Author's Note: Those of you who have read Vow of Silence and are hungry for more are going to have to wait a while for the next installment of Jill. BUT while you wait, I thought it might be fun to leave you with a small glimpse of how I imagine the next story begins. It might change by the time I get around to writing it all, but hey, that's fun too.
What the hell was taking so long??
Jill Shannon checked her watch. The chair’s rusty leg shifted beneath her weight and tilted her slightly forward. She’d been stuck here in one of the hard plastic chairs crammed into the waiting room of the family clinic for over an hour now, along with dozens of other people in desperate need of medical care. Like Jill, they would sit here as long as necessary to see the one doctor who serviced their community.
The only conciliation in the endless purgatory she was forced to endure was that her daughter wasn’t with her. Lexi was safely tucked into her small classroom at school, blissfully ignorant of the winds of change that were about to uproot their lives. Again.
A deep restlessness churned in Jill’s gut. She stared out a high narrow window at the end of the room where the palm trees bent and swayed. Patients sat shoulder to shoulder, smelling faintly of sweat. There was no room to pace. She’d already counted the stained ceiling tiles, the cracks in the plastered walls. Jill leaned toward the metal table in the center of the room and picked through the tattered pile of magazines when she spotted a rare thing.
Jill hauled it from the center of the pile. Even the fact that it was six months out of date with a wrinkled cover and frayed pages didn’t matter in the least. It was a sweet little reminder of home.
Her gaze fell on the front page. A startled breath caught in her throat. She pressed her hand against her chest. She’d fully expected to see a lead story about a celebrity breakup, not an up and coming politician.
Years had passed since she’d last laid eyes on him, but Jill still remembered everything about the time she’d said goodbye to Conner Manning. Her heart thundered beneath her palm and she dropped her hand away. Dressed in an Armani power suit, Conner looked leaner. Harder. Wiser. Forcing a breath from her screaming lungs, she read the headline.
Governor Conner Manning, Future President?
She closed her eyes for a fraction of a second, long enough for the splinter of pain to fade. Her hands shook as she flipped to the featured story. With his all-American good looks and deep family connections, Conner was being cast as a modern-day JFK—born and bred for the job.
And hadn’t his father promised her as much on a night that had sealed both of their fates?
More photographs littered the inside spread, each one more painful than the last. Jill ran her fingertips across the glossy pages as if Conner was real enough to touch. She traced the new lines around his eyes, his graying temples. The resemblance Conner bore to his father, the late great Pierce Manning, was more than uncanny—it was unnerving.
The final photograph was the most painful of all—a family shot. Conner’s arm was draped around his wife’s slender shoulders. With brown skin and laughing eyes, she was beautiful. Exotic. So unlike the kind of starched mid-Western beauty Jill knew Conner’s mother preferred. A subtle rebellion against his family’s expectations? Jill didn’t know.
Conner’s wife stood proudly by his side, beaming for the camera. The smile Conner offered wasn’t the one Jill remembered at all. It was the kind of smile that you practiced in the mirror a thousand times until it was so good, it almost appeared real.
Or maybe she was kidding herself. Lying was so easy.
Twin toddler boys played with a small stack of brightly colored toys. Another shard of pain twisted inside Jill’s heart. If not for Conner’s father and the political pressure he’d put on his son, they would have been a family. Lexi would have had a father. But all the forces she couldn’t control had torn their lives apart. And she’d ended up here.
A shiver raced through Jill as she remembered the conviction in Pierce Manning’s voice as he told her that his son would one day become president, and like a modern-day prophecy his words were coming true.
“Erin,” the nurse called. “Erin?”
The nurse touched Jill on the shoulder and she jumped. She’d been Erin for five years now, but seeing Conner’s picture had thrust her back into a past that she had long since abandoned. She dropped the magazine face down on the table and she rose on unsteady legs. She threaded her way through the cramped waiting room into the office beyond.
“Doctor Cortez will be right with you,” the nurse said with a brief flash of a white smile as she left.
Jill settled into the chair across from the heavy metal desk. The Spartan furnishings were so unlike the lavish doctor’s offices she’d visited in her other life. Though medical care was free on the island, supplies were scarce. Doctors were few and far between as most Cuban-trained professionals left the island to work in countries capable of paying them more.
Compared to the pretty photographs of Conner’s thriving family, the poverty of the island and its inhabitants appeared stark. Conner had begged Jill to leave Lexi with him. He had promised her that he would take care of her like she was his own daughter. And he’d meant it, Jill had no doubt.
