Can you love someone and still be free?
Emma Wyatt agrees to tutor a recently blinded, embittered soldier because of the $50,000 paycheck his brother offers. The job is an answer to many prayers. Blind herself, Emma dreams of independence and freedom away from her overprotective family. Tutoring Ian in all things “blind” isn’t easy, especially when the biggest challenge is helping him remember to walk by faith.
Protect someone you cannot see?
Good soldiers show no weakness. Ian MacGregor holds his battle with claustrophobia close to his chest, unsuccessfully trying to cope on his own, too angry with God to seek comfort. Ian knows duty, honor, serving his country. So why is he being punished with this very personalized hell?
As Ian struggles to strongarm his phobia, his growing feelings for Emma are overshadowed by the danger lurking around them. Emma would be better off with someone else.
Someone able to protect her from the person determined to keep them apart…
Ian sat in what had become his favorite chair later that afternoon when a sharp knock broke the silence. “Go away.”
The door opened with a noisy rattle of the handle no doubt meant to alert him to the fact he was no longer alone.
“Hey,” Duncan said in greeting. “I’ve brought a visitor.”
“Get rid of them.”
“Emma’s already here. I thought you two could talk.”
Duncan had barely finished the sentence when Ian heard the familiar sound of his brother’s cell phone ringing. That phone was the first thing he’d heard when he’d come to in the hospital. Another indication of the busy life Duncan led as the owner of a major private security company—when he wasn’t babysitting his blind big brother.
“It’s Murdock,” Duncan said. “You want to—”
“No.” He had no interest in talking to his former CO.
Duncan deflated like a balloon, exhaling hard enough to pop a rib.
“Emma, this is my brother, Ian. Hang out for a second while I take care of this, okay?”
Duncan answered the call, his voice fading as he left the room. With every word his brother spoke, Ian’s anger grew.
The sympathy calls from Murdock reminded Ian of what he’d lost and set his temper flaring again.
Silence filled the air, interrupted only by the distant sound of Duncan talking and the rasp of Ian’s fingers against his beard as he rubbed a hand over his face and forced himself to focus on the here and now.
Emma… He didn’t know an Emma. “You’re a nurse?”
“A doctor?” That earned a laugh, and he heard the amusement in her voice as she responded. “No. I’m a waitress most days.”
Most days… What was she on the other days?
The question gave his curiosity a sharp poke. “What’s your name again?” he asked, standing.
“Emma Wyatt. Duncan’s thinking of hiring me to tutor you.”
“Tutor me?” What did Duncan think this was, grade school?
“Yes. You know, to help you cope with your blindness,” she explained. “Learn how to do everyday things without your sight. This meeting is to see if we’re compatible.”
His mood darkened even more at her explanation. Emma Wyatt was nothing but a glorified nanny.
“I’m sure Duncan will explain everything when he returns.” She sounded young. Happy. Way too happy. It was a struggle to keep his anger in check, but he reminded himself Duncan was the source. “I don’t need a tutor. Duncan shouldn’t have wasted your time.”
Wasn’t it enough that the house was already overrun with people? Duncan. His VP, Owen Redd. Quinn. Even his SEAL buddy Jagger planned to visit when he could. Jagger had also gone into Mexico to rescue Kara Winston, but it was amazing how uncomfortable soldiers became when one of their own was taken out of action. Like the bad mojo might rub off on them.
“Your brother disagrees,” she said. “You can discuss it with him when he returns.”
Having gauged the distance between them, Ian reached out, ignoring the rapidly fading buzz from his earlier drinking and the pounding in his head, the craving in his gut that made it clear he needed more. Soon.
He found her arm, a shoulder, and tugged her close, not leaving it to chance that she’d refuse the job offer. He wanted to make sure she said no. “You’re here now. I’m sure we can settle the matter ourselves. You tell me if I need a tutor,” he drawled, pulling her closer still.
“Maybe my little brother knows what I need after all,” he said, lowering his voice as he murmured the insult.
“Don’t be a jerk. I said let go.”
Emma’s shove set him off-balance. He automatically reached out to steady himself and used her to do it. That got him smacked, a hard wallop of a blow that whipped his head to the right and caused his ears to ring.
