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Author(s): Elizabeth Finn

A mistake made long ago . . .

Pain buried so deep . . .

When Bailey Trent returns home to her small Ozark mountain town after being away for nearly six years, she is prepared to face the ghosts of her past. It does not mean she’s prepared to come face to face with the cruelest of those memories.

Darren Cory’s life is a shell of what it once was, and when he’s forced to look at the cause of his agony over and over, hatred rises to further blacken his days. But hating Bailey also destroys him, forcing him to become someone he doesn’t recognize or want to be.

Can Darren find a way to move past the pain and forgive the woman he once cared so much for before his anger consumes them both? Or will he drag them both into the hell of an unforgiven past?


Chapter One
Her hand hurt like bloody hell. Bloody . . . not just a British expression. She was bloody. The towel that was likely dirty with dog shit and piss was doing little to slow the steady seep of blood from the gash on the side of her hand. The waiting room was quiet, but then, it was Savoy, Arkansas, on a Thursday night. A population of 3,500 or so odd folk didn’t much support a bustling emergency room, but seeing it was the only one for almost two hours in any direction also meant it was a well-visited establishment—apparently just not on Thursday nights. Didn’t mean she hadn’t been waiting for well over an hour. People were starting to stare. The blood had soaked through the towel enough that she was frightening the few other folk who sat in the waiting room. Blood was a horrifying thing after all. She could be fixin’ to bleed the plague all over them for all they knew.
“Bailey Trent.” The older woman standing at the door looked around the room, settling her gaze on a young man with a rag held to his forehead.
“I’m Bailey.” She held her hand up as she stood and approached the woman.
“Sorry, dear. Thought it was a man’s name.” She looked at Bailey with genial amusement.
“Get that a lot, but I got boobs and everything. . .” Her voice died away on a nervous chuckle. She never had been good at acting normal when she was nervous.
The woman smiled and almost burst into laughter as Bailey’s cheeks burned. “Ready?”
Of course she was ready. The blood was about two seconds away from dripping from the nearly saturated towel that was wound around her hand. Didn’t mean she was looking forward to it. “Yep.”
“Sorry for the wait. We only have two docs on staff tonight, and they’ve both been tied up. Traffic accident over near the big bend on Highway 45. A few casualties.”
“It’s no problem.”
They were walking slowly toward one of the small exam rooms, and Bailey’s heart was starting to flutter in nervousness. She didn’t enjoy hospitals, not that anyone did, and this trip likely meant sutures. That meant needles. She could do without those too. The moment they passed into the room, the nurse indicated a small table and chair, much like the one she used to sit in at grade school. There was a swivel stool on casters sitting near it.
“So, tell me what happened.”
“Dog food can lid. Just sliced clean into me.”
“Your tetanus up-to-date?”
“Good question, and I haven’t a clue.”
“That means no to me, dear. Let’s have a look, shall we?” The nurse slipped on a pair of latex gloves, and after she moved the swivel stool into place, she sat facing Bailey. She slowly unwrapped the towel from Bailey’s hand as Bailey winced. The moment the towel was pulled away, the laceration went from being barely discernable to a crimson line to a weeping gash running up the top of her hand from between her thumb and her first finger to nearly her wrist. “Well, well, now that’s how you do a cut, ’idn’t it?” She smiled tenderly at Bailey, and Bailey couldn’t help but smile back—one of the few smiles she’d had recently. The woman just had the odd gift of putting her at ease.
“Stitches?” Bailey could feel her face muscles scrunching at nothing more than the idea flitting through her mind.
“Not up to me. That’s for the doctor to say. But . . . I wouldn’t hold out much hope of getting away without any.” The lady had a southern drawl, as did most of the folk around their Ozark Mountain town. It was an odd mix of people for sure. A lot of people came to the area to vacation during the warm months, and still others migrated southward to their forested and hilly world in their retirement years. Then there were the locals. Nurse Lady sounded like a local, but Bailey didn’t recognize her. Course, Bailey had been local since she was five, and she’d adopted something of a southern twang herself, so who was she to complain. But the locals worried her. They knew things. They had memories; memories Bailey wished didn’t exist.
