A knock at the door woke Poppy, and a masked nurse entered without waiting for her to respond. So although she was alone, privacy was an illusion. All for her own good, but it still felt a bit creepy. She hated being watched. Detested it.
The nurse who woke her wasn’t Kasey. There must have been a shift change. Poppy glanced at the clock. The dial gleamed six o’clock at her, or rather 18:00. Poppy hadn’t intended to sleep, thought the pain would stop her, but the painkillers they’d given her must have kicked into full strength.
Before her dilemma returned to flood her mind, she recalled the face of the man next door, watching her, tension tightening his mouth. The memory kept her strong, steadied her for whatever lay ahead. Her friend.
Had he watched her sleeping? He’d given her a sense of tranquility she’d sorely lacked over the last half day. Her mind boggled at the thought that only twelve hours had passed since her life had taken such an unexpected shift.
The nurse handed her a small black item. “Your neighbor wants you to have this.”
Poppy sat up and took it groggily, reaching for the cord that switched on the light with her other hand. It blinked into life, unforgivingly glaring. The nurse—Monica it said on her lapel—had given her a top-of-the-line smartphone. Wow. Nothing like her cheap model.
The nurse jerked her head. “He wants to talk to you. I said that was your decision, and he said fine. You don’t have to take it or answer it if you don’t want to.”
“But you won’t let me keep it when I leave.” A shame for such an expensive new item to go in the incinerator.
“Probably not. We destroy or sterilize everything that goes in or out of this unit.”
Including the nurses?
she wanted to ask but thought she’d better not. She depended on these people right now, and she had no idea if Monica had a sense of humor.
“Do you know what’s wrong with me yet?”
The nurse’s forehead creased in a frown. “Not yet. We have some blood tests to finish. The doctor mentioned septic arthritis to you earlier today, and that’s looking most likely, although it’s impossible to diagnose that from blood tests. If it is, we’ll start you on intravenous antibiotics.”
“Why didn’t you do that earlier?”
“Because the drugs are powerful, and we didn’t want to do that to you until we knew for sure. Giving you milder ones would have no effect at all. As long as your condition didn’t deteriorate, of course.”
So it hadn’t. Good news. “Arthritis?” She’d vaguely thought only the elderly got that. Her grandmother had fat knuckles, and she was always complaining about the cold weather because of her “’thritis.
“It could be any number of things, so now’s not the time to speculate.” She indicated the occupant of the next room with a jerk of her head. “He says the phone’s connected to the Internet, and it has a book reader on it. His name’s Jim, by the way.”
Poppy stared at the phone as if it could bite her. “I don’t know what to say to him. Would you accept it?”
Monica grinned properly this time, her dark eyes narrowing. “Hell, yes. Say thanks when he calls. He’s lonely.” She paused. “And he’s okay. I mean not creepy or anything like that.”
Poppy already knew that, deep down. She knew creepy when she saw it, had good reason to. She glanced up. “I saw a laptop in his room. He must be able to talk to people that way.” She recalled his reaction to her and the way he’d flushed. Dirty phone calls, perhaps. Why that should arouse instead of repel her, she wasn’t sure. She’d only just met the guy. Seen him—that was all. But he couldn’t get at her, and she’d always keep the blind down and ignore him if he got scary. Report him to the doctors. Not for the first time, she reminded herself she wasn’t going to let her ex win. He’d love it if she cut off all communication with the opposite sex.
“You can talk to friends and family now,” Monica pointed out. “I’ll be back soon with your dinner.”
Oh goody. Hospital food. But Poppy hadn’t eaten since last night, so she could probably cope with it.
Five minutes after Monica left, the phone rang. Poppy nearly dropped it, since she was playing with it at the time, trying to find out what it would do, but she gripped it harder and answered. “Hello.”
“Hi, Poppy.” Soft, sweet, the accent achingly familiar, reminding her of home. A musical baritone. Lovely, wrapping around her, a warm blanket in this cold world of fear and dread.
“So are you.” The relief of hearing a friendly voice threatened to overwhelm her, and she closed her eyes, willing her tears to disperse.
Disappointment flooded her. Empty flattery would get him nowhere and the phone hurled against the wall. “No, I’m not. You saw my leg. It’s grotesque. I’m ill, I’m worried, I don’t have a scrap of makeup on, and my hair’s a mess.”
“I stand by my opinion. You look pale and fragile.”
“Pale and fragile people don’t have legs like elephants.”
“Except for that,” he admitted. “But I still think you’re beautiful.”
“I-I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” He was mad or desperate, and she didn’t like the tone of this conversation. She held the phone away from her ear, looking for the button to end the call.
“Wait, don’t hang up, please.” His urgent tone made her still, finger hovering over the cutoff button. “I’m really sorry. Give me another chance.”
