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"Wait a minute. Stop right there," a female vice commanded. "Who let you in?"
Lieutenant's Max Forrester's head snapped up, and he belatedly realized there was a woman at his sister Lissa's hospital bedside. A chair with a discarded blanket on the seat was tucked in the corner where she must have been sitting.
Who was she? The ICU clerk had told him Lissa's visitors were restricted.
"Are you Gary?" she asked sharply, a dark scowl marring her otherwise dainty features. She was young, about Lissa's age, her long dark hair pulled back in a braid that hung down to her shoulders. She was dressed in a conservative navy blue jacket and skirt, with an official-looking ID pinned to her lapel. Her radiating anger caught him off guard. "Don't you dare touch her."
Gary? Who was she talking about? He lifted his hands palm forward, hoping to calm her down. "I'm not Gary. I'm Lissa's brother, Max Forrester. The woman at the desk checked my ID before letting me in."
"Her brother?" The petite woman eyed him suspiciously, not giving him an inch. "Melissa didn't mention a brother."
She hadn't? The news hurt. Why hadn't Lissa said anything about him? True, they didn't chat often, but she'd been happy to know he was coming home on leave to spend the Thanksgiving holiday together.
Glancing down at his sister, with her bruised and battered face, he realized this woman, who must be a friend of Lissa's, had every right to be suspicious. His heart squeezed painfully in his chest. Lissa couldn't even breathe on her own because she wasn't conscious. His sister must have been mugged to end up here like this.
"Here's my ID," he said, handing it to her. "I've been in Iraq the past three years and just arrived home on leave today. When Lissa didn't meet me at the airport, I went to her apartment and her landlord told me she was here."
The woman stared at his ID for a long moment, then handed it back with a weary sigh. "I'm sorry. I should have known Gary wouldn't go so far as to disguise himself in army fatigues."
"Who are you?" Max asked, putting his ID back in his wallet. "And who's Gary?"
"My name is Tara Carmichael. I'm Melissa's social worker." She crossed her arms over her chest and gazed down at Lissa, with sorrow and despair. "Unfortunately, Gary is the man who did this to her."
Tara Carmichael eyed the handsome stranger warily. Melissa's brother cut an impressive figure in his camouflage fatigues, and she imagined he'd be even more so in action. Right now though, his tormented gaze was riveted on his sister, his face drawn into harsh lines of anger.
"What's Gary's last name?" he asked, his low voice vibrating with suppressed anger. "Where can I find him?"
She suppressed a sigh. "I wish I knew. Melissa never told me his full name. In fact, the last time she left him, she refused to go to the police to press charges. Even when I drove her to a women's shelter, she stayed for only a few days before going back home."
"What?" Max whirled on her, pinning her with his stark gaze. "Are you telling me this happened before?"
She swallowed hard, knowing his anger wasn't directed at her. Besides, she had to admit, he was showing remarkable control. "Yes, I'm afraid so. Not this bad, just a few bruises but enough to make me concerned."
He was silent, and she watched a myriad of emotions playing across his features: fury, despair, agony, helplessness. Finally he turned away, letting out a harsh sound as he tightened his fingers around the side rail of Melissa's bed. His tortured expression of self-recrimination tugged at her heart. "I didn't know," he murmured, his tone full of anguish. "I honestly didn't know."
Tara wasn't sure what to say. Melissa had obviously kept secrets. From both of them.
"She didn't mention Gary or that she had a new boyfriend?" she asked, hesitantly. It did seem odd to her that Melissa hadn't mentioned her brother during any of their meetings. Although maybe it was because he was so far away, stationed in Iraq, Melissa hadn't seen him as a true support system.
For a long moment, Lieutenant Forrester stared down at his hands. "A few months ago, she did mention meeting a guy but didn't really say much about it. I don't always have a chance to respond to e-mails, especially once the fighting heats up. Weeks can pass before I'm able to return messages."
