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Ally Rogers felt shell-shocked as she stared out the window of the Chicago-bound airplane.
It wasn't every day that some stranger told her there was a situation with her mother that she needed to "get to Chicagoimmediatelyto deal with."
It wasn't every day that some stranger told her that even though Ally might not want to be involved in her mother's life he wasn't giving her the option not to be any longer.
It definitely wasn't every day. It was just yesterday.
This week had been hellish for Ally right from the start. As a well-known interior designer dealing with celebrity clients, she sometimes had to travel the world to get to their sprawling mansions, and she was frequently required to keep odd hours to accommodate her clients' hectic schedules.
Yesterday had been a prime example of that. She'd flown in from Italy at dawn, catching only a few hours sleep on the plane. Then she'd had to rush home, shower and change her clothes before dashing to meet with a national news anchor while he did his live morning show. During his commercial breaks she'd presented pictures of what was being implemented by her design team in his Tuscan villa and gotten the okay on her plans for the rest of the project.
Ignoring the jet lag she was suffering, she'd had a full twelve hours of other appointments and details that had had to be attended to before she'd finally gotten back home again. Where a curt voice mail from a Jake Fox had awaited her. The name wasn't familiar to her and he hadn't said more than that to identify himself, only that he needed to speak to her ASAP about her mother. That it was an emergency.
When Ally had heard that, she'd wanted to kick herself for not having given her mother her new cellphone number yet. But Ally had been en route to Italy on Sunday when she would have made her weekly call to Estelle. And to be honest, she'd just been so busy that she'd forgotten all about it.
The moment she'd heard Dr. Fox's message, she'd dialed the number he'd left. And if his message had been curt and impatient, it was nothing compared to her conversation with him.
After the under-his-breath "It's about time" response to her call, Ally had said, "Are you with my mother now? Who are you?"
"A friend of Estelle's from the senior center," he'd said. "If you talked to your mother more often you'd know that."
"Are you her doctor?"
"No, I'm not her medical doctor, but Estelle needs to get to her doctor. Unfortunately her friends and I can't persuade her to do that. Besides, this is a family situation, something a stranger shouldn't need to tell you," he'd added, under his breath again. Then he'd proceeded, in a more matter-of-fact tone, to say that Estelle had been unwell, that it wasn't exactly clear what was going on with her, but that he was convinced she needed medical attention.
After trying and failing to get more out of the doctorwho insisted he had no more information to shareAlly had instantly dialed her mother's house. But there hadn't been any answer. She didn't have the numbersor even the last namesof any of her mother's friends. The neighbors had all changed since Ally had lived with her mother, so there was no one nearby she knew to call. And despite the fact that Ally had continued to try her mother's number again and again in between making arrangements to fly to Chicago as soon as she could, she hadn't ever reached Estelle.
So there she was, on her way to Illinois with no clue what was going on and only her own worst fears to keep her company.
Thank you very much, Jake Fox.
What kind of person made a call like that when something happened to someone's seventy-nine-year-old mother?
No, she and her mother weren't close. And never had been. But Estelle was still her mother. Shouldn't there have been a little compassion? A little finesse? Especially from a medical person?
But Jake Fox had been so impatient. And why? Just because Ally didn't live in the same city, the same state that Estelle lived in? Innumerable people didn't live near family. Ally was sure Estelle wouldn't even want her close by, or that close proximity would change the nature of their relationship. Once-a-week phone calls and spending major holidays together, that was the extent of it and would be the extent of it regardless of where she lived.
And who was this guy, anyway? A friend of her mother's from the senior centerthat's what he'd said. Was he some sort of boyfriend Estelle hadn't mentioned? Another retiree who had become her companion? And even if they were close, why couldn't he have said what kind of trouble her mother was having? Or if Estelle had been hurt. Or where she was
Ally wasn't a nervous flyer and yet her hands were clenched onto the armrests and her palms were sweaty.
Rather than drying her hands on her twill slacks, she decided to make a trip to the restroom to wash them, thinking that getting up, moving around, might help some of her agitation.
It didn't. She was no more relaxed as she ran cool water over her hands, and one glance into the mirror over the sink gave evidence to how tense she was.
She hadn't had time to do more than leave her honey-blond hair loose around a face that had lost the usual bloom of pink that highlighted her cheekbones. Even her slightly full lips looked washed out beneath the thin, straight nose, and her emerald-green eyes were a little bloodshot from lack of sleep.
She dried her hands and smoothed the simple brown T-shirt she wore over the tan slacks before retaking her seat, feeling no better than when she'd left it.
She decided to stop focusing on Dr. Fox. Her mother's health was the only thing that mattered right now.
Please let her be all right
She took a few deep breaths to combat a fresh rise of fear.
