You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Whitaker House (January 2010)
A prolific writer, Loree Lough has more than seventy-three books, sixty-three short stories, and 2,500 articles in print. Her stories have earned dozens of industry and Reader’s Choice awards. A frequent guest speaker for writers’ organizations, book clubs, private and government institutions, corporations, college and high school writing programs, and more, Loree has encouraged thousands with her comedic approach to “learned-the-hard-way” lessons about the craft and industry. Loree and her husband split their time between Baltimore suburbs and a cabin in the Allegheny Mountains.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 496 pages
Publisher: Whitaker House (January 2010)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
May 31, London
Sam Sylvester was dying, and he knew it.
When he closed his eyes, he could picture the huge red truck careening around the corner on two wheels, its chrome bumper aiming straight for the convertible’s windshield.
Right before the impact, he’d glanced at Shari. As usual when they were driving, she’d had her nose buried in the pages of a romance novel. “It helps keep my mind off all the dangerous drivers,” she’d once said. It doesn’t get any more ironic than that, Sam thought.
He wondered where Shari was now. He’d seen the paramedics load her, bloodied and unconscious, into one of the ambulances at the scene. Had the Lord, in His infinite mercy, decided to take her home then and there, to spare her any suffering?
It was a struggle just to open his eyes, but Sam forced himself. Nothing in the bustling emergency room could possibly be as horrible as the pictures in his mind.
“Look ’ere, doctor,” came the mask-muffled Cockney accent of a nurse. “’e seems to be coming round.”
The broad, beefy face of a doctor peered at Sam from behind a surgical mask. “You know where you are, sir?” he asked, bushy brows drawn together in a frown.
Under other circumstances, Sam might have chuckled, because the doctor’s breath was causing the pleats of his white mask to puff in and out like the bellows of a tiny accordion. Instead, Sam tried to muster the strength to nod. Yes, he knew exactly where he was—on his way to heaven.
But you can’t go, he told himself. At least not yet. There was so much to do, so much to say, so many questions to ask before—
“M-my wife….” The words scraped from his parched throat like sandpaper across roughened wood. “W-where’s my wi—?”
“Down the hall,” said the nurse, patting his hand.
“Is she…is she—?”
The expression on her face told him everything he needed to know. Shari had already joined their Maker in Paradise. But maybe, just maybe, he’d read the blue eyes above the mask wrong….
He ignored the pain—pain that seemed to have no particular source, throbbing in every joint and every muscle. He screwed up his courage. He had to know for sure before he let go of this earthly life.
“Did she make it?”
In the moment of hesitation and silence that followed his question, Sam felt his own lifeblood seeping slowly onto the gurney beneath him. The doctors and nurses surrounding him were all perspiring, so why, he wondered, did he feel so cold?
Drowsiness threatened to take him far, far from the ER, but he fought it. “Did she make it?” he repeated with force.
“No, Mr. Sylvester,” said the whisper-soft voice of the nurse, “I’m afraid she didn’t.” Another gentle pat. “But I can promise y’ this—she didn’t suffer.”
Sam closed his eyes as a curious mix of gratitude and regret propelled a slow, groaning breath past his lips. Gratitude that his precious wife wouldn’t be “up there” alone for long. Regret because their sweet little girl would have to live the rest of her days without them.
At least Molly will have Ethan, thank God.
Ethan…every bit as alone in the world as Molly would soon be.
For the first time since he’d regained consciousness, Sam felt a profound fear pulse through him. Ethan…. They need to contact him right now because Molly’s going to need him!
With a strength that belied his condition, he gripped the nurse’s wrist. “What…what did they do with…where are my things?” he choked out.
“In a locker, just down the hall.” She fished in the pocket of her surgical gown as the corners of her eyes crinkled with a sympathetic smile. “I ’aven’t ’ad a chance yet to file it,” she said, withdrawing a key.
The way it caught and reflected the light made it look like a silvery cross, if only for an instant. In that instant, Sam pictured Jesus welcoming Shari home. “In my wallet,” he said, struggling for air now, “there’s a business card, and—”
Her blonde brows knitted with concern. “Please calm yourself, Mr. Sylvester.”
