“Always. And I’m still taking you out for drinks when I get back. We’ll get a cab together and get totally wasted.”
The sadness clamped Erin’s stomach as she waved goodbye, and she realized that at least part of her hesitancy was leaving Courtney. She’d been an amazing friend. They would still be friends, but the roommate bond ran deeper. They talked all the time. They knew each other’s secrets. Now it would be her and Blake. Yes, she wanted that, but she would still miss her friend.
Her cellphone trilled from inside the apartment. She almost sprinted to answer it. Her mother hadn’t returned a call in days now, and Erin was beyond worried. The number on the screen wasn’t her mother’s. Disappointment tightened her stomach.
“Hello, is this Erin Raider?”
The officiousness of the tone drew her to full alert. “Yes, that’s me.”
The woman proceeded to introduce herself as the head nurse of the urgent care ward at Lakota County General Hospital. A wave of dizziness swept over Erin, but she gripped the phone tightly and held on.
The nurse’s voice was sympathetic. “I’m calling to inform you that your mother was admitted into our care after suffering a major heart attack.”
Fear gripped her. A heart attack? Her mother was an older woman, but she was strong and healthy. Or she had been. Oh God. The world lost focus as she took in the rest of the information. Her mother was alive and in recovery. She was sleeping now and most of the time, a side effect of the medicines she was on. Yes, Erin would be able to visit her mother if she arrived before visiting hours were over.
Erin’s thoughts came wild and unordered, matching the state of her room. Her clothes were strewn across the floor and bed. She grabbed a few tops and a pair of jeans and stuffed them into her backpack. In a sort of trance, she walked to her car and slipped her key into the ignition.
She took out her key and tried again. The engine turned over and then stalled. Her old, trusty rustbucket had finally given out and at the worst possible time. She tried three more times, but the car had well and truly given up.
Feeling sick, she struggled to focus. The most important thing was to get to her mother. She could deal with the repairs later. But how could she get there? The drive was four hours away. The one time she’d had to take the transit bus from her city to the college, after Doug had left her, the trip had taken twice that long from all the stops in between.
Her mind spun, running through all the options she had and coming up empty. She didn’t mind being alone, not really, but times like now, it did hurt. Except she wasn’t alone.
He would know the answer. He’d asked her to find him if she needed him, and she did.
She suddenly couldn’t wait to be near him, to lean on his strength and feel his embrace. Any attempt to shield herself had been in vain. She was already his, under his domain and beholden—and it was exactly where she wanted to be. It had nothing to do with where her body resided. In times of fear and worry, her heart turned to him.
* * *
Blake took a swig of his cocktail. The sweet syrup clung to his tongue and the liquor burned his throat, but drinking still beat mingling. He’d already had to tell the story of his scars twice, and he wasn’t eager to tell it a third time.
He gave a scrubbed version, of course. The real thing wasn’t fit for the string quartet or the gowns of the Faculty Ball, though that fact didn’t deter them from asking. His scars were so interesting, they said, as if it were the best compliment—and to a group of strident intellectuals, perhaps it was. They took his refusals as modesty first and rudeness second, until he’d resignedly told some whitewashed account of what had happened.
“There you are.” The slurred words came from behind him. Jeremy Mosely, the dean of his department and his boss for the semester, approached unsteadily.
Blake wished he could stand the signature cocktail well enough to get drunk. “Jeremy. Good seeing you.”
He grinned. “Hah, I know you’ve been avoiding me.”
Even sloshed, the man was smart. “Sorry. I’ve been a little distracted.”
“Not too distracted. I heard your semester went great.” He looked smug. “I know you’re thinking about renewing your contract. I’ll give you a few days to think about it before I do the hard sell on you.”
Damn, the man was right again. He had been considering it…once he and Erin were settled. Once she moved in with him. If she moved in with him. He took another drink, wincing at the sickly sweet flavor.
“Disgusting, I know,” Jeremy continued. “I have a secret stash, if you’re up for it.”
“I was thinking of heading out soon.”
It was ten o’clock. Not exactly late, but he wanted to get to bed at a reasonable time and see Erin in the morning. He had a full suite of activities planned for her that would require most of the hours in the day and most of the surfaces in his house.
“No, come on. The night’s still young.”