When We Fall (A Last Frontier Lodge Novel) - J.h. Croix - ebook

A steamy, full-length, standalone romance with a guaranteed HEA from Bestselling author J.h. Croix! If you like smoking hot romance with alpha men and strong women, you’ll love this series! Sometimes when you stumble and fall, you discover who’s there to catch youLacey Adams runs at life full bore. She’s a tomboy of the highest order and doesn’t think twice about striding deep into the wilds of Alaska to lead backcountry hikes. She lives and breathes independence and doesn’t rely on anyone. Until life throws her a curveball, and she falls right into the arms of Quinn Haynes.Quinn is conveniently strong enough to catch Lacey’s fall. He also happens to be an old friend whom she just noticed is way to sexy for her own good. How Lacey managed to get by without ever noticing Quinn was smoking hot, she didn’t know. Now, every time he’s near, she’s afraid she might melt into a puddle.Quinn is returning home to Alaska after a few years away finishing his medical degree. Lacey might have never noticed him, but he most definitely noticed her. She’s just about the most beautiful woman he’s ever known, her strength and fearlessness so sexy she takes his breath away. He’d long ago given up ever thinking he might have a chance with her. Until one kiss from her sends his tamped down desire up in flames.Lacey falls into Quinn’s arms for all the wrong reasons, but neither one of them can turn away from the sparks flying between them. Meanwhile, Lacey is facing down a challenge to the strength that defines her and finds herself turning to Quinn for support in ways she never imagined.Can Lacey let down her guard and allow herself to fall in more ways than one? Can Quinn convince her that what lies between them is worth it?*All novels in this series are full-length standalone novels with an HEA.

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When We Fall

A Last Frontier Lodge Novel

J.H. Croix


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20


Excerpt: Hold Me Close by J.H. Croix; all rights reserved

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About the Author

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 J.H. Croix

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1537217534

ISBN 13: 9781537217536

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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To all those who face the medical curveballs life can throw our way with bravery, humility and incredible strength.

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Chapter 1

A rock came tumbling down the steep mountainside, bouncing off a tree as it hurtled down the partially wooded slope. Lacey Adams heard it and quickly glanced up to see it heading straight for her. She scrambled out of the way, only to lose her footing on the gravelly trail and crash to the ground onto her hip. “Oomph!”

“How’s it going up there?” Quinn Haynes called out.

“Just fine!” Lacey called in reply, gritting her teeth against the sharp pain in her hip. She knew she’d be fine once she got back on her feet, so she didn’t think it was worth the bother to whine about her fall. She waited until the boulder came to a thudding stop against a spruce tree at the bottom of the slope before pushing herself up on her hands. Once she was standing again, she took stock and figured she’d have a hell of a bruise on her hip when they got to camp tonight.

Otherwise, it was all in a day’s work for her. She and Quinn were leading a guided photography trip in Katmai National Park, deep in the wilderness of Alaska. Katmai was renowned for its remote beauty and particularly for the brown bears that frequented the famed Katmai River Falls where remote video cameras recorded the massive bears feeding off salmon running through the river. Lacey had led several trips here over the years with the area popular for wilderness lovers. The falls were carefully managed with electric fences and viewing platforms positioned at safe distances, curbing the danger that normally came with being in such proximity to bears. They were many miles away from the river falls right now and trekking deep into the wilderness with a group of wildlife photographers committed to more pure forms of photography, namely capturing wildlife in more challenging circumstances than the convenient viewing platforms by the falls.

She’d volunteered to check this trail out before they took the group along this route to reach another mountain peak ahead. She’d confirmed what they suspected—the trail had been mostly washed out by the spring thaw when the melting snow turned into raging streams. The gravel here was loose, along with the rocks up above. If Lacey had her way, they’d take the slightly longer route through the trees. In her years of backcountry guiding, she’d learned it was usually wiser to go slow than to take potentially risky shortcuts. It was one thing to risk her own injury, another to risk that of her clients. She ran her own small business from Diamond Creek, Alaska and often paired with other guides she knew from her years of working in the wilds of Alaska. Quinn Haynes was an old friend and occasionally joined her on these trips. She hadn’t seen him in over two years when they confirmed this trip. He’d taken a break from guiding to finish his medical degree. Now, he had a fancy title to go with living on the edge. He’d spent the last year overseas providing medical care in war torn regions.

