By Abby Gaines
“So, how did you two meet?”
If he heard that chirpy, cheesy question one more time… Nate Ryland snapped his pen closed and stuck the clipboard of patient notes back in its holder at the end of the bed. “Excuse me, Mrs. Andrews, I’ll be right back.”
He strode two cubicles along to Mrs. Peterson. And the visitor who was hellbent on upsetting his patients.
“Good morning…Samantha.” It was difficult to sound as disapproving as he wanted, when the perky blonde’s nametag didn’t feature a last name.
“Dr. Ryland, hello.” His nametag did have a last name. Along with his title: Head of Gerontology. You’d think it would command some respect. But Samantha Whoever-She-Was gave him the breezy smile she offered everyone from the janitor upward.
“I’ve asked you before, told you, not to upset the patients,” he said.
She cast a worried look at the old lady, her finger poised above the off button of her digital voice recorder. “Are you okay, Mrs. P.?”
“Never better, dear,” Mrs. Peterson said. Which Nate knew wasn’t true. She had to be in pain after her operation for stomach cancer, despite her meds. “I’d love to tell you how Howard and I met.”
Nate didn’t miss the tiny, triumphant glance Samantha sent him. “While I’m here,” he said to Mrs. Peterson, “how about I do your check-up?” How about I keep an eye on Samantha, make sure she doesn’t give you a relapse?
Mrs. Peterson gave Samantha permission to stay through the checkup. While Nate took her blood pressure, the old lady answered the question that had brought him here in the first place.
“I first met Harold—” her eyes twinkled “—when he arrested me.”
Samantha gasped. Even Nate startled, his stethoscope jumping against Mrs. Peterson’s brachial artery. The old lady hooted her delight.
“You bad girl, what did you do?” Samantha chuckled as she perched on the bed, strictly against hospital regulations. The maneuver pushed her short yellow skirt higher.
Nate cleared his throat; she winked at him. Winked!
“Shoplifting,” Mrs. Peterson said a in stage whisper. “I didn’t do it, of course, a case of mistaken identity. But by the time I convinced Harold of that, he was more than halfway in love and so was I.”
Samantha sighed dreamily. She patted Mrs. Peterson’s hand. “That’s gorgeous.”
She would know, Nate supposed, since her silk-gold hair and blue eyes gave her more than a passing acquaintance with gorgeous. Objectively speaking, of course. He coiled his stethoscope and made some notes on the patient record.
Mrs. Peterson talked more about her and Harold’s courtship, her words faithfully captured by Samantha’s recorder. The events she was talking about had to have happened sixty years ago, but she sounded as if it was yesterday.
“You must have been very happy,” Samantha said.
“We—we were.” Mrs. Peterson’s eyes misted over, and Nate cursed inwardly. He knew what was coming next. Tears, then a patient who wouldn’t eat her lunch. Nor her dinner, in all likelihood. The third patient this week.
“Samantha,” he snapped. “A word, please.”
She followed him into the hallway, that pesky recorder in her hand. Nate stepped over by the wall, next to a linen trolley piled with clean sheets and scrubs.
“You need to stop interrogating my patients,” he said. A curious nurse turned from the round stack of ward files to stare; Nate stepped closer to Samantha. He said more quietly, “I know you’re trying to help, and it’s kind of you to visit.” Very kind. He knew she made a point of visiting older women who didn’t have family nearby. He felt a twinge of guilt at the scolding he was dishing out. “The patients love to see you, but it’s no good if you leave them an emotional wreck.”
“I only invite them to talk about their marriage if they bring up the subject,” Samantha said. “It’s not a bad thing to cry a little at fond memories.” She was so close, he could see the green flecks in her blue eyes. Her perfume, gentle and flowery wafted his way; he shifted, but between the wall and the linen trolley he had nowhere to go.
“Mrs. Peterson told me she skips lunch most days, not just when I visit,” Samantha said. “Her husband died ten years ago. No one talks about him, she’s desperate to share her memories.” She held up her recorder. “I’m going to send this to her family in Memphis, so her story will live on.”
