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Read an Excerpt
Austin, Texas--Six months later
All he had to do was lift the goddamned pen.
John Brighton concentrated on the writing implement, willing his right hand to move. He was halfway there. He'd managed to get his fingers to close around the thing. Now all he had to do was lift it up.
His hand quivered and for a moment rose off the table. He closed his eyes, trying to visualize the action. How could something so seemingly inconsequential be so difficult? Six months of rehab and he was no better than a newborn. Weak and untried.
He swallowed, concentrating on the pen. This might be the biggest challenge he'd ever faced, but he wasn't about to go down for the count. A couple of low-life Mexican thugs were not going to get the best of him.
The pen lifted, his fingers shaking with the effort.
"Hey, bro. Ready to blow this pop stand?"
The pen dropped to the bed, then rolled to the floor. "Danny." John looked up, trying to conceal his annoyance. Maybe he was jealous of the fact that his brother had full use of his faculties, or maybe he was just in a generally crappy mood. Either way, there was no point in taking it out on Danny.
His brother hung a garment bag on a hook, and dropped into a chair by the hospital bed. "Having a little trouble signing out?" He bent down to retrieve the pen.
"I could have done it." John sounded petulant and he knew it. "You surprised me. That's all."
"Look, Jonathan, there's no need to push yourself like this. Your recovery is nothing short of miraculous as it is. What you need is a little downtime. Let your body come back at its own pace."
"I've had six months of downtime, and believe mewhen I tell you it isn't what it's cracked up to be." He wasn't surprised to hear bitterness in his voice. So much had been lost. Things he might never recover. Gaping holes in his memory. A darkness that sometimes threatened to swallow him whole.
Danny held up a hand in apology. "I didn't mean to ruffle your feathers. I just want you to take a breath. Maybe move a little slower. The mind's a funny thing. You shouldn't push it."
"There's nothing to push, Danny. What's gone is gone. My memories aren't coming back. The only thing I can do now is try and pick through what's left. Get on with my life."
"So let me help you. It's about time I got the chance to be the big brother." His expression belied the lightness in his voice.
"And how exactly do you propose to do that?" John swung his legs carefully out of the bed, using his left leg to propel his right.
"Well, to start with I can sign these." Danny reached for the dismissal papers. "I doubt anyone will look too closely." His grin was contagious and John felt his mood lightening. Maybe things would feel more normal once he was home.
"Whatever it takes to get me out of here." He watched as his brother signed the release papers, envying the ease with which he wielded the pen. "So what'd you bring me to wear?"
"Armani." Danny smiled. "What else? I made a special trip to get it." He unzipped the bag and pulled out the beautifully tailored suit.
John swallowed back a wave of frustration. The suit had enough closures to keep him occupied for a century. All hundred years. He forced a smile. "Thanks. But I think I might have preferred something a little simpler."
Danny frowned. "Yeah, right. This coming from a guy whose friends wager about whether he wears a tie to bed at night."
John winced at the reference. It wasn't the first time he'd heard it. But repetition didn't make it seem any more real. He remembered the need for things like Armani, but the idea just didn't fit anymore. It was as though that part of him had been damaged, twisted--the mirror image of what he'd once been. And no one seemed to understand.
He was Jonathan Brighton. And he wasn't.
All at the same time.
Hell, he didn't really understand it himself. He only knew he no longer wanted to wear Armani, even if he did have an entire closet full of it.
He looked up at his brother, striving for levity he simply didn't feel. "I hope I'm not an odds-on favorite, because I don't think I'll be tying ties anytime soon." He fought to close his hand, frustration combining with anger. Even the simple act of making a fist eluded him.
"Which brings me back to my original point. You're pushing yourself too fast." Danny reached for the suit coat, sliding it off of the hanger. "Flo said you were even thinking of coming back to work."
"It's time. I've been out of commission too long as it is." With his good hand he levered himself up, careful to center his weight, slightly favoring his good leg.
