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There are many paths to enlightenment. Be sure you take the one with a heart.
A ringing phone broke through the darkness, and her vision cleared. She raised her pounding head from the carpet. Looking at the office from her position on the floor made her want to cry. The desk was heaped with papers, candy wrappers, and dirty coffee cups. Stacks of files on the right cut off the view out the window. She stepped carefully through the minefield on her way to the chair. What had she read? A messy desk implies the rest of your life is in a similar state. Maybe — please God — this office wasn't hers. A girl could hope ... With a turn of her head, she noted a tall man talking on a ridiculously dated flip phone. Did she know him? His posture was as straight as the spines of the books on the shelves along the wall. Was he her lover (nice biceps) or husband (lucky her) or brother? She didn't think so.
Because of this, the obvious hit her. This hunk might be the reason she was flat on her back. If only her heart would stop racing, the fog in her head might clear.
Mercifully — or maybe not — he knelt beside her with his slow, easy moves as he set the phone down and examined her.
"You blacked out and fell." He nodded his head full of raven hair. "Help's on the way."
Her heavy lids closed on their own, and she forced them open. Given the circumstances, no sleep was allowed. Her gaze darted back and forth until it rested on a photo of a woman and man together with two little girls at the ocean. The family was laughing into the camera, the mom and kids' hair blowing in the breeze. Temples thudding, she didn't know who they were. Should she?
"Relax." His tone sounded as if he didn't take her whacking herself in the head and forgetting everything to heart.
She ... but wait. What was her name? Sadly, nothing sparked an "aha" moment. To make matters worse, her teeth were chattering like castanets. Her lightweight dress wasn't cutting it in the refrigerated air. "I'm freezing." Did that frightened voice belong to her?
The dear man shrugged out of his jacket and tucked it around a body a little too heavy to be hers. "There you go." He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, and the tattooed word samsara came into view on his muscular arm. "You'll be okay."
"Yeah." He lowered thick eyelashes over pools of blue — or was it gray? "Breathe. Let all thought melt into your breathing."
"I can't." Not when her stomach was lurching, and she didn't even know her own name.
"Let's try to get your mind off your troubles." He took three sticks of incense from a duffle bag, lit the tips with a match, and they fired up and smoked in trails. "Take a whiff." After a few moments, he added, "What do you think?"
"Hmmm, citrus and pine." She was twelve again and meandering through the peaceful woods. She remembered the way as clearly as if it were still noon on that summer's day, Mom, Dad, her sister, on their way to the sea.
"You've got it. Just kick back and let yourself drift."
Her breathing quieted and slowed, though he was still bent over her, his jeans worn at the knees to near threads. He had that marketable two-days-without-a-shave look. Also, his face, absurdly gorgeous, had movie star potential written all over it.
A landline phone intercepted the moment. Ching-a-ling-aling and her heartbeat skyrocketed into the outer limits.
The man slid a misplaced high heel back on her foot. "A fashion statement can't appear without shoes, now can she?" He was on her side, bless him. And he obviously knew her. She didn't recall who he was but could imagine him climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro or ziplining through the Grand Canyon. Had he been a client she'd briefed for an audition? But he didn't appear to have a disability. Now how had those last thoughts popped into her head?
She pointed a finger in his direction. "Do I know you?" "We met earlier. I'm Brandon Kennedy."
Determined to sit up, she lifted her shoulders. Her head sledgehammered, bitter bile rising in her throat.
He tenderly touched her cheek with his hand, and tears gushed to her eyes. She blinked them back. This was ... embarrassing.
"Hang in there, trouper," he said, and she wanted to hug him. At least thank him for taking such good care of her, but the words got stuck between mind and voice.
Sirens screeched from outside on Wilshire, and he spoke in the reassuring quiet she appreciated. "Give me a few minutes more."
He disappeared into the hall. The distraction he had lent her dissolved, and she took in her surroundings through the aching pulse in her eyes. This was an office, all right. Strange, though, the glossies on the wall were of a man on a stage with hearing aids, a woman with shrunken legs in a wheelchair on a modeling ramp, a child without a left arm. Her heart swelled with emotion, but she didn't understand why.
Time passed with a cell phone beeping, announcing incoming messages, and a jangling landline. The air conditioning wafted chilled air, making her shiver. Brandon's coat had left behind a raw, musky richness, and she cuddled up in its warmth.
Still, it occurred to her she'd forgotten something more paramount than her name. Was it in the familiar people in the many pictures surrounding her?
Thank God, the elevator pinged from the hallway, and in dashed the EMTs.
One of them dropped beside her. "What do you remember?" the man asked.
"It's a blur." She suppressed the tremor in her voice. "I just can't think."
He shined a penlight in each of her eyes. "Do you know your name?"
"Madison Gray." Simple enough now, and from deep within, words from some local newspaper drifted back: Madison Gray opens InSight, a talent agency that represents actors, presenters, and models with disabilities.
