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Tara Wharton lifted her sister's hand from the hospital-bed mattress and rested it on her own palm. Faye's hand was pale and limp, the nails bluish, lined with dried blood and, worst of all, cool to the touch.
That alarmed Tara more than the tangle of IV tubes, the click and whir of the machines, or even Faye's face, with its purple bruises and bloody stitches.
Faye's hands were always warmcomforting as a hug to Tara as a child. Tara traced the beauty marks on the skin between Faye's thumb and forefinger that formed the shape of the Big Dipper. When she was six, Tara had joined the dots with a felt pen while Faye napped before her prom. Her sister hadn't noticed until the boy had handed Faye the wrist corsage. Faye had burst out laughing, which had thrilled Tara.
Once, when Tara had been unfairly sent to her room, Faye's hands had taught Tara the game cat's cradle. When Tara woke from nightmares, they'd traced words on her back until she drifted off against her sister's sleep-soft body.
When Tara needed stitches after a skateboard fall, Faye's hands had squeezed hers so tight Tara hadn't even felt the needle.
Years later, when Tara cried over Dylan, Faye's hands had dried her tears. Tara hated to cry. Crying was weak.
When Tara lowered Faye's hand to the sheet, she saw her sister's knuckles were wet. How ? She touched her own cheek and found that tears had escaped her eyes. Not good. Not with all she had to handle.
"You can't die, Faye," Tara said, her entire body tight with urgency. "The doctors have done all they can. Now it's up to you."
What a stupid thing to say: Now it's up to you. As if Faye weren't already trying with all her might to wake up. She'd had a second surgery to relieve the pressure on her brain from the accident.
Two measly brain surgeries wouldn't keep Faye Wharton down. Faye was indomitable. Faye was amazing. For Tara, who'd rarely seen or spoken to her parents since she left for college ten years ago, Faye was family.
"Please wake up, Faye. Please." The possibility that her sister might die poured through Tara like molten metal, dissolving her insides, making her want to collapse to the floor in wild despair. She didn't dare. She had to stay strong and alert. She had to watch and listen and analyze.
Because something was not right. She'd known when her brother-in-law, Joseph, had called her. There's been a car accident, he'd said in a near monotone. Your father was killed. Faye's in the hospital. They don't know if she'll make it.
Every word had raised more hairs on Tara's scalp. It wasn't his tone. Joseph Banes was Chief Financial Officer at Wharton Electronics, third in command after Tara's father and Faye. He preferred numbers to people, so he always sounded flat.
It wasn't even that he'd waited nearly two days to reach her at the Fairmont in San Francisco, where she'd been meeting with her newest, most important client.
It was more subtlea hesitation, a breath held a microsecond too long, a shade too much tension in his voiceand it made her instincts flare.
Her ability to read people had been the key to her success as a corporate consultant, and had given her the nerve to break out on her own eighteen months ago.
Tara rubbed her eyes. The tears hadn't eased the gritty sensation. She was fuzzy with exhaustion after the 5:00 a.m. flight to Phoenix. She'd rented a car and driven to Tucsonthe closest hospital to Wharton, Arizona, the town that had grown up around her family's electronics companyarriving midmorning.
Why had Joseph waited to call? He'd explained that they'd been frantic. Joseph Banes did not get frantic. Neither did Tara's mother, who prided herself on her calm dignity. She was what passed for royalty in Wharton, and took her role seriously.
Maybe he was being passive-aggressive. He had to know that Tara had tried to talk Faye out of marrying him three years ago, as it further shackled Faye to Wharton Electronics, ending forever her dream of studying art.
But why hadn't her mother called? That hurt more than Tara wanted to admit. Despite the strain between them, wouldn't her mother have reached out to her? If not for mutual comfort, at least because she knew how close Tara and Faye had been?
Where were Joseph and her mother? Tara had been here nearly two hours and neither one had appeared. Withhold judgment. Assume good intentions. Those were ground rules when she facilitated meetings between hostile employee groups. The least she could do was practice what she preached with her own family. They were suffering, too.
Being in Wharton would not be easy, she knew. It would bring back all the hurt she'd felt, bring her face-to-face with family she'd disappointed and hurt in return. She'd have to face the mistakes she'd made, the regrets.
Already, the last conversation she'd had with Faye filled her with remorse. It had been three weeks ago. Faye had mentioned she might want to hire Tara to consult with Wharton Electronics. The words had been casual, but Tara had picked up tension in her voice.
Instead of leaving silence for Faye to fill with her deeper intentions, Tara had been glib, joking that she'd be too pricey for penny-pinching Joseph to sign off on.
What had Faye said exactly? We 're going through a transition. That was code for money troubles, Tara knew from experience with her corporate clients.
