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Goddess of the Rose, Page 3

P. C. Cast

Chapter Three

  "NURSING Services, how may I help you?" Mikki answered the ringing phone as she glanced at the clock. It was just a little past noon. Would the day never end?

  "May I speak with Mikki Empousai?" the man asked.

  "This is she. " Mikki tried to keep the impatience out of her voice. It was probably another drug rep trying to schmooze her so he could get to her boss. As executive assistant for the director of Nursing Services at St. John's Hospital, it fell to her to screen salesmen and other time-wasters from her director. But it certainly was an annoying part of her job. Didn't those guys ever give up?

  "Mikki, this is Arnold Asher. I'm calling to confirm our date tonight. "

  "Oh! Uh . . . oh," Mikki stuttered.

  "You sound surprised. Did I record the date wrong in my Blackberry?"

  Through the phone Mikki could hear him tapping the little electronic screen.

  "No, I haven't forgotten. I've just had a really busy morning," she lied. The only thing on her mind after her breakfast with Nelly had been her brain tumor and getting through the rest of the day at work without some kind of tragic, foaming-at-the-mouth psychotic episode. Briefly, she tried to recall if her bra and panties matched. God, it'd be embarrassing to be admitted to the psych ward wearing tacky lingerie . . .

  Arnold's voice intruded into her musings. She'd almost forgotten she was on the phone with him. Almost.

  "Our mutual friend, Nelly Peterson, told me your favorite restaurant is The Wild Fork, so I made a reservation for seven o'clock. Will that work for you?"

  Mikki stifled her urge to break the date. She really was being unfair to the guy. He had a nice voice, and Nelly wouldn't fix her up with a guy who was anything less than attractive and interesting. She ignored the thought that attractive and interesting always seemed to hide arrogant and irritating under their onionlike layers of nice clothes and good manners. She could practically hear Nelly yelling at her, Give the guy a chance!

  "Yes, dinner at The Wild Fork sounds wonderful, and it is one of my favorite restaurants," Mikki said, forcing her voice to be enthusiastic.

  "Great! How about I pick you up at about six thirty?"

  "No!" she said a little too quickly, and then to cover her abruptness, she laughed gaily like she'd lost every one of her brain cells. "There's really no need. I live just down the street from the restaurant. I'll meet you there. "

  "I understand completely. Whatever would make you more comfortable. "

  Was his tone patronizing?

  "That's what I prefer," Mikki said firmly.

  "Then it's a date. I'll see you at seven o'clock at The Wild Fork. How will I recognize you?"

  Mikki rubbed her forehead, already feeling the beginning of a tension headache. Or was her brain tumor acting up? She seriously hated blind dates.

  "I'll be the redhead with the rose in my hair. "

  Warm laughter filled the phone, surprising Mikki with its allure.

  "Well, I definitely won't mistake you for another woman," he said, still chuckling softly.

  Hoping he could hear the answering smile in her voice, Mikki said, "That's the idea. And I hope you're as charming as your laugh. I'll see you at seven. "

  "I'm looking forward to it," he said.

  "I am, too. "

  She hung up and smiled at the phone, realizing that she really was looking forward to meeting the man behind the voice. She was still smiling when her boss, Jill Carter, rushed out of her office.

  "Mikki! Call all the other directors' assistants. There's been a major accident on the BA Expressway. A bus filled with senior citizens on their way to Vegas rolled. They're bringing old people in here in droves. We'll need all the hands we can get to process them. "

  "I'm on it," Mikki said. She was punching phone numbers before Jill finished speaking.

  Three hours later the ER still resembled a geriatric battlefield, but at least Mikki thought it was finally beginning to seem like the hospital staff was on the winning side.

  "I think the only ones who haven't been processed yet are those two little old ladies over there. " Patricia, executive assistant to the director of security, nodded her head at the far corner of the ER waiting room.

  Mikki sighed. "I'll take the lady in the red skirt if you take the one in the orange polyester pantsuit. "

  "Let's do it," Patricia said, already heading to her charge.

  Mikki nodded. Man, she was tired. She felt as old as the ancient grandma she was approaching. Reminding herself firmly that even though she was tired and stressed, she hadn't just been through a bus accident, Mikki plastered a friendly smile on her face. The old woman's eyes were closed and her head was tilted back against the sterile tile of the ER wall. Her wealth of silver-white hair was caught up in an elegant French twist, and up close Mikki realized that the long, full skirt was made of rich-looking cashmere, as was the matching sweater. A thick, iridescent strand of pearls hung almost to her waist, and elegant pearl drops decorated her ears. A white silk scarf was wrapped around her left hand. The middle of the scarf was stained brown with dried blood.

  "Ma'am?" she asked softly, not wanting to startle her.

  The woman didn't respond.

  "Excuse me, ma'am," Mikki said a little louder.

  Still no response.

  A horrible sinking feeling nested in Mikki's stomach. What if the old lady was dead?

