“Ocala Regional. You can ride with us or follow.”
He warred between leaving his truck or driving after the three beers, Autumn’s concern echoing in his mind. “I’ll ride with you.”
They began to load the gurney and he ran around to the truck, grabbing his cell and finding Autumn’s in the cupholder. Making it back to the ambulance, he gripped the handle and stepped up into the clinical space.
“You aren’t supposed to be calling me,” the female voice drawled. “You’re supposed to be having vigorous outdoorsy sex and taking notes to tell me about later.”
“Ansley, this is Declan Moss.” In another world, another moment, he might have seen the humor in her greeting. Now, he could barely speak without breaking down.
“Oh.” She paused. “Declan. Hello. Is everything okay?”
“No. I need you to come to the hospital in Ocala. Something’s happened with Autumn. Do you know if she has any medical problems?”
She inhaled sharply, then spoke to someone in the background. “She doesn’t have any medical problems. She’s perfectly healthy, aside from a sugar addiction.”
He didn’t know whether to be relieved or more concerned. If they knew what this was, at least they could do something to fix it. For it to come out of nowhere… his hand tightened on the phone.
“Declan, I need to know what happened. You’ve told me just enough to freak me the fuck out. Did she get injured? Shot? What’s going on?” Her voice grew harder with each question, and he wished he had more to tell her.
“She started to have a headache. She grew confused. Uncoordinated. I thought—we thought it was the alcohol, but it started to get worse. Much worse.”
“Headaches?” She let out a strangled laugh. “She always has headaches. That’s normal. And she’s… Autumn. She’s always a little uncoordinated and confused. Maybe this is nothing. Like you said—”
“It’s something. I need you to come here as soon as possible. They’re asking for a health surrogate or advance directives.”
She fell silent, then he heard her scream at her husband to get the car.
Autumn died at 10:12pm.
It was a short death. They brought her back to life as Declan watched, paddles shocking her heart back into action, her pulse spiking to life on the monitor. But it was weak and the issue was her brain.
Now, he huddled in a waiting room chair, Autumn’s family beside him, and tried to sort through his feelings. It seemed unfair that he had spent six months running from her, when he could have been holding her. Loving her. By the time they had finally met, he’d only had a week with her. A combined twenty-four hours, tops. That wasn’t enough time, not when those hours had been the best of his life. Anger spiked through him at the unfairness of it all. She had spent so much time protecting him and he—in the moment when he could have protected her—he had been the one to put her in danger.
If she’d been home, she would have seen the signs. Realized something was wrong. Called an ambulance.
And … if she’d never seen him that day of the plane crash, she never would have attributed her head pains to his safety. She would have gone to a doctor. Followed normal protocol instead of wasting all of her time following him around, worrying about him, when she had been the one at risk.
A colloid cyst had been the cause. All of those sharp pains she had associated with his danger—that had been her brain screaming for help. And now, it had progressed to the stage where the cyst had blocked the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. Declan had been searching every site on the Internet to educate himself on CSF and colloid cysts, and the more he learned, the more his stress rose. The only solution was the one they were taking now—a complicated and high-risk surgery to attempt to remove the cyst.
The three potential outcomes were all bleak. First: potential paralysis of her entire left side. The second: coma. And finally… and the most likely of the three: death. He asked what the chances were of a complete recovery, but was only given a regretful frown. “At this point, those chances are too slim to measure. This is the time to set realistic expectations.”
The “realistic expectations” were that he would not leave her side. If she was paralyzed, he would take care of her. He’d build her a beautiful home with ramps and unique design features to accommodate her limitations. If she was in a coma, he would sit beside her bed every day until she woke up. And if she died… at that point of the thought process, was when Declan normally broke down into tears.
Ansley and Roger were used to it. They had all spent the last two days in varying states of grief. Autumn’s niece and nephew had been shielded from it, a carousel of babysitters soon replaced by Bridget, who stepped in and offered to keep them at her house. She’d been filling their time with trips to the zoo, movies, junk food and fun. At the moment, all they knew was that Autumn was “sick” and had the general impression that it was something as simple as a cold.