We fired the factory manager. I'm not sure that helped, but I'm too close to it. Your professional eye would help.
Tara would have been honored to work with Faye. Thrilled. Her father might have been an obstacle, but for Faye's sake, Tara would have cleared the air, done what needed to be done for the job.
After that, Faye had said, I miss you. It's been too long, which startled Tara, since Faye was as restrained as their parents.
Embarrassed by the rawness of her own feelings, Tara hadn't said what she feltI miss you, too. I need to visit. Instead, over the lump in her throat, she'd said, Get Joseph to write me a check and I' ll be there in a heartbeat.
I'll see what I can do, Faye had said, but her laugh had been hollow, her tone wistful. Why hadn't Tara really listened?
What if those were the last words Tara ever heard from her sister? Panic surged, but she fought it. She needed to stay calm and clearheaded. On top of that, she had the webinar tonight with the makeor-break client she'd had to abandon in San Francisco. The continued success of her new company depended on how she performed with Cameron Plastics. There had been opposition to hiring hera general distrust of consultantsso her abrupt departure at the start of the meeting had put the job in jeopardy.
That had to wait. Faye was all that mattered right now.
She looked around. Faye's area, separated from the rest of the busy ICU by a beige curtain, seemed so desolate, the only furnishings medical equipment. Tara had had to leave the flowers she'd broughtpeonies, Faye's favoriteat the nurses' station. Too many bacteria for the fragile patients in intensive care. Rita, one of the nurses, had said she could bring a photo and tape it up for Faye to look at when she woke. If she woke. The thought made Tara tremble so hard her teeth rattled.
The curtain rings sang as Rita breezed in. The sight of the trim black woman with kind eyes and a wide smile cheered Tara. She'd been in every fifteen minutes to check on Faye.
"How you doing?" she asked, glancing at Tara as she took Faye's temperature.
"I'm fine. How's Faye?"
"Let's just see." Rita performed the neuro check, running a flashlight across Faye's eyes, pressing her skin with the point of a safety pin, then gripping her hand. "Squeeze, baby," Rita said to Faye. "Do that for me now."
Tara held her breath, staring at her sister's pale hand in Rita's brown one, waiting for a twitch, a quiver, a flicker of life, but her sister was as still as the death that stalked her.
Rita put down Faye's hand, then turned to go.
"She could wake up any time, right?" Tara asked.
"She could." There was a hesitation in Rita's voice.
"Or " Tara swallowed hard. "We could lose her."
Rita didn't answer.
"How does she compare to other patients with similar injuries?"
"I'm in ICU as a vacation fill-in, so I can't really say." The despair Tara felt must have shown on her face because Rita added, "She's made it this far. She's a fighter."
"She is." Tara's heart swelled with pride. Faye had always been strong and brave. Surely that would save her. "What can I do to help? Bring in music? Read to her? Isn't that good for coma patients?"
"Once she makes it out of ICU," Rita said. "Long as it's good music," she added sternly, clearly joking to cheer Tara up. "She'll likely end up on my floor and I have my standards."
Tara went along with the joke. "I'm not sure what she's into now, but when she was a teenager, she liked the B-52s Fine Young Cannibals Madonna U2. How's that sound?" As a little girl, Tara used to copy moves from MTV videos to practice with Faye, who'd been an uncoordinated teenager.
Rita made a face. "That's nasty. Better bring headphones."
Tara laughed, praying Faye would make it to a room, even if it were to torture Rita with bad music. She felt a rush of gratitude and lunged to her feet to give Rita a quick hug. "Thanks for taking such good care of her."
Rita's mocha coloring deepened. "No need to fuss over a person just doing her job, which I need to get on with right now." Rita hurried off and Tara turned back to Faye.
She looked so small, so still, so beat-up. Sadness built to a huge crashing wave Tara knew she wouldn't be able to hold back. She turned to go, to find the privacy of a bathroom, just as a man stepped in. Dylan.
"Tara?" He seemed to read her face, then opened his arms.
She went straight into them and burst into tears, muffling her sobs against his shirt, breathing in starched cotton, feeling the familiar comfort, the safety of Dylan's embrace. He rubbed her back, palms pressing hard, easing the muscle cramps she got when she was upset. He remembered.
If Faye was her family, then Dylan Ryland had been her home.
They'd been so close, so in love. Until they weren't.
As the sadness ebbed, she realized how stupid this was. The first time she'd seen him in ten years and she bursts into tears in his arms? How clingy. How weak. She'd done the same thing years ago, when he'd told her he wasn't coming with her to college.
Ashamed, she broke away. "Sorry." Then she saw she'd left a wet blotch and streaks of mascara on his crisp blue oxford. "I ruined your shirt."