  "Ma'am!" Mikki tried unsuccessfully to keep the panic from her voice.

  "I am not dead, young lady. I am simply old. " The woman's voice was husky and attractive, rich with a soft, rolling accent. She enunciated the syllables of each word carefully.

  But she didn't open her eyes.

  "I'm sorry, ma'am. I - I, uh, I didn't think you were dead, I just thought you were asleep. It's your turn. I can take your insurance information now. "

  She opened her eyes, and Mikki blinked in surprise. The old woman's eyes were startlingly clear and a vibrant, deep blue. If hope had a color, it would be the blue of the old woman's eyes, and Mikki was struck speechless by their beauty.

  The deep, soft lines at the edges of the woman's eyes crinkled as she smiled.

  "You should try to always tell the truth, my dear. You are a dismal liar. But do not fret. I am most certainly alive - for the moment. "

  She held out the well-manicured hand that was not wrapped in a scarf, and Mikki automatically took it, helping the woman to her feet.

  "Yes, ma'am," Mikki said stupidly.

  "I have always thought that the title of 'ma'am' should be reserved for young women who desire to appear older, or old women who have given up on life. I am neither. I prefer signora, the title Italians give their women. It sounds so much more interesting, does it not? But you may call me Sevillana. "

  Mikki's smile slipped off her face. "Did you say Sevillana?"

  "Yes, that is my given name. Is there something wrong, my dear?" Mikki helped Sevillana into the chair in front of the registration desk before she answered. "No, nothing's wrong. It's just that I know the name. "

  "Do you?" The old woman raised one delicate silver eyebrow. "And what is it you know?"

  "I know it's the name of a rose, a Meidiland Rose that originated in France. It's a brilliant scarlet in color and very hardy. It makes a great hedge, and it blooms for almost four straight months. "

  Sevillana smiled with surprised appreciation. "I knew there was something special about you. "

  Mikki tried to return her smile, but she was still disconcerted by the odd coincidence of their names. Plenty of roses had been named after people - the JFK rose, the Dolly Parton, the Princess Di - but she'd never met anyone else who had been named after a rose. Retreating into the familiar, she tapped her computer and pulled up the new patient profile screen.

  "What is your last name, ma'am, I mean, signora?" Mikki asked.

  "Kalyca. Spelled k-a-l-y-c-a. " She took an insurance card from her purse and hande
d it to Mikki. "And what is your name, my dear?"

  Mikki glanced up from the computer screen. Automatically, she opened her mouth to tell Sevillana her nickname, but something in the old woman's knowing gaze made her hesitate.

  "Mikado," she admitted.

  The smile that lit Sevillana's face seemed to wash decades from her age. "Oh, my! Another lady of the roses. What a lovely surprise. "

  "It's certainly unusual," Mikki agreed, with a hint of sarcasm.

  Sevillana studied Mikado carefully. "As you age, you will learn to appreciate the unusual, no matter in what form you discover it. Or it discovers you. "

  Mikki closed her lips on the ready quip that came to her mind. There was something so wise in the old woman's eyes that she felt her normal defenses slip.

  "Do you really believe that?" Mikki asked suddenly.

  "Of course, my dear. " Sevillana's incredible eyes were sharp. "The unusual is as close as we can get in this world to experiencing real magick, and magick is the breath of life. "

  Mikki would have liked to have questioned the old woman further, but just then a nurse stepped officiously up to them.

  "I believe you're my last patient. " The RN helped Sevillana to her feet. "Let's take a look at that hand. "

  "It is nothing but a scratch," the old woman said as she let the nurse lead her from the desk. Then, glancing over her shoulder, she met Mikki's eyes and spoke clearly and distinctly. "I have received far worse wounds from pruning my roses without gloves. "

  Her words caused a shock of surprise to explode across Mikki's skin.

  How did the old woman know?

  Mikki was still staring thoughtfully at the doorway through which Sevillana had disappeared when her boss squeezed her shoulder, making her jump.

  "Didn't mean to scare you, Mikki. I just wanted to thank you. I appreciate your help today. It was above and beyond the normal call of duty. "

  "Oh, no problem, Jill. It was a nice change from regular office work. "

  Jill looked at her assistant closely. She noticed the dark circles under her expressive eyes and the unusual paleness of her skin. Mikki had been her assistant for five years, and the director had come to depend on the no-nonsense way she kept the Nursing Services office running smoothly, but lately her assistant had begun to worry her. She had become increasingly absent-minded, and just two days earlier Jill was almost positive Mikki had been sleeping at her desk. Perhaps it was time her assistant took a vacation. And maybe she needed a raise, too. Jill would hate to lose her to one of their competitor hospitals, and that new heart hospital had just opened on 91st Street. They were probably recruiting heavily for experienced employees. She made a mental note to look into the raise and bring Mikki one of those cruise line catalogs first thing Monday morning.

