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Shining Armor [MultiFormat]
eBook by Kate Sherwood

eBook Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
eBook Description: Twelve years ago, Mark McCormick escaped an abusive home and a town that had turned on him. Now he's back for Meg, the sister he left behind. She's been seriously injured in a car accident, and somebody needs to look after her small children and struggling business. Tara Hudson is an expert on the kids and the business; she could make things easy for Mark, if only she didn't hate him. Forced to work together, Mark and Tara become a team, and then something more. But there's still a lot of anger and distrust between them. Mark was hurt when Tara's family, along with everyone else, believed the worst of him twelve years earlier. And Tara still carries the pain of his departure; he'd been her first crush, maybe even her first love, and she'd felt betrayed when he left without a backwards glance. They could be something special, now, but only if they're both able to let go of the past. Can they shed the armor that's keeping them from truly loving each other?

eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, Published: 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2012


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* * * *

Chapter One

It was hard to pay attention to what the doctor was saying. Most of Mark's mind was back in the room he'd just left. That was his sister in there. She'd looked so small, and so very fragile lying there in the sterile hospital bed. There were tubes--too many tubes. Mark had barely recognized the face at the center of all the equipment. He wished he could blame that just on the bandages and bruising, but he was pretty sure it was mostly because he hadn't seen her, in person, for twelve whole years. There wasn't much left of the fourteen-year-old girl he'd abandoned.

"Mr. McCormick?" The doctor's voice was gentle, but tired, as if she had dealt with too many dazed relatives trying to come to terms with the shattered bodies of their loved ones. "What it boils down to is we're hopeful, but far from certain. It was a serious accident. We won't be able to clearly assess the effects of the brain trauma until she regains consciousness, but with the injuries to her body, the best case scenario is months of rehab."

"But she could be okay, someday?" He had an image in his mind: his laughing, dancing baby sister spinning around their shabby living room, full of vitality and pure joy at the simple pleasure of being alive. It had been a long time ago, but it was important to believe she could someday be that way again.

"It's possible. But that's not the challenge we're looking at right now. Currently, we're fighting just to keep her alive." She glanced down at the pager on her hip, and Mark could see its slight vibrations. She read the message and stood up, stepping toward the door. "I'm sorry, I need to go. You can stay here as long as you like. And the nurses' station is just down the hall. They can help you with whatever you might need."

Mark jerked to his feet. "Wait!" The doctor took her hand off the doorknob and looked back at him. Mark tried to sound calmer. "What can I do? Is there anything I should be doing? Like, talking to her, or playing music or...I don't know. Whatever."

"Right now, we're not unhappy for her to be in the coma. It's giving her body a chance to heal." She paused. "Honestly...for the next day or two, it's mostly a waiting game. I know you want to be with her, but what she needs is peace and quiet so she can rest. After that, absolutely, we'll be looking for ways to coax her out of the coma, and talking, music, any sort of stimulation, that will all be great." Another buzz of her pager, and she winced and opened the door. "I'm sorry, I do have to go. But talk to Tara Hudson. You know her, right? She's coordinating things, and she's obviously got a pretty excellent medical resource right in her family." A quick, gentle smile and then the doctor shut the door behind her.

Mark sank back down into the metal and plastic chair. He was in some sort of family room, or something. He wasn't even sure. After seeing his sister, he'd just blindly followed the nurse and sat where she told him to. He glanced around but didn't see anything to distract him from his thoughts. Just a pale green room, some uncomfortable chairs, and a big bouquet of flowers. He wondered if someone had scavenged them from the room of a patient who hadn't made it.

He stood up, restless and frustrated. What was he supposed to do in here? The doctor had said he could stay as long as he liked, but he couldn't imagine anyone ever wanting to spend much time in the place. He pulled his phone out and scrolled through the caller list until he found Tara's number. The doctor had said to call her, so Mark would call her. She was still Meg's best friend, after all. He didn't want to, but he hit the dial button.

Her voice was crisp and coldly efficient. "Mark. You've seen Meg? And did you talk to her doctor?"

"Yeah." He wasn't sure what else he had to contribute. "She said you were organizing things. Not the medical stuff, just Meg's life, or whatever. The doctor said I should talk to you, see what needs to be done."

"Mmhmm. Well..." She paused as if thinking, but Mark was pretty sure it was just an act. He would bet she had already slotted him into some role in her mind. "I think maybe you'd be best at the house. It's probably about time you got to know your niece and nephew, don't you think?"