Lacey carefully made her way back down the mountainside and met Quinn at the bottom where he was waiting. Their clients had taken a short hike to a nearby field to watch and wait for wildlife to pass by, hoping for anything from wild birds to moose to bears to give them a chance for some good photos. Quinn grinned when he saw her. “I’m guessing we won’t be using that shortcut. You okay?”

She had a slight limp from her hip’s collision with the rocky ground. She figured it would work itself out once they got moving again. The pain had dulled to an ache already. “I’m fine. The slope is rocky and loose. Let’s take the longer way through the trees. Aside from not wanting anyone else to fall on their tail, I’d rather not worry about the expensive cameras they’re hauling.”

Quinn’s amber hair glinted in the morning sun when he nodded. His eyes, almost a precise match with his hair, coasted over her. “You sure you’re okay? You’ve got quite the limp.”

Lacey sighed, slightly annoyed with his concern. “I’m fine. Give me a few minutes.”

He turned to walk at her side when she reached him. They walked back toward the camp at a leisurely pace. Lacey’s hip started to loosen as she’d predicted. By the time they arrived at camp, her limp had almost disappeared. Quinn strode to his tent and came out with a thermos.

“Coffee for you,” he said as he handed it over with a grin.

Lacey plunked down in a camp chair and unscrewed the thermos lid. The coffee was plenty warm and dark. After a long swallow, she sighed and leaned back. “Thanks. I forgot you somehow manage to make the best coffee even when we’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Quinn chuckled and sat down across from her in another folding chair, his rangy form barely fitting in the chair. Lacey caught herself when her eyes began a slow investigation of Quinn. She didn’t know what it was because she’d known Quinn for years, but ever since he’d met her at the start of this trip, she was uncomfortably aware of how handsome he was. He was in superb physical condition, rugged and fit, every inch of him honed muscle. His skin was bronzed from days living in the outdoors. He was a man who threw himself into whatever environment he happened to be in—whether it was the wilderness of Alaska, the beaches of a remote island, or the desert somewhere.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t noticed he was handsome before, but she’d never had any physical response to him until this trip. The last few days had been downright annoying for her. If she had a few spare minutes and he was nearby, he was like a magnet for her eyes and her body hummed with a buzz of awareness. She mentally shook herself and lifted her eyes above the trees. It was early fall, yet still quite warm for Alaska. The sun was up, brightening the snow-covered mountain peaks of the Aleutian Range. Conveniently, the wilderness gave her plenty to stare at other than Quinn.

They sat in the quiet with nothing other than the sound of water sliding over rocks in the background. A stream was close to their camp, offering a place to bathe and easy water access for drinking and cooking. They had two more nights here before they hiked out.

Later that afternoon, Lacey was leading the way back from their hike when both of her knees buckled suddenly. Weakness like she’d never felt before crashed through her body. She stumbled sideways and gripped a tree to steady herself. She was startled at the feeling, but steeled herself to will it away. After several deep breaths, she felt almost normal, so she pushed off the tree and began walking again. She glanced behind her to see Quinn had stopped with their group and was pointing at something in the distance. He was a veritable font of information about the geology of Alaska, so he was an extra plus as far as customers were concerned. She breathed a sigh of relief because it didn’t appear any of them had noticed her stumble.

That night after the four photographers had retired to their tents, she glanced over at hers and sighed. Sometime during the hike away from camp, some type of animal, likely a marmot, had shredded a corner of the tent door, just enough to tear the fastener to the tent pole. Now, the tent leaned drunkenly to one side. That meant she would be sharing Quinn’s tent tonight. Not such a great plan if her body’s reaction to the idea told her anything. The moment she’d heard Quinn chuckle and comment she’d be sleeping with him tonight, heat had rolled through her body in a flash. She needed to get over this weird attraction to him as soon as possible. She didn’t really do the whole relationship thing—too messy, too inconvenient. She’d also found that men tended to shy away from her anyway. She was too much of a tomboy.

She’d temporarily considered just sleeping outside under the stars, but that wasn’t smart. Autumn nights were cold out in the wilderness and while a tent didn’t offer too much protection, it was better than nothing. She looked across the dying fire to Quinn. His features were shadowed in the dim light, his amber hair gilded with gold in the flickering firelight. He glanced up and caught her eyes. For a flash, she thought she saw something in his gaze, but he shuttered it and his usual teasing smile hooked the corners of his mouth.

