A PROMISE OF HOME
All books in this series are stand alone stories, but are best enjoyed in order.
“Welcome to Lake Howling, Oregon.” Branna made the appropriate baying noise as she drove past the sign in acknowledgement of the three years she'd spent here during high school. Howlers, the locals called themselves, but she'd never joined their ranks, having been born in Ireland and way outside the boundaries of the small town. Heading through the corridor of giant redwoods, she came out the other side and saw the lake to her right, glimmering in the late-morning sunlight. The town was stretched along the first body of water. The Roar, a general store that from memory stocked pretty much everything from candles to bait, was positioned first. Then the Howler, where you got a bed, meal and a drink, plus some dancing, if you could work out the moves that the locals had nailed.
Branna had noticed that not much had changed when she’d attended her friend Georgie’s funeral. The main street was still welcoming. The shop fronts were quaint and tidy with flower boxes bright with blooms, and all the windows sparkled. The American flag still flew on top of the library, which was a small white building at the end of the street and was, from memory, the oldest in Howling, and beside that sat the church. It was tourist season; the cabins would be packed with people wanting to hike in the woods, get onto the water, or pull something from it.
The office of Cooper Law, which was where she was headed, sat in the middle of town. Branna swung her van into a parking space, grabbed her purse, and climbed out. The heat settled around her as she stretched her hands above her head. After driving for days with only brief breaks to eat and sleep, all she wanted was to reach her destination.
Lowering her arms, Branna searched the face of the woman now standing before her, but didn’t recognize it, not that she’d come to know many people in her three years here. She was about 5’5”, Branna’s height. She wore crisp white capris with an ironed crease down the fronts of both legs and a collared, short-sleeved shirt, and she had her grey hair neatly tucked into a plain white cap.
“I’m Elizabeth Heath, dear. Georgie and I were very close. I’ll be calling on you once you’ve settled in, to make the handover and welcome you to the club.”
“Club?” Branna had no idea what the woman was talking about. “Handover?”
“Book Club. Georgie nominated you.” The woman reached out to pat her hand. “But don’t think about it now; you settle in and I’ll bring all the paperwork along in a few days.”
“Must be off, dear, or I’ll be late for the hike. The woman then hurried down the street away from her. Branna wondered what the hell all that was about. Shaking her head, she pushed it aside to deal with later.
The Hoot Café had a large front window, through which Branna could see several people seated at tables eating and drinking. To the left of the building, she saw another door, and on that was a plaque telling her that this was the entrance to Cooper Law. Pushing it open, Branna felt the relief of stepping out of the heat into the cool interior as she made her way up the narrow flight of steps, through another door, and then into the reception area.
“Good afternoon, how may I help you?”
The nameplate on the desk said Penny Bilks, and she was a perky brunette with a wide smile and white teeth.
“Hi, my name is Branna O’Donnell, and I would like to see Mr. Cooper, if it’s convenient?”
Penny looked at her closely, blue eyes skimming over Branna in that way one woman did to another, and she smiled.
“You probably don’t remember me, but I was Penny Wilkinson in high school.”
Branna looked closely and drew a blank. “Ah… well, I was only here for a short time.”
“Three years, I remember,” the brunette said, jumping to her feet with what Branna thought was an excessive amount of energy. “Your daddy was my teacher for a year while you were here.”
So, her thoughts of slipping into Howling unnoticed weren’t going quite as planned, Branna thought, eyeing the brunette and wondering what would come out of her fuchsia-painted lips next.
“Okay, sure,” Branna said, because she had no idea what else to say. She wasn’t good with people; in fact, she kept pretty much to herself, which had been quite some feat living in Washington, but still, for the most part, she’d nailed it.
“Good to see you again, Branna,” Penny Bilks held out her hand, which was tipped with long, fuchsia nails.
“You too, Penny.” Branna shook her hand, and then released it as quickly as she could.
