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People say time heals everything but it doesn't, not completely, never totally. Sometimes all it takes is the overheard fragment of a song, a whispered comment, or an unexpected meeting, and the scab that time has so carefully placed over the old wound begins to come apart, leaving the pain just as acute as it ever was, just as raw.
'So, the rumours are true, then,' Sister Brianna Flannigan observed as she sipped her coffee in the canteen of St Piran's. 'A troubleshooter really is coming to the hospital to see which departments should be closed?'
'And not just coming, I'm afraid.' Megan Phillips sighed. 'He's actually arriving some time today if the grapevine is correct.'
'But this is a good hospital,' Brianna protested. 'The staff are dedicated, the quality of surgery is second to none, and it provides a much-needed medical resource for the people who live in this part of Cornwall.'
'Agreed.' Jess Corezzi nodded glumly. 'But, according to the board, we're leaking money like a sieve, and ' She held up her hands and made pretend speech marks. '"Something Has to be Done".'
'But surely that doesn't have to mean ward orheaven forbidcomplete department closures?' Brianna demanded. 'There must be some other way to save money.'
'Canning my job will probably be the first thing on this auditor's list,' Jess said ruefully. 'Counselling patients, and their families, as I do ' She shook her head. 'I can't see him regarding that as necessary.'
'But your job is vitally important,' Brianna protested, her large brown eyes troubled. 'The parents of my babies in NICU need you'
'As do the parents, and kids in Paeds,' Megan chipped in, but Jess didn't look convinced, and Brianna could understand why.
If the auditor had been drafted in to make economies he was bound to look at the non-nursing staff first, and though she and Megan might think Jess's counselling role essential she had a horrible suspicion this money man would not.
'What does Gio think?' Brianna asked, thinking of Jess's handsome Italian husband, a neurosurgeon who had arrived at St Piran's the previous autumn and swept her friend off her feet.
'He thinks like you, that the auditor will recognise how valuable my work is and recommend shelving the new specialist paedi-atric burns unit instead, but frankly ' Jess shrugged. 'I can't see that happening. There is a need for that unit, plus the building is almost complete, and Admin have already asked that foreign prince to perform the grand opening in a couple of months.'
Brianna didn't think Gio's suggestion likely, either, and neither did Megan, judging by her expression.
'At least both your departments will be safe,' Jess continued bracingly. 'No one in their right mind would shut down a neonatal intensive care unit or a paediatric ward.'
Brianna could think of one man who would. One man to whom statistics and efficiency had always been more important than people, and she shivered involuntarily.
'You OK?' Megan asked with a slight frown, and Brianna forced a smile.
'I just don't like all this talk of department closures. This hospital has been my.' She came to a halt. She had been about to say 'refuge', but though she, Jess and Megan had become friends during the two years she'd been at St Piran's there were areas of her life that were strictly off limits, and her past was one of them. 'I've been so very happy here,' she said instead.
'Me, too,' Jess replied, and Megan nodded in agreement.
'Look, do we know anything about this man?' Brianna asked. 'Where he's from, what other hospitals he's been to?'
'All we know is he's from London,' Jess replied, and the shiver Brianna had felt earlier became more pronounced.
'London?' she echoed. 'Jess'
The insistent bleep of a pager brought her to a halt. All three women instantly reached for theirs, but it was Megan who got to her feet with a groan.
'Nothing wrong in Paeds, I hope?' Brianna said, and Megan shook her head.
'It's Admin. They've got themselves in a real flap about this visitation. Yesterday they wanted everything in duplicate. Now they've decided they want everything in triplicate.'
With a rueful smile the paediatric specialist registrar headed off towards the canteen exit but, as Brianna and Jess watched her, the door suddenly opened and Josh O'Hara, the consultant from A and E, appeared. He clearly said something to Megan, actually put out his hand to stay her, but she pushed past him without a word, and Brianna and Jess exchanged glances.
'The atmosphere's not getting any better between those two, is it?' Brianna said, and Jess sighed.
'I guess it can't. Not when Josh is married to Rebecca, and Megan's most certainly not a home-wrecker.'
'Has.?' Brianna cleared her throat awkwardly. 'Has she said anything to you about him?'
