Colin listened to his pre-teen niece, Nat, chatter away in his ear like an excited chipmunk. The cheerful sound had him remembering the bouncing little girl she used to be. When he finally found his car at the far end of the parking lot, he reached into his pocket for the keys. “So you’re liking your vacation?”
He grinned at Nat’s excitement as she described the dolphins and killer whales. But when she described how her dad, his older brother Will, had gotten sprayed in the face by one of the whales then had fallen off the bench as he’d tried to avoid another assault, Colin had to choke down his laughter. “Please tell me your mother got pictures!”
Nat’s giggle came through the phone clearly. “Yes, Mom did. She’s threatening to make them our Christmas cards this year if he gripes about the heat one more time.”
Colin heard Will ask if she was talking to his brat of a brother and rolled his eyes as Will asked for the phone.
Will’s rumble was barely audible. “Give me a sec to move away from the munchkin.”
Colin’s brow furrowed. “Something wrong?”
“Not here. What about up there?” Will asked. “You doing okay?”
Colin shook his head. “Why wouldn’t I be all right?”
“Because of your asshole ex,” Will said harshly.
“Give it a rest, Will.” Colin rolled his eyes again. “Gavin hasn’t tried calling or anything else for over a week now. Not since I left him the voicemail telling him to leave me alone last week.”
“You also left a voicemail three weeks ago saying the same thing, which he ignored. Don’t let down your guard.”
“I still think you’re overreacting, but fine, I’ll be careful.” Colin sighed. God save him from his mother hen of a brother. “I need to go. Tell Nat I said bye.”
Colin stuffed his phone in his pocket then fished for his keys again. He’d just unlocked his car when he heard desperate shouting.
“Caleb! Stop now! Christ, somebody grab him! Please!”
Colin turned, frantically searching the parking lot. He used to take Nat with him all the time to run errands when she was little. He knew how quickly a kid could slip away and a parking lot was one of the worst places for it to happen.
There! A little blond boy, he couldn’t have been any older than three, was chasing a ball he must have dropped, right through a row of parked cars. He started running for the child, realizing he probably wasn’t going to reach him before he came out onto the busy street.
Maybe Colin couldn’t be in time, but it sure as shit wouldn’t be because he didn’t try.
He was less than two car lengths away from the boy as the child closed in on the edge of the street and he was afraid he wasn’t close enough. Running faster than he ever had before, prayers formed on his lips, his mind filled with horrible visions of that small body being crushed by an oncoming car. Somehow he managed a final burst of speed that enabled him to reach the boy, but not before they were both in the street.
A split second to see a car coming towards them, too fast to possibly stop in time, and with reflexes born of terror, Colin grabbed the child’s arm and threw him back into the parking lot.
God, please let him be okay!
Time slowed as he turned his head to face the oncoming car. Really, God—a Hummer? Just this once couldn’t you cut me a fucking break and given me a Prius?
Colin knew he couldn’t avoid it but his body went on autopilot, valiantly trying to escape even as his eyes stayed locked onto the looming vehicle.
Then there was nothing but the sound of screeching brakes, intense pain as his body was struck and tossed around until the darkness he embraced gratefully dragged him under.
* * * *
Jared sat in the cold and sterile waiting room, hoping the next person to come through those doors had encouraging news. He owed the stranger more than he could possibly repay and was still shaking from the thought of how much worse it could’ve been. He’d only turned around for a moment to put the sack in the car and his nephew Caleb had moved away, going after his dropped bouncy ball as Jared had his attention diverted. His stupid mistake had come so close to being a nightmare. No, it was a nightmare because a stranger had saved Caleb, paying the price for Jared’s carelessness. Why had he parked on the far side of the parking lot like that? Too damn close to the busy street.
And why the fuck didn’t I just put Caleb in the car first!
Then it had taken him too long to react, to realize the boy had ignored his instructions to stay. By the time Jared had managed to get his ass in gear, Caleb had already disappeared around the SUV. It’d taken a few precious moments to figure out the right direction. By then his nephew had made it past the row of cars where they were parked to the last row before the street.
Too fucking slow!
