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Michael maneuvered his wheelchair across the floor and set the lock. He eyed the sofa and debated whether its comfort was worth the effort it would take to heave himself out of the chair. Every damn day was filled with such inconsequential challenges. After years of trying to sort through the life-and-death logistics of SEAL missions, it grated on him that the simple decision of where to sit to watch another boring afternoon of television took on such importance.
"You want some help?" Ryan asked, his expression neutral.
Over the past few weeks, when his brother had been popping in and out of California on a regular basis, Michael had learned to recognize that look. It meant that Ryan was feeling sorry for him and was trying not to show it.
The attempt was pretty lame, but Ryan was actually better at it than Sean. Sean's obvious pity was almost more than Michael could take, which was one reason Ryan had been designated to pick him up at the airport and to help him settle into his new apartment.
Michael had discovered that the grown-up Ryan was a low-key kind of guy. He ran his own Irish pub and had settled into family life with a woman named Maggie who seldom took no for an answer. Michael had already had a few encounters with her on the phone and discovered she masked an iron will with sweet talk.
Sean, however, was a recently married firefighter, an active man who would have chafed at the restrictions on his life, just as Michael did. Maybe that was the reason that Sean couldn't seem to hide his sympathy each time he saw Michael in this damnable wheelchair. They probably needed to talk about it, but neither one of them had gotten up the nerve. Besides, what was there to say?
"I still don't know how I let you all talk me into moving back to Boston," Michael grumbled as he waved off Ryan's offer of help and struggled to move from the wheelchair to the sofa on his own. "There must be a foot of snow out there. In San Diego, I could be basking in the sunshine beside a pool."
"But you wouldn't be," Ryan said wryly. "The way I hear it, you hadn't set foot outside since you left the hospital."
Michael scowled. His brother clearly had too much information about his habits. There were only a handful of people who could have given it to him, most of them men Michael could have sworn were totally loyal to him.
"Who ratted me out?" he inquired testily.
Ryan held up his hands. "I've been sworn to secrecy. Your men seem to think you have a particularly nasty temper when crossed."
At least he could still intimidate somebody, Michael thought with satisfaction. It was a consolation. He certainly hadn't been able to intimidate Ryan's wife, Maggie, though.
Maggie was the one who'd called every single, blessed day pestering him to come East. She'd ignored his cranky responses, talked right over his blistering tirades and pretty much won him over with her silky sweet threats. He wondered if Ryan knew what a weapon he had living with him. Michael was convinced that Maggie Devaney could take over a small country if she was of a mind to. Michael could hardly wait to meet her in person, though he'd prefer to be in top-notch form when he did.
"Why didn't your wife come to the airport with you?" he asked his brother.
"She thought you might like a little time to yourself to get used to things," Ryan said. "She did send along a list of therapists for you to consider. She said you'd been discussing it, but hadn't agreed to hire one yet."
Michael frowned at the understatement. "Actually, what I told her was that I wasn't interested. I could have sworn I'd made that clear."
"You're content to spend the rest of your life in that wheelchair?" Ryan asked mildly.
"The doctors are the ones who consigned me to a wheelchair," Michael responded bitterly. The shattered bone in his thigh had taken two additional surgeries, and the doctors still weren't convinced it would ever heal properly. His knee was artificial. He felt like the Bionic Man, only one who'd gotten faulty parts.
Even if everything healed and worked, he'd never have the agility to return to the kind of work he loved. His navy career was definitely over. He'd declined the offer to push papers behind some desk at the Pentagon. Michael shuddered at the very thought-he'd rather eat raw squid. So he was twenty-seven and out of work and out of hope. He'd learn to live with it. .eventually.
Ryan leveled an uncompromising look straight at him. "Is that so? You're blaming this on the doctors? The way I hear it-"
"You apparently hear too damned much," Michael retorted. "Has it occurred to you that I was doing just fine before you and Sean-and your wives-came busting back into my life? I don't need you meddling now. If I decide to stay in Boston, I won't have all of you making me some sort of project." He leveled a daunting look of his own. "Are we clear on that?"
"No project," Ryan echoed dutifully.
Michael studied his brother with a narrowed gaze. That had gone a little too easily, he thought just as the doorbell rang. He scowled at Ryan. "You invite somebody else over?"
