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Jackson County Hospital Scottsboro, Alabama
The lounge door flew open, Dr. Carla Blake stuck her head in and shouted, "Brace yourselves people, we've got victims from a five-car pileup coming through the doors any minute! We're going to need all hands."
Jenna Williams sighed and closed her locker, leaving her purse and coat inside. It happened every time she agreed to work an extra half shift. No matter that she'd been there since two that morning and it was now four in the afternoon, fate would see that going home wasn't an option for at least another hour. That it was Friday only stacked the odds against her. But that was the life of an E.R. nurse. Sometimes it was plain old inconvenient, but she loved her work and it paid the bills.
Two other nurses, along with one intern, who'd worked the extra-long shift exchanged weary glances with her, but not one complained out loud. Instead the group shuffled back out to the E.R. floor. Arguing or complaining would be pointless. When Dr. Blake spoke, the E.R. listened. She hadn't been dubbed the dictator for nothing.
Once the ambulances rolled in, thoughts of going home or the unfairness of it all vanished. The world narrowed until nothing else existed.
Gurneys rushed through the emergency entrance with paramedics shouting information about their patients.
Jenna jumped into the organized chaos, her movements instinctive and in precisely timed rhythm with her coworkers. Twelve victims arrived, two critical.
Just over ninety minutes later both criticals were in surgery and holding their own. Six of the other patients had been treated and released and the remaining fourwere admitted for observation related to moderate head injuries. The E.R. was quiet again and the exhausted staff released a collective sigh of relief. Not losing a patient after a major pileup was something to celebrate.
"Got any plans this weekend?"
Jenna glanced up from her locker and gave her friend Gina Daniels a you're kidding look. "Ballet practice with Bec. We're gearing up for recital. We'll be practicing every Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon from now until the end of May."
Gina sidled up next to her as if what she had to say was top secret. "Dale asked me out."
Jenna's lips spread into a genuine smile despite the clawing fatigue. "Really? When did this happen?" Dale and Gina had been dancing around the concept of dating for weeks now.
"Lunch." Gina looked around covertly. "He fell into line behind me and popped the question between the salad bar and the cash register."
Shouldering into her coat, Jenna pressed for more details. It wasn't every day that a single nurse snagged the hottest new resident. At least not in this small town, where new residents were as scarce as a lunar eclipse. "Where's he taking you?" Her own social life was so dead that she'd long ago decided that living vicariously through her friend was about the only excitement she could hope for.
"The Jazz Factory in Huntsville." She grinned.
"And after dinner, we're going dancing."
Jenna's eyes rounded. "Dr. Dale dances?"
Dr. Dale Parker was not only one of the hottest new residents at Jackson County Hospital, he was brilliant. Everyone loved him. And he was nice, really nice. Every unattached female at the hospital had her sights set on him.
"Evidently he does," Gina confirmed. She winked.
"I hope he can horizontal mambo."
"You are bad," Jenna teased, a flush heating her face. It had been so long since she'd had sex that just the idea of it flustered her. It was tough to have sex when she wasn't even dating. It was equally tough because she was a mother whose twelve-year-old daughter required a full-time chauffeur and endless attention.
"If I'm lucky," Gina hissed under her breath, "I'll be real bad."
Jenna grabbed her purse and closed her locker for what she hoped would be the last time until Monday. She didn't often get both Saturday and Sunday off, and she was definitely looking forward to spending lots of time with her daughter. A beleaguered sigh slipped past her lips. No date. No sex. Oh well, being a good mother and a dedicated nurse would just have to be enough.
"Oh, damn." Jenna glanced at her watch. It was 5:40 p.m. "Bec had soccer practice today."
"On Friday?" Gina opened the door to the lounge and waited for Jenna to go ahead of her.
"This is the first time most of the kids on the team have played soccer," she explained as they moved into the corridor that would take them to an exitonly side door, avoiding any possibility of running into the dictator. "The coach thinks they need a little extra practice for a few weeks."
Jenna was glad to see Bec participating in a school sport. She'd been dancing since she was big enough to walk. Ballet, tap, jazz. Dance had consumed her life. Her daughter had high hopes of going to Juilliard after high school. And though that was a ways off for a seventh grader, she never lost her focus. Even with the soccer her daughter insisted would build stamina and make her a better dancer, the unavoidable bruises not withstanding.
Jenna had a feeling that her daughter's sudden obsession with soccer had more to do with a particular young man who played on the boy's team than with building stamina. It was hard to believe her little girl was growing up so fast. In a few months she'd be an actual teenagerâ€¦thirteen. Where had the time gone?
The temperature outside had dropped considerably after sunset. The wind whipped at her face, nipping her ears and slapping her cheeks with its bitter sting. Jenna pulled her black wool coat more tightly around her and wished she hadn't forgotten her scarf. The weather in northern Alabama at the end of January and beginning of February was the absolute worst.
