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Authors: Lurlene McDaniel

kathleens story

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You’ll want to read these inspiring books by Lurlene McDaniel

Angels in Pink
Kathleen’s Story
Raina’s Story
Holly’s Story

One Last Wish Novels

Mourning Song
A Time to Die
Mother, Help Me Live
Someone Dies, Someone Lives
Sixteen and Dying
Let Him Live
The Legacy: Making Wishes Come True
Please Don’t Die
She Died Too Young
All the Days of Her Life
A Season for Goodbye
Reach for Tomorrow

Other Fiction

Briana’s Gift
Letting Go of Lisa
Hit and Run
The Time Capsule
Garden of Angels
A Rose for Melinda
Telling Christina Goodbye
How Do I Love Thee: Three Stories
To Live Again
Angel of Mercy
Angel of Hope
Starry, Starry Night: Three Holiday Stories
The Girl Death Left Behind
Angels Watching Over Me
Lifted Up by Angels
Until Angels Close My Eyes
I’ll Be Seeing You
Saving Jessica
Don’t Die, My Love
Too Young to Die
Goodbye Doesn’t Mean Forever
Somewhere Between Life and Death
Time to Let Go
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
When Happily Ever After Ends
Baby Alicia is Dying

From every ending comes a new beginning…

This book is lovingly dedicated
to Jedidiah McDaniel
.

I would like to express my gratitude to
Jan Hamilton Powell and Mickey Milita
of Erlanger Medical Center, Baroness Campus
,
for their invaluable help in shaping this series
.

Angels in Pink Volunteer’s Creed

I will pass through this life but once.
If there is any kindness I can show, any good that I
can do, any comfort that I can offer, let me do it
now, for one day I will be gone and what
will remain is the memory of what I did for others.

one

“A
RE WE READY
?” Raina St. James asked. She looked expectantly at her two friends.

“I’m ready,” Holly Harrison answered.
More than ready
, she thought. Anything to get herself out of the house and away from her parents’ eagle eyes, especially her father’s. His will was impossible to bend, his mind impossible to change. He treated her like she was twelve instead of sixteen, so yes, she was ready for Raina’s project.

“I’m ready too,” Kathleen McKensie said, knowing it was a lie. She wanted to say,
I don’t even want to be here
, but she didn’t have the guts. This summer project was totally Raina’s idea, but because she’d let her two friends talk her into it, she had no one to blame but herself for agreeing to join them.

They climbed out of Raina’s car and she locked the doors with the electronic key. “This is going to be a great summer,” Raina said. “Trust me.”

“Don’t we always?” Holly said.

The three of them, friends since sixth grade, had just finished their sophomore year at Cummings High in Tampa, Florida, where they were practically inseparable. But it was Raina who led them—not in a bossy way, but by sheer force of personality and persuasion. Once Raina set her mind on something, it came to pass, and from the moment she’d started talking about Parker-Sloan General Hospital’s summer volunteer program after the Christmas break, Kathleen had known she’d cave and join Raina and Holly as a volunteer. However, now that the day was really upon them, Kathleen was wishing she’d voiced her objections when she’d had the chance. For starters, being a volunteer would consume her entire summer. And then, of course, she had to consider her mother, whom she decided not to think about at the moment.

Kathleen followed Raina and Holly through the parking garage to the elevator. It was only eight on a Saturday morning, but already heat was starting to build. By noon, it would be in the high eighties. They should have been heading to the pool at Raina’s townhome complex for some sun worship instead of to volunteer orientation at the hospital.

“What floor?” Holly asked once the elevator door slid open and they stepped inside.

Raina said, “Third.”

Holly pushed the button and the elevator
rose. “This place is the size of a small city. I’ll never find my way around.”

“Sure you will,” Raina countered. “I’ll help both of you.” Raina’s mother was head of nursing at Parker-Sloan, so Raina knew plenty about the layout of the giant hospital complex, which easily covered two city blocks. She was fascinated by the world of medicine and today she was starting as a teen volunteer, fulfilling a dream she’d had for years, and having her two best friends with her made it even more special.

“Gee, thanks,” Kathleen said with an edge of sarcasm. Although Kathleen understood Raina’s fascination, she was
not
attracted to medicine. No way. And she secretly thought that Raina wouldn’t be either if she had a sick mother at home as Kathleen did. As for Holly, Kathleen knew she’d do anything to escape her strict parents. That fact, and the fact that Raina was dating Holly’s brother, Hunter, made Holly more agreeable to Raina’s wishes.

“What are friends for?” Raina said, flashing a perky smile. The elevator stopped and the girls stepped into a hallway. “The auditorium is this way,” Raina said, pointing left.

