She lifted her head seconds later, pale but more stable. "I have to go," she said, and slowly, carefully, got out of her chair, holding on to it for support. "Have you had any sleep?" he asked suddenly. "You mean, does my guilty conscience keep me awake?" she said for him, smiling coolly. "Yes, if you want to know, it does. I would have saved Isadora if I'd been able to."
She was fine-drawn, as if she didn't eat or sleep. "You never told me exactly what happened,'' he said. The statement surprised her. "I tried to," she reminded him. "I tried to tell all of you. But nobody wanted my side of the story."
"Maybe I want it now," he replied. "Two years too late," she told him. She picked up her tray. "I would gladly have told you then. But I won't bother now. It doesn't matter anymore." Her eyes were empty of all feeling as her gaze met his, betraying nothing of the turmoil he kindled inside her. "It doesn't matter at all what any of you think of me."
She turned away and went slowly to the automatic
tray return to deposit her dishes. She didn't look back as she went out the door toward the staff elevators.
Ramon's dark eyes followed her with bitter regret. He couldn't seem to stop hurting her. It was the last thing she needed. She moved more slowly these days. She didn't seem to have an interest in anything beyond her work. The hospital grapevine was fairly dependable about romances and breakups, but he'd never heard Noreen's name coupled with that of any of the hospital staff. She didn't date. Even when she was living at home with Isadora's family, she was forever walking around with her nose stuck in a medical book, studying for tests and final exams. She'd graduated nurses' training with highest honors, he recalled, and no wonder.
He sipped his coffee, remembering his first glimpse of her. He'd met Isadora at a charity dinner, and they'd had an instant rapport. Isadora's date had been appropriated by his boss for a late sales meeting, and Ramon had offered to drive the beautiful blonde home. She'd accepted at once.
She lived in a huge Georgian mansion on the outskirts of Atlanta, in a fashionable neighborhood. Her parents had been in the living room watching the late news when she'd introduced Ramon to them. They were standoffish at first, until Isadora told them what he did for a living and how famous he was becoming.
Noreen had been at home. She was curled up in a big armchair by the fireplace with an anatomy book in her hands, a pair of big-rimmed reading glasses perched on her nose. He remembered even now the look in her eyes when he and Isadora had approached her. Those soft gray eyes had kindled with a kind of eentle fire, huge and luminous and full of warm se-
crets. He'd made an instant impression on her; he saw it in her radiant face, felt it in the slight tremor of her small hand when they were introduced. But he had eyes only for Isadora, and it was apparent. Noreen had withdrawn with an odd little smile.
And in the weeks that followed, while he courted Isadora, Noreen was conspicuous by her absence. She hadn't been invited to be part of the wedding. Later, it shamed him to remember how insulting Isadora had been about her cousin. She hadn't wanted to include Noreen among her entourage. Isadora had been viciously jealous of her cousin. She seemed to delight in looking for ways to put Noreen down, to make her feel unwelcome or inferior.
Isadora had been beautiful, socially acceptable, poised and talented. But she was empty inside, as Noreen wasn't. That jealousy had led to a bitter argument before Ramon's trip to Paris just before Isadora's death. He closed his eyes and shuddered inside, remembering what had been said. He'd blamed Noreen for everything, even for that, when the blame was equally his.
The movement of people at the next table brought him back from his musings. He glanced at his watch and hurriedly finished his lunch. It was time to go back to work.
Noreen was anxious to get back to her apartment after she finished her day's work. She was feeling weaker by the minute, breathless and faintly nauseous, and her heartbeat was so irregular that it bothered her.
She got into bed and laid down. She was asleep before she realized it, too tired to even bother with so much as a bowl of cereal for supper.
But by morning, she felt better and her pulse seemed less erratic. She had to continue working. If she lost her job, she could lose her medical insurance, and she had to depend on it for the valve surgery she needed. It was an expensive operation, but without it she might not live a great deal longer. She knew that the damaged valve was leaking, the specialist had told her so. But she also knew that people could live a long time with a leaky valve, depending on the amount of leakage there was and the level of medical care and supervision she had. Until now, she'd had very few problems since Isadora's death.
