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Chapter 1 Nolan looked around his new office. He’d never had one of his own before. The other practice that he’d been working for had a community one they’d all shared…several doctors using the same computer in the same small ten-by-ten room. This was his and his alone. Burke, too, would have his own office when his notice was up at the hospital. For now he was working just a couple of hours a week to help Nolan out. And his office was going to wait, he told Nolan, until he could really devote his time to it. The walls were decorated with just Nolan’s things. It was a small thing to be happy about, he supposed. His diplomas were there, along with his awards…and there were plenty of those, as he’d always been a hard worker. Plus, he’d been able to bring in pictures of his family…his mom and grandparents. The photo of his father in his uniform about a month before he’d been killed had a prominent place on his wall, along with some of the things that he treasured above all else, such as smaller pictures of just him and his father. And his brothers too, the ones that were currently pissed at him. He supposed if he was honest with himself, he was the one that was pissed. He’d needed their help, yes, and their support on the project that he’d been trying to get up off the ground for months now. Nolan knew that he’d of gotten it there, but the fact was he was too broke to go on and would have lost it all if they hadn’t sat him down and told him they were going to help him, in any way they could. “But I can do this.” Even Garth, the money maker in the family, shook his head. “You just don’t understand. This is something that I want to do, and I don’t want you taking over.” His mom, the best mom in the entire world, had given him the most disappointed look he’d ever seen. His heart broke then, and that had made his temper lash out at the entire family. But his pride had won out on making things up to his mom. “Fine. Go ahead and take over. Like you do everything else. It wouldn’t be the Bentley clan thing if you guys didn’t have your two cents in it too, now would it? And that’s what bothered you so much.” He started to get up and leave them to their “intervention,” but his mother stood up and ordered him to sit. “I’m not ten. You can’t treat me this way.” “You are my son and I will treat you how you act. Sit down.” He sat, but he’d been a little more than pissed. Holding his temper had always served him well, but right now he wasn’t trying all that hard. “How much money have you spent on this amazing project?” “Everything.” There was no point in lying to them. They all knew, he was sure. “But it was worth every penny, and I’m going to put more into it when I have it.” “Good.” Her answer surprised him. “You think that I’m not proud of what you’ve done? Do you think…well you do, don’t you? You’ve proven that, haven’t you? Do you think that any of us would want you to not be able to make this dream of yours work? That we’d just let you fail at something that you’ve worked so hard at?” “I don’t want your help. I can do this on my own.” His mother only sat down and pushed an envelope at him. “I’m not taking your money, Mom. It’s what we all worked for so that you’d be set for the rest of your life.” “I am set. I have my sons here. And their families. And this isn’t only from me. We all put money in here.” The envelope was pushed at him until it was right at his fingertips. “Take it or not. It’s entirely up to you. But if you fail at this—and you will, because you’re not letting us help you when you need it—then I do not want to hear a single word from you. And your father’s name on this place will be a terrible legacy to him should you not let your family support you as he did us.” She’d gotten up and moved to the door, her last sentence stinging him the hardest. When they’d all left him, even his two nieces, he sat there for ten more minutes before he got up and snatched the envelope up before going to his car. He’d not been back home since. “Doctor Nolan?” Nolan looked up at Loraine Bean, the nurse that had worked for him at his old practice and had begged to come and work for him here. “There’s a patient here that needs some attention. He didn’t have an appointment, and I can’t get anything from him. I think he’s been hurt pretty badly.” Nolan stood up and told her to take him to the examining room, that he’d be right there. She nodded but didn’t move. “I don’t think…he’s just a kid, not much bigger than my own son. About thirteen or so. He won’t even tell me his name.” Nolan paused in pulling on his lab coat to ask her what the boy had said to her. “Nothing other than to show me his arm, and I came to get you.” “Show him in and I’ll be there in a moment.” She nodded again and left. