Authors: Janet Lane-Walters
“He would have died another day. Child, you’ve got to put the past to rest. You’re so focused on something that can’t be changed that you’re knotted inside. Don’t tear yourself apart over this patient.”
Anger surged. Dr. Carter had given up on Tommy. She couldn’t. This time, she would prove the doctors wrong.
She covered her face with her hands. A shuddering sigh escaped. Eric had helped. Eric had said— Along with a quick intake of breath, came recognition. Eric had been the other person at her husband’s bedside.
Why hadn’t he told her? Maybe he didn’t remember. There was no reason why he should. He’d jumped into the middle of an emergency and helped. There’d been no connection. Her memories of him had been buried beneath an avalanche of grief.
She rose and returned to the station to complete her charts. By the time she finished giving report to the night nurse, she felt drained and cold. Home, she thought. A gallon of hot chocolate, a steaming shower and bed. Beneath these thoughts fluttered a desire to have someone hold her. Get a grip, she thought and headed out the door.
In the middle of the street, she halted. She’d forgotten the protest forms. For months, she’d ended each tour of duty by delivering them to the Nursing Office. How could she have forgotten?
Go back. Go home.
A silent debate began. Home, she decided. The forms could wait.
* * *
Eric lifted the last bag of groceries from the car. He glanced toward the hospital.
It’s barely eight o’clock. Jenessa seldom left before eight thirty because she had to deliver the protest forms that documented unsafe conditions for the patients.
He frowned and thought of his assistant’s way of dealing with the complaints. He’d stopped her practice of shredding them.
“File them,” he’d told her. “I’m sure the nurses have copies and you can be sure if a patient sues a nurse, her copy will place the blame on the hospital. It would look like we’re hiding something if our copies weren’t available.”
He closed the trunk and glanced at the hospital. Jenessa was trudging across the street. Her slumped shoulders worried him. Had working with Tommy Greene drained her? The intensity of her involvement with the boy put her at risk for burnout.
They reached the door into the building at the same time. “Looks like you need help.” A shadow of her usually bright smile curved her lips.
He shifted the bags. “Thanks.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” She held the door so he could enter.
“Tell you what?”
“That you were at Claremont Hospital when my husband died.”
Her brittle expression made him fear she would shatter. “Because...” He searched for words that wouldn’t complete her collapse. “I thought you wouldn’t want to remember.”
She nodded. “It’s a time I can’t forget. I knew someone was with me, that someone tried to help. Two weeks after the funeral, I called, but no one remembered who’d been there. I wanted to say thank you.” She followed him through the lobby to his door.
His shoulder muscles tensed. His stomach knotted. “None necessary. You needed help. I was there.”
He opened his apartment door and set the bags on the table. Until she admitted the reason for her husband’s death, he couldn’t tell her of his total involvement. Did she know her husband hadn’t been wearing a helmet? Or that it had been a brain stem injury?
“I don’t think I could eat.”
“Coffee, tea, talk.” The misery in her eyes made him act. He clasped her hand. “Did something happen that made you remember?”
She nodded. “Tommy coded. I wasn’t there. I had to transfer a patient.”
“Would anything have changed if you’d been there?” He drew her into a light embrace.
Savoring the comfort he offered, she rested her head against his chest. She sighed. “You’re right. Thanks.”
“No problem. Sure I can’t offer you dinner?”
“Hot chocolate if you have any.”
“With marshmallows or without?”
“With. Go ahead and fix dinner for yourself.”
“I’ll wait. I think you need to talk more than I need food.”
She watched him walk away. We’ll talk, that’s all, she thought. He’s everything I could want, but I’ve nothing to offer. She felt as drained and as numb as she’d felt three years before.
She stood in the center of the living room and glanced into the dining room, an area missing in the apartment she shared with Megan. Then she surveyed the living room. The dark green couch looked comfortable, but she felt too restless to sit.
A room reveals so much about a person, she thought. The room suited Eric. On the wall above the couch, a pair of Samurai swords hung next to an exquisite Japanese ink drawing…Gentleness and strength, just like the man.
She crossed to the rolltop desk and looked at the collection of pictures. Two boys about four and five presented dimpled smiles.
“They look like you.”
“So does my brother and my dad.” He handed her a picture of three men in police uniforms. “Taken when I graduated from the academy in Philly.”
“Do you see them often?”
“A couple of times a year. Dad’s retired from the force and lives in Florida. He’s in charge of a hectic ER.”
“We went to school together.”
He laughed. “Could be.” He handed her a cup of hot chocolate.
She sat on the couch and sipped. “Delicious.”
“Do you want to talk?”
She sighed. “It’s hard.”
He sat beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. “You were devastated the night he died. I remember how you looked.”
