Chapter Twenty Seven
A siren weaved in and out of my dreams. I couldn’t seem to shake the sound of it in my ears, even after pulling my lids open and finding myself, not in an ambulance, but in a very bright room. It was like spending the day on a boat, and then feeling the waves osculating beneath your feet for another two days afterwards.
With the heels of my hands, I covered both ears, rubbing away the memory that might have stuck to the little hairs within. When the sound finally faded away, another one took over. A nice annoying bleep of the heart monitor to my right.
My head started to pound.
“Knock, knock,” someone called through the door, announcing their entrance. A white-clad doctor made her appearance, flipping through a manila folder. She offered a sympathetic smile and set the folder at the foot of my bed, then proceeded to take my vitals. “How are you feeling?” she asked, staring at a watch and pressing two fingers to the inside of my right wrist.
I fought the urge to be sarcastic. “Not fantastic.” It was the best I could do.
“The vest you were wearing saved your life, but you’ll have some bruising for a week or so. We gave you something for the pain.”
“Is that why there’re three of you?” I asked.
She smiled, removing the stethoscope from where it draped over the back of her neck. “Is it too strong? I can have your dose lessened.”
Less drugs? “No, it’s fine.”
Dr. Mills, if her name tag was correct, placed cool steel against my chest. You’d think the luxurious material of the hospital gown would protect me from the chill, but shockingly, it did not. “Oooh, cold...” I sucked in my breath.
“Sorry.” By her tone, and her unwillingness to remove the offensive object, I could tell she was lying. “Take a deep breath – out – one more.”
The doctor added a note to her file, clicked her pen, and gave me a look. “The vomiting was the result of head trauma. I don’t have all the details as to what transpired, but apparently you hit your head fairly hard against an unyielding surface.”
“Unyielding – no kidding?”
“I’m sure you’ve taken note of the bump at the back of your head. There is also slight swelling of the brain – evidence of a concussion. Normally, we would let you go home, but with the vomiting, there’s certain risk. We’ll need to keep you overnight for observation,” she apologized.
“Do I get ice cream?” I asked.
“That might upset your stomach again.” She paused with her hand on the door before leaving. “But I’m sure we can arrange something.”
I settled back into my stack of pillows, probably put there to keep me from aspirating. Cringe.
“Hey, are you decent?” came a familiar voice through the door.
“No.” I pulled the blanket up over my head. It wasn’t much help. The weave was particularly loose – thank you hospital budget cuts – giving me a nearly perfect view of Mason as he entered despite my claim that I was indecent. Which I was. I was wearing paper.
He pulled a little chair on wheels up to the bed. “I’m sure you don’t look that bad,” he joked.
Yanking the covers back down, I glared. “Be nice, or I might throw up on you again.”
“You know…” He took a thoughtful pause. “I would risk that, just to say – wow. Not even a sponge bath?”
I smoothed down the tangle of hair around my shoulders, pulling wisps out of my face. Only half of it remained in the braid I’d assembled earlier. The rest was deciding to be an afro. “I guess they thought an MRI was more imperative than a trip to the salon…”
He shook his head in mock agreement to my plight. “What were they thinking?”
“Clearly, about themselves. And possibly lawsuits…”
“Selfish bastards,” Mason agreed.
There was a short silence that left me to drown in his eyes – the blue, the kindness, the sarcastic sparkle that I could now identify as belonging to Smith. Under my gaze, he became uncomfortable and tousled wet, black hair. The evidence of a recent shower wafted into the air, the scent of generic soap. He was also wearing a fresh change of clothes. The bullet hole and all traces of blood were gone.
“How come you aren’t in bed?” I asked without first filtering my words.
Mason widened his eyes. “Do you want me in bed?”
I blushed uncontrollably, pulled my knees to my chest, and hid my face between crossed arms. “I meant a hospital bed. Your own hospital bed.”
Mason chuckled. “Because I’m not the one who was unconscious during the ambulance ride. And by the way, you talk in your sleep.”
Slowly, I peeked over the barrier my arms were creating. The only people who knew of my sleep-talking were my father, nannies who’d been paid to deal with it, and my roommates who were smart enough not to listen. Or if they did, they never ridiculed me – the way Mason was sure to do. “What did I say?” I whispered, cringing against my own question.
He seemed to be enjoying my discomfort as he leaned endearingly against the back of his chair and grinned. “So many things…”
“Tell me.” I narrowed my eyes persuasively.
Sucking air through his teeth, he answered with, “I don’t think you wanna know.”
“Probably not,” I conceded. “But tell me anyway.” So I have good reason to hang myself.
For a second, he looked on the verge of teasing me, but then he leaned forward with a more serious expression and quieted his voice. “You were saying that, that uh…” Unable to continue, he paused and blushed – blushed – before looking away. Tracing the cheap hospital blanket’s knit design, he appeared to be gathering courage.
This is worse than I thought.
Finally, when he met my eyes, his were soft with emotion. “You said my name a few times. Actually, you said Smith’s name a few times.”
“If I recall, your exact words were, ’I want Smith, I need Smith, he’s my warrior.”
My head fell into the safe-haven of my arms once again.
Mason took a deep breath. “I would think it was sweet if I didn’t feel a little cheated on.”