He watched as she blinked and tried to come up with a rational reason for him to calm down. His mind started to wander, and he recalled how he’d been a volunteer EMT in Maryland before moving to London. He’d witnessed enough accident scenes to know what impending death looked like. He knew that the remainder of his life could be numbered in minutes, and that he had just one reason to conserve his remaining strength: Molly.
He thought about the joy she’d brought into his life, into Shari’s. From the moment they’d picked up their round-faced infant at that crowded Korean orphanage eleven years ago, she’d enchanted them with her dancing brown eyes and elfin smile. And the first thing every morning since, Sam and Shari had thanked the Almighty for blessing them with their beautiful, raven-haired angel.
Life from now on would be hard for her. Very hard, especially at first. But Molly knew the Lord, and He would help her through those first sorrow-filled days. And she’d have her uncle Ethan to look out for her.
Molly adored Ethan, and Ethan had always loved Molly as much as if she were his own. Sam and Shari had discussed it dozens of times. The way he looked at Molly, the tenderness in his voice when he spoke to her—that was the reason they’d decided to make him godfather and guardian to their only child.
This would be hard for Ethan, too, Sam knew. But he’d be a good father to Molly. Sam was as certain of that as he was of God’s boundless love.
From out of nowhere, a line Sam had read somewhere reverberated in his head: In knowledge, there is power. Knowing Molly would be in good hands gave him enough physical power to persist with the nurse. “The card,” he said again, “will you…get it…for me?”
The doctor nodded his approval, and the nurse left to collect Sam’s belongings. He closed his eyes. Father, he prayed, let me hold on a little longer, for Molly’s sake….
“Is this it?”
Squinting, Sam smiled crookedly at the card held between the nurse’s thumb and forefinger. “After all that fuss,” he croaked out, “I’m ashamed to admit I…to admit that…that I can’t focus enough….to read it.”
“It says ‘Burke Enterprises,’ and under that, ‘Ethan Burke, President and CEO.’”
A relieved sigh rattled from his lungs. “Praise God,” he whispered. “Praise Jesus!”
For a moment, an odd stillness settled over the cramped, brightly lit cubicle, despite the blips and hums of the equipment monitoring his heart rate and pulse, despite the nonstop efforts of the medical team to repair his broken, battered body.
“What’s your name?” he asked the nurse.
She raised her eyebrows high on her forehead, her stethoscope bobbing, as she pointed to her chest.
Reaching for her hand, he said, “Will you call him for me, Tricia?” Sam squeezed her hand.
“I’ll see it gets done, soon as—”
Another squeeze, tighter this time, interrupted her. “I’d like you to do it.” Sam spoke slowly, knowing he had to conserve his waning strength until he could be sure Molly would be with Ethan as soon as was humanly possible. “You know as well as I that I’m not walking out of here, Tricia, so say you’ll grant me this last wish.”
She blinked once, twice, and then said, “I—I’ll try.”
“No,” Sam all but barked. “Promise me, before I die. Because my wife and I chose Ethan, there,” Sam said, nodding toward the card, “to be our daughter’s guardian, should anything happen to us. She’s only eleven, you see, and I—”
“I understand. And you have my word. I’ll phone him for you.”
“I have your word?”
She nodded just once, but it was enough. A feeling of great peace settled over Sam, and, smiling, he let go of her hand. “Thank you. And bless you, Tricia, for your kindness…for giving me peace.”
When she began to fade from view, Sam thought, Not a good sign. Not good at all. Good thing he’d given Molly an extra-big hug and an especially big kiss that morning. Good thing you told her how much you love her. And how you taught her to turn to God in times of trouble. The girl would need it—soon.
Soon, soon, soon, he chanted in his mind as a drowsy, dizzy sensation wrapped around him. The pain was gone now, and he felt nothing but the feathery weight of the stick-on patches that held the heart monitor wires in place on his chest. Sam closed his eyes and listened to the high-pitched one-note whine of the monitor.
“Code blue!” someone hollered.
