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Lina McArthur studied the screen of her rolling computer station, noting the patient’s information before entering the exam room. It hadn’t been a particularly busy day in the ER—late afternoon rarely was, here. Considering she’d come from the tiny town of Marietta, Montana, Kalispell was something of a change. Sure it wasn’t New York City, but it was still busier than she had been used to during her residency with Marietta Regional.
Possible concussion wasn’t exactly a gunshot wound, but it was nice to be here, to work somewhere outside the sphere of her father’s influence. She’d only been with Kalispell Regional for a month now, but living on her own, being out of the McArthur spotlight in Marietta, it was everything she’d dreamed it could be.
She stepped fully into the exam room to find a large man sprawled out on the exam table. He was wearing pants that had large tear down the side, which revealed a long if not terribly deep scratch. The pants and the loose fitting T-shirt he wore were covered in a streaky black substance that appeared to be smoke or soot of some kind.
He had black smudges on his face as well, though mostly at his hairline and under his stubbled jaw. Someone had cleaned and bandaged the scrapes across his cheek, but the nurse had informed her that he didn’t need any stitches.
“Mr.…” She wasn’t sure why she paused over the last name. It was a very common one and just because it happened to be the last name of her best friend didn’t mean anything. She’d just been thinking about home and Marietta, and Jess was one of the few things she missed.
Besides, the brother Jess was looking for might have the last name Clark, but his first name was not Ace like this gentleman’s. It was a coincidence and silly to think otherwise.
If there was one thing Lina McArthur was not, it was silly. “Mr. Clark. I see you took a little bit of a tumble. Can you tell me what happened?”
“You mean the same story I already told the nurses? Each and every one who came in and asked me the same damn question?” His voice was deep and edged with total irritation.
“It’s important we all get our story straight,” Lina replied, doing her best to keep her tone equitable. The hardest part of being a doctor for her was bedside manner. Especially being in the ER where people tended to take out their fear and nervousness on her. But she hadn’t made it through med school and residency in a hospital dominated by her larger-than-life father without learning how to plaster on a fake smile. “If you could just explain to me what happened and where you’re hurt.”
“This is so unbelievable,” he grumbled, sitting up straighter in the bed and glaring at her with a sharp, blue gaze.
Blue eyes, just like Jess. And half the rest of the population, idiot. “Mr—”
“Listen, lady, I have better things to do than sit in the ER telling a million people the same story. I was hurt. As I can walk, see, and think, I’ve deduced that I’m fine. No medical degree needed.”
Surly, her absolute least favorite type of patient to deal with. Probably because she’d be the same if the situations were reversed. She hated repeating herself, hated waiting. Patience was not her virtue.
It didn’t appear to be this man’s either. Though he didn’t fidget, his blue eyes were nearly vibrating with a kind of restless irritation. His jet black hair was unruly, though not too terribly long.
He didn’t even look a thing like Jess, why did she keep wondering over his last name? It would be too crazy of a coincidence.
Besides, he’s hot.
Neither here nor there, brain.
“I’m sorry you’re frustrated, Mr. Clark,” she said in the most cheerful voice she could muster. “But this is procedure, and the sooner you cooperate the sooner we can release you. Now, please explain to me what happened.”
“I’m a smoke jumper,” he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.
His arms were also streaked with black—smoke apparently. They were also…yum.
Argh. No. No thinking patients were hot.
“Small fire and I got caught up in the wrong wind. My chute got twisted and I landed hard, hitting my head on a tree. I’m a little banged up and apparently I lost consciousness for a second or two, but obviously I’m fine.” He swept a hand down the front of himself.
She didn’t allow herself to peruse. Oh, yes, he is fine. “How long were you out?”
“I’m not sure. The guys said a couple seconds. But the medic checked—”
“Obviously, the medic thought you should come to the ER. Have you had vomiting, nausea, change in vision?”
