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"I'm never going back."
Dr. Kathryn Thatcher lay in the wooden porch swing, one arm slung across her eyes, her weary body soaking up sun.
She hadn't been outside in such a long time she'd likely suffer second-degree burn. But the old family home at Wilson's Cove, Oklahoma, was tailor-made for lazing around, something the career-driven Dr. Thatcher never did. Until now.
Three days and counting since she'd asked her medical director for a leave of absence and walked out. In truth, she wanted to resign, but he'd talked her out of it. Didn't matter. She was done, finished, through.
Too many dead kids would do that to a person.
"A few days' rest and you'll be ready to go again. You're just tired."
Kat's sister, Susan Renfro, sat on the top step of the long wooden porch, fingers laced around one knee, short dark unruly curls gleaming in the sunlight. She'd gained more weight, something Kat was not about to mention, considering Susan had never lost the extra twenty pounds from Sadie's birth four years ago. Three kids and a love for Southern comfort cooking had destroyed her sister's former cheerleader body.
Who was she to talk? She'd added a few pounds, too, and her idea of exercise was running from one exam room to another.
"I'm more than tired, Suz," Kat said, though she couldn't deny the exhaustion. "Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I wasn't cut out for the medical profession."
Memories of that last, terrible night pressed in. Kat shivered, still hearing the incessant rain hammering against the glass E.R. doors as ambulance after ambulance arrived, carrying victims from a five-car pileup on I-35. Thirty-six hours of blood and death, the worst of it being that all the fatalities were teenagers.
"A career in medicine is all you ever wanted, Kat. It's who you are."
Lately, Kat wasn't sure who she was or what she wanted.
Her older sister meant well, but she had no idea what an E.R. physician's life was like.
Like most girls in Wilson's Cove, Susan married her high school sweetheart the summer after graduation and settled down around the 700 acre recreational lake, content to raise a family and take care of the family's rental cabins. She'd never gone to college, much less spent years working eighty hours a week until she was a zombie inside and out. She'd also never had to bear the news to parents that their beautiful, fresh-faced sixteen-year-old would never graduate from high school.
"Becoming a doctor was all I wanted as a kid. I'm not a kid anymore." She'd gone into medicine to save lives. Lately, all she'd done was sign death certificates.
"Then, what do you want?"
"I don't know." There was the truth. She wanted to be happy. She wanted to feel joy. She wanted some intangible something that lacked definition. But if she admitted as much, she'd get a sermon. To her sister, life revolved around faith in God. That was fine for Susan. Religion hadn't worked so well for Kathryn. She and God had let each other down a long time ago.
"I'm being sued," she said.
"For what?" Susan frowned and sat up straighter, ready to defend her baby sister. The sight warmed a cold spot inside of Kathryn. That was the great thing about family and one of the things she'd forgotten in her long absences from the cove.
"For being a doctor, I guess. I never even saw the patient, but I wrote and signed a discharge summary for his chart. Therefore, I am as liable for his death as the blood clot that killed him."
"Happens all the time." Another reason she was back in Wilson's Cove for good. She was tired of fighting the system.
"What are you going to do about it?"
"Nothing I can do except let the lawyers duke it out." And sit by while her malpractice insurance jumped into yet another exorbitant bracket.
"Well, that's just wrong."
Kat agreed, resentment boiling up inside her like a geyser. But if she followed that train of thought, she'd have a stroke.
Closing her eyes, she tried not to think at all, a major problem for a woman whose mind never stopped churning. She was always thinking, always working, always planning. Sometimes she wanted to scream for her mind to shut up.
April was here and, oh, how she loved the wild Oklahoma spring. With iron determination, she concentrated on the sights and sounds, anything to wash away the memories of her work in Oklahoma City.
Lilacs and peach blossoms scented the air with gentle sweetness, and the hum of bees and other insects filled the afternoon. A butterfly hovered on one of Susan's geranium pots, a splash of yellow on fuchsia. Spring meant new beginnings, new growth, the rebirth of nature after a long, hard winter. For a silly moment, Kat wished she could be a tulip or a daffodil, ready to burst into newness.
"Guess who I saw this morning?" Susan asked after a long period of silence.
"I give up," Kat said, lazily opened her eyes to peer into Susan's clear blue ones. "Who?"
With a Cheshire Cat grin, Susan tugged at the toe of Kat's tennis shoe. "Seth Washington. He asked about you."
Kathryn's stomach quivered, and she sat up, pulling her foot away. Even though Susan had made a point of keeping her apprised of Seth's life ever since he moved back to Wilson's Cove last year, Kat tried never to think about the boy she'd loved in high school.
"How did he know I was here?"
"Oh, come on, Kat. This is Wilson's Cove. Everyone in town knew you were home fifteen minutes after you stopped for gas at the Quick Mart."
"Oh." She'd almost forgotten the invisible information line that zinged from one side of the lake to the other, especially when the news concerned one of its own. The summer people came, camped, fished and left. But Kat's family had been here long before Wilson's Lake became a popular vacation spot, had owned most of the land at one time. The locals knew her, were proud of her, too, because she'd gone off to the big city to become a doctor.
