Authors: Janet Lane-Walters
While Eric helped the woman to her feet, Jenessa threaded her way through the crowd that had gathered. “Excuse me... Pardon me... Sorry...” Her chest ached. Tears formed. She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes and gulped a breath. She wouldn’t cry.
Megan’s table was deserted. Jenessa grabbed her denim jacket and headed for the door. Sandra strode toward her.
At the entrance to the restaurant, the dark-haired woman stopped. The anger in her eyes caught Jenessa by surprise.
“Don’t think you’ve won.” Sandra spat the words. “Maybe you swayed the committee this time, but with the right incentives, they’ll switch again.”
Before Jenessa could respond, Sandra swept into the main room. What was she talking about, Jenessa wondered. The majority of the committee had agreed. Even Nan who was the most militant of the group. And Nan had good reason to be upset. Though she had the credentials and the experience, when the nurse manager’s slot on obstetrics had opened, Sandra had given the position to a more easily controlled woman. What could Sandra offer, Dru, Megan or Simone?
Jenessa pushed the outer door open. Clouds covered the moon and the stars. The air held the scent of approaching rain. She strode across the parking lot. Light from lamps along the perimeter lit her way. She reached her car and stopped.
So much for a quick escape. The right rear tire was flat. She glanced toward the restaurant door. Any minute Eric might emerge and demand they talk.
She opened the trunk and reached for the jack. Then she remembered. The spare was in place and flat. The other tire stood against the wall of the cottage car port. So much had happened over Labor Day weekend that she’d forgotten to take the tire to the garage.
With a groan, she slammed the trunk. She leaned against the car and considered her options. She could return to the Cove and ride home with Megan. The only payment would be a full accounting of the scene with Bishop and Eric. And if she went inside, she might have to face Bishop and Sandra, not to mention Eric.
She headed for the bank of phones beside the entrance to the Cove and dialed the automobile club. After explaining the problem, she asked how long she’d have to wait.
“An hour? Why?” The explanation ended just as the operator asked for more money. An hour, she thought. She returned to the car and slumped in the seat.
* * *
“Let her go.” The massive bulk of the Board president blocked Eric’s path.
Eric glared. The gloating expression on the older man’s face brought an urge to strike the man. Eric wanted to follow Jenessa and convince her he hadn’t been following an order.
“Just what were you getting at?” Eric asked. “I resent your inferences.”
Bishop’s smile broadened. “Shame she reacted instead of thinking. The time for romance was when you arrived.”
“That’s not my style.”
“Then you’re not going to get anywhere in business.”
Eric smiled. “But I’m not in business. I’m in health care.”
“Anyone who doesn’t see the money to be made in this business is a fool. Maybe that’s why you got your job. There’s no way to stop progress.”
“What progress? You’re pushing to disrupt the hospital. Jenessa agrees.”
“Does she now, my boy?” Bishop laughed. “She’s working just as hard from her end to upset things. How did you feel when you heard about the strike vote? Going to be a big blotch on your record.”
“Are you sure that’s what they decided?”
“What options do they have? They’re just a bitty scratch team trying to play in the big leagues.”
“You might be surprised. Why don’t you push the Board to cooperate?”
“I got you hired and I can get you fired. Think of the big picture.”
Eric jammed his hands in his pockets. Whose big picture, he wanted to ask. The one he saw had gaping holes that he’d better fill in quickly.
First, he had to see Jenessa. He wanted her. Maybe he even needed her. This thought halted him. He wasn’t sure he trusted the emotions churning inside. Was what he felt for her based on more than desire?
Sandra brushed past Eric and grabbed Bishop’s arm. She pulled him toward the stage. Though Eric couldn’t hear what she said, her every gesture showed agitation. He frowned. What was going on? Whatever had upset her had troubled Bishop, too.
He edged closer to the pair and hoped he might catch a bit of their conversation.
“What?” Bishop said. “That’s not what I wanted to hear. You’d better fix things and plan better next time.”
“I can’t be there twenty-four hours a day.”
“In the future…”
The quintet ended the set. Eric backed away and mingled with the dancers. He wished he’d heard more since that might have filled another information gap.
He strode into the foyer and picked up his jacket. As he slid his arms into the sleeves, Sam called his name.
“Quick thinking and thanks,” Sam said.
“Not me. Jenessa was the one.” The words struck Eric like a blast of wind. She was the one he wanted in his life.
“Pass along my thanks for preventing one of my nightmares.”
“If she’s talking to me.”
“Bishop. He told her he’d ordered me to romance her.”
“Did he?” Sam shook his head. “Man’s getting pushy. Threatened to call my note if I don’t walk his road.”
“Not a chance.” Sam edged closer. “I’m meeting him after he eats. I’ll play along but Simone and I are angling for a bank loan.”
“One in town?”
“Do you think I’m nuts?”
“If you need, I have a few thousand I can spare.”
Sam grinned. “Let’s hope I don’t. Borrowing from friends puts the friendship at risk.”
Eric straightened. “See you later.”
“What about the box of papers you left on my secretary’s desk?”
“I’ll pick them up later.”
“Don’t know. Did find a copy of the will that includes the terms of the trust.” He walked away. “Got to go before Jenessa barricades herself in her apartment.”
* * *
Jenessa dug some coins from her purse. The need to get home had become urgent. She slid from the car and once more, headed for the bank of phones. She prayed the automobile club could send a truck.
