The smell of disinfectant and a bad case of the nerves made the eggs and bacon sit like concrete in her stomach. She hugged herself against the chill of too much air conditioning and waited in the hospital lobby. Waited to see her father. Waited to see Tucker again.
Neither thought made her stomach any calmer. One made her knees feel weak; the other got her heart pounding. She honestly wasn't sure which was which.
She'd just sat down and reached for a magazine when the hospital doors slid open and Tucker Greene walked in. Weak knees and pounding heart all over again. She sent up a little prayer that she wouldn't collapse when she tried to stand. She took a deep breath, put on her best smile and rose just as he reached her chair. "Good morning."
He nodded. "Morning. You ready for this?"
She took another breath and answered with an honest, "No. Probably not, but I'm here and that's what matters. It'd be silly to have come all this way and chicken out now."
Tucker's eyebrows drew down. "You're really scared?"
"No!" She blurted the answer, flushed, and glanced around the waiting room to see if anyone had heard. "No," she said again, quieter. "Not scared. Nervous. I've never done this before, you know? Long-lost reunions and that kind of thing. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I'm really here."
He grinned crookedly and Nora felt like she could breathe a little deeper and put her shoulders back. Tucker reached for them and turned her toward the front desk. "You're really here." His breath stirred her hair. "This is really real, really happening, and Shiloh's not going to bite you so you can relax."
She meant to protest, but let it go without saying a word. She'd try. In every new experience, she had a self-imposed rule: never refuse to try something at least once. So she let him talk, marveling at how comfortable he seemed. How everybody seemed to like him. He acted friendly and approachable, not like at the house.
Nora suddenly realized she didn't know how long her father had been here. To have this many friends, to be on a first name basis with the nurses and orderlies, wouldn't Tucker have had to spend hours visiting? Of course they'd know him for more than his bark.
Then again, so did she. The memory of their kiss outside her room made her cheeks burn all the way through the elevator ride to the third floor. She had no idea what she'd been thinking, kissing him back that way. She still wasn't sure what she felt. Should she apologize? Should she pretend it hadn't happened? Was she brave enough not to follow his lead?
Tucker stopped outside a room with the door barely cracked open. It looked dark inside, though she knew that the sky was bright and sunny. He said, "This is it," rapped twice with his knuckles, and pushed the door open without waiting for a summons. "What are you doing," she heard him ask. "Are you trying to burn out your eyes?"
Nora heard another man's voice. She couldn't make out words, but he laughed quietly. She saw a shaft of light spill across the floor as Tucker opened a blind. "That's more like it. Now you can see." He paused. "So I told you I'd bring her. You ready?" No, Nora whispered to herself. Not nearly ready. But she didn't have a choice. She could cross the threshold or run away scared. She knew which she wanted to do. She'd do what she should instead.
She pushed the door open wider and peeked inside. "I hope it's all right if I just come in."
Tucker looked guilty, like he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't. He pushed his hands into his hip pockets and slouched toward the window, probably looking out at nothing.
The man in the bed couldn't make the same sort of escape. Rather than turning a shoulder, though, he pushed himself up against the pillows behind him. His arms shook and he sucked at the oxygen strapped beneath his nose with alarming enthusiasm.
"Here, let me help." She moved before he answered and tucked pillows into the small of his back to keep him upright. "That should be better."
"Coulda done it myself."
Tucker made a half-voiced sound and shook his head. Nora thought he smiled, but she couldn't tell for sure. "Sorry, forgot to warn you about that." Now he looked over his shoulder at the both. "Old man likes to do things on his own. Never did learn how to ask for help."
Shiloh grumbled and fussed with the blankets, rearranging them over his lap. "Got all the help I need, all the time. People help so much they don't leave me alone." He fixed Nora with an even stare. "I don't ask, you don't do it. I'm not dead yet."
So her father was a pain in the butt. What a surprise. "I understand. It won't happen again, Mr…" She frowned. "What should I call you?"
Shiloh squinted at her. "Something wrong with Dad?"
Nora ducked her head and laughed. "It feels a little strange. Calling someone Dad for the first time in my life? I'm almost thirty." And he was dying. "It's a little late."
