Authors: Mia Caldwell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #African American, #Women's Fiction, #Romance, #Multicultural, #New Adult & College, #Multicultural & Interracial
She had gone through it herself, and continued to do so on a daily basis, and she had dealt with Kevin’s disability since the time he was a baby. It would have been a lot to ask a young twenty-something Connor to abandon his dreams to prevent his sister from going to boarding school.
“Anyway, the point I was trying to make was she adjusted and adapted, and now Lizzie actually loves it. Sure, it’s going to be difficult for you and Kevin both to start with, but if it’s anything like it was with Lizzie, he’ll probably end up really liking the place, and you’ll know you made the right decision.”
She was touched by his awkward attempt to comfort her or assuage her guilt. “I already know I’m making the right decision, Connor, though I do feel guilty about it. The truth is, I just can’t manage Kevin any longer, especially when he’s aggressive. He certainly doesn’t mean to hurt anyone, and most of the time, he’s quiet and withdrawn.”
“Does he interact with you at all?”
“Sometimes.” She switched lanes before continuing. “I used to live for those moments when he’d make eye contact and allow us to hug him, but those days are few and far between now that Dad and Granny are both gone. I’m sure Kevin loves me as much as I love him, but I’m not able to bridge the gap with him the way my dad could, or Granny could, to a lesser extent. He’s been deprived of what he needs to thrive by staying with me, and though I don’t want to let him go or feel like I sent him away, I think it’s the right thing to do.”
She was surprised he suddenly stretched over and ran his thumb across her cheek. She would have demanded to know what he was doing, but it was at that moment she realized tears were streaming down her face, and she took the tissue he offered from the console with a small smile as she dabbed at her damp face. “That doesn’t mean it’s not hard, course.”
He nodded, looking sympathetic. “I know we aren’t really engaged, but if I can help you in any way through this transition, don’t be afraid to call and let me know. I’ll do what I can for you, especially since you’re doing such a huge favor for me.”
They were perilously close to having a moment, and she deliberately pulled back, doing her best to remove the intimacy from the encounter. “For a price,” she reminded him stoically.
He appeared to wince for a moment, but then his expression morphed to one of distance. “Yes, for a price. That doesn’t mean it’s any less helpful on your part.”
“And thank you for your offer of help, Connor. It means a lot.” It really did, especially coming from the man she had assumed was little more than a self-absorbed man-whore, always chasing the next race. She was surprised to find he was capable of empathy. Surprised and disconcerted, because she didn’t like having her preconceived notions tossed on their head. It was simpler to have a narrow definition of Connor’s type, to have him rigidly pegged into that, and to know what she was dealing with from that perspective.
The realization that there was more to him than what she had assumed was unwelcome, simply because it was making her warm up to him. If she started to genuinely like Connor, then she was more apt to do something completely stupid, like develop feelings for the man that she was ostensibly engaged to, but was supposed to dump harshly in the next month before the wedding.
She had to avoid that at all costs. It was simply a matter of self-preservation.
Angelina managed to avoid Carly for the next few days as she prepared Kevin for his move, but her luck ran out Thursday morning. The doorbell rang at ten a.m., and she barely smothered a groan when she saw Carly standing on her doorstep, along with five other women. They politely ran roughshod over her as a mutual force pushing their way into the house on a wave of chatter and expensive perfumes that didn’t mingle completely pleasantly.
She was stunned by their myriad requests, with each woman wanting to discuss a different facet of the wedding. Carly was the coordinator, and she had brought along the caterer, florist, seamstress, and organist.
Feeling overwhelmed, she seated them at the kitchen table and started the kettle to offer tea, since she had no coffee in the house, while doing her best answer the questions thrown at her amid the women’s overlapping conversations. They had all clearly worked together before and were at ease, and while they were all perfectly polite and warm, it still was a bit like being surrounded by a murder of crows all cawing at her at the same time.
They were a noisy, chattering bunch, but she was growing more accustomed to it as they all sipped tea, and the women asked questions, and each offering input. She found it almost amusing how the florist had an opinion about buffet or sit-down for the meal, and the seamstress expressed her delight when the organist suggested something besides the traditional “Wedding March” for the trip down the aisle.
She admired their close-knit friendships and experienced a small pang as she realized she didn’t have any close friends. The last few have drifted away after Granny died, when Kevin had required almost all of her attention, and her job for Connor had taken up the rest.
She was laughing at something Leanne, the florist, had said when Kevin shuffled into the kitchen, and she knew immediately he was upset. She started to get to her feet, but she wasn’t in time to keep Kevin from banging his head against the wall several times before she could reach him.
She put her hand on his arm. “Shush, Kevin, it’s okay. Don’t hurt yourself, baby.” Immediately, she realized all the noise in the kitchen must have been what set him off. He wasn’t good with strangers or loud noises, and the group gathered in the kitchen had clearly upset him.