“Well, maybe they can just glue it closed—Band-Aids, you ’spose?”
The nurse just chuckled at her but didn’t respond. Bailey wasn’t holding much hope given the humoring response nurse lady had given her. She stood. “I’m Marie, by the way. Let’s get this rinsed up, so we can see what we got.”
Ten minutes later and Nurse Marie had flushed the slice, pulling back gently on one side of the laceration to open up the cut and rinse the deep flap of skin that was filleted open. That left Bailey cursing under her breath, but the woman took her fuck in stride. She wrapped it tightly with a thick patch of gauze and bandages.
“See, good as new. Don’t even think I need to see the doctor.” That earned Bailey another chuckle.
When Marie stood, she smiled at Bailey again. “Doc’ll be in soon. They’re playin’ catch up, but I don’t ’spect it’ll be much longer now.”
Then Bailey was alone. She’d borrowed her coworker’s cell phone when the sweet gal had offered to drive her to the hospital. She’d called her mom, wondering the moment she heard the worry in her voice why she’d thought it was a good idea.
“What do you mean you cut your hand open?” Her mother’s voice had been shrill. She was just entirely too good at worrying about her. She was too damn old for the constant concern, but she had it whether she wanted it or not.
“It’s nothin’. Just gonna get a few stitches, and then I’ll be good to go.”
“Maybe I should come down there.”
“No. I’ll call when I’m done, and you can pick me up, but you don’t just need to sit with me. Try not to worry, all right? Please?” It was impossible. The woman would worry about Bailey until she was in her grave.
“Fine. But you call me as soon as you’re done.” The things that woman said that fell into the absolute duh pile were astounding.
“I know, Mom. You know, I’m twenty-seven. I actually can handle this.”
“I know. You’ve just been through so much, and I just . . . well, I worry is all.”
“I love ya, Mom. I’ll talk to ya in a while.” Bailey had disconnected quickly after that, and her sweet coworker had just eyed her. The look suggested she was starting to get concerned Bailey might make a mess in her car.
Now the fear of making a mess was gone, and she really was wondering why she was still here. Nurse Marie had stopped the bleeding; what more was there to do? She’d twiddle her thumbs if one weren’t wrapped up to the point of cutting the circulation off.
It had to have been a good thirty minutes later before she heard anything at all, and it was when she heard a flurry of movement outside her door that she straightened her posture and peeled her eyes from their place on the floor in front of her. She heard a man’s voice before the door had even been pushed open. “Sorry to keep you waiting. . . Ms. . . Ms. . .” All she could see of the man was the top of his head as he pushed the door open while scanning the chart in his hand, and when his eyes lit presumably on her name, he froze. His focus snapped up to her, and she took in the wide eyes before her brain even had a chance to register the face those eyes belonged to.
“Darren. . .”
He just stared. His mouth was open, his eyes still wide and shocked, and he held the door back, refusing to fully enter the room or let the door close behind him. But as she watched, feeling her heart start to hammer and her ears start to buzz, he regained his composure. He closed his mouth, letting his jaw clench tight. He took a step closer, allowing the door to slowly close behind him, and he finally pulled his glare from her to settle on a spot over her shoulder. He shook his head slightly as his nostrils flared.
“I’d heard. . .” He trailed off as he shook his head again.
Bailey was struggling to even breathe as she stared at his chest. The emotion boiling up inside her guts threatened to make her puke. She could feel the bile trying to get into her mouth, and the tears threatening her were owed as much to the panic she felt as the long-buried memories this man incited. This could not be happening. Luck was a bitch named Darren Cory with his dark, neatly trimmed hair and his equally dark eyes that said he hated her guts even though his words had been few.
