Three months later: December
“Will you stop hovering, goddammit?” Zane was literally two seconds away from jumping out of the damn bed and showing his brother exactly what he thought of him acting like a fucking mother hen. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”
“Actually, no.” Braydon grinned, and Zane wanted to punch him. Square in the mouth. “I’ve dedicated my entire morning to seeing your pretty face.”
Fucking perfect. “Fantastic.”
Just what he needed—a fucking babysitter.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Braydon added in that facetiously cheerful tone that made Zane’s hands clench into fists.
He knew damn good and well why Braydon was there. For the same reason at least one of his six brothers visited him each day—so he didn’t just walk out of the damn prison that was disguised as a hospital. The one he’d been sentenced to for the last three months.
“Well, you should find somewhere to go then, before I get out of this bed and kick your ass,” Zane told him.
“I’d like to see you try.” The same cocky grin Zane saw, more often than not, on one of the twins’ faces reflected back at him. Only when Braydon did it, he managed to get under Zane’s skin like no one else.
Zane growled in response to the dare.
Little did his older brother know, but Zane was finally capable of doing just that. Well, the getting-out-of-bed part anyway.
For the last two months, ever since he’d come out of his coma, Zane had been working like a maniac to get his body back to where it was before the brutal attack that had left him temporarily unable to walk, along with other things. Aside from the multitude of broken bones—all of which had healed nicely during his three-month vacation in the hospital—Zane had been diagnosed as having a severe traumatic brain injury. And in case the doctors didn’t know, that wasn’t something that should have been shared with his six older brothers. They’d had a field day trying to convince the doctors and nurses that he’d been born that way.
After three and a half weeks in a coma, Zane had woken up only to find that he wasn’t able to do some of the things he had taken for granted most of his life. Both walking and talking had been on that list, if only for a brief time. After two months of rigorous physical therapy and, finally, a much-anticipated breakthrough, Zane could do pretty much everything he had before the attack. Only it required a little more effort on his part.
Aside from the emotional scars, Zane had healed rather well. A couple of physical scars that were visible with his clothes on would remind him and his family of what he’d been through. Nothing significant. Although the small three-inch scar beside his left eye was a glaring reminder of the payback that was due.
For the last week, he had even been allowed to do some strength training exercises that weren’t reserved for children or the elderly. And now he was feeling as though he could take on the world. Bench pressing three hundred and fifty pounds again might take more time than he’d originally expected, but he was working on it. Not that he would let his therapist know that.
Regardless, Zane was on the path to a full recovery and, quite frankly, he was ready to move on with his life . . . right out the front doors of the hospital. It’d taken some time to win over Dr. Canton, the frustratingly patient doc who’d been by his side for longer than either of them had probably expected. To his relief, the good doctor had finally told him today was the day. The day they were finally letting him go home. So, yes, Zane knew full well that Braydon was there to ensure he didn’t get any bright ideas about running out of the building like a madman.
The thought had crossed his mind a time or two.
Along with spending the better part of these last few months focusing on his recovery, Zane had also been battling an overwhelming sense of violence—the kind that would certainly get his ass thrown in jail for manslaughter. His temper was only exacerbated by the memories of what that bastard Jake Sanders’s buddy had done to Vanessa when Jake and his friends had nearly beaten Zane to death in a surprise attack on V’s front lawn.
Don’t get him wrong, Zane knew better than anyone that his condition could have been much, much worse. He was more than grateful just to be alive, and to have his body and mind in one piece was an even bigger reason to send up prayers of thanks, but that didn’t stop the blinding fury that now pulsed right along with his heartbeat.
If it hadn’t been for his mother, Zane would’ve probably gone AWOL by now. The look in Lorrie Walker’s crystal-blue eyes and the tears that continued to swim in them weakened Zane even more than the combination of tire irons and being out of it for almost a month. So, here he was, wishing like hell he had managed to control his temper better. At least then his brothers wouldn’t know how pissed off he truly was. Not that hiding anything from them was easy. As he’d spent the last two months getting reacquainted with his wild and crazy brothers, Zane had managed to fill up his TMI quota for the year. He was pretty sure Sawyer was out to win the title of most ludicrous of them all. The man had mental issues.
“You talk to V lately?” Now it was Braydon’s turn to ask questions.
“Not today, no.” Zane hadn’t talked to V face-to-face in two months, actually. They’d texted back and forth a couple times, but even those messages had significantly declined in recent weeks. He’d been lucky yesterday because she had actually responded to two of his texts.
