“I’m sorry, but he’s basically brain-dead. . . . ”
It was my fault Jamie was lying so still and pale on the hospital bed, connected to a variety of tubes that kept his heart pumping and the oxygen circulating to his vital organs. I had not taken my ex husband seriously when he’d made threats to kill both Jamie and myself.
“Ma’am, there’s someone here to talk to you about Jamie’s organs.”
Jamie’s organs—was he not a person any longer? I stifled a sob and glared at the gentle-mannered nurse. “Can you just leave me alone for a little while? I—I want to say good-bye.”
“Of course. Take as much time as you need.”
The ICU door swished closed. I balled the hospital blanket in my hand and squeezed my eyes closed, hoping to stall the scalding tears begging to flow. I’d cried buckets in the last few days. How could there be any tears left? And how could I ever forgive myself? Jamie had been a gentle, decent man, the first decent man I’d ever really known—and I had gotten him killed.
My arm throbbed where the first bullet had grazed me, but I welcomed the pain in some perverse way. I should have been in more pain. I should have been the one lying on the hospital bed, waiting for someone to unplug the machines so my body could join my soul.
But Jamie had proven himself a hero to the very end, leaping in front of me and catching the second bullet in the head. A sob rose in my throat as I thought back to the first day we’d met, and how reluctant I was to believe he was the great guy he seemed to be. It had taken weeks for him to convince me to go out on a simple movie date.
I guess I just couldn’t believe that someone like Jamie would be interested in me. I was not only the single mom of a rowdy six-year-old boy, I had an ordinary job of managing a coffee shop.
The day we met, the espresso machine had caught on fire, filling the small shop with smoke. I had to make sure the staff and customers got out before I worried about my own skin. As a result, I was choking and coughing by the time the fire department arrived.
The old saying, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, isn’t always true, as Jamie found out when he sprayed the machine with the fire extinguisher. The cord had melted, creating a nasty, acrid stench, but nothing else had burned. Jamie led me outside and gave me oxygen from a portable tank.
Through my stinging, watery eyes, I looked into the most beautiful, kindest face I’d ever seen. I remembered thinking immediately that I must have inhaled too much smoke, because I could never trust my own instincts. This man couldn’t be real, and if he was, well, I just assumed that he was happily married to some lucky woman I would have loved to trade places with.
He seemed to read my mind, because he smiled at me and said, “You don’t see a ring on my finger because I’m not married.”
Had I been so obvious? Thank goodness my face was already red from all the coughing I’d been doing. “I wasn’t—I didn’t—”
His smile widened. “That’s okay. I was checking you out, too.”
His confession floored me. I groaned, realizing I’d scraped my hair into a careless ponytail and skipped everything but mascara that morning. My son had been nearly impossible to get out of bed, so I had been running behind. I knew I looked a mess, and now on top of everything my eyes were red and I smelled like melted rubber.
Not exactly my idea of a romantic moment. But then, what was I thinking? This guy was a firefighter. He probably had a sane, normal family with two parents and several irritating but loveable siblings. He most likely had never been arrested for DUI or had to fight for custody of his child.
Actually, he probably didn’t have a child. The thought caused me to blurt out foolishly, “I have a son. His name is Kevin. He’s six.” Now he would back away, stop smiling at me as if found me irresistible and interesting. Sure enough, his smile faltered for a second.
“So you have a son. Does that mean you have a husband, too?”
He was staring at my hand. I’d hocked my wedding rings long ago to buy Kevin new school clothes. But even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been wearing them.
“No, I’m not married. I’ve been divorced for six months.”
“Oh.” He glanced around us at the people milling outside the café. “I guess that explains your cautious expression.”
I hadn’t been aware of appearing to look anything short of adoring. His comment went a long way in making me feel less foolish.
“Feel better now?” He smiled again and helped me to my feet. “It’ll be a couple of hours before anyone can go inside. What time do you get off work?”
I brushed at my soot-covered apron. “I’m the assistant manager. I can’t go until I get this mess cleared up and my manager gets here. She doesn’t come in until five.”
“How about dinner then?”
I was certain he was joking until I stared into his eyes.
