Marine Ben Corallis is an expert at facing death, but nothing comes close to the terror that grounds him when his wife is killed in a car accident the day he returns from duty. He's left to raise an infant, a toddler and a ten-year-old girl who hasn't uttered a word since her mother's death.
It's hard not to care for the widowed marine with three young children. Yet he's still grieving, too burdened with guilt to fall in love again. And Hope Alwanga's future as a doctor awaits her on the other side of the world, in Nairobi. If two such opposites can't agree on a common country, how can they ever create a safe place to call home?
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Dear Diary, They said writing to you would help. I'm not sure. I can't tell anyone what I did. Not even you. If anyone finds out, I could go to jail
Hope Alwanga stripped off her bloody gloves and gown, then rushed from the room, but there was no escaping the merciless, coppery smell that had penetrated her sinuses. She pressed the crook of her elbow to her nose to shield against the added assault from the sweaty, desperate crowd still waiting to be seen and made her way to the back of the emergency room. A steady stream of patients was expected at any of Nairobi's public hospitalsshe saw it as added experience during her internship yearbut this? This was pure chaos. And she'd been forced to do procedures she'd never done before.
She needed a minute to sit. Just one.
She collapsed onto a stool near a half-empty medical supply closet, leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes.
"No," she said, jerking her head up and pushing off the stool. The floor tilted, and her hands shot out reflexively for balance. "I'm fine. I just needed a second."
Zamir, her supervising doctor, put a gentle hand on her shoulder and urged her back onto the stool.
"Take that second and then go home. That's an order," he said.
"I haven't eaten anything. That's all it is." That and no sleep.
"Don't argue with your superior."
Hope rolled her eyes. Zamir could never nail a harsh tone when it came to her. He was closer in age to her much-older brother, and, given that he'd grown up as a family friend, he often teetered between his role as her supervising medical officer and a caring friend. A lot. Only, he knew full well that Hope wasn't interested in anything but focusing on her education and career. Hope brushed his hand aside and stood, taking a deep, readying breath.
"You need me here. We've lost two patients already this morning, and there has been no news of the rest of the staff coming back. I'm not going anywhere."
For two days now, they'd been running on bare threads. It was bad enough that, under normal circumstances, Nairobi's public hospitals were grossly underequipped. Only months into her internship, she'd already witnessed patients either dying or being turned away due to lack of medical equipment and supplies alone. Even children. God, the children broke her heart. Now, to add insult to an already critical situation, delayed government paychecks had spurred a strike by the majority of their medical staff. As an intern, her pay was barely worth counting anyway, but she wasn't here for money. She was here to help, but this this was like asking a gnat to save a drowning shrew.
She turned to head back toward the main area. Failure wasn't an option. Not for an Al-wanga.
"Hope, don't be stubborn," Zamir said, stepping in front of her. "You need to get some sleep or you'll be useless. You'll start to make mistakes. I can't have that happen. Stay and I'll write you up."
Hope stopped dead in her tracks, then looked right at him. Her pulse drummed at the base of her throat.
"That man did not die because of me," she said, pointing down the hall toward the patient they'd just lost. "I did everything"
"I didn't mean him," Zamir said, shaking his head and holding up his palms. "You were brilliant in there. Hope, that man had been thrown from a boda-boda. He didn't have a chance. Not with what we have here. But I need you to get some rest before I end up having to resuscitate you. Or before you do make a human mistake."
Hope pressed her lips together and cringed at the mental image of Zamir resuscitating her. He'd love that, wouldn't he? Zamir to the rescue. Always looking out for her. That was exactly why her parents loved him so much.
But he was right. Anyone who dared hitch a ride on Kenya's motorcycle-styled taxis, manned by an array of notoriously reckless drivers, was gambling with death. She'd done what she could, stepping in to assist Zamir in the absence of more experienced doctors and nurses. But her trained immunity to the stench of violent death had failed her today. The lack of sleep really was doing a number on her senses, and the last cup of lukewarm coffee she'd guzzled hadn't done much to help. She ran both hands back over her chin-length waves. She still wasn't used to the texture after her mom insisted she have it relaxed a few weeks ago. "Fine," she said. "Just for a few hours."
