Leila followed the wheelchair, in which her mother sat, down to radiology preoccupied with the details of how they were going to get through this. There was some sort of problem with insurance and the term ‘pre-existing condition’ was being bandied about with disconcerting frequency. The cost of this test alone, if not covered was going to wipe out at least a quarter of her savings. She tried to school her delicate features when she saw her mother glance back at her. No doubt she realized the seriousness of their situation but still Leila didn’t want her to worry. They’d get through this somehow, the money would be found or insurance would pay. What they would not do was despair.
Her mother retired directly after they came home from the hospital, too tired to even attempt to pretend to keep her eyes open. She had an oxygen mask with her that they’d been given at the hospital for her use. The difficulty she had breathing seemed to get worse with each day. Leila knew she hated it. Raychelle Masters was a vibrant, energetic woman who hadn’t let her weak chest stop her from working a day in her life. That was probably why she had to practically collapse at work for her to acknowledge there was a problem. Leila had been called at work by her mother’s supervisor and informed that her mother had been rushed to hospital. She had dropped everything and rushed to Emory University Hospital where her mother was. They told her they’d had to resuscitate her because she stopped breathing at some point. It was a miracle she was well enough to come home at the end of the day. Well, not well enough…but she’d refused to be admitted and what with the insurance people playing games, the doctors hadn’t insisted too hard.
Leila slumped on the chair and let out a breath, trying not to think too hard. There wasn’t much she could do tonight anyway, except make sure her mother got through it. The loud astringent tones of Shenaynay telling her to pick up her damned phone startled her quite badly. She frowned at it, making a mental note to beat her cousin Sheila over the head the next time she saw her. Obviously she’d been tampering with Leila’s cell phone again.
She picked it up, seeing it was actually Sheila calling…she hesitated, not having the energy to deal with her drama. Not today.
“What?” she asked as she picked up at last.
“Girl what twisted your knickers today?” Sheila replied.
Leila sighed, she really did not have the time. “What do you want Shay?” she asked.
“Relax, my mama asked me to call to ask how your mama is doing. Sorry to disturb you and what not but she insisted.”
Leila took a deep breath; there was suddenly a lump in her throat. She tried to get words out but they couldn’t seem to get past the lump.
“Leila?” Sheila prompted.
Leila tried again to get the words out but the lump was blocking her passage completely.
“Okay then, give me thirty minutes, I’ll be right there,” Sheila said in a completely different tone.
Leila tried to tell her not to be stupid; she had class the next day, it was late – too dangerous for her to be out on the street alone; but again, no words came out. And then it was too late, Sheila had hung up.
There was a knock on the door exactly twenty eight minutes later; Sheila was coming from one street over where she lived with her parents and little brother Peter. She was a decade younger than Leila and in university but seeing as their families were close, they tended to act more like sisters and the age difference was easy to overlook.
“Hey,” Sheila said as soon as Leila opened the door.
Leila opened her mouth to return the greeting but it just opened and closed like she was a baby bird waiting for its mother to put a worm down its throat. Before she knew it, she had collapsed against Sheila, her whole body shaking with repressed sobs; all the time aware her mother was just down the hall. And she slept very lightly.
“Oh, baby,” Sheila said patting her on the back and sides and anywhere else she could reach. “Shhh….shhh,” she said even though Leila wasn’t technically making a sound.
Leila raised her head to stare desperately at Sheila. “It’s bad,” she whispered. “It’s really bad.”
Sheila stared commiseratingly at her but didn’t say a word. What was there to say after all? She just rubbed Leila’s arms and led her back into the house, closing the door behind her.
“Let’s get you in the bath,” she murmured leading Leila to her room. “Have you eaten? How about I make you a nice chicken salad?” she continued to murmur nonsense words at Leila who was clearly not paying attention anyway. She got her undressed, as she ran the bath with fragrant bath salts. Once the water was nice and hot and nearly overflowing, she led Leila into the bath and sat her down, lighting some scented candles and handing her a book.
