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J.D. opened his eyes to a murky dawn.
For a moment, he was at a loss with his surroundings. Oh, yeah. Back in Walnut River, Massachusetts, his hometownand the hospital of his birth.
He groaned as memories of a long night of pain and fitful dreams rushed together. He lay in a hospital bed. IV attached to his vein. His right knee
He did not want to consider the mess there. Outside his room, the hospital woke. In his head, memories tumbled. The board meeting last night. The snowstorm. His knee popping like a firecracker as he slipped on those damned icy steps. And then oh, man the killing pain.
Had he blacked out? He couldn't remember. Just the crazy pain.
He should've had his knee fixed years ago. Hadn't he learned back in high school playing basketball? When the doctor told him about "jumper's knee"? Had he taken the man's advice? No. Instead, he'd ignored every recommendation and for years depended on over-the-counter painkillers. And then he'd defied fate seven years ago by joining the Northeastern HealthCare basketball team when the company hired his ambitious mind.
Arrogant jackass is what you were.
J.D. grunted. Damn this February weather. Damn the ice and snow, and why he'd returned yesterday to this armpit dot on the Massachusetts map. And damn the fact that he was now doomed to wait for surgery by the esteemed Dr. Ella Wilder, another one of the family of Wilders he'd come to lock horns withwell, not lock horns, to wine and dine and sway to realize that NHC's contemporary model of practicing medicine was the way of the future. A model second-to-none in efficiency. A model favoring corporate-run medicine, not the old-fashionedmethods prevalent in this quaint little hospital.
If he did his job right, Walnut River General would be brought under NHC's generous umbrella in a matter of months, a move that would benefit patients and doctors with some modernitywith a capital M.
But first he needed to get out of here. Fast.
Six hours later and still waiting for his surgery, he realized fast was not a key part of this hospital's policy and his apprehension had mushroomed into full-blown anxiety. Okay, they'd told him the E.R. was having a chaotic day. But he hadn't seen the doctorany doctorsince he'd been there.
Stop worrying, J.D. Your gurney is third in line for the O.R. Won't be long now. Which did not calm him at all.
Goddammit. Didn't they know he hated Walnut River General? His motherGrace Sumnerhad died here. Died of a blood clot in her brainas a result of the C-section at his birth, or so Pops maintained.
You go to the hospital to die. End of story. As far back as J.D. remembered the old man's words had been a slogan in their house.
Yes, Grace was the reason J.D. had avoided getting his knee repaired years ago. Nobody was cutting into him, causing blood clots. Last night, however, he knew he could no longer dodge surgery. It was either that or end up walking with a cane for the rest of his life, plus attracting arthritis before he was forty.
So, where was the female Wilder? He hated to admit it, but the way she touched him, spoke, smiled last night in the E.R.
"Mr. Sumner," she had said upon entering his curtained cubicle. "I'm Dr. Ella Wilder. I hear you fell on some steps and banged up your knee." Against the collar of her white lab coat hung a hot-pink stethoscope.
"Should sue the hospital," he'd ground out, gazing at her through half-closed eyes. He hadn't expected a woman doctor. Nor one resembling a French fashion model. "Suing won't heal your knee, sir," she informed him, dipping her head to examine his exposed leg.
The paramedicMike O'Rourke was it?had found J.D. sprawled across the snowy steps by the hospital parking lot. In the E.R., the man had cut away the expensive cloth from his right pant leg, easier for radiology to take X-rays.
Ella Wilder snapped on a pair of surgical gloves and tested the wounded area gently. "Tell me when it hurts."
He winced; she nodded. "I'm sending you for an MRI."
"Think I broke something?" He tried to lift up on his elbows.
"According to the X-rays, no. However, I'd like more information about the soft tissues around and under your kneecap. We'll also do some blood work to see if there's a sign of arthritis."
"Arthritis?" He bit his bottom lip as she gently probed the distended knee. "You saying" a pained grunt
"I'm getting old?"
"Not at all." The dark bob of her hair swung along the line of her jaw as she removed the gloves. "Arthritis can happen at any age."
"Terrific. Worst-case scenario?"
"Let's see what the MRI brings. If it's what I suspect, we'll do surgery tomorrow once the swelling subsides." She offered a smile and it blew through his pain like a breeze on the Cayman coast. "Meantime, we'll keep you off your feet tonight and get some pills into you."
