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"You look terrible."
Connor Hayes grimaced and ran a hand through his tousled hair. "Thanks a lot, Mia. I can always count on you to boost my ego."
Maybe she had been a little blunt, but Mia Doyle wasn't about to take back her words. As attractive as her friend was, he looked pretty ragged at the moment. His sandy hair was in dire need of a trim, his navy blue eyes were red-rimmed and bleary, and he had the grayish pallor of someone who hadn't seen the sun in several days. He was only thirty, but she suspected anyone meeting him for the first time today would probably guess him to be a few years older. "When's the last time you had a full night's sleep?"
"More than four hours."
it's been a while," he admitted.
She sighed and shook her head. "Really, Connor, you can't go on like this. You have to get some rest."
"I will," he assured her. "After this test tomorrow. It's going to be a killer."
"They're all killers," she reminded him, setting a plate of food in front of him. She had to push a pile of books, notebooks and papers out of the way to find a spot on his kitchen table for the plate. "Don't you think you'll perform better on the test if you're rested and fresh?"
He sighed heavily and gripped the fork she thrust into his hand. "Probably."
"But you'll still sit up most of the night studying," she concluded in resignation.
The smile he gave her was sheepish. "Yeah. Probably."
Shaking her head, she cleared off a few inches of table for her own plate. She had brought a chicken and broccoli casserole, filling and healthy. Knowing the grueling schedule her friend and former coworker was enduring during his first year of medical school, she had gotten into the habit of bringing meals to him a couple of times a week. Sometimes she quizzed him for upcoming exams, using study guides and practice tests from his stacks of materials. He seemed to enjoy her company during his near-total exile from his former social life.
She worried about him not taking good care of himself because of his obsession with doing well in medical school. And she missed seeing him every day at work, sharing lunches and class prep times together, bonding over stories of their most difficult students. This school year just hadn't been the same without Connor there to greet her every morning with a smile and a bad joke.
They had been friends for more than three years, having both been teachers at a nearby Little Rock, Arkansas, high school. Mia taught advanced placement literature classes; Connor had taught health and physical education and had been an assistant coach for the football team. Early in their friendship, he had confessed that he wanted to attend medical school. He'd worried that he'd waited too long to even try, but she'd encouragedwell, nagged him into taking the MCAT and applying to medical school. No one had been happier for him when he'd been accepted, even though she knew it would change their relationship significantly.
"This is really good, Mia. Thanks."
She smiled wryly as he shoveled casserole into his mouth. He was eating as if he'd forgotten all about food until now. She suspected that he'd done just that. She didn't bother to ask when he'd last had a complete meal. Judging by the evidence she'd seen scattered around the kitchen and in the overflowing wastebasket beneath the sink, he'd been living on TV dinners and energy bars since she'd last brought him a meal, three days earlier.
"More iced tea?" she asked.
"I'll get it."
But she was already on her feet. She refilled his glass and then her own before putting the pitcher back in the fridge.
"Thanks," he murmured, lifting the glass to his lips.
"You're welcome. Is there anything I can do to help you study after you've eaten? I'd be happy to quiz you."
He looked at her somberly across the table. "You're too good to me. Especially because I've been neglecting you so badly lately. I even forgot to call you on your birthday."
He had apologized profusely and repeatedly for that slip as soon as he realized what he'd donetwo days after the actual event. Although she had been painfully aware that he hadn't called on the day itself, she'd understood. He was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information being thrown at him on a daily basis, and which he was expected to retain and be tested on at regular intervals. They had expected that the first year of medical school would be grueling, but they'd both been surprised by the arduous reality.
It was insane, they agreed. Certainly not the most efficient method of training new doctors, in their studied opinionbut it was difficult to break through the prevailing argument that "it's always been done this way." So all he could do was dig in and prove he had the endurance and stubbornness to make it through the first year, which seemed to be the main point of the curriculum.
"Stop apologizing about the birthday, okay? I completely understand. You had that big gross anatomy exam that afternoon and no one could blame you for being totally preoccupied by that."
He shook his head with a rueful smile. "You're still letting me off too easy. Med school is no excuse to blow off the best friend I've ever had."
She returned the smile, then thought about what he'd said as she finished her meal. Best friends. That was the way they thought of themselves and referred to themselves to others. A slightly unconventional friendship, of course, because he was two years older and they weren't the same gender. Some people seemed to find it hard to believe that a man and a woman could be so close without being physically involved, but she and Connor had never crossed that particular line for several reasons. Primarily because when they'd first met, he had been in the process of a divorce and in no mood to get romantically involved with anyone else so soon.
By the time his divorce was final and he had recovered somewhat from the ordeal, Mia had been seeing someone, and she and Connor had already settled into a comfortable platonic relationship based on mutual tastes and values and ideals, shared senses of humor and similar big dreams for their futures. Neither of them had wanted to risk doing anything to endanger their treasured camaraderie. So they had endured the gossip and the nosy questions, as well as the annoying suspicions of the unexpectedly possessive man she had dated and then dumped, and their friendship had survived.
They had gotten even closer after the death of his mother almost two years ago. He'd told her then that she'd somehow known just what to say and do to help him handle the grief, even though all she felt she had done was to offer to listen whenever he needed to talk.
She saw no reason for their friendship ever to end. Forgotten birthdays notwithstanding.
"Actually," he said, pushing his emptied plate away and standing. "Wait right here. I've got something for you and now seems as good a time as any to give it to you."
"You didn't have to"
But he was already gone. She wasn't really startled that he'd gotten her a present because they'd been in the habit of exchanging gifts for the past couple of years. She was more surprised that he'd had time to shop. Maybe he'd ordered something over the Internet.
