This Time I'm Keeping You
The Book With No Name
“I’d inject him with a syringe filled with something that caused him to die slowly and painfully.”
Poppy Sylvester looked up at the woman before her. Middle-aged, she was short, with a pretty face beneath auburn curls. Her dress was a soft material in bright splashes of color, and she looked like someone’s mother or aunt, not a woman with macabre tendencies.
“Would you? Well, I’ll keep that in mind, Sally, when the time comes to kill Mr. Debruler off.” Poppy signed her name before handing the book back to the woman before her.
“I’m thinking of writing a book. Can’t be that hard, right? I mean, you don’t need a degree or anything, just sit down and type.”
Having had this conversation more times than she cared to count, after touring bookstores for the past few weeks, her smile was showing signs of cracking. At least this was her last stop. Home, she thought silently. Peace and solitude. After the crime writers' conference, she was putting herself into solitary confinement for a nice long break.
“I’d set it in Monte Carlo. It’s always sounded exotic, don’t you think? A long way from this little town, that’s for sure.”
Because that’s all it takes to write a book after all!
“It’s a perfect location,” Poppy said looking at the line of people still waiting to have her book signed and gauging how long it would be before she could get out of here.
She loved meeting her fans. They were one reason she wrote, but she wasn’t big on socializing. In fact, Poppy was usually what you might call downright unsociable. This tour had been her agent’s idea, and she’d understood the need for it, but had insisted on finishing it right here in Brook. The town where she had only recently come back to settle.
“Ooh, look who’s just walked in,” Sally cooed. “Now he’d be a lovely hero in one of your books.”
Poppy followed Sally’s eyes to the end of the line, where she saw several large blobs. Her reading glasses stopped her from seeing things clearly, but she couldn’t be bothered taking them off.
“Yes, I’m sure he would,” Poppy said. “Thank you, Sally,” Poppy handed the signed book over. “I better start signing some more of these books before I run overtime,” she smiled broadly, which made her cheeks hurt. “You write that book and when we next meet, I want to hear all about it.”
“Wow thanks, Poppy, I will.”
And I’ll look at it when the only M&M’s left in the world are green ones!
“What’s your name?” Poppy said as the next person placed her book on the table.
“Debbie, but it’s for my sister, Jackie,” the woman said. “It’s her birthday, and she loves your books.”
Poppy dutifully started writing the words to Debbie: best wishes Poppy Sylvester.
Finished, she handed the book back and squinted down the line. Not many to go, and she saw the large blob of a man, who Sally thought would be a great hero in her book, was steadily getting closer.
Pushing him aside, she worked steadily through the next signings, answering questions and chatting with a smile on her face. Her cheeks hurt, and she’d leave here scowling, but until then she could do this.
“I’m the last,” a deep voice said, making her look up.
“Oh, hell no!” The words exploded out of her mouth.
“Hi, Poppy,” Nick Atherton said with a slow, sexy smile that once made her melt.
“What do you want?” Her voice could have cut glass.
“To have this book signed for my sister.”
“Fine,” she grabbed the book, opened the first page and wrote ‘to Paige, and signing it with her name. Handing it back, she then glared at him.
“It’s for Georgie.”
Poppy snatched it back, and crossed out the name Paige, and wrote Georgie over the top.
“Happy?” she snapped, getting to her feet.
Five years, Poppy. You care nothing for this asshole anymore. Besides, he wasn’t her type now. She liked sophisticated men who cared about their appearance. Not this shithead with his line-backer’s shoulders, messy brown hair, which looked like it needed a good cut, and t-shirt with some sports team splashed across the front. The small rip in the shirt was situated over one of his abs, which she could see was hard and defined. Did nothing for her anymore. He’d cured her of that.
“Ecstatic,” he drawled. “And this one is or me.”
Poppy gripped her pen so hard as he lowered another book to the table before her. It flew from her fingers across the desk, and hit him on the zipper, it then bounced back and landed just inches from her fingers.
“To Nick, love Poppy, will do nicely thanks.”
Poppy didn’t acknowledge the drawled words, instead keeping her head down and writing, ‘to the world’s most arrogant asshole. May he be plagued by bitey insects for the rest of his life, Poppy Sylvester.’ Standing, she then slapped it into his chest with as much force as she thought she could get away with before someone noticed, and then quickly grabbed her things.
Brook, Oregon, was a large town, and she’d believed she could move home, and not run into this jerk. Turns out she was wrong.
“Well, that’s original; I bet none of your other fans got such a personalized message.
“I’m not sure bitey is a word, though.”
Poppy turned her back on him. Clenching her eyes shut briefly, she inhaled and exhaled before slinging the strap of her laptop over one shoulder and her handbag over the other. Five years Poppy, it’s been seven years since you last saw him, she reminded herself. You shouldn’t be feeling like you did.
“Thank you, Mrs. Rubin’s,” she said calmly to the bookstore owner when she reached her desk. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
“Of course, Poppy, you come back soon now.”
Poppy said something, she wasn’t sure what, and then left, making her way to the exit. She couldn’t, however, walk through it as he was standing there. His large feet planted, hands holding the books to his chest.
She could hardly turn and run for the back door. She’d done enough ridiculous things in front of this man in the three years they had spent in each other’s company that he didn’t need more ammunition. Besides, she was twenty-eight now. She didn’t get flustered by old boyfriends, even if she’d once thought this one was the one.
“By that reaction, I’m guessing you’re still pissed with me for—”
“You have that wrong, Atherton. I stopped feeling anything for you many years ago. “Now go away,” she added with a bit more bite than she intended. Hoisting up a shoulder strap of her handbag again as it slipped; she then made her way around him and headed for the door.
“It’s been seven years. Surely you’ve forgiven me by now?”
“Go away, Atherton. I have no interest in rehashing those years, and I’m sure you must have a wife or girlfriend to pick on by now. Who by the way has my undying sympathy,” Poppy ground out, which quickly turned into a squeak as they pulled her laptop from her grasp.
“Give that back!”
“Relax, I’m just being a gentleman, Tinker Bell. you should be happy I know how.”
Poppy felt the old rage and frustration boil up inside her as she looked up at Nicholas Atherton. Even through her reading glasses she should have recognized the man, because once, everything about him had been imprinted on her corneas. Those brown eyes, so dark they were almost black. When they focused on you, it was as if no one else existed. That you were the most important person in the world to him. Handsome, yes, but that was almost too simple a term for Nicholas Atherton. His wasn’t a face made up of simple planes and angles. It had hard edges on his cheekbones and jaw, a deep dimple on the left and a long arrogant nose. Poppy had once classed him as sinfully handsome. The kind of man that made a woman uncomfortable with just a look.
Why such a man had chosen her as his girlfriend Poppy was still unsure, but he had, and those three years had been some of the happiest of her life. She’d was pretty certain she walked about looking dazed and smiling like an idiot for most of it, but that had soon changed.
“Don’t call me that!” she snapped, trying to retrieve her bag.
He leaned closer, his eyes going to the simple gold chain around her neck. Poppy fought the urge to yelp and retreat.