“Crash cart, stat!” yelled someone else.
Their shouts didn’t startle him. Sam was beyond fear now. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of his conscious mind, he remembered his days as a paramedic, when he’d seen the flat line on the monitor signal the end of a life.
This is the last time you’ll have that memory…last memory you’ll have, period!
Did the saints in heaven remember their days on earth? And if they did, were they granted permission to visit their former world? Sam hoped so, because he wanted desperately to know that he could look in on Molly from time to time.
The lead surgeon on the team applied electric paddles to Sam’s chest, then bellowed “Clear!” as Tricia prepared a syringe for one last-ditch effort to save him. But Sam knew it was pointless. Soon, they’d realize the futility of their efforts, and by the time the doctor called time of death, he’d be with his Father, and with Shari, in Paradise.
Sam said one last prayer:
Lord Jesus, be with Ethan now. Guide his steps and his words, for Molly’s sake, as well as for his….
Same day, Potomac Hills, Maryland
There’d been a time when Ethan had enjoyed hosting parties—the bigger, the better—especially right here on his own riverfront estate. But his heart wasn’t in this one. Hadn’t been “in” much of anything lately.
Not so long ago, his parties had been described in the society pages as “colorful affairs.” But there hadn’t been much color in his life lately, either. Even the sun setting over the Potomac seemed drab and washed out.
Ethan stood on the pier, hands in his pockets, and looked back toward the great expanse of lawn, where no fewer than a hundred well-dressed guests meandered from tennis court to swimming pool to dual-level deck.
You’ve got it all, he thought, frowning. And from all outward appearances, he did have it all—a successful, self-made business; a big, beautiful house on three acres of prime Maryland real estate; seven automobiles—a sleek, high-priced sports car (for impressing the ladies), a classy, imported sedan (for impressing clients), and five roadsters of various vintages to impress himself…and neighbors who were rich and famous, to boot.
So why did he feel like something was missing? Something meaningful, something vital?
There were two bright spots in Ethan’s life: Burke Enterprises and his Korean-born goddaughter, Molly. The mere thought of the pretty preteen raised his spirits a bit. In another couple of weeks, Molly and her parents would arrive for a long, leisurely vacation, and already, he was counting down the days until the family would leave London for their annual trek to Maryland.
A woman’s shrill voice broke into his thoughts. “Peewee-than!” she hollered. “There you are!”
It was Kate, the six-foot, blonde marketing manager his vice president had appointed a couple months back. She waved a hand of red-taloned fingers above her head, and he sent a halfhearted salute in return, then faced the slow-surging river and ran both hands through his hair. He’d been neatly dodging her blatant flirtations all afternoon, pretending the ice bucket needed to be refilled or feigning a must-have conversation with someone across the way. But now he felt trapped, like a captive standing at the end of the gangplank on a buccaneer ship.
Her high-heeled sandals clickity-clacked as she pranced across the wide, weathered boards of the pier. “Ethan, what are you doing over here all by yourself? People are looking for you.”
Of course they were. And why wouldn’t they be? Somebody, somewhere, was always seeking him out for any one of a hundred reasons—a favor, a raise, a piece of advice, an introduction to another mover and shaker. With shoulders slumped, he shook his head. Quit feeling sorry for yourself, pal, he chided. As his mother would have pointed out, God had blessed him with a lot—materially and otherwise. But He’s taken away a lot, too….
You’ve got two choices, m’friend, he told himself, grinning slightly as he looked at the water swirling darkly around the pilings. Jump, or pretend you’re pleased to see her.
Turning, Ethan took a deep breath and fixed a practiced smile on his face. “Kate, darling,” he said smoothly, taking the goblet of iced tea from her hand, “looks like you need a refill. Let me get—”
Laughing lightly, she patted her flat stomach. “Please,” she gasped, “one more ounce of anything and I’ll positively pop!”
There was an awkward pause, and Ethan knew she was waiting for him to fill the void with some form of flattery about her figure. Unable to think of a single truthful thing to say, he let the moment pass.
