Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ashton Park by Murray Pura

Ashton Park
Harvest House Publishers (January 1, 2013)
by
Murray Pura



Chapter 1

April 1916

“Go, girl, go!”

Victoria Danforth leaned into her horse’s neck as it broke out of the forest and drove toward the sea cliff at full gallop.

“Come on, Robin! The man is gaining!”

A green ribbon flew from Victoria’s head and her long auburn hair burst loose. She struck the sorrel’s flanks with the heels of her black leather boots.

“Give me more, my girl, just a bit more!”

The shining sea drew closer and closer. A wind that carried the bite of salt water stung Victoria’s nostrils. Face flushed by the wild ride, eyes glittering like a cat’s, she cried out a final time.

“All you’ve got, my beauty!”

And then she hauled back on the reins, turned the mare’s head to the left, sprang from the saddle, and hit the ground boots-first with a shout. The horse dug in all its hooves and tossed up mud and stone and grass. The cliff edge was only a few yards away when she stopped.

“Good, girl, that was lovely, that was grand!” Victoria stroked the animal’s neck and mane. Both horse and rider were panting. “What a gorgeous view! I’ll never tire of it.”

The brisk ocean breeze pushed back the auburn hair from Victoria’s face, bringing its deep red color out to the light, then turning it over and bringing back its rich browns. It plucked at her forest green riding coat, her white blouse, and the green silk scarf at her throat. The scarf brought out the emerald fire in her eyes.

“Miss Victoria,” came a man’s voice.

She had closed her eyes to better dream of sailing on a ship across the Atlantic to America or Canada. There is land no white man has ever seen, her brother Edward the naval officer had told her once. Mountains where no man or woman has ever placed a foot. Animals that are the stuff of dreams.

“Miss Victoria.” The voice was more insistent.

“Mmm?”

“If ye want to be there to greet your father, we must head back. Even though he’s using the coach he’ll still be at the manor house inside a quarter hour. The train would have arrived at Lime Street Station in Liverpool well over an hour ago.”

Victoria shook her head and laughed. “Old Todd Turpin, my highway-man, you are so particular about clocks and minutes. Is that because your great-great-grandfather’s blood runs in your veins and you know where every coach is on any road at any given minute?”

Todd, a short and slender man of sixty with a flat tweed cap who sat astride a black gelding, flushed. “I’m not related to Dick Turpin. I told ye that before.”

“Just as your mate Brendan Cook is not related to the famous sea cap- tain who also met an untimely end. Though Captain Cook was eaten, while Dick Turpin was merely hanged.”

“Sure, your mother Lady Elizabeth shouldn’t like to hear ye talking like this.”

“Well, she’s not here, is she? Or are you her spy as well as my guardian?”

Todd’s face flushed a deeper red. “I’m no spy neither.”

Victoria gave him a sudden savage glare. “Let us hope not, Old Todd Turpin, or I should have to challenge you to a duel. And you know how quick I am with a blade.” Seeing the startled look that sprang onto his face she laughed again, tossing her hair. “Oh, Todd, when will you ever get to know who I am? I wouldn’t hurt a finger on your hand. You’ve served our family since I was eleven, after all.”

“Well, but ye are not eleven anymore, are ye, Miss?”

Victoria swept up into her saddle, her long hair falling about her shoulders as she adjusted her black riding skirt and leather boots. “I may be eighteen but the eleven-year-old is still in there. Race you to Ashton Park.”

She leaned forward and whistled softly in her mare’s ear. The horse bolted forward, away from the sea cliff and down the path leading back into the forest of tall ash trees. Todd rolled his eyes and muttered, “Ah, dear Lord,” and dug his heels into his gelding’s sides, urging it after the mare. He knew he would never catch Victoria but at least he could keep her in sight.

The soaring ash trees, some two hundred feet high and hundreds of years old, flashed past on either side of Victoria as she and Robin hurtled along the track. She meant to get altogether out of sight of Todd Turpin, who, she was certain, reported to her mother all her goings-on, despite his protests to the contrary. Bending over the mare’s neck, she took a different path and galloped full out over a trail she could have ridden with her eyes closed. It was a shortcut she was certain Todd had never used.

Sure enough, she erupted from the ash trees five minutes before a wor- ried Todd emerged flustered from the main road through the grove. He saw her riding her mare slowly over the large green lawn that surrounded the manor house and called out to her.