She lifted the mobile to her ear again. “One more chance, then you’re getting your phone back.”
“I’m truly sorry about that.” He paused. “I’ve obviously upset you. I didn’t mean to. I sometimes find it hard to talk to people. I’ve been in this room for five weeks now, and I’m out of practice, which makes it worse.” He sounded so sexy, his voice holding an edge of humor. “So am I forgiven?”
“Um, yes. Well, you’re on probation at least.” He couldn’t get at her, she told herself. He didn’t know who she was, and the nurses were very discreet, as she’d learned when she asked about him. She was safe. “What was wrong with you?” She didn’t know if she should ask, if he’d resent her question, like asking a coworker about his salary.
Before she could apologize for being nosy, he answered her. “Cholera.”
Unusual to get that in this country, surely. “How did you get that?”
“I wanted to go somewhere different for a holiday, so I visited Haiti. I fell ill just after I landed back in Houston, and they moved me here fast. In a helicopter.”
“Wow. How are you now?”
He laughed. “Recovered and bored out of my skull.”
She laughed back. The last thing she’d thought she’d do today.
“I’m in quarantine until they’re sure it’s completely gone. They’ve turned my body into a pincushion, but they’ve told me that when nothing shows up on the tests for a week, I can go home.” He appeared at the window, his face and shoulders already familiar to her, and she couldn’t help but smile. He warmed her, somehow. “I’m a techie, and I have things to do that I can’t get done here.”
“You do that for a living? Computers, I mean?”
He paused, watched her, and eventually replied, “Yes.” So that explained the seriously expensive-looking laptop in his room. Maybe his office had provided it for him. For the first time in months, a man warmed her, interested her. She’d had a few dates since she’d arrived here, forced herself to go back on the scene. One bad experience didn’t make all men shits. She knew that intellectually, but her emotions had taken a while to catch up. However, none of the dates had led to anything. She’d been on edge, then bored, wondering what was wrong with her. Now this fellow sufferer—fellow prisoner—had piqued her interest like nobody else.
She watched his mouth move in sync with his voice on the phone and made up her mind. An act of defiance to befriend this man, prove that she was still alive, that nobody told her what to do. Shit, she could die or lose her leg. Why throw away what she had for someone who didn’t deserve a minute’s consideration? If she did that, then the bastard she’d left behind would win.
She saw the man standing at the window in her mind’s eye. He’d be wearing swimming trunks and nothing else, tanned deep brown, sitting on the prow of a beautiful yacht or on the veranda of a private villa.
“Pardon me? I don’t think you can call yourself a techie. You don’t look anything like one.” Nobody that powerful, that athletic, got to call himself a techie.
He let out a single, joyful laugh, warming her down to her heart. “You wouldn’t have said that ten years ago. I was white as a ghost, skinny, and dedicated to my work above everything else. Until I started to work out a bit.” A bit? A serious bit, she’d bet.
He produced a pair of black-framed spectacles, which he perched on his nose. They looked fantastic on him, added interest to his handsome features. “Better?”
“Are they real?”
“Sure. I don’t need them all the time. Only when my eyes get tired, but sometimes I forget to take them off. Do I look more like a techie now?”
“No. Not one bit.” Unashamedly she stared, taking in the handsome features, the tousled, thick hair. Then she realized what he meant. “Sorry. I didn’t mean… I just… Oh shit. Do you write computer games or something?” A jolt of recognition shot through her. Oh fuck, with the glasses on, she knew who he was. “You’re Jim Goddard, aren’t you?”
He sighed, and his face fell. “I might be. Why? Does it matter?”
Now she understood why he’d paused, because among other things, Jim Goddard was seriously rich. She just hadn’t recognized him at first with the longer hair and without his glasses. And with the tan. She’d seen him a couple of times in the local news, accepting an award or attending some function or other, usually unsmiling. She’d never dreamed Jim Goddard could laugh so much or give off that sex-god vibe. Techie extraordinaire, one of the top flight who designed things people wanted desperately before they knew they needed them. He seemed endearingly awkward sometimes, as if he didn’t enjoy the swanky affairs he sometimes attended. He knew glamorous people. And here he was talking to her. “I-I don’t know. I just don’t—”
He flattened his hand against the glass, the palm fading to white. “Can’t we forget everything except we’re stuck in here and nothing outside these doors matters? Can we just be Jim and Poppy and leave it at that?”
Was he lonely? Of course the fuck he was. He’d been in that room for five weeks. And anyway, she liked him, this man before her. She didn’t know the Jim Goddard of the TV, only watched sometimes and wondered what it must be like to live that way. But yes, he was just Jim here. “I don’t see why not. Sorry. I was a bit surprised. That’s all.”
“I got lucky, and my sister married the boss.”