"Don't come back until tomorrow. I'll find someone to help. Maybe the strike will be over by then," he said, twisting his lips. Neither of them was holding out hope on that count. Even if it did end, the suffering and loss would have still happened. The supplies and equipment needed to better serve the majority of locals too poor to seek help from private hospitals or doctorssuch as her parentswould still be an issue.
Hope nodded and walked away, too tired to argue anymore. What was the point? After finishing up her year here, she'd be moving on to her master of medicine in orthopedics before joining her parents' private practice.
That had always been the plan. All she was doing right now was rolling a boulder uphill.
She grabbed her things, made a quick call to Jamal, their family driver, for pickup and fled the building. A well-dented matatu packed with passengers revved its engine and missed her by two feet as it sped away from the curb. She gasped, then coughed out a lungful of exhaust fumes. And there was the reason she didn't drive. One had to have a little daredevil and adrenaline addict in them to navigate the streets of Nairobi. Being a passenger was scary enough, but she trusted Jamal. He'd been her family's driver since she was an infant, hired right after her parents had employed his wife as a housekeeper and cook, because at the time, with Hope's medical needs and heart surgery, they'd needed the extra help.
She made her way to where she spotted Jamal waiting. The October sunshine cleansing her face made up for the emergency room "aromas" and exhaust fumes. Boy, was she glad their family home was outside the city. Although lately, she hadn't spent much time there.
"Jambo," she said, climbing in with the oversize woven shoulder bag she carried her life in: clinical books, notes, wallet, a few toiletries and probably a few items lost at the bottom that she'd forgotten about entirely.
"Jambo, Hope," Jamal said, closing her door, then making his way around to the driver's seat.
She quickly pulled off her socks and shoes and slipped her achy feet into the sandals she kept tucked under the front seat. She sighed and leaned back.
"Home?" Jamal asked.
"No, I need to stop at the university first. Then Chuki's, then home." She wouldn't be able to truly relax until she dropped off inhaler samples for Chuki's little sister. Her friend's family had been struggling financially for a while now, and the least Hope could do was to try to help out. Especially with the strike going on.
Jamal glanced at her through the rearview mirror before turning his focus on the road.
"You look pale. Dalila told me to tell you she's making some fresh mandazi just for you. She said not to tell your parents. She'll have stew ready by the time they come home," he said, winking at her through the rearview mirror.
"Mmm." Hope closed her eyes and savored the mere idea of a warm homemade doughnut. Her only vice. Her stomach growled, and she pressed her hand against it. "Dalila is an angel," she said, barely lifting her heavy eyelids.
"I know," he said, grinning.
Hope gave in to sleep as she smiled back. Not much of a nap, given that the campus building where her brother's research lab was located wasn't far enough for the solid dose of REM sleep she needed. She woke up at Jamal's prompting and dragged her groggy self toward the building and up the stairs to her brother's genetics lab.
"Jambo," she said, closing the door behind her and hanging her bag on the hook meant for his lab coat. She glanced over her shoulder, pretending not to notice the annoyed look on her brother Dr. Simba David Al-wanga's face. "Dr. Alwanga" to all his staff and colleaguesespecially the ladiesbut family always used his middle name, David. Hope, however, had called him Simba ever since she could talk, and she was the only person who could get away with it. He hated the fact that he shared a name with an animated movie character. She loved it.
"Jambo. No sandals in the lab. You know that," he said.
She did know. Standard lab safety called for closed-toe shoes, something she'd gotten in the habit of wearing during medical school, especially when working with patients and blades or needles.
"Sorry, but I couldn't stand it anymore. Every cell on me needed to breathe," she said, collapsing onto the swivel stool in front of the counter across from where he was labeling petri dishes. "Besides, I'm not staying long. Please tell me you got some."
The corners of his mouth quirked up.
"I promised, didn't I?" he said, still labeling and setting the dishes in organized rows.
She shook her head and chuckled at his smugness. Even as his sister, she had to admit he was a good-looking guy, on top of having a phenomenal reputation in the research world and a natural charisma women seemed to find irresistible. That actually worried her a bit. She had a hard time imagining him settling down, but at the same time, she didn't want him trapped by some woman who only cared about his name and success. Men could be so blind.
"I do appreciate the fruits of your effortless labor, dear brother, but one of these days you're going to meet your match, and she's going to laugh at your smooth-talking ways."
