Both of Natalie’s eyes actually twitched. She crossed her arms in an effort to keep from exploding. “Where, then, do you think we’re going?” she asked. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea that her father had his own room. If she tried to strangle him, there would be no one to stop her.
Dylan smiled, his eyes nearly closed. “Laurel Lock,” he sighed.
Natalie snorted. She balled her hands into fists, her fingernails biting into the palms of her hand. “The campground,” she said. “Really? Why would you go all the way to the campground instead of home?”
A snore escaped from her father’s lips.
Slamming her hands down at her sides, she stalked toward his bed. “Dad,” she said sharply.
He jerked awake, glancing around the room. His cheeks turned pink. “Did I just fall asleep?”
Rolling her eyes, she leaned over him. “Why are we going to the campground?” Her chest heaved. She shouldn’t have left New York. Taking care of her father had seemed like something noble to do, like paying a bill. Instead, she felt on the verge of a breakdown. Tears filled her eyes. She scrunched her face up, willing them away.
“Natalie,” he said, as if she were a five-year-old who wouldn’t listen. “My cardiologist said I need to keep my stress levels down.” He shifted, burrowing deeper into the bed. “Where is it more peaceful than the lake?”
Taking a deep breath, Natalie smoothed the blanket over him. “Yes,” she said slowly, “but the campground is an hour away. What if something happens? Shouldn’t you be closer to your cardiologist?”
He waved a hand at her, scoffing. “They have five hospitals in the area,” he said. “Besides, if I’m going to drop dead, it’s going to happen no matter where I am.” He grinned.
She did not smile back. “Okay, but what about all of the work it takes to maintain the site? Have you even opened up yet for this season? It’s already June.” She visualized the site, the piles of leaves that would have accumulated throughout the previous fall, and the blanket of pine needles that never stopped growing. All of that work would put stress on her father’s heart. Knees weak, she wobbled over to the chair next to the bed. Maybe, she surmised, he was crazy.
“Easy there, killer,” Dylan said, watching her. “You can help me with all of that stuff.”
She leaned forward. “I can what?” She looked down at her manicure. “These hands were not made for raking.” The rest of her wasn’t made for camping, either. The trailer sported a claustrophobic, standing-only shower with the water pressure of a rag. Her father did all of his laundry in a coin-operated washing machine, then hung it out on the line to dry. He cooked on a grill. The only air conditioning was the breeze that moved between the trees, coming up from the lake below.
“Lazy, your generation,” her father said. “Is it so much to ask for you to help your own father?”
“You didn’t ask!” she said, jumping to her feet. Heat flushed her cheeks. “You don’t get to boss me around anymore. I’m twenty-three years old!”
Propping himself up on his elbows, Dylan inclined his chin. “The decision is final,” he said.
Glaring at him, she crossed her arms again. He glared back.
A nurse poked her head into the room. “Visiting hours ended five minutes ago,” she said.
Natalie ran a hand through her hair. “Fine,” she told her father. “I need to get some sleep anyway.” She grabbed the keys from the foot of the bed. Anger roiling through her, she left the room.
“Goodnight,” her father called after her.
She kept walking.
The second she climbed inside of the pickup, the tears started streaming down her face. She pulled the door closed behind her and put her head down on the steering wheel. Body shaking, she let the sadness take over. She could always fix her makeup later—not that it mattered. There was no one to impress. Benjamin was two hours away, and had probably moved on to some other girl. All of her college boyfriends were scattered throughout the country.
She laughed, a stream of snot flying from her nose and landing on her upper lip. Cringing, she wiped it away with the back of her hand, then onto her jeans. There were no more napkins in the truck. She couldn’t even clean up when she got back to her father’s apartment, because she hadn’t gotten the key from him.
She was officially homeless.
She could call her mother. Linda kept an open door policy. Her stepfather Edward, on the other hand, did not. While he hadn’t hit her since she was a kid, Natalie doubted he would be warm and inviting. No, he would find ways to make her feel unwelcome, until she had no choice but to leave.
She shook her head, wondering why she had ever thought she could stay with her mother. Every time she visited, she thought things might be different. The truth was, she was better off sticking with her father.
She refused to go back into the hospital and beg him for the house key, though. Besides, visiting hours were over. They probably wouldn’t let her back in.
Considering her options, she started the pickup. It rumbled to life, shaking underneath her. It sounded a little like it needed an oil change. Frowning, she listened for a moment. It wasn’t like her father to let things go when it came to his vehicles. She would have to remember to take it somewhere. While he had taught her how to do an oil change and a bunch of other car things, the thought of getting dirty made her shudder.
