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Float nurse Allison Forshay glanced at the clock on the institutional white wall of the staff lounge in the emergency room, wishing she could accelerate time with the snap of her fingers. Then the eight hours and six minutes that remained of Dr. Jared Padget's last shift would vanish in seconds.
Along with him.
The chorus of sopranos belting out a private concert in her head came to an abrupt halt when the door opened and chatter from the busy outside hallway overpowered her glee.
Ali cringed, keeping her eyes on the patient chart open on the round table in front of her, struggling to maintain focus on her documentation for little Molly Dawkins, her first patient of the night. The threeyearold, blondhaired, blueeyed terror had tried to bite the triage nurse and kicked at Ali when she'd attempted to expose the girl's infected big toe. Then Dr. Padget had arrived, complimented the pink polish on Molly's tiny toenails, the delicate gold bracelets on her ankle and wrist, and the princess tattoo on her hand. In less than three minutes he'd charmed that little girl right out of her sandal, confirming Ali's suspicions. Women of all ages were susceptible to the man's charisma.
If there was a vaccine to protect against it, Ali would have opted for a double dose.
The subtle change in the air gave him away, some type of electrostatic attraction that caused the tiny hairs on her arms to rise and lean in his direction, her heart rate to accelerate and her breath to hitch whenever he found her alone.
His blue scrubcovered legs and red rubber clogs entered her peripheral vision. He pulled out the chair beside her and sat down, brushing his arm against hers. No doubt on purpose, the rat.
"You've been avoiding me," Dr. Jared Padget said.
"You're hardly worth the effort it would take to avoid you." Although, in truth, she was.
"I'm leaving on Monday."
Yes! Finally! His arrival three months ago had thrown her life into a state of flux. Now, his temporary assignment over, his departure meant she could finally settle back into a normal routine free from his constant badgering at work and "coincidental" encounters on her days off. With a flippant wave of her hand she said, "Here. Gone. Alive. Dead. Makes no difference to me."
"Come on, Ali Kitten." He snatched her pen. "You know you're going to miss me."
"About as much as I'd miss a painful hemorrhoid," she said, glaring at him from the corners of her eyes. "And you know I don't like it when you call me that."
"Yeah," he said with a playful twinkle in his peridotgreen eyes and that sexy smile, complete with bilateral dimples that tormented her in her sleep. He leaned back in his chair and clasped his long fingers, and her pen, behind his head. "That's what makes it so much fun."
Ali grabbed at her pen, making sure to mess up his neatly styled dark hair. He raised his hand over his head and back out of reach, his expression daring her to come closer.
He chucked the pen onto the table.
"I hear a bunch of you are going out tonight to celebrate my departure," he said, making no mention of the fact he hadn't been invited.
She shrugged, tamping down the other, less joyful, reason for the night out. "It's as good as any other excuse for the girls to get together. And it's easier and less fuss than burning you in effigy."
He moved forward, rested his elbows on the table and leaned in close. "Was that supposed to hurt my feelings, Kitten?" His voice, soft and deep, vibrated through her.
Four hours into a busy twelvehour night shift, and he had the nerve to still smell fresh from the shower. A picture of him naked, water sluicing down his tall, firm body, slick with suds, forced its way into her mind. It took immense selfcontrol not to pound her fists against her head to get rid of it.
"What's going on in that pretty little head, I wonder?" he teased, staring at her face as if trying to see behind what she hoped was a disinterested expression.
Heaven help her if he could. For months she'd fought this attraction. First she couldn't act on it. Now she wouldn't.
Distance was the only thing that worked so she gathered her charts and stood.
Jared rose to stand directly in front of her, so close she noticed a tiny freckle on the skin exposed by the Vneck of his scrub top, a minuscule droplet of chocolate she wanted to lick clean. He smelled so good, his scent an intoxicant that impaired rational thought.
She stared straight ahead at his clavicle, wouldn't meet his eyes for fear the way he affected her would show. "Please, move."
"I think you don't want me to move, you like me right here."
"Now you can read minds?" She took a step back. Distance. What she wanted was distance between them. Preferably a continent, but the opposite side of New York State, the site of his next temporary assignment, would have to do.
"Yes, I can." He tilted his face in front of hers. "And you are thinking some very naughty thoughts, Nurse Forshay."
"Only if you consider me beating you with the bell of my stethoscope naughty. Now get out of my way." She pushed his arm. "I've got to get back to work, and so do you."
He turned serious for a change. "Are you ever going to forgive me? "
"To forgive you I would have to care about you." She looked up and locked eyes with him. "And I don't. Not one bit."
"You could if you'd try."
It was the same old argument. "Why on earth would I want to? From day one of your assignment here, an assignment that your friend, my boyfriend, recommended you for, might I add, you've been hellbent on coming between us."
"Not at first." Jared held up his index finger. "Not until I realized neither one of you were happy."
