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by Bobbi
Rated: E · Novella · Medical · #661067
A young surgeon discovers the real reason his fiancee disappeared two years earlier

Second Chance

The hands of the surgeon trembled unnoticed as he called for the scalpel.

Dr. Joe Travis clasped the gleaming instrument in his gloved hand, glancing once more at the young woman that lay critically injured on the operating table. Buried beneath the professional guise, a barrage of emotions tore him apart. Memories poured into his mind, aching memories of the deep love he had once shared with her – until she had ended it all with her baffling disappearance.

Tonight, by a bizarre twist of fate, her life lay solely in his hands. And he feared the conflict between his personal and professional feelings might somehow impede his skills.

“Joe?” The voice of Dr. Sid Morgan, the assisting surgeon, restored his concentration. “Whenever you’re ready.”

He could feel beads of perspiration soaking into the band around his forehead. Steadying his hands, he began to make the incision.

* * *

Dawn was less than an hour away. Alone in his darkened office, Joe Travis gripped the window ledge while he stared idly at the falling snow. A deep weariness engulfed him, an exhaustion of mind that sleep could not relieve.

Two years of cryptic leads and dead-ends in his quest to find Emily Cory had left him with emptiness unlike anything he had ever known. Now only one thought penetrated his mind – why, after all this time, had she come back like this...

A stream of pale light from the corridor spilled across the carpet as the door to his office slowly opened. He turned away from the window, trying to adjust his eyes to the unexpected light. “Martin,” he acknowledged his colleague, “what are you doing here?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Dr. Martin Sutherland remarked, leaving the door open as he walked in. “I heard what happened.”

Joe turned again toward the window where the luster of the snow cast a faint light across his face. “For two years I almost believed she’d actually disappeared from the face of the earth. And then…tonight…” His eyes were wet when he looked at Martin again. “Why did she have to come back like this?”

The older doctor watched him sink into the leather chair behind his desk. “What’s her condition?”

“Critical. I thought we were going to lose her more than once.” He stared down at his hands, as though all accountability, past and present, lay solely within his sweating palms. But when he looked up, his despairing expression was mingled with resentment. “It was only by chance that I was in the Emergency Room when the paramedics brought her in. What was I supposed to do?”

“Would you have done any differently if you’d known ahead of time who it was?”

Joe looked away. Despite the pain, commitment to his profession needed no deliberation. “No.”

“Of course you’d have done no differently,” Martin commended. Then he lowered his eyes on the younger doctor. “But I know what you’ve been through these last few years. I saw what you went through trying to find her. Emotionally I don’t think it’s wise that you continue to handle her case – however noble the cause.”

Joe’s blue eyes penetrated Martin’s like cold steel. “I admit I wasn’t prepared for tonight. But I didn’t operate on her for the sake of heroics. What was between Emily and me was over a long time ago.”

“It may have been over for her,” Martin said, “but I’m not so sure about you.”

With a surge of anger, Joe pushed the chair away from the desk and stood up. “It was over the day Emily walked out. She was the one who left, not me.”

Joe’s animosity was evident to Martin as the older man turned toward the open door. Once more he looked at Joe. “I know how badly she hurt you, and I can understand your anger. But hiding your feelings under a pretext of medical qualifications isn’t going to do your patient any good. We’ll talk about this later. You need to get some sleep.”

The door closed, enveloping the room in darkness once more. Overcome with exhaustion, Joe sprawled on the couch with nothing for comfort but his own memories…

He could hear the laughter long before he entered the room.

Leaning against the doorway, Joe grinned in unexpected enjoyment as he watched a dark-haired young woman wielding a clown puppet to the delight of Joe's young patient. Then hearty laughter would erupt from both of them.

"Is this a private showing, or can anyone watch?"

The laughter came to an abrupt halt when the woman turned around, pushing strands of hair away from her eyes. "Why, not at all! Tyler was just catching up on some overdue laughing."

"Well, it's about time." Joe grinned at the six year old boy while he made his way toward the bed. The affability in the room came in stark contrast to what had been the norm since the child's admission a week earlier.

"It's okay, Dr. Joe," he said at last. "Miss Emily and me, we talked about why you had to cut off my hand. It was so I wouldn't get any sicker, isn't that right?"

"That's exactly right." Joe gazed with admiration at the woman. "So, who's your friend?"

"I'm Emily Cory. I'm...rather new to the Counseling Center here." He felt the warmth of her friendly spirit as she extended her hand. He delighted in the coolness of her touch, coupled with energy and enthusiasm at the same time. "And you must be Dr. Travis. I'm so glad to meet you."

