“Erin, your boyfriend is looking for you in the waiting room.”
Her coworker’s singsong tone sounded cheery as she leaned into the break room, where Erin Grady was attempting to convince the vending machine to part with a diet soda. But under Joan’s chirpy voice, Erin could hear a mocking contempt for the guy sitting in the waiting area, probably shivering with delirium tremens.
“Yeah, I’ll be right there,” Erin said, almost keeping the impatience and exhaustion from leaking into her own voice.
She knew who the man in the waiting room was and why he was here.
She abandoned her seventy-five cents to the soda machine and walked down the hall to the emergency room waiting area. Only thirty more minutes and she could go home. Take a shower. Go to sleep. And then in a few hours, come back to Lost Coast Harbor Medical Center for another twelve-hour shift. Such was the glamorous life of an emergency room nurse.
At least after Sunday night, she would be free from the three-month stretch of weekend, overnight shifts. It played hell with a girl’s love life. Not that she had much of one to start with, but it would be nice to give that another try.
As she expected, Rob Katri was shaking so hard that he was nearly vibrating out of his chair. He was tall and lanky, his right foot tapping violently against the linoleum. There was no trace of the former high school all-star baseball player whom Erin had known since kindergarten. His dark hair was cut short, probably by the jail’s in-house barber before his last release.
“Hey, Rob, you all right?” Erin sat in the chair next to him and looked him in the eye.
“Nah, not doing so good. Had an accident. My back. It’s all messed up.” His gaze darted away as soon as she made eye contact and he blinked quickly. He smelled like dirt, and she suspected that he’d been camping out, sleeping in the woods because his wife wouldn’t let him come home until he cleaned up. Rob’s problems went beyond his addiction, though.
“Have you seen Dr. Kozak lately?” It was a two-hour drive to the psychiatrist who could prescribe Rob with the lithium that would address his schizoaffective disorder. He sort of shrugged, jerking his head to one side in an action that might indicate a no.
“Can’t get there right now. Can you help me out?”
Of course he couldn’t get there. Rob was only barely employed, working odd jobs when the weather permitted. But she couldn’t give him the opiates that would calm his jittery nerves and help him get through the next few days. It wasn’t just the psychological benefits that he craved. Rob had been self-medicating since shortly after high school and was a full-blown addict.
“You want Dr. Ashette to take a look at your back?”
She glanced up at the counter and saw Joan shake her head slightly. Erin frowned. If Rob really had hurt himself, she wasn’t about to run him off just because he was also an addict. It was tricky, trying to balance pain management with a known addiction, but that’s why the doctors made twice her salary.
Rob stood up, shoving his hands in the pockets of his coat. He watched a man, similarly dressed and ungroomed, walk quickly out from the intake area and then into the parking lot. The two made eye contact and Rob started toward the door.
“Rob, wait.” Erin followed him to the glass doors, which slid open and let in a blast of damp morning air that penetrated her scrubs. “Are you sure you don’t need to see the doctor?”
He shook his head, his eyes downcast. “No, thanks, Erin.”
He bolted through the door and into the parking lot, walking fast in the direction that the other man had gone. It looked like he’d get a few pills to tide him over.
“Who was that guy?” Dr. Ashette asked, joining her near the ER counter.
Erin watched Rob hurry to catch his friend. “My prom date.”
“Lucky girl,” Dr. Ashette said with a short laugh.
“He’s bipolar and has schizophrenic hallucinations when he’s really manic. Because we don’t have a psych doc on hand, his mental illness is largely untreated.”
“So get him in with Kozak,” Dr. Ashette said.
Erin glared at the glib response. “He can’t get there for regular visits. He needs a doctor here. Or at least somewhere his family could drive him on a regular basis.”
Dr. Ashette shrugged. “Tough break.”
Logan Ashette was a young and inexperienced doctor, and he was new to Lost Coast Harbor. Erin had been trying to cut him some slack as he got to know the hospital’s procedures, because with a little more maturity, he’d be a good doctor. As soon as he figured out that the nurses were his partners, and could teach him a lot. But she was running low on patience. He was too young to be this callous.
