“It’s not a joke. I had a big bump on the back of my head, and haven’t you noticed the whopper of a bruise on my forehead?” She lifted her hair away so Jordan could get a better look.
“Of course I noticed, but I just assumed . . .”
“Kate, you’ve got to know by now that you’re kind of a klutz. I just thought you tripped or something.”
“I beg to differ. You’re a klutz, not me.”
Jordan didn’t argue with her. “You weren’t joking about almost being blown up, were you?”
“No, I wasn’t. Do you want to hear what happened or not?”
“I want to hear.”
“I guess I should start at the beginning. Have you ever heard of the Wonderbra?”
Kate had a selective memory. Because of her mother’s long illness, she and her sisters had spent what seemed like a lifetime in numerous hospital waiting rooms, and yet Kate couldn’t remember what any of them looked like. It was odd, she thought, that she couldn’t recall a single piece of furniture, a wall color, or a carpet. She supposed all waiting rooms were pretty much the same, cold and sterile, with mass-produced paintings of mountains and meadows on the walls.
She did remember the people who came and went while she was there, almost every one of them, and she remembered the anxiety. The air was thick with it, and like a virus, it passed from one person to the next, attacking anyone and everyone who walked into the room to wait.
Time and fear, a horrible combination. She remembered the families huddled together, trying to gain comfort and hope from one another. She remembered the young father who looked so lost sitting with his two little girls squeezed up next to him while he read stories and waited to hear if their mother would live or die. He had broken down and sobbed when he was given the good news by the smiling surgeon.
And she remembered the elderly woman who was sitting all alone until Kate and her sisters walked in. She decided to keep them company, told them she was waiting to hear if her husband of forty years was going to survive bypass surgery. She told one story after another and another and wouldn’t let anyone else get a word in. Faster and faster the woman talked until Kate’s head was spinning. At one point Kate pictured herself sitting there with giant cotton balls stuffed in her ears. It was an uncharitable thought, but the image did make it easier to smile through the woman’s endless chatter.
Waiting was always a miserable experience. Today was no exception. Jordan wasn’t taken into the OR until a little after ten, and she’d been ready since six-thirty. An emergency had caused the delay. Kate was able to stay with her in preop, but when Jordan was wheeled away, a volunteer who looked about twelve years old showed Kate the way to the surgical waiting room.
She led her down a maze of corridors, and Kate soon became suspicious that the girl didn’t know where she was going. It seemed they had made a complete circle and finally found the waiting area by chance.
There were actually two waiting rooms with a desk and a phone manned by another volunteer in between. The larger room was packed, and after giving her name to the woman behind the desk, Kate went into the smaller room.
A family of five, all with red-rimmed eyes, was just leaving as she walked in. There weren’t any other people, and Kate was thankful she was alone. She wasn’t in the mood to talk to strangers. She sat down in the corner by the window, picked up a magazine, and promptly put it back. She was too nervous to read.
The truth was that she wanted to sit down and have a good cry, but she couldn’t do that, of course.
Kate reached for another magazine and noticed how her hands were shaking. Get a grip, she told herself. Jordan would be okay. It was just a little bump, not a lump, and everything was going to be all right. Except that the surgeon had been so grim about it. According to Jordan, anyway, but then Jordan tended to overreact.
Now who was she trying to fool? Her friend never overreacted. She was too . . . practical . . . and cautious to a fault.
The key to an effective pep talk was honesty, she decided, and so Kate decided to come up with some honest reasons why everything would be okay.
She paced back and forth while she thought about it. All right then. Jordan had told her that the surgeon had been quite grim. Maybe he had to anticipate the worst so that he would be prepared, and he needed to prepare his patient for the worst, too, didn’t he? Wasn’t that part of his Hippocratic oath or something?
How convoluted was that reasoning? Time for a little realism. Yes, it was true that one of Jordan’s aunts on her mother’s side of the family had died because of a lump she had pretended wasn’t there until it was too late. And yes, there was a cousin on the same side of the family who had also been given the same diagnosis. But so what? The cousin was in her late eighties, and so was Jordan’s aunt, wasn’t she? Which meant that statistically the odds were on Jordan’s side, and she should and would have a happy, healthy life for the next sixty-five years, give or take a few.