“I didn’t realize you worked in the ER.” She could barely hear her own voice.
“Why would you? You’ve been gone for how long now?”
“Almost six years, but I’ve been back—”
“That was rhetorical. You can’t possibly think I care.”
She said nothing as he watched her. Of course she didn’t think he cared, but he had once.
He held his dark, harsh glare on her for an uncomfortable length of time. She was nearly ready to flee until the door was suddenly pushed open, and sweet Nurse Marie peaked in, “Doctor Cory, Doctor Sheehan says he’s caught up now. If you need him to take over here so you can leave for the evening, he can.” She waited patiently as Darren said nothing.
He looked back to Bailey for a moment, but she couldn’t seem to lift her gaze up from his chest. She didn’t need to see his eyes to know he was still glaring. When he turned back to Marie, his voice was far lighter than it had been when he’d spoken to Bailey, but then, he likely didn’t find Marie reprehensible. “Oh, that’s not necessary. I think I’ll enjoy torturing Ms. Trent.”
Marie’s sudden easy laughter said Darren was selling his comment as nothing more than a good-natured joke, and he was selling it well, but while Bailey couldn’t see his face, she was certainly not buying his brand of humor. This man would absolutely enjoy her pain. But did she blame him? Of course she didn’t.
Marie’s attention moved to Bailey, and she offered her a sweet, encouraging smile once again. “Bailey, you’re in good hands. Doctor Cory, I’ll get a suture tray set up for you.” And then she was gone, and Bailey’s gaze chased after her as though she wasn’t ready to be alone with him again. But she was gone, and Bailey was alone with him.
He turned around toward her again in an agonizingly slow rotation. Whatever calm and relaxed expression he may have given to Marie, it was lost by the time he was facing Bailey again, and in her nervousness, her gaze found his chest. He moved to the sink, washing his hands as she took in the sight of him. It was the only way she could possibly be comfortable studying him so closely, and she took advantage of it.
He was as perfectly put together as he’d always been, and she wasn’t sure she could say he’d aged a day since she’d last seen him. That was not to say he’d not changed. He was almost unrecognizable from the man she’d known so many years ago in his approach to her, but then, there was little question whose fault that was. She couldn’t imagine the man standing in the room now ever smiling at her, but she didn’t need to see that smile to know it was straight, white, and could make the coldest of her sex melt like an ice cube under a blowtorch. She’d been on the receiving end of that smile plenty, but that was a different lifetime.
He snapped his gloves on as he turned toward her, and he sauntered across the room casually before taking his place on the stool facing her. His expression remained coldly impassive, and she started trembling as he reached for her hand. He was entirely too close for comfort.
This was her hell. Being trapped in a room with a reminder of who she used to be, a reminder of everything she lost, a reminder of everything she’d destroyed. She’d been back in Savoy for nearly two months, and this was hands down the biggest challenge she’d thus far encountered. It couldn’t get much worse than this. She’d dreaded such a meeting, and as her past swam closer to the forefront of her mind than she’d allowed it to get for a long time, the trembles intensified, her breath became panicked, and she had to fight hard against the tears that were stabbing the backs of her eyes. She could not cry in front of this man. Not because he didn’t deserve her tears, but because this version of the Darren she’d known for more years than she could recall wouldn’t let her off so easy with that emotion.
She bit her tongue as he took her hand, still wrapped tightly in bandages. She flinched and pulled away from his touch as though she expected him to hurt her. Hadn’t he already said he wanted to? His eyes followed her withdrawn hand calmly, and then they shifted up to hold her gaze easily, though his head remained motionless. She couldn’t fathom how he could act so easy around her. She could barely breathe around him.
