Spirit Page 52

He quickly shoved all the papers back into the Pendaflex, trying to keep them in the order he’d found them. Then he ripped the cover off the other box.

His quilt. His sheets—again, really, Mom? Frigging threadbare beach towels that he didn’t even consider his.

When he flung them to the side, something heavy clattered free.

Two of his father’s best knives.

The breath left Hunter’s lungs in a rush.

He pulled more towels free, more carefully this time, just in case there were other knives that might not be sheathed.

No more knives.

But between the last two towels, he found his gun, an extra magazine, and a box of bullets.

He picked up the weapon and checked the safety automatically. Just feeling the steel in his hands was as reassuring as if she’d packed his old teddy bear.

She’d packed this folder and these weapons.

I can bring over anything else you want.

His mother knew.


Hunter wasn’t sure how much he needed to keep secret.

The gun, for sure. If nothing else, it was a safety thing. He had too many of his father’s lectures rattling around in his head to leave a loaded firearm lying around—especially if Hannah’s kid was going to be in the house. He didn’t have a lockbox, but he could lock the gun in the glove compartment of his jeep—or he’d keep it on his person.

Considering the events of the past few days, he was ready to sleep with it holstered inside his waistband.

But the folders . . . He just didn’t have a history in this town, so he’d have to tell someone about them, if only to find out who the kids in other folders were. He’d only recognized Noah’s face, but that wasn’t enough.

He needed help. And the Merricks would probably give it to him, if he could play it straight.

They were leaving him alone this afternoon, too, which was nice—though he’d probably earned it by being such a dick that no one wanted to mess with him. When he’d grown up, it had always been three people in the house, with his uncle sometimes thrown in for variety. They lived too far from grandparents for anything more than an occasional visit. Even when he’d moved here with his mom, the dinner table had never been occupied by more than four people.

When he finally ventured downstairs, the Merrick kitchen was practically packed.

The four brothers. Becca and Quinn. Layne and her little brother Simon. Hannah and James.

Hunter made eleven. It brought new meaning to the phrase odd man out.

They had about ten buckets and boxes from KFC. Hannah’s little boy appeared to be eating nothing but macaroni and potato wedges—and half of those were being fed to Casper, who was sitting under the table. The noise and energy in the room was almost enough to send Hunter back up the stairs.

But the smell was holding him right here. He’d never eaten lunch.

Becca appeared in front of him, taking his hand, pulling him into the kitchen. “I was worried about you,” she said quietly.

“Careful,” he said. “That’s catching.”

“Did you fall asleep?”

He’d spent the afternoon reading through the folders, but she’d given him the perfect out. “Yeah. I was knocked out.”

“Well, come eat.”

She dragged him toward the table, and Chris glared at the way her hand was still attached to Hunter’s, so he left it there, actually using it to pull her a bit closer and speak low, under the noise in the room.

“Sorry I ignored you earlier. Long day.”

Becca looked up at him. This close, he could catch her scent over the chicken, something with vanilla and almonds. “It’s okay,” she said. “I know you’ve got a lot going on.”

There was true empathy in her eyes, and it softened something inside him. “Thanks for trying to help.” He paused, thinking of all the warnings about trusting the Merricks. Thinking of the folders upstairs. He pushed the hair back from his face and sighed. “Maybe later I could get your opinion on something—”

A hand shoved him back, and Chris said, “Maybe later you could remember that she’s not your girlfriend.”

“Hey,” Becca started. “It’s fine.”

Hunter smiled, but there was nothing friendly about it. Chris’s aggression made his decision about Kate much easier to consider. “Maybe later you could remember that Becca has a mind of her own.”

Chris gave him another shove, a little more violently. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing here—”

“Hey!” said James, his little boy voice carrying over everything else. “Use words, not hands.” Then he glanced at Hannah.

“Right, Mom?”

“Absolutely right,” she said, completely unfazed, pulling another piece of chicken from a bucket.

But Chris backed off.

Hunter smiled more broadly. “Funny. I can think of two words right off.” But Becca was already pulling Chris to the other side of the table.

“Words, not hands,” said Layne. She poked Gabriel with her fork. “I think you need a T-shirt that says that.”

He leaned in close. “Give me five minutes and I bet I can change your mind.”

“Ugh,” said Quinn, spearing a piece of chicken with her fork. “Spare us.”

Michael glanced over at Hannah. “I told you you’d regret staying for dinner.”

“Are you kidding? You should see dinner at the firehouse.”

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