She didn’t want to wait for Megan. What if she encountered Bishop again? The man had all but ruined her rapport with Eric. Bishop had ordered Eric to romance her. She didn’t want to believe. Wrong, she refused to listen to the Board president’s insinuations. That wasn’t the problem. She had wanted to tell Bishop he was a fool if he thought the nurses would give in. She’d run before she betrayed her friends and herself.
Eric’s willingness to move their relationship forward had scared her. If that happened, she’d have to tell him about her marriage. Not even Megan knew how badly the bonds had frayed before Chuck’s death.
The door of the Cove opened. The band of light grew wider and the spate of noise louder. Eric stood framed by the light. His hair gleamed like bright sunlight.
She recalled how her body had come alive in his arms. She thought of his response. “It’s going to happen. Why not tonight?” Those whispered words had electrified her nerve endings. She wanted him with every breath she took. Since Chuck’s death, her life had been bound by work and school. There’d been no men, and until Eric, no desire for physical closeness. Now there was. Except there had to be more than physical yearning before she allowed herself to slake her thirst for him.
He stepped toward her. “Is there a problem?”
She nodded. The flat tire was a simple problem compared to the conflicting emotions this man stirred. The dream to find escape in his arms warred with her fear of destroying him with demands he couldn’t meet.
“Can I help?”
Afraid her voice would betray her, she nodded again.
“I wish we’d gone to Frank’s,” he said.
“Me, too. I have a flat and the spare’s at the cottage—flat. The auto club is swamped with calls.”
“Let me take you home. You can see to your car tomorrow. Or you could go in and wait for Megan.”
And be deluged with questions? Or encounter Bishop and Sandra? “Take me home.”
He reached for her hand, but she jammed it in her pocket. “Hey, I don’t bite.”
“I know that.”
He opened the car door for her and got in on the driver’s side. “I’m not seeing you on Bishop’s orders.”
“I know that, too.” She leaned back in the seat. “That’s not why I ran. I’m just not ready.”
“I can accept that.” He looked at her. Desire flared in his eyes.
“Can you?” she asked.
He smiled. “I’ll wait. I want you, but I want all of you.”
He wouldn’t once he knew, she thought. “How did Bishop react when he learned there’s not going to be a strike vote?”
“He exploded. Unfortunately I couldn’t hear what he said, but he reamed Sandra good.”
“Now that surprises me. They always seem to agree.”
“This whole affair puzzles me. I can’t figure out what they’re after.”
“Me either, but I think they want the nurses to walk out.”
“I agree... The reason things got messed between us tonight was because I was digging through boxes of old Board meeting minutes.”
“Remember what Dr. Carter said at Shadow Lake? I thought there might be some information in the old minutes.”
“So what did you learn?”
“Nothing yet. I just sorted through things. Would you like to help me sift them?”
“Nothing I’d like better but tomorrow I have class and I work Wednesday and Thursday.”
“Then Friday it is.”
“I’m busy until seven.”
“Come down at seven thirty. I’ll cook.”
“What other kind is there?”
“I’ve never had a man cook for me, unless you count my dad heating a can of soup or my brothers zapping a frozen dinner.”
“Then you’re in for a treat. My mother taught my brother and me to cook.” He pulled into a spot beside the apartment building. She reached for the door. He caught her hand. “Don’t go yet.”
His touch struck sparks that sent fire racing from her fingers to her chest. She sighed. Why him? He wasn’t someone she could walk away from and forget.
“I need to tell you why I’d never do what Bishop ordered.”
“You don’t have to explain.”
He ran a finger down her cheek. “I want you to know.”
The bleakness in his eyes and his grim expression brought a need to comfort him. “Then tell me.”
“I was working in the city in a cardiac unit. The nurse manager…” He ran his hands through his hair. “Gail was… half the male staff from security to the doctors, wanted her. She chose to spend time with me. I thought—”
Jenessa leaned against the door. “What happened?”
“I thought we were in love. She never said the words, but her actions… She was also involved with the hospital’s CEO. He was married.”
“She used you as a cover.”
“Worse. She used me to learn who was behind organizing a union. My colleagues talked and I learned more than I wanted. She used pillow talk to pump me for information. Three of the strongest supporters lost their jobs and I earned a reputation as a snitch.”
“The union lost?”
“Never got off the ground. She thanked me publicly during a staff meeting. Two weeks later, she moved in with the CEO and I resigned.”
Jenessa put her hand on his arm. For a moment, she considered telling him about Chuck. But this wasn’t the time. She had no right to impose her pain over his. “Love makes us blind and deaf.”
“And wary,” he said.
She closed her eyes. How true, but the failure of her marriage had been her fault. She’d expected Chuck to want the things she wanted. If she let her barriers against love crash, she might repeat the mistake.
She met his gaze. “You made a mistake and you have to forgive yourself.” She sucked in a breath. She could use the same advice.
“Thanks for listening.” He squeezed her hand.
And I hope learning, she thought. She opened the car door. Eric followed her to the lobby. “Are we still on for Friday?”
She turned and found herself in his arms. “Seven thirty.”
His lips met hers and his tongue traced her lips. For a moment, she held herself apart. Then she surrendered to the need rising inside. She opened her mouth. Her tongue touched his. Desire quickened. Warnings shot through her thoughts.
He ended the kiss and tapped her chin with his knuckles. “See you.”
Jenessa ran up the stairs and let herself into the apartment. If he’d pushed just a little, she would have surrendered to the fire that flowed in her blood. She’d done that once. That love had flared and died. She couldn’t face another loss.