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Authors: Candace Calvert

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Critical Care (9 page)

BOOK: Critical Care
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"Hey." Logan grasped Claire's elbow from behind, his fingers
sinking softly into the thin cotton poncho she'd thrown on at
the last minute. He was breathless, but he smiled as she slowed
her pace and turned to look at him. "Whoa, there." He shifted his
backpack over his shoulder as he caught up with her. "I'm thinking
that the daffodils aren't going anywhere. Bulbs, right? Stuck in the
dirt?" He fell into step beside her. "You've been covering ground
like a gazelle since we left my jeep. Are you trying to lose me?"

"I ... of course not." Sure she was, and the only thing that
could have made her more panicky was if he'd brought the motorcycle, forcing her to ride twelve curvy miles up Highway 49, hanging on to him for dear life. Could have happened. Easily. Why in
the world had she agreed to come? She wasn't good at this. Claire
forced a smile, avoiding his eyes as they neared the trail's end. The
hand-carved sign ahead read, McLaughlin Farm 1887, Daffodil Hill.
"I'm just anxious to see them, I guess. I mean, four acres of flowers
and-oh, Logan, look!"

Claire stopped at the end of the trail, grabbing his arm without thinking. Her breath caught and her eyes widened, transfixed
by an endless sea of green and yellow and white. Blossoms, some
delicate, some buttery bold with orange centers, fluted like nature's
champagne glasses, rose tiptoe on slender stalks just high enough
to dance with the breeze. She faced Logan, speechless.

"Three hundred thousand of them, I heard," Logan whispered
like he was in church. "Hundreds of varieties." He gazed at Claire, his expression as hopeful as a boy presenting a homemade gift.
"You're happy I brought you?"

"Oh yes," she answered, letting go of his arm and at the same
moment wrestling another impulse to hug him. "Thank you."
She blinked, suddenly horrified that she might actually cry as she
remembered the dusty silk flowers on her brother's table, a failed
attempt to bring sunshine into that grief-darkened space. The sight
of these real blooms-the hopeful life in them-was almost more
than she could bear. Claire smiled at Logan despite the ache in her
throat. "I don't think you could have done anything nicer."

He touched the tip of her nose and winked. "You ain't seen
nothin' yet."

They wandered the grounds for nearly an hour, dizzied by hill
after hill of daffodils nestled amid weathered outbuildings and
rusty farm equipment. They shook their heads at the thought of
the owners rolling out this amazing carpet of blooms for decades,
free of charge, just for the love of it.

Finally Logan shooed away a trio of speckled chickens and
plunked himself down on the grass to rummage through his backpack. "If we don't eat this," he said, gesturing for Claire to join
him, "I'm going to throw my back out from lugging it."

She knelt, disarmed by the man despite her lingering misgivings. After all, he opposed what she'd done for his department
and saw no value in procedures set up to protect his staff from the
effects of stress. McSnarly. It still suited him.

Claire settled on the grass, hiding a smirk as she remembered
an old adage. How did that go? "When you sup with the devil ... use
a long spoon"? Logan had been called that too. "What's in there?"
she teased, watching him produce a small zippered cooler. "Buffalo
wings, beer nuts ... chewing tobacco?"

"No," Logan said, opening the lid and making a show of presenting it to her. He feigned a scowl. "I'm hurt you think so little
of me."

I know nothing about you. Claire studied the artfully wrapped
California rolls, little strips of ginger, and the creamy green mound
of wasabi-all packaged for takeout by a Japanese restaurant she
frequented whenever she could afford it. "Sushi? You brought sushi
to a rodeo?"

"I heard you liked it," he said as he produced two glass bottles
of spring water from the depths of his pack. "Besides, this isn't a
rodeo. It's a date."

Date. Claire's face flushed. And there was no way that Logan
could have missed the reaction.

He shrugged, his voice graciously casual. "But I'm afraid you're
going to have to deal with paper plates. And since I didn't think
of something as civilized as a tablecloth, you'll need to find a spot
without chicken droppings to sit." He handed her the California
rolls, then busied himself with uncapping the drinks.