“Where’s your bell?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about?” Poppy said, buying time. She knew what he was referring to, the little bell necklace he’d given her when they first started dating.
“Yes, you do.”
“Whatever, now give me back my laptop.”
“It’s been years, Poppy. Surely you can spare a few minutes for an old friend,” he said, skirting around her to walk through the door first and then hold it open for her to follow.
“I’m game for another fifty if you are,” Poppy said, walking into the Oregon sunshine behind him. “And we are not friends.”
Nick looked at the woman before him. Angry woman, he amended.
He wasn’t sure why he’d walked into that bookshop, but as soon as his sister told him that Poppy Sylvester was back in town, he hadn’t been able to put her out of his head. The plan had been to keep out or her line of sight, but one look at her and he’d wanted to talk to her. Needed to.
Poppy was one of the few regrets he had in life. Not her, or the time he’d spent with her, but how things had ended. The way he treated her. He needed to apologize even if it was years too late.
Last night he’d stayed up to finish Poppy’s book. Nick tried to visualize the sweet, slightly gawky girl writing a thriller and come up short. He’d enjoyed it, but still it had surprised him Poppy had written it.
She’d been smiling at the person before her when Nick first saw her in that book shop, and he’d felt like someone had sucker punched him. A jolt of pleasure and heat had traveled through him as he looked her over.
She’d changed since he’d last seen her, but not enough that the girl he’d known wasn’t visible. Her blonde curls were clipped into a messy knot. Reaching his nose, she was short and curvy, and every inch a woman. She wore a dress that crossed between her lovely breasts and caressed and hugged where, in his opinion, it should caress and hug.
There’d always been something about Poppy Sylvester that made heat simmer deep in his stomach. In college she’d been sweet, and he’d been drawn to her from the start. He’d then taught her all the naughty things a bad boy jock like him knew. He’d then broken her heart.
“Have coffee with me,” he said, heading down the street with her laptop bag strap, slung over one shoulder. “We’re both older and wiser now. We can be friends, surely?”
“No! Damn you, Atherton, come back here.”
He kept walking, shortening his long strides until he heard the patter of her heels seconds later as she ran after him.
“Bet those are a killer to run in,” he said, looking down at her ridiculously high red heels as she appeared breathless beside him. Visions of her naked wearing those and nothing else flashed through his head.
“If I didn’t think it would take a wooden stake to do the job. I would take them off and ram the heels through your black heart.”
“Ouch, I believe that hurt.”
Nick smiled as she glared at him. Her deep green eyes looked bigger, lashes longer, and he guessed that resulted from whatever she’d painted around them. It worked; they sucked a man into them. She then looked over his head, appearing to search for something.
“There must be a police officer around here somewhere?”
“Just coffee, for old time’s sake, nothing more. Surely you can manage that,” he coaxed in his most reasonable voice.
“There is no old times' sake. I hate you, end of story. You’re an asshole and I doubt you’re capable of personality growth, so that won’t have changed.”
Nick swallowed his smile. He’d loved the way she talked.
“Give me my laptop and go away.”
He’d known she would hate him. Hell, he hated himself when he remembered what a jerk he’d been. But in his defense, he’d only been twenty-one and full of hormones and bullshit.
“I read your book. It's good,” he said, hoping to soften her up a bit.
That stopped her. She looked at him again, eyes wide as she studied him.
Once, she’d been soft, and that was part of the attraction to him. He’d been surrounded by loud, volatile people most of his life, so when she came along, she had intrigued him.
“I don’t remember you being such a hard ass, Poppy.”
“Life lessons made me grown up.”
Nick hated that he may have contributed to those life lessons.
“Let me buy you a coffee, and I’ll tell you how much I liked your book.” He wasn’t sure why he didn't want to walk away from her, but something was keeping him here listening to her insults.
“I dislike you, Atherton, and while what happened was seven years ago, and I was a gullible young fool, I have no wish to become reacquainted with you.” She spoke in a slow, precise way. He knew this was because once she’d stuttered.
Placing a hand on his chest, Nick tried to look hurt.
“You wound me, Poppy, and here I am extending the olive branch to you.”
Tilting her head to one side, Nick watched all the fight and anger suddenly ease from her lovely body. She lifted one hand and urged him closer. Leaning forward, he waited for her to agree, waited for her to capitulate as eventually most women did. Taking a deep breath, he inhaled the subtle hint of some elusive scent that wrapped around his senses and made his eyes cross with lust.
“I’d rather decapitate you with it!”
“Oomph!” She punched him hard in the stomach.
“Stay away from me, Atherton!”
He felt her wrench the strap of her laptop bag from his shoulder as he doubled over, gasping for air. Nick heard the clip of her heels on the sidewalk as she hurried away.
Relieved when he felt the welcome rush of air fill his lungs, he straightened.
Who knew someone her size could pack such a punch? She’d never been violent before. In fact, he didn’t remember her raising her voice. Clearly, this adult version of Poppy was vastly different.
He looked left and right, when he could focus, and found her. Head high, those ridiculous heels clipping along the pavement. He watched a man approach her. A fan, maybe? Poppy took a step back as if to evade him, and then a group of people blocked her from his sight. Her scream made his blood run cold.
“Poppy!” Nick sprinted in her direction. The people parted, and he saw her. The man now held her shoulders, and she was struggling to get free.
“Release her!" His roar had the man looking his way. He then shoved Poppy. Nick tried to reach her, but she fell, and the sound of her head hitting the sidewalk was loud.
“Is she ok?”
Nick didn’t answer the question someone threw him as he dropped to her side. Throwing her attacker one last look, he dropped to his knees beside Poppy. Her eyes were closed, and she wasn’t moving. His heart was pounding hard inside his chest as he bent over her.
“Poppy, open your eyes.” Nick’s hands were shaking as he cupped her face. “Please wake up.”
Her lashed fluttered open, and he exhaled. She tried to sit up, but he held her down.
“Easy, Tinkerbell. Let me check you over first.”
“You held on to that. Your major supply line’s been cut though,” he said, slipping a hand beneath her head to feel her scalp. She winced as he ran his fingers lightly over where she had hit her head. “Nasty lump there,” he said, but didn’t add that it was bleeding.
“They have my handbag?” she whispered.
She tried to speak, but hissed out a breath as he touched around the edges of the lump.
“Anyone got something to hold on to this?”
A hand passed a wad of tissues to Nick, and he pressed them to her head gently.
“I remember when you walked into that door in college, you weren’t very brave then either.”
“I was too,” she gritted out. “You were the wimp, the Jock who was always limping or wearing a sling.”
Nick smiled as he ran his hands up her shoulders, and down to her wrists.
“It’s called sport, Poppy, and if I remember correctly, you had an aversion to it.”
“Ouch! Shit, Atherton, stop torturing me!”
“But it’s so much fun.” Nick looked down at her slender wrist, lying at an awkward angle in his hand.
“Do you hurt anywhere else?”
Poppy slowly moved her legs and arms.
“Just my head and wrist,” she whispered. “I feel sick.”
