I liked to watch her. Sometimes I would leave my office door cracked a little so that I could observe her as she smiled at my patients, or frowned at a misbehaving computer program. Ella Lewis was beautiful. Oh, not in a classic sense—she was a bit too short at just taller than five foot, and a bit too plump in the middle. Yet I relished those slight imperfections. When I looked into her dark blue-green eyes, we connected somehow. I’d never experienced that before. With anyone. This was all new, and I wished desperately that I could explore it to the fullest.
I rose and stepped from behind my heavy wooden desk. I was restless, railing at an unfair universe that would show me my perfect mate then have her work for me. It was not fair dangling a carrot before a donkey and then binding its feet so it couldn’t move forward. I sighed and studied the certificates papering the office walls. The wooden frames gleamed in the morning light from the street-side window.
The honors mocked me. Corinthia Madsen Salas, Doctor of Medicine. Corinthia Madsen Salas, Doctor of Humanities-Ideas thrown in just for fun. My eyes traveled across about a dozen other framed certificates—residency, adjunct residencies, citations of gratitude and of success. It was a whole wall of framed paper saying that I was a good and honorable person. I turned and peered through the opening that spotlighted the receiving desk out by the enclosed waiting area.
Ella was talking to my nurse, Sandy Webber, and she was facing my office door. I ducked back, just in case her eyes lifted. Shaking myself and straightening my short white lab coat, I laughed soundlessly, embarrassed by my childish actions. I glanced once more at the wall of success and then stepped into the hallway.
We had only two examination rooms as I was in a solo practice, and I was confused to see that neither room had a flag raised to indicate that there was a patient waiting inside. I peered along the hallway in a fog, perplexed for several seconds, and then reversed my direction and headed toward the front desk. Both women turned to me as I approached.
“Hey, Doc Maddie,” Sandy greeted me in her usual boisterous manner. Ella hung back shyly, and I made a concerted effort not to look at her.
“I guess you’re wonderin’ where all your patients are today, ain’t ya?” Sandy continued. “Well, there’s been an oil fire over at the Hamburger House. No one hurt, thank the lord, but the firetrucks got Central all blocked.”
I nodded, catching on. “So now everyone’s going to the McDonald’s outside town for their breakfast.”
Sandy laughed. “You know it. Ceptin’ for old man Travis. He’s coming in for glucose so he’ll be right on.”
I rubbed my hands together to warm them. “And that means I have time for more coffee.”
“Would you like me to get you some, Doctor?” Ella asked.
I shifted my eyes toward her and took a deep breath to calm myself. What was it about my new medical assistant that turned me into a bumbling teenager every time she turned those sultry eyes my way?
“Make sure it’s two sugars and two creamers,” Sandy said, shoving Ella toward the kitchen area.
I opened my mouth to say something, anything, but she was gone. The phone rang, and Sandy reached for it. I made my escape back to the safety of my office. Moments later, Ella tapped on the door I’d left ajar.
“Here’s your coffee, Doctor Maddie. It’s freshly made, just fifteen minutes ago.” She smiled and approached my desk.
I cleared my throat and popped my reading glasses onto my nose. This made her image somewhat blurry so I was able to smile at her, take the coffee and carefully place it on the desk. “Thank you, Ella. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. By the way, did you get a chance to finish the evaluation I left on your desk?” She tilted her head adorably to one side. I took off the glasses. I wanted to see her, no matter what.
“Evaluation?” I cleared my throat again, annoying myself and certainly annoying her.
She smiled indulgently, and I wanted to lick the dimple on her right cheek. “You know. The ninety-day evaluation? Sandy has to comment on it as well, and she asked me about it this morning.”
I looked down. I had placed it aside. Ella had been with us ninety days. She was so efficient that it seemed as though she’d been here forever. I’d set it aside because I still agonized over fudging a bad review, just so she would go work elsewhere and give my libido some peace. Yet I realized in that moment that there was no way I could act in such a self-serving, untruthful way.
“I—I’m sorry, Ella. It slipped my mind. I’ll finish it today and give it to Sandy.”
“It’s okay, Doctor. I figured that’s what had happened.” She turned toward the door, and my eyes dropped to her sweetly rounded bottom, wrapped in dark denim. “Drink your coffee before it gets cold,” she said softly as she pulled the door closed.
I let out a shaky breath and flopped back into my high-backed leather office chair. Yikes! I lifted my coffee and took a deep sip. Perfect.
