Rescue Me | Chapter 18 of 25

Author: Susan May Warren | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1934 Views | Add a Review

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14

“SO APPARENTLY, I DIDNT DIE.” Sam’s throat felt like a cement mixer had driven through it, gravelly and raw, and parked right in the middle of his chest.

Save for the cool, fresh oxygen, his entire body ached as if it had been kicked from a high cliff. His bones felt heavy in his skin. For the first time since rousing out of surgery, Sam got a good look at the person holding his hand.

Not Willow.

Sierra.

How long she’d been sitting at his bedside, he couldn’t guess, but she too looked wrung out. Her head was tucked into her arms, her eyes closed.

She wasn’t alone.

“No fault of your own,” said Ian Shaw, who stood at the window wearing a wool cap, flannel shirt, cargo pants, and Scarpa hiking boots, looking like a billionaire who’d decided to go slumming in the back hills of Montana. He turned, offered a smile. He hadn’t shaved either, and his eyes betrayed fatigue. “Good thing that Aaron Moore was the ER doc on shift last night. You flatlined on your way to surgery, twice.”

“Scared us all to death,” Sierra said now, lifting her head. She didn’t smile. “I’ve never been so angry with someone in my entire life.”

She glanced at Ian, her eyes narrowing as if she might be confirming her own words.

Ian raised an eyebrow. Shifted uncomfortably.

Then, “Nope. Never.” Her expression softened. “But, good news. Pete found them.”

For some reason, although Sam hadn’t realized it, the knot that still held him together unraveled, and his entire body melted into the bed. “Please tell me they’re okay.”

Ian walked up to the bed, his gaze only stopping on the grasp Sierra had on Sam for a second. “They’re all okay. Apparently Willow guided them all to her commune. Pete followed a hunch and found them a couple hours later. They should be here soon.”

Sam closed his eyes, and Sierra’s hand in his tightened.

He didn’t move it, because, well, her grip kept him from doing something crazy like curling into a ball to weep.

Not that he didn’t think Pete would find them, but . . .

Don’t come home unless you find them.”

He wished he hadn’t meant that, but . . . well, at least it was over.

“You’ll love this part. The local press is in the ER, waiting for them to show up. Apparently, Tallie Kennedy has declared Pete a hero,” Ian said. “She’s got a cameraman and feed to the evening news, has already reported a preview segment. They want to talk to you, find out how it happened.”

He’d been an idiot, that’s how. Sam looked at Ian. “It was an accident. One second we were driving. I was driving. The next we just flew off the road.” He cringed. “It was my fault.”

“It was an accident, Sam,” Sierra said. “Icy roads.”

“No, I was at the wheel, and Willow started singing, and I took my eyes off the road for one lousy second.” He couldn’t tell them he’d actually been joining in. “They could have all died because of me.”

“They didn’t, because of you, Sam,” Sierra said.

He looked away, his mouth tight. “The commune? Why did she take them there? I told her I’d come back. I promised her.”

“Are you kidding me right now?” Sierra said.

“No.” His voice emerged harsher than he meant. “That just wasn’t . . . smart. She risked the lives of the kids. What if she hadn’t found the commune—they’d be out there right now, the rain turning to ice and snow, and we would have no way to find them. It was just plain stupid.”

It was then he heard the door click shut, the tiny rasp of metal into the latch, and he looked over.

Willow stared at him, her face stoic and pale. “I just got in. I wanted to see if you were . . . so, you’re alive. Good.”

Her glance went to Sierra’s hand clasped into Sam’s.

“Willow!” Sierra launched herself up from the bed, caught her sister in a full-on embrace. “I was so worried.”

Willow surrendered to the force of her sister’s relief.

Her beautiful, devastated gaze, however, stayed on Sam. Unshed emotion filled those hazel-blue eyes, and he heard his words like acid in his throat.

“It was just plain stupid.”

“Willow . . .” he said, his voice broken.

She tore her gaze off him and onto her sister. “I’m fine, Sierra. Mom fed me her famous pumpkin soup and hot cocoa.”

“Your head! That looks horrible!”

“I’m fine. I’m going down to the ER right now—Dr. Moore is still checking out the kids. I wanted to run up here and tell Sam . . . well anyway, we’re home.”

The smile she flashed him, hollow and distant, could bore a hole through him. “I see everything is back to normal here. I’m happy you got Sam back.”

He closed his eyes. Trapped. Because yeah, he needed to talk to Sierra, but not here, not in front of Ian.

He owed Sierra that much.

“Me too,” Sierra said, her voice a little odd. “But more, I’m glad you’re back. You scared us.”

“I think we’ve all pretty much figured out that me and a trip with the youth group into the mountains doesn’t mix. I’m not going to stick around for strike three.”

Her words made Sam look at her, but she didn’t spare him a glance.

Still. “Willow, this wasn’t your fault,” he said.

She met his gaze then, a darkness in her eyes he hadn’t seen before. Even after two days in the wilderness, after he’d nearly driven them over a cliff, after she’d been swept downriver, after discovering Dawson’s drinking.

No, this darkness had to do with the fact that somehow he’d snuffed out the light she held on to so bravely. The light that told him she believed in him, in herself, in them.

