Alayna Keller leaned forward, resting her forehead against the steering wheel of her car as she allowed a soft sigh to slip past her lips. This was a bad idea, wasn’t it?
She had called Albany, Georgia home only for a little while, and ever since she and her husband had been even partially moved in, she hadn’t been in town. She was a pharmaceutical saleswoman, and the job she did very frequently led her away from home.
Or… at least it had kept her on the road. Her boss had called her into the main office before she’d left for her last trip and had announced that Alayna was getting a promotion. Which was a good thing. Except that, as the manager of the Albany office, it also meant that she would be stationary, living in Albany full-time.
With her husband.
And as sad as it was, she wasn’t looking forward to that.
She and Gavin hadn’t exactly been on speaking terms since they’d moved to Albany. The move had been rough, and she’d been gone ever since. One thing had led to another, and she hadn’t even told him about the promotion yet. Now she was just… coming home.
This wasn’t going to be a fun conversation, was it?
Part of the problem was that she didn’t know how Gavin was going to react. Months ago, they’d stopped communicating while she was away, and Alayna wasn’t even sure they’d know what to say to one another when she walked in the door, but it wasn’t like this was a conversation she could avoid. It was a conversation that she couldn’t predict, though, and she hated that.
Yet she sat with her head against the steering wheel, waiting at a red light as she scrambled to put together the most reasonable scenario for how this would work. She was so distracted by her thoughts, that the driver of the car behind her had to honk at her for her to realize that the traffic light was now green. Startled into action, she automatically pressed the gas pedal, not waiting to see if there were any oncoming cars.
On the passenger side, a truck rammed into her sedan, throwing her head sideways against the window and shattering the glass. The car was flung off the road as her vision began to gray.
This was not what coming back from a second honeymoon was supposed to look like, Captain Caleb Holt thought to himself as Wayne stopped the firetruck at the scene of a car accident. He’d taken one free day with Catherine after getting back from their short second honeymoon in Atlanta, then he’d gone back to work.
But he shouldn’t complain. It was seven in the morning, and this was the one call that his men had been to in the last day and a half of his shift. If everything went right here, this would be their last call, too, before their shift ended.
He climbed quickly from the car, resigning himself to the fact that he wasn’t getting off in an hour like he should’ve while already calling out orders to his men. There had been a gas can in the back of the truck that was now splattered with gasoline; the back side of the cab was on fire, as were patches of grass between the truck and the car it had hit. The passenger side of the car, too, was slowly going up in flames.
Caleb addressed the man standing nearest the wreckage, looking frazzled and afraid. “Are one of these your vehicle?”
“The truck,” the man bit out. “I’m fine. I was alone in my truck, but nobody’s gotten out of the car. There’s still a lady in there! It’s too hot, I tried to get to her, but I couldn’t!” The man waved his hands towards the vehicle, and Caleb caught sight of blistering burns on the man’s hands that spoke to his efforts to rescue the woman.
He nodded sharply, ordering the man towards the ambulance as the paramedics pulled up to the scene. Nathan was putting out the man’s truck, Eric was giving the sedan the same treatment, and Terrell was leaned over the driver’s side – taking the pulse of an unconscious woman.
“She’s alive, but unrespson—”
The woman moaned, once, twice, her eyes fluttering blearily open.
“Ma’am?” Caleb said, trying to get a good look at her face through the smoke – trying to check for visible injuries, or signs of a concussion. “I’m Captain Caleb Holt with the Albany Fi—”
She screamed as her consciousness returned further.
“What hurts?” Caleb asked her calmly.
“My hand!” she gasped. “It’s caught!”
Her left hand rested against the shattered window of the car door, but her right hand was hidden out of sight, somewhere beneath the crumpled remains of the right side of her dashboard.
She whined suddenly, telling Caleb, “It burns, it burns, it burns!”
If her hand was pressed up against something with the fire heating things up so much… He pulled at the car’s door handle, but Terrell shook his head, informing him quietly, “It’s jammed.
“Get the spreaders,” Caleb ordered Terrell levelly, and just as quickly Terrell was obeying, leaving Caleb alone with the pale, pained blonde. “Ma’am, we’re going to get you out now. In a moment, you’re going to hear a loud noise, but it only means we’re getting you out quicker, alright?”
The woman nodded, jaw clenched, and eyes glazed as she breathed raggedly.
“What’s your name?” Caleb asked her, hoping to distract her from the burning pain he knew all too well.
“Alayna Keller,” she said from between clenched teeth.
