A piece of paper crinkles under my hand and I lift it to find Chris’s handwriting. Snuck Dylan out for secret meeting with kitchen and a stack of chocolate chip pancakes. We have to get to the hotel and shower by ten. The nurse left you an overnight kit in the bathroom.

I glance at the clock and it’s 8 a.m. I can’t believe Chris and I both knocked out this hard and long on a lounge chair. I stand up and stretch and head to the bathroom, taking my phone with me in case Chris calls. On the sink, under the small bag of toiletries, is a folded newspaper I’m clearly meant to see. I pick it up and blink at a photo of me with Chris and Dylan, and Chris has scribbled, Mark should be happy. I frown a moment until the light bulb goes off. Oh yes, Mark will be happy. Chris and I have on our Allure shirts and they are clearly visible. I snap a picture of the paper and text it to Mark. I’ve barely opened my new toothbrush before Mark replies. The shirt looks better on you than Chris. I stare at the message and let out a short laugh. Huh. This is one of those off-the-wall replies Mark gives me in e-mails, and apparently text messages, where he seems more man than Master. There’s more to him than his stiff “Ms. McMillan this, Ms. McMillan that,” and I wonder if he really is the man in the journals. Somehow, I can’t see the Master Rebecca has written about making jokes like this one or ending an e-mail quoting The Hunger Games with “may the odds be forever in your favor,” as he once did to me. I type a reply and delete it two times and then snatch my toothbrush. Why am I fretting over a text to Mark?

A few minutes later I’ve combed my tangled mess of hair into order, and my equally brown eyes seem to make my pale skin two shades paler, which is pretty darn pale. But it doesn’t matter as it might have just twenty-four hours ago. Watching these kids and their families fight for their very lives has given me perspective on my own insecurities. It also makes me think about how important living in the now is, how easily life can be ripped away, as it was for my mother, and for Chris’s. No matter how terrifying the ultimate decision is, I have to resign from my teaching job on Monday.

I leave the bathroom and walk back into Dylan’s room, thinking I will share this decision with Chris, to find I’m still alone. The sound of voices draw my gaze to the half-opened door where I glimpse Brandy in deep conversation with a man in scrubs and a white coat, and she doesn’t look happy. The man I assume to be the doctor squeezes her shoulder and walks away. Brandy drops her face in her hands.

I’m across the room and out the door in a quick dash. “Brandy?” Her hands fall away from her face and I see the tears streaming down her cheeks. “Oh honey, what’s wrong?” I wrap her in a hug and she clings to me.

“His cancer is progressing faster than expected.”

I feel as if I’ve just had my insides carved out, and Dylan isn’t even my child. How must she feel and how can I possibly console her?

After several moments, she steps back. “I need to see my son. I need to call Sam. He’s at work.”

“I’ll call him,” I offer. “You go freshen up and be with Dylan.”

She gives me Sam’s number and hugs me again, her body shaking. I look up and my heart lurches as Chris steps off the elevator with Dylan by his side. I wave him off and he quickly backs into the car and pulls Dylan with him. A silent breath of relief escapes my lips at what could have been an emotional meltdown between mother and son. Somehow, I have to help Brandy gather her composure and be strong for her son, when I know she’s dying inside with him. And somehow I have to get Chris through this. Deep down, I am certain this is going to wrench open deep wounds in my already damaged man, and I hurt just thinking about it.

When finally I have Brandy somewhat composed, I text Chris that he and Dylan can join us. A few minutes later, Dylan ambles into the room, grinning and singing the song from Nightmare on Elm Street, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four, you better lock your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix.”

Chris follows behind him, a one-day dark blond shadow on his jaw, his hair rumpled and sexy, and his eyes as haunted as Brandy’s. He’s not heard the news about the cancer progressing but he’s smart enough to assume bad news is coming.

Dylan continues to sing as he plops onto the bed. “Seven, eight, you better stay up late.”

“Enough,” I exclaim, but I am smiling at his attempt to tease me.

“Yes, enough,” Brandy agrees, laughing. “I get creeped out from that song, too.”

“You two can’t be scared just by hearing the song,” Dylan argues.

I shiver just thinking about that movie. “There’s plenty of reasons why I agreed to watch Friday the 13th instead of Nightmare on Elm Street, and that song is the top of the list.”

“We’ll make her watch it next time,” Chris promises, sitting down next to him.

Dylan pumps his fist. “Yes!” he says and laughs.

It hits me as I watch the two of them say their good-byes for the day before we depart that Dylan and Chris both replace one horror with another. Dylan uses fictional movies and monsters to combat cancer, and Chris uses pain to combat pain. No wonder these two are bonded so tightly.

“Well?” Chris asks as we step in the elevator.

It takes effort to get myself to tell him what I know will hurt him. “His cancer is progressing faster than expected.”

His head drops back, face lifting to the ceiling, and the torment in him claws at me. I wrap my arms around his waist and press my cheek to his racing heart. “I’m sorry.”

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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