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This is the second-worst day of my life.
U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumper Vince Reardon lay pressed to wet asphalt. Rain pelted his face.
The woman who'd seconds ago smashed her sizzling-red sedan into his chrome-and-black-lacquered motorcycle hovered in his periphery. Smoky eyes bulged with worry from a trepid face that begged him not to be mad. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry."
"I can't look at you, or I'll erupt." Vince pushed a groan through gritted teeth and tried like mad to distract himself from blowtorch-caliber pain searing through the palms of his hands, left arm and outer left leg. "Saw you on your cell phone seconds before you hit my bike."
Correction. The custom, one-of-a-kind masterpiece on wheels that his late brother hand-built weeks before his death.
Once again the woman murmured soft words, rested a shaky palm on Vince's shoulder. And prayed. He tried not to flinch away from her. Wanted to yell at her to leave him alone. Wanted to scream out in pain. Alone.
He clenched his eyes to shut out the pity on the strained faces of bystanders who'd come to his aid. More specifically, he wanted to shut her out.
But the truth was her presence and her prayers soothed. Besides, it wasn't like he could get away from her.
"Lord, help him be okay. Please don't let anything be broken."
Vince found her face and lashed a hard look at her remorseful one. "I'm not one for religion, lady." He beamed visual warning flares. Tried not to get his gaze snagged by eyes that were heavily lined and radiantly luminous. Or the stylish pixie cut that caused jagged angles of hair to hug prominent cheekbones.
Anything to distractfrom discomfort.
Other than desert-sand-colored swaths streaking through dark brown hair, giving her a youngish, trendy look, she smacked of "career woman." She wore sleek high-end shoes with some seriously dangerous skyscraper heels and a conservative charcoal business suit which could not camouflage her curves.
He wouldn't be so perturbed if she weren't so glaringly pretty.
French-manicured nails rested once again on his shoulder.
And just why would he care, other than to feel scolded for noticing her curviness, if she were married? The fact that her barren finger hitched his eyes a little too long on her hand drew a second frustrated sigh.
He might be down, but he wasn't dead. The gal was stunning.
"You need to get out of the intersection. Least till the cops get here," Vince ground out.
He didn't want both of them to be in danger of getting reamed by oncoming traffic should some other driver pull her gig and forget to pay attention. He brought his hands up to carefully remove his helmet.
"I'm not leaving you," came her soft but firm reply.
She helped him take his helmet off. Turned it over, gasped then set it aside. Her bugged-wide eyes closed and her lips moved in frenzy. Something about thank you.
Against his wishes and his will, she prayed.
That it brought the slightest measure of peace angered him more than anything. He clamped his lips to keep from cursing. Sure, she'd smashed his bike, but he didn't want to disrespect a lady.
Even if she had just destroyed his most prized possession.
And ruined his chance to join his team on the type of mission that came few and far between. An allied pilot shot down and in need of rapid-reaction rescue on hostile soil.
Vince not being at the chopper when it was ready to lift could cost that pilot his life.
Shivers claimed him. Adrenaline OD. Had to be.
Once his team figured out crucial minutes too late that he wasn't coming, they would have to pull his weight plus manage their own.
Especially since they all had specific jobs they were trained to do during a rescue. There'd be no time to replace him.
Nothing rapid-reaction about him writhing here in the middle of a rain-driven road, wishing like crazy this irksome brunette hadn't been driving under the influence of distraction.
Water soaked his back, seeping cold to his bones. A rock dug into his skin below his shoulder. He tried to reposition without moving his neck.
Pain streaked across his shoulder blade. Numbness trickled down his arms and tingled fingers on his left hand. A frustrated sound scraped its way up his throat again but he clamped his lips against it. Despite the early-April cold, sweat broke out over his upper lip. He puffed out breaths but the pain didn't relent this time.
He was sure he was fine, but as a military paramedic, he knew enough to be still and quiet just the same. A killer headache was building at the base of his skull and he knew better than to move until someone slapped a C-collar on him.
"I'm so sorry. I didn't see you until too late." Words wobbled from unsteady lips. Hand remaining on his shoulder, she leaned forward, blocking rain from thrashing his face. She continued her prayers.
"You're getting soaked." Crazy lady. Her hair was dripping. Her expensive soft suede suit was probably ruined. She didn't act like she cared. In fact, the deceptively calm body posture he could tell she fought to maintain looked ready to crumble. Like she was nearing her breaking point.
