He spent six days in the Bahamas, alone, enjoying the solitude of the remote island where he had a room in a bed-and-breakfast inn. He'd walked along the beach and remembered painfully the happy days he'd spent here with Isadora on their honeymoon. He still missed her, despite their turbulent relationship.
He noticed gray hairs now and felt his age as never before. He should remarry; he should have a son. Isadora hadn't wanted children and he hadn't pressed her about it. There had been plenty of time. Or so he thought.
The sunset was particularly vivid, as if it were a canvas worked by a madman in fiery colors with black highlights, slicing down to the horizon like a bloody knife. He sighed as he stared at it and listened to the sweet watery whisper of the surf near his bare feet. How poignant, to hold such sights in the heart and have no one to share them with. He was alone. How he longed for a loving wife and plenty of children playing around him on the beach. Perhaps it was time he started thinking of the future instead of the past. Two years was surely long enough to mourn.
He went back to work with a vengeance, taking on a bigger workload than ever before as time passed. He was operating on a private patient at O'Keefe City
Hospital, across the street from St. Mary's. It was just after a particularly rough operation that he was called to the cardiac care ward to check a patient the night nurse wasn't too happy about. He had three patients in this hospital, in addition to patients at St. Mary's and Emory.
He wasn't happy when he discovered who the night nurse was. Noreen, in her usual white slacks and colorful long jacket, with a stethoscope around her neck, her hair in a bun, gave him a cool look as he paused at the circular nurses' station.
"I didn't think this was the night you worked at O'Keefe," he said shortly, still in his surgical greens.
"I work whenever I have to, and what are you doing at O'Keefe?" she asked.
"I had a patient who requested that his surgery be performed here. I'm on staff at three hospitals. This is one of them," he replied, equally coldly.
"I remember," she said. Her hands went into the pockets of her patterned jacket. "Your Mr. Harris is throwing up. He can't keep his medicine down."
"Where's his chart?"
She went to the doorway of the patient's room and produced it from the wire basket on the wall, handing it to him.
He scowled. "This nausea started on the last shift. Why wasn't something done about it then?" he demanded.
"Some of the nurses are working twelve hour shifts," she reminded him. "And there were four new cases added to the ward this afternoon, all critical."
"That's no excuse."
"Yes, sir," she said automatically, handing him a pen. "Could you do something about it now?"
He scribbled new orders, and then went in to check the man, who was pale from his ordeal.
He came out scowling. "The catheter was taken out last night and put back in this morning. Why?" "He didn't void for eight hours. It's standard procedure..." He stared her down. "He's been throwing up and not drinking very many fluids. The longer that catheter stays in, the more risk there is of infection. I want it taken out and left out until and if he complains of discomfort. Is that clear?" "Yes, sir," she said.
"Who had the catheter taken out?" he asked abruptly.
She only smiled at him. Never mind," he said heavily, knowing that tor-cure wouldn't drag a name out of her. His eyes went over her oval face. Her cheeks were red but the rest of her face was pale and rather puffy. He scowled. He'd never noticed that before. It was the sort of look he often found in heart patients.
She put the chart back up. "The technicians are run off their feet on this shift. I wish we had someone ing with him who could give him cracked ice. That would stay down."
"Hasn't he any family?" he asked, touched by her concern.
"A son, in Utah," she replied. "He's on his way here, but he won't arrive until tomorrow." "Tough." "Very."
He glanced toward one of the patient's wives who was trotting down the hall with a foam cup and a plastic pitcher. "Where's she going?" he asked.
Noreen actually smiled, her eyes lighting up. ' "The Jamaican technician, Mrs. Hawk, told her where the ice machine and the coffee machine were. She's been saving everyone steps ever since. She even gets towels and washcloths and blankets when she needs them, instead of asking anyone."
"This is unusual?"
"Well, there are three other women who come to the door and ask us to give their husbands water when they're thirsty - about every five minutes, after they're brought in here after surgery."
"Nurses used to do those things," he reminded her.
"Nurses used to have more time, fewer patients, less paperwork and not as many lawsuits to worry about," she returned, and sighed.
He searched her face and the frown came back. "Do you feel all right?" he asked with evident reluctance.
Her face closed up. "I'm a little tired, like everyone else on this shift. Thank you for seeing about Mr. Harris, sir."
He shrugged. "Let me know if he has any further bouts of nausea."
"Yes, sir." She was polite, but cool, remote.
His dark eyes narrowed as they met her gray ones. "You don't like me at all, do you?'' he asked bluntly, as if he'd only just realized it.
She laughed without humor. "Isn't that my line?"
She turned without meeting his gaze and went back to work, apparently dismissing him from her mind.
He left the ward, but something was nagging at the back of his mind, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. He was uneasy, and he didn't know why.
Vacations, he thought, were supposed to relax people. His seemed to have had an opposite effect.
Behind him, Noreen was trying to calm her rene-gade heartbeat, forcing herself not to look after the tall, dark man to whom she'd secretly given her heart so long ago. He'd never known, and he never would. Isadora had brought the tall man home and Noreen's heart had broken in two. Not for her, the dark warm eyes, the sensuous smiles. Isadora, the pretty one, the flirting one, married the man Noreen would have died just to kiss. She'd kept her painful secret for six long years, through the four years of Ramon's marriage, through the past two searing years of accusation and persecution. Her heart should have worn out by now, but it kept beating, despite its imperfection that grew worse daily.
The time would come when she might not have time to get to a doctor. Not that it mattered. Her life was one of sacrifice and duty. There had been no love in it since the death of her parents. She'd felt lost going to the big, lonely house that accepted her only reluctantly. She'd been Isadora's private servant, her aunt's social secretary, her uncle's go-for. She'd been alone and lonely most of her adult life, hopelessly in love with her cousin's husband and too proud to ever let it show.
He hated her now, blamed her for something that wasn't really her fault. Even in death, he still belonged to beautiful Isadora. Noreen turned her mind back to her chores, shutting him out, shutting out the past and the pain. She accepted her lot, as she always had, and went about her work.
Noreen went home to her lonely apartment and wished, not for the first time, that she had a cat or a dog or something to keep her company. But the apartment house had strict rules about pets. None were allowed, period. It was a lovely old Southern home, two story, with antiquated plumbing and peeling paint on the walls. But its four residents considered it home, and it boasted a small garage maintained just behind it for the residents who drove.
Fortunately Noreen and a medical student seemed to be the only people in residence who owned cars. There was a Marta bus stop on the corner, and here in midtown, everything was accessible. Noreen, however, liked the freedom her car gave her. It was small and old, but it managed to keep going, thanks to the mechanic down the block who charged only a tiny fee to tinker with it when necessary. While she made
a good salary at the hospital, Noreen still had to cut corners to make ends meet.
She'd never lacked for material things when she lived with her aunt and uncle and Isadora, but her life had been emotionally empty. Here, with her few possessions around her, she was at least independent. And if she lacked for love and companionship, that was nothing new. She wondered occasionally if her aunt had minded having to hire a housekeeper and social secretary after Noreen's expulsion from the family home. She'd never had to pay her niece for these services. It would never have occurred to her.
Ramon had moved to a new apartment, she recalled, after Isadora's tragic death. He hadn't been able to face going home to the scene of his beloved wife's last hours, for which he still blamed Noreen. She'd tried and tried to make him listen to the truth, just after it happened. But, maddened with grief and pain, he'd refused to let her speak. Perhaps he preferred the heartless image he'd endowed her with since their first meeting. God knew, he'd never really looked at her anyway.