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Beverly Hills, California Chloe Kilgannon pushed her red clown nose firmly in place and practiced walking in her oversize shoes. When had she last worn them? As a teenager, she'd performed often, but that was a long time ago, and she hadn't clowned since the last time she'd been home.
Homethat was a place not easily defined. If home was where the heart is, it would be wherever there were children who needed the assurance they weren't alone. If she'd still had the job she'd done the last eight years, she could have been heading for a new home today. In India there'd been a horrific mudslide. In Australia, a tornado had touched down. In the aftermath of devastation, there were always newly homeless children separated from their families. Organizing their care and assuring them they were still loved had been her job, a job she'd thought she'd always have. "Hey, Chloe, are you about ready!"
Nurse Sandy Beechum popped into the hospital's first-floor restroom where Chloe had made her metamorphosis. The two had known each other since Chloe's teenage clowning days.
"Who do you think you are, and what happened to my friend Chloe Kilgannon?" Sandy said, looking her up and down.
Chloe pointed to the painted flower on her cheek and did one of her trademark jiggle-wiggle moves that she'd borrowed from an excited puppy. The ringlets on her purple wig shimmied, and the bells on her collar jingled.
"Well, if it isn't Flower the Clown!" Sandy exclaimed, breaking into laughter. "You funny girl, you haven't changed."
Chloe struck a pose that made her friend laugh, but she was glad that Flower had a painted-on happy face and wasn't expected to talk. If she did, she might break downand tell Sandy how much she had changed. Her future would be far different than the one she'd dreamed of.
"All the kids who were able to leave their beds are assembled upstairs in the Sun Room. Is it showtime?"
Chloe made her eyes go wide with anticipation and clapped her gloved hands wildly. She was officially in character, and it was a relief to be somebody else, even for a little while. Flower the Clown could act on any outrageous impulse if it got a laugh.
Dr. Zack Hemingway waited for the elevator, wondering if there was a way to carry a daisy-bedecked basket of sock puppets that wouldn't make people snicker at the sight of him. He'd tried carrying it like a gym bag, but he couldn't get a good grip with springy, fresh flowers decorating the handle. Holding the basket with both hands as if it were a pizza came the most naturally.
The elevator door opened, and Zack did a double take. One of the occupants was a red-nosed clown, who gave him a shy little wave, and the other was Sandy Beechum, a nurse with a whole lot of seniority and even more sass.
"Well, there's something you don't see every day," Sandy said dryly. "Young Dr. Hemingway with a pretty basket. What's in your basket, Doctor?"
"Sock puppets," he said, stepping inside and checking to see if the button for the pediatric floor was lit. It was. He should have guessed that peds was the clown's destination. "I was in the E.R. for a consult when the paramedics brought in a woman who was so frantic about getting this basket to peds that the staff couldn't treat her. Since I was heading there anyway, I volunteered to be the delivery guy."
Sandy chuckled. "I'd have loved to see the staff's reaction to that."
How had Sandy known they'd acted like it was a big deal? Granted, he might not show his softer, more personable side very oftenokay, almost neverbut his life was all about surgery. He lived it, breathed it, loved it.
"You must be heading for the party," Sandy said.
"We have the main attraction with us right now. Flower the Clown, have you met Dr. Zack Hemingway?"
The clown shook her head with an emphatic no, and the bells on her collar jingled. She stuck out her gloved hand for a shake, noticed that he had both hands occupied and shook hands with herself. He had to smile.
"It's nice to meet you, Flower. When I tell my mom I met a real live clown, she's going to wish she'd been here, too. She loves clowns! Would you like to meet her?"
Sandy rolled her eyes, and no wonder. He'd sounded as if he were talking to a little kid instead of a clown, though Flower didn't seem to mind. She clapped her gloved hands gleefully, then tucked her hand in his arm. Looking up at him, she nodded as if to say she was ready to go meet his mom.
"Looks like you've got a date, Dr. Hemingway," Sandy said with a chortle.
A really cute date at that. "Flower, I'm sorry, but my mom lives in Illinois."