Yeah, she'd had that planned, one more little dig, as if he wasn't already tired of the ones she'd stabbed him with so far. But there were more important things to worry about, so he swallowed his irritation. "Okay, if that's what's needed. I've got an address. Is there a key somewhere?"

"I'm not sure we really want to have the kids coming home to a strange man in their house." Tara sounded smug, like she was taking pleasure in rubbing Mark's nose in his long absence from his sister's life. "I'll meet you there. The kids are with a neighbor--we can go over and pick them up once we've had a chance to talk a little, get things organized."

Get things organized. That sounded ominous. And possibly redundant, based on what the doctor had already told him. "Okay, fine. I'm in the city--what is it, about forty-five minutes to the house?"

"Roughly. But I can't be there until about four o'clock. So I'll meet you then?"

Mark checked his watch. It was still on Vancouver time, but he did the math. "That's about two and a half hours."

"Yeah." There was no apology in her voice, and no explanation for why she couldn't make it sooner. Apparently he didn't deserve either.

"Okay. I'll see you then." Mark clicked the phone shut. He needed to keep his mind on his sister. The past was the past, and there was nothing he could do to change it. If it made Tara Hudson think he was a bad brother, that was Tara Hudson's problem. The whole Hudson clan could sit around and judge him, like they always had; it wouldn't affect him at all.

He left the waiting room and found his way back to the nurses' station. He was pretty sure he recognized the woman on duty; she wasn't the one who'd taken him to find Meg, but she'd been at the desk when he'd first arrived. That was about all he could remember, though. He'd flown across the continent, driven a couple of hours from the airport, and fought his way through the hospital bureaucracy, all in a haze of anxiety and fear. By the time he'd made it to the nurses' station, he really hadn't been absorbing too much. But he was pretty sure this nurse had been there.

She smiled gently at him. "You making out okay? Do you need anything?"

Stupid questions, really, but he appreciated the thought. "No, I'm okay. Thanks. The doctor said there was no real point in sticking around. I got the feeling she thought I'd be in the way. Is that true? What should I be doing?" The last part came out sounding a bit more plaintive than he'd intended. Like a lost little boy.

And the nurse responded like a true mother. "Oh, sweetie." She put her hand over his where it rested on the counter. He wasn't normally a big fan of casual touching, not unless there was a good chance of it leading to casual sex, but this was okay. Comforting, even. "The doctor's right. You wouldn't be in the way, but there's nothing to be done at the moment. If you want to be with her, that's fine. We can work around you, and as long as you're quiet, you won't be doing her any harm. But it'd just be for you. Right now, it won't do her any good at all." She smiled, then patted his hand briskly. "You're best off saving your strength. That way, when you're needed here, you'll be ready."

Good advice, probably, but he had no idea how to implement it. His niece was almost three, his nephew about six months. Meg had sent him birth announcements, and he'd responded with gifts at the appropriate times, but Tara had been right; he was a stranger to the kids. A stranger to his own sister, really. He didn't know what he could do to make things run smoothly. Tara knew, though; she had been his sister's best friend since pre-school, and was still a huge part of her life. As smug and annoying as Tara had apparently grown up to be, Mark needed her help.

He thought about making another phone call, another attempt to make her come up with some sort of task for him. There had to be something he could do.

"Mark?" It took a moment for the quiet voice to penetrate his thoughts, and when he finally looked up to see the man standing before him, it was another couple seconds before he was able to speak.

"Dr. Hudson." It was maybe a good thing Mark was tired and dazed, because it gave him a bit of a buffer against the swell of conflicting emotions. "Hi."

"Mark. It's good to see you, son." Dr. Hudson extended his hand, and Mark raised his own, automatically gripping and shaking. "I'm sorry it's under such circumstances, but it's good to have you back home."

That was a strange perspective. Mark had grown up in Stoneport, the town where his sister and the Hudson family still lived, but he hadn't thought of it as home for a long time. And they weren't in the town, anyway. The EMTs had airlifted Meg up to London, Ontario, the nearest city with a full-service hospital. London had never been home. Apparently Dr. Hudson saw things a little differently. But, again, that wasn't what was important. "Tara said you were going to check in on Meg; how's it look?"

"I'm not her doctor, but this is the hospital where I do most of my work. So I know the staff very well, and Dr. Owens is excellent."

That wasn't any sort of answer to the question Mark had asked. He stood and waited, and finally Dr. Hudson shook his head.

