Three days had passed. Three days without Shields in the classroom, and in his place a bespectacled, blonde man. The nerd actually smacked a ruler on the desk when the class became too obnoxious. This only earned him a bunch of jeers, leading Bekah to wonder further how Shields managed the bunch of jerks known as her peers.
No telling when poor Dan would return to school, as Allie had slipped into a coma for reasons yet to be determined. Bekah had spent the past three evenings at the hospital with Ryan, who mostly paced the floor and kept his conversations brief. With her, he only spoke when he needed to but held her hand frequently, squeezing it so hard at times that she wondered about his self-awareness.
His discussions with his family were done in private, but he’d shared bits of information with Bekah.
Oliver’s wife, Nadine, had flown in on Sunday afternoon and sat by Allie most of the time. Ryan had described a brief exchange of hugs between the boys and their mother upon her arrival. She’d ran her fingers through their hair- both of them- declaring how strong and handsome her sons had become and then heading into Allie’s room, only to collapse on a chair beside her and pray the evening away.
Ryan had told Bekah of Dan’s surprise upon hearing their mother’s whispered prayers. They wondered if the woman who’d kept her distance for so long had found God. Could that be the reason for the numerous phone calls Bekah hadn’t known about until recently?
Nadine turning to Christ would at least draw she and Dan closer.
She remembered Dan's let-down tone as he'd said in the Jeep the other night, "You're turning to Christ and I can't pursue you." If she did "get saved," she imagined Dan's struggle with his emotions would gain momentum.
Everything combined made entering Allie’s room unbearably heart-wrenching. She understood the selfishness of her feelings, but Dan’s inattention to Bekah seemed like a kick in the gut, especially after their talk the other night. But that didn’t top her list of concerns. The man looked exhausted and pale with whiskers dotting his normally clean-shaven face. Often, she’d find him by the window, a hand in his pocket and his stare so distant she wondered if the Dan she knew even dwelt behind those eyes. Had his faith been shaken or did he still felt guilty for not paying “close enough attention” to Allie’s behavior?
While he lingered in the room, Oliver often dismissed himself to take calls and Davies made regular visits, singing a song or two in hopes of rousing Allie’s hopes and dreams.
Still the frail young woman slept her days away, maybe a sleep so deep and comforting that it drowned the appeal of the real world. Bekah almost felt jealous.
Tuesday night, she waited while Ryan went to grab them something to eat, and used the cell phone he’d recently purchased her to call Alice. The girl had been absent from school and Bekah could no longer ignore the fact that Alice needed serious help.
After four rings, her friend picked up the phone, coughing and sputtering and declaring, “Bekah? Dude, it’s so cool to hear from you!”
Bekah was surprised to hear Alice had missed her but decided not to say so. As she stood in a corridor, she watched through a bay window as snow began covering a small courtyard decked for Christmas. The shimmering lights on the trees blurred as the events of the past several days scrolled through her mind.
Somehow, she managed to ask Alice, “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, just got the flu or something.”
What a coincidence, she thought. I'm feeling sort of flu-ish myself.
Her stomach ached most of the time and her textbooks were collecting dust on her dining room table.
When Alice asked where she was, what she’d been up to, Bekah explained about Allie and that she’d been at the hospital with Ryan the past few nights.
Alice declared her shock over Allie’s condition and then silence hung in the air as a tear slid down Bekah’s cheek. She covered the mouthpiece as she gasped for air but knew her friend would sense something wrong.
Despite everything going on, Dan’s declaration that everything “would get easier” kept ringing in her ears. Easier? Obviously he wasn’t as emotionally attached as she’d become. Caring for her and temporarily battling the temptation to kiss her meant very little in the long run, but what the heck had she been expecting anyway?
Ryan’s idea for them to find closure had failed miserably. She felt worse than ever. So close, she’d been, to kissing her own teacher and loving every second of it. So close and yet so far. Wasn’t that a song?
Yeah, one of those sappy, overrated love songs that now meant something to her.
We’re so close to reaching that famous happy end
And almost believing this was not pretend
Let’s go on dreaming for we know we are
So close, so close and still so far
“OK.” Alice coughed into her ear. “Bekah…I can tell something else is wrong.”
