LOVE IS AN ACT OF BRAVERY
Retired Navy SEAL Alex Rojas is putting his life back together, one piece at a time. Being a single dad to his young daughter and working at Hope’s Crossing Kennels to help rehab a former guard dog, he struggles every day to control his PTSD. But when Elisa Hall shows up, on the run and way too cautious, she unleashes his every protective instinct.
Elisa’s past never stays in her rearview mirror for long, and she refuses to put anyone else in danger. But with Alex guarding her so fiercely yet looking at her so tenderly, she’s never felt safer . . . or more terrified that the secrets she keeps could put countless people in grave peril. The only way for both to fully escape their demons will take the ultimate act of courage: letting go and learning to trust each other.
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You’ve got to be insane.”
Elisa Hall took a prudent step—or two—back as she observed the standoff brewing in front of her. A tall man stood between her and the emergency room reception desk, glaring at the woman in scrubs behind it. He stood at an angle to Elisa, so he could see the reception desk to his right and the entirety of the waiting area in front of him.
He clenched his fists.
Elisa retreated farther back toward the entrance, releasing her throbbing rist and letting her hands fall to her sides. Harmless. Nothing to see here.
“I’m sorry, sir, but ambulances take precedence over walk-ins,” the nurse repeated. She was braver than Elisa would’ve been in the face of rage on a level with the man’s at the counter.
He was dressed in loose fitness shorts and a close-fitting black tee. His hands were wrapped in some cross between tape and fabric.
“Fighter” might as well have been printed across his very broad, muscular shoulders.
Actually, now that she was looking, his tee said Revolution Mixed Martial Arts Academy.
Well, then. Maybe she should just take more ibuprofen and forget about seeing a doctor for her swollen wrist after all. Getting her injury examined wasn’t worth staying anywhere near this guy.
The nurse glanced quickly at Elisa then returned her attention to the man, her expression softening with sympathy. “As soon as an examination room opens up, we’ll get you in to see the doctor. Please, wait right here and fill out these forms while I help this young lady.”
Wait, what? The man’s face, and his focus, turned toward her. Oh, great.
Usually she envied nurses their ability to sympathize with so many patients and make such a difference in their lives. Now was not one of those times.
Elisa squashed the urge to bolt. Never ended well when she tried it. Better to hold very still, wait until the anger in front of her burned itself out, and pull herself together afterward.
Instead, she fastened her gaze on the floor and tried to keep her body from tensing visibly. Silently, she sang herself an inane nursery rhyme to take her mind
off the weight of the man’s intense glare. Please, please, let him walk away. They were in public, and even though the emergency room waiting area wasn’t packed, it still had a dozen people scattered around the seats.
But the expected explosion, shouting, other things . . .never happened. Instead, the man had quieted. All of the frustrated aggression seemed to have been stuffed away, somewhere.
She swallowed hard. Relief eased her constricted throat, and she breathed slowly for the time being. Leaving remained the best idea she had at the moment.
But he stepped away from the counter and farther to her right, motioning with a wrapped hand for her to step forward. As she forced her feet to take herself closer to the reception desk—and past him—he gave her room.
Belatedly, she realized his movement also happened to block her escape route toward the doors. He couldn’t have done it on purpose, could he? But Elisa took a step up to the reception counter and away from him anyway.
“Yes, dear?” The nurse’s gentle prompt made Elisa jump.
Damn it. Elisa’s heart beat loud in her ears.
The nurse gave her an encouraging smile. “Don’t mind him. He’s been here before. I’ve already asked another nurse to bring ice packs as fast as possible. I don’t
mind if he blows off some hot air in my direction in the meantime. I would be upset, too, considering today’s situation.”
Elisa bit her lip. She could still feel the man standing behind her, his presence looming at her back. He couldn’t possibly appreciate the nurse sharing some of
his private information. And he didn’t seem to need ice packs or any other medical attention. He appeared very able-bodied. “It’s none of my business.”
The nurse placed a clipboard on the counter and wrinkled her nose. “Oh, trust me, the entire waiting room knows what his concern is. Tell me what brought you here.”
This might be the most personable emergency room reception area Elisa had been to in years, not counting the extremely angry man standing behind her. They were either not very busy—not likely if all the examination rooms were full up—or extremely efficient.
Efficiency meant she could get in and out and decide what her next steps would be.
“My wrist.” Elisa held out her left arm, her wrist obviously swollen. “I thought it was just a bad sprain, but it’s been more than a few days and has only gotten worse. I can barely move it now.”