"It's touch and go, Mark. They performed surgery when she first came in, to alleviate pressure on her brain, but really, we're mostly just waiting, for now. Hoping she hangs on, and manages to stabilize a little." Dr. Hudson's voice was strained, and Mark realized the man was almost choking up. Jesus, how self-centered could Mark be? He was acting as if he were the only one who cared about Meg, but the Hudsons had known her forever, had been like her family both before and after Mark disappeared. Mark was nothing in all this.

"Yeah, okay." He needed to get out of there. "Thank you. For looking after her." He took a step backward, away from it all. "I've got to go meet Tara. The doctor and the nurse said there was no point in hanging around here."

Dr. Hudson frowned. "No point for Meg. But if you want to see her, and spend some time with her, it'd be fine."

How could Mark justify that? He hadn't bothered to spend any time with her for the last twelve years, so why should he have the privilege of doing it now? The truth came to him with a sickening churn in his stomach. To say goodbye. If he wanted to spend some time with his sister to say goodbye, Dr. Hudson thought he should do it now. "I've got to go," he managed, but those few words were all he could get out. He turned and strode down the long, white hallway, and had to fight to keep himself from running.

He'd managed to calm down by the time he got to his car. But he had nowhere to go; he wasn't going to creep out Meg's neighbors by sitting in her driveway for two hours waiting for Tara. And he sure as hell wasn't going back inside that hospital. So he just started the engine and pulled out into traffic, no particular destination in mind. He usually liked driving. At home, he tended to use whatever car he was tinkering with at the time, and every trip was a chance to test its progress and diagnose its problems. Here, though, in the generic rental car, there wasn't much to distract him, and he didn't like being able to focus on his thoughts.

He surprised himself a little by following the flow of traffic into the nearest mall parking lot. He'd had a girlfriend once who insisted retail therapy was a "real" thing that actually worked; it was only one of the reasons he'd dumped her, but it probably would have been enough all on its own. Shopping was a way to get things you needed, nothing more. Still, it was something to do.

And an hour and a half later, as he loaded the bags into the back of the rental car, he had to admit the experience had been distracting, if not exactly relaxing. And the saleswoman at one of the kids' stores would have been more than happy to have found ways to help him relax, if he'd given her any encouragement. And he had considered it. He'd given that up years ago, decided adults had relationships, not one-night stands, and certainly not quickies in the back room of a children's store. Of course, he'd never had much luck with his attempted relationships, and there was both comfort and distraction in physical contact, no matter how anonymous.

But this time, Mark had refrained. He'd thanked her for her help, bought a couple armloads of organic cotton clothes that probably wouldn't fit the kids anyhow, and gotten the hell out of the store. Now he was driving south, away from the city, toward his meeting with Tara. He kind of wished he'd taken the fifteen minutes of mindless pleasure, because a little tension-relief really would have helped his state of mind.

It felt strange, driving down the same highway he'd taken so many times as a kid. He had rarely been the one behind the wheel back then; even after he got his license, he never had the money to buy a car. But other than that, it felt like he was retracing an old, familiar path. The few changes he noticed somehow enhanced the impression, the juxtaposition of old and new making the old seem that much more familiar. Familiar, but not necessarily welcoming. Still, playing the recognition game was one more way to keep his mind off his sister.

It started to rain as he pulled off the main highway. The January day had been gray to begin with, and the addition of the rain made everything worse. The snowbanks darkened from gray to brown as they melted, the snow fading away to reveal all the sand and dirt that had been collected off the roads. There wasn't even any point to it all, this early in the year; the snow would be back in a couple of days, blanketing all the dirt under a thin layer of white. But the people of Stoneport were probably totally happy with that, he figured. Who cared what was underneath, as long as the surface looked good?

His route took him past the high school, and made himself take a long look at the playing field, the site of so many high school memories. It didn't hurt to think about it, not like it used to, but he was still happy to see the concrete school walls fade into the gray of the rain in his rearview mirror.

His sister's house was on the far side of town, almost back out in the country. He wished he'd thought to cut around and come at it from the other direction, rather than driving right through downtown. He wasn't worried about traffic--there were only two stoplights in the whole town, and hardly any cars in the middle of the afternoon. But he felt strange, like an unwelcome guest, and had to keep from slumping down in his seat as if he were hiding. He hadn't done anything wrong, he reminded himself. He'd run, but that had been totally understandable. He wasn't the one who should find the situation awkward.

