First Chapter: Falling From The Sky

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Standing on the snowy hillside under the December sun, Callie Anders found herself pulsing along with an unfamiliar bass line. The heavy groove scraping through the oversize speakers was the sound of bands she didn’t recognize, played in clubs she’d never visited.

And it wasn’t just the music. Nothing about the slopeside party resembled her ordinary life. The vibe felt more like an after-hours club than a sporting event. Beers in hand, spectators watched as a final competitor tipped his snowboard over the edge of the super pipe to drop into its steep curve. Gravity did its thing for the athlete, ramping up his speed as the board dropped into the valley of the pipe and then up the opposite side. At the top again, the guy snapped his hips upward, grabbed the board with one hand, and then whipped his body around in the air, reversing course to land neatly on the snow again. And then he was off, hurtling down the pipe with only seconds to prepare for his next trick.

Callie had seen snowboarding on TV, but in person it was even more impressive. After the kid launched his second trick—some kind of dizzying spin, she lost count of his rotations—he seemed to meld his board onto the surface, his shoulders relaxing into a carefree stance as he dropped downhill again. As he sped by, Callie even saw his lips moving, forming the lyrics of the song thumping overhead.

After two more whirling tricks, he finished to a cheer from the crowd. The wool-clad heads in the crowd swiveled toward the giant screen, waiting for his scores.

“Not bad for a bunch of knuckle draggers,” her friend Dane muttered beside her.

“I love it,” Callie heard herself say. She was glad that Dane and Willow had towed her along to the snowboarding competition. “It’s…half athleticism, half circus performance.”

In response, Dane only snorted. And that made her best friend Willow grin. “He can’t help it, Callie. A skier can’t say anything nice about snowboarding. It’s not in his DNA.”

Dane gave Callie a wink. “In two months you’ll see what a real mountain event looks like.”

“I can’t wait,” she agreed. So far, she had only seen Dane race on television. But she’d already bought her plane ticket to Europe for the Olympics, where Dane would be contending for as many as four medals.

As if on cue, the music changed to the telltale trumpets of the Olympic anthem. Callie’s eyes drifted to the big screen at the top of the pipe, which announced in giant type that the elite exhibition would happen next. After the last trumpet tone, the music devolved again into a heavy beat, and Callie saw the crowd begin to move with the music. As the knit hats and down jackets around her began to bob, it was as if Callie had been transported to a sunny, snowy land of hipsters. One that she wished she’d visited long ago.

Actually, she wished a lot of things.

When you spend nine years of your life becoming a doctor, there’s a lot that you miss. For most of that time, the sacrifice hadn’t really bothered her. But the past several months had been hard, and Callie had been spectacularly lonely.

It was almost exactly a year ago that she’d caught Nathan, her doctor boyfriend, cheating on her in an exam room with a leggy young nursing student. Callie had thrown the bastard out, of course. Yet twelve months later, Nathan and the nurse were still going strong, and she was still alone.

To make matters worse, Willow and Dane left Vermont for Utah in the spring, leaving Callie doubly bereft.

This weekend would make for a happy exception. Her friends were in town to take care of some business. And they’d brought Callie’s new favorite person—their three-month-old daughter. Baby Finley was riding out the snowboarding event asleep inside Dane’s ski jacket. If Callie put a hand on Dane’s shoulder and raised herself up on tiptoe, she could just glimpse the baby’s satin eyelids.

Callie hadn’t seen her friends for ten weeks—not since she’d flown out to Salt Lake after the baby was born in September. In the meantime, Willow and Dane had been busy settling into their new house, caring for the baby and surviving a whirlwind of preparations for the Olympic Games. In two months she’d see them again overseas. Callie and Willow would hole up in the hotel together, caring for Finley and cheering on Dane during the games.

It was all very exciting, but Callie still felt hollow inside. As she stood there beside her happy friends, she found herself fighting off unfamiliar feelings of envy. Willow had taken what seemed like an outrageous risk on a man with a difficult past. And now Willow was one third of what Sports Illustrated had recently described as “the cutest family in winter sports.”

And what was Callie part of, exactly?

“So, you never told me,” Willow said, stomping the snow off her boots. “Did you have drinks with the cute radiologist?”

“I think he’s seeing someone,” Callie answered without meeting Willow’s eyes.

“Well, did you ask him?” Willow pressed.

“I’m pretty sure.”

Willow shook her head, and let out an exaggerated sigh. “You know what I don’t get about you?”

“Nope. But you’re going to tell me whether I want to know or not, right?”

