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He stood naked and felt the water splash over him. Eyes closed, arms raised with his hands splayed above him on the porcelain tile, Brett Ackerman dropped his chin to his chest. Water pressure that was fine for cleansing wasn't strong enough to wash away the tension knotting the muscles along the back of his neck.
He stood there, anyway. Planned to let the hot water run out and then to remain in the cold for as long as he could take it. His pain was his own fault. He'd been out too late after several grueling days of work, flying back and forth across the country twice.
He'd been celebrating. Ten years since he'd sold the dot-com he'd started his junior year in college. A decade of his life had passed, and here he was. Standing alone in the walk-in shower in his elegant, historical, two-story walk-up across a quiet street from a flowered lot that led to the ocean beyond.
He owned the house. The lovely two acres across the street. And another house down the street, too, that was split up into bed-and-breakfasttype rooms that were all rented on an extended-stay basis.
He owned them both, and lived in this one, alone.
Just as he'd walked home alone from the quaint neighborhood pub on the corner in the wee hours of that Tuesday morning in September. Where he'd celebrated by nursing two cocktails over a period of several hours and playing video trivia games with anonymous opponents.
His life was on track. Exactly as he'd planned.
And that fact was worth celebrating.
His cell phone peeled, an urgent sound partially muted by the shower. It was only seven. He wasn't due at the Americans Against Prejudice board meeting in LA until nine. His unscheduled tour of the home office facilities would follow immediately after. While the other board members were at lunch.
His phone continued to ring. Brett continued to stand under the showerremaining strong against the temptation to pick upstubbornly determined to relax.
As a nonprofit regulatora self-made position that in ten years had grown into something approximating a national Better Business Seal of Approval designed to assure nonprofit donors that their monies were not being misappropriatedhe was currently sitting on more than fifty boards around the country.
The phone fell blessedly silent, and Brett lifted his face to the soothing heat sluicing over him. Enjoying the moment.
Then his phone started to ring again. Shit. He'd made it through the first summons, but there was no way he could ignore a second, right on the heels of the first. At seven in the morning.
So much for a little naked relaxation.
Ella Wales Ackerman, RN, the brand-new charge nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Santa Raquel Children's Hospitala newly completed facility just outside Santa Raquelwas in the unit's nursing office early on that Tuesday morning, going over charts and checking her email before her shift began. The thousand-bed facility had only been open a few weeks, and already they had thirty patients in their fifty-bed unit.
Thirty babies fighting for their lives.
She read chart notes from the night before. Saw that the little "ostomy" guy had coded again, but was stabilized. His liver was shutting down due to the nutrition they were forced to give him intravenously until they could do the surgery that would put his stomach back together. If they couldn't keep him stable, get him well enough to tolerate the surgery
He was stable. They'd do all they could for him.
"Ella?" She glanced up as Brianna Wood, one of her nurses, a twenty-eight-year-old transfer from San Francisco, stopped in the office doorway. "I know you aren't on the floor yet, but I just wanted to let you know, we got word an hour ago that a new patient's coming up from Burbank sometime this morning. A two-pound, six-week-old girl. I don't know the particulars yet, just that she's in a warming bed and breathing on her own."
"Let's put her in D-4," Ella said. The pod was their least crowded and also one that, so far, had no patients with ventilators. They talked about the attending physician and waiting for orders, and then Ella asked, "So, did you talk to him?"
Brianna had been planning to ask her boyfriend to move in with her. Which meant leaving his job as a nuclear medicine technician in San Francisco to relocate to Santa Raquel. The long-distance relationship wasn't working out well.
"He said he'd see "
The woman wasn't crying, but Ella could almost feel the effort it took Brianna to keep her emotions in check.
"You thinking about going home, then?" She'd hate to lose her. Not only were they still staffing, Brianna was a damn good nurse, too. But if she would be happier.
"Absolutely not. I love this job. And if he's not sure now, my moving back isn't going to make him any more so."
There was a lot Ella could say about the importance of having a life beyond the man you loved, but she was the woman's boss. And admittedly jaded where men were concerned. "He could change his mind."
Brianna shrugged. "Maybe." She looked hopeful for a moment. "Do you think I should? Go back?"
"I can't answer that."
