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By Virginia Kantra
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Man here asking for you, Nell," Billie announced as she hustled past the nurses' station.
Eleanor Dolan didn't need a man. She needed six more hours in her day and a forty-percent increase in her operating budget. Or three extra-strength Tylenol and a new pair of orthopedic shoes.
Not that she had a shot at getting any of those things anytime soon. She was used to not getting what she wanted, but she'd learned to make do with what she had. She wasn't settling, exactly. She was ... surviving.
Nell sighed and made another note on her patient's medical chart. "Is he a regular?"
The other nurse shook her close-cropped head. This week Billie's hair was an improbable shade of red that glowed against her dark skin. "Nope. But you've got to see this one, Nell. Seriously."
Monday mornings at the free clinic were like Saturday nights in the E.R. - a Saturday night when the moon was full and the Chicago Bulls were losing. "You've got to see this one" could mean anything. AIDS. Asthma. A cut that needed stitching.
"Right," Nell said briskly. "Give him the forms and get him into an examining room. I'll be right there."
She pushed open the door to Exam Eight a few minutes later prepared to find the patient turning blue or bleeding. She wasn't prepared for ...
Nell realized her jaw had dropped and closed her mouth with an audible snap. Billie was right. If you were female and breathing, you had to see this one. Seriously.
He wasn't handsome. Dr. James Fletcher, the volunteer pediatrician, was handsome, his features balanced, his eyes kind, his teeth white and straight.
The man in Exam Eight had sharp, hooded eyes and a smile like a shark. His face was lined, lived in, with enough stubble on his jaw to suit a movie star. Or some homeless drifter. Judging from the quality of his upscale safari jacket, Nell voted for movie star. Although considering the jacket's age, maybe she'd better go with drifter. He looked tough. Streetwise. Dangerous.
Nell distrusted him on sight.
She clutched his chart and forced a smile. "I'm Eleanor Dolan, the nurse-practitioner," she said crisply. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr., ah -" She glanced at the sheet clipped to the front of the folder. It was blank, damn it. Somebody should have helped him if he was having trouble filling out the forms.
"Joe," the man supplied. He was still smiling, but his eyes were watchful.
All right, he spoke English. But maybe he was worried about the law or Immigration. Maybe he was embarrassed about his financial situation. Maybe he couldn't read.
She uncapped her pen, determined to help him. That was what she did. Help people.
"Last name?" she prompted.
She wrote it down. "Do you have insurance, Mr. Reilly?"
He slouched against the examining-room table, his hands shoved in his jacket pockets. "As long as I keep my job, I do."
She mustered her patience and lifted her pen. "I don't know if you're aware of our policy, Mr. Reilly, but the Ark Street Clinic provides medical assistance to people who are uninsured. Your having a job certainly doesn't disqualify you from seeking care. Many of our patients work two or more part-time jobs and earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. But if your employer provides insurance -"
"I work for the Examiner," he said.
The Chicago Examiner was the city's largest and second-oldest daily newspaper. Nell had been calling and e-mailing both the Metro department and the features editor for months, trying to provoke the kind of publicity that would attract donations to her clinic.
Oh my God.
"You're Joe Reilly," she said.
"You're here to write about the clinic."
Joe kept his hands in his pockets. "That was the idea."
His editor's idea. Not Joe's.
Actually, his editor's idea was for Joe to profile the woman standing in front of him, Eleanor Dolan, the driving force and guiding light of the North Side's Ark Street Free Clinic. The so-called Angel of Ark Street.
Joe thought the idea was hokey and the name probably undeserved. The past year had left him with a jaded view of women and a jaundiced view of the medical profession.
But he could see how the name might have stuck. Eleanor Dolan looked enough like an angel, the kind that showed up in Russian icons flanking the Madonna - pale, blond and severely beautiful. She was even dressed in white, a lab coat, instead of a printed smock like the other nurses wore.
A vain angel? Joe wondered. Not that it mattered. The Dolan woman could dress like the queen of England in white gloves and a blue hat and it wouldn't make her newsworthy.
Although it might be interesting to see what was under that lab coat.
Even if Eleanor Dolan was the angel his boss made her out to be, Joe was no saint. And he was getting mighty tired of self-denial. So he let himself look, appreciating the slope and curve of Dolan's sweater between the open panels of her coat. Very nice.
Of course she caught him staring.
She frowned. "I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow."
He shrugged, enjoying the flash of annoyance in her eyes. "I had some time free today."
"I don't. Monday is our busiest day."
"Some of our patients wait outside for two hours before the clinic even opens." She must have realized scolding wasn't likely to generate the kind of publicity she wanted, because she softened her tone.
"Please come back tomorrow. We'll be fully staffed then, and I can give you a tour."
Joe knew all about official tours. He'd been escorted by experts in Haiti, Kosovo and Baghdad. The skin prickled on the back of his neck.
Which was ridiculous. Eleanor Dolan didn't have anything to hide. She was just anxious to make a good impression.
"That'll be great," Joe said. "In the meantime, any objections if I stick around? Make some general observations, maybe ask a few questions?"
Dolan opened her mouth. Closed it, and tried again. "Not at all. I'll have to ask you to stay in the waiting area, though. To protect our patients' privacy."
Okay, maybe she wanted to make a good impression.
Excerpted from Guilty Secrets by Virginia Kantra Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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