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"Time for the second shift to take over, Mrs. Hamilton. You're officially off duty." Chris slipped into the hospital room and wrapped one arm around his mom's slim shoulders, shoulders that felt too fragile to carry the weight that had been put on them recently.
Nora lifted her head and smiled at him. A genuine smile that momentarily eased the tired lines in her face. "Chris. I didn't think you'd be able to come by this evening."
"I talked to Jason and rescheduled my training. Thanks to all the times you've fed him supper, he owes me." Chris kept his voice low because he could tell his dad was asleep. "How has he been today?"
"The same." The words came out with a ragged sigh and Nora's smile faded. "He did wake up a few hours ago, muttering orders."
Chris thought that might be a good sign. As weak as his dad was, he'd be more concerned if Wallace wasn't trying to run Hamilton Media from his private room at Community General Medical Center, where he'd been transferred recently following a bone marrow transplant in a Nashville hospital. Just when he was feeling well enough to be released, a low-grade fever had weakened him enough to keep him at Community General longer than they'd anticipated.
"I'll be here if he wakes up again," Chris promised softly. "Go home for a while, Mom."
Maybe a few hours of rest wouldn't completely erase the tiny creases that fanned out from the corners of his mother's eyes, but Chris figured it couldn't hurt, either. Nora had been incredibly strong during the past few months after Wallace was diagnosed with leukemia. Several rounds of chemotherapy hadn't been successful and finally Dr. Strickland, the oncologist in charge of Wallace's care, told them that only a bone marrow transplant could save him. Everyone in the family had been tested and none of them had been a match. Still, Nora had held up under the strain as the search began for another donor.
In a time span that convinced them of the power of prayer, a donor had been found and the transplant had taken place. Now it was just a matter of time — waiting to see if the transplant would be successful.
Nora's faith and encouragement had kept them all going. The compact leather Bible she was holding in her lap was a permanent fixture in the room, giving them all strength and comfort when they needed it. But now...
It wasn't the bluish shadows under his mother's eyes that worried him. It was the shadows in her eyes. They'd appeared when Chris's older brother, Jeremy, had walked out on them and abruptly resigned from his position at Hamilton Media. Wallace had decided it was time to divulge a family secret and the bomb that he'd dropped — that Jeremy wasn't his biological son — had rocked the entire family. To make matters worse, in the midst of all the turmoil, his youngest sister, Melissa, had taken off for parts unknown with her boyfriend.
At a time when the tough fabric of family should have held them together, it probably felt to Nora, with her caring mother's heart, that they were being torn apart.
And he didn't know how to help her.
In fact, it seemed to Chris that he didn't know how to help anyone. Even using his contacts at the police department, he hadn't been able to find Melissa. And he certainly couldn't do anything to keep Hamilton Media going. Tim had stepped in and taken over as CEO while his sisters did their part to keep things running smoothly. All he could do was sit in the chair next to his dad's bed and make sure his mother remembered to eat and sleep.
As if she read his mind, Nora gave his hand a squeeze. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
Chris forced a smile and bent down to brush a kiss across her temple. "I'll call you in a few hours."
"I used to scold Melissa for calling you Officer Bossy, you know," Nora said, a faint glimmer of humor in her eyes. "Now I understand why she gave you the nickname."
Hearing his baby sister's name, frustration surged through him. Melissa must have known that her disappearance would only be another burden for Nora to carry. He'd done enough "search and rescue" missions with Melissa when she was floundering through her turbulent teens to last a lifetime. Not that he'd stop trying to find her now, even though she was an adult.
Maybe he didn't always feel like he had a lot in common with his family, but he'd give his life to protect them.
"If Vera Mae lets me in the kitchen, I'll make you and Jason a carrot cake," Nora said, returning the Bible to the nightstand. She knew he'd read it later.
"I'm not sure you can do that in your sleep."
"I can't sleep," Nora said simply. "But I do need to make some phone calls and take care of a few things at home."
When she stood up, Chris hugged her, wincing when he realized his suspicions were correct — she'd been wearing loose-fitting clothes so no one would notice she was losing weight.
"You can make us a carrot cake if you promise me you'll eat half of it," Chris whispered in her ear.
Nora chuckled. She knew she wasn't fooling him. "Maybe just a slice."
