"How long are you going to leave her with me, Joey?" Ginny Barr stood in the apartment doorway and watched her younger brother's retreat to the stairs. She wrinkled her nose against the acrid and musty odors that assaulted her. As usual, the bulb at the head of the stairs was out. Her brother vanished into the shadows.
"A month, maybe two."
"Are you in trouble?"
"These past couple of weeks have been rough," he said. "I really loved Pookie, you know. I need to get my head straight."
She wanted to believe him. He sounded like he meant his words, but their relationship was studded with broken promises. "I'll stay clear of the gangs." He hadn't. "No boozing for me. Look at Mommy." He had. "College will be a breeze. I'll make my mark just like you did." Then he'd dropped out.
At one time, Ginny had believed he would be the second of the Barr kids to escape the spiral of poverty. Maybe this time, he would keep his promise.
After closing the door, she slid the dead bolt home. Her plans for the evening had included an hour's work on the first of her Master's projects. Joey's arrival with his infant daughter had shot down that idea.
Then, before he'd told her why he wanted to leave his baby with her, Annette had arrived. Joey wasn't her friend's favorite person.
For several minutes, the temperature in the apartment had soared above the already abnormal September high. The sharp words between the pair had ended Ginny's chance of learning the entire story behind her brother's flight and his decision to leave his daughter behind. Part of her didn't want to know.
"What kind of name is Pookie?" Annette stroked the baby's light mocha skin with her dark brown finger.
Ginny shrugged. "A pet name. That's all he ever called his wife."
"Were they married?"
"He said they were."
"Ever meet her?"
"No." Ginny lifted Manda to her shoulder and rubbed the baby's cheek with hers.
"What's wrong with you knowing the girl's name? He afraid you're going to approach the grandparents?"
"You heard what he said. They forbade her to see him and when they learned she was pregnant, they tossed her out. They refused to have anything to do with a biracial grandchild. Guess they didn't think Joey was good enough."
"I don't think he's good enough and I never met the girl. You're blind and deaf where that boy's concerned." Annette held up her hand. "Girl, you're crazy taking this on. Don't you have enough on your plate with Honor, work at the hospital and a double Master's program? You'll wear yourself to the bone and you ain't got that far to go."
Ginny fumbled in the brown bag Joey had left beside the lumpy gray couch. She pulled out a bottle. When she looked up, she saw concern in her friend's dark eyes. "You heard him. Just a couple of months. I have to trust him."
"Sure you do ... not. That's like believing I'll be elected president next November. What's wrong with him taking care of his own kid?"
"He's young. He's a guy. What does he know about raising a child?"
Annette straightened. "I'm going to pretend those words never came out of your mouth. What's wrong with a guy raising a child? He sure helped make her. I know he's your baby brother and you've always cleaned up his messes. Don't you think it's time he stood on his own?"
Ginny sighed. "And if I didn't take Manda, he was going to ask Mommy to keep her."
Annette laughed. "He got you again. That boy sure knows how to twist your knobs. Your mother would have 'bout as much care for the baby as her other grandmother. You know how your mother is?"
Ginny nodded and headed to the kitchen. "You're right."
"I'll feed her. Get ready for work."
"Are you sure you want to stay tonight? I could cancel. This is an extra shift."
Annette reached into the bag. "One pack of diapers, four cans of formula, three more bottles, one battered bear, two sleepers. Guess I know where the extra bucks are going. Girl, we got to stick together or we're going to fall apart."
Annette cradled the baby in her arms. "Mama's not expecting me home tonight. Her sewing circle is meeting. I can't stand being in that apartment while the ladies are sewing and talking."
Ginny laughed. "They're working on my quilt. Guess I'll go to work." She headed for the bedroom.
"Honor's sure going to get a surprise in the morning. How are we going to explain to that child where babies come from? She's going to be thinking the stork came while she was sleeping."
"You'll think of a way," Ginny said.
She stopped beside one of the twin beds in the small bedroom and looked at her sleeping daughter. A laugh caught in her throat. The heat and humidity of the day remained trapped in the room. The sheet trailed on the floor. Honor's nightgown hung over the bottom rail of the iron bed frame, but covering her feet were a pair of red socks. Ginny touched her daughter's warm brown skin. No matter how hot the weather, Honor always wore socks to bed.
