Her mom’s mouth tightened. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
“No,” Mallory agreed quietly, her chest tight. “That isn’t what you mean, and I do know it. You’re talking about Karen.”
“No, we’re not.”
“Well, we should.”
Her mother closed her eyes and turned away. “I have to go.”
“She started dating a guy no one knew.”
“I don’t want to talk about this, Mallory!”
“He encouraged her to take a walk on the wild side, and—”
“Don’t,” Ella said stiffly. “Don’t you—”
“And she changed. She stopped being who you thought she should be. And—”
Her mother whirled back, eyes blazing, finger pointed shakily in Mallory’s face. “Don’t you dare say it.”
“Mom,” Mallory said through a tight throat, suddenly very tired. “It’s not the same this time. You know it’s not the same for me. Karen was doing drugs.”
“Your young man went to NA.”
Mallory shook her head in disbelief. “That’s confidential.”
“It’s Lucky Harbor,” Ella said with a shrug that said Ty’s privacy was nothing compared to her need to make sure her daughter was okay. “Remember that stormy night, when he ended up in the ER? He refused narcotics for pain. Adamantly.”
“Don’t play dumb, Mallory. You know what I’m saying. He’s an outsider, and I realize that sounds rude, but you’ve got to admit people are getting the wrong idea about you two.”
Actually, given what she and Ty had been doing in the deep, dark of the night—and sometimes in the middle of the day—people had the exact right idea.
Ella took one look at Mallory’s face and got a pinched look of tension. “See? It’s happening. It’s happening again, just like Karen with Tony.”
“No,” Mallory said firmly. God, no. “Tony got Karen both hooked and then pregnant, and she spiraled downward. I can’t believe we’re comparing my life to Karen’s now, after all these years. Why not back then, when I was in danger of spiraling?”
Her mother looked as if Mallory had slapped her. “You…you weren’t. You were our rock.”
Mallory let out a breath and shook her head, feeling weary to the bone. And sad. Way too damn sad. “Forget it, Mom.”
“I can’t. Oh my God.” She covered her face. “I thought—you were so sweet during that time. I never thought—Oh, Mallory. I’m so sorry. Are you…spiraling again?”
Mallory drew a shaky breath and stepped forward, putting her hands on her mom’s arms. “No,” she said gently. “I’m not spiraling again. I’m not going to kill myself, Mom.” The big, fat elephant in the room. “I’m not Karen.”
Ella nodded, and with tears in her eyes, hugged Mallory in tight. “I know,” she whispered. Then, in the Quinn way of bucking up, she sniffed and pulled back to search her pockets, coming up with a tissue that she used to swipe her eyes. “You’re really okay?”
“Really,” Mallory promised.
“So can I have my sweet daughter back?”
A low laugh escaped Mallory. “I’m still sweet, Mom. I’m just not going to be amenable all the time, or compliant. And I’m not going to live my life exactly as you’d have me do.”
“Are you going to keep seeing that man?”
Lucille walked by in her candy-striper uniform. “Well, I hope so,” she said. “He’s the hottest thing you’ve dated since…well, ever.”
“Don’t encourage her,” Ella said. “This isn’t just a silly thing. It’s affecting her job.”
“Phooey,” Lucille said.
“Jane is concerned about it affecting the HSC as well.”
“Phooey,” Lucille said again. “And shame on you, Ella, for buying into that. It’s about time our girl here stops paying for others’ mistakes and regrets, don’t you think?”
Ella turned and looked at Mallory for a long beat, seeming stricken by the thought of anyone thinking she wasn’t fully supporting her own flesh and blood. “I never wanted you to pay for our mistakes and regrets.”
“Well, she has,” Lucille said, brutally honest as always, though her voice was very kind. She moved behind the nurses’ desk, poured Ella some coffee, pulled a flask from her pocket, and added a dash of something that smelled 100 proof.
“Lucille!” Ella gasped. “I’m on the job!”
“You’re clocking out, and it’s time.”
“Time for what?”
“Time for Mallory to not be the only one to stretch her wings. And speaking of wings,” Lucille said to Mallory, “you’re going to need wings for your next patient, and she’s ready for you.”
The new patient turned out to be Mrs. Burland.
“You,” Mrs. B said when Mallory entered her room.
“Me,” Mallory agreed and reached for the blood pressure cuff. “It says on your chart that you passed out after your bath again. Did you take your meds at the right time?”