Breathing more easily when Penny disappeared through a door behind her, Branna ran her hand through her hair and wondered what she looked like. Compared to the pristine Ms. Bilks, she probably came in second place. Looking down at her worn cutoffs and old gray T-shirt, she thought she should care, but really didn’t. At least her sneakers were clean with no holes.
“Mr. Cooper will see you now.”
Branna shook the hand of the big man who walked toward her as she entered his office. His smile was genuine, and he wore his suit with ease, even for his size.
“Pleased to see you have arrived, Miss O’Donnell. A lot of us admired your daddy and thought he did a lot for the school in his short time here and, of course, now that he’s famous, we love him even more.” His laugh was loud and rumbled up from his stomach.
“Thank you.” Branna wasn’t getting into a conversation about her estranged father with anyone, so she said nothing further.
“As Georgie’s friend and lawyer for close to thirty years, I knew of your relationship with her, and let me say she thought of you like a daughter, just as I’m sure she was special to you.”
Don’t cry. Branna gritted her teeth and nodded.
“I need you to sign a few things, and then you can be on your way to Georgie’s cottage. I hope you plan to stay?” His eyes were gentle and kind, and Branna saw he was genuine in his enquiry.
“I-I hope to stay awhile, but my plans are unsure at this stage.”
“Georgie had some money invested that will come to you also—the details are in here—plus her Mustang, Geraldine, of course.”
Branna had been looking at the papers on his desk, but at hearing the word Mustang, her head shot up. “She told me she sold the Mustang!”
Mr. Cooper laughed again.
“That 1966 Mustang belonged to her beloved husband, Dan, Ms. O’Donnell. No way in hell, if you’ll excuse me for cussing, would she ever part with it. She kept it locked in that big shed behind her house.”
Branna knew where it had been kept; she’d polished it, driven it, and learned to change a tire on Geraldine, just as she’d learned a whole heap of other life lessons at the hands of Georgie May Brown.
They talked a bit more about the will, Branna asking questions that she thought she should, but fatigue was making her head a bit dizzy. Make that fatigue and a bit of shock over the fact that her dear friend had left her the house, money, and Geraldine.
“Well, that about wraps it up, Ms. O’Donnell. You need anything, you just drop by.” Mr. Cooper stood and accompanied her back out to the reception area.
“You hand those keys over now, Penny, and Ms. O’Donnell can be on her way,” he added, stopping beside the other woman’s desk. “I’ll be seeing you around.” He shook Branna’s hand again and went back into his office.
“I’ll walk you down, Branna. I need to get Mr. Cooper a mystery muffin for his afternoon snack.” Penny handed over a bunch of keys, and then made for the door with Branna on her heels.
Branna let Penny chat as they walked back down the stairs and out onto the street. Her mind trying to process everything she’d just learned.
“Hey, watch out!”
Branna turned at the cry from Penny and saw a bike heading toward her. The boy tried to swerve, but it was too late. It hit her, knocking her off her feet. Her left hand hit the concrete first and then her head. She must have blacked out, because when she opened her eyes, Penny Bilks was staring down at her.
“Stop, stay down, Branna. We need to get Dr. McBride here to look at you.” Penny tried to stop her from rising.
Hell no. Ignoring the vicious pain in her wrist and head, Branna regained her feet.
“It’s okay. I’m all right.”
“You’re bleeding.” Penny steadied her as she wobbled. “You need to see a doctor now.”
The boy whose bicycle had hit her didn’t seem hurt. He picked it up and moved toward her.
“Michael Tucker, how many times have you been told not to ride your bike on the sidewalk!” Penny snapped at him.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Bilks. Is she okay?”
“I’m fine, really,” Branna added, as he looked doubtful. She slowly pulled out of Penny’s grip. “No need to fuss, Penny.” Backing away from them, Branna reached her van, and then with a final wave, she climbed in. Forcing a smile onto her face, she managed to back out and direct the car out of town before she let out a long painful moan.
“Mother of God, that hurts,” Branna hissed briefly, looking at her wrist. It had started to swell, and her head was throbbing so much her vision felt blurred.