"How old are you, Ms. Gray?"
"Thirty — no, that can't be right. Thirty-two, I think. Maybe not. I need a second, please." She clenched her hands to stop their telltale shaking. Frustration settled in her throat, closing it up tight. Those missing pieces refused to surface in her head.
He asked her more questions while the other EMTs checked her vitals and her spine for injury. "Time to get you to the hospital."
Her mouth had gone dry as they wheeled her by the paneled walls filled with the press shots of her clients, and she smiled with pride as memories flashed like lightning. She loved them all, loved her work, wouldn't give up any of it for the world.
She motioned to stop before passing by Brandon. She lacked what he had, tranquility in his every move. Being with him was as soothing as sliding into a jacuzzi or listening to rain tap the window. With her job, her life, how long had it been since she felt any sense of calm?
"Brandon, will you come with me?"
"Sure." He said it as if he felt sorry for her. And why not?
Her hand raised to discover a goose egg had developed on the right side of her head. She was being carried from her agency on the top floors of the old Wesley building and out on the palm-studded boulevard while people watched with evident shock.
Her assistant trotted at the end of the gurney with a deer-in-headlights fright. "Ms. Gray?"
Madison sighed. "You better cancel my afternoon appointments." She managed a smile and directed it toward Brandon. "I owe you."
He steepled his hands under his chin. "May you be well."
The EMTs lifted her into the ambulance, and the skull-splitting lights dug into her eyes. To prepare for an IV bag, a paramedic stuck a needle in a vein in her arm and applied tape that tugged at her skin. Throughout the bumpy ride, the team worked on her and explained their procedures. One of them spoke to a doctor about her treatment over a crackling radio as sirens blared and horns blasted. Amid the confusion, Madison clung to Brandon Kennedy's blessing — may you be well.
* * *
More shook up than he cared to admit, Brandon stopped inside a small courtyard. Thirsty, he guzzled bottled water, perked his ears to the bubbling of a fountain, and tried to let go of his tension. With dread seeping down to his bones, he opened his phone and called Madison's sister, Harper McGregor.
"Brandon, how did it go?"
His cheeks burned. He'd done as much as possible, but no matter how hard he told himself otherwise, it hadn't been enough. He thought he'd ascended beyond allowing his emotions to get the better of him. Not true. Not today.
A mist blew from the fountain, cooling his face. He sank his hand into the swirling water, rescued a drowning ladybug, and grinned as it dried its wings and flew away.
"Sometimes, what seems an obstacle is a saving grace in disguise," he said.
"Madison got rid of you before you uttered a word?" Harper's tone cut into him with the trace of doom that dominated a lot of her speech.
He wished he had better news. "I'd just stepped into Madison's office and introduced myself when she fainted."
"Sorry — what?"
"She passed out and hit her head on the corner of her desk. I think she suffered a concussion. The ambulance is taking her to the Good Samaritan."
"For Pete's sake, Madison. You've gone and done it now."
A silence followed, and he thought he heard a muffled sob. Harper appeared tough on the outside, but she loved her sister, he knew.
He shifted from one foot to the other. He was used to people's disasters and had kept his head with Madison, but now his thoughts scattered like startled minnows.
He hated it when a woman wept. "Sorry, I tried to catch your sister. She was too far away."
"No, no, not your fault."
Muted beeps sounded. Most likely a burglar alarm code.
"Madison's working herself to death," Harper continued. "She's gone without sleep for too long. She's bad?"
He didn't want to alarm her. "Your sister could use a rest." The truth? Madison existed in a self-destructive cycle of work with no downtime.
In India, the late Mohan Das taught him the symptoms to look for in a patient. He hadn't expected to find Madison as bad off, but he was mostly judging her after she collapsed. Her face had puckered with fear. Her eyelashes had dampened when she started to cry and fought it with all her might. Something in her grit had touched him.
"I'm texting my brother Andrew," Harper said. "Talk to me, Brandon. Keep it up. Tell me any old thing. Listening to your voice is equal to having a deep-tissue massage. I wanted Madison to be as impressed by you as I am."
A lot of good he'd done. "Your sister's a fighter."
The sound of Harper's car engine rumbled in his ear.
"Got you on speaker phone," she said. "Can you help her?"
"I don't know." He picked up food wrappers from a stone bench and dumped them in the trash. "Not everybody wants help."
"I caught the intro to your show. Brandon Kennedy a.k.a. Guru Brandon. Age thirty-nine. Gave up a medical residency to traipse off to his roots in India — I want to know why."
A flurry of sunbeams flashed off shop windows as he strode down the block. "Conventional medicine isn't always the answer."
"The best way to get Madison to go along with you is to convince her it will be first-page news." She paused, then said, "I make her sound shallow. She's not. The stories I could tell you. When Webster stuck the word sacrifice in the dictionary, he was referring to Madison. She's just struggling so hard to make her clients realize their dreams."
