Daniel wasn’t sure how many ways he could say it, but he tried again. “I don’t know a Nicholas Smith.”
The woman on the other end of the line somehow persisted. “But this is Daniel Diaz?” She rattled off his number.
Daniel took the cell phone from his ear for a moment to glance at the screen. It definitely said Carleton University. Was this some student prank? Did people even make crank calls anymore? He said, “Yes, that’s the correct number, but there’s been some mistake.”
“But you are Daniel Diaz, aren’t you?”
He sighed. “Yes, but as I said, I don’t know a Nicholas Smith.” Ugh, he just wanted to get home so he could pack and get back on the road. He was actually taking an honest-to-God vacation. With his new, maybe-could-be boyfriend. Which might be a complete disaster. Stomach tightening, he pushed away the unease as the woman spoke again.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, but he’s one of our students. He’s had an accident. Your name and number are listed as his emergency contact.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. I have no clue who this guy is.” He switched his wipers to the next setting, the rubber squeaking a little faster as it cleared the wet snow on the windshield.
Traffic crawled along the slushy 417 toward Kanata, a sea of red lights in the December darkness. Normally Daniel came home after eight and missed rush hour. He usually would’ve ignored the call while driving, but at five kilometers an hour, he figured he was safe. He really needed to get Bluetooth set up, but most of his communication was by text anyway, even for work. These days the only person who called him was his mother—
“Shit,” he muttered with a sinking sensation, gripping the steering wheel, the heated leather warm under his fingers.
“Uh, excuse me?”
“Sorry. It just hit me. Is this Cole Smith? Our parents were married for, like, five minutes. It was a million years ago, but a few months back my mom mentioned he was moving to Ottawa. Grad school, or something.”
“Yes, Nicholas Smith is enrolled in our master’s degree in environmental engineering.”
“Why the hell would he put me down for his in-case-of-emergency person? We haven’t talked in years.” He did the math. “Ten years.”
“Well, I’m not sure. But he’s been taken to the hospital, and it’s policy that we inform his emergency contact. That would apparently be you, Mr. Diaz.”
The woman didn’t sound that worried, so it couldn’t be a big deal, but… “He’s okay, right? It’s not anything serious?” He barely remembered nerdy, knobby-kneed little Cole, but he didn’t want anything bad to happen to the guy.
“All I know is that there was an accident, Nicholas was injured, and an ambulance was called. But, no, I don’t believe it’s a life or death situation. However, the campus is closing now for the next three weeks, and I imagine Nicholas’s classmates are already gone. Yours is the only contact number we have.”
Shit, fuck, fuck. As the traffic came to a complete standstill, he closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“I guess it’s up to you whether you go to the ER or not.”
Daniel groaned internally. He still had to pack and finish up a couple of hiring reports, even though the office had just closed for the holidays. “God, I hate hospitals.”
“Doesn’t everyone, Mr. Diaz?”
She had a point, and guilt attacked like a punch to the gut. “Which hospital?”
Of course it was back the way he’d come, and the next exit would take a good ten minutes to reach in the bumper-to-bumper procession. After hanging up, Daniel quickly dialed his mom. She answered on the third ring, and he said, “Hey, Mom. Look, I got a weird call to go to the hospital.”
“What? Are you sick?” Her voice squeaked out at a pitch close to something only dogs could hear.
“No, no. I’m fine. Mom? Listen to me. I’m a hundred percent fine. It’s about Nicholas Smith. Is that your ex’s son?” Not that “ex” narrowed it down. He added, “Cole?”
She sucked in a breath. “Is he hurt? What happened?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m on my way. Carleton called me because he had an accident on campus. Do you know why he would have put me down to contact?”
“Because I told him to, darling. He doesn’t know anyone else in Ottawa.”
“Uh, he doesn’t know me either! I haven’t seen him in forever.” Not since the rebound marriage between Daniel’s mother and Cole’s father predictably imploded after only six months.
“Of course you know him. He’s family. Oh my goodness, what do you suppose happened? Please let him be all right.”
“I’m sure he’s fine. Don’t get worked up.” He pushed the heat button on the Audi’s dash, turning it down. “And Mom, he is not family.”
“You don’t divorce children, Daniel.”
“You got that from Clueless, didn’t you?”
She huffed. “Regardless, it’s accurate.”
Daniel wasn’t going to argue with her about it. “How’s Puerto Vallarta treating you?”
“Divinely! I’ve already had four mango margaritas and it’s not even dinnertime. I wish you could come down, sweetheart. It doesn’t seem right spending Christmas without you.”
