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New Year's Day "I didn't know who else to come to. I really need your help."
Teresa Morales listened to Dr. Dennis Harrington's words as she sat curled up on the soft beige sofa in the lodge at the Stockington Falls Mountain Ski Resort. The fire in the huge granite fireplace in the center of the room was burning hotalmost too hot for her comfort. Or maybe that was just her anxiety kicking in. This was supposed to be her vacation. No one was supposed to need her help here.
She bookmarked the page in the book she had been reading before Dennis's abrupt arrival and closed it, setting it aside on the end table. With a swift motion, she untangled one long leg out from underneath her and brusquely hit her bare feet to the wide pine floor with a dull thud. If this was Dennis's idea of a joke, she wasn't laughing.
"I'm just a tourist. Why would you need my help?"
"Last night " His voice trailed off, a stricken look on his face, and Teresa knew he wasn't talking about the New Year's Eve party they'd both attendedor the dance they'd shared. No, he was referring to what had happened afterwardthe reason behind the beeper call that had pulled him away from the party after their dance. The horrible car crash on the bridge that had been the only topic of conversation throughout Stockington Falls today.
"I'm not sure you understand how severe the accident that took place last night really was."
"I do," she countered quickly. "I could see the whole awful mess right upstairs from my window after I left the party. And I saw what was left of it once the fog lifted this morning. Anyone with a condo facing the west side of the mountain had to have seen and heard what was going on after midnight."
It was human nature to be curious in the wake of flashing emergency lights and sirens, and she certainly had been. After Dennis had left, she'd returned to her room intending to go to sleep. But the flashing lights below had drawn Teresa to the window. She'd stared wide eyed into the night as the snow fell like ash from the dark sky.
She hadn't been able to bring herself to close the curtains, to shield herself from what little she could see through the snow. Soon after the storm subsided, the flashing red, white and blue lights had screamed out into what had been a festive evening. Dragging herself away from what was happening down in the valley didn't seem right. She'd felt she couldn't leave the window until the last tow truck had pulled away. The last of the vehicles, the one that had plunged into the icy water, had been the last to be towed away.
Five months ago, she probably would have been right out there on the road with the rescue workers. As far as she knew, Dennis's clinic didn't have a psychologist on staff. Though she specialized in dealing with children, with her training and experience, she could have been there for the victims, for their families, helping them cope with the tragedy surrounding them.
At one time, maybe Teresa could have done some good. Her gentle guidance might have made a difference between choosing to deal with painful truths or run from them. Now she was the one who was runningrunning from the events that had shattered her confidence and from the tormenting truth that she had failed.
He shrugged. "It was a tough night."
She was sure it'd been more than just tough for Dennis. He was the only doctor in townthe clinic that he ran was the only medical facility in nearly fifty miles. He'd probably been up all night tending to the victims of the accident. She'd spent the better part of her time standing there praying to God that the people involved would be okay. Dennis had been down there on the ground making sure of it.
"I don't have to tell you that the accident on the bridge was a bad one. Certainly nothing like I've seen since I've been in Stockington Falls."
"How long is that?"
"Except for med school and the military, my whole life. I don't think I've ever seen so many police cars and ambulances lined up along Abbey Bridge Road."
"What is it you think I can do?" she asked against her better judgment.
"You're a school psychologist. You work with young kids. Two teenagers, both hurt, are among the survivors." Dennis's words hit her square in the chest, and she struggled to keep from showing her reaction.
"I know," Teresa said. "One of them is in a coma. He was airlifted to St. Johnsbury for treatment. A woman in her late twenties was also brought in. Another woman, a young mother, was killed. Her little boy was miraculously saved from the explosion."
Teresa found herself chuckling ironically at the shocked look at Dennis's face, despite the severity of the situation.
"You know as well as I do that it's a small town here, Dennis. The grapevine works fast. All I had to do was walk down here to the lodge for some coffee and I got more than what will probably be in the police report."
"Then you understand why I'd like you to talk with one of the teenage survivors, Benny Dulton, about what happened last night."
Counsel teenagers again? Was he kidding?
She got to her feet and turned to walk away, but he caught her arm.
"Please just hear me out."
"I don't have to."
"True enough. But there really isn't anyone else I can turn to for this. Stockington Falls doesn't have a child psychologist."
Lord, I can't go through this again. I just can't. She said the words silently as her eyes filled with moisture.
"You said it yourselfStockington Falls doesn't have a child psychologist. That includes me. I don't live here. I'm just on vacation. For all you know, I could be planning to go back to Connecticut tomorrow," she said.
"You're not leaving, are you?" he said, his face tired from the night before but still registering panic.
"The thought had crossed my mind."
"You can help, Teresa. There isn't anyone else."
Dennis sighed. "If there was, I wouldn't be troubling you. Benny needs you, and I know you can help him."
Although she straightened her spine and squared her slender shoulders, Teresa realized it was no use. No matter how tall she tried to stand, her five feet two inches were no match against the tall, muscles-built-for-serious-business Dr. Dennis Harrington.
A slight tremor betrayed her determination as her gaze rolled across the room and then settled on his handsome face. He stood a good eight inches above her. Maybe a bit more. His dark hair was almost black and was clipped short so that hardly a hair fell out of place most of the time. Now it was disheveled, possibly from the rough night of working the emergency room and scrubbing his hand over his head in fatigue or frustration.
Yeah, there had probably been a lot of frustration last night, and it showed in the slight bend of his broad shoulders and the rumpled clothes.
Still, there was something commanding about him, even now, when he was clearly exhaustedpossibly something linked to the fact that he'd returned from his tour in Iraq just a little over six months ago.
