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Frank Chambers prowled the narrow hospital room, feeling like a foul-tempered bear awakening from hibernation with a thorn in its paw. He stared at his own bandaged hands and muttered an oath that would have curled his mother's hair and earned him a sharp rap across his already-injured knuckles. He wanted to smash something, but settled for violently kicking a chair halfway across the hospital room. It skidded into the pale blue wall with a satisfying crash, but did nothing to improve his overall mood. His mother, a wise woman with little sympathy for self-pity, would have said it would have served him right if he'd broken his toe.
The door opened a cautious crack and yet another nurse peered in, an expression of alarm on her face. "You okay?"
"Just dandy," he growled.
When he didn't throw anything, she visibly gathered her courage and stepped inside, marching over to his bed and folding her arms across her chest, assuming a stern posture clearly meant to intimidate. Considering her tiny size, it wouldn't have been an effective stance even if he hadn't been feeling surly.
"You ought to be in bed," she announced. She pulled back the sheet and gestured in the right direction just to make her point.
He glared at her and ignored the invitation. "I ought to be at home. I'm not sick."
"That's not what your chart says."
"I don't give a-"
She never even took a breath at the interruption. She just kept on going, talking over his swearing. "Less than twenty-four hours ago you were in a serious fire. When they brought you in, you were suffering from smoke inhalation. Your blood gases still don't look all that good. You have second-degree burns on both hands. You need rest and therapy."
It was not the first time he had heard the same detailed recitation of his medical condition. "I need to go home," he repeated stubbornly. He tried another fierce scowl to emphasize the point. Grown men had cowered at that scowl. He was certain of its effectiveness.
Clearly unintimidated, the nurse rolled her eyes and left. He doubted she'd gone to get his release papers. None of the others had, either. Hell, his own mother hadn't sided with him when he'd insisted he didn't need to be admitted in the first place. He'd been whisked up to his room and hooked up to oxygen so fast it had left his head spinning. He'd tried bribing each of his brothers to spring him, but they'd ignored his pleas. Not even his softhearted baby sister had taken pity on him. She'd patted his arm and suggested to the afternoon-shift nurse that they tie him down if they had to.
"Et tu, Brute," he'd muttered as Karyn had winked at him over her shoulder. Then she'd linked arms with her new husband and sashayed off to dinner.
The attitude of the whole Chambers clan rankled. That good-natured defiance was the thanks he got for all those years when he'd put his own life on hold to help his mother raise his five brothers and his sister. When his father had died, he'd reluctantly stepped into the role of parenting and discovered that it fit, even at seventeen. Maturity and responsibility had been thrust on him, but he'd somehow liked being needed, liked being the backbone of a large and loving family. In a curious sort of way he'd even suffered through the empty-nest trauma, watching as his siblings had matured and struck off on their own.
Karyn's recent marriage to race-car driver Brad Willis might have been the first wedding in the tight-knit family, but it was hardly the first sign he'd had that it was time to get on with his own life. He'd been told to butt out so often in recent years he'd had no choice but to start focusing on himself instead of his siblings. He'd been doing just that-most of the time, anyway-until yesterday afternoon. Now, suddenly, at forty he was discovering what it was like to have the tables turned on him, to have to depend on others for his most basic needs. And, he didn't like it, not one bit. What man would? No wonder his brothers chafed at all his well-intended meddling. Now they were giving it back to him in spades.
Left alone with his unpleasant thoughts through the long night, Frank tried to face facts. He told himself he could live with the pain the doctors were warning him to expect as the nerves in his hands healed. Hell, he could even live with the long-term scars. He'd seen burn scars, and while they weren't pretty, his big, work-roughened hands hadn't been much to write home about anyway. What was killing him, though, what was creating this gut-wrenching fury, was the absolute, utter helplessness of it all.
He couldn't do the simplest things for himself with these layers of gauze wrapped around his fingers, turning them into fat, clumsy, useless appendages. Forget holding a fork. Forget turning on the shower or washing himself. Forget pushing a button on the damned TV remote or holding a book. He couldn't even go to the bathroom on his own. Nothing, ever, had left him feeling quite so humiliated. They might as well have lopped the damned things off at the wrist.
