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Mike Valenzuela was up and had his Jeep SUV packed long before sunrise. He had a long drive to Los Angeles and meant to get an early start. Depending on traffic around the Bay Area, the drive would be eight to ten hours from Virgin River. He locked up his RV, which was his home. It sat on the property at Jack's bar and grill; Jack and Preacher would keep an eye on it for him, not that Mike expected any kind of trouble. That was one of several reasons he'd chosen to live hereit was quiet. Small, peaceful, beautiful and nothing to disturb one's peace of mind. Mike had had enough of that in his former life.
Before coming to Virgin River permanently, Mike had made many trips to this Humboldt County mountain town for hunting and fishing, for gathering with an old Marine squad that was still close. His full-time job had been with LAPD, a sergeant in the gangs division. That had all ended when he was shot on the jobhe'd taken three bullets and had a lot of hard work getting his body back. He'd needed Preacher's robust food and Jack's wife Mel's assistance with physical therapy on his shoulder.
After six months, Mike was as close to completely recovered as he'd get.
Since moving to Virgin River he'd been home only once to visit his parents, siblings and their families. He planned to take a weekone day driving each way and five days with that crowd of laughing, dancing Mexicans. Knowing the traditions of his family, it would be a nonstop celebration. His mother and sisters would cook from morning to night, his brothers would stock the refrigerator with cerveza, family friends and cop buddies from the department would drop by the house. It would be a good timea great homecoming after his long recovery.
He was three hours into his drive when his cell phone rang. The noise startled him. There was no cell phone reception in Virgin River so the last thing he expected was a phone call.
"Hello?" he answered.
"I need a favor," Jack said without preamble. His voice sounded gravelly, as though he was barely awake. He must not have remembered Mike was heading south.
Mike looked at the dash clock. It wasn't yet 7:00 a.m. He laughed. "Well, sure, but I'm nearly in Santa Rosa, so it might be inconvenient to run over to Garberville and get you ice for the bar, but hey"
"Mike, it's Brie," Jack said. Brie was Jack's youngest sister, his pet, his favorite. And she was really special to Mike. "She's in the hospital."
Mike actually swerved on the highway. "Hold on," he said. "Stay there." He pulled off the road onto a safe-looking shoulder. Then he took a deep breath. "Go ahead," he said.
"She was assaulted sometime last night," Jack said.
"No!" Mike said. "What?"
Jack didn't repeat himself. "My father just called a little while ago. Mel and I are packingwe'll get on the road as soon as we can. Listen, I need someone who knows law enforcement, criminology, to walk me through what's happening with her. They don't have the guy who did thisthere's got to be an investigation. Right?"
"How bad is she?" Mike asked.
"My dad didn't have a lot of details, but she's out of emergency and in a room, sedated and semiconscious, no surgery. Can you write down a couple of numbers? Can you keep your cell phone turned on so I can call you? With questions? That kind of thing?"
"Of course. Yes," Mike said. "Gimme numbers."
Jack recited phone numbers for the hospital, Jack's father, Sam, and Mel's old cell phone that they'd charge on their way to Sacramento and then carry with them.
"Do they have a suspect? Did she know the guy?"
"I don't know anything except her condition. After we get on the road, get the phone charged and we're out of the mountains and through the redwoods, I'll call my dad and see what he can tell me. Right now I gotta go. I gotta get down there."
"Right," Mike said. "Okay. My phone will be in my pocket twenty-four-seven. I'll call the hospital, see what I can find out."
"Thanks. Appreciate it," Jack said, hanging up.
Mike sat on the shoulder, staring at the phone for a long minute, helpless. Not Brie, he thought. Oh God, not Brie!
His mind flashed on times they'd been together. A couple of months ago she'd been in Virgin River to see her new nephew, Jack and Mel's baby. Mike had taken her on a picnic at the riverto a special place where the river was wide, but too shallow for fishermen to bother.
They'd had lunch against a big boulder, close enough to hear the water whisper by as it passed over the rocks. It was a place frequented by young lovers and teenagers, and that big old rock had seen some wonderful things on the riverbank; it protected many secrets. Some of his own, in fact. He'd held Brie's hand for a long time that day, and she hadn't pulled it away. It was the first time he'd realized he was taken with her. A crush. At thirty-seven, he felt it was an old man's crush, but damned if it didn't feel awfully like a sixteen-year-old's.
