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Kaleidoscope

 

 

 

 

Kaleidoscope

APRIL MARIE LIBS

DEDICATION

To all the incredible doctors and nurses that have been instrumental in my children’s lives, especially the staff at Kosiar Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, with a special thanks going to Dr. Carlos Saurez, my daughter’s guardian angel.

 

 

KALEIDOSCOPE

All right reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information retrieval and storage system without permission by the publisher.

 

Names, characters, and incidents depicted in this book are products of the author’s imagination, or are used in a fictitious situations. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, incidents, or persons- living or dead- are coincidental and beyond the intent of the author.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

In the thank you department, I would like to take a moment to recognize my friends who act as my support group when things get chaotic in my life, which is quite often in the last twelve months. Your friendship, your cheerleading, and your understanding hearts mean the world to me.

 

My two sisters, Tracy and Jill, I owe a debt of gratitude as well for being my first response team when it comes to my writing. Their input never fails to make my stories a better read and more believable.

 

I would also like to thank my editor my beta readers; Lisa Kaelin, Annette Kaiser, Rita Schuler, Shelly Person, Shelly Haworth, and Dawn Durbin. It takes a village to write my books and I appreciate their devoted support and the attention they give to my writing.

 

I also want to thank my best friend, business confidant, and the man I lay my head next to every night, my wonderful husband, Mike Libs. To paraphrase a quote from my book, I’d like to say, having him in my corner of life makes me feel strong and powerful which makes my heart blossom with gratefulness. Another thank you will always go to my three children, Haley, Lexie, and Logan for putting up with my excessive computer compulsion. I hope and pray you will each find a passion that fulfills you, as writing does for me.

Contents

DEDICATION 2

KALEIDOSCOPE 3

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 4

Prologue 7

Chapter one 10

Chapter two 21

Chapter three 40

Chapter four 55

Chapter five 69

Chapter six 87

Chapter seven 99

Chapter eight 115

Chapter nine 128

Chapter ten 138

Chapter eleven 155

Chapter twelve 165

Chapter thirteen 194

Chapter Fourteen 203

Chapter fifteen 210

Chapter sixteen 228

Chapter Seventeen 232

Epilogue 236

Prologue

 

 

THE WALL IN front of Piper was made of two inch thick, opaque glass. A solid wall in front, adhered to a translucent ceiling made of the same material above. She whipped her head in every direction and found the same glass barricade, each wall an arm’s distance away, closing her within an invisible box. Although the only sound she heard was her timorous breathing echoing throughout the space, Piper could see familiar people milling around her invisible prison. Seemingly the entire town inched toward her obscure predicament to gather close by, but still kept their distance as they gawked, cupping their mouths to whisper to the person standing next to them.

Piper took a tentative step forward and pressed both palms against the cool surface. She could see her family shuffling forward with rueful, wilting faces. She didn’t want them to be upset. She wanted to wrap her arms around them, to console them, but the stilted barrier kept her stationary.

Piper felt exposed, vulnerable, defenseless, as if she were standing on the busy street corner naked, although she was still dressed in blue scrubs from her work day. The air in the enclosure felt thick, stifling her intake of air. Her lungs didn’t have to crave for oxygen long before a blast of tepid air hit at her ankles. She stepped back into the gust, desperately needing air, dropping her chin to see where the plume came from. She found a quarter sized hole in the ground as the tunnel whooshed upward lifting her tresses, making the cranberry strands dance around her face.

Tilting her chin to look at the heavy crowd that had now conjugated outside her transparent cell, Piper wanted to plead with them to stop their whispering and snickering, when the air under her feet ceased, her hair falling in a limp blanket to cover her back. Panicked, her eyes sliced to her parents as their faces condensed in wretchedness, their red rimmed eyes spilling over with tears.

Piper wanted to console them, tell them everything was going to be okay. She was a survivor. She could get through anything, but she could feel the oxygen level sinking lower, making her lungs ache as she fought for each labored breath.

Dropping to her knees, Piper fumbled for the hole, poking her fingers into the opening, attempting to jump start the air again. When that attempt failed, she pounded her fists on the floor begging the evil soul that put her there to give her a chance to fight. Vaulting to her feet, she flailed against the glass with her hands, her feet, and her shoulders, kicking, bashing, and thrashing against the barrier until she had sore, aching limbs and tender, bruised muscles.

And while Piper fought for her life, the town continued gawking at her as her family physically grieved for her state of affairs.

Piper would like to think she was consumed in a horrendous, all-encompassing nightmare, but the truth of the matter was….this was her life. She was boxed in her home town, the circumstance of her situation making it difficult for her to breathe as the entire community gossiped behind her back. Her parents mourned for her loss, but could do nothing to help solve her discordance.

Piper felt the walls closing in on her. She needed to burst through the barrier before the enclosure sucked the life right out of her. Run, Piper, run, was pounding through her brain as she lurched out of bed, ripped open the closet and clutched onto her suitcase

Chapter one

 

 

PIPER WILKINSON DESPISED being stuck on night shift, although she really didn’t have a right to complain since she jumped at the pediatric oncology position as soon as the opening was posted on the bulletin board in the nurses’ lounge. It seemed like a wise decision at the time since her boyfriend, Philip, worked the late shift in the emergency room across the street. With both working the seven p.m. to seven a.m. shift, Phillip and Piper were provided the opportunity to spend the entire day together, strolling through the grocery, browsing a bookstore hand in hand, or leisurely making love, all afternoon long. They would ride to work together every evening and on the way home in the morning, would stop at a greasy breakfast diner before returning to his condo completely exhausted to crash into bed, only to be woken the next afternoon to begin the process all over again.

This crazed cycle engrossed both of their lives, from sun rise till sun set, like two hamsters jogging on a never-ending spinning wheel, but they were together, and to them, that was all that mattered. They could look past the fact the rest of their friends and family orbited in a different time zone. They thrived on being side by side supporting each other in their own sleep deprived world they had created just for themselves.

After three months of dating, Phillip asked for Piper's hand in marriage by renting a small aircraft to fly across the clear blue sky while eating outdoors at The Seafood Post, nestled right next to the Ohio River. In fancy script writing, the banner waved in the wind for all to see. "Piper -- Will you marry me?" Getting down on bended knee, Phillip flipped open the black velvet box he had hidden in his suit pocket, his smile widening as he watched Piper's face blossom and her hand rise to her chest when she caught sight of the diamond and sapphire ring glimmering daintily underneath the sun's impending rays of light. Before Phillip was even able to utter one word, Piper threw herself into his arms with glistening emerald eyes, her strawberry hair billowing behind her as she almost knocked him to the floor with her petite frame, squealing, "Yes, yes, of course, yes!" while the entire restaurant applauded their approval.

Piper moved into Phillip’s condo at the Harbor’s overlooking the scenic Ohio River the weekend following their engagement. Their life together became even more manageable and stress free, with Piper not having to run home to brush her teeth, grab a clean pair of scrubs, or change for a dinner engagement, but after only six weeks of living together, their blissful cohabitation came to screeching halt when Phillip’s manager switched him to day shift to cover for a doctor who had to leave the country unexpectedly. Piper immediately put her name in the hat for a day shift position as soon as she walked through the doors to the oncology wing the following evening, but knew the possibility of that shift having an opening in the near future was minimal.

Before the next month even came to a close, Piper had become worn out and agitated at having to work the graveyard shift without Phillip, not only physically, with her lack of sleep, but also, emotionally as well. It exasperated her that now days, she and Phillip never spent any amount of quality time together, and when they were given a window of opportunity, Piper was so limp from exhaustion, she usually fell asleep during whatever task they were doing, watching a movie, riding in the car, or sometimes, even right before sex.

Phillip took Piper’s sleep deprivation in stride, making it clear that he wasn’t upset with her over her lack of stamina. Instead, when she inadvertently fell asleep on the couch, he would scoop her up and carry her to bed. After gently placing her on top of their fluffy down comforter, Phillip would push her long strawberry hair from her forehead and begin kissing her, starting with her toes, gradually moving his way up her body, tantalizing her with his tongue, his chestnut brown hair tickling her raw exposed skin, as he murmured reassuring words in between each caress; “Stay strong, baby; it won’t be for much longer, I promise.”

But two months later, Piper was still blurry-eyed working nights, praying something would soon open up on day shift.

 

 

 

TAKING THE EXPRESSWAY on the way to the hospital, Piper phoned her younger sister, Gina. Piper and her sister were only sixteen months apart in age and grew up not only close sisters, but as best friends as well, not that Piper had any say in the matter when she thought about it. Gina had always been much more mature than the other children in her grade and out of boredom one day at Grayston Elementary, began following Piper around school like a shadow that wouldn’t go away, even though the sun had long since disappeared. Always annoyed at having her runt of a sister always at her side, Piper often complained to her mother.

“Please, Mom, make her stop. Gina’s following me around school like a sick little puppy. You’ve got to end this right now, before it gets out of hand and she actually starts to hurt my reputation.”

When she received no response from her mother, who continued reading the newspaper at their kitchen table, Piper asked, her tone rising an octave in agitation, “Mom, are you even listening to me?”

Still, she received no feedback from her mother, who in Piper’s opinion, always took her sister’s side.

Hammering her foot onto the tile with a loud thud, Piper demanded, “Mom! Answer me!”

Continuing to focus on the paper in front of her, her mother replied calmly, “The only thing my answering you would accomplish would be to make you even more angry.” She turned the page, still engrossed with its content. “Therefore I am choosing to say nothing, but I hear you, Piper, as I always do, very loud and extremely clear.”

Piper flung her fists onto her hips, and in a sarcastic tone, spat, “Give it a go, Mom. Really, I’m dying to hear what you have to say.”

Folding the paper onto the table, Piper’s mother turned toward her eldest daughter. “Well, honey, I think you should be thrilled your little sister looks up to you and wants to emulate you. You’re the lucky one in this scenario; not all siblings feel that way about each other.”

Exaggeratedly rolling her eyes in a huff, Piper stalked out of the room, barking, “It never fails! You always take Gina’s side!” then stomped upstairs to her room, slamming the door behind her, rattling the framed photographs anchored to the wall in the hallway.

But Gina was persistent, never giving up on trying to fit in with Piper and her gaggle of friends, and eventually, was accepted as an equal into their inner circle. Gina even tagged along to Piper’s high school reunion instead of waiting for her own gathering two years later. No one in Piper’s graduating class even blinked an eye at Gina’s appearance; some even assumed she’d graduated their same year, since she was involved in every one of their high school memories.

Piper and Gina’s friendship had withstood time, from high school, to college, and into adult life. Piper didn’t know what she would do without her sister in her life. She was always the first person she called when something upset her, or when she just wanted to gab.

“Hey, G. It’s Piper.”

“Hey, girl,” Gina said enthusiastically. “I just got back from the gym. What’s up?”

Piper could picture her sister’s long frame in a pair of yoga pants and athletic bra with her bleached blonde hair tied into a high ponytail, sipping a bottle of Vitamin Water, as she always did after her workout. Although Gina was the runt in early grade school, she had long since passed Piper up in height and now towered over her older sister by four inches.

“Just the same ol’ stuff.” Piper blew out an exasperated breath. “I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I honestly don’t know if I can take this night shift crap any longer. It feels like I haven’t seen Phillip in weeks. I’m really starting to think my fiancé is just a figment of my imagination.”

Gina encouraged her sister. “Hang in there, Pipe. A day shift position has to open up sooner or later. I guess you’re on your way into work now?”

“‘Fraid so.”

“Is Phillip working on Saturday?”

“Yes, he is, and it’s the only day I have off. Seems to be the story of our life right now.”

“How ‘bout we go shopping then. Retail therapy heals all wounds. We can make a full day of it.”

“That sounds like a plan.” Piper smiled, grateful to have her sister to lean on, before adding, “If you don’t mind, I’d love to stop by Rebecca’s Wedding Boutique to try on that gown I saw in their catalogue last week, and maybe we can find you a maid-of-honor dress while we’re there, too. I’d love to mark those two things off my wedding to-do list.”

“Sure. Whatever you want to do is fine by me.”

“Okay, great. I gotta go. I’ll see you on Saturday, and by the way, you’re the best. Thanks for always listening to my whining.”

Gina laughed. “No problem. Be safe, and I’ll talk to you later.”

Piper hit the end call button on her Bluetooth and immediately pushed the button again to phone Danielle Valent, her and Gina’s third partner in crime. Danielle, a statuesque brunette, was a lifelong best friend of Piper’s that lived two houses down the cul-de-sac from her parents and was considered a fourth child in the Wilkinson household. Throughout grade school, Danielle had always hung out at the Wilkinson house rather than her own. She ate most dinners at Piper’s house, vacationed with the family, and more often than not, didn’t even bother to let her mother and father know about parent’s night at school, choosing to pull Piper’s mom and dad around the classroom showing off her paper mache’ solar system, instead of her own.

Danielle answered on the first ring. “Hey, Piper. What’s up?”

“A whole lot of nothing.”

“Are you on your way to the dreaded graveyard shift?” Danielle used a deep, gravelly voice, muttering, “Mwahahhaha…”

Piper wrinkled her brow. “What in the world was that?”

Danielle snickered. “That’s my spooky zombie impression. Get it? Zombies belong in graveyards.”

“Ahhh, got it. Very funny,” Piper replied dryly as she glanced in her rear view mirror.

“Pipe, you are sooo grumpy these days. Can’t say as I blame you though. I wouldn’t last one week working the shitty hours you do.”

“Tell me about it,” Piper said as she turned on her blinker to change lanes. “Hey, I was calling to see if you had any plans this weekend.”

“Let me check my schedule.” Danielle paused and then cackled out loud. “You know I never do anything unless it’s with you. So, what do you have planned, a little late night bar hopping?” she asked hopefully, then added as an afterthought, “Hey, maybe it’s not too late and we can still get in on the pub crawl downtown on Saturday night.”

Piper winced. “Actually, I was talking about bridesmaid dress shopping.”

Danielle groaned. “Ahh, Piper. Can’t you just pick something out for me? You know I don’t care what it looks like, really.”

“Come on, Danni. I want whatever dress I pick to look good on you, as well as Gina.”

Danielle huffed in sarcasm. “Whatever you choose will look great on the Bean Pole, so just pick something out that’s a little more tentish for me, and we’ll both look fine.”

“Danni, we both know you’re a six, now come on.”

“A size six, compared to your sister’s size zero, is gargantuan.”

“Danielle, you’re being ridiculous, and you know it.” Piper veered her Volkswagen bug into the exit lane. “You have to come with us.”

Danielle blew out a breath in surrender. “Fine. Since you’re so flipping determined to have my opinion on the subject, I’ll go, but I’m not trying on a hundred friggin’ dresses. I can promise you that.”

Knowing she could talk her best friend into anything, Piper replied, “Perfect! I’ll call you back tomorrow with all the details.”

“Hey, before we hang up, my mom called today and asked me to give those white linen tablecloths back that she borrowed. Your mom said since you’ll be the next one using them, just to drop them off at your place. I have them hanging in my car as we speak. Is Phillip going to be home tonight so I can go ahead and get rid of them?”

“I’m pretty sure he is, but text him before you head over, just so you don’t make a wasted trip.”

“Sounds good. Have a great night, Pipe.”

“You do the same and give my boyfriend a big hug from me, would ya?”

 

Piper veered into a parking spot on the seventh floor of the parking garage and yanked the visor down to look into the mirror. While she was weaving her long, strawberry blonde hair into a French braid, she gave herself the same pep talk she’d been giving herself for the last two months. I love my job. I love the sweet children I care for. I will have a good attitude today and every other day until I get switched to day shift. She sucked in a deep breath and swung open the door.

Within thirty minutes, Piper was back in her car, bubbling with excitement. The scheduling nurse had overbooked the staff that evening, which had never happened in the two years she had worked at the hospital. The nurses who had been called into work huddled behind the station desk to draw straws to see who received the night off, and low and behold, it was Piper. She had finally gotten a break, which she needed more than ever.

Although Piper tried to stay within the speed limit on her drive home, the elation she felt carried all the way down to her feet, making it nearly impossible to obey the law. She squealed her tires turning into the parking garage of the Harbor’s and raced over to the elevator, punching the illuminated button numerous times until the doors finally squeaked opened. Once she had made it to their condominium, Piper paused to catch her breath, wanting to surprise Phillip with her unexpected night off from work. Trying to make as little noise as possible, Piper cracked open the door, peeked her head in to make sure the coast was clear, then began tiptoeing down the hallway to the living room, which had a breathtaking view of downtown Louisville.

As Piper inched down the hallway, she walked painstakingly slow to insure her steps were soundless, until she stopped dead in her tracks when she heard a bizarre grunting noise that sounded like a wounded animal. Fearful that Phillip may be having a heart attack, Piper hurriedly propelled forward into the living room and found herself standing a stone’s throw away from Phillip’s hairy white behind humping vigorously against the backside of an unidentified female. Although the lights were off and candles lit the area, there was no mistaking her fiancé’s silhouette, or his stunned expression as he whipped around after hearing Piper’s loud gasp.

Piper’s first instinct was to run. She quickly spun on her heels, ready to retreat, when rage exploded within her, turning her back around to confront her cheating fiancé. She pushed him hard against his bare chest while he attempted to step into his trousers, knocking him sideways onto the black leather couch. Piper stood above him, her face red with uncontrollable fury as tears began streaming down her face, saturating her blue scrubs.

“How could you?” Piper screamed, her eyes narrow slits as she poked against his bare chest. “We were engaged! Do you understand that terminology, asshole? That means we were going to get married! And you have the audacity to cheat on me? You are a lying, sack of—”

Piper interrupted her own rant when she realized the woman, who had been cowering in the corner of the room hidden by the wool throw from the back of the couch, tried to make a fast getaway. Piper stepped into her pathway.

“Oh, no you don’t. You have to make this walk of shame without the help of this blanket.” Piper ripped the cover from the woman’s grasp and then stumbled backward at who she unveiled.

Her younger sister, Gina, stood naked, totally mortified, not knowing which part of herself to hide first, her scarlet face, or her naked body. She snatched the blanket back from Piper and covered her thin frame, babbling, “Piper, it’s not what you think. Phillip was just feeling a little lonely with you on night shift. This was nothing, really.”

Piper swiped at her tear drenched face with the pads of her fingertips. “Nothing? So let me get this straight. You were just trying to,” she threw up air quotes, “‘help me out’ here by sleeping with my fiancé? You are totally unbelievable!”

Piper’s angry sobs exploded from deep within her core. “How could you, G? You were my best friend.” She wiped her nose with her forearm between ragged gasps of air as her bitter words spilled out. “You always wanted everything I had. Now you got it. There’s nothing else left.” She flung both arms into the air, gesturing to her surroundings. “You’ve got it all, G. Congratulations! I hope you are fucking happy with yourself!”

She turned her scorn on Phillip. “And you! Exactly how long have you been cheating on me with my little sister, huh?”

They both began speaking at once. Piper held her hands up in each of their faces. “You know what? Save your sob stories. I wouldn’t believe a word that came out of either of your mouths anyway.” She dropped her head with the weight of seeing her entire world crumble right before her eyes and in a defeated tone, demanded, “Get out now! Both of you! The sight of you makes me sick!”

Piper slunk out onto the terrace, shutting the glass door behind her as Gina gathered her workout attire quickly and dressed, while Phillip jogged into the back bedroom. He came back carrying a small satchel of clothing, grabbing his car keys and his wallet on his way out of the condo with Gina tailing closely behind. When Piper heard the front door close in finality, she ran over to the potted palm tree in the corner of the balcony and let loose of the acidic bile from her stomach that she had been choking down since witnessing the disgusting scene she knew she would never, ever, be able to dispel from her memory.

 

 

 

Chapter two

 

 

AFTER THE FOURTH straight day of lying in bed weeping, not only from the pain of betrayal, but also from the loss of the two people she felt were her closest loved ones, Piper came to a decision. She stayed up until two a.m. contemplating, mulling over what she felt was the only logical decision there was to make, and then fell into a deep sleep for the first time since witnessing firsthand the affair between her sister and her fiancé.

The next morning, Piper put her plan into motion. She yanked out two enormous, flower-patterned suitcases, a college graduation present from her parents, from the hallway closet and tossed them onto her bed. Haphazardly, she threw miscellaneous items of clothing and shoes into the bags, without giving it much thought. After zipping up the suitcases, she wheeled them out to the front door and then rummaged through drawers in the kitchen until she found a pad of paper and a writing utensil. Meticulously, Piper combed through the entire condo, labeling by room which items belonged to her, and then stuffed the paper into the front pocket of her suitcase, along with her personalized stationary, as well as her laptop.

Ambling back through the condominium one last time, Piper collected all the framed photographs of her and Phillip displayed throughout each room. Stepping out onto the terrace, Piper analyzed each photograph thoroughly; the picture of her and Phillip on their first date at the State fair, the photo of their one and only vacation as a couple on Fort Meyer’s beach, and a snapshot of her, Gina, and Phillip in a three way embrace from a family reunion. Squinting in the sunlight, Piper studied each picture differently than she had in the past, as if she was looking through a microscope that highlighted the flaws in each person; Phillip’s over abundant smile, which Piper used to think made him appear strong and confident, now seemed cheesy and more like a cheap car salesman. Her eyes switched photographs, moving to Gina, with her platinum blonde hair, bright red lipstick, and plunging neckline. Piper had once been envious of her sister’s appearance, but now thought she just looked like a pathetic minx, desperate for attention. Piper took her time scrutinizing every aspect of the picture of the three of them together, with Gina on one side of her, and Phillip on the other. Piper had always adored this picture, thinking both her fiancé and sister were beaming at her in the candid snapshot, but under closer inspection, she couldn’t help but notice their line of vision was slightly off, and realized for the first time, they probably were not adoring her, but most likely each other.

After evaluating each photograph and filing all the faults from her sister and ex-fiancé into the back of her memory to bring forward when needed, Piper began chucking each frame individually over the balcony into the cloudy river below. With each toss, Piper felt lighter and more free. She even considered tossing Phillip’s wardrobe over the balcony to help in the liberation process, but reconsidered, deciding he wasn’t worth the energy that would entail.

Once the task was complete, Piper dusted off her hands, satisfied with her expulsion process, when she noticed her engagement ring sparkling elegantly on her left hand. Slipping the diamond off her ring finger, she studied it in the sunlight, each tilt of her hand throwing an array of colors onto her white T-shirt. Knowing Phillip would soon be demanding the expensive ring be returned, Piper stretched her arm back as far as it would go, then propelled the ring forward and watched as it spun in circles toward the dark, murky water below. Piper desperately hoped a fish would assume it was a shimmering lure and swallow it whole, which was exactly what the ring symbolized; a lure into a false life of never ending fake happiness, which would have been Piper’s future, if she hadn’t stumbled upon her ex-fiancé’s repugnant affair with her younger sister.

Piper watched the tiny splash the jewelry made in the water and the ripples that followed. She then closed her eyes and tilted her chin up toward the heavens, the sun’s rays bathing her in a blanket of warmth, and said a quick prayer for her grief to be lessened and for strength to move forward with the rest of her life.

 

Piper’s first stop on her agenda was to the local storage company. After renting a unit and stuffing the key into her back pocket, Piper headed to her next destination, the post office. After grabbing the stationery from her luggage, Piper sat in her car with the engine idling and wrote continuously for the next thirty minutes, until she had completed three letters; one to her parents, one to her best friend, Danielle, and one to her brother, Samuel. Each letter briefly summarized the events leading up to her departure and stated that once she was settled, she would give each of them a call. In Samuel’s letter, Piper included the list of personal items that she had created from her condo, the key from the storage unit, as well as her key to the condominium. She asked him to please box up her items and place them in the rental unit at his earliest convenience. Piper had chosen Sam for this task, hoping Phillip would not interfere, being he was 6’4, and also a former college football player.

After mailing the letters, Piper headed north on Interstate 65, and then grabbed her phone from the console of her car. She hit the button on her iPhone and told Siri to call Robin Nolan, then waited while the extension rang three times before her sorority sister from college answered.

Robin answered enthusiastically, “Hey, Pipe! Long time no hear.” She tried to use her best country twang, poking fun of Piper’s southern accent. “What’s going on down in good Ol’ Looville, Kentucky?”

Hating to have to regurgitate what had happened with Phillip, Piper immediately choked up and had to pull her car off the interstate into a McDonald’s parking lot.

“So, what did that son of a bitch do?” Robin demanded, her voice taking on a hostile tone.

Through quiet sobs, Piper explained in detail what she walked in on between Gina and Phillip.

Robin sucked in a sharp breath. "So, Phillip finally showed his true colors, huh? Well, now I can honestly tell you how I feel about that man -- I think he's a chauvinistic, condescending pig! Just because he was a doctor, he thought he was better than everyone else, but he had it all wrong," she fumed. "You're the one who was too good for him, Piper. I know you can't see it yet, but he actually did you a favor here."

Piper smiled through her tears, needing someone to have her back.

"And as for that two bit slut that parades around as your so called sister -- I've never met anyone so plastic in my entire life. I'd like to pop holes in those implants, pry off those extra large caps on her teeth, and shave off that fake blonde hair. Then let's see who looks twice at that bitch!"

Piper laughed out loud at her friend’s outburst, thinking, this was definitely the call she needed to make. “So, I hope you’re not busy the next few weeks, ‘cause I kinda quit my job, packed my bags, and I’m heading up 65 as we speak.”

“Perfect! Come right on up!” Robin purred. “My roommate actually has been staying at her boyfriend’s every night for the past six months. You can use her room until you decide what you want to do. You remember how to get here, don’t you?”

 

 

PIPER PULLED UP to the curb in front of Robin’s apartment in downtown Chicago, an old three story home that had been refurbished into three separate apartments. Robin rented the bottom floor unit which was partially hidden underground and had bars on the windows as a safety precaution for being on street level. Five steps led down under the sidewalk to her barnyard red front door, which usually had trash cluttered around it due to litter blowing in from the street.

Inside, the apartment had been furnished modernly with two tan leather sofas with an opaque glass coffee table nestled in front, covered in a multitude of candles in various shapes, colors, and sizes. Artsy paintings in vibrant hues covered the walls, creating a contemporary hang out area for Robin’s friends to gather. The only downfall to the living room was the limited amount of square footage. Robin’s guests had to climb over the coffee table, literally, to sit on the couch. The same problem existed in each bedroom as well. A double bed and one lone dresser were the only furniture Robin and her roommate were able to fit into each room. As an added nuisance, they could only open their lower dresser drawers about halfway before it slammed into their bed frame. The other two rooms inside the apartment were a dilapidated kitchen with ivory cabinets that had yellowed over the years and one miniscule bathroom with a pedestal sink, which also featured an ancient, claw-foot tub surrounded by a clear plastic shower curtain.

Robin only had three stipulations for her living arrangements after she graduated from college: downtown Chicago, walking distance to the bars, and a place to park her car. She couldn’t be happier living in this apartment and had no intentions of upgrading, even though she could afford to do so, anytime in the near future.

Piper lugged her two suitcases down the stairs to the ruby-red front door, raised her fist to knock, when Robin, expecting her arrival, swung the door open before she had the opportunity, and enveloped her in a huge bear hug. Needing the affection, Piper’s eyes filled with tears once again.

“I told myself no more crying.”

Robin tucked her brown hair with chunky blonde streaks behind her ears. “You are so right, Piper. That bum isn’t worth the energy it takes to form a tear.” She grabbed her bags and dragged them into the apartment, murmuring under her breath, “Jackass.”

 

Piper’s first week in Chicago zoomed by in a clouded blur. Since Robin worked out of her apartment as a pharmaceutical sales rep, she was able to put her clients on hold to make sure she kept her friend busy, every second of every day. The first days after Piper’s arrival, she and Robin strolled through Lincoln Park, enjoyed a play at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and another at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, toured the Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as the History Museum, and frequented every bar within a twenty mile radius of her apartment. The next thirty-six hours, Robin dragged Piper shopping at each and every boutique within walking distance, hauled her into every art gallery, and pushed her to attend every festival in downtown Chicago. By the end of the seventh day, although Piper appreciated her friend’s concern and companionship, she was beat and ready for a break.

At the start of her second week, Piper pushed Robin to go back to work, insisting she would be fine in the apartment by herself, assuring her she was thoroughly capable of entertaining herself. Her first morning alone, Piper enjoyed sleeping till noon, padding around the tiny apartment in Robin’s canary yellow bathrobe and watching soap operas all afternoon long. The second morning, Piper threw on some sweats, slipped into her running shoes, and jogged up to Lincoln Park, enjoying the solitude. She made her way to North Avenue Beach, lingered in the sand, transfixed by the movement of the water and then ambled over to the Conservatory to breathe in the lush, tropical landscape. On her way back to the apartment, she roamed through the farmer’s market and brought home dinner; salmon, asparagus, fresh bread, and a bottle of white wine.

On the third day, Piper stood outside Robin’s apartment, with nothing in particular on her docket. Dressed in a black jogging suit and thin down vest, Piper closed her eyes, tilting her chin upward to soak in the warming rays of the sun. The breeze blew her silky hair across her face, tickling the end of her nose. Pushing her locks to the side, Piper secured her hair behind her ear and came up with a plan to begin her day. She closed her eyes again, took in a long deep breath and exhaled slowly, centering herself.

Take me wind. Take me in the direction you want me to go.

She flipped open her eyes and waited. Being that she was standing in the heart of the Windy City, the breeze stirred, whipping in all directions at the same time. Piper stood still, waiting for the wind to make up her mind. Closing her eyes once again, she concentrated on the movement of the air. Finally, a strong gust pushed Piper on the left side of her body, throwing her strawberry blonde hair to the right. She smiled up to the sky and turned her feet in the direction the wind took her. She walked all the way down Division Street until it came to a T with Lake Shore Drive. Another breeze turned Piper to the right, and she followed Lakeshore for a few blocks, and then took another right onto East Chicago Avenue. Knowing she had a GPS on her iPhone if she got lost, Piper wandered down the street, exploring the city with no particular destination on her mind.

Piper strolled through downtown completely unencumbered, until her eyes were drawn to a building unlike anything she had ever seen before. She stopped in her tracks and gawked at the anomaly in front of her. It was an extremely tall building, virtually made of glass, which is not uncommon to see in any city, but what made this particular structure discriminant was the top half of the building was much larger than the bottom half, giving it an odd shape, as if the superstructure may topple over at any given moment. Piper tilted her head to the side, studying the architecture and then glanced at the sign in front of the building, Lurie’s Children’s Hospital.

She had to laugh. Of course, the one building I’m drawn to is a children’s hospital.

Piper felt compelled to enter the glass doors and take a look around. As she entered the building, she was struck with the feeling that she had walked into a children’s museum rather than a hospital. The lobby was two stories tall and surrounded by glass, which framed the area in natural light. Two huge humpback whales, a mother and her baby, floated in the air suspended from the ceiling, with the floor underneath covered in decorative tiles in warm shades of creams and grays. Piper spun in a slow circle, loving the overall ambiance of the hospital setting. She spent the next hour touring as much of the facility as she could without any credentials, and then headed back toward the apartment with pep in her step that she couldn’t quite explain.

The next morning Piper rose early to have breakfast with Robin before she left for work. Robin was already seated at the kitchen table eating her egg-white sandwich when Piper emerged from her bedroom.

“Well, look who’s up. Did you not sleep well? Is everything okay?”

Shuffling over to the cabinet, Piper withdrew a box of Cheerios. “Yeah, actually, I’m doing better than okay.” She reached into the adjacent cabinet for a bowl, shook a cup of cereal into it, then swiveled toward the refrigerator. “Getting out of Louisville was the best decision I could have made, considering the circumstances.” She paused with the gallon of milk dangling from her hand. “Thanks for letting me crash here. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.”

Robin wiped her mouth with her napkin. “No problem at all. Stay as long as you like. I’m really enjoying your company. My roommate has been MIA ever since she hooked up with that new boyfriend of hers.”

Piper sat down at the dinette table across from her friend. Settling her elbows on the table, she folded her hands over her breakfast. “I hope you were sincere when you made that last statement, if not, this next question might be a little awkward.” She raised her eyebrows, asking tentatively, “Would you be alright if I asked your roommate if I could sub-lease from her?”

Picking up her spoon, Piper pushed her food around in the bowl, concentrating on how the milk swallowed up each round circle as she dunked it with her spoon. “Please, don’t feel like you have to say yes. It’s just that this city seems so right for me at this time in my life, and I found a hospital that—”

Robin interrupted her. “Are you serious right now? Do you really think you would have to talk me into this? I would love for you to be my roommate, you dumbbell!”

A wide grin spread across Piper’s face. “Did you just call me a dumbbell?” Shaking her head, she teased, “Rob, I think you need to cut back on watching TV Land for a while. I think it may be warping your personality.”

Robin laughed. “Well, I was going to call you a dumbass, but I thought you might be a little fragile right now.” Scooping up her plate, she placed it into the dishwasher. “I’ve gotta go or I’ll be late for my appointment, but I’ll call Melanie from the car and get the ball rolling on the sub-lease.”

 

The following week, Piper hand delivered her resume to the human resource department at Lurie’s Children’s Hospital and was thrilled when they called to set up an interview the following Tuesday. When she was offered the nursing position in the oncology unit three days later, Piper was tickled beyond belief at her good fortune, feeling fate must be smiling down on her. She was told to report to work as soon as her Illinois nursing license was approved to begin her training.

The weekend prior to the start of her new job, Piper was a complete bundle of nerves. On Sunday evening, she tossed and turned throughout the entire night, waking up every hour to check the clock, in fear of oversleeping. At five a.m., infuriated with her insomnia, Piper got out of bed, showered, and was dressed in pale pink scrubs, drumming her fingers on the kitchen table when Robin rolled out of her bedroom at six a.m.

Full of nervous energy, Piper spoke in a brisk pace. “You know, I flipped and turned all night long. My mind was spinning five hundred—”

Robin held up one finger to silence her and hoarsely spoke one word, “Coffee,” then proceeded to pop a cartridge into the Keurig machine and slide a mug under the spout. After the warm liquid filled the oversized mug, she took a deep swallow and then turned around to face Piper, giving her a nod to continue.

Piper restlessly fidgeted with her hair. “My mind was spinning five hundred miles a minute last night and I couldn’t turn it off. I guess I’m just totally stressed out about starting this new job. What if I hate it; or worse yet, what if they hate me?”

“Do you want my advice?”

Piper locked her hands together on the table, attempting to keep them still. “Shoot.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Who cares if they hate you? You can’t go through life worrying about what other people think. Just do your job and do it well.” Robin took another long swig of her coffee, pulled out a chair, and relaxed into it. “You know what I do when I go into a new clinic to sell my meds? I go in with the notion that I’m going to despise every person I come in contact with. That way, if I actually like two of the ten people in that office, I walk out of there satisfied.”

Piper’s first reaction was to snort at her friend’s advice, but after contemplating, decided she might be on to something. She stood, brushed the crumbs from her bagel off the front of her scrubs, and pushed in her chair, saying, “I need to get going.” She turned toward the front door then paused. “But thanks for the pep talk. I think I got the gist of your advice; hate everyone you meet before they can hate you first. Does that about sum it up?”

Robin nodded her head slowly as she smiled at her new roommate over the rim of her coffee mug. “Exactly…”

 

 

PIPER STOOD OUTSIDE the glass door to the oncology unit frantically searching through her purse for the entry code. Dropping her handbag to the ground, she squatted beside it and ripped out every loose piece of paper floating around in the bottom, but still couldn’t find the code. Giving up, she stood, tossing her handbag onto her shoulder and lightly tapped her fingernail on the glass door. A man about her age, wearing white scrubs covered in yellow smiley faces, peered around the nurses’ station. When he caught sight of Piper at the door, he placed one hand on his hip and held the other high above his head, flapping his wrist in a wave. After hitting the entry button at the nurses’ station, he pranced over to Piper and threw his arms around her.

"You must be Piper. I just L. O. V. E. that name." He spelled out the word while holding her an arm’s distance away as he looked her up and down. "You're just a tiny little thing aren't you and that figure of yours -- What woman wouldn't kill for those perky little things."

Piper studied her feet, her face turning crimson red with embarrassment. “Hi…” she sputtered then paused, not knowing his name.

“The name’s Jeffrey.” Winding his arm around her shoulder, he guided her toward the nurses’ station where a tall attractive blonde watched their interaction. Jeffrey made a grand gesture toward the woman. “And this is Blair. She’s second in command here in our unit.”

Piper stuck out her hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Piper.”

Making a tight movement with her thin lips, which Piper would later learn was her version of a smile, Blair latched onto Piper’s hand, shaking it firmly. “I heard we were getting a newbie today.” Glancing back to Jeffery, she spouted, “And I’m not the one training her. You are.” After she stated her peace, she turned on her heels, her tennis shoes screeching against the laminate square flooring and stalked away from the nurses’ station.

Hearing the glass door swoosh open behind her, Piper turned to see a tall, lanky woman with dark spiky hair rush over to the nurses’ station and throw her backpack underneath the counter. She had several piercings; one on her nose, another on her top lip, and several trailing up each ear. She started to hurry off, oblivious to the people standing around her, when Jeffery grabbed her arm to gain her attention. He swung his hands in from of her face. “Hello… Earth to Alex… This is Piper. She’s the new nurse on our unit.”

Alex briefly looked into Piper’s eyes, and said, “Oh, hey,” before she scurried off and disappeared behind a closed door.

Staring at Alex’s retreating back, Jeffery commented, “I promise, you will like her; now Blair on the other hand, not so much.”

Strolling around the desk, Jeffrey reached into the bottom drawer and withdrew a lanyard with Piper’s name and credentials, then placed it around her neck and bowed ceremoniously as if she were royalty. “I christen you, Knight of the bald heads,” he said. Patting her on both shoulders, he then trotted off toward the nearest patient’s room, calling over his shoulder, “Now follow me. You have a lot of little people to meet.”

 

 

THE FIRST WEEK flew by for Piper at the hospital, learning the correct procedures for admitting new patients, being educated on the computer charting system, and meeting all the new patients and their families, which had always been Piper’s favorite part of her job. Being that most children were in her care for at least a week at a time, sometimes longer, Piper had the benefit of actually developing a relationship with the child, as well as the parents. She loved watching the interaction between parent and child. It made her look forward to the future when she would have a child of her own to care for and dote over.

During her second week at the hospital, Piper was leaning over the computer at the nurses’ station finalizing a patient’s chart when she heard a loud rap on the glass doors. Piper looked up to find a scrawny woman with stringy, dirty-blonde hair and dark-shadowed, haunted eyes beating on the entry door. Peering around, Piper was unsure of what to do. She had heard all kinds of horror stories about deranged patients shooting up hospitals, but finally decided to let her in, fearing the woman may need medical attention. After hitting the entry button, Piper walked around to the front of the counter to meet her. The woman stumbled in, followed by a young boy with long, matted hair, dragging a tattered blue blanket behind him.

She pointed at Piper as she swayed. “Who are you, and where’s my nurse?” the woman slurred.

Laying her hand on her chest, Piper explained, “I’m new here at the hospital. My name’s Pip—”

“I don’t care who the hell you are,” she scoffed, taking wobbly drunken steps down the corridor, searching the halls for the phantom nurse.

As his mother roamed the passageways, the boy shuffled over, his rummaged blanket dragging the floor, to stand beside Piper, and quietly slipped his hand into hers. Piper peered down at the boy, but he did not return her gaze, just kept his chin tucked, staring at his sock peeking out of the hole in his rickety tennis shoes. Before Piper could decide the best way to handle the situation, Jeffrey breezed around the corner and took hold of the situation.

He held onto the teetering woman by her shoulders. “Well, hello there, Ms. Lampert. I’m so happy to see you again.”

The woman eyed him suspiciously but didn’t rebuke his help.

Jeffrey spoke in a soothing tone. “How ‘bout we head to the family room for a cup of Joe so we can catch up? We have so much to talk about since your last visit.” Jeffrey turned the woman in the direction of the family room as she continued mumbling about wanting her own nurse. Over his shoulder, he directed Piper, “Take Jack into a room and get him settled.”

Realizing Jack’s tiny hand was burning hot within her grasp, Piper grabbed an admittance tray and whisked him into room 304, then tugged back the covers on the bed. He didn’t put up a fight as she helped him out of his clothes, slipped him into a hospital gown, and hoisted him up onto the bed. Before starting an IV to flush fluids through his system, Piper rushed to the bathroom for a cool cloth to place on his forehead. Once the washcloth was pressed against his blazing skin, Piper pulled his hospital gown aside for port access, but was confounded when she realized he didn’t have one.

Pushing her questions aside, she changed out her instruments then reached for Jack’s forearm to start an IV, but his limbs were extremely thin and he shook with fever, making it impossible for Piper to find a vein large enough to insert the needle. Deciding to get the fever lowered first and then start the fluids, she placed the needle aside and exchanged it for a thermometer, placing it underneath Jack’s tongue. After it beeped, Piper shook her head in anger at the reading on the display screen. This child should have been admitted hours ago; all parents of cancer patients know, once their child develops a fever of 101 or above, they are to immediately report to the hospital.

Explaining to Jack she would return quickly, Piper raced down the hall to the ice machine and returned carrying five full bags. After tying each individual bag in a knot, she placed them under his thin arms, around his neck, and between his feeble legs. Jack immediately started whimpering, uncomfortable with the freezing bags against his bare skin.

Piper perched on the edge of his bed, using the cool cloth to push his light-brown, tangled hair off his forehead. “I know you’re uncomfortable, but we have to get this silly fever down.” She positioned the washcloth over his head again. “I’ve got to run and get you some Motrin. I’ll be right back. I promise.”

Clinging onto her hand, Jack held on tight. The fear in his red rimmed eyes kept Piper sitting alongside him, murmuring reassuring words as she hit the nurses’ call button in hopes someone would soon come. In less than a minute, Blair blew through the door. Seeing that Piper was already there, she turned abruptly, ready to depart.

Piper stopped her before she had a chance to open the door. “Wait, Blair. I need your help.”

Blair spun around with her eyebrows raised.

“Could you please go get me a bottle of Motrin and a syringe?”

Rolling her eyes, Blair trudged out of the room without saying a word. She returned promptly and handed Piper the medication and syringe, then stood in the corner with a pickled expression on her taut face as she crossed her arms over her chest. Piper administered the pink liquid to the shivering child. When Piper was finished, she ambled over to thank Blair for her help and was totally thrown off guard at Blair’s reaction to her.

Blair whispered sharply, “I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, but you are this child’s nurse, not his mother. I strongly suggest you start acting like it.” She started to leave the room, but stopped, narrowing her eyes at Piper once again. “And if you ever call me to do your job again, I promise you, I will report you to our superiors,” then exited the room in the same briskness in which she had entered.

Flabbergasted, Piper shook her head in confusion by what had just transpired with Blair, but Jack’s moaning brought her attention back to her patient. She removed the warm cloth from his forehead, rewet it in the sink, and then returned it to its original position. Hearing the door whoosh open behind her, Piper turned to watch Jeffrey steer Jack’s inebriated mother into the room. Guiding her over to the window seat, Jeffrey sat her down, propped her against the wall, and then spoke to her as if she was a child.

“I’m going to go get some linens for the pull out bed. You stay put.”

Keeping her eyes on the mother, Piper continued to move the washcloth along Jack’s head and neck. After a few moments, she glanced back down at Jack and could see his eyelids growing heavy and smiled as his blink slowed, until finally, he drifted off to sleep.

When Jeffrey returned, he drew Jack’s mother into a standing position, moved her to stand in front of the recliner, where he gently encouraged her to sit. Humming lightly to himself, he unfolded the window seat into a bed, slipped on the linens, and then returned to his limp companion. When he positioned Jack’s mother on the edge of the bed, she immediately slumped over into a horizontal position. Taking off her shoes, he lifted her legs onto the mattress, and covered her with a navy flannel blanket.

“Nighty night, sweetheart. Wouldn’t want to be you in the morning.” Jeffery breezed over to the side of the bed. “So how’s our little friend doing?”