She shouldn't answer that, either. "No."
Brianna's nod gave her pause. "But if you want to go home, I'll give you a glowing reference," Ella added with a small smile. She'd never been a boss before. Was used to being just one of the nursessomeone who could offer personal advice and opinions without undue professional consequence.
"You don't wear a ring "
The question on Brianna's pretty face called out to Ella. She was new in town, too. And other than her sister-in-law, Chloe, who was living with her temporarily, had no one to confide in. Or even catch a movie with.
"I'm not married."
"Have you ever been?"
Closing the charting program on her computer, Ella stood up. "Yes, I have been. Now, let's go get D-4 ready before shift change. If you want to grab a cup of coffee after you get off, I'll see what I can arrange."
So she shouldn't fraternize. A cup of coffee with a valuable employee who was hurting was just good business.
As it turned out, Ella didn't make it to D-4 or coffee with Brianna. Before she'd even clocked in, the three-month-old in C-2 coded, and it took a couple hours to get him stabilized. By the time Ella finally made it to the break room for a cup of coffee, Brianna was long gone. And she sat by herself, sipping her dark roast, and thinking about things that weren't productive.
Like Brett. And the baby they'd spent three years and ungodly amounts of money trying to conceive. The baby he'd never wanted. The baby who'd been born too soon to save, leaving his mama with little hope of ever having another child of her own. And here she was, four years later, saving other people's preemies.
When she'd graduated from college, Ella hadn't planned to work with seriously ill babies. She'd focused on pediatric nursing. And a job on a PIC unit at a large hospital in LA had been available. Whenever babies had been in for procedures, she'd been the one doctors had requested to assist them. They said she was good with the babies. That she seemed to have a natural ability to calm sick infants.
Funny, a woman who wasn't capable of conceiving naturally or of carrying a baby to term, having that ability.
No, she wasn't going down that depressing road again. Her twenties were casualties buried on the shoulders of that road. And though her journey had been painful, she'd finally turned the corner.
She was thirty-one now and taking charge of her life. This new job as charge nurse seemed almost symbolic.
She'd moved from LA to Santa Raquel. A move that would force her to face her past, to confront her present and to build a future.
Standing, Ella checked the pockets of her scrubs to make certain that she had her pager, her pen, and the ID card she had to swipe to get on and off the unit, and turned toward the door of the deserted break room. Time to get back to work.
She had her plan, and her life was on track.
Calm settled over her.
Maybe it was the calm before the storm. Or maybe she'd finally put herself on the path to real peace. Either way, there was no going back.
Brett was pulling into the parking garage in LA, half an hour early for the board meeting, when his phone rang again. As it had been doing all morning. As it normally did. Glancing at the screen, he recognized the number immediately.
And issued a silent curse that his hand was shaking as he pushed the call button to answer.
"It's good to hear from you. Is everything all right?" He spoke quickly, aware that his mother was not going to give him a chance to speak again.
"There's a new member on the High Risk team. A nurse. Ella Ackerman. I thought you should know before you see the email."
The sound in his ear wasn't a surprise. Although, even after more than fourteen years of this bizarre no-speaking, no-physical-contact relationship he and his mother had, the abrupt hangup still bothered him.
So did the news he'd just received.
Ella was in town? On the High Risk team? A team comprising professionalsmedical personnel, lawyers, social workers, law enforcementwhose jobs brought them in contact with potential domestic-violence victims. The team had been designed to bridge the communication gap between various professional bodies to help prevent victims from falling through the cracks. The idea for the team had come from The Lemonade Stand, a women's shelter in Santa Raquel. He'd been instrumental in getting the team set up. And now Ella was on it?
Could the day get any worse?
Ella had a spare minute in between an assessment of a five-day-old baby who was being readmitted due to failure to thrive and a meeting with the HIPAA committeea committee comprised of hospital staff to develop and implement programs that would help educate and remind staff of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act guidelinesand slipped into a vacant office just outside the NICU, pulling her cell phone out of her pocket.
"Hey, how's he doing?" she asked as soon as her sister-in-law, Chloe Wales, picked up.