“Now just relax and catch up on your reading. I’ll be in the kitchen making you some delish food okay?” she said soothingly as she left.
Leila lay back, reading the book cover she’d been handed; “Between Death and Heaven”, it said. Leila grimaced…not exactly what she wanted to think about right now. She opened it anyway, to see how bad it was. It began with a sex scene so maybe not as maudlin as she’d thought. She lay back in the bubbles, uncaring if her hair got wet, and lost herself in the story.
The chicken salad was great, but the company was better. She tried to make Sheila go home but she wouldn’t hear of it.
“My first class is at like…eleven o’ clock. I got plenty of time to get home and get to class.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have to. Really.”
“Really. I know,” Sheila said with a smile, picking up Leila’s phone casually.
“Oh no you don’t! I just finished redoing my audio profile so the ringtone goes back to “Keep their heads ringing’ so you are not going to fuck that up with your fucking Shaynaynay nonsense,” Leila said snatching it back.
“Shaynaynay rocks,” Sheila protested.
“Weren’t you like two in the nineties? There’s no way you even remember the original Martin,” Leila said.
“Hey, first of all, I wasn’t two, second of all, I was a precocious child,” Sheila said.
Leila laughed which is what Sheila wanted. They watched a few episodes of the sitcom which Leila had on DVD anyway, laughing at Shaynaynay and Martin’s shenanigans before going to bed. Leila woke up almost every hour to check on her mother so by morning she was still exhausted.
“Maybe you should skip work today,” Sheila proposed bringing her coffee.
“Are you kidding me? We have this huge charity event and guess who’s the chief organizer. There is no way in hell I can miss another day of work without serious repercussions.”
“You know what your problem is Leila?” Sheila said handing her some toast.
“I’m sure you’ll tell me,” Leila’s answer was wry.
“You’re too conscientious,” Sheila said.
“Oh dear, I knew it was something serious like that. What is a girl to do about it?”
“Slack off a little bit.”
“I’ll take it under advisement.”
“There you go with the lawyer speak. You know I’m an Art Major right?”
“I know you pretend not to understand a lot of things,” Leila countered.
Sheila laughed, “Touché.”
Leila arrived at the offices of Venture-GRAD, a non-profit that gave scholarships to high school and college students as well as provided support and encouragement to ensure that as many students as possible finished college. She went straight to the conference room where she was scheduled to meet with vendors who were to participate in the charity event she was organizing. She had three days to pull everything together while worried sick about her mother, but luckily, most of the work was done.
Her assistant came hurrying toward her as she approached the conference room.
“Leila, how are you? How is your mother?”
“She’s ill Martha, do we have the RSVP’s all in?” she asked briskly, not wanting the lump to return to her throat.
“All except ten invitees have confirmed attendance. I’ll be calling up those ten today and making a final push.”
“Good good, Martha. Great. Are my vendors here?” she asked.
“All but one,” Martha said.
Leila lifted a brow in lieu of asking who.
“Mr. Smith called to notify us that he’d be running late,” Martha informed her.
Leila nodded. “Okay that’s fine,” she said walking into the conference room where refreshments sat on the sideboard, every vendor had a cup of coffee in front of them and a folder containing all the materials necessary for the meeting. Martha was incredibly efficient as always.
Leila closed the conference room door and smiled at those present. “Good morning,” she said. “Let’s get to work.”
Jonathon Leary walked onto the plane and nodded at the hostess. She smiled at him as she examined his ticket and then gestured toward the first class cabin. She was a pretty thing, with the obligatory blond tresses curling about her narrow shoulders that tapered to a small waist and an attractive swell of hips. Her smile was professional yet warm, Jonathon was sure he could convert that smile into a more personal version, just for him. Maybe later though, right now he had a hangover and he just wanted to put on his sleeping eye mask and drop off. It was a relatively short flight to Atlanta but still, he’d be grateful for the rest. He’d had a really late night last night, partying with his friends but his mother said he had to attend this charity event. She said it was important. They were auctioning him off as a prize for the night; what with the fact that he had to be married within the next six months; mother thought it would be a good opportunity to scope out some talent. He would be thirty years old in six months and if he wasn’t married by then, the party was over. Grandpa Movie Star was gonna take it all away.
