THE RESTAURANT Hong-Wei’s escort took them to had a funky urban-industrial theme, and the menu was more than promising, full of burgers, pasta, and as Lane had said, a vast selection of local beer. Hong-Wei ordered two different types and a large bacon cheeseburger, as well as a side of onion rings.
Lane, who had a smoked salmon salad, blinked as he watched Hong-Wei dig into the beer-battered rings. “So… you’re not a health-conscious doctor, then?”
Hong-Wei shrugged as he wiped his mouth with a napkin and dusted crumbs from his fingers. “My mother and grandmother always nag me to eat properly, so whenever I escape their influence, I tend to go wild.” He pushed the basket of rings toward Lane. “Try one. They’re excellent.”
Lane held up a hand and shook his head, eyeing Hong-Wei curiously. Hong-Wei retreated into his food and drink, reeling a bit from Lane’s declaration that Hong-Wei wasn’t scared. Now he felt as if the pressure was on, which was difficult since the closer he got to his new reality, the more terrified he became. Junk food and alcohol seemed the best refuge.
He liked hearing Lane talk, so he searched for a prompt. “You told me about the town. What about the hospital? My schedule didn’t allow me to come to Wisconsin for a proper visit.”
As Hong-Wei had hoped, Lane relaxed and launched eagerly into speaking about the hospital. “St. Ann’s is a small critical access hospital, which I suppose you already knew. I guess the thing I can tell you that’s most important since it sounds like you’ve always dealt with large hospitals is small hospitals have a different feel. I worked at a larger hospital after finishing my degree, and the atmosphere at a place like St. Ann’s is very different. Unlike large hospitals where there are multiple floors and departments separated from each other, we’re all in each other’s laps at St. Ann’s. There’s only one nurses’ station. One doctors’ lounge. One bank of elevators, though we do have a service elevator in the laundry area. Technically we have one hundred beds, but because of the way the critical access rules read, we only ever use seventy-five. Also, though everyone has their specific role, we fill in everywhere. I’m supposed to be the surgical nurse, but I do whatever shift needs doing. The doctors are in the same predicament.”
None of this had come up when the administration had interviewed him, Hong-Wei thought as he sipped his beer, but he wasn’t surprised. He wondered how much else he could get Lane to confess. “What’s the work environment like? Do people get along? Are they competitive with one another?”
Lane seemed confused. “Competitive? I’m not sure what you mean. As far as getting along… well, it depends on who it is. Owen—he’s Dr. Gagnon—is known for being difficult, but I think that’s overblown, personally. The nurses gossip a lot, which I don’t care for, but it’s not like anybody can stop that either.” He sighed. “The hospital board is a little… scary. They’re all old, which would be fine, but they’re a total good-old-boys club. The hospital CEO is a solid guy, I always thought. He was friends with one of my friends in high school. The HR director, though, is the son of the hospital board president, and he makes me nervous. You know Roz, that woman from 9 to 5?”
9 to 5 was one of the movies he and Hong-Su had used to improve their English. “I’m familiar with her, yes.”
“He reminds me of her, sometimes. I feel like everything I say goes directly to the board.”
Lane toyed with his straw, first with his fingers, then with his lips as he stared off to the side, ostensibly considering something deeply. Hong-Wei paused with an onion ring halfway off his plate, arrested by the sight of Lane’s full lips teasing the straw.
Stop it, he chided himself. He’s a nurse. Your nurse.
The spell was broken when Lane sat back, a determined look on his face. “I’m going to tell you this because you’re going to hear about it eventually anyway. We’ve had our share of scandals recently at St. Ann’s. The CEO before Nick Beckert was fired due to embezzlement, and before the air was clear, a married clinic doctor was caught sleeping with his nurse. It was like watching a soap opera live at work, except it got ugly and made the papers and the TV news. I don’t think the board was paying as close attention then as they are now, though they’ve been worried about money since forever. Anyway, we got a new CEO, and the new HR person. The latter is really bringing down the hammer.” Lane aimed his fork at Hong-Wei. “Don’t be fooled by how Erin Andreas appears either. He seems small and sweet, but he smiles while he bites you. He’s already fired four people since he arrived last month.”
Interesting information. Hong-Wei digested it as he drank more beer. “Has he fired any doctors?”