“I’m about to crash. You want me to help drag your sleeping bag in the tent?”

She stood swiftly. “Nah. I got it. Mind putting the fire to bed while I do that?”

She heard him stand as she strode toward her torn tent. She gathered her sleeping bag and carefully tidied up her backpack before carrying everything over to Quinn’s tent. He was using a stick to sift through the coals and push them down into the pile of ash. Moments later, she was kneeling over trying to straighten out her sleeping bag when she heard the tent zipper. She scrambled to turn around. In her rush, she found herself a mere inch or so from his face. For a beat, she wanted to close the space and see if his lips felt as good as they looked—full and sensual against his strong and masculine features.

Instead she scrambled back with her heart beating staccato in her chest and that inconvenient desire flooding her. Quinn merely grinned and crawled into the tent beside her. Without a word, he yanked his t-shirt off and slipped into his sleeping bag.

“G’night,” he said, his voice gruff.

She could hear the smile in his voice because that’s how he always was. Everything held a hint of fun for him. Meanwhile, he’d left her dry-mouthed and nearly panting at the glimpse of his chest—all sculpted muscle and a true six-pack of abs. She’d seen him shirtless before, but she’d never thought much of it. What the hell was wrong with her? She shook her head and slipped into her own sleeping bag, grateful she’d be cocooned away from his body through the night.

She woke hours later, her hand—oh my god!—her hand was sliding over the hard planes of his chest. While somehow, her tank top had slid up and she was draped over him, one of her bare breasts pressing against his side and his hand cupping her bottom. She had absolutely no idea how they ended up tangled together like this, but both of their sleeping bags were unzipped and one of her legs was thrown over his. It felt sooo good to be close to him like this, her body was nearly aflame with need. This was not good, definitely not good.

Quinn came to slowly and realized he was rock hard with need and Lacey was draped all over him. He felt her lush bottom under his palm and almost groaned at how good it felt. Lacey Adams had been forbidden fruit for as long as he’d known her. She was always all business when she was around him, so he’d done his best to snuff out his body’s reaction to her. Lacey was a good friend, and he respected her completely. She was a strong woman through and through, and he valued their friendship. He’d tucked his desire away, even though it occasionally made itself known anyway. But he couldn’t help himself from appreciating how damn tempting she was with her auburn hair, her bright green eyes, and her body, which was nothing short of a work of art. She was completely fit. Her life demanded it with her years of leading hikes, dog sledding trips, cross-country skiing and then some in the wilderness. Somehow though, she retained her femininity with an hourglass figure, lush breasts and generous hips to soften her athletic build.

To wake with her like this sent his body and mind into all kinds of wild imaginings. Suddenly she stiffened against him. Ah hell, she was awake and now he had to find a way to be a gentleman about this. Because unless she made it crystal clear she wanted something more, he’d try to respect their friendship. Her hand stilled on his chest and she slowly lifted her head.

“Um, I’m not sure how this happened,” she said, her words rough with sleep.

Seeing as he knew damn well she could feel his hard cock against the leg she’d thrown across him, he couldn’t really deny his state. He chuckled. “Me neither.”

Her eyes lifted and met his in the dark. He’d give anything for just enough light to be able to read her gaze. With his pulse thundering and lust lashing at him, he held his breath and willed his body under control.

She shifted her leg off of him. The feel of her silky skin sliding over his only served to tighten the need clawing at him. She slowly untangled herself from him, and he reluctantly let his hands ease off of her. She sat up and tugged her tank top down and looked over at him again. “Didn’t mean to climb all over you like that,” she said, her tone sheepish.

He aimed for nonchalant. “No need to apologize. We were asleep.” He left unsaid the fact he would have happily allowed her to climb all over him again, but he sensed he needed to bide his time if he was ever to have a chance with Lacey.

She was quiet for several beats before she spun around and slipped back inside her sleeping bag. “Right, we were sleeping,” she said softly.

He listened to the sound of her breathing as she drifted back into sleep. He lay in the dark, wide-awake as his body settled down. The hot lust surging through him gradually ebbed away. His mind tumbled with questions, wondering if the response he sensed from her was genuine, or his own wishful thinking. An owl called in the trees nearby with another owl returning the call from a distance. He finally managed to fall back into a light sleep.

