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Curved, white wolf fangs gleamed against the blackness of Sheila Metcalf's closed eyelids. She winced, eyes opening wide as a clipboard slipped from her fingers for the second time in less than an hour. It clattered onto the tile floor of the private patient room of Hideaway Hospital. As the sound reverberated into the hallway, her neck and shoulder muscles knotted with anxiety.
She glanced at the bed, where her patient, Mrs. Mann, remained asleep. At least the commotion had not disturbed her. Sheila only wished she didn't feel so disturbed this morning so unsettled, with an old, haunting, long-suppressed nightmare threatening, more than once, to follow her into her waking hours.
"Hey, girl, what's up?" Jill Cooper, slender, dark haired and attractive, strode into the room at her usual brisk pace. She rescued the clipboard from the floor, glanced at it, then gave Sheila a look of concern. "Something wrong?"
"Sorry," Sheila said. "I'm fumble fingers this morning for some reason."
"Time for a break." Jill's voice was filled with the concern so evident in her gentle blue eyes. With her typical economy of movement, she set the clipboard on the nursing desk, then turned again to Sheila. "Why are you a fumble fingers?"
"I'm just distracted. I promise I'm not usually like this."
"Think I don't know that?" As nurse director of Hideaway Hospital, Jill had every right to question a substitute nurse's bumbling mistakes, but her concern was warm and personal.
Sheila tried to smile, and knew the result was more of a grimace. She and Jill had known each other since Sheila had fled here to Hideaway with her father twenty-four years ago. The older sister of one of Sheila'sbest friends in school, Jill understood what it was like to live with specters from the past.
Jill took a step closer. "So what's the distraction?" she asked softly. "Want to talk about it?"
Sheila thought about the shadows of memories that never quite materialized, questions that had returned to nag at her after all these years. The fangs. The terror.
"Relax," Jill said. "We don't eat nurses for breakfast."
Sheila forced a smile. The confessions could wait until later.
"Dr. Jackson tells me differently."
Jill chuckled. "Call her Karah Lee, and don't listen to a thing she says. I picked on her a little when she first arrived, and she'll never let me live it down." Jill's blue eyes turned serious again. "What is it?"
"Just stuff. I'll get it figured out, don't worry."
"All the same, I think you need some downtime. A few minutes to regroup." Jill reached into the pocket of her scrub top and pulled out a stethoscope. "Besides, Preston Black is in the building." She said the words with one eyebrow raised, a half grin on her face. "He wants to talk to you."
Sheila ran the tip of her tongue along her teeth to keep herself from saying anything. Preston didn't understand the word no.
Jill held up her hands, correctly reading Sheila's expression, her blue eyes twinkling. "Don't blame me. I didn't tell him you were working today, he just saw your Jeep in the lot. He's placing a bid for the upcoming construction on the hospital, and he's come to talk to our new comptroller, Doris Batson." Jill winked. "You'd better keep your hands on that man. Doris is one of my best friends from high school, and I can tell you from personal experience that she's a hunk magnet. Half the men in the hospital are already drooling over her."
Sheila gave a pointed glance toward Mrs. Mann, in the bed across the room. Though the casual atmosphere here was a relief from the tension in her old job, Sheila hoped the staff didn't make a habit of discussing personal issues in front of the patients.
"Mrs. Mann isn't wearing her hearing aids," Jill assured Sheila. "I keep trying to get her to put them in her ears, but she refuses. Says they garble everybody's voices."
As Jill stepped to the patient's bed, she glanced over her shoulder at Sheila and jerked her head toward the door. "Out. Now. That's a direct order. Even if you don't talk to Preston, you need a break."
"Where is he?"
"Front office, chatting to Blaze Farmer last I saw him. I'll see you in the break room in a few minutes, and you can tell me all the juicy details, including this strange desire you suddenly seem to have to go to Arizona."
Sheila's eyes narrowed. "Preston can't keep his mouth shut."
"Actually, I think it was Blaze who blabbed for all to hear, and you know what good buds Preston and Blaze are. Was it supposed to be a secret?"
"Not necessarily, but it wasn't something I wanted to be discussed by everyone in the break room, either."
Jill pointed her thumb toward the hallway. "Out. We'll talk about it later. Try to grab a cruller before Karah Lee and Blaze eat them all."
Sheila sighed. Jill laughed. Mrs. Mann grunted, and Jill leaned over the bed, pressing her fingers to the elderly lady's wrist.
"How are you feeling this morning, my dear?" she shouted.
Mrs. Mann gave Jill a look of complete trust. Sheila recognized the expression, because she'd been the recipient of that kind of trust from her patients many times. She had to keep reminding herself she was a good nurse.
A good nurse. Yes. She was.
When Clark Memorial Hospital in Branson lost federal funding last month, there had been some major layoffs. Though Sheila had worked there for five years, she still lacked enough seniority to save her job.
Amazing how losing a position, even when it wasn't personal, certainly felt personal. With the population growth in this region of the state, the labor market was wide-open except for registered nurses, it seemed. She'd discovered, when she went looking for a job, that there were a lot of mature nurses retiring to Branson to work part-time. She couldn't find a job. Now she was per diem at three regional hospitals, and until she could get back on her feet financially, she'd moved in with her father on the farm a mile from Hideaway.
Shaking her head, Sheila stepped quietly from Mrs. Mann's room into the wide hallway. It would be easily expected for anyone to ask why on earth a thirty-four-year-old woman would find it necessary to get back on her feet. But it would be more pertinent to ask why she'd been so inept at choosing a husband in the first place. Ryan's irresponsible money management had been apparent to her long before his untimely death, but his romantic affairs had not. She couldn't forgive herself for having such blind trust in him through ten years of marriage.
In an effort to escape her bad memories, she'd recently reverted to her maiden name. The change wouldn't keep the creditors at bay, but she no longer wanted to be identified with the man who had betrayed her in so many ways.
Still, she'd rather be dealing with the difficulties caused by a faithless husband than the situation that had arisen this past weekend.
Every time Sheila closed her eyes, the imprint of black letters announcing the deaths of two of her childhood friends superimposed on her lids. The names had stirred only dim memories when she'd first read the letter two days ago but the impact of the deaths, the call of a time long past, had grown more and more disturbing during this morning's work.
The familiar sounds of distant laughter, coughing and the moan of an elderly lady with dementia down the hallway, all helped Sheila focus a little more on her current job, but not completely. The past kept intruding on her thoughtsespecially the loss that she had never reconciled in her heart or in her life.
The resurfacing memories scraped raw her nerves and set her heart beating double-time. Those recent deaths were tragedy enough, but she'd been forced to admit to herself this morning that they had been only the catalyst for a deeper horror that had haunted her for twenty-four years.
She walked toward the early May sunlight streaking through the blinds at the end of the hallway. Why had the past suddenly become so relevant to her again after all this time?
Her father hadn't intended for her to see the obituary announcement for Tad and Wendy Hunt. Maybe Dad had the right idea. And maybe Sheila shouldn't have been such a snoopeven though the letter had suggested that she might be able to step into the breach created in the clinic by the sudden rash of deaths at the school. Tad and Wendy weren't the only ones who had died.
"Hey, stranger," came a warm, deep voice. Preston Black stepped from the stairwell into that May sunshine at the end of the hall. His tall frame and broad shoulders cast a great deal of shadow along the hallway the way his presence cast conflicting shadows over her thoughts.
She watched him stroll toward her. "Preston, we agreed not to"
"You were the one who decided not to see me. I didn't actually agree to anything, but I promise to back off. I won't argue with you"
"This isn't about the fight." She resisted the urge to take a step backward as he came toward her. "Okay, maybe it is about the fight, in a way, because I do not appreciate your telling a teenager, who in turn has told the whole hospital, about the subject of our fight."
"Don't call Blaze Farmer a teenager within his hearing. I didn't tell him about any fightand it wasn't a fight, it was a strong disagreement"
"Which is a fight, and you must have told him, because Jill just mentioned it to me."
He grinned at her. "I didn't think it was a secret that you wanted to go to Arizona, and we never actually fought, Sheila. Fighting connotes yelling, and"
Sheila couldn't prevent a smile of irony. "We're doing it again. We can't seem to say three words to each other without arguing."
"Discussing. Let's just call it that. Healthy discussion is good for the soul."
"We've fought since Saturday," she said, "which is not good for my soul." It was why she'd wanted some space from him, because she did not want him to influence her decision; he had too much effect on her already.
"Sorry," he said. "Could we just take a short walk? You're due a break, aren't you?"
"I'm supposed to save Karah Lee and Blaze from the crullers."
"I beat you to it." Preston patted his belly his tight, muscled stomach. The phrase "washboard abs" must have been coined with him in mind. The man had the physique of someone who worked out every day, but he never stepped foot in a gym. He simply enjoyed working outdoors, hiking, building his own cabin. For the fun of it, no less; his prior career had been as a CPA and financial advisor. He'd been good at that, too.
Sheila couldn't help appreciating the results of those outdoor activities, both in his musculature, and in the beautiful log cabin in the woods on which he'd completed the finishing touches barely a month ago.
He tugged on her elbow with the entreating look that always weakened her defenses. "If I start another argument with you, I'll let you drive my Jeep all the way out to Arizona. In fact, I'll drive you, myselfif you go."
She led the way to the nearest exit, suppressing a smile that would betray her thoughts. Preston knew her well. How easy it would be to capitulate right now. "Just the Jeep, please."
He gave an exaggerated sigh.
In spite of her misgivings about the subject and their relationship at the moment, she laughed, needing to allow herself the pleasure of his company for a little while. It was his presence that had helped her banish the past back to where it belongedboth the recent history with her late husband, and the distant, more disturbing history that was the true origin of this sense of loss that seldom left her in peace.
He pushed the door open and stepped into sunshine, then escorted her out, his attention on her even more focused than usual. With Preston, she couldn't help herself; not only did he make her heart pound, he made her laugh, and made her think more deeply about her faithbecause he asked so many questions that challenged her beliefs.
And yet, this time she had to draw the line. Shielding her eyes from the morning light, she looked up into Preston's calm, gray-blue eyes, framed by brown-black waves of hair that were due a cut.
She had to face the fact that if she left him here, there was Doris Batson, the new comptroller, a beautiful woman, as accomplished as he in the intricacies of finance, who might be waiting in the wings for him. But Preston would have to make his own decisions about that.
"I promise to miss you," she said, then saw the sudden flash of pain in those eyes.
His jaw muscles flexed as he obviously resisted the urge to restart the argument. "Then it's definite."
She nodded. She hadn't realized it until this moment, but she was going to Arizona. Twin Mesas' Christian boarding school desperately needed help, and she wanted to help it.
It was also the place that held the secrets of her past. Others might be able to put the past behind them and move forward, but she felt stranded there, still searching for her mother. And now there were more children at that school, who had lost not only a mother, but a father, as well.
She knew it was illogical to think that she might have something in common with those children after twenty-four years but what if she did? What if she could help them in some way? She couldn't bear thinking about other children facing the same night terrors she was now facing.
She also could not endure the nightmares much longer. It was time to find some answers, once and for all, so she could move on with her life.