Lane laughed, the sound startling for its bitterness. “Are you kidding? Not a chance. The doctors are never wrong.” Apparently remembering he was in the presence of a doctor, Lane averted his gaze and cleared his throat. “I mean, the hospital gives doctors the benefit of the doubt, always.”
“That will be an interesting change, then.” Hong-Wei picked up his burger and took a bite, thinking as he chewed. “I’ve been a surgical resident up until now. Things were my fault even if I was at home sleeping when they happened.”
“Nothing will be your fault. I thought things would get better once we switched to the electronic record-keeping system, because finally the doctors couldn’t blame us when we couldn’t figure out what their insane handwriting meant or when they wrote the order wrong and the pharmacist yelled at us. Now they still ask for the wrong dose of medicine, and when the pharmacist says an order would kill the patient and calls to tell them so, we get yelled at for letting them interrupt the doctor.”
The beer was unloosening things in Hong-Wei, making it easier to laugh. It also silenced the voice warning him not to notice how the lighting in the restaurant was making soft halos dance on top of Lane’s light brown hair, casting pleasant shadows across his broad shoulders. “This sort of thing happened to me in my residency as well. I hadn’t planned on passing on the experience to my nurses, though. I thought I’d prefer to be a competent surgeon instead.”
Oh, but Lane had a nice smile. “About that. I don’t know the full story, but I heard the other doctors and some administrators talking. I hear you’re an exceptionally good surgeon, or that you have some kind of special skill? I didn’t understand all of what they were talking about, but what I gathered is we’re very fortunate to have you at St. Ann’s.”
Hong-Wei held his glass to his lips longer than necessary as he tried to decide how to reply. He hadn’t given the full truth to St. Ann’s in his interview. Had they uncovered it on their own? It didn’t matter, he supposed, but it made him uneasy. The whole point in coming here had been to step back and be a simple general surgeon.
He cleared his throat and set down his glass. “I had many places to choose from for my postresidency employment, yes. I decided to come to St. Ann’s, however, because I wanted a more intimate, uncomplicated hospital experience.”
“Well, I don’t know about uncomplicated, but you’ll probably get more up close and personal with people than you care to.” Lane’s smile was crooked, apologetic, and impossibly endearing. “That includes me, I’m afraid. We have a few other backup nurses trained, but in the same way you’re the only surgeon at St. Ann’s, I’m the only surgical nurse. So we’ll be seeing a lot of each other, Dr. Wu.”
“Call me Jack.”
Lane’s eyebrows lifted. “Oh, that’s your first name? Huh, not what I expected. Do most people in Taiwan have Western names these days?”
The beer had relaxed Hong-Wei’s tongue to the point of no return. Or perhaps it was Lane’s smile and gentle eyes. “No. Jack is the name I use with people outside my family, since Americans don’t have an easy time with Asian names.”
“Would you mind telling me your given name? I’ll use Jack if you prefer, but I’m curious about who you really are.”
Who you really are. He was both Jack and Hong-Wei equally at this point, but Lane was so clumsily charming, Hong-Wei couldn’t resist him. He shifted on his chair. “Wu Hong-Wei.” Why did he give it in Taiwanese order instead of Western order, with his surname first? Now he was just being silly.
You’re an idealist. Grace Albertson’s voice came back to him. Hong-Wei had to agree. Though now he wondered if he didn’t have to admit to being a romantic as well.
Hong-Wei shivered and went still.
Lane’s pronunciation came out as clumsy as any American’s attempt, maybe worse because he was clearly trying to mimic Hong-Wei.
Ever since the airport, the yearning to connect had been apparent in Simon Lane’s gaze, but now Hong-Wei saw the truth behind the nurse’s longing for what it was, a truth his escort probably didn’t want him to see. He’d come all this way to pick up the new surgeon because he’d been asked, because he was a nice guy… and because he was lonely.
Without a moment to prepare for the attack, Hong-Wei’s walls crumbled into dust.
He finished off the first beer and picked up the second, indulging in a long draught. “You may call me Hong-Wei if you like, Simon.”
Simon smiled so wide it lifted his ears and made his hazel eyes twinkle.
Losing himself in that smile, Hong-Wei couldn’t remember why, exactly, he shouldn’t pursue a flirtation with his nurse. Something told him the harder he tried to resist Simon Lane, the more he’d be sucked in.
A relationship wasn’t the adventure he’d come to Copper Point to pursue, and yet every instinct Hong-Wei had told him Simon would be the adventure he ended up taking.