“Ye little devil! Ye ought not to do that, Miss Victoria!”

Victoria smiled. “Do what, Old Todd Turpin? Outrace you?”

“Do some kind of witchcraft or spell or whatever it is ye did to vanish from the road and get here ahead of me!”

“Oh, I assure you I am still a good Christian girl, Todd, and all four of Robin’s hooves were planted firmly on the ground. We may have taken flight but we were never in the clouds. You just don’t know the ash grove like I do. Perhaps you don’t have a highwayman’s blood in your veins after all.”

She rode Robin toward the great house with its stone walls and tower- ing brick chimneys and hundreds of windows. Ivy grew green and lush over the entire back of the manor, the oldest part, completed in 1688. The newer wings, dating from the mid-1700s, were clear of growth and the stone shone, in some parts, a soft gray like pigeons, in other parts, a warm honey color, and in still other places, a ruby red that made her think of strawberries. She urged her mare onto the scores of flagstones that rimmed the house, and the horse’s hooves clicked and clacked as Victoria guided her to the front of the ancient and sturdy manor. There were a hundred and sixteen rooms and Victoria had been into most of them at least twice, including the ones her mother had locked up tight.

A cluster of starlings burst from the trees and darted over her head, making the horse rear, nearly throwing her off. “Shhh, my lovely,” she said, quieting the mare, tugging slightly on the reins. “It’s all right.” She stared after the birds as they raced for the far corner of the manor.

“Now what was that all about? Do you suppose they’ve seen hawks?” She glanced at the scores of windows. “Perhaps they saw a ghost. Old Todd Turpin always frightened me half to death with his stories of headless phantoms and Viking raiders swinging swords running with blood. The worst was the woman who burned to death when a candle set her gown on fire.” The horse nickered and Victoria patted her neck. “That really happened. That’s the trouble. A bride going up like a torch and no one could get her gown or corset off. The groom tried so hard and his hands were scarred forever from the flames. He never married again. She was a Danforth.” Victoria shuddered. “Why did I have to start thinking about that gruesome event? Servants say they’ve seen her burning and screaming in the room where it happened. One butler quit over it.” Robin nickered again.

“Miss Victoria!”

“What is it, Old Todd Turpin?” she asked in a tease. “Do you wish to have another race?”

“I’m looking at my watch. Your father will be along in another few min- utes. I’m sure of it.”

“Well, then, I bow to the wisdom of your hoary head, and Robin and I shall proceed to the drive. Thank you.”

The sun had been in and out of the clouds all afternoon. Now a light shower fell softly on Ashton Park and its stone and ivy and grass. It glistened on Victoria’s green sleeves and beaded on Robin’s mane. The oak trees that grew around the old castle that was hundreds of yards away, its turrets just peeking above the treetops, glistened in the fall of the drops.

Victoria rode the mare over the front lawn to the drive and then toward the broad avenue through the gnarled and sweeping oaks, where she knew her father’s coach would soon come. As Victoria watched, the sun slipped back out and the oak forest and castle and avenue caught fire. The beauty of the moment overwhelmed her. Then into the flame of leaves and bending tree trunks, like a moving photograph, a black coach suddenly appeared pulled by two nut-brown horses in harness. Robin threw up her head and gave a short whinny.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s greet them.”

She rode up to the coach as it slowed, its driver cloaked in black with a top hat and scarf. He lifted the hat to her.

“Miss Victoria.”

“Mr. Whitecross. How was the traffic in Liverpool?”

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Path of Freedom by Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Path of Freedom
Abingdon Press (January 2013)
by
Jennifer Hudson Taylor


Chapter 1


A shiver of excitement rushed through Flora Saferight at the thought of their upcoming trip to Virginia. It had been at least two years since she’d seen her aunt and uncle, and even then they had traveled as a family by wagon. Now she and her younger sister would be making the trip by train.

“I think this is sensible for our journey.” Standing in Gilmer General Store, Irene held up a red shawl with a lining. Her blue eyes shone bright in the hope of Flora’s approval. Blond curls framed Irene’s heart-shaped face beneath her white bonnet. With a delicate nose and smooth skin heightened by a blush of enthusiasm, Irene was considered the beauty between them.

“Mother would prefer a sensible cloak,” Flora said. “Charlottesville can get awfully cold in the fall.”