Piper had already removed the ice bags and was now retaking Jack’s temperature underneath his arm as he slept. She waited to reply until she had read the results.

“He’s better now. Temp is down to one-o-two point five and he’s sleeping soundly. He came in at one-o-four.”

Jeffrey’s eyes widened. “Holy guacamole, that is hot.”

Piper smiled at his silly expletive and gestured toward Jack’s mother passed out on the bed. “So, what’s her story?”

Jeffrey scratched the side of his head. “I’m not really sure. I do know that Jack has just recently been diagnosed with Acute Lymphatic Leukemia. I first met him and his mom a couple of weeks before you started in much the same way you just did, but it didn’t go quite so smoothly the last time around.”

Piper wrinkled her brow. “Really? What happened?”

Jeffrey made horns with his index fingers, securing them to his temples. “Well, Satan’s little helper decided to call security on Jack’s mother when she came in all tanked up the last time. Security marched in and yanked her out of Jack’s room kicking and screaming like a crazed lunatic.” He gestured toward Jack. “Our little friend here was beside himself, as you can imagine.”

Piper glanced down at Jack. “That was nice of you to jump in and take care of the situation so Jack didn’t have to see a repeat performance. No child deserves to go through that.”

Jeffery waved his hand in dismissal. “It was nothing. Drunks are actually quite entertaining when you think about it.”

“You don’t think she drove Jack here, do you?”

“That was the first question I asked too, but come to find out, they took the bus to the train and the train to the hospital, thank goodness.”

Looking back over at the mother, Piper replied, “Well, at least she made one good decision in the last twenty-four hours.”

“Good point,” he said as he made his way toward the door. “I’ve got to get going, but let me know if you need any help if my friend over there happens to wake up.”

 

Piper spent the majority of her time in and out of Jack’s room that day. By the time six p.m. arrived, Jack was still in a muzzy sleep, his fever hovering around one-hundred-and-two degrees and his mother was still passed out on her back with her mouth gaped open, snoring loudly. At six-thirty, the night nurse arrived for her patient updates and wasn’t surprised by the story Piper told her about Jack’s mother, having already heard the news about the previous scene with the security guards.

Although her shift was over, Piper couldn’t seem to leave the hospital. She lingered around the unit, checking on all of her other patients one last time, hoping Jack would wake up so she could explain to him that she would be back the following morning. When seven-thirty rolled around and he still had not woken, Piper left the hospital and returned to her apartment.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter three

 

 

PIPER ARRIVED EARLY for her shift the next morning to check on Jack. She cracked open the door and peeked inside to find him curled on his side with the blankets wound around his limbs, still fast asleep, but his mother was nowhere to be found. Tiptoeing into the room, Piper settled her hand on Jack’s forehead and was relieved to find his fever had subsided. Yanking the dirty sheets from the pullout couch, she tossed them onto the floor, and then folded up the bed. The movement in the room stirred Jack.

“Mommy?” he asked while rubbing his shadowed eyes with his fists.

Piper advanced to his bedside. “No, Jack. It’s Piper, your nurse from yesterday. Your mom must have stepped out for a moment. Will you do me a favor and let me take your temperature while she’s gone?”

Gazing up at Piper with his huge liquid-brown eyes, Jack opened his mouth wide, sticking out his tongue. Piper placed the thermometer under it then cupped his chin, signaling for him to close his mouth. When the thermometer beeped, Piper looked at the results. 101.5 degrees. She could live with that.

“Jack, I’m going to go get some of my nursing stuff. I’ll be right back. Okay?”

Jack’s enlarged eyes exposed his fear. “What kind of stuff?” he asked.

“Well, I need my stethoscope to listen to your heart. That’s the thing you see doctors wear around their neck. I’m also going to push in the blood pressure cart. It won’t hurt at all though, just gives your arm a nice squeeze. But I have to be honest with you, Jack. I do have to get your complete blood count and get some fluids into you and that’s going to take one small needle poke.”

Jack immediately clutched his shabby blue blanket he had brought from home and threw it over his head to hide.

Piper touched his leg on the way out the door. “I’ll be right back.”

When Piper returned, Jack was still hidden underneath the cover. She called out into the room, “Where did Jack go? I know he was right here just a second ago.”

When she heard snickers coming from beneath the blanket, Piper swiftly pulled the coverlet aside. “There you are. How did you disappear like that?”

Jack grinned, revealing his missing two front teeth. “I had on my Harry Potter invisible blanket. That’s why you couldn’t see me.”

Piper raised both eyebrows. “Wow, that’s pretty cool. I wish I had one of those.”

Crossing his thin arms over the covers, he explained, “It won’t work for you, ‘cause you’re a grownup.”

Placing her hand over her heart in mock surprise, Piper questioned, “Says who?”

“Dumbledore, and he knows everything,” he stated as a matter of fact.

“Dumbledore, huh? That’s a heck of a name. Is that his first name, or last?” Thinking Jack had let his guard down, Piper added, “May I listen to your heart now?”

Jack nodded his head for Piper to begin her assessment as he answered her question. “Dumbledore’s a wizard. All wizards only have one name.”

Piper nodded her head in understanding as she listened to Jack’s heart and his lungs, flipped her stethoscope around her neck, and then took his blood pressure. When Piper retrieved the silver tray from behind her to get the IV started, Jack immediately grabbed for his blanket, ready to yank it over his head again.

Piper gently held the blanket in place. “Before you disappear, think about this. I don’t know much about Harry Potter, but I do know he battles all kinds of ghosts and monsters, right?”

With his lips pressed into a straight line, and his brow furrowed, Jack nodded his head.

“Well, if that’s the case, do you really think Harry Potter would run away from a tiny piece of metal?” She held up her finger. “The needle I’m going to use is no bigger than my little pinky, right here.”

Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, he jerked the blanket over his head, but then, gradually, slid his small, feeble arm out the side of the cover.

Piper held in her chuckle. “Well, I’ll be, an arm just appeared.” She continued in a loud voice. “Jack, if the rest of your body is still in this room, I just want you to know, I think you are incredibly brave. Harry Potter would be proud.”

Piper quickly inserted the needle, securing it with a large piece of medical tape.

 

Throughout the rest of the day, Piper made sure to spend as much time with Jack as possible. All of her other patients had a parent or a loved one with them at all times, but Jack had no one, and since he still had a fever, he wasn’t allowed in the oncology playroom with the other children in the wing. Knowing he had to feel totally abandoned and lonely sitting in his room by himself, Piper made sure to check on him as much as her schedule would allow.

When dinner arrived, with still no sign from Jack’s mother, Piper heated up her own meal in the nurses’ lounge and ate it in Jack’s room with him. She brought along the game, Guess Who, from the playroom. Piper sat at the foot of the bed and pulled the rolling table in between them, using it to sit their meals and their game boards. They ate their food, and in between bites, tried to guess each other’s character by asking various questions.

Jack began while chomping on a large piece of roast beef. “Does your guy have on a hat?”

Piper took a bite of her ham and cheese hot-pocket. “No,” she answered and then watched Jack flip down all the tabs that had characters with hats on their head.

Piper asked her first question. “Does your dude have hair?”

Jack giggled. “Grownups aren’t ‘possed to say dude.”

Piper raised her eyebrows several times. “Who said anything about me being a grownup?”

Jack laughed, his eyes twinkling with glee. “No, my dude doesn’t have hair.”

As Piper flipped down her tabs, she tried to get a gauge on Jack’s life at home. “So, do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Jack threw his hands up in the air. “How am I supposed to know that?”

“Not the character in the game, silly, you. Do you have any sisters or brothers?”

“Nope. It’s just me and my mom.” He shoveled a huge spoonful of mashed potatoes into his mouth as he continued with the game. “Does yours have teeth showing?”

Piper answered, “No,” then asked another personal question. “So, Jack, is your mom at work today?”

Jack just shrugged his shoulders. “It’s your turn to ask the question.”

“Okay. Is yours a boy?”

He grinned and nodded his head.

Piper tossed in another question. “Do you know what your mom does when she’s at work?”

Jack slurped his chocolate milk through his straw. “I know she works where old people live and cleans up after them, but my uncle said he’s not gonna give her a check no more if she doesn’t show up for work.”

“So your mom works for her brother?”

“Yep. Mom says Uncle Robert’s just hot-headed, and she can go back to work anytime she wants to.” Jack studied his board. “Does yours have brown eyes?”

“Yes.” Before Piper had an opportunity to ask another question, Jack threw both arms into the air, shouting, “You picked Harry Hankins!”

Even though he answered incorrectly, Piper smiled and nodded her head. “You got me. Boy, you’re good at this game.”

“I knew it! I really didn’t even need to ask you that last question. I knew who you had a long time ago!”

Piper reached for the box on the side of the bed and began putting the game pieces back inside of it. “Good win, Jack, but I really have to be get back to work now.”

Jack leaned back against his pillow. “Awww, already?”

“Yep, I’m afraid so. My other patients are probably wondering where the heck I’ve been.”

“Okay,” Jack reluctantly agreed with pouty, puckered lips.

Piper stood. “How about I go get you a movie from the playroom? What would you like to see?”

Jack scrunched his brow in contemplation. “Do you have any Harry Potter movies?”

Adjusting the table away from the bed, Piper helped Jack crawl underneath his covers. “No, I think the kids around here think that’s a little scary. What’s your next choice?”

“Do you have Far From Home? It’s about a yellow dog that saves this kid when their boat crashes. The dog even fights a bear.”

“Sounds intense, but I don’t think so. I’ll just bring back a few I think you’ll like. How’s that sound?”

“Good.” When she turned to leave, Jack stopped her. “Piper…”

When Piper turned back to look at him, he mumbled, “Thanks for playing with me.”

Choking up at the thought of a child being thankful for someone taking the time to play with him, Piper replied, “Anytime, dude.

 

When it was time for Piper to leave the hospital, she made sure to slip in to say goodnight to Jack. With his bed raised into a sitting position, Jack drew with the markers Piper had brought him earlier after he had finished watching his movie.

“Hey, big guy. Just wanted to say goodnight, and I’ll see ya bright and early tomorrow morning.”

Jack frowned and set his marker down with his chin tucked.

Piper settled on the edge of his bed. “Why the long face?”

Jack did look at her then. “I don’t have a long face. My face is round, just like yours.”

Piper tried not to laugh at his literal interpretation of her question. “What I meant to ask was, why are you sad?”

Jack lowered his head again. “I can’t tell you. Ms. Jones says if I don’t have anything nice to say, I should just zip my lip.” He made a zipping gesture across his mouth and crossed his arms with his bottom lip pushed out.

“Is Ms. Jones your teacher at school?”

Jack nodded his head in affirmation.

“I’m sure Ms. Jones is just as wise as Dumbledore, but she forgot to tell you, talking about your feelings in the right way is a good thing.”

Seemingly trusting of Piper’s advice, Jack picked up his green marker and started coloring again as he confided, “I just don’t like that number two nurse. She flips on the lights when I’m sleeping and her shoes squeak all the time.” He continued coloring, tilting his head to the side. “I was just thinking. Maybe you can be my number one and number two nurse.”

Piper smiled at his solution to the problem and gently explained, “Although I would love to be here at the hospital with you all day and night, Jack, I really think Nurse Judy likes taking care of you. She even told me how much she enjoys your company and how good of a patient you are for her.” She smoothed his hair out of his eyes. “And I also have a roommate at home. Her name is Robin, and if I didn’t come home at night, she’d be all alone, and I know she’d get really scared.” Piper leaned in close and whispered, “Don’t tell anyone this, but I think she’s kind of a chicken butt.”

“Chicken butt!” Jack giggled.

“Oops, I probably shouldn’t have said that.” Piper pretended to zip up her lip and throw away the key. She got up with her lips tucked inside her mouth and waved to Jack as she left the room.

 

The following afternoon, Piper was in Jack’s bathroom, checking his urine for sugar, when she heard the door to Jack’s hospital room open. Knowing it wasn’t time for the doctors to do their rounds, Piper assumed it was Jack’s mother finally making an appearance and purposely stayed hidden in the bathroom to hear the mother’s explanation for her absence. Leaning her head closer to the door, Piper attempted to improve her hearing, but the voice she heard wasn’t female.

“Well, look at you, Jack. You’re starting to resemble Rubeus Hagrid with all that hair of yours.”

Piper plastered her body against the bathroom wall, squinting her eyes in concentration, trying to figure out the relationship between Jack and his visitor.

Jack giggled through his words. “I can’t look like Hagrid. He’s a giant, and I’m just a kid.”

“Oh, that’s right,” the stranger chuckled deeply along with him. “So, what are you doing back in this place? Are there some cute girls your age that hang out here or something?”

He knows Jack was in the hospital recently, and that he’s a Harry Potter fan.

Bending at the waist, Piper tried to peek through the crack in the door to get a glimpse inside the room, but she could just make out a portion of the visitor’s back. He was tall, wearing a black leather jacket and had wavy, chestnut-colored hair that fell to his shoulders.

"Nope. I haven't seen any kids here, just doctors and nurses, but my number one nurse is kinda cute -- if you like old people. You want to see her? She's in my bathroom."

Piper immediately stood ramrod erect, her face flushed with embarrassment at the thought of being caught eavesdropping on their conversation.

“Piper, come out here.” Jack called toward the bathroom. Then to the man in the room, “She’s checking my pee to see if the stick changes colors.”

Straightening her scrubs, Piper pushed her hair behind her shoulders and scooped up the bottle of urine sticks, so she at least looked like she had a reason to be lingering around in a six-year-old’s bathroom.

As she exited, the man turned with an inquisitive look on his face. Once he recovered, he stuck out his hand for an introduction. “Hello, I’m Colton Strong.”

Piper smiled, held up the urine sticks as a reason not to shake hands, and tried to stop herself from getting lost in his ocean-blue and hazel flecked eyes. The man standing before her was beautiful, really beautiful -- like one of those gorgeous hunks on the cover of a cheesy romance novel.

“Hello, I’m Piper Wilkinson, Jack’s daytime nurse.” Rattling the jar of urine sticks, Piper explained, “I just couldn’t seem to get the right reading in there. These dipsticks must be bad.” She tossed the whole bottle into the trash then ambled over to the wall to dispense sanitizer into her hands. “I’ll just leave you two alone.” Rubbing her hands together, she started for the door.

“Actually, I was on my way out. Just wanted to stop in for a quick hello.” Striding over to the bed, he removed a business card out of his back pocket and handed it to Jack. “Here’s another card with my number on it. Remember, if you ever need me, or just want to talk, you can call my cell number on the bottom.”

Jack accepted the card, stuffed it under his covers, and started playing with the buttons on his bed, raising and lowering it for entertainment. The man nodded his head in Piper’s direction and sauntered out of the room.

Once the door was firmly closed, Piper questioned Jack. “So, that man seemed nice. Is he a friend of your mom’s?”

“No.” Jack raised the bed to its highest level.

“Oh, I see.” She tilted her head. “He’s a friend of your dad’s then?”

Very nonchalantly, Jack answered, “I don’t have a dad.”

Covering the heartbreak she felt, Piper continued, “So, is he a teacher at your school?”

“Nope.”

“A relative?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Okay, then. My final guess is that he’s a friend of yours.”

“I guess so.” He lowered his bed and then raised it into a sitting position. “He comes to my house every once in a while and talks to me.”

“What do you two talk about?”

“Nothing.”

Scooting out of bed, Jack padded over to the closet, and swung open the door. After pulling out the clothes he had on when he was admitted, he reached into the pocket of his jeans and retrieved two green army men. He climbed back up on the bed and played with the toy soldiers.

“Can you remember one of the questions he asked the last time he visited?”

Making battle noises, Jack rammed the army men into each other. In between his machine gun spray, he muttered, “Ummm, I think he asked if I’m hungry when I go to bed at night.”

Holding her breath, Piper asked, “What was your answer, Jack?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not hungry here.” Then followed with, “Can I take a nap now?” signaling to Piper that he wanted the conversation to come to an end.

“Sure thing.” With a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, Piper lowered his bed to a horizontal position as Jack pushed his army men and the business card underneath his pillow.

“Will you stay with me until I go to sleep?”

“Of course.”

Scooting up a chair, Piper sat beside him until his breathing evened out and he was fast asleep. Picking his jeans off the floor, Piper held them up and noticed they were stained with holes in the knees, and obviously two sizes too small for him. She grabbed a laundry bag out of the closet, stuffing his clothes and shoes into it, thinking she would take them home, wash them, and bring them back in the morning.

 

That evening, as Piper moved Jack’s clothing from the washer to the dryer, making sure to shake each item out, Robin strolled through the back door and tossed her purse onto the kitchen counter.

“Little small for you, don’t you think?”

“Very funny,” she shot back as she threw the last item into the dryer and turned the dial on low heat. “They’re Jack’s, a patient of mine at the hospital.”

Opening the refrigerator, Robin bent down to the bottom shelf where she stored her white wine. Standing back up with a bottle of Chardonnay, she placed it on the counter then reached into the drawer next to her for a corkscrew, asking, “Why, exactly, are you doing your patient’s laundry?”

“Pour me a glass of that wine and meet me in the living room. This answer may take a while.”

Curled up on the sofa with her wine glass in hand, Piper relayed every detail about meeting Jack and his mother, from the mother showing up completely intoxicated, to her abandoning her son for four straight days, to the Child Protective Service agent making an unexpected appearance. When Piper had finished, Robin placed her wine glass on the coffee table, then removed Piper’s flute out of her hand and set it beside hers.

Piper protested, “Hey, I was drinking that.”

Robin stood up, determined. “Let’s go.”

“What?” Piper questioned as she peered up at her in bafflement. “Where?”

“We’re going to go buy that child some decent clothes and some PJ’s too. Nobody likes their behind sticking out of those stupid hospital gowns.”

Piper smiled, touch by her friend’s empathy. “Although I would love to buy Jack everything his little heart desires, it’s not ethical for me to do so. One of my co-workers has already threatened to report me to management for acting like Jack’s mother rather than his nurse.” Piper stared at her friend intently, wanting her to understand the severity of the situation. “Robin, nobody has come to visit that child, not an aunt or uncle, or even a friend of the family. It’s sad to say, but I honestly believe I’m all Jack has right now. If they pull me from his case, he goes back to having no one.”

Robin weaved her head from side-to-side, spouting, “Well, nobody at that hospital has any power over me. I can buy whatever I want, for whomever I want.” Robin heaved Piper up into a standing position. “Now shut up already and let’s go.”

 

 

 

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, Robin knocked on the glass door to the oncology unit with her head held high. Unfortunately, Blair was the only nurse at the station at the time and was the one to buzz her in. Robin waltzed over to the counter with a determined sway in her hips, pulling a Harry Potter child-sized suitcase behind her, with a glint in her eye, ready for battle.

“I’m here to see a patient of yours, Jack Lampert. I believe he’s in room 304.”

Blair replied curtly, “Only family members are allowed in this unit, ma’am. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave.”

Robin cocked her head sarcastically. “And how do you know I’m not a family member?”

Blair narrowed her eyes in cynicism. “Exactly what relation are you?”

“I’m Jack’s aunt on his father’s side.” Robin swiveled, surveying her surroundings, found room 304, and turned in that direction. “Ah, there it is.” Over her shoulder, Robin tossed Blair a condescending smile. “So wonderful of you to help me.”

 

As Piper administered Jack’s chemotherapy intravenously through his IV, Robin peeked her head into the room. “Anyone home?”

Piper motioned for her to come inside. “Come on in, I want you to meet someone,” she said as she placed her syringe on the side table and peeled off her rubber gloves. As Robin neared the bed, Piper made the introductions. “Jack, this is my friend, Robin.”

Robin extended her arm and shook Jack’s tiny hand. “Nice to meet you.” She glanced around the room. “Nice place you have here.”

Jack grinned from ear-to-ear. “I know who you are. You live with Piper.”

“Yes, that’s right, but I bet Piper didn’t tell you where I work, did she?” Robin peeked over at Piper with a mischievous grin as Jack shook his head. “Well, I work at a place called the Salvation Army.” Using her peripheral vision, Robin watched as Piper’s eyes grew large as she slowly shook her head. Robin ignored her friend and continued, “We’re a company who gives clothes and such to little boys and girls, just like you.”

Jack’s smile was priceless. After slipping the handle back into the suitcase, Robin yanked it up onto the bed. With his mouth agape, Jack ran his hand over the shiny decal of Harry Potter on the front of the suitcase.

“It just so happens that I received a donation the other day that had several things your size.”

She opened the luggage, withdrawing the clothes and Nike tennis shoes she had purchased for him. Jack immediately snatched up the Harry Potter PJ’s and Transformer boxer underwear.

“Are these all mine?” he asked, astounded.

“Yep, including the suitcase.”

Jack brought the clothes to his chest, hugging them tightly. He swiveled to Piper. “Can I put them on?”

Jack’s enthusiasm caused a warm smile to spread across Piper’s face. “How about you take a shower first.”

“Okay.” He jumped out of bed and started for the bathroom pulling his IV pole along with him, but changed directions, making a beeline for Robin, and threw his arms around her legs. “Thank you so much!” He added with his eyes squeezed shut, “I don’t think you’re a chicken butt like Piper said.”

Kneeling down to Jack’s level, Robin rustled his hair and laughed. “So, Piper called me a chicken butt, huh? Well, I have a few secrets to tell about her too, but you go ahead and shower. We’ll talk later.” She held on to his shoulders. “Just remember, if your mom asked where all this stuff came from, you tell her the Salvation Army, okay?”

He nodded his head and then bolted as fast as his IV pole would allow for the bathroom.

“Hey, hot stuff. Come over here and let me clip off your line so you can undress.”

Jack swiveled, pushing the pole in Piper’s direction. As soon as he heard the familiar clicking sound signaling his freedom, he sprinted for the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind him.

When Piper heard the spray of water hitting the basin, she turned toward her friend. “The Salvation Army? Really?”

Robin retort, “Chicken butt? Really?”

“The truth hurts, doesn’t it,” Piper chided.

“You are so funny,” Robin ribbed in a goofy voice then added seriously, “I was just covering my bases with the Salvation Army bit. Some underprivileged parents are very proud and don’t want to accept what they feel are handouts. If Jack’s mom thinks this stuff came from an organization like that, maybe she’ll let him keep it.”

Understanding her untruth, Piper drew her friend into a long hug. “You’re the best. I won’t let anyone know you have a heart the size of Kansas.”

Robin wiggled out of her embrace. “I’ve got to get back to work.” She headed for the door then paused, commenting over her shoulder, “Oh, and by way, that blonde bitch at the front desk thinks I’m a direct relative of Jack’s.” She gave Piper a quick wink and flung open the door.

 

 

 

 

Chapter four

 

 

ALTHOUGH PIPER WAS thrilled Jack had not spiked a fever in the last twenty-four hours, she knew that if he stayed within the normal temperature range for the next twenty-four hours and his white count continued to rebound, the doctor would release him the following morning. She literally dreaded the thought of Jack leaving the hospital, but knew it would eventually happen, and tried to brace herself for the inevitable. Perched at the front desk flipping through Jack’s chart, Piper searched for a phone number, knowing she had to get ahold of Jack’s mother to inform her that her son would soon be released when a movement at the front door caught her eye. She peered up to find Jack’s mother outside the glass in an oversized grey hoodie sweatshirt, waving her arms in the air, trying to gain her attention.

Piper buzzed her in, attempting to mask the fury she felt with the woman for abandoning her six-year-old son and stood to greet her, but stayed behind the desk, holding on tightly to the edge to keep from doing something she might regret. As the mother approached, Piper could smell the stale alcohol seeping from her pores.

“May I help you?”

Jack’s mom’s eyes darted around the room nervously. “Um, yes. I can’t seem to remember my son’s room number. Jack Lampert?”

“Oh, yes, I thought you looked familiar. You’re Jack’s mother, aren’t you?” Piper couldn’t curb the acrimony in her tone. “He’s in room 304.”

As Jack’s mother disappeared behind the door carrying an overnight bag, Piper collapsed into the desk chair, dropping her head into her hands, angry at herself for her vindictiveness. She should be happy Jack’s mother finally showed up, not chastise her for her late arrival. Making it a priority to try and be more pleasant to Ms. Lampert in the future, Piper dove into her job, working hard on getting her case charts updated and leaving detailed notes for the night shift nurse concerning each of her patients. Although Piper’s hands were busy, her eyes kept glancing up at Jack’s door, wondering what was going on with him and his mother. Was Jack happy to see her? Did she explain why she had deserted him? Piper wanted so badly to hear for herself, but purposely stayed out of the room until it was absolutely necessary to go in.

When it was time for Jack’s assessment and medication, Piper wheeled the blood pressure machine into his room and found Jack lying on top of his covers in his new pajamas watching television while his mother lounged in the chair by the window, sipping out of a water bottle, staring off into the distance outside.

When Jack saw Piper come through the door, he immediately propped up onto his elbows. “Hi, Piper.”

Piper walked over to the side of the bed. “Hey, champ.” She handed him his pills and a glass of water. “Bottom’s up.” When he was finished, she praised him. “I still can’t believe you can swallow a pill at your age. I bet I didn’t learn how to do that until I was a teenager.”

“It’s easy. I just look at the water and say the ABC’s in my head.”

Piper wrapped the blood pressure cuff around his arm. “That’s a great idea. Who taught you that?”

“You know, that boy nurse…” He squished his eyebrows down, contemplating.

“You mean Jeffrey?” Piper asked as she placed the thermometer underneath his tongue.

Jack nodded his head.

“Where in the world was he when I was your age?” she asked rhetorically.

Piper withdrew the thermometer and peered at the results. She felt a sting of disappointment at Jack’s normal body temperature, knowing this meant one step closer to him getting discharged.

Piper grew serious. “Now, Jack, I need to get your blood count again. Nurse Judy took your IV out last night to make sure your body can hold its temp without the fluids, so I’m going to have to do a small finger poke, okay?” The fear in his eyes spoke volumes, pushing Piper to ask, “Would you like to use your invisible blanket again?”

Jack ripped his cover over his face then deliberately stuck his hand out the side.

Piper performed the blood withdrawal and then bandaged him quickly, commenting, “You’re getting to be an old pro at this.”

For the first time since she entered the room, Piper glanced over at Jack’s mother who sat completely still watching their exchange, totally indifferent, taking a swig of her water every so often, her glassy eyes unblinking and heavy-lidded. Did Ms. Lampert even know about Jack’s magic invisible blanket, or was this something new to her? Piper could not tell anything by the absent look on the mother’s face.

Piper gave her attention back to Jack. “All the scary stuff is over, Jack. You can reappear now.”

He gradually lowered the blanket, asking, “It’s not time for you to go home now, is it?”

“You haven’t eaten the best spaghetti and meatballs in the state of Illinois yet, have you?” Piper asked, trying to keep her tone upbeat and positive.

Jack’s eyes lit up at the mention of food, and he shook his head vigorously.

She swiped her finger down his nose. “Well then, I guess I’m not leaving yet, am I?”

“Can you eat your dinner in here with me?” Jack pleaded.

Piper glanced over at his mother, who didn’t seem to register what was going on in front of her, and quietly declined his invitation. “Sorry, buddy. I can’t tonight, but your mom will be here to eat with you.”

Jack’s eyes dropped down to the SpongeBob bandage on his finger. “Oh, okay.”

Piper leaned in, whispering, “We’ll do it another night, I promise.”

Satisfied, Jack turned onto his side.

“That’s a good idea. How about you rest your eyes until your meal gets here?”

 

Piper purposely stayed out of Jack’s room until her shift was over. When she peeked back in before leaving for home, she found Jack still lounged on his bed watching TV, but this time, his mother was sound asleep sitting upright in the chair snoring intermittently in between deep inhalations of air with her face lax, her mouth ajar, and her head cocked awkwardly to the side.

Piper entered the room, placing an armful of wooden puzzles she had brought from the playroom onto the table. “Hey, Jack, I brought you in some puzzles. Would you like to turn off the TV for a while and work them?”

When Jack nodded his head, Piper pulled the remote from under his covers and turned off the television. Maneuvering the table in front of him, she pressed the button to raise his bed into a sitting position.

“Is it time for you to go home now?”

“Yes, it is, but it’s almost your bedtime anyway, and I’ll be back in the morning before you can even open one eye.”

Jack giggled. “I always open both my eyes when I wake up.”

“Okay, smartie pants.”

As Piper was about to say her final goodbye to Jack, his mother let out an oppressive snort as her body convulsed in the chair, throwing her top half sideways to hang limply over the armrest. As Jack concentrated on working his puzzles, Piper advanced toward the chair and immediately could smell alcohol radiating from the mother’s body. Picking up the water bottle from the floor, Piper sniffed its contents. Realizing her suspicions were correct, the bottle contained straight vodka, Piper took the remaining liquid into the bathroom and poured it down the drain. As she exited the bathroom, she tossed the empty bottle into the trash while contemplating moving Jack’s mother to the bed so she would be more comfortable, but decided against it. Let her wake up stiff and sore.

Veering over to Jack, she patted him on the leg. “See you later, alligator.”

 

The next morning when Piper woke, Robin had already left for work, but had attached a note to the refrigerator.

 

Piper,

Please stuff Jack’s suitcase with these and tell him hello from me.

Peace out,

Rob.

 

On the kitchen table sat a bag full of snacks. Piper smiled at her friend’s sentiment, took the food from Robin, and added it to her own arsenal of goodies she had purchased for Jack on her way home from work the previous night.

Knowing today Jack would be released from the hospital, Piper arrived early for her shift, hoping to pack Jack’s suitcase before his mother woke. After glancing into the room to verify Jack and his mother were both still asleep, Piper snuck over to the closet, gently pulled open the door, praying the hinges wouldn’t squeak. Just as Piper had the suitcase in hand, ready to turn and leave, she felt a hand on her lower back, startling her, causing her to drop the case with a resounding thud. Holding her breath, Piper swiveled around and found Jack, barefoot in his Harry Potter PJ’s, standing behind her. Her eyes immediately darted to Jack’s mother, who turned in her bed, but did not wake. Piper puffed out her cheeks in an anxious breath as she squatted down to Jack’s level.

“Hey there, munchkin,” Piper whispered. “You scared me.”

Jack shoved his hair out of his eyes as his forehead ceased with concern. “Are you taking my suitcase back to that army place?”

Piper rubbed his thin arms. “No, sweetie. I was just taking it for a moment to put something in it for you. It was supposed to be a surprise. You like surprises, don’t you?”

Jack’s eyes grew wide as he nodded his head with an open mouthed grin.

She messed his thinning hair. “Well then, you better jump right back into that bed and go back to sleep.”

Jack sprinted back to his bed, latched onto his guardrail, and hoisted himself back up to crawl under the covers.

Piper took the suitcase hastily, heading out of the room and down the hallway into the staff lounge, where she had previously hidden the grocery bag. Skirting through the locker room, she rushed into the restroom, darting into the furthest stall, clasping the lock on the door behind her. But when she spun around, she noticed the bag she had placed on the windowsill was missing. Thinking someone had thought she had left it by mistake, Piper exited the stall to check at the nurses’ station, but unfortunately, smacked right into Blair before she had the opportunity.

With her head cocked maliciously to the side, Blair stood with her hip propped against the sink, holding the grocery bag out in front of her as it swung on her fingertips. “Is this what you’re looking for by any chance?” she asked condescendingly.

Piper grabbed at the bag, but Blair ripped it from her grasp, rooting through its contents. “Umm, let’s see here, Gold Fish, granola bars, peanut butter crackers.” She glanced up and smirked evilly. “Piper, you couldn’t tell by the looks of you, but you sure have quite the appetite.”

Piper spoke through gritted teeth. “Give me the bag, Blair.”

At that moment, Alex, looking even more pale than she usually did, nonchalantly strolled into the bathroom, gave a nondescript, “Hey,” to both of them, and entered a stall. Piper didn’t want to make a scene in front of Alex, but refused to back down to Blair.

“You have no idea what’s going on here, Blair.” Piper held out her hand. “Give me the bag now.

Blair rolled her eyes. “How stupid do you think I am?” She pointed toward Jack’s suitcase. “You think I don’t know you and your little friend who delivered that suitcase are playing mommy dearest to one of our patients.” She jabbed her finger in Piper’s face, snapping, “I should have reported you the first time you pulled this crap.”

Piper attempted to reason with her. “Blair, Jack has a drunk for a mother who can’t hold down a job so he goes to bed hungry most nights.” She pleaded, desperate to make her understand, “Tell me I’m not making the right decision by helping this child out.”

Blair stabbed her empty hand to her hip. “You think he’s the only child in our wing with troubles? Open your naive little eyes, Piper,” she spat. “I’m sure there are many families around here that can’t afford to put a decent meal on the table. What makes Jack’s story so different than anyone else’s?” Blair planted both feet on the ground as she stood, making her almost whole head taller than Piper. “We are hired at this hospital to be impartial caregivers.” She held up the grocery bag mockingly. “And this is a far cry from being impartial.”

At that time, Alex opened the door to her stall, stepping out with her eyes fixated on Blair. “Give her the damn bag.”

Blair wasn’t about to back down, swiveling around to confront Piper’s newfound ally. “You know she’s overstepping the line here. Really, Alex, I expected you to be smarter than that.”

“And I expected you not be the heartless bitch that you are,” Alex said as she unexpectedly ripped the bag from Blair’s clutches and handed it back to Piper.

After shooting Alex a heinous stare, Blair moved her attention back to Piper, her main adversary. “Don’t be surprised when you get called into Mr. Flynn’s office this afternoon.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Better say goodbye to your little friend Jack. Can’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Alex, with her spiky black hair and multiple piercings, took a step closer to Blair. “I would keep your mouth shut if I were you.”

Blair scoffed, “Oh, really, why is that?”

“If you choose to flap your jaws,” she tilted her head and flattened her lips, “I just might have to introduce you to my friend Weasel.” Alex took a step to the side of Blair, speaking close to her ear. “They call him Weasel because he can worm his way into your life at the click of a keyboard, and believe me when I say, the mess he leaves behind is never pretty.”

Blair crossed her arms over her chest as she raised her eyebrows. “Are you threatening me?”

Alex looked over both her shoulders then turned to Piper, pointing toward her face. “Did you hear any threats come out of this mouth?”

Piper grinned. “Nope.”

Alex swiveled back to Blair. “See, nobody’s threatening anyone around here.” She shooed her out like a trapped fly. “You go on now, and continue doing your impartial nursing routine.”

Blair paused, tilting her chin upward toward them in a superior gesture. “If you two can live with yourselves for choosing one patient’s needs above all others, go for it. You’re the ones that have to wake up and look in the mirror every day.” She strode toward the exit, opened the door, and then said over her shoulder, “Oh, and try and remember, this is a hospital, not a soup kitchen.” After mounting her broom, she blew out of the lounge with the door whooshing shut behind her.

When the coast was clear, Piper bent down, unzipped the suitcase, and started hiding food underneath Jack’s clean clothing. She knew she was on a time crunch and needed to return the suitcase before Jack’s mother woke up.

Alex squatted down beside her, dug into her backpack, pulling out a Snickers bar and a small bag of pretzels, handing it to Piper. “You’re doing the right thing here.”

Glancing up, Piper smiled. “Thank you for sticking up for me. It means a lot.”

Alex snorted. “Are you kidding me? I jump at any chance to go toe-to-toe with that woman.”

Piper laughed. “I have to ask, do you really have a friend named Weasel?”

Alex grinned as she held the door open for Piper. “That is something I hope you never have to find out.”

Piper wheeled the suitcase out of the bathroom, holding onto a clean outfit for Jack to wear home. “Remind me to always stay on your good side.”

 

When Piper reentered Jack’s room, he instantly shut his eyes, pretending to sleep. Piper noticed Jack’s mother was no longer in bed and that the bathroom door was closed; she could hear the shower running through the sealed door. Knowing her time alone with Jack was limited, Piper placed Jack’s suitcase back into the closet, dropped the clothes she held on the foot of the bed, and sunk down beside him.

She spoke in a low whisper. “Jack, you can open your eyes now.”

Jack flipped opened his eyes and grinned. “I tricked you. I wasn’t really sleeping.”

Piper returned his smile as she rested her hand on his chest; she could count his ribs by the touch of her fingertips. “Listen very closely to me, Jack. I put a bunch of treats in your suitcase for you, but they come with rules you have to obey.”

Jack scrunched his nose. “What rules?”

Piper leaned in closer, not wanting her voice to carry. “You have to keep the treats hidden in your suitcase when you get home, okay?”

Jack looked confused, but agreed. “Okay.”

Piper continued, “I want you to save the treats for the nights when you get into bed, and you’re really hungry. But there is one more important rule. I only want you to eat two treats at a time. No more than that.” She explained her last demand. “I would love for these snacks to last until the next time I see you. Is that a deal?”

Jack went over the list of demands, whispering as Piper had done. “Keep the stuff hidden in my suitcase and don’t eat more than two things, no matter how hungry I am, right?”

Piper smoothed the hair off his forehead. “That’s right. Do you think you can do it?”

Jack beamed. “Yep.”

Piper reached back, handing Jack his clean clothes. “You get dressed now. Just shove your PJ’s into the front zipper of your suitcase. When you get home, don’t forget to unpack the rest of your clothes and then hide your suitcase.” Piper heard the water turn off in the bathroom and stood. “Okay, kiddo. I’m outta here, but I’ll see you again after the doctor does his rounds.”

Piper returned to the nurses’ station with an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. She dropped down into the desk chair, bending over her knees, inhaling long and deep to try and alleviate the anxiety she felt squeezing on her lungs, making it difficult for her to breath. The thought of Jack walking out of this hospital with that woman, who in Piper’s opinion was not capable of taking care of her son, was almost too much for her to bear. She closed her eyes as she massaged the back of her neck, trying to get a grip on her emotions, but soon felt a light hand on her shoulder blade.

“Alex told me what went down in the bathroom.”

Piper peered up to find Jeffrey. Not knowing how he would feel about her interference into Jack’s life, Piper pleaded her case. “I just couldn’t help myself, Jeffrey. The thought of Jack going to bed hungry was killing me inside.”

Jeffrey smiled down at her. “If I would have known Jack’s situation the last time he was in, I would have done the exact same thing.”

Relieved Jeffrey was on her side, Piper stood up, throwing her arms around his neck. “Thank you for saying that. I needed to hear that more than you know.”

As Piper pulled away from Jeffrey, she heard the door to the oncology wing swing open. She turned to see Jack’s oncologist, along with a group of residents, enter the unit. With a nod to Piper and Jeffrey, the doctors paraded in front of the nurses’ station and then disappeared into Jack’s hospital room. Piper’s apprehension returned, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before Jack would be walking out of those same exact doors. A light on the patient board at the nurses’ station illuminated, interrupting her thoughts. Seeing it was one of his rooms, Jeffrey gave Piper a sympathetic pat on the back and left her alone to tend to his patient.

Collapsing into the chair once again, Piper tried to push the visualization of Jack’s home life out of her mind, but couldn’t. She wondered if there was anyone in Jack’s world outside the hospital that he could turn to. It did give Piper some consolation that Jack had the Child Protective Services business card in his suitcase, but she debated if he would actually use the number, in fear of being taken away from his mother. Making a decision, Piper reached for a piece of paper, ripped off a corner, and wrote down her cell number, hoping that Jack would trust her to call in a time of need. She would just have to find a way to slip him the number before he left the hospital.

Leaning back in her chair, Piper waited, once again staring at Jack’s closed hospital door, secretly hoping none of her other patients would need her so she had a chance to see Jack before he left the hospital. Propping her chin on her hand, Piper drummed her fingers, contemplating what was taking so long. The oncologist had long since left Jack’s room, but he and his mother still had not emerged. Standing up, Piper decided she wasn’t going to wait. She was going in to say goodbye to Jack and somehow slip her number to him without his mother seeing. A light blinked on at the station, signaling Piper that her patient in room 308 needed attention. Piper briskly changed directions, hustling into the hospital room two doors down from Jack’s.

The patient’s mother, hovering over her daughter’s bedside as she rubbed a cool cloth along her forehead, spoke to Piper as soon as she entered the room. “I think Elizabeth’s fever is spiking again.”

“Let me just get my thermometer and I’ll be right back.”

Piper practically sprinted to retrieve a thermometer, and on her way back into the room, checked to make sure Jack’s door was still securely closed. Once back inside Elizabeth’s room, Piper slipped the plastic covering over the thermometer before placing it under the child’s tongue. After the thermometer beeped, Piper read the results, 99.5 degrees.

She addressed the child’s mother. “You are right. Her temperature is moving upward, but it’s not at a hundred degrees yet. We don’t administer any medication until it hits that level, but let’s try to cool her down by taking off this cover and keeping up with the cool sponge baths.” She helped Elizabeth’s mother lower the blanket to the bottom of the bed, leaving just the sheet to cover the child. “I’ll bring in some ice to put in the sink to keep the water chilled.” She turned to Elizabeth, asking, “Would you like a popsicle?” When she nodded her head, Piper said, “How about I try to find you a purple one to match those cute jammies you have on?”

The mother looked up from her daughter. “Thanks, Piper. You’re the best.”

“No problem. I’ll be right back.”

When Piper exited Elizabeth’s room, she found Jack’s mother pulling him by the wrist toward the exit doors to the oncology wing, but Jack dug his heels in, ostensibly fighting against her. When Jack heard the door click shut behind him, he turned, his face lighting up as he wiggled out of his mother’s grasp, leaving his suitcase in his wake.

“Piper!” he yelled, while running down the hallway.

Piper squatted down to Jack’s level to receive his warm embrace. “Hey there, big guy. Thanks for the awesome hug.”

Pulling away slightly, Piper reached into the pocket of her scrubs, tucked her cell number into Jack’s jeans, and then cupped his face in the palms of her hands, whispering, “I put my phone number in your pocket. I want you to call me if you need anything, Jack, anything at all.”

Jack nodded his head in understanding as his eyes pooled with moisture. A lone tear hung on the balance of his thick lower lash. Piper pulled him to her chest one last time, squeezing him tightly, not wanting to let go as her own emotions rose to the surface. Standing at the door, Jack’s mother called to him to hurry up, that it was time for them to leave. Reluctantly, Jack released Piper, but held onto her fingers as long as possible before returning to his mother with his chin lowered and his feet dragging, exposing his hesitancy to leave the hospital. Jack’s nonverbal clues broke Piper’s heart as she stifled the sudden urge to run after him, to protect him from whatever lies outside those hospital doors.

Grabbing a hold of his suitcase, Jack glanced over his shoulder one last time at Piper, who lifted her hand in a final wave goodbye.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter five

 

 

ON PIPER’S NEXT break, she snatched her purse and headed toward the elevator in long purposeful strides. Once inside, she opened her bag while still on her shoulder, digging around until she found the piece of paper that was folded so many times it resembled a small box. As the elevator descended, she unfolded the white paper until she was staring at a copy of the business card from the Child Protective Service agent that came to the hospital to visit Jack. Piper was thankful she had the forethought to sneak into Jack’s room while he was napping and photocopy the business card, knowing that at some point in the future, she may need to communicate with the CPS agent. As Piper read the name on the card, Colton Strong, a mental image appeared in her mind of a young Heath Ledger with long dark hair, a shadow of a cleave in his masculine chin, mesmerizing chameleon eyes set far apart, and full, ripe lips. As the elevator doors opened, Piper refolded the paper once over and exited the doors, taking a hard right toward the cafeteria.

Piper waited patiently in line at Starbuck’s for her chocolate latte and then chose a secluded table at the far end of the cafeteria. Once seated, she opened the photocopy of the business card and smoothed it out on the table in front of her. She reached inside her purse to retrieve her cell phone while taking a small sip from her steaming hot coffee, and then leaned back against her chair, contemplating exactly what she would say to the CPS agent. She dialed the office number listed on the paper and heard the extension ring once, twice, then three times. The answering service clicked on before the fourth ring. Hello, you have reached Colton Strong from Child Protective Services. Leave your message at the beep and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

Piper cleared her throat. “Hello. My name is Piper Wilkinson, and I’m a nurse at Lurie’s Children’s Hospital. Jack Lampert is one of my patients, and I believe you are his contact at CPS. I just wanted to talk with you about Jack and keep you abreast of his situation. Please give me a call back at your earliest convenience.”

