by Tracey Richardson
An ER physician and a paramedic must heal the most painful affliction of their lives—their own broken hearts.
A seasoned paramedic and former soldier, Angie Cullen has spent many years helping to put people back together again. But her battle-tested heart is no match for the devastation of discovering that her partner has been cheating on her with the wife of ER physician Dr. Victoria Turner. When a car crash exposes the infidelity one evening in the ER, Angie and Vic find themselves unlikely and wary allies as they attempt to pick up the broken pieces of their lives. While each holds the remedy to the other’s broken heart, can Angie and Vic trust enough to love again?
From the best-selling author of The Candidate, By Mutual Consent, and Delay of Game comes an unforgettable medical romance about finding love again in the wake of a shattering betrayal.
The ambulance’s swirling blue lights bounced off the wet pavement, creating a kaleidoscope of rhythmic, shimmering motion. Angie Cullen blinked against the colorful onslaught as she guided her rig to a stop at the side of the road a good dozen yards from the car wreck.
For an instant, her heart stopped at the dark car that looked as though a can opener had ripped it nearly in half, its white airbags visible past the jagged metal, the shattered glass, the gaping holes where there should have been no holes. It had hit a light standard, which now sat folded over the trunk like a limb split from a tree. Brooke, Angie’s lover of four years, was supposed to drive to the airport tonight for a flight to a real estate lawyers’ conference in Miami, and on calls such as this one, Angie found it difficult to extinguish the spark of panic that her victim might be somebody she loved. It wasn’t that she was nervous by nature, but rather that she’d seen the worst in her eight years with the army’s medical corps and knew that devastation chose its targets randomly, wantonly, formidably, and without warning. Too many times she’d seen death’s fickleness. But Brooke’s car—thank God!—was white.
Angie dashed from her rig without shutting the door behind her, ignoring the relentless chime warning of the keys in the ignition and leaving the engine running. It’d been a year since she’d been on active paramedic duty, but she knew exactly what to do—quickly assess the situation, assign tasks and get to work stabilizing the patients for transfer. She barked at her partner, a twenty-six-year-old in his second year on the job, to check the passenger side of the wreck. “I’ve got the driver.”
Jackson Shattenkirk hurried toward the far side of the wreck as a Traverse City Fire and Rescue truck screeched to a halt beside the ambulance, its red roof lights merging with the blue of the ambulance’s, the two colors dizzyingly illuminating the dark; the crash had knocked out the overhead streetlight. Angie unclipped her small penlight from her belt and shone it on the driver’s face. A woman, her hair long and dark blond, sat blinking in the dark, her lips open and moving like she wanted to say something.
“Whoa there, Cull!” a firefighter called out, and she recognized the voice of Vince Robertson. She’d known Vince since high school—he’d tried to date her back then, and when she finally confessed she preferred girls, he’d gamely swallowed his pride and decided he liked her as a friend.
“Hey, Vinnie. We got a couple of vics here.” There was an unwritten code that saw firefighters, paramedics, and cops call each other by nicknames, which almost invariably played on their first or last name. In the army, you were called by your full last name with no cute twists, which Angie preferred, because Cull sounded so childish. So did Vinnie, for that matter, but she was used to it now.
She stepped back from the wreck to talk to Vince. He asked if anyone was trapped. The passenger—a woman with a bloody face—was being attended to by Jackson. There was nobody in the back seat. “I don’t think so, but I don’t know if their feet or legs are caught up in anything.”
She leaned into the wreck and spoke to the driver. “Ma’am, are you trapped? Do you think you can get out?”
The woman’s eyes darted to Angie. There was fear in them, pain too, but they were alert. It was another moment before she spoke, as if she needed to gather herself first. “Yes, I think I can get out.”
“Okay, good, but don’t move just yet. Shatter!” She flicked a glance at her partner from across the crumpled metal. “What’ve you got?”
“Woman, three-inch laceration on her forehead, contusion also. She was talking to me a second ago, but she’s fading on me. Pulse is strong.”
“Fading isn’t a term I understand. Is she responsive or not?”
“Sorry, ma’am. Unresponsive.”
Angie hated it when the younger paramedics called her ma’am. She wasn’t old—well, to her at least, thirty-seven wasn’t old. She conceded that her experience made her an old-timer. Eight years as a medic with the army, including stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. Seven years since with North Flight EMS, although the past year she’d taken a leave to teach in Munson Heathcare’s program for paramedics. Later she’d talk to Jackson. Again. Being the new crew chief didn’t mean he should call her ma’am. Cull or Cullen was fine, even Chief if he wanted to address her formally. But this ma’am crap needed to stop.
“Ma’am,” Angie said again to the driver. “Where are you hurt?”
“I…I…the car, it went out of control. It was wet, I didn’t—”
“It’s okay. Are you hurt?”
“My, my left wrist. H-hurts b-bad. The air bag…or steering wheel…might have…broken it.” She moaned as if just now finally registering the pain. It wasn’t uncommon for shock to delay recognition of pain.
“All right, we’ll help get you and your friend out of there. What’s your name?”
