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It was raining. Again. It wasn't a downpour, but a gentle rain, wet just the same, and chilly.
Becca, shoulders hunched with exhaustion, trudged back to her lodging, such as it was in the tiny African village that everyone, including God, seemed to have forgotten.
After over eighteen months in the village, Becca was beyond weary. There were times when she wasn't sure she could keep going, but the people needed her as much as the small hospital, which had been built by the generosity of American philanthropists. And she had come to love the people, especially the children, with their sweet faces and innocent dark eyes.
Rebecca Jameson had been an O.R. nurse at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital for several years before volunteering to go serve in this small hospital in Africa. Working ten, twelve and sometimes as many as fourteen hours a day, every day, was beginning to wear on her.
Becca knew she should heed the advice of just about everyone urging her to accept a replacement and go back to the States for a long rest. But since Dr. Seth Andrews, the very talented but equally arrogant surgeon, had all but demanded she go, she stubbornly refused to leave.
Grateful for about the hundredth time for being advised to bring boots with her, Becca slogged along the squishy ground, her mind replaying the long shift she had moments ago completed. She sighed. For some reason Dr. I'm-The-Boss-And-You're-Not Andrews had been exceptionally cranky throughout the entire day.
Head lowered, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, Becca frowned as her sight became gray, darker than the overcast sky. What
It was her last thought as darkness closed in,enveloping her. The next moment, she toppled over onto her face, out cold.
Becca surfaced slowly from unconsciousness.
Her head ached. Her entire body hurt. Her mind felt fuzzy, as if it were stuffed with cotton.
Her first thought wasn't, where am I? It was, pain, so much pain. She made a soft moan of protest.
"Oh, finally awake are you? I told you that you were exhausted."
Even with her mind cloudy, Becca recognized the barely civil voice of Dr. Andrews. "I guess so," she replied, her voice an unfamiliar croak. "So, I suppose I'll live to irritate you another day." She decided her brain must have been rattled, or she'd have never had the nerve to speak to the Great One that way.
"No, you won't, smart mouth." His tone was menacing.
"I'm going to die?"
"No, Rebecca, you're not going to die." Now his tone carried a note of amusement. "You're going home."
Home? No! The word rang loud and clear inside her muddled head. Despite his obvious dislike of her, and his equally obvious desire to get rid of her, Becca didn't want to leave. She just couldn't leave the children. And, secretly, she didn't want to leave him, and not see him again, either.
Besides, as grumpy as he was, Seth Andrews was the very best physician and surgeon she had ever worked with, in and out of the O.R.
"I don't want " she began, her throat tight with anxiety.
"I don't care what you want," he said, his voice flat and adamant. "You are worn-out. The next time you'd go down " He paused, drew a sharp breath. "Well, there's not going to be a next time. I've called for transport. You're going stateside, like it or not."
"But " she tried to protest.
"No buts, Rebecca. You're going home. Period. Now, shut up while I examine you."
Becca closed her eyes to hold back the tears welling behind them. Damn him. She flinched slightly at the cold feel of the stethoscope on her bare flesh.
Her bare flesh.
A sudden, unwanted tingle slid the length of her body at the realization of her breasts being bared to him. He's a physician, for pity's sake, she reminded herself, gritting her teeth to contain the sensation. She sighed with a mixture of relief and disappointment when she felt her gown once again covering her.
"You're a little congested." He frowned. "Still, you're good to go."
Her eyes popped open. "Can I get up?" She stared at him. He appeared exhausted, strained. Lines of weariness scored his thin, chiseled face. If anything, he looked worse than he had the last time she had seen him. When was that, she wondered yesterday, maybe?
"No." He shook his head, setting his too long thatch of dark hair in motion.
Becca had always thought he had beautiful, shiny hair. But now, he badly needed a decent haircut. She wasn't about to tell him that. She wasn't up to his scalding rebuke.
She closed her eyes again.
"That's right. Sleep, you need it."
As if he didn't. Becca kept the thought to herself. His lack of rest was his problem.
She was out again in moments. This time she fell into a deep, normal sleep.
When Becca woke the second time, the headache was gone, or mostly gone, very likely from whatever medication he'd ordered running through her IV. Her body still hurt all over, but not as much as before.
"Feeling any better?"
Not his voice. With a sigh of relief, Becca opened her eyes, smiling at the pretty, coffee-colored face of the young nurse standing by her bed. "Yes," she answered, her voice still a dry croak. "I'm thirsty."
The nurse, Shakana, smiled back. "I'm not surprised. You've been asleep a long time." Her English was flawless, not only because she had attended an American university, but also because she had diligently practiced it with Becca's help ever since she had come to Shakana's village.
