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When Dr. Elizabeth LaValley approached the elevator bank on the third floor of her Boston hospital, a crowd milled in front of the nurse's station. Her department was uncharacteristically buzzing.
"Somebody famous," she heard an aide say. Instead of joining the mix, Elizabeth skirted the chaos and quickly stepped inside the elevator, heading in the other direction.
Privacy and peace, that's what Elizabeth craved. Outside, the city was waking.
She cut across the hospital complex until she came to a red-painted stripe that ran along the sidewalk. Boston's famous Freedom Trail. Appropriate, because this was what Elizabeth's job meant to her: freedom. An escape from the turmoil she'd grown up in.
But that was behind her. She'd worked hard for the life she led now, and she would do anything to keep it.
Her surgical scrubs fluttered in the slight breeze. A half hour before the first surgery in her morning shift, it was a sunny, blue-sky, early October day. She strode, focused, down the red-painted line, more crowded with people than usual. A cruise ship was docked in the harborlikely one of the fall "foliage" itineraries that went from New York up to Canada, though it was early for the peak of the autumn leaves' spectacular color. Still, it seemed passengers and crew members from around the world were crowded into town today.
Maybe someday she would take one of those cruises, albeit to Rome, Greece or Turkey, where she could focus on her love of archaeology and antiquity. Surely there would be a way to find a single berth and keep herself sequestered.
Maybe, if she were bold and asked him, Albert would go with her But on second thought, Albert didn't like vacations. And he certainly didn't share her curiosity for ancient civilizations. A seminar on the latest techniques for inserting prosthetic heart valves, perhaps.
But that was the kind of man she preferred. A safe man, one who didn't push her from her comfort zone, question her or make demands on her time. Really, she only wanted to be left alone. She was independent, and she was not understandable to the world at large. Only a man who lived in her worldthis world, not the world of her pastcould possibly understand.
She stepped aside as she saw a man, a cruise ship passengerjudging by his tote bag that said SS Hollandeye her, and then his camera. Even though he smiled at her, obviously intending to ask her to take a photo of him, she tightened her grip on the bag in her hand and drilled her gaze into the pavement as she walked away, faster now.
She did feel a twinge of guilt, because she wasn't a rude person at heart. But people didn't always understand that. She was awkward at small talk. Someone else would be a much better photo-taker for the man than she would ever be.
She hastened around the corner, out of the tourist area and back to her hospital. Just a small escape, a short bit of exercise before her workday in the operating room, where she'd be sitting hunched over her equipment for hours straight. She had a full morning and afternoon of procedurestypically three to four scheduled surgeries, as well as whatever emergency situations came their way. She would be busy, focused and absorbed in her jobjust the way she liked it.
Checking her watch, she headed into the underground tunnel that led to Wellness Hospital, then felt a flash of cold that made her skin prickle. Jogging ahead, she rubbed her arms and went inside to the main lobby.
She was still breathing heavily when the receptionist stopped her. "Dr. LaValley! Your department called down looking for you."
Elizabeth felt at her waist, but she'd forgotten her beeper. "What's wrong?"
"Your sister is upstairs."
"My sister? Are you sure?"
"That's what they said."
Elizabeth's heart sank. All the goodwill and euphoria slipped away. The panicky, unsafe, confusing world she'd escaped was colliding with the orderly, private, secure world she'd created for herself as an adult.
She hurried for the elevator, wondering if something was wrong with their mother again.
A fall, a blackout, an arrest. Which one would it be this time?
That was the only reason she could think of for Ashley to contact her. Either way, Elizabeth had no choice but to see her sister.
Jon Farell sat beside his agent's daughter in the waiting room. The hospital had cleared out a private room for him, thankfully.
Not that he didn't love signing autographs. Under regular circumstances, he could interact with people all day. As a pitcher with the New England Captains, he made it a point to hang out by the bullpen before home games, making himself available for any kid with a pen and a slip of paper. And why shouldn't he? He was living the dream lifepro athlete for a big-market team, a local guy made good.
