Tale of Two Hearts Series, Book 2
In the game of hearts there can be more than one loser…
Take Daisy Johnson, for starters. She came from nothing but now she has it all: a thriving business, a beautiful daughter, and the financial security that makes her the master of her own destiny. Yet the memories of two very different loves cast a shadow of doubt and fear that keeps her trapped in self-imposed isolation.
Aiden Keane remains haunted by the games he played with one woman’s heart. Now she’s gone, and his obsessive nature has fueled a five-year mission to find her. Her rejection and disappearance has left him wondering if he’ll ever see her again. But what Aiden wants, he wants, and he will risk it all to find and claim her once more.
Pete Doyle wants a fresh start. He’s sure as hell earned it. It’s taken him five years to get over his first love and the role he played in destroying it. Now he has a new girlfriend and a business opportunity of his own. Pete wants closure, or maybe something more. Until he understands which of the two is most important, his life continues in limbo.
Tragedy hits the small town of Hollow Creek, and the paths of all three players collide in the most unexpected of ways. Daisy had her reasons to remain hidden from both of the men in her past. When all her secrets are uncovered, Daisy is faced with one question: does she have any choices left?
ON AMAZON: Aiden’s Game and Daisy Choice — One Book!
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Sienna, November 2015
The Shamrock Casino
Las Vegas, Nevada
He hated dreaming. Daisy always visited his dreams. Aiden’s eyes slowly opened. From beneath the shadowy veil of his lashes, his vision cleared. The patterned molding of his vaulted ceiling drew into focus. Soft amber lighting illuminated each corner of his bedroom, but the darkness claimed him. So did the dull ache of excess. There was movement next to him as the mattress dipped and his pillow shifted. Aiden’s head dropped to the side, and he tried once more to focus. His thoughts and vision weren’t connecting. Next to him lies a stranger, exposed, strawberry blonde hair covering her face. The sharp smell of sex and the fruity perfumed lotion filled his nostrils.
Who is she? More importantly, why is she still in my fucking bed?
He sighed and changed focus. The night’s events returned. The booze, the whores, all of it flashed through his mind. Self-loathing was now his game of choice. He was getting good at it.
Aiden threw back the sheet and sat up. He slumped forward and dropped his face into his open palms. He felt the rough edges of a tiny package at the sole of his foot. Lifting it, he uncovered the dispensed purple foil of a condom wrapper and another not further from it.
“Aiden?” a breathy yet soft voice whispered over the pounding beat of his headache, hammering his skull.
“Get dressed and get out,” he rasped. “Now!”
“Call me, okay? Okay?” His bedmate for the evening ran her hand over his back with her acrylic nails grazing his skin. The bed shifted, and he listened to her hurried actions. There was a clanking of her bracelets and the sibilant rip of a zipper running up the back of her leather mini. Those parting sounds made her just another regrettable memory. Aiden lifted his face from his palms. The private line to his suite blinked on the phone. His presence was needed. He should have been in his office two hours ago and not boozed and barely conscious next to Trixie, Mixie, Bixie, whatever the hell her name was.
Aiden rose, stiffly. Nude, he snatched his pants from the back of a chair and slipped them on. As he zipped his fly, he crossed the cool mahogany floors out of his bedroom into his suite. There was a reason for his restlessness. He’d been on edge since he left Hollow Creek. The moment his people told him of the fire at Daisy’s father’s church, he was on his jet and circling the town. The minister lingered in his comatose state surrounded by friends, family, reporters, but no Daisy. After a week, he decided to return. Now, barely here two days, he regretted that decision.
But it’s been five years. Why should I think she’d return now?
One sip of vodka and his mind cleared. The bitter aftertaste revived the tastebuds in his tongue as he walked over to his desk. He moved the mouse and sat in front of his computer’s monitor. Typing in key words he opened the new file in his inbox. No change in the preacher’s condition. No Daisy sightings.
He hit the message button on his phone and picked up the receiver.
You have 2 messages. First message:
Aiden, flying down to L.A. for business. Will stop in to see Andria, then head back for the meeting with the Gaming Commissioner. What’s this I hear that you were in Hollow Creek?
He pressed seven and deleted the message.
Mr. Keane. This is Mathew Sterling; there’s no change in Charles Johnson’s condition. No sighting of Ms. Daisy Johnson. Will report when and if there is more news.
Aiden hung up. He dropped back in his chair, frustrated. Five years of exhaustion had finally gotten the best of him. In the first two years, he nearly went mad. He checked every lead, invested a small fortune and nothing. He tailed the punk kid, Pete, with no luck. The third year, both he and Pete grew weary of the search, but not of the feeling. The need to find her never lessened. Soon, with the fourth year came acceptance. She was never his. He had her only one night. He told his cold barren heart that clung to hope for a rescue, to get the hell over it and convinced himself it was the price of the game they all played. No woman, especially one as naïve and inexperienced as Daisy Johnson, was worth the trouble.
He was a good liar.
