Authors: Catherine Lanigan
Katia was still beaming a megawatt smile. “So, do you mind if I sit here, or were you waiting for someone? Knowing you, the next handsome hunk walking through that door doesn't stand a chance.”
Sophie winced. Katia wasn't being catty or petty. She probably thought she was being complimentary. The old Sophie would have agreed with her.
Bring 'em on.
That had been Sophie's motto for years. But not anymore. “Uh, I don't think so,” Sophie replied, squirting ketchup onto the side of her plate.
Katia eyed her as she signaled the waitress. “I'll have an iced tea and a romaine salad. Dressing on the side.”
Katia propped an elbow on the counter and turned to Sophie. A shower of auburn hair fell over her shoulder, acting like a privacy curtain. “It's pretty coincidental that I ran into you today,” Katia said. “Jack and I were talking about you only this morning.”
Sophie sucked in a breath. “Really? Nothing good, I'm sure.”
Katia put her hand on Sophie's shoulder.
Great. It's that bad.
Since the accident, Sophie had been so busy with her job and battling her own demons that she'd almost pushed Jack Carter from her mind. Almost.
“To be honest, Sophie, I'm worried about him. He's taken Aleah's death very hard. Austin and I went to her service with Jack. I'd expected him to need our help to get through the day, but he was...well, I've never seen him like that. He's always been the strong one in his family, you know? None of us had even known her more than a few months. But Jack is acting like she was his sister or daughter or something. I don't have any idea what to say to him.”
“There's nothing you can say, Katia,” Sophie reassured her. “Grief is its own timekeeper. Some people move on in a few weeks. Others never quite get there.”
Katia examined Sophie's face. “And what about you?”
“What about me?” Sophie parroted with more sarcasm in her voice than she'd intended. She was instantly defensive.
How could Katia really know her when Sophie was in the process of regrouping? Reinventing herself?
“I don't need a medical degree to figure out that those dark smudges under your eyes are not from too much mascara,” Katia whispered compassionately.
“And that's a lot of comfort food on your plate.”
“Yeah, well.” Sophie sighed, feeling like the culprit in a sinister caper.
Katia frowned. “Mashed potatoes was my go-to food. That was when I left Indian Lake heartbroken over Austin.”
Sophie followed Katia's eyes to the burger. “Hmm. Not very original of me.”
“No.” Katia leaned back as her salad and iced tea were served. “I'm guessing you're as upset about Aleah as Jack is.”
Sophie needed to bob and weave. She didn't want Katia running back to Jack with some tale of woe that he could use against her. If Sophie told Katia anything that resembled guilt or wrongdoing, Jack could sue her and the hospital. Sophie didn't really know Katia
well. And she was in the insurance business, after all. What if Katia's friendliness was an act? What if she'd been sent to spy on Sophie? “You're very observant, Katia.”
“I think I can help, Sophie,” Katia said, spearing a cherry tomato with her fork. “Spend a day in the city with me?”
“What on earth for?”
“For fun. We'll go to lunch. Window-shop and pretend to buy clothes we can't afford. It's the kind of thing you do to take your mind off your troubles.”
Sophie smoothed the hem of her scrubs. “I don't think shopping will help. Besides, I haven't done anything like that since college.”
“Then you're overdue. Maybe we can get Mrs. Beabots to go with us.”
“Is she up to that?”
“Are you kidding?” Katia's eyes were round as plates. “Just mention shopping to her and watch her reaction. Has she shown you her treasures yet?”
“Her closets are a treasure trove. She's got so much vintage Chanel, it brings tears to my eyes. I'm a discount junkie. Seriously. I drive into Chicago to do most of my shopping since I know where to get all the best deals. I took Maddie and Sarah last weekend. You really need to come with me. We'll have a blast.”
“I'm not sure. I've never had the timeâ” Sophie's voice dropped off as she realized what truth she'd spoken. She didn't have girlfriends because friendships took time and effort. She poured all her concern and caring into her patients. That and the fact that once Sophie turned on her charm, most of her friends' boyfriends couldn't resist her. Sophie wasn't beautiful like Katia. Who was? But she had magnetism, and in the past she'd used it to her full advantage. Right now, Sophie couldn't muster a spark of allure for anyone. “Thanks for the invitation, Katia. But I don't know when I could break free.”
