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"Sully, can you speak?" Even as Olivia Abbott asked her boss the question, his drooping mouth confirmed what her gut already knew. Thankfully she'd learned stroke symptoms this week in EMT class.
"Call 9-1-1!" she directed Patrice, her roommate and a fellow server at Sully's Diner.
"What's wrong with him?" Sully's assistant cook, Darin, carefully helped Olivia lower Sully to the floor beside the food prep counter.
Naem, pulling double duty as server and dishwasher since Perry hadn't shown for his shift again, skidded around the corner. Naem, normally a perpetual grin-ner, gasped when he saw Sully on the floor. Due to the diner's open floor plan, customers began to notice the activity in the kitchen.
"I think he's having a stroke," Olivia whispered low enough that Sully couldn't hear.
Darin leaped up and, upon entering the adjacent seating area, yelled for help clearing space. After calling 9-1-1 Patrice calmed customers, many of whom jumped in to help Darin move tables and chairs for the first responders. Sizzling sounded as Naem scraped burning food off hot grills.
Please help the ambulance hurry, Olivia prayed as Sully's breathing grew more labored. An EMT student working her way through school by waitressing at the Eagle Point eatery part-time, she suddenly realized that knowing too much automatically gave fear an advantage over her faith.
Sully had an epic reputation for being grumpy but he was the only decent father figure she'd had in her life. He couldn't die on her. Just couldn't.
"Help will be here soon, Sully. I promise."
With his head in her lap, Olivia could see frustration and confusion on his face, and white whiskers he'd missed while shaving. He was meticulous about employees' hair being groomedhe'd obviously not been feeling well this morning. Come to think of it, he'd looked pale and fatigued at the employee Valentine's Day party this past weekend. He'd probably been too stubborn to say something.
Sirens whined in the distance, coming closer. Olivia murmured soothing words to Sully. She was thankful that he'd finally given in to her pestering about having a relationship with God. He had not only started attending her church two months ago, but he'd given his life to the Lord. She hoped he wouldn't need that Heavenly ticket yet.
Patrice, teary-eyed, her lips trembling, knelt next to Olivia and rested her hands over Sully's and Olivia's. "We need to notify his son, Jack. The contact information is probably in Sully's cell phone. I'll take care of calling if you want."
"Yes, please." Olivia knew about Sully's only offspring, Jack Sullenberger, a career Air Force man in Afghanistan whom she'd seen pictures of and heard stories about but never met. She knew Sully missed his boy.
Please, Sully. Hold on and you'll get to see the son you 're so proud of.
Patrice retrieved Sully's phone from his office and made the promised call. No answer. She texted. Many moments later Patrice hurried back from Sully's office, phone in hand. "Jack texted back. Said they're going to try to get him on the first flight home."
Tears of relief pricked Olivia's eyes and joy welled as she recalled Sully's mile-wide smiles as he told story after story of Jackit had assured them of Sully's soft side. Jack the bubbly baby. Jack the toddler, into everything. Jack the mischievous lad. Jack the thoughtful teen. Jack the lady-killer young man. Jack the accomplished military leader.
"Jack should be on his way home soon," Olivia reassured Sully, hoping to help him hold on. She saw a glimmer in Sully's eyes with that. So she scrambled for something else to say about Jack. "You think he's as handsome in person as he is in Sully's pictures, Patrice?"
Patrice caught on to what Olivia was doing. "I know he is. I grew up across the street from him. The girls on my cheerleading squad used to fight over who got to come push-mow our lawn just to glimpse him shooting hoops shirtless. By all accounts he's even better looking now. He had looks and personality. Sweet as could be. Stayed out of trouble and tried to keep the rest of us out of it, too. A true hero, even back then."
Sully's breathing settled, so their chatter about Jack soothed him. Having seen Sully's photos of the striking man, Olivia knew Patrice wasn't exaggerating.
Sully's unsteady gaze traveled urgently to the kitchen, where Naem was keeping everything going on his own, then back to Olivia and Patrice. Olivia knew he was fretting about customers, business and keeping it all afloat.
"Don't worry about anything except getting better, Sully. We got this," Olivia assured.
"Yeah," Patrice added. "Jack worked this place in high school. He'll help us out again."
The look on Sully's face would have been comical if he weren't in the throes of a life-threatening emergency. "We're sure you're gonna be fine, Sully, but someone's gotta help run this kitchen while you're holed up in that hospital. Besides, I hear Jack can flip a mean burger."
