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Sneak Preview--Just One Look

Sneak Preview--Just One Look

Book 14: Escape to New Zealand

Coming September 1, 2021!

Chapter 1 – Priorities

Atlanta, Georgia

Christmas Eve

“It’s not me, it’s you,” the man on the other side of the restaurant table told Elizabeth. That would be Kristoff Erikson, whose patients generally referred to him as a “Greek god.”

Question: why did that tend to mean you looked Nordic—blonde, built, and beautiful? Greeks weren’t Nordic. Anything but. Also, the part about the patients might be because so many of Kristoff’s patients were old ladies. When you were an occupational therapist, you tended to get lots of those, and to spend a lot of your time coaxing stroke victims to squeeze the rubber ball for just a little longer. “Come on, Adele. Do it for me, OK?” Flashing your white smile and your blue eyes, showing them your charm.

Which was real. That was the crazy part. Kristoff was just that sweet and compassionate and disarming. Everybody loved Kristoff. Including her. For more than three years now, in fact.

Wait, though. What had he said?

“Come on,” she said. “That’s not even funny. I said I was sorry. I am sorry. All right, it’s Christmas Eve, and I said I’d be here two hours ago, but you’re used to that, and at least you didn’t cook anything, right? Plus, we’re getting Mongolian Beef. Your favorite.”

“You’re right that I’m used to it,” Kristoff said. “I learned that one the hard way all the way back at Johns Hopkins, the fourth or fifth time I blew out the candles and went ahead and ate the dinner I’d made. It’s also why we’re eating this dinner two blocks from my place, meaning I could wait to head over here until you actually told me you were on your way.”

“When you’re—” Elizabeth said.

Kristoff put up a hand. “When you’re involved with a neurosurgeon, you have to expect these things. Like, for example, spending the two days before Christmas by yourself. No Christmas traditions for you, because she was on call, and everybody travels at Christmas. Car accidents, kids out of school and doing ridiculous things, and everything else. And knowing she may well get called in tomorrow, too, when your parents are going to be visiting for a few days, seeing as they want to get to know her better. Except they can’t, because she runs out as soon as somebody—”

“Needs her,” Elizabeth said. “Excuse me? Social time, or life and death? How is that even a choice?”

Kristoff sighed, looking now like a very patient Greek god. Surely there was one like that, amidst all the thunderbolt-hurling and wave-churning and so forth. Elizabeth would have asked him, but now probably wasn’t the time. Did she know the answer herself? No, she did not. A neurosurgeon knew a whole, whole lot about neurosurgery, quite a bit about surgery, period, and not much about anything else. Kristoff, though, was well-rounded. Hey, somebody in this relationship had to be.

“You’re right,” he said. “It’s not a choice for you. I get it. But it’s a choice for me.”

She might not be the best at paying attention outside of the OR, but she was getting a prickly feeling in her scalp. The kind you got when you saw that tumor on the films.

Oh, man. It was true. She was definitely getting a tumor-scan feeling. Not good. Not much like Christmas, either. Also, she was ravenous. She’d been in surgery for six hours this afternoon. She could have eaten the tablecloth. If there’d been one.

“Pardon?” she asked, after a distracted moment of thinking that she should have ordered soup, because it would have been here already.

Kristoff said, “Have you ever thought that you should’ve gone with a doctor?”

“You mean as a life partner?” She was seriously starving. Would it be insensitive to interrupt the conversation to order that soup? Probably. “That’s why we’re so great together, though, because you don’t work my hours, and you also pay attention to the things I don’t. But what? Is this going to be a talk about how I don’t appreciate you or your job, because of money or status or whatever? Your work’s important. You help people. You help me. Also, you out-earned me for our first year together, remember?”

“Barely, and only because you were still a resident. Excuse me, chief resident. How much are you earning now, again?”

“Hey.” She took his hand across the table. “You have all kinds of skills I don’t.”

