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By C.J. Carmichael
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAt the time, the meeting had seemed very important to Julie Matthew, senior editor of West Coast Homes. She frowned when the magazine's administrative assistant opened the boardroom door and beckoned to her.
"I'm rather busy, Gina." She'd just put up her first overhead on projected advertising revenue. "I don't suppose this could wait?"
Gina shook her head, her expression grim.
"Well, then." Julie sighed, then smiled apologetically at the familiar faces, including those of the publisher and managing editor. Her felt marker still in her hand, she strode out of the room, closing the door behind her. "This had better be -"
Without a word, Gina handed her the phone, her eyes huge in what was, Julie noticed, a very pale face. What was wrong? Julie took the receiver in her left hand and clenched the marker in her other.
Russell was due home from Saltspring Island today. He'd taken some papers to mark in the peace of their seaside cottage. Had there been a problem with the shuttle plane as it sprinted across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver Harbor? Oh, God, please no ...
"Julie Matthew speaking."
A stranger asked, "Are you Ben Matthew's mother?"
Ben. It was Ben. Julie leaned against the wall, her knees suddenly undependable. "Yes" was all she could say.
"I'm sorry. Your son was in an accident. The ambulance brought him here, to the General Hospital."
No! She didn't actually scream - at least, she didn't think so. She tried to ask what had happened, where to go, how he was. But her brain was stuck in a loop. Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben ...
It wasn't her husband. It was Ben, her nine-year-old son.
Julie took a taxi from her office to the hospital. Gina had ordered the cab for her, and had promised to get hold of Russell, too. Julie should have been the one to tell her husband. But when she'd held her cell phone she couldn't direct her shaking fingers to the familiar numbers.
Julie managed to pay the driver, get out of the car and shut the door. Now that she was here at the hospital, her heart began to slam against her chest. The red letters spelling out Emergency seemed ominous, almost evil. A deep breath didn't help much but gave her the strength to head for the reception desk.
She froze, taking in the face of her husband, who had somehow beat her here. He had the shell-shocked expression of a casualty victim on the cover of Life.
"I can't believe this...." He offered his open arms and for a moment she gave in to the relief of his strong embrace.
"How did you get here so fast?"
"Gina called me on my way home from the harbor."
It didn't matter. Only one thing mattered.
"Where is he?"
"I haven't seen him yet. They tell me it's - it's a head injury. He was unconscious when they brought him in. I think he still is."
Coma. Many times Julie had read books, watched movies, where characters were described in this state. Now she discovered she didn't really know what the term meant. Dr. Assad, Ben's neurologist, tried to explain.
"When you see him, he'll appear as if he's asleep. But Ben isn't responding to outside stimuli the way a sleeping person would."
"But ... he will wake up ... he'll be okay?" Russell asked the question Julie didn't dare voice.
"The CAT scan showed small amounts of bleeding. We won't know the extent of his injury for a couple of days."
Julie still couldn't frame a question or even a comment. This couldn't be happening to them. Yet there was no doubting the reality of the clean-cut, earnest physician in front of her.
"I wish I had definitive answers for you," Dr. Assad said. "I know the uncertainty is difficult. Where brain injuries are concerned, long-term predictions are difficult. I'm afraid we'll have to take this one day at a time."
"Can we see him, Doctor? Can we see Ben?" Russell asked.
The physician nodded. "We have him in our Fast Track area. Be prepared for a lot of activity. Also, don't be alarmed by the tube down his throat and the monitor leads. We're taking good care of your son."
Julie followed the doctor, Russell's guiding hand on her back. People, corridors, walls blended in a kaleidoscope of whites and grays and greens as she thought of Ben. All she wanted was the relief of seeing him. Of holding his hand.
At the entrance to the trauma area, Julie stopped dead. She barely noticed the half-dozen medical personnel or the equipment Dr. Assad had warned them about. For her, all the light in the room focused on one person only - her child, motionless on an operating table.
The neurologist had been wrong. Ben didn't look as though he was sleeping. At home Ben slept with his arms flung out and his covers tangled, hair curled engagingly over his forehead.
Here he was arranged neatly, with his arms at his side, his legs straight and together. His beautiful russet curls had been partially shaved.
Julie couldn't move. She'd been clinging to an irrational hope that Ben would open his eyes when he heard her voice, when he felt her hand touch his. Now she knew, without even trying, that he wouldn't.
"Oh, Ben." Russell hurried to their son. He gathered one of the small, limp hands and pressed his cheek to it. Julie saw Russell's tears escaping from behind his closed eyes.
Several tentative steps brought Julie to her husband's side. She laid the back of her fingers against Ben's cheek. His pale skin felt warm. Illogically, the numerous electrodes attached to his scalp made her think of the shock treatments notoriously used for mental illnesses.
Dr. Assad had assured them the EEG was painless. It was merely a tool for measuring brain-wave activity. Besides, Ben was beyond pain at the moment. Ben was beyond anything, judging from his face, which was blank, utterly devoid of his unique personality.
Where had he gone? If he wasn't in this body anymore, where was he? Did he know they were here? Did he know she loved him, that she'd give anything ...
Excerpted from Small-Town Girl by C.J. Carmichael Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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