Her sister bit her bottom lip and lowered her gaze in disappointment. A dramatic sigh slipped from her lips. Flora glanced around the general store and spied a rack of cloaks by the front counter.

“Why not try one of those?” She pointed beyond a table displaying hats and bonnets, hoping to lift Irene’s spirits. “Since we don’t have time to make a new cloak and thee has grown out of thy clothes from last winter, I’m sure Mother would approve.”

“True.” A bright smile lit Irene’s face as she sailed over to investigate. “Now that I’m taller than thee, I won’t be inheriting thy clothes.”

The shop door opened, ringing the tiny bell at the top.

“Good morning,” Mrs. Edwards, the store clerk, called from where she stood on a small step stool, stacking bolts of fabric on the wall shelves.

“Morning.” Bruce Millikan stepped inside wearing a white buttoned shirt, tucked into a pair of black trousers. His reddish blond hair lay against his neck beneath his tall black hat. Flora’s stomach shuddered at the thought of another confrontation with him. She took a deep breath, eager to escape before he noticed her.

Bruce glanced back to ensure that the door had closed properly. Flora gulped and turned, taking advantage of his momentary distraction to hurry behind a shelf of oil lanterns.

“Flora Saferight!” His deep voice flowed over her like bittersweet honey before she reached her destination. She waited for the sting of a familiar insult. Other girls may have enjoyed his teasing and attention growing up, but she hadn’t. She closed her eyes, cringing as his booted footsteps charged across the wooden floor.

“Flora?”

She clenched her teeth and forced a smile as she squared her shoulders and prepared to greet him. Staring into his broad chest, Flora had to lean back to gaze into those amazing green eyes. Had he grown taller since she’d seen him eight months ago?

The freckles she remembered had faded beneath a ruddy complexion and a slight tan. A smile eased his lips, revealing straight teeth—too perfect, in her opinion. If only he would smile a little wider, then she’d have the satisfaction of seeing the gaping hole on the left side. Too bad a fall from a tree had been responsible, for she would have dearly loved to claim the honor—especially after he’d teased her about her two front teeth.

What was wrong with her? Guilt sliced through Flora. Her thoughts were much too bitter for a proper Quaker. They had been children. Still, all his barbed words had cut her to the core and continued to sting like a nasty bee buzzing around inside her soul. “Good morning, Bruce Millikan. I wasn’t aware thee was back in town.”

“I arrived home a fortnight ago.” He blinked and his smile waned. “For a moment, I thought thee might be trying to avoid me.”

Flora lifted her chin and met his gaze. “Do I look like I’m avoiding thee?” She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him with what she hoped was her best disapproving look. “Goodness, Bruce Millikan, thee acts as if I knew thee would walk right through that door. Since when has thee known me to back down from anything?”

His lips curled as two thin lines framed each side of his smile. He shook his head in slow motion. “No, Beaver Face, no one could ever accuse thee of ignoring a challenge.” He gave a reminiscing chuckle. “Thee is the most headstrong girl I’ve ever known—and foolhardy at times.” He folded his arms and stared down at her as if she were still a wayward child.

“Foolhardy? Beaver Face? Really, Bruce, one would hope thee would eventually grow up and leave the childhood namecalling behind.” Flora bristled, his words scalding her heart like a new flesh wound. “We may only be a year apart in age, but thee hasn’t changed one bit.”

“Come on, Flora, I didn’t mean it like that. It’s more of an endearment now.” He stepped closer, leaning forward. “The rest of thy teeth have grown in and are now perfect.” He glanced behind him as if to see if anyone else was listening. “I’m sorry. I wish I’d never called thee that. I’ve sure spent every day since paying for it.”

She stepped back, confused by his nearness and stunned by his apology. Flora swallowed, clearing her mind. The childhood taunts she could forgive, but the idea that he would insinuate she was foolish when she’d worked so hard to become a proper young lady of eighteen chafed her.

“Apparently, thee isn’t sorry. For thee just called me foolhardy. I’ll have thee know, there’s a good doctor in Virginia who thinks very highly of me. As a midwife, I will, he believes, complement his practice rather well.” Clint Roberts had only mentioned it once in a letter, but she chose to interpret his words to mean that. No need in letting Bruce know she exaggerated.

“What doctor?” The light left his green eyes and his lips dropped in a frown. “Is thee courting a doctor?” He shifted, placing his fists at his side.