Katia nodded. “I understand. Apparently, you've been saving mankind. Admirable. Very admirable. But I still want to take you shopping.”
“I'm not that altruistic,” Sophie replied as the image of Jack's face flashed across her mind.
Katia sipped her tea. “I think you are. Lots of people do.”
“But not Jack Carter.” Sophie was fishing for information. That definitely wasn't altruistic, and it wasn't even a good strategy, but Sophie felt the glare of Jack's condemnation each time she did a shift in the ER.
“He'll come around,” Katia replied with a reassuring look in her eyes.
he was nervous about his meeting with Indian Lake Hospital's president, Emory Wills, but the butterflies in his stomach were about to drown in roiling acid. This deal had been over six months in the making. Katia had initiated the conversations with Emory and the hospital board, but as their inquiries and demands grew and their list of needs expanded, Jack felt it imperative that he take the reins in the negotiations. Katia had been present for most of the meetings so far, but a scheduling conflict had caused both Jack and Katia to do some quick shuffling. In the end, they decided that Katia would proceed with an extensive presentation to a group of local farmers that was nearly as important to Jack as the hospital's insurance policy.
Jack shook his head. When Katia had suggested last year that he move his insurance company from Chicago to Indian Lake to save on rent and other Illinois taxes, he'd actually scoffed at her. No more. How could he have known that this small community would be vital and progressive in some ways, while its appearance was that of another era? On the whole, Jack liked Indian Lake more and more by the day.
The receptionist in the hospital's admin wing was clearly above retirement age, and she appeared to handle a bevy of phone calls and issues with seasoned practice. As her hand flew over the phone intercom and dial pad, he noticed a large diamond wedding ring set. It wasn't the kind of thing Jack noticed ordinarily, but for some reason, he'd begun paying more attention to just about everyone and everything since he'd moved to Indian Lake.
Especially since the accident.
This was the first time he'd been back to the hospital since that night. He'd seen his doctors, as prescribed, but in their clinic offices. It was strange, almost eerie for him to be here, thinking about business...or at least
to thing about business. He kept seeing flashes of Aleah's face from that day. Her eagerness during the seminar, asking intelligent questions of the speaker. Later, seeing her laugh and joke with Owen in the car. Then came the pandemonium in the ER as the doctors tried to save her. Sophie's stricken face as she delivered the news that Aleah had died.
Jack told himself he'd never forgive Sophie for not saving Aleah, but already the grooves in that record were wearing deep. If he hadn't pushed Aleah to go to Chicago... If only he'd signed her up for the webinars online that she could have studied on her own, in her free time...
If only he'd seen the other car coming at them. But he'd been laughing at one of Owen's jokes. He'd glanced in the rearview mirror and in that split second, he'd missed it. He'd missed seeing death driving smack into them.
Jack's head pounded with pain, but he knew it had nothing to do with his concussion. It was stress. He was thinking too much.
Feeling too much.
He should be grateful for the medical care he'd received.
His ankle had healed nicely, and except when he turned a corner a bit too abruptly, he didn't notice it at all. The bruises around his eyes were a memory, but the scar over his eyebrow and those on his arms would take months, maybe years to disappear. It was just as well. They would remind him always of Aleah and what he owed her.
As his memories of the accident whipped up a fresh batch of guilt, Nate Barzonni walked up, accompanied by another man. Jack rose to greet them.
Nate grasped Jack's hand and then squeezed his forearm. “Good to see you, Jack. You're looking well.”
“Doing well,” Jack replied.
Nate turned to his left and said, “Jack, this is Dr. Roger Caldwell. It's his ablation unit that you'll be insuring for us.”
Jack smiled brightly. “Pleasure, Doctor. I'm impressed with your work and with your team.”
Dr. Caldwell beamed. “I'm very proud of my groupâespecially Nate. We were lucky to get him.” He smiled at Nate.
Nate gestured toward a group of chairs out of earshot of the receptionist then leaned toward Jack. “As you know, Jack, I worked with Katia to put this proposal together. I want to make sure President Wills doesn't flinch over a single aspect. So, I'll introduce you and give him a little background. That kind of thing.”