The following morning, Quinn woke before Lacey. He rolled his head to the side, a smile curling at the sight of her. Her auburn hair lay in a tousle around her face and shoulders. She was on her side facing him with her hands tucked under her chin. Her full lips were relaxed and tiny freckles were scattered across the bridge of her nose and cheeks. He resisted the urge to lean over and kiss her. As if she sensed him looking at her, her eyes opened, green with flecks of gold and bright in the gray light of dawn.

“Morning,” he said.

She shifted onto her back and stretched before rolling to face him again. “Good morning. How long have you been awake?”

“Just a few minutes.”

“How’s your hip?”

She moved her legs and shrugged one shoulder. “A little sore, but that’s all.”

She pushed up on one hand and crossed her legs under her. Her hair draped around her shoulders, long waves falling around the curves of her breasts, which were inconveniently on display in her fitted tank top. She leaned over and dug around in her backpack, tugging out a flannel button-down shirt, which she threw over her shoulders. He watched while she shimmied into a pair of fleece leggings. She glanced over her shoulder as she slid her feet into a pair of lightweight boots. “Don’t suppose you’ll be making coffee this morning?”

He grinned. “No need to ask.”

She returned his grin and unzipped the tent flap, disappearing through it. He dug through his own backpack and tugged out another set of clothes. Moments later, he was lacing up his boots when he heard a shuffling sound and then a thump. Lacey’s sharp cry was distinct. He scrambled out of the tent to find her on the ground by the blackened fire circle.

Peter and Chad, two of the photographers on the trip with them, were nearby. Chad was leaning over beside Lacey. “You okay?” he asked.

Quinn raced to Lacey’s side, kneeling down. “What happened?” He tried to keep the alarm out of his voice.

Lacey had fallen in a tangle, her legs crossed at the ankles. She started to move, all but swatting Chad and Quinn away, but her hand flopped on the ground. Quinn eased an arm around her back, propping her weight against him. “Easy. Tell me what happened.”

Lacey shook her head. “I can’t see well. Everything’s all blurry.”

Chad caught his eyes. “She said a minute ago that her legs felt tired and then all of a sudden she collapsed.”

Quinn’s doctor brain switched on and he started rifling through possibilities right away. Given her slip yesterday, it could be related solely to that, or it could be something else. Right now, he needed to get her comfortable.

“Let’s get you over to one of the chairs.” He and Chad slowly eased her up.

He could sense her irritation. The fact she didn’t shove them away and stand on her own concerned him. Once she was seated in a camp chair, he stood and glanced around. “Can you grab me that water bottle?” he asked, gesturing to Peter who’d been waiting nearby while he and Chad had helped Lacey to the chair.

Peter snagged the water bottle in question and strode in his direction. Quinn met him on the way. “Notice anything before she fell?” he asked, his voice low.

“Not much more than what Chad said. She mentioned her legs felt tired. Before that, she seemed, I don’t know, kind of out of it. Just for a minute or so and then she fell.”

Quinn nodded as he took the proffered water bottle from Peter, his worry increasing. “Thanks. We’ll give her a few to see if she’s feeling better. Hope you guys don’t mind.”

Peter’s eyes widened. “Of course not! You’ve already given us the best trip we’ve ever had. We’re happy to sit tight as long as we need. Don’t even worry about it.”

“Good to know. Let me see how she’s doing.”

Quinn headed back to Lacey’s side, hooking his hand around a camp chair on the way over and setting it down beside her. “Have some water,” he said, handing her the bottle.

She curled her hand around the bottle and took a long swallow. After she lowered it, he noticed her grip was shaky, so he reached over and took it from her. “How you feeling now?”

She canted her eyes to his and he saw fear in their depths, such an unusual feeling for Lacey, his worry notched higher. “Weird. I feel weird,” she finally said. “After I came out of the tent, I just started to feel funny. One of my legs felt numb and both of them felt weak. For a second, I couldn’t see right and then I just fell. That blurry thing is gone and my legs are starting to feel more normal, but it’s just weird. What the hell happened?”

Quinn’s mind flipped through possibilities, but he didn’t want to go there right now with her. What she described could be minor, or not. The foreboding ‘or not’ wouldn’t be a helpful place for him to explore just now. “Maybe your fall yesterday was a little harder than you thought. Let’s see how you feel after a little bit. You still up for coffee?”