Claire's lips sank into the cool, sweet combination of rice, avocado, and crab, and she followed it with a sip of the lemon-infused
water he set in front of her. Why was she so nervous? She shut
her eyes for a moment, less in appreciation of the food and more
because she knew the answer to the question. She was nervous
because she hadn't been on a date in years. Two years. She groaned,
then raised her brows so Logan would think it was inspired by his
sushi. "Mmm. Wonderful."

The awful fact was, the last date Claire could remember was
with one of Kevin's buddies-a gangly, sad-eyed engine company
volunteer. He'd taken Claire to her brother's favorite burger dive
about a month after the funeral, then drove her home early after he broke down over his order of onion rings. Grief date. And-sad but
true-way more than she'd even wanted. Then and since. It felt like
everything inside her that believed in love and happy endings had
died along with her brother that awful day in the trauma room. A
happy ending was what Kevin and Gayle were supposed to have.

"So," Logan said, lowering his drink, "why nursing education?"

"Oh, I ..." Claire hesitated, guarding her words so casual picnic
conversation wouldn't turn into painful revelation. She took a sip
of water before continuing. "I guess I saw enough of how the nursing shortage is compromising patient care that I wanted to help do
something about the quality. To help improve what we have left.
A smaller but mightier nursing force?"

Logan laughed softly. "No-brainer. Just clone Erin and Sarah."
He shook his head. "I wouldn't mind having a dozen of them;
nothing I throw at those women rattles them. Not too many nurses
like that."

She stiffened, words tumbling out before she could stop them.
"Why? Because most of us are weak links?"

"What?" He blinked, obviously stunned by the sharpness of
her tone. "No, I wasn't saying-"

"Yes, you did," Claire insisted. "Or at least that's what you
implied the first day I met you in ER." Her brows furrowed, remembering their prickly conversation at little Jamie's bedside. "You
said if your staff was forced to go through the CISM debriefing-"
she narrowed her eyes, mimicking his words-"and 'explore their
feelings,' they would become weak links." Like I was after Kevin's
death?

She pushed the thought down and continued, fueled by a
confusing new anger that prodded her mercilessly. "Why are you
fighting against your staff instead of for them? You're blessed with incredible nurses like Erin and Sarah and with good-hearted people
like Inez Vega, and you don't value them enough to care about
their well-being and to . . ." She trailed off as she recalled what
Erin said about the nurses in Reno and the complaints against him
there. Maybe he didn't care.

"Of course I do." Logan set his plate down and wiped his mouth
with a napkin. "It's just that I don't put much stock in counseling."
He raised his palm before she could respond, his eyes holding hers
for a moment as if he was deciding what he wanted to say. "Because
I did that once. With my wife. Back when our marriage was in
trouble a few years ago. Didn't work. She left me."

"I . . ." Claire's throat constricted, and she was instantly sorry.
She'd seen a flicker of pain in his eyes. What could she say?

"Hey, long time ago," he said, dredging up a smile. "Everybody's fine now. No condolences required." The rascal gleam came
back into his eyes. "Nor applause for the good sense of my ex."

Claire smiled, feeling more comfortable again.

"Look," Logan explained, "I care about my staff. I'm willing to
do whatever I can to keep my team functioning on all cylinders.
But counseling ... count me out." He raised his water bottle like
he was making a toast. "So, here's to agreeing to disagree?"

Claire lifted her bottle toward his. "Done." She pulled her
bottle back a few inches before he could clink it. "However, 'functioning on all cylinders'-though it has a certain automotive sense
of poetry-doesn't quite do it for me. I was going more for happy
team."

He laughed and reached forward until their bottles were a hairbreadth apart again. "I thought I was doing pretty well today," he
said, glancing back toward the masses of blooms. "Even you looked
happy for a minute there, Educator."

Even me?