“Wow. He really did a number on you, didn’t he?”
He was sweet. He was cute and he was kind—but I didn’t know him. I wasn’t a good judge of men and I wasn’t about to get involved with another one until I could trust myself to be smarter about them. When I first met David, I’d believed he was all those things. I had to learn the hard way, and I wasn’t in any hurry to go down that same road again.
The handsome firefighter stuck out his hand, taking my rejection gracefully. “Well, if you change your mind, my name is Jamie Williams. I’m in the phone book.”
After that day, I saw him nearly every day. He came into the café for lunch and again for a coffee break. Sometimes he came alone, sometimes with friends. They were all friendly and good tippers, but I remained wary. The fact that I liked him made me even more afraid of going out with him.
It was Kevin’s reaction to Jamie that finally made me cave. He was at the café with me because my babysitter had the flu. I put him at a table toward the rear with a coloring book and crayons. When Jamie and his friends came in around three, I saw Kevin’s face light up at the sight of their uniforms.
Jamie spotted Kevin right away. I guess it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Kevin was my son, since he was sitting alone and looked like a small replica of me, with his blond hair and blue eyes.
“You must be Kevin,” Jamie said, approaching the table where Kevin sat.
My son’s mouth dropped open. I had to smother a laugh at his awed expression.
“Are you a fireman?” Kevin asked.
Dropping into the chair opposite my son, Jamie shrugged. “Yeah, I’m a fireman. Have you figured out what you want to be when you grow up?”
I guess it’s no surprise that Kevin said he wanted to be a fireman. The amazing fact was that it was really true.
Jamie then proved that he wasn’t above manipulation to get what he wanted, but I even managed to find that flaw endearing. “Think you can help me convince your mom to have dinner with me?”
Kevin studied him for a moment, his face pensive. I knew he was thinking about his dad and how unhappy he had made me. “She doesn’t go out much,” he said gravely. “She said she likes spending time with me better than she does anyone else.”
“Well, I can see why,” Jamie said, his beautiful brown eyes twinkling. “I’ll bet you’re a lot of fun, and I bet you help your mom out a lot, too.”
“I sure do. Don’t I, Mom?”
I nodded, wondering what Jamie would say next. Would he push it? Part of me wanted to go out with him; another part of me was scared to death at the thought.
And then Jamie said the magic words: “Of course I’d want you to come along. Do you like pizza?”
Kevin’s blue eyes rounded. “Sure, I do! You mean I can come, too?”
Jamie turned to look at me then, and I simply melted beneath the pleading look in his eyes. As foolish as it sounds, I think I fell in love with him right then and there. But despite my mushy feelings, I was determined to use my head this time.
“All right . . . we’ll go out with you.” I emphasized the word we. “One date, and we can’t stay out late. Kevin has an early bedtime, even on the weekends, so it doesn’t mess up his schedule during the school week.”
My first date with Jamie will always be the most memorable. It was so much fun, and Kevin literally hung on his every word. My son had behaved very differently when we’d been living with David. Kevin had been wary of opening his mouth for fear of getting yelled at. Now he seemed to know instinctively that Jamie was different, because he rattled on and on about school and sports and friends until I gave up trying to get a word in edgewise.
My time came later, however, when we got back to my apartment and I put Kevin to bed. Jamie came in to say goodnight and they talked for another fifteen minutes.
Finally, Jamie and I were alone. I poured us each a glass of soda and we settled into the tiny living room. Without preamble, I began telling Jamie the story of my life—and I didn’t skimp on the ugly details, either. I wanted to be honest with him, for him to know my background, even if it meant he could decide I was carrying too much baggage for a relationship.
“My dad caught Mom in bed with another man and nearly beat her to death. When she got out of the hospital, he was gone. He had cleared out their savings account and sold off our furniture. Mom left me with my Uncle Tim, told me she was going to look for a job, and never came back.”
Jamie wasn’t smiling when he asked softly, “Did your uncle file a missing person’s report?”
I took a sip of my soda and shook my head. “I think he believed she had just run off.”
“What do you think happened to her?”