“Mom, you know I’ll see you in the new year. Besides, it’s a girls’ trip with your friends. No men allowed, remember?”
“Yes, true. And at least you’re actually taking time off work—although I know you wouldn’t if you had your way. Thank goodness Martin believes in work-life balance. You need to learn from your boss, sweetie.”
Martin Bukowski, the CEO of AppAny, insisted on being called by his first name, wore flip-flops in Ottawa in January, and had installed a massive tube slide between the floors of his headquarters. The work itself—creating apps for small businesses—was actually rather staid. Lots of back-end web development and whatnot. But Martin was determined his company would be edgy and cool, with playgrounds for offices, flexible work schedules, and a staff with a median age of twenty-five.
“Speaking of work-life balance, Cole is a lovely young man. Assuming he’s all right, and pray that he is, maybe you could spend some time with him in the next few months? I’m sure he’s been lonely, on his own in a different city.”
“I barely have time to see my own friends, let alone some dude I don’t even know.” He finally reached the off-ramp and circled around to get back on the highway heading into Ottawa. At least there was less traffic going that way.
“As I always point out, you work far too much.”
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Mom, I have to hang up now. I can’t talk and drive. I’ll let you know what’s going on with Cole as soon as I can. Love you.”
“Love you too, my darling.”
He’d heard it a million times that he worked too much, but she didn’t understand how important his job was to him. Not many twenty-eight-year-olds made HR director. Granted, he was one of three HR directors working under a VP at AppAny, but it was still an accomplishment.
So what if he worked damn hard? How was that a bad thing? And he was taking a vacation, wasn’t he? At the last minute, even!
Daniel thought wistfully of the hot tub waiting. It was outdoor and boasted a view of the mountains and the frozen lake. Mont-Tremblant in Quebec already had a couple feet of snow, and it would be perfect to cuddle up in the steamy water with a glass or three of merlot. Oh, and Justin. Right.
With a mix of excitement and trepidation, he thought of free and spontaneous Justin. He was so handsome, with his strawberry-blond hair, blue eyes, and mouth that didn’t quit—in more ways than one. Daniel usually preferred to make plans well in advance, but Justin loved the thrill of doing things on the fly. So Daniel had rented a whole chalet for them last-minute thanks to a cancellation. He could be fun too, damn it.
“It’s going to be great,” he muttered. “CYC.”
It’d been his friend Pam who’d pleaded with him to accompany her to a self-help workshop called CYC: Change Your Cadence. Of course he’d flatly refused at first. He tried to keep Sundays completely free to cook and watch all the mindless TV he’d recorded. Crowding into the Kanata Best Western ballroom with a bunch of unhappy people and paying a hundred bucks to some con artist who promised to change their lives was not appealing in any way, shape, or form.
But tears had glimmered in Pam’s eyes as she’d whispered that no one else would go. She and her wife, Christine—make that ex-wife now—had lived in the condo next to Daniel’s rental, where he’d lived for a few years before moving into his new house.
Pam had always been so stoic and practical, the yin to Christine’s flighty, over-emotional yang. When it fell apart, Christine took custody of most of their friends in the divorce, and at thirty-three, Pam had found herself starting over.
Daniel had never seen her cry before, so of course he’d gone with her. The guru was an ex-Marine sergeant from the States who’d made a new career for herself after being shot in Afghanistan and then abandoned by her loser husband in the same month. Her philosophy wasn’t exactly groundbreaking—if what you’ve been doing isn’t working, try something different—but her delivery captured people’s imaginations.
As the other attendees, mostly women but some men, had hopped and twirled and even crawled over the burgundy-and-gray-checked carpet during one of the exercises, literally changing their cadence, Daniel had sat straight-backed in his chair.
Yet Sergeant Becky’s message had permeated his consciousness—he still hadn’t ruled out brainwashing—and later, after the workshop was over, he found himself often attempting to CYC.
Like with this trip.
He wasn’t sure how much he and Justin had in common, but cuddling up together in the hot tub in Mont-Tremblant would be his chance to find out. Before CYC, Daniel would never have agreed to go on a date with someone as…exuberant as Justin, let alone go away with him for a week. And he’d definitely never date anyone in the staff group he managed. Luckily, Justin was under one of the other directors.
Besides, Justin had been so enthusiastic about Daniel, obviously into him and not ashamed to show it. How long had it been since anyone had been interested in that way? It’d been way too long since Daniel have even been willing to attempt a relationship.
Wonder what Trevor’s doing for Christmas.
