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With a few adept keystrokes, 5E Head Nurse Victoria Forley shot next week's schedule off to the nursing office and closed down her computer. Today she would leave on time. She straightened her already neat desk then scanned her tiny utilitarian office to make sure everything was in its place. The memory of her son's tear-filled eyes made her heart ache. "Why am I always the last kid picked up from afterschool program?" Jake had asked last night at dinner. "My teacher gets so mad when you're late."
Mad enough to put Victoria on parental probation. Three more late pick-ups and Jake would be kicked out of the program. Then what would she do?
Victoria hated that the promotion she'd fought so hard for, a bullet-point in her ten-year plan to provide her son a future filled with opportunities rather than financial constraints, significantly impacted the wide-awake hours they spent together. Although, to be honest, it wasn't actually the job that was the problem; it was her obsessive compulsive need to achieve perfection at it. To show everyone at Madrin Memorial Hospital who thought a twenty-five-year-old wasn't experienced enough to be the hospital's newest head nurse that she was up to the task.
She grabbed her lab coat from the hanger hooked to the back of her door and slipped it on. A final check of her H-shaped unit and she'd be ready to go. Exiting her office, Victoria inhaled the familiar, disinfectant fresh odor of pine and scanned the white walls and floors to assure they were in pristine condition. She closed the lid on a laundry hamper and rolled two unused IV pumps into the clean utility room.
When she crossed over to the hallway of odd-numbered rooms she saw it, sitting quietly outside room 517. A shedding, allergy-inducing, pee-whenever-the-urge-hits golden retriever with a bright red bandana tied around its neck.
So, the elusive Dr. K., oncology rehabilitation specialist extraordinaire, finally deigned to put in an appearance on 5E, two hours late for their scheduled meeting. Well, now he'd have to wait for her to make herself available. And she was in no hurry to listen to him spout the merits of his program and, she was sure, begin lobbying for her support to make his dog's position permanent.
While she was all for an in-house staff member coordinating a multidisciplinary approach to the rehabilitation of cancer patients and administering daily bedside physical therapy to chemo patients too exhausted or too immunosuppressed to attend PT down in the department, she didn't see why Dr. K. needed a four-legged companion to do it. Victoria walked past the animal, who didn't budge from his position, the slight wag of his tail the only indication he'd noticed her. Okay. So it obviously wasn't a threat to visitors. Still. She was not a fan of unsanitary animals besmirching her unit. Unless it benefited her patients, which was why she'd agreed to hold off on casting her negative vote until after the four-week trial.
"We'll swing by tomorrow morning," a male voice said from inside the room. The rich, deep timbre and his words "swing by" caused a jolt of recognition.
Unease sauntered up her spine. It couldn't be. She looked into the room anyway, had to catch a glimpse to be sure.
A man stood at the foot of bed two. The blinds closed and the lights off, she could just make out was his height: Tall. Shoulders: Full. Arms: Big. Longish, dark hair curled haphazardly over the tops of his ears, reaching the collar of his lab coat in the back. As if he felt her eyes on him, he turned to face her. An unruly swag of bangs hung at an angle, obscuring part of his forehead. Despite his unkempt appearance he was handsome in a rugged, untamed sort of way.
Great. He'd caught her staring.
"Victoria?" the man asked, and started to walk toward her.
That voice. His stride. Please, God. Not him. Victoria felt flash frozen in place. When he emerged from the darkened room into the well-lit hallway, her eyes, the only body part capable of movement, met his. A blue so pale they'd look almost colorless if not for an outer ring of deep ocean blue. Eyes she'd loved and hated in equal measure, familiar eyes in an unfamiliar face, a man's face with a slightly crooked nose, obviously broken at some point, and strong cheek bones. A scar bisected his right eyebrow, another spliced the center of his chin.
But she'd know him anywhere.
Before she could stop it, concern flitted across her mind. What'd happened to him in the nine years he'd been gone? She mentally slapped it back. It didn't matter, couldn't have been worse than what she'd been through because of his irresponsible carelessness. "Victoria?" he asked. "What are you doing here?" He scanned the nametag clipped to the breast pocket of her lab coat. "You're a nurse?" He hesitated, digested his discovery and with narrowed, taunting eyes asked, "What happened? Couldn't hack it at Harvard?"
He'd happened. She resisted the urge to lunge for his throat and squeeze until his lifeless body collapsed to the floor. Instead, she stood tall, well, as tall as a woman of five feet two inches could, threw back her shoulders and lifted her chin. "I'm a head nurse. 5E is my floor."
"You're the 5E bitc?" He held up both hands. "Sorry."
He didn't look sorry.
She knew what some members of the staff called her. She'd been the victim of name-calling since high school. Snob. Suck-up. It no longer bothered her. "Just because a woman is motivated to succeed and has high expectations for herself and those around her, people feel it necessary to call her demeaning names." She waved it off. "There's nothing I can do about it. But I'll thank you to keep your profanity to yourself while in my presence."
He looked her up and down. "Still dressing for success, I see."
For as long as she could remember, up until the time he'd turned his back on her, her father had impressed, "If you want respect, dress and act like you deserve it." Which was why, when she'd had little money to spare, she'd scoured consignment shops and tag sales to find quality designer pieces to complement the carefully selected clothing she'd been forced to purchase at a discount store.
Victoria took notice of Kyle's black pocket T, faded blue jeans, and black leather biker boots. "Still dressing for a monster truck rally, I see." Except his clothes were covered by a lab coat. Dr. Kyle Karlinsky's lab coat.
