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Excerpt

Excerpt

Rejoice

CHAPTER ONE

The swim party seemed like a great idea, the perfect ending to a perfect summer.

Brooke Baxter West's partner at the pediatric office had a daughter Maddie's age, and to celebrate her birthday, the family had invited ten kids and their parents for an afternoon in their backyard pool.

For two weeks the girls had talked about it nonstop, seeking out Brooke each morning and tugging on her arm. "Mommy, when's the swim party?"

But two days before the big event, another doctor at the office had received word from California that his aging grandmother had only days to live. Before he caught an emergency flight, he'd asked Brooke if she'd take his on-call duty for the weekend.

"You're my last hope," he told her. "My family needs me."

Brooke hated being on call when she had plans to spend an afternoon with her girls. But other than the swim party, the weekend was open, and she could take the pager with her. The chances of getting a Saturday afternoon call were fairly slim. Saturday evening, yes. But not Saturday afternoon.

Now the big day was here, and Brooke was having doubts. She should've called around, found someone else to take the doctor's on-call duty. Her kids wanted her at the party, and if a call came in, she'd miss the summer's last hurrah.

Brooke slipped a pair of shorts on over her swimsuit. She was raising the zipper when she heard Peter's voice downstairs.

"Hurry up, let's go." Frustration rang in his voice. "The party starts in ten minutes."

Brooke rolled her eyes and grabbed her bag --- the one with the life jackets and sunscreen. What was wrong with him? He was constantly grouchy; the two of them hadn't had a normal conversation in weeks. Their home was so tense even little Hayley had noticed it.

"Is Daddy mad at you, Mommy?" she'd asked earlier that week.

Brooke had mumbled something about Daddy being tired, and that yes, they should pray for him. But after days of sidestepping him, she was sick of Peter's attitude. He made her feel incompetent and irritating. The same way he'd made her feel ever since Maddie's diagnosis. Didn't he get it? Maddie was better now; no fevers for more than two months.

Brooke headed into the hallway and ran into Hayley and Maddie. "Guess what, girls?" A glance at the grins on her daughters' faces and her smile came easily. "I'm wearing my swimsuit!"

"Goodie, Mommy." Maddie jumped up and down and reached for Hayley's hand. "We can play tea party on the steps."

They joined Peter downstairs and but for the girls' excited chatter, they rode in silence to the house across town where Brooke's partner, Aletha, and her husband, DeWayne, lived.

At three years old, Hayley was still small enough to carry, so Brooke swept her into her arms as they headed up the walk toward the front door. On the way up the steps, Hayley took hold of Brooke's hand and squeezed it three times. The sign Brooke used with the girls to say, "I love you." The love from her younger daughter was the perfect remedy for Peter's coolness.

"You're a sweet girl, Hayley; do you know that?" She shifted her pool bag to her shoulder.

"You, too, Mommy." Hayley rubbed her tiny nose against Brooke's. "You're a sweetie girl, too. Know why?"

"Why?" Brooke and Hayley trailed behind, and Brooke took her time. She loved moments like this with her girls.

"Because --- " Hayley tilted her head, her pale blonde hair falling like silk around her wide-eyed face --- "I love you, that's why."

The door opened and Aletha smiled at them from the front step. "Hi. The party's out back."

Peter pulled out a smile, the one he wielded whenever they were in public. Brooke studied him, confused and hurt. Why couldn't he smile that way at her? She'd been meaning to ask him, but she hadn't found the chance. She was a few feet from the front door when her pager went off. She exhaled hard as she unclipped the pager from her waistband and stared at the small message window. Urgent, it read. The word was followed by the hospital's main number. Great, she thought. I won't get even an hour with them in the pool.

Peter came up behind her and looked over her shoulder. "What is it?"

"A hospital call." She didn't hide the disappointment in her voice. "Maybe it's nothing."

Several children, breathless and excited, ran into the foyer and surrounded Hayley and Maddie. Brooke ducked into the nearest bedroom and pulled her cell phone from her purse. "Dr. Brooke Baxter West here. Someone paged me."

