Hope curiously eyed the gaudy, purple and pink, plastic engagement ring, as Thea held her hand up in the air. Her friend gazed lovingly at it while wiggling her fingers in delight. Bright, adoring eyes met Hope’s as Thea continued the story of how Lex had proposed.
“I’d given it to him as a gift, never once realizing he’d use it to ask me to marry him all these years later.” She sighed dramatically, as if she could barely continue without another squeal bubbling out. “He bent down on one knee, looked me in the eyes, and promised me forever.”
Hope had zoned out halfway through the story. Not that Lex’s proposal hadn’t been adorable and romantic, but she often found herself drowning in memories of the past whenever anyone brought up marriage. The idea was to leave the past in New York, but Hope found that hard to do with all the wedding talk and secrets she held inside. She smiled, but seeing the solemn look Thea gave her, she was sure it hadn’t reached her eyes.
“Oh, shit,” her best friend and boss said. “I keep forgetting that you—”
“Stop right there.” Hope waved a dismissive hand at her words. “Don’t think for a second I am comparing this to my own life. You get to enjoy this. Lex is amazing, and nothing like Mark.” She crossed her arms over her chest in frustration. Hope had never meant to make her feel like she couldn’t talk openly, because Thea was the only person in her life who she could converse with candidly.
Thea’s soft voice met her ears. “I know, but it’s like talking about getting pregnant around someone who can’t carry a child. You want to be excited, but you also don’t want to be insensitive and hurt their feelings.”
“I know, and that puts a damper on your good news.” Hope shook off the sadness threatening to overwhelm her. “No more walking on eggshells when you’re around me.” Thea’s engagement was amazing news, and Hope was acting like a big-ass wet rag. Pushing back the agonizing memories, she smiled again; this time conveying her happiness for a friend who’d saved her ass. “Can we both agree to put my shitty past where it belongs? Way the hell behind us. Now, let me see this thing.”
Thea moved closer, placing the hideous ring out for her inspection. Seeing Hope’s reaction, her nose wrinkled and her forehead dipped. “I know, right?” Hope looked up to her. “Ugly as sin, isn’t it?”
Both women laughed at the truth because the ring was seriously fugly.
Thea took her hand back. “Maybe you should get out there and try the dating game again?”
Hope groaned inwardly. She didn’t want to hear the ‘just move on’ speech again. Because she had tried—with no success. After looking high and low, no matter who she ended up dating, she always found them to be . . . lacking. Unsure of whether it was her past, her inability to trust, or the fact that she was on the run she found it painfully hard to even consider dating anymore.
“Hell, I say the next man who walks through that door,” Thea turned to Hope with a calculating smile, “you ask on a date!”
Hope’s eyes widened at the crazy idea. The possibility of her hitting up the next man to walk through the clinic’s front door was laughable. “No. I couldn’t possibly. You’re crazy. I don’t think—”
“That’s right. Don’t think,” Thea spurred, “just do.”
Hope huffed, then saw something out of the corner of her eye. Turning to look at the door, she jolted in surprise. “Oh, for cripes’ sake.” Ms. Collis stood there, angrily banging on the door, leaving fist-sized smudge marks on the glass—a line of people standing impatiently behind her. Good thing Hope had painstakingly cleaned the doors the night before. “I think today is going to be one of those days. Is it a full moon?”
Thea followed her gaze. “Oh, God help us.” Running to the door, she turned the locks and guided the woman behind Ms. Collis inside. As she passed the front desk, she elevated the woman’s bloody arm and whispered to Hope, “The next hot guy that isn’t dying . . . ask him out.”
Hope’s face flushed with embarrassment.
Behind her, a crowd of people entered, some looking as if they were drowning in snot, while others bled, or just appeared angry and annoyed. Regardless of the clientele, Hope loved her job. She’d always enjoyed the feeling of a good day’s work. In fact, the past six months at the clinic had been a way for Hope to temporarily ignore the past and focus on a possible future.
And in the beginning, Thea had been able to keep her employment hush-hush, paving the way for Hope to work without fear of one day looking up to find Mark waiting for her. But now that employment papers were signed and turned in, Hope’s worrying increased with each passing day. She shuddered. The idea of Mark following her to Blackwater had become a waking nightmare and a monster under her bed to fear.
Pushing those feelings aside, she looked up and smiled at Ms. Collis, who was handing her a clipboard with documents attached. Seconds later, a biker in leather pants—crazy, in this heat—pushed through the doors of the clinic, blood gushing from his nose. He favored his right side, and pressed his free hand to a wound seeping blood through his tattered shirt. Hope’s eyes traveled up and up the huge behemoth, until her eyes connected with his unconcerned gaze.
Shaking herself from the shock of such a huge man, Hope pointed to the side door where the motorcycle club, or the MC, had claimed the waiting room as their own. Locals who weren’t affiliated with the gang sat in the open waiting room to the right, while the MC took residence in the small room to the left. He nodded his head and made his way to the door.
“Ma’am, if you could take a seat and fill this out, I’ll be right back,” Hope instructed. Ms. Collis was in to have her cast taken off. It wasn’t the least bit serious, so she would have to wait her turn as Hope triaged the more critically injured. She made her way over to the bleeding man, who still hadn’t opened the door to the waiting room.
“Sir?” She came up behind him and he swiveled around. Unfortunately, since Thea’s grandfather had ties with the MC before he passed, most of the gang came to her clinic when in need of medical help that didn’t require the coroner. At first, Hope had doubts, but when she got the text from Mark threatening her life if she didn’t return to his side in New York, she decided it wasn’t so bad if these huge, gun-toting men were there often.
