Series: True Identity Romances #2
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: 04/19/2012
Contributors: Heather Justesen
Genre: Mystery, Romance
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Tia Riverton's life fell apart when her husband was killed while fighting in the Middle East. Just when she feels like she's getting back on her feet, a family secret comes out that knocks her flat---her DNA doesn't match her parents. She's not their daughter. But who is she? And how can she ever make her life normal for herself or her two little girls again?
Danny Tullis, a paramedic firefighter, responds to a medical emergency at Tia's home and he can't get her out of his mind. He's seen her cooking segment on the noon news plenty of times and Danny wants to get to know the woman behind the face on his TV screen. He ropes Tia into helping with a charity fundraiser at her fire station, but he quickly realizes there's more to Tia than meets the eye. She's on a quest for truth and the closer she gets, the more he wants to help her. But will the truth set her free? Or will it push them apart?
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"Samantha, it’s time for dinner. Get in here now!” Tia called to her five-year-old from the kitchen. It had already been a long day, and though she’d been running like crazy since before seven in the morning, Tia’s to-do list didn’t seem to be shrinking.
“I’m coming!” Samantha yelled, though she’d been saying that for ten minutes. “Be patient, Mom.”
“Yeah, you tell me to be patient,” Tia muttered under her breath as she buckled eighteen-month-old Tristi into the high chair. Her hands itched and felt swollen, but Tia blamed it on the fact that she’d been scratching them for at least half an hour. She must have rubbed up against something in the garden while picking the sage for the dish she was experimenting with for her cooking segment on the noon news.
“Here I am,” Samantha said as she came into the room, her strawberry-blonde hair curling around her face and neck where it had fallen from her braid. “I was working on my story.”
“I’m glad you’re having fun with that, but I wish you wouldn’t keep me waiting. Did you wash your hands?” Tia asked.
“Yeeeees.” Samantha infused the word with the long-suffering tone first graders used so well.
Tia tamped back her irritation at her daughter’s attitude and spooned the mac n’ cheese onto her daughter’s plate, along with a small spoonful of the pine nut and sundried tomato pasta she’d been tweaking. “Give it a try.”
“You always make me try stuff.” Samantha poked at the new dish with her fork before scooping up a bite and tasting it. She tipped her head to the side in boredom and swallowed before she pronounced, “It’s okay.”
“Okay, as in, you’d rather eat it than a pile of mushy canned spinach, or okay, as in, you kind of liked it?” Tia asked. Unlike most kids her age, Samantha was unusually laid back about trying new foods—which was good since Tia was always testing recipes.
Samantha pulled a face and turned to her mac n’ cheese. “It didn’t make me want to puke, but don’t make me eat any more.”
“Not your favorite then.” Tia turned to Tristi and scooped some of the yellow pasta onto her younger daughter’s high chair tray before putting some of the pine nut dish onto her own plate. She fussed over her daughters, making sure they had milk and corn—the only vegetable she could get Tristi to eat these days. “What’s your story about?”
“I’m writing about a fire dog. He gets to ride on the truck and sniff out where fires start and stuff. Everyone loves him.”
“I’ll bet they do.” Tia smiled despite her weariness and took her seat. Samantha had a fascination with all things fire. “I bet your story’s great. Maybe after you help me with dishes you can read it to me.”
“Okay.” She dug into her dinner with more gusto this time.
Tia scooped up the new dish and tasted it. This version was better than the one she’d tried last week. After she swallowed, she tried another bite, savoring the flavor, analyzing it to see if there was anything else missing from the recipe. She jotted a quick note on the pad on the table beside her. A moment later she realized her throat began to feel tight.
Her next breath hurt as it rasped into her lungs and panic started to creep in. What was going on? The tightness increased and she looked at her hands which felt swollen and achy. Had her rash gotten worse? When breathing became more difficult, her panic increased and she stood to grab her cell phone. She froze when she realized it wasn’t on the counter where she thought she had left it. Where was it? How could she call for help if she couldn’t find it? Panic started to grow in her chest.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” Samantha asked.
