Unfortunately, taking care of Nicky means being around her husband, Rafe; the one man Taz could never forget. Rafe is not only her brother-in-law but also took over the family veterinary clinic from her dad.
As Taz becomes Nicky's home health care nurse—working closely with Rafe to make her sister comfortable—their latent attraction comes sizzling back to the surface. They won't betray Nicky, but if her dying wish is to see them get the happy ending they always deserved, can they really keep fighting what's meant to be?
Release date: December 7, 2020
Print pages: 344
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The sun is almost down when I spot the glimmer of the Congo River.
Another half hour or so in the dusty Land Rover and I can have a real shower, and roll in my cool sheets, for the first time in twelve days.
Bouncing around on oftentimes nothing more than a faint, dusty trail to get to some of the remote villages of the Democratic Republic of Congo gets old fast.
I remember when I first landed in Ghana, nine years ago. Then twenty-nine, everything had still been an adventure. Growing up in the tiny town of Eminence, in the Ozarks, I’d always hungered to see more of the world.
After getting my nursing degree at twenty-five—it took me a while to decide what I wanted to do—I’d first moved to Seattle, working as a triage nurse at the Northgate Kindred Hospital. I thought moving to the big city would broaden my horizons, but I was never able to get used to the noise and the crowds. I stuck it out for four years before the walls of my small apartment started closing in on me.
When my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s I went back home, thinking maybe I could find something more local, but was quickly reminded why I’d been so eager to get so far away from Eminence in the first place.
I was there barely a month when an opportunity came along to work as a nurse for Doctors Without Borders in Ghana, and I jumped all over it. It had been perfect timing, since things at home were already going downhill fast.
I loved it. Loved the almost nomad type lifestyle of those first years. Living out of my duffel bag, never knowing where the new day would take me, and experiencing things I never imagined I would get to see.
After Ghana came Nigeria, then a short stint in Ethiopia, before I finally ended up in the Congo. That was four years ago. I’d only been back to the US a handful of times, and only one of those times visited home. That had been a mistake.
“Ntámbo,” Wilson, our driver, says in his native Lingala, pointing to the left where a pride of lions is having a drink at the river’s edge. Not an unusual scene to bump into here, but it never fails to impress me. I twist my head to keep the group in sight as we continue our bumpy path back to our home base.
My stomach is growling when Wilson pulls on to the road leading to the compound. The main building is a simple one-story structure housing the clinic. Behind it, partially hidden in the tree line, the small thatched roof living quarters are visible. The four clay huts called tukuls—three single and one double-occupancy—makes up staff lodging for the two physicians and three nurses with Doctors Without Borders stationed here.
This is a satellite clinic from where we service a large area, hundreds of miles of wilderness dotted with small villages depending on our medical care. The past week and a half consisted of delivering vaccinations to mostly women and children in the hard-to-reach areas, and dealing with whatever emergencies landed in our path.
I’m exhausted. Tired in a way that goes beyond twelve days of traveling under the harshest of conditions. I’m tired of the heat, of the constant dust and grime I seem to be covered with twenty-four seven. Tired of feeling like anything we do is merely a drop on a hot plate, the results barely visible. Too many children still dying of diseases almost eradicated in other parts of the world. Too many easy-to-fix injuries, which without proper medical care, end up in unnecessary and often devastating trauma.
Nine years of living under rough conditions has taken its toll, both mentally and physically.
I sigh when I see Paul walking out of the clinic, his eyes immediately drawn to our approach. Now there’s another reason I suddenly feel the weight of my life here heavy on my shoulders. When the very talented French physician arrived here, a little over a year ago, he’d seemed like a breath of fresh air with his charm, his clean good looks, and his apparent attraction to me.
I had a few brief sexual entanglements over the years, the most memorable one with Sven, a Dutch nurse. Six foot three of gorgeous lean mass, topped with a messy mop of dirty blond hair, reminiscent of a man I’ve tried to eradicate from my memory banks for the past nine years, without much luck. The moment I realized I was using Sven to live out that particular fantasy of mine, I’d broken it off.