Aiden rocked back in his office chair reaching for his half smoked cigar. He smirked. How did she manage it? How did a girl of barely twenty-one, like her, slip past the best investigators in the business? Slip past him? His confusion and outrage fueled his guilt and desire. Black, white, yellow, brown no woman in his bed had affected him this deeply before or after Daisy. And now she was in the wind, beyond his reach, and he was growing tired of the chase. What if Donovan was right and she was dead? The cold reality of that truth disturbed him most of all.
Some evenings, her ghost visited him. She’d appear on a security monitor; a young brown skin woman strolling between slot machines with a familiar sway to her hips and toss to her dark copper-brown locks. He’d rush the casino rooms chasing her phantom around the floors, only to be proven a fool. She’d beat him well.
Then, one day, he gets a call. Reverend Charles Johnson of Hollow Creek was a hero. He’d saved thirteen of his flock from his burning church before collapsing himself. It was reported by his parishioners that the minister lingered in the hospital between life and death, not expected to recover. Surely his sweet Daisy would come out of hiding for her father. The fire had made national news. How could she not know?
If she’s alive, she would know, but I need to consider the truth; that maybe she isn’t.
Aiden’s eyes closed, and he tried to recall her face, the feel of her skin, and the way she shuddered in his arms when he possessed her. His hand tightened on the glass. Daisy was gone. There was no such thing as second chances.
* * * * *
“Can you tell her to call me when she gets a break?” Pete asked.
“Sure thing, Pete. She’s on rotation now.”
Pete tossed the phone and kicked off his paint-splattered workman’s boots. Sniffing the funk from his socks, he pulled them off as well and dropped them on the floor. It was a long day at the garage with his shift running into the night. It usually did when Nina pulled a double shift. With the remote in his hand, he channel surfed, his thumb repeatedly hitting the button. Nothing caught his eye. The phone rang and he jumped at the chance to speak with Nina.
“Hi. Can’t talk long.”
He could hear the smile in her voice. “I’m making strawberry pancakes and your favorite peach mimosa.”
“Pancakes? Really? What’s the occasion?” she asked.
“Got some news. Something to celebrate.”
“Oh you’re going to love this. Just call and wake me before you come home so I can be up.”
“Love you, Pete.”
“Yeah, see you soon, babe,” he said before ending the call. Smiling, he reclined into the sofa’s flattened pillow. If it weren’t for Nina, he’d probably still be wandering, unsettled. She wasn’t Daisy, and that was fine with him. She too was black, petite, with an infectious smile and round brown eyes. The second ethnic woman he’s dated. Nina’s mother was Dominican and father African American. He hadn’t chosen her and never noticed her beauty when they were in school. Then one day standing in line at the meat section of the grocery store, there she was. It was natural for them both every day since.
Pete looked up at the television. A music video of some chocolate vixen, dancing and singing with a troupe of girls around her, played across his screen. He didn’t go there often. Didn’t think of Vegas, Aiden Keane, and Daisy. He couldn’t. It cost him too much when he obsessed. Three years of his life had been spent obsessing. She was gone. Time made forgetting easier. That was until a fire at First Baptist thrust the Johnson family into the limelight. Now, everything he saw or heard and even tasted brought Daisy to mind.
The truth was he expected her to return. He held his breath and selfishly hoped Daisy would come home. Why, he didn’t know. Five years was a long time. He wasn’t that lovesick kid anymore. He was sure Daisy wasn’t the same greedy heartbreaker that crushed his spirit either. Still, the not knowing kept part of him immobile. It was his excuse from saying the three words Nina deserved to hear.
* * * * *
Well, he was wrong. Daisy hadn’t returned. Pete was beginning to wonder if she ever would. Either way, it was past time to move on. Reaching in his pocket, he withdrew the ring he purchased. He vowed never to buy another for a woman unless he was sure. Nina was the real thing. There were plans he had for them. In the morning, he’d tell her the news that he got the loan. Now, he was going to open his own garage. And after they celebrated, when the time was right, he was going to tell her his heart.
They were going to be fine.
St. Anna’s Hospital – Hollow Creek, Kentucky
Bea’s left brow winged up. Her beady eyes were magnified behind the thick lens of her square-rimmed, schoolmarm glasses. A short stout woman with a face full of moles, Bea was the reason why black women shouldn’t wear blue eye shadow or dye their hair blonde.
“What-chu need?” she chomped her gum like a cow with a tasty blade of grass.
“Ten,” Bea smirked.
Nina sighed. Why did everything with this one have to be a battle of wills? She was ready to fight for the full fifteen—the un-smoked square burning a hole in her pocket demanded it. She opened her mouth to reason and stopped herself. From her peripheral line of vision, she noticed the shadow of the grief stricken wife of Reverend Johnson. The austere black woman who would always be seen with her head held high, kind of shuffled along the hall with her shoulders sagging. Nina turned her head and watched in silence as she passed by.
“We aren’t negotiating here, Nina. I don’t play those games. Janice does. You get a break when scheduled. We have a full floor tonight.”