If only her mother was all right, Ally was even willing to have more dealings with Jake Fox. He and his bad, dictatorial disposition were beside the point. Ally just wanted her mother to be okay.
Then she'd deal with Jake Fox.
It was after noon when Ally pulled her rental car up in front of the small suburban home in which she'd grown up.
The two-story, circa-1950s red brick house with its covered front porch looked the same as it always had except that the lawn was dry and nearly dying in spots.
If it had been any other yard in the neighborhood Estelle Rogers would have marched up to the front door, rung the bell, and when the owner had answered, minced no words about how their laziness was lowering her property values. She would have given them a dressing-down that would have shamed them into improved lawn care. So the fact that Estelle's own yard looked so bad in the August heat was an indication that something was amiss.
And Ally needed to go in and see what it was. See her mother.
Ally's stomachwhich had been in knots since yes-terday's phone calltied itself into one more. But then, her stomach tied itself into that knot every time she came to visit her mother.
Well, she couldn't sit there and wait it out the way she usually did, so she charged from the car, taking only her purse with her.
"She's not there."
Ally stopped short before even reaching the front porch and turned to find a boy of probably five or six on his bicycle on the sidewalk that ran in front of the house.
"Do you know where she is?" Ally asked, doubting that he did but desperate.
"She got taked 'way in a am-buh-lance today."
Ally's stomach clenched even tighter as awful things went through her mind. Had Estelle been home alone last night when she'd called and called, maybe unable to get to the phone? Had she been lying on the floor all night?
"When was this?" Ally asked the child.
"After breakfast," he answered.
"Do you know where she was taken?" Ally inquired, feeling more frantic by the minute.
"To the hospital," the little boy said as if it should have been obvious.
The neighborhood hospitalshe'd start there. And hope she wasn't already too late.
Ally nearly ran down the porch steps and back to her car.
"Thank you," she said to the little boy as she went by him and got behind the wheel again. The hospital was only about a fifteen-minute drive away. Ally made it in ten, parking crookedly in the first spot she could find in the emergency-room lot before she nearly ran to the hospital entrance.
"I'm looking for Estelle Rogers, she may have been brought in by ambulance"
"Those people are also here about her," the receptionist said, pointing to the waiting room.
Maybe the receptionist didn't want to give her bad news
Ally turned in the direction the woman indicated. Among the other people in the waiting room, she spotted a group she recognized, if only slightly. Her mother had had routine gallbladder removal four years ago and Ally had come to Chicago then to help Estelle through the surgery and to convalesce afterward. There had been a steady stream of her mother's friends from the Wilkens Senior Center who had visited Estelle during that time, and while Ally didn't remember most of their names, their faces were faintly familiar.
Faces that all looked somber and serious now.
The worst has happened
Ally felt her knees go wobbly. Her head was light. The whole hospital seemed to be spinning.
Without taking a step, she listed to one side and had to grab on to the reception counter's edge.
The receptionist's alarmed voice seemed to be coming from far away.
Then Ally was only vaguely aware of the receptionist jolting to her feet and calling, "Dr. Fox! I need help!"
"So cold! Her hands are like ice, Jacob!"
"It's okay, Bubby. She's coming around."
Ally forced leaden eyelids open. For a moment she was lost. She didn't know where she was, or why she was lying on her back on a hard floor, surrounded by people she barely recognized.
There was a very attractive man hunkered down on one side of her, taking her blood pressure. There was a much, much older woman who had Ally's left hand between both of hers, rubbing vigorously. And there was a woman who looked like a nurse standing at her feet.
It was the blood-pressure-taking and the sight of the nurse that cued memoryshe was at the Chicago hospital where her mother had been taken by ambulance.
"My mother " she said, her own voice sounding fearful and sluggish at once.
"You're who we're interested in right now," the man said, despite the stethoscope in his ears.
Ally looked to the elderly woman rubbing her hand and whispered, "Am I too late? Is she "
"Oh, no!" the older woman said quickly. "Not Estelle. She had a fall today. And there are some other things wrong, but she's still with us." The hand rubbing became more intense. "Just rest and let our Jacob take care of you."
The man being referred to as "our Jacob" took the stethoscope out of his ears and unfastened the blood pressure cuff from around Ally's arm. As he did, he said, "You thought Estelle had died?" He actually looked embarrassed.
"I didn't know what to think."
"You didn't tell her what's going on?" the older woman demanded of him.
"I told her Estelle was in trouble," he answered, turning even redder.
"Jacob! Look at this poor girl! So worried!"
Now she remembered the woman. Bubby had been the friend that Ally had liked most during Estelle's gallbladder recovery. She was a tiny Jewish lady who had come every day with pastries and casseroles. Rayzelthat was her name.