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“Ben!” Mickey gasps, diving to her knees beside him where he is sprawled next to the campfire. She helplessly touches the bottom of the smashed guitar poking from under his back. “Are you okay?”
On top of him, Lanie lays staring into his stunned face. She’s frozen with denial, unwilling to look again at the corpse of the beautiful instrument. His eyes are perfectly rounded, and his lips part as he tries to breathe. His gasp brings her to her senses, and she jumps off him so he can take in air.
“Seems Ben falls all over himself when he’s around you, Mick.” Lanie’s sharp tone makes Mickey’s brow furrow. “You need to do something about that before we send him back to Kirkby in a body bag. Or a takeout container.” She glances pointedly at the fire as she dusts herself off, trying to regain her composure as sickness fills her.
“Chief!” Pike bounds over with ground-eating strides. Jake McGuiness, who hasn’t left after all, is close behind. “Do you need some help? The fire is contained.”
“Obviously it is, Captain,” She glares at Ben as McGuiness plucks him off his mangled guitar. The strings create a scraping and twanging noise. Ben clutched his left arm, and McGuinness touches it, talking softly. Ben shakes his head and moved away.
Lanie flings her arm toward the captain, a kid, really, who awaits her command. He’d gotten far with the last captain of the guard who’d retired and passed on the mantel, but she can’t stand his brown-nosing attitude. He always acts like he deserves extra perks. “Stand down, Pike. Get back to the fun, everyone. All’s well.”
The crowd doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with the growled order to have fun, but they back off, giving Ben room to breathe. Ali approaches from wherever she’d been with the guitar case and shares a look of dismay with Mickey and McGuinness.
“Oh, Ben,” Ali breathes, shaking her head in regret and reaching to place a hand on his cheek.
Mickey takes his hand on the other side, and they help McGuinness get the strap over a stunned Ben’s head. Lanie has to look away as Ali carefully lays the beautiful guitar to rest in its cushioned black case, then arranges the broken pieces on top.
“Get that skewer out of there, Pike,” she commands, and he leaps to do her bidding. “With tongs! My God, what is wrong with everyone today?”
She scrubs her face, snagging a few strands of her hair and dislodging them. Ripping out her ponytail, she fluffs her curls and then twists them back up again. Where is this anger coming from? She never loses her cool in front of her team. But she’s shaken. Strung-out. This can’t be happening. Not the guitar. Not when she’s just put the puzzle together about her shared past with Ben. Daggers of grief stab her throat, as though she’s back in the wake of the tragedy that tore her childhood apart. Inside of her, the safe where she managed to stuff her most painful memories is comprised. Worse than that is the certainty that its destruction is now inevitable. A doomsday clock has started counting down.
“Goldberg,” she grinds out, staring just over his shoulder, trying to avoid catching a glimpse of that heartrending sorrow on his face. “Are you injured?” Again.
Clenching his jaw, he shakes his head and moves closer to McGuinness, who secures an arm across the back of Ben’s shoulders.
“No.” The word hisses through his teeth as he grimaces, and he swipes a palm over his cheek.
“Ben, if you won’t let me look, you should let the Chief. Someone has to assess you. Or do you want me to take you to the hospital?” Although McGuinness says it gently, Ben flinches as though he’s been offered a trip to the morgue
Lanie marches over to him, and holds out her hand, threatening menace with her eyes until he grudgingly, excruciatingly holds out his arm. She glares at him for an extra second before turning her attention to the long, red welt travelling from the middle of his forearm up to his elbow, where he landed on the searing edge of the stone pit. A pained sound makes her look up to see that the two men have identical grimaces as they take in the damage. With the barest touch, she signals Ben to turn his arm over. A few dark hairs have been singed off, but the skin seems unharmed on this side.
“Did it burn through the top layer?” McGuinness asks.
“It’s too dark to tell.” Jerking her chin at Ben, she indicates the kitchen entrance of the dining hall. “Come. McGuinness can you…?” She waves toward the guitar, which Ali clutches against her. He gently takes it and cradles it against him.
Wordlessly, Ben tucks his arm back to his chest and trails after Lanie into the dining hall. He doesn’t look back as McGuinness steals away to the men’s bunkhouse. Mickey flutters helplessly as she follows Ben and Lanie. “What can I do to help, Chief?”
“You’re the volunteer coordinator, Mickey. Go coordinate so this doesn’t ruin campfire night. I’ll fix this one, and then tomorrow, you can make plans to get him home. Somehow.” It won’t be easy or cheap, since the caravan is long gone. But the emergency protocols are here for a reason.
“I don’t want to go home!” Ben objects as she opens the back door of the kitchen.
Taking a deep, fortifying breath, she empties her mind as much as possible. Cool focus extinguishes her feverish thoughts. “Go, Mickey.”
Mickey nods, then pastes on a smile as she turns sharply on her heel. Lanie holds the door for Ben expectantly, then follows after him, turning on the overhead lights.