“That’s very nice, but—”
“There aren’t many moments in life as important as the one when you meet your true love,” she said.
He chuffed. “What’s more important is that Mrs. Peterson keeps her strength up so she can get better. Which won’t happen if she’s too upset to eat.”
Samantha’s eyes narrowed. Her eyebrows were well-shaped, he noticed, her lashes long and gold-tipped.
“So, Dr. Ryland,” she began purposefully. She stopped. “What’s your first name?”
That was her question?
“Nate,” he said, unable to find a reason not to tell her.
“So, Nate,” she started over, “how did you and your wife meet?”
He stuffed his stethoscope in his pocket. “I’m not married.”
“You and your girlfriend,” she persisted. “Don’t tell me you don’t have one.”
Her teasing tone sent heat rising up his face. “Not that it’s any of your business,” he said, “but I met Elizabeth when I sat next to her at a conference on respiratory medicine. She’s an anesthesiologist.”
“Not everyone gets arrested by their spouse-to-be,” he said, irritated.
“No,” she agreed. “Mrs. Tanner met her husband when he rescued her from a burning building.”
He gaped. “Really?”
“He was a fireman,” she added fairly. Then: “Mrs. Richmond’s husband was the boy next door.”
“A cliché,” Nate pointed out, and wondered when he’d started enjoying this discussion.
“He used to wrap love-letters around stones and fire them into her bedroom with his catapult,” Samantha said.
“Did she suffer frequent concussions?”
She stared, then laughter burbled out of her. “You’ve got to admit, it’s a lot more romantic than—” She clapped a hand to her mouth.
“Than a respiratory conference,” he completed dryly. “Don’t worry, Samantha, I’m not traumatized by the fact that I don’t have rescue or arrest women to get a date.”
“I’m sure you don’t,” she said appreciatively. Then she blushed. “I mean—I’m sure the medical conference way of meeting people is fine. Just so long as when you’re eighty you’re not, you know, wishing you had better memories.”
“You can’t really plan ahead to what you’re going to remember when you’re eighty,” he pointed out.
“No,” she said thoughtfully, and lapsed into silence. He ought to be pleased.
“No more upsetting the patients,” he said softly. She looked so serious, so different, that before he could think better of it, he chucked her under the chin.
Zing. What the heck was that? He whipped his finger back.
“Um, I’d better go. “ Samantha patted her skirt down, tucked her hair behind her ear with jerky movements. She walked quickly away. When she reached the elevators, she turned back and caught him watching her. “Bye, Nate.”
She stepped into the elevator before he could reply.
He didn’t see Samantha the rest of the week—his rounds and her visits didn’t coincide. But she’d been there, he could tell when he found Mrs. Banks tracing with her finger the photo of her husband in his military uniform. She looked up when she registered Nate’s presence. “Did you know, Dr. Ryland, I met my husband in England during the war?” She still had more than a trace of a British accident. “He was selling black-market stockings. I only went out with him because he promised me a black silk pair. That rogue kept me waiting for those stockings until I was head over heels in love with him. By then I didn’t care what was on my legs.”
Nate took her pulse. Elevated, but not too far. He had to admit, black market stockings sounded more exciting than a respiratory conference.
Tears welled in Mrs. Banks’s eyes. Nate tsked. “I don’t like to see you upset,” he said. “I’ll ask Samantha not to bother you.”
“It makes me happy to think of David, to talk of him.” She wiped her eyes with a lace handkerchief. “He died forty years ago, you know. No other man has come close since.”
There was no reason for Nate to envy a woman who’d fallen for a rascal, then been alone forty years. But that night, as he microwaved his dinner, he considered the memories he wanted to have when he was eighty.
After dinner, he went to see Elizabeth. He broke up with her.
Next morning, he cursed himself for all kinds of fool.
Around lunchtime, during his rounds on Ward 402, he heard the familiar question: “So, how did you two meet?”
