Read an Excerpt
The little boy's leg was bleeding profusely. Dr. Louise Blakely knew exactly what to do, but it was difficult to get the right pressure on the cut so that the nicked artery would stop emptying onto the brown, dead December grass.
"It hurts!" the little boy, Matt, cried. "Ow!"
"We have to stop the bleeding," she said reasonably. She smiled at him, her dark eyes twinkling in a face framed by thick, medium blond hair. "Maybe your mom could get you an ice cream after we've patched you up." She glanced at the white-faced lady beside them, who nodded enthusiastically. "Okay?"
"Well " He grimaced, holding his leg above where Lou was putting pressure to bear.
"Only a minute more," she promised, looking around for the ambulance she'd asked a bystander to call. It was on the way. She could hear the siren. Even in a small town like Jacobsville, there was an efficient ambulance service. "You're going to get to ride in a real ambulance," she told the child. "You can tell your friends all about it on Monday at school!"
"Will I have to go back?" he asked, enthusiastic now. "Maybe I could stay in the hospital for a whole week?"
"I really think the emergency room is as far as you're going to get this time." Lou chuckled. "Now pay attention while they're loading you up, so that you can remember everything!"
"I sure will!" he said.
She stood up as the ambulance pulled alongside the police car and two attendants jumped out. They started loading the boy onto a stretcher. Lou had a brief word with the female EMT and described the boy's injuries and gave instructions. She was on staff at the local hospital where he would be taken, and she planned to follow the ambulance in her own car.
The police officer who'd been citing the reckless driver for hitting the small boy on the bicycle came over to talk to Lou. "Good thing you were having lunch in the café," he remarked with a grin. "That was a bad cut."
"He'll be okay," Lou said as she closed her medical bag. She always had it in the car when she left the office, and this time it had paid off.
"You're Dr. Coltrain's partner, aren't you?" he asked suddenly.
"Yes." She didn't add anything to that. The expression on the officer's face said enough. Most people around Jacobsville knew that Dr. Coltrain had as little use for his partner as he had for alcohol. He'd made it all too evident in the months she'd been sharing his practice.
"He's a good man," the officer added. "Saved my wife when her lung collapsed." He smiled at the memory. "Nothing shakes him up. Nor you, either, judging by what I just saw. You're a good hand in an emergency."
"Thanks." She gave him a brief smile and went to her small gray Ford to follow the ambulance to the hospital.
The emergency room was full, as usual. It was Saturday and accidents always doubled on weekends. She nodded to a couple of her patients that she recognized, and she kept walking, right behind the trolley that was taking young Matt to a treatment room.
Dr. Coltrain was on his way back from surgery. They met in the hall. The green surgical uniform looked sloppy on some of the surgeons, but not on Coltrain. Despite the cap that hid most of his thick red hair, he looked elegant and formidable.
"Why are you here on Saturday? I'm supposed to be doing rounds today for both of us," he asked sharply.
Here he goes again, practicing Coltrain's First Law jump to conclusions, she thought. She didn't grin, but she felt like it.
"I wound up at a car accident scene," she began.
"The hospital pays EMTs to work wrecks," he continued, glaring at her while hospital personnel came and went around them.
"I did not go out to" she began hotly.
"Don't let this happen again, or I'll have a word with Wright, and you'll be taken off staff here. Is that clear?" he added coldly. Wright was the hospital administrator and Coltrain was medical chief of staff. He had the authority to carry out the threat.
"Will you listen?" she asked irritably. "I didn't go out with the ambulance !"
"Doctor, are you coming?" one of the EMTs called to her.
Coltrain glanced toward the EMT and then back at Louise, irritably jerking off his cap and mask. His pale blue eyes were as intimidating as his stance. "If your social life is this stale, Doctor, perhaps you need to consider a move," he added with biting sarcasm.
She opened her mouth to reply, but he was already walking away. She threw up her hands furiously. She couldn't ever get a word in, because he kept talking, or interrupted her, and then stormed off without giving her a chance to reply. It was useless to argue with him, anyway. No matter what she said or did, she was always in the wrong.