The nurse on the other end rattled off the information. One of the patients from their office had been admitted with a staph infection. It looked serious. They wanted a pediatrician to consult. Immediately.

"I'm on my way." Brooke hung up the phone and returned to the foyer.

Peter caught her look and raised his eyebrows. "Well?"

"I have to go." She pursed her lips. Doctoring was the most exhilarating career she could imagine having. But not when it interfered with her family. "I'll be back as quick as I can."

"It's your own fault."

A ribbon of anger wrapped itself around her heart. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Peter shrugged, his eyes distant. "You took the on-call."

Maddie ran up to her. "Natasha wants us to swim, Mommy. Can we, please? Can we right now?"

"Um, baby --- " she looked at Hayley standing a foot away, waiting for her answer --- "why don't you wait till Mommy comes back?"

"We can swim then, too. Please, Mommy? Can we?"

Natasha did a little dance nearby and hugged Brooke. Their families had been friends for years, and Maddie and Natasha were best buddies. "Please, can we swim?" Natasha linked arms with Maddie and the two smiled their best smiles.

Brooke could feel the fight leaving her. So she'd miss out on some of the fun. If she hurried, she'd be back in time to join them in the pool. "Okay." She allowed a slight smile. "But let me talk to Daddy first."

Peter had moved into the living room, and Brooke found him and DeWayne seated side by side, their eyes glued to the television. A baseball playoff game was on, and Aletha had joked that having the party at that time could mean the men might never leave the TV.

Brooke crossed the room and positioned herself between her husband and the big screen. "The girls want to swim." The bag in her hands was bulky, and she set it on the floor between them. "Here's the sunscreen and life jackets. The girls need both before they can go out back."

"Right." Peter leaned sideways so he could see the game. "I got it, honey."

The term of endearment was for DeWayne's benefit, Brooke was sure. She didn't appreciate the way he looked past her to the game. "Peter, I'm serious. Don't let them outside without sunscreen and a life jacket. They're not pool safe."

He shot her a look, one that said she was embarrassing him. Then he yelled out, "Hayley . . . Maddie, come here."

The girls scampered into the room and came up close to Peter. "Yes, Daddy." Hayley spoke first. "Can we swim?"

"Not yet." Peter looked hard at Brooke and unzipped the bag. Quickly and with little finesse, he lathered sunscreen into his hand and then tossed the bottle to Brooke. "Do Hayley."

She needed to leave, but this was more important. Moving as fast as she could, she squeezed the lotion into her hand and positioned herself in front of their little blonde daughter. "Here, sweetie. We don't want a sunburn, right?"

"Right, Mommy."

Brooke rubbed the sunscreen over Hayley's arms and legs, her back and neck, and finally her face. She and Peter finished with the girls at the same time, and Peter tossed her the smaller life jacket. He said nothing as they worked, and that was fine with Brooke.

These days, the less he said the better.

She took the blue-and-aqua life jacket and slipped first one of Hayley's arms, then the other, through the holes. Next she latched the buckles down the front and attached a strap that ran from the back of the vest, between her legs, to the front.

Brooke had researched life jackets, and this style was the safest of all.

When Maddie's vest was on, Peter gave Brooke one last glare. Again because of DeWayne seated beside him, he kept his tone light, almost friendly. "There you go. See you later."

Brooke said nothing. Instead she turned and bid the girls a quick good-bye. She found Aletha and promised to be back as soon as possible. A minute later she was in the car, doing a U-turn toward the hospital. With every mile she felt the distance between herself and her daughters. They were playing in the pool by now, getting used to the water, their little-girl laughter ringing across Aletha's backyard.

She stepped on the gas. She'd make this the quickest call ever and be back before the underwater tea party even began. Then --- other than her relationship with Peter --- everything about the day would play out just like it was supposed to.

******

Peter was grateful for the National League Championship Series on TV.

Because as much as he liked DeWayne and Aletha, the last thing he wanted was to spend that Saturday with a bunch of doctors. Swimming wasn't his thing, and the current series was easily one of the most exciting ever. Besides, most of the guests were Brooke's friends, people he barely knew. The prospect of catching a game with DeWayne had swayed him to come.

