Dr. Layla Kaur was going to commit a murder. It was as simple as that. As soon as she found the culprit of this latest little prank, she was going to murder him.
Dr. Cage Ralstone wasn’t going to escape.
Not after this. This time he’d pay for his stupid prank. Usually…usually he didn’t go this far.
She tried the door again. It rattled, but the handle wouldn’t turn. Nothing. The lock was stuck.
She tried not to panic.
Layla never had liked being locked in anywhere. It was a left-over from her childhood, no doubt. When she’d misbehaved, the uncle who had raised her would lock her and her three sisters in their bedroom for days at a time.
Being locked in was one of her worst fears.
She tried again.
As the lights went out. She stayed exactly where she was until the backup generator flipped the emergency lights on fifteen unending seconds later.
She’d always hated the dark, too.
Yes, it was storming outside, but Layla fought off the panic that thought brought.
She’d broken three ribs and had a concussion back at the end of July when an F4 tornado had destroyed the ER and part of the maternity ward.
She’d held a newborn baby in her arms through the storm, terrified that they were going to die. It had taken over an hour after the storm for the rescuers to dig her, her delivery team, and her patients out that day.
That wasn’t something she would ever forget.
“Open the door, Cage!”
No doubt he was still out there, laughing. He always told her she was too serious—his pranks were his way of proving his point.
She tried again, fighting the panic. “Open the door!”
It was a hospital room, not a private room in her uncle’s home. She was a well-respected obstetrician. She’d done her entire residency at Finley Creek General Hospital, learning under some of the best in the world.
She was thirty-one years old. She wasn’t going to panic because a lock got stuck for a moment.
She just had to think. Someone would open the door from the other side, eventually.
Movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. Layla turned.
That was when she saw her.
Layla couldn’t help it—she screamed.
To her shock, no sound came out. Just a gaspy little yelp.
All Layla could do was stare. The woman had blond hair—or at least it was light in color—it was hard to tell with how hazy the woman looked. Her hair was in a bob, like something Layla had seen from the 1920s or so. The gown fit the era, too.
She could see the bathroom door—through the woman.
This had to be a trick. Something Cage and that diabolical brain of his had cooked up, to give her a bit of a Halloween scare. Something the dimmer emergency lights were just enhancing.
Cage was—well—cagey like that.
Her hand tightened around the door handle. The other hand reached for her phone. She pulled it free of her lab coat.
In an instant, she had the flashlight activated.
She shined it right at the…woman.
That just made it so much worse. Now…the thing was almost glowing.
Layla was not the kind of woman who believed in ghosts. Not at all. She was practical, logical, and rational.
But there was something right there in front of her. It looked human and it looked real. Mostly.
Layla bit back another scream. She wasn’t going to freak. She was just…
She grabbed her phone and dialed. Fast. “Nikkie Jean…I…the door to 403 has stuck. I can’t get out.”
“I’m at Wanda’s desk. I’ll be right there.”
Layla thought the spirit would disappear when she spoke.
Layla wasn’t that lucky. Instead the girl—she looked a good ten years younger than Layla—raised a hand to her lips and motioned for Layla to be quiet. She shot Layla a dirty look. Then…the girl spoke. Her voice had Layla freezing where she was. “They are sleeping. It was a hard delivery. June…will take care of her. She is lucky to have June now…”
The girl turned and walked toward Bed A. It was empty. Layla had discharged the patient not even two hours ago, a young woman who’d had a difficult pregnancy that had required surgery. That woman and the baby girl would be fine. But, now…with the ghost right there, it looked like the bed was occupied. “They are sleeping. You must be quiet. Before the doctors hear. It must be kept a secret. I, she, we must be kept a secret.”
She was going to get out of this room and walk herself right down to the psych ward and talk to Dr. Schuler. Her friend would tell her she was stressed, and to take a week off. No wonder. She’d been working double duty for the last three days. She’d apparently met her limit—and needed a day off.
Layla might just do that. Take a few days to relax, breathe, and put what she’d just seen in perspective. “What doctors? I’m a doctor here.”
“Do not be silly. You are just a woman. Not a doctor.”
Great. The ghost in room 403 was a sexist. “I am a doctor. I deliver babies. It’s 20—” Maybe she shouldn’t tell the ghost what year it was. That might cause her to become…irate.
Layla had no clue what an angry ghost might try to do. She wasn’t willing to find out.
The ghost—she couldn’t think of anything else to call it, her, whatever—frowned. “No. Women can’t be doctors. They won’t let us here. We are nurses…that is all we are ever allowed to be…I have tried and tried…”
Before Layla could say anything, the door handle rattled. It turned. Opened.
A small pregnant woman in chartreuse scrubs stood there, her hair in braids and thick glasses on her eyes. Ironically enough, Nikkie Jean wore tiny plastic ghosts attached to the rims. “Layla, the door wasn’t stu—”
Nikkie Jean looked behind Layla and yelped. She took a step back.
Layla didn’t hesitate. She booked it across the room. Nikkie Jean was just staring. So it wasn’t just Layla seeing this. “It’s…”
“Shhhh. The baby is sleeping.” The irritation was clear in the ghost’s words now. “She is such a beautiful baby…I wish…”
“There’s no one in that bed,” Nikkie Jean just had to point out. Layla wrapped her hand around the woman’s—the real one, not the ghostly one—and pulled the smaller Nikkie Jean toward the door. “It’s empty.”