As they rounded a corner, Kathleen saw a line of teens filing through open double wooden doors—mostly girls, but some boys too. Inside the doors, stadium-style seats with flip-up writing desks made a sharp downward descent. At the
bottom were a desk and a blackboard that stretched across the wall. A man and woman were watching the group file in and waving them toward the front. “Don’t be shy,” the man called. “Come on down.”

“Looks like we’re not the only volunteers who signed up,” Holly said over her shoulder.

“Told you so,” Raina said. “This is one of the best places in the city to spend a summer. Plus, don’t forget, if we make it through this program, we can sign up to be year-round volunteers and earn credits toward graduation.”

“Which is better than another science class,” Holly said.

“But no money,” Kathleen added pointedly. She’d given up a part-time job in a clothing boutique because of the program.

“Hence the term ‘volunteer,’” Raina said, not a bit apologetic about Kathleen’s job loss.

“Well, I think it’s going to be fun.” Holly took a seat along with her friends.

“And so will you, Kathleen.” Raina gave her friend a patronizing pat that almost made Kathleen get up and leave. She might have too, if the man standing at the front of the room hadn’t started talking.

“Welcome, summer volunteers, to our Pink Angels program orientation. I’m Mark Powell, director of volunteers at Parker-Sloan, and this is Connie Vasquez, volunteer coordinator.” He
nodded at the slim young dark-haired woman standing next to him. Connie waved. “All of you have passed the preliminary part of our Angels program in that first set of paperwork you submitted in April. Today”—he paused for dramatic effect—“more paperwork.” He grinned, and Connie held up several thick file folders while the audience groaned.

“But after we fill out the forms and go over some rules,” Connie added, “we’ll break into small groups and take a tour of the hospital and the various floors and departments where you’ll be used as volunteers. We’ll meet here afterward for free pizza.”

The audience applauded.

“One of the things in your packet is a form that asks for your shirt sizes, because all of you will be issued special shirts that will instantly identify you as an Angel volunteer to our staff and personnel,” Connie said.

“Read the sheet about our dress code carefully, because there’s no wiggle room there,” Mark added. “The term ‘Pink Angels’ came from the pink shirts that our volunteers started wearing in the 1970s.” He held up a pale pink polo shirt. “Then somewhere along the way, boys asked to join our program—nursing is a noble profession,” he inserted with a grin. “So we added navy blue shirts. The guys just didn’t feel comfortable in pink.”

“You got
that
right,” a guy called from a back row, making everyone laugh.

Mark held up his hands. “Now we mix the two shirt colors, so it doesn’t matter what color you wear, but one must be worn
at all times
that you’re on duty,” he said. “Khaki or black slacks or skirts paired with the shirts is our uniform.”

“I look lousy in a skirt,” the same male voice said, causing another ripple of laughter.

“Who’s the comedian?” Mark asked, craning his neck.

“That would be me, Carson Kiefer.” A hand waved from the back.

Kathleen turned to see a good-looking boy with black hair and a flashy grin.

“Ah,” Mark said with a nod, “Dr. Kiefer’s son. Your father told me you’d be joining our program this summer.”

The way he said it made Kathleen think there was more to the story of Carson’s admittance to the program than was being said.

“I promised,” Carson said with a snappy salute. “So here I am, signed, sealed and hog-tied.”

Mark rocked back on his heels and cleared his throat. “Well then, Connie, pass out the packets and let’s get started.”

After forty minutes of listening to Mark and Connie talk about the program, the rules and their expectations for the volunteers, Kathleen
felt her head start to swim. When it was time to break into small groups, two assistants joined Mark and Connie, and the volunteers were asked to count off, then gather with the others of their same number for their tours. Kathleen found herself in Mark’s group along with ten others, including the irrepressible Carson. He caught her eye and winked. She averted her gaze.
Show-off
.

Mark led them around the administrative floors first, explaining vital clerical duties that some volunteers would be assigned. That sounded safe to Kathleen—pushing paper and files would keep her away from sick people. As they walked, Mark said, “Lots of variety for you volunteers. Different departments will fill out request forms for your services, so you could be filing one day and distributing food trays on another. The nursing staff will use you a lot to transport patients to other parts of the hospital, for tests, treatments and discharge. All of you will be trained to move patients on stretchers and in wheelchairs.”

Kathleen realized she was way ahead of the curve when it came to wheelchair transporting.

