HOW LONG DID it take to examine one little old lady? Patience paced the length of the hospital emergency room for what felt like the hundredth time. What was taking so long?
“Excuse me.” She knocked on the glass window separating the admissions desk from the rest of the emergency waiting area. “My…grandmother…has been back there for a long time.” She figured the lie would get her more sympathy than saying “my employer.” Luckily there’d been a shift change; the previous nurse on duty would have called her on it. “Is there any way I can find out what’s happening?”
The nurse gave her a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry, we’re really busy today, and things are backed up. I’m sure a doctor will be out to talk with you soon.”
Easy for her to say. She hadn’t found her employer crumpled at the foot of a stairwell.
Ana’s cry replayed in her head. Frail, weak. If only she hadn’t been in the other room…if only she hadn’t told Nigel he needed to wait for his dinner, then Ana wouldn’t be here. She’d be having her tea in the main salon like she did every afternoon.
Patience couldn’t help her sad, soft chuckle. A year ago she didn’t know what a salon was. Goes to show how much working for Ana had changed her life. If only Ana knew how she’d rescued Patience, taking her from the dark and dirty and bringing her into a place that was bright and clean.
Of course, Ana couldn’t know. As far as Patience was concerned, her life started the day she began cleaning house for Anastasia Duchenko. Everything she did beforehand had been washed away.
The hospital doors opened with a soft whoosh, announcing the arrival of another visitor. Immediately, the atmosphere in the room changed, and not because of the June heat disrupting the air-conditioning. The conversations stilled as all attention went to the new arrival. Even the admissions nurse straightened. For a second, Patience wondered if a local celebrity had walked in. The air had that kind of expectancy.
His tailored shirt and silk tie screamed superiority as did his perfect posture. A crown of brown curls kept his features from being too harsh, but only just. No doubt about it, this was a man who expected to be in charge. Bet he wouldn’t be kept waiting an hour.
The man strode straight to the admissions window. Patience was about to resume her pacing when she heard him say the name Duchenko.
Couldn’t be a coincidence. This could be the break she needed to find out about Ana. She combed her dark hair away from her face, smoothed the front of her tee shirt and stepped forward. “Excuse me, did I hear you ask about Ana Duchenko?”
He turned in her direction. “Who’s asking?”
For a moment, Patience lost the ability to speak. He was looking down at her with eyes the same shade as the blue in a flame, the hue so vivid it couldn’t possibly be real. Lit with intensity, they were the kind of eyes that you swore were looking deep inside your soul. “Patience,” she replied, recovering. “I’m Patience Rush.”
She didn’t think it possible for his stare to intensify but it did. “Aunt Anastasia’s housekeeper?”
His aunt. Suddenly Patience realized who she was talking to. This was Stuart Duchenko, Ana’s great-nephew, the one who called twice a week. Actually, as far as she knew, the only Duchenko relative Ana talked to. Patience didn’t know why, other than there’d been some kind of rift and Ana refused to deal with what she called “the rest of the sorry lot.” Only Stuart, who managed her financial affairs, remained in her good graces.
“I thought you were in Los Angeles,” she said after he introduced himself. Ana said he’d been stuck there for almost a year while some billionaire’s family argued over a will.
“My case finished yesterday. What happened?”
“Nigel happened.” Nigel being Ana’s overly indulged cat.
She could tell from Stuart’s expression, he didn’t find the answer amusing. Not that she could blame him under the circumstances. She wondered, though, if he would find the story amusing under any circumstances. His mouth didn’t look like it smiled much.
“He was in the foyer meowing,” she continued. “Letting everyone know that his dinner was late. Near as I can guess, when Ana came down the stairs, he started weaving around her ankles, and she lost her balance.”
He raised a brow. “Near as you can guess?”
Okay, the man was definitely an attorney; Patience felt she was on trial with all the questions. Of course, that could also be her guilty conscience bothering her. “I was in the dining room polishing the silver. I heard Ana cry out, but by the time I got there, she was already on the floor.” She shuddered, remembering. The image of Ana crumpled at the foot of the stairs, moaning, wouldn’t leave her soon.
Ana’s nephew didn’t respond other than to stare long and hard in her direction before turning back to the admissions nurse. “I’d like to see my aunt, please,” he said. It might have been said softly, like a request, but there was no mistaking the command in his voice.
The nurse nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Finally, they were getting somewhere. “I’ve been trying to get an update on Ana’s condition since we arrived, but no one would tell me anything.”
“Nor would they,” he replied. “Privacy laws. You’re not family.”
