"Dr. Webster. Dr. Webster, please report to Emergency. Dr. Webster." Striking chimes preceded the call by the disembodied voice paging through the hospital corridors.
The sounds, the smells permeating the air, all seemed intensified to Mrs. Santee as she stood by the window in the waiting room. Her slim body was tense almost to the point of rigidity. Everything seemed so loud -- the hushed murmur of worried voices within the room, the rustle of polyester uniforms in the hallways, the alerting chimes of the hospital page. Like the strong, medicinally antiseptic odor that burned her nose, they had a highly irritating quality.
"Would you like some coffee, Pilar?" The soft, solicitous inquiry came from a point near her elbow.
Stiffly Pilar turned from the window and checked the impulse to respond with a sharp negative. The rawness of her violently churning emotions and aggravated senses had darkened her eyes to near-black. For an instant Pilar could only stare at the lingering traces of shock and tears in Sandra Kay's face. The sight of all that sympathy from her friend nearly sickened her.
"No, thank you." It was a taut and quick reply.
Her glance swung to the others who had gathered in the waiting room to share this vigil with her. All their expressions showed some form of deep concern. It seemed such a contradiction to her own feelings, which were dominated by anger. Her agitation increased because it was so wrong to feel this way. Pilar glanced at the heirloom ring on her wedding finger and rubbed it absently as if it were some kind of talisman. She didn't understand why her eyes were so dry. Why wasn't she upset like the others? Elliot was her husband.
It became imperative to get out, to get away from all this caring sympathy. She didn't understand the raw, raging anger that was bottled inside, and she was much too well bred to let it show.
"Excuse me," she murmured tautly as she started to walk by Sandra Kay Austin. "I'm going to step out for a moment."
"I'll come with you."
"No." Pilar paused, fighting the hot urges to scream at her friend that she wanted to be alone. With brittle control she managed to insist, "I'd rather you would stay here with the others. I won't be long."
There was hesitation in Sandra Kay's expression, an unwillingness to accept that Pilar really meant what she said. Before the searching gaze could uncover the feelings Pilar was trying to contain, she walked to the door and into the hallway. Her steps immediately slowed, her glance drawn to the closed door of the Intensive Care Unit room. She'd been allowed to see him once -- for a very few minutes only.
Her unusually acute hearing caught part of a remark made by someone in the waiting room. " -- taking it very well." She wanted to laugh, because she was "taking it" badly. Snatches of other conversations came rushing back. " -- collapsed on the tennis court -- massive coronary -- heart damage -- " Rage tumbled inside her, driving her forward.
The chapel sign beckoned to her. With a challenging tilt of her dark head, Pilar entered the hallowed sanctuary. Beneath all the taut anger, there was a desperate wish that, here, she would find relief from these bitterly resentful feelings.
A deep stillness surrounded her as she moved quietly to the polished oak pew in the front and sat down. Her gaze became fixed on the cross at the altar. The strength of her faith had always been something she could rely on, but it seemed to have forsaken her.
Pilar sat very still and very quiet, her hands folded calmly in the lap of her smoke-blue skirt and her head unbowed. Light spilled from the altar to shine on her proud features and sable-black hair. Her mind's eye brought back the riling image of Elliot as she had last seen him -- so deathly pale, tubes stuck in his arms and nose, with all sorts of monitoring gadgets attached to him and surrounded by beeping machines.
A raw groan came from her throat, almost animal in its origin. It wasn't fair that this should happen to Elliot...with no warning...no reason. He was in excellent physical shape, trimly muscled and lean. Someone, attempting to comfort her, had tried to assure her that sudden attacks were to be expected for a man of Elliot's age. Pilar violently rejected that reasoning. Elliot Santee was unquestionably the youngest fifty-five-year-old man she'd ever met.
Anger trembled again, an emotion that should have been alien in this place of worship. Pilar quietly sank to her knees in front of the altar, clasping her hands in a prayerful pose and resting them on the smooth railing. But no words of prayer came to her lips.
All she could remember was the way she constantly teased Elliot about his daily ritual of exercise -- jogging, swimming, and weight lifting, plus a couple of games of golf or tennis each week. And Elliot, so handsome and charismatic, had always teased her back, insisting that a man his age had to stay in shape when he had such a young bride. After five years of marriage he still referred to her as his bride, surprising her with gifts of flowers or jewelry for no reason at all other than a desire to give.