“Parker-Sloan manages about four thousand volunteers a week, both adults and teens. We’re proud of our program and the people in it,” Mark said when the group had been herded into the elevator and was heading toward the upper floors. “We really depend on our volunteers to free up
staff for patient care. You’re doing an important job.”

Beside her, Kathleen heard Carson say, “Rah, rah,” under his breath. She glanced at him and he flashed a sexy smile. She felt her cheeks color and quickly looked away.

The doors opened and Mark led them into a brightly painted hallway. “This is the children’s wing. Most volunteers love pulling this assignment best.”

The group followed Mark into a light-filled room lined with bookshelves and desks holding three computer terminals. An area rug dotted with beanbags and floor pillows faced a television set that was showing a cartoon with the sound turned down low. Several children were sitting at pint-size painted tables, along with several adults. The kids wore hospital-issue gowns and pj’s in bright colors and cartoon prints. “The playroom,” Mark said. The children didn’t look sick to Kathleen. One boy had an arm in a sling. Another was propped up in a wheelchair, reading a book. Others were coloring or working puzzles. A small group were doing supervised finger painting.

“How’s it going, Judy?” Mark asked one of the women.

“Fine. This your newest crop?”

“Handpicked,” Mark said.

Judy greeted them. Kathleen heard several of
the girls murmur about how cute the kids were and how much they wanted to work on this floor. Except for occasionally babysitting the Thomas baby in her neighborhood, Kathleen hadn’t spent much time around children, so she hoped she’d be assigned elsewhere.

“Your eyes aren’t misting over,” Carson whispered in her ear. “Don’t you like kids?”

He so startled her that she stepped backward and almost fell over a chair. He grabbed her arm to steady her.

“You okay?” Mark asked as all eyes turned toward her. “Don’t need one of our volunteers breaking her leg during orientation,” he added with a smile.

The others laughed and Kathleen blushed furiously. “I’m fine.” She pulled her arm from Carson’s grasp.

“You’re welcome,” Carson said out loud, embarrassing her even more.

Back out in the hall, Kathleen scooted to the far side of the group, away from Carson, as Mark continued with his tour. “The babies are down that hall.” He pointed.

“Will those kids in the playroom be all right?” one of the girls asked.

“All the kids on this wing will get well and go home. They come through with pneumonia, dehydration, compound fractures—things like that. Most don’t stay long.”

“Aren’t we going in there?” another girl asked, gesturing at two large closed doors on the other side of the corridor.

“That’s the pediatric oncology ward,” Mark told the group. “Those kids are on chemo and range in age from five to sixteen. Many of them stay for long periods. We rarely put you summer volunteers in there because it’s a sad place to work and not everyone’s cut out for it.”

Murmurs started again. Kathleen stared at the doors. Terminal illness. She shuddered.

Mark’s tour took the better part of an hour and a half and threaded through most of the floors and wings of the giant hospital. By the time they returned to the auditorium where the orientation had begun, Kathleen felt more overwhelmed than ever by the size of the facility, and she wasn’t alone. She heard others talking about it too. During the tour, they had seen the internal medicine clinic, the labor and delivery area, the new babies’ nurseries, the medical library, intensive care units for several specialties, cardiac services, all of children’s services, radiology, the kidney dialysis units, the oncology treatment rooms, the eye clinic, the oncology research and pathology departments, the surgical and operating room areas, the trauma unit, the emergency room, the cafeteria, the gift shop, the post office and the mailrooms. Her head spun. “Everyone will be issued maps and directions,” Mark announced.
“It won’t take you long to figure out the place. Promise.”

The scent of fresh pizza drifted from the auditorium. “Time to eat. We’ll reconvene for questions,” Mark said, and invited them to help themselves to the pizza sitting in boxes on long tables and the cans of soda in large coolers. Her group didn’t need a second invitation and crowded around the tables. Kathleen went to the end of the line, waiting for her friends to return from their tours so they could eat together. She was reading some of the information in her welcome packet when she heard, “Hope you like cheese pizza.”

She looked up to see Carson standing in front of her holding out a paper plate with a slice of pizza on it. “For me?” she asked.

“A peace offering,” he said.

“Peace offering? For what?”

“I thought maybe you’d tell me what I’ve done to tick you off.” He stood peering down at her, his dark eyes full of mischief. “So”—his gaze lingered on her name tag, pinned above her breast—“Kathleen McKensie, what have I done to tick you off?”

two

K
ATHLEEN FELT THE
ever-familiar flush of red creeping up her neck and across her cheeks. “I— I don’t know what you mean.”

“Sure you do,” Carson said. “You haven’t given me one smile since we started out today. And I tried to get several out of you. I even rescued you from falling over and all that got me was you moving as far away from me as possible. I feel rejected and I don’t know why.”