"Baby, I love you," she whispered and headed to the bathroom.
As the tepid water washed over her, she thought about her friend's concern. Two children. Ginny sighed. Manda was her niece. Even if Joey left his daughter forever, Ginny vowed Manda would have love and learn to take pride in who she was.
Two years later
Ginny stepped from the shower and briskly dried herself. The hot water had washed away the remnants of sleep, but a knot of anticipation remained coiled in her stomach. As she dressed in white scrubs, the feeling that her life was about to take another turn persisted.
Not now, she thought. Not when her life rolled smoothly along the road she'd mapped at eighteen.
At nineteen, she had encountered the first roadblock. Then two years later, she had sped around a corner and met a barrier she had deftly steered around. Pride straightened her spine. This time, she'd avoid a detour, but first, she had to discover why she felt edgy.
She smoothed the hand-made blue and green quilt that covered the large brass bed and shoved a small purse in her pocket. Pride was the driving force of her life. Pride in who she was and what she'd accomplished made her strong. She couldn't allow vague feelings to weaken her resolve.
Before heading downstairs, she paused in the doorway of the girls' room. Light cast by the early morning sun shone through the orange, yellow and brown print curtains. The September day promised to be beautiful.
Two year old Manda slept face down with her rear in the air. She clutched the well-worn teddy bear Ginny had found in the paper bag Joey had left.
Ginny chuckled. Eight year old Honor, clad in a short nightie and blue socks, as always, had pushed her covers on the floor. Ginny blew a pair of kisses and pushed away a desire to grab the girls and run.
Foolishness, she thought. She slid her hand along the smooth wood of the banister and walked downstairs. She had no reason to worry, not with her position as Patient Care Coordinator of the orthopedic unit at Hudson View General Hospital.
Though there were ruts to be smoothed, she enjoyed the challenge. The job had allowed her to fulfill so many of her dreams. Escape from the city and the means to raise the girls in a safer environment. The chance to be a home owner instead of a tenant in a fourth floor walk-up. The opportunity to implement the educational program for nurses and patients she had developed.
"Girl, if you don't get the lead out, we're going to be late." Annette stood beside the stairs.
Ginny swallowed a gasp. "Like the hair but next time, tip the ends with bells. I could use a warning." The aroma of coffee filtered into the hall. "Why are you so early?"
"Your alarm broke, right? Mama and I've been here a good twenty minutes. It's twenty-five to seven."
"I got caught up in my thoughts." Ginny followed her friend to the kitchen.
"You do too much of that. Doesn't pay to plan every breath you take."
Ginny wasn't sure Annette was right. Without plans, life would be chaotic. Sure surprises happened, but if the possibilities weren't considered, a person could be thrown off balance by events.
She entered the kitchen and smiled at Miss Nellie. "Good morning."
Black hair, liberally sprinkled with white, framed the older woman's round face. "Morning." She handed Ginny a glass of juice and a slice of toast. "No sense making a proper breakfast when you don't get down here on time. Child, you could stand a bit of fattening up."
"How come you never say that to me." Annette headed to the door.
"Honey, I can't remember you ever missing a meal." Miss Nellie pointed to Ginny. "Eat."
"Yes, ma'am." Ginny chewed the toast and washed it down with juice. "Honor's lunch money's on the table."
Miss Nellie's hands rested on her plump hips. "How are you going to be sure that child's getting the proper nourishing? She's nothing but skin and bones."
Annette grinned. "Just like her mama." She opened the door. "Let's go, boss lady. Maybe you can stroll in late, but I've got a date with a time clock."
Ginny closed the door and followed her friend across the yard. How fortunate she'd been to find a duplex and that there'd been an opening at Hudson View for Annette. Ginny slid behind the wheel and started the ancient van.
"What's got you acting like you're crawling across a bed of nails?" Annette asked.
Ginny backed into the street. "Just a feeling things are about to fall apart, You know what happened the other times I've felt this way?"
"Nate and Joey."
Ginny thought of the night she'd told Honor's father about the pregnancy. Her joy had shattered when he'd informed her he was married and his wife expected his first child in seven months. Ginny hadn't known he was married. She'd believed his declaration. His desertion had nearly wrecked her plans to escape the slums.