Well, wasn’t somebody feeling territorial. Never mind that she was the one who’d brought Ana in and filled out the admissions paperwork. Anyone with two heads could see she cared about the woman. What difference did it make whether she was family or not?
She had to admit, Ana’s nephew wasn’t at all what she expected. Ana was always talking about how sweet “her Stuart” was. Such a pussycat, she’d coo after hanging up the phone. The man standing next to her wasn’t a pussy anything. He was far too predatory. She could practically smell the killer instinct.
Apparently, his singlar request was all they needed, because less than a minute passed before the door to the treatment area opened, and a resident in pale green scrubs stepped out.
“Mr. Duchenko?” He headed toward Stuart, but not, however, before giving Patience a quick once-over. Patience recognized the look. She folded her arms across her chest and pretended she didn’t notice. The trick, of course, was to avoid eye contact.
Easy to do when the man wasn’t looking at your eyes to begin with.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” the doctor continued. “We were waiting for the results of your great-aunt’s CAT scan.”
“How is she?”
“She’s got a bimalleolar fracture of her left ankle.”
“Bi what?” Patience asked, her stomach tightening a bit. Hopefully the medical jargon sounded more serious than it actually was.
The doctor smiled. “Bimalleolar. Both the bone and her ligaments were injured.”
“Meaning what?” Stuart asked the same question she was thinking.
“Meaning she’s going to need surgery to stabilize the ankle.”
Surgery? Patience felt horrible. She should have been paying closer attention. “Is it risky?”
“At her age, anything involving anesthesia has a risk.”
“She’s in terrific health,” Patience told him, more to reassure herself than anything. “Most people think she’s a decade younger.”
“That’s good. The more active she is, the easier her recovery will be. You know, overall, she’s a lucky woman to have only broken her ankle. Falls at her age are extremely dangerous.”
“I know,” Stuart replied. For some reason he felt the need to punctuate the answer with a look in her direction. “May we see her?”
“She’s in exam room six,” the doctor replied. “We’ll be taking her upstairs shortly, but you’re welcome to sit with her in the meantime.”
Exam room six was really a curtained area on the far left-hand side of two rows of curtains. Stuart pulled back the curtain to find Ana tucked under a sheet while a nurse checking the flow of her IV. The soft beep-beep-beep of the machines filled the air. Seeing Ana lying so still with the wires protruding from the sleeve of her gown made Patience sick to her stomach. Normally, the woman was so lively it was easy to forget that she was eighty years old.
“We just administered a painkiller, so she might be a little out of things,” the nurse told them. “Don’t be alarmed if she sounds confused.”
Stuart stepped in first. Patience followed and found him standing by the head of Ana’s bed, his long tapered fingers brushing the hair from the elderly woman’s face. “Tetya? It’s me, Stuart.”
The gentle prodding in his voice reminded her of how she would wake her baby sister, Piper, before school. It surprised her. He honestly didn’t seem like the gentle type.
Ana’s eyelids fluttered open. She blinked, then broke into a drunken smile. “What are you doing here?”
“That fall-alert necklace you refuse to wear notifies me when 911 gets called. I was on my way back from the airport when I got a message.”
The smile grew a little wider. “Back? Does that mean you’re home for good?”
“It does.” “I missed you, lapushka.”
“I missed you, too. How are you feeling?”
“Good, now you’re here.” Her gnarled hand patted his. “Is Nigel okay?”
“Nigel is fine.”
“He was a naughty boy. Make sure you tell him I’m disappointed in him.”
“I’ll let him know.” There was indulgence in his voice.
“Don’t make him feel too guilty. He didn’t mean it.” The older woman’s eyelids began to droop, sleep taking over once again.
“He’s stubborn, like you.”
“You go ahead and get some sleep, Tetya. I’m back home now. I’ll take care of everything.”
“Such a good boy. Not at all like your grandfather, thank goodness.” She closed her eyes only to open them wide again.
Until then, Patience had lingered at the foot of the bed, not wanting to crowd Ana any more than necessary. Upon hearing her name, she drew closer. “Yes, Ana?”
“There you are,” Ana replied. “Thank you.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” she said.
“Yes, I do,” the older woman insisted. “You take such good care of me.”
Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Stuart shift his weight and felt the moment his gaze slid in her direction. She kept her attention on Ana and pretended she couldn’t see him. “I was only doing what any person would do. Now, why don’t you get some rest?”
“Take care of Nigel while I’m here?”
She assumed Ana meant for her nephew to help take care of Nigel. Either that or this was the confusion the nurse mentioned, because the man next to her definitely didn’t need taking care of. Certainly not from someone like her.