Returning to her thoughts by the brittle clipped tone of the charge nurse, Bea, she gave the woman a sideways look. “Fifteen and I’ll change out old-man Arthur’s bed-sheets first. It’s my final offer. Sold.” Nina hit the counter like an auctioneer with her open palm. Bea gave her a wide-eyed look and blinked, her mouth moving wordless before Nina walked off. She hurried after the reverend’s wife with a deep pang of sorrow buried in her breast. Everyone in Hollow Creek either knew the Johnson family or had at one time worshiped at their church. Sister Johnson slipped inside her husband’s room. Slowly, Nina pushed open the patient’s door to find her standing at his bedside.
“Sister Johnson? You need anything?” Nina asked.
She didn’t appear to have heard her. Nina entered. She crossed the room silently and placed her hand gently on the matriarch’s shoulders. And when their eyes met, she was sure they weren’t seeing her.
“There’s no change.” Her reply was hollow.
Reverend Johnson languished in a coma. He had a heart attack not long after a fire swept through his church, which he fought valiantly to save. The paramedics had managed to start his heart again, but he hadn’t opened his eyes since. No doctor in the hospital held hope he’d make a full recovery, but miracles do happen. The prayer circles were strong, and their hold over his weary soul kept him breathing on his own. All that was left was the sweet shepherd’s wife to keep vigil. Special permission was granted so Sister Johnson could remain after visiting hours. It was just another example of how Hollow Creek took care of the ones they loved.
“Maybe you should get some rest. If there’s any change, you’ll need your strength.”
Mrs. Johnson nodded, “I think I’ll go home tonight.”
This surprised Nina. For the past week it was rarely mentioned in front of the reverend’s wife, even though her daughters came to the hospital and pleaded with the administration to make their mother leave and get rest.
“Let me walk you out. I’ll look after him for you. Call you if there’s any change.” Sister Johnson sighed. She located her purse and Nina guided her out of the door. Together, they left the hospital in silence. Nina followed her into the parking lot. She smiled with words of encouragement, then watched as the Reverend’s wife gave one final parting look to the hospital before succumbing to her own fatigue and driving off.
Nina dropped her hands into the thin pockets in the front of her scrubs. Her finger brushed the ‘cancer stick’ she’d been holding on to and smiled. She pressed the cigarette to her lips and fished out her lighter. The flame flickered but held under the cover of her curled hand. Pete hated smoking, smokers and the mere idea of his woman with such a filthy habit. She did quit, three times, but this past week she’d been on edge. Dragging on the filtered end, she let the bitter tar flavored smoke fill her lungs before she exhaled through her nose. Her eyes surveyed the night. The hospital was next to the children’s annex.
Both buildings towered over her. The alley itself was clear of any obstruction or litter. That was another thing about her town, one of the cleanest cities in Kentucky. She could remember the funk and stench of New York alleyways when she was in college. Rats with red beady eyes that hissed, vagrants lying in their own stench, sewage pipes and lines running along were all common sights. She made the mistake of stumbling into a few after partying late with friends. Those were different times.
Nina licked her parched lips, cigarette clasped between two fingers. She took another forbidden pull and then another until that magic hit of nicotine did its job. A calm settled over her as she walked the side of the building heading to the front. No, dark corners weren’t her thing.
Nothing much happened at this hour. Quiet moments were always her coveted ones where she could let her mind drift to thoughts of Pete. Her head went back and her eyes lifted to the half-moon in the sky. Nina exhaled a cloud of white smoke and smiled. Two years and still the simplest things reminded her of her guy.
A loud crunching of tires over gravel approached. The soft hum of a nicely tuned engine followed. Nina stepped back so as to not be seen. Standing at the shadowy path to the alley, she had a perfect view of the sleek limo slowly moving through the empty parking lot. The vehicle drove around the circular drive and stopped. A limo in Hollow Creek at this time of night? Interesting. She narrowed her focus and took a small step forward. The door opened. A young woman stepped out with the aid of the driver. Even in the distance and the limited night, she was striking. Her hair, long and layered, lifted from the sides of her face, and Nina’s heart stopped.
“I don’t believe it. Is that Daisy?”
* * * * *
Daisy shifted closer to her door. She stared for a second at the red glowing sign: EMERGENCY. How appropriate. There was no other word in her vocabulary to explain the urgency she felt when she learned the news of her father. The door to the limo opened, and again a sharp whiff of Kentucky air breezed in.
“Ms. Locke,” the chauffeur extended his hand. She accepted it. He tipped his head, eyes shielded under the front of his cap.
“Wait here. I… I don’t need you to come in,” Daisy said softly.
Daisy’s hurried steps fell short at the entrance. Doors of glass reflected the night and her strained expression. A cold wave of longing moved through her. How she missed mama and daddy over the years. How she ached to reach out to them and share her life with them once more. But with each year that passed, it became easier and easier to leave the Daisy they knew behind. Now here she was, and no matter her accomplishments, all she saw was Daisy staring back at her.
The doors parted to grant her entrance. At this hour, she could only hope to remain unseen.
Nina stubbed out the cigarette with her foot. It is her! There was something demure and refined about her appearance. She wore a grey pencil skirt and a cranberry-red blouse under a very classically tailored grey cashmere coat and matching red pumps. In stunned silence, she watched Daisy until she disappeared from sight. Daisy Johnson. She had changed quite a bit. Her long hair was polished and blown straight, framing her face from a center part. She looked fancy. No, she looked wealthy.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Nina mumbled.