Logan leaned nearer, his gaze holding hers for a breath-catching
moment, and Claire saw that there were flecks of gold in his eyes
like the sparkle of treasure in some clear California stream. She could
feel the warmth of his skin, smell the soapy clean scent of it, and see
the soft texture of his lips. She wondered what it might be like to ...
"Cheers, then!" she said much too loudly, clinking her water sharply
against Logan's, then scooted backward so fast that she crashed into
the chicken pecking at her abandoned sushi. It squawked furiously
and scurried off ... almost as fast as Claire wanted to.

Logan was silent and she didn't dare look back at him. She
busied herself with retrieving the sushi, hoping to hide her blushing face. She was a fool to have come here today. She hadn't had
enough sleep to make rational decisions. Obviously. Or why else
would she go off into the woods with a man she barely knew,
probably didn't even actually like, and then start imagining what
it would be like to ...

"I wasn't trying to kiss you," he said, breaking the silence.

Oh, Lord, help me. "What? Oh ... I wasn't thinking that." Claire
forced herself to look at him, to stop panicking. He was a doctor,
not a mind reader.

"You were ... You sat on a chicken."

"I ... well . . ." Claire sputtered helplessly for a moment and
then struggled futilely against a surge of laughter.

"Frankly," Logan said, watching her laugh, "I'm insulted by
that. Traumatized maybe. Yes." His voice faltered, slowly dissolving
into deep laughter that blended with hers. "I might ... need ...
counseling."

She threw the sushi. He ducked.

They laughed together for a few more moments. When the silence came back, it was still awkward to Claire but different somehow. She stood and hugged her poncho around herself as the afternoon breeze rustled the pines around them. Somewhere in the
distance, there was the tinkling laughter of children. A dog barked.

"Not that I didn't want to kiss you," Logan said barely above
a whisper. His eyes were serious, but he made no attempt to move
toward her. "Just wanted that on the record." He glanced down
at his watch. "And now it looks like I should get you back to the
fairgrounds."

Thank heaven.

He sighed like he was about to ask something to which he
already knew the answer. "And maybe convince you to stick
around for the band. A little country two-stepping? I'm not very
good, but ..."

"No, I'd better not," Claire said in a rush. "I've got some things
to do before work tomorrow."

"I thought so," he said, finally crossing the short distance to
stand in front of her. "You'll be in the education department, and
I'll be way over in the ER."

"Right," she said, telling herself it was so much better that way.
That it was the only way it could be. "But I want to thank you for
my daffodils. Seeing them today meant more than you can know."
Ever, ever know. A lump rose in her throat without warning, and this
time Claire was helpless to resist hugging him.

Logan's arms closed around her tentatively as if he knew there
was a line he couldn't cross. His chest was warm and solid against
her cheek, and Claire could hear the muffled thudding of his heart.
For one crazy moment the world felt right again. "No problem,"
he whispered, his chin brushing the top of her head. "And I want
to thank you for ... the afternoon."

Claire closed her eyes, feeling the comfort of his warmth against
her. Then she moved away.

Smokey dragged a piece of reheated chicken enchilada from his
bowl and ate it under the kitchen table, growling low in his throat.
He watched Claire warily.

"Great manners," she told him. "See if I bring you any leftover
sushi next time." She sighed. Except there wasn't going to be a next
time. Couldn't be.

She'd wrestled with the idea all the way home tonight after
Logan drove her back to the fairgrounds and dropped her off in the
parking lot. She'd driven Kevin's SUV to Kevin's house and then
took a long run before the sun set on her brother's beloved foothills. She let the endorphins replace whatever she'd felt in Logan's
arms.

Ever since she'd been called back to the ER, her plan for a
peaceful new life had begun to erode into confusion and chaos.
There were flashbacks the first time she walked into the Sierra
Mercy trauma room, followed by that awful sense of suffocation
at the CISM debriefing. She'd battled sleeplessness and nightmares
almost nightly since.

BOOK: Critical Care
8.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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