DAISY WAS WHIPPED by the time the clinic closed Wednesday evening. She'd spent the last few days taking care of stuffy noses, flus, bronchitis, cuts and bruises, and handled a host of other patients that should have been seen by their primary care physicians. At least the construction worker's stitches qualified as urgent care. Caring for the patients at the clinic made her aware of the plethora of needs right there in Trusty. She'd seen firsthand that when medical care wasn't convenient, families were forgoing it altogether, which was not only stupid, but dangerous. Whether she was caring for emergencies or handling well care, she was glad for the distractions because she couldn't stop thinking about the looming deadline for her job offers. She had been staying with Luke since Sunday night, and every time he brought up her job prospects, she brushed it off.
It felt so right to spend time with Luke. She loved going for walks with him and spending their nights wrapped in each other's arms. She helped him take care of the horses in the evenings, and just watching him care for them and love them endeared him to her even more. She knew he'd make a great father one day. He had a big heart. Every time she started to give consideration to the job offers, the thought of leaving Luke was too painful, and she pushed the decision to the back burner.
Too tired to even think about cooking dinner, she stopped by the diner on her way home. Home? Luke's house felt a lot like home to Daisy lately, and she knew it had nothing to do with the physical house and everything to do with him.
"Hey there, sugar. You look pooped." Margie set a glass of iced tea in front of Daisy. "It's fresh and supersweet. It'll brighten your day."
"Thanks, Margie. Can I get a salad and a chicken casserole for two to go?" She took a long drink and closed her eyes, relishing in the delectable taste that she'd never been able to match. While she was in medical school, she'd lived on Ramen noodles, ice water, and instant coffee. The few times she'd come home during school breaks, she and her mother would stop in at the diner her first day back, and Margie always had a fresh pitcher of tea waiting for them. It was one of the hallmarks of home, Daisy realized, just like the crisp mountain air that she'd so easily forgotten.
"Coming right up." She slipped the order through to the kitchen and then returned to Daisy. "There's been talk around town about you and Luke." Margie wiped the counter with a damp rag. "All good."
"Yeah?" Talk around town never surprised her, but all good sure did. Hearing Margie's comment didn't hit her with the force it would have when she'd first come back to Trusty. Daisy realized that she was softening toward the thing she'd rued the most about Trusty. Talk around town.
"Mm-hm." She leaned in close and lowered her voice. "And I hear Janice's mother is finally trying to get Janice to do something about Darren's drinking."
"I'll believe it when I see it." Daisy wouldn't pin her hopes on that change happening anytime soon.
"Yeah, that's the way I feel, too. I wish she would, though. Children learn from their parents, and she has sweet little Michael to think of. He's such a doll."
If Janice had only taken Michael to his doctor sooner, she could have saved him a lot of pain. "Yeah, he is."
Margie leaned over the counter. "So is it true that you and Luke are an item?"
An item. A couple. Now they were the talk of the town. Of course they were. What did she think would happen if she spent every night with him? "Yeah, you might say that."
The door to the diner opened and Alice Shalmer walked in.
"Hey there, Alice." Margie waved from across the diner. "Have a seat. I'll bring you some iced tea in a sec."
"Thanks, Margie." Alice had worked at the Trusty library since Daisy was in middle school, and she looked just as Daisy remembered: tall and thin with an angular nose, pointy chin, and black-framed glasses. She sat beside Daisy at the counter. "Hi, Daisy. How's your dad feeling?"
"A little better every day. Thanks for asking."
"That's good to hear." She set her purse in her lap. "I've been bringing your mom books each week, so she has something to keep her mind occupied. I was even able to find a few on physical therapy that I think she really found helpful."
It seemed that every time Daisy turned around, she learned about someone who had reached out to her family. "Thank you. I'm sure she really appreciates that. She doesn't get out too much these days."
"No, she doesn't. But then again, your father has always been the center of her world. He's a good man. It's a shame what's happened to him."
The center of her world. That was the truth. "Yes, we feel that way, too, but we're hoping he'll be well soon."