I worked on Ella’s review until I heard a commotion in the hallway outside my door. Sandy was showing my first patient of the day to the exam room. I looked over the review and made sure I hadn’t gushed too much about Ella. It was fine. I signed it with a flourish. This meant she would stay with us. It was okay—I was damned either way.
I carried the review and handed it off to Sandy as she passed. “Mr. Travis is in one,” she said unnecessarily as she scurried by. I thanked her and lifted the folder from the pocket just outside the exam room.
Clark Travis, seventy-four years of age, was an established patient. Last year, he’d presented with high glucose and, after a high A1C, I’d started him on metformin and dietary changes. This was his third follow-up since then. Sandy had done a fasting finger prick that was one hundred and three, so it looked as though the meds and changes had done the job.
I opened the door and stepped inside.
Most of my past relationships had been with blondes, so it was strange for me to be so deeply attracted to Dr Corinthia Salas, a shy, reclusive Latina of Puerto Rican descent. Of course, I’d found out most of what I knew from Sandy’s overblown office gossip, and really, I had to wonder how much of what she said was true. Yet I could see the Caribbean in Doctor Maddie, as we called her. Her hair was the ebony of the papaya seed, and her eyes were the warm brown of the tamarind. Her skin, though she worked almost unceasingly night and day, always appeared sun-kissed, and I often longed to sweep one palm along that smoothly tinted surface.
I stepped out into the slanted sunlight of a south Alabama evening and glanced back once, hoping to see her behind me. Just so I could have her for a few more minutes. I sighed when she wasn’t there. I walked slowly through the small parking lot to my tiny Toyota and headed for home.
I wasn’t certain Doctor Maddie even saw me. Or, if she did, it was as an employee only. After pondering this for hours, late at night in my bed alone, I had finally decided that she was the ultimate professional. Certainly, it would be unethical for a physician to carry on with the employees of her office. Then again, there was the lesbian issue. I wasn’t sure if Doctor Maddie was out to her patients, although my gaydar had gone off at our first meeting three months ago. The rest of the country might be making lesbians their media darlings, but in somewhat conservative Maypearl, she might want to be safe rather than sorry.
I knew she was single, though. I’d surreptitiously asked several people in the course of general conversation, and there was no evidence of a partner, of kids or even of a pet, in her office. As I drove along the quiet Maypearl streets, I wondered once more about her history, an exercise I was familiar with. It seemed thoughts of her filled my waking hours. I knew she’d grown up in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Manhattan, New York, following her nomadic consultant parents from city to city. She’d gone on to graduate from Fordham University, Sandy said, and I had glimpsed her MD one day from a medical school in Texas. But other than that, neither of us knew a thing about her private life. I knew she loved coffee and had a weakness for good avocado on crispy wheat toast. It was her favorite lunch.
I turned into the parking lot of my apartment complex and slid into my assigned space. Tropical Towers was a good enough place to live. If you paid your rent on time, and didn’t infringe on the other tenants, you were left alone. Just the way I liked it. Yes, I was a bit lonely, but I did have Julio, my enormous gray-and-black Maine coon cat. Said cat was waiting for me as I approached the door. Perched on the windowsill, he watched me with huge golden eyes. I waved at him, and he leapt down and, as usual, greeted me at the door with loud vocalizations, reporting the indignities of his day. I listened attentively as I made my way to the kitchen counter, relieving myself of my lunchbox and handbag.
“I know,” I sympathized just as loudly. “It’s so hard being you and being stuck here all those hours by yourself. I just wish I could be with you, darn it!”
He walked figure eights around my legs, displaying our solidarity.
“So, what’s for dinner, little guy?” I opened the pantry door. “We have whitefish.” I waited but got no response. “We have tuna and salmon.” Again, I waited.
He moved closer and peered up at me. I looked down. “Hmm, there’s chicken?” He meowed loudly and then purred, rubbing his cheeks against my leg. I opened the can of chicken cat food and filled his bowl. After watching him a moment, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and made my way to the den.