Switching the ringer to the on position, Piper tucked her phone into the pocket of her scrubs so that she would be sure to answer Mr. Strong’s returned phone call. She gulped the last of her coffee hastily, scalding her tongue then cussed silently to herself as she headed back up to the fifth floor to finish her shift.

 

 

THREE DAYS TICKED by hauntingly slow without a returned phone call from Colton Strong. Piper became more infuriated with each passing day. On Wednesday, when Piper still hadn’t received a returned call, she phoned again. The answering machine kicked on after the third ring. Piper spoke crisply. “Hello, again, Mr. Strong. It’s Piper Wilkinson, Jack Lampert’s nurse. Please return this call a.s.a.p. I need to speak with you concerning Jack’s well-being. I think he may be in jeopardy. It is imperative that I hear from you immediately. Thank you in advanced for your returned phone call.”

Piper attempted to get back to living a normal existence as she had before she met Jack, but she just couldn’t shake the feeling that she was letting him down. He was the first person Piper thought about when she woke up in the morning, and the last person that entered her mind before she drifted off to sleep at night. Her anxiety over Jack spilled over into the rest of her life as she became more short-fused and agitated with her colleagues at the hospital, as well as her roommate at home. To remedy the situation, Piper retreated to her bedroom as soon as she entered the apartment, where she would collapse onto her bed feeling helpless and defeated.

 

 

ALTHOUGH ROBIN WAS just as concerned about Jack’s well-being as Piper, she had had enough and was ready to get Piper back on track to being her old self again. When Piper slushed through the door on Friday night, exhausted and ready for bed, Robin was waiting in the kitchen with a glass of white wine. As soon as Piper dangled her purse from her fingertips, Robin shoved a full goblet of wine into her free hand, demanding, “Drink up, then go change; we’re going out.”

“Really, Rob, I’m not up for it tonight. How about next weekend? I promise, I’ll be rip roaring fun,” she replied dead panned.

Robin laughed. “No chance of backing out. Tonight’s the night. Drink that wine, and then go get ready, or I’m dragging you out as is. You need a mental break and that’s exactly what I’m going to provide for you this evening.”

Piper plopped down into a chair at the kitchen table, taking a large gulp of her wine. “Okay, fine. I’ll go out with you, but just so you know, I’m not happy about it,” she grumped.

“I love the positive attitude,” Robin chided. Sliding her bottom onto the kitchen countertop, Robin asked Piper about the only person she spoke of nowadays. “So, have you heard back from Jack’s CPS agent yet?”

Tipping her head back, Piper chugged the remains of her wine as if it were a cheap beer. “No, that a-hole hasn’t bothered to call me back.” Reaching across the table, Piper seized the bottle of wine to refill her empty glass as she spoke bitterly, “He works for Child Protective Services for God’s sake. What kind of person doesn’t return a phone call when a child’s life may be on the line?”

“That’s a very good question.”

“What are the credentials to work at CPS anyway?”

“I haven’t a clue.”

“Obviously, they aren’t too stringent if they hired this Colton character.” After swallowing another mouthful of alcohol, Piper stated boldly, “For two and a half cents, I’d call that man and give him a real piece of my mind.”

Robin chuckled. “I think I’d save that call for tomorrow morning if I were you.”

Piper ripped the phone from the pocket of her scrubs, holding it up into the air like a grenade, ready to yank out the clip. “And why can’t I call him right now?”

“Well, probably because the two glasses of wine you just slugged may make you say something you might regret.”

Piper rolled her eyes. “Alcohol doesn’t reach the brain that fast, Rob, but good try.”

“I know what I’m talking about. I saw it on the Discovery Channel. Alcohol can affect the brain in less than five minutes.”

Piper threw a “whatever look” at her friend as she slid her finger across the bottom of her phone.

Robin leaned back against the cabinet with a cocky grin. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

After taking another extended drink from her glass, Piper dialed the number she had memorized by heart, staring at Robin with a superior look. When the answering machine picked up, Piper began the rant that she had been bottling up all week.

"Hello, Colton Strong. Piper Wilkinson here. I have called your office all week, asking -- no begging for a returned call concerning one of the children you are supposed to be protecting. What kind of person are you anyway? I called and told you Jack’s well-being was at stake, and you were too busy to return my phone call? That is just preposterous, especially in your line of work! Obviously, your superiors made a mistake by hiring you, and they will hear from me on Monday morning. I can guarantee you that.” She rattled off her cell number then ended the call with a jab to the end button.

Standing up, she headed toward her bedroom. “I feel better already. Give me ten and we’re out of here.”

 

 

PIPER AND ROBIN ended up at the corner bar down the street from their apartment called, Jimmy’s Place, which was a locally owned tavern that had rapidly become their Friday night hang out spot. Piper loved this particular bar because of its comfortable atmosphere and unpretentious customer base. Most nights, she saw patrons in their dirty work boots, greasy uniform shirts, or hospital scrubs, not caring what they looked like, but more importantly, who they shared their drink with. A dark mahogany bar wrapped around the entire backside of the crowded room with a solid sheet of mirrors behind it packed tightly with a multitude of liquor bottles. Beer mugs, martini glasses, and wine flutes hung from wooden racks anchored to the soffit above the bar. Worn, dark wood embedded with nicks and grooves covered the floor and the booths around the perimeter were spattered with cigarette holes throughout the cracked brown leather. Sconces lined the walls with green glass shades, basking the area in a dim light, giving off an aura of intimacy.

Although Jimmy’s was brimming with people ready to unwind after a long week of work, Robin spotted two empty bar stools in the back of the bar, close to the restrooms. They pushed through the mingling bodies, shimmied out of the jackets and placed them on their stools, perching on top of them. Attempting to gain the bartenders’ attention, Robin stood on the foot-rail of the bar, dramatically waving her hand in the air. When that technique didn’t work, she placed two fingers inside of her mouth and let out a plangent, sharp whistle. Although the sound didn’t last long, Robin not only received the attention of the bartenders, but of everyone else in the room as well. When the entire bar turned to gawk in her direction, Robin just smiled and waved, and then said to the nearest attendant, “Two Bud Lights, please.”

Piper laughed at her friend’s spectacle. “That’s one way to order a beer.”

Robin plopped down onto the barstool. “Hey, whatever works.”

Wearing a tight black V-neck that molded to his skin, the bartender flipped open two beers, slid them across the bar, and then stood waiting for payment. Robin took a drink from her beer then winked at the muscular man standing behind the bar. “Start a tab for us, sweet cheeks.”

Used to her friend’s quirky remarks, Piper glanced down at her phone to find the time and her thoughts immediately jumped to Jack. Piper shook her head to clear her thoughts and then took an extended drink from her beer, wanting desperately to escape the worry, just for one night. She peered up to speak to Robin about anything, other than Jack, and noticed she had an odd expression on her face as she stared intently into the mirror behind the bar.

“What in the world are you gawking at?” Piper asked.

Robin continued to rubberneck. “It’s not a what. It’s a who,” she said as she squinted in concentration.

Piper attempted to follow her gaze, but failed to reveal who she had spotted within the crowd. "Okay then -- Who are you staring at?”

Robin shook her head slowly, not changing her line of vision. “I have no idea.”

Piper rolled her eyes at her absurd answer, mumbling under her breath, “You are completely insane.”

“That may be true, but I am one-hundred percent confident the who I’m staring at in the mirror, is looking directly at the back of you, and has been since he glanced over in this direction after I whistled.”

Piper snorted. “Yeah, right. Let me guess, tall, dark, and handsome, right?”

“Yep, in a very rock band kind of way.”

Piper laughed at her comment and then stiffened. “What did you just say?”

Robin repeated herself in a boisterous voice, close to Piper’s ear. “I said he was hot, in a rock band kind of way.” She pulled back and looked at her friend, grinning. “Could you hear me that time, Granny?”

All of a sudden, Piper could feel his eyes boring into the back of her head. She clinched onto Robin’s arm, yanking her close. “Describe what he looks like.”

“Okay—” Robin studied the man in the mirror closely. “He’s wearing a black leather jacket and gray skinny jeans.”

Piper gave Robin the keep going signal by moving her hand in a circular motion.

“He’s tall, has long, dark wavy hair, and looks to have a cleft in his chin, but I can’t tell for sure from here. It may just be a shadow.”

Piper’s eyes grew wide as her hand instinctively shot up to cover her mouth. “You just described to a tee, the CPS agent I just berated on the phone back at the apartment.”

Robin laughed out loud acrimoniously. “The chances of that are slim to none, Piper. You live in Chicago now. You don’t bump into people you just bitch out like you do down in Booneyville, Kentucky.”

Piper relaxed her shoulders, letting out her bottle breath. “You’re right. I guess I’m just a little on edge right now. I’m sure it’s just someone who recognizes me from the hospital.”

Glancing over Piper's left shoulder, Robin broke into a slow grin. "Well, we're about to find out -- mystery man is walking this way now."

The hair on the back of Piper’s neck stood on end as the man in black leather sauntered over to stand in between her and Robin. He smiled at both of them before he spoke in Piper’s direction. “Are you Piper Wilkinson from Lurie’s Hospital by any chance?”

Recognizing the CPS agent immediately, Piper’s anger overtook reason as she stood up to confront the man who was supposed to be Jack’s savior. She puffed out her chest as she breathed heavily through her nostrils. “Yes, I am Piper Wilkinson, the concerned nurse of Jack Lampert, whom you are supposed to be protecting.” She stabbed three fingers into the air. “I left you three messages concerning Jack’s well-being and you chose to not return even one of those phone calls.”

Although at full height Piper barely reached Colton’s chest, she didn’t let that sway her as she began poking her finger against his rigid pectorals. “So help me God, if something bad happens to that boy, it will be on your shoulders, and you’ll have to live with that for the rest of your life.”

Colton deflected her hand. “Hold up now—”

Piper spoke over him, spewing a slashing rhetorical question with a disgusted look on her face. “What kind of person are you that won’t return calls about a child who may be in danger anyway?”

Colton’s demeanor did a ninety degree turn as his multifaceted eyes blazed. “What in the hell are you even talking about?” he spat back. “I did return your phone calls, two of them as a matter of fact, and I wasn’t even aware you called a third time.”

Robin rubbed her hands together like an evil scientist as the plot thickened. “This is getting good.” She snapped her fingers to gain the bartender’s attention. “Two more Bud Lights, please.”

Piper ignored her friend, crossed her arms over her chest, and asked satirically, “What do you mean you returned two of my phone calls?”

Colton replied sharply, “Well, being the concerned nurse that you are, you forgot to leave your cell number on my office machine on both your messages. I ended up having to try and track you down at the hospital.” He held up his fingers, mimicking her. “I left two messages for you to call me back at the nurses’ station on the oncology floor. So actually, you’re the one not returning phone calls around here, not me. And if you knew me at all, which you don’t thankfully, you would never have implied that I wouldn’t do everything in my power to help out a child in need.”

He shoved his hands in the front pockets of his faded Levis, inhaling deeply as he examined the ground then lifted his chin to look back into her eyes. “If what you have to tell me about Jack needs to be said tonight, say it now, if not, I’m out of here.”

Piper didn’t respond, just placed her hand on her forehead, squeezing to counteract the throbbing that suddenly appeared at her temples and to hide the embarrassment for her poor judgment, as well as her ridiculous outburst.

After an extended pause, Colton flatly stated, “Fine. Call me on Monday morning. If I don’t answer, leave your cell number this time.”

He turned to leave then stopped. “Oh, and one more thing, I’m fully aware that if anything happens to one of the children I represent, it’s on my shoulders. Thanks for reminding me of that,” he bit brazenly.

Feeling two inches tall, Piper watched as Colton roughly pushed through the crowd, said something to a group of guys at the bar, and then stalked out the front door of the tavern.

Piper swiveled toward Robin, who shrugged her shoulders and patted the bar stool next to her. “I didn’t see that one coming.”

Piper slumped down onto the bar stool, dropping her head into her hands.

 

 

 

PIPER TOSSED AND turned the entire night, falling in and out of a tumultuous slumber as her dreams played evil tricks on her. She kept finding herself inside of a darkened room where she could hear Jack’s voice in the distance, calling to her, I’m lonely, Piper. Will you come play with me? Stumbling through the blackness, Piper reached her arms out in front of her, fearful of what lie ahead, but pushed past her cowardice, needing to find Jack. Yes, Jack, of course I’ll play with you, but I can’t find you. He just giggled and replied, I’m over here, silly. Piper threaded through the blackness in the direction of his voice, a trickle of trepidation creeping up her spin until she stumbled into a cold concrete wall. Patting the mortared surface from side-to-side, she heard Jack call from another corner of the room, Piper, can’t you hear me? I said I’m over here.

Pulling herself out of her own dream, Piper bolted upright in bed as she scrubbed her face in the darkness, attempting to even out her breathing. Her chest ached as Jack’s voice echoed throughout her ringing ears, breaking her heart in shattered bits and pieces. Raking her dampened hair away from her face, Piper contemplated getting out of bed to take an Advil, but declined the idea, and lay back against her pillow and tried to ease herself back into a dreamless sleep.

It didn’t take long for Jack to reenter her dreams. This time they were deep in the dense woods. The sun’s arms reached through the billowing trees, warming Piper’s face as she relaxed on a red checkered blanket beside a sparkling pond of emerald green, while Jack frolicked around in the water, kicking and splashing, begging her to come join him. Suddenly, black angry storm clouds materialized, covering the sun, throwing a blanket of darkness over them. Wind began whipping and howling through the trees, bending the branches around them to their breaking point. As Piper peered upward toward the sky, gnarly ashen clouds swirled and twisted into one another, creating a web of destruction. Motioning her arms in the air, she called for Jack to come out of the water. Right before her panic-stricken eyes, the liquid around him grew murky and gray. Jack started to swim toward her, his arms smacking against the turbulent water, but he was unexpectedly yanked underneath the surface by an unknown force. He fought against it, thrashing and screaming for Piper to help him, but the checkered blanket had morphed into menacing, scarlet vines that wound around Piper’s feet and wrists, anchoring her to the ground. She screeched for help at the top of her lungs as she watched in horror at Jack continually being ripped underneath the heinous water, desperately trying to catch his breath, his arms flailing above his head as he choked and gagged. Kicking and thrashing, Piper frantically tried to loosen the vines on her wrists, while screaming out for help…

“Piper, wake up. You’re having a nightmare.”

Robin sat on the edge of the bed, attempting to shake Piper out of her horrendous imaginary world. Piper came to, with tears running down her cheeks. She sprung upright in bed, throwing her arms around Robin as she cried, gasping for air as she tried to even out her jagged breaths.

Robin accepted her embrace while rubbing her back, trying to calm her. “Sshh, it’s okay. Just a bad dream.”

When Piper’s sobs diminished to a few hiccups, Robin asked her, “Would you like to talk about it?”

Pulling away from her friend, Piper wiped her drenched, puffy face with the pads of her fingertips while nodding her head.

Shuffling over to the closet, Robin withdrew her white terrycloth robe and tossed it onto the bed. “I’ll go make us some hot chocolate.”

In the kitchen, Piper divulged her nightmares to Robin as she cradled her warm mug in her hands, blowing on her hot chocolate intermittently to cool the steaming liquid.

After listening intently, Robin leaned back in her chair. “Well, it doesn’t take a trained therapist to know you’re feeling helpless right now concerning Jack. He’s in an unknown environment at home, that may or may not be dangerous, but the not knowing is what’s eating you up inside.” Robin took a sip from her mug. “The key to the mystery has got to be that CPS agent. He, and he alone, knows what type of conditions Jack lives in. He may be able to ease your mind about him, or at least make you feel better that he’s on top of the situation and will pull Jack out of his home, if necessary.”

Piper held her mug close to her mouth, enjoying its warmth as the steam moistened her dry lips. She nodded her head in agreement. “You’re right. I’ll call him tomorrow morning and set up a meeting. You go back to bed and try to get some sleep.” She halfway attempted a smile while murmuring sheepishly, “And thanks so much for lending me your ear. I know it’s probably getting worn out by now.”

Placing her empty mug in the dishwasher, Robin patted her friend on the shoulder. “You can wear my ear out anytime you need to. You try and get some sleep, too.”

 

The next morning, after several more hours of restless sleep, Piper phoned Colton, but this time instead of calling his office, she called his personal cell number he had written on the bottom of his business card for Jack. He answered on the first ring.

“Colton Strong.”

Closing her eyes, Piper spoke from her heart. "Um, hi. This is Piper Wilkinson, Jack's nurse, again. Please, don't hang up on me, although I know you have every right to. I want to -- no, let me rephrase that -- I need to speak with you concerning Jack, for both our sakes. Is there any way you can meet me for coffee this morning?”

There was an extended pause on the other end of the extension before Colton spoke sharply, “Can’t you just tell me what you need to say over the phone?”

Piper winced at the bitter tone in his voice. “Yes, I could, but I’d rather meet you in person, if that’s okay with you.”

There was another lengthy pause before she heard him relent with a sigh. “When and where do you want to meet?”

“The Java, nine o’clock, and thank you for agreeing to meet me.”

The only thing Piper heard in return was a dial tone.

 

 

WHEN COLTON ENTERED the coffee house at precisely nine a.m., Piper was already seated at a table in the corner by the window and waved him over. When he saw her, he pointed toward the coffee line. Piper held up two cups from the table in front of her, causing him to shrug and thread his way through the patrons toward her. When he approached the table, she spoke first.

“I took a guess and ordered you a plain espresso.”

Colton accepted the coffee from Piper, mumbling, “Thanks,” as he took the seat opposite her.

Piper tried to lighten the mood between them. “I guess I owe you more than just a coffee after how I behaved last night.”

Colton peered across the table at her absently and then spoke with a deadened inflection. “Yeah, I got your third message this morning. I think I got your point by now.” He spun his coffee on top of the table. “Just tell me what I need to know about Jack, so we can both be on our way.”

Tears welled up in Piper’s sleep deprived, red-rimmed eyes. “I am truly sorry for the things I said to you in person and on your answering machine, but I am just so worried about Jack. I can’t seem to function anymore.” Her tears escaped, slowly cascading down her makeup-free face, despite Piper’s attempt to withhold them. “When Jack was admitted to the hospital a few weeks ago, his mother was so intoxicated she couldn’t put together a single coherent sentence. He had a fever close to a hundred-and-five, even though she knew she was supposed to bring him in when his temperature hit one-o-one. She stayed passed out for the first twenty-four hours of Jack’s hospital stay, then disappeared for the next nine days. She returned on the tenth day, to once again pass out until she took Jack home the following morning.” Piper swiped at the tears running down her face. “Please, tell me she can’t get away with this.”

Colton answered her honestly. “Although I agree one hundred percent that what this woman did to her son is irreproachable, I regret to tell you, it was not illegal. She left her son with responsible adults, who are medical professionals. Yes, what she did was morally wrong, but not against the law.” Colton continued, “Look at it this way, if two parents go on a ten day vacation and leave their child with a responsible adult, should their child be taken away from them? The law looks at this situation in the same way, and even if we did take this to a judge, the defense would argue there is no way to prove the mother wasn’t there at some point in time during his stay, or even various times throughout. Was there a nurse or doctor in the room with Jack twenty-four hours a day? Or better yet, a security camera? If the answer is no, then we wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.”

Piper dropped her head, moving it slowly from side-to-side, knowing there was nothing she could do to help Jack. She reached behind her for her purse, laid it on her lap, and dug around until she found an old wadded-up tissue floating around in the bottom. She blew her nose, stuffed the tissue back into her bag, and then looked back up at Colton, trying to put on a brave front.

“So, I guess what I had to tell you wasn’t so urgent after all.”

Colton threw out a small glimmer of hope for her to hang on to. “The only silver lining I can give you is that since there has been another allegation of child neglect, I can reopen Jack’s case and do some more investigating. Don’t misunderstand what I am saying here. I will make a report of the allegations you have just described to me, but I can assure you, nothing can be done about that situation. At least his case can be reopened though, and I can start digging around to see if any new problems exist. Even if I come up with nothing substantial, the mother will know that she has been reported again, and maybe she’ll start taking her role as parent more seriously. Is there anything else you can think of that may be of help with my investigation?”

Piper raked her brain for pertinent information. “Umm, Jack did tell me his mother works for her brother in a nursing home, but the brother recently told her she was no longer getting a paycheck unless she started showing up for work.”

Colton reached into his jacket, pulled out his cellular, and started taking notes.

“Jack also thinks he doesn’t have a father, which obviously means his dad is not in the picture. I’m sure you probably already know that, but he did admit to me that he goes to bed hungry most nights. Couldn’t that alone be enough of a reason to take Jack out of that environment?”

After Colton finished typing, his eyes rose to Piper. “Under my first child neglect investigation, I preformed three different unannounced visits, and all three times, there was enough food in the panty that I had to report the original claim was unsubstantiated.”

Piper inquired, “Can you tell me who reported Jack to you the last time?”

Looking back up from his phone again, he paused then spoke in a clipped tone. “Jack’s teacher, Ms. Jones, from Studebacker Elementary. She found him rummaging through his classmates lunch boxes on several different occasions. Accompany that with his clothes being too small, as well as worn out, and the lack of hygiene, it gave her plenty of reason to call CPS.”

Piper nodded her head. “Jack has spoken about her before. I think he trusts her, which makes me feel better that at least he has an ally at school.”

Colton scratched his temple with his thumb. “You sure do know a lot about Jack. He sure wasn’t so self-disclosing with me when I interviewed him six months ago.”

Piper grinned. “Well, Colton, that’s because you didn’t talk about Harry Potter for the first twenty-four hours after you met him, then rent the film so you could have a more in-depth discussion the following twenty-four hours.”

Colton returned a warm smile that almost reached his eyes. “You got me on that one, and you can call me Cole if you want.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “My friends and colleagues do anyway.”

Piper fired back, “Since I fall under neither category, I assume Colton will suffice.”

He stared into her eyes with his chin angled as a befuddled look clouded his face, until Piper laughed out loud, letting him off the hook. “My attempt at humor.”

Colton leaned back in his chair as one side of his mouth twitched above the other in a cocky grin. “Ahh, funny. I think attempt is the key word here.”

Starting to relax as she chuckled along with him, Piper asked him a personal question. “If you don’t mind me asking, what got you involved in Child Protective Services?”

He dropped his vision to study his coffee cup on the table, and once again, began spinning it in slow circles, then looked back up with a tinge of attitude smoldering in his eyes. “Why do you ask?”

Piper hesitated, unintentionally glancing at his long dark hair pulled back into a low ponytail, which drew attention to his defined facial features, chiseled cheek bones, molten deep-blue and green flecked eyes, as well as his full delectable lips. “Well, you just don’t look the type, if you don’t mind me saying.”

Another smirk. “And you don’t look old enough to hold a nursing license, if you don’t mind me saying.”

Piper withheld her smile as she sat back in her chair. Coming up with a different strategy, she tilted her head, asking, “Let me rephrase the question. Have you always wanted to work with children?”

Shoving his chair backward, he crossed his ankle over his knee. “That’s an unanswerable question. I can’t remember anything before the age of six.”

“Okay then.” Piper sucked in a breath and held it, thinking that getting any information out of him was going to be like pulling teeth. She mulled over exactly how to ask the next question. “At what age did you decide you wanted to work in the child protection field?”

He lifted his coffee cup to his lips, took a sip then brought it down to rest on the inside of his knee. “Let’s just say, I was old enough to know what I wanted to do with my life, but young and dumb enough to think I could make a difference.”

Piper narrowed her eyes at him as she held up her index finger, saying, “Ah, you speak in riddles. Now I know something about you.”

Another shadow of a smile. “Have you always lived in Chicago?”

Piper tried to come up with a wise and witty riddle of her own. “I guess you could say, one unfortunate circumstance led me to this unfortunate circumstance.” But then, regretted her profound statement, rattling off, “I don’t mean having coffee with you is my second unfortunate circumstance, just for the record.”

Again, Colton’s mouth tilted upward. “No offense taken.” He glanced down at his phone while uncrossing his legs, then sat up straighter in his seat. “Although I would love to continue this twenty-question-slash-riddle game, I have another meeting I need to get to.” As he stood to leave, he reached into his back pocket for his wallet.

Piper held up her palm. “As I said, coffee is on me. Thanks for meeting me on such short notice.”

He tucked his wallet back into his pocket. “I’ll type up what was discussed here and call you when I’m ready for your signature. You were actually wise enough to leave your cell number after you ripped me to shreds on your third message.”

Piper winced. “Ouch. I guess I deserve that one.”

“I guess you do.”

Chapter six

 

ON MONDAY AFTERNOON, when Piper checked her phone on her lunch break, she found that Colton had left her a message asking her to call him on his cell. Piper’s intention was to call him back on her next break at the hospital, but it turned out to be a crazy afternoon, and she never had the opportunity. She returned home from work, threw on some sweats, and curled up on the couch with the remote control in one hand and her phone in the other, trying to decide whether it was too late to call Colton back. Knowing what a fit she threw when he didn’t return her phone call right away, she punched in his mobile number. He answered on the first ring.

“Colton Strong.”

“Hi, Cole. It’s Piper. Sorry I’m so late getting back with you. It was a madhouse at the hospital this afternoon.” She grabbed the gray fleece blanket hanging on the back of the couch and threw it over her legs.

“No problem. I just needed to know if we could meet sometime tomorrow for you to sign these papers.”

Propping her feet on the coffee table, Piper answered, “Actually, I have the day off, so I can meet you anytime of the day.”

“How about we meet at Java again?”

“Works for me. What time?”

“Ten o’clock, if you don’t mind getting up early on your day off.”

Flipping on the television, she replied, “I’d be up before then, with or without a meeting scheduled.”

He chuckled lowly. “So your one of those seize the day, type A personalities, huh?”

Piper giggled as she relaxed her head against the couch. “And I guess you’re not?”

“You can say that.”

She laughed at his candor. “I suppose you’d rather lie in bed on your day off and study the insides of your eyelids till noon?”

He chuckled softly again. “Yeah, that’s one way to put it. What’s wrong with that?”

"Nothing -- if you're lazy," she ribbed him.

“Not lazy, just laid-back.”

“Yeah, right,” she laughed. “Whatever you say…”

 

 

WHEN PIPER ARRIVED at Java, Colton was already in line. He tilted his head back in greeting, “Hey. Why don’t you get us a table? It’s filling up quick in here and it’s my turn to buy anyway. What’s your flavor?”

When he arrived at their table and handed her her coffee, he immediately got down to business. After lifting his black sling bag over his head, he withdrew a pale-yellow file folder and then took a seat. Out of the front zippered pocket, he extracted a pen and slid the document with the pen on top across the table to Piper.

“Make sure you read it thoroughly to check for any mistakes before you sign.”

Piper held the document in one hand, her coffee in the other, taking her time to read the full report, two complete times. When she was confident the facts were correct, she laid the document and her cup back on the table, reached for the pen, signing her loopy signature at the bottom of the page, and then printed her full name underneath.

After pushing the paper back across the table to him, she asked, “So, what’s the next step?”

“Well, first I’m going to set up appointments to interview several people that have direct access to Jack.”

Even though Piper knew she was overstepping her boundaries, she asked him a question, hoping he would supply her with an answer. “Who do you want to speak with?”

Colton pressed his lips into a thin line. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, Piper, my job requires me to keep information about the family I am investigating confidential.”

Piper looked him square in the eye, her voice strong and confident. “I’m your source, Cole. Without me, you wouldn’t be speaking to anyone.” When he didn’t budge, she softened her tone and tried another technique. “Please, let me help you with the investigation. I have a great relationship with Jack. He trusts me. That’s got to account for something.”

Pushing the document back inside the manila folder, Colton shoved it into his satchel then laid the bag aside. Scooting his chair closer to the table, he leaned in, his voice low in order to keep their conversation from carrying to other patrons. “Piper, I tend to agree with you that you may be helpful at some point in my investigation, but I have to totally trust you in order for that to happen, and trust isn’t something I dole out easily, especially to someone I barely know.”

Piper reached across the table to cradle Colton’s hand as she looked him sincerely in the eyes. “Believe me when I say this. Jack has come to be so incredibly important to me in a very short period of time. I can’t even begin to describe how my heart is breaking, thinking that he may be cold, or hungry, or lonely.” She glanced up at the ceiling blinking rapidly to keep control of her emotions, then pulled her hand back. “I will do anything in my power to help that child, and I promise not to divulge any confidential information you may give me to another living soul.”

Colton paused, considering his need for her assistance as he focused on her with such intensity that Piper involuntarily shuddered slightly under his scrutiny. Finally, he spoke. “I think the relationship you’ve developed with Jack may help my case in the long run, so I guess I’ll have to trust you, until you give me a reason not to.”

Relief washed over Piper’s face. “Thank you, Colton.”

“Trusting people is not my strong suit. Don’t blow it.”

Piper raised her index finger in the air. “Fact number two. You’re cynical.”

Colton lifted one brow at her remark before switching the conversation back to the case. “I want to set up a meeting with Jack’s current teacher, as well as his uncle, Robert Lampert. Did Jack happen to give you an idea on how long his mother has been out of work?”

Piper shook her head. “I didn’t even ask that question. And by the way, I want to go with you on these interviews.”

“Piper—”

“No, seriously, Cole. I can help you. I know Jack better than you do. As you just said, the personal relationship I have with Jack may help, even with the interviews.” Pushing her luck, she made another bold statement. “And I want to come with you to Jack’s house when you visit him, too.”

Colton shook his head. “No way, Piper. That would be against the law and put my job in jeopardy.”

“Even if I just sit in the car? I won’t even get out.” She held up a three finger girl-scout pledge. “I promise.”

Cole shook his head, seemingly exasperated with her as he mumbled under his breath, “Persistent little thing, aren’t you.”

Piper threw in a smirk on her own. “You haven’t seen nothing yet.”

 

 

PIPER WAITED PATIENTLY for Colton to call for three straight days regarding Jack’s child neglect interview appointments. When she hadn’t heard from him by the following afternoon, she phoned him at his office during her morning break at the hospital. Piper wanted privacy, but knew she didn’t have enough time to run all the way down to the lunch room, so she holed herself up in the maintenance closet without anyone noticing, and kept her voice to a whisper. When Colton answered, she got right to the point.

“Do you have any interviews set up yet?”

“Is that you, Piper?” he asked. “Why are you whispering?”

“Yes it’s me. I’m at work. Whispering is what you do when you’re in the hospital.”

Piper could imagine the look on his face when he spouted, “I think you’re getting hospitals and libraries mixed up, but okay, whatever you say.”

Piper ignored his ironic humor. “What about the interviews?”

His voice was firm. “Actually, I can’t discuss it now.”

Anger and confusion crept into Piper. “Colton, you said I could help you with the investigation.”

“I realize that, Piper.”

“Colton Strong, are you are attempting to blow me off? And yes, the key word here is attempting, because I promise you, it will not work.”

Colton groaned. “Fine. Meet me at Jimmy’s at eight o’clock.”

 

When Piper lumbered into Jimmy’s Place, the bar was deserted, except for a spattering of individuals bellied up to the bar. She spotted Colton in the corner booth and headed in that direction as she unbuttoned her coat, revealing her pale-peach hospital scrubs. When she reached the table, she tossed her coat into the booth and slid in.

“Hey.”

Wearing a thermal gray shirt with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows, Colton stared at her with a smart grin on his face without speaking.

Puzzled, Piper asked, “What’s so funny?”

He glanced at her hair, and then at the light freckles that sprinkled her petite, slightly turned-up nose, then back into her eyes. “You look twelve-years-old right now. You’re hard to take seriously.”

Piper reached up to feel her hair and realized she had forgotten to take out the two braids that a patient of hers had weaved into her hair that morning. She laughed while taking out her braids and then piled her strawberry locks on top of her head into a messy bun.

“I forgot I had my hair done this morning by a fabulous six-year-old beautician named Suzie.”

He lifted his head slightly. “Ah, a perk to the pediatric nursing profession.”

From behind the bar, the bartender snapped his fingers in the air, gaining their attention, as he barked out, “You guys want anything from the bar?” Colton looked to Piper, who ordered a Bud Light. He called back to the bartender, “Two Bud Lights.”

After their drink was in hand, Piper began rolling the corners of the label on her beer bottle, all of a sudden nervous, although she wasn’t quite sure why. “Thanks for meeting me,” she said tentatively.

Colton took a pull from his beer before trying to explain their earlier conversation. “Piper, I wasn’t trying to blow you off this morning. I just really didn’t want to discuss the case with you while I was at the office.”

Piper narrowed her eyes at him. “Let me get this straight. You didn’t want to discuss the child you are protecting in your office at Child Protective Services. O-kay, that makes sense.”

Colton clucked sarcastically, “Look who’s the cynical one now.”

She returned his banter. “You’ve got to admit, that does sound a tad bit fishy.”

“Yes, but after I explain, I think you’ll understand.” He propped his elbows on the table, his hands bridging together as his fingers threaded one another. “I’ve been going through all my old files concerning Jack, and something’s just not adding up. Six months ago, I had a legitimate source, who knows the child neglect warning signs, but yet all three instances when I entered the Lampert home, I found nothing to support the allegations. The house was clean with the beds made, and there was always plenty of food in the pantry. But it just doesn’t make sense to me. The outside of the house looked overgrown and unattended, but yet the inside is kept clean and tidy? And why would the mother take so much time cleaning the house, but let her son walk around like a rag picker who looks like he hasn’t showered in a week? The whole situation just doesn’t add up, and it got me thinking. Maybe there was a leak in the case, either by someone from Studebacker Elementary, or even from CPS, and the mother got word I was coming by the house, and took time to prepare for my arrival. That would definitely explain why all the puzzles pieces weren’t fitting together.”

Piper blew out a long breath, with her eyes wide in disbelief. “Wow. I thought that stuff only happened in the movies.”

“You’re naïve, Piper.”

She shrugged. “I like to think I’m optimistic.”

“Corruption happens way more than you would think, in any line of work.” Colton moved forward in his seat, his jaw clenching with intensity. “Piper, I can’t stress enough how imperative it is that you keep any information we discuss about the case to yourself, even information that you feel may be trivial.”

“As I said before, you can trust me, and I meant it.”

Colton nodded his head, his features relaxing a touch, before he explained the specifics of his job. “Agency protocol goes like this. When I receive a case, I conduct all my interviews first, to collect data, draw up a written report, and have the document signed, as I did with you. Then, I turn my report into the agency. When I’m ready, I get an approval for my in-home interview before it takes place. That way, if there are any domestic problems, such as violence, the agency will be ready to step in, if need be.”

Colton took another extended drink of his beer before he continued. “Maybe the last time, somewhere along the line, information was passed along and ended up in the wrong hands.”

“I guess it’s possible, but I sure hope nobody at your agency would do something like that.”

“There are all kinds of motivations for people to talk, money, drugs, or even sex.”

Piper’s sheltered upbringing rose up. “Now we’re talking rated R type of movie,” she shuddered.

Piper watched as Colton leaned back as he swung his arm to rest casually on the back of the booth, his eyes ablaze with mischief. He then lowered his smoldering eyes to rest on her mouth, making Piper unconsciously pull her bottom lip between her teeth, baring down to keep from squirming. Colton then gradually moved his line of vision down her body, blazing a heated trail with the seductive glint in his eyes.

Feeling caressed without even being touched, Piper felt a sudden need for a cold shower and a clean pair of undergarments.

When his eyes reached back up into hers, he cockily tilted his head to the side, asking, “Can you even get into an R rated movie?”

She glowered at him, commenting, “Very funny,” not liking the heat that rose within her core, igniting sparks within every nerve of her body.

She moved the conversation back to the case. “So, you really think the information was leaked by someone at CPS?”

He brought his arm down from the booth, grabbing his beer again. “Or it could have been leaked by accident, a friend told a friend type of thing, but whatever the reason, I’m unwilling to let it happen again. I already have the background I need from past allegations, and from you, so this time around, I’m going to work backwards and conduct my in-home interview first, without speaking to anyone at the agency ahead of time.”

“Won’t you get in trouble at CPS?”

“That’s a chance I’m willing to take. If Jack is in any danger of neglect, something needs to be done to stop it. If I go through the same channels as last time, I’m sure I’ll get the same results. Who knows? I may get the same results this time, too, but I have to find out.”

Piper felt a huge weight being lifted off of her shoulders. “Thank you so much for stepping out on a ledge for Jack,” she said, genuinely touched by his gesture. “My first impression of you couldn’t have been more wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever been so misguided about anyone in my entire life.” After her statement, Piper’s mind immediately flashed back to her ex-fiancé and why she moved to Chicago in the first place, making her following with, “Actually, scratch that last comment.”

With a half-smile on his lips, Colton asked, “Oh, really, would you like to elaborate?”

Piper tore the remaining label off her beer and started ripping it into little pieces, shredding the foiled paper into small bits, littering the tabletop. She concentrated on her hands so she wouldn’t have to see the pathetic look he gave her after her little speech. “Oh, you know, typical story. Nurse meets doctor. Doctor and nurse get engaged. Doctor meets nurse’s sister. Nurse walks in on doctor and sister.”

He lifted his chin. “Ah, the unfortunate circumstance.”

Piper peered up, but the look on Colton’s face was not one of sympathy, instead, it was a look of understanding her motivation for moving here. She nodded her head and tried to lighten the conversation. “Yep, now that’s an R rated movie.”

Colton chuckled lowly. “Well, I’d tell you my life story, but I wouldn’t want to steal your thunder.” Cole didn’t elaborate on his last statement, instead, switched the subject, asking her, “Would you like another beer?”

Piper glanced down at her watch. “Actually, I better get going.” Grabbing her burgundy and cream infinity scarf, she wrapped it around her neck then dug into her purse for her wallet.

“I got this one.” Colton pushed himself out of the booth, tossed a twenty dollar bill to the bartender and headed back to the table. “Where did you park?”

Piper stood, buttoning up her navy Pea coat. “Actually, I walked.”

“I’ll walk you home then.”

Piper finished with her last button and smiled up at him. “Cole, that’s sweet and very nineteen-fifties of you, but I’m fine walking home by myself.”

Pushing his hair behind one ear, Colton mumbled, “And women wonder why chivalry’s a dying concept,” as he turned toward the door, making Piper reconsider.

“You know what? I would love for you to walk me home.”

When they exited the bar, the air was crisp with a gentle breeze. Piper pointed to the left and they turned in that direction, his pace matching hers as she addressed his lack of outer garments. “What is it with you Chicagoians not wearing coats?”

Colton chuckled as he stuffed his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “You just sounded exactly like my mother.”

Slipping her hands into her own coat, Piper pulled it closer to her body as she commented, “She must be a very wise woman.”

Colton glanced down at her out of the corner of his eye. “You know, I think she would have liked you and your dry sense of humor.”

Piper laughed while nudging him with her elbow. “Would have? I guess I’m not being invited over for turkey dinner anytime soon.”

Colton stared straight ahead as they continued walking, stating stoically, “My mom’s gone. She died six months ago from breast cancer.”

Piper stopped in her tracks, feeling like a complete fool and rattled off a long drawn-out apology. “I’m so sorry, Colton. That was so stupid of me. Once again, my poor sense of humor. I thought you were saying that I would never be around your mother.” She winced as she dug the heel of her hand into her forehead and then started to back-pedal. “Not that I ever expect to meet her or anything. I just thought that—”

Clutching the collar of her coat with both hands, Colton tugged her forward until they were only inches away, silencing her. He stared deeply into her eyes and then gradually, leaned down until his lips were just a breath away from hers. His kiss was gentle and warm at first, inviting her to open her mouth. When she responded, he deepened the kiss, moving his hands to cradle her face as his thumb gently grazed her cheek while his tongue explored the inside of her mouth. When he withdrew, Piper couldn’t help herself when she leaned her body into his, not wanting the kiss to come to an end, wanting more of his full lips, needing more of his caress, but he pulled away slightly, gazing into her eyes with such intensity that Piper’s breath caught in her throat. She swayed slightly under the heat of his gaze, fearful she may melt into a puddle right then and there, onto the concrete sidewalk. He then devoured her in another mind tingling kiss as people zoomed by them in a clouded blur.

Chapter seven

 

 

THE NEXT FEW days at work, Piper attempted to keep her mind focused on taking care of her patients and off Colton, although she did keep her phone in the pocket of her scrubs, just in case he called. She found herself unconsciously pulling out her phone periodically throughout the day to see if he had called, and tried to keep the disappointment at bay when, day after day, she found he made no attempt to contact her.

By that Thursday evening, Piper was overly grumpy and agitated when she returned home from work. She shut the back door harder than needed, throwing her purse and keys on top on the kitchen table from the hallway. They landed on the wood with a loud thunk and screeched across the tabletop garishly.

Hearing the racket, Robin shot out from her room startled. When she realized it was Piper, she sarcastically barked, “Bull’s eye!” and was about to storm back into the confines of her room when Piper confronted her, ready to blow off some steam.

She slammed her hands onto her hips. “What did you just say to me?”

Robin mimicked her, jamming her hands on her own hips sneeringly. “I said bull’s eye.” She cocked her head to the side, her tone brimming with satire. “Do you not speak English?”

Piper spat back, “Do you not know how to speak without being rude?”

Robin’s head swayed from side-to-side as she spoke. “Well, when my sublease roommate has been a pain in the ass for the past forty-eight hours. No, let me rephrase, has been a pain in the ass for the last month, comes into my apartment, then throws her shit across the room onto my table, scraping the hell out of it, yeah, I think I have a right to be a tad bit bitchy.”

Realizing her inconsiderate behavior, Piper’s provocation washed right out of her. She dropped her head, ashamed that she had disrespected her roommate and her property, especially after everything Robin had done for her since moving to Chicago. Pulling out a chair, Piper sunk down into it and crossed her arms on top of the table. “You’re right. I’m so sorry, Rob,” she apologized and then planted her head on top of her forearms.

Pulling out the seat next to hers, Robin asked, “Is Jack worrying you again? I thought the load had lightened a little since Colton got involved.”

With her head still tucked, Piper groaned. “That’s the problem; Colton got involved.”

“What? Now I’m totally confused. I thought you trusted Colton to help Jack.”

“I do.”

She wrinkled her brow. “Then I don’t understand the problem.”

Piper peeked up at her friend with a miserable expression on her face, admitting, “Colton kissed me last week.”

“Obviously, by the look on your face, that’s a bad thing?”

“Yes… No.” She deposited her head back onto her arms. “It just complicates things.”

“How so?”

She lifted her head again. “Well, now I want to call him regarding Jack, and I can’t because I’m afraid he’ll think I’m calling for other reasons.”

“Oh, so you liked the kiss, and now you want to play hard to get?”

“No!”

“So, you didn’t like the kiss?”

“Robin!”

“Piper, this is a very important question. Give me an honest answer, and I will give you my advice, if not, you’re on your own.”

“Fine.” Piper sagged her head to hide her embarrassment. “I loved the stupid kiss. Are you satisfied?”

Robin reclined in her chair, crossing her legs. “You’re right. This does complicate things.”

Piper kicked her under the table while Robin laughed at her expense. “I’m just kidding. Look, Piper, this one is easy. Just answer me one question.”

“I already did.”

Robin snickered again. “Okay, answer me a second question. Which one is more important? Potentially saving a little boy, whom you adore, or saving yourself from making a socially awkward phone call.”

Piper threw her head backward. “You’re right, and now I feel like a total idiot for even hesitating to call him in the first place.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Piper, just call him.” Robin moved forward, her chest brushing the side of the table as she switched gears, changing the subject back to the kiss. “So, it was that good, huh?”

Piper raised her eyebrows. “You have no idea. In the world of kissing, this man is a total professional. I think he actually made my toes curl, but he hasn’t called since, and prior to the kiss, we were speaking on a regular basis.”

“Hmm, interesting.”