'I only know there's a past history there, not what it is, and I wouldn't dream of asking,' Jess replied. 'My guess is they were an item years ago, before Josh got married, but as to what happened or why they split up ' The hospital counsellor lifted her shoulders helplessly. 'I just wish he hadn't taken the consultant's job in A and E. OK, so he didn't know Megan would be working at St Piran's, but can you imagine how awful it must be, having someone you once loved reappear in your life like this?'
Brianna could. She didn't want to imagine it, but she could, all too vividly.
Secrets, she thought as she watched Josh walk slowly across the canteen then stare unenthusiastically at the lunch menu. She, Jess and Megan, all of them had secrets. Maybe that's what had drawn them together, made them friends. That, and the fact they never pried into one another's private lives so she'd had no idea until a few months ago that Jess had HIV, or that Megan was nursing a badly broken heart, while neither of them knew she.
Don't go there, Brianna, she told herself. Don't go there, not ever.
'The annoying thing is, I like him,' Jess continued as Josh picked up a doughnut and coffee, then morosely went to sit at an empty table near the back of the canteen. 'Whatever happened between him and Megan in the past, I still think he's one of the good guys.'
'And does your husband know you consider Josh "one of the good guys"?' Brianna asked, her brown eyes dancing, and the counsellor laughed.
'Gio knows I only have eyes for him,' she replied. 'I just wish this situation between Megan and Josh. I just wish there was something I could do to help.'
Brianna wished she could, too, as she and Jess left the canteen and went their separate ways. She'd liked Josh O'Hara from the very first minute she'd met him. For sure he'd teased her when he'd discovered she was from Ireland as he was, had said that with her long, auburn hair she reminded him of the 1940s Hollywood actress, Maureen O'Hara, but she knew he hadn't been hitting on her. He was just a natural-born charmer, adept at making people feel at ease. Unless, of course, that person was Megan Phillips, she thought with a deep sigh.
And she could have done with Josh at her side, dispensing a whole bucketload of his charm, she decided as she swiped her ID card to gain entry to NICU, only to walk straight into Rita, NICU's ward clerk, and her least favourite member of staff in the hospital.
'I'm not late back from lunch, Rita,' Brianna said, consulting her watch pointedly, 'the unit doesn't appear to be on fire, I'm sure you would have paged me if any of the babies was giving cause for concern, so can I assume you want to report one of the nursing staff for some petty infringement?'
'He's here,' the NICU ward clerk hissed. 'The auditor. He arrived half an hour ago, and I've got him in my office, looking at some files, but I don't know how long I can keep him there.'
'Have you considered chains, manacles, possibly a straitjacket?'
'This is not a laughing matter, Sister Flannigan,' Rita retorted. 'Mr Brooke is still in Theatre'
'Which is probably just as well,' Brianna interrupted. 'Letting Babbling loose amongst walking, healthy people ' She shook her head. 'Not a good idea.'
'Neither is referring to our head of department by that stupid nickname,' Rita protested, apparently conveniently forgetting that she called their consultant Mr Brooke 'Babbling' just as often as the rest of the staff in NICU did.
'First impressions count, Sister, and we've already got off to a bad one with Mr Brooke not being here to meet the VIP.'
'Yes, it really was very inconsiderate of little Amy Renwick to get so sick, wasn't it?' Brianna said dryly, but her sarcasm was lost on the ward clerk.
'It certainly couldn't have happened at a worse time,' Rita agreed. 'I only have two years left to work before I retire and the last thing I want is the unit closing down before I'm ready to go.'
Yeah, and you're all heart, Rita, Brianna thought, but she didn't say that.
'I very much doubt anyone would ever contemplate shutting down a neonatal intensive care unit,' she said, deliberately echoing Jess's optimistic words, but Rita wasn't placated.
'We're grossly understaffed,' the ward clerk declared, her tightly permed grey curls practically bristling with indignation, 'and this auditor is bound to notice. Lord knows, I'm not one to complain'
You never do anything but, Brianna thought irritably. In fact, it would be a red-letter, stop-press, post-it-to-the-world-on-Twitter day if Rita managed to get through one day without complaining.
'And no-one can say I'm not doing my best,' Rita continued, 'but, without a nurse unit manager, I'm fighting an uphill battle.'
Brianna was sorely tempted to tell the woman she might find her job considerably easier if she didn't spend half her time prying into everyone else's business and the other half spreading gossip, but the trouble was the ward clerk was right. They were finding it tough without a nurse unit manager, and though Admin had promised to advertise the post after Diego Ramirez returned to Spain, there had been no sign yet of them doing anything.
