Summer Lane is no damsel in distress. For the past two years, she's been battling her way back from her worst nightmare all by herself. So she doesn't need the fabulous former Marine Zach Marshall swooping in to save her.
But she needn't worry. Zach has hung up his shining armor. His instinct to rescue has only brought him heartache, and he's not about to risk it all againeven though everything about Summer makes him yearn to help. But she just might accept his challenge to step up and conquer her fears on her own. Even her deepest fears, like trust and love.
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Zach's dad hadn't said a word since ending the "Your daughter has been rushed to the hospital" call from the Vail Police Department.
Halfway into the nearly two-hour drive, his dad said, "Keep your eye on the speedometer, son. Last thing we need is to lose half an hour while some state trooper flexes his muscles."
Under normal circumstances, Zach might have shot back with a teasing, "Dad, you sound like a hippie." But there was nothing normal about the situation, and this was no time for jokes.
"You okay up there?" his mom asked.
No, he wasn't. But admitting it would only add to her stress.
"I'm fine." He glanced into the rearview mirror and met her gaze. "How 'bout you? Holding up?"
She sighed heavily. "I'll feel better when I see her."
Yeah, he could identify with that. Hopefully, his sister's condition wouldn't be anywhere near as bad as what his imagination had cooked up:
Libby, broken and battered. Libby, unconscious. Libby, connected to tubes and monitors
Zach shook off the ugly images and focused on the dark highway and his dad's white-knuckled grip on the grab handle above the door. Who needed reminders of how much his dad hated driving the interstate with all the gasping and floor stomping going on in the passenger seat? Unfortunately, I-70 was the quickest route from their ranch outside Denver to Libby, all alone in the Vail hospital.
He was having a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact that violence had followed him home from Afghanistan, where bloodshed and battles were an almost daily occurrence. He thought he'd left the ugliness of war behind when he moved his gear back into his boyhood bedroom three weeks ago, but then, the phone call from the police.
Nothing would make his parents happier than if he decided to stay and help his cousin run the Double M. So why hadn't he unpacked?
Because he'd spent too many years taking orders from marines much younger than himself, and didn't want to test the strength of his and Nate's "just like brothers" relationship.
Zach had been a fair to middlin' skier back in the day. Maybe he'd take a job at one of the nearby resorts, teaching kids how to stand upright on the bunny slopes. At least then his baby sister would have family right there in town when she was released from the hospital.
Hospital. Would the Valley Medical Center have the equipment and staff to do more than set skiers' broken bones? The officer hadn't exactly sugarcoated things, so Zach knew it would take more than a clinic with an X-ray machine to handle Libby's injuries.
Half an hour later, when he and his folks walked into her ICU cubicle, his mom hid a tiny gasp behind one hand. The sight made his dad backpedal a few steps, too. "This must be the wrong room," he said, reading the numbers beside the door.
Libby was barely recognizable, thanks to bruised eye sockets, a bandage cap hiding her blond curls, casts on her left arm and right leg and a spaghetti-like tangle of tubes and wires connecting her to the monitors.
"Yeah, Dad," Zach whispered. "It's the right room." As evidence, he pointed to the big-asa-suitcase black purse, monogrammed with the telltale sparkly L. Summoning all his self-control, he walked to the foot of her bed. "Man," he said, grinning, "the lengths some people will go to get some attention."
She opened one puffy eye and winced slightly as the left corner of her mouth lifted in a smile. "'Bout time you guys got here."
Zach moved to the side of her bed, effectively blocking the monitor screens from his parents' view. Libby's fingers began to shake, and he gently wrapped his around them, as much to comfort her as to hide the tremors from his folks.
And for the next ten minutes, the three of them stood statue-still, listening to her sketchy version of what had happened to her, nearly twelve hours earlier. Zach didn't know whether to blame shock or painkillers for her halting speech, but he knew Libby. The rest of the story must have been truly horrible if his never-pulls-her-punches sister felt it necessary to protect the folks from the details. Not being able to talk about it was probably driving her crazy.
"I don't know about you two," he told his parents, "but I'm starving."
As if on cue, his mom's stomach growled, and his dad patted his back pocket. "Shoot. I left the house so fast, I forgot my wallet."
"It's three in the morning, son," his mother said. "I doubt anything is open."
Libby's nurse leaned into the room. "Sorry. Couldn't help but overhear," she said, smiling. "Remedies Café opens in a few hours. Until then, you'll find a bank of vending machines in the hall just outside the cafeteria."