When Mike met Brie for the first time a few years back, he'd gone to see her brother while Jack was on leave, visiting his family in Sacramento right before his last assignment in Iraq. Mike was oblivious to the fact that his reserve unit would be activated and he'd end up meeting Jack over there, serving under him a second time. Brie was there, of course, recently married to a Sacramento cop. Nice guy, so Mike had thought. She was a prosecutor for the county in Sacramento, the state capital. She was small, about five-three, with long, soft brown hair that flowed almost to her waist, making her look like a mere girl. But she was no girl. She put away hardened criminals for a living; she had a reputation as one of the toughest prosecutors in the county. Mike had immediately admired her brains, her grit, not to mention her beauty. In his past life, before the shooting, he'd never been particularly discouraged by the mere presence of a husband, but they were newlyweds, and Brie was in love. No other man existed for her.
When Mike saw her in Virgin River right after Jack's son was born, she was trying to recover from a painful divorceher husband had left her for her best friend, and Brie was shattered. Lonely. So hurt. Mike immediately wanted to take her into his arms and console her, for he was hurting, too. But Brie, crushed by her husband's infidelity, was determined not to put her heart on the line again, and she wanted nothing of a man, especially another player who'd had more than his share of women. A further complicationthis was Jack's baby sister, of whom he was so protective it verged on ridiculous. And Mike was no longer a driven, devil-may-care Latino lover. He was a cripple. The body just didn't work right anymore.
It had been only a couple of weeks since he'd last seen her. She had come back to Virgin River with the rest of her family to help erect the frame of Jack's new house. Preacher and his bride, Paige, were married in that framed structure the very next day. For a man who could barely walk six months ago, Mike had given Brie a fairly decent twirl around the dance floor at the wedding. It was a fantastic partyfull of that good old country food, barbecues flaming, the chairs pushed back and the band set up on the foundation of Jack's unfinished house, the frame strung with floral garlands. He grabbed her, laughing, into his arms and whirled her around with abandon, and whenever the tempo allowed, pressed his cheek close against hers, whispering in conspiratorial amusement, "Your brother is frowning at us."
"I wonder why that is." She laughed.
"I don't think he wants you near a man so like himself," Mike speculated.
That seemed to amuse her a great deal. She tipped her head back and laughed a little wildly. "Don't flatter yourself," she said. "It has nothing to do with your great success with women. You're a man, near his baby sister. That's enough."
"You're no baby," he said, pulling her closer. "And I think you're having too much fun with this, getting him riled up. Don't you realize he has a dangerous temper?"
Unmistakably, she held him tighter. "Not toward me," she whispered.
"There's a devil in you," he said, and looked death in the face by kissing her neck.
"There's a fool in you," she said, tilting her head just slightly to give him more of her neck.
In years gone by he would have found a way to get her alone, seduced her, made love to her in ways she'd dream about later. But three bullets had decided a few things. Even if he could spirit her away from her brother's protective stare, he wouldn't be able to perform. So he said, "You're trying to get me shot again."
"Oh, I doubt he'd actually shoot you. But I haven't been to a good old-fashioned wedding brawl in ages."
When they'd said goodbye he had hugged her briefly, her sweet scent like a cinch around his mind, feeling her cheek against his, his arms around her waist, pulling her close. A bit more than just a friendly gesturea suggestive one, which she returned. He assumed she was having fun with the flirtation, stirring things up a little bit, but it meant far more than that to him. Brie held his thoughts in a disturbing way that suggested if he were capable of giving her love, she would capture his heart and mind in that powerful way that wipes all other women out of the past. He really didn't have that to offer anymore. Although that didn't keep him from thinking about her, wanting her.
He could not bear to think about all that mischief and sass lying broken and violated in a hospital. His heart was in pieces, aching for her. Dying to know that she was going to be all right.
He put the SUV into Drive, looked over his shoulder and got back on the freeway. He gunned the engine and veered across two lanes of fast-moving traffic to make the exit to Sacramento.
When Mike got to the county hospital a couple of hours later, he called Sam's cell phone number and left a message to say he'd arrived and wanted to know where they were. A prosecutor, the victim of a crime, was not going to be with the general populationshe would undoubtedly have security.
