Mary waved a hand. "Noreen and those filthy animals! She was forever bringing things home to us. I can't even remember how many trips we made to the local veterinarian."
"She was always too softhearted," Hal Kensington agreed. "She got that from my brother," he reminisced sadly. "He was softhearted, too."
Ramon's dark eyes narrowed. "Then why would such a softhearted woman deliberately leave a sick cousin to die?"
They both looked stunned.
"You hadn't thought about that, had you?" he asked them quietly. "Now ask yourselves one more question. Is Noreen, a qualified nurse, callous enough to let any human being die, much less one she cared about?"
The couple only looked back at him, without speaking. Two years after the fact, they were finally able to think rationally. Perhaps just after Isadora's death, they hadn't really thought at all.
"Have you seen her lately?'' he asked them.
"We invited her over for coffee the week before my husband's birthday," Mary admitted. "People were beginning to talk... Why?" she asked abruptly.
"I think she's ill," Ramon said. "Her color is bad, and she seems to become breathless at the least exertion. Do you know if she has a family physician?''
"She hasn't lived at home for a long time," Mary said, "so we don't know much about her private life."
"Has she ever had a complete physical?"
They both looked blank. "Well, she was always so healthy, there never seemed any need to go to the bother," Mary replied, sounding almost defensive.
He didn't question them further. But he wondered, and that prompted him to go to a friend in the insurance office at the hospital and ask if a complete physical had been required of Noreen when she was accepted by the hospital's nursing department.
"Well, yes, she was supposed to," the officer agreed, "but I don't see it here." He frowned over the computer screen. "Maybe it's somewhere else..."
"Never mind," he said, giving up. "I don't suppose there was anything there."
"If there was, the new laws wouldn't permit us to exclude her on the basis of a preexisting condition'' he was reminded.
"Yes, of course."
He thanked the man and left, silently promising himself that he was going to get to the bottom of Noreen's odd behavior and any health secrets she might be harboring.
He couldn't examine her forcibly, but he could observe her. He spent more time at O'Keefe during the next week. He could do it without attracting undue attention because he had several recovering patients there.
He managed to stand close to Noreen while they were going over Mrs. Green's chart. He could hear the breathless sound of her voice, see the flutter of her pulse against the collar of her blouse. Her pallor was evident now, along with the dark circles under her eyes and the weakness that manifested itself in her lack of animation.
But despite his noble motives, it slowly dawned on him that Noreen was excited by his proximity. He remembered the teasing statement she'd once made about his closeness being the reason for her fast heartbeat. He hadn't taken it seriously. But it seemed to be the truth. She reacted visibly to him, and not only because of whatever illness was beginning to show in her.
It disturbed him because he seemed as vulnerable as she did. He found himself noticing the elegance of her long-fingered hands, the blemishless skin on her oval face, the delicate shape of her mouth. He'd forced himself to never pay attention to her while Isadora was alive, but slowly he began to remember things about Noreen. How she'd blushed when he looked at her, even indifferently. How she avoided him when she was living with Isadora's parents. How she never seemed able to speak to him except on the job. She'd betrayed her feelings for him in a hundred ways over the years, and he'd deliberately avoided noticing.
He met her eyes, unblinking, and watched the pupils dilate. She was vulnerable and he wanted to protect her. He hadn't felt that way with Isadora. He'd wanted his wife obsessively, loved her, but she wasn't the woman she'd pretended to be while he was courting her. After they'd married they'd argued incessantly about her need for company, for parties and social gatherings. She'd refused to even discuss Ramon's hunger for a child. Isadora hadn't wanted the responsibility of children. He scowled as he remembered these things.
"You needn't glower at me," Noreen muttered, averting her gaze protectively to the chart she was holding. "I haven't been late on any more medications."
"It wasn't that," he said slowly. His eyes fell to the unsteady rhythm of her jacket, mirroring her heavy heartbeat.
She stepped a little away from him, because the contact with his tall, elegant body disturbed her so. "Were there any other charts you wanted to go over?'' she asked unsteadily.
He stuck his hands into the pockets of his lab coat and stared at her without smiling. "I want you to see your family physician and have a complete physical," he said suddenly, bringing her shocked eyes up to meet his. "You're ill and trying to hide it. But it won't work. You can't possibly go on like this."
She was all but speechless as she gaped at him. "I...I've had a checkup," she stammered, floored by his interest in her state of health.
"And...?" he prompted.
"My doctor said that I needed more B-12 in my diet and he gave me a bottle of iron pills," she lied.
He scowled. "That doesn't explain this." He touched her throat lightly, where the pulse jumped erratically.
She jerked back from him, so disturbed by his touch that she flushed red. "Dr. Cortero." She choked out his name. "I'm not obliged to share my physical condition with you. You're not my doctor!"
"No, but I am on staff here," he replied shortly. "I'm ordering you to have another checkup, and I warn you that I'm going to request a copy of the report. You're jeopardizing not only the patients in your care, but your own health by putting this off."
She wished that she had a comeback. He was much
too perceptive. She knew that it wasn't on her account that he was concerned. He didn't want anything to happen to his patients. How amusing, to let herself think for an instant that Dr. Cortero would ever look at her with the tenderness and concern he'd shown to his beloved wife.
She stared down at her white lace-up shoes. "All right," she said wearily, tired of fighting the inevitable. "You win."
"This isn't a contest," he said solemnly.
"Isn't it?" she asked, her tone weary with pain and defeat. "I'll get in touch with my doctor."
"I'm glad you're willing to see reason."
"Don't worry," she said, looking up at him. "I won't deliberately jeopardize your patients."
He scowled. "That isn't why..."
"Please excuse me," she said formally. "I have a lot to do before I can go off duty."
She took the chart and walked to the nurses' station, without looking back.
Ramon watched her go with mixed feelings. He was more confused than he'd ever been before.
Noreen didn't allow herself to watch him leave the ward. She'd spent so many years eating her heart out for him that she took his contempt for her as a matter of course. If he was concerned for her health, it was only because of his patients, and she'd better remember it. She was far too old for pipe dreams.
On the other hand, he was right about her condition. She was only delaying the inevitable. She went home and phoned her surgeon in Macon. She arranged to go into the hospital the following week for the surgery.
Noreen had a cup of black coffee for breakfast. She had to go to work, but she didn't know how she was going to make it through another day. She went to the bathroom mirror and looked at her pale, pinched face. The irregular heartbeat was much worse today. Her breath rattled when she breathed, and it was hard to get a decent breath. It was probably just as well that she'd given in on the subject of the valve replacement. She glanced down at the kitten following her and remembered that she was going to have to find someone to keep him while she was away. That would be her first priority today. She refused to think about her finances for the moment.
She leaned against the sink and lowered her head. It was hard to think straight when she could hear her own heartbeat in her ears, erratic and a little frightening.
Her surgeon had assured her that it was a fairly simple operation these days, that people had it all the time. She was in good health and a fighter, he knew she'd come through it just fine.
Of course she would, she told herself. She certainly would. In the back of her mind, she wished that she could have asked Ramon to do it. He was the very best in his field. But she didn't think he'd consent even if she asked him. He hated her far too much.