EXCERPT:



Chapter One

 
“This is exactly what I was afraid of.”

Valerie Palka gripped the steering wheel of her Beamer as she raced to Mercy Hospital in the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston. How many times had she told Mom a woman in her eighties shouldn’t live alone? All she wanted to do was keep her safe. “Why can’t she—?”

A horn blared just in time for Valerie to screech to a halt before the SUV broadsided her. She looked up at the stoplight. Yep, red. She tried to back up, but the car behind her wouldn’t budge. So she sat halfway in the intersection—like the last kid to be picked for a team—until the light changed.

She drove the rest of the way at the unbearably slow speed limit. She turned into the parking lot and navigated around glaring mountains of snow until she found what appeared to be a space. Scuttling up to the entrance, she wondered why on earth she had worn heels two days after a January blizzard.

She caught a glimpse of herself in the hospital’s floor-to-ceiling windows. With her graduated-bob hairstyle and Burberry coat, she still looked like a polished, middle-aged professional even though she wanted to scream like a child.

The glass ER doors magically whooshed open. She expected frantic people, broken limbs, perhaps even some blood. Instead, she found no one. Not even behind the Formica-wood front desk. What the hell?

A woman in pale-blue scrubs suddenly appeared in a doorway behind the desk. “May I help you?” she asked, as if Valerie were shopping for a transplant.

“My mom—I got a call that my mom fell and was brought here. Is she okay?”

“Her name?”

“Palka. Helen Palka.”

“Oh, yes. She’s in . . .” She consulted a list. “Room Eight.” She pointed to another set of doors. “Through there and down the hall, last room on the left.”

Valerie walked through the automatic doors and down a hallway dotted with mobile equipment and reeking of antiseptic. She glanced into one of the rooms she passed but could only see a pair of denim-clad legs. The wailing of a child in another room pierced her heart. As much as she wished she could have had kids of her own, the thought of being that child’s parent terrified her at the moment.

As she neared Room Eight, she heard the hoarse laugh that could only belong to a unique lady who had kicked a 40-year smoking habit. She entered the room and found her mom on a gurney, appearing a bit disheveled with her left leg elevated.

The sight of her, so vulnerable and injured, stole Valerie’s breath. The attractive young man in teal scrubs chatting with her also had the potential to tax Valerie’s lungs.

“Valerie!” Mom said.

“Are you OK?” Valerie scanned her body for other signs of damage.

“Oh, heavens, yes.” Mom waved an age-spotted hand dismissively. “They shouldn’t have bothered you.”

“Well, we’re still running some tests,” the young man said. “But it doesn’t look like anything’s broken.”

Valerie stepped closer. “What happened?”

“Oh, it’s so silly.” Mom shook her head as if the tale scarcely merited telling. “I just went out to give some stale Oreos to the chipmunks, and I slipped on a smidgen of ice. It was covered by snow, so you couldn’t even see it. It could’ve happened to anybody! Anyway, my ankle didn’t feel so good”—she gestured toward the leg that was propped up and covered with an ice bag—“and I had trouble standing up. You know, this darn fake hip and everything. Well, next thing I know there’s this blaring ambulance in the alley, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I wonder who that’s for?’ And then the two paramedics come running into my yard, and I realize they’re there for me! Then nosey Juanita comes waddling over, and I realize she must have called them.”

“Well, thank God she did,” Valerie said.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, those paramedics have far more important— Oh! I forgot to introduce you. Valerie, this is Keith. He’s a male nurse.”

Valerie and Keith exchanged amused glances. “Yes, Mother, I can see that.” And what an outstanding specimen he was, with muscular arms, hazelnut hair, and eyes a shade paler than the scrubs. Every old lady should be so lucky. I should be so lucky. Jesus, what the hell am I thinking? Mom’s lying in a hospital bed and I’m lusting after her nurse. And I’m still married!

“This is my daughter, Valerie.”

Keith nodded to Valerie. “Nice to meet you. The doctor is consulting with the radiologist, so she should be back in here soon.” He turned to Mom and touched the plastic bag on her injured ankle. “I know this ice pack is awfully cold. Would you like another blanket?”

“No, I’m fine. I’m afraid I do need to use the restroom, though.”