"Not half as glad as I am to meet you," he said, slowly releasing her hand. He turned his attention back to the child. "Now let's have a look at you." Gingerly he examined the bandaged stump at the end of the boy's left arm. The hand had been crushed in a freak accident, leaving Joe with no recourse but to amputate. "Looks to me like you're doing just fine. You're awfully lucky to have a friend like her," he said, nodding toward Emily. Tyler grinned with shining eyes. "But it's probably about time you got a little rest, okay, buddy?"

"Okay," he conceded. Then he looked plaintively at Emily. "Do you have to go, too, Miss Emily?"

"You heard Dr. Joe." Then she carefully tucked the puppet beside him. "But how about if I leave Tillie with you until I come back?" His large, brown eyes lit up as he squeezed it closer.

* * *

"I don't mind telling you that's been one angry and frightened child." Joe spoke quietly to Emily as they walked down the corridor together. "I've never had much need to call on the Counseling Center before, but I was at my wits' end, not knowing what to do for him. I don't know what magic you did, but it certainly worked."

"There wasn't any magic," she returned modestly. "We just talked a little every day until he had some time to accept the situation. Children can be more accepting than adults in a lot of ways."

He enjoyed listening to the soft drawl of her accent as they approached the nurses' station. "Would you mind if I prescribed a little of you to all my patients?" The sound of her laughter was soothing and restoring after a routine day of dealing with illness and injury.

"Well, thank you, doctor, but you seem to have a wonderful empathy for your patients, very caring and involved."

"I guess I have a tendency of getting overly involved with my patients' lives sometimes," he found himself admitting.

"I've discovered in most cases it's not just their bodies that need healing, but their spirits as well," she added. "I've counseled with so many patients whose doctors forgot there was a person behind the disease. You don't seem to be one of them." She extended her hand once more. "It was so nice talking with you. I hope we meet again."

"I'm sure we will." Joe leaned against the counter and watched her walk away, enchanted by her unpretentious, but competent approach to her profession. "Miss Cory?" he called. She stopped and turned around, waiting until he caught up beside her. "I really do appreciate what you did for Tyler. I'd like to thank you in some way."

"Why, that isn't necessary - "

"I think it is. Would you consider joining me for dinner tonight?"

She appeared to be genuinely pleased. "Why, yes, doctor, that's very kind of you."

Joe rattled the car keys in his pocket as they stepped into the elevator together. "I know a great little Chinese-Italian place you might like." He laughed when she recoiled at the jesting combination. "And please, call me Joe..."

“...Joe? Joe, wake up.” Morning light stung Joe's eyes as a rude consciousness intruded on his dreams. He struggled to a sitting position while endeavoring to focus on Dr. Vicky Keane who stood beside the couch in his office. “Were you here all night?”

He held his throbbing head. “Car accident,” he said, running his hands through light brown strands of hair that framed an unassuming, but impossibly handsome face.

She eased herself onto the couch beside him. “Well, I’m surprised the Emergency Room wasn’t overflowing with accidents in that snowstorm last night,” she said, nodding toward the icy windows. Then her voice became soft and playfully contemptuous. “I suppose you couldn’t help it, but we did have a date last night.”

He sighed heavily while he squeezed her hand. “How can you be so gracious when I abandon you all the time?”

“Well, I must love you or I wouldn’t put up with it.” An awkward silence came between them. He knew she longed to hear similar words from him.

The uncomfortable stillness was broken when the door abruptly swept open. Joe’s secretary, Kate, stood inside the doorway, her coat still in her hand. Her startled expression told him that she thought he was alone. “Dr. Travis, ICU just called,” she informed him officiously. “They want you to come down right away.” But there was an edge of anxiety in her subdued voice as she glanced uneasily toward Vicky and then back to him. “They said it was Emily.”

Joe said nothing as he rose wearily to his feet and walked out of the room. Kate followed him to the outer office where she stopped him beside the door and placed her hand on his arm. “Joe?”

“It’s all right,” he said, and disappeared through the door.

* * *

Joe Travis was well aware of the inquisitive stares that followed him as he walked through the Intensive Care Unit. He pushed open the door to Emily Cory’s room.

The attending nurse turned away from the bed when he came in. “Dr. Sutherland was here a little while ago. He wants you to come to his office as soon as you can.” She handed him the chart. “She appears to be trying to wake up. We thought…you might want to be here,” she added with reticence.