“Phone. I need an ambulance.” Terror filled Tia as she fought for every breath. What was happening?
“Mom!” Samantha’s voice was small and thready. She shot out of her seat and rushed to the living room. A moment later she returned, the phone to her ear. Her eyes were wide with terror as she sat in front of Tia, babbling, “My mom needs an ambulance. She can’t breathe. We need help.” All of the color had blanched from her usually rosy cheeks. “Please help.”
Tia hoped Samantha had called 911 and not a friend. She leaned over and put both hands on the tabletop, fighting for breath and starting to feel light headed.
Samantha gave the address and talked to the person on the other end about what was going on. She turned to Tia, “Are you ’lergic to anything?”
“Must be. Tell them to hurry.” Tia sat on the floor, afraid she was going to pass out. It seemed like forever before she heard the sirens approaching her apartment, but she knew it had probably only been a couple of minutes. They were quick. She was barely getting any air now, and shook all over.
Tia worried about the girls as Tristi cried in her high chair, smearing cheese sauce in her wispy red curls.
Samantha had tears pouring down her face, her white-knuckled fist still holding the phone to her ear. She ran to the door and unlocked it as the sirens stopped out front and she disappeared outside. “She’s in the kitchen,” her worried voice called.
Tia didn’t even look up as two people approached her.
“Is this an allergy?” a male voice asked.
“Maybe. Can’t breathe.” The pressure on her chest was terrible as Tia gasped. As the edge of her vision began to turn dark and buzzing filled her ears, she felt a sharp pain on the side of her leg as the man hit it with the end of a long tube. He spoke to her in a soothing voice, but she couldn’t understand his words. An oxygen mask covered her face, and when she felt the rush of cool air against her cheeks, she realized she’d been crying.
After a few seconds her lungs began to clear and she gulped in air gratefully. The fuzziness in her head started to dissipate and the voices began to make sense again. “That was fast.” Relief filled her though adrenaline still pumped through her veins.
“That’s a good thing. It’s going to be all right.” His voice was soothing, calming her speeding heart. “Breathe normally. In and out.”
The panic receded and Tia looked up into eyes the color of the blue delft china she’d inherited from her grandmother. Several other people crowded around her, but Tia looked over to see a female EMT talking to the girls. She bounced Tristi on her lap and patted Samantha’s arm. Tia felt sick at the worry she still saw in their faces and wondered if she’d scarred them for life. “My girls.”
“They’re fine. Tanya is taking care of them. We’ll bring them to the hospital with us unless there’s someone close by we can get for you. Can we call your husband.”
“He’s dead. Go across the street in the blue house. Nichole.”
He nodded and turned to a police officer, telling him. When the officer left, the paramedic turned back to her. “You must be feeling better.”
“Much. That’s never happened to me before.” Tia never wanted it to happen again. Nothing had scared her like that, made her think she was going to die. She still felt an edge of panic, but it was much easier now. She was a little shaky, but otherwise fine.
“It can come on suddenly. Any idea what caused it? Was it something you ate?” Someone handed him a square of red gauze, which she recognized from giving blood.
“Maybe.” She tried to think of what the dish had been again, but couldn’t. “Can’t remember what was in it. My brain’s not working yet.”
The blond man grabbed her hand and looked at the back of her wrist. She realized they’d put a rubber tie on her arm a few inches below her elbow. So they were going to poke her with a needle—not a thrilling thought, but better than what she’d just been through.
“That’s okay. Give the adrenaline a moment to clear your system and you’ll be able to think better.” He swirled the iodine onto the back of her upper wrist. “I’m going to start an IV so we can get some fluids into you. Your blood pressure is still pretty low, but that’s normal.” He followed up with an alcohol wipe. “I’m Danny, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you.” Tia had a blood pressure cuff on her other arm and an oxygen sensor on her finger. How long had they been there? A glance at the numbers on the monitor displayed her blood pressure. It was much lower than usual. Maybe that was why she was still so muzzy.
