Spotlight on Love by Regina Andrews

Ever-dutiful nurse Helen Middleton is an emergency room supervisor at Rhode Island Hospital. To help her family through tough economic times, she’s sacrificed her dreams of a singing career for steadier employment.

Everything changes when she meets William ‘Red’ Williamson, a dynamic and compelling man she finds irresistible. As they to get to know each other, Helen once more considers following her musical dreams.

As a new world of romance and song seem to be opening up to her, the horrors of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 stun the world and throw Red and Helen into the danger and chaos of wartime. Will Helen’s dreams be shattered by World War II, or can the power of love triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles?

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GENRE: Historical Romance     ISBN: 978-1-925191-53-0    ASIN: B01CQAGFRS     Word Count: 49, 680

Chapter One

1941

Humming “Pennies from Heaven”, Emergency Room Supervisor Helen Middleton leaned against the counter of the nurse’s station. As usual, she was early for the start of her seven a.m. shift.

Her hazel eyes scanned the pages of the morning medication charts with the intense concentration and efficiency she was so well known for among the hospital staff. The top graduate in Rhode Island General Hospital’s class of 1937 focused on her duties with precision and accuracy, setting herself apart on that proud day four years ago.

How is Dr. Peabody, she wondered, looking for his chart, and what is his condition after the incident yesterday? With all the activity the ER had seen in the past twenty-four hours, she was beginning to think there was something to be said for the correlation made between accidents and the full moon.

As she settled her slender, five-foot-four frame onto the creaky office stool behind the desk, she mused, This day has contained more frenzied activity and upheaval than normal.

“Thank you for saving my mother’s life.”

A deep, smooth voice traveled across the counter of the nurses’ station, slid between the pages her reports and filtered upward to please her discerning musician’s ear.

The early morning sunlight filtered in through the windows behind him, highlighting a confident smile and friendly, cornflower blue eyes. She guessed him to be in his mid-thirties, a little taller than average, sporting sandy hair, and a rugged, open countenance. He was obviously in radiant health. Unlike many of the patients she saw, he wore new clothes, was well-nourished, and apparently free of worry. Just the way life should be for everybody. In these days of uncertainty, with bombs falling in Germany and most families like my own still reeling from the Depression, his background is clearly one of privilege.

She couldn’t resist flicking a glance toward the enormous bouquet of rare and precious flowers wrapped in white florist’s paper bundled in the crook of his arm.

Her nurse’s radar instantly went up. Sometimes the families with money thought that the hospitals were actually hotels, and the staff there to wait on them and cater to their every need. But, as long as Nurse Helen Middleton was on duty as Supervisor, everyone had to adhere to the same rules.

“I was happy to do my job, sir.”  She used her most professional tone, “It’s too early for visitors, and there are no floral deliveries accepted through the Emergency Room. They all go through the main reception area in our central lobby.”

With an efficient point of her pen towards the doors marked “Entrance to Main Lobby”, she turned her attention away from the stranger, suddenly feeling self-conscious and intimidated by his obvious affluence.

Even from where she sat she could smell the deliciously pungent calla lilies and pink roses emerging from the deep green ferns and delicate baby’s breath where they were nestled. It would take her six months of scrimping to be able to buy a small bunch of wildflowers for her beleaguered parents.

She tried to concentrate on her medication log but could feel him standing there watching her. Perhaps she should consider calling Security–gimpy old Pat Burns. A lot of good he’d do.

Without looking up, she said, “The main lobby is that way, sir, as I already told you. Through those doors.”

With so much responsibility on her shoulders, at work as well as with her family, the last thing in the world she could do was indulge in the luxury of a romantic daydream about this handsome stranger. She had to keep her life in strict control. So she kept her eyes on her charts. Business was business. After all, wasn’t that why she and her sister, Marie, had enrolled in nursing school in the first place, fortunately winning scholarships and living in the dormitories on the hospital grounds with all the other nurses?

Of course it was. The point had been that there would be two less mouths for her parents to feed back at the old homestead. At least they’d been lucky enough not to have to be separated, like many other families she knew.

“I’m not looking for the mail lobby. I came here to thank you. At least I think it’s you. Are you Nurse Helen Middleton?”

Her gaze traveled back up to his. She was enveloped by his warmth and friendliness. He continued to smile at her so she couldn’t look away.

The telephone on her counter rang, bringing her back to reality. What in the world was she thinking about? She had an ER to run.

Helen held up an index finger, indicating she’d be with him in a moment, and picked up the phone. “Rhode Island General Emergency Room. How may I help you?”

