Lover Unleashed Chapter Three

Sometimes the only way to know how far you'd come was to return to where you once had been.

As Jane Whitcomb, M.D., walked into the St. Francis Hospital complex, she was sucked back into her former life. In one sense, it was a short trip - merely a year ago, she'd been the chief of trauma service here, living in a condo full of her parents' things, spending twenty hours a day running between the ER and the ORs.

Not anymore.

A sure clue that change had come a-knock-knock-knockin' was the way she entered the surgical building. No reason to bother with the rotating doors. Or the ones that pushed into the lobby.

She walked right through the glass walls and passed the security guards at the check-in without their seeing her.

Ghosts were good like that.

Ever since she'd been transformed, she could go places and get into things without anyone having a clue she was around. But she could also become as corporeal as the next person, summoning herself into a solid at her will. In one form, she was utter ether; in the other, she was as human as she'd once been, capable of eating and loving and living.

It was a powerful advantage in her job as the Brotherhood's private surgeon.

Like right now, for example. How the hell else would she be able to infiltrate the human world again with a minimum of fuss?

Hurrying along the buffed stone floor of the lobby, she went past the marble wall that was inscribed with the names of benefactors, and wended her way through the crowds of people. In and among the congestion, so many faces were familiar, from admin staff to doctors to nurses she'd worked with for years. Even the stressed-out patients and their families were anonymous and yet intimates of hers - on some level, the masks of grief and worry were the same no matter whose facial features they were on.

As she headed for the back stairs, she was on the hunt for her former boss. And, Christ, she almost wanted to laugh. Through all their years of working together, she had come at Manny Manello with a variety of OMGs, but this was going to top any multicar pileup, airplane crash, or building collapse.

Put together.

Wafting through a metal emergency exit, she mounted the rear stairway, her feet not touching the steps but floating above them while she ascended as a draft did, going up without effort.

This had to work. She had to get Manny to come in and take care of that spinal injury. Period. There were no other options, no contingencies, no lefts or rights off this road. This was the Hail Mary pass ... and she was just praying that the receiver in the end zone caught the fucking football.

Good thing she performed well under pressure. And that the man she was after was one she knew as well as the back of her hand.

Manny would take the challenge. Even though this was going to make no sense to him on so many levels, and he was likely to be livid that she was still "alive," he was not going to be able to walk away from a patient in need. It simply wasn't in his hardwiring.

On the tenth floor, she ethered through another fire door and entered the administrative offices of the surgery department. The place was kitted out like a law firm, all dark and somber and rich-looking. Made sense. Surgery was a huge revenue center for any teaching hospital, and big money was always spent to recruit, hold, and house the brilliant, arrogant hothouse flowers who cut people open for a living.

Among the scalpel set at St. Francis, Manny Manello was at the top of the heap, the head of not just a subspecialty, as she had been, but the whole kit and caboodle. This meant he was a movie star, a drill sergeant, and the president of the United States all rolled up into a sixfoot-tall, stacked son of a bitch. He had a terrible temper, a stunning intellect, and a fuse that was about a millimeter long.

On a good day.

And he was an absolute gem.

The guy's bread and butter had always been high-profile professional athletes, and he tackled a lot of knees and hips and shoulders that would otherwise have been career enders for football, baseball and hockey players. But he had a lot of experience with the spine, and although a neurosurgeon on backup would also be nice, given what Payne's scans were showing, this was an orthopedic issue: If the spinal cord was severed, no amount of neuro anything was going to help her. Medical science just hadn't progressed that far yet.

As she rounded the corner of the receptionist's desk, she had to stop. Over to the left was her old office, the place where she had spent countless hours pushing papers and doing consults with Manny and the rest of the team. The nameplate on the door now read, THOMAS GOLDBERG, M.D. CHIEF, TRAUMA SURGERY.

Goldberg was an excellent choice.

Still hurt to see the new sign for some reason.

But come on. Like she'd expected Manny to preserve her desk and office as a monument to her?

Life went on. Hers. His. This hospital's.

Kicking her own ass, she strode down the carpeted corridor, fiddling with her white coat and the pen in her pocket and the cell phone that she hadn't had reason to use yet. There was no time to explain her back-from-the-dead routine or cajole Manny or help him through the mind fuck she was about to deliver. And no choice but to somehow get him to come with her.

In front of his closed door, she braced herself and then marched right through -

He wasn't behind his desk. Or at the conference table in the alcove.

Quick check of his private bath ... not there either, and there was no moisture on the glass doors, or damp towels around the sink.