"You survived the rat and have a daughter who's beautiful inside and out," Annette said. "You've given your niece a wonderful home and lots of love."
"You're right, but ..."
"Don't go looking for trouble. Who knows, the change might be a good one." Annette leaned back in the seat. "Dr. Marshall's son arrives today."
"What does that have to do with me?"
"Just changing the subject before you worry yourself gray. What's the scoop on the good doctor's plans? The rumor mills are grinding a new story a minute."
"When I stopped by yesterday, he said he'd be released soon, but he played dumb when I asked him when he'd be back to work."
"Let's hope he doesn't retire. He's the glue that holds that bunch of prima donna orthopods together."
Ginny had a hard time imagining the blue-eyed Chief of Orthopedics as a blob of glue. He was more like a teddy bear ... or a father. Something she'd never known.
"The surgeons aren't that bad...most of them."
"Some are okay, but what about Simon?" Annette asked.
Ginny nodded. "You're right. Greg Simon has an attitude problem."
"Maybe young Dr. Marshall will be as nice as his dad."
"We can only hope." Ginny stopped at the parking lot gate and inserted her card. "Except he's fresh out of a residency at 'Old Joints and Bones' and you know how those guys are. I think they have a course titled 'Disdain and Arrogance ... How to Project the Proper Hauteur."
Annette laughed. The beads on her multitude of braids clicked together. "Girl, you got to stop prying under every rock looking for trouble. There are enough problems floating around."
Ginny pulled the van into a parking space. "I believe in looking ahead." She and Annette joined the scattered groups of nurses headed to the red brick, T-shaped building.
Inside, Annette ducked into the hall where the time clocks were kept. Ginny continued to the elevator. Before she reached her office on the third floor, she stopped in the nurses' lounge for a cup of coffee. In her office, she sat at the gray metal desk and stared through the window that provided a view of the hall. Today was one of the times she wished her office looked out to the world so she could see the sky and sunshine.
Stop fussing and get to work, she told herself. Quickly, she sorted through the notes in the wire basket on the corner of the desk and stuffed the requests for days off in a folder. She read the report of an incident that had occurred on Saturday and made a note to thank Kathy Grant. Her vigilance had probably saved the hospital from a lawsuit.
Rounds, she thought. She rose and paused in the office doorway to wait until the couple ahead of her turned the corner. This morning, she couldn't face Dr. Greg Simon's sneering condemnation or Lisa Kingsley's rudeness. The dark-haired surgeon and the blonde nurse were a perfect match, at least in their attitudes.
Once the pair vanished, Ginny headed to day surgery. Of the seven patients scheduled for orthopedic procedures, two had arrived and were being prepared for surgery.
"Hey, Ginny," a red-haired nurse called. "Any news about Dr. Marshall?"
"Which one?" another woman asked.
"The father. The son's an unknown."
How true, Ginny thought. She reported her latest visit and received reactions similar to Annette's.
A short time later, Ginny strode to the acute care area where they admitted fresh post-ops and those patients needing special care. She stopped at the desk and studied the patient board.
Two of the nurses stopped talking. Lisa Kingsley smiled, but the smile wasn't friendly. Ginny looked for Betty Tawser, the third member of the trio who opposed every change on the unit.
With a nod to Lisa, Ginny left the desk and made patient rounds. When she finished, she starred the names of several patients who were stable enough to move if needed to make room for incoming patients from ER, ICU or the OR.
This done, she made rounds on the rehabilitation section of the unit and called Admitting. For the first time in weeks, there was no overflow of orthopedic patients on any of the medical or surgical units.
Wait until winter, she thought. But by that time, the nurses would have completed the educational program and the efficiency of the unit would improve.
She headed to her office. Her life was on schedule, so why was the knot of anticipation expanding?
A rap on the window broke into her reverie. A grinning Annette peered through the glass. "Girl, quit your dawdling. Young Dr. Marshall has arrived." She pressed a hand to her chest. "He's a man for every woman's fantasy."
Ginny shook her head. She pictured the older Dr. Marshall, subtracted years and added hair. Pleasant. Maybe cute, but hardly fantasy material. She rose. "I'm on my way. Wouldn't want him to accuse me of ignoring him."