From the tick in his cheek, Stuart thought the same thing.
They stayed until a different nurse came to check Ana’s vitals. The small space was barely big enough for two visitors, let alone three, so Patience stepped outside. To her surprise, Stuart followed.
“You know what’s crazy?” she remarked. “That foolish cat causes her to break her ankle and he’s still going to get gourmet cat food for dinner.” A dinner that, she realized as she did the math in her head, was now several hours late. Hopefully he didn’t kick cat litter all over the kitchen floor in retaliation. Or worse, break her ankle.
Stuart was watching her again, his face as dour as before. Apparently drawing the exam room curtain closed off more than Ana’s bed. “Are you positive Nigel tripped Ana?” he asked. That was dumb question. “Of course, I’m sure,” she replied. I mean
I don’t know for certain. But, it was dinnertime, and the cat does have this annoying habit of bothering the nearest warm body when he wants to eat. Why are you even asking?” Ana had already told him that the cat had caused the accident.
“Just want to make sure I have all the facts.” Facts? For crying out loud, he sounded as if they were in one of those hour-long detective dramas. “Trust me, you’ve got all the facts. Nigel is one horrendous pest.” Not to mention spoiled rotten. “Besides, who else would trip her? I was the only other person in the house and I…” He didn’t…
She glared up at him through her bangs. “You think I had something to do with Ana’s accident?”
“Why would I think that? Ana blames Nigel.” “Because Nigel tripped her.” His mistrust was serious. Unbelievable.
No, actually, it was very believable. A guy like him, used to the cream of everything. Of course, he’d suspect the help. “Are you suggesting your aunt is lying?”
“Then why would I be? Lying, that is.”
“Did I say you were lying? I told you, I was simply gathering facts. You’re the one who read deeper meaning into my questions.” Immediately, she opened her mouth to protest, only to have him hold up a finger. “Although,” he continued, “you can’t blame me if I am suspicious.” Oh, couldn’t she? The guy was practically insinuating—not practically-he was insinuating that she had pushed a helpless little old lady down a flight of stairs. “And why is that?” She folded her arms across her chest. This she had to hear.
“For starters, Aunt Ana hired you directly while I was in Los Angeles.”
So that was it. The man was territorial. “In other words, you’re upset because Ana didn’t talk to you first.”
“Yes, I am.” Having been expecting a denial, Patience was surprised to hear him agree. “Normally, I vet my family’s employees and you, somehow, managed to bypass the process. As a result, I don’t know a damn thing about you. For all I know, you could be hiding some deep, dark secret.” Patience’s insides chilled. If only he knew…
Still, no matter what questionable decisions she’d made in her life, there were lines she’d never dream of crossing. Hurting a defenseless old lady being on top of the list. “You’re right,” she told him, “you don’t know me.”
Yanking back the curtain, she returned to Ana’s side.
My, my, quite the bundle of moral outrage aren’t we? Stuart ignored the twinge from his conscience as he watched Patience sashay behind the curtain. He refused to feel guilty for taking care of his family. After all, until eight months ago, he’d never heard of Patience Rush. Suddenly, the housekeeper was all his aunt could talk about. Patience this, Patience that. No need to worry about me, Stuart. Patience will take good care of me. Patience is moving into the brownstone. And the final straw… Patience takes care of writing out the checks now.
With Aunt Ana incapacitated, Patience would have an awful lot of power. Or rather, she would have, if he hadn’t come home. He kicked himself for not being around the past eleven months. Now his aunt was attached to a stranger he knew nothing about. Ana might be sharp for her age, but when all was said and done, she was still an old woman living alone who had a soft spot for sob stories. Her big heart made her vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a pretty young thing had tried to grab a piece of the Duchenko fortune.
Unfortunately for Miss Rush, he was no longer a lonely twenty-year-old looking for affection. Nor was he still naive enough to believe people were as guileless as they appeared. Ana was the only family he had left. He’d be damned if he’d let her be burned the way he had been.
There was the rustle of a curtain, and Ana’s gurney appeared on its way toward the elevator. As she passed by, the older woman gave him a sleepy wave. Stuart grabbed her hand and pressed the wizened knuckles to his lips. “See you soon, Tetya,” he whispered.
“The surgical waiting area is on the third floor,” the nurse told him. “If you want to stay there, we can let you know as soon as they’re finished.”
Patience’s soft voice answered before he had the chance. Immediately, his mouth drew into a tight line. “You’re planning to wait, too?”
