After an injury forces Deputy U.S. Marshal Sage Michaelson off duty, he heads to his hometown with two things on his mind: recuperating and reevaluating, but Sage can’t refuse his best friend’s plea to keep a protective eye on his little sister after someone ransacks her house. But Delaney’s not so little anymore—and definitely not the young “Dane” Sage remembers.
br / Flight Medic Delaney Hunt has loved Sage forever. But, he’s all about control and order while she embraces life and takes risks. As much as the idea appeals to her, she doesn’t need Sage looking over her shoulder. But when things go wrong and she finds herself hanging by her fingertips, who does she call to rescue her? Will Delaney ever be the woman Sage wants by his side? Can Sage learn to live by grace, recognizing that God is in control? Can they overcome their fears to embrace life together?
He was late.
Yeah, well, Steven would just have to forgive him for missing the ceremony. He was here, wasn’t he?
Sage Michaelson stepped into the lobby of the posh hotel, laughter from a few hundred guests spilling from the ballroom doors. He gritted his teeth, not sure whether to massage the throb gaining momentum in his head or apply pressure to the general vicinity of where his spleen used to be.
Sage pulled out his cell phone, scrolled through the text messages to find the one Steven sent yesterday, while Sage’s hospital bed and painkillers held him incarcerated.
Delaney in trouble. Can you keep an eye on her while I’m on my honeymoon?
Yeah. He could do it. What was the alternative? Lounging around on a hospital bed contemplating his career options. Or lack of them. He would recuperate faster in Journey Creek than in the hospital, anyway.
What kind of trouble was Steven’s sister in this time?
The Great Dane. That’s what they used to call her. Growing up, she’d had long muscular legs. Cute, but in an ugly duckling sort of way. And always in trouble or causing trouble. Maybe things were different now that she was older.
Sage shook his head. Nah. The Dane probably hadn’t changed a bit. His gut tightened, from more than the emergency spleen surgery.
Sage loosened his tie and stepped into the crowded room, the scent of freshly brewed coffee calling him. His gaze roamed over the visitors, looking for anyone out of place, someone who didn’t belong on the guest list.
Just what he needed. All of Charlotte was here for Steven’s wedding.
He scraped fingers against the stubble on his chin, jaw clenching and shoulders tightening. Sage would need to call in a few more deputy marshals if Steven expected him to protect Delaney in this crowd.
Sage tilted the lever on the coffee urn, allowing himself a brief sigh as the pungent liquid flowed into the cup. He turned around and scanned the crowd, practically inhaling the caffeine, willing the strength to course back into his body as easily as the liquid slid down his throat.
A familiar hand landed on his back. He glanced sideways at Steven, his best friend of seventeen years. “Glad you could finally make it,” Steven said, a smile glowing from his face.
Why did Steven’s smile rankle? He shouldn’t begrudge his friend’s chance at a real family just because his own wedding didn’t materialize.
Sage grunted. “Yeah. You don’t want to know what I had to go through to get here.” No way would he admit that he skipped out of the hospital against the doctor’s orders. “Where’s the Great Dane?”
Steven grinned. “It’s been a couple years since you’ve seen Delaney. She probably won’t like you calling her by that name now.”
“Once a Dane—”
“Delaney is over there.” Steven’s finger pointed towards the doorway, head angled to the side. Leaning in, Steven lowered his tone almost to a whisper. “Probably sneaking outside or to the rooftop terrace to get some air. You know how she hates formal events.”
“Yeah. About as much as I do.” Sage groaned, loosening his tie even more with one hand.
Sage followed Steven’s finger to a woman edging towards the double doors in a clingy turquoise gown. The kind of gown that made a man’s fingers itch to glide over those silky shoulders while he buried his lips against a creamy neck. The kind of woman who practically forced a man to take a second look.
The Great Dane?
“Close your mouth, buddy. She’s still the same girl, just wearing different duds tonight than what you’re used to seeing her in.”
Sage clamped his jaw tight, wanting to deck his best friend for laughing at him. Was this one of his jokes?
That lady couldn’t possibly be “The Dane.” Where was the flight med jumpsuit? The basketball shorts? Or her ponytail? Definitely missing. Granted he hadn’t seen Delaney in a couple years—had it just been two?—but, he’d kept up with her through Steven. Steven should have prepared him for this, uh, transformation.
“I don’t have time to fill you in on everything. I just can’t stand the thought that someone broke into her house while she was gone. With her coming and going at all hours, it scares the living daylights out of me,” Steven said, a frown marring the glow.
Sage stared at this unknown version of Delaney, only half hearing Steven’s words. Sage hadn’t moved a muscle, unless one counted the ticking in his jaw or the stutter of his heart.
