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Authors: Catherine Lanigan

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BOOK: Sophie's Path
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Eleanor nodded. “I think Recovery Alliance can make a big difference. Indian Lake needs us. Education is essential to stopping this problem. The police can only do so much and they are called in when there's a crisis. The Alliance's job is to inform and educate parents and kids before they start experimenting with drugs. I want to get to the kids in elementary and middle schools. By the time they hit high school, it's too late.”

Mrs. Beabots folded her arms over her chest. “This is so disheartening.
High
school
is too late?”

“That's part of the addiction problem today. When children get hooked so young, their brains are still developing and they have no chance to mature like their peers. They don't understand consequences. They can't think the way we do. They are relegated to a life of chasing the next high.”

“Is there any hope?” Mrs. Beabots asked.

“Yes, there is. But it takes a great deal of commitment. Most importantly, the parents are the drivers. Too many times I've seen that the child is dedicated to his recovery, but the parent is not.” Eleanor shook her head then continued, “The Alliance uses a Twelve Step Program with addicts and our recovery rate is in line with AA. What sets us apart is the education we give to parents and younger kids.”

Sophie nodded. “About a month ago I was involved with the treatment of an ER patient, an addict, who died. I've been trying to find something that goes beyond the hospital's emergency care for people with drug problems.” Sophie held out her hand. “I want to help you all that I can.”

Eleanor squeezed her hand. “Believe me, Sophie, we can use you. This means a lot to me.”

“What do you need?”

“Well, your job at the hospital must keep you very busy. How many hours a week can you give me?”

“I can spare a couple nights. One weekend a month, possibly, when I'm not working in the ER.” Sophie remembered Tanya's warnings about employee involvement with non-affiliated programs. There were a lot of reasons for her to walk away, but already she could see the positive impact Eleanor's program could have. This was too important for Sophie to pass up.

“I'll take it,” Eleanor replied excitedly. “We're desperate to simply get the word out that we exist. I need help on social media. Do you think you could meet with local businesses? We need funding, but we also simply need them to talk about us. Maybe sponsor radio or internet ads.”

“I can do that,” Sophie said firmly. “Let me put some ideas down on paper. My first thought is Maddie Barzonni's café. I could start there. Maybe the Book Shop and Java Stop for another. What do you think?”

“Terrific. Here's my card. Call me when you're ready to start and I'll get some materials together for you.”

Sophie smiled as Eleanor walked away, then she realized Mrs. Beabots was staring at her, dumbfounded.

Sophie swallowed hard. She felt every ounce of Mrs. Beabots's concern. Sophie knew exactly what she'd just done. She'd broken one of the hospital's explicit rules. She was not to align herself with other organizations that conflicted with the hospital's programs. She couldn't let anyone know she was helping Eleanor.

“Mrs. Beabots...”

“You don't even have to ask. As far as I'm concerned, all you did was drop me off.”

“You understand, then?”

“Maybe even more than you do. Emory Wills runs a tight ship over there at the hospital. He's always been like that. Too controlling.” Then she winked. “And absolutely no fun. Now, let's have some coffee and see if my tarts are any good.”

Sophie filled a Styrofoam cup with coffee for Mrs. Beabots. The black liquid reminded her of all the coffee she'd downed the night Aleah died. Aleah's face haunted her. Flashes of that night came back to her. Jack's pleas for her to save Aleah. The fear in his eyes and the compelling, imploring look he gave her. He was incapable of saving Aleah himself and he'd counted on her to do it.

And I failed.

Sophie watched several groups of people come through the front door of Recovery Alliance. Men, women and kids of every age. Some she'd seen around town at the grocery store, the dry cleaners, even at the hospital. They were her neighbors.

Warmth spread through Sophie, then surged like a fire that had been fanned. It was nearly overwhelming, but somehow reassuring. For the first time in a long time, she felt balanced and whole. With a start, she realized she was feeling exactly what Mrs. Beabots had talked about. Sophie had found her passion.