Watching as the young woman filled a cup with water for her, Becca asked, "How long have I been here I mean since I keeled over in the road?"
"You went down the day, or evening, before yesterday."
"Two days." Becca croaked, gratefully excepting a few sips of the cool water from the straw Shakana offered her. "I'm concussed?" It was obvious, of course she was concussed. She had done a header, hadn't she?
"Yes, a mild concussion." Shakana smiled. "How's the headache?"
"Better." She managed a faint smile. "But the memory lingers on."
"You were exhausted, Becca, or you wouldn't have collapsed. You simply couldn't go anymore."
Becca sighed, and blinked at the tears misting her eyes. "And now he's sending me home," she said, her voice still faint, but hard-edged with bitterness.
Grabbing a tissue from a box next to the bed, Shakana wiped away the tears running down Becca's face. "Don't cry," she said. "It's for the best."
"Best for who?" Becca cried in a croak. "For me or him?"
"Whom." Shakana smiled.
"Who, whom, what the hell difference does it make?" She was crying harder. "I don't want to go, and he knows it. I want to stay here, work with you " She was now sobbing. "He doesn't like me, so he's using my fall as an excuse to get rid of me."
"Oh, Becca, no," Shakana said, still mopping away the tears. "You didn't fall, you collapsed. Dr. Andrews doesn't dislike you " She hesitated, bit her lip. "I think. He is a physician, and he is right about your condition. You're worn-out."
"But I could rest here," Becca protested. "A couple days of rest and I could"
"No, Becca, you couldn't," Shakana interrupted. "It won't be enough. Have you looked at yourself in a mirror lately?"
"Well, of course I have, every morn"
Shakana again cut her off. "No, I don't mean a quick glance while brushing your teeth, or your hair. I mean really looked, stark naked."
Becca shook her head, wincing at the stab of pain. "No, why in the world would I do that?" she asked with sharp impatience.
"Why indeed?" the nurse drawled. "Gee, you don't know you're practically down to nothing but skin and bones, do you?"
"Oh, come on, Shak," Becca protested, using the nickname she had given her friend. "I know I've lost a little weight, but " In truth, she was well aware she had lost a lot of weight, but still she felt compelled to deny it.
"A little weight?" Shakana repeated in astonishment. "Becca, you are skinny, hardly any flesh on your bones at all. Your clothes hang on you." She gave Becca a shrewd look. "Oh, I know you've been wearing smaller tops, but your scrub pants literally hang on your hips, and despite the elastic waistband, I think the only thing holding them up is your protruding hip bones."
Becca bit her lips, admitting, "I was going to get a smaller pair of pants, when I got around to it."
Crossing her arms over her ample breasts, Shakana gave her an arch look, murmuring, "Uh-huh."
Becca couldn't help a weak smile. "Well, I thought about getting a smaller pair."
Shakana shook her head, her dark eyes sad. "Oh, Becca, I'm going to miss you so much. But it's time for you to go home, rest, put on some weight. Dear friend, it hurts me to see you like this."
Tears welled in Becca's eyes. "Come with me, Shak, please."
Those sad dark eyes grew misty. "I can't, Becca. You know that. This is my home."
"I know." Becca heaved a deep sigh, coughing with what she thought was the emotional tightness in her chest. "I know," she repeated, accepting another tissue from her best friend.
Crying softly after Shakana had left to check on her many other patients, Becca fell into a deep dreamless sleep once more.
At the jostling of her body, Becca was startled awake. What ? she thought, her eyes opening wide as she realized she was being moved onto a litter.
Shakana was there, and Dr. Andrews, directing the procedure, of course.
"Shakana?" she croaked from her dry-as-dust throat. "Why am I being moved?"
"The plane is here for you," Dr. Andrews said, his voice devoid of inflection.
"But, my stuff " she began.
Shakana squeezed her hand. "I packed your things for you, Becca."
"But " Heaving a long sigh, Becca gave up, knowing protest was pointless. She glanced around at the men handling the litter. From their uniforms and insignia, she could tell they were an American rescue team.
"I'm so thirsty, can I have some water, please?" She looked to Shakana, but it was Dr. Andrews who moved, holding up his hand to halt the crew. Taking the cup Shakana handed him, he put the straw to Becca's lips. His fingers lightly brushed her chin. The light touch rippled through Becca like a minor earthquake.
Shaken by the odd sensation, she quickly gulped the cool water and moved her face away from his hand, settling her head on the pillow. "Thank you," she murmured, not daring to look at him.