“Why don’t you ask the eight hundred people who came before who’ve already asked me that, lady?”
“Doctor. I am a doctor. Right now I am your doctor. So, stop calling me lady.” Once she said the words, she winced. She wasn’t supposed to snap but, oh, how she hated to be called lady or girlie.
His gaze sharpened, but his mouth, which had been screwed into a scowl since she walked in, curved upward. It was surprisingly potent, his smile. She didn’t trust it all.
“Pack a little bit of a punch for such a tiny package, don’t you, doc?”
“I’m not a package,” she replied, curling her fingers around the edges of her computer cart. “And I don’t pack any punch. I am a doctor.”
He sat up on the exam table, looking her over with a certain kind of…interest. Interest that made her feel very nearly jittery. Nervous. She’d never cared to feel either. Especially in the presence of a man who clearly thought she was something he could play with.
Lina McArthur was not toyed with. She scowled as she realized the voice in her head sounded far too much like her own father to make her comfortable.
Of course, that had always been because of who her father was, who her family was—the not being toyed with. While some people at this hospital knew of her father’s stellar medical reputation, his influence didn’t quite reach here. She’d been treated differently since moving here in that she hadn’t been treated differently at all, and it was nice to blend in. To not feel like she had to live up to the McArthur name.
That didn’t make men any easier. They were still as baffling as they always were. She slumped a little behind her cart, typing his explanation into the computer. “I’m going to examine the bump.”
“Are you now?”
She wanted to stutter at the lazy way he drawled that, but she schooled her tongue to behave as she stepped toward him. “Did you come into contact with any fire?” she asked, unable to stop looking at him. Which was…ridiculous. So, he was hot? She’d seen attractive men as patients before. But…there was something different about him. Something affecting. And pretty. And muscles.
“No, where I jumped, the fire’d already been put out. This is all old ash.”
“Ah.” Her hands wanted to shake, but she focused on the task at hand. Bump. Concussion symptoms. Deciding if she’d recommend a CAT scan.
“Ever jumped into a fire, doc?”
“No, my job is to heal fools who think they’re immortal.” Oh, that was not bedside manner.
But he laughed and something about that sexy rumble while she was gently parting his hair made her brain malfunction. Completely. She didn’t even remember what she was doing.
Focus. You’re a doctor. You’re a McArthur. The bump wasn’t alarming, and the placement on his skull made it unlikely he had internal bleeding, with no ill-effects this far after the original accident.
“So, what’s the verdict, doc?” he asked, his voice a low, silky murmur. “Do I have a week to live?”
She dropped her hands and took a few steps away from him. Okay, maybe she scurried away from him. “You probably suffered from a concussion. Over the next few days you may get a nasty headache. You’ll want to avoid any screen time—TV, phones, computers. No contact sports, or, I assume, jumping out of planes.”
That knocked all the silky ease out of him and he sat up straight. “Fire season starts this week, aside from training I have to be ready to—”
“You’ll have to miss it. For a week.”
He scowled and jumped off the bed. “Like hell.”
She shrugged, making sure to keep the computer cart between them as she typed her recommendation into his chart. “Sorry, buddy. That’s how this works.”
“I don’t think you’re sorry at all, Dr…” His gaze trailed down to her name tag, and she was sure it was her imagination his eyes took a little detour over her breasts because not only were they the opposite of impressive, but her coat covered them up fairly well.
“Dr. McArthur,” he said, as though…stunned. As though he didn’t just know of the name, as though he knew the name. Intimately.
Then his gaze returned to hers and she knew… He knew her name. He knew her family. And his last name was Clark.
It couldn’t be, but it had to be. “Your name isn’t Ace at all, is it? It’s Dean. Dean Clark.”
Ace held himself very still. There’d been a few times in the past few years someone had been looking for Dean, and he’d managed to throw them off the scent. It helped that most of the people who looked for him had a picture from when he’d been sixteen. Tall and wiry, a sneering, angry, gangly thing.
