Having mourned the "death" of her fiancé, Darby Kent isn't prepared for the moment they come face-to-face. For years, the man she loved and lost has lived in hiding. Until now. Connor is the only person who can save their ailing daughter, a living testament to the passion they once shared. But time is running out. And while Darby prays for their daughter's survival, she must confront old desires and powerful new enemies who've patiently awaited Connor's return.
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Sam Orlean looked up from his laptop when he heard a knock on his office door.
His boss at Tri-State Insurance strode in and slapped several files on his desk. "These just came in. They're Roy's accounts, but he's on vacation. All three have reached over a hundred thousand in claims in the past month and need a policy review, follow-up calls."
Sam glanced at the sticky note on the top file that Roy had left.
Male, 87, two weeks in intensive carecomplications from flu
Female, 3, cancer
Sam's gut wrenched. The cases that involved children were always the toughest to handle. The third notation read:
Woman, 37, staph infection post-hysterectomyextended hospital stay
Sam's job didn't usually include medical claim reviews. He was in the auto claims department, but the company was small enough that covering for a different department wasn't unusual.
"What exactly am I looking for in the review?" he asked.
"Just look at the paperwork, check for duplicate charges, tests run without supporting documentation from the doctor. Just make sure everything we've been billed for is on the up-and-up." His boss gave a little wave as he left. "Have fun."
Sam leaned forward to drag the files closer, gritting his teeth in frustration. Days like today, he really hated the job the U.S. Marshals arranged for him. In his old life, when he'd been an accountant, he'd dealt with numbers. Numbers made sense. But insurance meant factoring in peoplelittle girls with cancer and old men dying from complications from the flu. Even auto claims often mean human suffering. Spouses killed by drunk drivers, reckless teens who learned hard lessons and would never walk again.
Given any other feasible option, Sam would leave this job. He'd complained to Marshals Jones and Raleigh before, requesting a new position doing something else, and was given the bureaucratic runaround. His new identity couldn't bear any resemblance to his old one. New name, new hobbies, new hometown. New career.
As they had when he entered the program, his handlers had fed him the line that went, "no Witness Security Program participant, who has followed security guidelines, has been harmed while under the active protection of the U.S. Marshals." Translation: if you want to live, stop complaining and do what you're told.
Acid gnawed Sam's gut as he shuffled the files and opened the one on the case that would be toughest. Three-year-old girl with leukemia. Chemotherapy started. Doctors placed child on bone marrow transplant list. No match found on maternal side of family. Father deceased. No siblings. One paternal uncle was a partial match, but her doctors were still hoping for a closer match from the donor registry.
Sam sighed. He'd heard how rare it was to find a bone marrow donor with enough matching genetic markers outside of a patient's immediate family. The poor kid and her mother were facing an uphill battle. A heartbreaking fight against an ugly disease.
His chest tightening with sympathy, he flipped the page and found the policy history.
Date policy purchased: January 18 of last year.
Clicking his tongue in his mouth, hoping he could find enough supporting information to approve the claims without bothering the mother for further paperwork, he flipped back to the first page, looked for the date the first claim was filed. March 2 of this year. A little more than two months ago. He turned back to the summary page Roy had left to see the total paid out so far and gave a low whistle. Cancer treatment wasn't cheap.
As he flipped back to the front of the file, his gaze snagged on the name at the top of the form. The name of the mother, the policy owner: Darby L. Kent.
Sam's heart rose to his throat. What were the odds that there were two Darby Kents? Slim.
He checked the woman's address: 1209 Cypress Court, Lagniappe, Louisiana.
Icy dismay washed through him, chilling him to the bone. It was his Darby. The woman he loved. The woman he'd had to give up when he entered the Witness Security Program more than four years ago. If he closed his eyes, he could picture her as she'd looked the last time he'd seen her, an autumn breeze lifting her copper hair from her oval face. One errant wavy lock had blown across her green eyes, and she'd laughed as she brushed the strands behind her ear and blown him a kiss from her front porch steps.
He rocked back in his chair, slamming a hand through his hair. Through the haze of shock, his brain began clicking other facts into place.
Darby had a baby. A sick little girl. Three years old. Almost four.
He checked the child's birth date and dragged a hand over his mouth as he did the math. The little girl would have been born eight months after he left. Eight months after the U.S. Marshals faked his death, and he'd become Sam Orlean. Eight months
The file read Father deceased. But he wasn't dead.