Piper paused to reconsider her thought process, and then decided, “Honestly, I don’t know why I’m making such a big deal out of it anyway. It was just one stupid kiss.” She shrugged her shoulders. “He’s probably one of those major players who picks up women, then drops them like yesterday’s news. You know the type; the serial kisser who makes out with every woman he meets.”

“Serial kisser?” Robin shook her head and laughed. “Actually, that’s a new one on me.”

 

Dressed in her white terrycloth robe with her wet hair wrapped in a towel twisted on top of her head, Piper was ambling into her room when she noticed her phone on the bed vibrating. Lunging at her cell, Piper dove onto the bed, but just missed the incoming call from Colton. She waited patiently with the phone clutched in her hand to see if he left a message. When her phone signaled one missed call and voicemail, Piper immediately pushed his number on the message list.

Hey, Piper, it’s Cole. I just wanted to touch base with you concerning Jack. I still have not set a date for the in-home visit. When I make a decision, I’ll give you a call, but it might not be for a while. I’ll keep you posted.

Piper rolled onto her back, staring at the phone. That’s it? Really? That’s all you have to say to me? Of course I want to know about Jack, but isn’t there anything else you would like to say? I mean, really, you play tongue twister with me, but yet, you might not call for a while?

Tossing her phone to the side, Piper stood up, bending over to release the length of her hair from the towel, then pitched the damp cloth onto the floor while various thoughts swirled around in her mind. Flinging her hair onto her back as she stood erect, Piper reached for a wide-toothed comb to rake out the mass of tangles starting at the root.

Colton obviously wants to totally ignore the fact he kissed me last week. Who am I kidding anyway? He’s probably made out with several other women since our kiss took place, which makes me feel like a pathetic loser for thinking our kiss actually meant something in the first place. She squared her shoulders while staring at herself determinedly in the oval mirror. I am done playing games with immature men. I will not get played like this ever again, not by Colton, or anyone else for that matter. The days of Piper Wilkinson being snowed by a man are long gone.

Piper made a firm promise to herself that from here on out, her only thought process concerning Colton would be to make sure that he took care of Jack and was willing to go the full distance to protect him. Nothing more.

 

 

 

THE FOLLOWING FRIDAY night, Piper and Robin had plans to walk down to Jimmy’s to meet Jeffrey and Alex for drinks at seven, but Robin still had not returned home from work by quarter till. Hating to be late, Piper texted Robin that she was going ahead without her and told her to meet them down at the bar whenever she got off work.

Two hours later, Piper, Alex, and Jeffrey were enjoying their third round of beers when Robin barreled through the wooden front door of the bar. She spotted the trio in a booth to the left, threw her arm up in a wave, and made her way over. It was obvious to all three that Robin had already had a few beers of her own before she headed to Jimmy’s. She hugged Jeffrey and Alex tightly, like long lost best friends, and then plopped down into the booth next to Piper, accidently knocking her beer onto its side.

“Woops!” Robin laughed at the spill, shimmied out of her jacket, and tossed it into the corner of the booth.

Piper righted the drink then sopped the remaining liquid off the table with her napkin. “So, I see you’ve already started your Friday night celebration.”

“Yep,” Robin snorted then signaled for the waiter, ordering another round of beers, before following up with, “I had to take some clients out for a few drinks. It’s always more fun to party when your boss is picking up the tab.”

Wearing a lavender Ralph Lauren oxford buttoned up to his neck, with a pastel-pink belt cinched around his waist, Jeffrey chimed in, “So, you get to drink and smooze at work, while I clean up puke and poo. I knew I picked the wrong profession.”

The waiter delivered the four beers, placing the bottles at the end of the table. Robin pushed a drink in front of each person then took an extremely long swig from hers, almost downing half of her beer. Clanking her beer back on the table, she rebutted, “Yes, I do get to entertain, but at the same time, I have to constantly kiss ass, and believe me, kissing people’s behinds gets old really fast.”

Jeffrey grinned. “Kissing ass isn’t so bad.”

Piper threw her wet napkin across the table at him.

Acting offended, Jeffrey placed his hand over his heart. “What? You can talk about wanting to nail your CPS friend, but I can’t talk about my own sex life?”

Piper held her hands up in self-defense. “For the record, I have never talked about wanting to,” she made quotation marks with her fingers, “‘nail Colton.’”

Alex huffed loudly, spewing the truth as she saw it. “It’s written all over your face every time you mention his name.”

Piper’s cheeks flushed as Robin finished her beer and slammed it down at the end of the table. She snapped her fingers boorishly into the air, attempting to gain the waiter’s attention, as she threw her two cents into the conversation. “Don’t let her fool you. She kissed Colton last week and loved every second of it.”

Piper slapped her friend’s arm, her face stinging with embarrassment. “Robin!”

Ignoring her, Robin continued prattling off Piper’s secrets. “She’d love to mash with him again, but she’s afraid he might be a serial kisser." Robin laughed brashly, pounding the table loudly with the palm of her hand. "Is that not the funniest thing you've ever heard?" Leaning forward, Robin pressed her midriff against the table, speaking in a stage whisper. "I can just picture the scene now -- Colton hiding out in the dark alleyways of Chicago with lip balm in his pocket, frantically searching for his next victim to kiss."

Jeffrey and Alex burst out laughing at the mental image she created while Piper crossed her arms over her chest, giving Robin a sardonic look out of the corner of her eye. “That’s the last time I confide in you.

Robin tossed her arm over Piper’s shoulder, pulling her into a sideways hug. “Ah, relax, Piper. We’re all friends here. Nothing we say is going to leave this table. Right, guys?”

Jeffrey, who had been checking his phone for Instagram updates, looked up self-consciously, asking, “So, I guess I shouldn’t have just sent that last text message to all the nurses on our wing, huh?”

Piper scowled at him and kicked him in the shin underneath the table as he laughed. “Just joking.”

Alex glanced toward the front of the bar as a slow smile spread across her face, like the naughty cat that ate the beloved canary. She did a double-take, and then scratched the side of her nose as a decoy to hide what came out of her mouth.

“Don’t look now, Piper, but the kissing bandit just entered the building and is walking in this direction.”

Piper’s face reddened as she slunk down into the booth, hoping Colton wouldn’t see her.

Colton sauntered over toward the table. When his eyes landed on Piper, he nonchalantly said, “Hey,” before addressing the rest of the table. “Don’t want to interrupt, but just wanted to say hello.”

Jeffrey scooted closer to the wall, patting the seat in between him and Alex. “You’re not interrupting a thing. Would you like to join us for a beer?”

Robin laughed blatantly, adding, “Yes, do join us. We’re discussing the crime rate on the streets of Chicago.”

Piper could feel her cheeks turning a darker shade of crimson as Colton declined her friend’s invitation. “Actually, I’m meeting some friends in a few minutes, but thanks anyway.” He looked to Piper with a hint of a one-sided grin, saying huskily, “Later.”

After Colton was out of earshot, Jeffrey pulled the napkin from under his beer, fanning his face theatrically. "Later -- was that a threat or a promise?" He teased Piper further, "No wonder he makes you cream your britches."

“Ugh! You guys are too much!” Piper waved down the waiter. “I’ll take a margarita on the rocks.” To her friends, she added, “Beer is not strong enough if I have to deal with the three of you idiots.”

Robin barked at the waiter’s retreating back, “And a round of tequila shots!” as Alex gave Piper her serious perspective on the situation.

“I think the reason you are drawn to Colton is because he’s Jack’s protector and that on the outside, he looks hard and cold, but he has to have a warm center deep inside, or he wouldn’t be in the profession he’s in.”

Jeffrey patted Alex’s hand with the tattooed cross on her thumb. “Sounds like someone else I know.”

Alex returned his compliment with an exaggerated eye roll.

Piper spoke up, her annoyance bubbling over. “I am not drawn to Colton. Guys, can we please change the subject.”

The waiter arrived with Piper’s margarita, three beers, and four shots of tequila. Robin guided the miniature glasses in front of each person at the table, stating simply, “Enjoy.”

Piper immediately pushed her shot into the center of the table, claiming, “No way. I’m out.”

Jeffrey follow suit. “Unless someone wants to hold my hair while I’m draped over the toilet, I’m out too.”

Robin eyed Alex. “Looks like it’s just me and you.” They both reached for a shot glass and threw it back, sucking on a lime to curb the burn of alcohol.

When Robin reached for her second shot, Alex held up a hand. “One’s enough. I still have a lot of drinking to do.” She glanced down at her phone to check the time. “I’m meeting some friends down at the Cellar at ten-thirty.”

Robin shrugged her shoulders as she held up another shot. “Cheers to me then.” She tossed back the second glass, squeezing her eyes shut in the aftermath of the tequila.

Jeffrey turned in his seat, angling his body toward Alex. “Isn’t the Cellar that scary bar downtown where the tattooed, pierced people hang out?”

Alex tugged on her ear filled with studs, replying dryly, “What was your first clue?”

“Can I come with?” Jeffrey pleaded. “I’ve always wanted to check that place out, but my friends won’t go with me.”

“Is that because they’re gay or just stupid?”

“Probably a little bit of both,” he smiled, then made a puppy dog face. “Please, take me to the seedy bar with you.”

Alex stood up and wrapped her black wool scarf around her neck. “Fine. Just keep your hands to yourself. I doubt there will be any limp wrists there.”

Jeffrey clapped his hands together daintily. “Yeah! I get to hang out in the hood with my gangsta friend!”

Robin and Piper laughed at their exchange and then said their goodbyes. Instantaneously, Robin scooted out of her seat, swung herself around the table to sit across from Piper, and sloppily grabbed the remaining shot sitting in the middle of the table, throwing it back before Piper could stop her. She wiped the alcohol that dribbled down her chin with the back of her hand and spoke with a resounding slur, “Nows we’re talking.”

“I don’t predict much talking in your near future, just puking.”

“Nah. I can hold my liquor, unlike you.” She craned her neck to survey the bar. “I bet I have a better view of your friend Colston from over here.”

Piper tried to refrain from exhaling the pent up breath of frustration at having to talk about Colton for the hundredth time that evening. “His name is Colton, and he’s not my friend. He’s a…” Piper paused, searching for the right description, and then finished with, “a business associate.”

Robin flipped her wrist into the air and took another gulp from her beer. “Whatever you say, Pifer.”

Realizing Robin’s ship would be sinking fast, Piper tried to persuade her intoxicated friend to leave the bar and go home with her. After arguing for several minutes, Piper finally agreed to one more beer, even though she knew better than to compromise with a drunk. Just after they had finished the remains of their last Bud Light, Robin spotted Colton huddled at the bar with several friends and two dolled up women in tight dresses with orangey-brown spray-tanned skin, platform high heels, and lips stained with bright red lipstick.

Scooting out of the booth, Robin stumbled slightly, then straightened her Calvin Klein paneled blouse, declaring, “I have a few things I need to shay to your friend over there.”

“Robin, don’t,” Piper pleaded.

She mashed her finger to her lips. “SShhh, I’ll take cares of everything.”

Robin shuffled through the crowd like a drunken sailor to confront Colton, knocking into bar patrons as she shoved chairs out of her pathway. Grabbing their jackets, Piper hastily followed behind her, dodging bodies as best she could, hoping to divert Robin’s attention before she reached Colton and made a complete fool out of both of them. Before she had the opportunity, Robin tripped over a bar stool and fell directly into Colton’s back, shoving him roughly forward into his crowd of friends. Colton spun around like a bat out of hell, ready for a fight. When he realized who had fallen into him, he instantly changed gears and helped Robin steady herself, but she rebuked his assistance, pushing him hard against his chest.

“Don’t touch me!”

Piper converged, attempting to defuse the situation. She threw her arm around Robin’s shoulder. “Sorry about that. My friend has had a few too many adult beverages.” Piper attempted to guide Robin toward the door. “We were just on our way out. She must have gotten a little disoriented.” She spoke to Robin. “Come on, Rob, the door is this way.” As they moved a few steps away, Piper called over her shoulder, “Have a great evening, everyone.”

Robin dug her heels into the ground, refusing to be pulled away from who she thought was her enemy. “I jus have one question for him.” She swiveled toward Colton, wagging her finger in the air, her speech getting fuzzier with each word she spoke. “I jus have to know, are you a surial k—”

Piper interrupted by spinning Robin back around to face her. She placed her hands firmly on her biceps, squeezing her flesh to gain her full attention. “Robin, really, we need to walk home now.

Robin cupped her hands on both sides of Piper’s face. “Okays. I jus need to find out one thing fer you, ‘cause yours my frend.”

She tried to flip back around to accost Colton again, but the abrupt change of direction made her head spin, throwing her off balance. Attempting to grab a bar stool for support, she missed slightly, falling onto the ground in a drunken heap. Piper reached down to help her up, praying the fall had made her lose her train of thought, but didn’t have the strength to pull her limp companion into a standing position from the floor.

Colton easily scooped Robin up, holding onto her shoulders to steady her as he spoke to his friends. “I’m going to walk Robin home with Piper. I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

He led Robin toward the door without waiting for his friends’ reply as Piper scampered closely behind. “Really, Colton, you don’t have to do that. I can just hail us a cab.”

He kept moving as he spoke over his shoulder to her. “The fresh air will do her good. If you put her in a moving vehicle, she’ll be sure to throw up.”

Although Colton made a solid argument, Piper still resisted on their way out the door of the bar. “Colton, you don’t—”

“Piper, it’s a done deal. Now hand me her coat.”

They both helped Robin into her jacket as she wilted against them like a sun drenched lily. Colton lifted his chin in Piper’s direction. “Now, it’s your turn. I know you southerners get cold around here.”

Piper tried not to find his comment endearing as she slipped into her coat. They each draped Robin’s arm over their shoulders and turned in the direction toward their apartment. Robin slurred incoherent statements every few minutes on the walk home, but said nothing that Piper felt Colton could misconstrue. By the time they reached the front door, Piper wasn’t certain that Robin was even conscious at all. They dragged her through the apartment into her bedroom, laying her on top of her black and white striped sateen duvet. After removing her shoes, Piper threw a red fleece blanket over her, nestling it underneath her chin.

As Piper escorted Colton back to the front door, she thanked him for his assistance. “I’m sure carrying my friend home wasn’t on your agenda tonight, but I really appreciate the help. Robin turned out to be a lot heavier than she looks.”

When they reached the door, Colton leaned his shoulder against the casing, obviously not quite ready to leave. He stared down at her, his eyes alight with a mixture of mischief and heat, making Piper want to fidget under his gaze, until finally, he asked, “So, are you going to invite me to stay for a drink?”

Wanting to keep their relationship on a professional level, Piper retorted, “I wasn’t planning on it.”

Colton chuckled hoarsely as he stroked his jaw with his thumb. “Really? May I ask why not?”

She crossed her arms over her chest, miffed that he found her turning him down laughable, and asked rhetorically, “Isn’t the lack of invitation answer enough?”

He dropped his eyes to linger on her lips, half smiled, and then took a step closer to her. “Obviously not, or I wouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.”

Taking a large step backward, Piper distanced herself from him. “Colton, I hate to tell you this, but not all women have trouble resisting your charm, if that’s what you want to call it.”

Colton chortled low and deep as he backed Piper against the wall, anchoring his hands on either side of her, securing her as his prisoner. Piper’s heart thundered in her chest as he asked, “Is that right?” in a sexy, gravelly voice. Piper felt trance-like while staring into his mesmerizing eyes before he dipped his head, asking, “So, you have no problem resisting me when I do this.” He gently blew on her exposed collarbone, sending chills down Piper’s spine. “Or this.” He trailed his finger up her jaw line seductively then wound his fingers into the back of her hair, possessively angling her face upward to meet his. He stared openly at her mouth, causing Piper to run her tongue across her bottom lip self-consciously. Gingerly, he leaned toward her as Piper’s heavy eyelids fluttered closed, but stopped just shy of her dampened parted lips, whispering, “But I’d never kiss a woman who didn’t want to kiss me back.” He grinned cockily at her as her eyes flipped back open like a wooden mannequin. “It’s not part of my charm.”

He released her from his grasp, strutted out of the door, arrogantly flipping it shut in his wake.

Piper careened her head back against the wall, shut her eyes, taking in long deep breaths to try to even out her respirations, hoping the hot restlessness that she was feeling inside had not shown on the exterior for Colton to see. Vaulting herself off of the wall, she headed toward the bathroom to take a cold shower before bed, annoyed with herself for her involuntary reaction to him.

 

 

ON SUNDAY NIGHT, while Piper lay in bed watching a Lifetime channel movie, her phone on her nightstand vibrated alerting her of a text. She took the remote off her stomach, punched the button to mute the television and reached for her phone.

 

COLTON: FYI, starting tomorrow, I’m planning on going by Jack’s house every day this week until I catch his mother at home. I don’t know her work schedule, but don’t want to tip her brother off to find out.

 

PIPER: OK…

COLTON: OK…?

PIPER: The dot dot dot means I’m thinking.

COLTON: Try not to hurt yourself.

Piper chuckled out loud then typed sarcastically:

 

Good one -- My brother used to say that to me when I was ten.

COLTON: It’s a classic. Never gets old.

PIPER: Yeah, right. What time are you going to Jack’s?

COLTON: Around 11:00 a.m.

PIPER: What time are you picking me up?

COLTON: Don’t you have to work tomorrow?

PIPER: I can call in sick. I have a week of sick days to use throughout the year.

COLTON: Piper, what if you actually do get sick? I’ll go to the interview by myself.

PIPER: I’m going with you. There’s no reason to debate this. What time do I need to be ready?

 

 

Chapter eight

 

 

PIPER WAS PERCHED on the railing outside of her apartment when Colton pulled up in his shiny red 1987 mustang. Leaning across the front bucket seat, he threw open the passenger side door. Piper climbed in, taking time to admire the interior of the classic car, the black leather seats with detailed red trim, the matching halo headrests, and the aged chrome accents.

“Nice,” she nodded her head. “My brother had an ’86 back in the day.”

Colton flipped on his blinker as he merged back into the oncoming traffic and then glanced over at Piper with a lopsided smile. “I think your brother sounds like a pretty cool dude.”

Piper snickered. “Did you really just say, ‘pretty cool dude’?”

Colton laughed. “Yeah, I did. Right after you said, ‘Back in the day.’”

They traveled through the streets of Chicago until they reached the outskirts of the east side of town, where the low income housing district began. Both sides of the streets grew increasingly flooded with cookie cutter houses, constructed exactly the same, sitting so close to one another that a person could reach out of one window and touch the siding on the house next door. Each red-bricked-faced, aluminum siding home had a small one car garage attached to the right side of the house. Some garage doors were open, exposing years of hording with boxes piled high, reaching upward toward the ceiling, allowing no space for a bicycle, much less a vehicle. Piper wondered if some of these families living in this area had recently downsized, their garages storing their lifelong possessions. Each house sat upon a postage-sized piece of ground filled with mostly weeds and brush, but most cut their lawn, giving the allusion of grass. Some homes had worn, broken-slat lawn chairs sitting out in their driveway, which Piper figured they used as their social gathering spot, since the houses didn’t have a front porch, just a small concrete stoop.

Veering his car over to the side of the road, Colton shoved his gear shift into park. Piper surveyed the area, analyzing each identical house, wondering which one belonged to Jack as Colton answered her unasked question.

“None of these are Jack’s.” Piper turned toward him confused, as Colton explained, “I just want to set some guidelines before we get to his residence.”

Feeling like a small child being reprimanded by the teacher, Piper immediately became defensive, and stated flippantly, “Don’t worry, Boss. I won’t mess with your crime scene.”

Colton furrowed his brow in agitation. “Piper, I don’t think you understand the severity of what’s happening here.”

Piper glanced back out the window to let him know she didn’t appreciate being treated like an adolescent.

Colton’s voice grew stern. “Piper, look at me.”

She flipped her head around to look at him with her eyebrows raised in a sarcastic gesture.

Swiveling in his seat to face her, Colton’s anger rose to the surface. “Look, Piper. I’m putting my ass on the line here for you, just so you can sit in the car and be close to Jack, and let me repeat that last statement. You will just sit in the car. Is that understood? You will not, for any reason, take one step out of this vehicle, no matter what happens outside of it. Do you agree to that, Piper?”

Piper crossed her arms over her chest, nodding curtly.

“This may just be a field trip to see Jack for you, but this is my life. These kids are my life. I am way overstepping my boundaries here by doing an unreported in-home visit, and I know that. I’m hoping to sidestep any discipline by giving the excuse that I was just ‘in the neighborhood,’ but if Jack’s mother reports that I took the woman who reported her to Child Protective Services to her house, it’s a foregone conclusion, I will be fired, Piper. I can promise you that.”

Feeling guilty for her childish behavior, Piper reached across the bucket seat and touched his arm. “You can trust me, Cole. I promise not to do anything but sit in the car.”

He turned back around, gripping the steering wheel tightly with both hands, not replying to her declaration. He reached down to shift the car back into drive, when Piper spoke again. “Before you go, I need to confess one tiny detail to you.”

Colton dropped his head, squeezing his eyes shut as he warily shook his head from side-to-side.

Staring down at her hands, Piper fidgeted with the zipper on her purse tucked beside her leg, her voice mouse-like as she said, “You’re not the only one who has stepped over the line in your job concerning Jack.”

This statement got Colton’s attention and he turned to look at her, his brows heavy, his eyes narrowing with concern.

“Well,” she paused for an intake of breath. “When you enter Jack’s house, you might just see a few new items lying around the house.”

Colton pressed his lips in a fine line before he inquired, “For example…”

Piper studied the black clothed ceiling of the car as she rattled off, “Like some new clothes, pajamas, shoes, and maybe a Harry Potter suitcase…” She glanced back into Colton’s eyes again, hunching her shoulders. “Oh, and maybe a month’s worth of food, stashed somewhere in his room, probably under the bed. That’s where he thought he would hide it anyway.”

Piper waited for the backlash of his fury, but instead, a slow grin spread across Colton’s face. His only reply to her confession was one simple word. “Nice.”

Relieved that he was okay with her interference into Jack’s home life, Piper replied, “Not everyone would agree with you, but that’s a whole other story.”

Shifting his car into drive, Colton eased back onto the street and drove for approximately one mile, until he slowed to a snail’s pace, craning his neck to see into the distance.

“Damn it! Why is he not in school?”

Piper squinted her eyes and saw a small child about ten houses ahead kicking a soccer ball across the minuscule front yard, chasing after it, and then kicking it back to the other side of the lawn, an only child’s way of playing the game of soccer. Piper’s heart skipped a beat when she realized who the pint-sized child was.

Colton stopped the car in the middle of the road, barking at her, “Get down, Piper! He can’t see you in here with me!” Piper unbuckled her seatbelt and slipped down, squatting on the floorboard while Colton muttered through clenched teeth, “I knew this was a bad idea.”

Instead of turning his car into the driveway, Colton pulled up along the curb on the opposite side of the street, two houses down from Jack’s yard. He threw the car in park, and glared down at Piper, huddled in a ball on the passenger floor.

“Please, do not let anyone know you’re here.”

Without waiting for her reply, he swung open the door, and peeled his long legs out, slamming the door behind him. Peering around the bucket seat, Piper peeked out the back window of the car as Colton advanced toward Jack in quick long strides. Piper watched as Jack stopped playing with his ball when he noticed Colton walking across the street toward him.

Although it was less than fifty degrees outside, Jack was barefoot and wore only a short sleeved t-shirt and jeans that hit above his ankles. Piper wondered where the clothes and shoes were that she and Robin had bought him, and made a mental note to purchase him a coat the next time he was in the hospital. She could see that his hair was thinning out from the chemotherapy. He looked small, frail, and lonely to Piper, standing in his front yard all by himself

Piper felt a sudden urge to cry, wanting so badly to burst from the car, sprint across the pavement, and scoop Jack up into her arms, making him feel safe and warm, but she withheld her tears and her impulse to leave the confines of Colton’s car, instead maneuvering herself on the floorboard to get a better view of their interaction.

As Colton approached, Jack smiled up at him while Colton raised his hand, asking him for a high five. Jumping off his bare feet, Jack was able to leap to the high elevation to slap Colton’s palm and then grinned at his accomplishment. Colton then pointed toward the soccer ball lying on the barren ground beside Jack’s dirt-clad feet. Jack scooped up the ball and tossed it to Colton, but instead of catching it with his hands, Colton bounced it on top of his knee, and then did the same with the other knee, bobbling the ball back and forth without using his hands. Jack jumped up and down, seemingly to say, “Teach me! Teach me!” Catching the ball, Colton ended his show by spinning it on top of his right index finger to Jack’s utter amazement.

Colton then squatted down to Jack’s level as he handed him back his ball while speaking to him. Jack nodded his head up and down, and then ran into the house, making sure not to let the broken screened door slam shut behind him. Glancing over his shoulder at the car, Colton assured that Piper was still hidden, then walked up and stood on the front stoop, inclining forward and to the left to peer inside of the dingy-gray front door that Jack had left cracked open.

With Jack out of view, Piper took time to survey the outside of the house. The yard, if that’s what you would call it, was scabrous patches of tall weeds with excessive amounts of dirt in between. The driveway had a gaping crack traveling all the way to the paint-peeling, gray garage door filled with crab grass and shoots of other unknown greenery. The brick on one side of the house had been broken off and never repaired, as well as the gutter above the garage. The screen door had holes throughout and was only hanging onto the frame by a small piece of metal still attached to the top left side. The window in the front door had been shattered and the hole was now covered by a black garbage bag, anchored from inside the house.

Piper looked to Colton, who had shoved his hands inside his front pockets and was shifting his weight impatiently from one side to the other. Finally, Jack’s mother appeared behind the screen. Piper could not see her face, but the body language from both she and Colton told Piper that they were not having a pleasant exchange. Piper saw Colton reach into his brown leather jacket, pulling out what looked to be some brochures and handed them to Jack’s mother through the broken screen door. Without even looking down at the information, she ripped them in two and fired them back at Colton. Piper could see Jack as he shimmied his way in between his mother’s leg and the front door, staring up at Colton. The conversation ended abruptly as Jack’s mother grabbed a hold of Jack’s arm, yanking him back into the house before she slammed the front door in Colton’s face.

Raking his hands through his hair, Colton stood for a beat before he descended the stoop and trudged back toward the car. Piper stayed hidden on the floor while Colton folded himself back into the driver’s seat without a word. Slinking back into the passenger seat, Piper buckled her safety belt. As Colton pulled away, Piper glanced one last time over her shoulder and saw the garage door start to rise. She was about to ask Colton to stop the car, thinking the mother had a change of heart, when she saw Jack run from the garage, stopping just shy of the road, watching in despair as Colton’s car drove out of sight. She then saw him glance back over his shoulder at his mother, standing just outside the garage in a worn, thread-bare housecoat, also barefoot, yelling at him, probably demanding that he come back inside immediately, causing Jack to drop his head in defeat and amble back toward the house.

Seeing Jack for the first time in weeks, accompanied by the overwhelming need for her to help him while knowing she couldn’t, brought Piper to release the tears she had been restraining since she first caught sight of him. As a few quiet droplets slipped down her pale cheeks, Piper secretly swiped them away, hoping Colton would not notice. When she leaned forward in her seat to make sure he couldn’t get a good view of her face, it was Colton’s gentle rub on the top of her back that sent Piper into a full-fledged breakdown. They drove in silence as Piper fought with her emotions, striving to gain back control of her tear ducts.

Settled down, except for a few small hiccups here and there, Piper gazed absently out the side window as they headed back into the city, but instead of taking her home, Colton pulled his car into the parking lot of an old diner with a huge neon-yellow arrow pointing straight down on top the restaurant. Inside the arrow, in green neon lights were the words, The Sandwich Shack, but the n had burnt out, so instead it read, The Sadwich Shack.

Colton flicked off the ignition and turned to Piper. “How about some lunch?”

Piper gawked at the diner’s sign and joked with him to try and lighten the mood after her meltdown. “Did you call ahead and ask them to turn off the n, or is this just a coincidence?”

Colton peered at the sign and then laughed out loud. She loved seeing his lips turn upward, lighting up his entire face, so she continued with her banter, wanting to see more. She crinkled her nose and asked facetiously, “Do you really think a sadwich will help cheer me up?”

He chuckled again, running his finger lightly down the tip of her nose. “I think everyone feels better on a full stomach. Are you interested?”

Confused by the intimate gesture, Piper scratched her head. “Um, sure.”

Swinging open the car door, Piper stepped out, taking in a deep breath of fresh air to clear her clouded mind. She couldn’t help but think Colton’s persona was like a kaleidoscope. When Piper thought she had him figured out, she tilted the scope slightly to the left or to the right and saw something totally different as the prismatic colors shifted form. She wished he was just a black and white version of a typical playboy; that way she wouldn’t have to decipher the ever changing color pallet of his personality.

The decor inside the diner was a throwback to a soda shop from the 1950’s with a wraparound chrome bar and stools with florescent-green vinyl seats. The booths along the walls were covered in neon-orange with chrome accents and had miniature juke boxes anchored on top of each table. Outside, the sun had begun to peek through the clouds, shiny through the window, giving the diner an even more uplifting ambiance. Piper half expect Katy Perry from her California Girls video to pop out from behind the bar with lavender hair and cupcakes covering her chest, asking, “Soda float anyone?”

Since Piper and Colton were the only two occupants in the entire restaurant, they searched through the menu at the bar, ordered, and carried their Cokes to a booth next to the front bay window. Pulling her straw from the paper covering, Piper dunked it into her Coke, and took a long draw from the sparkling brown liquid.

She spoke as she tied her straw covering into a knot. “Would you be willing to tell me what went down at Jack’s place?”

Colton placed his own straw into his drink. “Well, as you already know, Jack didn’t go to school today.”

“He’s not sick is he?”

“No, he said his mother never woke him up for school, and when he woke on his own, his mother was still in bed. I asked him if he tried to get her up and he said he did. She told him to go away and to leave her alone.”

Piper rolled her eyes in frustration. “Great. Leave a six-year-old to fend for himself all day long. Do you think she was she drunk?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “She said she was sick, but who knows. Her eyes were swollen and her face was blotchy. That could have been from drugs, alcohol, or maybe, she really was ill. We will never know without a blood test, and honestly, that will never happen. We can’t prove anything, and besides, it’s not against the law get intoxicated in your own home, nor is it a crime to keep you child home from school for a few days.” He swirled his straw around in his cup, clinking the ice cubes against the glass. “She wouldn’t allow me in the house, so I really didn’t get much information at all. That’s the thing about child neglect; the cases are so hard to prove. Rarely does anything ever get done about them.”

“Couldn’t you have demanded to enter the premises since you’re with the CPS?”

“No, only officers of the law with a search warrant can demand access to any residence.”

Piper peered outside the window, mulling over the information she just heard, and then looked back at Colton. “So, in a nut shell, you’re telling me there is nothing we can do to help Jack?”

“No. What I said is that child neglect cases are hard to prove. I will still continue with my investigation but if that fails, I will change gears, and try to offer support for Jack and his mother.”

“What kind of support?”

“First of all, her getting sober would be the best thing for Jack. I tried to give her AA brochures today, but you saw how well that worked.”

“So that’s what she ripped up and threw back at you?”

Colton nodded his head. “I can also help them get on government assistance and food stamps, if the mother is willing. There are avenues of support out there; she just has to take the energy and time to research them.”

“She’s definitely going to need financial assistance if she gets fired from her job. Jack said that his uncle is at his breaking point about her not showing up for work.”

“Her brother is the first person on my list to speak to.”

“Good. Maybe you fishing around in her life again will scare her into going back to work and being a better mom.”

“That may work for a little while, but Jack needs her to totally change her life, and that’s not going to happen until she gets sober.”

A waitress with a platinum blonde bee hive delivered their sandwiches in red plastic baskets. She raised one basket. “BLT?” Piper raised a finger and the waitress slid the basket across their table until it rested in front of her, and then pushed the remaining basket in front of Colton.

Not realizing just how hungry she was, Piper dove in and took a large bite of her sandwich. She licked the mayonnaise off her thumb and then grabbed a napkin from the silver dispenser next to the window, placing it on her lap. When she looked back up, Colton was openly staring at her mouth. Self-consciously, Piper bit at her lower lip causing Colton to half smile as he raised his gaze back to her reticent eyes. Feeling the heat rising up her neck, Piper knew her cheeks were now blazing red and was mortified that her inner thoughts were so blatantly obvious to everyone in the room, including the person sitting across the table from her. She quickly asked another question to get the conversation moving again.

“Do you have any idea if Jack’s mother is taking him to his weekly oncology visits? I actually called the office myself last week, but they refused to give out any information.”

Colton nonchalantly tossed a French fry into his mouth, as if their silent flirtation never happened. “The last time I checked, the mother had been taking him for his weekly visits, but she did cancel the surgery to have his port installed two different times.”

“Yeah, I know. Jack’s poor little veins can’t take much more needle abuse. I’ll call down to surgery tomorrow to see if he’s back on the schedule.” Before Piper took another bite of her lunch, she revealed another concern. “I also worry about whether Jack is getting oral chemotherapy every day. There’s no way he can stay in remission without it, even if he is getting his weekly intravenous meds.”

“I could check to see if she is refilling his prescriptions on time.”

“Good idea.”

There was comfortable silence as they each finished their lunch, drained their Cokes, and leaned back in their chairs waiting for the waitress to deliver their check. Piper stacked their empty baskets at the end of the table, then wiped the surface with a clean napkin. When the table was to her satisfaction, she looked up at Colton, who asked, “Why Jack?”

“Excuse me?”

He leaned forward, anchoring his elbows on the table. “You have been taking care of sick kids for years now. Why did you become so attached to this child?”

Piper spoke softly, “You’re right, sick children have come and gone in and out of my life for two years now. I love them while I have them, but when they aren’t in the hospital, my heart and hands move on the next patient needing my help. But with Jack everything was different. From the very first moment I met him, he needed me in a different way. Yes, he needed me to physically care for him, but he also needed me emotionally as well. Even when Jack’s mother was in the room with him, which wasn’t very often, he turned to me in any time of stress. The mother was so detached from him, even when she wasn’t intoxicated. It was almost eerie, like she was just a shell of a person. It was just so sad.” Piper picked absently at the flaking tabletop. “In all my years of nursing, I’ve never seen a child so lonely, even with his mother sitting in the chair right beside him.” Dusting off her hands, she added, “You would think that a child would cry out in some manner from the lack of attention, but not Jack. My guess is that being invisible is all he’s ever known and he doesn’t even realize that he should expect more.”

The waitress picked the empty baskets off the table and deposited the check in their place as Colton fixated on Piper, staring into her eyes without even glancing up at the waitress as she cleared away their dirty trays. When the waitress asked them if they needed anything else, Piper was the only one to answer her question while still focusing intently on Colton, not wanting to break their deep connection, even though she wasn’t quite sure why it was happening.

Colton finally blinked rapidly and shook his head, as if waking up from a long nap.

Piper took this opportunity to ask her own personal question. “Now, my turn. Why CPS?”

As Colton settled back in his seat, Piper could feel a mental wall being erected between them and knew that the kaleidoscope had shifted; the intimacy that had passed between them was now over.

Colton answered her question playfully. “Because they were the only idiots that would hire me.”

Grabbing the check, he strolled over to the cash register, pulling his wallet from his back pocket as Piper watched in confusion from behind. He breezed by her, tossing a ten dollar bill on the table while making a clicking sound with his mouth, gesturing his head toward the door, signaling to Piper that their conversation was officially over and it was now time to leave.

 

 

Chapter nine

 

PIPER DIDN’T HAVE to wait long to see Jack. The following Wednesday, Piper entered the oncology wing, threw her purse under the counter, and logged into the computer to see who was on her patient list that morning, when she saw Jack’s name. Immediately pushing back her chair, Piper practically sprinted to room 308, pausing outside the door to catch her breath in case the mother was in the room. Flipping her hair behind her shoulders, she entered the room and saw not only Jack curled up in bed, but his mother snoozing soundly as well.

Piper slinked up to the bed, peeked over at the mother to make sure she was still asleep then placed a light kiss on Jack’s warm, damp forehead. She pushed his hair, which he was losing in clumps, off his forehead. Jack stirred and cracked his eyes open. When he saw Piper, he tried to smile, but a cough overtook his facial muscles.

“Piper, I don’t feel good,” he moaned.

Although she hated seeing him in this condition, Piper was so thankful that he was here with her. “I know, baby. I’m going to get you some Motrin and some ice. I’ll be right back.”

When she returned to his room, Jack was sitting up in bed holding his stomach with his eyes squeezed tightly shut. He started to say her name as vomit spewed out of his mouth, covering everything in a three foot radius. Tossing her items onto the table, Piper scooped him up and whisked him into the bathroom. He vomited again into the toilet as Piper held what little hair he had left out of his face. When she felt he was finished, she helped him blow his nose, then peeled off his hospital gown, and placed him in the shower. She washed him as he cried, then covered him in a warm towel, pulling him to her chest to console him.

After slipping him into a clean hospital gown, she sat on the closed commode lid, rocking him back and forth to calm him, murmuring, “Shhh, you’ll feel better soon. I promise.”

When she felt that he had relaxed, she carried him back into the room and placed him on the pull-out couch beside his mother, who had slept through the whole ordeal. Piper withheld the urge to grab the ice pack and beat Jack’s mother upside the head with it, and instead, went about taking care of business. She reached into the closet and pulled out a blanket from the top shelf, returning to the bed to cover Jack with it.

“I’m going to go out in the hall and get some clean sheets for the bed. I’ll be right back, okay?”

Jack closed his eyes in response. Piper darted out of the room and down the hallway, grabbing a handful of sheets and blankets from the linen closet by the nurses’ station before returning to Jack’s room. As quickly as she could, she tugged off the soiled sheets, tossing them to the floor then remade the bed hastily. Picking up the linens from the ground, she swung open the door, and jogged down to the maintenance room to deposit them in the laundry chute. As Piper reentered Jack’s room, she thoroughly washed her hands, adding hand sanitizer as an extra precaution, knowing all of her patients had low blood counts and couldn’t afford to get sick. By the time she made it back to Jack, he was fast asleep, snoring lightly. She gently picked him up and carried him to his bed, tucking him in.

With a pink syringe in hand, Piper rubbed his cheek. “Jack, honey, can you take this Motrin for me? It will make you feel better.”

Jack did not open his eyes, but he did open his dry cracked lips.

“That’s it, big guy.” She placed the syringe into his mouth then reached under his chin. “Here it comes. One, two, three.” Piper pushed the liquid into his mouth and he replied by swallowing.

 

The rest of Piper’s morning was spent catching up with all of her other patients, reading reports from the night nurse, and finishing up her patient updates on the computer, as well as peeking in on Jack to make sure he was still asleep. Around nine a.m., as Piper buzzed by the nurses’ station, she noticed the call button illuminated from Jack’s room. Hurrying down the hall, she peered inside to find Jack still asleep with his mother hovering over his bedside. As Piper entered the room, she noticed that the pull-out couch had been folded up and the mother was dressed and ready, wearing a pair of blue hospital scrubs, with her hair combed back from her gaunt face, still damp from her shower.

Piper stood at the door. “Can I help you?”

“I’m getting ready to leave for work and I want to make sure that Jack will be taken care of properly while I’m gone.”

Piper wanted to shake her, thinking, Really? You ditch your son for nine days and you have the audacity to ask me if I’m capable of taking care of him? Where were you, oh concerned mother, at six a.m. when your son’s guts were exploding out of his mouth, huh?

But what she actually replied was, “Yes, Mrs. Lampert. I am more than capable of taking care of your son.”

She nodded her head as she said, “Good to hear, and you can call me Susan if you would like.”

Piper flattened her lips. “Susan, it is then.”

Piper’s first thought was that the woman standing before her was completely insane and suffered from a terrible case of multiple personality disorder, but as an afterthought, realized that the last time she had met Susan, she had been on a drinking binge and probably didn’t recall anything that happened during that time frame. This was Sober Susan and Piper was just meeting her for the first time.

“Okay then.” Susan looked down at her son achingly. “I guess I need to be going. Can you jot down my cell number in case he needs me?”

Piper wanted to shake her head to clear her vision, thinking this woman has got to be an illusion. “Um, yeah, sure.” Reaching into the pocket of her pants, she pulled out her cell phone, typing in the number as Susan spoke.

“Call me if he needs anything, anything at all.”

Susan reached over to touch her son’s chest, her hand trembling from the lack of alcohol in her system, then turned and silently left the room.

 

Jack continued with his high fever throughout Piper’s entire shift. She tried to keep him as comfortable as possible by keeping a fresh cool cloth on his forehead, feeding him chunks of cut up Popsicle, and covering him with multiple blankets when he was chilled. On her breaks, she read to him from the first Harry Potter novel that she had bought from the gift store, spoon fed him broth because he couldn’t keep anything else down, sang him every song she could possibly think of, and rubbed his back while he drifted off into a nebulous sleep.

At six-thirty p.m., during Piper’s shift exchange with the night nurse, Jack’s mother buzzed the door to the oncology wing. Judy hit the entry button as Piper searched for clues on who would enter through the doors, Sober Susan, or her alter ego, Sloshed Susan.

Hurrying over to the desk, Susan shrugged out of her coat and threw it over her forearm. “You’re my son’s nurse, aren’t you?” she asked in Piper’s direction.

“Yes, ma’am,” Piper replied while resisting the urge to stomp her feet. Don’t you know who your son’s nurse is by now?

“How did Jack do while I was gone?” Susan asked while shifting from one foot to the other restlessly.

“His fever has not come down yet. I’ve been trying to keep him as comfortable as possible during your absence.”

“Good. Thank you.” She paused with a bewildered look. “What was your name again?”

“P i p e r,” Piper over articulated.

“Yes, that’s it, Piper.” She rushed off in the direction of Jack’s room.

The night nurse, Judy, turned while shaking her head. “Who in the world was that woman, and what did she do with Jack’s real mother?”

 

Before leaving the hospital after her shift was complete, Piper made sure to stop into Jack’s room to say goodnight to him. When she opened the door and stepped inside, she found Susan pacing from one side of the room to the other while Jack slept. The mother did not stop her frantic pace or even look up when Piper entered the room.

“Susan, are you okay?”

With her arms crossed over her chest, she continued moving briskly from one side of the room to the other without looking at Piper, muttering, “He’s asleep. I’m here now, but he’s hasn’t woken up, so he doesn’t even know that I’m here.”

Piper stepped into her path to gain her attention. “You’ll still be here when he wakes up though, right?”

Although her feet stopped moving, Susan’s hands did not. She scratched assiduously at her body, digging at her arms, her neck, and her scalp, looking as if she might crawl right out of her skin. “I think I might need to step out for a few minutes,” she said as her eyes darted around the room.

“Susan,” Piper tried to remain calm. “Your son needs you here with him.”

Her pacing began again. “Don’t you think I know that,” she barked aggressively.

“Jack needs his mom, Susan,” Piper pleaded then accidently added a slicing rhetorical question. “You are Jack’s mother, aren’t you?”

Stopping in her tracks, she pointed a quivering finger at Piper. “Do not judge me!” she shouted.

Not wanting to lose Jack as her patient, Piper back-pedaled, holding up her hands in surrender. “I’m sorry. That did not come out like I meant it to.”

Susan dropped her eyes to the ground as she massaged her neck while she picked back up with her walking.

Piper followed her with her eyes. “I just meant that Jack loves you with all his heart. He’s not feeling well, and I know he wants his mother right now.”

Tears welled up in Susan’s eyes and slid down her creased cheeks as she bent over, clutching onto her knees, pulling in long jagged breaths. “I’m here,” she whispered.

At that time, Jack began to stir.

Piper propelled Susan into the bathroom by the crook of her arm and turned her so she had to look into her eyes. Piper held on to her shoulders firmly and spoke to her in a stern voice. “Susan, you need to pull yourself together.” She gestured toward the bed. “That little boy in there needs you. You have to step up to the plate. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Susan’s eyes glazed over, causing Piper to shake her. “Susan, listen to me. I don’t care what you have to do to yourself, but you cannot leave this room, for any reason. Do not leave this room. Do you understand me? Stay here with your son. He needs you, Susan.”

