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At the Edge of a Dark Forest

 

 

 

Cole hobbled up the snow-covered path, his metal crutch doing the work of his missing left leg. He turned to climb the wooded hill to his favorite perch for one last look. Knowing it would take five times as long as it did when he was a kid—having two arms and two legs back then—he scrambled up the frozen incline, using his right arm stump and dragging the crutch along beside him. He’d been a Marine. He’d do this or die.

 

In fact, he was counting on the latter.

 

Cole could never take his own life. Somehow, the thought of his remaining manor staff finding his body didn’t set well with him. Most of them had been on the payroll since before he was born and were more family than his own parents had been. No, he wouldn’t leave his remains for them. But maybe he could challenge God—or at least the elements—enough to where one or the other would finally do the deed.

 

Was that what drove him to this climb during a blizzard in freezing temps? He’d told Mrs. Rivera, the housekeeper, he needed to go camping—a necessary means of transitioning from war to civilian life. Regardless of the fact he’d been transitioning for years now, and hadn’t bothered to pack any gear.

 

She knew not to stop him. Not that she couldn’t, given his current condition. But had she done that, it would have left him feeling more impotent than he did now. He suspected she knelt by her Baby Jesus statue, at this very moment, rolling beads through her fingers as she mouthed the Hail Mary over and over again.

 

Lotta good that would do.

 

Cole’s moments “transitioning” only doubled in frequency rather than dwindled. He’d started back when he still wore a prosthetic arm and leg, but after months subjecting them to the cold and rain, night and day, they rubbed against his skin, chafing and burning, making him feel more caged than free. He’d finally chucked them over a precipice one morning, vowing never to wear any fake parts again.

 

He’d kept that vow. This was who he was. Not just after the IED, but before. Half a man. He’d always been half a man, scarred and disfigured. Only now his outsides displayed what his insides always suspected. No one knew that better than Beckett. And still Beckett had …

 

He shook the thought from his mind as he scrambled higher to reach the perch that once made him feel king of the mountain. He could oversee his entire domain—the family’s wooded acreage that rose and fell at angles as far as he could see. Now his. Solely his. No one left to share it with—except those he paid.

 

Today he didn’t feel like a king. He made his way up the hill like a slithering beast, rustling through the powdery snow. The thump of the intact limb, then a pulling and dragging of the other through the slush. His body left a trail like a snake. That trail would soon be covered by the precipitation falling unceasingly on this night.

 

He reached the top and spied the mountain road that meandered far below. A snowplow’s headlights traveled its length as it temporarily cleared the ice. No other lights followed. No one dared.

 

Cole collapsed into the plush snow, face to the emptying black sky. Snowflakes enlarged as they fell from the darkness into his eyes. Maybe his limbs—those left—would go numb before he froze to death. Would it be painful? He didn’t know. He’d never experienced these kinds of elements in combat. He’d been more used to the heat—blistering heat. Heat so bad it made his vision blur, waves of air that crinkled ahead of him.

 

Boom!

 

He jolted at the vision of the IED bursting into flames. That had been real heat! In one instant Lance Corporal Beckett Forsythe had been beside him. The next—nothing but parts. And Cole had been left missing a few of his own.

 

Was that sweat dripping down his back in these frigid temps? More droplets formed icicles on his forehead. He struggled to slow his breaths, hoping his heartbeat would do the same. He lay back against the fluffy snow again. It wouldn’t take long. The fingers on his left hand were already growing numb. He’d read somewhere people often hallucinated before hypothermia set in. Nothing new.

 

Crash!

 

Cole bolted up, wishing the visions weren’t so real. But this didn’t come with a vision. He looked around, fully aware of the frozen forest beneath his body and the vibration that had emanated with the sound.

 

He scrambled upright, pulled at his metal crutch, and rose to standing. Down the steep slope of the hill, a gouge in the guardrail opened to a trench through the snow. At the bottom lay a car mangled against a tree—its headlights a beacon to whomever might pass by.

 

No one would. Not on this night. Many roads had already been closed and only emergency vehicles and snow removal trucks traveled the others.

 

The only chance the driver had was Cole. Some chance. But Cole would not sit back and do nothing. He had to at least try to help. He couldn’t let anyone else die just because he wanted to. Do or die trying. The latter still sounded best, but now he needed the former more.

