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If Owen Marston hadn't already been flat on his back in a hospital bed, he might have been tempted to knock himself out so he didn't have to deal with the family members gathered around him. Less than twenty-four hours had passed since he'd been admitted, and already he couldn't wait to get out of this place with its pink plastic pitchers and beeping machinery. He craved time alone, but he was managing to keep it together okay, mostly by pretending he wasn't here and by pretending that what actually had happened had not.
To that end, he tuned out his mother's conversation and thought of his spacious condo, his big bed, his large-screen TV. Solitude. God, he needed it.
"And your hair still smells like smoke," his mother said, the anxious edge of her voice breaking into his reverie. Her fingers worried the pearls at her throat. "Caro, don't you think your brother's hair still smells like smoke?"
"Mom," Caro replied, her voice patient. "It doesn't matter that Owen's hair smells like smoke. It's no big deal that the thread count on the sheets isn't up to snuff, and that the pattern of the curtains is an offense to anyone with taste. This is a hospital, not a hotel, a resort or a spa. We're interested in Owen getting good health care, not concierge service."
Their mother ignored his sister's points to appeal to Owen's younger brother. "Bryce, don't you think your brother's hair smells like smoke?"
The woman was seriously losing it. Bryce didn't seem bothered by the fact, though. Sprawled in a nearby chair, he kept his attention focused on his iPhone. Maybe he was checking the latest sports scores, though more likely he was poring over some financials e-mailed to him by his assistant.
Their mother huffed out a sigh. "Bryce, are you listening"
"Call for you, Owen," his brother said. "Granddad on speaker phone." He slid the device onto the fake woodgrain surface of the plastic table pulled up to Owen's bed.
Owen glared at Bryce, who just shrugged as their grandfather's used-to-smoke-a-pack-a-day voice carried into the room. "Boy, I just heard you're in the hospital. How come nobody told me this yesterday?"
Owen looked around. His father, who had a minute ago been standing at the foot of his bed, was now gone, just another in his long string of well-practiced disappearing acts that he managed to make each time the elder Marston started in with his demands. His mother had her back turned now and was murmuring with Caro. In a convenient blink of an eye, Bryce was immersed in some paperwork he'd pulled from his briefcase.
Owen glanced toward the doorway again. A slim, feminine figure flitted past. His body jerked, his attention lasering on the fluttering ends of dark hair and the receding echo of stiletto heels.
Wait! Was that
? Could it be
His heart pounded and he shifted, struggling to lift up, but his ankle, his arm, his head and every muscle he had protested. Collapsing back to the pillow, he tried telling himself to take it easy. It couldn't have been her. Why would she show up now? And he wouldn't want her to, that was for damn sure, not when he felt as if he'd been rolled downhill in a bar-relful of rocks.
His grandfather's voice sounded louder through the phone's speaker. "Why didn't anyone tell me yesterday?" Philip Marston demanded again.
Owen's gaze stayed focused on the empty doorway, and though tension still grabbed at his gut, he managed to keep his words even and calm. "Nobody told you yesterday, Granddad, because there was nothing definitive to tell until today. And today we knew you were locked in meetings with the governor all morning and afternoon."
"Well, I want a full report right now, young man. What the hell happened?"
"A little bump on the head, a little smoke inhalation and I broke my ulna." His sister had convinced him to go with royal blue for the cast that ran from hand to elbow, and it looked stupid to Owen now, but he felt even stupider for the way his heart had sped up when he imagined that feminine figure in the doorway. Especially since what he'd once thought he'd felt for that woman had been a figment of his imagination, too.
"And then I sprained my right ankle and broke my left foot." Thank God no cast on that one, just one of those big ugly boots.
"I warned you," Philip Marston said, his tone disapproving. "I warned you that this so-called career you've chosen was no good."
Owen's tension tightened, clamping on his lungs like a vise, but he didn't surrender a groan, much less a sigh. "Yes, Granddad, so you did."
"I'm glad you concede that," the old man grumbled.
Owen's chest squeezed tighter and acid burned in his belly.
"And I predicted"
"You never once predicted this, damn it," Owen heard himself snap. Chest still painfully tight, he spoke right over his grandfather's raspy voice as a tirade he hadn't known was in him broke free. "You never predicted I'd fall through the roof of a two-story house."
"You said I'd get bored, you said I was wasting my college education, you said I was turning my back on the family business. But admit you never once forecasted this, Granddad. You never once declared I'd find myself in a hospital bed, my body busted all to pieces, and"
"and one of my best buddies dead."
On that last worddeadOwen's outburst came to an abrupt halt. Dead.
Unable to draw a full breath, he ignored the sputter coming through the phone's speaker and thumbed off the gadget before tossing it to his brother, who was staring at him.
His mother was staring, too. His sister. His father had ventured into the room again and was looking at Owen with alarm, as well.
Of course they all looked alarmed. He knew why. It was because he was usually laid-back. Calm in a crisis. Impervious to pressure, and he'd withstood a hell of a lot of it to go his own way and become a firefighter instead of some dull suit in the Marston business empire. But crap, last night had been a disaster, and not only had his body betrayed him by breaking up in his fall, but now his imagination was playing tricks on him, too.
She was nowhere nearby.
"Ross," his mother said to his father. "Go out there and track down that doctor. It's time we get Owen released from this place. I think the atmosphere isn't doing him any good."