Ever since the day he woke up to find V sitting by his bedside, holding his hand, her tears dropping onto his fingers, Zane hadn’t seen her either. That day had been the one and only time he had physically laid eyes on her while he had been in the hospital, although his mother said V had remained by his bedside from the minute his parents gave the hospital permission to let her see him until the moment he woke up.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to speak for the first couple of days that he was awake, but he found a way to communicate as soon as Sawyer offered up his cell phone. For those two days, that was exactly how Zane communicated with everyone. Including V. The only difference was that once he was coherent and finally able to talk, he’d had the honor of speaking to every single member of his family; his best friend, Beau; and even Zoey, his brother Kaleb’s fiancée, on a daily basis. But he hadn’t yet been able to say two words to V in person.
And since he’d come to, she’d become even less responsive as each day passed, to the point where Zane had started texting her less frequently. His attempts at interrogating both Zoey and Beau hadn’t worked either. Neither of them shared much information with Zane when he asked. The only thing he managed to pull out of Zoey was that V was doing fine and that she felt responsible for what had happened to him, which she seemed to be having a hard time dealing with.
Her being responsible was so damn far from the truth, Zane had been livid when Zoey had told him, and from what he remembered, he had told her as much. That might explain why V wasn’t showing her face or answering when he called. At least he hadn’t been stupid enough to leave her a voice mail telling her what he thought. It wasn’t V’s fault. That bastard Jake Sanders was responsible.
And his pussy-ass friends.
It had taken a couple of weeks after he woke up for Zane to remember what had happened. Once he did, the images continued to sneak up on him at the most inopportune times. Just thinking about how they came at him, all four armed with fucking tire irons, still pissed him off. But Zane wasn’t all that worried about Jake and his band of losers. Not a single one of them had shown his face in town since that day, and he figured it would be a long time before they did.
Especially since word was out that Travis Walker, Zane’s oldest brother, was looking for them.
But Trav wasn’t going to be the only Walker looking for them. As soon as Zane was able to walk out of the hospital on his own two feet, he vowed to apply a little Walker retribution of his own.
As it turned out, that day was today.
“So you haven’t heard that Jake contacted her?” Braydon said, and Zane turned to look at him.
“Kaleb mentioned it this morning. V seems to be blowing it off, but Zoey’s really worried.”
“What the hell did he say?”
“Don’t know for sure, but apparently he got her phone number somehow. Looks like he might’ve been the one behind the texts she was getting, too,” Braydon stated calmly, as though they were talking about the weather, sitting in the guest chair with his attention divided between the silent television and Zane’s face.
“Texts? When did she start receiving them?” What the fuck? No one had told him anything about any damn texts.
Braydon managed to pry his face away from the television long enough to look back at Zane, but turned back again.
Fucking hell. Having a conversation with Braydon, or Brendon, for that matter, took a considerable amount of effort. Their attention spans were so damn short, it was a miracle they remembered their own fucking names.
“Don’t know. Ask her.”
He would ask her if she would answer her damn phone.
Zane grabbed his cell phone from the rollaway bedside table and ran through his contacts. With surprisingly nimble fingers, he typed out a text.
You better get your ass here to pick me up, or I’m walking.
Zane had had enough of this hellhole. If luck was on his side, Travis would answer the text quickly, because it was time for Zane to blow this joint.
AN HOUR AND a half later, and not a second too soon, Zane was following Travis out into the brilliant Central Texas sunshine. He didn’t look back at the hospital, just continued to move his feet forward. His oldest brother had been kind enough to bring Zane a pair of jeans, his boots, and a T-shirt, and for the first time in a long time, he actually felt like himself.
He’d been wearing his own clothes for the last month and a half while he was in the hospital, but never more than sweats or shorts. He figured there wasn’t any reason to get dressed more than that because someone was always poking and prodding or sending him down to the rehabilitation center for a few minutes of “activity.”
The weather had changed a bit since he went in. No longer was it oppressively hot. Instead, it was mildly warm, but that’s what was to be expected in Texas. They didn’t have harsh winters because the severe weather was reserved for the blistering summers. Even in December he didn’t need a jacket. However, that could change overnight.
When they approached Travis’s Silverado pickup, Zane suddenly missed his own Jeep. It was strange to be outside, and even more so to be climbing into a vehicle. Three months was a long damn time to be cooped up inside a building, never allowed to go too far because he was pretty sure they feared he’d run.
“Need help getting in?” Travis smirked as he moved around to the driver’s door.
Zane grinned, shot Travis the finger, but didn’t say a word.
He never would’ve thought it possible, but he had missed his brothers harassing him. Being the youngest of seven, he was intimately familiar with the constant pestering and irritating comments that his brothers bestowed upon him. At twenty-four, he’d had years to get used to it, although that was easier said than done. However, at that moment, Zane didn’t necessarily hate the snide comments he knew would be directed at him. He actually welcomed them. At least for a little while.
