Authors: Janet Lane-Walters
He responded to her smile. “My pleasure.”
She paused in the doorway and waved to the patient. “See you in an hour.” She turned to Eric. “What brings you to ICU?”
“Without an entourage? Sandra drags the supervisors and nurse managers with her.”
The sarcastic tone of her voice made him glad Sandra had been busy. “I see more this way. I’m impressed with your exercise cycle. Part of your Master’s thesis?”
“You’ve got it.”
“Do you have time for coffee?”
“Jen, could you give me a hand?” The call came from the next room.
“There’s your answer. See you.”
“Friday at eight thirty.” He hadn’t planned to make an announcement, but his words had emerged in a near shout. The brassy blonde Sandra had introduced him to at the picnic rose from a chair at the desk. Her sly smile promised he and Jenessa would be featured in the latest round of gossip to sweep through the hospital. He shrugged. Then, wondering why he didn’t care who knew he was seeing Jenessa, he headed for the nurse manager’s office.
* * *
On Friday evening, Jenessa dashed into the apartment fifteen minutes later than she’d planned. Instead of counting the number of tranquilizers, sedatives and narcotics in the cabinet, the night nurse had been intent on gossip. Her story, a greatly embellished version of the one Jenessa had heard at the picnic, stated that a member of the administration had an inside line with the company seeking to purchase the hospital.
The woman had speculated about Eric. Where had he worked before coming to Eastlake? Who besides Sam Gray did he know? How had he beaten out Sandra for the job?
Jenessa frowned. She didn’t know the answer and she refused to believe the rumors.
The apartment door slammed behind her. She dropped her purse on the couch and unbuttoned the stained and rumpled uniform that had been pristine that morning. As she sprinted for the bathroom, she heard Megan singing. Her roommate stood in front of the mirror making minor adjustments in her make-up.
“Are you going to be long?” Jenessa asked.
“Why?” Megan asked.
“I have a date at eight thirty.”
Megan raised an eyebrow. “Anyone I know?”
“Eric,” Jenessa mumbled. She hadn’t told her roommate about the encounter in the laundry room or about coffee at Frank’s Place because she hadn’t wanted to face one of Megan’s interrogations. Jenessa entered her bedroom, opened the closet and took out an aqua jumpsuit.
Thirty seconds later, Megan appeared at the door. “Is this the Eric, otherwise known as the enemy? The bathroom’s yours. Why don’t the two of you join Josh and me at the Cove?”
“We have other plans.” Jenessa slid past Megan and closed the bathroom door. Her roommate’s prediction rang in her thoughts. “An opposition can be exciting. He’s perfect for you.”
So why were her emotions coiled like the spring in a Jack in the Box? Any discussion with Megan would pop the lid. Jenessa knew if she let an inkling of her confusion escape, she wouldn’t have a moment’s peace. She soaped, rinsed and toweled dry.
The doorbell rang. Not Eric, she prayed. Not while Megan was still home.
Megan charged down the hall. “Have a good time. I knew this would happen.” A second ring punctuated the end of her sentence. “Josh, I’m coming.”
Jenessa faced the mirror and practiced deep breathing. Slowly, her back muscles released their grip on her spine. Then, realizing she was hungry, she ran to the kitchen for a container of yogurt. When the doorbell rang, she swallowed the last spoonful and carried the container to the door.
Eric nodded. “Just a snack? We could hit the buffet at the Cove.”
She thought of Megan’s relentless curiosity and shook her head. “I’ve been craving buttered popcorn all day.” She dropped the yogurt container in the garbage and returned to the living room for her purse.
“Then that’s what you’ll get.” He held the door for her. “Glad you got off on time. I knew your unit had a sick call for tonight and I was afraid you’d be tapped for overtime.”
“I’m on tomorrow and Sunday. Even Sandra wouldn’t have the nerve to ask.” She entered the elevator. “So when do contract talks begin?”
“The Board hasn’t addressed the issue.”
“We won’t accept that.”
“You’ll have to.”
During the drive to the movie theater, they talked about music, food and books. Jenessa slipped in questions about his previous jobs. His deft evasions stirred her suspicions. Why was he being so secretive? She didn’t want to believe he was part of a plot.
Somewhere between the ticket booth and their seats, the last shred of ease vanished. Why had she agreed to this sedentary activity? Bowling would have been a better choice. The physical activity would have kept her awareness of him from racing like a heart out of control.
She clutched a tub of buttered popcorn. He held a box of plain. She sat on the far side of her seat and he pressed against the right arm of his. As she watched scenes from the coming attractions, tension gathered like a developing storm.
The feature, a comedy, began. While trying to find a comfortable position, she shifted in her seat. He moved in an equally restless dance. Because she didn’t want to put her arm on the armrest they shared, she dug into the popcorn. His hand moved to his mouth with the same regularity as hers.