And she was also exhausted and knew her own temper. It was time for her to walk away. She checked the clock—ten minutes left on her shift. Surely she could find a task away from the flippant young physician until seven o’clock arrived. She started down the hall, but only made it a few feet before Dr. Ashette called her name.
“Do me a favor and don’t hand off the junkies to me, okay?” he said.
Erin turned so fast her ponytail whipped around and hit her in the face.
“Oh, of course, Dr. Ashette. I’ll make sure you only get the healthiest of patients in the ER,” Erin said. “Get over yourself. It’s a fucking emergency room.”
The doctor’s head jerked back like she’d slapped him. Which she would love to do. As it was, in her burst of sarcasm, she’d nearly called him Dr. Asshat—her secret nickname for the arrogant jerk. Either action would probably cost her at least a demotion to a less desirable shift. Though she couldn’t imagine a worse assignment than the weekend overnight shifts in the emergency room.
“Who are you—Florence Fucking Nightingale?” he snapped.
Erin stalked back to the break room, grabbed her soda from the tray where it had finally dropped, and headed to the locker room to change out of her scrubs and into running gear. A run would do her good. Just get out and clear her head and get Dr. Asshat and Rob Katri out of there. She clocked out and finished her soda on the way to her car.
After dropping her scrubs in the washing machine, Erin stepped out of her back door, let herself through the gate, and began her run up the hill, her shoes barely making a sound on the thick carpet of redwood needles.
The Redwood Park Trail ran along the north side of the town of Lost Coast Harbor, starting at the beach and ending three miles inland. It ran behind Erin’s neighborhood, and she could walk out her backyard and step onto the trail. Minutes later she’d be taking the stairs down to the beach, or be running up the hill on a soft dirt path that wound through the tall trees.
Usually by the time she neared the cemetery, she’d have found her stride and her mind would be clear and focused on the sounds of the wind through the branches. But this morning her mind was filled with images of Rob Katri shivering in the emergency room. His family blamed his problems on drugs, but Rob’s diagnosis wasn’t that simple. It wasn’t possible to separate the two threads of addiction and mental illness—not while he was in the throes of both. He needed help that wasn’t available in Lost Coast Harbor.
At least, not yet. Erin was working to get a mental health clinic in Lost Coast Harbor. After two years of begging for support and donations from the medical community, she’d been close. But a couple of weeks ago, her plans hit yet another hurdle and she worried that she would be starting over.
Erin hit the bend after the cemetery, breathing hard and no closer to that elusive runner’s high. She rounded a curve and saw the row of wooden fences that marked the beginning of the neighborhood where she lived as a child.
As always, she kept her gaze straight ahead as she ran and didn’t look at the weathered barrier that separated the large house on the end from the public trail. She hadn’t even meant to run all the way to the park and her legs shook slightly as she stopped at the entrance to turn around. The high-pitched sound of children laughing filtered across the park from the direction of the soccer field and Erin realized that it was Saturday morning and the crowds would be growing. She wasn’t feeling particularly social, and she needed to get some sleep before she had to report back to LCH Med Center for the Saturday overnight shift, so she slapped the top of the post marking the entrance to the park, turned, and started back down the trail.
This time, she let herself look at the familiar wooden fence. The gate was as she remembered it from when she was nine, before her parents divorced. Her mom had run a string up and over the top of the gate so she could easily get back into the yard from the park, since she couldn’t reach over the top and unhook the latch.
Every time she passed by the back of the house, she wondered why she and her mother had moved to a run-down duplex across town and why Jerry Grady remained in the large house next to the park, a perfect place for a child to grow up. Instead, she had had a small backyard that was mostly a cracked cement patio. Good for hopscotch, but not much else.
She shook herself out of her reminiscence and started back down the trail, taking her time with a slower pace. The slight downhill slope was a nice cool-down after her two-mile run.
A few yards down the hill the path narrowed, a steep hill to her right and the fences to the left, creating a tunnel effect for about fifty yards. The geography and trees muted the sounds of the park and she could only hear the birds and the rustle of the branches overhead.
It was the peace she’d been hoping to find.