Especially after Brooke took the on-call assignment.

What had she been thinking? Of course she'd get called Saturday afternoon; kids needed doctors then most of all. Soccer injuries, illnesses that had brewed all week at school. Insect bites. Weekends were notoriously busy for pediatricians.

The fact that she'd let the other doctor talk her into taking his on call was further proof that she wasn't capable. Not nearly as capable as he'd originally thought her to be. Back when they'd met in med school, her confidence and competence had been part of what attracted him to her. But after the situation with Maddie --- when she'd insisted that their daughter didn't need a specialist --- Peter had seen his wife in a new light.

One that was far from flattering.

An hour passed, and the sound of children came from the other room.

"Okay," he heard Aletha tell them. "Dry off, and we'll have cake."

It was the seventh inning, and his team was down by one. Peter hoped they could keep the cake thing quiet --- at least until the commercial. Not that he didn't like birthdays, but he'd had one of the longest weeks in his life. His patients had needed him more than usual, he'd gone without sleep for two days, and now --- on his day off --- he was spending his Saturday at a kid's birthday party.

At that instant --- with the tying run on third and a power hitter at the plate --- Maddie and Hayley ran into the room. They were shivering, and their life jackets made a trail of dripping water. "Daddy, can you take off our jackets?"

He glanced at them and then back at the TV. "Just a minute, girls. Daddy wants to see this."

The count was 3–0, but this time the pitch was good. The batter cut and connected, but the ball flew over the catcher and into the stands. Foul tip. Strike one.

"Okay." Peter looked at his daughters again. "Now what?"

"We're dripping, Daddy." Maddie took a step forward. "Can you take off our jackets? Please?"

"Sure, pumpkin." He unsnapped the buckles on both vests and helped take them off. "Give them to Natasha's mommy and ask her to hang them near the bathtub."

The next pitch was a perfect strike, one that caught the hitter looking. Full count.

"Daddy . . ." Hayley stepped up. "When's Mommy coming back? We're a'posed to have a tea party with her in the pool."

"Soon, baby." He leaned around her and watched the man at bat belt one out of the park. The moment it was gone, he and DeWayne stood up and slapped their hands in a high five. "That's my boys."

"Bigger than life." DeWayne gave a few nods and sat back down. "On their way, baby. On their way."

"Daddy . . ." Hayley angled her head. "I love you."

"Right." Peter eased himself back to his seat. His eyes returned to the game. "Love you, too."

"Bye." Maddie turned and dashed from the room, her life jacket slung over her arm.

"Bye, Daddy." Hayley was close on her sister's heels.

"Bye." Peter studied the screen and then remembered something. "Don't go outside without those life jackets."

But the girls were already out of the room.

He stared after his girls, and even with the noise from the game he could almost hear Brooke telling him to find them, make sure they understood about the life jackets. But the game was almost over, and anyway, the kids were about to eat cake. He could remind them about the pool in a few minutes.

His mind cleared, and all his attention centered once more on the game. A single and a stolen base, another single and a sacrifice fly. Two-run lead. If they won this game they'd take a three-two lead and the series would be as good as over.

Instead, the pitcher struck out the next two batters, and in the following inning the other team scored two runs to tie it up. Not until the bottom of the ninth inning did his team score the winning run. The game ended, the win forever in the books, and Peter was thirty minutes into a discussion on the merits of switch-hitting and relief pitching when he heard Maddie call him from the other room.

"Daddy! Daddy, quick! Help!"

He held up his hand to DeWayne. "Just a minute." He raised his voice. "In here, baby."

Maddie tore around the corner. Her hair was dry, her eyes round with fear. "Daddy, I can't find Hayley."

Peter was on his feet, his heart suddenly in his throat. "What do you mean?" Fear dug its talons into his back, his neck. It was all he could do to keep from sprinting toward the backyard. "I thought you were eating cake."