I stared at my feet, hesitating to admit something I had never told anyone else. But there was just something about Jamie that inspired trust. “I think she went looking for my dad . . . and when she found him, he killed her.”
When his hand covered mine, I stiffened, thinking he would make his move. There was no way I was going to sleep with him on the first date, especially with Kevin in the other room. I didn’t relax until he removed his hand.
He settled back on the couch. “How old were you when you got married?”
“Fifteen. Aunt Jenny and I didn’t get along, so when David asked me to run off with him, I did. We got married in Vegas and went to live in Boulder. I had Kevin a year later.
“Marrying David was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made,” I added. “He stayed drunk most of the time and had trouble keeping a job. We got kicked out of so many apartments, I lost count. He blamed it on me, said I was holding him back. I don’t know why I stayed with him as long as I did. I guess because of Kevin. Now I realize that staying with David probably hurt Kevin more.”
I stared into my empty soda glass, lowering my voice. “Whenever Kevin hears someone yelling, he starts shaking and can’t stop. David scared him bad sometimes.”
“Did he ever hit him?” Jamie asked, his voice thick with disgust.
“No, but he did a lot of threatening. Sometimes I think that’s just as bad.”
“But he did more than just threaten you, didn’t he?”
“Yes. At first it was just a push or a slap in the face. Eventually, he blackened my eye. When he broke my wrist, I took Kevin and left him. I came back here and stayed with some friends until I found a job. David came after us and threatened to kill me. I had to get a restraining order against him.”
I looked at him then and saw genuine sorrow and something like . . . admiration. Nobody had ever looked at me like that before. Seeing that look compelled me to be completely honest with him. I pointed to the half-dozen locks on my apartment door.
“You know why I have so many locks? Because David swore to me that he’d kill me.”
“How can you say that when you don’t even know him?” Part of me wished I had Jamie’s confidence. It was hell living with the worry that David lurked around every corner, just biding his time.
I should have trusted those instincts instead of letting Jamie convince me that I didn’t have anything to worry about. But I wanted to believe him, so I did.
“He’s just trying to scare you,” he said. “I’ve seen his type before. He doesn’t want to go to jail, but he wants you scared.”
“Well, it worked, and you might as well know that if he is watching me and sees me with you, he might come after you, too.”
“He won’t.” Jamie moved a little closer and stared deeply into my eyes. “I’m not afraid of him, and if you’re trying to scare me off by telling me this, it isn’t working. I want to see you again.”
“Why would you want to go out with a single mother with a crazed ex husband stalking her? I’m sure there are plenty of girls—”
Whatever else I was going to say got cut off because Jamie kissed me. It was a full-blown, lip-locking, passionate kiss, as if he’d been waiting to do it from the moment we met.
After making me forget my own name, he settled back and began to tell me about himself.
It turned out that I was completely wrong in my guesswork about him: Both his parents were dead and he had no siblings. He was virtually alone in the world, like Kevin and me. That fact made me feel even closer to him.
“Now that I’ve told you about myself, I can answer your question.”
I tried not to look perplexed. The truth was, I had honestly forgotten my question.
“The reason I want to see you again is because I think you’re one hell of a brave woman. You’re beautiful, smart, and a good mother.”
I blushed and stared at the carpet.
“I like you, Tiffany. I like you a lot.”
It was a storybook romance. Jamie burrowed into our lives and refused to budge. We went on numerous family outings. We went to the zoo, the museum, a concert, and even to an art gallery. Sometimes we cooked at my apartment or at his, and often we ate out.
Not once in the eight months that we dated did Jamie ask me to leave Kevin with a babysitter. In fact, I’m ashamed to say I was the first one to suggest it.
We had been seeing each other for four months. Jamie hadn’t pushed me to sleep with him, but our kisses were getting hot and heavy. I wanted to make love with him, to know what it felt like being loved by a man like him. David had been my only lover, so I was naturally nervous about not living up to Jamie’s expectations.
It turned out that he was just as nervous as I was. The first time we made love, we made a full confession about our unjustified fears afterward as we lay in each other’s arms. We laughed together, and all was well.