After she'd left, Chris took her place beside the bed. He still hadn't gotten used to seeing his dad look so vulnerable. The chemo and the effects of the transplant had ravaged Wallace's lean, aristocratic features, leaving his skin pale and waxy. For Chris's entire life, his dad had been a force to be reckoned with. When he'd gathered his courage as a high-school senior and told him he was going into law enforcement, the silence that greeted his announcement was more deafening than if Wallace had yelled at him. He hadn't tried to change his mind, but Chris had felt an invisible wall between them ever since.
He'd take their awkward conversations any day over none at all.
"Get better, Dad," Chris murmured. "You can beat this."
Tammy Franklin, the floor nurse, peeked in and waved her clipboard at him. "I'm glad you convinced your mother to go home for a while. I've tried three different times today."
"Mom can be stubborn."
"Mmm." Tammy pretended to consider the statement. "I'll bet that trait doesn't run in the Hamilton family, does it?"
Chris grinned. Tammy could get away with teasing him because she'd been involved in Wallace's care from the beginning. His older sister,Amy, had told her once that they were going to make her an "honorary Hamilton."
"I'll be back soon to check his vitals. And I'll have a supper tray sent up to you."
Chris hadn't eaten since breakfast and his stomach rumbled in agreement. "Sounds great."
He leaned back in the chair and picked up the Bible his mom had put on the bedside table. A newspaper clipping fluttered out and he caught it before it reached the floor. He assumed it would be something from the latest issue of the Dispatch but instead he found himself staring at an article cut out of the Observer.
The Dispatch"s rival had somehow found out about Jeremy and printed the story, turning what should have been private family business into watercooler gossip. He glanced at the date and realized that the story he was holding was the gossip column that had printed the damaging news last month. A gossip section was a feature that Wallace had decided long ago the Dispatch didn't need to sell papers.
Why couldn't his father make those same faith-filled decisions when it came to his family?
The jumbled words he'd been blindly staring at came into focus. Just as he wondered why his mom had kept a copy of the column that the rest of them had delegated to the wastebasket, he saw the words she had written across the headline.
I sought the Lord, and He answered me; He delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to Him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.
Chris shook his head, a little in awe at the unwavering trust she had in God. She'd always told him and his siblings if they kept their focus on God, they'd never lose perspective. No matter what slander the Observer had printed, Nora had chosen to focus on what God's word said.
A soft moan from the bed drew Chris's attention and as he leaned closer, Wallace's eyes fluttered open. For a few seconds, his father stared at him with a blank expression that yanked at Chris's heart.
"Dad. It's Chris," he whispered.
To Chris's relief, his eyes cleared and recognition dawned in them.
"Where's...your brother?" Wallace rasped.
Chris swallowed hard against the sudden emotion that clogged his throat. Were things always going to be this way between them because he wasn't working at Hamilton Media?
"I'm right here, Dad." As if on cue, Tim had come into the room and was standing at Chris's shoulder. Silently Chris shifted out of the way so Tim could move closer to their father.
"How...are things going...at work?"
Chris couldn't help but notice the touch of arrogance in the smile that Tim directed down at Wallace.
"Everything's under control, Dad. Don't worry, just concentrate on getting better."
"Knew you could handle it," Wallace said faintly, his eyes closing again.
Just when Chris decided to leave them alone for a few minutes, Tim's hand gripped his arm.
"Meet me in the hall, okay? I need your advice."
Chris was too shocked to reply. When Tim strode out of the room a few minutes later, Chris was surprised to see that his brother actually looked worried.
"What's going on?"
"The past few weeks someone's been sending letters to the editor addressed to our new reporter. Unsigned, of course. The first one was a rambling complaint about the way she covered the last city council meeting. You know the type — they like to raise a fuss. Get some attention because they're anti-everything. The next one came and it didn't make much sense, either, but we printed them because it's our policy to give everyone a voice.
"When the secretary opened the mail yesterday, another one had come over the weekend. We're sure it's from the same person but this one didn't just attack her as a reporter, it was more personal. More threatening. I was hoping you could stop by the office tomorrow and talk to her."
Chris remembered Jeremy hiring a new reporter in May but he hadn't realized it was a woman. "Sure. I can come by around nine o'clock."
"Her name is Felicity Simmons. Don't be put off if she doesn't roll out the welcome mat for you. She doesn't want me to make a big deal out of all this but I'd still feel better if you read the letters and gave me your input."
Chris read between the lines. This wasn't Felicity Simmons's idea. It was Tim's. And Tim's will prevailed, as usual.
"I'll be there."