More like until he'd decided she wasn't good enough for his friend. "I was happy." Maybe comfortable was a better word. "And so was Michael. Our relationship was just fine until you showed up." Wasn't it? She'd worked so hard to be the type of woman she thought Michael wanted.
"You didn't love him," Jared pointed out.
No, she hadn't. But Dr. Michael Shefford had been perfect for her. Stable. Dependable. Predictable. And in his quiet, unassuming way, he'd treated her well. Maybe she could have fallen in love with him if she'd had more time. Right, Ali, she chided herself. A year wasn't long enough?
"How I felt about Michael is irrelevant." She slammed her files onto the table and turned from him. "You took him out, got him drunk and sent him home with Wanda from Pediatrics. You knew she had a thing for him."
"I didn't force him into the car, Ali. I didn't strip off his clothes and push him into her bed, either."
Heck, there was a visual she could have done without.
"And you most certainly didn't try to stop him. What kind of friend are you?"
Not hers, that's for sure. She could have had a nice, stable life with Michael, who, until Jared had come to town, never stayed up past eleven unless he was working, never went out drinking with the boys and never showed an interest in any woman but her. She'd have done her best to make him happy, to have the quiet, anonymous life she'd dreamed of since childhood.
"Over the past month we have beat this to death." With an uncharacteristic disregard for his appearance, Jared ran his fingers through his hair. "If I thought Michael was making a terrible mistake, by all means I would have stopped him. But he and Wanda are good together."
A point Michael had made four weeks ago, during what was supposed to be his apology for cheating. The one thing Ali would not forgive. Usually sedate, Michael hadn't been able to tamp down his newromance exuberance as he'd extolled all the attributes that made Wanda perfect for him, inadvertently identifying all the areas he'd found Ali lacking. No breakup remorse there.
"They're happy together," Jared said.
Yeah. The only one not happy was her.
"Michael was a great study partner in medical school," Jared went on. "He's a good friend. But he's the most boring person I have ever met. He's plain old vanilla ice cream, and you're chocolate fudge ripple with rainbow sprinkles. He's highfiber cereal and skim milk for breakfast. You're blueberry pancakes with warm maple syrup. You lost your spark when he came around. He's so dull, he tarnished your shine. Are you so desperate to get married you'd settle for a lackluster, routine, boring life?"
"I am not desperate to get married." Holy cow. She'd actually stomped her foot. Well, she wasn't desperate. Really. But after all her unstable mother had put her through, bringing a lineup of losers into their home, dozens and dozens of destinedforfailure relationships, newromance euphoria followed by bitter breakup histrionics that enticed nosy neighbors out to gawk and brought the police around several times a year; a stable life, free from drama, with one trustworthy, committed man, held great appeal. "And my life is none of your concern."
"Over time he would have made you miserable. In return you would have made his life a living hell. I've seen it happen. Hell, I've lived it."
"The only one around here who's making me miserable is you, Dr. Padget."
"You need a real man, Ali. Someone as passionate as you are, not Mr. missionary position, lights off, once a week on Wednesday night Shefford."
Ali gasped, couldn't believe Michael had shared that with his friend.
"Let me show you what it's like to be with a real man," he said with the cocky confidence that made him so appealing. He lowered his voice, adding, "And you will never again settle for mediocre."
God help her, she wanted to take him up on his offer. Every cell in her nervous system tingled with frenetic energy at the thought of spending the night in his strong arms, allowing his experienced fingers full rein over her body. Damn him! She refused to belittle herself for one night of pleasure, to allow him to assuage his lust with her, when any woman would do. "That heybabyIwanttofillyourcannoliwithmycream personality get you a lot of dates?"
Ali plowed on. "If you ruined my relationship with Michael so you could have a crack at me, you've wasted your time. Because as wrong as you think Michael was for me, no man is more wrong for me than you." A man like her philandering father. A flirt. A schmooze. A wooawomanintobedusinganymeansnecessary man.
The door to the lounge opened, ending their private conversation. Tani, the E.R.'s unit secretary, popped her head in, her jetblack hair an interesting configuration of twirls and curls, in staunch contrast to her pale complexion. "Ambulance on the way. Fortysevenyearold male, three hundred plus pounds, full cardiac arrest, CPR in progress, paramedics unable to intubate. ETAfour minutes."
Jared transformed back into a dedicated professional in an instant. "Clear"
"I'll clear out Trauma Room One," Ali finished for him.
"ET tubes, assorted sizes on the tray by the head of Bed One, two pediatric, just in case, IV primed and the crash cart open and ready."
"Respiratory Therapy and Radiology to let them know what's coming." Ali scooped up her charts and headed for the door. "I'm on it." Their differences aside, they made a great team at work.
