That was quite reasonable, but he was furious about Brad's intimacy with her and even more furious that it should bother him.
"I'll expect my patient's chart to be kept up-to-date constantly. If there's any change in her condition, I want to be notified. I don't care if it's three in the morning."
"Yes, sir." She clutched the chart against her breasts. "She has an arrythmia."
"She waited almost too long for the surgery," he replied. "It was touch and go in the operating room, and it still is. Watch her carefully."
"I will." It was making her nervous to know how crucial timing was to a valve surgery. What if she waited too long? She was younger than Mrs. Charles, but she had an arrythmia of her own...
Ramon noticed the flutter of her flowered cotton jacket, a touch of color that nurses favored over strictly white pants and jacket. He frowned. "Are you all right?" he asked. "Your heartbeat is...odd."
It was even odder, thanks to the observation. Her breath was coming too fast. "It's standing so close to you, sir," she whispered, her voice dramatic but so low that nobody else could hear. She opened her eyes very wide. "It's so exciting...!" she said in a theatrical tone.
He muttered something in Spanish that she was glad she couldn't translate, then turned and stalked away down the corridor. She sighed with relief. Well, she'd survived that unexpected bout of curiosity. She wondered why he noticed her heartbeat in the first place. Surely it would suit him if it stopped altogether...
The stress of her deteriorating condition and the pressure of work knocked Noreen flat two days later. She couldn't even lift her head, much less go to work. She called in sick, attributing her illness to a bout of flu, and she promised rashly to be back in two days. That would carry her through her day off, which would be the next day, and give her a little time to get past the weakness. She only hoped that it was overwork and not the valve getting worse;
Brad stopped by after work to bring her some soup and a sandwich from the local deli. She was so weak that she could barely walk to the door, and out of breath when she got back to her bed with Brad a step behind.
"This won't do," he said darkly. "You're going to kill yourself if you don't give in and have the surgery."
"I need...three more weeks to...add to my savings," she explained, white with the exertion and breathlessness. "Then I can pay my rent while...I recuperate."
"You stubborn little idiot," he muttered. "Why doesn't your family realize there's something wrong with you?"
"They never see me. They're only my aunt and uncle. My parents died years ago in an automobile crash."
"They raised you. Don't they care at all?"
"I think they did a little, before Isadora died," she added sadly. ' T wish I could change the past. I wish so much that I could. But it's all over."
"Poor little scrap," he said heavily. He patted her hand. "Can you eat something? I brought soup and a sandwich."
"Thank you," she said. "I'll have it tonight, but I don't think I could keep anything down just now."
"Let me call the surgeon."
She shook her head. "Not yet. I'll be better in the morning. I know I will. And I don't have to go back in for two days. Surely, in that length of time..."
"At least stay in bed," Brad pleaded. "Don't exert."
He stayed for a few minutes longer, then he had to go back on duty. She felt more alone than ever when he'd closed and locked the door behind him.
She didn't have the soup. She slept the clock around. And although she did feel better that afternoon, much more able to get around, she was far from recovered. Time was running out.
* * *
It was pouring rain the morning she went back to work. On her way out the door, she heard a pitiful mewing sound, and looked down to find a tiny kitten under one of the hedges that flanked the walkway. It was cold and shivering, and its ribs showed right through the skin.
"Oh, you poor little thing," she cooed, bending to lift it. It purred and purred, rubbing its head against her chin. She looked at it with a rueful smile. The apartment house didn't allow pets. But surely one little kitten...
She stuck it under her coat and went back up the stairs to her apartment, panting for breath when she reached the landing. She put the kitten in the efficiency kitchen with some milk and a Uttle leftover meat loaf. She put a box-top lid down with a newspaper to line it and shut the kitten in the room, hoping for the best. If she got kicked out, perhaps she could find an apartment somewhere else, but she couldn't leave the kitten out in the freezing cold rain.
It would be company, she thought, and a warm glow rose in her chest as she got into her small car and tried to start it. The engine had been acting up, but she couldn't afford a tune-up. She was going to have to make do until after her surgery. But the car refused to start.
She had to sit down and rest enough to catch her breath before she went to wait for the bus. It came, and she got to work.
It was the longest day she could ever remember. She'd told her co-workers that she'd been out with flu, but now two of the nurses on her ward really were out with flu. The nursing staff was shorthanded and as a result, Noreen had to work double shift. The added hours couldn't have come at a worse time.
"This is ridiculous," Brad muttered, watching her prop her back against a wall in the coffee room to catch her breath. "You'll collapse at this rate."
"I have to work," she told him, her eyes as weary as her body. "There wasn't anyone else to call, and I have had two days off, you know."
He studied her wan complexion. "You look worse now than you did at the apartment."
"Thanks. You're gorgeous, too."
He chuckled. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Don't you have something to do?" she murmured.
"A question I was about to ask," came a deep voice from the doorway.
They both turned, to find Ramon Cortero glaring at them with a clipboard chart in his hand. "Do either of you work here? I want to know why my patient hasn't had his 5:00 p.m. dose of blood thinner." He waved the chart at her.
Noreen blinked at him. Her mind was as tired as her body. She blinked. "Which patient?''
"Mr. Hayes," he replied tersely. "It's 8:00 p.m."
"I've been slow," she said miserably. "I'm sorry." She moved away from the wall. "I'll make sure he gets it at once."
"And I'll check the charts of my other three patients while I'm doing rounds," he said angrily. "Just to make certain there were no other...lapses." He followed her, glaring toward Brad.
"It wasn't Brad's fault," she began.
"Oh, I'm aware of that," he replied, his eyes flashing. "Like most men, he's vulnerable to overt flirting."
She closed her teeth together with a snap. "I don't flirt."
"Call it what you like. I'll wait while you get Mr. Hayes's medicine."
She fetched it, still grinding her teeth. He was right, she'd been slow and it could have serious repercussions. If she hadn't been pulling a double shift after two days in bed, it never would have happened.
She gave Mr. Hayes his dose and double-checked all the other files. The vital signs were all neatly charted, but she'd forgotten to measure the urine volume on Mrs. Green. She could have groaned aloud, for all the good it would have done her.
"I won't report this," Ramon told her when he'd finished his rounds. "But make one more mistake, and I'll go straight to the administrator. I won't have my patients put at risk by a nurse's incompetence."
"I'm not incompetent," she began.
"Play with Donaldson on your own time," he added curtly.
He didn't pause to listen to any more excuses. He stalked off the ward, his lean body rippling with bad temper.
Noreen had to bite back tears. He seemed to hate her more every day she lived. Nothing was going to change his mind about her; she knew that now.
Brad came out of a patient's room, having started the patient on the breathing machine for his inhalant medication.
He glanced around. "Has he gone?" he asked hopefully.
She nodded. She pushed back her hair and shook her head. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I fouled up really good. Someone could have died."
"Not from having one dose of medicine a little late," he said, comforting her. "I should have paid more attention. I'm supposed to be your backup." He put an affectionate arm around her. "Chin up, girl. You'll get through this."