He hadn’t been Dean Clark in ten years and he didn’t plan on going back now. Ace Clark was charming, fun-loving, and an integral part of his smokejumping crew, even if he could read the suspicion in his new captain’s eyes. The rest of the guys liked him, trusted him. Mostly.
He’d embraced the life he’d made up. Even rented a place in Kalispell and stayed year-round. He’d given up Dean, and he hadn’t looked back.
Damn McArthurs, always sticking their noses where they didn’t belong. How had he run into one here? And a doctor to boot. A doctor telling him he couldn’t work for a week? The season was just starting.
He wasn’t going to sit around twiddling his thumbs if there was a fire. It had taken him twenty years to find a purpose, the past seven to work his way up to jumper.
A McArthur, of all people, wouldn’t muck up his plans. “I don’t know a Dean, lady.” It wasn’t as easy to lie to this woman as the people who’d come before. Who the hell knew why? Maybe because the McArthur name had thrown him for a loop, a painful reminder of the sister who he’d had to leave to save, or maybe it was because this woman’s dark blue eyes were sharp and intelligent.
He didn’t know what kind of relationship she had with his sister, but considering the McArthurs had taken Jess in once he’d finally smartened up and hightailed it out of Marietta, he figured this woman knew his sister well enough.
Which meant he had to get away from her ASAP. Jess couldn’t know he was here. He might have gotten his life together, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t always two steps away from blowing it all to hell again.
Jess deserved better. That was why he’d left her. So she’d stop hurting herself over the likes of him.
“Yes, you do,” she said, her voice steady and sure.
He needed to make her scramble again, so he forced himself to smile, to admire the shape of her because it made her cheeks turn pink and the otherwise solid, capable doctor demeanor fade into someone shifty and nervous.
He had no idea why the nerves were attractive on her. Usually, he liked a woman with a little more experience and a lot more overt interest in him. Easy women who knew what they were getting into. Temporary fun.
She was none of those things. And she’s a McArthur. Keep your head together. “I got a…second cousin or something named Dean, I think.” He shrugged, offering his mastered empty-headed smile. “Wouldn’t know him if I saw him though. It’s been ages.”
She frowned at that and he didn’t think she believed it without reservation, but it hopefully put enough doubt in her head she wouldn’t go spouting his whereabouts to her family.
Please, fate, be on my side for once. “Now, can I go?”
“I’ll have to print out your release papers, and the patient tech will come in and have you sign a few things.” She watched him with a brow furrowed, an intense, considering expression on her face. It did nothing to quell his interest in the sharp-mouthed doctor.
The name McArthur should.
Yeah, it should.
“A second cousin named Dean?”
“Yes. Somewhere in Montana, though I don’t know if it’s anywhere around here. My parents weren’t particularly close with his. I grew up in Oregon.” The lies were always easy, if only because, as a kid, he’d pictured a life as someone else. Anyone else. Ace Clark, smokejumper and not a total life failure, worked for him.
It damn well wasn’t going to come to an end because of a McArthur. Even if she was too attractive for his own good.
He and Jess had been with a foster home outside of Marietta when Jess had started dating one of the McArthur kids. Dean had only ever met one of the McArthurs, and only once. He’d broken his wrist trying to sneak out of the foster house, and the formidable Dr. McArthur had treated him, asking if he knew Jess.
Dean had lied, because Dr. McArthur had made it abundantly clear he would view Jess’s relation to him as a mark against her.
So, Dean had done his level best to get kicked out of another foster home, get his ass on the road, and leave Jess to a life that gave her a chance at something more than they’d ever had. More than he ever thought he’d be able to have.
He didn’t know much about this McArthur woman except she was one of them, and a doctor.
And hopefully at least a tiny bit gullible.
She studied him for the longest time and he pretended like he was the man he’d invented. Carefree, life-of-the-party Ace Clark. Lazy smiles, relaxed demeanor. None of the go-to-hell tenseness that had made up his life for the first twenty-some years.