“I don’t need to go home, Lanie. Chief.” Ignoring Ben, she takes a clean, shallow pan from a stack on the counter. Chilly well water splashes in where it fits over the sink.
“Really, I’m fine. I’ve been burned worse than this. You should have seen the scrapes I got into on my construction jobs.”
When the pan is half-full, she gingerly lowers his arm until the burn is submerged. He grunts, his arm flexing and tightening against the sting and the cold, but he keeps it in.
“Lanie, this is nothing. As a matter of fact, I got burned more times than I can count in culinary school. Kind of an occupational hazard, to be honest. Worth it, but I’ve always been a bit clumsy, ever since I was a kid. Knocking stuff over. Running into things. But I grew out of it a long time ago.”
In the cupboard next to the stove, the first aid kit is ready, to Lanie’s satisfaction. With meticulous safety standards, kitchen accidents are rare. The accuracy of the incident log and inventory reports she reviewed on her first day are proven when she unclips the latches. It’s fully stocked, as expected. Fortunately, her stringent safety requirements have paid off. Rummaging, she then lays out bandages and burn cream.
“I’m not sure why I’ve been so clumsy this week. Maybe it’s the heat. I mostly keep to the northern hemisphere, you know, because I get hot so easily. Except for that summer, when I went to Australia. Well, it was winter there. I stayed in Melbourne, and that wasn’t so bad.”
Snapping on some gloves, she dips her fingers in the water and prods his forearm, a few centimetres from the wound. The pyre of his skin has warmed the water to the point where she won’t be surprised if it starts steaming soon.
His fist clenches, and his arm trembles slightly. A quick glance reveals that his face is pinched, nostrils flared, but he barely takes in any air. “Tell me about Melbourne. What did you do?” She grabs another pan, and fills it in the other sink.
He puffs out a breath, a flicker of pleasure at her interest. He apparently doesn’t know that she’s just trying to keep him from passing out. “Well, I was volunteering for Variety, in the warehouse and at events. Stayed for about a month in July, and at the end, a few of us took a road trip over to Mount Hotham to ski and get up to no good. Sheilas love a man who can play…” His roguish grin fades. “Guitar.”
Swallowing a lump in her throat, she submerges his calescent arm into the other pan, and the expression quickly twists. She mutters curse words under her breath. The wound isn’t too severe. Just barely second degree, with only a few blisters forming. Empathy burrows under her defenses, so she fills a glass and hands him a precious extra-strength Tylenol.
She checks her watch, then touches his arm again. Mercifully, it’s cooling. While she waits the last couple of minutes, she reaches up and examines the back of his head.
“Do you feel dizzy at all? Any pain in your head?”
A muscle twitching in his jaw, he shakes his head no, but she feels him flinch at the motion.
This has to end. With a frustrated sigh, she comes back round in front of him, but he won’t look at her. Resigned, she fetches a low stool and a towel. After directing him to sit and put his elbow on the towel, she watches the water run down the vertical path from his fingers to the rough cloth, sliding down the ropes of his veins. Getting a taller stool for herself, she sits in front of him, almost at his height, their knees nearly touching. He tracks her movements, his eyes following her under his long, dark lashes, just behind the fringe of black hair on his forehead. But he doesn’t look at her face.
When she sits, he stares at the floor, chin nearly to his chest, lips pulled taught. A fight rages inside her. He looks so forlorn that one side of her wants to hold him, soothe him. The other, more reasonable side wants to slap him. This isn’t a resort. She isn’t here to hold his hand. If he can’t handle being here, he doesn’t belong.
Even so, he needs her help, medically speaking. That’s something she can’t ignore. She lightly rests her gloved hand on his bicep. “Hey. You’re a huge pain in the butt. But I sincerely want to help you, and I need you to trust me so I can do my job. You’re only hurting yourself by lying to me.”
The hint of half-truth pricks her tongue. His pain actually does cause unwelcome feelings in her. It almost had felt as though she is the one about to fall into that fire. Obviously, she would have saved any one of her staff, though. She has to fight fiercely against this empathy, rage against it, before the seeds grow into uncontrollable weeds. It doesn’t matter what might have passed between them when she was a child.
She rubs the fleshy bulge of his upper arm once, up and down. Rage might not be the wisest course at the moment, if she wants to get him treated.
“Look at me.”
He peeps down at her through his long lashes.
“No need for embarrassment. Let me do my job.”
His lower lids glisten, and his voice is broken. “I can’t believe my guitar is gone. My last foster family gave it to me as a graduation present. I’ve had it for sixteen years.”
“I’m so sorry.” She really is. It makes her anger at his clumsiness even worse, but she clamps her will down over it. “Do you want to talk about it?”
He’s silent for a few moments. “No,” he finally mutters. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
“Alright. So can we finish up here?”
“Okay,” he whispers.
“Okay,” she whispers back, letting a teasing lightness buoy the imitation. His distress disturbs her. She smiles encouragingly, patting his arm. “Can you show me where it hurts, Doctor?”
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