He’d run, knowing he wasn’t going to be in time, yelling and praying that maybe someone else would see the boy. Then a miracle had happened. Just as Caleb had stepped into the street, a man had appeared out of nowhere and tossed the boy back at Jared. The man had saved Caleb but he must have known when he stepped into the street that there wouldn’t be time to save himself. There had only been a brief second before the Hummer struck the man, but it had been long enough for Jared to see the resignation on his face even as he tried to evade it. It had been one of the bravest things he had ever seen or heard of.
He’d called nine-one-one as other witnesses stopped traffic and gave what little first aid they dared until emergency personnel arrived. Holding Caleb to him, he’d watched as the paramedics loaded the bloodied and battered man into the ambulance and he had started making plans. It was what he did best, after all, and by God this unknown hero deserved anything and everything he could do from this point on.
The first thing he’d done was call his sister to explain what had happened. That had been one the hardest things he’d ever done. She was his little sister and he had no words to describe the way he felt at his failure to watch out for Caleb. After that call, he’d driven to his mother’s house to drop Caleb off. She had immediately agreed—ordered was more like it—that he should go to the hospital and ensure that their hero was taken care of properly.
So now here he was, anxiously waiting to hear news while emergency surgery was performed on a complete stranger. And the kicker was, he wasn’t even sure he would be told anything because Jared wasn’t family. Or even a friend.
Hell, he didn’t even know the Good Samaritan’s name.
He probably could’ve arranged to pay the man’s medical bills over the phone and tried to use his connections for updates on his condition. Yet, he wasn’t leaving no matter what. He sat, holding vigil because of a feeling of responsibility. And more importantly, Jared couldn’t get the man out of his head. The look of absolute desperation as he’d tossed Caleb out of harm’s way. The sounds of the car striking the man and his sharp cry of pain that was quickly cut short. But what was the most vivid to Jared was the memory of his bloodied, broken body lying on the ground.
And the completely irrational feeling that if Jared left, he would be taking the only lifeline the man had. That the stranger was depending on him to prove that someone was praying for him to be okay.
At the sound of footsteps, Jared looked up as a woman in a nurse’s uniform entered the room. He jumped to his feet, hoping that the teary expression on her face didn’t mean the worst.
“Did you come with news on the accident victim? The man that was struck by the car?” Jared tried to ask calmly in spite of the huge tangle of emotions that swamped him.
Please let him be alive!
The nurse jerked in surprise, her gaze narrowing in on him, suspicion growing in her dark brown eyes. “Who are you and why do you want to know?” Before Jared could answer her expression turned ferocious. “Are you the one that hit him?”
“I’m Jared Williams. He saved my nephew.” Helplessly shrugging his shoulders, not able to come up with more words to explain himself but needing to try, he went with the simple truth, “I needed to be here.”
Her face softened. “Oh… The paramedics told us what he did. I’m glad the little boy is okay.” She reached out to squeeze his shoulder, seeming to need the comforting touch as much as he did. “His name is Colin and he’s my best friend. I was working in the ER when they brought him in.” Shuddering slightly, she continued on in a shaking voice, “I had to wait until someone could cover for me before I could come up.”
“Have you heard anything?”
She shook her head, the pink cheeks, short, golden brown hair and shiny hazel eyes making her resemble a sad kewpie doll. “No. But that’s good news. It means they’re still working on him and they haven’t called for anything to indicate they’re having need of anyone other the surgeon on call. No specialists. Nothing to indicate he crashed or any other major complications.”
Relieved at some positive news, Jared smiled gently at her. “That’s good.” He had the impression from the way she chewed her bottom lip she was trying to reassure herself as much as him. “Does he have any family that I can call?”
“I’ve already called his brother. But Will is at SeaWorld down in Texas with his family.” She sat in the chair next to the one Jared had been using. “They have to grab their things from the hotel and head back and it’s at least an eight-hour drive, unless he finds the gas pedal for the first time in his life. So it will be a while before they get here.” She offered her hand after Jared sat down again. “I’m Emily, by the way.”
“Jared.” Wait, hadn’t he already said that? Holding her hand, he asked, “Is there anything I could do?” Jared was hoping there was something, anything, to keep himself from going crazy.
“Just wait.” She gave him a rueful look. “I know, it’s the hardest and the suckiest thing to do.”
“At least we can keep each other company.” Jared squeezed her hand gently, then settled back for the wait.