She helped to bring me back to life. Now I want to return the favor.
When I open my eyes, I have no idea where I am or who I’m with. The woman beside my bed is lovely, with dark hair and eyes and a warm smile that makes me feel safe. I learn I’ve survived a major surgery that might’ve killed me after being shot in the neck, and Gianna is my nurse. She soon becomes the center of my universe as I recover. All I want is to get out of the hospital so I can really get to know her, but my recovery is slow and full of frustrating setbacks. The minute I get out of here, I’m taking her on the best date of her life.
He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met, but I’ve learned to be wary of nice men. They tend to talk a big game, but when it comes down to it, they’re all the same. The longer Milo is under my care, however, the more I like him—and his big, overly involved family. Since my parents died and left me to finish raising my two younger brothers, family has been in short supply in my life. The Giordinos are right out of a TV show, and I find myself as interested in them as I am in Milo, despite my reservations. He’s promised me the best date of my life. We’ll see if he can deliver.
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How Much I Need
Miami Nights Series, Book 5
In case you’ve ever wondered, being shot in the neck totally sucks. Before it happened to me, I never gave the first thought to what it would be like to have to keep my neck still for weeks while it heals from surgery to remove the bullet that came frighteningly close to my spinal cord and damaged bones in my neck. I’m thankful every day to still be able to move my extremities and to feel all the important parts. I owe my mobility—and my life—to my cousin Carmen’s husband, Jason, a world-class neurosurgeon, who was right there when I needed him.
I hope I never need him like that again.
Until your neck is immobilized for four weeks, you don’t realize how much you use it—for things like breathing, eating and talking, to start with—not to mention laughing, coughing and sneezing, which is the worst when your neck has been sliced open and put back together.
All that said, there’re also a few upsides, such as the way my older brother, Nico, is falling over himself to take care of me because he’s so relieved that I survived a bullet meant for him. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m milking it, per se, but if I’m enjoying having Nico running around to get me all my favorite things and visiting multiple times per day, what can I say? I’m only human, and he amuses me.
Yesterday, he went way out of his way to go to Little Havana to get me my favorite pastelitos after I told him I was craving them. And he got the Cuban coffee I love, too. See what I mean? Taking a bullet for your brother turns him into your faithful servant. Our sisters, Maria and Dee, have a bet on how long Nico will keep up this level of fawning. Maria gives it another week. Dee says I’ve got a month left to enjoy it.
Don’t get me wrong. I hate seeing Nico upset. That doesn’t amuse me, nor does the reason behind the shooting. Sofia’s abusive ex-husband wasn’t happy to see her moving on with her life, so he decided to do something about it by killing her new guy. He took a shot at me, thinking I was Nico, and well, you know the rest. While I’ll be forever grateful not to have been killed or paralyzed, I’m equally grateful that neither of those things happened to my beloved brother either.
The guy who did it—and his cousin—are locked up, and the cops who came to get a statement from me when I was coherent again told me they have video from the intersection where the shooting occurred. They shouldn’t need my testimony, which is good, because I remember nothing after dropping off a group at the Departures area at MIA and then heading back to Little Havana to pick up a bachelorette party.
I’d already put in a full day at my regular job writing computer code. I volunteered to take Nico’s rides with the car service he owns so he could keep an eye on Sofia during her waitress shift at Giordino’s, my aunt and uncle’s restaurant. Sofia’s ex had been ramping up his threats to the point that Nico was afraid to leave her unprotected anywhere, even at the restaurant.
As my Nona likes to say, no good deed goes unpunished.
The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital with my parents, siblings and grandmothers standing over me looking like they’d been to hell and back. From what I was told, it was touch and go for a while there. Jason couldn’t give them any assurances before the surgery, so they’d put in a very long night waiting to hear if I was going to survive the surgery with everything still working.
I’ve never seen my dad look so ravaged, even when my mom was battling breast cancer, and that was an awful time for us. Apparently, this was worse than that for him, my mom and everyone who loves me.
