Authors: Noelle Adams
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Loveswept Ebook Original
Copyright © 2016 by Noelle Adams
by Noelle Adams copyright © 2016 by Erin McCarthy
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
ebook ISBN 9780804181327
Cover design: Diane Luger
Cover photograph: Syda Productions/Dollar Photo Club
Julie Nelson sat beside the bed in a hospital room and watched as her mother died.
It didn’t happen all at once.
After suffering a major stroke a week ago, her mother had slipped into a coma, and her vitals had become weaker each day. The stroke had damaged her brain stem, so the doctor had been certain that it would be just a matter of days before her lungs were unable to breathe, her heart unable to pump the blood through her body. Julie had signed the DNR order, and this morning the doctor had said her mother could pass away within the next few hours.
Julie had prayed for the first three days that a miracle would happen and her mother would recover. Her father had died just eight months ago, and losing her mother now would be one blow too many. But after watching her mother fade away like this, as if life were gradually leaking out of her body, Julie now hoped it would happen soon.
Her mother didn’t appear to be in any pain, but her breathing was becoming more and more labored, as if it required massive effort to take every breath. Her skin was so pale now it was almost transparent. There wasn’t any hope for her, except for a peaceful end, so that was what Julie was praying for now.
Six years ago, Julie’s mother had had her first in a series of strokes. It had caused partial paralysis and speech problems, but she’d managed to pull through. When Julie’s father had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer six months later, Julie had moved back in with her parents to help take care of them. She’d been twenty-five, single, and working on her PhD in history, so she’d been in a position to stay with them and consistently help with their care, unlike her sister, who had a husband and four children.
Julie had finished her course work, but the care of her parents had taken all she had, so she’d never written her dissertation and earned the degree. She couldn’t bring herself to even care about it.
Right now, she couldn’t bring herself to care about anything except her mother.
She was in such a daze that she barely noticed when Carla, one of the nurses on the hall, came into the room. Julie jumped when Carla asked, “Do you need something to drink?”
Julie blinked a few times, trying to get her eyes to focus on Carla’s round, pleasant face. “Oh. No. Thank you.”
“Why don’t you get up and walk around a little? You’ve been sitting here for hours.”
“I know.” Julie cleared her throat and looked back at her mother. “I just don’t want to…” She didn’t finish the thought. Maybe it was silly, but she didn’t want to not be here at the moment her mother died. For the past six years, she’d taken care of her mother, and she was going to see it through all the way.
“Can’t your sister come back and sit for a while to give you a break?” Carla asked, her tone carefully modulated.
Julie knew why. Carla didn’t think Marie was doing her part. Her sister dropped by for a few minutes every day, but it was Julie who sat for hours at her mother’s bedside.
The same thing had happened when their father died earlier this year.
Sometimes Julie experienced a thick surge of resentment about Marie’s absence, but she didn’t have enough energy—emotional or physical—to dwell on it.
“She has to do all the chauffeuring of the kids to practices and lessons in the afternoons,” Julie said lightly.
Carla shook her head but didn’t speak her thoughts out loud. “I’m going to get you a bottle of water and some crackers, at least. I don’t think you’ve eaten since this morning.”
Julie hadn’t. She wasn’t hungry. But she murmured a “thanks,” since she didn’t want to bother with an argument right now. Carla was trying to help. Julie appreciated it.
When the other woman had left the room, Julie turned back to her mother and noticed that the sunlight through the window had moved and was hitting at the level of her mother’s eyes. She automatically got up to adjust the shades, even though her mom’s eyes were closed.
She’d spent years making sure her parents were comfortable. She did it without even thinking.
Her muscles protested the motion, so Julie stood for a minute, trying to stretch out her legs and back. She was only thirty-one, but her whole body ached. She hadn’t been out on a date for three years, and she only occasionally went out with her friends anymore, since her parents hadn’t been able to be left on their own.
She felt exhausted, battered, so old.
And she’d be all alone when her mother finally died.