“Okay, well, if you’re going to be sick, you tell me and I’ll make sure you’re aiming away from me.”
“Such a shithead,” she whispered.
Nick looked at the circle of faces above them. He focused on a lady about his mom’s age.
“Can I use that pretty scarf of yours to make a sling, ma’am? I’ll replace it for you, I promise.”
“I-I can’t believe that still works,” Poppy hissed as he slowly helped her into a sitting position.
“What works?” he said, tying the satin around her neck and fashioning a sling
“That smile,” she hissed. “It opened more zippers and buttons in college than lunch wrappers.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, smiling.
“I’m immune. Hell, that hurts!”
“I know, honey, but we need to immobilize it. Hang in there, almost done. Small breaths.”
“I’ve called an ambulance,” someone said above them.
“No ambulance, please Nick.”
“You need to go to hospital, Poppy. Your head could need a stitch and your arm an x-ray.”
“No hospital,” her words were desperate.
Nick took the fingers she had dug into his forearm and held them tight. Most people had an aversion to hospitals, but he could see by the terror in Poppy's eyes that this was more.
“I'm pretty skilled at most things, Poppy, but stitching and setting breaks is even out of my range.”
“I don't like hospitals or ambulances.”
Again? What the hell had happened to her since that day he’d humiliated her in front of the entire football team.
“You’re going by ambulance, Poppy. Now suck it up.”
“I’m hurt. Y-you can’t speak to me like that!”
“Sure, I can. Asshole, remember?”
She tried to glare, but winced instead.
“I’m taking off your stilts now.”
Poppy didn’t speak, just concentrated on breathing as Nick removed her left shoe. Her ankle felt small in his hand, the skin smooth and soft.
“How the hell do your feet survive being jammed into these things? Don’t they give you back ache? Mine are weeping just looking at them.” He studied the high heel.
How did she balance?
“I’m short. They make me tall.”
“You really expect me to believe that?” he scoffed. “I mean, fashion has shit all to do with it, right?”
“I-I like shoes.”
He slid the last one off her foot before speaking.
“I like shoes too. Sneakers, flat and comfortable.” Nick watched as she rested her weight on her elbows, clearly uncomfortable. He wrapped an arm around her back.
“What are you doing?” The words came out between her teeth.
“It’s called being nice. Extending the hand of friendship, that kind of thing. You know how that works, right? He nudged her back to rest against him. “There now. Isn’t this nice? Just like old times.”
“I can’t believe you’re being a dickhead when I’m hurting.”
He leaned in and spoke in her ear.
“I know you’re hurting, Tinkerbell. I’m just trying to distract you.”
The tension which was holding her stiff eased from her body, and she slumped against him.
They both heard the siren, and the tension was back.
“Breath, Poppy, inhale and exhale.”
“I really don’t want this, Nick.”
“Now that’s too bad.”
“I don’t want to get in that ambulance alone.”
“You asking me to stay with you, sweetheart?”
She nodded, but didn’t look at him over her shoulder.
“Somebody get a pen and write this down,” he whispered in her ear. “Poppy Sylvester has asked me to stay with her.”
“Just until the hospital. Please, Nick.”
The color drained from her face as she watched the medics get out of the ambulance.
“These people are going to help you.”
“P-promise, Nick.” Her good hand grabbed a handful of his shirt.
“Promise,” he said, running his fingers down her cheek.
“I’m guessing you’re the reason we’re here?”
“Yea, she just got mugged,” Nick said to the guy now crouching beside them. Poppy kept silent. She hadn’t even looked at the man, instead keeping her eyes fixed on the hand she still had clenched around his shirt.
“What’s your name?”
Nick nodded and then, when the guy looked his way, he gave him a look and then glanced down at Poppy. They had some kind of telepathic guy moment, and then the ambulance driver nodded.
“So, Poppy, my name’s Jason and this is Miranda.”
“Hey, Poppy,” a voice said from behind Nick.
“I’m going to check you over now,” Jason added, pulling his bag closer as he opened it.
Nick had just been moving aside to let Miranda take his space, but Poppy was not letting go of this shirt.
“I’m not going anywhere, just moving to make some room for the second medic.” Prying her fingers free, he repositioned to her feet where she could see him.
They worked fast and efficiently, with either Jason or Miranda talking to Poppy. She kept her eyes either on him or clenched shut as they checked her over. He smiled when she looked at him, but she never returned the gesture.
Hard to believe that recently she was all attitude, serving him up a mouthful when he’d tried to get her to have coffee with him. She looked vulnerable and small now; the pain etched in her beautiful eyes, and it made his chest hurt.
“Right here,” he said, moving to her side as the medics retrieved the bed to carry her on.
“I-I could you call someone for m-me before you leave?”
He took the hand she had clenched into a fist.
“I said I’d come with you, have a little faith in me, woman.”
Her eyes shot to his. “Why?”
“Why have faith in me?”
“Because you can trust me.”
“I don’t think—”
“I was nineteen. I’ve grown up since then,” he snapped.
She wanted to argue that point with him, but they were getting ready to move her and fear replaced the words. He knew he’d hurt her. Knew he deserved everything she threw at him, but it still stung. Having your dumbass behavior thrown in your face was never enjoyable.
Nick walked by her head with her hand clasped in his when they were ready to load her into the ambulance. The grip on his fingers grew punishing as they reached the doors.
“Breathe,” he whispered.
“Yes, you can.” He locked eyes with her. “Inhale, exhale. You’ve been doing it your entire life, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“N-not that easy, and you’re an—”
“Asshole. Yeah, yeah, that’s getting old.”
They wheeled her in, then he followed. Poppy was breathing rapidly now. Bracing his hands on either side of her head, he forced her to look up at him.
“You need to calm down now, or you’ll be unconscious in seconds.”
“When we get there. You can go.”
“But your company is so much fun.”
She was terrified. It was in every line of her face, and the knuckle whitening grip she had on his fingers. He talked to her about a lot of nothing until they arrived at the hospital.
“Ok, Poppy, we’re here now.”
Nick moved out of the way once more as the ambulance stopped, and then, grabbing her laptop and shoes, he walked beside her into the hospital. She handled it, but hated every moment. Her fingers gripped the railings on the bed and kept darting between him and the lights overhead until finally they wheeled her into a cubicle.
“The doctor will be in soon, Poppy.”
“Thank you.” Nick watched her force out a smile to the two medics as they left her. She then looked around the room.
“You’re safe here.”
“I-I hate hospitals.”
“I worked that one out for myself. You want to tell me why?”
She didn’t, he could see that, but then she let out a loud breath.
“It’s not something I like to remember.”
He didn’t speak. If she wanted to tell him, then he would listen, otherwise he would just support her for as long as she needed it.
“My brother and I were in a car accident. I remember the pain and then the ambulance ride to the hospital.”
“I never knew you had a brother.”
“You never asked.”
And wasn't that the truth. He'd never asked her anything about herself because he'd been obsessed with himself.
“How bad were you hurt?”
