|It wasn't supposed to happen this soon. She wasn't supposed to see him yet. She wasn't ready.|
Naomi ran her suddenly damp palms over her apron. She grabbed the tray of fresh-baked brownies and slipped them into the display case of Mug Shots, the cafe she worked at part-time. Then she straightened and looked directly into the eyes of Jess Schroder and the part of her past she spent years trying to keep buried.
Good-looking as ever, she thought, her heart doing the same silly flip it always did whenever she saw him all those years ago. Time had filled out his broad shoulders, narrowed his waist, lent interesting shadows and hollows to his handsome features. He still wore his hair a little long and it still waved over his forehead and into his eyes, but it had darkened from the blond it used to be to a light brown. His square jaw was shadowed by stubble, narrow nose, chiseled features and dark eyes that seemed to drill into her very soul.
"What can I get you?" she asked, pleased that her voice could sound so casual.
He shot her a frown, as if surprised that she didn't swoon at his feet. Like she almost did every day that summer she tutored him. That summer they dated.
"Hey, Naomi," he said quietly, slipping his hand in the back pocket of his blue jeans. "I heard you were back in town."
His deep voice tugged at memories she thought had been lost in the onslaught of what had happened between since that summer they spent together ten years ago.
Please, Lord, help me through this. Help me to stay focused on You.
Her prayer was a cry from a wounded heart still struggling after her fiance's death. But thankfully, she felt her equilibrium return.
"I got back a few weeks ago," she said, thankful that her feelings didn't seep into her voice.
Jess's expression grew suddenly serious. "I heard about Billy. I was sorry to hear about his death."
Before she could acknowledge his sympathy, the door of the cafe opened again and an unfamiliar young girl, obviously pregnant, came inside and waddled over to Jess's side. "So, Jess, you buying me lunch?" she asked. The girl eased out a sigh as she pushed her black hair away from her face.
Naomi glanced from Jess to the girl who didn't look a day over sixteen and then at her protruding stomach. Her emotions spun again as she tried to reconcile the girl's age with the man standing in front of her.
The man who had once held her heart.
"Naomi, this is Brittany. My stepsister," Jess said so hastily he almost stuttered on the last words. "My mother married her father five years ago."
Why did that piece of information make her feel relieved? Because she didn't want to think that poorly of a man she had once cared for so deeply.
She mentally clung on to a memory of Billy to remind her that she should be thinking of him, not reliving old romances. Her emotions were fragile, that was the only reason Jess could affect her at all.
"Brittany, this is Naomi," Jess was saying, turning to the young girl, continuing the introduction. "Naomi and I. .we used used to go to school together."
Brittany frowned. "You look familiar. Do I know you?"
Naomi shook her head. "I doubt it. I don't think we've met." She didn't even know Jess had a stepsister.
"Brittany and my mother, our mother," Jess corrected, "moved here from Victoria and they're staying with me for a while."
"Staying until I pop," the girl said, shifting her weight, wavering. Her eyes were ringed with black, but the foundation on her face couldn't hide the shadows under her eyes and the general pallor of her complexion. A drop of perspiration trickled down the side of her face, leaving a track in her makeup. "My dad died a couple of months ago and now Sheila doesn't know what to do with me, and I got nowhere else to go."
The belligerent tone in her voice hid a deeper hurt that called to Naomi. Her mother didn't always know what to do with Naomi and her sisters either. Thankfully they had Nana and Grandpa Beck and their cousins Garret and Carter and the ranch. She and her sisters spent many weekends and summers there as a family.
Seemed like Brittany had no one but Jess.
"I'm so sorry to hear that," Naomi said quietly.
Brittany shot her a puzzled glance, as if surprised by her pity. Then she waved her hand, as if dismissing it. "I need to eat," she moaned. "I'm starving and so thirsty I could drink a gallon of pop."
Jess gave her a tight smile, then pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. He glanced up at the board running along the top of the wall on which Naomi had painstakingly written the menu for the day in colored chalk. The flowers and little flourishes she had added seemed cute at the time and had been heartily endorsed by Kelly, the owner, but as Jess raised one perfectly arched eyebrow they seemed childish and foolish.
"I'm guessing you wrote that?" he said, chucking his chin toward the board. "I recognize the doodles." He said that with a quick smile that was supposed to be a shared joke.