"Thanks," Zach said. Following her back into the hall, he whispered, "What do you think? Is Libs gonna be all right?"
Bright blue reading glasses dangled from a matching ribbon around the nurse's neck. She put them on and glanced at a printout that he guessed was a summary of what the monitors registered. "Things look normal to me."
"What tests did the docs do?"
"The usual. X-rays, CT scan, MRI, some bloodwork"
"And what were the results?"
"It's too soon for that," she said in a singsong voice that Zach translated to mean, "Don't you worry, silly man. We'll tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it."
Few things irked him more than being patronized. "I did three tours in Afghanistan. I know a serious condition when I see it, so there's no need to put a condescending spin on things."
Her jaw dropped slightly, but Zach didn't feel guilty for his brusque attitude. Hard experience had taught him that setting the right tone from the get-go would save everyone a lot of time.
The nurse's smile softened. "First of all, thank you for your service, Mr. Marshall. And my apologies if I came off as a pompous medical professional." She removed her glasses and stared him straight in the eye. "Your sister took quite a beating, but from everything I've seen, there's no permanent damage, and no signs of internal injury."
"In other words, despite how bad things look, Libs is already on the road to recovery?"
"The doctors hate it when nurses comment on questions like that. But I'll tell you this " She glanced right and left then met his eyes. "She's doing really well, physically."
"Were you here when the cops interviewed her?"
She hadn't elaborated. And she'd put extra emphasis on the word physically. Did it mean
If he couldn't say it in the privacy of his mind, how did he expect to ask the question out loud?
Practice what you preach, Marshall.
"Do you know if she was, ah, sexually assaulted?"
That was a relief.
"A bystander screamed and interrupted your sister's attacker." The nurse glanced at Libby's cubicle, and when she looked back at Zach, an admiring smile lit her face. "Witnesses said she fought like a tiger."
But she hadn't fought smart. She hadn't known how. If he'd given her a couple of pointers last time he was home on leave, like she'd asked him to.
He cleared his throat. "I don't suppose the cops caught the son of a"
"Not yet, but they have a pretty good description." She handed Zach a business card. "This officer spent a few minutes with her before the techs took her down to X-ray. He'll be back in the morning, but said if you have any questions, you should feel free to call, anytime."
Zach gave the card a quick once-over before tucking it into his shirt pocket. He followed the nurse's gaze, now fixed on his parents, who sat side by side watching their only daughter sleep. Zach looked at them, too his mom's head resting on his dad's shoulder, their fingers linked as if drawing and giving strength to one another simultaneously. It warmed his heart, yet made him feel more lonely than he'd felt in a long, long time. Must be nice, he thought, to have someone to lean on at a time like this.
"I wish I could tell you more, Mr. Marshall, I really do."
Zach blinked away his self-pitying fog.
"The doctor will make his rounds in a couple of hours. By then, he'll have the test results, and I'm sure he can answer all your questions."
Zach nodded. He didn't have to like her "keep the details on the down-low" position to understand it.
"Thanks. And thanks for taking such good care of Libby."
She was asleep when he returned to her room. Zach resumed his sentry-like position in front of the monitors. Their blips and beeps kept time with his dad's agitated pacing while his mom stood, silently shaking her head. If he didn't get them out of here, they'd go crazy, waiting for Libby to wake up.
He peeled a couple twenties from his wallet, turning to his parents. "If I don't get something to eat soon, I'll go down like a felled tree."
His father pocketed the money. "What can we get you while we're downstairs?"
"Coffee. Sandwich. Chips. Maybe a candy bar. Doesn't matter what kind."
Nodding, he grasped his wife's elbow. "Come with me," he said, leading her toward the door. "I'm gonna need help carrying stuff."
Her eyes widened with disbelief. "John, you don't really expect me to leave her alone!"
"We'll only be gone a few minutes. And she won't be alone. Zach will stay with her. If her condition changes, even a little, he'll text us."
Her brows drew together as she considered it.
"He's right, Mom. Libs will be fine." Right hand forming the Scout's salute, he added, "I promise to call if her eyelids so much as flutter."
"Come on, Ellen," his dad called from the doorway. "Who knows when we'll next have a chance to grab a bite to eat."
When she reached him, he leaned down to whisper something into her ear, something that inspired her to send Zach a sad smile.
