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Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA
Victoria Sterling-Thorne walked into the South Valley Healthcare Clinic and knew she looked as wide-eyed and green as a student nurse on her first day of clinicals, because that's exactly how she felt. That wasn't going to stop her, though. It was just nerves on the first day of a new job. That was all. She'd been through it in the past, and she'd get through it now. On this first day of May, it was the beginning of a new month and a new way of life for her. One she hoped would be an exciting chapter in her life and some great experience in her pocket. This clinic had a great reputation, and she wanted to be a part of it.
She chewed on her lower lip. Had she made the right choice by coming here, by not hiding who she was, changing the name that made people see dollar signs? The past had a strange way of casting its reflection forward, and she hoped that wasn't going to be the case now. Indecision made her stomach churn. With any luck she'd made the right decision, and it was too late to turn back now.
Although she was an experienced nurse, this was a venture out of her comfort zone. Her father's chiding words and her brother's laughter still stung her pride. Determined to prove them wrong and, more importantly, to prove to herself that she could handle it, she had deliberately chosen this clinic far from her usual world of controlled, private hospitals and clinics. The mission statement here was closer to what her original goals in nursing had been. The time had come to make it happen.
For too many years she'd lived with the influence of her family hanging around her shoulders like a too-tight scarf she couldn't take off. Now she just wanted to be a nurse who took care of people. That's all.
She approached the glass door and opened it.
The clinic was packed with people. Some sat, some paced, some comforted small children, and they were all waiting for appointments. She'd never seen so many people lined up before a clinic even opened. That spoke silently of the great need of this community, but also of the quality of care they received there. Even though her nerves still tingled with anticipation, she knew this was the right move for her. She hadn't taken her career choice lightly when she'd entered nursing school despite the protests of her family, and she wasn't stopping now. Anyone who stood in her way could just get lost, including her family. Helping people who needed it gave her satisfaction that matched nothing else in her world. Somehow she saw parts of her mother in each patient she took care of. For her mother it had been too late, even before she'd been diagnosed. Cancer had invaded before she'd even known what had been wrong. Vicki wanted to help keep others from experiencing the same loss that had changed her life as a teenager. But this atmosphere was at complete odds with the type of hospital she had been working in for the past five years.
Looking around, she quickly found the nurses' station. "Hi, I'm Vicky, your new nurse." She hoped the woman remembered her from the interview last month.
A thin, gray-haired woman, who looked as if she might have known Florence Nightingale personally, peered up at Vicky over half-moon magnifier glasses. "Yes, Vicky Sterling-Thorne?" she asked in a cheerful and kindly voice.
"Yes. I prefer just Thorne, though. Makes the paperwork easier."
"Right. Just to refresh you, I'm Tilly McGee. Come on back, and I'll show ya round." She rolled her wheeled desk chair back and opened a side door for Vicky to enter. "As you can see, we've got a full docket today, so you may have to work on your own some, check vitals here and there, that sort of thing. Orientation could be a little unorthodox." She shook her head, as if knowing something that Vicky didn't.
"That's okay. I'll try to be helpful where I can. That's why I'm here." She turned and bumped into someone who had entered the station right behind her. "Oh, sorry." She looked at the handsome man, who took a step back from her. The blue scrubs failed to identify his status at the clinic. "Are you one of the nurses?"
A crooked smile crossed his face, and his deep brown eyes lit up for a second. "Some days I'm everything. Nurse, unit secretary, lab tech and clinic doctor all rolled into one." The smile he tossed her way was brief but welcoming.
Vicky blinked. "That's an impressive job description," she said, intrigued at his response. Here was a man who could multitask.
"It is." The welcoming smile faded away to what could only be an expression of mistrust. What had she done already to invite that? He sighed. "I guess you're the new nurse, aren't you?"
"Yes. You look disappointed already."
"I wouldn't call it disappointment."
Wariness stirred inside her. Had her family reputation preceded her so quickly? She gave a sigh of her own and hoped to head off any bias from the get-go. "My name is Vicky and, despite what you may think, I'm a nurse, that's all."
He nodded. "Just to let you know, quickly, our last nurse didn't return from maternity leave, and we've been shorthanded for weeks."
"The agency nurses worked for a while, but we need a full-time nurse, not a stopgap." Tilly grumbled her words without looking up from the computer.
Vicky nodded and gave a tight smile, understanding some of the man's reluctance. Despite the glowing references she had sent over, he had no confidence in her skills as a nurse. Time would change all that. "Well, I'm here to help. Where do we start?"
"Introductions, I guess." He glanced around. "Carlos is around here somewhere. He's the assistant extraordinaire, don't know what we'd do without him. And I'm Dr. Miguel Torres. We're not too formal, so call me Miguel."
Reluctantly, he stretched a hand out and shook hers in a firm but brief grasp. His hand was warm and not soft, like most of the men she knew who made money with their hands, but nothing else. The texture of Miguel's hand made her think he used his hands for building things and a slight shiver rocked her. She hoped that wasn't an omen. Work was her reason for being there and she hoped that she didn't have to remind herself that the boss was a hands-off relationship. "Glad to be here."
Stepping back from her, Miguel glanced at the purse and lunch bag in her hands. "Tilly, can you set her up with a locker? By the look of that bag, she's going to need one."
She watched Miguel stride toward the triage area and wondered if there was anything behind that comment or was she just too wary of new people based on the experiences of her past?
"Come on, honey. I'll get you set up." The two women completed the task in a few minutes. Tilly returned to the desk to organize the patients, and Vicky noticed Miguel engaged in what looked like an urgent situation. He was trying to take a blue-faced baby from a young mother.
"He's not breathing, he's not breathing!" the woman cried, and clutched the infant more tightly, not knowing she was harming him further.