Irene walked over with a dark purple cloak draped over her arm. The bell rang and a new customer walked in, greeting Mrs. Edwards.

“It’s true,” Irene said. “Flora met him two summers ago when we were visiting our aunt and uncle. They’ve been corresponding ever since.”

Thrilled that her sister would come to her aid, Flora beamed at Bruce. “See? Perhaps thee is the only one who harbors such an opinion of me.” She stepped around him and over to her sister’s side. “I’m content to live with the knowledge that I’ll always be an ugly Beaver Face girl to thee, and thee will always be a mean-spirited bully to me—a childhood nightmare I’m more than happy to forget.”

She linked arms with her sister and turned, leading Irene to the front counter. “For that, dear sister, thee may have a purple cloak. Thee deserves something a little less . . . plain today,” Flora whispered in her ear.

“Flora, thee has an imagination to feed a pack of werewolves,” Bruce called from behind. “Thee is twisting my words. It isn’t like that.”

“Indeed,” she mumbled loud enough for only Irene to hear. “Over the years it has been much worse.”

* * *

It took three trips, but Bruce finally hauled all the supplies he’d purchased to the wagon parked out front. He dropped the last twenty-pound bag of flour in the bed and rubbed the dust from his hands.

An image of Flora Saferight came to mind. She wasn’t as plain as she thought. In fact, she had grown into a beautiful woman, but he couldn’t give her the satisfaction of knowing he thought so. Flora possessed blue-gray eyes that could captivate a man until he lost his senses. Her coffee-colored hair matched her spirited personality—vibrant and alive.

Why had he called her foolhardy? He touched the palm of his hand to his forehead in disbelief. Now she had another grievance to hold against him in addition to his long list of past sins. While some of her decisions were impulsive, and she needed more time to mature, he didn’t think of her as a child, either. Flora was an enigma, with the cunning ability to challenge and frustrate him. Yet, in spite of being an annoyance, she intrigued him.

Wagons and carriages rolled by, crunching pebbles and dirt in the road. Two women stopped to converse on the corner in front of the barber shop. He strained to see if they were Flora and Irene, but when they turned, he realized it was a mother and daughter.

Disappointment fueled a fire his chest. He wanted to find out more about the doctor in Virginia. Was she serious about this man? Bruce strolled around the wagon and prepared to pull himself up into the seat.

“Good day, Bruce Millikan,” a familiar voice called from behind.

Bruce turned to see Pastor John Allred striding toward him from across the street. He had to dodge a rider before he reached Bruce. They shook hands in a firm grip, greeting each other with smiles.

“Glad to see thee back. When did thee arrive in town?” John asked.

“Almost a fortnight ago. I’m sorry I missed meeting last week, but I plan to be there this Sunday. It was a long trip to Indiana. I’ve been trying to catch up on some chores around the farm.”

“No need to explain.” John shook his head and waved his hand to dismiss the issue. “Thee is doing important work for the Lord. That’s the main thing. Was the mission successful?”

“Yes, but I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again and catching up on all the news. I just ran into Flora and Irene Saferight.”

“I heard they’re about to leave on the train to Virginia.” John rubbed the back of his neck. “Speaking of which, there’s something I’d like to discuss with thee. Would thee be willing to come over for supper tonight?”

Bruce rubbed his chin. What would Flora’s trip to Virginia have to do with him? Curious, he nodded. “I’ll tell Mother not to expect me for supper when I return. Flora mentioned a doctor she met up there two summers ago. Does thee know when they’ll be leaving?” Bruce hoped his voice sounded casual. “I thought she was planning on being a midwife around here.”

“I don’t reckon her plans have changed.” John shook his head, his brown eyes lit up, and a smooth grin spread across his face. “In fact, she helped Hazel Miller birth her latest child. I think Flora will prove to be one of our community’s best assets.”

Not if she moves away to Virginia. The sudden thought made Bruce’s stomach churn. She was too young. What was she thinking? He’d only been gone eight months. How could things change so fast?

“Well, Pastor John, I’d better get these things home and put away so I can make it over to your place in time for supper.”

“Good idea, Bruce.” John slapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll see thee in a little while.”

Bruce gave him a nod and climbed into the wagon. He took the reins, unset the brake, and guided the horse down the street.

