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Chase Mayfield left his sponsors in the den of the sprawling ranch house and headed for the front door, his temper just barely under control.
What the hell had that been? Some sort of intervention?
When he'd been summoned to the gentleman's ranch owned by Texas oilman Gerald Barden, he hadn't given it a second thought. He'd figured the men wanted to discuss the racing schedule, the competition and what they expected from their driver in the upcoming season, so he'd been surprised when they'd laid down the law about how he would conduct himself off the track from now on.
But Chase didn't like ultimatumsnever had, never would.
Outside, the stars flickered overhead, and like the restless spirit that often swept through him, a warm summer breeze stirred up the leaves on the ground.
He wished he could kick that edgy spirit that had been a part of him since he'd been in diapers and had toddled after his older brothers, but he'd never been able to.
After climbing into the classic '63 Corvette he'd recently restored, Chase turned the ignition and pumped the gas pedal. When the engine responded with a well-tuned roar, he put the transmission into gear and started the long drive back to Houston, hoping to put some distance between him and his sponsors.
Chase had always lived life in the fast lane, both on and off the track. Hell, he didn't know how to live any other way; he didn't even want to.
Besides, he'd had his fill of people bossing him around while he was growing up. By the time he hit his teen years, he'd decided not to put up with it anymore.
For that reason alone, he was tempted to flip open his cell phone, call Gerald Barden back at the ranch and tell himand his cronies what they could do with their money. But he figured it was best to let things ride for a while. After all, Chase didn't have any other burning interests that left him many options.
Of course, settling down wasn't much of an option, either. Marriage certainly hadn't tamed the restlessness that plagued him, and neither had racing. Divorce might have ended his marriage, but racing and competition were in his blood.
Once on the open highway, Chase again pondered the ultimatum he'd been given.
"You're going to have to stay out of trouble and bars," Gerald had said. "We don't like the press you've been getting, son. If you don't fly under the media radar, you can kiss our money goodbye."
He'd wanted to remind Gerald and the others that he'd been racking up points and bringing them the kind of success they'd been hoping for. But over the years he'd gotten to know Gerald better than the man might even know himselfand he'd learned when to push his point and when to keep his mouth shut.
And this had clearly been a keep-your-mouth-shut night.
"Family's important to us," Gerald had tossed in for good measure.
It was important to Chase, too, but he doubted if anyone believed him. He hadn't been back home in ages. But he hadn't been up for an argument with the men who signed the checks. Not tonight.
About thirty-five minutes into his drive, he noticed a sign that said Now Entering Brighton Valley.
That wasn't right. Had he made a wrong turn? Where the hell was the county road?
A block ahead, a nearly burned-out neon bulb in a streetlight flickered, limiting his vision. He caught sight of several trash cans sitting curbside.
Chase glanced farther up the road, noting a big rig coming down the opposite side of the street.
Just as he realized he would need to make a U-turn so he could get back on the route to Houston, a small animala cat or a dog maybe?darted out in the street, followed by a larger blur of pink. A child?
Chase had always been ready for the unexpected, especially on the road, but at this time of night he hadn't expected to see a kid playing outside. He hit the brakes, all the while watching the blonde pixie caught in the high beam of his headlights freeze, her eyes wide, her mouth gaped, her pink nightgown billowing and revealing bare feet.
His first reaction had been to pull to the right, but when another child on a bicycle whizzed into his path, the only choice he had was to turn sharply to the left, hoping to broadside the semi rather than hit it head-on.
He gripped the steering wheel as adrenaline pumped through him and threw his mind into slow-motion mode.
With no air bags, no roll bar and only a fiberglass car body, this crash wasn't going to be as easy to walk away from as the others had been.
Upon impact, pain exploded in his head, and then everything went black.
Molly Edwards sat at the nurses' desk in the emergency room at Brighton Valley Medical Center, hoping Karen Wylie would arrive and relieve her soon. Normally, Molly didn't work in the E.R.or work the night shift, for that matterbut Karen had called in with some kind of family emergency, saying she'd be a couple of hours late.