That light that had pretty much kept him going until right now.

“Actually it is, and we both know it.” She turned to Sierra. “I was trying to help these kids see that life wasn’t as dark as they thought it was. That there was always a different perspective.” She gave a harsh laugh. “I guess I did. I showed them that no matter how dark it is, it can always get worse.”

Sam winced.

“I’ll be downstairs, sis. I could probably use a ride home when you’re ready to leave.”

“Willow,” Sierra said.

But she turned around, rushed from the room.

Sierra rounded on him.

“What?” he said.

“No, you tell me what?” Sierra snapped. “What happened out there that my sister looks like you took out her heart and stomped on it?”

He didn’t know what to say. He glanced at Ian.

Not here. Not now.

“Nothing happened.”

Silence, and Sierra looked at him as if she wanted to turn him to ash.

“Listen, okay, I might have . . .” Fallen in love with your sister.

The words moved inside him, took hold.

Oh. No.

Oh. Yes.

Because even as he looked at Sierra, searching for words, he longed to lift himself out of the bed and run—sprint—after Willow. To tell her—

What? Because he’d just called her stupid, practically to her face. How did he come back from that?

“Oh boy,” Sierra said, shaking her head. “Something did happen, didn’t it? And then you blew it. I can’t believe I actually thought you would be good for her.”

“What are you talking about?” Sam said quietly.

“I . . .” Sierra blew out a breath. “I set you up, okay? I wanted you to go hiking with Willow so that you could see how amazing and beautiful she is—and maybe I was a little bit of a coward. I didn’t want to break your heart, Sam. So I thought if you fell in love with Willow, just a little, then maybe when I did cut you loose . . .”

Sam couldn’t move. “You wanted me to fall for Willow?”

“You’re so blind, Sam. Willow has loved you for I don’t know how long. I didn’t know it when we started dating, but the first time I let you kiss me, I knew the minute I told her that her heart was broken.” She shook her head. “And I didn’t know what to do about it. Until this weekend.”

Really?

Willow loved him?

“And don’t tell me that you didn’t figure that out, Sam. You were out there with Willow for two days, and the girl doesn’t exactly hide her feelings. Ever.”

No. That she didn’t. But wearing a crazy grin on his face probably wouldn’t help. Especially since Sierra looked like she wanted to go for his throat.

Ian hadn’t moved from his spot by the bed and now looked at Sierra, back at Sam. “Maybe I’ll just, um . . . go.”

“No, you stay right here, Ian Shaw, because this is for you too.”

Ian glanced at Sam, something of panic in his eyes.

Sierra advanced on them. “You both drive me crazy, you know that? You’re so consumed with blame and regret, it’s practically choking both of you. Ian, you’ve got to face the truth that either way, Esme is gone. I’m sorry about that, but blaming yourself—or me—is not going to bring her back.”

Ian stiffened.

“And Sam, you’re completely missing the important part here. The kids are home safe. No one died—and that’s a miracle. So you can either choose to see that and accept the amazing grace of God, or you can start pointing fingers and let all that darkness suffocate you.”

He didn’t want that, not anymore. He nearly spoke up, but Sierra cut him off, her gaze pinning him to the bed.

“You know why Willow is so amazing? It’s because she’s not afraid to let you see her heart and all the love inside it. And the amazing part is, that love isn’t from her—it’s from God. He’s the source of the light that is in Willow.”

God’s light can overtake the darkness.”

Yes, that’s exactly what had happened. Perhaps God had pushed him over a cliff to get his attention.

To part the darkness, draw him to the light.

Sierra’s voice finally softened. “Sam. The only way you can escape the darkness is to stop looking at yourself and focus on someone greater. Someone who can truly set you free.”

Sierra looked first at Sam, then Ian. Back to Sam. “But in order to be set free, you’d have to admit you can’t fix it. That you are completely helpless. That you need rescuing. And you just can’t do that, can you?”

Sam glanced at Ian, who was staring at his shoes.

In the hallway, he could hear the hum of voices, the rattle of a food cart.

“I’m going to find my sister and take her home. Tell her that she’s the bravest person I’ve ever met.” She looked at Sam then, ice in her eyes. “Frankly, Sam, you don’t deserve her.”

His throat thickened as she swept out of the room, the door closing with a soft click behind her.

He couldn’t agree more.

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“The wound looks pretty clean.”

Willow could barely hear the ER nurse over the echo of Sam’s words in her brain.

“It was just plain stupid.”

She knew it was his feelings of betrayal talking. She didn’t blame him—she had broken her promise. Yes, she’d saved them, but what if she’d been wrong? What if the commune hadn’t been where she thought?

By God’s grace they weren’t still wandering around in the woods, dangerously close to hypothermia.

“It’s too late for stitches, and you’ll have a scar, but otherwise, it’s not infected.” Nurse E. Hudson, by her badge, was in her midthirties, dressed in blue scrubs, wore her brown hair short, and didn’t seem affected in the least by the press and chatter of the parents crowding into the ER.

Not that any of them had spoken to Willow.

She’d walked right past Pete, who was talking with Tallie and a number of other media, as well as Maggy and Gus. Inside the ER bay, she spied Vi with her father, who was taking a look at his daughter’s splinted leg. Riley stood next to Vi, holding her hand.

