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Pain shot up his leg and knee, radiating into every inch of his body, but Tucker O'Brien worked through it as the nurse stepped out of the examining room. He hadn't planned to be in the small doctor's office in Desperation, Oklahoma, but nothing was going as he'd thought it would.
When the pain subsided, he relaxed as much as he could. It would return, but for now he could breathe more easily. He glanced around the room, noting that it was nothing out of the ordinary and much the same as he remembered as a boy. The old doctor, Doc Priller, had stitched and bandaged him many times, more often than not because he'd refused to stay off the back of any animal that would hold still long enough for him to climb onto it. He managed a small smile, but was immediately hit by another wave of pain and barely noticed the door open when he heard someone speak.
"Fran tells me you're looking for some pain meds."
Steeling himself against the onslaught his body was enduring, Tucker nodded. As the pain began to abate, one thought became clear in his mind. Everybody had talked about Dr. Page, but nobody had mentioned she was a woman. There must have been a mistake when he'd made the appointment.
She held out her hand, which he took with reluctance, and introduced herself. "I'm Dr. Miles."
So there had been a mistake, and he was more than willing to correct it. "Tucker O'Brien," he grudgingly answered. "But I'm here to see Dr. Page."
For a moment, she didn't answer, then a smile broke out on her face and she laughed softly as she pulled her hand away. "Maybe I should have said I'm Dr. Paige Miles. Does that clear it up?"
He answered with a brief nod. It cleared it up, all right, but it didn't make this visit any easier. Why hadn't someone told him?
She took a seat on a small metal stool and opened a file folder. "Now that we have that straightened out, why aren't you at the VA?" she asked as she read through his file.
With the pain on its way to bearable, he felt able to answer. "Because it's too bad to drive that far."
"The pain is too bad? Then how did you get here?"
Sizing up the doctor immediately, he suspected that any answer he gave wouldn't help the situation, so he remained silent.
She closed the folder and placed it on her lap. "I'm sure any of the O'Briens would be happy to drive you, if you told them why."
"I don't want to bother them." His brother, Tanner, least of all.
Her brown hair was pulled back in a knot, and she tilted her head to the side, studying him. "Why do you think they'd be bothered?"
He didn't like her questions. His relationship with his family wasn't her business. He didn't need to answer personal questions, and if that's what she was going to ask, he'd go somewhere else. Getting to his feet, he stood straight and reached for his cane.
"Are you leaving?" she asked, sitting perfectly still, her hands folded on top of the folder.
"I've already seen a shrink. I came for some pain pills. If you aren't going to give me a prescription, then I'm wasting my time and yours."
He hadn't taken two steps when she spoke again. "I didn't say I wouldn't."
Her large brown eyes made him think of sweet chocolate, but he brushed the thought aside. This wasn't the time for that sort of thing. If there ever was a time. "You didn't say you would," he pointed out.
Leaning back against the cabinet behind her, she crossed her legs and stared at him.
He focused on her legs.
"I'm simply trying to determine why you aren't on your way to Oklahoma City to the VA hospital," she explained.
"I told you why."
"Have you had a prescription written by a doctor there?"
He hadn't expected this to be so difficult. But now that he was here, it figured the woman would give him trouble. "When I was a patient, yes."
She opened the folder again and studied it. "When were you released?" she asked and looked up at him.
"I" He had a feeling that if he told her the truth that he hadn't been released, he'd just walked outshe'd give him hell. "Does it matter?"
She motioned for him to return to the examining table. "I'm not familiar with your case," she said, when he'd settled back on the table. "I need to know when you've last seen your doctor, if your condition is improving or not and what medications you're taking." When he didn't answer, she added, "It's my job to find out these things so I can help you."
He nodded, but he wasn't happy. Luckily, the pain seemed to have subsided. "Six weeks ago on the doctor visit. My condition isn't expected to improve. And I was on anxiety and pain meds until recently." It was the last part he hated the most.
"I see. How recently?"
"Not since I left the hospital."
"And you weren't given a prescription at that time?"
She was going to dig until he told her every last detail, so he might as well get down to the bottom line. "I was never released, and I thought I could go without the meds."
"Because I don't like taking them."
"But they obviously help the pain or you wouldn't be here."
Hating that he'd failed at his attempt to rid himself of the drugs he'd relied on for most of the year, he wasn't all that willing to explain. He'd thought he could handle the pain. He'd thought wrong. "Apparently they do, so if you'll just write a prescription"
"I'll have to call your doctor at the VA first."
Tucker didn't care if she called the president of the United States for permission. He needed the meds, whether he wanted them or not. "So call him."
She was quiet for a moment, watching him, and then she stood. "It won't take long."
Before he could think of a reply, she was out the door. He began to wonder why she hadn't asked about his leg. Not that he would have told her much, but he suspected she might know some of his history from his family. By now, most everyone probably knew about the eight months he had spent as a prisoner in Somalia.
He'd screwed up. There was no denying it. The Special Forces rescue mission he'd been involved in had gone wrong, although the aid workers were rescued. But he and another marine had been captured by rebels in the process. Their injuries hadn't been treated. Somehow he'd managed to hold on until he was found and returned to the States early last fall with a leg that would probably never work right. Because of that, his brain was turning to mush on pain pills. Smithson hadn't been so lucky. Smithson didn't last three months. Just who was the lucky one?
And now he had this doctor who couldn't seem to write a damn prescription without help. Coming back to Desperation last month had been the worst decision he'd made since he'd left nineteen years ago.
Paige tucked the phone against her shoulder as she listened to the Veteran's Administration doctor who had treated Tucker O'Brien give her the details of the case. "I'll make sure he's monitored," she said, jotting notes in the file on her desk. "I wasn't aware of the extent of his injuries or the surgery, but now that I know
She listened to what Dr. Fuller was telling her, but her mind was trying to wrap itself around what the patient had endured. It was no wonder he was so belligerent. She was amazed he was even alive.