CHAPTER NINE

S
INCE
MEETING
E
LEANOR
,
Sophie had spent her break hours calling Scott Abbot at the bookstore, Jerry Mason's construction company, Louise Railton and Captain Redbeard. All had agreed to put up posters in their businesses. Scott couldn't have been more cooperative, especially once Sophie told him she'd learned of the Alliance through Mrs. Beabots.

After about a week of doing outreach and learning about the Alliance, Sophie realized how desperately the Alliance needed operating capital and volunteered to make fund-raising phone calls, as well. She'd never asked anyone to donate money before. Sure, she'd sold Girl Scout cookies door-to-door when she was in elementary school, and she'd helped Isabelle Hawks last year with her art booth at the summer festival, but she'd never asked someone to give her money for a cause or charity.

“How difficult can it be?” she asked Eleanor on Tuesday morning. Sophie had an afternoon shift and decided to spend her free hours at the Alliance offices.

Not even an arched brow and a “you've got to be kidding me” glance from Eleanor could daunt her, though. Sophie enthusiastically grabbed the receiver. “I'd better get to it.”

Eleanor nodded knowingly. “I'll bring you coffee. And shut the door for privacy.”

Sophie's first call was to Austin McCreary. She bumbled her way through her pitch and sounded like a grade schooler asking for a hall pass. Though she didn't have any training or a script to follow, she hoped her passion for helping the people in the next room would shine through. Austin was gracious and donated five thousand dollars.

“This is very generous of you, Austin. We all want to thank you,” Sophie said.

“Actually, Sophie, once I get back from my honeymoon, I plan to help Eleanor even more. Aleah's death has really shaken Katia and me up. It's made us look around our little town and see that there's some serious work to be done. Thank you for all the help you're giving Eleanor.”

“It's not much, really. Just a few hours here and there. She can't do it all.”

“It's like sticking your thumb in the dam, I'm sure,” he said. “Good luck.”

Austin's donation gave her the confidence to go to Mrs. Beabots, Helen Knowland, Debra La Pointe, Sarah and Luke Bosworth and Gina Barzonni. Not one turned her down.

What surprised Sophie the most was the outpouring of affection toward her for helping the Alliance. She almost felt as if she'd been accepted by them, despite her long-standing reputation. Almost.

* * *

S
OPHIE
STRIPPED
THE
blue nitrile gloves from her hands and pulled off her surgical gown after the last ablation surgery of the day.

“Good job today, Sophie,” Nate Barzonni said, pulling off his mask.

“Thank you, Doctor.” Sophie smiled, enjoying the feeling of accomplishment she got each time they completed a surgery. “I'll check on the patient.”

Nate stopped her. “I understand you made a phone call to my mother yesterday.”

Sophie's mind was still on the ablation. “Your mother?”

“About the Alliance and the donation?”

There was something in Nate's voice she didn't like. That sharp, stern edge she heard only when he was frustrated during a surgery. She remembered her conversation with Tanya and gulped. “Is there a problem?”

“Not with my mother. When she told me what she donated to the Alliance, I thought it kind of her. What concerns me is that it was you who made the call.”

“Um, why?” Sophie felt as if she'd fallen into frozen waters. Suddenly, the world had grown cold.

How could she have believed word of Gina's contribution wouldn't get back to her son? True, Sophie still didn't understand how the hospital could frown on anyone who was trying to make a positive difference in people's lives. But Tanya's warning had been serious. Sophie had been so caught up in the work she was doing, and the positive responses, she'd forgotten how small Indian Lake truly was. She'd forgotten to be cautious.

How far would Nate go with this “inside information” about Sophie and the Alliance?

“Sophie, you have to know that Emory Wills dislikes any of his staff working for what he considers the opposition.”

“Opposition?”
Did the man think they were at war?

“The Alliance is not funded or endorsed by the hospital. Their methodology is very different from Indian Lake Hospital...”

“Thank God,” she interrupted. “Sorry.”

Nate's frown deepened. “I'm serious, Sophie. You're the best cardiac nurse I've worked with. I don't want to lose you.”

“You think I'd get fired for just helping Eleanor? I'm not even doing that much.” Fear grabbed her by the knees and threatened to take her down.