And all because of a stupid accident. One careless instant, a still-smoldering cigarette butt tossed into a trash barrel by one of his unthinking co-workers, and the next thing he'd known the entire woodworking shop had been in flames. He'd grabbed for a fire extinguisher, but the metal had already been a blistering red-hot temperature. He'd done the best he could, but with all the flammable material around, it had been like battling a towering inferno with a garden hose. He'd managed to get a few things out of the workroom before the blaze and smoke had gotten out of control, eventually destroying everything. He'd gone back in one last time to rescue one of his co-workers who'd panicked and found himself trapped in a workroom with no exit except through the fire. Only when he was outside, gulping oxygen and coughing his head off had he noticed the blistered, raw layers of skin on his hands. The adrenaline high had given way to shocked horror as paramedics rushed him to the hospital. His co-worker had been treated for smoke inhalation at the scene.
The injuries could have been worse, they'd told Frank in the emergency room. Third-degree burns, with the possibility of damaging tendons and bone, could have been devastating for a man who worked with his hands. His career, most likely, would have been over. He would have lost the woodworking skills that had turned his imaginative, finely crafted cabinetry into an art that was making its way into some of the finest homes in San Francisco. With second-degree injuries, he had a chance.
The recovery, though, would be slow, tedious and painful. Frank had never been out sick a day in his life. Now it appeared he was headed for a long vacation, courtesy of workmen's comp. The concept didn't sit well. Worse was the faint, terrifying possibility that he might never again be able to do the delicate, intricate carving that made his work unique and gave him such a sense of accomplishment.
By morning, after hours of focusing on the "what ifs," panic had bubbled up deep inside him. He dragged air into his injured lungs. Each breath hurt and did nothing to calm him, nothing to wipe away the bleak images of a future without the work that he loved.
Determined to get out of the hospital, even if he had to escape on his own, he used his foot to lever open the closet door. The task was easier than he'd expected, and his confidence soared. Hope crashed just as quickly with the realization that the only clothing hanging in the closet was his robe. His sooty shirt and jeans were no doubt ditched in some trash receptacle. He'd never get past the nurses' station, much less out of this place, wearing just an indecent hospital gown and a robe that still had a price tag hanging from the sleeve.
On the nightstand beside the bed the phone rang. Grateful for the interruption, Frank lunged for it, knocking it to the floor with his inept hands. Another stream of profanity turned the air blue. How the hell was he supposed to answer a phone with fingers that stuck straight out like prongs on a damned pitchfork?
"Nurse!" he bellowed, rather than bothering with the call button. "Nurse!"
He glared at the door, waiting for it to open, fuming because he couldn't even manage that simple task. This time, however, rather than inching open bit by cautious bit, the door was suddenly flung wide. Instead of a nurse, therapist Jennifer Michaels stepped into the room with all the confidence of a woman whose head hadn't yet been bitten off by the fuming, foul-tempered patient in Room 407.
Frank recognized her at once. He had still been dopey from medication when she'd poked her head into the room the previous afternoon, but he hadn't forgotten that perky, wide smile and that mop of shining Little Orphan Annie curls. Nor had he forgotten the cheerful promise that she would be back in the morning to begin his therapy.
"What do you want?" he asked, regarding her suspiciously.
Ignoring his challenging tone, she stepped briskly into the room, took in the situation at a glance and, with one graceful move, retrieved the phone from under the bed. "I was at the nurses' station when we heard your dulcet tones echoing down the hall," she told him.
"And you drew the short straw?"
"And I was on my way to see you anyway. How'd the phone land under the bed?" she inquired, as if it weren't obvious.
He stared at her incredulously, then glanced pointedly at his bandaged hands.
If he'd expected pity or understanding, he didn't get either. She shrugged and hung up the receiver. "I suppose some people would consider that an excuse."
Frank glared at her just as the phone started to ring again. He stared at it, cursing it for the helplessness it stirred in him again. He took all of his frustration out on the therapist. "Get out!"
As skinny as she was, he was surprised his bellow alone hadn't blown her from the room. She didn't budge, every puny inch of her radiating mule-headed stubbornness. A tiny little bit of respect found its way into his perception of Ms. Jenny Michaels.