It took Pete three years to give up on his search for her, and still Nina knew part of him remained locked in the past. He shared with her what he and Daisy did. A man named Aiden Keane entered their lives and destroyed their love and Pete’s faith in Daisy. When Nina heard the story, she had a different take on it. She’d never tell Pete, but for her it wasn’t Aiden Keane that divided him from his first love. It was Daisy. Anybody but Pete could see how starry eyed and money hungry Daisy was. She put down everything in this town along with that motor mouth best friend of hers, Jessiemae.
Nina was a freshman in college when Pete and Daisy ran away. By the time she returned home, the scandal had lost its hold, and Pete had become one of the walking wounded. It broke her heart that Daisy would treat somebody as sweet natured as Pete that way. From the look of her now, Nina surmised, Daisy was still chasing dollar signs.
Even in school, things came easy for Ms. Daisy; cutest boy in the Hollow, popular in everything she chose. Daisy Johnson was Ms. Perfect, and they all had to live up to the standard she set. Now her family was in crisis for nearly two weeks and she decides to return? Yes, Nina feared this moment. She started smoking again to try to convince herself it wouldn’t come. But she saw it with her own eyes. Daisy Johnson had returned. What would that mean for her and Pete?
“I understand. Visiting hours may be over, but I really, um, I have to see him. Please.”
“I’m sorry. The rules are the rules. Come back in the morning.”
“I can’t,” Daisy said. Her voice was strained and a little too desperate. She was prepared to beg. She’d given up her pride before. She’d surely sacrifice it once more for her beloved father.
Wiping at the sting of moisture building in the corner of her eyes, she chewed on her bottom lip, and then nervously clenched her hands. Why couldn’t she have encountered someone neutral?
Susanne smirked up at her with a smug look of disapproval and open judgment. She was sure that by morning the rest of Kentucky would know she was home from the mouth of this gossipy bitch. Worst yet, was the accusation in Susanne’s eyes, as if her pain was staged. There was no need in guessing; Pete had probably shared with the town what happened between them in Vegas. Yes, this one, Susanne, was related to Pete by marriage. In the Hollow, everybody was related somehow.
“I can’t let you up on the floor, Daisy. Sorry.”
“It’s okay, Susanne. Let me take her to him.”
Daisy turned to familiar friendly eyes. It was Nina Stevens, a girl she remembered vaguely from high school. She was a year younger, kind-of geeky. Not anymore. She had changed. Nina had toffee brown skin and her hair tapered low to her face and neck with tiny curls. She was an inch or two shorter than Daisy. Somewhere along the way, Nina had ditched the thick glasses to reveal her best feature, her hazel brown eyes. Dressed in pale blue hospital scrubs, Daisy assumed she worked there. They weren’t friends. In fact, Daisy was almost certain she and Jessiemae made fun of her and a few other girls like her during their mean girl days. Hopefully, time had healed any grudges Nina might carry.
“Hi, Daisy. Come with me.”
Susanne shot up off her stool, knocking it over. “Nina… you know that Bea won’t allow it.”
“I said it’s okay. I’ll clear it with Bea.” She tossed back over her shoulder, giving Daisy an understanding nod. It was a touch of kindness that Daisy was ever so grateful for, because it helped to ease the pressure pounding at the back of her skull. Her flight into Louisville was exhausting. The ride to Hollow Creek was equally draining. Being turned away would have certainly killed her.
Nina pressed the button to the elevator. Together they stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, in silence and boarded the same way.
“How is he?” Daisy finally asked.
“He hasn’t come out of his coma.”
Daisy said nothing more. She stared ahead. She could feel Nina’s eyes on her.
“He’s a hero,” Nina spoke up.
“He saved a lot of people. I read that.” Daisy stopped herself. She sure as hell didn’t want to share that she visited The Hollow Creek Tribune weekly via the Internet.
“Oh, yes. He saved my cousin too. He wouldn’t stop until he got them all out. Even went around the firemen. They don’t know what caused the fire. Bible study that night was in the basement and choir practice in the sanctuary. Many were trapped, but all got out. It’s Reverend Johnson who saw to it. We all love him, Daisy.”
The elevator doors parted.
“Me too,” Daisy said, sadly. “Me too.”
Daisy hoped she wouldn’t have to be paraded before others who would regard her with the same silent shock that Susanne gave.
“Let’s go this way,” Nina smiled. As if she read her mind, Daisy followed. Together they walked down the halls, her heels clicking over the linoleum squares polished to a shine. It was the only sound between them, that and her racing heartbeat that thundered in her ears.
“Take all the time you need.”
“Thank you,” Daisy mumbled, never looking her way. She pushed open the door and went inside.