“Karen. Karen Turner. My…my friend…”
“Okay, Karen. Hang tight, all right? We’re going to get your friend out first. Vinnie?”
“Yeah, Cull, I’m here.” Shattered bits of glass no bigger than a coin crunched under his heavy boots. His firefighter partner, a tall, bulky man nearing retirement, joined them at the front of the wreck.
“The passenger is the priority,” Angie said.
Vince and his partner sprang into action as Angie thumbed the call button on the radio clipped to her breast pocket and asked dispatch for an ETA on a second ambulance. Four minutes out, she was told. Time enough to get the two victims ready for transport.
Angie stepped back as her partner and the two firefighters worked to free the passenger, felt the entire wreck shift as they heaved the door off its hinges. She reached in and checked her patient’s carotid pulse before shining the penlight on her face and eyes again and down her torso. The air was warm, the August heat rising from the moist pavement, but her patient shivered like it was October. She was going into shock.
Shit, hurry up, she said in her mind but not to her colleagues because she knew they were working as fast as they could. They’d applied a cervical collar to the passenger and were now carefully strapping her onto a backboard, which they would slide onto the stretcher. Their patient was moaning, regaining consciousness.
The second ambulance roared up, and Angie motioned to its crew to bring the second stretcher.
“What’ve you got, Cull?” Ben Merkel yelled as he hustled the stretcher over to her.
“Possible left distal radius fracture. Pulse is ninety. We’ll need to cuff her for a b.p. reading once she’s out, and I haven’t been able to check for any other injuries. She’s getting shocky.”
Shock was a deceiving little bastard. For something that seemed innocuous—light-headedness, the shivers—it could kill a patient by crashing their vitals.
“Cull?” Vince’s voice carried over the noise. It was uncharacteristically high, strained, and Vince wasn’t a guy who became easily rattled. “You better get over here.”
Now what? she thought, impatient to get the two casualties locked and loaded and on the way to Munson Medical Center. Jackson and Vince should be able to handle things, though it was no surprise that they would look to her for guidance, for critical knowledge. She never talked much about her army career, but they knew she’d spent some time working at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, knew she’d been a medevac medic in the war. It took little for her to summon the memories of the choking dust kicked up by the helicopters, the gaping and gory injuries sustained by soldiers, the sniper weapons aimed at herself and her fellow medics and sometimes at their hovering Blackhawk during a medevac, the sickening fear of a hidden IED or an RPG blowing her up the times she had to ride in a Humvee. There were also the veterans she saw at Walter Reed who, months later, continued to suffer mentally and physically from their wounds. All of those things had dulled her from being shocked anymore, had sharpened her keen sense of calm authority in a crisis. A car wrapped around a light post? Kindergarten stuff.
“What do you need?” she said, trotting over.
Vince gave her a look she couldn’t read. Then he nodded at the patient on the stretcher who was still moaning softly. Angie followed his gaze, felt her eyes widen and her mouth open against her suddenly constricted throat. She hadn’t seen the other victim’s face earlier because it was dark and the woman was bloodied, but now she looked. And felt everything—the noise, the lights from the emergency vehicles, the chaos—coalesce into a loud ringing in her ears. The woman was Brooke.
Dr. Victoria Turner watched as her patient drifted into unconsciousness. He was in his forties, a weekend athlete who, not being in the best of shape, had crashed into the boards playing ice hockey an hour ago and dislocated his shoulder. Of course, it hadn’t helped his sense of balance that, by his own admission, he’d had a couple of beers in the locker room before stepping out onto the ice. And now he was in Munson’s ER suffering the kind of pain that instantly and mercilessly yanks its victim into sobriety. Sobriety that, in his case, came a little late.
She’d already checked the x-ray, confirmed that the rounded ball of the joint had escaped from the socket. She wouldn’t try to do the anterior shoulder reduction with the patient conscious; this wasn’t a television show or a battlefield. She was conducting the procedure with the luxury of drugs—much better for all of them. Vic slid her hands down her patient’s arm, tugged it with a hard snap, and felt the satisfying thunk of it settling back into place. He’d wake any moment and be on his way shortly, no worse for wear. She wouldn’t waste her time lecturing her patient about the dangers of drinking and playing sports, especially a sport played on the hard and unforgiving surface of ice. He’d either learn from this experience or he wouldn’t.
Olivia Drake, one of three nurses on duty in the emergency department tonight as well as the charge nurse, popped her head into the treatment room. She also happened to be Victoria’s best friend. It was at Liv’s behest that six months ago Vic and her wife had made the move from the bustle and growing violence of Chicago to Traverse City—the city by the bay, the gateway to northern Michigan. Because of its location, Munson ER took in all serious trauma cases from the northern half of the state. It was the only Level II trauma center north of Grand Rapids, something that very much appealed to Vic. She wasn’t at a point in her career where she wanted a sleepy town and a tiny hospital that closed its doors at sundown, but there was no question she was enjoying the reprieve from the daily avalanche of gunshot wounds and stabbings. Steady but controlled was how she liked her chaos, and that was pretty much what she got at Munson.
“EMS is bringing in two victims from a car crash. Priority Two.”
Non-life threatening but serious injuries. Vic relaxed a little. “How many minutes?”
