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She had to get to the hospital. Andrea Hampton's fingers tightened on the steering wheel as that call from the Pennsylvania State Police replayed in her mind in an endless loop. Her sister had been struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking along a dark country roadlike this one. They didn't know how badly she was injured. Repeated calls to the hospital had netted her only a bland voice saying that Rachel Hampton was undergoing treatment.
Please. Please. She wasn't even sure she believed any longer, but the prayer seemed to come automatically. Please, if You're there, if You're listening, keep Rachel safe.
Darkness pressed against the windows, unrelieved except for the reflection of her headlights on the dark macadam and the blur of white pasture fence posts. Amish country, and, once you were off the main routes, there were no lights at night except for the occasional faded yellow of oil lamps from a distant farmhouse.
If she let herself picture Rachel's slight figure, turning, seeing a car barreling toward her A cold hand closed around her heart.
After all those years she had protected her two younger sisters, Rachel and Caroline were independent now. That was only right. Still, some irrational part of her mind seemed to be saying: You should have been here.
A black-and-yellow sign announced a crossroads, and she tapped the brakes lightly as she approached a curve. She glanced at the dashboard clock. Nearly midnight.
She looked up, and a cry tore from her throat. A dark shape ahead of her on the road, an orange reflective triangle gleaming on the back of it Her mind recognizing an Amish buggy, she slammed on the brakes, wrenching the wheel with all her strength. Please, please, don't let me hit it
The car skidded, fishtailing, and she fought for control. Too latethe rear wheels left the road and plunged down into a ditch, tipping crazily, headlight beams spearing toward the heavens. The air bag deployed, slamming into her. For an instant she couldn't breathe, couldn't think.
As her head began to clear she fought the muffling fabric of the air bag, the seat belt harness digging into her flesh. Panic seared along her nerves, and she struggled to contain it. She wasn't a child, she wasn't trapped
A door slammed. Voices, running feet, and someone yanked at the passenger door.
"Are you hurt? Can you talk?"
"Yes." She managed to get her face free of the entangling folds. "I think I'm all right, but I can't reach the seat belt."
"Hold on. We'll get you out." A murmured consultationmore than one person, then. The scrape of metal on metal, and the door shrieked in protest as it was lifted.
"The buggy." Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper. "I didn't hit it, did I?"
"No," came a curt male voice, and then a flashlight's beam struck her face, making her blink. "You didn't."
Hands fumbled for the seat belt, tugging. The belt tightened across her chest, she couldn't breatheand then it released and air flowed into her protesting lungs.
"Take a moment before we try to move you." He was just a dark shadow behind the light. In control. "Be sure nothing's broken."
She wanted to shout at him to pull her free, to get her out of the trap her car had become, but he made sense. She wiggled fingers, toes, ran her hands along her body as much as she could.
"Just tender. Please, get me out." She would not let panic show in her voice, even though the sense of confinement in a small, dark space scraped her nerves raw with the claustrophobia she always hoped she'd overcome. "Please."
Hands gripped her arms, and she clung instinctively to the soft cotton of the man's shirt. Muscles bunched under the fabric. He pulled, she wiggled, pushing her body upward, and in a moment she was free, leaning against the tip-tilted car.
"Easy." Strong hands supported her.
"Are you sure she is all right, Calvin Burke?" This voice sounded young, a little frightened. "Should we take her to the hospital?"
"The hospital." She grasped the words. "I'm all right, but I have to get to the hospital. My sister is there. I have to go there."
She was repeating herself, she thought, her mind still a little fuzzy. She couldn't seem to help it. She focused on the three people who stood around her. An Amish couple, their young faces white and strained in the glow of the flashlight.
And the man, the one with the gruff, impatient voice and the strong, gentle hands. He held the light, so she couldn't see him welljust an impression of height, breadth, the pale cloth of his shirt.
"Your sister." His voice had sharpened. "Would you be Rachel Hampton's sister?"
"Yes." She grabbed his hand. "You know her? Do you know how she is? I keep calling, but they won't tell me anything."
"I know her. Was on my way, in fact, to see if your grandmother needed any help."
"Grams is all right, isn't she?" Her fear edged up a notch.
"Just upset over Rachel." He turned toward the young couple. "I'll take her to the hospital. You two better get along home."
"Ja, we will," the boy said. "We pray that your sister will be well." They both nodded and then moved quickly toward the waiting buggy, their clothing melting into the darkness.
Her Good Samaritan gestured toward the pickup truck that sat behind her car. "Anything you don't want to leave here, we can take now."
She shoved her hand through the disheveled layers of her hair, trying to think. "Overnight bag. My briefcase and computer. They're in the trunk." Concern jagged through her. "If the computer is damaged.. " The project she was working on was backed up, of course, but it would still be a hassle if she couldn't work while she was here.
"I don't hear any ominous clanking noises." He pulled the cases from the trunk, whose lid gaped open. "Let's get going."
She bent over the car to retrieve her handbag and cell phone, a wave of dizziness hitting her at the movement. Gritting her teeth, she followed him to the truck.
He yanked open the passenger side door and shoved the bags onto the floor. Obviously she was meant to rest her feet on them. There was no place else to put them if she didn't want them rattling around in the back.
She climbed gingerly into the passenger seat. The dome light gave her a brief look at her rescuer as he slid behind the wheel. Thirtyish, she'd guess, with a shock of sun-streaked brown hair, longer than was fashionable, and a lean face. His shoulders were broad under the faded plaid shirt he wore, and when he gave her an impatient glance, she had the sense that he carried a chip on them.
He slammed the door, the dome light going out, and once again he was little more than an angular shape.
