of dust. The driver's door swung open and she alighted swiftly. "Get off my land."
The welcome he'd expected. Hunter dropped the duffel bag he'd purchased from the prison stores in anticipation of his release, saving the pittance an inmate earned for that one item. In it was a change of clothes, a charity toiletries kit, his Bible and a small amount of cash.
"It's okay. I just came"
He shut his mouth. She was mad at him. And if he were to try to warn her that her life was in danger, she wouldn't even listen to him. Besides, what would he say when she'd invariably ask why her father had visited him? Hunter would have to tell her everything.
Forget it. It wasn't his job to speak ill of the dead. And she sure wouldn't want him of all people, to talk to her. In her mind, he'd burned down her family's livelihood.
In front of him, Rae had planted her feet shoulder width apart and settled her hands on her hips. "You're not welcome here. You destroyed our lives ten years ago, and drove my father to an illness he couldn't fight. Now get off my land!"
He swallowed. Even in her anger and grief, Rae was a beautiful woman, though she'd look better in a softer color to compliment the sun in her hair, he decided, rather than the harsh navy of her ill-fitting suit. "There isn't anything that would make you feel better, Rae. Still
" He faltered. "I just want to say how much your dad meant to me."
Her expression wavered. She blinked and the chin that had shown determination a moment ago now wobbled in a telltale way.
His heart wrenched. He took a step toward her, wanting to haul her close and comfort them both.
She jerked back. Then, snatching a Tupperware container from the bench seat, she slammed the truck door and stalked toward the house. "Leave. I don't want to see anyone, not for a long time."
He shrugged. "I've got nowhere to go. This was my only home."
When she bit her lip, he hated the guilt he was heaping on her. "The prison system doesn't turn people out into the cold, Hunter," she protested.
"True. There's a group home in Moncton, but that's seventy kilometers away." He was crazy to come here. To keep a woman who hated him safe from an unknown danger? Maybe Benton's mind had begun to deteriorate from the cancer, and he'd only imagined a threat.
Rae's eyes glistened in the late afternoon sun.
Guide me, Lord. Do You want me to help her?
She bit her lip, obviously grieving.
She had no one. Right then, he knew he couldn't leave Green Valley.
Some time ago, Rae's father had offhandedly told her that unless released inmates had family and friends, they were on their own.
Guilt flooded her, and she knew this was what her pastor called the touch of the Holy Spirit. Her father's voice seemed to reach through the confusion. "You must forgive him, Rae."
The words added to the ache behind her eyes. Breaking her last promise to her father was something she wanted to do, yet couldn't.
With a halfhearted step toward Hunter, she heard herself say, "Why don't you come in? I've had a ton of food dropped off the last few days. You must want a home-cooked meal."
He had the most intense gaze, something she hadn't noticed a decade ago. And if she correctly judged the flare of interest there, he was hungry.