She grinned and nodded emphatically. “That might be just what I need.”

Two days later, Lacey made her way along the gravel path leading to the airstrip that would fly them out of Katmai and back to Anchorage. After her odd episode the other morning, she’d had some of Quinn’s coffee and felt like herself after that. The rest of the trip had been uneventful. Well, they’d had a close encounter with a brown bear and breathed a sigh of relief after they avoided two mama moose and their calves, but that was part of hiking in the wilderness in Alaska. Quinn was taking up the rear as they made their way to the airstrip. She could hear the whirr of the plane’s prop in the distance. She glanced skyward and suddenly her vision blurred again. She stopped right where she was and shook her head. Just like the other day, her legs felt weak and one of them started tingling. “No, no, no, no,” she mumbled to herself. She must have looked up too quickly. That’s probably what happened the other morning. She ignored the weakness and tingling and started walking again. Her right leg wouldn’t cooperate. She felt as if she was dragging it behind her. On sheer will alone, she kept trudging along the path.

Before she knew it, Quinn was at her side, catching her as she fell, his hold so strong and sure. She just let go because she couldn’t hold herself up anymore. The last thing she remembered were Quinn’s amber eyes locking onto hers. “You’re okay. I’ve got you.”

Chapter 2

The whirr of the small plane’s prop drowned out Quinn’s voice. Lacey kept her eyes closed, hoping she could pick up enough pieces of whatever he was saying. She wondered how close they were to Anchorage.

“…could be a few options…she said she didn’t hit her head when she fell the other day…rather not speculate…”

After accepting all she could hear were bits and pieces, she gave up and opened her eyes. She was resting across three of the six seats in the plane. After years of complaining about the cramped space on the small planes that flew over the wilderness of Alaska, she finally got to stretch out all because she’d collapsed. She’d rather be jammed into one of the tiny seats if it meant she could erase the odd episodes she’d experienced over the last few days. She pushed up onto her elbows and looked around. Quinn and Chad were seated on the floor of the plane while the other three photographers were crammed into the remaining seats.

Quinn was facing her, his hands clasped in front of his bent knees. His eyes caught hers, concerned and assessing. “How you feeling?” he asked, as he rolled onto his feet and carefully stood, slipping past Chad who scooted over to make room in the cramped space.

Lacey rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to come rushing over here. I’m only three feet away.”

Quinn chuckled as he sat on the floor beside her row of seats, leaning against the side of the plane. “Would it kill you to accept someone worrying about you?”

She pushed up a little further and slid her back up against the plane. “It wouldn’t kill me, but it annoys the hell out of me,” she said with a sigh. She mentally ran a check to assess how she felt. Once again, she felt fine. She had no idea why she was having these strange episodes of weakness, but she knew she didn’t like it. At all. She caught Quinn’s eyes. “Any idea what’s going on with me?”

She saw a flash of something in Quinn’s eyes. He was quiet for a long moment before he finally spoke. “It’s not going to help for me to speculate. Let’s get you to the hospital when we land and get you checked out. You sure you didn’t hit your head when you fell the other day?”

“I’m sure! I swear. I fell on my hip and that’s it. How could I hit my head and not notice anyway? So if it’s not that, what the hell is it?”

Quinn shrugged. “I’m not trying to piss you off by asking if you hit your head. If you did, it might explain a few things. If not, well, let’s leave it to a doctor.”

“You are a doctor!”

His low chuckle came again, sending a soft shiver through her. Here she was, just coming to after passing out in his arms, a most definitely not sexy moment, and somehow this inconvenient attraction to Quinn kept popping up and surprising her. She mentally shook herself and threw a glare at him.

“Maybe so, but I’m not your doctor.”

“Yeah, but can’t you give me a few ideas? You got your medical degree at Harvard. Surely you have some thoughts about it.” She was relieved to be feeling normal again, but scared inside about the weakness she’d experienced. She wanted answers and wanted them now.

Quinn held her eyes for several beats, his amber gaze concerned and somber. “Lace, there are so many things that could be going on. It’s not worth it to guess until you can get a check up and they can run a few tests. Weakness and numbness can be as simple as a misalignment in your spine. I’m sure you’re freaking out in your head, but don’t make it more than it is.”

