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A Rhea Lynch, M.D. Novel (Book 4)
Author: Gwen Hunter
2014 Reissue Edition
5.5"x 8.5" Trade Paperback
ISBN 978-1-62268-052-8 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-053-5 ebook
Also available as
Audible Audio Edition
As an ER doctor I've
seen a lot of patients diepass on as we say in the Southbut
some deaths are worse than others. Much worse. Some stay with you, tainting
dreams and nightmares for years afterward. Dreams that start with a bang
and drag you into them feet first and screaming, like a roller-coaster
ride in a fun house on Halloween. Or dreams that start slow and build
slower, and then suddenly you're buried deep and unable to breathe. The
dreams that were left after Deacon blew into Dawkins County were like
the second, slow and miserable gathering into fierce and biting terror,
roaring over me in a dark wave.
Change comes to all of uschange of
jobs, addresses, lovers, friends, thought processes, beliefs, and hopes.
A strong person deals with the changes, rocks with the waves, bends with
the winds, all that pseudo-psychobabble garbage. Dr. Phil and Dear Abby
stuff. Me? I guess I'm getting pretty good at change. In some ways, I'm
even starting to expect it, like it, roll with the punches. But the change
that some people experience can be more diversity and variety and transformation
than the average person can withstand and survive. Maybe.
IT'S MY HOUSE, I'LL WHINE IF I WANT TO
I shifted on the hard
front window ledge of my little bungalow-style house. The wood cut into
my thigh muscle and ground against bones higher up. It was uncomfortable,
but not enough to make me move away from the ice-cold window glass. In
the background, the CD player flipped to a new disc, a remix of oldies.
"Oh, Girl," came through the speakers
over my head. Motown. Soft and rich and so full of broken soul it made
me want to cry. Motown. The music my mother had listened to when she was
on the down-side of a manic-depressive swing, halfway through a bottle
of Jack Daniels Black Label, one new man or another kicked out of the
house, and her party friends sent home. Motown. I should change the music.
Put on a little seventies rock or pop. Maybe a little Carly Simon or Doobie
But I didn't. I wasn't going to let my mother's
response to music color my appreciation. Motown was my mother's crutch,
not mine. I liked Motown. Always had. The window was frigid against my
arm and the ledge had pressed a wedge of numbness into my flank. I should
do something. Be industrious. Clean house, maybe.
Several boxes of clothes waited behind me
to be sorted and put away. I was in desperate need of undies; the elastic
on several pair had come totally off. For only the second time in my life
I had tossed a handful of them into the trash. My stock was so low, I
might be driven to hand wash some or buy more. There were underclothes
in the one of the boxes, I was almost sure. And I would rather unpack
than go shopping. I had lived in this house for nearly two years, and
I still hadn't unpacked. Hated shopping. The only thing I had unearthed
from the boxes were several sweaters, some tee shirts, boots and a burgundy
down-filled coat that was too warm for southern winters. The coat was
left over from my three year residency stint in Chicago, a place where
winter comes early and stays late.
The song changed to "BetchaByGollyWow"
by the Stylistics. Okay, maybe there was a strain of self pity in my thoughts
to match the music, but then I was PMSing so I had an excuse. I could
indulge for a moment. It was my house, I could whine if I want to. I grinned
at the thought. The only thing that would have completed my totally female
mood would have been a pound of dark chocolate and a half gallon of Bryers
Fudge Ripple ice-cream drenched with Kahlua.
At the thought of real chocolate, I think
I actually sighed, but the sound was covered by the music. All I had in
the house was an off brand hot cocoa, the kind with hard little marshmallows
floating in itit wasn't exactly Godiva. I sipped at my cooling mug,
I wasn't a particularly introspective person.
I didn't spend hours rehashing conversations that had gone wrong, or the
fact that I got into the slowest line at the checkout and then got a surly
employee instead of a smiling one, or that I had a flat tire while driving
in a gale at rush hour. I didn't even agonize over personal decisions
that had turned out bad.
Medical failures, of course, were a different
matter, and I spent untold hours and days trying to figure out why I had
lost a patient or why a particular medical procedure had not been successful.
I was a contract doctor in a small rural emergency room, and failure on
the job was not acceptable to me. But worry over personal stuff? No way.
In front of the house, down the road, trotted
Miss Essie, until now the one constant in my life. She was part of the
changes I was facing. Miss Essie had helped raise me, and suddenly she
had left behind her slippers and her kitchen, had practically stopped
baking, and had taken up with the Internet and emailing herb-loving friends.
She had bought expensive walking shoes, power walking five miles a day.
Moving like the energizer bunny dyed purple, she vanished through the
bare bones of the leafless trees. It had been over a week since my last
fresh baked bread.
Yeah, I was whining. Dang.
In the distance, just
visible through the December-dead tree branches, a county cop car pulled
into a neighbor's drive. Soon after, another joined it. The CD changed
to the Chairman of the Board, a soft pain of lost love. I rocked myself
on the window ledge and watched the activity across and down the street,
feeling intrigued in spite of myself. I put the cold cocoa mug on the
window ledge and leaned closer to the glass, my breath making two little
spots of condensation. Stoney, the cat who adopted me, jumped to the window
ledge beside me and sniffed at the mug. Unimpressed, he walked up my leg
and settled, curling tight against my waist.
