Authors: Brenda Coulter
started writing an inspirational-romance novel the same afternoon she finished reading one for the first time. Less than a year later, she had a completed manuscript and an interested publisher. Although that first book went on to win both a HOLT Medallion and a
Romantic Times BOOKreviews
Reviewers' Choice Award, it took three rejected manuscripts before Brenda figured out what she had done right the first time. She did it again, resulting in another sale to Steeple Hill Books. That second novel was a finalist for Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITAÂ® Award.
Married for over thirty years, Brenda and her architect husband have no pets because, after bringing up two rascally boys, they have earned a rest.
h, now, that's just perfect!”
Behind the wheel of his silver Mercedes, Dr. Charles Hartman swore viciously. Then he flung open his door and leaped out to confront the driver of the older-model Ford that had just run into him. “Are you out of your mind?” he bellowed.
Although the hospital parking lot was nowhere near full, this idiot had come screeching around the corner on two wheels, making a beeline for the space right next to him, just as though there weren't a hundred others to choose from. Charles was backing out at the time, and his Mercedes had been smacked neatly on the left taillight.
Now his jaw clenched in exasperation as the driver of the Ford, a young woman, hurtled towards him. A slender but sturdy-looking female in faded jeans and a turquoise T-shirt, her long almost-black hair was caught up in a bouncy ponytail. In the brilliant midday sun her dark blue eyes sparkled with tears.
That she was crying did nothing at all to lessen
Charles's rage. Sheer exhaustion was effectively dousing that fire. He meant to stay furious, but when he turned to slam his car door, a shooting pain in his lower back caused his shoulders to sag. He sighed and the anger leaked out of him like air from a punctured tire.
The past twenty-four hours at the hospital had been grueling. Two of the lives he'd battled for had been wrenched from his grasp. It was now barely one o'clock in the afternoon, but all he wanted was for this day to be over. If he could reengage his weary brain long enough to string together a few coherent sentences, he'd give this careless kid a stern lecture and be on his way.
“I'm so awfully sorry!” the girl wailed. “It was completely my fault. Hereâtake this,” she said cryptically, thrusting a small object at him. “I have to go!”
His hands came up reflexively, trapping a thin leather wallet against his chest. His eyebrows drew together and his mouth fell open as he gazed at the lunatic girl.
Charles was virtually never at a loss for words, especially acerbic ones, but just now he was too fatigued to come up with any of the caustic remarks he was known for. His tired mind worked to understand what the young woman expected him to do with her wallet.
She was babbling as she backed away from him. “Put it under the front seat and lock my car, okay? I'm so sorry! I'll pay for it, I promise. But I really have to go now!”
Still openmouthed, he watched dumbly as she pivoted on the balls of her feet and sprinted away from him. The girl had some speed, he noted absently, but then she was all legs. Her dark ponytail bobbed wildly as she dashed across the street, charged up the steps and crashed through Lakeside Hospital's main entrance, heading straight for the information desk.
Charles stared at the wallet in his hands. What was he
supposed to do with it? Did she expect him to copy the information on her driver's license and report the accident? He had neither the time nor the patience for that.
Curious, he opened the wallet. According to her license she was twenty-three-year-old Hope Evans. No middle name. Five feet, five inches. Brown hair and blue eyes.
A stickler for accuracy, he'd have said dark chestnut hair and sapphire eyes. Not that it mattered, of course; she'd have to be a good ten years older and in a much higher tax bracket before he'd have looked at her with anything approaching masculine interest.
It was a nicer picture than what was usually found on a driver's license. She was smiling. And while she wasn't what he would have called beautiful, there was a definite sweetness to her face. Not that “sweetness” was a quality that had ever appealed to him.
In addition to the license, her wallet contained a credit card, a University of Chicago student ID and two one-dollar bills. Nothing else.
He inspected her car, but apart from an almost microscopic dent and a dab of his own car's silver paint, the Ford was undamaged.
Charles leaned against his own car and closed his eyes. With his thumb and index finger he pinched the bridge of his nose. He was almost grateful for the steady throbbing of his head because it helped take his mind off the stabbing pain in his back.
