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It wasn't sitting in a doctor's waiting room full of pregnant women that made Gabe Thorne want to put his fist through a wall.
He'd done it beforethe waiting room. And the fist. But right now he was remembering the waiting. With the woman who had finally agreed to marry him. He'd gone to every prenatal appointment with Hannah, his excitement and anticipation expanding in direct proportion to the size of her belly as their child had grown within her. The moment he'd seen the plus sign on the stick, it was about being the best father he could be. It was about his child's brand-new life.
Except there was no life because Hannah had died and so had their baby. And a baby doctor's office was the last place on earth he wanted to be, especially with his unmarried, pregnant, teenage sister.
Amy was his parents' "oops" and had come along right about the time he'd passed his driver's test. He glanced sideways at her, the sun-streaked brown hair pulled into a ponytail and away from her face. Big green eyes full of angry resentment looked back at him. An oversize T-shirt with the words Bite Me clung to her gently rounding belly. The sight brought back more memories of Hannah and a pain so deep he could feel himself being sucked back into the black void he'd just barely climbed out of. And once again, just like he had eighteen years ago when his mother died, he wished his sister hadn't come along.
Two days ago she'd shown up on his doorstep and threatened to run if he called their father. Part of him was okay with that, but he couldn't take the chance. There'd been too much loss already.
And just like that, more memories came flooding backvisions of the night before he was going to marry Hannah. After the rehearsal dinner he remembered following her little compact car, to make sure she got home okay. She'd insisted on driving herself because they were into the gray area of the groom not seeing the bride before the wedding. Hannah insisted it was bad luck.
As it turned out, their luck couldn't have been worse. The whole thing flashed through his mind again, in slow motion, like horrifying scenes in a movie. The car that ran a red light and broadsided Hannah. The god awful sounds of shattering glass and grinding metal. Within minutes, emergency personnel were there with equipment to get her out. Jaws of life? Not so much. Hannah was conscious only a few moments, just long enough to put his hand on her belly and beg him to save their child.
The baby was the most important thing.
So here he was with Amy. And he was angry because the sight of her brought back all the painful reminders of how very much he'd lost. But here she was and he didn't know what to do. Damned if he did; damned if he didn't.
Damned if it mattered because nothing did after losing his family.
Gabe looked up and saw a young woman in blue scrubs standing in the doorway between the waiting room and back office. He and Amy got up and followed her down the hall and through the last door on the left.
"Hi, I'm Grace, Dr. Hamilton's nurse."
"Gabe Thorne," he said. "This is my sister, Amy."
"So you're going to be an uncle." She smiled. "Amy, if you'll just step up on the scale, we'll get your weight. Then I'll take your blood pressureall the usual stuff. You're probably used to it by now. You look like you're about six months along."
To Grace's credit, she didn't react to the attitude. After making a note in the chart, she said, "The doctor will be with you in a few minutes."
Gabe looked around the exam room, so similar to the ones he'd seen with Hannah. His chest tightened when he recalled those last times when the two of them and their baby had been together. He'd talked to her belly, telling the baby about baseball, football, how someday he wouldn't think girls were from another planet and that hamburgers would be a lot more appetizing when they didn't get processed by Mom first. In that little room decorated with poster-size anatomy charts and the blood pressure cuff mounted on the wall, he'd had everything he could possibly want. His fingers curled into his palms so tight his knuckles ached.
Then the door opened and a blonde wearing a white lab coat walked in, holding a chart. He did a double take because no way was this beautiful woman the doctor. Just like that, he felt like all the blood was sucked out of his head.
She looked at both of them. "Hi. I'm Rebecca Hamilton."
"Gabe Thorne. And this is my sister, Amy," he said, relaxing his fist as he extended his hand.
The doc took it, then shook hands with Amy. "Nice to meet you both."
If she had questions about the situation, it didn't show on her facea practically perfect face with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. And behind her wire-rim glasses were a pair of pretty brown eyes. He'd noticed a lot in a couple of seconds, including the fact that she seemed awfully young.
"I'm sure you hear this all the time, but are you old enough to be a doctor?"
She smiled and the unexpected brightness of it made him blink, then redirected the blood flow just returning to his brain.
"I promise I've taken all the classes, passed all the exams and done all the training," she said.
"You hardly look older than Amy."
"I am. Trust me."
