Bri Landis's pulse lurched like the ladder beneath her feet.
With her waist at roof level, she clawed at the eaves of her run-down lake lodge, understanding her brother Caleb's caution to never climb alone. Heart thumping, Bri clutched the gutter. Ominous buckling. No!
It ripped free in a spray of rust and screeching metal. Screams tore through her as she plummeted…into a bush.
Bri could only gulp. Blink. Moan. She should have listened to her brother, she thought. Caleb was overseas on army medic duty instead of here at home in Eagle Point, Illinois, witnessing Bri make friends with her favorite shrub.
Now the shrub was squished and she was sprawled in it, lamenting her long hair. She disentangled her blond hair, then struggled to get upright amid a sharp sea of scarlet. Sweat beaded her forehead despite late-December's chill.
Her untimely ladder escapade put a painfully ironic twist on this being the last day of "fall."
Bri emerged, corky twigs crackling and biting like spindly wooden teeth. Jagged underbrush snagged her brother's favorite hoodie. Bri pulled it from the branches holding it hostage. Gasp.
Pain seared her left arm. She slid the cuff and looked at it. Unnatural angle. Disbelief slid through her like the ladder off the roof. No question: arm broken.
And with it all hope of meeting the bank's deadlines.
Dismay ran through her. Saving Landis Lodge— Eagle Point's only retreat center and her family heritage—from foreclosure, meant renovating and renting seven cabins by mid-February. Roughly one cabin a week. She'd sold the daycare she owned in Chicago and moved home to make it happen.
Now days from Christmas, she risked losing the last thing her late mother loved—the lodge Bri had inherited and promised to save. No way could she afford contractors.
Her teeth chattered. "Where's my stupid phone?" She needed help ASAP.
Forget going back into the bush to find her phone. A new trauma center sat right next door. Bri held her arm high and stationary and bolted from her yard, not caring if she resembled a maniac.
Eagle Point Trauma Center came into view over a leafy hill.
She'd never been so glad to see a modern facility nestled against rustic Eagle Point Lake, stately risen bluffs, scenic trails and seriously fun caves. The serene landscape of Bri's childhood home calmed her against the mind-bending pain gnawing her arm.
Halfway to EPTC, dizziness hit Bri. She fell to her knees and clung to a parking barricade.
"She's hurt!" someone yelled across the lot. Bri couldn't be sure who it was. Nausea sent her face between her knees. Rapid footsteps pounding nearby pavement competed with the pulse swooshing her ears. Strong hands gently braced her shoulders. "Hey, you okay?"
Her bad day just got worse.
Bri blinked up into the stunning aqua eyes of the absolute last person she wanted seeing her in this state. Dr. Ian Shupe.
Yet, for the first time since meeting him weeks ago, concern and compassion emanated from the tall, dark and imposing anesthesiologist's normally sullen eyes.
"What happened, Bri?"
"Ladder slid. I f-fell," she puffed past savage pain. Ian's assessing eyes quickly roved over her. "How far?"
Tremors overtook her. "Maybe nine feet."
Did his face just pale? For sure, his jaw tightened. Probably thought she was an idiot. Ian's warm fingers felt soft yet strong and capable as they examined her elbow.
Kate, the center's surgical nurse, skidded in, dropped to her knees, took one look at Bri's injured arm and gave Ian a pointed look.
He nodded once. "Already saw it. Get a gurney and splints."
"Will do." Kate flashed Bri a strength-infusing smile, then dashed back toward the trauma center.
"C-collar, too," Ian called to Kate, then faced Bri again. Broad shoulders and impressive arms obviously well acquainted with a gym flexed and bunched as he maneuvered closer, training his eyes on her. His firm strength and sure demeanor erased her fears and convinced her that despite his terse reputation she was in good hands. "Where do you hurt most?"
"My left forearm. But I think I can walk the rest of—"
"No. In fact, don't move." Ian shirked off his suit coat, its raven color identical to his black military-style hair. Coat spread on asphalt, he settled Bri on it. His palms became her pillow. His gesture soothed. "Did you land on concrete?"
She started to shake her head but stopped when Ian's thumbs pressed against her temples, keeping her neck still.
"No. I landed in the waiting arms of a winged eu-onymus."
"A what?" Confusion amped up his cuteness.
"Big red hedge. More widely known as a burning bush."
A congenial nod seemed out of character for his usual surly self. His fingers kneaded and prodded her bones and muscles. Fierce concentration knit his brows. Had he any idea how handsome he was in doctor mode? Her arm might be broken, but nothing was wrong with her eyes. Bri chided herself for noticing the good doctor's bad-boy looks.
Not only had military deployments and divorce left him notoriously difficult and brooding, Bri's heart still felt raw after the end of a bad relationship with a verbally abusive boyfriend.
Her move from the Chicago suburbs to downstate Illinois had finally given her the long-needed courage to break up with Eric two months ago. If only he'd stop calling and harassing her. Dr. Shupe's abrasive manner reminded her too much of Eric. Except, Ian wasn't being curt and caustic now, but gentle and thorough.
