Read The Rebuilding Year Online

Authors: Kaje Harper

The Rebuilding Year

Dedication

 

For my husband, with gratitude for his confident support, surprising patience, and unending supply of bad puns.

Chapter One

 

He felt it before it happened. After all these months, he was sickeningly familiar with the sensation as the ligaments in his knee failed to hold, spilling him on his ass. Only this time it happened as he took that first step down a set of stone stairs.
Shit!
He grabbed for a rail, realized there was none, and that he was going down hard. He slid, felt the crunch as his tailbone hit, and then the back of his head met the concrete.

Jesus!
For a long moment there was nothing but flashes of light and a ringing in his ears. He would have begged it to stop if he’d thought it would help. Eventually, his vision cleared a little and he was looking up into a pair of concerned eyes. Really pretty eyes, the hazel that mixes grey and green and gold, framed by long auburn lashes.

Great. He’d managed to fall flat on his ass right in front of that gorgeous, tall redhead from his class. The one with the nice, um, assets.
Way to go, Ryan. Great first impression.
Except his vision was still clearing, and those pretty eyes were bracketed by laugh lines and the eyebrows were thick, and okay,
so not
a tall, gorgeous redhead. The man bending over him had to be in his late thirties, tanned and craggy-featured. His mouth was moving, and Ryan strained to make out the words through that damned ringing.

“…and I’ll get some help, okay?” There was a hand on his shoulder, pinning him down. “Don’t move.”

When the face receded, Ryan made a grab and caught hold of fabric.
A sleeve.
“Wait. I’m okay. Just give me a second. I’m fine.”

The man leaned closer. “You don’t look fine.”

“Rang my bell a little.” More literally than he had imagined. But the ringing was easing off. He tried to sit up and was pinned in place by that firm hand.

“You should hold still and let a doctor look at you.”

“I’m fine.” Bad enough that he’d left his cane at home, hoping not to start med school as the old guy with the cane. He would be damned if he’d start it as the guy who left halfway through the first day in an ambulance. It was just pain. God knew he could handle pain. “I’m just going to sit up. I’ll go slow.”

“Um, okay.” The hand left his shoulder, but slid behind his back to help him ease up.

The guy was strong. Ryan barely made an effort and he was sitting. And wow, the world was tilting. He held as still as possible and waited for it to pass. “See, I’m good. I don’t need a doctor.”

The man kneeling beside him offered a wry grin. “There’s lots of them around. You should take advantage.”

Meet your professors up close and personal. No thanks.
“Yeah, I don’t think so. I just need a minute. You don’t have to wait.”

“I don’t mind.” The man sat, clasping his arms around his knees, and watched closely.

“I’ll get up in a minute,” Ryan said.
He hoped.
Because when the knee gave out like that, it sometimes was really stubborn about going back to work. He looked around. He was at the bottom of the steps of the back door to Carlson Hall. It was pretty secluded, screened by bushes. This door evidently didn’t get a lot of use. He had figured it would cut a few steps out of the trek to Physiology class, save the leg a bit, to come out this way and cut across the grass. Talk about a plan that backfired.

Still, so far he hadn’t drawn a crowd. He’d be all right if he could just get up. And then walk. Shit.

He rolled over to his hands and knees and pushed up carefully, mainly using the right leg. A strong hand under his elbow steadied him.

“What did you do to the leg?” The man’s hip was close to his own, bracing him as he swayed. “Sprain it?”

“No. God, no.” He tried a laugh. “I have a trick knee is all. It gives out on me sometimes. It just takes a moment to get better. I’ll be fine now, thank you. You can get back to…”
Class? Work?
The guy looked too old to be a med student, but not dressed like staff. And he’d indicated he wasn’t a doctor. A really laid-back professor? Ryan shifted his weight onto his left leg, and felt the knee give.
Nope, not yet.

Those fingers still held his elbow in a secure grip. The man leaned closer, and then Ryan felt a gentle touch across the back of his head. “You’re bleeding.” The man showed him a smear of red across callused fingertips.

“Shit!” Ryan looked at his watch. Ten minutes to get to class. “I don’t have time for this.” He staggered a step. He didn’t fall. But that was about all that could be said for it.

“Did you have a cane or something?”

“Left it at home.” Ryan bit off the words. Yeah, that had been stupid. But he’d been better lately. And he got tired of the looks and the questions. But he’d underestimated the amount of walking between classes, and the dearth of elevators.
And the stupid pride that made you climb the stairs twice, because your classmates were doing it.

“Okay,” the guy said. “Look, just stand there for a minute. Can you do that?”

As Ryan watched him, yeah, standing there because right now that was about all he could do, the man went over to a backpack on the ground. He reached in and pulled out, of all things, a short pruning saw. Ten feet away, a big maple tree spread its branches out over the grass. The guy walked over to it and, cool as you please, began cutting off a branch.

“Um,” Ryan called, “I don’t think…” The branch hit the ground, and the guy gave him a grin.

He brought the stick over, flipped it, and grounded the butt at Ryan’s feet. “Up to wrist level okay?”

“Um…”

The saw flashed, short sharp strokes, and then the twiggy end fell away, leaving a thick cane with a serviceable bend as a handle. The lunatic with the saw held the improvised cane out. “Here.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said automatically. He took it, leaned his weight, and yeah, that was better.

The guy was still grinning at him. “Don’t worry.” His voice was an amused rumble. “You won’t get arrested by the campus cops. Trimming that dead branch was on my to-do list anyway. This just means I got to it sooner.” He held out a hand. “John Barrett. I’m the head groundskeeper.”

