Chapter 4Keri and Brittany walked into room 310 of the hospital, where Nick stood, looking out the window. There were no patients in the room, making Keri's mind fill with dread.
"Nick?" she said.
He turned around and she could see the redness surrounding his blue eyes. He held out his arms and she walked to him, pulling him in for a hug.
"He just died," he whispered. "Right before I called you."
"I'm so sorry," she said.
"Hey," Brittany said. "You single?"
Keri backed away from Nick and just stared at the woman, who was smiling and making goo-goo eyes at Nick. "That's so inappropriate," Keri said. She turned toward Nick, who looked stunned. "That's my sister. She'll date anything that wears pants."
"I see that," he said. "But I'm not available right now. I have to bury my father who just died."
Brittany reached out and touched his arm. "Want help? I can use a shovel."
Nick's mouth fell open as he stared at Keri. "You're related. Seriously."
"Believe it or not, yes." Keri turned toward Brittany. "Hey…go get us all something to drink."
Brittany moved closer to Nick, running her hand up his chest. "What would you like?"
He backed away. "Uh, nothing."
"Three colas," Keri said. "And hurry up, please?"
"You're no fun."
Brittany stormed out and Keri took Nick's hand, taking him to a chair. They sat down beside each other and he just shook his head.
"Does she have to hurry?" he asked.
"Yeah. It'll make her have more problems finding any cafeteria because she won't be able to stop for directions. She might be older than me by a year, but she's not the brightest bulb in the bunch and I can make her do things." She studied his face. "Tell me what happened?"
"I came in and Dad was awake. He told me to do something with my life and to marry. He said he won't be able to see me happy, but told me to move fast and not make the same mistakes Rita made." He wiped his eye. "He doesn't even realize that I have made it. I'm a well-respected surgeon in Germany, but he wouldn't listen. We fought about it, and all of a sudden, he just stopped talking. The last thing he told me was not to waste my life."
"You're not wasting your life. Why would he say that?"
He shook his head. "I don't know." He stood up. "I have to get out of here. What are you doing tonight?"
Keri looked down at her clothes. "I was making coconut cake. Want to help me bake?"
"That's one of my favorite desserts." He tilted his head slightly. "That actually sounds like fun. I think I even know how to talk to your dad."
"Yeah. Is he ex-military?"
"He was in the Marines. If you ask him, he'll tell you he was there during the 'big' war…but there was no war at the time." She rolled her eyes.
He took her hand. "Thank you for coming to see me. May I help you at the house?"
"Sure." She grinned, leaned over and kissed his cheek, just as Brittany walked into the room.
"Hey," Brittany said. "He's mine."
"Nope," he said. "I'm spoken for." He winked at Keri and she knew he was just playing with Brittany's head.
As they walked out of the hospital, Keri explained where her parents lived.
"I know that area," he said. "I used to know a guy up there by the name of Darryl Tobias."
"Darryl?" Brittany asked, walking closer to her car. "I'm dating him right now…along with…" And she ticked the names off on her fingers. "Davey, Bruce, Rick, and Mark." She paused. "There's another name. What was that guy's name? I have six…"
"Do you live around here?" Nick asked Brittany, making her focus on something other than her six men.
"About fifteen minutes away, if the traffic's good. But some days…it's just awful."
"What's Daryl up to, anyway?"
"He delivers cars to dealers. Hey, I know," Brittany said, pulling out her phone. "Why don't I invite him over and you two can talk. That way, he'll dump his other girlfriends and just date me."
"But you date more than one man," Nick said. "Is that fair?"
"Yes, it is. I'm deciding." She walked around to the driver's side. "Hurry up. I think Mom's ordering out for pizza." She dialed her phone and got into the car.
"You know where we're going?" Keri said to him. "I have to go with her or she'll get lost."
"Yeah. I found your parent's address in the phone book. I know that area and even their street." He grinned. "You're a really nice person." He leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Can you tell everyone we're dating? Otherwise, it'll be weird with Brittany trying to add me as number seven."