A shudder rippled through him. The drone of blood whooshing through his veins buzzed in his ears.
It was a near certainty.
He was the baby's father.
The hardest part about being a mother was seeing your child suffer and being absolutely powerless to ease her pain.
Her heart giving a tender throb, Darby leaned forward to stroke her daughter's tiny brow, knit in discomfort even as she slept. If Darby could have been the one getting stuck with needles and dealing with the nausea from the chemo treatments, she would have switched places with Savannah in a second. But all she could do was watch her baby soldier through the treatments and procedures she was too young to understand.
Please, God, don't take my baby, she begged silently for the millionth time. She'd lost Savannah's father four and a half years ago, before she'd even realized she was pregnant, and thought she wouldn't survive the pain. When she'd learned she was having Connor's baby, she'd pulled herself together and rebuilt her life, focused on raising the miracle that was Savannah. An unexpected posthumous gift from Connor.
Connor. Another sharp pang twisted in her chest, and she forcefully shoved down the suffocating ache. She had to be strong for her daughter.
In her purse, her cell phone trilled. Darby set aside the sketch pad on her lapdrawing had always been her best stress relieverand swiped tears from her cheek as she shuffled through her bag. The caller ID showed the insurance company with which she'd bought health coverage, and Darby tapped the answer key.
"Hello," she whispered, hoping not to wake Savannah. She rose from her chair beside the hospital bed that swallowed her daughter and crept quietly to the hall to take the call.
After a brief silence, a man asked, "Ms. Kent?"
"This is uh, Sam Orlean with Tri-State Insurance." His voice had a funny nasal pitch to it as though he had a bad cold or something.
"Yes, Mr. Orlean, what can I do for you?"
"I'm calling about your recent claims."
She didn't like the hesitation in his voice. A knot tightened her gut. "Is there a problem?"
"It's standard procedure to do a policy review when claims reach a certain level. The company needs to verify the claims so that your daughter's treatments can be covered."
A nervous sweat rose on Darby's top lip. "What kind of concerns do you have?"
She tried to keep the note of panic out of her voice, but even the suggestion that the insurance company would deny her claim made her lunch churn and threaten to come up. If her claim for Savannah's treatments was turned down, the expense of chemotherapy, the hospital stay, the CT scans, blood tests, doctors' appointments. She'd go bankrupt paying for it all. She couldn't possibly afford
"Can you tell me when Savannah" his voice cracked, and he paused to clear his throat "first showed signs of illness?"
Darby frowned, wondering what had the man so anxious, but also wary of his questions. She poked her head back into Savannah's room to check on her. Still sleeping, if fitfully. "She had been acting droopy, tired and cranky for a few weeks back in February. I assumed she was catching a cold or maybe had an ear infection. You should have a receipt for the trip to her pediatrician in her file for around the sixth."
"Yes, I see it." He had her recount other trips to the doctor, tests that were run and details of the treatment regimen that was started once Savannah's leukemia was confirmed. "And how far into the chemo treatments are you?"
"She'll be finished with her first round by the end of the week." Darby drew a deep breath and switched the phone from one hand to the other. "What is it exactly that you want to know, Mr. Orlean? What is it the company is taking issue with?"
He sighed heavily, and something about the world-weary sound tickled a memory, triggered a gut-level response. She knew it was ridiculous, that she'd never met the insurance man who worked in the company's Dallas office, but she knew that sigh somehow.
"We're simply verifying the charges filed with us, cross-checking with standard treatment expenses, double-checking that your policy covers"
"You're looking for fraud." Even the hint that the company might try to deny her claims or cancel her insurance, take away her ability to pay for Savannah's treatments, made her knees buckle, and she slid to the cold tile floor.
"Well, we do have to be alert to the possibility of fraud, yes, but"
A buzzing rang in her ears, and she leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes, fighting to keep her breathing measured and even.
Stay calm. Stay strong. I have nothing to hide, nothing to worry about
"But as I said, this is simply a policy review"
Darby groaned and dropped her head to her hands.
"Ms. Kent, are you all right?" One of the nurse's assistants squatted beside her in the corridor, laying a cool hand on her arm.
Darby shook her head, searched for her voice. "No," she rasped, wanting to deny everything about her current circumstances. "No, no, no."
No, her daughter couldn't be sick, couldn't be dying. No, she didn't have the will, the strength left to fight an insurance company for the medical coverage they'd promised. No, she wasn't all right. She hadn't been truly right in almost five years, since Connor died.
