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Authors: Candace Calvert

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BOOK: Critical Care
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Claire set her purse and folders down on the coffee table, her mind
so preoccupied that she barely dodged a swipe from Smokey's
paw. She couldn't stop thinking of the strange mix that was Logan
Caldwell: skilled doctor, thick-skinned taskmaster, and former husband. A man who offered strawberry milkshakes and-Whoops,
what's that?

A paper, creased neatly into quarters, fell from between Claire's
CISM folders. She must have picked it up from the conference table
by accident. She slid the dusty vase of fake daffodils out of the way
and flattened the paper out on the table.

Logan had doodled a motorcycle and a mountaintop, all
crossed out with an exaggerated X. Beneath it was a short note,
the words underlined: Educator, you owe me an afternoon.

Claire lifted the paper, stunned for a moment. That awkward,
interrupted conversation they'd had after the debriefing-was he
trying to ask her out?

Erin Quinn searched through her Faith QD tote bag again, her
mouth dry with anxiety. The money has to be here. Somewhere.

It was in an envelope clearly labeled "Little Nugget Victim
Fund." Erin had put it in her bag last night, planning to get it
to the bank during lunch break today. She'd even reinforced the
envelope with strapping tape, so the loose change-a quarter, two
nickels, a dime, and a penny donated by Merlene Hibbert's little
granddaughter-wouldn't tear through the paper when she transported it. Yesterday alone she'd collected $607.46 in cash and a few
checks. And promises of more, come payday.

The Sierra Mercy staff was eager to help mostly because of Jamie,
the blond three-year-old they'd treated for burns in the ER. His
brave smile beneath all those bandages had stolen hearts throughout the hospital. His single mother, Carly, would need financial
help until the day care insurance was settled. If it was settled. There
were rumors the policy had lapsed, and Jamie's mother had no
insurance of her own. With her own injuries and the home care
of her son, it might be weeks before Carly could return to work.
Every penny of the donations would seem a godsend. If only Erin
could find those pennies.

She dumped the contents of the tote bag onto the nurses' lounge coffee table. Protein bars, makeup pouch, Bible study workbook, copies of her staff schedule, CISM packet, and the valentine from Brad. But no money envelope. How could that be? She
pressed her fingers against her eyes and forced herself to think,
backtrack. Please let me remember. This money is for Jamie.

Erin had counted the money last night at her apartment; she'd
put the envelope in the tote at the same time she'd laid out her
scrubs and packed her lunch. She ticked the sequence off with her
fingers. She'd driven to work, attended the Faith QD meeting, and
gone on to the emergency department, putting the tote in her
locker. Erin's breath caught, and her gaze flew to the battered metal
lockers clustered along the wall. Did I lock it?

Guilt stabbed her instantly; only ER staff used this room, and
they'd never had a problem. The nurses were like family.

Sarah entered the lounge, hoisting her Diet Coke in a mock
toast. Though fatigue cast faint shadows beneath her eyes, her
voice was hearty and teasing. "Here's to my heroic handling of
another earwax crisis. You owe me big-time." She wrinkled her
nose and watched as Erin restuffed her tote bag. "So what did you
decide about lunch? You or me first?"

Erin forced herself to breathe in, breathe out. Stop worrying.
Then she smiled warmly at Sarah. Her response held a soft chide.
"Considering that you're supposed to be off today, I'd say you
should go. What is this, nine shifts in a row for you?"

Sarah shook her head. "Seven, with yesterday's in Sacramento.
But those nights in the nursery hardly count as work. Rocking
babies. I should pay them."

Though Sarah was smiling, Erin thought she heard regret in her
voice and maybe a hint of something more. Sadness? It occurred
to her that though she'd worked side by side with Sarah for over a year, she really knew very little about her personally except for the
fact that Sarah was single and appeared to be powered exclusively
by Diet Coke. She felt a pang of guilt. Some charge nurse she was.
Maybe she should suggest getting together for coffee sometime.

"So?" Sarah asked, pointing toward the door. "You or me in the
trenches? I know you wanted to run to the bank."

Erin's stomach sank. The money. Where was it? "No hurry on
that. You take a long lunch. I'll handle the ER." She winked at
Sarah. "And Dr. McSnarly."

Sarah's laugh ricocheted off the top of her uplifted Diet Coke
can. "No worries. Logan's gone. He got the on-call doc to take the
rest of his shift."

"Really?" Erin clucked her tongue and then nodded knowingly.
"Back to Yosemite, I'll be willing to bet."

"And you'd lose. He said he was going upstairs to visit Jamie.
Then he was heading out to the 4-H rodeo."

The Cajun band, its fiddle backed up by the brush-thump of a
washboard, drew the rodeo crowd. Families with the season's first
sunburns clapped along, relaxing from the day's activities: gold
panning, mutton busting, face painting, and the win-a-goldfish
ball toss. They wore blue jeans, T-shirts, and glittery yards of Mardi
Gras beads, while devouring mustard-squiggled corn dogs.

