Orchard Valley Grooms Online - Debbie Macomber

One

“Norah? Is that you?” Valerie Bloomfield’s voice rose expectantly. She’d been trying to reach her sister for the past hour with no success.

“Valerie, where are you?”

“I’m on a layover in Chicago.” She glanced around the departure lounge and surveyed the other passengers. “How’s Dad?”

Norah hesitated, and that slight pause sent Valerie’s worry escalating into panic. “Norah…” she began.

“He’s doing as well as can be expected.”

“Did you tell him I’m on my way?” Valerie had been in the middle of a business meeting in New York when she received the message. Her youngest sister had called the Houston office, and they’d passed on the news of her father’s heart attack. Valerie had left immediately, catching the first available flight. Unfortunately that meant going to Oregon via Chicago.

“Dad knows you’re coming.”

“Were you able to get hold of Steff?”

Norah’s sigh signaled her frustration. “Yes, but it took forever and my Italian is nonexistent. She’s planning to catch whatever she can out of Rome, but she has to get there first—she’s in some little village right now. It might take her a couple of days. The connection was bad and I couldn’t understand everything she said. Apparently there’s some sort of transportation strike. But she’s doing her best….”

Valerie’s sympathies went out to Stephanie, the middle Bloomfield sister. She must be frantic, stuck halfway across the world and desperate to find a way home.

“When will you get here?” Norah asked anxiously.

“The plane’s scheduled to land at six-ten.”

“Do you want me to meet you? I could—”

“No,” Valerie interrupted. She didn’t think it was a good idea for Norah to leave their father. “I’ve already ordered a car. It shouldn’t take me more than forty minutes once I land, so don’t worry about me.”

“But the hospital’s an hour’s drive from the airport. You shouldn’t even try to make it in less.”

It generally did take an hour, but Valerie had every intention of getting there a lot sooner. “I should be at the hospital somewhere around seven,” she said evasively.

“I’ll see you then.” Norah sounded resigned.

“Don’t worry, kid, everything’s going to be all right.”

“Just be careful, will you?” Norah pleaded. “You being in an accident won’t help Dad any.”

“I’ll be careful,” Valerie promised, smiling at her sister’s words. Trust Norah to take the practical approach. After a brief farewell, Valerie closed her cell phone and slipped it into her purse.

Half an hour later, she boarded her plane. She’d only brought a carry-on bag, unwilling to waste precious time waiting for luggage to be unloaded. Shutting her eyes, she leaned back in her seat as the plane taxied down the runway.

Her father was dying. Her dear father… His hold on life was precarious, and the burning need to get to him as quickly as possible drove her like nothing she’d ever experienced.

She was exhausted but sleep was out of the question. Valerie bent down for her purse, rummaging through it until she found the antacid tablets. She popped one in her mouth and chewed it with a vengeance.

No sooner had she swallowed the chalky tablet than she reached for a roll of the hard candies she always had with her. Four years earlier she’d quit smoking, and sucking on hard candy had helped her through the worst of the nicotine withdrawal. If she’d ever needed a cigarette, it was now. Her nerves were stretched to the breaking point.

Please, she prayed, not her father, too. Valerie was only beginning to come to grips with her mother’s death. Grace Bloomfield had died of cancer almost four years ago, and the grief had shaken Valerie’s well-ordered life. She’d buried her anguish in work; the biggest strides in her career with CHIPS, a Texas-based computer software company, had come in the past few years. She’d quickly climbed up the corporate ladder, until she was the youngest executive on the management team.

Her father had reacted similarly to Grace’s death. Working too many hours, driving himself too hard. Norah had tried to tell her, but Valerie hadn’t paid attention. She should’ve done something, anything, to get their father to slow down, to relax and enjoy life. He should have retired years before; he could be traveling, seeing exotic places, meeting with old friends and making new ones. In the years since her mother’s death, Valerie had convinced her father to leave Orchard Valley only once and that had been a two-week trip to Italy to visit Steffie.

And now he was fighting for his life in a hospital.

Valerie hadn’t said anything to him because…well, because they were