Sully relaxed and became less agitated. The EMTs arrived and administered oxygen and meds. Olivia soaked in every nuance of everything they said and did for future reference. She had always been drawn to the excitement of emergencies and trauma care. But it was a whole different experience when the victim was someone she knew.
She needed to find someone to cover the rest of her shift so she could go with Sully to the hospital. Without her, they'd have to close the diner, and that would mean vital revenue lost. She'd be able to sit with Sully tomorrow before her clinical EMT intern shift at Eagle Point Trauma Center, but she needed to be with Sully now, too.
Once on the sidewalk in February's blistering cold wind, the EMTs closed the ambulance doors just as it began to rain. Olivia's silver stud bracelet jangled as Patrice squeezed Olivia's hand. "I know how close you two are, Olivia. Go with Sully. Me, Darin and Naem will keep things running here."
Olivia's tears joined the rain splatters on the sidewalk soaking her rock-and-roll-style boots, but she didn't care. "Are you sure?" Olivia asked.
"Positive. I'll get Jack your number so you can keep him updated, if that's all right?"
"That would be fine. Thank you." She hugged her friend, grabbed her bag from inside the diner and bolted to her clunker. She flipped her wipers on high but the blades barely sluiced the rain off her windows. She pulled out after the ambulance and found the thwip-thwap of her wipers calming. Until the ambulance sped up. She did her best to safely keep up until they switched to full lights and sirens one block later. Her chest tightened, making Olivia wish she had her asthma inhaler.
As tears spilled down her cheeks, she knew that Sully's life was in grave danger, and that she might never see the light of life in his eyes again.
Dear Jesus, please have mercy on those of us who still need him here.
He didn't need this.
Jack Sullenberger searched the trauma center corridors for room 127. He'd just gotten the latest text from one of Dad's employeesa lady named Oliviawho'd graciously kept him informed over the past thirty hours of traveling.
Thankfully he'd been able to leave Afghanistan the day he'd learned of Dad's stroke. Despite that, it had still taken more than a day to get home. Thirty sleepless, agonizing hours filled with more worry and fear than he'd ever felt in his life, despite serving four back-to-back tours as a Security Forces officer and combat medic in some of the most dangerous war zones in the world.
Whoever this Olivia lady was, he was going to hug her when he saw her, to thank her for staying by Dad's side, talking Jack through medical updates and relaying his decisions to doctors. Eagle Point had no hospital, but the new Eagle Point Trauma Center had an extended-stay wing for situations such as Dad's where the patient was over the initial danger but not stable enough yet to transfer.
Jack rounded a corner and almost plowed into a nurse who stepped aside and motioned him into room 127. The mysterious phone womanOliviahad already prepared him for the fact that his dad was still unable to speak. As an Air Force medic, he'd known what the symptoms meant.
Jack parted the curtain and stepped into the room to find a short, pixie-haired waif staring at his dad as if he'd shatter if she blinked. She looked more like she belonged on the cover of a punk-rock magazine than beside a hospital bedside. The scene shocked him so much he froze in place and frowned while his mind tried to work out who she was and why she was here. His jet-lagged brain struggled to process the incongruity between her edgy appearance and her deeply empathetic eyes.
And then she looked up.
Jack's breath hitched. Pretty would be an understatement. Stunning? Close, but still not strong enough. Shim-mery sapphire eyes shone starkly against alabaster skin, spiky-cropped raven hair andJack leaned in to get a better look under subdued lightpurple lipstick? What kind of person walked into an emergency hospital with intentionally cyanotic-looking lips?
This could not be the soft-spoken Olivia.
Then again, her presence at his father's side suggested otherwise.
Okay, so maybe he wouldn't hug her after all. She looked not so approachable with her nose and ears riddled with piercings, bold makeup, chains for a necklace and a tattoo snaking up the side of her neck. Not to mention her off-limits body language and untrusting eyes as they zeroed in on him approaching the bed. Her rocker-chick look sat at serious odds with the sweet voice that had literally kept him sane and calm on the phone during the last thirty hours.
Her slight smile slid into a frown, prompting Jack to shake off his dismay and find his manners.
"Olivia?" Maybe this wasn't her.
The tiny smile swept one side of her mouth up as she nodded briefly before gazing back at the bed. Distress entered her eyes. He knew the feeling and dreaded facing the hard sight cradled within her eyes.
He'd put the inevitable off long enough. Resisting reality never made it go away. Reluctantly, he forced his gaze off the floor and brought it slowly to the bed.