June Marston probably was certain it was the curtains that were making him surly, but what did he care? Getting out sounded terrific. His quiet, spacious condo sounded perfect.
"I want him home," his mother continued, "where I can keep an eye on him."
Now the alarmed one was Owen. His gaze shot toward his mom. "Home? Home, as in your home? No thanks, Mom."
"Dad." He pinned his father with his gaze, though the older man appeared about a "hocus-pocus" away from going invisible again. "Just get me back to my condo. That's all I want." That and to turn back the clock twenty-four hours. Or, hell, if he was making wishes, there was a whole other day he'd like to undo, as well, just over a month ago, in Las Vegas, when a certain woman had high-heeled into his life.
His father cleared his throat. "Your mother may be right, Owen. How are you going to get around, hobbled like you are? Your condo's three stories, with the bedroom a flight of steps from the kitchen."
It didn't matter. He'd be dead before he
Oh, God. There was that word again. Dead. Last night the world had turned to fiery hell, and when the flames finally subsided, Jerry Palmer was dead.
Jerry Palmer was dead.
From a dark place deep inside him, something cold welled up to wash over Owen's body. His stomach pitched and a clammy sweat broke over his flesh as tension tightened again around his chest.
How had this happened? Why had he lived when Jerry was dead? He closed his eyes, trying to get away from the question. Trying to get away, period.
"Ross." His mother's voice was distant. "I really think you need to find the doctor. Or maybe we just require some sort of administrator type to get the paperwork going to get Owen home."
Home. Hell, that's where he was going, no matter what noises his mother made. His home, here in Paxton, where he could hole up and lick his wounds and lock the door against the world, including his well-meaning but never-understood-him-anyway relatives.
His eyes were still closed when he heard a change in the pitch of his mother's voice. "Oh, wonderful. Young lady, are you here about my son Owen? I certainly hope so, as we'd like to expedite getting him out of here."
"Yes, I am here about Owen," a voice replied.
A voice he knew. A voice he'd been dreaming of since that weekend in Las Vegas. Her voice. His heart started pounding again and he felt the bruises riddling his body begin to throb.
She was here. Now. Why?
Why now, when it was five weeks ago that she'd stomped off following their argument in Vegas? Why now, when she hadn't contacted him since? But wasn't it just like her confounding, inconvenient self to show up today, as he was lying in a hospital bed wearing a ridiculous blue cast and feeling like a 0.5 on a scale of 1 to 10?
And with hair that still smelled of smoke. He lifted his hand to his bristly cheek before he forced himself to lift his eyelids and take in the woman who had the gall to appear so damn beautiful from her place in the doorway.
She was small and sleek, her black hair a shiny wing that curved to her throat. Her eyes were chocolate brown with lashes that were long and curled and that had brushed his throat when they danced they'd been that close. Her skin was a flawless golden and her full lips the color of a plum. He'd kissed that mouth, nipped it, painted it with his tongue, lost himself in its sweet flavor.
He'd lost his head over those kisses. Over her.
"How are you, Izzy?" he asked, surprised to find that though his voice was roughened by the smoke inhalation, he wasn't growling like he wanted to.
"Better than you, I see," she said softly.
Her gaze trained on him, she took a step into the room and he crossed his arms over his chest, the stupid cast clunking against his breastbone. Izzy winced, her downturned mouth sympathetic. "Oh, Owen."
"'Oh, Owen,' what?" Damn, but he didn't want her feeling sorry for him. He wanted her
hell, he didn't want anything from her except one thing. And she was a flight risk, she'd proven that, so he knew what he had to do now that she'd ventured this close again.
Busted up or not, feeling about as weak as skim milk or not, he must do anything, say anything, agree to anything that would strong-arm her into sticking around long enough to solve the untenable situation they'd put themselves in five weeks before. He couldn't let her run away again.
It was Caro who reminded them both that there were other people in the room. She bounced up from her chair with a smile and held out her hand. "I'm Owen's sister, Caro."
Izzy returned a polite shake. "And I'm
" She glanced over at Owen, obviously asking for help.
He made a little gesture with his hand. "Caro, meet Isabella Cavaletti. Izzy, also meet my brother, Bryce, and my parents, June and Ross."
Handshakes were exchanged all around and then he gave his family one last piece of info to chew on. Might as well, since he now had this on his plate, too.
"Everybody," he said to the other Marstons in the room. "Meet my wife."
Izzy's plan hadn't been well formed. If forced to articulate it, she might have mumbled something about wanting a quick peek to reassure herself Owen was okay. As if a 3,000-mile flight for a single quick peek made any kind of sense.
And anyway, that quick peek had turned into a hover-in-the-doorway the instant she'd caught sight of the cast on his arm, the elastic bandages on his ankle, and the other foot in some sort of device that signaled an additional injury. She couldn't help but take in the dishevelment of his dark blond hair, the scrape high on his cheekbone, and the cut across the bridge of his nose. A man had never looked, she'd decided, so weary and so gorgeous at the same time.
His battered appearance had frozen her in place and then she'd been spotted by a tall, beautiful older woman wearing patrician pearls and a worried expression. Owen's mother, June Marston.
She'd looked much happier when she thought Izzy was a hospital employee rather than her son's wife. That apparently put a sour taste in her mouth, because now she was staring at Izzy, her lips pursed and her eyes wide in surprise. "Wife?" she echoed.
Owen seemed unwilling to offer more, so Izzy sucked in a breath and gathered together her charm.