He waited, he watched, and he remained still as a statue until she eventually stretched her hand back out to him. He slowly unwrapped the bandages. He was silent, and she kept her tongue clamped between her teeth to still her nerves. It wasn’t really effective, and as she watched his hands work to unpeel the layers of bandaging, she could easily see the tremble in her own hand. She had no doubt he could see the shaking, and even if he couldn’t see it, he could certainly feel it as his left hand held hers while his right hand worked.
When her hand was again exposed, she saw that the bleeding had nearly stopped, but her skin was tinged pink. He palpated her thumb joint as she winced. The movement opened the laceration, and the cool air hitting the fresh open flesh left her hissing in pain. He stilled, but when he glanced at her eyes, he started flexing and extending her thumb joint again, disregarding her pain completely. He pressed on the tissue around the laceration, and then he asked her to go through a number of range-of-motion tests. Every last move she made hurt like hell, and not a single reaction he gave her suggested he cared at all, but regardless of the lack of reaction he was giving her, he was apparently satisfied that her hand wasn’t going to fall off.
When Marie reentered with a tray of horrifying instruments and a curved needle, Bailey’s trembling turned violent. “She’s going to need a tetanus booster, Doctor. I can take care of it when you’re finished.”
“It’s okay. I’ll administer it.” Marie stalled for a moment as her eyes flashed to him, but he met her gaze calmly, and she let go of her initial surprise quickly before excusing herself.
Darren went back to ignoring her while he worked. He washed the gash, patted it dry, and picked up a syringe on the tray. There were two on the tray, and she didn’t like the look of either. “Lidocaine.” He said the word and nothing else, and then he stabbed her hand shallowly and plunged the syringe partially. Bailey yelped and cried out as the pain of the injection burned through her skin. “It’s going to burn like hell too. Suppose I should have mentioned.” There was a cruel smirk on his lips, and Bailey could only whimper in response as he withdrew the syringe and stuck her on the other side of the laceration. She so desperately did not want to give him the reaction he was waiting for. There was no doubt in her mind he wanted her in tears in front of him.
The next time he withdrew the syringe and pricked her skin again, she grunted with her lips closed to stifle the reaction. He was right; Lidocaine burned like hell going in. She’d had stitches before, and she knew full well the pain was inevitable. It was his approach to her that was entirely intentional. He was enjoying the fact he was hurting her, inevitable or not, and she was going to tolerate it. However much he might deserve this small measure of retribution, she wasn’t going to fall apart. Her guilt didn’t mean she wanted to show him any weakness.
“Ah!” she cried out. “Fuck.” The next shallow stab seared her again, but she could feel the blessed numbness starting to take over the side of her hand, and when he pulled the syringe from her again, moved down the line of her laceration a bit farther, and stuck the needle in once more, the pain was finally faded and distant.
She released a deep sigh as she started to calm. Relaxing was impossible with this man sitting close to her with his knee between her legs. His cheek was near to hers too, but far enough away that she could easily see his focus shift to her eyes every time he stuck the needle in her skin. He was waiting for her reaction, wanting to see her pain. She couldn’t blame him for that, but it didn’t mean she appreciated the emotional torture. But it was a lost cause. She could barely feel the side of her hand now, and once he set the syringe down, he picked up the tweezers and started prodding the skin around the cut.
“Any pain?” He couldn’t possibly care, but she shook her head as she met his gaze quickly. She was bleeding again, though the steady seeping had slowed significantly, and once he’d swabbed the area, he picked up the hemostat, used it to grip the arched needle on the tray, and used the tweezers to lift a flap of skin before stabbing it through with the needle and connecting it with the opposite flap of skin with the dark thread.
She stared at his latex-covered hands as he worked. His hands were as masculine as any, long-fingered and incredibly graceful as they moved quickly, pulling, knotting, and tightening the sutures. It was a well-rehearsed talent, and she almost thought he could do it with his eyes closed. For the first time since finding himself face-to-face with her after five years, his focus seemed aimed at something other than her. Or rather, his focus was on her hand and not on the part of her that left her most vulnerable around him.
