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"Another ambulance is coming."
Leah Montgomery didn't spare her nursing colleague a glance as she stripped the used hospital sheets from the bed. "Tell me something I don't already know," she said wryly. "The moon was full when we came to work this morning."
Although it wasn't a scientific fact, hospital staff the world over recognized and accepted that full-moon shifts were the proverbial shifts from hell. So far, this was shaping up to be one of them. Everything from car wrecks, heart attacks, lawn mower accidents, and simple sore throats had flooded the Spring Valley ER on this hot August day.
While many of her staff bemoaned the extra workload, she didn't mind the increased pace at all. Being busy kept her mind off things she didn't want to think aboutthings like her husband's plane crashing in the Mexican jungle a month ago today. Or the report stating that there were no survivors, which meant Gabe was dead.
After four painfully long weeks, it still seemed surreal, as if she might wake up some morning and discover she'd simply had a horrible nightmare. To her disappointment, each day was like the one beforethe facts hadn't changed overnight. Neither did they change when she worked until she was too exhausted to reflect on the losses in her life.
If her boss would allow it, she'd cover more shifts than her PRN status allowed in order to keep her demons at bay. She was willing to do anything to stay busy until time took away the anguish over her last conversation with Gabethe one where she'd asked to make their separation permanent with a divorce.
Some might call her crazy, others might say she was being silly and sentimental, but the truth was, she was mourning for Gabe on so many levels. Grieving that his vibrant life had been cut short at age thirty-eight; grieving that their marriage had reached an impasse; grieving for the loss of their dreams and missed opportunities. Was it any wonder she needed the fast pace of the hospital, the steady stream of new patients and drama as a life raft she could climb aboard?
"I hear Maternity is swamped," Jane rattled on, blithely unaware of Leah's inattention. "They're so packed with new moms, they're overflowing into the med-surg unit." She unfolded a fresh sheet and began tucking the corners under the mattress.
Leah pictured a nursery filled with bassinets of sleeping babies wearing pink or blue stocking hats, the hallway crowded with beaming fathers and proud grandparents while new mothers, some having already forgotten the pain of childbirth, looked on benevolently. She didn't begrudge the new families their happiness, but a familiar pang of disappointment shot through her chest.
At one time, she'd imagined herself in similar circumstances, with her parents waiting for their first peek at her child while Gabe passed out the bubblegum cigars and strutted as only a new father could. She'd fallen pregnant almost immediately after they'd decided it was time to start their family, making that dream seem like a sure thing and easily within her grasp. In her mind, and Gabe's, the future couldn't have been brighter.
Life, however, had rewritten her beautifully scripted scene.
Instead of joining the ranks of other new mothers, she'd become one of a small percentage of women who became a gynecological emergency. Shortly after entering her last trimester of an unremarkable pregnancy, her placenta had separated without warning. She'd lost the baby as well as her hopes for future children when profuse and unstoppable bleeding had necessitated a hysterectomy. Afterwards, she'd been whisked away to the surgical floor where babies weren't seen or heard.
Her parents had been there for her, of course, but pity, not pride, had shown on their faces. As for Gabe he'd been on one of his occasional trips for the Montgomery family's medical foundation. He'd come as soon as her parents had called him, but time zones and flight schedules had prevented his return until the day she was ready to be released.
"I just love to stop and peek at the newborns," Jane gushed. "They have such cute little wrinkled faces." Suddenly, she stopped short. "Oh, Leah. Here I am, babbling on so insensitively about babies after everything you've been through. First a miscarriage, then the adoption fiasco"
Leah cut off her friend's reminder of their failed foray into the world of adoption. After her surgery, still hazy from the grief of her loss, Gabe had convinced her to think about adoption and then so many things had fallen into place with amazing speedGabe's lawyer had known a young woman who'd wanted to relinquish her baby. They'd hurriedly filled out the necessary paperwork and completed the required governmental home studies and background checks. The entire time the birth mother had been adamant about her choice she was making the right decision for both her and her unborn child. Yet when the hour arrived for Leah and Gabe to pick up the baby from the hospital, the young woman had changed her mind and Leah had once again driven home empty-handed.
