House of Payne:Rude(House of Payne #4)

By: Stacy Gail
Acknowledgments



Special thanks to Denise Garcia for naming Borysko Vitaliev. That’s just so perfectly Ukrainian and exotic. Love it!



Huge thanks to Dr. Patricia Metzger, a kickass friend and great psychologist doing amazing work with our veterans. One piece at a time, she puts broken people back together. I couldn’t have written Rude and Sass’s story without your expertise, lady. (((HUGS)))



Also, many thanks to Dr. Elena Sammons—anesthesiologist, genius, mother, daughter, wife, great friend and Ukrainian goddess. Thank you for all your help and support, my sweet friend.



And, as always, thank you, Jade C. Jamison. LYLAS!




Chapter One



It hurts.

Sass’s jaw locked as she stared up at the high ceiling beyond the privacy curtains. There were three separate places she could feel her heartbeat, and none of them were in her chest.

Ribs.

Shoulder.

Jaw.

The ribs were the worst. They were also the reason why she’d finally decided to hobble into Northwestern Memorial’s ER. Otherwise she would have just blown it off, chalked it up under her miles-long list of Things That Hadn’t Killed Her, and moved on.

Then she’d coughed up a tiny speck of blood, and the pain of doing so had nearly made her pass out. That was when she began to worry that this might eventually go on the so-far blank list of Things That Killed Her.

But after being in the ER for three hours without expiring, she’d come to the conclusion she probably should have just stayed home and slept through the worst of it.

Or tried to, anyway.

“Good, you’re still awake.” The rattle of the curtain rings announced the arrival of the nurse attending her, a massive African-American man who probably could have qualified for giant status. Then again, she’d lied on her driver’s license when she’d put down that she was five-four. Almost everyone was a giant to her. “How’re you feeling, doll? Those pain meds kick in yet?”

No. “I’m fine.”

“Good, good.” He went to the machine beside her that kept beeping in a way that made her wish she could reach the thing and smash it against the wall. “Okay. How’s that breathing coming along?”

“Great.” She was alive, after all. That meant breathing was happening.

“Mm-hm. Wanna take a deep breath for me?”

Not really. “I just did. You missed it.”

“How ‘bout another one?”

“You have an accent—totally fabulous. Southern, right? Whereabouts?”

“Kentucky, and avoidance behavior won’t work with me, young miss. I’ve got four terrifyingly intelligent kids at home, half of whom are now into their teens, which makes them even more terrifying. You know what that means? It means I know all the tricks.”

Fuck. “Do you happen to know when I can leave? I’m feeling tons better.”

“I’m happy to hear that, doll, but here’s the thing. No one here’s gonna sign off on you waltzing out of here until you get more oxygen into your blood, you understand?” He fiddled around with something behind her. Metal clanked against metal before she heard a faint hiss, and then clear tubing draped over her shoulder. “Let’s put this on for a bit and see if we can’t boost those O2 levels before the doc gets here and decides he wants to keep you, all right?”

Sass caught at the mask before he could slide its elastic band over her head. “I’m not real excited about putting something near my mouth right now. It’s a bit sore.” Understatement of the year. Talking had become a real bitch, with pain in both the jaw joint as well as the impact site on the left side of her mouth, and the interior of her cheek and lip felt like hamburger.

A bit sore? Shit. She only wished it felt a bit sore.

Her nurse raised a brow. “It’s this or the nose plug, doll. And you’ve got some blood crusted around those nostrils.”

Now she remembered. She’d smacked her nose against a stair riser while tumbling. She was lucky it wasn’t broken.

No.

She was lucky she wasn’t dead.

“Because of that, I’m thinking the nose plug would hurt even more than the mask.”

She really should have stayed home.

Once the oxygen mask was in place, he came around to again check her saturation levels. “Now how about that deep breath, doll?”

There was no other choice. Sass went into her head, a place she escaped to when unpleasant crap couldn’t be avoided. It was a useful trick. She could blank out her surroundings, her emotions, her sense of self, and exist in a temporary limbo. She called it her Nowhere Place. She’d used her Nowhere Place more than a few times in her twenty-six years, especially during her sucktacular childhood. Blanking out was how she’d survived growing up in Chicago’s foster care system. Or, as she liked to think of it, Hell’s battlefield.

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