Heading through town, Branna passed the bus stop she’d spent three years of her life waiting at every morning, the park that was used for any occasion that warranted it, and then headed along the lake. She passed cabins and houses. The bulk of Howlers lived in a cluster to the right of the main street, spread backward and up into the hills. Ten minutes from town, the houses had thinned until she reached a left turn that led her down a narrow road. With another right turn, she headed parallel to the lake, and minutes later, she was driving slowly up the old gravel drive that led to Georgie’s house. Not Georgie’s, yours.
The house was down a long driveway with overgrown trees on both sides and huge towering redwoods at its rear. Reaching the end, Branna rubbed at the knot of emotion in her chest as she saw the small weatherboard cottage the color of gingerbread, trimmed in white. Parking the van, she took a moment to just look at the place that, for so many years, had housed the one person she loved to distraction.
“Come here, Branna love, come and heal all the hurts inside you. Find peace, and happiness will follow. My soul will rest easy knowing my home is now yours, Branna, and know that I will be there to share it with you.” Georgie had left these words in a letter to Branna, a letter that also told her she had inherited the house.
Georgie May Brown had been one of the two people that kept her sane when she’d lived here. At Georgie’s hand, she had learned so much more than her love of writing. Here, she had learned life skills.
Grabbing her purse, while trying not to use her sore arm, she let herself out of the van and then made her way onto the front porch. The two chairs she and Georgie had sat in for hours were still there. Fumbling around for the keys in her bag, she found them and opened the door. Her hand shook as she placed it flat on the wooden surface and pushed it wide, then walked into a room full of memories.
Everything was how she remembered it, right down to the lace doilies scattered around the arms and backs of the furniture. She walked slowly from room to room, trying to ignore the thumping in her head, and when it got too much, she found Georgie’s medicine supplies and swallowed a couple of Advil.
It felt strange to be here without her friend. Strange that there were no cooking smells or the sound of classical music.
“I miss you so much,” Branna whispered.
She made it to the sofa she had slept on a few times and fell onto it. Kicking off her sandals, she pulled the blanket off the arm and managed to throw it over herself one handed. She would unpack later; for now, she needed sleep.
Jacob McBride walked into The Hoot with only one thing on his mind: chicken pie with a cheesy crust. Jake liked food, but he was downright dedicated to this pie, and that was why he only allowed himself to come here twice a week, three tops.
“Hey there, Jake, what’s happening?”
“Penny,” Jake gave the shapely brunette a nod. “How’s it hanging?”
“I’m a woman, Jake. Things don’t hang, and we get real pissed off if they do.”
He and Penny had been friends since high school, and he’d been teasing her for at least that long. She didn’t give him too much angst, and that was reason enough to continue their friendship, considering he wasn’t big on talking or, for that matter, building any more friendships these days.
“Got it. Don’t mention things hanging to women,” he added, standing at the counter as Buster bagged up his order without him even drawing a breath. That was one of the pluses in a whole heap of negatives that was good about living in your hometown again; everyone knew what you liked.
“I have news.” Penny drew out the S for dramatic effect.
“Hurry it up there, Buster. A man’s starving here,” Jake said, with one eye on his pie and the other on Penny, hoping she’d just leave so he could eat in peace, or he could leave before she started in on her news.
“When aren’t you starving?” the man behind the counter asked. He had cropped dark hair, a thick neck, and linebacker’s shoulders, but Buster Griffin was saved from being downright intimidating by soft green eyes and long girly lashes that had got him into plenty of fights during high school. There was also the apron he wore continually as proprietor of The Hoot.
“You remember how I told you Georgie Brown left her place to Branna O’Donnell?” Penny said.
Jake was pretty sure she hadn’t, but nodded anyway as he took his first bite. He thought about Branna Rose O’Donnell as the pastry melted in his mouth. Her soft pale skin, thick black hair, and pretty green eyes—he remembered she’d intrigued him. Rosebud, he’d nicknamed her just to get a reaction, which he had; she’d fired up every time he’d used it.