Until the rustle in the woods grew louder, and escalated into crashing and snapping branches.
And a man crashed through the brush and onto the trail, just yards in front of her.
From the moment his front tire hit the rock in its path, Will Patton knew it wasn’t going to end well. He gripped the handlebars and tried to guide the bike back onto the path that dozens or hundreds of previous mountain bikers had carved in the soft dirt.
No deal. His momentum was too great and he and the bike were launched beyond the edge of the path, over a fallen tree, its branches reaching up and scraping Will’s skin. He stuck one leg out to slow his descent down a steep grade, but this just changed his trajectory, and his tumble into the ravine continued. A thick branch filled his view and he ducked, narrowly missing having his head taken off. His limbs tangled with the bike, and as one, they slid, rolled, and bounced through a patch of thick bushes and came to rest on a bed of redwood needles.
Will didn’t move for a long moment, his heart racing and his body screaming. He ran through an anatomical inventory and confirmed that everything hurt. He opened his eyes at the sound of footsteps and tried to move but found his legs immobile—but from the bike or some other reason, he couldn’t tell. A bubble of panic started to rise in his gut, threatening to choke him.
He blinked and tried to twist his head to see who was talking to him, but a hand firmly held his head in place by pinning his helmet to the ground.
“Do not move.”
It was a woman, a bossy one, but whoever she was would remain a mystery. With his head on the ground, his only view was of the dirt and leaves and brush that he’d just mowed through. Cool hands pressed against his neck and shoulders as the scent of decomposing pine needles filled his nose.
“Can you move your fingers?”
He wiggled them experimentally. At least he’d still be able to type. His boss would be thrilled.
She blew out a relieved breath and he assumed it was good news. She moved to his feet, her capable hands probing around his ankles. Trying not to move his head, which was throbbing from the impact with the ground, he caught a glimpse of her in his peripheral vision and his breath quickened.
Holy God, she was pretty. Long hair, the color of honey, pulled back into a ponytail. Her eyes were downcast as she focused on looking for any injuries, and thick black eyelashes rested against creamy skin. She was wearing running clothes.
She disconnected her earbuds from her phone and dialed. She looked up at him and caught his eye, giving him a reassuring smile that quickly faded as the call connected.
“I need a medical assist, on the Park Trail. Got a biker down, possible broken shoulder, maybe a concussion. Unsure if there’s neck or spinal trauma. I’m near the top of the trail.”
Will could hear the 911 dispatcher’s response, but it was muffled. The woman looked around the wooded area, her forehead furrowed. “If the ambulance goes to the parking lot at the city park, they’re going to have to walk about a half-mile to the trailhead. The fastest way is through Chief Grady’s backyard. We’re about seventy-five yards west of his gate.”
More indecipherable mumbling from the dispatcher. His rescuer moved his sock around to check his ankle and he jerked in response.
“Your hands are cold.”
Her serious expression softened a bit with a hint of a smile. “That’s good news.”
He relaxed a bit at her diagnosis. He wasn’t paralyzed.
“Patient can feel cold in extremities and can move his fingers,” she said, all business again, answering questions from the dispatcher.
She ran her hands up his leg, feeling for broken bones, and he momentarily forgot the pain. Her hands were capable and professional, but it had been a while since a beautiful woman had knelt in front of him for any reason. He swallowed hard and tried to focus on the pain in his shoulder.
“No apparent fractures.”
Another pause in the conversation.
“Yes, this is Erin Grady.” She looked up at him with wide gray-blue eyes. “What’s your name?”
He swallowed, staring into the stormy depth of her eyes and trying to remember even the most basic information she had asked for. He may have landed harder than he originally thought. He’d never had trouble talking to women. Yet here he was, stammering and struggling to respond to her.
She leaned forward, her worried expression growing, and he forced himself to focus over the sharp jab of pain in his temple.
“Will Patton,” he said.
“Where do you live?”
“516 Sand Piper Court.”
She relayed the information to the dispatcher, then turned back to him with additional questions designed to check for brain damage—the year, the name of the president, the current date.
“Is there anyone I can call to meet you at the hospital?”
Will paused a second before answering that. “No.”