"You were shot in the head, Jonathan. It's going to take more than a few months to recover."
He frowned at his brother, fighting to keep his irritation from showing. "I've asked you to call me John."
"I know that, but after thirty-three years of calling you Jonathan, you can't expect me to just instantly switch."
"I expect you to try." He knew he was being unreasonable, but he couldn't seem to help himself.
"Honest to God, John, what kind of man changes his name at thirty-five?" His brother's tone bordered on exasperation.
"The kind whose life has been turned inside out." He met his brother's gaze, the tension in the room almost palpable. "The simple truth is that part of Jonathan Brighton died on that highway in Mexico, and it's never coming back." He shrugged, a left-sided affair that still managed to convey his misery. "John is all that's left."
"You're talking nonsense." Danny's voice was earnest, worried. "You're going to be fine. It may take time, but everything will be like before, you'll see."
"Nothing will ever be the same, Danny. I've accepted that fact. And you'd do well to accept it, too." He blew out a breath, suddenly feeling tired.
"I'm working on it." Danny dropped his gaze to study his wingtips. "But in the meantime, I can't help worrying about you."
"I understand that. And I appreciate your concern." John closed his eyes, massaging his temple. "But the fact remains that it's my call. And I say I'm ready to come back." Anger, hot and heavy, swelled through him. "What I need now is work. And the work I choose is at Guardian." He banged his good hand down on the table. "At my company. Do I make myself clear?"
Some part of him, deep inside, was appalled at his tone of voice, surprised at the depth of his anger, but it held no sway. He glared at his brother, waiting for an answer.
Danny sighed, obviously working to contain his emotions. "I just want you to be yourself again."
"I know that." John dropped heavily back onto the bed. "I didn't mean to lose my temper. It's just that right now, Guardian is all I have. And for the time being I need to be there. I need to try and make it all work again."
"Then I'll be there to help you." Danny's troubled gaze met his. "Look, one way or the other, we'll find a way to make it all right. I swear it."
Tears pricked the back of John's eyes. He was so fucking emotional these days. He tried to smile, certain that it was, at best, lopsided. "I hope so, Danny. I really hope so."
His brother's smile was artificially bright. "All right, then, what do you say we start by getting you dressed."
"I think a suit might be overkill for a casual afternoon of recovery." The voice was decidedly feminine, deep and smoky. Like aged whiskey, it washed over him, deceptively smooth, ending with a swift kick. He liked it.
He swung around, curious to see the woman behind the words. He wasn't disappointed.
She stood in the doorway, dressed in faded green scrubs, the cotton hugging every sweet curve. Neither tall nor short, she simply was. Inhabiting space as if it belonged to her.
A single braid hung casually over her shoulder, her hair brown with golden highlights. Sun-kissed was the word that popped into his head. He smiled at the imagery, wondering if he'd lost his mind, and then ruefully accepted the fact that, regardless of the situation, he was no longer playing with a full deck. Still, he was in the game, and that had to count for something.
"So you guys want to quit staring, or shall I give you a runway turn?" She smiled slowly, green eyes sparkling, and stepped into the room, breaking the spell.
He shot a glance at his brother, whose eyes were also riveted on the new arrival, his smile predatory. Jealousy surged through John, surprising him with its force. Yet another emotion out of control. Hell, he didn't even know the woman. He pulled to his feet again, fighting to keep his balance. His leg was much better, but standing required his full attention, distraction almost certainly spelling disaster.
And this woman was definitely a distraction.
She moved before he had a chance to think about her intent, steadying him with gentle hands, the soft smell of her surrounding him with tantalizing hints of vanilla.
He reached up with his good hand, planning to push her back, to protect his space, but she'd already moved, standing again in the doorway, one shoulder propped against the door frame.
"Who the hell are you?" His words came out sharper than he'd intended. The woman's scrubs marked her as a hospital employee. A nurse of some kind, no doubt. He shouldn't have snapped, but he wasn't a man who liked to be coddled and he was more than capable of standing on his own two feet.
