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Authors: Laura Moore

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BOOK: Once Touched
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“Only Alfie.”

Ruth lowered her binoculars. “What's he, a cat?”

“Nah, that would make life too easy. He's an Amazon blue parrot. Remember me telling you about my friend Lorelei?”

“The one who works at the local shelter?”

“Yeah. She's housesitting and keeping Pirate, Sooner, and Alfie company this weekend. I'm going to owe her big-time.”

“Let me guess. Alfie's verbal?”

“To put it mildly. I'm thinking a batch of killer brownies might go a ways toward compensating Lorelei for any hearing loss.”

“Ahh, chocolate. The default solution to everything under the sun.” Ruth laughed softly and raised the binoculars again, scanning the pack.

“Well, yeah.” Before she could launch into a catalog of the ills chocolate could cure, her phone's alarm vibrated. With a frown she pulled it out of her jacket pocket and switched it off. “Drat,” she muttered. “I hadn't realized how much time had passed. I've got to hit the road. I'm due at the airport.”

She stood and shook out her legs to regain feeling in them after sitting on the cold ground. Ruth rose, too, and tucked both pairs of binoculars into a carrying case.

“Are you picking up a guest?” Ruth asked as they followed the dirt trail back to the sanctuary's center.

“Kind of. The Saunderses are family friends, but we haven't seen Ethan, their son, in years. He's a photojournalist. Apparently he's been in the hospital after being on assignment in Afghanistan.”

“The hospital? I hope he wasn't seriously injured.”

“No clue. Before I left, I tried to pry more information out of my folks, but they were acting very hush-hush. That he'd been in Afghanistan was all I managed to get out of them.” Her parents were being super-cagy. “My guess is either they don't know what happened or they're respecting his privacy. More likely the latter. They're big on confidentiality.”

“From what I've heard, that's what makes Silver Creek Ranch such a great place. The VIPs get to enjoy the red-carpet treatment but aren't hounded or harassed. So you're to be your family friend's chauffeur?”

“That's right. It's the least I can do since I got the weekend off. And it'll be nice to have company for the drive home.” Quinn lengthened her stride, her curiosity about Ethan Saunders rising to the fore. As someone who'd been around the world photographing everything under the sun, he'd have good stories to tell. And she did enjoy a good story. “I should probably have one of those cardboard signs with his name on it. Ethan and his parents left Acacia almost twenty years ago. I hope I recognize him.”

C
LAMMY SWEAT COVERED
Ethan Saunders's body. It permeated his shirt, making the cotton fabric stick to his heaving chest and gluing his back to the plane's narrow seat. The sling wrapped around his neck to immobilize his right arm and shoulder chafed the skin below his close-cropped head.

He lifted his free arm and swiped his forehead again.

The passenger next to him, who reeked of aftershave and wore a fucking ugly tie that reminded Ethan of the fuzzy blotches that had obscured his vision for days after he finally opened his eyes in Landstuhl, flinched and darted another nervous glance his way. It hadn't taken his neighbor long to decide he wanted to be as far from Ethan as possible. He'd even relinquished territorial rights to the armrest. But there was only so far he could retreat. Hence the nervous glances.

The guy made a comical picture. If Ethan could remember how to laugh, he might have been tempted. Were he a nicer person, he might even reassure the man that he wasn't suffering from some highly contagious tropical disease.

But his kindness had disappeared along with his sense of humor. Besides, he needed all his energy to focus on the metallic latch that fastened his seat's tray. It was the only way to keep the nausea at bay.

The captain's confident drawl came over the PA system to announce the plane would soon be landing. Within minutes the attendants began their march down the twin aisles to verify that seats were upright and trays and possessions stowed. The plane dipped and angled as it began its descent. Fighting the vertigo, Ethan swallowed hard and jammed the back of his head against the seat. Clutching the armrest with his left hand, he squeezed the metal edge until his fingers were as numb as the ones on his right hand.

The wheels of the plane touched the earth with a series of bumps that jarred his body and sent his brain knocking against his skull. He groaned heavily even as relief swept over him.

The hell of the past six hours was over. Only now that he'd survived it did he acknowledge the idiocy of traveling in a damned airplane. Of traveling, period. But he'd needed to get away, far away from Walter Reed, where he'd been transferred after Landstuhl.

