He dropped her arm and stalked off the ward, leav- , ing her shaken and white with shock. He really hated her. That was when the mask had come down and she'd seen it in his eyes, in his face. She didn't know why he hated her. Perhaps because Isadora had said something to him...
She'd gone to their apartment that night, confident that Ramon had already left, to find the maid hysterical and Isadora sitting out on the balcony in a filmy nightgown, in the icy cold February rain.
She'd been out there, the poor maid cried, ever since her husband had left the apartment. She didn't know what had been said between them, but she'd heard the voices, loud and unsettling, in their bedroom. There had been a furious argument, and just after the doctor had gone, the madam had taken off her robe and gone to sit in the rain. Nothing would induce her to come inside. She was coughing furiously already and she had a high fever that she'd forbidden the maid to tell the doctor about.
Noreen had gone at once to the balcony and with the maid's help, had dragged Isadora back inside.
They'd changed her clothing, but the effort had made Noreen's heart, always frail, beat erratically.
While she was catching her breath, the maid announced that her husband had already phoned twice and was furious. She had to leave.
Noreen was reluctant to let her go, feeling sick already, but the poor girl was in tears. She gave permission for her to leave, and then went to listen to Isadora's chest.
Her cousin was breathing strangely. She wasn't conscious, and her fever was furiously high.
She had to get an ambulance, she decided, and went to phone for one. But when she lifted the receiver, there was a strange sound and no dial tone.
Furious, she started out into the hall to ask a neighbor to phone for her. Suddenly everything went pitch-black.
She was really frightened now, and her heart was acting crazily.
She moved down the hall, feeling for the elevators, but they weren't working. There was the staircase. They were only four flights up. It wouldn't be too far. She had a terrible feeling that Isadora's lung had collapsed. She could die...
Making a terrific effort, she pushed into the stairwell and started down and down, holding on to the rail for support as her breathing began to change and her heartbeat hurt.
She never really remembered afterward what happened, except that she suddenly lost her footing, and consciousness, at the same time.
She came to in the hospital, trying to explain to a white-coated stranger that she must get back to her
cousin. But the man only patted her arm and gave her an injection.
It was the next day before she was able to get out of the hospital and go back to Ramon's apartment. But by that time, the maid had found Isadora dead, and worst of all, Ramon had come home before she was moved.
Noreen had arrived at the door just as the ambulance attendants came out with Isadora's body. Ramon had seen Noreen and lapsed into gutter Spanish that questioned everything from Noreen's parentage to her immediate future, eloquently.
"Oh, please, let me explain!" she'd pleaded, in tears as she realized what must have happened to Isadora, poor Isadora, all alone and desperately ill. "Please, it wasn't my fault! Let me tell you...!"
"Get out of my apartment!" Ramon had raged, in English now that he'd exhausted himself of insults. "I'll hate you until I die for this, Noreen. I'll never forgive you as long as I live! You let her die!"
She'd stood there, numb with shock and weakness, as he strode out behind the ambulance, his face white and drawn.
Later, at the funeral home, Noreen had tried to talk to her aunt and uncle, but her aunt had slapped her and her uncle had refused to even look at her. Ramon had demanded that she be removed from the premises and not allowed to return.
She hadn't been allowed at the service, either. She was an outcast from that moment until just recently, when inexplicably, her aunt and uncle had invited her for coffee just before her uncle's birthday. Ramon's attitude had been one of unyielding hatred.
Her feelings of guilt were only magnified by the attitude of Isadora's husband and parents. Eventually she realized that nothing was going to excuse her part in what had happened, and she'd accepted her guilt as if she deserved it. Her work had become her life. She never asked for anything from her relatives again. Not even for forgiveness.
It had been a long morning and Ramon was worn to the bone. He'd already done one meticulous bypass operation and a valve was scheduled first thing after lunch. It should have been his day off, but he was covering at O'Keefe for one of the other surgeons who was sick with a bad case of the flu.
He carried his tray into the cafeteria dining room and looked around the crowded area, hoping for an empty table, but there wasn't one. The only empty spot he glimpsed was at a table occupied by Noreen. He glared at her over his salad plate and coffee.
Noreen dropped her eyes back to her plate, furious with herself for flushing when he looked at her. He'd take his salad out to the small canteen adjoining the cafeteria and sit on the floor before he'd join her, and she knew it. If only she could outrun her own hated feelings for the horrible man. If only it didn't matter what he thought of her.
She almost dropped her fork when, without asking, he put his coffee and plate down on the table across from her, pulled out a chair and sat down.
He saw her surprise and was almost amused by it. He spread his napkin in his lap, took the plastic lid from his salad plate and picked up his own fork.
"Would sitting on the floor have been too obvious?" she asked in a faintly dry tone.
His dark gaze pinned hers for an instant before he bent his head toward a forkful of tuna salad.
"You do that so well," she remarked.
"Do what?" he asked.
She finished a mouthful of fruit and sat back in her chair. "Snub me," she said. "I suppose I irritated you from the day we met, just by being alive."
"Don't talk nonsense," he murmured deeply, and sipped his coffee. He glanced at the clock. "I thought you went to lunch at half-past noon."
She crossed her long legs in their white knit slacks. "I usually do. But you weren't supposed to be operating at O'Keefe today," she explained.
His black eyes twinkled a little. "You avoid me, then?"
"Of course I avoid you," she replied tersely. "That's what you want me to do. You don't even have to say it." She stared into her black coffee, idly noting that he took his coffee black, too.
His gaze ran over her averted profile. She wasn't pretty, as Isadora had been. But she was slender and had a nice shape, even though her features were ordinary. Her hair was neither blond nor light brown, but somewhere in between. Her eyes were more gray
than blue. She never wore makeup. In fact, she seemed not to care how she looked, although she was always clean and neat in appearance. She might be quite attractive with the right hairstyle and clothes. His eyes narrowed on the thick bun at her nape. He'd never seen her with her hair down. He'd wondered for a long time what it would look like, loosened.
She caught his speculative glance and her cheeks colored. ''I feel like a moth on a pin," she murmured. "Could you stop staring at me? I know you think I'm the nearest thing to an ax-murderess, but you don't have to make it so obvious in public, do you?" He scowled. "I haven't said a word." She laughed, but it had a hollow sound. Her gray eyes were full of disillusionment and loneliness. "No," she agreed. "You never have. You may be Latin, but you don't act it anymore. You never explode in rage, or throw things, or curse at the top of your lungs. You can get further with a look than most doctors can with arm-waving fury. You don't have to say anything. Your eyes say it for you."
His dark eyes narrowed. "And what are they telling you?"
' "That you blame me for Isadora," she said quietly. "That you hate me. That you wake up every morning wishing it had been me instead of her in that casket."
His jaw clenched, to keep the words back. His eyes glittered, just the same.
"You might not believe it," she added heavily, "but there are times when I wish I could have taken her place. None of you seemed to realize that I loved her, too. I grew up with Isadora. She could be cruel, but she could be kind when she liked. I miss her."
He tried unsuccessfully to bite back the cold words.
"What an odd way you had of showing your concern," he muttered curtly. "Leaving her alone in an apartment to die." The minute the words were out, he regretted them deeply, but it was already too late. Noreen's eyes closed. She felt faint, as she did so often these days. Her breath came in short little shallow breaths. She clenched her hands in her lap and fought to stay calm, so that she wouldn't betray herself. Ramon was an excellent surgeon. She wouldn't be able to hide her condition if he looked too closely. He might say something to administration...