"We did. Then we 'cided to go swimming, Daddy." Maddie's mouth hung open. "But Hayley said she wanted to be first to get the tea party ready for Mommy. Now I can't find her --- "

Peter didn't wait for Maddie to finish. He took off for the patio door, not so much because of what Maddie had said but because of the thing she was holding in her hands. The thing Peter had only that instant recognized.

Hayley's life jacket.

CHAPTER TWO

Peter couldn't breathe, couldn't think.

"Hayley!" The word was a shout, a desperate plea that somehow she would answer him. As he ran into the backyard toward the pool, he could feel his body slipping into some sort of robotic mode, where his arms and legs continued to move without cognitive connection whatsoever. "Hayley . . ." He screamed her name this time, breathless, frantic. "Where are you, baby?"

He had the attention of the other guests and a number of adults began running alongside or behind him, all of them headed for the pool. Peter rounded a garden section and a cluster of high bushes, and suddenly he saw the water spread out before him. At first glance Hayley wasn't there. ... Let her be in a bedroom somewhere, in the play area downstairs, anywhere but here, God. Please ... not here, God ...

He had the attention of the other guests and a number of adults began running alongside or behind him, all of them headed for the pool. Peter rounded a garden section and a cluster of high bushes, and suddenly he saw the water spread out before him. At first glance Hayley wasn't there. ... Let her be in a bedroom somewhere, in the play area downstairs, anywhere but here, God. Please ... not here, God ...

Peter was panting now, forcing his feet toward the edge of the pool. Only then did he see the small form at the bottom ... still, unmoving.

"Hayley!"

"Daddy!" Maddie's scream was high and shrill. "She's in the water, Daddy ... get her out!"

One of the parents took Maddie's hand and led her back into the house as her words grew hysterical, "Daddy, get her out! Daddy ..."

Time and understanding and all of existence clashed together in a single moment, a moment when a hundred realizations and actions and memories converged within him.

Hayley was lying at the bottom of the pool, drowning, maybe already dead, and she didn't have her life jacket, and it was his fault because he was watching baseball when he should've been watching her. And Brooke hadn't gotten to say good-bye, and now neither of them would see her baby blue eyes sparkle again, never hear her singsong voice, never know her little-girl arms around their necks after a long day at work.

But she was crying for him, even now, wasn't she? "Daddy, help me! Get me out, Daddy ... save me!" That was her, wasn't it? Speaking to his heart from the watery grave where she lay?

"I'm coming, Hayley ..."

And he was in the water, feeling the weight of his clothes and shoes, and diving down deep, deeper, to the place where her body lay, scooping her up and ordering himself to move faster, thinking how small she felt, how still, how it was taking forever to get her out of the water. And he was racing her toward the surface, rolling her up onto the patio while parents ushered their children back into the house. And Aletha was picking up the outdoor telephone, her eyes wide, expression frozen, and he was out of the pool, dripping wet, one shoe still in the water floating to the bottom. And he was standing over Hayley, staring at her blue face, turning her onto her side so the water would drain from her mouth, and he was screaming, "Call 9-1-1!"

"They're on their way!" Aletha was standing next to DeWayne. "God, help us!" And she was grabbing handfuls of her own hair, her arms and legs shaking.

And Peter was leaning over his younger daughter, remembering how it felt to hold her for the first time, how she'd looked at Kari and Ryan's wedding two weeks ago, how she'd wanted to save the rose petals because they were too pretty to drop on the ground, how she'd looked an hour earlier, decked in her life jacket, an angel smile lighting up her face.

And he was feeling for her pulse and finding nothing. Not a single thready beat. And he was pinching her nose, covering her small mouth with his and blowing a single burst of air into her lungs. Chest compressions. One --- two --- three --- four --- five. Another short breath. More compressions. And he was forcing himself to keep moving. Make her breathe . . . now, God . . . please, God. . . . And he was calculating the time, reminding himself of the details he'd learned in med school. Lack of oxygen for ten minutes, brain damage. Fifteen minutes, irreversible brain damage. Eighteen minutes . . .

