Authors: Marie Ferrarella
It got on her nerves. “I hope you don’t intend to do that all the way home. I’m fresh out of aspirin.” And patience, she added silently.
She should have remained in the house with Morgan, she told herself. She realized that her jaw was clenched, as clenched as her fingers were on the steering wheel. Focusing, she tried to ease up on both. But the tension in her shoulders persisted.
And there was something more. The wind had initially masked it, but now the sound grew louder. Water. Rushing water. It took her a second to make the connection. The gully beneath the bridge had filled with water. That meant she had to be getting close to it.
Damn it, where was the bridge? Why couldn’t she see it? It had to be here somewhere.
Traci craned her neck farther, searching for the small wooden structure. Crossing it earlier, she’d thought that time had made the bridge almost rickety. Not that it had ever been all that strong to begin with. And in this weather it would have to be—
Fear seemed to manually force her heart into her throat where it remained, stuck, as Traci realized that she was now directly over where the bridge should have been.
And there was nothing there.
The edges of her front tires were touching nothing. The headache that had been threatening to engulf her ever since she left the house made an appearance, full bodied and strong. It pounded over her temples and forehead like a scorned, irate lover as Traci frantically threw the car into reverse, trying to keep the car from plunging straight into the gully.
She overcompensated, turning the steering wheel too far to the left, and the car went speeding backward, making contact with a tree.
Shrieking, Traci slammed on her brakes, but it
was after the fact. The collision was already in motion. Metal against wood.
It felt as if something vital had been jarred loose in her body as she hit her forehead against the steering wheel. The last thing she heard was Jeremiah’s mournful cry.
And then there was an inky blackness dropping over her, too heavy to resist.
Her eyelids weighed a ton. Each one. It took her several vain attempts to pry open her eyes. Each time she tried, she found she couldn’t lift them. It was as if they were nailed down.
Traci thought she heard a voice. Someone was talking to her, but she couldn’t place who it was or what was being said. And there were shadows moving, drifting here and there. Some belonged to the voice. Others didn’t.
Each time she was sure she’d opened her eyes and looked, she discovered that she hadn’t.
It was frustrating as hell.
Traci moaned, trying to turn, to sit up, confident that if she did, her eyes would open.
She began to make things out more clearly. There were hands holding her down. Gentle hands. Strong hands. She struggled against them and lost that fight, too. There seemed to be no energy flowing through her. Nothing. No blood.
Oh, God, she’d killed Jeremiah. She’d heard his pitiful moan just before she—what?
Where was she? Traci twisted again, but the same two hands were holding her down. They were pressing on her arms. She fought, struggled, tried to speak, and still her eyes refused to budge.
Was it a dream? Was she dead?
It was a lot drier where she was.
In the distance somewhere, she heard the crackle of something. Fire?
Was she in hell? She groaned in fear.
“Damn it, even when you’re unconscious, you’re a problem.”
Morgan, that was Morgan’s voice. Was he dead, too? No, she’d left him in the house. Him and his lips.
With supreme effort, Traci concentrated on the sound of his voice, on surfacing out of this cottony netherworld she was trapped in.
Inch by inch, she made it to the top. Her eyes finally flew open and focused on Morgan. He was looming over her, almost larger than life. And he was holding her down. Touching her. Never mind that it was only her arms. She could feel it all along her body.
This had to stop.
“Get your hands off me,” she breathed.
Grasping at indignation and hoping it would give her the shot of adrenaline she needed, Traci bolted upright. A second later, she became one with the pain that rushed up to greet her. Her head felt like an egg that had been cracked open against the side of a pan.
Instinctively, her hand went to her head. There was a bandage there.
Morgan grabbed her wrist and firmly held on to it. “Leave that alone,” he ordered. “You hit your head on the steering wheel and cut your forehead.” When he saw that she was actually going to listen to him, he released her wrist. “Although I didn’t think anything as hard as that could be cut by anything less than the sharp edge of a diamond.”
Everything felt as if it were submerged in her mind, mired in thick chicken soup. She looked around. She was back in the house. On the sofa. Before the fireplace. But that was impossible.
“How did I get here?”
The color was returning to her cheeks. That was a good sign. She’d given him one hell of a scare back there. When he had found her slumped over the steering wheel, he’d thought she was dead. It had taken him a moment to quell and manage the panic that had shot through him. “I brought you back here.”
She drew her brows together and found that it hurt. “You?”
He lifted a shoulder and then let it drop carelessly. “Sir Lancelot was busy.”
It still didn’t make any sense to her. She’d left him in the house. How could he have known she was in an accident? And why was he all wet?
