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She smacked his hand away twice but he had grim determination on his side. She had an inch-long gash along with a nice goose egg. “This needs to be checked out.”

“No hospital,” she repeated, her voice even shakier now. “I’ve got a dog to rescue.”

“We’ll get the dog after we get you checked out, I promise,” he said.

“You don’t want to know what I think of you and your promises right now.”

“Actually, I do. But my wants are going to have to wait until you’re not bleeding everywhere.” Very carefully he went to pull her into his lap, but she resisted.

“Don’t touch me.”

He ignored that and tried again, as she was weaving like she might fall over. “Darcy,” he said gently. “It’s going to be okay.”

“No.” She swallowed hard. “It’s not.” Her tone said nothing was ever going to be okay again. Then she shocked the hell out of him by bursting into gut-wrenching tears like her heart had been utterly decimated.

Feeling his own heart crack in two, he gathered her in as carefully as he could and held on to her as she sobbed all over him. He was pretty sure she’d lost a gallon of fluids and also that she’d just wiped her nose on his shirt when she finally lifted her face, narrowing her eyes at the sheriff SUV coming down the highway toward them, followed by a tow truck.

“Kel’s going to take care of your car,” AJ told her. “I’m going to take care of you.” He lifted her chin. “And after that, we’re going to talk.”

“No, we’re not.”

“Is this about what happened with Xander?” he asked.


“Then talk to me.”

“Right,” she said. “Because that always works out so well for us.”

He studied her a minute. “It would if you’d tell me what’s really going on here.”

“No need,” she said. “I’ve got it all figured out now.”

“Care to share with the class?”

“The ‘Love, AJ’ thing that you do on your notes,” she said. “It confused me at first, but I get it. They’re just words, like … ‘have a nice day.’”

What the hell? It took him a minute to figure out what she was even talking about, but once he did he felt like a first-class ass for not making sure she’d understood. “Those aren’t just words,” he said. “Not to me.”

The temper and pain in her gaze was shoved aside to make room for wary uncertainty.

“Darcy,” he said slowly, willing her to hear him. “When I say ‘I love you,’ it means I love who you are. I love what you do, how you live your life, your incredible passion and your strength. It means I’ve seen the best and worst of you, that I know who you are down to the bone and there’s nothing—nothing—you could do or say to change how I feel about you. I love you, Darcy. Just the way you are.”

“And you love Wyatt and Zoe and Ariana and your patients and your dad and your grandparents …”

“Love doesn’t really have a full-up capacity,” he said. “You can spread it around, you know that, right?”

She hugged herself and looked away. “Yeah.”

But he knew she didn’t. Unfortunately he didn’t get to press because Kel was there. And as AJ had done earlier, he crouched in front of Darcy.

“Hey, honey. Rough morning, huh?”

She managed for the sheriff what she hadn’t for AJ—a smile. “I thought maybe you were bored and needed some field action,” she said.

“Always a giver,” Kel responded. “Listen, don’t worry about your car, we’ll get it home for you. I’ll contact your brother and sister to meet you at the hospital.”

“Not necessary,” she said. “I’m not going to the hospital.”

Kel removed his ball cap, scrubbed a hand over his closely cropped dark hair, and shoved the hat back on his head. “Do you remember that time you got into that bar fight with Zoe and I let you both go with just a warning and you said you owed me a favor?”

She narrowed her eyes. “That was like six years ago,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Is there a statute of limitations on favors for friends?”

She blew out a sigh. “No.”

He smiled. “So we understand each other.”

“Fine,” she said. “But I’m not going to the hospital with him.”

No question who the him was.

Kel looked at AJ and then met Darcy’s gaze. “Patient’s choice. I’ll call an ambulance.”

“Dammit.” Darcy got to her feet and started toward AJ’s truck, but she wobbled and stopped short, hands out in front of her like she was walking a tightrope.

“AJ,” Kel warned.

“I’ve got her.”

But when he got close, she pointed at him. “Don’t you dare—”

Tired of this and over her anger that he didn’t understand, AJ simply scooped her up and carried her to his truck.

She sighed and set her head very carefully down onto his shoulder. “I really hate that it was you who came for me.”

“Because … ?”

“You know damn well why.”

“My mind-reading powers have never really kicked in.”

She glared at him.

“Though I don’t need to read your mind for that look.”