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Jake Hawkins was back.
The nearly two, long years since she'd last seen him faded away as Allison Pierce leaned against the railing in the elevator and sucked in a long, slow breath, trying to fight off the claustrophobic feeling that threatened to engulf her. It didn't work. Although the temperature outside was in the thirties, sweat beaded her upper lip, and her heart pounded in her chest.
Finally the bell chimed for the fourth floor, and as soon as the door opened, she quickly stepped out into the ICU unit of Webster Memorial Hospital. Her gaze darted around the quiet, ecru-colored corridor as she walked across the teal carpeting toward the nurses' station. There were several nurses bustling around, but none were Margo.
Good. She could leave and her friend wouldn't be angry. Margo was the one who hadn't shown up. Ali started back to the elevator when she heard a voice. She turned to find Margo Wells hurrying toward her. The short brunette hadn't changed much since high school. She was still shapely and cute.
Not like Ali, who was tall and thin, with too curly red hair and freckles, and looked about eighteen.
"Oh, no, you don't, Ali Pierce," Margo cried. "You're not running away from this."
"I shouldn't be here in the first place," Ali argued.
"Wrong," Margo said. "You should have been here two days ago when they brought Jake in."
At the mention of Jake, the fight went out of Ali. "Has there been any change?"
"No, that's why I wanted you here. He's been through a lot the last forty-eight hours. The crash. Being pinned in his car. Exposure to the elements in a freak October snowstorm." Her friend gave her a penetrating look. "And even after all that, he managed to say Ali-cat before losing consciousness."
"An old nickname," Ali murmured, memories flooding her. "Maybe you misunderstood."
The nurse shook her head stubbornly.
"C'mon, Margo. It's been nearly two years," Ali said, more frustrated than before. She wasn't ready to face Jake. Not after all that had happened… "He couldn't possibly want to see me."
The elevator doors opened again, and more people exited. Margo pulled her aside. "Look, Ali. It's only been eighteen months, but that's beside the point. The man has been in a terrible automobile accident, one he probably shouldn't have survived, but he did. He's in a coma, but before he drifted off he said your name, and not just once."
Ali blinked back tears. Darn, she didn't want to cry. She'd shed gallons of tears after Jake left. It had taken her a long time to get over his not coming back to her, but she had. At least she had told herself she had.
"You need to do this, Ali. If not for yourself, then you need to see him for Joanie's sake. He's her father."
Ali glanced around to see if anyone had heard. Margo was the only person who knew the true paternity of her little girl. "Everything I've done this past year has been for Joanie."
"And if you're lucky, you can give her what she needs—a daddy."
"And what will it cost me?" Ali blinked back more tears. Keeping the identity of her daughter's father a secret hadn't been Ali's choice. Jake had left town. Maybe it was her pride, but she didn't want a man who obviously didn't want her. A man who hadn't stuck around long enough to learn the consequence of their night together. Her daughter deserved better.
Margo shrugged. "You'll never know unless you go and see Jake."
Ali gazed down the hall. What would Jake do when he found out about Joanie? "What if he has a wife somewhere?" Darcie was supposed to be married to Jake. The guilt over what happened that long-ago night still haunted Ali.
Margo shook her head again. "Besides his father, you and Joanie are the closest family he has."
"But I'm not family. I can't go in ICU."
"Yes, you can. C'mon, I'll keep watch." Margo started down the hall.
Ali relented and followed. Fear dogged her every step. It would be simpler just to leave things as they were. But she knew nothing was simple for Jake now. She had to do everything possible to help him—if only for Joanie's sake.
When Ali finally entered the dimly lit room, she stopped dead. Her heartbeat was erratic, a stark contrast to the steady rhythm of the machines. She gazed at the metal bed where Jake Hawkins lay. Her feet felt like lead weights when she made her way across the tiled floor. Her pulse pounded in her ears as she reached his bedside.
Managing to fight back her shock, Ali stared down at Jake's still, bruised body. Oh, God, she'd pictured seeing him again in a thousand different ways, but she'd never envisioned him lying so lifeless.
