“I already looked there.” Stella lowered her light to his body. A large, dark splotch stained the side of his light-colored T-shirt. “Are you bleeding?”
He glanced down, irritation crossing his face. “It’s nothing. The woman . . .”
She put a hand on the center of his chest. “There’s no one here, Mac.”
“But how . . . ?”
Maybe he had a concussion.
“No one is hurt in the road. I’m going to call an ambulance. Come sit in my car where it’s dry, and I’ll have a look at that wound.”
His head swung back and forth. “No. I’m fine.”
Stella headed for her car, one hand firmly under his elbow to steer him in the right direction. The rain tapered off until only the trees were dripping.
He pulled his arm away. “You can’t make me go in an ambulance. I have to look for her.”
She whirled, temper heating her face as she studied him. His square jaw was set in defiance.
Stella channeled some of her partner’s calm. “My backup should be here any minute. How about I have patrol sweep the area for her? Then will you agree to go to the ER?”
He gave her a curt nod. “But it’ll be faster if you drive me.”
She hesitated. He was right. It would likely take an ambulance twenty minutes just to drive out here. She could have him at the hospital in that amount of time. Her gaze dropped to the spreading patch on his shirt. How badly was he injured?
The red-white-and-blue strobe lights of a patrol car cut through the darkness. Stella briefed the responding officer and herded Mac to her car. He got into the passenger seat gingerly, and she bet he was hurt much worse than he would admit.
She leaned into the car. “I should put a pressure bandage on that wound.”
“It’s not that bad. Do you have a first-aid kit?” Mac lifted the hem of his shirt.
Stella got the kit from her trunk and slid behind the wheel. “Let me take a look at that.”
Mac waved her off and opened a stack of gauze pads. “Honest, I’ll be fine.”
Suddenly Stella remembered that Brody was with Hannah because her father was dying. Mac’s father!
She touched his hand. “Were you at the nursing home tonight?”
Mac deflated as a deep sigh eased from his chest. “My father passed away a short while ago.”
“I’m so sorry.”
He answered with a sharp nod, then turned to the window and studied the darkness. Had he been so upset by his father’s death that he hadn’t been thinking straight and had crashed his car? Visibility had been poor. He could have mistaken an animal in the road for a human. She hated to think of other possible causes of hallucinations.
She reached for his shirt and lifted it. Bandages already covered the side of Mac’s torso. Blood had soaked through the white gauze. His shirt and the bandages were soaking wet, and the tape was peeling off in places. His injury wasn’t new.
“What is this?” Stella’s anger flared again. She bit it back. Patience. But really, couldn’t this man be up-front rather than make her drag every bit of information out of him?
Shock and concern bloomed fresh. “When were you shot?”
So much for keeping her anger in check. What was Mac into?
She studied his profile. Despite his annoying habit of not telling her anything, she liked him. She’d found him smart, determined, and if she was totally honest, too damned good-looking for his—or her—own good. But as a cop, and maybe a loose friend, she needed to play hardball. His behavior was too odd, and his family had alluded to a past that included a teenage stint in a rehab facility.
She shoved the gear stick into drive. “I want you to submit to drug and alcohol testing.”
“OK.” No hesitation or surprise in his voice. Just pure resignation, as if her request was exactly what he’d expected. He went quiet for the rest of the drive.
Was that because he was innocent? Or guilty?
Fifteen minutes later, she parked in the ER lot. He opened the car door and stepped out into the humid night.
Stella got out of the car. “Eventually you’re going to tell me how you got that gunshot wound.” Among other things . . .
He shut the car door and walked away.
“Hold on.” Stella locked her vehicle and hurried to catch up. “I’m coming with you.”
And she wasn’t leaving him until she had some answers.
The ER was Wednesday-night slow, and Mac didn’t have to wait. An hour later, the doctor had finished restitching Mac’s wound.