Since the new hospital was struggling to stay afloat financially, there'd been a hiring freeze and the staff was stretched to the limit. So here Molly was, covering for Karen and holding down the E.R. fort.
There was one good thing about working in emergency, though. It was usually busy, and time flew by. But so far this evening had been fairly quiet.
Earlier, a couple of cowboys had come in after a friendly card game devolved into a brawl. None of the men had been injured seriously in the fight, but one had suffered chest pains and was now on the second floor, where he was being treated by the resident cardiologist.
A toddler who'd had a febrile seizure was in one of the pediatric beds, but he would be going home soon. Dr. Betsy Bramblettor rather, Nielsonhad tried to assure the worried parents that a sudden spike in temperature could cause convulsions in a small child, and that this particular type of seizure wasn't as dangerous as it might seem.
Dawn McGregor, the nurse who'd answered the phone moments ago, was sitting to the right of Molly, jotting down notes. When she ended her communication with paramedics en route to the hospital, she got to her feet. "Get ready for another accident victim. A guy driving a sports car collided with a semi truck. The trucker's fine, just a little shook up. He declined treatment, but the sports car driver has a head injury, lacerations and possible fractures."
Molly couldn't help but wince. She hated dealing with the aftermath of a car accident, especially in a triage setting. Twelve years ago, when she was seventeen, she'd lost her parents and her brother in a head-on collision.
After a high school football game, they'd left San Antonio and were headed to Brighton Valley to visit her grandparents. Along the way, a reckless driver had run a red light and careened into the family minivan. Her father had died upon impact, and her mother had been DOA. Jimmy, her younger brother, had clung to life for nearly two days before he died from his injuries, leaving Molly as the only survivor.
She'd been injured, of course, but not seriously. For some inexplicable reason the corner of the backseat where she'd been dozing with her favorite pillow had been spared the brunt of the impact. Most people had called it a miracle, but she tended to see it as a weird twist of fate that had spared her rather than the others.
For the longest time she'd felt guiltyfor insisting they leave when they did, for sleeping through it, for practically walking away from it. She'd also been devastated by the loss, but she'd eventually worked through the grief, thanks to the love and support of her grandparents.
Two years later, when Gramps suffered a heart attack, whichthank Godhadn't been fatal, the hospital experience had had a positive effect on Molly. She'd gained a real appreciation for healthcare professionals during her visits to him, and soon after he was discharged she'd decided to pursue a nursing degree, hoping to be able to help people in pain and to comfort families who were suffering. It gave her a purpose, a reason to be alive.
While she no longer let her own personal tragedy drag her down, she had to admit it was the main reason she didn't work in the E.R. on a regular basistoo many feelings of déjà vu.
Molly closed the chart she'd been working on and scanned the room to see if Karen had clocked in yet. She hoped so, because she was eager to go home and get some sleep before returning to the hospital to start her shift at 6:00 a.m. But Karen was nowhere in sight, which meant Molly would be called upon to help with the incoming accident victim.
Oh, well. It was all in a day's work.
"What's the victim's ETA?" Molly asked Dawn.
"Three minutes, maybe less."
"Thanks. I'll give Dr. Nielson a heads-up."
Dawn handed Molly the slip of paper on which she'd written the patient's vitals, including blood pressure, respiration, pulse rate and other pertinent details.
Molly took note of it all as she headed toward the toddler's bed. She glanced up in time to see Betsy Nielson draw aside the blue privacy curtain and leave the child's bedside.
"Doctor," Molly said, "we have a car accident victim coming ina male, twenty-nine years old and unconscious. He has lacerations, possible fractures and a head injury. The ETA is approximately two minutes."
"All right. Only one victim?"
"Yes, the driver of a Corvette. The trucker wasn't hurt."
The doctor and nurse made their way to the triage area, and moments later the automatic door swung open. Two EMTs rushed in with the patient on a gurney, and the E.R. staff kicked into high gear.