A quick glance at his Rolex told him it was nearly four in the afternoon. Another hour or so and the party would be over. The crowd had already thinned considerably; once the last of them had gone, he’d call Sam and Shari to see if they’d made their airline reservations yet. Last time they’d talked, he’d promised to have a car pick them up at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They were the closest thing to a family he’d likely ever have, so nothing but the best for them!
Kate linked her arm through his and led him back toward the house. “It sure was nice of you to throw a Memorial Day barbecue for Burke employees and their families,” she purred. “I want you to know…I’m especially happy to be here.”
Yeah, I’ll just bet you are, he thought.
His vice president, Pete Maxon, had told Ethan what he’d overheard Kate say two days prior: “If I play my cards right,” she told the gaggle of gals gathered near the water cooler, “I’ll be Mrs. Ethan Burke by this time next year!”
Mrs. Burke, my foot! “Couldn’t very well invite everyone else and leave your name off the guest list, now, could I?” was his bland reply.
By the time Sam and Shari had made him guardian of their only daughter six years earlier, Ethan had pretty much accepted the idea that Molly was the closest he’d come to having a child. He would have loved kids—a house full of them—but a man needed a wife for that. And every female he’d met so far had been like Kate, keeping her tummy flat and her sights firmly fixed on his checkbook. Hardly mother material!
“You look very handsome today,” she said, then threw back her back and laughed. “Which isn’t to say you don’t always look handsome. I just meant that in those jeans and that white shirt—”
A gale of robust laughter interrupted her. “Ethan, m’boy! There you are! Seems I’ve walked every inch of this plantation you call a home looking for you.” The silver-haired gentleman fixed his gaze on Kate. “Well, now, no wonder I couldn’t find him,” he told her, wiggling his eyebrows. Leaning in close, he lowered his voice to add, “I’d make myself scarce, too, if my date was as lovely as you.”
Ethan heard the phone ringing in the distance. Without knowing why, he tensed. Everyone who might have a reason to call him at home had been invited to the cookout. “Kate isn’t my date, Dad,” he said distractedly. “She’s—”
“Dad?” Kate interrupted. “This attractive young fellow is your father?” She flung an arm over his shoulders. “Why, you don’t look nearly old enough to have a son Ethan’s age,” she cooed.
The older man attempted a W. C. Fields imitation. “My dear, you’re an outrageous flirt!”
Kate kept her eyes on Ethan’s father. “Now I see where you get your good looks and your charm, Ethan.” She turned slightly, aiming a haughty expression at her boss. “We-e-e-ell?”
His stiff-backed stance and tight-lipped expression spoke volumes. At least they should have. Kate didn’t seem to notice at all how much her presence irked him.
“Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
Poor Kate, he thought. She somehow got the idea that Dad has more money than Donald Trump. Shoving both hands into his pockets, he stared at the close-cropped lawn in an attempt to hide his grin. If this is going where I think it’s going, you two deserve each other. “Dad, this is Kate Winslow,” came his bored monotone. “Kate, meet Sawyer Burke.”
During the introductions, he noticed that the phone had stopped ringing, and he wondered if Maria had answered it or if the machine had taken the call. Wondered, too, why a sense of foreboding still churned in his gut.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my dear,” Sawyer said, bowing.
Her hands clasped beneath her chin, Kate giggled like a silly schoolgirl. “Oh, but the pleasure is all—”
“Meester Burke! Meester Burke!”
All heads turned toward the deck, where Ethan’s housekeeper was leaning over the railing with a portable phone pressed to her aproned bosom. “Hurry,” she yelled, waving him closer. “Muy importante!”
Maria had worked for Ethan for years. The only other time he’d heard her carry on that way had been last Christmas, when the warmth of the fire had brought hundreds of praying mantis nymphs to life in the branches of the twenty-foot Douglas fir that dominated the living room. His heart pounding with fear and dread, Ethan took the steps two at a time.
There were tears in the eyes of the plump, gray-haired woman when she said, “Oh, Meester Burke…poor leetle Molly….”
Not Molly, Lord, he prayed silently. Please don’t let anything have happened to my sweet Molly….
