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The box was plain metal, the color of tarnished silver.
Maddie Lambert watched as Dr. Wrigley slid it carefully onto the bench seat of the jet her father had chartered. He fastened it down with bungee cords. Odd, she thought. The box was so painfully ordinary. She'd imagined it would be more impressive somehow.
Wrigley checked his watch and took a seat on one side of the box, the cabin lights shining on his bald head as he peered at the screen of his phone.
Stomach knotted, she shouldered her bag more firmly and squeezed down the aisle to greet him.
He looked startled. "Ms. Lambert. I had no idea you would be on the flight."
The man hunched on the other end of the bench seat straightened abruptly.
"Paul?" She gasped, momentarily forgetting about Dr. Wrigley and his cargo.
Two syllables and in them she heard a lifetime of anguish. Maybe the grief was not in his voice, but still ringing in her own ears after a year going on eternity. A wave of emotion shuddered through her so strongly she bit her lip to keep from screaming. They'd agreed to stay out of each other's lives. There was too much pain; the past would forever be an impossible wedge between them. She fought to keep her voice steady. "What are you doing on this plane, Paul?"
Dr. Paul Ford stood, tall and lanky, and shook away the hair that perpetually hung in his eyes. Wrigley eyed them both as if they were a couple of live grenades just rolled down the aisle.
Paul raised his hand slightly, as if he meant to take her cold fingers in his.
She tightened her grip on the bag, nails digging into the nylon strap, and forced herself to stare into his gray eyes.
Paul shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, his gaze roving her face as if he had left something there long ago. "I wanted to be here, unofficially, to escort Dr. Wrigley, in case he needed anything."
The pilot stepped into the cabin. The copilot peered in from behind him, a concerned look on his face, and holding a carton with two coffees. "Ms. Lambert? Is there a problem? This gentleman showed proper hospital identification. I was told two Bayview employees, a gentleman from the Heartline Corporation rep and you." He looked around. "Nobody from Heartline yet?"
"No," Dr. Wrigley said. "I'm still not certain why the company needed to send someone to accompany their device anyway. The Berlin Heart is a mechanical marvel. There's no way we would let anything happen to it."
"My father and I expected the hospital director."
The pilot looked again at her. "Shall we delay takeoff?"
Focus, Maddie. Do whatever you need to to get this plane in the air.
"No, there's no problem. I guess the director changed plans."
Paul shrugged. "He canceled."
The pilot excused himself and returned to the cockpit.
Dr. Wrigley looked sharply over his wire-rimmed glasses. "Canceled? Since when?"
Paul seemed not to hear the question. He took a step into the aisle, closer to Maddie. "I didn't think " He cleared his throat. "I assumed you would have already flown out to be with your father prior to the surgery."
She refused to move back a pace, though his nearness, the musky smell of his cologne made her head spin with too many emotions to name. She felt the bittersweet shadow of lingering tenderness and fought to shut it down. "You think I should be with my father? To say goodbye in case it doesn't work?"
Paul exhaled. "No, to comfort him."
"My sister's there. I wanted to fly with." She looked at the secured box. "I wanted to be on this flight." She could not stop herself from adding, "After all my father's been through, I thought someone should be there every step along the way."
Paul's face twisted. He looked toward the cockpit, his chin shadowed by dark stubble. The tiny muscles in the corner of his mouth twitched ever so slightly. She looked into his gaze, those gray eyes that used to dance with laughter, and yes, a touch of arrogance, too. They were flat now, as if some internal light had been extinguished.
Dr. Wrigley stood and rested a hand on Paul's shoulder. "Maddie? We've not had a chance to talk in a while. I'm honored to be a part of this. We certainly had to navigate some massive red tape to get hold of a Berlin Heart. Heart-line has only made a few of their artificial hearts this year. Your father picked the best surgeon in the country. I know they had to apply for a compassionate-use permit, since it's not yet cleared by the FDA. If everything goes well, and I'm confident it will, this may be the procedure that ensures FDA approval. It could save many thousands of lives every year."
