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Ben Oliver gestured aggressively toward the large oak tree his BMW was wrapped around. A vein pulsated on the left side of his neck.
“Didn’t you see the stop sign?”
The woman across from him twisted a strand of straight, light blonde hair around a finger and avoided eye contact. “Yeah, I saw it, I just —”
“You just what? Thought the stop sign was a suggestion?”
The woman casually blew a pink bubble from her gum and popped it between her lips. “Calm down. I’m sure your car is —”
“Totaled, Judi. My car is totaled.” Ben tapped the screen of his cell phone. “My car is totaled because you thought you could beat me through the intersection.”
Holding the phone to his ear, he paced back and forth as he waited for someone to pick up. A brief cool breeze did little to cool him off and he focused his glare on the woman in front of him.
It was clear the rumors he’d heard since high school about Judi Lambert being a train wreck were true. He didn’t even know what she was doing here. He thought she’d moved to New York City after high school. Then again, he didn’t know why he was back here in the hometown he’d left almost a decade ago and thought he’d never look back on.
“Hello. Attorney Ben Oliver’s office.”
“Cindy, hey, yeah. It’s me. I’ve been in an accident.”
“Oh my gosh, Ben. Are you okay?” The concerned voice of his middle-aged secretary sent a flurry of frustration rushing through him. He liked that she was a caring person, but he didn’t have time for that right now.
“I’m fine. I just need you to call Judge Stanton’s office and tell him I’m not going to be able to make court today.”
“Should I call anyone else for you?”
“No. Thanks. See you later this afternoon.”
He slid his thumb across the screen of the phone and turned back to what was left of his car.
When he turned from inspecting the car, Judi, standing across from him next to her car, still parked in the middle of the road, slid her hands in the back pockets of her jean skirt. She pushed out her chest and bottom lip at the same time. Her hot pink tank top stretched a bit lower as she moved, revealing even more of the cleavage the shirt had been designed to show off. Behind her, the red convertible she’d been driving sat completely unharmed.
She tipped her head to one side and tried the eye flutter again. “I’m sure we can work something out, right?”
Was she trying to flirt with him? She could not be serious.
“Work what out?” The more he yelled, the more his head throbbed. “There’s nothing to be worked out! My car is destroyed because of you.” He pointed a finger at her. “You better hope your insurance covers this.”
She held her hands up in front of her. “Dude, calm down. You’re bleeding from the head. It can’t be good for you to be screaming like this.”
Ben took a step toward her, wincing as pain sliced through his ankle. His voice came out in a growl as he spoke. “I know I’m bleeding!” He spoke through gritted teeth. “You don’t think I know I’m bleeding?! My head bounced off the windshield when I swerved to miss your car!”
With one hand he pressed his handkerchief to his forehead to stop blood dripping into his eye from a cut on his forehead. He dialed 911 with the other.
“Yes, I need to report an accident,” he answered when the dispatcher asked what his emergency was.
“Location?” the female dispatcher asked.
He swiveled to look for the road signs at the intersection, but when he stopped moving, the rest of the world didn’t.
“Sir, can you give me a location?”
Black encroached at the edges of his sight, and he bent forward, propping his hands on his knees. The phone clattered to the dirt surface of the road.
“Sir? Are you okay? Sir?”
When he came to, Judi was leaning over him, his phone against her ear.
“Yes. He’s opening his eyes now. How far out are they?” She rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Okay. I’ll try, but he’s very stubborn.”
Judi held the phone to the base of her throat, slightly above her cleavage, still leaning over him.
“Ben, the dispatcher says you need to stay still until the ambulance gets here. It shouldn’t be long, ‘kay?”
Yeah – kay.
Where else was he going to go? His head was pounding, pain was shooting up through his ankle, and every time he tried to open his eyes, the world — and Judi — spun into a whirl of colors. He clenched his eyes closed against the pulsating agony sliding back and forth from the front of his head to the back.
The next thirty minutes were a blur, voices fading in and out, images merging together, amd lights bright in his eyes. He didn’t know how much time had passed when the world came into focus again and the beeping of monitors drowned out his muddled thoughts.
“There he is. I think he’s coming to.”
What was Judi doing in his bedroom? This could not be a good sign.