Their May-December marriage had raised many an eyebrow in Natchez and brought forecasts of its early demise, but their age difference had never bothered them. It was something they joked about. Elliot was always fond of bragging that he'd swept Pilar off her twenty-four-year-old feet when they'd first met.
So many plans for the future had been made, so many things they wanted to do together. It wasn't right that he might be taken from her. Pilar railed against the thought, violently opposing the very idea of it.
A hand touched her shoulder and she cast a startled glance upward into the benignly sympathetic eyes of the minister from their church. He smiled gently.
"I thought I might find you here, Mrs. Santee." When she started to stand up, his hand increased its pressure slightly to prevent the movement. "Let me join you in prayer."
As he knelt at the railing beside her, Pilar was plagued by the hypocrisy of her emotions. She didn't want to pray; she wanted to demand. She wasn't righteous she was indignant.
"Our heavenly Father..." As the minister began Pilar shut her eyes and ears to the words she couldn't genuinely support. His quiet voice droned in the background of her hearing while she remembered how Elliot had carried her up the stairs of their beautiful antebellum home in Natchez just last week. Which was hardly the sort of thing to be recalling at this particular moment. "...and give comfort to those who love him. Amen."
Unclasping her clenched fingers, Pilar pushed at the railing to lever herself upright the instant he finished. "Thank you, Reverend Chasmore." Her finely controlled expression showed none of the emotions smoldering within.
He was slower to rise. "It was my pleasure, Mrs. Santee." Again he spoke in a comforting tone. "I hope you haven't tried to reach me earlier. I was out calling on some of my parishioners and decided to stop by to make my hospital rounds before returning to the parsonage. Mrs. Parker in Admissions told me the news about your husband."
"Yes." She searched for something to say. "It was very good of you to come." Words without meaning, polite phrases spoken because they were expected.
"Have you taken the time to eat something since you've been here?" The minister fell in step with her as she turned away from the altar and walked to the door. Her soul had supposedly been nourished by prayer, so now he was trying to see that her body was fed.
"No. I'm really not hungry," she replied firmly even though she had missed the late breakfast Cassie had been preparing for her when Field Carlton had come by to break the news to her.
"Mrs. Austin told me you haven't left the waiting room since you arrived this morning." It was a benevolent reproach. "Why don't you come to the cafeteria with me and have some coffee?"
"Honestly, I don't want anything," Pilar insisted, struggling not to snap at him. She sensed his desire to press the issue, but the set of her features seemed to make him hesitate as he opened the chapel door for her to exit the quiet room.
"I'm not certain if you were informed that the authorities were successful in contacting your husbands son. I understand he's on his way to Natchez now."
"Good." Her response was short and completely indifferent to the information. In her five years of marriage to Elliot she had seen his son no more than three times. There was no estrangement between father and son; they had simply never been close even though Trace Santee worked in the family-owned barge line. Pilar had long ago stopped trying to reason out why it was so. Neither Elliot nor his son had appeared to be bothered by the infrequent communication between themselves, so Pilar had ceased to be concerned by it.
"Aren't you certain you won't reconsider my invitation and come to the cafeteria? We can leave word at the nurse's station where you'll be if there's any change in your husband's condition," the minister assured her. "You really should have something, if only a cup of soup."
"No, thank you. Cassie will fix me something when I go home tonight." If she went home -- but Pilar didn't raise that point.
The same group of close family friends were in the waiting room when she returned to it, even though only members of the immediate family were permitted to see Elliot, and only for specified periods. As Sandra Kay had said, they wanted to sit with her during the long vigil, Pilar knew she should have been moved by their thoughtfulness, but she truly wanted to be alone. She also knew they would never understand if she told them that, so she silently rejoined them to await further word from the doctor on his prognosis.
The props of the tender's motor boiled coffee-colored foam in the stern's wake as the boat bucked the current of the silt-laden waters of the Mississippi River and aimed for the landing below a high bluff. Old wooden buildings were tucked back against the wall of the bluff--all that remained of the notorious hellhole of a town along the waterfront area known as Natchez-under-the-Hill. The long rays of a late-afternoon sun struck the buildings full force, glaringly revealing their age. There was a lot of talk about rebuilding the area as a tourist attraction, but It was mostly talk with some refurbishing accompanying it.