Since neither one of them was going anywhere,
Morgan sat down on the edge of the sofa beside her.
“The ‘why’ is because I didn’t think leaving you out in the rain was such a good idea. And the ‘how’ is that I carried you.” His mouth curved. Now that she was conscious, he could allow himself that luxury. “You weigh less than I thought.”
Traci tried to assimilate what he was telling her, feeding it into her brain above the pounding pain. She held her head, afraid that if she didn’t, it would fall off.
“But I left you in here,” she began, hoping that saying the words aloud would somehow help her make sense out of her scattered thoughts. It didn’t. She couldn’t seem to get them in order.
Watching her car disappear into the rain had given him a very uneasy feeling. Morgan had waited five minutes, maybe six, before finally getting into his own car and following her. He’d arrived just in time to watch her car travel backward into the tree. Racing from his car to hers had been the longest and worst minute of his life.
“I’m ambulatory in case you haven’t noticed.” He might as well tell her the whole truth. “I was worried and decided to go out looking for you. Lucky thing for you I did. We’re marooned out here, at least for the duration of the storm. My distributor cap decided to play dead just as I got to the lovely mess that used to be your car.”
The reason for the car’s sudden shuddering and then sputtering halt had registered in his mind only after the fact. Nothing had registered at the
time except that her car was crashing right before his eyes. And that she was in it.
Traci winced as the memory returned. “My car—it’s bad?”
“Only if you want to drive it. As an accordion it still has possibilities.” He became serious. It could have very well gone a different way. “You’re damn lucky to be alive.”
She was almost afraid to ask. But she had to know. “Jeremiah—?”
He’d dragged the dumb mutt along with him in his wake. It hadn’t been easy but he wasn’t about to abandon the mangy animal in the storm.
“Smells like hell wet,” he informed her gently. “Can’t you smell him?”
She took a deep breath and then visibly calmed down. “Now I can.” Her eyes turned to his and she mustered a smile, despite the pain that was splitting her head in half. “Thanks.”
Morgan made light of her gratitude. Accepting it was more difficult than he thought.
“Don’t mention it. It was selfish, anyway.” He saw her brows draw together. “Your mother would have killed me if I let anything happen to you.”
“Can’t have that happening,” she murmured. She was vaguely aware that Jeremiah had moved closer to her. Hand dangling over the side of the sofa, Traci managed to lightly run her fingers over his wet coat. It was a comforting gesture.
Almost as comforting as having Morgan sitting beside her.
f someone had ever attempted to tell him that Traci had a vulnerable side, Morgan would have laughed him out of the room. But there was no other word that could describe the way she looked lying there on the sofa, her eyes half-closed, the
bandage taped to her forehead. He had this overwhelming urge to take care of her. An urge he knew would irritate her if she suspected it.
He’d felt this way about her only once before, he remembered. The time he’d saved her when she was drowning. But all that had happened so fast, he hadn’t had time to dwell on it.
He did now.
A strange, bittersweet feeling drifted through him. He never realized how frail she looked. Morgan took Traci’s hand between his. It felt small and cold. “How do you feel?”
Much too much.
It was as if something was opening inside of her. Opening like a flower to the sun after a long rainy period. Opening and being drawn to Morgan. It had to be the result of the trauma to her head, she thought. There was no other explanation for it. She wasn’t going to let there be another explanation for it.
“I’m all right,” she murmured. “A little woozy, but under the circumstances, I guess that’s allowed.”
She felt a great deal more than that, but with luck, it would pass. Her mother liked to brag that the women in the Richardson family were made of stern, pioneer stock. Right now, she felt like a pioneer woman a cow had stepped on.
He wasn’t quite certain he believed her protest. “I tried to call for an ambulance, but the phone isn’t working. The storm must have knocked out the lines.”
All this and heaven, too.
“I don’t need an ambulance,”
Traci said with the first ounce of feeling he’d heard since she’d opened her eyes. It made him feel a little better about her condition. “I just have to lie here for a few minutes, that’s all.”
He nodded. Right now, that seemed to be the only thing they could do, anyway. Morgan looked down at her. The sofa was turning dark from the water it was leeching from her clothes.
“You’re going to have to get out of those wet things.” Advice he should follow himself, he thought. His own were sticking to him and felt clammy along his body.
“You know, if it was anyone but you saying this, I would have said that you had an ulterior motive.”
The idea had already crossed his mind—more than once—but now wasn’t the time to tell her. Probably never was more like it.
“Well, it is me,” Morgan said a little too briskly, “and I do. I don’t want you to get sick on me. I didn’t carry you all the way back here just to have you come down with pneumonia.”