Trust me? Not exactly words that inspired confidence these days. Maybe he should have done some research. Access to a recommendation would have been pretty easy, and now he wished he'd made the time to ask instead of taking an appointment with the first doctor who had an opening. But why should he be concerned when Amy didn't seem to give a damn?
He folded his arms over his chest. "I'm going out on a limb here and guess that you skipped high school and went directly to college."
"Not quite. Just a few grades with a lot of AP classes thrown in."
God help him he was going to hell for being a male chauvinist pig, and deserved to lose the hospital project that would expand the women's wing, but it was hard to believe a knockout like Rebecca Hamilton could be that smart.
She smiled. "One patient asked if I was playing Baby Doctor Barbie. You're quite the diplomat."
If she could read his mind, she wouldn't say that.
Rebecca sat on the rolling stool beside the exam table and carefully read the chart. "Amy, according to your paperwork you're six months pregnant."
"Yeah. I guess. I don't know exactly."
"She just arrived in Las Vegas," Gabe explained.
"Okay." The doc nodded. "We can request your records from your previous physician."
"She hasn't seen a doctor."
For an instant, disapproval flashed through the doc's eyes as her mouth tightened. "Is there a reason you haven't been to a doctor?"
"I'm fine. He made me come today." Amy lifted her chin and shot him a glare.
Rebecca met his gaze and nodded. "Good for you, Mr. Thorne"
"Call me Gabe."
"All right, Gabe."
He wasn't looking for a pat on the back, or anything else for that matter. So why in hell would her approval and his first name on her lips make him feel What? Something. It was weird. He didn't like weird any more than he liked feeling. If he had any choice, he wouldn't do either.
"It's hard to get medical care when you're on the streets, Doc. She ran away from home. In Texas," he added.
Amy gave him her best drop-dead-bastard look. "I'm eighteen. I can do what I want."
"The hell you can," he said.
"I can take care of myself."
"Yeah?" Her tone was surly and brought back that fist-through-the-wall-feeling. Her behavior was immature, irresponsible and he resented the hell out of her. He'd done everything right and lost his child. Amy didn't give a damn and had a baby in her belly. What was wrong with this picture?
"If you take such good care of yourself, who was that hungry, scared little girl on my doorstep? Because she sure didn't look like a grown-up who doesn't need anyone."
"Time out." Rebecca stood and moved between them.
"What about the baby's father?"
Amy's defiant expression pulled her mouth tight, and he knew she wouldn't tell the doc any more than she had him, which was exactly nothing. "She won't give me a name. But if I ever get my hands on him"
"It's not your business," Amy snapped.
"No? You didn't get like this on your own. He needs to take responsibility. Why are you protecting him?"
"You don't know anything."
"You're right. I don't. And that's okay. But Dad"
"Don't you dare. You promised." Amy's voice shook with the threat and her narrow-eyed gaze dared him to call her bluff. "I'm out of here if you call him."
He wanted to. He wanted to call his father and hand off the problem. He wanted her gone so he could go back to forgetting. But he knew if he made that call and she made good on her threat, there could be more he'd need to forget about, and he was already on overload.
"Calm down, Amy." Rebecca patted the teen's shoulder. "Do your parents know where you are?"
"My mother's dead," Amy said, glancing at him.
"Your father, then," she persisted. "He must be concerned about you."
"I called him. Gabe made me. But I did it from a pay phone."
"You don't want him to know you're with your brother?"
"Okay. We won't worry about that for now."
We won't? Gabe's gaze snapped to hers. He hadn't realized until that moment just how much he'd wanted her to order Amy to call her father. He'd been hoping for someone older, wiser, with more seasoning to tell his sister in no uncertain terms that she needed to go home. But Rebecca Hamilton had hung him out to dry.
"Wait a minute," he said. "We need to talk about this. I think"
Rebecca gave him a warning look. "What we need right now is to determine Amy's general health," she said in a cool, professional tone. "We need to get some blood work. There's a test that will tell me the gestational age of the baby"
He couldn't tell if she was surprised that he knew about it. For her the procedure was routine. Not for him. And he didn't intend to explain that he'd had firsthand experience. His pain was none of her business.
"Are you going to do that today?" Amy asked.
"We'll schedule it for another appointment. Right now I need to examine you." Rebecca's voice warmed and gentled by a lot, and she squeezed Amy's hand. "Don't worry. I'm going to take good care of you."
For a split second, his sister's sullen look slipped, revealing fear and uncertainty as she stared at the doc. "Thank you."