“Shhh.” The last thing she wanted was the very pregnant Nikkie Jean ticking off an angry ghost nurse or something.
A ghost who seemed to be preoccupied with babies.
“Nikkie Jean, you know we have to do our duty to our patients.” The ghost frowned at Nikkie Jean, inspecting every inch of her. “Should you be working now that you have married that physician and have his three children to tend to? A mother’s place is in the home. You should be home nesting. It makes for a healthier baby. I should have listened…”
Layla knew her jaw probably hit the floor. This was getting worse than creepy. It was moving into terrifying now.
The ghost knew Nikkie Jean by name. And that she had three stepchildren.
That was a bit too far-fetched, even for her.
It had to be Cage playing a trick on her. He always did stupid things to her, just because he knew it annoyed her.
She should be used to it by now. They’d been working together at FCGH since her first day. The man had been tormenting her that long. This wasn’t the first little trick she’d been the recipient of.
He had to have a camera somewhere, watching everything that had happened. But…
It was entirely possible Nikkie Jean—often Cage’s co-conspirator—was in on it. The two of them together were more than a bit diabolical—and extreme.
Layla finally looked away from the ghost. She was now smoothing the blanket over the non-existent patient.
She checked on Nikkie Jean quickly. Even though they were friends who worked together, Nikkie Jean was her patient.
Nikkie Jean was as pale as a…ghost.
Layla looked back at the ghost.
Ok. Maybe Nikkie Jean was not quite that pale. But it was close.
The ghost was still at work, checking the pillows and doing other various things that nurses had done a million times before.
The ghost nurse sank down in a non-existent chair and started rocking, as if she held a ghost baby in her arms.
A spectral nurse was one thing—but a spirit baby was terrifying. The ghost started humming.
As if Layla and Nikkie Jean weren’t even there any longer.
Layla pulled in a deep breath as the scent of violets and talc rose up around her and Nikkie Jean. Even over the scent of antiseptic soap that was the backbone of the hospital’s scent.
Violets and talc.
She studied the ghost more clinically. The uniform shouted 1920s. And it was definitely a uniform, complete with apron and white cap.
Layla cataloged all the possible details she could.
She had always been the kind to work off of details. Layla would want to see proof of this again.
Even for herself.
She slipped her phone up and pointed the camera at the ghost. An unseen force knocked it out of her hand.
Her arm went numb, then cold. Freezing. The temperature in the room dropped immediately.
“I must be kept hidden, Layla. You know that. The doctors, they cannot know…”
“I’m getting out of here,” Nikkie Jean said, flatly. She put truth to her words by hustling as fast as she could out of room 403.
Layla was right on her heels.
She…there was no way she was sticking around for a minute longer. Not…ghosts weren’t supposed to be able to do that.
Her arm still stung.
She was halfway back to the center of the ER before she remembered she’d lost her phone. In room 403.
She wasn’t about to go back in there.
Not without reinforcements.
Wanda, the head of the nurses on second shift, stopped her at the central desk. Wanda stood talking with her wife Janine. “Layla, honey, you look sick. And Nikkie Jean is green around the gills. What on earth is going on?”
“The…door…lock stuck. Room 403,” Layla said, evenly.
Her eyes met Nikkie Jean’s. An unspoken agreement passed between them. They weren’t saying a word about what they had seen.
Neither one of them wanted to be branded as crazy.
It wouldn’t be a good thing for physicians to admit to seeing ghosts. Nor would it be good for it to have happened in the biggest hospital in the city.
“It stuck again? Vera must be moving around a bit. Weather must have wakened her tonight.” Wanda smiled and patted a still-quiet Nikkie Jean on the shoulder. “A stormy autumn night like this is her favorite type of weather.”
“Vera?” Janine asked. “I don’t believe I’ve met her.”
“And you won’t. She only appears to pregnant ladies and those single ladies with handsome men sniffing at their heels,” Wanda said, her voice smooth and rich as she settled into her desk chair. “Or young, pretty doctors and nurses. Those are her favorites.”
Layla leaned closer. She’d have to retrieve her phone, but she wasn’t quite ready to go back in there yet. Annie, one of the night nurses and Nikkie Jean’s close friend, stepped closer to the counter and placed her stack of files in the To Be Filed bin.
“But has anyone actually seen her?” Layla asked, flatly. She had seen something in that room. And she thought Nikkie Jean had as well, but with that little trickster…it was hard to tell if any of it had been real.
Annie’s cheeks turned red.
Layla focused in on the quieter Annie. Annie was the practical type, like Layla. “Ann?”
“I think I did. The night…when Turner…the night of the storm. When Turner sat next to my bed. I woke once. I think Izzie did, too. When she was injured after what happened with Henedy. And…when I stayed the night when…everything happened with the deputy mayor. I think…I thought I was dreaming.”
Lacy and Jillian were near enough to hear.
They stepped closer. Lacy smirked at Annie. “I’m not saying I did, I’m not saying I didn’t…but if I did…it was definitely in room 403.”
“You are all insane.” Although she had most certainly seen something. What it was, though, she wasn’t quite ready to define. Or mention.
Layla was still blaming Cage. No doubt it was a Halloween prank of his or something. He got so much enjoyment out of that. “This has to be a joke. Who ever heard of a cursed hospital room? Or ghost nurses from the 1920s?”