The months went by. Jamie didn’t turn into a monster. In fact, he never lost his temper or got irritated with Kevin or me, and Lord knows there were times when Kevin stretched his patience. We were like a happy little family, but I was still fearful of waking up and finding out that I was dreaming. I just couldn’t accept within myself that I was finally getting a taste of happiness.
Then came the night I’d been waiting for. I had suspected that Jamie and Kevin shared a secret when my son didn’t fuss about staying with Mrs. Cumberland, an elderly lady who lived upstairs from our apartment. She babysat once in a while for me; in return I went shopping for her twice a week.
By the time Jamie and I reached his apartment, I was bursting with curiosity. He opened the door and turned on the light, then stood aside for me to enter.
He’d pulled the kitchen table into his living room. Beautiful red roses glowed in the candlelight. There were cloth napkins and real china on the set table, and something smelled delicious.
I regarded his enigmatic smile curiously. “What’s the occasion?”
“You’ll see.” He seated me at the table, then disappeared into the kitchen. When he returned, he was carrying a platter with two steamed lobsters and a bowl of salad.
All through dinner, Jamie kept staring at me. The thought that he might propose did enter my mind, but I quickly pushed it away. I didn’t want to get my hopes up and have them dashed if his surprise turned out to be a job promotion or something a little less thrilling than a marriage proposal.
Finally, the delicious dinner was over. When he suggested dessert, I groaned and cried uncle. I watched, my heart bursting with love, as he came around to my chair and got down on one knee. Reaching into his pants pocket, he withdrew a ring box.
The doorbell rang before he could open it. His dismayed expression made me giggle. I was nearly delirious with joy as it was, so it didn’t take much to make me giggle.
“Hold that thought,” he said in a growling voice that made me laugh harder. He set the ring on the table and went to answer the door, muttering beneath his breath. “If this is one of the guys playing a joke, I’m gonna kick some major butt. They knew what I had planned . . . .”
When I heard the jeering, nasty sound of David’s voice, my blood ran cold. All I could think about was protecting Jamie from that pond scum. I leapt from my chair and ran to the door, sliding in front of Jamie so that I could shield him. Would I have taken a bullet for him? Without a doubt.
But I didn’t get that opportunity.
David’s upper lip lifted in a sneer as he glared at me. “You whore! You couldn’t wait to start hopping into bed with other men after you got rid of me, could you?”
I gasped as he withdrew a gun and pointed it at me.
“I told you I was going to kill you, didn’t I?”
He came forward, backing us into the room. The gun exploded just as Jamie threw me aside. I felt a searing pain in my arm, but I wasn’t concerned for myself. I had to get in front of Jamie, had to protect him.
I threw myself forward, bringing my arm up to knock the gun from David’s hand. The weapon went off on the way up. I remember feeling so relieved that I’d thwarted his shot.
Then I heard a thumping noise behind me. I turned to see Jamie lying on the floor. Blood was already spilling from his head where the bullet had entered his brain. I started screaming, my grief making me fearless. I threw myself upon David, teeth and nails bared for battle. The force of my attack knocked him backward through the open doorway. I leapt upon him, pummeling his face, screaming over and over. If I could have killed him, I would have. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have.
Strong arms yanked me away from David. Then another pair of arms held me tight so that I couldn’t break free. I twisted around, still screaming, trying to get at the evil man who had shot my love. David lay pinned to the floor by another man, a man I’d never seen before. Later I discovered that it was Jamie’s neighbor, who’d promptly responded to the first gunshot.
The cops arrived and handcuffed David, taking him away. When the ambulance arrived, they found me on the floor, cradling Jamie’s bloody head and crooning to him as someone would try to soothe a sick child. I don’t remember much after that until hours later when the doctor came out to tell me that Jamie was brain-dead. The bullet had caused massive damage, and only the machines were keeping him alive.
Now, four days after the violent shooting, I was faced with saying good-bye to the only decent man I’d ever known. I know we would have been happy together.
Behind me I heard the quiet swoosh of the door opening again. I don’t know how much time had passed since the nurse had told me they wanted to talk to me about Jamie and the fact that he was an organ donor. I knew it was just a courtesy, and that since I wasn’t married to Jamie I really had no legal say in the matter.
