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Omigod, omigod, omigod.
The single word repeated through her brain like an old-fashioned vinyl record spinning on a record player, its needle stuck in a groove.
"Calm down, Kelsey. It's going to be fine. It's all going to be fine."
The latter words Kelsey Marlowe said out loud, as if hearing the reassuring echo about the car while she tore out of the school parking lot would somehow help her gather herself together.
She was having trouble focusing, both on the road and on the thoughts firing through her brain like pellets from a shotgun.
Her mother's phone call a few minutes ago had really rattled her.
Kelsey had been more than halfway down the hall on her way to the exit before she remembered that she had to get someone to cover her class for her. She'd left twenty-eight highly charged eight- and nine-year-olds in the hands of the school secretary. She'd had to come running back, wasting precious minutes, to make the request.
Clutching the steering wheel, she roared down the freeway.
C'mon, Kelse, get a grip!
In all her twenty-six years, she couldn't remember ever being this scared, this nervous. Especially because her mother had begged her not to call any of her brothers and definitely not her father. Kate Marlowe didn't want any of them knowing that she was in the E.R. at Blair Memorial.
Her soft-spoken mother was her rock. Rocks didn't get sick. They didn't call from a hospital emergency room. Rocks were supposed to be just that: rocks, meant to go on forever until the end of time.
Dragging her hand through her wayward blond hair, Kelsey took in another deep breath, this time holding it to the count of fifteen before she released it. It didn't help.
Despite Kelsey's urgings, her mother told her that she didn't want to go into any kind of detail over the telephone. Instead, she just repeated her initial request for her to come to the hospital as quickly as possible.
That in and of itself made her extremely nervous. Her mother never asked for help. Petite, blonde and as quietly stubborn as all her Irish forbearers put together, Kate Llewellyn Marlowe believed in always handling her own emergencies. Not only that, but she insisted on taking on any and all emergencies that any family member or friend was going through.
As far back as Kelsey could remember, her mother had always been a dynamo who absolutely nothing, no matter how large, could rattle, sidetrack or damage. The woman had put multitasking on the map, doing it long before it ever had a label affixed to it.
Something was really, really wrong.
"I'm going to stay calm. I'm going to stay calm," Kelsey said over and over again under her breath as if it were some sort of soothing mantra.
Glancing at the speedometer, Kelsey realized that she was going fifteen miles over the speed limit. Instead of slowing down, she looked in her rearview mirror, searching for police. As far as she could see, not a single police car or motorcycle was in sight.
Thank God for small favors, she thought.
"Now if you only grant me one big one, I promise never to ask You for anything else again. Ever," she underscored. "And this time, I'll make it stick," Kelsey swore, remembering the short-lived duration of her last deal with God.
This was different.
She'd been younger then. And besides, ultimately, what she'd prayed for—begged for—hadn't been granted. Back then, the so-called "favor" she'd begged God for involved the man, a policeman, she'd fallen in love with. A man who hadn't made her his wife the way he'd promised because he already had one of those. He'd just failed to mention that little fact to her.
Why was she thinking about that now?
"C'mon, Kelse, slow down and focus." A minute later, she realized Blair Memorial was only two miles away now. Her heart continued hammering as she drove.
Getting there seemed to take forever.
When she finally reached the hospital, Kelsey made a right turn onto the street and went straight to the six-story parking structure. Once parked, Kelsey hurried out of the parking structure. She wove her way through the compound, impatiently darting around several slow-moving vehicles. Finally reaching the emergency-room entrance, she blew out a long breath. She still couldn't calm down.
The electronic doors sprang open the instant she approached them. Kelsey searched the immediate area for someone official who could point her in the direction of the emergency area.
She settled on an older, white-haired woman in a pink smock sitting behind a desk. Short, plump, pleasant and round-faced, at first glance the woman could have easily doubled as Cinderella's fairy godmother.
"You have my mother here." Kelsey quickly realized that the statement had come out like an accusation. Nerves again, she thought. "I mean, my mother called me to say she was in the emergency room here." Words were colliding on her tongue. Was she even making any sense? "Please, I need to see her. She's in the emergency room," Kelsey prodded, surprised she wasn't shouting. "My guess is that she's still there. Otherwise, she would have called me again to say she was leaving. Her name is Kate Marlowe," Kelsey said.
The slightly perplexed look on the older woman's face dissolved into a smile. "And you'd be right. There she is, right there." The woman tapped the screen triumphantly. "She's in the emergency room all right." Turning from her desk, the woman pointed to the left. "You need to speak to that young lady sitting over there. She'll be able to help you."
Kelsey managed a "Thank you" before making her way over to the woman indicated.
"Maybe you can help me," Kelsey began. The nurse didn't look up from the keyboard. Her fingers flew across the keys. Kelsey suppressed the urge to grab the nurse's hands and still them. "My mother called me from your emergency room—"
Only the nurse's perfectly shaped eyebrows rose in a silent query. Her eyes remained on the screen as she continued typing.
"Kate Marlowe. My mother's name is Kate Marlowe," Kelsey elaborated, in case the nurse thought she was giving her own name.
