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Midnight Rising (Chapter Twenty-two)

Dylan stood outside the windowed door of her mother's room on the hospital's tenth floor, trying to rally her courage to go inside. The cancer ward was so quiet up here at night, only the hushed chatter from the nurses on duty at their station and the occasional shuffle of a patient's slippered feet as they made a brief circuit around the wing, fingers clasped around the wheeled IV pole that rolled along beside them. Her mom had been one of those tenacious, but weary-eyed patients not so long ago.

Dylan hated to think there was more of that pain and struggle ahead of her mother now. The biopsy the doctors had ordered wouldn't be in for a couple of days, according to the nurse at the desk. They were hopeful that in the likelihood it did come back positive, they might have caught the relapse early enough to begin a new, more aggressive round of chemotherapy. Dylan was praying for a miracle, despite the heaviness in her chest as she steeled herself for bad news.

She hit the hand sanitizer dispenser mounted next to the door, squirted a blob of isopropyl gel into her palms and rubbed it in. As she pulled a pair of latex gloves from the box on the counter and put them on, everything she'd been through in the past several days – even the past few hours – fell away, forgotten. Her own problems just evaporated as she pushed open the door, because nothing mattered right now except the woman curled up on the bed, tethered to monitoring wires and intravenous lines.

God, her mother looked so tiny and frail lying there. She'd always been petite, smaller than Dylan by a good four inches, her hair a richer shade of red, even with the handful of grays that had crept in since the first battle with cancer. Now Sharon's hair was kept short, a spiky, spunky cut that made her look at least a decade younger than her true age of sixty-four. Dylan felt a pang of irrational, but jabbing anger for the fact that a renewed round of chemo was going to ravage that glorious crown of thick copper hair.

She walked softly toward the bed, trying not to make any noise. But Sharon wasn't sleeping. She rolled over as Dylan came close, her green eyes bright and warm.

"Oh…Dylan…hi, baby." Her voice was feathery, the only real physical giveaway in her that she was ill. She reached out and took Dylan's gloved hand in a tight hold.

"How was the trip, sweetheart? When did you get back?"

Shit. That's right – she'd supposedly extended her stay in Europe. It seemed like a year had passed in the few days she'd been with Rio.

"Um, I just came home a little while ago," Dylan answered, a partial lie.

She took a seat on the edge of the thin hospital room mattress, her hand still caught in her mother's clutching grasp.

"I got a little concerned when you changed your plans so abruptly. Your e-mail that you were staying a bit longer by yourself was so short and cryptic. Why didn't you call me?"

"I'm sorry," Dylan said. The lie she had to keep hurt even worse knowing that she'd made her mom worry. "I would have called you if I could have. Oh, Mom…I'm sorry you don't feel well."

"I feel all right. Better, now that you're here." Sharon's gaze was steady, level with a calm resolve. "But I'm dying, baby. You do understand that, don't you?"

"Don't say that." Dylan squeezed her mom's hand, then brought the cool fingers up to her lips and kissed them. "You'll get through this, just like you did before. You're going to be fine."

The silence – the tender indulgence – was a palpable force in the room. Her mother wasn't going to push the subject, but it was there, like a ghost lurking in the corner.

"Well, let's talk about you instead. I want to hear all about what you've been doing, where you've been…tell me about everything you've seen while you were gone."

Dylan glanced down, unable to hold her mother's eyes if she couldn't tell her the truth. And she couldn't tell her the truth. Most of it would be unbelievable anyway, especially the part where Dylan confessed that she feared she was developing feelings for a dangerous, secretive man. A vampire for crissake. It sounded crazy just to think the words.

"Tell me more about that demon's lair story you're working on, baby. Those pictures you sent me were really something. When is your story going to run?"

"There is no story, Mom." Dylan shook her head. She was sorry she ever mentioned it to her mother – or to anyone, for that matter. "Turns out that cave was just a cave," she said, hoping to convince her. "Nothing strange about it."

Sharon looked skeptical. "Really? But that tomb you found – and the incredible markings on the walls. What was all of that doing in there? It must have meant something."

"Just a tomb. Probably a very old, tribal burial chamber of some kind."

"And the picture you took of that man – "

"A vagrant, that's all," Dylan lied, hating every syllable that passed her lips. "The pictures made everything seem more important than it was. But there is no story, not even one suitable for a rag like Coleman Hogg's paper. In fact, he let me go."

"What? He didn't!"

Dylan shrugged. "Yeah, he did. And it's fine, really. I'll find something else."

"Well, that's his loss. You were too good for that place, anyway. If it's any consolation, I thought you did a great job on that story. Mr. Fasso thought so too. In fact, he mentioned he had contacts with some big news outlets in the city. He could probably find you something if I asked him to look into it."

Oh, shit. A job interview was the last thing she needed to worry about. Not when the rest of what she'd just heard had put a knot of dread in her throat. "Mom – you didn't tell him about that story, did you?"

