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Blinding snow blew horizontally across the deserted road, blasting against the side of Sheriff Matt O'Malley's SUV. He swore as his headlights picked out the red sports car swerving ahead of him and hit the siren, warning the driver to slow down.
Judging by the California license plates, it was probably college kids on spring break. Rich city kids foolhardy enough to think they were capable of driving in the extreme winter conditions of the Colorado Rockies.
He gripped his wheel as the smaller car swerved into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Caught in the glare of its headlights, the sports car's driver turned sharply off the road and went over an embankment.
Veering to miss it, the oncoming vehicle swung onto Matt's side of the road. He spun his wheel, fighting the momentum of his powerful Ford Excursion and the road's slippery surface as the other vehicle missed him by inches and continued into the night.
Cold sweat trickled down his back as he pulled over and leaped out. The sports car's headlights reflected back eerily through the snow, its horn blaring. Matt tore open the door and shone his flashlight inside.
The only occupant was the driver, a young woman, slumped over the wheel. Fingers shaking, he checked her pulse and released his breath when he detected it beating strongly against his fingertips.
She moaned and lifted her head.
"Careful," he said, easing her away from the steering wheel and collapsed air bag. The horn stopped blaring and she opened her eyes but her gaze was unfocused. Although her face was pale, there was no smell of alcohol on her breath nor any sign of blood—thankfully.
Matt returned to his vehicle and radioed the county communication center. "This is Command One," he barked, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. "I need an ambulance at my location. Highway 5, four miles south of Silver Springs."
"I'm sorry, Sheriff," the operator said. "But one of our rigs just went off the road at the pass and now we've got calls backed up all over the place. It'll be at least an hour before we can get there."
Matt cursed and broke the connection, grabbed some blankets and hurried back to the woman. "It's okay, ma'am. The ambulance is on its way," he assured her. Hating the lie. Hating winter as he tucked the blankets around her.
She moaned again, then braced her hands on the steering wheel and screamed.
Matt's blood froze at the sound. Had she sustained internal injuries? His limited first-aid training was no match for the woman's agony as she gripped the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white.
He hunkered down beside her. "Can you tell me where it hurts?"
"My baby!" Panting so rapidly she was beyond speech, she gripped Matt's hand, drew it inside her bulky coat and placed it on her stomach.
Matt stared, horrified. The bulging, rigidly taut stomach beneath his hand didn't fit with her slim features. Lord knew what sort of injuries both she and her child might have sustained.
Please, not again, he begged as memories threatened to overwhelm him. He waited as she breathed through the contraction, his hand resting on her belly as though he could impart some of his strength to her.
Finally, he felt the contraction's intensity subsiding as her stomach softened beneath his touch. She turned scared gray eyes to his and said, "I need to get…to the hospital. Now."
Matt didn't want to move her. Didn't want to be responsible for this woman. The memories flooded back, threatening to drown him, but he couldn't afford the luxury of self-pity. Not now.
"You could have other injuries, ma'am. I'll put through another call to the ambulance…tell them how urgent it is."
He was about to return to his vehicle, but she grabbed his arm. "No time," she panted, her eyes squeezed tightly closed against the worst of the pain. "Water broke…con-tractions…too close…together… You take—" Her last words became a howl of agony as she threw back her head and half cried, half panted.
A hot poker twisted in Matt's guts. Had it been like this for Sally? Alone, afraid, in terrible pain? It had happened three years ago and he still couldn't forgive himself, couldn't forget.
"Please…please help me," she sobbed as tears squeezed from the corners of her eyes and ran down her cheeks. "Please?"
He cursed the ambulance that'd run off the road and left him with the responsibility of this woman and her child. The heat burned in his gut as memories forced their way to the surface. As they receded, he reached in, unclipped her seat belt and lifted her into his arms.
Praying she wasn't injured internally, he uttered the words meant to reassure a trauma victim. "It's okay, ma'am. I'll take care of you. Everything'll be fine." As long as you hold off giving birth until I can get you to the hospital…
After placing her on his passenger seat, he fastened the seat belt around her. "We'll be there soon," he said, climbing into the driver's seat. He was headed down the highway toward the hospital in Silver Springs before he fastened his own seat belt. That done, he glanced over at her. She was slumped against the seat back, her eyes closed. Fearing he might have damaged something in his desperation to get her to the hospital, he asked, "Ma'am? Are you okay?"