Susan’s shoulders began to shake as she openly cried, “I’m trying… I’m trying…”

 

 

 

THAT EVENING, PIPER poured herself a glass of wine, heated up a frozen dinner, and carried it to her bedroom. Perching on top of her chocolate-brown comforter, she ate her meal while watching television, then nestled back to get comfortable, pulling a teal chenille throw over her legs. Reaching for her phone on her nightstand, she scrolled through her contacts to find Colton’s number, pushed call, and then hit mute on the remote control.

“Hi, Colton. It’s Piper. I just wanted to let you know that Jack is back in the hospital again.”

Piper heard an exhale of breath. “Okay. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

She smiled. “That was my exact same reaction when I saw his name on my patient list this morning.”

“So how’s he doing?”

“He’s still running a high fever. The poor kid is miserable. It breaks my heart.”

“And how about the mom? Is she in the picture at all this time around?”

“Actually, yes. When I showed up for work she was tucked into the pull out bed sound asleep, and when I say sound asleep, I mean it literally. The woman had the nerve to snore through her son throwing up for over twenty minutes. A herd of elephants couldn’t have woken that woman up. I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but believe me, it happened.”

“She was most likely sleeping off her previous night’s binge.”

“You’re probably right on that one. To top it off, when she woke up, she acted like she’d never seen me before. I mean really? I took care of her son for almost two weeks, and I’m now a stranger to her?”

“You’ve got to remember, Piper, she was wasted the last time she saw you. She probably doesn’t remember meeting you at all.”

“That’s what I thought, too, but you should have seen her, Cole. She was acting so bizarre. She was completely agitated the entire time, pacing the floor like a caged animal. I actually thought she was going to scratch herself to the bone. It was kind of scary. I really wasn’t comfortable leaving Jack with her at all.”

“It sounds to me like she’s trying to quit drinking cold turkey and she’s going through detoxification, which is never a pretty scene.”

“Detoxification sounds so horrible.”

“It is horrible. That’s why it usually doesn’t work without the help of Alcoholic Anonymous.”

Piper pushed for insight into Colton’s life. “You seem to know an awful lot about this detox stuff.”

“It’s my job to know this information, Piper,” he snapped back.

“No need to get defensive,” Piper retorted, and then asked timorously, “So, do you think it was safe for me to leave Jack with her?”

“I’m sure she won’t cause any harm to her son, but she has a long way to go on the road to sobriety. In my opinion, she will get much worse before she gets better.”

This was much more than Piper could take. “Let’s change the subject, please. I have to go to sleep soon and there will be no chance of that happening with this situation on my mind.”

“Okay. So what do you want to talk about?”

Scooting down into a horizontal position on her bed, Piper asked, “How did your day go?”

"Productive -- if you call filling out paper work for eight hours straight, productive."

“I think that definitely qualifies.” She continued speaking without thought. “My day was,” then she reconsidered. “Forget that last statement. You already know about my day.” She moved the conversation back to him. “What did you do after work?”

“I cooked myself dinner.”

“Really? What did you cook, oh-great-chef?” she asked teasingly.

He replied promptly, “Shrimp skewers, scalloped potatoes, and steamed asparagus.”

“Oh God, really? That’s sounds delicious.”

He laughed. “You don’t know me very well, do you?”

She laughed along with him. “So, I guess shrimp skewers weren’t on the menu this evening?”

He replied lowly, “Not unless you ate dinner someplace other than here with me.”

She giggled again. “Go ahead. Give it to me straight. I lived through four years of college food. I can take it.”

“I’m not sure you’ll be able to handle the truth.”

“Sure, I can. Let me have it.”

“Okay, but just so you know, you asked. I had lukewarm noodles with a can of cold spaghetti sauce on top and a side of week old garlic bread that I had to pinch the mold off of.”

“Ewwww, that sounds so disgusting.”

“Can’t say I didn’t warn you,” he simpered. “So, what did you have for dinner?”

“Freezer-burned meat loaf and flakey mashed potatoes with lumpy gravy piled on top.”

“And you thought my dinner sounded gross.”

Flipping back her covers, she snuggled into her bed. “So what did you do after you ate dinner?”

Colton chuckled softly, “You are inquisitive, aren’t you?”

“That’s not the first time I’ve been told that.”

“I figured as much,” he said. “I’ve just been watching TV until you called.”

“What were you watching?”

“The best movie of all time.”

“Let me guess. The Godfather?”

“Top ranked, but no, that’s not the best.”

“Gladiator?”

“Russel Crowe was great in that, but still not my top choice.”

She paused, thinking of another movie then asked, “Scar Face?” adding, “All men love that stupid movie.”

“Nope.”

“Then what? I’m all out of guesses.”

“Braveheart.”

Piper sighed. “Oh, I love that movie. It’s such a great love story.”

“You women are all the same,” Colton mocked. “Always looking for a love story.”

Without thinking, Piper rebutted, “Not anymore.”

Colton’s voice grew heated. “Piper, whatever that idiot did to you, he’s not worth your time. I’ve haven’t even met the asshole and I am absolutely positive the dickweed isn’t worth the two seconds if takes to say his name.”

Piper smiled, loving Colton for taking up for her. “Dickweed, huh? Is that even a real word?”

“Yeah, actually, I think it is,” he chuckled lowly. “If you look it up in the dictionary it says Piper’s ex-fiancé underneath.”

Chapter ten

 

PIPER WOKE UP the next morning dreading going in to work, in fear of what state Susan would be in. Last night, after she had gotten off the phone with Colton, Piper tried to fall asleep for over an hour. Finally fed up with her insomnia, she grabbed her laptop off the dresser and Googled the symptoms for alcohol detoxification. The articles Piper read literally made her stomach churn. She couldn’t imagine that the lack of alcohol within a person’s body could cause such intense side effects, but after reading many firsthand accounts, she realized the severity of the situation.

After depositing her purse and jacket into the nurses’ lounge, Piper glanced into Jack’s room before she logged into the computer and found Susan sitting upright in bed with her head dangling over her knees, wearing her scrubs from the previous day that were saturated with perspiration. Looking incredibly frail, to the point of looking malnourished, Susan’s whole body shook with tremors.

First checking on Jack, who was still in a deep sleep, Piper then walked over to the pull-out bed. “Susan, is everything okay?”

She glared up at Piper with her dishwater blonde hair matted to her head, her eyes bloodshot and swollen, and her thin lips quivering. “It’s so damned hot in here. Can’t you turn on the air conditioning?” she asked with a trembling voice as she tugged at the neck of her shirt.

After turning down the furnace, Piper grabbed an extra blanket from the closet and placed it on top of Jack. She returned to the nurses’ station to check herself in, then grabbed a thermometer and a blood pressure cart, and headed back toward Jack’s room. Susan was still slumped over the bed, jiggling her leg up and down causing the bed springs to squeak, piercing the silence in the room. Piper tried to ignore her and went about taking Jack’s temperature and blood pressure. Relieved that Jack’s fever had subsided a touch, Piper decided not to wake him to take his ibuprofen, and left the room, glancing over at Susan one last time before quietly closing the door behind her.

At eight a.m., as Piper exited another patient’s room, she saw the back of Susan as she exited the doors to the oncology wing and mentally crossed her fingers, praying that Susan was on her way to work and not the liquor store. Veering to the right and down the hallway, Piper entered Jack’s room.

When she saw him awake, she smiled. “Well, hey there, short stuff.”

When Jack heard Piper’s voice, he whisked his covers over the top of his head.

“Hold up now, Jack.” She held up her hands, showing that they were empty. “I don’t have any needles. There’s no reason to disappear.”

“I just don’t want you to see me,” he whispered through the cloth barrier.

Piper perched on the edge of the bed. “Why not? I love that cute little face of yours,” she teased.

“Because I look like a scary monster,” he pouted.

“No, you don’t, Jack,” Piper stated, but understood his confusion about his appearance.

“Yes I do. I just saw myself in the mirror when I went to the bathroom.”

“I promise you, Jack. No one thinks you look like a scary monster. Please reappear. I’ve been so excited to see you, but we haven’t been able to talk since you’ve been so sick.”

Jack peeked over the top of the covers self-consciously, revealing his bald head with just a spattering of hair sprinkled throughout.

Piper gently pulled the blanket all the way down. “Now that’s better.” She ran her hand down his cheek. “Jack, you know that the reason you’re losing your hair is because of the medicine, right?”

Jack nodded his head.

“And when you start to lose your hair, that’s the medicine’s way of letting us know that it’s working.” She smoothed her hand along his head. “So it’s a good thing to be bald, kiddo.” When Jack still didn’t reply, she changed the subject by pinching the end of his nose. “So what’s up, Chuck? I haven’t seen you in a while.”

Jack giggled. “That’s not my name.”

“Oh it’s not, is it?” She tickled his belly. “What’s your name then?”

“It’s Jack. You know that!”

“Okay, Jack,” she annunciated his name. “How about you take your Motrin then jump in the shower and brush your teeth, and then I’ll give you the chocolate pudding that Robin packed in my lunch for you.”

“But it’s breakfast time, not lunch time.”

“Haven’t you ever had scrambled eggs with pudding before?”

Squishing up his face, Jack responded, “Yuck! That sounds gross.”

“Don’t knock it until you try it.”

Peeling back the covers, Piper helped him out of bed, and assisted him in pushing his IV cart into the bathroom.

 

At lunchtime, Piper lounged beside Jack on top of the covers eating their lunch while watching a movie when there was a short rap on the door. Piper scooted off the bed, hiding her lunch behind her, just in case it was Blair who opened the door. “Come in,” she yelled.

Colton strode through the doors and stopped at the end of Jack’s bed. As soon as Jack caught sight of him, he yanked the pillow from under his head and covered his face with it.

Piper explained his actions. “Jack’s trying to get used to his new look, but he’s not quite there yet.”

“I look like Voldemort,” Jack complained while hidden underneath the pillow.

Piper debated his claim as she patted his arm. “You look absolutely nothing like Harry Potter’s nemesis.”

Lifting his leg, Jack dropped it onto the bed in frustration. “I don’t even know what nemzies is, and I don’t care anyways.”

Strolling to the side of his bed, Colton spoke in a gentle tone. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Jack. Actually, you should be proud of the way you look. All the greats in everything are totally bald.”

“Like who,” he asked with a muffled voice.

“Like Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time.”

Jack peeked out from under the pillow. “Who else?”

“Let me see. How about The Rock, the world’s best professional wrestler. Now, he’s a good one. Not only is he a fantastic wrestler, he gets all the hot chicks, too.”

Jack grinned.

“Or how about Patrick Stewart, the commander of the Star Ship Enterprise? I think he’s pretty cool and he has a really sweet job.”

“What’s the Star Ship Enterprise?”

“It’s an enormous spaceship that can fly faster than the speed of light.”

Jack’s eyes widened. “And what’s a commander do?”

“He’s the boss of the whole ship. He gets to tell people what to do and dictates where to fly the aircraft.”

Jack perked up in bed. “Do you think I could be a commander one day, too?”

“I think you could do anything you wanted to, if you put your mind to it.”

Piper smiled at their exchange as Colton thrust his hands into his back pockets, wanting to get down to the real reason he came to visit. “So, Jack, how are things going for you at home?”

Jack went back to eating his chicken nuggets. “Fine.”

“Has your mom been feeling better?”

Jack concentrated on swirling his nugget around in the ketchup on his plate. “I guess so.” He popped the chicken into his mouth. “She went back to work after you came to see me.”

“Did your mom go to work last week, too?”

Jack shrugged his shoulders without answering, so Colton changed gears.

“Have you been going to school?”

“When Mom goes to work, I go to school.”

Done with the conversation, Jack pushed his plate away from him and turned toward Piper. “Can I take a nap now?”

“Sure thing.”

Piper picked up his leftover food, as well as her own, and dumped the trays into the waste basket, then helped Jack crawl underneath his covers. She ran her hand over his head, which was totally bald now due to his shower.

Snuggling under the covers, Jack called over his shoulder, “See ya later, Colton. Thanks for coming to see me.”

“Anytime, Jack.”

Piper motioned for Colton to follow her out of the room. After gently shutting the door, she turned to him. “Do you have time for some coffee?”

 

With their Starbuck’s in hand, they chose a table in the cafeteria next to a wall of blocked glass and slipped into their chairs.

Piper cradled the coffee cup in both hands. “Don’t take offense to Jack shutting down like that. He’s been known to do that with me when I inquire about his home life, too.”

“I know he’s been sick, so I didn’t push him, but I really need to talk with him further. Do you think there’s any chance he’ll feel better tomorrow?”

“Twenty-four hours makes a huge difference in these kids. Heck, they seem to have more energy with a low grade fever than I do completely healthy.”

Colton smiled while placing his coffee back on the table. “How was Jack’s mom? Did she still seem sober to you when you got into work this morning?”

“Sober and completely miserable.”

“As I said on the phone, she’s not out of woods yet. I’ll make sure to bring some more AA brochures with me tomorrow. Maybe after being sober for a few days, she’ll be more open to changing her life for Jack’s sake. Timing is everything when it comes down to it.”

Piper nodded her head in agreement. “I also called down to surgery this morning to see if they had any openings to get Jack’s port put in. They actually had a cancellation on Thursday and could squeeze him in.” Piper turned her coffee cup in circles. “Hopefully we can get it done before he’s discharged, that way Susan won’t be able to cancel the appointment.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Glancing down at her watch, Piper took the last draw from her coffee cup. “I need to get going. I want to swing by the surgery department to get the paperwork started for Susan. The easier I make this on her, the better.”

 

Susan came back to the hospital after work that evening shaky, irritable, and completely cantankerous with everyone she came into contact with. She barely spoke to her son, or to Piper, but at least she was sober, and for that, Piper was grateful to her. Before leaving after her shift, Piper stuck her head in the door with the surgery paperwork in hand.

“Can I speak with you, Susan?”

Even though it was only six-thirty p.m., the bed had already been pulled out. Susan lay on top of her covers with a washcloth covering her eyes while Jack played on the bed with the Lego’s Piper had brought him from the playroom.

When Piper did not receive a reply, she prodded, “Susan, can I have a minute of your time?”

“What do you want?” she grumbled without removing the cloth from her face.

“I just wanted to let you know that they have an opening in the surgery department on Thursday to put in Jack’s port. As long as he stays fever free for the next forty-eight hours, he can take that appointment.” She held up the papers even though Susan could not see them. “I filled out most of the paperwork for you. I have them right here. I’ve even added your insurance information from your admittance forms so now all you have to do is sign on the bottom of the page.” Piper held out a pen and the consent forms for Susan to accept.

Her voice trembled as if she were freezing cold. “Put them on the table.”

“They’re right here in front—”

She interrupted as her body convulsed. “I said, put them on the table.”

 

 

THE NEXT MORNING, by the time Piper made it into Jack’s room, Susan had already left for the nursing home. Piper did a quick eye sweep and found the consent forms exactly where Piper had left them the previous night, with the pen on top, without a signature. Shaking her head in disapproval, Piper checked to make sure Jack was sleeping soundly then exited the room to begin her day.

By lunchtime, Piper was behind in every aspect of her job, from chart work, to admittance forms, to blood work. When Robin tapped on the glass doors, Piper was thankful to see her, but knew she didn’t have time to socialize.

“Hey, this is a surprise. What’s up?”

“I have a few hours before my next appointment, so I thought I’d stop in and have lunch with Jack.” She held up two bags from the McDonald’s downstairs. “Much better than this stinky hospital food.”

“Yeah, right.” She squeezed Robin’s shoulder. “You’re timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I’m swamped and can’t take time for lunch today with Jack. I hate to leave him in there all alone. Go on in. He’ll be so pumped to see you.”

Around two p.m., after Robin had already left the hospital, Piper was drawing blood from Jack’s IV when the door swooshed open behind her. Swiveling to see who had entered the room, Piper’s mouth gaped open when she caught sight of the visitor. Colton strutted into the room with a cocky swagger, his wavy, shoulder-length hair gone, replaced by a military buzz cut.

Piper didn’t think it possible, but Colton was even more beautiful now than he was before. Without the hair to distract, a person now noticed his chiseled features, high cheek bones, and penetrating crystal blue and green flecked eyes. Piper thought he looked just like a Calvin Klein underwear model, making her mind wander, exactly what does Colton wear underneath that layer of clothing[_?_] Feeling like a cartoon character with a water faucet of drool pouring out the side of her mouth, Piper consciously changed the expression on her face as Jack giggled.

“You almost look like me now.”

Colton ran his hand over his head as he raised one eyebrow. “I told you hair was overrated.”

Piper smiled, touched by his thoughtfulness to make Jack feel better about his appearance. “You look very handsome, Cole.”

At that time, Blair pushed open the door, looking none too pleased with her lips pinched together. She snarled at the three of them and then spoke in a condescending tone. “Piper, it’s time for you to stop playing house and get out here to do your job. You have three lights blazing on the board, and I’m not going to check on your patients. You do have more than one, you know.” Without waiting for a reply, Blair disappeared.

Colton’s eyes grew. “Whoa. Who was that?”

Piper gathered her utensils and Jack’s blood sample, placing them on a silver tray. “Let’s just say, she’s the reason you and I started off on the wrong foot, and not my biggest fan, if you couldn’t tell.” She headed toward the door. “Ring me if you guys need anything.”

 

During shift change that evening, Piper’s eyes kept flashing toward the oncology doors, waiting for Susan to walk through them. Having Jack’s surgery consent forms folded up in her pocket, Piper was ready to accost Susan as soon as she stepped foot into the wing to get her signature. At seven p.m., Susan breezed through the doors, appearing confident and in control. Her face, which had been pasty pale, was now scarlet red and her body no longer trembled, just swayed slightly as she moved toward Jack’s room. Piper dropped her head into her hands, knowing that Susan had been drinking without even speaking to her. She groaned out of frustration as Jeffrey rounded the corner ready to leave for the night, sporting pink headphones around his neck. He stopped when he noticed Piper slouched over the desk.

“What’s wrong, Pipe?”

“Susan’s back to her old self again and I have to get these surgery papers signed before I leave tonight. Jack’s scheduled for surgery at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”

“Well, I suggest you get your tushie in there and get them signed then. I’ll wait here in case you need back up.”

Grabbing her under the arms, Jeffrey helped her up then gave her a gentle shove in the direction she needed to go. Plopping down into the seat she had just vacated, he pulled his earphones up to his ears and shooed her away like a black cat.

“Go on now. She won’t bite, or at least I don’t think so anyway.”

Piper stumbled toward Jack’s room, knowing that getting Susan to sign the surgery papers while intoxicated was not going to be an easy task. Deciding to go in confident and strong, Piper pushed through the door and found Susan snuggled up with Jack in his bed, which caught her off guard. She had never seen Susan and Jack in an intimate setting before and couldn’t help but wonder if she was now seeing Susan’s third alter ego, the “Nurturing Mother.”

Piper blinked back her confusion at the cozy scene in front of her. “Susan, I need you to sign the papers we discussed last night.” She pulled the forms out of her pocket, unfolding them like an accordion.

Susan cuddled closer to Jack while stating, “I’m not signing anything.”

Jack looked up at his mother in question. “What papers, Mommy?”

She gazed down at her son lovingly. “This woman is trying to get me to sign—”

Piper interrupted, her hands balling into fists, crinkling the paperwork. “Don’t do this, Susan.”

Ignoring her, she continued, “She wants me to sign papers for you to have surgery tomorrow.”

Tears welled up in Jack’s skittish eyes, cascading down his face. “But I don’t wanna have surgery.”

Running her hand down Jack’s cheek, she soothed him. “I know, baby. I’m not going to let her do that to you.”

Piper closed her eyes for a moment, trying to control the rage that seared up within. When she opened them, she attempted to keep her tone on an even keel. “Susan, Jack needs this surgery for his intravenous meds. His veins can’t take this needle torture any longer.”

Hearing the word needle brought Jack to cry openly, grappling at his mother as if she was his savior and Piper was the evil villain. Susan took advantage of the situation, whispering against his forehead, “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I won’t let her take you to surgery.”

Piper bit down on her fury. “Susan, I need to speak with you outside. Now, please.”

“I already told you, I’m not signing anything.”

Piper bolted from the room before she yanked Susan out of the bed by her dark-rooted hair. She stomped back to the nurses’ station breathing heavily in exasperation on how she should handle the situation as Jeffrey slid his earphones back to his neck, inquiring, “I guess it didn’t go too well in there, huh?”

“Ugh! That woman infuriates me!” Piper threw her arm behind her, pointing at Jack’s door. “Susan has never been a real mom to her son the entire time I’ve known her. Either she’s too drunk to be a good parent or she’s just a shell a person in detox, shaking away in her own little world, but now that woman has the audacity to act like she’s mother of the century, making it look like I’m the bad guy for wanting Jack to have this surgery and she’s the knight in shining armor coming in for the rescue.” Piper pulled in an aggravated breath of frustration before she continued. “I should march in there, rummage through her bag, and pour her sweet vodka down the drain, right in front of her. I bet she wouldn’t act all high and mighty then.”

“That’s the last thing we need right now. You go on home. I’ll take care of this.”

Piper shook her head in confusion. “Wait. What?”

Jeffrey stood, placing both hands on her shoulders. “You’ve done enough for Jack. It’s my turn to step in. You go home and get some rest.”

Piper peered out of the corner of her eyes. “Jeffrey, what are you planning to do?”

“Let’s just say, Susan’s bottle is going to be our ally tonight.”

“Jeffrey…”

He pushed her toward the door. “Don’t worry. I won’t do anything illegal, or at least not too illegal anyway.”

 

At ten-thirty that night, Piper received a text from Jeffrey.

 

JEFFREY: Mission accomplished. I dropped the consent forms at the surgery department before I left the hospital.

PIPER: Do I even want to know how you got her to sign them?

JEFFERY: Probably not, but I made sure to have Judy witness Susan’s signature so that she couldn’t fight it once she sobers up enough to know what she did.

PIPER: Jeffrey, I don’t know about this.

 

Jeffrey: Jack needs this surgery, Piper. I don’t have a single regret, and besides, Susan won’t remember anything about last night anyway. No need to worry your pretty little head about it.

 

Slouched on the couch with her feet propped on the coffee table, Piper called Colton to give him an update.

“Hey, Colton, just wanted to let you know that Jack’s set up for surgery tomorrow morning at nine a.m. Jeffery finally got his mom to sign the consent forms.”

“Jeffrey? How did he get in the picture?”

“Susan came in to the hospital drunk. So much for the sober thing, I guess. Well anyway, Jeffrey seems to handle her best when she’s in that condition.”

Piper could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Damn it. I thought maybe we had a chance this time.”

“Honestly, right now all I care about is that Jack gets the surgery he needs. I just pray Susan is gone tomorrow morning though. I don’t think I can handle another throw down with her right now.”

“I can meet you at the hospital if you need me to. I’ve handled a drunk or two in my lifetime.”

Piper resisted the urge to pry further into Colton’s last comment, but instead, kept the conversation geared toward Jack. “You don’t have to do that. I’ll have Jeffrey there with me.”

Colton clucked. “Great bodyguard. Does he carry a concealed comb?”

Piper laughed. “Chuckle all you want, but Jeffrey does carry a weapon, and I don’t mean the physical kind. His weapon is his mind. He’s really quick on his feet. Sometimes that’s better than brawn anyway.”

“Whatever you say.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” she joked, then asked seriously, “Did you get any more information out of Jack while you were at the hospital today?”

“Not much. He did tell me that he hasn’t been going to bed hungry lately though, but I’m not sure if that’s because his mother had the pantry stocked or because his nurse had his suitcase stocked.”

Piper winced. “Did I screw up your investigation by doing what I did for Jack?”

“Honestly, probably so, but I still think you made the right decision by helping Jack out.”

Piper let out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “Have you set up a date to interview Jack’s uncle?”

“No, not yet. I want to wait a while. Susan’s on to me right now. There’s no sense going through the motions when she’s on her best behavior. I need her to think I’ve moved on to my next case, and then start the interview process.”

Piper grabbed a decorative flange pillow from the couch, cradling it against her stomach. “That makes sense, and by the way, I just want you to know that I think what you did with your hair for Jack was incredible.”

“Who said anything about me cutting my hair for Jack’s sake?”

Piper could hear the humorous tone in his question and played along. “Okay. So you’re telling me that you didn’t chop your hair off to make Jack feel better about losing his. Then what was your motive?”

“Seeing the look of lust on your face when I walked into the room.”

Piper wanted to crawl right under the couch in complete mortification. “Colton! What are you talking about? You’re insane!”

Colton laughed. “Don’t kid yourself, Piper. You wanted me when I walked into that room. You can admit it. I won’t hold it against you.”

Piper’s face flushed with embarrassment as she threw back, “I think your hairdresser accidently pierced your brain with her shears, if you want my opinion.”

Colton chuckled again, and in a low seductive voice replied, “I’m fully aware of you wanting me, Piper, and I like the fact that you won’t, or can’t, admit what you want. You’re teasing me and you aren’t even aware of it.”

Piper did not know how to reply, so she blurted out, “Oh, brother…”

Piper could almost hear him smile. “Maybe one day, if you’re lucky, I’ll show you exactly what you’ve been missing.”

 

 

PIPER ARRIVED EARLY to work the following morning, knowing she had a lot of ground to make up with Jack after his mother’s escapades the previous evening. After tossing her purse and coat into the locker, she logged into the computer and then headed toward Jack’s room. She paused to say a silent prayer for courage then swung open the door ready for battle, but found Susan gone and let out a sigh of relief.

Once again, Susan left her bed in shambles. Yanking the sheets off the mattress, Piper catapulted them onto the floor then flipped the bed closed, completely annoyed at having to be Susan’s personal maid again. Hearing Jack stir behind her, Piper pushed her negative feelings toward Susan aside and turned toward him.

“Hey there. Did you sleep well?”

Immediately, tears formed in his liquid-brown eyes. “Are you gonna make me have surgery, Piper?” he asked as his bottom lip started to quiver.

Sitting on his bed, she swiped the tear that slipped from his lower lid with her fingertip. “Before I answer your question, will you answer one for me first?”

Jack sniffed as he nodded his head up and down.

“Have I ever, ever lied to you in any way?”

He shook his head, a frown pulling at his mouth.

“And am I always completely honest with you when something is going to hurt and when it’s not?”

He nodded his head.

“Okay then, I’ll answer your question now,” she said. “Yes, I am going to take you down for surgery today.” She held up her finger as Jack started to pull the covers over his head. “But, I promise you, Jack, it will not hurt. You just said yourself I’ve never lied to you before, so why would I start now.”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen. That way you won’t be scared.”

With his eyes as wide as saucers, he mumbled, “Okay.”

“First, I’m going to give you a tiny cup to drink that’s filled with funny juice.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Funny juice?”

“Yeah, we call it funny juice because it makes people act silly.” Piper waited for him to giggle in response, but his features stayed frozen in fear, so she continued. “Then, I’m going to wheel you downstairs and a really nice doctor is going to put a mask over your face. The air that’s pumped into the mask will make you fall asleep, then poof, you’ll wake up and your surgery will be over.”

Jack looked at her doubtfully. “That’s all?”

“Yep, that’s it. When you wake up your port will be in and you won’t have felt a thing. You may be a little sore the next day, but that’s it. I promise.” She rubbed the upper left side of his chest. “You’ll have a small bump right around here where the port will be, but it will make it much easier to give you your medication that way, and as I said before, it won’t hurt at all.”

Jack’s brows bunched together. “Pinky promise?”

Piper held her pinky finger out for Jack to join his. “Pinky promise.”

 

Two days later, Jack was released from the hospital with a port surgically implanted in his chest, a month’s worth of healthy snacks, and a prepaid cellular phone with Piper’s number taped to the back hidden in the front pocket of his suitcase.

Chapter eleven

 

 

THE WEEK AFTER Jack left the hospital, Piper’s life seemed to get back on track since her worries about him had diminished, knowing he had access to her at all times with a prepaid cell phone to use at his discretion. And now that the newness was wearing off at the hospital, coupled with the fact that she hadn’t had any recent confrontations with Blair, Piper felt her life was finally back where she needed it to be.

She spoke to her parents and Danielle often, keeping up to date on the happenings in Louisville, but never spoke about her sister, Gina, or the reason she moved to Chicago in the first place. It wasn’t that Piper was avoiding the issue. She just didn’t see the need to rehash what was water under the bridge, and really, her life now had no bearing on the past. That’s the way she wanted to keep it; her life divided into two separate chapters. Pre-Phillip and post-Phillip. Her pre-Phillip chapters she intended to keep sealed shut, along with her relationship with her sister, while her post-Phillip chapters were laid wide open for the future.

 

 

WHEN PIPER’S PHONE rang as she and Robin sat down for dinner the following Wednesday night, she considered not answering, figuring it was an unsolicited sales call, but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t Jack calling from an unknown extension, so she decided to answer the call. She finished chewing the bite of fettuccini in her mouth, held up her finger to Robin, and then answered her phone.

“Hello.”

“Piper, don’t hang up. We need to talk.”

Piper’s body instantaneously turned ice cold. “Gina?”

“Yes, it’s me.” She pulled in a quick breath. “We can’t go on like this. You’re my sister, Piper, and I need to see you so we can talk through this.”

The ice within Piper ignited into fire as her mind involuntarily flashed back to Gina and Phillip’s illicit romp in her living room. “You know what, Gina? You lost that title when you slept with my fiancé. I have absolutely nothing left to say to you but goodbye.”

Piper pulled the phone away from her ear, ready to smash her index finger onto the end button, when she heard her sister spout, “Go ahead and hang up on me, but it’s Mom and Dad who are going to pay.”

Yanking the phone back up to her ear, Piper spat furiously, “What did you just say?”

“I’m saying that you can deny seeing me as long as you want, but I’m here in Chicago on Mom’s credit card, and she told me not to come home until I’ve worked things out with you.”

“What? You can’t be serious, Gina,” Piper barked on the verge of hysterics. “You and Mom can’t manipulate me like this!”

“Call it whatever nasty word you want, but it won’t change anything. I’m staying at the Plaza Hotel on Broadway. I’ll be in the hotel bar every night at seven o’clock waiting for you to meet with me. You can make this a long drawn-out process, or you can save our parents some money and meet me tomorrow night. It’s up to you.”

“I…” Piper fumed, but didn’t know how to reply to her sister’s absurd request, so she jerked the phone down, slammed her finger on the end button and tossed her cellular onto the floor in disgust, growling, “Ugh! The nerve of those two!”

Robin set her fork beside her plate, asking, “What in the world just happened?”

“Ummm, let me see?” She scratched her temple sarcastically in deep thought. “Well, first of all, my mother is sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong, and my sister, who just happened to sleep with my future husband, and I quote, ‘to help me out,’ wants to forget it ever happened and be best buds again.”

Robin’s eyebrows rose in curiosity. “Does your sister really think you’re just going to forgive and forget after what she did to you?”

Piper rolled her eyes. “I suppose so. She’s even roped Mom and Dad into this mess.”

“How did she manage to do that?”

Piper picked up her fork and pushed the pasta around on her plate. “My mother gave Gina her credit card and told her not to come back home until we’ve worked things out, as if we’re five-years-old, fighting over her Ken Barbie doll instead of my ex-fiancé.”

Robin almost spit out her mouthful of water. “Gina’s in Chicago right now?”

“Yep, and she’s going to be in the Plaza bar every evening at seven until I cave in and go meet with her.”

Robin shook her head slowly. “Man, that’s conniving.”

“You’re telling me.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I really have no idea.”

 

The following day at work, every hour crept by painstakingly slow. Piper couldn’t concentrate on anything, not her patients, or her paperwork; she even went several hours without thinking about Jack. She just couldn’t shake the visions shooting through her mind of her sister lounging in the spa at the Plaza sipping ice cold daiquiris, getting a pedicure that cost an obscene amount of money, or worse yet, wistfully browsing the Magnificent Mile and popping into Saks Fifth Avenue, just to pick up a few things she “needed,” all courtesy of their mother and father.

It completely sickened Piper knowing her little sister was taking full advantage of her parents and of their situation, which made Piper feel like she should give in and meet with Gina, to save her parents money, but the devil on her shoulder was telling her the exact opposite. You don’t owe these people anything. Your sister slept with your fiancé for God’s sake, and your mother has always taken your sister’s side, which is what she is doing right now. It serves her right for losing a little cash for trying to manipulate you in the first place.

 

 

 

“I’M NOT GOING.”

Standing alone in the bathroom, Piper said the words out loud to see how they felt sliding out of her mouth. Placing her hands on the sink, Piper leaned in closer to the mirror and said them again.

“I’m not going.”

Liking the way she looked and felt when she said these three simple words, Piper exited the bathroom to tell Robin the decision she made regarding Gina and found her bent over the sink rinsing off the dinner dishes before putting them into the dishwasher. Walking up behind her, Piper tried to repeat the words she’d been saying so confidently in the bathroom, but what squeaked out was, “I’m going.”

Robin turned in a look of confusion.

“I’m a complete idiot, but I’m going to meet Gina.”

Drying her hands on a towel, Robin asked, “Do you want to talk about it first?”

Piper pulled out a seat and fell into it. “There’s really nothing to talk about. I’m a complete fool for being manipulated like this, and I know that’s exactly why Gina cooked up this plan in the first place. She’s fully aware that I was born with the guilt gene.”

“The guilt gene?”

“Yeah, there’s a chip inside of me that makes me feel guilty about everything, and I mean that word literally. Like, when two people ask me to do something on a weekend, I feel guilty about turning one person down, even if someone asked me to do something that I wasn’t even interested in doing in the first place. Or, if my mom asked me to go shopping with her and I don’t go, I feel like crap, even if the reason I can’t go is because I have a doctor’s appointment. If a stray cat comes to my door and I don’t—”

Robin laughed. “I get the picture, Pipe.”

“The list could go on and on for hours. It’s just something that I’ve learned to live with. Although feeling guilty keeps me on the straight and narrow path, it also makes me feel like I’m constantly letting people down or making them upset with me.”

“Piper, you don’t owe your sister anything, not your time, or your forgiveness.”

Blowing out a breath, Piper replied, “I know, but my parents don’t deserve to be raked over the coals, either. I’d be totally content to leave Gina rotting in the hotel room alone, but I can’t let her mooch off my parents. That’s not fair to them.” Piper tilted her head to the side. “Now that I think about it, Gina wins in either scenario, doesn’t she? If I go, she wins by manipulating me into meeting with her, and if I don’t go, she wins by swindling my parents into paying for her vacation.”

Robin exhaled a long breath. “Honestly, I can’t believe you’re even related to that girl.”

Piper smiled. “That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

Reaching for her phone, Piper glanced at the time. “Well, it’s almost seven. Might as well get this over with.” Grabbing her car keys and purse off the table, Piper stood. “Wish me—”

Piper’s phone ringing interrupted her. Glancing down, she saw Jack’s picture appear on her screen. An anxious knot formed in the pit of her stomach as she slid her finger across the bottom of her phone to answer the call.

“Jack? Are you okay?”

“I’m scared, Piper,” he whispered.

The petrified look on Piper’s face caused Robin to rush to her side, making Piper tilt the phone so she could listen in.

“Why are you scared, sweetie?”

He breathed heavily. “There’s someone trying to get in our front door and my mom’s asleep on the couch and won’t wake up.”

“Where are you right now, Jack?”

“Hiding in my closet,” he said, his voice barely audible.

“Good. Stay where you are. I’m on my way over.”

Marching toward the back door, Piper was ready to do whatever she could to help Jack, when Robin stepped into her pathway. “Give me the keys. I’m driving. That way you can stay on the phone with Jack.” With Piper’s keys in hand, Robin purposely changed directions and strode hastily to the hall closet, flung it open to grab a baseball bat, and then jogged to the rear of the house and out the back door with Piper following closely behind.

Jack’s pleading brought Piper’s attention back to him. “Piper, don’t hang up, please.”

“I won’t, Jack. I promise. Is the person still at your front door?”

“Yeah, he keeps banging on the door yelling for my mom to open up.” His voice rose an octave higher as his breathing became more labored. “Hurry, Piper, it sounds like he’s gonna kick the door in!”

 

Piper stayed on the line with Jack the entire drive over to his house, but by the time Robin whipped her car into the driveway, whoever was trying to get into the house was long gone. Not having a plan of action except to get to Jack, Piper released a sigh, so thankful she and Robin didn’t have a confrontation with a stranger who was most likely drunk or high, or worse yet, a combination of both.

Piper spoke into her phone, “Jack, Robin and I are in the driveway now. Whoever was banging on your door is gone. You’re safe.”

Jack sniffed. “But he might come back.”

“Are you still in your bedroom?”

“Yeah.”

“When you look outside your window, do you see the front yard or the back?”

“Back.”

“Go to your bedroom window now.”

Piper swung open the car door as Robin followed suit. They sneaked up the driveway and around to the back of the house, wishing they had thought to bring along a flashlight. Not knowing which room belonged to Jack, they crept along the siding, peering into each darkened window until they finally found him standing at the far end of the house.

Piper spoke into the phone with her hand spread wide on his window. “Hey there, big guy.”

Smiling, Jack placed his hand on hers from his side of the glass. “Hi, Piper.”

“Do you think you can reach up to unlock the window? It’s right here.” Piper pointed on the outside frame.

Jack stretched to the tip of his toes, but couldn’t reach the lock. The girls watched as he laid his phone on the floor, disappeared for a few moments, then returned, dragging a chair behind him. After pulling the wooden stool in front of the window, he clamored on top of it to unlock the window, then climbed back down. Pushing from the outside pane, Piper and Robin nudged the window up enough for them to place their hands under the seal, and then forced it all the way up.

After the window was fully opened, Jack reached his small arms outside to hold each of their hands to feel the safety of their warm flesh. Piper took her free hand and ran it over his bare head. “I’ve missed you, Jack.”

He smiled at Piper, then at Robin. “I didn’t know you were coming, too.”

Robin squeezed his tiny hand. “Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t have missed this excitement for anything.”

Piper kept her left arm inside the window, rubbing Jack’s back. “You know you’re safe now, right? We went around the whole house. No one is out here.”

“Okay,” he mumbled. “Will you guys stay with me for a little while though?”

Robin replied for both of them, “Of course.”

Piper asked, “Is your mom still asleep on the couch, Jack?”

He pulled his shoulders upward. “I guess so.”

“Why don’t you run in there and peek for me real quick.”

Releasing their hands, Jack ran from the room then reappeared in less than sixty seconds. “Yep. She’s still asleep.”

“Perfect.” The last thing Piper needed was Susan walking in on them, even if the reason she was there was to protect Jack. Needing more information, Piper asked, “Jack, who was the man banging at your door earlier?”

“I dunno. I couldn’t see him.”

“Do you know why he wanted your mom so badly?”

Jack shook his head.

“Has this ever happened before tonight?”

“No.”

Thank goodness. You made the right decision by calling me tonight, buddy. You can call me anytime. You know that, right?”

Jack nodded his head.

Wanting to get Jack thinking about something other than the fearful situation he just went through, she changed the subject. “So, it seems like it’s been forever since I’ve seen you. What have you been doing since you left the hospital?”

Jack thought for a moment then answered her question honestly. “Nothing really. When I’m not in school, I just watch TV.”

Robin wrinkled her nose. “Really? Well, that sounds pretty boring.”

“That’s why I like the hospital. I never get bored there.”

Piper couldn’t help but think that Jack didn’t need his invisibility cloak here at home; no one noticed him anyway. “How about this. Every time you get bored when you’re here at home, pull out a piece of paper and draw us a picture. Then, the next time you’re in the hospital, you can show us what you’ve drawn and it’ll seem like we’ve been together the entire time.”

“What kind of pictures do you want me to make?”

Robin chimed in, “Anything at all. You can us draw something inside your house, copy a picture from a book, or recreate something that happened at school. You can even draw us something from one of those Harry Potter movies that you love so much, but please try not to scare me half to death.”

Jack giggled. “Maybe you really are a chicken butt.”

Robin reached in the window, tickling his stomach. “Hey now.”

The three stood talking about anything they could think of to pass the time, not wanting to part from their makeshift family that they had woven together out of unforeseen circumstances, but before the end of the hour, Jack’s eyes began to droop.

Although she wasn’t ready to leave, Piper knew it was time for them to go. “I think it’s time for you to go to bed now, Jack.”

“Ahhh, but I’m not sleepy,” he claimed as he rubbed his heavy-lidded eyes with his fists and stifled a yawn.

“But you have school tomorrow and if you really want to be the commander of a spaceship, you need to make good grades, and that requires sleep, my little friend.”

He puckered his bottom lip, pouting, “I guess I’ll go to bed then.”

“That’s a good boy,” Piper praised. “Now, I need you to climb back up and lock the window after we shut it, and then pull the chair back to where you got it from, okay?”

He nodded his head.

“And don’t forget to charge your phone like we practiced in the hospital, but make sure you keep it hidden. I bet there’s an outlet behind your bed. See if you can plug it in there.”

“Okay.”

Bending her head into the window, Piper gave Jack a kiss on his forehead. “Goodnight, kiddo. Don’t worry, Robin and I won’t leave until you’re sound asleep.”

Leaning in, Robin kissed him on the cheek. “Night, buddy.”

Piper and Robin guided the window back down until it was securely closed, then watched as Jack mounted the chair and locked the window into place. Jumping off, Jack dragged the chair out of their line of vision and then returned to the window with a smile and a wave before he clamored into bed.

Chapter twelve

 

AFTER RETURNING HOME from Jack’s house mentally and physically exhausted, Piper fell asleep fully clothed on top of her bedspread waiting for a returned phone call from Colton. The next morning, after forgetting to set her alarm clock, Piper woke in a full-fledged panic. She had never been late to work before and didn’t want to put a black mark on her attendance record with being so new at the hospital. Sprinting to the bathroom, Piper barely had time to rinse the shampoo out of her hair before she ripped the shower curtain open, jumped out, then threw on a yellow pair of hospital scrubs. Grabbing her mascara and a tube of lip gloss on the way out the door, Piper dashed to her car with her hair still dripping wet and her shoes dangling from her fingertips.

Once at the hospital, Piper haphazardly threw her purse and jacket into her locker, slammed the door shut while spinning to leave, when she realized she needed her phone with her in case Colton called back. Swiveling back around toward her locker, she clutched her purse in her hand and tossed it onto the ground, rummaging through it to find her phone. After her first attempt failed, she dumped the contents of her bag onto the ground and pillaged through it again, sorting through used Kleenex, old wadded-up receipts, unpaid parking tickets and candy wrappers, but still came back empty-handed. Sitting back on her heels, she combed through her mind on where she could have left her phone, then realized she had fallen asleep with it on her chest, and felt it was most likely tangled up in her comforter somewhere on her bed at home.

After scooping up her possessions and tossing them back into her locker, Piper jogged to the nurses’ station to check herself in and then grabbed the land line to call Robin at home.

“Hey, will you check to see if I left my phone on my bed?”

“Sure, hang on a minute,” Robin relied drowsily, having the ability to sleep in due to a late first appointment. A few moments later, Piper heard a rustling before Robin said, “Yep, found it. It was actually on the floor and the battery is almost dead.” She spoke through a yawn. “I could run it by the hospital for you, if you need me to.”

“Don’t worry about it. You go back to bed and enjoy your morning off. I’ll swing by on my lunch hour to get it.”

“Okay. That’ll work.”

“Will you plug it in for me? I think my charger is in the kitchen.”

“Sure. Are you going to be home for dinner tonight? I thought I’d make some beef stroganoff before I leave for work.”

Piper giggled. “Stroganoff, huh? That’s very Rachel Ray of you.”

“Hey, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Piper laughed. “You are so right. I take my smart-aleck comment back, but I can’t have dinner with you tonight. Remember, I have to get to the Plaza by seven.”

Robin moaned. “You’re still going to meet with Gina? I was hoping you slept some sense into that brain of yours last night.”

