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When he looked back at it later, Jesse Steele would have to say those words had ultimately changed his life. Had he not heard them, he probably would have never met her.
It was an overcast Manhattan late spring morning and he was worried about rain. That, and making the meeting on time.
One moment he was taking a shortcut through New York's famous Diamond District. He had to hurry because New York's more famous traffic was making it impossible for him to get back to his office in time for the one o'clock meeting with the senior partners of the architectural firm of Bryce, Newcomb and Tuttle. The next moment he was breaking into a run, charging down the crowded sidewalk and then tackling a rather upscale but guilty-looking man running from the scene.
The rather elderly distinguished man who had uttered the cry stood in the narrow doorway that led to his small, exclusive shop on the second floor. Dressed in dark slacks, a white suit and a black vest, the unique ties of a prayer shawl peeked out from beneath the bottom of the vest. A black, hand-sewn yarmulke completed the picture.
The blood from the cut on the old man's cheek was a startling contrast to his somber clothing. He swayed slightly as he clutched at the doorjamb, but the anger on his face was fierce.
All this Jesse had taken in within half a heartbeat. While heads turned toward the man in the doorway and several women yelled a protest as the object of the old man's cries barreled down the long city block, Jesse sprang into action. Using the prowess that had gotten him a football scholarship and seen him handily through his four years at NYU, he flew after the thief.
Throwing his weight forward, Jesse grabbed the man by the waist. They both went down on the concrete less than a foot shy of the gutter.
Frantic to get away, the robber fought and kicked with a fierce determination that only made Jesse angrier. Nothing got to him as quickly as someone trying to take advantage of someone else. The robber was young, strong and well-built. The man in the doorway looked as if he could easily blow away in a stiff breeze.
"Let go of me, you bastard!" the thief shouted, his arms flailing wildly as he tried to beat Jesse off.
Still struggling, the thief cracked him across the side of his head with what turned out to be a toy gun. He'd used it to intimidate the store owner. Jesse's grip on the man tightened and he brought the thief down, straddling him to keep him in place.
The bag the thief clutched when he fled the store flew out of his hand and spilled. Diamonds appeared on the concrete, creating their own rainbows in the sparse available light.
Suddenly the people in the immediate area came to life, converging on the two struggling men, their attention collectively focused on the brilliant booty displayed for them to see.
Jesse was on his feet instantly, holding on to the thief's arm and jerking him up in his wake.
"Don't even think about it," Jesse ordered one man who was close to him. The latter was bending to scoop up some of the bounty.
Jesse's harsh voice, added to his six-two stature, succeeded in keeping the man honest and the rest of the crowd at bay.
The man in the doorway took out a handkerchief to dab at his wound as he hurried over to Jesse. Shock and surprise registered on his bewhiskered face.
"Thank you, young man. Thank you," he called even before he reached Jesse. "My name is Isaac Epstein and you have done me a great service."
The thief was squirming next to Jesse, doing his best to get out of his grasp.
"Let me go!" the man ordered. When Jesse merely glared at him, the thief's indignation retreated. He became supplicant and meek. "Look, this was all a big mistake. A big, stupid mistake. I won't"
Jesse had no desire to listen to anything the man had to say. Anyone who would try to rob an old man was worthlessworse than dirt in his opinion.
"Shut your mouth," he advised evenly. "You'll get a chance to explain your side of it to the police."
The man's eyes widened even more, bulging like marbles. "The police?" he echoed. "But I"
The sound of approaching sirens abruptly halted the thief's protest. But not his attempts to get away. He tugged mightily, getting nowhere rather quickly.
Jesse's smile was as steely as his last name. His fingers tighten around the thief's arm, squeezing it as he continued to hold the man in place.
"You're not going anywhere," he told the thief coldly. Jesse looked down at his light gray suit. There was a tear at the knee and what looked to be an oil stain across the other leg, sustained when they'd wrestled on the ground next to the subway grating. Damn it. Jesse swallowed a curse. "But when this is over, you are going to buy me a new suit."