The man’s dark eyes flickered to the waiting room. “Didn’t want to get blood on the door.” His deep voice and heavy Irish brogue caught her off guard. This man was new, or at least, had never been in the clinic while Hope was there. Since she worked five days a week, and twelve hours a day, she assumed he’d just been one of the lucky few in the MC to not have gotten stabbed recently.
Hope glanced to his bloody hands and nodded. “Okay. Let me get that for you.” She went to open the door, when Lucy, the clinic’s receptionist, burst through the front doors, apologizing for being late as she headed to the counter. Now that she was at work, Hope could take him straight back, get him stitched up, and send him on his way. “Actually, why don’t we have you come on back with me. We’ll see how serious these wounds are.”
He followed her to one of the rooms in the back. Hope hadn’t bothered getting him to fill out any forms. The MC members never bothered with the patient information form, and always paid in cash. Hell, the clinic would probably go belly up without the money the men provided.
Sliding a pair of purple gloves on her hands, Hope pointed to the paper-lined bed. “Have a seat.” She made her way to the cabinet, and found a pair of sterilized scissors. Routinely, Hope would ask the patient what happened, but when it came to these men, the fewer questions you asked, the better. “You have any allergies?”
Dark eyes followed her movements as she worked. “No, ma’am.”
Hope was long past the initial shock of the MC members having manners. At first, she hadn’t expected them to be polite, or for them to pay, but they did, and they weren’t raucous in the least. It was extraordinarily ironic that men who looked like beasts could be so composed and gentle, yet Mark, who normally wore a three-piece suit, could transform into the monster of her wildest nightmares.
After a quick assessment, she knew his side needed to be treated first. Asking him to lift his arm, she cut open his shirt and inspected the knife wound. Unfortunately, she’d dealt with stab wounds often in her professional and personal life. His wound was shallow and not life threatening. A few stitches and he’d be fine. Then she could treat his nose.
“I don’t need any stitches, Doc.”
Rolling her eyes for the second time today, she said, “Yes, you do and you are getting them.” Ignoring the growl emanating from his chest, she continued to clean the wound. At 5’5” and one hundred ten pounds, Hope didn’t stand a chance against the mountain man, but she knew the most important thing when dealing with the MC members—never show weakness. Once you did that, your ass was grass. The men, while not complete assholes, would play on your fear. Find one sexy? Well, you’d most likely end up on your back.
Hope didn’t have time for that shit. And while Mark had branded the fear of God in her, she was resolute that not all men were created equal. On top of that, she and Thea were off-limits to the members, per some scary, sharp-toothed man named Gator.
“Piss and vinegar.” His laughter pulled her from her thoughts. “Well, Doc—”
“Not a doctor, just a nurse.” She winced at her words. She wasn’t just a nurse, and she regretted saying it like that. Doctors and nurses worked hand in hand, and Hope thought neither would be as effective without the other.
“Well, nurse . . .” Ducking his head down, auburn hair fell over his eyes, and he pushed the strands away as he tried to read her name badge.
“Hope,” she supplied, just as she stuck the first injection of lidocaine into his skin.
“I’d rather you fuss with my nose,” he grunted. “My face is my money maker.”
Hope couldn’t help but laugh. This man, while not ugly, would not be considered a model under any circumstances. His face held a crooked nose, dark eyes, and wide-set lips. Maybe he could model tactic wear for the military?
She looked up, her coal-colored eyes shining with mirth. “Oh really? And here I thought it was your great fashion sense.” Hope plucked at the bloodied Foreigner shirt.
Glancing down, the huge man grinned. “Yeah, that too.”
Shaking her head, she set up her equipment and got to work. The man, who she later found out was called Spooky, asked her out a few times before realizing it wasn’t going to happen. Mark had been persistent as well. He’d asked her out a total of twenty-two times, before she’d finally broken down and said yes. Back then, she hadn’t known it was a sign of systemic hostility; she’d been naïve enough to consider it charming that a man like Mark would be so persistent in wanting to get to know her.
Hope finished up with Spooky’s stitches and nose and sent him on his way. After cleaning up the room, she headed back out to see Lucy wrestling a line out the door. Being the only low-income clinic in Blackwater had the entire staff working twelve-hour days. Hope jumped into the madness until the line dwindled, and the sun was no longer in the sky.
Heading home that night, she huffed up the flight of stairs leading to her efficiency, and froze when she made it to the top of the landing. There, in front of her door, sat a blue and white package. Her heart jumped into her throat, heaving her into the past.
After every beating, he’d sent her the very same Tiffany-colored box. On one particularly horrific evening, Mark had broken her ring finger, then rewarded her with a three-carat diamond, and a card stating, When that nasty mistake heals, you can wear this.
Hope opened her eyes, confused as to when she’d shut them. With trembling fingers, she opened the box. Inside was a diamond-studded choker. Beautiful, white diamonds sparkled in a straight line, surrounded by blood-red rubies, in a platinum setting. Covering her mouth, Hope held in a strangled sob. She didn’t want to leave Blackwater, but once again he’d found her sanctuary. The one place she’d fooled herself into believing she was safe. How could she have been so foolish as to think a man like Mark wouldn’t make her pay for leaving him? She was his possession—his toy.
Mark’s face flashed in her mind and Hope had the sudden urge to run. Instead, she reached into her purse and pulled out the Glock Thea had made her buy from a pawnshop. Scanning the area, she didn’t find anything out of place. How had he tracked her down? She’d been so careful.
It must be my new employment status. Thea had been paying her under the table, but the clinic received government funds, and in the long run, it could have hurt Thea’s clinic. So, Hope had made things right and her official paperwork was turned in.
Turning back to go inside, Hope noticed a note tucked inside the lip of her door. She pulled it out and flipped the card open.
I’ll give you to the count of three to come back home to me.