"I'll give him another month of meds and await the file you have on him," she said when the doctor had finished. "But I might as well tell you, I don't think he'll continue to be my patient. I'll keep an eye on him, anyway. I know his family."
"I wouldn't count on him coming back here to the VA," the doctor said. "He never should have left the hospital when he did, but there was no stopping him."
Paige didn't doubt it. From the little she had seen of what might be her newest patient, he didn't appear to be a person who did things the way they should be done. But no matter what his story was, she was still a doctor and was only interested in his health, not making him happy.
After thanking the VA doctor, she hung up the phone and stared at it. She knew Tucker O'Brien had recently returned home from the service, followed by treatment in a veteran's hospital, but she hadn't known any details or how many hospitals. The O'Briens didn't talk about it, at least not to anyone outside the family, and it hadn't been any of her business to ask. Until now. She wondered, too, just how much they knew about what had happened in Somalia. Considering Tucker's lack of communication with her, she doubted he'd told them anything.
Pushing away from her desk, she stood, massaging her temples with her fingers. She loved practicing in Desperation, but some days were more stressful than others. She was thankful it was Friday and hoped there wouldn't be any emergencies she would need to tend to over the weekend.
After reaching for a prescription pad in her drawer, she wrote a new script for Tucker and headed back to the examining room, hoping he hadn't skipped out on her.
When she walked into the room, he looked up at her, his deep brown eyes taking her breath away. "That long to get an okay on meds?" he asked, his voice filled with distrust and a hint of pain.
"They had to hunt down Dr. Fuller," she explained and handed him the prescription.
He took it from her and stuffed it in his pocket. "Thanks."
The word contained no gratitude, but she ignored it. There were more important issues to discuss. "Do you understand how dangerous it is to simply stop taking certain drugs?"
"I didn't just stop taking them."
"You weaned yourself off the pain medication?" When he nodded, she had to know. "In the hospital?"
"It isn't that hard."
She could only guess at how he'd done it. "It should be done under supervision," she told him. But he obviously did things his own way, on his own terms. There was no doubt he needed the pain meds. Even now she could see it in his eyes as he stepped down from the table.
"I'll need to see you again in a week or two," she told him as he started for the door.
He stopped as he reached for the doorknob, and his back stiffened. "Maybe I'll just go back to the VA."
"You go wherever you think is best for you. But if going from doctor to doctor is what you have in mind, let me warn you that you'll get nothing but heartache, if not worse, when all is said and done."
He turned to look at her, and his eyes narrowed. "Worse? Lady, I've already seen worse."
She couldn't respond to that, knowing at least some of what he'd been through, so she simply inclined her head to show she understood. Still, she had a point to make and a patient to care for. "Drug addiction isn't pretty."
"I'm not an addict," he said, his voice raised. "I was trying to get off the stuff, not take more."
"But it's obvious you can't do that." She watched him lower his head and knew she'd hit at what bothered him. But she wasn't finished. "Yet," she added.
His head jerked up, and he stared at her, doubt in his eyes. "What do you mean by that?"
Turning away from him, she laid his file on the counter. "There are other ways."
"To take care of this?"
She didn't need to see him to know he was referring to a leg she was certain was weak and might soon be worthless. But that was his fault and no one else's.
When she turned around to face him again, she saw not only his disbelief, but also his sorrow. "Yes, to take care of that," she answered, trying hard not to show how much his pain bothered her.
Not quite ready to give him details, she tried for a smile. "Let's talk about it in a week or so. If you'll come back, that is."
His internal struggle was clear. "I had the surgery."
"What about physical therapy?"
"It didn't do any good, except to get me on my
According to Dr. Fuller, Tucker hadn't bothered with much after that. He'd simply packed his things and left the hospital, barely able to manage walking. Now that she'd met him, she wasn't surprised. It didn't help that some veteran's hospitals were understaffed. Too many men and women from all branches of the service were coming home every day and sometimes not getting the care they needed. Especially the ones like Tucker.
Someone needed to step in and set things right with him, and it appeared that, at least for now, she was the one. "How long has it been since you've done any physical therapy and what kind?" She already knew the answer, but she wanted to see if he could be honest.
"I don't know what kind."
"How long ago?"
He hesitated before answering. "Months."
Because she hated to push him, she hesitated to ask more. Perhaps Dr. Fuller would send that information, but if she wanted to help Tuckerwhich she didshe needed the information so she would know where to start.
"How many months?" she asked. When he didn't immediately answer, she pushed. "More than six?"
He shook his head, but said nothing.
Even that wasn't good news. If, as Dr. Fuller had briefly touched on, Tucker had had muscle or nerve injuries with the unattended multiple breaks in his leg, and in spite of reconstructive surgery, the lack of therapy would make matters worse. And then there was the ACL surgery. It also depended on something else. "When did you start therapy?"
He shook his head. "I don't remember. After the surgery at" He stopped and took a breath, avoiding even a glance at her directly. "In Tampa, first. They had me pretty doped up. I don't remember much. Then some in Muskogee, and then with Dr. Fuller."
What worried her was that he had given up on the therapy. But even more, she worried about his mental state. She knew what giving up did to a patient. She'd experienced the worst, and she didn't want Tucker or the O'Briens to go through anything like that. They'd gone through enough already, from what she'd heard. And Tucker had endured even more. She couldn't make him do something he refused to do, any more than she'd been able to make Jeff keep up with his therapy.
It had been years since she'd thought of the young man who'd been a patient during her internship, and remembering it now made her all that more determined to do whatever it took to keep Tucker from what had happened to Jeff.