Logging in to her patient list, Piper gave Robin her take on the situation. “Look, the way I see it, two can play her manipulation game. I’ve decided I’m going to put on my best Oscar worthy performance to make Gina think everything is peachy between us so she high tails it home. Then once she’s off Mom and Dad’s meal ticket, our newfound relationship will come to a screeching halt. Then guess what? Gina loses at her own messed up game she created.”

“Whoa, girl. I didn’t know you had it in you.”

Piper cradled the phone between her shoulder and her ear. “Really? Look at my bloodline.”

Robin snickered. “You do have a point there.”

“I gotta go. I’m coming home for a quick change before heading over to the Plaza, so I’ll see ya then.”

 

At lunchtime, Piper rushed toward the nurses’ lounge to grab her purse and keys, wanting to dash home to grab her phone, when she heard Alex calling to her from behind, asking her if she would be willing to help with the four patients that had just walked through the door. Spinning on her heels, Piper retraced her steps back to the station and escorted a mother and her six-month-old baby, swaddled in a lavender blanket, into a room to get them settled. By the time she had finished with their admittance process, Piper had run out of time to return home and figured she would retrieve her phone after work when she stopped by to change clothes before heading to the Plaza.

Her afternoon didn’t get any less chaotic. Piper and the rest of the nursing staff were overloaded with new patients and actually filled the entire oncology floor, even the rooms adjacent to their unit saved for bone marrow transplants. Piper spent the following hour after her shift was complete calling the other units in the hospital looking for additional rooms. When all of their patients had a place to rest their heads for the night, Piper bolted into the nurses’ lounge, threw open her locker, swept up all her belongings into one arm and then raced down to the parking garage. After Piper dove into the driver’s seat and turned on the ignition, she looked at the clock on her dashboard that read, 7:27, then smacked the steering wheel hard with the heels of her hand.

Damn! Either I can scrap meeting Gina tonight and cost my parents another five hundred to a thousand bucks, or I meet Gina now, as is.

Rolling her neck from side-to- side, Piper pondered over her two options. The guilt gene overtook her need for vanity, making Piper veer left out of the parking garage toward the Plaza hotel instead of turning right toward their apartment. Attempting to stay within the speed limit while nervously glancing at the clock, Piper sped downtown, squealing her tires as she whipped her bug into the semi-circle of the valet parking area of the hotel. Standing outside her vehicle, Piper drummed her fingers on the hood of the car while waiting for a parking valet to assist her. Ready to get the meeting with her sister over with, Piper tossed her keys into the hands of the first red-vested man who looked in her direction.

Raking her fingers through her hair one last time, Piper pulled back her shoulders and entered the hotel, ready to put on the best “I forgive you” performance she could without vomiting in the middle of her rehearsed lines. As she entered the lobby, Piper couldn’t help herself when she swiveled in a circle in appreciation of the modern, sleek design of the registration area with its huge pillars in rich, dark wood, pearl marble floors, and exquisite crystal chandeliers. Guests mingled throughout the lobby, checking in, heading to the dining room or to the cocktail lounge, all dressed to impress in their business suits or evening attire, making Piper feel like an ugly duckling in her snot-smudged yellow hospital scrubs and worn out Nike tennis shoes.

In the whole scope of the matter, what Piper looked like had no effect on the reason she was at the hotel in the first place. She pushed her feelings of being underdressed out of her mind and headed in the direction of the lounge. Standing outside the granite pillared entrance of the bar, it didn’t take Piper long to spot her little sister in a booth alongside the back wall, dressed to the hilt in a pale-pink angora sweater with a scooped neck, revealing her ample breasts sandwiching a gold tassel that dangled from a gold chain around her neck.

Piper resisted the temptation to adjust her barely B pushup bra to make sure her assets were showcased to the best of their ability, and instead, straightened her scrubs, then pulled her strawberry locks onto one shoulder, strolling over to the table as if she were wearing a diamond encrusted evening gown. Catching Gina off guard as she studied the phone in her hands, Piper noticed her perfectly drawn cat eyes, the rose-colored blush that accented her high cheek bones, and her bubblegum pink lipstick that accentuated her full, pouty lips. Glancing up expecting to find the waiter, Gina broke out in a huge Cheshire cat grin when she realized it was her older sister standing before her, making Piper wonder if her sister’s smile was genuine happiness to see her, or one of victory at her winning their standoff.

Piper stood at the end of the table and cleared her throat to loosen the noose she felt was wrapped around her neck. “Gina…”

Her smile widened. “Piper…”

Piper scratched the back of her neck, not knowing what to say, as Gina patted the table across from her. “Have a seat, Pipe. It’s been a while.”

Piper wanted to growl, you lost the right to call me Pipe when you slept with my fiancé, but what she actually said was, “Yes, it sure has.”

“So, would you like a cocktail?” Gina turned her head to search for a waiter.

“No, I don’t, Gina. Let’s cut to the chase and get down to the real reason you’re here.”

Reaching for her drink, she took a slow sip of the sparkling clear liquid as she studied her sister over the rim of the glass. Lowering it from her mouth, she asked, “How do you like Chicago?”

I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you. “It’s good. Got a new job at the children’s hospital.”

“Do you like it there?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Pretty much.”

Swirling the ice in her glass, Gina prodded further. “And do you like your new apartment?”

Piper flattened her lips before replying, “Yep.”

“How’s Robin?” Gina rolled the edges of her cocktail napkin, not able to look at Piper as she referred to “the incident” for the first time. “I’m sure she probably wants to slit my throat after what happened, doesn’t she?”

Piper tilted her head in thought. “I don’t think she thinks about you at all, Gina, and quite honestly, I didn’t either, until you called me out of the blue two days ago.”

Gina appeared hurt as she played with the tassel at her ear. “Oh, okay…”

Piper couldn’t stop the wave of guilt that washed over her. She softened her tone. “Gina, why are you here?”

Tears peculated in her smoky-blue eyes. “It’s just that I miss you, Piper. We were inseparable, and now you’re gone, and I can’t take it. I’m lost without you in my life,” she confessed as she dabbed underneath her thick lashes with her napkin folded over her finger.

In the past, Piper would have nudged her sister over and rubbed her back when she was upset about something, but not now. Piper’s current vision of her sister was morbidly distorted, as if she was looking into a shattered mirror; some pieces seemed shiny and inviting, but Piper knew from past experience that there were sharp fragments in between that could cause irrevocable damage. Besides that, Piper couldn’t shake the feeling that everything seemed fake about her sister, making Piper contemplate if the tears she was shedding really had anything to do with losing their relationship, or, if it had more to do with how other people viewed their situation. Danielle had already told her that Gina was receiving some serious heat around town for what she did. Could this whole make-up scene be to put Gina in a better light back in their hometown, thinking that if Piper forgave her, maybe everyone else in town would too?

No matter what the motive for Gina to travel to Chicago, it would not work to repair their broken relationship. Piper was not ready, nor did she think that she would ever be, to forgive Gina for sleeping with her fiancé, but she wasn’t going to let Gina in on that piece of information just yet. Piper had to stay focused with her game plan; pretend things were going to work out between her and Gina to get her back home, and off Mom and Dad’s credit card.

Attempting to appear sincere, Piper responded as if she sympathized with her sister. “Look, Gina, don’t get upset. It’s just going to take some time, that’s all. Now that I’ve gotten away from our hometown, I already feel better about the situation, and it’s only been a few months. We’ll be back on track in no time,” Piper lied, attempting to keep her face from showing her revulsion at her statement.

Gina’s eyes lit up at her sister’s declaration. “I knew you couldn’t stay mad at me forever. We’re sisters as well as best friends, Piper, and we’ll always be both no matter what happens between us, right?”

Piper tried not to choke on her words. “Umm, yeah. Blood is pretty thick. It’s awfully hard to wipe off.”

Gina’s phone illuminated beside her, distracting her from their conversation. Picking up her cell, Gina read the text, and then replied to the sender. Leaning back against the booth, Piper wondered who was so important that Gina would interrupt the reunion with her long lost sister for. Piper decided it was most likely their mother checking in on their situation and withheld the desire to grab at Gina’s phone and reply for her. Success! Piper fell for our plan, hook, line, and sinker.

Gina looked back up after she had completed her text. “Sorry about that.” She reached across the table to cradle Piper’s hand, her perfectly straight teeth gleaming as she smiled brightly. “Piper, you have no idea how thankful I am to have you back in my life again.” Gina tucked her flaxen blonde hair behind her ear as her shoulders pulled back, revealing her perky, positive attitude.

Piper withheld the need to shake her. Do you really think that’s all it would take to repair our relationship? You whine about missing me then poof, our sisterly bond is restored. Really? Obviously, you need to let up on that color job. The bleach has soaked right through to your brain!

“So, do you have any dinner plans tonight?” Gina asked, infused with excitement. “We’d love for you to join us here in the hotel restaurant if you’re not busy.”

Piper’s eyebrows furrowed. “Us?”

Gina turned her head away from the table as she beamed at someone, or something, across the room. Piper followed her line of vision and froze into a solid sheet of ice as she realized who her sister was gazing at. Piper could feel her heart pumping wildly and her ears begin to burn as she watched Phillip, dressed in a navy business suit with a pale-pink tie matching Gina’s sweater, waltz over to the table. When he arrived, he reached out to take Gina’s hand as she sat staring up at him adherently.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Piper mumbled as she pushed herself out of the booth in complete shock of what was taking place right in front of her.

“Piper, don’t, please,” Gina begged.

Backing away from the table, Piper spat, “Don’t what, Gina? Throw up right here and now because that is exactly what I want to do right this second.”

As Gina scooted out of the booth to stand beside Phillip, Piper’s eyes dropped to her sister’s expanding waistline, and when her sister began rubbing her belly in small circles, reality hit Piper like a ton of bricks.

Tears began to puddle in Piper’s eyes as her hands balled into clenched fists at her side. “Wow, really? This is just the icing on the cake, isn’t it?”

Phillip spoke for the first time as he wrapped his arm around Gina’s waist. “We’re getting married, Piper. That’s why we’re here. We want you to support our decision and be part of our baby’s life.”

Narrowing her eyes at him, Piper realized she no longer loved the man standing in front of her; she loathed him, from his slicked back inky hair, to his Italian silk necktie, to the python-skinned loafers attached to his feet. She despised every inch of Phillip with every fiber of her being, but that didn’t stop the pain from shooting through her heart at the betrayal she felt stabbing at her like a cold, hard-steeled knife, making it difficult for her to breathe. Feeling an overwhelming need to escape, Piper spun around quickly before they witnessed her eyes filling with angry tears, ready to race away from her past, when she smacked right into her future.

 

*****

 

COLTON COLLIDED WITH Piper, knocking her backward. When he held her an arm’s distance away, he saw the look of pure anguish on her face, her cheeks saturated with her tears, and her breathing in tormented gusts.

Pulling her toward him, he softly whispered, “Breathe, baby,” as he wound both hands into the back of her hair, lowering his head until his forehead almost touched hers. Once she had calmed, evening out her shuddering breaths, and stared up at him with a doe-like expression, he devoured her in a heart-stopping kiss. When Piper reached up and clung to his neck, Colton laid his palms on the sides of her breasts and caressed her all the way down until his hands rested on her lower hips. Piper stood on her tiptoes to gain full access to his mouth as Colton angled her head to the right to deepen their embrace.

When he pulled away, Piper buried her face into his chest and didn’t look up as she spoke. “They’re pregnant and going to get married.”

Colton massaged her shoulders as Piper stayed hidden in the softness of his black V-necked sweater. He looked at Gina and Phillip for the first time since he entered the room.

“You must be Piper’s sister.”

Gina nodded her head as she fluttered her eyelashes. “Yes, I am, and you are?”

“Colton Strong.” He held out his hand for her to shake. “I’m glad to finally meet you.” A sexy smile played at his lips as he tilted his chin in Phillip’s direction. “I wanted to thank you in person for taking this piece of shit off Piper’s hands for me.”

Phillip pushed out his chest and in an infuriated tone, threatened, “Listen hear, buddy—”

Colton stared Phillip down for an extended beat as his jaw clenched, his biceps flexed, and his breathing intensified, silencing Phillip’s rant. He then turned Piper toward the exit with his arm slung around her waist, throwing one more insult over his shoulder as a last thorn in their side.

“Looking forward to getting that invitation in the mail.” He then laughed as if their union was nothing more than comical.

 

*****

 

COLTON GUIDED PIPER to his car parked one block away in total silence; neither mentioned retrieving her vehicle from the valet parking attendant. As Piper tried to keep pace with Colton’s long strides, she shivered uncontrollably in her short-sleeved hospital scrubs. She wasn’t sure if her convulsions were due to the chilly weather or from the blood boiling rage that was building up inside her that was ready to explode at any given second.

Most likely assuming Piper was cold, Colton wrapped his arm tightly around her to give off his body heat as they walked the last hundred yards to his vehicle. After opening the passenger door, Colton jogged around and moved into the driver’s seat to start the ignition. Turning the heat up to high and spinning the music volume to low, Colton turned toward Piper who continued to stare straight ahead in an unbreakable trance.

He raised his eyebrows. “So, do you want to talk about it?”

Piper didn’t change her line of vision, and after several long beats, shook her head from side-to-side slowly.

“Are you hungry?”

Piper did not answer his question, still engrossed in the darkness that lay ahead of her.

“Well, I am. Do you want to go with me, or should I take you home first?”

Piper shrugged.

Colton veered his car onto the road and drove for the next thirty minutes listening to rock and roll classics from the seventies as Piper sat numbly beside him lost in her own world, until the city lights were distant glimmers shinning at their backs. When Colton spun his vehicle onto a rocked parking lot on the outskirts of town, he turned to Piper before he clicked off the ignition.

“Is this place okay with you? It’s nothing to look at, but I promise you, they have the best wings in Chicago.”

Piper glanced at him for the first time since he kissed her at the Plaza. “It’s fine.”

He flung open his door as Piper did the same, and they met in front of the car. Once again, Colton gathered her against him to shelter her from the brisk night air. As they entered the porch of the rundown building, Piper got a whiff of the sweet smell of tangy barbecue sauce, and instantly, her mouth began to water. As they entered the restaurant, Piper realized how small the tavern was, consisting of just one row of tall booths along the wall, making the customers feel like they were provided privacy, tucked away, hidden from the rest of the patrons.

The bartender slung a towel over his shoulder as he glanced up from washing beer mugs behind the bar. “Take any table you want. I’ll be out in a second to take your order. Do you guys want something from the bar?”

“Yeah, two Bud Lights.”

Colton led Piper to the furthest booth and slid into one side, while Piper scooted into the other while staring at the laminate table between them, unable to look into Colton’s eyes. It made Piper uncomfortable that Colton already knew too much about her and her past, while she knew absolutely nothing about him. She didn’t like this one-sided information exchange that they had been engaging in since the night she confronted him at Jimmy’s. It made her feel vulnerable and that was the last thing Piper needed right now.

Refusing to be pitied, Piper peered up into Colton’s eyes as the waiter delivered their drinks, placing two greasy menus on the end of the table. Colton pushed a mug in front of Piper and raised his to his lips, taking a long draw from the foamy liquid.

Placing his mug back on the table, Colton wetted his lips. “Now do you want to talk about what happened?”

Piper traced her finger over the frosty mug, leaving a lasting impression. “What is there to talk about? You already knew my story. Now there’s just a sick twist at the end and a baby who will have to deal with two disgusting parents and an aunt she’ll never know.”

Colton took another drink from his beer while he gave her a nondescript look, as if she had just said, “I think it might rain this evening.”

Piper matched his look and his drink. “So, what’s your story, Cole? I’m really, really tired of always talking about me.” She tilted her head to the side. “Tell me what makes you tick, Colton Strong.”

He ignored her question and took another draw from his beer.

“Let’s start with an easier question then.” She narrowed her eyes. “Why were you at the Plaza tonight?”

“When I returned your phone call from last night, your roommate Robin answered instead of you—”

“That still doesn’t explain why you were at the hotel,” she stated tawdrily.

He pulled in a frustrated breath. “Piper, if you would let me finish a complete thought, I’m sure my motive for being at the Plaza would come to light.”

Piper lifted her palms to the ceiling as a signal for him to continue speaking.

“Robin let me in on what was going down with you and your sister, and we thought you might need some back up.”

“So Rob was behind the kiss then? She told you to kiss me to make Phillip jealous?” Squinting in concentration, Piper answered her own question. “Wait a minute. She didn’t even know Phillip was there. I didn’t even have that piece of information until the slimebag materialized right in front of my eyes.”

“Piper, Robin had nothing to do with me kissing you.”

“Why did you do it then?”

He smirked. “Why do you think?”

“I think you did it because you thought it would help me by making Phillip think we were dating.”

Colton leaned in, speaking heatedly, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what Phillip thinks.”

“Okay, maybe it wasn’t for Phillip’s benefit; maybe it was for Gina’s.”

One side of his mouth tilted upward arrogantly. “I don’t kiss a woman for the sake of anyone, other than myself.”

As Piper tossed his last statement around in her mind, she had to ask Colton another question, even if she wasn’t quite sure she was ready for the answer. “So, what did you think of my little sister?”

He turned his chin slightly when he asked, “Is that a loaded question?”

Piper flattened her lips, spouting, “Just answer the question, please.”

He leaned back, pulling his hands down from the table, and shrugged. “She’s fine.”

“Do you mean, fine,” Piper spoke in a clipped tone. “Or do you mean,” she swaged her head and raised her eyebrows several times, “fine?”

Colton chuckled. “I meant the word in the dictionary context, not the ghetto interpretation.”

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, unconvinced of his last statement. “So, you didn’t think she was pretty?”

“Piper, I have to tell you, you drive me completely nuts sometimes with your line of questioning.”

“Please, just answer me.”

Colton shook his head, seemingly exasperated with her perseverance. “I think she’s good looking, if you like that type of woman.”

Piper held her breath when she asked, “Do you?”

Placing his elbows on the table, Colton cupped his fist and brought his hands to rest against his mouth, taking his sweet time replying to Piper’s question. Piper felt the heat of his stare as he gazed deeply into her eyes without moving a muscle. She fidgeted in her seat waiting for him to speak, suddenly wishing she could retract the question.

He scratched his forehead with the back of his thumb. “Let’s just say that I like my women less…” he paused, searching for the correct word he wanted to use, “less obvious.”

Piper’s eyebrows formed a v on her forehead in puzzlement. “Less obvious? Is this another one of your riddles that I’m supposed to solve?”

Colton smirked. “I think I was perfectly clear.”

“Do you mean that she—”

Colton interrupted, “I’m finished with that subject, Piper. You can move on to another topic, or better yet, we can stop talking all together and order some food.”

Piper held up her hands in surrender. “Okay. You win. The conversation about Gina is officially over.” She picked up a menu and flipped it open. “So, what do you recommend here?”

Colton immediately responded, “Wings.”

Piper glanced up from her menu. “That’s all?”

“Yep.”

She studied the tri-fold and pointed to the bottom of the menu. “What about their side dishes? Which one do you suggest?”

“I have no idea.”

Piper tilted her menu away from her face. “You have never eaten anything but wings here? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

He shook his head.

“How many times have you been here?”

“At least a dozen.”

“And you’ve never order anything but wings?”

“Nope.”

“Really?” she asked perplexed. “No fries, or onion rings, or anything?”

“Nada.”

“Well, that is about to change my friend, because I am the queen of sides. Sometimes I even forgo the main dish and just order the good stuff.”

“The wings are the good stuff.”

She tilted her head, rebutting, “How do you know if you’ve never tried anything else?”

 

After the waiter had delivered their food, Colton scanned the plates covering the table and remarked, “There is no possible way we’re going to be able to consume all this food in front of us.”

Piper immediately grabbed a wing and began nibbling at it, pulling the meat off the bone with her teeth. She spoke in between bites, “Did you just meet me? I can put away the food, believe me.”

He threw his head back. “We’ll just see about that.”

Piper sucked the barbeque sauce off of her fingertips, and then grabbed an onion ring, famished from her lack of caloric intake for the last twenty-four hours. “Oh my gosh. You have to try these onion rings. They’re delicious.” She reached for another ring, took one bite, then with her fingers, pulled the limp onion from the breading, and dangled it above her head like a worm, before dropping it into her mouth as Colton watched in amusement.

He shook his head. “Who taught you to eat onion rings that way?”

“I taught myself.” She reached for another onion ring and performed the exact same maneuver. “This way, I save the good stuff for the last bite.”

“So why don’t you just order a big glob of fried breading?”

She gawked at him. “You have to have the onions in there. They provide the seasoning.”

“Ah, got it.” He reached for an onion ring of his own. “But this is the art of onion ring eating. Watch and learn.”

He held the ring up high, squishing it until the two sides touched. Next, he grabbed the bottle of ketchup, squeezing a liberal amount onto the onion then tossed it into his wide open mouth. When he finished chewing, he remarked, “Now, that’s how you eat an onion ring.”

She mocked him. “How do you even know what you just ate? There was so much ketchup on that thing, you couldn’t possibly tasted anything else.”

“Fine.” He took two more onion rings off the plate, handing her one. “You try my way, and I’ll try yours.”

Piper took the onion ring from Colton, crushed it between her fingers and doused it with ketchup as he had done, while he pulled his onion out of the breading. At the same time, the onion entered each of their mouths, then they sat back and chewed their food, watching the other’s expression. When they were finished, Piper wiped her mouth with her napkin.

“So, what did you think?”

“How about we agree to disagree on the art of eating onion rings?”

“My sentiments, exactly,” she laughed. “Maybe next time you can try a fried Twinkie. Now that’s scrumptious.”

Colton chuckled. “You southerners will eat anything as long as it’s fried.”

She laughed along with him. “Tell me about it. When we were kids, my parents used to take us camping, and of course, we always took along the deep fryer. You wouldn’t believe what my dad would throw into that thing: pickles, Oreo cookies, Hoho’s, you name it. He even tried to get us to eat fried carrots, as if we would be eating healthier that way.”

He laughed. “That’s one way to get your kids to eat their vegetables.”

She wiped her fingers on the napkin lying on her lap. “What kind of vacations did you take as a child?”

Piper was surprised when he answered her question. “We really didn’t have the money for many vacations, but my mom and I did tent camp in the backyard a few times. Needless to say, between the weather and our lumpy accommodations, we never lasted the whole night outdoors.”

“Your mom was a real trooper for even attempting the tent. I can’t even fathom my mother stepping foot in one. My parents had an old beat up Winnebago that we used for camping. It wasn’t much to look at, but at least it was a hard roof over our heads and had a bathroom.”

“That’s not camping. That’s a fancy vacation.”

Piper gaped at his statement. “You wouldn’t be saying that if you saw the tacky tassels hanging from the windows and brown velour couch we slept on.”

“Yeah, right,” he teased.

Piper thought the momentum of their conversation would come to an end, but Colton continued self-disclosing as he flashbacked to his past. “My mom tried to take me to Florida once, which was a total disaster. We barely made it to Tennessee before our car broke down and ended up spending the entire week in an old cabin in the Smokey Mountains. I was pretty bummed at first. I’d never been to the ocean before and couldn’t wait to swim in the salty water. In my mind, in one week’s time, I was going to learn to be a professional surfer and move my mom and me down to the coast to live. Little did I know that I needed to go to the west coast for that to happen, but anyway, my mom and I were holed up in this little cabin with nothing to entertain us but an ancient boxed TV that had more fuzz than anything else, waiting for our car to be repaired. The first few days I refused to do anything at all, still being the pissy thirteen-year-old who didn’t get to see the ocean. Then, boredom got the better of me, and my mom and I ended up hiking for hours at a time, every single day. The scenery and overlooks there are amazing. No, it wasn’t the beach, but it was still something like I’d never experienced before. Have you ever been there?”

Piper shook her head. “No, my dad thought the Winnebago wouldn’t make it up the mountains.”

“You really need to go sometime. Even as an adult, you would thoroughly enjoy it, Piper. The waterfalls are unbelievable, so crystal clear you think you could drink right out of it, and the trees, especially in the fall, the colors mold together creating this beautiful art canvas; it will take your breath away.”

Mesmerized by his words, Piper replied, “Wow, your description makes me want to head out there now.”

They talked comfortably about silly childhood memories in between bites over the next hour, leaving only scraps and bones left on their clutter of plates in front of them when they had finished.

Piper downed the last reminder of her beer. “I told you we could finish what we ordered.”

“Where in the world did you put all that food you just ate?” Colton asked as he rubbed his full stomach.

She chuckled, answering, “I get asked that question a lot. I know it’s going to catch up with me in a few years, so right now, I’m taking advantage of the situation.”

The waiter arrived, dropping the bill enclosed in a leather binder on the end of the table. They both reached for it, but Colton was able to get his hand on the bill first. He placed a wad of cash into fold, and then returned it back on the end of the table.

“Are you ready to go? I don’t need to wait for change.”

Piper absently ran her finger over the grooves in the tabletop. “I’m not ready to go home yet.”

“Okay.” He tucked his wallet back into his pocket. “Do you want to hit up Jimmy’s for another beer?”

“Nope.”

“So what were you thinking?”

She grinned. “I was thinking that I want you to take me to your house.”

He looked at her smugly. “Why? Do you want to dig through my drawers or root through my medicine cabinet searching more information about me?”

Piper laughed. “I hadn’t thought about that, but now that you mention it…”

“Hey now, I thought I did a pretty good job answering your questions at dinner this evening.”

“Actually, you did great, and I thank you for that. I loved hearing about your childhood. It wasn’t too painful, was it?”

He took a glimpse at her out of the corner of his eye as he ribbed, “About like having my wisdom teeth pulled.”

She slapped him on the arm from across the table. “Colton!”

He smiled as he relented. “Okay, I’ll take you to my house, but just so you know, I’ve only been living there for about six months and I haven’t had time to remodel yet.”

“What do you want to change?”

He grinned, his eyes dancing in mirth. “Oh, you’ll see.”

 

Colton pulled his vehicle up to the curb in front of an adorable cedar-sided home painted in a pale yellow, surrounded by a white picket fence. Decorative stone pavers led up to a quaint front porch with lattice covered in vines sheltering both sides, providing privacy from its neighbors. A white swing hung in the middle of the veranda, acting as its centerpiece, accented with light-blue and white paisley throw pillows. A white wicker rocking chair sat beside the swing, and flower beds hung from each window, waiting patiently for their begonia, vinca, and phlox annuals to bloom. Even with all the lights out, the residence still looked cheering and inviting, which was the exact opposite of Colton’s personality.

After taking in Colton’s house from the passenger seat, Piper turned toward him. “Are you sure this is your home?”

Colton laughed. “Actually, it was my mom’s. She left it to me after she passed.”

“Ah, now it all makes sense.”

“Come on in and take a look.”

Piper opened her door and stepped out onto the sidewalk, then waited for Colton to meet her there. They ascended the porch stairs together toward the wooden oak front door. As Colton propped the storm door open with his back, he reached into his pocket for his keys. After unlocking the door, he held it open for Piper, then flipped on the light switch, basking his home in a warm glow.

Stepping into what Piper felt was the living room, she glanced around and found a relaxed comfortable setting with two country blue sofas perched on top of a large yellow, white, and blue western rug. There were no overhead lights, just floor lamps setting an intimate atmosphere for its guests, with worn books littering the wooden coffee table, as well as the mismatched end tables anchoring the couch.

Strolling about the room, Piper commented, “This place is absolutely lovely.” Piper could picture herself snuggling up on the couch with a hot cup of coffee while reading one of the crackled leather books scattered throughout the room, a snapping fire in the hearth, bathing the area in a blanket of warmth.

“My mom loved it here. She bought it right before she was diagnosed. Painting and decorating kept her busy while she went through chemotherapy.” He looked around the room. “I know I really need to redecorate, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

As she walked toward a bookcase at the back of the room, Piper wondered if Colton really didn’t have the time to remodel, or if he was just keeping his mother close to his heart by not replacing her possessions. As she reached her destination, Piper leaned in close to study the framed photographs displayed throughout the shelves, attempting to learn anything she could about Colton. She found one picture of him as a young child, with his front tooth missing; one of him holding up a fishing pole with his catch dangling from the line, and an endearing photograph of Colton as an adult with his arms wrapped around his mother, both looked happy and healthy as the wind whipped through their hair standing on a pier by the ocean.

Piper touched the photograph. “Your mom’s beautiful, Cole.”

“Thanks.” He shoved his hands into his front pockets. “She had a tough life, but she never let it keep her down.”

Peering up from the picture, Piper hoped that Colton would continue talking about his past, but what came out of his mouth next was, “Would you like something to drink?”

“Sure.”

He scratched behind his ear. “What would you like? Water, or beer? I think that’s all I have. I wasn’t expecting company this evening.”

Piper smiled. “A beer would be great.”

As Colton turned toward the kitchen, Piper followed suit. When he noticed her behind him, he laughed. “So, are you going to get the beers or am I?”

I’m going to see the kitchen, and then I want you to take me on a full tour of the house.”

Colton shook his head as he entered the kitchen, lumbering toward the refrigerator, an old fashioned two door model with the freezer on the top of the appliance. As Colton bent down to retrieve their beverages, Piper took in her surroundings and saw more of Colton’s mom’s country style, with white cabinets and blue speckled countertops, a bakers table with four chairs in the middle of the room, and the walls covered in yellow and white daisies.

Standing up, Colton popped the tops off the two beers, and tossed the caps into the waste can beside the refrigerator, then handed Piper her drink. “Would you like to sit in here, or go back into the family room?”

“Actually, I would like the grand tour. I haven’t seen the second floor yet.”

Colton chuckled, took a swig of his beer, then tugged out a seat at the kitchen table and relaxed into it.

She stared at him with a perplexed expression. “O-kay. So, you don’t want to show me the upstairs?”

Colton casually shrugged his shoulders and did not comment.

“Colton Strong, what in the world do you have upstairs that you don’t want me to see? If it’s a messy room you’re hiding, don’t worry about it. I lived in a complete pig sty back in college.”

Colton leaned back, propping his arm on the back of the chair. “I’m not a slob. Girls just aren’t allowed upstairs in my house,” he stated with a lopsided grin.

She laughed. “Is that your mother’s rule from back when you were a teenager with raging hormones?”

After taking another swig from his beer, he answered, “Actually, it’s my current rule.”

Piper eyed him suspiciously. “Is that so? May I ask why females aren’t allowed upstairs?”

“Let me rephrase my statement. You’re not allowed upstairs,” he added with a mischievous glint, coupled with a tinge of heat in his smoldering hazel flecked eyes.

“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere.” She crossed her arms over her chest and jetted out her hip as she played along with his antics. “Why are other women allowed upstairs?”

His mouth tilted upward. “Because my bedroom’s upstairs.”

“I see. And why am I not allowed upstairs?”

He broke out into a full-fledged, teeth-revealing grin. “Because my bedroom’s upstairs.”

Puckering her mouth, Piper contemplated what type of game Colton was playing with her as she moved the tip of her beer bottle across her bottom lip. Was he challenging her to make a move upstairs, or did he truly not want her to enter that part of his domain? With her decision made on how she would handle the situation, she took an extended drink from her beer, then smacked it down hard on the table beside Colton without saying a word. She nodded curtly in his direction, swiveled on her heels, and then marched out of the kitchen toward the staircase at the front of the house.

He chuckled softly, calling to her back, “Piper, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Ignoring him, Piper stomped up the stairs and paused at the top, not knowing which way to turn. After glancing into what Piper felt were two guest rooms and a bathroom, Piper found the master bedroom at the end of the hallway. She flipped on the light and immediately noticed that Colton had redecorated this room. The walls were painted a deep gray, his furniture black, and a light ashen comforter lay on his four poster bed. There weren’t any knickknacks or pictures on his dressers or his walls. His only accessories were a pewter candlestick lamp on one of his nightstands, and one lone silver frame sitting beside it.

Rounding the bed, Piper picked up the photograph and found his mother, looking ill and frail with a colorful flowered scarf wrapped around her head, smiling at the camera from a hospital bed, her eyes simmering with warmth and love. Piper could feel the intimacy between the woman in the photograph and the person taking the photo, who was undoubtedly her son, Colton. Their connection radiated from the unconditional love pouring out from his mother’s eyes. Piper set the frame back down, feeling like she may have overstepped her boundaries when she heard Colton behind her.

Leaning against the doorframe, Colton remarked, “The medicine cabinet is through that door, if that’s where you were headed next.”

Piper couldn’t decide if he was serious or joking. She turned to face him, taking a step closer. “Your other guests get to see that picture, why can’t I?”

“You’re wrong. You’re the only person who has ever seen that photograph of my mom. I always put it in the drawer when I have visitors.”

Now it started to make sense. “So that’s why you didn’t want me to come upstairs? You didn’t want me to see the picture of your mom when she was sick?”

Still lounged against the frame, he crossed his arms as his jaw tightened. “No, Piper. I didn’t want you in my bedroom at all, not just because of that photograph.”

Piper had had enough of him. “Okay, Colton, enough with the hidden figurative language.” She tossed her hands in the air. “Why don’t you want me in your bedroom?” When he refused to answer her question, she blurted, “What? Tell me, Colton.” She moved her head from side-to-side sarcastically. “Do you cast some spell on women that makes their clothes fall off when they enter your room or what?”

He smiled vainly. “I don’t need a spell for that to happen.”

“Oh, I get it now,” she barked hurtfully. “The reason you don’t want me up here is because you don’t want my clothes off. Am I understanding you correctly?”

He shook his head slowly as he huskily replied, “You’ve got it all wrong, Piper.”

She raised her palms to the ceiling. “Then what is it?”

Again, he shrugged his shoulders noncommittally.

Annoyed at his inability to communicate, Piper jammed her fists on her hips, biting, “Colton, you really need to learn to speak English because I don’t understand your immature sign language.”

Colton pushed himself off the frame and took three large steps to close the gap between them. Leaning down, he whispered, “How’s this for sign language.” He grabbed Piper behind the neck and hauled her roughly toward him as he lowered himself to meet her mouth, devouring her with his need. He kissed her deeply and feverishly causing an intense desire to curl low in Piper’s gut, so much so that she had to pull away to catch her breath.

Feeling empowered by his desire, Piper stepped back from him, her breathing erratic as she slipped her fingers into the waistband of her top and slowly lifted it over her head, leaving her in a cream lace push-up bra, feeling exposed, vulnerable, almost to the point of wanting to cover herself with her arms. Colton’s eyes longingly dropped to her breasts, giving Piper the courage she needed to lunge at him, wrapping her legs around his waist as she dragged her teeth across his neck.

His breathing escalated as he moaned in pleasure, whispering, “You drive me insane, Piper,” as he tugged at the back of her hair to allow him to envelope her in another sultry kiss. Inching to the bed, Colton grabbed her by the hips, his fingers delving into her flesh, and tossed her onto the mattress, then knelt above her like a lion ready to devour his prey, staring intensely into her heated eyes.

Needing to feel his flesh, Piper reached for his sweater, sliding it upward as her hands roamed over his rippled stomach. Colton helped by yanking his shirt the rest of the way off and tossing it to the side as she clawed her fingernails over his bare chest. Reaching up, Piper clasped both arms around the back of his neck, dragging him down toward her, but he resisted and unlatched her limbs, locking them above her head one handed.

“No need to rush a good thing,” he seductively whispered, then began kissing her collarbone, between her breasts, trailing down her quivering stomach. Piper dug her heels into the mattress as desire pulsed through her, trying with all her might not to scream out in pure, mind-blowing sensual overload.

 

 

PIPER WOKE SUDDENLY, springing into a sitting position, startled by her unfamiliar surroundings. Pulling the sheet up to protect herself from the cool air, Piper reached beside her, wanting to feel Colton’s warm, comforting skin, but her reach came back empty. The moon provided Piper only a small sliver of light as she squinted into the dark and noticed a shadowed figure across the room.

“Cole? Is that you? Come back to bed.”

He spoke in a clipped tone. “Get dressed, Piper. I’m taking you home.”

Pulling the sheet up to her chin, she asked, “Why? What’s the matter?”

He tossed her a Chicago Bears sweatshirt. “Here put this on. It’s cold outside.” He turned toward the door. “I’m going to start the car. I’ll meet you there.”

Colton drove dangerously fast, whipping the car around curves and barely pausing at stop signs as thick silence formed an abounding crater between them. As Piper braced herself for the upcoming bend in the road, her thoughts swirled with every possible scenario of what might have happened to make Colton so cold and distant now, after being so giving and caring in her arms less than six hours ago. She realized the kaleidoscope had shifted once again, reflecting black and gray inflamed fragments in all directions, and Piper was dumbstruck on the reason for the tilt, and how to regain its original position. When Colton screeched up to the curb in front of her apartment, slamming the brakes to a halt, Piper reached for the door handle ready to escape from his icy demeanor, but reconsidered.

She swiveled toward him. “I deserve an explanation, Colton, as to why you’re acting so distant.” She raised her eyebrows. “What in the world has changed in the last few hours?”

He chose not to look at her, replying sharply, “As if you don’t know.”

Her voice rose an octave. “No, actually, I have no flipping clue, Colton. Why don’t you shed some light for me?”

He smirked at her cockily. “You went into my room.”

“Oh my God,” she said as she rolled her eyes exaggeratedly. “Here we go again with the stupid conundrums. I’m not in the mood for this, Cole. Tell me what’s going on in your head,” she pleaded.

He turned back toward the front windshield without a word.

Piper had had enough of his silence. She grabbed his chin and yanked him back to look at her, her breathing escalating, her voice wavering with emotion. “No, Colton. You’re not shutting down on me. Do you hear me? We are going to have a conversation like two grown adults right here and now, whether you like it or not!”

Whipping his head to the side, Colton ripped his chin out of her grasp, snapping, “No, we’re not.” He did turn toward her then, with a condescending look on his face. “Believe me, Piper, you wouldn’t like what I have to say.”

“Oh really,” she quipped, her eyes conveying a façade of strength. “Go ahead and give it a shot. I’m stronger than you think.”

He turned away from her again.

“Goddamn it, Colton! Answer me!”

He spun back around, sneering through clenched teeth, “I’m not your happy ever after, Piper. Not now. Not ever.”

Piper fought hard to hold her composure as she glared at him and matched his condescending tone. “Who said that’s what I wanted from you anyway?”

She jerked the handle up and bolted from the car, slamming the door as hard as she could as Colton sped away, squealing his tires in the process, leaving only the smell of burnt rubber in his wake.

 

Chapter thirteen

 

STOMPING INTO THE apartment, Piper swung the door shut, threw her purse onto the couch, then raced into her room where she flung herself onto the bed, balling up her comforter in her clenched fists as she grunted like a raving lunatic. Flailing her feet, she pounded her fists onto the mattress as she smashed her face into her bedding while blaring incoherent words at the top of her lungs into the softness of her down pillow.

Robin shuffled into the room, cinching the belt on her robe, while speaking through a yawn, “What in the world is going on in here?” When she saw Piper’s tantrum, she turned to leave, but then stopped when she heard her spout, still swallowed by her pillow, “Colton is a complete nutcase! What was I thinking by sleeping with him?”

Robin’s eyes widened as she spun on her heels, asking in astonishment, “You slept with Colton tonight?”

Piper kicked her feet with as much force as she could against the mattress. “Yes, and I’m a stupid idiot!”

Robin shook her head, smiling. “Wow, Pipe, you are full of surprises, aren’t you?”

Pitching herself onto her back, Piper’s pungent words spilled out of her mouth. “Well, if he wouldn’t have kissed me at the Plaza, none of this would have happened in the first place.”

“Whoa, backup.” Robin perched on the foot of her bed. “Why did Colton kiss you at the hotel?”

Slapping her hands down in aggravation, Piper complained, her tone filled with satire, “I asked him that very same question, and guess what? He didn’t answer me. That man never answers me!”

Robin moved her index fingers in a backward circle. “Let’s rewind and start at the beginning. Is that okay with you?”

Pulling a deep breath, Piper closed her eyes. “Sure, maybe you can make some sense out of what happened because I sure as heck can’t.”

Tucking one leg under the other, Robin inquired, “First of all, how did it go with your sister?”

Piper groaned as she laid her forearm over her eyes to keep from seeing the look on her friend’s face when she dropped the bomb she was holding. “She’s pregnant with Phillip’s baby and they’re getting married,” she admitted through one long drawn-out breath.

“What!” Robin jumped up and started pacing the small room. “You have got to be flipping kidding me!” She stopped in her tracks and threw up her arms. “Why in the hell hasn’t anyone told you about this? Your mother, Danielle, someone!” She clenched her forehead as if she had a migraine. “God, this is so screwed up.”

Piper yanked a pillow over her head, moaning, “Tell me about it.”

Robin began walking again, formulating a plan of attack. “If I were you, the first thing I would do is call your mother and let her have it, and then I’d call Danielle and give her a good tongue lashing, too.”

“Don’t worry. I plan on it.” Piper sat up, stuffing the pillow between her back and the headboard. “Robin, come sit down.” She patted the bed in front of her. “You’re making me more of a nervous wreck than I already am.”

Robin pushed her hands through her hair before plopping down on the bed. “Sorry. This is just crazy though, seriously, like Jerry Springer material.”

Piper couldn’t contain her laughter. “You’re right. My life has become a trashy talk show.”

Robin’s expression grew serious instantaneously. “So, what are you going to do now?”

Pulling up her shoulders, Piper sighed. “I have no idea.”

“Do you think you will ever be part of this baby’s life?”

“No,” Piper stated with conviction, then reconsidered as she shrugged. “Who knows what the future will bring.” She grabbed a teal throw pillow off the comforter and rolled the tan fringe between her thumb and forefinger. “But I have to tell you, Rob, my heart was knocked down to my big toe when I saw Phillip with Gina tonight.”

“Wait, Phillip was at the hotel?”

“Yep.”

“Oh my gawd!” she exclaimed. “Did you punch him right in the gut?” She rattled on, “You couldn’t hit your sister because she’s prego, but you sure as heck could have dotted that asshole’s eye.”

“No, I didn’t, but I sure thought Colton was going to.”

“Ahhhh,” Robin grinned. “Colton to the rescue.”

“Hardly,” Piper huffed.

“But he did kiss you, right?”

Piper made herself refrain from smiling. “Yeah, he laid a good one on me, right in front of Phillip and Gina.”

Pumping her fist into the air, Robin squealed, “Yes! I knew I liked that guy.”

“Well you might change your mind after you find out he practically threw me out of his bed after I slept with him.”

Robin’s brow furrowed. “What? He doesn’t seem the type.” She tilted her chin in contemplation. “Let me elaborate. Colton looks the type, but his actions have shown us otherwise. Do you get what I’m saying?”

“That’s what I thought, too. Then poof, Mr. Hyde showed up out of nowhere.”

Robin debated, “You can’t think of anything, even something minute, that might have set him off?”

Shaking her head while flattening her lips, Piper replied, “Nope.”

Robin contracted her shoulders, deducing, “Well then, maybe he’s just like the rest of the male population and has serious deep-rooted commitment issues.”

Piper held up her palms. “But I wasn’t asking for a commitment from him though.”

A light bulb suddenly went off in Piper’s head. She reached across the bed, grabbed both of Robin’s hands, propelling her into a tight embrace. “You are amazing, an absolute genius!” and then ran from the room, calling behind her back, “I’m going to find my phone and call my mother.”

 

After taking a scalding hot shower, Piper used her towel to wipe the fogged condensation from the bathroom mirror and then brushed her hair back from her face with a wide-toothed comb, contemplating what she was going to say to her mother. Still, she couldn’t wrap her mind around her mother putting her in the compromising position where she felt like she would be forced to accept an apology from Gina. Did her mother really think roping her into being in the same room with her sister would make the past disappear, like a magician swirling his wand over a rabbit in a top hat?

The image of Gina’s swollen belly clouded Piper’s thoughts, a mental representation that would be etched in her mind forever, making her ponder how her mother could have thought that keeping Gina’s pregnancy a secret was a good idea. Did she think if she saw her sister in person, the blow would be lessened with her overwhelming need to be part of the baby’s life? Little did she know, in reality, seeing Gina in her current condition knocked the wind right out of her lungs, making Piper despise her sister even more.