"Forget it." He whipped a tissue from the box on Faye's tray and held it out.
Tara took it and wiped his shirt, aware instantly that his chest was broader and more muscular than before.
He stopped her hand, his palm warm. "That was for you. My shirt's fine."
"Oh." She looked at him. He was as handsome as evermaybe more so. His skin was the same golden-brown, his hair chestnut with glints of blond. He had the same ready smile and smoky gray-green eyes that used to make her catch her breath when they looked at her.
Her breath caught now. Startled, she stepped back, wiping her cheeks with the tissue, scrubbing under her eyes for the rest of the mascara, wishing he'd stop staring at her.
She felt a warm glow, that tight feeling down low, that ticking awareness of him as a man, of her as a woman. It jangled her nerves, already in turmoil from sadness, worry and the humiliation of sobbing in his arms.
"It's good to see you," he said softly.
The glow flared into a steady flame, warming her, softening her, tightening her, too. What was wrong with her? This was no way to feel. Not here. Not now. Not ever really.
It's good to see you, too. She couldn't deny that, but she didn't have to say it out loud.
Looking closer, she noticed changeshis cheekbones and jaw were more defined, his eyes more knowing. There were laugh lines outlining his strong mouth. He'd been more boy than man at eighteen. Now he was all man. All man.
The thought made the flame shoot through her like the adrenaline of sudden danger. She had to get control. "What are you doing here?" she asked more abruptly than she intended.
"I was in Tucson on business and I wanted to touch base with your mother." He glanced past Tara at the bed where Faye lay. "How is she?"
"The nurse says she's a fighter," Tara said, her voice cracking. "Sounds like the standard buck-up-the-family speech, doesn't it?"
"Faye's a strong person," he said firmly, as if that would be enough to save her. Tara hoped it would be. He studied Faye for a long quiet moment, as if sending her healing strength. It made Tara feel less scared.
"How are you holding up?" He looked at her the way he always had, searching, missing nothing, his gaze piercing but tender. He'd understood her without words. As a teenager in the throes of first-love, she'd been wild about that, basked in it, adored it.
Now it made her feel naked vulnerable.
"Oh, I'm a fighter, too," she said, forcing a smile. She didn't want him to see how frightened and small and sad she felt.
"You are," he said. "I remember." There was tenderness in his gaze, and delight, and the same flare of attraction she felt. Ten years later. How strange.
"My mother's not here"
The curtain rustled and her mother and Joseph stepped in. "So you came," her mother said archly to Tara, eyebrows lifted.
The insult stung, but a retort died on Tara's lips at her mother's appearance. Her eyes were puffy, her usually flawless skin blotched and her blond up-do was smashed on one side. Her cashmere sweater bore a coffee stain. Rachel Wharton didn't step onto her terrace for the paper unless she looked ready for the cover of Town & Country.
Pity surged through Tara. "I'm so sorry, Mom." She lurched forward and hugged her mother. The woman went rigid. This was not Wharton family protocol, but Tara didn't give a damn.
Her mother's body felt frail, as if her bones might snap under any pressure. Tara released her and smiled, trying to hide her alarm. Her mother's eyes were too shiny, her pupils too large. She'd taken something.
Her mother had always taken pillspills to wake up, pills to go to sleep, pills to cheer her, calm her or distract her. Bubble wrap against emotion.
Tara used to raid her mom's medicine cabinet to give pills to her friends or to sell them for cigarette money. She wasn't proud of that. Being angry, lonely, sad and hurt didn't excuse her actions. Dylan had changed her. Sometimes it had felt like he'd saved her.
"They limit us to two visitors at a time," Joseph said to Dylan, no animosity in his tone. Joseph was gaunt, almost shrunken, his receding hairline prominent against his pale forehead, which was lined with worry.
"I'm leaving," Dylan said, not reacting to Joseph's brusque words. "I wanted to reassure you about the funeral, Rachel. I've arranged for the band students to be bussed to another high school."
"Thank you so much," Rachel said. "I'm sorry you had to intervene. Abbott spent three years on that school board. He should not have to beg to use the auditorium."
"It was no trouble. Part of the job."
"The job?" Tara blurted. What did Dylan have to do with the high school and her father's funeral?
"I'm the Wharton town manager," he said to her.
"You're kidding! You don't work for your dad anymore?"
"I work with him still, yes. But I'm also town manager."
"Wow," she said. "Wow." Twenty-eight seemed young for that kind of responsibility, but Dylan had been a student leader in high schooltop grades, all-around good guy her total opposite.
"For heaven's sake, don't sound so amazed," her mother said. "You've practically insulted the man. I apologize for my daughter's rudeness, Dylan. You do a great job even part-time."