Kristoff sighed. “How many times have we had this conversation? Elizabeth …”

“So many,” she said, “that I can’t believe we’re having it again. Hey. It’s Christmas Eve! Ho-ho-ho! You know what? Let’s go back to my place, turn the fire on, and do presents tonight. I can’t wait. What did you get me? Something good, I’ll bet.” Fortunately, she’d remembered to order him something, and she’d paid for it to come gift-wrapped, too, which meant it wasn’t still in the cardboard box. A monogrammed bathrobe and a very fancy toilet kit, suitable for taking to a resort, which was happening in March. See? Personal gift. She’d asked around. Monogrammed meant you cared, apparently.

She’d booked the vacation, too. She’d arranged for the time off, and the resort was in Mexico, far enough away that she couldn’t get called back in. She’d pre-purchased scuba lessons, and the booking reference was printed out and tucked under the ribbon. The whole idea had been the result of their last conversation like this, which had happened on Thanksgiving, for similar reasons, and right here.

Turkey was overrated, though, and Chinese food was great. Who didn’t love Chinese food? Plus, it was ready when you were, whatever time that happened to be.

She told him, “Hang on,” then jumped up and went over to the cash register. Only a few solitary customers remained in the hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Well, it was eight o’clock on Christmas Eve. “Hey, Mr. Wong,” she said. “Can I please get some hot and sour soup? Right away?”

The man looked over his half-glasses. “Surgery?”

“Yes. A long one.”

“Coming up.”

She went back to Kristoff, sat down again, and said, “Sorry. Starved. Continue. I’m listening,” she added, because it was true that sometimes, she zoned out. He tended to explain things slowly and with too much detail, while she just wanted to get to the meat of the issue and move on.

He didn’t smile. He waited so long, in fact, that she started thinking about the little girl she’d operated on this morning. A subdural hematoma—brain bleed—after a hard fall during her first time ice skating, which had produced symptoms the next day that her parents had passed off as the flu. By the time they’d brought her in, it had been touch and go. She’d done a craniotomy, though, and the girl was recovering well. Little bodies healed fast. Still, she might just check in again, after the restaurant but before the presents or whatever. Nobody should lose their baby girl on Christmas.

Kristoff said, “Hello. Still talking here.”

“Oh.” She blinked her way back. “Sorry.”

“You know last year?” he asked. “When you missed Christmas dinner?”

“Yes,” she said. “I remember. Sorry. I was …”

“Yeah. Know what my present was?”

“Uh …” She tried to remember.

“It was a ring.”

“No, it wasn’t. I’d remember that. It was a coat. Really nice. I appreciated it. I mean, it was after Christmas, but I still appreciated it.”

“Know why it was a coat?”

“Because you thought I needed a coat, being kind and loving and all? Since my old one was about ten years old, and I never managed to get around to replacing it?”

“It was a coat,” he said, “because I took the ring back. I never even bothered to try.”

“OK,” she said slowly, getting the scalp-prickling again. “Why?” It was good he had backed off. She didn’t need to get married. It just felt like more pressure. Even hearing about it after the fact made her panicky. She wasn’t going to say that, though.

He said, “Because I thought it wasn’t going to work. Or I wasn’t sure. But I thought, hey, Kristoff, you’re only twenty-nine.”

“Because I robbed the cradle. How could I help it, though? There you were, all beautiful and wonderful and all.”

He didn’t smile. “I thought, she’s barely been an attending for a year. She’s still finding her feet. Give it another year. Well, I’ve given it another year. I’m thirty now, and here we are again. And here’s the main thing. There’s somebody else.”

The blood drained from her head. Not literally. A touch of hyperventilation, that was all. Not enough carbon dioxide in the blood. “What?” she asked. Stupidly, because that wasn’t a sentence you misheard.

“You know what everybody tells me about you?” he asked.

“No. And I don’t care. Who, exactly, else?”

“Everybody tells me something different, that’s what,” he said. “‘You must have balls of steel, dude, to take that on. Little bit of a dominatrix thing, maybe, because there’s no way she’s not the boss.’ That’s one. Or how about, ‘You the man candy?’ Or then there’s the person who said, ‘She’s brilliant, and beautiful, too, in her own severe way, almost like a statue. I hope she goes home and relaxes with you.’ I told her that we don’t live together, that I decided a little space was a good idea when we moved down here, and she said, ‘I can imagine it’s difficult. Surgery’s such a grueling profession. So important, but so hard on the surgeons. And on the people who love them, because surgeons can be hard to love.’ Which was a nice way to put it. Everybody saw it but me, but I’m seeing it now, and I can’t stop.”