“She has her car here. You probably should go after her just in case she plans on ditching the party, don’t you think?”
Sage jerked his head at Steven and flinched at his amused expression.
What was Sage thinking? Dane was his best friend’s sister. Practically his sister. He’d known her forever, right? He shook his head to clear the cobwebs that had taken up residence in his brain during his short stay in the hospital.
“I’m on it. Listen, man, I’ll let Dane fill me in on everything. Don’t worry about her while you’re gone. I’ll make sure nothing happens to her.” How much trouble could one female get into?
Steven clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks, buddy. I know you will. Just one thing, though?”
“Don’t tell her that you asked me to look out for her?”
“You got it.” Steven rolled his eyes
“She still gets mad at you for being overprotective?”
“Yeah. But that’s what big brothers are for, right?”
Steven’s words slashed Sage’s heart worse than the doctor’s scalpel had on his side. He didn’t know about the big brother stuff, but he’d been a little brother once. A lifetime ago. Sage gulped, nodded, and then followed Dane’s path through the double doors placing the empty cup on a tray near the exit.
Dane stepped into the elevator. A suit followed her in and mashed the button repeatedly. Like that would make the thing close faster.
Still a good distance away, Sage lengthened his stride.
He scowled. Was this a guest from the wedding? Someone Dane knew?
With her back to the lobby, Dane faced the glass, where lights glimmered from the tallest buildings in downtown Charlotte. She probably got her thrills taking the elevator up to the top floor just to take in the views of the skyline after dark. Or, knowing her, stepping outside on the roof for a better observation deck.
The man said something to Dane.
A polite smile curved her lips, and then she turned back to stare into the darkness. Her usual mischievous grin was absent.
Dane. What are you doing? If you don’t know the guy, get off the elevator!
Something flashed in the man’s hand. A glint of steel?
Sage’s pulse kicked into overdrive. He sprinted the remaining distance to the elevator, adrenaline shooting through his body, pain tearing at his side. “Dane, wait!”
Her head whipped around. Surprise registered on her face in the arched eyebrows and the widened eyes, but her body didn’t follow. Not until the man’s arm reached up and encircled her neck. He jerked her in front to shield him, jutting the knife against her silky throat as the elevator doors slid closed.
God, help her.
Sage blinked. His prayers hadn’t brought his family back. What made him think they would work for Dane?
Sage groaned. Regret and some other emotion—fear?—knocked him off balance. Why hadn’t he discharged himself from the hospital sooner? He could have talked to Dane. Formed a plan. Known what he was up against. Sweat beaded along his neck and hairline.
He spun around. Where were the stairs? He should be able to give the creep a run for his money. Even without his spleen.
Sage lunged for the stairwell. He pushed his body up the steps as hard as he dared, not bothering to stop at the second floor. He yanked open the door to the third floor and glanced out at the elevator light. Still going.
Sage did the same for the fourth floor. Fifth. Sixth. Seventh. Eighth. Ninth. He yanked the stairwell door open on the tenth floor, his insides burning, lungs heaving, straining for air.
The elevator flashed to eleven.
“Wait until I get my hands on you, mister!” Sage sucked in a huge breath and lunged for the stairs again.
Sage checked the elevator again on the twelfth floor. Did it stop moving? He hesitated, not daring to breathe, waiting for the light to blink. Was that it?
“What? Not going to the top, jerk?”
He exited the stairwell and approached the elevator, hair drenched with sweat, steps slow, methodical. Waiting. He reached inside his suit jacket, gripped the cold metal of his gun and slid it out of the holster.
Fifteen. What was going on?
Sage stepped closer to the elevator. The room started to spin. He stood still and closed his eyes, excruciating pain gripping his side. Maybe it hadn’t been such a great idea to leave the hospital before the doctor released him.
He opened his eyes and blew out a long breath, hoping that would slow his breathing and stop the ringing in his ears. Come on, man! Dane needs you.
He rapped knuckles on the elevator door. “Dane. Can you hear me?”
“Sage? Is that you?” Her voice sounded far away, muffled. Gagged?
“Yeah, sweetheart. Are you OK?”
“I’m stuck.” He heard a thump, then another. What was she doing?
“Are you by yourself?”
“Mmm-hmm. That creep tied me up. I can’t get the knot loose.”
That “creep” had better be long gone. “Hang on, sweetheart. I’ll get you out in a minute.”
Sage mashed a finger against the elevator button, but the doors didn’t swing open. Pressed again. Hmmm. Jammed?
He spotted the key holder next to the elevator shaft and tapped the glass with the gun a couple times until it shattered. He tugged the key out and twisted it. Taking a deep breath, he straddled his legs and spread the doors manually. Blood saturated through his bandage and soaked his shirt, the repulsive scent forcing an arm to cover his nose.