Bekah whisked away another tear. “Alice…” her voice sounded so riddled with breathy sobs that she hoped no one else had heard.
Appalled at her weakness, she longed to tell Alice that she'd crossed a line with the cutest teacher at school; that somewhere he'd managed to snag her heart in a way that reminded her of Freddy Kruger's claws straight through her chest. Dan had admitted to an emotional attraction that outweighed the physical. Her inward beauty, or her smarts, or something neither of them could place had caught his attention.
All of this needed to be suppressed as she stood in the hospital corridor and her heart pounded as she struggled to do so.
“Can I come over later?” she asked.
“Yeah, but my brother’s here.”
Who cared? For the first time she needed so badly to share her feelings that she thought she'd explode if she didn't.
They agreed to meet after Bekah picked her mom up from work, and as soon as she pushed the button to disconnect, Ryan nudged her.
She looked up and he narrowed his eyes. No way to hide the fact that she'd been crying, so she turned her attention back to the courtyard, inhaling the aroma of freshly cooked French fries. Ryan waved a Wendy’s bag in front of her and lead her down the hall toward Allie’s new room, but Bekah paused.
Ryan turned to ask what was wrong and Bekah explained her hesitation to eat in Allie’s room. Ryan shrugged. “It’s OK…Davies is in there now, so we’ll maybe get a little show.”
Bekah would normally have rolled her eyes at this announcement, but hearing the former rock star sing had soothed her the day before. It reminded her of less complicated days, when she’d be cleaning or goofing off in her room while listening to the radio.
She followed her boyfriend and entered the large, single-bed room decked with various floral arrangements and balloons. Without faltering, she looked directly at Oliver and his wife. The woman flashed her blue eyes at Bekah before lowering her head against her forearm at Allie’s bedside. Dan sat across from her, blinking as though he were struggling not to notice the new arrivals.
At the foot of Allie's bed sat Davies on a chair. With a guitar across his lap, he studied the young woman as though a work of art lay before him. As he began strumming, he curled slightly toward his instrument and briefly closely his eyes.
Because the others mostly seemed oblivious to Bekah and Ryan, her boyfriend directed her to a small leather couch at the side of the room. He set the bag of food aside and swallowed Bekah’s hand inside of his.
Slowly the song became recognizable, Davies version sounding smoother than the original artist’s but not bad for a cover- with only his voice and the guitar.
Not until he hit one of the main lines did she recall the title of the song.
In my life there’s been heartache and pain
I don’t know if I can face it again
Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far
To change this lonely life.
I want to know what love is
I want you to show me.
Bekah wasn’t sure if she’d simply had a knee-jerk reaction or if she’d purposely spun herself from her seat, her tennis shoes squeaking into the hallway and her hands over her mouth. Pressing her forehead to one of the walls, she allowed the tears to spill freely. All of them. No holding back as the guitar plucking snapped her heart chords and Davies’ voice emphasized the emotions as though he knew them all too well.
Her hands were literally soaked and shaking when she felt someone touch her shoulder. Gasping, she shielded herself from any audience she'd drawn by plastering herself against Ryan.
“Bekah,” Ryan whispered. “What is it?”
No way to explain what she was feeling. Her heart just throbbed horribly and little rainbows on a wall dashed through her mind. Images of her father, images of Towers and Brian. Alice and her drunkenness.
Allie’s pale, frail body. So unaware that her entire family, broken and imperfect as they might have been, had gathered around her bed, had been pleading daily for her to regain consciousness. Maybe they were all shattered in some way, but they were together. Something Bekah hadn't experienced in her own family for what felt like ages.
And the song- why had Davies chosen that song to rouse Allie? Why now? The emotional conflict she felt between and Dan and Ryan kept tearing at her soul.
Heartache and pain seemed to be her middle name.
But then, others here felt the same way, didn’t they?
The song had barely finished when she heard someone clear their throat behind them.
God, don't let it be Dan. His presence would only make matters worse.
“What do you want, Dad?” Ryan whispered over his shoulder and she clung to him as he slightly spun. “She doesn’t want to talk to you. Why would you want to?”