Zena stood next to Dawson, who had planted himself at the foot of Vi’s bed and barely looked up at Willow as she passed.

But it was long enough for his tight, grim look and a flash of fear to register.

She hadn’t figured out what she was going to do yet. Carrie Hayes’s words from last week speared through her. “We trust you with our children.”

“I’m going to ask you to come back in a few days,” Nurse Hudson said as she finished taping the bandage to Willow’s head. “You’re all set.”

Willow slid off the table.

In another cubicle, she spotted Quinn, who sat with a blanket around his shoulders. She walked over. “You okay?”

He nodded but glanced down the end of the hallway, where his father stood with the media.

“You’re a hero, Quinn,” she said and squeezed his shoulder.

He offered a slim smile.

She, sadly, got it. Because despite their heroics, they’d returned, and their lives would reset. Which meant that, to the parents, she’d nearly gotten their kids killed.

Again.

“She risked the lives of the kids.”

Sam was right. Absolutely, terribly right. No wonder he’d reached out for Sierra the minute he’d hit civilization.

She couldn’t bear the memory of his hand clutched in Sierra’s, their fingers entwined.

She was definitely some kind of stupid.

Josh sat on a table at the far end, right by the door, and a plastic surgeon was examining his nose. Gray-black bruises streaked across his face.

His cute wife, dressed in a pair of leggings and a pink shirt, stood at his bedside, holding his hand.

“Willow!” Josh said, but she kept her head down, not stopping as she strode out of the ER bay.

She knew what he was going to say. Sorry, Willow, but we don’t need you.

That might be the kindest thing he could say.

She slipped out, hoping to sneak past the media still clustered inside the ER waiting room. She spotted Gus at the microphone, gesturing with his hands, telling a story.

At least someone had finally gotten the attention he deserved.

She’d nearly made it past the ER desk and was headed for the main doors of the lobby when she heard someone say, “Willow?”

She looked up, spotted Carrie and Pastor Hayes in the ER entryway. Bella walked with them, her arm in a bandage across her chest, looking frail and still recuperating from her ordeal.

Willow had a feeling they might all look like that for quite some time. “Hey, Bella.”

Bella walked over, gave her an awkward hug. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”

“Quinn is in the ER bay,” Willow said, and Bella caught her lip. Oh. Maybe she wasn’t here to see him.

But Bella dashed a look toward the ER.

Even if she wanted to.

“Maggy is with Gus,” Willow said a bit louder. Then she cut her voice low again. “And Quinn is fine.”

Bella brightened and headed for the waiting room.

Carrie’s eyes stayed on Willow, who took a breath.

“Willow,” Carrie started.

She could save them all some time. “Listen, I know what you’re going to say, and I agree. I shouldn’t have anything to do with the youth group. I just get them into trouble with my harebrained ideas.” She managed to swallow. “So I resign my position as youth leader. Not that you needed that—I’m a volunteer—but in case you were wondering, I know I’m done.”

Pastor Hayes had the kindness to give her a sad, grim nod.

Carrie just cocked her head, lips tight, a slight knowing shake of her head.

Willow needed to leave before the heat in her eyes turned to full-on tears.

Oops, not fast enough. They filled and she turned, heading for the first door she could find.

The snack area. Perfect.

The room hummed with the sounds of the vending machines. Darkness pressed into the windows, and she touched her hand to the pane and closed her eyes. The day shook through her, right up to the moment when Gage’s voice crackled through the radio.

“Sam’s out of surgery, but he’s in critical condition.”

All she could think about—the only thing—was getting here as soon as she could. And praying, simply begging God to keep Sam alive.

Even if she couldn’t have him. Even if he still belonged to Sierra.

Willow leaned her forehead against the cool window.

She should simply be grateful that God had answered her prayers.

She pressed her fingers to her lips, wishing she could wipe away the feel of Sam’s arms around her, the way he made her feel brave and needed. And wanted.

She couldn’t dislodge his words from her brain. “You make me feel like the guy who has half a chance of living again.”

That should make her feel at least a little better. She’d done it—put Sierra and Sam back on the right path. Maybe Sam could eventually let go of his anger, let God into his life.

She curled her arms around her waist, willing herself to stop shaking.

“Willow?”

She hadn’t heard her come in. Willow turned and saw Sierra standing in the doorframe. “You okay? Pastor Hayes said you came in here.”

Willow shook her head. “No. I’m—I’m so stupid, just like Sam said.”

Sierra let the door close behind her. Stood there for a second, her expression turning fierce. “You are not stupid, Willow. You saved those kids.”

“No, Sierra. Let’s not fool ourselves and think that our getting out of the woods in one piece—mostly in one piece—wasn’t God stepping in to deliver us, each step of the way.” She whisked her tears from her cheeks. “I should have stayed and waited for Sam. I don’t know why I left—”

“You left because you saw where you were, you weighed the options, and that was the right one.” Sierra came into the room. “And yes, God saved you—but he used you and Sam and Josh to do it.”

Willow wanted to believe her, but . . . “You should have seen Sam. He just didn’t give up. He was so hurt and cold and he just—”

“Stop talking about Sam.”