Most days Jonathon was tempted to let him; having his life dictated to him by some ornery old man who felt entitled just because he was rich and famous was not really what he felt he was put in this world for. And yeah, that old man had paid for his expensive Harvard education and given him the seed money to start his business…but still.
His mother had told him he could do what he wanted, but they were talking about three billion dollars here; was he going to forfeit that just because it came with a coda that he must be married by thirty? Nothing had been said about a necessity for him to be faithful to his marriage after all…or even that it needed to last forever. He could find some nice girl, get her to sign a pre-nup and keep her around for a year or three. Inherit his money and keep it moving. It didn’t even have to be tawdry or underhanded; who had the energy for that? No, he was sure he could find someone he could stand to live with peacefully for three years. The fact that he hadn’t found her yet didn’t mean she didn’t exist. The kind of women he ran into in his daily life tended toward bottle blonde, vacuous sharks or frumpy weather beaten and bitter. All of whom would be happy to marry him for his money he knew; he just couldn’t do that to himself. Even for three billion dollars and counting. Jonathon sighed, trying to shut his mind down so he could sleep but then he felt a presence hovering over him swathed in floral perfume. He lifted his sleeping mask to peer at whomever it was…the stewardess from the door.
“Hey,” he said in an inquiring sort of way.
“Hi. I’m sorry to disturb you but we’re about to land and you need to fasten your seat belt,” she intoned softly. Jonathon stared at her in shock; hadn’t he just sat down not ten minutes ago? He peered at his watch and was surprised to see that almost two hours had passed since he got on the plane.
“Wow. Time sure flies when you’re asleep,” he commented to the flight attendant. She offered him an empty smile and a pointed glance at his seat belt. Jonathon fastened it and then leaned back, readjusting his sleep mask and closing his eyes. There was still time for a nap.
The foundation had sent a driver to the airport in a black luxury SUV. Jonathon was grateful but he also knew it was his grandfather’s way of ensuring he’d arrived on time. It was insulting; Jonathon was a grown man. He could travel to Atlanta and attend a charity event without supervision thanks. Still, he got in the back seat and instructed the driver to take him to the nearest coffee place if he would be so kind.
“We have a Starbucks if that’ll do yah,” the guy suggested and Jonathon nodded his agreement. That was as good a place as any to start.
Leila needed to check on her mother; she’d called twice that morning and her mother hadn’t answered. But her schedule was full to overflowing so she guessed she needed to wait for lunch time to make the dash across town. She usually cycled to work because well, the environment, it was cheaper and it was her only exercise; and she’d come to realize it was a much faster means of getting around than sitting in Atlanta traffic. She figured she’d need an hour to get home and back, unless there was a problem in which case she’d have to take the rest of the day off. With that in mind, she tried to get as much done as possible during the morning hours. As soon as the clock struck one pm though, she was out the door like a shot.
Lunchtime traffic was crazy as expected but Leila had her trusty action bike and she wove in and out of it like a pro. She was just passing Starbucks when it happened; she swerved suddenly to avoid running into an unspecified lump on the road and her tire bumped into the side of a huge black SUV and the impact sent her careening into the side of another car. Before she knew it, the world was spinning and she’d landed on a hard surface with a huge thud. She stared, stupefied at the blue expanse above her, unable to make sense of it. A face appeared above her looking concerned. The lips were moving, possibly he was talking to her.
“…-you alright?” she heard.
Her eyes settled on the face, trying to make the world stop spinning by concentrating on one thing. The man’s hands came down to run down her arms and his face went from concerned to worried.