“I don’t understand,” Willow continued undeterred, “how you have the guts to literally restart someone’s heart with a thousand volts of electricity. But you can’t risk yours even to ask a guy out for drinks.”

“Actually, we don’t need a thousand volts anymore. The new defibrillators come in around three hundred.”

“You’re hopeless.”

That was probably true.

“Hey, I see Hazardous!” Willow said, raising a hand to wave at someone.

Callie followed her friend’s gaze over to the roped-off area at the base of the half-pipe. A very attractive man stood there, suited up for the snow, his helmet under one arm. The pose reminded Callie of old Apollo astronaut photos. When the guy spotted Willow, a lazy smile broke across his broad mouth, and he raised a hand in greeting.

“Let’s go say hello,” Willow prompted, angling through the crowd in his direction.

“After you,” Dane said to Callie. And so she followed her friend toward the low fence.

“You’ve got to meet Hank Lazarus,” Willow said over her shoulder. “He parties a lot harder than we can keep up with these days, but the guy is seriously fun.”

The closer they got, the more Callie stared. Willow’s friend might be seriously fun, but he was also seriously hot. His shaved head was a military style that usually did nothing for Callie. But it was offset by big brown eyes and full, sensual lips. He was broad in a way that said “linebacker” more than “snowboarder,” and his cut jaw and cleft chin were speckled with two or three days’ worth of dark whiskers.

As they drew up to him, his chocolaty gaze took them all in. He lifted an eyebrow, and Callie saw that a barbell-shaped piercing bisected it. “Hey there,” he said in a voice that was low and smoky. “What are you kids doing in Vermont?”

Sweet baby Jesus. Even his voice was hot.

Willow gave him a quick hug. “We’re here to put my old farmhouse on the market. And Hank, this is my best friend, Callie. She’s local.”

Hank stuck out a hand, and Callie took it. As his hand engulfed hers, she felt her cheeks heat. His face was like the sun—too bright to look at directly. Hank gave her a quick head-to-toe, not even bothering to be subtle about it. And when he seemed to dismiss her out of hand, she wasn’t even surprised. He was the sort of guy who existed in an alternate universe, far from beeping medical equipment and green hospital scrubs.

She was almost relieved when he let go of her hand and looked back up at Dane. “Where are we drinking later?”

But Dane hesitated, glancing toward Willow. “I’m not sure what our plans are.”

First, the snowboarder’s grin grew tight. “Holy fuck, Danger,” he growled. “Seriously? You are so whipped that you can’t agree to a beer tonight? Let me ask again. Where are we drinking later?”

Dane chuckled, and shook his head. “Chill, asshole. We need to make sure that the house we haven’t seen in six months is still standing. Barring total destruction, I think a stop at Rupert’s could work out.”

As if she wanted a vote on the matter, baby Finley let out a squawk then. Dane bent his knees to bounce her gently, running one of his big hands soothingly under the bulge in his jacket.

Hank Lazarus watched his friend do this with a bemused expression on his face. “All right. Unless you get downvoted by the little family, Rupert’s it is.”

“Sounds good,” Willow said. “Baby’s first trip to the bar.”

The snowboarder glanced uphill, toward the top of the pipe. “I’d better get a move on. Dane. Ladies.” He gave them a sexy lift of his chin. “I’ll see you later.”

The very idea gave Callie a thrill. But of course she probably wouldn’t be there. She was on call today, and that usually didn’t end well. Even if she wasn’t summoned to the hospital, she couldn’t even have a drink like a grown-up.

Her life was pure glamour.

Not.

At least her pager hadn’t gone off yet. The headliner event—the elite exhibition—was about to start. The music kicked up a decibel or two, and the champion snowboarders began to line up at the top of the pipe. Pictures of the elite athletes began to slide across the big screen overhead, shifting every few seconds in time with the music. The shots showed each man in street clothes, complete with stats and nicknames. Compared to the clean-cut skiers that Callie had met through Dane, these were the bad boys of winter sports. There were more goatees, ponytails, tattoos and piercings than a biker bar would boast. Not that Callie had spent much time around bikers, except when they landed in the hospital.

When Hank “Hazardous” Lazarus’s picture popped up, Callie could only stare. In the photo, he was shirtless, and entirely drool worthy. He was all muscle, covered with ink. “Olympic Silver Medalist,” the screen read.

“They say he’s going to bring home the gold this time,” Willow mused beside her.

But Callie wasn’t interested in his stats. She was still admiring the man. He was sex on a snowboard, and so far out of her league it wasn’t even funny. Even if she did show up for drinks tonight, if he tried to talk to her she’d probably swallow her tongue.

