Welcome to First Chapter Saturday. Come Into The Light is a hospital intrigue. The heroine is an older woman who solves the hospital's problems and finds a lasting love.
Come Into The Light
Janet Lane Walters
Published by Hardshell Word Factory
An imprint of Mundania Press
JOHANNA GORDON RAKED HER fingers through her short curls and glanced at the clock centered on the wall between her diplomas. Seven-thirty. No wonder her shoulders ached. She’d been hunched over the desk since four.
With a sigh, she closed a folder and added it to the neat stack on a corner of the desk. She pursed her lips. For two weeks, the budget for the nursing department at the hospital had consumed her time. Unfortunately, money would remain her focus until she found areas to cut costs without compromising patient care or breaking the current contract with the nurses. Not that Hudson Community’s CEO cared about either option. She stretched to ease the tension between her shoulder blades.
“Why couldn’t I...” An idea occurred and she smiled.
Something to consider. Richard Jamison didn’t care which programs were dropped as long as his pet projects remained intact. Just this morning he’d reminded her she belonged to administration and to remember where her loyalties lay. Not with him. She’d risen through the ranks and saw more than the profits and losses he tossed around.
The loudspeaker on the wall crackled. “Dr. Red to the Emergency Room.” In staccato fashion, the operator repeated the message three times.
With a well-honed response, Johanna rose, grabbed her briefcase and, in three strides, reached the door. The call for any surgeon meant an emergency requiring immediate surgery. Her body quivered with excitement. She dashed through the empty outer office, crossed the hall and hit the call button for the elevator.
Just like an old fire horse, she thought. The alarm clangs and I’m off running. She stepped into the empty car. What was her hurry? How much help would she be? She’d been away from the bedside for ten years.
As she exited on the first floor, she nearly collided with Rachel Hill. Her friend’s dark hair had slipped from the neat bun at her nape. Like a sail, Rachel’s lab coat flew behind her. She carried two units of blood.
Johanna frowned. Rachel usually worked the day shift. “Bad accident?” Johanna asked.
“The worst. A six-year-old hit by a car. And to think I volunteered to switch.”
As Johanna matched strides with her friend’s half-running gait, the soft leather briefcase slapped against her thigh. “Need an extra pair of hands?”
“Hardly. If there was another body in the room, they’d be standing on the patient. Be glad you’re out of the zoo. Not that I blame people for caring about a child, but if the patient was old, indigent or dying... Don’t let me get started.”
“Want to talk?” Together they dashed up the five steps to the emergency room level.
Rachel straight-armed the door. “Maybe I do. Dinner on—” The door closed and cut off the rest of her words.
Johanna frowned. By the time they found an evening to fit Rachel’s schedule, she would have forgotten the incident that had triggered her anger. Instead of talking about the hospital, she would discuss her children. Despite their closeness, this topic always added to Johanna’s aching knowledge that she had no one.
She continued to the exit. For the past few months, she’d wondered if the climb up the administrative ladder had been the right choice. Ten years ago, she’d been an ER nurse, meeting challenges and solving a dozen crises every day. The decision to leave the ER had been made for financial reasons. The higher salary had paid for her sister’s and her parents’, home health aides. Six months ago, the family obligations had ended, leaving Johanna with an empty social life.
For a moment, she stared at the red brick building. The hospital’s center section was five stories, while the angled wings were four. The sight always made her think of a bird in flight. Lately, her office here had seemed more like home than the house eight blocks away.
A reluctance to move held her prisoner. Spray from the lawn sprinklers misted on her face and arms. She studied the bank of peonies along the walk leading to the hospital’s front entrance. Their sweet scent mingled with the aroma of wet earth. With a sigh, she overcame the inertia and crossed the street.
Brisk steps carried her down the hill. In the distance, the Hudson River reflected the colors of the setting sun. At the bottom of the hill, she turned the corner. She hurried past houses dating from colonial days to a turn-of-the-century Victorian that towered over two houses built in the last ten years. Each house had a unique charm.
She paused beside the yew hedge surrounding the yard of the house where she’d lived all her life. As she strode up the walk, her hand brushed the clipped edges. The scent of roses reached her. Red, pink and white blooms covered the trellises at either end of the porch.