Here I had books. Tons of them, stacked vertically and horizontally on every available surface. I studied their beloved, well-used spines as though picking the best pastry from a lavish buffet. I spent time on each one, silently recalling the stories tucked within. This was a murder mystery set in downtown Los Angeles. The cop had done it. This one was about a dysfunctional family who finds love and acceptance on a yacht in the South Pacific Ocean. Oh, and here was Michael Crichton’s work about nanotechnology gone wild. I stepped to a second rank of shelves and touched a book about the origins of interesting things, and then another about word origins. I was tempted to pull one down but realized suddenly that I’d read just about all my books numerous times, these trivia ones in particular. So which to read? I wondered what Doctor Maddie liked to read. Surely not medical journals all the time. Did she like fiction?
Warmth flooded me anew as I thought of her, curled on a sofa reading… What? A steamy lesbian romance, maybe? I strode to the other side of the room and allowed my fingers to drift across the spines of the many trade paperbacks arranged like little colorful soldiers tucked into tidy barracks. These amazing books, hundreds of them, shared the lives and loves of lesbians. Some were not so good, too predictable, but others were amazing and thrilled me repeatedly. All were dog-eared as I reread even the bad ones obsessively. I needed a twelve-step program to break my addiction. I sighed and pulled one of my favorites down—in it, an unhappy housewife finds love with a new neighbor. Perfect. I looked around the room as I settled into my favorite chair. I wasn’t a housewife and didn’t know my neighbors, but maybe, just maybe, I could substitute beautiful Corinthia for the housewife and I could be her loving neighbor.
Julio jumped into my lap, his tongue smoothing his fuzzy black lips.
“Ugh! Cat-food breath,” I said as I settled him into my lap. Then, comforted by his warmth and by my heated romantic imaginings, I read.
“I think I’ve got bugs,” Mary Elwis said, calmly regarding me.
“Bugs? Hmm.” I pulled my wheeled stool close so I could study her. “What kind of bugs?”
“Little boogers. Can’t hardly see ’em,” she whispered urgently.
“Mm-hm. Do they bite?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” she insisted. “They just crawl all around on my skin.”
“Does it itch?” I took her arm and raised her sleeve. I didn’t see a thing, not even any evidence of inflammation.
“Sometimes,” she replied as she studied the arm, along with me.
I peered more closely. “You’ve got a lot of freckles—”
I let out a yelp and jumped to my feet. One of the freckles had moved.
“Doc? You okay?” Mary asked, recoiling back from me.
I took a deep breath and fetched a loupe from my supply shelf. I lifted the sleeve carefully and hovered the powerful magnifier above her arm. There it was again—movement.
Ah, hell, I thought.
“Yep, Mary, looks like you’ve got bugs. Ticks. Those itty-bitty ones. Have you been in the woods lately?” I lifted my eyes to hers.
Her eyes widened. “Why, no, I’m too old to be traipsin’ through them woods. I had to get my grandson, Ernest, to go out after Sheba the other day.”
“Sheba?” I sat back and regarded her.
“You remember. Sheba, my border collie.”
A lightbulb lit above my head. “You have several dogs, if I remember correctly, don’t you?”
She smiled proudly. “I do. Four rescues boarding with me right now. I’m thinking about keeping the little terrier I call Jezebel, though. There’s not much out there cuter than her.”
I nodded. “Well, that’s all well and good, Mary, but we need to do something about the dogs bringing ticks—bugs—into your house. When they lay there next to you, the ticks crawl from them onto you.”
She stared at me in amazement. “But I thought them things only went after dogs and cats and such.”
I stood and peeled off my gloves. “You’re not their favorite food, but they’ll hang out on any warm body. The problem is when they attach and start…well…eating your blood, they can let disease into your skin because tiny bacteria live in their mouthparts.”
“Well, I’ll be.” She sighed.
I stepped to the exam room door and opened it. I peered around the jamb and saw that the hallway was deserted. “I’ll be right back,” I told Mary.
Sandy was at the receiving desk, filing charts. Ella wasn’t there.
“Hey, Sandy, we got bugs in exam two. Can you get some tick pamphlets and then come help me do the exam?” I asked. “Where’s Ella?”
“Post office, but she’ll be back directly. Be right there,” she said, neatening the unfiled stack of charts.
I turned and moved back to exam two. The patient was sitting exactly where I’d left her.
“Okay, Mary. Here’s what we’re going to do. My medical assistant, Sandy, is coming in to help you get into a gown. The reason for that is I have to see if any of the ticks have attached to you. We’re also going to rub some cream on you. It’s called permethrin cream, and it will help kill the bugs that are on your skin. I’m also going to give you two prescriptions. One is for the cream, which I want you to rub all over your skin every night before bed. The other is for an antibiotic, just in case one has bitten you.”
