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"Sam, it's Liz. I need to speak with you right away. Call me on my cell."
A jolt of adrenaline shot through Sam Martin as he set his black medical bag on the kitchen counter and reached for the pad and pen next to the answering machine. He hadn't seen Liz Warren, his wife's best friend, since the night Cara left him, and he'd only spoken with her once after that. If she was calling, something was up. And a sick feeling of dread told him it wasn't good.
Jotting down the number as she recited it, Sam checked his watch. If his house call deep in rural Missouri hadn't taken two hours, he would have arrived back in Oak Hill early enough to return the call without guilt. But it was almost eleven on the east coast, and Liz hadn't used the emergency cell phone number he provided on his home and office answering machines. Whatever she wanted to talk to him about couldn't be urgent. But there was no way he could wait until tomorrow to find out the reason for her call. Better to risk waking her than spend a sleepless night counting the hours until morning.
As he punched in Liz's number, it occurred to him that she might have gone out for the evening. It was Saturday, after all. But if she had, he'd leave a message to call him back when she returned, no matter the hour. He'd be awake anyway.
To his relief, a live voice answered. "Hello."
"Liz, it's Sam. I just got your message."
There was a slight hesitation before she responded. "I've been having some second thoughts about calling you."
Sam heard the coolnessand cautionin her voice. No surprise there. She'd been Cara's best friend far longer than he'd known his wife. And she'd witnessed his ultimate betrayal. He understoodand respected her loyalty. But he wasn't about to hang up without finding out why she'd called. It was too late for that.
"I assume it concerns Cara."
Another brief silence.
"Look, Sam, to be honest, you're the last person I wanted to call," Liz finally said. "If Cara's parents weren't on a missionary trip in Africa for a year, and if her sister wasn't eight months pregnant and in the middle of preparing to move, I'd have called them. But they are and she is, so I didn't know who else to contact."
"About what, Liz?" Sam's grip on the phone tightened. It took every ounce of his restraint to remain calm when his mind was racing with terrifying scenarios.
"I I think Cara needs some help. I've tried to talk with her about it, but she shuts me out and says she's fine. Except she isn't. Not even close. And I don't know what else to do." Her voice broke on the last word.
"Okay, Liz, you're going to have to back up. What's wrong with Cara? Is she sick?" Sam couldn't stop the quiver that ran through his voice. Liz was the most in-control woman he'd ever met. If she was upset enough to let her emotions show, there was a major problem.
"Not physically." The sound of a deep breath being drawn came over the line. When she continued, she sounded more like herself. "A month ago, Cara and another chef named Tony were leaving the restaurant after hours, and they were accosted in the parking lot by a robber. When Tony tried to resist, the guy shot him. He died before the ambulance got there."
A muscle in Sam's jaw clenched. Cara had witnessed a murderand possibly faced death herself. If he hadn't made a mess of their marriage, he'd have been there for her through this trauma. Instead, she'd had to deal with itand the aftermathalone.
"Tell me " He stopped and cleared his throat, then tried again. "Tell me about Cara."
"She tried to go back to work a few days after the shooting, but when she had a panic attack in the kitchen the owner suggested she take a little time off. The thing is, though, she's not getting any better. She rarely leaves her apartment, and never at night. She's anxious in the dark and can't sleep when she's by herself. She has persistent nightmares. I found that out when she stayed with us at the beginning. But now she thinks she's wearing out her welcome as if that was possible! Anyway, I know she's still not sleeping."
Post-traumatic stress disorder. It was an easy diagnosis, but a difficult condition to treat. Sam had learned enough about it in the past couple of years to write a book. "Does her family know about any of this?"
"No. She said they all have enough on their plates, and since she wasn't hurt there was no need to upset them."
That sounded like Cara. She'd always put other people's needs above her own. The best example of that was when she'd stood by him after his own trauma, despite the verbal abuse he'd heaped on her. Perhaps now he could return the favor by being there for her as she had been for him. If she'd let him.
"I'll help in any way I can, Liz. What did you have in mind?" If he followed his instincts, he'd jump on the next plane to Philadelphia and show up at her door. Except she'd probably slam it in his face.
"I do have an idea. But it may not be convenient for you."
Based on his history, Liz's comment was fair. Sam knew he'd been selfish and self-absorbed and far too egotistical in the past. But things had changed. "That won't be an issue."
She mulled that over for a few seconds. "Okay. But it all hinges on whether or not you're involved with anyone."
The comment was like a slap. "I'm still married to Cara, Liz."
"Yeah. I know."
But that didn't stop you before.
