Love's Own Reward

Love's Own Reward

Dana Ransom

May 2014 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-096

Her act of courage destroys everything...

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Her act of courage destroys everything . . .

Charlene "Charley” Carter risked her life to rescue a child from a burning car. Suddenly, the quiet research assistant becomes a media darling—and a half-million dollars richer, thanks to the boy’s grateful grandparents. But big money brings big moochers and bigger betrayals. Charley retreats, wounded and suspicious about the motives of even those dearest to her.

He doesn’t trust that she’s for real . . .

Jess McMasters exposes frauds for a living, and if it means using his charms as well as his tough skills as a journalist, no problem. What’s Charlene Carter trying to gain by refusing to be interviewed by the press? Is she angling for more money—or is she hiding secrets that prove she’s nobody’s hero?

Jess goes undercover to get close to her, but the closer he gets, the less he understands. Except this: the cost for his deception could be his own heart.



Coming soon!



MY GOD, HE’S going to hit that car!

Just as the thought shot through Charlene Carter’s mind, the eighteen-wheeler shifted lanes. Crowded from the pavement by the diesel-snorting semi, the driver of the compact ahead of her had no choice but to take to the shoulder with a hard wrench of the steering wheel. The truck sped on, with a rumble of massive power and a rattling vibration. The big rig driver never witnessed the devastation left in his wake.

Charley had seen it hundreds of times in her early-morning commute to work. A reckless driver cutting lanes, tired, in a hurry, not checking his mirrors as carefully as he should. Usually the result was an angry blare of the horn or a sudden swerve and vigorously mouthed curses. This morning it was worse. Much worse.

The small car struck the shoulder going close to seventy. Loose gravel flew as tires fought for traction. The rear end spun and Charley could see the driver hauling frantically to correct it. But not in time. In that second she could see the female passenger scream as Charley’s car passed. It seemed the woman was staring right at her through the side window, her eyes huge, terrified, begging for assistance. Then the image was gone as Charley stomped on the brake, struggling to bring her own vehicle to a safe stop.

She saw the impact in the rearview mirror. Somehow that made it more horrifying, that narrow glimpse of harsh reality. The careening car slammed broadside into an overpass abutment. Even with her windows tightly closed she could hear the raw rend of metal, the shattering of glass. The passenger side crumpled like an aluminum can. The horn sounded, but the eerie wail was cut brutally short as the car skidded and flipped, once, twice, then rolled to rest on its side in the gully of the median.

Seconds passed. Charley’s fingers were frozen about the steering wheel. A fierce tremor started in those cramped hands and spread rapidly up her arms until her very teeth chattered with shock. My God! Just like a scene from a made-for-TV movie! Only the dark smoke billowing from the grassy valley was real. Terribly real. That was what shook her from her stupor.

There were people in that car!

Charley never remembered shoving her vehicle into park. The engine was still running when she leaped out and dashed onto the highway. Traffic had come to a complete halt by then, but she wasn’t aware of the confusion. She never even looked before sprinting across the rubber-burned blacktop. All she could think of was that woman’s petrified face.

Charley rushed forward and could see the wheels were still spinning. The passenger side of the car, from bumper to front door, was a mass of twisted steel. Steam and an awful gassy smell came from the wreck. The rear door. Charley’s thoughts were working on some primitive level. They were clear now, completely panic-free, even though her chest hurt from the hammering of her heart. Maybe she could reach the people from the back seat. Losing her shoes, ripping her pantyhose, she crawled up, using the buckled trunk lid for footing. She managed to wrestle the heavy door up and open. It would only go halfway before catching on the bent frame. But it was far enough.

It never once occurred to her to worry about her own safety. There just wasn’t time. By lying on her stomach, Charley could lean inside the crushed car. The stench of fuel was even stronger inside.

"Hello? Are you all right? I’m going to get you out.”

There was no response from the front seat. But from the shadows of the back came a whimpering moan. A child.

Charley stretched down toward the little figure belted in behind the driver’s seat. Her fingers fumbled with the fastener. The hot scent had made the air almost unbreathable by then. She started to cough. So did the boy. There was a click and the belt dropped away from his middle.

"Can you grab onto my arms?” Charley cried. Her balance was precarious. She wasn’t sure she could lift the child out by herself. She caught a thin arm and pulled upward at an awkward angle. The boy began to cry in great, catching sobs. He was heavy.

"Help me! You have to help me!” Charley ordered frantically as she lost her grip on his forearm and was left with only his jacket twisted in her hand. "Help me! Give me your arms. Reach up to me. Come on now.”

