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"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans for welfare and not calamity, to give you a future and a hope."
She was home.
Inhaling deeply the fresh scent of pine and exhaust-free air, Dr. Rachel Maguire stared at the seven-story redbrick building, the words Sonora Community Hospital spelled out in bright blue letters across the side. A strange tightness pulled at her chest. As a child, this had been the first hospital she'd ever entered.
Her gaze dropped to another set of letters above the door in front of her. Her breath froze. The emergency entrance.
She shied away from using the double sliding doors, and instead followed the tidy walkway, carpeted on either side by lush green lawns, leading to the main entrance. The early-June sun warmed her face, and from high in the branches of a towering pine an unseen bird chirped a melodic tune. Off in the distance to the east, the peaks of the Sierra Nevadas rose to meet the clear blue sky. Even to her untrained eye, the vibrant greens and hues of brown and gold dotting the hillside were a painter's dream.
She paused, alert to the eerie peacefulness and serenity around her. With no outside noise to blend with, the unsettled, restless feelings she constantly lived with clamored for attention. She closed her eyes and willed the chaos to subside. She missed the pulsing beat of Chicago.
But not returning to California hadn't been an option.
Mom G. needed her.
Rachel took a deep breath, adjusted her grip on her small suitcase and walked through the sliding doors of the main hospital entrance. Even inside the hospital, tranquillity reigned. People waiting in the lobby area spoke inlowered tones and soothing, classical music played from somewhere overhead. She stepped briskly up to the administration desk.
"I'm looking for Mrs. Olivia Green's room."
The woman behind the desk smiled. "Hello, Rachel."
"Hello." She struggled to put a name to the round, wide-eyed face.
"Polly Anderson, now Campbell. You were a year ahead of me in school."
"Oh." Rachel didn't remember her, but smiled politely. "Hello, Polly."
"Your mom is on the fifth floor, room six. She'll be glad to see you. Welcome home."
Rachel blinked, surprised that anyone here would remember her after all this time and that there would be such open friendliness. Her fast-paced world had little time for niceties.
"Thank you, Polly," she said, and hurried to catch the elevator.
The doors opened on the fifth floor. Emotionally steeling herself, she stepped out. With a purposeful stride, she headed down the corridor. Overhead, the fluorescent lights glowed bright. A distinctive, familiar antiseptic smell assaulted her senses and settled in the back of her throat, offering her a measure of comfort.
Strange, she'd never before noticed how the quiet hum and soft beeping of machines coupled with the rumble of hushed voices lent the air a surreal quality. She'd spent so many years working in hospitals that her senses had grown accustomed to the surroundings. She couldn't remember ever noticing the atmosphere of her work. It was all part of being a doctor.
Only, this wasn't her hospital and she wasn't here as a doctor. She was a visitor. A chill ran down her spine. Someone she loved lay in one of these rooms. Even though she'd reviewed Mom G.'s chart and knew her prognosis, the older woman's condition didn't seem real. Rachel didn't want it to be real.
She stopped. Her breathing turned shallow. A long-suppressed memory surfaced, and her mind reeled.
Memories of walking down a similar corridor. She'd been six years old, her hand held firmly in the grasp of Nurse Claire, the woman who'd taken charge of her after they'd arrived at the hospital.
"Is my mommy all right?"
The woman's kind gaze regarded her steadily. "I don't know, honey."
Not much comfort there. There'd been no daddy to run to, either. After her mother had died, no man had come forward claiming her as his daughter. No one had wanted her.
Until years later, when her foster mother, Olivia Green, legally adopted her. But she'd insisted that Rachel keep her last name in honor of her mother.
Mom G. gave Rachel not only a place to belong but reason to hope. The generous woman's loving nature had stirred up Rachel's pain of losing her mother. And Rachel had finally given in to the tears she'd held so long. In her gentle wisdom, Mom G. had suggested Rachel channel her grief into making a difference in the world.