Back in the office proper, she took a deep breath ... and the faded scent of his aftershave lingering in the air made her swallow hard.

God, she missed him.

Shaking her head, she went around to his desk and looked over the clutter. Patient files, stacks of interdepartmental memos, reports from the Patient Care Assessment and Quality Committee. As it was just after five in the afternoon on a Saturday, she'd expected to find him here: Electives were not done on weekends, so unless he was on call and dealing with a trauma case, he should have been parked behind this mess pushing papers.

Manny put the "twenty-four/seven" in workaholic.

Heading out of the office, she checked his admin assistant's desk. No clues there, given that his schedule was kept in the computer.

Next stop was down to the ORs. St. Francis had several different levels of operating rooms, all arranged by subspecialty, and she went to the pod that he usually worked in. Peering in through the glass windows in the double doors, she saw a rotator cuff being worked on, and a nasty compound fracture. And although the surgeons had masks and caps on, she could tell none of them was Manny. His shoulders were big enough to stretch even the largest of the scrub sets, and besides, the music drifting out was wrong in both cases. Mozart? Not a chance. Pop? Over his dead body.

Manny listened to acid rock and heavy metal. To the point where, if it hadn't been against protocol, the nurses would have been wearing earplugs for years.

Damn it ... where the hell was he? There were no conferences at this time of year, and he had no life outside of the hospital. The only other options were him at the Commodore - either passed out from exhaustion on the couch at his condo or in the high-rise's gym.

As she headed out, she fired up her cell phone and dialed into the hospital's answering system.

"Yes, hello," she said when the call was answered. "I'd like to page Dr. Manuel Manello. My name?" Shit. "Ah ... Hannah. Hannah Whit. And here's my callback."

As she hung up, she had no idea what to say if he returned the ping, but she excelled at spur-of-the-moment thinking - and prayed that her core competency really hit it out of the park this time. The thing was, if the sun was below the horizon, one of the Brothers could have come out and done some mental work on Manny in order to ease this whole process of getting him to the compound.

Although not Vishous. Someone else. Anybody else.

Her instincts told her to keep the pair of them as far apart as she could. They already had one medical emergency cooking. Last thing she needed was her old boss getting put into traction because her husband got territorial and decided to do a little spine cracking himself: Just before her death, Manny had been interested in more than a professional association with her. So unless he'd up and married one of those Barbies he'd insisted on dating, he was probably still single ... and under the absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder rule, his feelings might have persisted.

Then again, he was just as likely to tell her to go fuck herself for lying to him about the whole "dead and gone" thing.

Good job he wasn't going to remember any of this.

On her end, though, she feared she was never going to forget the next twenty-four hours.

The Tricounty Equine Hospital was state-of-the-art all the way. Located about fifteen minutes away from the Aqueduct, it had everything from operating rooms and full-service recovery suites to hydrotherapy pools and advanced imaging. And it was staffed with people who saw horses as more than profit-and-loss statements on four hooves.

In the OR, Manny read the X-rays of his girl's front leg, and wanted to be the one to go in and take care of business: He could clearly see the fissures in the radius, but that was not what worried him. There was a handful of chips that had broken off, the sharp flakes orbiting the bulbous end of her long bone like moons around a planet.

Just because she was another species didn't mean he couldn't handle the operation. As long as the anesthesiologist kept her under safely, he could handle the rest. Bone was bone.

But he wasn't going to be an asshole. "What do you think," he said.

"In my professional opinion," the head vet replied, "it's pretty grim. That's a multiple displaced fracture. The recovery time is going to be extensive, and there's no guarantee of even breeding soundness."

Which was the shitkicker: Horses were meant to stand upright with their weight evenly distributed on four points. When a leg was broken, it wasn't so much the injury that was a bitch; it was the fact that they had to redistribute their poundage and disproportionally rely on the good side to stay on their feet. And that was how trouble came.

Based on what he was staring at, most owners would choose euthanasia. His girl was born to run, and this catastrophic injury was going to make that impossible, even on a recreational basis - if she survived. And as a doctor, he was quite familiar with the cruelty of medical "savior" jobs that ultimately left a patient in a condition worse than death - or did nothing but painfully prolong the inevitable.

"Dr. Manello? Did you hear what I said?"

"Yeah. I did." But at least, this guy, unlike the pussy out at the track, looked as heartbroken as Manny felt.

Turning away, he went over to where they had laid her out and put his hand on the round drum of her cheek. Her black coat was shining under the bright lights, and in the midst of all the pale tile and stainless steel, she was like a shadow thrown out and left forgotten in the center of the room.

