by Micheala Lynn
Dr. Alexandra Hartway is burned-out and disillusioned with her job. Seeing the same patients use the ER day after day in an effort to seek drugs has left her bitter, skeptical and unsympathetic.
Jess Bolderson refuses to be held back. Although she has been confined to a wheelchair for the past ten years, she is as capable as anyone and doesn’t like to be told otherwise. So when she hears this ignorant doctor bashing people with disabilities as lazy at a professional meeting, she rips into Alex, leaving everyone around the table stunned and speechless.
After a rough beginning, Jess and Alex quickly develop a deep respect for each other. Soon they become close friends, and then more—more than either could have ever imagined. But then a freak accident leaves Jess once again fighting for her life while Alex faces the ultimate challenge. Can she save the life of the woman she’s fallen in love with?
Rainbow Book Reviews
Two women, each striving to show the world they can survive on their own, clash at a meeting and sparks fly. It's a classic enemies-to-lovers story but with one additional twist: one of them is paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. I like the author's writing style very much"“good overall pacing, a well-balanced mix of gentle angst and humor, and a sweet romance tying it all together. Nicely done.
Jess’s thoughts were lost in the rhythmic pounding of her feet on the pavement. After a long day, there was no better feeling than a late evening run. The cool, late October breeze provided a welcome chill to the heat boiling off her skin. But it was the heat deep down, further in where no cool breeze could touch, that was now occupying her mind.
She pulled up at the intersection, jogging in place and waiting for the light to change, her fingers to her neck checking her pulse—safely in the one thirties, but no surprise there. But how much of that was due to running or the memory of last night? A wide, lazy smile curled her lips. Oh, what a night it had been. Even now, almost twenty-four hours later, and she could feel her body responding once again. If she closed her eyes, she could picture every kiss, every caress, every hot, passionate moment. She had touched and been touched in ways she had never realized were possible, and with a woman. It felt wonderful, natural, right. Any doubt had completely gone.
She was gay, no denying it any longer.
The light changed and she took off again, lengthening her stride, with each reverberating step feeling the muscles still tender from last night’s intimate activities. One, two, three, four—she counted off the steps as her feet hit the pavement. A part of her, a bigger part than she would have thought, wished that she could have spent the night with Tracy again. Just the thought of her name—Tracy—sent a fresh shudder through her body. But she needed some time, they both did, to come to terms with everything.
She had to laugh. Come to what terms? From the moment she had met Tracy, she knew that she would be the one—the one that would knock down those carefully constructed walls she had lived with for so long. Of course, she had wondered. She had always been different. She had never been interested in men, but to be gay? Could she accept that? And what about her family and friends? The only thing she knew for sure was that she wanted to be with Tracy in every way possible. Everything else would have to work itself out.
With all that whirling around in her head, she continued to push herself along, her heart thundering and beads of sweat trickling down her face. The sun was beginning to set, just tipping the tops of the trees in a golden orange glow. She closed her eyes, breathing in the wonderful autumn air, feeling it sear her throat and lungs with each breath. Suddenly, the screeching howl of tires on pavement broke the stillness. Jess whipped around quickly to catch a glimpse of the truck sliding right at her. As if in slow motion, she opened her mouth, forming a perfect O, and then—
Ten years later
Dr. Alexandra Hartway ran down the sidewalk, cursing under her breath. She glanced at her watch again. “Dammit.” She was late—very late. If there was one thing she hated the most, it was being late. But this wasn’t her fault. Today it seemed as if every freak, wacko and garden-variety nut job had decided to visit her ER. Then five minutes before her shift was to end, a middle-aged woman who looked at least twenty years older than her actual age rolled in claiming so much pain she couldn’t walk. A quick look at her history showed this wasn’t her first go—it wasn’t even her tenth. Twelve trips over the past thirty-six months, all seeking the same thing.
The woman was a narcotic hound. After being told she wasn’t getting a script, Ms. Can’t-Walk-I’m-in-so-Much-Pain went into fifteen minutes of hysterics and threats. Not until security arrived did the woman leap from the wheelchair and dash out the doors as if someone had fired a starter pistol. Hallelujah, and the lame shall walk. And it wouldn’t have been that big a deal if it hadn’t been the fifth person that shift seeking narcotics. On top of it all, Alex had been on call the previous night and ended up pulling a double shift. She wasn’t as young as she used to be. Oh, the joys of being an ER doc.