Nico says our whole neighborhood is cooking for him and Sofia, which isn’t fair. I hope they’ll cook for me, too, when I get home, because the people in our subdivision can cook. He says everyone is asking for me, worried about me, sending love, wondering what they can do, which makes me happy because I’ve invested the time in getting to know most of them. Nico took over mowing Mr. and Mrs. Miller’s lawn, which I’d been doing since Mr. Miller had hip replacement surgery. I’m glad Nico is taking care of things like that for me. I wouldn’t want Mr. Miller to have a setback because he did too much too soon. I heard he even drove my Meals on Wheels route last week, and I can’t wait to hear what my regulars think of him. I’m sure they’ll have something to say.
The worst part of this whole thing, by far, is the halo screwed into my skull that’s keeping my head from moving at all while my neck heals. I hate that freaking thing more than I’ve ever hated anything. Being stuck inside a cage is as maddening as you might expect, and Jason says it’s going to be a while yet before I’m freed from my metal prison.
Since I can’t do much of anything, I mostly spend my time in the hospital watching the door, waiting for the afternoon shift change, which has become the highlight of my day—five days a week, anyway. That’s when my favorite nurse, Gianna, comes on duty. One of the other nurses told me they rarely have the same patients every day, but Gianna must’ve pulled some strings or something because she’s always assigned to me.
I’ve grown to hate the days when she’s off. They feel endless without her there to brighten my small world. Sure, my family is in and out on a schedule that must be planned to cover all my awake hours, but nothing can compare to the time with Gianna. When I’m not looking at the door, I’m watching the clock. She’s two minutes later than usual. I hope that doesn’t mean she wasn’t assigned to me today.
How crazy is it that the only way this will be a good day is if she comes through that door in the next few minutes, with her silky dark hair pulled into a high ponytail that puts her lovely face on full display? I dream about her pretty face, her gorgeous smile, and plot ways to get rid of the sadness I see in her big brown eyes. I’ve got a whole list of ideas for when I get the hell out of this place.
I’m still mortified that she was the one who removed my catheter after the surgery. I can’t even think about that nightmare without wanting to curl up in a ball and hide from the world. Except I can’t do that for reasons I’ve already mentioned. Besides, she’s told me at least ten times to quit making a big deal out of it.
“If you’ve seen one penis, you’ve seen them all,” she likes to say.
That’s highly offensive as I consider mine to be rather special. When I tell her that, she laughs, which makes me unreasonably happy. I get the feeling she doesn’t laugh like that very often, so I try to make it happen as often as I can.
Ah, there she is, and right away I can tell she hardly slept. She confessed to battling terrible insomnia that makes her feel like a zombie at work. The dark shadows under her eyes are a dead giveaway. I wish I wasn’t stuck in this stupid bed so I could help her get through her shift. Although, what could I do? I know nothing about medicine, except for what I’ve learned from weeks in the hospital.
I’m due to be released soon to a rehab facility that’s part of the Miami-Dade complex, but I’m dreading that because I won’t see Gianna every day. I can’t even think about leaving her floor without a blue funk descending, which is odd. I tend to be a positive, optimistic sort of person, but thinking about moving on without her feels all kinds of wrong to me.
And, yes, I’m aware that I sound like a crazy weirdo for having developed such a fierce crush on my nurse. While awake in the middle of the night, I wondered whether it’s merely a case of proximity and boredom. But the second she comes into the room, every part of me feels better than it did five minutes ago. That’s got nothing to do with boredom and everything to do with her.
“Hi there.” Her cheerful tone never fades, even when she’s exhausted. “How’d you sleep last night?”
“Fine. How about you?”
She shrugs as she scans her badge and logs into the computer stand in my room. “The usual bleep show.”
That she never swears is another thing that amuses me about her. She says she swears off the job, but I’m not sure I believe her. “Isn’t there anything you can take for that?”
“Not without messing me up the next day. Melatonin helps, but I’m maxed out on how much of that I can take. But we’re not here to talk about me. How’re you feeling? Is the itching at the incision site still bad?”
I’d much rather talk about her. “Yeah, it’s making me crazy.”
“If the topical cream isn’t working, we can give you something for that, but it’s apt to make you sleepy.”
