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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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BOOK: Disguised Blessing
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5

R
ICK NODDED TO THE RECEPTIONIST AS HE ENTERED
the lobby of the Shriner’s hospital and headed for the elevators. He loved this building. Where most hospitals were closed and cramped, here the architect had provided a wall of windows six stories high that made the trees and clouds seem a part of the enormous second-floor playroom, and gave the children’s minds freedom while their injuries kept them confined.

He stopped by the nurses’ break room and grabbed a cup of coffee—a prop to give a comfortable, relaxed impression when he first met Catherine Miller and her fiancé, Tom Adams. He wanted them to see him as an insider, a part of the hospital routine, someone they could trust without hesitation in an emergency. He’d discovered years earlier that it was the simple things that made a difference where trust was involved, the sense of belonging that came with a ceramic mug instead of
a paper cup, the confidence to perch on the corner of a desk in a physician’s office rather than a chair. By breaking down that initial barrier as quickly as possible, he could get down to his real job—helping Lynda get on with her life.

Today the meeting was scheduled in Marcia Randolph’s office. She was the chief of plastic surgery and a long-time friend. Marcia’s assistant, a young woman just beginning to show her pregnancy, smiled when she saw Rick.

“She’s waiting for you.”

Rick glanced at the clock on the back wall. He was ten minutes early. “Has she been here long?”

“About five minutes.”

Indicating her expanding stomach, he asked, “Did you get Marcia’s approval for that?”

She laughed. “She did make me promise I’d be back. She even told me she’d get me a raise so Mike could stay home and take care of the baby.”

His hand on the office door, he added, “See what happens when you make yourself indispensable?”

“Think I should start goofing off?”

“Sure—just don’t tell Marcia I said so.” He was careful to lose the smile before he went inside.

A woman he guessed to be in her late thirties stood at the window, so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t hear him enter. She was dressed in white linen slacks and a soft yellow sleeveless top that looked more like a vest than a shirt. She wore her hair in a sleek cut that skimmed shoulders tanned an unnatural shade of brown. The tan surprised
Rick. She was obviously from money and at an age when a woman worried more about wrinkles than golden skin.

“Excuse me,” he said in a soft voice, trying not to startle her.

She turned to him and forced a polite smile, her eyes hollow and sunken from lack of sleep. “Are you the firefighter?”

He came forward and extended his hand. “Rick Sawyer.”

“Catherine Miller.”

“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

He’d confused her. “What?”

“The view. I saw you looking out the window when I came in.”

She turned to look again as if seeing the view for the first time. “Yes, it is.”

“Can I get you something while we’re waiting? A cup of coffee? Tea?”

“Someone else is coming?”

Over the years Rick had dealt with a lot of parents of burned children, had seen every degree of grief, yet the initial meeting still had the same sobering effect on him. Their fear and doubt, often laced with a pervasive guilt, were palpable, impossible to ignore.

He used to try to ease the families through the worst times by assuring them it would get better, that it always did. Finally he’d understood the journey itself was part of the healing process and could only be understood in hindsight.

“I thought your fiancé wanted to be here, too.”

“He said not to wait for him—that he could get tied up this morning.”

Rick gave her a moment to elaborate, to let her know he would listen to anything she wanted to tell him. When she chose not to say anything more, he said, “Then why don’t we get started.”

She moved from the window to a chair at the desk. Instead of sitting on the other side, or on the desk itself, which would have put him above her, Rick took the chair next to hers. “I’m not sure how much you’ve been told about my role in Lynda’s recovery, so I’ll give you a quick rundown.” He told her in simple terms, leaving out the names of the agencies and people who would help her while letting her know she was not alone.

“Have you met Lynda?”

“I thought I’d stop by when we’re through here.”

“She’s having her dressings changed. That’s why I came upstairs early.” Catherine folded her hands in her lap and stared at them. “They give her something for pain and a drug that induces temporary amnesia…” She stopped and took a deep breath before going on. “She’ll ask me about it someday, but I don’t think I’ll tell her what it was like. For either of us.”