She glanced down at her watch again. Great. She was beyond late, venturing into the land of no-show, and she still had a good three blocks to go. Everyone was going to think she was a flake being that this was her first time attending a board of directors meeting for the newly-formed Lesbian Professionals of West Michigan. Why had she let Jamie and her partner Sue, her two best friends, talk her into this anyway? They were always doing things like that—the fundraiser and gala for the Humane Society, March on the Capital for Equality, Ride for a Cure—she couldn’t count the number of things Jamie had involved her in. For the most part, she couldn’t complain.
But after her day in the ER, her heart really wasn’t in it. If she hadn’t promised, she’d be on her way home to soak in a warm bath, a full glass of wine in one hand, a heaping bowl of ice cream in the other, and listening to an audiobook until her skin wrinkled to the point that would make a prune jealous.
She finally rounded the corner, only half a block to go. They were meeting at The Station, a trendy new bar that opened a month ago in the renovated former Pearl Street fire station. As she scurried up to the front steps, she noticed a young man in his early thirties climb out of a new Dodge Charger parked in a handicap spot, handicap permit hanging from the rearview mirror, and jog across the street. When he reached the sidewalk, he continued jogging, weaving in and out of the foot traffic with all the ease of a NFL running back. Alex clenched her teeth. Figures. Here she had to walk how many blocks because she couldn’t find a parking spot and this jackass parked right out front with a handicap permit he obviously didn’t need. When had people become so lazy?
Still irascible, she stomped up the steps and through the front door. The bar was a cavern, dark and atmospheric, like a speakeasy from the thirties. Soft jazz played from the overhead speakers. Alex pondered what vice might have lurked in its dimly lit corners. Not difficult to imagine Don Corleone sitting back there with his acolytes, obscured in smoke, discussing the family business.
As Alex peered through the gloom, she spied Jamie waving her over to her table. It looked like there might be half a dozen other women there, including Sue.
“Hey you made it.” Jamie jumped up as she approached and gave her a hearty hug. Her dark blue, tailored, pinstripe suit perfectly complemented her golden blond, short-cropped hair. Jamie was the picture of a young professional businesswoman, a far cry from Alex’s dull blue scrubs. If only she had had time to change.
“Finally.” Alex rolled her eyes as she wrapped her arms around Jamie.
Sue pushed out the chair beside her. “We were beginning to wonder if you’d make it.” Like Jamie, Sue was dressed impeccably in a long-sleeved white silk blouse and crisply-pressed tan slacks. Her hair was short and styled identically to Jamie’s, the only difference being Sue’s raven-black tresses versus Jamie’s blond.
“Sorry I’m late. I got hung up at work.” Alex felt like a ragamuffin compared to the other elegant women around the table.
Jamie clapped her on the back. “Don’t worry about it. We were just chatting over drinks anyway.” She quickly waved their waitress over.
Alex wasted no time ordering a red wine and as it arrived, Jamie lifted her glass. “Now that we’re all here, I’d like to introduce Alex Hartway, perhaps the world’s best ER doc and my best friend.”
“I wouldn’t say best.” Alex could feel her cheeks beginning to flush. Leave it to Jamie. Her flair for the dramatic never failed to embarrass her.
“Whatever, you’re the best ER doc I know.”
Alex shook her head. What Jamie always neglected to add was she was the only ER doc, or any doctor for that matter, that Jamie knew.
Completely unperturbed, Jamie continued. “Now going around the table—” she indicated the woman sitting on Sue’s other side, a tall, curly-haired brunette in a tweed blazer “—this is Ann Hutchinson. She is the director of the Milton E. Ford LGBT Resource Center at Grand Valley State.”
Ann raised her glass. “Glad to meet you.”
“Next, in the long white dreads, we have Terra Veenstra. Her family owns Infinity Books where she’s the promotions manager.”
Alex tried not to stare but she could safely say that she had never met anyone with more tattoos on her upper chest and arms than Terra, and where any given night in the ER could be a freak show, that was saying a lot.
“Beside her, we have another newbie—Jess Bolderson. Jess also works with Terra at Infinity Books and runs the printing thingy or whatever it’s called.”
“The Espresso Book Machine?” Jess leaned forward out of the shadows, her head cocked to the side.
