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’’We got another message about this family in Annapolis. It sounds suspicious. We\ve decided to go a few days early, get the lay of the land before they know we\ e there. Jay\s packing the car now so we can beat traffic.’’

Hunter looked out the window. ’’This is bullshit.’’

’’Excuse me?’’

Hunter flew out of his chair. ’’I said this is bullshit. I can do this. You know I can do this. I should get to go. You even said yourself I could be a decoy. I could help. I could ’’

’’You\ e not ready.’’

’’I am ready! Look at last night! Look at ’’

His dad raised an eyebrow. ’’I am looking at last night, Hunter.’’

Hunter flushed. ’’I don\ mean the . . . the using. I mean ’’

’’I know exactly what you mean. I also know that man had every thought to kill you, and you shot him in the shoulder.’’ His father paused and put his hands on Hunter\s shoulders. ’’You\ e not ready. And that\s fine.’’

Hunter shoved his hands off and moved to brush past his father. ’’F*k you.’’

Hunter didn\ realize his dad had grabbed him until he\d been spun around and pinned to the doorjamb.

His father didn\ even raise his voice. ’’Want to try that again?’’

The door frame was pressing into his cheek exactly where he\d gotten the bruise yesterday and Hunter could swear his dad knew that. ’’Let me go.’’

’’Acting like a cocky teenager isn\ the way to convince me you\ e ready.’’ But his dad let him go.

Hunter shoved him, hard.

And then his dad came after him.

’’Hey. Hey.’’ Uncle Jay was there, dragging them apart. ’’Leave him be, John. The kid\s had a long night.’’

’’Forget it,’’ said Hunter. ’’I\ve got to get ready for school.’’ He didn\ look at his dad, just turned for the steps. ’’Have a great time on your trip.’’

When Hunter came out of the shower, his father and uncle were gone.

It figured.

Hunter slammed through the underbrush surrounding the property. He was exhausted, but fury rode him hard. He kept replaying those last minutes with his dad.

And a small nagging voice at the back of his head kept insisting that his dad had left for a potentially dangerous assignment, and for the first time, he hadn\ said good-bye.

Hunter hesitated and pulled the phone out of his pocket. He tapped out a text to Uncle Jay.

Tell Dad I\m sorry.

Before he could press SEND, someone tackled him from behind. The phone went flying, disappearing beneath the leaves.

’’Payback\s a bitch, huh?’’

Jeremy Rasmussen.

A foot kicked Hunter in the side. ’’Someone\s a bitch.’’

Garrett Watts.

Normally Hunter would fight them enough to stay alive, to keep his dignity. Anything more always seemed to up the ante.

Today wasn\ the day for that.

It took him less than three minutes to have them both on the ground. Jeremy\s head had collided with a tree trunk, and he lay unconscious in the leaves. Garrett\s arm was pinned behind his back, and he was whimpering. Hunter was all but kneeling on his throat.

And for the first time, Hunter considered driving his knee down, crushing Garrett\s windpipe.

He thought of his father\s question, of whether he could do it.

Thinking and doing were two very different things.

The world would be a better place without a jerk like Garrett Watts.

Just like the world probably would have been a better place without a man like Clare\s father. Hunter\s dad was right he should have shot to kill.

But Garrett was a kid. He still had time to figure out what kind of man he was going to be.

So did Hunter.

He stood. ’’Get your friend out of here,’’ he said. ’’If you guys ambush me again, I won\ stop there.’’

Then Hunter picked up his backpack and started walking. But he headed for home, instead of school. If his dad was gone, there was no one to crack the whip. He had a lot more use for a day spent sleeping.

When he got there, the car was back in the driveway.

His dad and Uncle Jay were in the kitchen.

They didn\ say anything when Hunter walked in, and he wondered if he could feed them a line about forgetting a textbook.

Then his dad said, ’’I changed my mind.’’

Changed his mind? After everything? Hunter could count on one hand the number of times his father had changed his mind. Now it made Hunter wonder whether he\d made the wrong decision in the woods just now or the right one.

He dropped his backpack. ’’You . . . what?’’

His dad glanced at Jay. ’’Your uncle convinced me. Go pack a bag. You can come with us.’’

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