Except that she’d found the lump last week, not sixty-five years from now.
That reminder took the wind out of Kate. She sat down and bowed her head. She was suddenly so tired she could barely think. Early detection was important, right? And Jordan, her sister, Sydney, and their mother had all taken charge of their health. They had the usual examinations—and then some—on a regular basis.
Don’t borrow trouble. Kate’s mother had often said those very words. Oh, God, she didn’t want to think about her mother now. She had enough to deal with.
What was taking so long? Kate was looking at her watch for about the fiftieth time just as her cell phone rang.
Kiera was calling. “How is she?”
Jordan had given Kate permission to talk to Kiera about the surgery but no one else. “Still in surgery,” she answered. “They were running late, so she didn’t go in until almost ten. It’s been over an hour now. Isn’t that long enough for a biopsy?”
“But . . .”
“I’m a medical student, not a doctor, and I’m not going to speculate.”
“You’re a fourth-year medical student, which means you’re almost finished.”
“But still not a doctor.”
“Come on, Kiera,” Kate said in exasperation. “Make a calculated guess. I’m not going to sue you if you’re wrong.”
“No, I don’t think an hour is too long. Remember, the surgeon’s waiting for the pathologist’s report. And since you didn’t go into the OR with her, you can’t know exactly when they started.”
Kate relaxed. “Good point. They could just be starting now, for all I know. I’ll call you as soon as I hear something. How are things at home?”
“Fine. Reece Crowell has called here several times.”
“Oh?” Kate asked cautiously.
“He’s been very polite. Almost too polite. When I tell him Isabel isn’t here, he says ‘thank you’ and hangs up, but then a couple of hours later he calls again. I can hear this edge to him, like he’s ready to explode. He’s asked for you a couple of times. Once Isabel is well away at school, I suppose he’ll get the message.”
Kate wasn’t so sure about that.
“Oh yes,” Kiera continued. “A man named Wallace has called and left a couple of messages. He said he works for a bank. Have you ever heard of him?”
The ever-present knot in Kate’s stomach began to swell. “No, I haven’t heard of him,” she lied. “Did he say what he wanted?”
“No,” she answered. “But he asked that you call him right away. Do you have a pen? I’ll give you his phone number.”
Kate closed her eyes. “No. I’ll call him Monday when I get home. Just leave the messages on the machine.”
“He said it was urgent.”
“Urgent can wait until Monday.”
“Aren’t you at all curious to know what he wants?”
Kate knew exactly what he wanted. Everything they owned. And then some.
“Listen, Kiera. Monday we need to sit down and have a long talk.”
“It sounds serious.”
“We just need to make some decisions about the future. I’m going to hang up now. I’ll let you know how Jordan’s doing later.”
She flipped the cell phone shut and dropped it into her purse just as a white-haired volunteer called her name. Kate saw the surgeon turning toward her when she stood. Then she saw his face. The surgeon was smiling.
Jordan was going to be fine. The wonderful news from the surgeon made Kate weak with relief. She felt like hugging the man.
She had thought that she would be able to take her friend home a couple of hours after the anesthesia wore off, but the surgeon wanted to keep her overnight. He explained almost as an afterthought that Jordan had had a very mild reaction to the anesthetic, but there was nothing to worry about, the drug would be out of her system by tomorrow afternoon at the latest, and she could leave the hospital then.
Nothing to worry about. Kate remembered those words when she saw her friend. Poor Jordan was as red as a boiled lobster, had welts all over her face and arms, and was itching like crazy.
Kate did what any best friend would do. She pulled out her cell phone, which happened to have a built-in camera, and took her photo so she could torment her later—maybe even make a screen saver for her computer.
She stayed with Jordan until eight that evening. The rash was still going strong, but the doctor had ordered medication to relieve the itching and help her sleep. Kate waited until she’d fallen asleep again, then drove Jordan’s car back to her apartment and took a long, hot shower.
She closed her eyes and let the water cascade over her shoulders. Maybe it would wash away some of the tension. However, each time she tried to clear her mind, visions of her sisters and her company and Reece and mountains of bills swirled through her head.
