Mean Streak


by Sandra Brown

Prologue

Emory hurt all over. It hurt even to breathe.

The foggy air felt full of something invisible but sharp, like ice crystals or glass shards. She was underdressed. The raw cold stung her face where the skin was exposed. It made her eyes water, requiring her to blink constantly to keep the tears from blurring her vision and obscuring her path.

A stitch had developed in her side. It clawed continually, grabbed viciously. The stress fracture in her right foot was sending shooting pains up into her shin.

But owning the pain, running through it, overcoming it, was a matter of self-will and discipline. She’d been told she possessed both. In abundance. To a fault. But this was what all the difficult training was for. She could do this. She had to.

Push on, Emory. Place one foot in front of the other. Eat up the distance one yard at a time.

How much farther to go?

God, please not much farther.

Refueled by determination and fear of failure, she picked up her pace.

Then, from the deep shadows of the encroaching woods came a rustling sound, followed by a shift of air directly behind her. Her heart clutched with a foreboding of disaster to which she had no time to react before skyrockets of pain exploded inside her skull.

Chapter 1

Does it hurt this much?” Dr. Emory Charbonneau pointed to a drawing of a child’s face contorted with pain, large teardrops dripping from the eyes. “Or like this?” She pointed to another in the series of caricatures, where a frowning face illustrated moderate discomfort.

The three-year-old girl pointed to the worst of the two.

“I’m sorry, sweetie.” Emory inserted the otoscope into her right ear. The child began to scream. As gently as possible, and talking to her soothingly, Emory examined her ears. “Both are badly infected,” she reported to the girl’s frazzled mother.

“She’s been crying since she got up this morning. This is the second earache this season. I couldn’t get in to see you with the last one, so I took her to an emergency center. The doctor there prescribed meds, she got over it, now it’s back.”

“Chronic infections can cause hearing loss. They should be avoided, not just treated when they occur. You might consider taking her to a pediatric ENT.”

“I’ve tried. None are accepting new patients.”

“I can get her in with one of the best.” It wasn’t a misplaced boast. Emory was confident that any one of several colleagues would take a patient that she referred. “Let’s give this infection six weeks to heal up completely, then I’ll set her up with an appointment. For now, I’ll give her an antibiotic along with an antihistamine to clear up the fluid behind the eardrums. You can give her a children’s analgesic for the pain, but as soon as the meds kick in, that should decrease.

“Don’t push food on her, but keep her hydrated. If she’s not better in a few days, or if her fever spikes, call the number on this card. I’m going away for the weekend, but another doctor is covering for me. I doubt you’ll have an emergency, but if you do, you’ll be in excellent hands until I get back.”

“Thank you, Dr. Charbonneau.”

She gave the mother a sympathetic smile. “A sick child is no fun for anybody. Try to get some rest yourself.”

“I hope you’re going someplace fun for the weekend.”

“I’m doing a twenty-mile run.”

“That sounds like torture.”

She smiled. “That’s the point.”

Outside the examination room, Emory filled out the prescription form and finished her notes in the patient file. As she handed it over to the office assistant who checked out patients, the young woman said, “That was your last of the day.”

“Yes, and I’m on my way out.”

“Did you notify the hospital?”

She nodded. “And the answering service. I’m officially signed out for the weekend. Are Drs. Butler and James with patients?”

“They are. And both have several in the waiting room.”

“I hoped to see them before I left, but I won’t bother them.”

“Dr. Butler left you a note.”

She passed her a sheet from a monogrammed notepad. Break a leg. Or is that what you say to a marathon runner? Emory smiled as she folded the note and put it in her lab coat pocket.

The receptionist said, “Dr. James asked me to tell you to watch out for bears.”

Emory laughed. “Do their patients know they’re a couple of clowns? Tell them I said good-bye.”

“Will do. Have a good run.”

“Thanks. See you Monday.”

“Oh, I almost forgot. Your husband called and said he was leaving work and would be at home to see you off.”

* * *

“Emory?”

“In here.” As Jeff walked into the bedroom she zipped up her duffel bag and, with a motion that was intentionally defiant, pulled it off the bed and slid the strap onto her shoulder.

“You got my message? I didn’t want you to leave before I got here to say good-bye.”

“I want to get ahead of Friday afternoon traffic.”

“Good idea.” He looked at her for a moment, then said, “You’re still mad.”

“Aren’t you?”

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.”

Last night’s argument was still fresh. Words shouted in anger and resentment seemed to be reverberating off the bedroom walls even now, hours after they’d gone to bed, lying back to back, each nursing hostility that had been simmering for months and had finally come to a boil.

He said, “Do I at least get points for wanting to see you off?”

“That depends.”

“On?”

“On whether or not you’re hoping to talk me out of going.” He sighed and looked away, and she said, “That’s what I thought.”

“Emory—”

“You should have stayed and finished out your day at the office. Because I’m going, Jeff. In fact, even if I hadn’t planned this distance run for tomorrow, I’d still want to take some time for myself. A night spent away from each other will give us a chance to cool off. If the run wears me out, I may stay up there tomorrow night, too.”

“One night or two won’t change my mind. This compulsion of yours—”

“This is where we started last night. I’m not going to rehash the quarrel now.”

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