She wouldn’t even have a real job. Since she’d never finished her degree, she now just taught lower-level history classes for a couple of online colleges, grading work for students she never saw.
She pushed the depressing thought out of her mind. She’d made her own choices, and she didn’t regret them. Her parents had loved her all her life, and she hadn’t wasted the time she’d spent caring for them in their final years.
She just had no idea what she would do now.
though. Her mother wasn’t dead yet.
Julie remembered so many hours sitting next to her mother’s bed in the four years since she’d become truly bedridden. They’d watched old movies and played gin rummy and listened to audiobooks of the cozy mysteries that her mother loved. For the first couple of years, her mother had always encouraged her to go out with friends or find a man to date, until one morning after Julie had gone out with a nice guy named Ned. When her mother had asked her when she’d be going out with him again, Julie had said she wasn’t sure she would. Her mother had kept nagging about it, saying she was young and needed to live her life, until Julie had finally said, “I’d rather be here. Is that all right? I’d rather be here, with you.” Her mother had been a tough, practical, Appalachian woman, but she’d almost started crying when Julie snapped the words out. She’d never again nagged Julie about going out and having fun.
Julie almost choked on the knowledge that this was probably the last time she’d be sitting next to her mother’s bed.
As if in response to that thought, her mother made a strange gasping sound. Julie whirled around and hurried back over to the bed, sitting down in the chair and leaning forward.
Her mother took another raspy breath, and her eyes suddenly flew open.
Julie gasped in surprise and reached out to take her mother’s hand. “Mom? Mom, are you okay?”
Her mother’s eyes met hers, and Julie was convinced that they actually saw her,
“Mom, I’m here. It’s me. I’m still here.” Julie choked on the words, trying to keep her eyes clear so she could see.
Her mother’s eyes closed again, and her whole body relaxed. The lines on the monitors she was connected to all flattened out.
There was a piercing sound that Julie couldn’t recognize, and Carla ran back into the room. She put down the water and crackers she’d been holding and checked the machines. Then she looked down at Julie’s mother’s motionless body.
She gave Julie a sober headshake, but Julie didn’t need to be told. And she didn’t need to hear the time of death from the doctor who came running into the room with another nurse to know her mother was gone.
It was strange how she felt. She was sad. Of course she was sad. She was emotional and aching and lonely. She was absolutely exhausted, like she could barely hold up her head.
But she was also just a little bit relieved. Her mother had been suffering for the last six years—trying to exist in a body that kept breaking down—and at least now the suffering was over.
Forty-five minutes later, Julie was limping toward the elevators, finally ready to go back home. There were a lot of things to take care of now. Her mom had already planned out the funeral two years ago—paid for it and made all the arrangements—but Julie needed to contact the funeral home and get the process moving. After her mother was buried, she’d have to sort through all her parents’ stuff. She’d have to try to pay the bills that had kept piling up as her parents had gotten sicker and sicker. They’d had health insurance, but it had never seemed to be enough.
And then she’d have to somehow figure out what to do with her life.
She was over thirty, but she still felt like an orphan.
She waited at the bank of elevators, watching consecutive numbers light up above the door. And she wished she could just sleep for about forty hours and then wake up to a slightly better world.
Eric Vincent was in a very bad mood.
He’d been in a bad mood for the last two weeks, ever since he’d been skiing in Aspen and ended up breaking his leg in three different places. He’d had surgery afterward, and they’d set his leg in a long cast, which had to be elevated most of the time, meaning he had to go around in a damned wheelchair for the time being.
Eric had been an athlete all of his life, so he was used to dealing with injuries. He’d played college football and had just started a professional career when he’d torn up his knee and had to move on. He couldn’t remember much about how he’d felt when he injured his knee. He was pretty sure it had hurt like hell, but his father had just died and he’d been caught up in a lot of major life decisions, so the physical pain hadn’t lingered in his memory.
He certainly didn’t remember the knee injury being this sort of torture.
He had to wear this cast for months. He couldn’t use crutches regularly for a few more weeks. And it would be at least half a year before his body was back to normal.