“Hi, honey. It’s only me, Gladys. I’m calling to see how our new hospital hero is today?”

Helen’s mind instantly went back to the crisis in the emergency room the day before, when Dr. Peabody had collapsed and Helen, to the amazement of the entire operating room surgical team, had finished the final stitches of the emergency appendectomy on the elderly female patient.

Helen smiled into the phone. At nearly seventy, Gladys had been a fixture at the hospital switchboard for nearly fifty years. “I’m okay, thanks, Gladys. How’s Dr. Peabody? No one left me a note on how he’s doing.”

Once again the visitor’s voice interrupted her, “Can’t you just tell me how I can find Nurse Helen Middleton?”

Helen turned on her stool to look back at him. “Gladys, let me call you right back.” She ended the call and scanned the ER to find all was under control.

Turning to the handsome stranger, she asked, “I’m Helen Middleton. How may I help you, sir?”

He answered her with a disarmingly warm smile that turned her insides into melted caramel. And what was that thumping all of the sudden in her chest?

“I came here to find an angel named Nurse Middleton and thank her for her heroic efforts yesterday that saved my mother’s life.” His glance landed on her name tag. “You’re that angel, and now you’re my new hero.”

As she recalled the pressure-packed situation, Helen felt the heat rush to her cheeks, much to her consternation. In all her four years, she’d never been flustered.

Observing her carefully, the stranger extended his hand and leaned in to her across the counter. “I’m Mrs. Williamson’s oldest, William. My friends call me Red.”

Something about his name sounded vaguely familiar to her, but she couldn’t place where she might have heard of him. As she shook his hand, she noticed how warm and strong his grip was. He had a good, steady pulse. The electrical charge pumping through her at his touch was a jolt she’d rather have ignored. She did her best to remain focused and unflustered. “Nice to meet you, sir. I’m very glad I could help your mother yesterday, but I’m no hero and I’m definitely not an angel.”

The corners of his eyes crinkled upwards, and the sight made her fluttering heart race. He passed the enormous floral arrangement across the counter.

“These are for you. With my sincere thanks.”

Helen pursed her lips. “It’s very thoughtful, but you really shouldn’t have. We have hospital regulations about accepting gifts from family members. I’m sorry.”

“Where I come from, Nurse Middleton, rules are made to be broken.”

She gave him a sidelong glance. Oh, boy, do I like the sound of that, she thought. She took a deep breath before replying, “And where I come from, jobs are made to be retained. These can be given to a patient who’ll enjoy them.”

“Of course. I’ll bring more if you like.”

She waved her hand quickly, her cheeks reddening at his obvious flirtation.

“No, that’s fine, please. We’re not a charity hospital. And, when someone does something like that, it only makes the patients without gifts feel left out.”

“No offense meant.” His voice was gentle.

“I can give you detailed information about your mother’s condition. She’s still in intensive care, but she’ll be just fine. We only have her staying there to monitor for post-operative infections. Even the tiniest internal puncture can cause trouble, as you probably know, but it’s already been over fifteen hours and there’s no sign of any problems.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Something tells me you could have been a doctor.” The admiration in his voice was unmistakable.

“Where I come from, there’s no time for frivolous daydreams like being a woman doctor,” she answered with a good-natured shrug. “I have a responsibility to help out my family. Otherwise, I might as well let my wild side out and set my sights on being a cabaret singer, for all the chance I’d have of making that happen.”

“I can see you doing that, no problem. I heard you humming a moment ago,” he offered.

“You didn’t!”

He nodded. “Sounded pretty on key to me.”

“I wasn’t aware I was humming. But thanks…”

“See, there’s something that didn’t make you blush. So you do like it.”

“It’s not exactly what a Nursing Supervisor is supposed to be doing.” She smoothed her skirt in a gesture of dismissal, mirroring the ways he’d whisked away her protests against her ambition of being a vocalist. She noticed his gaze following the path of her hands. Just last night she’d tried to mend the run in her stockings, unable to afford the price of a new pair until her next paycheck arrived. The thirty-nine cents might as well have been a million dollars to her.

Her pride kicked in. So what if he saw the run? She didn’t make explanations or excuses about her life to anyone, and she wasn’t about to start with Red Williamson. She didn’t owe him a thing.

“But maybe it’s the real you,” he persisted.

“The daydream me, maybe. The real me? I am a nurse, and I have been for four years. And I take my job very seriously.”

“You seem to be the epitome of professionalism,” he agreed.

