As a poor teenager on a scholarship to a private high school, Ethan fell in love with a rich, wayward and rebellious Imogen Howard, but knew he could never tell her how he felt. When she shows up unexpectedly as a patient in the rehabilitative nursing home where he works, everything he once felt for her comes rushing back… but will she ever let down her walls to let him in?
* * * * *
It started off as just another day.
“New one in for you, Ethan,” Marie called out as I strode through the foyer. “I hear she’s fiery,” she added conspiratorially, stage whisper bouncing off every wall. I swiped up the file, scanning the name absently, but didn’t stop to trade gossip. I wasn’t worried; six years of experience had taught me that daredevils with spinal injuries were low on patience and high on frustration.
“Morning Ms Walker,” I said, rounding the door to Room 109. She turned from the window. The blood drained from my face. Her hair was dark and cropped, her surname different; a tiny piercing winked in her nose. Ten years had passed, but I’d have known her anywhere, even with the cruel edges of the black brace around her torso.
“What the hell’s your problem?” In her anger, she slurred her words, but I was in high school again, standing on a cliff edge, deciding whether or not to jump. An ache started in the back of my throat. She still hadn’t recognised me.
“Imogen,” I breathed, heart pounding. She frowned, looking closer.
“Ethan?” Incredulity echoed in her voice. “What the hell are you doing here?” I tried to banish memories of the beautiful golden-haired girl who’d studied with me and then taunted me in the hallway of our high-school. “Physio,” I said, still shellshocked. She’d always had that effect on me. I thought of her long legs beneath her uniform hem, the schoolyard rumours of a phoenix tattoo, and struggled to reconcile it with this sullen, dark-haired pixie. “Why are you here, what-” I waved my hand, trying to encompass the nursing home, her injury, my shock in one simple hand gesture.
Her face shuttered closed. The change was so marked and so rapid, my head spun. “I had an accident – a motorbike in Germany.” She forced herself to carefully shape each word, face twisted with frustration. “They shipped me back here to rot. I’m trapped like an old woman because,” she clenched her fists, “they refused to recommend in-home treatment.” The temperature in the room seemed to drop another few degrees.
“I’m sorry,” I said, as gently as I could. I stepped nearer as pity swept through me and the terrifying and exhilarating edges of the cliff beckoned again. “I know…” I hesitated, thinking of the aggressively carefree teenager who’d lost her mother as a child. “I know it’s hard.”
Imogen smacked the mattress with her fists, face twisted with rage. “You have no idea how I feel!” I flinched and she smiled savagely. “What, it’s tough to have a filthy cripple who isn’t just soooooo grateful for your help?” I ground my teeth, and ratcheted her bed up, forcing her to sit taller, then dragged the wheelchair closer. She recoiled, jaw clenched at the sight of it. “Don’t make me go anywhere in that,” she said. Despite her forcefulness, I could hear the tinges of fear at the edges of the demand. “I don’t want anyone to see me. My life is over and I’m not even thirty.” The last words were a whisper, and I forced myself to release the tension in my shoulders.
“We don’t have to go anywhere,” I said and wheeled the chair back. She nodded and slumped back into her pillows, her breathing ragged. As she moved, the neck of her shirt gaped. A glint of gold shifted against the pale skin.
“Just leave, Ethan, please,” she said slowly, defeated by the reminder of her own frailty. Her eyes fell shut and a fine-boned hand lifted to the chain. I turned towards the door.
I remembered her wild, furious lashing out in the hallway, the bullying once our assignment was done. But more, I remembered hours spent hunched over books together; the way it seemed so easy, being with her and the way her skin seemed translucent beneath the lights; the tiny freckles decorating the bridge of her nose. I thought of her shy smile when we were studying alone.
I turned back.
Her eyes were still shut. Lying between her fingers was my mother’s pendant. The room was suddenly airless. “Mum’s locket,” I said, feeling stupid even as I said it. Imogen opened her eyes and froze, a wave of red suffusing her from chin to hairline. She tangled her fingers in her lap and looked away.
“I took it,” she said, tears welling. “I shouldn’t have, but I knew it was your mum’s. And I missed mine, so damn badly.” She sniffled and managed a watery chuckle. “I even started using mum’s maiden name when I turned eighteen.” She brought her gaze up to meet mine. “You were so quiet and kind. You were so sweet. I loved you and I hated you because it scared me. I stole it because I was alone.” A sob shook her. She hiccoughed. “It made me feel loved,” she whispered. The cliff edge fractured beneath me, my heart aching for the wild, motherless girl she’d been and the scared, lonely woman she’d become.
Imogen dragged her hand underneath her nose, scorning the tissues next to the bed. Her disdain for them made me smile; she choked on a sob. “Don’t you laugh at me,” she said, jerking her head up and glaring at me with bloodshot eyes, “don’t you dare-”
“Imogen,” I cut her off, “I loved you too.” I let myself fall, feeling the rush of wind whistling in my ears, my stomach jumping into my throat as I plummeted into the unknown. “I do. Still.”
Her eyes were wary, her face cautious and I summoned a shaky smile. It was like approaching a wounded animal. “Imogen. Please. Let me help you.” She bit her lip, searching my face as though looking for something she’d loved once. I let her search, and forced myself to wait.
A tentative smile blossomed and she reached out to touch her fingertips to mine.