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Shae Weitherspoon caught her bottom lip between her teeth while twisting a lock of her hair around her finger. This was her third attempt to reach her father.
The voice mail kicked in and she heard the computer-generated voice stating that she should leave a message. Seconds later the message was interrupted by a breathless, "Hello? Hello?"
Relieved, Shae said, "Hey, Mommie."
"Shae-Shae," her mother responded. "Where are you?"
She grinned at the use of her childhood nickname. "Airport."
From her seat, she studied the patrons hurrying up and down the hallway, dragging luggage behind them as they searched for their correct destination. Shae shifted in her seat and glanced out the ceiling-to-floor window, watching the Northwest Airlines employees prep the gray-and-red planes for their next trip. "I decided to try one more time to say good-bye before the plane took off. Pop didn't pick up his cell phone and he wasn't at the office, so I thought he might be at home. Is he there?"
"No, honey. He left soon after you did. I don't know when he'll get back."
Shae swallowed her disappointment, blinking rapidly while fighting the urge to cry. Why wasn't she surprised? As far back as she could remember, Prestige Computers had been her father's obsession — his family, his life and his mistress. Albert Weitherspoon had started Prestige Computers in the basement of his Compton home; the company manufactured computers for consumers. At first, it wasn't easy. Albert and Vivian Weitherspoon struggled for years, fighting to keep both their home and their business afloat. Then, the boom in personal computers hit. Computers became more affordable and Prestige rocketed into the major leagues and competed with the likes of Dell, IBM and Hewlett-Packard.
Not satisfied with conquering the personal computer market, Albert had added a business division. The new division flourished and soon after Prestige went global with servers and software security systems. Now, Pop was at the top of his game. The computer company that had begun in the basement of their small town house had become a Fortune 500 company.
In keeping with the Weitherspoon's new financial and social status, they moved to a more affluent neighborhood. Their modest Compton town house was replaced by a ten-bedroom mansion with an inground pool located in exclusive Malibu. Shae's parents concentrated on her future — enrolling her in the best schools and making sure she had the proper friends during her childhood and adolescence.
She gained a wonderful education and lived the best life that money could provide, but...Shae lost her father in the process.
As Prestige Computers grew, Albert Weitherspoon disconnected from his family. Board meetings, business trips and making money replaced birthdays, family outings and holidays.
The Pop that taught her how to ride her first bike, read her bedtime stories and chased monsters from under her bed had disappeared. He was replaced by a stranger who put in cursory twenty-minute visits at family functions.
Tired of the jaunt down memory lane, Shae returned to her present dilemma. "Mommie, I'm not dropping off the face of the earth. You know how to reach me. Chicago is just a phone call away."
"How long do you plan to stay there? When are you coming home? What about your father's sixtieth birthday? Will you be back in July for that?"
"Mommie, it's April," she sighed, crossing her legs.
"There's plenty of time to work things into my schedule. I'll figure everything out once I'm settled."
"Shae, I don't understand."
That line had become her mother's latest buzz phrase. Sadly, Shae's parents had never understood what drove her to complete her bachelor's and master's degrees and then accept the nurse practitioner and manager position in Chicago. No matter how many times Shae tried to reassure her parents, they balked and attempted to convince her to remain in Malibu.
Dropping her free hand into her lap, Shae added, "Once the medical director and I have our first meeting, I'll have a better idea of the timetable he's recommending for the opening of the clinic."
Her mother's long-suffering sigh reached Shae's ear. She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling as a reaction to her mom's dramatics.
"Why do you have to do this?"
"Because people need help, Mommie."
"But, Shae-Shae, why you? There are communities near Malibu that could benefit from your skills and knowledge."
"Why not me?" It was Shae's turn to sigh. She needed to feel that her life meant more, that she had something to offer those who were struggling.
Because Shae's parents wanted to hand her the world, it came as a major shock to them to find that their sweet baby refused to comply with their wishes for her future. Shae had vetoed their plans to send her to an exclusive liberal arts college; instead, she opted to attend a university with an excellent nursing program. Once she completed her degree, her father offered Shae a position in his company, but Shae had accepted a traveling nurse position at a small community hospital in Montana.
Shae's parents continued their attempts to manipulate her life whenever she came home. The Weither-spoons, hinting it was time to think about marriage and a family, invited every bachelor they knew to dinner. Their daughter countered this blatant matchmaking with the fact that she was only twenty-six years old and far from an old maid; there was plenty of time for love and romance. For now, making a difference in the world burned brighter in her heart.
"Honey," Mommie's voice turned soft and persuasive, "the position with Prestige is still available. Your dad has always tried to get you to come on board with him. This would be a wonderful opportunity for you both. You'd have your own department to run. Things would be done your way. The employees would love to have a good nurse on staff. Think about it. You could do so much good."
"That's not for me, Mommie. I want to help people who need me and don't have the same resources that the folks at Prestige have. Besides, if I worked for Pop, I would be his glorified office pet. I don't want that," she declared, glancing at the attendants manning the NWA station. "I've still got a little time before we board. If Pop comes home, have him call me."
"I will, baby. I will."
"Love you, Mommie. I'll call after I'm settled."