Dane huddled against the glass wall closest to the outside, hands trussed to the handrail with the jerk’s tie, grin wide, dimples flashing.
“What took you so long?”
Sage groaned. Keeping this wildcat safe all week might take more energy than he had.
Now he just had to extricate her from this elevator. His gaze slid past Dane to the city lights of Charlotte sparkling outside, lighting the inside of the elevator. His palms were drenched. His blood pressure rocketed to the stars, breath caught in his throat. He put one foot in front of the other, inching towards Dane.
Dane’s smile faded, and her eyes widened, panic setting in. “Sage, you can do this. Look at me. I need you to untie me and then we can get out of here. Don’t look outside. Just look at me.”
His breath came in short gasps. He dug deep, focused on Dane.
“Sage, let’s go. What if that creep decides to come back? You can do this.”
Sage blinked. He could do this. He had to do this. How else would Dane get out? Besides, he would need a ride back to the hospital.
He eased forward a few more inches. Closer to Dane. Just a few more feet.
“Get me outta here and I’ll take you to get your favorite ice cream. Espresso chip. My treat. Better put a little more step into it, though, Sage.” Dare shimmered from her eyes. Probably what made her such a great flight medic.
“Wait a minute. That’s not my favorite. That’s yours.”
“Yeah? Well, do you think Butter Pecan would motivate you to get over here? Not hardly,” She scoffed, a smile teasing the corners of her lips. How could she be smiling after what she’d been through?
Because she was a risk-taking tomboy who couldn’t last one evening without digging a deeper hole of trouble.
How did Steven keep up with her?
Sage eased closer, taking baby steps. “I have a bone to pick with you.”
“Now? Can’t we chew on bones after we get out of here? Maybe you’d rather go out for some ribs?”
He reached Dane’s side, gritting teeth against the relentless pain, and tugged the knots loose. Dane reached both arms up and he pulled her into a hug.
Pain gripped Sage’s side. He winced. Gasped. Turned his head. The lights outside were so bright. The distance from the ground. Blinding lights. Pain.
He loosened his grip on Dane and succumbed to the darkness and oblivion, some place that didn’t hurt as much, and felt his body fall.
The last thing he saw was his blood staining Dane’s turquoise dress.
Question 1: Sage’s well-ordered, structured life often collides with Delaney's risk-taking, spontaneous personality. How do you relate to someone with the opposite trait as yourself?
Question 2: Sage and Delaney had been friends practically their entire lives. After a couple years apart, Sage doesn’t recognize the updated version of Delaney. His feelings aren’t quite so brotherly anymore, and he rebukes himself for his reaction. Have you experienced these feelings with a friend before and how did you react?
Question 3: Sage suffers from an unreasonable fear of heights and airplanes. Do you suffer from fears that strangle you to the point of controlling your life? How have you moved past these fears?
Question 4: Sage longed for a home made up of a normal family. A wife who longed to spend her forever with him with a love that stuck through tough times. A wife that didn’t mind the long hours that he put into his job. A wife that didn’t give up on him even if he lost more body parts. And a real family, not just kids stuck together because they had to be there. Because there was nowhere else to go, because no one else cared for them. What do you long for?
Question 5: Delaney cares about the kids at the orphanage. She spends time there, helping and mentoring them, like Lori did for her. Has anyone made a difference in your life? How are you giving back?
Question 6: A raggedy stuffed doll with red stringy hair, a cell phone charger, and a picture of Delaney, Steven, and Sage rested on Delaney’s nightstand. Why? What’s on your nightstand and why?
Answer 6: Delaney tugged the doll close to her chest after a particularly tough day with a patient transport. Or during the nights when she felt like being a little girl, scared, longing for reassurance, needing a soft, gentle touch. The kind of touch her own mother never gave her. The picture reminded her of the most important people in her life.
Question 7: Delaney had taken a purity vow in seventh grade and maintained it. Why?
Answer 7: She wanted to act honorably before God. And because her mother had taught her the consequences of one-night stands. Babies. Babies that grow into children. Children that need food and clothes. And love. Delaney’s mother had a problem with the food. And the clothes. And love? Not enough to give up the drugs and the one-night stands. That is not how Delaney wanted to live her life. Not how she wanted to start a family. She wanted her children to feel loved, part of a family, a product of a man and woman who loved each other enough to be married.
Question 8: Sage only remembered churches as places for funerals. Delaney warns him that her church isn’t like his granny’s church. When was the last time you were in a church? What do you remember? What changes would you like to see?
Question 9: Delaney overheard the end of a conversation between Sage and her brother. Have you ever jumped to the wrong conclusion based on overhearing a conversation not meant for you? What happened? How did it turn out?