His team of doctors, his parents, and even Erin Miller, his New York editor, who'd planned to publish his photographs, had done their best to convince him to remain or at least be transferred to another facility where he could receive therapy and counseling. He'd ignored their arguments and pleas. He refused to be jabbed with one more needle, handed one more plastic cup filled with pastel-colored pills that were 100 percent guaranteed to turn his brain to slush, or subjected to one more test by a doctor who stared at his laptop screen and repeated that he'd need to be
patient.
With the right rehab program Ethan should regain full mobility in his shoulder and arm. With counseling he should get past the horror of the explosion that had ripped through the armored vehicle and sent him flying from the backseat to the rock-strewn ground to land among other bodies.

It was possible the doctors were right, that if he talked and talked he might eventually be able to remember that gruesome tableau without wanting to crawl inside a bottle. Eventually he might accept why he alone had survived the blast, why that wasn't simply some awful, sick joke. It was conceivable that with the right combination of pharmaceuticals, he might succeed in banishing the visions and muting the sounds that assailed him day and night, his own hell on earth.

What they didn't understand was that even if a full recovery was in the cards, he couldn't stay in a hospital room or rehab clinic one more day, wouldn't lie in a bed and receive treatment that should go to soldiers—some of them still teenagers not even old enough to buy a drink—who'd come back from tours of duty with wounds far more grievous than he'd sustained.

He'd shot down the idea of staying at his parents' and receiving outpatient treatment, too. He needed to be in a place where he couldn't see their worried expressions or have to listen to their tentative, anxiety-laden questions. Perhaps because he'd lived in Acacia for a good stretch of his youth, Silver Creek Ranch was the one place where a few positive memories remained—of open land that stretched, reaching out to pine-covered mountains; of horses and cattle.

The signal for the attendants to begin the crosscheck interrupted his thoughts. All around the cabin seatbelts were unfastened as the travelers launched themselves from their seats, intent on seizing their place in the narrow aisles. The man with the fuzzy amoeba tie in the adjacent seat was equally determined. Bowed into a lumpy C shape, he lurched toward the aisle, barreling his way through the two-inch space that separated Ethan's knees from the seat in front of him. He reached his destination with a heavy grunt of satisfaction.

There'd been a time when Ethan would have beat every passenger on board in that particular race. He was a gold medalist at disembarking from planes and navigating airports at top speed, his carry-on hefted over his shoulder, his stride eating up the carpeted corridors as the promotional posters welcoming him to whatever city or country he'd landed in passed in a blur. Now he remained seated as the plane emptied until only he and the crew standing by the door were left. A minute later, one of the female attendants hurried down the aisle, sympathy in her eyes.

“Are you all right, sir? If you'd like, we'd be happy to call for a wheelchair.”

“No, thanks.” He'd managed to get on the airplane. He'd damn well walk off it, too. Steeling himself against the dizziness he knew would come, he grabbed hold of the seat in front of him and hauled his body up, willing his legs to unfold. He stood and a fresh river of sweat snaked down his body. Swallowing his nausea and ignoring the flight attendant's outstretched arm, he stepped into the aisle.

—

In the end, Quinn had no trouble recognizing Ethan Saunders. What was difficult was hiding her shock. He was so…gray. His skin ashen, the sockets of his sunken dull pewter eyes smudged, his gaze cloaked in heavy shadows, his short-cropped hair a liberal mix of salt with the pepper. Even the sweat on his face seemed gray, as though his body were oozing toxins. Were it not for the sling holding his folded arm securely about his middle, she'd have pegged the tall, gaunt man as a junkie battling the shakes. He walked with the brittle care of someone three times his age. A few feet behind him, a porter in a red cap pushed a loaded trolley.

“Ethan Saunders?” A part of her hoped she was mistaken. The other, wiser and sadder part knew she wasn't.

He stopped and looked at her, then released the lips he'd been pressing in a thin line. “Yeah.” A second passed. “Who are you?”

“I'm Quinn. Quinn Knowles,” she added when his expression remained blank.

“The daughter.” He made the connection in a low, gravelly voice that sounded as if it hadn't been used in months.

“The one and only.”