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but he would help the child. Going down the hall, he tried to think what would have happened, and realized he was probably making it a great deal worse than it was. Entering the room, he looked at his patient. The kid turned to him, and two things struck Nolan at once. The kid was afraid of him, and he was human. The scent of blood, strong and fresh, made Nolan’s cat make himself known. Nolan decided to go slowly. “My name is Nolan Bentley. I’m the doctor who is going to look at you.” The kid nodded, and Nolan sat on the stool while the kid sat on the big exam table. “What is it you’re here to see me about?” The kid peeled the dishtowel from his forearm. Nolan could see that it had been bleeding a great deal. The towel, like his sleeve, was soaked through, and he was wincing as the skin was exposed. Someone had cut him, badly and deeply. “Can you tell me what happened?” The boy said nothing, but stared at him. “I can’t help you unless you help me. If you were cut by a fence or something like that, you’d need to have a tetanus shot first. Then I’d have to make sure there was no rust or anything in the cut. If it was a knife, I’d have to know what sort of knife. Were you cutting chicken and the blade slipped? Maybe you got hit by a piece of falling glass. Or you—” “Knife. A switchblade.” Nolan nodded and pulled on some gloves. “I’m…he tried to take my money. Not that I have much, but I worked for it. He’s bigger, so it’s not like I didn’t try to protect myself, but…he’s bigger.” “I don’t blame you.” Nolan rolled a table with all the things he’d need to stitch him up toward them and had the kid put his arm over it so he could look at it better. “It’s going to need about twenty-five or so stitches. But it will need to be cleaned out first. What does the other kid look like? The one that hurt you. Other than big, I mean. Did you get some good licks in yourself?” “He just left me there. I don’t think he’s hurting though. He’s a known bully and has a gang that hangs with him. I might have hit him a few times, but it was just luck, not anything more.” Nolan told him what he was going to do, and the kid just watched. Opening the wound up, he could see that while it was very deep, it had cut no major veins or tendons. But it was going to be sore for a while. “Do you have a parent or guardian you can have my nurse call?” When the boy didn’t answer him, Nolan stopped looking at the wound and looked at him. “I have to make a call to her or the police. If she’s the one that did this to you, then I can get you some—” “No. She’d never do that…it’s not her. It’s the man that thinks he can boss her around a lot that I worry about.” Nolan frowned, wondering what sort of life this kid had. “He’s a real douche canoe. And no matter how many times she tells him to back off, he’s right up in our face. And she’s not my mom, but my aunt.” “All right. We’ll still have to call her. This guy, does he live with you two?” The kid shook his head hard. “Then I don’t understand how it’s going to be an issue with her being called.” “They took the car last week because money is so short. We knew they were going to. It’s been hard on us since my mom passed away a few months ago.” Nolan felt his heart break for the kid. “Aunt Rylee has been working hard, but not having a car, she won’t be able to get here now. Plus, the buses don’t run that late on her second job. Walking home at night is dangerous, but she is trying really hard.” “And what is your name? For the records. And if you give me her address, I can have someone go and pick her up and bring her here.” The kid was shaking his head. “No one will hurt her or you now that you’re here. I swear that to you.” “I know that. But she’s…she’s not very…she’s been under a lot of stress. And she freaks out really easy. Not badly, but…last night she cried for two hours because she didn’t have the money for me to go on this class thing. I told her it was okay, but she is…she’s weird about that sort of stuff. She’s this really…she was in the army when Mom called her, and she was so…Mom said it was army life, but she was so hard. But now she’s sort of…I guess squishy. Cries about stuff that’s okay, and then gets all blown up when things are an injustice, as she calls them. I really love her, but she’s weird, like I said.” “I see. Let me get her address and I’ll have my mom go and get her. She’s understanding about this sort of thing.” The kid still didn’t seem convinced, and Nolan had to admire him for protecting his family. “She’s going to have to find out sooner or later, I’m afraid. You can’t just hide something like this from her. She’ll be more hurt if you do, I bet. My mom would be.” “All right, but don’t say that I didn’t warn you. Her name is really Rylee McClure.” He also gave him the address. “My name is Shane. Shane Cole.” The phone in the examining room was there for him to use, but for the life of him he had no idea how to contact his mother on it. She had a cell phone, he supposed, but whenever he needed her he would just reach out to contact her through their link. He did that now. I need your cell number. She laughed and gave it to him. Okay. I need to call you. Will you be able to answer me? Yes. I’m assuming this is for someone else’s