The slapsticks of the hero bordered on absurdity. She laughed. His deeper voice echoed hers. Soon their blended laughter vanquished her stiff self-consciousness. His elbow rested on the shared armrest. She wiped butter from her hands.
Dumb, she thought as her fingers twined with his. Even though she sensed the danger of the action, she didn’t move away. Friends? As a soothing warmth enclosed her, her breath halted. What was she going to do? A friend didn’t hold hands and wish for more. How long could this union of opposites last?
When the feature ended and the lights came on, she stared at the blank screen. His hand moved away and he rose. She followed him up the aisle and outside. A few fat drops of rain fell on the sidewalk.
“I’ll get the car,” he said.
“Let’s race. If this means cooler weather, I’ll gladly get soaked.”
He reached the dark blue sedan and opened the passenger’s door. “I guess you’re too wet to stop at Frank’s for dessert.” He slid behind the wheel.
She laughed. “I’m never too anything to miss dessert.”
* * *
An hour later, Jenessa stood with her back against the apartment door. Eric rested one hand on the wall and stared down at her. She focused her gaze on his chin. He stood close, but not near enough to invade her space, though the pine scent of his aftershave did.
She looked up. His gaze held temptation. A wish to touch his lips with her fingertips grew, but she knew any movement on her part would destroy the sense of ease she felt.
“What are you doing over Labor Day weekend?” he asked.
“Heading to my family’s cottage on Shadow Lake. We go up every year with a group of friends. It’s a tradition. Why?”
“I thought… Never mind.”
She could ask him to come along. Friends were always welcome, but were they really friends? She hesitated.
He lightly tapped her chin with his knuckles. “Night.”
Before making a move she might regret, Jenessa opened the door. “See you.”
Inside the apartment, she leaned against the door and fought a blaze of desire. Flame-like fantasies danced in her thoughts. She shook her head. Physical attraction wasn’t enough. She’d fallen into that trap before.
She walked to her room. Why him? Why now?
* * *
Why her? Why now? Eric waited for the elevator and curbed a wish to knock on her apartment door. He’d come to Eastlake as a favor to Sam. Becoming involved with one of the nurses who might be working to undermine his career was a foolish step.
He pressed for the elevator again. He should have told her about Claremont Hospital. That would have ended the rapport growing between them. Though he would have still felt attracted, she would have walked away. He didn’t want that to happen.
Jenessa leaned against the counter in the break room and licked the last bite of yogurt from the spoon. She eyed the chairs at the small table against the far wall and groaned. There wasn’t time to eat a sandwich or collapse for fifteen minutes. As usual, the unit was under-staffed. She rotated her shoulders to relieve the tension caused by working four thirteen-hour shifts in five days.
Nothing had changed. Though she’d sent memos to the Board requesting negotiations begin, there’d been no response. Nan might be right. A complaint to the Labor Board might be the only way to go. Somehow, that seemed like an admission of failure to her.
She crushed the container and tossed it in the trash. Would Eric know anything? Maybe she… She shook her head. She couldn’t ask him or even see him again. Their date last week had been a mistake and had filled her with yearning and grief.
“Would Chuck want you to lead a nun’s life?” Megan had voiced a dozen variations on the theme.
Jenessa had no idea what her husband would have wanted. There’d been no time for that kind of discussion. She had known him forever, but they had been strangers.
With a groan, she pushed away from the counter and strode to the desk. The middle-aged unit secretary motioned. Her fingers fluttered furiously. What minor problem had baffled Mrs. Sikes? The woman’s usefulness for the crisis centered ICU bordered on zero.
“Mrs. Robertson, Ms. Wallace just called.” The woman’s nasal voice rose to an ear-piercing pitch. “There’s been a sick call for nights. Someone has to stay until eleven. You tell them. They’ll yell at me.”
The whine in Mrs. Sikes voice made Jenessa’s head ache. “Why doesn’t Bev handle this? It’s her job.”
“She left at noon to take some comp time.”
Or to avoid an unpleasant duty. Five minutes later, Jenessa assembled her co-workers at the desk. “Sick call for tonight. Someone has to stay until eleven.”
A panicked look crossed Pam’s face. “Again? Wonder who’s using their sick time before they resign?”
Claire twisted a strand of brassy blonde hair around her finger. “Aren’t I the lucky one? I worked ‘til eleven last night.”
“I’m doing an extra tomorrow.” Rachel rested a plump thigh against the desk. “If they give me tomorrow off, I’ll stay.”
Jenessa reached for the over-time book. “Let’s see who’s up.”
“Don’t bother.” Pam’s eyes filled with tears. “It’s me. What am I going to do with my kids? My sitter refuses to stay after eight thirty and I can’t afford to lose her.”