"Mommy!” the child wailed in pain and terror.

"First you, then I’ll get her. I promise. I promise.” Charley began to slip. She felt the cut of sharp metal. "Give me your hands!”

Then he reached up to her, wrapping his little arms around her neck, twining desperately, chokingly. Wriggling backward, she dropped from the car to the grass, stumbling with the boy in her arms until she caught her balance. And she ran. The smell of fuel was overwhelming. The punctured engine hissed and seethed. When she’d gotten him far enough away, she found other hands reaching for him, relieving her of the burden of his weight. But not from the burden of his terror-stricken cries.

"Mommy! Mommy!”

It was madness. The first thing Charley saw when she turned back toward the car was fire. Flames snapped out from under the hood and spread hungrily down to the gas-puddled grass. But she couldn’t see the flames as clearly as she could see that woman’s face.


Charley was running. Several people grabbed at her coat, but she jerked away, continuing her race toward the flaming car. It was burning fiercely by the time she reached it. When she grabbed at the doorframe, she was vaguely conscious of heat searing her palms. Adrenaline surged. She could hear her own heart thundering in her ears, rivaling the frantic rasp of her breathing and the snap of the fire enveloping the front of the compact.

Inside, the car was thick and dark with smoke. She could barely see, so she felt her way along the hot vinyl. The woman was dangling from her shoulder harness, her torso bent over the buckle. Charley couldn’t reach it.


The boy’s mother was wedged between the bucket seats. Charley used her shoulder for leverage, trying to lift the woman’s still form and release the seat buckle. She slipped. Momentum began to pull Charley inside the car, when something snagged the band of her skirt. Strong hands began hauling her back and out. Away from the woman and her husband.

"No,” Charley could hear herself screaming. "Let me go! I can save them! I have to save them!”

But fresh air was suddenly cold upon her face, and through tear-blurred eyes she could see the car become a ball of fire as she was carried away. She fought wildly.

Then she was overcome by coughing. Her lungs burned until she felt as if they would explode from the tearing pressure. She couldn’t struggle anymore. There was no strength for it. Her knees gave, and if not for the arms encircling her, she would have collapsed onto the grassy median.

The car burst like a detonated bomb. Bits and pieces of twisted steel and engine parts showered down, fiery comets that sizzled as they struck the ground. Stunned, Charley watched the tragedy—helpless and heartbroken. A terrible despair rose within her, swelling her smoke-clogged throat and trapping the wail of anguish inside. Shock and grief shuddered through her, and she sagged into surrounding male arms. It was a warm, protective embrace, isolating her from the horror. Stinging tears distorted the sight until it was completely obscured by a leather-clad shoulder.

"Shhh,” came a low, husky whisper close to her ear. "You did everything you could. No one could have saved them. No one could have saved them.”

That soothing caress of sound was the last thing she remembered.


The nurse paused in her pumping of the blood-pressure cuff and smiled at the pale young woman. "They flew him to Ann Arbor this morning.”

Charley moaned. "He’s worse?”

"Oh no, no. Nothing like that,” the nurse soothed quickly. "It’s just that the grandparents thought he’d get better care at a bigger hospital. All his signs were stable. Thanks to you.”

Charley sighed in relief. Then a small swell of disappointment rose. She had hoped she’d be able to see him. Chris Osgood. She hadn’t known his name until three days ago, when she’d woken up in this bed with her hands mummified in bandages. She’d seen his picture in the paper. A sweet-faced six-year-old. Right under the massive headlines that changed her life. Right beneath the photos of his parents. The people she hadn’t been able to rescue. She swallowed hard and closed her eyes. "Are they still out there?”

"Who? Oh, you mean the vultures? Thick as thieves. It’s not every day they have a real live hero in their midst.”

Charley’s lips curled in a wry disclaimer. "I’m no hero.”

The nurse tugged the Velcro to release the pressure cuff. Her voice was warm with admiration. "Could have fooled me.”

She’d fooled them all. She, Charlene Carter, simple lab assistant, the new John Wayne of the highway. The guardian angel of a small boy who just happened to be the only surviving grandchild of one of the richest industrialists in Michigan. A fearless Samaritan braving death to rescue a stranger. That’s how the press painted her in their bold banner headlines. Some hero. So tortured by nightmares of fire and fear that she couldn’t sleep without medication. So haunted by that woman’s eyes that Charley couldn’t close her own without seeing them. So overpowered by the shadow of her own brush with death that she couldn’t speak of the accident without falling into fitful tremors. She couldn’t read about it in the papers. She couldn’t watch it on television. And if she’d been trapped inside that burning car, would they have likened her to Joan of Arc? Would that have sold even more papers?

