A STRANGE beeping echoed around Zane Ashford in that moment between complete, dreamless sleep and being painfully awake. Then his body awakened and he felt his left eye hurting. Not the kind of pain from sitting at a computer too long, or even the sting from accidentally dripping shampoo in the eyes.

Panic set in. His body went rigid and the beeping around him went haywire. Hands held him against the bed, and Zane struggled to get away, to get free. Why wouldn’t they let him go, and why couldn’t he see through his left eye?

Zane surged upward, shouting for help. His mind was screaming I can’t see,but for some reason, something blocked the words from escaping.

His chest heaved, his heart slamming, as someone screamed at him to stop freaking out. But he couldn’t see. One eye was completely covered and each time he opened the other everything was just a blurry mess and that sound was starting to give him a migraine. Two hands clutched at his shoulders, pushing him backward, but he didn’t want to go back.

Please! I just want to see!

“Come on, Big Daddy. Snap out of it. If you don’t stop struggling, they’re going to sedate you!” The hands shoved hard against Zane’s shoulders. “Is that what you want?”

Zane gasped and opened the one good eye he could see through. Everything was a little blurry. Slowly, he came around from his daze and instantly felt like crying. There was no mistaking the tube down his throat. His brain kept telling him to swallow, but he couldn’t and he only panicked more. He snapped a hand from the person holding him and reached for it.

“Zane Alexander Ashford! I swear to God, I will knock you out myself if you touch that tube!”

Still, he reached for it, but the moment he began tugging, there was a nick at his arm. At first, surprise stopped him from taking the tube out, then the world crashed in on him, spun, and went dark.

There was no telling how long he was out, but the world swam in on him like a bad movie, shaking horribly into focus. The pain was there again, but this time he remembered what had happened. He could hear the doctor speaking over him as though he wasn’t even there.

“…80 percent vision loss….”

Once again Zane drifted into a quick sleep, but the beep woke him.

“…I don’t know if he’ll ever carry a badge again physical….”

The memory of the heated char of a bullet from a perpetrator’s weapon burned in his mind, the pain unlike any other.

He’d gotten his man at a terrible cost.

“Ash?” a familiar voice called. “Come on, Big Daddy, open your eyes.”

“What for?” Zane’s throat felt rough and he coughed. He wasn’t sure which he preferred yet, the tube in or out. Either way his throat still felt as if he’d swallowed sand.

“So you can see my beautiful face.”

Zane tried to harrumph but failed.

“Because there is a whole world out here!”

Zane wanted to tell Renford to kiss the blackest part of his ass, but he was concentrating on the dryness in his throat. He cleared his throat, trying to be less of a burden than he knew he already was and not ask for something to drink. “How long have I been under?”

“Three days,” Renford replied. “You were in a coma because there was some swelling. They were worried you might have had some damage, but it seems your brain is working just fine.”

“Water.”

Renford reached for a cup on a nearby desk. Zane wanted to take it and drink on his own, but he could barely sit up. Renford must have noticed and helped Zane ease forward so he could drink from the straw. He pulled greedily from it.

“Hey, slow down there.”

Zane ignored the warning and sucked until he could barely breathe before releasing the straw. He eased away from Renford and flopped back to the pillow. The hospital smell made him nauseous, and every sound was reason enough for him to worry. Detective Zane Ashford had been in too many hospitals when a perp or a victim was dying. He knew the sounds.

Someone crashed, and a loud alarm with an animated voice screamed Code Blue! Hurried voices and footsteps charged down the corridors. Someone was hollering for a cartas a voice boomed over the intercom.

The noise was almost too much to bear, but the darkness inside his own head was worse.

“…it really isn’t as bad as it could be,” Renford was saying.

“What?” Zane shook his head to clear it. “Sorry—all the chaos outside kind of distracted me.”

“I know this may be boring, but pay attention! The doctors say you will have to wear that thing for about six months.”