 

He slid down the steep hill, using his crutch like a ski pole, guiding his trajectory toward the wreckage. Snow packed in under his jacket, melting into his skin. He shivered out the cold he had previously been inviting.

 

At the bottom he drove the crutch into the earth and pulled up. Under trees, the snow measured inches rather than feet. He could get to the disabled vehicle and check on the driver.

 

Flexing the fingers of his left hand, he worked out the numbness and cursed his luck. Why’d this jerk have to come out on this night, in this storm, on this mountain?

 

He trudged toward the car and peered inside. The driver blinked rapidly, his head swinging around as if coming out of a daze. He banged the deflated airbag at the wheel with his fist.

 

Cole pulled his wool cap lower against the scars running from his scalp into his face, and knocked on the window. The man jumped and turned, eyes white in their largeness.

 

“Let me help you.”

 

The man seemed to take long moments to process the words then popped the latch on his door. It squealed and crunched. Cole yanked it open with his good hand against the folded metal at the hinge. It gave.

 

The man scanned Cole’s length, no doubt assessing his missing limbs. His mouth dropped open. “You’re …” He slammed his fist against the steering wheel again and released a string of language Cole had only heard on the battlefield.

 

Yes. Cole was a beast. A slithering, angry beast. Uglier on the inside than on the out.

 

The man peered into the sky. “Lord! Must you continually remind me of my failings?”

 

Lord? Did this guy really think God would answer? “You comin’ or not?”

 

The man’s jaw jerked. He turned his white-cropped head away from Cole. “Not!”

 

Was Cole that ugly, that horrifying, the guy would rather die in the cold than trust Cole to bring him to safety?

 

“Look,” Cole almost spit fire, “Your cell won’t work up here and nobody’d come for you in this weather if it did.” He nodded over his shoulder. “My house is just down a path over there. If we help each other out, we could both get there safely.”

 

The man’s brows drew together. Cole could almost feel the guy’s gaze travel the length of him again, hovering at the stump below his right elbow and then the left thigh missing everything from what once had been a knee. Was that concern on his face? Cole steeled against the idiot’s pity. He turned.

 

“Wait.” The car door creaked as the man pushed it wider. “I’m coming with you.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

Cole poured Irish Cream into his coffee as Mrs. Rivera scurried to prepare hot chocolate and cake for their guest. Henry, the man from the vehicle, sat wordlessly by the fire in the living room, wrapped in a blanket.

 

Mrs. Rivera eyed Cole’s elixir. “You should lay off that poison,” she said in her thick Mexican accent that hadn’t lessened in the thirty years she’d lived in this country. “It’ll keel you.”

 

As if that would discourage him from using it. He took a long draw, the heat of the coffee thawing his body, the burn of the alcohol numbing his mind. He poured more coffee, then topped it off with Irish Cream. Mrs. Rivera tsked.

 

She rattled ahead of him, tray filled with goodies, to the living room where Henry waited. You’d think Henry was an angel sent by God the way she had attended to him, having made a fire, wrapping him in a blanket and taking out the best china for his impromptu visit to the Mansion.

 

She placed the tray on a coffee table in front of him and poured hot chocolate from the pitcher. He accepted the cup and glanced to Cole before dropping his gaze to the liquid inside. “Thank you.”

 

“De nada.” Did she just curtsey? “Let me know if you need anything else. I will prepare a room for you to stay the night.”

Henry nodded and glanced at Cole in the archway between the rooms one more time. Did Henry fear him?

 

Mrs. Rivera took the coffee from Cole’s hand. “Let me get this for you.” She placed it on the table in front of Henry as if that were where Cole intended to sit. Hand free now, he grasped the metal crutch and hobbled over. Might as well not be a complete ogre to his uninvited guest—well, begrudgingly invited. Mrs. Rivera disappeared through the hall.

 

Henry turned to Cole and took him in, unflinchingly this time. His gaze traveled up the lonely leg, took in the right-arm stump, then hit on the scar from his upper lip that carved all the way up his left temple. Cole could almost feel the screech of brakes as the man’s eyes halted—no doubt at the ugly etching pooled at the end of the scar on his purposely bald head. “How’d you lose your limbs?” This guy got right to the point.

 

“Iraq. IED.”

 

Henry drew in a breath. “My younger brother lost his in Nam.”

 

Cole wondered what sort of device did the job, but decided not to ask. “Arm and a leg?”

 

“Both legs.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Did Henry think they were kindred spirits now? Not! “How old is he?”