She climbed the steps, turned and paused. With arms crossed on her chest, she stared at the street. As though trying to erase a chill, her hands moved along her arms. A soft sigh escaped. The ice of loneliness couldn’t be rubbed away like frost from windows on a winter morning.
Her hands dropped to her side, but she made no move to go inside where shadows of the past gathered. She had no desire to face memories of the years when she’d been a devoted sister and a dutiful daughter.
She looked at the darkening sky. Sometimes, she felt her entire life had been lived in the moments between day and night—with every instant tinged with gray, and every action controlled by duty and responsibility. Were they virtues or walls she’d erected to keep from reaching for life?
The sound of children’s laughter carried across the hedge from the house next-door. Like a gusting wind, envy rose. Her childhood memories held few laughing moments, just those of trying to teach games to a sister who lacked the ability to learn.
With a habitual gesture, she combed her fingers through her hair. Life should be more than ritual and routine.
As she moved from the edge of the porch, a pair of lovers, lost in each other’s eyes, strolled past. Johanna’s eyes burned with unshed tears. For her, only dreams of romance existed and, in her fantasies, she found adventure.
She unlocked the door and stepped into the hall. The screen door closed with a snap. She flipped the light switch and the ceiling fan stirred the stale air.
In the living room, she dropped her briefcase on the sofa and turned on the CD player. Strains of Tchaikovosky’s Sleeping Beauty followed her into the dining room.
Memories swamped her. The room became a miniature hospital ward where an elderly man and woman lay in twin electric beds. Matching walkers, wheelchairs and commodes stood against one wall.
Six months before, after the second death in three weeks, she’d scrubbed the walls and floor in an effort to ward off grief through frantic labor. After returning the hospital equipment, she’d hired a painter to re-do the room. The freshly painted walls and the refinished oak floor failed to blur the lingering memories.
Why did I allow my life to take this road?
Duty and responsibility. The voices were her parents’.
In the kitchen, she seasoned a chicken breast, put it under the broiler, made a salad and cleaned strawberries for dessert. As she ate, she searched for ways to fill the long hours until Monday, but ideas remained as illusive as the shadows in the house. Why did the weekend seem longer than the five-day work week?
After dinner, she opened the kitchen door and stepped onto the stoop. A crescent moon hung above the trees at the end of the yard. Wind rustled the leaves of the locust and oak trees and carried the scent of roses. She rested her hand on the wooden rail. Was there a different way to live?
She closed her eyes and entered the fantasy world she’d created as a child to escape what couldn’t be changed. A few minutes later, with a sigh, Johanna forced herself to resist the lure of escape into the world of her dreams. As a child, she’d needed these fantasies to escape reality. Was this a habit she couldn’t escape? How could she resist being in a world she could control?
She closed the kitchen door, slid the bolt into place and turned the security lock. Before going upstairs to the bedroom, she made rounds of the first floor to check the windows and front door.
A BEAM OF SUNLIGHT slid between the slats of the venetian blinds and cast a band of brightness across Johanna’s face. She stretched and touched her toes. Twenty minutes later, she’d showered and reached the kitchen for breakfast.
Once the household chores had been done, she changed into dark green slacks and a white sleeveless blouse. As she left the house, strains of Swan Lake flowed through the open window. Knowing the music would be playing when she returned allowed her to pretend someone waited for her.
As she strolled toward town, she skirted a game of hopscotch, then paused to watch the local double dutch team at practice. A pair of young boys on bicycles swerved from her path. As she walked along the sidewalk, she planned her expedition. After exploring several antique shops, she would stop at the library to see what new books had arrived.
Trees shaded the sidewalk from the bright morning sun. Cars, parked bumper to bumper, lined both sides of the street. As she passed the library, the crowd-jammed walk nearly made her change directions.
Johanna plunged through an opening between two groups of shrill-voiced women. She barely avoided a collision with the fist of a wildly gesticulating bleached blonde. A purse smacked her arm. Someone tramped on her foot. Though the mass of people brought a false sense of togetherness, she knew none of the strangers cared about her presence.
