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Healing Her Heart
By Audra North, Allison Blisard, Tahra Seplowin
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Audra North
All rights reserved.
Greg Stanton's heart beat in double time as he approached the doors to the waiting room.
He hated this part of his job.
Even though he had changed into a clean pair of scrubs after leaving the operating room and had washed his hands three times with the harsh hospital soap, he still felt dirty.
No, that wasn't right. He felt marked. As though someone had painted a big black X on his very soul and no amount of washing would make it go away.
He pushed through the doors and stopped, surveying the room. A middle-aged couple was sitting in the corner, holding hands and conversing in low tones. A few chairs away, a man sat flanked by two teenage boys, one of whom was playing a game while the other was dozing in his chair. Nearby, a pretty girl was smiling at an elderly man as he laughed, and in the far corner, a woman in her fifties was staring up at the clock above the reception desk, worrying her hands in her lap.
But no Carrie.
"Miss Jankowski?" he called out, quietly. Where was she? Carrie would never leave one of her residents in the ER. A few months ago, when one of them had been brought in after complaining of severe stomach pain, she'd spent an entire night on one of the uncomfortable little sofas in the waiting room.
Greg tried again, pitching his voice a little louder. "Carrie Jankowski?"
"I'm right here." The voice came from just behind him, and Greg turned swiftly in surprise.
The woman he met far too frequently in the worst possible circumstances. The woman he should not find so attractive. The woman he fantasized about far too often when he was alone in bed.
Not that he would ever tell her that. After all, the reason they'd gotten to know one another so well was because she was a regular in the emergency room. They might have seen each other every few weeks for the past year — probably more than some of the other doctors saw their wives — but Greg had never met Carrie outside of the hospital.
But damn, he wanted to. Wanted her. Standing next to him like this, the top of her head was just level with his chin and he could smell the flowery scent of her shampoo. She must have hurried straight out of bed to the ER when she got the call from the night nurse, because her shirt was misbuttoned and her dark blond hair was thrown together in a messy ponytail.
Her blue-gray eyes crinkled at the corners. "Sorry to sneak up on you. I had to pop out to the ladies' room. I didn't expect you to be out so soon."
She gestured with her arms, making the shirt gape. Greg caught a glimpse of a lacy pink bra over pale, porcelain skin and immediately turned his head. He certainly didn't need to add any fuel to his attraction to her.
Not that he'd ever be able to get the image of that frilly lingerie out of his mind. He nearly groaned aloud.
"How is Rosie doing?" Carrie gripped his wrist in a surprisingly strong hold for someone so delicate-looking.
Right. Rosie. And the terrible news he had to deliver.
Greg took in a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Stay calm. Stay focused. He gently stroked the hand that was clamped on his wrist like a vise, reflecting the worry in Carrie's eyes.
She blushed and ripped her hand away as though his skin had burned her, and Greg repressed a sigh of relief. Her touch was too distracting.
Fucking hell. So many emotions, some conflicting, and all jumbled on top of one another.
"Carrie." His voice came out raspy, and he had to pause to clear his through. "Would you mind coming with me, please? And are there any other members of Mrs. Hernandez's family that might be here?" He knew there likely wouldn't be anyone else, but he had to ask even so.
Despite his desire for her, Carrie had never been less than professional. The only exception had been that they'd started calling each other by their first names after the first six months of late-night ER visits.
"It's only me. And no, I don't mind. Greg, please, can you — is she — "
Is she still alive?
In the five years since he'd started taking shifts in the ER, only a handful of people had been able to complete that question. But he knew. And more often these days, it felt like he was on some sort of soul- crushing rampage because his answer was less and less frequently the one that they wanted to hear.
"Why don't you follow me," he said, as gently as possible, and he watched as understanding dawned in those stormy-sky eyes.
"Oh," she gasped. "Oh, poor Rosie."
Usually, he wouldn't have been alone. He probably wouldn't have even told her himself. A nurse who was better trained, and maybe a chaplain or one of the administrative staff would have called the family member, led them into a room first, then had a tentative, delicate conversation in which they broke the news in the least devastating way possible. But Carrie was in here so often that they'd become almost — well, friends, maybe. Either way, this was definitely not the usual doctor and next-of-kin situation.
Still. Damn. He hated moments like this.
"I am very sorry," he began, but she shook her head and squared her shoulders.
"No, not here." Her voice was quiet, but controlled, and Greg took a moment to admire her fortitude. A public waiting room was not a great place to fall apart, with so many other anxious family members awaiting news about their own loved ones. Her strength made him want to do something stupid, like hold her close and comfort her.