Rain-mingled tears hovering on long lashes threatened to fall. She blinked rapidly. "Help will be here soon."
Who was she trying to convince? Him? Or herself?
And how could her voice be soothing and grating at the same time? No matter about his bones. His main concern was his bike.
"How's my ride?"
Her eyes startled open. "What?"
He clenched his teeth. She was probably some rich chick who didn't understand one stinking mutilated syllable of street lingo. "My chopper. Bike. Motorcycle. Thing with two wheels that goes down the road. How is it?"
That she didn't answer and only scanned the area around them with ever-widening eyes revved his headache through the roof of his skull.
Incensed, he released the pent-up groan.
"I am sooo sorry. The ambulance will be here soon."
The urge to laugh hit him full force from nowhere. "For me or the bike?"
A startled look stole over her face before she averted her gaze. "Both, I think. This was all my fault. I—I'll pay for it."
Again, her words made him want to laugh. "The bike? Or my hospital and ambulance bills?"
"Both. Of course, both." She looked like she could cry.
"The cycle—is it drivable?"
She bit her bottom lip until it turned white, then looked around like Refuge's traumatized mayor after last year's bridge collapse. "Um, I think not. It… It's…pretty smashed."
He tensed and wished she'd get her soft hand off his aching arm.
"How bad?" If this crazy lady broke the only tangible reminder remaining on earth of his late brother…he'd never forgive her. At her blank look, impatience mounted, twisting his shoulders into knots. "How. Bad. Is. It?" He enunciated the words like a phonics teacher with a mouthful of molten lava.
"Um… so-ome of the pieces broke off." Her face blanched the more her eyes scanned their periphery and whatever carnage littered it. "Maybe even… well, all of the little ones."
He didn't doubt that since he'd felt tiny insignificant cosmetic pieces break off on impact. That wasn't his main concern. "How's the frame?"
"B-bent. Definitely, but not horribly. I—at least I don't think so." Her lips rolled inward as if her own words daunted her. Distress mounted in her eyes and tears finally trickled down her cheeks. She blinked furiously. "I—I'm not m-much of a motorcycle person."
No kidding. For an instant, he almost felt sorrier for her than for himself.
Her remorse probably only meant she feared he'd sue her.
Didn't matter. She shouldn't concern her pretty self with petty litigation. He'd be the last person to go near any sort of legal office. His family had a thing against lawyers. Far as Vince was concerned, they were the reason his brother…
Sirens whined closer, blared louder, derailing his train of thought, causing the throbbing in his head to expand.
Flashing emergency vehicle taillights reflected off the wet surface, giving eerie red hues to the watery seal-coat layer over asphalt smothered in oil and gasoline. Doors creaked open and slammed shut.
Several sets of black shoes hooded in blue scrub pants sloshed across the lot. Drizzle sprinkled Vince's face as the woman divorced her hand from his shoulder and leaned back, allowing EMTs to access him.
Staying as still as possible, Vince issued himself a mental reprimand for instantly missing her fruity perfume, her lullaby voice, her presence and even her prayers.
Missing her. Just—her.
Anger welled in him that a complete stranger and her connection to the God he loathed brought comfort in this momentary nightmare. He needed to let team leader Joel Montgomery know why he was late. Tell him what was going on without compromising the mission or his teammates' safety.
How to do this? What to say?
He wouldn't be telling the truth—that he'd probably just fractured or dislocated something—that's for sure. But trying to go injured could cause a new set of problems. No way would he be stupid enough to put his brothers in harm's way. Even if it meant he had to lay down his angry pride and let this mission go on without him.
He looked at the woman—the very beautiful woman—who caused all this and felt like growling at her and howling at the moon all at the same time. Absurd. Musta hit his head harder than he thought. Err, his helmet rather.
Speaking of his helmet, Vince remembered how crazy-soft her hands felt as she'd helped him off with it.
"You still got that phone on you?" Vince asked her through clenched teeth.
"Yes. Who can I call for you?" Quaking hands fumbled in the pocket of her power suit. The one that hugged a figure any guy would be nuts not to notice. Even an injured one. He jerked away his gaze like the rip cord on a screaming parachute and ground his teeth. He wanted nothing whatsoever about her to be appealing.
He'd been headed to the drop-zone facility following an emergency page from Joel. But, on impact, his cell phone had bounced across the road and broken into particles.
