The ceiling fan stirred the hot, humid air. Alien aromas of sweat, perfume and spices assaulted her. Laurel Richmond leaned against the examining table and wiped her forehead with a cotton bandanna. A babble of voices floated through the partially open door of the triage room. She looked for Chandra and remembered the tiny Indian nurse had left for the day.
The chatter from the waiting room became the voices of
dislocating her in time and space. For an instant she wondered where she lived
this week and what year headed the calendar. A dozen scenes from as many
countries flashed in her thoughts. For the past four years she’d worked for
International Health Rescue Mission as part of a team following disasters and
dispensing medical care and training native health workers.
She opened her eyes. The moment of disorientation vanished.
The team had settled in the costal plains where a cyclone had ripped through
villages and towns leaving death and disease behind. She gripped the edge of
the examining table and willed herself not to collapse. India
After pulling her spinning emotions under control, she walked to the door of the triage room and motioned to the next group of patients. A dark-skinned woman with pleading brown eyes spoke in a high-pitched voice joining syllables with staccato beats. Three wide-eyed children clung to her sari. As if offering a gift the woman held out a baby.
took the child.
The infant’s swollen belly and thin limbs spoke of malnutrition. Fevered flesh burned
Laurel’s hands. The weak
mewling cries brought tears to her eyes. She bathed the baby in tepid water and
then plunged a needle into the thin muscles of his buttocks. With shaking hands
she handed the mother a bottle of sugar water and several of diluted formula.
examined the little girls.
The sing-song spate of chatter stopped.
looked around. Neil Bourne stood in the doorway. Though the day had almost
ended, his khakis looked neat. His dark hair, lightly sprinkled with gray and
the lines of experience in the corners of his eyes, revealed the ten years’
difference in their ages.
He smiled. In the past, his smiles had brought comfort and allowed her to speak of her dreams like a child talking to a trusted uncle. Today, his smile made her edgy.
“Dear girl, it’s nearly eight. Time to close shop for the day. You work too hard and too long.”
“No more than you.” She studied his face. Something in his expression told her he had news. Was the team moving to the scene of some new disaster? She wanted to protest another dislocation.
“Let me help you finish.”
Unwilling to let her tiredness show, she nodded, stepped to the door and gestured to the next patient.
For an hour, she and Neil assessed the rest of the patients in the waiting room. When the last patient had been seen, she closed the door and slumped on a chair.
“Time to leave.”
Neil’s deep voice lured her to her feet. She washed her hands and splashed water on her face. As they crossed the road to the house where members of the team lived, only his hand at her elbow kept her from staggering.
“Dinner?” he asked.
“Let me change.”
He shook his head. “If I let you go, you’ll collapse on the bed and miss another meal.”
She followed him into the house. “It’s too hot.”
“It’s a far cry from
in May,” he said. “Here, there’s the hot wet season and the hot dry season.”
“It’s not like home either.” Where was home? A chill made her tremble. Her vision blurred and she sank on a dining room chair. Flies droned. The ceiling fan stirred the air.
A servant entered and bowed. Soon dishes of curried chicken, rice, vegetables and fruit arrived along with a pot of steaming tea. The mingled aromas made her swallow. Nausea threatened.
She poured a cup of tea. “What I would give for a glass of ice.”
“You’re a barbarian.” He reached across the table and covered her hand with his. “Homesick?
She shook her head. “Just weary and tired of living as a gypsy.” Nannies. City apartments. Country homes. Boarding schools. Summer camps. Though she’d never known another way of life she yearned for being settled.
“In two weeks we’re for
and a week there while we re-equip.” He squeezed her fingers. “You feel warm.”
“The heat. I wonder if I’ll ever feel cool again.” She sipped the tea and toyed with the food on her plate.
Neil ate as if his next meal would arrive at some unspecified future time. He finished and walked around the table. “Let’s take tomorrow as an escape day.”
“Can we?” As his fingers lightly stroked the tight muscles of her shoulders and strayed to brush her neck, she tensed. “The patients.”
“Will be here long after we’re gone.” His fingers caressed her throat. “I know a place in the mountains with a poll fed by streams and breezes sweetened by the scent of flowers. I’d like to take you there.”
“That’s not a day’s outing.”
“I know but it would be a splendid place for a honeymoon.” His stroking fingers stilled. “Marry me.”
Shock waves rode her nerves. What could she say that wouldn’t hurt him? From deep inside came the knowledge she no longer wanted this roving life and that was all Neil could offer. She wanted the home she’d never known and for him to remain a friend, a mentor, not a lover and keeper of her heart.
He pulled her to her feet and turned her to face him. “We’re a smashing team.” His deep voice spun a web of enticement. “Consider the miracles we’ve performed and how many more are possible if we marry.” His mouth covered hers.
He’s not the one. The inner warning stiffened her body and aborted her response to his kiss. “I can’t.”
She couldn’t decipher the look in his pale blue eyes. She wanted to explain but any words she said would keep the situation rolling like a mudslide down a canyon wall. Months ago she’d told him about the secret love she’d held in her heart. He had dismissed the memories as a fantasy. For a short time she had believed him but she knew he was wrong.
He cupped her chin. “You’re alone. So am
I. The world is
filled with people crying for what we can give them.”
The look in his eyes belonged to a zealot. She would never come first with him. The sick would always claim his energy. “I…”
His fingers brushed her lips. “Don’t answer in haste. Think of how much you can give to so many in the future. Then give me an answer.”
She backed away. Beneath the panic that gathered in her thoughts she wondered why he had waited until tonight to ask her to marry him. Had her birthday yesterday and her mention of the money that would be hers next year play a part? Why hadn’t he asked her last year, last month, or sometime during the two years she’d been part of his team. Never once in that time had she sensed his caring went beyond friendship.
She walked to the bedroom she shared with another nurse. Without undressing she lay on the hard mattress and fell instantly into sleep.