She sipped orange juice and grimaced as she recalled how sick Isadora had been and how desperate she'd been to get help. Ramon wanted to know all about it now, and that was tragic, because she wasn't going to tell him a thing. She had no place in his life at all, nor did she want one. She'd paid too high a price for her feelings already. She wasn't going to fall back into the trap of loving him. Loneliness was safer. Sometimes Noreen wondered about the argument with Ramon that had sent her cousin out into the cold rain with pneumonia. She'd had antibiotics for the bronchitis, which she insisted that she could give herself, without Noreen's help. Later, Noreen had discovered the full bottle of antibiotic tucked between the mattress and box springs.
Isadora had been furious with Ramon for not taking her with him to France. Or at least, that was what she said. But the maid had alluded to a furious argument before he left, and that had never been mentioned again. At least, not to Noreen. Ramon had said some-
thing about Isadora punishing him for not letting her go along. There had been the mention of a lover, as well. Despite Isadora's attempt to portray her marriage as perfection itself, Noreen had known better.
Odd how Ramon tried to idolize the marriage, now that Isadora was gone.
Noreen wondered if Isadora had really meant to die, or if she'd just miscalculated about the dangers of any such drastic exposure with pneumonia, and she'd died because of it. Perhaps it hadn't occurred to her that damaged lungs could collapse and become fatal. Despite living with a surgeon for four years, she hadn't seemed to know much at all about medicine or illness.
Ramon didn't know that Isadora had deliberately exposed herself to the rain and cold. The maid, after finding Isadora's body, had collapsed in hysteria and never came back, even to get her check. Noreen hadn't seen her again. So Ramon only knew that Noreen had left Isadora alone, and Isadora had died. Neither he nor Isadora's parents would let Noreen tell her side of the story. They grieved and cursed her and even two years after the fact, they all still blamed her.
It wasn't as if they loved her, of course, or as if they cared about her own grief for her beautiful, selfish cousin. Despite their spats, Isadora and Noreen had grown up together, and they felt some sort of affection for each other. But the Kensingtons locked Noreen out of their fives. It had come as a gigantic surprise when her aunt had invited her over for coffee and cake the week of her uncle's birthday. The conversation had been stilted, and Noreen hadn't enjoyed it. She supposed that people were talking about their avoidance of Noreen and their refusal to forgive her.
She couldn't think of any other reason they'd have wanted her company. Her aunt did hate gossip.
She went to work and managed to get through her shift without much difficulty, but the amount of breathlessness she was having disturbed her.
That afternoon, she got an appointment with a colleague of her Macon surgeon, and was worked in at the end of the day.
He had tests run, and he listened to her heart. He was a tall, fair man with an easy smile and a nice disposition.
"You're a nurse," he reminded her. "Can't you tell when a heart isn't working properly?" "Yes. But I hoped it was just overwork." "It is," he said. "And that valve is leaking a little more than it was. You need to schedule the surgery, and it should be soon. I don't want to alarm you, but if that valve goes all at once, there may not even be time to get you to a hospital. Surely you know that?" She did. How could she tell him that at times she thought it might be a relief not to have to face another day of Ramon's cold antagonism and accusation?
I'm dying of unrequited love, she thought to herself and laughed out loud at the whimsical thought. / have a broken heart, in more ways than one.
"It isn't cause for levity," the doctor said firmly, misunderstanding her chuckle. "I want to talk to Dr. Myers, the surgeon, and get you scheduled for surgery." His eyes narrowed. "Your late cousin was married to Dr. Ramon Cortero. He's the very best heart surgeon around. He trained at Johns Hopkins. Why can't he do the surgery?"
"He doesn't know there's anything wrong with me, and I don't want him to know," she said flatly.
"But why not?"
"Because he hates me. He might let something slip about my condition and I could lose my job," she told him. "I can't afford to let that happen. My medical insurance is critical right now. I don't dare let them know that I'm having such terrible problems with my health."