I pulled the stool over and moved close to her. “Here’s the bad part. You are gonna have to either give up the dogs or fence them in your yard.”
She frowned at me, eyes wary. “Why? Having dogs ain’t never hurt nothin’.”
Sandy entered the room and leaned to fetch a gown from the lower cabinet.
“Normally, I’d agree, but there’s some pretty nasty things out there right now. You’ve heard of Lyme disease, right?”
She nodded unenthusiastically, and I continued.
“Well, there is a handful more bacteria-caused diseases that can make you pretty sick. Letting the dogs run the fields and woods is just bringing it all home to you. You need to fence in the dogs so they stay in the yard, where the grass is shorter, plus you need to give them a tick bath, with a special medicated shampoo, about once a week in summer.”
“Bathe all them dogs?” Her mouth was open, aghast.
I stood and grabbed her chart as I moved toward the door. “You’ll have to get someone to help you. Your grandson, maybe?”
“He’ll help you,” Sandy said soothingly as she shooed me out the door. “And you’ll get those dogs tick collars too.”
I stood at the nurse’s desk at the end of the hallway and entered all the pertinent information into Mary’s chart, including my detailed instructions, in case she called in with questions.
“Hey, Doc Maddie.” Ella greeted me as she passed by with my next patient, eight-year-old Austin Miller, his arm in a bright blue cast.
“Room one’s best for him,” I told her, trying not to look at her too directly. “I need a film, though. Can you operate the X-ray?”
“I sure can. Come on, Austin. Let’s go take your picture.”
They moved along the hallway, and I took a deep breath.
Moments later, Sandy stepped into the hall with Mary’s clothing, held at arm’s length, and went into the small laundry area. She started the dryer and then beckoned to me. We spent the next fifteen minutes going over every inch of Mary’s body. I found two ticks attached, one at the base of her spine and another in the groin area. Both were removed by liquid nitrogen, and the crawling ones we lifted off with packing tape.
“Now, Mary. Seriously, this is important,” I began as Sandy applied the cream. “You’ll need to wash and dry all the clothes you wear when around the dogs as well as all the dog bedding. I want you to run them through the dryer first while everything is dry, to kill all the live ticks. Then wash and dry them again. All on the hot cycle. Also, do they sleep with you?” At her nod, I continued. “Well, you need to strip your bed and do the same thing. The dryer first, then lots of hot water. There’s a spray I want you to get too. Get it in the plant section. I’ll write it down for you. It’s a harmless kind of soap that will kill them, so I want you to spray it around your bed and your house. And again, use the cream at night, take the pills once a day and do lots of washing of clothes and bathing the dogs. You got it?”
She nodded reluctantly.
“It’s important, Mary. You need to check yourself every day when you shower too. See if there are any on you. The first couple days, you may want to shower twice a day until they get under control.”
“Twice a day?” she said. I could tell she was overwhelmed and knew this would be an issue revisited several times before it was resolved.
“I know it seems like a lot, hon, but Doc Maddie is just trying to keep you healthy,” Sandy said as she moved to the sink and stripped off her gloves. “You don’t want to get a fever or arthritis, do you?”
I patted Mary’s hand. “Get dressed, and we’ll have the prescriptions for you up at the front desk.”
I carried her folder to the receiving desk and made a few more notations. I grabbed my script pad and jotted out Mary’s prescriptions. “This one is soap spray, OTC in the garden area. It’s for spraying plants, but she can use it on her house,” I told Ella as I handed them to her. “Maybe you could explain that to her?”
“Why? What’s wrong?” Ella whispered, leaning close.
She smelled like patchouli today. Man, I loved patchouli.
“She has ticks from all the dogs she keeps,” I managed to reply.
“Ah,” she said, nodding her understanding.
I straightened my spine. “Austin ready for me?”
She smiled, and I swear the room brightened. “Yes, Doctor. The films are in the wall bin.”
“Thank you,” I murmured as I hurried away.
“Damn! I can’t believe I forgot that,” Sandy muttered, staring at the calendar she held. She was sitting in her usual chair next to me at the receiving desk.
I looked over. “What’s wrong?”
A fretful baby cried out in the waiting room, and Sandy glanced up at the child before speaking. “Doc has a speaking engagement next week.”
“So I guess we clear her calendar,” I muttered, pulling the oversized appointment book close. “Looks like you’ve already done it,” I said, indicating the two blank pages in the book.