"Don't need pills," he mumbled. "Don't wanna stay here."
She patted his hand. "Trust me, the pills will help while we wait for the injury to settle and the throbbing to lessen."
In spite of his pain, a corner of his mouth lifted. "You going to be my doctor?"
"If your injury is what I suspect, then yes, I will be."
His eyes closed. "Good. I like the idea of throbbing for you."
God almighty. Were you delusional last night, J.D., or just a total jerk? He couldn't believe he'd actually uttered those words. To a doctor, no less. He owed her an apology, preferably before the operation. The last thing he needed was for her to cut into him with payback on her mind.
Across the O.R.'s inpatient waiting bay, an old guy hacked as if his lungs were full of gravel. From out of nowhere a nurse hurried to raise the guy's head, asking how he was holding out, and if anyone sat with his wife and did his son still work at the paper? J.D. groaned. The old home-week chitchat he could do without.
He checked the wall clock. 12:23 p.m. Eighteen hours since he'd tumbled down those steps that led to the parking lot across the hospital's entrance lane.
Never in his life had he been this idle. Okay, admittedly the care so far had been excellent. Nurses, doctors and technicians were gentle and promptly got him whatever he asked for: magazines, water, juice everything except an early surgery slot.
New York, that's where he should be, in his plush office with its cherrywood desk and his proficient secretary. Hell, he hadn't scratched and clawed his way to the rung of executive for Northeastern HealthCare by stopping to smell the Mayflowers.
He grunted. He'd be hard-pressed to find any flower in the concrete jungle where he worked.
"Hello, Mr. Sumner," a soft female voice said before blue scrubs and her face came into view.
God, she was one appealing woman. And those dark eyes A brown he couldn't quite describeuntil he thought of the fancy bag of hazelnuts his secretary had bought him last Christmas.
"How are you feeling?" Ella Wilder asked, unaware of where his thoughts traveled. This afternoon the bell of her pink stethoscope was tucked into a breast pocket.
"Bored as hell," he grumbled.
She offered a quick smile. "Won't be much longer. I have one surgery ahead of you which will take about thirty minutes." Moving down to his iced knee, she marked the spot where she would do her work. "The swelling has decreased. That's good."
Her hair, he saw now, was a study of browns and blacks. Today she'd clipped the thick locks behind her ears.
She asked several more questions about his injury, ensured he was Jared Devlin Sumner, and had he taken his meds?
"I gave all that info to the nurse," he said, annoyed as hell that through everything he couldn't stop taking inventory of her body.
"We like to double check. It's standard procedure." She jotted a few extra notes on his chart. "Do you have family here, Mr. Sumner?"
"No." Well, he did, but his old man was no one's business. "This isn't a big deal, is it?" He would never admit it, but the notion of having his flesh divided by a knife scared him witless.
Her expressive eyes held his. "Everything should go fine."
"Should? Not sure I like the sound of that." He tried to swallow past the fist in his throat.
Again the smile. He liked her mouth. The cute little body, the shape of her eyes that great mouth . Hell, he liked everything he saw.
"You'll be fine, Mr. Sumner."
"Maybe I'll take legal action. Those stairs should've been de-iced." All right, he sounded like one of his dad's scratched records, constantly playing the same line over again.
One dark brow curved. "Were you wearing snow boots?"
"I had proper footwear."
The brow remained high. "Not from what I saw last night."
When he was wearing his five hundred dollar pair of Gucci loafers. "Fine.You've made your point," he grouched.
She patted his hand. "You wouldn't be the first to misjudge our weather."
"I grew up here." Now why mention that?
This time both eyebrows sprang. "Oh?"
"Long time ago."
"And no doubt well before my time."
He grinned. "I'm not much older than you, Doc."
Going with the years in med school, he estimated she was in her early thirties.
"According to your chart you're seven years older." Her cheeks flushed and she looked away. "See you in the O.R."
"Hold onyou're twenty-nine'Are you a real doctor?"
Her nostrils flared. "I finished my residency last year."
"Should I trust you with my knee?" The flip tone contained his thread of worry, he knew.
"You can trust me."
"Where have I heard that before?"
