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One empty folding chair. Christie Bates stared at the vacant seat then checked her iPhone to make sure the wall clock was accurate. Yep, still 6:35. Everyone in the cancer support group she led was here except one, the one who'd been coming the longest. Her insides twisted. He hadn't missed a meeting in three years.
And the sight of an empty chair in a room like this was always
She exhaled slowly and squashed the negative thought as her eyes roamed over the chatting group. The world needed positive energy. And they needed it most of all. She jumped when a hand squeezed her shoulder.
"Would you like me to close the door so you can begin?" asked Anne, the West Side YMCA's receptionist. Pool-bound children shrieked in the stairwell outside.
"No!" Her voice sounded more forceful than she'd intended. It carried over the noise and quieted her group. Seven pairs of concerned eyes turned her way. So much for keeping things upbeat.
She pinned on a bright smile and patted Anne's hand. "We're not quite ready to start yet, but thanks."
Anne studied her for a moment then shrugged. "I'll be out front if you need me."
Her heels clicked across the wood floor and echoed in the high-ceilinged room. Overhead fans stirred the muggy June air, the humidity so thick Christie felt as though she wore it. At least she'd had time to change out of her nurse scrubs and shower before the meeting. After a twelve-hour hospital shift, the mini-break had made her feel human again.
"Why are we waiting?" a newer member asked around a mouthful of chocolate-chip cookie.
Another pointed at the clock. "We always start at 6:30."
"You're right." Christie swallowed her fear and widened her smile. Her clients had enough stress to handle. They didn't deserve more. "But let's give it a few more minutes in case someone's late. You know how hard it is to get a taxi in the rain."
The group nodded sagely then resumed their conversations. She sagged against the back of her chair. Phew. Her quick excuse worked. It was a logical reason for the delay given Manhattan's traffic issues and she wouldn't imagine another possibility. There was power in positive thinking. She shredded a napkin in her lap. Not that it had saved her brother. If only she'd been there when
She shook her head. Nope. She wouldn't get on board that dark train of thought.
She bent to pick up her juice cup and discreetly knocked on the wooden floor, no-bad-luck, an Irish superstition passed down by her gran. She'd witnessed enough medical miracles to know that science couldn't explain everything.
Christie crossed her legs, smoothing her gray pants and rumpled white blouse. Forcing her eyes from the empty chair, she surveyed the assembled group members for changes in skin color, weight and discomfort levels. Everyone seemed stable. But where was her absent client? Perhaps she would ask Anne to call and check on him. She might be overreacting, but knowing he was okay would help soothe her nerves.
Before she could stand, a tall stranger wheeled the missing man through the door. She drew her first easy breath of the night. He'd come after all. The group called out greetings to John, relief evident in their voices.
"Hello. Hope I didn't hold everyone up," the latecomer declared, as his helpera very handsome helper, Christie notedwheeled John into the spot beside the empty chair. Where were John's canes? Her heart sank. His condition must be deteriorating.
"Lousy weather out there, huh? My neighbor brings his kids here a couple of times a week, so I asked him to help me catch a cab." He gestured to the dark-haired gentleman wearing a navy polo shirt, jeans and a polite smile. "Eli Roberts, this is Christie Bates and" he waved a veined hand "everyone. You'll like them. Oh. And would you get me one of Christie's raisin-oatmeal bars? Been craving one all week."
The man nodded then helped John out of his coat, shook the rain from it and placed it on the back of the chair. His face reminded her of a Roman soldier on one of her father's ancient coinshe had a powerful jaw, straight, prominent nose and a strong brow.
"May I get anyone anything?" he asked once he'd locked John's wheels in place. After taking a few requests, he strode to the snack table. It was a good night when the group ate. Sometimes the number receiving chemo was so high the side table went untouched.
She noticed that he grabbed John a napkin and a cup of juice along with the snack. Thoughtful.
After giving John a quick hug, she straightened and looked up into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. Her grin faltered at the man's piercing stare.
"Eli. If you'd like to join us" She extended a hand to guide him to the seat, but he jerked back. Caught off balance, Christie stumbled, her black Keds trampling each other. Heat flared in her cheeks.
"Sorry," he muttered, righting her with a quick, efficient hold on her elbow before seating himself.