Corn dogs ... and sheep. The chaplain's rodeo therapy. Sure.
Claire sighed and stretched her jean-clad leg across the bale of
straw she was using as a chair. The spring sun seeped through her
embroidered T-shirt, warming her. What did Chaplain Estes say
about the therapeutic value of petting a lamb and munching a
corn dog? Maybe it was true-these people were smiling. But the rest of his prescribed remedy simply wasn't going to happen. Dance
and laugh?

She rolled her eyes behind her sunglasses. There was about as
much chance of dancing and laughing as there was for Smokey the
Demon Cat to purr. The same chance that she would ... go back
to the ER. Her stomach fluttered at the crazy, recurring thought.
Go back?

Claire slid her sunglasses off and peered at the huge "Dare to
Care: Face Your Future as a Nurse" poster stapled to the front of the
recruitment booth. Its trio of scrub-suited nurses-African American, Hispanic, and Asian-looked convincingly heroic, bigger than
life. Ready to glove up and face anything life had to dish out.

She groaned. The only thing she was facing these past few days
was the very real possibility she was losing her mind. It was the
only way to explain why the walls of her tidy office in the education department had begun to close in. Why its quiet order made
her edgier by the hour until she wanted to string paper clips into a
lasso, whirl it overhead, and holler like a demented cowboy. And,
worse still, why the sirens and stat pages-sounds that had made
her cringe for two years-now strangely drew her. They had even
caused her to leave the safe haven of the office to wander across the
hospital campus toward the doors of the emergency department,
the setting of every single one of her nightmares-nightmares that
had worsened in the past week.

She'd been telling herself it was only normal to want to check
on Inez. See how she seemed now that she was receiving employee
counseling. Or because of the camaraderie she'd begun to feel with
Erin. Or, very likely, her concern after hearing that the staff had
dealt with another near drowning. In fact, Claire almost convinced
herself that all those reasons were true and that every instinct was selfless and purely professional. Until yesterday when she'd caught
a glimpse of a familiar pair of shoulders beneath a head of curly
dark hair. Her knees went so weak so fast that she could barely
make it back to the safety of her office. That combination-Logan
Caldwell and the ER-would be her undoing; she'd chain herself
to her desk if that's what it took to avoid them.

Claire leaned down to grab her purse. The cleanup crew would
take down the booth. It was obvious she wasn't going to hand out
any more nursing recruitment brochures. A smile teased her lips.
Everybody who had a life was probably out laughing or dancing.

She could still get in a nice, long run before it got dark. Maybe
throw some chicken on the mini grill to share with Smokey. Claire
sighed; right, like he wouldn't just drag it under the table and
growl at her. At least her parents would be glad to hear from her.
She'd give them a call later and hear the newest list of reasons why
she should move to Phoenix. Frankly, right now cactus sounded
pretty good.

"Hey, Educator."

Claire jumped at the voice, her heart climbing toward her
throat as she looked up.

Logan was wearing Levi's with a Western belt, boots, and a
well-worn red Henley. The shirt had faded to a deep rose color and
was open at the neck, its sleeves pushed up his tanned forearms.
His dark curls were windblown and backlit by the sun as he walked
toward her.

"Sorry," he said, coming to a stop in front of her. "I didn't mean
to scare you." A slow smile spread across his face as he glanced
at the poster and stacks of brochures. He chuckled, the familiar
crinkles appearing beside his eyes. "Good. Recruit away. Don't let
me stop you. I'm short-staffed."

Claire's face warmed as she stood, feeling once again small
beside him. Her heart was racing as she opened her mouth, scared
silly she was going to bleat like one of the chaplain's therapeutic
sheep. What's he doing here? "I ... um. . ." Claire stopped, grateful
for the reprieve when Logan raised his palm.

"Wait," he said, all the teasing gone from his voice. "I'm here
because I owe you an apology, Claire."

Her skin prickled as she remembered his undelivered note. And
I owe him an afternoon? She found herself staring at his lips, realizing this was the first time he'd ever said her name. It made her
feel ridiculously giddy.

"I acted like a real idiot," Logan explained. "A few days ago,
after the debriefing. I'm sorry."

She wasn't sure what to say, but the look on his face, like a little
boy in trouble, made her smile. Goliath disarmed? Claire tried not
to laugh and struggled to resist a crazy urge to hug him.

She was rescued from the impulse when a loudspeaker
squawked, a recital of the team roping times and a reminder about
the evening's dance.

The Cajun band resumed, and Logan raised his voice to be
heard. "So anyway, I want to make it up to you." He nodded like he
was coaching her answer and then stepped closer, tilting his head
to look down into her face. He swallowed.

Claire breathed in a trace of woodsy cologne and soap. Her
rational mind warred with her senses ... and lost.

"Well?" he whispered.

"Fine," she said, taking a step backward. She crossed her arms
and lifted her chin. "What are you offering? Willie Nelson and
pizza?"

Logan laughed. "No. Flowers. I'm giving you Daffodil Hill."

Claire's stride lengthened, calves stretching as her short boots navigated the leaf-strewn, red clay trail. Crisp pine air and dappled
April sunshine. It was the perfect escape if it weren't for her stupidity and the resulting effect that right behind her was-oh, boy.

BOOK: Critical Care
12.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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