He looked far from impressed, didn't even bother to give her a once-over, which was interesting since men invariably checked her out and then started grinning like monkeys within seconds of meeting her. Their reaction was off-putting at best, creepy at worst. So Ethan Saunders was either smarter than most of his kind or—

Quinn was presented with the correct explanation when Ethan abruptly lurched to the side and began heaving the contents of his stomach into the base of an artificial ficus tree. He was too sick to notice whether she resembled Miss Universe or Chewbacca.

A few seconds later, Ethan straightened, looking just as gray as before. Because there was no use pretending otherwise, she said, “You're a real mess, aren't you?”

This earned her a grunt. “I'll live.”

“I hope so. I like funerals even less than weddings.”

His brows snapped together in surprise. Or maybe annoyance. He probably hadn't expected her to joke about death.

Well, it was too late to reform her warped sense of humor. And somehow she sensed he'd appreciate her pity even less.

“Like I said, I'll live.”

“Okay, then, we have an almost-three-hour drive ahead of us, so we'd better get a move on. My truck's parked in a nearby lot. I'll go get it and pull up outside in five minutes. There are benches.” Turning to the porter, she said, “I'll tip you double if you wait until I return with the car.”

—

The minute they reached the curb, Ethan dragged his wallet from the rear pocket of his jeans, which now hung loosely on his bony frame, and paid off the redcap—with that double tip. He didn't need a babysitter, damn it. Alone, he leaned against a metal sign in order not to do a face-plant into the sidewalk. The autumn air felt raw as a slap but good. He'd made it. Now he just had to keep what little remained in his stomach inside it until he reached Silver Creek Ranch, where he hoped to be left in blessed peace until he figured out what to do with the rest of his life.

A dusty red truck pulled up alongside him. The girl jumped out of it. He still couldn't think of Quinn Knowles as anything but a little girl. Of his memories of Silver Creek Ranch, the ones of her as a pigtailed kid stood out.

She'd been kind of cute, with a cowboy hat that was a couple of sizes too big for her. It used to slip forward, covering her face, and he would tip it back up just to see how long it took before it slid down again. Each time he adjusted it, she'd give him a gap-toothed grin. She'd been one happy kid on the back of that shaggy Shetland.

Because his parents had drilled home the fact that he was extremely lucky to be riding out with the Knowleses and learning how to cut cattle from the herd and rope them, he was okay with leading her around—it gave him a chance to study the horses in the corrals and pastures. He'd lift her onto the saddle, guide her pink cowboy boots into the stirrups, and walk by her pony's side while she chattered to the pony as if he were her best friend. No matter how long they walked, she never wanted to get off that pony. What had she called it again?

He hated that his memory, like his body, kept failing him.

He frowned as he tried to retrieve the name. He'd been able to identify all the horses on the guest ranch—they'd been his gold standard against which every horse he'd ridden since was measured.

No matter how spotty his memory, it was hard to reconcile the pipsqueak that she'd been with the Quinn Knowles of today. With her coltish legs, she stood nearly as tall as he. She must be in her twenties…so, not a girl. Yet she nevertheless struck him as impossibly young. Not surprising when he felt as old as death.

“All set?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He cast a look at the duffel bag and the black cases containing his equipment. Even though he knew he'd never take pictures again, the habits of more than a decade of traveling with his cameras and laptop were impossible to shake. Abruptly he realized his mistake in dismissing the porter. His gear was damned heavy and even his good arm had lost a lot of muscle.

He eyed the rear of the pickup truck, gritted his teeth, and stepped forward, only to freeze as Quinn swooped in. She grabbed the webbed straps of his large canvas duffel bag and hefted it over the back of the truck as if it weighed no more than a pillow.

Then she picked up one of his aluminum-framed camera cases.

He put out a hand, intending to issue a sharp warning, a “Careful with that!” only to swallow his words when the box landed as softly as if it contained three dozen Fabergé eggs. The second case was treated with matching care.

He had yet to unclench his jaw when Quinn leaned over the side of the truck. If he hadn't felt like utter crap, if he hadn't lost any interest in sex (a good thing, since he hadn't gotten it up in months anyway), he might have appreciated the tempting wiggle of her ass as she rummaged in the depths of the pickup's cargo area.

If he had, the pleasure would have been short-lived.

She straightened and, turning around, held up a black rubber bucket. “For you,” she said, handing it to him. “Compliments of the staff.”

BOOK: Once Touched
13.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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