Besides, changing the oil would not help her get some sleep.
She could knock on Mrs. Spinelli’s door and see if she could crash on her couch. It was after nine o’clock, though, and the old woman was probably long asleep.
While the pickup wasn’t comfortable, she could pull into the driveway and sleep in the cab. It would be like camping, but only for one night. There was no back seat, though, and she couldn’t imagine trying to sleep sitting upright. Plus, she needed a shower. Snot and tears were already crusting on her cheeks. What she really needed was a long, hot bath.
She left the hospital parking garage, heading toward the Courtyard Marriott. It was only a few minutes down the street, had a private parking garage, and the most comfortable hotel beds she had ever slept on. She could just throw it on her credit card. A little more debt wouldn’t kill her.
Few other cars occupied the streets of downtown Waterbury. Only a couple red lights got in her way. She pulled into the lot of the hotel, guiding the pickup toward the parking garage. Yawning, she pulled into the first available spot. She slid out, grabbed her suitcase from the bed, and marched toward the entrance.
The doors opened automatically as she walked into the lobby. Ceilings high like a cathedral loomed over her. Dark wood, red and orange upholstery, and coffee shop style chairs decorated the large room. A sign boasted free Wi-Fi, but not a single businessman occupied the tables in the late hour.
Natalie dragged her suitcase to the front desk. No one stood behind it. There was no bell to ring. A wall separate the desk from some kind of employees-only area. She drummed her fingers on the dark wooden surface, hoping someone was nearby and would hear her. No one came. Clearing her throat, she craned her neck, trying to see over the tall desk.
A guy her age poked his head from around the wall. Muscles rippled under copper skin, evident despite the hotel uniform he wore. His nose took up most of his face, but his jawline was slight. Dark curls whispered across his forehead. “Help you?” he asked, dark eyes dancing. Despite his exotic looks, no hint of an accent laced his words.
She wondered if anyone actually could help her, but didn’t say so. Instead, she smiled. “I just need a room for the night.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “You don’t look like the people who normally stay here,” he blurted. A lock of curly, dark hair fell into his face. He brushed it away.
“Excuse me?” She slapped her hands down on the counter. “I’m a customer. You don’t get to talk to me that way!”
He bit down on his lower lip. “Hate to point this out to you,” he said, “but you have mascara all over your face.”
Eyes widening, Natalie patted at her cheeks. Sure enough, her fingertips came away with crusty bits of dried mascara. “Oh, no,” she said, fresh tears welling in her eyes.
The concierge, whose gold name tag read Rohan, pushed a box of tissues toward her. She plucked one and dabbed at her eyes. “At least your face is wet now,” he said, making a scrubbing motion over his own face. “You can get all that gunk off.”
She stared at him, hand frozen. “Do you even know the first thing about hospitality?”
“Do you know the first thing about picking a good mascara?” He smirked.
Disgusted, she threw the dirty tissue at him. “Give me a room,” she said, digging in her bag.
“Well, I can’t just give you a room,” he said, flicking her tissue onto the floor behind him. “They cost money.”
She scowled at him, plunged a hand into her bag, and withdrew her wallet. Still glaring at him, she plucked her credit card from its pocket and snapped it down on the counter. She grinned at the sound it made. Nothing made her happier than the sound of plastic.
Rohan snorted. “Should I call security?”
“What the hell for?” she demanded, pushing the card closer to him.
He picked up the card. “You just seem a little crazy. Full size or queen?”
“You’re not going to offer me a king?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips. The height of the desk made it hard for her to look intimidating, though. From her side, she had to look up at him a little.
“Why would I offer you a king sized bed?” he asked, typing on a keyboard she couldn’t see. “You’re here alone.”
Her jaw sagged open. “How the hell do you know?” She thought of Benjamin, and all of the times he had reserved rooms for them, with California king beds and room service that delivered chocolate covered strawberries. The memories stung, and her shoulders sagged. “Just give me a queen,” she said, almost visibly deflating.
Nodding, he tapped a few more keys, then swiped her card. She knew he swiped it because of the sound it made—another sound that made her smile. If all else failed, she could still count on her American Express card, even if she would probably never pay it off. Propping her elbow on the counter, she rested her cheek on her hand, humming.
Rohan cleared his throat and plunked her card down on the counter. “Your card’s declined,” he said.
She blinked at him. “It’s what?”