She listened to his quiet breathing, and she could almost remember the young man she knew so long ago. Darren was three years older than she, he was handsome—incredibly handsome, and he was smart . . . obviously. But he was good and decent in a way people sometimes questioned even existed in the world anymore. Odd that Bailey could still regard him in such a way, but she knew him—really knew him, the him inside the him, not the man who sat beside her, struggling to stifle his hatred and loathing of her.
“I’m sorry.” She’d actually been thinking the words, not necessarily intending to say them, but she listened to her voice whisper out the apology—so pointless now. He froze with the curved needle embedded through both sides of her flesh, and she watched as a pronounced tremble ran through his hands as the rest of his body stayed unmoving.
“Shut up.” His voice was as quiet as hers, and his steely, cool demeanor was lost for a moment. She glanced to his eyes, and they were already on her, glaring. But that control was lost, and his lips trembled for a moment just as much as his hands had before his jaw clenched tight. “I hate you. Do you understand me? Your apology means shit to me.”
Bailey’s own shaking became violent as his words bit into her heart. It was nothing she didn’t already expect—hell, know—but the words were as painful as his needle stabbing her skin. He returned to his task, but he abandoned it quickly with an annoyed huff. “I suggest you hold still. I’d hate to stab you with this needle somewhere the Lidocaine doesn’t reach.” His glare that she only barely managed to hold for half a second said he was lying. He’d love nothing more than to stab her. A needle, a knife. She could go on, and none of it was pretty.
How she managed to hold still long enough for him to finish was a minor miracle. She held her breath the better portion of the time as her eyes watered. She was damn lucky she hadn’t passed out altogether, but she managed it, letting go of a deep breath as he tied the last knot and clipped the thread. He re-wrapped her hand with new bandages, and he wasted no time snatching up the other syringe, pushing the sleeve of her grungy T-shirt up, swabbing her arm, and sticking her with yet another needle. He watched her face again as he slowly pushed the plunger of the syringe.
After he put the Band-Aid over the injection site, he froze, and his hands dropped to his lap. She could see him staring at the side of her face, but she didn’t have the nerve to look at him. He stayed staring at her, and Bailey started trembling again. The tears she’d been fighting started pricking her eyes again, and she fought with every ounce of herself to keep them hidden from him, but it was no use. When he exhaled a deep breath, he opened his mouth, and her tears fell as she listened to him speak. “I never wanted to hate you. Not ever. You did this.”
Bailey didn’t bother apologizing; she didn’t bother trying to say anything at all. It was impossible with her tears streaming, and the breath she held captive in her chest was the only thing keeping her silent tears from turning to sobs of anguish. She would let him stick her with a thousand needles dipped in alcohol before she allowed herself to feel the pain of his words again.
Nurse Marie pushed the door open at just that moment, took one look at Bailey before her eyes flashed to Darren’s slumped figure sitting in the chair in front of her, and Bailey bolted. She snatched up her bag, grabbed her old hoodie that she’d abandoned on the exam table, and she pushed past Marie on her way out the door. Bailey ignored Marie’s concerned voice trailing after her, and she kept her head down until she’d reached the lobby of the hospital. She used the pay phone to call her mother, and she nearly hung up on her after she told her she was ready to be picked up. Bailey found a tree to stand under in the parking lot, and she waited. It wasn’t near the pick-up zone, but Bailey didn’t want to be any closer to the hospital than absolutely necessary.
This was the hell Bailey had been dreading, the hell she deserved. She was in it, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever get back out of it. Could she live like this for the rest of her life? Taunted and haunted, always running into her ghosts? She wanted to run away, but she couldn’t. Her mother needed her here, and there was just nowhere for her to go. She was trapped in this place, doomed to suffer for her sins.

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ISBN (Print):
ISBN (Electronic): 978-1-62916-011-5
Genre: Contemporary
Date Published: 11/30/2036
Publisher: Taliesin Publishing

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