What the would-be thief said in response was enough to offend several of the people watching the minidrama.
Jesse jerked him up, squeezing even harder as he held his arm. The man yelped.
"You say anything like that again," Jesse growled,
"and I guarantee that you'll be picking up your teeth from the sidewalk."
If there was a retort coming, it disappeared as the sirens grew louder. Two squad cars and an ambulance arrived almost at the same time, one practically tailing the other.
The thief whimpered.
Tatania Pulaski loved being a doctor, or more accurately, loved being a resident. Tania was in her fourth year, that much closer to being able to hang up a shingle if she so desired. She loved everything about her duties, even the grosser aspects of it. Very little of what she dealt with at Patience Memorial Hospital fazed her.
Even so, she took nothing about her journey or her ultimate goal for granted. She, like her three older sisters and her one younger one, had paid her dues and was acutely aware of every inch of the long, hard, bumpy road it had taken to get here. She knew the sacrifices her parents had made and the contributions each of her older sisters had made. It was an unspoken rule: the older always helped the younger. It was just the way things were.
Although her heart was focused on becoming a spinal surgeon, there was no task Tania wasn't willing to do if the occasion came up. The only thing she didn't like were the rare moments that other doctors lived for.
A lull in the activity.
She didn't like lulls. Lulls caused her to think and, eventually, to remember. To remember no matter how hard she tried not to, no matter how often she forced herself to count her blessings first.
She had a great many of those and counting always took a while. She had a supportive family, parents and sisters who cared about her. Even her brother-in-law and the two men who, very shortly, were going to become part of the family were all nice guys.
On top of that, she was becoming what she'd always dreamed of being ever since Sasha, her oldest sister, had announced she was going to be a doctor. The revelation gladdened the heart of her father and, most of all, her mother.
All Tania had to do was to take in the scene that long-ago afternoon and that made up her mind for her. She was going to be a doctor. She, too, was going to save the world one patient at a time. The fact that Natalya and Kady followed in Sasha's footsteps only made her resolve that much stronger that she was going to be a doctor, too.
There'd only been one dark incident to cast a stain on her life, one in comparison to the multitude of blessings, and yet the shadow of that one stain managed to cast itself over everything, blackening her life like a bottle of ink marring a pristine white sheet.
One stain had caused all the happiness to slip into abeyance.
She tried, more for her family's sake than her own, to put it behind her. To forget. But forgetting for more than a few minutes at a time was next to impossible. The incident lived with her every day, shadowing her. The memory of it found her when she was at ease and assaulted her mind, making her remember. Making her suffer through it.
Especially in her dreams.
Trying to block it out of her mind was the reason why she'd eagerly volunteered to work in the emergency room every time the area was shorthanded. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the E.R. was crowded with patients, all seeking immediate help. The atmosphere was nothing short of frantic and hectic.And nothing made her happier than being there. She was forced to concentrate on procedures, on patients who needed her help.
And while she concentrated on that, the cold, hard reality of what had happened to her that one horrible evening was pushed into the background.
For the time being.
This particular morning the bedlam that was called the E.R. seemed especially acute. A trauma bay was no sooner emptied than someone else was brought in to fill it. She'd been on duty for close to twelve hours, on her second "second wind" and had cleared over thirty-one cases before she stopped counting.
Tania felt dead on her feet and there were still several hours to go until her second shift was finally over.
Be careful what you wish for.
It wasn't an old Polish saying, like the ones her mother was so fond of quoting, but it certainly did fit the occasion.
She was just erasing the newest case she'd discharged, which meant she was up for the next patient, when another fourth-year resident, Debbie Dominguez, tugged on the sleeve of her lab coat.
When Tania glanced in her direction, the dark-haired woman pointed to the rear doors that just sprang open. The look in Debbie's eyes was envious.
"Boy, some people have all the luck." She referred to the fact that Tania was up for the patient being brought in by two ambulance attendants.
Strapped to the gurney was a tall, muscular man in what appeared to be a disheveled, gray suit. The patient's hair was several shades darker than her own blond hair and he didn't exactly look happy to be there.