“Broken tibia, fibula, femur and pelvis, internal bleeding, punctured lung, and broken ribs.
He watched the memories come and go across her face.
“I remember little after arriving at the hospital. I heard Lucas call out my name and then nothing more. For days, I would wake occasionally only to have another nurse medicate me and then I’d sleep again.”
“How old were you?”
“So, the reason you didn’t play sport in college or run anywhere was because you couldn’t?”
“And I never asked you why.” He was pretty disgusted with the self-obsessed jock he’d been.
“I told you because you asked. Nick, I don't want you to feel guilty.”
“I’m sorry, just the same.” He hooked his foot around a chair leg and dragged it closer. “Was your brother badly hurt?” he said dropping onto it.
She looked away from him briefly and when she turned back, the pain in her eyes told Nick what she hadn’t said.
“Ah hell, Poppy.”
“Hell about sums it up,” Poppy whispered. “When he died, everything good in my life was taken away. He was the reason I smiled when I opened my eyes every morning. The only person I’ve ever truly loved.”
Nick remembered the look in her eyes sometimes when she didn’t know he was looking at her, the sadness. He’d just never asked her why.
“The words are inadequate, but I’ll say them, anyway. I’m sorry for your loss, Poppy. I’m doubly sorry you didn’t tell me, and that I could have been there for you if I'd been able to see past the end of my nose.”
“We, you and me, weren’t like that.”
He knew what she meant. They’d spent time together, and she’d helped him study, and he’d made her cool. It had been an odd relationship that had blossomed into a lot more, and then he’d broken it.
“Y-you can go now,” she whispered.
“Sure, and then you’d have another reason to hate me.” Nick said, catching a tear as it slid down her check.
“Seriously, Nick, I’m ok now, truly I can handle this.”
She was trying to offer him a reassuring smile, which only made her look more pathetic and made him angry because she was pushing him away, which he deserved.
“I’m too weak to argue with you, but tomorrow I’ll hate you again.” Nick snorted.
“You weak? Give me a break.”
“If I say I forgive you, will you go?”
He looked at her lying there, hurting. The strong indomitable Poppy Sylvester. She’d been one of the few girls in college who hadn’t liked him, and that had been the reason he’d pursued her. That and the fact that he’d wanted her.
But now he knew she wasn’t deliberately ignoring him or trying not to make friends. What she’d been doing was grieving for everything that had been good in her life. She’d lost the only person she’d ever loved, and he hadn't known or cared.
Nick had spent the hour Poppy had been gone for x-rays, sitting in the uncomfortable plastic chair that was too small for a man his size. He was currently reading a pamphlet about thorough hand washing, which as it turned out, he’d been doing wrong his entire life.
He’d spent the time thinking about the Poppy Sylvester he knew in college. Contained, quiet, with attitude when pushed hard enough. The girl who had dressed like a boy, and put up with his shit, and he’d never really worked out why until it was too late.
She hadn’t shared details about her life, and if he was honest, he hadn’t cared. His focus had been on him. He’d forced her to listen to his teenage self-important BS for hours. Hell, she’d even listened to him discussing the upcoming plays he needed to work through for the next game.
Poppy, he’d found out too late, didn’t like football, but she hadn’t told him that until he’d ruined everything between them.
There weren’t many times in his life Nick was ashamed of something he’d done. For the most, since he’d grown into a halfway responsible adult, he’d been a good person. It was never nice to have the moments in your life when you weren’t, thrown in your face.
“Hey, you,” he got out of the chair as a nurse wheeled her in.
“It’s sprained, not broken,” Poppy said pointing to her arm that was now in a sling
“We’ve stitched her head wound, and the doctor would like to keep her in overnight,” the nurse said. “We need to monitor her concussion.”
“No,” Poppy said.
“Yes,” Nick said. “She’ll stay,” he added, overriding her.
“I don’t want to stay.”
“Excellent, someone will be along shortly to take you to your room,” the nurse hurried out, clearly seeing an argument brewing.
“Before you launch at me, you’re going to listen to what I have to say, Poppy. First off, these people are medical professionals, you are not.”
“It’s my decision, Nick. I’ve been making them for years, and I don’t need any help from you.”
She’d clamped her lips together, making her look like one of his nieces or nephews when they were pissed about something.
“I’m pretty sure these people have a few letters after their names that suggest they’ve done years of study to back up their need to keep you overnight.”
“I can look after myself.” She couldn’t cross her arms, so she continued to glare at him.
The woman was way too cute.
“Second, if my memory serves me well, and it usually does, you studied business in college, not medicine. So, I’m going with the doctor’s diagnosis. Third,” he said, lifting a hand as she opened her mouth. “You’re pale, sick and have a head injury and unless you can assure me you have someone with a medical degree waiting to care for you at home, you’re not heading there anytime soon.”
“I hate hospitals and I don’t want to stay.”
“Answer the question,” Nick said, looking down at her.
“No, there’s no one at home, medical degree or not.”
Nick felt far too relieved there was no one waiting at home for her. No man, he clarified silently, but that didn’t mean she had no boyfriend. They may not be living together.
“Any family nearby you can call on?”
She shook her head, and he could tell she wanted desperately to lie to him, but lying wasn’t in her nature. Something he’d always respected about her.
“Yes, but the one I’d call is out of town,” she muttered.
He didn’t want to feel sad there weren’t a handful of people for Poppy to call on like he could. Not many people had five siblings, all living within spitting distance and enough relatives to populate a small Island.
Nick tried to remember if he knew anything about her family. No. He hadn’t asked about them either.
“To my way of thinking, that settles things then.”
She sighed, and he watched as she slumped onto the bed, losing the stiffness and angst she had held on to for about five minutes.
“I usually do,” Nick said, knowing it would annoy the hell out of her.
He was subjected to a long look out of her red rimmed green eyes.
“I’m not going to say anything about that comment because without you today I would not have coped, but tomorrow that will change.”
The nurse came back with the wheelchair, which Poppy said she didn’t need. Nick simply nudged her down into it.
“So see you, and thanks, Nick. Really,” she said to his chin.
“After everything we’ve been through, you’re just dismissing me?”
Her eyes shot to his. “What?”
“It really hurts, Poppy. I thought I meant more to you than that.”
“What?” She blinked.
“Us.” He pointed to her, then his chest. “It hurts you don’t take us seriously.”
The nurse made a tsking sound and glared at Poppy.
Poppy rolled her eyes. “Ignore him. This is a game we used to play in college.”
“I wondered if you’d remember that.”
“What game?” The nurse asked.
“To see who could make the other look bad in front of people by inventing some silly story. He was always the best at it because he was popular.”
He hadn’t thought she cared much about being unpopular. Of course, that had changed when they’d become friends, but she’d told him she didn’t much want to be like him. Had she been lying?
“Go home, Nick. I release you from your duties.” She didn’t look at him, but the nurse. “Can I go to my room now please.”
“What floor are you taking her to?” The nurse told him, and the room number.
“Bye,” Poppy said to his left ear. “Thanks again.”