Bri huffed at the physical exam. "Nothing's numb. Or tingly. Or blurry. I didn't hit my head or black out, either."
Ian's mouth twitched. Wrestling back a smile? She'd love to see it. She didn't think him capable of glee before now.
Bri sighed. "Sorry. Caleb's injury training wears off on me. I'm his study buddy and procedural guinea pig. He splints, tags, bandages, braces and bores the living daylights out of me for his military medic certifications and field practice exams."
The humor whispering along Ian's lips in a near smile spread to his eyes now, deepening them to a breathtaking blue. They turned serious and probing. "What were you doing on the ladder?"
"Renovating the lodge. Replacing eaves." Or attempting to.
Here came the lecture. She got enough of those from Caleb over her fierce determination to save Landis Lodge.
If she lost the lodge, she might also lose the memories, especially of childhood with Mom. Grief knotted her throat.
"Who else do I have?" She bit her lip as Ian's eyebrows rose. But she had valid reasons to grouch. Her ex was a dud, her dad a deadbeat, her mom was deceased, her brother was deployed and a bank breathed ultimatums down her back. Now a broken arm ordeal that she didn't have time for. But it could have been much worse. Lord, thank you for cushioning my fall.
"Who's on call?" Bri instantly regretted her words. "You're obviously off duty and not who'd take care of me, since you're an anesthest—however you say it. I won't need one of those, right?"
Ian's vague expression did not make her feel good.
Lord, please don't let me need surgery. Ian's inexplicable rudeness since she'd moved back here proved she wouldn't be his first choice in a patient.
Her new friends, Lauren and Kate, had told her that Ian only acted abrasive because he was attracted to Bri in the wake of his unwanted divorce. Gibberish.
On the other hand, the girls had to be in the know, since they were nurses on Ian's trauma team. Plus Lauren's fiance, Mitch, was Ian's best friend and lead trauma surgeon on the team. Ian suddenly flashed a penlight at her eyes, dotted with… "Fairy stickers?"
He smiled wryly. "My little daughter put them there." The five-year-old he'd been embroiled in custody battles over. Ian would probably freak if he knew how Bri knew about that. She focused on the fairies to distract from excruciating arm pain.
Kate arrived with a gurney and supplies. After applying the neck brace, she brandished a pair of bandage scissors.
"Don't cut my hoodie! It's Caleb's keepsake. Please, I have a tank top underneath." The world went sideways as they rolled Bri onto a backboard before righting her. Kate texted someone.
"I'll try. No guarantees." Ian eased the hoodie off and splinted her arm as if he'd done it a hundred thousand times. Probably had, overseas during combat surgeries.
"Didn't realize you could do all that being an anest—that."
Ian's mouth thinned into another smirk.
Kate leaned toward his ear. "Since your final custody hearing's in an hour, I paged the nurse-anesthetist on call."
Ian glanced at his watch. Scratched his jaw. Addressed Kate in low tones. Bri heard mention of her brother's name. Caleb had commissioned Ian to watch over her when he deployed last week. Why Ian? Especially in light of Ian's hostility toward her.
Then Caleb had suddenly dubbed Ian her bodyguard? What was up with that? She didn't need to be protected. Or babysat.
Ian plucked sage twigs, fiery leaves and feathers from her hair. "Nest?"
"Almost." Kate winked and strode in her usual militant but graceful fashion. How Kate could be runway-model pretty and a black belt was beyond Bri, but Kate was someone Bri was glad to know. Except she aimed a needle at her now.
Bri squished her eyes until the worst was over. Eyes open, she realized she'd not only grabbed Ian's arm but left crescent marks. Bri recoiled, fearing an acrid verbal assault like ones Eric was prone to.
But Ian didn't seem fazed. Calmly and gently, he wiped his arm with sterile gauze.
Perhaps Bri's friends had been right: the craggy, abrasive creature she’d experienced for the past few weeks wasn’t the real Ian.
Ian refused to react to the sting of Bri's nails. She was anxious, hurting and stressed, so her actions were understandable.
Odd, though, her latching onto him for comfort so easily. Especially since he'd been a total jerk to her for weeks.
Not liking the claws of guilt scraping at him, Ian adjusted Bri's IV drip and faced Kate, jotting Bri's vitals. "She needs antibiotics, trauma labs, X-rays and CTs stat."
Kate nodded. They effortlessly hefted the backboard to the gurney and push-ran Bri, who was so tall her heels almost hung off the end.
Kate's cell chimed. Without missing steps, she answered. "Hey, wanna start this way? Ian needs to cut out and we have an incoming ladder mishap. Yeah. Lodge owner next door."
"Lisa, my nurse anesthetist." Ian couldn't miss this court hearing. Yet he couldn't leave Bri. Her condition could skid off a cliff without warning. Eighty percent of people falling from heights of eleven feet or more died. She'd fallen nine. Internal injuries didn't always present right away.
He'd learned that the hard way, overseas while deployed with Mitch, Kate and other air force trauma-team members who had yet to join them at EPTC, Mitch's stateside endeavor.
"Why would I need an anesthes—that thing?" Bri swallowed.