“Of course. I’m not going to be able to sleep until I know you’re okay,” she told Ana.
Ana smiled. “But Nigel…”
“Nigel will be fine,” he said. While he wasn’t crazy about Miss Rush hanging around, he wasn’t about to start an argument over his aunt’s hospital gurney. “Don’t you worry.”
“Besides, it’ll do him good to wait,” Patience added, “seeing as how this whole accident is his fault.” She raised her eyes, daring him to say otherwise. “I promise, I’ll go home and feed him as soon as you’re out of surgery.”
The sedatives were starting to kick in. Ana’s smile was weak and sloppy. “Such a good girl,” she murmured before closing her eyes.
Oh, yeah, a real sweetheart, he thought to himself. The way she so casually referred to the brownstone as home rankled him to no end. It was like ten years ago all over again, only this time, instead of a beguiling blonde worming her way into their lives, it was a brunette with hooded eyes and curves that wouldn’t quit.
Interesting that she chose to downplay her sexuality. A tactical decision, perhaps? If so, it didn’t work. A burlap sack couldn’t mute those assets. Even he had to admit to a stir of appreciation the first time he saw her.
She was hiding more than her figure, too. Don’t think he didn’t notice how she looked away when he mentioned having secrets. There was a lot more to Patience Rush than met the eye. And he intended to find out what.
They spent the surgery on opposite sides of the waiting area, Stuart moving chairs together to create a makeshift work area while Patience made do with out-of-date women’s magazines. Having read up on last fall’s fashions and learned how to spot if her spouse was having an online affair, she was left with nothing to do but lean back in her chair and shoot daggers at Ana’s nephew.
Who did he think he was, suggesting she had something to do with Ana’s fall? Like she could ever. Anastasia Duchenko saved her life with this job. Every morning, she woke up grateful for the opportunity. To be able to walk down the street with her head held high. To not have to scrub herself raw to feel clean. Finally, she had a job she could be proud of. Be a person she could be proud of.
Even if the whole situation was built on a lie, she thought, guilt washing over her the way it always did.
She wasn’t proud of her behavior—add it to a long list of regrets—but she made amends every single day by working hard and taking care of Ana. You wouldn’t find a better housekeeper and companion on Beacon Hill. She would never—ever—jeopardize the gift Ana had given her.
Tell Stuart Duchenko that, though. If he learned she’d lied her way into the job, he’d kick her to the curb before she could say but… And who knows what he’d do if he learned what she used to do for a living before finding Ana? She shuddered to think.
The sound of rustling papers caught her attention. Looking over, she saw Stuart pinching the bridge of his nose. The man looked worn-out. Patience had to admit, for all his jerkiness, he appeared genuinely concerned for his great-aunt. The adoration Ana talked about seemed to run both ways.
“Mr. Duchenko?” A small African-American nurse in a bright pink smock rounded the corner, bringing them both to their feet. “Dr. Richardson just called. He’ll be down shortly to talk with you, but he wanted you to know that your aunt came through the surgery without problem and is on her way to recovery.”
“Oh, thank goodness.” The words rushed from Patience’s mouth, drawing Stuart’s attention. Their eyes met, and she saw agreement in their blue depths. In this, they were on the same page.
“Can we see her?” he asked.
“She’ll be in recovery for several hours, I’m afraid,” the nurse replied with a shake of her head. “In fact, considering the hour, they might not move her until morning. You’re better off getting some sleep and coming back tomorrow.”
Patience watched as a protest worked its way across the man’s features. She had a feeling if he insisted, he’d get his way. Better judgment must have stepped in—either that or fatigue—because he nodded. “How long before Dr. Richardson gets here?”
“He said he was on his way down, so I don’t think it’ll be more than five or ten minutes.”
It turned out to be closer to twenty. When he did arrive, Dr. Richardson gave a succinct report, without a whole lot of new information. They’d inserted a plate and some screws to stabilize the break. Ana came through the surgery without issue. They’d monitor her throughout the night for complications. No, he wasn’t sure how long she’d need to stay in the hospital.
Still, Patience left the waiting room feeling that Ana was in good hands. Another plus: Stuart was on the phone so she was spared any more accusations. From here on in, she’d do her best to avoid the man.
A pair of angry green eyes greeted her when she unlocked the door to Ana’s brownstone. Patience wasn’t intimidated. “Don’t give me attitude, mister. This whole night is your fault.”
With what Patience swore was a huff, Nigel jumped down from the entryway table and ran toward the kitchen. An urgent wail traveled back to her ears a second later. “Puleeze,” she called, “like you were ever in danger of starving.”