“It’s fine. I’m coping.” I don’t want to be asleep while she’s on duty.
“The itching usually only lasts a few days, and it’s a sign of healing, which is good news.” She types some more. “More good news is that Dr. Northrup has cleared you for release to rehab. You’ll be transferred as soon as they have a bed available.”
I want to cry, even though I’m glad to be doing well enough to move on to rehab. I want to get back to full strength, mostly so I can show Gianna what I’m like when I’m not stuck in a metal cage. But what will happen when I don’t see her every day anymore? Will I become just another ex-patient to her, or do I stand a chance of seeing her away from this place?
The thought of not seeing her every day is devastating, and no, I’m not being dramatic. I mean it. “Will you visit me at the rehab?” Do I sound as pathetic as I feel asking her that?
“I’d love to,” she says with a smile. “You’re my star patient. I have to see you over the finish line. And, I’m moving to the morning shift after this week, so I can see you after work.”
Is that all I am? I want to ask her. Your star patient?
After a few more clicks on the keyboard, she sets the rolling desk aside. “Is there anything I can get for you?”
I try to think of something I need to keep her there longer, but my family has seen to it that I have everything I could ever want and then some. “No, thanks.”
“Okay, then. I’ll check on you in a bit.”
“I’ll be here.” Counting the minutes until you return. It’s official. I’m pathetic and getting more so by the minute.
Everything is harder when I haven’t slept. I’m like a zombie moving through my day, checking and double-checking everything I do so I won’t make a terrible mistake that kills someone. Thank God for caffeine. As I refill my coffee cup in the break room, my phone buzzes with a new text.
I pull it from my pocket and see yet another message from the wedding venue, threatening legal action if the outstanding balance isn’t paid for my canceled wedding by the end of the month. Thinking that was handled a long time ago, I was shocked to learn recently that isn’t the case, thus my worse-than-ever insomnia. I forward the message to my ex-fiancé, Jared, the one who canceled the wedding. He promised me he’d take care of paying the venue, but he also promised me a lifetime of love and happiness.
We all know how that worked out, so I’m starting to feel a bit panicky about having to pay those fees.
It’s no wonder I’m not sleeping. Or eating. Or functioning. We owe them thirty thousand dollars. I’m the one who signed the contract, so I’m on the hook for the money even though I wasn’t the one who canceled the wedding—or even wanted the big white wedding. That was all him. I wanted something small and simple, but he wasn’t having that.
Jared responds a few minutes later. I’m working on getting this taken care of. Sorry for the delay.
They’re going to SUE me if it’s not paid. I’m freaking out.
I told you I’ll take care of it, and I will. Not sure what else you want me to say.
When will you pay them?
Call me crazy, but I don’t trust him. Not anymore. Which is why my stomach is in knots so tight I can barely choke down a protein shake a few times a day to keep myself alive.
Thirty. Thousand. Dollars.
Since the wedding was canceled on the big day, we’re required to pay the full total of the contract. What the hell was I thinking agreeing to a big over-the-top wedding in the first place? I thought I was in love and got carried away, especially after he set the budget at forty thousand for everything.
How is it my fault that he offered to put up that kind of money? None of this is my fault, but I’m the one they’re going to sue if he doesn’t pay up and soon.
I rub my hand over my stomach, which is in a constant state of upset.
The only bright spot in my day is my most delightful patient ever, Milo Giordino, and his lovely family. They’ve been feeding the entire 5 East floor while he’s been in residence. I’ll miss him when he leaves, which is so weird. I rarely miss my patients when they move on to rehab or go home to recuperate.
I hope for the best for all of them, but I don’t miss them.
I’ll miss Milo.
I’m thankful to him for giving me something else to think about besides the gloom and doom that has been my life since I lost my parents suddenly four years ago and had to finish raising my two younger brothers, who wanted nothing to do with me as their guardian. I almost think they would’ve preferred being put in foster care to being “stuck” with me. When they turned eighteen, both went as far away to college as they could get. I took that personally.
