SIX MONTHS EARLIER
Pulling the wheel hard to the left, I swerve around a car protruding into the right lane.
Forget that I would’ve smashed into oncoming traffic if there had been any. Six in one hand, half-dozen in the other.
Once I regain my composure, I pull my pickup truck onto the shoulder and shift into park. My heart races; I’m wondering how long the mid-size SUV had been smashed between two trees—and how on earth it got there.
A steady stream of rain pelts my head as I rush to the vehicle. I hope whoever had been driving was all right—but from the looks of the wreck, it didn’t bode well.
Holding my hand over my eyes to shield the shower, I peer into the driver’s side window, squinting in the darkness. Then I lean back, wipe the rain away with my free hand, and look again.
Slumped over the wheel is a young woman with blood streaked from forehead to chin.
I jerk the door handle with urgency, knowing damn well it’s not going to open.
The SUV looks like a fricking accordion in the front, smashed between two huge oak trees that must be at least a hundred years old. This neighborhood—one of Charlotte’s oldest and wealthiest—has been around that long.
I run back to my truck, unlatch the tool case in the bed, and grab a rusty, old crowbar that hasn’t seen the light of day in over ten years. Being prepared for disaster is one of the perks of inheriting my dad’s truck after he died.
When I return to the SUV, I shove the narrow end into the crease between the window and the door frame, attempting to unlatch the lock.
If this doesn’t work, I’ll break the window. I don’t want to do that, but the woman hasn’t moved, so I know time is of the essence here. When the lock clicks, I tug at the door handle again. Thankfully, it opens with one swift pull. My fingers are so cold, I can barely curl them anymore.
I assess the driver to see if there’s anything exceptionally traumatic that might clue me in that I shouldn’t move her. And that’s the trickiest part, since I’m no medical professional.
But the temperature has dropped significantly as the night closes in, and the freezing rain is already turning to ice, so I have to make a quick decision. If I don’t help this girl now, she could be out here, unconscious and freezing, for hours. First response crews always get crazy busy during ice storms.
If I help her, I’m risking a major lawsuit if she’s seriously injured. She could say it was from something I did.
Let her sue me. I can’t walk away now and leave her here to freeze.
I lean over, reaching around to unlatch the seat belt, while making sure my body is there to brace hers if she falls forward when I unclip it. Pressing firmly, I release the latch.
My heart jumps when she releases a low, pained moan.
“It’s okay, Hon—” I catch myself and add a ‘Miss’ in there to make the nickname seem slightly more respectful. “It’s okay, Miss Honey. I’m not going to hurt you. I’ll go slow,” I tell her as I wrap my arms around her midsection and attempt to slide her from the vehicle slowly. There’s slight resistance with her right hand which seems to be stuck between the seat and the console. Letting her body rest against mine while I reach over to her hand, I use the lightest touch possible to pull her wrist forward and up so it doesn’t catch on anything. That’s when I almost lose my dinner. Her hand is covered with blood. The index finger seems to be out of place, not necessarily hanging off, but it’s turned sideways.
Fuck me. Why didn’t I call an ambulance?
But there’s no time to delay. Not with freezing rain soaking through my sweatshirt. I don’t have anything to stop the blood, so I tuck it into her coat pocket to keep it contained. Once I’ve got her out, I switch my grip and heft her into my arms as if we were crossing the threshold. Making sure to steady myself first, I kick the door closed. Then I lean over, tucking her into my body, trying to shield her from as much of the steady shower of sleet as possible as I carry her to my truck.
After setting her on the seat in the passenger side and making sure her hand is still secure in her pocket, I hurry back to see if she has a purse in the car. Most women carry some kind of bag. With that, the medical staff will be able to check her ID and figure out who to call when I get her to the hospital.
As expected, she does have a purse. It’s upside down on the passenger-side floor with almost all the contents splattered across the mat. Without paying attention to the items, I toss everything back in and bring it to my truck.
When I set the bag at her feet, her head rolls to the side, causing her hair to cover her face like a curtain. I can’t help but want to get a better look at her. It doesn’t matter, but there’s this odd tug in my gut that makes me yearn to know her. To remember her face.
Blood has trickled onto the lapel of her immaculate cream-colored pea coat. I don’t know anything about her, but I can tell by her clothing and pocketbook that she has money. And if she didn’t have money she sure spent money.
