Read an Excerpt
Matthew Cook's breath crystallized in the cold mountain air as he stepped onto the wooden porch of his house to greet his sister and three-year-old niece. Winter had come early in Leavenworth, Washington. Snow had yet to fall, but the thermometer had dropped twenty degrees overnight.
April pulled her daughter, Ava, from her car seat, and set her on the driveway. "Hey there, little brother. Long time no see."
Matthew gripped the railing tightly as he stepped down the icy wood stairs. He should've thrown some sand on the slick steps. "How was your drive?"
"Stephens Pass was clear and traffic was light, so no complaints."
He pulled her into a bear hug. After releasing her he squatted down to his niece's level. "Hi, princess. Can Uncle Matthew have a hug?"
Ava looked up at her mother.
"It's okay, honey."
Ava gave him a quick, shy hug then slipped her hand into April's.
"She's going through a phase," his sister explained quietly. "Don't be offended. Once she warms up to you, you'll wish she thought you were a stranger." She grinned, walked to the back of her Subaru Forester and opened the trunk.
"Think you got everything?" Matthew teased. "Looks like you brought the whole house."
"If it would've fit, I may have. Two months is a long time to have to pack for a three-year-old. Now help me bring all this stuff inside and stop griping." She grinned and playfully nudged him.
"Bossy, bossy." Matthew reached for the top bag. "I'll take care of everything. How about you and Ava go inside and warm up." He slipped a backpack over one shoulder and lifted their suitcases. April and Ava climbed the steps side by side. It'd be nice to have at least part of his family here over the holidays. "Be careful on the stairs, they're"
Little Ava squealed as her foot skidded off the step. April reached out to steady her on the slippery surface leading to his front porch. Arms flailed and bodies tumbled.
Matthew rushed forward to help, but before he took two strides April and Ava were in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. He dropped the luggage then knelt beside them. April's shoulder jutted out at an unnatural angle, and she groaned.
Tears flooded Ava's eyes, and she began to wail. April just lay there, not seeming to notice her hysterical daughter. "It's okay, Ava," he said. The child looked uninjured by the fall. He picked her up and held her close until she calmed.
Her little body shuddered. "Mommy?" She leaned toward April, who still lay on the cold concrete in a daze.
"We need to take Mommy to the doctor. Let's get you back in the car."
"Yes. But the doctor will make her all better." He put Ava into her car seat and stared at the straps. Now what?
Ava slipped her arms behind the shoulder straps and clicked a plastic thing at her chest.
He spotted what looked like a seat belt. With fumbling fingers, he attempted to snap it in place. After several misses, it finally clicked, securing his niece. "I'm going to get your mom now."
She nodded with big blue eyes. "'Kay, Unca Matt."
Matthew grinned. No one called him Matt, but coming from this blue-eyed little cutie with dark blond curls framing her sweet face, he didn't mind. He rushed to his sister's side.
April's pain must have just registered, because her breath came out in short gasps, and tears streamed down her face.
"Hold on, sis. We're only a few minutes from the medical center." He helped her up and gently eased her into the passenger seat of her car, then buckled her seat belt and fished through her purse for her keys. She never said a word. Yep, she was hurtingno one had ever been allowed to touch the contents of her purse and not get yelled at.
He adjusted the seat and mirrors to fit his nearly six-foot frame and backed out. He never dreamed having April and Ava come to stay would be so eventful. Hopefully this wasn't a sign of what was to come. He spotted their luggage still sitting in the driveway and considered stopping, but no one would bother their stuff.
"Don't tell Rick. He'll worry, needs to stay focused," April said through gritted teeth.
Matthew frowned. "I won't say a word." His brother-in-law had shipped out in June for a yearlong tour of duty.
Matthew pushed the speed limit, thankful ice hadn't formed on the roads.
He stopped at a red light and then made a right. Two minutes later he pulled into Cascade Medical Center. He undid April's seat belt then opened the back door to retrieve Ava. She was already free of the car seat and held her arms out to him. He chuckled and swept her up.