Joe scanned the chart, ignoring the disturbing implication. “I want to keep the blood going until her pressure stabilizes. Let’s get another unit in here.” He charted the orders as he spoke. The nurse acknowledged the instructions and left the room.

He closed the chart and looked down at his patient. He reminded himself that his responsibilities extended only as far as his obligation as a physician was concerned. He would not allow exaggerated sentiment to interfere with his ability to treat her from a detached perspective.

As he began his examination, he became aware for the first time that her appearance had altered considerably since he had last seen her. He had been so engrossed in her emergency surgery the night before that the startling differences had escaped him. Now he realized there was conceivably more at risk than the injuries she had sustained in the auto accident.

Though always slender, she was notably thinner now, the bones more prominent, the skin drawn pale and gray across the frail frame of her body. Without thinking he brushed aside meager strands of hair from her damp forehead, remembering how long and luxuriant it had once been. But the most striking change was in the once delicate features of her face, now gaunt and careworn in the disparity of the years.

With her eyes closed, he watched her head move slowly from side to side, and he could almost feel the pain he knew she was suffering. For a moment, his well-masked emotions began to dissolve into an inconsolable pity for her. Without realizing it, the impersonal observation began to deteriorate as he reached down and picked up her hand. Limp and lifeless in his own, it was nothing, nothing at all like he remembered…

The candlelight in the restaurant that first evening flickered unevenly across Emily's pretty face. Joe thought how childlike she seemed with her wide, dark eyes and little make-up.

"So you lived with your sister in South Carolina until you moved here?" he asked, setting aside an empty water glass.

"Yes, for a while. My sister is older than I am and never married. She still maintains our family home. You see, shortly after I finished college, my father became ill. My mother had been dead for many years, so I moved back home to help care for him until he died. So, it's just been Elizabeth and me all this time."

In spite of the dismal details of her life, Joe marveled at her natural optimism.

"Elizabeth is all I have left, but I think I'd have to be dying to live with her the rest of my life. We're just too different."

Their conversation flowed without effort, and he felt relaxed with her unassuming and easygoing manner. For Joe, the evening had passed too quickly when at length he moved the dwindling candle out of the way and slipped his hand over hers. "Emily, may I see you again?"

"I'd like that," she said as her fingers entwined around his. "I'd like that very much."

* * *

The endless songs of the crickets and katydids filled the late summer evening as Joe stopped the car in Emily's driveway. The moonlight was bright as they walked slowly across the lawn, coming to a stop on the ivy-covered porch. Her hands rested comfortably in his. "Will you come in?" she asked.

"I wish I could, but I have to be in surgery first thing in the morning."

"I understand." She lowered her eyes. "But I do want to thank you again for tonight. My social calendar hasn't been too full."

Joe was still smiling as he put his hand under her chin and lifted her face toward his. "I think we can do something about that," he whispered. Nothing seemed more natural than when he leaned toward her and gently kissed her good night.

He waited until she was inside before going back to his car. And he knew as he drove away that if he wasn't already, he could easily fall in love with her...

The door opened and the nurse returned, interrupting a succession of memories that served merely to intensify his own pain. Joe turned aside while she connected the blood, fighting to escape his vulnerable feelings. It was enough, he reasoned, more than enough that he had aptly treated her wounds. But he was powerless to heal his own.

Emily began to move. “Dr. Travis,” the nurse summoned.

He returned to the bedside and leaned close to her face, gently pressing her to awaken. “Emily, can you hear me? Emmy?” He surprised himself when he unintentionally called her Emmy, a favorite pet name.

She turned her head slowly toward the voice. When she opened her eyes he realized how intense her pain must be. “It hurts…so bad,” she whispered.

“I know. We’re going to give you something for the pain.” With skilled observation he searched her face for any sign of recognition. “Emily, do you know who I am?”

Her face twisted with bewilderment as she tried to focus on the dim figure hovering over her. “No,” was all she said.

* * *

It was mid afternoon before Joe knocked on the door that read Martin Sutherland, Chief of Staff.

The handsome white-haired man looked up from a stack of files as Joe walked inside. “How’s Emily?”

The younger doctor dropped his tall, lean frame into one of the plush chairs in front of the desk. “She regained consciousness this morning, but she didn’t know who I was. But that doesn’t concern me nearly as much as her appearance.”

“Joe, the paramedics pulled her out of a mangled car. What did you expect her to look like?”