“I'd say raising money for them to continue is grounds enough. I'm not saying you should stay off the phones or stop putting up posters, but I'd be, well, more discreet.”

Sophie's shoulders slumped. She felt deflated. “I see.”

He put his hand on her shoulder. “Look, Sophie. It's not just Emory. I know you. You don't do anything in half measures. You're already starting to seem tired. I can see how much you love working in the ER. So do I. But with the Alliance on top of that, you could be in danger of spreading yourself too thin. Don't let that happen.”

“I'll be okay,” she tried to assure him, but she saw the wariness in his eyes.

“I'm just trying to warn you. That's all. Forewarned is forearmed. Okay? And you and I never had this conversation. What you do on your free time is no concern of mine. By the way, I have an envelope with my own donation in my office. Anonymous. Give it to Eleanor. 'Kay?”

Sophie felt her smile rise from her toes. Her chest inflated. “Thank you, Doctor.”

“You bet,” he said and winked. She'd escaped the extracurricular police.

* * *

J
ACK
PEELED
OFF
the plastic lid from the cappuccino that Maddie Barzonni had made for him and chuckled. Today she'd drawn a sunflower in the thick foam because he'd told her yesterday that sunflowers were his favorite summer bloom. He shook his head and walked toward Carter and Associates' massive window wall, which overlooked downtown Indian Lake.

That's what he loved about his new home in this small town. Little things. Thoughtful things that friends did for friends. Maddie's café had the best cappuccino Jack had ever tasted, bar none. The best barista Chicago could boast didn't hold a candle to Maddie, and she was teaching young Chloe Knowland to follow in her footsteps. Except when Chloe was running to acting classes, of course.

Jack was amazed by how quickly he'd become attached to so many people in town. Mrs. Beabots was now his client, as well as Sarah and Luke Bosworth. Liz and Gabe Barzonni, too. Maddie had recently bought a policy for her entire franchise of cafés in Chicago.

He passed Aleah's desk and stopped. Her parents had requested all her personal items and Jack had packed them in a box and mailed them himself. He had kept her nameplate. It was identical to the ones they all had. He liked uniformity. He believed clients sensed subconscious impressions. Katia wanted their clients to think of Carter and Associates as family. Jack wanted them to feel protected.

Jack picked up Aleah's brass nameplate and held it.

He wasn't sure if he felt her presence any more strongly by keeping her nameplate. Most bosses would throw it away once they'd hired a new assistant.

But Jack wouldn't do that. He'd keep her nameplate in his desk drawer—not to keep his guilt close, but to remember her as the bright young woman she'd been and hope that he could find another assistant even half as enthusiastic.

Jack's eyes slipped over to Melanie who was taking down an insurance application over the phone. Owen was setting up appointments. Katia was on the phone with a new corporate client.

They didn't need him right this minute, but as soon as they were off their respective calls, they would.

His thoughts about Aleah faded as he sipped his coffee, blowing on the surface. Something outside caught his eye. Rather, some
one
.

Still dressed in her scrubs, Sophie stood at the corner, watching the traffic. She pulled a huge clip from her hair and let her waves tumble down. Sliding her fingers to her temple, she smiled as if relieved.

Pretty smile. Pretty woman.
He hummed a few notes of the song.

She adjusted the shoulder strap on her black purse and the light changed. Sophie stepped off the curb and greeted an elderly couple as they approached her in the intersection. As she stepped onto the sidewalk next to his building, another man greeted her with a hug. They conversed for a moment and then parted. The man stopped, shouted something to Sophie. She turned and blew him a kiss.

Jack cocked his head and lowered his paper cup.
Boyfriend?

A phone rang. Jack heard Melanie's voice answer just as another call came in. Owen picked up. “Carter and Associates. This is Owen.”

Jack spun around.
Time to get back to work. Time to stop thinking about Sophie.

