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"I'm glad you're here, Annie belle," Kieran Grady still sounded groggy from yesterday's surgery. He seemed too big for the hospital bed with his long legs nearly hanging over the end of the frame, the left with a hip-to-foot cast elevated on three pillows.
"I'm glad I'm here, too, Dad." Anne patted her father's hand, making sure his IV was in place and infusing well. An RN for eight years, she couldn't help herself.
"Take care of your mom until I get home," he said, drifting closer to sleep.
"Of course I will," she whispered. Good thing she could get the time off from her new job until Lucas got officially discharged from the army.
Anne's cell phone vibrated in her pocket. She glanced at the screen. "That's the E.R., Dad. Mom must be ready to go home."
With eyes closed, he nodded.
There was also a text message from Lark: How are Mom and Dad doing? Give them kisses from me. Wish I could be there, but school is crazy! Love you guys. :) No way would anyone expect her sister to leave medical school midsemester when Anne and her brother Lucas could be there for their parents. She texted back: They're fine. I'll call you later.
She bent to kiss her dad's forehead avoiding the scratches and one nasty-looking laceration near his receding hairline. "This one is from me, and this is from Lark."
He smiled then grimaced. "I swear," he mumbled. "I never saw that car coming."
Considering her parents had been on a motorcycle, things could have been a whole lot worse. As an RN she'd seen plenty of motorcycle accident fallouts firsthand, and she didn't approve of his "hobby" but there was no way her father would give up his Harley. And up until now, Mom was as gung ho about their Sunday rides on the open roads as he was. Anne had a hunch Mom might be singing another tune from now on.
Anne said goodbye to her father and his nurse, making sure the RN had her cell number as well as her family's home phone, then headed toward the elevator leaving the plaster and disinfectant scent of the orthopedic ward behind.
She'd arrived in California early the next morning from Portland, Oregon, but had still missed their surgeries. She'd found the first available flight out the moment she'd been contacted by the E.R. nurse Sunday night. Adrenaline had burst from the center of her chest and tingled out to her fingers and toes at the news. They could have been killed. Oh, God, she couldn't bear to think about the pillars in her life falling and thankfully, their injuries would heal. Not soon enough for Dad, she thought, smiling and shaking her head as the elevator descended down to the first floor.
After arriving in Whispering Oaks in time for her mother's hospital discharge that morning, she'd taken her home. By midafternoon, when Mom said the pain was excruciating, she'd realized her mother's full arm cast had pressed on a nerve and she was losing sensitivity in her fingers. Anne had turned right around and brought her back to the E.R. to have it removed and a new cast applied before there was a chance for nerve damage.
The small Whispering Oaks hospital overflowed with patients, and they'd spent the better part of the evening waiting. When the orderly wheeled off her mother to the cast room, she'd gone to visit her father in the ortho ward.
Anne got off the elevator as an ambulance siren blared in the distance. She approached the emergency reception desk noting that every chair in the waiting room was filled. A TV monitor droned on with some reality show that only a few people, besides the desk clerk, paid attention to.
"My mother's ready for discharge," she said. "Beverly Grady?"
The distracted receptionist tore away her gaze from the TV long enough to check her list then, without saying a word or offering a smile, she reached under the desk and pressed a buzzer which opened the door to the department.
Anne rushed to her mother's E.R. cubicle.
"How's your father?" Beverly blurted out the moment Anne entered. With a twisted waistband on her teal workout pants, and one sleeve of the jacket hanging over her shoulder, her mother looked out of character from her usual jeans and trendy jerseys approach to style. But Mom wouldn't let Anne bring her to the hospital without makeup and her earrings, the large gold hoops now tangled in her shoulder-length hair, her bright lipstick half chewed off.
"He's doing well, Ma. The nurses say he'll be home in a few days."
"Great news. Why did it have to be my right arm? I'm useless with my left hand. How am I going to take care of him or do my hair or put on makeup?" She shook her head, her layered, bottle brown hair bobbed along. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to hook a bra with one hand?"
"That's why I'm here, remember?" Anne stifled her smile.
Beverly pursed her lips, brows raised, looking impish. "See the extreme some parents will go to just to get their daughter home?"
Anne shook her head and smiled. "An invitation would have been fine."
Beverly swiped the air with her one good arm. "You always have excuses." Her mother laughed wryly, and Anne joined her, avoiding thoughts better left unspoken once again.