“What I’m talking about has nothing to do with her accident. I’ve ordered more tests. But something’s wrong – or was wrong. I’m just not sure what.” He looked down at his hands, wondering again if his skill had indeed been enough.

Martin closed the file in front of him. “I want you to know in light of the circumstances, I appreciate your concern, Joe. But I’ve decided to ask Sid Morgan to take over Emily’s case.”

Joe leaned against the back of the chair. “Because I was once in love with her?” he mused in a patronizing way. “If you’re concerned that I can’t maintain enough emotional indifference to treat her properly because of something out of the past – ”

“I’m talking about something deeper than emotional indifference and you know it,” Martin snapped as he jerked the glasses off of his nearly lineless face.

“What…you think I’m still in love with her, don’t you?” Joe rose swiftly from the chair and walked to the windows on the other side of the room. He turned and glared at the older man. “Martin, you know more about this than anyone! How can you even suggest I could still be in love with her, after what she did to me? Her career meant more to her than I did!” He angrily pushed the curtains apart and stared out the window.

Martin’s chair slid away from the desk. “There’s something you’re overlooking, Joe. The one single dread that haunts us as doctors is the possibility of misjudging a situation and causing a patient harm. Regardless of what I think, your animosity alone toward Emily could do just that. Are you willing to take that risk?”

Joe turned and gave Martin a cold stare. “I’m not taking a risk. What I’m doing is treating a patient to the best of my ability. And that’s all.”

Martin shook his head in exasperation. “I know you lost the woman you loved and I know you’ve had a lot of mental anguish because of it. But after all you’ve been through, do you honestly feel you could treat her objectively and with compassion?”

“How I feel has nothing to do with my competence to treat her.”

“It’s not your competence that’s in question,” Martin countered. “It’s doing what’s best for the patient – and in this case, for the doctor as well.” Martin sat down again. His face was sympathetic, but his voice remained firm. “Joe, no one’s asking you to be stronger than the rest of us – only human, like the rest of us. None of us can escape this life without some pain. It’s what we do with it that counts.” He slipped his glasses back on. “This issue isn’t resolved for you. And until it is, I can’t allow you to threaten your career or this patient in any way.”

A tangled collection of despair and resentment welled inside Joe. He walked to the door and jerked it open. “And one more thing,” Martin added. “I want you to go home and get some sleep. Maybe after you’ve had some rest you’ll understand a little better the position I’m in.”

Joe looked at Martin once more, his hand rigid on the doorknob. “I can’t stop you from taking me off this case. But I want you to know one thing,” he added torridly. “You’re wrong.”

* * *

Snow was falling again as Joe fumbled for the key and pushed open the door.

The house was bereft of any welcome. What had once offered warmth and intimacy now seemed just a collection of dark corners. Only empty chairs between silent walls occupied the space.

Sinking into a recliner, he gazed idly at the fireplace. An eternity had passed since it had blazed with the warmth of a fire. Now cold and abandoned, the scattered ashes only reminded him of what once was and could never be again…

He lay on his back beside the warm hearth with Emily close beside him, reveling in the greatest contentment he had ever known. Outside the snow gathered like glistening white garments on the branches of the trees.

He watched as she turned another page in one of his poetry books, the only illumination coming from the light of the flames. Slowly he moved toward her and lay his head in her lap. She set the book aside and smiled down at him while she brushed aside strands of his hair. He pulled her toward him and kissed her. She lingered near him, her cheek smooth against the roughness of his.

"I've never known anyone like you. And I've never loved anyone as much as I love you. I can't imagine what my life would be like without you." He had envisioned this moment for months; now he longed to make it a reality. "I want you to marry me, Emily."

She touched his face. "The easiest thing I ever did was to fall in love with you. Yes, Joe. Oh, yes..."

The fire had dwindled to a glowing bed of embers when he awoke at dawn and realized she had fallen asleep inside his arms...

The shrill ring of the telephone brutally dispelled the illusive dream. He fumbled awkwardly for the phone beside the chair. “Joe, it’s Martin.”

An icy chill shot through him as he quickly pushed himself up in the chair. “Emily…she’s dead - ”

“No, no,” Martin countered hastily. “Joe, I know you’re exhausted, but Emily’s sister has been located. She’s on her way to the hospital right now. And she wants to see you.”

Elizabeth, he thought as the pounding in his chest gradually began to subside. He marveled that, in his anger and weariness, he had completely forgotten her. “I’ll be right there.”