“Hey, buddy.” Why was she talking so loudly? “How you feelin’?”
Wait. He wasn’t in his bedroom. Thank God. Literally, thank God. That meant Judi wasn’t either.
A deep voice boomed across his thoughts. “I know it’s family only. I’m his father.”
Ben struggled to open his eyes, blinked in bright fluorescent, and squinted. He searched the room of hospital equipment, nurses, and Judi, his gaze slowly focusing on his father’s face.
“You’re awake.” His father’s face was etched with concern. “Thank God.”
Maxwell Oliver’s voice was thick with emotion. He stepped past the nurse and stood at Ben’s bedside, reaching out a large hand to clasp his son’s shoulder.
Ben closed his eyes briefly, trying to remember how he’d ended up here, IV needles sticking out of his arm, nodes glued to his forehead and chest. A vision of his car wrapped around a tree filled his mind and his eyes flew open, his gaze falling on Judi again.
It all came back to him, including the anger.
“What is she still doing here? She didn’t do enough by making me wreck my car?”
His dad looked at him through disappointed dark green eyes, lowering his voice. “Ben, she’s been waiting almost two hours here for you to wake up. She easily could have left. I’ll cut you some slack since you’re injured, but I hope to see a little more kindness when your head is clearer.”
In his father’s words Ben felt the sting of the reminder that he would never be as good, or as kind, as Maxwell Oliver.
How did his dad even know he was here? He certainly hadn’t called him. Then again, maybe he had. His brain was a little fuzzy on the last — how long had he been here?
“I need to call the office. I have a client coming in at 2.”
A smile tilted his dad’s mouth up. “It’s well after two, kid. Cindy already called and rescheduled. You need to lay back and relax. I’m going to find a doctor and see what the verdict is on that head injury of yours.”
With his father gone, Ben took the time to look around the room, his gaze settling once again on Judi, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, dark red lipstick freshly reapplied, finely manicured nails showcasing pink nail polish as she held her phone and texted furiously. She was sitting in a chair, one leg crossed over the other, her foot bouncing.
“Go home, Judi. I’m fine.”
She didn’t look up from her phone. “I have to stay. Matt McGee wants my statement about the accident. He said he’d meet me here.”
Ben shifted up on the hospital bed and looked down at his arm with the IV. He tried to think why Matt McGee would be responding to the accident. He was an officer for the borough of Spencer, not the township.
Then he remembered that the coverage area for the local police department had been expanded while he’d been living out of the area. The accident was in the jurisdiction of the Spencer Police Department after all. So much had changed since he’d been gone and some days it was hard for him to keep up, even though he’d been back to the area for the last two years.
Maybe it was the painkiller running into his bloodstream orc` maybe it was the exhaustion or the head injury, but a laugh came out of him.
“And what are you going to tell Officer McGee? The truth? That you completely ignored a stop sign and drove straight through the intersection and in front of me?”
Judi looked up, pursing her lips, and studying Ben for a few minutes before speaking. “Are you going to sue me?”
“Just let me know if you’re going to sue me. I’ve got tons of bills already, okay? I need to know if I’m going to have even more to pay if you sue me.”
He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. “No, Judi. I am not going to sue you. The worse I’m going to do is have my insurance company send a claim to your insurance company.”
“Okay. Well, you’re a lawyer so, I wasn’t sure what you’d do.”
Ben made a face as he lowered his hands. “Attorneys don’t sue everyone just because we know how, Judi.”
Judi looked back at her phone, tapping her finger across the screen. “Just checking.”
“Mr. Oliver. How are we doing?”
He heard the voice before he saw the doctor who swept into the room. He tried to follow the imposing figure with his eyes, but they wouldn’t focus so he tipped his head back against the pillow instead.
The doctor flicked a small circle of light into his eyes quickly then held up a finger. “Can you follow my finger?”
Ben tried, but his eyes kept drifting where he didn’t want them to. Either too far left or too far right.
The doctor dropped his hand and glanced over his shoulder at Maxwell, who Ben noticed had stepped back into the exam room. “That’s pretty consistent with what I suspected.”
“What’s the verdict then, Jim?” Maxwell asked, arms folded across his chest, expression serious.
“Pretty clear grade three concussion. I’d like to do an MRI to confirm.”