That was all fine in theory, but his thin layer of bravado disappeared as soon as he found Megan's house and pulled into the short driveway. He might not owe anything to the people of Stoneport as a whole, but he'd abandoned his sister when he'd left, and wouldn't allow himself any excuse.

The house was small and white, with green shutters that might look cheerful in better light. It looked as if it were in fairly good condition from the outside, but the rain gutter was hanging a little loose on one end, and the small sign of neglect was enough to send another shot of guilt through Mark's gut. Meg wasn't helpless, but she had two little kids to look after and a business to run. She didn't have time to worry about maintaining her damn house, and she should have had family she could count on for help. Mark knew their parents were useless, at best, so that left him, and he'd run off and left her on her own.

He turned off the ignition and sat in the car, wondering which neighbor's house held his niece and nephew. Madison and Noah. He wondered if they called the girl Maddie. Did kids have nicknames when they were three? He had no idea. He'd always taken the safe route, and sent his birthday and Christmas presents addressed with her full name. He wished he'd paid a bit more attention to what he'd been sending over the years. If there hadn't been a girlfriend willing to do his shopping for him, he'd generally just gone with gift cards, but those had always elicited thank-you notes detailing what they'd bought. So he should know what items in the house he was partially responsible for, but he had no idea. He hadn't been paying attention, as usual. He'd sent gift cards for the Christmas just passed, but hadn't received the thank-you note from his sister yet. He tried not to think about whether he ever would.

A battered blue pickup pulled into the driveway behind him. It didn't really make sense. Why would the daughter of the famed Dr. Hudson be driving a heap like that? Still, he got out of his car, and from what he could see through the rain on the pickup's windshield, the driver might have been Tara. It was a woman, with long, light colored hair, and she was about the right age. And she must have seen him standing there in the rain, but she made no effort to hurry out of the car, which certainly seemed consistent with what he'd experienced of Tara's attitude so far. Still, he kept his face carefully noncommittal as she finally opened her door and stepped onto the slushy gravel driveway. She was dressed in jeans and boots, her coat open to show a beige wool sweater that obscured any hint of her body.

"Mark. You made it." Her voice wasn't aggressive, exactly, but it managed to convey her surprise he could be depended on for even such a simple task.

"Yeah, hi." He thought he should probably say something else, but had no idea what. Anything he volunteered seemed likely to be used against him, so he figured silence would be his best bet.

"Well, let's get out of the rain." She brushed past him, and he caught a whiff of her scent--not perfume, but hay, and horses. So probably not fair to think of it as her scent, since she'd obviously picked it up at the stable she and Meg ran together, but Mark didn't really feel like being fair. He was about to take a fair heaping of abuse, he was pretty sure, so if he wanted to comfort himself with the thought that she smelled like an animal, it was his prerogative.

He followed her obediently up the steps and waited as she unlocked the door. It wasn't even a proper deadbolt, just the key-in-the-handle type lock, and again he knew he'd let his sister down. There might not be a lot of crime in Stoneport, but that didn't mean she shouldn't have a big brother insisting she take proper precautions, or taking them for her.

He had to reevaluate his assessment of her security when he saw the enormous animal waiting to greet them. "Jesus Christ. If you guys own a barn, why are you keeping a horse in the house?" The dog was staring at Mark as if it were trying to decide whether to eat him for dinner or save him for breakfast.

"That's Winston." The dog's ears pricked toward Tara when she said his name, but his eyes never left Mark's. "He's a mastiff, weighs over two hundred pounds. Don't mess with him."

"I have no interest in messing with him. Is he going to mess with me?"

"You should probably avoid any sudden movements for a while." Her boots were already unlaced and off, and she unzipped her jacket and hung it on the only empty hook left on the coat rack by the door. The house was a one-story, with the living room to the right and a darkened hallway to the left; Tara headed straight ahead, in the direction of what looked like the kitchen. Winston stayed behind, still staring at Mark.

"Winston. Hi, buddy." His sister wasn't crazy; there was no way she'd keep a dangerous dog, especially not in a house with children. But Mark had heard of breeds that were gentle with their families and aggressive with strangers. And he'd heard of dogs that were fine with women and children but didn't like men. Damn. "So, Winston. I'm just going to take my shoes off, okay?" Normally he'd have unlaced them, but under the circumstances, Mark didn't want his face getting any closer to the ground than necessary, so he pried his shoes off with his toes. Winston watched him stoically. There was nowhere for Mark to hang his jacket, so he just shook the worst of the rain off and left it on. "And now I think I'll go find Tara. In a very non-threatening way. Because I'm a friend of hers, okay?" Mark hoped the dog wasn't a good lie detector, but he amended his story just in case. "I'm your owner's brother. If I'd known you existed, I'd have sent you a Christmas present, I promise."

