She took one breath. It was a gasp, full of fear, full of surprise, and then her hand reached out before her body collapsed right as my heart about stopped beating.
I already knew that Clara wasn’t just an annoying piece of my puzzle that wouldn’t fit into my life, but this confirmed it. She wasn’t just a piece.
She was the whole puzzle.
My whole life.
I hadn’t been ignoring her in the SUV to work, I’d been planning how I was going to grovel and make her mine for good up in the mountains. I might have hated the way she infused her color into the black-and-white of my life and hotel, but I loved hating it.
Proving that to her didn’t matter in those moments though.
When the person who lights up your world has their life dance with death in front of you, the reaction is catastrophic. I crumpled with her into the snow as I caught her before she hit the ground. It was only seconds that her eyes fluttered closed, only seconds of loss, but they were the most important seconds of my life, the ones that imprinted on me forever, tattooed the feelings on my heart, and solidified that I’d never let her go.
She tried to brush it off as she came to and said she was going to the doctor this coming week, but I’d already called 911. I sat in the ambulance, helpless, as they checked her vitals, as they went over her prognosis saying something about Raynaud’s syndrome on top of lupus. I squeezed her hand the whole time.
Now, sitting in that hospital room, I wondered if she knew the risks she’d taken, if she was aware how fragile a life could be. Maybe I hadn’t been aware either until that very moment.
“Your person to contact in case of emergency, Ms. Milton is—”
“Me,” I cut off the nurse.
She glanced tepidly at me and then Clara. “And is he your—”
“Future husband,” I finished before Clara could clarify.
Her eyes narrowed like she wanted to fight me, but she didn’t when I waved to the nurse to get the paperwork. She was in a hospital bed and not supposed to be dealing with any of these things right now. “Some of her paperwork is in the system, but we’ll need an updated medical history as it looks like you’re from Florida?”
“I am,” Clara confirmed, but when the nurse left the room, she crossed her arms. “Stop telling people that!”
“Because we weren’t even together and we broke up.”
“Hm … I don’t recall being broken up when I fucked you on Valentino’s table.”
Her eyes flicked to the door of her room. “Dominic, now’s not the time for your mouth and—”
“I was there when you fell and fainted, okay?” I closed my eyes tight for a second, reliving how it felt like she could slip through my fingers now, how I had to make sure she didn’t. “I’m here now. I need you to let me handle this, because I know maybe your family didn’t in the past, maybe you’ve felt like an afterthought or undeserving or like an idea, Clara. But to me, you’re not. You’re my only thought. Does that make sense? Let me have you for real now, okay?”
Her mouth opened once, then she snapped it shut. Another nurse came in during the silence and so it went. She smiled at the doctors giving her updates, nodded at the nurses, and even let them talk over her a few times when they asked about her symptoms.
I tried to let her handle it for the most part. A whole day of them doing it, and then they said she needed to stay overnight as they ran tests.
When she slept, I fielded updates from the doctor. “With her kidney damage, we most likely will be diagnosing her with lupus nephritis.”
The doctor sighed. “A kidney disease that can potentially lead to kidney failure, dialysis or a transplant could be—”
Were they aware of the amount of stress these visits could induce? “How can you check if I’m capable of being her donor?”
“The risks are quite high.” He frowned at me.
“I’m aware. The risks are quite high of losing her, and without her, I lose myself. Schedule the tests for me.”
When she woke, I was shown again how Clara was stronger than most gave her credit for. And she navigated most situations with more grace than I ever could. She balanced me with it, made me see the world had more to give if I allowed for it. Yet, sometimes, I balanced her too.
The doctor was there again, asking about the loss of blood in her fingers.
“I’ve had numbness in my fingers before, probably on and off with the rashes for three or four years but I wasn’t diagnosed then and I just didn’t—”
“You just didn’t what?” The doctor’s tone was condescending, out of place, and definitely out of line.
I cleared my throat and glanced over my glasses as I closed my laptop slowly. My voice came out low. “Watch the way you speak to my future wife, doc.”
“Excuse me?” he stuttered out.
“She may be sweet, but I’m not. I have no problem putting you in your place.”
“You do realize I’m the head doctor in this—”
“I don’t care at all who you are. Don’t make me report the way you talk to patients.”
That shut the fucker up. He apologized and explained that if her symptoms were showing years ago, her kidney function had probably also been declining then. When he left, Clara chided me, “Dominic, he’s probably tired. It’s petty to say you’d write in a complaint. What if he lost his job for that?”
“He just might. I do my job well, and I expect others to do theirs well too.” She sighed. And later that night when her mother and sister requested a visit, I finally stood up. “Absolutely not.”
She glanced at me like she was considering it, and then I saw the little fighter in her come out. “What he said.” There she was, brilliant and beautiful. “I don’t want to see them. I’m not sure how they even found out.”
“Right.” I considered if the press had found out something. “And we’re done here, actually. I want private nursing set up at home. And that’s it. A doctor’s visit once a week,” I commanded.
The nurse explained, “Oh, you can’t just request—”
“This is a Hardy hospital, correct?” I was willing to throw my name around now.
“Um, yes.” She shrugged like the name didn’t matter.
“I’m Dominic Hardy. So, tell your management what I requested and get it done. Or the management of your management, aka me will start having people fired.” Her mouth hung open for a minute too long, so I commanded, “Now!” before she left the room.
“Jesus, Dominic. I can’t live with you,” she whispered, and when I turned to her, I took in her beautiful red strands of hair and her freckled face where the makeup had been worn away.
“Why the hell not? You already were.”
“Right, but I’m—” She waved at herself. “I’m a freaking burden now.”
“A burden?” I shook my head at her. “Clara, I’m taking you home. You tell me who you think the burden is then.”
She wrung her hands most of the time and stayed quiet.
Before we got out of the SUV though, I grabbed her hand. “If there’s something you don’t like, tell me, okay?”
She squinted at me. “Okay?”
I didn’t elaborate.
She’d understand soon enough.