* * *

Joe pushed through the heavy glass doors at the hospital’s entrance. Exhausted in mind and body, the infinite difficulties associated with his complex profession weighed heavily on him – the long hours that turned into days, the pressure of life and death decisions in the operating room, his immense responsibilities in relation to his patients. At times, he found the demands almost unbearable. And those same demands led to a loneliness few on the outside could understand.

Until Emily had come into his life. In the pressurized world in which he lived, she had rendered a comfort that eased the tension he endured day after day. With unwearied forbearance and a healing spirit, her vitality and optimism had given him a strength he had come to depend on.

As he threaded his way along the corridors, haunting images of her rose in his mind. He envisioned her as he remembered her – watching her work with her patients, having lunch with her in the cafeteria, walking beside her through the halls of the hospital. Remembering her in this way caused him to momentarily put his anger aside.

He came to a stop beside the elevator at the end of the corridor. Glancing out the window, he watched as an early evening snow swirled in the outdoor lights around the adjoining stone structure of the counseling center. Unintentionally his eyes moved toward the window that had once belonged to Emily’s office.

But the memories were too much. He turned away from the elevator and shoved open the door to the stairs. But with each step, the worst unexpectedly caught up with him…

Joe ran briskly up the steps of the Counseling Center, welcoming the crisp spring air in place of the dismal months of winter. It was almost nightfall and the building was empty when he knocked on Emily's office door. Hearing nothing, he opened it and found her standing beside the window behind her desk.

She turned when he came in, but her grim expression stopped him inside the doorway. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing," she said flatly, turning toward the window once more. "It's...just been a hectic day."

He shut the door and came up close behind her, encircling her in his arms. "Well, maybe these will help you forget it," he said, placing some travel brochures in her hand. "We don't have to have a wedding. I'd be just as happy to run away with you," he whispered, kissing the back of her neck.

Without looking, she dropped the brochures onto the desk behind her. With dismay he glanced at the discarded pamphlets. "Emily, tell me what's wrong."

She continued to stare out the window.
"There...there is something I need to tell you. I know I should have told you about it before, but I didn't want to say anything, not until I was sure. You see...I've been offered another job."

"Is that what this is all about?" he asked, relieved as he sat down on top of the desk.

"It's not that simple. I've decided to accept the job."

He reached for her hand, but it remained limp in his grasp. "You know I'd never stand in the way of your career. What's the problem?"

Still she would not look at him. "The problem is...it's in another city. Another state. And this position is too important to my career to turn down."

He let go of her hand. "And more important than us? Is that what you're saying?"

"I'm saying," her voice trembled, "that I can't marry you, Joe. Not right now." Her voice was barely audible, but he caught the wrenching words, "Maybe not ever."

He felt frantic to deny what he had heard. "You don't mean that, Emily. I love you! And I know you love me! You'll never convince me you don't."

When at last she turned to look at him, tears were streaming down her face. "Yes, I do love you! But right now, it's not enough!" Her voice rose and then fell when she added, "Not enough for me, anyway."

The words cut through him like one of his own scalpels. "I don't believe this." He walked to the other side of the room. Turning sharply, he demanded, "How could you make a decision like this without even coming to me?"

Her face steeled in his direction. "I'm sorry, Joe! But it was my decision, not yours!"

He came back to the desk and grabbed her by the arms. Her shocked expression immediately caused him to regret his rough handling. But for now his desperation was stronger than his remorse. "Your decision? It seems to me you're making all the decisions!"

"I had to make a choice, Joe."

"And do I have a choice? Where does this leave me?"

And then in a cold and unfamiliar voice she said, "Just let me go."

As if on command, he released his hold on her and watched in disbelief as she walked across the room. "Emily!" She hesitated in the doorway, but did not turn around. "Don't do this to me," he pleaded, his voice strained and heartbroken. "Please don't do this to me!"

Slowly she turned and looked at him, her face expressionless, a cold pronouncement of resolution. Saying nothing more, she walked out of her office and through the deserted waiting room.

* * *

He remembered arriving at the hospital earlier than usual. A week had passed since the night they quarreled. Though he had not tried to see her, he had tried to reach her by telephone. But she had neither answered nor returned any of his messages.

This morning as he stepped off the elevator, he began to walk toward her office. He had been miserable since that night. Maybe now she was ready to talk, to explain what was so terribly wrong with the life he thought she wanted as much as him.

The secretary was pulling the day's files when Joe approached her desk. "Sue, has Emily come in yet?"

The woman looked up in surprise. "Why, Dr. Travis, she's...not here."

