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Scarlet Miller, head nurse of the NICU Neonatal Intensive Care Unitat Angel Mendez Children's Hospital, lovingly referred to as Angel's by the staff, walked onto the brand new, now fully functioning unit she'd played a key role in designing and creating, feeling more at home than she did anywhere else. Feeling proud of all she and her wonderful colleagues had accomplished, during her four years as a managernational recognition for providing the highest level of care available for sick and premature newborns with one of the lowest mortality rates in the U.S. A high tech yet caring, state of the art yet warm and welcoming sixty-two bed unit that the residents of New York City and its surrounding areas kept at or near full capacity on a regular basis. "Looks like someone finally had herself a hot weekend," Linda, one of her older nurses said, walking up beside her. At least she wasn't complaining about the switch from the open floor plan of their old setup to the mostly private rooms of their new wing.
"If by someone you're referring to me." Scarlet stopped at the nurses' station, took the pink message slips held up by one of the unit secretaries and gave the young woman a smile of thanks before turning back to Linda. "And if by hot you're referring to my oppressive, sweat-drenched, Saturday night of misery, the hottest eleventh day of May ever recorded in Weehawken, New Jersey, during which I spent more than sixteen hours without power ergo without air conditioning, then yes. I did indeed have a hot weekend."
"Uh oh." Linda glanced toward a huge vase filled with at least two dozen long-stemmed red roses and accenting ferns perched on the counter to their left.
"Uh oh what?" Scarlet asked.
"I told you we shouldn't do it," Ashley, the young secretary said, shaking her head.
Scarlet looked at her. "Do what?"
Cindy, one of her newest nurses, who'd been observing patient monitors and video feeds as part of her orientation, looked up over the counter and pointed to a rectangular golden box of chocolates, the cover askew.
"Would someone please tell me what's going on?" Scarlet didn't have time to play around, she needed to get back to work after a morning of meetings and greet the family of their newest micro-preemie, baby girl Gupta, born at twenty-six weeks, one pound, thirteen ounces, thirteen inches long, who'd arrived during her absence.
"We thought they were yours," Cindy said.
"The flowers. And the chocolates," she clarified.
"Why " would they think someone had sent her red roses, the floral symbol of love and passion, typically given by men to their wives, girlfriends, and lovers, when she practically lived at the hospital, and hadn't had a man in her life since Hmmm. Since
She gave up rather than belabor the pitiful fact it'd been so long she'd require a quick browse of her calendar, from last year, or Lord help her, maybe the year before, to spark her memory. Not that she'd humiliate herself by actually looking. But in her defense, no woman could have achieved the level of success she'd managedwhich benefited the hospital, its tiniest patients and their families as much as it did herwithout putting in long hours on the job.
"Because the card that accompanied them is made out to you." Linda pointed to the mini mint green envelope sticking out of the beautiful, fragrant, partially opened blooms which did in fact have her name on it. Spelled with one t unlike the famous Scarlett she'd been named afteronly her mother hadn't taken the time to get the spelling right.
Scarlet plucked the card from its plastic holder and opened it.
I realize you never told me your last name. I hope these get to you. Saturday night was better than I'd ever imagined a night with a woman could be.
Right there Scarlet knew the card wasn't meant for her. But she read on not to snoop, mind you, but to search out any identifying information on the intended recipient.
Let's do it again soon. Good luck at your new job. Call me, Brandon
Beneath his name he'd listed his home telephone number, his work number, cell number, and e-mail address. Scarlet's namesake must be pretty darn good in the sack. "Call down to Human Resources," she told Ashley. "Ask if there's a new hire named Scarlet and where she works."
While Ashley did as instructed, Cindy grabbed the card from Scarlet's hand and read it. "Yowza." She used the card to fan herself then handed it to Linda.
"Mercy me," Linda said. "You girls today." She shook her head in disapproval.
Ashley put down the phone and looked up apologetically. "A Scarlett, with two 't's, Ryan began work as a unit secretary in the pediatric ER today."
"And you all," Scarlet pointed to each of the chocolate eating culprits while squinting her eyes in playful accusation, "ate the poor girl's hard-earned chocolates."
"We had help," Linda said. "It's an unwritten rule that chocolates at a nursing station are fair game. Dig in or don't complain when you miss out. No invitation needed."
"Nursing is a stressful occupation," Cindy added. "Nurses need chocolate to help us cope and keep us happy so we can be at our caring and competent best." She snapped her fingers. "If you give me a few minutes I bet I can find a research study to support that."