With a trembling hand, he accepted the phone and slowly brought it to his ear. “Ethan Burke here….”
“Mr. Burke? Um, my name is, ah, Tricia Turner, and I’m a nurse at ’ampton ’ospital in London? I, uh, well….”
He had a yard full of guests, so why was the little Brit hemming and hawing? But the instant she finished her sentence, Ethan wished he’d never rushed her, even in his mind. Because not even her crisp Cockney accent made it easy to listen to the rapid-fire dispensation of information that followed. Sam and Shari had been killed in a car crash at Trafalgar Square, and their daughter was home alone with her nanny.
“She hasn’t been told yet?”
The long pause made him wonder if they’d been disconnected. But then she said, “No. Before Mr. Sylvester passed on, he told us you’re the child’s guardian. He said you’d take care of everything, including breaking the news about her mum and dad.” Another unbearable pause ensued before she added, “’e was one brave chap, that pal of yours, ’oldin’ on till ’e knew ’is li’le one would be in good ’ands….”
Ethan slumped into the nearest deck chair, one hand in his hair, the other gripping the phone so tightly his fingers ached. The nurse’s tone of voice rather than her words themselves told Ethan that Sam had suffered in the end. But how like him to bite the bullet until all the loose ends were tied up.
Suddenly, the full impact of the news hit him. Sam and Shari, gone? Ethan struggled to come to grips with the stunning reality—the finality—of it.
“Mr. Burke? Are y’there?”
The oh-so-British voice snapped him back to attention. “Yes. Yes, sorry.”
“’ow long d’you suppose it’ll take you to get ’ere? I don’t mean to be crass, but there’s the matter of…of….”
“Identifying the bodies?”
“Yes. Rules, y’know.”
The bodies. The funeral arrangements. Ethan was at a loss for words.
“So you’ll be ’ere soon, then…?”
Ethan hung his head, shading his eyes with his free hand. Sam and Shari had trusted him to do what needed to be done should anything like this ever happen. Of course, he hadn’t expected there would ever be a need for him to follow through; they’d always been so full of vim and vigor, always so alive.
The word reverberated painfully in his brain. If he’d known, when he’d signed the documents making him executor of their estate, that the prospect of making those hard, under-pressure decisions would turn his blood to ice, he might have suggested they hire a lawyer instead. An outsider. Someone who didn’t love them.
“How soon d’you think you can be ’ere, sir?”
A mental image of Molly, alone in the Sylvesters’ London flat with some barely-out-of-her-teens nanny, flashed through his head. She needed him, and if he had to pull every favor owed him, if he had to charter a private jet, he’d get there by morning. “I’ll be on the next London-bound plane leaving Baltimore,” he said. And, thanking her, Ethan hung up.
Propping the phone on the arm of the deck chair, he stared out at the Potomac. It wouldn’t be easy filling Sam’s shoes. The guy had made fatherhood look as natural as breathing. No matter how tired or overworked he had been, Sam had always dug deep and found the energy to spend time with his little girl.
Molly had told Ethan no fewer than a dozen times that he was her favorite grown-up. It was one thing playing part-time uncle. Being a full-time dad was something else entirely.
For that precious child’s sake, he hoped he was up to the task.
Three months later
Through the two-way mirror in the waiting room, Ethan watched the therapist working with Molly. Miss Majors had been recommended by Pastor Cummings. Ethan had prayed before making the decision, and he prayed now that it had been the right one.
He’d been at his wit’s end wondering how to cope with Molly’s sad, stoic silence. Then Maria had suggested he turn to his church for help. He might have thought of it himself, except that church hadn’t exactly been at the center of his life for the past few years. If not for Molly’s refusal to speak, he might not have started attending again. But he’d had no choice. Her condition was his fault—no ifs, ands, or buts.
His head in his hands, Ethan closed his eyes, unable to watch the child’s sorrowful expression a moment longer. He loved her as if she were his own flesh and blood; loved her the way he’d loved his sister Bess, his mother….
Why did it seem that whomever he loved deeply suffered?