Grimacing, Daniel tried to banish the memories, acid flooding his gut. He’d simply been too busy to date the last few years. Okay, six years. But he was changing that, wasn’t he? CYC. He’d committed himself to doing things differently, so that was that.
He jabbed a button on the steering wheel with his thumb and turned on the radio, an obnoxiously cheery Mariah Carey Christmas song filling the car. He lifted his thumb to change the station, then left it to prove to himself how open-minded he was being.
Justin had pursued him relentlessly at the office over the past month. He worked for AppAny’s marketing department as a graphic designer and was fresh out of art school. Justin’s attention was flattering, and although Daniel had put him off time and time again, he couldn’t deny it was fun to have someone flirting with him. Of course Daniel insisted they keep it strictly professional at the office.
Except for when Justin had blown him in the Audi in the parking lot the previous week.
Usually Daniel could manage his own sexual needs quite handily—so to speak. But it had been an extra-long day and the lot was almost empty. Justin had smiled so prettily and practically begged to go down on him. Daniel hadn’t been able to resist. CYC and all that.
They hadn’t even actually kissed, but now they’d have a whole week at the chalet to get to know each other. After Daniel dealt with this Cole situation. He took the exit for the hospital, the blue and white neon H on the main building beckoning. What if Cole was really hurt?
“Fuck,” he muttered. It was the last thing he wanted to deal with right then, but obviously he had to at least make sure his former stepbrother was okay.
He took a ticket from the machine, the mechanical arm lifting to admit him to the visitor parking lot. The concrete hospital was brightly lit against the dark sky, and Daniel shoved his hands in the pockets of his knee-length Burberry coat. The temperature hovered around the freezing mark, which was balmy for Ottawa in December. He hadn’t had to bust out his Canada Goose jacket yet, but he’d bring it to the mountains.
As he walked up to the ER, sirens approached, and by the time he neared the door, he was blinded by red lights and had to jump out of the way as paramedics shouted about a GCS of twelve and a head lac and wheeled in a bloody man on a stretcher.
Daniel followed in the stretcher’s wake, stopping in the fluorescent-lit enclosure of the gray waiting room, where a chorus of coughs greeted him. One woman, who was hacking up a lung by the sounds of it, jiggled a wailing baby on her knee. A drunk-sounding man spoke too loudly, evidently to himself, the chairs next to him empty despite the mass of people in the small space, some leaning against walls.
Disinfectant seared Daniel’s nostrils, but not enough to cover the stench of—yep, horribly pink vomit being mopped up in the corner. Sad little red and green Christmas decorations hung from the reception desk; one end of the garland trailed onto the floor. A brown-edged poinsettia sat in front of the clerk’s computer.
Daniel didn’t want to touch anything.
A middle-aged woman with a brunette dye job that showed an inch of gray at the roots glanced up as he reluctantly approached the desk. “Can I help you?”
“Yes. I’m here to see Cole Smith? Nicholas, I mean. He was apparently brought in by ambulance this afternoon.”
She tapped her keyboard. “You’re family?”
To avoid red tape, he nodded and told a big, fat lie. “He’s my brother.” Working in HR, he knew just how long it could take to deal with privacy regulations.
“He’s in curtain seven.”
Daniel exhaled. “Does that mean he’s okay? Since he’s not in the operating room or whatever?”
“Uh-huh. He’s just fine.” She read from the screen. “Broken hand. Mild concussion. He’ll be ready for discharge.”
Thank Christ. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome. Go through the double doors to the right.”
Another child’s wail joined the baby’s. Daniel shuddered. “Is it always like this?”
The woman smirked. “Only on a full moon. Fa-la-la-la-la.”
Daniel gave her a smile and followed her instructions, pushing through the doors and into the ER itself, where another reception desk sat. The doors shut behind him with a whoosh, mercifully dulling the cacophony. A young woman looked up, and Daniel asked, “Curtain seven?”
“Take your first left and look up for the numbers.”
In the long, narrow room, machines beeped and someone moaned behind their curtain, but it was mostly still. He felt like he suddenly had to tiptoe, his leather loafers silent on the linoleum anyway. Some curtains were drawn, while others were open, revealing patients on stretchers.
Electrodes dotted the sunken chest of one older man. A silver-haired woman who was likely his wife sat in a plastic chair beside him, gripping his hand. She glanced up as Daniel passed, and he gave her what he hoped was a sympathetic smile. She returned it, then looked back to the man, who snored lightly.
Curtain seven was drawn, and Daniel stood there for a few moments. There was nothing to knock on, so finally he cleared his throat and said, “Uh…Cole? Are you in there?”
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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