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Her arms full of patient files, Dr. Erika Sheraton tipped her head back as Darren, her premed intern, poured a double shot of espresso down her throat. The hot liquid delivered the instant adrenaline boost she needed to get through the rest of her fourteen-hour shift.
Dinner? A quick glance at the clock on the wall above the nurses' triage station revealed it was almost nine. A late dinner.
"How are you not vibrating? That's your third in two hours." Darren crumpled the paper cup and tossed it into a recycle bin as they walked.
"Caffeine stopped affecting me a long time ago. Now's it's about the taste," she said, only half kidding. Double course loads and all-nighters in college and then med school had prepared her for the long hours she put in now as a general surgeon and caffeine had been her best friend.
The twentysomething looked like he could use a cup himself, as he stifled a yawn. His sandy blond hair poked up in the back as though he'd crawled out of bed at the last possible minute and his hazel eyes were bloodshot. If he was tired now after only eight hours on shift, he'd be reconsidering this particular profession by midnight. The staff at Alaska General Hospital never rested. The revolving doors at emergency constantly rotated with broken bones, heart attacks and bleeding patients filing in. No day was ever the same. Unpredictability kept Erika alert and on her toes.
"After these rounds, I'm going to need you to check in on Mr. Franklin — he's in recovery. His family is wondering when they can see him." The man's entire extended family was camped out in the surgical ward waiting room — fifteen or sixteen of them at least. They couldn't see the man, but they all refused to leave. Each one took turns driving the nurses on duty crazy. "Make sure they know only immediate family can go in. He needs his rest."
Darren nodded, but a look of hesitation appeared behind his dark-rimmed glasses.
"What?" She checked her watch.
"I just ... Well, shouldn't you talk to them? I know his wife wanted to thank you ..."
Erika shook her head. "Keeping him on the low-cholesterol, low-sodium diet I've prescribed — and off my operating table — will be thanks enough," she said, scanning the top folder on her stack.
"Okay, but ..."
She shot him a look.
"No problem. I'll check in on him."
"Thank you." She continued down the hall toward the next high-priority patient.
"Don't forget, your dad still wants to see you," Darren said, struggling to keep up to her half sprint.
"I know." And she could do without the hourly reminders. Her father rarely requested her presence during her rounds, so whatever it was wouldn't be good. If she put him off long enough, maybe he'd forget.
"Top chart — Mr. Grayson. He's scheduled for an appendectomy in a few hours," she said, approaching the man's hospital room.
Darren nodded as he smiled. "This old guy is hilarious. Did you know he was a stunt motorcycle driver in the circus in the '80s?"
"No." She knew he had an inflamed appendix and had waited far too long to come in. She knew his vitals and that in an hour, they'd be prepping him for surgery. Knowing personal details of a patient's life didn't make her job any easier or guarantee a better outcome. She juggled the files on one arm as she reached into her pocket for a new set of sterile gloves.
"Hey, before we go in there, can I talk to you?" Darren asked, stopping her outside the room. He stared at the checked patterned floor tiles.
Damn. "You're requesting a transfer to a different physician." He wasn't the first medical student who'd gotten reassigned. She'd made it a month with Darren — a new record.
Another intern bites the dust.
He nodded, obviously relieved that he hadn't had to vocalize it himself. "You're amazing, Dr. Sheraton, and I feel so fortunate for the opportunity to work with you, but you're also very busy and unavailable ..."
The sharp sting of the words was familiar. She'd heard the same speech from interns and boyfriends alike. She'd successfully eliminated the problem in one group right after her first year of residency ... interns were hospital assigned and therefore out of her control.
"I mean I just need all the training I can get and between patients and your research work ..."
She didn't need an explanation. She was busy. Too busy to have someone following her around in fact. This was totally fine with her. "I understand."
"You're not upset?"
"Only about having to get my own coffee from now on," she said.
The joke missed its mark and the intern's eyes widened. "I can still do that ..."
Wow, was she really that scary? She was demanding and expected the students to put in the hours she did. She may not be the friendliest doctor on staff, socializing after work and remembering birthdays and such, but she gave these interns a real picture of their future in medicine. Wasn't that what they were there for? "I was kidding, Darren."
"Oh ... right."
"Dr. Sheraton, please report to emergency. Stat."
The call over the hospital intercom had her handing Darren the stack of folders. "Please take his heart rate and blood pressure," she said, practically running to the elevators. "And don't forget Mr. Franklin."