"Love you, too, Shae-Shae."
Close to tears, Shae disconnected the call and slipped the phone inside her Emilio Pucci bag. Despair and loneliness threatened to engulf her.
This decision had not been made lightly. Although Shae hadn't lived at home in years, she shared holidays and vacations with her parents — well, actually, her mother. After weeks of soul-searching and listening to her parents' insistence that she didn't need to leave California, Shae had chosen the position in Chicago. It was hard leaving her mother and her home. Striking out alone hadn't been easy. It frightened her. But this choice fulfilled the promises she made to herself.
Shae shut her eyes and reached for calm. I need to get my mind off my family, she thought, rummaging through her bag for her Stephen King novel. Deter-minedly, she opened the book. At first, the words danced on the page before her, making little sense.
Soon, however, the characters drew her in and Shae forgot everything except the unfolding story.
The insistent soft repetition of words pulled Shae away from chapter four. The low buzz grew in volume. Frowning, she closed her paperback. Concerned that someone needed medical assistance, the nurse in Shae searched the sparsely populated Los Angeles International Airport boarding area for the source of the sound.
Her gaze zeroed in on a tiny Asian lady approximately fifteen feet away. Less than five feet tall, the woman was dressed in a pair of coffee-brown polyester pants and a brown, rust-and-white striped short sleeve top. Black canvas shoes covered her feet. Head bowed, eyes shut and arms wrapped tightly around her body in a protective gesture, the woman rocked back and forth, rhythmically chanting unrecognizable words.
The air in the boarding lounge practically sizzled with tension as the mantra sped up. Silently, the airport patrons in the woman's vicinity began to fold their papers and close their laptops and books. Travelers near the woman frowned and edged away. Several passengers rose from their chairs, gazing back at the woman as they located new seats in what they hoped was a safe location.
Uneasy, Shae tucked her book away inside her bag and rose from her chair. She moved swiftly across the grey carpet and slipped into the chair next to the little woman.
"Excuse me," Shae began, speaking softly so that she didn't frighten the older woman.
Ignoring her, the woman continued to rock back and forth. Her voice rose an octave.
Uncertain what to do, Shae waited a moment more, hoping for a response.When none came, the nurse reached out and gently touched the woman's arm, stroking her fingertips across the bare skin. "Are you all right?"
Instantly, the chanting ceased. The woman turned and her eyes seemed to clear as she focused on Shae. "Huh?"
Smiling reassuringly, Shae gave the woman a clinical once over. She felt the warmth of the older woman's wrinkled skin under her fingertips. "Hi. I'm a nurse. Are you ok? Do you need help?"
Deep age lines etched her tea-colored face, extending up into the gray-and-white peppered hair. "Noooo," the woman answered, then returned to her chanting and rocking.
Shae muttered softly, "Well, I've been dismissed." Now Shae knew the woman was not suffering from any physical ailment; as to the woman's mental state, Shae was uncertain. Standing, she straightened her form-fitting silk, coral-colored top and matching Capri pants. Ready to return to her Stephen King novel, the young woman's gaze landed on a man seated several rows behind the older woman.
He was playing a game of solitaire on the empty seat next to him. His long fingers lifted cards and moved them from one location to another. Every few seconds, his uneasy gaze returned to the chanting woman and his forehead crinkled into a frown. As the volume of her chanting increased, the man's hand grew still above the cards, as if he were fighting to stay focused.
The imprint on the deck of cards caught Shae's eye. The design was unique. The background was brown with tan highlights and the lettering was in a red calligraphy. She couldn't make out the letters, but the cards were very unusual-looking.
Glancing at the Asian woman, the man gathered his cards and slid them into a box. He rose and wove his way through the rows of chairs to the attendant's desk.
Shae admired the slick line of his tall, muscular frame as he stood at the counter. Dressed casually in a navy sweatshirt embossed with gold University of Michigan lettering and denims, she couldn't help but appreciate the striking image of broad shoulders, narrow hips and smooth, blemish-free, caramel skin.
Dismissing this tantalizing picture, Shae returned to her seat, gathered her belongings and prepared for the flight. Soon, she would be on her way to Chicago and a new life. A smile as big as her birth state of California spread across Shae's face.
The overhead pager squawked and the pleasant voice of the gate attendant filled the area. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are ready to begin boarding for Northwest Airlines Flight 734 bound for Chicago. This is a non-stop flight. We will begin boarding with first-class passengers, World Perk members and anyone with small children or physical restrictions. Please step to boarding gate 10. Have your boarding pass ready."
Shae rose, picked up her bag and started for the gate, clutching the envelope containing her boarding pass. She pulled the thin slip of paper out and handed it to the attendant, stepped through the door and then hesitated.
Her father hadn't called. Shae gazed out the window, past the tower, toward Malibu. Sadness filled her heart. She hadn't been important enough to say goodbye to. Although she hadn't lived with them in years, she would miss them and the luxurious lifestyle they'd given her. But it was time for her to get on with her life. Chicago offered a challenge, validation of her personal worth and more. It gave her a significant way to help others.
Drawing in a deep breath, she started down the ramp. This was the right decision, and she planned to make the best of her choice.