Zane lifted a hand to touch the patch and couldn’t help feeling like a pirate—a horrible one who should no longer be a pirate but cannot give up the life. “Well, shit.”

“I know you don’t want to hear this.” Renford’s voice was raspy, like he hadn’t used it in a very long time. “But it could have been worse.”

“And how could this possibly have been worse?”

“You could be dead.”

Zane frowned and tried rolling away. Renford was trying to make him feel better—or worse, he couldn’t figure out which. The pain meds, though wearing off, still had him a little hazy.

“Zane….” Renford’s voice cracked.

Renford only called him by his first name when something was serious.

“Zane…. Damn it, Zane, look at me!”

He didn’t move.

“You don’t get it, do you?” Renford exhaled, long, hard, and loud. “I don’t care how much of an asshole you want to be to me now. I would rather you half blind than not here.”

“That is not your call.”

“Well, you know what?” Renford snapped. “It’s not your call either, so too fucking bad! And another thing. If it was my call, your dumb ass wouldn’t have gone on that bust in the first fucking place! I’m tired of losing people, Zane. I. Am. Tired.”

He said nothing. Renford’s words slowly seeped behind his defenses, his anger and frustration.

“Fool, I could have lost you,” Renford continued softly, almost as though there was just no more fight left in him. “You understand how terrified I was? I know, I haven’t said it because men don’t tend to speak these words to each other. For whatever reason they think… I love you. You’ve been there for me through everything, and I could have lost you….” Renford’s weight pressed into his side.

Zane opened his eyes to see Renford resting his forehead on his chest. He lifted a hand and gently caressed the top of his best friend’s head. “I’m sorry I scared you, Ren.”

Renford looked up.

“That wasn’t what I went into it thinking would happen. I didn’t want to die any more than you wanted me to. But I’m a cop. I have to do my job, even when it scares the shit out of me. Listen to me, talking as if I’m still a boy in blue. I should say was my job. I was a cop.”

“What do you mean ‘was’?”

“Come on, Ren. I know you love me, but I’m damaged goods. If I can’t pass my physical, I can’t be a cop—I’m done. It’s not even a matter of if right now. I need two eyes to pass my physical.”

“It’s too early to think about that.”

“No. I was falling in and out of consciousness and I heard them talking. The sooner I face facts, the better I can….”

The doctor walked in then, a young-looking guy who seemed as though he was still in medical school except for flecks of gray in his dark hair. He wore wire-framed glasses hung low over his nose. He would glance at his notepad over the rim, then look at Zane through the lenses. “Well, hello, Mr. Ashford,” he greeted Zane, then turned to Renford. “Since he’s awake now, can you give us a moment?”

Renford didn’t seem impressed but nodded, and just before leaving the room, he gave Zane a look. Zane knew that lookvery well—it said the conversation wasn’t anywhere near over.

Doctor what’s-his-face babbled on and on about Zane’s injury, but he wasn’t listening. He knew all that medical bullshit boiled down to one thing that broke his heart every time he allowed himself to think about it: he couldn’t do the job he loved anymore.

The world might as well be over for him.

At some point during the talk, the nurses placed him on a rolling bed and carried him through a series of tests, scans, blood work, and prodding. Soon he was back in his room, feeling like an overripe banana at the supermarket that everyone picked up and squeezed but no one wanted.

“So, are you excited?” Renford asked when he reentered the room. He flopped into a chair, and Zane could hear it scrape slightly across the floor under his weight.

He rolled over to eye Renford. “Excited? About what?”

“Going home soon! Didn’t the doctor tell you?”

“I wasn’t paying attention.”

Renford sighed, and Zane took that moment to go back into his head. There were so many things he had to get used to after getting shot. The last thing he wanted to do was to live exclusively on his inheritance, but he couldn’t go back to being a cop and he didn’t know if he’d be good at anything else.

“Can you get me some number two pencils and a sketch pad?” Zane asked Renford.

