Amanda was avoiding me, and I was going to let her. One of us needed to be strong enough to stop me from hurting her. She’d realized this and was putting a major halt to any interaction between us. I didn’t see her after she’d left me standing there, watching her go at Live Bay, until calculus class the next week. When I’d walked into the room, I’d found her immediately. She’d surrounded herself with people and was sitting toward the back of the classroom instead of the seat close to the front where she’d sat last week.
I took a seat in the front and didn’t look back at her. She’d only distract me. The douchebag who’d been looking down her shirt last week was behind her today. I wanted to check and make sure he wasn’t leaning up behind her. He needed to keep his eyes to himself.
I was battling with myself over turning around and checking on her or keeping my attention on the board, when my phone vibrated in my pocket. I slipped it out and saw Jimmy’s name flashing on the screen. It was the emergency phone I’d given my brother. It was also after nine in the morning. He should be at school. Something was wrong. I grabbed my books and hurried out of the classroom.
“Jimmy?” I answered as I stepped into the hallway.
“Momma didn’t come home last night, and Daisy has a real bad fever. She had one all night and I used cold rags on her head and gave her some Tylenol, but it keeps getting higher. She won’t eat, and now she just cries real soft like.”
Shit. I took off running for the parking lot.
“Okay, go get more cold rags and put them on her skin. Get her to sip on some ice water and tell her I’m on my way.”
I hated my mother. She had no redeeming qualities. If something happened to Daisy because of her neglect, I was going to kill her.
“Brent, go get some ice water,” Jimmy instructed. “I’m gonna get more cold rags.”
“I’ll be there soon. Take care of her. Call me if she gets worse.”
“I will,” Jimmy assured me, then hung up the phone.
I unlocked the Jeep and jerked the door open at the same time I heard Amanda calling my name. Glancing back, I saw her running after me.
“Preston, wait, what’s wrong?” she asked in a panicked voice.
“Family stuff. I gotta go,” I replied. I hated to run off on her when she was just being nice, but Daisy needed me.
I cranked up the Jeep, and the passenger-side door opened and Amanda jumped inside. Ah, hell.
“Manda, I don’t have time for this. I gotta go.”
She nodded. “Yes, you do,” she agreed. “Go.”
“Then get out of my Jeep,” I replied, frustrated.
“No. You never get anxious or worried. Never. Something is wrong and you need help.” She was right, but I was not taking her to my mother’s trailer.
“Manda, please—” I was cut off by the ringing of my phone. Shit.
“What?” I asked, slamming the Jeep into reverse. I didn’t have time to argue with a stubborn woman. My little sister needed me. This wasn’t the time to worry about my pride. So what if Amanda saw where I grew up? Why did I care? It wasn’t like I was trying to impress her.
“She sipped the water, then threw up,” Jimmy said. The tightness in his voice told me he was scared. This was not something kids should have to deal with. Jimmy was having to be the adult at eleven, and it made me furious.
“Okay, keep the towels cold and keep them on her. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
“Okay, we will,” he replied, and hung up.
I dropped the phone in my lap and pressed the gas as I pulled out onto the road. “Put on your seat belt, Manda.”
I could see her buckle up out of the corner of my eye.
“What’s wrong? Who was that?” She was starting to panic too.
“It was my brother. My other one. He’s eleven. Daisy, my little sister, is sick, and my sorry-ass mother hasn’t been home all night. Jimmy and Brent said she’s really hot and she won’t eat or drink. They just got her to sip some water and she threw up.”
“Oh God,” she replied. “Okay. She’s going to be okay. We need to get her to the hospital. She’s got a fever, so the vomiting sounds like a symptom of the high fever. Give me the phone,” Amanda ordered, reaching for it before I could hand it over.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Calling your brother,” she replied as she chewed at her nails nervously.
“Hey, Jimmy, this is Amanda. I’m a friend of your brother’s. Listen, go to the freezer and get any ice you have. Go rub it across Daisy’s forehead, her cheeks, her lips, and even up and down her arms. Cooling her down is real important.”
I turned down the road that led to the trailer I hated so fiercely. The trailer not even Marcus had seen. I didn’t bring people here. But right now I was extremely grateful Amanda had come after me and jumped in my Jeep. I wasn’t as scared with her here. She was nervous. I could tell by the tone of her voice and the way she was biting her nails, but she was keeping it together. I didn’t feel alone. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel alone.
“Good job. Yes, it will melt fast ’cause she’s hot. Keep it on her. No, it’s okay, Jimmy. She’s gonna be fine. We are almost there. We are going to get her to the hospital and get her the medicine she needs. Everything will be fine.”
A tightness in my chest came out of nowhere. As I listened to Amanda reassure my brother, I wanted to pull her into my arms and cry. How damn crazy was that? This girl was making me a nutcase.