She gave him a blank stare, uncertain how to react. His words rebuked, but his dark eyes teased. Was he flirting with her? Boys didn’t flirt with her. They flirted with Raina, who was pretty but who had Hunter as a boyfriend so was never interested. They flirted with Holly, who giggled and acted like a kid at Christmas. But Kathleen? No—boys never came on to her. She’d sometimes thought it was her mane of deep red hair and freckles that turned them off, but as she got older, she’d decided it was because she was a social
dud. She didn’t know how to talk to boys. She didn’t know how to flirt.

As her silence lengthened, Carson sighed. “Why don’t you take this plate of pizza before I drop it, and come sit down with me.”

“I—I’m not hungry.”
Liar
, said her inner voice. She was starved. Or she had been starved until he came over to her. Where were her friends, anyway?

Carson rebalanced the plates—she saw now that he held two—then took her elbow and guided her to a desk chair several rows up from the crowded rows near the tables and set the plate in front of her. “Come on, eat it while it’s still warm.”

“You sound like my mother,” she blurted.

“Well, I’m positive I don’t
feel
like your mother.”

She blushed and said, “You don’t look like my mother either.”

“Glad we settled that.” He grinned. “So let’s start with the simple stuff. Where do you go to school?”

She told him. “How about you?”

“Bryce Academy,” he said, naming the most exclusive and prestigious school in the Tampa Bay area. “Not my choice.” He sounded apologetic. “I was enrolled at birth.”

“I’ve heard it’s a good school.”
What a lame thing to say
. She’d never been good at small talk.

He took a bite of his pizza. “I’m not exactly a stellar student. But then, I don’t care.” He leaned sideways in his chair. “But I’ll bet you are, aren’t you, Kathleen.”

The way he said her name sent a shiver through her, which made her face redden again. “There’s nothing wrong with making good grades.”

“Right.” He measured her with his sexy brown eyes. “So why did you volunteer to be a Pink Angel? Because you want to save the world?”

He made it sound as if being a do-gooder was not very cool, which irked her. “No. I joined because my two best friends made me.”

He laughed. “I like your honesty, Kathleen.”

“What about you? Are you into saving the world?” She almost added, “
Because you sure don’t look the type,”
but instantly thought better of it. He had probably joined to meet girls.

“No way. I either wore an orange jumpsuit and picked up trash alongside the highway this summer or became a volunteer.”

Her eyes widened. From all she’d read and heard, the program didn’t take troublemakers. “But how—?”

“Friends in high places,” he said, leaning so close that she smelled soap on his skin.

Her skin tingled. “Oh.”

He straightened. “My parents are both cardiologists
here. My older brother is starting his medical residency in Detroit, and my older sister, an ophthalmologist in Denver, is doing eye surgeries in Bosnia to help the downtrodden. You might say that the Kiefer clan is steeped in the brine of medicine. And good deeds.”

Kathleen heard an undercurrent of bitterness in his voice, recognizing it because she had experienced the emotion herself. “And so you’re a Pink Angel. Does that mean you’re starting down a medical career path of your own?”

“Hardly.”

“So, then, what
do
you want to be when you grow up?” She was being sarcastic, and Raina had warned her more than once about being sarcastic.
“Guys don’t like to be put down.”

Her comment didn’t seem to bother him. “Who says I have to grow up?” he asked.

“Why wouldn’t you want to? It’s what people do.”

“I think being grown up is highly overrated and a lot less fun than I’m having now.”

“Including picking up trash in an orange jumpsuit?” He was making her angry. She looked down at her pizza but had lost her appetite. With doctors for parents, a private school education and his pretty-boy good looks, he seemed arrogant.

“Would you fall for a guy wearing orange?”

“I wouldn’t fall for a guy like you at all.”

“Ouch,” he said, slumping over as if he’d been shot.

Her face got hot again.

He straightened and looked her squarely in the eye. “You know, Kathleen, I think I’m going to have a much better time this summer than I’d planned on having.”

“Why’s that?”

His sexy grin emerged. “Because I’ve never been with you before. And from my vantage point, I think you’re going to be a delicious experience.”

Too stunned to respond, she watched him edge out of his seat, walk up the steps and leave the auditorium.

“Yoo-hoo! Earth calling Kathleen.” Raina snapped her fingers in front of Kathleen’s face, making her friend jump.

“Sorry!” Kathleen said, flushing. “I—I was lost in space.”

Holly took Carson’s seat. “Who’s the hunk?”

“What?”