Renford eyed him for a moment—a gaze that questioned everything in mere seconds—but said nothing. He merely stood, grabbed his coat off the back of the other chair, and left the room.

Zane felt like a turd on a stick, but he just didn’t know how to handle not being able to use one eye. It wasn’t every day his world imploded in his face, and he was trying to handle it as best he could.

Renford’s footsteps disappeared into the chaos of the hospital, and Zane rolled over and took a breath, slowly drifting to sleep.

The nightmares descended almost immediately. He was back in that warehouse, not knowing where the bad thing was going to come from, but knowing it was only a matter of time. His slumber turned into a battle to wake up. There was no way he could remain asleep—he would die. Between the fear and his struggles, Zane wasn’t sure how long he’d been napping, but the crinkle of a plastic bag woke him.

He blinked so his eye would get used to the light before turning slightly to see Renford toss his jacket over the foot of the bed and fall into his chair again. “Hey.” Zane rolled to his back so he didn’t have to twist his neck to see. “I’m sorry I’m such an ass.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Zane pushed so he could sit up, gritting his teeth. The exertion made his eye hurt even more, but he didn’t care. He exhaled, leveling his good eye on Renford. “I’m serious. I’m sorry. This is all going to take some getting used to. Just … don’t give up on me, okay?”

“You should know better. I’ve been your friend since we were some puke-nose kids in eighth-grade math. I’m not about to throw that away because you have your panties in a bunch.”

Zane smiled and nodded. “Okay.”

Renford leaned forward and placed the plastic bag with the art supplies on the side of the bed. “Here.” He stood. “I’m going to head home, take a shower, and get some sleep. I have a couple of cases on tap right now, so maybe I should try getting a little work done. I’ll come back around lunchtime.”

“Sounds good. Where’s Ceecee?”

Renford pushed his arms into his jacket. “She was here. But I told her to take Zelda home so she can get ready for school tomorrow. Lukas had an emergency thing in Japan to tend to, so it’s just her.”

“Oh….”

“She’s coming back the moment Zel finishes school.”

Zane’s spirits rose. He figured he could see if he still had his drawing chops working on something for his niece, Zelda. That would keep his spirits up—at least between the times his pain meds knocked him into oblivion and the few lucid moments he had.

“Listen, Ash. I know, you want to go home and wallow, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Renford stood by the bed and Zane looked up into his face. “I have this friend—he has this amazing place that would be good for you.”

“Where?”

“Montana.”

“I wasn’t that big of an asshole to you, right?” Zane took a breath and shook his head. “Besides, I don’t do hee-haw and assless chaps.”

Renford chuckled. “Seriously?”

“Ren, no.”

“Before you say no, hear me out,” Renford pleaded. “You want to figure out what to do with your life, right? This ranch is beautiful and quiet, and if you two don’t make an effort, you won’t have to see each other.”

“You’re not trying to set me up, are you?”

Renford eyed him. “No. Besides, I don’t think Cy is the dating type. Anyway, just think about it and say the word.”

“I think you should find out if he wants some stranger crashing at his place before I make a decision on this, don’t you?”

Renford nodded, then dropped a kiss to Zane’s head. Zane grabbed Renford’s arm before he could walk away. Their eyes met, and for a bit, neither of them spoke. A silent conversation carried on between them, and when it was over, Renford smiled and nodded. Zane released him.

“I’ll see you later, Big Daddy.” Renford tossed the words over his shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah.”

Renford hadn’t skimped on the pencils or the art supplies. For the first time in a long time, Zane was excited about something. The only other things in his life he was this happy about were music and being a cop. Though he was no Frank Sinatra, he could carry his own with a tune. Zane dug through the bag like a child on Christmas morning and pulled out a sketchpad with a thick black leather cover. It was beautiful, with the circumference of the top adorned with gold designs that resembling an alien language and a Celtic knot in the center. Opening it, he had to smile. Renford had written him a note inside.

