Saturday, June 1, 2013

Chapter Twenty-Five

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**Will be posting some stuff under "Editor's Notes"  If you've had trouble navigating, forgive me.  I'll be updating the "contents" soon.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Thanks to her habit of allowing receipts to pile up, she'd been digging in her purse all the way through the parking lot to the ER entrance. Wrestling between her wallet and several personal items, she'd spiked her fingertips on brush bristles just before she'd found a wadded up dollar bill in the far reaches of the deep, brown bag.

But those pills...those pills had to be in there somewhere.

Once she and Kelly stepped from the cold night air into the ER, Grace's shivers continued along with what felt like a fever.  The thermometer at home had read a normal temperature, so go figure.

Out of her left pocket came a tissue. 

Something rattled in her right pocket. So that's where she'd stashed the medication.  Just as she reached for it, she stammered.  A man wearing a leg cast, and many others had turned to watch the new arrivals.

No one there intended to hurt her.  No one there intended to hurt Kelly.  Most people are innocent bystanders. 

But still.  She'd have felt ten times safer at the bakery, where she knew the security systems and the patrons who frequented that place.  Her employees understood her issues and generally took care of customers while she and Susan busied themselves with the sugary goodies that Dan despised.

Grace blew her nose for the hundredth time that week, wincing from the soreness and wishing the pounding in her temples would finally relent.  But no.  Like the old Energizer Bunny, it kept on going, and she longed for the feel of her silky sheets, the fluffiness of her pillow and a sleep deep enough to cure all of her woes.

God would handle that, she reminded her self.  He always pulled her through the sludge and He would continue to do so.  Only her faith kept her sane.

She tossed the tissue toward a nearby waste can.  The little white puff landed at the foot of the check-in counter and the ER doors slid open.  Battling the icy wind's assault on her long hair, she walked toward the tissue, then squatted with her legs together to snatch and toss it into the can.  She never bent over in public.  She'd rather look silly than to place lascivious thoughts in men's minds as they stared at her behind.

Avoiding the crazy gazes from other visitors, she pumped some sanitizer from the front desk into her palm.

The lady behind the waist-high counter smiled wryly and Grace imagined a swarm of insults flying around in the snooty woman's head. 

Maybe she wasn't snooty.  Maybe you just read too much into peoples' expressions.

She turned toward the television opposite them, the twirling coat tie in her periphery forcing her to clamp her hand around her sister's wrist.

Kelly started as a golden red curl escaped from the band shoved onto the back of her head.  No doubt the younger girl could feel Grace's racing pulse.

"What?" Kelly glanced around the room, turned back to Grace, and then searched the area again.  Grace guessed Dan's possible appearance topped her sister's thoughts.

Leaning over, Grace swallowed and forced her words out as evenly and lowly as she could muster. "You're nervous." She pulled a prescription bottle from her coat pocket and began struggling with the child safety cap.

"I'm nervous?  Look at you, you're a mess," Kelly countered.

Never mind what's wrong with me. 

This stubborn cap, she thought.  The thing seemed to always get stuck and this time the entire bottle popped out of her hands and rolled toward a fake palm tree.

Grace groaned and lunged forward to retrieve her drugs, careful not to allow her rear to stick up in the air.

The hacking and coughing from different corners of the room would put anyone on edge, but that was just a small glitch in Grace's world.  And Kelly's.

Grace began working the cap again, recalling how Kelly had fiddled with her silverware, stirring her straw repeatedly the last time they'd shared dinner with Dan.  Had Dan not tattled about Kelly's flirtatious side, Grace probably wouldn't have noticed.  But, wanting to curtail Kelly's infatuation with a teacher, Grace had kept her sensors high for the past month or so.

It never escaped her that Kelly blushed with just the mention of Dan Shields' name, and Grace would never forget the night she'd told Little Sister the 'big secret.'  That Grace had been dating her English teacher.   Given the pale complexion the McBrides' Irish heritage had lent them, Grace had been fascinated to find Kelly almost as white as vanilla buttercream frosting.

After swallowing a small, green pill without any water and coughing into her elbow, Grace continued shakily, "You know what I told you before."

The prescription bottle made it back to her coat pocket and she couldn't wait for the relaxed feeling that would overtake her like a nice, warm blanket in her head.