benefit? He told her it was and why. I see. Go ahead and call me then. I’m with Reggie and Chris. The three of us were going to go to the grocery, but this will be fun too. He called her and explained again what he needed. Giving her both their names and the address, he could hear his sister-in-law in the background laughing. Reggie was talking to one of the babies, he knew from the sound of her voice, and was telling them how Uncle Nolan was a doctor woctor. Whatever the hell that meant. Hanging up a few minutes later, he sat back down on the chair and started cleaning the wound out while talking with young Shane. ~~~ The doorbell nearly scared ten years off her life. Rylee had had her head in the dryer, trying to find the last sock that had been there when she’d put it in the stupid thing, but now was missing. She not only bumped her head, but was pretty sure that the sock was eaten, again by the stupid machine. She was still rubbing her head when she went to the door and peeked out the side glass. It wasn’t Mike, thank goodness. But whatever the two women were selling, she had no money for, nor did she have time for their spiel. Opening the door, she could see Mike coming out of his townhouse next door and staring at them like he wasn’t going anywhere until he had all the information she did. The nosey prick was driving her nuts. Just as the elder woman opened her mouth to speak, Mike cut her off. “You said you weren’t going to be home tonight. You never told me about no company.” She ignored him for the two women. “I don’t think you should be letting them in. They look shifty to me. And if you got no plans, then you can go with me to the movies like I told you we could. That boy of yours, he can stay home. I don’t like him either.” Her temper nearly got the better of her. Rylee hated Mike Packer and wanted to murder him daily, but lately, since her sister had died, he’d been making a total ass of himself, bugging her and telling her what she should and shouldn’t be doing. And when her car had gotten repossessed, he’d been all over that like white on rice. He insisted that he be the one to drive her all over town, going so far as to send cabs that she’d call for away when they arrived at her house. The younger woman spoke before she could. “Fuck off, buddy. We’re not here to see you, so go the fuck back in your house.” Well, that took religious zealots off the list of who they might be, Rylee thought with a grin. The older woman tisked at the younger one, who did not look the least bit repentant when she said she was sorry. Mike made his way back into his house, but his door, forever opening and closing like a damned revolving door lately, stood open just a little. “Are you Rylee McClure?” Rylee told her she was, a finger of fear going down her back. “I’m sorry, my dear, do you think we could go inside? Your neighbor seems to think this has something to do with him.” Mike’s door slammed shut and the older woman smiled at her. For reasons she could not understand, she liked them both. And when she invited them in, she knew that she’d be as safe with them as she would with her gun pointed to whoever might be coming for her. A strange thought, but lately a lot of things had been strange. “Do you have a child...nephew…by the name of Shane…I don’t remember what Nolan told us his last name was, do you, Chris?” She told her. “Yes, that’s right. Shane Cole. Do you know him?” Her vision began to blur and her heart…she actually looked down at her chest to see if it had fallen out of her chest. She could not lose him too. He was all she had in the world now that…when the room began to tilt, she heard the younger women cursing and thought perhaps she’d like to learn a few of those words soon. Before she knew it, she was on the floor with her head between her upright knees. “Just breathe, young lady. It’s not that bad. Or so he said.” Rylee asked her who. “My son. He’s a doctor. A very good one. And your nephew came to his office a little while ago and had to be looked at. I don’t know a great many of the details, but I do know that if anyone can keep him safe, it will be my son.” Rylee wondered if she thought this was helping, because it wasn’t. “Gracie, you’re not helping her. She’s scared to death that he’s hurt really badly.” Gracie, the older woman, Rylee assumed, asked her to talk to Nolan and find out. “I have a better idea. Why don’t we just take her to him? Like he wanted us to. She might feel better to see him even if we were to tell her he’s just fine.” “Oh. Yes. That’s a good idea. I think the man next door…did you smell him?” Chris must have answered because Gracie continued as if she had. “And what was he wearing? No man should be out looking like…well, he just rolled out of the barn after mucking it all day.” Rylee laughed. As she pushed gently against the hand holding her down, she was freed. Looking up from her position on the floor, she smiled at the two of them. Then the door opened again and a woman holding two babies came in too. One of them was screaming