“Denied. Won’t work. No dinero.” He shrugged. “Sorry?”
Natalie snatched the card up. “You’re not supposed to say it like that,” she said.
Rohan steepled his fingers. “And how am I supposed to say it?”
“You’re supposed to say ‘Sorry, ma’am, but your card has been declined. Do you have another method of payment?’” She slid the card back into her wallet and handed him her debit card.
“What are you, a robot?” He typed something in the computer and slid her card.
She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. Her hands shook, and she moved them out of his sight. There was no money in her checking account. If her debit card was accepted, it would be a miracle. She took a deep breath. She needed to stay calm, act normal. Trying to remember what they were talking about, she reached for a pamphlet about the hotel’s amenities. “I used to work at Macy’s,” she said, remembering. “People expect you to act a certain way. It’s upscale.”
Laughing, Rohan handed her card back. “You think Macy’s is upscale?” He shook his head. A printer behind him spit out a sheet of paper. He turned his back to her, retrieving the sheet.
“They sell Coach and Michael Kors,” she said, holding one hand palm up. Never in her life had she ever met anyone like the concierge. She wondered what was wrong with him.
“It’s just funny,” he said, turning back to her. He placed the sheet on the counter and tapped a line at the bottom. “Sign here.”
She scrawled her signature, turning the dot on the letter I in her name to a heart. “What’s funny?” she asked, grabbing her bag.
“Nothing,” he said, handing her a plastic room key. “Enjoy your night.”
Rolling her eyes, she turned away from him. Maybe, when she woke up in the morning, she would discover that it had all been some kind of dream. Sometimes, she smoked weed with Benjamin. Maybe she had smoked something laced. It would be just like the bastard to not tell her. She couldn’t remember smoking, though. The last thing about Benjamin that she remembered was their phone conversation from that morning. She could have hallucinated that, too, though, she surmised as she stepped into the elevator.
* * *
When the alarm went off on her phone the next morning, Natalie opened her banking application and checked her account balance. Grimacing at the negative one hundred dollars and overdraft fee, she logged out of the app. Toiletry bag in hand, she stumbled into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She had showered right before crawling into bed, but she couldn’t start her day without it. Showers were like a ritual for her: wash off the dirt before bed, wash away the sleep for the day.
She drove back to the hospital with the radio on full blast, the bass of a Katy Perry song booming through the speakers. Everything was going to be okay, she told herself. She was going to play dutiful daughter for a few days while her father healed from his surgery. Then, she would stay at her mother’s for no longer than a week. In the meantime, she would find a graphic design job in Hartford or even New London, close enough to home so that she had a backup plan, just in case. Or, she could go back to school, taking out another student loan so she could live in the dormitory again. It would be nice to not have to worry about things. Plus, it would give her a chance to make some friends she could actually keep in touch with.
Pulling into a parking spot, she shook the negative thoughts out of her head. It wasn’t that she didn’t have any friends. Life after college was just too busy. Everyone lived too far away.
Despite her optimism, she took her time getting to her father’s room. She doubted that she could stomach yet another argument. And, if he was still hell bent on staying at the lake while he got better, she was going to scream. Still, it would only be a few days. She could probably handle it. Maybe she could even talk him into getting her a hotel room in the next town over. She would have to explain why she couldn’t afford to get one herself, though.
Arriving at his room, she knocked on the door frame, then strode in. “Good morning,” she chirped, forcing a smile. “How did you sleep?”
Her father sat in a chair, fully dressed, his lips turned down at the corners. “Good afternoon, you mean,” he said.
Natalie glanced up at the clock. “Morning,” she corrected. It was only 11:30. She wondered if it was a generation gap thing.
“They served me lunch at eleven,” Dylan said. “It’s the afternoon now.”
Rolling her eyes, she changed the subject. “You’re all dressed. Are they discharging you?”
“Any minute now,” he grumbled, glancing at the door. “Takes forever in these places. They practically force you to stay, then they won’t let you leave.”
“Well, you did have a heart attack,” she said, sitting down on the hospital bed. “How are you feeling, by the way?” It felt strange, to be talking to him as if he were her father. He felt more like a stranger, someone she only saw once in a while and had to be cordial with. Once they were done with medical talk, she wouldn’t be able to think of anything else to say to him. Unless, of course, he picked a fight with her. She could always count on that.
A nurse walked into the room, holding a packet of papers. “Here you are, Mr. Booth,” she said, handing the sheets to Dylan. “Take care, now.” She gave Natalie a nod, then strode out.
