Deadly Pursuit by Stephanie St. Klaire

1

“What the hell?”Mercy came to a screeching halt when he reached the smoke plume he’d been tracking.

He jumped out of his truck, fire extinguisher in hand, and went to work even though he knew it wouldn’t be enough. It was obvious he’d be dealing with a decent fire when he noticed the dark billowing cloud from the main house at the top of the hill, but he didn’t expect to find a car as the source of said fire. When the extinguisher ran out, the fire was still ablaze.

Quick to reach for his phone in his back pocket, Mercy dialed his brother for help. Just as his brother answered, Mercy spun on his heel and begun to pace when he saw her. A beautiful woman with tearstained cheeks. How had he missed her before? Sure, the flames were distracting, but she was just standing there in the middle of their field, watching what he assumed to be her car burn to the ground.

She took his breath away, as well as his words, so he was speechless when his brother Ford answered on the line.

“Uh…yeah. Water truck. Need it on the front forty. Fire.” That’s all Mercy could get out before disconnecting the call and sliding his phone back into his pocket.

The fire sizzled and popped, prompting Mercy to instinctively jump in front of the woman and spin her out of harm’s way where she’d be guarded behind his truck. But the small scream that followed had him reacting before he realized what he was doing. A small girl—with the same blond hair, olive skin, and caramel eyes as the woman—had been scooped up in his arms and at the woman’s side so quickly he hadn’t had a chance to think.

“Are you okay?” Mercy took to his knee in front of the child and wiped away her tears.

The little girl nodded and hid behind the woman once again.

“And you?” He directed his question at the woman as he stood, looking her up and down.

“I-I think so…” Her voice quaked with fear. “I don’t know what happened. My car…it made an odd sound, slowed down, then began to smoke. By the time I got to the side of the road…the fire. It just…started.”

Mercy was trained to notice everything about the people he encountered and his surroundings like sounds, smells, the weather, and body language. It was a part of being an elite operative working on a high-end, former military security team that protected people and agencies all over the world. She had a slight accent that was barely noticeable, but it was there. A dimple appeared on her right cheek when she bit her bottom lip. There was a small scar in her hairline above her left eyebrow and one on her chin. She paced nervously in place, which made sense, given the circumstances.

But there was something more. Something Mercy couldn’t quite put a finger on. He didn’t think he knew her, but something about her was familiar. She wasn’t someone he would forget—not by a long shot—so whatever was nudging at him left him with a deep desire to help her. Protect her.

He nodded his head and joined his brother when the water truck came to a skidding stop. Two men quickly exited the truck and joined Mercy, and they collectively attempted to put out the stubborn flames.

“Do we know what happened?” one of the men asked after several minutes had passed. “This thing doesn’t want to die.”

Despite the roar of the flames and noise they were generating, Mercy heard a breathy gasp behind him. Surely, she knew her car was a total loss at this point—that shouldn’t surprise her—but something about what his brother just said did.

“We’re going to have to let it burn out on its own, or we’ll run out of water before it’s done,” Mercy said. “Protect the property around it at this point.”

The two men did as Mercy requested as he excused himself and returned to the woman.

“I almost didn’t get Glory out,” the woman whispered, eyes trained on the engulfed vehicle. “It was so fast. I didn’t think it could happen so fast. I almost didn’t…”

A sob escaped the woman as she swept the little girl into her arms.

“Glory?”

“My…my daughter.” She held the little girl tighter and closed her eyes. “This is Glory. My daughter.”

Though the woman looked young, he didn’t doubt she was the girl’s mother. They were two peas in a pod—spitting images of one another. What piqued his interest, however, was how hard she was trying to convince herself that she was the girl’s mother. He caught the hesitation in her tone as well as the determination her insistence generated.

Mercy nodded. “What’re you doing out here?”

“Traveling. Just traveling—headed to see family.”

He noticed the emphasis on family. It was as if she was hearing it for the first time herself. Much like how she claimed her daughter.

She put the little girl down, kissing the top of her head as she did, then looked around. “I must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on this gravel road.”

“A really wrong turn. This is a private drive. Leads to my family’s ranch. Should’ve seen the sign spanning the road.”

“Oh. This is the ranch?” She waved her arms around her. “I thought it was just an unpaved country road and hoped it would lead to the interstate. I had no idea I was on anyone’s property…it’s just fields.”

“That’s because the working ranch and main house are still a few miles up the road. These are just our lower pastures.”

“You own all this?” She scanned the area around them. “I thought it was just a pretty meadow. The creek had my attention. I bet it’s fun in the summer.”

Suddenly, Mercy could see the woman sitting on the bank, surrounded by wildflowers, while she watched her daughter play in the water on a warm summer’s day. The thought caught him off guard almost as much as the desire to be sitting at her side in a whimsical daydream did. He was stunned by how natural it felt.

You never fall for the pretty girl—it was rule number one in a bodyguard rulebook somewhere—but here he was…feeling stuff. He was trained to remove emotion from everything as it hindered the job and led to mistakes that inevitably put lives on the line. He knew better, but something within was betraying him. As much as he knew he shouldn’t, he liked it.

Mercy shook the distraction away; he’d figure out why it was so easy to get lost in thoughts of a stranger later. What he really needed to focus on was the fact that a woman and child stood next to a burning car on his family’s property. That alone should be flying red flags all over the place—but it wasn’t.