“Is she from the 20s? I wasn’t sure I’d heard that part,” Wanda said, giving her a significant look. As if she knew exactly what Layla was thinking. Had seen. “Fin probably knows the story better than most. Since it was her ancestor who founded the hospital.”
Layla looked at the woman in question, who’d approached with a tall, handsome surgeon of her own at her side. “Care to explain?”
Fin just shook her head. “All I really know of the family history is that a nurse was supposedly killed here back in early 1923. When the hospital was just the five story, original wing. There may be more in the family papers, but those are out at the Barratt Ranch. Annie will have to check.”
Annie, who’d married Fin’s cousin Turner Barratt a few weeks back, now lived at the biggest ranch—and tourist destination—in the region. “I…there are old journals in the family library, but no one ever reads them. I suppose I can ask Turner—”
“What fun is that?” Wanda asked, as Virat—Fin’s fiancé—headed down to surgical. It was just shy of six p.m. Things were relatively quiet for the moment now. “Gather around, girls. It’s time we talked a bit more about the Cursed Nurse of room 403. My time to share a bit of hospital history.”
Layla checked her watch. She had a few minutes. “First…how and why is she cursed and why is it this room in particular?”
“I love a good story,” Jillian said, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Lacy and Nikkie Jean.
“One hundred years ago…” Wanda began, as everyone got a bit closer. Layla stayed where she was between Fin and Nikkie Jean. She wasn’t about to return to 403, just yet. Not…
Until the full lights came on and the storm ended.
And definitely not alone.
“It was a night much like this. Mid-October, rainy and colder than usual…”
Layla could see it, as Wanda’s words settled around her. Almost…almost as if she was being pulled back there. To room 403.
“Her name was Vera, she was just twenty-three, born on January first, 1900. Her parents had tried for many years, some say, and she…was born when they were in their early forties. Their hope. Her mother died when she was just a girl, no more than seven or eight.”
Layla could almost imagine it. “How do you know all this?”
“I’ve done a bit of research. Heard a few rumors here and there. Put things together. Do you remember Betha Coulter?”
“Fin’s great-aunt?” Lacy asked, quietly. “I vaguely recall her still visiting here when I first started my residency.”
Layla had a vague recollection of the woman, as well. She nodded.
“She was always telling stories,” Fin said. “She passed away last year. She was in her late nineties and still sharp as could be. A heart attack.”
“Betha was born the year it happened. She remembered her mother and father and aunt and uncle discussing what had happened once, when she’d been a teen,” Wanda said. “Betha and I worked together my first year here. I was all of twenty-five, and she a good forty years older than I was. She…took me under her wing. One night…there was a nurse, around my own age, but she was…not well-liked.”
Layla had to admit, Wanda was good at telling a story.
“She had problems with me, and the way I did things. And she…had a connection to a doctor who was on the board at the time. A real ass of a man, that one. Died in a car wreck a good fifteen years ago. She enjoyed harassing me. A beautiful girl, but man, was she a bitch.”
“How does this have anything to do with 403?” Nikkie Jean asked, much quieter than usual. No wonder. Seeing a ghost would do that to a woman. A whisper of wind went up Layla’s spine as she remembered how the woman had called her by name.
It had to be Cage. Maybe Nikkie Jean and even Wanda were in on it. Playing a Halloween prank on her because she’d said just last week that she didn’t believe in ghosts or spirits or anything remotely paranormal at all.
No doubt they were having a great deal of fun at her expense.
Then again, Nikkie Jean didn’t seem to be enjoying herself right now at all.
“Don’t rush me, I’m getting to it.”
Layla thought Wanda was just dragging it out as long as she could. She should really go back and get her phone. But…that idea had far less appeal than she was going to admit.
“It was a dark and stormy night…”
Lacy snickered, as thunder shook the building, and the newly restored power flickered off once again.
No one moved, until the generators kicked on fifteen seconds later. “Sure it was. Get on with it, Travis will be here in fifteen minutes to get me.”
“Just hush and listen. You younger ladies are all so impatient. You’ll miss life that way if you don’t slow down.”
“Anyway…it was a dark and stormy night…” Jillian said. She looked flushed, as if she was coming down with something. Layla made a mental note to check in on her when Wanda was finished. The last thing she wanted to see was Jillian or Lacy or Nikkie Jean coming down with a flu bug or a cold virus now.
It was nice, that the three sisters-in-law’s babies would grow up together, cousins and friends. They were a close family; lucky, in a way Layla could only wish she was.
She missed her own sisters every day. Calls and emails just weren’t the same.
“It was colder than usual for October. I remember I was wearing a cream sweater my mother had knit for me, the first time I saw the ghost in 403. The hospital was pretty modern back then. It was well-supported by the university, and it was just starting to come into its own as a teaching hospital. Pulled the best of the best in its physicians and nursing staff. Especially the nurses.”
Wanda smiled at the two nurses, Jillian and Annie. Wanda tended to coddle the younger women on staff—especially the nurses.
“But not all of the ones who came before you today appreciated that.” Wanda took a sip from her water bottle, before continuing. “It must have been twenty-five years or so ago, we had a brand new crop of doctors straight from the hospital. Interns so wet behind the ears, they didn’t even need to shower. Dr. Stockton was one of them…”
Layla was the only one to see Annie’s face tighten imperceptibly at the name. Layla hadn’t met the new surgeon yet. But she’d heard rumors. He’d worked the hospital before—and hadn’t been well liked.
