Seventeen years ago. That was the last time Mercy Callahan saw Ephraim Burton, the leader of the twisted Eden cult where she was raised. But even though she escaped the abuse and terror, they continue to haunt her.
When her brother Gideon discovers new evidence of the cult's--and their victims'--whereabouts, Mercy goes to Sacramento to reconnect with him. There, she meets Gideon's closest friend--homicide detective Rafe Sokolov. From Rafe, she receives an offer she never knew she needed: to track down Ephraim and make him pay for everything.
But Ephraim, who had thought Mercy long dead, discovers she is in fact alive and that she is digging around for the cult's secrets. And now he'll do anything to take her back to Eden--dead or alive.
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Saturday, April 15, 4:45 p.m.
I'm back. Oh God, I'm back. Mercy Callahan inhaled deeply, hoping yoga breathing would calm her racing heart. Why did I think this was a good idea? This is a terrible idea. I'm just going to make things even worse.
"Mercy, did you sleep at all on the flight?"
Mercy startled at the voice in her ear, glancing at her best friend as they emerged from the Jetway into the terminal, which teemed with people. Too many people. Mercy had to steel her spine against the urge to run away. To run back to New Orleans. Again.
"No. I'm too . . ." Anxious. Terrified. Wound tighter than a coiled spring. "Too everything."
Farrah made a sympathetic noise. "I know, honey. But it will be okay. And if it's not, I'm here. I won't leave you, and if you need me to, I'll take you home."
Home. New Orleans truly had become home. People loved her there. People respected her there. People didn't pity her there. Or they hadn't until six weeks ago. There was something about having your face spread all over the front page of newspapers all over the country that kind of put a person in the public eye. When the picture was under a headline that read RESCUED FROM A SERIAL KILLER, the public eyes were filled with speculation and horror and a physical distance that Mercy rationally knew was a fear of saying the wrong thing. But it was still distance.
But she'd still been okay. Until that damn CNN interview five days ago. One of the other two survivors had talked at length about her experience, making sure to mention all the victims so that no one forgot their names. As if I could. Of course the woman being interviewed had mentioned Mercy and of course Mercy had tortured herself by watching it.
The content hadn't been awful. It had been respectfully delivered, but seeing her own face on the TV screen, how pale she'd been, how absolutely terrified . . . Mercy hadn't slept that night or any of the nights thereafter. It was like having a house dropped on her head. Everything changed.
And every one of her coworkers had seen the broadcast. Every single one. They didn't have to tell her so. Mercy had seen the truth on their faces and it had rattled her to her core.
It made her feel like a stranger in the first place that had ever truly felt like home. But New Orleans was home thanks to Farrah, and that her friend was sticking close by her side was better than any gift Mercy had ever received. If Mercy did run back to New Orleans, Farrah would never blame her.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Farrah nudged her shoulder into Mercy's. "One step at a time, girl. You know the drill."
Yes, Mercy knew the drill. One whole day at a time had been too terrifying to contemplate, back when she'd first met Farrah, back when she'd been eighteen and trying so hard to make a life for herself. She'd managed a step at a time. A breath at a time. She still needed the mantra to keep her sanity, especially at night when the memories encroached like prowling wolves scenting helpless prey.
Or on flights back to Sacramento. Mercy preferred the wolves, quite honestly. This city, this state, they were frequent stars in her nightmares.
"I know. One step at a time." Mercy made herself smile. "You showed me. You and Mama Ro."
Farrah Romero's mama was priceless, a woman with a warm smile who took no shit from anyone. Mercy wished her own mother had been more like Mama Ro, the wish shaming her more than words could say.
Mercy's mother had been brave in her own way, sacrificing her life-quite literally-there at the end. Those were the worst nightmares of all.
"Let's get your luggage," Farrah said. "Then the rental car. We'll find somewhere to eat and let you pull yourself together before we see your brother."
Mercy had to swallow back the bile that rose to burn her from the inside out every time she thought about her brother. Gideon. How she'd hated him, for so many years.
How wrong she'd been. God, I am a horrible person. He was going to hate her, and if he didn't, he should. Him and his best friend, Rafe.
She'd done both of them wrong. A wave of dizziness had her sucking in air as she realized too late that she'd been holding her breath. And that she'd stopped walking in the middle of the terminal, forcing disgruntled travelers to go around her. I'm rude, too. "God," she gasped as little black dots flickered all around her. This was such utter bullshit, but she couldn't seem to make it all stop.
