Chapter One

Carrie pulled her red and white Mini Cooper convertible into the farthest slot in the nearly empty staff parking lot behind the Rivers and squinted to relieve the ache in her barely focused eyeballs. Too early. Too much sun. Who the hell got up this early in the morning anyhow? Her idea of morning started around eight, not five thirty. She grabbed her bag, locked the car, and hurried toward the side entrance to the administrative wing, navigating the gracefully meandering flagstone paths between flower beds and towering trees mostly by memory, refusing to be seduced into a cheery mood by the ridiculous beauty of the place. She lost that battle halfway across the green. Assaulted by the scent of fresh-mown grass and Sweet Williams, she stopped, took a deep breath, and surrendered to the pleasure of being in the place she loved most in the world.

And really, who wouldn’t fall in love with the stately old red brick hospital, with its sweeping lawns, lush gardens, and imperious perch above the quaint village nestled below it. Usually she loved coming to work, as long as it wasn’t in the middle of the damn night! Today was a special case, though, and she picked up her pace. She needed an hour at least to get the weekend’s accumulated emergencies taken care of if she was going to make it to pre-op by seven. Mondays always sucked, but with everything going on, this one was already shaping up to be worse than usual.

Never mind—handling the tough stuff was her job, after all. Once she triaged whatever emergent problems had been directed toward Presley’s attention after the end of the workday on Friday, she could safely ignore anything else until at least noon. Flann had said she’d be done well before that.

The wide marble-floored hall leading down the center of the administrative wing was empty. All the sane people were home in bed. She ducked into the coffee room to put on a pot and have her second cup of the day. Maybe this would get her brain working. Why did anyone think it was a good idea to come in this early? Bad enough Presley always started before the sun came up, and Carrie had to be in by seven thirty or feel guilty all day that the boss was working three times as hard as her.

Not that she regretted the decision this morning. She’d volunteered to go through the mail, because if she didn’t, Presley would, and Presley needed to be with Abby right now. They all did. That’s what friends did, offered moral support during times like this. Presley would never ask her to come in this early, but someone had to, and that’s why she was the admin, after all. She was the wall, the immovable object that kept all the daily traumas and dramas away from Presley so Presley could do whatever it was CEOs did. Not that she didn’t know what Presley did every day—she logged Presley’s correspondence and handled follow-up phone calls and, more often than not, took over projects once Presley had all the necessary moving parts moving the way they should. Presley had to focus on the big picture—the one where the hospital stayed open and the community had accessible health care and the town didn’t dwindle away and die like so many other rural towns. Presley had dragged the Rivers back from the edge of extinction and probable demolition in the last half year but was still juggling finances, staff issues, insurance contracts, and new hires simultaneously. That’s why she’d finally been able to talk Presley into letting her spearhead the renovation of the emergency room and the expanded trauma area and MRI suite. Really, how hard could it be to handle a bunch of construction workers? She wrangled a team full of guys into line three times a week from the pitcher’s mound—mostly they were like a bunch of puppies, rambunctious and tending toward chewing on the furniture, but a swat on the butt usually brought them into order.

She smiled thinking about the upcoming interleague tournament as she hunkered down at her desk and powered up her computer in the alcove framed by tall white arched columns adjacent to Presley’s office. The only thing she loved more than her job was pitching for the hospital softball team, especially when they were in first place. As long as Blake’s surgery went well, she’d be playing tonight.

Her stomach tightened. Okay, so she was really nervous, even if she didn’t have any reason to be. The anxiety was normal, right? Even if she did work in a hospital surrounded by constant emergencies. Even if she lived with a doctor who was called out in the middle of the night almost every night of the week for some emergency. Sort of lived with, although not so much anymore, and not for much longer.

But this was different. This was family. How quickly they had all become family—Presley and Harper, Flann and Abby, Blake and Margie. All the Rivers family, and the ones they loved and who loved them. Blake would be fine. Flann was an exceptional surgeon and Glenn would be with her, steady, solid Glenn, who was everyone’s strength, especially Flann’s and Abby’s right now. And her cousin Mari. She smiled to herself. The cousin she didn’t know she’d had until just a few months before, now as much family as the one she’d grown up with.

“Is the boss in?” a husky, irritated voice demanded, jerking Carrie’s attention up from her screen.

A woman in khaki canvas pants cinched by a wide, worn brown leather belt, work boots, and a faded blue T-shirt with the sleeves torn off stood in front of her, dark eyes snapping, her equally dark hair ruffled and sweat slick even at this hour of the morning. A thick black lock dragged across her forehead, almost falling into her right eye. Her arms were tanned and muscled, her hands long fingered and, at this moment, hooked over the waistband of her pants. Her long lean legs were spread wide, her expression impatient. A hard hat rested in the crook of her arm, clamped against her side as if it was simply another appendage.

“No, she isn’t,” Carrie said with her office voice, calm and collected and friendly. “She’s not expected until this afternoon.”

“Well, I have to talk to her.” The woman wasn’t making a request. She stared back at Carrie, as if Carrie could conjure Presley from her top desk drawer.

Carrie kept her smile in place. “I’m very sorry, but she’s unavailable. Perhaps I can help—”

“Nope, you can’t. Look, miss, here’s the situation—I’ve got six guys, a heavy excavator, a dump truck full of crushed stone, and a front loader idling in your parking lot—”

“It’s Ms.,” Carrie said, feeling the smile slip and not particularly caring. Really, it must be the job and not the hormones that made some of these hard-hat types just plain hardheaded. “And what parking lot are you talking about? We don’t have security scheduled to reroute traffic, and if you’re blocking—”

“We wouldn’t be blocking anyone, if we had—”

“So you are blocking access? What parking lot? Tell me it’s not the emergency room.”

The woman blew out an exasperated breath. “Do you want an extension to the emergency room or not? Because if you do, I have to bring my equipment across the parking lot to get to the excavation site.”

“And exactly when did you inform us you would be starting this morning?”

“I called and left a message on Friday afternoon.”

“With whom?” Carrie felt her eyebrow rise. “I didn’t take a call from you, Ms.—”

The dark brows drew down. “Somebody by the name of…Phillips, maybe? Some guy in resources.”

“How on earth did you end up with Stan Phillips?”