Charles Johnson was a strong man. Daisy forced herself to remember that strength. He was also a loving father. She recalled how she and her sisters would sneak in their parent’s bedroom. Daddy would be asleep, mouth open, snoring. Mama would be downstairs in the kitchen baking. Daisy was given the task of being the lookout. She’d put her fingers under her father’s nose to feel him breathing as they searched his favorite chair in the room. It was the one he sat in on Saturday evenings and wrote his sermons. Her sisters would dig between the seat cushions to collect loose change, then hot tail it over to Ms. Ana’s for a frozen cup and penny bubble gum.
He’d come downstairs later and say:
“What is it, Charles?”
“Think we got a squirrel in the house.”
“Why’s that Charles?”
“Something round here digging in between the pillows of the chairs. That’s why.”
Daisy and her sisters would giggle. They’d laugh and run out of the back screen porch swearing they fooled him. She remembered every sweet experience with her family. The thoughts ranged from popping bubblegum and drawing a new game of hopscotch in the dirt to playing with bottle caps.
I remember daddy. Daisy closed her eyes. When she opened them, she forced herself to take comfort in the fact he was there, alive. “Hi.”
She walked toward the bed. Thankfully, he wasn’t connected to too many tubes. There was only an IV in his hand and some wired pads on his chest under the covers. He was breathing on his own. The papers said that he was in a coma. How did that happen? Why would God put his mighty disciple to sleep?
“Look at you. Got ‘em all fooled, huh?” She set her purse down at the foot of the bed. Charles Johnson made no movement. He lay perfectly still with skin ashen and pale and his coal black hair now a knotted mass of grey that grew down his long sideburns over his cheek. Five years had changed him and aged him, or was it she that added years to his life by staying away?
“I’ve missed you, daddy. Every day. It feels so good to see you again.” She moved around the bed to where his hand lay. Easing hers under his cool palm, she gently stroked his skin. “There’s so much I want to say to you. I hope you can hear me.”
Her voice faltered. She swallowed and tried to steady it. “I never meant to disappoint you. I never meant to hurt you and mama. Things got confusing, and I was so ashamed. I should have handled it differently. Now all I want is a chance to explain myself to you, to pray again with you. I want to hear you say it will be okay.”
Daisy’s eyes swept his still form. The thin blanket tucked around him. Daisy watched his chest rising and falling from his uneven breaths. Can he hear me? She couldn’t share her burden, her secrets, and stress him that way. How would that be just? But there were so many things unsaid between them.
“I do pray, daddy, every day. Just like you taught me. I got a blessing from my prayers too. A little girl. Her name is Amy. Oh daddy, she is so much like me. Stubborn!” Daisy smiled. “She’s why I didn’t come home. Not because I didn’t want her to know you. The truth is, I didn’t want her to know me. I couldn’t bear for Amy to learn how selfish I was to leave you behind and mock the things you taught me. It took some time but I learned a lot. I know who I am, and who I’m not. How can I make you understand? I don’t know. All I can say is, I grew up. And I love you so very much.”
She dropped her head and sighed. There was little comfort in squeezing a listless hand. What she would give to have him hold her just once more, call her his sweet pea and tell her that the Lord didn’t make mistakes. People did, and all could be forgiven. Her sweet daddy. How she ached for him.
Daisy’s voice lifted once more. “I’ve changed. I have my own business. I did it on my own. You should see my company, my house.”
With a jolt, she looked to the room door. It was her mother. Daisy had intentionally waited until she thought she saw her drive away from the hospital. She had planned to stay in the shadows to be sure that this reunion wouldn’t happen. But there she was.
“Mama? I didn’t know you were here.”
Martha Johnson looked her daughter over with equal shock. “I left my blood pressure medicine so I came back… I don’t believe it.” The light of compassion in her usually kind eyes darkened with anger. In a flash, her face tightened with disapproval
“Hi, mama.” Daisy circled the hospital bed. Her mother stepped back, staring at her coolly. The look on her mother’s face stopped Daisy cold.
Martha Johnson narrowed her eyes and dropped both hands to her hips. “What are you doing here?”
“You heard me. What are you doing in here!” she demanded in a hushed yet angry tone.
“I came, um, too—”
“To brag? I heard you. Standing there telling your father how better off you are since you abandoned our family, broke his heart. Broke my heart.” Martha clutched her chest.
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Shut up! Not another word, Daisy! I don’t want you lying and weaving those tales over his sick bed. Have some respect!”
Daisy watched in horror as tears dropped from her mother’s eyes, angry, unforgiving tears. The kind a mother should never shed for her child.
“Five years, and you didn’t call, write, nothing. For five years I watched your father pray for you and weep over your foolish thoughtless ways. He begged the good Lord to send us a sign that you were okay. Five years! And it takes for him to be at deaths door for you get dressed up and parade your yella tail in here. I oughta knock you back to where you came from. Thank you Lord that Charles can’t see what you’ve become!”
Daisy slowly shook her head. “I couldn’t come because—”
“Really? Pete came home. He’s been up in here seeing the man who gave you life! I hear tales all over town how you run off and leave him for some rich white man? How you’re his… his whore!”
“Look at you,” Martha said, shaking her head in disgust. She swept her gaze over her daughter’s attire and the scowl lines around her mouth deepened. Daisy felt dirty, unclean, unworthy under that stare. “My God!” Martha covered her mouth, shaking her head in disappointment.
