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"Dr. Randall? Dr. Elizabeth Randall?" Pulling her focus from the patient chart in front of her, Elizabeth Randall snapped her attention to the tall man next to her. Anger simmered beneath her calm facade as she took in his brown hair and strong jawline covered with a hint of a five o'clock shadow. Under any other circumstances, she might have found the stranger attractive. Not now.
"Yes. I was wondering when you'd get here."
It was about time someone from Child Protective Services showed up. Mario Martinez-Alvarez had been at Agnes P. Kingfisher Memorial Hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, just under two hours waiting for a caseworker to appear. The child's black eye and broken ribs had not been caused by a simple fall from a high chair. Mario's stepfather had been taken into custody and the mother had yet to be found.
Unlike some, Mario would recover, but each time a young innocent victim came through the hospital doors, her heart broke at the injustice. Children were precious. A gift from God that some people took for granted.
Not Elizabeth. Her fingers tightened on the pen in her hand until it became painful.
"Excuse me? You know why I'm here?"
"Of course. The boy has been transferred upstairs. Dr. Harris is his attending now." After signing her name, Elizabeth closed the chart and turned slightly so she could rest against the nurses' station. She took in the man's casual clothinga dark blue Phoenix Fire Department T-shirt and jeans. In all her experience with CPS caseworkers, she'd yet to come across one dressed so casually, who didn't carry a briefcase or at least a notebook or day planner of some sort.
Maybe she'd been hasty in her assessment. "You are with CPS, aren't you?"
Uncertainty clouded his blue eyes as he shifted his weight. "No, I work for the City of Phoenix Fire Department."
"Oh. Sorry." Elizabeth softened her tone, feeling guilty for letting her bad day affect her work. It wasn't his fault her adopted daughter, Jordan, had developed another infection at her IV site. Crossing her arms, she gave the man her full attention. Concern furrowed the lightly tanned skin on his forehead. "How may I help you then, Mr .?"
"Blake Crawford. Blake William Crawford."
He spoke his name as if she should know him. He looked vaguely familiar now. If he worked for the fire department, it was quite possible she'd seen him bring in a patient or two, but they'd never been formally introduced. She'd remember meeting someone like him.
She grasped his extended hand, surprised to feel a slight connection. She shook it off as fatigue.
"Dr. Elizabeth Randall. But you knew that. I'm afraid I'm at a disadvantage here."
"I need to talk to you about my daughter."
"Your daughter?" No female children had been brought into the E.R. today and she'd already met the fathers of the few who had come in over the past week. None of them were Blake Crawford. "I don't believe I've met your daughter. When was she brought in?"
"Then I'm afraid I can't help you. Have you spoken to her pediatrician?"
"I have no idea who her pediatrician is. She doesn't live with me." He ran a hand through his short, cropped hair as his gaze darted around the area before it returned to her. "She's with you."
Elizabeth felt the blood drain from her face and she forgot to breathe. That meantimpossible. Nobody knew the identity of Jordan's biological father. Not even her. She gasped, trying to fill her lungs with air.
A few doctors and nurses milled around the nurses' station, watching them with interest as they waited for new patients to arrive. Elizabeth wondered if she was being set up. She glanced at the nurse behind the desk. Lidia busied herself with some paperwork and refused to look up. That was it.
This had all the makings of a great April Fool's Day and birthday prank.
No one got through their special day in the E.R. without some sort of recognition. At least they hadn't sent a singing telegram like they had with Dr. Kennedy, or worse like they had with Dr. Emory. But this was cruel. Especially with Jordan's precarious health. Someone would get a good talking to when Blake fessed up. "Which one of my coworkers put you up to this?"
"No one put me up to this. This isn't a prank." He reached out to her, but stopped short. "I have every reason to believe my daughter is living with you."
One by one, her coworkers took off in various directions without so much as a word. Dread pounded in her veins. The hard edge of the counter bit into her back, so Elizabeth adjusted her position. But nothing seemed comfortable as long as the man who believed he was her daughter's biological father remained in her view with expectation written in his eyes.
Until she figured out if there was any real truth to this story, this was one conversation she did not want her coworkers to hear. Rumors and gossip blew through the hospital like an out-of-control dust storm, and she didn't need Jordan hearing the news and getting her hopes up. They had enough to deal with already.
"Come with me." Gently taking his arm, she led him outside the E.R. toward the towering mesquite tree where the administration had placed a wrought-iron bench in memory of her late husband, Dr. Thomas Randall. Tom. The love of her life. She could sure use his guidance right now because sitting there with another man who claimed to be their daughter's biological father didn't feel right, but her only other choice was the noisy cafeteria at lunchtime.
She motioned for Blake to sit yet she remained standing. Folding her arms, she watched him hunker down and wedge his elbows against his knees. A horn honked in the distance and the constant thrum of traffic blended in with the coo of the pigeons as the sunlight glistened off the palm trees lining 92nd Street.
"What makes you think your daughter is with me?"
"Does the name Tessa Pruitt ring a bell?"