Alex sucked in a quick breath. With her mind on her crazy day and being late, she hadn’t really looked at everyone around the table. Still, how could she have missed the woman sitting directly across from her? With her small heart-shaped face, dark brunette pixie hair and deep brown eyes, she looked as if she could be a runway model or a stand-in for Emma Watson after she had cut off her Hermione curls.
Whoever the next two were at the table, Alex never heard. Jamie’s voice was garbled background noise. She couldn’t pull her eyes from the woman sitting across from her who was now chatting with long white dreadlocks. Finally a hefty jab in the ribs by Sue’s elbow broke the trance.
“Sorry. What?” Again, she could feel her cheeks flushing. Talk about getting caught with the proverbial hand in the proverbial cookie jar.
Sue laughed. “I was just asking what held you up at work? I thought you said you’d be here a half hour ago.”
“You know me, there’s always something coming up.” At least Sue hadn’t noticed her fixation. If she had, Sue would tease her for the next month. Then again, she probably deserved it. How many dates had she been on in the last year—two, maybe three? She wasn’t exactly a major player when it came to romance. Didn’t help that she carefully guarded what precious free time she had. With her job, she definitely needed some me time to wind down and recharge. Call it selfish, call it self-centered, call it what you will, but she didn’t like to give up her time for anyone. Anyone except for Jamie and Sue—she could never say no to them. She took a long drink. “But I’ll tell you what, you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve been having.”
Jamie joined in. “Why, what’s going on?”
She took another long sip, nearly emptying it, and launched into the incident at the hospital. She knew enough about the laws and HIPAA privacy rules not to give away any personal details, but she could certainly share the gist of the situation. “…oh, she was in so much pain she couldn’t walk.” She rolled her eyes.
By now, everyone around the table was listening but no one quite as intently as Jess. She sat directly across, her eyes seemingly unblinking.
“Just another drug seeker, see it all the time.” Alex drained her glass. “When I refused to give her a script, she started ranting and creating an almighty ruckus as if that would somehow change my mind. But get this, the moment security arrived, she literally sprints out.” She motioned to their waitress for a refill.
Jess leaned forward. “What if she really did need help and all you did was threaten her?”
Alex tipped up her fresh glass of wine. “Oh please. The only thing she needed was perhaps a stint in rehab.”
“Maybe that’s why so many handicapped people are so leery of going to the hospital. They’re afraid they’ll be treated as druggies or liars.” There was a definite edge to Jess’s voice now.
“It’s not like that. We see a lot of people with legitimate problems, handicapped and not. It’s the ones that use a handicap as an excuse that get me.”
By now, the rest of the table was watching the verbal tennis match.
“So, what you’re saying is being handicapped is an excuse.”
“That’s not it at all. What I’m saying is some people use it as an excuse for laziness.”
Jess flung up her hand clad in a black leather fingerless cycle glove and jabbed a finger at her. “Oh, so now you’re saying some handicapped people are lazy.” Sarcasm dripped from every word.
Alex let out an exasperated sigh. What the hell had she done to piss the girl off? All she’d been doing was sharing a story from work for why she was late. “You must admit, that happens often enough. For example, I had to park five blocks away but when I got here some guy parked right out front in a handicap spot with a permit hanging from his rearview only to jump out and go jogging up the street. If that’s not laziness, I don’t know what is.”
From beside Jess, Terra was quickly waving her hand across her throat, her white dreadlocks flying. Sue nudged her with a toe under the table. Jamie placed her hand on Alex’s arm and gave her a pointed look. “Alex.”
Alex took a deep breath. This conversation had turned into a disaster. So much for kicking back and relaxing. She was tired, and more sensitive than she really should be. She should probably just chalk it up to a bad day and head on home.
Jess was still staring daggers at her, her nostrils flaring with each breath. “The handicapped people that I know are anything but lazy. Every day they work hard to overcome unbelievable obstacles, ongoing medical conditions, ease of access, ignorant people, simple things that regular people take for granted. It’s no picnic, I can assure you.”
Alex rubbed her forehead. She was really regretting opening her mouth. Talk about making a great first impression. This was supposed to be a meeting to promote a group for lesbian professionals and somehow it had turned into a catastrophe of a discussion about the disabled. “Look, I didn’t mean to come across like that. Sometimes I wish that more people would work harder to help themselves. I mean I absolutely understand how lucky I’ve been. I’ve been blessed with good health. I have the resources to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I still have to exercise, I run fifteen miles a week religiously, I eat right, I work hard to maintain a proper weight. I understand that not everyone can do that and look after their health.”