Ben tried to focus on his father and the doctor as they conversed, but moving his gaze back and forth proved to be too much to handle and he eventually closed his eyes.
He listened to the conversation, not in the least surprised his father knew the doctor by his first name. It seemed like there wasn’t anyone in this small town Maxwell didn’t know.
“For now, I think we should keep him overnight for observation. If all the tests come back normal, he should be good to go in a couple of days.”
Ben opened his eyes, squinting in his father’s direction. “You two are aware that I’m right here, right?”
Maxwell laughed, his voice deep and rich. “Sorry about that, son. Jim and I went to high school together. I was already talking to him outside about your head injury, so we were simply continuing the conversation.”
Ben tried to nod, then winced. “Okay, well, listen, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I don’t want to stay here overnight. I have a court case in the morning and —“
“There’ll be no court for you for a while, kid.” His father’s stern voice overlapped his. “In addition to that head injury, Jim’s pretty sure your ankle is broken. You’re going to need some time to heal up.”
Maxwell pushed his hands into his front pant pockets and tipped his head down, looking over his gold-rimmed glasses. “Listen, I know it’s going to be hard for you not to be on the move, but I have a feeling you won’t be cleared to drive for at least a couple of weeks so I think you should stay with me and your mom while you recover.”
“Dad, come on, that’s –”
“Probably a good idea,” the doctor said. “We’ll see what the MRI shows, but even if it doesn’t show anything worse, your head is going to need some time to heal. Driving could put you and others in danger. I’m going to call a nurse and have her finish cleaning out that gash and then we’ll sew it up for you.” He turned to Maxwell and held out his hand. “Max, good to see you.” He turned his head toward Ben while still holding Maxwell’s hand. “You’ve got a good dad here, Ben. I hope you know that.”
Ben leaned his head back again, eyelids drooping. “Yeah. I do. I certainly do.”
Sleep overcame him a few minutes later. When he woke up, he was in a room alone, except for a nurse pressing buttons on a blood pressure machine next to the bed. Blue curtains were pulled back from the window and he could see the sun low in the sky, casting a faint orange hue across the cars in the parking lot outside the window. He wasn’t sure if it was rising or setting.
He patted his chest, searching. “Is my phone around here?”
The nurse gestured toward the bedside table. “Right there charging. Your dad said you’d want it when you woke up.”
“How long have I been out?”
The nurse smiled as she turned to leave the room. “Sometime since yesterday. The morphine hit you hard.”
Ben winced as he pushed the button on the side of the bed, lifting the top so he could sit up. His head and ankle were throbbing. He glanced under the blanket and saw a temporary cast on the ankle.
“Great. Just what I need.”
He reached for the phone, wondering how many calls he’d missed while he was out.
Ten all together. Two were from clients, one was from his secretary, and another one was from the Spencer Valley Police Department, which was most likely regarding his statement about the accident.
His finger hovered over the last voice mail. He didn’t recognize the number, but the phone had already transcribed the first few lines of the message and it had done a horrible job. All he could make out that made sense were the words “parents” and “birthday.” Whose parents and whose birthday?
He pressed play on the message, groaning softly when the familiar voice started speaking.
“My parents sent you an invitation to Amelia’s party and I just want you to know that they sent it, not me. I don’t want you here. One call a year on her birthday doesn’t make you a father, Ben. So, just . . . just ignore the invitation.”
Muffled voices followed. Angie must have forgotten to hang up the phone. Ben heard what sounded like Angie’s mother in the background, then it was Angie again. “Yes, I did call him. . . Because I didn’t ask you to contact him. . . . I understand he’s her father, but he’s never wanted to be in her life before. Why would he now?”
The voicemail ended abruptly, and he sat staring at the screen for a few seconds, his thumb hovering over the delete button.
Taking a deep breath, he moved his thumb away from the button. He was under the influence of some heavy-duty painkillers. Maybe he’d better listen to the voicemail again when was more alert.
Then again —
His thumb moved back to the delete button and he tapped it.
Listening again wouldn’t make any of what Angie had said less true. He hadn’t even seen the invitation yet, but if he did, he knew what to do with it. Toss it in the trashcan like he had with all the other invitations he’d been sent the last four years.