As normal as it ever got. His knee was still weak from the old injury. He was pretty sure that was what had caused the accident that broke his leg, since he’d always been a good skier.
He’d asked about the time line for healing at the follow-up appointment he’d just had with the doctor, and he’d been told quite clearly that he couldn’t expect to move around with any agility for a really long time. And the doctor hadn’t caved, even when Eric fired off a number of quite reasonable alternatives to wearing this long leg cast for so long.
If he ever wanted his leg to work again, he had to follow doctor’s orders.
He wasn’t used to following orders anymore.
After his football career had been cut short, Eric had partnered up with a buddy of his who was a computer genius, and they’d developed a football-oriented video game that had done incredibly well. In the fifteen years that followed, the success of that one game had spawned more games in additional sports, and then a multiplayer online version, and then mobile games with in-app purchases that had increased profits by a staggering amount. They’d both made a shitload of money, and then Eric had made even more when he sold his share of the company to his partner because they kept arguing about the direction of the business.
Eric was used to giving the orders. He was used to being completely in control—of both himself and other people. He’d never tried anything he couldn’t make a success of.
So this enforced physical helplessness was like torture for him.
He was trying to leave the doctor’s office, and he couldn’t even manage that on his own. He had a state-of-the-art power wheelchair that he could operate pretty well now, but his leg was extended so he couldn’t reach to open the door.
It was ridiculous. He couldn’t even get out of a damned room on his own.
He’d come to the appointment with Kristin, his personal assistant of sixteen years, and the latest in the line of private nurses he’d hired in the last two weeks. This one was the fourth. He was pretty sure her name was Gwen, although he couldn’t be certain.
Kristin ran to open the door for him, and Gwen steered him through it, although he would have rather powered the chair on his own.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Vincent?” Kristin asked, peering at him with a mixture of nervousness and extreme sympathy that had been driving him crazy all week “You look a little pale. Do you have a headache?”
He didn’t have a headache. He’d broken his leg, not his skull. “I don’t have a headache,” he said, with the barest attempt at civility. He wasn’t known for his good manners or his patience. Anyone who’d ever worked with or for him could testify to this fact. But he didn’t like to shout at people in the middle of a hospital hallway.
“I have some Tylenol,” the nurse said. “Hold on just a minute and let me get it out.”
“Oh, good,” Kristin replied, fluttering around him and messing with his shirt. He had no idea what she thought she was doing, but she was pulling the opened collar together. Maybe she’d come to the erroneous conclusion that he was cold. “We’ll get you some Tylenol. That will help your headache.”
“I don’t have a—”
“I’m going to run and get some water. I’ll be right back.” Kristin disappeared around a corner.
Eric tried not to groan with frustration. Kristin had always been a good assistant. She was professional and efficient, and she never tried to get too close to him in any way. She was in her early forties, and she didn’t have any sort of family. She put up with his moods without blinking, and she kept his paperwork, his correspondence, and the smaller details of his life all in order.
But for the last two weeks she’d been in a flurry of overattention and insecurity. She obviously wasn’t good with sick people—even people who simply had a broken leg.
The three previous nurses had all driven him crazy—either fussing over him too much or trying to order him around. He couldn’t put up with either of those things, and this nurse seemed no different. She kept trying to ply him with Tylenol for his fictitious headache until Kristin returned with a paper cup of water she must have gotten from the waiting room nearby.
“Here you go,” she said, offering him the cup.
“I don’t need any water,” he growled. “I don’t need any Tylenol.” He powered his wheelchair on, making quick progress down the hall of this wing, toward the central bank of elevators.
“Of course you do,” Kristin said, walking quickly to keep up with him, juggling the cup of water, the leather portfolio she used for his schedule since she didn’t trust electronic organizers, and the briefcase she always carried. “You have a headache.”
“Men sometimes do this when they’re sick,” the nurse said in a stage whisper to Kristin, trying to keep pace with them. “They get like children and don’t want to take their medicine.”