Leah couldn't fault the girl for her change of heartit had to be difficult to relinquish one's child, especially after seeing that tiny person for the first timebut understanding didn't take away her gut-wrenching disappointment.
"It's okay," she lied. "I don't fall apart just because someone talks about babies or mentions how cute they are."
Admittedly, they were, but seeing those adorable little faces was tough, which was why she never, ever, entered the secured area to stare at them through the plate-glass window. Why add insult to injury? she'd rationalized. "I know, but"
"It's okay," Leah repeated, as much for her own benefit as Jane's. "Honestly."
Jane nodded, but the worried wrinkle between her eyes suggested her good-mood bubble had burst. Determined to regain their easy footing, Leah thought it best to gently steer the conversation in another direction, for both their sakes.
"OB isn't the only busy department in this place," she commented as she tucked a fitted sheet around a corner of the mattress. "Our daily patient census is above average across the entire hospital and we both know our ED visit numbers are up, too. The extra business should make the bean counters happy."
"Maybe this year we'll get a Christmas bonus for a job well done," Jane responded hopefully.
Word from the last supervisors' meeting was that the possibility was remote, but Leah wasn't going to rain on Jane's picnic. "Maybe, but, bonus or not, more patients means more nursing staff are necessary, which means I work more often."
Jane paused from working on her own two bed corners. "Look, hon," she said kindly. "I know you're probably feeling guilty because you'd never resolved your differences with Gabe, but killing yourself now that he's gone, working sixty-plus hours a week, isn't the way to cope."
"I'm not killing myself," Leah protested mildly, pointedly ignoring Jane's opinion about her reasons for the pace she'd set for herself. "I'm merely keeping busy. Just like I have for the past year."
"Keeping busy is one thing. Doubling your hours is another."
"Okay, so I am working a few more hours," Leah conceded reluctantly, "but I was off duty yesterday and I spent the day puttering around the house. And then I treated myself to dinner and a movie."
"Dinner and a movie?" Jane's eyes brimmed with curiosity. "Did you finally put Jeff out of his misery and go on a date?"
About six months ago, Dr. Jeff Warren, one of Spring Valley's ED physicians, had invited her to a concert, then a community theater play. Both times she'd declined, not because she didn't enjoy his company or didn't want to attend those particular events. No, she'd gently refused his invitation because in spite of being separated from her husband of ten years, going out with another man while she was still officially married made her feel as if she was cheating.
Which was why she'd wanted Gabe's signature on those divorce papers. It was past time to stop expecting a miracle and start thinking about the futureher futureinstead of the past. As it had turned out, she didn't need his signature after all.
Leah shot her friend a spare-me look. "Are you kidding?" she asked. "I haven't even buried Gabe and you're asking if I'm seeing Jeff?"
"Buried or not, you've been separated for over a year," Jane reminded her. "It's time to move on."
"I will," Leah promised. "But I can't until I've dotted all my 'i's and crossed all the 't's."
Jane rolled her eyes. "What's left to dot and cross? From what you've said, his body may never come home."
How well she knew that. The Mexican authorities had reported the discovery of the airplane's charred remains in a ravine. They lacked the resources to recover the bodies and in their bureaucratic minds the burned-out shell of the aircraft made it pointless to do so. Undaunted, and after greasing palms for several weeks, Gabe's second-in-command Sheldon Redfern had received permission to send in a private recovery team. As of yesterday, they hadn't reported any more encouraging news than what the authorities had already shared.
Their success, however, wasn't the reason she was dragging her feet.
"The annual foundation fund-raiser is coming up in a few months," she pointed out. "It seems tacky to plan a tribute to my deceased husband while I'm dating someone else." Their relationship may have been rocky the last two years and she might be finally ready to look for male companionship and find romance again, but in honor of the good times and the love they'd once shared, she owed it to Gabe to wait.
"Did you tell that to Jeff?"
She nodded, remembering their conversation. He'd been so understanding, which not only came as a relief but also endeared him to her all the more. "He's agreed to give me time," she said, deciding not to mention that she'd set their first official date for the Saturday night after the fundraiser. If Jane knew that, she'd be bouncing off the walls with excitement and Leah didn't want to see her sly smiles and winks in the meantime.
