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Cale Jackson swore he saw a ghost.
He blinked hard and looked back down the emergency room hallway from outside the big sliding door.
It was Rachel Culver, he realized, and started breathing again. Doctor Rachel Culver, it appeared.
Even once he identified her, he couldn't help thinking she was a striking woman. She was the shorter-haired, serious version of the woman he'd loved. It seemed as if he knew Noelle's twin sister better than he did because Noelle had talked about Rachel so much, with the pride, frustration and love only a twin sister could experience.
Once he recovered from his initial shock, he urged himself forward, helping his partner roll their patient from the ambulance into the hospital. Directly toward his oncealmost sister-in-law, who was too absorbed in her clipboard to notice him.
Even though Rachel's chin-length hair was shorter than Noelle's had been, it was the same shiny golden color. Rachel's current intense, focused expression had seldom been found on fun-loving Noelle's face, but they'd shared round cheekbones, a narrow nose and those eyes .
Rafe Sandoval, who'd recently been promoted to paramedic captain on San Amaro Island, started briefing the triage nurse on the accident victim, who was currently in stable condition, as they walked. They wheeled him toward the room at the end as directed, then transferred him to the gurney. Cale slipped outside to start on the paperwork.
Rachel remained at the nurse's station, her hair tucked behind her ear, attention focused on the papers in front of her. He walked up to the opposite side of the counter and debated with himself whether to call her by her first name or Dr. Culver. Before he could decide, she looked up.
Cale braced himself for the deep blue-green gaze, but still, it struck him like an electric current when their eyes met. Beautiful eyes so achingly familiar they made something inside him twist into a tight coil.
Rachel did a double take and put a hand to her chest. Her face registered shock for an instant before she was able to mask it, and she lowered her hand. Threw on a too-wide smile.
"Cale," she said in a voice reminiscent of Noelle's but lower in pitch and volume. More restrained. Restrained wasn't a word he'd ever used to describe his fiancée.
Rachel glanced at the emblem on his uniform shirt. "I didn't realize you were an EMT."
"I'm still a lieutenant for the fire department most days. We do medical rotations once a month." He wasn't sure why he had to throw in that he was an officer. As if he needed her to respect him or something. Some E.R. doctors tended to look down on EMTs, and he didn't want that to be an issue between them. "And you finished med school. Congratulations."
"I did. Mostly intact, even. I'm living at home with my mom for a while, though, so some days it seems like I've regressed."
"Same thing happened to me whenever I used to go home to see my parents on the ranch. And that was only for a few days at a time."
She frowned sympathetically, but Cale suspected that what she was dealing with, living in a home that was so familiar and yet lacking such a key part of her family, went far beyond the awkwardness of staying at his parents' home as an adult. In fact, if he were honest, it was probably pretty damn similar to the soul-deep melancholy that had come over him the one time since Noelle's death that he'd dared to set foot in the condo he'd bought to share with her.
There was an uncomfortable lull between them. He wanted to say something, to reach out to her, to prolong the moment, but no words came. It wasn't the time or place for a conversation of any substance, anyway. They were connected by tragedy and not much else, but he suddenly had the urge to talk about Noelle like he hadn't since her death. With someone who'd known her as well as he had. Better, even.
Their silence dragged on, and the surrounding din of busy people became noticeable. Now that he was close to her, he could see the shadows under her eyes. Like Noelle, she was barely over five feet tall—she didn't seem big enough to handle this position she'd taken on as an E.R. doctor. Until he noticed the determined set of her jaw. At that moment, he was reminded of Noelle's belief in this woman, and he knew she'd do just fine with her new career. More than just fine.
"Will I see you at the meeting tomorrow night?" he asked, searching for some kind of common ground.
"Planning meeting for the benefit. Maybe your mom hasn't had time to tell you what she's doing yet."
"Ah," Rachel said, fidgeting with her pen. "The asthma benefit. Can't give that kind of time commitment right now, what with the new job and everything ."
The flash of sadness in her eyes was so fleeting that Cale nearly missed it, and then she attempted to cover it up with another forced, wide grin.