Margie brought a glass of iced tea for Alice. "Did you get any new hot romances in?"
Alice shook her head. "I'm behind on shelving, but I've got a new assistant librarian starting soon, Callie Barnes. She's from Denver and smart as a tack. We'll get all caught up." She set her eyes on Margie. "Margie, we need to find you a living, breathing man to live your own romance."
Margie threw her head back and laughed. "No, thank you. Men in books don't talk back, they never get a beer belly, and they stay young forever. And the best part?" She leaned across the counter and whispered, "I'm not the talk of the town."
"Like you'd even care about that," Daisy teased. Margie was one of the most confident women she knew. She'd seen her stand up to drunken customers, haggle with tourists, and talk frantic friends back to sanity. She couldn't begin to imagine Margie being shaken up by rumors.
Margie placed her hand over her heart and feigned a frown. "I've got a sensitive heart, Daisy. All this..." She waved her hand up and down in front of her body. "Facade. That's all it is. A big fat facade." She set her hands on her ample hips. "And if you believe that, you'll believe that I grew the tea leaves for that drink of yours, too." Margie walked away laughing.
Daisy smiled. "I never realized how much I missed her when I was away."
"Speaking of being away, everyone has missed you, Daisy," Alice began. "But we're so proud of how much you've accomplished. You've done Trusty proud."
Everyone. It was all she could do not to laugh. "Thanks, Alice. I doubt everyone missed me, but thank you."
"Oh, you'd be surprised. It's a shame Dr. Waxman isn't here to congratulate you himself. He was always such a card." Alice took a sip of her drink.
"I miss him." She wished Dr. Waxman were there. He'd most certainly congratulate her and dole out a handful of advice about what kind of flack to accept from patients and what to nip in the bud, and she'd memorize every word as it fell from his lips-then he'd probably hand her a lollipop. The thought brought a smile to her lips.
"Speaking of Dr. Waxman." Alice shifted her eyes to Daisy. "Did you hear about the breast specialist who came into town last year and held a conference at the library? He wanted to hold a clinic for breast exams, and the library hosted the clinic."
"Yeah, I did hear about that. Dr. Ornstein from Denver went to several small towns, right?" She'd known it was a marketing ploy for the breast center he'd recently opened-a clever one.
"Yes, and did you know he caught Millicent Crouch's cancer early enough that she's cancer free now?" Alice shook her head. "If she'd had regular exams here in Trusty, she might have even caught it sooner." She slid a look to Daisy that was very similar to her mother's look when she'd told Daisy that she could change Trusty's medical issues.
"I did hear about Millicent, and I'm glad they caught it early."
Alice gripped the top of her purse, as if she were steeling herself for something. "I was at Sheetz this morning and ran into Cleo, who said that you were setting up a clinic for the kids' school physicals."
No wonder she was steeling herself. "Cleo?" Cleo Topps worked at Sheetz. She was in her late fifties and Daisy hadn't seen her since she'd returned to town.
"Yes, and she also said that some of the girls were helping you. Let's see if I can remember." Alice looked up toward the ceiling. "I think she said that Lynn Haverty and Kari Long were helping you, and Kevin, of course. Betty Laird is already going through the PTA list and taking signups." Betty had been the middle school secretary forever.
"Wait. What?" How could this have happened so fast? "I haven't committed to the clinic."
"No?" Alice furrowed her brow. "Oh dear. Well, why on earth not?"
Because I have no clinic. Because I haven't had time to breathe. Because...Oh the hell with it. "I couldn't get authorization from my manager at the urgent-care clinic, and I'm living in an apartment right now, so I don't really have space to see patients."
"That's why I was telling you about the breast clinic. The library had to be inspected by the county in order to hold the clinic there, and we kept up that certification. Use it, Daisy. Please."
"The library?" She could just see a sign out front. Drop off your kid and pick up a book! "I don't know. I'd have to see patients in the evenings or on the weekends, and the library closes at six."
Alice patted her hand. "This is Trusty, dear, and you're talking to the librarian. One phone call and it's a done deal."
