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Dr. Eva Veracruz glanced at the clock for the fifth time in as many seconds.
The buzz from the live studio audience for Ask the Doc was upbeat. A good sign.
The guest speaker was not yet in the studio. A bad sign. A very bad sign.
"Where is he, Phil? Where's this supermodel doctor you found who's supposed to catapult our ratings past our competitor?"
Her producer, Phil, shrugged. "He'll be here."
"Our viewers trust us to give them good medical information and I respect that trust. I thought you did, too. I'd much rather have an accomplished speaker who knows our topic, regardless of looks."
"If we don't get our ratings up during sweeps week, our viewers won't get any information, good, bad or otherwise."
Ask the Doc might only be a local television show, but local in the New Orleans area translated to quite a large viewing audience.
Eva had heard rumors of syndication, rumors she wholeheartedly supported. Bigger and better, right?
That had been before their competitor station had decided to run a reality show against their time slot. Eating bugs and getting knocked into the water by giant blow-up fists was trumping good, solid medical advice.
Their sponsors were not happy. How could they sell their balm to cure the diaper rash of their viewers' babies if no one was watching their commercials?
If they couldn't beat the national reality show they would never get a chance to become syndicated as they would be off the air instead.
Phil lifted an eyebrow. "I know my job. I checked his background. Dr. O'Donnell is a respected E.R. doctor who has become renowned for recognizing heart attacks in women."
"But can he talk on television?"
"Getting him to talk is your job."
Since she hadn't gotten to meet him yet, she had no idea what kind of speaking talent this Dr. O'Donnell had. But she was good at her job.
Phil looked at the clock. It was time. "Stall and watch the wings."
"Got it." The intro music played as she walked onto the set, thinking fast and revising her opening speech in her head. She would normally tell her audience about her guest, but if he didn't show
Eva waved to the crowd, catching a glimpse of herself in the monitors. Her jet-black curls were going wild down her back and around her face as the humidity of the New Orleans morning crept into the television studio.
The make-up artist had gone big and bold with the red lipstick to complement her scarlet dressas if her big mouth needed any more help. Even without cosmetics her lips already looked like they had been overfilled with collagen, even though she'd never touched the stuff.
She did have to admit that her olive complexion looked a lot warmer with the hint of red showing from beneath her white lab coat.
"Hello, New Orleans. Welcome to Ask the Doc. I'm your host, Dr. Eva Veracruz. We have a very important show today for all you hardworking women out there. We'll be talking about heart attacks and the signs and symptoms we all need to be aware of."
From the corner of her eye, she saw Phil give her the thumbs-up as he pointed to a shadowy figure in the wings.
Eva revised her opening remarks on the fly. "And we have a guest who has first-hand knowledge of our topic today. Let's give a big hand to Dr. Mark O'Donnell from the Crescent Street Emergency Care Clinic."
The crowd's polite applause audibly increased as Dr. O'Donnell came into view. Phil, the show's producer, had accomplished his goal. The man could have been an underwear model.
At least six feet four to her five feet eleven plus four-inch heels, he was taller than her. His eyes were a vivid Aegean green that could only come from tinted contacts. His haircut looked vaguely rebellious, like it had been close cropped once upon a time and now needed a touch-up. It was a cross between brown and a very dark russet.
He was not the type she usually went for, preferring a more military look. But, then, she'd had no type in quite a while, which might explain her extreme reaction.
Not only did he make her pulse throb, her whole metabolism seemed to pick up speed as he came toward her. What was it about him that made her adrenaline rush?
It wasn't just his looks. It was his attitude.
She was a sucker for a strong personality. Since she knew that about herself, she also knew to keep him at arm's length. Not a problem. She wasn't ready for a man in her life. She was still recovering from the last one.
The show's intro song faded into the pre-taped segment she'd recorded yesterday with information on how to contact local emergency care personnel and where to write in for heart-attack information while she got the good doctor seated.
His swagger made the audience sit up and take notice even if he didn't deign to look at them. He walked in like he owned the place.
He had the kind of cocky attitude she would never fall for again.
She could tell by the clothes he wore that he was a rule breaker, which too easily transitioned into heartbreaker for any woman foolish enough to get close to him.
The show requested business attire, in his case a suit and tie. Instead, he wore his lab coat over scrubs.