Moments later, she exhaled a sigh. An empty space in front of Blarney’s promised a moment of calm. Last month, she and Rachel had eaten dinner here. The food had been delicious, but the noise from the partisan baseball fans at the bar had made conversation nearly impossible. She sank on one of the benches flanking the door and watched people eddy past.
“Blaine—” She cut off the greeting. Though the man who strolled past resembled her friend from freshman year at the local college, nearly twenty-five years had passed since then.
Her thoughts flashed to a time when gentle caresses and sweet kisses had been hers. She’d been in love with him, but there’d been no future for them. He’d had his life mapped out and so had she. At the end of the year, he’d left for a more prestigious school.
Johanna had never brought him home. Her parents would have been angry. Her sister had to be protected from the eyes of strangers.
Though Blaine’s parents had also lived in Hudsonville, he’d seldom returned and on those rare occasions, he hadn’t called. He’d never written. Through the local newspaper, she’d learned of his success as a lawyer and of his marriage to a socialite. Her love and dreams had died that day.
The plaintive cry sounded beneath the noise of the crowd. Johanna peered
between the slats of the bench. A long-haired black-and-brown kitten huddled against the restaurant wall. The animal resembled the one she’d found a week after her eighth birthday. She’d called him Fluff. The kitten had been the first and last thing completely hers. On a gray day, Alice had caught the small bit of fur and squeezed him to death.
“She doesn’t know any better.” Johanna’s mother had pulled the retarded child into her arms. “Pets aren’t a good idea, Johanna.”
Friends hadn’t been acceptable either. Other children wouldn’t understand what a special burden Alice was. The habit of standing apart from others had grown until Johanna shielded herself and seldom allowed people to brush more than the surface of her life.
Impulsively, she crouched beside the bench and coaxed the kitten from its refuge. A door banged shut. The kitten scampered away from her hands. As the small animal darted toward the street, somehow it managed to avoid being trampled.
Johanna jumped to her feet. The kitten tumbled from the curb and landed between two parked cars. After righting itself, the animal darted into the street. Without a glimpse at traffic, Johanna followed. Seconds later, she scooped the bit of fur from the pavement.
A car horn blared. She froze. How dumb. Visions of being a patient in the intensive care unit flashed through her thoughts. An arm caught her around the waist and pulled her from the path of an oncoming car. Brakes screeched.
“Lady, there are better ways to commit suicide. Lucky thing I stepped out for a breath of air before the lunch crowd descends. What in heaven’s name made you dash into the street like you’d been shot from a cannon?”
Johanna’s feet touched the sidewalk. Her rescuer’s arm remained around her waist. He pulled her toward Blarney’s. The deep voice continued scolding. Unable to speak without revealing how scared she’d been, she studied his hands. Tanned, square fingers, short nails.
The kitten squirmed. Needle claws raked furrows on her arms. They reached the door of Blarney’s. Instead of allowing herself to be dragged inside, Johanna sank on a bench. Reaction to the earlier surge of adrenaline made her body shake. She looked up and her eyes widened.
He was like and unlike the warrior in her fantasy world. His unruly, auburn hair needed a trim. Green eyes tinted with blue reminded her of the sea. His rugged face bore laughter lines.
“I’m waiting for an explanation of your rush toward oblivion.” His voice held concern and amusement. “Hope it wasn’t thoughts of the food.”
Her cheeks heated. How could she deal with the glint of humor she saw in his eyes? “The kitten ran into the street.”
“And look what the ungrateful creature’s doing to you. He’s not feeling an ounce of remorse. You’ll be lucky to escape with your skin intact.”
Johanna tried to contain the kitten on her lap. “Guess it was a foolish thing to do.”
“An act of kindness.” He plucked the animal from her hands. “See here, my boy, you’ve got to treat this lady with more respect.”
Johanna smiled. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t know what would end the tension that pulsed between them.
He put one foot on the bench and held the squirming kitten. “Dylan Connelly at your service. Next time you need a rescue, be sure to call me.”
A bubble of laughter escaped. “Johanna Gordon.”
“Aha. Hudson Community’s Director of Nursing. My niece has told me a lot about you.”
When he laughed, Johanna knew her expression showed dismay. Bridget was a talented nurse and the most vocal of the union leaders. Johanna wondered if she and the younger woman would ever agree about anything.