"Matthew I don't feel so good," April said. Then her knees buckled and she collapsed onto the cold, hard ground.
Holly Miller steeled herself against the head nurse's wrath. For the second time this week, she'd written something down wrong.
"This isn't a game, Miss Miller. You make a mistake and someone can pay with their life. Do you understand?"
"Yes." Holly's voice came out weaker than she'd hoped. She knew firsthand how a mistake could cost a life.
"Good. Now get back to work. If I catch another error it will mean your job."
Holly nodded and refused to give in to the burning in her throat. She had to be more careful to check and recheck her work. This time it'd only been an inverted date, but next time it could be someone's medication dosage. Maybe becoming a nurse had been a bad decision. Noshe'd graduated at the top of her class. Yes, she had a problem with reversing numbers once in a while, but all she needed to do was slow down.
Holly took a few deep breaths before checking the paperwork for her newest patient. The woman had been brought in unconscious and with a possible dislocated shoulder. She was undergoing X-rays at the moment, but her husband sat with their daughter in the exam room. Holly picked up a clipboard with additional forms and walked over to the man. "Sir, if you'd fill this out while your wife is in X-ray that would be very helpful."
He took the clipboard without looking up. Frown lines creased his forehead. The poor man was probably worried sick. The little girl snuggled deeply into the crook of his shoulder, causing him to struggle to balance the clipboard.
The patient was wheeled back into the room looking a little drowsy. Good. The pain meds were kicking in.
Holly's favorite doctor came into the room, shook the man's hand and turned to the patient. "I'm Doctor Evans. I'll take good care of you, April. You have a dislocated shoulder and a sprained wrist. Just try to relax, and I'll have you fixed up in no time."
A few minutes later he asked April's husband and child to go to the waiting room.
Holly assisted the doctor, focusing on the woman's shoulder as she held the hand of her uninjured arm. Holly spoke quiet words of encouragement.
"This will only take a moment."
April caught her breath when the doctor jerked her shoulder back into place. A low groan escaped her lips.
"All done. You did a good job, April. I wish all my patients were so brave." Doctor Evans typed something into the digital chart. "Please take her to the casting room to have her wrist wrapped. And give her a sling." He looked to April. "Be careful now. I don't want to see you back here for any new injuries." He wagged a finger and offered a smile.
April nodded. "I'll do my best. Thanks."
Holly helped April to stand and get situated in a wheelchair. "Nice and easy now. How you doing?"
April grimaced. "Never been better."
Holly grinned at the patient's dry sense of humor. She pushed the woman down the hall to the casting room and made sure her patient was comfortable before leaving.
"I'll see you when you're finished. I'm going to get your family now."
Holly found the husband and child in the waiting room. "April is getting her wrist wrapped, then she'll be all set to go."
The man stood and handed her the paperwork.
Holly focused on it as they walked together, making sure there were no errors and that every line had been filled in. Head down, she scanned the paper. "There are a few blank lines." The last thing she needed was Nurse Ratched on her case again. "If you'll follow me I'll take you to your wife and you can finish filling this out."
She lifted her eyes and met the man's gaze. Did she know him? He looked familiar, but she couldn't quite place him.
"It is you. Sorry." He shook his head and held out his hand. "Matthew Cook. We went to high school together."
Holly's brain struggled to catch up, then she remembered the pimple-faced guy who'd sat behind her in math their senior year. She'd turned him down for prom. Guilt at her shallowness knotted her stomach. How could the teen boy she'd known turn into such a good-looking man? He certainly wasn't acne-faced anymore. His deep blue eyes looked unnaturally vivid against his fair complexion and blond hair. If she remembered correctly, he'd been a wrestler in high school, and from the look of him now, he could take down the best.
"This is Ava, my niece."
Niece? "Oh, my goodness. April is your sister. I didn't recognize her." It had been close to eight years since she'd seen April. She'd been Holly's older sister's friend, but Jessica and April hadn't hung out at their house much.
