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Bella lay on the stretcher in the rear of the ambulance. She was vaguely aware of her surroundings but the activity felt like it was going on around her, independent of her, even though she knew it all related to her. The emergency lights were flashing, it was dark outside and the lights were reflecting back into the interior of the ambulance, bouncing off the walls. The siren was silent, the traffic a constant background noise. Evie was with her in the ambulance, she could hear her talking with the paramedic. Bella could feel the pressure of the oxygen mask on her face, the grip of the oximeter on her finger, the sting of the IV drip in her elbow. She saw Evie take out her phone and heard her leaving a message for their father.
She was hot and sweaty, flushed with a fever and tired, so tired. She wondered what it would be like just to close her eyes and drift off. To never wake again. But she wasn't ready. There were still things she wanted to do and things she wanted to see.
She felt the ambulance come to a halt and the flashing red and blue lights were replaced by harsh fluorescent strip lighting. She knew where they werein the emergency dropoff zone at Sydney Harbour Hospital. This was where she had spent countless days and nights over the past twenty-six years. It was the closest hospital to the Lockheart family home in the north shore suburb of Mosman and the cardiothoracic ward had become as familiar to Bella as her own bedroom.
But her connection to the hospital went beyond that of a patient. Her great-grandfather had been one of the original founders of the hospital and it was also where Evie worked. Bella couldn't fault the medical care she received here, she just wished she hadn't had to spend so much of her life within these walls.
The rear doors swung open and Bella felt the stretcher moving as she was pulled from the ambulance. A familiar face loomed over her. Sam Bailey, the hospital's newest cardiothoracic surgeon and next big thing, was smiling down at her.
'There you are,' he said. 'I've been stalking the ambulances, waiting for you.'
Sam was her new specialist, but again the connection didn't end there. He was engaged to Lexi, which also made him her future brother-in-law.
Bella tried to smile then realised it wasn't worth the effort as the oxygen mask was hiding her face and she was sure her smile would look more like a grimace. Sam squeezed her hand before he began talking to Evie and the paramedics, getting an update on her condition. Bella lay silently and concentrated on breathing in lungfuls of oxygen. She wasn't required to contribute. She wasn't required to do anything except keep breathing. 'I've notified Cardiothoracics, we'll take her straight up there,' Sam was saying, and Bella closed her eyes against the glare of the fluorescent lights as they began to wheel her inside.
'Evie? Is everything okay?'
Bella heard a familiar voice. She recognised it but her brain was sluggish and she was unable to put a face to the voice. If she opened her eyes she'd solve the mystery but that was too much effort.
Evie's reply jogged her memory and Bella was glad she'd kept her eyes closed.
Dr Charlie Maxwell was one of Evie's closest friends and definitely one of her cutest!
Bella idolised him. But she kept her eyes closed, not wanting him to see her like this. She pretended that if she couldn't see him, he wouldn't be able to see her.
Charlie was too gorgeous for his own good and she knew she wasn't the only one who thought so. He had a reputation as a charmer and he'd cut a swathe through the female nurses and doctors at Sydney Harbour Hospital and most probably further afield too. Bella had long worshipped him from afar, knowing he'd never look twice at her, certain he saw her just as his friend's little sister. This wasn't a fairy-tale where the handsome prince would suddenly fall in love with the plain girl and sweep her off her feet. This was real life and the safest thing for her to do was to keep her eyes closed and wait for him to go away. That way there was less chance of her embarrassing herself.
'Is everything all right?' he repeated.
'No, not really. It's Bella.'
That was the last thing Bella heard before the paramedics pushed her into the hospital and Evie's voice faded.
Stay with me, Bella wanted to say. She didn't want to be alone even though she knew Evie wouldn't be far behind her.
Bella? Charlie took a second look at the figure on the stretcher. Her face was obscured by the oxygen mask but her hair was distinctive. It could only be Bella, but he hadn't recognised her at first. She had the same curly, dark auburn hair, the same pale, almost translucent skin, but she was thin, painfully thin. What had happened to her?
Charlie knew Bella had a rough time with her cystic fibrosis. She'd had a higher than average number of hospital admissions, but he'd never seen her looking as sick as she looked now.