“Yes, I agree. Everyone should be responsible when it comes to their health.” Jess was calming down. At least she was no longer looking as if she were about to haul off and throw her drink across the table at her anymore.
Alex relaxed. The tension from the conversation seemed to be diffusing. “Exactly. I mean, just look at you. You’re obviously health-conscious and in good shape. You look like you work out regularly…” That was an understatement. She couldn’t help but admire Jess’s long, lean muscular arms and well-built shoulders. From the looks of it, the girl had to be a bodybuilder or something. “…with a body like that you certainly can’t complain.”
“Alex!” Sue hauled off and kicked her under the table.
Pain shot up her leg and Alex rounded on Sue. “Ouch! What was that for?”
Sue quickly jerked her head toward the other side of the table.
Alex turned just in time to see Jess grab the table with her leather-clad hands and shove back. At first, she felt as if her mind had suddenly shifted into neutral. The whole scene took place in slow motion. Jess rolled a good three feet before she grabbed the wheels of her chair, coming to an abrupt halt. “Really? Can’t complain?” Her face was beet-red and she seemed to be searching for more to say but finally just shook her head and, with a fierce thrust of her hands against her wheels, sent her chair flying across the restaurant.
The entire table let out a collective gasp. Sue kicked Alex in the leg again. Jamie shouted, “Alex!” Terra stood up, her dreadlocks flying, shot her a filthy look, threw a twenty-dollar bill down on the table and stormed out. Everyone else at the table turned and stared at her.
Feeling as if time had slowed to a crawl, Alex followed Jess’s departure with her eyes glued to her back, trying her best to wrap her mind around what had just happened. A wheelchair. The girl was in a wheelchair. How had she not noticed that? The leather gloves, the strong muscular shoulders, the chair. She hadn’t been that big an idiot, had she? To no one in particular, she mumbled, “Why didn’t someone tell me she’s in a wheelchair?”
“Duh.” Sue looked at her completely nonplussed. “Why do you think I kept kicking you under the table?”
Alex closed her eyes, held her hand up against her head and grimaced. “That was why she was so sensitive to what I said.”
“You think?” Jamie stared wide-eyed. “Jesus, Alex, couldn’t you see she was in a wheelchair?”
“I had no idea. When I first got here my eyes hadn’t adjusted yet and she was on the other side of the table. I couldn’t tell. It just looked like any other chair until she pushed back from the table.” Even as Alex tried to rationalize what she had said, it felt weak to her ears. She couldn’t ever remember feeling like a bigger ass. And rightly so. Talk about putting her foot in her mouth. If the sour taste in the back of her throat were any indication, that foot was also wearing the nastiest shoe imaginable.
* * *
“Hey Jess, wait up.” Terra burst through the doors of The Station and hustled down the sidewalk.
Jess grabbed her wheels, feeling the heat from the friction against her gloves, and came to an abrupt halt. She wheeled around so fast she nearly knocked Terra off her feet.
Terra was gasping for breath. “Are you all right?”
That was all the opening she needed. Everything that she had wanted to say, that she should have said, came pouring out. “What a bitch! Who the hell does she think she is? Can you believe what she was saying? Lazy? Lazy? Who the hell is she to judge, all high and mighty?”
Terra took a step back from the force of her words. “Yeah, you’ve got that right—what a bitch. I couldn’t believe she was saying that stuff. And she’s a doctor.”
Jess snorted and rolled her eyes. “Doctor, my ass. Jack the Ripper himself would make a better doctor than her. Remind me to never go to her hospital. I’d be better off with leeches and bloodletting.”
Terra burst out laughing. “I don’t doubt it. I can’t believe she’s a friend of Sue and Jamie’s. They’re always so sweet. But that Alex, she’s just…just…”
“Yeah, a bitch.” Terra held her hands up in mock defeat. “I guess there’s no other way to describe her. I’m just sorry you had to go through that, this being your first time. I swear, it’s never like that.”
Jess waved her off. “Don’t worry about it, Ter. It’s nothing I haven’t encountered before.”
“Still.” Terra let out a long sigh. “I’m the one who talked you into this in the first place.”
“Really, Terra, it’s no biggie.” She could tell Terra felt horrible about the situation but it certainly wasn’t her fault. How was she to have known that Dr. Dipshit was going to be there?