"Got it," he called after her.
The quiet twenty-six-second elevator ride to the first floor was the closest thing she got to a spa day. It was the only time she was forced to slow to a pace other than her own usual breakneck speed. But even that half a minute was too long. It gave her time to think. Think about her previous surgeries and replay the details — what went right, what went wrong, what she could do better next time. Constantly reevaluating herself made her a better surgeon, but too often it left her feeling like she was coming up slightly short of her potential. Her type A personality left little room for failure or complacency.
Checking her phone in her lab coat pocket, she scanned her schedule for the rest of the evening, evaluating what she could push back if this emergency demanded her immediate attention. The number of things marked urgent made her will the elevator to move quicker. She'd be lucky to get out of there by 2:00 a.m.
A text popped up from Darren.
If you change your mind about Mrs. Franklin ...
She wouldn't. She ignored the text from her intern — former intern — and put the phone away.
As the elevator stopped, she took a deep breath, expecting to see a flurry of organized chaos as the doors opened. Stretchers, ambulance lights flashing and sirens wailing outside, paramedics and nurses ... Instead, she ran square into her father.
No emergency, just his six-foot-three frame and his usual neutral expression. It was impossible to read her father, as his face gave nothing away. His emotions were never too high or too low, just infuriatingly balanced no matter the circumstance. His calm presence and rational thinking made him fantastic at his profession, but sometimes he was irritating as shit as a father.
"Hi. I was just coming to see you." Eventually.
"Walk with me," he said, turning on his heel and nodding.
Her jaw clenched so tight her teeth might snap. This was so like him — assuming she could drop everything at his command. He may run the hospital, but he often had no idea how hectic her schedule was. "Can we talk as I do my rounds, Darren is ..."
"More than capable," he said, leading the way to his first-floor corner office. "And requesting to be transferred, I see."
His tone made her palms sweat. He should be happy that she was pushing these interns to their limits. What awaited them once they graduated wasn't for the faint of heart. Better to get used to grueling days and nights now, performing on little to no sleep, living on caffeine and leftover Halloween chocolate bars, than to realize they couldn't cut it when lives were in their hands.
Unfortunately, he didn't always agree with her beliefs . He wanted the interns to feel at home at Alaska General so they'd apply here once they graduated. The hospital was short staffed and more doctors would benefit everyone, but Erika preferred to work alongside the best.
Her father had an open-door policy — literally — so when he closed the office door behind her, she knew the head of General Surgery hadn't called her in to discuss Thanksgiving dinner plans.
She glanced at his wall calendar as she sat. Especially since Thanksgiving was a week ago.
"Dad, this intern thing is just ridiculous ..."
He held up a hand. "This isn't about your inability to effectively manage others."
Kick to the gut delivered and received. She clamped her lips together.
He opened his desk drawer and handed her a letter as he sat in the plush, leather chair behind his oversize mahogany desk.
Her eyes widened, seeing the Hospital Foundation logo on the top of the page. "Is this the final approval from the board for the clinical trials?" They'd submitted the application six months ago to start trials on a new antirejection drug after years of research, and they were waiting on the formal go-ahead to start with a test group.
Would Darren reconsider staying with her if he knew he could be part of a medical breakthrough? He'd been a lot of help in the past month.
"Just read it," her father said.
She scanned the letter from the board of directors, feeling her excitement fade and anxiety rise with each word. "Recommended vacation? What is this?" "I don't like it either, but the board is reviewing policies and making sure we are following them," he said, the edge indicating he'd been outvoted in this decision. He certainly didn't believe in time off and had never encouraged her to take any. Her life was her career, just like him.
"But any day now we will be starting clinical trials on the new drug." It had taken her father and his team almost three years to get the experimental antirejection product approved for testing on organ transplant patients and they'd finally gotten it. They'd worked around the clock for a year to make sure they did. Subjects were undergoing assessment right now to be ready for the trials.
Now was not the time to take a break.
Her father looked as though he'd made the same argument to the hospital board. "The team will have to handle it."
So recommended actually meant forced. "Why now? I'm fine. I don't need a break." At twenty-nine, she was eager to prove herself as one of the top general surgeons in the state. Between her surgical success record and the research time she'd invested in this new drug, she was close. Helping her father get one step closer to winning the Lister Medal was high on her priority list. "Come on, Dad, you know I'm good. My last two operations were impossible surgeries ..."