Charley squeezed her eyes more tightly shut and forced the image from her mind. The hospital psychologist had taught her how to suppress the panic, how to control it. But it wouldn’t go away. She’d asked about the man who’d pulled her out of the overturned vehicle, the stranger who had saved her life. But in all the confusion no record had been made of his name. So he would go without thanks while she was weighed down with reward.

Five hundred thousand dollars’ worth of reward.

"Are you sure you want to be released this afternoon, Miss Carter? It probably wouldn’t hurt to stay another day. I’m sure there won’t be any problem with the insurance.”

Charley almost laughed. Paying for her hospital stay was the least of her concerns. The Osgoods had seen to that with their overwhelming gift of thanks.

"I just want to go home and get back to normal.” But was that going to be possible?

For three days, ever since she’d been confined to this hospital bed, she’d been swamped with requests from the press. Interviews. Pictures. In-depth features. At her insistence visitors had been barred from her room. But that didn’t keep the media from flocking outside, from pumping the nursing staff and even the janitor for information. Didn’t they understand that Charley just wanted to put it behind her? Couldn’t they see that she’d done nothing noble? Why wouldn’t they let the horror of it die along with Chris Osgood’s parents?

Because of the money.

"Leave those bandages on and keep them dry until your follow-up next week. In the meantime, get that prescription filled right away. You’re probably not feeling anything now, but I won’t lie to you. When that shot wears off, the next few days are going to be pretty miserable. Take what you need to control the pain. Healing time varies with burns, so you’ll just have to be patient. You were lucky, Miss Carter. There was little tissue damage, so you should be itching like crazy with new skin in about a week. Don’t scratch.” The nurse looked sternly at her patient to make sure the orders were understood. The young woman nodded vaguely. The medication had her drifting nicely. "Have you signed all the papers? Is someone coming to pick you up?”

Charley felt a brief tug of hurt as she said, "I’ve called a cab.” She knew why Alan wasn’t coming. She knew all the reasons by heart. But that didn’t lessen the ache of abandonment. Couldn’t he find the time to be there when she needed him? That wasn’t fair of her, but then, she wasn’t feeling particularly unselfish. Her hands throbbed behind the blunt of painkillers. Her courage faltered at the thought of facing those reporters alone. She just wanted to escape to the safety of her own quiet world.

"Your limo’s here, Miss Carter,” called the young black orderly maneuvering a wheelchair into place for her. "First-class service right to the front door. Got everything?”

"Just what I have on.” A coworker had brought her the change of clothes and slip-on shoes. The pair she’d worn the day of the accident were beyond repair. The nurse had helped her into the pull-on skirt and button-front blouse. Charley’s hands were fairly useless, but she was learning to adapt by slow, uncomfortable degrees.

"What about all your flowers and cards?”

Charley glanced at the elaborate sprays adorning every available surface of her room. Get-well notes had come in by the hundreds. Almost all from strangers. "Could someone box up the cards and send them to me?” The nurse nodded with a smile, "Take the flowers to the children’s unit,” Charley suggested. "They could use the cheering up.” It would take more than flowers from people she didn’t know to raise her own spirits. Someone might as well enjoy them. Besides, it was all she could do to hang on to her purse and place her feet one in front of the other. Her pain medication acted on her with the subtlety of an animal tranquilizer. It would have dropped a rhinoceros. But that powerful drug dulled the edge of her anxiety as well as her discomfort, so she was grateful for it. Otherwise, she never would have found the fortitude to seat herself in the wheelchair. Some hero!

She dozed during the ride down the elevator. It made a pleasant whirring sound, soothing her senses in tandem with her lethargy- producing pills. The cab should be waiting. All she had to do was remember her address. Then she’d be home. What a divine thought. She’d take the phone off the hook and sleep for a week with no one to disturb her. She was smiling serenely as the doors shushed open. Then her pleasant dream was shattered by explosions of light.

Charley shrank back into the chair like a startled doe confronted with the brilliance of oncoming headlights.

"Who let you bastards in here?” the orderly growled at the reporters swarming the elevator bank. He ducked his head against the flare of flashbulbs and muscled the wheelchair through the crowd. They were quick to give him room or be run down, then trailed along like hounds on a scent.

"Miss Carter, how are you feeling?”

"Free Press, Miss Carter. Can you comment on what the last few days have been like?”

"This way, Miss Carter. I need a picture.”