Behind him were two more gurneys, one with an older, somber-dressed man and the second with a rather vocal patient. The latter had a police escort in addition to the two attendants bringing him in.
"I don't need a doctor," the man in the gray suit on the first gurney protested. "Really, all I need is just to get cleaned up."
The older man on the second gurney seemed noticeably concerned. "Please, young man, you need stitches. I know these things. I will take care of everything. The hospital, everything," he promised with zeal. "But you need to have medical attention."
The head ambulance attendant began rattling off the first man's vitals. Tania listened with one ear while giving the man on the first gurney a swift once-over. As far as patients went, they didn't usually come this exceptionally good-looking. While distancing herself, Tania could still see why Debbie had been so interested. Any more interested and the woman would have been salivating.
When her patient struggled to get off the gurney, Tania placed her hand on his shoulder.
"Listen to the man," she advised, nodding toward the second gurney. "He's right. Besides, if you put on another suit, you're just going to wind up getting blood on it unless I stitch you up."
Turning his head in her direction, Jesse's protest died in his throat. His eyes swept over her and he had to admit he did like what he saw.
"You're my doctor?"
Rounding the corner to the trauma bays, feeling as if she was at the head of a wagon train, Tania grinned in response to the appreciative note in the man's voice.
"I'm your doctor."
Jesse settled back against the gurney. "I guess maybe I'll take those stitches."
"Good choice." She looked at the attendants still guiding the gurney. "Put him in trauma bay one."
"I thought you said" Jesse craned his neck to keep sight of her.
"Be right there," she promised.
Moving to the second gurney, she nodded at the older man. "Looks like you'll be getting the group rate for stitches," she commented, examining the gash on the man's cheek.
Isaac shrugged, as if this was nothing new to him. "Never mind me, young lady, make sure that he's all right." Wrapping his long, thin fingers around a black bag he was clutching, with his other hand he pointed in the general direction that Jesse had gone in. "He's a hero, you know."
Tania glanced over her shoulder even though by now the gurney had been tucked away into the trauma bay.
"No, I didn't know." She smiled at the man. "So that's what one looks like," she murmured, playing along with the older man. She took a step back, getting out of the gurney's way, then pointed toward another area. "Put this one in trauma bay three," she instructed the attendants.
"Treat him well, Doctor," Isaac called to her as he was wheeled away. "Anything he needs, I will take care of."
"He'll have the best of care," she promised before she turned her attention to the last gurney. The attendant closest to her gave her the patient's particulars. The latter looked far from happy, but it was a toss-up as to who was more disgruntled, the patient or his police escort.
The man on the last gurney struggled against his restraints. "It's a mistake, I tell you. The old guy must've slipped the bag in my pocket when I was leaving his store."
"Now why would he do that?" she asked. She'd come across all kinds in the E.R. and this was just another odd case to add to the list.
"I don't know. Maybe he wanted to pull some insurance scam. Who knows? Do I look like a thief to you?" he demanded hotly, indicating his clothing. Tania had to admit, except for the tear in the jacket, it looked like a high-end suit. "I'm going to sue that ape in the gray suit for battery and if you don't want to be included, you'd better uncuff me!" he growled, yanking at the handcuff that tethered him to the gurney's railing. "You hear me?" he demanded. "I want out of here."
"No more than we want you gone, I'm sure," Tania replied evenly. "But we can't have you bleeding all over the place now, can we?" she asked sweetly. Glancing at the board over the front desk to see which room had been cleared, she saw a recent erasure. "Put him in trauma bay number four." She pointed in the general direction, since she didn't recognize these attendants. Tania spared the third patient one last glance. "Some-one'll be along to talk to you in a minute."
"Not soon enough for us," one of the patrolmen complained. He shook his head wearily as he followed in his partner's wake. "It's the heat," he confided to Tania as he walked by. "It makes the crazies come out."
She smiled. "So does the rain." Tania signaled over toward the nurses'station. "Elaine, take the gentleman's information in trauma bay three."
"What about one?"
"I'll handle that myself."