She turned briefly away from Kevin to face them, nearly overwhelmed by the sympathy in the five pairs of eyes gazing back at her. It was enough to make moisture fill her eyes. “I’m afraid we’ll have to do this some other time. Kevin is upset by new people, and we’re being too loud. Later in the week—”
Before she could finish her sentence, Kevin had turned around, swinging his arms wildly in front of him as though to ward off imaginary blows. Unfortunately, his arm connected with her face and sent her flying into the refrigerator. Her cheek ached where he’d hit her, and stars danced behind her eyes from where the side of her head had collided with the refrigerator.
She was weak and woozy, and a second later, she collapsed to the floor. Angelina blinked her eyes, trying to focus on Kevin and the problem at hand, but unable to keep her eyes open. She was vaguely aware of two of the women crouching down to check on her, and she thought she saw Carly approaching Kevin cautiously. “No. Stay back,” she warned, though each syllable cost a considerable amount of effort to push through her lips. When Kevin was like this, he was unpredictable and unconsciously aggressive.
She wasn’t certain why, but when she saw Kimberly, the organist, lift her cell phone, she said, “Call Connor.” Those were the last words she managed to say as she slipped into unconsciousness, surprised by how safe the idea of Connor arriving to take over made her feel. She knew he wouldn’t let anyone hurt Kevin, and he would be able to keep things calm. She hoped.
Angelina flinched at the light shining in her eyes, trying to turn away from it.
“No, not yet,” said the soothing voice. “I need to evaluate you for concussion.”
She mumbled something, and then it all came back to her. Her eyes snapped open wider, though the light hurt. “Kevin. What happened to Kevin?”
“Kevin is safe,” said a familiar voice from behind her.
The sound of Connor’s voice induced a form of relaxation that surprised her. It was even more surprising that when he came to slip his arm behind her waist, she let herself melt against him. She turned her head slightly to look at him, nonplussed by the way her gaze blurred at the edges, but happy to be able to see Connor without the blinding flash of pain she experienced from the light the doctor had shone in her eyes. “Where is Kevin?”
“He’s at the Henderson Center, Angelina.”
She let out a sound of distress. “He’s not due to go until Monday. He’s not ready yet.”
Connor’s mouth was set in a grim line. “There wasn’t another choice, Angelina. One of the ladies called emergency services, and police came along with the ambulance. They were going to take him into custody and place him in a state facility—”
She shook her head, regretting the motion as it made pain flare behind her eyes. “He didn’t attack me. It was an accident, and he didn’t know what he was doing.”
Connor held up a hand. “Whoa, I know. I explained that to them, and I told the officers he was due to go to the Henderson Center on Monday. They were still going to take him into custody, so I called Karen Winwood, and she agreed to take him early. The police escorted him to the facility after sedating him, and he made the trip in one ambulance, while you took another to the hospital. It was either send him to Henderson early, or allow him to be put into the state system. You might not have gotten him out after that.”
She sighed heavily. “I…I understand, but I wanted to be there with him when he got settled, to explain to him that I wasn’t abandoning him, and I’d be there to see him every weekend.”
Connor nodded, his hand rubbing her back in a soothing motion as the doctor checked her reflexes before standing back, clearly giving them a moment to finish the intense conversation. “That reminds me. Karen asked that you not visit for two weeks, to give him a chance to settle in. After this incident, he’ll be assigned a state social worker who will monitor his progress, so Karen wants him to have as smooth an integration as possible, to avoid you losing medical power-of-attorney.”
Tears came to her eyes as she realized how dire things had become. “Why did they have to called emergency services? Why couldn’t they have just left well enough alone?”
“You were unconscious, and you have a severe concussion,” said the doctor, clearly deciding to intrude on the conversation. “It’s a good thing someone called. This isn’t the sort of injury you sleep off and forget about. I’m going to keep you in the hospital at least overnight for observation, and to ensure your brain doesn’t swell any further. You were seriously injured today. Yyou should be grateful someone interceded and got you and your brother the help he needed.”
She was resentful of the doctor’s words, and it took everything she had not to snap at the other woman. Instead, she remained sullenly silent as the doctor finished the examination before deeming her ready to be moved to a room for the night.
After Dr. Whitaker left, she turned to Connor again. “How did Kevin look?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “I really don’t know. He was terrified and hitting out at everyone when I arrived, and I arrived just a few minutes before the cops and the ambulances came. They sedated him almost immediately, and he seemed on the edge of sleep for the rest of the time I saw him. He wasn’t wrapped in a straitjacket or anything for the trip to Henderson, so I don’t think he was overly traumatized by that. I’m not sure how he is, or will be anyway, after the drugs wear off, but it really was the only option.”
She nodded, a hollow ache in her stomach from just how greatly she had failed Kevin. If she hadn’t let in the wedding planners, none of this would have happened. If she’d had the money, or the courage, to commit to sending Kevin to a place that would help him sooner, this wouldn’t have happened either.