* * *

Flora didn’t slow until the post office was in sight. Her sister breathed heavily from their brisk pace, hauling her new cloak over her arm.

“I still don’t see why thee wouldn’t let me stop long enough to put my cloak in the wagon. Besides, I thought we had more shopping to do.” Irene glared at Flora while they waited for a buggy to pass before crossing the street.

“I promise. We’ll go back and finish our shopping after I’m sure Bruce Millikan is gone.” Flora charged into the street and stomped across the dirt road.

“Thee cannot avoid him forever. Forgive him for the past and let it go. He’s right. It was a long time ago.”

“It’s true that Beaver Face was a long time ago, but his calling me foolhardy this morning isn’t.” Flora blew out a puff of air. If it were possible for a human being to explode, she’d be in a million pieces right now.

She swung open the post office door and an elderly woman stumbled out.

“Oh! Pardon me.” Flora reached for the woman’s elbow to steady her.

“Goodness!” The gray-haired woman righted herself and smoothed her skirts. She lifted her chin and glanced up at Flora and then Irene with brown eyes of stone. “You young people need not be in such haste. I daresay, this post office won’t grow legs and walk, you know.”

“We’re sorry.” Flora pressed her lips together to keep from laughing.

Inside, Flora blinked, adjusting her eyes to the darkness. She strode toward the open window, where Joseph Miller, the clerk, greeted her with a genuine smile.

“Howdy, Miss Saferight and Miss Saferight.” He nodded to Irene standing by Flora. “Hazel and the baby are doing very well. You did a fine job delivering my baby girl.” He rubbed the top of his bald head, which sported a thin layer of brown hair stretched from ear to ear.

“I’m glad to hear it. I hope to stop by for a visit before we leave on our trip to Virginia,” Flora said.

“Hazel would like that. I think the confinement is starting to bother her.”

“It won’t be long before she’ll be able to go out into society again.” Flora pulled out a folded letter addressed to her aunt. “I need to send this to Charlottesville, Virginia.”


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hurt by Travis Thrasher

Hurt
David C. Cook; New edition (January 1, 2013)
by
Travis Thrasher

Preface

That’s no ordinary dog.

It looks more like a sickly and bloated leopard. It doesn’t quite have thick fur but does have something shaggy hanging off it, like dried leaves or clumps of mud. It’s snarling and growling.

That’s the same dog that attacked me on the Staunch property that one time.

I stop, unsure what to do. Keep walking and just ignore it? Put Kelsey down and try to fight it with … with a Zippo lighter? I’m all out of supernatural stuff in my pockets.

Why couldn’t I have found a magical dagger or something?

There’s a howling from behind me that sounds like a dying wolf.

No. No, don’t let there be more.

The demon dog starts walking toward me. Its open mouth is dripping gray spit. Its eyes are glowing, a disturbing kind of glow, not a majestic kind. I smell a rotten odor.

I back up. One step. Two.

I have to get to those woods.

The dog is coming faster, and I know I have only seconds.
Suddenly I hear the wild wolf sound again, but this time it’s ahead of me.

Then I see something coming out of the woods, rushing toward the demon dog.

It’s a wolf.

No, it’s not a wolf. It’s the wolf, the one I’ve seen before. The gray wolf that I saw at the creek and also near the barn after Jocelyn died.

I hear its teeth ripping something apart and then hear the high-pitched wailing of the dog. It’s awful and makes me close my eyes.

Another wolf comes out of the woods and attacks from the other side. And I realize—not all animals around here are possessed or evil.

Especially not these wolves.

I hear gnawing and biting and growling and wailing, and then it
seems like the air around us gets sucked in and the lights go out for the moment and I feel a chilling breeze

death

blow past Kelsey and me and then it’s done.

The dog and the smell are gone.

The wolves are sniffing the ground where it was standing and seem as puzzled as I am about the disappearance.

They turn and face me, and I look at them. I want to say thanks or toss them a hamburger or something. I’m not sure what to do.

The gray wolf bolts into the trees and is followed by the darker one. The path ahead is empty now. Empty and safe.

I just hope that it’s not too late for Kelsey.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Doctor To The Rescue by Cheryl Wyatt

Doctor To The Rescue
Love Inspired (December 18, 2012)
by
Cheryl Wyatt



Chapter 1

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.

"By yourself?"

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.

Go."

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?"