“What does it matter? I’m wasting fuel and man-hours chatting with you. Under other circumstances, that might be pleasant, but right now, I don’t have time for this. I need you to get Worth on the line for me.”

Carrie snorted. As if there’d ever be a time when a conversation, let alone a chat, with this woman would be on her must-do list. She’d lost count of the times she’d been interrupted. Way too many times to worry about making a professional impression. “That is Ms. Worth, and who might you be exactly?”

“Gina Antonelli. The contractor who’s going to build your new wing if I can actually ever get to work.”

Damn it. That project was a priority, and her baby to boot. Carrie sighed. “Okay, let’s start at the beginning.”

“Let’s not. Just get me the boss.”

Would snarling I am the boss carry any weight at all? Carrie’s jaws tightened and her back molars began to throb. Not a good sign. Not the morning to try her patience. Definitely not anytime, any day to pull a strong-arm act on her. Good looks—okay, fabulous looks—could only get you so far, and in this circumstance, no mileage at all.

“Let me speak slowly so you understand me,” Carrie said, very carefully and very precisely. “Ms. Worth is not available and will not be available until later today, at the earliest.” She held up a finger to forestall the interruption she saw coming. “And…if you have a problem, now or in the future, you will need to explain it to me, and I will be able to assist you. Now, which part is not clear?”

“I understood all of that, quite well, actually.” Antonelli scowled. “My turn. I can’t start work because the necessary permits are not posted. That suggests to me that the inspector has not approved the project. You and your absentee boss are wasting my time and money and, by the way, your own.” She smiled, a smile that suggested, under other circumstances, she might be drop-dead gorgeous, but right now she only reminded Carrie of a very dangerous wild animal.

“Now that,” Carrie said dryly, “is something I might be able to help you with. Where can I reach you? No one is going to be in the municipal offices until at least eight thirty, if we’re lucky.”

“And what am I supposed to do until then? Tell my guys to sit on their hands?”

Carrie gritted her teeth and avoided the response she might have made if she’d been on the field in the midst of a heated game. “If you can’t begin work without the permits, then I don’t see that you have any choice.”

“I hope you people are a little bit better at your job where the sick people are concerned,” Antonelli muttered through clenched teeth. She tossed a business card onto the desk. “You can reach me at that number. Miss.”

Before Carrie could respond, the woman spun on her heel and stalked away. Carrie watched her go, aware her mouth was open. What the hell? Gina Antonelli elevated rude to an art form. She absently noted Antonelli’s stiff-legged gate, as if her left leg didn’t quite bend at the knee, although her ability to stomp didn’t seem impaired. The thought was fleeting as Carrie quickly turned back to her computer and pulled up the contracts for the ER expansion plans. She was going to have to wake some people up. She couldn’t wait for the town supervisor to get to the office, not if she was going to get to the OR in time to see Blake.

 

v

 

Gina slapped on her hard hat and strode through the ER toward the exit into the parking lot. The very same parking lot, currently filled with cars, she planned to turn into a twenty-foot-deep quarter-acre pit, Lord willing and the creek didn’t rise. At least she would be tearing it up if the hospital administrators ever got their butts out of bed and filed the necessary permits. And why the hell was she surprised anyhow? She’d been doing this for going on seven years now. Nothing new about this FUBAR. Dealing with bureaucrats was always a pain in the butt. She should’ve told her father to put Vince in charge of this project. Her brother-in-law could be cooling his heels in the eighty-five-degree sun, and she could be building a NAPA Auto Parts store right now, throwing up rebar and laying down asphalt with no one to bother her. Big enterprises like NAPA knew how to get things done fast. But these private places, especially something as rinky-dink as this hospital, just couldn’t get their acts together. Really, what the blazes? The boss didn’t come in until noon? No wonder they weren’t on top of the project, and now her crew would be behind before they even put backhoe to stone. And of course they were looking at rain in another day or so. So who would hear about it when they came in over schedule and over budget?

“Not the freaking desk jockeys, that’s for sure,” she muttered, skirting a wheelchair someone had double-parked across from the reception area. She glanced in by reflex and a chill ran down her spine. A man and a woman huddled in the corner, his arm around her shaking shoulders, tears streaking both their faces. Gina jerked her gaze away. The road to memory lane was barricaded and long closed to traffic.

“Hey, who pi…sprinkled in your Cheerios this morning?” a boisterous voice called.

Gina slowed and looked over her shoulder at her brother. “Long story. Why are you so freaking jolly?”

Joe Antonelli spread his hands and gave her a bright-eyed, happy-as-a-hog-in-mud grin. “I’m about to go off call in an hour, I had an easy night, and I’ve got a hot date tonight. What’s not to be happy about?”

Gina stepped out of the way of an orderly pushing an elderly woman on a stretcher and leaned her shoulder against the tan-tiled wall. Her temper still simmered, but Joe always had a way of taking the heat out of her fury, even when they were kids. Maybe because he was the oldest, and the only boy in the immediate family. Everyone pretty much worshipped him, even her, in secret at least. People said they looked alike but she didn’t see it—he was movie-star handsome in a rough-and-tumble kind of way, big shoulders, broad chest. Swoonworthy, apparently, if the number of girls hanging around him since he was twelve was any indication. She scowled at him. “How about the dimwits in administration don’t have the paperwork in order, and I can’t start the job until they get things sorted out.”

“The new MRI wing?”

“Yeah. Only the biggest job this summer.”

He winced. “That sucks. Man, we’re all waiting on that to get done. I was so pumped when I heard the old man got the bid. He must have done some fancy dealing, because I heard that O’Brien Construction was pushing hard to get the contract.”

“He’s not gonna be real pleased if he sees us all sitting around on our butts.” Gina thumped her boot against the wall. “I don’t even have anyone to chew out, and it’s giving me heartburn.”

“That doesn’t sound like you. Don’t hold it in, you’ll hurt yourself.”

Gina grinned wryly. Okay, maybe she’d chewed out the CEO’s receptionist a bit, but she’d managed not to curse, and that was saying a lot considering the runaround. Not that she made a habit of cursing, especially not in front of women. Hell, if her mother got wind of her using bad language in front of a lady she’d skin her, and somehow Ma had a way of knowing everything. Plus, the receptionist was the one throwing up roadblocks—man, talk about immoveable force. And icy cool.

