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So this was what it felt like to be a pariah.
Anna Wilder tilted her chin slightly higher, tightened her grasp on her briefcase and walked firmly past the two gray-haired biddies at the information desk in the lobby of Walnut River General Hospital.
She didn't need to keep them in view to feel the heat of their glares following her to the gleaming elevator doors. She also didn't need to fully hear their whispers to catch enough to make her ulcer go into overdrive.
It's her, Anna Wilder.
James and Alice must be rolling in their graves.
She did her best to ignore themand the hurt that settled like greasy black bile in her stomach. Still, to her great shame, she wasn't quite able to control the slight tremble of her hand as she pushed the elevator button to go up.
One of the two cars appeared to be permanently stuck on the second floor but the other one at last began creeping downward in what felt like excruciatingly painful slow motion.
She prayed the blasted thing would hurry up and arrive not only to allow her to slip inside and escape the stares and whispers but, more importantly, because she was late.
She really hated being late.
The elevator stopped on the second floor and paused there for a few moments before continuing its descent. Suddenly a new apprehension fluttered her ulcer.
Why hadn't she been smart enough to take the stairs? The only thing worse than being late for her meeting would be the social discomfort of encountering one of her siblings in the elevator during her first few minutes at the hospital.
She didn't know which one would be harder to face right now. Ella? Peter?David? It probably didn't matter. They were all furious with her and would no doubt love a chance to let her know.
Just before the elevator arrived, one of the two volunteers at the information desk raised her voice in what had to be deliberate malice so Anna couldn't miss her words.
"She might have the Wilder name," she said in a carrying voice, "but she's not a true Wilder. How can she be, since she's in bed with those who are trying to sell out this hospital and this town?"
Anna inhaled sharply. Apparently the doctors weren't the only ones at Walnut River General who could wield a scalpel. The words effectively sliced straight to where she was most vulnerable.
Her hand tightened on the briefcase as she ruthlessly tried to ignore the hot tears burning behind her eyelids.
It didn't matter what a couple of dried-up old prunes had to say about her. Why should it? They had nothing better to do with their time than sit around gossiping and watching all the human suffering march through their lobby.
She knew she was doing the right thingthe best thingfor Walnut River and its citizens. She just had to convince everybody else in town.
At long, long last, the elevator car arrived and the doors whooshed open. She considered it nothing short of a miracle that it was blessedly empty. Not a Wilder in sight.
Only after the doors slid shut did she close her eyes and slump against the wall of the elevator, pressing a hand to her stomach before she dug in the pocket of her suit jacket for an antacid.
She did not want to be here. In Walnut River, at the hospital her family had all but founded, in this blasted elevator.
It helped nothing that she had expected the reaction she had received from those two volunteers and she expected much more vitriol in the days ahead.
She had read the reports and knew the merger she had been sent here to expedite wasn't popular among the staff at WRG. Not that she had needed reports. Her family's unreasonable opposition was all the evidence she needed. They had all made no secret that they were furious at her.
Not a Wilder.
She screwed her eyes shut. Focus on the job, she chanted to herself. That was all that mattered. Move in fast and hard and wrap things up so she could return to New York.
She had no choice, not if she wanted to keep her job. And she certainly did.
She loved working for Northeastern HealthCare, one of the fastest growing health care conglomerates in the region. She was on the fast track there and had great hopes of making vice president within the next five years. That goal would be even closer if she could pull this deal off.
Mercifully, though the elevator stopped on the second floor to pick up a couple of nurses, she didn't recognize them and they didn't seem to know her. One of them even gave her a friendly smile.
So maybe David hadn't yet gotten around to plastering up wanted posters throughout the hospital of her wearing devil horns.
Beware of the evil HMO-mongerer.
She wouldn't put anything past her second-oldest brother, a gifted plastic surgeon who had recently returned to Walnut River as well. Unlike her, he had come back to a warm welcome, embraced by one and allthe prodigal son giving up a lucrative career in L.A. as plastic surgeon to the stars to share his brilliance with patients in his own hometown.