“Bet that pissed Brian Reynolds off. He’s been at Georgie for years to sell it to him,” Buster said before Penny could speak.
“He’s a real estate man, Buster, and knows a good deal when he sees one,” Jake added.
“Well, anyway”—Penny waved a hand about to get their attention—“she just arrived back in Howling today to pick up the keys. She gets the Mustang too.” The last was said with a sneer, which made Jake roll his eyes.
“I offered Georgie good money for it two years ago, Penny, and she turned me down. Let it go already. I have.”
“Anyway”—she waved her hand about again—“she looked tired and scruffy, but still has those endless legs and that pretty face. I was always jealous of her for looking beautiful in those hideous clothes she always wore, without a scrap of makeup, while the rest of us spent hours getting ready for school. Wasn’t real chatty either.”
“Can imagine that didn’t endear her to you none, Penny,” Buster muttered from behind the counter, which made Jake salute him with his pie.
“You saying I’m a gossip, Buster?”
“I’m sure you were going somewhere with this O’Donnell story, Pen. How about getting there before we retire?” Jake interrupted before they got into it, as they often did.
“I don’t remember much about Branna O’Donnell, but I do remember she was not real loose with her tongue, that’s for sure,” Buster added. “Being that way myself, you tend to notice it in other people.”
“I remember her, and she was belligerent in high school. Can’t imagine that much has changed over the ensuing years,” Jake said, and then took a larger bite for his second. He tried to make it last, but usually failed.
“Get you with the big words,” Buster said.
“Belligerent or ensuing?” Jake questioned.
“When she left the office,” Penny said, ignoring their conversation, “she looked a bit preoccupied after talking with Mr. Cooper and learning what Georgie’s legacy entailed.”
“Strange how she got everything, don’t you think?” Buster said.
“Not so strange when you realize that she and Georgie talked every week on the phone, and she was always sending her gifts. Georgie went up to visit Branna too, once a year since she left Howling.”
“How do you know this stuff?” Buster said, looking at Penny.
“Branna did all that?” Jake whistled. He’d been gone for most of those years and only returned briefly on holidays. “I guess that explains the legacy then.”
“Anyway, that’s not the whole story,” Penny added.
“Do we need the whole story?” Jake eyed the chocolate muffins that were the size of his fist and filled with a soft, gooey caramel center. This he knew, as he’d sampled them… many times.
“Branna O’Donnell walked straight in front of Michael Tucker, who was riding his bike on the sidewalk again. He knocked her off her feet. The sound of her head hitting the concrete, Lord, it made me shudder,” Penny said.
Penny wasn’t above exaggeration to make a story good, but Jake could see she was sincere in this.
“I think she hurt her arm too, but here’s the thing, Jake. She just climbed to her feet with my help, and after I steadied her, she told Michael she was fine, and then got into her van and drove away.”
“And the problem here is?” Jake said, looking at Buster, who was now polishing the glass on his cabinets while listening to Penny’s story.
“There was blood on the sidewalk, Jake, quite a bit of blood. And she was unsteady on her feet, and her eyes looked kind of funny when she glanced my way.”
“Why didn’t you make her go to visit Mom?” Jake swallowed the last mouthful, closing his eyes as he savored it.
“I don’t know anyone who quite worships my chicken pie like you do, Jake.”
“God’s truth, if you asked, I’d probably marry you, man.”
“Ha, yeah, maybe we could make it work.” Buster, like Penny, was an old friend of Jake’s.
“She wouldn’t go, Jake, turned white at the thought, and then just up and left me and Michael Tucker standing right there on the bloodied sidewalk.
“That much blood?” Jake drawled.
Penny rolled her eyes. “The point is, I think someone should check on her. What happens if she’s got one of those concussions and no one looks in on her and she’s up there dead for weeks?”
“Yes, because Georgie lives about two days’ hike from here, and then there’s the trek over the mountains,” Buster drawled. “But it’ll be the wolves that get her.”