“Are you seriously sitting here with me on Christmas Eve,” she said, “and giving me the backstory on your new romance? I can tell who said that last one. That’s not anonymous. That was the ‘somebody else.’” Yes, there was still no blood in her head, but also—who did this? What part of “charming, thoughtful, and sweet” was this?

No part, that was what. On Christmas Eve?

He said, “I’m explaining that I’m not cheating. That I don’t want to cheat.”

“Who is this person?” It didn’t matter. She asked it anyway.

He hesitated, then said, “Not a surgeon, obviously. Notice how you can tell, because of the focus on others? But the woman I’m falling in love with. And, yeah, I beat myself up about that at first. I thought, sure, she’s blonde and pretty and sweet, and sure, she looks at you like you’re all she wants, but she’s not Elizabeth. And then I realized—”

“That you didn’t want Elizabeth.”

“Yes. No. That I don’t want high-octane, not anymore. It started out exciting, but three years in, it’s just exhausting. I want a normal life.”

She should be getting mad. Why wasn’t she getting mad? Why was it that all she could do was sit here like a lump of clay? “I’m not high-octane. I have a …” She took a breath and tried saying it again. “I have a normal life. Busier than some, that’s all. But I have a … I have a house. I exercise. I have friends. I have you. That’s normal, all of it. I’m not a freak. I’m not!”

He took her hand. That hurt, because she could tell he was trying to make this easy on her. Even breathing was hard, like she had shards of glass in her lungs. His voice was gentle when he said, “Elizabeth. You have one friend. Two, if you count his husband. You have a townhouse with no plants. Who has no plants? Not on the balcony. Not on the patio. Not on a windowsill. Your kitchen is the least homey place I’ve ever seen in my life, including at the hospital. And, see—I want plants. I want a dog. I want kids. I want to build a fire in a wood stove, not just push a button, and I want to have somebody curl up on the couch with me and listen to it crackle. I want a kitchen that smells good, because somebody’s cooking in it. I want to come home and have the person I love there with me to share my life. I’ve loved you. I have. But that’s not enough. I’m on hold, always waiting for you, and I can’t live my life on hold.”

Her hand was shaking. Her hands never shook, but it was happening now. Ringless, the fingers slim and strong, the nails cut short and unpolished, trembling against the wood of the table like she’d had too much caffeine—which she had—while his own fingers surrounded hers and held on. His touch was compassionate even now, because he was always compassionate.

She took her hand away. It felt like it belonged to somebody else. “Right,” she said. “I get it.” She considered saying that wood stoves contributed to asthma, but she didn’t. It wouldn’t exactly help. Mrs. Wong came over with the soup, and Elizabeth turned a head that felt like it weighed a hundred pounds and said, somehow managing to form the words, “Could you box it all up, please?”

“Going home for Christmas Eve, eh,” Mrs. Wong said, beaming. “Good idea. Too late to be in a restaurant.”

Elizabeth didn’t correct her. When she’d gone, Kristoff said, “I’ll walk you home.”

“No. Go. Go call your … nurse? And report.”

He said, “It doesn’t matter what she does for a living. This isn’t about her. It’s about us.”

How did she know it was a nurse? Because it was always a nurse. Hospitals sometimes felt like the most clichéd places in the world. “Go tell her,” she said, “that you did it. That you were kind about it. That Elizabeth will be all right, because Elizabeth is always all right. Nobody’s even sure she actually has blood in her veins.”

“I’ll pay for dinner,” he said. “You can take it with you. You’ll need to eat tomorrow, and I’ll bet there’s nothing in your fridge.”

“Stop caring,” she said. “You don’t have to care anymore. Just go.”

She’d go home. She’d eat. And then she’d call and check about that little girl. A hospital was always short-staffed on holidays, and she wasn’t going to let that baby fall through the cracks. 

Priorities.

Coming September 1, 2021

Preorder Now

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