He flicked the on switch for the sterile hood that occupied a good five feet of the narrow lab's right wall, set his tray of dishes under it, then leaned back against the counter and folded his arms.
"Smooth talking? It's this face and the brains behind it," he said.
Hope rolled her eyes. She knew he was kidding for her benefit. Mostly. It took about two seconds for his eyes to narrow.
"You look terrible," he said.
"Did you really just compliment your looks, then insult mine? Just give me the samples," she said, hoping to deflect his concern.
"Hope, trust me, not even mud could mask your beauty"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, tell me you haven't tried that one in public," she said, tossing her head.
"but you really do look pale. And yes, that one got you these," he added, pulling two sample-size boxes out of his lab coat pocket and handing them to her.
"Thank you!" Hope jumped off the stool, took the boxes and gave Simba a quick hug. "I'll leave you to work."
"Not so fast." He guided her back to the stool and made her sit. So much for a quick exit. Hope knew when she was in for another lecture. A part of her understood the good place it was coming from.
As the youngest, she was stuck with the position of the family baby. Considering how "delicate" she'd been as a real baby, Hope was used to her every breath being scrutinized or worried over. Yes, it was love, but it was also irritating at times. At twenty-five, she knew how to get things done. So far, she'd been successful with every step of the career that her parents had carefully outlined with her. It was just that, as a woman, it seemed as if she always had to work harder for the same success and accolades as her male peers. Even her brother. So yes, she was tired.
"I know I look tired. I am. I just left hell, but I'm headed home right after dropping these off, so I'll be fine. Jamal is waiting for me. Okay?"
Simba rolled another stool near hers and sat down. He pressed his lips together and looked off to the side before turning to her. There was no trace of his fun demeanor left. This was all lion king.
"Listen to me, Hope. This isn't just about today. I've noticed you going downhill for months now."
"I'm an intern at a public hospital. What do you expect?"
"I expect you to have good days and bad days. But be honest. You're miserable, Hope. Your face is like an open book. I see determination and exhaustion, but never joy. I see no peace in you."
Hope licked her lips and looked away, blinking several times to fight the burn of tears. He was right. Everyone always said that she had such an expressive face. Kind of a curse at times. No emotional privacy.
"Sometimes I feel as though I need to be autoclaved. It's expected."
"Sometimes you simply need a break. You're making yourself sick and I'm worried," he continued. "When was the last time you visited this friend of yours? Do you even still have other friends?" He pointed to the boxes Hope held.
He didn't really know Chuki, and she wasn't surprised that he couldn't recall her name. The women that caught his eye were in related fields and not from Chuki's side of town. But he was right. It had been almost two months since she'd seen Chuki in person, and even that visit had been no more than thirty minutes. She shrugged. She couldn't do this now.
"Exactly. You care about her, yet you hardly see her. Do you know why I'm successful at what I do?" her brother asked. "Because I love this." He waved a hand at the lab. "This is my passion, Hope. I went after it because I wanted to. It satisfied me. Hard work? Yes, but there has to be balance."
Hope straightened and took a deep breath.
"That's enough, Simba. You can't tell me what I want and don't want to do."
"No, but I can tell you that your health comes first. Your happiness comes first. Can you tell me that if you had one wish on earth, it would be to join Mama and Baba's practice?" He sliced his hand through the air. "Do you even have a wish?"
The door to the lab swung open and Sim-ba's friend and colleague Dr. Jack Harper stepped in. Yes. A buffer.
"Hey, you two slackers. Stop sitting around and get to work," Jack teased as he carried two racks of sample-filled vials to the far end of the lab near the centrifuge. He set them down and pulled a pipette out of a drawer. Simba gave her a "this isn't over" look and went back to his work.
"Jack. I didn't know you were going to be here today!" Hope said, perching her sandals on the bottom rung of the stool and swiveling it gently left and right. "How is everyone at Busara? How is little Pippa?"
"They're great. And Pippa That little monkey is growing fast." His eyes sparkled like only a proud father's could. "Anna and Niara told me to say hi to you and to tell you they'd be around for some supplies soon," Jack said.
"Tell them I can't wait." She resisted the urge to ask when exactly "soon" would be. She really wanted to see them, but her brain tensed from the mere idea of how the logistics would work with her current schedule. Unless, maybe, if the strike ended.