She’d had to sit down before she fell down. A fever was nature’s way of killing a virus, so why hadn’t this run its course? And who passed out from such a silly thing, anyway?
Her vision had dimmed at the edges, though. She had felt so awful she hadn’t cared that the wet snow had been soaking through her clothes. Her only thought had been, This is how I die. She’d been okay with it. Her father would have loved this for her, dying like a dog in the gutter a week before Christmas. Even Travis would probably conclude that she had got what she deserved. If he ever found out, which he wouldn’t.
It had been a relief to succumb. Fighting was hard, especially when it was a losing battle. Giving up was so much easier. Why had she never tried it before?
So, she had died.
Now she was in—well, this probably wasn’t heaven, not that she expected to get in there. It might be hell. She felt pretty lousy. Her body ached and her sore ear felt full of water. The other one was hypersensitive to the rustle of clothing and a distant conversation that bounced painfully inside her skull. Her mouth was so dry she couldn’t swallow. She tried to form words and all she could manage was a whimper of misery.
Something lifted off her arm, a warm weight she hadn’t recognized was there until it was gone, leaving her with a profound sense of loss. She heard footsteps, then a male voice.
“She’s waking up.”
She knew that voice. Her eyes prickled and the air she’d been breathing so easily became dense and hard to pull in. Her chest grew compressed with dread and guilt. She couldn’t move, but inwardly she shrank.
She had definitely gone to hell.
A lighter, quicker footstep came toward her. She opened her eyes, winced at the brightness, then squinted at a tastefully sterile room in placid colors that could have been the one her father had occupied the last months of his life. A private hospital room. For an ear infection? Seriously? Just give her the pink stuff and send her on her way.
“I—” I can’t afford this, she tried to say.
“Don’t try to talk yet,” the kindly nurse said. Her smile was stark white and reassuring against her dark brown skin. She took up Imogen’s wrist to check her pulse, the nurse’s hand soft and warm. Motherly. She checked her temperature and said, “Much better.”
All the while, Imogen could almost but not quite see him in her periphery. She was afraid to turn her head on the pillow and look right at him. It was going to hurt and she just didn’t have it in her yet.
“How am I here?” she managed to whisper.
“Water?” The nurse used a bendy straw, the kind Imogen had never been allowed to use because they were too common. A gimmick.
She got two gulps down her parched throat before the nurse said, “Easy now. Let me tell the doctor you’re awake, then we’ll give you more and maybe something to eat.”
“You came in yesterday.”
A day and a half in a place like this? When her bank balance was already a zombie apocalypse running rivers of red?
The nurse walked out, sending a smile toward the specter on the other side of the bed.
Imogen closed her eyes again. So childish. She was that and many more things that were bad. Maybe her father was right and she was, simply and irrevocably, bad.
A shoe scuffed beside the bed. She felt him looming over her. Heard him sigh as though he knew she was avoiding him the only way she could.
“Why are you here?” she asked, voice still husky. She wanted to squirm. In her most secretive dreams, this meeting happened on neutral turf. Maybe a coffee shop or somewhere with a pretty view. She would have had a cashier’s check in hand to pay him back every cent she’d been awarded in their divorce settlement—money she knew he felt she’d conned out of him. Somehow, in her fantasy, she found the words to explain why she’d taken it and he had, if not forgiven her, at least not despised her any longer.
Maybe his feelings toward her weren’t that bad. He was here, wasn’t he? Maybe he cared a little. Had he been worried for her?
She heard a zipper, which made her open her eyes out of curiosity—
“You went through my things?” She clamped her eyes shut against the small red change purse that had belonged to her mother. It held Imogen’s valuables—her driver’s license, her debit card, her room key, the only photo she had of her with her sister and mother, and the marriage certificate stating Travis Sanders was her husband.
“The nurse was looking for your next of kin.” Oh, this man had a way with disdain. It dripped from a voice which was otherwise deep and warm with an intriguing hint of Southern charm.
She was a connoisseur of disparaging tones, having experienced a lot of them in her lifetime. Neighbors. Teachers. Daddy dearest. Inured as she ought to be, this man cut into her with scalpel-like precision with his few indifferent words.
He didn’t care if he was the only person left in this world whom she had any connection to. He found his brief association with her abhorrent when he thought about her at all.
“It’s my only other piece of identification.”
“Birth certificate?” he suggested.
Burned after an argument with her father ages ago. So childish.
She wanted to throw her arm over her eyes and continue hiding, but her limbs were deadweights and the small twitch of trying to lift her arm made her aware of the tube sticking out of it.
She looked at the IV, the ceiling, him.
Oh, it hurt so badly. He had somehow improved on perfection, handsome features having grown sharper and more arrogantly powerful. He was clean-shaven, not ruggedly stubbled and human-looking the way she remembered him when she dared revisit their shared past—hair rumpled by her fingers, chest naked and hot as he pressed her into the sheets.
Whatever warmth she had ever seen in him had been iced over and hardened. He wore a tailored three-piece suit in charcoal with a tie in frosted gray. His mouth, capable of a sideways grin, was held in a short, stern firmness. Flat gray eyes took in what must appear like soggy laundry dumped out of the washer before it had even been through the rinse cycle. That’s about how appealing she felt. While he was…