The morning of Christmas Eve found McCall in her bathroom, carefully applying makeup and pausing every few moments to assess her handiwork. The slow, deliberate process had nothing to do with the holiday; it had become her usual custom over the past few weeks. At first she laid it on thick to hide the bruises, but the fingerprints left by Lloyd Fredericks had faded now, to the point where no one else could see. Now she used the concealer to camouflage the nights spent not sleeping on her couch, watching the TV with one eye and her front door with the other, as the flickering light from the commercials danced in the metal of her gun. She paid special attention to her appearance, getting the mascara applied just right, fussing with her hair until it singed beneath the iron, making sure that her outside looked as normal as possible so that no one would notice the chaos churning on the inside

She'd put on a cheery red sweater for the occasion and dug out a holly wreath Christmas pin given to her by Steve many years before. Normally, it made her smile to wear it, but this year, she was going through the holidays with the barest of motions. She had no decorations in the house. She'd shopped haphazardly for presents for her family, wrapping the gifts in a daze such that she couldn't even remember what was in each package. In her bedroom just beyond the door, Christmas carols blazed away, singing about cheer and joy and the glory of God, but she felt none of it penetrate the invisible shell she'd put up around her. The music simply drowned out the noise inside her head.

She forced a determined smile at the mirror, trying to look normal. She had to be careful these next few days. Her family had no idea what had happened to her and she wanted to keep it that way. This was why she had struck a deal with Hunter, the one that had him arriving in the next few minutes to pick her up: they would spend Christmas Eve with his family in exchange for Christmas Day with hers. They had never joined their holiday celebrations before, so there was bound to be talk, which was in fact what she was counting on. Hunter was huge and obvious and a positively fantastic barrier between her and any difficult questions that might come her way. Go ahead and wonder if we're sleeping together, she thought wearily. That one's at least easy to answer.

Her doorbell chimed, and she risked a last look in the mirror. This would have to do. She wiped her palms on her trousers and went downstairs to greet her partner. He looked reassuringly the same as usual, with his jeans, red-plaid shirt, and unfortunate red tie. In his hands, he held two paper cups of coffee. "For the road," he explained as he held them up.

She eyed the coffee gratefully. "Best Christmas present I'm likely to get this year."

Hunter looked amused. "You're a cheap date, partner. I like that about you."

She looked away at the word "date." These jokes were supposed to be normal for them, but ever since their one-night-stand over the summer, she was no longer sure how to play her part in this little pas-de-deux. She opted for continuation of her current strategy: ignore it. "I have a poinsettia plant for your mom," she said as she retrieved it from the nearby end table. "Should I bring anything else?"

"Just your chopping skills. Because I warn you: in my mom's house, everyone cooks."

"Tell her I work a mean microwave," McCall said as they got into his car.

"I don't think Mom even owns a microwave." Hunter handed her one of the coffee cups and started up the engine.

"Oh, well, we're doomed, then."

"You'll be fine," Hunter replied as he navigated onto the road. "Mom likes you."

McCall turned her face to look out the window at the passing scenery, at the tinsel and wreaths and tacky lawn ornaments. The last time she had seen Patricia Hunter was in the early spring, when the woman had cornered her in the cafeteria of Wilshire Memorial while Hunter lay in the ICU upstairs. The beatings and dehydration and loss of blood he'd endured at the hands of Shaunessy's men had left him with kidney failure and a heart arrhythmia. When Rick's mother hadn't gotten any satisfaction from the doctors, she had turned her questions to Dee Dee.

How did this happen?

Where were you?

Why didn't I know sooner that he was missing?

Tell me he's going to be okay.

"I don't know," she said to Hunter now. "From the little I've interacted with her, I think I understand where you get your interrogation technique."

His mouth widened into a grin. "Yeah? Try sneaking in the backdoor two hours past curfew. She'll really show you something then."