With the way the lighting was set, the white of his coat with the white of her own custom-tailored lab coat would blanch the set.
She could see her producer already scrambling behind the cameras, trying to figure out how to salvage the video quality. How could she help from her hosting chair?
At her gesture, Dr. O'Donnell stood in front of the chair opposite her.
"Please say something so the sound engineer can do a final microphone check," she requested.
He looked at a loss, then said, "Something."
Eva couldn't help smirking. This was going to be a challenging show.
Dr. O'Donnell would do his guest shot. She'd make him look like a natural in front of the camera by feeding him the answers to the questions she asked him and covering his pauses with insightful comments. Their ratings would soar and he would be another featured rerun during their off season.
Had it only been two years since she'd left the free clinic environment and entered the television market? She'd learned so much since then. Her innate ambition nagged at her, making her anxious to move up to the next levelnational exposure. Her agent had said it was time to put the word out on the street that she was interested in bigger and better things before everyone heard about Ask the Doc's falling ratings.
But, then, committing to her television career would mean she'd made a clear-cut decision to leave the practice of medicine behind.
Good, right? She would no longer be plagued by nebulous thoughts of one day returning to clinical work as she trod her newly chosen path of being a television personality.
Could she find fulfillment, could she find peace if she never called herself a doctor again?
Her mind skittered past the possibility of turning her back on the career she'd spent her whole life working toward.
Concentrate on now. Not the future, Eva. Interviewing the pretty-boy doctor who had a blank expression on his sculpted face took precedence over everything else. She could salvage this interview. She was a professional.
"Welcome, Dr. O'Donnell." She made a split-second decision. Instead of offering her hand to shake, she unbuttoned her own lab coat and whipped it off. Speaking to the cameras, she waved her hand down the length of her wrap-front dress.
"Notice the red dress I'm wearing today in support of educating everyone about the signs of heart attack in women."
She ignored the self-consciousness she felt that the dress was intentionally a smidgeon too tight to fit better under her lab coat.
"Whenever you see a red dress, refresh your memory on the early symptoms of a heart attack. Your early response could save a loved one's life. Isn't that right, Dr. O'Donnell?"
She stared into his deep blue-green eyes, noticing the amber ring around his pupils.
He stared back.
Finally, he answered, "Yes."
A single, monotone response. This was going to be one of those interviews.
Pretty is as pretty does. Eva would gladly trade this eye candy before her for a glib, knowledgeable doctor of any physical description.
Well, if she was going to have to muscle through this, she might as well get something out of it.
Unapologetically, she would enjoy the view while he was here.
She waved him into the visitor's chair, noticing he hesitated before she seated herself. Good manners? Or a suspicious nature, not agreeing to anything until he'd made up his mind?
For all Eva's training and experience in the nuances of body language, she couldn't be sure but highly suspected the latter.
Very aware of the tightness of her dress without her lab coat to cover it, she positioned herself so the camera wouldn't stare straight down her cleavagewhich meant Dr. O'Donnell would have to.
This set wasn't designed for keeping a comfortable amount of personal space between the host and the guest. Instead, it was laid out to give the appearance of intimacy, hopefully translating into trust and confidence for the viewer.
"Welcome to Ask the Doc, Dr. O'Donnell. Tell me, how many cases of heart attack in women do you see compared to men?"
She left her question broad, knowing she could work with any answer he gave her. That's what her producers attributed to the show's success, her ability to think fast.
She wished they'd take into consideration the three and a half years she'd spent at the busiest drug-abuse treatment clinic in New Orleans, working with walk-in patients. Talk about having to think fast on your feet.
So far, the producers had sidestepped her suggestion for a hard-hitting drug-abuse segment, but Eva planned to insist, when her contract renegotiations came due, that a series on drug abuse be included that ranged from family recognition and prevention to consequences, treatment options and success rates for battling addiction.
Too many people needed this information just like too many people shied away from it.
Though, right now, she had a more immediate problem as Dr. O'Donnell shied away from the camera.
After the night he'd had, Mark fought off his exhausted stupor. Searching for a boost of energy, he looked at the woman across from him, all hair and boobs and luscious lips ripe for"Do you see many women coming into the E.R. knowing they're having a heart attack?"
This was her second question and he hadn't even answered the first one yet.