'I'm sure the auditor will make allowances for us,' she declared, 'and now, if you'll excuse me'
'Selfish, that's what I call it,' Rita continued. 'Mr Ramirez leaving us all in the lurch. In my day people had a sense of duty, a sense of responsibility, but nobody cares about standards nowadays. Look at all the unmarried mothers we get in NICU. Feckless, the lot of them. In my day'
'I'm sure every family behaved like the Waltons, and nothing bad ever happened,' Brianna interrupted tersely, 'but right now, if you're so anxious about making a good impression, wouldn't it be better if you simply got on with your job?'
Rita's mouth fell open, she looked as though she'd dearly like to say something extremely cutting, then she strode away with a very audible sniff, and Brianna gritted her teeth.
She would undoubtedly pay later for what she'd saidRita would make sure of thatbut the ward clerk had caught her on the raw today. Actually, if she was honest, Rita always caught her on the raw with her 'holier than thou' attitude to life.
'Walk a mile in my moccasins.'
It was one of her mother's favourite sayings, and her mother was right, Brianna thought as she washed her hands thoroughly then applied some antiseptic gel to ensure she didn't carry any bacteria into the unit, except.
She bit her lip as she caught sight of her reflection in the small mirror over the sink. 'The country mouse'. That was what her colleagues had called her when she'd been a student nurse, but that had been fourteen years ago. She wasn't a country mouse any more. She was thirty-two years old, the senior sister in a neonatal intensive care unit, and time and life had changed her. Especially the last two years.
Don't, Brianna, she told herself as she felt her heart twist inside her. Don't start looking back, you can't, you mustn't, not now, not ever.
And normally she didn't, she thought as she took a steadying breath before tucking a stray strand of her auburn hair back into its neat plait, only to realise her hand was shaking. Normally she lived in the now, determinedly refusing to look back, or forward, and it was all the fault of this damned auditor. His arrival was upsetting everyone, turning what had been her refuge into a place of uncertainty, and she didn't want uncertainty. She wanted the hospital to stay exactly as it was. Her haven, her sanctuary, her escape from all that had happened.
'Blasted number-cruncher,' she muttered as she used her elbow to push open the door leading into the NICU ward. 'Why can't he just go away and play on a motorway?'
'You wouldn't be talking about our esteemed visitor, would you?' Chris, her senior staff nurse, chuckled, clearly overhearing her.
'Got it in one,' Brianna replied, feeling herself beginning to relax as the familiar heat in the unit enveloped her, and she heard the comforting, steady sound of beeping monitors and ventilators. 'Anything happen over lunch I should know about?'
'Mr Brooke's not back from Theatre yet and neither is Amy Renwick.'
'So Rita told me,' Brianna replied. 'It looks as though he's had to remove part of Amy's intestine after all.'
It was what they'd all been hoping the consultant wouldn't have to do. Amy Renwick had been born twelve weeks premature, and scarcely a month later she'd been diagnosed with necrotising enterocolitis. The condition wasn't uncommon in premature babiestheir intestines were frequently insufficiently developed to handle digestionbut generally it could be controlled with antibiotics. In Amy's case, however, the antibiotics hadn't worked. Mr Brooke had thought he might only have to drain the infected fluid from her stomach, but, from the length of time he'd been in Theatre, it looked very much as though that solution hadn't proved to be an option.
'Is Mrs Renwick here?' Brianna asked, and the staff nurse nodded.
'She's in the parents' restroomvery upset, of coursebut her family's with her.'
And they'd been a tower of strength over the past few weeks for Naomi and her husband, Brianna thought as she lifted a file from the nurses' station. Not all of their parents were so lucky. Some families lived too far away to provide emotional support, while other families simply couldn't deal with the constant up-and-down pressures of having a very premature baby.
And sometimes the people, the person, you were so sure you could depend on let you down, she thought with a sudden, unwanted, shaft of pain.
'You OK, Brianna?'
The staff nurse was gazing uncertainly at her, and Brianna manufactured a smile.
'You're the second person to ask me that today, and I'm fine,' she replied. 'I've just got a bad attack of Monday blues, not helped by the imminent arrival of this blasted auditor'
'Who, if I'm not very much mistaken, has just arrived with Babbling and Rita,' the staff nurse warned in an undertone. 'And, if that is him, he looks scary. Good looking in a designer-suited, high-powered sort of way, but most definitely scary.'