Naomi nodded, a flush working its way up the back of her neck. Too well she remembered drawing the same flourishes and flowers in his workbook while she coached him through mathematic and chemistry equations. He teased her then, too, as they lay on their stomachs in the grassy mountain meadow overlooking Hartley Creek.
"Jess, please, I'm dying of thirst and hunger here," Brittany moaned. "Just get me something. Anything."
"Okay. I guess we'll start with a bottle of water for Brittany here," Jess said. "And I'll have"
"Jess," Brittany called out. "Help me " Her voice faltered and the teenager tilted, clutched Jess's arm, then slumped to the floor.
"Brittany, what's wrong? Brit?" Jess dropped to the floor beside her, his voice holding an edge of panic.
Naomi ran around the counter. A collective gasp went up in the cafe as people at the nearest table got up, as well.
Naomi slipped her arm around Brittany's shoulders to support her. Brittany's eyes rolled in her sockets, her breathing erratic. "Brittany, talk to me," Naomi urged, hoping, praying the girl stayed conscious. "What's wrong? Is it the baby?"
"I feel funny. I I can't see." She blinked and caught Naomi's hand in a crushing grip. "Help me. I'm scared."
"Call 9-1-1," Naomi called out as she laid her finger on the girl's neck to check her pulse, bending over to listen to her breathing, trying to block out the startled murmurs of the other customers in the cafe.
Then she caught what smelled like old apples on Brittany's breath. Her mind flashed back to Brittany begging for something to drink, saying how hungry she was and her nurse's aide training came back.
"What's wrong?" Jess asked as he pulled out his cell phone, panic in his voice. "Do you know what's wrong with her?"
"I think I do. Help me carry her," Naomi said. "It will be faster for us to bring her to the hospital ourselves. It's only a couple of blocks away."
Jess bent over, fitted his arms under Brittany's legs and shoulders and in one easy motion, stood. But the girl still clung to Naomi's hand.
Someone had run ahead and was opening the door to the patio as Jess rushed through, surprisingly quick considering his burden.
"My keys are in my shirt pocket," Jess grunted as they got to his truck.
Naomi fished them out and handed them to another bystander who unlocked the doors. Naomi managed to pry her hand loose from Brittany's grip, but the girl gasped, then pleaded, terror lacing her voice. "No. Please. Don't go."
"Come with me," Jess asked as he lay Brittany in the backseat of the truck's cab.
Naomi didn't think. She got into the back with Brittany and held the girl's head on her lap. Seconds later they squealed out of the parking lot and headed toward the hospital.
Brittany found Naomi's hand again and clung tightly.
"You'll be okay," Naomi assured her, stroking her hair away from her damp face. "You'll be okay once we get to the hospital."
Then she began praying.
"Your sister has acute hyperglycemia, probably brought on by her pregnancy. It's why she collapsed." Dr. Brouwer delivered this news in a quiet voice as he stood on the other side of Brittany's bed beside Naomi. His white lab coat was a sharp contrast to his short dark hair and the stubble shading a strong jaw. Jess had never met him before and only knew that Ben Brouwer was an experienced E.R. doctor and was engaged to Naomi's cousin, Shannon. But his quiet presence and calm voice assured Jess his stepsister was in good hands.
Jess could only nod, his eyes still on Brittany's quiet form, lying on the bed between them. Her dark hair lay fanned out on the pillow and her features hung slack. A tube ran out of one arm to an IV. Other lines snaked away from her body hooked up to a monitor beeping above the bed in the emergency room. He didn't know what it meant, but he guessed the regular wave pattern meant Brittany's heart was working properly.
His own heart was still recuperating from the sudden shock. Seeing Brittany keel over like that had sucked all the air out of his lungs.
He looked over at Naomi who had been so calm through the whole thing, staying with them both, holding Brittany's hand and reassuring the girl in her soft, modulated voice. She was looking down at Brittany now, her hand on his sister's head, her eyes hooded by her lowered lashes.
He wished he could read her expression.
He wished their first meeting in ten years hadn't happened under such dramatic circumstances.
Ever since he heard Naomi Deacon was back in Hartley Creek, he tried to avoid seeing her. Now, with her standing across the bed from him, he was disappointed that even after all this time, memories of that day she left him could still resurrect a sharp ache.
"So what does that mean?" Jess asked, dragging his attention back to Dr. Brouwer.
"It means her pregnancy is putting an extra strain on her pancreas and it isn't manufacturing enough insulin, which your body needs to access the glucose in your blood. The glucose builds up and the body starts to shut down because it doesn't have the fuel it needs to function."