“The guy who was sitting here. Raina and I watched the two of you talking; then he got up and left and you got that vacant stare on your face. You didn’t even see us come down the stairs. What did he say to you?”

“He’s a jerk,” Kathleen said, folding over her paper plate and squashing the uneaten pizza.

“It was that Kiefer guy, wasn’t it?” Raina asked. “My mom knows his parents. They share an office in the hospital and do tons of heart surgeries. They’re supposed to be really good.”

“Well, their son’s a conceited dope.”

“Listen to that, Holly—he’s got our best friend all shook up.” Raina feigned shock.

“Don’t tease me.”

“Lighten up, Raina,” Holly said, immediately sympathetic toward Kathleen. “Maybe he said something dirty. Did he? Did he make a crude pass?”

“All guys are crude,” Raina said. “Except for my Hunter. He’s a saint. Which is a problem too,” she added as an afterthought.

“What did the guy say to you?” Holly persisted.

“He thinks knowing me will be ‘delicious.’”

“Whoa, that qualifies as out of bounds,” Raina said. “Want me to have him dumped from the summer program? I’ll bet if I tell my mother, she can make it happen.”

Kathleen shook her head. “He didn’t say it in a crude way. It was more like a comment. You know, an observation.”

Raina arched an eyebrow. “Maybe we should skip this pizza bash and go have a heart-to-heart at the Sub Shop.” It was one of their favorite haunts.

“I’m for it,” Holly said. “We may need to dissect the whole conversation. We might have to
plan a strategy to help Kathleen deal with this guy.”

Kathleen eyed the wall clock and sat bolt upright. “Oh my gosh!” She grabbed for her purse and riffled through it. “I told my mother I’d be home by noon and it’s one-thirty.”

“So you’re a little late. She knew you were coming to an orientation,” Raina said.

“I’ll bet she’s called. I turned my phone on vibrate so it wouldn’t ring during the tour.” She found her phone in her purse, looked at the display and groaned. “Oh, yes. I have three missed calls.” She started up the stairs. “Come on, Raina, drive me home.”

“Your packet,” Holly called.

“Bring it. I’ve got to get home right this minute.”

“Wait,” Raina called, scooping up her things.

Kathleen was rushing so fast that she tripped on the top step. “Hurry! Don’t you understand? What if Mom’s in trouble because I’m late!”

“Mom! I’m home,” Kathleen called, dumping her belongings onto the table in the foyer. She turned and waved away Raina and Holly, still in the car.

Raina yelled, “I’ll call you!” before driving off.

The house was cool and quiet. Fear made Kathleen’s heart hammer. She hurried to the kitchen, where she found her mother sitting in
her electric wheelchair, staring out the patio doors. She could tell that her mother had been crying. “Mom, are you all right?”

“I was scared,” Mary Ellen McKensie said, sniffing back tears. “I—I thought something bad had happened to you.”

“I’d turned my phone off. I’m sorry. The orientation took longer than I thought.”

“You should have called. You know how I worry.”

The chastisement irritated Kathleen. Her mother’s fears were irrational and aimed to make Kathleen feel more guilty than she already did. “I said I was sorry. Have you eaten lunch?”

“I wasn’t hungry. Just worried.”

Kathleen took deep breaths to calm herself. “I left you a sandwich in the refrigerator before I left. All you had to do—”

“I wasn’t hungry,” her mother interrupted. “Have you eaten?”

“I was planning on having lunch with you,” Kathleen lied. “If I eat with you now, will you be hungry?”

“Maybe.” Her mother looked contrite. “If we eat together.”

“Fine.” Kathleen busied herself with preparing a second sandwich. In minutes she had put the food on the table and poured them each a glass of ice tea.

Her mother rolled her wheelchair to her spot
at the round kitchen table. “You should drink milk,” she said.

“I don’t want milk, Mom.” Kathleen bit into her sandwich to keep words she might regret from spilling out of her mouth.

“How was the orientation?”

“Fine.” Kathleen watched her mother pick up the sandwich on her plate with a shaking hand. “Do you want me to cut that any smaller for you?”

“I can manage.” They ate in strained silence. “Do you think you’ll like being a Pink Angel?”

Kathleen knew her mother was trying to say “I’m sorry,” but at the moment, all she felt was anger toward her mother for acting helpless when she could do better, and anger at herself for getting distracted at the hospital and forgetting about her duties. “I have a stack of papers to go through, but yes, I think I’ll be good at it. One of a volunteer’s most important jobs is transporting patients around the hospital. I know how to do that really good, don’t you think?”

“You’ve been transporting me for years. Would they like a reference?”