“Would rather not talk about him,” Nikkie Jean said. “Get back to the nurse. I would be the lucky one who owns a haunted hospital.”
Layla had heard that rumor, too. Nikkie Jean’s father owned the medical company that had recently purchased the hospital. For her.
Nikkie Jean wasn’t too pleased with it. She’d said before in Layla’s hearing that her father was just trying to buy her affections.
That was a situation Layla wasn’t going to touch with a ten-foot pole.
“Well, Dr. Stockton and this nurse were…good friends.”
“Of course, they were…” Annie said, almost bitterly. That shocked Layla. Annie was rarely bitter about anyone. There was more going on there than she knew.
“Always interrupting. Now hush…Or I’ll keep the story to myself.” Wanda shot Nikkie Jean and Annie a pointed look. Nikkie Jean just gave a weak smile.
She was still green from what she and Layla had seen. Layla was finally starting to settle down. A little.
It helped that the actual power had returned, not just generators.
It helped her to convince herself it wasn’t real at all.
Something brushed against her back, her neck. She swatted it with one hand absently.
The wind. It was just the wind.
It wasn’t a cold spectral hand—even though that was exactly what it felt like.
The doors opened on their own occasionally in the ER. Usually at the worst times. She’d seen it happen a dozen times already—just since the wing had been transformed into a temporary ER until the new one was completed.
It had happened before.
She hadn’t just seen a white something walking behind them all out of the corner of her eye.
No. She was nowhere near room 403 now.
Like when the storm was picking up outside. She shivered.
The wind sure felt like a cool hand on her skin. Like slim fingers wrapping around her throat.
She had to stop being so gullible.
“Stockton had just started, and he and this nurse, Beverly, were off giggling somewhere near the apothecary. It was called that years ago. This was right before the first annex was built, I believe…Yes, they’d just broken ground. It was irritating; this was before we had the parking garage and it was pouring rain. I had just crossed the parking lot to clock in for second shift, when it started to hail.”
“I kept going, almost running for the doors. I didn’t want the rain to ruin my sweater. It was cashmere. I had almost made it to the edge of the road, when I looked up. Into room 403. That was the first time I saw her. It stuck with me; that wing of the hospital had been closed for repairs. No one should have been there.”
“It could have been anyone,” Jillian pointed out.
“I’m not finished… I clocked in and immediately headed upstairs. To the fourth floor. It was the ICU wing, then. We were operating rooms 400 through 425, on the left side hallway. The first four rooms, and all of the even numbers of that wing were closed off. I had just clocked in, and stepped toward 402, when I heard the giggling. The sounds of a young woman in the arms of her lover.”
The older hospital wing, the part built in the 1920s and renovated in the fifties, eighties, and the 2010s, was filled with little nooks and crannies, perfect for lovers.
Layla had caught an overly amorous intern and a nurse-old-enough-to-know-better in one on the fourth floor just two days ago. “I’m not so certain that’s anything to go by.”
“It is, when you look right through the woman—and her lover. Damn, he was ugly. But Vera…she was so much in love. I’ve never forgotten that. She loved that man, damn him. I just stopped and stared. Until Stockton came up behind me. He started to say something—no doubt something rude, of course, as he was a real arrogant ass back then—and then he paused. The boy paled right before my eyes. He’d seen it, too. Only whatever he saw terrified him. I swear, he almost wet his pants that night. We watched her for the longest time. Right there in the doors of room 403.”
Layla shivered. No doubt she knew what the two had seen. The ghost had been so real. So visible. “Go on.”
She doubted the story ended right there.
“The next time I saw her was a few weeks later. We had a special patient in, and we’d put her in 403. A real rude woman, but she was rich and there was a lot of toadying up to her by the Board. Fin, your mother had just taken a position on the Board that month. A really sweet lady.”
“Yes, she was.”
Fin had lost both of her parents years ago, Layla knew.
Something they—and Lacy—had in common.
“She and I…we were walking and talking, about a nursing grievance that I somehow ended up in charge of, with Betha. We stopped by 403, as the patient was an acquaintance of Fin’s mama. She was sleeping, however. We were just about to leave, when we saw a nurse in white hovering over her. The patient was pregnant. Due within days. The lady looked at us and said something about the baby being in distress and that we were going to be too late if we didn’t hurry. Then she was gone. But…she was right. That woman was in labor, placental abruption. We were able to save the baby, but the woman passed away. Another patient took her place in 403 that day. She was also heavily pregnant. It was Dr. Stockton’s wife; he threw an awful fit to have her moved from 403. But there weren’t any other rooms available. He was so upset that I offered to sit with him overnight, in 403, so the two of them could rest.”
Annie and Nikkie Jean shared a look. Like they knew something the rest of them didn’t. “And Dr. Stockton’s baby?” Annie asked.
Wanda had an odd look on her face when she looked at Annie. “Beautiful baby girl. But that’s neither here nor there. Both baby girls were born within hours of each other.”
“I sat with Dr. Stockton’s wife through the night; but I held that poor little one who’d lost her mama, while her own father grieved. He was an absolute mess; I’ve always wondered about him. But the story isn’t about him. It’s about the ghost in 403.”