There hadn’t been anyone since, until Paul Bonnaire joined our team. Just a scant few inches over my five five—dark-haired and smooth-tongued—he’d seemed like the perfect antithesis. Unfortunately, he also hadn’t held my interest long, and after a handful of less than satisfying sexual gymnastics in his tukul, I’d had enough.
He’s been trying to work his way back into my pants, unable to take ‘not a chance in hell’ for an answer. That too is wearing me down.
“Taz!” he calls out, walking up to the Land Rover when we pull into a parking spot. He has my door open before I have a chance to react. “Je vous ai manqué.”
Well, I didn’t miss you. In fact, some time away had provided welcome relief from the uncomfortably persistent man.
“Hey, Paul,” I mumble under my breath, as I try to squeeze by him—without touching—to grab my bag from the back of the vehicle.
“Let me get that for you,” he says, taking my duffel in one hand while throwing his other arm over my shoulder, steering me to my hut.
Rather than struggling fruitlessly over my bag, I shrug off his arm and rush ahead but stop, turning to face him outside my door.
“I wish you would stop, Paul. You’re not only making me uncomfortable, but the rest of the team as well. We’re done.” I wave my hand between us. “This is done. Let’s call it an error in judgment and move on.”
“Je ne comprends pas?”
I roll my eyes at his feigned ignorance and snag my duffel from his hand. “Please, you understand me well enough, but just to make sure—c’est fini entre nous.”
Noticing the flash of anger in his eyes, I’m relieved when Patti, one of the other nurses, comes jogging up the path.
“Did you give her the message?” she asks Paul when she reaches us.
“What message?” I ask, ignoring him and keeping my eyes on Patti, who suddenly looks too sympathetic for comfort. We have ways to stay in touch here at the clinic by phone and with spotty Internet, but once we leave the compound; we’re quickly out of range.
“Your friend, Kathleen, called the day before yesterday. It’s your sister.”
Mention of Nicky is followed by the familiar ache right in the middle of my chest. Only two years between us, my sister and I had been close growing up. They say opposites attract, and that had been a true statement for us. We were the perfect contrast, her light against my dark. Veronica had been the quiet and responsible child, whereas I’d always had a wild streak a mile wide and lived to break every rule in the book. The perfect yin and yang, until I left.
My sister put a smile on my parents’ faces when all I did was give them gray hair. I hardly think they miss me. Kathleen, my best friend, is the only person I have any contact with from back home.
“I’m sorry,” Patti says, putting a hand on my arm. “I’m afraid it’s bad news.”
The past week has been an absolute nightmare.
Nicky hadn’t been feeling well over the weekend, claiming she was likely coming down with something. Last Monday morning, she’d apparently gotten worse and ended up heading back to bed after she saw the kids off to school.
I had no idea; I’d been called out of bed by Jeff Van Duren at four that morning and was elbow deep in his prize heifer. She’d had trouble calving her first, the calf having gotten stuck in the birth canal. It had taken most of my morning making sure both mom and newborn bull calf were okay. I’d been on my way back to the veterinary clinic when my assistant called, asking me why there was an ambulance outside next door.
A heart attack.
Who would’ve thought a forty-year-old, seemingly healthy woman could be struck with a massive heart attack? There’d been no obvious signs, which I’ve learned since is not unusual in women. Her complaints had been of a more general nature, nothing really indicating that the arteries around her heart had slowly been clogging up.
She underwent an angioplasty and had three stents placed to restore some blood flow. A few days later, after a battery of tests, the cardiologist informed us that unfortunately the damage to her heart had been much more extensive than initially thought. It looks like she may have had prior cardiac events that went unnoticed but weakened the muscle. Her heart is failing and other than medication to keep her as stable as possible; there is nothing they can do.
I glance over at Sarah, who hasn’t left her daughter’s bedside since she and Ed got here. She looks exhausted.
“Why don’t you join Ed and go lie down for a bit?” I suggest, but quickly clamp my mouth shut when I take in the fierce look she shoots me.
“Mom,” Nicky pleads, her voice weak as she turns to her mother. “Get some rest, please.”
Sarah’s eyes fill with tears; not the first ones she’s spilled since receiving the devastating news. “But I…”
“You’re ready to collapse, Mom. Where would we be if that happened? Rafe will call if anything happens,” she assures her mother.
