Authors: Angela Weaver
This one is for you, Tarb.
I owe you for restoring my belief that the
human heart is neither fickle nor unkind.
I thank you for being my breakfast buddy.
I appreciate you for being an inspiration and showing
me that there are people in this world who love fiercely
and are not afraid to show it.
I am blessed to be your friend.
ome, the center of the universe a thousand years ago in Italy, had a cousin in Georgia.
No, more like little sister,
Miranda thought wryly, as she stepped out of the rental car. Since she'd left home, the city had almost doubled in population, thanks to Atlanta's increasing popularity. She'd only been home for less than three hours, but already she could see the changes. There were new street signs, parks, shopping plazas and traffic lights. She never would have thought that some day the town would boast a tourism industry. No matter the new additions, the things she loved about her hometown still remained the same. The slow pace, the family-owned shops, the way people smiled, the fresh air, high hills and abundant trees.
If you asked anyone who knew her, they would say that Miranda could never live in a small town. But wouldn't they be shocked at how easy it would be for her to give up Washington, D.C.'s fast pace and fall back into the relaxed Southern lifestyle. If anyone had told her that she would be taking a leave of absence and returning home with a child in tow, she would have thought them insane. She didn't avoid coming home, but she dreaded it. Not because of family, but because of memories. Memories of the best and the worst times of her life. Memories of the man who'd put her over the moon with joy, and then broke her heart into so many pieces she still didn't know if she had it all together.
She'd dated more than her share of highly prized metro D.C. area's eligible bachelors, and had even managed to be the recipient of two marriage proposals. Miranda's brow creased at the thought of why she hadn't said yes. The men were as close to her “wish list” for a mate as possible. Only when she'd sat up all night and finished a bottle of wine with her girlfriends did she realize why she couldn't accept their proposals. No matter how much she'd wanted to ignore it, the truth was that she'd never felt the passion, the connection, the soul-deep commitment that had existed between her and Caleb Blackfox.
A rush of annoyance tore into her. After all these years, he still had a hold on her heart. He was the main reason she'd avoided coming home. But here she was, with three suitcases in the trunk of her rental car, about to walk into Mercy Hospital. Miranda exhaled slowly, trying, and partially succeeding, to calm the flutter in the pit of her stomach. Instead of thinking about the past, she concentrated on the present situation.
She'd needed a vacation; that wasn't a problem. If she had woken up one morning and decided to cash in all of her paid time off, she wouldn't have to set foot in the office for at least six months. While working for the U.S. Marshals Service for the past five years had been a boon for her career, it had left her with little personal time. And now, even though she was officially on leave to take care of a family matter, she'd brought her work with her.
Opening up the back door of her rental car, Miranda pulled out a shopping bag with a few things she'd purchased for Darren before leaving D.C.
“Call me Mom or Mommy, Kelly,” Miranda corrected. The door closed and an eleven-year-old girl stood neatly dressed in blue jeans, jacket and tennis shoes, and was clutching an oversize book bag.
Ebony black ponytails tied with red ribbons sprouted from both sides of her head. It had taken Kelly over twenty minutes to create the perfect part and another twenty minutes to get dressed. Now the perfectly coordinated little girl looked up at Miranda with solemn light brown eyes.
Miranda remembered and wondered why she'd never noticed. Maybe it was the fact that the little girl more resembled the mother Miranda had never had the chance to meet.
Kelly sighed. “
is your brother nice?”
Miranda reached down and took the little girl's hand as they crossed the parking lot in the direction of the hospital's main entrance. Was Darren nice? She briefly cataloged a list of her older brother's personality traits and rapidly came to the conclusion that
would not be an adjective to describe Darren Tyler. “Umm, he's loyal, a little overprotective and loves dogs,” she added.
“Did you know that Daddy said that when he comes back he's going to get me a puppy?”
Miranda nodded and looked both ways for the third time before crossing. She was cautious by nature, but ever since Kelly had come into her life she'd gone to the extreme. When they'd stopped at various shopping malls on the drive down, she hadn't let Kelly out of her sightâeven going so far as to stand guard outside of the dressing room. “I think he mentioned it before.”
The child smiled so widely that Miranda got a bird's-eye view of the metal braces in her mouth. “Good. That way I can remind him, just in case he tries to get out of it.”
“That's the last thing he would ever do, baby cakes,” Miranda responded, using Ryan's pet name for his daughter. Her mind hummed with an added task. Depending on the length of time they stayed in the town she would have to find Kelly an orthodontist. Not to mention a pediatrician, a dentist and an after-school tutor. Wherever the agency decided to place Ryan and Kelly after the trial, she would make sure that the little girl remained an A student.
Her steps slowed as they moved toward the gently curving glass curtain wall that formed the lobby at the main entrance. Her mother had mentioned in passing during one of their weekend conversations the previous year that the new hospital was high-tech and now she truly believed her. She would have expected to come across this type of building in Washington, D.C., not in her hometown. But they had outdone themselves with a striking lobby of glass and brick. Tall light fixtures that could have doubled as works of art filled the lobby with a rainbow of soft colors from the sun's rays.
She walked through the second set of the hospital's automatic doors. Outwardly everything about Miranda stayed the same. Inwardly, however, she shivered. Darren's automobile accident brought home the fact that life was pretty fragile, and with their parents out of the country, volunteering in Africa, he was pretty much the only family she could depend on.
Miranda felt a tug on her hand and turned to look at Kelly with a raised brow. “Mirâ” she started then stopped. “Mommy, I don't like hospitals.”