“The snow’s gonna play hell with the rescue party,” Jake added.
“Will you two be serious?” Penny snapped.
“What’s the problem here, Pen? You and Branna suddenly buddies or something? If she’s hurting, she’ll find her way to Mom at some stage.”
The breath whistled through Penny’s teeth as she tried to haul in air.
“It’s not about whether I like or dislike her. It’s about this being Howling and how we look after people who live in our town, Jake. What if she’s up there alone in Georgie’s house needing medical help?”
“Weren’t her and Annabelle friends in high school? Maybe she’d call in and see her?” Buster suggested.
“That was ten years ago!” Penny shrieked.
“You think they didn’t keep in touch?” Jake asked.
“They didn’t even talk to each other at Georgie’s funeral, Jake, which pretty much tells me they didn’t.”
Jake thought about the funeral and ran through the people he remembered, but drew a blank on Branna O’Donnell. “She was there?”
Penny nodded. “Dark glasses, black hat, pale face, and black dress.”
Jake and Buster fell silent as they tried to remember.
“Oh, for pity's sake, you two have got to be the most unobservant men in America!” Penny said.
“That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think? I mean, I happen to know that Billy Lee wasn’t observing much when he missed that mighty fine pass I threw to set him up for the winning touchdown that lost us the game on Saturday. What you reckon, Buster?”
“Billy Lee couldn’t observe a semi bearing down on his scrawny ass from a foot away,” Buster added.
Jake nodded as Penny ground her teeth together.
“So, if you could, that’d be great, thanks, Jake, seeing as you pass the end of her drive on your way home.”
“Could what?” Jake questioned.
“Go see if she’s okay. You being a doctor and all, and her closest neighbor, you’ll be able to check if she needs help.”
He looked from her to Buster and back again. “Why would I want to do that?”
“Because you know how to.”
“I’m a mechanic now, Penny. I don’t practice medicine anymore.”
“Pffft, that’s just you playing around,” She waved her hand about and headed for the door. “So, maybe take her to see your mom if you think she needs an X-ray.” Penny pronounced it X-er ray, which used to annoy the hell out of Jake when he still gave a shit.
“I’m not going.” The café door swung shut on his reply, but Jake knew she’d heard him. “Why did I come back here?”
“It sure as hell wasn’t for some privacy.”
Jake snorted at Buster’s words. “Why is it so hard for this town to understand I don’t want to be a doctor anymore?”
“Because you’re one of their favorite sons, and they had big expectations for you and refuse to believe you’re not living up to them.”
“What do I have to do? Take out an ad, run naked down the main street yelling that I’m a fucking lunatic now and not fit to look after people?”
“Bad night, bud?”
Jake was disgusted to see that the hands he ran down his face were shaking. “The worst.” He still saw the blood all over them.
“Well, snap the fuck out of it, because I’m bringing the Jeep over later, and you need to stop it making that noise.”
Sucking in a deep, steadying breath, Jake forced himself to calm down. “Buster, the Jeep is one big noise.”
“Whatever, just make her run sweet again.”
“I gave up miracles many years ago.”
“I didn’t,” Buster said softly, giving Jake a steady look.
“Whatever.” Jake headed for the door, needing to get outside in the fresh air so he could haul in a deep lungful. “Bring the Jeep over later, and I’ll put it back together with some duct tape.” Lifting a hand, Jake left the café and climbed back into his pickup. He waved to a few people and wondered why no one in Howling had seen the changes in him. Why didn’t they acknowledge that he wasn’t as friendly as he’d once been? Why did they not ask him why he’d turned his back on medicine? Instead, they brought their cars to him if they needed fixing when Barry—Howling’s mechanic, snow plow, towing service, and search and rescue expert—had too much business.
Heading out of town along the lake, the houses started to thin, and he felt the tension inside him ease as he left the people behind. He’d be home soon, and he could work on the cars and, hopefully, not see anyone else until he wanted to. Seeing Georgie’s purple letterbox approaching, Jake decided he’d drive right by. It wasn’t up to him to check on a woman he didn’t know or care about. Hell, she was probably fine.