He nodded as if he understood, though he didn't. Sure, finally becoming a full-fledged doctor after all her years of schooling and residencies and who knew what else was a big deal. Huge. But to use that as an excuse to skip out on organizing the fundraiser that would memorialize her twin sister? He wondered if there was more to that than just being busy and adjusting to her career. Noelle had told him repeatedly that Rachel thrived on stress and being over-scheduled, jokingly referring to her as her Wonder Twin.
Rafe's voice carried from the exam room, pulling Cale back to his task. "Guess I better fill out these forms."
She nodded briskly. "I need to check on patients myself."
"It's good to see you, Rachel," he said without even considering her title this time.
"You, too." She again flashed a smile that didn't quite ring true and then hurried off down the hallway away from the exam rooms where her patients were likely waiting for her. On her way, she passed several of her colleagues and other hospital workers, and it struck him: not one of them acknowledged Rachel with a smile or a hello. She may have grown up on the island, but it appeared that she'd been away long enough to be the new girl. Between that and her sister's death, she seemed to be truly forging her way alone. Something in him stirred, most likely that part that couldn't keep from intervening when someone was having a hard time.
Rachel barely got the restroom door closed before she puked her guts out into the toilet.
Cale would be married by now. Happily married to my sister. Maybe even with a kid on the way.
And yet she had the nerve to think how good-looking he was. Only for a split second, involuntarily, but still.
Sweat dotted her forehead, and she sank to the cold, sterile floor in front of the toilet. Her head fell back against the tiled wall as her eyes flickered shut.
Coming back to San Amaro Island was turning out to be torture, in multiple ways.
The grant requiring her to work at Southeast Texas General Hospital, the mainland hospital just across the bridge from San Amaro, for three years after finishing her education had seemed like such a good idea at the time. Though her mom, a cardiologist, made good money and had paid for undergrad, she'd insisted that both Rachel and her older brother, Sawyer, pay their own way through med school. Knowing it would take years to pay off her debt even with the grant, Rachel hadn't hesitated. STGH was a reputable small hospital. One where she could begin to make a name for herself in preparation for the day when she could move on to bigger places.
Of course, everything had been different then. Her sister had been very much alive. San Amaro hadn't been full of haunting memories and choking guilt.
Rachel dragged herself up, supporting her tired body on the porcelain sink. Being home didn't have to derail her. She wouldn't let it. There might be moments when reminders of Noelle popped out at her like deadly vipers when she least expected them. Like coming face-to-face with Cale, for instance. But she'd just have to be ready for them. Steel herself and do what she'd always done—focus on her beloved career.
She ran ice-cold water over her hands and splashed it on her face, thankful she hadn't bothered with makeup when she'd come into work hours ago. She fished out a pack of minty gum from the front pocket of her scrubs, unwrapped a stick and shoved it into her mouth. Her reflection caught her attention—she wore death-warmed-over oh-so well.
Out of habit, she pulled her hair back into a pony-tail and held it there, staring at her reflection. Noelle had often worn her hair up in a ponytail and if Rachel squinted, it was her sister she saw gazing back at her now.
Some people might think she was twisted, but she looked for her sister in the mirror frequently. Somehow it comforted her. Made her feel as if she weren't so alone. After several seconds, she dropped her hair, cringing at the dark circles under her eyes. Compared to the nurses who she'd guess were about the same age as her, her eyes looked old.
With a deep breath, she smoothed her scrub shirt and walked out of the restroom, trying to look unruffled. In control. Like she could handle whatever came her way. Medically speaking, she could.
As she turned the corner into the hallway that gave her a view of the nurse's station, she hesitated. Sank heavily against the wall. There he was again—Cale.
He leaned his tall frame over the high counter, filling out some of the endless paperwork that was such a tedious part of both of their jobs. His light brown hair had been lightened further by the summer sun until it was almost blond in spots, and he wore it slightly shaggy and decidedly tousled. His face was rounded, with wide cheekbones and a strong chin. Cale was unquestionably attractive, but it was the caring nature so inherent in his intense green eyes that had sucked in Rachel from the moment she'd met him. She distinctly remembered catching her breath that night more than three years ago at the party Noelle had dragged her to. Rachel didn't believe in love at first sight, but her reaction to him was a testament to instant attraction. And then he'd smiled. When Cale smiled, he went from good-looking guy to hel-lo.
As she watched him from afar, his killer smile appeared as he gave his attention to someone out of her line of sight. Rachel took a half step forward to satisfy her curiosity.