"What are you going to do with the money?”

"Yeah, how are you going to spend it?”

"Another picture, Miss Carter.”

"Over here.”

"What were you thinking when you ran back to that car?”

Charley shook her head. "Please, I’d rather not—”

"Did you know who they were when you went back to rescue the parents?”

That question shocked her, penetrating the film of confusion slowing her brain. She stared up at the reporter who was elbowing close to push a microphone in her face. She met the man’s eyes. They were bright, avid with the morbid curiosity of the general public, searching for a cynical story angle.

"No,” she managed to mumble. My God, how could he think it would matter? "Please...” She tried to turn away from the thrusting hand mike and was instantly blinded by another flash. "Please...”

Faces began to blur. The noise grew to an awful roar. Charley closed her eyes, wishing the press would just go away, that they’d respect her pain, that they’d leave the gruesome facts alone. She heard the click and buzz of the hospital doors opening and the intensity of sound struck her like a physical force. The size of the media tripled as members of radio, television, and newspaper staffs jockeyed to get near enough to shout their questions or snap a picture. The microphones shoved at her claimed an alphabet soup of call letters. She couldn’t hear any one clear question, just a loud babble of discordant voices in ever-increasing volume. It buffeted her into a daze of desperation. The orderly bent to ask her something, but she couldn’t understand him above the clamor of the crowd. Frantically she tried to see through the press of bodies, looking for the means to escape, but there were too many people, all mashing tight to form a solid barrier. From the chair she couldn’t tell if her cab was waiting in the circular drive. She’d have to stand.

There was no strength in her legs. She had to push herself up using the arms of the wheelchair for leverage. Instantly she felt a reminding jolt of agony as her palms pressed down. She dragged herself up and was immediately engulfed. A heavy camcorder smacked into one bandaged hand. Pain swirled up, blurring her eyes, then was quickly muted by the drugs deadening her system. She managed a hesitant step forward, and all sense of direction was lost.

"Miss Carter...”

"Over here!”

"Did you name the amount, or was that what Osgood offered?”

"WYZ, Miss Carter. Could you tell our listeners—”

". . . already dead when you went back for them?”

Charley’s head swam. She blinked rapidly against the glare of camera lights, against the fogging pull of her medication. I’m going to faint, she thought in a hazy panic. I’m going to be sick right here on national television. Her stomach roiled. A cold sweat broke out on her face, and her limbs began to quiver. And suddenly she couldn’t move. She stood in a glaze of bewildered horror, not knowing which way to go, how to flee the barrage of questions.

Firm hands cupped her elbows in the same second she feared her legs would no longer support her.

"Miss Carter? I’m parked right over there. I’ve been waiting for you. Let me get you out of here.”

Her cab. Thank God! She surrendered control of the situation to the owner of that confident voice. Abruptly she was being moved purposefully through the crowd. Vaguely she heard the annoyed grumbles and the anxious last-minute shout of questions. Weak with gratitude, she glanced around and up to see the face of her rescuer. She got the indelible impression of piercing gray eyes, eyes that could look right into the soul from beneath a slash of brooding brows. Angry eyes.

That puzzled her. Even through the mist of uncertainty clouding her mind, she wondered why this man was so upset with her. But that was silly. Probably the drugs. What reason could he possibly have to feel one way or another about her?

Then she felt herself falling into the front seat of a car. Not the back, she noticed in a dreamy blur. The door shut and there was blissful silence. The roar flared briefly again when the driver’s door opened, then there was just the purr of the engine.

"Where to?”

Groggily Charley gave her address and let the cottony balm of the sedatives envelop her. She was going home.




JESS MCMASTERS studied the entrance of the hospital from the front seat of his car. They’d already started to gather—the curious, the media. The walk was like a snake pit of electrical cables. Every opening of the mechanical doors moved the crowd in a rhythmic tide, surging forward eagerly, ebbing in disappointment. They were waiting for the same thing he was: a chance to talk to Charlene Carter. It didn’t bother him that she wasn’t giving interviews. He wasn’t worried because he knew something they didn’t—he knew the lady.

Jess gave the plastic top of his convenience-store coffee a practiced toss onto the dash. While he sipped the scalding brew, he leaned against the driver’s door and propped one long leg up on the seat. He was used to waiting. Part of his job was waiting—for the right person, for the right moment, for the right story, for the right slant. And here he had it all. Charlene Carter was exactly the kind of item he was known for. For the past two years his features in Metro Magazine covered the gritty and the glittery of the Detroit area. He was respected for his journalistic style. He was feared for his unbending honesty. "Cynicism,” some called it. "Candor” was the term he preferred. His exposés touched on gang violence, political corruption, urban renewal scandals, the nasty and preferably hidden habits of the wealthy and the powerful. So his editor had been understandably surprised by his request to do a story on Charlene Carter. Until Jess explained his angle. Then he could swear he heard the man salivating.