Five minutes later, the County Coroner pulled
in behind the cops and someone started rolling out crime scene tape. Crime
scene tape wasn't used for natural deaths.
Maybe I had just found another reason to
avoid unpacking or shopping. It looked like a neighbor had been killed.
Straining like any rubbernecker at a roadside accident, I gawked up the
street. And tightened all over.
I heard the strange pop/crack just under
the beat of the bass from the speakers. Though I hadn't heard the sound
in ages, I recognized it instantly. The sight of cops at a dead run from
the house, sliding under the crime scene tape and behind their squad cars
was the clincher. Gunshots. I shoved the cat from my lap, jumped from
the window ledge and ran for the kitchen. Grabbed my medical bag off the
counter. Locked the doggie door in back of the house to keep the dogs
inside, and ran back to the front.
I was just in time to hear someone bang
on my door, five pounding hits, followed by the sound of multiple sirens
approaching. Cops and ambulances, two of each, raced beyond my front windows,
and pulled across the street into the neighbor's yard. My dogs were barking
wildly, racing front entrance to back in alarm. More sirens in the distance.
More gunshots. Five more pounding hits on the door.
I wrenched open the front door to see Miss
Essie in her purple jogging suit, dark skin ashen as her hair in alarm,
an arm raised to pound again. "Somebody hurt. You get yourself over
to help, Missy Docta Rhea." Cops shouted in the near distance, and
fainter, the sound of screams, the sound of pain. "But you take care,"
she said, shaking my arm, her eyes wide. "You hear me? You don't
get yourself shot!"
I eased out between the noses of my two
excited dogs and shut the door. I could hear them whining through the
heavy wood. "I'm always careful, Miss Essie."
She snorted, the sound adamant disbelief.
I grinned at her and shrugged. Our backs to the door, we waited several
long minutes. No further shots sounded; no one was returning fire. Screaming,
however, continued. One-handed, Miss Essie pushed me toward the neighbor's
yard. Before I could change my mind, I kissed the air near her cheek and
took off up the street.
I had felt chilled sitting against the window,
but a sudden hot sweat broke out on me as I ran, my Nikes slapping the
pavement. Still no gunshots, I couldn't spot any cops; EMTs weren't huddled
at the back of the units. No one was in sight. It must all have ended
while I was getting my bag. Except for the screaming. A high keening,
like an animal newly caught in a trap, panic and pain. Increasing my pace,
I turned to the left and jogged up the low hill.
A puff of dry dust erupted beside me. A
pop/crack sounded almost simultaneously. To my left, a blur, and I had
an instant to tense before impact. With a single, massive blow, I was
airborne. We hit the ground hard. Breath exploded out of me. Electricity
zinged through my back. We rolled into a slight depression, his body half-crushing,
half-protecting me, over and over, into the ditch. I lost my bag. Felt
a shoe come half off.
"Are you out of your freaking mind!"
he shouted into the back of my head. "You could have been killed."
When I didn't respond, he rolled me once,
glaring into my face. I struggled, pushing, shoving at him, half frenzied,
and he eased back a bit, his eyes still furious. Air hissed into my lungs,
painful but wonderful, marvelous air. My chest spasmed once, fiercely,
starting at the weak place near my spine, radiating agony around, then
down into my legs. Tears fell as my body reacted to the impact and the
loss of breath. I gulped, sobbed once.
"Don't expect me to say I'm sorry,"
Mark said, his tone rancorous.
Who cared about his apology? I shoved at
his chest, still fighting for air. He eased his weight off, holding himself
with his arms. After a moment he added, "Knocked the breath out of
I nodded frantically, concentrating on the
second breath, which shuddered along my bronchial tubes, an exquisite
pain. Then the third. Finally a single deep intake of cool, December air,
and a sense of safety, of relief. I wasn't going to die, which I knew
intellectually, but try and convince your body when it can't breathe.
My back spasm eased. I felt a sharp sting
down my side where a rock had bruised me as we rolled. A cramp in the
thigh that had gone numb on the window sill. A sharp pang between my shoulder
blades where we landed and he hadn't cushioned my fall closely enough.
My fingers tightened on his arms.
Mark wasn't even breathing hard. A flying
tackle through gunfire and he wasn't even winded. It ticked me off.
"Did I hurt you?"
I nodded, my breathing deepening, taking
on a slower pace. My heart thudded in my ears. He gentled his arms around
me, cradling me.
"It's still better than being shot."
He brushed the hair out of my face, his fingers harsh on my skin. Flicking.
Angry green eyes met my tear-filled ones.
"Why?" I gasped, the sound squeaking
out with the air.
"Kid is still shooting. We got a team
going in, but it's not secure yet. Idiot."
I shook my head. "No." My voice
was starting to steady. "Why?"