"Let's have a look," Miguel said, his soothing voice trying to gain control over the situation, but the anxiety of the mother was overwhelming.
Vicky rushed forward. Unable to interrupt the conversation, she leaned closer to the baby and blew a puff of air onto his face.
Startled, the infant jumped and took in a breath. And then another. And in seconds it turned from a ghastly blue to a lovely, normal shade of pink.
Openmouthed, the mother gaped at Vicky. Miguel raised amused eyes at her and gave a surprised look. The situation lost its tension in just a few seconds.
"What?" she asked as she looked between them. Had she done something wrong already? Seemed as if she was always stepping in it somewhere, but she didn't want to do that her first day on the job. This was a job she wanted and needed. Messing up was not an option, no matter how much money her family had. It wasn't hers. She paid her own way based on her nurse's salary.
"What did you do to him?" the mother asked, her demeanor much calmer than it had been moments ago, though she still breathed rapidly.
"I just stimulated his breathing reflex. Something I learned in my first rotation in the nursery at my previous hospital." She gave Miguel a concerned look. "Once in a while newborns just forget to breathe, and if you blow a puff of air on their faces it startles them, and they take a breath. That's what baby reflexes are for." Vicky reached a hand out to the mother and patted her back in a soothing manner, trying to ignore the intense way that Miguel watched her, but the fluttering in her stomach wasn't going away. The intensity of him was going to take some getting used to. "Is it okay if we take a look now? "
"Yes, yes, yes. Dr. Torres, I'm so sorry!" Tears now poured down the mother's face as she relinquished the baby to Vicky.
"It's okay," Miguel said, and squeezed her shoulder. "We'll take a look and make sure everything is okay, just to be sure."
Vicky handed the baby boy over to Miguel and engaged the mother in small talk to help calm her down and give herself a moment to beat her nerves down. "What's your name?"
"Why don't you have a seat for a second? I'm sure that you're worn-out." Vicky guided her to a nearby chair.
"I am. I'm shaking." She rubbed her hands up and down her arms, as if she felt chilled from the experience. "I thought he was going to die."
"He's okay now." Vicky raised her eyes to Miguel, who gave her a reassuring nod, which calmed her own nerves a bit. Having such a strong team leader who didn't get ruffled was going to be a wonderful experience. "It's scary when babies do that, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it is. Still, I bet this boy's going to be a champ one day." He wrapped the baby up in the soft blue blankets and tucked him against his body, talking to the infant as if they were old friends.
Vicky tried not to stare. The man was gorgeous with those incredibly dark eyes of his and hair to match, but coupled with a smile and a soft voice when talking to a baby? Absolutely stunning. Nothing like the men she knew in her part of the world far away from this clinic. Something cramped inside her chest, maybe a long-lost hope or dream of having a family. Since her divorce two years ago she'd not allowed herself to dredge up those forgotten dreams. A man with a baby was an intoxicating sight, but she'd learned long ago that not every beautiful man had a heart to match. And not one could be taken at his word. She finally had to look away when Tina asked her a question.
Miguel had seen infants like this come and go since he had taken over the clinic a few years ago. Some stayed healthy and survived, some didn't. His hope was that when they grew up, none of them would succumb to the influence of gangs and drugs, like his younger brother, Emilio, had done, but he knew that was probably unrealistic. Emilio's death at the hands of a gang was one of the reasons he himself fought so hard for every child that entered his clinic. Each battle to save a life was a battle with a gang or disease and every one was a battle he intended to win. Death was not going to defeat him or take the life of his patients. Not if he could help it. Back then he hadn't had the skills to save his brother, but he was different now. One day, maybe some of his patients could get the education they deserved and would live long, healthy lives far away from the tragedies of life. If he had some small part in helping that happen, all the better. It would help pay back the debt of honor he owed. Family was everything, and he owed much to them.
With the infant sleeping in the crook of his arm, he knelt beside Tina. "He's okay now. You did the right thing by bringing him in. The nasal congestion should go away in a few days with some medication I'll give you, but if it doesn't, bring him back."
"Seriously?" She looked at him, her eyes wide with shock, and tears welled again in her eyes. "That's all it is?"
"Seriously." He patted her shoulder again and gave her a smile. "That's all it is."
With a nod, Tina accepted the baby back. By watching her, how she continued to look at his face, the way she stroked his cheek with her finger, she had certainly bonded well with him and that was half the battle with very young mothers.
"You'll be fine. You just need to rest a little more and worry a little less," Vicky said.
"Thank you. You don't know how much that relieves my mind." She let out a shaky breath and brushed away the tears. "I always think the worst."
"Me, too. That way, if it doesn't happen, then it's good, right?" Vicky said, and gave Tina an encouraging smile.
"You're right. I guess that's what I do, too."
"There are times you will need to think with your mind and not your heart, even though it's really hard. I learned that a long time ago. You can try that little trick I showed you if he decides to stop breathing again."
"I will. Thank you."
Miguel watched the exchange with interest, wondering what the princess of the Sterling-Thorne vineyards was talking about. Surely she'd never had to suffer a day in her life, so he couldn't understand her words. As he watched her, though, she seemed to genuinely believe what she was saying to the young mother. Somehow these two had found a common bond that allowed Tina to relax a little. So very different, light and dark, they were a visual contrast to each other. Miguel could see by simple observation that Vicky wasn't from this part of town. Knowing her family history, he imagined she lived in a castle with an ivory tower. But if she fit into the clinic, he didn't care as long as she was a good nurse, and that was the reason she was there. Most people with her financial status simply made charitable donations. What she was doing there in the flesh was anyone's guess. Right now, none of it mattered when he had a waiting room full of patients. People with real needs were why he was here.