She was wheeled away, and clearly thought he would leave and they’d never see each other again. Nick had other ideas.
He went to the cafeteria and got her a coffee. Was she allowed coffee? And some food. Then picked up a magazine from the gift shop. When Nick walked into her room, she’d dressed in an ugly hospital gown, her cool forest green eyes locked on him as moved to her side.
“I thought you were going home.”
“You’re such good company I stayed. Nice dress.”
She looked small and vulnerable lying there, pale faced and scared, but trying not to show it.
“The nurse had to wrap the ties around twice. Seems they didn’t have my size.”
“Still, that prison wall pale grey really works for you. Brings out the red in your eyes.”
“Is that for me?” She pointed to the coffee.
“It is. I brought you some food and a magazine.”
“Why does me being generous surprise you so much?” Her response pissed him off.
“You weren’t generous in college. In fact, you were a self-satisfied jerk.”
“I always thought I admired your honesty.”
“I was never honest back then,” she muttered.
He thought seriously about not giving her the coffee, but then she was only being honest, and he likely deserved it. Even if her criticism was years too late.
“Sugar?” He held up the coffee.
“Three sugars? Who has that many these days?” Nick popped the lid and dumped in three packets. Luckily, he’d brought spares.
“Me.” She took it from him and drank. Her sigh came from the souls of her feet.
Nick wondered about the sounds she made while she was making love. Where the hell had that come from? It’s not like you’ll ever find out.
She took another mouthful of coffee. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be snippy.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard that word since you used it constantly in college.”
“I guess memories of my senior year were stronger than I remembered. You should head away now. I’m sure I’ve taken up more than enough of your time, and thanks again, Nick.”
Why did he not want to leave her alone? Yes, once they’d been friends, but he’d ruined that. Now they were strangers.
“And what do you plan to do about your handbag, credit cards, and cell phone?”
“I… I forgot about them.”
Taking out his phone, he handed it to her. “At least one of us is thinking clearly. Seems that’s changed since college.”
“Girls and hormones weren’t clouding my thought processes then.”
“How about now?”
She flipped him her middle finger, but as it was the hand sticking out of her sling, it didn’t go so well. She moaned again, and the sound went to his groin.
“Poppy, If I say sorry again, years too late, will you forgive me?”
She looked up from his phone, and her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
“Unfortunately for you I can hold a grudge, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.”
Poppy looked down at the cell phone in her hand again and then held it out to him.
“Just go home, Nick. Thank you again—”
“Shut up and make the call.”
“Don’t tell me to shut up.”
“I won’t if you stop being an idiot.” His jaw was clenched. Eyes narrowed.
Why was he angry? They weren’t friends. He didn’t need to stay.
Had his behavior today erased some of the hurt he’d inflicted in college? Yes. They’d both changed. He’d grown into a hot hunk of a man, that she was sure… her thoughts trailed off as she looked at him.
“Are you married?”
“No. Why? You want to put your hand up to be my wife, Tinker Bell?” The frown on his face eased.
“No. I just wondered is all,” she mumbled.
“No significant other, either.”
She ignored that and the little jolt of happiness his words created inside her. Nick Atherton was nothing to her.
Angry with her reaction, she started punching the number she knew by heart into his phone.
“Hi, Aunt Jenny. I’m totally fine, but I had a minor accident. Don’t freak out,” Poppy added quickly as her aunt shrieked. “I’m ok, truly. They’re just keeping me overnight for observation.”
She loved her aunt, but she could be dramatic.
“You are not flying here to look after me! I will call you tomorrow when I get home. If anyone needs to fly, it will be me to you.”
She looked at Nick, who was listening to the conversation. A small smile on his handsome face. Really handsome, she thought, looking away again.
“I won’t have my phone on me, Aunt Jenny, so don’t try calling me,” Poppy said. “No, there is no one you can talk to about my condition because the doctors are not—” the phone was pulled out of her hand.
“Hi, Aunt Jenny, this is Nick.”
“Give it back!” Poppy tried to grab the phone, but he just walked away from the bed.
“I’m a close friend of Poppy’s.”
“Don’t tell her that!” If Aunt Jenny thought she had a close male friend, her life would be hell. She’d be harassed from sunup to sundown. The bright lights would come out and there would be endless hours of relentless interrogation. Her aunt believed Poppy should be married by now and producing babies for her to spoil.
“Yes, we went to college together and reconnected recently.” He was a regular Chatty Cathy now.
She tried to climb out of bed, but the movement hurt her wrist.
“You just stay in bed, honey, I’ve got this,” Nick said with a smirk on his face.
Poppy looked for something to throw at him. Only her coffee cup was handy. She wasn’t giving that up.
He sent her a smug look as he continued to talk. Even annoyed with him, she couldn’t help but admire the way his butt looked in those faded jeans. Worn in all the right places. He was the quintessential sexy hunk. She wrote about men like him, tall, dark and far too handsome for their own good. Even his hair was perfectly tousled.
Poppy could only imagine what hers looked like but didn’t have the energy to care. Closing her eyes, she tried to ignore the pain that seemed to be in every part of her body.
“Sure, I’ll make her rest and she’ll call you in the morning. Yeah, you too, Aunt Jenny. Take care now. She sends you her love,” Nick said, pocketing the phone.
“I’m too tired to be angry with you now, but I will be tomorrow when my aunt calls me every five minutes and then appears on my doorstep demanding to meet Nick.” Poppy yawned loudly. “You never understood personal boundaries.”
“Five siblings. Personal boundaries weren’t something any of us understood.”
“There are five of you?” She’d known he had siblings, just not how many. He’d never invited her to his house.
“Certainly are, and all share my good looks and engaging personality.”
Poppy couldn’t stop the laugh, and then winced.
“Nick, I was thinking about the mugging. There’s probably no chance of getting my bag back, but I think I should still report it.”
“I’ve called my cousin Billy. He’s a cop. He’ll be here soon.”
“You have a big family, don’t you?”
“Huge. We have someone in most of the key occupations. There’s a doctor, pediatrics,” he added, shaking his head, which she guessed meant that field was of no use to him. “Dentist, lawyer, accountant, and two detectives. My cousin Tom plays American Football,” he added, looking at her as if she should be impressed.
Sport wasn’t her thing, so she shrugged.
“We’re lacking a few areas, but we’re hoping to work on that with the next generation.”
“You’re multiplying?” She tried to look shocked, but yawned instead.
“I have nieces and nephews who already know I’m their favorite uncle.”
She could tell by the look on his face he loved his family.
“There’s a sandwich and muffin in here.” He picked up a paper bag. “What do you want?”
“I just want to sleep, Nick. But thanks.”
“I told Aunt Jenny, I’d make you eat.”
“Ha.” Her eyes closed. “Go home.”
“No really. You don’t need to thank me again for reassuring your aunt.”
“Aha. Go away.”
“Nick. Hey, buddy.”
Poppy opened her eyes to watch a large dark-haired man approach Nick. There was no mistaking the blood tie between them, and she guessed this was police officer Billy.
“This is Poppy, bud. She was mugged today.”