Joe looked around the empty waiting room. "I guess I didn't realize it was so early." He saw the woman glance apprehensively toward the office Emily occupied. And then, as though suddenly remembering something, she excused herself and left.

A feeling of dread began to engulf him as he walked toward her office. He put his hand on the knob, expecting to find it locked, but the door swung open all too easily.

An empty desk with a silent telephone was all that remained. The stark whiteness of the walls, devoid of her diplomas and their pictures together, left no trace of prior occupancy within the cold and empty space.

He stood as though paralyzed in the middle of the abandoned room, feeling as lost and forsaken as it appeared. He brushed his fingers lightly over the polished wood of her desk, as if in so doing some vague semblance of familiarity might return. But the room was hushed, and all the echoes were gone.

Racing toward the parking lot, he had to try, but he knew he would not find her at home either...

* * *

Joe opened the door to his waiting room where he encountered an attractive, but prudish looking woman some years older than he, perched as it were on the edge of a chair. She stood up when he came in. “Miss Cory? I’m Joe Travis.”

She primly accepted his outstretched hand. “I once hoped we might meet under different circumstances.” He disregarded the pungent remark, thinking her reclusive mannerism so unlike Emily. “Doctor, will my sister be all right?”

“She’s stable for now. Why don’t we talk in here?” He held open the door to his private office and then followed her inside. He walked behind his desk and waited as she seated herself on the other side.

“I appreciate you giving me your valuable time,” she said. “I’d like to know exactly what happened.”

With some reluctance, he began to relate the details of that night…

It had already been a long day. Joe had been in surgery all morning, made rounds with medical students and saw patients in his office the rest of the afternoon. Later a meeting of the medical executive committee had taken up several hours. After the meeting, Joe went back to the office to check his messages.

Among them came Vicky's sultry voice. "Don't forget tonight," he heard over the answering machine. He scrambled for his jacket, remembering almost too late that he had a date with the beautiful psychiatrist at a restaurant in town. He glanced at his watch as he pulled the door shut, knowing she was probably already there.

He stepped out of the elevator on the ground floor when a nurse ran toward him. "Dr. Travis!" she called. "Can you come to Emergency right away? Dr. Allen needs some help, stat!"
Without hesitation, Joe followed her.

Amid the hurried movements of the trauma team members, Joe saw Dr. Sam Allen, new to the department of Emergency Services, hunkered over the exam table. Allen looked up as Joe made his way toward him. "It's bad, Joe. She's bleeding internally. She's going to need surgery and fast."

As Joe looked down at the woman, his customary concern changed to shocked disbelief. "...no..." He touched her bloodied face. "...it's not possible."

Allen was stunned at his unusual reaction. "Joe, what's wrong? You know her?"

"Yeah," he said, hardly above a whisper, "once..."

Elizabeth’s stoic disposition remained constant. “Dr. Travis, I want you to know how grateful I am for what you did for Emily. I understand how difficult it must have been for you.”

A sudden feeling of pity for Elizabeth took him by surprise. He felt a strange sense of unity with her, realizing her fear for the whereabouts of her sister had been comparable to his own. “I can appreciate how hard it is for you, too, finding her in this condition after all this time. But I’m curious to know how you knew she was here?”

Elizabeth’s hands twisted in her lap. “I was notified by the police that Emily had been involved in an accident.”

Joe nodded in accordance. “Yes, of course. I imagine she must have had some identification on her at the time.” He could not help but notice Elizabeth’s growing uneasiness.

“Dr. Travis, the car Emily was driving was registered in my name. That’s how the police knew to notify me.”

Joe leaned forward in the chair. “The car belonged to you? I don’t understand.”

“The truth is, doctor, Emily has been living with me since the last time you saw her. You have every right to be angry, but I’d like to explain – ”

“Explain what?” In a blaze of anger, the palms of his hands slammed against the polished desktop as he rose to his feet. “I talked to you repeatedly after Emily disappeared and you assured me you knew nothing about where she was, in spite of the fact that you knew I was nearly out of my mind with worry! If you’ve come here on her behalf to offer some sort of confession – ”

“I’m here to offer you an explanation.”

“I’m not interested in another explanation. It was enough knowing that a job meant more to her than – ”

“There was no job.”

Joe stopped in the midst of his outburst. “What do you mean?”

“There was no job,” Elizabeth repeated. “She lied to you.”

Even in his worst moments, he had not believed Emily capable of lying. “Lied to me? Why would she lie to me?”

Elizabeth looked down at her hands, evidently summoning the courage to continue. “She wanted to protect you.”