“Sure thing. I’ll get you a bed pan.” He left the room, closing the door behind him.

“Isn’t he a hunk?” Mom asked.

Valerie snorted. “Oh, Mom, nobody uses that word anymore. Now about the chipmunks, I thought you understood we want to get rid of them. They can do serious damage to your foundation.”

“That’s precisely why I was feeding them, so they wouldn’t eat the foundation.”

Valerie closed her eyes for a second and took a breath. “No, Mom, they don’t eat it, they burrow under it. And I can’t believe you went out by yourself. You know—”

Keith returned with the bed pan and discreetly helped Mom use it. Valerie pulled out her BlackBerry, welcoming the excuse to divert her attention from Keith, who actually seemed to be sizing her up. But when she glanced at him, his gaze had returned to Mom. Wishful thinking.

As soon as he left the room again, Mom’s expression hardened. “Now, don’t you start in on me again about living alone. This was a freak accident that could have happened to anyone.”

“But don’t you see? This was like a warning. It could have been much worse, and what if Juanita hadn’t seen you? You could have laid there for hours. My God, you could have frozen to death out there!”

“Oh, Valerie, stop catastrophizing.” Mom’s hands went to work trying to get her puffy white bouffant back to normal. “It seems to me you should worry a little less about me and a little more about saving your marriage.”

Valerie breathed in to cool her ire. She shed her coat and tossed it over the one chair in the room, noting the amount of cat hair clinging to the black cashmere and vowing to get a new lint brush. If only getting her husband back were so easy. “Please don’t change the subject. I’m just saying you need a little help with some things.”

Mom glared at her. “You know that Golden Meadows you were talking about, that assistant living place?”

“Assisted living, yes.” Mom’s misuse of words got worse by the day. “What about it?”

“Josephine Weisman said you have to pay a hundred-thousand dollars up front to get into that place, on top of what you have to pay each month.”

Valerie took another deep breath. Always the money. “Yes, that’s how those places work.”

“It’s robbery, plain and simple. Those places take advantage of seniors and you know it.”

“All right.” Valerie raised her hands in surrender. “We won’t even talk about that.” She was determined to discuss it at some point, but it could wait. “I still think you need a little help, especially now with this ankle injury.”

Mom’s brow contorted in a way Valerie recognized as frustration rather than anger, and her lower lip quivered so slightly most people wouldn’t notice. Valerie took one of her mom’s chilly hands and squeezed it tenderly.

Then a mature Asian woman in a white lab coat came in, followed by Keith. “Hello again, Helen,” the woman said.

“Hello. Oh, Dr. Sing, this is my daughter, Valerie.”

After a quick nod to Valerie, the doctor directed her words to Mom. “The news is fairly good.” She spoke slowly and clearly. “You have what we call a Grade Two sprain, which is a moderate sprain. Okay?”

Mom nodded, her eyes wide with worshipful acquiescence.

“So here’s what we’re going to do.” The doctor outlined the treatment plan and made it clear Mom would need in-home health care.

Valerie immediately began considering the options and decided they would use one of those agencies that offered everything from skilled nursing to simple home helpers. Then when Mom no longer needed the nurse, they could just switch to a home helper. Easy, breezy . . . bullshit. A little sprained ankle is going to turn Helen the Hardhead into Miss Compliancy? Ain’t gonna happen. Still, Valerie wanted to give it a shot.

Dr. Sing finished by patting Mom’s hand. “So you can go home today, and we’ll have you back running marathons in no time.”

“Oh, thank heaven,” Mom said. “And thank you, doctor.”

After giving Mom a pleasant smile, Dr. Sing motioned for Valerie to follow her out. They walked a few steps down the hall, and then the doctor turned to her. Not a trace of the smile remained. “I see from your mother’s paperwork that she hasn’t had a routine physical for quite a while. I always recommend that anyone over eighty get an annual exam.”

Valeria nodded. “Okay.”

“If you could get her in within the next month or two, that would be advisable.”

“All right.” Advisable? “Did you . . . find something?”

Dr. Sing inhaled through her nostrils. “No, her vitals were fine, and nothing showed up in the blood or urine screens. But there’s something about her coloring that concerns me. It’s probably nothing, but if she were my mom, I’d have her checked out.”