So. They knew Libby had been holding back, and that he aimed to get more information from her. He couldn't predict what his sister might say when their folks left the room, but if it was bad news, he had no intention of adding to their worries.
He waited until they were out of sight then sat on the edge of her bed. "Okay, they're gone," he said, taking her hand. "Quit faking and let me have it. All of it this time."
"Faking? Who, me?"
"You've been awake for the past twenty minutes."
"Can I help it if I'm a tell-it-like-it-is kinda guy?"
"Yeah. When it's convenient for you." She smirked then winced. "Ow. Stop making me smile, will ya?"
"Hey. It isn't my fault that you're so easily entertained."
Her face grew serious. "Okay, I'll talk. But first, you have to promise me something."
"That you won't put on your private investigator hat and try to find the guy. Because the last thing Mom and Dad need is for you to get into trouble."
"Whoa. Does that mean you know the guy? Is that why you think he'll be so easy to find?"
"Of course not. He snuck up on me. Took me completely by surprise. I didn't see anything but the pavement, whooshing closer and closer to my face."
It wasn't likely the cops would share what they knew, but if he could get anything out of them
"Promise you'll keep things to yourself, or I'm going back to sleep."
The heart monitor beeped a little faster. "All right. Okay. Settle down, will you?" He cleared his throat. "I promise not to get in trouble."
"Oh, you're a clever one, I'll give you that." She gave him a look that said, "I've got your number, pal."
"But not clever enough. I want to hear you say 'I promise not to tell Mom and Dad the rest of the story.'"
It wasn't likely he'd share any information with their folks, but just in case, he searched his mind for a way to appease her without making the promise.
"I'll be honest with you, partly because I need to talk about it as much as you need to hear what happened. But I can't. I won't. Not unless I have your word that you won't try to play the hero again."
Play the hero again? The comment took him back to when Libby was in college, and a couple of her roommates called him when they got tangled up with some unsavory characters.
"I just couldn't live with myself if you ended up in jailor worsebecause of me."
She looked so small and frail, so afraid and nervous, that the only thing keeping him from scooping her up into a huge hug was his fear of hurting her.
"Fine." He made no effort to sound pleased, because he wasn't. "I won't hunt him down like the animal he is and beat the stuffing outta him."
She relaxed slightly. "One more promise?"
"Stop looking so grim. If they come back and see you looking all serious and angry, they won't let up until I tell them, too. Or worse, walk around looking all 'poor Libby' for the rest of my life." She gave his hand a weak squeeze. "Thank goodness I don't have to worry you'll do that."
He feigned shock. "Hey. Just 'cause I'm a marine doesn't mean I'm devoid of feelings."
"It's because you're a big, tough marine that I can trust you to mask your feelings. You saw a lot of ugly stuff over there, but you learned how to compartmentalize it. If you feel sorry for me when I once I've told you everything, well, at least you'll know how to pretend you don't."
Compartmentalize. Libby had chosen the right career, all right. Too bad she couldn't put her degree in psychology to use analyzing herself, figure out why she kept getting involved with losers, why she struggled in a one-woman practice when so many facilities wanted to hire her. Zach stifled a groan and sandwiched her hand between his. "You'll get no pity from me."
Libby returned his halfhearted smile and plunged into her story. Halfway through, the pace and volume of her words waned, and when she finished, Libby slipped into a fitful sleep.
Zach sat there, shaking his head and fighting tears. Part of him wished she had known the guy. At least he'd have a target for his fury. But her attacker was still out there somewhere. Was he aware that Libby couldn't identify him? If he thought otherwise, would he try to find her and make sure she couldn't testify against him? That possibility scared Zach almost as much as seeing the enemy churning through the Afghan dust.
His mind went into full marine mode, searching for proactive ways to help her, to make sure nothing like this ever happened to her again.
And then it hit him.
When the docs released her, he'd move into Libby's town house and take care of her. While she recuperated, he'd start the wheels in motion to find a place of his own, preferably a shop of some kind with an upstairs apartment. He'd open a self-defense studio, right here in Vail. And when she was ready, Libby would be his first student.
"Let go of my hand, you goof. Your big meat hook is getting me all sweaty."
Snickering, he did as she asked, just as their folks returned, each carrying a cardboard food tray.
"Oh, good," his mom whispered, "she's still sleeping."
She was too busy doling out sandwiches and bags of chips to notice Libby's mouth curl into a tiny, sly grin.
It told him she'd be all right, and he had to put his back to the family to keep them from seeing his grateful tears.