I felt him grow still over me. A collecting
sort of stillness, like a runner, tightening just before the sound of
the shot starting the race. His eyes blazed into mine. I knew he wanted
to roll over me and leave me in the dirt rather than answer. I could feel
it in the tension of his body, see it in his eyes as the fury slid away,
replaced with something else. The cop-look. That flat, barren expression
they must teach in Cop 101.
"You mean Skye." His tone was
dead, cool, almost as harsh as his fingers on my face. His green eyes
gone cold. "Why did I sleep with her? Or why do I deny the baby is
"Either. Both," I managed. I wiped
the tears away on the back of one sweatshirt sleeve. I was crying because
I had taken a fall, not because I hadn't seen him in four months, and
I didn't want him thinking I was. I made my tone as cold as his. "Why
didn't you come back that night?" My voice was almost my own again,
as cool as the look in his eyes.
"Because when she picked me up from
your house, she told me she was pregnant." Mark's voice was expressionless,
empty, unyielding, like his body lying against mine.
Skye was petite, brown-haired with blonde
streaks, and green eyes. A crime scene tech who had a crush on Mark. And
she was six months pregnant, claiming Mark was the father.
He had denied it. There was a paternity
suit pending. It had made the rounds of the county gossip mill for months.
I waited, staring into his face. He had grown a beard. I wondered if it
was as soft as it looked. I kept my hands motionless on his arms, his
jacket clenched tight.
"I slept with her one time. While you
were in the hospital after you got stabbed. While I was so pissed off
with you for . . ." He stopped, took a breath. I could feel it against
my bruised ribs. "When I thought we were over with. When I thought
I couldn't even look at you again because every time I did I remembered
you made me kill Taylor Reeves."
The breath caught in my throat at the expression
in his eyes, fierce, hurting. A wounded animal. In an instant it was gone,
his face blank. "The kid can't be mine. Can't be. It was way
more than six months ago. I used protection."
"Like that's never failed before."
"It isn't mine. It. Can't. Be."
"So. You were pissed off with me and
you went out and boinked the first thing that flashed you some skin?"
I didn't use other, less lady-like words. My mama would have been proud
on her sober days. "That's real honorable."
Mark jerked as if I'd slapped him. Maybe
I had. Honor was important to well-bred southern boys. His eyes went flat
green, like jade in a dim room. His skin flushed, muscles tightening as
if to move away. I clenched my fists on his sleeves and pulled him even
closer, our mouths almost touching. But it wasn't gentle. I could see
his bared teeth behind the beard.
It wasn't the way I had intended this
conversation to go, not the way I had envisioned it for the last four
months, but a captive audience was better than any of the scenarios I
had visualized. My ex-boyfriend couldn't get away. But I could see it
in his eyes, that he wanted to. The cop look wasn't as much a barrier
to his emotions as he needed. Another gunshot sounded. I jerked hard.
Mark didn't even flinch.
I growled, "And why didn't you come
back? You owed me an explanation, Mark. And my key back. At least that."
"You're not getting your key back,"
he flared, tightening his arms at my back. "I have to fix this, Rhea.
I didn't want you dragged into it."
"I am dragged into it. The whole putrid,
obscene mess of it. First you're dating an ER doc, then you're the father
of a coworker's child. According to the local wags, you were doing both
of us at the same time." It sounded coarse and crude. I meant it
The screaming became a heaving squeal from
inside the house. And this little piggy ran wee-wee-wee, all the way
home. Strange, the things that will cross your mind when you're huddled
in a ditch with a man you might love and bullets are flying overhead.
Mark ignored it. This time so did I. A tic
began beside his mouth. "I know. I'm sorry."
The words surprised me. Mark was sorry?
For what? We had covered a lot of ground in the last few seconds. The
last night he had left my house, the night a fire raged in Dawkins County,
destroying two homes and damaging four others, scorching acres of pastureland
and taking twenty acres of dry timber, I had given him a key to come back.
To come back to my bed. It was to be a first for us. A first time. A beginning
of something stronger, something better.
But he hadn't come back. Hadn't called.
Hadn't returned my calls to him. And then the rumor broke. He had gotten
a coworker pregnant. Mark Stafford, straight arrow, a Beau in a world
of Bubbas, had done the unthinkable and then denied paternity.
He said he wasn't giving my key back. What
the heck did that mean. Wordless, I searched his eyes. His hold had gentled
on my face, fingers tender, as if he had been denying himself a touch
he craved, wanted to feel just that little contact with me. I was suddenly
aware of our legs intertwined, his hips pressed against mine. I flattened
my palms against his chest, pushing him away. It wasn't entirely effective.
Something about men having better upper body strength. His mouth dropped
and touched my lips. I jerked my head to the side, so angry that I wanted
to hurt him. His radio crackled.
"Capn, we're ready to go in."
Mark slid to one side, his legs still draped
across mine, his eyes on my angry ones as he found his radio. He looked
amused, mocking, and resigned all at once. "I'll send someone back
for you. This time stay down till you're needed." Into the mike he
And he was gone, leaving me lying in the
ditch, my body aching from the impact of the fall. Bruised from rolling
into the shallow depression.
©2014 Gwen Hunter