“Protect me? Calling off our marriage was her way of protecting me? I don’t believe that! What I do believe is that she was looking for a way out.” He turned away, impassioned by the full intensity of his resentment and grief.

Elizabeth drew a deep breath. “And that is precisely what Emily wanted you to believe,” she returned adamantly, undaunted by his anger. “But I can assure you she wasn’t looking for a way out. The truth is she – ” All at once she stopped, as though the words had caught in her throat.

Joe turned to look at her. “The truth, Elizabeth? Why don’t you tell me? What is the truth?”

The words came slowly and deliberately. “The truth is she couldn’t bear the thought of you having to watch her die.”

Stunned, Joe saw tears glistening in her eyes before she went on…

Elizabeth found her younger sister sitting on the edge of the bed, stroking a photograph that lay on top of the comforter. "A beautiful couple," Elizabeth said, admiring the picture over Emily's shoulder.

Emily shook her head miserably. "Once," she whispered, "but never again."

Elizabeth sat down beside her. "Emily, you've been home almost a week and you've hardly left this room. How can I help you if you don't tell me what's wrong? I don't know what's come between you and Joe, but is it worth all this suffering you're going through? Can't you go back and work it out with him? It's obvious how much you still love him."

Emily continued to gaze at the cherished photograph. "I can't go back, Lizzy. I can never go back."

"Why can't you ever go back?"

"It wouldn't be fair." She looked at her sister. "I'm sick, Lizzy. Just like Dad...all over again."

Elizabeth's eyes widened in horror. "Oh, Emily, say it's not true - "

"It is true," she said flatly. "You can deny it all you want, but it's still leukemia."

Elizabeth swallowed hard. "How long have you known?"

"Several weeks. It was only a matter of time before the symptoms became more obvious -"

"And before Joe figured it out for himself," Elizabeth concluded. "You didn't tell him, did you?" Emily looked at the picture and shook her head. "Em, he has a right to know! How could you do this to him?"

"How could I put him through it? I can't do THAT to him!" She looked at the picture once more. "Joe's strong, Lizzy. He'll get over it," she said, though the words lacked conviction. "He has to be - because I won't let him sacrifice himself by having an invalid for a wife."

"Don't you think that's his choice? Can't you give him that chance?"

"A chance for what?" she cried. "A chance to marry me...so he can watch me die?"

Elizabeth reached out and embraced her sister. "You're condemning yourself without even seeking help! You have to do something! I won't let you stay in this room and do nothing to help yourself."

"I'll do whatever it takes, whatever treatment I have to have. But Joe must never know." She pulled herself away and then added with vehemence, "And you must never tell him..."

A glaring silence fell between them. Joe sank into the chair behind his desk, overwhelmed by a crushing sense of guilt. “How could I not have even suspected?” he murmured, appalled at his own naiveté. He looked imploringly at Elizabeth, begging her to refute what he could not accept. But she said nothing more. Finally, with all the restraint he could summon, he asked in a heavy voice, “What about her prognosis?”

“As her closest relative, I was able to be a bone marrow donor for her,” Elizabeth explained. “And after a period of time she began to respond very well to the treatments. She was finally told some weeks ago that she was clearly in remission. But…it wasn’t easy for her.” Her face became troubled. “She was extremely tired, she couldn’t eat, she lost her hair. It was very difficult for her.”

“Is that why she came back…to tell me?”

Elizabeth slowly shook her head. “Emily was determined that if she didn’t survive, you need never have known. But she did survive, and she couldn’t go on knowing how much she had hurt you. She was coming back to ask you to forgive her.”

“Forgive her?”

Elizabeth fell silent for a moment. “Whether her reasons for leaving were right or wrong no longer seem important. But Emily trusted in your strength. And it was for that reason she was able to give you up. She wanted you to go on with your own life – much more than grieving over her death.” Elizabeth rose from the chair. “Dr. Travis, I don’t think my sister was ever truly convinced she could beat her disease, after watching our father die. But I am convinced that you were the reason she tried. I only hope you can believe that as much as I do.”

* * *

Night had drawn on like a black curtain; the room was dark and silent. Elizabeth was gone, yet he could not remember her leaving.

Still seated behind his desk, his head in his hands, Joe Travis struggled with a burden heavier than any he had ever borne. The pain of rejection he could not understand had been in reality Emily’s dauntless statement of love – a love not devoid of pain, but one meant to protect him from a trial she felt too cruel to impose. Her capacity for love had far exceeded his own, where his had turned to anger and suspicion, festering like an untreated wound.