The screen flipped back to show the first man in the lineup, and then the crowd roared. Callie watched one of Hank’s teammates take the pipe. And…wow. The aerial feats were on a completely different level than the competitors she’d seen before. The rotations were faster, and the tricks more complicated. And as soon as he finished, another boarder dropped into the pipe. Since there was no need to pause the action for judging, the exhibition was continuous. Callie’s gaze became trancelike as the colorful bodies soared and twisted before her eyes.

And then Hank Lazarus’s photo reappeared, and Hank came into view on the lip of the pipe, wearing his silver helmet and goggles. Callie stood up a little straighter as he dropped into position, his body in a loose, confident stance. At the opposite peak, he popped higher off the lip than seemed possible. With that big body tucked tight, he flipped backward with such casual finesse that Callie gasped. He landed the trick neatly, his shoulders bobbing with a cocky shrug.

“So that’s what it’s supposed to look like,” Dane muttered. And it was true. The comparison between Hazardous and the others was stark.

He shot through the pipe again, and his next trick went so high, and with such whirling ease, that time seemed to stop as he hovered in the air. The rules of physics appeared not to apply to him. The crowd whooped when he landed, gliding at top speed through the gully.

Callie held her breath, wondering what miracle he’d pull off next. He launched again, grabbing the board in one hand and rotating through the air—once, twice and then a third time. The scenery seemed to change then, and it took Callie a split second to realize that the sun had gone behind a cloud. And just as she registered the phenomenon, something else happened. The snowboard smacked the lip of the pipe, instead of the snow on the slope below it. Since he’d achieved so much lift, the force of impact flexed the board, ricocheting the rider back into the air. Callie watched, helpless, as momentum yanked the man’s body through space, propelling him headfirst and at high speed toward the curving ice below.

And then his helmet hit the surface first. Hard.

Callie heard herself gasp. After a sickening bounce, his body slid down the ice into the center of the gully.

“Jesus Christ,” Dane whispered.

People rushed onto the snow, a dozen of them quickly surrounding him.

Dane took a step forward, as if he wanted to run through the crowd to help. But Willow put a hand on his arm. “There are a lot of people down there,” she said gently.

He just shook his head. “Get up, man.”

But Hazardous lay crumpled and still.

Callie couldn’t look away. In her head she heard the drumbeat of emergency procedure. Checking the vital signs, supporting his neck and back. But this time, it wasn’t her job. At least three of the people down at the scene wore medical jackets. And even now she could hear the approach of ambulance sirens. On busy winter weekends, there was always a bus parked at the bottom of the ski-mountain access road.

“When you broke your leg,” Willow said to Dane, “I’m sure it looked really bad from the stands.”

But Dane just shook his head. “Christ. The Olympics.”

From inside his jacket, the baby made a sound of protest. Dane tore his gaze away from the medical swarm and leaned inside to kiss her. Watching him, Callie’s heart squeezed with some unnamed feeling of yearning.

“She’s probably hungry,” Willow said. “I’ll take her inside and feed her.”

Dane watched an ambulance thread toward the huddle on the ice, a look of unease still washing across his face. “I guess I’ll come, too,” he said.

Following them, Callie fingered her pager in her pocket. The odds of it going off today had just escalated. She pulled out her phone to check in.

“Busy?” she asked the triage nurse who answered the doctors’ line. “If I were you, I’d pull up the call sheet for ortho and neuro. There was an injury during the snowboarding event at the ski mountain. You should be seeing them in fifteen minutes.”

“Will you get called in?” Willow asked after Callie hung up. The ambulance was already threading its way out to the state road, its lights whirling.

“I’m not their first call,” Callie said. “But give it an hour or two.” Callie was a hospitalist—a doctor who kept track of admitted patients’ medical needs.

“Okay,” Willow said, her eyes on the retreating ambulance. “I guess Dane and I will go to the farmhouse now, and check things out. Then we’ll swing by the hospital to try to learn what we can. We don’t know him all that well, but…” She swallowed. “That looked bad, didn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Callie admitted. The force with which he’d hit the pipe was scary. “But bodies can be tougher than they look.”

Willow shivered. “Can I call you in a couple of hours? No matter what, I want to see you tonight. Or tomorrow before we go.”

“Absolutely. I need to hold that baby some more.” She wanted that now more than ever, given the scary accident she’d just witnessed.

God, life was short. Maybe hers wasn’t working out so badly, after all.