Samantha was sitting on Mrs. Patel’s bed. She wore a pale green sundress that reminded Nate of spring, and she blushed when she saw him. He wondered how the satin skin of her cheeks would feel, flushed with that rosy color. He was so busy wondering, he didn’t hear Mrs. Patel’s answer.
“Samantha,” he said.
Her blue eyes were wide. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” She stood up quickly.
“Will you join me for a coffee?” He kept his tone official, as if he had serious, patient-visiting business to discuss.
She nibbled her lower lip as they sat down at a corner table in the cafeteria. Nate set her hospital-issue dishwater-coffee in front of her.
“Mrs. Patel was nowhere near crying,” she said defensively.
“I’m sure it was only a matter of time,” he teased. “Actually, she looked pretty happy to see you.”
Samantha’s smile lit up her eyes.
“Heard any good how-we-met stories lately?” He drank some coffee.
“Hmm.” She was cute with her face screwed up in concentration. “Only a woman whose husband proposed because he wanted to get his hands on a rare stamp in her collection. She gave him the stamp, and he decided her wanted to marry her anyway.”
“Nice guy,” Nate murmured.
“Still more interesting than a respiratory conference,” she pointed out.
“I, uh, broke up with the anethesiologist.”
“Nate, I’m sorry.” Her hand shot out, covered his on the table. Zing. There it was again. She pulled back, stared down at her palm, flexed her fingers in confusion.
Her left hand. No rings.
“So, you don’t have a husband?” he asked.
“Um…no.” That pink in her cheeks again. Nate didn’t think he’d ever met a prettier woman.
“So, how did you and your boyfriend meet?” he asked. Because he knew for damn sure she had a boyfriend.
“Andrew sold me my car,” she said.
Nate’s chest constricted, but he managed a casual, raised eyebrow. “A stolen car, I presume?”
“A regular car, at a car yard,” she said sheepishly.
“I’m disappointed.” He drained the rest of his coffee. “I hope you’re building up other memories for when you’re eighty.”
“Of course.” She pushed her cup away. “Thanks for the coffee, but I need to go.”
She was like an elusive perfume the next two weeks. Nate never quite caught her, just had the lingering sense of her. “Samantha’s been in, I see,” he said to Mrs. Edge on Wednesday, desperate to mention her name out loud.
“She just left.” The woman’s damp eyes told of memories dusted off and held up to the light. “Such a shame a sweet girl like her doesn’t have a man of her own.”
His pulse thudded. “I, uh, thought she…”
“The car salesman,” Mrs. Edge said knowingly. Then, with relish, “She dumped him. He was all wrong for her.”
Nate glanced around the ward, suddenly frantic. “How long ago did she leave?”
Mrs. Edge blinked at his peremptory tone. “A couple of minutes. She planned to call in on Mrs. White on her way out.”
Mrs. White was one floor down. Nate could probably catch Samantha at the main entrance. He sprinted through the ward.
“Dr Ryland? Do you need assistance?”A junior nurse ran to keep pace with him.
“No, thanks.” I can handle this all by myself. He waved the nurse away. Maybe he should take the stairs, the elevators were busy this time of day… He wrenched open the stairwell door.
“Nate!” Samantha’s voice halted him. She was right there, waiting for the elevator.
His mouth dried. “Samantha.”
It came out kind of growly, but she seemed more intrigued than alarmed. She took a step toward him, and there it was. The fragrance that had whispered to him all week. Jasmine and lemon and cinnamon. He felt a big grin spreading across his face
“You smell great,” he said inanely. Her eyes widened. “I mean, you look great. Fantastic.”
“So do you.” She sounded breathless.
Nate leaned forward. He surprised Samantha and shocked himself by planting a kiss on her mouth. Short, but very sweet.
“Oh.” She stared at him, touched her lips.
Nate became aware of utter silence around him as the junior nurse and a couple of medical students stared.
“I have a great how-we-met story for you,” he said.
“What’s that?” She sounded dazed.
“It’s about a doctor who fell for this woman who kept making his patients cry…”
Nate didn’t get to finish his story. He was too busy kissing Samantha back.