“You’re gonna be alright, Ms. Keller. Maybe even home in time for dinner tonight once our paramedics get you patched up, alright?”
She huffed a short, dry scoff that might’ve been a chuckle. “Sounds wonderful.”
“Anything else hurting that might prevent that?”
She shook her head. “Just…” she gasped in pain between words. “My hand.”
“I’m going to get on that right now,” he promised, patting her free hand as he stood. A paramedic climbed into the backseat through yet another busted window and Caleb moved to help Terrell with the spreaders.
Dr. Gavin Keller turned to look at an elderly nurse, Anna, when she said his name, and she caught up with him, her bright blue eyes swirling with concern as she informed him, “We’ve just received a burn patient from a car wreck, and you were listed as her emergency contact. Alayna Keller?”
Alayna? She was due back today, yes, but… “A car wreck?”
“Yes, doctor. She’s received third-degree burns to her right hand, but other than the usual bumps and bruises, she’s alright. She’s in the emergency wing, room B, if you’d like to see her?”
Anna looked at him quizzically but didn’t ask the obvious question of how he knew Alayna. Gavin’s own eyebrows drew together for a moment as he considered that thought. Did he want to go see her?
The question was answered for him when a message came over the intercom system, requesting, “Dr. Keller to emergency. Dr. Keller to emergency.”
Apparently, he was going whether or not he wanted to. He smiled tightly at Anna, thanked her, and proceeded to the nearest elevator. He hadn’t been expecting Anna to follow him.
“You look concerned,” the nurse remarked. “I assume she’s a family member of yours?”
He didn’t offer any more information, and she didn’t ask. Instead, she suggested, “I could see about having you marked down as her primary doctor in this case, if you’d like.”
“I already am listed as her primary doctor overall; that’s probably what the intercom message was for in the first place. Thank you, though.”
His shortness with her was an invitation for her to be quiet, or else he was afraid he would say something he didn’t mean to, and thankfully Anna took it as such. She still followed him out of the elevator, though, and all the way into the curtained-off room where Alayna sat on a hospital bed, gingerly cradling her hand to her chest.
“Hey,” Gavin said softly, stopping at the edge of the curtain. He surveyed the room – almost nervously – as Anna breezed right past him, ignoring the awkwardness seeping into the air, the flicker of hardness in Alayna’s eyes when she first caught sight of him.
“Hello, doctor,” she replied, and something in him flinched away from the professionalism in her voice. “That is, I assume you’re my doctor now, too?”
Gavin strode quickly to the computer in the corner of the room, entering his password in to gain access to her medical report. Seeing that she had listed him as her preferred doctor surprised him for a second even though it probably shouldn’t have. She literally didn’t know any other doctors in Albany, and beggars couldn’t be choosers, right? He nodded. “I am.”
“I’m sure I just need burn cream and gauze, and then I can go home,” she informed him.
Gavin raised his eyebrows, sitting down on a swivel chair and reading the rest of what had been written by paramedics and, apparently, Anna. Even Anna herself shook her head, admitting, “I don’t think so, sweetheart.”
“Why not?” Alayna retorted, “It hurt when I was still in my car, but it doesn’t now. It’s getting better already, right?”
Gavin turned his chair and looked at her in surprise. She knew better than that, she had to. She was no doctor, but she had basic medical knowledge like – “No, Alayna.” He stood and moved towards her, fishing his penlight out of a pocket of his lab coat. “It stopped hurting because your burns went from second-degree to third. Your nerve endings were destroyed. The problem got worse, not better.”
He clicked on the light, shining it in her eyes, only to have her bat it away. “They already did that!” she said irritably. “I don’t have a concussion.”
Gavin had seen her pupils dilate, so he was satisfied that was true now, and put his light away, telling her, “I just wanted to make sure for myself. Are you sure you didn’t hit your head?” He reached for her, to check that for himself too, but hesitated before dropping his hands down into his lap.
“I did. I blacked out for a couple of minutes, but I woke up; I’ve got a proper knot on my head so there shouldn’t be any internal swelling to be worried about. I’ve got a headache, and a sore throat, but that can all be chocked up to smoke inhalation, so can I please get my hand wrapped so I can go home?”
Irritation flared in him at her callousness. If they weren’t in a public place, his place of work, no less, and if she wasn’t injured… The things he would’ve said died in his throat, and instead he answered placatingly, “I’m trying to help. I want to make sure you’re alright.”
She gave him a skeptical look, repeating, “I’m fine.”
“Can I see?” he requested, gesturing towards the hand she was still holding close to her chest.