Scarlet smiled. "What's the damage?" She lifted the lid. One lone milk chocolate remained in the upper right corner surrounded by approximately thirty empty little square partitions. And it'd been squeezed to reveal its dark pink center.
"I told them to save you one," Ashley said.
"We think it's raspberry," Cindy added.
"You like raspberry," Linda chimed in.
Since it wasn't in good enough shape to offer up as an 'at least I managed to save you one' peace offering, Scarlet popped the partially mutilated chocolate into her mouth. Yup. Raspberry. Surrounded by creamy, rich, delicious chocolate. She held off swallowing to draw out the experience. Then fought the urge to inhale and let her eyes drift closed to savor the pleasure. Pathetic. "Back to work.
All of you," she said with a few shoos of her hands.
"What are you going to do about the chocolates?" Ashley asked.
You. Not we. Because Scarlet always stood up for her staff. No matter what. She replaced the cover and flung the box into the garbage can. "What chocolates?" she asked with an innocent smile.
Her staff smiled back.
"What about the flowers?" Ashley asked.
Scarlet carefully placed the card back in the envelope, tucked in the flap, and inserted it back into its plastic pronged holder. "I'll bring them down to the ER after I check in on little Miss Gupta."
As far as bad days wentand Dr. Lewis Jackson, head of the Pediatric Emergency Room at Angel's, had experienced some pretty hel-lacious ones over the past nine months, since finding out he was the father and new primary caregiver to his demon of a now thirteen-year-old daughtertoday was shaping up to be one of the worst. Two nurses out sick. A new unit secretary, who, while nice to look at, had clearly overstated her abilities, and Jessie, taken into police custody for shoplifting at a drug store and truancy.
The one bright spot in his afternoon, whether because of his scrubs and hospital ID, or Angel's excellent reputation, or Jessie's difficult past year, the police officer in charge had convinced the store manager to let her off with a warning.
Lewis stood on the curb outside the police station and raised his arm up high to hail a cab. "This is by far the stupidest and most inconsiderate stunt you've pulled since you've gotten here." And that was saying something. A yellow minivan taxi pulled to a stop. Lewis slid open the rear door, grabbed Jessie by her arms and pushed her in ahead of him.
"Angel Mendez Children's Hospital," he told the driver then closed the door. "Pediatric Emergency Room entrance. And if you can get us there in under fifteen minutes I'll give you an extra twenty."
At the added incentive, the driver swerved back into traffic, cutting off another taxi. And a bus. And almost taking out a bike-riding delivery man. Horns honked. Drivers yelled out their open windows. Middle fingers flew. A typical taxi ride in New York City.
Lewis turned his attention back to Jessie. "What were you thinking?" Leaving school. Wandering the streets of Manhattan. Unaccompanied. Unsupervised. Unprotected. At the thought of all the terrible things that could have happened to her fear knotted his gut.
Per usual Jessie didn't look at him. She just sat there in her baggy black clothes, mad at the world, and ignored him. But this time when she reached into her pocket for the beloved ear buds she used to effectively drown him out with vile music, which would likely be responsible for permanent damage to her eardrums, he yanked the white cords from her hands. "I'm talking to you, young lady. And this time you are going to listen."
She glared at him in response.
"Your behavior is unacceptable, and I have had enough. I'm sorry your mother passed away. I'm sorry she never told me about you." And even sorrier she'd spent so much of her time bad-mouthing him to the point Jessie had hated him at first sight without ever giving him a chance. "I'm sorry your life was uprooted from Maryland to the heart of New York City. I'm sorry I work such long hours. But I'm all you have. And I'm trying."
He'd given up his privacy, his freedom, and a very active and satisfying sex life to spend quality time with and be a good role model for his daughter. He'd hired nannies to watch her after school when he had to work, while she'd achieved new heights of belligerent teenage obnoxiousness to the point none stayed longer than a month. He'd hired a car service to take her to and from school on days he couldn't, while she didn't show up to meet them at the designated times and locations, leaving them to wait, and charge him for every minute. He brought home pizza, thinking all kids loved pizza. Jessie wanted Chinese food. He brought home Chinese food, she wanted Italian. He'd gotten her a fancy cellphone so they could keep in touch while he was working. To date, she hadn't responded to one of his calls or text messages. And the only time she'd used it to contact him was today, to ask him to come down to the police station.
He was trying, dammit. Was it too much to expect her to try, too?
"You left me at that police station for two hours." Her words oozed accusation and anger.