I did my best for them after the shocking loss of our parents, giving up my own college life to come home to care for them. Not that college life was so awesome, what with a good friend going missing my first year there. But that’s something I try not to think too much about, or I’ll go crazy wondering what happened to our beloved Skylar.
After a very rough few years, was it any wonder that I latched on to the first man who was nice to me during all that madness? I was desperate for someone to share the burden that’d been sitting on my shoulders for years at that point. I was a fool, and I know that now, but knowing it doesn’t solve my most pressing issue.
I turn to find one of my best work friends, Annie, sticking her head into the break room. How long have I been hiding out here? I have no idea. “Mrs. Ellis is robo calling.”
“I’ve got her.”
She’s my most annoying patient. I won’t miss her when she leaves.
But Milo Giordino?
I’m going to miss the hell out of him and his ridiculously handsome face.
“What’s eating you today?” Nico asks as he devours a cheeseburger while I pick at the chicken sandwich and fries he brought me.
“You seem super gloomy.”
“For someone who got shot in the neck, you mean?”
“No, I mean for you. You’re never grumpy or out of sorts, so it’s freaking me out that you are now. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing other than they’re moving me to rehab. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Isn’t that a good thing? One step closer to getting out of here.”
“It is, but…”
Before I can reply, Gianna comes back into my room and wipes every other thought from my mind.
“Oh, you’re eating,” she says. “I can come back.”
“That’s okay.” I stuff the rest of my lunch into the bag it came in and set it aside for later. “What’s up?”
“Time for some exercise.”
They make me get up and walk around several times a day. Usually, I’ve done a lap or two by now. “I thought you’d forgotten.”
“Nope. I just got busy. But I’m here now. Shall we?”
“Sure.” I don’t want to because every time I get out of bed, I realize how weak and feeble I’ve become since I was shot.
As always, she helps me to sit and then stand, holding me just right to keep me from falling. I’m thankful to be wearing pajama pants and one of several button-down shirts Nico brought me from home, so I don’t have to deal with the hospital gowns. I slide my feet into slippers and take a minute to get my bearings and catch my breath.
Have I mentioned that this totally sucks?
“I’m going to hit the bathroom first.”
“I’ll go with you,” Nico says, which is a relief.
I hate when Gianna helps me in there. Nothing says sexy like a game of “let’s see if I can hit the bowl without looking.” Ugh, the indignities never end.
My brother holds the belt that Gianna has put around my waist, since they’re still treating me like a fall risk. “Do you need me to aim it for you?” Nico asks without an ounce of the usual ball busting I expect from him.
“I’ve got it.” I take a leak and mostly hit the bowl, or so I think. It’s hard to tell when you can’t look anywhere but straight ahead and side to side thanks to the erector set holding my neck immobilized.
I shuffle to the sink and wash my hands and gasp at my reflection. “I look like shit. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You look like you’ve been shot and are recovering right on schedule.”
“Tomorrow, I want you to bring me a new razor.” Since I look like death warmed over, I’ll probably never see Gianna again after I leave her ward.
“Can you shave in that thing?” Nico asks.
“I can try. And you can start being normal again.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re being too nice to me. It’s freaking me out.”
“I’m never going to stop being nice to you after you took a bullet for me.”
“We need to get past that.”
“I’m not there yet,” Nico says as he guides me toward the bathroom door.
“Get there, will you? I’m craving some normal.”
“Talk to me about that when you’re back at home where you belong.”
“I will.” Before he can open the door, I stop him with my hand up. “Do me a favor? Let me go for the walk with Gianna by myself.”
“I knew it. I told Mom yesterday that you were crushing on her.”
“Whatever. Stay here.”
I can’t deal with this easygoing version of Nico, who’s never been this agreeable with anyone except his fiancée, Sofia, and her son, Mateo. He’d do anything for them, and now I guess he’d do anything for me, too. Although I always felt like he’d be there for me no matter what, even before I took a bullet that was meant for him.
Nico turns me over to Gianna and takes a seat to finish his lunch as I shuffle toward the hallway. She’ll make me do at least two laps around the floor, after which I’ll be completely exhausted.