“Well, of course I did. I’m not a complete idiot. They didn’t work.”
“Did you space the pills out with food, as explicitly instructed on the bottles?”
Mrs. Burland glared at her.
“I’ll take that as a no,” Mallory said. Mrs. B’s color was off, and her blood pressure was far too low. “When was your last meal?”
“Mrs. Burland.” Mallory put her fingers on the woman’s narrow, frail, paper-thin wrist to check her pulse. “Did you eat lunch today?”
Mrs. Burland straightened to her full four-foot-eight inches, quivering with indignity. “I know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Mallory looked into her rheumy, pissy eyes and felt her heart clench. Dammit. She had a feeling she knew the problem—Mrs. B didn’t have any food. Probably she wasn’t feeling good enough to take care of herself, and since she’d long ago scared off family and friends with her mean, petty, vicious ways, she had no one to help her. Mallory picked up the room phone and called the cafeteria. “Stella, it’s Mallory. I need a full dinner tray for room three.”
“Sure thing, Sweet Cheeks. Is your hunk-o-burning love going to be making any more visits my way?”
Mallory rubbed her still-twitching eye. “Not today.”
When the tray came, Mallory stood over her grumpy patient. “Eat.”
Mrs. Burland tried to push the tray away but Mallory was one step ahead of her, holding it still. “Oh no, you don’t. You’re not going to have a little tantrum and spill it, not this time.”
Mrs. Burland’s eyes burned bright with temper, which Mallory was happy to see because it meant her patient was already feeling better. Mallory leaned close. “I’m stronger and meaner, and I’ve eaten today.”
“Well that’s obvious.” Mrs. Burland sniffed at the juice on the tray. “Hmph.”
“I have eyes in my head, don’t I?” Mrs. Burland sipped the juice. In sixty seconds, her color was better. “You didn’t used to be so mean.”
“It’s a newly acquired skill,” Mallory said.
“I’m ready to go home now.”
“You can’t go home until I see you eat.”
“You’re making that up. This cafeteria food isn’t fit for a dog,” Mrs. Burland said.
Well, she had her there. Even Mallory, who’d eat just about anything, didn’t like the cafeteria food, not that she’d ever say so to the cook. “Fine.” Mallory went to the staff kitchen and pulled out her own lunch, which she brought back to Mrs. Burland’s room. “Try my sandwich. Turkey and cheese with spinach.” Which she’d only added because her mom kept asking if she was eating her vegetables. “There’s a little bit of mustard and probably too much mayo but your cholesterol is the least of your problems.” Mallory also tossed down a baggie of baby carrots and an apple.
Mrs. Burland took a bite of the sandwich first. “Awful,” she said, but took another bite. And then another, until there was nothing left but a few crumbs.
“The carrot sticks and the apple too,” Mallory said.
“Are they as horrid as the sandwich?”
“They’re as horrid as your bad attitude. And I’ll tell you this right now. You’re going to eat it all if I have to shove it down your throat myself.”
“Mallory,” a voice breathed in disbelief from the doorway.
Jane. Perfect. Mallory turned to face her boss, but not before she saw triumph and evil glee come into Mrs. Burland’s eyes.
“A moment,” Jane said, face tight.
“Certainly.” Mallory jabbed a finger at the carrots and apple. Mrs. Burland meekly picked up the apple.
In the hallway, Jane led Mallory just out of hearing range of Mrs. Burland. “New tactic?”
“Yes,” Mallory said, refusing to defend herself. “She finish it all?”
Jane took a look over Mallory’s shoulder at Mrs. B. “Every last bite. How did you do it?”
“By being a bigger bitch than she is.”
By the time Mallory got in her car and left work, she was starving and exhausted. She solved the first problem by eating a handful of Jodi’s cookies. Then she pulled her phone out and took a quick peek to see if she had any texts before remembering she had Ty’s phone. She paused and eyed the remaining chocolate chip/walnut cookies. Fifteen minutes later, she pulled into Ty’s driveway.
The garage door was open, and the man himself was flat on his back beneath his car, one long denim-clad leg straight out, the other bent. His black T-shirt had risen up. Or maybe it was his Levi’s that had sunk almost indecently low on his hips. In either case, the revealed strip of his washboard abs had her mouth actually watering. She thought maybe she could stand here and just look at him all day long, but he seemed to enjoy looking at her right back and she’d had a hell of a long day and couldn’t possibly be worth looking at right now.