Kathleen offered a conciliatory smile. “Probably not.”

“Do you know your hours? When you’ll be working?”

“I’ll have to go the same times as Holly and
Raina. Raina’s really gung ho, so I imagine we’ll do the max.”

“You could drive our van.”

Their family vehicle was a wheelchair-adapted van, a monster that Kathleen didn’t like driving around town unless she had to. It had a special mechanical lift for loading her mother and the wheelchair, as well as special controls that her mother could use to drive it herself.

“You may need it,” Kathleen said.

“I can’t drive it without you.”

“Sure you can. You did at Christmas.”

“I’ve gotten worse since Christmas.”

Kathleen wasn’t sure that was true, but so long as her mother
thought
she couldn’t do something, she wouldn’t try. “Raina will drive. I’ll go with her.”

With their lunch finished, Mary Ellen said, “I feel light-headed. I should take a nap.”

Kathleen followed the wheelchair into her mother’s room. There she snapped on the chair’s brakes, locked her arms around her mother’s upper body from behind and helped her swing herself onto the bed. Kathleen covered her mother with a quilt sewn by her great-grandmother. “Get some rest.”

“What will you do?”

“Call Raina. Read. Surf the Net. The usual stuff.”

“You can order pizza if you don’t want to cook tonight,” her mother said.

“I’m kind of sick of pizza. I’d rather cook us something.”

“All right.” As Kathleen was about to close the bedroom door, her mother added, “I love you.”

“I love you too, Mom.”

Once the door was closed, Kathleen sagged against the wall. She missed going to school. At least it filled up her days. The volunteer program might turn out to be her salvation this summer after all. Besides, having to dash home from a volunteer job if her mother needed her would be a whole lot easier than leaving a paying job. She conjured up Carson’s face and sexy grin.
Delicious
. He’d called her delicious. She wondered how yummy she’d be to him if he ever got a glimpse into her real life. A life dedicated to caring for a mother with multiple sclerosis.

three

K
ATHLEEN WAS LOST
in a book when her phone rang. She answered and heard Raina’s perky “Is everything all right?”

“Of course it is,” Kathleen confessed with a sigh. “Mom was overreacting.”

“She treats you like a slave.”

“Raina…don’t,” Kathleen warned. This had been a sore point between them for years. Raina made no bones about her belief that Mary Ellen’s helplessness was due in part to Kathleen’s availability. Kathleen knew that while Raina was right about some of it, she wasn’t right about all of it. Raina hadn’t watched Mary Ellen deteriorate right before her eyes as Kathleen had. In the past ten years, from the time Kathleen was six, she had watched her mother go from having spastic tremors in her legs that caused her to fall to using a cane, then a walker and, finally, a wheelchair. And while her mother could stand and manage a shuffling kind of walk, the effort
was painful. Kathleen saw her attempting it less and less.

“Sorry, sorry,” Raina said quickly. “I’m not trying to hassle you. I’m just always wishing things were different for you.”

“I wish things were different for my mother,” Kathleen said. “I wish a lot of things.” Her gaze automatically went to the large photograph of her father that she kept on her bedside table. Mary Ellen said that his smile and hers were twin images, stamped forever on Kathleen’s face. Kathleen’s father was dead, taken from them both when Kathleen was seven by a drunk driver who had struck their car, killing James McKensie instantly and sending Mary Ellen to the hospital in serious condition, where she remained for almost a month. Kathleen had been at home with a sitter, so she’d been spared, but the accident greatly accelerated the course of Mary Ellen’s MS, first diagnosed when Kathleen was two. Her father’s life insurance policy and a settlement from the other driver’s insurance company had been the only things that had saved Kathleen and her mother from a life of desperation.

“Did you zone out on me again?” Raina asked.

Kathleen tore her gaze from her father’s photo. “Whoops—sorry about that. So what’s up?”

“After I dropped Holly at her house, I went
back to the hospital and found my mom and filled her in on our morning. I mentioned Carson Kiefer and she just rolled her eyes. Seems he’s some kind of a problem for his parents. Nothing major, but he’s got a rep for getting into trouble.”

“I’m hardly surprised.”

“Are you interested?”

Kathleen bristled. “No way.”

“I just thought you’d like to know the buzz about him. Think of it as a background check.”

“I’m sure our paths won’t even cross. It’s a big hospital.”

“Maybe. Anyway, I also went to the volunteer office and picked up our polo shirts.”

“How? I haven’t turned in my paperwork yet.”

“Mom arranged it. It helps to have an inside track. I also signed us up to start on Monday morning. Okay with you?”

“I guess.”