Tears prickled her sinuses and dripped on her cheeks. She waved the nurse's assistant off with a tremulous smile, then wiped her face with a thumb. "I swear to you, Mr. Orlean. If something about the claims filed by the doctors or hospital is off, I'll do my best to get things straightened out." She heard the rustling of papers on the other end of the phone line. "To be honest, I haven't paid close attention to what's been filed and where claims stood. I've had my hands full just taking care of my daughter. Thank God I work for family, so I can get the time off"
"You changed jobs?" he interrupted, his tone not quite so nasal this time.
"Uh yes. Last January. Just before I bought the policy. But I am employed, if that is part of your concern. I won't miss any premium payments."
"Ium, no. That's not You're working for Mansfield Construction? But your art um, your file says you are an artist."
She wrinkled her brow. If the company wasn't concerned about her ability to pay her premiums, then what business was it of his where she was working?
"Yes, I do the billing and clerical duties for Mansfield Construction. They're a small company a friend owns." While she'd much rather be doing something with her art for a living, working for Mansfield Construction gave her a steady income, health insurance and, because the owners were her daughter's grandparents, understanding and job security when she needed time off to take care of Savannaha benefit that had been particularly welcome since Savannah's diagnosis a couple months ago.
Mr. Orlean sighed again, and another hint of the familiar whispered down her neck. She shoved to her feet, feeling a bit stronger now, past the initial shock and dread of impending doom. She peeked in the room to check on Savannah, then pulled the door closed and resumed her position in the hospital's corridor. "If that's all, sir, I need to get back to my child"
"Wait! I " He cleared his throat again. "I still need to verify some things to satisfy the company's questions about your policy."
She straightened her spine, suddenly exhausted by the man's endless questions. "Look, Mr. Orlean, I've paid my premiums on time, and if your company has questions about charges filed by the hospital, you should talk to the billing department. Not me. And if you try to deny my claims based on a clerical error or technical glitch and put my daughter's health in jeopardy, so help me, I'll sue your company ten ways to Sunday!" All her pent-up frustrations with Savannah's illness, her helplessness to ease her daughter's pain, her sense of being alone in the most important battle of her life boiled over. "If you think I'm going to lie down and let you walk all over me, you've got another think coming!"
A chuckle filtered through the line.
Darby saw red. "This isn't funny! Do you think I'm kidding?"
"I know. I'm sorry, Darby. I "
She stiffened hearing him use her first name, as if they were best friends. Hearing the way his Southern accent softened the hard ar in her name to Dahr-by. The way Connor used to say her name.
Pain clutched at her chest as Connor's face flickered in her memory.
In the pause of the conversation, Mr. Orlean had apparently sobered. His tone was darkly serious when he asked, "What is Savannah's prognosis? What are the doctors telling you about her treatment options, about her chances"
Darby felt the blood drain from her face. The best way she had of dealing with Savannah's illness, the only way she had of not going stark raving mad with worry and grief and fear for her daughter, was to take things one day at a time. She couldn't think about the long term, the odds of Savannah surviving her cancer, or she'd become so burdened with despair that she couldn't be the mom Savannah needed now.
"I'm not sure why that matters to you at this point. Whatever the doctors feel is necessary and best for Savannah should be covered, regardless of how long it takes or whether she" Her voice broke, and she paused for a reinforcing breath. "Or whether she responds to the treatments."
"Of course. If Tri-State clears your policy after our review, we will cover"
"If?" Darby shrieked then, clenching her teeth, she growled, "Listen here, buster. Don't you screw around with me! I need that coverage to save my daughter's life!" Just saying the words brought a rush of unwanted emotion, and moisture filled her eyes again. "Don't take away my only means to give my baby the medical care she needs!" So much for the tough-cookie act. She was begging now, tears in her voice and the words. Pitiful.
Her shoulders slumped as she gave in to the tears, surrendering to the roller-coaster emotions that had her head spinning these past several weeks. She was a mess, and she had to pull herself together in order to be the rock, the comfort, the mother Savannah needed.
"Please, Ms. Kent, don't cry. I'm so sorry this is happening to you." The man's nasally voice softened with compassion. She almost believed his sympathy was real. "This is all standard company procedure. I promise. Please know that I will do everything I can to see that all of your claims are processed in a timely manner. I want your daughter to recover. Truly I do."
Darby couldn't answer. Her throat was too clogged with emotion to breathe, much less speak.