She winked at her friend. “That gives me time to complete my notes on Wayne Gretzky here. Oh, and what about my confused lady in Four? Any results back yet?”
A seventy-year-old woman had come in an hour ago exhibiting confusion and complaining of general unwellness. She was running a slight temperature, and while it was probably a urinary tract infection, Vic had ordered a chest x-ray, head CT scan, blood and urine tests. If it wasn’t something sinister and if it wasn’t a UTI, her next guess was low blood sugar. Solving little mysteries like this were exactly the reason she had chosen a career in emergency medicine versus something cushier and with more tolerable hours, like radiology or dermatology.
“X-ray and scan are normal. Still waiting on blood work. Urine shows a spiked white count.”
Back to a UTI. “All right. Make sure Dr. Greene is free as well when the ambulance gets here.”
Jeff Greene was a second-year resident. Victoria, Jeff, and another resident, Julie Whitaker, were the physician crew for the ER tonight. So far they hadn’t been run off their feet, but that could change in an instant. Last night shift she worked, Vic had stumbled out in the morning light so exhausted, she could barely find her car in the parking lot. They’d had to deal with a near drowning, two drunks who’d gotten into a messy fight, another drunk who thought it was a great idea to fire up his barbecue late into the night and ended up burning nearly half the skin off his face, a pregnant woman who didn’t make it up to obstetrics before giving birth, plus the usual treadmill of coughs, fevers, and broken bones.
Vic typed in the last of her notes on the dislocated shoulder, then paged medicine to examine her UTI lady for possible admission. The patient would need IV antibiotics and fluids for a day or two while they waited for more blood cultures to come back. It was also one more patient off her watch in case the two car crash victims consumed most of her shift.
“First ambulance is here,” Olivia said, gliding past the computer station where Vic sat at the main desk. “Second one is a minute or two off.”
Rising, Vic asked, “Where’s Jeff?”
“Here,” he said, rounding a corner.
The three of them trotted to the ambulance bay in time to see a paramedic—a tall, brawny woman with a grim set to her jaw—jump from the cargo hold. The thought that maybe the patient was worse off than she had been led to believe escalated Vic’s heart rate a little.
“What’ve you got?” she said to the paramedic, flashing a look at her nametag. A. Cullen. Six months on the job meant Vic should have met all the paramedics and EMTs in the city by now. But not this one.
Dark brown eyes that should have been calm but weren’t captured Vic’s. “Thirty-five-year-old woman. She’s hit her head in the crash. Laceration on her forehead. She’s…her vitals are stable.”
Vic moved beside the stretcher as A. Cullen and her partner set it down and briskly wheeled it toward the bay doors. The patient was conscious, her eyes jumpy but alert. Her forehead was bloody around the bandage that had been roughly placed over it—a seeping laceration. There was a small cut on her lip too. Not enough to rattle what should be a seasoned paramedic, but Vic knew enough from fifteen years in medicine not to assume, never to underestimate.
“I’ve got this,” she said to her resident, Jeff. “You get the next one.” She directed her attention to the two paramedics. “Did she lose consciousness at all?”
“For a couple of minutes, yes,” responded Shattenkirk, whom Vic had met a number of times in the ER.
“Anything else I should know?” Her gaze swung between the two paramedics. Brown eyes caught hers again. There was something pleading in them, something the rest of the paramedic’s face had dammed up. Her throat bobbed up and down as though she couldn’t stop swallowing.
Great, Vic thought. One of my paramedics’s gone mute. She touched the sleeve of Shattenkirk as she kept pace with the stretcher down the hall. “Room Two. Jackson, is there anything else I should know about this patient?”
Vic hadn’t had many conversations with Jackson Shattenkirk that didn’t involve an immediate patient. He was young, quiet, the type who seemed to mind his business. He shrugged one shoulder, like he didn’t want to say much. What the hell is going on with these two? Has there been a zombie invasion nobody told me about?
Carefully, they moved the patient onto the treatment bed and Vic began asking her questions—easy questions. She kept her tone even, efficient. Where are you hurt? How did you hit your head? Are you dizzy? Nauseous? Any medication allergies? Her name, the patient said, was Brooke Bennett, and yes, she knew what day it was and where she was and what had happened. But her head hurt like a son of a bitch.
“Let’s order a head CT, chest and neck x-ray,” Vic said to Olivia, who’d already taken a blood pressure reading. “And I’ll need a suture kit.”
The paramedic Cullen stood off to the side, leaning against the wall for support, pale and looking like she might throw up. Vic caught Olivia’s eyes as if to say “Are we gonna have another patient on our hands?” Jackson was gone, had disappeared like he couldn’t get away fast enough, mumbling something about meeting the other ambulance.
“Angie?” Olivia placed a hand on the paramedic’s considerable bicep. “You okay?”
“Brooke.” Angie blinked once, twice. “That’s my Brooke. My…she…”
Vic saw Olivia’s eyebrows jump before settling back down. “It’s okay. Why don’t you sit down? It’s going to be a little while for the tests, okay? You might even want to go get a cup of coffee if you don’t have another call.”
Angie shook her head. She’d stay, she said.