God had handed her a purpose in that moment. She would become a doctor so she could improve and change the triage techniques used in emergency rooms, procedures that had cost her mother her life. That was Rachel's life goal, her focus, never to be forgotten nor sidetracked from.
She squared her shoulders and continued walking.
Standing outside of room 6, she whispered, "Lord, I need Your strength."
When she pushed open the door, the fragrant scent of gardenias greeted her and she smiled, pleased to know the flowers she'd ordered had arrived. She wanted Mom G. to be surrounded by the things she loved.
Rachel stepped inside the cheery private room, her gaze taking in the woman she loved so dearly. She'd seen thousands of patients hooked up to IVs, heart rate and blood pressure monitors, and machines that helped the body function, but seeing the once-vibrant and beautiful Olivia Green hooked up accordingly made Rachel's knees wobbly. She quelled the uncharacteristic sensation by sheer will. She wouldn't give in to any weakness.
Remember your purpose.
But she hated seeing Mom G. so still and quiet. Rachel's gaze swung to the monitors. Heart rate, steady. Blood pressure, within a reasonable range.
Then her mind focused on the complete picture. A man sat beside the bed holding one of Mom G.'s hands. His bent head caused his tawny hair to fall forward over his brow. Dark blond lashes rested against bronze skin. His mouth moved with silent words.
Rachel swallowed. Agitated butterflies performed a riotous dance in the pit of her stomach. She blinked several times, hoping the man would disappear.
Josh Taylor. What was he doing here ?
As though he'd heard her question, he opened his eyes and lifted his head. Their gazes locked. A smoldering blaze ignited and heat shimmered between them. Rachel drew in a cooling breath. She wouldn't allow this man to burn her again.
He slowly stood, his towering frame dwarfing the room.
Emotions churned and bubbled like a whirlpool inside her. They moved like running water through her consciousness so quickly she couldn't grasp one long enough to use as a defense against his presence. Her pulse leapt with unexpected pleasure, her heart ached with the sting of rejection and her cheeks flamed with sudden anger. She wasn't ready for thisfor seeing Josh, feeling emotions she'd long ago buried. She hated being vulnerable and unsure.
So she did what had become naturalshe cloaked herself in professionalism. She was a doctor. She'd come to help Mom G., not stir the embers of a past love.
She inclined her head. "Josh."
He followed suit. "Rachel." His deep voice brushed over her, making her shiver with surprising awareness.
Uncomfortable with her response, she set her suitcase by the door and went to the bed, focusing her attention on Mom G. Her color looked good. Rachel picked up a hand. Veins showed through the near-translucent skin. Warm. Her hands were still warm. So many times Mom G.'s gentle hands had wiped a tear, clapped at an accomplishment, held hers when she needed comfort.
"I'm surprised to see you here, Rachel." Josh's softly spoken words broke the silence.
She lifted her gaze to his intense, gold-specked eyes and cocked her head to one side. "Why?"
"I never thought you'd come back."
His comment stung. "She needs me."
Josh nodded, his expression closed. "She does." He shrugged. "Still, I didn't really think you'd come."
Hurt burrowed in deep. Her spine straightened. "I guess that says a lot about what you think of me."
"You have no idea what I think of you."
The look in his vibrant gaze caught her off guard. If she didn't know better, she'd swear that beneath the disdain, she saw longing. But that couldn't be. Not after what had happened. He'd made his feelings clear years ago. With a mental tug she pulled her protective cloak tighter around her heart.
She pursed her lips. "You're right, Josh. I have no idea what you think of me. And I'd just as soon keep it that way."
"So would I." His expression hardened. "So would I."
What he thought of her didn't matter. Not in the least. What they'd had once was long over.
Ignoring his overwhelming presence and the commotion going on inside her, she picked up the chart hanging behind the bed and studied the notes. She clenched her teeth as she read. Mom G.'s condition had worsened in the last twenty-four hours. They'd prescribed Mannitol, a drug meant to prevent hernia-tion of the brain stem, an extreme complication of a glioblastoma multiforme.