"Fine. Use my name then. That's what I got it for. Shiloh. You call me Shiloh."
Tucker turned to face them and clapped a hand to the older man's shoulder. "Okay, Shiloh. I'm going to go grab some coffee." He looked up at her briefly. "You need anything?"
Yes, she wanted to answer. Not to be left alone with a cranky old stranger. She kept that thought to herself and summoned up a smile instead. "I'm good. I had plenty at breakfast."
"Not going to offer me anything?"
Tucker patted her father's shoulder lightly, like a friend might if he were in on a very old joke. "Whiskey and cigarettes, I know. Still not going to happen. I won't be gone long."
Nora had no doubt that he made the promise for her sake. He'd be used to Shiloh and his moods. She, on the other hand, had to learn to go with the flow. "Take your time," she offered cheerfully. Silently, she hoped he'd be back in a few seconds.
Both she and her father waited until he'd left the room to heave matching sighs. It startled her so much that Nora laughed. And caught her father grinning.
"Relax," he told her, settling into the pillows at his back. "I like to give him a hard time. Pretend I'm not behaving just to piss him off." He may have been at the end of his life, but Shiloh's eyes danced with pure mischief.
"Mean," she said.
"Funny," he countered. "Gotta keep myself entertained, don't I?" He waved a hand, making his I.V. tubing sway. "Pull up a chair. Make yourself comfortable."
As comfortable as she could get in a hospital room, anyway. Nora dragged a chair close to the bed and sat, folding her hands into her lap. Shiloh watched her, a keen curiosity in his eyes. She took a breath to speak, stopped, and laughed at herself. "People usually can't get me to shut up," she admitted. "Now, I'm not entirely sure of what to say."
The next breath filled her completely, straightening her shoulders as she offered her hand. "So let's start with hi, I'm Nora. Nice to meet you."
Shiloh laughed, which she'd hoped. He shook her hand carefully, then folded it between his own and held on. That surprised her, as did the prick of sudden tears threatening. Maybe the way he smiled at her, a little smitten, a little proud, had something to do with it. Hard to say. All she knew was that she didn't want the first meeting with the father she'd never met to be ruined by tears.
"It's okay," he said, as if he'd heard her thoughts. "Sometimes I cry too. Happens to the best of us."
Now Nora laughed in a desperate effort to keep the tears at bay. "You've got the right to cry," she told him, squeezing his hand. "Being stuck here, with people poking at you, has to suck. No disrespect or anything, but—"
"But it sucks," he agreed with a shrug and a nod. "Tubes and needles and this." He let go to gesture at the oxygen feed. "Didn't know air smelled bad, but this stuff stinks." He frowned abruptly. "No more bullshit about rights. My room, I get to say who can cry or not."
She rolled her eyes but had to laugh. "I guess that's fair. I'm still going to try not to."
Shiloh winked. "Guess that's fair." He sank deeper into his pillows, studying her like he'd memorize every inch. She felt abruptly self conscious and touched her hair. She smoothed her free hand over her knee and adjusted the hem of her shirt.
Shiloh made a low sound and squeezed her fingers again. "Nothing wrong with you. Stop fussing and let me look."
Nora blushed. "I just wanted to make sure you liked what you saw."
"See my daughter," he answered matter-of-factly. "Could have three heads and neon eyes and I'd still like the view." He paused, and then added, "Got my chin."
"And your hair. I spotted that in the picture right away." She hesitated, and then scooted to the edge of the chair. Brow furrowed, she studied him in turn.
He lifted a grizzled eyebrow. "You looking for something?"
"Me." She answered without thinking. She made a face a moment later. "Sounds funny, huh? But I'm sitting here thinking that I ought to be able to recognize something about you. Something that I've seen in the mirror all these years. And just when I think I've got it, it disappears again. But I know you. I know you're my dad. I believe you."
Shiloh laughed again. "Not so desperate that I write letters to girls who aren't mine. I know you, too," he told her, and laid a hand against his chest. "Here. Blood knows blood. You're part of me."