And if she could have avoided it, she definitely wouldn’t have stopped in to get it treated. An emergency room visit, even with the help of her soon-to-be nonexistent insurance, was still an expense she didn’t need. It’d been six months or so since her last significant paycheck, and she could not afford to extend her insurance much longer. Plus, it might be better not to. One less way to track her.
“Is that your dominant arm, dear?” The nurse held up a pen.
Elisa shook her head.
“Oh, good. Leave your ID and insurance card with me so I can make copies. Take a seat over there to fill out this form and bring it back to me.”
Okay, then. Elisa took the items and made her way toward the seating area, thankful the nurse hadn’t asked her to give her name and pertinent information verbally. It was always a risk to share those things out loud.
She’d learned over and over again. There was a chance a slip of information in the unlikeliest of places would find its way to exactly the person she didn’t want
to have it. No matter how careful she’d been over the last several months, it hadn’t been enough yet.
But it would be. This time. She was learning, and she was free. Every day was a new chance.
Nodding to herself, Elisa looked for a seat. It might not be crowded, but just about everyone in the room had decided to sit with at least a chair or two buffer between them and the next person. The buffer seats were all that were left, and most of the other people waiting to be seen were either men, or women sitting with men.
Then she caught sight of a young girl sitting with her legs crossed in the seat next to the big planter in the corner. Slender, but long limbed, the girl had a sweet face and the gangly look of a growing kid. Elisa guessed the girl was maybe eight or nine, could even be ten. Hard to pin down age when the kid had such an innocent look to her. The seat next to her was open, and she was waiting quietly, hugging a big, blue, plush . . . round thing. Whatever it was.
Elisa walked quickly over, and when the girl looked up at her with big, blue eyes, Elisa gave her the friendliest smile she could dig up. “Mind if I sit next
The girl looked around, her gaze lingering on the reception area behind Elisa for a moment before saying, “Sure.”
Elisa took a seat.
After a few silent moments, the little girl stirred next to her. “Are you sick?”
Well, paperwork didn’t take much of her attention, and it’d been a while since Elisa had been outside of her own head in a lot of ways. Conversation would be
a welcome change and a good distraction from the constant worry running in the back of her mind. “Not sick so much as hurt. I won’t give you the plague.”
A soft, strained laugh. “Same here.”
Elisa took a harder look at the big, plush toy. It wasn’t for comfort as Elisa’d first assumed. It was supporting the girl’s slender left arm, which was bent at an impossible angle.
“Oh my god.” Why was she sitting here alone?
“Don’t worry.” The girl gave her a quick thumbs-up with her right hand. “The doctors are really good here, and I’m in all the time.”
Such a brave face. She had to be in an insane amount of pain. And here she was encouraging Elisa.
“Is there someone you should talk to about how often you get hurt?” Elisa struggled for the right tone. It was one she’d heard more than once when people had been concerned for her. Some places had safeguards in place for . . .
Blue eyes widened. “Oh, it’s not what you’re thinking. Trust me, people ask my dad. And it’s not like that at all. I study mixed martial arts. I get bruised and
bumped all the time, and usually it’s nothing, but Dad always makes me come in to get checked.”
It was hard not to believe in the earnest tone. But monsters were everywhere.
The girl gave her a rueful smile, still amazing considering how much pain she had to be in. “This time it wasn’t just a bump.”
“Which is why they’re going to see you as soon as they can, Boom.”
Elisa hadn’t heard the man approach. He was just there. He kneeled down in front of the girl then gently tucked an ice pack around her arm while moving it as
little as possible. For her part, the girl hissed in pain but otherwise held up with amazing fortitude.
Elisa would’ve been in tears. The forearm had to be broken. Both bones. It didn’t take a doctor to figure that out. No wonder the man had been mad earlier. She’d want this girl to be seen as soon as possible, too. She dropped her gaze, unable to watch.
“Here.” An ice pack appeared in her view. “Your wrist should be iced, too. Take down the swelling while you wait.”
Speechless, Elisa looked up.
The man’s words were gruff, awkward. His expression was blank. But his eyes—a softness around his eyes—and a . . . quiet in the way he watched her made her swallow and relax a fraction. Her heartbeat stuttered in a fluttery kind of way. A completely different reaction from what she should be experiencing if she were wise. She didn’t know this man and he was probably married. The girl had a mother somewhere. Where? Maybe on her way. This man was just being nice. Maybe.
Learn from your mistakes. You never know who a person really is.