By the time they reached the cafeteria, Leah felt as if she’d run a gauntlet. Margaret had grinned widely and half the ICU staff had been hanging around the nurses’ station, trying not to look obvious.
Beck was in the hall with a white paper pill dispenser clutched in one hand, looking as proud as a mom on prom night. Frank passed them in the hallway, whirled around and whistled after her.
In the elevator, three nurse’s aides gave her the thumbs-up sign. James raised an eyebrow at her, pressed the elevator button and faced forward with studied nonchalance.
With relief, Leah noticed the cafeteria was fairly quiet. When they finally reached a distant table, James pulled out a chair for her, then sat down across from her. She wasn’t sure what to expect from him. James was serious and all business one minute, polite and smiling the next. She looked up to find him regarding her with amusement.
“Sorry about that,” she said, grimacing. “My friends mean well, but they’re just a little embarrassing at times.”
He chuckled. “I guess I had it coming, after the treatment you got at the station.”
Leah smiled. Silence settled. Then James leaned forward. “I really am sorry about leaving you last night. I just reacted. It’s what I do.”
Leah was shaking her head even as he finished his first sentence. “What else could you have done? Besides, you have to admit it wasn’t the most enjoyable evening you’ve ever had.”
He laughed wryly. “It was probably the most memorable, though.”
Relieved that he found humor in the situation, Leah relaxed. He’d seemed so serious the night before. “It definitely makes the list of most memorable dates. And we won’t lack photos in case we ever forget.”
He rested both arms on the table, circling his coffee mug with broad palms and interlaced fingers. His thumbs pressed together over the handle. “What do you say we start over?”
Leah knew that as uncomfortable as they’d been the night before, the circumstances had been at fault, not the company. She offered her hand over the steaming coffee and smiled politely. “I’m Leah Conroy. And you’re …?”
His hand enveloped hers. It was warm from the coffee, and she felt calluses along his palm. “James Rourk. Pleased to meet you. Do you come here often?”
Laughter bubbled up and she nodded, dropping her hand to the table. “Almost every day. How about you?”
“This is my first time. How long have you worked here, Leah?”
“About four years in the ICU.”
He shook his head. “It’s gotta be stressful.”
“It is. But maybe no more stressful than being a cop.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” James studied her. She looked as if she had everything together. Her brown eyes were warm, and she had a natural beauty that had been covered up by the photos the newspaper had run. She looked fit and comfortable with herself. “You don’t look stressed. How do you deal with it?”
She took a sip of her coffee and shrugged. “When I have a bad day, I feel like I need to breathe real air. I started running years ago, and I still do it. It’s like therapy.”
James leaned back in his chair, and Leah noticed for the first time a thin white scar shaped like a half moon above his brow. “I run, too,” he said. “Have you done Bloomsday?”
“Every year. You too?”
“Yep. Imagine, us not running into each other in such an intimate group,” he drawled.
“Almost as intimate as our date last night.”
They shared a laugh, then James shook his head. “You know, I never expected it to be so tough last night. I mean, after I got over being angry at my friends for putting us both in such a rotten position, I wanted things to go well.”
Leah nodded. “I did, too. I could have died when I realized Beck and Jill had put my picture up and advertised for a date for me. When they dumped out a grocery sack full of strangers’ letters, I felt a little invaded somehow. If it hadn’t been for such a good cause, I’d have said no. But I was glad you agreed to help the crisis nursery.”
James grinned. “Well, at the risk of sounding less than charitable, it wasn’t just the contribution that made me say yes. Is there any chance you’d be willing to cancel the onenight part of our agreement and give me another chance?”
She studied him for a moment. “I’d say it’s worth a try. How about lunch somewhere quiet?”
He nodded. “That sounds good. When do you have a free day?”
They settled on Saturday, with James picking her up at noon. Neither wanted to make specific plans at the risk of prying eyes, so they agreed to make an impromptu decision. James walked to the elevator with Leah, then said goodbye. She watched him walk away as the elevator doors closed.
The day might have started out with the headline blaring disaster in black and white, but with a bouquet of roses and a simple cup of coffee, James had repaired the worst of her embarrassment.
Now she wondered how she was going to keep their second date a secret from all of the “inquiring minds” that most certainly waited for her at the ICU.
Thursday: A little romance.