They both shuddered when the ER doors whizzed open again.  Once they'd closed, Grace began pulling her hair into a quick, makeshift braid.  She hadn't time to fix her makeup and she imagined she looked as pasty as a ghost, if such things truly roamed the earth.

Shrugging, she refocused on Kelly.  Despite the girl's sudden interest in the floor tiles, Grace added, "Your teacher is off limits."

"Like I'd come onto him...especially here and now." 

Maybe not here and now but perhaps later.  No way, little sister.  No way. 

Besides...Grace shifted from one, throbbing foot to the other... Dan was...her man, she guessed?  Even though she still hadn't allowed him a kiss and even though they still disagreed over Grace's profession.  The only things holding them together were physical attraction, concern for Kelly, and God.

God was enough.  He always was.

Grace cupped her hand under the elbow of Kelly's thin, black coat and led her toward a couple of empty leather chairs.

Sitting down, she resisted the temptation to burry her face in her hands and instead took deep breaths...in.......counting five, four three, two, one...out.  Ever so slowly. And again.

Hopefully she'd soon be calm enough to join her boyfriend- wherever he was. 

He'd called her over two hours ago, interrupting the creation of a beautiful confectionary rose.  With her cell phone in one hand and the rose perched at nose level atop the flower nail, she'd felt the distinct sinking of her soul when she'd heard the tremble in his voice.  Allison had landed herself in the hospital again.

As she'd listened to his choppy explanation, she'd imagined the pink rose petals wilting before her eyes.  Turning brown and curling up, dropping to the cold kitchen floor one by one.  She'd wound up shoving the whole thing into her mouth.  It had dissolved bitterly in her stomach, like the little scroll eaten by John in the Book of Revelation.

Poor Dan.  Having practically raised Kelly on her own, she understood his care for his baby sister. 

Her parents had worked long, hard hours to establish Carla's Cakery (named after their first daughter- Carla Grace McBride), a business venture Grace had inherited about a year before the accident.  So not only had Grace babysat Kelly during the dreary evenings in a not-so-wonderful neighborhood, she'd taken full custody of the nine-year-old girl not long after her 21st birthday.  Coincidentally, she'd just moved into her own apartment- right above the bakery. 

"I hope his sister's OK." Kelly's long, red nails resembled claws as she picked at them. "I mean...if she's really bad off, he probably won't be back to school for a while, either."

"Not the most important issue here, but you're right.   He probably won't."

Pulling the already-zipped leather coat Dan had purchased more tightly around her, Grace cowered under the wandering gaze of a husky man in a flannel shirt.  He passed them and she blew out her breath.

"Oh, no.  What is she doing here?"  Kelly's nails were now digging into the arm rests.  Grace followed her scowl.

About twenty feet diagonal from them, Rebekah and Ryan stood outside some double doors, her with her hands on her hips and him with his thick brows curled as he pointed a long finger at his girlfriend.  Rebekah was shaking her head and the only audible word from Ryan sounded like, "Please!"

Rebekah shook her head again.

Grace's stomach was beginning to boil, but thank God the beginning effects of the clonazepam were setting in.  The green pill remained the only anti-anxiety medication that reinstated feelings she hadn't enjoyed in over 18 years. Happy and relaxed, like a little girl with no responsibilities.  Only this medication would enable her to comfort Dan after the many times he'd comforted her.

Apparently he excelled at comforting girls.  Allison had given him great practice.  Not only had he reached out to Grace, but -carefully - to Kelly and to Rebekah Rose.

Grace nudged Kelly. "Don't be so hostile.  Rebekah's more like you than you realize."

She recalled Dan hinting at Kelly's fear of Rebekah.  Well, Grace thought, at least someone in this world intimidated the brat.   Though not always justified, fear could be a great motivator. It kept people out of trouble.

"But why is she...."  Kelly motioned toward the brunette couple. "...Who is that guy?"

Grace nibbled her lip.  She hadn't yet shared any news about Rebekah and Ryan.  The less Kelly knew, the better.

"That's Dan's brother, Ryan.  They're dating, Kelly, so please be nice."

"Dating?" Kelly shot her a double take.  "Are you serious?  Why didn't you tell me?"

"Why should I have?"