“Yes, of course.” Suddenly chilled, Valerie rubbed her arms. “She’s not too big on going to the doctor, but I’ll do my best. Is there something particular you suspect?”

“I’d rather not speculate.”

“All right. Thank you, doctor.”

Dr. Sing gave her a closed-mouth smile and hurried away.

Did Dr. Sing think Valerie had been negligent? God, if only she knew. I’d do anything to protect that sweet-and-sour old woman.

She returned to the room, where her mom and Keith were whooping it up again as he demonstrated how to use an air splint on her ankle. “Once your ankle has healed enough, you can even dance in this thing.”

“Oh, Keith,” Mom said, “I thought you’d never ask!”

More gales of laughter. Dear God, the woman was eighty-one and still flirting. Valerie had to give her credit.

Keith headed toward the door. “I need to go put in an order for a physical therapist to teach you how to use the walker properly, so I’ll be back in just a bit.”

“All right, but hurry,” Mom said. “My dance card is filling up!”

Keith’s hearty laugh echoed in the hallway as he departed.

Recalling Dr. Sing’s comment, Valerie examined Mom’s complexion. Her coloring seemed fine. In fact, her skin positively glowed. “He certainly has a good bedside manner,” Valerie said.

“I’ll say.” Helen resumed fussing with her hair. “Now if you could get a handsome devil like that to come take care of me, I’d be willing to consider it.”

Valerie chuckled. Then she looked back toward the doorway. Would a guy like that moonlight?

 

***

 

That afternoon, Keith Nuber paid for his panini and apple, then scanned the hospital cafeteria for a quiet spot.

“Hi, Keith.” Jocelyn, the new ICU nurse he’d met about a week before, waved to him. “Would you like to join me?”

Indeed he would. Not only was Jocelyn physically appealing, with her genuine smile and ample curves, she also exuded something lacking in most of the women he’d been dating: Maturity. But he shook his head while pointing a thumb at his backpack. “Homework. Can I take a rain check?”

“Sure. Take care.” 

“You, too.”

He settled at a corner table, pulled out a textbook, took a bite, and began reading. After rereading the same paragraph three times, he paused and gazed out the window. Why can’t I concentrate? It wasn’t lack of motivation. He couldn’t wait to get his physical therapy degree. He used to thrive on being an ER nurse, but even though he was only in his mid-thirties, he could already feel the yoke of burnout beginning to rest on his shoulders. Certainly he could find excitement in other—

A tall, good-looking woman walking out to the parking lot snagged his attention. Aha! That’s what was distracting him—it was that Helen woman’s daughter. Valerie, was it? Something about her sparked his instincts, and she radiated sophistication. But he’d noticed her wedding ring, so dead end there. Odd, though, since he thought for sure he’d detected signals. But if she wanted a side dish, she wouldn’t find him on the menu.

He tried to refocus on his book. The sound of a distant siren interrupted him about ten seconds later, followed by the buzzing of his pager. Shit. He scarfed a huge bite of panini as he quickly packed up to return to the ER. Yeah, he was definitely ready for a change.

 

***

 

Late that night, Helen Palka rolled over on her side, then quickly lifted her head. “Stanley? Is that you?”

Her eyes struggled to make out the unfamiliar shape in her darkened bedroom. A walker—not her dead husband—stood at her bedside. “Oh!” Her muscles relaxed as she shook her head and lay back on the pillow.

Her ankle ached, so she looked at the oversized numbers on her alarm clock. Too soon for another pain pill. She rolled onto her back and sighed.

“I really blew it today, Stanley. Every old woman knows, be careful on ice.” She sighed again. “There’s no fool like an old fool, huh? Not that you would have been careful. Heavens, no. Not even an iceberg would have slowed you down.”

She sat up enough to take a sip of water, then lay back down.

“You can imagine how Valerie reacted. She practically screamed, ‘I told you so.’ I know she means well, but she just doesn’t understand. And if I ever tried to explain it to her, she’d have me put away for good. I sure wish she could have had kids. Then she wouldn’t be so focused on me and that damn business of hers.”

