“Thank you.”

The young nurse—her nametag read Lissa—waited for him by the door. “I’ll take you to where your family is waiting.”

Any time before when he’d had to deal with hospital visits or waiting around for any kind of news, he’d had Carolyn as his buffer. As his rock. When it’d been a prolonged wait, like when they were holed up waiting to hear word on Cam when he’d gone missing, they’d taken turns bolstering each other. Always in private. Not because he’d been ashamed of his fear and grief, but because he’d never had to explain it to her. Or she to him. They just understood each other on a level that defied logic.

Carson said, “It’d be a huge favor if you were there as I explain the situation because they ain’t gonna like it.”

“Of course.”

They rode the elevator from the second floor to the main level.

How was he supposed to deal with his kids’ upset over the situation when he hadn’t figured out a way to deal with his own yet? Especially when in doing the only thing he could to protect her, he’d piss off his kids and Carolyn’s sister by enforcing the “no visitation” rule.

She’d do it for you. If your life was on the line you can bet your ass she’d bar the damn door without apology.

But his sweet, wonderful Carolyn could get away with that. His kids would just think he was being an ass**le, because he’d been that man more than a few times over the years.

Carson paused outside the waiting room, taking stock of his family.

Cord paced. Colby sat in the corner with his head resting against the wall. Colt stared out the window. Cam studied the carpet. Carter twisted and untwisted a magazine between his hands. Keely prowled the perimeter. Carson’s brother Charlie watched TV, his wife Vi by his side. Carolyn’s sister Kimi sat beside his brother Cal.

Keely’s head snapped up. Then she was throwing herself into his arms. “Daddy! What happened? No one will tell us anything besides Mama’s been admitted. Please tell me she’s okay. Please.”

Carter pried Keely away from him. “Keels. We talked about this. Back off and let Dad talk.”

A million expectant eyes bored into him.

Just spit it out.

“Carolyn was exercising Sheridan. Near as I can tell, something broke in the bridle. Then it spooked the horse and she reared, throwing your mother off. I saw it happen so I was able to get to her immediately. She was instantly knocked unconscious. I called an ambulance and we’ve been here ever since.”

“Has she regained consciousness?” Cam asked.

“No. She’s had X-rays and tests and they’ve been observing her. Her brain swelling increased to the critical stage.” He paused. “She’s in a medically induced coma. In doc speak that means they’ve taken control of her body with drugs and machines, tryin’ to reduce swelling and circumvent permanent brain damage.”

“For how long?”

“Five days to a week. Or longer.”

He waited as that sunk in. And he could tell by the way they were gaping at him it’d take them time to process it—not that he had a handle on the situation. He was a mess.

Couldn’t they see that?

No. They’d see him as they wanted to and he braced himself for the upcoming fight because guaranteed it’d be a doozie.

“You’re sure that was the best choice? Or was that the only choice the doctors gave you?” Keely demanded. “Who did you have advising you on the medical procedure? Did you even call Doc Monroe?”

He loved his daughter, but it took every ounce of restraint not to snap at her. “Doc Monroe is not a neurologist. Dr. McMillan is. I agreed with their proposed treatment plan because it has the greatest chance of success.”

“But I think—”

“I do not give a good goddamn what you think, Keely. I made the decision for my wife. And if you think I made that f**kin’ decision lightly, think again.”

Silence.

Carson inhaled a slow breath and tried to keep his tone even. “As long as you’re all here, listen up because I’m gonna say it one time and there will be no arguin’. Carolyn has an open wound on the back of her head from the fall which was oozing brain fluid. The risk of infection is very high, especially in the comatose state she’s in with all her primary body functions bein’ maintained by chemicals or a machine. She’s in ICU and there’s no visitation for the first twenty-four hours.”

“Then after that?”

“Extremely limited.”

“For anyone?” Keely asked.

“For anyone.”

“Even you?” Kimi asked.

“They’re allotting me five minutes an hour. That’s it. And since she’s my wife, those five minutes are mine and mine alone.”

He steeled himself against Kimi and Keely’s recriminations, because the looks on their faces indicated they were about to let fly.

“That’s not fair. You should give the rest of us a chance to—”

“If you say to say goodbye to her, Keely, so help me God I will have you goddamned banned from this hospital, do you understand? There will be no sayin’ goodbye, no thinkin’ this is the end for her because it is not.” So much for keeping calm. “Carolyn needs positive thoughts. No cryin’ or carryin’ on. Which is why the two of you—” he pointed to Keely and Kimi, “—ain’t getting anywhere near her when she’s in this state.”

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