She opened her eyes and looked around, disoriented.
"I'm going to call ahead to the hospital to let them know you're coming," he explained. "Can you give me your name? "
She hesitated, confusion and fear chasing across her features. Then she leaned forward, gripped the dashboard with both hands and screamed.
Horrified, Matt swerved to miss a car as it loomed out of the snowstorm.
He put a call through to the county hospital in Silver Springs. The nurse in Maternity promptly grasped the situation when she heard the young woman screaming. "I can't hear you!" he yelled. "Can you repeat?"
"There's no need to shout, Sheriff O'Malley," she said as the young woman's cries of pain became less strident. "What's the patient's name?"
He looked across at her and asked, "What's your name?"
"Beth, um…" Her brow furrowed as though she had trouble remembering.
"Ma'am?" Matt prompted when she hesitated again.
"It's Beth…" She raised pain-filled eyes to his, then glanced at the steering wheel. "Ford," she breathed through the last of the contraction, then rested her head against the seat back and closed her eyes. "Beth Ford," she repeated.
Matt frowned at the insignia in the center of his steering wheel and resisted the urge to challenge her. Instead, he relayed the information.
"How far apart are her contractions?"
How much more personal could this get? Beth Ford was panting again, her face contorted with pain. "How the hell do I know! She's starting to have another one, if that's any help."
"And her due date?"
"What's with all the questions? The kid's coming now! I can't tell it to stop," he yelled, feeling himself losing control and hating it.
"Do you wish to pull over and deliver the child?" came the disembodied voice.
Finally his control snapped. "Are you crazy? Of course not! Just get everything ready. I'll be there in two minutes. And, by the way, she's been in an MVA."
Matt cut the connection and concentrated on the road. It was hard enough driving on snow-covered roads at high speed. It was something else again to do it with a woman screaming at the top of her lungs.
"Would you like me to contact your husband?" he offered.
"No…no husband," she said, then looked out the window, her lips pressed tightly together.
Matt didn't miss the sheen of tears seconds before she'd turned away. "Anyone else you want me to contact?"
She shook her head. "No. No one. I'm…a widow."
Yeah, right. And I'm Santa Claus. There was no disgrace in single motherhood. Why couldn't people be honest about it?
Strange, the way she'd come up with the name emblazoned on the wheel of his Ford Excursion. Even stranger that there was no one he could contact for her. Everybody had someone, didn't they?
"Okay, fine," he muttered and sped through the Silver Springs town limits. Some of the tension in his shoulders eased as the hospital loomed ahead on the right. He'd made it. He could hand her over to people who knew what to do with screaming women and impatient babies.
He pulled up at the hospital's emergency room entrance. A medical team with a gurney waited just inside the doors.
Matt was out and opening his passenger's door before the team had even emerged from the sheltering warmth of the hospital.
"Everything's going to be okay," he said as much to reassure himself as her. "These folks will take real good care of you and your baby."
Recognizing several members of the team, Matt nodded to them as they took charge. In spite of being surrounded by people with the expertise to care for pregnant women, Matt felt a strange reluctance to relinquish his responsibility to her. What if something went wrong? Who would protect her? Beth Ford apparently had no one.
The doors whooshed open again and his spirits lifted when Dr. Lucy Cochrane, an old school friend, strode up to the gurney. She spoke quietly to Beth, then turned to him. "She'll be fine, Matt." Lucy clasped his hands in hers. She looked into his eyes, but he glanced away, afraid of what she might see there, and hating the pity he could read in hers. Like everyone in Spruce Lake, Lucy knew how he'd failed his wife when she'd needed him most. If he'd gone straight home that evening three years ago, Sally might still be alive.
"She'll be fine, Matt," Lucy told him again. "You've done well."
Too choked with emotion to answer, he was about to step inside to grab a cup of coffee when he felt Beth Ford's hand clasp his.