Charlene Carter was the day’s hero. She’d rushed into the fires of hell to affect one rescue and attempt another. A noble act that had paid off handsomely to the tune of five hundred thousand dollars. That was the value Detroit industrialist Benjamin Osgood placed upon the life of his grandson. Apparently Miss Carter agreed. Because she’d accepted the money. And, in doing so, shattered every cherished belief Jess McMasters had held since the fateful day of the crash.

It was the bravest damn thing he’d ever seen. She was only a little bit of a thing, so delicate she might have been confused with a girl. He could remember every finely-cut line of her face as she’d dashed in front of his stopped car. So small and yet possessed of a courage that put the rest of them to shame. While others watched, himself included, she’d scrambled into that compact, heedless of the danger, to bring out the little boy. And if that wasn’t enough, she’d gone back toward certain death in an effort to save the kid’s parents. She couldn’t, of course. Jess had known that the moment he saw the fuel ignite. But it hadn’t stopped her from trying. God, she’d fought him like a madwoman when he’d pulled her away, barely seconds before she would have been engulfed in the same fiery ball that consumed the car. Such amazing strength in such a tiny package. He’d been awed by her. Until this event had played out before his disbelieving eyes, he’d shunned stories of heroism. He’d felt the frantic beat of her big, big heart against his chest. He’d felt the helpless trembling of her despair as he held her in his arms. And never had anything touched him so strongly, so powerfully, so tenderly as that moment. As that woman.

Why had she taken the money?

Dammit, why had she failed him? He saw so much ugliness, so much greed. He wanted to believe unselfish goodness was possible. He wanted to believe the tears he saw on her face were genuine, for her anguish over others instead of her own pain. He wanted to hold on to the emotions that filled his soul with such poignant possessiveness as he’d cradled her close and tried to give her comfort. In that brief slice of time she’d reached inside him and torn out his heart. And then broke it by proving all his illusions false. Charlene Carter wasn’t a saint willing to throw down her life to save another’s. She’d been quick to snap up the fee for her bravery. In his jaded eyes that made Miss Carter a mercenary, not a Samaritan. And Jess hated her for it. Because he’d wanted to believe.

Jess had followed the details with a bitter interest. She’d met Ben Osgood from her sick bed and had taken his reward. Then she’d closed herself off from the opinions of the world by refusing all calls, by turning away all visitors. As if she felt she didn’t owe them any explanation for her greed. Well, dammit, she owed Jess one! And he was going to get it. Then he was going to shout to her adoring public how she’d manipulated a child’s tragedy and a grandparent’s grief and gratitude into financial gain. Because they had a right to know that they’d been tricked, just as Jess had been tricked into thinking Miss Carter was something special.

From the commotion in front of the hospital, he knew all their waiting had paid off. He cranked down the window and pitched out the remains of his cold coffee. The Styrofoam went over the seat back. Jess turned the key to bring his engine to life. And he watched.

The sight of her was like a fist to his gut. So small. As small as he remembered. And looking dangerously fragile in the wheelchair with her hands swaddled in white. Quickly she disappeared in the rush of newspeople and Jess was relieved. It gave him a chance to take a steadying breath, to quiet the sudden thunder of his heart.

"Get a grip, Jess,” he muttered through the achy fullness in his throat. He couldn’t afford to forget what this woman was. Hauling hard to drag up every vestige of his professional objectivity, he put the car in gear and edged up the circular drive into the center of the circus. She’d played them just right. By refusing information, she’d whetted the press’s need to know. He could well imagine her holding queenly court from her wheelchair, milking their sympathy for all it was worth. How he hated hypocrisy. Nosing his bumper toward the curb in front of an Eyewitness News van, he got out and shouldered his way through the tightly-woven throng. No one paid him any attention. Everyone was focused on Charlene Carter.

Again she knocked his logic out from under him. She wasn’t in the wheelchair playing to the press with her taped hands. She was on her feet, tottering like a newborn foal, her wide, dark gaze sweeping the ring of faces, brushing by his without recognition. Her eyes were glassy with shock, and she was panting like a woodland animal run to ground. That look cramped his emotions up in a vise of protective fury. Couldn’t they see they were scaring her? No way did she deserve this after all she’d been through. He could still remember the frail feel of her bones, the scurrying beat of her heart when he’d held her. She’d been so helpless yet so amazingly brave. That same fascination skewed his reason now, a tender compulsion to wrap her in his strength when hers was at a weary ebb. He found himself barging forward, ignoring the muttered curses of those he elbowed out of his way.