When they reached his mother's house—a small ranch-style home with a wreath on the door and a red ribbon bedecking the mailbox—there were already a half-dozen cars lining the side of the road. They were met at the threshold by a crush of humanity in varying shapes and sizes, all of them wanting hugs, and McCall coached herself to keep breathing as she was passed from one relative to the other, with Hunter bending down to mutter names in her ear that she would never remember. "Aunt Donna, Uncle Jack…that's their daughter, Cecilia. My cousin Marianna and her husband, Joe. Uncle Wen. That's Benjamin, but around here, he's always Benny."

"Did you say Uncle When?" she muttered back to him.

"W-e-n. His real name's Clarence, but Jackie, his brother, couldn't pronounce it when they were kids. Wen is what stuck." He tugged her from the masses. "Come on, I want you to meet Nona."

They found her in the living room, a tiny woman sitting in an enormous wing-back chair with her knitting on her lap, wearing a black lace dress and orthopedic shoes. Hunter raised his voice to near shouting level. "Nona, Merry Christmas!"

Her kewpie doll face lit up at the sight of him. "Ricky! Merry Christmas." She set aside her knitting and reached both hands for his face, which she kissed soundly on both cheeks.

McCall smiled. This was why she had come, to see the people and places that had made him. Hunter reached back and tugged her forward. "Nona, I want you to meet Dee Dee McCall. She's my partner."

Nona's mouth fell open in delight. "You finally got married! Ricky, how wonderful." She stretched out her liver-spotted hands and grabbed hold of McCall.

"No, Nona," Hunter said even more loudly. "She's my partner."

"I heard you," the old woman snapped back. "I know the modern phraseology. I'm hip to the lingo. It's 'partners' now, right? Women's lib and all that?"

"No, she's my police partner. We work together."

Nona looked McCall up and down, and McCall gave her an apologetic shrug. "It's true."

"I thought Duckworth was your work partner," Nona said, still not letting go of McCall's hands.

"Duckworth was three partners ago," Hunter told her. He looked at McCall. "Sorry, Nona tends to be a little forgetful these days."

The woman dropped McCall's hands with a disgusted sigh. "I didn't forget you're forty years old. By the time I was forty, I had a grandbaby on the way." She reached over and gave him a little shove for emphasis. "You. Since that time? No more babies."

"I think Ma needs some help in the kitchen," Hunter said.

Nona snorted. "The General's in there giving her orders. Best get your marching papers or get out of her way."

"Come on," Hunter said to McCall. "Let's see if we can find her."

But Nona was quite finished yet. She grasped McCall's hand again as McCall turned to go. "I don't see a ring on this finger, either. You're not married?"

"Nona!" Hunter put his hands on his hips in protest.

"No, ma'am," McCall replied mildly. "I'm not married."

The woman nodded in Hunter's direction. "There's hope for you yet, Ricky."

Hunter yanked McCall away from his grandmother. "Ignore her. She's like a broken record on this topic."

"All I want is to see my grandson be happy," the old woman said with an exaggerated slump of her shoulders. "My one wish. This could be my last Christmas, you know."

"You've been saying that for twenty years now, Nona," Hunter tossed back over his shoulder as they wended their way through the folding chairs toward the kitchen.

"And one day, it will be true!"

In the kitchen, Patricia was wearing a red apron with white script that read, "Buon Natale!" and handing out orders to people as she took a large knife to some helpless herbs. "Benny, can you get the shrimp out from the refrigerator and plate it on that silver platter? No, the other one. Thank you. Miri, dear, the carrots should be chopped as coins, not as sticks. Thank you!"

"Hiya, Mom," Hunter said, leaning down to kiss her cheek.

"My boy, at last," she replied warmly. "Let me get a look at you." She paused to wipe her hands on her apron before turning Hunter front-and-center for a thorough inspection. "You are too thin. You need to eat more."

"I eat plenty," he replied. "Just ask her." He jerked a thumb backwards at McCall.

Patricia poked her head around Hunter, as if noticing McCall for the first time. McCall did her duty as a partner and backed him up. "It's true, he eats—all day long. Carrots, nuts, crackers. The crunching never stops."

These days, it was her who couldn't seem to eat. Everything she was holding in, all the feelings she dared not loose—they took up so much room at her middle that she had no place for food.