I pulled up to the trailer and reminded myself that getting Daisy to the hospital was all that mattered. Having Amanda see this place didn’t matter. She could think whatever she wanted.
Amanda flung the door open before I’d put the Jeep in park and was running across the yard to the door of the trailer without waiting on me. I took off after her.
She didn’t knock but went right in and called out Jimmy’s name. He ran into the living room just as I got into the trailer. His eyes went from Amanda to me, then back to Amanda. “She’s back here,” he told her.
Amanda didn’t look around the place in disgust like I’d expected. She didn’t seem to notice anything other than Jimmy, who she hurried after.
“Hey, Amanda,” Brent said as he looked up at us from his spot beside Daisy. He was icing her arms down just like Amanda had told them to.
“Hey, Brent. You’re doing a really good job,” she praised him, then walked over to the bed and touched Daisy’s head. Daisy looked up at her with glassy eyes and whimpered.
“You’re gonna be okay,” Amanda assured her, and looked back at me.
“Get her. Let’s go,” she said, standing back.
I picked her up and cuddled her up against my chest. She curled into me instead of lying limply in my arms, and that small fact helped ease my fear. She wasn’t lethargic. That was good.
“Come on, boys. You two go get in the Jeep,” she instructed, and went ahead of me to open doors for us.
Once we got to the Jeep, Amanda moved Jimmy to the front. She crawled into the back, then held out her arms. “Give Daisy to me. I’ll strap her in with me and hold her. You can drive this thing faster than I can.”
“Okay,” I agreed. I gave her Daisy, who went willingly. She didn’t know Amanda, but like the boys, she was willing to trust her completely. It was that angel’s face of hers. It was impossible for anyone to look like Amanda and be untrustworthy.
I ran around the Jeep and climbed in. We were speeding toward the hospital in seconds.
“How long has she had a fever, boys?” Amanda asked, looking back at them.
“Last night she felt warm and said her throat hurt. I gave her some Tylenol and put her to bed. Then all night she tossed and turned and cried. Her skin just got hotter and hotter,” Jimmy explained.
I was waiting on Amanda to ask why my mother hadn’t come home. Or if they had tried to call her. But she didn’t. Instead, she nodded. “Well, the two of you did a really good job taking care of her. No one else could have done a better job.”
If my little sister wasn’t sick and curled up in her lap, I’d grab Amanda’s face and kiss her. She had no idea how much those boys needed someone to affirm them. They never got that from anyone but me. Her praising them meant more than she could know.
“I shoulda called Preston sooner,” Jimmy said with a defeated sigh.
“You did exactly what you thought you should. You took care of her until you realized she needed a doctor. That’s all anyone else woulda known to do,” Amanda told him.
I pulled the Jeep up to the door of the emergency room and parked. They could tell me to move if they wanted to, but I was getting Daisy inside first.
Amanda handed her to me, and I took her straight through the doors.
The nurse at the reception desk gave me the usual annoyed look I got when I showed up with one of the kids. I’d been several times over the years.
“Sign in, please,” she said.
“It’s an emergency. Her fever is really high,” I explained.
“It’s the emergency room. Everyone in here has an emergency, I assure you. Now sign in please.” The woman’s bored tone infuriated me.
“She needs a doctor now. I can’t put her down and sign her in—she’s too sick to stand.” I tried not to snarl, but this woman was pushing me.
“Sign in,” she repeated.
My blood started to boil.
“What seems to be the problem?” Amanda’s voice interrupted the next words out of my mouth, which was probably a good thing.
“Y’all need to sign in and take a seat. He can’t seem to understand that.”
Amanda’s hand wrapped around my arm in a silent warning, and then she turned and walked over to the nurse coming out of a set of double doors.
“Hello, Diana. Could you please go tell Dr. Mike that I’m out here and I have a very sick little girl who needs to see him absolutely as soon as possible?”
“Yes, of course.” The nurse glanced back at me holding Daisy and motioned me toward her. “Y’all come on back with me.”
Amanda flashed her a grateful smile. “Thank you so much, Diana. We’re really worried about her. She’s been running a high fever for the past few hours.”
The nurse nodded and hurried to open back up the doors. Amanda walked over to me. “I’ll be right behind you. I’m going to go check on the boys and get them settled in the waiting room, and then I’ll head back.”
“They aren’t signed in or registered,” the lady behind the counter, who was determined I was not getting back there, said as she stood up.
The nurse frowned at the woman. “That’s okay. We’ll be sure to get the information we need. Amanda is Dr. Mike’s niece.”
For once in my life, I was thankful for Amanda Hardy’s social status in this town.
“Thank you,” I told her before following the nurse back.