As Dr. Brouwer talked about insulin and diet and blood sugar levels, all Jess could do was nod, his head spinning as he struggled to absorb all the information coming at him. He didn't know how to take care of a normal sixteen-year-old girl, let alone one who was pregnant and now, apparently, diabetic.
Not for the first time he felt a surge of frustration with his situation. His mother had unexpectedly dropped into his life, Brittany in tow, a couple of days ago. His mother was grieving the death of her second husband, she said, and wanted to be back in Hartley Creek. Then, this morning, she left, saying she needed to be alone for a few days. Could Jess watch Brittany? His mother had assured him she'd be back soon.
Jess wasn't thrilled with the arrangement. Having a young girl staying with him, a bachelor, didn't look good. So this morning he moved into his new, unfinished house, leaving Brittany alone in the old house. But what was he supposed to do now that she was sick?
" and because she is also pre-eclampsic, we need to put her on bed rest."
"Say what?" The doctor's last words snagged his attention. "Bed rest? What's that about?"
"I'm concerned about her blood pressure." Dr. Brouwer turned to Naomi, his dark eyes holding a surprising concern. "Do you mind staying with her a moment?" he asked. "I'd like to talk to Jess."
"I'll be fine, Ben," she said. The sight of her easy smile created an ache deep in Jess's chest. Since they arrived at the hospital, Naomi hadn't spoken to him or made eye contact, creating a palpable unease and a measure of frustration for him. He wondered why she still mattered to him when he knew he mattered so little to her.
Dr. Brouwer motioned to him, walking out of the cubicle of the emergency room. Jess blindly followed, his mind shifting to what he needed to process.
Bed rest. Pregnancy-related diabetes. Pre-eclampsia.
The words swirled around his head like crows, waiting to pounce on him with their hard reality.
Dr. Brouwer stopped at the desk where a nurse was busy typing up some notes into a computer, then turned to Jess. "I don't know what your situation is, but taking care of Brittany will be a full-time job. Is her mother in the picture?"
Jess just stared at him, his frustration with his mother reaching an all-time high. "She's gone right now. I have to call her to tell her what happened."
Dr. Brouwer frowned, his arms folded across his chest, as if trying to puzzle out the relationship. "She's your sister, isn't she?"
"Sort of. After my parents divorced, my mother remarried a man who already had a little girl, Brittany. She's not related to me or my mother." He shoved his hand through his hair, then dropped his hands on his hips holding Dr. Brouwer's curious gaze. He wasn't about to spill out the mess of his and his mother's life right now. "Right now she's my responsibility, so what should I do?"
"I would recommend hiring a personal nurse in the interim. She, or he, doesn't need to be a registered nurse, but they do need some sort of nursing experience or training. You might want them at your house as much as possible."
"So where do I find someone like that?"
Dr. Brouwer pulled at his lower lip, as if thinking. "Naomi is a trained Licensed Practical Nurse. She spent the past year taking care of her fiance who was dying from cancer. Before that she did some work as an LPN. And your sister seems to have formed an attachment to her."
Jess shook his head. He had barely gotten used to the idea that Naomi was back. To have her right under his nose for who knows how long
"I'll see who else I can find," he said, realizing he was being borderline rude ignoring Dr. Brouwer's suggestions. "I've got a couple of days."
"At best. Once Brittany is stable, we can't keep her in the hospital very long. In addition, someone needs to come with her to learn alongside her before she's discharged."
Jess frowned again. "Learn what?"
"Diabetes, especially pregnancy-related diabetes, requires a learning curve with diet, lifestyle change, blood test regimen and insulin injection. Normally we do the teaching only to the patient, but Brittany is quite young yet so it would be best if you, or your mother, could come in every day and learn the protocol, as well."
Jess wasn't prone to headaches, but the tightness in his forehead told him that one was on its way. "So when does this start?"
Which was when the plumber was coming. Jess had been waiting for a month for this guy to come. If he begged off now it would be months before he could get him back again.
"If you hired Naomi, you wouldn't need to go through the training," Dr. Brouwer continued. "She could take care of Brittany as soon as she is stable."
He made it sound as if there would be no problem with Jess having Naomi so close every day. Jess wondered if Naomi or her sisters, Shannon and Hailey, had filled Dr. Brouwer in on the details of his and Naomi's previous relationship.