"Dee Dee," Patricia said with a smile. "Welcome. I'm so glad you could come today."

"Thank you so much for having me," McCall replied. "What can I do to help?" She cast an uncertain look around the crowded kitchen, where everyone else was busy chopping, mixing or pouring. Pots sat steaming on the stove, bubbling with all sorts of savory aromas. In the oven, some sort of roast was steeping with rosemary and garlic. It was finely controlled chaos, and McCall was frankly terrified to touch any of it.

"Nonsense, you're our guest here, not a servant. Please just relax and enjoy. There's antipasto and cheese and crackers in the dining room. Ricky, sweetheart, get her a glass of wine, won't you?"

Hunter shrugged and did as he was ordered, serving her up a glass of white wine. She took the tiniest sip and gestured back in the direction of the kitchen. "Does my reputation precede me? I can at least help make the salad."

"Take the out if you can get it. Have a seat, relax and take a load off—that is, if you can hear yourself think around here." As if on cue, someone said something that set off a roar of laughter from the kitchen.

McCall did not want to sit and think. In fact, that was about the last thing she wanted to do. Instead, she asked, "Well then, can I see your room?"

"My room?" His eyebrows shot up. "Sure, you can see it. But I think you'll be disappointed."

He led her toward the back of the house, down a hall decorated with old family pictures, past the bathroom, to a small bedroom with one long narrow twin bed and a plain wooden dresser with a crocheted doily on top. The cream-colored walls were bare except for one picture of the Pacific ocean at sunset. Hunter spread out his arms. "Ta-da."

McCall picked up a tiny silver frame sitting on the dresser and studied the black-and-white photo of a young woman within it. "Your mom cleared out the place after you left, huh?"

He looked around with minimal interest. "Nope. This was pretty much it." Off her look, he shrugged. "I didn't grow up here, not really. We moved here after my dad died when I was fourteen. I knew it was never going to be home."

She tried to imagine teenage Hunter lying on the bed, watching out the lone window and dreaming of…what? Someplace else, probably. He had moved four times in the four years she had known him.

He gave her a sudden grin and sat on the bed, bouncing it up and down. "If you want, I could check under the mattress to see if there's a 1964 Playboy in there."

She held up her hands. "Pass, thank you."

He stretched out on top of the blanket and put his hands behind his head, contemplating the ceiling. "I was wrong, though," he said. When she didn't comment, he continued. "After I left the service, after the war stopped, I came back here some nights. I'd let her feed me dinner and we'd watch one of her shows on TV, and then I'd come back in here to sleep. Some nights…some nights it was the only place I could sleep."

He looked over at her, and she quickly ducked her head. She could feel his eyes on her for a long time, and it made her heart start racing. He had asked how she was doing a few times after it happened, and she always brushed him off: I'm fine. If he decided to probe any deeper, she wasn't sure what she would say or even how to say it.

XxX

McCall knew the best way not to do any talking was to let other people do it for you, so she listened to Donna describe some conflict she was having with her neighbor over the height of a shared hedge; Benny go on at length about his choice of Movie of the Year (Lethal Weapon)— "Gibson will get an Oscar for this, you wait and see"—and Cecila, who was hugely pregnant, bemoan the fact that her stomach had actually been compressed by a 9-pound baby and thus she was ravenous all the time but could only eat four bites in one sitting.

Eventually the constant stream of new faces and chatter got too much for her, and she sought out the quiet corner next to Hunter's grandmother. "Yes, please sit," the woman said, patting the chair next to her. "You get old, you move less, and soon you blend right in with the furniture."

"That's lovely, what you're making," McCall replied as she indicated the beautiful magenta and black pattern of yarn across the other woman's lap.

"You like it? It's a sweater for Patricia for Christmas." She paused to lean over toward McCall. "Some people are last-minute shoppers. I am a last-minute knitter." She smiled and her whole face wrinkled up, hiding her twinkling eyes. "I'm just not as fast as I used to be."

"I'm sure she'll love it."