 

As it happened, Callie was not handed Hank Lazarus’s chart until the following day. And even though she’d had twenty-four hours to process what she’d seen, the first sight of him in a hospital bed gutted her.

Pale and swollen from the IV fluids, he lay perfectly still. Since she’d last set eyes on him, he’d undergone an eight-hour spinal surgery. In place of the goggles and technical fabrics was a new sort of gear—tubes and monitors snaking from his body in every direction.

Even though he was sedated, Callie found herself holding her breath as she checked the tag on his IV bag. As his powerful chest rose and fell, Callie realized how limited her view of her patients usually was. Never before had she gotten such a shocking demonstration of “before” and “after.” She met patients hours or days after things went sideways. But the ashen, broken man in room nineteen was such a frightening contrast to the one she’d seen drop into the half-pipe, it hurt her to look at him.

She forced herself to linger a moment longer. Though it shamed her to say it, there were times when she found herself judging the people in these beds. She might wonder why the patient had thought it was a good idea to ride that zip line so near to the trees, or drive so fast in the rain. Callie had always lived cautiously, and when she saw the results of a preventable accident, it seemed like such a waste.

But the memory of Hank Lazarus flipping effortlessly against the blue sky was burned in her brain. And in spite of the danger of it all, so cruelly proven by the sleeping figure in the bed, she didn’t have to ask why he’d choose to take such a risk. She’d seen the power and the beauty of it with her own two eyes.

Beneath the sheet, he breathed. In and out. At that moment, there was nothing he needed from her. And nothing more she could do.

 

Dane and Willow tried to see Hank before they left again for Utah, but the first time they stopped by, he was in surgery. The second time, he was asleep. With the Olympics just weeks away, they had to go back to Dane’s training. “Will you give him our love?” Willow asked, looking shaken in the waiting room.

“Of course,” Callie answered, fully intending to do it.

As it happened, she never did.

In the first place, when Callie finally saw Hank conscious, he didn’t seem to remember her face. And this was not at all surprising. They’d only met for a second, and the mind often forgot the events just before a trauma.

And Hank had a distracting swirl of other visitors as the days went by. His parents, Callie learned, were a sort of Vermont royalty. They were part owners of the ski mountain. And Hank’s father had built half of the condos in the county. There was a daughter, too, another athlete.

Callie gleaned many of these facts from the local paper, which ran a front-page story about Hank and his accident. At age eighteen, he’d left Vermont for the Rocky Mountains, where he’d taken a job as a dishwasher to pay for his lift tickets. He was as famous for partying as he was for winning competitions.

Reading about him made Callie feel like a stalker. But there it was in black and white, on the table in the break room.

From her chair beside Hank’s bed, his mother was a silver-haired force of nature, barking orders at every nurse who dared to enter her son’s room. And whenever Callie saw Mr. Lazarus in the hospital corridors, he was always on his phone

“They’re flying in specialists. Three of them,” nurse Trina told her. The nurse’s station was another excellent source of news.

“That’s a lot of firepower,” Callie said.

“The Lazarus family can afford it. They gave a truckload of money to the hospital,” she said, cracking her gum. “The pediatric wing built ten years ago? That was all them.”

“Wow, really? You’d think their name would be over the door.”

Trina shrugged. “They don’t do bling. Mama Lazarus has those fancy shoes that no sane person wears in Vermont, right? And pearls? But no bling.”

Callie had noticed that, too, actually. Even during this time of crisis, Hank’s mother paced his room in camel-colored cashmere and suede. It was expensive, but not flashy.

“Their daughter survived some kind of childhood cancer,” Trina continued. “They gave the money afterward as a thank-you.”

“That’s generous.”

“Sure. But they’re also exacting. That woman was on my ass tighter than a bumper sticker while I did his blood draw. Like I haven’t been doing this for thirty years.”

“It’s because you look so young, Trina. She probably thought it was your first day.”

The woman rolled her eyes, and Callie moved on to her next patient.

 

On Hank’s third day at the hospital, a new visitor showed up. Outside Hank’s room, seated on a plastic chair, wept a very pretty girl. Callie assumed this was Hank’s sister. But again the nurses had the dirt. The statuesque blond was the girlfriend, and a slalom skier. And a model. She even had a glamorous name: Alexis. Her only obvious flaw was temporary—she’d cried raccoon eyes onto herself each time Callie glimpsed her.

As Hank’s medical coordinator, Callie was in and out, checking to be sure that the prescriptions his various specialists had ordered were appropriately dosed and would not conflict. She kept tabs on his vitals and watched for signs of infection. She was just one in a sea of faces caring for him.

