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Just another few steps and he'd be there. "Hang on, sweetie," Neill Brandon pleaded over the thrashing movements of his little girl's body. Fear tore through his heart, fear driven by dread that he'd let his daughter down.
His feet thudded against the concrete of the driveway leading to the hospital emergency doors, while his lips moved in silent prayer that this was not the beginning of a reoccurrence of Morgan's epileptic seizures. That he wasn't somehow responsible for what was happening to her.
He'd picked Morgan up after school and taken her with him while he checked on a patient at the hospital. They'd been sitting in the car in the doctors' parking lot when Morgan began arguing with him about being allowed to have a sleepover at her new friend's house. Morgan's grandmother approved, so why couldn't he?
He hadn't wanted to part with her so soon after their move to Eden Harbor, but his nine-year-old daughter's plea had turned into a tearful demand just before her body was overcome by the tremors that announced the arrival of a seizure.
The seizure had been milder than the ones she'd had before they'd found a stable dose of medicine for her, and he was thankful for that. He was relieved she'd still had her seat belt on when the seizure began, which made it easier to control her shaking.
He hugged her closer, feeling her body yield to his anxious embrace as he ran the last few steps to the entrance of Eagle Mountain Hospital. The doors slid apart, and a warm flood of air welcomed him as he charged across the yawning space toward the doors to the emergency room. As if her body knew they had reached safety, Morgan relaxed into his arms; her head lolled against his shoulder, her breath sweet against his neck.
"My daughter's an epileptic and she's having a seizure. Get Dr. Fennell," he ordered, barely glancing at the nurse who appeared before him.
"Certainly," the nurse said, keying in the page on the phone hanging on the wall at the head of a bank of four unoccupied stretchers. Neill laid Morgan on the nearest one.
He couldn't take his eyes off his daughter and her endearing face, her high cheekbones hinting of beauty to come, so like her mother's. Her auburn hair clinging to her cheeks reminded him of the many times he'd sat with her in the early morning before school, forcing the mass of curls into what Morgan called a bun.
"Dr. Fennell's on his way," the nurse said, her voice soothing as she moved to the other side of the stretcher. "Your daughter's lovely, Dr. Brandon."
Neill anxiously watched Morgan, waiting for her eyes to flutter open. "Yes, she is lovely." A gift life had given himhis taste of redemption.
Dr. Fennell strode into the room, his lab coat flapping around him. "Neill, what's going on?"
Neill explained to Mike what had happened and how long the seizure had lasted, all the while vaguely aware of the nurse standing across the stretcher from him as she checked Morgan's vital signs. Although he'd trained himself to remain in control, to be calm, the struggle to steady his breathing and to keep his hands from trembling where they held Morgan's was difficult. His medical training told him his response was normal, but normal no longer mattered. All he wanted was to gather Morgan in his arms and promise her it would never happen againa promise he couldn't guarantee he could keep. No one could. But it didn't stop the impulsive need to protect and care for her in whatever way possible. Her illness had made him understand why doctors didn't treat their own family members, except in dire emergencies. Emotions could so easily cloud judgment.
He answered the doctor's questions as clearly as possible as he struggled to figure out what could have caused this sudden recurrence. "No, Morgan hasn't had a seizure in over two years," he said in response to Dr. Fennell's final question.
"I'll get an MRI ordered, check her blood work and, to be on the safe side, I'll admit her for a few days. We'll know more after that. Do you have her medical record from Boston?"
Those months of testing five years ago had been the worst of his life. As a doctor, he knew the ominous possibilities related to seizures, and it was almost a relief to get the diagnosis of epilepsy. She had a good chance of outgrowing her condition, or so he'd believed until now. "Yes. I'll get it for you. It's at the house."
"Great. In the meantime, I'll make arrangements for her admission and talk to you once we've got the MRI results."
What had gone wrong? Had the move been too much for Morgan? In his eagerness to move back home and take over his uncle Nicolas's medical practice, he hadn't considered that it might trigger a seizure in his daughter. How could he have overlooked the possibility?
With his ex-wife's parents both deceased, he'd hoped that the move would give Morgan a sense of family and a community that provided a safe environment. With his mother's support and encouragement, he'd bought a house, a house he'd admired when he was growing up in Eden Harbor. To make Morgan's transition easier, he'd painted her bedroom her favorite shade of pink, partly in appreciation of her upbeat approach to the move and partly just to see her smile. His daughter had maintained her sunny disposition and her enthusiasm throughout the move, much to his relief. But had Morgan been more stressed about the move than he'd realized? Willing his daughter to open her eyes, he squeezed her hand.
He heard Mike Fennell offer instructions to the nurse, and a part of his mind registered the fact that they seemed perfectly typical of what should be ordered. Even under the stress of the situation, he couldn't stop himself from paying close attention to every detail. He had been that way all his lifea trait that had driven his ex-wife to distraction.
That reminded him; he'd call Lilly as soon as Morgan was settled in her room. Although his ex-wife lived in Houston, she'd probably be there on the earliest possible flight.
The nurse gently placed a warm blanket around Morgan's body.
As she tucked the blanket around Morgan's shoulders, her hand brushed his. His gaze moved to her in response. Her wide, hazel-green eyes held a strange uncertainty under the harsh fluorescent lighting. As they stood across from each other, her expression went from one of warmth and concern to one of wariness.