Willow recoiled. Oh. Right. Her breath caught. “Sorry.” She sighed. “I know Sam probably told you that I . . .” She swallowed, turned back to stare out the window. “I kissed him. Right here, actually.”

Sierra went quiet. Then, “No, he didn’t.”

Oh. Willow drew in a breath. Well.

Of course not. Because if he had, that would mean he meant his words about straightening things out with Sierra. About him wanting Willow.

She hadn’t really believed Sam intended to break up with Sierra. He’d simply been caught up in the emotion of their survival, the momentum of the trauma, the need to cling to someone—anyone.

She’d been convenient, and painfully too easy. For Pete’s sake, she’d practically given him her heart right here in this room.

Willow drew in a breath past the shattered pieces.

“Well,” she said now, clearing her throat, “I did. And it was wrong. And I’m so sorry—”

Sierra was right there, arms around her waist, holding her close. “Willow. Shh. It’s okay. I don’t care.”

She didn’t care? Willow stiffened. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, Willow, do you think I don’t know you? Or how you feel about Sam?”

Sierra stepped back, gave her a sad smile. “I wanted you to go on that hiking trip with him. I knew that we weren’t right for each other, and I admit I was selfish. I didn’t want to break his heart. I was hoping he’d fall for you, and I’d be sort of off the hook.” She took Willow’s hands. “I just had no idea that he’d break your heart.”

Willow just stared at her. “But he was holding your hand.”

“No. I was holding his hand. Because I was worried about him. Nothing more.”

Oh.

“I’m guessing, by the way he reacted in the ER, that my diabolical plot worked. I’d bet he does have feelings for you. He completely lost it when he discovered you weren’t where he left you.”

“And that’s the point. I should have trusted him. Instead, I left.”

“For the kids.”

“Really? Because I’ve been going over and over it, and maybe I was just too afraid that he wouldn’t keep his promise. That even though he said it, I’d be sitting there in the darkness. Alone.”

Sierra tucked her hair behind her ear, sadness in her eyes. “You’re not alone, Willow.”

“Yes, I am. Because you left out the only important part. Whether you intended Sam to fall for me or not, he didn’t tell you about us, did he?”

Sierra stared at her, the words finally landing. She shook her head.

Willow didn’t think it could hurt any worse.

Until, Sierra added, “He told me that nothing happened.”

Willow drew in a breath. “Yeah. Well, he’s right. Nothing happened. Nothing that matters, anyway.” She forced a smile, hated the way it quivered at the edges. One of these days she’d learn not to give away her heart quite so easily.

“Let’s go home,” she said. “Or whatever passes for home these days.” She closed her eyes, shook her head. Gave a harsh laugh.

“C’mon, Eeyore. You need a bath—and I happen to know that Jess has working plumbing. I’ll even spring for gelato.” Sierra took Willow’s hand. “By the way, I do know someone who has missed you desperately.”

Willow looked at her, shook her head.

“Gopher.”

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Now that they’d gotten the crew home, Jess’s lie sat under her skin like acid, sinking into her heart.

Yes, Pete, Ty and I dated. That was the big secret.

It could be just that easy.

Except, not even close.

She’d only made it worse by letting Pete believe it, if only for six hours. Because now, not only would she have to correct that assumption, but then she’d have to tell him why she’d let him believe it.

She pressed her hand to her gut just thinking about it.

“Hungry, Jess?”

Chet sat at the wheel of the pickup. He was driving her over to the hospital to check on Sam. And, of course, Pete would be there, having brought the kids in.

Later, Pete would want to drive her home, and this time when he walked her to her front door, she’d let him come in.

She wasn’t so naïve not to admit she hoped he’d take her in his arms. Kiss her like he had on the mountain, or even with the sweetness of the kiss in the barn, the kind of kisses she hoped he reserved only for her.

Please, let her not be just one of the many.

“No, I’m fine,” she told Chet and continued her hundred-yard stare out the window.

If she never told Pete the truth, she might as well be one of the many.

Because something real with Pete would mean letting him into her life. Really letting him in to see the mess, the debris, and the carcasses.

I’m not just out for a good time, Jess. I want to know you, and what matters to you.”

What mattered to her was him not knowing her.

No, she didn’t just want all-fun, all-the-time, but Pete had suddenly gone from a safe guy, to a guy who threatened everything she’d built.

“You sure you want to go to the hospital? I could drop you off at home,” Chet said. “You seem tired.”

She’d had four hours of sleep in the last two days. Then there was the race against the grizzly that could still leave her weak if she let it.

Even more draining had been that moment when she discovered the van, despite the rush of relief when they’d finally located Willow and the kids.

So yeah, she might be a little wrung out.

And perhaps not thinking straight. “I think I have to tell Pete the truth,” she said quietly.

Chet glanced at her.

“I know Ty told you everything when he called you.”

“I had to know, Jess. I would have never given you a job if I didn’t know the entire story or the fact that you have a medical degree. But I did understand why you didn’t want to tell anyone else. It’s not an easy thing you went through—testifying against your father, the scandal, your name in the papers. I know it took everything out of you to go through that.”

“I can’t be that naked again,” she said softly. “I feel like I just got myself back.”