"I thoughtyou wanted someone to answer the phone," she said, all sweet innocence over a core of what was clearly solid steel. "I'll manage."
"How?" she said, voicing his own disgruntled thought.
"What the hell difference does it make to you?"
"I'll consider it the first step in your therapy."
She waited. He glowered, his muscles tensing with each damnable ring of the phone. Finally, thankfully, it stopped.
"It's probably just as well," she said. "It is time for your therapy. I usually like to start with something less complicated."
"Push-ups perhaps," he suggested sarcastically.
"Maybe tomorrow," she said without missing a beat. "In the meantime, why don't I just show you how to start exercising those fingers? You can repeat the exercises every hour, about ten minutes at a time."
"I'm not interested in therapy. I just want to be left alone."
Ignoring that, she ordered, "Sit," and waved him toward the bed.
"Forget it," he said, bracing himself for a fight. He'd been itching for one all morning. Everyone else had sensed that and run for their lives. Jennifer Michaels wasn't scaring so easily.
"Okay, stand," she replied, not batting an eye at his surliness. "Hold out your hand. I'll show you what I want you to do."
He backed up until he was out of reach. "What about me? What about what I want?" he thundered. "Don't you get it, lady? I'm not doing any 'exercises.'"
"You'd prefer to have your hands heal the way they are now?"
Her voice never even wavered. Frank decided in that instant that his initial impression had been right on target: Jennifer Michaels was one tough little cookie. He took another look and saw the spark of determination in her eyes. He tried again to get through that thick, do-gooder skull of hers.
"Listen, sweetheart," he said with deliberate condescension. "I know you have a job to do. I know you probably think you can accomplish miracles, but I'm not interested. The only thing I want out of life right this second is to be left alone, followed in very short order by my discharge papers."
She winced once during the tirade, but recovered quickly. After that her expression remained absolutely calm. Not stoic. Not smug. Calm. It infuriated him. The only people he'd ever seen that serene before had been drugged out or chanting. Around San Francisco it was possible to see plenty of both.
"I could leave you here to stew," she said as if honestly considering the possibility. "Of course, it would make me a lousy therapist if I let you get away with your bullying tactics."
"I'll write you an excuse you can put in your personnel file. The patient was uncooperative and unresponsive. That ought to cover it, don't you think?"
She nodded agreeably. "It's certainly accurate enough. Unfortunately you won't be able to hold the pen unless you do the exercises."
"Dammit, don't you ever give up?" he said, advancing until he was towering over her. She swallowed hard, but stood her ground as he continued to rant. "I'll type it. I ought to be able to hunt and peck, even with my fingers like this." He waved them under her nose for emphasis.
She leveled her green eyes at him and tried to stare him down. When he didn't back off she shrugged. "Suit yourself."
She headed for the door and suddenly, perversely, Frank felt uncertain. At least she was company. And as long as they were hurling insults, he wouldn't be alone with his own lousy thoughts. "You're leaving?"
"That is what you said you wanted. I have patients who are interested in getting better. I don't have time to waste on one who's feeling sorry for himself. Think about it and we'll talk again."
She pinned him with an unflinching green-eyed gaze until he couldn't stand it anymore. He turned away. A sigh shuddered through him as he heard the door shut softly behind her.
Well, Chambers, you definitely made a horse's ass out of yourself that time, he told himself. Not that Jennifer Michaels couldn't take it. There had been that unmistakable glint of steely determination in her eyes and an absolute lack of sympathy in her voice. At almost any other moment in his life that combination might have impressed him. He admired spunk and dedication. He was not in the habit of dishing out garbage the way he had just now, but on the occasions when his temper got the best of him, he appreciated knowing that the target had the audacity to throw it right back in his face. Jennifer Michaels had audacity to spare.
In her case, the unexpectedness of that tart, unyielding response had caught him off guard. He doubted she'd learned that particular bedside technique in therapist school. But he had to admit it was mildly effective. He felt guilty for a full five minutes before reminding himself that, like it or not, he was the patient here. Nobody was exactly coddling him.