"I take it you know my grandmother." Small surprise, that. Katherine Unger's roots went deep in Lancaster County, back to the German immigrants who'd swarmed to Penn's Woods in the 1700s.
He nodded, and then seemed to feel something more was called for. "Cal Burke. And you're Rachel's older sister, Andrea. I've heard about you." His clipped tone suggested he hadn't been particularly impressed by whatever that was.
Still, she couldn't imagine that her sister had said anything bad about her. She and Rachel had always been close, even if they hadn't seen each other often enough in the past few years, especially since their mother's death. Even if she completely disapproved of this latest scheme Rachel and Grams had hatched.
She glanced at him. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she was able to see a little more, noticing his worn jeans, scuffed leather boots and a stubble of beard. She'd thought, in that first hazy glimpse as he pulled her out of the car, that he might be Amishsomething about the hair, the pale shirt and dark pants. But obviously he wasn't.
"I should try the hospital again." She flipped the cell phone open.
Please. The unaccustomed prayer formed in her mind again. Please let Rachel be all right.
"I doubt they'll tell you any more than they already have." He frowned at the road ahead. "Have you tried your grandmother's number?"
"She never remembers to turn her cell phone on." She punched in the number anyway, only to be sent straight to voice mail. "Grams, if you get this before I see you, call me on my cell." Her throat tightened. "I hope Rachel is all right."
"Ironic," he said as she clicked off. "You have an accident while rushing to your sister's bedside. Ever occur to you that these roads aren't meant for racing?"
She stiffened at the criticism. "I was not racing. And if you were behind me, you must have seen me brake as I approached the curve. If I hadn't " She stopped, not wanting to imagine that.
His hands moved restlessly on the wheel, as if he wanted to push the rattletrap truck along faster but knew he couldn't. "We're coming up on Route 30. We'll make better time there."
He didn't sound conciliatory, but at least he hadn't pushed his criticism of her driving. Somehow she still wanted to defend herself.
"I'm well aware that I have to watch for buggies on this road. I just didn't expect to see anyone out this late."
And she was distracted with fear for Rachel, but she wouldn't say that to him. It would sound like a plea for sympathy.
"It's spring," he said, as if that was an explanation. "Rumspringa, to those kids. That means"
"I know what rumspringa means," she snapped. "The time when Amish teenagers get to experience freedom and figure out what kind of life they want. You don't need to give me the Pennsylvania Dutch tour. I lived in my grandparents' house until I was ten."
"Well, I guess that makes you an expert, then."
No doubt about it, the man was annoying, but she hadn't exactly been all sweetness and light in the past half hour, either. And he was taking her to the hospital.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to snap. I guess I'm a little shaken."
He glanced at her. "Maybe you should have them check you out at the hospital. You had a rough landing."
She shook her head. "I'll probably be black-and-blue tomorrow, but that's it." She touched her neck gingerly. Either the air bag or the seat belt had left what felt like brush burns there. The bruises on her confidence from the fear she'd felt wouldn't show, but they might take longer to go away.
Apparently taking her word for it, he merged onto Route 30. The lights and activity were reassuring, and in a few minutes they pulled up at the emergency entrance to the hospital.
"Thank you." She slid out, reaching for her things. "I really appreciate this."
He spoke when she would have pulled her bag out. "I'm going in, too. May as well leave your things here until you know what you're doing."
She hesitated, and then she shrugged and let go of the case. "Fine. Thank you," she added.
He came around the truck and set off toward the entrance, his long strides making her hurry to keep up. Inside, the bright lights had her blinking. Burke caught her arm and navigated her past the check-in desk and on into the emergency room, not stopping until he reached the nurses' station.
"Evening, Ruth. This is Rachel Hampton's sister. Tell her how Rachel is without the hospital jargon, all right?"
She half expected the womanmiddle-aged, grayhaired and looking as if her feet hurtto call security. Instead she gave him a slightly flirtatious smile.
"Calvin Burke, just because you've been in here three or four times to get stitched up, don't think you own the place." She consulted a clipboard, lips pursing.
Andrea stole a look at him. It wasn't her taste, but she supposed some women went for the rugged, disreputable-looking type.
Ruth Schmidt, according to her name badgean-other good old Pennsylvania Dutch name, like Ungerpicked up the telephone and had a cryptic, low-voiced conversation with someone. She hung up and gave Andrea a professional smile.
"Your sister has come through surgery fine, and she's been taken to a private room."
"What were her injuries?" She hated digging for information, as if her sister's condition were a matter of national security. "Where is my grandmother? Isn't she here?"
The woman stiffened. "I really don't know anything further about the patient's condition. I understand Mrs. Unger was persuaded to go home, as there was nothing she could do here. I'd suggest you do the same, and"
"No." She cut the woman off. "I'm not going anywhere until I've seen my sister. And if you don't know anything about her injuries, I'll talk to someone who does."
She prepared for an argument. It didn't matter what they said to her, she wasn't leaving until she'd seen Rachel, if she had to stay here all night.
Maybe the woman recognized that. She pointed to a bank of elevators. "Third floor. Room 301. But she'll be asleep"
She didn't wait to hear any more. She made it to the elevator in seconds and pressed the button, the fear that had driven her since she left Philadelphia a sharp blade against her heart. Rachel would be all right. Grams wouldn't have gone home unless she was convinced of that. Still, she had to see for herself.
A quick ride in the elevator, a short walk across the hall, and she was in the room. Rachel lay motionless in the high, white hospital bed. Both legs were in casts, and hospital paraphernalia surrounded her.
Light brown hair spread out over a white pillow, dark lashes forming crescents against her cheek. Rachel looked about sixteen, instead of nearly thirty. Her little sister, whom she loved, fought with, bossed, protected. Her throat choked, and the tears she'd been holding back spilled over.