“Son, please,” Oliver pleaded in somewhat of a condescending tone.
“Dad, what’s going on?” That was Dan’s voice and then Davies’ followed.
“Is something wrong? I’m sorry- I was told that was one of Allie’s favorites and I-"
“No, the song was fine,” Oliver said. “I thought it might inspire her to fight. To wake up.”
“She needs more inspiration than that, “ Davies argued and Bekah heard Dan concur.
“Whatever the case, the problem isn’t with your music,” Oliver continued. “It’s the young lady here.”
She wished him away but heard Dan’s shoes scuffing through the small crowd surrounding her and felt like sinking into the floor. She hadn’t meant to steal the attention meant for Allison. She hadn’t meant to place Dan in a bad position. She hadn’t meant to upset Davies or Oliver or anyone else, but here she was, crying like a baby.
“What’s going on, Ry?” Dan asked.
“I don’t know, man, but I’ll take her out of here for a while.”
“I’d like the honor,” Oliver said.
“Hell no,” both Dan and Ryan sounded pissed at the offer and Bekah, for the first time, felt her only defense was to keep her head buried against Ryan’s chest.
Face the pain again? No. No more.
“It’s all right. You have my word, my intentions are pure and I’ll bring her directly back to you, Ryan.”
“Not a chance in hell,” Dan said, but Oliver cut in, “I understand your concern for your…student. But I believe she’s eighteen and old enough to make her own decision. Miss Rose? Please look up.”
Bekah couldn’t believe this was happening. She was breaking. She was losing it. If she couldn’t even look this guy in the face, she was definitely breaking. After bloodying Towers’ and Brian’s noses, after putting up with snobbish lawyers in court, she should have been able to make eye contact with Oliver.
Though her humiliation level climbed the walls, she slowly pulled away from Ryan, sniffling and wiping away her tears. Dan stood to his side, one brow raised and one hand on his lower hip, his mouth agape. On the other side of Ryan, Oliver stood erect like a soldier, as usual.
Oliver scanned over her face like a doctor searching for any signs of illness. As he reached out, he literally looked like he wanted to take Bekah into his arms and console her.
“I don’t wish to upset you further. I just thought you and I could talk…You may be more help to Allie than any of us have discussed.”
“What?” Dan jerked to peek around Ryan at his father.
Ryan, who kept his strong hands planted on Bekah’s shoulders, waited a few moments to whisper in her ear, “Don’t worry. I think I know what Dad’s thinking- he sort of broached on it the other night.”
Nice, Bekah thought. And you didn't tell me about this because...?
She guessed this explained why Ryan had been less concerned than Dan about her involvement here.
“Oliver.” The voice was soft but stern. They all turned to find Nadine in the open door to Allie’s room. Her burgundy dress suit hugged her slender figure, accenting curves less filled in than Bekah’s, and her neatly styled hair remained intact- feathered back in what Bekah had always considered an 80s style. She scratched the back of her leg with her high heel and stared directly at Bekah. Even she looked concerned, her slight brows raised as she studied the younger woman.
“Is this really a good idea?” Nadine asked. “This poor dear looks exhausted in every way.”
Bekah didn’t miss Dan’s double take and Ryan simply pursed his lips.
“It’s OK, Nadine, I know what I’m doing. But it’s entirely up to her.” Oliver, like a gentleman, offered Bekah his arm and Ryan released her.
“Ry, what are you doing?” Dan whispered tensely.
“Dad’s right, she’s an adult. She can make her own decision,” Ryan returned.
Dan’s eyes filled with a look of pleading and he shook his head slowly from side to side as he mouthed, “Don’t do it.”
Bekah felt like snobbishly turning up her nose. After he'd basically shoved her on her way, he now demanded that she obey him.
He wasn’t her lover and they weren’t in his classroom. She could make any decision she wanted and in the end, curiosity won out. Despite a roiling stomach and tears that kept threatening to fall, she took Oliver’s offered arm and allowed him to lead her toward an elevator. She could imagine Dan cursing and Ryan trying to calm him down. Nadine probably had returned to Allie’s bedside, while Davies probably eyed the whole thing with suspicion, his priestly prayers pouring into heaven for everyone involved.