Molly had been expecting the worst, and she'd been right. The driver of the sports car was still unconscious. His eyes were bruised and swollen, and blood from a laceration over his left brow covered most of his face.
Since Karen would be relieving her soon, she stepped back to allow Dawn to join the doctor, then worked with the paramedics as they recited their findings and their treatment en route.
Dr. Nielson, whom Molly referred to as Betsy when they weren't working, listened intently while she made a methodical assessment of the man's injuries.
"Cut off his clothes," Betsy told Dawn, as the two continued to examine the patient.
When the transfer of information was complete, Molly turned to the E.R. drama unfolding and watched Dr. Nielson work. Even with the blood cleaned from his battered face, it was difficult to imagine what he'd looked like before the collision. Handsome, she suspected. And she couldn't quell her curiosity about him.
Joe Villa, the ambulance driver, handed Molly a plastic bag holding the man's wallet. "His ID says his name is Chase Mayfield. I wonder if he's the race car driver."
Molly wouldn't know. She didn't follow sports and wasn't into cars. In fact, ever since the accident, she'd been uneasy whenever she got behind the wheel.
She did, of course, own a car, but she preferred to ride her bike around town, saving the vehicle to use on rainy days.
"It's hard to imagine a celebrity like that being in Brighton Valley," Sheila Conway, the senior EMT, said.
"Yes, but he was driving a classic old Corvette," Joe reminded her. "That tells me he appreciates speed and a fast car."
"Maybe so." Sheila crossed her arms. "But he won't be zipping around town in that Corvette anymore. It's little more than a mangled mess now."
Molly hadn't recognized the name at all, so it was anyone's guess if he was the same guy.
If he really was a race car driver, one thing that she did know was that he was a man who normally cheated death on the track. A man who had no fear. Or, if he did, he'd learned to control it.
Unable to help herself, she opened the plastic bag and pulled out Chase's ID. His driver's license photo wasn't all that remarkable, but then most of them weren't.
His black, unruly curls were matted with blood now. And his eyes, which his ID said were blue, were swollen shut.
What had they looked like before?
According to his ID, he was six feet tall, a hundred and ninety pounds. He had a birthday coming on October seventeenth.
He'd be thirty. But that's about all she could assess, other than he'd probably been an attractive man when he'd started out today.
Her curiosity continued to build, which was strange. Normally she kept a professional distance from her patients, yet for some reason she was drawn to this one. And that was crazy, since there were several good reasons to excuse herself now that the paramedics were packing up and preparing to leave.
"By the way," Sheila added, "there's a kid coming in, too. He has a laceration on his left leg which may need stitches, as well as a possible fracture of the wrist. His guardian is driving him in."
"Was he involved in the accident?" Molly asked.
"He was looking for his little sister, who'd chased after a runaway cat. When he saw the collision, he lost his balance and fell off his bike."
Molly nodded, then returned her attention to the man on the gurneyChase Mayfield.
"He's coming to," Betsy said. "Hi, Chase. You're in a hospital. You've been in an accident. I'm Dr. Nielson. How are you feeling?"
"Your injuries aren't life threatening," Betsy told him, "but we're going to run a few tests. We also want to keep you in the ICU tonight for observation."
His only response was a moan.
Betsy went on to probe and clean his head wound. After telling him what she was about to do, she began stitching it shut.
Dawn, who'd ordered an MRI, reentered the room just as Betsy finished the last of ten or twelve sutures over Chase's left eye. "Doctor, the boy arrived and is waiting with his guardian."
Betsy nodded. "I'll be finished here in a few minutes."
The man moaned again.
"Chase?" Betsy asked.
"Wake up, Mr. Mayfield."
Chase cracked open his good eye. "Where what ?"
"You're in the hospital," Betsy told him again. "You were involved in an accident. Do you remember?"
He seemed to be trying to process the information. "Oh yeah."
"Can you tell me what happened?" the doctor asked.