No, not tonight, she thought. She would not do this tonight. She wasn’t going to let herself get all worked up about the future tonight. Tomorrow would be soon enough.
Her stomach began to gnaw at her, and she realized she hadn’t eaten anything all day. She toweled off and slipped into her pajamas, a soft gray T-shirt and a pair of gray-and-navy-striped boxer shorts, and headed for the kitchen. Jordan always kept a supply of crackers and jars of peanut butter on hand. There were several old TV dinners in the freezer. Kate was pretty sure they’d been there since Jordan had moved into the apartment. Kate opted for the crackers. She got a fresh box out of the cabinet, put it on the counter, and then opened the refrigerator to get a bottle of water. She was unscrewing the top when, without any warning at all, the tears started.
Within seconds she was sobbing. She leaned back against the refrigerator, bowed her head, and cried like a baby. The release felt good. She could have kept it up for at least another half hour if someone hadn’t intruded. She heard a knock on the door, grabbed a paper towel to wipe the tears from her face, and stood frozen hoping whoever it was would go away.
No such luck. Another knock, more insistent this time. She did not want company. Barefoot, she crept to the door and looked through the peephole. Her heart dropped.
There stood Dylan Buchanan, the bane of her existence. God, he looked good. She shook herself. Stop that. He wore a pale blue shirt neatly tucked into his jeans. The shirt was just fitted enough to show off his broad chest and thick biceps. His dark hair was short, and as usual not a strand was out of place.
All of the Buchanan boys were ruggedly good-looking, but Dylan had a little extra something going for him. She thought maybe it was his slow, sexy smile. She only knew one thing for certain. When he turned on the charm, he could melt the most frigid of hearts. Jordan referred to her older brother as the sex machine. Kate thought he had earned the dubious nickname because of all the women he had dated—and no doubt taken to bed—while he was in college. She didn’t think he had slowed down much since then, except maybe for a couple of weeks after he’d been shot. The bullet might have slowed him a little.
He looked tired, she thought.
He pushed the doorbell again and leaned against the wall behind him balancing a pizza box and a six-pack of beer on one hand.
Had he heard the floorboard squeak when she’d stepped on that loose one? She moved away from the door, waited a couple of seconds, and then peeked again. Her heart began to pound. It was an instantaneous reaction and one she couldn’t seem to control. The conditioned response stemmed from the night he had walked in on her in the shower. He’d had a mighty fine time teasing her about it ever since. She simply wasn’t up to sparring with him tonight. In her vulnerable state, he’d eat her alive.
When he winked, she knew he was perfectly aware that she was standing on the other side of the door.
She was going to have to be grown up about this. She would simply open the door and tell him to go away. She looked through the peephole one last time.
The man was a force to be reckoned with, and she was not in the mood tonight. She needed to finish crying and go to bed.
Get it over with, she told herself. She unlocked the double deadbolts and pulled the door open as she said, “Jordan’s not—”
“It’s about time. The pizza’s getting cold and the beer’s getting warm. Move out of the way. Come on, Pickle. Move.”
The silly name he called her had always gotten under her skin.
He was already over the threshold and about to step on her toes.
The pizza smelled wonderful and so did he. She got a tiny whiff of his cologne when he strode past her on his way to the kitchen. She followed him and got trapped behind the refrigerator when he opened the door to put the beer inside. He popped the tab on one can and offered it to her. She shook her head. He shut the refrigerator, stepped closer, and pinned her to the counter as he slowly reached over her to get to the pizza.
He was deliberately trying to get a reaction, and from the sparkle in his eyes, she knew he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
“I’ll be happy to move.”
His chest rubbed against hers, and it was then that she remembered what she was wearing.
“Jordan’s not here,” she told him.
“You should have called first and saved yourself a trip. I’m not dressed for company.”
“Yeah, I noticed that, too. You’ve got great legs, Pickle.”
“Dylan . . .”
“I’m not company.”
She pushed against his shoulder to get him to step back. When he winced, she realized what she had done. “Oh, Dylan,” she whispered as she jerked her hand back. She’d forgotten about his injury. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to . . .”