“Miss? Miss?” he kept saying. Leila wondered what it was he was missing.
The man shook her and that jolted her out of her reverie because it hurt.
“Ouch! Stop it!” she exclaimed in pain, trying to get away from him and go back to staring at the blue expanse. The man stopped shaking her and instead burrowed his hands beneath her body and lifted her up.
“What are you…? Put me down!” she said trying to swat him away. She lifted her arm and saw to her surprise that her sleeve was reddened. She was bleeding.
“What…?” she said in disbelief.
“I’m taking you to the hospital miss,” the man said manhandling her toward his vehicle.
“What? Wait, no..my bike!” she said.
“I’ll put it in the trunk,” the man replied.
“Is she okay?” another man asked standing beside the car.
“She’s bleeding,” the first man said.
“I’m not bleeding,” Leila protested.
“She speaks!” the second man said with an impudent grin. Leila regarded him askance and then turned to the first man who seemed to be the more responsible of the two.
“Mister, put me down,” she ordered him in the same voice she used to direct her interns.
“Ma’am, you’re bleeding; you need to go to the hospital,” he replied.
Leila was against this plan. “You can’t make me go anywhere. I need to go home. Now put me down,” she said again her voice higher with stress.
“Okay, okay, but your bike wheel is all twisted, won’t you at least allow us to take you home?” the second impudent man said.
Leila peered down through the arms of the man carrying her and saw her bike laying forlorn and injured by the sidewalk. She made a small sound of distress.
“I’ll pay for repairs of course,” the man carrying her said quickly, seemingly afraid that she’d burst into tears or descend into some other form of feminine display of emotion.
Leila said nothing, just allowed herself to be placed in the back seat. She was beginning to feel pain along her arm and at her right ankle so maybe the men were right and she was injured. She didn’t see how taking a ride from the two strangers who hit her was wise though. They were very insistent however, so she decided to go with it but dug into her pocket and extracted her phone. It seemed to have suffered no ill effects in the accident so she took a picture of her erstwhile rescuers and sent it to Sheila with a text telling her that if she didn’t hear from her in two hours she was to take the photos to the police.
“Feel better now?” man number two asked after watching her send the text in amusement. She shot him a glare and ignored his remark, looking down instead to inspect herself. There was a hole in the knee of her black pants and her arm was definitely gashed if not actively bleeding at the moment. Her foot looked fine but it was too early to tell if the pain indicated a sprain or a break. She hoped it was neither, please God, she had a fundraiser to arrange by the day after tomorrow.
“I’m Jonathon Leary,” the man sitting beside her with the smug smile said.
“Leila Masters,” she replied automatically not looking at him.
“That’s my driver Mathews, he’s the one who hit you and he’s very sorry,” Jonathon said.
Leila glanced up and then back down to her arm. Was it possible to get through this journey without talking? She could feel the Jonathon dude’s eyes on her and she squirmed uncomfortably. How to ask him to stop staring without causing offense and/or showing fear?
“We don’t bite you know?” he said further startling her.
“I’m sure you don’t,” she replied with a fake smile.
Mathews turned around to look at her, “Where can we take you?”
Leila gave them directions to her house and Mathews nodded and turned around to start the vehicle. He’d deposited her bike in the trunk as promised and now he drew smoothly into the traffic. Jonathon sighed theatrically, prompting Leila to look over at him. He gave her a wry glance.
“I was really hoping to get some coffee at Starbucks,” he said regretfully.
Leila almost smiled, “Well I didn’t exactly stop you.”
“Indeed,” Jonathon agreed. “But we can’t exactly throw you under our vehicle and then ask you to please wait while we get our coffee fix of the day now can we?”
Leila shrugged, “I don’t know. Can you?”
Jonathon laughed, looking at her with renewed interest.
“So are you like, a professional biker?” he asked.
“No. I’m a lawyer,” Leila said looking him warningly in the eye. Jonathon shuddered theatrically.