What if she wouldn’t come with him?

When he cupped her elbows, he could feel her trembling, and that shivered right through to his guarded soul. He spoke to her, pitching his voice low and steady, a life preserver of calm in the sea of insanity around them. And she grabbed for it in desperation. She was so weak and disoriented that it was easy to steer her where he wanted. She made no protest.

Then she looked up at him, through eyes dark and luminous with relief, and he felt his heart take a hard ricocheting glance off his ribs. At that instant he wanted the reward of her gratitude more than he needed his next breath. And it was crazy. He knew it. But he couldn’t control it. She held some compelling charm over his sterner sensibilities, and it shook him right to the core.

"Hey, J.T.! Let us have a taste of your exclusive, will ya?”

Jess didn’t respond to the shout from the crowd of his compatriots, but it did serve as the necessary shock to bring him back to reality. To who he was and who she was. He couldn’t forget again.

At least until he slid in behind the wheel of his car and looked over at the small figure crumpled in his passenger seat. She mumbled her address, then sank into oblivion upon a trusting sigh. She was too out of it to do up her own belt, so he reached across to strap her in. As metal clicked in metal, he glanced up into her face and was arrested by what he saw. Her eyes were softly closed, her lips gently parted as if in a deep natural sleep. This was how she would look if he woke up next to her in the morning. His insides took a nasty turn. Damn, she was beautiful. Dark auburn strands framed skin of porcelain quality in casual disarray, making his fingers itch to brush them back into place. Her finely-etched features had been branded on his memory since the first time he’d seen her. Flawless. Delicate. Without artificial enhancement. But more than that. There was a vulnerable sweetness to her that pushed every button of his male guardian instincts and made him want to shelter her for the rest of his days and nights.

You’re losing it, Jess.

He drew a deep, tight-chested breath and straightened away from her. Angrily he started the car. It screamed away from the curb, scattering reporters like hens in a chicken yard. He took no satisfaction from their looks of begrudging defeat. He felt no victory in snatching their prize feature out from under them. He was too busy trying to put a lid on the frantic scramble of his emotions.

Charlene Carter rattled him right down to the foundations. And that scared the hell out of Jess McMasters.


Charley could ignore the tease of sunlight and the sound of rattling pans but not that rich, full-bodied aroma of freshly ground beans. She breathed it in, letting the scent tantalize her nose and stir her sluggish brain. A jump-start of caffeine was exactly what she needed.

A leisurely stretch dragged her toes beneath her covers with an unusual ease. In some surprise, she realized she was still wearing her pantyhose. Then came the sharp stab of remembrance through her hands. And contentment parted like the Red Sea.

Who’d made coffee?

She sat up too quickly, and the room moved in dizzying waves. Her sheet dropped away, and she was further confused to find herself clad in a lacy full slip and bandages. Not exactly her usual sleeping attire. She pressed swaddled fingertips to her throbbing temples, trying to force-feed logic into a stagnant mind. The hospital. She remembered leaving. The cab. Then nothing. How had she gotten inside? Undressed? In bed?

And who’d made coffee?

It came to her all at once with a rush of pleasure. Alan. Of course. Alan had come to take care of her. And a good thing, too, or she might have spent the night sleeping in the foyer of her apartment building. Never again would she take those painkillers full strength. It was like stepping in front of a truck.

The sound of pots and pans clanking in her kitchen was intriguing enough to coax her from the comfort of her bed. The lingering effects of the drugs made movement slow and concentrated, but she managed to find her terry bathrobe and slip it over the bulky wrappings on her hands. She avoided the mirror on her dresser. Thank goodness Alan wouldn’t mind how she looked. Appearance had never mattered all that much to him. She couldn’t believe he’d take time off work at this most critical point of his study just to be with her. That knowledge warmed her, making up for his failure to visit the hospital. There, she’d had competent others to care for her. Here, she had no one, and his consideration touched her heart.

She was smiling as she shuffled zombie-like down the hall and took a turn into her narrow galley kitchen. Then drew up short.

Confronting her was the nicest denim-molded backside she’d ever seen.

Whoever was rummaging about in the vegetable crisper of her refrigerator, it definitely wasn’t Alan Peters!