“Mama, please. You don’t understand. Things happened to me. Something remarkable.”
“Remarkable? How dare you!” Martha put up her hand to stop her. “I don’t want to hear it. All your life you were selfish and thankless. Charles spoiled you and I let it go. Who am I to interfere with a father’s love? But look at you! Just look at you! I tried with you, Daisy. Your father tried hard, but we weren’t good enough. Life in the Hollow wasn’t good enough. Is it better for you now?”
“Mama stop. You never listened to me. Not ever. I have so much to tell you and I don’t even know how. Can we not fight? I came a long way. I’ve been so worried about daddy. Please, can we do this later?” Daisy begged. “I love you and daddy. I love Hollow Creek. I dreamed about this place everyday. I wanted to come home. I really did.”
“Then why didn’t you?”
Daisy froze. The lump in the center of her chest rose to her throat. Her breath hitched and words failed. She held to her secret. It was how she protected her daughter under an intricate web of lies. And God help her, she wanted to unburden her soul. But her mother looked at her with such disappointment. How could she? How could she tell her all she’d done and the price she paid?
“Get out. Go back to your fancy life. Give your father some peace. You think he wants to know his daughter is nothing more than whatever you are now. You Jezebel!”
Daisy picked up her purse. She opened it and removed a business card; flipped it over and penned her home and cellular number. “When daddy wakes up, can you call me? I just want to know he’s okay.”
Martha stared at her daughter but refused the card. Daisy laid it on the tray next to her father’s bed. “Mama, he’s strong. A fighter. He made us all that way. I know I disappointed you and him,” she said as she looked back to her father. “But I’m still your daughter, and I love you both.”
Martha closed her eyes. Daisy couldn’t stand to see her mother in pain. She couldn’t stand to see her father suffering. In that moment, she knew Pete was right. Hollow Creek was no longer her home. The damage was done.
She walked toward the door but stopped at her mother’s side. “I’m so glad to see you again.”
Then she left. She did so quickly because the moment she reached the hall the tears exploded. She nearly crumbled under the weight of them. When she looked up, she saw Nina at the other end. A concerned look was on her face. Daisy turned from it and went the other way, desperate to leave the Hollow once more.
* * * * *
“Mrs. Johnson?” Nina said, her head half way in the door. Martha sat at her husband’s side, weeping, stroking his hand. Her head turned slowly and her glazed over eyes met with Nina’s. “Don’t you ever let another person in this room without my approval.”
Martha rose from the chair. She wiped the traces of tears from her cheeks. Nina could see the slight tremble to the matriarch’s hand. She stopped and looked at the card resting on the tray. Picking it up, she frowned at what was scribbled on it, shook her head, tossed it to the trashcan and then walked out. Curious, Nina fished out the card.
Jahi Salon and Spa
Danielle Locke CEO
“Who is Danielle Locke?” She sniffed the card. It smelled expensive and faintly like Daisy. Turning it over, she saw scribbled on the back another number with the words, I love you, Daisy.
Nina looked to the sleeping minister and slipped the card into her pocket, an action she would regret days later.
Daisy closed the door. She punched in the alarm code in the keypad and set it to ‘off’. The open foyer led to a sunken living room that faced windows that gave a brilliant view of the Pacific Ocean. She had driven the entire night out of Hollow Creek to Louisville and boarded the next plane home. She couldn’t wait to put miles between her and the past. Walking through her million dollar beach house, she stopped and smiled. Clara was curled up on the couch.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty.”
Clara blinked awake and stretched. “You’re back?” she said, confused.
“Thanks for this, Clara.”
“No problem,” she yawned. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, why?” Daisy asked, avoiding her eyes.
“I dunno. You ran out of here like the devil was chasing you. Never seen you so upset. You said you weren’t coming back for a few days, and then you call and say you were on your way home. I waited up but fell asleep. What’s up?”
“I’m fine. I’m tired. And we got plenty work to do. I’m going to go shower. How was she?” Daisy asked shedding her suit jacket.
“She’s your daughter. You know how she was,” Clara chuckled.
Daisy smiled. “True.”
She climbed the steps slowly, a winding open stair that led to the lofty top level of her home which overlooked the lower half. When Amy first started walking, Daisy would have nightmares of her baby falling down them. Now her little darling commanded this place.
She went directly to her room. The door was ajar. Slowly, she eased it open. Immediately, she felt the love that had sustained her for so many years. Sweet Pea was definitely a good name for her. Amy slept in a sea of pink and yellow. Her canopy bed had a mini crib next to it where her dolls slept. Daisy stopped to pick up tossed aside books and crayons on the floor. Amy was reading and writing words, or so she thought by the way she scribbled. She kicked off her shoes and eased into the tiny toddler bed. Lying next to her daughter, she kissed her nose.
“Hi, mommy,” Amy yawned. “Time for school already?”
Daisy smiled. “What if we skipped school and went to the zoo today?”
“Skip school?” Amy’s eyes stretched open. The brilliant color that changed from hazel to green on any given day sparkled like lights on a Christmas tree at the news. She was in Pre-K, but Amy behaved as if she was in her first year of college. Daisy marveled at how confident and smart her angel was.