“I’ll stay.” The words were out before Jenessa realized she’d decided to volunteer. As a single mother, Pam should be exempt.
“Bless you...Wait a minute. Aren’t you and Megan going to Shadow Lake after work?”
Jenessa nodded. “No problem. If she doesn’t want to wait, she can go up with her brother.”
“I hate this place,” Rachel said. “Guess the float pool’s signed with X-tra Hands.”
“What’s that?” Jenessa asked.
“Where have you been?” Claire stood with her hands on her hips. “It’s a staffing agency.”
“They run a mini-van to the city,” Pam said. “If they had child care, I’d sign on in a minute.”
Was the staffing agency responsible for the recent spate of resignations? Even with a decent contract, could the hospital compete? She reached for the phone and called Megan’s unit.
“Jen, what’s up?”
“Can you hitch a ride with Alex?”
“Sure. Are you backing out again? You’ve got to face being there some time.”
“I’ll be there. I’m working until eleven. Sick call.”
“Then I’ll see you in the morning. You can help me with Johnny while my brother is golfing.”
Jenessa laughed. “You mean run after your nephew while you work on your tan. Bring sandwiches. I’ll bring the drinks.”
By eleven, Jenessa felt drained. As she trudged across the street, she considered waiting until morning. Inside the apartment, she tripped over her duffel. A note from Megan was pinned to the strap.
“Packed what I thought you’d need. The beach at nine. The kid and I will be waiting. Don’t chicken out.”
She lifted the duffel and headed for the car. Megan was right. Since the night of Chuck’s accident, she’d avoided the lake. The time to face her ghosts had come.
In the parking lot, she tossed the duffel behind the seat of her red sports car. After sucking in a deep breath, she backed from the parking space and shot into the street.
A half hour later, a huge yawn made her eyes water. Exhaustion swamped her. Her foot hit the gas. The needle on the speedometer swooped past seventy. The car veered toward the other lane. Her heart pounded in staccato rhythm.
She should have waited until morning. She should have requested to work this weekend. The sixteen hour tour of duty had eroded her reserves and dissolved the barriers she’d erected against the past. She turned the radio to blaring and the air conditioner to frigid.
The car swerved again and seemed to bump. She pulled off the road and glared at the flat right rear tire.
What luck for this to happen on the most deserted part of the road. Even if she had her cell phone that was sitting on her dresser at the apartment, everyone would still be in town. Stifling a groan, she opened the trunk. Being the only girl in a family of car jocks had some benefits. She positioned the jack.
Twenty minutes later, she arrived at the rambling cottage and pulled into a space between her brother’s cars. She wheeled the tire into the car port and carried her duffel into the house. As she entered the kitchen, she turned on the lights. She was here where the happiest moments of her life had begun and ended.
A cup of coffee warmed in the microwave failed to touch her exhaustion. She felt too tense to sleep. She carried the coffee into the family room and turned on the TV. The flickering images failed to draw her from the influx of memories.
“You want to force me into a mold where I don’t fit.” Chuck’s angry words thundered in her thoughts.
The phone rang and she grasped the receiver. For several seconds, she wasn’t sure if she existed in the present or the past. “Hello.” Her voice quivered with tension. Then she identified the speaker and her body relaxed. “The Ice Cream Parlor...I’ll pass. See you in the morning.”
With a sigh, she turned off the TV and headed down the hall to the bedroom that had been hers since the first summer at Shadow Lake, the summer she’d met Chuck and Megan.
She pulled on a tee shirt and slid beneath the sheets. A breeze stirred the curtains. Crickets and frogs filled the night with sound. The tears she hid from everyone slid down her cheeks.
* * *
A band of sunlight inched across Jenessa’s face. She yawned and stretched and glanced at the clock. Laughter quickly hushed, rode the breeze through the open window.
“What do you mean she’s sleeping?” Megan asked.
“Mom said if we woke her, we wouldn’t get lunch,” one of Jenessa’s brothers said.
She leaned her elbows on the windowsill. “You’re in luck. I’m awake.” She watched Megan’s nephew try to catch the gray cat that sat on the wall. She had promised her friend she’d help watch him while his father played golf. Jenessa didn’t mind. She enjoyed playing games with the motherless child.
“About time,” Megan said. “Have you ever tried to entertain a four year old who wants sand and water? I’ve sprouted nine gray hairs.”
Jenessa laughed. “Good thing you’re a blonde. Be with you in a few.”
She hurried to the bathroom, showered and emerged wearing a deep blue maillot. On her way through the kitchen, she stopped to drink a glass of orange juice and eat a doughnut. She filled a thermos with lemonade and put doughnuts in a plastic bag.
Her mother shook her head. “What kind of breakfast is that?”