“No kidding,” Lacy said. “Go on…what happened that night?”
“It was just shy of three a.m. and I had dozed off a little. The baby girl was sleeping in a bassinet next to the bed. Same for the Stockton baby, about three feet to my right, though that one was a fussy thing, arms and legs just kicking like crazy. Definitely a little fighter. The lights flickered; just like tonight.”
Everyone paused while the lights flickered in warning again. Layla’s throat closed. She’d always hate the dark, hate the storms.
Wanda finally continued. “It’s always been storming when Vera is seen. I’m not sure why. Some believe electrical charges somehow feed ghosts. I’m not sure I buy into that. But I was sitting there, having just woken, and I reached forward. To adjust the swaddling around the Stockton baby, as she’d kicked it free again. Someone else’s hands were already there. I lay my hand right through hers, over the baby’s chest to protect the little one. I’ve never felt anything so cold in my life. I was certain she’d stolen the baby’s very soul, until the little one opened her eyes and screamed bloody murder.”
Layla shivered. She could almost feel those hands on hers right now. Could feel the infant in her own arms, like she had so many before.
“I looked up, and there Vera was. Right next to the Stockton baby. You must take care of her, June, for me. He won’t. He won’t know how to love for a really long time. That’s what she said. That was the first, and last time, she spoke directly to me. A few others through the years have heard her speak, but not many. You must take care of her, June, for me. He won’t. He won’t know how to love for a really long time.”
Annie gasped and shifted closer to the desk, as if it represented safety.
Fin was all big eyes now. “My…great-great-grandmother was named June. She married Harrison Barratt in 1923. They had five children; the second girl was my great-grandmother. She married a Coulter from Barrattville. June was a nurse here, when she met her husband. He was the first businessman to take over running this hospital. There’s been a Barratt or Coulter on the Board ever since. From what I understand, something major happened with them. Here.”
Wanda nodded. “I don’t know what your family does, but I remember seeing where your ancestress was the only nurse named June around here in the early 1920s, who would have been in this wing and around the right age. The way I figure it, she might have known our Vera.”
“Where did she get her name?” Layla asked. “Is that one you’ve given her, or is it her actual name?”
“I think it’s hers, but I have no way of knowing for certain. That night in room 403 wasn’t the only night I’ve seen her. Usually, it’s storming out like tonight, in the Fall. And always…always there’s a baby or a pregnant woman or a young, unmarried woman in the room. Or a nurse. She likes to show herself to nurses. Likes to scare them, too, I think. The occasional female doctor, but I think that’s because she’s curious about you girls who made it through medical school. Who knows? Maybe she wanted to be a doctor and was shot down. It was the 1920s, after all.”
“But how do you know?” Nikkie Jean asked. “We need more details…”
“Details make every story, don’t they?” Wanda shot her a mysterious smile. “You need to rest, kiddo. You look green again.”
“I…I’m good. Just had a chill go through me, that’s all.”
“In 403,” Lacy said, with a snicker.
Nikkie Jean stayed silent. Layla wasn’t about to say anything, either.
“You’ve never seen her?” Wanda demanded. “I thought you said you had.”
“I’m saying I’m not saying whether I have or not. I’m a sane woman. I’m not about to admit to seeing ghosts.”
“I’ll admit it. She’s in there all the time,” Jillian said, quietly.
Layla shot her a surprised look. Jillian…Jillian always came across as so practical. “You’re serious?”
“Very much so. I’ve started seeing her more lately. Since I realized I was pregnant. She seems particularly fond of Rafe. Calls him my handsome fella. Told me I should have been proud of myself for snagging such a beau…But…she creeps me out every time. It’s like a part of her knows what’s going on around here and another part of her is…trapped. It’s like she’ll never leave 403.”
“Or 405. I was in there one night when she came in. When I was so worried about Izzie. She stopped me and told me to take heart, that she would be fine. And…I’m certain I’ve seen her at Izzie’s bedside a time or two. And she…was extremely distraught the night of the tornado. She kept walking between our beds,” Annie said. “She kept touching you, Nik. Like she was trying to get you to wake. Once, I saw her actually stroke Caine’s tattoo. Like she was curious about it. I thought it was from the sedatives I’d been given…but…”
“You guys are really freaking me out. Because…there shouldn’t be entities in room 403. Or 405, or anywhere else. And he, she, it—they should not be petting my pet dragon,” Nikkie Jean practically squeaked. “I really don’t want a haunted hospital…”
“Too bad, I think you have one,” Wanda said.
“So why is she in the hospital to begin with…doesn’t there have to be a reason a soul is stuck someplace or something?” Layla had to ask. She was finally getting ahold of herself.
They were all just playing tricks on her and Nikkie Jean or something.
There was no other logical answer.
Either that, or Nikkie Jean was an extremely good actress.
“It was a dark and stormy night…” Wanda said. Everyone snickered. “From what I understand…the young woman had a lover. He was killed…murdered.”
“Of course. There had to be something violent involved…” Layla said. No. She didn’t believe at all.
“Layla here is our skeptic then.” Wanda looked right at her. “Just you wait…your turn will be coming. It seems to happen that way. Once a woman sees her, her turn is just around the corner.”
“I thought the Cursed Nurse just appeared to lovers. Women who were patients, who had lovers?” There were far juicier stories floating around the hospital at any one time. With people who were living. Layla didn’t even listen to those; she didn’t think she’d ever heard the full story behind the ghost in room 403.