O-kay. Not a touchy-feely guy. Heard and understood.
She sneaked another glance at him, registering his tense shoulders along with his guarded expression. He'd done a nice thing by bringing John in, but cancer support groups were a lot for healthy people to handle. She should give him a graceful excuse to leave.
"The Yankees' pregame coverage is playing on TV in the lounge down the hall if you'd like to wait there, Mr. Roberts."
"Call me Eli," he said in a gruff voice, his eyes inscrutable. "And I promised John I'd stay." A look passed between the two as he took his seat.
She forced a welcoming grin and nodded. If John wanted him here, that was fine. But if he didn't lighten up soon, she'd send him on a coffee run so he wouldn't put a damper on the meeting.
When she got back to her seat, she glanced his way and caught his intense gaze again. What was it about his stare that flustered her? She was a twenty-eight-year-old professional, not a schoolgirl sneaking peeks at the cute new kid. Time to get a grip.
She looked at the clock and grabbed her clipboard. Fifteen minutes behind schedule. A first. Eli was throwing her off her game, but at least John was here and the seats were full.
"Today's inspirational quote is by George Herbert," Christie began. "'Storms make oaks take deeper root.' Let's practice our relaxation breathing as we contemplate its meaning and how it applies to our lives."
Her bowed head snapped up at a muffled snort. While everyone else closed their eyes, Eli stared at the ceiling and shook his head.
"Do you disagree, Mr. Roberts?" she burst out before she could think better of it.
"I do," replied the impertinent outsider. Shooting to his feet again, he circled the group, gathering their garbage and carting it to the wastebasket.
"No matter how deep trees dig, bad storms can knock them down anyway."
Well, sure. Of course they could. Although she'd spent her early childhood in Woodlawn, an Irish-American neighborhood in New York, her family had eventually relocated to Kansasone of Tornado Alley's hardest-hit states. There, she'd learned to weather storms, not dwell on them. When tempests hit, neighbors pitched in to put back the pieces of shattered lives.
A high-pitched sound rattled through a nearby client's tracheotomy tube. Christie grabbed the woman's shaking hand and squeezed. Elizabeth had Stage IV esophageal cancer. She didn't need a reminder of the dangers she faced.
"We focus on the positive,Mr. Roberts'" She laced her fingers with Elizabeth's, relieved when the woman's trembling eased.
His square jaw clenched. "And ignore reality? That seems a bit misleading, doesn't it, Miss Bates?"
"It's Ms.," she corrected, mostly because she was getting good and riled now. What did this man think he was doing? These people lived with far too much reality as it was. They came here for fellowship and support, not a lecture.
"Well, Ms. Bates, the truth is that all trees want to live. It's just the luck of the draw that some make it and others don't."
Heat spread up her chest and rose to her neck. She glanced down. Darn. Those red splotches betrayed her at the worst times. If only she looked as cool and controlled as Eli. She forced herself to meet his eye and caught a brief, tortured look before he averted his face. Interest-mg.
A ruckus in the corridor distracted her, reminding her that they hadn't shut the door. A pack of kids rushed past on their way from one activity to another.
"Daddy, Daddy." A young escapee wearing wet swim trunks raced inside. He launched himself onto Eli's lap, the smell of chlorine clinging to him.
"I swam without my floaties today." With his missing front teeth, the child's grin was irresistible. Christie joined in the group's chorus of oohs and aahs.
Deep dimples appeared as Eli's face relaxed into a broad smile. Where was this side of the man moments ago when he'd rained doom and gloom on her meeting? His joyful expression and the affectionate way he ruffled his son's hair did something strange to her heart. She checked out his ring-free left hand. Had his wife died? That could explain some of his behavior, as well as why John wanted him to stay at the meeting. But he looked young to be a widower, no older than his early thirties.
"Sorry," an older woman called from the doorway. "I went to get Tommy a towel, and when I came back, he was gone."
She barreled into the room and gave Christie an apologetic wave.
"It's all right, Mary," Eli said. "He does that to me, too."
Tommy squirmed at his father's stern expression. "What do you say to Mary?" he prompted and took Mary's proffered towel.
Tommy studied his swinging flip-flops. "Sorry, Mary," he said, a lisp turning his s into a th. "I won't do it again."
"Right." Eli hugged Tommy then began drying him.