And he was staring at his daughter's closed eyes. Cough, Hayley . . . cough or cry or make a sound. God . . . wake her up! More compressions . . . more breaths . . . and he was willing her to move, willing her to do anything but lie there, unmoving on the wet patio while Aletha wept somewhere behind them.

And all of it, the entire scene, came together in that one moment, in the time it took him to draw a single breath.

Sirens wailed in the distance, and Peter sat up, pressing his fingers against the artery on the side of her neck, and this time he felt something. The faintest movement, like breath against his skin. A chance. She had a chance. He passed his hand beneath her nose, but the spot was stone still.

She wasn't breathing.

Panic knocked the wind from him, and it took all his effort to suck in enough oxygen to give her one more short burst of air. God . . . what's happening? Make her move, God, make her breathe. . . .

Paramedics were racing across the patio, asking him to step aside, none of them recognizing him as one of the doctors at the hospital. And they were covering her face with an oxygen mask, lifting her onto a stretcher and explaining that she needed immediate emergency care.

Peter wasn't sure he could stand, wasn't sure he could speak. But one raspy question came from a tormented place in his soul. "Will she . . . will she make it?"

"We're doing our best . . ."

And with that, Peter knew. He knew because it was the same thing he would've said to the parents of one of his patients. Not when recovery was imminent, because that was the sort of news a doctor didn't hold back. Rather it was the type of thing he'd say when the opposite was true.

When his gut feeling told him the patient didn't have a chance.

******

Brooke was beyond frustrated.

The call hadn't been urgent at all, and by the time Brooke arrived at the hospital, the child's diagnosis had been adjusted from staph infection to pneumonia. Basic, bacterial pneumonia. Lung X rays showed the infection was bad enough to warrant hospital admission, so the on-site doctor had advised intravenous antibiotics. Brooke verified that treatment, checked that the child was stable, and signed off on the hospital chart.

She was on her way to her car when another call came, this one from the emergency room. A ten-year-old boy had broken his arm at a soccer game; a piece of the bone had punctured the skin. Brooke gritted her teeth and hurried back, confirmed initial treatment, checked the pain-medication doses, and the boy's vital signs. She was finished in twenty minutes.

"Finally . . . ," she muttered as she headed for her car one more time. The party would be halfway over by the time she got there. The birthday song would be sung, cake cut and eaten. The underwater tea party, long over. The girls would be tired of swimming, ready to warm up inside.

Brooke blew a strand of hair off her forehead as she started her car. Peter was right; it was her own fault. She could've turned down the request. Someone else would've taken the on-call duty if she'd held her ground. Her family had to come first.

She glanced at her watch. Ninety minutes had passed since she'd left the party. Peter's game would be over by now, so he'd be away from the television, maybe chatting with the other parents sitting around the pool. At least she hoped so. But then, he hadn't shown interest in any of their friends lately. Since Maddie's diagnosis and treatment for her bladder condition, Peter had been distant to everyone.

Mostly to her.

As she drove back to the party his voice filled her mind.

"Don't rely on your training, Brooke. . . . Whether it's our kids or one of your patients, talk to the specialists. Don't get too relaxed, Brooke. . . . You're still learning how to do this medical thing, Brooke. . . . Maybe you should practice medicine part-time, Brooke. What if I'm the family doctor, and you stay home with the girls, Brooke? You're a better mother than a doctor, Brooke."

His comments were a constant series of put-downs.

Brooke clenched her jaw. How dare he think his abilities superior to hers? Besides, the girls were fine, flourishing under the care of their nanny when they weren't in preschool. She had three full days off, didn't she? How many working mothers could say that?

Her irritation with Peter was still churning in her gut when half a mile from the party, a speeding ambulance came from behind and passed her. Brooke shuddered. No matter that she was a doctor, ambulance sirens always made her heart skip a beat. The screaming noise meant one thing: Someone, somewhere was in the midst of an emergency, a heart attack or a car accident or some other life-threatening incident. For the briefest moment, in less time than it took to blink, Brooke wondered if the ambulance was headed for the pool party. But just as quickly the thought was gone. Of course it wasn't. The place was full of doctors; the children would be fine. Watched over, protected, and safe. No one would've let anything happen to them. Unless the ambulance was for one of the adults.