Gina said, “I was the picture of control.”

“That’ll be the day.” Joe smiled. “I’d help you out if I could, but that’s all above my pay grade. I steer clear of the east wing at all costs.”

Gina sighed. She knew when she was beat, temporarily at least. “So, you still seeing that respiratory therapist? The one you brought to Sunday dinner a couple weeks ago. Wendy?”

“Oh, we’re just friends.”

Gina shook her head. “How do you do that, run through so many so fast and still end up being friends with almost all of them?”

“It’s my winning smile.”

“Uh-huh. Along with the BS line you’ve perfected.”

“Some call that charm.” He lifted a thick black brow. “So what about you?”

“Nothing about me.” Joe was the only one in the family who ever bugged her about her private life. Her father had finally come to terms with her being a lesbian but didn’t talk to her about it. She figured that was his right. Her mother mostly addressed it by bemoaning the fact Gina wouldn’t be providing grandchildren. But they loved her and she knew it. Sometimes that’s as good as it got.

Joe gave her a long look, the kind of contemplative look he gave her when he was trying to judge how she really felt. Luckily, she’d learned to keep the shade pulled down even to him. After a few seconds, he sighed and his expression relaxed. He had the good sense not to push any harder. The last time he’d declared six years ought to be long enough, she’d punched him in the gut, and considering he’d been a battle-ready Marine then, she’d hurt her hand more than she’d hurt him. But he’d gotten the message all the same. Don’t go there.

“So listen,” Gina said, pushing away the old ache that still plagued her when she let it, which wasn’t often any longer, “I gotta go give the guys an update. And then I gotta start rattling as many trees as I can find.”

“Good luck with that.” Joe squeezed her shoulder. “Might all get sorted out before long anyhow. There’s a new administration, and scuttlebutt says they’re pretty decent. Hopefully they’ll get you what you need.”

Gina snorted. “Believe me, if the one I talked to up there is any example, I’m not so sure. Je—” She caught herself as a woman in scrubs walked by. “Jeez, Joe, nobody in authority is available during working hours?”

Joe laughed. “It’s not exactly working hours for the office types, sis.”

Gina glanced at the wall clock. Six thirty. “Okay, but somebody ought to be able to answer a damn phone.”

“Why don’t you go grab another cup of coffee and a doughnut. Maybe it’ll improve your mood.”

“Not likely. Catch me before you go if you get a chance, unless by some miracle I’m actually working.” She gave him a wave and stormed toward the exit, practically slamming into the automatic doors that were way too slow to open. Was everything about this place going to be a pain in the behind? Maybe the pretty redheaded receptionist would actually be able to get something done in time for her to save some of her day. Miracles did happen now and then, right? Her mother believed it, so it must be true.


Chapter Two

Blake wondered if anyone really believed the flimsy striped curtains in the pre-op area actually made anyone feel private. He was pretty certain everyone around him in the logjam of stretchers lined up along one wall could hear his nervous breathing. Not that he was scared, because he wasn’t. He’d been waiting for this moment for what seemed like forever. Still, the next few hours would be weird. He was going to go to sleep, and while he was asleep, everything about him was going to change. When he woke up, his body would be even more different than it had become in the last few years. He’d be closer to looking in the mirror and seeing the reflection of who he knew himself to be. Mostly, he was happy. Only a little bit of him was afraid of the unknown, or if it would hurt a lot or look bad or whether anyone would ever really believe he was who he said he was.

“You scared?” Margie whispered, leaning over the stupid side rail that separated Blake from everyone, taking his hand.

He studied her face, her ocean-blue eyes that were always just a little bit serious, her crazy tangle of wild blond hair, the little hint of a smile that always made him feel like he was special. He threaded his fingers through hers. “Not scared so much. Just, you know, nervous.”

Margie nodded, still serious. “Yeah, I get that. It would be a lot better if you could be awake and watch.”

He laughed. Margie never tried to talk him into feeling differently about anything, but she always had her own ideas, good ones most of the time. This time, he’d pass. “Maybe you’d want to do that. You’d probably figure out a way to talk Flann into letting you too.”

Her smile widened, her eyes brightened, and she laughed lightly. “Well, yeah. She’s my big sister, after all. I usually can.” She tilted her head as if a thought suddenly caught her attention. “And since she’s, you know, your stepparent now, you ought to have an in.”

“No thanks. I pretty much know what’s going to happen anyhow,” Blake said, trying to sound nonchalant. “You know, from the YouTube videos.”

“True, they were cool,” Margie said.

She’d watched them with him, not saying anything until the very end. He’d waited, holding his breath almost, wondering if she would think it was crazy. Or that the way the guys looked after it was done was a turnoff. He should’ve known better than that.

“That was amazing,” Margie said as soon as he’d paused the video. “It makes such a huge difference. In the way they look, sure. But even more in how they feel about themselves. I can see why you want to do it.”

The terrible tension that had been squeezing his insides snapped like a rubber band. She’d said exactly what he needed to hear. She understood. But then, she’d always understood him. Nobody had ever understood him that easily, that deeply. Well, except his mom. He knew he was lucky, really lucky.

“Plus, I’ve got the best surgeon ever,” Blake said. He wasn’t just saying that because Flann was family now, either. He hung around the hospital enough to hear people talk, and when he was volunteering in the ER he’d seen Flann in action. Flann was the best.

“Also true,” Margie said. “Plus, you have all of us.”

“You don’t have to wait, you know,” Blake said. “Mom will call you when I’m done, or somebody will.”

Margie shook her head. “No way. I’m staying here to make sure your mom is okay. You know how mothers are.”

He grinned. “Yeah, I know. Even when they’re doctors.”

“Even when they’ve raised a whole family of them.” Margie rolled her eyes. “If it was me having surgery, my mom would be in there with Flann.”

Blake snorted. “I’m glad my mom hasn’t tried that with Flann. I’d feel weird with her—”

The curtain parted and Flann stepped in, already in navy scrubs, a surgical mask hanging around her neck. She had sandy hair and brown eyes, but the same penetrating and intense gaze as Margie. The same set to her jaw—confident and sure. “Did I hear my name mentioned?”