She turned and saw admiration in his eyes. Would he feel the same if he knew she’d driven Chuck to his death? Her demands had precipitated a quarrel and his angry departure. “It was…” She couldn’t force the confession.
He squeezed her shoulder. “Take your time.”
The tears she usually hid from others spilled hot and heavy. Great sobs shook her body. She rested her forehead against his chest.
He rocked her gently and murmured comforting sounds. Why did she feel guilty? Her actions at the hospital the day her husband died had shown her love. He wished he could inspire the same. Instead, there’d been Gail, a tempestuous affair and her hidden agenda.
He inhaled the floral scent of Jenessa’s shampoo and pushed memories away.
She raised her head. He wiped her eyes with a tissue. “I...didn’t...mean...to cry...all over you.”
“I think they’ve been a long time coming.”
She nodded. “Especially when there’s someone to see.”
He touched her face. “Sometimes it’s hard to let go of feelings.” Though her face was blotchy and her eyes were reddened, she looked beautiful. He bent and brushed her lips with his.
Instead of pulling away, she leaned into him. The gentle kiss took off like a roller coaster down the first big drop. Her hand brushed his chest. His nipples tightened. Blood rushed to his groin. He growled and lifted his head to look at her. Her eyes held the blue of a summer sky after a storm.
She stared. His hazel eyes glowed with desire. Instead of uneasiness, she felt a need to explore. For three years, she’d shelved all thoughts of passion. This man had burrowed beneath her fences and planted thoughts of life.
As the kiss deepened, she ran her hands up his chest and over his shoulders. Beneath the knit shirt, she felt ridges of scar tissue. She wished she’d been there to comfort him when he’d been injured. He’d been with her and shared the worst moment of her life.
He shifted position until they were stretched on the couch, mouth to mouth, chest to chest, groin to groin. His hand slipped beneath her scrub top. Wild fire raced along her nerves.
She raised her head and looked into his eyes. His hands lightly stroked her breasts. “Jenessa.”
His erection throbbed against her and brought the answering pulse of her own arousal.
The need to experience more than the surface existence she’d lived for three years erupted in a shuddering moan. “Please.” She met his mouth in a wild kiss that broke through the dam of her buried emotions.
He ended the kiss. “We can’t, love.”
Enchantment shattered. Why had she made a fool of herself? “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
When she tried to pull away, he held her close. “I want you more than you know, but I’m not prepared to keep you safe.”
She met his gaze. Intense desire made her eyes gleam like faceted emeralds in sunlight. She smiled. He had an inner control her husband had lacked. Chuck had never worried about protecting her or himself.
She slid away from Eric. Something she’d forgotten or deliberately ignored rose in her thoughts. The night of the accident, Chuck had ridden off without his helmet. She remembered how the streetlights had shone on his dark hair. Confusion roiled in her thoughts. She needed time and space to consider what this new data meant.
“I...have to go.”
“We need to talk.”
Perhaps they did, but at this moment, she couldn’t organize her jumbled emotions. She felt like the victim of a virulent virus—fevered—delirious. She jumped from the couch and headed to the door. Her hands shook as she turned the knob. In the hall, she hurried to the door to the stairs.
Eric reached the door. “We need to talk.”
The stairwell door banged. Should he follow? He grabbed the edge of the door. Frustration filled his thoughts.
A week later, Eric’s frustration remained constant. He dropped the receiver in the cradle. Jenessa remained as elusive as the wind. The messages he’d left with Megan or on the answering machine had gone unanswered. He could have gone to ICU, but he had no desire for a public meeting.
Gail had aired their problems in front of the other nurses. Gossip had swept through the hospital like an epidemic. One such exposure had been enough.
Was Jenessa’s busy schedule an excuse to avoid him? She had evening classes at Grantley, overtime at the hospital. He couldn’t help remembering her heated response to his kiss and her flight. She had seemed disappointed when he’d pulled back. Her expression hadn’t been faked.
He grabbed his clipboard and headed for the door. There was a board meeting in ten minutes and a contract for the nurses headed the agenda. As he rounded the corner, the elevator doors opened.
Jenessa dashed out and crashed into him. He put his arms around her. She looked up and grinned. With the force of a drum roll, desire filled him. He sucked in a breath laced with her floral shampoo. Instead of heading to the Board room, he wanted to carry her to his bedroom and complete what they had begun last Tuesday night.
“Someday I’ll learn to look,” she said.
“Maybe in fifty years.” He tightened his hold. “Are you avoiding me?”
A flush crept along her cheeks. She stared at a spot over his shoulder. “Not exactly. It’s... I’ve a dozen things going on.”
“You could have returned one of my calls.”
She closed her eyes. “I could have, but it’s... I’m not ready for...”
“To let go. To reach out.”
He released her. “What happened between us last week really shook me, too. We can’t ignore it.”