Ryan looked just the teensiest bit guilty. "It could be Maggie."
"I thought you said she was giving me some space."
Ryan shrugged. "Well, that's the thing with Maggie. She has her own ideas about how much space a man should have."
"Great. That's just great." Michael eyed his wheelchair with frustration. No way in hell could he haul himself back into the thing and get out of the room before Ryan opened the door. As curious as he was to see the woman who'd married his oldest brother, he wasn't ready for the meeting to take place today. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do about it. He resigned himself to an early introduction to his sister-in-law.
Before he could catch his breath, Maggie burst into the room, her cheeks red, her eyes flashing and her hair like something from a painting of an auburn-haired goddess. No wonder his brother had fallen for her. Michael was half in love himself, but that was before he caught sight of the curly-haired toddler clutching her hand.
"This is Maggie," Ryan said unnecessarily. "And the pint-size replica is Caitlyn. She's just learned to walk, and she has only one speed-full throttle."
The warning came too late. Caitlyn took one look at Michael, broke free of her mother's grasp and hurtled straight toward him on her chubby, wobbly legs. She was about to grab his injured leg in her powerful little grasp when Michael instinctively bent forward and scooped her up.
Wide green eyes stared at him in shock. He expected immediate tears, but instead a slow smile blossomed on her little face, and he was an instant goner. He'd never realized a kid could steal a person's heart in less than ten seconds flat.
He sat her on his good leg. "Hiya, Caitlyn. I'm your Uncle Mike."
She studied him intently, then lifted a hand and patted his cheek.
"She's not saying too much yet," Maggie said, "but trust me, she knows how to make herself understood."
"Yeah, I can see that," Michael said, already thoroughly under little Caitlyn's spell.
"Think you can handle her for five minutes?" Maggie asked. "I have groceries in the car. I'm afraid I overdid it. I could use Ryan's help bringing them in."
"Sure. Miss Caitlyn and I will be fine." He wasn't sure how he knew that. It was just that it was the first time in months that someone wasn't looking at him with pity. His niece's expression was merely curious. He could deal with friendly curiosity, especially from someone who hadn't yet learned how to ask complete and probing questions.
But the instant Ryan and Maggie left, Michael had a sudden attack of nerves. He didn't know a whole lot about kids. He had dim memories of his twin brothers, but he'd been little more than a toddler himself when the family had split up. He'd been the youngest in his foster family. Now both of his foster sisters were married, but so far were childless. A couple of the guys on his SEAL team had children, but Michael had tended to steer clear of the gatherings when they'd been present. He didn't like the feelings of envy that washed through him when he was surrounded by tight-knit families.
"So, kid, what do you like to do?" he asked the toddler who seemed perfectly content to sit cuddled in his arms. "I'll bet you have a doll or two at home. Maybe a stuffed bear."
Caitlyn listened intently, but said nothing.
"Then, again, maybe you're one of those liberated little girls who has cars and trucks," Michael continued. "Your mom strikes me as the kind of woman who'd want you to grow up knowing that you have options."
Apparently he'd said the wrong thing, because Caitlyn suddenly looked around the room and huge tears promptly welled up in her eyes.
"Mama," she wailed loudly. "Mama!"
She sounded as if her little heart was breaking. Feeling desperate, Michael awkwardly patted her back. "Hey, it's okay. Your mama is just outside. She and your daddy will be right back."
That brought on a fresh round of tears. "Da-da-da!"
Michael was at a loss. He was about to panic, when the door swung open and Maggie and Ryan came breezing in. Maggie grinned, set the groceries beside the door and swooped in to pick up the squalling child.
"Hey, baby girl, what's all that noise?" Maggie chided.
Just like that, the wails trailed off and the tears stopped. "Mama," Caitlyn said contentedly, patting Maggie's cheek. Then she turned back to Michael and held out her arms.
Michael couldn't help chuckling. "Fickle little thing, aren't you?" he said as he reached for her. "You're going to grow up and break some man's heart."
"She won't be dating until she's at least thirty," Ryan said emphatically.
"Good plan. I can hardly wait to see how well you stick to it," Michael said. "Especially since this one obviously has a mind of her own already."
"Don't laugh. You might be called on to help me chase off the boys," his brother informed him.