Wanda shook her head. “Not quite. That is what the story is evolving into, lately. Plenty of evidence to support it, with all the troubles some of you have had in this place. Betha told me the first time the ghost ever appeared to anyone. That is the story we all need to remember.”
“You’d better tell it, fast. I have seven minutes until Travis arrives,” Lacy said. Even she had stopped the snark, and had an arrested expression on her face.
Everyone did. Since Annie had stated she’d seen the ghost. Everyone tended to believe Annie; she just had one of those faces.
“Betha said she was a young woman then, so it would have been around 1943 or 1944. She said it was right around the time of the war. I’m assuming she means WWII. There was a young widow there, no more than twenty-seven or -eight. A very sensible girl. Had her head on her shoulders, she did. She was some connection of the Barratts’, but she worked at the hospital. January was her name, and that was when the story first started…”
Layla couldn’t help listening.
She needed to get her phone. But she wasn’t ready to go back in there yet. Just…not yet.
And definitely not alone.
She didn’t consider herself a coward, but if there was a punchline to this little prank, she didn’t want to be it.
“January wanted to be a doctor, but it was 1943. There was quite a bit of opposition then. Less than three percent of graduates of medical schools at the time were female. Those that did graduate had trouble getting into hospitals. But January persisted, and because she was a connection of the Barratts—a sister-in-law, I believe—they paved the way for her at the one hospital where they held power.”
“Here.” Of course, where else would it be? Finley Creek General had always been one of the forerunners of change for the medical community. She felt privileged to work there now, under the best chief of medicine the hospital had had in the last sixty years.
“Late one night, on an evening much like tonight, January was in room 403, tending to a patient. Just as she stepped out of the room into the hall someone jumped out at her. Knocking the woman to the floor. She wasn’t a big lady, no bigger than our little Fin or Nikkie Jean here, that’s for sure. January slid across the floor with a scream. No doubt terrified in the dim hallway.”
“Gee, sounds like this place was dangerous even then,” Nikkie Jean said, leaning against the counter. “Keep going. I hope she got up and kicked ass.”
“No…no, she didn’t. She was injured. Hit her head, I believe. But anyway…her scream brought someone running. He’d been at the hospital looking for his uncle, who ran the hospital at the time. Powell Barratt—not the realtor, by the way, she’s a great-grand-daughter, I believe?” Wanda looked at Fin for confirmation. Fin nodded. “He was just back from the war, tall, handsome and brooding. A dangerous sort was the first Powell Barratt. Much like the rest of those sinfully handsome Barratt men.”
Annie laughed; she was the only one there married to one of those sinfully handsome Barratt men. Layla had met a handful of them, and fully agreed with the assessment.
“I remember him, vaguely. I met him when I was a small child. I met his wife about half a dozen times, too. A very sweet lady. Go on, Wanda. I have never heard this story before,” Fin said. “I never read all the family journals. I’m going to, though. At least once.”
“Turner has some, but I think Houghton gave them to Mel now. She’s having some of her minions type them up so that everyone can have copies,” Annie said. “I wonder if she knows about these Barratts? She’s really getting into Houghton’s family history. Wants to make something nice for him for Christmas, I think.”
“So what happened? She was knocked down, hit her head, and then what?” Layla was starting to get impatient. Now they were just dragging things out on purpose. “What happened with the ghost? Did the woman die? I’m a bit confused here. I thought her name was Vera, not June.”
Wanda shot her a wicked grin. “Ok, ok, ok. I get it, Dr. Impatience. Anyway…Powell Barratt and this Jan had known each other when they were children. Were the closest of friends. Until his best friend had fallen so hard for her—and she for him—that poor Powell was cut out. He stepped back for his friend to make his move. And his friend did. Gave Jan two beautiful children before he up and enlisted in the army. They had a terrible fight about it. She blamed Powell, as it was his idea to enlist first. The horrible words they said to each other are lost to history, but I can imagine what she said. Here she was, with two little ones under the age of three, and her husband was going off to war in Europe. Oh, how she grieved. She knew, you see, some said she had the sight…She knew as he climbed on that boat that she’d never see her husband again, and her girls would grow up without a father.”
Wanda paused a moment, as the phone buzzed. They waited, but the caller disconnected before someone could grab it. A particularly loud crack of thunder had Layla almost jumping out of her skin, before Wanda continued. “But she…did what she had to do. By midway through 1942, she was widowed. With two small children to raise on her own. And she’d finally gotten a job here at FCGH—as a nurse. Needed it, needed the money to support those girls of hers. Oh, her brothers-in-law were wealthy Barratts, they would have helped her in an instant. As would have Powell. But our girl had her pride—and the last man she’d ever accept help from was Powell Barratt. For a full year, she tried to do it all herself.”
Wanda paused for a moment, as everyone moved closer together. The pneumatic doors opened again, and everyone stopped. They waited to see if a patient was incoming. If there was, they were ready.
“Go on, Wanda. It was only the wind,” Nikkie Jean said, playing with the small plastic ghosts arranged on the counter. No doubt those ghosts were Wanda’s doing.
She liked to keep up the spirit of each holiday. Unlike previous COMs, Rafe didn’t stop her.