Kyle was Dr. K.? No way! Not possible. Before she'd started tutoring him, she a tenth-grade honor student, him an unmotivated junior, his highest aspiration had been to snag a third-shift job at the frozen pizza manufacturing plant outside town, because the night shift received a $2.00 per hour pay differential.
"You're a few months late for Halloween. What's with the costume?" Victoria asked, trying to control her breathing. While she'd been stuck in the anti-metropolis of Madrin Falls, getting tormented by people more than happy to witness the demise of her seemingly perfect life and raising their child, he'd left town to pursue her dream, to steal her future.
"Calm down, honey. It's not as big a deal as you're making it out to be" had been the last words he'd spoken to her until today. And they'd been incorrect. To a sheltered, motherless teenager raised to believe sex before marriage was a sin, giving up her virginity to the boy she'd fallen in love with, the absolute wrong sort of boy who, just a few hours previously her father had forbidden her to see, had been a big deal.
Life as she'd known it changed that night. And two weeks before his high-school graduation, Kyle Karlinsky had abandoned her to deal with the consequences on her own.
"Not bad." He nodded in approval. "Marginally funny. Delivered with just the right amount of sneer. Looks like someone's developed herself a sense of humor."
"Is that what this is, some kind of prank?" He'd been famous for them back in high school. She glanced at the credentials sewn onto his lab coat beside his name. DPT. Okay, so he wasn't a medical doctor. But still. A doctorate in physical therapy? "No way you made it to PhD." The thought of him staying focused long enough to write a doctoral thesis was ludicrous. "And impersonating a physician is reprehensible."
"Pulling out the big words, huh? Let's see. Reprehensible. R-e-p-r-e-h-e-n-s-i-b-l-e." He spelled it out like he was in a spelling bee. "Reprehensible. Deserving of blame or censure." His smile widened at Victoria's surprise. "Maybe I wasn't as dumb as you thought. Maybe I only pretended so I could "
Steal her virginity, as so eloquently bellowed by her enraged father.
"I never thought you were dumb, Kyle." An underachiever? Yes. A slacker? Most definitely. Stupid? Absolutely not. "I tutored you. I knew what you were capable of if only you'd have put forth a little effort. But you wouldn't."
"Now that's not entirely true. With the right incentive I was an excellent student." He mocked her, his eyes dark.
"I promise to study for my trigonometry test if you kiss me. Slip me some tongue, I'll get a B." Okay. So it wasn't an approved method of teaching. But, at the time, it'd been the only thing that'd worked.
"I seem to remember," he said, leaning close, invading her personal space. "I did a bit of tutoring myself."
He sure had, with a hand under her skirt in their private study room, up against the cinderblock wall behind the gym, and in a secluded spot down by the lake. At the memory, an unwanted, excited tingle crept out of hiding deep in her core. She slammed it back, refused to acknowledge it, would not let him get to her. Not again.
"Help," a woman cried out.
Victoria jerked her head in the direction of the panicked voice. A pale, middle-aged woman with dark hair ran into the hallway. "My father. He's choking."
Without hesitation, she ran to help. The morbidly obese patient she recognized as Mr. Schultz sat in an extra-wide chair beside his bed. Mentally she cued the information she'd obtained during morning rounds. Age seventy-two. Status post-CVA six days ago with residual right-sided hemiplegia, speech deficit, and difficulty swallowing.
"Are you able to breathe at all, Mr. Schultz?"
He slapped at his neck with his left hand and strained to inhale, a high-pitched wheezing sound the result.
Quick assessment: Face flushed. Diaphoretic. Eyes pleading. Inefficient air exchange. Victoria pushed his over-the-bed table out of the way, noticing an open bag of colorful hard sucking candies as she did. His daughter was going to get a stern talking to when this was all over. She inserted her hand behind his back and pushed him forward, giving four rapid blows between his shoulder blades.
"Papa. Don't die, Papa," the hysterical woman cried. "You have to save him."
Victoria moved in front of the patient. "Open your mouth, Mr. Schultz."
She could not see the obstruction. "What can I do to help?" Kyle asked.
"I need this bed out of the way." So she could reach the suction apparatus on the wall behind the patient. "Then please accompany Mr. Schultz's daughter and his roommate to the lounge." As stressful as this situation was for her, a trained practitioner, it was worse for a family member/roommate to experience, especially if things didn't turn out well.
"I'm going to help you, Mr. Schultz," she said, surprised at how calm her voice sounded, knowing the man was probably past listening or understanding but needing to say it just in case.
"I don't want to go. I want to stay with him," the daughter yelled.
Kyle spoke to her in soothing yet persuasive tones.
Victoria focused on her task. She reached for the disposable suction container and snapped it into the plastic wall receptacle, thankful her exemplary staff made sure each room was fully stocked with all necessary equipment at all times. Her hands shook. It'd been a while since she'd been in any lifeor-death situations. They were not her favorite part of nursing, too many variables outside her control.
"Almost done, Mr. Schultz."
Kyle rushed back into the room. "Should I try the Heimlich?"
"Can you get your arms around him?"
"I think so." Unable to squeeze behind the patient since she was back there setting up suction, Kyle moved the chair like Mr. Schultz was the size of a child rather than the three-hundred-plus-pounder he was.
"I think his belly is too large for your thrusts to be effective," Victoria said. "Position your hands over his sternum instead. Pull straight back. Hard and fast."
Kyle did as instructed with excellent technique but no positive result.
The patient's skin took on a purplish reddish hue. They were running out of time.