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"You work with elderly patients. Is that correct, Miss Suarez?"
Isobel felt as if she had been viewed under a high-powered microscope for the past five minutes. Neil Kane had the power to make her pulse race simply by passing her in the hall. It wasn't his status as an investigator for the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office that rattled her most. Rather it was her response to him as a man, with his sandy-brown hair graying at the temples, his strong jaw with its cleft at the center, his tall, trim and fit physique under a charcoal suit. He was attractive enough to turn the heads of most women.
She didn't want her head turnedespecially not by a man who was trying to pin wrongdoing on hospital personnel. Who was attempting to discover fraud that could be the downfall of Walnut River General, or more insidiously, make a takeover by Northeastern HealthCare a probability instead of a possibility.
"Miss Suarez?" the investigator repeated, those gold-flecked brown eyes sending a tingle up her spine.
Isobel intended to select every word carefully. "I'm a social worker at this hospital, Mr. Kane. I tend to any patient whose case history finds its way to my desk."
They sat alone in his temporary office, a small conference room, with the door closed. A laptop was positioned in front of Kane and a legal pad sat beside it. From her seat around the corner of the table, she couldn't see what was on the screen of the laptop.
When the investigator leaned back in his chair and rubbed the back of his neck, his knee was very close to hers. She didn't move an inch.
"I think everyone who works at this hospital has taken a course on how to be evasive," he muttered.
Shedidn't comment. By age thirty-five, she'd learned when silence had more effect than a retort.
He blew out a breath and she suspected his day had been as long as hers. From what she'd heard, he'd been interviewing personnel in this room since seven-thirty this morning; he'd been here eleven hours straight.
"Miss Suarez. You told me you've worked here ten years." He leaned forward. "In that amount of time, what age group has occupied most of your attention?"
She could only pick up a hint of his cologne, something woodsy and very masculine. "I haven't kept track."
"Well, then, isn't it a good thing we have records and computer programs that do keep track." His voice had an edge to it that was part frustration, part anger.
Her own temper was precariously perched. "Why are you asking me the question if you already have the answer? You know, Mr. Kane, if you try hard enough to catch a fish, you might catch the wrong fish."
His brows arched. "Meaning?"
Impatiently, she shoved her very curly, chin-length auburn hair behind her ear. "Meaning everyone I work with at this hospital is dedicated to his or her profession. We're here to take care of patients, not in any way to take advantage of them. I don't know what you're specifically investigatingthere are so many rumors floating around, I can't count them allbut whatever it is, maybe someone made a mistake. Maybe there was a computer error. Maybe there's no culprit or fraud or theft at all."
He studied her for a few very long moments. "What would you have our office do, Miss Suarez? Ignore the possibility of wrongdoing? Wouldn't the guilty love that!"
The buzz around the hospital was that Neil Kane was the enemy. Everyone from the chief of staff to the night security guard had banded together to treat him as if he were. They believed in each other and the work they did here. This hospital was about patient care. That could change drastically if Northeastern HealthCare took over. If a conglomerate ran Walnut River General, the hospital would consider financial well-being more important than helping the residents of Walnut River.
Frustrated herself by a long day made longer by Neil Kane's hard-edged questioning, she made a suggestion. "If you want to know what I do and who I help, shadow me. Shadow the doctors and nurses. See what we do in a day. Do that, and then ask your questions. At least then you'll be asking the right ones."
They sat in silence for a moment, both stunned by her outburst. Eager to avoid his gaze, Isobel looked down and dusted some imaginary lint from her skirt. She had worn a lime-green suit today to celebrate spring and the beginning of May. This was the time of year she liked best, and she wanted to bring the idea of new beginnings inside. The longish jacket hid the extra pounds she'd put on since she'd moved back in with her dad. The chunky jasper beads she wore around her neck carried shades of green and brown that coordinated well with her tan silk shell. Neil Kane was studying her necklace, studying her face, studying her. Because she was being confrontational? Or because
A man hadn't looked at her as an attractive woman in over two years. She wasn't feeling attractive these daysnot with the extra fifteen pounds, not with her mass of curls needing a trim, not with the circles under her eyes showing her fatigue.
Kane's voice lost its sharpness as he asked, "What are the right questions?"
Was he serious? Did he really want to know? "The right questions are the ones that matter. Do the professionals who work here care about the patients? Do they punch in and punch out, or do they work when they're needed? If they aren't making salaries commensurate with pay at a larger hospital, why do they stay? Those are the questions that would be a start."
"Tell me what you do in a day."
In spite of herself, Isobel noticed the stubble shadowing Kane's jaw. She saw the tiny scar over his right brow. She wondered if there was someone in his life who could ease the creases around his eyes into laugh lines. Amongst all the other rumors about him, she'd heard he'd once been a homicide detective with the Boston P.D. Was that why he seemed so so unyielding?
Leaning back a few inches, she took a calming breath. "I check on patients I'm following to see how they fared overnight. My supervisor hands me the files on new admissions that I can help. I'm always writing progress notes. I meet with families, confer with therapists and find placements in rehab facilities and nursing homes."
"Do you find yourself giving more time to some patients than others?"
