Excerpt: Between Two Worlds
Book 4: Bayview Heights Series
“Yes, Mrs. Johnson, I promise the surgery will be on Thursday.” John smiled at the older woman who’d come in for a pre-op appointment. Of course, she was nervous. Thinking of his adopted father’s heart attack two years ago, he took her papery-thin hand and squeezed it. Then he winked. “I’m really good. So you don’t have to worry.”
The levity helped and John left her to a nurse to give details.
Checking his watch, lo and behold, he had a few minutes before his next appointment, so he headed to his office in the hospital and punched in a number. Pathetic, he told himself. No girl on the speed dial.
There had been one, once.
The phone rang on the other end. Then, “Hello, Johnny. A call in the middle of the day? Anything wrong?”
“I was just thinking about you.”
“That makes me happy.”
“Watcha doin’?” Sometimes he reverted to how he’d talked in high school when he was with his Bayview Heights family.
“Kurt, Seth and I are on our way to a Yankees game. Retirement’s great.”
“Still can’t believe you took the plunge.”
They chatted some about their activities. John tried to have contact with the Lansings at least once a week.
“Anything specific you wanted to talk about?” Mitch had been able to read John since he was eighteen with a big chip on his shoulder.
“I just had a pre-op for a heart surgery. Just like yours. It made me think of you.”
“Much as I like being on your mind, I’m healthy as a horse.”
Mitch hadn’t been healthy during the nightmare that happened two years ago. John was an accomplished heart surgeon even then at thirty-four who’d already had success that doctors in the fifties hadn’t achieved, but he wasn’t the one to help the man he loved most in the world. Because he loved that man so much.
“I’m glad you’re feelin’ good. But maybe I’ll take a look when I see you next.”
“That would be fine, son.”
Son. The term, coming for Mitch, still caused his heart to leap some in his chest.
John referred to Mitch’s wife, Cassie Smith-Lansing, who’d saved John’s life seventeen years ago, and was still teaching at Bayview Heights High School where he’d met her.
“She’s off for summer vacation and still working too hard. Come out this week or weekend.”
“I can do that. After my work at the shelter on Saturday?”
“See you then.”
Clicking off his cell, John left the room when his pager went off. He read, “Multi-vehicle car accident. All available personnel report to ER.”
John jogged toward Emergency. He was glad to stop thinking about the gang kid he used to be and not the cardiothoracic surgeon he’d become. All that rumination led to thoughts about what he was doing with his life.
He didn’t want them. He’d spent twelve years preparing for his career and he wasn’t going to subject himself to recriminations. One thing John had learned in life was to never look back.
Then why, a little voice asked inside him, have you been volunteering at Bailey O’Neil’s shelter for gang kids?
He knew the answer to that. Because of what the Wainwrights had done with Guardian House. They’d bought a fortress of a building and had hired specially trained counselors to give kids a safe haven from street gangs. Several agencies were working with the shelter: ancillary medical clinics, education in the city schools to keep these kids in the classroom. Eventually, Bailey hoped to have job training so the kids could get the skills they need to stay out of gangs. He thought about her and the miracles her organizations could perform.
And John knew all about miracles. One had saved his life.
After a ten minute cab ride, Meg Mancini arrived at Guardian House for a meeting with the staff. The big stone edifice rose before her, and today, the hot rays of the June sun glinted off its peaked roof and stone structure. With three floors and an attic, the building had room for 20-30 kids trying to get out of gang life.
Bailey O’Neil shanghaied her as she entered through the foyer. Even early morning, her beauty emanated from her. Dark hair glistened and blue eyes sparkled. “Hey, girl, sorry you had to come in on a day off.”
“I wasn’t busy.” Lately, Meg had no social life. “So is everyone here?” “All but one.”
She did her best to swallow back the emotion. “Dr. Battaglia, right?”
“Uh-huh.” Linking their arms, Bailey walked with her to the conference room where the staff held meetings. “After you discovered he volunteered here, you never said what you had against him.”
“I’ve been burned by his type.” And, Bailey didn’t know, by him, too.
In the last four months since Johnny started his Saturday stint at Guardian, Meg had engineered it so their paths hadn’t crossed when she’d come out here. She’d also asked Bailey not to mention her to him when he volunteered. So she entered the staff meeting room, steeling herself against seeing the man who’d practically destroyed her.