Great, now he’d be blind and deaf. A regular Helen Keller in combat boots.
“Get your hands off me. I came here for a tutoring job, not to get mauled by you!”
He winced at her tone, her words. Not so soft or sweet now, but he’d obviously succeeded in his goal. She would be leaving. ASAP.
Duncan’s running footsteps echoed down the hallway. The cavalry to the rescue. Just in time to see her out.
“What’s going on?” Duncan demanded.
Ian found the arm of the oversized chair and lowered himself to the surface. “Emma took offense to something I said.”
“I couldn’t leave you alone with her for five minutes? Ian, she’s Bruce Dibbs’ niece.”
Ian stiffened at the news, the recently much-practiced string of curses reappearing in his head. Duncan couldn’t have shared that bit of information right off the bat? “She said you were hiring her for me. What was I supposed to think?”
“To tutor you with your blindness. I was perfectly clear,” Emma interjected.
“Yeah, well, like I said, I don’t need a tutor…” He allowed the words to trail off so both Emma and Duncan would get the hint and leave him alone.
He wasn’t normally crude to the opposite sex, quite the opposite in fact, but he wanted her gone. Now. And since he couldn’t exactly show her to the door without potentially running into it, he had to do something to get rid of her. And make sure she wouldn’t return.
“Oh, I disagree,” Emma countered. “But blindness is the least of your problems. You need a lesson in manners more than anything.”
“We each have our own ways of coping, sweetheart.”
“Ian, what is wrong with you?” Duncan demanded.
More footsteps sounded in the hall, and Ian turned away from them. Was everyone coming to look at the circus freak?
An apology formed on his lips, but he wouldn’t let it fly. She had to go. They all had to leave so he could figure out how to deal with the hand he’d been dealt.
“Owen,” Duncan said, “would you show Emma to the living room and give my brother and me a few minutes alone?”
“No problem. This way,” Owen urged.
Seconds passed before Duncan blew out a lung yet again, a sure indication a lecture brewed.
“What are you doing?”
Ian shrugged. “Wondering what you were thinking when you brought Dibbs’ niece here.”
“Oh, I dunno, Ian, maybe that you need someone to get you out of this room?”
Ian leaned his head against the cool leather. “You need to mind your own business and go back to Atlanta.”
“What do you think I’m trying to do? The problem is I can’t leave you, not like this. You won’t leave the room except to raid the bar at night, you barely eat, and your liver is pickling at the speed of light. I’m just supposed to walk away?”
Ian’s claustrophobia sank its claws ever deeper into his psyche, laughing its devil’s laugh because while he could have had a nice, pleasant conversation with Emma Wyatt, he’d ruined it and was now alone with nothing but a ticked-off brother, undeniable facts, and no route of escape that didn’t involve ping-ponging off the walls and furniture like a blind mouse in a maze.
He swept his right hand out, found the bottle of Smirnoff on the table beside him. Still open from where he’d been drinking it before they’d interrupted him, he heard the alcohol slosh inside the bottle as he slammed the vodka back.
He was tired, frustrated. Mad at himself and sick to death of living in his head. He didn’t need a tutor. What he needed was a knockdown, drag-out brawl. Something to get rid of his rage because he knew exactly what Duncan and the other men saw when they looked at him.
They saw nothing.
A man who used to be capable, a leader, a soldier. A man who used to be. Period.
Now? Ian lifted the bottle, touched the cool edge to his forehead, and pressed hard, until he dug the rim into his skin. Pain was better than nothing. He could deal with pain. Work through it. Block it out.
But no matter what he did, he couldn’t block out the darkness.
Had he really sunk so low as to proposition Dibbs’ niece? Come on to her like some heavy-handed jerk?
“I told myself I’d give you time.”
Ian stilled, lifted his head at the sound of Duncan’s voice. His brother had been quiet so long, he’d wondered if Duncan had gone running after Emma to do damage control.
Ian swallowed the liquid, finishing the bottle off in noisy gulps because he knew it would egg on Duncan’s anger.
“I’ve tried to put myself in your shoes. I’ve looked away, made excuses. I’ve ignored you drinking the house dry of booze so old—”
“Finely aged,” he rasped.
