Excerpt from “Heart Condition,” by Libby Malin, a sweet romance, part of a series set in the Bethany Beach, DE area. (c) Libby Sternberg 2019
by Libby Malin
“Mr. Newhouse? Mr. Newhouse? Daniel?”
His eyes focused slowly, searching for the source of the deep voice with a slight Indian accent. Just a second ago, he’d been…somewhere.
His mind struggled through fog. He felt safe, but not well. Numb. A little queasy. Cold. Yes, cold. Refrigerator cold. That’s where he’d been—in the cold operating room. Nurses, doctors, all busy, in blue scrubs. He’d not had a sense of the room’s layout, only seeing the patch of ceiling above him as he was wheeled in. He knew there was lots of equipment there, shiny and bright, as if just delivered and still in its packing, never used. Every once in a while, a face had appeared over him, just the face. The hair pulled under a baglike net, mouth covered with a mask, gloved hands raised in the air. “Doing okay, Mr. Newhouse?” They’d told a joke…and he’d fallen asleep, out cold, before the punch line.
Seconds ago…in a bright, sterile room. Where was he now?
He heard soft bustling noises nearby, a muffled screech of metal rings on a curtain rod, a cart rolling by? He saw two figures on the right. Mom. His heart raced, a fast beep from a nearby monitor pinging it into the room. No, Mom had been gone for more than a year now. This was Sarah, his oldest sister, who looked like her.
And his other sister, Reese. And Dad. They stood by his bed. The light seemed dimmer here, softer. He blinked.
“Mr. Newhouse? Everything went very well.” The doctor, still in blue scrubs, that was who’d been speaking. Dan turned toward this voice on the other side of the bed. For the first time, he noticed the man had neatly manicured fingers, pinkish nails that looked as if they’d been trimmed by an expert as a matter of pride. That was good. A surgeon should take care of his hands….
“It went very smoothly. I’ve already explained it to your family, and I’ll be in to see you tomorrow when you’re awake.” He smiled and patted him on the arm.
“How long….” he managed to murmur, his lips feeling chapped and not connected to his mouth. “How long it take?”
“About five hours. Right on time,” the surgeon said with good cheer.
Five hours. What had they told him—three to six? So “right on time” meant less than the maximum? Why so long?
“You’re going to be fine, Dan,” Sarah said, but he heard the strain in her voice.
“The doctor said you can be back to normal real soon,” Reese added. Then, tacked on, “Of course, we told him you never were normal.”
He smiled and would have laughed…but it hurt. Or tugged. It felt strange. He was under what seemed a mountain of blankets, but when he glanced down, it looked to be only a thin sheet and covering. It felt soft, thick.
“Just rest, Mr. Newhouse. The nurses will get you comfortable and tell you what you can and can’t do. You should get into a room soon.” And then the doctor said to his family, “I’ll be by tomorrow,” as if they hadn’t heard him say the same thing to him.
The doctor left, replaced by a nurse who said, loudly, as if his hearing had been affected, “How are you feeling, Mr. Newhouse?” She looked at the latest readings on the machine connected to him, checked an IV bag.
“Like someone is sitting on my chest.” Everything he said sounded husky and deep, his voice an octave below its normal tone to a basso profundo. And it was hard to speak loudly. It took too much effort and…scared him. He was afraid it would hurt, pushing the air out of his chest.
“That’s normal. You’re going to a room soon.” She must not have heard the doc promise the same thing.
“His color already looks better,” his dad said, gruffly. He looked scared as all hell.
“Mmm-hmm. Should see a big improvement in the quality of his life,” the nurse commented. And then he heard her say, under her breath to his family, “So young…”
So young. He was thirty. But he felt one-hundred. And, despite what the doctor said, he wasn’t sure he’d ever feel normal again.
She kicked the pot right into the water. She hadn’t intended to, but she’d turned to adjust another plant—fragrant lavender in a cobalt-blue container—and her toe hit the little black resin pot filled with lemon-yellow daisies kerplunk into the depths of the Little Assawoman Bay. That’s what happens, Olivia, when you try to cram a yard full of flowers onto a condo deck.