Then, like that, the crazy thought was gone.

Of all the homes in Bloomington, Indiana, the ambulance was certainly not headed for DeWayne and Aletha's place. That was irrational mother-speak happening in her head, the voice that came up and caused a moment of worry whenever the possibility of danger existed. No matter how remote.

As she turned onto Aletha's street, Brooke was thinking about Peter again, but then something caught her eye and her foot froze on the gas pedal. Instantly she felt the blood drain from her face. The ambulance was up ahead, its lights still flashing.

Parked in front of her friend's house.

Dear God, not one of the children, please. . . .

Her heart slammed against her chest as she snapped into action. Her car flew past the five houses that separated her from the ambulance. Ten feet away, she hit the brakes and tore out of the car just as a cluster of paramedics came through the front door carrying a stretcher between them, and on the stretcher a figure.

The small figure of a child.

One of the medics held an oxygen mask to the child's face, and in the group of people behind the stretcher was . . .

Brooke grabbed her throat. "Peter!" She ran across the yard, her feet moving only half as fast as she wanted them to go.

His eyes met hers and she knew, knew before she reached the stretcher, before anyone said a word to her that the child being taken to the ambulance was hers.

He jogged around the paramedics and came to her, grabbed hold of her shoulder. "It's Hayley . . . " He was pasty white and trembling, beads of sweat lined across his forehead.

Shock, Brooke thought. He's in shock. But what had he said about Hayley? She knit her brow and gave a quick shake of her head. "What . . . what happened?"

The medics were moving past her and one of them stopped and put his hand on Brooke's arm. "Are you the mother?"

The mother? Brooke wanted to blink and be back in the car, back on the road on the way to the party when the idea that the ambulance might be headed for Aletha and DeWayne's house was nothing more than a random irrational thought.

The mother . . . the mother . . .

"Yes . . ." She jerked away from Peter and fell in alongside the moving stretcher. There, for the first time, she got a clear look at her daughter, motionless on the stretcher. She was blue. With frantic movements the paramedic continued working the oxygen bag. Terror flooded Brooke's veins as she kept walking. "What happened?"

"She fell . . . in the pool." Peter was back at her side, breathless and keeping up with them step for step. "She . . . didn't have her life jacket."

Brooke's mouth fell open, and for half a second she stopped and stared at Peter. "What?"

Peter moved his jaw, but no words came out.

The paramedics were moving on without her, so Brooke spun away from him and caught up with the stretcher.

They reached the ambulance, and the first medic flung open the back doors. "Okay." His tone was urgent, his eyes darting from Peter to Brooke. "One parent can come."

"Me." Brooke's response was out almost before the paramedic finished his sentence. She shot a look at Peter. "Stay with Maddie."

Peter took a step back and swayed some. "We'll be right behind you."

"Call my parents."

He nodded, but she barely noticed. She was already climbing into the back of the ambulance, positioning herself next to Hayley, opposite the place where the paramedic was working at a feverish pace.

Another medic shut the doors and the ambulance sped off, sirens blaring.

"Hayley, baby, it's Mommy." Brooke took her daughter's limp hand. "Wake up, baby . . . please."

She gave Hayley's fingers a squeeze, but the child lay unmoving on the stretcher.

Brooke blinked and looked about the inside of the ambulance. This couldn't be happening. It was a dream, a nightmare, right? She wasn't really in the back of a speeding ambulance, watching a uniformed man hold a bag over Hayley's face, was she?

Spots filled Brooke's vision, moving in slow, lazy circles, and a tingling began in her fingertips and forearms. Her breathing grew shallow. Shock, just like Peter. She was going into shock. "No!" She shouted the word. Then twice she blinked, hard and deliberate.

No, she was a doctor, not a victim. Shock wasn't an option --- not now.

Her training kicked in and she stared at Hayley, studying her, going over the facts the way she would if Hayley were someone else's daughter. Hayley was here beside her, and they were on their way to the hospital because Hayley had drowned; wasn't that it? Yes. Yes, those were the facts.