On the fourth floor, the nurses exited with her. Anna stood for a moment, trying to catch her bearings.
This part of the hospital had been renovated in the past few years and she was slightly disoriented at the changes.
She remembered it as slightly old-fashioned, with wood-grained paneling and dark carpeting. Now everything was light and airy, with new windows and a far more modern feel.
"Do you need help finding something?" one of the nurses asked, noticing her confusion.
"Yes. Thanks. I'm looking for the administrator's office."
"Down the hall. Second door on the right," she said.
"Thank you." Anna gave a polite smile, grateful for any help she could find here in this hostile environment, then headed in the direction the woman indicated.
The receptionist's nameplate read Tina Tremaine. She greeted Anna with a friendly smile, her features warm and open.
"Hello. I'm Anna Wilder. I'm here for a three-o'clock meeting with the hospital attorney and the administrator."
The instant she heard Anna's name, the woman's smile slid away as if a cold breeze had just blown through the room.
"I'm here for a three o'clock meeting with the hospital attorney and the administrator."
"Phil Crandall, the hospital attorney, is not here yet, Ms. Wilder. But Mr. Sumner and your attorney are in the boardroom. They're waiting for you."
Though she spoke politely enough, Anna thought she saw a tiny sliver of disdain in the woman's eyes.
She fished around in her mind for something she might say to alter the woman's negative impression, then checked the impulse.
She was working hard to break the habits of a lifetime, that hunger for approval she couldn't quite shake. Did it really matter what J.D.'s receptionist thought of her? It certainly wouldn't change anything about her mission here in Walnut River.
"Thank you," she answered, mustering a smile she hoped was at least polite if not completely genuine. She headed for the door the receptionist indicated, tilting her chin up and hoping she projected confidence and competence.
This was it. Her chance to cinch the promotion at NHC and cement her growing reputation as a rainmaker there.
Or she could blow the merger, lose her job, and end up begging on the street somewhere.
Think positive, she ordered herself. You can do this. You've done it before. As she pushed open the door, she visualized herself handing over the signed deal to her bosses, both her direct supervisor, Wallace Jeffersvice president for mergers and acquisitionsand the NHC chief executive officer who had given her this assignment, Alfred Daly.
It was a heady, enticing image, one she clung to as she faced the two men at the boardroom table, papers spread out in front of them.
Two men sat at a boardroom table talking, papers spread out in front of them. She knew both of them and smiled at J. D. Sumner and Walter Posey, the NHC attorney.
"I'm sorry if I've kept you waiting. I didn't realize there would be so much construction surrounding the hospital."
J.D. nodded. "Walnut River is growing. You just have to walk outside to see it."
"Which is one factor that makes this hospital an attractive opportunity for NHC, as you well know."
J.D. had first come to Walnut River as an employee of NHC. He had ended up fallingliterallyfor her sister, Ella, resigning from NHC and taking the job as hospital administrator.
She didn't know all the details but she knew Ella had treated J.D. after he was injured in a bad tumble on some icy steps when leaving the hospital. Something significant must have happened between them to compel a man like J.D. to fall for his orthopedic surgeon and leave a promising career at Northeastern HealthCare to take the reins of Walnut River General Hospital.
She couldn't imagine giving up everything she had worked so hard to attain for something as ephemeral as love, but she had to admit part of her envied her sister.
J.D. must love Ella very much.
She could only hope his relationship with Ella had turned him soft. Judging by his track record at NHC, Anna feared he would be a formidable foe in her efforts to make the merger happen.
"Our attorney was caught up in the traffic snarl, as well," J.D. answered. "He just called and was still parking his car but he should be here any moment."
Though he spoke cordially enough, there was a reserve in his voice she couldn't miss.