"Apparently your dresser." She held up a pair of sweats and a T-shirt. "Can you lift your arm?"
Shooting her what he hoped was an indignant look, he slowly raised his arm, stopping when it reached shoulder height, the effort costing him more than he wanted to admit. "How's this?"
"It's a good start. Can you get it any higher?" She watched him dispassionately, but he could see a spark of something in her eyes. Pity or maybe compassion. It didn't really matter. Either sentiment was abhorrent. And he wasn't about to tolerate it from a stranger--hospital staff or no.
He let his arm drop. "I don't see that it matters."
She shrugged. "It doesn't--to me. But I'd think sometime in your life you'd like to be able to pull something off the top shelf, or hang the star on the Christmas tree."
He studied her through narrowed eyes, responding to the challenge in her voice. "And you care about this because . . ."
She smiled, the gesture changing her from formidable to impish in an instant. "I get paid if you touch the stars."
There was a world of meaning in her words, but only in John's imagination.
"Does that go for me, too?" Danny's tone was a cross between wistful and wolfish.
John shook his head, pulling himself back to reality. The woman was a witch. He'd completely forgotten his brother was in the room.
"Only if you've suffered major head trauma." Her gaze brushed over Danny, dismissing him. "I'm John's physical therapist."
Nonplussed by the brush-off, Danny grinned. "Hey, I'm the patient's brother. Surely that gives me the right for consults or something."
John took a hesitant step forward, pleased when his right foot obeyed. "You have a name?" His voice was still brusque. A combination of irritation and embarrassment.
"My name is Kathleen." Her words tickled his ear, and he realized she'd moved again, this time flanking his bad side. "Kathleen Cavanaugh."
"Irish?" The word popped from his mouth before he had time to think about it.
"Boston Irish." Her eyes crinkled at the corners, and his heart rate ratcheted up a notch.
"That explains the accent." Danny moved to his other side, and together they helped him toward the bathroom.
"Take these." She handed him the sweats when they reached the door. "You ought to be able to get them on yourself."
His eyes met hers, and it felt as if they were locked together in a world all their own, the soft intake of her breath assuring him that he wasn't alone in the feeling. "And if I can't manage?"
Her smile was slow and sure. "Then I'll just have to come in and help you."
She'd lost her freaking mind. Katie stared at the closed bathroom door, trying to ignore Danny Brighton's blatant stare. It bored into her back. But he wasn't the source of her discomfort.
No, indeed. It was much worse than that. She was having less than pure thoughts about Jonathan Brighton. And she wasn't supposed to be thinking about him like that. Heavens, she wasn't supposed to be thinking about him at all.
She was a professional. And this was a routine situation. All she had to do was observe the man, and based on what she saw make recommendations to her superiors. Simple as that.
The door opened and he stepped out of the bathroom, every muscle outlined by the T-shirt she'd provided. His dark hair curled against the neckline, his face shadowed with the hint of a beard.
He looked unkempt. And dangerous. A far cry from the button-down workaholic she'd been briefed about. This was a man with an edge.
And she'd always liked men who walked the line.
"You're staring." His tone was mild, but the current running between them was reflected in his eyes.
"I wasn't actually. I was just thinking about where we ought to begin."
"On the bed?" His smile sent shivers trailing down her back.
She swallowed, struggling for composure. "I beg your pardon?"
Danny laughed behind her, a hint of something protective in his voice. "I think he means that he needs to sit down."
She pulled her mind out of the gutter and focused on the man in front of her. Really focused. He was holding himself together by sheer willpower, but a sheen of sweat glazed his face, and his jaw was twitching with the effort to look at ease.
"Oh God, I'm sorry. What was I thinking?" Five minutes and she'd compromised his health. Her training had been rushed, but it had been thorough. She wasn't here to hurt him. On the contrary, she needed Mr. Brighton fully operational. Again her overeager mind flooded her brain with vivid images having nothing to do with her job or Jonathan Brighton's recovery.