Josh shifted, drawing her attention. "What's that say?"
She quickly looked away, avoiding his intent gaze, and replaced the chart. "What have they told you about her condition?"
Josh let out a weary breath. "She has a brain tumor with a long, fancy name. They operated but couldn't remove the full mass because of the risk of complications. Dr. Kessler said she's deteriorating rapidly and time's short."
Rachel didn't want to hear those words, wouldn't allow her mind to register such dire news. A flush of anger ran through her. Dr. Kessler shouldn't have said that to Josh. The doctor shouldn't have ruled out hope.
"Yes, well." She glanced down at Mom G. Fear stabbed at her, making her edgy. "We'll see about that."
She wasn't about to give up. They'd barely started the chemotherapy, and other treatment options had yet to be explored. She'd find a way to help Mom G. She had to.
"She'll be happy to see you when she wakes up."
"How long has she been asleep?"
"She was sleeping when I arrived. And that was about thirty minutes before you. Why?"
Rachel kept the little burst of panic in check. Just because Mom G. lay sleeping didn't mean anything other than she was tired. The rational side of Rachel's brain warned that when the type of tumor Mom G. developed became severe enough, sleepiness eventually led to coma, then death. Rachel's emotional side that deeply loved her adoptive mother refused to acknowledge the information. "We should wake her."
"You should ask the doctor."
She bristled. "I am a doctor."
"But not her doctor," he gently reminded.
She couldn't refute that, though she was licensed to practice in the state of California as well as several other states. Her teaching schedule required traveling and being hands-on in other E.R.s around the country. But out of respect for Mom G.'s doctor, she said, "I'll go find Dr. Kessler."
Josh stepped around the bed and placed a hand on her arm. "You stay. I'll go find him."
Moved by his thoughtfulness, Rachel stared at his big, tanned hand where it rested against the lightweight blue fabric of her suit coat. Through the thin material, his warmth seeped into her skin. The touch evoked memories of younger days. Days when they'd been happy and in love, walking the school halls, side by side, Josh's arm casually draped about her shoulders or their fingers intertwined.
Days long gone.
"All right." Anything to create distance between them.
Josh moved past her. His long legs carried him with confidence. As the door swung shut behind him, the room suddenly seemed lonely and cold even though the warmth of the sun streamed through the window. She rubbed her arm where his touch lingered and went to the chair where he'd sat. Mom G. still slept. Rachel gathered one of the older woman's hands in her own and with the other hand smoothed back a faded blond curl. "Oh, Mom G., I'm so sorry this is happening to you. But I'm here now. I'll take care of you."
Oh, God. Please show me how to help her.
Unlike the doctors who couldn't save her mother, Rachel would do anything for Mom G. Even if that meant dealing with Josh, who was the last person she needed in her life. She had no intention of allowing the pain of the past to repeat itself.
"Sure thing, Josh." Dr. Kessler set the chart in his hand down on the counter of the nurses' station. "I'll speak with her right now."
"Thank you, Doctor." Josh liked the man and Mrs. G. trusted him.
Dr. Kessler stuck a pen into the breast pocket of his white coat. "Are you coming?"
"No. I'm going to get some coffee." He wasn't ready to see Rachel again just yet. Being near her, able to touch her, hear her voice after all these years had brought back so many memories of when they were teens. It was too much to deal with in such a short time.
As Dr. Kessler disappeared into the elevator, Josh headed for the hospital chapel. He slipped into a pew. The quiet serenity of the room eased some of the turmoil within.
Almost twelve years. Twelve years since she'd walked out of his life, choosing her career, her dream of being a doctor, over their lovehis love.
I love you, Josh, but I can't stay. I have to do this.
As he ran a hand through his thick hair, jagged pain engulfed him. Pain as fresh now as it had been then. As it had been when he was fourteen and his mother's words to his father mirrored Rachel's.