The shiny elevator doors allowed Bekah to see a warped reflection of herself. She stepped close enough to spy the make-up smudged beneath her eyes and quickly swiped it away while she sniffled. Oliver withdrew a tissue from his jacket pocket and she accepted it. Blowing her nose in front of his royal highness struck her oddly, but he didn’t seem to mind.
Inwardly, he probably thought her some bratty little thug from a poor neighborhood who'd been weaning prizes from his sons. The cell phone, among other things, were items Bekah had not previously been able to afford.
As if she didn't feel low enough. Just standing next to him made her feel like scum...at least in her current condition.
Oliver waited until they reached the ground floor- where the cafeteria was located- to say anything. He stalked beside her with his hands cupped behind his back, his dress shoes tapping softly against the tile floors that Bekah’s father used to shine on a nightly basis. She could still see him in those blue coveralls with an industrial-sized bucket and the mop streaming from side to side. Rainbows filled her head again.
“May I inquire as to what set you off up there?” asked the man beside her.
Bekah looked down at her tennis shoes, noting that one of them had come untied. “It’s…it’s a long explanation.”
“Is it, now?”
“Yes, but…I am sorry.” She sniffed and hoped her eyes weren’t as red as they felt. “I didn’t mean to bust anything up.”
“I believe you.” He tossed her a flat smile. “You don’t strike me as the kind of girl to purposely steal all the attention.”
Surprised at that revelation, she paused, but he waved for her to enter the cafeteria and then stepped in beside her. He offered to buy her dinner, but she refused as she recalled the food Ryan had purchased, and instead settled for a blueberry muffin and a cappuccino - one much better than what she’d gotten from the machine.
Oliver had selected a cream cheese croissant and a black coffee and lead the way to a spot in a far corner, near a large window. Outside, large snowflakes drifted slowly toward the ground, landing in bushes that hugged the glass portal.
Oliver wiped his hands on his napkin after the first bite of his croissant. As he chewed, she noted the squareness of his jaws. In fact, he closely resembled his heart-breaking son…or vice versa. He also looked a little like Steve Martin. White hair, young face. Handsome for a man his age.
He grimaced and gave his food a small shove. “Not exactly what I get at home, but it will do.”
Though for a few moments he’d seemed more on her level, she now recalled that this was none other than the rich and powerful Oliver Shields. She wished he’d leave her and the snowflakes to themselves. If she immersed herself in that snowfall, then maybe she’d find some relief from all this drama.
After several more moments, Oliver completely shoved his half-eaten pastry aside and folded his hands on the table. He cocked his head and studied her, revealing the source of some of Dan’s and Ryan’s mannerisms and expressions.
“Rebekah,” she interrupted. “You can call me Rebekah.”
He smiled little. “Thank you for that. And you may call me Oliver.”
“That's kind of hard, knowing who you are.”
“What? Your boyfriend's father or-“
“The CEO of a major medical supply company.”
“Among other things.”
Whatever. She stirred a straw-like stick in her cappuccino.
“I don’t want you to be alarmed, but I’ve known about you for some time.”
Bekah wasn’t entirely surprised but raised a brow in hopes that he’d thoroughly explain himself.
“I keep an eye on my children from afar. Needless to say, I know there’s been...shall we say some sparks between you and Daniel?”
“Don’t worry.” He waved. “I know everything’s kosher and I don’t need PI’s to tell me that. I know my son and he wouldn’t step out of line with a student.”
She closed her eyes, swearing she could feel Dan’s breath on her collarbone again. Did Oliver know about that, too? How would he know anything of their so-called sparks? Not even a PI could share their feelings. What, had he bugged Dan's house or something?
“I’ve done my homework on you.” He grinned. “You bloodied a teacher’s nose after he came onto you and you both wound up in court. Neither one of you could be proven guilty and so you were assigned a month’s worth of in-school detention, followed by a year’s worth of bullying. Correct?”