Anguish overwhelmed her. "Oh, Jake!" Her gaze swept over him, noting the ugly lacerations, the bruises on his skin and the bandages that encased his ribs and chest. His left leg was also heavily bandaged, and was elevated by a pulley hooked to the end of the bed. An IV drip sent medication into his veins, and a clear oxygen tube into his nose helped him breathe.
He looked pale, so different from the tan, vibrant man she remembered. She gently touched his jaw, which was swollen on one side where it had taken four stitches to close the gash in his chin.
He appeared shattered and defenseless. Her hand moved to smooth back the short curls that brushed his bandaged forehead. Silk. Black silk. That was what it had felt like between her fingers when she'd held him to her breast. Almost forgotten longing clenched tight in her belly, shocking Ali back to the present.
What was she doing? Fighting a sense of panic, Ali reached for his hand. Don't get caught up in fantasies. Do what you came to do.
"Hey, Jake, it's Ali. Wake up and talk to me. I hear you got caught in a blizzard."
Each word became harder to force past her lips. "C'mon, Hawk." She choked on the nickname he'd gone by in the days when life had been fun and she'd been innocent.
"You have some worried people here, praying for you to wake up. I hear your father's hardly left the hospital at all since the ambulance brought you in. Please don't make him wait any longer."
No response, only the incessant beeping of the monitor, its presence reminding her how close Jake was to dying.
A sob escaped her throat. "Damn it, Jake, wake up." Willing herself to touch him again, Ali gently traced his mouth with her fingertip, hoping for a tactile response. "Do you remember the night we spent together?" She drew her finger slowly across his lower lip. "I've never forgotten how incredible it was between us."
"Please, Jake. Open your eyes. Do it for your father," she whispered. "And for me." Her hands shook. "Do it for your daughter."
No sooner had Ali stepped out of Jake's room than she saw Clifton Hawkins. Surprisingly he looked much the same as she remembered. He was in his midfifties, and his hair was still coal black, though now streaked with gray. There were a few more lines around his eyes and mouth, and he was leaning on a cane.
He seemed shocked to see her at first, then he smiled. "Darcie? Darcie Pierce? Is that you?"
His innocent mistake let her know that she didn't belong here. "Hello, Mr. Hawkins. I'm not Darcie. I'm Ali."
"Of course. I'm sorry, Ali."
"It's all right." She glanced back at the hospital room she'd just come from. "I hope you don't mind… I heard about Jake and I came by to see…" There was a tremor in her voice. What must Jake's father think? "I'm sorry. If there is anything I can do…"
Mr. Hawkins nodded. "Thank you, Ali. Since you've already seen him, you know he's in bad shape." The older Hawkins shook his head. "It's funny. All these years, I've tried to get Jake to come home, and now…" His voice broke. "I had to have hip surgery to do it. Jake took a month leave from the army to come home and run the plant while I recuperate. Now, because of this senseless accident, he might not make it." Jake's father blinked and looked away.
"Sure, he will," Ali assured him, forcing herself to believe her own words. "Jake's strong and healthy. He'll pull through this."
Cliff Hawkins's eyes found hers. "You think so?"
Ali nodded, wondering if she was crazy. Years ago she'd thought Jake invincible. Maybe she still believed it.
The older man took her hand in his. "Please come back, Ali. Jake and I need all the encouragement we can get."
Ali knew that if she agreed, there was no turning back. Not for her. Not for Jake. And not for their daughter.
Darkness surrounded him. Jake tried to move and realized he was unable to, but he could still feel the teeth-clenching pain that tortured his body. A lead weight seemed to press on his rib cage, pinning him down. His leg throbbed. But at least the pain let him know he was alive. He was hurt. Bad.
How had it happened? How had he ended up here? Where was here?
Voices penetrated the pounding pain in his head, fading in and out as he fought to speak but couldn't. When he heard his dad, Jake wanted to cry out, but his mouth refused to obey the command. He tried with all his strength to talk, but he lost. Finally he let the drugging oblivion take him.
Later the voices came again, tugging and pulling him to the surface. It was a woman's voice this time. Her soft, caressing tone lulled him, just as her touch soothed his body. Who was she? Why did her voice, her hands seem so…familiar?