Ambling into the kitchen, Piper poured herself a hot cup of coffee and slumped down at the table. Although Piper dreaded the conversation that was about to take place, she knew it was inevitable and forced herself to tap her mother’s contact on her cell phone.

When her mother answered, Piper’s fury, which had been simmering underneath the surface, broke through as she asked her acidly, “How could you, Mom, really?”

Her mother sounded confounded. “Piper, is that you?”

“Yes, Mom. It’s me.” She dropped her head into her the palm of her hand. “How could you send Gina up here knowing what it would do to me? Don’t you think I’ve been through enough already?”

He mother appeared rattled. “Honey, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t send your sister anywhere. In fact, I’ve barely spoken to her since,” she hesitated, “since you left for Chicago.”

Years of resentment at her mother always taking Gina’s side boiled over. “Look, Mother, Gina told me the plan you two hatched up about her staying up here on your credit card until we worked things out, and just so it’s clear,” she retorted in vexation, “I didn’t ‘just leave’ for Chicago. I ran away because Gina screwed the man I was planning on marrying, or did you just conveniently forget that piece of information?”

Piper could hear her mother sigh. “No, honey. I didn’t forget what Gina did to you, but I am trying to forgive her for breaking your heart and busting up our family. I pray that you’ll be able to forgive her too. Not now. I know that’s impossible, but maybe someday in the future.” Her mother paused, then rebutted, “But I have no idea what you’re talking about when it comes to sending Gina to Chicago. As I’ve already said, I haven’t spoken to her much. I’m having a really hard time with what she did to you, as well. I’m trying to forgive and forget, but it’s been difficult.”

Piper asked in astonishment, “So you didn’t give Gina your credit card and tell her not to come home until we’d worked things out?”

“No, Piper. I haven’t seen or talked to your sister in weeks.”

Piper cringed when she forced herself to ask, “Do you even know she’s pregnant?”

“Good God, what?”

“Mom,” Piper explained gently, “she’s carrying Phillip’s child and they’re going to get married.”

Piper heard the phone drop as her mother broke out in sobs, the sound of her weeping ricocheting throughout her ears. A few minutes elapsed while Piper listened as her mother pulled in broken gasps of air, trying to regain control of her emotions. Finally, she picked back up the extension. “Piper, honey,” she lost control again after she whispered, “I am so sorry.”

 

 

PIPER DIDN’T LEAVE the apartment for rest of the weekend as she contemplated her circumstances. She felt as if her twenty-four years had been placed into a blender with fate punching the puree button, holding it down as the blades pulsed, dicing her entire existence into oblivion. How could so much go wrong in such a short period of time, Gina and Phillip, Jack and his mother, she and Colton? Now, Piper had another quandary to add to the list, the relationship with her mom. Remembering her poor mother’s breakdown, which ripped at her heart, Piper contemplated how she could have thought that she would be involved in Gina’s cruel plot, and debated whether her mother would ever forgive her for thinking she was capable of such tyranny.

After speaking with Danielle, Piper had learned that Gina had fallen off the face of the earth since the news of the affair broke loose, not only from her family, but from their friends, as well. According to Danielle, no one in their group had seen or talked to Gina in months, which sparked Piper to believe that Gina had holed up with Phillip, most likely in his condo at the Harbors, which led to Gina’s current predicament.

What in the world was Piper supposed to do now with her sister carrying her ex-fiancé’s child? Although Piper never imagined fully forgiving her sister, she envisioned ten or fifteen years down the road being able to stomach being in the same room with her at Christmas time or some other holiday, but now, with anticipating Phillip standing by her side, Piper didn’t foresee that possible.

Piper switched gears, moving on to her next dilemma, asking herself how she felt about the situation with Colton. When she was with him, she realized she totally forgot about her problems in her hometown and just enjoyed his company. What exactly did that mean? And more importantly, why did she choose to sleep with him? Was it for her to feel sexually desirable again after being rejected by her fiancé? Or did her reaction to Colton have absolutely nothing to do with Phillip at all? Which led to a whole different set of questions that Piper wasn’t quite ready to ask herself.

 

 

LATE SUNDAY EVENING, Piper turned off her light switch and crawled into bed, cradling her phone in her hand, knowing what she had to do. She pushed Colton’s contact on her phone, before she lost her nerve. When he answered on the first ring, Piper hesitated, giving Colton the opportunity to sigh her name in a deep, husky voice, causing Piper to involuntarily shudder from her head to her toes. How could Colton utter one word and she melt like a pathetic Popsicle in the sweltering desert?

Piper attempted to sound confident. “Colton, I have some things to say, and I would like to have an opportunity to say them without you interrupting, okay?” When he didn’t reply, she continued. “Look, this is the thing. I don’t want, or need, anything from you. What happened between us was not a big deal, really. I know that you think I’m the type of girl who needs a relationship after she sleeps with someone, but you’re wrong.”

He chuckled under his breath. “You think I really believe that, Piper?”

“Well, you should,” she quickly responded, then closed her eyes in the darkness of her bedroom and lied. “You weren’t my first one night stand, you know.”

He chortled deeply. “Why don’t you tell me about your last fling then?”

“It was…” she said, then hesitated. “He was this guy from,” she stammered further. “You know what,” she snapped back, “I don’t have to tell you about my previous partners. It’s really none of your business anyway.”

“Piper,” he spoke in a whisper. “I know precisely what type of girl you are.”

“Oh, yeah? Let’s hear it. What type of girl are you so sure that I am?”

“You’re faithful and love deep with your whole heart.” He lowered his voice. “Sexually, you’re hesitant and self-conscious, which is probably due to getting burned, but with a little prodding, you were passionate and erotic.” His voice took on a throaty, sexy murmur. “Which drove me completely insane.” His tone grew brash. “But you are not a person who has sex with someone you aren’t wanting to have a relationship with. You don’t have it in you, Piper; don’t kid yourself. You’re sure as hell not fooling me, and that’s exactly why I didn’t want you in my bedroom. I knew what would happen, and I also knew I couldn’t follow through with what you wanted in the end.”

Although Piper desperately wanted to ask why he couldn’t follow through, instead, she replied flippantly, wanting to save face, “You’re awfully arrogant to believe that one night in bed with you would make me swoon. I hate to bust your bubble, Colton, but it wasn’t that good.”

“Ah, Piper,” he chuckled hoarsely. “Your three orgasms tell me otherwise.”

Chapter Fourteen

 

 

PIPER RETURNED TO work the following Monday. When she walked through the doors to the oncology unit, her mind instantly thought of Jack and realized that with all the turmoil in her life, she selfishly forgot to inform Colton about Jack’s unexpected visitor on Thursday night. Making a mental note to call Colton on her morning break, Piper clocked in and began her day.

At ten-thirty a.m., Piper strolled out of her unit, down the hallway into pediatric cardiology wing, and entered the bathroom to call Colton, not wanting anyone on their floor to hear her conversation.

“Colton, it’s Piper.”

“You just can’t get enough of me, can you?” he taunted her.

Piper laughed out loud sarcastically. “Yeah, right.”

“Don’t feel bad,” he continued ribbing her, “I have that effect on a lot of women.”

She clucked again, retorting, “I just have to ask, do you have any neck pain?”

“No, why?” he inquired, befuddled.

“I just figured carrying around that big fat head of yours may cause some kind of adverse reactions, that’s all.”

Now it was his turn to laugh out loud. After a few seconds, Piper followed with, “Hey, I forgot to tell you something this weekend about Jack.”

Colton’s tone immediately turned serious. “Okay, what is it?”

“He had some crazed lunatic beating on the front door on Thursday night yelling for his mother to open up.”

“Is Jack back in the hospital?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know about this.”

She blanched. “I guess I forgot to tell you. I gave Jack a prepaid cell phone the last time he was in. He called me when his mother wouldn’t wake up.”

“Piper,” he heaved. “Please tell me you called the police about the intruder.”

She squeezed her eyes tightly shut. “Not exactly…”

Her answer aroused an angry spark to ignite in his voice. “You didn’t run over there knowing that man was drunk, or worse yet, on drugs, did you?”

Piper defended her actions. “At least I wasn’t alone. I had Robin with me, and she had a bat.”

Sarcasm dripped from his words. “Great. A hundred-and-fifteen pound woman yielding a softball bat. I’m sure the guy bolted right away after seeing you two get out of the car.”

Annoyance flared within her. “Look, I’m not telling you this to get berated. I just thought you needed to know, for Jack’s sake.”

He gentled his tone. “You’ve got to understand, Piper, you’re dealing with alcoholics, or worse. You can’t put yourself in harm’s way. The next time something like this happens, promise that you’ll call me, or better yet, the authorities. That’s what they’re there for.”

Piper rolled her eyes.

“Piper…” Colton warned.

“Okay, fine. I’ll call the police.”

“That’s better.” He paused, and then added, “I think it’s time I set up that interview with Jack’s uncle. It looks like things may be coming to a head.”

 

 

ROBERT LAMPERT SAT across the desk from Piper and Colton, his suit jacket wilted, his mostly bald head beaded with perspiration, which he kept mopping at with a neatly folded white handkerchief. “You’ll have to excuse the heat. My residents get chilled easily, so I try to keep the thermostat up this time of year.”

“No problem, I understand,” Colton replied politely. “This is Piper Wilkinson, my associate. I hope you don’t mind her sitting in on our meeting.”

He offered her his hand. “Not at all.”

Piper leaned forward to shake his hand, then sat back down, and withdrew a pad of paper and pen from her purse.

Reclining, Robert Lampert propped his elbows on the arms of his chair, making a tent with his fingertips. “I’m interested to know why you’re here, Mr. Strong. I’ve never had Child Protective Services interview me regarding one of my residents before.”

“Actually, we aren’t here concerning a resident here at your facility. Speaking of which, how long have you owned this retirement community?”

“About fifteen years now. I bought it when my father lived here. It was in shambles then, only had ten residents, but my dad loved it here, so I quit my job as an accountant, and bought this place before the seller went into foreclosure. I got it for next to nothing, then put some additional money in to refurbish the existing guest rooms and added the new wing as well. Business has really taken off,” he proudly commented.

“And your mother, is she still living?”

“No. She died right before my father moved here.” He raised his eyebrows. “May I ask where this line of questioning is going?”

“I’m here under the investigation of your sister, Susan Lampert.”

He nodded his head as his eyes clouded over. “I see.”

“How long has Ms. Lampert worked for you?”

“Let’s see,” he recalled. “I’d say about three years. I could give you the exact date if I looked in her personnel file.”

“That’s not necessary,” Colton stated, and then followed with another question. “Has your sister been employed consistently over that time period?”

He raised one eyebrow above the other. “What happens if I choose not to answer your question?”

“That’s when I call in the authorities. I’m sure you don’t want to risk having a messy investigation ruin the reputation you’ve established in the community, do you, Mr. Lampert?”

He loosened his tie as a line of sweat trickled down his neck, disappearing into the starched material of his collar. “She’s gotten a paycheck consistently, although she does miss quite a few days of work,” he generalized.

“Why?”

“She says because she was sick.”

“But you know otherwise, don’t you?”

Flustered, he defended his kin. “Look, my little sister is a smart woman, had a nursing license until she lost it before her son was born.” He raised his palm. “I swear she can be a good mother. She’s just fallen on some hard times, that’s all.”

“What kind of hard times?”

“Well, for starters, that low life, Jack Rynhart, her son’s birth father, messed her up real good. He got her addicted to all kinds of bad stuff, alcohol, drugs, even had her stealing prescription meds from the hospital she worked at, which cost her the nursing license. Then that son of a gun left her high and dry, pregnant with his baby after he found out she couldn’t provide him with any more drugs. When Jack was born, Susan had a tough time finding a job, and the ones she did get only paid her minimum wage. It’s hard to raise a family on that this day and age, so she quit her waitressing job, and went back to school, which ate through all of her savings. When she started feeling the pressure, she resorted back to her old ways, drinking and getting high. That’s when I stepped in and told her that if she sobered up, she could work for me. I have to be honest, though. It’s been an uphill battle for her. I used to give her a full paycheck no matter how many hours Susie worked, just to help her out, but my wife told me I was enabling her, and that I had to stop or she’d never get better. From that point on, I put my foot down and explained to Susan that from here on out, I’m only paying her for the actual time she put in. Needless to say, she wasn’t too happy about it, but what could I do?”

“You did the right thing,” Colton explained. “I know it’s hard to see sometimes, but your wife is right. The longer you enable your sister, the longer she will stay an addict.”

“I just feel so damn bad for that boy of hers. He didn’t ask to be born into this situation, and now with the cancer…” He sighed. “Those two can’t seem to get a break in life.”

CPS would like nothing better than for Ms. Lampert to stay sober and care for her own son, but if she can’t stay on the wagon, we will have to step in. I’ve tried to give her AA brochures in the past, but she doesn’t seem interested.”

“My wife and I have tried to talk her into going to some of those meetings, too. Lisbeth, that’s my wife, even offered to go with her, but Susie wanted no part of it. Maybe with CPS on her tail though, she might change her mind in fear of losing her son.”

“She needs to get sober, or that’s exactly what will happen.”

“I understand, sir, but let me just say, no matter what craziness is going on in Susie’s life, she loves that boy with all her heart. I’m not sure if that means a whole hill of beans in her situation, but I just felt you should know that.”

 

“So, what did you think of Robert Lampert?” Piper asked as soon as Colton veered onto the ramp of the highway.

After merging into the right lane, Colton answered, “Although he was trying to protect his sister, I felt he was as honest as he could be, and that’s more than I can say about a lot of people I’ve interviewed under the same circumstances.”

“I totally agree. He was much more forthcoming than I thought he’d be.” She turned to look at him. “Do you think he can talk Susan into getting sober now that he has the threat of Jack being taking away to hold over her head?”

“I’m not sure, but I hope so. Robert is her only living relative. If he can’t do it, I’m afraid no one can.”

“So, what’s the next step?”

“I type up a report and turn it into the agency.”

Piper questioned, “Robert admitting his sister is an addict helps the investigation though, right?”

“Definitely. If we have to take this case to a judge, his testimony will hopefully be the final nail in Susan Lampert’s coffin. I just pray it doesn’t come to that.”

“Me too, but if that’s what needs to be done to keep Jack safe, I’m all for it.”

Colton reached over, grabbing ahold of Piper’s hand. “Jack needs his mother, Piper. Taking him out of his home is an absolute last resort. I want to make sure you understand that.”

After staring at their entwined fingers for an extended beat, Piper asked while trying to keep her tone neutral, “Susan has shown over and over again that she can’t handle her parenting responsibilities. How many chances does this woman get?”

“As long as Jack isn’t in immediate danger, Susan gets as many chances as it takes to get it right. You’ve got to remember, Piper, Susan’s not a poor parent because she’s incapable; it’s because she’s an addict.”

He released her hand and re-gripped the steering wheel, staring off into the distance, then spoke quietly, more to himself than to anyone else. “I’m sure glad my mother got a second chance to get it right.”

Chapter fifteen

 

 

PIPER LIFTED THE slimy legs, spreading them apart as she bent over to peek inside the cavity, but all she could see was darkness inside the hallow tunnel. Squeezing her eyes shut, she reached under the tail and into the body of the turkey to pull out its interior pouch of remains, tossing them into the trash with a disgusted look on her face, wondering how she could examine the insides of a human body and be just fine, but couldn’t stomach looking at the neck and giblets of a decapitated turkey.

As Piper packed the turkey’s cavity with her mom’s stuffing recipe, she said a quick prayer to the Big Man upstairs that her Thanksgiving dinner would at least turn out edible. Cooking was definitely not her strong suit, but Robin wasn’t willing to go to the lengths it took to prepare a whole turkey, which just left Piper for the time consuming task. Making sure to call her mother in advance, Piper wrote down detailed instructions on what time to begin the preparations, all the way down to how to carve the turkey after it had rested a full twenty minutes covered in aluminum foil. After tucking the legs into the sagging skin flap, Piper nestled the bird into the baking dish, then jabbed a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the turkey before placing the roasting pan into the oven.

This was Piper’s first Thanksgiving away from her family, and although at first she was apprehensive about feeling empty and alone without the security blanket of her relatives, she actually realized that she felt more independent and alive than she ever had before. Despite the fact that she had run away from the ghosts of her past, Piper had grown to love the life she had created for herself in Chicago and looked forward to what the city might bring her in the future. Still, Piper was aware of the fact that she would eventually have to confront the demons she had locked securely away in the back of her mind, but today was not the day to battle the forgotten, rather to celebrate the present.

Piper didn’t think her day could have started any better after successfully preparing the turkey and receiving an unexpected phone call from Jack. He sounded so chipper and excited over the phone about going to his uncle Robert’s for their Thanksgiving meal. Piper could actually visualize him hopping up and down as he told her about everything his uncle was cooking for them, the Xbox games that he and two older cousins were planning on playing, and the scrumptious desserts that his aunt Lisbeth had prepared. After promising to draw Piper everything that he did on Thanksgiving Day, they ended their call with Piper more content than ever. Of all the things she was thankful for, Jack being happy and out of impending danger was at the top of her list.

Piper set the kitchen table with a red linen tablecloth, adding a fresh fall flower arrangement brimming with black-eyed Susan’s, coneflowers, accented with lavender aster buds as its centerpiece. Bustling around the small kitchenette protected by Robin’s peach apron, Piper made sure everything on the table was perfectly placed, the wine flutes, water goblets, dessert forks, bread plates, and white linen napkins, needing to prove that her first Thanksgiving without her parents would be a success.

A half hour before the turkey was scheduled to be finished cooking, Jeffrey and Alex rang the bell, entering with their hands full of wine and dessert, as well as Thanksgiving wishes. As Robin helped them peel off their coats, Piper went into the kitchen to uncork the wine. All four stood in a circle with their wine glasses raised.

“To new beginnings, as well as new friends,” Piper toasted.

“To a new roommate that isn’t half bad,” Robin added.

“To the new guy who moved down the hall,” Jeffrey commented.

“And, to the new tattoo I just got inked,” Alex finished.

They all laughed as they clinked their glasses together, not quite sure how four people with totally different personalities could become such good friends, but each was confident in the bond they had created with one another. Watching Robin carve the turkey was their pre-meal entertainment as she cursed through the entire experience, miffed at the turkey for slipping back and forth on the carving platter as she attempted to whittle the huge chunk of meat into slices. Once they each had their mounds of garlic mashed potatoes, butter green beans, and oven roasted turkey on their plates, they sat together while laughing in between bites as they shared their most horrendous Thanksgiving stories. While cleaning up the kitchen, Robin blared “Stay With Me” on her iPhone dock. They all boogied, shimmied, and danced as they pumped their free fist into the air, singing at the top of their lungs while carrying the dishes over to the sink, before rinsing them off and stuffing them in the dishwasher.

 

After all three friends had gone their separate ways to enjoy their own family’s Thanksgiving meal, Piper perched herself in front of the television in the great room next to a stack of chick-flicks, with her hot pink fleece blanket draped over her legs and her favorite bottle of Chardonnay chilled on the coffee table. After pouring herself a generous portion of wine, Piper popped the first disk into the DVD player, and couldn’t contain her smile as Ryan Gosling appeared on the screen in front of her. But just as she had gotten herself situated, with pillows on either side of her and her fleece wrapped tightly around her legs, there was an unexpected knock at the front door. Assuming Jeffrey or Alex had returned for something they had left behind, Piper hopped over to answer the door with her blanket still wound around her body, but instead of finding her friends, she found Colton with his hands jammed into the front pockets of his jeans.

“Hey,” he tossed out casually.

She recovered from her surprise and threw back his word, “Hey,” in a manner that mirrored his own. A long pause followed where both stood awkwardly staring at one another until Piper broke the silence, asking, “Cole, what are you doing here?”

He smirked. “I came to tell you Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Oh, o-kay,” she sputtered. “Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.”

Another pause.

Colton scratched at his neck. “Well, aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“Umm, yeah, sure.” She stepped back, pulling the door open with her. “I was just getting ready to watch a movie, but it can wait.”

Colton shook off his jacket, chucked it into the chair, and then hunkered down on the couch, signaling to Piper that he planned on staying for a while.

“So, how was your day?”

Piper let the blanket drop from around her waist and then laid it over the back of the couch before she took a seat beside him. "It was good, actually -- cooked my first Thanksgiving meal."

“And…”

“And what?”

“Did people actually eat it, or did they just push their food around on their plates to make it appear like they did?” he asked teasingly.

She shook her head. “Don’t you know you’re supposed to be cordial to the people you visit, especially on a holiday?” she kidded back. “The meal was delicious, if I do say so myself. How was yours?”

“Good, if you erase my cousin’s four little guys trying to pry the fork out of my hand the entire time, wanting me to wrestle with them.”

Piper grinned at the picture he created in her mind. “And who won the wrestling match, you or the kids?”

“Well, I did of course,” he bragged, but then admitted, “Honestly though, I’m not sure how long I can continue to win against those monkeys. They’re getting pretty hard to handle, especially four against one. I think I need to retire before I lose my championship belt.”

Piper laughed. “Please tell me you’re joking and you really don’t have one of the gaudy things.”

“Yeah, I do.” He chuckled. “My cousin made it out of some type of gold foil or something. It’s a pretty big deal who wins the belt every year.” He coughed into his fist. “And it’s always me.”

Piper shook her head, but couldn’t contain the smile tugging at her lips. “Have you ever thought about throwing the match so one of your little cousins might get the belt for a change?”

“Nah.” Piper pushed him hard against his chest as he laughed. “I just figured I’m teaching them the art of losing gracefully.”

“You’re rotten, you know that, right?”

He shrugged. “I’m just competitive.”

“Competitive against a gang of six-year-olds. Now that’s something to brag about.”

“Hey, they’re seven,” he defended himself, “and really big for their age.”

“Maybe you should wrestle someone your own size for a change.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Are you challenging me?”

“Bring your little cousins over, and all five of us will take you on,” she ribbed.

He chortled, his eyes alight with mischief. He then gestured toward the television. “So, what were you watching before I interrupted?”

“Only the most epic love story of all time.”

His eyes narrowed. “I thought you didn’t believe in love stories anymore.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Piper stated defiantly.

He propped his arm on the back of couch just beyond her shoulder, before commenting, “Glad to hear it.”

She tilted her head. “And why exactly are you glad to hear that from me?” she inquired, remembering his own words of not wanting to be her happily ever after.

“Because it leads me to believe you’re getting over Dickweed,” he stated as a matter of fact. “And that’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

She prodded him further. “Why do you care what direction my love life goes anyway?”

“Let’s just say,” he began as he smoothed the ends of her hair lying on the couch. “I have a vested interest.”

She peered out of the corner of her eyes in mystification from his statement, but instead of replying to his declaration, she clicked the play button on the remote control. “Have you ever seen The Notebook?”

He turned toward the TV, slouching down to get comfortable. “Nope, can’t say that I have.”

“Best movie of all time, in my opinion.” She smiled at him. “It may even rival Braveheart on your list, if you keep an open mind.”

He snickered at her. “I highly doubt that, but can you point me to the restroom before you start the movie?”

“Sure, it’s through that hallway to the right.”

While Colton was gone, Piper strolled into the kitchen, trying not to read too much into his flirty behavior, then returned with an extra wine glass and poured him a flute full. When Colton reentered the great room, she handed him his glass as he settled beside her, this time, so close she could smell his alluring Armani cologne.

During the movie, when Colton’s leg grazed hers, Piper ignored the electric current shooting up her leg, sending erratic shocks throughout her body. And when he reached for her hand, placing a light kiss in the center of her palm when he noticed her tearing up as the elderly man climbs into bed with his dying wife, Piper tried her hardest not to fade into him. Instead, she kept her eyes glued to the movie, pretending his sweet caresses never happened.

When the final credits were rolling, Piper turned toward him. “So, what did ya think?”

“Not too bad.” He moved forward, reaching for his glass. “But it’s a little unbelievable, don’t you think?”

She seriously analyzed his statement and then contested, “But all love is slightly unbelievable when you analyze it. You just have to take a leap of faith that the rewards will outweigh the risks and jump in.”

He stared at her deeply as he wet the corner of his mouth with his tongue, igniting a tingling sensation to fester in Piper’s lower abdomen. He reached for her, trailing his thumb across her lower lip, whispering, “Spoken like a true romantic.”

Her face flushed at his touch as she nervously tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear. “So, what do you want to do next? I’m sure another chick-flick is out of the question, and I’m afraid that’s all I have.”

Time seemed to stand still as he leaned in, murmuring, “I’ve got a few ideas,” as his finger slid lazily down her collarbone toward the dip in her sweater. Reaching a hand behind her neck, he pulled her to him, first nibbling seductively on her lower lip, enticing her to open her mouth. He took his time, luring her into a captivating kiss that made her stomach curl with desire. Piper couldn’t help herself. She wrapped her arms around his neck, gently moving her head to the side so he could deepen their embrace. But as his hands glided up her top from the back-side, flashbacks from his bedroom flooded her mind. She pushed against his chest, righting herself on the sofa as she straightened her cream sweater.

“Colton, I need to be completely honest with you.” She licked her bottom lip that still lingered with his taste. “I lied when I said that I’ve had other one night stands.”

He ran his knuckles gently down her jaw line. “I know that, Piper.”

“You do?” she asked, flabbergasted.

“You’re not a very convincing liar,” he murmured as he brushed heavenly kisses along her neckline.

She pushed him away again. “This is the thing though. I know you don’t want a relationship,” she hesitated, trying to be as honest as possible, “and I’m not sure exactly what I want, but I do know that I won’t be friends with benefits with anyone, including you. That is something that is off the table, no matter what.”

He leaned away from her. “I knew I described you to a tee the other night.”

“Well, I guess you were right. I need a committed relationship to be intimate with a man. Maybe that’s old fashioned, but it’s me.” She shrugged her shoulders. “And I can’t change my stripes.”

“I would never ask you to change, Piper. Your stripes are what appealed to me in the first place, but I don’t do relationships with anyone. I never have, and I never will.”

She glanced out of the corner of her eyes in disbelief. “You’re trying to tell me that you’ve never had a girlfriend?”

He shook his head.

She quizzed him further. “Not even in grade school?”

He answered with a mirthful grin. “Definitely not in grade school.”

“Not in high school or college?”

“Nope.”

“I knew it!” Piper pointed at him. “I was right about you all along. You’re the eternal playboy.”

His mouth tugged downward. “All this time, that’s what you’ve thought about me? Nice, Piper,” he bit brazenly.

“You just said yourself that you’ve never been in a relationship.”

“Yeah, but did I say I sleep around? No, I didn’t. You’re the one who implied that.”

Piper saw the hurt in his eyes and was dumbfounded on what in Colton’s past had persuaded him that he couldn’t let a woman into his life. She needed to have answers. “Why have you never been in a relationship, Cole? Tell me, please.”

Digging his fingers into his eye sockets, he stated, “Because relationships lead to woman wanting marriage, and I’ll never get married.”

“Never is an awfully long time,” she balked.

“Piper,” his tone was strained, “I’m not berating you for how you choose to live your life. Why are you dissecting the way I live mine?”

Reaching for his glass, he took a slow sip of the pale liquid. When he replaced his glass, he seemed to have come to a resolution of some sort. His facial features had relaxed and his shoulders unhinged. He casually turned toward her, easing his arm to hang on the back of the sofa.

“Look, you live your life one way, and I live mine another. Who’s to say which way is right and which is wrong?”

“Well, society does, for one,” Piper countered. “Even people who don’t believe in the sanctimony of marriage usually end up with a partner of some sort during their lifetime.”

“So, does that make the people who choose not to form that type of relationship wrong?”

“It makes them different, and usually when someone chooses to not form real human connections in his life is because something in his past has scarred him in some way.”

He smirked with one eyebrow arched above the other. "So, now you're a therapist? That's funny -- I thought your degree was in nursing."

“No, I’m not a therapist, Colton, but I am a concerned friend.” She touched his hand resting at her shoulder. “Please, talk to me.”

He dropped his arm, causing Piper’s hand to fall onto the couch between them. Raking his fingers through his hair, he leaned over his knees while muttering, “I’m just so damn tired of talking.”

“Well, that’s what people do when they’re trying to form a relationship.”

He pushed himself off the couch, spinning around toward her. “I just told you. I don’t do relationships.”

“I’m not talking about a boyfriend/girlfriend thing. I’m talking about a friendship.” When he didn’t answer, she pushed further. “Do you even have any true friends, Colton?”

He closed his eyes for an extended beat, inhaling deeply. “I have friends, Piper.”

“That wasn’t my question. I asked if you have any true friends, because honestly, I don’t believe you do. Friendships are based on a level of trust and I doubt you have trusted anyone in your life to really let them in, to know the real you. So the people you are referring to are most likely just close acquaintances, not true friends.”

He turned away from her and took two giant steps forward without replying.

Piper vaulted herself off the couch to close the gap between them, circling around him so he had to look her in the eyes. “My true friends know everything there is to know about me, including you.” She held up her palms. “You know it all, Colton, because even though I didn’t know you well at the time, I believed in you enough to let you into my past.” She dropped her hands to her sides. “And now I’m asking you to do the same for me.”

He closed his eyes again. Piper felt that if Colton had magic powers he would have zapped himself to a different decade at that very moment. With his lids sealed shut, he relented a sigh, then cracked his eyes, saying, “We all know history repeats itself, Piper, and I’m not willing for my father’s past to become any woman’s future.”

Piper’s mind twirled a million times a minute trying to grasp everything Colton implied in one lone sentence. Knowing she had to tread lightly, she cupped his biceps, asking gently, “Cole, do you trust me?”

He looked into her eyes questioningly as he paused, then slowly nodded his head.

Her eyes blazed into his. “Then trust me enough to tell me about your past.”

He gingerly pulled out of her grasp and ambled over to the front door, peering absently out the small square window at the top. Walking up behind him, Piper placed her hand on his shoulder, but did not speak, giving him time to reflect. He responded by dropping his head and shoving his hands in the back pockets of his jeans while taking in a few deep cleansing breaths. Reaching up to link his fingers behind his head, he pulled in another gust of air and held it as long as he could. When he released it, he whispered, “This isn’t easy for me, Piper.”

Piper rubbed his shoulder, giving him a physical sign that she was there for him, but did not verbally ask him to continue, knowing it had to be Colton’s decision on when, and if, he let her into his past. With his back to Piper and his hands still linked at his head, Colton began talking in a low voice, so much so that he was barely audible, making Piper tilt her head forward to hear what he was saying.

“My dad was a real loser, not only as a father figure, but as a husband, as well.” Colton dropped his hands from his head and crossed arms over his chest. “He couldn’t control his temper. He was a loose cannon, flying off the handle over anything and everything. He would throw things, punch holes in the wall, kick tables over, which was all much better than what he usually did, which was do those same things to my mom. Then he would storm out of the house piping mad, like we were to blame for him losing it. He’d be gone for days, even weeks sometimes, then would reappear with no explanation as to where he went, or what he did while he was gone, filled with apologies and presents. My mom always took him back, no matter how many bruises or broken bones he gave her before he left.”

He scrubbed his hands over his face roughly before continuing. “Eventually, she resorted to alcohol to dull the pain, because my dad wouldn’t let her go to the doctor, in fear of someone exposing what he had been doing to her throughout their marriage. This went on for years, until one day, I accidently knocked over his chewing tobacco spit cup when I was playing with my soccer ball in the living room, and all hell broke loose. He chased me through the house, but I was faster than him and was able to lock myself in my bedroom before he could get a hold of me. This made him even more pissed off. He yelled and screamed and when I wouldn’t unlock the door, he kicked it in, and dragged me out from under my bed where I’d been hiding, and beat the living shit out of me.”

Colton moved his head from one shoulder to the other, stretching his tightened muscles, before continuing. “That was the last straw. My mom packed our bags immediately as my dad sobbed, begging us to forgive him, but my mom wasn’t having any part of it this time. He messed with the wrong person in my mom’s eyes. We left that night and never looked back.”

The pieces of Colton persona materialized right in front of Piper; she watched as they shifted and turned until they aligned themselves and then fell into place; the reason he chose Child Protective Services, why he had never been in a relationship, and why he never wanted to get married. It all now made perfect sense.

Piper opened her mouth to thank Colton for his trust, when her phone vibrated on the coffee table, interrupting her thoughts. Piper had intended on letting the call go to voicemail, but reconsidered when she glanced over and saw Jack’s picture appear on her screen. Since it was well past eleven p.m., Piper’s heart skipped a beat as she reached over to answer the call.

“Jack?”

Colton turned with a look of concern when he heard Jack’s name.

The only thing Piper could hear on the other extension was the sound of a soft, muffled cry. Her hand instinctively rose to her heart as Colton whispered in her ear to put the call on speaker.

“Jack, honey, what’s wrong?”

“My mom’s mad, really mad,” he whined.

“What happened to make her so angry?”

“I’m not for sure,” he sniffed. “It happened at Uncle Robert’s house when he gave her a paper with the two red A’s squished together and then they started yelling at each other until my aunt stepped in between them and told my mom she had to go home.” A sob caught in his throat. “But she told my mom she couldn’t take me with her.”

“So, you’re at your uncle’s right now?”

“No,” he whimpered. “My mom screamed at Aunt Lisbeth that I was her kid and she was taking me with her.”

“You’re safe at home now, right?” Piper held her breath.

“Yes, but you don’t understand, Piper. Mom’s really mad at me, and I don’t know what I did wrong.” His weeping began again. “And now that bottle’s empty and she told me to get in the car.”

Piper’s heart began pounding in her chest. She spoke in a stern voice, “Do not get in the car with her, Jack. Do you understand me?”

“But she’s really—”

Piper heard the phone tumble onto the floor and then witnessed a woman’s shrill, intoxicated voice, almost to the point of hysterics, bark, “I said, get in the car!” The mother must have stumbled because they heard a crash of some sort. Piper looked to Colton in a state of panic as he reached into his back pocket for his phone, stepping to the side of the room to call 911.

Jack’s small crackly voice then came, in between ragged gasps of air. “But, Mommy, I’m tired. I don’t wanna go,” he begged, followed by his mother screaming, “You are comin’ with me, now!” Jack pleaded in agony, “Please, Momma, stop. You’re hurting me!” The voices then disappeared into the distance.

Piper bolted into the kitchen, ripping her purse off the chair, and then snatched her keys off the counter as she heard Colton call to her that he was driving. They sped through the deserted streets of town without muttering a word to one another, fearful of what lie ahead. When they were stopped by a freight train creeping at a snail’s pace, Colton beat the heel of his hand on the steering wheel, mumbling, “Come on, come on, come on,” willing the red and white striped arm to rise as the shrill locomotive’s horn echoed through their ears.

It seemed to take an eternity to reach Jack’s neighborhood, but then when they did, they realized there was absolutely nothing they could do but wait in the driveway, silently praying the police would find Susan in route to the liquor store before anything traumatic happened to either of them. Neither was sure how much time had passed as Colton rested his forehead on the steering wheel of the car, while Piper stared absently out into the darkened night.

The time ticked by in eerie silence until Piper glanced at the clock on the dashboard, asking, “Do you think they’ve found them yet?”

With his head still planted against the wheel, Colton rolled his head from side-to-side, but did not speak.

“Maybe they took them down to the police station already.”

Colton pushed back in the bucket seat. “I told them I was with CPS and to bring Jack home before they took his mother downtown. No child needs to watch his parent getting booked for DUI.”

Colton had had enough of the waiting and lurched open his door. Piper did the same and stepped out into the cold. She wrapped her arms around herself as her breath created puffs of airy white.

Stalking to the side of the car, Colton rested his back against the vehicle, and slumped over his knees, pulling in jagged gulps of air, probably trying to stop the crack in his emotions from breaking open.

When Piper raised him up by his shoulders and into her arms, his sobs gushed out, claiming, “This is all my fault. I should have pulled Jack out of here.”

Rubbing his back, Piper tried to sooth him as she buried her face into his chest. “Jack is going to be okay, Cole. The police are going to find them and everything is going to work out.”

Tilting his head backward to stare up at the dusting of stars in the sky, Colton attempted to regain control of his emotions as stillness filled the air around them, until Piper felt his muscles stiffen, his posture snapping erect. Pushing her roughly away, he gripped her by the biceps sternly with an inquisitive look on his face, asking, “Do you hear that?”

Piper paused, listening intently, but didn’t pick up on any sound except for a few cars humming on the highway in the distance. “Hear what?” she asked as a pang of trepidation trickled down her spine.

Shoving Piper aside, Colton sprinted to the front door of the house in a complete panic, kicking it in without even checking to see if it was unlocked, and disappeared inside. Piper raced after him, not sure of his sudden need to enter the house, but trusted his instincts. When she shot into the house, Piper first darted for Jack’s room, but found his bed empty, the imprint of his small head still pressed against his pillow. Without taking time to search for light switches, Piper barreled from room to room, stumbling as she crashed into walls and doors, frantically calling out for Jack, while silently pleading with God to keep him safe. As each minute passed by, her breathing became more labored and her stomach began to churn with pessimistic intuition, until finally, she tripped over Colton kneeling on the floor, slamming her head into the back of a wooden kitchen chair, making her temple throb with pulsing pain as she faltered. Once she regained her bearings while rubbing the knot that instantaneously formed on the side of her head, she squinted in the dim light and found Colton hunched over Susan who was sprawled awkwardly onto the kitchen floor, her arms spread wide, with clammy palms facing the ceiling, her legs bent at unnatural angles, her lips and fingertips tinged blue, with a scattering of white pills strewn on the linoleum above her head.

“Oh my God!” Piper screamed as her hand shot up to cover her mouth; her shoulders involuntarily hunched forward as if the air was vacuumed right out of her lungs. Thumping at her chest, she commanded herself to breath while her head spun with dizziness.

“Go to the garage now, Piper!” Colton yelled, snapping her back into reality as he pushed two fingers against the side of Susan’s neck.

After stumbling backward in shock and horror, she whirled around, running toward the nearest door, praying it was the exit to the garage. Yanking it open, she found the broom closet, and shoved past it to the next door, yelling out, “Jack!” in desperation as she scraped for the door handle. After flinging open the door, Piper’s eyes immediately began to sting and burn as a haze of carbon monoxide hit her like a brick wall. Realizing that the car was running with the garage door sealed shut, she slammed the side of her fist into the door opener anchored to the wall and heard the garage door pop and creak as it slowly squeaked open. Covering her mouth and nose with the crook of her arm, Piper couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down her face as she lunged toward the car, hoping, praying, that Jack wouldn’t be in the vehicle, but her fears materialized right in front of her eyes as she saw Jack’s tiny body buckled into the back seat in his Harry Potter pajamas, unconscious, with his head drooped harshly to the side.

Coughing and gagging from the invisible poison, Piper jerked the door open, grappling at the safety harness to free him as the images around her started to cloud and blur. Willing herself to stay conscious, she shook her head to clear the hazy residue from her brain and scooped Jack’s frail frame into her arms, careening out of the garage into the cool night air as her heart hammered in her chest while she pleaded, “Stay with me, baby. Stay with me.” After laying his limp form onto the damp ground, Piper muttered his name as she swiftly bent over his pale face to listen for his breath, but the only thing she heard was sirens as two police vehicles screeched to a halt in front of the house. Intuitively, Piper tilted his head back and propped open his mouth, breathing gasps of clean air into his clouded lungs, praying and sobbing in between each jagged breath, until the officers had to physically pull her away from his body.

Chapter sixteen

 

 

THE BARREN TREE’S crooked arms stretched out over the cemetery providing limited shelter to the mourners below, as the sun hid behind the overshadowing gray clouds, not willing to shine on this darkened day of bereavement. Tracing her finger along the light dusting of snow on the headstone beside her, Piper lingered next to the black tented gravesite after the service, unable to pull herself away from the grave, even though all other family members had long since disappeared from the cemetery. Slipping her hands into the pockets of her red wool coat, Piper wrapped it tightly around her body as she meandered around the graveyard, until finally, Robin hooked her hand into the crook of her arm, nudging her toward the car, murmuring, “There’s nothing more you can do here.”

As they threaded back toward the concrete road through the crowded headstones, Piper glanced up and noticed one lone blue jaybird perched on the end of a tree branch as he flapped his agile wings and tilted his head to the side, his dark pebble eyes seemingly searching for her to notice him. Mesmerized by the bird, Piper paused and held its gaze, hoping that the feathered creature was a positive sign the suffering had come to an end, and that good things lay ahead for everyone she cared for.

“You wait here. I’ll pull the car up,” Robin said as she headed off to the left.

As Piper waited for her ride, she drew circles in the snow with the toe of her boot until she thought she heard her name being called in the distance, the voice familiar, one that she’d heard many times in the past. Turning toward the sound, Piper broke out into a huge smile as she watched Jack bound toward her with his blue mitten raised in a wave. Squatting down, Piper braced herself for his incoming body as he barreled into her midriff, knocking her backward.

“Whoa there, big guy,” she exclaimed as she enveloped him in a hug. Pulling away slightly, Piper asked, “Are you doing okay?”

Pushing out his bottom lip, he mumbled, “I guess so,” then peered down and started kicking at the frozen ground with the heel of his rubber boot as he admitted, “I asked that guy in the black robe if I could come live with you now that Mommy’s gone, but he said I have to stay with Uncle Robert and Aunt Lisbeth.”

She lifted his chin with her gloved fingertip while attempting a smile. “I think you are going to absolutely love being with your aunt and uncle, Jack.”

He peered up, his big, chocolate-colored eyes filling with tears. “But I wanna live with you.” He pleaded as he dug his gloved fist into his right eye. His bottom lip quivered as he whispered, “I’ll be really good, I promise, and I bet with me there, Robin won’t be scared anymore, either.”

Piper stifled the raw emotions rising up in her throat and gently ran her fingertip down his cheek. “I know, sweetie, but we have to do what the judge says, and besides, if you live with me you won’t have two older cousins to play with and you’ll miss out on having brothers for the first time ever.”

The corners of his mouth tilted slightly as he pulled in a shuddering breath. “I guess that might be kinda cool.”

Her heart contracted with emotion, wanting to wipe away his pain. She tugged on his earlobe. “Not kinda cool. Amazingly cool.”

Digging into the pocket of his coat, Jack withdrew the cell phone Piper had bought for him. “Here. Uncle Robert said I don’t need this anymore and to give it back.”

Attempting to hold back the tears simmering underneath the surface, Piper tried her best to smile, but knew her path with Jack was coming to an end. She accepted the phone, trying to put on a brave front. “I guess he’s right. You won’t be needing this anymore, will you?”

Jack’s eyes lit up. “Nope, ‘cause Uncle Rob said I can call you anytime I want!” he squealed in excitement as he lunged toward her, wrapping his small arms around her neck.

Piper squeezed her eyes shut, pushing the tears that had escaped onto her lower lashes down her face as she hugged him back. “Well, what do you know?” She released him slightly. “It looks like you have a pretty cool dude to live with, huh.”

Jack grinned and nodded his head. “He wants to know if you want to come to dinner at our house on Sunday night, too.”

Piper glanced up to the road and saw Robert Lampert with his arm wrapped around the shoulder of his wife, watching them from a distance. Touched by the gracious invitation, Piper stood up and raised her hand in a wave of thanks. As they both returned her gesture, gratitude filled her soul, knowing that finally, Jack would be safe and warm within his new home.

Bending over toward Jack, she said, “You tell your uncle that I would love nothing more than to eat dinner at your house on Sunday evening.” She ran her hand over the fuzz of new hair growth on his head. “You better get going now. They’re waiting for you.”

Piper watched as Jack skipped back toward his new guardians, thankful that he had a loving home to live in and optimistic he would be accepted as one of their own. Piper couldn’t help but smile as Jack held a hand of each as they rambled back toward their vehicle, then ran in between them and threw his legs up into the air unexpectedly, as if he trusted his new parents to catch his fall.