“How are you feeling now?”
“Tired, shaky, a little like my brain went on vacation, but so much better.”
“Hold on. Everything’s going to be okay.” He looked up into her eyes and she felt reassured. “There’ll be a slight pinch now.”
“That’s what they always say.” She gritted her teeth as he poked her skin. Though she wasn’t a wimp about needles, she didn’t have fond feelings for them, either. “How would you like it if it were me sticking needles in you?”
“Depends. Do you know what you’re doing?”
His grin flashed as he focused on what he was doing. “Then I probably wouldn’t like it very much.”
“And if I did have training?”
He looked up to meet her gaze. “I probably still wouldn’t enjoy it. It’s not number one on my list of fun things to do.”
Danny took something from a coworker and attached it to the tube in her arm, then screwed on some IV tubing. Once he’d taped it all down, he looked at her again. “You’ll be better in no time. Let me help you stand and we’ll slide the stretcher right over here so you can sit on it, okay?”
Tia took a deep breath and reached out. When she was on her feet, black spots appeared in her vision and the lightheadedness returned for a moment. She was grateful he had a good grip under her arm.
“Mom, are you still sick?” Samantha looked over at her as the man helped her sit down.
Nichole showed up at the door, worry on her face. “I came for the girls, are you okay?”
Tia smiled as relief that her girls would be taken care of flooded her. “I’ll be fine. They’re just going to take me in for tests and then I’ll be back.”
When the anxiety smoothed from Samantha’s face, Tia’s tension eased. Everything would be fine.
They’d already been out on another medical run and dropped the patient off at the same hospital when Danny decided to check on his anaphylaxis patient. Though he sometimes checked in on patients when opportunity allowed, he felt an additional tug of interest in this one in particular. The two hysterical daughters had really gotten to him, but they were only a small part of it.
He found Tia sitting up in the bed talking on her cell phone and looking much better than she had last time he’d seen her. Her face color was good and she wore a pained expression. The wavy fall of red curls cascaded down her back and shoulders, begging to be touched, so he hooked his thumbs on his pockets.
She glanced up at him and smiled. “I’ll call you back later, Mom. Someone’s come in to talk to me. Don’t worry, everything’s fine. Of course. Love you, too.”
Worry filled her eyes, and lines bracketed her mouth. The call had been stressful. Either that or she was still worked up from her ordeal.
“Parents are wonderful, aren’t they?” he asked as he took the final steps to her bedside. “Even if they worry.”
“Yes, and she’s a champion worrier.” Tia bunched the blanket between her fingers and met his gaze. “Thanks again. That was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.”
He wanted to touch her cheek, feel the warmth of her skin beneath his fingertips, but knew it was a bad idea. Even if he didn’t already have a girlfriend, Tia was one of his patients, which made her off limits. “I’m glad I was able to help. Your daughter did well, giving dispatch all of the important information. Very impressive for a kid that age.”
Tia smiled. “Yeah, she’s a keeper.”
The hospital would hold on to Tia for another few hours to make sure her symptoms didn’t return. “Do you have any idea what caused the reaction?”
“It might have been the pine nuts. I started getting a rash after I chopped them.” She shrugged and added a wry grin. “I’ve never heard of anyone having a pine nut allergy before.”
“Not many people eat them often,” he pointed out. “Have you been working on a recipe for your show?”
Her eyebrows shot up. “You recognized me?”
“Of course.” He found her reaction refreshing, and a bit surprising—she was on television every day, after all, even if it was only for ten minutes on the noon news. “I’ve tried out some of the recipes on the guys at the station. They’ve been a hit. Will you still make the pine nut thing on your show?”
“Yes. I think the recipe is ready. It tasted fine in the seconds before it tried to kill me.” She gave him a wry smile. “I’m not going to eat it again though; this was the end of all pine nuts for me.”