"Fine. His fever's down, and he's watching Cars." Cody, Chloe's two-year-old son, had had a reaction to an inoculation and given them a scare the night before. "He's asking for his daddy, though." Chloe's tone changed. Took on a note of doubt that Ella recognized only too well.
"He's two, Chloe. He'll adjust" One way or the other.
"I just.I miss him, too. You know?"
"I do know. And I also know that my brother needs help. And the only way we can help him is to make him want to help himself. To give him a chance to see that he needs to help himself."
She and Chloe had been through all of this a handful of times over the past four years. Jeff would act out. Ella and Chloe would talk about it later. Chloe would be strong and determined that if Jeff acted out again she'd leave or call for help.
Jeff would be the perfect husband and father for a week or a month. He'd be remorseful and open and giving. Dedicated to his family. And then he'd slowly focus more and more on the stocks that were his livelihood. He'd become consumed by them. When they were up, he was up. And when they were down, he was down. If they went down too far, so did he.
That's when Chloe ended up bruised. In the beginning, the bruises had all been on the inside. Her emotions and heart had been damaged as he'd blasted her verbally. Then it had been finger marks from a strongly squeezed arm. Then a bruised shoulder from a push into a door.
All things Jeff hadn't meant. Things he'd been deeply contrite for. Sincerely, deeply contrite.
This latest time, seven months after his last bout of uncontrollable anger, he'd grabbed his son by his forearms and slammed him into a chair. While Cody had screamed in terror, he hadn't been physically harmed. Not yet.
"I just I miss him. And he misses me, too. He's so sorry and."
"You answered his call." Jeff had been phoning Chloe for more than a week. Ever since Ella had made the four-hour drive to Palm Desert to pick up her sister-in-law and her nephew and bring them back to stay with her in her apartment.
The arrangement was temporary. Just until Jeff got help.
"He's my husband," Chloe said, an edge to her voice. Which faded as she said, "I know I shouldn't have, El, but bills are due, and I'm the one who pays them. I did it online, but I just wanted to let him know. When I picked up, he was choked up and."
"You didn't tell him where you're staying, did you?"
"No. But I wanted to."
"Next time you want to, you hang up and call me immediately."
"But you're working. Those babies' lives are in the balance and"
"Yours and Cody's are, too, Chloe. Make no mistake about that." Since she'd first heard about her brother's occasional lashing-outs, she'd been reading up on domestic abuse. Researching how best to help both the abuser and the victim. And then she'd ended up with a job offer in Santa Raquel, exactly where she knew she needed to be to get him help.
"My cell will roll over to my pager if I don't answer it," she said now. "As soon as I see it's you, I'll get back to you as quickly as I can."
"You have to stay strong, Chloe. Remember the sound of Cody's terror. Not his laughter. Remember the ugly words, not the great memories. Just until we can get this all sorted out."
Jeff would come through. Ella had faith in him.
He had to. Because from what she'd read, if he didn't get the help he needed, Chloe and Cody were clearly headed for real danger.
"I know. I can't go back until he gets help or it will just happen again. I can't do that to Cody. But Jeff needs me, too, and it's so hard. I hate that he's there alone."
"Being alone, losing you and Cody, is the only thing that's going to open his eyes to where he's headed."
"So, how about we go to the beach as soon as I get off work today? We can grab some dinner at one of the places on the water."
"Uncle Bob's?" They'd been there over the weekend, and Chloe had really enjoyed herself. "Assuming Cody doesn't relapse."
"He should be fine. A reaction to an immunization is generally over as soon as the symptoms disappear."
Chloe didn't need to create worries where there weren't any. She had enough real demons to fight.
"You called Jeff because Cody was sick, didn't you?" Ella asked quietly now. She'd suspected as much.
"If I hadn't asked, were you going to tell me?"
"We've got to have complete honesty between us, Chloe, or this isn't going to work."
In the six years since Jeff and Chloe had married, the other woman had quickly become the sister Ella had never had.
"I know. I was already stressing about it, which is why I hadn't called you, and I know that honesty between us is crucial to the support system that's going to see me through this. I'm sorry, El. It won't happen again."
"It might. If this was as easy as making decisions and sticking to them, domestic violence would be much easier to fight. But we'll get through all of this. I promise you. You aren't alone, and you aren't ever going to be alone."