Dylan held the papers out to Natalie. “Read these while I drive,” he said, standing from his chair. “We’ve got to pick up my suitcase at the house.”
Natalie snatched the keys from the hospital bed. “Oh, no,” she said, standing. She tucked the papers into her purse. “You’re not driving anywhere.”
“The hell I’m not,” her father said, holding out his hand. “That truck is in my name. I’m driving it.”
Sighing, she patted her purse. “I saw something about not driving for forty-eight hours,” she said.
“It said that?” Dylan’s shoulders slumped. “I can’t even drive? I drove myself in here while I was having chest pain.” He shook his head. “I should’ve stayed home. This is ridiculous.”
Natalie stared at him, eyes wide. “Do you hear yourself?” She shook the keys at him. “Let’s go.”
The drive back to her father’s apartment was about as pleasant as having her wisdom teeth removed. Her father kept trying to tell her where to turn, and how to ease on the brakes at stop signs and red lights. When another driver passed them at a stop sign, horn blaring, Dylan rolled his window down, leaned out, and told the driver to shove it up his ass. By the time they got to his apartment, Natalie’s knuckles were white from having gripped the steering wheel so tightly. She wondered if she was too young to have a heart attack. Staying in the hospital, with her father stuck at home, might be a blessing.
“Put your blinker on,” Dylan instructed as they arrived at the house.
“Why? No one’s behind me!” She pulled into his driveway, wishing for a shot of vodka or maybe just a shotgun.
The second she rolled to a stop, her father swung his door open.
“Easy there,” she said, turning off the truck. “Let me help you.”
He waved a hand at her. “I don’t need your help getting out of the truck.” He walked over to the stairs slowly, wheezing slightly.
“Are you really going to climb all of those stairs?” She was pretty sure two flights of stairs counted as exertion.
Skirting the stairs, her father walked up a slight incline to a garage door that she hadn’t noticed.
“And how are we going to get in without a key?” She crossed her arms, leaning against the pickup. “Are you listening to me?” she asked, watching as he stopped at the garage door.
“Hush,” he said, flipping open a panel that covered the box. He punched in a code. The ground vibrated under Natalie’s feet, and the garage door opened.
Gaping, hands hanging limp at her sides, Natalie stared at him. All he’d had to do was give her the code, and she could have saved her money—or lack thereof.
“You coming?” he asked, stepping inside.
She peered in. Only a single flight of stairs led to the second floor. They were carpeted, and had railings on both sides. He would have no trouble with them. Plus, she surmised as she shook her head, she might strangle him if she followed him. “I’ll wait here,” she said.
Shrugging, her father ambled toward the stairs, whistling an Eagles song.
Mumbling swears under her breath, Natalie walked back to the pickup. She was going to have to figure out how to get him to pay her back for the hotel room. It was only fair. She pulled her phone out of her bag and logged back into the bank application. Looking at the negative number only made her feel worse. She sighed. She was going to have to find a new job sooner rather than later. With any luck, she could move into her own place by the end of the month.
Glancing at the garage door, she paced, wondering what was taking so long. If all he had to do was grab his suitcase, it should only take a couple of minutes. She thought of the stairs and the way he had wheezed. Maybe letting him go alone hadn’t been such a good idea. Maybe he had gotten hurt, or even had another heart attack.
She walked to the open garage door, biting on her lower lip. Pausing at the entrance, she wondered if maybe she was overreacting. Maybe he was just using the bathroom, or had gotten a phone call. Shaking her head at herself, she walked away.
Halfway back to the pickup, she paused again. Maybe she should at least call up to him, just to make sure. She would feel awful if something was wrong and she hadn’t even tried. Good daughters checked on their fathers, no matter how crazy they made them.
She went back into the garage. The scent of old oil and spray can paint greeted her. A big black stain marred the floor. In the corner, her first tricycle hung from a large hook. She smiled, thinking of the times he had taken her up to the tennis court to teach her how to ride it. Later, he had taught her how to ride a real bike, with training wheels, and then finally, one without.
The door to the apartment stood ajar. Her heart fluttered in her chest.
“Dad?” she called up to him. When he didn’t answer, she moved to the stairs. “You okay?” she called, raising her voice even louder.
Heart thudding in her chest, she took a step up the stairs.
A loud thud from overhead made her jump.
“Dad!” she screamed, and flew up the stairs.
Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.
Chapter 1 · Chapter 2 · Chapter 3 · Chapter 4 · Chapter 5
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