It wasn’t until the fifth day after his accident that they had a real conversation.

Outside the door to his room, his parents were engaged in a heated conversation with a spinal specialist they’d whisked in from Cleveland. Callie slid past them to find Hank staring out the window. When he turned his head to meet her eyes, she could see that the post-surgical drug haze had lifted. In his gaze, she saw a man awake to the world, but in terrible pain. It was her job to try to figure out if that pain was something physical that she could relieve, or rather the distress of waking up to find he could not move his legs.

“Hi,” Callie said softly. “I’m Doctor Anders. Or Callie, if you wish.”

“Callie,” he cleared his throat. “You look really familiar.”

That wasn’t what she had expected him to say. It would have been as good a time as any to mention that they’d met about ten minutes before his accident, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Who would want to be reminded of that afternoon? “I’ve been here all week,” she said instead. “But we don’t expect you to keep track of the dozens of people who prod you all day.”

“And all night,” he added.

She sat down on a stool next to his bed. “That’s my fault. I need to know that they’re looking at your vitals every three hours. It helps me sleep.” She winked, and was rewarded with half a smile. “Now, quick—before the room is invaded again by nurses’ assistants—how’s your pain? Is there anything you need?”

Hank lifted one hand to his face, and Callie was glad to see it. If his injury had happened farther up his spine, he wouldn’t have been able to do that. With his palm, Hank rubbed several days’ worth of whiskers, which only served to make him look more rugged, while he considered her question. “Let’s see…I need a full rack of Curtis’ ribs, with spicy sauce and a baked potato. And I need to get the hell out of this hospital.”

She nodded obligingly, even though she couldn’t fulfill any of those requests. But if he was talking about food and getting out of here, those were both good signs. “You’ll be transferring to a rehab facility soon.”

“Yeah,” he sighed. His gaze wandered again, his eyes aiming at the window.

“The rehab place will let you sleep through the night,” she said, keeping her voice light. “And you’ll have your own clothes. I hear the food is better, too.”

“Couldn’t really be worse,” he said, turning to face Callie again. His dark eyes locked onto hers, and Callie felt the moment stretch and take hold. He didn’t say anything more, but he didn’t have to. Silently, an understanding passed between them. It didn’t matter if the food got better. Hank Lazarus was in for a shitty time, truly the shittiest time of his life. The distance he’d come these past five days was a descent from the highest high to the lowest low. And there wasn’t a damned thing either of them could do about it.

“Hang in there,” Callie whispered. “This right here is the very worst part.”

He didn’t break their staring contest. “You promise?” he rumbled, his voice pure whiskey and smoke.

But Callie didn’t get a chance to answer, because his parents burst into the room then, both talking at the same time. “Forty percent chance that he’ll walk from this guy, fifteen percent from the other?” Hank’s mother bleated. “These people call themselves scientists?”

“Flew him all the way out here, and it’s just more of the same,” his father muttered.

Callie watched Hank’s face close down as his parents approached.

“It’s ridiculous,” his father sputtered, pulling in a deep breath in order to fuel the next phase of his rant. Meanwhile, Hank’s jaw began to tick.

Callie stood up. “I know why you’re frustrated,” she announced, folding her arms. Hank’s parents eyed her, and Callie knew what they saw—a young doctor at a good but rural hospital. And she wasn’t even a specialist. But she had something important to say, and she wasn’t going to let them stop her. “You need answers, and you need them now. I don’t blame you at all.”

Hank’s mother opened her mouth to speak, but Callie cut her off. “Unfortunately, that’s not how the spinal cord works. It doesn’t care that you’re desperate to know whether he’ll walk again. There’s swelling and bruising, and his body is still in shock. It’s not the specialists’ fault that they can’t tell you what you need to know. The sooner you push for answers, the less accurate those answers will be, okay? Hank needs time, and we all need your patience. You won’t have the answers for maybe a year. And no specialist, and no amount of money can change that.”

Callie ceased her tirade to take a deep breath. God, she really shouldn’t have added that last part. Never mention money to rich people. She expected Hank’s parents to start yelling at her. But they didn’t. His mother only began to blink rapidly with saddened eyes. And Hank’s father wrapped his arms around her protectively.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered into the silence. “If you’ll excuse me.” Callie took a couple of steps toward the door. On her way out, she turned to look once more at Hank. To her surprise, he winked at her.

Callie walked out, and spent the next few hours wondering if she’d receive a reprimand for raising her voice to the Lazarus family. But the call never came.

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