He’d told her that before, but his words seemed to suddenly fall into place. He had actually carried her back. In the storm. The vision was hopelessly romantic. And yet she refused to accept it as such. She couldn’t be having romantic notions. Not about Morgan. And she engaged, for heaven’s sake. Or almost engaged. She’d made up her mind to tell Daniel yes.
Traci tried to prop herself up on her elbows, but the effort was too much for her. Weakly, she sank down against the sofa.
“You carried me all the way?” It had to be, what, at least a mile from the bridge to the house? Maybe two. She wasn’t any good at gauging distances and she wasn’t very good at gauging what was going on inside her right now, either. She didn’t know what to say.
Morgan maintained a stony expression. “I thought of dragging you by one foot, but then you would have gotten mud in your hair and I would have never heard the end of it.”
The answer made her smile. “I guess a little of me has rubbed off on you over the years.”
He shivered in response, then deadpanned, “Horrible, isn’t it? I’m seeing about having it surgically removed. In the meantime, we’ve got to get you into some dry clothes.”
He’d saved her life once, maybe twice if she stretched it, and they’d known each other forever, but there was a place to draw the line and it was here.
“Not ‘we,’ Morgan. This isn’t a joint project.” This time she managed to get herself into a sitting position. But not without a price. Pins and needles attacked her from all angles, all aimed at the bump on her head. “Ow.” Her hand automatically flew to her forehead. The lump beneath the bandage felt as if it were the size of a melon. “Oh, heck, maybe it is a joint project, after all.”
Right now, she didn’t feel as if she could even stand by herself.
“Be still my beating heart.”
His tone was softer than she thought it would be. Traci looked at him, wondering what he was thinking and if what had happened just before she’d left was somehow coloring everything for Morgan. It certainly was for her, even though she was steeped in pain and clutching on to denial with both hands.
Much as the idea of peeling her clothes off for her appealed to him, Morgan knew that in his present state of mind, it was tantamount to playing with fire.
“I think you can manage, given time,” he assured her. But what to put on was the problem. “I don’t suppose you brought a change of clothes with you?”
She began to shake her head and then stopped. “No.” She breathed the word out heavily. “Why should I?”
It had only been a shot in the dark. “Good point, but then, you’ve never conformed to the norm. Nothing wearable in the car at all?”
Morgan was thinking along the lines of a castoff sweatshirt or sweatpants Traci might have tossed into the car after a workout at her health club. Traci had always been gung ho for physical fitness and liked exercising with people around. He preferred working out in solitude in his own garage.
Traci sighed. “Not unless I feel like wearing
spark plugs and trying out for Ms. Toolbelt of 1997.”
“You wouldn’t win,” he commented. “You don’t have the injectors for it.”
She wondered if that was a veiled comment about her chest. She’d always been small, or, as she preferred thinking of it, “athletically built.” The idea that she was wondering if he was thinking about her bra size at all told her that she’d gotten more shaken up in the accident than she’d thought.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing.” He rose to his feet. What he needed, he thought, was some distance between them so he could sort out these very odd feelings he was having. “It just sounded like some inane thing you’d say to me.” He squared his shoulders. “I’ve got a flannel shirt upstairs. I guess that’ll have to do.”
She didn’t understand. Her mind kept drifting. Had he always been this good looking? “Do? Do for what?”
“For you to change into,” he said patiently, slowly, as if he were speaking to someone whose brain had been dropped in a blender. “Until your clothes dry. I can hang them out here by the fire.” He nodded toward the fireplace.
She stared at the empty, dark hearth. “There isn’t one.”
“I’ll make it.”
In all the years she’d been coming here, they hadn’t once used the fireplace. She’d always wondered
what it would look like with a big, roaring fire blazing in it. “Do you know how?”
She really did think of him as inept, didn’t she? “Yes, I know how.” He began to back out of the room. “Now let me go get that shirt for you. You see if you can conserve your energy for a while—by not talking.”
She wanted to get up and show him that she was fine. But her stubborn streak went only so far. Her energy deserted her and she sank back against the sofa. Damp or not, the cushions felt good beneath her. “Knew you were going to say that.”
He laughed. “If you didn’t, then I really would be worried that you hit your head too hard.” Morgan paused, looking at her, then crossed back to the sofa. He looked down into her eyes.
Traci felt as if she were lying on a science lab table, about to be dissected. She tried to look indignant. “What are you doing?”
Very carefully, Morgan looked from one eye to the other. “Checking the size of your pupils.”
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Traci recalled mismatched pupils were a sign that a person had a concussion. “Why, Morgan, you say the sexiest things.”