Any impact to the head can disrupt the normal function of the brain. People with concussions need to be seen by a doctor, and symptoms can include severe headaches, nausea, or repeated vomiting. In some cases, one of the pupils can appear larger than the other, and in severe cases, the patient can experience slurred speech.
“Stop it, for fuck’s sake. You’re not a doctor anymore!” Smacking the wheel with his hand, he passed the driveway and then jammed his foot on the brake. He’d often said things like that to his patients, and now, when he wasn’t practicing medicine anymore, this kind of dialogue would pop into his head when he overhead someone talk about an injury or medical condition. It drove him crazy.
Throwing the pickup into reverse, he spat out a few curses, then turned into the overgrown driveway. He’d see if Branna O’Donnell was okay, then leave. He could be nice if he had to; it just wasn’t something he was too good at anymore.
He’d spent a bit of time at Georgie’s, as had most of the kids in town. She’d been a woman with a large heart and a huge capacity for giving. She had tutored kids who struggled to read and helped others learn to spell. Pulling to a halt behind a white van, he climbed out. The place was overgrown now. Georgie had been in the hospital for a few months before she passed away, and while the town had tried to keep it tidy, it had slowly started to get out of hand. Looking at the shed behind the house, he wondered if it still housed the Mustang. He loved that car.
Knocking on the door, Jake spent a few minutes surveying the weatherboards. They looked in good condition, just in need of a coat of paint. When no one answered, he knocked again, this time louder, but still no reply. Then he made the wooden door shake on its hinges as he pounded it with his fist. If she didn’t open soon, he’d see if he could find a window to get in through. Seconds later, he was rewarded with the sound of it opening.
“Why are you pounding on my door?”
He’d always liked the gruff little burr of her voice. Maybe it was because he’d not had much contact with anyone else from Ireland. Whatever the reason, her accent had always made him smile.
“Hey, Branna, remember me?”
Her focus wasn’t great, but the green eyes eventually settled on him. “Jacob McBride.”
“Penny told me you hit your head, and she thought you may need to visit the doctor?”
“No… thanks.” It sounded as if she tacked on the last word reluctantly, and then she started to close the door.
Bracing a hand on the wood, he leaned in a little. “Your head looks like it’s hurting you, Rosebud.”
“It’s fine, now go away.” Her words didn’t pack too much of a punch because she was whispering; obviously, the effort of speaking was not helping her condition.
“You still got that attitude working for you, O’Donnell.” Jamming a foot in the door to stop her shutting it further, he gently pushed it open, sending her back a step.
“Please, leave my house.” This time, her words had a bit more force, even though they were said through her teeth.
“Yeah, give me a minute and I’ll do just that, Rosebud.” He watched as she staggered backward and then lowered herself into a chair, the effort making her wince.
“Branna or Miss O’Donnell, my name is not Rosebud.”
“Your fault. You introduced yourself that first day in class as Branna Rose, and it stuck.”
“We’re not in school anymore, McBride.”
“Tell me about the pain in your head, Branna,” Jake said, ignoring her words as he pulled out his cellphone and switched on the flashlight app before moving to squat before her. Once there, he pried open the eyelids she’d recently closed and shined the light into them. Her pupils didn’t react as they should as he flashed the light across them. In fact, the pupils weren’t constricting at all. “Vision blurred?”
“What are you doing?” She tried to bat his hands away, but he didn’t move. Instead, he eased her forward to inspect the cut on the back of her head. “Take your hands off me.”
“I don’t go for skinny, belligerent women,” Jake lied, regaining his feet to walk around the back of the chair to get a closer look. Penny had said her legs were fine, and he couldn’t disagree; they were long and shapely coming out of those ragged cutoffs, and she filled that shirt out nicely too. “You have way too much hair,” he muttered, parting the thick mass of black curls until he saw it. Not huge, maybe an inch, but it was matted with blood and may need a stitch.
