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He'd known this day was coming for a long time.
Death was not a surprise to him. As a doctor, it was all part of the circle of life. But while he always concentrated on the positive, Dr. Peter Wilder could never fully ignore the fact that death was seated at the very same table as life.
His mother, Alice, had died five years ago, a victim of cancer. Now that death had come to rob him for a second time, though, he felt alone, despite the fact that the cemetery was crowded. His three siblings were there, along with all the friends and admirers that his father, Dr. James Wilder, had garnered over the years as a physician and Chief of Staff at Walnut River General Hospital and, toward the end, as the chairman of the board of directors. Despite the cold, gloomy January morning and the persistent snow flurries, there had been an enormous turnout to pay last respects to a man who had touched so very many lives.
Despite all of his professional obligations, James had never failed to make time for his family, was always there for all the important occasions that meant something to his sons and daughters.
Now both his mother and his father were gone, the latter leaving behind incredibly large shoes to fill.
Peter had become the patriarch. As the oldest, he would be the one to whom David and Ella and Anna would turn.
Well, maybe not Anna, he reconsidered, glancing over toward her.
They were gathered around the grave. Typically, while he, David and Ella were on one side of his father's final resting place, Anna had positioned herself opposite them. Ten years his junior, Anna was the family's official black sheep.
While he, David and Ella had followed their father's footsteps, Anna's feet had not quite fit the mold. He knew that she had tried, managing to go so far as being accepted into a medical school. But then she'd dropped out in her freshman year.
Anna didn't have the head for medicine, or the heart. So she had gone a different route, earning an MBA and finally finding herself when she entered the world of finance.
But there was an even greater reason why the rest of them considered Anna to be the black sheep. His father had been fond of referring to her as "the chosen one," but the simple truth of it was, Anna had been a foundling, abandoned as an infant on the steps of the hospital to which the senior Wilder had dedicated his entire adult life.
Since James Wilder lived and breathed all things that concerned Walnut River General, it somehow seemed natural that he should adopt the only baby who had ever been left there.
Or so he'd heard his father say to his mother when he was trying to win her over to his decision. His mother tried, but he knew that she could never quite make herself open her heart to this child whose own parents hadn't wanted her. Maybe because of this, because of the way his mother felt, his father had done his best to make it up to Anna. He had overcompensated.
For years, James went out of his way to make Anna feel accepted and a wanted member of the family. In his efforts to keep Anna from feeling unloved, James Wilder often placed his adopted daughter first.
Despite all his good intentions, his father's actions were not without consequences. While they were growing up, Peter and his siblings were resentful of the special treatment Anna received. Especially David, who began to act out in order to win his own brand of attention from their father.
Slowly, so slowly that Peter wasn't even certain when it actually happened, it became a matter of their breaking into two separate campshe, David and Ella on the one hand, and Anna, by herself, on the other. The schism continued to grow despite all of their father's efforts to the contrary. Time and again, James would try to rectify the situation, asking them each what was wrong and what he could do to fix it, only to be told by a tight-lipped child that everything was fine.
But it wasn't.
He, David and Ella felt that Anna had their father's ear and the bulk of his love and attention. At the same time Anna, he surmised as he looked back on things now, probably felt like the odd woman out, doomed to remain on the outside of the family circle, forever looking in.
Maybe now would be a good time to put a stop to it, Peter thought. To change direction and start fresh. As a tribute to his father, who simply wanted his family to all get along. They weren't all that different, really, the four of them. And Anna had loved James Wilder as much as any of them.
Snow was dusting Peter's dark brown hair, making it appear almost white. He brushed some of it aside. The sudden movement had Ella looking up at him. Ella, with her doelike eyes and small mouth that was usually so quick to smile shyly. Ella, whose dark eyes right now looked almost haunted with sadness.
Leaning her head toward him, she whispered, "I can't believe he's really gone. I thought he'd be with us forever, like some force of nature."
Standing on her other side, David couldn't help overhearing. "Well, he really is gone. They're about to lower the coffin," he murmured bitterly.
Ella's head jerked up and she looked at David, stunned at the raw pain in his tone, not just over the loss of their father, but the opportunity to ever again make things right between them. James and David had not been on the warmest terms at the time of the senior Wilder's death and Peter was certain that David chafed over words he had left unsaid simply because "there was always tomorrow."
Now tomorrow would never come.
Peter turned away, his attention on the highly polished casket slowly being lowered into the ground. With each inch that came between them, he felt fresh waves of loss wash over him.