“Me, either,” she responded truthfully. Miranda's heart went out to the child. Although she'd never experienced the death of a parent, she provided support for enough friends and colleagues who had lost loved ones to know how badly it hurt. Kelly's mother had died over a year ago, and both the child and her father had yet to heal. “I promise that we won't stay long. I know you're probably a little tired from the drive and I could use a shower. Do you think you can hang with me a little while longer?”
“No problem.” Kelly nodded.
Miranda smiled with gratitude. At first when her boss and Ryan had come to her with the idea of bringing Kelly with her to Georgia, she'd been vehemently opposed to the plan. Now, as she approached the front desk, she was truly grateful for the small hand she held.
“Hello, we're here to see Darren Tyler.”
“He's in the ICU, miss. Visitors are limited to family only.” The voice was impatient and bored.
Narrowing her eyes, Miranda looked down and across the woman's shirt to locate her identification badge. “Mrs. Walters, we
his family,” she said coldly. “I'm his little sister.”
The woman looked at Miranda closely. For a moment she thought she would have to pull out her driver's license to prove who she was. Had the situation not been so urgent, she would have taken the receptionist to task for her rude behavior. After a moment, the lady on the other side of the desk returned her gaze to the computer.
“He's on the fifth floor. Room 503,” she said.
“Thank you,” Miranda replied curtly before turning on her heel and stomping away with Kelly at her side. Swallowing, Miranda moved toward the elevators. While waiting for the car, and trying to calm herself down by focusing on trivial things, she noticed that the furnishings were warm and natural tones grouped in small clusters, more like an intimate hotel, and completely devoid of any hint of the white sterile environment often associated with hospitals.
“Are you going to be all right?”
She blinked and looked down into Kelly's worried brown eyes. Here she was, a grown woman being comforted by a child. It was almost funny if it wasn't so humiliating. Forcing a smile to her face she nodded. “Right as rain.”
They took the elevator up and, by navigating the many signs, she soon found her brother's room. Holding Kelly's small hand in hers and the shopping bag in the other, she entered the hospital room.
An hour later, life hadn't gotten any better.
“Miranda Tyler doesn't cry,” she muttered under her breath as she stepped through the glass doorway of her brother's hospital room. No tears at funerals, sniffles while watching old black-and-white movies, or choked sobs after hearing the verdict in a murder case. None. She took another deep breath and gripped the two soda cans in her hands. The cold had almost numbed her fingers, but she didn't want to let them go. It was easier to concentrate on the uncomfortable pain in her fingertips than to think about how close her brother had come to death.
Swallowing back the sob stuck in her throat, she crossed the small room to the couch, leaned down and tapped Kelly on the shoulder. It took the little girl a moment to glance up from her laptop and slip back one of the earphones.
“I thought you could use something to drink,” she said holding up both soda cans. Catching Kelly's confused glance, Miranda shrugged. “I forgot to ask what kind you liked to drink, so I purchased the most popular choice among kids of your age group.”
Kelly shook her head and smiled up at Miranda. “You think way too much, Ms. Tyler. Anything's okay with me.”
Relieved, Miranda handed over one of the sodas, opened the other one and took a drink. She should have corrected Kelly, but she didn't have the heart. In the past she'd always been one of the people instructing new arrivals on the process of getting into the Witness Protection Agency. It was the administrative work she was most familiar with. She'd never had to get close, never had to witness someone lose their very identity. Nor did she think that she would ever be on assignment and have to be a participant in the act. The carbonated liquid stung her throat and made her eyes water. Almost like tears, almost like she was crying. Wiping them away quickly, she turned back to the man lying in the hospital bed.
“Is he going to be okay?” Kelly asked.
Miranda turned her attention to Kelly, pasted a small smile on her face and prayed she at least sounded more convincing than she felt. “The doctors said he'd be okay.”
“Do you believe them?”
She flashed back to the meeting she'd had with Darren's treating physician. Physically, her brother was slated to make a full recovery, but they couldn't completely rule out the possible long-term effects of a head injury. “Darren doesn't have a choice. He's going to come out of this.”
“Just like my dad, right?” Kelly asked.
Miranda nodded and a smile tickled her lips as she thought of Ryan. She'd known from the moment she'd first stepped into the room with the Federal Marshal that nothing would keep that man from what was his. That sentiment was doubled where his family was concerned. “Oh, yes. If you'll just bear with me for another hour, we'll go back to the hotel, grab some room service and you can get some sleep.”
Taking two steps toward the bed, Miranda wished she could call her parents, but there was nothing they could do because they were so far away. She calculated it would take at least a week for them to make arrangements to return from Ghana. Not to mention, teaching in the stable African country had given her parents a new lease on life and a second wind to a stagnant marriage.
She looked down into Darren's face, so like her father's, and sniffed as her heartbeat stuttered. Same wide forehead, stubborn jaw and thick head of hair. Her larger than life, personal hero, older brother was hooked up to a machine and had his leg in traction. That dose of reality almost brought Miranda to her knees. She reached out and clutched the bed's side railing for balance as she repeated another mantra.
“Miranda Tyler does not panic,” she whispered.
“No, you don't, little sister,” a raspy voice replied.
She blinked and looked down into Darren's bloodshot brown eyes. “You're awake!”
He grimaced and his tongue moved over his cracked lips. “Thirsty.”
Quickly Miranda moved to the bedside table, poured a glass of water and held it to his lips. Darren took a couple of sips and settled back.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like someone took a baseball bat and beat me like a piÃ±ata.” He grimaced and took a few deep breaths. “What happened?”
“You don't remember?” Miranda asked as she took his hand and gently squeezed.
“I remember driving home from the office and thinking about what I was going to eat while watching Georgia beat the hell out of Auburn. After that, everything gets fuzzy. I recall a woman screaming and an ambulance. That's all I know before waking up and seeing you talking to yourself.”