Rick had heard enough. He didn’t need to know anything more about Catherine to know he could work with her. She was the kind of woman who would be there for her daughter in the hard times ahead.

“I understand Lynda is on the honor roll,” he said, purposely changing the subject.

The quick answering smile transformed her face. Rick was taken aback at the difference. A little sleep, a little makeup, and Catherine Miller wouldn’t just be a pretty woman, she’d be someone people turned to look at twice when she passed. “She’s made it every year since third grade.”

Catherine leaned forward and for the first time looked at Rick as if she were actually seeing him. “She’s a remarkable young woman. I’ll do whatever it takes to make her whole again. And I mean that—
whatever it takes.”

“What do you mean by
whole?”
Rick asked carefully. If Catherine believed she could bargain or buy her way into returning Lynda to the girl she’d once been, she was in for a crushing disappointment. Lynda could be as smart, as funny, as personable as before, but she could not have her body restored. She would always be scarred. How those scars affected her mind depended in large part on Catherine.

“I want her to be as confident as she was before she was burned. She has to know that her scars don’t matter. And not just in her mind, but in her heart.”

A fierceness accompanied Catherine’s words. She was helpless to do anything to help Lynda now, but that didn’t keep her from mapping their future. Rick not only liked this woman, he admired her.

“It won’t be easy,” he said. “Lynda has a set body image and it’s going to be hard for her to accept a new one.” Pimples created a crisis in a teen’s life; the scars from a burn could be devastating and often created a personality change.

A sound in the outer office distracted Catherine. She waited expectantly, hopefully, and then with a small shrug said, “I’m sorry, I thought it might be Tom.”

“We can finish this later when he’s here,” Rick offered. “I have this afternoon free. I could come back then.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“I don’t mind. Just give me a time.”

She considered his request. “Is there a number where I could reach you? I really would like Tom to hear what you have to say and I don’t want you to have to say it twice.”

He dug a card out of his wallet and gave it to her. “My station number, home number, and pager number are on there. I’ll bring a firefighter calendar that will let you know when you can reach me at work. I’m available whenever you want to call, day or night.”

“Goodness—you make it sound as if we’ll be taking over your life.” She looked at the card. “You’re a captain? What does that mean?”

He smiled. “I get to sit in the front of the fire engine instead of the back and I don’t have to drive.”

“I’m sure it’s a little more demanding than that.” She stared at the card as if memorizing it. “I see by your home phone that you live in Placer County.”

“Loomis.”

“We’re in Granite Bay.”

“Is that where Lynda goes to high school?” He was there to find out about her, not talk about himself.

Catherine nodded. “She’ll be a junior this fall.”

“Did she skip a grade?”

“She’ll be sixteen in November.”

Six months away. That would be a rough birthday. “Is she active in school?”

Catherine tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, recoiling at its silky feel, so different from Lynda’s…not the way it had once been, but the way it was now. But how had it been? Three days wasn’t enough time to forget. The immediacy of the moment, no matter how compelling its nature, couldn’t erase the lifetime that had gone before. She would remember. She just needed a little time.

“She’s into everything—choir, soccer, drama, cheerleading.” Catherine heard the pride in her voice, and under ordinary circumstances would have added something about how messy Lynda kept her room or the countless battles they fought over the telephone. Catherine would clean up after Lynda the rest of their lives, she would give up her elaborate wedding and elope, live on a desert island,
anything,
if she could just go back and change one thing: the sweater.

If only she hadn’t made Lynda take the sweater.
The memory snatched her out of the present and brought her into a world on a different plane, one she would inhabit in her mind forever. She shook herself free and forced a smile, unable to tell if it reached her lips until she saw Rick respond.

“With all that activity, she must have a strong network of friends.”

“The answering machine tape is full every time I
go home, even if I’ve only been gone a couple of hours.” Tom had suggested they put medical updates in place of a message and it seemed to be working. Last night there had been as many hangups as requests for a return call, some from friends she hadn’t heard from in years.