He'd asked the question mildly as if it were just another in a long list. But for some reason, it put her on alert. "Some cases are more complicated."
"What do you do when there isn't family to consult?"
"I try to do what's best for the patient, of course."
The way he said it made her hackles rise, and her temper flipped to the ruffled side. "Are you accusing me of something?"
"Did it sound as if I was?"
"Talk about evasive," she murmured.
"I'm asking the questions, Miss Suarez. This isn't give and take. It's an investigation."
"A preliminary investigation. Doesn't that mean your office isn't even sure if there's anything to investigate?"
"You know the saying, where there's smoke " He trailed off, letting her fill in the rest.
"There's another old sayingwhen a man looks for dirt, he'll miss the gold."
"Where did that come from?" He seemed mildly amused.
Isobel frowned. She felt as if he were laughing at her. The quote came from her dad. At sixty-eight, he spouted as much wisdom as he did complaints these days. "Do you have any more questions for me?" she asked curtly.
"Yes, I do. Tell me about Doctor Ella Wilder and J. D. Sumner."
Isobel considered how best to answer him then finally decided on "They're engaged to be married."
"How did they meet?"
"Is that another question you already know the answer to?"
Everyone knew how Ella and J.D. had met. "Mr. Sumner had an accident. He slipped on the ice."
"Here at the hospital?"
"Yes, in the parking lot."
"And Dr. Wilder treated him."
"Do you know any more about it than that?"
Now Isobel was really puzzled. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"Did you know the nature of Mr. Sumner's injury?"
"I believe he had torn cartilage in his knee."
"Isn't arthroscopic surgery for torn cartilage usually done on an outpatient basis?"
Now she saw where this was going. "Mr. Sumner's case was a little different."
"Why is that?"
"In February he was a representative from Northeastern HealthCare."
"So he received extra special treatment?"
"All of our patients receive the same treatment, but J.D. was a stranger in town. He didn't know anyone, and he didn't have anybody to help him."
Kane leaned forward, his gaze piercing. "You were called in on the case?"
"No. There was no need for that."
"Because Dr. Wilder took a personal interest in him?" Kane asked mildly.
His tone didn't fool her for a minute. "What do you want to know?"
After a thoughtful pause, the investigator was blunt. "I want to know if he was charged for special treatment. He was kept longer than necessary."
Her defensive guard slipped into place once more. "I understand since you're from the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office that you have access to medical records as well as financial records. If that's true, you can verify why Mr. Sumner was kept."
"The medical records say he had a fever."
She shrugged. "And what does Mr. Sumner say?"
"He said he had a fever."
"Then why wouldn't you believe that?"
When Neil Kane wouldn't answer her question, she suspected why. Someone was feeding his office informationfalse information. There was a leak in the hospital and she guessed that someone in the administrative ranks was doing the damage. Someone had their own agenda to make the hospital look bad so Northeastern HealthCare could take over more easily.
Neil Kane seemed very close, though he hadn't moved and neither had she. "Patient records aside, can you tell me if Dr. Wilder transported Mr. Sumner at any time?"
"Why is that important?" she fenced, leaning back, putting more distance between them.
"I'm trying to understand what's fact and what's fiction, what are legitimate charges and what aren't."
The long day caught up to her. There was nothing of substance she could tell this man even if she wanted to. "My area is social work, Mr. Kane. Unless I'm following a case, I don't have contact or interaction with the other patients in the hospital."
"Oh, but I'm sure you hear plenty in your position. Besides the fact that I understand that you and Dr. Wilder and Simone Garner are friends."
At that leap into personal territory, Isobel stood. "I understand you have an investigation to conduct. I don't like talking to you about my cases, but I will if I have to. But I won't discuss my personal relationships."
When he stood, too, she noticed he was a good six inches taller than she was and seemed to take up most of the breathable space in the room. That was her very overactive imagination telling her that, but nevertheless, oxygen seemed a little harder to come by. He wasn't menacing, but he was imposing.
"Are you going to stonewall me?" he asked in a low, determined tone.
"No. I'm just setting boundaries."
He frowned. "And what happens if I have to cross them?"
"I'll clam up and not talk to you at all."
As he studied her, he seemed to gauge her level of conviction. "There are consequences to obstructing an investigation."
"Do I need a lawyer?" she returned.
He blew out a long breath. "All right. You want to leave for now? Fine. Leave. But we're not done. I need answers and I intend to get them."
She could tell him he'd get those answers when hell froze over, but he was the one who held the power here. She was usually law-abiding and cooperative, but so much was at stakethe survival and reputation of Walnut River General.
Swallowing another retort, she picked up her purse, went to the door and opened it. Neil Kane didn't say another word, but she could feel his gaze on her back as she left the conference room. She suspected he wasn't the type of man who would give up easily. Still, round one went to her.
She wouldn't think about round two until it was staring her in the face until Neil Kane was staring her in the face.
Then she'd deal with him again after a weekend of chores, sleep and gardening. Next week she was sure she wouldn't react to him so strongly. Next week she'd figure out how to be diplomatic. Diplomacy was usually her middle name. She'd just have to figure out why Neil Kane got under her skin and make sure he didn't do it again.