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"I knew things were too good to be true," Lynette pronounced just as a young woman, a little girl and a teen tromped into the reception area of the Lane's End Memorial Hospital. "I was a fool to think we'd actually have a slow afternoon for once."
"We had a good forty-five minutes of downtime, that's got to be a record," Claire said as she hopped off her stool.
"We almost got our crossword done."
"Almost." Lynette quickly shoved their daily crossword to one side as the trio approached, each wearing looks of worry and panic.
Closer inspection revealed a bloody towel wrapped around the boy's hand. Joking was pushed aside as duty clicked in. "May I help you?"
Treating them to a weary smile, the woman nodded. "Taylor here cut up his hand pretty bad. I think he's going to need some stitches."
The little girl's hair was the exact shade of auburn as the woman's; she stared at Claire. "We need some help."
Privately, Claire thought they all did. Their coats weren't thick enough to ward off the cold weather. Each looked in need of hot soup. And as a slight musty scent floated her way, Claire realized that a shower would be a good idea, too.
A shiver ran through her as she fought back memories. Remembering darker times would do her no good now. She'd do well to keep that in mind. "We'll get you started in a jiffy," Claire promised with a smile, though she felt herself getting a little woozy. There was a lot of blood on that towel. "Lynette, I'll start the paperwork."
Her partner picked up a phone. "I'll go ahead and call for assistance."
After grabbing a clipboard holding the necessary forms, Claire guided the trio to a nearby cubicle. "We're calling for help so Taylor can get treated right away. In the meantime, we just need some basic information."
Wariness fought with relief in the woman's hazel eyes. "I don't have insurance."
Claire hadn't thought she did. In her experience, insurance premiums weren't high on your list when you didn't know where the next meal was coming from. "We'll worry about that in a bit. Just fill out what you can and we'll concentrate on getting Taylor fixed up."
The little girl's eyes widened just before she popped her thumb in her mouth. Tenderness passed over the woman's expression as she turned to Taylor, who was sitting in the chair next to her. Gently she combed back a lock of hair. "We did the right thing, didn't we?"
He still hadn't said a word. The woman didn't look like she needed an answer.
That was worrisome. As the woman started filling out the forms, Claire glanced back toward her reception partner. "Lynette? Any word?"
"Yep." Behind her, Lynette was talking on the phone in her usual no-nonsense way, chomping gum in between every other word. "I got put on hold for a sec, buthere we go." Her voice a little louder, she said, "We're gonna need some help over here in registration. Yes. Uh-huh. Thank you."
"Any minute now," Claire promised. Funny how it seemed like things were taking forever, when in truth the trio had only arrived minutes ago.
As the girl sucked her thumb and the boy said nothing, Claire did what she could to try and provide reassurance. "Everything's going to be okay," she said. "The doctors are good here. And the staff's the best."
Some of the stress in the woman's eyes settled. A dash of kindness really did work wonders. Once their gazes met, Claire spoke slowly again. Remembering her son's last scrape, worn like a badge of honor, she said, "So, how'd you get cut?"
But that question didn't achieve the results she'd hoped for. Instead of an explanation, all she got was a suspicious look. Finallyalmost defiantlyhe mumbled, "I cut it on a can."
The woman's chin rose a bit. "We were collecting cans and one had a torn edge."
Claire's wooziness increased tenfold. And not because of the blood. Unfortunately, she knew all about collecting cans in the dark. Swallowing hard, she fought to keep her voice neutral. "We'll get you fixed up in no time." She darted another look to the reception desk.
Lynette raised two fingers. "Two minutes, tops."
Claire touched the woman's arm again. "Let's go have a seat. I'll need to take you over to the" Her words faded as the staff door to her left opened and she saw who arrived.
Of course he had to be the one to come to provide assistance.
If she could, she'd cue movie trailer music and one of those announcers with a big, booming voice. Just when she thought things couldn't get any worse
"Hey, Claire," Ty said as he approached.
"Hi, um, Dr. Slattery. We've, um, got a little issue here." She groaned inwardly at her awkwardness.
"My son got cut pretty bad," the woman said.
Ty didn't even blink at the soaked towel. "You sure did. I think you came to the right place," he said, his voice caring and kind. "I'm Dr. Slattery. Who are all of you?"
The mom blinked. "I'm Deanna Johns. This is Taylor. And this little thing is Annie."