"Well, how did it go?" Margo asked as she joined Ali at the cafeteria table on her break.
Ali pushed back her hair. "Terrible." She looked at her friend. "Tell me the truth, Margo. Is Jake going to survive?"
Margo sent her a concerned look. "I won't lie to you, Ali. It could go either way. That's why it's so important for you to be here. I know it sounds crazy, but you may be a big help. We need to give him the will to fight."
Margo was right; Ali did think she was crazy. Jake hadn't been part of her life, except for their one night together. After that, she'd stopped believing in silly dreams and concentrated instead on raising her child… alone.
But if there was a chance she could help bring Jake out of the coma, she couldn't walk away. A familiar pain gripped her as she thought about Darcie.
Although her sister telephoned almost every week, and despite the fact that Ali had gotten pregnant and had a baby, Darcie hadn't returned home since she left Jake at the altar. She'd gone to New York to build a career. "Maybe we should call Darcie…."
Margo blinked, then reached for Ali's hand. "I'm not a good person to ask about that. You know I've never cared much for your sister. She was self-centered and spoiled. I can't believe you two are sisters let alone twins."
It was equally hard for Ali to believe. Darcie had always been the glamorous one. Though they shared the same green eye color, Darcie's eyes looked richer, larger. Her sister had always known how to do her hair and makeup so she looked as though she'd just stepped out of a photo session. Ali had been plain by comparison. And Darcie's hair wasn't just red, but a beautiful auburn—with the help of a rinse.
There was more of a difference now in their builds, too.
Though both twins had always been slender, since Joanie, Ali's hips and breasts were fuller. From pictures she sent, Darcie still appeared model thin.
"The only good thing Darcie ever did in her life was not marry Jake," Margo said.
"But… he's always loved her."
"If that's true, why did Jake call for you? Why did he ask for Ali-cat?"
Three days later, there was still no change in Jake's condition, but he was able to breathe on his own, and was moved from ICU to a private room. At least now Cliff and Ali didn't have to worry about keeping their visits down to only ten minutes. In fact, the doctors encouraged friends and family to spend time with Jake. They thought that having people around, talking to him, might help him.
Ali had been coming by on her lunch hour from her dispatcher job at the sheriff's office. When she'd arrived this afternoon, she scooted her chair closer to Jake's bed. She fussed with him, touching his arm, brushing his hair off his forehead.
"How do you like your new room?" she asked, glancing around at the peach-colored walls. There was a television high on the wall across from the bed. She glanced back at Jake. "Pretty classy place you got here. Of course, I remember you were a classy guy."
She didn't give up. "Jake, do you remember that time… on the Fourth of July, when a bunch of us kids took off for the lake to watch fireworks? Darcie and I were seniors that year and thought we knew everything. I think Darcie wanted to be alone with you, but you talked her into making a party out of it." Jake had always included her. That had been one of the reasons Ali had loved him so much.
"Anyway, when we got there, that jerk, Jerry—what's his name?—Huddleston. He suggested we all go skinny-dipping."
Ali had been in shock, more frightened than anything else. Flat-chested at the time, she hadn't been about to strip and have everyone laugh at her. She looked down at herself now, thankful she'd filled out some since she gave birth to Joanie.
She leaned close to Jake. "Darcie was so mad when I spoke up and dared you boys to go in the water first. Until I got the other girls behind the bushes and told them my plans to trick you guys. And you all fell for it hook, line and sinker."
She rose from the chair and sat down on the edge of the bed, feeling her face heating up as she recalled what had taken place that night. The room was silent except for the monitor beeping overhead, which echoed the pounding of her own heart.
"Jake, I have a confession." She studied his features for a moment, noticing that some of the swelling had gone down. She reached out and touched his jaw. "When the guys were finally all in the water, I was elected to sneak out and steal their clothes while the other girls distracted them by pretending to be getting undressed. Well… I made it to the tree closest to the water when I discovered not all of the guys had gone in. You hadn't. You were still getting undressed." She drew a long breath and released it. "And I stood behind the big maple and watched you take off your clothes."