Tessa stuffed the envelope bearing the bright red text Final Demand into the back of her locker and tried not to think about it. There was a shuffling sound as it slid in behind her backpack and was welcomed into the fold by dozens of its paper peers.
With that safely stowed out of sight and out of mind, Tessa checked herself over in the mirror on the back of her locker door, ensuring that her scrubs were neat and tidy and that there would be no reason to be chastised by a surgeon today.
Her pale blond hair, almost white, had been tied back in a neat ponytail, leaving her face free. She had wide blue-gray eyes artfully rimmed by just enough liner and mascara to make them stand out, a nose that was a little too wide and a little too long for her liking and turned up at the end like a boot in a way she’d always fixated on. Other than that, she considered herself passably pretty. If only pretty paid the bills.
Just as she was almost ready to report for duty, her cellphone rang. She looked at the number, shook her head, and rejected the call. A second later, a message came through.
Need $500 xxx – Tim
Five hundred, as if that could just be conjured up out of thin air. She turned her phone off entirely and stuffed it in her locker along with the bills.
“Tessa!” Her friend and colleague called her name somewhat urgently. “You’re going to be late. The new surgeon is about to start his trial.”
The new surgeon. Kirk Saunders. The surgical ward was abuzz with gossip about the man, whose employment was being heralded with all the enthusiasm of the second coming. Tessa had heard so much about Kirk in the last two weeks, she was pretty sure she could have written his biography.
In his younger days he’d been known as the boy wonder, due to the uncommon alacrity and deftness he had for delicate surgeries. Now he was too old to be a boy anything, forty years old and taking a job at St. Heath’s. Every surgical nurse was vying for a place on his team, which he intended to decide upon through a series of challenges. An interview of sorts—but with every other candidate for the position also present, and sharp surgical scalpels everywhere. All that was missing from the experience was a flaming torch and a tribal council. Silly, Tessa thought, but nobody had asked her.
She walked into the interview room to find twelve nurses lined up behind a row of surgical trays. They all had a deer-in-the-headlights look about them, which was explained by the looming figure standing in front of them. Doctor Kirk Saunders, as intimidating in person as he was by reputation.
Her first impression of him was that somebody had taken a gladiator and put a shirt, shoes, pants, and a medical coat on him. Everything about him was hard, including his dark eyes, which locked on her as she walked through the door.
He had high cheekbones and dark slashing brows that were sloped in a frown as he tracked her every movement as she wandered into the room and gave him a silent, querying look. He seemed to take her presence as something of a personal affront for reasons she couldn’t explain.
Doctor Saunders was 6′5 according to general rumor. Finding herself in his shadow, Tessa believed the rumors.
“You’re late.” He declared the words like a judge pronouncing a sentence.
“Not technically,” Tessa said, pointing at the clock. “I have three seconds left.”
His brows lowered to a hawkish position of exasperation. “Do you always talk back when a surgeon corrects you?”
“Only when he’s incorrect.”
Kirk let out a snort. “Get in line, nurse.”
Tessa didn’t much care for his tone, but calling a surgeon out in front of a gaggle of nurses was just asking for trouble. She didn’t want trouble. She wanted to be on his team. Getting on his team would mean promotion, more money, and maybe even a way out of the hole of debt she seemed perpetually mired in.
There was a free spot at the far end of the line. All the other nurses had positioned themselves as close to Kirk as possible, hoping to catch his eye in one way or another. Several of them were made up much more dramatically than usual; in fact, the room looked more like a model search than anything.
Tessa took her position behind a surgical tray and waited for Kirk to begin proceedings.
“I run this test with all my nurses,” he explained. “The object here is not just speed, but precision. At the end of this process, three of you will remain. Those three will be offered a place on my team. Understand?”
There was a low smattering of voices uttering assent. Kirk switched on the projector next to him and a picture of a surgical layout was displayed on the wall. “You have thirty seconds to memorize this layout,” he said. “Starting now.”