"Nice to meet you," Ty replied, just like they were at the park instead of the hospital.
Claire sighed. Honestly, did he have to be so perfect? Time and again she'd seen Ty Slattery work magic with everyone who came in contact with him. For a man who wasn't all that heart-stoppingly handsome, he sure had a way with women.
When Dr. Slattery faced her, he pointed to the hallway on the opposite side of the room. "I was just about to leave for the day when I heard Lynette's page. Thought I'd see if I could help out."
She knew she should tell him thanks.
She knew she should smile back at him. But that felt almost impossible to do. He affected her too much.
Luckily he was ignoring her rudeness. After quickly looking at the trio by Claire's side, he pointed to a wheel-chair parked near the admission desk. "Go grab that, will you? We'll get Taylor settled."
Claire hurried to do as Dr. Slattery bid, thinking that his calm, soothing voice was affecting her just the way she'd hoped her smile had reassured Deanna.
Too bad she didn't want her emotions around him calmed down. No, sir. She needed to be vigilant and on-call around this guy.
Claire wheeled the chair to the teen. He eased into it. Then, before Claire could stop her, Annie scrambled onto her brother's lap. "Hey, sweetie, you need to let your brother"
In spite of his injury the boy made room for her, lifting his hand into the air so it wouldn't get jarred. "Don't worry, it's fine."
"No, it's not, Taylor," Deanna said, iron in her voice.
"I'll take Annie while you get fixed up."
But the little girl cuddled closer.
Claire was just about to pry her away when Ty stopped her. "If we take a ride down the hall, then will you hop off?"
Amazingly, she nodded. Okay, maybe not so amazingly. Everyoneyoung and oldseemed to have a soft spot for Ty Slattery.
That's how the five of them ended up walking toward triage, all together, Ty in the lead, Claire pushing the chair and Deanna looking like she was in the middle of a really long streak of bad luck.
Claire knew that look. She had once been an overwhelmed young mom, too. More than a day or two had passed when she'd felt completely in over her head, but nobody had cared.
"Here we go," Dr. Slattery said, pushing through the stainless steel double doors. As soon as they stepped inside, he picked up the phone and spoke into it.
Claire did her best with the chair, the mother close to her heels. "I didn't mean for this to happen," Deanna said. "I never thought about Taylor getting cut."
"I know you didn't." Claire had never worried about broken glass or torn up cans either. She'd been too worried about feeding Wes. "That's why they're called accidents, right?"
The skin around her lips whitening, Deanna kept her focus on her son. "I suppose."
The teen closed his eyes. As Dr. Slattery spoke with two nurses, Deanna started looking agitated again. Seeking to calm her, Claire smiled. "So, how old is Annie?"
"She's a cutie."
"Oh, she is. I tell you, more than one stranger's stopped me and said she needs to be on TV." After a pause, she added, "When I think of the things we've been going through, I can hardly believe it. I always thought I'd be doing better than this."
Reaching into her pocket, Claire wrote down two numbers. One was for the Applewood Women's Shelter, the other was her phone number at work. "This place helped me out a couple of years ago. You might want to give them a call. Or, call me if you like and we'll talk."
Biting her lip, Claire nodded. "Yeah. I know exactly what you're going through. Applewood helped me a lot."
Further conversation was prevented by the appearance of the two nurses. "We'll take care of things now," one said as she reached for the wheelchair.
Deanna picked up Annie, who started crying. "I'm sorry," she said. "She just really likes being with Taylor."
"We'll be as quick as possible. I'll come get you after we take a look." With a genuine, warm smile, Ty said to Claire, "Thanks for your help. We'll handle this now. You'll make sure she gets the paperwork done?"
Thanks for her help? Oh, for heaven's sakesshe was just doing her job. "Yes, doctor."
Deanna stared at the curtained area all while juggling a squirming Annie in her arms. "I feel awful that I'm not in there with him."
"I know the feeling, but I promise, right now it would be better for Taylor if you and Annie let Dr. Slattery and the nurses do their jobs. They're good people, I promise."
"Do you know that doctor very well?"
"I do." Claire knew more about Ty Slattery than she wanted to. He was a resident, too handsome, too friendly and four years younger than herself. "Dr. Slattery's a good doctor."
After handing Deanna the paperwork again, Claire knew it was time to leave. "You take care, Ms. Johns," Claire murmured, barely waiting for her to reply before retreating to the safety of the reception area.