She hadn’t really admitted that to herself—how utterly bereft she’d felt when she moved to Montana, her Jeep and a couple suitcases to her name and her old pal Ty’s number in her pocket.

Good thing Ty knew her before, way back to her carefree ski vacation days. Then later, when she was engaged to one of their best friends.

How far the rich and beautiful had fallen. But she wanted nothing to do with the Taggert name, had shortened it with the hopes that no one would ever associate her with Damien Taggert and the Great Embezzlement of the twenty-first century.

She should have learned from her notorious father that lies would only curl back and strangle her.

Chet, maybe, read her mind. “Why do you need to tell Pete?”

“Because, he and I . . .” What? Were in a relationship? She didn’t exactly know what to call it. Maybe it was simply a mistake, and she was destroying her entire life because of an emotional friends-who-lost-their-minds moment.

“I’m not blind, Jess,” Chet said. “I see the way Pete looks at you.”

How did Pete look at her?

“For what it’s worth, Pete might surprise you.”

She glanced at Chet. “What if I tell him and—”

“And he sees you as the brave woman you are?”

Sweet Chet. She shook her head. “You and Ty, maybe. The rest of the world sees me as the daughter who testified against her father to save herself.”

“You weren’t to blame for your father’s actions.”

Oh, what he didn’t know. And that was the problem, wasn’t it? “I knew my father was embezzling all those people, Chet. I knew it years before the world found out.”

There, she said it, and it was sort of a litmus test.

In his silence, he failed.

She reached up, wiped her cheek. Yep, she knew it.

“Jess,” he said quietly. “I don’t know what you’re not telling me. But I do know this. Jesus is Lord. Full stop. That means he knows the past, the future, and the now. And he wants you to live in truth, trusting him to fix it. I know you feel naked. You came to Montana completely stripped of everything familiar. You’ve reinvented yourself on your terms. Maybe it’s time to let Jesus reinvent you. Let him forgive you, give you a new name, heal you, and set you free.”

He turned into the hospital parking lot, the light shining against his lined face and salt-and-pepper whiskers. “You aren’t free when you’re trapped inside guilt and lies.”

He pulled up in a parking space and put a hand on her arm before she got out. “And I’ll bet Pete understands that better than anyone.”

She met his eyes in the glow of the dome light and saw compassion.

He gave her arm a squeeze.

He was probably—no, most assuredly right. If anyone understood being trapped by actions beyond your control, or even questionable choices, it would be Pete.

“I care. If you want to talk. About . . . anything.”

Jess slid out and waited for Chet. They headed inside, and her gaze caught on the media vans parked near the entrance.

Oh no. It was déjà vu as she spotted Pete holding court in the middle of a media circus in the ER waiting room. At least three local news channels and Tallie stood closest to him, her arm touching the small of his muscled back as she leaned in to get his statement. Jess knew she was staring, rooted to the spot as Tallie smiled up at Pete, as he grinned down at her.

She recognized that grin, charming and sweet.

Admittedly, he looked every inch a hero, his long golden blond hair tied back, those baby blue eyes, the slightest hitch of a smile against his golden whiskers. He still wore his blue fleece jacket but now stood with his hands in the pockets, as if to say, Aw, shucks, of course I saved those kids, ma’am. It’s just what I do.

Jess froze, not sure what to do, where to flee, because Chet was hobbling in behind her and she couldn’t retreat.

Then Pete looked up past the cameras, past the mics and through the clutter of worried parents, and his gaze landed right on her.

Her world imploded.

“Jess—finally! Come here and tell everyone how you thought of the commune.” Pete actually turned to Tallie. “She’s the one who really saved them—she’s the one who figured it out.”

Every camera turned to Jess.

Oh.

Tallie slipped off the stool, headed her direction, and right behind her, Pete.

His eyes were shining as if he had just given her the best birthday present ever, maybe invited the Property Brothers over to remodel her home.

A camera was in her face, a microphone shoved into her airspace, and her feet were moving before she realized it.

“Jess!”

She pushed through the cameras, the reporters, parents, members of the youth group—even her own teammates. She spied Gage and Miles standing not far away, talking with Kacey.

“Jess.” Pete had her by the arm now, and she turned, stared at him.

She couldn’t breathe.

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s nothing.” Oh no, please. Not right here.

Especially with Tallie advancing on them, still holding her mic. Seriously?

Jess yanked her arm away from Pete’s grip. Shook her head. “I can’t—I can’t do this, Pete.”

“What?”

“I’m not a hero! I don’t want to be.” She cut her voice low. “Trust me, you’re hero enough for both of us.”

He stared at her, his mouth closing, and for a second, hurt flashed across his face.

Oh. Everything inside her wanted to cry at his expression, because she hadn’t meant it quite that way. But she couldn’t tell him that it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with her and the fact that splashing her name across the news would destroy the fragile life she’d built in Mercy Falls.

She turned and practically fled down the hallway.

She crashed through to the lobby of the hospital, away from the ER, and simply stood there, breathing hard.

What had she just done? But she couldn’t be in front of all those cameras. She didn’t know how far the news might reach, but if it got picked up nationally . . .

Naked. Her life dismantled, again.