Vic motioned for Olivia to join her in the hall. “What the hell is going on?” she whispered.
“They’re a couple. I know Angie, not so much Brooke. Angie’s a sweetie.” Olivia rolled her eyes. “Brooke doesn’t travel in my circles.”
“Do me a favor and keep an eye on your friend Angie. I don’t need her passing out or getting upset. She can stay if she behaves. Talk to her, all right? If there’s any problem, I want her out of there.” Vic turned to go as a question occurred to her. “Why haven’t I seen her around here before?”
“She’s been on sabbatical the past year, teaching. Years ago she was a medic in the army, did a couple of tours in Iraq or something. You’ve been to her family’s winery I think. Sunset Bay Wines?”
She had. The merlot, she remembered, was spectacular. As was the view over Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay from the second-floor terrace off the winery’s main building. She and Karen had visited it a couple of times over the spring and summer.
The second stretcher from the crash was being wheeled toward the neighboring treatment room, Jeff directing traffic. He quirked his head at Vic to join them.
“I’ll get those tests going. And I’ll talk to Angie,” Olivia said before peeling back toward the room.
Vic followed the group guiding the second stretcher into Room One. “What’s up?”
Without a word, Jeff’s eyes fell and Vic followed his gaze to the stretcher. It was Karen. Her wife! Moaning softly in pain, her eyes pinched shut. But it couldn’t be. Karen had left hours ago for the eight-hour drive to Chicago to visit her sister for a few days. She should be halfway there by now. What the hell was she doing here? In a crash? With this Brooke woman?
Vic quickly gathered herself. Her questions would have to wait.
“Karen. It’s me, Vic. Where are you hurt?”
Karen’s eyes flew open, and it was then that Jeff intervened. “I’ve got this, Dr. Turner. I just wanted you to be aware.”
Vic didn’t want to, but she stepped back. Doctors shouldn’t, unless absolutely necessary, treat loved ones. The situation was too emotional, too volatile, and while she understood the concept, right now it damn well sucked. She sagged against the wall outside the treatment room. Her head spun. Or at least, the questions in her head spun like a top, although one stood out. What the fuck is going on around here?
The shock of finding her partner in a crash, in another woman’s car, had finally, mercifully, worn off. It its place came burning questions. And a dread so thick in Angie’s stomach that it felt like a rock had been placed there. She paced the small treatment room while she waited for Brooke to return from her CT scan and x-rays. She’d booked the rest of her shift off sick and sent Jackson on his way. Later she’d catch a cab back to the house she and Brooke shared on the north side of the city—a new three-bedroom house that Brooke had insisted be finished with granite counters and travertine floors. The walk-in closet that was the size of a bedroom on its own, the three massive bathrooms—none of it was to Angie’s tastes, but Brooke loved the place. Just as well, since Brooke’s earnings as a high-end real estate and corporate lawyer were paying for most of it.
The red Hermes purse belonging to Brooke sat on the counter, and it occurred to Angie that she should call Brooke’s boss to let him know what had happened and that Brooke wouldn’t be arriving in Miami as planned. Rules didn’t allow Angie to carry her personal cell phone on the job, so she dug around inside the purse, feeling only the smallest bit of guilt. She never went near Brooke’s private belongings and vice versa. If either left their Facebook or Twitter accounts open on the house computer, they never snooped. Or at least, Angie never did. There wasn’t any reason to. She pulled Brooke’s phone out of the purse. Except it wasn’t the familiar iPhone with the glittery phone case that Angie found so distastefully girlie. It was a cheap phone with no security password, no frills. She touched it and its screen sprang to life. She hit Contacts, but the only name that came up was Karen Turner. The woman in the car with her. Next she clicked on the text icon. A list of texts, all between Brooke and this Karen Turner. Not good, a voice inside her head cried out. Not good at all. She clicked on the most recent one and her heart stopped. See u soon, lover. Can’t wait to be alone with you for almost a whole week! OMG I can’t even stand it! xoxo.
A clatter announced Brooke being wheeled back into the treatment room, and Angie tossed the phone back into the bag. She swallowed. Hard. The sense of something catastrophic arising inside her gripped her, turning her insides to liquid. Some massive force seemed poised to crush her and she staggered a little, grabbing the back of a chair for support.
The doctor looked up at her. “You all right?”
Angie nodded, but of course she wasn’t all right. Her partner was fucking someone else, for Christ’s sake. How could she possibly be all right?
Where she’d looked calm and detached earlier, efficient without being callous, the doctor looked distracted now. Confounded. Maybe even a little pissed off. Her nametag said Dr. Victoria Turner. Was she related to Karen Turner? Her sister perhaps? That could explain why she seemed a little frazzled.
“Your partner’s tests are all negative,” the doctor said. “I expect she has a concussion.” She turned to Brooke with a blank expression. “I’ll stitch you up in a few minutes. Normally I’d suggest you stay here in the ER for a few hours so we can keep an eye on you, but since you live with a paramedic, I think—”
“Doctor,” Angie said, finding her voice and hearing it sound like gravel under car tires. “Can Brooke and I have a few minutes alone please?”