But Brooke had no information, and suddenly she was desperate to know. She shifted her gaze hard and fast to the paramedic. "How long --- " Brooke fought to form the words --- "how long was she under?"

"No one knows for sure. Ten minutes, maybe more."

Ten minutes! Ten minutes while everyone at the party did what? Sat inside and never missed her? And what about Peter? Where was he, watching baseball? While Hayley wandered around the patio deck by herself? While she fell into the pool?

A flash of images tore across Brooke's consciousness. Hayley making desperate little strokes for the side of the pool, panicking, trying to remember what she'd been taught about kicking her feet and blowing bubbles. Brooke could see her, paddling faster, harder as she began to sink.

She would've screamed for her daddy, for Maddie, for anyone who would help her out of the pool. But then she would've needed air, and that first giant gulp would've filled her lungs with water until finally she couldn't remember how to scream or paddle or kick at all, until her mind gave in to the numbing darkness and her body began to drift to the bottom of the pool.

Brooke tightened her grip on Hayley's hand and the images stopped. Save her, God . . . don't let her die. . . . Nausea gripped her, and Brooke looked around for a bag in case she had to throw up. When she didn't see one, she closed her eyes again, just for a moment. No, she wouldn't be sick, not now. Hayley needed her; she could throw up later. She released her daughter's fingers and stroked her feathery blonde hair. "Hayley, baby, it's Mommy."

The paramedic continued his efforts. Checking her pulse every few minutes, maintaining the rhythmic squeezing of the oxygen bag.

Only then did Brooke notice the swelling in Hayley's hands and fingers, the way even her face looked bloated. The worse off a drowning victim was, the more swelling she would have. This time panic slapped her in the face, and she had to know, had to ask the question burning inside her.

"Is she going to . . ." Brooke ran her fingers along Hayley's tanned arm and found the medic's eyes. This was the question patients asked her, but now she was asking it. She pressed her free hand against her stomach and ordered herself to finish speaking. "Will she live?"

"We have a pulse." The paramedic was breathless, sweat dripping down the sides of his face. "But she's not breathing on her own."

A lump formed in Brooke's throat. The medic's information was obvious. If Hayley were breathing on her own, he wouldn't be giving her artificial respiration. But hearing it, listening to the man's words as he gave the grim report, made everything about the moment more real.

How damaged was her brain, and how soon before they could determine the extent of her injuries and the first step back to normal health and . . . ?

She had a hundred other questions, but no need to ask even one of them. She was a doctor; she knew the answers. Depending on the length of time Hayley was underwater, her brain could already be dead. If it wasn't, if a flicker of life remained, she could spend the rest of her life in a hospital bed hooked to tubing. Beyond that lay several dozen other possibilities.

Hayley could be brain damaged, unable to eat or walk or talk, or she might retain all of those actions, but in a slow, partial sort of way. Just one option was acceptable. And that would only happen if somehow her brain had escaped any damage at all. If Hayley hadn't been under as long as they thought and if she could get past the initial trauma, then maybe --- just maybe --- she would come back to them, back to the same way she'd been that morning.

But Brooke knew the odds of that as well. She'd studied pediatrics after all. Once a victim could no longer breathe on his own, tests weren't needed to determine whether brain damage had occurred.

It had; it was that simple.

The sirens grew louder, shrieking at her in a sort of pattern that mocked her and made her crazy. It was all her fault, wasn't it? She shouldn't have taken the on-call assignment. If she'd been there, Hayley never would've had a moment alone by the pool. She wouldn't have had a moment alone anywhere. Brooke wouldn't have allowed it.

But Peter . . .

Her own guilt dimmed as she pictured her husband, stuck to the living-room chair, watching the baseball game. As much as it was her fault, it was more Peter's. She'd asked him to watch the girls, to keep an eye on them and make sure they stayed in their life jackets.

She slid her hand around Hayley's again. "Baby . . . wake up, please, honey." Her voice was quieter, less certain. If Hayley couldn't breathe, she definitely couldn't hear sounds. Hayley wasn't there at all, not really. She was trapped in another world, locked in a distant cell where her release depended on one thing only.