"One day you'll break something," she told his retreating back. "And I'll put you in a body cast, so help me God!"
A passing nurse patted her on the shoulder. "There, there, Doctor, you're doing it again."
She ground her teeth together. It was a standing joke in the hospital staff that Louise Blakely ended up talking to herself every time she argued with Dr. Coltrain. That meant that she talked to herself almost constantly. Presumably he heard her from time to time, but he never gave a single indication that he had.
With a furious groan deep in her throat, she turned down the hall to join the EMT.
It took an hour to see to the boy, who had more than one cut that needed stitches. His mother was going to have to buy him a lot of ice cream to make up for the pain, Lou thought, and she'd been wrong about another thing, toohe did have to stay overnight in the hospital. But that would only give him status among his peers, she thought, and left him smiling with a cautionary word about the proper way to ride a bicycle in town.
"No need to worry about that," his mother said firmly. "He won't be riding his bike across city streets anymore!"
She nodded and left the emergency room, her bag in hand. She looked more like a teenager on holiday than a doctor, she mused, in her blue jeans and T-shirt and sneakers. She'd pulled her long blond hair up into its habitual bun and she wore no makeup to enhance her full mouth or her deep brown eyes. She had no man to impress, except the one she loved, and he wouldn't notice if she wore tar and feathers to the office they shared. "Copper" Coltrain had no interest in Lou Blakely, except as an efficient co-worker. Not that he ever acknowledged her efficiency; instead he found fault with her constantly. She wondered often why he ever agreed to work with her in the first place, when he couldn't seem to stand the sight of her. She wondered, too, why she kept hanging on where she wasn't wanted. The hunger her poor heart felt for him was her only excuse. And one day, even that wouldn't be enough.
Dr. Drew Morris, the only friend she had on staff, came down the hall toward her. Like Coltrain, he'd been operating, because he was wearing the same familiar green surgical clothing. But where Coltrain did chest surgery, Drew's talents were limited to tonsils, adenoids, appendices and other minor surgeries. His speciality was pediatrics. Coltrain's was chest and lungs, and many of his patients were elderly.
"What are you doing here? It's too early or too late for rounds, depending on your schedule," he added with a grin. "Besides, I thought Copper was doing them today."
Copper, indeed. Only a handful of people were privileged to call Dr. Coltrain by that nickname, and she wasn't numbered among them.
She grimaced at him. He was about her height, although she was tall, and he had dark hair and eyes and was a little overweight. He was the one who'd phoned her at the Austin hospital where she was working just after her parents' deaths, and he'd told her about the interviews Coltrain was holding for a partner. She'd jumped at the chance for a new start, in the hometown where her mother and father had both been born. And amazingly, in light of his ongoing animosity toward her, Coltrain had asked her to join him after a ten-minute interview.
"There was an accident in front of the café," she said. "I was having lunch there. I haven't been to the grocery store yet," she added with a grimace. "I hate shopping."
"Who doesn't?" He smiled. "Doing okay?" She shrugged. "As usual."
He stuck his hands on his hips and shook his head.
"It's my fault. I thought it would get better, but it hasn't, has it? It's been almost a year, and he still suffers you."
She winced. She didn't quite avert her face fast enough to hide it.
"You poor kid," he said gently. "I'm sorry. I suppose I was too enthusiastic about getting you here. I thought you needed a change, after well, after your parents' deaths. This looked like a good opportunity. Copper's one of the best surgeons I've ever known, and you're a skilled family practitioner. It seemed a good match of talent, and you've taken a load off him in his regular practice so that he could specialize in the surgery he's so skilled at." He sighed. "How wrong can a man be?"
"I signed a contract for one year," she reminded him. "It's almost up."
"Then I'll go back to Austin."
"You could work the E.R.," he teased. It was a standing joke between them. The hospital had to contract out the emergency room staff, because none of the local doctors wanted to do it. The job was so demanding that one young resident had walked out in the middle of the unnecessary examination of a known hypochondriac at two in the morning and never came back.