Alone with Brooke, Angie fought the urge to throw something. Hard. Instead she retrieved the burner phone from Brooke’s purse, with its incriminating evidence that made her want to puke. “What the fuck is this?”
Brooke wouldn’t look at her, just slammed her eyes shut and pursed her lips as though by doing so, she could make Angie fuck off without her giving her the third degree. Screw that. Angie would pry those eyes and mouth open if she had to, because she wanted answers, dammit. She wasn’t stupid and she sure as hell wasn’t blind. Or at least, not anymore she wasn’t. What she needed to know was why. And how long. And how often. And what Brooke’s master plan had been. And where she herself fit into all this. Had Brooke planned to tell her? Was she planning to leave her? Was she the last fucking person in this fucking city to know what was going on?
“Ange, my head hurts. Please don’t yell.”
“Then tell me,” she said in a voice as tight as a cable about to snap. “Who is Karen Turner and why were you in her car? You were supposed to be taking a cab to the airport and flying to Miami tonight for that conference. Where were you really going, Brooke?” She thought of the text she’d snooped at, wondered what was said in the other dozen or so texts on the phone she hadn’t had a chance to examine. “And explain to me this fucking cell phone you have in your purse.”
Angie waited for Brooke to finish. And waited. Another minute later, her voice cracking, she said, “What, it’s not what I think? Because we damned well both know it is exactly what I think.”
The nurse from earlier, Olivia Drake, stalked into the room, looking sternly from Angie to Brooke, then back to Angie. “Angie, I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the room. Brooke has a concussion and she needs to stay quiet.” She held the door open and motioned like a traffic cop. “Please, honey.”
“What about what I need,” Angie said so quietly that Olivia asked her to repeat herself. “Nothing,” she mumbled and stalked out.
Vic tried to snap out of her fog. Before suturing the cut on Brooke Bennett’s forehead, she stopped at the main desk to check on her wife’s progress and discovered that she had a broken left wrist, a few cuts and bruises but nothing more serious. An ortho had been called to come down and examine her wrist, but so far it looked like Karen would not need surgery.
Jeff told Vic that she could go in and visit Karen. Though he was a second-year resident while she was the ER chief, Karen was his patient, and Vic had not been asked to consult or interfere in any way, nor did she have the right to in this case. She was the patient’s loved one first, a doctor second. She hadn’t, however, been able to resist scrolling through the computer and checking Karen’s chart.
“Hi, sweetie,” she said, stepping up to the bed and gently placing a hand on Karen’s shoulder. “How are you feeling?”
Karen looked at her with such sadness that Vic feared there was something Jeff hadn’t told her. Something that wasn’t in Karen’s chart, either.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, it’s okay. Accidents happen. Everything’s going to be all right.” Vic reached for Karen’s good hand. Her own hand was sweating, tremulous.
Tears, big and thick and slow, rolled down Karen’s face, and all Vic could think was that something was about to happen. Something momentous and quick, like a room being thrown into darkness when the power suddenly goes out. She commanded herself to breathe, to be calm. Told herself she could handle anything.
“Your wrist should be good as new in a couple of months,” she said as a delaying tactic. “We’re very lucky.”
“No.” The word came out muffled, like it had caught on something in Karen’s throat.
“I had a look at your x-ray, and—”
Don’t what, she wanted to scream, but she was afraid to say it. Maybe if she didn’t speak, this would all go away. They could go home together at the end of her shift in a few hours. She would take care of Karen, their life would return to its natural order in a few days, a few weeks at worst.
“Brooke.” Karen disengaged her hand from Vic’s and carefully wiped the tears from her cheeks. “How is she?”
“She’s…I didn’t know you were friends with this person. You must have been giving her a ride somewhere. That was good of you, honey.” Her breezy tone sounded ridiculous to her own ears. God, she was being pathetic! And a coward, because she did not want to hear what Karen was going to say next. But like a storm eating up the horizon, she was powerless to stop it.
Karen’s voice shook with urgency. “Is she—Brooke—is she okay? Is she hurt badly? Nobody will tell me anything.”
“No, just a nasty cut on her head that required some stitches. And she has a concussion.”
Karen closed her eyes briefly, the muscles in her face relaxing. “Thank God.”
“Is she…” Oh God. Reflexively, Vic clutched her stomach. She wanted to go hide in a supply closet. Or go back to her UTIs and dislocated shoulders and unexplained fevers like nothing had happened. But avoiding didn’t come naturally to her. She was actually terrible at avoiding unpleasantness; she couldn’t do her job if she were any other way.
She pressed on. “Is she another real estate broker in your firm?”
Karen shook her head. More tears were pooling in her eyes, like a faucet with a perpetual leak.
“Sweetie, we don’t have to talk about the accident anymore, all right? You’re on pain medication and I know all of this must have been so scary for you. I’m sorry this happened, but you’re going to be okay. You’ll have to miss the visit with your sister and we’ll get another car, but otherwise, no harm done. You’ll get better, I—”
“Victoria, stop it.”