Flower's head drooped in disappointment. She was such a good actress that he actually felt bad for her. "But she's coming out here for a visit! It's her birthday!"
Flower perked up in a flash. It was amazing how well she communicated using no words.
"If you give me your phone number, I could set up a meeting." He couldn't believe he was making a date with a clown, but this year he was going all out to make his mother's birthday perfect. One-on-one time with a real clown would make his clown-collecting mom happier than anything he'd planned and he'd made big plans.
The elevator door opened onto the peds floor, and Flower stepped out with him, her hand still tucked in the crook of his elbow, clinging to him like a vine. He didn't have the heart to disengage.
"You two look good together, " Sandy said, trailing after them. "And I happen to know that neither of you are seeing anyone."
People were always trying to set him up with their friends, but setting him up with a clown? This was a first. He checked her out, wondering what she looked like under all that makeup. She was fairly tall. He was six foot three, but in her big clown shoes, the top of her puffy purple wig came to his nose.
"What do you think, Flower? Am I your type?" She looked him over, head to toe, and shrugged as if to say maybe, maybe not. After all that clinging, her indifference made him laugh. A guy had to love a clown who played hard to get.
A nurse on the peds floor saw him carrying the pretty basket and said, "Let me take that basket to the Sun Room, Dr. Hemingway."
She was probably busier than he was at the moment. "That's okay. As you see, I'm escorting Miss Flower to the party, so I'll take the sock puppets and then I'll see my patient Kendra McKnight."
"Kendra's already at the party. You'll want to examine her in her room, but Kendra will be so disappointed if she has to miss the clown."
"How long is your act?" he said to Flower. He didn't want to be the one to disappoint any little girl, and especially not Kendra. Not only had she been a brave child through three surgeries, her mother was a colleague of his. "Flower never stays long," Sandy answered for the silent clown. "Maybe ten minutes."
He checked his watch. He had time to watch Flower's performance. It would give him something to talk to Mom about. "I'll wait," he said to the nurse.
As they reached the Sun Room, Flower detached herself from him and motioned for him to go on in. Maybe she needed a moment to mentally prepare. He needed that before surgery. He followed Sandy, turned the basket over to a tech and leaned one shoulder against the back wall, his arms folded.
Flower skipped into the room, tripped on her oversize yellow shoes and took a pratfall. It made the kids laugh, especially when she struggled to get up only to fall on her face again. He had to wonder if it truly hurt, though professionals knew how to take a fall.
Moving among the children, she tweaked their noses and invited them to tweak her big red nose. He noticed how gentle she was with the children and how she made them laugh but didn't let them get overexcited. Children who were sick enough to be in the hospital overnight needed to forget how ill they were, and she was superb at her job.
She found a coin behind the ear of a child and showed it to the kids before she "accidentally" swallowed it. Her pretense of choking was so convincing that he geared up to help her, but she staggered among the children, opening her mouth and silently inviting them to find the coin.
One little boy thought she was in trouble though and worriedly called out, "Somebody! Help Flower!"
Flower gave the little a guy a hug before she zoomed to where Zack leaned against the wall, her arm outstretched in fake need. Obviously, he was the designated "helper." She turned to the children, pointed to his lab coat with an expression that clearly said, "Is he a doctor?"
Kendra called out, "That's Dr. Hemingway. He's my doctor."
He gave Kendra a smile and a little wave.
The clown grabbed his hand and pulled him center stage, the better for all the kids to see. Holding her throat, she looked at him beseechingly.
What was the protocol for the imaginary swallowing of a coin? The imaginary Heimlich?
He stepped behind her, circled her with his arms and locked his hands in the proper position. As an orthopedic surgeon, he'd never been called upon to do the Heimlich maneuver for real, let alone for pretend, but the kids weren't going to criticize his technique, and the nursing staff was laughing too hard to care.
He didn't apply much pressure at all, but the clown leaned back into him as if he had. Her big yellow clown shoes came at least two feet off the floor. It took three pretend jolts before she coughed into her hand and produced the coin for all to see! He was almost as glad as if he'd helped her for real.