“Did your sister design that security system that pushed you into the Fortune 500 list, or the…other stuff? I think not.” She broke off, her face heating. She’d seen the Symbiotics logo on computers with increasing frequency the past few years. They’d developed revolutionary hardware and the software that enabled it to work seamlessly with the machines it came in. She even used Symbiotics machines at work.
He laughed. “Stuff. Yeah, that’s what I do. Design stuff.”
“You should laugh more,” he said. “It suits you.”
She loved the way pleasure invaded his face so wholeheartedly. “I haven’t had much chance today.” But she bathed in his smile anyhow.
“Your turn. What do you do, Poppy, when you’re not stuck in an isolation ward?”
She huffed another laugh. “Nothing as exciting as you. I work in a bank.”
“Do you enjoy it?”
Not the first question people usually asked. Usually they smiled politely and moved on to someone more interesting. She didn’t mind…much.
But since he had… “I love it. I never thought I would. I left uni with a degree in art, but that didn’t qualify me for anything. So I took a job with Renwick’s Bank until something better turned up, and they put me in the finance department.
“I kind of slipped into my niche after trying a few other things first. I work with small businesses. I help them with the setup and with developing in today’s market. I can see a pattern, you know, a way for them to get what they want without risking too much, and I stop them from being too careful as well.”
She’d have to tell him something about why she was over here, why she transferred from the UK. But not everything. “An opportunity arose for me to move to the States and train here, doing the same thing with different systems. Small businesses trade worldwide these days, so I thought the experience would help me. Houston has one of the youngest profiles in the country, a great place to develop a unit like the one I work in. I jumped at the chance. The bank wants its staff to develop a global outlook, and they’re sponsoring key members to travel and become as flexible as the current market.”
He gave a low whistle. “Isn’t it great to discover the thing you love doing?”
This time she heard the hum of attraction in his voice, but more than that, he believed her. Most people thought she was an idiot for giving up a romantic-sounding future career involving art for working at a bank, but she loved it. She found it hard to communicate what worked for her about her chosen career. This man got it.
She talked, and he listened, and she found herself telling him more than she had anyone else. When she stopped and asked him if she was boring him, he said, “Don’t stop. I’m enjoying your enthusiasm.”
When Monica came in with a tray of food smelling surprisingly appetizing for hospital food, Poppy checked the clock, shocked to realize they’d been talking for an hour. Jim had remained on his feet, watching her through the porthole all that time. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have kept you so long.”
“My pleasure, believe me. Now eat. I’ll talk to you later.” He paused. “You should be able to get some e-books online if you want, or watch a movie.” He gave a wry smile. “Contact your family if you want to.” He ended the call and moved away, and she felt his loss deep inside, like an ache.
Oh shit, she hadn’t thought about that. Everything had happened so fast. Then she’d decided to wait until she knew what was wrong with her, but she should call her mother, who was on holiday in the Mediterranean with her partner. Poppy hated that her mother might spoil her dream holiday and rush across to see her. They probably wouldn’t let her in anyway because of the restrictions of this unit. She’d wait until they told her what she had before she called. Having decided on her course of action, she turned her attention to the food.
Wow, what a great dinner. Pasta but not limp, not overcooked, and with beautifully cut vegetables. Succulent morsels of chicken nestled between the ribbons of fresh linguine. “This is great. Better than any hospital food I’ve ever had before.”
The nurse glanced toward the porthole. She swung the wheeled table over Poppy’s lap and placed the knife and fork precisely on either side. “He sends out for his meals, and he ordered an extra helping for you.”
Her first impulse was to reject it, but what would happen if she did? Someone else would eat it, and she’d end up with tasteless hospital slush. She tucked in, her appetite restored.
After she’d eaten, he called her. “Hey.”
Poppy leaned back against the pillows, holding the phone to her ear. The nurse had left the blind pulled down between the communicating doors, but she could get out of bed and let it up again whenever she needed to. She enjoyed the moment of solitude. She wasn’t out of danger yet, but she wasn’t going to die right now, and that was good enough for her. Now her friend had called. “Thanks for the food. You shouldn’t have.”
“Yes, I should. You need to keep your strength up.” His voice was low and intimate as if they were sharing a secret. “I’ll make sure you get reasonable meals. Just tell me what you want. No, it’s no trouble,” he continued as she tried to protest. “We’re friends, aren’t we? That’s what friends do for each other. I don’t have many friends. No, I’m not a sad geek. I’m just too busy.”
What could she say but, “Thanks”?
“Talk to me, Poppy. It’s so good having someone who isn’t rushing around doing her job. The people here are nice but professional.”
So she talked.
And talked. Then she slept, and she woke up with the day creeping through the blinds, ate a great breakfast, and they talked some more. They spent the next day mostly on the phone, talking, laughing, and even watching an old film on the wall-mounted TV, exchanging comments, finding themselves at one, and enjoying it thoroughly.