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The keening wails echoing down the usually quiet halls of the Serenity Medical Center made the hair on the back of Samantha Rochard's neck prickle. Every natural instinct told her to flee. Instead, her experience as a registered nurse sent her racing toward the sound of misery.
A doctor, white coat flying behind him, shoved her aside and burst through the curtain into an E.R. exam cubicle. She heard him start to speak. Then, his words were abruptly cut off.
A sixth sense brought Samantha to a skidding halt before the weighted curtain had stopped swinging behind him. Was that scuffling? Fighting? A thud?
She peeked through a slit between the panels. Dr. Weiss, the physician who had elbowed her out of his way, lay on the floor, moaning. A thin, scraggly figure she judged to be male stood with his back to her. The only thing about him that caught her attention and held it was the small, silver-colored revolver he was waving.
Samantha wheeled and flattened herself against a nearby wall. Hands trembling, she pulled out her cell phone, called 911 and cupped her hands around the instrument to muffle her speech.
"We need help at the medical center. Hurry."
"What's the nature of your emergency, ma'am?"
"I don't know." Samantha wanted to shout instead of whispering. "I heard a scream and "
When the dispatcher interrupted to ask, "Is that you again, Ms. Rochard?" she figured her report wasn't going to be taken seriously. So what else was new?
"Look," Samantha said, "we've got a guy in our E.R. with a gun. Isn't that enough?"
"Okay. Stay where you are and let us handle it." There was a rumble of conversation and beeping noises in the background before the dispatcher returned. "We have units on the way. Stay on the line with me."
Samantha was about to reply when someone grabbed a fistful of her shoulder-length, dark hair and jerked her off her feet. The cell phone hit the floor with a splintering crack. She was being dragged backward into the exam area where Dr. Weiss lay!
Her scalp felt as though it was on fire. She couldn't think. Couldn't reason. All she could do was keep screaming "No! No!" and try to regain her balance enough to fight back.
The attacker flung her aside like a sack of dirty laundry. She landed hard. The instant she looked up she knew who had manhandled her. It was one of the teenage Boland boys. What's hisfirst name? Why can't I remember? Marty, Jimmy, Bobby? It was Bobby. Bobby Joe. At least that sounded right.
Shying away while her thoughts whirled, Samantha stared at the young man in the tattered jeans and T-shirt. His eyes were wide and darting, their pupils dilated. He was under the influence for sure, which made him even more unpredictable. His demeanor reminded her of an animal caught in the jaws of a steel trap and willing to chew its own leg off to escape.
She licked her lips and found her voice. "Hey, it's me. Samantha Rochard. You'reyou're Bobby Joe, right? I used to go to school with your big sisters. Remember?"
His eyes flickered. His body was shaking so uncontrollably his hand kept jerking. The hand with the gun in it. "II know," he stammered. "I came to see you 'cause you're a nurse."
"Okay. I'm here," Samantha said with forced calm. "I'm going to get up now, Bobby. Will you let me do that?"
His nod was quick, twitchy. "Yeah."
Using the edge of the exam table to steady herself she kept her concentration on the teen's face, waiting for him to do something else irrational thanks to his drug-induced paranoia. The biggest plus of the whole situation was the fact that she knew all of the Boland kids had been raised with strong morals and lots of love, even if they hadn't had much else.
Samantha took a deep, settling breath and squared her shoulders. "I'm listening," she told the skinny, long-haired teen. "Why did you want to see me?"
He stepped aside so Samantha could view the occupant of the narrow gurney for the first time. A homemade quilt wrapped a frail, blond child about two years old. The little body lay quiet. Too quiet.
Whipping her stethoscope from around her neck she pushed the teen aside, threw back the edges of the quilt and began to check the child's vital signs. There was a heartbeat! Thank You, God.
"What happened?" she demanded.
"I don't know. I was just watchin' him for a friend and "
"How long? How long has he been like this?"
Instead of answering, the gunman stepped back and began to weep as if his heart was breaking.
Samantha was no longer concerned about anything except the ill child. "Talk to me, Bobby Joe. Tell me everything."
Sobbing was all she heard so she doubled her efforts.