You’re alive. That in itself is a gift. Now I can love you longer.

Renford

Zane smiled. Renford was never the one to discuss his feelings openly, but Zane had always known Renford loved him. Seeing it and experiencing it made Zane feel as if he could take over the world. It was a wonderful thing to be loved—no matter who was doing the loving.

Even as Zane armed himself with a pencil, he merely sat there, bag discarded with everything else beside him on the small bed, staring at the sketchpad. He caressed it, dragging his index fingertip along the outside edges.

In that moment he realized how perfect the book in his hand was and how amazingly imperfect he was. It felt as if he did not deserve to put pencil to the paper.

His quiet pondering didn’t last long. A chorus of happy voices, chattering and cheering, entered his room, and without looking up, he knew precisely who they were.

“You see?” Captain Aaron Spalding said with a grin too big for his round face. “I can’t take these fools anywhere. Hey, Ash, how you feeling?”

“Like I got hit in the back of the head with a two-by-four,” Zane replied, accepting fist bumps from his partner and two others while the captain took a chair by the side of his bed.

“Well, I guess that’s better than feeling like you got punched in the kidneys,” Mark Templeton said.

Mark and Zane had been partners for a while, but Mark was on vacation at the time of the shooting. He had yet to voice his opinions to Zane, but Zane knew it was coming. The moment they were left alone, Mark would tell him precisely what he thought. Zane wasn’t looking forward to it.

They chitchatted for a while, talking about how much they missed him, yet not actually coming straight out and saying it. It was amazing how men couldn’t simply open up and say I miss you without beating around the bush about it. Eventually, they all left him alone with the captain and Mark.

“Mark, I need to talk to Ash alone. Give us a minute?”

Mark did not look pleased, but he left the room.

Captain Spalding stretched his legs out and was quiet for a moment. “This is my fault,” he began.

“Cap’n….”

“No. I had this notion, this gut feeling something bad was going to happen, and I still okayed this. We could have waited until Mark got back. Look, there are ways to pass the physical so you can come back. You just have to get used to using one eye, or we could give you a desk job….”

“Cap’n,” Zane said softly. “It’s okay. I know being a cop was the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, and it’s the one thing I’m very good at, but I can’t put Mark and your department in danger. They said I only lost 80 percent vision in the eye, but still. I know one day I’ll miss something and someone will get hurt. I can’t live with that. I can live with walking away.”

“If we need help….”

“Then I’m here. But I can’t go back on full duty.”

“I was talking to the guys upstairs,” Captain Spalding told him, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “They are talking about having you back as a consultant. You think you might be up to that somewhere down the road? Now before you say no, you’re an amazing detective, Ash. We’d be stupid not to make room for you.”

“I don’t know, Cap’n….”

“Just say you’ll think about it—give me that.”

Zane eyed the man, wondering why he was so set on this. The truth was, since he began wearing the uniform, Captain Spalding had become a father figure to him. With his own father gone, Zane clung to the captain’s experience and mentorship, valuing every lesson the veteran cop could teach him. He smiled at his guru and nodded. “I’ll think about it.”

“Good.” Captain Spalding stood. “I know Mark is just dying to get in here. He’s been walking around the station like a bloody zombie.”

Zane frowned, shook his captain’s hand, and watched him exit. Before he could breathe, Mark was standing in the doorway, his hands jammed deep in his pockets and his shoulder resting on the frame. He said nothing, just merely watched Zane.

“What?” Zane asked on an exhaled breath. “You’re just staring.”

“I keep thinking you’re going to disappear—that I’m going to look away and you won’t be here, but in the morgue.”

“But I’m here, Mark. I know you’re angry, but I couldn’t just leave the bust until you got back. They were planning a trip to Colombia and we’d never see them again….”