Footsteps behind her, and she whirled around, expecting Pete.

Not Pete.

Ty came through the doors, his eyes darkened with concern.

“Ty . . .”

“I saw what happened out there,” he said quietly. “Are you okay?”

She wanted to say yes. That seeing everything she’d built here explode in her hands hadn’t dismantled her. Hadn’t threatened to send her to her knees.

But that’s exactly what it did. She pressed her hands to her mouth, her eyes suddenly awash with heat and tears, her legs shaking. A terrible moan emerged from her mouth.

Ty caught her. Simply stepped up and put his arms around her. Strong, and capable, and no, they’d never been anything more than friends, but he’d been her only friend for a while, and he knew what this meant.

What it all meant.

“Oh, Ty, what have I done?” She put her arms around him and held on, weeping. Sure, she could admit that it was probably fatigue as much as embarrassment, but for a second, she just didn’t care.

She buried her face in his chest and let herself cry.

“Shh,” Ty said, and she felt his lips on her head, a brotherly kiss. “I got you, honey. It’s all going to be okay.”

Probably not, but as long as she was lying, he could too.

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“I’m sorry, but this interview is over.” Pete glanced at Tallie, then back toward Jess’s retreat and simply couldn’t stand there one more minute.

“Trust me, you’re hero enough for both of us.”

Unfortunately, Jess hadn’t chased her words with a smile or even given any hint that she didn’t mean to reach in and rip out his heart. He even reached up and pressed his hand to his chest, as if she’d actually left a raw, empty hole there.

For the first time in his life, he’d been trying to pass along the kudos. To step out of the limelight, maybe not try so hard to be liked. At least not by people who didn’t matter.

“Pete, we’re not done,” Tallie said, following him as he headed down the hall.

“I’ll be right back,” Pete said.

“I can’t do this, Pete.”

What couldn’t Jess do?

Please let it not be be with him.

He strode past his team—Ben and Chet, Gage and Kacey all looking at him like they should be scrambling behind him.

So maybe he wore a little thunder on his face. He held up his hand. “I’m fine. Gage, go woo the press with your snowboarder charm. Tell them how you saved Sam’s life.”

Sam. He hadn’t yet made it up to his brother’s room.

Sam was out of surgery, and out of critical condition. So much that they moved him to a regular room.

Pete couldn’t put a finger on why he hadn’t made it up there yet.

Maybe it was easier to play the hero, like Jess said.

He shook the thought away as he reached the double doors that connected to the main lobby.

Stopped.

Because through the strip of glass, he could look right into the mostly empty space and see the truth.

Jess had run away from him right into the arms of her former boyfriend, Ty Remington. By the looks of things, whatever happened out in the field today had reignited old flames. Jess clung to Ty, her head nestled into his chest, and even from here Pete could see she was sobbing.

Pete put a hand on the door, the urge to push his way in and demand answers stirring to flame inside him.

Then he saw Ty lean down and kiss her. On the top of her head, but the gesture bespoke gentleness, compassion.

Love.

Pete hadn’t seen that coming. Yes, Ty’s gaze usually lingered on her longer than it might, say, Gage, but the softness in Ty’s expression said much more.

Ty was still in love with her.

The way Jess clung to him, apparently she was too. Maybe hadn’t been, but whatever had happened over the past ten hours . . .

“He’s my teammate.”

Her words, her laughing tone, burned inside him, an ember low in his gut.

Oh, he was an idiot.

Pete turned around and stalked back to the ER waiting room, his brain churning with memories—Jess’s smile when he showed up to fix her plumbing, the way she clung to him as they’d raced down the mountain, her laughter in his ears.

The way she’d pulled him into her vortex, making him believe that he could stop being all-fun, all-the-time Pete and instead be someone who actually hung around, showed up for the hard stuff, who could build a life with her.

Apparently, she’d finally figured out he wasn’t that guy.

Except . . . And then he got it.

Tallie.

She stood waiting for him at the end of the hallway, her microphone put away. The cameramen were winding up cords, collecting their electronics. She smiled at Pete, so much welcome on her face.

It wasn’t hard to rewind, to slow down and see Jess’s expression as Tallie slipped her arm around him. His sins, returning to haunt him, and probably Jess could read the future.

All-fun, all-the-time Pete.

“Are you okay?” Tallie said now, her tone filled with real concern. She ran to keep up with him.

Admittedly, a dark, angry part inside him wanted to round on her. To tell her that, no, he wasn’t okay. And maybe she could do something about that. Then the old Pete, the one from even a week ago, would have given her a charming, dangerous smile, something with spark and heat in it, and suggested that they get out of here and find someplace to, um, talk.

He considered it a long moment, in fact.

But it was too late. He’d already met Jess, already seen something beyond tonight, which was probably why a week ago he hadn’t ended up making colossal mistakes with Tallie—a few yes, but nothing that required him to avoid the man in the mirror. Jess made him want to be that guy who stuck around. Fixed roofs and generally showed up the next day.

And the next.

You’re hero enough for both of us.”

No, but maybe he would be someday.

Pete turned to Tallie, not sure what to say to her. She looked up at him with those amber eyes, her golden-brown hair down around her shoulders in tantalizing waves, a smile on her lips that hinted she’d like a go at trying to make him feel better.