“Where to?” Travis asked when they were pulling out of the hospital parking lot a minute later.
“V’s,” Zane said without hesitation. He hadn’t been able to do anything about her avoiding him for the last couple of months, but now that he was out of the hospital, he was the one who would be calling the shots from here on out.
“You sure?” Travis questioned, and Zane immediately hated his brother’s inquisition.
If Zane was smart, he would go home, get his Jeep, and head over to V’s without involving Travis. It was apparent that he needed to acclimate to being out in the real world a little while longer before he opened his big mouth. Before he could say anything more, Travis’s phone was dialing through the Bluetooth speaker in the truck at his brother’s voice command.
“You get him?” Kaleb’s voice reverberated through the interior of the truck, and Zane rolled his eyes. He was fucking twenty-four years old, and it still galled him how much his brothers tried to baby him.
“Yep,” Travis replied.
“Y’all do realize I’m sitting right here?” Zane glared at his brother.
Travis didn’t even bother to look at him, but both Kaleb’s and Travis’s laughter filled the truck.
Zane couldn’t help but smile.
It felt damn good to be back.
V’S PHONE RANG as soon as she walked through her front door. Glancing down at the screen, she noticed it was Zoey, and she wondered if her friend had forgotten something. They’d just spent the better part of the day cleaning houses, so V couldn’t imagine what else they had to talk about that was noteworthy enough for her to call so soon.
“Hey!” V greeted Zoey when she answered the phone. “Miss me already?”
“I always miss you.” V could hear the smile in Zoey’s voice, but it didn’t help to explain what she was calling about.
“Kaleb just told me that Zane got released from the hospital today.”
Wow. V had to sit down for a second. “Already? The doctors think he’s ready?”
“It would seem so. He’s been officially released, and Travis picked him up just now.”
“That’s fantastic.” V knew her tone didn’t back up the words she muttered, but she was having difficulty breathing. It truly was terrific that Zane was finally coming home, but V had been dreading this day for too long to actually be excited about it.
“He wants Travis to take him to your house, V.”
The words out of Zoey’s mouth were like a punch to the solar plexus, leaving V feeling even more out of breath than she already was. And a little dizzy.
“No. He can’t come here.”
He couldn’t. Not after what had happened. Not after Jake Sanders and his friends had beaten the shit out of Zane right there in her front yard. V still couldn’t come and go through her front door without seeing the gruesome image playing through her mind, making her stomach churn and her heart ache. In fact, the overwhelming terror was beginning to wear on her.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to stop him.”
“You have to. Call Travis. Tell him not to bring him over here,” V rambled. “I’ll . . . I’ll meet Zane at his house.”
She might be able to handle that much. Seeing him was going to be hard enough, but she definitely wouldn’t be able to see him at her house.
“Today?” V barely heard Zoey’s question, her head still reeling from the memories flooding her.
V wasn’t sure when a good time to see Zane was, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to put it off much longer. Especially not if he was out of the hospital.
“You have to go see him today, V. I won’t be able to convince him otherwise.”
“Fine,” V huffed. “I’ll go see him in a couple of hours.”
V could hear Zoey’s muffled voice as she plainly told Kaleb what they were talking about.
V held her cell phone to her ear with one hand and her face in the other, her elbows propped on her knees as she sat on her couch. She wasn’t sure how she’d gotten to this point in her life, but for some reason, she couldn’t seem to dig out of the despair that had plagued her ever since that horrific day. The overwhelming sense of responsibility for what happened was almost debilitating in its intensity. All because of that jackass Jake and his big fucking mouth.
V had grown accustomed to being flirted with; she’d even gotten used to the assumptions that most men made because of who her mother was, but it would appear Zane hadn’t been able to brush off the nasty comments the way V had. Instead, he’d confronted Jake in front of a large group of people. That was the day Jake made the threat to not let things go with Zane, one no one paid much attention to because of his history of unsubstantiated threats.
Jake Sanders had grown up with most of them, although he was several years older than V and Zoey. Since he had been held back a couple of years in school, they’d actually attended high school at the same time. He hadn’t been well liked back then, and his reputation hadn’t improved significantly over the years either. He was one of those men who liked to stir up trouble, spouting bullshit whenever anyone was close enough to listen. Most people had learned to tune him out or flat-out ignore him, which was what they had done the day he’d threatened Zane.
She remembered they’d been at Anderson Croft’s mother’s house, trying to clean out the place after the woman spent years hoarding everything she could get her hands on. That particular day had started out like many others; everyone talking, laughing, and actually enjoying what they had set out to accomplish. That was until Jake’s unruly mouth got out of control, like it tended to do.