“I promise,” I add.
Sarah glances at me, and turns back to Nicky, before bending down to kiss her daughter’s cheek. She turns and walks to the door, her shoulders slumped under the weight resting on them.
The moment the door falls shut behind her, Nicky grabs my hand.
“We need to talk.”
I stroke my thumb over the back of her hand, feeling more connected to her than I have in a long time. “The kids,” I offer gently.
Spencer and Sofie are back in Eminence being looked after by Nicky’s friend, Kathleen. They’d only seen their mother briefly once, five days ago. Kathleen brought them to the hospital, but at five and eight years old, seeing their mother hooked up to tubes in a strange place had scared them. We decided we wouldn’t put them through that again and instead had called them every night before bed.
“Yes,” she whispers. “I want to go home, Rafe.”
I automatically shake my head. “Sweetheart, you’re better off here should anything happen.”
“Like what? Dying? That will happen soon enough, whether I’m here or not.”
I pull my hand free and run it through my hair. “Jesus.”
“I want to be with my kids, in my house. I don’t want to die here, hooked up to machines in a hospital bed, with strangers coming in every five minutes to check if I’m still breathing.”
“But the kids…” I start, unable to finish.
“What is worse, Rafe? That you come home sometime in the next days or weeks, announcing their mother is gone, or having them able to ask questions, share fears, prepare them gently with the kind of love only parents can give? I don’t want their last memory of me to be lying in a strange hospital bed, in an alien and scary place.”
My own eyes well up when I hear the tears in hers.
“Please,” she begs, and I drop my head on the bed beside her. Her fingers ruffle lightly through my hair. “I don’t have much time to make good memories. For me or for them. Please give me a chance to do that.”
“I’m sorry,” I blurt out, my voice muffled by the bedding.
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”
“You deserved better than me.”
“You’re rewriting history, Rafe. It was me who stepped out on you.”
She had. She confessed as much almost a year ago, but since then I’ve had a lot of time to think about cause and effect.
The truth is we never should’ve been more than friends. I’m the one who pushed for marriage when she got pregnant, so in love with the fantasy of settling down in a small town with a wife and two point one kids, I never took real feelings—mine or anyone else’s—into account. Had I done that, my life would’ve looked much different. Instead ‘fake it until you make it’ had been my mantra, and I can’t complain too much; my beautiful children are the reward.
Granting Nicky her last wish is the absolute least I can do.
“Okay, I’ll bring you home.” I lift my head and find her tired eyes. “I’ll need to make a few phone calls, see if I can get home care organized.”
“S’okay,” she mumbles, her eyes already drifting shut. “Is taken care of…”
Before I can ask what she means she’s asleep, something she’s been doing a lot of. I let her rest and step out into the hallway, looking for her nurse. I find her at the desk down the hallway.
“Excuse me, Brenda?”
“Is everything okay?” she immediately asks, her eyes darting to Nicky’s room.
“She’s sleeping.” Not quite sure how to approach this, I use the straightforward approach. “My wife wants to go home. I need to know what kinds of arrangements I should make for her comfort there.”
She doesn’t look at all shocked, but instead nods thoughtfully. “She mentioned something this morning. Let me get you the numbers for palliative home care, and I’ll warn Dr. Abawi. He’ll probably pop in to talk to all of you.” She copies a few numbers from a Rolodex on the desk to a notepad. “Why don’t you make your calls in the waiting room? There’s no one in there right now. I’ll keep an eye on Mrs. Thomas.”
“Thank you.” I take the piece of paper from her hand and slip into the empty room, closing the door behind me.
Forty minutes later I have twenty-four-hour care organized starting tomorrow afternoon, and Lisa is looking into getting a hospital bed installed in the living room on short notice.
I walk into Nicky’s room with a plan in hand, but come to a dead standstill when I see some stranger with a head full of dreadlocks bend over her bed.
“Hey!” I call out, and the person whips up and swings around. “Fuck me,” I whisper when I recognize the face that is burned in my memory.
Last time I saw it was right before Spencer was born.
“I asked her to come,” Nicky says from the bed, her eyes on me, but her hand clasping her sister’s tightly.
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