The bells over the front door chimed as Janice burst through the doors with Michael screaming, his little fists clinging to her shirt. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she was panting hard.
Daisy jumped from her chair and went to her. Her shirt was covered with blood. "Janice, what happened?"
"Oh, thank goodness I found you. The clinic is closed and Darren cut his hand. I was going to ask Margie to call your mom and track you down."
Daisy quickly assessed Janice's face, arms, looking for signs of a struggle. "Where is he? Are you hurt? Did he hurt Michael?"
"No." She drew in a deep breath. "He's home, and Daisy, he's drunk. He won't go to the hospital, but look." She held out the bottom of her shirt. "I'm so scared. Please."
Damn him. Drunk again? Daisy grabbed her purse and called over her shoulder to Margie, "I'll pay later." She followed Janice and drove like a bat out of hell, glad she kept a full medical bag in her trunk.
She parked on the side of the road in front of Janice's small brick rambler and grabbed the old-fashioned leather medical bag from the trunk. It had been a gift from Dr. Waxman when she'd been accepted into medical school. Do Trusty proud, he'd said; then he'd corrected himself. Do yourself proud. She was trying to do herself proud, but would leaving this messed-up town-and Luke-behind really make her proud?
The front door opened into the living room. The house smelled of stale cigarettes. There must have been a dozen or more beer cans littered throughout the small, cluttered living room. A trail of blood ran between the kitchen and living room like a vein. She followed it down a narrow hallway.
"He's in the bathroom," Janice explained. They found Darren passed out in the bathtub, mouth slack, eyes closed. His hand was wrapped in a bloody towel, hanging over the edge of the tub. The bathroom smelled of urine and the metallic stench of fresh blood. "I told him to stay there. I was afraid the blood would ruin our carpet."
Daisy took his pulse as she gave Janice instructions in a calm, firm voice. "Janice, take Michael to your mother's. I can take care of Darren." At least she hoped she could. She needed help. If Darren woke up, he could go ballistic
. "Go, Janice. Now."
"No. I can't. He gets rough when he's drunk."
Damn it. She thought he'd never touched her. Daisy grabbed Janice's arms. "Listen to me. Michael does not need to see this. You're his mother. Take him to your mother's house and keep your child safe. I'll be fine."
Janice nodded but remained still. She was probably in shock. Daisy applied pressure to Darren's hand, hoping he wouldn't wake up until after Janice and Michael were gone. She pulled out her phone and called Kevin.
"Kevin, I need you to get ahold of Janice's mother and tell her to come get Janice and Michael at Janice's house; then come to Janice's. Darren's in bad shape." Her next call was to Luke. "Luke, Darren's drunk and he's cut his hand. He won't go to the hospital. I need to stitch him up, and I need you to hold him for me." She gave him Janice's address, and by the time she hung up, Janice's mother had arrived. Thanks God it's a small town. Daisy kept pressure on Darren's hand until Janice and Michael were safely out of the house. Kevin burst through the front door with Luke on his heels. Both men carried first-aid kits.
"Holy shit, Daisy," Kevin said, eyeing the amount of blood oozing over the side of the tub, where Darren's hand had been resting.
"I'm hoping it's not as bad as it looks. I need to clean him up, numb him, then stitch him up, but I want to get a good look to be sure he didn't cut the tendons first. If he wakes up, he could lash out. Can you guys hold him for me?"
They were already moving into place when they heard Janice's neighbor, Mr. Low, calling into the house. "Darren? I saw Janice leave with her mother." He appeared in the bathroom doorway, and Kevin was quick to shuffle him out of the house and lock the door.
"The whole town will know in six minutes," Kevin said as he ran back into the bathroom.
"I've got his back. Kevin, get the front." Luke lifted Darren forward and sat behind him in the tub. He wrapped his powerful arms around Darren's, pinning them to his chest, and wrapped his legs around his waist.
Daisy eyed his expertly placed limbs. "You've done this before."
"You can learn a lot at the right college parties." Luke's tone was dead serious.