“Sounds like a good idea.” He glanced up and saw his partner, James, standing in the doorway. Time to leave. “I guess I better get back out there. I’ll be watching your show tomorrow.”
“It was good to meet you.”
He smiled and walked out, waving goodbye.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Laura said to Danny the next evening. He’d had the day off work, so he’d invited his childhood friend over for dinner.
“It’s been a crazy couple of days.” He’d just come off a forty-eight-hour shift with the fire department. “We had three auto accidents, a heart attack, an anaphylactic reaction, two family fights, and a call to a house where the guy had been dead for most of the night—and that doesn’t include the easy stuff. I’m ready for a few days of peace.” He flipped the steaks on the grill and watched her as she stuffed the deviled eggs.
“And you still invited me for dinner.” She finished filling the last egg and reached for the paprika.
He’d prepared the yolk mixture for the eggs as he didn’t trust her to cook anything herself. He stepped from his tiny patio back into the kitchen to take the spice from her and sprinkle it on instead.
“I can handle that,” she protested, even as she moved away, pushing her straight brown hair away from of her oval face.
“So you say, but don’t forget how long I’ve known you.” He was amused by the irritation in her dark brown eyes.
She huffed but didn’t argue the point. “Would you like me to mix lemonade or something?”
“There are sodas in the fridge if you want to get them. Set the table, would you?”
She rolled her eyes at him, but dutifully walked to the cupboard. “So what’s Carrie doing today? I thought she’d be here.”
“Last-minutes prep for her sister’s wedding. She’s been sucked in.” As a rule, he didn’t mind his girlfriends having plenty of outside interests—his job kept him busy—but he’d be glad when the wedding was over and Carrie returned to the fun companion she used to be instead of the list-carrying, anal retentive, obsessed woman she had been lately. Had she ever been the person he’d thought, or was this her true face? He didn’t know anymore.
“Poor boy.” Laura set down the plates in her hands and patted him on the head.
“Knock it off.” He pushed her hand away, but found himself smiling anyway.
She chuckled and returned to the cupboards for more dishes.
He glanced over his shoulder. “Mom’s been nagging me to go home for a visit. She said to bring you along.” Their mothers were best friends, living half a block apart. He and Laura had been in and out of each other’s houses since they were little—back when he still thought girls had cooties and she played dolls with his sister Janie.
“I’m sure she has.” Laura moved to grab the sodas from the fridge. “My mom’s been pushy too. It has been several months since either of us visited. It’ll have to wait a bit though. School’s out Tuesday, but I have that women’s retreat to St. Louis—we’re going to the symphony. Then there are football games and homecoming preparations—I’m on the committee for the fund-raising dinner in a couple of weeks.” Working as the high school secretary kept her deeply involved.
Danny walked to the calendar hanging on the wall and checked. “How does October third and fourth sound? I’ll have the weekend off.”
She pulled out her cell phone to check her own calendar. “Perfect.” She typed for a minute, then stuck the phone back in her pocket. “I miss home.”
He stepped back out to check on the steaks, smiling when they looked perfect. He scooped them onto a plate and brought them to the table. “I miss your mom’s cinnamon rolls, warm and dripping with cream cheese frosting.”
“Don’t mention her cinnamon rolls. I swear I put on two pounds just thinking about them.” Still, a look of bliss crossed her face.
“That’s physically impossible, and your weight’s fine.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “But you know you can work out with me anytime you want.” This was an invitation he’d made several times. He knew she’d never get up early enough to join him.
“Forget it. I’m on my feet enough as it is without getting up before the crack of dawn to look like a wimp running with you.”
He chuckled and reached for the soda she’d set in front of his plate. There was nothing like spending a couple hours with Laura when he needed some downtime.