I shake away the thought. Her face and finances are not my business. The only thing I care about right now is getting her to the hospital.
“Stay with me,” I say, patting her knee as I pull onto the road.
* * *
When I arrive at the hospital, I secure the strap of Miss Honey’s pocketbook over my shoulder, before gathering her in my arms and taking her in through the emergency entrance. They’re probably going to ask me personal information—or at the very least—her name. My respectful term of endearment won’t cut it. But I’m not about to go through her bag. I’ll let the hospital staff deal with that.
“What happened?” a nurse asks, rushing toward me with a wheelchair. I place Miss Honey into it gently. Before I straighten up, I wipe the clumps of wet hair off her face and tuck it behind her ears, finally revealing her face. Her lips are full, but a pale blueish-purple—almost as pale as the skin over her sunken cheeks. I imagine they’re a beautiful peachy-pink hue on a normal day.
Without her hair veiling her face, I can see that the blood, which had spilled onto her otherwise immaculate jacket, came from a nasty red slash across the bridge of her nose. But not even the ugly gash can mar the natural beauty of her face. Smooth, pale skin, high cheekbones, thick, meticulously groomed eyebrows.
A stream of blood has dried over her right cheek. I wish I would’ve assessed her injuries, or at least wiped her face, before I began driving. But it made more sense to get her help as soon as possible.
“Wreck over on Queens Road West. Car smashed between two trees on one of those curves. I found her unconscious behind the wheel.” I sweep the rain-soaked hood from my head.
The nurse wastes no more time talking. “I’m taking her back,” she says over her shoulder as she begins to wheel her away.
“Her right hand!” I call before she’s out of sight.
“Excuse me?” She stops and turns around.
“Her right hand is messed up. I tucked it into her pocket because I didn’t have anything to wrap it.”
Though no sound comes out, I see her mouth form the word, “Fuck.”
My heart pumps faster, adrenaline telling me I should stay, protect her, make sure she’s okay. Why the hell am I this affected by a stranger? I swallow a lump in my throat.
“Can I go back with her?” I ask in desperation.
“Are you related?”
“No. I—I don’t even know her name. I have her bag right here, but—” I ramble, pulling the strap off my shoulder and holding it out in front of me.
“We know her name.”
Startled that the nurse knows who the girl is, I run a hand though my hair, sliding the falling locks back on top of my head. “You know her?”
“Yes. She’s a surgeon here. I’m sorry, sir, but I need to get her help right now.”
“Yeah.” I nod, dropping my arm to the side. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry to keep you.”
“Sir! I can take that bag,” a woman calls to me from behind the desk. She’s got the phone to her ear. When she speaks again, I know it’s not me she’s addressing. “Someone just brought Liz in. She was in an accident up the road. He said something about an injury to her right hand. Yes. Paige just brought her back. Can you let Dr. Crowder know?”
She hangs up the phone as I get to the desk. “Is she going to be okay?”
“I hope so. Thank you so much for bringing her in.”
“She’s a surgeon here?” I ask.
The woman looks around, as if she’s worried to get caught answering my questions. “Yes, well, a surgical resident, but, I mean, even if she wasn’t, we’d still know who she was. Her family’s name is on this wing.” She nods to the huge bronze plaque on the wall next to the automatic doors. “Not from around here, are you?”
Her rhetorical question almost makes me laugh, since I was born and raised in Charlotte, delivered at this very hospital, twenty-seven years ago.
The emergency room is in the Commons wing of the hospital.
Commons. Commons. I rack my brain in an attempt to remember which rich, white dude donated millions of dollars to have his name on the wing of the hospital.
Of course. The founder of Commons, the Charlotte-based department store chain. The stupid tagline from their annoying TV commercials pops into my head.
Commons—Affordable fashion for the common man.
Without wasting another second, I toss Miss Honey’s purse on the desk. It lands with a thump, but I’m only slightly concerned if any of the valuable contents inside broke. I’m sure she can afford to replace anything I may have damaged in my haste.
Once I’m outside, I pull the hood of my black sweatshirt over my head again. It’s soggy and wet, but I couldn’t care less. I rub my hands together in the freezing rain. I’ve done my good deed for one of Charlotte’s wealthiest families and now I’m literally washing my hands of them.