Jake seemingly had set his sights on her, and V tried to be as polite as she could be, ignoring his snide comments and even avoiding him for a good part of the day. At one point, long after V had refused his numerous advances, he began saying nasty things about V’s mother.
Although the things Jake said about her mother, then about her, had broken her heart, she’d learned long ago not to let the stones shatter the tough exterior she’d carefully erected.
It had taken her a long time to be able to stand up tall and ignore what others said about her mother, some things true, others made up over the years in various versions of one story or another. Living in a small town like Coyote Ridge didn’t make it easy to avoid the various rumors and lies, but V had somehow managed to ignore them.
Zoey’s voice broke through her thoughts, and V stood up, shaking off the despair that threatened to consume her all over again.
Taking a deep breath, she answered as strongly as she could, “I’m here.”
“There’s one more thing you need to know.”
V wasn’t sure she could handle any more grim news, and Zoey’s tone didn’t sound like she was about to tell her that she’d won the lottery or something equally exciting.
It seemed as though bad news was all she was getting these days, and it was certainly having an impact on her mood. How was she supposed to fake the happy-go-lucky girl when everything was practically crumbling around her?
“What?” she finally asked when she felt she could handle whatever Zoey was going to throw at her.
“Braydon told Zane about Jake harassing you.” Zoey didn’t sound happy, not that V expected her to.
“Dammit.” V knew she shouldn’t have said anything to Zoey.
“I’m sorry, V. I told Kaleb because I thought someone needed to know. This is serious. Look what he did to Zane.”
V didn’t know what to say to that. It wasn’t like she’d told Zoey not to say anything, although, looking back on it now, she should have.
“You need to be careful, V. About Jake. He’s crazy.”
The man was crazy all right. And homicidal. What he had done to Zane wasn’t just a warning. He and his friends had beaten Zane so badly, V was certain if she hadn’t been there to alert her neighbors, they probably would have killed him.
“And Zane’s changed,” Zoey continued. “He’s not the same man he was before. His brothers are keeping an eye on him.”
She had purposely stayed away from Zane for the last couple of months, choosing to find out how he was doing by asking Zoey or Beau. Zane’s reputation was as more of a fighter than a lover, unlike most of his brothers. He had a short fuse to begin with and a protective streak a mile wide. V hadn’t wanted to provoke the first, and she didn’t deserve the second, so she had avoided him at all costs.
Zane wasn’t a man to mess with. He didn’t have the laid-back country-boy attitude that Kaleb and Sawyer did, and he wasn’t a fun-loving attention grabber like the twins, Braydon and Brendon, either. Zane Walker was edgy. He was hard, and what made it worse, he was infused with a passion so fierce, those he cared about risked getting burned from time to time.
“I’ll go talk to him.” V could do that much.
With a quick good-bye, she hung up the phone and dropped it onto the couch cushion as she paced back and forth.
Why did Zane have to be so damn stubborn?
Why did she have to care about him so much?
It wasn’t like the past couple of months had been easy on her. She’d stayed away out of necessity, not because she’d wanted to. There were times it had been so damn difficult to ignore Zane’s phone calls and texts, but she had managed, for the most part.
On occasion, she would break down and answer, but that was usually after she’d spent hours thinking about him. Since the day he woke up, V had refused to go back to the hospital to see him, mostly because she feared she wouldn’t be able to walk away. She refused to get too attached to a man who would eventually slip right through her fingers. She wasn’t interested in forever, and Zane wasn’t the forever kind of guy.
Before the assault, they had shared a few memorable moments together. Most of them resulted in the two of them being naked, or close to it. Not that V was complaining. Considering she hadn’t had sex with anyone other than Zane in the last two years, she welcomed those memories. Especially now, after three months of celibacy, when she wondered if she would ever have sex again.
V wasn’t naive enough to believe she could keep Zane at arm’s length, no matter how much her heart begged her to. Now that he was out of the hospital, she was going to have to see him. She just hadn’t expected to have to see him so soon.
Moving toward her bedroom, V checked the front door one more time to make sure it was locked. She did that frequently these days. To the point that she was beginning to wonder whether she had OCD. She knew her nerves were primarily the reason for her sudden paranoia, but she still worried.
Once in her bedroom, V shut and locked her bedroom door as well before moving to the closet. She wanted to shower before she went to see Zane. With a full day’s worth of dirt and grime caked on her skin, she clearly needed some time to freshen up. Not to mention maybe an hour or two to steel her resolve.
She was going to see Zane today.
If she wasn’t happy about that, then why did her stomach churn with anticipation?