“I’ve got to go. There’s a meeting of the negotiating committee. Not that there’s anything to consider.”
“There will be. We’re discussing the contract tonight.”
“Unless Bishop finds a more important issue.”
“What could be more important?”
“He’ll find something. I think he wants a strike.”
Eric’s shoulder throbbed. He strode across the lobby. “All right. Just what do you know?”
She frowned. “He’s fought and delayed ever since our contract expired. He’s kept the Board from making a counter offer.”
“I’ve never seen anything from the union.”
She opened the door. “One arrived. Delivered in person.”
“I’ve talked to a number of Board members who want to see this settled.”
“He doesn’t and what Bishop wants, Bishop gets.”
Eric caught her hand. “We could argue until we both miss our meetings. Let’s meet at Frank’s, say around nine thirty.”
“Are you sure you want to hear ‘I told you so?’”
“I won’t.” He turned her to face him. His lips met hers.
For an instant, she surrendered. Then she wiggled free. “Frank’s at nine thirty for talk, period.” She ran across the parking lot and got into her car.
Eric stood at the edge of the walk. Her car sped from the lot the way she’d raced into his life. When the taillights vanished over the crest of the hill, he jogged across the street to the hospital.
Twenty minutes later, Bishop banged his gavel on the massive oak table in the gloomy basement Boardroom. Eric put his coffee cup in the saucer and looked at the older man. The smile on the Board president’s face turned into a glare after he looked at his copy of the agenda.
“We’re scraping this.” He crumpled the paper. “Those little girls who think they run this place are meeting tonight to call for a strike vote.”
Tension gripped Eric’s shoulder muscles. The scar tissue throbbed. Jenessa’s comments flared in his thoughts. Had she known? He pressed his hands against the table. “A few negotiating sessions could head off the trouble.”
“Agreed,” Sam said. Several of the doctors nodded.
“Hogwash,” Bishop said. “Giving them a contract is like slapping one patch on a tire with twenty holes. Let them throw a tantrum. After a month on the streets, they’ll jump for any bait we dangle.”
“I don’t agree,” Eric said. “How can you say talks won’t work when they haven’t been tried?”
“Hah! They’re going to strike and nothing we do will stop them.”
Eric fought against the memories that swirled like the twisting winds of a cyclone and pulled him into the past.
Darkness. Clouds hid the moon. A dank odor filled the air. Men wearing dark clothes formed a chain blocking the entrance to the newspaper printing plant. A second group strode down the street. Eric stood with his fellow officers and waited for trouble to begin.
“Scabs on the way.”
Like the aftermath of a stick thrust into an ant hill, violence erupted. Two sets of truckers clashed. Eric waded into the melee. He separated a pair of combatants. Hands shoved against his back. He stumbled and fell. As he tried to rise, a heavy object slammed against his shoulder. Along with excruciating pain came a rush of nausea. He slid into oblivion.
“All in favor.”
Eric blinked. The group of men and women seated at the massive table slid into focus.”
What motion? His hands remained on the arms of the chair. How could he vote when he hadn’t heard the motion? A surge of guilt flushed away the remnants of his trip in the past. Before he could speak, Bishop announced the motion had passed.
“Here are plans for a cardiac catheterization unit I’d like you to look over,” Bishop said. “When the proposal came across my desk, I took a good look. You know how I feel about profits.” Several Board members laughed.
“Profit makes a company,” he continued. “Eastlake Community’s no different from any corporation. We need to expand and grow. We’ll vote next time. Do I have a motion to adjourn the meeting?”
Before Eric had a chance to speak, a motion was made and seconded. He remained slumped in his chair until the last Board member left. How had Bishop learned about the strike vote?
Why hadn’t Jenessa mentioned it during their brief meeting? He could have prepared to counter the Board president’s arguments. His files were filled with stories about the effects of strikes on hospitals. Right now, he felt as though he was riding the leading edge of a hurricane and was being swept into a situation where he had no control.
He turned and saw Sam in the doorway. “I’ve been a fool again.”
Sam leaned against the wall. “How so?”
“By trusting Jenessa.”
“Why do you think that?”
“She knew Bishop would change the agenda. She never told me about this strike vote.”
Sam sauntered from the Board room. “How did she know? The man’s predictable. He’s known for changing the agenda to suit his needs. Man’s after something.”
“That’s why you’re here. What were you doing during the discussion?”
“On a bad trip in the past.” Anger at himself slowly seeped into his thoughts. He had to put the past to rest. He remembered what Jenessa had said. “Hiding from the past doesn’t solve anything.” She’d been right.
Sam slapped his hand on the wall. “Know what we did tonight? Granted Bishop discretionary powers. If the nurses walk, we gave him the right to deal with them anyway he pleases.”
So that was the subject of the vote he’d missed. “Will they strike?” Eric rubbed his hand over the ornately carved chair back.