Charley must have made some noise, for the forager called back cheerfully, "Good morning. How do you like your eggs? Over easy or scrambled?” He straightened and turned. With one look at her stunned features, he nodded to himself and said, "Scrambled.”

Charley’s mouth opened and closed several times in soundless wonder. Who on earth was this absolutely gorgeous man taking control of her kitchen with more natural ease than she’d ever managed? She just stared. She couldn’t help it. His untidy brown hair looked finger-combed back from a moody brow and startlingly gray eyes. An overnight stubble darkened his firm jaw and made his mouth appear disarmingly soft in contrast. A white cotton sweatshirt clung to his broad shoulders and exposed very masculine forearms where its sleeves had been shoved up to the elbows. From beneath the hem of the blue jeans she’d already noticed in far too much detail, his feet were bare. "Ruggedly bed-rumpled” was the only way to describe him. And that evoked a more alarming question.

Where had he spent the night?

Noting her confusion with a slight lift of that mobile mouth, he turned back to the refrigerator. "How old is this milk?” When she didn’t answer—couldn’t answer—he popped open the spout and sniffed. His head jerked back as if a snake had jumped out at him. "Never mind.” He upended it in the sink. "Why don’t you go sit down? I’ll have things ready in a minute.”

Obediently Charley stumbled to the breakfast bar and collapsed on one of the high stools. She knew her jaw was sagging. She could feel the slack weight of it as she struggled valiantly for a stabilizing breath of air. She made a half-strangled noise like a sink gurgling.

"Coffee?” He was already pouring. She stared at the steaming mug in blank amazement. "Cream? Sugar? Though God knows if you have any.”

"Black’s fine.”

"Ah, she talks. Good. If your hands are bothering you, that’s your prescription on the counter. I filled it for you last night.” At her distressed shift of expression he soothed, "Don’t worry. You were dead to the world. I figured it would be safer to leave you than to haul you around in a wheelbarrow.”

Charley’s mind was still laboring. Emotions were dulled. When she should have been having hysterics, she found herself only mildly bewildered. No, she definitely didn’t want to take any more painkillers. She already felt as stupid as a stump. All she could think of to say to him was, "You undressed me.”

He smiled. It was a very slow, very wide, very sexy smile. "No need to thank me. It was no trouble at all.” He was still grinning when he began to crack eggs into one of her little-used skillets.

Wait a minute. Just wait a minute, Charley thought. There’s a man in my kitchen whom I’ve never seen before. He’s making me breakfast in his bare feet. He’s talking about filling my prescription and taking off my clothes as if he’s been doing it for years. And I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee when I should be dialing 911! Except she didn’t feel threatened. Whoever he was, he could have done anything he wanted to her while she was knocked out cold. For all she knew, the entire Detroit Lions backfield could have filed through to have carnal congress with her. She’d have no way of knowing. But she didn’t believe he’d taken any unfair advantage. And she didn’t think he meant her any harm. So that left one last question.

Who was he?

"Here you go,” he was saying as he slid a plate in front of her. "This ought to perk you up a little.”

Charley looked down at the eggs dressed up beneath several spoonfuls of salsa and framed by triangles of buttered toast. Then up at him as he dropped onto the opposite stool to take up his fork. As if sharing breakfast was the most natural thing in the world. He took a bite and sighed in appreciation.

"Dig in. Nothing’s worse than cold eggs.”

His eyes. Gray and clear.

"If the meter’s still running, I’m going to have one heck of a tab,” she mumbled.


"You’re the cabdriver from the hospital.” Then she was less sure. "Aren’t you?”

"No. I’m sorry.” He put out his hand, and she reached for it unthinkingly. He caught just the tips of her fingers and curled them into his palm. It was a wonderfully gentle gesture. "I’m Jess McMasters.” He waited as if that would mean something to her. Then his brow furrowed. "You don’t remember me.”

Charley examined his regular features. How could she forget such a face? "No. I’m sorry. Should I?”

He gave a tight smile, shuttering something behind that cool steel gaze, and shook his head. "Just from the hospital. I gave you a ride home in my car.”

"I thought you were...” Charley broke that train of thought. Good Lord, he could have been anyone! She’d gone along with him as compliantly as a lamb. Thank heavens the only thing wolfish about him was his smile.

"I hope you don’t mind that I made myself at home. You weren’t in any shape to take care of yourself, and I had no idea who to call. So I just made you comfortable and bunked out on the couch in case you needed someone.”