For a long moment, he watched her barreled rib cage expand and contract with her breath. Just seeing her on the slab with those beautiful legs lying like sticks and her tail hanging down onto the tile made him realize anew that animals like her were meant to be on their feet: This was utterly unnatural. And unfair.

Keeping her alive simply so he didn't have to face her death was not the right answer here.

Bracing himself, Manny opened his mouth -

The vibration inside the breast pocket of his suit cut him off. With a nasty curse, he took his BlackBerry out and checked in case it was the hospital. Hannah Whit? With an unknown number?

No one he knew, and he wasn't on call.

Probably a misdial by the operator.

"I want you to operate," he heard himself say as he put the thing back.

The short silence that followed gave him plenty of time to realize that not letting her go smacked of cowardice. But he couldn't dwell on that psychobabble bullshit or he'd lose it.

"I can't guarantee anything." The vet went back to staring at the X-rays. "I can't tell you how this is going to go, but I will swear to you - I'll do my best."

God, now he knew how those families felt when he spoke to them. "Thanks. Can I watch in here?"

"Absolutely. I'll get you something to put on, and you know the drill with scrubbing in, Doctor."

Twenty minutes later, the operation started, and Manny watched from her head, stroking her forelock with his latex-gloved hand even though she was out cold. As the head vet worked, Manny had to approve of the guy's methodology and skills - which were just about the only things that had gone right since Glory had fallen. The procedure was over in under an hour, with the bone chips either removed or screwed into place. Then they rolled the leg up and moved her out of the OR and into a pool so she wouldn't break another leg coming out of sedation.

He stayed until she was awake and then followed the vet out into the hall.

"Her vitals are good and the operation went well," the vet said, "but the former can change quick. And it's going to take time until we know what we've got."

Shit. That little speech was exactly what he said to next-of-kins and other relatives when it was time for folks to go home and rest up and wait to see how a patient's postop went.

"We'll call you," the vet said. "With updates."

Manny snapped off his gloves and took out his business card. "In case you don't have it in her records."

"We've got it." The guy took the thing anyway. "If anything changes, you'll be the first to know, and I'll update you personally every twelve hours when I do rounds."

Manny nodded and stuck out his hand. "Thank you. For taking care of her."

"You're welcome."

After they shook, Manny nodded back at the double doors. "Mind if I give her a see-ya-later?"


Back inside, he took a moment with his filly. God ... this hurt.

"You hang on, there, girlie." He had to whisper because he couldn't seem to draw a full breath.

When he straightened, the staff were staring at him with a sadness he knew was going to stick with him.

"We'll take excellent care of her," the vet said gravely.

He believed they would, and that was the only thing that got him back into the hall.

Tricounty's facilities were extensive, and it took him a while to change and then find his way out to where he'd parked by the front door. Up ahead, the sun had set, a rapidly fading peach glow lighting up the sky as if Manhattan were smoldering. The air was cool, but fragrant from spring's early efforts to bring life to winter's barren landscape, and he took so many deep breaths he got light-headed.

God, time had been running at a blur, but now, as the minutes drooled by, clearly the frantic pace had exhausted its energy source. Either that or it had slammed into a brick wall and passed the fuck out.

As he palmed up his car key, he felt older than God. His head was thumping and his arthritic hip was killing him, that flat-out race over the track to Glory's side way more than the damn thing could handle.

This was so not how he'd envisioned this day ending. He'd assumed he'd be buying drinks for the owners he'd beaten ... and maybe in the flush of victory taking Ms. Hanson up on her generous oral suggestion.

Getting into his Porsche, he started the engine. Caldwell was about forty-five minutes north of Queens, and his car could practically drive the trip back to the Commodore itself. Good thing, too, because he was a goddamn zombie.

No radio. No iPod music. No phoning people, either.

As he got on the Northway, he just stared at the road ahead and fought the urge to turn around and ... yeah, and do what? Sleep next to his horse?

The thing was, if he could manage to get home in one piece, help was on the way. He had a fresh bottle of Lagavulin waiting for him, and he might or might not slow down to use a glass: As far as the hospital was concerned, he was off until Monday a.m. at six o'clock, and he had plans to get drunk and stay that way.

Taking the leather-wrapped wheel with one hand, he burrowed into his silk shirt to find his Jesus piece. Gripping the gold cross, he sent up a prayer.

God ... please let her be okay.

He couldn't stand losing another one of his girls. Not so soon. Jane Whitcomb had died a whole year ago, but that was just what the calendar told him. In grief time, it had been only about a minute and a half since it had happened.

He didn't want to go through that again.