Just then the emergency room doors flew open and a team of medics wheeled in a gurney, one medic pumping furiously on the prone patient’s chest.

“Which operating room, Helen?” cried the attendant.

“Number Four!” Helen jumped up from behind the counter and headed off in their direction, throwing back over her shoulder, “Thank you so much for the flowers. The patients will appreciate them.”

“You’re welcome, Nurse Middleton,” he answered.

Helen felt her face redden. Other nurses and orderlies were staring after Red. Had they noticed the effect he had on her? She was human, after all, and it wasn’t every day a man like Red Williamson walked into her life.

But she had work to do. Just as unexpectedly as he’d walked in, when she turned to look back, he was gone.

* * *

Hours later, after doing an extra four hours in the pediatric wing, Helen plopped down on the bed in the stark dorm room she shared with her sister. As long as they worked at Rhode Island General, the nurses were given room and board.

At the pleading look in Marie’s eyes, Helen cried, “Don’t do this to me! I’m exhausted. You know what it’s like to do a shift and a half.” And to think about Red Williamson for most of the day, she added silently to herself.

Her sister sat on the edge of the bed next to her, wringing a handkerchief in both of her hands. “I know, Helen, and believe me I wouldn’t ask you unless it was an emergency. I had Olive all lined up to go out with Jim’s friend, and now she’s backed out. Please go out with him? You know how Jim is. He’ll be crushed if you don’t.”

Looking at her sister’s brown curls and hazel eyes, Helen couldn’t deny there was definitely a Middleton resemblance. Though Marie was only two years younger, their temperaments couldn’t have been more different. Helen was cool, calm and collected while Marie was frantic–as their parents had been saying since they were children. She closed her eyes at the thought of them. They only lived fifteen miles away yet she could only afford to take the trolley down to see them once a month. Sometimes she missed them so much she could hardly bear it.

“You know I can’t say no to you.” Helen chuckled wearily and draped herself across the pillows.

Marie squealed, “Oh, thank you!” and moved to hug her.

As soon as Marie was within arms’ reach, Helene lunged at her younger sister and launched a relentless tickling attack. After a few moments, they were both spent.

“Draw me my bath and then pull me into it, Marie,” Helen murmured, wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes and sighing in exhaustion.

“You sound like you’re ninety, not twenty-six,” Marie replied tartly. “I would love to hear you sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ like you’re planning to for the pageant.”

“You’ve twisted my arm, sister.”

When she finished, she blinked away the tears that burned in her own eyes. Turning to Marie, she asked, “What time are the guys getting here?”

“Seven-ish.” Marie gave her a quick hug. “Thanks, Helen. Let’s get ready.”

After a quick shower, Helen put on her herringbone suit–the only dressy outfit she had–her beige silk blouse, and dabbed two precious drops of Shalimar behind her ears.

There was a brisk wind kicking up over the Providence riverfront as Marie and Helen emerged from the nurses’ residence under the starry autumn sky. Winter was definitely on the way.

“It’s already ten past,” Helen commented.

“Look!” Marie pointed to a set of headlights just turning into the long, winding drive. “They’re here.”

“Jim owes me big for this one. It’ll take him years to pay me back.” Helen gave a wry laugh.

Jim Newberg jumped out of the driver’s side, waving and smiling. “Helen, you won’t believe how much I appreciate your help tonight. Wait till you see–”

A dashing figure had emerged from the passenger side of the car, interrupting Jim to say, “Helen Middleton, Angel of Mercy. Isn’t life just full of surprises?” Red Williamson grinned at her.

Under her breath, Marie muttered, “Olive missed out big time tonight. You know him?”

“Oh, no–I can’t go! He’s my patient’s son.”

Marie looked at her as if she’d suddenly sprouted a second head. “What?”

“You know we’re not supposed to go out with family members of our patients!”

Helen’s voice was getting shrill.

“Oh, come on.” Marie waved her hand breezily. “No one pays any attention to that stupid old rule.”

Helen’s stomach clenched. She didn’t want to let her sister down, but she couldn’t jeopardize her job.

“Are you ready to paint the town with Red?”

What was she supposed to do? She looked at him and her heart started racing double time. Who would it hurt, really, if just once she let her guard down and enjoyed herself?

Marie jostled her arm. “Come on. It’s not like you’re a doctor or anything. Wake up and let’s go have some fun!”

“You’re looking way too serious for an off-duty nurse, ma’am,” Red said with a smile. “I think there’s some action out there in big old Providence with your name written all over it.”

