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Rome, the center of the universe a thousand years ago in Italy, had a cousin in Georgia. No, more like little sister, Miranda thought wryly, as she stepped out of the rental car. Since she'd left home, the city had almost doubled in population, thanks to Atlanta's increasing popularity. She'd only been home for less than three hours, but already she could see the changes. There were new street signs, parks, shopping plazas and traffic lights. She never would have thought that some day the town would boast a tourism industry. No matter the new additions, the things she loved about her hometown still remained the same. The slow pace, the family-owned shops, the way people smiled, the fresh air, high hills and abundant trees.
If you asked anyone who knew her, they would say that Miranda could never live in a small town. But wouldn't they be shocked at how easy it would be for her to give up Washington, D.C."s fast pace and fall back into the relaxed Southern lifestyle. If anyone had told her that she would be taking a leave of absence and returning home with a child in tow, she would have thought them insane. She didn't avoid coming home, but she dreaded it. Not because of family, but because of memories. Memories of the best and the worst times of her life. Memories of the man who'd put her over the moon with joy, and then broke her heart into so many pieces she still didn't know if she had it all together.
She'd dated more than her share of highly prized metro D.C. area's eligible bachelors, and had even managed to be the recipient of two marriage proposals. Miranda's brow creased at the thought of why she hadn't said yes. The men were as close to her "wishlist" for a mate as possible. Only when she'd sat up all night and finished a bottle of wine with her girlfriends did she realize why she couldn't accept their proposals. No matter how much she'd wanted to ignore it, the truth was that she'd never felt the passion, the connection, the soul-deep commitment that had existed between her and Caleb Blackfox.
A rush of annoyance tore into her. After all these years, he still had a hold on her heart. He was the main reason she'd avoided coming home. But here she was, with three suitcases in the trunk of her rental car, about to walk into Mercy Hospital. Miranda exhaled slowly, trying, and partially succeeding, to calm the flutter in the pit of her stomach. Instead of thinking about the past, she concentrated on the present situation.
She'd needed a vacation; that wasn't a problem. If she had woken up one morning and decided to cash in all of her paid time off, she wouldn't have to set foot in the office for at least six months. While working for the U.S. Marshals Service for the past five years had been a boon for her career, it had left her with little personal time. And now, even though she was officially on leave to take care of a family matter, she'd brought her work with her.
Opening up the back door of her rental car, Miranda pulled out a shopping bag with a few things she'd purchased for Darren before leaving D.C.
"Call me Mom or Mommy, Kelly," Miranda corrected. The door closed and an eleven-year-old girl stood neatly dressed in blue jeans, jacket and tennis shoes, and was clutching an oversize book bag.
Ebony black ponytails tied with red ribbons sprouted from both sides of her head. It had taken Kelly over twenty minutes to create the perfect part and another twenty minutes to get dressed. Now the perfectly coordinated little girl looked up at Miranda with solemn light brown eyes. Ryan's eyes, Miranda remembered and wondered why she'd never noticed. Maybe it was the fact that the little girl more resembled the mother Miranda had never had the chance to meet.
Kelly sighed. "Mom, is your brother nice?" Miranda reached down and took the little girl's hand as they crossed the parking lot in the direction of the hospital's main entrance. Was Darren nice? She briefly cataloged a list of her older brother's personality traits and rapidly came to the conclusion that nice would not be an adjective to describe Darren Tyler. "Umm, he's loyal, a little overprotective and loves dogs," she added.
"Did you know that Daddy said that when he comes back he's going to get me a puppy?"
Miranda nodded and looked both ways for the third time before crossing. She was cautious by nature, but ever since Kelly had come into her life she'd gone to the extreme. When they'd stopped at various shopping malls on the drive down, she hadn't let Kelly out of her sight—even going so far as to stand guard outside of the dressing room. "I think he mentioned it before."
The child smiled so widely that Miranda got a bird's-eye view of the metal braces in her mouth. "Good. That way I can remind him, just in case he tries to get out of it."
"That's the last thing he would ever do, baby cakes," Miranda responded, using Ryan's pet name for his daughter. Her mind hummed with an added task. Depending on the length of time they stayed in the town she would have to find Kelly an orthodontist. Not to mention a pediatrician, a dentist and an after-school tutor. Wherever the agency decided to place Ryan and Kelly after the trial, she would make sure that the little girl remained an A student.
Her steps slowed as they moved toward the gently curving glass curtain wall that formed the lobby at the main entrance. Her mother had mentioned in passing during one of their weekend conversations the previous year that the new hospital was hightech and now she truly believed her. She would have expected to come across this type of building in Washington, D.C., not in her hometown. But they had outdone themselves with a striking lobby of glass and brick. Tall light fixtures that could have doubled as works of art filled the lobby with a rainbow of soft colors from the sun's rays.
She walked through the second set of the hospital's automatic doors. Outwardly everything about Miranda stayed the same. Inwardly, however, she shivered. Darren's automobile accident brought home the fact that life was pretty fragile, and with their parents out of the country, volunteering in Africa, he was pretty much the only family she could depend on.
Miranda felt a tug on her hand and turned to look at Kelly with a raised brow. "Mir—" she started then stopped. "Mommy, I don't like hospitals."
"Me, either," she responded truthfully. Miranda's heart went out to the child. Although she'd never experienced the death of a parent, she provided support for enough friends and colleagues who had lost loved ones to know how badly it hurt. Kelly's mother had died over a year ago, and both the child and her father had yet to heal. "I promise that we won't stay long. I know you're probably a little tired from the drive and I could use a shower. Do you think you can hang with me a little while longer?"
"No problem." Kelly nodded.
Miranda smiled with gratitude. At first when her boss and Ryan had come to her with the idea of bringing Kelly with her to Georgia, she'd been vehemently opposed to the plan. Now, as she approached the front desk, she was truly grateful for the small hand she held. "Hello, we're here to see Darren Tyler."
"He's in the ICU, miss. Visitors are limited to family only." The voice was impatient and bored.
Narrowing her eyes, Miranda looked down and across the woman's shirt to locate her identification badge. "Mrs. Walters, we are his family," she said coldly. "I'm his little sister."
The woman looked at Miranda closely. For a moment she thought she would have to pull out her driver's license to prove who she was. Had the situation not been so urgent, she would have taken the receptionist to task for her rude behavior. After a moment, the lady on the other side of the desk returned her gaze to the computer.
"He's on the fifth floor. Room 503," she said.
"Thank you," Miranda replied curtly before turning on her heel and stomping away with Kelly at her side. Swallowing, Miranda moved toward the elevators. While waiting for the car, and trying to calm herself down by focusing on trivial things, she noticed that the furnishings were warm and natural tones grouped in small clusters, more like an intimate hotel, and completely devoid of any hint of the white sterile environment often associated with hospitals.
"Are you going to be all right?"
She blinked and looked down into Kelly's worried brown eyes. Here she was, a grown woman being comforted by a child. It was almost funny if it wasn't so humiliating. Forcing a smile to her face she nodded. "Right as rain."
They took the elevator up and, by navigating the many signs, she soon found her brother's room. Holding Kelly's small hand in hers and the shopping bag in the other, she entered the hospital room.