He locked away all the irritation, the disgust at being in room with a McArthur—especially a pretty one—forced away any softening memories of his sister who’d been the only one in his life who’d ever tried to do right by him.
Much like fighting a fire, he couldn’t worry about more than the moment. More than the challenge in front of him. First, the jump. Then the landing. So, right now, all he could focus on was being unaffected.
“Well, print those papers, doc. I’ve got work to get back to.”
Her considering look sharpened into disgust. “If you care about the health of your brain, you won’t jump or do anything with high impact for a week, Mr. Clark.”
He grinned, couldn’t help it, and she must have read at least a portion of his thoughts because she blushed. Damn if he didn’t want to stick around and make her blush a few more times.
Not in the cards. Right. “I’ll see what I can manage.”
She rolled her eyes, but she clicked something on her computer than pushed the whole cart to the door. She looked back once, giving him a once-over that wasn’t nearly as interested as he’d like it to be. No, it was dissection. It was could you be Dean Clark?
“Why’d you say McArthur like it meant something to you?” she finally asked.
“You ever heard of Colin McArthur?”
Her eyebrows furrowed. “No.”
“He was a famous college football player who became a smokejumper. He’s a legend—big story in some big magazine years ago. There was a documentary about him. Thought you might be related.” He’d always thought quickly on his feet, thanks to dear, old dad’s equally quick fists and threats.
She didn’t say anything after that, simply wheeled out of the room. Ace allowed the easy smile to leave his face, to acknowledge some of that riotous fury inside of him, the tense fear she might say something to Jess. That this might be over.
“No, it isn’t over.” He’d finally built himself a life. He wasn’t going to upend this one—not because of anyone else.
Surely, since she’d left, she’d let it go, and if she didn’t… Well, he’d figured out how to deal. He’d roll with the punches. He always had.
He waited around for the interminable time it took the patient tech to go over the insurance and billing paperwork. Finally, they released him and he was allowed to walk down the corridor and out into the waiting room.
That’s the last time I set foot in the Kalispell Hospital. He’d find a way to make sure if anything happened on a jump again, they’d take him somewhere else once they got him out. Anywhere else.
“Hey, Ace, what’s the verdict?”
Ace stopped short, not realizing Sam had stayed. It had been hours now, and as much as it had surprised him the new captain he didn’t particularly care for had driven him here, he was downright shocked Sam had stayed. “You didn’t have to stay, captain.”
Sam shrugged. “You were out cold for a good minute. Wasn’t sure they’d let you drive out of here.”
“She didn’t say anything about driving.” He scowled at his discharge papers. He could refuse to give them to Sam, he could lie, it wouldn’t be the first or last time, but he found he kind of did care about the health of his brain. “But I can’t jump for the next week.”
“Sucks, man.” Sam commiserated, walking out of the hospital next to him. “We’ll keep you busy.”
Ace eyed Sam. It was hard to trust people, always had been, and losing Russ last year… Well, Russ was the first person who had trusted Ace with something. Who’d believed in him. It had been a blow and Ace had been unfair to his replacement in the interim. Maybe not consciously, but this kind gesture meant he saw it pretty glaringly now.
Maybe he should rethink that strategy. Sam had changed things up, but he was a good guy. Someone to trust. “Thanks. For staying.”
“Anytime.” They climbed into Sam’s truck, but he didn’t start the engine right away. “I mean that seriously, Clark. Anytime.”
Ace wanted to laugh. Sure, bury the hatchet with the new boss when a woman who threatened his real identity had just called him on it.
But he’d come too far, built too much. He had a place to belong, so he just had to come up with a plan. A plan no big-nosed McArthur could ruin, no matter what she told Jess.
Ace didn’t allow himself to think of his sister. Not as anything other than a problem to avoid. He watched the highway pass and focused on his lies instead.
End of Excerpt