"Because-"

"So you can harass her more? I don't think so.  I'm warning you, if you start bothering her about this, you're going to-"

"What?" Kelly's green eyes flashed.  "You're going to ground me again?  Like that will do anything, coming from my big sister!"

Grace slumped in her seat, wondering if she should cut Kelly's cell phone or pack her bags and throw her out.

What a laugh.  She'd never have the courage to kick Kelly out.  In fact, she lacked the backbone to seriously discipline the girl.  Why?  Because when it came down to it, Kelly was right, but she hadn't pulled the  "you're my big sister, not my mom," card in a long time. 

What could Grace do now, anyway?  The summer had brought Kelly's eighteenth birthday, so technically the young woman could do whatever she pleased. 

Oh, God, help her.

"Look, I'm sorry," Kelly spoke softly.  "I don't mean to give you hard time, it's just-"

Grace had heard the explanations before and waved her off.  "Not here.  And not now.  Dan's coming."

Kelly gripped the chair arms and peered to her right as Dan marched toward the arguing, young couple with his jaw set. He spoke louder than Ryan, his orders clear for anyone paying the slightest attention.

"Ryan, I want you take Rebekah to her mother and get your ass back here."

Rebekah folded her arms but her shoulders sagged as she turned slightly toward the wall. 

"Forget it," Ryan argued.  "She's staying with me."

Dan cursed- a rarity from what Grace had seen.  "She's safer at the bowling alley, far away from Dad."

"Yeah?  Is Grace safer too?"

Dan froze.

Because Ryan towered about six inches above Dan's head, he easily granted Grace the first eye contact of the night as he nodded.

Grace pressed her fist to her stomach.

Dan slowly spun around.  Spotting her, his composure deflated as Rebekah's had, and Grace instantly realized- Dan hadn't meant for her to join him here.

"Grace!"  Dan shuffled toward her with his fingers stuck to his forehead. His tie had been removed, two of his top buttons undone, and the front of his shirt remained tucked in while the tail flapped out behind him.

Grace caught Kelly's sappy stare a second before Dan knelt down and squeezed Grace's hands between his.   Perspiration glazed his countenance and she wondered just what in the world she was going to say.  The pill buzz had begun.  Usually she conversed more easily under its full influence but Dan needed encouragement now.

"Dan....?" His shiny, brown waves needed straightening and the agony she sensed in him was completely foreign from the man she knew.  How could she begin to ease his pain?

He'd managed to ease hers with just a simple touch of his hand on more than one occasion. 

They'd nearly kissed once.  Sitting at her piano, he'd begun running his finger up and down her forearm.  He'd been so kind and gentle, trying to teach her to the tune to Blessings, by Laura Story.  The song was beautiful, speaking of God's use of trials to bless His people in unexpected ways.  So not only had the song softened her, but the fact that a man had learned to play it so perfectly...and not just any man but Dan Shields...well, she could swear in that short span of time that she'd finally found the man she'd been searching for.

And calm as he'd appeared, she'd noticed the intermittent twitching of his leg, had sensed an uptick in his pulse, felt him weighing more heavily against her side.

The heat had become unbearable.  She'd wondered many times what it would be like to kiss him, but rarely had she allowed herself to travel far through the fantasy department. Not only would fantasizing insult her Lord and Savior, but thoughts lead to actions and there were certain actions she chose not to take.  No matter how tempting they might have been.

But that day at the piano, she'd been weak.  As soon as she'd dared to lock onto his warm eyes, a spark had passed between them and he'd leaned in for the first touch of their lips.

She'd come so close to kissing him. So close that his breath had rushed into hers. 

And then it had happened. Just a glimpse of his black pullover had triggered the flashbacks.

The white collar framed by the black shirt. Strong hands cutting the circulation from her wrists, her cries for help stuck in her throat despite her desperate attempts to push them out.

The room seemed to spin upside down just as it had the night of the attack.  Just like that night eighteen years ago, so clearly she'd remembered it.  The coffee table had disappeared into a blur of gray until the textured ceiling had swam into view and her backside bounced against the large, fuzzy couch.  Even the scent of apple pies baking in the oven had lingered in her senses. 

To this day she hated that smell.
With those images seeming so fresh, she'd run from Dan's arms, literally run straight to her window as though she'd intended to throw herself from it.  She'd never forget the hammering of her heart or the way her legs had wobbled during her flight.