Winston didn't even blink, as far as Mark could see, but he swung his massive body to the side a little as Mark edged past him. Making room, Mark hoped, rather than preparing to leap.

He made it to the kitchen unscathed, and found Tara already sitting at the round wooden table, staring at her hands. She was pretty, he realized, even with her honey-blond hair in a mad jumble and without any apparent makeup. There were hints of the child she had been, but she was clearly a woman now, tall and strong and confident. She'd grown up while he'd been gone, just as Meg had.

Tara barely glanced up as he came in the room. "So, like I said, I think you're most useful at the house. But obviously the kids don't know you, and you don't know the routine, so you're not going to be all that useful here, either."

Well, he hadn't really expected diplomacy. "Okay. Could you just spell things out a bit for me, here? I mean, you're looking for ways to look after the kids, right? What else? The barn? And once Meg's stabilized, they said they'd want her to have visitors to stimulate her. So there's three things. Is there more we need to be sorting out?"

"You don't need to worry about the barn. I've got it under control. And I'm not totally confident the kids are going to be okay with a stranger, so that may not really work, either."

"Yeah, thanks, you already said so." He was going to try to keep his resolution to not respond to her crap, but that didn't mean he shouldn't let her know he could smell it. "Are you just telling me to fuck off and focus on Meg? 'Cause if you've got everything under control here, great. I can get a hotel room in the city and be at the hospital until the nurses kick me out. But it seems weird; if it used to take both of you to do it all, how come you can do it by yourself now?"

He'd hoped she would respond to confidence and logic, but it would seem his approach just made her angry. "Well, I never said it would be easy, but I don't see where there's much damn choice! If I'm the only one who can do things, then I guess I just have to do them, don't I?"

"Or you could stop being such a martyr and see how it goes. Maybe the kids won't like a stranger; maybe they'll be okay. And no, I don't know a lot about kids, but I can follow instructions, and it's not the end of the damn world if they're late for their baths or something. And for the barn--can we just throw some money at it? Like, are there people you trust to do some of the work, so you can focus on doing whatever nobody else could?"

"I told you, you don't need to worry about the barn." She sounded almost defensive, and he wondered what that meant. But he didn't have time to give it much thought, because she was still going. "And if you're confident you can handle the kids, that's great." She didn't sound like she thought it was great. "We can go pick them up right now, and you can just take over." The jut of her chin made the challenge clear.

"Jesus Christ, Tara, I never said I wanted to take anything over." Mark caught himself; he needed a new approach. What was going on with this woman? Was she really always this combative, or was it just him? Or just the situation... "When's the last time you slept, Tara?" The accident had happened the day before, in the evening. So Tara had almost certainly been at the hospital all night; she'd called him about nine o'clock, Vancouver time, so that meant about midnight in Ontario. And then after a stressful night, she'd had to go to the barn, and she'd obviously been there most of the day, worrying about her best friend. The poor kid was stressed out and exhausted, and just trying to keep it together.

"I'm fine. We need to get this straightened out."

"Okay. How about for now you take me over to get the kids, and then you go get some sleep? In Meg's room, even, if you don't want to trust me alone with the little guys. It'll be like a test run. If I can handle them, great. If I can't, we'll look at Plan B." Mark tried to sound confident, but he was far from it. He didn't have much experience with kids, and what time he had spent with them hadn't made him feel like a natural. Still, Madison and Noah were his family, and it was about time he started pulling his weight.

Tara took her time deciding whether the plan was acceptable, but finally she stood up. "Fine. Let's go." She headed back out to the front door, brushing easily past Winston as if he were a huge potted plant. Mark followed a bit more slowly, keeping at least half of his attention on the dog. By the time he had his shoes back on, Tara was out the door, waiting impatiently for him.

She led the way down the driveway and across the street, no conversation, no eye contact. Which was fine with Mark. He was about to meet his niece and nephew for the first time, and he was more than a little nervous. What if they took one look at him and started screaming? What if they were okay, but he messed up, dropped one of them or something? The whole thing was nerve-wracking. He was in over his head, and he couldn't remember how to swim. And the only person close enough to help was Tara. It was just too bad she seemed to be looking forward to seeing him drown.


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