“Why?” Amy asked. “Do I have to go to the doctor?”
Daisy laughed. “No.” Amy always considered any doctor visit to be a form of punishment. She combed through her daughter’s soft natural locks with her fingers. Amy’s skin was a dusky shade of brown, a tad lighter than her own. “Mommy missed you. That’s why. We can get our nails done.” She picked up her little hand with her pink polish, kissing the tips. “And our toes done. Go to the boardwalk and ride the Ferris wheel.”
“Really? You gonna get on with me?”
“I sure am.”
Daisy smiled. “I missed you.”
“Me too, mommy. Oh, can I get a toy too? All of mine are broke.”
Daisy laughed. “Come here.”
She pulled her close and pressed her to her heart. Finally the emptiness eased away, replaced by the feeling of love she had with her little girl. This was the only home she had now. She’d continue to find ways to make peace with that.
Three Days Later
A tendril of hair dropped over Daisy’s left eye. She brushed it in place with her hand and slumped back in her chair. Closing her eyes, she opened them once more and tried for focus. Her mind wouldn’t allow her peace; her heart wouldn’t allow her to forget. Daisy looked away from the invoices on the computer’s monitor to the windows of her office. There beyond the stretched palms and nicely groomed Cyprus was a winding road. It led out of the mountain into the small community of Mango Grove.
Daisy stared at the grass greener than Kentucky’s, and her thoughts again drifted to home. Her mother’s parting words echoed through her subconscious, sending spasms of sorrow and regret piercing her heart. Quiet moments like this were torture. She forced herself to understand her mother’s pain over her own. Could Amy ever disappoint her to the point she’d turn her away as her mom did? Daisy doubted it. She wouldn’t be that mother, because she learned something that the walls of her church didn’t teach her; something Aiden Keane’s lesson burned into her soul. Pride cometh before the fall.
Daisy closed her eyes to reject the tears building and gathering like an internal storm. What happened broke her heart, but even worse, it severed a bond she and her mother shared. She deserved it. Even if five years later she longed to be just Daisy Johnson again.
Daisy blinked away tears. Clara, a twenty-something brunette with a California tan and Malibu figure, tossed her dark locks and stepped inside of her office.
“What is it?”
“We need to talk.”
She watched her reach back and close the door, deciding on the conversation before Daisy could agree to it. Clara approached in high-heels that seemed to stretch her legs and make her taller while dressed in a short brown skirt and a powder-blue silk blouse. Her hands clasped before her and she looked too cheery for this day.
Clara was the first and only friend she made. That friendship was just shy of three years. Now they were business partners, a 60/40 split that helped Daisy secure the anonymity she so fiercely protected.
“It’s about Serenity.”
“Not now, Clara.”
“Hear me out. I found land. A perfect little spot that’s near Tucson, Arizona. It’s famous for their spas but not like ours. Not with your flair. We need to strike now while the iron is hot. They are dying to meet with us, Danielle.”
Daisy shook her head to the same argument. Clara’s ambition was becoming a problem. She’d gone against her wishes and booked celebrities. The last one had them on TMZ with paparazzi helicopters circling. She couldn’t risk it. The phones were ringing off the hook to learn more of the exclusive spa and its owners. Clara was handling the press, but soon the camera would turn her way. If that happened, all bets were off.
“Before you say no, think about it. Serenity will be a sister spa to Jahi. We can keep Jahi as exclusive as you want. Serenity could expand and give service to—”
Daisy waved off the rest, “Let me think on it.”
“I booked time for us next week. We can fly out there and check it out.”
“You did what?”
Clara blinked, unapologetic. “I’m your business manager and part owner of your business, remember? For two years, you’ve trusted me to be the face and personality of Jahi. And look what we’ve done in just two years! We’re busting at the seams.”
“Then cancel appointments. Take those we can manage. Cut back on the staff, and focus more on quality than quantity. You know how I feel about this.”
“Feel about it? Danielle, you won’t even talk about it. This is a business, a good one, not your personal shelter.”
“What does that mean?”
“That was out of line. I apologize.”
“No, don’t backtrack now. Finish. Say what you mean.”
“Sometimes I feel like you’re paranoid,” Clara sighed. “You won’t let the press in here. You barely meet with clients. You live like you’re ready to bolt at any moment. And then you left town and came back without explanation. After two years of my knowing you and never seeing you with a single person, it is a little strange. I’m not stupid. Something keeps you locked away. Danielle, you won’t even date.”
“That’s ridiculous. I’m a grown woman with a daughter. I have priorities. Okay?”
“Sorry. Sure. But the day I arrived here you said this was your dream. You deserve success. All of it. I just want to get us there.”
“I’m not trying to get rich. I’m just trying to take care of Amy.” Daisy sat forward. She rubbed out the pressure in her temples with her fingers.
“Too bad, you are rich. This place is the sought after spa on the West Coast. Right now, we only service the elite. But we can’t sustain like this. It’s not our destiny.”