Blake half sat up, balancing on his elbows. “Hey.”

Flann paused at the foot of the stretcher, shuffled through some of the papers there, and dropped them after a quick look. “Hey, yourself. How you doing?”

“Good. Great.”

Flann held Blake’s gaze, steady and calm. “You ready?”

Blake wasn’t bothered by the question. He got it. Flann wasn’t testing him or trying to get him to prove he knew what he was doing; she was letting him be in charge, letting him call the shots the way his mom had done every step so far. “I’m totally ready.”

“Good. Listen,” Flann said, glancing at Margie, “I’m going to need you to sit up so I can make a few marks on your chest. You good with that?”

Margie squeezed Blake’s hand and let go. “I’ll wait outside.”

“Thanks,” Blake said quietly. If and when Margie ever saw him with his shirt off, he only wanted her to see him. The way he should be. Not now.

Margie slipped through the divider in the curtain, and Flann looked over her shoulder after her until the barrier fell completely closed. She let down the side of the stretcher and motioned for Blake to sit up. When he did, Flann reached behind him, untied the gown at his neck, and let it fall into his lap. Blake knew he was blushing but just stared straight ahead. No one else had seen him naked since he was twelve and his body’d really started to change and it was all wrong. It’d taken him two horrible years to finally tell his mom, and then their whole life changed too.

Blake blinked, glad Flann didn’t say anything about him shaking.

Flann pulled a pen, a purple one, out of her shirt pocket and put a hand on his shoulder. “Remember what I told you? About where the incisions will be?”

Blake nodded. “Yeah, half a circle underneath, right?”

“That’s right.” Flann bent and drew on his chest with the purple pen. The lines were bright purple too.

He laughed when he looked down. “I hope that comes off.”

“In a month or two.” Flann grinned and touched a spot at the outer corner of each half circle on either side of his chest. “This is where the drains will come out. You’ll probably just have them overnight, maybe a day or two at most. It depends on how much they drain.”

“Right. And they’ll be attached to those little suction cup things. And I’ll have to empty them.”

Flann smiled. “Well, maybe your mother or I will do that for you.”

Blake lifted his chin. “I can do it.”

“I’m sure.”

“Will I wake up with the…you know, the chest corset on?”

Flann laughed. “We call it a compression garment. Where’d you get chest corset from?”

“YouTube.” Blake grinned.

“Of course. I should’ve known.” Flann paused. “I checked out some of those videos, you know. They’re pretty accurate, and the results are realistic. Just remember everyone is different. You may or may not look like any of those guys.”

“I know.”

Flann capped the pen and slipped it into her pocket. “Any last-minute questions for me?”

“Nope. I’m good.”

“Me too. And remember, Glenn will be there, so with the two of us keeping an eye on things, nothing’s going to go wrong.”

“I know.” Blake glanced toward the curtains and lowered his voice. “You’ll make sure Mom is okay, right?”

Flann cupped Blake’s cheek. “Always. That’s a promise.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m going to open the curtains, okay? There’s a bunch of people that want to see you. We’ll be ready to go in about fifteen minutes.”

“Yeah, sure. Give me a sec.” Hurriedly, Blake pulled the gown back up, tied it behind his neck, and slid his bare legs under the sheets. He patted them down around his body and sat up straight. “Ready.”

Flann opened the curtains at the end of the stretcher. Carrie waited with Margie, and when Carrie saw Blake, she gave him a bright smile. “Hey, you. I just wanted to say hi before you got started.”

“Hey,” Blake said. He spent almost as much time at Harper and Presley’s house as he did at his own. Carrie’d lived with them until just recently when she’d started staying at Harper’s old place that was going to be hers soon. She was funny and easy to talk to and never treated him like a kid. She’d also never once looked at him like he was strange, and some people did, even the ones being nice to him. “You didn’t have to get up so early. I’ll be home after lunch.”

Carrie reached out and squeezed his foot through the sheets. “Oh, phooey on that. I’m not missing the start of your big day. Besides, this way I get a morning off from work.”

“Everybody’s here,” Blake said softly. He’d already seen Harper and Presley, and his mom, and Glenn, and Mari Mateo, his and Margie’s supervisor in the ER and Glenn’s new girlfriend. He’d never imagined so many people would understand.

He hadn’t wanted to move up here—he’d figured he’d never fit in. Now he had more family than he had ever had, and he’d never felt so accepted. He swallowed hard. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Carrie pushed up along the side of the stretcher, leaned over, and kissed him on the forehead. “You’re already the best-looking guy in town. And don’t you forget it.”

The lump in his throat eased. Blake cocked his head. “You know, I’ll be eighteen in a couple of years. If you wanted to wait around…”

Carrie laughed and ruffled his hair. “Sweetheart, if I weren’t playing for the other team, I might just take you up on it.” She nodded to Margie. “I’ll let you two talk. I’m going to go find the rest of the family.”

“Can you see if my mom is still out there?” Blake asked, suddenly wanting to see her just to make sure she was okay. He’d been a little anxious on his way to the hospital, and he could tell she knew.

“I’ll find her.” Carrie waved and disappeared.

Margie poked his arm. “Did you just try to make a move on Carrie?”

“I was just fooling.”

Margie grinned. “Can’t say as I blame you.”

Blake shot her a look. “Oh yeah?”

“Well, she is hot.”

He rolled his eyes. They never really talked about how they identified—it didn’t really seem necessary. Every now and then he’d comment on some hot guy or girl or Margie would do the same. When it came right down to it, he’d rather spend his time with her than anyone else. She seemed pretty happy hanging with him too. Maybe that’s all that really mattered.

“She’s too old for you,” he said.

“I’m not looking for a girlfriend,” Margie said. “Or boyfriend, really. Not right now.”

“So what are you looking for?” Blake asked, wondering when not right now would be now and how to tell.

“I already got what I want.” She smiled and reached over the side rail to take his hand again. “I got you.”

Happy with that answer, Blake leaned back and closed his eyes to wait for the next big change in his life. Not worried, not scared. Not even nervous anymore.

 

v

 

Carrie stepped outside into the hall to look for Abby and saw her talking on a wall phone a few feet away.