“Don’t look so shocked. The girl likes you.” He reached for Johanna’s hand. “You’re needing to see to your wounds. No telling where the wee beast has been.”
Without a protest, Johanna rose. She frowned. Why was she following him? In ten minutes, she could be home using her own first aid supplies. When he opened the restaurant door, cool air rushed over her flushed face. She blinked to adjust to the dim light.
Empty stools lined the curved oak bar. A younger version of the man whose hand cupped her elbow slid wine glasses into a rack above the bar. Dylan Connelly ushered her to the ladies room and vanished down the hall. Johanna attacked the multitude of scratches with soap and water.
Dylan tapped on the door. “Peroxide. I’ve bandages if you need them. We have our share of kitchen mishaps.”
“No need for them.” Probably not for the peroxide either, but she took the bottle.
“I’ve boxed the kitten.” He paused with one hand on the door. “Would you be interested in joining me for a bit of lunch before you leave?”
Not sure what she saw in his eyes or his smile, she nodded. “I’d like that.”
“Then you’re on. I’ll put in our order.”
“But—” The door closed leaving her with second thoughts. He hadn’t given her a chance to choose her meal. She poured peroxide on her arms. What had she done? When the liquid no longer foamed, she patted dry. She had to tell him she’d changed her mind. She opened the door and stepped into the hall. Maybe she could slip away.
Dylan leaned against the wall across from the door. “I was wondering if you’d gone out the window.”
She frowned. “There’s no window.”
“Good thing you noticed before you tried to escape.”
Had he read her mind? Johanna felt thankful the hall was dimly lit. “I wanted to be thorough.”
He grinned. “Your lunch awaits.”
What, no chariot? The frivolity of this thought surprised her. Maybe she was in shock from accepting his invitation. Having lunch with a stranger wasn’t her style.
He showed her to a booth across from the bar. High back church pews formed the seats. She saw a shoebox on the bench and heard a faint meow. “What am I going to do with a kitten?”
“Become a slave. The creatures have a way of creeping into your life and letting you know how much you need them. The pair of you are bonded for life. I’ve a memory of the time my oldest brought home a bedraggled cat. Next morning, there were six. Makes one think twice about rescue missions.”
Johanna stared at the box. Did Dylan feel responsible for her? How could she tell him there was no need? Before she framed a reply, a significantly pregnant waitress set two plates on the table.
“Dina, love,” Dylan said. “I thought you were hostess today.”
She made a face. “You and Patrick...I’m not an invalid. Colleen’s late, so I’m filling in ’til she gets here.”
“Make sure you’re not on your feet too long.”
Johanna smiled. The caring in his voice raised a bit of envy. She wished someone cared for her in that way.
She watched him drip catsup on his burger and fries. Did he realize how much fat the food contained? She inhaled and the aroma of the burger made her realize how hungry she was.
As they ate, he related stories of the bar he’d bought from his father-in-law and how it had evolved into a restaurant. “First there were the snacks. Then a bit of soda bread. When Colleen’s husband graduated from the Culinary Institute, he was needing a job, so we bought the building next door and expanded.”
Before she finished the savory burger, Johanna learned Dylan had been a widower for two years. His oldest children were his partners, and the youngest two were in college and spending the summer on work/study projects.
The town clock struck twelve times. Johanna glanced around the room. The other booths and the tables near the windows were occupied and so were most of the seats at the bar. She slid toward the aisle. “I should go.”
“Feel free to stay for a bit of dessert,” Dylan said. “Time I was headed to the bar. I’ll call and see how you and the wee beast are dealing with each other and if your wounds have healed.”
“There’s no need. I’ll be fine.”
He winked. “I’m not one for doing a thing I don’t want to do. Remember, if you need another rescue from an iron dragon, I’m your man.” He strode to the bar.
Johanna waved the waitress away. “No dessert. Thanks.” She’d eaten more this noon than she had for months. She slipped a bill beneath her plate and rose. As she lifted the shoe box, she heard a mournful cry. What was she going to do with a kitten?
“Take care crossing the street,” Dylan called.
Johanna stepped outside. Forgotten were her plans for the antique shops and the library. She had a kitten, the promise of a phone call and lighter spirits. At the curb, she turned to look at the restaurant, saw Dylan and waved.