It was the time for diplomacy, for a conciliatory tone toward a person so much higher up the ladder she could hardly see him. Instead, she felt the ugly truth spill out. "Dr. Wrigley, I don't care if the Berlin Heart ever gets cleared by the FDA and I don't care about the reputation of the hospital. The only thing on my mind is whether that piece of plastic will save my father's life."
Though it could have been her imagination, she thought she saw the glimmer of a smile on Paul's full lips, though he remained silent.
Dr. Wrigley reddened. "Of course. I can imagine the grief you and your family have endured."
He could imagine? After Wrigley broke up her father's long-ago engagement and knowing her nieces had died in the emergency room he supervised? The anger hummed inside, growing louder with every passing second. "You have grandchildren, don't you, Dr. Wrigley?"
"So you're saying you can imagine what it would be like driving them to the park and having a drunk driver plow into your car?"
Paul grimaced, crossing his arms across his chest.
Wrigley's lips tightened. "The hospital and Dr. Ford did the best they could for your nieces, as well as your father."
"Yet, my nieces are dead, while the drunk who hit them is in perfect health." She shot a look at Paul.
The gray of his eyes darkened like a coming storm, but he did not comment.
Her words snapped out. "And you hope to save the reputation of your hospital and deflect my father's financial investigation with this groundbreaking surgery."
Dr. Wrigley's mouth fell open. "Ms. Lambert, your father has had a personal vendetta against me for years, but I had hoped you'd be more reasonable. Your grief doesn't give you an excuse to attack me or the hospital."
Her voice broke, but she persevered. "My father was investigating Bayview because his company was hired to do so, pending a buyout. That's what he does for a living. It wasn't a personal attack on you. As far as my feelings about the matter, I don't need an excuse to grieve. I see their faces every day in dreams and when I'm awake." Her eyes filled but she willed herself not to cry.
Why had the hospital not had enough staff in the E.R. that fateful morning? It had come to light that Paul was late to work because he'd been on the phone trying to check up on his brother, but there had been no answer. If he'd only made contact, perhaps his drunk sibling might not have plowed into the car Bruce Lambert was driving.
The terrible thought occurred to her again. Paul had four victims brought in then. One of them his brother. The children were too far gone to save, according to official hospital reports, but she didn't believe it. Paul had chosen to help his brother at the expense of the children. Her father believed it deep down in his core. And in spite of the love she and Paul had once shared, the anguish she felt, the darkest part of her believed it, too.
Dr. Wrigley shook his head. "As I said, I understand."
Her fury ebbed, leaving a profound fatigue in its wake. Though she spoke to Wrigley, her eyes were riveted on Paul's. "Respectfully, Dr. Wrigley, you couldn't possibly understand."
The captain's voice crackled over the intercom, requesting the passengers buckle up for takeoff. Maddie walked on trembling legs, glad her seat was facing forward and she wouldn't have to spend the flight looking at Paul. Disbelief fogged her mind.
Paul was on the plane. His nearness was a switchblade pressed to her heart, enough to cut but not to sever.
You've put it behind you. Focus on the now, the miracle you've been given, the heart that will save your father's life.
An Asian man with hair down to his shoulders slid into the seat beside her. She guessed him to be in his fifties, though his eyes seemed much younger. "Hello. Almost missed it."
She jumped. "You must be the man from Heartline."
"Yes. You're Bruce Lambert's daughter? A physical therapist, I heard. I might need one after my sprint through the airport."
She did not want to be talking to him or anyone else, but there was no polite way to ignore the man in the cramped space of the small jet. "My clinic is across town. You can look me up when we get back, Mr..?"
He extended his hand. "Tai Jaden. Pleased to meet you. I'm glad our company could provide the heart that will save your father's life."
She gripped his fingers. "Me, too."
He pointed to the illuminated sign. "Better buckle up. It's time to go."
Maddie closed her eyes and tried to sleep as the flight lifted off through clouded San Francisco skies and headed north, but the shudders of the plane and her own worries prevented it. She could feel Paul's presence like a shadow, and she almost wished she'd decided not to board. Her father hadn't wanted her to accompany the heart. Not necessary, he'd said. Fly ahead and meet it on the other end.