'What's going on?'
'She's got a high temperature and she's badly dehydrated. I suspect she has another chest infection,' Evie replied.
'Is there anything I can do?' He knew it was unlikely but he wanted to at least offer his help.
Evie shook her head and he could see tears in her eyes. He and Evie had been friends for almost ten years and she was normally so strong, so resilient. Things must be grim.
'You'd better catch up with her but call me if there's anything I can do.' He leant down and gave Evie a quick kiss on the cheek. 'I'll drop into the ward in the morning.'
He watched Evie as she hurried after Bella's stretcher and wished he could offer more than just support. He viewed all three of the Lockheart sisters as his surrogate family. He knew they had a lack of family support and he knew how much of the burden of worry Evie carried on her slim shoulders. He would do what he could to help but he wished there was something more proactive that he could do for Bella too. But he was an orthopaedic surgeon. He was not what she needed.
Evie caught up to Sam and Bella as they waited for the lift. The next half-hour was frantic as Sam ordered a battery of tests and examined Bella. Lexi had driven to the hospital and she joined Evie on the cardiothoracic ward to wait. Together they tried to stay out of Sam's way. Evie had to remind herself she was Bella's sister now, not her doctor.
Sam appeared from Bella's room and motioned for them to join him. 'I'm admitting Bella. She has a temp of thirty-nine point five, which I suspect is the result of another chest infection, and she's lost three kilograms since her last admission. She was supposed to be putting on weight but her BMI is down to seventeen.'
Evie knew Bella was thin. Too thin. Her body mass index should be at least nineteenalthough this would still only put her at the bottom end of normal. Evie knew it was difficult for Bella to put on weight, all cystic fibrosis sufferers had the same problem, but Bella should weigh five or six kilograms more than she currently did. Being underweight made it more difficult to fight infection and increased her chances of ending up back in hospital. Which was exactly what had happened.
'Is your father coming in?' Sam asked.
Evie shrugged. Sam's guess was as good as anyone's. 'I've just tried to get in touch with him again. I've left two messages but I don't know where he is.'
She kept one eye on Bella, wondering how she would react to the news that her father was uncontactable. Bella watched her, her grey eyes huge and pensive, but she didn't look surprised. Evie supposed the news didn't surprise any of them. 'Lexi, do you have any other way of contacting him?' Lexi worked with their father so it was possible she would know where to find him.
Lexi shook her head. 'No, he was going out to dinner but it was private, not business related, so I don't know any more details.'
Evie sighed. If Richard was out with one of his female 'acquaintances' it was highly unlikely that he'd answer his phone. It was also highly unlikely that he'd even make it home tonight, and if he did Evie wondered whether he'd even notice that Bella, and possibly Lexi, weren't in their beds.
'Do you think we need to try to find him?' she asked. Was Sam telling them it was important for Richard to get into the hospital tonight or did they have some time up their sleeves?
Sam was shaking his head and Evie breathed a sigh of relief. He couldn't think it was that urgent. 'I just want to try to get Bella stabilised tonight,' he said. 'I'll start a course of IV antibiotics and get her rehy-drated. We'll have to see how that goes but this is now her third admission this year. To be honest, things are heading downhill, but she'll make it through the night. I'm sure your father will turn up eventually.'
Until then Evie would stay by Bella's side. Even when Richard decided to join them Evie knew that she and Lexi would be Bella's main support team. She wished things were different, for Bella's sake, but their father and Bella had always had a difficult relationship, he'd never coped very well with his second daughter or her illness.
Evie's own relationship with her father had been tainted by the departure of their mother. Something Evie held her father partially responsible for. She knew her mother had made her own choices but she felt that he could have been more supportive, offered more assistance, made more of an effort to convince her to stay. If he had, the bulk of the responsibility of raising her younger siblings wouldn't have fallen to Evie and she would have had a very different childhood.
But the Lockheart family dynamics weren't going to change overnight and once again Evie opted to set up a folding bed in Bella's room. She sent Lexi home with Sam but she wasn't going to leave Bella alone. She hoped Sam was right, she hoped Bella would make it through the night, but what if he was wrong? Doctors had been wrong before. She knew that better than anybody.