Flower was a bundle of wiggly, over-the-top gratitude. She shook his right hand and his left hand, but that wasn't enough. She grabbed both of his hands and danced him about as much as he would let her. All of sudden she stopped cold, her hands in the air, her expression one of complete wonder.
The room went silent as they waited for what she would do next. It seemed like a good time for him to inch back to the door, but she snagged his arm. Apparently, he was still part of the act.
She looked at him, her head cocked to one side, and then she slowly covered her heart with both hands. There was no doubting her tender expression. He got it, and so did her audience. Flower was in love. She sighed and made goo-goo eyes at him until every kid and grown-up in the room was laughing.
Zack tried not to. It wasn't nice to laugh at your new girlfriend.
From somewhere she produced a tall stool, apparently for him to sit on. Then she produced an oversize fake diamond ring. She showed it to the kids before getting down on one knee, her intention so obvious that the kids screamed she was doing it wrong. Kendra yelled out, "Flower, you sit on the stool. Dr. Hemingway is supposed to give you the ring."
Maybe Flower just wanted to do things her way because she shook her head so hard the curls on her purple wig bounced. He knew she was going to propose even before she reached for his hand. How did a gentleman behave in a situation like this?
"This is so sudden," he said, holding back a laugh. "Can I have a moment to decide?"
She cocked her head and pretended to think about it, then nodded and turned to the kids, swaying left to right, the perfect pantomime of a ticking clock.
When she stopped abruptly and turned expectantly toward him for his answer, he had one. "I'm sorry, but I just can't think without a sock puppet on my hand." He turned to the children. "I need a sock puppet. Does anyone else need a sock puppet?"
Of course they did. The clown clapped her hands as if she, too, were sock-puppet needy. She jumped to her feet, and he thought she was going to help with their distribution, but the next time he looked for her, she was gone.
He found Kendra and asked, "Did you see Flower leave?"
"No," she said, playing with her sock puppet, "but I think Flower's special. Sometimes you see her, and then you don't."
Before she changed out of her clown costume, Chloe looked at herself in the mirror and tried to imagine what Dr. Hemingway must have thought about Sandy's comment that the two of them looked good together. That was just Sandy teasing, but when Zack had asked if he was her type, she'd been embarrassed.
If she'd had to answer, it would have been a big no. He'd gone out with both of her sisters! They said he'd merely been a friend to hang out with, and she believed them. But anything they did, Chloe made a point of not doing. In any comparison, she came in last. Why set herself up for that?
But there was something about Zack Hemingway. She'd liked tucking her hand in his arm, and he'd been great about the pretend Heimlich. And he could be a Christian. Gentleness and kindness spoke of a Christ-centered life.
Her older sister, Carmen, stuck her head inside the door. "So, this is where you are! It took me a while to remember you used to change in this restroom."
"It's still the hospital's least-used restroom." It meant a lot that Carmen had made the effort to find it. As girls, they hadn't been close, but since Chloe had moved into Carmen's house, they'd become best friends.
Chloe turned to the mirror and picked up a hand towel to begin the makeup-removal process, but Carmen touched her arm. "Wait. Let me get a good look at Flower. It's been a long time since I've seen her."
Chloe struck one of the silly poses that came naturally to her as Flower. As herself, she was far more inhibited.
"Adorable," Carmen said softly. "Flower, you are so funny and so very lovable."
Chloe swallowed hard, working around the lump in her throat. That was a sweet thing for Carmen to say. As usual when she didn't know what to say, she went for the laugh. "Thank you, Carmen. Let me give you a hug."
She took a step forward and Carmen jumped back. "Don't you dare get that makeup on me." Carmen was perfection in her trendy outfit and very high heels.
"Do you ever wear scrubs like a real surgeon?" Chloe teased, toweling off her makeup.
"For surgery, I do. But I like pretty clothes. Tell me about Flower's day. I heard she made a huge hit in the peds unit. I knew she would."
They'd always talked about Flower as a separate person. "It was fun being Flower again."
"I guess so! I heard she proposed to the most eligible bachelor in town."