Mark inhaled, his shoulders rising and falling heavily. He pushed lazily from where he was and sat in the vacated chair. “Ever since I heard of this whole shooting thing, I kept wondering what you were thinking. Then I knew precisely what was going through your mind. I’m a cop. I get it. And you want to hear the worst part? I would have done the same thing you did. Shit. We cops are so predictable. I’m glad you’re still here, Zane, and I don’t want to lose you as a partner, as a friend.”

Zane touched Mark’s cheek out of sheer heartbreak. “I’m sorry. But you’ll get another partner and you’ll hate it and call me every day to complain about what an absolute jerk he is.” Zane let his hand fall back to the bed when Mark smiled. “And I may not be gone yet. They’re asking me to come back as a consultant. I’m thinking I could work with you. I won’t be carrying a gun….”

“Hey… if you decide to come back, I’ll be there.”

Zane hugged him tightly, and after a little more time together, Mark received a call from the station and left. It broke Zane in a profound way not to be able to answer that call with him, but he knew his limits.

After a quick little “bath,”Zane crawled back into bed. It’d be a while before the paperwork he needed to go home would be ready so he might as well get comfortable. He ate supper, spoke to the doctor, and was just drifting off to sleep when something fell against his side. He gasped, inhaled, then chuckled.

“Hello, beautiful,” he greeted his niece.

She didn’t return his smile but lay on him, stretching her body out the length of his as far as she could and tucking her head under his chin. “I missed you,” Zelda said softly. “Mommy said you were hurt and then you wouldn’t wake up.”

“I’m sorry, Zel. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I know. Mommy said you were after a bad guy and the bad guy hurt you.”

“You know what?” Zane asked, lifting her chin so she would look into his eye. “The bad guy did, but I’m okay. I’m fine and I still love you so much.”

Zelda said nothing so he touched the side of her face. “Darling? Zel?”

She lifted her head then, just as a tear rolled down her cheek. He realized just how truly terrified she was. Sitting up, Zane wrapped his arms around her and hugged her while rubbing her back. “Don’t cry, my darling,” he whispered. “I promise you I’m fine. I’m going to be a little near-sighted and you’re going to have to help me in online chess and read to me, but I’m here.”

Zelda nodded into his shoulder, and he looked up to see his sister standing there, wiping away tears. Cecily approached the bed and knelt down to kiss his cheek.

“Now, how are my two favorite girls?” he asked, more for Zelda’s benefit.

She grinned and went on to tell him about a little boy named Anthony who kept pulling on her pigtails. He chuckled. He thought it was cute, but Zelda was not having it. Soon she was all talked out and snoring softly against his side.

Zane focused on his sister. “Hey, Ceecee.”

“I love you, you know that, right?” Cecily asked softly, picking at the corner of her finger. “When they called and Mark told me what happened, I swear I just about died. You’re my only brother. You’re the man who loves me when everyone else hates me. You’re the one person, the one constant, the one soul who protects mine.”

“But Lukas….”

“Is my husband. Yes. But you’re my brother and there’s a bond there that is unlike anything else. A girl who has a brother is the luckiest woman on the face of the earth, but one with a brother like you—won the lottery.”

Zane kissed her head. “I love you too, Ceecee. Like I told Zelda, I’m fine. It’s going to take some getting used to—my eye, I mean—but I can do this.” He went silent for a moment, then cleared his throat. “Renford thinks I need a vacation. What do you think?”

“I think you’re due for one,” Cecily replied. “I never saw him so torn up like that before. Even if you don’t want to do this for you, do it for him. I think he needs to feel as if he can be in control of something again, to protect you like he used to when you were younger.”

Zane smiled. “Okay… the doc says I can go home. I just have to hope my eye keeps healing the way it’s been going. They’re still a bit worried about infection.”

“That’s good. Lukas will be back by then and I’ll have him pick you up.”

Zane agreed, because he knew arguing with his sister would be like resisting the Borg—futile. He chuckled at the Star Trek reference and settled back on the bed. Zelda stirred to rest her head against his shoulder, and he couldn’t remember a moment when he felt more at peace.