If I had, I would have said no with a capital “N”.
I composed myself and wiped the tears from my cheeks before facing the woman. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Your fiancé was a brave man, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. He was a firefighter.” My voice broke. With tremendous will power, I managed to regain my composure again.
“I know this is a terrible time for you, Ms. ReNally, but I have to talk to you about Mr. Williams’ heart. We have a recipient, and we don’t have much time.”
Grief and pain made me hateful. “So you want me to just yank out the plug, is that it?”
The nurse was trying to be patient. “We just want you to think about what Mr. Williams would want you to do. He has an opportunity to save someone else’s life. Do you think that is what he’d want to do?”
This woman is a ruthless manipulator, I thought with unjustified bitterness. But choking back a sob, I said, “Yes, that’s what he would want.”
“I’ll leave you to say good-bye, then, Ms. ReNally. You’re making the right decision.”
A few moments later, I kissed Jamie for the last time and left the room. Outside in the hall, the organ donor coordinator and Jamie’s doctor talked in hushed tones. I took a deep breath and approached them.
“Okay.” It was one of the hardest words I’ve ever spoken. “You can take his heart now.”
The doctor shot me an approving look and began issuing orders. “Get the recipient into the operating room pronto and alert the team. We need to start the transplant immediately.”
I hesitated, my heart torn. I wanted to stay with Jamie, but I didn’t want to see them pull the plug. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave, so I stood around as the activity around me became intense. They wheeled Jamie out with the machines still connected, taking him down the hall toward the operating room. Feeling my stomach churning with anxiety, I slowly followed.
I had a burning desire to see who was getting his brave, sweet heart. Hopefully, it was someone worthy, someone who was at least one-tenth the man he had been.
Waiting outside the operating room doors, I stood watch for the recipient. Finally, the team came down the hall pushing a gurney. I stepped aside as they started to push through, staring down at the person on the table.
It was a woman. Then I noticed her wrists were handcuffed to the bed railings. Jolted by the sight, I grabbed the arm of the nearest nurse, bringing the whole team to a halt.
“Why is she handcuffed?” I asked.
The nurse jerked her head at the patient. “She’s from some prison in Indiana.”
“This is the heart patient that’s going to get a transplant?” I had to be mistaken.
“Yes, ma’am—and just in the nick of time, too. They said she probably would have died before the night was up.”
I was shocked speechless. By the time I found my tongue, they had disappeared into the operating room.
Jamie’s heart was going to a convict? I couldn’t believe it! When they first approached me about his organs, I had visions of him saving the life of some young mother, or a teenager with his or her whole life ahead of them, or even a grandmother. That would have been noble and fitting.
But a criminal? Dear God, what was this world coming to? How many innocent, hardworking people had they passed up to give Jamie’s heart to a convict? And I had absolutely no say in the matter.
Neither did Jamie—which prompted me to consider how he might have felt if he knew his heart would be going to a convict. Reluctantly, I had to concede that Jamie’s softhearted ways far exceeded my own. He would probably have said that everyone deserved a second chance.
Still, my gut churned and my throat burned as I paced the waiting room. There was nothing left to hold me there, yet I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I wanted to know the outcome of the transplant. I wanted to meet this woman, learn more about her in order to assure myself that, in some way, she was deserving of this generous gift.
I wanted to know the person who would be walking around with Jamie’s heart. As his love, his fiancé, didn’t I at least have that right?
I sat down in one of the comfortable recliners in the waiting room, biting my lip. Two hours had passed. How long did it take to do a transplant? Slowly, I looked around the room at the other people. They all wore strained, pensive looks.
Except for one young girl who looked to be in her late teens or early twenties. She was crying softly, big tears rolling down her cheeks. I felt compelled to approach her, to try and comfort her. It’s what Jamie would have done, had he been alive.
Grabbing a couple of tissues from one of the dozens of boxes sitting around, I gave them to the girl and sat down beside her. She wore a nose ring, and another ring through her eyebrow. Her hair was straight and long, streaked with shades of copper and brown.