She hated how her baby brother had ended up arriving at the Henderson Center, and that she wouldn’t be able to visit him for a couple of weeks, and the guilt laid heavily on her. So did the pain in her throbbing head, and she collapsed against the exam table a few minutes later, almost grateful that she could just rest for an uninterrupted span of time.
For the first time since Granny had died, she would be able to let down her guard a bit and sleep without worrying about Kevin wandering away or getting up to do something dangerous, like make hot chocolate. He had done that one night, leaving the burner on High under the empty pot. The smoke detector had woken her up, and the heat had only scorched the pot, but it could have been a much worse outcome if she hadn’t kept the smoke detectors in peak condition. That was the last night she had slept deeply, she realized with a start, and that had been more than a year ago.
Once settled in her room, she was surprised to find Connor didn’t leave her. She was starting to feel groggy and was uncertain if that was from the concussion or medication they had given her in the IV that she’d awoken with. “You don’t have to stay,” she said in a hazy voice.
Connor shrugged. “I have nowhere else to be that’s even half as important.”
She thought about continuing to argue, though she didn’t really feel like doing so, but the need for sleep won out, and she surrendered to it gladly.
She had been mistaken about an uninterrupted stretch of sleep, and she felt bone-weary the next morning when Dr. Whitaker came to check on her. “I’d feel better if I had gotten to sleep for more than ten minutes at a time last night,” she groused when the doctor asked how she felt.
Dr. Whitaker just smiled. “We had to check on you frequently to make sure the pressure hadn’t increased. You seem to be doing well though, and I have no hesitation sending you home with some caveats. If your symptoms worsen, of course come back or call nine-one-one, and of course you can’t be alone for the next forty-eight hours.”
“You can stay in my apartment, or I’ll stay with you,” volunteered Connor, who looked just as handsome and put-together as he had yesterday, as though he hadn’t spent an uncomfortable night in the chair that folded out into a too-narrow, too-short bed. She nodded her agreement, though she had no intention of following the doctor’s orders. Having someone around for the next two days seemed unnecessary, but she wasn’t about to argue until she was free from the place, not wanting Dr. Whitaker to change her mind about releasing her.
The doctor finished up with her a little while later, and Angelina shuffled into the shower, pleasantly surprised to find the hospital had more than adequate pressure and water hot enough to fill the entire small bathroom with steam. It was only after she had finished her shower and dried off that she realized she hadn’t brought her clothes into the bathroom with her.
Feeling awkward, she cracked the bathroom door and poked out her head. “Um, Connor, do you mind handing me my clothes? I hope they’re in that little closet cubby over there.”
He nodded. “Sure.”
A moment later, he found her clothes in the closet and brought them to her. She blushed like a schoolgirl when he accidentally dropped her panties and picked them up, handing them to her after a slow perusal of the lacy white garment. “Nice,” he commented with a lascivious leer that was clearly exaggerated—she hoped.
She rolled her eyes, a maneuver that was surprisingly painful with her had still aching. “Thanks for the clothes.” She took a measure of satisfaction in slamming the door in his face, but his husky laugh detracted from her feeling of victory.
She dressed as quickly as she could, having to pause between motions to allow the waves of dizziness to pass. Finally, feeling like an invalid, she shuffled from the bathroom to discover the nurse had brought her discharge papers. A few minutes later, the nurse wheeled her to the exit, and she stepped out of the wheelchair at the front door. Connor put his arm through hers to offer support as they stepped into the sunlight.
For a moment, she thought the bright flashes were a reaction from her concussion at first exposure to direct sunlight. It took a moment for her to realize they were camera flashes, and there were a lot of them, all centered on her and Connor. Each flash was like an icepick through her head, and she grasped her temple and pressed closer to Connor in her confusion. She was doing her best to avoid the flashes, so it took a moment for any of the words being screamed at her to coalesce into comprehensible sentences.
“Is this the first time Mr. Blackwell has hit you?” asked an aggressive reporter as he shoved the microphone toward her face.
“Can you confirm your engagement?”
“When is the baby due?”
“Is it true he hit you because you wouldn’t agree to marry him?”
“Sources say he struck you because you tricked him into proposing. Is that true, Ms. Walsh?”
“Who will you be wearing on the big day?”
“How long you been engaged?”
“Are you staying with him after he beat you? What kind of example does that set for young women everywhere?”
The questions blurred together, but she quickly realized the reporters were there for her and Connor, and because they believed Connor had been the one to injure her. She was confused and overwhelmed. Her head spun, and it was a relief to allow herself a moment of weakness and surrender herself to Connor’s care. Angelina reveled in the way he swung her into his arms, carrying her in a tender fashion as he pushed his way through the throng of reporters with the assistance of security guards from the hospital.
She’d never been so glad to be in a car in all her life as she was when he placed her in the passenger seat of a black sedan less than five minutes after the ordeal had begun. It had been over in minutes, but felt like years had passed. He drove like he was on the race course as he sped away from the hospital, putting distance between them and the aggressive pack of reporters with their vicious lies.