Helen turned on her side facing away from the looming walker and drew the covers snugly around her as she curled into the fetal position. “But don’t you worry, Stanley. I’ll never leave you. This is our home, and I will stay here until the bitter end.”

 

***

 

The next morning, Valerie breezed through the front entrance of the Evanston Mother Hubbard Child Care Center, which was the home office for the local chain of nine centers she owned in the northern suburbs. She normally entered the back entrance that went straight to the business offices, but occasionally she ached for the simple joy of spending time with the kids, and it was definitely one of those days.

She waved to the teachers, shed her coat and shoulder bag, and sat in a tiny chair at a table where three kids were coloring. “Hi, guys.”

A boy with russet hair and eyelashes glanced at her but didn’t respond. A girl with blond pigtails said “Hi” without looking up. But the child next to her, a little boy with molasses skin and eyes to rival Bambi’s, peered at her and said, “Who are you?”

“That’s a very good question. My name is Valerie, and I work in the office here.”

“Oh. I’m Isaiah. I’m gonna be a fireman.”

“Well, good for you, Isaiah. What are you drawing?”

He glanced at his artwork. “It’s a picture for my mamaw.” He turned back to Valerie. “She’s in the hop-sital.”

How ironic. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Does that make you sad?”

He nodded. “She can’t make cookies in the hop-sital.”

Valerie stifled a chuckle. “Oh, poor Isaiah. I hope she’ll be out real soon.”

“Me, too. Can you make cookies?”

“Well, not today, honey.” His little face drooped, and Valerie felt like the Grinch. Then it occurred to her she could pick up some refrigerated cookie dough on the way home. “But I could make some tonight and bring them tomorrow. Would that be okay?”

“Yes!” He brought his hands together in a big slap.

“Okay, so I’ll see you tomorrow then. Can I have a hug?”

He wrapped his arms around her neck, and Valerie melted with gratitude as she breathed in his sweet, baby shampoo smell. Her heart never stopped yearning for motherhood. “Mmm, thank you, Isaiah. Well, I better get to work.” She gathered her things. “You have a good day, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, getting back to busily coloring an orange dog.

Her faith in the wonder of small things restored, she walked briskly into the back portion of the building and stopped in the office of her right-hand woman. “Morning, sunshine.”

Pam Goldblatt swiveled from her computer screen, looking healthy and well rested despite her lack of makeup. Her yellow crewneck sweater complemented her espresso-brown eyes. “Morning.”

“How’s it going?”

“We lost another worker at the Skokie center, but what else is new? How’d it go with your mom?”

“Pretty good, I think.” Valerie unbuttoned the jacket of her suit. “The visiting nurse and the physical therapist both came this morning, and Mom hadn’t fired either one by the time I left. Can you come into my office? I have an idea I want to run by you.”

“Sure.” Pam stood and followed Valerie into the larger office. “You don’t look so hot. Did you have trouble sleeping?”

Valerie hung her coat up and closed the door. “Yeah, but it’s not what you might think.” She sat in her office chair and braced her hands on the armrests. “I came up with this idea for a new business, and it’s either brilliant or totally fucking nuts, and I’m counting on you to give me your honest opinion. No”—she popped up and started pacing—“I want you to talk me out of it. That’s it.” She stopped and pointed at Pam. “You talk me out of it.”

Appearing a little shell-shocked, Pam leaned back in her chair. “Oookaaay.”

Valerie began pacing again. “The biggest problem I have with my mom is that she insists on staying in her home even though she and I both know it’s dangerous.” She halted and gestured toward Pam. “You know how it is. You’ve started having some of the same problems with your mom, right?”

Pam frowned and nodded. “Yeah. I stopped by there at about ten the other night, and she’d left the garage door open again, and the front door was unlocked.”

“That’s just what I mean. And I’ve had all kinds of women tell me they have the same problem.” She started ticking off names with her fingers: “Colleen, Lydia, Sandy, my hair stylist . . . and just last week, when we met with that toy company rep, remember? How her mom got the milk and bleach bottles mixed up?”

The memory made Pam shudder.