Billy’s smile was like his cousin’s and reached his soft green-brown eyes. She didn’t get the same feeling in her belly like she did with Nick.
“Hey, Poppy, real sorry about what happened.” He took her good hand and squeezed it gently.
“It’s not your fault,” Poppy said. He looked so sincere.
“Billy takes his job seriously, don’t you, Detective Atherton?”
“There are enough cops who don’t,” Billy said, ignoring his cousin’s teasing.
“Surely a detective must have better things to do than deal with a mugging,” Poppy said.
“When family calls, Atherton’s come.” Billy smiled again. He then started questioning Poppy gently but thoroughly until he had all the answers he needed.
“We probably won’t catch them, Poppy. I’m telling you that right off. But we’ll try.”
“Thank you anyway,” Poppy took his hand again.
“I’ll be out soon, Billy. I need a lift.”
“Take your time, bud.” Billy raised a hand and left.
Poppy closed her eyes on a sigh. She really needed to sleep.
The soft touch of his lips on hers had them opening, and there he was, inches from her face.
“Sleep well, Poppy.”
“Th-thanks. See you around, Nick.”
“Count on it.” He kissed her again. This one longer, and then he was gone.
Poppy closed her eyes and let sleep take her. Tomorrow was soon enough to think about today, and Nick Atherton again.
Honeys was a bar Nick and his siblings had been going to for years. Always busy, tonight was no different as he made his way to the rear, passing tables full of patrons.
Brick walls, polished wood floors, and a big screen to watch the game on, it was a place that held good memories for Nick.
He raised his hand a few times, acknowledging those that knew him, and headed out the doors and into the garden bar. On the second Friday of the month, this was where he and his siblings gathered. No parents, or partners, just Atherton sibling night.
“Three, Gracie. I shot three baskets to your one!”
Their voices reached him before he rounded the partition to find them all leaning on a table. Moving to his youngest sister, he wrapped his arms around her from behind, giving her a squeeze while rubbing his chin over her blonde head.
“Hey big brother,” Emma Atherton said, turning to plant a loud kiss on his cheek.
“Hey little sister.” Nick let her go, moving to the taller blonde to her right. “Gracie,” he said, doing the same with his chin.
“Nicky.” She patted the arm he had around her before continuing on with the conversation she was having with Thomas. The brother that sat between her and Em on the Atherton ladder.
He slapped hands and bumped chests with his brothers and then made for the space at the end of the table where a long, cool bottle of beer waited for him. Swallowing a mouthful, he looked at his siblings. They were a mixture. His sisters and Thomas were blonde, with brown eyes like their mother. Nick and Sam were dark with blue eyes like their father.
“What made you late, Nick?” Sam, the second eldest, questioned.
“I met a friend today, and she had some trouble.” Was Poppy okay? Or was she terrified and thinking about her brother? Nick hadn’t wanted to leave her. He’d wanted to sit in that uncomfortable chair and hold her hand if she got scared.
He should have stayed.
“Nick!” Two fingers snapped in front of his face.
“What friend? What trouble?” Sam demanded.
Having a large family was the best, but sometimes you wanted to sit on something. Mull it around a while and talk about it when you were ready… or not.
“Spill,” Gracie said.
“Remember Poppy Sylvester.” Nick drank deep from his bottle.
“The writer?” Em screwed up her face, which made her look about ten.
“Didn’t we go to college with her?”
Nodding, Nick pointed his bottle at Sam.
“She was there, tops, two years, wasn’t she?” he added. “Didn’t you two hate each other? Correction, didn’t she hate you because you tormented her?”
Had he been that bad?
“I don’t remember her or the torment,” Grace said, looking his way. She had a piercing stare that everyone said she got from Nick.
“How’d you meet her and what kind of trouble?” Thomas asked.
As the lawyer in the family, he liked to get all the facts on the table straight away.
“I went to her book signing.” Nick kept his expression calm as everyone looked at him. “I thought Aunty Jean might like a copy signed for her birthday,” he added to strengthen the reason he was there. Luckily, they bought it.
“How’d Poppy look?” Sam asked.
Hot. Nick thought about the body beneath that soft clingy dress, her lovely face and the mass of blonde hair piled on top of her head.
“She’s good,” he said. “Anyone ordered yet?” he added, hoping to throw them off the scent. Food to the average Atherton was as vital as air for most people.
“Yeah yeah,” Sam waved his hand about.
“What did she say when she saw you?” Em asked.
“It’s all coming back to me now.” Gracie snapped her fingers. “You and Poppy were sort of friends and then suddenly you weren’t. You never told us what happened.”
“What’s a sort of friend?” Thomas asked.
“A friend sometimes, but only when you want something,” Sam added. “Nick was an asshole in college, remember?”
He glared at his brother. “Shouldn’t you be nice to me, seeing as I’m your blood?”
“Since when is that a thing?” Thomas said.
“Whatever, and she doesn’t remember college.”
“You’re lying,” Em said. “Your shoulders are up to your ears, which is a sign you’re seriously uncomfortable.”
“Okay, fine,” he snarled. “She remembered me, and signed the book, ‘to the arrogant asshole who made my final year in collage torture, may he rot in hell’, Poppy Sylvester.”
There was absolute silence after these words, for about five seconds, which must be some kind of record, Nick guessed. Sam then let out a bark of laughter and the others followed.
“Why were you such an asshole to her?” Em asked, recovering first. “I mean, you’re usually one of the good guys.”
“Love you too, baby,” Nick said.
“She really got to him in college, because unlike everyone else in his year or any year for that matter, she didn’t worship at his size 12s.”
Nick glared at Sam. Had he really been that shallow?
“I’m just telling the truth.” Sam held up his hands. “I never thought all that hero worship you got healthy.”
Nick raised his middle finger.
“You said she was in some kind of trouble. What happened?” Thomas asked.
“I invited her out for coffee. She told me to get lost, and then walked away,” he said, omitting the part about taking her laptop. “Someone attacked her on the street. Before I could reach her, he’d thrown her to the sidewalk.” Nick would always remember watching Poppy fall and him not able to reach her.
Em whistled while the others made several unflattering comments about the attacker.
“Is she all right?”
“Broken wrist, concussion and shaken up. That’s where I’ve been, with her in the hospital.”
“You need to tell Billy in case any of her stuff turns up,” Gracie said.
“Already done. He visited her before I left.”
Thankfully, the server arrived at that moment, so there was a move toward food, which Nick hoped would put an end to the conversation about Poppy.
“So, they got her bag?”
Apparently, food was not enough of a deterrent.
“Yup. Anyone watch the Hawks game last night?”
“Does she have friends and family looking after her now?” The most tenacious Atherton, Gracie, asked.
“No,” Nick said, only just refraining from pinching the bridge of his nose.
“You left her!”
“I stayed with her the entire time, in the ambulance and at the hospital. I brought her food and drink and then I even kissed her… Shit!” Nick lowered his forehead to the table in front of him and kept it there. He could feel the beer ring from his glass dampening his forehead but didn’t care.