He wondered how incapacitated she’d have to be before she stopped talking. “I want to see if they’re both the same size.”
She waved him back. “You’ve been watching too many medical programs.”
“Maybe, but you’d be surprised what you can
pick up.” Satisfied, he backed away again. “You’re okay.” Then he grinned. “Or as okay as you can be.”
“Thank you, Dr. Brigham. Does the AMA know you’re practicing without a license?”
“Only on guinea pigs,” he retorted as he left the room.
She opened her mouth to answer his retort and found that she couldn’t think of a damn thing. She was too tired to be irritated by it.
He had rescued her.
That made it twice in her life, she thought absently. Twice that she was indebted to him. Who would have ever thought that her personal Sir Lancelot was a man she was destined to fight with every time they were in the same room together?
Well, maybe not every time, she mused. Ever so slightly, she skimmed her fingertips over her lips.
Bemused and still very much confused, she sighed. The chill, thanks to her wet clothes, was definitely seeping into her bones. Without thinking, she reached for the crochet afghan that had always lain across the top of the sofa.
But her hand came in contact with only upholstery. Traci looked, even as she remembered that the bright blue-and-gold afghan was now in her parents’ den, spread across the sofa there.
She closed her eyes and shivered again. She was just drifting asleep when a hand on her shoulder shook her awake again.
Damn, if she did have a head injury, he
couldn’t let her fall asleep. He had to keep her up a few hours. This particular piece of insight came from the same program she’d just ridiculed, but he had no doubt that it was accurate.
Morgan shook her shoulder again, less gently. “Here, take this.”
She pried her eyes open. This time was a lot easier than the last had been, but it was still annoyingly painful.
Morgan was standing before her, a glass of water in one hand and a couple of aspirins in the palm of his other. A blue-and-white flannel work shirt was slung over one forearm.
“What’s this?” she murmured, bracing herself as she sat up. Though it was cold, she could feel a light sheen of perspiration forming along her forehead and beneath the bandage.
“Aspirin. I figure you probably have one hell of a headache.” He sat down carefully beside Traci and offered the pills to her.
Without thinking, she leaned her shoulder against him as she took the aspirins and then the glass of water. “I do.” She swallowed, then looked at him as she returned the glass. “Thanks. Is it my imagination, or have you gotten more thoughtful?”
He took the glass from her, placing it on the scarred coffee table. Morgan debated putting his arm around her, purely for reasons of comfort, and then decided not to. No sense testing new ground at the moment.
“Neither. I’ve always been thoughtful. You just never noticed.”
“Thoughtful,” Traci repeated slowly. The word evoked scenes in her mind that were completely to the contrary. “Was that when you glued together my sheets with bubble gum, or when you—”
He knew she could go on forever if he let her. “That was only in retaliation for things you did. I never started any of it on my own.” He waited for her to deny it, even though it was true. When she didn’t say anything, he smiled. “Got you, don’t I?”
For the moment, she was forced to concede. “Until I can come back with an answer. That smack to my forehead has made things a little fuzzy.” She saw the look that entered his eyes and it touched her. “Don’t look so concerned, I was just speaking figuratively.” She pointed to the shirt on his arm. “Is that what I’m supposed to wear?”
Morgan nodded, passing the shirt to her. Traci held it up against herself. It looked like an abbreviated nightshirt. She could remember a time when they were almost the same height, but in the past fifteen years, he had outdistanced her by a foot.
Traci laughed, some of her steadiness returning. “How chic. Our mothers would have a heart attack.”
He didn’t know about hers, but his would have probably been overjoyed, and hoping for more.
But then, his mom had belonged to a commune or something like that in her late teens and he’d been convinced that there was something a little unorthodox about her.
“Our mothers are highly practical women who know the value of warm clothes and dry feet.” He gestured toward the bathroom. “Get changed.”
“Right.” She rose to her feet and the room followed. At an angle. “Whoa.” Traci felt behind her for the sofa and found Morgan instead. She landed in his lap. “Nice catch.”
He shook his head. Everything was a joke with her. Or an argument. He wondered if there was any middle ground. “I keep in shape. Are you all right? Do you want to lie down some more? I can take you up to your room,” he offered.
She didn’t like being fussed over. “I’m fine.” With renewed determination, she stood again. “Just let me get my sea legs.”
This time, he rose with her. Just in case. “We’re on land, Traci.”
The man was a stickler for precision, she thought. A little like Daniel. Except different. Very different. “Then just let me get my land legs.” Traci exhaled, leaning against him without meaning to. Realizing that she was, she straightened and then took a deep, cleansing breath. “Better. All right, let me change into this little number before my sanity returns.”