He eased back onto the pillow in his hospital bed, his side blissfully numb from the local anesthetic. For the first time since he’d been shot two days before, Mac wasn’t split in two with pain. The downside of less physical discomfort was that the empty space left plenty of room for grief over the deaths of his father and Cheryl.
And the image of the woman lying in the rain was seared into his optic nerve. He couldn’t get it out of his head. Had he actually seen a woman, or had his mind summoned an image of Cheryl dying in the rain forest?
He was sure of one thing: he’d seen too much death in the past few days.
Sorrow came rushing back with a vengeance. Tension in his chest clamped around his lungs.
“Hello?” Stella’s voice sounded from the other side of the curtain.
Relieved at the distraction, Mac said, “Come in.”
The curtain shifted as she stepped up to the side of the gurney.
Her black slacks and blazer were damp and wrinkled. The downpour had destroyed her uptight bun. He knew instantly why she wore it up. Wet tendrils fell past her shoulders, framing her face and highlighting her gorgeous blue eyes. The shiny wave of black made a man want to plunge his fingers into it, cup the back of her head with both hands, take control of that serious mouth and kiss her until the cop in her eyes melted.
As far as distractions went, it didn’t get much better than Stella. The first time he’d seen her, she’d been in full uniform. No cop had ever made a uniform look like she had, but body armor had concealed her shape. The new look definitely did not.
“Your new job suits you.” His comment surprised them both.
Where did that come from? Usually he was better at keeping his mouth shut, a great life-preserving quality in the circles in which he traveled. But his raw emotions were affecting his self-control. His filter was on the fritz.
Silence filled the space. What was there to say? She was waiting for the drug tests to come back. He didn’t blame her for the request. He had a bad track record, and no one knew the truth. But her direct questions had told him Detective Dane wasn’t going to settle for his usual bullshit. She was kind and sympathetic, but she was no pushover.
Last November he’d discovered she was smart and loyal. Tonight she’d listened to his crazy story. Instead of telling him he was nuts, she’d reacted with common sense and empathy. To a man who couldn’t connect to a goldfish, sincere compassion impressed him.
As if he needed another reason to have her stuck in his head.
“Mr. Barrett.” The doctor came in and opened a wall-mounted laptop. He glanced at Stella, then Mac. “Is it all right to discuss your medical care and history in her presence?”
“It’s fine.” Mac was tired of secrets, and he suddenly didn’t want to keep anything from Stella. What kind of luck had brought her back into his life? He’d known he was in trouble with the pretty cop last fall, and she’d been one of the reasons he’d stayed far away since.
“I’ll send you home with some prescription pain meds.”
“I already told you I won’t take any narcotics,” Mac said without breaking eye contact with Stella.
The doctor typed on the computer. “You did, which is why I injected a long-acting local anesthetic into the site. That should alleviate your pain for up to four days. The medication I’m dispensing is a non-narcotic, anti-inflammatory pain reliever. It’s not habit forming.” He closed the laptop. “I know we talked about your reluctance to take any medications, but there’s no need for you to be in agony. We have good non-opioid options for pain relief.”
The doctor turned to Stella. “His drug and alcohol tests came back negative. Frankly, I can’t believe anyone could be walking around with that injury and not taking anything for the pain. I’d be crying like a baby.” He refocused on Mac. “How do you handle it?”
“I had a drug problem in my teens. I won’t go there again.”
“And I respect you for it.” The doctor closed the laptop.
“Seriously I find the best method for controlling pain is to accept it and find a distraction.” Mac’s gaze found Stella’s.
“OK. Well, you won’t have to live with it this time. The nurse will be in with paperwork.” The doctor disappeared through the break in the curtain.
Stella propped a hand on a curvy hip. “So you want to tell me how you were shot?”
Voices hummed in the three-bed ER triage room. This was not the place for confessions. Mac lowered his voice. “Not here.”
Stella’s eyes narrowed, and that gorgeous mouth flattened out into a suspicious line. “Are you sure I can’t call your brother or sister for you?”
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