She had just finished loading the dishwasher with their dinner plates when he returned, a wrapped gift in his hand. "Sorry it's late," he said. "It was delivered just this afternoon."
So he had shopped with the click of a computer key. Still, it was nice that he'd thought of her, and because she knew very well that his money was limited right now, considering he was attending medical school on student loans, it was a very generous gesture. "You really didn't have to get me anything," she repeated, even as she took the gift he offered her.
"I wanted to," he answered simply. "Go ahead. Open it."
"It's heavy." Setting the book-size box on the table, she pulled off the inexpensive red Christmas bow he'd stuck to the red-and-green plaid wrapping paper that also looked suspiciously Christmasy. Never mind that it was October; this was probably the only wrapping paper he'd had on hand, most likely left over from last year's holidays.
Finally finding the gift beneath all the paper and tape he'd applied, she gasped. Lifting the two-volume set from the box, she read the title. "The Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Connor."
He looked at her with a hint of nerves in his expression, as if trying to gauge whether she really was pleased with the gift. "I wasn't sure about it, but the reviews sounded good. Like something you might like."
"Are you kidding? This is great. Perfect for my library. But you really shouldn't have spent this much." He had to have spent a couple hundred dollars for this, she thought, touched that he'd gone to the effort to find something so personally tailored to her tastes.
He frowned, as if she'd struck a nerve with her comment about the cost. She knew his ex had departed with everything she could grab when she'd left him for someone else, and it had taken him a while to recover financially. The little house and an aging compact car were his only significant material assets for the moment because he was investing everything else into his future medical career.
"I wanted to get you something you'd like," he said. "As much as you've done for me, it's the least I could do in return."
She didn't care for the implication that the gift was payback for her support of his efforts to get into medical school and to do well now that he was in. He probably hadn't really meant it that way, but it was certainly the way it had sounded.
Why were they both so sensitive this evening? She gave an impatient shake of her head, telling herself to snap out of it. She should just appreciate the gift and the thoughts behind it, whatever they had been. "Thank you."
He smiled and gave her a quick, one-armed hug. "You're welcome."
Her heart fluttered a little, but she returned the smile easily. "Go study. I'll clean up in here."
He didn't waste time arguing with her. He hauled a stack of books into the living room and had buried his head inside them before she cleared away the first plate.
It was just as well, she thought with a slight smile, that she wasn't a particularly high-maintenance type of friend. As dear as he was to her, she wasn't blind when it came to Connor's faults. Lately he had been more than a little self-absorbed and decidedly obsessed with his schoolwork. She certainly understood why he needed to be that way at this point in his life, but she knew better than to invest too much of herself with a self-centered, manipulative man. Been there, done that. Still bore the emotional scars.
Connor wasn't anything like Dale had been, but only a true masochist would get involved with a first-year med student, she thought with a wry smile.
His eyes burned so badly that Connor could hardly focus on the charts in front of him. He rubbed his closed eyes with his fingertips, which didn't help.
He needed coffee. Some sort of stimulant to wake him up and sharpen his mind. He'd never get through all these tables tonight without it.
Standing, he walked into the kitchen, limping a little because he'd been sitting in one position for too long. He heard joints crack as he reached for a cup and he felt suddenly older than his thirty years. He hoped there was some coffee left in the insulated carafe he always kept filled. If not, he'd have to waste valuable study time making another pot.
Looking around for it, he noted that the kitchen was immaculate. Gleaming, even. Every scrap of trash was gone, all the dishes washed and put away, the stovetop and counters wiped clean. Even the floor had been swept.
Mia, he thought with a little niggling of guilt. She'd cleaned his kitchen. And he suspected that if he checked his bathroom and bedroom, he'd find that she hadn't restricted her cleaning to this room. On an impulse, he opened the folding wood doors that concealed the washer and dryer at the far end of the kitchen. Clean jeans, T-shirts, socks and underwear were stacked neatly on the dryer. When he opened the dryer, he found a load of clean towels, still warm and fluffy. Apparently she'd had the washer and dryer running the entire time she'd been there that evening. He hadn't even noticed.
Had he even thanked her properly for bringing dinner? He frowned, trying to clearly remember her departure
just over an hour earlier, he thought, glancing at the digital clock on the microwave. He'd been buried in his books, staring intently at a diagram of the cardiovascular system, trying to memorize the vessels that originate from the external carotid artery when she'd told him she was leaving. He remembered looking up and reciting, "The superior thyroid artery, the lingual artery, the facial artery, the occipital artery and the posterior auricular artery."
Without even blinking, Mia had laughed and leaned over to brush a light kiss against his cheek. Her bright blue eyes had been warm in her pretty, girl-next-door face when she'd drawn away, tucking a strand of her light brown hair behind her ear. "Thank you again for the birthday present. Good luck on your test tomorrow. Call me and let me know how it went, okay?"
"Yeah, okay," he had replied, his eyes already on the diagram again as he'd squinted at the brachiocephalic artery, which divided into the common carotid artery and the subclavian artery. "'Night, Mia. Drive carefully."
He distinctly remembered telling her to drive carefully. Not exactly a "thank you so much for all you've done for me tonight and ever since I started med school, I don't know what I would have done without you." But at least it showed he cared about her, right?
He didn't deserve a friend like her, he thought with a disgusted shake of his head. Maybe he could pay her back somehow when she started grad school, which was her plan after teaching and saving for another year or so.
Yeah, right. As a second-year med student, he would take another full slate of courses and begin studying for Step One of the nightmarish medical licensing exam that had to be passed before he could continue with his training. As tough as his first year had proven to be, there were some who warned that the second year was even more arduous. Hard to imagine.