Everybody in the region knew the Captains, and most rooted for them, as well. Even this morning, strolling through the hospital before elective surgery, he'd noticed half the people waiting wore blue Captains caps with the distinctive "C" logo. Jon had been mobbed when he and Brooke had first shown up in the admitting area. Despite being on a food-and-drink fast since midnight, with nothing in his stomach and worry on his mind, Jon had signed a few autographs before a nurse took pity on him and hustled him into the empty examination room.
Jon scratched his right hand. He'd gotten used to the throbbing. Thankfully, it was his nonpitching hand.
It might be malignant.
That one, offhand comment from the doctor had shaken him to his core and thrown him off stride. Still did. What would Jon do if it was cancer?
Do. Not. Go. There.
Mom was twenty-eight when she died of cancer. Your age now.
Jon swallowed, tried to keep his face a mask.
Next to him, Brooke tapped away on her smartphone. He hadn't told her about the cancer part of the consultation. Hadn't told anybody, except for Max, Brooke's father and Jon's agent since he'd been a high school kid drafted in the fourth round.
Where the hell was Max, anyway? Why had he sent his daughter in his place?
Brooke glanced up and smiled at him. She'd been flirty and full of attention toward him, and that had set Jon on edge. The only thing he wanted to talk to her about was her father, and that was the one topic she'd been closemouthed about since picking Jon up at his apartment. "Dad's busy" had been all he could get out of her on the subject, though she'd chatted nonstop about baseball and Jon's chance at a contract, which unnerved him. She wasn't his agent; her father was.
"You can head out now," he told Brooke. "Grab some breakfast. I'll have the nurses call you when I'm out of surgery."
She stood and stretched. "I shouldn't. My father will kill me if I don't stay here and report back everything to him."
"I won't tell him," he said.
She patted his shoulder as she brushed by him, and he caught a whiff of perfume, sharp to his nose. Her pants were tight, showing off her behind, which jutted out with the high heels she wore. She strolled across the room, "working it." She was too much like the groupies who were always around guys like him, doing their best to tempt him away from his game, and it made him uncomfortable.
"I'll call the team doctors once you're in surgery," Brooke said.
Don't do that. "Max can handle it," he said mildly.
"Enough with the 'Max.'" She pouted. "I don't know why you don't trust me, Jon."
He clenched his right hand. Malignant. It might be malignant.
"I'm just caffeine-deprived," he said. "Have a coffee for me, will you?"
She frowned at him. "I think you should give me your valuables to hold. Wallet, keys, jewelry." She eyed the chain around his neckthe medallion was tucked under his shirt and she couldn't see it. His mother had given him that, the last Christmas she was alive. He didn't take it off for anybody.
But damn it, Brooke had a point. The doctors would want him to strip to nothing, and anything personal belonging to a celebrity, even a local celebrity, tended to grow legs and walk off. He took out his wallet, handed it to her, then pulled his keys from his pocket and unclasped the chain from his neck. She was Max's daughter. If she lost any of it, Max would disown her.
A smug smile on her lips, she deposited his life inside her big, gold satchel of a purse. "How about a phone?" she asked.
"Nope, didn't bring it," he answered, doing his best not to show his irritation.
Thankfully, she left the room then. Sashayed right on out. Her perfume lingered, so he closed his eyes and transported himself someplace safe. He'd had so much practice as a kid. Man, he was thinking about those days too often lately. His chest throbbed right along with his hand.
Another nurse came in and set him up with a hospital gown and plastic bag to hold his clothing and shoes. He smiled at her, was polite and personable, even though he wanted to lie down and grit his teeth. But if he did, it might get caught on camera, might change the public's opinion of him and jeopardize his job.
He was up for a contract. The season was over. He'd done okayhe was a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher and had won his last two gamesbut the team had gone down in flames, anyway. The radio guys and the sportswriters were on the warpath; you'd think he and his teammates had all mugged little girls and stolen their lunch money.
Yeah, he understood fan loyalty. But there was real suffering in life, and, unlike most of these media people, it seemed he understood that while they didn't.