Sam came to the hospital entrance, extending his hand. "Mike. Good of you to come. I know Jack will appreciate it."
"I was on my way south and was almost here anyway. Brie's a special friend. I'll do anything I can."
Sam turned and headed for the elevators. "Unfortunately, I'm not sure what you can do. She's going to be all right. Physically. I have no idea what a woman goes through after something like this____"
"Tell me what you know so far," Mike said. "Did she know her attacker?"
"Oh, yes. Remember that terrible trial she had about the same time Jack's son was born? The serial rapist? The media circus? It was him. She identified him for police."
Mike stopped walking and frowned. "She's sure?" he asked. That was such a sick, bold move for someone who'd just gotten a free pass. Brie had lost that trial and it was a hard loss, especially coming on the heels of her divorce. It was as if the sky was falling on her. Also, it wasn't something men like that did. Typically, they bolted. Got away from anyone who had the balls to go after them, as Brie had.
"She's sure," Sam said.
Mike couldn't help but wonderwas she hit in the head? Hallucinating? In and out of reality because of the trauma? "Her injuries?" he asked.
"Her face is battered, there are two broken ribs and the usual
" He paused. "The usual injuries incurred during a rape. You know."
"I know," he said. Tearing, bleeding, bruising. "Has she been seen by a rape specialist and police?"
"Yes, but she wants Mel. Understandably."
"Of course," Mike said. Jack's wife, Mel, was the nurse practitioner and midwife in Virgin River and had had years of experience in a huge L.A. trauma center. She was an expert in battery and sexual assault and if she could be the medical eyes and ears, maybe Mike could cover the police angle. "I heard from them at seven this morning. They should be here in two or three hours, depending on how fast they got out of town."
Mike noticed a uniformed Sac PD officer standing at the entrance to a room; undoubtedly that's where Brie was. "Well, let me talk to some people, see if I can find out anything at all. But first, I'll say hello to the family." He moved to a large clot of people in the waiting area just down the hall. Jack's three other sisters, their husbands, a few of his nieces. Mike was embraced and thanked. Then he got about the business of talking to nurses, got the number of the detective on the case from the officer guarding the room. All the detective could tell Mike at this time was that the suspect was still at large. The doctor would discuss her injuries, that was all. But it appeared that apart from being horribly assaulted, she would recover physically.
It was almost three hours later that Jack, Mel and baby David arrived. Jack embraced his father, then looked in surprise at Mike. "You're here?"
"I was already close," he said. "I thought I'd come over. If I can help, it's better for me to be on-site."
"Oh, man, I didn't expect this," Jack said.
"Hell, you've done more for me," Mike said. "And you know I love Brie. Mel," he said, reaching for baby David, "she said she wants to see you the minute you get here."
"Of course," Mel said, handing off the baby.
"I think she needs Mel's opinion of how the rape evidence was collected," Mike said to Jack. "Go hug your sisters. By that time you'll be able to see her."
"Have you seen her yet?" Jack asked.
"No. It's family only. But I've talked to some people, trying to gather whatever facts they'll share."
"God," Jack said, gripping Mike's biceps hard. "Thanks. Mike, I didn't expect this."
"You should have." He laughed, jostling little David a little. "That's how it is with us. Right?"
Jack sat by his sister's bedside at the county hospital for almost twelve straight hours. He had arrived at eleven in the morning and it was now 11:00 p.m. Outside her door, in the hallway, the family had gathered for most of the day, but as evening had descended they'd drifted home because she was out of danger and sedated. Mike had taken Mel and the baby back to Sam's, but Jack hadn't wanted to leave Brie. Brie was close to her entire family, but it was Jack with whom she had the deepest bond.
Jack was torn to pieces as he looked down on his little sister. Her face was horrific; the bruising and swelling was terrible. It looked much worse than it was, the doctor promised. There was no permanent damage; she would regain her former beauty. Every few minutes Jack would reach over, gently smooth back her light brown hair, touch her hand. She wrestled in her sleep now and then, despite the sedatives. If not for the ribs, he might have taken her into his strong arms during these struggles. Instead he would lean over her bed, touch her face where there was no swelling, drop a tender kiss on her forehead and whisper, "I'm here, Brie. You're safe now, baby."