She walked to the front and greeted the staff. She’d been at the shelter often to help with medical issues, so she knew and liked most of them. The place was a lifesaver for gang kids. Run by the former First Lady with the help of several people, including the ex-president and his Secret Service Agent. When Meg was with all of them, she felt like she was the middle of a fictional thriller.
Before she could address the group, the door opened and Johnny walked in. Her heart stopped, or felt as if it had. His hair was shorter, but those snapping black eyes were still alert and…wary as they darted around the room. She remembered how he always checked out any place they went, a throwback to his gang days. Today he wore a long sleeved black T-shirt and jeans. His boots looked expensive. When his gaze landed on her, those dark eyes widened and then narrowed. He hadn’t known they’d meet today for the first time in six years so he wasn’t prepared. She was.
Forcing her gaze away, she faced the group, which sat in two rows of chairs.
“Hi, everybody. For those I don’t know, I’m Meg Mancini. I operate the Fourth Street Clinic. And I have great news. We’ve finally gotten the federal funding to officially begin working with Guardian.” She flipped back the nondescript braid she’d purposely put her hair into, just like she’d worn plain black slacks and a simple white blouse. And no makeup. “The state approved our coordination with you, which means funding to finance our work with you.”
All this had happened at Meg’s urging. She’d taken over the clinic from Kurt Lansing three years ago, after having worked there since she became licensed. Since Bailey had started Guardian, she’d been trying to get money to make the clinic the primary medical facility for the shelter. And for gang kids.
The meeting lasted a half hour. Johnny’s piercing gaze stayed on her, his angular face a mask of indifference. He stayed where he was while people came up to talk to her on their way out, then when she hugged Bailey, Meg saw his stare had become even more intense. When the room emptied of all but the two of them, he stood. Even when he was younger, he’d had this jaguar-like stealth when he approached someone.
When he reached her, he folded his arms over his chest. “What do you know? Dr. Mancini is connected to the clinic where I work once again. How is it that I don’t know you’re associated with this place?”
Calming her pulse, she leaned against the table behind her. “I assume you didn’t keep track of me any more than I did of you. I’ve been treating kids from Guardian for a while.”
“I know you took over the clinic. I see Kurt Lansing. But that’s all I do know about you, Meg.”
“Truthfully, when I heard you decided to volunteer at the shelter, I asked Bailey not to tell you about my connection with this place.”
“And yet we meet again.”
She knew she had to distance him. “I hear you’re trying to be the next Christiaan Barnard.” The noted cardiothoracic surgeon who performed the first successful heart transplants.
Softly she said, “I want you to be happy, Johnny.”
His face didn’t soften at the remark. “Yeah, well, you seemed to have strong opinions that were counterintuitive to that statement.”
“I wanted different things. Simpler things. A simpler way of life.”
“Which was very noble of you. Not like me, the…what did you call me? Oh, the money-hungry power-seeker type you despised.”
She had said that, in a fit of temper two years after he’d made the decision to pursue a career in heart cardiothoracic surgery, one of the most lucrative fields of medicine and also one of the most demanding. He’d admitted he wanted all the material things he’d never had in life.
“Look, Johnny. This is old ground. We spent years trying to figure us out. Nothing worked. Nothing lasted. I’m not willing to rehash it.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Now, Meg could see the hurt in his eyes, the same kind of hurt she’d caused when she left him that last time, for good. Cassie had told her he’d suffered.
She straightened to shield herself from it. “Why did you start volunteering at Guardian?”
“I missed the work I did Kurt’s clinic in Bayview Heights when I was in college and med school.”
His unwillingness to follow through with initial plans to do just that with their lives made her stronger. “I hope you enjoy it.” She picked up her bags. “I have things to do.”
He grasped her arm and suddenly she remembered how careful he’d always been with her. His touch was magnetic, still, and sent her head spinning. This close, his scent, something woodsy, filled her head. “Good to see you again, Mary Margaret.”
The name resurrected so many feelings she could barely tolerate them. She hurried out of the room and away from the man who’d abandoned her all their hopes and dreams for life in the fast lane.