When Rebecca looked back at him, the warmth was gone, replaced by a cool, just-this-side-of-disapproving expression that made him uncomfortable. When was the last time that happened?
"I'll just have a seat in the waiting room," he said.
Gabe left, relieved to get out of the exam room, away from the reminders. But his relief only lasted until he took a seat in the outer office where several pregnant women waited. Some days he managed to forget what he'd lost but today wasn't one of those days and the future didn't look promising, either.
He cared about Amy. They weren't close, but she was his sister. Hannah had often told him that no one gets family right every time, he just had to persevere. But without her he didn't want to keep trying, and looking at his sister's growing belly would remind him every single day why.
Still something happened in that exam roomso quick if he'd blinked he'd have missed it. He was pretty sure he'd seen a chink in Amy's attitude and he'd bet his stock options in T&O Enterprises that the doc had something to do with it. He wasn't sure exactly how, but there might be a way he could use that to his advantage.
The name Amy Thorne caught Rebecca's attention as she looked at the stack of patient charts on her desk. She might not look old enough to practice medicine but she certainly felt old, she thought, remembering the scared, impossibly young girl with the defensive attitude. The teen had problems, one of which was a high-risk pregnancy.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of someone in the doorway, and her heart jumped, then pounded as if it would burst out of her chest. It was normal for a woman alone to be nervous. Yet Rebecca's nerves always seemed to be running on high-test and hope was fading that the feeling would ever go away. The man who'd broken into her body the way a burglar breaks into a house had stolen her sense of safety, and she would always hate him for that. "Are you okay, Rebecca?"
"Yeah, Grace." She let out a breath and forced herself to relax. "I thought you'd already left."
Green-eyed, redheaded Grace Martinson was her friend and combination nurse/office manager. When her practice grew sufficiently, Rebecca planned to hire more staff, but in the meantime it was Grace and her against the world.
"Still here, but if there's nothing else you need, I'm going home."
"Have a nice evening." Rebecca hesitated, then said, "Wait a second. What's your impression of Amy Thorne?"
"Mixed-up teenager." Grace frowned. "Now ask me about her brother."
Rebecca didn't want to go there, but participation in the conversation was easier than explaining why she didn't want to go there. "Okay. What do you think of him?"
"Above and beyond the call of duty comes to mind."
"Really?" It was reluctant duty at best in Rebecca's opinion.
"It's not every brother who would make sure his pregnant sister got medical care." Grace smiled. "And he's not hard on the eyes."
"You think so? I didn't notice," she lied.
"Oh, please. How could you not? He reminds me of someone." Grace snapped her fingers. "I know. The actor who was in that movie How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days."
Rebecca didn't need ten days to lose a guy. For her it was ten seconds, the time it took to tell her fiancé about the assault. Maybe not quite that fast, but everything had changed afterward until finally he dumped her. And that's how she learned that there was more than one way to violate a person's trust.
"I didn't see that movie. In fact, I can't remember the last time I saw any movie," Rebecca admitted. "You need to get out more." Grace tsked sympathetically.
"There's more to life than work."
This was an ongoing debate and a continuing waste of breath. Rebecca was perfectly happy, and it did no good to tell her friend that a personal life was highly overrated. She loved being a doctor and believed herself lucky that her career was deeply fulfilling. If she was a little lonely, well, it was better than giving trust another try only to confirm that the third time is not the charm.
"Weren't you going home?" Rebecca reminded her.
"Right. See you tomorrow." Grace waved, then was gone. Rebecca picked up Amy's chart again and thought about the teenager. Definitely mixed up, but there was something about her. The flinch, the shame, the fear in her eyes when they'd talked about the baby's father. Rebecca had felt fear and shame once and wondered if she and her patient shared the same soul-shattering secret.
Or was she imagining victims where none existed? God, she was tired. She wished she could blame it on an all-nighter at the hospital, but she'd simply had a bad dream. The first in a long time. It was the noises in her new condo. That was normal when one moved to a different place. Right?
And when she could identify all the things that went bump in the night, she wouldn't wake up gasping for air because she was dreaming that same terrifying dream, reliving the nightmare of what happened to her. As soon as she felt comfortable and secure, the past would go back deep inside and stay buried where it belonged. And she would stop assigning a similar experience to a patient who'd probably just had unprotected sex with her boyfriend.
A shadow in the doorway startled her again. This time she ignored it. Without looking up she said, "I thought you went home, Grace"