“Go away…” The demand was half-hearted and garbled through my arms. “I look horrible, I feel even worse. I can’t believe I threw up on someone…”
“Yeah, that was a first for me, too,” he admitted with a smile in his tone.
“So glad I could deflower you,” I grumbled, feeling tentative fingers touch my knee. “Next time maybe we can tar and feather each other.”
“Hey…” He tightened the tension by scooting closer and placing a hand on each of my elbows. I tried not thinking about how nice it felt to have him touching me, to have him in such close proximity. “Don’t be embarrassed. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“I’m not okay. I have a concussion,” I told the space above my stomach. “I blame that for whatever I said in my sleep…”
“Don’t say that.” The yearning in Mason’s tone matched the one that twirled in my stomach, like a tornado of small feathers. The one I tried to will away with self-berating as it shifted and tickled and made me want to squirm away from the feeling.
But should I? Should I avoid my feelings? Or would it be okay to like someone, to love them even? To care about what happened to them? To want a warrior in this life? Someone to actually protect me – the way Mason already had?
Having decided to be honest and tell him how I truly felt, I shifted my gaze, letting it pan up from where I was looking down. The smallest motion made me suddenly dizzy. Dizzy, and ashamed, and – gasp – needful as I gave him an unfiltered and sorrowful glance. And this was the moment I lost my mind. Up and through the gratefulness that my friends had survived, through the longing for Mason, came actual feeling. Tears made their appearance and dripped down my face. “I’m sorry,” I sobbed.
“Oh, Laura…” Mason abandoned the chair for the bed. He pulled me into his chest and held me while I cried on his freshly washed shirt. “Don’t cry. It hurts when you cry,” he whispered into my matted hair.
But I could help the crying about as much as I could help the sudden burst of feeling and honesty. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I sobbed.
He rocked me from side to side. “Why are you sorry? Everything worked out well enough. Marcus is headed to prison, Sammy is recovering, and aside from your little mental breakdown, you’ll be fine, too.”
I used my shirt to wipe away the tears then laughed. “True.”
“Plus,” he added softly. “You’re here with me…”
When I pulled together enough daring to look up, Mason was inches from my face. His lip was between his teeth, his eyes were searching. This was not how I wanted our first kiss to be; I’d envisioned myself a little less injured, a little less ugly, a little less hospitalized…
“True,” I repeated, watching Mason lean just a little closer.
Suddenly the heart monitor accelerated, and he leaned me back on my pillows with a look of panic on his face. “Should I get a nurse?”
“It’s the drugs,” I explained with a glance at the IV still attached to my arm.
“Oh.” Relief. “And here I thought it was me.”
“That too.” I was far too weak by now. Too weak to deal with new visitors, but here they came anyway.
My father’s entrance was preceded by the sound of him telling a nurse what to do outside my door. Then he swept into my room with his usual take-charge aura, two uniformed men at each elbow. One glance at Mason, and he barked out, “Who are you?”
Mason gave me a quick help me glance and then straightened to his full height. “Mas-”
“Yeah, yeah.” Dad waved him away. “Mason Smith, twenty-seven, did some time for a non-violent, computer related incident…” He ticked off the resume he’d memorized.
Mason’s next glance in my direction said what the f-.
“Hey, Dad,” I interrupted weakly and very dryly. “Let me introduce you to my friend.”
“Sweetie,” Dad greeted me with a kiss to the forehead. His familiar aftershave filled the room with scents of amber that reminded me of my childhood and sitting in his lap by a roaring fire. It was his usual behavior to scope the people I was associated with, so I wasn’t at all that shocked at what he’d dug up on Mason, or that he even knew of Mason. I was just glad he’d used the word ‘incident’ instead of ‘crime’. But what he did next wasn’t usual Dad behavior, and I had to smile inside to see him reach out a hand of greeting. Dad didn’t offer handshakes to just anyone.
“I know all about Mason,” he informed the room. As they shook cordially, Dad explained. “She’s my one and only daughter. You can’t blame me for doing background checks on her friends.”
Mason nodded once. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Donahue.”
“Nice to meet you too, kid,” he told Mason with a chuckle. “Kind of an entrepreneur yourself? You can call me Melvin.” He extended the exclusive invitation that had nothing to do with their financial commonalities. Dad actually liked Mason…
Two nurses came bustling in just then, both of them blushing and asking Melvin what they could possibly do to make him more comfortable. They offered him coffee, tea, everything short of fresh-squeezed lemonade. Neither of them even looked in my direction.
“No, no. Thank you very much.” My father, the charmer. “I’ll let you know if we’ll need further assistance. For now, just a sedative for my daughter, she’s having a bit of stress.”
“Of course, of course,” they agreed. Enter two more nurses in a frantic rush to please thee Melvin Donahue.
You might think, after years of this exhausting treatment, that Dad would be tired of the attention. But he was ever grateful and kind. When the room finally cleared, and (against my protests), one of the nurses had pressed a button near my bed that released a fresh dose of whatever opiate they were feeding me, Dad took a seat on a corner couch and explained all about how he’d hired Jim to watch over me without a clue that the situation was so serious.
The room started getting hazy, and Dad’s voice started blurring in and out. The last thing I remembered before passing out, once again, was the feeling of Mason’s fingers entwining with my own.