Tommy pointed at Christie. "That's how I met her."
With his hair no longer plastered to his face, the youngster looked familiar. She took a moment to recall how she knew him. Since her meeting was so off track, she couldn't see the point in forcing the group back into meditation anytime soon. Besides, Elizabeth was smiling and happy, clearly enjoying their energetic visitor.
Eli's face tightened once more. "You know Ms. Bates?"
The towheaded dynamo wriggled off his father's lap and scampered over to her. "She gave me an oatmeal bar with raisins." He scanned the treat table and turned from his father to Christie, face bright and expectant. "Can I have one?"
"If your father says so." Why hadn't she recognized the adorable imp earlier? A couple of months ago, he'd burst into their meeting and wolfed down half the pan. She matched Tommy's grin. "But be carefullast time you almost took out a tray of Jell-O."
"You stopped me before I crashed." Tommy flapped the sides of his towel and jumped up and down. "But that lady with the blue hair was mad. She said I had to leave."
Christie stifled a laugh. Tommy had a point. The former receptionist had been a bit of a grump. "Not to worry. She was angry at everything."
Tommy's blue eyes grew round. "Even Jell-O?" He lowered his terry-cloth wings. "But it wiggles."
Elizabeth's tracheotomy made a humming sound, her warm smile about to steal Christie's heart. No way she was letting Tommy out the door yet. Kids had a more positive effect on people than a whole book full of inspirational quotes.
"Exactly." She nodded solemnly. "Now hold on to one end of the towel. I'm going to show you something grand before you get your dessert." She sent Eli a questioning look. Tommy had been very patient waiting for his answer.
"How did you two meet?" His light tone held an undercurrent of tension. "And, yes, Tommy, you can have the oatmeal-raisin bar." He held up his index finger. "Just one, though."
Christie pulled the other end of the towel, spinning Tommy free of the absorbent cloth.
"Again!" Tommy shouted when he rewrapped himself.
"Answer your father first, Tommy." She turned him to face his parent.
"I ran away from Mary 'cause I wanted to show Becca my drawing of Scout. Only I got lost and came here instead." Tommy scratched his freckled nose before turning back to her. "Please spin me, Miss" He shook his small head, brow furrowed. "Miss"
"It's Christie. Hey, everyone." A preteen girl with brown hair in a tight bun wandered into the room and returned the group's waves. She wore jeans over a black leotard and had a bag embroidered with sequined ballet shoes slung across her shoulder. "I met her when we picked you up, remember? So why did you run away? Again. You know how much it upsets Dad and Mary." Despite her admonishment, her tone was mild.
"Becca!" The boy wrapped his arms around his sister's legs. "Did you see me swim without my floaties? Do you want an oatmeal bar? It's healthy and Dad said we could."
"I didn't see you because I was still in dance. But that's awesome, Little Man." Becca fist bumped Tommy. "And, yeah. I'll have a snack. So starved."
"How was dance, Becca-Bell?" Eli's arms opened wide, his gaze expectant.
Some members of the support group began speaking in low-pitched voices, the word Yankees punctuating their discussion. No doubt they were debating the team's chances tonight. It was a crucial game that Christie was interested in herself. Yet this family fascinated her, as well.
"The same," Becca mumbled, fidgeting with the latch on her bag. "And please don't call me that anymore. Remember?"
He slowly lowered his arms, a crease appearing between his brows. "Does that fastener need to be fixed?"
Becca shrugged before she turned away.
Christie glanced between the two; their tension was palpable. Although it could be a teenage thing, it seemed deeper than that.
Elizabeth stood and brought treats, another member following with Dixie cups of juice. After taking the proffered snacks, Becca said, "Thank you," nudging Tommy to do the same.
"All right, kids." Eli rose to his imposing height. "Time to go."
He held out his arms once more. Tommy flew into them while Becca hung back and tightened her shoelaces. "I'll be home in a little bit," he promised.
"Sure," Becca replied, her voice flat. She gave Christie and the smiling support group a small wave, wrapped a protective arm around her brother and followed Mary through the exit.
"That was nice, Mr. Roberts." Christie's smile faded at his glower. She cleared her throat. "Does anyone have something they'd like to share?"
She looked pointedly at Eli, who stared back, arms crossed over his broad chest.