A simple, emotionless command, but it was like a slap. God, Karen was so beautiful, even lying in a hospital bed. And even with her face twisted in anguish. “Angelic” was the word Vic thought described Karen best, with her long, dark blond hair, fair freckled skin, and eyes the color of melting ice. She was Vic’s real estate broker when Vic was looking for a two-bedroom condo in Chicago almost a decade ago, and she hadn’t been able to stop looking at her, thinking about her. Too shy to ask her for a date, she waited for Karen to suggest a quiet dinner for two to celebrate the completion of the condo deal, and they’d not been apart since. Three years ago they legally tied the knot, and still when Vic looked at Karen, she could hardly believe she was hers.
“I can’t…” Karen’s eyes grew wide and searching, as if trying to locate her through a heavy mist. Her breath hitched at a sob. “I can’t do this anymore. With you. I can’t…I can’t…I don’t want to be married to you anymore, Vic.”
The words took a moment to register, like they were coming at her from some distance, from a transistor radio or from underwater. It was someone else talking, not Karen; the words were meant for somebody else, not her.
“I…” Vic had to clear her throat to be heard. “I don’t understand. What are you talking about?” She knew the literal meaning of the words, but not what they were supposed to mean to her.
“You know,” Karen said quietly, “what I’m talking about. I want a divorce.”
A divorce? Had Karen hit her head in the crash? Had someone else taken over her body? Taken over her life? Their life? No, it didn’t make any sense. Everything had been fine up until tonight. They’d finally settled here, had begun making friends, had explored and enjoyed the area’s hiking trails and wineries and parks and beaches. Not six weeks ago Karen said she liked Traverse City, that she was thrilled they’d moved here. Of course, they’d both been busy with their new jobs these last few months, but still… Why on earth would Karen say something like this to her now?
She backed toward the door, needing space. But there was, for now, one question above all others that screamed for an answer. Her voice shook. “Is it…does Brooke Bennett have anything to do with you wanting a divorce?”
Karen wouldn’t look at her. She turned her face into the pillow, but she nodded. Vic stumbled into the hallway, her vision blurry, her thoughts in disarray. She was the accident victim now, trying to assess the damage while still absorbing the blow.
Oh, Karen, what have you done?
By the time Angie reached her family’s winery, she had no recollection of how she’d got there. The fifteen-minute drive along the peninsula, past the other half dozen or so wineries, was a blur, but a familiar blur, at least, since it was her childhood home and she could pretty much navigate her way there blindfolded.
She didn’t know why she’d come, only that she needed a sanctuary. After taking Brooke home from the hospital, she’d sat up the rest of the night while Brooke lightly dozed on the sofa. Over a breakfast neither touched, they talked. Or at least, Brooke talked, and mostly because Angie prodded her for every last detail, every shadowed corner of what she had been up to with this Karen Turner woman. And with each halting answer, each extracted confession, a part of Angie wished she hadn’t pressed. Wished she could walk away without knowing all the gory details. But that was not who she was. Walking right into the fire, right into the shitstorm, that was the way she rolled because she couldn’t imagine any other way.
Brooke said she met Karen five months ago at some real estate shindig—the kind, Angie knew from accompanying Brooke to a couple of them, with champagne and exotic meats and cheeses and elegant music playing in the background while people wearing expensive perfumes and makeup clustered together in small groups. The kind of event where the lighting was soft and the clothes were low cut and finely woven and every whisper was charged with something forbidden. A week later the two met for lunch (Brooke’s idea). A week after that it was cocktails at a piano bar while Angie was away on a field trip up north with her paramedic class (Karen’s idea). That was when the affair started, when they started sleeping together.
“But why…this?” Angie asked. “Why didn’t you just leave me if you wanted someone else?” It seemed logical, like a math equation, because one plus one plus one did not equal a couple. It added up to somebody being left out, and that somebody, clearly, was Angie.
“Oh, Angie, do you really think it’s that simple?” Brooke said in that way she had of making Angie feel like she’d just said the stupidest thing in the world.
“Yes,” Angie replied, because to her it was.
“Well, it’s not. I still loved you. We’d made a life together. This house, our finances. Four years together. It doesn’t disappear over—”
“Over a few fucks?”
Brooke’s face colored. “I was going to say it doesn’t disappear overnight.”
“Do you love this woman, Brooke?” Angie steeled herself for the answer. Not that it mattered, really, because she could never be with Brooke again. Not after what she’d done.
“Yes. I think so.”
“Jesus.” So it was worse than she thought. Not just sex. “How long did you plan to keep both of us, huh? Another five months? A year?” Anger rose through her, breaching the dam of her emotions, threatening to swamp her if she didn’t tamp it back down.
Brooke started crying, and Angie couldn’t take it anymore.
“I’ll stay at my family’s for a few weeks.” She looked around at the kitchen—white, expensive, contemporary—that had never been her style. “Then we can figure out what to do with this place.”
And now here she was outside her family’s farm, a couple of suitcases in her trunk and a smothering exhaustion that made even getting out of the car seem like a painful chore.
Her brother Nick’s orange tabby, tail arching in greeting, trotted out to her.
“Hi, Beau.” It was short for Beaujolais. “How’s my good boy?”
She scooped him up with one hand, popped the hatch on her SUV with the other.