She extended it obediently, and Gavin gently touched her forearm, above where the burns had turned her hand an ugly, mottled white. A feeling of nausea that he thought he’d left behind in med school curled in the pit of his stomach. He turned her arm, judging the severity of the burn to the entire area. Her wrist had very clearly gotten the worst of it.
“The good news is that this just barely qualifies as a third-degree burn. It didn’t reach the muscles or bones, at least, but I’d venture you’re going to need skin grafts. We’ll have to clear away the dead skin to make sure, though.” He looked over his shoulder, requesting, “Anna, if you would go get what we need to do that? And some ibuprofen for the pain?”
Anna nodded and disappeared. Alayna rolled her eyes, repeating, “I don’t want to wait for ibuprofen to kick in. If you have to bandage the burn, then of course do that, but I can do it without medication.”
Gavin shook his head. “It’s against hospital policy; I can’t. You’ll have to take the medication and wait a little while for it to kick in, then we can clean and bandage the burn.”
“Gavin,” now that they were alone in the room, she shot him a half pleading, half exasperated look. “All I want to do is go home.”
“Why?” he asked her. “How long are you going to be home this time?”
She swallowed roughly, no longer meeting his eyes. “I’ll tell you once we’re both home.”
His eyes narrowed upon her, and he opened his mouth to ask for a more precise answer right now, but Anna reentered the room before he could do any such thing.
In the end, getting off work late hadn’t been a terrible thing, Caleb conceded to himself with a small smile, walking into Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital with a takeout bag of chicken in hand. He had changed into civilian clothes at the fire station after he was off the clock, and now he’d seized upon the opportunity to surprise Catherine with an early lunch.
Too late he realized that though she’d done the same thing for him many times in the early years of their marriage… her schedule didn’t work like his. She might not be able to sit down with him if she already had something penciled into her timeslot. Oh well, he might as well try, let her know he was here.
He caught Robin at the nurse’s station and asked where his wife was.
Glancing at his bag of takeout with a surprised smile, Robin informed him, “She’s doing a tour, right now, actually. I’m… not sure when she’ll be through with it, but when she is, I can make sure that she knows you came in?”
“Is it okay if I wait for her instead?”
Robin shrugged. “If you want to, I’ll tell her you’re still here, and to call you when she’s ready for lunch. Does that work?”
Caleb nodded, thanking her and then wandering off. His first thought was to go out to the courtyard, sit and maybe call his parents, or even check in on the Campbells. But the retired fire captain had been losing his hearing of late, so maybe that wasn’t the best idea… He ended up wandering much more randomly than he’d intended and found himself in the ER of all places instead.
He stopped when he thought he saw a familiar face, the woman from the car crash, sitting alone on a hospital bed. Hoping it wasn’t too weird, he stepped closer to the corner they’d curtained off for her and offered, “Hi. I, uh, I’m Captain Holt—”
Her gaze snapped to him in surprise at being spoken to, and recognition dawned only when she told him her name. “The fireman. Yes. Hello?”
He shrugged. “I’m waiting on my wife – trying to bring her lunch – and I noticed you. I thought I might ask how you were doing, if that’s okay?”
The woman – Ms. Keller, though he couldn’t remember what first name she’d given him – gave him a tightlipped smile. “I’m fine, thank you. They’ve given me pain medication, but I have third-degree burns, which they’ve told me can be quite painful to clean beyond the bare minimum, so now I must wait forty-five minutes for the medication to kick in before they’ll take away the excess skin and wrap it properly. But,” her gaze flickered away from him and back. “You didn’t ask for that much information. I’m sorry.”
Yeah, she definitely thought that this was weird, and maybe he did too, but he surprisingly felt no real inclination to leave her alone, likely dwelling on her pain and trauma while she waited for her doctor to return.
He shrugged, truly not minding. “You’ve had a long day; you’re allowed to be rattled.”
“Thanks.” She gave him another thin-lipped smile, changed the topic. “I take it your wife works here? What does she do?”
Caleb smiled proudly. “She’s the PR manager. Catherine Holt.”
“Sorry, I don’t recognize the name. I’m new in town, and travel a lot besides – well, I did. I haven’t had much time to get to know anyone.”
“Ah. Well. In that case,” Caleb gave her a friendly smile and a nod in lieu of shaking her hand. “Welcome to Albany.”
She gave him another thin-lipped smile. “Thank you.”
“Do you have someone who’s coming to get you or something?” Caleb asked, mildly concerned as he glanced around them. “I doubt you should be driving with your hand in such a state.”