She could only imagine how difficult it must be for the men and women who fight overseas. Even if Melissa had mentioned Gary, what would it matter? The damage was already done. Clearly, this time Gary had gone too far.
"I understand." She tried to smile, but it wasn't easy. Melissa's situation was grim. When the hospital had called, letting her know about Melissa's admission and suspected abuse, she'd immediately rushed over. Seeing Melissa in such bad shape had shaken her. Especially when Melissa had begged for her to keep Gary away, right before she'd slipped into a coma. There wasn't much she could do at that point, other than pray for her safe recovery. But sitting there, watching Melissa fight for her life, she'd vowed to stay close, supporting Melissa's escape from her boyfriend once and for all.
At least having Lieutenant Forrester here eased one of her concerns. Melissa wasn't alone, not any longer. Between her brother and herself, she was convinced they could pull Melissa through this crisis.
"You're Lissa's social worker?" he asked, breaking into her thoughts. "That's why you were allowed in?"
She hesitated, knowing she couldn't tell him much about Melissa's history of substance abuse without breaking her client's confidentiality, before nodding. "Yes. The hospital called me when she was admitted."
"I see." Max Forrester stood ramrod straight, his military bearing ingrained to the point she wondered if he ever relaxed. A spurt of sympathy nudged her heart. This couldn't be a very nice homecoming for him. After fighting for three years in Iraq, coming home to find his sister in the ICU had to be a shock.
"Have you spoken to Melissa's nurse?" she asked, wishing there was more she could do to help him.
"I'll get her for you." Grateful for something constructive to do, she stepped out into the hallway, glancing around for Natalie, the young woman taking care of Melissa. Natalie was in by another patient, but as soon as she saw Tara hovering there, she finished what she was doing and stepped out. "Do you need something?"
"Melissa's brother is here, having just arrived home from Iraq, and he would like some information on Melissa's injuries."
"Sure. I'll be right in."
Tara returned to Melissa's room, and Natalie followed a few moments later. She introduced herself to Lieutenant Forrester.
"Melissa has two cracked ribs and a fairly serious head injury. The doctors have ordered another CT scan of her head for first thing in the morning, which should tell us if the injury is getting worse or better."
The lieutenant paled. "Will she wake up?"
Natalie offered a gentle smile. "So far her head injury is serious, but if it doesn't get much worse, she should recover just fine. I wish I could tell you more, but right now we can only wait and see how things go."
He swallowed hard. "Thank you." He looked so grim, his face drawn into harsh lines, that Tara had the insane urge to step closer and take his hand, offering him her support. But she kept her hands tightly clasped in front of her.
"I'll need your contact information," Natalie said, picking up a clipboard. "Have you spoken to the police yet?"
"No. But I'd like to," Max said.
Tara was surprised to hear the police were involved this time. "Do they have Gary in custody?" she asked.
"I don't think so," Natalie said with a tiny frown. "Officer James Newton gave me his card and asked me to call him when Melissa woke up so he could question her." She turned to Max. "What's your phone number?"
She wrote the information as Max rattled it off. "Can I have the police number, too?" he asked.
"I don't see why not." Natalie gave him the information and then glanced up when a shrill beeping echoed from across the hall. "Excuse me," she murmured before dashing away.
With a grim expression, Max tucked the phone number into the pocket of his camouflage shirt. Silence hung heavily between them.
Smoothing her hands over her wrinkled jacket, Tara glanced at him. "Well, it's late and I really need to get home. But I'll be back in the morning to check on your sister."
He stared down at Melissa. "I'll stay here."
She sensed his exhaustion and understood the desire to stay near his sister, but it was obvious that he needed some rest. Her social worker training kicked in. "Lieutenant, you should really find a hotel nearby to spend the night. Melissa is in good hands. The nurses here are wonderful. We've limited her visitors to protect her. You need your rest, too. She's going to need your strength and support over the long haul."
He remained silent, but she could see the emotional tug of war on his face. "Maybe you're right," he admitted finally. "I've been on a plane since yesterday. Are there cheap hotels nearby?" His troubled gaze cut back to his sister. "I'd like to be close, keeping in touch regarding Lissa's progress."