Jack swallowed hard as he approached the frail-looking man engulfed by a huge, flimsy hospital gown. Jack reached through the side rail, took his dad's hand and squeezed. Emotion clogged his throat and an invisible grenade detonated inside his chest. He swallowed but the lump in his throat refused to move. "Dad, I'm" was all he could manage before his throat clogged again. He was what? Sorry he hadn't been here? Sorry he might be too late? Sorry for deploying for another tour? His father looked so weak, so frail, so close to death.
"Sully, Jack's here," Olivia finished for him. Maybe she picked up on Jack's fear because her face softened measurably, then her tense mouth molded into a smile. Wary of giving trust, Jack felt his muscles tighten with the typical guardedness he'd had to develop while working in a war zone amid enemies who sometimes posed as friends. Not wanting to be rude, Jack forced a mannerly smile but it felt thin and strained.
Nonetheless, the chill in her eyes thawed by several degrees as she said, "The doctor says since he got here so fast he'll likely make a full recovery with help from physical, speech and occupational therapy."
The tank sitting on Jack's chest eased off a bit, allowing his voice to come back. "That's good." Relief was an understatement for the way her words made him feel, delivered in the same velvet voice that had kept him calm from one continent to another all the way here.
"Dad, all the guys in my unit said to hurry and get well soon or they're gonna come kick your caboose." He rubbed his dad's hand, longing with all his heart to feel a squeeze back.
He knew that even though Sully slept under medical sedation and stroke aftereffects, he'd likely still be able to hear, since hearing was the last sense to go. Olivia seemed to know that, too. Actually, based on their phone conversations, Jack assumed she'd had medical training of some sort.
He caught and held her gaze. "Thank you, miss, for everything. Most of all, for recognizing what was happening, relaying it to doctors and for getting him help so fast."
She blushed. "Thanks, but it was a team effort." Her shy motions and soft demeanor juxtaposed with her spiky sense of fashion. Upon deeper observation, her intelligent eyes projected a strong will and an expression daring anyone to try and cross it.
She wore a black T-shirt overlaid with a gothic cross in gray graphics. White low-rise jeans sported a black patent leather belt with silver studs. Big triangle earrings and combat-style boots completed her ensemble. Somehow, it worked for her.
And surprised him with its appeal.
She must've noticed his assessment of her because her eyebrows drew down in a scowl. Not the usual female reaction, for sure.
He found her response refreshing, but he was irritated by his own intrigue, especially since he didn't know or therefore trust her true motives for being here. He courteously moved his perusal from the mysterious and mesmerizing creature and shifted his gaze to the drip rate of his dad's intravenous solution and scanned numbers on the machines, glad to see stable vital signs despite Dad's horrible pale color.
"They think he had an undiagnosed heartbeat irregularity." Her brows knit. "I'm not far enough into EMT school to know which kind, but they seemed to think it would be easy to treat."
Jack nodded, deeply appreciative of the information. He'd explain heart rhythms to her in a less intense moment. For now, he needed time with his dad, preferably alone. He needed to say some things and didn't want an audience. His apology was going to be hard enough without a stranger hearing him acknowledge his mistakes in not being here and for being a medic yet not realizing Dad was ill. They video chatted almost nightly. He should've noticed something was wrong. He peered at Olivia but she hadn't budged. In fact she didn't seem the slightest bit inclined to leave.
"I'm sure you have things to do, Miss I didn't catch your last name?"
"Abbott, and I have nothing more important to do."
Jack shifted to capture her gaze but she seemed even more determined to avoid his eyes. "Thanks, ma'am, but I've got this. You may go now."
Her dark eyebrows slid into a sharp V and her lips pursed. "I'm fine right here, thanks."
Jack had never felt more territorial and annoyed in his life. He was a longtime military leader accustomed to people following his orders without hesitation.
How could this waif of a waitress not get that he wanted her to leave?
She wasn't family. She had no right to be here. Why'd she think she did? It irritated Jack to no end.
As if sensing Jack's thoughts, Olivia narrowed her eyes in a challenge that said if he wanted her gone, he was going to have to physically carry her out.
He was tempted.
Releasing Dad's hand, he marched around the bed. "It wasn't a suggestion, Miss Abbott. I'd like time with my dad. Alone."
She scowled at first, but slowly the tenseness left her shoulders as she studied his face. Then she nodded. She grabbed her gunmetal-gray purse, studded down the sides, leaned over, brushed a gentle hand along his dad's face and said, "Sully, I'll be back tomorrow. Jack will hold vigil until then." Then she slipped out of the room avoiding Jack's gaze.
"I'm walking Miss Abbott out, Dad. Be right back," Jack said, following her.