Not a soul cared that he’d just tossed himself off a cliff. His parents lived seven hundred miles south in San Diego, but were on a cruise in the Greek Isles. A few friends from law school, now scattered across the state, would probably piss themselves laughing. There were a couple of friends who lived a two-hour drive away in Ukiah, where he’d lived before he was transferred to Lost Coast Harbor. In the four months he’d lived in Lost Coast Harbor, he’d immersed himself in his job and had met very few people who weren’t his coworkers.
He didn’t plan on staying long, so there was no need to put down roots.
“I hear them,” Erin said into the phone, then she thanked the dispatcher and disconnected the call. She waved up the trail and the sound of footsteps grew. Then a cloud passed over his rescuer’s face as the paramedics grew closer.
“Erin, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” The angry man approaching knew his rescuer, and didn’t seem at all happy to see her.
“It’s going to be easier to get Mr. Patton off the trail if we can use your backyard. But if you’re going to be an ass about it, I’m sure one of your neighbors will do the right thing and let us cross through their property.”
From behind him, Will heard the deep, frustrated huff from the man.
“No, of course they can.” The man walked to where Erin still knelt in the dirt and redwood needles. He placed a hand awkwardly on her shoulder, which she ignored. “Good to see you.”
She bit her lip. “Yeah, you, too.”
Erin Grady was a terrible liar. The man behind her knew it. He had a short, silver military-style haircut and a deep scowl and he was familiar to Will—Lost Coast Harbor Chief of Police Jerry Grady.
“Patton,” Chief Grady said with a nod. “What happened here?”
“You two know each other?” Erin asked, eyeing Will with suspicion. “Are you a cop?”
“He’s with the district attorney’s office,” Grady said.
“Ah,” Erin said, smirking and looking away, very much not impressed.
The paramedics had him strapped to the board in short order with Erin’s help. No one seemed to think he had sustained any damage to his spinal column, but until they could get an X-ray, they weren’t taking any chances. His arm was bound across his chest with a strap to minimize movement of his shoulder, where a sharp pain told him he had probably broken something.
Erin followed them up the trail and through a wooden gate. Chief Grady carried Will’s bike and set it on the back deck of the two-story bungalow.
“You can come by and pick it up later,” he said, as Will was loaded into the ambulance parked in the chief ’s driveway.
Will had met Chief Grady several times in the last few months since he was transferred to the Lost Coast Harbor office of the Mendocino County District Attorney, but those meetings had been brief, professional. Will hadn’t learned much about the man from their face-to-face talks.
But Will had read enough reports from the LCH Police Department officers to get a better idea about Grady’s long reign as chief. The department had problems, and the chief either didn’t care about sloppy police work, excessive force, and other questionable practices, or he was as incompetent as his officers.
But recently, the town was rocked by the arrest of Peter Hastings—wealthy local businessman and the most prominent citizen of Lost Coast Harbor. Hastings, now residing in lockup in Oakland, was facing multiple federal charges for gun running, accused of using his shipping company to transport illegal weapons.
This gave Will an opportunity to exit this small town at the literal edge of the world. The federal agents were investigating and prosecuting Hastings. But Hastings’ scheme couldn’t have operated without help—and Will was willing to bet that the local cops had helped the man evade law enforcement.
Erin climbed in beside him, adjusting the straps on the gurney and helping one of the medics get it secured.
“You’re coming with me?”
“I work at the ER,” she said.
“I’m a nurse.”
“You’re in good hands,” the chief said, and then looked at Erin. “Come by for dinner.”
It didn’t sound like an invitation, more like an order. She bristled at the command, but gave a quick nod. “I work nights.”
“Not all of them,” Grady growled, then slammed the door shut.
Erin ignored the outburst and kept her focus on Will.
“He’s my father,” she said.
He studied her, tried to see any resemblance to the chief. She must have taken after her mother because he wouldn’t have guessed that she was related to Chief Grady. Some of her light-brown hair had escaped her ponytail and fell around a pretty face with gray eyes and fair skin that turned pink when she realized he was looking at her.
“You don’t take after your father,” he said.