Nona snorted. "She'll tolerate it like she tolerates everything else about me." She glanced over at McCall as her hands took up knitting again. "You work with Ricky?"

"Yes, for years now." Automatically, McCall looked around for Hunter, but she did not see him.

"Ricky's a good boy. Always has been. Never an ounce of trouble growing up—not like mine."

"Patricia?" McCall could just glimpse her through the crowd, with her frosted blonde hair perfectly in place even as she whirled around the kitchen like a maestro conducting a symphony.

"Oh, sweet Mary, yes. Don't let her fool you now. That girl was a pure hellion, right from birth. She climbed the walls when she was two, climbed a giant oak tree when she was eight—when she fell clear out of it and broke her arm in two places. 'Bout stopped my heart at the time. Then at sixteen, she climbed out her bedroom window and met up with all the wrong people. Next thing I knew, she was marrying one." She shook her head. "The more I told her no, the more she wanted it."

"Now that is a trait I recognize," McCall said dryly, and Nona chuckled as her needled clicked together.

"Ricky's stubborn like her, I agree with you there." She shook her head. "You try to teach your kids the best you know how, but they learn more by what you don't say. My girl, she lost her father young, just like Ricky did. Guiseppe was a good man, a good father, but he was killed in an accident when Patricia was just seven years old. Barely out of babyhood. I think she wanted a man to pay attention to her so bad that she took the first one who came along. Only it was bad attention, the worst kind. Ricky, he saw his parents fighting all the time, and now he wants no part of that."

Patricia stuck her head out of the kitchen. "Mama, what are you going on about over there?"

"Nothing, patatina," her mother called back sweetly. "We're just talking."

"Patatina?" McCall murmured as Patricia eyed them with suspicion.

"It means little potato," Nona answered, her smile still in place. "She hates it."

"Ma, why don't you come help me shell the peas?" Patricia called. "Give Dee Dee a break from the family lore."

"I've got arthritis in my hands," the old woman groused. "You want me to fix the peas?"

"You can knit, you can shell peas," Patricia said, and disappeared into the kitchen again.

"I'll go," McCall said. "You should keep working."

"Nonsense," Nona replied as she struggled to her feet. "I need to use the facilities anyway. But don't worry, I'll be back very soon. Don't go 'way."

McCall waited in her seat, wondering if she should search out Hunter, and a few minutes later, she heard Patricia in the kitchen again. "Ma—Mom! What are you doing? You don't snap them in half like that!"

There was some good natured reply from Nona that McCall could not make out, but the next thing she knew, the old woman was shuffling back into the living room again. She backed up to her chair and settled down with a heavy plop. "Turns out that I don't quite remember how to shell peas," she said, sounding not at all regretful. She took up her knitting needles and smoothed the sweater back over her lap. "At my age, you have to decide which memories you want to keep and which you want to let go." She glanced over and winked at McCall. "Now…where were we?"

XxX

Patricia ran out of heavy cream, so Hunter was dispatched to the grocery to find some more. McCall used the intermission to study the family pictures in the hallway. She smiled when she reached what had to be Hunter's high school graduation portrait. He was a lot blonder back then, and baby-faced, although quite serious for a boy who had not yet been to war. There was no sign of the dimples that McCall had come to know and love.

"Handsome, yes?" Patricia asked as she materialized at McCall's side.

He wasn't on the premises, so it was safe to answer. "Yes, definitely," McCall replied.

Patricia looked over the array of photos and adjusted the one closest to her. "He told me that he showed you his bedroom. It's so spartan in there, there's not much to see, and that's probably my fault. Ricky, he was good at sports when he was a young boy. He was so big and strong—and fast, too. But graceful, you know what I mean?"

"I do."

Patricia smiled a little, seeming wistful. "Of course you do. You know better than me now, hmm?" She touched McCall's arm and squeezed her gently. "Ricky should have had a bedroom full of trophies. Instead he had to work. We both did. There just wasn't enough money otherwise once his dad was gone."

"He seems to have come through it just fine," McCall said. "I don't think he needed trophies."

"No," Patricia allowed. "But as his mother, I would have liked to see him get them. You want your children to have everything—everything good." She forced a smile again. "That's why I'm so happy you came today."

"Yes?" McCall was tentative. "I wasn't sure."

"Why not?" Patricia looked perplexed.

"Well, it's just with what happened earlier this year, when Hunter was hurt…" She broke off and looked at the floor. "What you said about how I should have been there. I mean, you're right—I wish I had been, and—"

"What?" Patricia raised a hand to her mouth, looking horrified. "I said what? Please forgive me if I said anything to hurt or offend you. When I got the call from the hospital, I was so scared. I don't really remember what I said."

"Oh," McCall said with relief. "Don't worry. It was a scary time. Forget I even said anything then."

"No," Patricia said, moving closer, searching McCall's face intently. "I'm sorry for what I said to you that day, for anything that made you think I blame you for what happened to Rick. He's been very clear with me: you're the one who saved him."

McCall felt herself flush. "I wouldn't go that far," she mumbled.

"I don't even remember most of what I said. The petrified rantings of a terrified old woman, I suppose. But I remember what you said to me—do you?"

McCall raised her head to meet Patricia's gaze.

"I asked you to tell me he would be all right. I asked the doctors the same thing, and they wouldn't answer. Wait and see. The next twenty-four hours will be crucial. We don't know anything yet. But then I asked you the same thing: tell me he will be okay. And you said yes. Yes, he would be fine." She smiled, her eyes wet. "And he was."

McCall didn't recall saying it, but she remembered doing everything in her power to will it into happening. She simply wasn't willing to accept any other outcome. "Oh," she said, sniffing back her own emotion. "Well, I wish I could claim some credit, but he got better all on his own."

"Not on his own," Patricia corrected her. "I was there. And so were you. These people in the house are his family by birth, by marriage…you're the one he picked for himself."

"I'm not…we're not, uh…" She broke off helplessly in the face of this particular conversation.

"I'm not fishing for anything, and I'm not pushing. My mother is the one who's concerned about Ricky getting married. I don't care what he does with his life as long as he's not alone. These people weren't at the hospital last spring. You were. That's good enough for me."

McCall relaxed a bit for the first time that day. "Well, if I'm family, I think I really ought to be helping with the dinner, don't you think?"

"Absolutely." Patricia linked her arm through McCall's, gave her another squeeze, and proved yet again that her son liked to tell tales out of school. "You can set the table."

XxX

The table was actually three tables patched together with coordinating red and green table cloths. Mismatched chairs and china plates and candlesticks rounded out the scene as McCall carefully laid out silverware at each place setting. Patricia showed her where to get the antique wine glasses, the ones with the gold trim, and McCall was just putting the last two out when Hunter touched her shoulder from behind her. "Need any help?"

She jerked away so hard that she lost control of one of the glasses, which hit the edge of the table on the way down and shattered into five for six pieces. The noise was shocking, and everyone halted to turn and stare. McCall froze for a second, her heart pounding as her brain tried to make sense of what just happened. Glass. Not bullets. She let out a shaky breath and bent to pick up the mess. "I'm so sorry," she murmured as Hunter knelt with her. She hoped he didn't notice her hands were trembling.

"Don't worry about it."

"Your mom's special glasses. I feel awful about this."

"My grandmother probably bought them at a yard sale," he said as he plucked the last of the glass from the carpet.

"I'm sorry," she said again, and Hunter reached out to touch her cheek with his free hand.

"It was an accident," he said. He seemed about to say something more, but Patricia swept in with a mini vacuum and no interest in McCall's apologies.

"They're nothing, just glasses. We can always buy more. Let's just get the food on the table and enjoy a nice dinner."

Everyone sat for dinner. There was grace, followed general merriment and much eating. Dish after dish passed in front of her plate, a dizzying array of risotto, roast beef, potatoes, asparagus, paella, as well as the classic spaghetti and meatballs. McCall helped herself to a few things but largely picked at the food. The family laughed and argued and told stories from Christmases long, long ago, while McCall perseverated on the incident with the broken glass. Stupid, she told herself as the crashing sound replayed in her head. How could you be that stupid?

She had so many noises inside her now, the ones that wouldn't go away: the wooden banister splintering as she fell down the stairs with Fredericks; the crack of her ribs breaking when he landed on top of her; his breathing, loud and harsh in her ears; the gunshot that split her household, marking it forever a before and an after. She was trying, really trying, to find the quiet again, but it just kept slipping through her grasp.

"Hey," Hunter said, jolting her from her thoughts, "is that really all you're going to eat?"

He nodded down at her meager plate. She pushed some potatoes around with her fork and shrugged. "It's all delicious, really it is. I must have filled up on the hors d'oeuvres earlier."

"Hmm." Hunter did not look like he believed her. "As long as you saved room for dessert. Mom makes a killer cheesecake."

McCall tried to smile. "Sounds delicious."

"After dessert, there's some presents and then the family goes to midnight mass," Hunter said. "But you and I don't have to stay for that. I can take you home."

"I don't want to mess up your traditions," she protested. She had already done enough.

Hunter's brow furrowed. "Don't you want to be on the road early tomorrow? I thought you'd want to get to bed."

Bed. She thought with longing to that soft, comfy place she had abandoned weeks ago. She was so tired, but she knew even if she crawled inside and pulled the covers over her head, there would be no real rest for her. Midnight mass was a better alternative than her couch and gun. "I'd like to go," she said, "if it's okay with you. I mean, I'm not Catholic…"

He grinned. "Neither is half the congregation, at least if you want to get technical about it. I haven't set foot in the place since last year, and you can bet I'm not the only one."

She quirked an eyebrow at him, relieved at the change of subject. "God only takes attendance on the high holidays?"

"Let's hope so. Otherwise it could be a toasty afterlife."

XxX

The Church was beautiful, with Spanish-style architecture, a tile floor and round windows. There were wreaths on the walls and candles at the altar. Organ music played softly as people shuffled in to take their seats. Hunter was right: the place was packed, even at midnight, and McCall tried to take up as small a space as possible on the wooden bench, here in this place she knew she did not belong.

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.

She had lured a man to his death and then changed her mind. She still wasn't sure which part of that equation disturbed her more, which one was the greater sin, and so forgiveness seemed impossible.

McCall saw immediately that coming to church had been a mistake. It was too quiet here, with the priest droning on, and there were so many people. She was both alone with her thoughts and trapped in a room with two hundred others. Panic started rising in her, but she swallowed it back down. Beside her, Hunter seemed unaware of her distress. He fidgeted through the introductory rites, fiddling with the end of his tie during the reading of the Christmas story. The music, normally her favorite part, sounded distant and tinny—more of a buzzing than a melody.

She forced herself to listen to the homily, to concentrate on the words and not feel the pounding of her heart. Maybe there would be wisdom here. Something she could hold onto.

The Priest talked about bringing gifts to the baby Jesus, and how the wise men brought expensive luxuries, while the peasants struggled to find anything to offer. They had bits of food and broken clay pots. Some of the people were broken, too, just like the pots—sick or scared or having sinned in some way that left them less than whole. They didn't feel worthy of bringing a gift. It didn't even matter if you glued the pots together again because the cracks would always show. Who could offer something like that to the son of God?

Her throat started seizing up around the broken pots. Sharp and broken. Yes, this was how she felt inside. Her ribs had mostly healed, although they hurt each night when she tried to lie down, just another reminder that she would get no peace. The cracks would always show.

Her palms became cold and clammy. She felt lightheaded and breathless, like her chest was wrapped too tight. "Excuse me," she muttered and pushed past Hunter. She fled the church and hurried out into the frosty night air.

The shock of it, the slap of cold on her face, stopped her short on the walkway. She gulped in several breaths. Los Angeles could feel plenty chilly and dark at times, but she'd never been lost like this. She walked in a circle, rubbing her head, trying to figure out what to do next. She wasn't going to be able catch a cab at midnight on Christmas Eve.