"Marlowe," the nurse murmured under her breath, typing. "She's still here in the E.R.," the nurse confirmed. "Bed number fifteen." For the first time, the woman looked up. Kelsey noted that the nurse had kind eyes. "If you want to see her, I'll buzz you in," she offered.
"Bless you," Kelsey exhaled.
The nurse flashed her an understanding smile. The moment the buzzer sounded, Kelsey raced through the door.
Once inside the E.R., she stopped dead. There was a sea of beds in front of her. They ran along on both sides of the wall. Some were hidden behind white curtains that hung from the ceiling, and others were out in the open—and, for the most part, empty.
"Can I help you?" an orderly asked, coming up on Kelsey's right.
"I'm looking for bed number fifteen," she told him. "Which way would I go?"
He pointed to the rear of the wing. "Bed number fifteen's on the left. In the back," he added.
"Thank you." Kelsey was off and moving before the orderly finished speaking.
Please let her be all right, please let her be all right, she silently repeated, making a beeline for the bed the orderly had pointed out.
As she approached, Kelsey thought she saw someone standing by the bed. The next second she realized that it was a uniformed policeman.
The bed couldn't belong to her mother, she thought. There was no reason for a policeman to be talking to her mother.
It was her mother's bed. Kelsey recognized the form before she had a clear view of the woman's face. Her mother had a way of tilting her head when she was listening to someone talk. It had always created a feeling of comfort and well-being for her, Kelsey thought.
Only her mother, lying flat on her back in a hospital emergency room, would be trying to be comfort another person.
Her stomach tied itself into a tight knot.
Keeping her eyes on bed number fifteen, Kelsey made her way around several of the hospital staff. She felt her shoulders stiffen and tension coursed through her body the way it always did whenever she saw a policeman these days.
Who was this man?
From the expression on her mother's face, it appeared that she knew the officer. Knew him and liked him. But then again, she'd never known her mother to meet anyone she didn't like. Kate Marlowe always looked for the good in a person and she had a huge heart.
But that still didn't answer her question, Kelsey thought.
What was a policeman doing here, talking to her mother? Granted, Kate Marlowe had always had the kind of face that drew words out of virtual strangers, but it would have been a far more likely scenario if her mother were on the receiving end of an orderly's life history. Or if one of the nurses was standing there, baring her soul to her mother. Not a policeman.
Oh God, was this worse than she thought?
The next moment, Kelsey felt the kind of surge that coursed through the veins of a lioness when she perceived that one of her cubs was being threatened. Kelsey might have been the youngest in the family, but she had always been fiercely protective, even though not a single one of her four brothers or her parents ever needed protecting.
"Excuse me," she said, addressing the back of the police officer's head. "Is there a problem here?"
Whatever answer Officer Morgan Donnelly had at the ready vanished the moment he glimpsed the woman who belonged to the angry voice. His smile was slow, appreciative as he looked her over from head to toe. It occurred to him that she resembled the woman he was talking to. A kid sister perhaps?
"No, no problem at all," he told her.
Giving the sandy-haired patrolman with the X-ray eyes and unreadable expression a cold glare, Kelsey drew herself up to her full, rather unimposing five-foot-four height. The next second, she was Kate's shaken daughter, trying to hide just how upset she really was.
"Mom," she cried, "you scared me half to death." There didn't seem to be any bruises that she could see. Why was her mother here? And what did it have to do with the cop with the X-ray eyes? "Are you all right?"
"I am now," Kate told her, "thanks to Officer Donnelly." Smiling, her mother nodded at the young policeman.
Well, that snuffed out a good deal of Kelsey's animosity toward the officer. Because of her experience with Dan, her view of policemen in general was tainted. She'd just assumed that the young officer at her mother's bedside was somehow responsible. Maybe he'd cut her mother off and caused her to have an accident.
Still, her mother was grateful to him. Drawing herself up again, Kelsey nodded at him. "Thank you," she said stiffly.
Reaching up, Kate wove her fingers through her daughter's and squeezed her hand. "Honey, I didn't want to call and upset you, but the doctor said I had to call someone to take me home and I just couldn't call your father or your brothers."
"I offered to take your mother home," the officer said, his voice solemn but kind as he nodded at Kate, "but she refused."
"I couldn't impose on you any further," Kate protested. "You've already done enough for me."
Just what did her mother mean by "enough"? Kel-sey bit back the urge to ask her. "Not that I mind being the one you turn to, Mom, but why couldn't you call any of them?"
Kate didn't answer immediately. Instead, she raised her eyes to her daughter's face. "If I told you it's because they're all busy working, would you believe me?"
This was a tough one, Kelsey thought. Her gut told her something was going on. "Well, I've never known you to lie about anything, so I guess I'd have to." She paused, studying her mother. Kate Marlowe looked tired and worn. Tired she'd seen before, but in her experience, her mother had never looked worn. Something was wrong. "But you are lying, aren't you?"
To Kelsey's surprise, a hint of embarrassment colored her mother's cheeks. Another first. One that made her uneasy.
"I didn't want to upset them," her mother told her.
"But you're okay with upsetting me?"
Still dazed by what the doctor had told her, Kate chose her words carefully. "No, but I know I can count on you. You're a woman, too."
Kelsey stared at her, stunned. She'd fought most of her life to be thought of as anything other than "a little girl" or "the baby of the family."