Her arms full of screaming, squirming boy, Dr. Jennifer O’Malley turned the corner of the Dallas hospital hallway and slammed open the ER doors with her shoulder. “Watch his burned hands!” In order to be heard over the angry cries of the child, her order had to cut like a sharp blade, and she pitched her voice accordingly. She headed toward the nearest empty exam area. She had a pretty good lock on the young boy from behind, and he wasn’t going to reach anything but possibly her with his flailing feet and hands. It was the head butts that were going to make her lose her grip if they didn’t get this situation quickly under control.
“Can he handle Amit?” the chief ER resident shouted, already pulling open the medicine cabinet door and grabbing for a syringe.
“Three milligrams. And follow it with two milligrams of Doram for the pain.” The boy’s bandaged hands were healing from second-degree burns and she was determined to not let him land one of his swings. She could feel the adrenaline in the child, fed by fear, anger, and pain. The boy managed to get a foot on the bed and shove it away.
The brush of a white coat across her shoulders combined with the whiff of perspiration and aftershave as a man reached over and around her to help hold the boy. “Easy, son. What happened?”
“His brother thought the bed restraints were some kind of punishment and undid them. Peter slid out of the bed, started running to find his mom—not knowing she’s in the ICU—and we didn’t catch up with him until he’d tried to put himself through a glass door.”
“Yeah, that would make for a brutal afternoon.”
The resident managed to get two clean injections into the boy’s thigh. Within minutes Jennifer was holding a drowsy little boy, looking more for a place to lay his head than any further struggle.
Jennifer nodded. The doctor behind her shifted the boy’s weight fully back to her. She turned and placed the boy onto the bed, running a hand lightly across his cheek and brushing back his hair as he gave a last half sob. She was ready to share a few tears for him herself. “I’m sorry, honey. It’s just not your week.”
The boy was drifting further away with the meds. She lifted his left hand, saw the new damage under the disarray of the existing bandages, and looked over at his right. The skin was too fragile for the kind of impact he’d made with the glass door. “Carrie, page John. See if the OR can take him straight from here.” He’d need the burns cleaned again and the open blisters tended, and that would have to be done with the boy under heavy sedation. She removed the existing bandages and used new gauze to protect the open wounds from drying out.
At the query she glanced over and saw a face to go with the white coat for the first time. A tall man, sandy hair, blue eyes, and a rather nice face. “In the ICU burn unit, stable, thankfully. A cousin trying to be helpful brought Peter’s brother in with her to visit him.”
“Has the hospital assigned a family aide to assist the kids?”
“If they haven’t, I’m next going to chew out someone who probably signs my paycheck.”
He smiled, and she thought she liked the smile. The ER hadn’t been her normal terrain for close to six years now. The fact that she didn’t know the man didn’t surprise her. But she guessed from the garb he wore that he wasn’t on his normal turf either. Those were surgical greens under the white coat.
Carrie rejoined them. “John said ten minutes, Jen. I’ll take the boy up myself.”
“Thanks.” Jennifer was aware of her own adrenaline fading. She hadn’t been expecting to step off the elevator and find herself in the middle of a chase to stop a desperate little boy looking for his mom.
She gently straightened his Superman pajamas, hoping he wouldn’t be that mad at her when he woke up later. “He’ll do for now. It was just bad luck they didn’t open that door for him and let him keep running.”
“You took a couple knocks yourself. Let me see that eye.”
She held still because the doctor was already probing. “It’s a bruise. And I’m late for rounds.”
“It’s definitely bruised.” He glanced at the suckers in her lab-coat pocket. “What floor?”
“Oncology, pediatrics side.”
“Go handle rounds. I’ll back up Carrie to see our sleeping boy safely upstairs.” But he paused her for a moment and offered a hand. “I’m Tom Peterson, by the way.”
She took the offered hand, and hers disappeared in his. “Jennifer O’Malley.”
“Nice to meet you, Jennifer.”
She was sure now she liked the smile. And his timing. There wasn’t much she could do but smile in reply. She headed back to work, wondering what other surprises were going to be in her day.
Tom Peterson relaxed in the staff break room, half dozing as he listened to a ball game on the radio behind him. The surgical wing had more silent stretches than most of the hospital floors. To the extent the surgery work could be scheduled, rotations started before seven a.m. and tended to end by midafternoon. There were still two cases coming through tonight, both relatively minor procedures, and he’d offered to be the one to stay so his partners could go on home.
He missed the hands-on general practice where he had begun his career, and young Peter this morning had reminded him of that time. Rarely did he encounter screamers anymore. The kid’s hands had to have been really hurting.
“Tom, we’re about ready,” his chief surgical nurse said, appearing in the open break room door. “The anesthesiologist is beginning his countdown.”
“Thanks, Gina.” He stretched his arms out and flexed the tiredness away. “Gina?”
She paused in the doorway.
“Did you hear back from your sister?”
“Marla says Dr. O’Malley is in the same medical building as you and your partners, but on the third floor. She’s one of the five partners in the LMR group. Kids that no one else can keep healthy, she does.”
“Just let me know before you go out with her so I can forewarn Marla. O’Malley’s the sweetheart of the building, and there’s a list floating around among her staff for who she should ideally date. Your name’s not on it, by the way.”
The door swung closed on her laugh. “Let’s go, boss.”
“This isn’t good. You pulled your back helping the boy this morning.”
The concerned words had Jennifer moving her hand away from the ache she had been rubbing deep in the muscles around her lower spine, and she straightened, trying not to show her wince. “Just twisted it a bit,” she murmured, accepting the second cup the man carried. He must have spotted her long before she realized there was even someone else on this floor tonight, except the two nurses she had already spoken with. “Tom, was it?”