He shook himself and set off down the corridor behind the front desk, gesturing for her to follow him. Every step felt like he was wearing a pair of lead boots, and not just because he dreaded having to actually say the words.
We lost Rosie. We couldn't save her.
He was so tired. Since he had finished his residency and become a full- fledged cardiac surgeon, he felt like he hadn't slept a wink. There weren't as many cardiac surgeons as there needed to be, especially in the ER, which meant that the years of hard work and long hours in medical school and residency only bled into more hard work and more long hours after he'd finished his specialist training.
He turned into one of the small rooms off the corridor that had been set up specifically for the purpose of giving privacy to the survivors.
He'd been in these rooms too many times.
She followed him inside and he shut the door, but neither of them sat on any of the padded chairs that had been arranged in a circle around a small table in the center. This wasn't their first rodeo, but — almost miraculously, given the age and health of the residents she usually accompanied — it was the first time she'd lost someone during his shift.
He gave a slight cough. "Carrie ... I am very sorry for your loss." Though he had spoken the words hundreds of times since he began his career, they'd never felt so thick in his throat.
An image flashed in his mind — an elderly woman on the table, her complexion already impossibly pale.
Greg sucked in a sharp breath.
Shit. Not here. Not now. The words he had thought earlier rose again in his mind, but this time for a different reason. He'd been having these flashes of horrible images in the past month, with increasing frequency, and even though they usually went away within seconds, they left him feeling tense and short of breath.
He forced himself to focus on her face. She stared back at him with an unnerving clarity in her gaze.
He enunciated each word, willing his body to Slow down. Don't do this. "I want you to know that I tried everything I could to save your resident — to save Mrs. Hernandez."
The woman's body jerking under the shock from the defibrillator.
He swallowed hard. He could feel sweat breaking out on his forehead, and he tried to reach out a hand to wipe it away, but for some reason they didn't seem to be working. Hands that performed the delicate operation of grafting new arteries and veins into a person's heart.
They were shaking.
"Greg?" Strong fingers slipped into his. "Greg, are you okay?"
He felt dizzy, and his throat was trying to close up. He tried to nod, to tell her he was fine, but it was as though his body was detached from his brain, because nothing moved.
She made a sound of concern, and her hands slid over his arms, her chest pressed into his. He tried to think of something else. Failed. His mind had spun out of control along with his body. He was so fucked. Another frantic scrabbling, somewhere in the deepest recesses of his brain, and he managed to lock onto a distant memory. In one of his classes during med school ... staring down at the diagram of a human heart ... the hardest-working muscle in the body ...
Now his lungs were struggling for breath, his mouth trying to suck in gulps of air but only managing to take in small swallows.
It appeared that Carrie's uncannily strong hands were attached to bionic arms, because she was practically supporting his entire weight as he leaned backward, trying to escape whatever was turning his senses upside down. But her voice sounded again, clear and soothing. "Greg, it's Carrie. I'm here with you, and I'm not going to let anything happen to you."
Carrie. A beautiful, strong woman with eyes like rain. Carrie.
He tried again to take in a deep breath and found that it wasn't so difficult this time.
"That's it. Slow and easy." A hand stroked up and down his back. Comfort. Calm. She kept up those soft, stroking motions. Fuck. For such a small person, she was incredibly strong.
"Good. That's good. You're fine. You're safe. I'm here."
He could feel his muscles relaxing. When had they gotten so tense? He must have been clenching them as tightly as possible, because his entire body hurt as he released the tension, coming back into himself long enough to realize that he could move his head again, that he could breathe normally. His throat didn't feel closed off anymore, and his neck was no longer straining and rigid. But he was still in her arms, leaning against her —
"Goddamn," he gasped, yanking his body away from hers.
She simply stood there calmly, as though nothing untoward had just happened.
Fuck. He was fucked.
She gave him a small smile. "I take it that was the first time you've ever had an anxiety attack?"
What? Anxiety attack? Him?
"I cannot apologize enough, Carrie. Miss Jankowicz." Greg shook his head and put up a hand, taking a moment to breathe deeply. "Again, I am sorry. Miss Jankowski. My behavior was beyond reproachful. Please know that I was not trying to make light of the loss of Mrs. Hernandez or to violate your person or —"
She stepped forward and took his hands again. "Dr. Stanton." She spoke forcefully, but calmly. "Apology accepted. Now sit down before you pass out, or I'll be forced to yell for a doctor." She gave him a grim smile. "And it so happens that I think there's a pretty good chance of finding one in this place."
The very thought that Dr. Chen would be called in and see him like this was scary enough. He could practically feel the ER Chief's stern gaze on him already. Victoria Chen was one of the nation's most brilliant emergency room doctors and a total hardass who would no doubt force him to get medical help. He was a doctor who worked with doctors all day. He didn't have the time or inclination to see yet another one.