“Hey sis.” Nick jogged to her, his face registering surprise. She’d not been around the winery since she’d returned to regular duties with North Flight EMS a couple of weeks ago. “What are you doing here? Jesus, you look like you haven’t slept in a couple of days.”
Angie winced. “I haven’t. Wanna help me with my suitcases?”
“Of course, but only if you tell me what these are for.”
Angie ignored him, hoping to delay an explanation for as long as possible. Truth was, she didn’t want to have to explain anything while she was in this state. Brooke had blown up their relationship, and the concussive effects were every bit as intense as if she’d been knocked on her ass by an IED attack. Fog, numbness, feeling like she was standing apart from her own body, then excruciating pain followed by denial, grief, anger. All of those things and more rolled in on her relentlessly, one after another and sometimes all at once. But she could think of nowhere else to go. Oh, she could have gone to stay with Vince and his wife for a couple of weeks, or Jackie, another friend from high school. But Vince had a houseful of kids and Jackie was in Petoskey, which was an hour away and too far for the drive back and forth to work.
Besides, family was what Angie turned to when times got rough. When she returned stateside after her first tour in Afghanistan and her second in Iraq, it was the family property that grounded her, restored her again for a few weeks. The smell of dirt on her fingers, on her boots, the shiny, stainless steel fermenting vats that were as big as a compact car, the heaping plates of food her mother and Nick’s wife Claire cooked.
“In the barn working on a tractor. Why?”
“I only want to go through all this once. Mom and Claire, can you grab them too? I need to talk to you guys.”
Nick, thankfully, didn’t press her for more. She must have looked sufficiently like shit for him to realize something serious was going down. She set Beau back on the ground.
“All right. I think they’re in the kitchen.”
Of course they were. Her mom and Claire baked and cooked all the munchies the winery’s guests could order over a glass or bottle of wine in the massive tasting room or out on the deck that overlooked Grand Traverse Bay. It was Monday, prep day for the week ahead and the only day of the week the winery closed its doors to the public so the family and its gaggle of employees could get work done. Bad timing on her part, but it wasn’t like it could wait.
“Thanks, Nick. The kitchen’s as good a place as any to meet.”
* * *
Vic could think of no better antidote, no more effective cure for her broken heart, than work. Lots of it. Work was the only cocoon she could feel safe in right now, the only thing that could make her forget, at least for a little while, the images that swam through her mind like shadowy predators. The same predators that stole her sleep and shoved her into an abyss that left her staring at the walls at night and crying until she could hardly breathe. Being alone with her thoughts right now was the worst thing she could do.
Karen had moved into a hotel, even though Vic, against her better judgment, told her she didn’t have to. But that was before Karen had confessed that she was in love with Brooke Bennett. Vic couldn’t stay in the same house if her wife was in love with somebody else, because that kind of apocalyptic rejection she wouldn’t be able to live with. She tried to get more answers out of Karen, because Lord knew she had about ten thousand questions. But Karen didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Karen wanted to get the hell out as quickly as possible now that everything was all out in the open. Later they would talk, she promised halfheartedly. Some other time, which might mean next week, next month, or maybe never. Or maybe it meant any more talk would happen between their lawyers. Who knew?
It was her second day of working a double shift, and even though Olivia kept giving her the stink eye over this self-flagellation, Vic was the chief of the Emergency Department and she could work as many damn hours as she wanted. There was a serious car crash victim coming in, a man who wasn’t wearing a seat belt and had been thrown through the windshield of his car on Highway 31. A Priority One.
“You okay with this?” Olivia asked discreetly.
“Of course,” Vic snapped, not meaning to, but between her lack of sleep and the buckets of coffee she’d drunk, her nerves were in tatters. Olivia gave her that look she’d been giving her all week—sympathy, concern, admonishment—but Vic turned away and pulled on her disposable gloves to await the ambulance.
It was quiet moments like these, caught between tasks, when her mind wandered. Karen saying she loved Brooke. Karen saying she wanted a divorce and saying it in a way that left no room to negotiate a different outcome. Vic could feel, with every word her memory summoned, the press of the shock against her chest, squeezing her, urging her now to replay it like some elaborate injury one has to relive over and over until its power to hurt diminishes. How can this be happening to me? To us? And then she remembered there was no us anymore. And that it had, indeed, happened.
She commanded herself to focus on the task at hand, allowed the sharp edge of nervousness to race up and down her spine. She was always a little nervous before a P-1. Which is the way it should be, she’d counseled medical students, interns, junior residents. It was good to be confident, vitally important to trust in your training and experience, but any good ER doc knew that doing everything right didn’t guarantee success in the treatment rooms.
Conversely, she often repeated the wise advice of a former med school mentor, who preached that you should never go into emergency medicine if you couldn’t live with yourself after killing someone. Vic thought she’d heard wrong at first. “You mean if you lose a patient?” she asked him. “No,” he said, “if you kill a patient, because you will. You’ll misdiagnose or miss diagnosing something altogether. You’ll be exhausted some shifts, harried, pulled in twenty different directions…and somebody, someday, will die because of it.” It was one of the most helpful pieces of advice, one of the most realistic things she’d ever heard, in her more than fifteen years in the business of emergency medicine.