Lacey took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh, closing her eyes and swallowing against the worry tightening her throat. She’d always prided herself on being healthy, fit and strong. She did not like wondering why she’d collapsed twice and only escaped collapsing another time because a tree happened to be right beside her. She wanted to believe it was as simple as needing a spinal adjustment, but something told her that wasn’t the case. Opening her eyes, she found Quinn’s warm amber gaze on her. Part of her wanted to allow herself to savor his concern, while another part of her chafed against it. She’d never depended on any man and certainly didn’t want to start doing it now. Most definitely not when she couldn’t make heads or tails of her out of the blue attraction to Quinn.

The last time she’d seen him, she’d felt nothing other than warm camaraderie with him. He was a good friend whom she saw every so often on trips when they both worked for the same wilderness guiding business in Anchorage. Three years ago, he’d returned to Harvard to finish his medical degree and residency overseas after that. He came back to Alaska this year. When he’d offered via email to run this trip with her, she’d been excited. Quinn was easy to work with and she looked forward to seeing him. He’d stepped off the plane in Anchorage, and her body hummed at the sight of him. To make matters worse, she felt vulnerable and out of sorts that he’d gone and saved her from falling on her face on the way to the plane.

He angled his head to the side. “Stop worrying yourself when you don’t even know what to worry about.”

Good thing he couldn’t know she wasn’t just worrying about what was wrong with her, but her body’s reaction to him. She aimed for nonchalant. “I’ll try.”

Quinn rested his elbow on a table in the examination room he’d stepped into to confer with the doctor. Quinn had met Dr. Julia Clark in passing, but he didn’t know her well. She was no-nonsense with her short dark hair, brown eyes and narrow square glasses adding to the overall sense of a completely practical woman. She adjusted her white jacket and pushed her glasses up her nose when she looked over at Quinn.

“Lacey signed a release for me to talk with you, so I thought maybe you could give me an idea of how she’ll handle what I’m about to tell her,” Dr. Clark said.

“Is there a reason you’re concerned?” Quinn countered. His worry for Lacey flared into full-blown dread. He feared Dr. Clark was about to confirm his suspicions.

Dr. Clark pursed her lips and sighed. “Look, I think you probably suspected what I do. We won’t be able to know until she has another episode, but this looks like Multiple Sclerosis. The MRI shows a few brain lesions suggestive of MS. Right now, I’m only noting a single episode, but the MRI gives us a pretty strong clue. I don’t doubt the findings, but I’m guessing your friend is most definitely not going to take this too well.”

Quinn’s chest tightened. Dr. Clark had said aloud the one diagnosis he’d hoped wouldn’t be on the table. He’d meant what he said to Lacey when he’d said her symptoms could be a number of things, but in the back of his mind he’d worried about MS. While he knew many people lived with MS and managed it well, Dr. Clark was discerning enough to notice Lacey’s tendency to rely on her strength. Even if she had MS and even if her MS was symptomatic sporadically with potentially years without symptoms, Lacey would chafe against it. That was only if she didn’t have the misfortune of the more serious type of MS, which could lead to her being wheelchair bound eventually. He forcibly knocked his mind off considering that possibility. Quinn was startled at the depth of his reaction to how Lacey might feel about this, along with the level of concern he felt on her behalf. He was completely unprepared for the tightness around his heart. Lacey was all verve and strength. This possibility struck hard at that.

He looked over at Dr. Clark. “You’re right about that. She won’t be thrilled about any of this.”

Dr. Clark nodded slowly. “Right then. Well, I’ll go talk to her. Don’t suppose you’d like to join me?”

Quinn pushed away from the counter. “If she’s okay with it, sure. Just remember, she’s my friend first, not a patient.”

Only minutes later, Quinn watched Lacey from a few feet away. He shackled the urge to step to the side of the table where she sat and hug her. Her green eyes were wide and disbelieving. The tiny freckles scattered across her cheeks and nose stood out under the harsh fluorescent lights of the examining room. Her eyes flicked to him, to the floor and back to Dr. Clark.

“I don’t understand. You’re saying these, these stupid episodes might mean I have MS, but you’re not giving me a diagnosis yet. You’re saying it’s a…what did you say?” Lacey asked, her tone exasperated.