“All right,” Abby said, eyes closed and her fingers pressed to the bridge of her nose. Her voice was tight, strained. Her blond hair was drawn back with a loose tie at her nape, accentuating the sculpted angles of her high cheeks and tapering jaw. “I’ll be down as soon as I can. See if you can get Mari to stay until I get there. Yes, that’s great. Thank you.” With a sigh, she hung up the phone and, when she saw Carrie, gave her a weary smile. “Morning.”

“Hi. Blake asked me to find you.” At Abby’s quick look of concern, she added quickly, “He seems fine, but Flann just left and I think they’re starting soon.”

“Give me a minute to see him, and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee,” Abby said. “I won’t stay long or else he’s going to complain I’m hovering.”

“I’m pretty sure he likes it when you hover.” Carrie waved a hand. “Go ahead. Take your time. I am so ready for another cup of coffee. I don’t know how any of you get started so early.”

“I understand Pres always starts before sunup.”

“True,” Carrie said, “and as far as I’m concerned, I do too.” She laughed. “Only sunrise for me is usually a few hours later.”

Abby chuckled. “Hold on. And I’ll get you that second—or is it third?—cup of coffee.”

When Abby returned, they walked downstairs to the cafeteria, went through the line, and grabbed coffee and doughnuts.

“I heard you on the phone,” Carrie said. “You’re not getting called in, are you?”

She hadn’t known Abby all that long, but she’d spent so much time with Abby, Presley, her cousin Mari, and Carson Rivers, the fourth Rivers sister, planning Presley and Harper’s wedding, she felt as if she and Abby had been friends for much longer. Abby had taken over as head of the emergency room in the midst of the private hospital’s purchase by SunView Health Consortium, and not everyone at the Rivers had been behind that change. Somehow, Abby had managed to set up a PA training program and push through approval for an ER residency training program in record time. All that while moving her son from the city to a small rural community in the midst of Blake’s transition. Abby’d been at the Rivers for less than a year, but already she was a focal part of the hospital staff, and she and Blake were part of the community. Of course, Abby’s romance with Flannery Rivers, the hospital’s most notorious bachelor, had made her something of a celebrity. Despite Abby’s professional dedication, Carrie knew she wouldn’t want to work while Blake was in surgery.

“Well,” Abby said ruefully, “I wasn’t planning to be available, but Mike Carrera just called and his wife went into labor two weeks early. He’d volunteered to trade shifts with me, but I can’t exactly ask him to cover for me under these circumstances.”

“Surely there’s someone else who can do it.”

“Not until this afternoon. I’ll wait until Blake’s anesthetized and Flann starts the procedure. At that point, there isn’t likely to be a problem Flann and Glenn can’t handle.” She sighed and shook her head. “It’s not as if I can do anything from out here anyhow.”

“I can only imagine it’s tough for anyone waiting while someone they love is in the OR, but being a doctor probably doesn’t help.”

“You’re right. Everyone thinks it makes it easier, but believe me, it doesn’t.” Abby glanced toward the pre-op area, her green eyes clouding as if she could see Blake, waiting beyond the closed doors. “Thanks for coming by. I know Blake appreciated it.”

“He’s really a sweetie, and I feel like with him being part of Harper and Presley’s family, he’s part of mine too.” Carrie smiled, wondering if she sounded strange, but somehow knowing Abby understood. “I feel as if all of us living together makes us a family.”

“I think it does.” Abby broke her jelly doughnut in half and started in on the jelly side. “You’re going to move into Harper’s old place on the farm pretty soon, though, aren’t you?”

“I’m already pretty much staying there full-time now, although it needs some serious renovation. Like a bathroom big enough to turn around in.”

Abby laughed. “You mean an upgrade from bachelor’s quarters?”

“Totally.” Carrie snorted. “I was hoping we’d get the demolition started by now, but it seems like every contractor we’ve contacted is tied up until fall.”

“I know. I’ve talked to most of them about the new project in the ER, and I know you and Pres have too. I can’t believe how difficult it is to actually get them to agree to any kind of start time. Thank God we’re finally getting under way.”

Under the circumstances, Carrie decided not to mention the slight snafu with the contractors. “I know Presley is trying to get someone for Harper’s place, so with any luck, I’ll have a bathroom and kitchen from this century before Labor Day.” Carrie sighed. “The old farmhouse is gorgeous, but antiquated. All the same, I’m sticking it out. Really, it’s been fun living with Harper and Presley, and I adore them both, but now that they’re newlyweds, I’d really rather not be sharing their space quite so intimately.”

Abby laughed. “We’re looking for workers for our new place too. If I hear of anything, I’ll let you know.”

“I appreciate it.” Carrie polished off the last of her sugar doughnut and sipped her coffee. “So you’re doing okay? You know, about today?”

“The usual nerves. I’m not really worried, but I’ll feel a lot better when he’s in the recovery room. Actually, I’ll feel a lot better when he’s healed and happy.”

“I think the happy part is pretty much a given.”

Abby nodded. “It’s what he wants, and that’s the most important thing.”

Carrie hesitated, not sure where the boundaries were, especially since Abby rarely talked about her own feelings regarding Blake’s transition, only Blake’s. Carefully, she said, “I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but I think you’re a fabulous mother. Exactly who he needs.”

Abby pressed her lips together and, after a moment, said softly, “Thank you. Believe me, I haven’t always known the right thing to say or do. It’s all been instinct. Mostly, I’ve tried to listen to him.” She laughed and shook her head. “And he has always been much surer and much clearer than me.”

“I imagine he would’ve had to be for you to be so supportive.”

“It’s a difficult line sometimes, knowing how to be supportive and still keep him safe. But he’s never wavered.”

“I’d be frightened if I was the parent, I think. I hope I’d be as supportive as you.”

“You know,” Abby said, “I remind myself sometimes, when I worry about the surgery or what’s going to come in the future, if he were in an accident and needed surgery to save his life, the only thing I’d be concerned about is that he got well. I would accept the necessary pain as part of healing and a small price to pay for recovery. This isn’t any different. He needs this to be well.”

Carrie swallowed around the tightness in her throat. “That’s what I mean—you’re exactly who he needs.”

“Well, we’re pretty lucky since he’s exactly who I need too,” Abby said with quiet certainty. After a second, she glanced at her watch and rose. “Flann should be starting about now. She promised to have the nurses call when they got under way. I’ll head on down to the ER.”