“Ouch! Stop, that hurts.” She tried to push his hands aside again.
“Surely you’re not still pissed with me for reshaping your eraser into a phallic symbol?” He moved over her body, checking for other injuries. Reaching her left wrist, her breath hissed.
“Why are you doing this to me, McBride?”
“Because Penny asked me to, and while I’m not big on interacting with anyone much these days, here in Howling, when a friend asks you to do something, you usually end up doing it, no matter how reluctant you are,” Jake added. “Does your wrist hurt to move it?” he questioned. It was definitely damaged, but he didn’t know how badly. The most common wrist bone to break or fracture is the carpal bone. Symptoms sometimes include pain and swelling around the wrist. Okay, fuck, will you let up?
“Yes, now leave.”
“But you’re such good company.” He moved around the house until he found one of Georgie’s scarves hanging from the coat stand. He quickly fashioned a sling for her, then slipped her arm through it. When he finished, she made a gagging sound.
“You going to be sick, Rosebud?”
She pushed at his chest and tried to rise, but he simply lifted her into his arms and took her to the bathroom. Raising the toilet seat, he lowered her to the floor, then stood back as she threw up.
“Is there no end to this humiliation?” she whispered when it was over. Sitting back on her heels, she tried to glare up at him, but failed miserably. She was shaking and pale, and he didn’t want to feel sorry for her, but he did.
Rinsing a washcloth, he then wiped her face.
“Now, I want you to listen to me, Rosebud, because you were an intelligent girl in high school, and unless you did drugs or some other substance abuse, I can’t imagine your brain capacity has dimmed too much.” Jake squatted before her so their eyes were on the same level.
“I was an English professor,” she whispered.
“There you go,” Jake added, wiping her face again. “So, you should get that you need to see a doctor because you have a concussion, and while I don’t think your arm is broken, it sure as hell is not right.”
“You a doctor or something?”
“Or something.” He lifted her into his arms, which wasn’t too hard as she didn’t weigh much.
“P-put me down.” Her words were weak, and he ignored them. “Where are you taking me?”
“I think we just covered that.” He gave her a quick look as he walked back out through the door he had just entered.
Her eyes were the color of fresh cut grass, so bright they’d always given him a jolt, and he remembered that her jet-black hair had always been plaited in a long, fat braid down her back. No ribbons or clips, just a plan black band had secured it at the bottom. She’d had no soft edges in school, just a belligerent girl with a serious attitude and that air of sadness that had clung to her. Of course, everything changed when she had a microphone in her hand. The girl had sung like an angel.
It had always amazed Jake that she chose to join the school band, yet avoided communicating with other students whenever possible. He’d watched her once, being dragged in by Newman because he had the hots for some girl doing backup vocals and playing the tambourine. Jake had been shocked when Branna had stepped up to the microphone. Seeing Annabelle playing keyboards told him who was responsible for her appearance, but nothing had prepared him for her voice; all the hair on the back of his neck had risen when she sang her first note.
“No, I won’t go to the doctor.” She was trying to get out of his arms now, but he was bigger, so he just tightened his hold. “I don’t like them.”
“Don’t be foolish, Branna.”
She squinted up at him as they walked out into the sunshine. “How did you know about my fall?”
“Penny told me.”
“She had no right. Now put me down.” She squirmed against him.
“You’re starting to annoy me now, so quit it.”
“I don’t know the doctor here, and I don’t want some quack touching me.”
“I’ll be sure to tell my mother that.” Jake pulled open the passenger door.
“Your mom’s still the doctor here?”
“Sure is,” Jake said, as he put her on the seat and did up her seat belt. Closing the door, he sprinted around the truck to get into the driver’s seat, because he couldn’t rule out the fact that she might try to get out. Starting the car, he backed out just as she got the door open.
“What are you going to do, jump?”
She slammed it shut, then moaned.
“I bet that hurt your wrist?”