He knew the facts. Madison worked twenty-four seven, plus volunteering her services at every opportunity. Full disclosure, the woman never stopped to rest.
"She's under tremendous tension," Brandon said, a dilemma he knew too well. "With excess anxiety, the body breaks down and results in disease — a body not at ease. I didn't realize how ill I was until I improved. If I'd learned earlier, I might have avoided making mistakes."
"It was another lifetime." One he'd just as soon leave in the past.
"You would have convinced her of your merit if you'd only gotten the chance." She sighed, then went silent. "Crap," she added as if something tragic had dawned on her. "You were my last resort."
He ducked into his electric car. "No worries." He didn't mean it, though. But then, hopefully, he'd still get to help out. "Your sister asked me to come to the Good Samaritan."
"Meet you there."
A half hour later, Brandon sat among the other people in a waiting room. The odor of disinfectant vied with the cafeteria food at the end of the corridor. The television droned the midday news. He focused on his breathing but found himself lost in thoughts of Madison Gray.
Aside from her problems, she was a head-turner. Her hair shone reddish gold, and she wore it up in a trendy twist he had been tempted to dismantle. He wanted to see those waves fall down her back, all natural and soft. Her eyes were the color of Burmese jade. Studying the structure of her face, he'd gotten lost in discovery. He'd never quite finished.
At twelve thirty, Harper steamrolled toward him, wearing her yoga pants and a workout shirt. With her pumped-up body, she might pass for a personal trainer, hands fisted, shoulders pushed back, but her knees clearly buckled with emotion when she saw him.
She sank into the chair next to his. "When will they let us in?" He saw himself in Harper when he'd been a kid and scared. "Soon." He patted the back of her hand with reassurance. "Let's try reciting the mantra I taught you."
Fifteen minutes later, Harper was flagging down a guy who must be Madison's younger brother. Andrew had her same shade of coppery hair, same eyes. He'd come from the baseball diamond still in uniform and chewing a wad of gum. But when Brandon shook his hand, the mint didn't hide the stench of whiskey. Brandon was all too familiar with the cons of alcohol addiction.
Andrew stuck his trembling hands on his hips. "Thanks for being here, man."
Brandon rocked forward in his chair. "No sweat. Between us, maybe we can work something out to present to your sister when — and if — she's up to it."
* * *
By two o'clock, Madison lay in a private room on the third floor with a view out the window of the rooftops and sky. She focused on the blip, blip, blip of the heart monitor and the saline bag attached to tubes — tubes everywhere. A breath escaped in a hiss between her teeth.
A hospital stay wasn't an option. What would happen to InSight? Her clients needed her. With a click of her cell phone, she decided to call her assistant. She'd no more summoned her contacts than Brandon Kennedy appeared in the doorway.
His eyes met hers, giving her that same jolt they had in her office. Though she'd been expecting him, something stirred deep within her. One thing she'd learned — he was a man a woman could depend on. Honestly, though, she wasn't foolish enough to believe him attracted to her. Given the situation, who would be?
She hadn't been expecting the long-stemmed yellow rose he gave her.
"How are you?"
"Not bad." Stretching her hand around the tubes, she slid her phone on the nightstand and inhaled the bud's sweet fragrance. "The color of sunshine. It brightens up my hospital gown, don't you think?" His kindness moved her. "Thank you."
He'd opened his mouth to respond when Harper entered. Soon after, Madison's heart expanded at the sight of her brother. Worried about her siblings' reaction to her, she struggled to pull herself together.
A whir sounded as she raised her bed. "Okay, people, don't freak."
The devastating mixture of shock and sympathy in Harper and Andrew's faces made her realize how sick she must appear. She bit her bottom lip to keep it from quivering. Circumstances had to be dire for her baby brother to show up at her bedside.
"I swear on all that's holy it's not as bad as it looks," Madison said.
Harper cocked her head to the side, brown hair cupping her chin. "Seriously?"
Madison forced a lilt to her voice. "Don't worry. I've got this." The prescribed meds were working their magic, and even if she didn't look it, she felt more like her old self.
Harper leaned over the bed rail. "You've been pushing yourself to the limit since we were kids. You always had to be the parent."
"Me?" Madison inclined her head toward her sister. "Look who's talking."
Harper slugged down her mineral drink. "Just let me have my say. We didn't have much after Mom and Dad's disappearance, but we had each other."
Desperation rose in Madison's throat and burned. "I can't do this right now. I —"
"Please." Harper lifted a hand. "Your work habits are out of control." She relaxed her shoulders. "Listen, I found a man who teaches people how to live healthier lives."
"How nice for him." Madison shrugged at Harper. "I don't get the connection."
Harper gestured at Brandon, and he nodded like they were in on a conspiracy. "Maddie, meet Guru Brandon."
"Hold up —" Madison choked. "Did you say, guru?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "That April in Santa Monica"
Copyright © 2019 Melody DeBlois.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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