Goodbye, Dad. I wish we'd had more time together. There's so much I still need to know, so much I still want to ask you.
Peter waited until the coffin was finally placed at the bottom of the grave, then he stepped forward and dropped the single red rose he'd been holding. It fell against the coffin and then, like the tears of a weeping mourner, slid off to the side.
"Rest well, Dad," Peter said, struggling to keep his voice from cracking. "You've earned it." And then he moved aside, letting Ella have her moment as she added her rose to his, her wishes to his.
One by one, the mourners all filed by, people who were close to the man, people who worshipped the doctor, dropping roses and offering warm words for one of the finest men any of them had ever known.
Peter had expected Anna to follow either David or, more likely since she'd once been close to her, Ella. But she stood off to the side, patiently waiting for everyone else to go by before she finally moved forward herself.
He should have realized that she wanted to be alone with their father one last time.
Last but not least, right, Anna?
She was saying something, but her voice was so low when she spoke that he couldn't hear her. He caught a glimpse of the tears glistening in her eyes even though she tried to avert her head so her grief would remain as private as her parting words.
Peter felt a hint of guilt pricking his conscience. This was his sister. Adopted, yes, but raised with him from infancy. She'd been only a few days old at most when his father had brought her into their house.
"I brought you an early birthday present, Alice," the senior Wilder had announced as he came through the front door.
Until the day he died, Peter would remember the look of surprise, disbelief and then something more that he couldn't begin to fathom wash across his mother's face when she came into the living room to see what it was that his father had brought home for her. He was ten at the time and David was six. His mother had just crawled out of a depression that had her, for a time, all but confined to her bed. He remembered how afraid he'd been back then, afraid that there was something wrong with his mother. He'd fully expected her to fall head over heels in love with the babythat's what women did, he'd thought at the time. They loved babies.
But there had been a tightness around her mouth as she took the bundle from his father.
"She's very pretty, isn't she, boys?" his father had said, trying to encourage them to become part of the acceptance process.
"She's noisy," David had declared, scowling. "And she smells."
His father had laughed. "She just needs changing."
"Can we change her for a pony?" David wanted to know, picking up on the word.
"'Fraid not, David. What do you think of her, Peter?" his father had asked, turning toward him.
"She's very little" had been his only comment about this new addition. He remembered watching his mother instead of the baby. Watching and worrying. His father had once said that he was born old, and there was some truth to that. He couldn't remember ever being carefree.
"That's right," his father had agreed warmly.
"And we need to look out for her." His father had placed his large, capable hand on his shoulder, silently conveying that he was counting on him. "You need to look after her.You're her big brother."
He remembered nodding solemnly, not happy about the assignment but not wanting to disappoint his father, either. He also recalled seeing his mother frown as she took the baby from his father and walked into the other room.
And so began a rather unsteady, continuing family dynamic. David saw Anna as competition, while Peter regardedAnna as a burden he was going to have to carry. And things never really changed.
For one reason or another, things were never quite harmonious among them. Whenever he would extend the olive branch, Anna would hold him suspect. And whenever she would seek common ground with him, he'd be too busy to meet her halfway. Things between her and David were in an even worse state. Only she and Ella got along.
And so the years melted away, wrapped in misunderstanding and hurt feelings, and the gap continued to widen.
It was time to put a stop to it.
"Anna," he called to her.
David and Ella, standing nearby, both turned to look at their older brother. About to melt back into the crowd, Anna looked up and in Peter's direction. The wind whipped her light blond hair into her eyes. She blinked, pushing the strand back behind her ear, a silent question in her pale blue eyes.
Peter cut the distance between them. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was on borrowed time, that there was a finite amount of it during which he could bring peace to the family. He had no idea where the feeling had come from.
However, once he was beside her, words seemed to desert him. Ordinarily, he always knew how to sympathize, how to comfort. His bedside manner was one of his strongest points. He had absolutely no trouble placing himself in his patient's drafty hospital gown, understanding exactly what he or she was going through. Like his father before him, Peter's capacity for empathy was enormous, and his patients loved him for it.
But this was different. This was almost too personal. This came with baggage and history. His and Anna's.
Peter did his best to sound warm when he spoke to her, knowing that she had to be feeling the same sort of pain he was.
"There's going to be a reception at my house." David and Ella were standing directly behind him. He wished one of them would say something. "I didn't know if you knew." Once the words were out, he realized it sounded like a backhanded invitation.
"I didn't," she replied quietly. Her eyes moved from David's face to Ella's to his again.