And he knew, right then, it wouldn’t. “I have to see my brother,” he said, not trying to be rude. He chased his words with a smile.

“Oh. Okay. Well . . .” Her smile fell. “Give me a call, then.”

He offered her a smile rather than lie to her.

Pete glanced at Gage, who was doing his part with the media stragglers, lifted his hand to Chet, and headed to the stairwell.

Pete stopped at the nurses’ station on the third floor and checked in, and they gave him the go-ahead, despite the late hour.

Too late. Because as he eased the door open, he spotted Sam, the moonlight drifting over his sleeping, bruised, and broken form.

Pete sank down in a nearby chair and just took a good look at him.

Big brother Sam, his chest caved in, his head bandaged, an oxygen cannula affixed under his nose, an IV inserted into his arm, fluids dripping. In the wan light, Sam appeared frail and not at all the larger-than-life overbearing guardian that drove Pete to his last nerve.

In fact, Sam looked devastatingly human.

And Pete had nearly lost him.

In a rush, the day swept over him. No, the last week, starting with the grizzly, then their crazy fight, then finding Sam nearly dead—all the way to the moment when he thought he’d done it.

Saved them all.

He had wanted to be a hero. Wanted to save the day, wanted Jess and even Sam to see him as the guy who didn’t cause trouble but saved people in trouble. The guy who said, “I’ll bring them home,” and meant it.

The guy who could redeem his sins.

Pete walked over to the window. He spotted Ty walking out of the hospital, Jess with him.

Ty had his hand on the small of her back. They disappeared into the darkness of the lot.

Nice. Perfect. Talk about colossal mistakes. He just hadn’t seen that coming.

And Pete couldn’t help it. Maybe it was the fatigue, maybe just the stress, but he cupped his hand over his eyes, fighting the burn in them.

Cosmically, he probably deserved it. Really, it wouldn’t have taken him long to totally screw up anything good he had with Jess.

Still. He braced his hand on the window frame, nearly shaking. How he wanted to put his hand into something, through something.

Just somehow take the idiot inside who’d royally derailed his life, and slam him against the wall, knock some sense into him.

He turned around, slid down to the floor, his hands over his face. I’m sorry, Dad. I’m so sorry. I just can’t get it right.

“Pete?”

He caught his breath. Across the room, Sam had opened his eyes, was now looking at him.

Pete scrubbed his hand down his face, thankful for the darkness that hid any remaining wetness there.

“Who are you apologizing to?”

Had he spoken aloud? Maybe. “No one.” He found his voice, his feet. “I just came by to see—”

“Thank you, Pete.”

He stilled, watching as his brother groped for a light above him. Sam caught the switch by his bedside, flicked it on.

In the puddle of light, Pete could see the last forty-eight hours on Sam’s face, his eyes, his body. He was unshaven, his eyes cracked, a bruise over his forehead—although yes, he had better color than he had by the side of the road.

The sight of him could send Pete back to his knees.

However, the devastation all broke away when Sam smiled at him.

Smiled.

Pete couldn’t move, and his heart skidded to a full stop.

“You did it, Pete. You found them.” Sam swallowed then, shook his head. “And I’m an idiot.”

Huh? “Yeah, well, we all knew that.”

“Right.” Sam shook his head. “No, I mean I should have trusted you.”

Pete’s faux humor dropped away. “I . . .” Except, he had no words. He scraped a hand through his hair. “Yeah, well, when Willow wasn’t where you said she’d be, I was pretty frustrated too. Although Gage tells me you tried to make a break for it.”

“Not one of my best moments.” Sam gave a shake of his head, looked away. “I’ve had a string of those lately. Starting with . . . the fight at the Pony.” His gaze landed back on Pete. “I’m sorry about that too.”

“Naw. I probably deserved that.” No, he knew he’d deserved that.

“No, you didn’t, Pete,” Sam said. “Because it had nothing to do with Jess and your friendship—or whatever—with her.”

“We’re teammates, that’s it,” Pete said. But the words had teeth, bit in.

Sam frowned then. “Really? Because that’s not what Sierra said. She seems to think you and Jess—”

“Nope,” Pete said, looking away, and shoot, his eyes burned again. He should probably get out of here before he did something embarrassing. “Okay, well, I’m glad you’re okay.”

Two steps before the door—

“It wasn’t your fault.”

Sam’s words stopped him. “What?”

“I know it wasn’t your fault Dad fell, that we couldn’t find him.”

A beat. Pete frowned. “It was my idea to go off slope.”

“Dad would have done it even without your suggestion. That’s the thing. Dad was always the instigator. And you fell right in line.”

Pete shook his head. “But you didn’t go. You tried to stop us.”

“I was afraid!” Sam drew in a tremulous breath. “I was afraid, okay? And I hated that my fear kept me from going with you. We should have stayed together. We always should have stayed together.”

Pete had no words. He lifted a shoulder.

“I shouldn’t have turned on you, Pete. Shouldn’t have made you feel like you had to leave town.”

Pete ran his fingers against his eyes, turned away. Walked to the window.

Silence.

“Pete?”

He held up a hand. “Just a sec, bro,” he said, and hated the way his voice quavered. But he could hardly take a full breath.