The ambulance roared up and the sight of its dancing roof lights transported her back to the other night, when it was Karen on the gurney. Karen’s lover too. It was the moment her life had changed. The moment four lives had changed forever. She watched the first paramedic exit from the driver’s seat and scramble around to open the back doors, hoping to hell it wasn’t Angie Cullen in back with the patient. She hadn’t run into Angie since that night, which was exactly the way she wanted it. She didn’t even know if Angie was back at work, throwing herself headlong into the job the way she was or whether she was taking some time off. Nor was she about to ask anyone. The less she saw of Angie, the less it would remind her of…everything.
Her heart pounded and then settled when she saw it wasn’t Angie hopping out the back and sliding the gurney out.
“What’ve you got?” Vic said.
“Semi-responsive, possible internal injuries, possible head injuries too,” said the first paramedic. “Probable collapsed lung. Pulse has been dropping and is down to eighty-eight. He’s thirty-seven years old, alone in the car when it hit a transport truck. Wasn’t belted, went through the windshield.”
“I can see that,” Vic mumbled, taking in the bits of broken glass visible on the man’s suit. She could never fathom why anyone wouldn’t wear a seat belt. Some fool once told her he figured the airbags would be enough to save you. Nice try. Airbags didn’t keep you in the car when force and gravity sent flying whatever objects weren’t latched down.
Olivia and another nurse arrived, along with a burly young intern named Raymond, to help transfer the patient to the treatment bed, which was also mobile to make it easier to move the patient for tests or for transportation to another department such as surgery. The patient, mouth open, gave a gurgling gasp, and without being asked, the two nurses began cutting off his clothing.
“Get me a tube kit,” Vic said to Ray. She’d need to intubate before anything else.
The man’s eyelids fluttered closed one last time. He was unconscious, which would make things a little easier for Vic and her crew. Olivia moved to start an IV while Deb, the second nurse, hooked the patient up to a heart monitor and blood pressure machine. Vic listened to his chest. His lungs were definitely compromised.
“Ray, you want to trying tubing him?”
The intern hesitated for just a moment, and it was enough for Vic to decide she’d do it herself.
“Liv, give him twenty milligrams of etomidate and one hundred milligrams of succinylcholine.” She wanted the man’s throat muscles good and relaxed. “Ray, hand me the laryngoscope please. And Deb, get x-ray and ultrasound in here. I want him to have a head CT as soon as we’re done with the other.” He could have landed on his head or smacked it hard on the windshield.
“Right away, Dr. Turner.”
Intubating patients came easy to Vic after the thousands she’d done in her career. Steady and calm, she pulled the man’s jaw open and placed the L-shaped scope inside his mouth, pushed his tongue aside, spotted the vocal chords. Then she fed the hollow plastic tube into his trachea. “We’re in,” she said out of habit.
She stepped back to allow the x-ray tech to haul the portable machine in to take some pictures. A flat screen attached to the machine showed what came as no surprise to Vic and explained the man’s collapsed lung: three broken ribs. Then it was the ultrasound tech’s turn. On the screen of the portable machine, she saw the telltale swirling dark shadows of bleeding around the spleen, pointed it out to Ray, and ordered Deb to call Surgery. This man was going to need his spleen out because it’d been crushed in the accident, but first she needed to deal with his lung.
She handed Ray a scalpel. “Don’t worry, I’ll walk you through it.”
Her steady gaze seemed to settle him, and he made a two-inch slice between the man’s ribs where she’d circled with a Sharpie. She handed him the small, clear tube and told him to push it in a couple of inches until air hissed out, then watched as he connected it to a suction machine. It was almost miraculous to see the patient’s lung refill again, and Ray smiled his relief.
“Surgery’s ready for him,” Olivia announced. “You still want him to have a head CT first?”
“Yes, please. The transporters can take him up now,” Vic said in a voice thin with exhaustion. “Thank you everyone.”
She threw her disposable gown in the trash, pulled off her sterile gloves and trashed them as well. As the others hustled the patient out of the room, she leaned against the wall and rubbed her temples.
Olivia hung back. “Sweetie, why don’t you come over to our place for dinner tomorrow. It’s Saturday and your day off. Unless you’ve done something stupid and signed yourself up for work again.”
“Thanks, Liv, but I’d rather be alone.”
“You’ve had all week to be alone. Beth and I would love to have you over.”
“Thanks, but no. I’m terrible company right now.”
They hadn’t talked much about what had happened. Vic wasn’t ready to, and Olivia seemed to sense that time and space was what she needed right now.
“All right, but promise me you won’t spend the whole weekend moping around the house.”
It was exactly what Vic was planning to do, and yes, it was probably a terrible idea. She’d done a rotation in Psych a long time ago, was smart enough to know she needed to shake things up to pull herself out of this funk. And yes, Liv was right. She should do something enjoyable, go somewhere different, anything to break up this pattern of work and sitting in the dark at home between shifts.
“All right, all right. I’ll do something, I promise.”
“Good. Any ideas?”
“Wine. Something definitely involving copious amounts of wine.”
“Now you’re talking!”