Sam shrugged. “Simone says the committee’s divided with several members bouncing from one side to the other.”
“Man, she’s not Gail. She’s not out to gain points from using you.” Sam rubbed his short clipped dark hair. “She’ll fight for a decent contract. She’s not part of the strike party.”
The winds of relief brushed over Eric. “Who?”
“I vote for Claire Stone. She and Sandra are great buddies.”
“Have the nurses made an offer?”
“Five months ago. Jenessa marched into a Board meeting and distributed copies. Like he did with your agenda tonight, Bishop collected all but the one Wallace shoved in her bulging briefcase. Dumped them in the trash.”
Eric reached for the cart holding the silver coffee and tea service used at Board meetings. “I’ll ask Sandra for her copy.”
“You’d be better off asking Jenessa. Has Wallace been more cooperative lately?”
“Hardly. She resents my presence.” Eric pushed the cart to the door. “Her actions puzzle me. I don’t understand why she didn’t resign when she didn’t get the job.”
“A lot puzzles me,” Sam said. “First Bishop tries to push her into your seat. Then he backs down after the Board saw your qualifications. What do you know about her?”
“Very little. All I found in her file was a letter from Bishop.”
“Around here, that’s all it takes.” Sam turned out the lights. “How about heading to the Cove with me?”
Eric grinned. “Can’t. Have a date at nine thirty.”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “Jenessa? Thought she brushed you off at the lake.”
“I have time.”
Eric parked the cart beside the elevator. “I met her three years ago. She didn’t remember me until last Tuesday.”
“Sounds like a great start.”
“Not true. I assisted with her husband’s code. Not something I wanted to remind her of.”
Sam rapped his forehead with his knuckles. “For sure. What happened?”
“She remembered and stopped by to thank me.”
“And... Forget I asked.”
Eric opened the stairwell door. “Forgotten. Any idea where I can get the tapes of the board meeting minutes?”
“Not the tapes. Since I’m officially the secretary, I inherited boxes of typed minutes from the last one. Why?”
“Something Dr. Carter said. You know the rumors that are making the rounds.”
“About a sale. Yeah. Simone mentioned them.”
“Evidently it nearly happened some years ago. I want to see if there are any details in the minutes.”
Eric nodded. “About this cardiac cath unit. Won’t be cheap and might not be cost effective. How’s the hospital going to finance the deal?’
“I don’t see how that would make enough money.”
“Not the game. The trust fund.”
Sam nodded. “Years ago sometime around nineteen hundred, Grace Eastlake endowed the hospital with several million dollars with only the interest available for special projects. For a long time, the interest was rolled over. That practice has stopped and for the past five or six years we’ve acquired the CAT Scan, the MRI and etcetera’s.”
“Could be. They’ve been called capital improvements.” Sam snapped his fingers. “We do need those records.”
“And soon. Where are they?”
“In boxes in the storage room at the Cove. Couldn’t think of any other place to keep them.”
They exited the stairwell. Eric stopped at the desk and dialed Jenessa’s number. Megan answered. “Do me a favor. Get word to Jenessa at her meeting. Tell her to come to the Cove instead of Frank’s.” He caught up with Sam. “Meet you there.”
“Ride with me.” Sam winked. “Then she can bring you back.”
“I might end up walking.” Eric strode across the street. She’d been too wary earlier for him to take a chance.
* * *
Jenessa tapped her foot in an impatient rhythm against the hardwood floor in Dru’s dining room. The meeting had dragged on for an hour and nothing had been settled. “Come on, we have to do something to wake up the public.”
Nan nodded. “You’re right.” She raked her fingers through her short red hair. “We have good reason to strike, but we’d end up looking like selfish bullies if we go now. We need community support.”
“But Claire recommended we ask for a strike vote.” Madge Brown pushed her chair back. “Let me call her.”
“She doesn’t have a vote unless there’s a tie. It’s four to two.”
“Her opinion should rule. She’s our president.”
Simone’s ebony eyes flashed. “Elected by the members, not named dictator. We have the Board cold. We made an offer and they’re ignored it.”
“That’s why we have to strike. A week and they’ll be begging us to return.”
Dru laughed. “I wouldn’t bet on that.”
Simone nodded. “And you know, Claire had dinner the other night with Bishop and Sandra. Looked mighty chummy to me.”
“A lot you know,” Madge said.
“She was there to talk to them,” Grace, Claire’s other supporter said. “Since you won’t agree to what has to be done, there’s no point in this meeting. We’ll start a petition among the nurses.”
“Fine,” Jenessa said.
The pair of women walked to the door. “Wait ‘til Claire hears. She’ll kick you off the committee.”
Once the pair had left, Jenessa leaned forward. “Ready to plot some mischief.”