Tessa Pruitt! "Should it?"
"Yes. She was the mother of my child."
Panic churned the coffee in her stomach. No one else knew the name of Jordan's birth mother. Not even Elizabeth's best friend, Susie. This wasn't a joke.
But Tessa had told Elizabeth she didn't know who Jordan's father was. Why had she lied all these years?
Elizabeth yearned to sprint away from the madness surrounding her. Run until her lungs burned and her muscles screamed in protest. But she couldn't. She had a job to do and a daughter to care for. Elizabeth's stomach lurched as she sank down on the bench next to him and covered her face with her hands. "Tessa was one of my best friends. But what makes you think you're her daughter's father?"
"She sent me a letter." Blake turned his head and studied the tall, thin woman with short, dark, wavy hair wearing light blue scrubs printed with colorful crayons and a lab coat. Her long, delicate fingers cradled her face, hiding it from his view.
What was she thinking?
He'd had a week to come to terms with the knowledge he was a father. Apparently he'd blindsided Dr. Randall with the news. She probably thought she'd get to keep his child. Tiredness swept over him and he ran his hand across his face. Last night's paintball marathon with his old high school buddy, Eric Stevens, was best left to the teenagers they used to be, not thirty-somethings who should know better. Blake paid the price today.
An ambulance pulled out from the overhang by the E.R. doors. A Scottsdale team, not Phoenix, but it didn't matterthey shared a camaraderie nonetheless. He nodded to the driver as he went by. Coming to see Dr. Randall at work probably hadn't been the smartest move, but he had no other contact information.
He had to see for himself if there was any truth to Tessa's story. From Dr. Randall's stunned reaction, his ex-wife's words were true. Hope surgedthe girl was his only remaining family member. Despite his fears about parenting, he wanted to meet this child and be a part of her life.
Blake stood and scratched the back of his neck as he paced the dusty-brown earth in front of the bench. Brittle mesquite beans crunched under his feet. "You know Tessa died three months ago."
"Yes, from a ruptured brain aneurysm. We always remained friends even though she decided med school wasn't her thing after her first year." A tear slid down Elizabeth's cheek.
"Yeah, med school wasn't my thing, either." Blake reached out, but stopped short of wiping the moisture away. He didn't like the effect this woman had on him. He hadn't had a reaction like this since Tessa. And look where that relationship had ended up.
A moment of silence lingered between the two.
"It's not for everybody." He watched Elizabeth dry her cheeks and regain her composure. "The last time I saw her was right after Christmas two weeks before she died. I knew something was wrong. Her forgetfulnessor spells, as she called themhad become a lot more frequent and her headaches much worse. But she blew off my concerns and focused more than usual on Jordan, as if she suspected something. If only I'd known."
"It wouldn't have mattered. Tessa lived by her own rules. When she made up her mind about something, no one could change it." He tapped his thumb against his jean-clad knee. Something didn't add up. Dr. Randall didn't know him, or anything about him, and yet his child was with her. Tessa had always had a secretive side to her and liked to play games. Apparently nothing had changed.
Blake reached into his pocket and pulled out the letter from his ex-wife. It weighed only an ounce, but felt like a ton. The cryptic knowledge it contained had changed his life completely last week, as it would the woman's sitting next to him. Tessa's words on the crisp linen stationery days before her death bound them together.
He handed her the envelope. "Here. This will explain things."
He'd learned of Tessa's death through her attorney a week ago. Sadness burned the blood in his veins. The grief he'd seen on countless faces as an EMT and fireman for the Phoenix Fire Department clouded his vision. Gone. Dead. He'd loved her, or thought he'd had, but in the end, they were just another statistic.
Unsure if his legs could carry his weight, Blake sat back down next to Elizabeth, making sure to keep as much distance between them as the bench allowed. As she pulled out the paper, he wedged his elbows against his knees, and stared down at an ant carrying a huge crumb, reminding him that struggle was everywhere in life.
He attempted to fill his lungs with much-needed air. As he squeezed his eyes shut, an image of Tessa appeared behind his lids as it had every day since he'd learned of her death. Her long, mocha-colored hair contrasted with her milky-white skin. Her warm, generous smile and chocolate-brown eyes along with her positive outlook on life had shone a ray of hope into the darkness consuming him.
His inability to allow anyone to get really close to him had caused him to blow the best thing that had ever happened in his life.
Now all that remained was a child that he had no idea how to be a father to. He'd better learn quickly. And Tessa had made sure the woman sitting beside him would help. That must be why she'd left his daughter with her.
"I don't understand this." Elizabeth stared at him, shock registering in her light blue eyes as she inhaled sharply. Her fingers strangled the stethoscope around her neck until her knuckles gleamed in the bright April sunshine. The moisture gathering in her eyes added another layer of depth to her character, and it rocked him.
"My ex-wife was obviously pregnant when we split up. She had a child and decided not to tell me until after her death."
"She said she didn't know who the father was. She never told me she'd been married."
"We never told anyone. It didn't last long enough." Remorse filled him.