She didn't have to say the words. Sam heard them anyway. His neck grew warm, and his mouth settled into a grim line. "There isn't anyone else, Liz. There never really was."
"Right." Without giving him a chance to respond to her sarcasm, she continued. "So what kind of living arrangement do you have there?"
"What do you mean?"
"House, apartment, condo?"
"Good. Okay, here's what I'm thinking. Cara needs somewhere safe to stay for a while, far away from the city. If you have room for herand I mean that literally, as in a private room of her ownI think a small-town atmosphere in the heartland would be a perfect place for her to recover. But the last thing she needs is for someone to make her feel that she's imposing. Nor could she handle angerfor any reason. She needs understanding and security and safety."
Turning toward the window, Sam stared out into the darkness. Twelve years ago, when he and Cara married, he'd planned to give her all those things. But the image of her white, shocked face and shattered expression on that fateful night sixteen months ago reminded him how badly he'd failed. It was seared into his brain, the memory still powerful enough to clench his gut. To leave the bitter tang of regret on his tongue. To compel him to find a way to fix the damage and start anew, just as his skilled hands had once given his patients new life through surgery.
Maybe this was his chance. "I can give her those things, Liz. And more."
His quiet, intense response seemed to surprise his wife's best friend. "Okay. I'm already going to be in the doghouse for calling you. I can live with that if my idea helps her. But not if I end up sending her to a situation worse than the one she's in."
Although he knew Liz had a poor opinion of him, that comment rankled. "I'm not a monster. And despite what you might believe, I still love Cara. Yes, I made some mistakes. Bad oneswhich I'll regret as long as I live. But people do change. I promise you that while Cara is here, I'll do everything I can to help her recover. No one wants that more than me. I have three bedrooms, and one of them is empty. She's welcome to stay as long as she wants to."
"If you can convince her to come. And that's a big if."
"I'll find a way."
His conviction seemed to impress Liz. A slight, almost imperceptible warmth crept into her voice. "I hope you do, Sam. Good luck."
With a troubled expression, Sam hung up the phone and pushed through the screen door to his back porch. The warmth of the early June evening was pleasant, with none of the mugginess that characterized typical Missouri nights later in the summer. A clear sky promised a fair tomorrow, the stars bright overhead, the moon full. The scent of honeysuckle wafted through the still night air, sweet and fresh. At the back of the property, a slight breeze whispered in the woods, and the faint echo of a steady whistle sounded as a distant train moved purposefully toward its destination.
The peaceful setting did little to calm Sam's roiling emotions, however. An hour ago, as he'd driven home through the dense night, he'd been no closer to a solution to his dilemma with Cara than he had been more than a year before, when she'd left him. Now an opportunity had been dropped in his lap.
But at Cara's expense.
Closing his eyes, Sam forced himself to take a deep, steadying breath as he tried to sort out his feelings. He could identify anger in the volatile mix. Directed at the perpetrator of a crime that had cost one man his life and scarred his wife psychologically. Guilt was jumbled in there, too. If he hadn't messed things up, he would have been there for Cara during this crisis. And there was also a healthy dose of compassion. No one understood the horror and trauma of the situation Cara had experienced better than him. He'd been there. He could empathize, and he wanted to help.
But the main reason he wanted her to come to Missouri was far simpler than that. He still loved her. As far as he was concerned, that alone justified her visit.
Yet Liz was right. Convincing Cara of that wasn't going to be easy. They'd had almost no direct communication since the night she'd left him, nor had he seen her. The sale of their condo had been handled by a real estate firm, business and financial matters by lawyers. When he'd tried to call her, he'd always gotten her answering machine. The flowers and cards he'd sent in the first few months had gone unacknowledged. It was clear that she wanted no contact with him.
And Sam didn't have a clue how to change her mind. His surgical skill had been almost intuitive. He was far less able when it came to matters of the heart. As the months had slipped by, his hopes for a reconciliation had dimmed. Yet he'd clung to them as fiercely as a drowning man clasps a life preserver, unable to accept that his marriage was over.
He'd been desperate enough to even consider asking God for help. But whatever tenuous connection he'd once felt with the Almighty had been severed by the tragic events that had robbed him of the career he prized and the woman he loved. In the end, turning to God for assistance hadn't been an option.
But now that an unexpected opportunity had been dropped into his lap, he wasn't going to let it slip away. If he couldn't convince Cara by phone to come, he'd fly to Philadelphia and camp on her doorstep. According to Liz, she needed help. And he intended to give it to her.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged the validity of Liz's final comment. He would need a lot of luck to pull this off. And maybe something more.
Maybe he needed God after all.