“Oh oh, are we in trouble or what?” he said waving his hands as if he was afraid.
“Well, I’d watch out if I were you and be on my best behavior,” Leila said tongue in cheek.
Jonathon laughed again, “I definitely like you.”
“Lucky me,” Leila replied wryly.
“Oh you have no idea,” Jonathon said, his eyes full of mystery and speculation.
Leila frowned at him but he just stared impassively back. And then he smiled.
That was when Leila knew she was in trouble.
They drew up on the street outside Leila’s apartment block and Jonathon turned to her. “Well, here we are. What floor do you live on?”
Leila looked at him frowning as if puzzled, “I fail to see how that is any of your business,” she said.
Jonathon laughed again. “I just wondered if you might need help getting there. If for example, your apartment building has no lift and you live on the top floor.”
“Well that’s kind of you but I can manage,” Leila said as Mathews opened the door for her. Jonathon opened his own door.
“I’m afraid I must insist,” he said.
Leila was getting irritated. “Like I said, it’s not necessary. Now if you would just give me my bike-“
“No way. We have to get that repaired,” Jonathon interrupted. Leila felt like she was being held hostage. She took a deep breath.
“Okay this has gone far enough. Would you just-“ she tried.
“Ms. Masters you are the one who seems not to understand. We have caused you grievous injury by hitting you with our car. We’re not just going to leave you unassisted. What if you collapse? There is no way you’re in any condition to carry your bike anywhere anyway, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to accept our help.”
Leila wanted to bite somebody…really hard. “Fine,” she bit out and then marched into the building. Or tried to anyway. Her ankle would not hold her weight. Before she knew it, Mathews had swept her up in his arms again.
“Excuse me…!” she tried to protest but nobody was listening. Jonathon got the door open and Mathews carried her into the building much to the amusement of passers by. Leila was mortified but what could she do? She ground out her apartment number when asked and tried to just bear the embarrassment stoically. If her mother was okay, she was going to be so bemused. When they reached the door Jonathon turned to her.
“Shall we ring the doorbell or do you have your keys or what?” he asked.
She glared at him reached into her jacket pocket and retrieved her keys. She hesitated a moment, wondering whether to try and open the door herself but he snatched them out of her hands and unlocked the door swinging it open and gesturing at them to precede him. Leila wondered why she wasn’t more afraid of having two strange men in her apartment with no one but a sick mother around.
“Put me down,” she ordered Mathews and he lowered her gently to her feet. She limped away calling for her mother as she went. Nobody answered but when she knocked on her door and opened it her mother was in bed, oxygen mask on, eyes closed. If it wasn’t for the loud sound of her breathing, Leila’s heart would have stopped with dread. She opened her mouth to call out but then closed it again. She figured her mother could rest while she whipped her up some soup.
“What’s wrong with her?” a voice asked from behind her startling her quite badly. She turned around on one foot to glare at Jonathon.
“What are you doing here?” she snapped at him. Jonathon took a step back his face falling.
“I’m sorry, but I wanted to make sure you didn’t fall…and you looked worried so…” he said.
Leila stared at him, “How old are you?”
Jonathon looked up at her in surprise, “What?”
“Sometimes you act like a ten year old with poor impulse control,” she said then instantly regretted it. She didn’t know him well enough to be making these types of judgments. He opened his mouth to say something but she got there before him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Jonathon laughed wryly, “Actually you’re not the first person to tell me that.”
“Really?” she asked mostly to make up for being rude.
“Yeah. My grandfather says that all the time. Not in those exact words of course but…” he shrugged self-deprecatingly.
Leila didn’t know whether to commiserate or laugh. The sounds emanating from the room changed. Her mother’s breathing got quieter; Leila turned around to see what was up.
“Leila?” her mother said hoarsely.
“Yes mom, I’m here,” Leila said limping forward.
“What happened to you?” she asked faintly.
“We hit her with our car but she’s okay,” Jonathon piped up with the answer. Not that anybody asked him.
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