Trust In Love
“And that’s how Rudolph saved Christmas.”
With a theatrical bow that made the felt antlers on his head bob, Doctor Zachary Valenti ended the tale he’d made up for the young patients in the pediatric ward at Curry County General, the hospital a few miles outside his hometown of Spring Harbor in southern Oregon. The room erupted in cheers and applause, and he hoped Doctor Parsons, the head pediatrician, was too far away to hear the cacophony Zach had caused once again.
It wasn’t like he didn’t know he was in a hospital and not in a circus, but Zach couldn’t help himself when he knew his tales, his antics, and his “unprofessional behavior”—to use Doctor Parsons’s words—made those kids a little less gloomy. He knew from experience how hard it was for a child to spend time in a hospital, how scary to be poked and prodded by strangers, never knowing when you’d be able to go home. It was the reason he’d become a pediatrician in the first place. Knowing what hospitalized kids had to go through, what really went through their minds, had given him the resolution to endure eleven years of college, med school, and a residency program. As well as sleepless nights before exams and round-the-clock shifts during his residency years.
His little patients’ smiles were the best reward after a tough day, the reason why he was still holding on, even when he felt like throwing in the towel. His job at Spring Harbor’s clinic, three days a week, wasn’t too bad. He hardly ever had to treat anything worse than a flu or a skinned knee. It was the days he volunteered at the hospital outside town that took a toll on him. The pediatric ward included all kinds of patients, from broken bones to cancer, and getting a smile onto those faces was much harder. Even when he put on his red nose and neon-green glasses and pretended to trip over his feet, or to constantly drop stuff and then tumble forward while trying to retrieve them, the smiles hardly ever reached the kids’ eyes.
If he could take away their problems and fears, for even just an hour or two a day, he’d endure another reprimand by the head physician. Zach knew Doctor Parsons would never approve of his approach with the patients, and he had a feeling the head pediatrician wouldn’t ask him to become an official member of the staff anytime soon, but in all honesty, Zach couldn’t bring himself to care enough to stop being the silly doctor all the kids seemed to love. Maybe it was the reason why Doctor Parsons was so cold toward him. Because the young patients liked Zach better and were terrified by the older doctor.
To prove his point, Eve stood up from the colorful rubber mat and threw her little arms around his right leg. The five-year-old was a patient of his whom he’d had admitted the day before for a severe iron deficiency.
“Can you fly like Rudolph, Doctor Zach?” She looked up at him with her big brown eyes and gave him a smile that was missing a couple of teeth. Dark rings still surrounded her eyes, although her pale face had started regaining a bit of color. If all went according to plan, Eve would be leaving by the end of the week. “Because you have his nose, and that’s what makes Rudolph fly.”
“It’s not the nose, you silly. It’s Santa’s magic dust that makes reindeer fly,” Phillip, the eight-year-old with a broken leg, shouted from his wheelchair.
“No, it’s the nose! My Daddy said it’s the nose that’s got all the magic.” Eve squeezed Zach’s leg and looked up at him again, with a trembling lip this time. “Isn’t it, Doctor Zach?”
The flashing red nose he’d bought online had been a great idea. Kids had gone wild when he’d walked into the room earlier that afternoon. He hadn’t thought it would be the cause of a riot, though.
“Maybe it’s both,” Richie suggested, his voice barely a whisper from behind the surgical mask over his mouth. The quiet eight-year-old had been battling cancer since early in the year.
The other nine kids in the room all turned to stare at him, and he seemed to shrink on his wheelchair, as if wishing he’d never spoken out loud. He reached up and pulled his striped, woolen hat down, nearly covering his eyes. Zach had bought him that hat, saying it was an official Santa’s elf hat, and it had since become a sort of Linus blanket for the kid.
“Yeah, I think Richie’s right. It’s a bit of both.” Zach clapped his hands and nine sets of eyes looked back at him. “He would know, since he’s wearing an elf hat. Elves know everything about Santa and his reindeer.”
“He’s not an elf!” Phillip hit his fists on the arms of his wheelchair. He’d been admitted a few hours before and was only going to stay one night, to make sure the bump on his head was nothing to worry about. From the few words they’d exchanged, Zach had already understood that the kid was used to having the last word. “Elves live at the North Pole and have pointy ears.”
If possible, Richie shrank even more in his chair. Zach channeled all of his patience with a deep inhale and raised an eyebrow as he stared straight at Phillip. “And how do you know Richie’s not an elf in disguise? Maybe Santa sent him here to keep an eye on all of you and to let him know who should be on the naughty list.”
A chorus of surprised gasps filled the room. Take that, Phillip.
Tiny hands tugged on the pants of his burgundy uniform, and he glanced down to meet Eve’s brown eyes. “I’ve been good, Doctor Zach. I don’t want to be on the naughty list!”
Zach smiled. “Don’t worry, you won’t be. I’ll speak to Santa to make sure.”
A familiar chuckle made him turn around. His eyes widened at the sight of the woman standing next to Marian, the head nurse of the pediatric ward. Beautiful didn’t even begin to describe the stranger in a light blue nurse uniform, who was staring at him with a raised, dark eyebrow. Tall and lean, she had skin the color of the latte he bought every morning at Spring Delights, the town’s bakery. Her eyes, so dark they seemed almost black, were slightly almond-shaped, and her sleek, black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Her plump lips tilted up in a smile when her gaze landed on his red, flashing nose. Suddenly feeling self-conscious, he removed it and switched it off before hiding it inside his white coat’s left pocket.
“Doctor Valenti, I’d like to introduce you to our new nurse. She’s starting today and moved just last week from Hawaii.”
