Since We Fell by Ann Gimpel - Love is Sweetest the Second Time Around **Read Chapter 1**
Juliana is relentless, driven, focused. An archaeologist, she’s clawed her way to the top of the heap. It’s a lonely heap, but the only man she ever loved proved men aren’t worthy of her time.
Discarded by the woman of his dreams midway through college, Brice never offered his heart again. A world-recognized expert on lung diseases, he has his work. Usually it’s enough.
It’s almost Christmas, and Juliana is called home from a dig to see her dying twin one last time. She and Brice are thrown together after a fifteen-year hiatus. She tells herself nothing’s changed, but her heart sings a different song. If she listens to it, there’s only one true love.
Chapter OneJuliana Wray—Julie to her few friends—slumped against the padded back of a business-class seat, grateful no one was sitting too close to her. She’d been on the move for the last fifteen hours, and it would take nearly that before her over-the-Pole flight landed at Sea-Tac. She’d been unusually lucky securing a last-minute flight from Cairo to London, and she’d paid through the nose for the seat on her current plane.
She sucked dry, recycled air and tried not to think about what might be in it. Planes had notoriously poor filtration systems. Her eyes felt hot and gritty. Blinking only made it worse. When she glanced at her hands, she winced at how dirty they were. Once the captain turned off the “fasten seat belt” sign, she’d make a dive for the restroom and wash them. Never mind the water on airplanes rivaled the air for impurities.
Curling her hands into fists, she focused on inhaling deeply, blowing it out, and doing it again. Sleep would be a true luxury, but worry ate at her.
“Everything all right, miss?” A tall, buff flight attendant leaned over her, solicitousness stamped into his Greek god good looks. Tawny hair fell just past his chin line, and his eyes were the shade of raw emeralds. He was so perfect, she wondered if she was hallucinating.
He consulted a roster in one hand, probably detailing his few business-class passengers. “Dr. Wray, correct?”
She managed a perfunctory smile. “Yes. That would be me.”
He smiled back. “What kind of doctor are you?” Maybe his interest was part of a coffee, tea, or me gig he tried out on all his female travelers, but it gave her a momentary break from her worries.
“Not medical. If there’s an emergency on this plane, you’ll have to look beyond me, I’m afraid.”
He angled his head to one side. “Okay. That’s what kind of doctor you aren’t, but it’s not what I asked.”
“I’m an archaeologist. Reason my clothes are so trashed is I came straight from a dig in northern Egypt.”
“Sounds fascinating. Maybe when we’re a bit further into the flight, you can tell me more.”
“Maybe so,” she murmured, aiming for a non-committal tone. The last thing she’d be doing is sharing details with anyone outside her immediate team about what was shaping up as the find of the twenty-first century.
He must have picked up on her withdrawal because his smile lost a few lumens. “What can I bring you from the drink tray?”
“Juice. Mineral water. Maybe something to eat.” A dinging bell overlapped her words, and the “fasten seat belt” sign winked out. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to wash up before I eat anything.”
“Of course, Dr. Wray. I’ll have a snack prepared for you by the time you return.”
“That would be lovely. Thank you.”
Juliana waited until he moved to the next passenger two rows back before unfastening her seat belt. She lurched upright and closed the short distance between her seat and the restroom. Once inside, she sluiced water over her hands. Dirt made tracks down the ivory porcelain sink, so she pumped extra soap and wished she had a brush to do a more thorough job scrubbing beneath her nails. Once her hands were as clean as they were likely to get, she went to work on her face. She’d tried to wash up on the Egypt Air flight, but the lavatory was so dirty she hadn’t made it past the threshold.
One glance in the small mirror convinced her not to look again. Her dark hair hung in lank strands to the middle of her back. She’d scooped it into a ponytail somewhere between Cairo and London, but over half had escaped. Circles ringed her eyes, and she had the haggard look of someone who’d missed one too many meals, which wasn’t far off the mark. She’d never acclimated to the food at the dig site, so she hadn’t eaten much to stave off stomach problems.
“Thirty-five years old,” she muttered. “If I look this bad now, where will I be at fifty?”
The question was rhetorical. She didn’t bother answering it, but she did redo her ponytail before walking back to her seat. True to his word, the flight attendant—Richard, according to his name badge—had arranged a snack tray on her small pull-down table.
Julie ate mindlessly. The food on her Egypt Air flight hadn’t smelled very fresh, and she hadn’t had time at Heathrow to do anything beyond head for this one at a dead run. As it was, they’d shut the doors right behind her. One of the other flight attendants, a middle-aged woman, had given her a disapproving look for being late.
She washed down crackers, cheese, and shrimp with bottled mineral water. Somewhat fortified, she replayed the last day-and-a-half. She and her team, University of Washington faculty and graduate students, had set up shop in the Nile Delta not far from Ismailia. Reports of bone fragments had drawn them, but Juliana hadn’t expected much more than a dry hole. Archaeology was like that.
Chasing rainbows, as it were.
A few days into what she’d expected would be a one-week excursion, they’d unearthed the remains of a town. Even so, she’d held her excitement in check until preliminary tests yielded data dating the town back to two thousand B.C, placing it somewhere between the Middle and Old Kingdoms.
