Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.
This might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, Charley Abbott thought as she jogged up a steep incline covered with snow and ice. But God forbid she back down from a direct challenge from her sworn nemesis. Said nemesis was trudging along next to her, smoothly navigating the hazardous trail and barely breathing hard when she was about to die from the exertion and the cold. Not to mention her face was numb, and she suspected her numb face was covered in frozen snot. But since backing down was not an option, she kept plugging along, uphill, in the snow, determined to see this through to the finish even if it killed her.
The way he’d looked her in the eye and said, “If it’s too much for you, I’ll go alone. One week off from training won’t derail you.” Feeling like a bull that’d had a red flag waved in front of its face, Charley had picked up that gauntlet and run with it, straight up an icy hill with no end in sight. Surely her lungs would explode or her legs would fall off before they reached the peak. And then there was the matter of getting back down . . . One thing at a time, Charley.
Whose freaking idea had it been to train for a marathon anyway? As she ran through the frigid tundra that had kept every other member of their running club home today—except for him, of course—she couldn’t remember a single reason why she’d wanted to run a marathon in the first place. A stupid, ridiculous, painful goal. But Charley didn’t do easy, so naturally she’d picked a challenge that required her to run in weather like this.
Next to her, Tyler Westcott made it look easy. That was just another thing to hate about the man who drove her crazy with his insistence that she should go out with him when she had zero interest in him. Sure, he was good looking and fit, and he had a decent job or so it seemed from the top-of-the-line Range Rover he drove, the stylish clothes he wore and the way in which he carried himself. Too bad none of that impressed the woman who’d already dated her way through Butler, Vermont, and found every man she met lacking in some way or another.
Why Tyler thought he would be different was beyond her, as was the top of this hill. With her eyes now officially frozen open, Charley decided enough was enough. Even if it meant having to look less than capable to him, she was calling a stop to this workout from hell.
As she opened her mouth to speak, the ground fell out from under her. She screamed as she fell down a steep embankment, smashing against trees and rocks and other obstacles before landing with her right leg wrenched under her at an awkward and painful angle. Her chest heaved from the effort to draw air into her lungs, and everything hurt.
From far off in the distance, she heard Tyler calling her name, but since she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t reply either.
“Charley, oh my God! Say something or do something to let me know you’re alive.”
Weakly, she raised an arm in acknowledgment.
“Thank God. I’m going for help. I’ll be back as fast as I can. Do you hear me?”
She raised her arm again.
“You’re going to be fine. I promise. Hang in there until I get back.”
Charley waved her hand, hoping he’d get the message to just go already. She shivered so violently that her teeth chattered, but oddly she didn’t feel cold. Trying to remember what her paramedic brothers had taught her about shock and cold-weather survival, her mind wandered to worst-case scenarios. What if Tyler fell or hurt himself on the way back or he couldn’t find the place where she’d fallen? What would happen then? Was it already getting darker, or was something wrong with her eyesight, too?
The uncontrollable shivering and the pain coming from her knee were so intense they required almost all her attention. This was bad. No way around it, she was in big trouble here. And her life depended on a man she’d rejected so often it was a wonder he didn’t have a complex. The irony would be funny were it not for the awful pain coming from her knee.
Her stomach heaved, and she turned her head to vomit, noting a speck of blood in the snow. Did that mean she was bleeding inside?
Charley had no idea how long she lay in the snow, shaking and aching and vomiting repeatedly, aware enough to know she was drifting in and out of consciousness. The ever-present pain dragged her out of blissful unconsciousness.
It could’ve been hours or days for all she knew before she heard activity above her, and the sound of Tyler’s frantic voice as he screamed for her. “Charley! I’ve brought help. We’re coming down to you. Just hang on.”
She couldn’t manage to raise her arm to acknowledge him, which made her feel bad. In the deep recesses of her mind, she knew he had to be panic stricken, and she was sorry to have put him through such an ordeal. He might not be the man for her, but he was nice to be so concerned.
Then she heard her brothers Landon and Lucas above her, screaming orders and getting closer to her. She shifted her gaze up and saw them dangling on ropes, rappelling down the side of the steep hill. Above them, she could hear Tyler arguing with the person in charge of stopping him from coming down, too.
“Charley, honey,” Lucas said when he reached her. “Talk to me.”
“Hey,” she croaked.
“Where does it hurt?”
“Can you move everything?”
She forced her fingers and toes to move. “Yeah.”
Landon came down on the other side of her. “That’s one hell of a drop, sis. Leave it to you to do it up in style.”
“I know. We’re going to give you something for that. Hang on.”
The next hour was a blur of pain and agony and movement and people. They strapped her to a backboard and then got her into a litter that they used to haul her back up the way she’d come. It had taken far less time to come down the mountain than it did to go back up.
Landon had given her a shot to take the edge off the pain, so she floated between awareness and darkness. Nothing seemed real, except for the anguish on Tyler’s face as he ran alongside her, holding her hand as the paramedics worked to get her down the mountain while the snow continued to fall.