But as the double doors whooshed open and Claire stepped through, she didn't know if she was more anxious to put some space between her and Deanna Johnsa woman who reminded her way too much of her pastor the one man who'd reminded her that maybe she wasn't as dead inside as she'd previously thought.
"HEY, CLAIRE," Dr. Slattery called out just as she was heading out to the back parking lot.
Pulling her navy coat a little more tightly closed, Claire did her best to look relaxed. "Hi. Um, is Taylor okay?"
"I think so. Twelve stitches plus a tetanus shot." He chuckled. "He's going to have a sore hand for quite a while."
And more than likely would be sleeping in a car tonight, Claire realized. She should have thought to go back and see if Deanna had any questions about the shelter. She'd meant to, but had forgotten when she'd reached the main reception room. At least a dozen patients had come in while she'd been gone and Lynette's usual good temper was in short supply. They'd worked nonstop the next four hours.
But Dr. Slattery didn't need to know any of that. "Well, thanks again for helping us out."
"Like I said, I'm glad I hadn't left yet."
He was so laid-back and easygoing it was everything Claire could do to remember that she didn't want to lower her guard around him. His calm, caring demeanor reminded Claire that some men might actually be everything they claimed to be. That was always a nice surprise, since Ray, her ex-husband, hadn't been.
Dr. Slattery stepped closer, effectively making it difficult to forget that she needed to stay far away from him. "How's Wes?"
"Shoulder still doing okay?"
She remembered Dr. Slattery's hands gently working Wes's shoulder at a wrestling tournament a good month ago, checking to see if any real harm had been done on that mat. "It's in shape, if his performance is any indication. He won two wrestling matches last weekend."
A true smile lit his face. "I can't believe I was on call all weekend and didn't get to see a single match. I'll have to stop by and watch him compete one day soon."
"I'm sure you're too busy for that." When he blinked in surprise, Claire attempted to soften her words with a smile.
"I mean, you're a resident, and help with the football conditioning at Lane's End High, too. You can't watch all the kids all the time, right?"
"I do my best." He eyed her again, then ran a hand through his dark brown hair. "Are you off duty now?"
"I'm a little too keyed up to go home. Would you like a cup of coffee or something?"
"No." She bit her lip, then said, "I mean, thanks, but I've got to get home to Wes. He's probably already combing the cupboards for junk to eat."
He laughed. "He wouldn't be a teenage boy if he wasn't." Relief rushed through her as she realized he wasn't going to make a big deal about her refusing him. "He's barely a teenager only thirteen."
"I still find it hard to believe you have an eighth-grader."
"Yeah, well." No way was she going to discuss how she got pregnant too early, married the wrong guy for the wrong reasons, and then nearly lost Wes when her marriage and her financial situation fell apart.
Those days would probably seem like another world to such a handsome, successful guy. Correction, young guy. "Well. Good night, Dr. Slattery."
He flashed a smile. "Maybe we could graduate to first names? It's Ty."
Claire knew that she'd been hanging on to some kind of weird, outdated formality by insisting on using his title. She wanted to keep her distance. "All right. Ty." She smiled to take the sting out of her voice, though she doubted he even felt a pinch. "I better get on home."
"How about I walk you to your car? It's dark out here."
"Thanks, but that's not necessary." He fell into step beside her. "It's the least I can do. I'm sure Wes would appreciate someone looking out for his mom."
Unfortunately, her son had already needed to find someone to look out for his mom. Never again would she be in a situation where she felt dependent or inferior. Never again did she want to depend on a man, even for safety's sake. "I'm okay."
"Even so "
Slowly they walked through along rows of cars and finally stopped in front of her gold Corolla. She shivered a little at the cold, anxious to get in the car and head home.
"This is me. Good night, Ty."
"For some reason, my schedule's a little bit lighter this week. Maybe we'll see each other around sometime soon. I'll try and make Wes's next match."
Even though Wes liked Ty, even though she knew the guy meant his offer innocently, Claire was in no hurry to make any plans with him. She was not in the market for a relationship. And if she was, it definitely wouldn't be with someone who made her forget all the reasons why she wasn't in the market in the first place.
But she didn't want to be rude. It wasn't Ty's fault she wasn't dating material. "Maybe so." As she turned on the ignition, Claire watched him stride past her parking area to the physician's lot.