I love my mother. I love my mother. I love my mother. Tia hoped if she kept repeating the mantra she would be able to hold her tongue until she was alone. She looked over at where her mother was poking through the kitchen cupboards and then away again. She plunged her hands into the dish water to keep from grabbing the cans on the cupboard and putting them back.
Mona Baumgartner had been searching for anything containing allergens in her daughter’s house. She was determined to remove all such foods before she returned home to St. Joseph. “What if Samantha hadn’t been able to call? Or what if she hadn’t been here?” She plunked a jar of peanut butter onto the growing stack. “You would be dead.”
“Mom, I’m fine. The girls are fine. We’ll avoid pine nuts from now on.” These encounters with her mother always left Tia emotionally exhausted. Drama queen didn’t even begin to cover it.
“Not good enough. And I was thinking, if you needed a blood transfusion, they would need to know what your blood type was. What if they didn’t have any O blood and you were unconscious? How are they supposed to know?” She whirled around, her black-colored bob flaring out with the centrifugal force. “Have you had the car seats checked lately? Is the baby seat in tight? You know they say something like half of all baby seats are improperly installed in cars.”
“Yes, I went to one of those classes before we had Samantha, remember? Everything’s nice and tight.” Tia tried to hold onto her calm expression even as her mother pushed her toward her limits. She rinsed the pan from dinner and set it on the towel to dry.
Mona moved to the next cupboard and began rooting around, pulling out two cans of mushrooms. “Nasty stuff, mushrooms. I never trust fungi.” She set them with the peanut butter and canned clams.
Samantha ran in with a drawing to show to them. “Look what I drew!” She held it up, displaying a crayon depiction of an ambulance complete with a gurney and stick figure people who were obviously supposed to be EMTs. “That’s Mom!” She pointed to the body-less head on the gurney.
“See, even your daughter is worried about you. I swear I’m going to have those medical alert bracelets made up for everyone with your blood types on them.” Mona’s hand fluttered over her heart. “It’ll give me peace of mind.”
And Tia would feel obligated to wear it because Samantha might let it slip if they only wore it when Mona was around. And that would cause hurt feelings. Tia tried to ignore her growing headache. “Whatever you want, Mom.” She was relieved when her brother-in-law, Garrett, walked in to pick up Samantha to go out for ice cream.
“Hey, Mrs. B. Good to see you.” His brown hair flopped over his eyes and a scruff of beard attested to his disdain for razors. He scooped up Samantha, tickling her armpits before turning to Tia. “Feeling better?”
“Much. Thanks for agreeing to take the girls for a few hours. I really do need to get out tonight.”
Mona plopped a can of cream of mushroom soup on the counter with the other food.
“We’re not allergic to any of those things,” Tia protested.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry.” Mona closed the last cupboard door. “I suppose that’s my cue to leave. I’ll throw these out on my way.”
“Mom,” Tia reached out and put a restraining hand on her mother’s arm. “I’ll take care of it. I appreciate your help and concern.” If appreciate wasn’t quite the word that came to mind, she didn’t have to admit it.
“Yes, I can handle it. Anyway, I need to get ready. A couple of ladies from my neighborhood are going out for dinner and a movie together. Just the girls.” It would be heaven to get out for a while.
“Okay, dear. I’ll call you tomorrow. Take care of yourself.” Mona hugged Tia briefly, then kissed each of her granddaughters on the cheek before hurrying out the door.
Tia helped move the car seat and booster to Garrett’s car, giving the seat belts an extra tug in defiance of her mom’s suggestion that she didn’t know what she was doing. She kissed the girls goodbye, and returned to the kitchen to put the food back in the cupboards.
Her mom had these dramatic life-or-death reactions to things two or three times a year. They rarely lasted for more than a few weeks and fighting Mona always made things worse. Tia had long-ago learned to go along, or at least pretend to, in the interest of family harmony. Hopefully this one would be short lived and the bracelets would never surface.
She put it out of her mind. Tia had fifteen minutes to freshen up her makeup before Nichole picked her up for their girl’s night.
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