Daisy sighed. She didn’t want to continue with the same debate. Destiny? Clara, in her twenty-something years, had no clue about destiny. Nor did she understand the truth.
“Fine. I’ll take the meeting, and then we talk about it. Okay?”
Clara winked. “It’s going to be great. You’ll see. This will change our lives. Forever.”
Daisy watched her go. She shook her head. Forever didn’t seem long enough. She wanted her life changed permanently. Reaching for the mouse, she moved it and the screen saver swiped away. Her fingers quickly typed words on the keyboard: The Hollow Creek Tribune. She checked the local report for news on her father. Nothing. No news was good news. Right?
* * * * *
The deep gut-wrenching wail cut through Nina’s heart. She turned from the scene and pushed past Dr. Johannes, Bea and other members of the Johnson family to rush out into the hall. Dropping back against the wall, she sucked in deep breaths, but her lungs burned from a shared feeling of despair. Martha Johnson’s wails and the sobs of her daughters hit her hard.
Charles Johnson, minister, counselor, faithful leader of First Baptist Church, was dead.
He slipped away peacefully without fuss, but the heartache and grief left behind had ripped apart the seam of his family and this town. Nothing would be the same.
Nina put her hand to her mouth and closed her eyes. She would have to call Pete. Call him now.
* * * * *
Aiden faced the wind as he strolled away from his chauffeured car over the gravel parking lot to Ed’s Diner. He yanked open the glass door. Bells and chimes looming above the threshold sang. Entering to the smell of fried meat and fresh brewed coffee, Aiden paused. His eyes swept the diner and the booth seats. The sign before him said he should wait to be seated, but the word ‘wait’ was missing the letter ‘i’. Aiden smirked and walked through the diner.
Mathew Sterling looked up halfway at his arrival. He rose, abruptly nodding respectfully and extending his hand. “Mr.… um… Mr. Keane,” he said.
“Sit,” Aiden advised, coolly taking to the barely comfortable bench seat.
“Ah, forgive me. I um… ordered. Would you like—”
“You said it was important. Daisy? Is she here?”
“Well, not exactly, sir.”
Aiden narrowed his stare. “What does that mean, not exactly?”
“We’ve been monitoring the hospital. Actually, we’ve hired some inside help. A woman by the name of Susanne Doyle. She works the nightshift,” Mathew said, removing his notepad to check his notes. “She’s related to Peter Doyle.”
“You hired Pete’s family?”
“Yes, sir. And she’s received a nice stipend to stay loyal to us. The Doyle’s are no fans of Daisy Johnson. She keeps tabs on the boy and also the reverend. She called and informed me that Daisy made a visit three days ago.”
Aiden tensed. He tried to hear the rest, but all he could see of the man before him was lips moving as everything went mute. All he could focus on was the fact she had returned. She was alive and out there. And close.
Then the sounds of the diner came back. Again he heard dinnerware clinking and orders being shouted to the cook. The door to the kitchen cut through the air with a swoosh as it swung back for the staff that kept coming and going.
“My contact held on to the news. Said she couldn’t find my number. Nonsense. I think she’s hustling me to keep the money coming. However, she was successful in gaining us access to the hospital security system. These pictures were taken from the inside cameras at the emergency entrance and Charles Johnson’s floor.
Aiden accepted the folder. He laid it flat before him and opened it slowly. It was Daisy. She stepped through the double doors. Impeccably dressed. Her hair was longer and cast in a straight style past her shoulders, colored dark brown and streaked with a hint of sunshine. He couldn’t see her face in the first image, but he knew it was her. The next image was clear, as if she looked into the lens of the camera just for him. Beautiful.
“Wh-where,” he stammered.
“Sir, unfortunately we don’t know where she came from. We got information on the limo service. They claim she rented the car from the airport and paid in cash. She gave them her real name, Daisy Johnson and used her real identification, not the assumed one we believe she lives under. After the visit, they returned her to the airport and she departed, to where they didn’t know. That morning there were only four major connecting flights. She could have boarded a plane to Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Atlanta. From there she could have flown anywhere.”
Aiden turned over the next picture. He studied Daisy. She wore a solemn yet determined look. The next image showed her leaving in tears. He felt a tightening of his chest at the sight of her distress. Words could not describe what it was to see her again. Changed. But still it was her. Where had she been? Where did she go?
Aiden swallowed. He closed the folder. His eyes smoldered with rage before he looked up at the man before him. “Is this all?”
“Is this all?”
The couple across from them stared. Aiden felt their eyes but didn’t care. Mathew Sterling’s phone rang inside his coat pocket. He retrieved it and smirked at the number. “It’s the hospital, Mr. Keane.” He took the call as Aiden watched, deciding on how he’d destroy everyone in his path until they brought her to him, starting with the inept detective before him that let her slip away.
Mathew nodded, said a few words, and then hung up. “Sir, that was the hospital. Reverend Johnson is dead. That means Daisy is coming home. And we’ll be ready for her this time. I guarantee it.”
Aiden sat back. He tapped a finger on the table. It was a nervous habit since he parted with his golden coin. Some of the tension squeezing his heart released but not all. She was coming home. He’d be waiting.