She watched his face, a smile covering her mouth. "Sure. Are you doing okay though?"
"I'll be fine. I've seen a lot of people die before, but never did they tell me my life was a waste." He crossed his arms and shook his head. "I'm going to miss him, though."
"It'll sink in and when it does, I'm here for you."
"Good." He backed away. "Play along." He laughed and walked away. Keri got into Brittany's car and sat in the passenger's seat, not quite sure what was going on.
Brittany turned the key. "Buckle up, little sis. We're going to actually have fun tonight."
"I hope so." This could be a disaster if she wasn't careful.
Brittany called Darryl, then their mother, telling them the good news. Both Brittany and Paula seemed to enjoy it, but Keri knew her dad wouldn't be happy. She hoped he'd be called to a crime or something, to get him out of the house.
They arrived back at the house, just as a blue Mustang and a black Mercedes pulled into the driveway. Keri wondered which one was Nick's because they were both new cars.
Nick got out of the Mercedes as another man with dark slicked-back hair got out of the Mustang. Keri walked to Nick, pointing at the car. "Your dad's car?"
"Yeah. He left it to me. It's all he had left, since he was in a nursing home."
"Nice car." She walked over to it and ran her hand over the side. "And new."
"It's two years old. I'm tempted to drive it back to Florida and give it to Rita. She could use a car. I don't need one overseas." A slight smile lit his lips. "Want to come with me after the funeral? It'll take about two days and—"
"Yes. I'd love to." She leaned closer. "It would get me out of this house faster, too. When's the funeral?"
"I already set it up for Friday morning, because Dad had been talking to the funeral home. I wanted to get on the road Friday afternoon, then stay over near Atlanta, and drive the rest of the way on Saturday."
"That sounds like more fun than dealing with Aunt Clara. Count me in, but I want to pay my way."
He wrapped his arm around her waist and headed for the door. "Never with me. Now remember, we're dating."
She looked up into his eyes. "Sure. I'll play along."
He stopped and turned toward her, then wrapped his arms around her back. "I think we should start right now." With a smile, he brushed his lips on hers, then backed away while she tingled all over and closed her eyes.
Keri opened her eyes to see him just staring at her. "You're hot," she whispered.
"Did you feel that? That can't be right." He kissed her again and she pulled him to her, deepening the kiss. He responded even more, making her heart race, her stomach plummet, and her knees buckle.
He backed away and she leaned her head up against his chest, feeling lightheaded yet euphoric.
"From just a kiss?" he whispered into her ear. "I feel it, too. Can you stand up?"
"No. Just hold me up, please?"
"Talk to me to get my mind off this, or I might want you to…rub my feet again." She backed away and smoothed down her shirt. "I'm okay now. Are you doing okay with the grief?"
"It hasn't set in yet, but I'll process it. We're taught how to handle death at my job, because they can even die while on my watch when I'm healing bones." He took her hand. "Ready to go inside?"
"Yeah. I think it's going to hit you hard, though. Right now, you're trying to ignore it, filling in the time with happy thoughts."
"Yes, I am." He smiled. "Do you have much of a background in psychology?"
"I have a master's degree in psychology. It's necessary for teaching. So when will this hit you?"
"After the funeral, when I'm alone."
"Oh, no," she said, as they approached the door. "I don't want you being alone then."
He stopped walking. "Who are you going to get to stay with me?"
"I don't know yet." She opened the door to near silence. Her dad and brother were watching television, the kids were playing on the floor, and Karen and Paula were in the kitchen.
"We're here." Brittany pushed past Nick and Keri, pulling the man with the slicked-back hair right along with her. "Mom, Dad, this is Darryl." She leaned up against, him. "Isn't he just a dream?"
Keri turned toward Nick and stuck her finger in her mouth to mock a gag. He chuckled and pulled her closer to him. "I agree," he whispered into her ear.