Nothing changed, it seemed. Trace carried the half-smoked cigarette to his mouth, protectively cupping his hand around it to keep the wind from blowing any hot ash from the tip -- a holdover from the times he'd pushed oil barges up the river. A worn captains hat was pulled low on his forehead, slightly off center in a rakish touch. His strong, jutting features were leather-tan from hours spent outdoors, and sun lines sprayed from the corners of his steel-gray eyes, their color made to appear an even lighter shade by ink-black lashes that matched the thick eyebrows and shaggy hair.
As the tender from the towboat approached the landing, Trace tossed the cigarette over the side and reached for the duffel bag at his feet. There was a suggestion of impatience in the rippling muscles under the faded denim jacket. The small boat maneuvered close to the bank and Trace stood up, easily balancing on his river legs, and heaved his duffel bag ashore. He threw a glance at the man at the tiller.
"Tell Ned I'll buy him dinner the next time we meet up," he said, raising his voice to make himself heard above the noise of the idling motor holding the boat in position by the bank.
With an agile leap, he was ashore and lifting his duffel bag onto his shoulder. Trace paused to toss a saluting wave in the direction of the towboat, its engines screaming while it pushed a dozen fully loaded barges lashed together up the channel of the mighty river. A horn tooted in reply, and the hard mouth almost quirked into a smile, then sobered as Trace turned to face the long, steep hill to the town at the top of the bluff.
Shifting the bag more squarely onto his shoulder, he started up the hill, long easy strides carrying him smoothly along. His frayed denims rode comfortably on his narrow hips, the frequency of wearing shaping them to his leanly muscled thighs and legs. Despite the steep climb Trace was barely out of breath when he reached the top of the hill, where the town of Natchez spread out before him.
The last time he was back, two years ago, it had been a two-taxi town. It seemed unlikely that the cab company had expanded. He stepped into the street and followed the curb line, sticking out his thumb to the first vehicle that passed by. It didn't stop and Trace kept walking. Another car came and went, weaving out around him.
There was a short burst of a police siren as he turned around to face the front again. The police car was in the oncoming lane of the narrow street. The patrolman stuck his head out the window.
"Hitchhiking is against the law -- " Recognition broke across the older man's expression. "Santee? Trace Santee? Is that you?" He pulled the patrol car into the opposite curb while Trace waited for a car to pass before crossing the street.
"Hey, Digger. How's it going?" he laconically greeted the graying man who had been a fixture on the local police force for as many years as Trace could remember.
The officer shoved a pudgy hand out the window to shake hands with him. "Trace Santee, you ol' rakehell son of a gun, how the hell are you?!" Digger Jones declared with a wide grin. "That's a new scar on your cheek, isn't it? No need to ask whether you've had any better luck staying out of trouble. Ya gotta learn to stay out of those riverfront dives."
Trace absently rubbed the faint white scar that slashed his cheek and smiled indifferently. "Some Cajun got a little free with his knife one night."
"It couldn't be that you were messin' around with his gal?" the officer chided with a knowing look.
There was a faint lift of one shoulder. "She wasn't objecting." He leaned a hand on the hood of the patrol car, bracing himself easily with it. "I need a ride to the hospital. How about giving me a lift?"
"Yeah, I guess you heard about your daddy." A grim kind of sympathy flashed across the aging lines of the man's face, shortly replaced by a half-hearted smile. "I'll take you there. An' for a change, you can ride in the front seat."
Trace circled around the car to the passenger side, stowed his bag in the back seat, then climbed in the front. As Trace shut the door Digger shifted into driving gear and swung the car back into the street, making an illegal U-turn.
"You're an emergency." Digger Jones briefly slid a smile at him. "I wondered how long it would take them to track you down."
"I wasn't hard to find." Trace settled loosely into the seat, showing a relaxed composure, but his fingers were lightly drumming on the door's armrest -- restless, impatient energy always just below the surface. "I took the Betty Lou out this time. I got the radio call when we were halfway between here and nowhere, headed downstream. Ned Hanks happened by, and it was quicker to catch a ride with him than wait until we reached a town." He leveled a glance at the officer with disconcerting directness. "How's Elliot?"
Trace Santee had been rowdy as a youngster, giving Digger all kinds of trouble. There had been times when some had given up on him, calling him wild and worthless, but Digger never had. Maybe because he liked the way Trace looked a man square in the eyes.