At the end of the thirty seconds, the image was turned off. He then instructed each nurse to emulate the layout they had seen. The room was full of quiet clattering as everyone attempted to replicate the picture. Tessa moved three items then stopped, putting her hands behind her back.
Her lack of motion attracted Kirk. He strode over and looked down at the layout, then at her.
“Everyone else is still working,” he pointed out.
“Everyone else is wrong.”
The comment earned her more than one sharp look, but it made Kirk’s cheek dimple with the hint of a smile.
“You’re arrogant,” he said. “But fortunately for you, you’re also right.”
The rest of the interview proceeded without incident. Tessa had little trouble with any of the tasks he requested they all perform. Some of the others left with tears in their eyes, having been informed that their continued presence was not required. A few of them were actually very good nurses, but too nervous to perform well with the new surgeon breathing down their necks.
In the end, there were just three left: Tessa, Patricia, and Susan. Kirk made his way down the now much shorter line, speaking with each of them individually.
Susan was a seasoned nurse with many years of experience. She had seen it all, heard it all, experienced it all. She accepted Kirk’s offer to be on his team with polite restraint.
Next, Kirk spoke to Patricia, who could not stop beaming from ear to ear and was visibly shifting from toe to toe, damn near bouncing in place. “Yes, oh, yes, please!”
“Try to contain yourself, nurse,” Kirk replied. “There is little room for emotion in surgery.”
“Yes, sir!” Patricia clasped her hands over her face, as if to prevent herself from screaming with excitement.
“Now you,” Kirk said, coming to a halt in front of Tessa. “You’re quite adept.” The words contained praise, but somehow his tone did not convey it. Tessa almost felt as though he expected some kind of apology from her. “However,” he said. “You’re also arrogant and mouthy.”
Tessa looked up at him silently, proving him wrong instantly in her mind, at least.
“I will offer you a conditional place on the team,” he informed her.
“Conditional on what?”
Kirk lifted his head and addressed Patricia and Susan. “You two may leave,” he said, dismissing them.
The other two nurses quickly filed out, leaving Tessa and Kirk alone together. In the distance, Patricia’s squeaks of excitement could be heard filtering down the hall.
“Conditional upon you learning to behave yourself,” he said in a low purr. “You strike me as undisciplined.”
“There is nothing undisciplined about my work,” Tessa replied.
“No, and your arrogance gives you the confidence to make quick, correct decisions, which is a trait I need in a nurse,” Kirk acknowledged. “However, I also require proper respect for the rules, promptness, and a…”
“…heightened tolerance to lectures?” Tessa cut in, thoroughly annoyed by Kirk’s comments. For him to call her arrogant was the greatest case of the pot calling the kettle black she had heard in a very long time.
“You see, you talk back,” Kirk observed. “You speak rudely.”
“As do you.”
His brows rose and he looked down his nose at her. “Do you speak this way to all the doctors and surgeons in the hospital?”
“You mean honestly? Yes.”
A growl emanated from low in Kirk’s chest. “You have an attitude, young lady. See me in my office at seven p.m.”
“My shift ends at three p.m.,” she replied.
“Seven. This evening,” he said curtly.
“I can’t be here at seven,” she replied in slow, deliberate tones as if she were speaking to someone particularly stupid. “My shift ends four hours earlier.”
His expression was like granite as he ground out his response. “I expect you to be available when I need you to be. And I expect you to speak to me in respectful tones.”
Tessa knew she should keep her mouth shut. She knew she’d already said far too much in completely the wrong way. She should just nod and explain her reasons for not being able to make the appointment and see if he would be so kind as to allow her to come see him another time. She should tell him she really appreciated him allowing her a chance to trial for his team. She should tell him that it would be an honor to work with a surgeon like him. Instead, she opened her mouth and let words fall out.
“This may come as a shock to you, doctor, but the world does not actually revolve around you.”
Kirk’s jaw tightened. “I will see you at 3.05 p.m. in my office, nurse. Do not be late.”
“Fine,” Tessa shot back. “See you then.”
She turned and stormed off, already inwardly berating herself for letting her mouth get the better of her yet again. There was no way in hell he was going to offer her a job now.