He opened his eyes, thoughtfully tapping his chin with the wallet. Directly in his line of sight was the parking attendant's booth, on the side of which the lot's hourly fees were clearly posted. A practical man, Charles wondered how the girl expected to pay for parking here.
He reached for his own wallet. A quick look inside revealed that, like the girl, he was down to his last two bills. His were in a more convenient denomination, how
ever: he had two fifties. He removed one and folded it around her one-dollar bills.
She had asked him to leave the wallet in her car, but he couldn't bring himself to do that. This was Chicago, and not the very best neighborhood, either. Heaving a mighty sigh, he turned back towards the hospital. Maybe somebody at the information desk would remember which patient she had asked for.
He dragged himself across the street and up the steps, resenting with every footfall the young gazelle who had lightly leaped up this same hill just a minute ago.
wasn't thirty-five. And it was a safe bet that she hadn't been on her feet all night long and all morning, too, doing back-to-back surgeries on three people who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Neither had she watched helplessly as the life ebbed out of a gunshot police officer and then just a couple of hours later, a teenage pedestrian hit by a speeding motorist.
Charles sighed again. It galled him that some lives just couldn't be saved, not even by a genius like himself.
He gave an involuntary grunt as he fought a gusting early-May wind for the right to pull open one of the tall glass doors of the hospital's main entrance. He thought grimly that somebody in building support should be informed that the doors were far too heavy for old people, sick people and bone-weary trauma surgeons to manage. He made a mental note to use the handicapped entrance the next time he was this tired.
The elderly volunteer at the information desk didn't remember which patient the ponytailed menace had asked for, but the room number stuck in her mind because it happened to be the last four digits of her daughter's telephone number. She was eager to discuss this remarkable coincidence with Charles, but he thanked her gruffly and headed up to room 6120.
Twice he was waylaid by colleagues who didn't sufficiently grasp the concept of being “off duty.” It was some fifteen minutes before he poked his head into the room where the girl was visiting an old man.
“Excuse meâMs. Evans? May I speak with you?”
She looked puzzled but she nodded politely. He backed out of the doorway and waited in the hall.
She followed immediately. “Yes?”
It was apparent she had forgotten his face. Without a word, he presented her wallet.
She flushed. “Oh, it's you! I'm so sorry about your car. It was all my fault, completely my fault.”
“I agree,” he said dryly, wondering how many more times she was planning to say that. “But it's not important. Forget about it.” He turned away.
important!” she called after him. He didn't look back, but she followed him, chattering maddeningly. “Please waitâI feel just awful. I was in a terrible hurry, so I didn't take time to look, but I know there was some damage. I felt a nasty crunch and I definitely heard some smashing and splintering andâ¦”
Here she paused to take a breath, and the resulting two seconds of silence were deeply treasured by Charles. He kept walking, but she stuck to him like sun-warmed bubblegum to the sole of a shoe. “I've done it before,” she confessed, “so I know exactly what those sounds mean.”
He stopped suddenly, and he heard a syncopated shuffle that told him she'd almost run into the back of him. He turned, fixing her with an incredulous stare. It was a chilling look that could send the toughest ER nurse scurrying for cover, but for some reason it didn't faze this college girl. Although he had her wide-eyed attention, she wasn't exactly cowering before him.
He must be losing his touch. He tried again, this time employing the deadly quiet voice that could reduce thick-
skinned surgery residents to quivering blobs of jelly. “You make a
Her heart-shaped face registered surprise at his sharpness, but after regarding him for a couple of seconds her features relaxed and she broke into an impish grin. “Last time I got a Jaguar,” she said proudly. “You're a Mercedes, aren't you? I have an unerring eye for quality, don't you think?”
Her screwball humor knocked him off balance. He felt his lips twitch but he was careful not to smile. “What did you do to the Jag?” he asked before he could stop himself.
Her grin faded. “Well, I took out a headlight, although I'm not certain it was entirely my fault. But the driver was an attorney with an amazing vocabulary and he ripped me up pretty thoroughly with a lot of words that made me blush.” Smiling again, she slid her wallet into the back pocket of her jeans, the masculine gesture oddly accentuating the sweet femininity she exuded. “You're much nicer than he was.”