"Won't happen. He seems as nice as his dad. Run, don't walk. Rescue him before Val drowns him in sweetness."
Ginny frowned. Val ... Sweet ... impossible. The unit's secretary was a mistress of the rude put-down.
When Ginny turned the corner, she stopped short. A barely contained urge to run in the opposite direction caused her to approach the desk with slow, measured steps. Young Dr. Marshall was tall, handsome ... and black. He was also the resident who two years ago had questioned her nursing judgment. Though she had been vindicated a patient had suffered needless pain.
Her hands curled into fists. Dr. Marshall laughed at something Val said and then turned to Lisa. The knot in Ginny's abdomen swelled into her chest. No way, she thought. She wouldn't allow this man or anyone to detour her from her chosen road. She plastered a smile on her face that she knew didn't match the hostility she felt.
"Dr. Marshall, I'm Ms. Barr, Patient Care Coordinator for the unit. Welcome to Hudson View."
Lisa strolled away. "See you around, Dr. Marshall. You'll soon discover Hudson View is nothing like the University for interesting and exciting cases."
Ginny stiffened. Why did Lisa constantly bad mouth the hospital? If she felt bored, she should have stayed at the University.
A slow smile curved Dr. Marshall's lips. His dark brown eyes appraised Ginny with the intensity of a scientist peering through a microscope. He held out a hand. She resisted the desire to thrust her hands behind her back. Instead, she held her arms stiffly at her sides.
"Ms. Barr, Blake Marshall. My father speaks highly of you." He rested the hand she had refused to touch on the counter that separated the nurses' station from the hall.
"Then I must thank him. He has been eagerly awaiting your arrival."
She held back a groan. Stilted conversation had never been her forte, but this morning and with this man, she'd become an expert. The knot edged into her throat. She gulped a breath. Why did the air between them smell of ozone as though a bolt of lightning had struck nearby?
She saw a question in his eyes and wondered if he remembered the night they'd met. She had called him twice and the third time had demanded he come to assess a patient. She would never forget because that had been the night Joey had left Manda. Angry thoughts swept her into the past.
"I insist you come immediately." She gripped the phone and listened to the sleep-fogged voice question her about the patient. "I won't hesitate to go over your head. It's been a half hour since my last call and an hour since the first. The patient's pain is constant and excruciating. I've elevated his leg and applied ice. A possible compartment syndrome is no joke."
Five minutes later, he strode into the patient's room. His rumpled, green scrubs didn't disguise his muscular physique. His dark eyes had flashed with anger. He eyed her nametag. "An agency nurse. What do you know about orthopedics?"
She bit back an angry response. She could have told him she had worked in orthopedics for five years and that in three semesters, she would have a Masters as a nurse practitioner with a focus on orthopedics. But she wouldn't. His question didn't deserve an answer."
"Just check the patient," she said.
Once he examined the young man's leg and discovered she'd been right, she had expected an apology. He'd given none, just split the cast, made a note on the chart and strode away.
Her memory of the past faded. She couldn't allow that incident to influence her. "Would you like a tour of the unit? The renovations were completed in May just before I took over."
"That would be my pleasure."
His voice reminded her of velvet, smooth, lush and sensual. She swallowed and headed for day surgery. "Your father has an arthroscopy on the schedule. I thought you might be involved."
Was that her voice? The tight, clipped tones sounded foreign to her ears.
"Greg took the case. As of tomorrow, I'll be taking Dad's cases until he returns."
"Don't you intend to join the practice?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure of my plans."
The hint of arrogance in his voice was no surprise, but the anger it stirred shocked her. The senior Dr. Marshall had spoken of his son's return with eagerness and pride. "Your father will be disappointed if you leave."
"Not for long. Dad's always encouraged me to pursue my own goals."
"How fortunate for you, but don't you think ..." She stopped herself. Arguing would do no good. Didn't he think he owed his father anything?
As they passed through the rehab section, she spotted Annette and Mike, the orthopedic orderly. Annette grinned.
It's not what you think, Ginny wanted to shout. This man pushed her buttons and produced discordant emotions. She glanced at him. He raised an eyebrow. Her cheeks burned.