 

“He committed suicide on the five-year anniversary of his return.” His brows drew together with a sense of anger and irony. What was he thinking? “I vowed to help others like him.” His words were strained. “So they wouldn’t feel …”

 

Cole waited for the rest of his sentence, but it didn’t come. In fact, he didn’t need it. His own bitterness churned against the lowering censors from the excess alcohol in his coffee. He glared at the man on his chair. “How does one help others like your brother?” His sarcasm grew as did the curl of his lip. “House him. Pamper him. Find jobs he can’t do with people willing to make it easier for the crippled guy?”

 

Henry jolted. Tears hung on the edges of his eyes. “My company developed prosthetic limbs for amputees. At one time, it was the leader in research and development, giving the wounded lives closer to what they’d been before the loss.”

 

Cole sensed more. “And now?”

 

“I gave control to my two sons when I retired early. They believed it wiser to cut costs than to build lives. They ran the company into the ground, peddling defective products that did more harm than good. They even gave bonuses to prosthetists who pushed inferior products.”

 

Henry shifted, placed his mug on the table, his gaze never rising from it.

 

“Several months ago, a young veteran died when a seriously defective screw caused him to fall down a steep concrete stairway. Since the news coverage, other complaints have come in which have begun to lead to mass recalls.”

 

Cole’s breathing slowed as he took in the guilt that poured from this man’s features, his posture, his mind.

 

Henry stared back. “You must hate people like me who profit from other’s loss.”

 

“You profited?”

 

“My company made me a wealthy man.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“But it will all be lost in the lawsuits, when they find the willful neglect of the higher ups in my company.” His laugh was bitter. “My sons.” He shook his head. “And I will not fight to keep it.”

 

The story was beginning to come together. “What’s your company’s name?”

 

“Rose Prosthetics.”

 

Cole tensed. He’d heard about the accident in the news. The victim was a decorated veteran and the head of a large family. His wife widowed, children orphaned, and all because this man’s sons felt it more important to make a larger profit off the backs of the desperate. Bitterness swelled, peaked, then dissipated in one instant at the man’s despondency.

 

Henry eyed Cole. “I can see you know the story.”

 

“I do.” Cole finished the coffee, his muscles dragging rather than holding him up. It’d been an exhausting evening, climbing those trails and rescuing Henry. Only now he wasn’t so sure if he had been the rescuer? Yes, Cole had brought him to his home, but Henry had lent him his arm most of the trail leading there. He wasn’t really sure who’d helped whom more.

 

Cole stood, leaning heavily on his crutch, wavering with the effects of the drink. “Mrs. Rivera will be down to show you to your room.” He turned away.

 

“Why don’t you use prosthetics, Cole?”

 

Cole stopped. The question stabbed him. The answer was none of this guy’s business. Couldn’t he see Cole’s soul was too ugly to care about? The world should know this now more than ever.

 

“They could make your life much easier.”

 

“Or kill me.” Cole felt the man flinch without even seeing him. He regretted the words.

 

“Not all products are like what my sons built. We did a lot of good for a lot of people before they destroyed the company.” He seemed to search for words. “My daughter is nothing like them. She’s developed a new socket design that attaches closer to the bone from the outside. It could dramatically change the maneuverability for amputees who want to remain active. It’s simple, but incredibly effective.” He sucked in more air. “Only now, no one wants anything to do with the Rose family. She can’t get any funding to develop the product. My lack of oversight of what my sons were doing has not only ruined her career, but also the future of a product that could help veterans like yourself.”

 

“That’s too bad.” Cole couldn’t control the self-pity that overtook him. “I’m sure she’s as nice as a fairytale princess too.” He thumped down the hall to his first-floor apartment and slammed the door.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Three months later …

 

Carly Rose pulled up the long drive to the man’s house. The forested lane opened, revealing—

Whoa! That was no house. It was more like a very expensive ski chalet. For hordes of guests. What did one man need with all that space? Carly’s family had some money, but this guy must be loaded.

 

She scanned the circular drive. A young man in jeans and a t-shirt rubbed at the gleaming black limo inside an otherwise empty five-car garage. He leaned back and smiled at the shine he’d elicited.

 

Carly parked beside the front entrance and tried to blow the stray hair from her face. Soaked from the solid hour she’d just spent in the rain explaining to the roadside-assistance guy how to change her flat tire, the hair wouldn’t budge.