But her father was down to his last days, the Berlin Heart his only option; and the past year, he'd been so stricken that he barely worked or accepted comfort from her. She had little to give anyway. She understood about his torn ventricle and the patched aorta that could not be permanently repaired.
But it was not those things alone that put Bruce Lambert a hairbreadth from death. It was grief and the helplessness of a powerful man who realized he could not buy back a single moment of the past. Doctors were surprised he'd survived this far.
Only one thing kept him alive and able to put his plans into action. It wasn't physical or emotional healing. Not coming to terms with the loss. Something darker and infinitely cold.
He might not achieve peace, but he would have his revenge on Wrigley, on the hospital. She swallowed. On Paul. She'd heard him rant. Not enough doctors on duty. Wrigley unable to be located when he should have been supervising the emergency room. Paul's inability or unwillingness to save the children.
She made herself remember. Paul had managed to save his brother, his blood, at the expense of the kids. She'd heard her father say it time and time again, but there was some tiny part, some deep-down whisper in her heart that wondered.
The desire for revenge was the only thing sustaining her father, and if that was what he needed, she would help him get it.
Paul spoke to Dr. Wrigley. She heard the low huskiness of his voice over the whine of the small airplane's air circulation system. Her guilt was palpable, a live thing that slithered through her gut and into her spine until it whispered in her brain.
Her father's vengeance meant everyone responsible for the children's death would pay. She shivered.
Jaden shot her a glance. "Cold?" "Just thinking."
He gave her a curious look as the plane banked and sliced through a storm-washed sky.
She closed her eyes and gave herself to sleep.* * *
They'd been in the air for two hours going on a lifetime. The plane was a six-seater Cessna, and Paul could see Mad-die's chestnut hair just over the top of the seat in front of him. He couldn't decide if he had caught the scent of her, the fragrance she always wore that reminded him of cinnamon, or if it was the cruel taunting of his memory.
Dr. Wrigley's surreptitious glances in his direction didn't help him relax. "What?" Paul said finally, turning to him. "What's on your mind?"
Wrigley raised an eyebrow. "Flying with an unstable, grief-blinded woman, for one."
"She's not unstable."
"No? Well blaming the hospital and the both of us for the tragedy isn't rational. She's bought into her father's madness. He's had it against me since grad school."
When you had an affair with his fiancée? Paul imagined his own wrath if someone had tried to steal Maddie from him. The pain in his gut reminded him she was not his anymore. He cleared his throat. "She's just here to make sure nothing goes wrong."
Wrigley's eyes narrowed. "And the man from Heartline. Do you know him?"
Paul looked at the passenger he'd been trying to identify since they took off. "No. Maybe Maddie does." He sighed, thinking about how much he'd lost since they'd broken up. It had been a little more than a year since the accident, two months since he'd last spoken to her, and then it was merely a strained conversation outside a lawyer's office. She seeking a civil suit against the drunk driver who killed her nieces, and he in search of any kind of help for the same man, whom, in spite of everything, Paul loved.
His older brother, Mark, who was in prison.
Paul pushed away the ever-present pain and tried to read his book. This one was set in a submarine. The hero a rugged ex-marine who would accept no failure. Big guy, big guns, lots of good one-liners. If only things were so black and white. You wanted something, you worked hard at it and bingo: dreams came true.
He'd learned early on that, in the field of medicine, dogged determination didn't keep damaged hearts beating. Hard work and a brilliant understanding of the human body wasn't enough.
And sometimes love wasn't, either. It was ironic that he could hardly look at Maddie due to the guilt, yet he couldn't stop thinking about her for a single moment. He leaned his head against the cool glass of the window and tried to refocus on the book.
After the okay from the pilot, he saw Dr. Wrigley check his emails.
"It's from Director Stevens'Sorry I missed the flight. Thanks for "having a heart" and taking my place. Look forward to your report next week. Keep your eyes on that heart.'" Wrigley grimaced. "Funny guy. I thought I'd had enough of his jokes when he pawned off a meeting on me yesterday and flew the memo into my office on a paper airplane. I had better things to do than sit next to a heart all the way to Washington."