“Enough, Ian. How long are you going to sit there wallowing in your own pity? How long? I promised Dibbs I’d look after Emma, and what did you do?”
He’d shoved Emma away just like he’d shoved Duncan away since the surgery. Better they stay away or risk getting dragged down with him.
“Go ahead. Enjoy yourself,” Duncan ordered, his voice bitter. “But you’d better savor every drop because that’s the last of the easy-access stuff.”
Duncan’s words were slow to sink in, but when they did, Ian stilled and wiped his mouth with his hand as the rush hit his bloodstream. He’d never been one to drink, preferring to keep his mind clear, but now… Coping. This was him coping. Couldn’t Duncan see that? “This is my house.”
Slowly, deliberately, he rolled his head on the smooth leather, toward the sound of Duncan’s voice. “Bring me some wine from the cellar. We both know it’s there.”
Their parents had been wine-snobs, hunting for the best vintages to serve at the many political parties held here back in the day.
Duncan lost it and swore, highly unusual for him and a sure sign that Ian had stoked his little brother’s anger to a fever pitch. Come evening Duncan would be on his knees begging God for forgiveness for the lapse, of that Ian was sure.
He’d prayed, begged, pleaded and cried until there were no words left inside of him.
But nothing had happened.
“No. That’s it. You’re done, Ian. You hear me? Done. I’m sick of this. Stop hiding!”
“Hiding?” he drawled, lifting his hand to indicate the room in all its glory. Not that he could see it. “I’m right here.” He smiled at the way his words slurred. Either he was a little hammered or else Emma Wyatt had gotten in a better shot than he’d thought.
Yeah, his mouth was a little tender. Score one for the wannabe-tutor. “I face reality every day. How am I hiding?” Ian pointed a finger in Duncan’s direction. “If you don’t like seeing me so much, get out and stay out. You brought me home, that’s all I asked you to do.”
“How long do you think you can keep this up?”
“As long as it takes.” As long as it took to numb himself to the fear. As long as it took to figure out a way to survive in his own head since God had abandoned him.
However long it took to get the phobia under control so he could take a breath and not feel like a boa constrictor was wrapped around his neck and chest. The fewer people watching him do it, the better.
Ian moved to set the bottle on the table but missed. The bottle fell to the Egyptian tile floor their mother had fretted and fussed over choosing and landed with the unsatisfying sound of the bottle rolling away. No doubt he’d find it later the hard way.
“I know this hasn’t been easy for you. I know—”
An embittered chuckle rumbled out of Ian’s chest, effectively ending Duncan’s inane comments. Was that the best his little brother could do? All this time since the diagnosis, and that was what Duncan was going with? “You put on a blindfold for a few minutes to see what it’s like?”
“I’d feel the same way. I’d be angry and just as messed up, but you have to deal with this. The guys and I— we’ll help you. Emma will help you.”
“None of you can help me.” Only God could help him but apparently he’d ticked off the Man Upstairs to the point that God wasn’t taking his prayers.
“So you think the alternative is to drink yourself to death?”
Death? No, he wasn’t craving death. Oblivion? Yes. Light? By the grace of God, yes. Those things he craved. Anything to erase the total, all-consuming, clawing-him-to-shreds-from-the-inside darkness swallowing him whole.
Duncan moved closer, and the fact that he dragged his feet and made enough noise to wake the dead and alert the blind was just more proof of how much his brother pitied him.
Ian clenched his hands over the arms of the chair so hard his knuckles popped, and his fingertips went numb. His little brother could take his pity and shove it up his—
“You want me gone, Ian? Make me go. Prove to me you aren’t some pansy who sits on his—”
Ian surged to his feet, arms out. He grasped the material of Duncan’s shirt, and his vodka-hazed mind realized it was only because Duncan let him, but he didn’t care. He hauled his brother close, his anger surging up another notch because baby brother let him do that, too.
“Bring me.” Ian punctuated each word with a shake. “Another. Bottle.”
It was a demand, a plea.
Why couldn’t Duncan or the rest of them understand that, just for a little while, he needed to forget everything? Had to forget in order to create the mental muscle to cope?
“No. This stops now. If it were me, I’d want you to help me. I’d want you to get me help, which is exactly what I’m going to do for you.”
