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I'll see one more patient and then that's it for me for the next week — I'm on vacation as of midnight. So what's up?" Dr. Reid Walker asked the emergency room nurse he was working with.
"We only have one patient left, period," the nurse responded. "Second week of October, first snowstorm of the season, icy roads — she slid into a telephone pole just outside of town. She says she's fine but the air bag deployed and you know police policy around here — when the air bag inflates, they bring 'em into the E.R. to be checked out no matter what the vehicle occupant says. Her name is Chloe Carmichael."
Reid stopped short at that. "Say the name again."
"Chloe Carmichael," the nurse repeated. Then, without noticing the effect that particular name was having on Reid, she said, "I'll release our flu case, hopefully you can wrap up the car accident, and we're clear. Next shift will be in any minute. They can handle anything that comes in after this, and we're both outta here."
Reid didn't respond as the nurse left him. He also didn't move. Instead he stayed where he was, just outside the counter that surrounded the area that staff referred to as the fishbowl, where medical personnel convened to talk, pick up charts, get supplies and do paperwork.
The emergency room of the only medical facility in the small town of Northbridge, Montana, had just four rooms branching out from the fishbowl. Two of them were dark and unoccupied. Reid had just left the third after informing a girl from Northbridge College that she could relax, she wasn't pregnant and had only a case of influenza. Which left the fourth room the only possibility for the location of his next patient.
Sunday night, 11:45. It was a hell of an end to the weekend. A hell of a beginning to his vacation.
Still, Reid didn't budge. He glanced across the fish-bowl to Room 4.
The lights there were on. The wall facing the fish-bowl was glass above the cupboards where gowns and necessary equipment were stored in each of the triage rooms. The privacy curtain wasn't completely pulled around the bed and there, in the small gap left, he could partially see the patient.
But partially was enough.
She was sitting up in the bed, dressed in a hospital gown, appearing none-the-worse-for-wear given that she'd just been in an automobile accident. Looking better, in fact, than the last time Reid had seen her.
Fourteen years ago.
She'd been seventeen.
He'd been eighteen.
It seemed like yesterday.
Her family had moved to Northbridge when she was in elementary school. They'd lived a few doors down from the house Reid's family owned, the house where his mother still resided. The Carmichaels had lived there until fourteen years ago when they'd left town abruptly. They'd rented the house out ever since. A few months ago it had gone up for sale, and Reid and his brother Luke had put in an offer on it. Rental property in a college town was a good investment. Even if it was still connected to Chloe Carmichael.
Reid and Luke were about to close on the sale of the house she'd inherited from her parents. But Reid had been told that the Realtor would be acting as Chloe Carmichael's proxy because she didn't want to return to Northbridge.
So what was she doing here? "Oh, good, you haven't gone in to see the other patient yet."
The nurse's voice caught him by surprise. Reid had been so lost in his own thoughts he hadn't been aware that she'd rejoined him.
"You were going to write a script for birth control pills so our college girl doesn't have any more pregnancy scares," the nurse reminded him.
Reid finally glanced back at the nurse. "Birth control pills. Right. Good invention."
"I think so," the nurse agreed in a puzzled tone of voice.
Reid didn't explain himself. He merely filled out and signed the prescription and handed the pad back to the nurse.
But even once she'd left him alone again he remained where he was, returning to his study of the room he was supposed to be going to.
The room where Chloe Carmichael awaited him. She still had that wavy, licorice-black hair. Only as far as he could tell from his limited view, it was shorter now, ending just below her shoulders rather than falling to the middle of her back.
She still had the most flawless porcelain skin he'd ever seen — he could tell that even through the scant gap in the curtain. The softest, smoothest skin he'd ever touched.
She still had the straightest nose. The most luscious pink lips. And despite the fact that he couldn't see them because she was looking down at the bed, he had no doubt she also still had the biggest, bluest eyes....
No, those fourteen years hadn't harmed her any. They'd only made better what he'd thought was perfect before.
And just like that Reid flashed back to one of the last times he'd seen Chloe Carmichael — the beginning of the end for them....
It had been a night in early summer, in the front yard of that house that would be his and his brother's very soon. The house he and his mother and the town minister had been thrown out of. The house he'd been banned from. The house Chloe Carmichael had had to sneak out of to talk to him.