Come on, O'Donnell. Get your head in the game.
"We don't see as many women come in with suspected heart attacks as men, but that's not to say women don't have as many heart attacks. All these years while we've been thinking men are the majority of heart-attack victims, we haven't been diagnosing women properly."
His host nodded encouragingly, as if she were coaxing answers from a child. "In fact, heart disease is the number-one killer in women, isn't it, Dr. O'Donnell?"
"Yes, it is." Mark thought of the woman he'd admitted last night. He'd insisted the lab run an EKG even though she'd thought she had flu.
"Tell us some of the symptoms as we post them on our viewers' screens." Dr. Veracruz pointed, not so subtly, to the monitor.
Even in his mind, Mark stumbled over calling her a doctor. She was no more a medical doctor than he was a ballerina.
What was her name? Edna? Ella? Eva.
She looked like an Eva, every overstated voluptuous inch of her.
Maybe, just maybe, she had her doctorate in journalism or television. Could a person get a degree in talk-show hosting?
But this woman with her long, dangling earrings and cleavage deeper than the Grand Canyon would probably faint at the sight of blood.
Mark read the first bullet point. Shortness of breath.
He looked into the lens like the public relations specialists in his university's athletic department had trained him to do during his football years and flashed the camera's blinking red light a smile.
"Here are the top signs of having a heart attack."
Mark ignored Eva's raised eyebrows.
"If you feel like you've run a marathon and haven't taken a single step, or if you can't draw in a deep breath, go to the emergency room. You might be having a heart attack."
His quirky tone drew a small laugh from the audience. Laughter meant they were listening and listening meant they were learning.
And education was the only reason he'd agreed to be on this show to start with. His own beloved grandmother had died of a heart attack. If only she'd known, if only those around her had known, maybe she would still be here for him and for his sister.
She had been their only reality in the world of fakeness for appearances' sake where his socialite parents had insisted they all live.
The audience waited for the next sign on the list. Mark reached for the sense of humor most people thought was too quirky.
"If you feel weak in the knees and your world is spinning around you and you're not about to walk down the aisle and say 'I do', go to the emergency room. You might be having a heart attack."
From the corner of his eye, he saw Dr. Veracruz sit back in her chair, obviously giving him the spotlight.
Mark had to do some quick thinking to phrase the other symptoms the same way.
"If you feel nauseous and it's not from overindulgence in the French Quarter, go to the emergency room. You might be having a heart attack.
"If you feel upper abdominal indigestion, don't even try to blame it on that spicy Creole dish your sister-in-law made, go to the emergency room. You might be having a heart attack."
He paused, going blank as the remaining symptoms blinked on the monitors.
Dr. Veracruz gave him a quick glance then sat forward, giving a subtle off-camera sign to the camera operator, who pulled back to get both of them in the shot.
Smiling, she said, "If your back muscles are in spasm, as if you've spent all night dancing the tango and you haven't even lifted a teacup, go to the emergency room. You might be having a heart attack."
She gave him a conspiratorial look, as if they'd planned this out ahead of time as she finished off the list.
"And the classic symptom. If you feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest, go to the emergency room. You might be having a heart attack."
Mark nodded toward her, silently telling her he'd take it from there. "At the first signs of a heart attack, chew an aspirin. Crush it with your teeth as you may not be able to swallow it."
Dr. Veracruz dovetailed with her own comment. "And after you take that aspirin, go to the hospital. Because "
She pointed to the audience, who all called out in sync, "You might be having a heart attack."
Mark steepled his hands and gave the camera a dead-serious stare, wanting to make his point as strongly as he could. "The second biggest problem with women having heart attacks is that they don't want to bother anyone just because they're not feeling well. Take a lesson from the boys, ladies. You're important enough to bother people. Even if it's a false alarm, you're worth the bother. Your family would rather have you alive and embarrassed about a bit of gas than dead because you tried to not be a bother. So, at the first signs of a heart attack, go immediately to the emergency room."
Eva gave the camera an equally serious stare. "And remember. Don't drive yourself. If you do, you'll put everyone on the road in danger. Call for emergency transport. Right, Dr. O'Donnell?"
"Right," he said on cue. No one would ever accuse him of not being a team player.
Eva gave Mark an affirmative nod of her head. "And now a word from our sponsor."