“She vowed never to be dependent on a man like that again. For her husband left her behind with no forward planning at all. So sure he would come back; the arrogant sort, he was. Left her almost penniless in a small rented house, with two babies, and her still not full-on recovered from a difficult labor with her second. But Jan was tough as steel, that one. Signed on as a nurse, putting her dreams of being a doctor aside—until Powell’s father made her a deal. He wanted her to succeed. And he knew…she would make a brilliant physician someday. He helped convince her to try again. She was afraid that with two small children she couldn’t do it. Was afraid she couldn’t support the girls and build a career. Like so many women have done through the ages, she was going to set her own dreams aside, to see to it that her children had a good life.”
“There have been female physicians in Texas since 1907,” Layla said. Maybe there hadn’t been many, but Hallie Earle had graduated with her degree from Baylor in 1907—at the top of her class.
“Oh, they graduated, it was just the next steps where they’d face opposition—especially from the good old boys club,” Wanda said. “I’m getting to that. Anyway, there was something going on up there on the fourth floor. Evil. A doctor, they say, was stealing patient drugs to sell them in Galveston. Our Jan stumbled right into the middle of it that night. Probably would have been killed if she hadn’t screamed as loudly as she did. Then…she was there.”
“Who? The ghost?” Nikkie Jean asked.
Wanda nodded. “Jan looked up, and there between her and a man holding a scalpel, ready to slit her throat, was Vera.” Wanda squeezed Jillian’s shoulder in comfort when the younger woman shivered. Jillian had her own scars. “Vera was enraged. It was the first and only time I’ve ever heard of her expressing anger in anyway. Jan told Betha that Vera’s eyes glowed almost red with her anger. Just like all the cliched stories and movies have ever said. Vera flew through the door of 403, flew right through Jan, even, as she tried to get back on her feet. It was a freezing cold she had never felt before in her life, Jan said later. And Vera was there, trying to confront Jan’s attacker. She had children!”
Layla’s imagination was too good—she could almost picture it. Picture it, with the thing she had seen in 403. Almost as if she was there.
Another chill hit her. She lifted one hand to her neck. It felt…like that freezing cold was a hand—right on her neck.
She almost looked behind her, toward the doors, but she didn’t.
“She has children, the ghost said, and that made Vera so very angry. Protective. Vera slashed with her hand, her nails raking across that man’s face deep enough to draw the blood of the living. She did what she had to do to protect Jan—until Powell and his father came running at the sounds. Vera was screeching, you see. Loudly enough to raise the living. When they got there, Jan and that bastard were in a fight for her life, with Vera screaming at them both. Screaming at Jan to fight, to run. Screaming at the doctor to leave the poor girl alone. But Powell was there, and he fought the bastard himself. Strong and sure and so angry only the devil himself could have stopped him. Ended up taking the scalpel to the chest, right there in the hallway outside 403.”
Layla and several others gasped. Layla tried to imagine it, to imagine what the hall would have looked like, what they all would have been like… “What happened to him?”
“That’s where the happy ending comes in. See, Jan had a few wounds herself. Even worse ones than Powell Barratt had. He cradled her in his arms, told her how he had always loved her and begged her to stay in this world for him. Made her promise never to leave him.”
Well that was a twist she hadn’t expected.
“How…romantic,” Annie said, with a soft sigh. “Those Barratt men…they really know how to do romantic. They just swoop a woman up and carry her away before she can think. Protest. By the time she gets her brain in working order again, she doesn’t want to protest. I know I didn’t.”
“That’s for sure,” Jillian said. Her sister Mel had married a Barratt a while back, and the two of them were almost legendary in Finley Creek. “Although, I can say those Deanes aren’t half-bad.”
“Anyway, our Jan was damned close to dying. Powell’s father was a noted physician of the day. He scooped the girl up into his arms and carried her right down to where he could get help for her. Leaving his son with the attacker. The attacker, that had died from his own scalpel after Powell had ripped it from the man’s hands and used it to defend sweet little Jan that night. As he stood guard over the body, fear in his heart for the woman he had almost lost, Vera was there. With her hand on his brow, her touch over the wound in his shoulder, she told him one thing…Love would fix everything. She wished she had not been afraid to love like that. I think that’s one reason she comes to young women as they are falling in love. I think she wants to experience it again. Because for some reason, in her own life, the love she had fell short of what she wanted.”
“How…how…sad.” Layla said, softly. She could imagine that, too. She was the ultimate relationship failure, after all.
“It was. But ghosts rarely stay because they were happy in their lives, kiddo. Anyway, that’s one story I’ve heard to explain why it’s the young, single nurses and doctors who see her most. I’ve not heard of her showing herself to anyone my age in the entire time I’ve been at FCGH.”
“So why does she seem so into pregnant women?” Nikkie Jean asked.
“I’m not entirely certain, though I have my theories. That’s probably a story for another time. Now…I see some extra-handsome men coming to pick up their ladies. Get out of here, those of you who can. Be careful on the drive home. The rest of us have work to do.”
Layla waited until the ones who were leaving were gone, then sighed. She was going to have to go back to get her phone.
Now was as good a time, as any.
She waited a few more minutes, until Wanda and Annie were both distracted.
She’d always faced her fears practically alone, anyway. This wasn’t going to be any different.
Layla started down the hall toward room 403.
No one else was in the hall. Thunder rumbled again. The power flickered again. In warning. A power outage in a hospital was never a good thing, even with backup generators.