"Can I get you something?"
"No, thank you. In fact, I should be asking you that question."
She tensed, her face drawing tight with pain. But after a moment of visible effort, she relaxed again. "I appreciate your concern, Dr. Stanton —"
Why is she being so formal all of a sudden? "Please call me Greg," he interrupted. "I don't feel I'm quite qualified for my title at the moment."
She gave a little laugh. "I disagree. But I think it's probably best if we wait a bit before you tell me anything more about Rosie. Knowing the details of her last moments won't bring her back. Waiting a day or two to hear what happened won't affect how much I miss her, and I think you need rest more than I need closure."
He tried to rise, but she put out a hand and pushed him back down. "Stay here for a few minutes and recuperate. I would offer to send for help, but it's pretty obvious that you don't want that." She opened her purse and rummaged inside, eventually pulling out a business card that she handed to him. "Give me a call, or stop by and see me whenever you're ready. But don't come before then, or I'll make good on my threat and make you see a doctor."
Greg took the card and read it. Carrie Jankowski, Director, New Beginnings. An assisted-living home for seniors. He'd known that much already, but holding her card in his hand, with an invitation to come see her outside of this stressful, depressing place, made him feel something strange that he couldn't quite name.
"Take care of yourself." She gave him a wave and turned, heading toward the door. She opened it and stepped into the hall, but right before she walked out of sight, he saw her bring a hand up to her eyes to wipe away tears.
He had completely botched that one.
And she had been incredible.
He blew out a breath and leaned his head back, simultaneously cursing himself and thanking his lucky stars that she hadn't reported him.
After a long moment, he pushed himself out of the chair and stood. It wasn't until he was all the way in the locker room, changing into his street clothes, that he realized that strange feeling had only gotten stronger after Carrie left.
And that he had figured out what it was.
Carrie paused again in typing Rosie's incident report. She was having a hard time getting through what should have been a couple of short sentences about what had happened at the hospital, because thoughts of Greg were constantly intruding.
She'd recognized the signs of an anxiety attack immediately and had reacted by instinct, wrapping her arms around him. After he'd calmed a bit and finally sat down, she'd still been able to feel the warmth of his skin under her fingers and immediately hated herself for wanting him in such a horrible situation.
It had been so long since she'd been with someone, though she'd been attracted to Greg since the first time they met almost a year ago. His slightly overlong dark hair, whiskey-colored eyes, and shadowed, square jaw was difficult to resist. Doctors weren't supposed to be that sexy outside of syndicated television shows.
Grief. Attraction. Panic. So many layers of humanity present in that room yesterday. And yet, she didn't feel guilty about lusting after him even though Rosie had just passed away. Working with some of the wisest members of society — the elderly — Carrie had learned years ago that emotions didn't separate themselves into nice, neat compartments that a person could experience, one at a time. The beauty of life was in its complexity, and death and desire were both a part of it.
That was why yesterday, minutes after holding herself against Greg's body and wanting him so much, she had left the hospital building and gone straight to her car in the parking garage, where she'd sat for almost an hour, sobbing over the sweet woman's death. But now she was tasked with describing Rosie's heart attack, the frantic rush to the ER, and the sad news of her death in the most-clinical terms possible.
This was the part of her job that she hated.
It wasn't the fact that her residents died. They were quite elderly, after all, and it was not unexpected. Rather, it was how she had to reduce the nuances of who they were and what had happened to them into unfeeling sentences, as though they were nothing more than items to be observed, catalogued, and then filed away.
The phone on her desk rang, and she grabbed at it, grateful for an excuse to take a break from the report.
"Carrie, it's Kate."
Carrie frowned at the sound of the voice on the other end of the line. "Kate, what's wrong? You sound awful. Are you sick?"
A barking cough, followed by a groan, and then Kate's rasping voice again. "Yes. Ugh. I have bronchitis. I saw the doctor this morning, and he gave me antibiotics, but given how sensitive some of our residents are to germs, he advised that I stay away for several days. I'm so sorry. I can't come in to help this week."
Carrie gripped the phone with both hands and shut her eyes. "Oh, no. It's all right. You're sick, for goodness sake. And I appreciate your concern for our residents, but remember that you have to take care of yourself, too."
"You're the best, Carrie. Thank you. I feel terrible."
"Go get some rest, you poor thing. I'll see you next week, okay? Feel better."
Excerpted from Healing Her Heart by Audra North, Allison Blisard, Tahra Seplowin. Copyright © 2014 Audra North. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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