"Of course." Tara folded away her own problems and concerns, trying to remember which hotels offered the best prices. "The family center has brochures for all the nearby hotels, and I'mpretty certain a few offer discounts for families with loved ones here at the hospital."
"That would be great." He smiled, and she was struck by how his harsh features softened with the gesture. His eyes were the same bright green as Melissa's. With his broad shoulders and chocolate-brown hair cut military short, Lieutenant Forrester was a very handsome man.
The realization made her stomach clench, sending her back a step. How could she notice Melissa's brother in that way? She'd loved Ted, her husband, with her whole heart and soul. Her love hadn't changed when he died. She'd vowed to love him forever.
"It's no problem." She worked hard to ensure her tone portrayed only the utmost professionalism. Turning, she led the way out of the ICU, taking the elevator back down to the main level, acutely aware of Max walking silently at her side.
She found the brochures in the family center, quickly pointing out several options before leaving. She needed some distance from the tall, handsome stranger. The bus stop was right outside the main doors of the hospital, so she walked in that direction.
Remembering why she was forced to take the bus, rather than her car, made her shiver as she stepped outside. When she'd left for work earlier that evening, she'd discovered someone had maliciously slashed all four of her tires, rendering her car useless. She'd called the police and waited while they dusted for fingerprints. Since she was in a hurry to see Melissa, she'd left her disabled car in the parking lot and had taken the bus to the hospital, rather than deal with the hassle of getting her car towed.
She couldn't help wonder if the man with the navy blue jacket and baseball cap who'd followed her the other day was the same person who'd slashed her tires. His baseball cap had been pulled low over his eyes, and the collar of his jacket was pulled up to cover his face so she hadn't gotten a good look at him.
Now that it was so late, she couldn't help but glance around, searching for anyone wearing a baseball cap as she made her way to the bus stop.
The shelter outside the bus stop wasn't deserted, as she'd hoped. There were two men standing there— neither wore a baseball cap—but one of them looked extremely disheveled, taking deep drags off a cigarette despite the signs declaring the area as nonsmoking. Her steps slowed as she hesitantly approached, and she glanced up the street hoping the bus would arrive soon. After her tire-slashing incident, it was difficult not to look at everyone around her with uncertainty.
She gathered her courage and lifted her gaze heavenward. Please, Lord, keep me safe.
Crossing her arms over her chest, she did her best to remain warm in spite of the chilly night temperatures. She didn't have her coat; she'd left her office in such a hurry she'd forgotten it.
The sound of her name had her spinning around in a rush, her heart thumping in her throat. Lieutenant Max Forrester stood a few feet behind her, his face etched in a deep scowl.
"Oh, no, did something happen to Melissa?" Fearing the worst, she took several steps toward him. "Is she…?"
He held up a hand. "No, she's fine. Not fine, but her condition is unchanged."
Relief flooded her. "You had me worried."
"Ma'am, why are you out here waiting for the bus?" He swept a gaze behind her, noticing the two men sharing the bus stop with her. "It's late, half past nine at night. You'd be much safer in a taxi."
Her pride was stung by his somewhat condescending tone. She welcomed the surge of annoyance. Obviously if she'd wanted to take a taxi she would have. Maybe she didn't normally take the bus, but she wasn't about to tell this stranger her problems with vandalism. "Thanks for your concern, Lieutenant, but I can take care of myself."
"Ma'am, I'm sure you can, but since I grew up in St. Louis, I know the crime rate isn't something to brag about."
"I grew up here, too, so I'm well aware of the crime rate."
The fact they had something so minor in common shouldn't have made a difference, but she couldn't help feel a sense of kinship with Melissa's brother.
"Fine." He gave her a brisk nod that was more like a salute, widened his stance and crossed his arms over his broad chest, reminding her of a human shield. "If you're going to ride the bus home alone, I'll ride along with you."