  "Why don't you knock off early today? It's been a long week. "

  Mikki smiled in surprise. "Thanks! I do have a big date to get ready for. "

  Jill grinned at her assistant. "I'll keep my fingers crossed. " Then she looked around to be sure no one could overhear her before quipping, "You know, a hard man is good to find. "

  Mikki giggled. "This one's a professor. "

  "Well, here's hoping that his" - Jill paused, omitting the word and waggling her eyebrows suggestively - "is as big as his brain. See you Monday. " Then she departed, swinging her hips jauntily in time with her characteristically saucy stride.

  Mikki was still smiling as she turned off the computer. It was as she clicked the mouse that she noticed the laminated insurance card.

  "Ah, damnit! I didn't give Sevillana back her card. "

  Mikki grabbed the card and rushed through the door to the inner area of the emergency room. The nurses' station was located in the middle of the large center arena. Mikki recognized the unit secretary who sat behind the tall counter. As usual, the petite brunette was busy typing orders into the computer.

  "Hey, Brandi, what room is Sevillana Kalyca in?"

  "Seven. " The harried secretary didn't even glance up at her. "That's a name that is hard to forget. "

  "Thanks. " Mikki headed to the door marked 7. "Hope it quiets down for you tonight. "

  "Fat chance," Brandi muttered.

  Mikki knocked on the closed door.

  "You may enter. " The old woman's distinctive voice called.

  Mikki opened the door and peeked hesitantly into the room. Sevillana beckoned her in with her good hand. Her left hand was propped up on an aluminum arm that pulled out of the side of the examination bed. Someone had draped the shiny surface with a blue cloth. Mikki could see the laceration that slashed across the meaty part of her palm. It was slowly seeping blood.

  "Come on in, my dear. The nurse has gone to collect some instruments with which to fix this. " She nodded at her hand. "Apparently, I need stitches. "

  "I'm sorry," Mikki said automatically. "I hope it doesn't hurt too much. "

  "It is a small thing, Mikado. " Sevillana gestured to the chair beside the bed. "Please, sit. It was kind of you to look in on me. "

  "I brought you this. " Mikki handed her the insurance card, feeling chagrined that she hadn't really come to check on her.

  "Thank you. I would never have remembered where I left it. " Sevillana took the card and smiled warmly at Mikki.

  Mikki sat. She tried to keep from staring at the old woman's wound, but like a horrible accident passed on a highway, her gaze kept being drawn back to it. And there was something else about Sevillana's palm. Mikki squinted, trying to get a better look at it.

  "Blood is fascinating. Do you not think it so?" Sevillana's voice was hypnotic.

  "The color always reminds me of roses," Mikki said softly. She forced her eyes from Sevillana's injured hand to her face. "I don't mean to sound like I'm a blood-crazed ghoul. It's just that freshly blooming roses and new blood share such a unique color. I don't understand why that should have a negative connotation," she finished defensively.

  Sevillana's amazing blue eyes pierced her. "You are wise for one who is so young. For me, it took many years to understand that there is no negative connotation in what you say. Roses and blood do share many of the same traits, which is, truly, a wondrous thing. "

  Mikki took a deep breath.

  "How do you know about roses and blood?" she blurted.

  The old woman's answering smile was wise.

  "Here we are!" The nurse hurried into the room carrying a tray filled with sterile instruments. She was followed by a female doctor Mikki recognized as being one of the new residents. "Doctor Mason is going to get you fixed right up. "

  The doctor glanced at Mikki. "Are you a relative?"

  "No, I'm Jill Carter's assistant. "

  "You'll have to leave. "

  Mikki nodded and looked apologetically at Sevillana. "I have to go. It was really nice to meet you, signora. "

  "Wait a moment, my dear. " Sevillana reached for her purse, which was lying next to her on the examination bed.

  "Ma'am, if she's not a relative, she really must leave," Dr. Mason said.

  "I understand that, young woman. I am not asking that she stay. I simply have something I must give her," Sevillana said in a tone a mother would use to admonish an errant child.

  Without waiting for a response from the doctor, the old woman's uninjured hand disappeared into the bowels of her huge, baglike purse, and when it emerged, it was holding a small glass bottle. The bottle was no longer than Mikki's little finger, and it was shaped like a slender tube. There were knobby protrusions up and down the length of it. Mikki thought the design looked vaguely familiar.

  "Here, my dear. I want you to have this. "

  Sevillana placed the vial in her hand, and when she touched it, Mikki realized why it looked familiar. It was a perfect glass replica of the stem of a rose, complete with tiny thorns.

  "It is a perfume I had made for me when I last visited the island of Crete off the coast of the alw
ays lovely Greece. In the past, it has brought me good luck and more than a little magick. My wish is that it may do the same for you. "

  Mikki's hand closed over the bottle. "Thank you, Sevillana," she called as the nurse ushered her toward the door.

  "Remember . . . " The old woman whispered after Mikado.

  The door closed with a soft click.