She wore metallic blue nail polish on her short nails. I could see where she had bitten several of them down to the quick. The sight of them gave me the opening I needed.
“I used to bite my nails,” I said.
She sniffed and glared at her nails. “I haven’t bitten mine in a long time. I guess worrying will do that to you.”
“You have a loved one being operated on?” I asked, immediately thinking it was a stupid question. Why else would the girl be sitting in the surgery waiting room?
“Yeah.” She shot me a quick, bashful glance. “My mom. She got real sick last week, so they moved her up on the transplant list.”
Her words made my skin crawl. “What—what’s wrong with her?”
“She’s got something weird wrong with her heart. I can never remember what it’s called.”
The girl was staring at me strangely. I’m sure I looked as if I’d seen a ghost.
Or the devil.
“Your—your mom’s having a heart transplant?”
“Yeah. The state’s paying for the transplant.”
“She’s in prison?”
Her jaw dropped. “How did you know?”
I swallowed hard, reminding myself that she wasn’t responsible for anything. “It’s my boyfriend’s heart she’s getting. He was a hero—a firefighter. He saved my life at the cost of his own.”
We both fell silent, as if we didn’t know quite what to say after that. Finally, the girl pushed her hair behind her ears and looked me full in the face. She looked determined about something.
“My mom didn’t deserve to go to prison,” she said. It was obviously important to her that she convince me. “It was self-defense, but she had a lousy lawyer.”
“No, you obviously don’t,” the girl snapped, her cheeks flaming. “My stepfather was beating her. He beat her all the time, and he . . . he raped me. When Mom found out about it, she packed our stuff and told him she was filing charges against him. He went after her, hitting her with his fists. She grabbed the cookie jar and smashed it over his head. It killed him.”
She tossed her head, her eyes throwing sparks, daring me to say one bad thing about her mother. “I’m glad it killed him. He would never have left us alone.” Her hair fell forward as she hung her head, her voice dropping to a whisper. “I just wished I had killed him instead of Mom. She’s too sick to be in prison.”
By slow degrees, my anger and disgust faded. I felt a tremendous relief, knowing the person getting Jamie’s heart wasn’t as undeserving as I’d first thought. And then pity quickly followed.
“Were you there when it happened?” I asked gently.
“Yeah. I was in my bedroom, packing. I came running when I heard Mom screaming. You should have seen her. Her face was bleeding where he’d cut her with his ring, and he’d knocked out two of her teeth. She couldn’t even see out of one eye. I called the cops, but by the time they got there, he was dead. It was either him or her. I’m just glad it was him.”
“Me, too.” I realized that it was the truth. I could still remember my father beating my mother, could still hear the echo of her terrified, pain-filled screams. I would never, ever forget that. Now this young girl would be haunted by the same screams, tortured by the realization that her mother was paying for a crime that should have been ruled self-defense.
“Hey, I’m Cara. What’s your name?”
Through a blur of tears, I smiled at her. “Tiffany. Want to get some lunch?”
When we returned to the waiting room, a surgery nurse came out to let Cara know that the surgery was going well. I stayed with her until her mom came out of surgery.
The transplant was a success.
A week after I said good-bye to Jamie, I got a call from an insurance company. He had named me as his beneficiary in a sizeable life insurance. I cried all day and throughout the night, pouring out my grief and gratitude until my lungs ached.
The next morning I woke up with a new resolve. I knew exactly what I was going to do with part of the insurance money. I was going to hire Cara’s mom a lawyer and try to get an appeal for a new trial.
In the meantime, I made a down payment on a small house and invited Cara to stay with us. She’d been living at the home of a distant cousin since her mother’s incarceration.
Cara turned out to be the little sister I never had, as well as a big sister to Kevin. Together we worked with the lawyer to present a case with new facts and a better chance of getting her mom released from prison.
The trial is coming up soon, and we are hopeful that Cara and her mom will soon be reunited. Am I helping her mom because she has Jamie’s heart? I prefer to think that some of his unselfishness rubbed off on me. Maybe it’s a little of both.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Jamie and the life we might have had. David’s trial is coming up soon as well. I’m praying he gets the maximum sentence for murder.