Michael looked at the little angel who was now snuggled against him, half-asleep. "Just say the word," he said solemnly.
"That reminds me," Ryan said, taking a slip of paper from his pocket and handing it to Michael.
"Maggie's list of therapists. She reminded me just now to be sure and give it to you."
Michael's gaze narrowed. "And the connection to your daughter's social life would be?"
"If you're going to help me protect Caitlyn from hormone-driven teenaged boys, you're going to have to be in top form," Ryan said. "You might as well pick one and call. If you don't, Maggie will."
Michael glanced toward the kitchen where his sister-in-law was busily arranging his groceries and dishes so things would be within reach. He took the list and stuffed it in his pocket without comment.
It was only later, after Ryan, Maggie and Caitlyn had gone, that he took out the paper and glanced at the names. One jumped out at him: Kelly Andrews.
Years ago his best friend, Bryan Andrews, had had a sister named Kelly. Was it possible that this was the same girl? He remembered her as being a cute, shy kid, but by now she would have to be, what? Twenty-four most likely.
Michael had lost touch with Bryan years ago. Maybe he'd track him down and ask if his sister was a physical therapist. Purely as a matter of curiosity. He had no intention of asking some therapist to waste her time on him, not when every doctor he'd seen had said that a full recovery was impossible.
And, he thought with self-derision, anything less meant he might as well be dead.
Kelly Andrews was as nervous as if she'd never worked with a patient before. She stood outside the small cluster of apartments in the freezing cold and tried to gather her courage. No matter how many times she told herself that Michael Devaney was a potential client, nothing more, she couldn't help the rush of emotions that filled her.
Michael had been her first teenage crush. Three years older than she was, he and her brother had been friends throughout high school. Michael had never given her so much as a second glance, not as anything more than Bryan's kid sister, anyway. That hadn't stopped her from weaving her share of fantasies about the quiet, dark-haired boy with the intense, brooding gaze and a body that even at seventeen had been impressively well muscled.
It was Bryan who'd told her about Michael being shot and the doctors' very real conviction that he would never walk, much less work as a SEAL, again. Bryan had come back from his visit with Michael sounding worried that his old friend was going to give up. That concern had communicated itself to Kelly.
"His brothers went out to San Diego and convinced him to come back here to recuperate," Bryan had explained two nights before. "I spoke to Ryan after I saw Michael. He says his brother is going to be needing a lot of physical therapy, but so far Michael has flatly refused to ask anyone for help. He did ask about you, though."
Kelly's heart had taken an unsteady leap. "He did?"
"Apparently your name was on a list Ryan's wife made of prospective therapists." Bryan had regarded her with a knowing look. "You interested? I know how you love a challenge. I also know you always had a thing for Michael."
"I did not," she said, though the flush in her cheeks was probably a dead giveaway that she was lying.
As desperately as she wanted to be the one to be there for Michael now, she had hesitated. "From what you say, it's going to be a long, difficult process. He's going to need someone he trusts. Do you think he'll pay any attention to me? In his mind, I'm probably still your kid sister."
Bryan had grinned. "Sis, you forget, I've seen you in action at the clinic when I've come by to pick you up. You're hard to ignore. So, should I tell his brother you'll take the job, and that you won't let Michael's lousy, uncooperative mood scare you off?"
"Hold it. Back up a minute. You said that before- something about brothers. I thought there were only girls in his family."
"The Havilceks only had girls, but Michael was a foster kid."
"Of course. I knew that," Kelly said, suddenly remembering. "At least, I knew he had a different last name. I guess I never really gave much thought to it, because he didn't seem to. So, these brothers are his biological brothers?"
Bryan had nodded. "He hadn't seen them in years till they turned up in San Diego."
"That must have been a shock."
"It was. They were separated when his parents bailed on all of them. Michael was only four. He barely remembered them."
She'd stared at her brother with surprise. "Is this something you just found out, or did you know it when we were kids?"
He shook his head. "I knew he was a foster kid. But back then, Michael never talked about how he'd wound up with the Havilceks. Every time I started to ask about his real family, he told me the Havilceks were his real family, the only one that counted."
The story explained a lot
and added to her fascination with Michael Devaney, a fascination she was going to have to ignore if she was going to do her job the way it needed to be done.