Numbly he rose from the chair and stood in front of the window. Tonight he had seen his true reflection and could endure the masquerade no longer. He started to tremble and then, covering his face with his hands, began to weep. The angry tears he had shed in private now became tears of bitter remorse.

Silhouetted against the cold neon lights outside, shoulders bent and heaving, the shattered words spilled out, "Emily, forgive me...please...forgive me..."

* * *

It was nearly midnight when Joe emerged from his office. He walked slowly down the dimly lit corridor toward the Intensive Care Unit, his mind lost in a jumble of self-recriminating thoughts.

“Have you given up sleep, too?” Unaware of the soft footsteps that trailed behind him, he stopped when he heard Vicky’s winsome voice. But as she drew nearer, her welcoming smile began to fade. “Joe, are you all right?” she asked, reaching out to touch his face.

He grasped her hand in midair, shamefully aware of her astute observation. “Vicky, we need to talk.”

A look of sad expectation came over her beautiful face. “All right…but not here.”

He took her by the arm as they walked into the empty doctors’ lounge. “Vicky, there’s something I have to tell you – something I should have told you a long time ago.”

“You don’t have to say it. Hospitals are notorious for gossip.” Her voice was steady, but revealed an unmistakable air of sadness.

“I know. And that’s why I want you to hear it from me.” He stroked the beautiful, dark hair that tumbled over her shoulders.

“It’s not over for you, is it?”

He knew she was far too intelligent to be deceived with platitudes. “I tried to convince myself it was,” he admitted. “I’ve felt nothing but anger ever since she left. And I haven’t been able to let anyone else in.” He watched her look away. Then his hands slipped into hers. “I loved her a great deal. I know now I always will.”

Tears were glistening in her eyes when she looked at him again. “You’re only fooling yourself if you can’t be completely honest. And I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.” For a moment her hands clung tightly to his. And then she quickly slipped out the door.

* * *

“Dr. Morgan was in not long ago. He says she’s doing much better, Dr. Travis,” the night nurse in the Intensive Care Unit explained. “Her vital signs are stable and she’s been sleeping peacefully for several hours now.”

“That’s good to hear.” A wave of relief washed over him as he closed the chart.

Joe pushed open the door of Emily’s room and stepped inside. As he stood beside her bed, his hand gently caressed her hair, allowing the thin strands to fall loosely between his fingers. At last he bent over and kissed her. She stirred slightly and continued to sleep.

Pulling a chair to the side of the bed, he sat down and watched her, comforted as he listened to her steady, rhythmic breathing.

Never again would he find her only in the privacy of his mind, entrusting to memories when he was lonely, empty, seeking a reprieve from reality. Never again would he need to retreat into that refuge, that time they had shared, that place where no one could follow.

* * *

A gray dawn crept unseen across the windows where drifts of snow had gathered during the night. Vaguely aware of a presence in the room, Joe raised his head from the side of the bed in time to see a nurse slip quietly out the door.

He sat up as Emily turned her head and opened her eyes. “Joe…” She whispered his name long and lovingly, as though nothing else mattered, while at the same time a smile began to cross her face. But then, as if suddenly remembering, she looked away. “I…I don’t want you to see me like this.”

Gently he turned her face toward his. The dimples in his cheeks deepened with his smile. “Hey, lady, I operated on you. I know what you look like on the inside.”

The faint smile gradually returned. “…you? You saved my life?”

“I had to. I can’t live without you,” he said, unable and unwilling to take his eyes away from her.

“You mean…you still love me…after what I did to you?”

He moved to the edge of the bed. “I’ve always loved you. Even when everything in me told me I didn’t.” He tenderly stroked her face. “Elizabeth told me everything. Did you honestly think your illness would have made any difference to me?”

She turned her face away. “I thought it was too late – too late for me to give you any kind of happiness. And then I realized that what I’d done was worse than telling you the truth. Oh, Joe,” she said, turning toward him again, “can you ever truly forgive me?”

Carefully he lifted her toward him and held her against his shuddering chest. “You don’t need my forgiveness. It’s yours I need.” Gently he laid her against the pillows once more. “I lost you once,” he whispered. “I’ll never let that happen again. I love you, Emily Cory, and I want to marry you more than anything in this world. Will you still have me?”

Tears glistened in her eyes as her hands tightened around his. “The answer has never changed,” she said with a smile.

And then, no longer only a dream remembered, he kissed her as he had wanted to for so long.

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