“I appreciate this, Nate. Katia has told me that Emory has been here since she was in high school and that he has a penchant for only doing business with Indian Lake natives. She would have been giving this presentation, but when he changed the meeting on us, she couldn't be in two places at once.”
“I understand,” Nate said.
“You can go in now, Dr. Barzonni. Dr. Caldwell.” The receptionist looked at Jack with steady green eyes. “And guest.”
Jack bit his lower lip to keep from laughing. It was his guess the woman had been in her position for decades. She was as protective as a mother lioness with her cubs. Employees like her were rare these days.
Jack wondered if he could hire her away from the hospital.
They entered the president's office.
Jack had expected something more grand, but then he was used to Chicago hospitals and private clinics. The room was the size of a suburban living room. Big enough for a desk, three side chairs and a small sofa against the far wall. The furnishings were dated. The pictures on the wall reminded Jack of cheap chain motels.
Jack chided himself for mentally criticizing the man's tasteâor lack of it. Jack hadn't done much better himself. Katia had decorated the office beautifully, sure, but he had yet to put out his family photographs on his desk. They were still in a box. To say nothing of his condo. The last time he'd bought fresh flowers was at Christmas, which were unexciting cedar sprigs and holly that had lasted nearly till Super Bowl Sunday.
“Jack,” Emory Wills said, shaking Jack's hand. “It's good to see you again.”
They all sat in the chairs surrounding Emory's desk. Nate spoke first.
“Emory, Roger and I wanted to join this meeting today because we both support Jack's proposal. I'm here to vouch for Jack as a friend as well as a businessman. Though he's new to town, I met him through my wife and her friends. I believe that Jack and his company truly have the best interests of the hospital in mind.”
Jack kept a warm smile on his face as Nate spoke. Ordinarily, Jack was not a suspicious man. He made a habit of taking people at their word. He'd liked Nate since the first time they'd met, but in light of Jack's accident and his experience in the ER, Jack wasn't completely sure if Nate wasn't trying to dodge a bullet for the hospital. Was Nate's effusiveness sincere? Did he really think Jack's company could help Indian Lake Hospital? Or did Nate feel guilty about the way Aleah died? What was his true motivation?
Jack still had questions about Aleah's treatment that he hadn't had the opportunity to discuss with Nate.
The irony of all ironies was that Jack was presenting the hospital with a massive malpractice insurance policy at the very time when he believed he might have cause to file a lawsuit of his own. Still, he couldn't bring suit if Aleah's parents didn't agree. At this point, they'd not returned any of his phone calls. They'd been perfunctorily polite at the funeral and burial, but that was all. It was as if they blamed Jack for the accident. Jack still hadn't received the complete police report, though he'd talked to Detective Trent Davis, the investigating officer that night in the ER. Actually, Jack had placed a call to Detective Davis that very morning requesting a meeting. He hadn't received an answer.
Jack didn't like loose ends. He was the kind of person who would dig through dozens of insurance products to find the best policy for his clients. Even Barry said he took his responsibilities too seriously, but Jack didn't care. He was a serious guy.
The Indian Lake Hospital was Jack and Katia's top pick for clients. Katia had signed Austin McCreary and his new antique car museum six months ago, and that sale had stabilized Jack's company in Indian Lake. Two months back, Jack had put together the package for Katia to present to the hospital, which would cover the buildings themselves. However, the high-tech equipment that Nate and Roger Caldwell used was insured by another provider. Jack had studied their current coverage and discovered that he could save the hospital thousands of dollars a year. Jack was here to discuss a comprehensive equipment insurance policy with Emory. What he had not proposed yet was a new malpractice policy, which would bring the entire hospital into Jack's sphere of responsibility.
The hospital was an enormously important coup for Jack. With a bit of persuasion, Emory might be agreeable to recommending Jack's company to other hospitals and medical clinics throughout the region, possibly the entire state of Indiana.
Jack and Katia had spent over a hundred hours on their presentation for a package that Emory would be negligent, at the very least, to turn down.