Erika clamped her lips together again, forcing her argument to stay put. It wouldn't do any good. Three years working alongside her father and she'd yet to prove herself. Despite two back-to-back improbable surgeries that she'd performed successfully, he still doubted her abilities. His micromanagement over her research team had driven her insane, but he'd reluctantly agreed to let her run her own set of clinical trials on the antirejection drug, and she'd foolishly believed she was making progress with him.
Now she was being forced into taking a break.
What the hell was a break? She hadn't had one since starting university. She'd graduated with her bachelor's in three years instead of four by doubling up on courses and then had applied directly to med school. She'd interned at Alaska General and secured a position there shortly after graduation. She couldn't remember the last day she had off, let alone ... she glanced at the letter. Two weeks?
What the hell would she do with all that free time?
Her chest constricted and air struggled to make it to her lungs. "Okay, maybe I could take a few days, but two weeks is crazy."
"Darren told me about the one-way street," her father said.
Last time she was driving him home. "It was a mistake. It was nothing." Accidentally turning down a busy one-way street — in the wrong direction ... in rush hour ... after an eighteen-hour shift — had frightened the bejesus out of her and Darren, but she wasn't about to admit that to her father.
Had that near-death experience had anything to do with Darren's transfer request? Did he actually think she was starting to burn out?
She wasn't. The truth was, her mind had been elsewhere on the drive home that day. November 20. The anniversary of her mother's death. Each year that day weighed heavy on her. But bringing that up to her father would do more damage than good.
"It's a sign you're working too hard," he said.
Again, an edge of irritation in his voice. Her father didn't acknowledge weakness. He believed in pushing through, working hard to overcome exhaustion and stress. She'd failed to do that in his eyes, and she couldn't be truthful with him. They never talked about her mother.
"So I can't fight this?" she asked, her jaw tight as she struggled to keep her voice steady. This wasn't fair. It was unnecessary, but throwing a temper tantrum wouldn't help.
"The decision is final." He ran a hand through his salt-and-peppered hair and reached for his glasses, picking up a file on his desk.
She was dismissed. "Effective?"
"Immediately. Dr. Hipstein has been called in to complete your rounds."
Dr. Hipstein. A veteran doctor who was semiretired. Staff and patients loved his fun, uplifting demeanor. Standing, she said, "Okay, well, I'll see you in two weeks."
He nodded, not glancing up as she left the office and headed down the hall. She took the elevator to the fourth floor, leaning against the cool metal wall as she watched the numbers light up. Going into her own office, she closed the door, kicked off her heels and lay down on the uncomfortable cot she'd wheeled in to try to catch some sleep between patients. She stared at the dark stain on the ceiling tile above her and forced several deep breaths.
It may as well be two years. What the hell was she going to do with herself?
She had no hobbies. She had no boyfriend. She had no friends besides colleagues who were more acquaintances. She didn't have a pet. Heck, even her houseplants were plastic.
Feeling her chest constrict, an anxiety attack looming, she forced another breath, but it barely made it past her throat. A vacation. She'd never been on one before. Ever. Not even as a child. Raised by her workaholic father, the farthest she'd ever gone was camping with Cassie and her family every summer ...
She hadn't seen her childhood best friend in years. They'd been inseparable growing up, but their lives and careers had gotten in the way of the friendship over time. Her free-spirited friend was an adventure tour guide, still living in their hometown of Wild River, while Erika worked herself into forced vacations at the hospital in the city. Fun and leisure activities had never found their way onto her priority list. A drive to succeed pushed away any desire to relax. Eventually, when she'd reached her career goals, she'd slow down a little ... enjoy life, but for now, she was focused solely on her career.
Right now, she wouldn't even know how to find fun if she had a direct map to it.
Sitting up, she glanced at her calendar on the wall. It was November 30 and the weather that fall would ensure great skiing conditions on the slopes. Not so great for mountain driving, though. She'd never admit it, but the close call on the one-way had her feeling a little nervous on the roads these days.
She bit her lip. She could take the train.
Going to her computer, she confirmed times to Wild River for the next day. Less than a two-hour ride. The mountains weren't that far from the city.
Finding accommodations for that length of time proved to be challenging, though. Ski season was always booked well in advance, and with the village holiday activities starting that week, no hotel or B and B could accommodate the two-week stay.
Should have checked that first.
Opening Facebook, she went straight to Cassie's page.
When was the last time they spoke? Actually spoke, not quick Facebook messages or a "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Birthday" text, but an actual conversation?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Alaskan Christmas"
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Snow.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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