When every day is a battle between life and death, can two warring hearts find healing in each other?
I don’t know who I am anymore.
I thought I’d found a man who was right for me, someone with whom I could build a life . . . but all the reasons we should work don’t mean much when I realize that I can’t love him the way he deserves.
And then there’s the other guy in my life—the one who broke my heart and ran away. The one I can’t stop wanting and needing. The one who makes me feel so alive each time we’re together.
When it comes to my patients, I’m an eternal optimist. Maybe that’s why I’m determined to try for happily ever after again.
As long as there’s life, there’s hope. And hope is all I have.
I don’t know what to do.
I thought I’d lost the woman who haunts me, body and soul. I was sure that she was in love with someone else. I was prepared for the pain, again. I was braced for the hurt. But I was wrong.
I have one last chance with her. If I screw it up this time, I’ll lose her forever, and if that happens, I know I’ll also lose my only hope for happiness.
I never give up on a patient. And I’m not giving up on us.
Read the first chapter here!
“Deacon! Just the man I was hoping to see.”
I turned in mid-stride, my professional smile already in place as I extended my hand. “Raul! Great to see you. What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
Raul Zamora gripped my hand and shook it firmly. “I had a check-up downstairs, and I thought as long as I was at the hospital, I’d come over and say hello. Maybe see how things are going on our shiny new wing.”
Checking up on me, I thought, but my expression didn’t change. It wouldn’t be a good idea for me to piss off the vice president of the board of directors. The hospital’s governing team had been supportive of my project from the beginning of my tenure here, but I was well aware that I’d tested the board’s tolerance when I’d abruptly left the country for a year. I was doing everything that I could to make up for that.
“Of course.” I regarded Mr. Zamora carefully. “I hope everything’s okay with you.”
“Oh, yes, yes.” He waved his hand. “Just my annual tune-up. Check the ticker, the blood, scold me about my weight and cholesterol . . . you know the drill.”
“I do.” I chuckled. “We doctors are so annoying, wanting to make sure our patients stay healthy.” I thumped Raul on the shoulder as we began to walk. “What would you like to see first?”
“How about those new projects that were funded by Noah Spencer’s donations?” Raul poked me in the ribs with his elbow. “I know that money came to us under some tragic circumstances, with his wife having died, but it’s pretty damn cool to have a big football player donating to us, right? We’re already talking about the party we’re planning to throw when the new rooms are ready.”
I did my best to keep my expression pleasant and bland. I wasn’t really in the mood to exchange enthusiastic stories about Noah Spencer, but since he’d donated money to our wing, I at least had to feign gratitude, even though I wasn’t so fond of him these days.
“The new transplant suite is in progress—actually, it’s nearly finished. I can definitely show you that. Work on the music therapy room isn’t underway yet, because Emma is part of that project, and she’s on vacation right now.”
“That’s right.” Raul nodded. “We talked about her time off at the last meeting. Not that there was any objection—this is the first extended break Dr. Carson has had since she started with us. Have you heard anything from her? I hope she’s enjoying her visit with her family.”
“I have not.” My face was beginning to hurt from holding onto this smile. “I gave her strict instructions before she left not to check in. I agree with you that she needs this vacation. And God knows that she held down the fort for me long enough. I owe her this.”
“Very true.” Raul’s agreement was just slightly too emphatic for my taste. “We all certainly appreciated that.”
I swallowed back the snarky rebuttal that was on the tip of my tongue. “The new suite is right over here. Let me give you a tour.”
* * *
The board vice president lingered on the floor longer than I expected. I didn’t mind schmoozing now and then; playing the politics game was a necessary if irritating part of medicine. But I wasn’t known for my patience on the best day. I was ready to get on with my day, working with patients and catching up with my team.
By the time Raul finished gushing over our new transplant suite and how incredible it was that Noah Spencer had been the one to fund it, and I’d seen him to the elevator, it was mid-afternoon. On the way back to my office, I passed by the nurses’ station in time to overhear Jenny Ward, one of our nurse practitioners, talking to Stephanie, a nurse who worked on the floor.
“She didn’t go into much detail. She just said that things between Noah and her are a little . . .” Jenny wiggled her hand back and forth. “You know. Uncertain.”
“How the hell did that happen? Those two were like peanut butter and jelly for over a year. They went almost everywhere together. They hung out on weekends. He helped build that cabin for her. And then they start dating, and suddenly things are uncertain?” Stephanie mimicked Jenny’s tone.
“I guess things just happen like that sometimes. You know, maybe friendship isn’t always supposed to grow into something else. It’s possible they only work as friends, not as lovers.” Jenny spotted me over Stephanie’s shoulder. To her credit, she didn’t even flinch. “Oh, hey, Deacon. Geez, I thought Mr. Zamora was never going to leave.”
“You and me both.” I rolled my eyes. “So . . . anything going on that I should be aware of?” I was referring to our patients, of course, but to say that I wasn’t curious about what Jenny had been saying would be an outright lie. The last I’d heard, Emma and Noah were together. I had even wondered at first if he’d gone up to Virginia with her, but my grandmother had mentioned that he was at training camp already.