 

Hoping Cole Harrison got the message she’d be late—very late—she glanced in the rearview to find a thick black smudge across her cheek. She rubbed. It held fast to her skin. Well, at least it matched the smears from the tire across her rain coat and blue jeans.

 

Thank goodness this was only an information session. Cole Harrison had finally agreed to try out her prototype prosthetics. It had taken her father much cajoling of the man over breakfast those many months ago, and repeated phone calls since. Why had Mr. Harrison resisted using prosthetics for so long? And why had he relented now? She shrugged. If he liked them, maybe he’d invest in a new company, giving at least part of the Rose family a chance at redemption.

 

“Am I okay here?” she called to the guy in the garage as she closed the door to her car.

 

His head bobbed, swinging his dark hair into his face. “Yup.”

 

She poked the doorbell, straightened the still-damp shirt under her drenched raingear and waited. Her toe tapped with the nervous energy that buzzed through her. She fingered the gold cross at her neck.

 

A fiftyish woman opened the door. “Come in.” She motioned for Carly to take off her coat. The woman called to the young man with a Hispanic lilt to her voice, “Beautiful, Manny. Mr. Cole will be very pleased.”

 

Funny. When talking to her father, Carly got the idea that Cole Harrison was not one to be easily pleased. She’d asked her dad why he thought Mr. Harrison would invest in her designs and he’d answered with a far-away look and said, “I don’t know, Carly. What other choices do we have?”

 

Choices. Was the only choice to start a new company? Did Carly want to run a business? That would mean more time with sales figures and less with clients. She didn’t want to end up like her brothers, not caring for the people she served.

 

“Mr. Harrison will be right with you.” The woman never asked Carly’s name. He must not get many visitors out here.

 

Carly’s gaze rolled over the expanse of the foyer, down several long halls decorated with gold-framed portraits and ornately carved tables, and into a living room housing couches littered with embroidered throw pillows.

 

The woman pointed. “Have a seat. Can I get you something to drink?”

 

Carly might have been soaked on the outside from standing in the rain, but the exertion of changing tires left her parched. “Water.”

 

The woman nodded and hustled away.

 

Carly took a turn about the living room, running her finger along the mantel above the fireplace, noting the crystal set atop it. Pricey. Her eyes drew up to catch her reflection in the mirror above. Wet, straggly blond hair, wrinkled top, black smudges hither and yon—she looked like a mongrel dog. Or maybe the forest animal the mongrel caught up in his teeth. She chuckled. A step up from the ordinary that usually identified her.

 

Rhythmic thumping and clanging sounded from behind. It stopped. “You’re quite the Beauty.”

 

Carly pivoted to see the source of the sarcasm-laden tone, catching sight of the man missing alternate limbs, leaning on a metal crutch. Dark circles ringed his eyes and a scar split the left side of his closely-shaved head.

 

His gaze scanned her attire with a smirk. “Your father never mentioned you were so … lovely. A fashion plate.”

 

She stifled a comeback about his own appearance, but chose the higher road. “My father never mentioned you were such a wit.”

His eyes widened and his lips almost twisted into something one might call a smile.

 

“Did you get my message?”

 

He hobbled closer. “Yes. Something about waiting on roadside assistance to change your tire.” His gaze rolled over her. “It appears you didn’t wait.”

 

She pulled a packet of papers from her case and sat in an armchair. “How about we get started?”

 

“Certainly.” He dropped into the overstuffed sofa.

 

“I have a number of questions I need you to answer, forms for you to fill out and I’ll need to tour the manor’s exercise facilities.”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Once you’re fitted with the prosthetics, we’ll begin rehab.” She organized papers on the coffee table.

“Who’ll be doing the fitting?”

 

“I will.”

 

He stared. Was he looking at her or the wall behind her? His arrogance dripped from him like an oozing sore.

 

“I assure you, I am skilled both as a prosthetist and a physical therapist. I wanted to know all aspects of my field in order to get my designs right.”

 

“Would you like to see your room?”

 

Was he even listening to her?

 

“Yes. As I mentioned, I’d like to tour the manor’s exercise rooms. I assume that’s where most of the rehab will take place.”

 

“Not for rehab. Your apartment.” His eyes were a steely blue, softened only by his thick lashes. It seems those and his eyebrows were the only hair he allowed on his entire head.