Vaguely, she recalled hearing exasperation in Dan's tone.
"Grace, not again.  When will you ever trust me?"

Didn't he understand that it had nothing to do with trusting him?  Not anymore.  She just couldn't...she just couldn't...

The tears had trickled over her fingers, some of them seeping through her pursed lips; but it hadn't taken long for Dan to join her, to say what she'd thought she'd never hear.

Lightly stroking her hair, he'd whispered, "It's OK.  You’re worth waiting for."

No one had ever said that to her before. None of the other men.

"Grace."  Dan snapped her back to the present, where she once again read agony in his expression and his voice.  "I didn't...I wasn't..."

"What's going on?" She stopped herself from pulling him into her arms. The last thing Dan needed was to catch her cold, but it might have been too late for precautions. She attempted to tug her hands free, but he only squeezed them tighter.

"Dan, I...I don't know what to do." She glanced down at their entwined fingers.  "I'm - I'm sick."

He looked slightly taken aback, so she hurried, "No, I mean.  I don't want you to catch my cold, but is...is there something else going on here?  Was it wrong to come here?"

"No."  He released her to smooth his thumb along her jawline.  His gaze narrowed as she reached inside her coat pocket for a tissue. "No, but my father is here and believe me, this is no place to be right now."

"Your father?" She frowned and wiped her nose. She knew Oliver Shields was a control freak but she'd no clue what exactly she needed to fear.  Thank God she probably wouldn't be ruminating about that one until the pill wore off.

"He's not going to stop this time, I'm afraid."

"Stop what, Dan?"

"Stop trying to get us home.  Allie home.  He'll pull almost any string he needs to."

"What does that mean?"

Dan turned his attention to Kelly but Grace couldn't make out his expression.

"Mr. Shields," Kelly said. "Do you want me to leave?"

"No, no, not alone."  Dan promptly shook his head.  "I just didn't want any of you mixed up in this."

"Any of us?  You mean me, Kelly and-"

"Rebekah.  This whole thing is crazy, I never should have let those two date."

Grace bit her tongue. He probably regretted dating her, as well.

OOOO

Bekah couldn't believe it.  Dan had melted at Grace's feet like a peep in the microwave, slow and sloppy.  Down on his knees before her, he seemed far too comfortable with Grace's long claws in his hair.

How could he?  Why would he want Kelly's sister?  And speaking of Kelly, the green eyed witch was looking rather smug about her sister's relationship with Teacher.

If only she could slug that brat like she'd slugged Brian.

She spun on her heel and found herself staring at the red t-shirt peering through Ryan's unzipped jacket.  Behind her sat her teacher and before her, the guy she'd been dating.  One of them she wanted to grab by the collar and shake the living daylights out of and the other...

She imagined Ryan wasn't too happy and kept her focus on his slightly heaving chest- a warm, strong place to rest her head while his heart beat next to her ear.  How many times had they sat like that?  He'd always caress her somehow, somewhere- her arms, her back, her legs, her hair.  His kisses raining on her head and sometimes trailing down her neck. 

His embraces had become rather insistent lately and she guessed he was expecting more than what she'd been giving, but he'd just have to keep his pants on.  Quite literally.

Aside from that, he'd been kind, forgiving, reaching out to her like he never wanted to let her go.

Even tonight, he'd told her he didn't want to lose her but that she needed to "quit it."

"Quit what?" Her question drew a firm frown as he'd lowered his Coke bottle.

He knew.  He'd seen her lingering gazes at Dan.

She swallowed hard and wished this whole nightmare away. She'd hurt him.  Right when he needed her more than ever, her heart had once again strayed to her teacher and she deserved his scolding.  In fact, she wouldn't blame him if he dumped her here and now.

He grasped her so forcefully that she gasped and blinked up at blazing eyes.

"Come on," he ordered. "Outside."

"What?  Don't talk to me like that." Shrugging only caused him to tighten his grip. "What the hell, Ryan?  Are you drunk or some-"

He tugged her toward a corridor that lead to a back entrance.  Her heels clipped, clopped and added blisters to her feet the whole way, but her voice seemed to have flown to la-la land.