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

THE FOLLOWING WEEKS after Susan’s funeral, Piper couldn’t help but feel empty and forlorn. The life she had created in Chicago had been turned upside down, with the two people she had grown to care about most, tumbling to the side and out of her life. Jack was happily living with his new family, which is exactly what Piper had wanted after the unexpected death of his mother, but deep down, she had to admit, she missed their weeks alone together in the hospital, with him needing her and no one else. Now that Jack’s mother was gone, everything in Jack’s life had changed, not only did he have a new family that didn’t include her, the home he now shared with his uncle was on the opposite side of town and he received his medical care from that side of the city. But thankfully, Robert and Lisbeth not only accepted Jack into their home as a new addition to their family, they welcomed her as well, inviting Piper to their house every Sunday for the extended family gathering and had already included her for Christmas, if she didn’t travel home for her own family’s celebration.

And although she hated to admit it, Piper’s loneliness also stemmed from not seeing Colton. She thought of him multiple times, each and every day. She missed his cocky smirk, his teasing banter, and their verbal jousting, not to mention his unexpected tender caresses. But now that Jack’s case had come to a close, there was no reason for them to contact one another other than for social interest, and since they both laid their cards on the table, him not wanting a relationship, and her not willing to be friends with benefits, they were at a standoff. He had not tried to contact her since the funeral, nor had she, him. Piper considered perpetuating a platonic friendship with Colton, but knew she wanted more than that from him, and didn’t want to put herself through the heartbreak of having to sit beside him and not being able to hold his hand, kiss his delectable lips, or nibble on his sweet neck.

Piper assumed her feelings for Colton would eventually fade over time, but for now, there seemed to be a huge hole in her heart that ached every time she breathed.

 

 

HUNCHED OVER THE computer at work with her chin resting in the palm of her hand, Piper tapped her name into the system to pull up her patient list as Jeffrey and Alex appeared in front of the station desk, interrupting her routine, carrying a white package tied with a yellow satin ribbon.

Jeffrey held out the box. “For you.”

Piper grinned at them both, loving the fact that she had friends to pull her up when she felt knocked down. “Thanks, guys, you shouldn’t have.”

A smile rugged at Alex’s mouth. “That’s good because we didn’t.”

Piper looked up from the box in puzzlement. “Then who did?”

“I guess you have a secret admirer.” Jeffrey leaned his chest onto the counter. “Aren’t you going to open it?”

Piper paused, staring at the package on her lap then reached for the ribbon, pulling it off leisurely, enjoying the anticipation of the surprise. After she lifted the lid off the square box, she peered inside to find an adorable stuffed black-and-white striped zebra enveloped in baby-pink crinkly tissue paper sitting on its behind staring up at her with glassy brown eyes. Pulling the plush toy from the package, Piper discreetly brought it up to her lips to conceal her smile. When she gingerly pulled it back down, she noticed a tag around its neck tied with a delicate pink ribbon. On the card was written:

Never change your stripes.

Peering up from the stuffed animal, Piper quizzed her friends. “Where did you get this?”

Jeffrey hooked his thumb toward the glass door to the oncology unit. Piper followed the direction of his finger until her eyes landed on Colton, far down the hallway outside their unit, with his back propped against the wall, his hands shoved deep into his pockets, and his eyes focused on the ground.

Trying to keep a casual pace, Piper walked toward the door to buzz herself out. When Colton heard the door open, he glanced up and smiled as he turned toward her, now with one shoulder against the wall and his feet crossed at the ankles.

Stopping just short of him, Piper held up her zebra, all of a sudden feeling shy in his presence. “Thanks for the gift.”

He reached over, tucking the stray piece of hair that had escaped from her ponytail behind her ear. “I thought it was appropriate, considering the circumstances.”

Attempting to even out her respirations, Piper looked out of the corner of her eyes, challenging his statement. “And those are…”

He shrugged. “That we’ve both lived our life one way, but in order for us to be together, someone’s going to have to change.”

Piper pulled in a sharp intake of air, hoping she wasn’t misunderstanding his gesture. “My present says to never change my stripes.”

The left side of his mouth titled upward. “So I guess that just leaves me then, doesn’t it.”

An overabundant smile spread across Piper’s gleaming face. Reeling in her excitement, she asked coyly, “Exactly what are you saying, Cole?” wanting to see him squirm.

He sighed. “You’re not going to make this easy on me, are you?” He reached around her waist, possessively tugging her toward him as he leaned in, whispering in her ear, “I want to see you and only you,” and then reached under her chin, tilting her mouth toward his before he absorbed her soul with his kiss.

 

Epilogue

 

 

STANDING IN THE deep maroon and gold carpeted hallway outside the ballroom, Piper was a complete bundle of nerves as she fidgeted with the silver belt on her formfitting black dress. After smoothing down her hair, which took over an hour to get perfectly straight, she touched the rhinestone teardrop earrings at her lobes, making sure they were still securely in place. Finally feeling ready to make an entrance into the wedding reception of her sister to her ex-fiancé, Phillip, Piper looked to Colton for assurance.

“Do I look okay?” she asked as she ran her hands down the bottom of her dress to flatten out any wrinkles that might have crept up riding in the car on the way over.

Sauntering up to her with his hands buried in his pockets, Colton’s eyes penetrated hers as he closed the distance between them and then trailed his finger down her cheek. “One of the things I love most about you is that you have no idea how beautiful you are.”

She squished her lips to the side. “Did you just say love?”

He chuckled lowly at her. “Piper, do you really need to ask that question?”

“Um, yeah, actually I do,” she grinned. “I’ve learned to ask, rather than assume, when it comes to you and our relationship.”

He tilted his chin, eyeing her suspiciously. “Did you just say relationship?”

She slapped at his arm, laughing. “Colton! You’re supposed to be comforting me here!”

He laughed along with her as he grabbed her hand, tucking it into the crease of his arm as they started toward the doors to the ballroom. Right before he swung open the entry to her past, Colton paused and whispered, “Hands down, you will be the most stunning woman in the room tonight.”

It didn’t take long after they entered the reception for the buzz of their arrival to float throughout the vast ballroom. Danielle, along with a group of their high school friends, was the first to spot Piper and hurried over to greet her. Danielle arrived first, stealing a glance at Colton out of her peripheral vision as she drew Piper into an embrace, whispering, “He is hot!” in her ear before grabbing both of Piper’s hands into her own as she released her.

“I missed you so much! We cannot go this long between visits again.”

Piper smiled, thrilled to be with her best friend again. “I totally agree, but you know it’s a two way street. You can visit me anytime you want to.”

Opening up her body, Piper gestured with her hand. “This is Colton, my…” she stammered, not knowing what word to use as Colton stepped in to finish her sentence. “Her boyfriend,” he said, as he extended his hand.

Piper repeated him as she grinned, “My boyfriend,” loving the way it sounded rolling off her lips.

Danielle shook his hand. “I’m Danielle. I grew up next door to Piper.”

“Nice to meet you,” Colton responded and then stepped aside for the two women to catch up.

Noticing her parents watching her and Danielle’s exchange to the left, Piper’s eyes misted over immediately at her first sight of them. She excused herself from Danielle and closed the gap between her and her parents, throwing her arms around them, encompassing them in a three-way embrace. Her mom instantly began to cry, coaxing her father to pull the handkerchief out of his tuxedo pocket to hand to his wife.

Her mother cradled her face. “We missed you so much, honey.”

Her father tugged her close. “Your mom’s right. Life isn’t the same without you popping in and out of the house every day.”

Piper held a hand from each. “I know it’s been incredibly hard on everyone, but it was definitely the right decision for me to move to Chicago.” She released their hands and exchanged them for Colton’s, pulling him into their circle. “Mom and Dad, I want you to meet Colton Strong.” She beamed up at him. “He’s one of the reasons I love being in the city so much.”

Colton nodded at her mother, shook the hand of her father, and then gazed down at Piper before looking back at them. “It has been a privilege getting to know your daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Wilkinson.”

Piper stared at Colton’s profile, transfixed by his words as her heart fluttered in her chest, until her mother’s question jolted her back to the present. “The family’s coming to the house for brunch tomorrow, if you two would like to join us. Gina’s going to open her wedding presents before she and Phillip head off to,” she flitted her hand in the air, “God knows where.”

“Really, Mom, I need to take small steps.” Piper gestured around her. “I’m sorry, but this is all I can handle right now.”

Briefly closing her eyes as she shook her head, she reassured her daughter. “I understand, honey. Whatever you feel comfortable with.” Her mother squeezed her arm, her tone raising an octave. “We’re just so thrilled that you’re here.”

For the first time since entering the room, Piper took a moment to glance around at the reception, and hated to admit out loud that the area was breathtaking, with multiple crystal chandeliers hanging from the twelve-foot mirrored ceiling, white-gloved catering staff milling about serving fancy hors d’oeuvres she’d never even seen before, and elegant pale pink orchid flower arrangements as the centerpiece on each linen-covered table.

“Wow, Dad, this wedding is beautiful. I’m sure it set you back a couple bucks,” Piper commented, attempting to lighten the situation for her parents.

“Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t pay one dime for that imbecile to marry one of my daughters,” he stated as a matter of fact, not trying to hide his true feelings about his new son-in-law.

They all four laughed as her father slapped Colton on the back. “Let me buy you a beer,” he offered and then headed in the direction of the bar. As Piper’s mother watched the men from behind, she commented without knowledge that her youngest daughter was within hearing range, “Well, he’s definitely a huge step up from your last suitor,” making it clear to Piper where her mother’s alliance lie when it came to the line drawn in the sand between her and her sister.

Stepping into the conversation, Gina met her mother’s brash comment with an eye roll and then greeted her sister. “Piper, I’m so glad you could make it. I wasn’t sure if you were coming since you didn’t rsvp.”

Piper shrugged. “It was a last minute decision.” Then added, to make sure her indecisiveness didn’t sound like jealousy, “I didn’t know if I could get off work until just recently.”

Their mother smiled at her two daughters. “If you two girls will excuse me, I have to go greet Aunt Martha. You know how she is, always expecting to be fawned over.”

As their mother made her excuses to give them time alone, Gina looked away for a moment, giving Piper the opportunity to do a quick eye sweep over her sister as she stood in her silk strapless, beaded wedding gown, which appeared two sizes too small as her breasts spilled over the top, as if she purchased the dress too early in her pregnancy, not fully aware of how her body would develop with each passing month. Knowing their mother’s distaste for dressing inappropriately, this gave Piper the indication that she had no part in the purchase of Gina’s wedding gown, which gave Piper great satisfaction that her sister had to do the bridal preparations all on her own, although she felt incredibly guilty for even having that thought in the first place.

Piper also noted that her sister didn’t have the natural glow that a lot of expecting women acquired. Instead, her face looked swollen, her chest blotchy and red, and imagined her ankles inflamed, making it uncomfortable for her to stand. When Piper’s eyes drew back up, she discovered a pinched expression on her sister’s face and followed her line of vision to find out why. Piper wasn’t surprised when her eyes landed on Phillip, leaning one elbow on the bar as he whispered in the ear of a voluptuous dark-haired woman in a tight red evening gown. The woman nodded at whatever Phillip said as she moved forward with familiarity until her chest was against his, then whispered something back. Phillip held onto the curvature of her waist as her body met his, then let his hand slither down to grope her bottom before she pulled away.

Piper felt a tinge of pity for her sister then, knowing what her future held. She didn’t know what to say, so she asked, “So, how are you feeling?”

Her sister blinked rapidly, opened her mouth to speak, and then clamped it shut again. After a beat, she attempted to speak again. “Um, I’m doing—” but stopped midsentence and fled from the ballroom as the tears that had pooled in her eyes streamed down her tormented face.

Piper turned back toward the bar, scrutinizing Phillip, as she watched him accept a slip of paper from the attractive woman and tuck it into the interior pocket of his tuxedo. Shaking her head in disgust, Piper scanned the area for Colton and found him conversing with a man she had never met before at a high-top table close by the bar. She widened her view and noticed several women huddled in a group to the left, eyeing and pointing at Colton, obviously smitten with his looks. One even walked by, veering out of her way to trip over his foot in an attempt to gain his attention, but Piper swelled with pride as she watched Colton make sure the woman was not injured, then turn his attention back to the man at the table, totally ignoring the woman as she continued to stand beside the table. Finally, the woman spun and headed back toward her group of friends.

Piper couldn't help but compare the two men's interaction with the opposite sex while being in a committed relationship and then shuddered to think that Gina's life could have been her own, and silently said a quick prayer of thanks that her road had shifted, placing her on the pathway to find Colton. What an ironic twist of fate to think that her sister, Gina, was the spoke in the wheel to change Piper's direction in life, and now, because of her selfish act of betrayal, she was the one stuck married to a moral- less sot, carrying his child.

Wanting nothing more than to be by Colton’s side, Piper was about to make a move toward him, when someone threaded his arms around her waist, tugging her backward until she was snug against his body. The man leaned over her shoulder, nuzzling his mouth into her hair, as he seductively murmured, “God, I’ve missed the feel of you.”

A wave of revulsion mixed with nausea flooded Piper’s body as she instantaneously recognized the voice. In a bolt of sudden knowledge, Piper knew, without a doubt, that Phillip was the true villain in her and her sister’s love triangle. Yes, Gina should have turned Phillip away, but Piper knew with every bone in her body that he was the one that lured her sister into their repugnant affair.

She whirled around, taking a step back from him as she jabbed her finger in his face. “Don’t you ever, ever touch me again.” She clenched her teeth. “And keep your slimy hands off other women, Dickweed. You’re married to my sister!”

Behind her, Piper heard someone start to clap. “That’s my girl,” Colton said cockily as he strolled up to them, staring Phillip down venomously. Piper took a step to the side, aligning herself with Colton as he affronted Phillip with his hands balled into fists at his thighs, his nostrils flaring with contempt. “Now, if I were you, I’d high tail it out of here, otherwise, you’re going to get blood on that cheap rental you have on,” he sneered.

Phillip opened his mouth to speak, but just as quickly, snapped it closed. Squaring his shoulders, Phillip smugly straightened his lapel and started to head off in the direction of the bar when Piper spun him back around by his elbow, yanked his coat open, and ripped the woman’s number out of his pocket, smirking, “You won’t be needing this.” When Phillip made a move toward her, Colton stepped in between them, causing Phillip to turn on his heels and ramble away in defeat.

Wrapping her arms around the back side of Colton, Piper rested her head against his muscular back, so thankful that he stood up for her once again. Never in her life had she had anyone who truly defended her like Colton did. Having someone in her corner of life made Piper feel strong and powerful and that made her heart blossom with gratefulness.

Colton swiveled around to face her. “That was interesting.”

Piper beamed up at him. “Thanks for sticking up for me again.”

He ran her finger down her nose. “I think you handled the situation quite well all on your own.” He leaned down, his face whispering against her cheek. “And you calling him a dickweed really turned me on, just so you know,” he added devilishly.

“I might have to use that term more often then,” she joked back.

He held his hands up innocently. “Just don’t point it at me.”

Piper glanced over toward Phillip chatting up another woman at the bar and physically shivered. “I can’t believe I ever thought I was in love with that man.”

Colton contracted his shoulders. “Now that you know what real love feels like, you have something to compare your old feelings to.”

Here he goes again, making a statement I want to analyze for the next thirty minutes. Piper knew that this was one opinion of Colton’s that she wasn’t willing to just sweep under the rug.

She wrinkled her nose. “Did you just imply I’m in love with you?”

He reached for her hands, laying them on his shoulders then tugged her by the waist toward him, demanding softly, “Dance with me.”

“But we’re not on the dance floor.”

Wrapping his hands further around her waist, he settled them on her lower back just above her bottom as he sensually moved his hips against her with his head bowed, until Piper finally relented and swayed along with him, making him murmur, “That’s more like it.”

Piper couldn’t control the heat that flashed through her. She dropped her head back to look into his eyes. “You didn’t answer my question.”

He smiled lopsidedly. “Which one was that?”

Knowing he was trying to dodge the question, she threw it out again. “Did you imply that I’m in love with you?”

He smiled slowly. “Yeah, I guess I did.”

She narrowed her eyes at him as she tried to keep the rhythm of her heartbeat from pounding right out of her chest. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

He tugged at his tie as his face flushed with color while admitting, “Well, since I’m head-over-heels in love with you, I just figured the feelings were mutual.”

She stopped dancing as her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “You’re head-over-heels in love with me?”

“Piper,” he sighed. “You and all your questions. Yes, I’m madly in love with you.”

Piper squealed as she leapt up, winding her arms tightly around his neck as he held her in place against his chest while she planted loud kisses all over his face, then pulled back slightly, whispering alluringly in his ear, “Now take me back to the hotel room.”

Chuckling softly as he placed her feet back on the ground, Colton mumbled, “I should have told you that weeks ago,” while Piper giggled like a school girl as they exited the reception with his arm slung over her shoulder, both optimistically looking forward to what lady destiny might hold for them in the future.

 

The End.

 

 

 

Thank you for reading Kaleidoscope.

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Now enjoy a sneak peek at Gina’s side of the story in Kaleidoscope of Consequences, available now on Nook and Kindle.

 

GINA LITERALLY SQUEALED with elation like a two-year-old the entire drive back to her townhouse over nailing down the job of her dreams. She sprinted inside and performed a victory lap around her kitchen table with her fists pumping the air while humming the Rocky theme song, “Da na na, da na na.”

Laughing at her silly antics, she pulled out a seat and dropped into it to call her mother with the good news. Before her mom even had a chance to say hello, she announced, “Hey Mom, I’ve got something really great to tell you.”

“What a coincidence,” her mother replied. “I was just getting ready to call you with a wonderful announcement as well.”

“Okay, but me first… I got the job at The Oasis!” Gina blurted zestfully.

Her mother lacked the thrill of emotion she was expecting when she replied vapidly, “That’s great, honey. I’m very proud of you.”

Ignoring her monotone inflection, Gina asked, “I was thinking, maybe me, you, and dad could go out to dinner tonight to celebrate.”

Her mother drew in a quick breath. “I’m sorry, Gina, but we can’t tonight; we’re going out to eat with your sister.” She could hear her voice raise an octave as she said, “Piper has some incredible news as well.”

Gina attempted to sound positive and upbeat when she inquired, “Oh, really? What’s Piper’s big news?”

“I probably should wait for her to tell you, but I’m just so excited; I have to tell someone… Piper got engaged to that handsome doctor she’s been dating!”

Gina couldn’t help herself, she immaturely stuck her finger down her throat and silently fake gagged.

“Dinner is at The Bistro at seven tonight to celebrate the engagement. I’ll see you then, honey, and by the way, congratulations on your new employment.”

 

 

PERCHED AT HER vanity while applying creamy foundation to her face, Gina couldn’t stop herself from wallowing in self-pity, thinking about how her sister always seemed to one-up her every time something positive happened in her life. This job was something Gina had worked extremely hard for, with countless hours of studying to earn her degree, not to mention, taking grueling hours of summer school so she could graduate early. Piper, on the other hand, dates some doctor for three months and then decides to get hitched to him, and now her parents are ready to pop the cork in merriment?

Is Piper getting engaged to a man she barely knows really a reason to celebrate? Shouldn’t her parents be exasperated with her, asking if she really knows this man she plans on pledging the rest of her life to, in front of a priest and God knows who else, instead of killing the fattened calf in jubilation?

As Gina applied thick charcoal liner to her lids to create a dramatic cat-eye effect, she just couldn’t get over the fact her sister was getting engaged to a man she barely knew. As of that day, Gina had only one brief encounter with Phillip, a whirlwind meeting at her parent’s house when she accidently bumped into him as he and Piper were leaving to go out to dinner with her mother and father.

She’s probably said less than twenty words to the guy; nice to meet you; have a great dinner; we’ll get together some other time.

And now he's going to be her brother-in-law? It just didn't seem right. She would even take that a step further. It seemed wrong -- way out in left field wrong.

Gina added color to her eyelids in lush creams and shimmering bronzes, finishing the look with a dark cherry lipstick. She slipped into a leopard-print, low-cut blouse with a snug fitting black pencil skirt. To accent the outfit, she added her black-patent stilettoes and golden chandelier earrings. She curled her hair in loose spirals and let it fall in pale waves running down her back.

Observing her appearance in the full-length mirror anchored to the back of her bedroom door, Gina had to admit, she looked hot, especially when you caught a glimpse of her black lace bra through the sheer fabric of her blouse. Although Gina wasn’t purposely trying to outshine her sister this evening, she did want to stand out in the crowded restaurant, although for what reason, she wasn’t quite sure. Grabbing a leather jacket from the back of her closet, she headed out the door with a chip on her shoulder she couldn’t seem to knock off.

Deliberately entering the restaurant casually late, Gina sauntered over to the white linen-covered table with her hand over her heart in a sincere gesture, claiming how sorry she was for keeping everyone waiting. All four stood to greet her as she circled the table, doling out hugs. Her sister had dressed in a classy high-necked, sleeveless, cream blouse tucked into a pair of beige, wide-legged trousers, with delicate pearl earrings attached to her lobes. Her strawberry hair was tied back off her face in a low-slung ponytail anchored at the nape of her neck. Gina embraced her genuinely, holding on a touch longer than needed, wishing she could keep her all to herself.

When she came to stand in front of Phillip, Piper reintroduced them. Gina shook his hand firmly, as she always did to appear strong and confident. Looking debonair in a pinstriped navy suit, his dark hair slicked back from his forehead and a baby-blue, Windsor-knotted silk tie at the neck, Phillip accepted her handshake with a glint in his eye and a cocky smile, bearing his perfectly-straight white teeth.

They all took their seats, with Gina sandwiched in between her mother and Piper, and then ordered a cocktail when the server arrived. Gina ordered a dirty martini -- half because she liked the taste, and half because she liked the name rolling off her tongue -- as they each scanned their leather-bound dinner menus.

Gina learned a lot about Phillip that evening. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, thus the slight southern accent, he moved to Louisville after doing his residency here in the city. He was the youngest of four siblings, all female, and his parents were still happily married after thirty blissful years together. Phillip chose to be an emergency room doctor, quote, “because I thrive on the unexpected and flourish under stressful conditions, streamlining my adrenaline to work to my patient’s benefit,” which sounded like a load of bullshit to Gina, but whatever.

While nibbling on their marinated shrimp and artichoke hearts, Phillip threw out more manure when asked how he and Piper first met. With a sheepish look on his tanned face, Phillip described the hospital cafeteria scene in detail, from the color of Piper’s scrubs (pink), to how she wore her hair (braided), to what she had on her lunch tray (turkey sandwich with a side of chicken noodle soup), claiming, when he caught sight of Piper that monumental day, he instantaneously fell madly in love, and hadn’t been able to get enough of her since, wanting nothing more than to be in her presence, every hour, of single every day. As Piper beamed up at her new fiancé, she seemed to gush with happiness at his declaration, while her mother dabbed at the tears that welled up in her eyes, as if this was the most romantic thing she’d ever heard.

Gina resisted the urge to roundhouse kick each and every one of them. Really, love at first sight? That stuff only happens in mythical fairytales, not in real life.

Leaning back in his seat with his arms crossed over his pouched stomach, Gina’s father seemed to be the only one who wasn’t all-consumed in the whimsical fable spewing out of Phillip’s mouth, and at that moment, Gina wanted nothing more than to throw her arms around him for not falling for this love-at-first-sight bull malarkey. She and her father had always been the two in the family who were the most level-headed, never being swayed by emotions, but rather by the facts in any given situation, and this scenario was no different than any other; her mother and sister were swooning over the compliments and admiration, while Gina and her dad grew more skeptical by the minute.

Gina couldn’t help but think Phillip had created a minefield of bullshit around them, and they were all going to be covered in cow pie up to their ankles before the evening even came to a close.

Once the mushy boy-meets-girl story died down, Piper turned in her seat toward Gina, placing her delicate diamond-clad hand over hers. “Mom told me you got that job you’ve been working so hard for. Congratulations, that’s incredible.”

Gina played coy, titling her chin down to appear bashful. “This night is about you, Piper. We’re here to celebrate your engagement, not talk about me.”

Piper smiled and squeezed her hand. “There’s plenty of wine here to celebrate both,” she said, then giggled, the wine obviously affecting her petite frame. “Besides, it gives us another reason to drink.” She lifted her glass. “To Gina working her tail-end off to get the job of her dreams.”

Everyone joined in, tipping their drink in her direction. “To Gina.”

As Phillip settled his wine flute back on the table, he inquired, “I’m toasting to your new job, but I have no idea what it is that you do.”

After gently blotting her napkin across her lips, making sure not to smear her lipstick, Gina answered, “I’m a trainer as well as a nutritionist. I’ve just been hired full-time at The Oasis down on Market Street.”

He tilted his head back. “I know the place. Several of the surgeons at the hospital workout there. They say it’s quite something, more like a spa than an actual gym.”

Gina's eyes lit up like a firefly. "Ahh, you have connections -- I like you more already," she teased, loving the fact the conservation had shifted away from the engaged couple and over to her.

The table laughed along as Piper threw out, “Always looking for an in, aren’t you little sister?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am,” Gina chided back, then turned serious as she gave Phillip her full attention. “So, would you be willing to pass out some business cards to your associates down at the hospital after I get them printed? The more personal in-home training clients I can cook up, the better, and if they’re not a member of The Oasis, I can get them a discounted rate if they’re training with me.”

Placing his forearms on the table, Phillip commented, “That surprises me that The Oasis is giving discounts like that.”

Shrugging her shoulders, she retorted, “They probably look at it as if it’s a client they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and besides, with the steep membership they charge, I’m sure they’re making plenty of money, even with the discount.” Loving being about to discuss her new career, Gina leaned forward. “Now, if I start working with a client while at the gym, and then they set up in-home training visits with me, I have to pay The Oasis a percentage of each session. In either scenario, The Oasis comes out ahead, I can guarantee you that.”

“There’s no way they could have built that impressive facility otherwise.”

“You got that right.” She propped her chin in her hand, eying Phillip in a teasing manner. “So, you never answered my question, Phillip. Would you be willing to hand out my card to your friends and business associates down at the hospital for me?”

He pressed his lips into a thin line. “I think I can manage that.”

“Perfect,” Gina purred.

Jumping into the conversation, Piper reached for her canvas Coach purse hanging on the back of her chair. “Let me get my phone and I’ll send you each other’s contact information.”

Now that Phillip had agreed to help her drum up business in her new career, Gina felt the chip that had been implanted on her shoulder all evening begin to dissipate, until eventually, it vanished from sight. The remainder of the dinner went smoothly, with comfortable conversation and a lot of laughter. When the waiter slid the bill onto the table after they had finished with their after-dinner drinks, Phillip snatched it before her father had the opportunity. Once the check had been paid, they all stood to say their goodbyes. Piper reached for her parents to hug first, the three standing in a small group conversing as Gina lifted her leather blazer off the back of her chair, all of a sudden feeling slightly chilled. Stepping in, Phillip lifted the jacket out of her hand, holding it up by the collar, offering his assistance. Gina turned her back to him as he slid it onto her hands, then snaked it up her arms, until it rested against her shoulders.

What happened next was what seemed a bit odd. He reached underneath Gina’s hair, his fingertips lightly brushing the back of her neck, and at a slow pace, gingerly tugged her hair from the confines of her jacket as a whisper of his breath glided across her skin, sending unwelcomed shivers down her spine. Startled by the intimate gesture, Gina took a giant step forward, making her hair slip from his fingertips. She didn’t turn around to look at him, just mumbled thanks under her breath, said quick goodbyes to the rest of her family, and skirted out of the restaurant.

 

That night as Gina lay in bed, she dissected every single conversation from the entire dinner, recalling how Phillip spoke of his immediate spark and great love he felt for her sister. Gina brought every tender caress, loving gaze, and sweet gesturing he made toward Piper to the forefront of her memory, and came to the conclusion that Phillip’s affectionate maneuver with her hair was not an expression of being amorous with her, but rather one of chivalry, going above and beyond protocol to help out a woman in need. Gina shook her head thinking, of course Piper would find the most sensitive, compassionate man on the planet. It only made sense. Rolling over to her side, Gina almost laughed out loud at her brash rush-to-judgment about her future brother-in-law.

 

 

THE FOLLOWING WEEK, Gina started her job at The Oasis. Making sure to be prompt with all her new employee paperwork completed ahead of time, she waited for Mr. Mathews outside his office door on Monday morning, full of smiles and nervous energy, dressed in her favorite Lulu Lemon spandex with her honey-colored hair pulled into a high, tight ponytail. After unlocking his door and placing his black leather briefcase on his desk, Mr. Mathews led her out to the main lobby where classical music wafted throughout the modern glassed entryway and introduced her to the staff on duty that morning; Vivian, an older woman with a sleek silver bob, who was the owner’s sister that scheduled all the bookings for training and massage therapy; Rob, another personal trainer on staff, a good looking man in his mid-twenties with muscles bulging out of his spandex; and Lucinda, the third trainer, who resembled a slighter version of Kim Kardashian, with rounded curves, and a wide stunning smile.

By the end of the week, Gina felt she was up to speed with all the equipment, procedures for admitting new members, and training formalities The Oasis insisted their trainers follow. The next step on her agenda was getting to know all of the current members, especially the ones who didn’t have personal trainers already assigned to them. Those men and woman were the dollar signs floating around in her conscious as she milled throughout the bench presses, free weights, and treadmills, introducing herself to every person she came in contact with. As Gina was about to approach a gray-haired woman who was haphazardly pushing buttons on her elliptical, she heard Vivian call her name from behind. After spinning around to face her, she informed Gina that she had a visitor waiting for her out at the front desk. Not having any clue to who it might be, Gina strolled around the corner into the front lobby, and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Phillip leaning against the reception desk in his hospital scrubs, leafing through an Oasis tri-folded brochure.

Changing her demeanor from shocked to what she thought was a warm smile, Gina greeted him. “Hey, Phillip.”

He refolded the pamphlet, carefully placing it back on top of the neatly stacked pile as he spoke. “Hey. I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d come check this place out since everyone is ranting about it at work.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “So how’s it going so far?”

Gina glanced at Vivian, knowing that she was listening to their conversation even though she turned her rolling chair away from them while she pushed papers around her desk, boondoggling to appear busy. Gina looked back at Phillip. “It’s good, really good, learning the ropes and all.”

“Do you have time to take me on a tour?”

“Umm,” Gina peeked at the back of Vivian out of the corner of her eye and watched as she nodded her head, her silver bob gliding across her thin cheeks, then answered, “Yeah, sure. Come on back.”

Strolling through the vast mirrored foyer, brimming with the scent of jasmine from the fresh lily-of-the-valley flower arrangements scattered throughout the lobby, they passed two sleek white leather couches and a glassed-topped, pewter encased sofa table sitting upon gleaming pearl-gray granite floors.

Phillip’s eyes scanned the area as he commented, “This is unlike any gym I’ve ever been to, and the classical music,” he nodded his head, “nice touch. It’s much better than the stuff they have blaring in the other gyms I’ve been to.”

Gina guided him through the free-weight workout area, skirted past the racquetball cubicles, then across to the mirrored machine room, making sure to point out every benefit The Oasis’s equipment had over other popular fitness programs. She escorted him toward the rooms adjacent to the reception area used for deep tissue massages, aroma therapy, and detoxifying seaweed wraps, and finished the tour in the men’s lounge, an area equipped with a stocked minibar, containing black leather couches for clients to relax and unwind before heading into the locker room to shower.

When they reentered the lobby, she turned to Phillip, asking, “So what did you think?”

Tucking his chin, Phillip examined the ground as if contemplating, then peered back up with a lopsided grin. “I think you sold me. Where do I sign?”

Gina clapped her hands together, loving the fact she landed a client before her first week even came to a close. “Excellent!” she clucked. “Now all I need to do is talk Piper into getting a membership as well.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think that will happen anytime soon.”

“Yeah, I know. My sister hates to exercise, but eventually that’s going to catch up with her and she’s going to lose that taut little figure of hers,” Gina joked.

He laughed. “Actually she’s on night shift so she sleeps the majority of the day anyway.”

“But Piper told me you work the night shift too, and you’re finding the time to work out.”

“My supervisor just switched me to day shift to cover for another doc, so Piper’s hitting the graveyard shift all by herself now, and believe me, it’s grueling. I wouldn’t even consider a gym membership if I worked the crazy hours she does.”

“Can’t Piper switch to day shift too?”

“She’s put her name in for a position, but nothing has opened up yet.”

“Wow, that stinks,” Gina honestly replied.

He smiled broadly as he lifted his palms to the ceiling. “But I’m still interested in a membership. Just show me where to sign.”

As if on cue, Vivian handed Gina a handful of papers with a ball point pen on top, then pointed her in the direction of the membership office to the left of the reception desk. Phillip followed Gina into the cream-and-gray faux painted office suite as she took the seat behind the vast mahogany desk.

Her eyes scanned the documents. “Bear with me here. You’re my first signee.”

“So you’re a virgin, huh?”

Gina glanced up with a puzzled expression, thinking, that is absolutely none of your business, when he explained his comment with a charming, innocent grin. “You said you’ve never signed anyone up before.”

Letting out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding, Gina laughed and said, “No, you’re my first,” as she peered back down at the paperwork, marking each place he had to sign with a large red X.

Pushing the contracts across the desk, Phillip reached for them, their fingertips grazing one another as the paperwork was exchanged. Immediately, Gina snapped her hand back as if she had just been shocked by a bolt of electric current.

Noticing her reaction to his touch, Phillip chuckled lowly. “I don’t bite. I promise.”

Folding a wisp of hair behind her ear, Gina half-smiled. “Sorry about that. I’m just a little jittery with the new job and all,” she fibbed.

“Totally understandable. I’m here to help out, you know,” he crooned. “Do you have those business cards ready yet? I can hand them out for you down at the hospital.”

Gina couldn’t understand why her guard was up so high concerning Phillip. She had never reacted this way about any other man Piper had dated in the past, so why was she acting so catty now? Gina told herself that she was being completely ridiculous. It was an accidental brushing of the fingertips for God’s sake, not his tongue being slammed down her throat. Gina knew she had to get a grip on her overactive imagination, otherwise, her future brother-in-law was going to think she was a total head-case and she’d lose his contacts over at the hospital.

Relaxing against her chair, Gina smiled genuinely. “That would be great, Phillip. Thank you. As soon as I get them printed, I will get them to Piper to give to you.”

He stood. “That sounds like a plan.”

Sweeping around the desk to stand alongside him, Gina handed him his copy of the membership contract. “Tell my sister hello from me, would you?”

“Sure thing, and thanks for the tour.” He placed his hand on her shoulder and squeezed lightly. “It looks like we’re going to be seeing each other quite a bit from here on out.”

 

 

THE FOLLOWING SATURDAY, Gina spent the entire day with Piper at their mother’s house pouring through a waist-high stack of bridal magazines, tearing out everything that had promise concerning the wedding cake, ceremony flowers, bridal gown, and brides maids dresses, compiling them into one large scrapbook. They spent the remainder of the afternoon sitting on the front porch sipping fresh squeezed lemonade, her and Piper swaying on the swing, her mom in the adjacent rocking chair, and chitchatted about other miscellaneous wedding details until her father arrived home from work, hungry and ready for dinner. They all went their separate ways to prepare their own dinner, and Piper, to get ready for work that evening.

Eating her grilled tilapia and steamed vegetables on the couch in her living room while watching E! News, Gina had just propped her feet onto her coffee table to get comfortable, when her phone ringing in the kitchen interrupted her meal. Setting her plate onto her glass-topped end table, she swallowed a splash of ice water before she jogged into the kitchen to answer her cell.

“Hello.”

“Hi Gina. It’s Phillip.”

Gina was glad he couldn’t see the complete look of confusion on her face as she replied, “Oh, hi Phillip. What’s up?”

“I was just calling to see if you’ve had time to get those business cards printed yet.”

“Just got them hot off of the press this morning. I meant to give them to Piper today at mom’s house, but I forgot. Maybe I can give them to you at the gym sometime this week.”

“Actually, I was wondering if I could stop by your place tonight to get them.”

“Phillip, that’s not necessary. Anytime next week will be fine.”

“Okay,” he paused for an intake of air. “But you’re going to miss out on about ninety potential clients then.”

“Wait…what?” Gina asked briskly.

“I have a meeting on Monday at eight a.m. with close to a hundred doctors from the area. I was planning on handing the cards out for you then, but since you want to wait—”

Gina interrupted, “No, tonight would be great. Come on over.”

 

Phillip arrived thirty minutes later wearing dark denim jeans, a pink striped button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows, carrying a bottle of wine in each hand with a wide grin on his face. When Gina opened the door, he held up the alcohol.

“I thought we could celebrate you starting your new job.”

Tilting her chin to the side, Gina peered out of the corner of her eye at him, not able to hide her skepticism.

He laughed, shaking his head. “I have no idea what I’ve done to make you so leery of me, but I’m not such a bad guy, if you just give me a chance.”

Gina continued blocking the doorway without responding to his statement.

“Come on, Gina,” he teased, his million-dollar-smile lighting up his entire face.

When she still didn’t budge, he switched tactics, pleading like a lonesome puppy dog, “If I go back home, I’ll be stuck alone in my condo again, like I am every other night of the week.”

He shrugged his shoulders when Gina hesitated. “That’s okay. I understand. I can hit up a bar for some company then. Just give me your cards and I’ll be on my way.”

Reluctantly, Gina opened the door further. “No, Phillip, you don’t have to do that. Come on in.”

Gina started toward the kitchen with him trailing behind.

“Thanks for letting me stay. It’s just been really weird with Piper on night shift. You forget what it’s like being alone when you’ve had someone by your side, twenty-four-seven. I find myself actually asking questions aloud, expecting Piper to answer.” Sitting the bottles on the granite kitchen countertop, he stated, “I didn’t know if you liked red or white better, so I brought both.”

Handing him a corkscrew, Gina mumbled, “White will be fine.”

Deciding that the kitchen would be the most platonic place to sit, Gina tugged out a chair at the end of the table and relaxed into it. After pouring two glasses of white wine, he strolled up beside her, handing her a flute, then perched in the chair to her right as he started a conversation.

“So, how’s it going at The Oasis?”

“Really good, actually. Everyone has been extremely nice and helpful when I have questions. I also like the location. It doesn’t take me but fifteen minutes to zip over the bridge and be in downtown.”

“I live close to the hospital, too. It makes it nice not to have an extended commute after a long day at the office.”

“Yes, I’m sure working in the ER does have its stressful times.”

He nodded his head knowingly. “You can say that again.” He took a long swallow of his wine before asking, “Is personal training something you’ve always knew you wanted to do?”

She nodded once. “Since high school, anyway. How about you? Did you run around the block trying to play doctor on all your neighborhood friends?”

His mouth twitched. “Only the females.”

She chuckled slightly, saying, “figures,” before taking a sip from her glass.

“So, tell me about your relationship with Piper. Have you always been best friends?”

“Good God, no,” she answered bluntly before taking another swig from her glass.

He chuckled before saying, “That’s funny. Piper led me to believe you two have been inseparable since birth.”

“Hardly,” Gina snorted.

He laughed again. “Would you care to elaborate?”

After swirling the golden liquid around in her glass, Gina shed a sliver of light onto her past. “Actually, I despised my sister with a passion until I hit the fifth grade.”

He cocked one brow. “Oh, really, why is that?”

Gina took a long draw from her wine, then spun her glass on the wooden table contemplating how she should answer his question. She decided to answer him honestly. She wasn’t sure if that was because she thought it would feel good to get her past insecurities off her chest, or maybe, she was just as desperate for conversation as he was.

Taking another sip from her glass, Gina licked her bottom lip self-consciously before admitting, “I hated my sister for one simple reason. I was jealous of her because she was perfect in every way, while I was the exact replica of imperfect.”

Phillip’s eyes fell to her lips, lingered there, then dropped to her neck, and finally, to the swell in her Grateful Dead t-shirt. When his gaze reached back up to her eyes, he murmured, “Gina, you’re a lot of things, but imperfect is definitely not one of them.”

Gina smiled slightly, liking his compliment, before saying, “You wouldn’t be saying that if you knew me back then.” After drumming her fingernails on the table to fill the void that followed, Gina continued with, “Anyway, around the fifth grade, I decided to stop going against the grain and tried to find out what all the fuss was about concerning my sister, and sure enough, all the grade school kids were correct. Piper was just as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.”

Holding his glass to his parted lips, Phillip did not speak as he eyed her over the rim. Thick silence filled the air as he took a lazy swallow from his wine, but still did not make any comments about her last statement. After an extended pause, he asked, “What is the biggest difference between you and your sister?”

Although Gina was confounded by the question, she answered anyway. “Well, obviously our looks are probably the biggest contrast, but we also vary on how we go about things as well. She follows her heart, while I listen to my head. I’ve calculated out my whole life, to make sure I ended up where I wanted to be. Piper, on the other hand, strolls through life blindly, believing God has a plan for each of us, which I think is absolutely absurd, not that I don’t believe in God or anything like that, because I do, but surely, we each control their own destiny, right?”

Phillip narrowed his eyes. “I’m with you on that one. I tend to lean toward the left side of the brain, and I do believe we carve our own future.”

Gina skimmed her fingertip around the mouth of her glass. “I sure hope the planning I did had something to do with the end result. If not, I wasted a heck of a lot of energy.”

Phillip chuckled again as he leaned back in his seat, causing his calf to brush hers underneath the table as he asked, “Would you like another glass of wine?”

Enjoying not being alone on a Saturday night, Gina accepted his offer, then watched as he pushed back his chair, strolling over to the counter to reach for the wine opener to uncork the bottle of Cabernet. “Would you like Chardonnay again?”

When she nodded her head, he brought both bottles back to the table, filling his glass with red, and hers with white, as Gina asked, “So, tell me about your childhood. What was it like growing up with four sisters?”

“I spent the majority of my youth waiting in line for the bathroom.”

Gina laughed out loud, partly because she could picture a line of teenage girls with a young Phillip crossing his legs at the end, and partly due to the wine creating a haze on her brain. For whichever reason, she continued giggling like an adolescent school girl, making Phillip laugh in return.

When their laughter died down, Phillip gazed thoughtfully into her misty eyes, murmuring, “Your laugh is infectious, Gina.”

Gina dropped her gaze to focus on her glass and was surprised when Phillip lifted her chin tenderly with his fingertip. “You light up a room when you smile; don’t hide that from the rest of the world.”

Not knowing how to respond, Gina bit her lower lip, and watched as his eyes fell intimately to her mouth. As if in a trance, she released the hold on her lip, allowing him to gingerly trail his thumb across it; her line of vision took in his slight smile before he gradually withdrew his hand from her face.

Her bottom lip turned numb and tingly where his finger had brushed as her heart fluttered rapidly in her chest. Her breathing felt hollow, echoing in her ears. Gina wasn’t sure if her reaction to his touch was due to not being caressed intimately in such a long time, or the fact that the man touching her was taboo and off limits, but she could feel her face begin to redden with unwanted heat.

Standing abruptly, Gina strode over to the sink, placing her half-full glass into the basin, muttering, “I’ll just go get those business cards, so you can be on your way.”

 

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Kaleidoscope of Consequences,

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Also Available By April Marie Libs:

 

Bridge to Destiny

Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscope of Consequences

Meet Me in Heaven

The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

The Licorice Tree

The Eleventh Hour


Kaleidoscope

Everything in Piper’s life was falling into place perfectly. Not only did she find a job she cherished, she also found the man she thought was her soul mate. But while busily planning her wedding, Piper’s worst nightmare was realized and her entire world blew up right in front of her eyes. Devastated beyond belief, Piper packs her bags and heads off to Chicago to re-center herself with an old friend from college, where she finds herself falling for Colton, the Child Protective Service agent of one of her patients. After making a deep connection with Jack, the six-year-old Colton is investigating, Piper begs Colton to allow her to help proof the child neglect case, but after her initial reaction to him, he doesn't want her in the same room with him, much less as his partner in a case.

  • ISBN: 9781370791958
  • Author: April Marie Libs
  • Published: 2017-09-29 18:20:19
  • Words: 75251
Kaleidoscope Kaleidoscope