"I'll see you in surgery, Mr. Sumner." She walked away, tidy in her blue scrubsdetermination in her eyes.
J.D. swallowed. He'd offended her twice in less than twenty-four hours and he was going under the knife. Her knife.
And he'd forgotten to apologize.
Should I trust you with my knee? The words plagued Ella's mind as she scrubbed in for his surgery.
Lord, she thought, if he only knew how close his question struck. Well, she wouldn't think of it. She would not. Instead, she inhaled slowly and checked the equipment tray readied by the scrub nurse. Interning is behind you. You're a doctor now. With excellent surgical talent. You know what to do.
Her counselor's mantra, calming her pounding heart and the jitters edging into her fingers. One more deep breath .
They wheeled Sumner in and she saw he was calm and slightly drowsy from the sedative administered twenty minutes before.
Shelly, the circulating nurse, went through the preoperative checklist again, ensuring he was the correct patient via his armband, X-rays, consent forms, lab results. Next Brad, Ella's anesthesiologist, explained his role to her patient.
The pain will be gone soon, she told him mentally. On the monitor, she scanned Sumner's vitals.
"Good to go," Brad informed her. Patient was out.
"Let's get started then."
An hour later, Ella pulled off her soiled surgical gloves and tossed them in the disposable bin. She had repaired his damaged cartilage. He'd been luckythe kneecap hadn't shifted, and while the soft tissue had bruised, it hadn't sustained severe injury. However, the fall had wreaked havoc on his right meniscustorn the cartilage from its mooringand after studying the X-rays last night and the MRI this morning, Ella had known J.D.'s repair would entail the arthroscopic surgery she had just performed.
Now he was on his way to recovery. She'd check on him in fifteen minutes, but first she needed a drink of water. Surgeries with their intense lights and stress always dehydrated her. In the small doctor's lounge down the hall she found her internist brother, Peter, sitting at one of the two small tables reading several pages of a letter, a coffee at his right hand.
"Hey, Peter." Ella reached into the fridge for the liter of Evian she'd brought that morning from home.
He gave her a glance. "El."
She sat across from him, stretched her legs, took a long pull on the water and jutted her chin at the pages. "What's up?"
"More crap from the state medical board. They're claiming we're unethical in our methods, that we're focusing too much on coddlingtheir wordpatients and not enough on speed of recovery and effectiveness of treatment." He gathered the pages into the big brown folder marked Dr. P. Wilder, Chief of Staff. The word confidential had been typed above his name.
"Should you be telling me this?" she asked, hoping he would say no. She had no time or interest in crazy allegations, especially when they alluded to a political agenda. Having already heard the rumors and innuendos, she simply tried to focus on her work.
Undoubtedly some of those rumors had evolved from the tug-of-war between Peter and his fiancée, Bethany Hollowaybefore they'd fallen in love.As a newcomer to Walnut River and the hospital board, Bethany had initially advocated Northeastern HealthCare's takeover of Walnut River General. Until Peter convinced her NHC's financial "support" would disintegrate the heart of the hospital.
Now, he shrugged his big shoulders. "You know the most of it already," he said.
"I don't want to," Ella said honestly. "I was never any good at political science."
He gave her a smile. "Aw, El. You were the brains of the family. We all knew that the minute you turned two and told Mom she'd made an extra cookie for Anna."
Their sister who had estranged herself from the family almost ten years ago. Ella rubbed her forehead. "I wish "
"That Anna believed in our love."
"She's got to work it out herself, Ella."
Momentarily they remained silent, the hospital's sounds drifting through the open door: a medicine cart's squeaky wheels in the hallway, the beep of someone's pager, the jingle of a maintenance staffer's keys. Sounds that had soothed Ella since she'd first toddled down the wide, polished corridors with her daddy, Dr. James Wilder.
Oh! Sometimes missing him would hit her so hard she had to catch her breath.
She thought of the man whose knee she'd repaired. Of course she'd recognized him last night. J. D. Sumner, executive of Northeastern HealthCare had arrived two days ago from NewYork City to woo the hospital board.A man with an agenda that, according to Peter, would uproot her father's legacy and the principles of Walnut River General.
A man who had the greenest eyeslike moss on a forest tree .
Moss on a tree? Sheesh, Ella. Have you lost it?