She heard footsteps behind her and whirled around to see Hunter coming down the path. He looked concerned, not angry. "Are you all right?" he asked when he reached her.

She hugged herself for warmth because her coat was back inside the church. "Yeah. I just needed some fresh air. Got a little too warm in there, you know?"

Hunter frowned and looked away. He chewed his lip for a moment and then shook his head as if to clear it. When he spoke, his words came out on little puffs of white air. "I think…I think maybe you should see someone. A doctor. Maybe Anita. Someone you can talk to about what's going on with you."

Her throat closed off again. "Hunter. I just got a little overheated. It's no big deal."

"You could talk to me, of course," he continued as if she hadn't spoken. "But you haven't done that, and I have to believe there's a reason why. So I think you should find someone else, someone who can help you."

"I'm fine."

"You're not fine!" She flinched as he shouted at her, and he immediately softened his posture. "You don't eat, you don't sleep. You don't tell me the truth when I ask what's going on. I don't blame you for any of that, but I can't sit here and pretend it isn't happening. I would have suggested this a long time ago except—" He caught himself, as if he'd said too much.

"Except what?"

His shoulders sagged. "I'm afraid they would tell you enough is enough. That you should walk away." A heavy silence settled between them. "Maybe you should," he said at last. "Hang it up. Find a less dangerous life somewhere else. Go…be happy."

This is it, she thought. This is what he's wanted to tell you all along. "You think I'm broken too, don't you? Like the pots."

"What?"

"I'm crazy. That's what you're saying, right? I should quit and you can get a nice normal partner."

He was looking at her like she was crazy. "I never said that."

"You tried to replace me once this year already. Maybe Megan's already waiting in the wings, is that it? I'm damaged goods now so you can look for an upgrade."

"Okay," Hunter said. "I'm going to need some sort of updated agenda for this conversation, because you have totally lost me. Who is Megan?"

It was her turn to look surprised. "Megan Malone. Your new best friend, remember? A few months ago you were so tight with her, you were practically wearing the same clothes. I couldn't even get you to look me in the eyes anymore, let alone have a conversation."

Hunter spread his arms out. "There's no Megan here. I don't have her stashed someplace, either. 'In case of emergency, break glass and release new partner.' I have a partner. That's you. You're the one I fought to keep, remember?"

There was regret in his eyes, and she saw it. "And now you're sorry," she said softly, surprised she could still hurt. She thought she had shut out everything.

He shook his head slowly. "Not sorry. Worried. I want to help you, but I no longer know how."

If Hunter couldn't help her, she really was too far gone. The thought made tears burn in her eyes, and for once, she didn't fight them back down. "It's no use anyway," she said, her voice thick with emotion. "Didn't you hear him in there? The broken pots aren't good enough, and they don't ever go back together the same way—the cracks are forever."

Hunter considered a moment. When he answered, his tone was tender. "You ran out too soon," he told her. "You didn't hear the end of the story. Those broken pots? And the people? They're the best ones."

"Yeah, right."

"It's true. God loves them the most because they're the ones he can help."

She blinked at him, the tears cold on her lashes. "I don't know."

He nodded and took her hand. "Come on back inside," he said, tugging on her. "God apparently loves a challenge. And coincidentally, so do I."

She allowed him to coax her back inside the church; after all, her coat was still in the building. She shivered with residual cold as she retook her seat next to Hunter's grandmother. Wordlessly, Hunter slipped an arm around her and rubbed her shoulders to warm her up. Nona was frowning and shaking her head as the candles were distributed for the final hymn and the blessing.

"It always struck me as strange anyways," she said to McCall. "Who the hell brings gold and incense for a newborn baby? Those men weren't wise. They were dunderheads."

McCall accepted a candle from the basket and Hunter did the same. The overhead lights went out, cloaking the church in darkness, except for the Christ candle at the altar. A few moments later, the Priest took the flame from the Christ candle and the congregation began to pass it on, each person to the other, until a single flame had turned the entire church back into the light.