her head off. “Here.” A baby was handed to Chris, and then the screaming one was shoved in her arms. “Where is your bathroom? I have to go now. I thought you said you’d only be…where?” Rylee told her down the hall, but kept her eyes on the little girl in her arms. Christ, she was beautiful, and the way her little lips puckered up like she was going to let go of another healthy scream made Rylee’s heart melt. “Hey there, little one. Don’t cry. Mommy will be back in a second.” The little girl just stared at her. Her cheeks looked so downy soft that Rylee had to touch them. Adjusting her in her hands, she ran her finger down her cheek and marveled at not just the softness of it, but also how warm she was. “Her name is Alexis. And this is Anna. They’re my granddaughters.” Rylee looked at the baby that was now in Gracie’s hands and could see that they were twins. “She likes you.” “I never held a baby this tiny before. When Shane was born, I was away and…. Oh my God, Shane. Can you take me to him?” The baby started to cry again but hushed once Rylee started talking to the adults again in a calm and quiet voice. “I don’t have a car anymore. And if I call a cab, I think that Mike will intercept it again and I’ll end up in his car. I’ll give you some gas money. I don’t…well, not a lot of gas money, but I managed to find ten dollars in the dryer today. I was going to take Shane out for a treat, but….” She closed her mouth when she realized she was babbling. Not a habit she’d developed until recently. Gracie just smiled at her and stood up. “We were actually sent to get you.” Handing the baby back to her mom when she returned, Rylee asked for a minute to get something on. She ran to her bedroom and changed in record time, and put on her jacket as she made her way to the living room again. When Gracie asked her if she was set, they left with Rylee making sure the doors were locked three times before she walked down the sidewalk. “You need a safer place to stay.” She looked over at Chris, who was sitting in the front with Gracie as she drove. “That man next door, he’s going to hurt you if you don’t.” “I don’t think he’ll hurt me now. A couple of weeks ago he tried that crap on me and I put him in his place. He had been backing off until today. I think he might need another show of force.” Gracie laughed, but Chris didn’t look convinced. “He’s harmless for the most part. And when he gets out of line, I put him back in his place. I have…I can carry and I do now. I don’t care for it, but I have to protect us.” She asked what they knew about Shane. Chris answered her, but Rylee had a feeling that she was still worried about the neighbor. He really wasn’t that bad, but she knew how to handle him when he was. “Nolan said that he’s been cut on his arm with a knife. I don’t know the extent of the wound other than without someone there that can authorize him to work on it, he has to wait. Shane told him that you no longer had a car.” She waited for someone to tell her she should work harder to keep her things, but none of them said a word about that as Chris continued. “He isn’t much of a talker, is he?” “No.” Rylee wanted to tell them that was her fault too. He’d been so depressed since his mom had died, but she was having so much trouble shaking her own depression about Shelby dying that it was hard for her to talk to him about his own. She also knew that there had been some trouble at school, but again, he’d not shared much in the way of information, only to tell her that he had it handled. Obviously not. As they drove her to the nicer part of town, she realized that they knew her name, but other than first names, she had no idea who they were. She started to ask them when the car turned into a nice office building parking lot and the engine was turned off. They all turned to her. “I’m a little scared.” Gracie told her that was understandable. “I’m not…it’s been hard on us. For the last few months, it’s been really hard on us. We can’t seem to get a break. To be telling you this…sharing…I’m not sure why I feel I can, but I’ve not had a great deal of friends over, and those that do come over are more interested in why we’re so broke. I really hate people.” “Not all people are like your so-called friends. And so you know, we trust you as well. But you need help. We can help you.” Rylee shook her head at Chris as she nodded. “We can and we will. You will need us as much as we do you. Go inside and we’ll be in soon. Nolan is on the phone right now with his brother about something, and Shane is with the nurse. Nolan will help you too…he’ll need to. His nurse is waiting on you to fill out the paperwork.” The sharp intake of breath from Gracie had Rylee looking at her. But she was staring at Chris, smiling. There was something there, something that she felt like she needed to know but wasn’t sure she actually wanted to know it. Before they could tell her that something else had happened, she got out of the car and made her way to the front door alone. The nurse was standing at the door like