"You're darn right I did. I showed off your pictures too. I'm sorry, but I can't help bragging about you. You're my little star."

"Who did you…Ah, God, Mom, please tell me you didn't talk about it with a lot of people…did you?"

Sharon patted her hand. "Don't be so shy. You're very talented, Dylan, and you should be working on bigger, more hard-hitting stories. Mr. Fasso agrees with me. Gordon and I talked all about you on the river cruise a couple of nights ago."

Dylan's stomach was clenched over the thought of more people being privy to what she'd seen in that cave, but she couldn't help noticing the little glint of joy in her mother's eyes when she mentioned the man who founded the runaway shelter. "So, you're on a first-name basis with Mr. Fasso now, are you?"

Sharon giggled, a sound so youthful and impish that Dylan forgot for a moment that she was sitting beside her mom in a hospital room in the cancer ward. "He's very handsome, Dylan. And utterly charming. I'd always thought him to be so aloof, almost chilly, but he's actually a very intriguing man."

Dylan smiled. "You like him."

"I do," her mother confessed. "Just my luck I should find a real gentleman – who knows, maybe my true prince? – when it's too late for me to fall in love."

Dylan shook her head, hating to hear that kind of talk from her. "It's never too late, Mom. You're still young. You have a lot of living left to do."

Shadows crossed her mother's eyes as she looked up at Dylan from her recline on the bed. "You've always made me so very proud. You know that, don't you, baby?"

Dylan nodded, throat constricted. "Yeah, I know. I could always count on you, Mom. You were the only one in my life that I could count on. Still are. Two musketeers, right?"

Sharon smiled at the mention of their long-running reference to themselves, but there were tears glistening in her eyes. "I want you to be all right, Dylan. With this, I mean. With my leaving you soon…with the fact that I'm going to die."

"Mom – "

"Hear me out, please. I worry about you, sweetheart. I don't want you to be alone."

Dylan wiped at a hot tear that ran down the side of her face. "You shouldn't be thinking about me now. Just focus on you, on getting better. You need to think positively. The biopsy might not – "

"Dylan. Stop, and listen to me." Her mother sat up, a stubborn look that Dylan recognized very well coming over her pretty but fatigued features. "The cancer is back, worse than before. I know it. I feel it. And I've come to terms with it. I need to know that you will be able to come to terms with this too."

Dylan looked down at their clasped hands, hers masked in yellow latex, her mother's nearly translucent, the bones and tendons stark beneath the cool, too-pale skin.

"How long have you been looking after me, baby? And I don't mean just since I've been sick. From the time you were a little girl, you were always worrying about me and trying your best to take care of me."

Dylan shook her head. "We look out for each other. That's how it's always been – "

Gentle fingers came up under her chin, lifting her gaze. "You're my child. I've lived for you, and for your brothers too, but you were always my constant. You shouldn't have had to live for me, Dylan. You shouldn't have had to be the adult in this relationship. You should have someone to take care of you."

"I can take care of myself," she murmured, not very convincingly when the tears were streaming down her cheeks now.

"Yes, you can. And you have. But you deserve something more out of life. I don't want you to be afraid to live, or to love, Dylan. Can you promise me that?"

Before Dylan could say anything, the door swung open and one of the attending nurses came in with a couple new bags of fluids. "How we doing, Sharon? How's your pain right now?"

"I could use a little something," she said, her eyes sliding to Dylan as if she'd been hiding her discomfort until now.

Which, of course, she had been. Everything was much worse than Dylan wanted to accept. She got up from the bed and let the nurse do her thing. After she was gone, Dylan came back over to her mother's side. It was so hard not to break down, to be the strong one as she looked down into the soft green eyes and saw that the spark in them – the fight that needed to be there – was gone.

"Come here and give me a hug, baby."

Dylan leaned down and wrapped her arms around the delicate shoulders, unable to dismiss the fragility of her mother's entire being. "I love you, Mom."

"And I love you." Sharon sighed as she settled back against the pillow. "I'm tired, sweetheart. I need to rest now."

"Okay," Dylan answered, her voice thick. "I'll just stay here with you while you sleep."

"No, you won't." Her mother shook her head. "I won't have you sitting here worrying about me. I'm not going to leave you tonight, or the next day, or even next week – I promise. But you need to go home now, Dylan. I want that for you."

Home, Dylan thought, as her mother drifted off to a drug-induced sleep. The word felt oddly empty to her when she pictured her apartment and the few possessions she had there. That wasn't home to her. If she had to go somewhere now, somewhere she felt safe and protected, that pitiful hole in the wall wasn't it. Never really had been.

Dylan rose from the bed and turned to leave the room. As she wiped at her teary eyes, her gaze lit on a shadowed face and broad shoulders silhouetted by the hallway lights outside.

Rio.

He'd found her, followed her there.

Where her every instinct should have been to run away from him, Dylan went to him instead. She pulled open the door and met him outside her mother's room, incapable of speaking as she wrapped her arms around his solid warmth and wept softly into his chest.

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