With a promise to call with all the juicy date details, Jenna and Gina parted ways in the parking lot. Jenna climbed into her ancient Volkswagen Bug, a '72 orange original with all the miles and constant need for new parts that came with the label vintage.
Jenna removed the clip that kept her hair tucked neatly into a makeshift bun and shook her head. It felt good to let her hair down after a twelve-hour shift that had lasted fifteen and a half. Then she took a deep breath and pushed all thoughts of work away. Time to relax and enjoy the weekend with her girl.
Scottsboro Junior High was in the middle of town, just off the courthouse square. Bec always waited at the little stone bridge next to the bus stop. But this time her daughter wasn't there. The schoolyard was deserted.
Okay, maybe practice had gone overtime. Jenna drove around to the back of the school where the practice field was actually the expansive backyard of a home on College Street. But the field was deserted, as well. That didn't really surprise her since practice had ended, according to the coach's schedule, more than half an hour ago.
She parked along the curb and got out. Pulling her collar up around her ears, she headed for the coach's office. He usually hung around for a while after the kids were gone. But not today. The entrance to the athletic office was locked. The corridor beyond was dark as far as she could see through the small window in the door.
Maybe one of her friends had given Becca a ride home? The guilt started its downward press on her shoulders. She'd done this twice already and the season had scarcely started. Good mothers didn't leave their kids in the lurch like this. Jenna's mother usually picked Bec up after school, except on practice days. If Jenna had only had time to call her mother before the chaos had hit the E.R. she could have avoided this worrisome moment altogether.
No way to change that now. After fishing her phone from her purse she called home. Five rings, no answer. The machine picked up. "Bec, if you're there give me a call and let me know you're home."
Next Jenna called her mother. "Mom, did Becca come to your house after practice?"
The "no" that echoed across the line sent a prick of alarm through Jenna but she banished it. There were still several more places she could be.
"I'm sure everything's fine," she told her mom.
"I'll check with Coach Bob."
Her fingers stumbled as she quickly entered the number for Coach Robert Riley. Jenna felt some relief at just hearing his voice when he answered. "Hey, Coach, this is Jenna Williams, Becca's mom." She waited as he launched into how much her daughter had improved and how hard she worked. Jenna's heart had started to thud even as she told herself again that everything was fine. As soon as he paused for a breath, she asked, "Listen, did someone give Bec a ride home? I'm here at the school and she's not around."
She held her breath as she waited for him to consider the question. Her heart slowed instantly upon hearing his answer. Her daughter had left with one of her friends. Thank goodness. Coach Bob had seen her get in the car. He just didn't recall which friend. "Thanks, Coach. Sorry I was late today. Big accident over on the interstate. I'll check with Bec's friends."
Relief making her knees a little unsteady, Jenna started at the top of the list"Bec's best friend, Carrie Melberger.
"Hey, Carrie, did Becca ride home with you?" The "no, ma'am" that resounded in Jenna's ear launched the new, heavy thud in her chest.
Jenna stood in the middle of that deserted parking lot. She forgot about the cold, as she made seven or eight more calls. She lost exact count as desperation and sheer terror took hold.
"You're sure you didn't see who was driving the car?" she asked the coach, who had called her back. He'd wanted to make sure Jenna had found Bec. As he described the car, a beep signaled that Jenna had another call. She held the cell away from her ear long enough to identify the number on the display.
Bec's cell number flashed on the display. Thank God!
Jenna rested the phone against her ear once more. "I'm getting a call from her cell now, Coach." The burst of relief left her weak and shaky. "Thanks for your help." She hit the necessary buttons and almost shouted, "Young lady, do you know how frantic I've been? Where are you?"
The long beat of silence that passed caused the bottom to drop out of Jenna's stomach.
"Have no fear, Ms. Williams, your daughter is safe here with me."
The voice sounded male but it was garbled or distorted so that she couldn't say for sure.
"Who is this?" The question came from her but her own voice sounded foreign to her ears. Hollow and small. Not the voice of a hardcore E.R. nurse accustomed to barking statistics and necessary responses.
"Ms. Williams, we have important business to discuss."
Ice slid through her veins. "I'mâ€¦sorry." She licked her trembling lips. "I don't understand." Please, God, don't let this be happening.
"If you want to see your little girl alive again you must do exactly as I say."
Jenna held on to the phone with both hands, fear making her fingers so numb she was certain she might drop it at any second. "Please, don't hurt her." Please, please, please.
"I won't hurt her," the cruel, garbled voice assured. "As long as you do as I say. Make one mistake and the next time you see your daughter will be at the morgue for identification purposes."
"I'll do anything you ask." Fear and tears crowded into Jenna's throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe. "Anything."
"I hope you mean what you say, Ms. Williams, otherwise your daughter will be a very dead little girl."
"Just tell me what to do. Please," she begged. Questions whirled in her head. What was happening?