You never mentioned kiss and woman in the same breath when your sisters were around. Brothers, yes, they just slapped your back and winked. Sisters no. They got all bent out of shape if you were kissing and running or kissing and staying or just kissing and they didn’t know the woman.
“You kissed an injured woman?”
Lifting his head, Nick said. “It was a comfort kiss. The woman is petrified of hospitals. Em, cut me some slack.”
“You gave a woman who wasn’t family a comfort kiss?”
“Shut up! All of you,” he added, sending a menacing look around the table his younger siblings knew well. “Now I want to drink, eat and hear all your news. I do not want to hear one more word about Poppy Sylvester. Is that understood?”
“Just one more question,” Em said. “Does she have family or friends who can take her home from the hospital? Because if not, who will? She can’t take a cab, surely?”
“I’ll take her home! Now shut up.”
Em sat back on her stool with a satisfied smile that unsettled him, but he rallied.
“How’d your day in court go, bro?” he asked Thomas.
Thankfully, the others started talking, and everyone, but him, forgot Poppy.
Was she okay?
They laughed, joked and talked serious when serious talk was required, and at midnight, they called it quits.
“See you at home on Sunday, twelve, right?” he said to his siblings when he reached his car. “Is Gracie still picking up Aunt Jean on the way?”
“Yes, and seeing as you already got a gift, we’ll leave you out of the whip round,” Gracie said. “But you get to man the grill, otherwise dad will burn everything.”
Nick nodded and then he realized he would need to get Poppy to sign another book for his aunt now. He started the car, then sat tapping the steering wheel for several seconds before putting it in drive. Turning left instead of right, which would take him to his home he headed to the hospital.
Walking through the hospital emergency department doors, Nick took the elevator to Poppy’s floor. It wasn’t late and the place still had plenty of people walking the corridors, so he didn't get too many side eyes. He nodded and smiled and wondered if someone was going to stop him getting in to see Poppy.
“Can I help you?” The woman behind the reception desk said as he approached. She looked tired, and there was a stain on her uniform he was fairly sure he didn't want to know the origin of. He checked her name badge.
“Hey, Sally. Long day?”
Her face moved into a smile, and then a yawn.
“How long you got left of your shift?”
She looked at the clock behind him on the wall. “An hour.”
“Not long then.” Nick smiled.
“I’m getting drive through.” Her smile grew.
“Nice. Look, I know it's midnight and visiting hours are long over. Sally, it’s just that my friend is terrified of hospitals, and I’d like to check on her before I head home. I’ve had at least ten panicked text messages about her death if she has to stay in here. I just need to settle her down for the night.”
He had no problem lying it if was for the greater good.
“I’m really sorry. We can’t allow that.”
“She’s in a room on her own. If she’s sleeping, I’ll leave,” Nick said, giving her a slow smile, the one Poppy said opened zippers in college.
“You can come with me if you like, just to make sure I’ll behave. I’d be doing the next shift in a favor. When Poppy goes off, she goes off. No calming her when the fear takes hold. Once, she bit the arm of a nurse, and kicked another in the stomach. Then there was that time she just took off with that thing in her arm. I had to bring her back.”
“The IV?” the nurse asked, now looking worried.
“That,” Nick pointed at her. Sally looked like she was wavering, so went for the sympathy vote.
“She had a real rough time as a kid in hospital. It’s scarred her. If you’ll just come with me, I’ll check and then go—”
“It’s all right, Sally. Let him see the patient. He came in with Miss Sylvester today, and I know she’s nervous,” the doctor who had admitted poppy approached the desk. By Nick’s calculations, the guy had been working for ten hours straight and looked about ready to drop.
“Cheers, Doc, I won’t stay long,” Nick said. He walked softly past doors until he reached hers. Pushing it open, he saw the room was lit by a small wall light. Tiptoeing around the bed, he looked down at her.
“Nick?” her eyes were open.
“Hey, Poppy, you should be sleeping.” Her hair was tangled around her head, and she was lying propped on several pillows, looking uncomfortable.
“I don’t want to stay here anymore. Smuggle me out, please.” Her voice was husky.
“You been laying there thinking about that since I left?”
“I hate hospitals and I want to go home.”
“And here’s me without my violin,” Nick drawled.
“True,” he said, hooking a leg around the chair behind him. Nick dragged it forward.
“What are you doing here, Nick? Surely there’s a woman somewhere waiting for you?
“No, I gave her the night off, and the hospital is on my way home,” he lied, dropping into the chair.
“It’s late. How is being here anything to do with going home?”
“It was Atherton night. We never finish till twelve.”
She studied him through eyes filled with pain and exhaustion. Unable to stop himself, he lifted a hand and brushed a curl off her forehead.
“Your family has a night?”
“We tried to pass a bill through congress, but they wouldn’t give us a whole day, so we go for a night. Every second Friday each month is for us, just siblings with no extras.”
“Extras being?” She asked.
“Cousin, parents, nieces and nephews, aunt, uncles, friends, and parents,” Nick said.
“Are they all like you?”
Nick brushed her hair away again, because he liked touching her and she seemed to relax when he did.
“Hot and intelligent?”
“Arrogant and annoying,” Poppy added.
“Pretty much. Atherton night is held in a bar called Honey’s,” Nick said, resting his elbow on the bed beside her head.
“I bet it’s a real classy joint.” Her smile was small, but still a smile.
“Honey’s is gold standard. I’ll have you know. Spareribs that are rare and covered in sauce so hot you need two cool your mouth down in between bites.”
“My tummy’s rumbling.”
Nick heard the yawn she tried to stifle, so he kept talking.
“I’m the oldest Atherton at thirty-one and then comes Sam. He’s twenty-nine. We’re in business together.”
“What kind of business?”
“Architecture and construction.”
“I thought you studied law in college?” She sounded sleepy and looked really cute lying there rumpled. So cute he wanted to lie down and pull her into his arms.
“Yea, I guess it just wasn’t my thing.” Nick picked up a lock of her hair and ran it through his fingers.
“But you were such a swot in school,” she said in mocking tones. Nick had hated studying. He’d made her help him some times, and others paid his siblings.
The more he thought about his time spent with the younger Poppy, the more he realized he was a selfish shit head.
“If you’re going to keep interrupting, my family history will take longer to tell.”
“Next comes twenty-seven-year-old Gracie. Tall and blonde, she’s the number girl in the family. After her comes Thomas, twenty-five. He’s the facts man as the family lawyer and then lastly is the baby, Emma. Twenty-two, she’s a teacher.”
“I had no idea there were so many of you,” Poppy said sounding drunk on tiredness now. “I thought anyone as arrogant as you were in college had to be an only child.”
“You weren’t a total picnic in college either, Poppy. Always bristling with suppressed rage, snarling and spitting at me whenever I got within a foot of you.”
“You are not putting me in the same category of asseholery as you, surely?”
He ran his hand over her head in soft, slow movements. This used to put Em to sleep when she was a child. Her head felt small under his palm.
“I’m sorry if I was mean to you, Poppy, or you felt like I took advantage of you.”