Well, now she was back. Wonder what they'd think of that?
"Aren't you curious about him?" Susan was relentless when she got something into her head. And Seth Washington seemed to be her favorite subject whenever she talked to her baby sister.
"No." They'd had this conversation before.
Kat finished off an icy glass of Susan's fresh lemonade to prove how uninterested she was. In the few times she'd been back to the cove, she'd made a pointed effort to avoid the new lake ranger. "Not interested."
"Liar." Her sister swatted Kat's lily-white leg. "I'm going to tell you anyway. Donna down at the Quick Mart says he's divorced. Has been for a long time, though he kept that quiet at first. He probably never got over you."
Kat made a rude noise in the back of her throat. "Don't be silly. That was years ago. He married someone else."
"So? He's divorced now. Rumor says his wife left him for another man, and that's why he quit the Houston police force and moved back to the cove."
The rumor made Kat's chest ache. Seth was a great guy, or had been when she'd known him. He deserved better. "Gossip is a sin, sister dear."
For a second, Kat wished she hadn't mentioned sin. She didn't want to get Susan started on the church thing. They'd grown up in a Christian home and Susan had stayed true to her faith. Science and experience had taken Kat in a different direction, and the difference had caused more than one lively discussion between the sisters.
But Susan didn't go there this time. Instead she stuck out her tongue. "It's not gossip. It's the truth. And you want to hear everything I have to say about Seth Washington whether you admit it or not. Even the part about how good he looks in his lake ranger's uniform."
Kat rolled her eyes heavenward, though the image of Seth in any kind of uniform was one she'd carried since first hearing he'd become a cop in Houston. But she and Seth had made their decision all those years ago and their painful history did not bear rehashing.
"Did you know his mama has Alzheimer's? She's in a nursing home in Tulsa."
"Oh, Suz." Seth and his mother had always been close. No doubt her illness was the real driving force behind his return to the cove. "That's awful."
"Seth drives up to see her every week. I've heard Virgie doesn't even remember him."
Kat fought against a tide of empathy and lost. The boy she remembered would be devastated by such a loss. She couldn't bear to think about it. Not now. Not when she didn't want to think about Seth at all.
"Is there any more lemonade in the fridge?" she asked, and then pushed off the swing to saunter inside the house, letting the old-fashioned storm door clap shut resoundingly behind her. Even then she could hear her smart-aleck sister's tsk-tsking.
A moment later Susan was in the kitchen beside her.
Braced for more Seth updates, Kat was slightly deflated when Susan said, "Are you still as inept in the kitchen as always?"
"Yep. But I'm sharp with a scalpel. Could probably surgically dissect a chicken for you." She made a slashing motion with her hand, à la Zorro. Then she paused in midslash and cocked her head toward the noise coming from the back of the house. "What's that racket?"
"Probably Shelby and Jon fighting over the remote."
"Oh, that's right. Today's Saturday. I forgot about the kids being here."
Her sister gave her a long, sad look. "Do you realize how pathetic that is? To forget about kids? To forget about the man you once loved? But to want to leave the profession that you gave all that up for?"
"Don't start in, Susan. If I'd wanted kids or a husband I would have stayed here in Wilson's Cove instead of fighting my way into medical school."
But she had wanted those things. Seth. Children. Susan didn't know nearly as much as she thought she did. Regardless of the feminist movement and all the other hype, Kathryn had found out the hard way that a woman couldn't have everything.
"What are you going to do if you don't go back to medicine?"
Kat shrugged as she reached into the fridge for the big round pitcher filled with lemonade. Freshly sliced lemons bobbed like tiny yellow lifejackets.
She thunked the pitcher onto the scarred pedestal table. Gnaw marks along one edge served as permanent souvenirs from one of the kids' teething episodes. Knowing Susan, Kat figured she'd never let this table go because of those teeth marks.
"I have investments," she said in answer to Susan's question. "Maybe I'll open a business."
"Here?" Susan snorted. She took out a bowl and tossed in a half-dozen fat potatoes. "Like what? A bait shop? A snow-cone stand?"
Kat stared at the Colonial-blue corner cabinet, pretending to give the suggestions serious thought. "I haven't had a snow cone in a long time. I use to love those things."
"Business is lousy in winter." They both laughed and Susan said, "The convenience store on Main is up for sale.
"Hmm. No. Too inconvenient."
They laughed again, feeling silly. She and Susan hadn't kidded around this way in forever. No wonder she was depressed and burned out. She had no life.
"Here." Susan shoved the bowl of potatoes at her. "If you're such a hotshot with a scalpel you should be able to peel these for dinner while I put together the chicken casserole."
Kat groaned for effect before setting to work. Actually, she didn't mind helping in the kitchen as long as Susan didn't ask her to fry chicken or make gravy. Her idea of a home-cooked meal was microwavable Lean Cuisine. The rest of the time she lived on machine sandwiches, and doughnuts left in the doctor's lounge by drug reps looking to make brownie points.