"Ten years on the river sure hasn't tamed you down any." Digger absently prefaced his reply with an observation. "It looks real bad, Trace."
"I figured that." There was a slow swing of his gaze to the road ahead of the patrol car. "But you're wrong about the river. It's taught me some things. I roll with the flow now instead of fighting it every inch of the way. Discovered I don't get caught in quite so many eddies and undercurrents that way." The corners of his mouth lifted in a lazy movement as he slid a sleepy glance at the driver.
"Glad to hear it." Digger nodded in an approving fashion. "Wisdom doesn't come with age. If you don't have it now, you never will. You must be what -- " He measured Trace with a quick glance, trying to put the years together. "Thirty-four? Thirty-five."
"It's about time you got smart," Digger stated. "Being a wild fool when you're young, well, that's to be expected. But when you're older, hell, you're just an old fool."
"Like my father?" It was softly suggested, a hint of challenge in its very quietness. But Trace was looking out the windshield when Digger glanced in his direction, and he spoke again before Digger had to come up with an adequate response or ignore the comment. "I heard Elliot was playing tennis when he had the attack. I suppose his wife was with him." There was a slight narrowing of his gaze as he looked at some distant point down the road.
"No. I talked to Cassie. It seems Elliot had jogged over to Booth Carlton's place for a game of tennis early this morning. Mrs. Santee was just sitting down to breakfast when Booth's youngest son, Field, came over to fetch her. They arrived at the hospital about the same time the ambulance got there with Elliot." The officer shook his head with wondering confusion. "Always exercising, your daddy was. Always pushing himself to keep that young-looking body of his. He pushed himself too hard this time."
"He always had to compete -- and he always had to win." The recollection tugged the corners of Trace's mouth downward with a faint grimness.
It seemed his relationship with Elliot Santee had always been one of rivalry -- competing with each other for his mother's affections when she was alive, then shifting to other fields until Trace had dropped out of the game somewhere around the age of fifteen. For a long while he had believed he'd outgrown that competitive urge -- until the last few years, when it had welled strong within him again.
"Maybe I shouldn't say it..." Digger paused to draw in a deep breath. "...but your daddy never played any game unless he was damned sure he could win it before it started. He never did like bucking the odds. And the odds aren't too good for him this time."
Before Trace entered the private waiting room off the Intensive Care Unit, he met the doctor attending his father and cornered him to obtain the full particulars. He pressed for substantiated answers until he got them, indifferent to the doctor's irritation at his persistence.
When he entered the waiting room, he was met by the auburn-haired Sandra Kay Austin, only a few years older than himself. Glancing at the handful of people in the room, he noticed that most of them were somewhere around their forties. As his father grew older his circle of close friends had grown younger. "Trace, I'm so glad you're here." Sandra Kay clutched at his arm when he slung his duffel bag into an out-of-the-way corner. The level of her voice dropped to a conspiratorial pitch. "Paul and I can't stay any longer. We sent the boys over to his mother's, but they're going out tonight and we simply have to get home. But I just didn't want to leave Pilar here alone. She needs someone with her at a time like this. You'll look after her, won't you?"
"Yes, I will." He nodded stiffly.
"I knew you wouldn't be a rat about this," she declared with a relieved smile, indifferent to the backhanded insult she'd just delivered by implying that he was capable of uncouthness. "Try to convince her to eat something. She hasn't had anything all day. She's barely been out of this room except once to see Elliot and pray in the chapel. She's putting on a brave front, but I know she's scared sick like the rest of us."
"We're all very worried about him," Trace agreed and finally let his gaze stray to the window where his father's wife stood. Yellow sunlight poured through the window, showering the tall, ebony-haired woman with its golden hues.
"Paul and I will let Pilar know we're leaving."
Either his arrival or the Austins' departure seemed to signal the exodus of the rest. Trace stood to one side and observed the comforting hugs and warm kisses each bestowed on his father's wife, along with encouraging words of hope.
The room became oddly silent when only the two of them remained to occupy it. Trace removed his much-worn captain's hat and combed his fingers through his black hair, rumpling the flatness left by the hat. Then he held the cap in both hands to keep them busy so they wouldn't get other ideas about holding something else.
"Hello, Pilar." It was a bland greeting, too contained and too reserved.