Frustration surged. He became even more irked that he'd been placed in the position of having to use his assailant's phone for help.
Vince refused to restrain the disapproval from his voice as he recited the number of Refuge's DZ. The guys were probably convening there prior to being flown to their insertion point.
Not only had this bad-driving woman risked his life, she'd rendered his team one man short.
Slender fingers punched the keypad. "It's ringing." She held the phone to his ear.
"Yeah, Chance? Lemme talk to Joel." Vince huffed a breath. Ribs sore. Hurt to talk.
She must have sensed it because she moved the phone from his ear to hers. "Who am I talking to?" she asked Vince in a take-charge voice that he would have appreciated any other time.
The last thing he wanted was to feel anything remotely positive toward the enemy—who was, at the moment, namely her. And the terrorists who'd shot down the pilot he couldn't go help save.
His anger hit boiling point again. And he let her know it with a lethal look. Didn't faze or rattle her. Must be one mortar-tough chick.
"Ask for Montgomery. Tell him I'm in a fender bender and won't make the lift."
"Mr. Montgomery?" she said into the phone. "Yes, I'm here with… Excuse me a moment." She covered the mouthpiece and leaned in to Vince. "What's your name?"
"I'm here with… Reardon. I—he's been in a substantial accident. On his bike, yes." She swallowed. Hard. Okay, maybe not so tough.
Vince scowled at her for giving TMI but she ignored him just like she'd disobeyed the traffic signal that caused this wreck.
"Yes, he's alert and coherent, but I think it hurts him to talk. The ambulance is on its way. Yes. Thank you. And I'm very sorry. Well, because I'm the one who caused the wreck." Her lips trembled at the words and no doubt Joel was offering soothing words to her. Traitor.
Connor Stallings, a Refuge police officer, finished taking statements from witnesses and approached. He dipped his head toward the phone. "Is that Montgomery?"
"Let me talk with him." Stallings took the cell she handed him then he stepped out of Vince's earshot.
Another raging hole burned through Vince. He hated to be coddled and babied. Most of all pitied. And Stallings' face had been full of it when he'd initially rushed over to Vince upon arriving on the accident scene.
After talking with Vince's leader and saying who knows what that could further worry them needlessly, Stallings knelt beside him. Compassionate eyes rested on Vince, which ticked him off even more. Anger surged like his headache. Did everyone have to feel sorry for him?
Vince clenched his jaw at the unwanted attention. He didn't want anyone to see him weak or broken. He vehemently ignored the rubberneckers in cars and concerned bystanders in the periphery and focused on Officer Stallings.
"I guess I don't have to ask how you're doing, Sergeant Reardon."
Vince eyed one of the few men he'd met who matched his six-foot-six stature and who sometimes skydived at Refuge Drop Zone. "I've been better." He slashed a sharp look at the woman.
Although he was scraped up and in mind-blasting pain, his sense of pride and dignity were wounded above all.
Stallings' blue-silver gaze cooled as it rested on the woman. "Were you the other driver?"
"Y-yes. I was at fault." Her lips trembled.
Vince looked away, not wanting to soften toward her.
"That your car?" Stallings jotted notes.
"Val… Valentina Russo." She spelled it out in breathless syllables. Something inside Vince tried to bend in mercy.
Until he conjured images of his brother's face as he'd presented the bike to Vince on a prison-visitation weekend. The one prior to the riot that had taken his life. To make matters worse, his brother had been cleared posthumously of charges incurred by a six-man jury trial tainted by a money-hungry, truth-botching lawyer who cared more about retainer fees than ratting out false informants.
Vince hadn't been able to free his brother or save his life, but he was determined to clear his brother's name. Just as determined as his brother had been to work toward good behavior that had allowed him to do supervised shop work in order to finish the bike he'd started for Vince.
The very bike this senseless driver had just smashed to smithereens in a preventable accident.
Stallings scribbled on his clipboard then eyed the woman. "Where were you headed in such a hurry?"
"I was on my way to the courthouse near the square."
"Court. I'm an attorney."
How could a horrid day have gotten worse?
Val brushed damp hair from her eyes and drew calming breaths as paramedics lifted the man she'd injured into the waiting ambulance. "I h-hope he's going to be okay," she murmured. And poor Aunt Elsie!
Val glanced at her watch then at her silent phone. Why hadn't the ER doctor called back with word on Elsie's condition?