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At two o'clock on a cold February morning, Dr. Meredith Boren came face-to-face with a dead man.
Asleep in her family's Oklahoma lake house, she'd been awakened by a noise in the kitchen and gotten out of bed to investigate. She'd crept down the long hallway that led from the master bedroom, edged around the foot of the stairs and frozen between the living room and kitchen.
In the melding shadows of night, a man stood over the sink. Meredith's breath lodged sharply in her throat. Moonlight glanced off lean muscle, flashing a series of impressions. His right shirtsleeve was ripped and hanging down his arm. His left hand pressed against his bare shoulder. Something dark stained his flesh and the edge of the sink. The first aid kit lay open on the counter beside him.
Hazy moonlight filtered through the window, mixed with too many shadows to discern the color of his hair. She had a gun in her bedside table. She couldn't see if he had one or not.
He didn't appear interested in anything except patching himself up. Still, Meredith was calling the police.
She retreated a step, intent on slipping back to her room and dialing 9-1-1. At that moment, the man sagged against the counter as if it was the only thing holding him up. The movement brought his face into profile. Pale silver light skimmed his temple, the long planed line of his jaw, part of a strong neck.
Meredith's heart stopped. He looked like…
No, it couldn't be. This had to be a dream, which made sense considering the reason she'd come to the summerhouse at Broken Bow Lake. The cool tile beneath her feet, the whiff of cinnamon from the living area, the underlying metallic scent of blood drifting from the kitchenall felt real, smelled real, but they couldn't be.
Gage Parrish was dead, had been dead for a year. It was a dream. Yes, it had to be. If this was real, the man would've seen her from the corner of his eye and reacted.
Operating on less than four hours' sleep out of the last forty-eight, Meredith rubbed her forehead. "No," she murmured.
In the deep stillness, the quiet word shattered the silence.
The man jerked toward her, his hard gaze zeroing in like a laser. Before she could blink, he roared, "What the hell are you doing here?"
She snapped to full attention just as she did when jarred out of sleep at the hospital to tend a new arrival in the emergency room. This was real. He was real. How?
Something fell from his shoulder to the floor—a stained cloth. He didn't grab for it. "You're not supposed to be here."
"Neither are you!" Numb, she stared at the filmy silhouette of her ex-fiancé. She could barely think. Was she breathing?
With his left hand, the man—Gage—gripped the counter's edge. Even in the dim light, Meredith could see his unsteadiness, the waxy sheen of his face.
It was the blood tracking down his shoulder and arm that got her moving. "You're hurt."
She reached him about the time he crumpled into the cabinet, banging it hard. She grabbed his left arm to steady him.
This wasn't possible. He was dead. Dead!
Her mind was unable to process anything except that he was wounded, bleeding. She draped his uninjured arm around her shoulder and started slowly toward the nearest bed. Her bed.
"Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"No," he said hoarsely. "Gunshot."
Surprise jolted her. He'd been shot. Why? How far from here? And completely apart from the gunshot wound, how was it even possible that he was alive? Meredith's head began to pound. Sweat broke out over her body. What was happening was too unreal, too much. Too raw. She couldn't function if she dealt with that right now. Judging from how heavily Gage leaned on her for support, he wasn't up to it, either.
He faltered, his weight pulling her into the wall with him as he propped himself up there.
His warm breath feathered against her face and an unexpected knot of longing shoved painfully under her ribs. She dismissed the emotion.
He struggled away from the wall. "Okay."
She wondered if he'd be able to make it the rest of the way. They reached her room, painstakingly crossed the silver carpet to her queen-size bed and she eased him down on the edge of the mattress. Reaching over, she flipped on the bedside lamp and stood, paralyzed.
Her mind fought to sort this out, to make sense of it. Believe it.
Blood smeared his shoulder, her sheet. He groaned, jerking her out of her stupor. He was hurt. She knew how to deal with that. Unbuttoning his black button-down shirt, she eased it away from his injured shoulder, then stripped it off.
The deep, grainy voice had her looking straight into his pure blue eyes. Eyes she'd thought to never see again. Meredith started at the realization that there was more than pain there. He looked exhausted and… haunted. Tenderness tugged at her. She tore her gaze from his.
Putting herself on autopilot, she palmed off his shoes then eased his legs onto the mattress and laid him back on the pillow. Leaving his jeans on, she knelt beside the bed and got her first good look at the wound. The bullet had gone through his shoulder, entering close to his clavicle. Where the subclavian vein and artery ran. Concern streaked through her.
"You're… not s'pposed to be here."
His words were slurred. Depending on how much blood he'd lost, he'd be getting dizzy. And thirsty.
She understood his surprise. The lake house was used only in the spring and summer, for fishing, boating and water-skiing. And with her Thunderbird in the garage, it looked as though no one was here.
"Never would've come." He reached up, his fingers brushing her mouth.
Hit with panic and a sudden streak of fear, she jerked away.
"Baby, I'm sorry."
"Be quiet!" She didn't know if he was aware of what he said. She didn't want to hear the endearment he'd always called her. All she cared about was stopping the bleeding.
"Don't move," she ordered. Pushing to her feet, she hurried to the kitchen and grabbed the first aid kit, snatched some hand towels from the nearest drawer then returned to him.
He was still, unnaturally so, and dread stabbed at her. She felt for his carotid pulse. Weak, but there.
"Thirsty," he croaked, his eyes slitted against the pain.
She hurried into the adjoining bath and filled a small glass with water, then returned to hold up his head and help him drink.
After placing the glass on the bedside table, she examined his wound. He was bleeding out externally, not into the chest. Of the two, that was preferable. No broken collarbone, no collapsed lung. The man was beyond lucky. "How long ago did this happen?"