"But you and Dad liked visiting Portland." Other than one Christmas three years ago, Anne hadn't returned to Whispering Oaks since she'd gone off to college to get her nursing degree. And that Christmas visit had been mainly because Lucas had gotten a leave for the holidays. It wasn't because she didn't love her parents, no; she loved them with all her heart. It was the guilt and bad memories that seemed to overshadow everything else about her hometown whenever she ventured back.
"But this is your home, Annie."
Truth was, Portland felt more like home these days, she just didn't have the nerve to tell her mother that.
A shrill siren grew closer, soon coming to an abrupt halt outside the rear of the emergency department.
A frazzled looking nurse appeared at their cubicle with dark smudges beneath her eyes, some form of updo gone askew and a wheelchair. "Ready to go?"
Doors flew open at the back of the E.R. and a group of firemen wheeled in a couple people on gurneys. The nurse shot a quick glance over her shoulder, then pushed the wheelchair inside, back to business as usual. Out of reflex from her old E.R. days Anne tensed, but reminded herself she was a clinic nurse now, and that today she was on the patient side of the hospital equation. It felt so different, and yet her curiosity about the latest intake wouldn't back down.
Anne took a quick look at her mother's fingers, pressed the nail beds to make sure the capillaries blanched and pinked right back up. "Can you move your fingers?" she asked over the ruckus.
"Annie, this feels a hundred times better than the last cast."
"Okay then, we're ready to go." Anne gave an assuring smile to the nurse.
She helped her mother into the chair and, after signing the discharge papers, began to roll her toward the exit.
"Keep that cast elevated," the nurse said as she rushed off toward the new patients on the gurneys. So much for patient discharge education.
Across the department a male figure caught Anne's eye. He stood, legs planted in a wide stance, arms folded, just apart from the health care workers and firemen team huddle.
"There's my hero," her mother called out. Then to Anne she said, "Jack was the first on scene Sunday at the accident."
Jack? As in Jackson Lightfoot?
In a whiplash response, Anne turned toward the man just as he noticed her. A thousand crazy thoughts barged into her head as she peered at an apparition. What in the world was he doing here? She blinked as the ghost of heartbreak past came into full view.
Except he looked so much better than that high school jock she'd remembered. As if that were possible. He wore the standard fireman navy blue T-shirt and slackswithout the yellow rubber pants and suspendersshiny work boots and a serious expression. His blond hair was shorter and darker, and all traces of boyish features were gone. It'd been twelve years, and he still set off a spark in her chesta feeling so foreign, it felt more like anxiety.
"Mrs. Grady, what are you doing back here?" he said to her mother, though his gaze had found and stuck to Anne.
"Annie said I needed a new cast." She attempted to lift the heavy, hot pink, fiberglass-covered arm.
Anne wished she could disappear behind the nearest cubicle curtain, but Jack stared at her and offered a tentative smile, the kind that only lifted half of his mouth.
She nodded, fighting off the rush of feelings blind-siding her. Nerves zinged, blood rushed to her face and her legs, perfectly stable and strong a moment before, felt unsteady. She was thirty but had taken the fast track back to high school insecurity. "Hey, Jack. Hi." At a loss for what to do or say, and trying desperately to act composed, she went for inane. "Are you a fireman?"
"I volunteer a couple times a week."
His chest had broadened and bulked up since she'd last seen him, and his voice had dropped half a scale.
He'd definitely turned into the man that swaggering eighteen-year-old had hinted at.
He bent and hugged her mother. "How's the old man doing?"
"Fine, thanks to you and your quick thinking. The doctor told Annie, he'll be home in a couple days, come and see him."
"I will." Jack glanced back at Anne, and before she could prepare herself, he hugged her. Granted it was nothing more than one of those awkward pat-the-back deals, but it still rattled her. Even though she'd stiffened up, warm fuzzies hopped along her skin and she wanted to swat at them and yell, stop it, stop it!
Well what do you know, he still uses Irish Spring.
She leaned back and noticed a lingering fluster in his eyes that she assumed mirrored her own, and a warm, welcoming expression on his face. Man, he still had a great smile, except now it had parentheses around it, and his eyes, those fern green eyes she could never forget, had the beginning of fan lines at the corners making him all the more enticing.
No. Stop it right now. We already know how this story plays out, and it has a sucky ending.
"Well, looks like they need some help. It's good to see you, Anne. Beverly, you take care of yourself. I'll visit Kieran tomorrow after school."
"He'll be glad to see you," Beverly said.