Forty minutes later, Jared stood on the stoop in front of the E.R., arms crossed over his ribs, staring out into the dark parking lot, down the treelined hill to the distant lights on Main Street. The crisp November air cleared his head, the quiet calmed him. Slowly, his tension began to ease.
"You were supposed to save him!" an irate male teenager yelled, disrupting Jared's solitude. "It's your job to save people!"
Jared turned to his left. The fifteenyearold son of the man he'd pronounced dead five minutes earlier stomped toward him. Baggy pants, long hair and pierced eyebrow aside, the kid looked ready to commit murder.
Jared pushed off the pillar he'd been leaning against, thankful the blame game would be played outside rather than in the crowded E.R. corridor. Through the electronic glass doors he saw Ali with the boy's distraught mother under one arm and his hysterical little sister under the other, trying to calm them.
"I'm sorry," Jared said.
"You're sorry?" the boy screamed, his voice cracking, tears streaming down his enraged face. "What good does that do me? My dad is dead because you
" he stopped in front of Jared and poked him in the chest with his index finger "
didn't do your job."
Jared took a deep breath, channeling calm, understanding it was easier to blame the doctor, knowing that pointing out the obvioushis patient had been at least one hundred and fifty pounds overweight, smoked two packs of cigarettes per day and led a sedentary lifestylewouldn't negate the fact that a fortysevenyearold husband and father was dead.
And, despite his best efforts, Jared had been unable to resuscitate him.
"Sometimes," Jared said, looking down into watery brown eyes, working hard to keep his voice calm so his own anger and frustration didn't show, "no matter how hard we try, things don't turn out the way we want them to." Put those words to a nifty jingle, and they could be the theme song to Jared's life. "I did everything within my power to save your dad."
As if someone had stuck him with a pin, the tough teen deflated against him. "I don't want him to be dead. What am I going to do without him?"
Jared grabbed the boy in a tight hug, holding him upright, which took a good amount of strength. "I've been where you are," Jared said, agonizing over what the kid would go through in the next few days, weeks and months. "You're going to get through this." But it wouldn't be easy, and he'd never forget this day.
"He yelled at me to turn off my music," the boy said in between sobs. "I didn't listen. If only I had, maybe I would have heard him call for me. Maybe he'd be alive right now."
Jared remembered the "if only" scenarios that had run through his head when, at the same age, he'd been alone to deal with his own father's heart attack. If only his mom hadn't gone to the store to buy antacids, leaving him in charge of his sick father. If only he hadn't listened when his dad had told him not to dial 911, the delay the reason the ambulance had arrived too late to save him. If only he'd taken the CPR elective offered the first quarter of his sophomore year of high school. If only he'd run next door to see if Mrs. Alvarez, a nurse, was home, instead of staying by his dad's side, holding his hand, watching him take his last breath.
"Your dad was not a healthy man," Jared said, patting the boy's back. "He suffered a massive heart attack. There's nothing you or I or anyone could have done to save him."
"What do I do now?" the boy asked in a small voice.
Jared placed both hands on the kid's shoulders and took a step back so he could look him in the eye. "You go back into the E.R. You pick up your little sister and reassure her you're still here, and you'll look after her just as well as your dad would have. You kiss your mom on the cheek and tell her you love her, and you're there for her, and you'll do whatever you can to help her." Jared shook the kid to make sure he had his full attention. "Don't just say the words. Mean them. Live them. And no matter what happens, do not let your mother push you away." If only Jared hadn't, maybe things wouldn't have fallen apart.
Maybe he'd have been able to honor his father's final plea: "Take care of your mother."
"There you are." Ali walked over to them. He hadn't heard the electronic doors open. How long had she been standing there? How much had she heard? "Are you Jimmy?" she asked the boy, who nodded. "Your mother's looking for you."
Jimmy turned away from Ali, inhaled a shaky breath and wiped his eyes.
"I'm so sorry about your dad," Ali said, placing a caring hand on Jimmy's shoulder.
"Me, too," he replied, and, with a composed look that earned Jared's respect he took a deep breath, straightened his spine and walked into the E.R.
Jared turned back to the parking lot, needing a few minutes to regain his own composure, remembering the ride home from the hospital, his mother's anger, her harsh accusations and the years of being treated as if he didn't exist that followed.
To quell the painful memories trying to escape the remote part of his brain where he'd locked them, Jared contemplated his favorite topic of recent weeks. Nurse Ali Forshay.
He remembered their first interaction, before he had known she was his friend's girl, in the close confines of the clean utility room. He'd brushed against her, reaching for a roll of tape, and they'd both gone still, shared a stunned didyoufeelwhatIjustfelt look. More than a tingle, he'd been jolted by an awareness, a powerful attraction that'd had him on the verge of taking her into his arms and kissing her, a women whose name he hadn't even known.
His type of woman? If he allowed himself to have a type, she'd be it.
Pretty. Smart. Funny.