"Hi," AJ peeked around the corner and rapped on the door. It was early, but Kenneth was usually awake when she arrived.
"You are here today!" Kenneth beamed as he turned away from the window.
AJ noticed Kenneth's suitcase on the bed.
"I'm going home!" Kenneth grinned and, though pleased for him, AJ had to force herself to return the smile. Working in the emergency room, AJ rarely forged meaningful relationships with her patients. Kenneth, however, had come in alone and AJ had remained with him long after the end of her shift. A fall from a ladder had left him with two broken vertebra, and he was lucky to have escaped paralysis. He said that his sister, who lived too far to visit him in the hospital, would come to help him when he was discharged. Some friends had visited often at first, but as Kenneth's time in the hospital dragged on, their visits became less frequent.
AJ had performed her nursing school clinicals in Chicago, and the violence and tragedy that overflowed into those emergency rooms fueled her desire to live in a quieter, less populated area. She applied only at rural hospitals and had started working here, nestled among dairy farms and cornfields, six months ago. Familiar with being alone in a small town, AJ visited Kenneth almost daily, bringing books, magazines and conversation that he insisted did him better than the food they were serving.
AJ had been trying to keep a professional demeanor. She was only just becoming accustomed to the speed at which news travelled and did not want a reputation for hitting on patients. In church, people whom AJ had never met would approach her to ask about so-and-so's injuries or whether or not someone had delivered her baby. Surely by now everyone knew that the nurse who lived in the old Johnson house was a regular visitor to Kenneth Mercer, a farmer and the town's most eligible bachelor.
The two spoke about nothing in particular.
"My shift starts at seven, I ought to get downstairs." AJ stood, for the first time uncomfortable in Kenneth's presence. She had never minded saying good-bye to a patient before now.
"You're sure I can't call you?" Kenneth understood AJ's reluctance but had asked several times whether he could take her to dinner. He was growing fond of AJ in a way he had never before felt. Their conversations had allowed him to truly get to know her without the formality and awkwardness of dating in a small town.
"I just don't think you should, if I had met you anywhere but in this hospital. . ." AJ began the argument that Kenneth had heard several times, and he silenced her.
"Enough said," he rose and shuffled toward her. They stood, inches apart, AJ looking at the floor and Kenneth studying the freckles that danced across her face. He ran his fingers through her curls; she reached up to stop him, but instead held his hand where it rested.
"I'll miss you," Kenneth whispered and AJ looked up, the pain in her eyes betraying her.
The rattling of the dietician's breakfast cart down the hall reminded both that they could easily be observed. AJ pulled away and shook her head, but Kenneth knew that once she walked out of his room he'd lose her.
He stepped closer again and, placing his hand behind her neck, guided AJ's face close to his. The kiss was strong, furious with emotion, making up for in intensity what it lacked in length.
The cart rattled louder and AJ backed away, wide-eyed, her freckles camouflaged by the blood that had risen in her cheeks.
"Good-bye," she whispered, almost choked. Turning, she walked out the door and was gone.
It had been busy in the ER that day, and AJ volunteered to work a double shift. She arrived home near midnight. Inside the dark house, she was greeted by her cat and the blinking light of the answering machine.
"Hey, Princess," AJ scooped up the purring mass of fur that draped over her ankles. AJ had found Princess weeks before at the side of the road, her fur matted and muddy, one of her paws badly mangled. She had looked so sad and sorry that AJ thought a royal name like Princess would boost her ego. No one had reported losing the animal, so AJ brought a clean, bandaged, Princess home from the veterinarian's office. Playful, she seemed grateful for having been rescued.
AJ checked her messages.
"Ms. Reilly, this is the Valley Animal Hospital calling. A young woman called today looking for a cat that matched Princess' description. I told her that you had found a stray recently and would call her."
AJ played the message again and wrote down the number that the receptionist had left. She sighed, grateful that it was much too late to call.
"Oh, Princess, first Kenneth and now you, too?" She thought of Kenneth's kiss and once again her freckles disappeared under hot cheeks.
The next afternoon, AJ pulled into the driveway of a small, white farmhouse. As she walked the path to the door, Princess in hand and a lump in her throat, a young woman came out. AJ thought she looked oddly familiar, but couldn't place her.
"You must be Abigail Reilly, and this most certainly is Maxine," the woman reached out to pet the cat. "My brother has been away and the neighbors were taking care of things. One day they came to feed Max and she took off into the fields."
AJ nodded, but said nothing. She stood on the path stroking Princess.
"Please, do come in. I know my brother will want to thank you himself."
AJ stepped into the kitchen and as she did Princess bounded down from her arms. The cat knew the place well, and she disappeared to some other part of the house.
"Max!" A man's voice cried out and AJ had to smile at his excitement.
"Come on," the woman ushered AJ into the living room and there sat Princess on the lap of the most handsome man AJ had ever seen.
"Kenny, I want you to meet Abigail Reilly. Abigail, this is my brother, Kenneth, please excuse him for not standing, he's recovering from a back injury." The phone rang just then and the woman excused herself.
"Abigail?" Kenneth looked at AJ quizzically.
"Abigail Jane, but my friends call me AJ." AJ was smiling widely.
"Well, AJ," Kenneth said, extending a hand which AJ quickly took in her own, "it is good to meet you."
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