Lou smiled, remembering that. "No, thanks. I like private practice, but I can't afford to set up and equip an office of my own just yet. I'll go back to the drawing board. There's bound to be a practice somewhere in Texas."
"You're fit for this one," he said shortly.
"Not to hear my partner tell it," she said curtly. "I'm never right, didn't you know?" She let out a long breath. "Anyway, I'm in a rut, Drew. I need a change."
"Maybe you do, at that." He pursed his lips and smiled. "What you really need is a good social life. I'll be in touch."
She watched him walk away with grave misgivings. She hoped that he didn't mean what it sounded like he meant. She wanted nothing to do with Drew in a romantic way, although she did like him. He was a kind man, a widower who'd been in love with his wife and was still, after five years, getting over her. Drew was a native of Jacobsville, and knew Lou's parents. He'd been very fond of her late mother. He'd met up with them again in Austinthat's where Lou had met him.
Lou decided not to take Drew's teasing seriously because she knew about his devotion to his wife's memory. But he'd looked very solemn when he'd remarked that her social life needed uplifting.
She was probably imagining things, she told herself. She started out to the parking lot and met Dr. Coltrain, dressed in an expensive gray vested suit, bent on the same destination. She ground her teeth together and slowed her pace, but she still reached the doors at the same time he did.
He spared her a cold glance. "You look unprofessional," he said curtly. "At least have the grace to dress decently if you're going to cruise around with the ambulance service."
She stopped and looked up at him without expression. "I wasn't cruising anywhere. I don't have a boat, so how could I cruise?"
He just looked at her. "They don't need any new EMTs "
"You shut up!" she snapped, surprising him speechless. "Now you listen to me for a change, and don't interrupt!" she added, holding up her hand when his thin lips parted. "There was an accident in town. I was in the café, so I gave assistance. I don't need to hang out with the ambulance crew for kicks, Doctor! And how I dress on my days off is none of your" she almost turned blue biting back the curse "business, Doctor!"
He was over his shock. His hand shot out and caught the wrist of her free hand, the one that wasn't holding her black medical bag, and jerked. She caught her breath at the shock of his touch and squirmed, wrestling out of his grip. The muted violence of it brought back protective instincts that she'd almost forgotten. She stood very still, holding her breath, her eyes the size of saucers as she looked at him and waited for that hand to tighten and twist.
But it didn't. He, unlike her late father, never seemed to lose control. He released her abruptly. His blue eyes narrowed. "Cold as ice, aren't you?" he drawled mockingly. "You'd freeze any normal man to death. Is that why you never married, Doctor?"
It was the most personal thing he'd ever said to her, and one of the most insulting.
"You just think what you like," she said.
"You might be surprised at what I think," he replied. He looked at the hand he'd touched her with and laughed deep in his throat. "Frostbitten," he pronounced. "No wonder Drew Morris doesn't take you out. He'd need a blowtorch, wouldn't he?" he added with a meaningful, unblinking blue stare.
"Maybe so, but you'd need a grenade launcher," she retorted without thinking.
He lifted an eyebrow and gave her a look that held mingled contempt and distaste. "You'd be lucky."
The remark was painful, but she didn't let him see that. Her own eyebrows lifted. "Really?" She laughed and walked off to her car, happy to have seen him stiffen. She walked past his Mercedes without even a glance. Take that, she thought furiously. She didn't care what he thought about her, she told herself. She spent most of her free time telling herself that. But she did care about him, far too much. That was the whole problem.
He thought she was cold, but she wasn't. It was quite the reverse where he was concerned. She always jerked away when he came too close, when he touched her infrequently. It wasn't because she found him repulsive but because his touch excited her so much. She trembled when he was too close, her breathing changed. She couldn't control her shaky legs or her shaky voice. The only solution had been to distance herself physically from him, and that was what she'd done.
There were other reasons, too, why she avoided physical involvement. They were none of his business, or anyone else's. She did her job and avoided trouble as much as possible. But just lately, her job was becoming an ordeal.