"Listen. Time matters. If you think he swallowed something I need to know what and when. Talk to me. Help me save him." She was searching for injuries on the little body as she spoke and finding none.
The young man sank to the floor near Dr. Weiss's feet. Samantha heard him mumble something about a stash and the little boy being too curious. That was enough to get started. She threw aside the curtain surrounding one end of the exam area and found herself staring at a trio of quaking coworkers.
"Narcan," Samantha shouted. "And find me a doctor who's conscious enough to give the order to administer."
"I can do it," Weiss said, rolling onto his hands and knees and pausing before pulling himself erect. He cast a wary glance at the assailant who was still babbling incoherently, then nodded at a middle-aged nurse who stood outside the immediate area. "You. Alice. You heard her. Meds. Stat. And somebody order a chopper. We'll transport to Children's in Little Rock as soon as we stabilize."
"Respirations are slow, pulse rapid and weak," Samantha told him.
"That figures." Weiss blew a sigh. "I'll start an IV while you give him half the dose IM. If the problem isn't opiate-induced, Narcan won't hurt him."
"Right." She administered the injection while other nurses and the doctor worked on the opposite side of the gurney.
The sound of approaching sirens caught her attention. Tensing, she eyed Bobby Joe. He apparently hadn't noticed that the police were almost there.
"Vitals are improving. Somebody take my place for a second," Samantha said before leaving the patient in other capable hands and going to crouch beside the distraught teen.
"We've given the boy an antidote and he's starting to respond. It's going to be okay." Reaching for his weapon and closing her hand around it, she made sure it was pointing in a safe direction, then exerted steady pressure. "You can let go. Give me the gun, Bobby Joe. Everything's under control."
Relieved beyond words when he did as she asked, Samantha stood, holding out the small, silver pistol, butt first and muzzle direction safely diverted, just the way she'd taken it from its owner.
Several police officers were already approaching warily when she turned to face them. Their guns were drawn, their expressions deadly serious so she announced, "You can relax, fellas. Everything's under control. I got his gun away from him for you."
One deputy sidled past her to cuff the addict while another stepped up and took the pistol from her hand.
If Samantha hadn't already been so keyed up that she could barely think straight, she might have shrieked when she saw that cop's face. Her jaw did drop and she was pretty sure her gasp was audible. His light brown hair and eyes and his broad shoulders were all too familiar. It couldn't be him, of course. It simply couldn't be. She hadn't had one of these deja vu moments for months. Maybe years.
Her pulse leaped as reality replaced imagination. She couldn't catch her breath. This was not another bad dream. John Waltham, the man who'd broken her heart so badly she'd wondered if she'd ever recover, was standing right in front of her, big as life.
Before she could decide how to greet him, he set the mood of their reunion. His "What did you think you were doing?'" was delivered with such force it was practically a growl.
That attitude stiffened her spine and made it easy to answer, "My job."
"You're a nurse, not a cop."
"Oh, so I'm supposed to just stand there while you and your buddies waltz in here and start shooting?"
"If necessary, yes."
"Don't be silly. I knew Bobby Joe wasn't going to hurt me," she insisted, wishing she fully believed her own assertion. When an addict was under the influence there was no way to predict what he or she might do.
Handling the pistol expertly, John unloaded it and passed it to one of his fellow officers to bag as evidence before turning back to Samantha.
She noticed that his expression had softened some but it was too little too late. She was already bristling. "What are you doing back in town?" She eyed him from head to toe. "And why are you dressed like a member of our police force?"
"Because that's what I am. I've come home," he said flatly.
Samantha couldn't believe her ears. After all he'd put her through, all the tears she'd shed after he'd left her high and dry, he had the unmitigated gall to return and go back to work as if nothing had changed. How dare he!
Seeing Samantha again had been disquieting to begin with. Seeing her with the perp's loaded gun in her hand had dealt him such a staggering blow he'd almost been rendered speechless.
Although Sam was prettier than ever, she now exhibited an element of authority and expertise that floored him. The last time they'd been together Sam had clung to him, crying and begging him to stay in Serenity. She'd acted as if she couldn't bear to see him go and was positive she couldn't live without him.