The memory was so vivid. The memory of cupping the soft skin of her beautiful face between his hands. Of kissing warm lips and tasting the salt of the tears that had brimmed from those eyes.
"I don't care what they say, this isn't the end of us. It's only the beginning. I'll make sure of it," he'd told her that night.
Big words. A lot of bravado. All for nothing. Nothing but misery. "What are you doing?" the nurse's voice intruded again. "I thought you wanted to get this over with so we could go home. But here you are. Are your feet glued to the floor or what?"
Reid didn't respond as the nurse entered the center of the fishbowl to do the paperwork that went with the release of the college girl.
He merely continued staring across the distance at the patient he was supposed to see. The patient who wasn't just another patient.
The patient who was Chloe Carmichael.
And it astounded him suddenly that that was all it took — her name, a glimpse of her, knowing he was about to come face-to-face with her again — to make old feelings spring to the surface.
Old, ugly feelings.
And plenty of it.
Even after all these years... * * * "Dr. Walker will be in to see you soon...."
The nurse's words rang in Chloe Carmichael's ears as she nervously plucked the hospital bedcovers into pyramids.
She wanted to hope that the Dr. Walker who was to examine her was from a different Walker family than the one she'd known growing up. The Walker family who had been her neighbors. Her friends. One of them more than just her friend.
But what were the odds that the Dr. Walker she was slated to see was a different Walker than the Walkers she'd known?
Not great, she thought.
At least the Walker family she was familiar with had been a big one. Five kids — Reid, Luke, Ad, Ben and Cassie. Cassie — the one girl.
Maybe I'll luck out and Dr. Walker is Cassie Walker — a woman doctor. All the better...
But while Chloe wouldn't be thrilled with being examined by Luke, Ad or Ben if one of them was the Walker who had become a doctor, she just hoped it wasn't Reid.
Please don't let it be Reid...
It was bad enough to be back in Northbridge, let alone in the emergency room there. But to be waiting for a doctor who might be Reid?
Just please, please, don't let it be Reid... Northbridge and Reid.
The place she was afraid she could never come to again without feeling embarrassed and ashamed.
And the man who had grown from the boy she'd had to hurt.
Northbridge and Reid Walker and shame and embarrassment and pain and remorse — no, not a chapter in her life she wanted to revisit.
And she hadn't thought she would have to.
When her parents had been killed in a boating accident eleven months earlier, Chloe had inherited the house they'd all lived in in Northbridge. The house her parents had employed a Realtor to rent out since they'd all hurriedly left the small town.
But Chloe hadn't wanted any part of anything connected to Northbridge or her past and so, after considering the financial aspects of selling the place, she'd finally decided to do it.
The same Realtor who had handled the house as a rental property had put the place up for sale, assuring Chloe that selling the old house could be accomplished without Chloe's personal appearance in town. Which had been the plan.
But once the Realtor had buyers, she'd called. There was some furniture, some clothes, some Carmichael belongings packed in boxes in the attic. Did Chloe want it all sent to her?
Chloe had considered it. She'd even looked into the cost of having it brought — sight unseen — to Arizona. But the cost was substantial and since she was unsure what she would want to keep and what she would merely throw away, it seemed unwise to bring everything to Tucson only to toss it out there. She needed to go through the things herself before paying to have anything shipped to her.
So she'd resigned herself to making this trip. She'd intended to slip into Northbridge, do what needed to be done at the house and slip out again, not attending the closing. No more than a few people would ever know she had been back where the events of fourteen years ago had been the talk of the town.
But now here she was, brought in by a police officer, her rental car in need of towing after being smashed into a pole. That was a commotion that would never go unnoticed in Northbridge. That was a story that would be told. And repeated. And repeated. Along with the fact that Chloe Carmichael had been behind the wheel.
That was certainly not slipping quietly in and out of Northbridge's back door.
The curtain that was pulled most of the way around the bed opened just then and Chloe's eyes shot from the pyramided covers to the person who had thrown it wide.
She didn't need to read his hospital badge to know who he was, even though he'd changed considerably since she'd last seen him. She would have recognized those staggeringly handsome features anywhere. After all, the younger version of them had materialized in her mind's eye more times than she could count in the last fourteen years.
"Reid," she whispered more to herself than in greeting. He took it as a greeting, though, and responded in kind, "Chloe.