“What are you going to do now?”
“I think I’ll just head on home.”
“You want me to come with you? We could open a couple of bottles of wine and continue to thoroughly trash the good doc.”
Jess couldn’t help but laugh. “As tempting as that sounds, I think I’d rather just be by myself.”
Terra leaned in. “You sure? I’m more than willing to come hang out.”
“Yes, I’m sure but thanks.” Actually, she had some plans of her own. Nothing would work off her frustration like a good run in her racing chair or some handcycling, anything to give her a hard workout and take her mind off things.
“Okay.” Terra patted her on the back. “Just don’t let it get to you. If you need anything…”
“Yeah, you’ll be the first I call.”
With that, Terra turned and jogged across the street to her parked car. Jess continued to smile. With friends like Terra, she could get through anything, even insensitive jerks like Dr. Alex. Still, it was hard not to fume about idiots like that. How would they do living just one day in her shoes? As Terra pulled away from the curb honking her horn, Jess gripped her wheels and with a good forward thrust, quickly rolled down the street and around the corner.
* * *
Alex clapped her hands to her mouth while everyone around the table continued to stare at her. “Oh my God, I can’t believe that just happened.” It had been like a horrible car accident, everything unraveling in slow motion yet she could only sit there stunned, unable to move a muscle. But now that the initial shock had worn off, it felt as if someone had pushed fast-forward. Einstein was right—time really was relative. As the full weight of what she had done finally registered, she leaped up from the table. “I’ve got to go. I need to find her and apologize.”
She didn’t wait for a response but hustled out the front doors. When she hit the street, she quickly looked in both directions, hoping upon hope to catch sight of the woman she had just insulted. Even though it had been unintentional, that was no excuse. Laziness? Had she really said that? No wonder the girl left pissed. In her place, she would’ve done the same. Actually, she was surprised that she hadn’t thrown something at her first—a glass, a chair, hell even the table. Lord knows she would’ve deserved it. But Jess was nowhere in sight. “Damn.”
With nothing else to do, Alex slowly turned and shuffled back inside. Jamie quickly whirled around. “Did you catch her?”
“No.” With a deep sigh, her shoulders dropped. She quickly pulled out a twenty and threw it into the center. “Hey, I’m going to take off.”
“Are you sure? You’re more than welcome to stay.”
“Yeah, I’m going to head home before I make more of an ass of myself.”
“It wasn’t that bad.” Jamie bit her bottom lip.
“Come on, Jamie, you can’t be serious. You heard what I said. If that’s not bad, I don’t know what is.” Alex raised her eyebrows and gave her a wry twist of lips. It couldn’t exactly be called a smile, more like a nauseous grimace.
Jamie winced. “Okay, yeah it was that bad but hey, tomorrow’s another day, right?”
“That’s what they say.” If only she could believe it herself.
Jamie gave her a strong, heartfelt hug. She finally pulled back and turned to the table. “Sorry for…” She absently waved her hand beside her face. What could she say? “Sorry for that.”
There was the low murmur around the table, a general consensus of “don’t worry about it” and “no big deal.” But it didn’t sound genuine. Sue jumped up and clapped her on the back. “Hey, it’ll all work out.” As she shuffled back out, she hoped Sue was right but damned if she knew how.
Even later, as she lay awake, the clock ticking loudly on the wall, she still couldn’t shake it. This had to be one of her all-time worst days ever. Her rudeness, cruelty and contempt weren’t like her. Or maybe, working for years in the ER had turned her a lot more bitter and cynical than she had realized. That alone was a horrible thought. Had she really become so hardened and numb that she could no longer distinguish between people truly with a need and those who merely tried to work the system? Had it all blurred into one pale shade of gray? She shuddered as she stared up into the darkness. Was she that burned out?
If she could only get some sleep. She had been up for thirty-six, forty hours straight? Every part of her was exhausted. But every time she closed her eyes, she could still see the look on Jess’s face—not so much a look of anger, although there was certainly enough of that there, but more a look of hurt, a look of pain. She was going to have to do something. First thing tomorrow. It would be sooner if she could. She’d have gone right then if she knew how to find her. Then again, if she showed up at Jess’s door in the middle of night, the girl would probably call the police, not that she would blame her. With that thought, she finally smiled and rolled over onto her side. Yes, first thing tomorrow.