He took her arm and walked her to the car. His touch sent an electrical charge through her. She knew she was about to have the time of her life.

“I’m just surprised it’s you, that’s all,” Helen said. She could hear Marie’s sigh of relief behind her.

“I’m not so sure surprises are your favorite thing, Nurse Middleton.”

“You have a point.”

“We’re going to the Biltmore.” Jim got behind the wheel of the metallic gray Studebaker as the other three clambered in. “Hey, you two sound like you already know each other.”

She looked at Red out of the corner of her eye, and he gave her the kind of wink that made her stomach do back flips.

Moistening her lips, she replied, “He stopped by to visit someone today, and I showed him the door.”

With a hearty laugh, Red slapped his thigh. Helen couldn’t help but notice how thick and solid it was. She looked away quickly.

“This beauty saved my mother’s life yesterday.”

Jim turned the car onto the thoroughfare along the waterfront. The lights of the city glimmered on the Providence River.

“Helen, what happened?” Marie was aghast. “Don’t tell me you’re the one who did that emergency appendectomy? I heard about it, but I didn’t know it was you.”

Red sat forward. “I’ll tell you what I know. My mother was on that table, and Old Doc Peabody passed out. The whole place was in turmoil. Someone had to finish the operation.” He took Helen’s hand. “That someone would be this Florence Nightingale right here.”

“Way to go, Helen!” Jim beamed.

“She is a nightingale, you know, Red. She sings like an angel,” Marie added proudly.

“You don’t say?” Red looked slyly at Helen.

Marie nodded eagerly. “You can hear her at the hospital pageant on December 7th.”

“That’s quite enough, all of you. Any nurse would have closed up Mrs. Williamson. It was just a few stitches, for Heaven’s sake.”

“That’s not what I heard.” Marie’s protest was subdued but insistent.

“Me, neither,” Red agreed. “They told me you had to do the whole thing.”

“That’s a complete exaggeration.” Helen fell silent, trying to calm the uneasiness in her heart about being out with her patient’s son. But Marie was right, in a way. She wasn’t a doctor, so Mrs. Williamson wasn’t really her patient. She’d never heard of anyone being reprimanded for what they did during their off hours anyway.

Jim pulled into the parking lot of the Biltmore Hotel. With its fancy dining room and sizzling jazz lounge, L’Exotique, it was the hottest night spot in all of Providence. That night, it seemed as if all of Providence was there. They checked their coats and were ushered to their corner table in the Neptune Room. No sooner had they been seated than two very well dressed and prominent looking men approached their table.

“It’s Mayor Carter! With Senator Kendrick!” Marie exclaimed in a breathless whisper.

“What’s our sterling senator doing with our shady mayor?” Helen murmured, hoping the mayor would just pass them by. Everyone had read about his questionable exploits in the Providence County Gazette, and Helen was of the opinion there was more to all of the stories about him than anyone really knew.

“Well, Red would know them,” Jim added, “being Postmaster General and all.”

Helen’s eyes widened. This handsome stranger was the Providence Postmaster?

That had to be why everyone had stared at him earlier.

“How are you?” the charismatic Mayor grasped Red’s outstretched hand firmly as they all stood up to acknowledge him. “Nice looking company. I see you’ve upgraded.”

Red laughed. “I’m always trying. You know me. Whatever it takes.”

The Mayor raised a bushy black eyebrow. “Don’t I just, now? You’re a real patriot.”

“Please, Mayor, Senator.” Red indicated the table. “Won’t you gentlemen join us for a drink?”

Shaking his head, the Mayor replied, “Some other night for sure, on the condition that you bring your friends. But we have to get to the Heart Association fundraiser next door.”

Red nodded before introducing the men around the table. “Helen saved my mother yesterday when Doctor Peabody collapsed.”

Senator Kendrick looked at her thoughtfully. “Did you? I’ll just bet we have some medal or commendation for that one.”

“There’s no need for that–”

“On the contrary. That’s just what the commendations are for.” Senator Kendrick was looking at her thoughtfully.

“You look familiar to me,” Mayor Carter continued. “Have you been here before?”

Marie piped up. “She’s been the vocalist at L’Exotique a few times. Maybe you’ve seen her?”

“Could be,” he replied, “could be. But I’ll make more of a point of it now, if I know you’re going to be here.”

She noticed Red looking at her, a broad grin lighting up his face. The pounding of her heart made her want to yell for help–she was falling for Red Williamson fast and hard. That could only mean trouble for her.

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