“Hey!” A voice came from below. A male voice. A specific male. Her landlord. The one whose slow, careful movements screamed old and tired but whose tan face and sandy-blond hair whispered young and eager.
“Sorry!” she said to the unseen shouter. Daniel Newhouse was his name. She’d met him exactly three times, and each time she’d been struck by the same things: he was good-looking, serious and…weak. Or rather, frail. He’d just had surgery, apparently. She knew from calling his rental management office when he was in the hospital. A too-chatty secretary had spilled that info.
Not my problem, she said to herself. Then she yelled it in her mind: Not. My Problem.
Olivia Bentley might be a nurse, but she no longer practiced the art and science of the caring profession. She’d put aside her scrubs last year after her father had died, leaving her a sweet inheritance as his only child. Her mother had passed when she was a girl.
No more nursing for her. No more…having your heart wrenched out as you watched patients struggle. As you watched some…lose the battle.
She shook her head, and a stray lock of frizzy auburn hair clouded her vision. As she pushed it aside, she breathed deep the smell of ocean air and absorbed the stunning shimmer of this spring day on the water. Brilliant blue sky. Abundant sunshine. Sleek, elegant terns winging over the marshy grass.
Just what she needed. She stopped her deck gardening, and plopped into a lounge chair, her feet propped up. Exactly what she needed.
But as she closed her eyes, a news reel of memories flashed through her mind. Blood. Unspeakable trauma. Doctors and nurses around tables, tending the wounded, calling to each other for equipment, blood, sutures, IVs.
“Don’t give up, Hank.”
Her eyes popped open as she tried to figure out if she’d whispered the words or just thought them.
With a sigh, she heaved herself off the chair and went inside to continue unpacking, cleaning, arranging. If she lost herself in chores, she’d forget.
Dan leaned against the railing of his condo sipping on a mug of coffee. He heard the sliding door upstairs as his new tenant left the deck. He was beginning to set his clock by her routine. Whenever she stretched out on her chaise, he could do a mental countdown to when she’d shoot up and start doing something else. She never seemed to stay out there for more than a few minutes at a time, popping up to head inside, as if something kept her from really relaxing. And, like him, she’d spent some restless nights there, too, coming outside when Morpheus abandoned them in the wee hours.
She was a petite, curvy pixie, the kind of woman painters from a different era celebrated, but who’d never fit in with the rail-thin looks on today’s fashion magazines.
Ever since he’d first met her—when she’d come to his Baltimore law office to sign the lease for the condo unit above his at Fenwick Island, Delaware—he’d been intrigued. Not just by her bright green eyes, kewpie-doll mouth, porcelain skin and sensual figure. Sure, he’d noticed those things, but there was something else about her, something familiar, because it was territory he now knew, as well.
No, he’d been intrigued by the way her eyes didn’t smile when she laughed or grinned. Something was off there. Nurse retiring at the ripe old age of, what, thirty? That was his guess. His rental management secretary had filled him in on a few more details, how she was “between careers” or “taking a break.” Something. But she had the rent money, and that was all that mattered. Everything else—the sleeplessness that led her to the deck at night, the inability to relax, the haunted look in her eyes sometimes—wasn’t his business.
Not my problem, he thought to himself.
No, his problem was sticking to doctor’s orders, recovering from his heart surgery, and…figuring out what to do with the rest of his life now that he’d resigned from his Baltimore law firm, sold his house, and moved permanently to what had just been his beach home in the past.
He was officially a beach bum.
And he had his own problems with finding peace.
When he heard her walking around upstairs again, he wondered at the wisdom of taking the lower condo for himself and renting out the top one. But his was roomier, with an extra bedroom and a small den. Not that he used the den much. When he was browsing the internet or emailing on his ancient laptop, he preferred sitting at the kitchen counter, where he could see outside to the gently lapping waters of the bay.
Which was what he was going to do now. Check the internet, read the news there, and maybe even Google Olivia Bentley, RN.
(c) Libby Sternberg 2019 This book is finished and will be on submission to agents and/or editors soon.