The university had flooded her project with money and people. She’d spent ten months living in a tent next to the Nile and wouldn’t have left if it weren’t for Sarah. Her twin was sick again. Never healthy, Sarah had gotten the short end of the stick while they were in utero and developed cystic fibrosis as a child.
That she’d lived this long was little shy of a miracle, but her time may have finally run out. Julie squeezed her eyes shut against a gush of hot tears. She’d asked about gene splicing, bone marrow transplants, anything to give her sister’s lungs a new lease on life. She’d even offered to help with part of a lung for transplant surgery, but Sarah told her not to bother. The CF was systemic. New lungs would eventually become infected just like her current ones were.
The tears she’d tried to hold back dripped down her cheeks, and she swiped them with her napkin. Life was desperately unfair. Her sister had tried to finish medical school but lacked the stamina. Undaunted, she’d turned her sights to a nursing degree. She’d worked in clinics and hospitals until a couple of years back when her inhalers and treatments grew less and less effective.
Julie had considered moving Sarah into her home, but she wasn’t there enough. The compromise had been her parents, who’d redone a bedroom to accommodate oxygen and the array of equipment Sarah used each day. Julie checked in weekly, but she’d been so wrapped up in each pot shard and bone fragment they’d unearthed, she’d missed a week or two along the way.
Misery washed over her in waves as she huddled in her seat. She flipped her light off and hoped no one would bother her.
Come on, Sarah, she urged. You’re my twin. Hang on until I get there.
Her parents hadn’t wanted to bother her unnecessarily. By the time they’d patched through an emergency call, Sarah was on a ventilator and couldn’t talk with anyone.
Julie pulled the blanket out of its plastic cover and wrapped it around herself. Exhaustion dragged her into blackness, and she must have passed out because the next thing she heard was a cheery voice advising they’d be landing at Sea-Tac in thirty minutes.
More food had materialized. She ate quickly, not tasting anything, and drank another bottle of water.
“I didn’t want to bother you while you were sleeping, Dr. Wray.” Richard loomed over her.
“Thanks. I really needed some rest.”
“I figured. Don’t take this wrong, but you look beat.” He offered his million-watt smile again, the smile that probably lined his bed with hundreds of willing women.
“Yeah. Still am.”
“I’d be happy to take you out to dinner once we land. You can tell me more about your anthropology project.”
“It’s archaeology,” she corrected him automatically, not bothering to add it was a common misperception and that people frequently confused the two disciplines.
He shrugged. “See? I need guidance.”
I’ll just bet you do, honey.
She bit off the temptation to verbalize a tart rejoinder. “Sorry, but my parents are meeting me. We have to get to Overlake Hospital.”
“Someone’s ill?” He quirked a brow.
“Very. My sister.”
“Well, I hope she feels better soon.” Richard edged away. Discussions of illness probably made him uncomfortable. Death wasn’t contagious, but people shied away from anything that smacked of mortality as if it brought bad luck to delve too deeply.
She’d devoted her life to assessing the remains of people’s lives, what they’d left behind. Death was where she lived most of the time, but it didn’t make losing Sarah any easier.
Come on. Buck up. She’s not gone yet. I hope.
The plane swooped out of the sky and bounced twice as it connected with the runway. She flicked on her phone as soon as she could, scanning for the message that would kill hope.
It wasn’t there. Lots of well wishes from her dig team and a terse one-liner from her mother saying they’d meet her at the gate. Julie stood as soon as she could and dragged her duffle from the overhead, slinging it across one shoulder. The door opened, and she bolted through it, walking fast.
Halfway to customs, a tall, spare uniformed officer, complete with a full weapons belt, caught up with her. “Dr. Juliana Wray?” His dark hair was cut short. Shrewd green eyes probably didn’t miss a whole lot.
“I’m here to expedite your way through customs. Passport, please.”
She dug in a pocket and handed it over. “Did my dad send you?”
Instead of answering, he pasted a sticker in her passport, stamped it, and handed it back. “Come with me. A car is waiting.” Turning, he marched about twenty feet to a gunmetal-colored door and tilted his chin to activate a retinal scanner. The locking mechanism whirred, and the door popped open.
Julie followed him, afraid to ask any more questions. Maybe he’d know about her sister. Maybe not, but she did not want to hear the words, “I’m so sorry, but she passed on…”
She latched her jaws together to hold emotion inside. She’d have her whole life to cry. Now wasn’t the time to fall apart.
The officer stopped long enough for a second scanner to recognize him and pushed open a door leading outside. Gray murk typical of the Pacific Northwest surrounded her under skies spitting rain. She’d lost track of time after leaving Cairo, but it must be around noon since that was when her plane was slated to touch down.
Noon in mid-December looked pretty much like dawn and dusk. Gloomy. Dark. Short days that merged into long, damp nights. What a contrast to hot, dry Egypt.
“This way.” The officer motioned. “We’re headed for that limo.”
A long, black car was parked about fifty feet from them. “It— It looks like a hearse,” she choked out.