“Oh, I know,” she replied, waving one hand. “And Jason, over in Theodore, will take her on call. It’s just I always go with her, you know, to run interference, take notes in her sessions, that kind of thing.”
I waited expectantly. Nothing else was forthcoming, so I sighed. “I think I can handle everything here. I’ve been here almost six months. Unless you want me to take that time off?”
She shook her head. “Oh, no, sorry, kiddo, not explaining rightly. Can you go instead? Lisbet’s sweet sixteen is that weekend, and I really don’t want to miss it. I just need you to go for me.”
I frowned. “When is it?” I leaned to look at the calendar.
“Next week. Y’all would have to leave Sunday, and she would speak Monday morning. You’d be back here by late Tuesday. Think you can do it?”
Warmth washed across me. Three days alone with Doc Maddie. Hell yeah, I could do it. “Of course,” I said. “And I just need to be her secretary-like, right?”
She nodded. “Right. Just follow her around and do whatever she needs. It’s easy. You know how easy she is to get on with. I usually just make sure she has coffee and check that she has her notes before she presents. Most of the docs she’ll be talking to all know her so she doesn’t usually get too nervous, or anything.”
She watched me expectantly, as if waiting for further commitment. I conceded. “It’ll be fine, Sandy. Don’t worry.” I thought a minute. “Hey, do you know where Tropical Towers is?”
“Sure, I do. Why?” She raised one eyebrow.
“Would you go by and feed my cat for me? The days that I’m gone?”
“You have a cat? You’ve never mentioned having a cat.” She watched me doubtfully. Did she think I was fibbing about having one?
“Yep, yes, I do. His name is Julio, and he gets fed every day after work. Would it be too far out of your way?”
“Aw, heck no. I go right by there. I live out Fairlane way. Just past.” She smiled indulgently.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t know many people as I was something of a newcomer to Maypearl, and I didn’t want to pay for expensive pet sitting from a stranger if I didn’t have to. “Oh, that would be great. I’ll put out an extra litter pan so you won’t have to worry about that, but if you could give him his wet food every afternoon Monday and Tuesday, that would sure put my mind at ease.”
“What would?” Doctor Maddie said as she approached and handed me a folder.
Tiffany Bledsoe waved from behind the doctor as they stepped to the receiving desk. Doctor Maddie’s nod to Sandy indicated that Tiffany only had a wicked cold, so Sandy just motioned her to the door. “I’ll send you a bill,” she told Tiffany. “You just go home and put that cold to bed. Fluids and rest, that’s all that works.”
Tiffany smiled gratefully as she elbowed the door to the waiting room.
I realized suddenly that Doctor Maddie was still waiting. “Oh, Sandy’s going to feed my cat,” I explained quickly.
“Ahh, you have a cat?”
I watched as Doctor Maddie’s face brightened considerably. Was she an animal lover, too?
“Yes, he’s a Maine Coon. Are you familiar with that breed?” I watched her, entranced by this transformation.
“I am. My friend, Carla, who lived on Sixty-Fourth and First, she had one. A big, gray striped one.” Funny how her brown eyes could sparkle so intently.
“Well, mine is more black with a little gray striping. I named him Julio, you know, because I got him in July. He was the cutest kitten—”
“She’s going with you to Dothan next week,” Sandy interrupted. “I hope you don’t mind, but Lisbet, my Cynthia’s girl, is havin’ her sweet sixteen Sunday, and I promised her I’d be there. We’re having a big to-do at the church and everything.”
I watched as Doctor Maddie’s face fell, and her eyes dimmed again into a business-like cast. I hoped it wasn’t because I would be the one accompanying her to the conference. What if she thought I was a stalker and didn’t want to be alone with me?
“No, that’s fine, Sandy. I’m sure Ella will be good company.”
She gave me a brief smile before disappearing down the hall.
“See? I told you she’d be just fine about it,” Sandy said. She turned as the outside door opened and a patient walked in.
I wondered who she was trying to convince, me or herself. I felt a laugh burble up inside me as I double-checked Tiffany’s folder to make sure everything had been entered correctly. I ran a fingertip across Doctor Maddie’s hastily scrawled notes. Her strokes were so forceful. I shivered just a little as I recognized the strength of her hands.
Three days with Doctor Maddie. I pulled the folder close, hugging it briefly before I turned to the filing cabinet.
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