Bill grunted and turned back to the game on television.
"Come with me, sweetie," Brittany said, then pulled on Darryl's arm.
"Yeah," Keri said to Nick. "Come with me, sweetie."
Nick laughed, shaking his head. "I'm going to hold you to that." She dragged him into the kitchen, which was actually cleaned up.
"I'm glad you two came home," Karen said. "You just missed all the excitement about a minute ago."
"What excitement?" Brittany asked.
"Paula had a fire in the oven. We just got it put out."
"What?" Keri asked Paula. "What did you do?"
"I tried to get the cake out and dropped the pot holder."
"She burned her hand on the fire because her bracelet got caught," Karen said. "It was bad and she won't put anything on it."
Paula put her hand behind her. "I'm fine."
Nick held his hand out to Paula. "May I see your hand?"
She backed away. "I'm really fine."
He lowered his hand. "Ma'am, I won't hurt you. I have a medical degree or two or three. Just let me look at it to make sure you won't lose your skin."
She stared up at his face, looking as if she was going to cry. "It really hurts. Don't touch it."
"I promise I won't hurt you." He put his hand out again. "Just hold it out and I'll touch your arm to hold it still. Deal?"
"Oh, he's hot," Brittany whispered.
Nick sighed, his hand still outstretched. Paula lifted her hand to his and rested her wrist in his hand. "Please don't hurt it?"
He looked it over. "Wow. That's really red and welted. You have blisters." He looked up at her face. "Do you have anything here for burns?"
"No, but I put it under cold water."
"Then you need to go to the E. R. May I take you to the Emergency Room?"
"Bill will take me."
"Tell them exactly what happened," he said.
"And you're not taken?" Brittany asked, moving closer to him.
"Yes, I am." Nick let go of Paula's arm and wrapped his arm around Keri's waist, atill addressing Paula. "Want us to take you to the hospital? I know my way around there."
"You do?" Paula asked.
"Yes." His face turned solemn. "My father just died."
"Oh no," Paula whispered, her good hand going to her mouth. "I'm so sorry he died."
Nick seemed to be holding back the tears. "I'm going to take Dad's car back to Florida for my sister before I ship out to Germany again."
"Wait," Darryl said. "You're driving to Florida? Want someone to go with you? I need a ride down there to pick up a car in Tampa because I hate flying and hate the train. Are you going to the west coast area of Florida?"
"Yeah. St. Petersburg." He pointed toward Keri. "To her apartment complex, where my sister and her kids live." He turned back to Paula. "Want to go to the hospital? That's got to hurt."
She sucked in a breath. "Yeah, it does. But I'll have Bill take me. He knows people there, too. Thanks anyway." She walked into the living room and Keri heard her father mumble something, then the door opened and closed a moment later.
"So can I go with you to Florida?" Darryl asked Nick.
Nick smiled. "You don't remember me, do you?"
"Nope. Who are you?"
"Nick Albright. Dr. Nick Albright."
"A doctor," Brittany whispered. Keri was ready to slap her upside the head, because he'd told her he had medical degrees.
"Wait a minute," Darryl said. "The kid in high school who was too smart for his own good, so we threw you into a locker?"
"Yeah." Nick smiled. "I got you guys back, though."
"Yeah. Superglue on our books. And we became buddies." Darryl shook Nick's hand. "Welcome back to Chicago. You said you're in Germany now?"
Nick nodded. "The Army. I'm a doctor."
"Wow. That's impressive. We never thought you'd do anything, and here you are, a doctor on a mission. Cool." The man smiled.
Nick glanced toward Keri. "I should've heard that from Dad."
"Yes, but he may have been out of his mind with fear, too. You never know."
The pizza arrived and they all ate at the table. Afterward, Brittany pulled out a party game, and they all sat down to play—even the kids. The door opened as they were all howling hysterically, getting along like when they were kids.