"An hour." He struggled to get out the words. "Or two."
Using one of the towels, she pressed firmly on the wound, noting the deep penetration, the torn flesh, his shallow breathing. "You need to go to a hospital. McCurtain County's hospital is about thirty or forty minutes away."
"No. No hospitals."
"They'll report it." His raspy voice was firm. "No cops."
"A cop shot me." His agitation started his blood flowing heavily again. "No hospital."
"You need to calm down." A cop had shot him? What was going on? Blood seeped out from under the towel and Meredith pressed harder against the wound.
"Promise me." His face was colorless, and desperate. He groped for her right forearm with his left hand and squeezed hard. "Promise," he rasped, struggling to sit up.
"Be still." Her voice was sharper than she'd intended. She pushed against his opposite shoulder until he eased back into the mattress. "I promise. Now be quiet and let me do what needs to be done."
He must've been using every bit of his strength because when she finally agreed not to contact anyone, he passed out.
Questions hammered at her. Emotions, too. Anger, confusion, pain. But there was no time to deal with that right now. She could only deal with Gage and his GSW.
Working quickly, she slowed the bleeding, cleaned the wound with alcohol as best she could then stitched the ragged hole near his collarbone. There was no anesthetic. She prayed he'd be out for a long time.
She was cool, precise, steady. She trimmed the stitches. Applied a pressure bandage. Then sat back on her heels and stared at him, her heart thundering in her chest as if she'd run the two hundred and fifty miles from here to Presley.
She began to shake all over.
His dark blond hair reached the base of his neck, longer than she'd ever seen it. His skin was weathered by the sun, putting lines around his eyes that hadn't been there eighteen months ago when she'd broken things off between them. Six months after that, she'd gotten word he was dead. She'd believed it. They all had. So how could he really be here? Really be alive?
Swept up in a sudden swirl of anger and confusion, she wiped streaks of blood from his neck and lower jaw, the back of her hand lingering on the sandpapery roughness of his skin.
His familiar woodsy scent was faint beneath the antiseptic, but she could smell it. Smell him. The lanky, wounded man in her bed was really Gage and he was alive.
She thought she'd shed her last tear over him, but one fell anyway.
Gage opened his eyes, increasingly aware of the searing pain in his right shoulder and torso, a comfortable bed and a soft feminine fragrance. A familiar apricot scent on the sheets, his pillow. Then he remembered. "Meredith," he murmured.
The bathroom door across the room opened and there she was. She paused, soap-scented steam floating around her. Her hair was freshly dried, wild blond curls loose around her shoulders. Her cream-and-rose skin was free of makeup, her blue eyes crystal-bright and wary. She was so beautiful, it hurt to look at her. His memories didn't do her justice.
He'd missed the hell out of her, but despite the telltale spike in his pulse, seeing her was the worst thing for both of them.
Last night hadn't been a hallucination due to pain and blood loss. She was really here. And looking damn good.
"You're awake." She stepped into the bedroom. Her tall lithe figure gloved in a long-sleeved red T-shirt and faded jeans brought to aching life the memory of every bare inch of her.
A slight flush pinkened her skin from her bath. She preferred those to a shower, he knew. And bubbles to bath beads. Apricot or vanilla to any floral scent. Hell. Gage wished he'd forgotten things like that in the past eighteen months, but he hadn't.
Forcing his gaze away, he glanced at the bandage curving over his shoulder and clavicle. "You patched me up."
He made a lame attempt at humor. "Will I live?"
Her eyes went cool. She looked at him as if she didn't know him. "Won't that interfere with your being dead?"
Ouch. There were a thousand things he should say, all starting with "I'm sorry." He soaked her in, storing away another image for when he had to leave. "You're really here."
"I think that's my line." Her words were as sharp as her laugh.
She was angry. What did he expect? "No one's ever at this house in the winter. I never would've come if I'd known you would be here."
Hurt flared in her eyes. "You're lucky I was or you would've bled out over my sink."
She thought he meant because he didn't want to see her. There wasn't anything he wanted more, but it was dangerous. He couldn't involve her any more than he already had.
Quietly, he said, "Thanks for saving my life."
She gave a curt nod, eyeing him warily. Gage hated it. And there was nothing he could do about trying to correct it before he left. "What time is it?"
"Almost noon. Are you hungry?"
"I could eat." Once he did, he would have to say goodbye. Again.
"All right, I'll get you something." She folded her arms under her breasts and nailed him with a look. "Then I want to know what's going on."
He could tell her some, not all. Nodding, he pushed himself up on his left elbow.
"You lost a lot of blood," she snapped. "You shouldn't try that yet."
"I'm almost there." It was an effort to rise into a half-sitting position against the headboard. He bit back a moan as agony ripped through his shoulder.
She stood close enough for him to see the light brush of freckles across her nose, but the distance between them yawned like a canyon. Her eyes were remote, blank. He wanted to see her smile, just once.
But the steady gaze she trained on him said that wasn't going to happen. He knew what she wanted. Letting out a shaky breath, he asked, "Where do you want me to start?"
"How about with when you died? I'll get your lunch. We can talk while you eat."
She left and he sagged into the headboard. He had no energy, felt as if he could barely lift his hand. Through a fog, he looked around the room where he and Meredith had stayed during their frequent visits.
His gaze moved left to the closet and the piles of clothes stacked neatly beside its open door. In the back of the closet, he could see what he knew was the tip of his slalom water ski. The pale gray walls were missing a couple of pictures, but he couldn't call them to mind at the moment. He felt outside of himself, as if he were barely holding on to consciousness.
Meredith returned with soup, a ham sandwich and a large glass of water on a tray that she set across his lap. "I imagine you're thirsty, but even if you aren't, you need to drink that."
He nodded. "You're not eating?"