"You're all right." Farrah's hand was on her back, rubbing small circles as they stood there. Farrah ignored the frowns on the faces of the travelers, focusing only on Mercy. "That's my girl. It's a panic attack. You know what to do. Breathing's good. In and out."
Mercy blinked hard and readjusted the strap cutting into her shoulder. The cat carrier was heavy, but that was good because the biting pain was helping to center her. Not that she'd admit that to anyone ever again. The last time she'd admitted that pain helped her focus, she'd ended up in the psychiatric ward on a seventy-two-hour hold. That had . . . sucked. "I'm okay. I'm fine."
Farrah smiled, bright as sunshine. Her best friend had the very best smile. Just seeing it made Mercy want to smile back. It was Farrah's superpower. "Of course you're okay," she said, giving her back a final pat. "Let's get moving, so we can get something to eat."
Mercy told her feet to move. One step at a time. Thankfully her feet listened and she and Farrah were headed toward baggage claim. "We have to get the cats settled first. I'll find a pet store to get litter boxes. And food." Hearing the word "food," Rory yowled pitifully from his carrier, and Mercy patted the side. "Hush, beast. You'll survive a little longer."
Farrah made a derisive noise. "I think your cats could miss a meal or two, Merce. Or ten." She lifted the cat carrier she held in one clenched fist. "Jack-Jack weighs sixty-two pounds."
Mercy laughed, the sound foreign but welcome. Farrah could always make her laugh. "Not quite sixty-two pounds." Her Ragdoll kitties topped the scales at nineteen pounds each. "Besides, the vet said they're both healthy. Not fat, just sturdy."
Farrah's brows lifted. "Sturdy. I like that. I think I'll start using that word for myself."
Mercy frowned. "Stop that. You're curvy and gorgeous. I wish I had your curves." Farrah was soft, her whole demeanor inviting hugs, and the bright, bold colors she wore glowed like jewels against her dark skin. Today's outfit was bright yellow and had heads turning with smiles and appreciation.
Farrah sighed, a put-upon sound that she'd drama'd up for Mercy's benefit. "No, you don't. It's hard to find clothes for curves. I wish I were stick-slender."
But Mercy saw the twinkle in Farrah's eye and knew the truth. "No you don't. You like the way Captain Holmes stares at your curves."
Farrah grinned. "That I do, and I make no apologies. My man is fine."
"Yes, he definitely is." Even though Captain Holmes could be intimidating in cop mode, he was kind and funny and he'd always treated Farrah like she was the sweetest of treasures. That made the man more than fine in Mercy's book, even if he did made her feel small whenever he was in the room. "But not my type," she added when Farrah gave her an amused look. "He's very . . . big, isn't he?"
Farrah threw back her head and laughed. "He most certainly is, in all the right places. One in particular."
Mercy's cheeks heated. She hadn't meant that, but Farrah had a bawdy streak. "Was he okay with you just dropping everything to come with me?" she asked, changing the subject.
Farrah sobered, nodding. "He was perfectly okay with it. You said you needed me and that was good enough for him. That we're staying in a house owned by a cop made him feel better about it, though." She shrugged. "He worries."
A house owned by a cop. Mercy winced, thinking about the cop in question. Homicide detective Raphael Sokolov, Gideon's best friend. The brother of his heart in the way that Farrah was the sister of hers.
Rafe probably hated her, too. If he didn't, he should. Or would, given enough time. She selfishly hoped that he wouldn't, though. Her memories of Rafe as she'd sat at his bedside for two weeks-his golden hair, his slow smile, and his unfettered happiness despite his pain-were the only bright spots in the nights she'd spent tossing and turning and fearing to sleep in the six weeks since returning to New Orleans. "The cop is on disability leave." Because he'd taken a bullet. For me. "Did you tell your captain that?"
Farrah made a face. "Well, no. But a cop's a cop, Mercy. Just because the man is recuperating from injuries doesn't mean squat. He's still a cop deep down. Instincts don't go on sabbatical, you know." She narrowed her eyes abruptly. "He knows we're coming, doesn't he?"
Mercy opened her mouth, then closed it again.
Farrah's frown deepened. "Mercy? He knows we're coming, doesn't he?"
"No, but his sister does. I called her to ask if we could stay with her for a little while."
"Okay." Farrah's frown receded, but her wariness remained. "The sister is Sasha, right?"