She wanted to shake him off, to tell him she didn’t need him to hold her hand, but she couldn’t seem to make her limb cooperate with the message from her brain. So she endured attention from him that she’d never wanted. Then it occurred to her that he’d saved her life, and she ought to cut him some slack. She’d see to that after she stopped hurting so badly.
They bounced along the trail, every bump sending pain rocketing through her body. The worst of it was in her knee, which was now braced and iced, as if any part of her needed to be colder. Her teeth continued to clatter from the uncontrollable shivering that made her feel like she was connected to something electrical.
Mercifully, she blacked out for a big part of the trip down the mountain, coming to as her brothers and the other firefighters pulled Tyler away from her so they could load her into the ambulance. In the background, she could hear him yelling at someone, begging to be allowed to accompany her to the hospital.
“Let him in,” Landon said, apparently overruling the objections of others because he was her brother and knew best. How could he know that Charley didn’t want to encourage Tyler’s misplaced affection? And with an oxygen mask now covering her face, it wasn’t really the time to clue Landon in on the true nature of her “relationship,” such as it wasn’t, with Tyler
The man in question sat on the bench across from her. Glancing over at him, she was shocked to see him disheveled and spent from the ordeal. He was always so supremely well put together. It was one of the things she’d found off-putting about him—he usually smelled and dressed better than her or any woman she knew. He was like her brother Hunter in that way. It would be weird to be attracted to a man who reminded her of her older brother.
At the moment, however, Tyler bore no resemblance whatsoever to his usually well-put-together self. He seemed frazzled and frozen and on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Keeping his hand over his mouth, he stared at her while her brothers tended to her on the way to the hospital. She thanked God that her younger brothers hadn’t needed to remove her clothing.
They started an IV that had her whimpering from the pain of the needle stick.
Tyler was right there, brushing the hair back from her face and wiping up her tears with a tissue. “You’re going to be okay, Charley. I know it hurts now, but the doctors will fix you right up, and you’ll be back to your usual ball-busting self in no time.”
“Please allow us to enjoy the break while it lasts,” Lucas said dryly, making her smile. If he was joking, the situation must not be as dire as she’d feared.
“Seriously,” Landon added. “Enough with our older siblings falling off things.”
His comment served as a reminder to Charley about the harrowing accident Hunter had while rock climbing last fall. He’d broken something. She couldn’t recall what inside the fuzziness of the drugs they’d given her. But the pain had let up somewhat, and the heat blanket they had wrapped her in was the best invention since sex. However, she could live without the burning sensation in her frozen feet and hands as the blood began to flow once again.
When they arrived at the emergency room, things happened fast. Her brothers and Tyler disappeared from view, and she wanted to ask if Tyler was okay after spending hours in the freezing cold. Was someone looking after him, too? But her tongue was too big for her mouth, or at least that was how it felt.
The doctors and nurses worked quickly to free her from her clothes, to assess her injuries, to clean cuts and treat bruises. She floated along on a sea of drug-induced tranquility until someone tried to move her injured knee, and she heard herself screaming, as if she were outside the room watching from somewhere else.
Then blissful darkness sucked her down and under, giving merciful relief.
“I heard her screaming,” Tyler said to the nurse whose sole job, or so it seemed to him, was to keep him away from Charley. “You have to let me back there. She needs familiar faces.”
“Dude.” Lucas took him by the arm. “They won’t even let us back there, and we’re her brothers. Take a chill. They’ll let us know as soon as they have any kind of news.”
“The fact that she’s screaming is actually a good thing,” Landon said. “It means she’s alert.”
“It means she’s in pain,” Tyler said through gritted teeth.
“Did you get in touch with Mom and Dad?” Lucas asked Landon.
He shook his head. “I tried to call the airline, but they couldn’t do anything. They said the plane had already boarded.”
“Where’re they going?” Tyler asked.
“London,” Lucas said. “They’ve had this trip planned for a year. They were due to fly out of Boston this morning sometime.”
“Just as well,” Landon said. “There’s nothing they can do for her that one of us can’t do while they’re gone.”
“Mom will want to turn right around and come back home when she hears about this.”
As he listened to them, Tyler ran scenarios in his mind. He’d call in nurses, he’d order the equipment she’d need to get by at home—and he’d take her to his home, which was all one level and easy to navigate if she was temporarily in a wheelchair or on crutches. He’d tend to her every need himself. After all, it was his fault for taking her up on the mountain when the weather was so shitty. The run uphill had been his idea. In truth, he’d been certain she’d decline the challenge he laid out to her after they were the only two who showed up for the weekly run.
When she’d given him her trademark mulish look and taken off up the trail, he’d had no choice but to go with her into the foothills of Butler Mountain, pushing himself to his limits right along with her. And then she’d disappeared off the side of the hill in the single most terrifying moment of his life. He’d thought for sure that she had to be dead after taking a fall like that. Until she’d lifted her arm to let him know she was alive but injured—badly so, if her brothers’ reactions to seeing her at the bottom of the ravine were any indication.
“Tyler, you need to let the doctors look at you to make sure you don’t have frostbite or exposure injuries,” Landon said. “You were out there a long time.”