With his eyes still squinted shut, he couldn’t see into the next room, but he could hear every word thanks to the speaker overhead. The pretty, young counselor was pulling out all the stops. She’d tried everything short of a song and dance act to this point, yet Molly hadn’t uttered a syllable.
Ethan slouched on the sofa. He kept his eyes closed and let his mind wander back to that terrible morning in London when he’d broken the tragic news to Molly. Despite the speech he’d practiced over and over during the red-eye flight into Heathrow Airport, he’d messed up big time when the moment finally came.
When he’d arrived at Sam and Shari’s, it had been easy to smile as Molly skipped around him in a slowly shrinking circle, clapping her hands and squealing with glee that her uncle Ethan had come to visit. They’d played this welcome game since she had been old enough to stand on her own, and he cherished every giggly moment.
That morning, she’d wrapped her arms around him, just as she’d done a hundred times before…and then stopped. “Mommy and Daddy haven’t called….”
Worry and fear were etched on her little face, and even as Ethan had prayed for the right words to erase them, he’d known no such power would be granted him that day.
“They always call,” she’d said, looking up into his face. “There must be something wrong….”
He’d perched on the edge of the sofa, invited her to sit down beside him, and then, with one arm resting on her slender shoulders, looked into those dark, trusting eyes…and lost it.
What kind of a man are you? Ethan had demanded of himself as tears coursed down his face. You’re blubbering like a baby…. It’s your job to comfort Molly, not the other way around! He’d never felt more like a heel than during those long, harrowing moments when she’d patted his shoulder, saying, “It’ll be okay, Uncle Ethan. Don’t cry. Won’t you tell me why you’re so sad?”
A minute or so later, after his carefully chosen words had been uttered, Ethan realized that in the space of a minute, maybe two, he’d completely destroyed her safe little world.
He hated the old adage that said, “Hindsight is always twenty-twenty.” However, looking into her shocked, pained eyes made him understand the truth of it as never before. He’d prayed for a kinder, gentler way to break the news. So, why hadn’t God delivered on His “ask, and ye shall receive” promise?
He should have been gentler. Should have eked out the information more slowly. Should have brought in a professional to help deliver the awful, life-changing news….
The ugly memory made him groan aloud and drive his fingers through his hair. The all-business attitude that had kept his nose to the grindstone while building Burke Enterprises had given him the drive and motivation to work until he thought he might drop, watch the market with a shrewd eye, and study his competitors even more closely. “Tell it like it is” had become watchwords—no exceptions. Straight talk had never let him down before, but it had backfired miserably that morning with Molly. He wondered what Miss Majors would say about his pathetic performance as a parent.
Well, at least he’d done one thing right—he hadn’t gone into detail about the accident. He’d been to the morgue and seen his friends’ battered, lifeless bodies. The poor kid sure didn’t need the image of that in her head for a lifetime!
Ethan didn’t think he’d ever forget the way her dark lashes had fluttered as her deep-brown eyes filled with tears. She’d begun to quake, as if each tremor was counting the beats of her breaking heart. “B-but…but they promised,” she’d whimpered.
“Promised what, sweetheart?”
“That…that they’d never leave me. Th-that they’d be here for me, forever.” She’d punched the sofa cushion. “They can’t be dead. It isn’t true! It isn’t!”
Not knowing what to say, he’d simply held out his arms, his own eyes filling with tears again as he sent a silent message with one nod of his head: Yes, it’s true.
For a moment, she’d simply sat, staring. Then she’d thrown herself into his arms, and they’d cried together. Ethan had no idea how much time had passed—minutes? half an hour?—before her rib-racking sobs and shirt-soaking tears subsided. Then, Molly had sat back, dried her eyes with the hem of her plaid skirt, and sucked in a huge gulp of air. “It’s my fault,” she’d whispered, staring blankly ahead.
She hadn’t said a word since.
And now, despite Miss Majors’ valiant efforts, Molly sat stiff and straight in the bright-red armchair, ankles crossed and hands folded primly in her lap, staring at some indistinct spot on the floor.
It would feel good, actually, to confess his faults and frailties to this stranger; it would feel equally good when she gave him the tongue-lashing he deserved, not that taking his lumps would change anything.