April must have lost forty pounds since Holly had last seen her. She'd cut her blond hair short, but now that she knew who April was, Holly couldn't believe she hadn't recognized her. "April must think I'm rude."
"I doubt that. She was in too much pain to think about much of anything. She didn't recognize you, either." He shifted his niece to his other arm. "April and Ava are spending November and December with me. She didn't want to be alone for the holidays while her husband is serving overseas."
"My sister, Jessica, is married, too, and lives in We-natchee. She's a dental hygienist, and loves her job." She'd have to give Jessica a call and let her know April was in town. "I can't believe our paths have never crossed. Of course, I've been out of town attending nursing school until recently."
He nodded. "It's really great seeing you again. Maybe we could get coffee sometime."
Matthew held his breath after he spat out the invitation. If only he could, he'd snatch back the words. Would his high school crush agree to coffee or turn him down again? He watched a series of emotions play across her face as she hesitated. She was more beautiful now than she had been back then. Her auburn hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and her green eyes shone bright. He had no business asking her out. She'd said no to prom and she'd for certain say no again.
He'd heard she was back in town, but this was the first time he'd run into her. Clearly they didn't run in the same social circles. Of course, one needed to have a social life to have a circlewhich he didn't have, since the bakery consumed his life.
A man wearing a rehab department name tag stepped between them. "Excuse me, Holly. Do you have a minute?" He took her arm and drew her away without waiting for a reply.
Matthew watched Holly's alarm turn into a smile. Whatever the man said, it must have been good news. Matt gave the intruder a once-over. His dark good looks and swagger irritated Matthew. Is that the kind of man Holly went for? He'd noticed she wasn't wearing a wedding ring, but by the look of things, she might have a boyfriend. The two seemed rather cozy for coworkers.
Holly gave the guy a quick hug before walking back over to him and Ava. "Sorry about that."
She handed him a piece of paper and explained the continuance of care instructions. "You mentioned that April is staying with you. I assume that means she doesn't have a local doctor."
"She can schedule an appointment at the front desk for a follow-up."
He folded the paper and thrust it into his back pocket. "Is April ready to leave? I thought she might need to stay for observation since she passed out."
"There is no head trauma. The doctor believes she passed out from the pain."
"That makes sense. About coffee "
"Right." Holly drew out the word. "I appreciate the offer, but I'm going to have to pass."
"I understand." At least he thought he did. It was only coffee, but if she had a boyfriend, he could see why she'd say no. The rejection smarted nonetheless.
"We gave your sister painkillers to help make her comfortable. She will probably sleep a lot, too." She handed him another sheet of paper. "Here's a prescription for something to help with the pain."
"Okay. I'll take care of it. Thanks."
Somehow he managed to get his sister and Ava secured in the car and then stopped at the pharmacy in the village without further mishap.
When he pulled into his driveway, April was asleep beside him, and Ava was nearly asleep. He lifted the child out of the car seat, carried her inside and laid her on the couch.
She grasped his face between her little hands. "You get Mommy?"
"Yes. Right now."
"Good." She patted his face. "I love you, Unca Matt."
"Love you, too, princess. Stay right here for a minute. I'll be right back with Mommy." He placed a kiss on her forehead and went outside for his sister. Snow had begun to fall and the luggage he'd left on the driveway earlier was sprinkled with white powder.
He pulled open April's door and frowned. How was he supposed to get her inside? He could carry her, but risked bumping her arm or slipping on the stairs. There didn't seem any way around it, he needed to wake her. "April," he said softly.
She didn't budge.
He looked over his shoulder just in time to see Ava's feet go out from under her. She bounced down the steps on her bottom. When she got to the concrete her eyes were huge, and her fingers were splayed. She puckered up, then she burst into laughter.
Dear Lord, I could use a little help. He had no idea his sister and niece would be such a handful and they'd only just arrived. He shuddered to think what the next two months would hold.