The run back to his SUV where he’d left his phone had taken forty minutes that’d felt like forty hours. Thinking of her, alone and broken at the bottom of that sheer drop-off, had fueled him to run faster than he ever had before, risking his own safety on the icy trail as he pushed through the cold and the pain and the fear to get help for her. All he could think about during the interminable wait for rescue to arrive and then the arduous trek back up to where she’d fallen was what if she died without ever knowing he was crazy about her? How would he live the rest of his life without having told her that? Things were going to be different from now on. He’d make sure she knew how he felt, even if she didn’t return the sentiment.
He paced the waiting room, needing to hear she was going to be okay.
Ella Abbott came rushing in with her fiancé, Gavin Guthrie, in tow. “Landon! Where is she? What’re they saying?”
“Hey, El.” Landon hugged her and then Lucas did, too. “We haven’t heard anything yet, but she was awake and alert when we got to her, so that’s a good sign.”
“Mom and Dad . . .”
“We tried to call the airline,” Lucas said, “but they were already gone.”
Gavin put his hands on Ella’s shoulders, offering what comfort he could while Tyler continued to pace.
“Tyler was the hero of the day—he ran back for help and led us right to her,” Landon said.
“Don’t call me a hero,” Tyler said more harshly than he’d intended. “It’s my fault she was up there in the first place.”
The biggest risk is not taking any risk . . . In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.
This had to be what it felt like to go crazy. Waiting for news of Charley’s condition had Tyler more anxious than he’d ever been before, and he didn’t officially have the right to be anxious about her—yet. Her siblings hadn’t allowed him to take the blame for her fall, but he still blamed himself. He had to do something to make this right for her, which had him placing a call to his mother, who had tuned into his affection for Charley a long time ago. His friends and family had later picked up on his “crush,” or whatever you’d call it, and teased him endlessly about how many times she’d shot him down. He’d been called everything from a masochist to a chump, and still he went back for more.
“Hi, honey,” his mom, Vivienne, said. “Can you believe this snow?”
“Mom, I need a huge favor.”
“Of course. Whatever you need.”
He filled her in about running with Charley and how she’d fallen down a steep ravine.
“Oh my goodness! Is she okay?”
“We’re still waiting to hear, but she was awake and talking to the paramedics.”
“That’s a good sign.”
Tyler had wanted to hear her say that. She’d worked as a registered nurse for a home-health service until she retired and took a part-time job at the store owned by Charley’s family to stay busy. She loved that job and the Abbott family, too. “Do you still have friends at the nurses’ office?”
“I sure do.”
“I need you to call in some favors for me.” He gave her a list of what he needed and asked that she have the equipment delivered to his house. “You’ve got my card. Get anything else you think we might need.”
“I’m sure her insurance will cover it.”
“We’ll worry about that later.”
“Tyler . . .” When she said his name in that particular tone, he knew he was about to get mothered—and lectured. “What about her family? Aren’t they going to want to be involved in her care?”
“Her parents are in England on vacation, and her siblings are all working crazy holiday hours at the store and the Christmas tree farm. It’s my fault she was up in those hills on a day like this to begin with. This is the least I can do to make it right.”
“It’s not your fault that she fell.”
“Will you take care of getting the stuff for me?”
“Yes, of course I will,” she said with a sigh. “Just tread lightly, will you? If you alienate her family, you won’t have much of a chance of winning her over. They’re a tight-knit clan.”
“I know that, and I have no desire to alienate anyone. I feel responsible for what happened to her, and I’m just trying to make it right.” The door from the exam rooms swung open, and two doctors appeared, wearing scrubs that had blood on them. Charley’s blood? The thought of that made his eyes swim. “I’ve got to go, Mom. The doctors are here.”
“Keep me posted.”
“Charlotte Abbott’s family?” one of the doctors said.
Ella, Gavin, Lucas and Landon rushed over to the doctors. Tyler followed them, unwilling to wait for secondhand information.
“Your sister is stable and responding well to treatment,” one of them said. “She’s up at X-ray for scans of her knee and head. We’ll have more information after we get the results.”
“Do you think she has a head injury?” Landon asked.
“We don’t think so, but we’re not ruling it out until we see the scan. There’s a good chance the knee injury will require surgery to repair.”
Hearing that, Tyler took a couple of deep breaths as the dots in front of his eyes continued to swirl.
Gavin happened to glance at him and moved quickly to get him into a chair, pushing Tyler’s head between his knees. “Breathe.”
Tyler did as directed, forcing air into lungs that didn’t seem receptive. It took a few minutes, but eventually his head stopped spinning.
“Let’s get him looked at,” the lead doctor said.
“No, I’m fine.”
“You were exposed to the elements for hours,” Lucas said. “Let them check you out, Tyler.”
“You’ll let me know what’s happening with Charley?”
“Yeah, we’ll keep you posted,” Landon said.
Because that was the best he could hope to hear, Tyler allowed the doctor to lead him to an exam room where he was attached to all sorts of monitors and given an IV to replenish his electrolytes. Settled in the hospital bed with nurses in and out of the cubicle, Tyler tried to stay awake but something they put in the IV dragged him under. He’d take a short nap and then get back to making sure Charley had everything she needed—including him.