She turned her head to lock eyes with him, their faces now inches apart.
“You need to stop this, Nick. I’ve hated you for so long. I’m not sure I can change my opinion this late in life.”
Her words were whispered. All he’d need to do was lean in and he could kiss her. He fought the urge. Now was not the time, but soon he vowed.
“It wasn’t all bad until the end. There was that one time, when that assface with the long blonde hair who used to play the guitar, knocked me off my feet as he ran by,” Poppy said.
“Morrison Kemple, one of those skateboarding idiots,” Nick said, remembering how much he hated the guy.
“Yeah him. You appeared from nowhere, picked me up, asked me if I was okay and then punched Kemple in the mouth.” She smiled at the memory.
He remembered that day. Still felt the rush of anger at seeing Poppy fall. Nick hadn’t been a total asshole all the time, just most of the time.
“Do me a favor, Poppy, don’t tell my sisters that story. They already think I have a superman complex.”
“Kay,” she whispered.
He didn’t speak again, just sat there stroking her hair until she’d finally stopped fighting and fallen asleep. Her body slowly relaxed as he continued his movements until he was sure she was really out. Only then did he stop.
Nick didn’t want to leave her alone to wake up in the scary hospital, but he also knew he couldn’t stay here. He’d be back as soon as he could in the morning. Looking down at her, he wondered how she’d worked her way into a place inside his chest in such a short space of time.
They hadn’t been friends in college, kind of, he added. But Nick had a feeling this could be more.
She moved and then moaned in her sleep as something in her sore body tugged. She then resettled on her back, arm resting on her chest. Finding a spare pillow in the cupboard beside her bed, he placed it beside her and lifted her injured arm onto it. She didn’t wake, exhausted, she slumbered on. Placing a soft kiss on top of her head, he then sat for another thirty minutes. When he was sure she wouldn’t wake, he left. Walked out of the room before he followed his impulse and stayed the night.
But he’d be back, and something inside him that this time he may be sticking
Poppy woke as she moved, and her body let her know how much that would hurt. Biting back a moan, she rose on her good elbow and looked around the room.
“You’re an idiot,” she muttered. She’d thought he might be here, but of course he’d gone home. Sleeping in a hospital chair beside a woman you only met again yesterday wasn’t realistic, she reminded herself. A needy, slightly crazy woman, she amended.
Memories of Nick coming to see her late last night filtered through her head. He’d talked about his family. She heard the love he had for his siblings as he talked. Pride too. His large, warm hand on her head had put her to sleep.
That man is dangerous, Poppy thought. Dangerous because he was hot and had charm. He’d been hot in college, but the charm had been missing.
He had done for her what he would have done for anyone because he was a good guy now, Poppy reminded herself. Sometime during the hours she’d spent with him, she’d realized that fact. He was a man who cared for others and had changed from the spoilt college boy into a man who cared, and that shook her.
At first, she’d not wanted to acknowledge that. Poppy had held onto her dislike of Nick Atherton, and now that would need to be adjusted. The big guy had stopped the panic yesterday and made sure she knew she wasn’t alone. She’d needed that.
It wasn’t just his looks; it was his manner. He had cared what happened to her and Poppy didn’t have too many people who did that. Which was on her, because Poppy didn’t like to get close. Opening up to someone had taught her that was the path to being hurt.
“Good morning, Miss Sylvester.”
Poppy watched the doctor walk toward her.
“Good morning. Will I be able to go home soon, Doctor?”
“I’ll let you know in a few minutes.”
Two hours later, Poppy was in a wheelchair being pushed out of the hospital wearing yesterday’s dress and carrying her laptop and heels. She’d decided to go when the doctor discharged her, simply because she had no idea if Nick would come back for her. She didn’t want to wait around for him. Imagine the humiliation of having a nurse make you leave when the man you expected to turn up didn’t. And why would he turn up anyway, for pity’s sake? They barely knew each other, and yesterday was about being a good citizen, nothing more. Climbing into the back of the cab like an old lady, she was soon heading for home.
They had given her some pain killers so her wrist wasn’t unbearable and her body was just one big dull ache instead of the throbbing pain she had experienced earlier. Climbing out of the cab twenty minutes later, she realized she had no keys to get into her house. Walking barefoot up the path with her laptop and red shoes she found the large pot plant and tried to ignore the screams of ‘water me’ from its wilting leaves as she bent at the waist to retrieve the key from beneath the stone she’d put in there.
“Hello, Poppy. Did you have a good night?”
“Oh hey, Mrs. Leibowitz,” she said to the elderly neighbor who was standing behind her in her doorway.
“Who was the lucky guy?”
“Pardon?” Where the hell was the key? Poppy knew she’d put one under this stone. She dug her fingers into the soil.
“You’re in yesterday’s dress and carrying those sex heels,” Mrs. Leibowitz added.
Tall and thin with the constitution of a professional athlete, Poppy’s neighbor could eat whatever she wanted and not put on a pound. She ran five miles a day and worked out with other seniors down at the rec center twice weekly.
She put Poppy to shame.
“I fed Hercules, so don’t let him fool you.”
Poppy knew she’d have to rise from her bent position at some stage, and when she did, Mrs. Leibowitz would see the damage she’d done to herself. Sighing, she dug deeper into the soil and found the key. Straightening, she turned.
The shriek was loud enough to ensure every other resident on the street heard her.
“I’m all right, Mrs. Leibowitz. I just had an accident and had to spend the night in the hospital.”
“Get inside that house at once. Look at you all bruised and broken!” The woman ran to her, long silver braids bouncing on her shoulders. Dressed in pink leggings and a fitted exercise shirt, she had the body of a teenager and the face of an eighty-year-old cowboy who’d spent every day in the sun.
She was ushered inside, then nudged toward the shower.
“Wash off the blood,” Mrs. Leibowitz said like she’d been in a gunfight and it was dripping off her. “Don’t get your injuries wet. Do you need help?”
“I got it,” Poppy said, shuffling into the bathroom. Closing the door on Mrs. Leibowitz telling Hercules she would not be conned in to giving him more food, she moved to the toilet and sat… fell, actually.
Exhaustion rolled over her in waves. Resting her head on the wall, she thought about Nick. Would he try to find her? She felt the sting of tears that maybe he wouldn’t.
“That’s enough of that,” Poppy rose. Easing her sling off, she removed her clothes, trying to minimize the pain. Turning on the shower, she stepped into the warm water and sighed.
“You all right in there?”
“Doing good thanks, Mrs. Leibowitz!”
“I can help you dress.”
“If you’re sure?”
“I’m making you chicken noodle soup.”
“Yum,” Poppy said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. Mrs. Leibowitz was heavy-handed on the salt and herbs.
Dragging her body out, she pulled on a baggy t-shirt and shorts. Looked in the mirror at her pale, bruised face. Her hair could simply stay a tangled mess. Brushing her teeth, she left the shower to the scents of vegetables being boiled to mush and fell onto the sofa.
Closing her eyes, Poppy sighed. She wondered what Nick was doing.