Kevin climbed into the tub, pinning Darren's legs beneath him and holding his forearm against the side of the tub while Daisy cleaned and inspected his wound.
"He missed the tendons. It's long and deep, but I can stitch it. Are you guys ready?"
Luke nodded, jaw clenched, muscles flexed around Darren.
"We're good, Daisy," Kevin said.
Daisy's pulse ran wild as she focused on numbing the area around the wound, expecting Darren to wake up and go crazy. Darren didn't flinch. She breathed a sigh of relief. Daisy set to work stitching up his hand, thinking about Janice and Michael. What would she have done if she hadn't found Daisy? Would she have gone against Darren's wishes and called 911? Would he have let her? Would she have just let him bleed? She knew damn well why he didn't want to go to the hospital in the next town over, and it had nothing to do with the forty-five-minute drive. Drunks thought that if they kept their injuries to themselves, no one would ever know they had a problem. That might be true in a larger city, where people were too busy hustling through their high-paying jobs to worry about neighbors, but it wasn't true of Trusty. She thought of her father and of what her mother had said. Trusty is also known for other things. More important things, like forgiveness and community.
Darren remained asleep through the whole ordeal. The three of them carried him into the bedroom, removed his bloody shirt, and laid him on the bed. Daisy bandaged his hand so he couldn't rip the stitches out, and as he lay there, passed out, looking pathetic as hell, Daisy felt sorry for him. She had never met his father, who was an alcoholic and had died in a car accident when Darren was young, but she knew his mother, and she seemed to have her life in order. She worked at the town hardware store, lived alone, and she'd done all the right things when Darren was growing up. She'd thrown him birthday parties when he was in grade school and supported him at high school sporting events. But once Darren began drinking, when he was in eleventh grade, she no longer had any control over him. If only she'd been able to get Darren into rehab.
Fat chance. At this rate, he was sure to follow his father's footsteps to an early grave. She felt the weight of Luke's arm across her shoulder.
"Yeah, of course." She realized she'd pulled Luke from his horses and Kevin from whatever he was doing, which was probably reading, watching a movie, or thinking about meeting a woman. "Thanks for coming, you guys. I'm sorry to have called you, but you're my go-to guys."
"I'll wear that badge proudly." Luke squeezed her shoulder.
"No worries, Daisy. Jesus, how does she live like this?" Kevin disappeared down the hall.
Daisy and Luke followed him into the kitchen. Michael's toys were gathered in bins in the corner of the kitchen and living room. The counters were clean, the table was covered in crayons and coloring books, and amid it all were several empty beer cans. Daisy ached for them-all of them. Darren included. She'd seen guilt weighing him down the other day at her father's farm.
Daisy grabbed a trash bag and gathered the empty cans. Kevin and Luke helped, and in no time, they had the small house clear of them, but there was still broken glass and trails of blood.
"I'm going to stick around and clean up the blood so Janice and Michael don't have to come back and see it. You guys can go. I can take care of this."
Luke shook his head. "And take the chance that Darren wakes up? No way. I'm staying."
"Me too. We can have this done in no time." Kevin headed into the bathroom.
"You must have other things to do." As relieved as she was, Daisy didn't want to keep Luke from his work.
"I'm not leaving, Daisy." He grabbed a mop from the kitchen closet and headed toward the bathroom while Daisy answered a knock at the door. Lynn Haverty and two other girls Daisy had gone to high school with-and been teased by-Jerri and Tracie-stood on the porch with worry in their eyes.
"Janice called," Lynn explained. "She asked me to pick up clothes for her and Michael. She said she's not coming back." Lynn peered around Daisy. "She said there was blood everywhere. Holy crap."
"I know. We're cleaning it up so she and Michael won't have to see it." Daisy stepped aside and let them in. "He's in their bedroom. Please don't wake him."
"Hi, Daisy," Jerri said as she came inside. "I haven't seen you in so long. Wow, you look great." She hugged Daisy as if they'd been good friends, when they'd been anything but.