Outside, he guided her to his car as she gritted her teeth against the cold wind.  It didn't take long to reach their destination, and when he'd practically flung her into the passenger seat, she wondered what the hell had slapped her upside the head and stolen her backbone.

Ryan had never acted like this before!

The driver's side opened as she pushed her hair out of her face and their heavy breathing mingled with the sound of jingling keys.  He reached behind the front seats and tossed a jacket at her, one she gladly accepted, though it wouldn't work well enough for long enough.

He turned the key in the ignition and began blasting the heater.  Thank God some warm air from their earlier drive began spewing out at them.  Small favors go a long way, especially when she felt like this.

Ryan turned to her, but the parking lot lights allowed her to see only his faint frown.  Nothing but that frown.

"Ry-"

"You’ve got to quit it.  I saw how you were just looking at him and I'm sure everyone else did, too.  Except my stupid brother, of course.  In case you didn't notice, he seemed totally engrossed in Grace."

Bekah wasn't sure if she should barf on him or slap him.  Her teeth clenched so tightly together than her jaws began to throb, and when Ryan stretched his legs so that his feet touched hers, she fought the urge to kick them away.  He didn't deserve that, even if he'd left a bruise on her arm from the way he'd grabbed her a few moments before. 

Ryan never acted like this.  No, he was just upset.  His father had blown into town with a former rock star in hopes of gaining affection, Allie had nearly died, his girlfriend... ugh, his girlfriend was a freaking, idiotic jerk.  Could she really blame him for being pissed?

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him shaking his head.  Leaning his back against his door, his wavering voice a stark contrast from the anger he'd shown, he said, "We've got enough to worry about with my dad."  He pulled a bottle from beneath the seat and pointed the tip in her direction.  "Things are heating up, Bekah, and I need to know you're on my side."

She pursed her lips, unsure exactly what he meant.  Was he referring to her obvious display of affection for Dan, or to Oliver and his stunts?  What, who, when?

She shook her head and buried her face against her hands.


"Look, Bekah."  He began pushing her hair from the front of her shoulder to the back, speaking close to her ear. So close that she could smell the beer but still quivered inside from his touch.  She always did.  Maybe Dan kept drawing her, but Ryan did too.  Ryan was amazing in his own rite.

Suddenly everything behind them seemed to be covered in Stephen King's Mist.  A fog so thick that nothing could penetrate it.  Nothing but the things that could crush her to a pulp.

"Listen to me now," he added.  "Are you listening?"

Her reply sounded muffled.  "Yes."

She sniffed.

"There are ways to deal with this sort of thing."

What sort of thing?

"All of this, I mean.  You.  Me.  My dad."

Bekah lowered her hands.  Ryan took a swig of beer and set the bottle in a cup holder before gripping both of her shoulders.  Massaging them, he pressed his nose against hers and their breaths collided.

"When Allie stabilizes, we can do something.  We've got to do something, you know?"

"What do you mean?" She gulped.  Ryan had begun caressing her back and her entire body became engulfed in hot shivers.

Here she was, just after bemoaning Teacher and Grace...

And now?

If any other guy had treated her as Ryan just had, they'd wind up like Brian, with a broken nose.

But Ryan, despite seeing her feelings for Dan, still wanted her.

After her father had fled and everyone else kept pushing her away, Ryan sill wanted her.

How could she be angry?

 Ryan granted her a soft kiss before tipping her chin to force eye contact.  "We've got to talk.  Serious stuff."

She knew they needed to talk.  But what good would it really do?  Couldn't they just shut up and exist?  Try harder, do better, all that goody-goody stuff that happy endings are made of?

How could she be happy, when one of the men her mind refused to release was...staring through the window, over Ryan's shoulder.  His arms folded, he seemed oblivious to the wind flapping his shirt sleeves and scattering his hair.

Bekah's breath caught and Ryan must have sensed a change in her, because he pulled back. "What?" he asked.

Bekah nodded.  Ryan turned, stared for a moment and then pressed the button to lower the window,

"What do you want?" Ryan demanded.  "You ordered us to leave, so why did you follow us?"

"One reason," Dan barked, leaning inside the car.  Though Bekah couldn't see his expression, his fists clawing around the downed window spoke volumes.  "Since when do you handle a girl the way you just did, Ryan?  Where the hell do you get off, dragging one my students like that?"







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