"Right. Rafe's house has three apartments. Rafe was staying on the bottom floor because he couldn't do the stairs, at least when I was last there." Before I ran away like the coward I am. "The bullet tore the muscles in his thigh." Mercy shuddered at the memory of the pain he'd suffered, but she couldn't dwell on that now or she'd never make it to baggage claim. Breathe in and out. Nice and easy. She swallowed hard and pushed on. "The bottom-floor apartment actually belongs to Daisy."
"Your brother's girlfriend," Farrah said conversationally, but every mention of Gideon was said with care, like she expected Mercy to bolt. Or faint dead away.
Neither was out of the realm of possibility at the moment.
"Yes. I like Daisy. She's artsy and fun." But the woman had experienced her own share of heartache and Mercy felt a kinship that she wished she could have further explored. Now's your chance, Callahan. You're back. You can do all the things you wish you'd done when you were here six weeks ago.
Things like having a heart-to-heart with Gideon. Like begging for his forgiveness.
Gideon loves you. You know that. But it was a lot for anyone to forgive. She wouldn't blame Gideon if he couldn't. Still, she needed to make that right, too.
"Daisy's such a cute name. I can't wait to meet her," Farrah was saying warmly. "So if Rafe has taken Daisy's apartment, where does she live?"
"On the top floor. They just switched. Rafe's sister Sasha rents the middle floor."
"And that's where we're going to stay?"
"For a few days." She patted Rory's carrier. "Until I find an extended-stay hotel that takes cats."
Farrah studied her as they walked. "Extended? Exactly how long is 'extended'?"
Mercy bit at her lip. "I don't know. I have . . . some time off."
"How much time off?"
Mercy braced herself for Farrah's reaction. "Two months."
Farrah stopped walking, staring at Mercy in stunned disbelief. "Two months? How?" She pulled Mercy's arm so that they were against the wall, out of the traffic flow. "How did you get two months of vacation?"
Breathe in and out. Nice and easy. "It's not vacation. I'm on leave. Personal leave." And I'm lucky to have it, she told herself for the hundredth time.
Worry clouded her friend's brown eyes. "You never mentioned requesting leave."
"Because I didn't." Mercy leaned against the wall, closing her eyes. "I effed up. At work."
"Oh, honey," Farrah murmured. "What happened?"
"It was after that CNN special interview on Monday night. I got distracted. Mixed up some test samples."
Farrah's indrawn breath said all that she didn't. Mixing up samples in Mercy's line of work was a big deal. A very big deal. She held people's futures in her hands. Their innocence or guilt often rested on the results of the DNA analysis she ran for the New Orleans PD. I could have ruined an innocent man.
"I figured it out, though," Mercy added, "after I'd run both samples. I was able to correct the first report before the DA could use it to file charges. I told my supervisor, and he and his supervisor called me into a meeting Thursday afternoon. I thought I was getting fired." Mercy opened her eyes to find Farrah's full of compassion and concern. "I'm lucky that I 'fessed up and that it was my first mistake. They said that they knew I'd been under a lot of pressure and that they wished they'd encouraged me to take leave when I first came back from Sacramento." When she'd first run away from Gideon-and Rafe-only to hide her head in the sand. "But they couldn't."
"Not unless it affected your job."
"Which it did."
"Of course it did," Farrah said, her voice so abruptly sharp that Mercy flinched. "You were abducted by a freaking serial killer, Mercy. You almost died."
The tears of anguish in Farrah's eyes kept Mercy from taking offense at her tone. "But I didn't. I'm okay."
"No, you're not okay, you stubborn thing." Farrah brushed a trembling hand back over her hair, the close-cut natural style that framed her face so well. "Just because you weren't physically injured doesn't mean you're okay. Plus, Detective Sokolov was injured and he did almost die. It was a trauma." She pressed her fingers to her lips as she visibly fought for composure. "I almost lost you," she added in a devastated whisper.
Mercy didn't want to think about it. Not now. If she allowed herself to remember the ordeal, she might turn around and run for the nearest plane out of Sacramento. "I thought if I just worked and kept to my routine, that I'd get through it. It's worked before."
Farrah's voice was back to quiet. Soothing. "It worked before because you were also seeing a therapist."
"And I have to do that, too," Mercy admitted. "My supervisors said that no one blamed me for my mistake, and that they wanted me back, but that a therapist would have to sign off on my state of mind."