The officer shot her a surprised look. “It’s a limousine, Dr. Wray.”
And then her father was running toward her. A retired Marine general, he was tall and spry, despite being in his late sixties. Silver hair was shorn close, and his blue eyes—eyes just like hers and Sarah’s—crinkled with pleasure at seeing her.
The officer stood tall and saluted. Chris Wray saluted back. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”
Julie did a double take. Her escort was a Marine. How could she have missed something so simple as the markings on his uniform?
Her father wrapped his arms around her. “Welcome home, princess.”
Julie hugged him in return and reared back so she could look at him. “Sarah. Is she—?”
“She’s still with us, honey. Come on into the car, and I’ll let your mom fill you in. Here. Give me that duffle. Is that all you have?”
“Yeah, Dad.” She handed it over and trotted to the car with him. Joy mixed with hope speared her. Sarah was alive. It was all that mattered.
The driver, also a Marine, took her duffle and held the back door for her and her father, who followed her inside.
“Juliana, sweetie.” Her mother enveloped her in a hug, her familiar lilac scent washing over her. Ariel Wray kissed her forehead before letting go. Her black hair was shot with silver, and her brown eyes glowed with pleasure. “You were gone for a long time.”
“Yes, I was. Tell me about Sarah.”
Ariel nodded briskly. Five years younger than her husband, she’d been a Marine colonel and battle strategist until she retired after the last Iraq conflict.
The car lurched forward. Julie resisted the urge to pepper her mother with questions and waited for her to begin speaking.
Ariel drew her dark brows together. “Up until two days ago, I was certain I’d summoned you home for your sister’s funeral.” She tilted her chin up, nostrils flaring. Used to deployments and death, her mom was one of the toughest women Julie had ever known, and she wouldn’t mince words or sugarcoat anything.
“Sarah was drowning in her own fluids. There wasn’t much left to lose, so we trolled through the university’s medical school for another pulmonologist, someone younger. It pissed our doctor off, but he couldn’t stop us. In any event, we found a doctor who was willing to try something unproven—”
“A non-FDA-approved treatment,” her father cut in.
“Yes, Chris. Sorry if I missed the exact nomenclature.” Ariel blew out a noisy breath. “We gave our permission.”
“And it seems to be working.” Her father couldn’t keep optimism out of his voice.
“Indeed, it does.” Ariel chimed in. “She’s off that damned ventilator. God but she hated it.”
“If things continue as they have been, we’ll get to bring her home in time for Christmas,” Chris said.
All the pent-up emotion Julie had suppressed since her mother’s call summoning her home hit her in the gut, and she bit back a sob.
“Aw, princess. It’s okay.” Her father gathered her close; she gave in and clung to him as she cried, great, choking sobs that made it tough to breathe.
Her mother patted her back and smoothed her tangled hair. “It’s okay, Juliana. We’ll keep her with us for a little bit longer. Oh, I didn’t mention it, but you’ll remember the miracle-working doctor.”
“I will?” Julie lifted her head from the wet front of her father’s jacket. “Who is he?”
“Brice McKinnon,” her father answered, reminding her how her mom and dad tag teamed conversations.
The name slammed home, along with a slew of nasty memories. “Oh God,” she moaned. “I mean, I’m glad he saved Sarah, but he is such a bastard. At least, he used to be.”
“Be nice,” her mother warned and handed her a bunch of tissues.
Juliana blew her nose. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll be the soul of nice.”
“Dry your eyes,” her dad advised, as always oblivious to things he didn’t find worthy of attention. “We’ll be at Overlake in about fifteen minutes.”
She dabbed at her streaming eyes. Only a quarter hour before she’d come face to face with the two-timing slime ball who’d seduced both her and her sister. And ruined her life because she’d loved him.
Ann Gimpel is a mountaineer at heart. Recently retired from a long career as a psychologist, she remembers many hours at her desk where her body may have been stuck inside four walls, but her soul was planning yet one more trip to the backcountry. Around the turn of the last century (that would be 2000, not 1900!), she managed to finagle moving to the Eastern Sierra, a mecca for those in love with the mountains. It was during long backcountry treks that Ann’s writing evolved. Unlike some who see the backcountry as an excuse to drag friends and relatives along, Ann prefers solitude. Stories always ran around in her head on those journeys, sometimes as a hedge against abject terror when challenging conditions made her fear for her life, sometimes for company. Eventually, she returned from a trip and sat down at the computer. Three months later, a five hundred page novel emerged. Oh, it wasn’t very good, but it was a beginning. And, she learned a lot between writing that novel and its sequel.
Around that time, a friend of hers suggested she try her hand at short stories. It didn’t take long before that first story found its way into print and they’ve been accepted pretty regularly since then. One of Ann’s passions has always been ecology, so her tales often have a green twist.
In addition to writing, Ann enjoys wilderness photography. She lugs pounds of camera equipment in her backpack to distant locales every year. A standing joke is that over ten percent of her pack weight is camera gear which means someone else has to carry the food! That someone is her husband. They’ve shared a life together for a very long time. Children, grandchildren and three wolf hybrids round out their family.