DYLAN PLACED TWO GLASSES of wine on one of the window tables. Instead of returning to the bar, he watched Johanna walk away. When she waved, he grinned.
Why had he promised to phone? What he knew about Johanna Gordon came from his niece. Bridget admired the older woman, and often spoke about her fairness to the nurses and her uncluttered life, a thing Bridget’s certainly wasn’t. His niece worked full-time to support four children and a husband who tossed his shoes beneath any woman’s bed.
The strength of his attraction to Johanna rocked Dylan. Though there was no logical reason, he knew he would call and invite her to dinner.
Since Maureen’s death, he’d had no desire to become involved with another woman. If he could find one like her, he might reassess his notion that the coupled part of his life had ended. Maureen had met his passion, his laughter and his temper with her own.
Johanna Gordon was nothing like Maureen. There’d been shadows in the depths of Johanna’s brown eyes. The sadness had stirred a need in him to see them gone.
“Nice going, old man.” Dina poked his ribs with a finger. “Glad to see you haven’t lost your touch with the ladies.”
“Get out of here with your nonsense. I was only being the gentleman.”
“Looked to me like she got to you.” She danced away and collided with her sister-in-law. “Your father invited a lady to lunch.”
“And I missed it,” Colleen said. “What’s she like?”
“In her forties. Tall, slender, brown hair. Kind of stiff, but she had a sweet smile. He saved her life.”
Colleen giggled. “My dad, the hero. What happened?”
Before Dina had a chance to answer, Dylan put his hand on her shoulder. “Get to work, the pair of you.”
Dina laughed. “This is for the way you teased Patrick and me. Payback’s a—”
He put a finger on her lips. “Watch your mouth. If music can effect the unborn, just think what that kind of language can do. I don’t want my grandson arriving with a sewer mouth.”
“What if he’s a girl?”
“You’re having a boy. I’ve the second sight. It’s a family trait.”
Patrick’s loud guffaw interrupted the verbal sparring match. “My lovely wife, you’ll never win a battle of words with Dad. Who do you think this place is named for?”
Dylan winked at Dina and walked to the bar. He pushed Patrick to the opening. “Get out there and give your wife and sister a hand with the tables.”
“On my way. I liked her looks. You know, I’m amazed an old man can move so fast.”
“I’ll give you old. Three rounds in the backyard in the morning.”
Patrick chuckled. “Be sure to call her. You need more of a social life than family gatherings and watching Colleen’s boys.”
“Hey, he volunteers to babysit. Just wait ’til Dina pops and we’ll see who calls Dad.” Colleen patted Dylan’s arm. “I’ll add my vote for the lady.”
Dylan laughed. Even thinking about Johanna made him eager to see her. He filled four mugs with beer and slid them down the bar. Tomorrow, he thought. Let her get used to life with a kitten.
JOHANNA SAW THE STATUE of a cat in front of a building not far from the library. Yes, she thought and prayed the vet was still in the office. She opened the door into the waiting room.
The woman seated behind the desk looked up. “Can I help you?”
“I found a stray kitten,” Johanna said.
“We don’t take strays. You can take it to the animal shelter.”
“No. I plan to keep him, but I don’t know what I need.”
A young man wearing a lab coat appeared in the doorway. “I’m Dr. Greene. Let me see your friend.”
“Johanna Gordon.” She handed him the box.
He took the kitten out. “He’s a handsome one. What’s his name?”
She nearly blurted Dylan. “Why?”
“For our records.”
He laughed. “For the restaurant.”
She nodded. “I found him beneath one of the benches. How old is he?”
“About six weeks,” the doctor said.
“What do I need?”
The young man smiled. “I’ll have Lila set you up while I check him out and give him shots.”
A short time later, Johanna looked at the stack of items she’d purchased. “Could you keep him here while I run home for my car?” She handed the woman a check.
“No problem,” the vet said. “How long will you be?”
“Fifteen minutes at most. I live down the street.”
A half hour later, Johanna carried the last of the many supplies needed for the kitten into the house. She removed Blarney from the carrier and sat on the couch. She stroked the kitten’s soft fur and let the music whirl her into the fantasy world.