I don’t think I’d ever been so scared in my life. Keeping my cool wasn’t a strong point for me. I normally broke down in a fit of tears when things got tough. But seeing Preston’s panicked face had made something in me click. He needed me to be strong, so I was suddenly strong. It was the oddest thing. I knew he needed me, and I wanted to be there for him. Then I’d seen Daisy and my own panic had risen, but I’d managed to remain calm. Knowing they all needed someone to help them had made me act like an adult.
I left Jimmy and Brent in front of the television with sodas and bags of chips I’d bought from the vending machine, then headed back to find Preston and Daisy.
Diana was waiting at the desk when I came by, signing some papers. I’d gotten lucky that she had walked out of the doors just when I needed someone to recognize me. I’d been going to church with Diana since I was a little girl. She’d also dated my mother’s much younger half brother back when they were in high school. Now they worked together. I teased Uncle Mike about it whenever I had the chance.
“Come with me. We’ve got her hooked up to an IV, and we’re running tests already. Mike stuck his head in and looked her over on his way to stitch up a head injury. He’s coming back, but from his quick look, he believes it is strep. A pretty bad case, but she’ll be fine. We are waiting for the results of the strep test now. As soon as we know, we’ll start the antibiotics via IV.”
We stepped behind the curtain and found Preston pacing at the foot of the bed while Daisy slept peacefully. He stopped and looked at me. “Hey.”
“Hey,” I replied. “Uncle Mike thinks it’s strep. She’s going to be fine. Sit down and stop pacing.”
“I’ll be back in a few minutes to check in. I need to go help set a bone,” Diana said before disappearing behind the curtain that separated us from the rest of the patients.
“I don’t know how to thank you enough. You just . . .” He paused and shook his head. “Took over. When I saw her there in that bed, so fragile, I was terrified. But you handled everything. Then we get here and you get her the best service possible.”
“I’m glad I could help. Emergencies typically aren’t something I deal with well, but today I just knew we had to get her to a doctor. Luckily, I’m related to one.”
Preston stared at me a moment, and then a small smile touched his lips for the first time today. I was so happy to see that smile. “You’re amazing, and you don’t even know it.”
My face grew warm and I ducked my head. I wasn’t amazing, but hearing Preston say it like he meant it made me hope for something I knew I couldn’t have. I’d been there when he needed someone. He was feeling grateful. He didn’t suddenly find me attractive and want me. Those were two different things, and I needed to keep that in mind.
The curtain pulled back and Uncle Mike stepped inside. His dark brown hair was cut short but did that messy thing in the front that only guys who looked like him at thirty-four could get away with.
“There’s my favorite Hardy.” Uncle Mike beamed when he walked into the room. That was his favorite joke. Especially now that he hated my dad. He loved to tease Marcus about me being the favorite.
“Hey, Uncle Mike. Is she gonna be okay?” I asked.
“Yep. Kid’s got strep. Bad case of it. Needs constant supervision and care. She’ll be fine after about thirty-six hours of antibiotic, but it’s real important to watch her and keep fluids in her, as well as make her eat small amounts once she starts to feel like it. She is contagious, so you need to keep her away from the other kids if possible. Biggest threat is if they eat or drink from[LF60] the same dishes she used. Once she’s had about twenty-four hours of antibiotics, she won’t be contagious anymore.”
I nodded, then reached over and squeezed Preston’s hand. His fingers laced through mine, and he squeezed back. Uncle Mike’s gaze fell to our joined hands before he went back to looking at the chart in front of him.
“I’m getting her prescriptions printed out right now. We want to keep her here a little bit longer to get the first round of antibiotics in her through IV before you leave.”
“Yeah, of course. Thank you, Doctor,” Preston replied.
Uncle Mike looked at Preston. “She yours?” he asked, shifting his eyes to me, then back to Preston.
He thought Preston had a kid. No wonder he was acting weird about us holding hands.
“No, sir. Well, yeah. Daisy is my little sister. I take care of her when my mom needs me to.”
Uncle Mike seemed to relax a little. “That’s awfully nice of you. Most guys your age wouldn’t be so responsible with a younger sibling.”
Preston didn’t reply. This was making him uncomfortable. I didn’t know a lot about Preston’s mom, but I did know her trailer was filthy and she ran off and left her kids at home alone for days. That was enough to know that the kids relied on Preston a lot.
“Thank you for seeing her so fast. I owe you one,” I told him, walking over to give him a quick hug.
He pulled me up tightly against him and whispered in my ear, “Watch out for that one,” then dropped his arm and nodded one last time at Preston before walking outside our room and closing the curtain behind him.
I turned back to Preston. “She’s going to be okay.” This time I smiled in relief and walked over to wrap my arms around Preston. He might not want me to, but I needed to hug him. He’d been so upset, and now it was okay. I needed this hug.