"Neill, I'm sorry this happened," the nurse said.
Noting the beautiful mane of sun-streaked hair, the way her uniform fit her curves, he struggled to remember who she might be. Something about her was so familiar . Her gaze was so intent. Had he met her before? He'd met so many people in the two weeks since he'd moved back, faces he couldn't always put a name to. But he hadn't been back for years, and so many of the people were only vaguely recognizable. "Forgive me, you look really familiar ."
The tentative smile faded from her lips and her expression changed. An emotion he couldn't identify flickered on her face and then disappeared. She turned her back to him, her attention focused on the patient chart.
"Daddy!" Morgan cried out, her voice fearful. "Daddy, what happened? Where am I?"
Forgetting the woman standing across the stretcher from him, he gathered his daughter in his arms. "You're in the hospital, sweetie. How do you feel?"
Sherri Lawson steadied her hands on the edge of the surgical cart, overwhelmed by the hurt tightening her chest, forcing her to turn her back on the man holding his daughter in his arms. She couldn't believe it. Neill hadn't shown even a flicker of recognition. Did he really not recognize her? Had twelve years changed her that much?
It was true that he'd been out of her life for all those years, but surely he couldn't forget her so easily. She touched her highlighted hair as the heat of embarrassment climbed her cheeks. Granted, she'd lost over thirty pounds, had eye surgery to correct her vision and wore makeup now. She'd even gotten her teeth whitened and managed to find a hairdresser who did a beautiful job of coloring and layering her hair. But still
Relax and stop jumping to conclusions.
She took a deep, calming breath. He might not have recognized her because of his concern for his daughter. She'd seen the haunted look in his eyes when he'd first come into the emergency room. Was she being unreasonable to think he should have recognized her?
Or was she just making excuses for him the way she did during those long, dreary months after he'd gone off to medical school in Boston, leaving her to fend for herself?
And if she were to speak up, how could she explain who she was to the man who'd once been the love of her lifewithout being totally humiliated? And if he apologized for not recognizing her, would anything change other than the red blotches on her cheeks?
A long-buried ache rose through her chest at the mortifying truth. Of all the responses she'd imagined from him, this was not one of them.
But what had she expected? Had she harbored the notion that he might one day see her again, rush into her arms and tell her how much he'd missed her? Plead for her forgiveness and offer to marry her?
He'd married a doctor from his medical class and had a child with her. That was how much he'd missed her! Meanwhile, she was acting like a lovesick schoolgirl, an angry lovesick schoolgirl.
One part of her wanted to jump into his armsthe other part wanted to punch his lights out. And then there was the part of her that wanted Neill Brandon the teenager she remembered so well .
When she had learned that Neill was returning to Eden Harbor to take over his uncle's medical practice, she'd decided to avoid any contact with him if possible. She'd accepted that she'd probably run into him at some point between his arrival and her departurewhen she left for her new job in Portsmouth. Yet, she could hardly have imagined that their first encounter would be such a disaster.
It was just her rotten luck that because of a nursing shortage in Emergency, she'd taken this extra shift today. Now all she could do was wait for this embarrassing scene to end.
The sooner she got Morgan Brandon moved to her inpatient room, the better. This was one scene she didn't intend to repeat. Ignoring the man and his daughter, she contacted Admitting to learn that Dr. Fennell had made arrangements and the room was ready. "Dr. Brandon, if you like, I'll take Morgan to her room while you complete the paperwork in Admitting."
"Thanks so much." He moved around the stretcher, his arm brushing hers, sending tiny shock waves reverberating over her skin. She stepped away from him.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
"You didn't," she said, fighting to control the sudden awareness snapping through her.
How could she still feel anything for Neill? Hadn't those lonely months and years accomplished anything? Those desperate weeks when she'd had to face the fact that Neill Brandon wasn't coming home had exposed her to a kind of fear she'd never experienced before.
Forcing back the memories, she studied the drip chamber on the intravenous as if her life depended on itanything to keep her eyes from his. Yet she couldn't block out his words, spoken so gently to his daughter, words filled with love. Hearing them, she remembered another child.
A child who had lived only fifty-two hours.
Unable to bear it any longer, she made another quick note and closed the chart. "I'm going to transfer your daughter now."
"Morgan, you're going to be okay. I'll see you in a few minutes," he said.
His voice drew her like a moth to a flame to the man who had once held her heart. Not fair. Totally not fair.
She felt the urge to touch him, to be in contact with him, his skin on hers. Nothing had changed. Years after he'd dumped her, he'd returned to her life and the fantasies were beginning all over again.
What is the matter with me?
Is this what having no man in your life did to you?
Not if I can help it. Time to take back control.
And she knew just where to start. Her grip on the stretcher was strong and uncompromising as she unlocked the brakes, tucked Morgan's chart under the corner of the mattress and moved toward the door.
Hitting the door pad, she waited impatiently for it to swing open, and then strode out into the corridor, pushing the stretcher ahead of her.
Look on the bright side. At least the dreaded first contact with him is over.
She turned the corner and headed toward the elevator. And wasn't it just as well that he hadn't recognized her? No need for awkward "how have you been?" chatter. No going back over the past twelve years and dredging up old memories that still held the power to inflict pain. But most of all, no empty excuses required.
She was free to go ahead with her plans, confident in the belief that the worst was over. She could look forward to her job in Portsmouth and her new life.