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By Tara Quinn
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe pushed as hard as she could. Pushed until her insides felt as though they were ripping away from her bones. There was supposed to be time in between. Time to breathe. To maintain sanity. Instead, one wave of mind-altering pain followed another.
How long she'd been lying there, Francesca Witting had no idea. She'd lost track of time during the night. It was all a blur to her now. Pain. Despair. Determination.
Something was wrong. She didn't have to see the worried expressions on the faces of the medical personnel as they examined her, measured, watched screens, to know that. If her instincts weren't insistent enough, her body was telling her that this son of hers was not coming into the world as nature had intended. He wasn't helping enough. Or she wasn't.
Instead of sliding down the birth canal, he was tearing her apart from the inside out.
Terrified, she rode the pains, accepted them, for they meant she was still alive - and that maybe he was.
Most of the time speech flew around her, over her.
Tense, staccato words - orders she couldn't understand. In a language she knew only peripherally.
Francesca was used to being alone. Was in Italy now, alone, by her own choice.
She'd just never thought she'd die this way.
Neverthought she'd die without seeing Autumn again. Without knowing that her runaway half sister who'd been missing for more than two years was safe and well.
People she'd never seen before - and didn't really see now - came and went from the little gray-walled room. Touching her. Mostly she couldn't feel them. The searing pain from within left no room for other sensation. When she could focus, she saw them, all moving quickly in their green scrubs, their hair covered, their features serious. Intensely engaged. Most were wearing thin plastic gloves. Or pushing fingers into them. Or peeling them off.
Few paid attention to the American woman's face. Their concern was lower down, inside the tented sheet, on the miracle that was becoming a tragedy.
Francesca's legs had been spread in stirrups beneath that sheet for so long the position felt permanent. A lot more permanent than her life, or the tiny life that she prayed was still alive, struggling inside her.
"Aahh." She heard the wail, but didn't immediately identify it as her own. As she'd been doing for hours, she stared at a green light ticking off seconds on a monitor to one side of her left knee.
For the past hours she'd alternated between sweating and getting chills from wet skin touched by the room's cool air.
A nurse adjusted the IV connected to her right hand. Probably because the excruciating pain in her lower abdomen was on the downward slope of its current wave, Francesca was aware as the IV needle moved beneath her skin. It hurt.
Another nurse, a fairly young one, stepped up to Francesca's shoulder, offering her ice chips and indistinguishable Italian words in a kind voice. The woman's mouth was pinched, her eyes carefully guarded.
Francesca barely had the energy to shake her head. If she had to swallow, she'd choke. Gripping the bed-sheet with clenched fists, she turned her head on the soaking-wet pillow they'd changed more than once. Her short damp hair stuck to the side of her face.
The woman tried again, bringing a spoonful of chips to Francesca's parched lips, her tone encouraging. With a breath she hoped would be deep enough to get her through the next seconds of pain, Francesca allowed the chips to rest against her closed lips. The ice was cold, on the left side of her bottom lip and the right side of her top. Very cold. Cold enough for her to feel. She thought about those cold spots. Concentrated on them. As hard as she could. Until nothing existed but those tiny sensations of cold.
In that split second of relief a vision of Antonio's compelling face flashed before her eyes. His coal-black hair. Eyes that were almost black in color and yet so full of warmth - of intelligent compassion - that they drew her relentlessly.
Oh, God, Antonio. She hadn't told him ... Couldn't. His life was elsewhere. Irrevocably tied to another woman. A disabled woman. But it seemed as if, somehow, he'd come here, to this place.
Her face aching with the smile that was attempting to force its way through tight cracked skin, Francesca blinked, hoping to bring his face into clearer focus. His face, with its permanent shadow of a beard that would be thick and full were it permitted to grow longer than twelve hours.
Had someone found out? Called him from halfway around the world? Because she was dying? Or his baby was?
Another pain rose to unbearable levels and she couldn't hold on to his image.
Don't leave, my love. Stay. Just for a few minutes.
Blinking the sweat and tears from her eyes, Francesca sought out her only remaining source of strength. Antonio's smile. And saw, instead, a younger face in glaring light. A concerned gaze. A few escaped tendrils of brown hair sticking out from beneath a light green, tied-on cap. A female face.
She blinked again. The pain wasn't subsiding at all.
"Antonio!" The word was a scream inside her mind. In the room, it sounded more like a harsh whisper.
Her biggest sin.
He was one of the few people who'd managed to penetrate the defenses she'd wrapped around herself after she'd left home and the stepfather who'd hit her and the mother who'd been too emotionally battered to help her. Defenses that had served her well as she became the determined Italian-American photojournalist who'd managed to make a name for herself with her pictures and accompanying text by the time she was thirty.
The nurse was leaning over her, placing her face so close to Francesca's, Francesca could hardly breathe, let alone make out what the woman was trying to say.
Turning her head to the side as her lower stomach twisted inside out, ripping away from her spine, Francesca took one last breath.
His face was there again. Just his face this time. Floating above her.
And then everything was dark.
Excerpted from Street Smart by Tara Quinn Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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