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Her heart pounded against her chest, keeping cadence with the rhythm her heeled boots made against the linoleum floor. She had everything to lose and little to no control over an outcome that was going to decide her future. Some people would take comfort in knowing they were in the right and hadn't done anything wrong, but not Dr. Kate Spence. She had learned early in life that bad things happened whether you deserved them or not.
She walked through the corridors of Boston General with reluctant determination. For the first time in five years she felt out of place in the hospital. She was used to being in her element, dressed in surgical scrubs with her entire focus on her job as a general surgery resident. Today was different. Every fiber of her being was on alert and she was conscious of waiting for the intense foreboding sensation that had come over her in the past several weeks to be fulfilled.
After years of school and sacrifice, Kate had almost made it. She had made it as a doctor, as a surgeon, and in three months' time would be starting a fellowship in New York, in one of the most acclaimed hospitals in the country. She had three months left of residency and then she was done in Boston and on her way to New York to complete her final training and have a second chance at a new beginning.
They had called it a strategy meeting, whatever that was supposed to mean. The only thing that had registered with Kate was that they were going to have to talk about "that night" and the guilt was overwhelming.
Kate took a deep breath and tried to gather her mind and her facial expression into that of the composed professional she was widely regarded as being. She was the chief resident of general surgery in one of the nation's top five surgical programs. She arrived at work no later than five-thirty every morning and was never home before seven-and that was on evenings when she got home, because most nights she stayed and operated. Being in the operating room, fixing people, had become her salvation in life. She loved the feeling of working meticulously at something, never knowing what challenges lay inside and pushing herself to overcome all the difficulties and limitations that could arise.
In a place where things could easily get out of control, Kate felt the most in control, confident in her ability to get the job done and do what was needed for her patient.
Kate pushed through the frosted glass door leading to the conference room and took in the scene. Sitting at the large wooden conference table were all of the expected people. The hospital's chief executive officer, lawyer, chief of staff, and Dr. Tate Reed, Vascular Surgeon, her co-defendant and ex-boyfriend as of six months ago.
She knew this wasn't going to be easy, but it still hurt more than she had prepared herself for. No one liked facing their own mistakes and Kate rarely made mistakes. She had taken an oath to do no harm and had promised herself years ago that she would never be responsible for causing someone she loved pain, and she hadn't until Tate. It had been six months and every day she regretted what had happened between them. She had never fallen in love with him and that horrible night she had been forced to accept that he wasn't the man for her no matter how hard she had tried to feel otherwise.
When she walked in, every face peered up at her with acknowledgement, except for one, who refused to acknowledge her presence.
"Good afternoon Dr. Spence, please take a seat," Dr. Williamson, the chief of staff instructed.
Then and only then did he look up and their eyes meet. The same combination of hurt and anger that had been there six months earlier stared back at her. The worst part was that she knew she deserved it. She felt every muscle in her face strain as she struggled to maintain a neutral expression and conceal the feelings of hurt and regret she felt every time she thought of Tate.
Kate walked towards one of the two empty places at the conference table, choosing the one farthest from Tate. She sat down in the leather chair and wished she could just keep sinking. She looked away and focused her gaze towards the other men, reminding herself that she needed to stay confident and collected. She was the only woman in a room full of the hospital's most prominent male leaders. There would be plenty of time for guilt and remorse to torture her thoughts later, without an audience.
Jeff Sutherland, the hospital's lawyer, started the meeting. "As you all know, four weeks ago Boston General, Dr. Reed, Dr. Spence and several other hospital personnel were served with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for wrongful death on behalf of the Weber family. The lawsuit alleges that there was a critical delay in Mr. Weber reaching the operating room, which lead to his death, and that had he received more timely medical and surgical attention he could have survived his condition."
"They're wrong," Tate responded unequivocally.
Jeff looked up briefly, but continued. "In their affidavit, the Weber family alleges there was a twenty-minute delay and critical time lost between the diagnosis of Michael Weber's ruptured aortic aneurysm and Dr. Spence's ability to locate Dr. Reed and communicate the findings. Mr. Weber subsequently did not reach the operating room until fifty-five minutes following diagnosis, and by that time was so unstable that he did not survive attempts made by Dr. Reed to repair the aneurysm."
"He was never going to survive," Kate said. She replayed the images of the night in her mind, as she had a countless number of times.
That night the happiness then the devastation, the genuine love, followed by pain and loss, had been heartbreaking. It had been the first and only time she had ever wanted out of a case, not to be in the operating room. Working across the table from Tate, knowing it was hopeless, knowing there was nothing left for Mr. Weber or for them. For the first time in her career she had felt like a coward because she hadn't been able to bring herself to confront Tate with the futility of their actions. She didn't know if it had been because of what had happened between them or if it had been because on that night she had been unable to bear the prospect of telling Mrs. Weber the man she loved was gone.
Dr. Williamson spoke. "Tate, I have reviewed this case, and in my medical opinion and in the opinion of this hospital you acted in an appropriate and timely manner in your complete care of Mr. Weber. His condition was such that even with immediate surgical intervention he was unlikely to have survived such an extensive rupture. Most vascular surgeons would not have even attempted surgical management, and unfortunately because you did you are now the target of the family's grief."
Kate exhaled for what felt like the first time since she had entered the room, grateful for a small reprieve from the nightmare.
"Thank you, David. I appreciate your support," Tate replied.