“Your brother is very devoted to you.”
“Because he feels guilty about me getting shot.”
“Ah, that’s right.”
“It’s hard to believe that his fiancée’s ex would do such a thing. I’m just glad he didn’t succeed in killing either of us.”
“I’m glad for that, too.”
“So’s our mom.”
“I’ll bet. Her nerves must be shot.” She laughed. “Whoops. Poor choice of words.”
I control the urge to laugh because that’ll hurt. So I chuckle when I’d much prefer to laugh. As we shuffle along, I try to find the words to ask her if I’m really going to see her again when I leave her floor without sounding pathetic. Fine line there, as my entire situation is somewhat pathetic. See Exhibit A: needing help in the bathroom.
“We see so many gunshot wounds these days,” she says. “It may not seem like it right now, but you got so, so lucky.”
“I know. When I think about what might’ve happened…”
“Don’t do that.”
“I can’t do much else but think.”
“Think happy thoughts. You got lucky for a reason. What’re you going to do with your second chance?”
“Funny you should ask. I’d like my second chance to include you.”
“Milo,” she says with a laugh, “you’re too sweet.”
“I’m not being sweet. I’m serious. I like you. I like talking to you. I don’t want to stop talking to you just because I’m not here anymore.”
“My life is complicated.”
“It’s just that it might be better—for you, that is—if you don’t see me anymore after you leave here.”
I stop walking and turn to face her, even though I can barely see her face until she looks up at me, madly vulnerable and wounded. I can see all that in her expressive brown eyes. “It wouldn’t be better for me if I didn’t get to talk to you anymore.”
“It’s not uncommon for people to develop an… infatuation… with their nurse while in the hospital.”
“That’s not what this is.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“Because I’ve never felt so upset by the thought of not seeing someone anymore.”
“You’re upset about that?”
“Very. I don’t want to go to rehab because you won’t be there.”
She gives me a nudge to get me moving again. “That’s silly. Rehab is one step closer to home.”
“It’s a big step away from you, and I don’t like that. It’s got me seriously bummed out to be leaving the hospital.”
“You’re the only patient I’ve ever had who wasn’t itching to get out of here.”
“It’s all your fault. Seeing you has become my favorite part of the day.”
“Are you blushing? I can’t see from up here.”
“Yes! And I can’t blush at work. It’s not professional.”
“Then you’d better agree to see me after this, so I won’t have to keep embarrassing you.”
“You’re sure about this?”
“Okay, then I’ll promise to come visit you at rehab. We’ll go from there.”
I feel like I can breathe again for the first time since she told me I’ll be leaving her floor soon. “That’d be great, but you know what would be even better?”
“If you gave me your number so we can text.”
“I can do that, too.”
“I promise you I’m not a weirdo who’ll make you regret giving me your number.”
“I know you’re not. Why do you think I said yes?”
As we pass the nurses station for the second time, I can tell by my level of exhaustion that we’re getting close to the end of our walk. But I’m not ready to be done with our conversation. “Should we do another lap?”
“I’m down if you are.”
“I’m definitely down.” I just hope I don’t embarrass myself by falling or stumbling as I move on legs that feel like they belong to someone else.
Whatever it takes to have more time with her.
As I drive home from work, I decide to skip a planned trip to the twenty-four-hour Publix because I’m so tired. It’ll be a soup-and-grilled-cheese kind of night, which is about all I’m capable of after barely sleeping last night. I’m desperate enough to take something to help me sleep tonight so I don’t have to struggle through another workday on an empty tank.
The potential for error gets higher the longer I go without sleep.
Several of my colleagues asked today if I’m okay, and I can’t have that. If something goes wrong, they’ll be able to say they could tell I was off my game. I can’t afford to lose my job, especially not with the threat of litigation hanging over me.
I pull into the parking lot at home and into my assigned space. I gather my work bag and lunch cooler and am getting out of the car when a man approaches me. For a second, I’m too surprised to react or to grab the bottle of pepper spray hanging from my keychain.