“Good. Hunter and I have a date tonight, so we’ll drop off your shirts on our way to the movie.”

“I’ll be looking for you.”

Kathleen was loading the dishwasher that night when her mother, leading Raina and Hunter, rolled her wheelchair into the kitchen. “Your friends are here to see you.”

“Shirt delivery,” Raina said brightly, and dropped a bag onto the table.

Kathleen peeked into the bag. “Pink just isn’t my best color. It’s the red hair, I think.”

“I got us each a blue one too.”

Hunter grinned. “You two are funny. It’s a volunteer job, not a fashion show.”

“Kathleen’s always fussed about her red hair, and I think it’s just beautiful. Her father was a redhead, you know.” Mary Ellen sounded wistful.

“How have you been feeling?” Hunter asked, quickly changing the subject.

Kathleen was grateful. She didn’t want her mother getting nostalgic and depressed. The doctor had told Kathleen that some depression was caused by Mary Ellen’s MS medications, but still Kathleen tried hard not to trigger any episodes.

“I’m doing all right. Kathleen takes good care of me.”

“You look great. New hairstyle?” Hunter’s compliment made Mary Ellen smile and reach up to smooth her hair. “My mom said for you to call her if you ever need anything from the store and Kathleen’s not here. She’ll be glad to run errands for you anytime.”

“That’s nice of her.”

Raina took Hunter’s hand. “Let’s not be late.”

“What are you going to see?” Kathleen asked, feeling envious. She’d love to be heading out to a movie with a guy of her dreams.

“Some dopey love story,” Hunter said, with a wink.

“Better than some movie with a hundred car chases and flying bodies,” Raina said.

“Since when? I like car chases.”

“Go,” Kathleen said, pointing to the door.

Raina said, “I’ll pick you up at nine Monday morning.”

Kathleen knew the announcement was for Mary Ellen’s benefit. “I’ll be ready.”

Once they were gone, Kathleen turned back to the table and the bag. She shook out the two shirts, one pink, one navy blue, with the hospital’s logo stamped in white over the pocket. On the pocket was an inch-high stylized angel sewn in white thread. She ran her finger over the emblem on one shirt.

Her mother looked up at her, her eyes full of tenderness. “The pink shirt will look fine on you. You’re young and pretty and you look good in anything you wear.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“That Hunter’s a nice boy.”

“That’s what Raina says too. She says he’s one in a million.”

“You’ll find a nice boy one day too. And you’ll leave.”

A warning bell rang in Kathleen’s head.

“Now, Mom, Prince Charming hasn’t found me
yet, and based on the guys I know at school, he won’t be coming along anytime soon.”

Mary Ellen sighed, backed up her chair and turned toward the doorway. “One of my shows is coming on TV. Want to watch it with me?”

“No!”
Kathleen wanted to shout. The last thing she wanted to do was spend a boring evening watching boring reruns on the boring tube. But school was out, so she couldn’t use homework as an excuse. “Sure,” she said. “Let me finish up in here and I’ll be in. I’ll make us some popcorn.”

“I’d like that,” Mary Ellen said, rolling her wheelchair through the doorway.

Kathleen busied herself with making popcorn. Sometimes she felt totally trapped in her life. But what could she do about it? Her mother needed her. Through no fault of her own, her mother had a terrible disease and no one to take care of her except her daughter. Kathleen’s father was dead and gone, and she would never have the chance to talk to him or have him as a part of her life. What had happened to their family wasn’t fair. Not fair at all.

“What’s on your mind, Raina?”

Raina had been staring into the depths of her postmovie bowl of ice cream. “I’m not being very good company tonight, am I?” They were sitting in a small ice cream parlor at the mall.

“You’re fine company, but you haven’t said much. The show wasn’t that bad, was it? Not a car chase in it.”

“The movie was fine. I just get depressed whenever I go to Kathleen’s house. I feel so sorry for her. She really is a slave, you know. Her mother expects Kathleen to wait on her hand and foot. She has no life outside of school and home.”

“And you think it’s your job to fix things for her? Is that why you dragged her into the volunteer program at the hospital?”

Raina felt her hackles rise. “Is that what you think I did—fix things for her?”

“Yes,” he answered without apology.

“If it was up to her mother, Kathleen would never leave that house. She needs a life.”

“Listen, I’m not criticizing you. This is who you are and it’s one of the things that makes me crazy about you.”

She shook her head, instantly disarmed by Hunter’s comeback. How could she growl at a guy who spoke with honesty but also with kindness? “I really think the program will be good for her. It’ll help her think about something besides her duty to her mother.”