During the tornado, she’d huddled in the dark with strangers, and prayed to see light again.
She shivered as memories assailed her.
There were a lot of memories for everyone now.
Maybe that was what this ghost was; not a spirit, but a leftover memory.
Layla didn’t know.
The hallway turned cold.
Her steps echoed on the tile floor.
A rush of cool air followed her steps. When it shouldn’t.
But she’d come this far. Layla wasn’t a coward. She wasn’t afraid to go in 403. She wasn’t.
Wanda had just been messing with them all.
Room 403 was empty when she stepped inside. She flicked the switch on the wall, wanting the main light on.
Layla would always hate the dark.
Just as she touched it, the lights everywhere went out. She couldn’t help it; she yelped.
She pulled in a deep breath and waited.
The lights would come on soon. The generators were Rafe’s latest acquisition—he’d insisted on it, fighting the Board for the money to upgrade the generators after the tornado.
Fin and Nikkie Jean had argued for them, right next to him, she’d heard.
People of FCGH stuck together. Especially for their patients.
The lights refused to come on.
Layla tried to leave, to go to the door and back into the hallway.
She’d just wait until the storm ended before she got her phone.
Or she’d make Cage get it. He deserved it for this.
Although…she was starting to think he had nothing to do with this tonight.
It was probably just the storm. Electrical charges, or the generators working out the kinks from the new system. Maintenance was probably on it right now.
She was just being stupid, falling for Wanda’s theatrics. That was all.
Layla had always been too imaginative for her own good. Her uncle had done his best to discipline that out of her years ago.
Deep breath, Layla. Just take a deep breath.
She’d find her phone—no doubt she or Nikkie Jean had kicked it under one of the beds—then head back to the OB/Maternity ward, and stay there until the storm ended.
That was the safe bet.
The maternity ward was brand-new, now.
No chance for ghosts in there.
She stepped toward the door.
And screamed, as she slammed into the thing right behind her.
All she saw was the lightning reflecting off of white.
Hard hands went around her waist and lifted her off her feet. She was yanked close to a hard male chest. “Hey, hey, hey. No need to scream. My presence isn’t that awe-inspiring.”
Like a coward, she wanted to cling.
Instead, Layla disengaged from the man’s arms.
“What’s going on? I heard you call out all the way down the hall.”
“I dropped my phone in here earlier. I came back to get it. Just as the lights—” As she spoke, the lights flickered once again.
Now she could see the man in the white coat now.
Cage always looked good in a lab coat. Tall, strong, and safe. Even when he was acting like a jerk.
Rather suspicious he’d shown up just as she was in 403 again. “Did you do this?”
“Do what? Control the storm? Not within my superpowers, remember?”
His hand rubbed her shoulder lightly.
Cage was more of a toucher than Layla ever had been. She’d gotten used to it over the years they’d known each other.
They’d met her first year of med school, and his last. She’d been friends with him forever, it seemed.
He was practically her only family here in Texas, and she loved him, completely.
That didn’t mean she was blind to his faults. He was the biggest joker at FCGH.
Only Nikkie Jean had ever come close to matching him.
Her breathing was settling down. “Did you put that ghost in this room to scare me and Nikkie Jean? Some sort of revenge against her for something? Pudding in your socks, maybe?”
“I’ve been in surgery for the last four hours, babe. I’ve…not had the energy or the time for pranks.” A pained look went through his green eyes. “I…it wasn’t an easy surgery. Prognosis isn’t good. I’m going to stick around here for a few hours. Until we know more.”
Layla didn’t hesitate. His hurt was right there. Cage was one of the best in his field. He loved his pediatric patients so much. When he lost one, it devastated him. Each and every time.
Just like it did her.
She wrapped her arms around him and just held him, all thoughts of the ghost of 403 gone completely.
His strong arms went around her, and he held her back. For the longest time.
He pulled back first. “Are you telling me that you, Dr. I Don’t Believe Anything, actually saw the ghost of 403?”
Layla winced. “I’m not sure what I saw. Nikkie Jean was with me. But…I dropped my phone. Help me find it?”
He pulled her closer. “In a minute. I’m enjoying snuggles with my best girl.”
“You’re a dork, Dr. Ralstone.” But he represented safety, especially as the storm raged outside around them.
She stepped back. They were on the clock. She had work to do in her wing. No doubt he did, as well.
It was time to put 403 behind her, and get back to…life.
As she stepped toward bed A, the lights flickered one more time. “I am getting sick of this, tonight.”
As she spoke, her phone buzzed somewhere nearby.
The glow of the screen led her straight to it. Even in the dark.
The generators kicked into gear again.
She grabbed her phone and turned back to the man with her. They had time to grab something for dinner in the cafeteria. Cage had a junk food addiction. He no doubt needed something healthier. “Grab something to eat first?”
She liked taking care of him when he’d let her. Just like he’d show up on his days off at her place, ready to hang her shelves or take her car in for a tune-up. They took care of each other, she and Cage.
Just the way she liked it.
He hadn’t answered yet. Layla turned to him.
He was just standing there. Staring past her. Paler than she’d ever seen him before.
Layla froze. Even though she knew she shouldn’t, Layla turned.
There she was again. Staring right at Layla and Cage. With an approving look on her ghost-white face.
Cage grabbed Layla’s hand and dragged her out into the hallway.
He never said a word.