She glanced up to look at Tate, her first instinct to share their sense of relief, but he wasn't looking at her. Her relief that the chief of staff was on their side quickly left her when she remembered there was no "their" any more and that had been her choice.
She focused her attention on the chief of staff, once again mentally trying to separate her professional and personal lives. The problem was that Tate had been both. Between the demands of the hospital and the need to study whenever she wasn't at the hospital she didn't have time for a social life, but Tate had come as the complete package. They had become colleagues, then friends, and eventually lovers. Everyone had thought they were a perfect match, everyone except Kate.
Kate was forced to refocus when Dr. Williamson began speaking again.
"Unfortunately, Tate, it is more than my opinion that counts in this matter. The Weber family has been able to document and produce several witnesses who verify a twenty-minute delay in your response to Kate's repeated attempts to make contact that night.
It is this evidence that has led the family to believe they have a case, and despite several medical experts, who all agree that Mr. Weber's condition was medically and surgically futile, they are bent on having this matter argued in court."
Kate could not think of anything she wanted less and felt her stomach heave with the implications of a court hearing. The events of that night were completely entwined with every personal and private detail of her life. The thought of her personal life being discussed and examined in public, when she could barely face the details in private, was unfathomable. Kate had had six months to think about that night. Professionally, in her heart and her brain she knew that the delay had not caused Mr. Weber's death.
"In response to the legal action, the hospital has retained outside counsel to represent all parties named in the lawsuit," Jeff announced. Kate's defensive body language and Tate's unusual silence must have said more than words could express.
"Drs. Spence and Reed, this hospital expects your one hundred percent co-operation with our attorney and in all matters relating to this lawsuit," Quinn Sawyer, the chief executive officer, announced with finality. "I do not need to impress upon you the risk this hospital and your careers face if this does not go in our favor. I trust your personal relationship, whatever it may be, will not interfere with your ability to protect those interests."
"I no longer have a personal relationship with Dr. Spence."
An uncharacteristic flush burned up Kate's neck, coloring her entire face. She focused on the window, unable to face the humiliation of having her personal life referenced so openly among the most important men of the hospital. She had kept everything about her relationship with Tate private. She had never wanted anyone to think she was getting ahead by any means other than her natural surgical ability and strong work ethic, so it hurt and embarrassed her to think just how un-private things had become and what questions people would have about her now that the relationship had come to light, even if it no longer existed. She barely noticed the door open and close as she fought for control of her emotions.
"Mr. McKayne, I would like to introduce you to our senior management." Jeff's voice echoed in the background.
Kate felt her heart stop and then everything around her seemed to be suspended in time.
There was no way she could have heard that correctly and she quickly turned to the door, looking for reassurance.
In as long as it took for their eyes to make contact, Kate went from pink to white. She felt a sharp pain hit her chest and tasted bile in the back of her throat. She closed her eyes, hoping for someone different to be standing at the head of the table when she reopened them. Please, not him, anyone but him, she thought, but the man standing at the front of the room was the same. He had not changed in the past ten seconds and, for the most part, not in the past nine years.
Kate was vaguely aware of introductions being shared around the table. She was falling, her mind was in free fall, overwhelmed with flashes from the past and desperately trying to reconcile what was happening in the present. Nothing that was going on inside her was in her control.
"Katherine." It was Tate's voice biting out her name for the first time in months that brought her back to the table. Tate was staring at her with a new look of confusion. She had a well-earned reputation for being focused and unshakeable, even in the worst circumstances, until today. Everyone was standing and staring at her. She rose to her feet, praying her legs would support her, and turned to face the group.
"Dr. Kate Spence, this is Matthew McKayne. He will be representing you, Dr. Reed, and the hospital in this matter."
Kate turned towards Matt and saw that his hand was outstretched towards her. The gesture was appropriate in the circumstances but completely inappropriate given their past. She didn't want to shake his hand, look at him, or want any part of him in her life. Shock evolved into anger as she once again met the eyes of the one man she never wanted to see again.
Katie was still the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, though any hint of "girl" had been replaced by a very grown-up and striking woman. Matt struggled to keep his expression neutral as he studied her. She had always been taller than most women, with both a long body and legs to match. Her figure had changed. Gone was the softness from her body and from the expression on her face. The new "Kate" that was standing before him had more of an athletic build. Her legs appeared well toned beneath her fitted dress pants and her waist was more defined, making both her hips and breasts appear more prominent and sensual. Her light blue shirt was tucked in and the top two buttons were undone, only hinting at the curves underneath.
Discomfort tore through Matt's body as he remembered the old Katie and took in the sight of new Kate. Her hair appeared darker, like a rich dark chocolate, though he couldn't tell if her hair had changed or merely now appeared darker in comparison to her pale complexion. Her skin still appeared perfect, though, with the pattern of beauty marks he could have drawn from memory.
Then he met her eyes and whatever track his mind had been on, it was sharply derailed. Katie had changed a lot in the last nine years but his enjoyment of those changes was halted by the look in her eyes. It was the same look he had seen the day he'd left, the look that had tortured him for almost a decade.
"Dr. Spence," he greeted her, the formality of calling Katie by her full title necessary but awkward on his lips. She placed her hand in his and his hand wrapped around hers as though every muscle remembered the feel of her, before she snatched it away and sat back down at the table.
Everyone else followed and Matt took the last remaining chair. That chair was next to Kate, and with his first breath he smelled the familiar scent of her rosemary and mint shampoo, which brought back more memories than the sight of her had.