Jane stared at her thoughtfully. "Personally, I think you're worried too much about what other people think, but another month or two won't make much difference. Just be sure your decision to stay out of the dating game is based on the right reasons."
"What other reason could I have?"
Jane shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe that you still love Gabe and are waiting for the ultimate proof that he won't be coming back."
"Don't be ridiculous." She avoided her friend's gaze because she didn't want Jane to recognize what she herself refused to dwell on or admit. "If I loved him, why would I have moved out?"
"You tell me. I just don't want you to be stuck on hold for the rest of your life."
"I'm not," Leah insisted. "I'm merely being cautious. There's no sense rushing into something I might come to regret." She grabbed a fresh cotton blanket and shook it out of its folds with a decisive snap, effectively signaling an end to their conversation. "Do you know what's coming in next?"
Jane shook her head. "All I heard was that they were bringing in three from the airport."
"The airport?" She considered for a moment. "Bigwigs, no doubt."
"What makes you say that?"
"It's probably food related and the only folks who get food on a plane are seated in first class. And who usually can afford to sit in first class?"
"Ah." Jane's eyes gleamed. "Bigwigs."
"You're stereotyping, you know. Regular people buy first-class tickets, too."
Leah flashed her a wide smile. "Okay, so I'm generalizing but, mark my words, it won't be three average Joes who roll into our ambulance bay. They'll be fellows wearing suits and ties, carrying briefcases and BlackBerrys, and wanting a magic pill to fix whatever ails them. Oh, and can we hurry because they're already late for a meeting."
Jane laughed, probably because Leah's scenario had actually taken place often enough to become a legend in the ER. "We'll find out if you're right in about three minutes. Marge wants us to be on the dock, ready to go."
As the emergency department's nurse manager, Marge Pennington was a person who believed in keeping busy every minute, so it seemed odd she would ask them to waste time waiting. Her request only seemed to substantiate Leah's prediction of several Very Important People arriving on this transport.
"Far be it from me to argue," she said, although it bothered her to think Marge was willing to discard her normal habits in order to impress people with money. Having married into a family with the Midas touch, Leah had always been leery of people who didn't treat her as they would anyone else.
"According to her, the person radioing in specifically asked for you."
Leah's eyes widened. "Me? Why me?"
Jane shrugged. "Maybe it's someone you know from Gabe's trust organization."
Leah mentally ran through her list of regularly generous contributors to the Montgomery Medical Charitable Foundation. As chairwoman of the annual fund-raising ball, which would take place in six weeks, she was acquainted with nearly all of the supporters, but none knew she worked in the Spring Valley Hospital Emergency Department.
"Impossible," she said.
Jane shrugged. "Who knows? In any case, I'm only following Marge's orders and if you know what's good for you, you will, too."
Marge wasn't the easiest charge nurse to work for, but she was a model of efficiency and a brilliant nurse. No one, not even the hospital's CEO, crossed her when she was in battle mode.
Leah gave the bed a final pat, pleased with their results. "Okay, then. Let's go. I can use a few minutes of fresh air while we're waiting." She grinned. "Just think, we might even get to sit and rest our weary feet."
Outside, Leah did exactly as she'd hoped to. Ignoring Jane and the two extra staff who'd joined them with wheelchairs and an extra stretcher, she sat on the concrete loading dock and dangled her legs over the edge as she breathed in the fresh air and soaked up the heat.
If only the summer sun would chase away the coldness inside herthe same coldness that had settled into every cell, the same coldness that had taken hold ever since she'd realized Gabe's plane had gone down with her request for a divorce ringing in his ears.
She'd agonized for weeks over taking their separation to its logical conclusion before she'd contacted a lawyer, but they'd lived apart for nearly a year. After the adoption had fallen through, they'd simply shut down. It was understandable, she supposed. They'd been obsessed with the baby when she'd been pregnant, and then they'd focused exclusively on adopting a child. Their marriage had been so driven toward that end goal that their sudden failure had simply sidelined their relationship.
Consequently they'd drifted apart until the only solution had been to ask for a change of scenery. She'd wanted time and space to redefine what she wanted out of life and, more importantly, she wanted Gabe to have the same.