It wasn't often that people accused Charles of being nice. It wasn't true and it annoyed him. Most people tagged him as impatient or abrasive. Those were pretty fair assessments, he had to admit. But this irritating girl was smiling brightly, silently insisting that he was a nice guy, a regular sweetheart.
He didn't return the smile. “Excuse me,” he said abruptly, showing her his back again.
“Please wait!” she begged. She was beside him instantly, detaining him with a hand on his forearm. “I was flippant with you just now, but I'm really sorry about what I did to your car. It's just that I was distracted. My adopted grandfather's here, and I've been out of town for three days, so I just found out he had another heart attack.
I was in a rush to see him and I think I was crying a little, andâwell, I was careless and I hit you, but now you know why I had to run off. Gramps is better now. I was just talking with him. Anyway, thank you for bringing my wallet. May I know your name?”
“Dr. Hartman,” he said shortly. He was desperate to get away from this chatterbox. “It's okay about the car.” He looked pointedly at the hand on his arm and it was immediately withdrawn. He gave her a curt nod and walked away, rolling his eyes and grunting impatiently as she called, “Thank you, Dr. Hartman. I'll remember you in my prayers!”
He was halfway to the elevator lobby when Dr. West, the hospital's chief of surgery, approached him. “Hartman! They said you were gone already. Can you spare a minute?”
He couldn't, but he did. In fact he spared almost five of them. When he was finally free to make another bid for the elevators he noticed Hope Evans in front of the coffee machine. As she reached for the wallet in her back pocket he averted his eyes and quickened his pace, desperate to escape.
But she had spotted him. “Goodbye, Dr. Hartman!” she trilled. “Have a lovely day!”
Too late for that. Ignoring her, he kept walking. He had almost gained the polished-steel sanctuary of an elevator when he heard her double-time footsteps behind him. A tidal wave of annoyance washed over him as she called his name. He stopped, but he didn't turn. His head rolled back in a slow-motion whiplash and he stared hopelessly at the white-tiled ceiling.
When she caught up to him she spoke softly, wonderingly. “Why did you put a fifty-dollar bill in my wallet?”
Dr. Hartman always resented being caught in the act of anything foolish people might mistake for kindness.
He regarded her through narrowed eyes. “I happened to notice you didn't have enough to pay for parking,” he said roughly.
Her long ponytail swung from side to side as she gave her head a vigorous shake. “It was very kind of you, but I can't take it. Especially since I hit your car.”
He ignored the bill she held out to him. “How were you planning to pay for it, then?” He had no idea why he asked; he was certainly in no mood to chat with this ditzy female.
Bright spots of color appeared on her cheeks, making her look like a painted china doll. Her milky complexion and her remarkable blue eyes, framed by delicate brows and fringed with long black lashes, enhanced the effect. “I was going to ask if I could pay them tomorrow,” she said, obviously embarrassed by the admission. “Today I'll get a paycheck andâ”
“Well, it's no business of mine,” he interrupted, ruthlessly denying the sympathy her grave expression was kindling in him. “Just take the money. It's nothing to me.” He would have turned away but something in her face stopped him.
“Please, Dr. Hartman.” Her tone was soft, sweetly insistent. “It's something to
Aggravated by the way her dewy eyes and gentle voice were getting to him, Charles sternly reminded himself that Hope Evans was the reason he was not in bed, asleep, at this very moment. In an instant the tattered remains of his compassion shriveled up and blew away like dead leaves on a busy Chicago street corner.
“I'll admit I could use some help today,” she said. “But pleaseâwill you allow me to pay you back?”
“Yes, of course,” he lied. He shifted his weight to one foot and pressed a hand against the small of his back, arching against another spasm of pain.
He saw a look of concern flit across the girl's face, but she caught her bottom lip between her teeth and made no unwelcome inquiries as to his health. She tucked an escaped strand of hair behind her ear. “I'll return your money tomorrow. Okay?”
“Fine,” he said, moving away from her and stepping onto an empty elevator.
“But how will I find you?” she persisted.
If he was lucky, she wouldn't. Ever again. “You can leave it for me at that desk,” he said, nodding towards a nurses' station. He pressed a button and watched with intense satisfaction as the elevator doors closed between Hope Evans and himself.