Her brain's ability to function.

"We're almost there." The paramedic glanced out the side window and kept his hand on the bag.

He didn't need to tell her that every second counted. She nodded, her eyes locked on Hayley's face. Move, baby. Show me you're still there. . . .

But her daughter remained motionless, and Brooke thought of the life jackets again. Neither girl could take them off without help, and a mountain of rage began to form in Brooke's soul. She had asked Peter to leave the jackets on, so that meant someone else must've removed them.

But who? Not Aletha or any of the other mothers. None of them would've taken that risk. And Hayley and Maddie never would've asked one of the other fathers. The mountain grew larger, and a picture began to take shape in her mind, one that imagined Hayley and Maddie running up to Peter and asking him to take off the life jackets. Maybe so they could play upstairs with the other girls or so they could sit more easily on the kitchen chairs while they ate cake.

If Peter had taken off the life jackets, he would've stayed with the girls, stayed with them until they were ready to go back outside or at least stayed in the kitchen with the other adults. That way he would've seen the girls heading back outside.

And if he hadn't . . .

If he'd done nothing more than sit in front of the baseball game talking to DeWayne . . .

The ambulance jerked into the hospital driveway and tore up to the emergency-room entrance. Someone from the outside yanked the doors open, and the medic joined two others in a flurry of activity as they removed the stretcher and headed inside the building.

Brooke stayed with them, praying with every step, her rubber-soled tennis shoes padding out a muted beat on the hospital linoleum that sounded like Please, God . . . please, God . . . please, God . . . please, God. . . .

No other words came to mind, nothing she could force herself to say. The spots were back, and Brooke stared at the stretcher being pushed along in front of her. What were they doing here? And why was Hayley at the hospital, sound asleep? And how come no one was trying to wake her up?

Terror seized her, stopping her, doubling her over for a few intense seconds. She stared at the scuffed hospital floor and then lifted her head. Hayley was getting away from her, hurrying off on the stretcher without her.

"Wait!" Brooke straightened, urged her legs to keep moving.

"You okay?" One of the medics fell behind the group and held his hand out to her.

Brooke took it and felt herself moving forward, felt her feet pick up speed as she dropped the medic's hand and caught up with the stretcher again. Please, God . . . please, God . . . please, God. . . . "Hayley!" She had no air, but she found a way to shout the words building within her. "I'm here, baby."

The spots faded again and she remembered where she was, what was happening. They were trying to save Hayley's life. She forced her feet to keep moving, keep taking steps until they took her to one of the private emergency rooms. Don't let her die, God . . . don't let her die.

"Get a tube in her." The doctor's voice was familiar, but Brooke didn't look at him, didn't look anywhere but at her daughter.

"Hayley . . ." Brooke's whisper was lost in the chaos of emergency personnel working to get her little girl breathing. "Hayley." She touched Hayley's matted blonde hair, and her thoughts ran together.

What if Hayley died? What if she wasn't okay? What if she was never the same again? Brooke ran her tongue over her lower lip and tried to swallow. What about herself? What if she couldn't take another minute watching Hayley lying motionless on the stretcher? And where was Peter? Where had he been when this happened?

Wherever he'd been, he'd taken his eyes off her, let her drown. This whole thing was his fault; it had to be.

He probably took off the girls' life jackets and forgot to put them back on. That had to be it. And if they lost Hayley because of his carelessness, then yes, it was his fault. Even if she had taken the on-call shift. As the medical team raced about the room, the realization became an understanding, and Brooke became certain about one more thing.

If she lost Hayley because of Peter's carelessness, their marriage wouldn't stand a chance. Because never, not as along as she lived, would she forgive him.

Excerpted from REJOICE © Copyright 2004 by Karen Kingsbury and Gary Smalley. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

Rejoice
by by Karen Kingsbury and Gary Smalley

  • Genres: Christian, Contemporary Fiction
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
  • ISBN-10: 0842386874
  • ISBN-13: 9780842386876