“Clinically Isolated Syndrome, CIS. That’s the diagnosis when we don’t have enough confirmation to say the disease is progressing. You may never have any other symptoms or episodes like this, in which case this will be a one-off episode. Or, you may experience other episodes. If, and that’s a definite if, that happens, we’ll run more tests and make a determination then.”

Lacey swung one leg back and forth rapidly before she finally nodded. “Right. Okay then, so this is all one big maybe.” She pushed off the table and rubbed her hands together. “Is there anything else before I go?”

Dr. Clark glanced to him, as if looking for help. He shrugged because he knew damn well now wasn’t the time for more discussion. He had to forcibly hold himself back from pulling Lacey into his arms. A sense of protectiveness he’d never experienced washed over him. Dr. Clark looked back to Lacey, her expression soft. “No, nothing else. If you don’t mind, I’d like to touch base with your doctor in Diamond Creek. If nothing else comes of this, it’ll still be good for her to have the MRI results.”

Lacey nodded jerkily. “Fine, fine. I think I already signed a release.”

After a few more moments of stilted conversation while Dr. Clark confirmed she had a release on record, Quinn walked down the long hallway at the hospital with Lacey. Hours earlier, they’d landed in Anchorage and he’d driven straight here. She’d refused to call her family in Diamond Creek, insisting she’d get checked out only so she could prove to him all she needed was a chiropractic adjustment.

Lacey’s arms were clutched around her waist while she all but stalked down the hall. She reached the revolving door that led outside. The door whooshed behind them as they stepped outside. Lacey strode quickly to the parking lot. She turned to face him when she reached his car. When he caught up, he stopped a few feet in front of her. Her eyes bounced to the ground and then back to him. She toed the pavement, idly kicking a rock. “So, I’m not due to fly back to Diamond Creek until tomorrow. Do you want to grab some dinner?”

This conversation probably would’ve happened regardless of this afternoon. Whenever they ran trips, they often had casual meals together. Quinn sensed Lacey needed him not to talk about the discussion she’d just had with Dr. Clark, but rather just do what they would usually do. As much as he wanted to somehow offer comfort, he gathered for now this was the only comfort she would accept. “Of course. Susitna Burgers & Brew?”

At Lacey’s quick nod, Quinn stepped to her side and opened the passenger door to his SUV. Without a word, Lacey climbed in.

Lacey looked across the table at Quinn. Susitna Burgers & Brew was one of the places they’d frequented over the years. In the days since she’d first met Quinn and then they crossed paths in Anchorage whenever they picked up trips together, they often ate here with other friends. Over the last few years, she’d spent less time in the area since she started her own business and Quinn had been away. She traced the edge of her wineglass, enjoying the comfort of being here. Flitting along the edges of her mind was the conversation with the doctor at the hospital. With a mental shake, she focused on Quinn. Her inconvenient attraction to him was suddenly just the distraction she needed. The light caught on his amber hair. His mouth, always in a half-smile, lifted a tad higher. “What?”

She shrugged. “It’s nice to be here. I was trying to remember the last time I ate here. Pretty sure it was with you the summer before you left for your residency back East. We had just finished that trip to the refuge. Remember that couple who wanted to get back to the land?” At his nod, she continued. “After all that, I ran into them in Anchorage the following year and they were moving back to Los Angeles. They said they realized they could have a smaller ecological footprint in an urban area.”

Quinn threw his head back with a laugh. “Seriously? I thought they were going to write a book and everything. So much for that, huh?”

“Guess so,” she said with a laugh. She felt caught in Quinn’s warm cognac gaze, heat rippling through her.

The waiter arrived and quickly cleared their table, leaving the check behind. Within moments, they were walking outside. A chilly autumn breeze gusted across the parking lot. Quinn drove toward the hotel where they had booked a shared suite months ago, long before Lacey had any inkling of her simmering attraction to Quinn. Were it not for the fact she was desperate to forget what the doctor had shared with her today and the churning anxiety she felt every time she thought about it, she’d be planning to run into the hotel and escape to her half of the shared suite. She didn’t want to be alone with her thoughts though.

When they walked into the suite, Lacey tossed her backpack onto the floor in her room. “I’m gonna wash the trip off of me. Wanna watch a movie after?” she asked, nodding toward the television mounted on the wall in the sitting area between their rooms.

Quinn flashed a grin. “Sure thing.”