The counselor stood up and walked over to the two-way mirror, flipped a switch on the wall, and tapped on the glass. Up to this point, Ethan had been able to see and hear everything that was going on in the exam room without being visible to its occupants. But now, Miss Majors and Molly could see and hear him, too. The counselor’s beautiful green eyes zeroed in on his, and she smiled softly. “Mr. Burke, I realize Molly’s session has ended, but I’m hoping you’ll stay a few minutes to talk with me.”
Ethan blinked, unnerved by her intense scrutiny. Here it comes, he thought, the dressing-down of your lifetime. “I—uh, well, sure,” he stammered, running a hand through his hair. He had the sudden feeling that this nervous habit betrayed a deep psychological disorder, and she must have read his mind, because Miss Majors tilted her head and raised an eyebrow.
She opened the door in the exam room that led to the waiting room, then walked past him purposefully to her office, tossing Molly’s file on the blotter on her desk. He followed and stood in the doorway. “She’ll be fine in there,” the counselor assured him. “As you can see, Molly is all wrapped up in a book she found on the shelf.”
He glanced back into the exam room, where, sure enough, Molly was sitting in that same red chair with an open book in her lap. How long was I lost in thought? he wondered. “She hasn’t been that interested in anything since I brought her home,” he admitted, meeting the therapist’s eyes. “How’d you get her to do that?”
“It’s my job,” she said in the same no-nonsense tone he remembered from the telephone conversations that had led up to this appointment. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
She gestured to an upholstered armchair facing her desk.
As comfortable as a body can get in a contraption like this, he thought, sliding onto its seat. Ethan immediately leaned forward, balanced elbows on knees, and said, “So, can you help her or not?”
Miss Majors was standing behind her chair, her pale pink-painted fingernails drumming on the wood-trimmed headrest. When she smiled, the room brightened. He was taken aback until he realized why her smile looked so different, so special. It wasn’t a flirty grin intended to knock him for a loop or a seductive smirk meant to advertise her availability, which were the types he’d grown accustomed to receiving from women of all ages. Her smile was honest, unpretentious. She was offering herself, all right…but on a caring, professional level.
Ethan found his respect for her growing, and he’d opened his mouth to compliment her when she said, “Yes, we can help her. But it’ll take time, perhaps a lot of it, to find out why she stopped talking.”
Pausing, she plopped into her chair. “And it’ll take a major time commitment from you, Mr. Burke.”
Her voice was soothing, rhythmic, like the calming sound of the Potomac lapping at the piling that supported his pier. Ethan sat back and crossed his legs, resting an ankle on his knee. “I intend to cooperate in any way I can. Tell me what to do, and it’s as good as done.”
Miss Majors wrote something in Molly’s file, then stood up and walked around to the front of her desk. Perching on one corner, she said, “I’m glad to hear that.”
His mind began to wander as she matter-of-factly outlined a course of treatment. She’s not much bigger than most of her clients, he mused. His gaze shifted from her big, green eyes to the mass of long, carrot-colored curls framing her face, making her look like a cross between Julia Roberts and Pippi Longstocking. And really, what kid wouldn’t be attracted to a woman like that?
Earlier, as she’d walked ahead of him into her office, he’d felt like a cartoon character floating along on the delectable scent of flowers and sunshine. The aroma reminded him of the hedgerow behind his childhood home…lilacs? Honeysuckle?
Ethan shifted in his chair, suddenly angry with himself. What sort of person was he, anyway, having thoughts like that about the woman who would help his little Molly escape her self-imposed prison of silence?
“If you’re agreeable, I’d like to hold all future sessions at your house,” she was saying. “At least, until we make some headway.”
It appeared she hadn’t noticed how far his mind had wandered from Molly, and after a quick prayer of thanks, he nodded.
“I think she’ll benefit from being in familiar surroundings.”
Miss Majors lifted her chin a notch and tilted her head slightly as those bright eyes zeroed in on his face. “I think it’s important for you to be available for the first few sessions, if at all possible.”