She frowned. “I… somehow hadn’t thought that far ahead. Maybe I could take the bus?”
“Maybe,” Caleb allowed. “I never do, so I honestly couldn’t tell you. If you do need a ride, though, I think there’s a friend of mine I could call if—”
Tina Simmons flashed through his mind even as Ms. Keller rushed to assure him, “That won’t be necessary.”
“Everything okay in here?”
The unexpected voice caught him off guard, and Caleb still had to exert a little effort to keep his expression neutral as Dr. Gavin Keller came into the room. Keller… He looked between the doctor and Ms. Keller with growing suspicion but kept his mouth shut, answering Dr. Keller’s question instead.
“I think so, yeah. We, ah, met under slightly worse circumstances at the wreck, and I saw her, so I was checking on her while I was waiting for my wife.”
Dr. Keller nodded, though the skepticism was clear in his eyes as he glanced at the woman on the bed for confirmation.
She looked slightly confused and just as exasperated as she promised him, “I’m fine.”
An elderly nurse made her way around Caleb, announcing, “You’ll be better than fine once we get you cleaned up.”
“Finally,” Ms. Keller breathed.
The nurse, who’s nametag read “Anna,” turned to Caleb, saying, “By the way, I believe I saw Catherine headed this way as well. Looking for you, I’d say.”
“Yes, she is.” The very sound of Catherine’s voice instantly helped ease some of the stress of the day from his shoulders as she wound his arm around hers, stepping into his line of sight with a smile. Then she frowned, noticing some of the tension in the tiny, increasingly cramped, room. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah,” Caleb nodded automatically. “Sure.”
Catherine’s brows creased – she didn’t quite believe him, apparently – as her gaze skimmed over Dr. Keller and landed on Mrs. Keller, and Anna, very gently cleaning her burned hand. “I’m sorry… do I know you?”
“No,” Mrs. Keller shook her head, worrying at her lip in her discomfort as she very purposefully looked away from what Anna was doing.
“I… gave her a helping hand this morning,” Caleb explained to his wife with a wry smile.
Mrs. Keller returned the gesture, admitting with a smile that meant she was trying to distract herself, “I guess I do owe you, don’t I?”
Caleb shrugged, thinking nothing of the remark. Plenty of others before her had expressed the same sentiment, but it never really meant anything. After all, he didn’t know the people that he saved, so how could they ever actually repay him? “I was just doing my job.” He looked between the Kellers and Anna, offering, “You guys have a good day, alright?”
Catherine shot a fond smile in the nurse’s direction, and she and Caleb turned to go. They were still within earshot when they heard Dr. Keller remark distractedly, “Anna, as long as you’ve got this under control, I’ll be back in a bit to check the wound and decide on our next course of action. I’m afraid I can’t waste my time sitting here.”
“Of course, doctor.” Even from where he was walking, Caleb thought he could hear the frown in the nurse’s voice, and he had to admit that the same expression fell onto his face as Catherine led him towards the hospital’s courtyard.
“What’s the matter?” Catherine asked him as they stepped out into the sunshine.
He shook his head, lowering his voice to answer, “I don’t know, so I shouldn’t say anything, but… I think that was Mrs. Gavin Keller.”
Catherine looked at him in confusion. “Why would you say that? He has a reputation for flirting with any woman on staff, and you think he’s married?”
Caleb shrugged, running the scene in the ER through his mind once more. “Yeah, I do, actually.”
“They certainly didn’t look like it to me. And Dr. Keller’s never worn a wedding ring here at the hospital.”
Caleb considered that, but in the end all he gently said was, “You and I both know how little either of those things can mean.”
Catherine swallowed a sigh, good naturedly snatching the takeout bag from his hand and setting it on a table as she suggested, “Let’s just enjoy our lunch and leave the nosing and drama to Deidre, alright?”
He squeezed her hand and smiled encouragingly, seeing the worry that still bubbled beneath the surface of her eyes. He shouldn’t have said anything, should he? “Alright.”
Alayna kept her eyes trained away from the nurse who was cleaning her hand, not because it hurt – Gavin was right; her nerves must’ve been damaged, because it didn’t hurt – but because the sight of it made her stomach roll, and she was not going to vomit in public, hospital or not.
The pain that flickered in her eyes was because of Gavin’s careless abandonment of her when he was even her doctor in a very professional sense. He just didn’t want to be near her apparently, even when she was hurt and… and maybe she didn’t need him, but it would’ve been nice for him to have stayed. She would’ve liked for him to be a comforting presence, but he wasn’t that anyway, so it didn’t matter, really.