she’d been waiting on her and let her in. “Hello, I’m Nurse Loraine Bean. Your nephew is in the office right now. I’ve given him something to settle his stomach…nothing more than a little soda. Nolan Bentley, the doctor, is on the phone.” Rylee nodded. “Can you please fill out this paperwork? All it’s staying is that you give him permission to put stitches in his arm.” “Can I see him first? I’d feel so much better if you’d let me just make sure that it’s him. I know it is, but I have to see him.” The nurse smiled and nodded. “Thank you.” “No problem. He’s a good boy once he starts to talk to you. It took Nolan a little bit to get him to open up. I think they’ve been talking manly things, because when I come into the room, they quiet up again.” The room where she was taking her had the door closed. “As I said, Nolan had to step out for a moment. But you should just go on in and talk to Shane to help him relax. Then we can get the paperwork finished up. Nolan can work on him when he gets back.” Nodding and taking a deep breath, Rylee opened the door and moved into the room. Shane was sitting there with his head leaning against the wall and his arm wrapped up in a gauze-like material. There was a kit nearby him. She was sure it was the sterile dressing and equipment used to work on him, so she was careful not to touch it. He started sobbing as soon as he saw her. “I’m so sorry they had to come and get you like that.” She told him it was fine. “I thought I could take care of it on my own, but I messed up. He had a knife and I didn’t. Not that I’d use one, but Nolan said I’d need to learn how or I’d just cut myself more. And he cut me up before I could even think that was what he was going to do…the boy did, not Nolan. I’m really sorry, Aunt Rylee.” “Oh, honey, it’s all right. I’m just glad that you’re all right. But who did this? This kid that’s been giving you problems, he took a knife to school?” He nodded, still crying. “You should have told me, Shane. We’ll work this out. The doctor, is he taking care of you all right? He’s not hurt you?” “No. He’s really cool. He never told me I was stupid for taking him on when I did. Said that I should have told you so you could have done something smarter. I like him.” Rylee nodded and hugged him again. “Aunt Rylee, I know we don’t have the money for this and I told him that. He said that I was his practice patient.” “Practice? How long as he been a doctor? Surely he’s not just out of med school?” The door opened just as she asked, and she turned to see a very tall, extremely handsome man in a lab coat come in the room. “You’re the doctor?” “Yes, but not Nolan. He had to leave. I’m his brother, Burke. I’m a doctor too, as a matter of fact. And we’ve both been at it for some time, I assure you.” She felt her face heat up, but she sat on the edge of the bed near Shane when he asked her to. “Nolan said that you’ve been cut with a switchblade?” “Yes. This older boy at the school, he said that he wanted my money, and since I don’t have a lot, he got a lot of blood on him for nothing. And I think I might have hurt him a little too.” She was surprised to hear the man say good, but before she could say anything to him, Shane continued. “Nolan said that I should have told my aunt the truth from the start and it might not have gotten this far.” “More than likely not. When my brothers and I fight, we are usually pretty rough about it. One time when my brother Micah and I had this huge fight, my mom hosed us down with the kitchen sink thing. It sure made us pay attention when she told us to take it outside next time.” Shane laughed, and Rylee could see the woman she’d met doing something like that. “Okay, young man. How about we get you put back together? Ms. Cole, you can stay or not, but the nurse is going to give him something to relax him a bit.” As soon as she nodded to Shane that it was okay, the nurse wiped a swab over his arm and stuck him. In minutes, he was closing his eyes and was asleep in no time. She looked at the doctor, worried, when he stood up. She stood as well. “Nolan seems to think there is more to this than a cut arm. He asked me to have a look when you got here so that…he didn’t want you to think that we had done this to him when he came in this way. I assure you, we’d never harm him. May I?” Nodding again, she moved back out of his way when he stood over her nephew and watched the doctor lift Shane’s shirt up. “Just as he said it might be. I’m afraid he’s going to need more than some stitches, Ms. Cole. He’s going to need the hospital.” She could only stare at the bruising on his ribs and the blood from several other cuts that seemed to stretch up to his throat and shoulders. When Burke pulled up Shane’s pant legs too, she could see where he’d been kicked, his legs scraped and bruised a great deal. Sitting down again, she had started to cry when someone was suddenly holding her. Sobbing into the shoulder of Mrs. Bentley was the best thing that had happened to her in months. Being held like this made her cry harder.