“Like what—her duty to the volunteer program? What if she hates it?”

Raina flushed in exasperation. She saw his point: Was Kathleen just trading one duty for another? “Then she can quit.”

“And you’d let her?”

“Well, of course. How could I stop her? I’m just trying to be her friend.”

“And her mother is…?” He left the sentence unfinished.

“Trying to lock her down,” Raina finished with surety. “Holly thinks Kathleen’s mother is suffocating her too—just ask her.”

“My sister’s so excited to be busy this summer that she’d have done anything you suggested. Kathleen’s home life isn’t even on her radar.”

Raina didn’t want to get into her feelings about Holly’s life and how rigid and unbending she thought Hunter’s parents were toward his sister. “Do you think it’s a bad idea for Holly to volunteer?”

“It’s a good idea. She needs to spread her wings.”

Raina frowned. “And Kathleen doesn’t? I don’t get the difference.”

Hunter shrugged. “I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but there is a difference. Holly’s trying hard to grow up. Kathleen’s already way
too
grown up. Don’t treat her like taffy.”

“Meaning?”

“Don’t pull too hard. Let her figure her life out for herself.”

Raina tipped her chin. “And when you go off to college next year, Mr. Harrison, will you major
in psychology? You seem to have sized up the lives of me and my friends like a pro.”

He grinned self-consciously. “I like psychology. I like trying to decide what makes people tick and act the way they do.”

“And what makes me tick? Have you figured that out yet?”

He braced his elbows on the table and leaned forward until their faces were just inches apart. “Here’s what I know about you: You have a kind heart. You really care about your friends’ lives. And you’re sexy too. An unbeatable combo.”

His bright green eyes made Raina’s insides quiver. “Sexy? I didn’t think you noticed stuff like that.”

He touched his nose to hers in an Eskimo kiss. “Oh, I notice.”

Her pulse quickened and she teased, “Isn’t this place a little too public for kissing?”

“I pick public places on purpose. Private places are too dangerous.”

“Why? Because of the Promise?” She brought up the thing that stood like a shadow between them. When he’d been in ninth grade, before she’d met him, and while attending a church camp, he’d taken a vow to remain chaste until he married. When she first started dating him, she’d respected him for that vow. It was a welcome change to date a guy who wasn’t pressuring her to
have sex, but now, after a year of dating, she would have given Hunter anything he asked for—except that he didn’t ask.

He leaned back in his chair. “You know what they call guys who break their promise, don’t you?”

“Yes…Daddy.” She answered with the punch line to the old joke.

He gave her a thumbs-up. “Beautiful, sexy and smart. I’m a lucky guy.”

I’m the lucky one
, Raina thought. “Okay, lucky guy, can you come over tomorrow and hang by the pool with me? Once I become a Pink Angel, I won’t have tons of free time.”

“Tomorrow’s Sunday.”

“Oh, I forgot. Church.”

“You could come with me.”

She shook her head. “You know religion isn’t my thing.” She offered him a smile to soften her refusal. They’d had the same discussion many times. Hunter and his family were big churchgoers, but religion didn’t appeal to Raina. How could God, who was supposed to be good, allow sickness and evil in the world? It made no sense to her. “How about after church?”

“Family time. My dad wants us together on Sundays.”

She tried not to feel resentful. Her father had walked out on her and her mother when Raina was born, so Vicki St. James had been both
mother and father to Raina. When she saw how Hunter’s father bossed Holly around, it sometimes made her glad she didn’t have a father. “Okay … no pool time tomorrow. What about Tuesday, since I’ll be at the hospital most of Monday.”

“If I don’t land a job on Monday, I’ll be over Tuesday.”

“I thought you were cutting grass again this summer.”

“On weekends, but I need a job that pays more money to help pay my way through college.”

Her heart squeezed. Because soon he would be a senior, at the end of the upcoming school year he would graduate and while she was a senior stranded in high school, he would go away to college. She could hardly bear to think about it. A year without Hunter would be like a year without oxygen. “Holly told me that once you go, she’s going to take over your old room and paint it purple.”

“Over my dead body!”

Raina shrugged innocently. “This can be avoided if you go to the University of South Florida and live at home instead of heading off to Florida State, way far away from me.”

“Are you blackmailing me?”

“No…just a friendly suggestion.” She flashed him a sunny smile.

He took her hand. “Come on. I need to spend a few minutes alone with you in a private place after all.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” she kidded, following him out of the parlor.

In the car, he pulled her close and kissed her. She cuddled against him without speaking, knowing that if she ever told him how much she truly loved him, it might scare him off. And life without Hunter was something she never wanted to face.