Besides, he was on the clock, and surely he did have better things to do, other patients to care for.
Or at least that’s what she told herself.
So why did his leaving still sting?
It was just the stress of the day, making her emotional.
Or at least… that’s what she told herself.
“Are you alright, sweetheart?”
There was a cool hand on her back, and Alayna met the nurse, Anna’s, eyes while trying to gather the discarded bits of her own professionalism about her. Anna had finished her work while Alayna had been lost in her thoughts.
She really needed to start paying better attention today, didn’t she?
“I am, thank you.”
Anna nodded, though her eyes betrayed a concern that meant that Anna didn’t believe her. “I’ll tell Dr. Keller you’re ready for a proper examination, then.”
Anna nodded, patted her back once more, and then was gone.
The knots in Gavin’s stomach tightened painfully. He was back in Alayna’s corner of the emergency room, holding her arm with the same cold, impersonal grasp he would’ve used with any other patient. As he looked down at her hand, he told her, “I was right; you’re going to need a skin graft around your wrist.”
Alayna released a slow breath – her one sign of nerves at the idea – and asked, “Okay. What does that mean?”
“It means an emergency surgery and a recovery period at home with restricted movement,” he announced grimly. As a doctor, he cared about her pain, and as a husband he even still managed to hate it, but as a human being… Alayna was a notoriously terrible patient, and he wasn’t looking forward to sharing the house with her while she was in that frame of mind.
“I’ll be off work,” she realized, her own priorities shining through.
He nodded. “Of course. We’ll discuss the specifics once you’re out of surgery, alright?”
“You really do mean immediately, don’t you?” she said, her eyes widening slightly, with worry or surprise, he couldn’t quite tell.
Noticing that he was still holding her arm, he dropped it carefully and kept right on nodding. “Anna is going to come back in and help you change into a hospital gown. I’m going to contact the anesthesiologist, and I’m going to make sure we have an OR open and call our burn specialist in for the surgery, and he’s going to take care of you from there. I’ll arrange it all; you just sit here and rest, alright?”
She nodded silently, her lips pressed into a thin line. Part of Gavin still wanted to reach out and at least take her unharmed hand for a second; instead, he stood from his stool and left to arrange her surgery. Once he had talked to all the right people and made sure she was in the best possible hands, he inhaled deeply and went back to his rounds, worrying about one more thing as he noted how behind he was in his day.
Despite his breathing exercises, the knot in his stomach only got worse.
Gavin didn’t come back.
The anesthesia was just starting to encroach on the edges of her consciousness when Alayna thought of this. He’d kept his promise – she was nearly ready for the surgery now, she was being taken care of – but once Gavin had left to arrange those things, he hadn’t come back.
Closing her eyes and blaming the medication for the single tear that slipped out of her eye, Alayna let herself drift off to sleep.
When she woke up, he still wasn’t there, and when the OR nurse asked her if there was anyone she wanted in recovery with her, Alayna stared at her bandaged hand and shook her head.
Layne was settled in her hospital room for the night, long after Gavin’s shift was supposed to be over, when he came and stood in the doorway, his lab coat slung over his arm. As Gavin watched his wife in the hospital bed across the room, he tracked the strangely irregular rise and fall of her chest as she breathed and realized that she was pretending to sleep. That was a pretty clear declaration that she wanted to be left alone for now, Gavin decided, feeling a painful wrench in his heart at the thought.
For now, though, he could honor her wishes, he decided, starting the trek back to his office. He would hang his lab coat up, grab his briefcase and keys, and go home.
When he got to his office, he hung up his lab coat, but when he turned towards his desk, he paused. There was a notebook front and center on his desk that he didn’t recognize. Picking it up, he flipped the cover open to the first page.
“The Love Dare.”
He turned to the next page, reading the preface there that ended with “consider it a dare from those who’ve gone before you.” That was when he realized that this “Love Dare” had been purposefully left for him to find. Someone had figured him out, put the pieces together… and wanted to help him? Wanted to help his marriage?
Alone in his office, Gavin bit the inside of his cheek, considering Layne – his Alayna, his wife – pretending to be asleep rather than deal with him. He considered the persistent ache in his chest when he thought of how far he’d strayed in his marriage. And he considered whether there was a part of him that wanted to save his marriage.
It would be a challenge, he knew. Both he and Layne had their faults. But, Gavin decided, opening his briefcase and slipping the Love Dare inside it, he had never been one to back down from a dare.