* * *

T
HE
A
LLIANCE
OFFICE
was only a few doors down from Carter and Associates. It was impossible for Sophie to walk to the Alliance without thinking about Jack. What he was doing. How he was feeling. Wondering if she could help him. Assuage his pain. Relieve his grief. As often as she chided herself that Jack wasn't her responsibility, the memory of his stricken expression while sitting on the edge of the hospital bed lingered in her mind—indelible and haunting. It was the image that shot her full of guilt and recriminations. Both of which were nonproductive.

Eleanor greeted her as she entered the office. She looked up from the stack of files she was carrying and smiled, exhaling deeply. Was that relief in her expression?

“Sophie, I didn't expect to see you today. Are you on break?” Eleanor asked as she tilted her head toward her office. “Come with me.”

“I have two hours free, so I thought I'd stop by.” Sophie followed her and glanced toward the far end of the main room, where a group of people were sitting in a circle talking with Earl Belkowitz, a counselor she'd met on the day of the open house. They'd spoken only briefly, but she'd been impressed with his easy manner and sense of humor.

“Eleanor, I counted fifteen people out there,” Sophie said, closing the office door behind her. “Just four days ago, Earl only had six clients.”

Eleanor smiled. “Word is getting out about our services, and even I have to admit that the response is growing faster than I'd planned for.” She sighed as she plopped the files on her desk, smoothing a clump of hair that had fallen across her brow. She was clearly frazzled. “That group is the second one today. We have requests for daily meetings because for so many, these sessions are their lifeline to sobriety. I love that we're vital, but...”

“It's a lot of work.”

“And costs a lot of money, as you well know. Thank goodness for you, Sophie. You've raised over ten thousand dollars in a short time. I have no idea what I would have done without you.”

Sophie reached into her pocket. “I have another check here, from my boss. It's supposed to be anonymous.” She handed it over. “Eleanor...I need to talk to you.”

Eleanor was reading the check, and her eyes grew wide as she took in the amount. “This is amazing. I could hire that counselor from South Bend I interviewed yesterday...” She stopped cold then lowered herself into her chair. “I can tell you why you're here, Sophie. You don't need to say a word. This is too much for you, isn't it?”

Sophie felt her face crack with emotion. “That's the problem—I love what I'm doing and feel like I'm making a difference.”

“Then what is it?”

“There's been...a development. My job may be in question if I continue working with you. Too many people around town know who I am. Too many hospital administrators watching too many of us.” Sophie pressed her fingertips to her forehead and closed her eyes. “Honestly, I'm beginning to feel as if I'm on a surveillance camera.”

“Now you know how my addicts feel when they have to wear ankle bracelets and report to their probation officers.”

“Uh-huh. I empathize and I still want to help.”

Eleanor gnawed her bottom lip pensively for a moment. She sat up straighter. “Maybe there's another way.”

“Like what?”

“Be an advocate for an addict. A sponsor.”

Sophie paused. Fund-raising was making her too visible to the hospital administrators who worried about liability. Perhaps being a sponsor might keep her participation with the Alliance under the hospital radar.

“But aren't sponsors usually former addicts themselves?” Sophie asked.

“Traditionally, yes. Still, we have lots of doctors and psychologists who help out this way. With your experience and medical knowledge you would be the kind of empathetic yet tough-love sponsor I need on the team,” Eleanor explained, her blue eyes suddenly glistening with tears she blinked away.

Sophie touched Eleanor's arm. “You have someone in mind for me, don't you?”

“Yes. His name is Jeremy...” Eleanor flipped through the charts and withdrew a brand-new folder containing only a single sheet of paper. It was the standard client information sheet, but Sophie noticed most of the lines were blank. No phone. No address. Little medical history.

“And you want me to take him on?” Sophie asked with a jolt of apprehension. Was she educated enough for this work? She'd immersed herself in a sea of information; she'd fallen asleep with reports and personal testimonies and journals in order to better understand what people with addictions went through. The cure for addiction to drugs or alcohol was not purely medical or scientific. It took immense will and fortitude to fight the insidious lure of narcotics. Addicts were tough to cure. Many often felt as if they were only one half step away from falling over the precipice into oblivion. Back into that dark hole they may or may not crawl out of again.

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