“Thanks for the coffee.” Carrie stood. “I ought to go find Presley.”

“She and Harper came by earlier to see Blake. She’s probably in the family waiting area. As soon as I get things settled in the ER, I’ll be there.”

“I’ll see you later, then,” Carrie said. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to tell Abby the ER construction project was delayed. She looked forward to that almost as much as she did breaking the bad news to Gina Antonelli.


Chapter Three

Carrie found Presley in the family waiting area down the hall from the OR. Presley stood at the windows in what for her was casual wear, dark green slim-cut cotton pants, brown flats, and a muted rose shirt. The waiting area was empty except for a young woman reading a magazine in the corner. The inevitable television was mercifully blank. Carrie joined Presley and took in the panorama unfolding outside, barely able to absorb the beauty of acres of grass and flowering shrubs bordering the long front drive and a vista of distant mountains towering above the church steeples and rooftops of the village below. She still couldn’t get over the abundance of windows in the 110-year-old hospital. She’d never been in the operating rooms, but she understood that many of them overlooked gardens where azaleas and rhododendrons bloomed in the spring. The ambience was so different from the blank institutional walls and featureless hallways she was used to in modern hospitals. The light filling the interior spaces alone made everything about the Rivers seem more hopeful and more personal.

“I love this place,” Carrie murmured. “How could anyone even think of letting it die?”

“We won’t,” Presley said, continuing to gaze outside.

Carrie flushed. “Sorry. I didn’t even ask. How are you doing?”

Presley turned, her blue eyes clear and calm. “I was just thinking how glad I am Blake is having his surgery here, surrounded by people who love him. We’re all very lucky to have this place in our lives.”

“We’re all pretty damn lucky you’re here to save it for us.”

Presley laughed and threaded an arm around Carrie’s waist. “I can’t take all the credit there. That’s a family affair—and that includes you too.”

“Thanks—I’m pretty attached to everyone and everything here.” Actually, she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. If Presley suddenly decided to move back to Phoenix and take her rightful place as the head of SunView, Carrie would stay here even if giving up her job and seeing her best friend move far away would hurt her heart. “I’m glad the Rivers family is rooted in this place. I don’t have to worry about you leaving.”

“No chance of that.” Presley scanned the room. “Have you seen Abby? I thought she’d be down here by now. There isn’t a problem in the OR, is there?”

“No,” Carrie said quickly. “I just left her. She had to put out a fire in the emergency room. Her stand-in couldn’t make it. He’s about to become a new father.”

“That’s bad timing,” Presley said with a sigh. “Good for him, though. Is she okay?”

“Other than being understandably nervous, I think so.”

“Eight fifteen,” Presley said. “They were due to start at eight, and knowing Flann, they did.”

Carrie laughed. “I’m sure of that. Abby said if there’d been any problems, she would’ve heard by now, so I guess we just wait.” She rolled her shoulders. The stiffness didn’t yield much. What a morning. “Boy, it sure is a lot harder than I realized.”

“First time waiting?”

“Yeah. I’m the oldest, so no babies to wait on yet, and thank heavens no one in my family has ever been seriously ill.”

“I’m glad.” Presley smiled. “Everything will be fine. Harper was even going to suit up and drop in to the OR once they got started. Blake is in good hands—lots of them.”

“I’m sure everything will be fine, but it will still be good to have it over.” Carrie hesitated. “I know everyone says the procedure is straightforward, but it seems so…monumental. Does that even make sense?”

“It does,” Abby said from just behind them. “Psychologically, it’s a major hurdle, and for Blake, and I think a lot of trans boys, this is the first huge step toward a sense of completion.”

Nodding, Carrie said, “That must be what I’m sensing.”

“That’s also why it means so much to him—and me—that you’re all here,” Abby said quietly.

Presley snorted and gave Abby a look. “Where else would we be?”

Abby crossed her arms and feigned looking perplexed. “Oh, I don’t know—at your desk, where you can usually be found anytime, day or night.”

“That’s not true!” Presley pointed a finger. “I’ve even been resisting checking my email, although I suppose I should look at it.”

“No need,” Carrie said quickly. “I’ve been through everything, and there’s nothing urgent. You’ll have some phone calls to return this afternoon, but they can wait.”

“You didn’t have to come in early,” Presley said. “I know your love for early morning.”

“Actually,” Carrie said archly, “I was here in the middle of the night.”

Presley laughed. “Let me guess. Six?”

“Five thirty, I’ll have you know.”

Abby added, “I am truly impressed, and I’ll mention your dedication to your boss.”

“So noted,” Presley said playfully. “One merit badge coming up.”

Carrie laughed. Presley was her boss, and she was also her best friend. Somehow they made it work, probably because Carrie loved her job, and on the rare occasions when Presley was fraught or just having a bad day and directed her mood at Carrie, she never took it personally. She was pretty good at compartmentalizing and wasn’t prone to hurt feelings too often. The only thing that ever really bothered her was if she screwed up. Then she was harder on herself than Presley could possibly be.

“Today, I think I might’ve earned it,” Carrie murmured, picturing Gina Antonelli glowering at her before she’d even finished her second cup of coffee. No wonder she hadn’t dispatched the verging-on-surly Antonelli with her usual scalpel-like precision. She hadn’t yet had a good warm-up, and Antonelli was a little off-putting. In a distracting, too-attractive, and mysterious way. “Yeah, right.”

“Something you’re not telling me?” Presley asked, studying Carrie intently.

“It can wait.”

Presley quirked a brow. “Take my mind off things. What’s going on?”

“Have you ever met Gina Antonelli?” Carrie experienced a conflicting surge of annoyance and interest just mentioning the short-tempered, mildly abrasive contractor. The woman was definitely maddening, but intriguing too. Usually Carrie liked hard-charging women—just look at all her best friends—but none of them came with a healthy dose of entitlement and arrogance. All the same, Antonelli had definitely made an impression. “The contractor in charge of the ER project?”

“No, we dealt with Thomas Antonelli when bids went out, and after that, the hospital attorneys handled the rest.”

“I guess that explains why she didn’t seem to know who you were. Considering her attitude that everyone jump to do her bidding, I would have expected her to be more on top of the facts.” Carrie shook her head.