Now, however, she was behaving with such self-assurance he was stunned. His high school sweetheart had grown up in his absence. Boy, had she!
Waiting until the addict had been escorted to a patrol car and stuffed into the backseat, John approached her for the second time.
She looked up from her task of packaging the quilt and the child's clothing. She didn't speak, didn't smile.
John cleared his throat. "I think we got off on the wrong foot just now. It's good to see you again, Sam."
All she did was nod.
"Nice job calming the suspect. Just don't try anything like that again."
He'd thought she might reply because her jaw dropped slightly but she snapped it shut and kept mum. "I told you I was sorry a hundred times," he said quietly so others wouldn't overhear. "What happened between us in the past was for the best, Sam. You and I both know that."
With a noisy sigh and shake of her head she regarded him for long seconds before she finally spoke. "I'd adjusted fine to you being a detective in Dallas, John. What the What are you doing back in Serenity?"
"You don't sound happy to see me."
"Happy? Happy is getting the gun away from Bobby Joe Boland and saving that little boy's life. There was no joy in going through the struggles I faced after you left me. I won't do it again. Not for anything."
Floored, he stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets and tried to look unconcerned. He'd thought he'd made Samantha understand his desire to better himself, to advance his career. Surely she must have had some empathy because she'd insisted she wanted to do the same thing in regard to nursing. They had both succeeded. He'd just had to move away in order to accomplish his goals and she'd been able to do it right there in Serenity.
"I kind of hoped you'd be glad to see me, Sam. It's nice that you're doing so well." He gestured toward the area where the doctor and nurse were smiling at the formerly unconscious boy. "Looks like a good save."
"This time. I wish I could rescue them all."
"Kids, you mean?"
"Yeah." Another sigh. "There are so many like."
"Like you used to be?" he offered. When her eyes narrowed and she glared at him he was afraid he'd reminded her too much of her own childhood.
"I managed. And I'm still managing," Samantha said, closing and tagging the bag of belongings that would go in the medevac chopper that was going to transport the child to a bigger hospital. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."
"Maybe I'll see you in church Sunday?"
You could have knocked him over with a feather when she said, "Not a chance. I don't go to church anymore."
"Why not?" The way John remembered their youth, Sam's faith had seemed stronger than his. What in the world would make her stop attending worship services?
At first he didn't think she was going to answer. When she lifted her chin higher and said, "Because I got tired of everybody asking me about you,," he wished she hadn't told him the truth.
The swing shift sped by for Samantha. Weary and eager to get home and relax, she clocked out at midnight, grabbed her purse and headed for her compact, blue sedan.
Overhead lights cast a yellowish glow across the medical-center parking lot. Fall breezes were scattering dry leaves and either piling them against the tires of the few remaining vehicles, or tumbling them down the hill into the farmers' mowed fields beyond.
Samantha turned up the collar of her fleece jacket and clasped her arms across her chest to help ward off the chill. She knew she hadn't been the same since she'd seen John again and she didn't like the feelings of lossand of buried angerthat kept washing over her.
Logic insisted that it was foolish to relive an unhappy past. The problem was, most of her time with John Waltham had been blissful. Elating. Filled with the promise of a perfect future.
That was the real problem. She was once again coming face-to-face with a shattered dream and seeing how irrational it had been in the first place. Childhood attachments were fine for kids. A person had to grow up eventually. In a way, John had done them both a favor when he'd left town and forced her to stand on her own two feet. Intellectually, she believed that. All she had to do was convince her emotions.
Because of hospital rules, Samantha's car was parked in a distant section of the lot designated for employees. There were some lights back there, too, but the farther she got from the buildings the more forbidding the encroaching darkness seemed.
One hand was inside her shoulder bag, reaching for her keys, when a large, black-clad form stepped out of the shadows. She sensed him before she actually saw him and her fingers began probing the deepest reaches of her purse. Instead of her keys, she gripped a small can of pepper spray.
Shaking on the inside, she continued walking boldly toward her car. When the silent figure blocked her way she simply said, "Excuse me?"