Home at last. Susan Randall moved her shoulders in slow circles to ease the tension raised by the series of delays she had experienced during the morning's journey from
An hour's delay in the departure of the flight. Traffic snarls due to
construction. She had hoped to be home long before noon. She looked at her
watch. Nearly one o'clock.
The limousine driver dropped her bags on the porch. After paying the man, she waited for him to leave. Then she fished the house key from the jumble in her purse and opened the front door. Why hadn't she stuck to her original plan and left last night? Instead, she had allowed her parents to persuade her to stay until this morning. Another failure in assertiveness, she thought.
The two weeks in
had exhausted her. With a sigh, she opened the front door and lifted the
suitcases. Worry over the outcome of her father's abdominal surgery and coping
with her mother's fears had drained her. Her father's uncomplicated recovery
had given her parents time to offer advice on how she should live her life.
It's been nearly a year and a half since Jim's death. How long are you going to grieve? You're thirty-five. Isn't it time to let him go and build a new life?
Variations on the theme had been endless. The unsolicited advice and opinions had only increased her inner restlessness.
Susan dropped the suitcases beside the brown and white couch. How could she admit to her parents that fear of losing her identity again and not grief had governed her choices? Until the restraints had vanished, she hadn't realized she had been wrapped in a cocoon. If Jim hadn't died, her contentment with her life would have lasted. He would have continued to make decisions for every moment of their life and she wouldn't have protested. He had bound her so tightly, there had been little need for family, friends or children. During the past eighteen months, making decisions for the slightest change had been difficult, but she had learned. She had no intention of ceding her newfound independence.
Why would she want to find another man and plunge into the same kind of dependency? The odds of settling into a similar relationship were high. How many of her friends had she watched leave one man and find another with the same traits? She couldn't take the chance‑‑not until she gained confidence in herself. Besides, her life would remain serene as long as her emotions remained in a coma.
The wall clock chimed. Startled, she looked up. One forty-five. How long had she drifted in thought? She'd better move before she arrived late for work, an act she hadn't committed in her thirteen years at
. Bradley Memorial Hospital
When she took off her coat, she saw the basket of gold and rust-colored chrysanthemums on the coffee table. She reached for the card.
"Welcome home. Talk to you soon. Patrick."
Warmth infused her. She touched one of the feathery blooms. This wasn't the first time one of his unexpected presents had raised her spirits.
As she ran upstairs, she pushed aside questions about his intentions. Patrick was her friend and tenant. He had been Jim's friend, too. She refused to believe there was more, and yet, she remembered a night when there had been. She shook her head. She needed a friend, not a lover.
Moments later, she stood in the shower. Warm water washed away the sour smell of nervous perspiration. Though the tension caused by the multitude of delays eased, she sensed it lurking like the remnants of a nightmare. She stepped from the shower, dried and dressed in a white uniform. If traffic cooperated and the line at the deli was short, she would reach the hospital in time to step into her role as a nurse. That Susan was completely different from the shadow woman Jim had created. At the hospital, she was confident, decisive and in control.
At twenty minutes to three, Susan entered the locker room on Five Orthopedics. She changed from boots to shoes, punched her time card and draped a Sprague-Rappaport stethoscope around her neck. Then she stepped into the hall.
As she approached the nurses' lounge, her pace slowed. She inhaled a deep breath. Why the sudden reluctance? For the past year and a half, being at the hospital five evenings a week had been her escape from loneliness. What had changed? While searching for an answer, she opened the lounge door.
"Do you really think I'll tell you?" Barbara Denton's strident voice rasped against Susan's nerve endings. "Believe me, when I say it's dynamite. Someone isn't going to like what I've learned. And let me tell you, this time, I have all the facts."
The practical nurse's harsh laughter and the veiled threat in her voice added to Susan's uneasiness.
Whom had Barbara targeted this time? Her stories always contained a dram of truth but little more.
Susan halted in the doorway and waited to hear further hints of scandal. When the practical remained silent, Susan stepped into the room and closed the door.
The hospital's gossip queen sprawled on the bright green loveseat facing the door. She stabbed a cigarette toward the round table that was partly hidden by the jutting powder room wall. A gold bracelet glittered on her arm and slid up and down as she used the cigarette to emphasize the importance of the tidbit she dangled.
Susan shook her head. Had anyone reminded Barbara that smoking in the hospital was illegal? Would it matter? The practical had chosen to break the rule, but so did the unit's nurse manager.
"Don't tease," Susan said. "We know you're dying to tell all."
One of the two nurses seated at the round table jumped up. "Welcome back," Julie Gilbert said. "How was your trip? You look terrific."
"The trip was nice." Susan smiled. A year ago, during Julie's first three months on the unit, Susan had been the younger nurse's mentor. They had become friends.
Barbara flicked a long ash from her cigarette. "Would you look at the tan? Bet you didn't spend your entire two weeks playing private duty nurse. Sure wish I could afford two weeks in the sun."
"The rent was free." Susan crossed to the credenza and reached for the coffeepot.
"As if you have to worry." Barbara's words flowed on a stream of smoke. "Bet your husband left you tons of insurance money. All I ever got from mine was a stack of unpaid bills."
"Three times." When Julie turned to look at the practical, sunlight glinted on the silver clip that held her long hair at her nape. "You sure know how to pick them." Her grin was as saucy as her voice.
"About as good as you." Barbara's hand hovered over a Styrofoam cup. "If you think you're going anywhere with De Witt, think again."
Julie made a face. "You'll soon see how wrong you are."
"Sure I will," Barbara drawled. "Ask Trish about him. After all, she followed him here. Hey, Trish, was it love or another reason?"
What did Barbara mean? Susan glanced at Trish Fallon. Her bony shoulders hunched and her lower lip trembled. Trish and De Witt? The unlikely combination made Susan want to laugh. She stepped toward the table until a flash of anger in the thin nurse's pale eyes halted her in mid stride. Why the attempt to provoke a quarrel between Julie and Trish?
Julie walked around Susan. "It's really great to have you back. Like the new hairstyle. How much weight did you lose?" She grinned. "Is there something you're not telling us? Who is he?"
Susan added milk to the coffee she had poured. "I have no secrets."
"Ain't that the truth," Barbara said. "And believe me, I've searched." She stubbed her cigarette. "Let me tell you what happened to me while you were gone. You saved my life."
Trish rose. Julie groaned.