"Why are you talking to me like this?" she'd asked.
His face had softened, just a little. "Because you've known poverty," he replied, surprising her. She hadn't realized he knew anything about her. "Your parents were farmers, weren't they?"
She nodded. "They didn't get along very well with Aunt Mary and Uncle Hal," she confided. "Except for public opinion, I'd have gone to an orphanage when they were killed."
He knew what she meant. "And would an orphanage have been so much worse?"
The question had taunted her, then and now. It was as if he knew what her life had been like with the Kensingtons, her father's brother and sister-in-law, and beautiful Isadora. Ridiculous, of course, to think that he understood.
On the other hand, she wondered if Isadora had ever understood him, or how his childhood had shaped him into the adult he was now. He never refused an indigent patient, or turned his back on anyone who needed help. He was the most generous man she'd ever know.
Isadora hated that facet of his personality.
"He gives money away to people on the street, can you believe it?" Isadora had asked at Christmas the second year of her marriage. "We had an unholy row about it. They're the flotsam of the earth. You don't give money to people like that!"
Noreen didn't say a word. She frequently contributed what little she could spare to a food fund for the homeless, even volunteering during holidays to help serve it.
One day during the holidays, to her amazement, she'd found Ramon putting on an apron over his suit to join her at the serving line.
"Don't look so shocked," he'd said at her expression. "Half the staff sneaks down here at one time or another to do what they can."
She'd ladled soup at his side for an hour in the crowded confines, sick with gratitude for her own meager income and a roof over her head as the hopeless poor of the city crowded into the warmth of the hall for a hot meal. Tears had stung her eyes as a woman with two small children had smiled and thanked them for their one meal of the day.
Ramon's hand had come up into hers with a handkerchief. 'Wo jhagas!" he'd whispered in Spanish. Don't do that.
"I don't imagine you ever shed tears," she'd muttered as she wiped her eyes unobtrusively with the spotless white handkerchief that smelled of exotic spices.
He'd laughed softly. "No?"
She glanced at him curiously.
"I care about my patients," he told her quietly. "I'm not made of stone, when I lose one."
She averted her eyes to the soup and concentrated on putting it into the bowls. "Latins are passionate about everything, they say," she'd murmured without thinking.
"About everything," he'd replied in a tone that made her shiver inexplicably.
She'd tried to give him back the handkerchief, but he'd refused it at first.
His eyes had been cruel as they met hers over it. "Put it under your pillow," he'd chided. "Perhaps the dreams it inspires will make up for the emptiness in your life."
Her gasp of shock had seemed to bring him to his senses.
"I beg your pardon," he'd replied stiffly. And, taking the handkerchief back, he'd shoved it into his slacks pocket as if the sight of it angered him.
Over the years there had been other incidents. Once she'd been summoned by Isadora to drive her downtown when Ramon had refused to let her use the Jaguar.
She'd barely been admitted by the flustered maid when she heard the furious voices coming from the living room.
"I'll spend what I like!" Isadora was yelling at her husband. "God knows, I deserve a few luxuries, since I don't have a husband! You spend every waking hour at the office or in the hospital! We never have meals together! We don't even sleep together...!"
"Isadora!" Noreen had called, to alert her cousin to her appearance before the argument got any hotter.
"What's she doing here?" Noreen heard Ramon ask furiously as she walked toward the living room, hesitating for a second at the open door.
"She's driving me to the mall," Isadora had told him hatefully, "since you won't!" She glanced toward Noreen. "Well, come in, come in," she called angrily. "Don't stand out there like a shadow!"
Ramon's hot glance told her what he thought of her and her usual, off-duty attire. She was the soul of neatness on the job, in her ward, but she still dressed like a farm girl when she was off duty.
"Honestly, Norie, haven't you got any other clothes?" Isadora asked angrily.
"I don't need any others," she replied, refusing to supply her relative with the information that her salary barely covered her apartment rent and gas for the car, much less fancy clothes.
"How economical you are," Ramon purred.
Isadora had glared at him, jerking up her purse and cashmere sweater. "You should have married her!" She threw the words at him. "She can cook and clean and she dresses like a street person! She probably even likes children!"
Noreen had colored, remembering being with Ramon in the soup kitchen downtown at Christmas.
"How would you know how street people dress?'' Ramon asked his wife coolly. "You won't even look at them."
"God forbid," she shuddered. "They should round them all up and put them in jail!"
Noreen, remembering the woman and two little children who'd accepted their meal with such gratitude, felt sick to her stomach and turned away, biting her tongue to keep it silent.
"Spend what the hell you like," Ramon told his wife.
Isadora's eyebrows had risen an inch. "Such language!" she'd chided. "You never used to curse at all."
"I never used to have reason to."
Isadora made a sound in her throat and stalked out, motioning curtly to Noreen to follow her.
Just a week before Isadora died, she was taken with a mild bronchitis. Ramon had promised to accompany a fellow surgeon to Paris for an important international conference on new techniques in open-heart surgery. Isadora had pleaded to go, and Ramon had refused, reminding her that flying in a pressurized cabin on an airplane could be very dangerous for someone with even a mild lung infection.
Typically Isadora had pouted and fumed, but Ramon hadn't listened. He'd stopped by Noreen's station in the cardiac unit at O'Keefe's and asked her to stay with Isadora in their apartment and take care of her in his absence.
"She'll find a way to get even, if she can," he'd said, curiously grim. "Watch her like a hawk. Promise me you won't leave her if she takes a turn for the worse."
"I promise," she'd said.
"And get her to a hospital if there's any deterioration at all. She has damaged lungs from all that smoking she used to do, and she's very nearly asthmatic," he'd added. "Pneumonia could be fatal." "I'll look after her," she'd said again. His dark eyes had searched hers relentlessly. "You're nothing like her," he'd said quietly.
Her face had gone taut. "Thanks for reminding me. Are there any other insults you'd like to add, before you go?"
He'd looked shocked. "It wasn't meant as a insult."
"Of course not," she'd replied dryly. She'd turned back to her work. "I know you can't stand the sight of me, Ramon, but I do care about my cousin, whether you believe it or not. I'll take good care of her."
"You're an excellent nurse."
"No need to butter me up," she said wearily, having grown used to the technique over the years. "I've already said I'll stay with her."
His hand, surprisingly, had caught her arm and jerked her around. His eyes were blazing.
"I don't use flattery to get what I want," he said curtly. "Least of all with you."
"All right," she'd agreed, trying to loosen his painful grip.
He seemed not to realize how tight he was holding her arm. He even shook it, having totally lost his self-control for the first time in recent memory. "Make her understand why she can't go on the plane. She won't listen to me."
"I will. But you should be pleased that she wants your company so much."
His grip tightened. "One of the men who will be at the conference is her lover," he said with a short laugh. "That's why she's so eager to go."
Noreen's face was a study in shock.
"You didn't know?" he asked very softly. "I can't satisfy her," he added bluntly. "No matter how long I take, whatever I do. She needs more than one man
a night, and I'm worn to the bone when I get home from the hospital."
"Please," she'd whispered, embarrassed, "you shouldn't be telling me this...!"
"Why not?" he'd asked irritably. "Who else can I tell? I have no close friends, my parents are dead, I have no siblings. There isn't a human being on earth who's ever managed to get close to me, until now." He searched her face with eyes that hated it. "Damn you, Noreen," he whispered fervently. "Damn you!"