“No, I don’t,” she said, looking away quickly and tugging a blood pressure cuff into place on his free arm. She dictated his vitals to the EMT. There wasn’t time to do much more than that before the ambulance parked in front of the emergency room doors and Will was extracted and rolled into the ER, Erin Grady jogging along at the side of the gurney.
“Weren’t you just here?” A woman in her forties asked, joining Erin. From her scrubs and badge, he figured the dark-haired woman was also a nurse.
“Missed you guys too much,” Erin said, flashing a smile at the nurse.
A doctor who was so young he looked like he was playing dress-up bent over him and checked Will’s eyes with a penlight, then did the same Q&A that Erin had already done on the trail, but with less concern.
“I’m Dr. Logan Ashette. We’re going to get you into X-ray. Looks like your shoulder took the brunt of your fall. You may have broken your collarbone.”
He pushed himself back and snapped his fingers at one of the nurses. “Hey, get his helmet off.”
The dark-haired nurse gently unbuckled Will’s chinstrap, giving him an apologetic smile.
Erin Grady had disappeared from Will’s view, but she hadn’t gone far. As more people joined in to transfer him to a different gurney, she rattled off her findings—his blood pressure, notable contusions, and which bones to check for fractures. His helmet was removed and he heard a low whistle as someone examined it.
“Lucky guy,” Erin said, coming back into his view with a warm smile. “If you weren’t wearing that helmet, you wouldn’t be dealing with Dr. Asshat.”
“Erin, honestly,” the other nurse said with an exasperated laugh.
“You mean I could have gotten someone with a better bedside manner?” Will asked.
“No. You’d be dealing with Dr. McCormick, the medical examiner.”
“I guess I prefer Dr. Asshat.”
She grinned, revealing deep dimples, then patted his arm. The warm touch made his skin tingle. “Try and stay on the trail next time.”
She disappeared again and the gurney started rolling away.
“Is there anyone I can call for you?” the dark-haired nurse asked, as she pushed the gurney down the wide hall. “A wife, or a girlfriend?”
She looked at him with such open curiosity, Will briefly considered lying. “No.”
She looked even more curious. “How about family?
“No. I just moved here.”
“Oh, really? How long have you been in Lost Coast Harbor?”
“About four months.”
“And no friends, huh?”
Where was this X-ray room, a neighboring county? Will thought. “I’ve been working a lot.”
He’d been throwing himself into his job in order to avoid dealing with the fact that he’d been shipped off against his will to this small town on the edge of California, and trying to find a way to get back to civilization. There was no telling how long his sentence to this “promotion” was, but if he could find a few high-profile cases to send back to his boss, that could earn him some time off for good behavior.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a deputy district attorney.” His actual title, supervising assistant district attorney, implied some authority or importance, when in truth he managed two other lawyers and oversaw misdemeanor prosecutions, while all the big cases were sent to the main office, where he used to work, to be taken to trial.
“A lawyer, huh?”
The foot of the gurney hit a set of double doors, which he hoped meant that Nurse Busybody would stop asking questions.
A couple of hours later, his ribs were taped, his arm was in a sling, and his legs and arms were slathered in antibiotic cream where they’d been sliced from the branches. While he had wrenched his shoulder, it wasn’t broken, and neither was his collarbone, but he was going to be sore for a few days.
The helmet had done its job and spared him from death or permanent brain injury. But the few blows he had taken had resulted in a slight concussion and a killer headache—and without someone at home to take care of him, Dr. Ashette refused to release him.
“We’ll take good care of you,” Nurse Busybody said, as she helped him into the regular hospital bed.
If he was going to be stuck in the hospital overnight with nothing but basic cable, he might as well make the most of it.
Fate had dropped Erin Grady into his life at the best possible time. He wasn’t going to let that opportunity pass. Especially when the chief ’s daughter turned out to have interesting gray eyes, dimples, and a quick wit.
Will checked the badge pinned to the nurse’s dark blue scrubs.
“So, Joan,” he said with a warm smile. “What’s the story with Erin Grady?”
A Kiss in the Shadows, book 2 in the Lost Coast Harbor series, is available now at these fine booksellers: