The moment Mallory Christiani stepped into the Intensive Care Unit, she saw the fear in her father-in-law's eyes. He lay propped against two pillows, the weight of his silvery head creasing the starched cases, his sunken face cast in stark relief against white linen. She took a steadying breath, repositioned the shoulder strap of her leather purse and pasted on a smile.
The click of her heels echoed as she walked toward the bed. She was glad she'd taken extra pains freshening up while she was at the house. Her collarless blazer and matching green skirt were crisp and wrinkle free. Keith would never know she hadn't eaten or slept since he'd been stricken yesterday.
"Dad. It's so good to see you awake." Mallory leaned over to kiss his cheek, holding her amber-colored hair back so it wouldn't trail in his face. As she straightened, she took his right hand in hers. His skin felt cold. The lack of response in his limp fingers shocked her. Until now, she hadn't realized how dearly she had come to love him, how big a part he played in her life now that they shared the same home. Keith was more a father to her than her own had ever been. "You're looking better already, you know? Some of your color's coming back."
A treacherous catch in her voice nearly betrayed her.
Why hadn't she recognized his prestroke symptoms? Any nurse worth her salt would have.
Spying tears slipping down his pallid cheeks, she gave him a careful hug. "Oh, Dad. We're through the worst, right? From here on in, you'll be amazed at how quickly you recover."
Keith's blue eyes followed her as she drew away. Was there something wrong here, something more than anxiety over his paralysis? She glanced at the monitor above his head. It seemed to her his heartbeat was too rapid, but she could detect no irregularities in the configurations. If the fast pulse were anything to be concerned about, the monitor alarm would be going off. Through the glass partition, she could see the ICU nurse sitting at the desk, her dark head bent as she filled out charts. Nothing out of the ordinary, apparently.
Pulling up a chair, Mallory eased her purse to the floor. Spittle ran from the corner of her father-in-law's mouth. Suddenly the nightmare of what had happened to him became a reality. She reached for a tissue and wiped his face, keeping her smile steady, her hands sure.
"Emily will come see you as soon as they move you to a regular room. She can't wait. She lost another tooth, but she won't put it under her pillow until you get home. Holding out for more money, I think. So much for believing in fairies, huh?" She laughed. The sound reminded her of two tin cans clanking. "She's staying with Beth Ham-stead until Mother and Dad get home. They're driving back from Texas immediately, but it'll take them an extra day. Dad lost the motor-home keys. Can you believe it? You remember Beth, the lady with all the little redheads?"
Keith's eyes clung to hers, frantic, pleading. His bottom lip quivered as he strained to speak. Spying a flutter of movement, she glanced over to see his left hand twitching, his fingers extended like claws. A low moan erupted from him.
"What is it?" She shot up from the chair. "Are you in pain?" The green graph line was rocketing across the monitor screen. He was clearly agitated about something. Her own pulse began to race as she grabbed the nurse buzzer. "There, there, it'll be okay. Relax, Dad. Take deep breaths."
The approaching swish of the nurse's polyester uniform eased the tension from Mallory's shoulders. She turned to watch the plump woman hurry to the bed.