Again she heard a sound in the outer office. Even though Catherine knew it wasn’t Tom—she still looked toward the door. This time it opened. It wasn’t Tom but Gene, her brother, who appeared. She let out a welcoming cry and jumped up to greet him.

“What are you doing here? I told Mom not to call you.” She was ecstatic that her mother hadn’t listened.

Gene was six-foot-four to her five-foot-seven. When he hugged her and she put her cheek against his chest, she could feel his strong, steady heartbeat and knew a familial security that was a balm to her own wounded heart.

“She knew I’d never forgive her if she waited until I got home to tell me. I’m just sorry I couldn’t get here sooner. I snagged the first empty seat on the first flight I could find out of Tokyo.” He let her go and studied her. “You look like hell. Where’s Tom? Someone needs to tell him that he should be taking better care of you.”

She sidestepped the question, using Rick to divert him. “Gene, I’d like you to meet—”

“Rick Sawyer.
Well, I’ll be damned. What has it been—fifteen, twenty years?”

Rick shook Gene’s hand. “At least twenty.”

Catherine looked from Gene to Rick and then back again. “You know each other?”

“We were in the same fraternity at USC.” To Rick he said, “I had no idea you went into medicine.”

“Not even close,” Rick said. “I’m a firefighter.”

“Oh…” He was plainly embarrassed by the mistake. “I assumed Catherine was in here with one of Lynda’s doctors.”

“He’s here to help me—” She tried but couldn’t remember what Rick was supposed to help her with. “To answer questions.”

“What kind of questions?” Gene asked.

“Anything and everything that isn’t medical,” Rick answered for her.

“And you do this because…?”

Rick liked this protective streak in Gene. He’d been a champion for the underdog in college, too. “Firefighters are traditionally involved with helping burn survivors and in the support of burn units in hospitals. In Sacramento we take it a step further and assign volunteers to burn-survivor families. We stay in contact with them for the first year of recovery, doing whatever we can to make the process easier.”

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Gene said.

“Yes—it does,” Catherine agreed, politely.

Rick knew it would take several more contacts before Catherine was ready to think about anything but the immediate future and that he’d done what he could for that day. “I’m going to leave now,” he told Catherine. “If you need me for anything, you have my number.” He nodded to Gene. “Good seeing
you again. Catch you later.”

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

Rick left and went downstairs to the intensive care unit to check in with the nurses before going home. The nurses dealt with the kids and their parents on a more intimate basis than the doctors, and he often got a better feel for the nuances of a case from them.

As much as he liked Catherine Miller and felt he could work with her, he still wasn’t convinced he was the right person for her daughter—from all accounts a girl accustomed to being the center of attention. Rick’s sister, Cindy, had been a cheerleader in high school. A bad hair day was tantamount to going out on a date with the class geek. Rick hadn’t understood her then and—with her trips to Los Angeles every three years to have something lifted or tucked by her favorite plastic surgeon—didn’t understand her any better now.

He’d seen too many kids without ears or noses, too many mouths that couldn’t form a smile, too many hands without fingers to feel sympathy for a woman whose mirror reflected mere wrinkles.

The intensive care unit was formed like a half wheel with the nurses’ station as the hub. The rooms were large and filled with light. Each had brightly colored curtains and matching bedspreads, televisions, VCRs, video games, and whatever else might be requested to engage the mind in something other than pain and loss.

A nurse in her midfifties with hair the shade of red that only came from bottles looked up and
smiled when she saw Rick. “Hey, long time no see. You here for the boy they just brought in?” She rolled her chair back and reached for a chart.

“I didn’t hear about the boy.” He leaned over the counter, saw an open box of See’s chocolates, and took a caramel. “I’m with Lynda Miller.”

“Going to work that special magic you do with a girl this time, huh?”

“Going to try.” The caramel stuck to his tooth. He pried it off with his tongue, making a sucking sound.

“Well, keep that up and you’re a shoo-in. Nothing gets to us girls like slurping sounds.”

BOOK: Disguised Blessing
4.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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