“Megan has sandwiches. I’ll eat healthy tonight.” She blew a kiss. “I’ll be back to help with our contribution to the barbecue.”
“Corn and strawberries tonight. Chicken tomorrow and potato salad Monday.”
The screen banged behind her. She ran down the walk and paused at the top of the steps leading to the beach. “Megan, Johnny, what’s keeping you?”
“You up for volleyball this afternoon?” Danny asked.
“You bet,” Jenessa said. “Us against the rest.”
“Not fair,” Megan said. “You guys are too good.”
Jenessa shrugged. Four against six or seven sounds fair to me.”
Johnny ran down the steps and across the sand to the lake. “Watch me swim.”
Jenessa reached for the bulging bag of toys. “Are you staying for a month?”
“He kept stuffing things in.” Megan followed Jenessa down the steps. “Johnny, wait. Jen, keep an eye on him. Dad said he tried to swim to the raft yesterday.”
For an hour, Jenessa romped on the sand and in the water with the four-year-old. Megan lay on a towel and watched. Finally, Jenessa grabbed Johnny’s hand. “I’m starved. Race you to Aunt Megan?”
“Okay.” He ran ahead of her.
Jenessa collapsed on a towel. The sadness she’d forgotten during the active play returned. Could she maintain a calm exterior for the rest of the long weekend? She didn’t want to ruin the holiday for her friends and family. She opened the cooler and took a sandwich for Johnny and one for herself.
“Want a doughnut.”
“After you eat your sandwich and some melon.” Megan glared at Jenessa. “Doughnuts.”
Jenessa poured three glasses of lemonade and took a second sandwich. “Mom made them.”
“Brimming with fat and calories.” Megan reached for a glass. “Are you all right?”
Johnny finished his lunch. “Swim.”
“Not yet.” Jenessa spilled the sand toys on the ground. “Let’s build a castle. You too, Megan.”
For a half-hour, they collaborated on a huge sandcastle. When Johnny yawned, Megan lifted him to her hip. “Nap time.” She turned to Jenessa. “You coming?”
Jenessa collected toys and shoved them in the string bag. “I think I’ll swim to the raft.”
“You shouldn’t go alone.”
“I’ve done it a hundred times. Volleyball at three. I’ll leave the toys and other paraphernalia on the patio.”
“Thanks.” Megan headed down the beach toward her father’s cottage.
Jenessa folded the umbrella and the towels and dropped everything near the steps. She gazed down the beach. Her friend had stopped to talk to a tall man. Sunlight turned his hair to gold.
Eric, Jenessa thought.
Can’t be. I’m hallucinating.
She ran to the shore and waded into the water. After pushing off, she swam to the wooden raft.
When she reached the platform that bobbed in the swell from a passing motorboat, she pulled herself onto the raft. She sat with her arms curled around her legs. Why had she thought she’d seen Eric? Since their first encounter, his presence had invaded her thoughts. Still, did she have to see him in every distant man with golden hair?
She lay on her stomach and trailed one hand in the water. Heat from the sun warmed her skin and dried her suit.
Shadow Lake fulfilled its name. Memories of her husband lurked on the beach, in the water and at the cottage. Recollections of his laughter, teasing, love-making and accusations were as numerous as the grains of sand on the beach.
The float tilted. She slid along the painted surface. She rolled over and a gasp escaped. Convinced she was seeing an apparition, she blinked. Why was Eric here?
His voice caressed each syllable of her name. Shivers flashed along nerves. “What are you doing here?”
“Sam offered me his cabin for the weekend. He and Simone will arrive Sunday afternoon.”
She clasped her knees and stared at her toes. If she looked at him, he’d read her expression and learn things she hoped to hide. “Are you coming to the barbecue?”
He pulled himself onto the raft. To avoid staring at his green swim trunks and his taut abdomen, she studied the scars on his shoulder. Surgery, but why?
“Megan told me, but could I persuade you to have dinner with me?”
She shook her head. “The barbecues are traditions. They’re fun.” More fun than fighting the desires he stirred.
“Don’t you have any?”
“Someday, I’ll tell you.”
* * *
He studied her. Her eyes were shielded and her voice bland. What had caused the change from her usual animation? For a week, he’d fought the attraction. Had he imagined her response to him?
No matter, he thought. Being in her presence made him feel he’d jumped into a deeper hole than he wanted.
She rose. His eyes narrowed in appreciation of the way her suit molded her curves. Heat rushed to his groin. She turned and flashed a smile. “The barbecue…you’ll come?”
“I think I will.”
She stood on the edge of the raft. “There’s a volleyball game this afternoon. The other team needs players. Race you to the beach.” Without giving him a chance to answer, she dove into the water. He followed and tried to match her strokes. She reached the beach and wrapped a towel sarong fashion about herself. Then she threw him a towel.