He shoves something toward me, and I have no choice but to take it, so he won’t knock me over. “You’ve been served,” he says as he walks away, leaving me reeling from the near assault and the realization that I’m being sued.
Somehow, I manage to get myself inside with hands shaking so hard, I can barely function. I tear open the envelope and read the first page of the enclosed document that confirms the wedding venue decided not to wait until the end of the month to sue me. I withdraw my phone and do something I absolutely do not want to do. I call my ex.
His voicemail picks up.
The sound of his voice makes me sad and angry at the same time.
“This is Gianna. I’ve been served with lawsuit papers from the wedding venue. You promised me you’d take care of this.” I sound distraught, but who wouldn’t be? It wasn’t my idea to have or cancel the big wedding, and now I’m being sued? If I sold everything I own, I couldn’t come up with half of what I owe them. The house I live in was left to me and my brothers by our parents. It’s not mine to leverage. “Will you call me, please?”
I hate having to ask him for anything after he broke my heart and humiliated me by calling off our wedding. I found out it wasn’t happening when I arrived at the church. Humiliation on top of humiliation. For an awkward few days afterward, I sat in stunned disbelief with my brothers and closest friends on hand as they tried to find some way to comfort me.
At least they tried.
My brothers left the second they could, and who could blame them for wanting to get away from my train wreck? They text every now and then to make sure I’m still alive, but other than that, they’re off living their lives, while I’m still dealing with the nightmare Jared left for me to clean up.
I try calling him again, but again his phone goes right to voicemail. I don’t bother leaving another message. He probably shut off the phone after he got the first one.
In the kitchen, I pour a huge glass of wine and bring it with me to the sofa. I pull a blanket over myself, hoping to stop the shivering, but that doesn’t do a thing to help since the shivering is from fear, not the cold. An hour after I arrive at home, I’ve worked up the courage to read the document sent from the venue’s lawyers.
They’re suing me for forty-five thousand dollars plus court costs and lawyer fees. They’ve tacked on interest for the year they’ve been awaiting payment. I have about two seconds’ notice before I’m running for the toilet to vomit up the wine and the tiny bit of food I’ve had today.
Forty-five thousand dollars.
The number echoes through my mind like a nightmare I’ll never escape, and the most ironic part is that I wanted a small, simple wedding. After losing my parents so tragically, every sort of “celebration” is a trial for me, including my graduation from nursing school, my brothers’ graduations from high school and every birthday and holiday we’ve endured without them. The last thing in the world I wanted was a big flashy wedding when the most important people in my life wouldn’t be there.
But Jared insisted. “We’re only going to do this once, babe,” he’d said, imploring me with a look he knew I couldn’t resist back when I still loved him. “Let’s do it up in style.”
His insistence on doing it up “in style” included a costly dress I’ll be paying for over the next three years unless I’m able to sell it for a fraction of what it’s worth. I should list it on the local swap site, since it’s a gorgeous dress that someone else will love as much as I once did. I’ll get around to that one of these days. In the meantime, I pay $157 a month for the dress I wore for just over two hours.
I was such a fool to fall so deeply in love with a man I thought would eventually fill all the empty places inside me. Instead, he only made everything worse than it already was, which is saying something. Things have been rough for the last four years, and now I’m facing financial ruin on top of everything else.
I’d laugh if I wasn’t so terrified.
My mind shifts to Milo and how sweet he was earlier when he said he doesn’t want to leave the floor because that means leaving me, too. He’s a lovely guy, but I thought Jared was, too. Milo is tempting. Even with the metal halo holding his neck in place and the physical challenges of his recovery, he always makes me feel better when I see him. At any other time in my life, I’d be tempted to accept the things he’s offering me, but now… I just don’t know.
I don’t want to be so desperate to fill those empty spaces that I jump from one man to another, hoping maybe he can fix what’s wrong with me.
No one can do that but me, and with a lawsuit hanging over my head, the last thing Milo needs is me and my drama when he’s got to put all his effort toward recovering from his injury.
I’ll keep my promise and visit him in rehab, but that’s all I can do, even if the thought of not seeing him every day is just another thing to be sad about.
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Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
~ Calvin Coolidge
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