“She’s up there by herself, getting some much-needed and well-deserved rest.” Gram had fastened me with one of her signature piercing glares. “Don’t you bother her with anything from the hospital, do you hear? Poor Emma’s exhausted. She needs to spend time with her mama and daddy. I don’t want you using some patient as an excuse to call her or text her.”
I’d briefly considered arguing with my grandmother, insisting that I’d never do that, but it wasn’t worth the tongue-lashing I’d get in response, so I’d only nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I hear.”
Still, I wouldn’t have minded if Jenny had decided to fill me in on anything that might be new with our naturopath. But she only shook her head.
“Nope, I don’t think so. Oh, actually, we just got a call from the ER. They’re sending up Elaine Dulinkski. She’s running a fever and complaining of shortness of breath. Cardiac cleared her, but Dr. Anderson seems to think she doesn’t need to go directly to ICU. She said she thought we could probably handle it here.” Jenny frowned at the computer screen and tapped a few keys on the keyboard. “We thought we’d put her in one of the isolation rooms, though, just in case.”
“Good plan. Let me know when she’s settled in her room, and I’ll swing by to see what’s going on. Meanwhile, I think I’ll call Dr. Anderson and get her report.”
I headed for my office, my mind focused on the patient. Elaine Dulinksky was not the most pleasant of women. She was stubborn and tended toward a snappish short-temper. She found a reason to complain about even the most comfortable accommodations. She had never warmed up to Emma and what Mrs. Dulinkski called her woo woo new agey crap, which meant that I bore the lion’s share of her care when she was on the floor.
But on the other hand, she’d been battling an aggressive form of breast cancer for four years, so maybe she had cause to be a little unpleasant. I hoped that this fever was only a quickly passing viral situation, something we could monitor while addressing her symptoms. Too often, though, our cancer patients developed life-threatening infections. If this one was already ahead of us . . .
I growled under my breath. Being pessimistic wasn’t going to do anything to help Mrs. Dulinkski. Emma had taught me that. It seemed that no matter how much I tried to avoid being sucked into her less-traditional methods, she was rubbing off on me. That idea made me even grumpier, particularly as I remembered how she used to tease me about being the brooding, somber vibe in our wing.
The fact was that as much as I hated to admit it, I missed Emma’s presence at the hospital. For all of our heated arguments and disagreements, I valued her input and her incessant research into new ways to help our patients. She kept me on my toes; she made me a better doctor.
Not that I’d ever tell her that, of course. Not in a hundred years. She’d never let me hear the end of it.
I sank down into my office chair and rubbed my forehead. It would take a while for Mrs. Dulinkski to be moved up to her room—that was just the way the red-tape and bureaucracy worked. Once she was settled, it would take us some time to figure out just what was going on with her and how to treat the issue.
All of this meant that I was probably in for a late night. Sighing, I picked up the phone and swiped the screen to my contracts, tapping one near the top of the list. And when my grandmother answered, I felt a little bit of my tension ease.
“Hey, Gram. How’re you doing?”
“I’m all right, honey. I’m just working on that genealogy project. My cousin from New York sent me some old papers and photos, and we’re going to video chat a little later to try and figure out who is who.” I heard the sound of papers rustling in the background. “How’re things with you?”
“Eh, not bad, but I think I’m going to miss dinner tonight. One of my patients was just admitted with junky lungs and a temp. I have a feeling it’s going to be a late one. I’m sorry for the late notice.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, Deacon. If I’m not used to a doctor’s unpredictable hours by now, I should be. I’ll make you up a plate, and you can pick it up tomorrow. Or I can drop it off if that’s easier.” She paused a moment. “I’m sorry about your patient. Not anyone I know, is it?”
One side of my mouth quirked upward. HIPPA laws were challenging at best, but in a small town, they could be downright difficult. Gram tried to remember that I couldn’t violate patient confidentiality, but her stance was that it never hurt to ask.
In this case, however, I could respond honestly. “No, you don’t know her. She’s from Lakeland. I hope whatever is going on, we caught it in time, but you know how it is. Cancer is a tricky bitch.”
“True.” Gram never dinged me for language when it came to work. Heck, she didn’t give me trouble about swearing most of the time. But she understood that fighting this disease was frustrating even as beating it could be exhilarating. “Well, do what you can, sweetie. That’s all anyone can ask of you. Remember, you’re not God. You might be a gifted doctor, but at the end of the day, you’re a man.”
“I’ll keep that in mind, Gram.” Nothing like a pep talk from the president of my fan club to give me a boost. “I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know if I can make it out to the farm. Give Pop my love.”
“I will, son. Good luck tonight. Talk to you later.”
Ending the call, I tackled some paperwork and other administrative tasks before Jenny alerted me that Mrs. Dulinkski was in her room. I finished what I was doing before I stood up and began to make my way to the suite.
Time to go fight a new battle.