It was a nice sentiment, but there were no magic pills or treatments, no transplants, no surgeries. Short of a miracle, there was no fixing what had been damaged when the post-op clot had obliterated his vision.
Ian gripped Duncan tighter, shook him harder. “Give me what I want.”
“I know you, Ian. Knowing she’s Dibbs’ niece changes things, doesn’t it?” Duncan breathed into Ian’s face. “So now I’m going to do everything in my power to get her to come back and work with you, knowing you’ll leave her alone because you won’t disrespect Dibbs. He’s dying. Did you know that?”
Shock rolled through him. And, much as he hated to admit it, yes, it changed everything.
“Ahh, obviously not,” Duncan said slowly. “Well, it’s true, and in case it hasn’t sunk in, there are people out there like Dibbs who deserve to be acting like their life is over, but you aren’t one of them. You’re just acting like a coward.”
Ian drew back and slugged Duncan at the insult. It was a bad shot, barely connected at all, but he put his weight behind it and caught Duncan by surprise.
The move sent both of them reeling, toppling onto the coffee table that shattered beneath their weight.
Ian’s curses bounced off the walls as he floundered about. He scissored his legs and lucked into catching Duncan behind the knee. Duncan went down but he slipped out of reach. Ian searched for his brother, ripping the air blue when he came up empty. From out of nowhere, Duncan yanked Ian to his feet and shook him like an unruly child.
“You can still be part of things,” Duncan growled. “You can be an example to us all.”
His little brother offered the lies like the proverbial carrot dangling from a stick, but they both knew in their line of work only the best survived. The sighted man, not the blind man who’d always be at a disadvantage, the one who’d always be the weak link. He was many things, but he wasn’t a fool.
But even though he knew the truth of his future, he didn’t want to learn to cope, to be stuck in the dark forever. He’d never shoot with accuracy, couldn’t fly. Couldn’t do what he did best because now…
Now he couldn’t take a leak without wetting his feet.
“You can handle this.” Duncan gripped Ian’s neck and pressed their foreheads together with bruising force, no doubt so Ian couldn’t head-butt him. “You will find a way to handle this because you’re too good a man to act this way. I promise, Ian. I’ll get you the help you need.”
“You know what I need,” he drawled, breathing hard from the brief tussle. More proof that he was out of shape, and the weeks since his release from the hospital had taken a toll.
Duncan shoved him away, and it was all Ian could do to stay on his feet. He staggered and tripped, his hands out like the blindfolded kid playing a game of Catch Me.
One hand hit soft leather still warm from his body, but it was enough to ground him and keep him upright.
“How is drinking yourself stupid going to help?”
“It’s called coping!” He’d never see another thing as long as he lived. A sunset from the cockpit, the moon’s reflection off the ocean’s surface, the ripples in the desert sand. The way sunlight sparkled in a woman’s hair.
He thought of Emma Wyatt and what she’d felt like the brief second he’d held her against him. Dibbs’ niece or not, those few seconds of touch made him want more, a connection to something or someone that could make him forget. Take him out of his head, if only for a little while.
This wasn’t living, wasn’t life. He’d had a life. Guys who spent their days inside staring at a television or on the couch reading, maybe they could cope with blindness a little better, but him? “You won’t bring me booze? Fine.” He waited for Duncan to let down his guard and think he was giving in. When he heard Duncan’s telltale exhale, Ian added, “Bring me a gun instead.”
The silence following his statement was enough to reassure Ian that Duncan understood.
He didn’t mean it—taking the coward’s way out wasn’t something he believed in—but he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t thought more than once that it would’ve been better for him to have died on the operating table than to be the way he was now.
“You did not just say that.”
Twisting the emotional knife, Ian shoved himself upright, desperate enough to push harder, the claustrophobic swamp in his mind closing in from all sides. “All this could be yours, little brother. The estate, the mountain. The money.”
Duncan had always worn his heart on his sleeve. “Think about it. I know how to get the job done and not make it messy. One bullet and—”
Duncan coldcocked him.
All Ian felt was the briefest hint of a breeze as his brother’s fist flew toward his face, pain—then he opened his arms in welcome relief as his phobia lost its hold, and he began a spiraling slide into oblivion.