“Of course, it’s possible,” he blurted out. “Nothing is more important than Molly.”
“Not even Burke Enterprises?”
He clenched his teeth. Hadn’t he just said that Molly came first? What did she mean by that crack, anyway? “Not even Burke Enterprises,” he affirmed.
She’d said it to put him to the test. He could see it in her eyes, in the way one eyebrow lifted at his response. He’d used the tactic himself plenty of times during hard business negotiations. And from the looks of her approving smile, he’d passed.
“Good,” she said matter-of-factly. She returned to the other side of her desk, sat down, and opened her daily planner. “Three times a week, an hour at a time, for starters,” she said, clicking a ballpoint pen into action. And without looking up, Miss Majors added, “Mornings are usually best for the kids.”
Most of Ethan’s business meetings were scheduled first thing in the morning. But he’d just underscored that nothing was more important than Molly, and he aimed to prove it. Reaching into his suit coat pocket, Ethan slid out his electronic calendar. “Nine o’clock?” he asked, hitting the On button.
The upward curve of her full, pink lips told Ethan she hadn’t expected him to agree so quickly.
“I owe you an apology, Mr. Burke.”
Confused, he blinked. “What? But…why?”
“For appearing inflexible.” She shrugged. “I’ve been at this long enough to know that people rarely say what they mean. Especially people like you—with plenty of money—who can hire others to do what….”
It seemed to Ethan that she hadn’t intended to be quite that open and honest. Maybe that would teach her not to judge all her wealthy clients by the abysmal behavior of a few.
“Most parents say they want to help,” she continued, “and that they understand therapy will take time, and patience, and cooperation. But what they really want is…for me to perform a miracle. Like I’m equipped with a magic wand that’ll fix everything with one quick stroke.” She gave another shrug. “It’s not an altogether fair tactic, but I’ll do anything, say anything, go to any lengths, to help my kids.”
Her kids? Was that something all the self-professed child experts said to worried parents? Half a dozen other specialists had said the same thing…and had failed to draw Molly out of her shell.
Still, there was something about Miss Majors that made Ethan believe she could no more look him in the eye and lie than leap from the roof of this three-story building and fly to the parking lot! It made him want to give her a shot, if for no other reason than that time was running out. The longer Molly remained in her wordless world, the harder it would be to coax her out of it.
“You’re the expert,” he conceded. “So even when it’s inconvenient, or difficult, I’ll make whatever changes are necessary to help Molly.”
With pen poised above her book, she smiled. “Just so we can get things started sooner rather than later, what do you think of my coming to your house at seven tomorrow evening? And when we wrap things up, we can schedule dates and times that work for all of us.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Without knowing it, she’d spared him having to cancel and reschedule tomorrow’s early-morning meetings. Ethan got to his feet and extended a hand. She stood up, too, and reached across her desk to shake it. The power of her grip surprised him, especially considering her slight frame. If her ideas about helping Molly were as solid as her handshake, things would right themselves in no time.
Ethan pulled a business card out of his pocket and plucked a pencil from a mug on her desk overflowing with writing implements. “It’s tough to find my driveway if you don’t know what to look for,” he said, sketching a small, crude map on the back of the card, “so this should make it a little easier. Just watch for a gray mailbox.”
Accepting the map, she thanked him and, nodding, watched him as he left her office and entered the exam room. He felt her eyes on him as he took the girl by the hand and led her down the hall. If he hadn’t glanced over his shoulder as he and Molly were waiting for the elevator, he’d never have seen her wiping tears from her gorgeous green eyes. The sight of it touched something in him, though he couldn’t say what, couldn’t understand why. Her reaction should have roused deep concern. After all, weren’t therapists supposed to remain aloof and unemotional if they hoped to obtain successful results?
It wasn’t like him to let go of a suspicion that quickly, that easily. He’d sealed many deals with nothing more than gut instinct to go on. So no one was more surprised than Ethan when he said a silent prayer asking God to help him figure out if he’d made the right choice for Molly—or if he simply wanted to believe he had—because something about the pretty counselor called to something desperately lonely deep within himself….
This is a book on my wishlist!!