"What's going on here?" Bill asked, walking into the kitchen.
Everyone went silent.
He lifted the box as a smile grew on his face. "I love the game of 'Guess It Now…or Else'. Count me in."
Keri moved her chair slightly toward Nick, with Zac sitting on her lap. She and little six-year-old Zac were a team.
"How's your hand?" Nick asked Paula.
She lifted it, covered in a bandage with an ace bandage overtop. "I'm out of commission for a while. It was bad. I'm glad you sent me to the hospital, because I was getting nauseous from it."
"I'm just glad they could help. Did they say anything about a skin graft?"
"Not yet. They're waiting to see what happens."
"Don't miss any appointments," he said.
Paula sat down at the table and they all began playing, laughing again before long. Even Bill laughed, being nice to Nick.
"So, you're in the Army?" Bill said to Nick, between plays.
"Yeah. I'm a doctor in Germany."
"What's your rank?"
Nick looked up at Bill. "Lieutenant Colonel."
Bill's eyebrows lifted. "That's very high up. So what do you do?"
"I'm in charge of all the other orthopedic doctors and care for many patients. I put in way too many hours."
"That's fantastic," Bill said. "I'm sorry for what I said before. Two taxis had just almost hit my car."
Nick chuckled. "I believe it. I almost got hit myself on the way here."
"You did?" Brittany said. "I didn't see that."
"I lost your car pretty fast."
They started to play again, ending after the kids had gone to bed. Keri hadn't laughed that long or hard for a long time.
Nick stood up from the table. "I have to get going. I need to find a hotel."
"Nope," Bill said. "We have a ton of beds in this place and you're not driving out in that." He pointed to the inch of snow already on the ground.
Keri ran to the window. "It's snowing? I haven't seen snow in a long time." She walked to the door, opened it, and went outside, feeling the snow falling on her face.
Nick joined her, looking up at the darkness. "I haven't seen snow lately, either. I've been working way too many hours."
"You need to slow down," she said. "It's going to catch up to you, just like your dad's death."
He sighed, as if frustrated. "I'm burning the candle at both ends and you're right. But I can't stop now." He moved his arm over her shoulders, looking out over the road. "Would you mind if Darryl came with us to Florida? He can drive and I can talk to you in the back."
She glanced back inside. "If you let him, you know Brittany will want to join us. She has off for a week with her job as a secretary at the University."
"A week off?"
"Yeah. She negotiated that for Thanksgiving and a month off at Christmas. So you know she'll go with you, just to get out of town."
He seemed to mull it over for a bit. "With four drivers, we could get there faster. I could spend more time with you, too." His blue eyes met her face. "Are you game?"
"I'll think about it. Just know Brittany drives me nuts."
He walked toward his car. "I can see that. I'll be right in. I have to get my stuff."
"I'll join you. I'm in no rush to sleep in my childhood room with Brittany." She rolled her eyes. "But you and Darryl will probably have the guest room. It sleeps about six, I think, as does Walter's room. My parents have out of town guests that stay here a lot. I think Aunt Clara will stay with Brittany and me tomorrow night."
He grabbed his duffel bag from the back seat. "I hate imposing."
"It's no imposition. Mom's going to need help tomorrow because of her hand. She can't lift the turkey to put it into the oven around four in the morning. I could use the help to do it."
"Yeah. It's ready to go, stored in the outside fridge. It just has to be put into her huge oven at four, then we can go back to bed."
He pulled her closer to him. "Or we could make breakfast then. Are you game?"
"Sure. What do you have in mind?"
"I'm not sure, but I'd love to do that to pay everyone back."
"Let me think about it." She ushered him inside, then to the room where Darryl was already in bed. Since he was taller, she leaned up and gave him a kiss. "Good night."
"Four. I'll be up." He kissed her again. "Good night to you, too."
She went to her bed, wondering what made that man tick. He was a guest and didn't have to do anything, especially at four o'clock in the morning.