“As you know, Emory, my company already covers the building and campus. I've talked to you about the equipment policy, which is what we sent over to you a few weeks ago. So I'm here to address all your concerns.”
Emory tapped the file folder that bore the Carter and Associates logo against his desk. “I'm impressed, Jack. As I was with the policy you put together for us last winter for the campus. Your meticulousness is commendable, and I like the fact that you look out for my dollars as much as I do.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jack replied, feeling the warm glow he always did when a sale was going well. He'd get that hot rush of excitement once he heard Emory's pen scratch his signature on the last page, but not before. Emory's pause was longer than Jack liked. Was he rethinking the proposal already? Just how many objections was he going to raise? Jack's heart was in his throat, pounding out anxiety-riddled thumps. Jack had been too close to the finish line on deals just like this one and walked away empty-handed. Small town. Big city. The deals were virtually the same. It all came down to a few dollars and cents in the end.
“Jack,” Emory said in a tone that put Jack's instincts on alert. The other shoe was about to drop. No deal could be made without bumps. He just hoped it wouldn't be a rut.
“Yes?” Jack waited. He reminded himself to make sure his smile wasn't overly wide.
“There are a couple provisions that I've highlighted here.” Emory turned a group of pages toward Jack for him to peruse. “If you'll note, you broke out Dr. Caldwell's lab and surgical unit from the rest of the hospital. Why is that?”
Jack nodded. He had this one. “The ablation unit is brand-new and most of the insurance companies were asking for a very high premium. I was looking for something more...” Jack drew out his pause. “Affordable for you.”
“Excellent,” Emory replied. “Then the second point is the timing of the first premium. We can't do this.”
Jack gulped but hoped no one noticed. “Sir?”
“The board is prepared to switch over from our current carrier at the end of this year but not before. I realize that if we went with you right now, we'd save over twenty grand. However, there were some, er, allegiances from the boardâthat is to say, one of our membersâ”
“Is a very old friend of your present insurance agent. I know that, sir,” Jack finished for him, hopefully alleviating any embarrassment on Emory's part.
Nate and Roger exhaled with relief. Just as he'd thought. They'd known about this complication. It was a good thing Jack believed in background research. He was prepared for this delay. He didn't like it, but he would have to accept it if he wanted the business.
Jack continued, “I can prepare the paperwork to be executed for a December thirty-first date. How would that be?”
Emory's bushy gray eyebrows shot up as he grinned widely. “That would be just fine, Jack.”
Jack picked up his leather briefcase and put it on his lap. “Now that we're agreed on this first order of business, I wonder if I might make another proposal to you, Emory.”
Emory glanced at Nate and Roger, then back at Jack. “Do they need to leave?”
“Not at all.” Jack withdrew a thick, three-ring binder with his company logo. “Though I don't have access to your current policy, I took the liberty of preparing a proposal for you because I believe that no matter what you are paying now, I can save the hospital more money.”
Jack handed the binder to Emory, who flipped open the cover and gasped. “This is malpractice insurance.”
“That's correct. It's my guess that your current agent also provides this service for you. All I ask is that you review my product and see for yourself if I can't provide a larger umbrella at a lower cost.”
Emory had already been rifling through the pages and checking out the tabs as Jack spoke. He pinned Jack with his eyes. “I will look at it, but that's all I can promise.”
“I totally understand, and I'm grateful for the opportunity.”
Emory rose from his chair, signaling the end of the meeting. He held out his hand. “I'll be in touch, Jack.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jack replied before leaving the room with the two doctors.
* * *
the middle of the reception area dressed in her street clothes. It was the first time Jack had seen her since the accident. Her hair had been pulled back that night, but now it just skimmed her shoulders in dark, luminous waves and she'd pinned a piece of it over her right ear with a massive coral and rhinestone barrette. There were coral hoops in her ears that matched her cotton sundress. On her feet were beige espadrilles. She was tanned and her skin glowed.
Jack couldn't take his eyes off her.
Sophie hadn't noticed him at all. She went straight to Nate.
“Dr. Barzonni,” she said, handing him a group of faxed papers. “The office just got a call from the reservation clinic. There's been an emergency. Here's the patient's information for you to review. They said you've treated him before.”