She wasn’t sure what to say. He already knew everything, so why should she say anything at all? She guessed if she didn’t feel so otherworldly, she’d have given him a piece of her mind. Or maybe not. Something inside of her had been changing since the day Dan Shields had walked into her life.
“I also know that you’re typically far more outspoken than this. I know that you bloodied another boy’s nose this year and that you’ve been known to cuss out your mother’s customers at the bowling alley.”
That’s when Bekah’s jaw dropped. Who the hell did he think he was, snooping that far into her life?
He simply smiled. “I told you, I’ve done my homework and I’ve got to say that I admire you. I think you fit well with Ryan and would be a great encouragement to my daughter.”
Bekah’s lips trembled as she shot out the words, “Excuse me?”
Leaning back, he looked satisfied. “Allie needs more women in her life. Her mother’s always been busy and her brother practically raised her. She hasn’t had the pleasure of befriending a brave girl such as yourself. I’d like you to sit with her daily. Read to her. Do whatever you wish…anything you think would encourage her.”
“What? Why me?”
“I just explained that, didn’t I?”
She nodded, her mind a whirl of questions that her shocked state prevented her from asking.
Oliver went on, “I’ll pay you.”
Bekah gaped. He wanted to pay her to befriend his daughter?
“Most likely Allie’s coma is temporary- usually anorexia-related comas are brief, so she’ll need someone such as yourself close by. Maybe I could even pay you to stay out of school to tend to her. Dan could tutor you in the evenings, get you caught up.”
“I…can’t do that!”
“I know you’ll need to return to school eventually, of course. But just for a couple of weeks, it might be nice to have you near.”
“I don’t understand this.”
“Well…”He slid his card across the table. “There’s my cell number. I can give you some time to think this over. I realize I’ve just blind-sided you and you’re wondering exactly what kind of man you’re dealing with. But let me tell you something, Dear.” He reached out, covering her hand with his warm one. For a moment, his chocolate eyes made her think Dan had sat across from her, but then his rougher voice snapped her back to reality. “I’m not as bad as my children think I am. They think I’m too controlling but that’s never been my intention. I love them and will do anything it takes to see them succeed…to see them happy and healthy. Do you understand?”
She shook her head listlessly, still focused on his brown eyes. His smile produced small lines at the corners and he withdrew his hand. “I can tell you just need some time. I’ll speak with you later, young lady.”
With that, he stood, tugged his dress jacket and gave her a pat on the shoulder.
And then he was gone.
Bekah stared at the card, her tears only a memory and the snowflakes prancing in her periphery. This guy had been snooping on Dan but she doubted that information would come as a surprise to anyone.
She felt a breeze and someone stole into the seat that Oliver had occupied only a few minutes before
That someone snatched Oliver’s business card.
Bekah looked up and her stomach flipped. The chocolate eyes now staring back at her did, in fact, belong to Dan Shields, and he looked pissed. Sounded it, too, his breath heaving in and out. “What did he say? What’s he up to and why was he holding your hand?”
“Just tell me,” he barked. “Even in the midst of all this, I still don’t trust him and he needs to keep his d-....he needs to keep his distance!"
“Dan, wait a minute….” She shook her head and waved her hands at the same time, the movement producing so much dizziness that she wound up placing her head on the table. Dan knocked on it and the sound barreled through her ears.
“Rebekah,” he demanded. “Rose, please.”
“Stop it,” she moaned. “You’re killing my head.”
He fell silent, except for his breathing and when she slowly raised her head, she found the gaze he often directed at her- one of concern, warmth, and something else she couldn’t place.
“I’m sorry,” he said as his leg began wiggling under the table. “I’m just worried. This whole thing is getting messier by the minute.”
“Calm down, things aren’t as bad as they seem.” Say that to yourself a hundred times over.
“They’re not? Because it seems pretty bad to me.” He pointed at the ceiling. “My sister’s up there in a coma and my dad won’t stop scheming.”
“He just wants me to help, that’s all.”
“And what did he offer in return for your help?”
“You think I’d take anything he offered just to help?” She snatched the business card back and slouched in her seat. “I wouldn’t, Dan,” she whispered and swallowed the lump in her throat. What was she supposed to say now?