Pilar held the directness of those gray eyes for a few seconds while he wandered leisurely across the room to the window. A sudden resentment flared at the sight of such healthy male vigor, so strong and rugged. The sweaty male smell of him merely seemed to emphasize his virility. It made no sense, but she hated him for standing there when his father was lying in a hospital bed, stuck full of tubes and wires and needles. That anger was back, impotent and frustrating.
ard"Hello, Trace." Always she searched for some resemblance to Elliot and found none. Elliot was handsome and urbane while there was something earthy about his son.
She walked past him, twisting her fingers together in distressed agitation. With her friends she'd had little desire for conversation. She had even less with Trace Santee, who was virtually a stranger to her. But he was Elliot's son. Out of consideration for him, she felt a sense of duty to go through the motions.
"I don't know how much you were told about what happened and the extent of..." Pilar faltered, her poise breaking for the first time at the task of verbally expressing the very situation she so violently resented.
"There's no need to fill me in on the details," Trace inserted into the involuntary pause.
He could hear the strain in her voice. When she turned to face him again, he observed the tension around her mouth and eyes. He also noticed the absence of swollen, puffy eyelids and the redness from tears. Whatever she was feeling, it was locked up inside. There was a slow traveling of his gaze over her face to take in its smoldering beauty, the classic cheekbones and warm red lips.
There was so much fire there, so much passion. Trace swung away before wayward urges took hold of him. The first time he'd met her, it had been at the wedding. At the time he'd joked that he was sure she'd understand if he didn't call her "Mother." Only it hadn't been a joke. With each passing year the humor had faded until it was no longer something to laugh about. Nagged by guilt over the feelings the sight of his father's wife aroused in him, Trace had kept his distance and channeled all that restless energy into other pursuits.
A vinyl-covered chair was in front of him, and Trace lowered himself into it, stretching out his long legs and hooking his hat over the end of the armrest. It wasn't easy to keep his eyes off her. His glance traveled up the shapely calf of her leg to the hem of the smoky blue skirt, then made a quick run to her face.
"I thought you'd want to know what happened." There was something half angry about the curtness of her statement that seemed to challenge him for his lack of concern.
"Digger Jones gave me a ride to the hospital. He got the lowdown from Cassie and filled me in," Trace explained and reached inside his jacket to the shirt pocket for his cigarettes. "Mind if I smoke?" A negative shake of her head gave him permission, then refused the one he shook from the pack to offer her. "And I spoke to the doctor in the hallway just before I came in."
Another vinyl-covered chair was companionably angled toward his. Pilar sat down in it and leaned earnestly toward him, her dark eyes probing his expression. "What did he say?"
"Probably the same thing he told you." He bent his head to the match flame and puffed while he on the cigarette, then lifted his head shook out the match.
"Elliot's going to recover. He told you that, didn't he?" It was a demand.
As he lowered his hand to toss the burned out match in an ashtray, Trace noticed that Pilar's hands were clenched into fists on her lap, knuckles showing white. There was a moment when he debated whether to let her believe what she wished or to prepare her for the worst.
"It's too soon to make that kind of judgment." He opted for a middle road that would at least provide a cushion. "The first twenty-four hours after a massive coronary attack such as Elliot's are critical. If he passes that crisis point without another attack, his chances improve. Three days afterward there's another critical period. But either way" -- Trace finally looked at her -- "it's likely some kind of heart surgery will be needed. Any operation involves risk."
"He'll make it." She was staring at some unseen spot on the floor. "A lot of people have heart attacks and recover to lead normal lives. A year from now Elliot will be jogging again. Today will just seem like a bad dream."
A nurse appeared in the doorway. "Mrs. Santee, your husband is conscious. I think he'd like to see you," she said with a gentle, encouraging smile.
For an instant Pilar was motionless, then she was squaring her shoulders to gracefully stand. Trace watched the way her lips came together in a smooth, straight line. It seemed to go against her nature to be so controlled.
"You are his son, aren't you?" the nurse inquired. "Perhaps you should come now, too."
Copyright © 1983 by Janbil, Ltd.
The Best Way to Lose
But when business brought Trace back to Natchez two years later, Pilar couldn't ignore the passionate challenge in his dark eyes. At first she felt disloyal to her husband's memory...but soon she was to know that he had left her with life's most precious gift -- the freedom to love again.