"Because I was at work when you pulled your little caper, and I don't have the type of job where I can run out at a moment's notice. I have a responsibility to my patients. I had to call in another doctor, on his day off, pay him overtime, and wait for him to come in and cover for me before I could leave."
Jessie crossed her arms over her chest and said, "I hate you."
No surprise there. "Well I've got news for you." Lewis crossed his arms over his chest, just like his stubborn, moody daughter, and glared right back at her. "Right now I hate you, too."
The second the words left his mouth he hated himself more. Lewis Jackson, the over-achiever who never failed at anything was failing at single parenthood. Even worse, he was failing his troubled young daughter.
The taxi screeched to a halt at their destination with one minute to spare. Jessie was out of the cab and heading to the electric doors before Lewis had even paid. After practically throwing the fare, plus tip and a crisp twenty dollar bill, at the driver, he slid out and ran to catch up. "Jessie. Wait."
He ran into the ER. "Don't you dare"
Jessie broke into a run, heading toward the back hallway.
Lewis took off after her. Not again. He rounded the corner in time to see the door to the unisex disabled bathroom slam shut. He reached it just in time to hear the lock click into place. Again. He banged on the door. "Dammit, Jessie, get out here." So he could apologize. So he could try to make her understand. So he could drag her into his office and barricade her inside so, for the next few hours at least, he'd know she was safe.
He paced. Flexed and extended his fingers. Felt wound too tight. And realized maybe it was best she didn't come out. Because she had him vacillating between wanting to hit her and wanting to hug her, between yelling at her and throwing himself to the ground at her feet and begging her for mercy, between letting her continue to stay with him and researching strict European boarding schools that allow only supervised visitationonce a year.
Never in his adult life had he felt this indecisive and ineffective and totally, overwhelmingly, embarrassingly inept.
"Jessie," he said through the door, trying the knob just in case. Locked. "Please come out." He used his calm voice. "I need to get back to work." And he didn't want to leave her when she was so upset.
When he was so upset.
She didn't respond which didn't come as a surprise since she hadn't responded to any of the other dozen/thirty/hundred times he'd called to her through a locked door. He pictured her smiling on the other side deriving some perverse sense of satisfaction from him standing in the hallway, frustrated, enraged, and in danger of losing what little control he had left.
Well enough of that.
"Fine." He stormed back to the nurses' station. "Call Maintenance," he snapped at the new unit secretary who seemed to be paying more attention to a huge glass vase filled with roses than doing her job.
He waited for her to return to her phone where she belonged.
"Tell them I need the door to the bathroom in the rear corridor opened again. And this time I want them to bring me a copy of the key."
As soon as she confirmed someone would be up in a few minutes, he hurried back to the bathroom, hoping Jessie hadn't taken the opportunity of his absence to escape and disappear until it was time to go home.
After the initial shock of finding out he was the father of a pre-teen girl, Lewis had actually gotten kind of excited at the prospect of sharing the city he loved with his daughter, taking her on bike rides in Central Park and to museums and shows, the ballet and opera, of immersing her in culture and introducing her to new experiences, teaching and nurturing her, and guiding her into adulthood.
At least until he'd met her.
Lewis rounded the corner and stopped short at the sight of Jessie standing in the hallway, facing away from him, talking to a brown-haired female hospital employee he didn't recognize. But she wore light blue hospital scrubs covered by a short white lab coat typically worn by staff in management or supervisory positions.
"Now he won't make me go to stupid Lake George," Jessie said. "I'm too bad. His parents won't be able to handle me."
Rage like he'd never before experienced forced him forward. "That's why you broke the law?" he bellowed as he stormed toward Jessie. "That's why you risked getting arrested and going in front of a judge and having to do hours of community service or some other punishment? To get out of a fun Memorial Day weekend trip with your grandparents and cousins? Of all the stupid"
Jessie crossed her arms, locked her left leg, and jutted out her left hip, taking on her defiant pose. "I told you I don't want to go."
"Well I've got news for you, young lady. My mind is made up and my decision is final. You are going to Lake George." In eleven days. Because Lewis needed a break and sex and a few days to re-visit his old, relaxed, likable self, to clear his head and come up with a new approach to handling his daughter, calmly and rationally.
"He wants to get rid of me." Jessie threw herself at the stranger who barely managed to get her arms up in time to catch her.
Not permanently. Just for a brief respite.
"He doesn't want me," she cried. "He never wanted me. My mom told me so. Now that she's gone I have no one."