The newcomer took a step forward and reached out her hand. He took it and was surprised by the strength in her squeeze. It was a contrast to her delicate appearance.
“Zachary Valenti. Welcome aboard.”
She flashed him a set of perfect, pearly-white teeth, and it felt like the sun peeking through the clouds, warming his pale, Irish skin. It was the cheesiest thought he’d ever had in thirty-one years, and after having gotten his ego stomped on, the last thing he’d expected was to get such a lightning-strike sensation from a simple smile—no matter how lovely it was.
“Leilani Moreira. Happy to be here.”
“That’s kind of an unusual name.” Had he really said that? And why was his throat suddenly so parched that even just swallowing was hard?
She smiled again and, holy Santa Claus and all his reindeer, his stomach clenched as if he’d been sucker-punched.
“I’m half-Hawaiian and half-Brazilian.”
And one hundred percent gorgeous.
“Interesting combination,” he said, glad he’d managed not to blurt out the words in his head. “I’m half-Irish, half-Italian, but Spring Harbor born and raised.”
When her gaze dropped, he realized he still held her palm. Embarrassed by the feeling—did she feel it too?—he quickly withdrew his hand as if he’d just been scalded, and then shoved it deep inside the right pocket of his white coat.
“Doctor Valenti volunteers in this ward. He’s the town’s pediatrician but enjoys spending his free days with our kids, offering help and giving the parents some time off when they need it.” Marian brought a hand to the side of her mouth and leaned closer to Leilani. “I think he’s just trying to get Doctor Parsons to show some pity and offer him a job.”
Zach laughed at Marian’s stage-whispered comment, but he didn’t contradict her. At first, he’d only started volunteering at the hospital so he could make the kids feel less lonely and scared. Working only three days at the town clinic left him a lot of free time, and his social life was pretty non-existent. Now, though, he couldn’t deny he’d love to get the opportunity to become a permanent member of staff—if only Doctor Parsons wouldn’t ask him to leave his job at the clinic, like he had the first time.
“We love Doctor Zach,” Eve said, squeezing his leg a little tighter. “He’s magic, like Santa.”
The nurses chuckled, and Leilani crouched down to be level with the five-year-old. “It’s the red nose, isn’t it? That’s where he takes his magic from.”
The sweet way in which she spoke to Eve made him wonder whether she had kids of her own. Trepidation built inside him as he searched her fingers for a wedding band, and an odd sense of relief filled his chest when he didn’t see one—not that it meant she didn’t have kids or a significant other, but it was a start.
Then again, why should he care? Relationships between colleagues were frowned upon; it was the first thing Marian had told him when he started volunteering. And though he doubted there were no affairs going on in the hospital, Marian, as far as he knew, kept her eagle eyes on the staff in her ward.
He’d already made a mistake once and gotten burned. He wanted to get a permanent job here, and he wasn’t going to risk it all because of some sort of zing he’d thought he’d felt. For all he knew, it could have been static electricity.
“We must move on with our tour now, Leilani,” Marian said, then she looked at him. “And you’d better have all the kids return to their rooms before Doctor Parsons arrives. To say he wasn’t pleased about your show the other day would be putting it mildly.”
Zach grinned and lifted a shoulder. “It’s not my fault he’s a Grinch,” he whispered out of the corner of his mouth, then winked.
Marian giggled like a little girl, then spun around, a smile still tugging at her lips. “You have five minutes, Doctor Valenti,” she called over her shoulder.
He saluted Marian, although she couldn’t see him, and smiled at Leilani just before she left the room. His eyes followed her through the open door, settling on the curve of her hips under the light blue uniform.
Tiny hands tugged on his pants leg again, and he glanced down.
“I don’t want Doctor Parsons to be mad at you.”
Zach smiled at the adorable little girl. “Don’t worry, he won’t be.” Then he looked at the other kids and clapped his hands twice. “All right, crew. Time to return to your dorms now. Get in line.”
The ones who could walk stood up and followed his order like good little soldiers. He moved to go behind Richie’s wheelchair when Eve gripped his leg more firmly. “Carry me, Doctor Zach. I’m tired.”
And she looked it too. Maybe he’d overestimated the pros of getting her out of bed over the cons. He picked her up with one swift movement, throwing her up in the air and eliciting a happy laugh before settling her on his hip. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and his heart filled with warmth.
He loved kids. He’d always said he wanted at least three. And at some point in his life, he’d thought he’d found the woman to start a family with, only to be faced with the cold reality that forced him to put a rain check on that plan.
The older he got, though, the more pressing his need for a family became—and the more unlikely his need would be fulfilled. He knew pretty much every woman around his age in Spring Harbor, and even though some family-oriented ones would be happy to settle down, he just never felt an instant attraction to them—not like he had with the beautiful nurse only minutes before.
Off-limits, Zach. Don’t let history repeat itself.
Deciding he’d better focus on his two patients at hand, he enlisted the oldest patient’s help to get the tough kid back to his room. “Mary-Lou, would you mind pushing Phillip’s chair while I push Richie’s?”
The twelve-year-old nodded and went behind Phillip, then at the count of three everyone walked out of the room, marching in a tidy line in flannel pajamas and fluffy slippers.
Richie looked up and smiled, his tired eyes crinkling at the corners. “Thank you, Doctor Zach. I really liked the story.”
And that was what made all the tough times and long hours worthwhile—that tiny spark of happiness in a sick kid’s eyes. He loved his young patients with all his heart.
And that, he knew, was going to mess with his life one day.
But right now, he didn’t care.
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