She looked scared stiff and her hand trembled in his. Her eyes closed tightly for a moment as she fought to control the pain. When she opened them, Matt's heart constricted. He'd never seen anyone look so afraid, so alone, in his life. "Stay with me. Please?" she begged softly.
Matt stood beside her bed in the delivery room, Beth Ford's hand in his. They'd been there barely five minutes and he'd lost count of the number of times she'd crushed his hand with each contraction. Sure that in a minute or so his hand would be pulp, he eased it from her and replaced it with the other, then flexed his fingers.
The lighthearted banter of the delivery-room team seemed to have a calming effect on their patient. At least she wasn't screaming anymore. Maybe that was why you were supposed to have a coach—someone to take over the thinking for you. Sure as hell you wouldn't be able to think straight when you were in so much pain.
Lucy couldn't resist a few cracks about his squeamish-ness, telling the patient she was lucky they'd made it to the hospital. He forced himself to grin and bear the jokes at his expense.
When Beth cried out as another contraction hit, Matt suggested, trying to keep the panic from his voice, that they give her painkillers.
"Too late," came Lucy's clipped reply. "Here comes the head. Do you want to look?"
Matt almost passed out.
With a skill obviously born of long practice, the male nurse wheeled a stool beneath Matt with his foot while helping Lucy at the other end of the delivery bed. "Sit," he ordered curtly, then in soothing tones, went back to telling Beth how and when to pant.
Matt stared at the wall in front of him, trying to focus on something, anything, other than the need to get up and run—or fall off the stool in a dead faint.
Suddenly this slippery-looking thing was placed on Beth's chest and she was crying and laughing all at once.
"You've got a beautiful baby girl," Lucy announced.
It didn't look much like a baby to Matt, kind of wrinkled and red and covered in white stuff and—his stomach churned—blood.
He tried to stand but his legs felt wobbly. He sat down again and stared at the wall some more and took deep breaths to ward off the light-headedness.
"Thank you," Beth whispered, and he turned to look at her. Her faced glowed. Gone was the pain and the fear in her eyes. She was…radiant.
"I couldn't have done it without you," she murmured, her eyes filling with tears.
Matt couldn't speak. His throat had dried up and his tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth.
"What's your mother's name?" she asked.
"Why?" he choked.
"I'd like to name my daughter after her."
"That isn't necessary."
"I don't suppose you want to cut the cord?" Lucy interrupted.
Matt glared at her. He cleared his throat and asked Beth, "Why not name her after your own mom?"
A shadow of pain skittered across her features. "I…I can't do that." She expelled a sigh full of anguish. "It would mean a lot to me if I could name her after your mom."
When Matt hesitated, she offered him a tiny smile and said, "She gave birth to someone who helped me when I needed it most."
What the hell? He was never going to see Beth Ford again. What harm could it do? "Sarah. With an h."
She smoothed her hand over the infant's head in a protective gesture. "Hi, Sarah. Welcome to the world," she said and placed a kiss on her daughter's forehead.
Matt swallowed. Beth Ford should be sharing this moment with someone she was close to, not a stranger.
Not someone as undeserving as him.
He fought the bile rising in his throat. "Are you sure there isn't someone I can contact for you?" he asked.
She shook her head and looked away.
She was fighting tears again. Matt's heart went out to her. If she was a widow, then surely a relative could be with her instead? A friend? She needed someone. Someone more worthy than him.
Eventually she glanced back at him. "There's…no one. But thank you." She held the baby closer. "There's just the two of us now," she whispered, but he noticed the trembling in her hand.
Matt's instincts told him something wasn't right here. Beth was afraid of something, why else would she have given him a false name? Was she on the run from an abusive husband? Was that why she'd claimed she was a widow?
Lucy's voice broke into his thoughts as she addressed Beth. "The nurse is going to take your baby for a few minutes to weigh her and check that everything's okay while I deliver the placenta."
That did it! Matt launched himself off the stool and walked into the corridor with as much dignity and speed as he could manage.
He leaned against the cool wall, sucked in several deep breaths, then slid down and put his head between his knees. He'd never felt so exhausted, bewildered or overwhelmed in his life. Thank God he wasn't wearing his uniform. Wouldn't do for members of the public to see the sheriff half passed out in a hospital corridor.