Through the thin door, she heard the doctor’s booming laugh and the heavy tread of footsteps. The door swung open and Dimitri Cortez entered. He was a slight man in his late fifties, his hair more gray than black. He had a quick mind. Jill had done her research and he was the best family practitioner the island had to offer.
All traces of amusement drained from the doctor’s face as his somber gaze settled on Jill. He ran his hands down the front of his shirt like a nervous schoolboy as he rounded the desk. Her pulse quickened.
His grim expression confirmed Jill’s suspicions. He already knew what the file contained. He was stalling. Jill braced herself for the brutal truth as Dimitri drew in a breath.
“Sorry it took so long to get the results,” he said in softly accented English. “The polyclinic is overrun, so everything takes longer than it should. As we suspected, Suzie has a Primary Immunodeficiency Disorder. Her body is not producing enough antibodies to fight infection. It explains her symptoms—the frequent ear infections, the pneumonia, her general failure to thrive.”
Dimitri only knew her daughter by her made-up name, Suzie. Not the name she was born with. Jill absorbed his words like a physical blow. For the second time that day, Jill pressed her palm against her chest as if that might slow her racing heart. It took a moment for her to speak.
“Is it hereditary?” Jill asked. Her voice cracked on the words.
Dimitri hitched his shoulder in a half shrug. “Suzie was born with the defect.”
It wasn’t really an answer, but in her bones, Jill knew it was her fault her daughter was sick. She was as much to blame for her faulty genes as she was for bringing Lexi here, to an impoverished island where the medical system was ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of her condition. If she had left Lexi with Conner, he would have assembled the best medical team possible to diagnose and treat her. He had money. Resources. He had access to everything Lexi needed.
“Treatment options?” Jill asked, unable to hide the desperation that had crept into her voice.
“We can manage the symptoms for a while, but over time, her condition will deteriorate. The only viable long-term option is a bone marrow transplant.”
Each word stabbed like a nail driven straight through Jill’s heart. She grasped for something, some fragment of hope to cling to as the winds of change began to blow.
“Is there nothing more we can do? A medical trial? Something?”
But she already knew the answer before he uttered the words.
“I’m afraid not.”
Her fingers clamped around the hard edges of the chair, nails digging into the hard plastic.
“When can I get tested?”
Dimitri skimmed his fingertips across his closed lips as he considered the question.
“There is a clinic in Havana, but it will take time.”
“How much time?”
Dimitri gave a shrug and Jill knew what that meant. Months. It could take months to schedule an appointment and longer for the results. Too much time.
Jill’s mind skipped ahead, rifling through the possibilities that crowded her worried mind.
“If I’m not a match?”
Dimitri laced his hands on top of the medical folder, his dark eyes filled with compassion.
“What about Suzie’s father?” he asked.
Alex. Every time Jill looked at her daughter, she saw her husband’s face. Lexi’s golden brown eyes bubbled with life and laughter, the same way Alex’s had. She had tried to save him. She had pressed her palms tight over the gunshot wound in his chest, but the blood wouldn’t stop. It had seeped through her fingers and pooled onto the kitchen floor.
The flat recitation of fact belied the pain in her heart. Alex had sacrificed himself to save her and the daughter he hadn’t known she was carrying. She’d left behind the deadly secrets she’d kept from Alex all those years ago, but there were some truths that refused to die. Those truths had come back to haunt her, forcing her to run—to rip Lexi away from the only father she had known. And now, here they were.
“Does he have family?” Dimitri asked, reading the anguish on her face.
“Not here,” Jill whispered.
With every fiber in his being, Alex’s brother hated her. If Mike had he slightest inkling of where she was, he would tell the authorities in a heartbeat. And then what?
“Are they in Canada?”
Jill nodded. Though she had a Canadian passport, her roots were planted a hundred miles south of the Canadian border. She leaned forward in the rickety chair, her elbows propped on her knees.
Seattle felt as far away as Mars.
Dimitri cast his gaze toward the ceiling, as if deep in thought.
“Suzie’s case is complex. I don’t know what your situation is, but it may make sense for you to seek treatment some place closer to your family. There she can get access to resources we simply don’t have.”
A defeated sigh escaped Jill as the winds of change howled.
His advice was useless. There was no way she could ever go back.
“Thank you, Doctor,” she said.