She had only known him casually when he worked for NHC, but their interactions as coworkers had always been marked by friendly respect. Now, though, they were on opposite sides of what was shaping up to be an ugly fight over the future of the hospital.
He didn't seem antagonistic, as she had feared, only distant. She had to admit she was relieved. He and Ella were engaged, from what she understood. This was bound to be awkward enough between them without outright antipathy.
"I'm going for some coffee before we get started," the NHC attorney announced. "Can I get either of you anything?"
Anna shook her head at Walter, whom she had worked with before on these due diligence reviews. "None for me, thanks."
J.D. shook his head. "I'm good."
As soon as Walter left the room, J.D. leaned back in his chair and studied her carefully, until Anna squirmed under the weight of his green-eyed gaze.
"So how are you? I mean, how are you really?"
She blinked at the unexpected personal question and was slow to answer, choosing her words carefully. "I'm managing. I suppose you heard I tried to stay out of this one, obviously without success."
He nodded, his brow furrowed. "I heard. Does Daly really think your family connection will make anyone happier about NHC's efforts to take over the hospital?"
"Hope springs eternal, I suppose," she muttered.
J.D. laughed. "Alfred Daly obviously doesn't know your stubborn siblings, does he?"
If her boss had any idea what he was up against, Anna had a feeling he never would have initiated the merger proceedings at Walnut River General.
"How's Ella?" The question slipped out before she could yank it back.
J.D.'s eyes widened with surprise for just an instant that she would ask before they softened into a dreamy kind of look that filled her with no small amount of envy.
"She's great. Wonderful. Except the wedding next month is making her a little crazy. I told her to just leave the details to someone else, but she won't hear of it." He paused. "She misses you."
I miss her, too. The words tangled on her tongue and dried there. She couldn't say them, of course. She could never tell J.D. how she hated this distance between her and her sister.
They used to be so closebest friends as well as sisters, only a year apart. They had shared everything clothes, secrets, friends.
She remembered lying on her stomach in their backyard, daydreaming and giggling over boys.
"You're going to be my maid of honor," Ella declared more than once. "And I'll be yours."
"One of us will have to get married first," she remembered answering. "So one of us will have to be a matron of honor."
"That sounds so old! Like one of the gray-haired ladies at the hospital! How about we'll both still be maids of honor, even if one of us is already married?"
Anna remembered shaking her head at Ella's twisted logic but in the end, she had agreed, just like she usually did.
That had always been their plan. But now Ella and J.D. were getting married in a month and Anna wasn't even sure she would receive an invitation.
Especially not if she successfully carried out her objective of making this merger a reality.
Her career or her family.
A miserable choice.
"You should talk to her," J.D. said into the silence, with a sudden gentleness that made her want to cry again.
"I wish this were something that a little conversation could fix," she murmured. "I'm afraid it's not that easy."
"You never know until you try," he answered.
She didn't know how to answer him, and to her relief she was spared from having to try when the door opened.
She looked up, expecting Walter with his coffee, then she felt her jaw sag as recognition filtered through.
"Sorry I'm late, J.D. That traffic is a nightmare," the newcomer said. He was tall and lean, with hair like sunlight shooting through gold flakes. His features were classically handsomelong lashes, a strong blade of a nose, a mouth that was firm and decisive.
The eight years since she had seen Richard Green had definitely been kind to him. He had always been sexy, the sort of male women always looked twice at. When they were teenagers, he couldn't seem to go anywhere without a horde of giggling girls around him, though he had barely seemed to notice them.
Now there was an edge of danger about him, a lean, lithe strength she found compelling and seductive.
J.D. rose and shook his hand. "I appreciate you filling in for Phil at the last minute."
The attorney looked over J.D.'s shoulder and she saw shock and disbelief flicker across the stunning blue eyes that had lost none of their punch even after eight years.
In a different situation, she might have rushed to hug him but he was sending out a definite "back off" vibe.