Arms hugging her body, Patience made her way along the corridor, thinking the slap of her sandals against her feet sounded abnormally loud. It felt weird being in the brownstone alone. While Ana went out a lot, the woman was seldom gone past eight o’clock and so her absence hung thick in the emptiness. A gleam caught Patience’s eye as she passed the dining room. The silver set she’d been polishing when Ana fell still sat on the table, the cloth on the floor where she’d dropped it upon hearing Ana’s cry. The moment replayed as she curled her fingers around the soft material, the image of her savior crumpled at the base of the stairs making her nauseous. Thank goodness, Ana was going to be all right. Tomorrow she would work on making the house perfect for her return. Starting with making sure the tea set gleamed.
Nigel had resumed his meowing. Patience tossed the cloth on the table. “Oh, for goodness’ sake, I’m coming. Five minutes will not kill you.”
She turned around only to walk into a tall, muscular wall. “What the—” Why hadn’t she brought the teapot along with her as a weapon?
Stuart Duchenko arched a dark eyebrow. Even in the partially lit hallway, his eyes shone bright. “Did I startle you?”
He knew perfectly well he had. “How did you get in?”
“Same way you did. With my key.” He held up a key ring. “Or did you think you were the only one Ana gave access to?”
“Don’t be silly. I didn’t hear the doorbell is all.” They were way too close. Close enough she could smell the breath mint he’d obviously just finished. She wasn’t used to sweet smelling breath, not from men anyway. It caught her off guard, which had to be the reason she didn’t step back at first contact. She stepped back now, and spied a pair of suitcases at the base of the stairs.
Seeing where her gaze had gone, he gave a shrug. “I sold my condominium before leaving for LA. Until I find a new place, this is more convenient than a hotel.”
Convenient for what? Keeping an eye on her?
It was as if he read her thoughts. “Ana made the suggestion back when I first left. Of course, I’m sure she wasn’t expecting to be in the hospital at the time. My being here won’t be a problem for you, will it?” he asked. The gleam in his eye dared her to say that it was.
Patience would be damned if she’d give him the satisfaction. “Of course not. Why would your staying here be a problem for me?”
“Extra work for you. I know you’re used to it being only you and Aunt Ana.”
Another veiled comment. The man was full of them, wasn’t he? “Extra work won’t be a problem. Cleaning is cleaning. Besides, like you said, it’s temporary, right?”
“We can only hope. I figure I’ll stay until Ana gets back on her feet. Make sure there aren’t any problems.”
What kind of problems. Was he afraid Patience would take off with the silver? Why didn’t he just come out and say what was really on his mind?
“You don’t trust me, do you?”
“No, I don’t.”
Finally, the truth was out in the open. She appreciated the bluntness. Beat phony friendliness any day. Didn’t mean she wasn’t going to set him straight though.
“Your aunt trusts me. Are you saying Ana isn’t a good judge of character?”
She stepped back into his personal space, making sure to maintain eye contact and letting him know his answer didn’t intimidate her one bit. The posture brought her close enough that she could smell his skin. Like his breath, his body smelled clean and fresh, despite having been traveling all day. An antsy, fluttering sensation started in the pit of her stomach. Butterflies, but with a nervous edge. The notion that she was out of her league passed briefly through her mind.
Stuart’s eyes stayed locked with hers. A Mexican standoff, with each of them waiting for the other to blink. “My aunt has a generous heart. I, on the other hand…”
“Let me guess. You don’t.”
Patience sensed rather than saw his smile. “I prefer to lead with my head. Less chance for mistakes.”
“Except, in this case, you’re already mistaken.”
“We’ll find out, won’t we?” he said. “Since I’ll be living here, we’ll have plenty of time to get acquainted. Who knows what secrets we’ll learn about each other?”
Patience managed to wait until he disappeared upstairs before hissing. What was it with him and secrets? You didn’t exactly help your cause, did you? Challenging him like that. A smart person would have let his comments pass, refused to give him the satisfaction of a reaction. But, nooo, she had to call him out. Might as well hold a sign over her head reading I’ve Got a Secret!
So much for leaving her past behind. She should have known that a future built on a lie—even an innocent one—wouldn’t last. Ana was going to be so disappointed in her.
She bit her knuckle, forcing down her panic. No need to start packing just yet. This bluster was probably nothing more than a scare tactic to put her in her place. To make up for not having a say in hiring her, no doubt. A few days from now, after seeing how well Patience did her job, he’d back off and leave her alone.
It could happen, right?
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