Daisy was dumbfounded for a moment, wondering how they could brush off the past and move forward so easily when she was busy tamping down her fight-or-flight defenses. "Thanks." Daisy went to the kitchen to look for rug cleaner and try to get the blood out of the carpet. She heard Tracie on her heels and braced herself.
"I heard you were doing the physicals. Thank you for that. I wondered how I'd get Maddy hers before school started." Tracie had a seven-year-old daughter, who, like Tracie, had freckles across the bridge of her nose and bright green eyes. Tracie's auburn hair hung in a thickly braided rope to the middle of her back. She opened a closet door and pulled out rug cleaner and rags. "She keeps all the cleaning supplies in here."
"Thanks." Daisy went to the living room while the other girls packed Janice's and Michael's clothes; then they joined her and helped clean the house.
"I hate that she's going through this," Lynn said.
"I know. I wish she would have moved out ages ago." Tracie stuffed Michael's rain slicker into a bag.
Daisy was scrubbing the living room carpet when Jerri sank to her knees and began helping her. Her blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Daisy held her breath.
"I like your hair darker, Daisy."
"Thank you." Daisy hadn't given much thought to her hair since she'd dyed it. It had made things easier when she was in her residency. Looking like a Barbie doll coupled with a name like Daisy Honey put her a step behind, regardless of her 3.9 GPA. Just as books were judged by their covers, Daisy was living proof that people were, too. Now a wave of defensiveness washed through her, as if she were weak for changing her hair color.
"I'm glad you were here to help, Daisy. I know none of us were very nice to you in high school." Jerri kept her eyes trained on the carpet.
With that little nugget, defensiveness went out the door. Daisy swallowed against the thickening of her throat.
Jerri sat back on her heels. "The truth is, we were awful to you, and we're real sorry. We talk about it, all of us. How bad we feel about what we put you through."
Tracie set aside the bag and looked at Daisy. "I'm really sorry, Daisy. Jerri's right. We're all sorry." She looked down, then glanced back up at Daisy with empathetic eyes. "When I think of Maddy and how upset she'd be, and I'd be, if anyone ever treated her the way we treated you, I...I'm just so ashamed of what I did. What we all did."
Daisy had waited years to hear those words, and they hit her like a sledgehammer to the heart.
Lynn joined them and spoke with a soft and caring tone. "You didn't deserve it, and I have no idea why we thought it was okay to do what we did. I'm sorry, Daisy." Lynn looked at the others and took a deep breath. "The truth is, we were jealous of you."
"You were pretty and smart, and you had this great family who treated you like you weren't just a dumb girl." Jerri shrugged.
The universal shrug that had filled so many gaps recently.
"It's okay," Daisy said just above a whisper.
"No, it's not." Jerri leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Daisy's neck. "I'm sorry."
Daisy's hands were wet and messy from cleaning the floor. She lifted her forearms to Jerri's sides in an awkward hug. "I'm no better. I said some really horrible things to Janice the other day."
"No, you didn't. You said the truth, and she knows it."
Daisy shook her head and blinked away the dampness in her eyes. "No, it's not right. I need to apologize when I see her."
When they were done, Daisy was struck by the way the community pulled together in pockets of friendship and support. Her mother had been right about forgiveness and community. These girls who had been vicious to Daisy for so many years had just spent an hour cleaning Janice's house and gathering her belongings, and now they were hugging and thanking her. Including her.
Luke reached for her hand.
"I think we owe Dr. Honey a lot more than a thank-you," Lynn said.
Dr. Honey. Lynn had just given Daisy the one thing she'd strived for her whole life. Respect.
Luke must have known that a lump had lodged in Daisy's throat and stolen her ability to speak, because he pulled her close and asked, "What did you have in mind?"
My protector. Daisy had spent her life proving she didn't need to be protected. Maybe she didn't have it all wrong. She didn't need protecting, but it sure as hell felt good coming from Luke.
"The least we can do is help when she does the clinic. Would that be okay, Daisy?"
Kevin cleared his throat, and when she looked up at him, she knew he felt the earth shift with the long awaited change from their youth, just as she had. Luke kissed her temple, and the earth shifted again-to the place it was meant to be.