“Something’s gotten you fired up,” Presley said. “What’s going on?”

“Someone in the business office or legal dropped a ball or two. Gina Antonelli, the daughter and project manager for the expansion, showed up at your office in a storm this morning about six. They can’t get started until some of the permits are straightened out.”

“You’re kidding,” Abby said.

Presley snapped, “Are we on it?”

Carrie returned the arched eyebrow. “Really? You have to ask?”

Presley chuckled. “Sorry, I forgot who I was dealing with. Is there anything you need me to do?”

“No, I’ll take care of it.” Carrie checked her watch. “In fact, it’s almost time for me to start making phone calls. I’m going to do that because I suspect if I don’t, Antonelli will be in here chewing up the furniture before long.”

“That personable, huh?” Abby said.

“Let’s just say her table manners aren’t the best.”

Her friends laughed as Carrie left to make calls. She had a feeling no one would be laughing if she had to tell Gina Antonelli there’d be no work today. Oddly enough, she wasn’t bothered by the possibility of Antonelli’s temper. What she didn’t want to do was disappoint her. Why, she didn’t know.

 

v

 

“Hey, Coach,” Arnie Cohen called, hiking a hip up onto the low stone wall next to Gina, “how long do you think it’s gonna take the paper pushers to get this straightened out?”

Gina snorted. Nine a.m. So far, they’d lost three hours of work time. The clock was running and so was the bill. She didn’t have much faith that anything was going to get done until the boss showed up from her morning golf game or wherever else she was off to. After all, how much could the receptionist really do? Make a few phone calls—maybe. Expecting the help to handle a major FUBAR would be like her expecting one of the summer grunts to do her job. Chance of success, zero to none. “Not likely.”

“Figured,” Arnie said.

“I’d lay odds we don’t work today.” Gina gripped the edge of the wall and glared into the morning sun, aimlessly watching ambulances pull up to the emergency room, most of them going pretty slow, but now and then one careened in with lights flashing. She’d counted six in the last hour, which she guessed was a good thing in a backhanded kind of way. A lot of people depended on the hospital for a living and to stay alive, and right now, so did she. At least the make-a-living part. This was one of the biggest projects their company had landed all year. With the housing market around here in the dump, new construction was limited and plenty of builders were skating the edge of going under. Her father hadn’t said anything, but she could do the numbers easy enough. They needed this job to come in on time and on budget. She owed it to her crew and her family to make that happen. So far, the hospital bureaucracy wasn’t helping.

Arnie pulled a hunk of beef jerky from his shirt pocket, folded it up, and shoved it in his mouth. “How long do you think the old—sorry—the big boss is going to keep us out here?”

“We’ll give it a while longer,” Gina said evasively. She hadn’t called her father yet. He already seemed strained to the max. She could tell her mother was worried about him, even though he’d never complain. “It’s not like we got much else to do, not with all our heavy equipment already here. We could move it, but that’ll be costly, especially if we’re going to start tomorrow.”

“You know, it’s damn…darn…boring when we’re not working.”

“You’re usually complaining you’re working too hard.”

He grinned and scratched at the stubble on his chin. He was her foreman, twice her age, having come up through the ranks from unskilled grunt to master carpenter. He never turned a hair when her father put her in charge of her first project two years before, just watched her for the first few weeks until she’d proven she knew what she was doing. “Yeah, well, I’d rather be complaining about work than complaining about nothing to do.”

“You and me both.” If it was up to her, she’d work seven days a week, and she knew some of the other guys on the crew would too. They needed the money, she needed to fill her time. When she wasn’t working, options were few. The few things she liked on TV hardly used up a few hours a week, and she’d given up drinking except on Friday night with the crew or after a game, when it was pretty much tradition, and even then she only had one. She couldn’t hang around with the family any more than she already did. She loved them all, and she never missed a Sunday dinner if she could help it, but too much family often led to too many questions. Once everybody got talking about their boyfriends or girlfriends or children, glances inevitably shot in her direction, the questions unspoken but crystal clear. What about you, Gina? When are you going to settle down and start a family?

No one would like or believe her answer. Not in the game plan. Even after all this time, the bruise on her heart still hurt, and she wouldn’t sell anyone short by getting involved when her heart wasn’t in it. So work it was. There wasn’t much that pounding a nail or shifting a mountain of rubble couldn’t cure—restlessness, the vague feeling of hollowness that followed her everywhere, the loneliness that caught up to her when she wasn’t paying attention, and the simmering sexual need she recognized but couldn’t figure out a good way to satisfy. She had options there, none of them good ones. She recognized the looks from some of the guys who didn’t know her well enough to realize they hadn’t a chance in hell, and from the women who picked up on something she didn’t even know she was telegraphing. She’d tried accepting those invitations a couple of times when she’d been too weary to resist, and she still flushed with embarrassment thinking about it. She hadn’t made the experience very good for them. She couldn’t have been less connected if she’d been sleepwalking. That’s what bothered her most.

Nope, she knew what she needed. Watching a building go up, something she’d made, seeing her crew working together, bitching all the time as crews usually did but stopping at the end of the day with the feeling of shared accomplishment, was a reward she could hold on to.

“This day is going to pretty much be a loss,” Gina said.

“Maybe so,” Arnie muttered, “but my morning just got a whole lot better.”

Gina followed his gaze and sat up straighter. The receptionist, whose name she hadn’t gotten, was marching across the parking lot, a slim leather folder tucked under her arm. In the sunlight, her red hair gleamed like fire and her lithe body, in tailored black pants and a pale, shimmery shirt, looked tight and strong and curvy in all the right places. Gina’s mouth suddenly went dry. She swallowed a couple of times before she spoke.

“Maybe I was wrong. Maybe we’ll be getting to work sooner than I thought.” She pushed off the wall and strode to meet the receptionist. “I hope you’ve got good news for me.”