Gena Mathers. Of course. The cutest, friendliest person in the entire hospital. The E.R. nurse everyone seemed to like—Rachel included. Gena had welcomed Rachel her first day on the job, while the other nurses had kept her at a distance.
Gena laughed at something Cale said. Rachel wasn't close enough to hear their words over the constant bustle, but she suspected they were flirting. Gena moved from the far counter to the spot where Rachel had stood earlier, near Cale. He'd apparently finished his reports and was preparing to leave. Before he walked away, back to the ambulance, he touched her upper arm and smiled as he spoke again.
A familiar emptiness gnawed at Rachel and she tried to ignore it. But she couldn't deny it—it bothered her that Cale was talking to, maybe even flirting with, Gena.
Was it that he was getting over her sister, moving on with his life? Or was it because he wasn't flirting with Rachel?
She forced the thought out of her mind. It was totally wrong. Her feelings for Cale were wrong, both in the past and now.
Cale was starting to feel like a stalker by the time Rachel walked out of the hospital the next morning. He'd been sitting there in the early morning sunshine for over an hour, staring at the exit that most of the hospital personnel used, so as not to miss her.
Once again, when she came into sight, he was momentarily shocked by her looks, so similar to Noelle from a distance. As soon as the logic part of his brain kicked in, he recovered and automatically began to inventory the sisters' physical differences. Rachel walked with a whole lot less sway in her hips. Her hair was obviously a different length, and her mannerisms were more precise and economic, whereas Noelle had seemed to flow through life more.
Rachel's shoulders drooped with fatigue. Her blue scrubs were wrinkled, as if she'd camped out in them for several days. For all he knew, she had. Though she was significantly late leaving after her shift, he'd bet she hadn't been chatting it up with colleagues or messing around. Noelle had told him on many occasions what a workaholic her sister was. He got the impression that, on some level, she'd admired Rachel because of it—it wasn't a trait the sisters had shared. He'd liked Noelle's easygoing way. Rachel, at times, put out a vibe of being untouchable, and if he hadn't previously known her outside of the hospital, hadn't seen beyond her all-business shell to the less secure woman beneath, he wasn't sure he'd have the nerve to stake her out now.
He kept his eyes on her as she approached, and when she spotted him, there was a barely discernible instant of hesitation. He wondered if she held something against him specifically, or if that was just more of her don't-bug-me persona. Was it that he reminded her of her sister? Wasn't staying in the house where Noelle had lived a bigger reminder? He didn't care for the idea that he might make her sad.
"Hi," he said as she angled closer, squinting into the already hot June sun. He'd left his sunglasses in his Sport Trac, not planning to be here for this long.
"You're out and about early." She shifted her practical, expensive-looking leather bag from one shoulder to the other.
"Went off duty at seven. Kind of figured you did, too."
"Technically, yes. I wanted to look up some information for a patient." She went on to mention a condition he'd heard of in passing but knew nothing about, seeming to become more comfortable the longer she talked shop.
Cale nodded and tried not to feel dumb. She stopped midsentence, met his eyes briefly, then lowered her gaze.
"Sorry," she said. "Guess I'm preoccupied. So what are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you."
Was that panic or surprise on her face?
He smiled to try to put her at ease, wishing she'd smile back. "Nothing bad. Thought I'd offer to buy you breakfast." He pointed toward the round-the-clock breakfast joint across the street that was usually full of off-duty or on-break medical personnel. Noting her hesitancy, though, he was beginning to lose confidence in his idea.
She stiffened and shielded her eyes from the sun with one hand, managing to hide from him, as well. "I've been up for almost twenty-four hours. That's probably nothing to you, but I'm beat."
He was painfully familiar with the overtired sensation after a long, drama-filled shift. "You still have to eat, though, right?"
"I hadn't thought about it, actually." She placed her hand on her abdomen quickly and looked embarrassed. "That would be my stomach telling me differently."
"I make you uncomfortable."
She shook her head and stammered. "It's just—"
"That's not my intention at all. We were almost family, Rachel. That doesn't have to change because Noelle isn't here." Damn the lump in his throat.
She was obviously debating with herself as she pegged him with reserved, gulf-blue eyes, and he found himself holding his breath, caring too much about her response. Finally, she nodded. "I could use something more substantial than corn flakes."