She knew it was, but there were protocols for first introductions becoming second ones when it was a guy she thought she might enjoy getting to know. She was thinking this was a situation that warranted all the protocols she could remember.
“Good memory. Heading somewhere in particular?”
He was definitely a surgeon, she decided, for he still wore booties over his shoes that spoke of the ultraclean scrub rooms lining this seventh floor. She picked up the two charts she had been reading. “Not really. My patients tend to spread across most of the hospital. Any hallway leads somewhere interesting at this point.”
She specialized in wellness care for kids who were chronically or terminally ill. They already had the heart surgeon or oncologist in their lives. What they needed most was someone doing the preventive care so their colds and earaches didn’t tip into something much worse for them. There was no such thing as a minor cold in a child who was already desperately ill.
Rather than walk, Tom chose to lean back against the wall beside the nurses’ station. “My emergency eight o’clock started bleeding into his chest again, meaning the thoracic guy takes precedence over my starting work to rebuild the boy’s jaw. And I’ve got a patient being medevaced in that won’t be here for a couple hours. So this is me stalling, carrying around two cups of coffee, looking for someone who is equally bored or trying to stay awake.”
She sipped at the lukewarm coffee he’d offered even as she studied him. She liked the fact there was a sense of calm patience about the man. He wasn’t the typical type A personality she so often met on the surgical floor. “Who do you normally find at this time of night?”
“The guy in B-312 is recovering from a third heart attack, and he’s always good for a story or two, even if it means I end up drinking both coffees because he’s been banned from caffeine for life. And the janitor who handles the surgical floor can always be counted on for a decent baseball update when I’m bordering on desperate.”
He was just about begging her to feel sorry for him, and she found herself both amused and a touch charmed. She guessed him to be in his mid-thirties. To be working as a surgeon at this point in his career meant there hadn’t been many slow hours in his life. The man wouldn’t be doing surgery in this hospital, under this surgical department chief, without being one of the best in the nation at his job.
“How’s the boy . . . Peter? Have you heard?” he asked.
“John doesn’t think there was any lasting damage,” she told him. She pointed toward the east hallway. She had a child coming out of a second round of ankle surgery who should be reaching recovery anytime now. Tom fell in step beside her. “We were able to give Peter a couple of minutes looking through the ICU glass to know we weren’t lying about his mom being right upstairs. He’s intent on getting better so he can sit with her. It breaks my heart, how adult a child can be at times.”
“At least with youth comes a resiliency that adults rarely have. But, seriously—there was at least one casualty today. I think you need an ice pack before your back tightens up more and turns into a pretzel. You’re not walking all that well at the moment.”
“My leg is a bit numb,” she conceded, “but I think it’s more like twelve hours on my feet without the good pair of tennis shoes. I grabbed what I had nearby and ran this morning.”
“In my defense, I got four hours of sleep before the alarm blared, I forgot what day it was, and I was halfway to the airport to pick up my sister before I realized my mistake. She doesn’t come into town till tomorrow. Some days I don’t think I’m handling this job as much as it’s handling me.”
“Been there. What you need is an excuse to take a couple of hours off work. Would you like to go out to dinner with me? The nurses will assure you I’m single, relatively interesting, and have a mom in town who still keeps me in line and a gentleman.” He glanced down with a rueful smile. “I promise I clean up into something better than scrubs and booties.”
“I admit, the booties are kind of cute.”
“Tomorrow—say, seven o’clock? You can introduce me to your sister, we can duck out for an hour and eat, and then I’ll have you safely home so she can pester you with all kinds of questions about your date.”
“As intriguing as that sounds, I have to say no. Kate is not the sister I spring a date on if I expect to actually leave the house. She’s a cop, and not inclined to trust an unknown guy with her baby sister.”
He laughed. “I already like her.”
Her pager went off. She looked at the text and headed toward the elevators, glancing over her shoulder at him as she dropped the empty coffee cup in the nearest trash can. “Got a medevac incoming. Sorry.”
“Promise you’ll walk by this floor again during your odd hours around here?”
“I think that’s a safe assumption for even a Texas surgeon to make.”
“You’re not Texan, I’m thinking.”
“Chicago, south side.” The elevator doors closed before she could add, youngest of seven.
The elevator rose swiftly toward the roof of the building. She didn’t think her large and inclined-to-meddle family would slow him down, but it never hurt to at least mention them early on. Her three brothers tended to be very interested—in a check-out-his-background kind of way—about any guy who thought dating her would be a good idea.
She suspected Tom Peterson would see her family more as a challenge than an obstacle. He had that air of confidence about him, and, surprisingly, she was looking forward to finding out. Her self-imposed sabbatical of a year off dating might be coming to an end in a rather unexpected way.
She hurried through the receiving area and out into the warm night air on the roof as the sound of the approaching helicopter overtook the silence. Caution still had its merits, she told herself. It had saved her from starting a few relationships where she would have ended up with a broken heart.
She wouldn’t be finding extra reasons to be on the surgical floor, hoping to run into him again. If Tom wanted to get to know her, he’d have to make the effort. As a final protocol in deciding what a guy was really like, waiting always worked. She loved her job too much to let just anyone crowd into the time she spent with the kids she helped.
A downward rush of air had her covering her eyes as the medical flight landed. Her evening looked like it would be long, and she didn’t mind it a bit. She’d dreamed about being a doctor since she was a young girl, and living that dream now was exhilarating. The rest of what she dreamed for her future—she still had plenty of time in her life to see it come true too.