 

“My apartment?” Her heart beat against her chest. What had her father signed her up for? How desperate was he to land this investor?

 

“Yes, upstairs, where you’ll be living for the next several months.”

 

Carly placed the pen atop some papers and fingered her cross necklace.

 

“Didn’t your father mention my expectation that rehab be daily? He said you live two hours away.”

 

Carly thought of the lonely drive up the forested mountain road. She suspected there were few, beyond the wildlife, who actually lived within two hours of this place.

 

“I won’t have you working with me exhausted after a long drive,” Cole’s eyelids hung as though he were bored, “possibly losing tires along the way.”

 

She took in several cycles of breaths, gauging his expression. Could she trust this man—to live with him—in such a remote location? He was a complete stranger to her. An obviously bitter one. She thought about her father’s excitement at the prospect of an interested investor. She knew her father’s car hadn’t met the tree only because of a storm. He’d gone out looking for death. And this hairless man offered him a chance at life.

 

Why?

 

“You’ll have several rooms to yourself—a bathroom, kitchenette, patio and office. But I will expect you to eat dinner with me every evening.”

 

Her eyebrows shot up of their own volition. “With my imprisonment here, this is beginning to sound like a dark retelling of a Disney flick.”

 

His blink was heavy. “You mean Beauty and the Beast?”

 

She shrugged.

 

His lips curled higher. “I guess that makes me the Beauty.”

 

Insolent man.

 

His tone grew serious. “I suggested you live here for a number of reasons. First,” he ticked off a finger from his intact hand, “you live too far away. Second,” he ticked off another finger, “we will need lots of time for rehab sessions. Third,” his ring finger joined the others, “I’ll want to process how things are going with the product at dinnertime. After all, I may be sinking a load of dough into it eventually.”

 

Carly looked around, wondering how much of that “dough” he’d actually miss.

 

“And lastly,” he placed his hand on the stump of his left leg, “given your family’s recent dealings,” he hesitated, likely for effect, “you will need to earn my trust.”

 

Her fingers balled. “Earn your trust?” The words came out in force. She almost growled, holding in the names she wanted to heap at him. Maybe she was the beast. But he was right. He had no reason to trust her family and more reason not to. Both as a client and an investor.

 

She wished she could wash away the stain of what her brothers had done to her father’s business. It didn’t matter he’d had an impeccable reputation for years. All people would remember is how it ended. She had to change that with something new. Cole Harrison was the means with which to do that.

 

But would she be safe living under the same roof as him?

 

He must have read the question on her face. “You may call a locksmith to come and change the locks to all your rooms—my expense.”

 

She speared him with her eyes. Carly never liked people answering the thoughts she hadn’t voiced.

 

“And Mrs. Rivera will be here with you, not to mention the rest of the manor staff.”

 

“Yes, I will.” Did Mrs. Rivera appear at his word? She placed a tray with plates of cookies, a soda and a glass of water on the table between them.

 

She looked harmless enough.

 

Carly would do anything for her father. Especially after her brothers had destroyed his dream. She needed to rebuild it, even if it meant taking some risks. Someone needed to look out for him. “When do I move in?”

 

“As soon as you wish.”

 

~*~

 

Cole liked this woman. She’d taken every inch of him in when she first turned his way, and never flinched. Must be a hazard of the trade—seeing limbless, disfigured wretches on a regular basis.

 

Not a trace of pity in her eyes. Good. He deserved none. He wasn’t the hero.

 

Carly also had a spark of something else. A hint of spice. Cole liked spice. Too bad spice didn’t like him back. Nothing could.

Should he have Jurvis look into her? His man-of-business, who sensed the housing bust months before it happened, had a financial sense none could match. Jurvis could smell a parasite a mile away.

 

Not necessary. Cole could figure this one out. Either her products worked or they didn’t. He’d give her the opportunity to prove herself. Nothing more. Nothing less.

 

Besides, Carly intrigued him. The only time she’d flinched during their meeting was at the moment he’d mentioned her looks. What had she been thinking? Did it bother her that she was plain? Had her vanity been pierced? He regretted his sarcastic jabs once the totality of them tumbled from his lips. It’s what made the men of his Marine unit hate him.

 

All, but one.

 

He’d vowed to become more likeable after the IED, but it was too late. His looks had been the only thing that attracted people to him before, especially women. Now his appearance matched what had always been inside—useless flesh.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 
 
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