She could understand why a local teenager in trouble was important to him and why the worried lines on his face were so deep. Unlike last night at the annual New Year's Eve party at the ski lodge, Dennis was here today because of a tragedy.
But despite all that, Teresa stood her ground.
"Do you really think that a few conversations over the past month that I've been in town and a twirl around the dance floor last night give you sufficient information about my professional credentials to make this judgment?"
His lips tilted up ever so slightly, revealing only a hint of the straight white teeth that she knew showed when he had a full-blown smile. She was glad he wasn't smiling fully now. That smile might be enough to melt her resolve.
She blinked her thoughts away from the memory of his smile and was staring up at Dennis Harrington again. She wasn't a schoolgirl with a crush. And she wasn't interested in anything Dennis had to say to her right now.
"I'm afraid you've wasted your time coming here. I no longer counsel children," she said resolutely.
His mouth tightened and he sighed, running a hand through his dark wavy hair. With the motion, his black turtleneck stretched taut against his strong shoulders. She remembered vividly how she'd rested her cheek against those shoulders last night when he'd asked her to dance. He'd seemed so strong. Comforting. She'd relished the feeling while it had lasted. But he wasn't offering support or comfort to her now; instead, he was asking her to give it to a child in need. And that was something she just could not do. Not anymore.
Dennis's expression was far more serious than she'd ever seen. Deep lines marred the corners of his mouth and the creases of his eyes that usually she associated with laugh lines.
"You didn't strike me as the type to walk away from a challenge, Teresa," he said.
His words sliced through her like a jagged blade. It may have been true a few months ago. She'd been dubbed a crusader back then. She'd walked the halls of the high school she'd worked at for ten years with the confidence she was making a difference in the lives of the students who sought her help. However, if Teresa was anything, she was a quick learner. Since then, she'd learned her lessons painfully well.
"You barely know me. How would you know?"
"Some things you just know."
She knotted her arms across her chest. "Have you ever heard of the word vacation, Dr. Harrington?"
He shrugged. "Not lately, I'm afraid."
"Well, let me spell it out for you. V-A-C"
"I know fully well how to spell the word, Ms. Morales," he said, putting emphasis on the formal address of her name as his lips tilted into a quick smile and his dark brown eyes lit up with amusement.
"Good. Then I'm sure you'll understand my wanting to get back to enjoying mine."
He nodded, unaffected by her attempt to put him off. "I didn't realize the Hartford school system paid their counselor enough to afford a month-long stay at a prime ski resort like Stockington Falls Mountain."
She snapped her gaze to him, shock rippling through her. "How do you know where I worked? I didn't tell you." She hadn't told anyone. Given the state she'd been in when she'd come to Stockington Falls, it was possible she'd let slip her profession, but Teresa had been very careful not to discuss where she was from. There were too many headlines in the papers that made people curious enough to bring up events she didn't want to talk about.
"The information was all on the medical application you filled out when you came to the clinic." Dennis spoke matter of factly, as if it was a common practice to dig up information on total strangers in Stockington Falls.
He made no apology, obviously comfortable with his tactics to uncover information she'd tried not to reveal to just anyone. But then, she had been the one to supply him with all the necessary information he was using to gain entrance into a place she didn't want to go. He didn't know that she'd had a good reason to want to hide her past. No one in Stockington Falls did.
He sat down on the edge of the sofa, hunching forward with his elbows resting on his thighs. He seemed oblivious to the comings and goings of tourists around them.
"I made a few phone calls this morning. You have an excellent reputation as a child psychologist back home." He paused. "By the way, you've been missed."
Teresa closed her eyes at his tender words. Not long ago a compliment like that would have given her pride. Now she wasn't so sure if it was deserved.
She resumed her stance, folding her arms across her chest, uncomfortable with the knowledge that Dennis had gone to such lengths to learn about her past. Suddenly, Teresa was all too aware of the waitress handing out drinks at the tables in the room, of the tourists and of the maintenance man emptying a garbage can close by. Was everyone looking at her?
No, she was just being paranoid. It was only Dennis who was peering up at her, waiting for a response. How much did he know? She would have preferred having revealed certain things about her past herselfand in her own good time. If at all.
"You had a clinic full of patients last night and an earful about my life this morning." She glanced at the digital clock on the wall by the waitress station, tapping her fingers in a staccato rhythm on her arm. "It's just after noon. My, you've been awfully busy. And on New Year's Day, no less."
"All necessary, I assure you. I didn't come here today to give you a hard time, Teresa. I came here to ask for your help. That's all."
Panic seized her as she thought about the possibility.
Lord, I can't do this. I just can't do it.
"No." She shook her head. Definitely no, she added silently. She couldn't afford any more mistakes at the risk of children.
Guilt stabbed at her with his heavy sigh and the slight shake of his head.
"I'm sorry, Dennis. Really, I am. But I can't be of any help to you. Not in this case," she said quietly. "Please don't ask me again."
Dennis was desperate, and despite her obvious interest, he could tell that he wasn't getting through to Teresa just how badly he needed her to help him. Dennis wasn't going to take no for an answer, so he positioned himself on the sofa to argue his point.
A waitress came over to where they were seated and interrupted before he could make his case. "Would either of you like something to eat or drink?"
Dennis started to wave her away, wanting to dive back into their discussion, but Teresa took hold of his hand, stopping him. The contact surprised him. "Look, I barely know you, and even I can tell that you're exhausted," she said to him. "Have you even been home since you left the party last night?" His silence was answer enough. "You should try the coffee here. It's quite good."
He couldn't deny that he was dead on his feet. Coffee would be good, so Dennis put up two fingers. "Coffees for both of us." He turned to Teresa. "Are you hungry?"