“How does he want you to help?”
She shrugged. “I guess you’ll have to find out.”
“You heard me, Teacher. I don’t think I need to tell you everything because you’ll find out soon enough.”
“Please don’t start with the attitude.”
“It’s not an attitude, I just want you to chill. And to trust me.”
“Trust you? It’s not you I don’t trust.”
“Really? The girl with the shady past has somehow managed to snag your trust?”
He clenched his teeth and his leg wiggling ceased. Bekah, on the other hand, felt her heart stirring upward for the first time in three days. He was still glued to her like green on grass and he damn well knew it.
“Is it so surprising?” he asked. “After all, if you can win Brian Cruise’s trust, it would be a hundred times easier to win mine.”
She frowned, trying to figure out what the heck he was talking about. He leaned forward, cupping his large hand around her cappuccino. Whether he intended to drink it, she didn’t know, but her heart pounded as he explained, “Ryan told me you had a visit from our star quarterback.”
Ah, she thought, suppressing a grin. That would drive Teacher nuts, wouldn’t it? Absolutely crazy, even at a time like this. No, especially at a time like this. His emotions were all over the place. She knew she shouldn’t feel so smug but couldn’t help it.
“He asked you to the Holiday Dance, from what I understand.” He brought Bekah’s drink to his lips, stopped, frowned at the cup and set it back down. “Sorry about that.”
Bekah mirrored his position by leaning forward and setting her jaws. “Yes, he did ask. I’m still pretty puzzled about that. What do you think he’s up to?”
“Probably nothing good, just like my dad.”
“I thought about saying yes, just to find out what’s on his mind.”
Dan turned his head a little to his left but kept his narrowed eyes on her. “Not a chance, Woman. It’s too late, anyway.” His little smile looked suspicious, to say the least. “It won’t be happening.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean it’s not happening. And I’m not telling you why.”
He picked at the paper surrounding her muffin, his opposite hand spread out on the table. Just sitting there, dying for her to hold it. Heat filled her face and her nails dug into her palms.
“I can’t say,” Dan replied at last. “Just know that I’ve got your back.”
Now that was a weird thing to say. As she communicated her puzzlement with her eyes, he stood, keeping his hand on the table. Hunching over, his brown seekers appeared darker than ever. In fact, his expression belonged to someone far less caring and it sent shivers down her body. However, his husky voice reminded her that he cared more than he'd let on.
“We aren’t an item, as you know," he said. "But I’m still your friend and I’ll do what I can to protect you.”
She tapped Oliver's card on the table, wondering why Dan still hovered. His words replayed in her mind and she nibbled her lip before asking, "Why do you think you can make my decisions for me?"
"The dance. Isn't it my choice who I allow to escort me?" She wasn't sure if she felt angry or pleased over his obvious jealousy. However, she wondered if he realized how much like his father he sounded. Pulling strings to protect her.
"Yes it is. But when it comes to Brian Cruise, we're not playing games."
"What if Brian's had a change of heart? What if your dad is sincere?"
"I can't take that chance."
"Isn't it my chance to take?" When she looked up, he stammered a little but then leaned even closer to her. His tone sounded about as matter-of-fact as one could get.
"Neither of them are to be trusted and I'll move you and your mother out of the city if push comes to shove."
She felt her eyes bulge at this but Dan's expression remained frozen, dead serious, not the slightest flicker of doubt over what he'd said.
"Sounds a little weird, Teacher." The huskiness in her voice surprised her.
"I guess it does."
"But I think Brian is far less of a threat than your dad. What did you mean, anyway? What exactly did you do to make sure 'it wouldn't happen'? Me going to the dance with him, I mean."
He pursed his lips. "That's confidential."
"Did you talk to Brian? Bribe him?"
"So what does that mean? Don't you think it would look suspicious to him if you bribed him to leave me alone?"
He smirked and a gleam came to his eyes. "Not when you know how to do it right."
"I suppose your dad taught you 'how to do it right'?"
His brows curled and he lifted his hand from the table to fold his arms. His silence answered her question. And she hoped he felt guilty.