“Maybe I have rubbed off on you, a little.”

Huh? “How’s that?”

“Sierra told me that I’ve let darkness consume me. And maybe she’s right. I’ve spent the last twelve years angry and bitter. Unable to forgive anyone, including myself. But I don’t want to be that man anymore. I won’t.” He took a long breath. “So, I’m sorry, Pete. And I can’t make you forgive me, but it’s important to me that you know I don’t blame you anymore. I want to be in your corner, not fighting you . . .”

Sam swallowed, his expression stripped, as if he’d opened up his chest for Pete to take a good look.

Pete stared at him. Since Dad died, everything between them had been grief and fury and darkness.

Then, with a warmth Pete didn’t know Sam possessed, he said, “You saved those kids, Pete. You’re a good guy. Dad would be proud of you.”

Pete emitted a sound, something harsh.

“What?” Sam said.

“Nothing. It’s just . . .” He shook his head. “I highly doubt that Dad would like the things I’ve done.”

He waited for Sam’s agreement, the barrage of accusations, a litany of his sins and irresponsibility.

Nope. “Dad might not approve of all your choices, Pete, but he still would have been proud of who you are. The damage you’ve done in your relationships doesn’t outweigh the person you are and what you do to save lives. That’s who you are, Pete. A hero.”

Oh.

Pete looked at his brother, then the floor. “So . . . We don’t have to hug now, right?”

“Please, no.”

Pete looked up. Sam was smiling.

Slowly, Pete matched his smile, his entire body filling with something he couldn’t quite name.

Hope, maybe.

“So, about that incident commander job . . .” Pete said.

“We’ll see.”

“Hero. You said the word. I heard it. Hero. I’m sure that comes with a raise, an office, a new truck.” Pete pulled up a chair, turned it around, straddled it.

Sam rolled his eyes. “Someday. Maybe you could start with remembering to pick up Mom from her appointments, okay?”

Pete made a face. “Sorry. I will.”

“Good.” Sam considered him, and a dark smile slid up his face. “So, ‘just teammates,’ huh?”

“What?”

“Really? That’s all you got? What?”

Pete sighed. “Okay, fine. I blew it with Jess, but I’m not sure you and I are ready to give each other dating advice.”

“If you want advice, you’ve come to the wrong brother.” Sam’s eyes turned shadowed. “I’m in big trouble.”

“Really? Something happen in the woods?”

Sam looked away.

“Oh, dude. What, with Willow?”

“Nothing happened.”

“Geez, at least I have the guts to admit it. Did you two hook up?”

“No, we didn’t. Or, not like you mean—”

“I didn’t mean . . . for Pete’s sake, it’s Willow. What happened?”

Sam shook his head. “Okay, yeah, we sort of . . . hooked up. In a non-Pete way.”

“Hey—”

“But I said something stupid, and I hurt her, and now Sierra hates me too. I’m an idiot.”

“And, we’re back to that. Did you hear me say that I agree?”

Sam offered a smile. “Tell me about Jess.”

Pete grinned back, the pinch in his chest suddenly not quite so blinding. “I messed up. Tallie’s downstairs, and I think Jess might have seen me with her, maybe gotten the wrong idea. Anyway, she’s back together with Ty. So.” He lifted a shoulder.

Added a hollow smile.

Sam frowned. “I’ve known Ty his entire life—and Jess since she moved here. And I don’t remember them dating. I mean, sure, Ty might be hoping, but—”

“No, they were definitely dating. She was all secretive about it, but I guessed it, and the way he had his hands on her . . .” Pete blew out a breath. “Yeah, well. I better not go there.”

Sam was still frowning. “I don’t know, Pete. Jess doesn’t strike me as the girl who would run in Ty’s circles. Playboy cowboy with his dad’s jet and his fancy cars? His European ski vacations? Jess is normal and, I hate to say it, poor. You’ve seen her house.”

Pete shook his head. “I can’t put my finger on it, bro, but she doesn’t seem destitute. I mean, she has a closet of Columbia weather gear, skis, and a pretty nice Mac computer, not to mention her Jeep.”

Sam lifted his bed to a sitting position. Considered him. “And that’s it? You’re out? Handing Ty the game ball? Seems to me a guy who isn’t afraid to throw himself off a mountain with nothing but a squirrel suit might consider putting up a fight for the girl he loves. Talk about the ultimate risk, right?”

Pete ran his hands along the back of the chair. “Love? Let’s not go overboard here.” Apparently, stupid things still came out of his mouth. Baby steps. But he had to say something to cover the sudden black hole in his chest before he broke out in unmanly tears. “I guess that means it’s just you and me, batching it.”

Silence, and he felt Sam’s eyes on him. Then his brother smiled, slow and long. “Yep. So, how about you run out and smuggle us in a pizza? I’ll see if I can catch a late-night hockey game.”

He picked up the remote as Pete got up.

“Double sausage.”

“I know. Sheesh,” Pete said.

“And a pack of Mountain Dew.”

On the way out, Pete ducked Tallie, who was still standing in the lobby.

But he stood in the wet parking lot, lifting his face to the rain, letting it wash over him, cleanse him.

Set him free.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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