Ian glanced down, resisting the urge to rest a calming hand on hers. "In case the need arises to surgically repair your arm."
She had no clue that could be the least of her worries. Part of his job, for now, was to keep her clueless. If she were bleeding internally, increased anxiety could speed her pulse, hasten hemorrhage and put her life at risk.
"The break is bad, isn't it?" Dread crinkled her forehead. "How soon can I use my arm?"
Ian's determination sparked. "Only after it's healed."
Bri tensed and licked her lips. "And when will that be?"
Inside EPTC, they wheeled Bri into a trauma bay. "Depends on if soft tissue is involved or just bone. Six weeks minimum."
"Six week—" Choked on the words, Bri tried to sit up. Kate restrained her. "I'll never make the deadline!"
She must mean foreclosure proceedings. Caleb had filled Ian in. Bri's face strained as he studied her. Sensing her struggle, Ian squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, then stepped out. Simple gesture. Sincere. Yet it seemed to make her want to cry more.
He wished he could help, but he had his own stuff going on. Deadlines from every direction. Work, plus training, plus helping set up a second trauma crew so EPTC didn't lose vital funding.
Then there was Tia, his only daughter and number one priority. She should have been all along, but a mentally unstable mother and a cross-continental war had caused him to be a stranger in his daughter's eyes.
Ian's gut clenched. Sweat misted his palms. If he didn't show in court today, that could put him in jeopardy with the judge who would decide Tia's fate and their future as a family.
He eyed his watch, and hoped Lisa would get here soon or he'd be faced with abandoning a patient and breaking a battlefield promise to a brother-in-arms. Stress drove him to walk halls.
After pacing, Ian parked his anesthesia cart outside Bri's bay. Regret multiplied. He'd promised Caleb to watch over her. He'd failed. He owed Caleb. Big-time. Ian reentered Bri's room, intent on righting his wrong. "You hangin' in there, Bri?"
Not until seeing her under fluorescent lighting did he realize how white-blond and silky long her hair was. Blinking swiftly, she aimed her pretty cornflower-blue eyes up at him, making him momentarily forget what he came in here for. Must be lack of sleep from a week's worth of on-call nights. "Dr. Shupe, what turned me too stupid to heed Caleb's warning?"
He wanted to chuckle. "It's Ian. And trust me, my list of stupid things is twice as long as yours. Kate's is triple."
Kate snorted from the corner of the room and stepped out. Bri's face sobered. "Seriously, what stripped my common sense today?"
"Could be the ominous bank notices you've been getting recently."
She stared long and hard at him. "You know about that?"
He nodded. Bri lost the battle holding in her tears the second Kate came in carrying X-rays and a sympathetic expression. "Sorry, Bri. The bones aren't aligned, so surgery is a must."
Ian knew that could double her recovery time and triple her chances of losing the lodge. Compassion for Bri and Caleb washed over Ian. They had just lost their mom and were about to lose their childhood home and heritage. Not to mention the community was about to lose an iconic retreat center that once was, according to Mitch, the bustling pulse of the rustic, close-knit community.
The bank had planned to shut down and level the Lan-dis family's grounds, which included the main lodge, fourteen cabins and seven bunkhouses.
His morning runs around Eagle Point Lake revealed the retreat as a flat horizontal triangle. The main lodge made the point, seven cabins on either side angled out in two lines and bunkhouses formed a bottom line opposite the lodge.
"Bri, if you're worried about losing the lodge, don't be."
Surprise flashed across her face. Tears welling up meant he'd hit a nerve. "Your cabins need to be fixed. I worked construction in college. Let me help."
"I don't accept anything for free."
"You can't be serious?" The stubborn set to her jaw said she was. "Fine. Caleb mentioned you have a childcare degree. I need a permanent sitter for Tia. Problem solved."
"You mean, like a barter?"
"That's exactly what I mean. Think about it."
The next moments were a flurry of activity as Bri was assessed, prodded, questioned, medicated, primped with surgical garb and prepped.
Ian smiled at her. Her vitals had calmed after he'd proposed the barter. It could work. He'd just have to be brutal with his time, which meant no entertaining, no socializing and definitely no dating.
Lisa rushed up, tying her mask. "I'm here, Ian. Shoo.
Bri hyperventilated at the O.R. doors. Understandable, since, according to Caleb, their mom died in surgery. Ian brushed fingers along Bri's hand. She clutched him in a death grip. "Please don't tell Caleb I broke my arm. I'm scared it'll distract him in combat. I can't lose another family member. He's all I have." Her raw voice disintegrated.
That she was more concerned for her brother than for herself hit Ian to the core.
He held on to her fingers as long as he could. He was already late for court, and her orthopedic surgeon waited not so patiently. But Bri's pleading eyes really got to him.
But, he had to get to court.
He also had to call her brother. If she had complications in surgery or under general anesthesia, they'd need directives from family. She'd be mad, but being a doctor wasn't a popularity contest. It meant making hard decisions that sometimes caused pain. He averted his gaze.
"Ian, Caleb can't know I'm in surgery. Okay?"