Charley could feel her features growing as hot as the salsa. She thought of him carrying her from the car, up three flights of stairs, tucking her into bed after stripping off her skirt and blouse. Of his big hands and his intense eyes on her while she was unaware. Of him moving about her apartment with an intimate familiarity that even Alan didn’t share. It was disturbing. But it was strangely exciting.

Seeing her delightful flush of color, Jess was prompted to say, "I’m sorry if that undressing business embarrassed you. Had my eyes closed the whole time. Honest. I thought you’d rest better—well, hell, now that I think about it, I probably could have hung you up in the closet, and you wouldn’t have cared a bit.”

That teased a small smile from her, but her mind was still cluttered with ill-fitting puzzles. She stared at this handsome stranger and she had to wonder...



"Why would you go through all that trouble for me? I don’t understand. I don’t know you, yet you’ve done things for me that no one else thought to do. Start from the beginning. What were you doing at the hospital?”

Jess took a minute to sip his coffee and compose his thoughts, then said smoothly, "I was visiting a friend and kind of stumbled into the middle of your little media party. You looked like someone who needed rescuing and I’ve always been a soft touch when it comes to helpless women.”

Something was wrong with the way he said that. Charley couldn’t pinpoint it. There was a rougher edge to his voice, a colder glint in his eyes. Something. She wasn’t sure it should matter. But she knew it did. She pushed on with her questions, hoping for more clues about who and what Jess McMasters was.

"So you picked me up like a lost stray and brought me here. How did you get in? Where did this food come from? I know I didn’t have eggs, and I’ve never bought salsa. Where did you get my prescription?”

He grinned at her with a disarming smugness. "I’m a resourceful kind of guy, Miss Carter.”

Charley smiled back. "I think you’re a very nice man, Mr. McMasters.”

He looked uncomfortable with that claim. His stare lowered to his coffee cup, and the muscles of his face tightened. Modesty? Almost but not quite. What exactly?

"Your eggs are getting cold.”

Charley stopped trying to figure him out. He’d been there when she needed someone. Why make more of it than that? Mainly because handsome men didn’t ordinarily pay her much attention. Oh, she got her share of interested inquiries, but none of them followed through. She wasn’t interested in games of courtship, and that put them off in an instant. They wanted more joie de vivre in their women, not the studious quiet of a Charley Carter. The male ego was a fragile thing. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to coddle it; she just didn’t know how. She’d never been good at personal relationships. What was it about Jess McMasters that made her feel her luck was about to change?

"Not hungry?”

She shook herself from her musings and made a concentrated effort to eat. Easier said than done. The simple effort it took to pick up a fork brought the sweat of pain to her brow. She had always taken the free movement of her fingers for granted until every little bend, every tiny twist, woke an incredible agony. By the time she brought the first forkful to her mouth, her hand was trembling.

Jess watched, his expression pinched. He’d never have believed the simple act of eating breakfast could be so heroic. He could see how much discomfort she was in, yet she kept going, without complaint, without reaching for the numbing crutch of painkillers. When she finished, he was nearly as breathless as she was.

"I’ll clean up in here if you want to put yourself together.” He said that gruffly, and Charley was reminded of how she must look. While he gathered up their dishes, she excused herself and headed for the bathroom.

Jess leaned against the sink and exhaled raggedly. This wasn’t how he’d planned it. Oh yes, he was close to Charlene Carter. Too close. He’d carried her curled trustingly in his arms. He’d felt the enticing softness of her skin and watched the way her slow breathing rocked the filmy bodice of her slip. He’d watched for a long, long time, until he couldn’t even name the disquieting emotions wadding up within his chest. He’d spent the evening wandering about her cluttered little apartment, poking into personal things she doubtlessly wanted to keep secret. And he felt guilty doing it. That was a first. He wanted to despise her. He wanted to call her on her less-than-honorable greed, but somehow the anger got lost whenever he was with her. He turned the water on full blast and began to savagely scour their plates. Didn’t she know how to take care of herself? For the love of Mike, there wasn’t even any food in her icebox except a couple of freezer-burned microwave dinners. How had she expected to feed herself? He slammed the faucet off and stood still, with eyes closed.

He wanted to get a story. That was his reason for being here, for spending the night on a too-short couch. Not because he was nice. He wasn’t here to play housekeeper to a woman who could now afford a staff of servants to wait upon her every whim. What was wrong with him? No one had ever accused him of being nicebefore. He didn’t even know anyone who used the word "nice” in normal conversation. He flung the tattered dishrag into the drain. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

Then he heard the shattering of glass and a soft cry. And Jess went running.



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