And not a lunatic.
Ryan was surprised at his relief. “Ryan Ward. Med school, first year.” The guy’s grip was firm and dry, rough and callused.

“Great first day, huh?” Barrett said.

“Peachy.”

“Hang on one second. I’ve got something for your head.” Barrett went over and rummaged in his pack. He came up with a disinfectant wipe in a foil pouch, and passed it over. Ryan must have looked bemused, because the older man smiled. “I have kids. You get used to carrying those around. And I like to get the pine sap off my hands sometimes.”

“Thanks.” Ryan reached up, awkwardly swiping at the back of his head.

After a minute the other man said, “Here, let me.” He took the wipe from Ryan’s fingers and stepped behind him. The man’s touch was gentle. Ryan closed his eyes for a moment, as careful fingers parted his hair, dabbed at his scalp.

“Doesn’t look like it’s going to bleed much more, but you’re going to have one hell of a bruise. Are you sure you don’t want to see a doctor? You might have a concussion.”

“Nope.” Ryan propped his eyelids back open and reached for a smile. “I’ve taken a whack or two in my day, and I know what a concussion feels like. This is just a pain in the…head. Thanks again. I imagine patching students up isn’t in your job description.”

“Now that’s what I like about this job. I make my own job description.” Barrett folded the red-smeared wipe into the foil, and stuck it in his pocket. “So if you’re really going to walk to class, I’m going to tag along, just to make sure you don’t fall over.”

Not like there was any way Ryan could stop him. He took a careful step. With the help of the cane, he could do it. It wasn’t fun, and tonight would be bad, but for now he could still walk. Physiology class was in Smythe Hall. He could gimp that far.

Bonaventure College had a pretty campus. Paths between the buildings wound through flowerbeds, bright with fall annuals. The trees showed just a hint of the color to come. This path was crushed rock, not paved. The edges were bordered by embedded bricks, a color contrast with the stone. Ryan would have admired the effect, if he hadn’t had to grit his teeth and concentrate on just putting one foot safely in front of the other.

Barrett walked beside him. The man was three inches taller than Ryan—he had to be holding back his stride, but he made the easy pace seem natural. Ryan fumbled for something to say. “Don’t worry about the blood,” he offered. “I mean mine, on your hands. I’ve been tested recently and I’m negative for anything blood-borne.” Which sounded like he’d done a gay date panel… “I mean, I tested because I had some transfusions and…”
Oops, not going there either.
“I mean, you should wash up, but you don’t need to be worried.”

The man had a great smile, slow and wide. “I wasn’t.”

“So, been working here long? I mean…the campus looks great.” What was wrong with him? Maybe getting whacked on the head knocked out all of his small-talk skills.

“Two years. And thank you.”

And here was Smythe Hall, thank goodness. And his classmates still streaming up the steps. Ryan pivoted partway and held out his hand. “Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome.”

Ryan shifted his backpack on his shoulder, and gripped the cane a little harder. Ten feet of path, seven wide stairs with, thank you, Jesus, a railing. And then the last class of this long day. And at the base of those stairs, one of his classmates, the little, perky blonde, was smiling at him. He headed her way as evenly as he could manage.

 

 

John watched as Ryan walked over to a short, blonde girl. The guy was tough, no doubt about it. He’d really taken a fall. John remembered his own flash of fear as he’d seen the man go over, the loud crack of head on unyielding concrete. For a panicked moment, John had thought he was dead. Ryan must have a skull like iron to get right back up from that.

The guy was older than most of the students around here, probably pushing thirty, from one side or the other. Although with the medical school on campus, it wasn’t all undergraduates. Bonaventure College was small, and not prestigious. The students were perhaps a more mixed group than at your standard Ivy.

Today there was a new crowd among the old familiar faces. A new school year, the seniors gone, freshmen coming in. Although John had nothing to do with the students officially, he grew to recognize many of them. He’d worked the past two years to encourage them to spend more time outdoors on his campus, in the fresh air. New paths, new benches, arbors that invited romantic cuddling. He had a lot more plans, but he liked the way the campus was shaping up. His predecessor had been a dour traditionalist, known mainly for yelling at the students the moment they got off the paved paths. John wanted those kids to enjoy the space.

His pocket crackled as he turned, and he made a detour to unload the wipe wrapper into a trashcan. Good thing he’d had that. Although his smile dimmed as he remembered.
I have kids.
Closer to say I
had
kids. Cynthia had called that morning to postpone the kids’ visit again. New year of school, hard to adjust, too much stress to travel right now—she had all kinds of excuses. Truth was, she just didn’t want the kids around him and he didn’t have the money or the energy to fight her for his visitation rights every time. He’d call them tonight. Or tomorrow, when he wasn’t so angry and disappointed that it would show through.

He hadn’t seen them in two months. And they were changing so fast. When they visited in July, his Torey had been wearing makeup! Not very expertly, but still, Jesus, last he remembered she was a tomboy climbing the trees. That maple tree he’d lopped the branch off had been a favorite of hers just last summer.

He shook his head hard to banish the mood. Kids grew up, that was life. He was still their father, whatever Cynthia’s new husband, Brandon Pretentious Carlisle, might think. And so what if he was now a groundskeeper and not some fancy high-priced lawyer. The kids had fun here. And he’d better finish trimming up that maple, before someone else tried climbing it and found the other dead branch with their feet. He headed off with long strides to take a sharp saw to some nice hard wood.

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