Carrie shielded her eyes with one hand and glanced up a few inches to meet Gina Antonelli’s hot, dark gaze. She was scowling. No surprise there. Was the woman always in a temper? A light sheen of sweat dotted her brow, but she didn’t seem to notice it or care. Her dark hair lifted a little in the breeze, what there was of it cresting the hill and floating over the expanse of grass and the asphalt parking lot. Some generous few might’ve considered Antonelli’s jaw strong, but right now it was leaning more toward rock. A muscle bunched at the angle. Her T-shirt, navy blue with an emblem of a truck over the chest pocket with the words Antonelli Construction underneath, hugged her shoulders and chest. Her body looked as hard as her jawline.

Antonelli jammed her hands on her slim hips. “Well?”

Oh, this wasn’t going to be pleasant. Carrie smiled, doubting it would do a bit of good. But after all, she was the professional here. “That would be a yes and a no.”

Antonelli squinted at her. “I don’t think I like the way that sounds.”

“We’re finally in agreement on something,” Carrie said. “I’ve just talked to the town supervisor and I’m waiting to hear from our legal department, but it appears that this particular township, of all the towns in the county, requires state verification of your insurance coverage and workers’ compensation plan and payments.” She paused. Might as well deliver all the good news. “For this fiscal year.”

“Son of a…gun.” Gina gritted her teeth. “We’re just finding this out? What incompetent is in charge of this fiasco?”

Carrie sucked in a breath at the insult. Be the big person. Be the big person. That was going to become her mantra dealing with this unreasonable walking ego. “Believe me, I’m no happier about this than you are. We’ve been waiting more than a month to get started until your crew was available, remember?”

Gina snorted. “Really? A whole month? And I suppose you think we’ve all just been sitting around doing our nails because we don’t have anything to do? We had to shift other project commitments to get this started because your boss twisted some…arms. And being civic minded, we appreciate how important this is to the community.”

“You’re right,” Carrie said, holding her temper in. After all, as far as she could tell, Antonelli’s company hadn’t been in the wrong here. As with most snags like this, no one was really at fault. Just a long line of miscommunications. Which didn’t help a damn bit right now. “Maybe we can agree we’re on the same side.”

“There isn’t any side,” Antonelli said flatly. “There’s a job to do, and I’m here ready to do it and so is my crew. How long is it going to take your boss to get this straightened out?”

“I’m working on it now—”

“Uh-uh. I think this is a little above your pay grade. When can I talk to the boss?”

Heat climbed up Carrie’s spine. “Above my pay grade?”

Antonelli ran a hand through her hair. “Look, I’m sure you’re a super receptionist. You tracked down the paper trail really quickly. Good for you. Now we need someone who is capable of twisting arms and anything else that needs twisting. So you need to hand this off to your boss.”

“I do?” Carrie wished for all the world she was on the pitcher’s mound and Gina Antonelli was at bat. The unbelievably insulting contractor would be getting a brushback pitch that trimmed the sexy lock of hair falling in her eyes. “Because I’m just a pretty face?”

“Come on.” Antonelli sighed dramatically. “That’s a no-win for me. If I say yes, I’m probably being a chauvinist pig. And if I say no—well, you never say no to something like that.”

“Oh, you don’t. And you’re an expert on what women like to hear, I guess.”

Antonelli’s expression darkened—not with temper, but something else that moved through her eyes like a slow-burning shadow. “No, I’m definitely not.”

“I’m in charge of this project,” Carrie said quietly. “I’ve already talked to legal—”

“Hold it.” Antonelli’s voice dropped. “Run that by me again? You’re in charge of this? Your boss doesn’t think it’s important enough for her to waste time on? Worth, right?”

“Yes, Presley Worth.”

“Well, presumably your boss is not just a pretty face, either. So maybe you could drag her off the golf course or out of bed or wherever she is—”

“Okay, I can see we are not going to be on the same side here.” Carrie opened the folder. “And I’m wasting time trying to have a conversation with someone whose head is harder than concrete. So”—she held out a stack of forms—“your company will need to file these with the township after the state confirms various payments, license numbers, and other details.”

Gina glanced down at the stack of papers and shoved her hands in her pockets. She wanted to take them about as much as she wanted to grab a live snake. Or even a dead one. She detested snakes. It was about the only thing, other than some dreams that took her unawares, that gave her nightmares. “What the hell am I supposed to do with them?”

Carrie let out an exasperated breath and shook them in the air as a ring of men moved behind Gina, all of them close enough to hear what was going on. Wonderful. In a town this size, you couldn’t change the color of your mailbox without someone commenting on it and everyone in town knowing about it. By the end of the day this conversation might as well have been recorded. At least then there’d be an accurate rendition as it made the rounds in the bars and hardware store and gas station. Lovely. She lowered her voice. “I need you to take them back to your corporate headquarters—”

“My corporate headquarters.” Gina made an elaborate eye roll. Some male voice guffawed behind them.

“Office?” Carrie said bitingly. “Do you think you could look up the term cooperation at some point?”

“And then what?”

“Have your boss get them completed and filed with the town supervisor. Copy our attorneys. Once that’s done, hopefully we’ll be able to get you all to work.”

Gina’s gut twisted into a knot. “That could take a month!”

“We’ll do everything we can to expedite from this end,” Carrie said. “We have every bit as much invested in this project as you do, probably more. We need these facilities as a requirement for our training programs and for our level one trauma certification. And we want to move on with our plans for the helipad.”

Gina glanced up at the top of the hospital. “You’re going to put a heliport up there. I heard that rumor. That’s going to be a pretty project.”

“It is, and”—Carrie smiled sweetly—“we’re opening up for bids very soon.”

“I heard that too,” Gina said. And they needed to land that project, which meant she probably ought to try sweet-talking the receptionist and her boss.

“Then you can see why we are very anxious to get this project going.”

Gina took the damn papers, folded them in half, and shoved them into her back pocket. “We’ll get on it. About your boss—”

“Ms. Antonelli—”

More laughter from the gallery.

“Gina,” Gina said. “It’s Gina or Antonelli, not Ms.”

“Sorry. I should’ve known that.”

Gina grinned in spite of herself.

“Just to set the record straight, I’m not the receptionist. I’m the executive administrative assistant to Presley Worth. And I’m in charge of this project. If you have problems, you bring them to me.”

“Hey,” Gina called as the ticked-off redhead walked away. “I didn’t get your name.”

“You may call me Ms. Longmire,” Carrie called without looking back.

Gina’s grin widened as the guys behind her whistled.