The tears that only threatened before now streaked down Nora's face. She laughed, embarrassed, and wiped them away on her sleeve, but nodded. "Yeah. I think somewhere inside, I know that. It's just taking my brain a while to catch up."
"Well, don't take too long. This living thing is wearing me out." Before she could grimace or laugh or flinch, he went on. "What do you think of my sidekick?"
Nora shook her head. "Sidekick?"
"Friend. Companion. Pain in the rear." He waved a hand. "Tucker."
"Oh!" She should have known that's who he meant. Who else could possibly have fit all of those descriptions so well? She paused a moment, then said, "I think he's mostly a pain in the butt."
Shiloh grinned broadly. "You like him, then."
She laughed, startled. "I didn't say that."
"Didn't have to," her father said smugly. "I can tell. See it in the way he doesn't want to look at you."
Nora cocked an eyebrow. "I'm not sure that's a good thing."
"Means he's afraid you'll see his heart in his eyes." Shiloh closed his. He sighed and sank even deeper into the pillows, suddenly looking tired. Nora squeezed his hand. His eyes didn't open again, but he spoke anyway. "Don't let him get away with it. Tucker doesn't like to let people in, but there's a good heart, a strong heart, in him. He's gonna make a good husband."
His hand went limp.
Nora's heart began to race. Sweat popped out at her temples. He couldn't have—he wouldn't. "Shiloh?" She squeezed his hand again. He didn't respond. She shook his arm. "Dad?" She watched his chest, to see if it rose and fell. "Oh God. Oh no. Don't do this." She stood and leaned over him, turning her cheek so his breath would fan against her skin.
Tucker leaned in the doorway, ankles crossed and a cup of coffee in his hand. He lifted it by way of toast and sipped.
"What are you doing? How can you stand there? He's dying!"
Tucker glanced at his watch and nodded. "Yep. But not right now. Quarter past ten. The old man's pain meds kicked in. Let me guess. He said something cryptic and fell asleep?" He's gonna make a good husband. Nora tried in vain to keep the heat from her cheeks. Maybe he would, but Shiloh couldn't mean he'd make a good husband for her. They hadn't known each other for twenty-four hours, much less long enough to even think about rings and wedding bells. Which she wasn't, she reminded herself forcefully.
"Something else you forgot to warn me about?" She straightened and smoothed her clothing, sure that it needed fixing now. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and stood up straighter. "Guess the visit's over."
"Yep," Tucker nodded again. "For the morning, at least. I usually swing by just before dinner. Old man kicks me out when they bring him his tray." He paused a moment, studying her, and Nora fought the urge to rearrange her clothes again. "You okay?"
"Yes." Well, that sounded defensive. She forced herself to take a breath and let it out slowly. She pushed the chair back where she'd found it and gathered up her purse. "I'm a little rattled," she confessed as she walked to the door. "Did I snap or something?"
"Nah." His eyebrows tugged together as if he saw something unexpected. He didn't explain. He just straightened out of his lean and offered her the coffee he held. "You sure you don't want a drink?"
Nora looked at the cup and back at Tucker. She took the cup and took a long swallow without flinching. She felt proud of the look of surprise that stole across his face when she drank. She handed the cup back. "Not bad. Just enough sugar and cream. I'm impressed." She hung her purse from her shoulder and slipped past him, her sleeve brushing his shirt as she stepped into the hallway.
It didn't occur to her to wonder how much he'd overheard until she glanced back and saw the faint smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth. The blush returned with a vengeance and this time there was no holding it back.
"What?" His eyebrows rose curiously. "I didn't say anything. How come you're all red?"
She fisted her hand around her purse strap, the pressure against her shoulder somehow comforting. "How much of Shiloh's last few minutes awake did you hear?"
"Not a lot," he answered, and squinted. "Why? Were you talking about me?"
Nora didn't know whether to believe him or not. "You could say that," was all she planned to confess. She smiled at the nurse behind the desk at the closest station, got her bearings, and headed for the elevators. "So, what's there to do around here to help a girl pass the time?" She didn't look back. She knew he'd follow. The traitorous part of her that enjoyed their kiss hoped he would anyway.
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