"It was a shame about the Captains," the nurse remarked to him. "My son stayed up late and watched all your games this month. He was hoping you'd make it to the playoffs."
Him and about a million other people.
"Would your boy like an autograph?" Jon asked. His finger was really goddamn killing him. Had to be psychosomatic. It knew a knife was going to be slicing right into it, down to the bone, and cutting off a tumor the size of a pistachio nut.
"He would love that." The nurse pulled a marker out of her pocket. "Are you sure you're offering? I don't want to bother you."
He hid a smile. "I know I've got a job most kids in Boston would do anything for."
Under normal circumstances, there was nothing he liked better than taking care of peoplemaking them happy.
He glanced at his bum hand. The past couple weeks wearing a baseball glove rubbing against the knuckle hadn't helped it. Still, unless a person knew what they were looking for, the growth on the bone of his right ring finger wasn't apparent. He'd kept it from the team doctors, wanting to finish the season and make it into the playoffs.
Playoffs hadn't happened, but he had finished the season, pretending nothing was wrong with him. Then he'd gone for an appointment earlier in the week and.
Here he was. Scheduled to get the tumor immediately removed and tested.
A chill socked him in the gut. This could not be cancer. Could not.
What would Bobby and Francis do if it was? His smile stiffening, he turned to the nurse. "What's your son's name?"
"Kyle." She pulled out his baseball card from her bag and handed it to him. "He's a Little League pitcher, but he missed his spring season because he broke his arm."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Jon signed his name on the card. "Do you have a piece of paper? I'll write him a personal note."
The nurse produced a memo pad, and on it he scribbled, "To a fellow pitcher. Hope you stay healed and well for next season."
He handed the card and the note back to the nurse. She was looking at him thoughtfully. "You're very good at being a public person. You have a way with people."
Jon shrugged. "I'm the oldest in my family. Two younger brothers." Bobby and Francis. And if it weren't for this issue, he would've told them he was going to be here today, and Francis probably would've come, Bobby, too, seeing as he was a college student in Boston, just back from Italy on a junior semester abroad. "So I know what kids are like."
The nurse put a blood pressure cuff on him. "We get celebrities and famous people in from time to time. But usually, they have entourages who instruct us not to interact with them."
Because it sucks thinking you might have cancer. Jon smiled at the nurse as he watched the needle move on the gauge. "No worries."
But there were worries. Tons of worries. Maybe after today, he'd be unemployed. Or worse, handed a death sentence. Then what would his family do? His father cripes, he hated to think what Dad would do. He'd barely survived what had happened to their mom. Jon had held them all together emotionally, for years. It gave him a purpose, and with the money from his contract, he was taking care of them still.
The nurse handed him a paper cap for the operating room. "They might ask you to tie back your hair," she said, winking at him. "I know how the girls love it. Getting long, isn't it?"
Yeah, it was his thinghis trademark. Shoulder length now, he had promised not to cut it until the Captains made the playoffs, and then he'd lined up somebody to shave it off for charity. The team had been planning to make a big deal of it for their cancer charity.
That word again. Not that he'd ever told anybody on the team about his mom.
He forced himself to smile. "It's fine."
He was a good liar, when he needed to take care of others.
Finally, the nurse left him. He was used to people lingering over him, and that was okay. Being famous served a purpose. It was the thought of not having a purpose that threw him into a tailspin. Just get through today.
He changed out of his jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt into the hospital gown.
A male aide entered his room. "Hey, man! I love you guys!" he said. "You were the best pitcher on the team this Septemberthey should put you at the top of the order!" Then the man wheeled Jon into what looked like a holding room for the O.R. His gut twisted into a million knots.
Do or die. Cut the friggin' thing out and test it. Am I done, or do I get to come back for another season?
But as someone pricked his armshit, his pitching armwith a needle for an IV, he looked away, knowing that it wasn't the season that counted.
It was his family. And for them, he was flooded with the worst fear he had ever felt in his entire life. And that was saying something.
He squeezed his eyes shut. He felt more helpless and alone than he wanted to admit to himself.