“Go to hell.”
“What’s your problem with doctors, O’Donnell?”
“I don’t like medical people.”
Jake shot her a look as he backed out of the driveway. She was huddled against the door, shivering and pale. Sighing, he pulled the blanket out from beneath the seat and laid it over her.
“My mother’s a good doctor, Rosebud, and I can personally guarantee she has no rusty needles or thumb screws in her rooms… and she’s got a great bedside manner.”
“I don’t remember her place. Does it have that bad smell?”
Pulling out of her street, he headed back into town before answering that strange question.
“No, it smells clean and has nice beige walls and magazines dated before 2010.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“But you need to,” he added.
Jake reached Howling and lifted his hand to acknowledge Ben Tiller, who stood at the curb waiting to cross. He watched the man’s eyes flick from Jake to the top of Branna’s head and back. Frowning, Jake drove on. By tomorrow, there would be questions, and he was fairly sure by the end of it he’d be sick of fielding them… such was life in a small town. He’d have to lay low for a few days until something else fired up their thirst for gossip.
“I’m an adult. You can’t make me go if I don’t want to.”
“Well, now, Rosebud, that sure as hell sounded like an adult talking.” Swinging into the driveway next to The Howler, he drove for a few minutes down the long, winding concrete strip, then turned into the parking lot in front of Yelp Medical Facility. Climbing out, Jake went around the hood to open the passenger door. It was locked. Pulling the keys he had just pocketed back out with a loud sigh, he unlocked it and opened the door. “Real mature, O’Donnell.”
“I hate you.” He could barely hear the whispered words as he bent to slip his hands beneath her thighs and pick her up. She was shaking so hard he could feel it through her entire body. This was about more than a concussion; this was a reaction to fear, plain and simple, and he had firsthand knowledge of fear and what it could do to you if you let it take root.
“Ungrateful is what you are, Rosebud, and me being a good Samaritan and all.”
“I can walk,” were the next words out of her mouth, which made him snort. She was shaking and her breathing was now a rasp. “I have to tell you something.” Her head lay on his chest as he walked toward the doors.
“I’m scared of doctors, hospitals, clinics, needles, and anything to do with all of the above.”
“F-fuck you, McBride.”
“That took me straight back to twelfth grade.”
“Pl-please, don’t make me go in there,” she whispered.
He looked down at her and the terror in her eyes made something jolt inside him.
“They’re good people in here, Rosebud. They’ll be gentle, I promise.”
Her good hand suddenly grabbed a fistful of his shirt. “Don’t think I can do this.”
She tilted her head back to look up at him as he opened the doors. “Why?”
“Because I give you my word that no one inside these walls will harm you in any way.” He’d said the words solemnly, almost as if they were an oath.
“I’ll try.” After that, she rested her head on his chest again, but didn’t relax any. In fact, the knuckles on the fist she had in his shirt were white.
“This is my favorite shirt, O'Donnell. You rip it, you buy a new one.”
“Sweat, baby, pure and natural essence of McBride.”
Using the hand under her to turn the handle, Jake nudged the door with his foot and walked inside. He put Branna in one of the waiting room chairs, the one furthest from the doors in case she got the urge to make a run for it, and then made his way up to the reception desk.
“Mom busy, Cici?”
“Her next appointment just cancelled. She and Annabelle are going over supplies.”
Jake looked behind him at Branna, who was slumped in her chair, face the color of paper, hands shaking, looking like a puppy locked outside in the rain.
“This is Branna O’Donnell. I’ll take her through if you want to get some forms ready.”
“I can walk,” Branna said, taking the hand he held out to her. He pulled her upright, then slipped an arm around her side as she swayed a little. His mother’s office wasn’t far, and he saw her blonde head bent over the desk with Annabelle’s darker one as they entered.
“Heard things were quiet, so I’ve drummed you up some business.”
Both women looked up as he spoke. His mother smiled, Annabelle frowned, and Branna whispered the words, “I’m going to die.”
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