Valerie resumed treading back and forth behind her desk. “We do what we can, but they really need more help than we can give them, especially those of us who work full time. And then there are the women who still have kids at home. My God, they call it the sandwich generation, but it’s more like the vise generation!”

Pam continued nodding, but her eyebrows crinkled together.

“Okay, so here’s my idea.” Valerie sat and placed her palms on the top of her desk. “My mom had this really hot male nurse at the hospital yesterday—she just had the best time with this guy—and she makes this comment about how if I could get someone like him to take care of her, she’d go for it. So I get to thinking: What if there was a business that employed handsome young guys to take care of old ladies? They’d love it! I’m telling you, my mom may be as old as the hills, but she still flirts like a teenager. And why not? What has she got to lose? She knows they won’t take her seriously, so they both get a kick out of it.” She paused. “So what’s your first impression?”

Pam guffawed. “You are fucking nuts. But I have to admit, it’s an intriguing idea.”

Valerie couldn’t contain her grin. She jumped up and started moving again. “Okay, good. No, I mean, talk me out of it. Why shouldn’t we do it? What could go wrong?”

“Well . . .” Pam’s brow creased again. “Let me make sure I understand you right. You’re talking about a business that offers attractive male nurses, right?”

“Right, but not just nurses. It would be like that place I just hired for my mom, Compassion Home Health Care. They have everything from nurses to physical therapists to people who just do light housekeeping.”

“Okay. So one problem could be finding enough males with those skills.”

Valerie shot the index finger at Pam again. “Right! But we’ve got the entire Chicagoland area to recruit from. Plus, we would target the wealthy northern suburbs for our clientele, which means we could charge more and then pay more. And they wouldn’t necessarily have to be super young. Even a guy in his forties would be far younger than most of our clients.”

Pam’s eyes widened. “Okay,” she said with a nod.

“What else?” Valerie fluttered her fingers in a give-it-to-me motion.

“Uh . . . Oh! I know. What if you get sued by female workers claiming discrimination?”

Valerie gave a nonchalant shrug. “What about Hooters? How do they get away with it? There must be a way around it. Besides, we’d be a woman-owned firm, and we could have mostly women in the administrative positions. What else?”

“Hmm.” Pam shook her hands as if trying to get her mind going faster. “You don’t know anything about running a health care business.”

“That’s true. But I do own and operate one of the largest child-care chains in the Chicago suburbs. How different can it be? You hire good, properly trained employees, you treat them right—the basics are still the same. I suspect the insurance costs would be higher, but that’s just another business expense we’d have to factor in. Come on, give me something I haven’t thought of.” She removed a bottle of water from her shoulder bag and took a swig.

“Bathing!” Pam said.

“Bathing?”

“Yeah. Those aid workers help them bathe, and old ladies aren’t going to want to let those young guys see their pruny old bodies.”

“Hmm. Good point. I’ll have to ask my mom about that. But I assume the male nurses at the hospitals do all the same things the female nurses do. In fact, that nurse my mom had yesterday helped her use a bed pan.”

“Oh.” Pam appeared surprised.

“But that was a good one. Give me another.”

“Well . . .” Pam twisted one of her dark curls thoughtfully.

Valerie knew that meant Pam was about to say something she might not want to hear, so she stopped pacing.

“I can see you’re all fired up about this, and it is a pretty cool idea. But it’s just so unlike you to want to do something this, well, wacky.”

Detecting the concern in Pam’s voice, Valerie smiled. “That’s exactly why I have you, Tonto. To keep me from going off the deep end. And I’ll tell you the truth.” She returned to her chair, sat, and took a deep breath. “Ever since my birthday, I’ve been thinking about all the safe choices I’ve made in my life. In forty-four years, I’ve never worked in any business but child care; I’ve never traveled outside the U.S.; I married my college sweetheart. And now that we’re separated, that’s got me thinking, too.” She leaned forward. “I feel like I’m ready to take some risks. But I do want them to be calculated risks. That’s why, if you think my idea has any merit, I’d like to proceed. But cautiously. We’d have to do a lot of research, have focus groups, and then we’d write up a business plan. And that would have to pass muster with investors or the idea would be dead in the water.”

“Oh, good.” Pam’s body relaxed. “I was afraid you were planning to use your own savings.”

Valerie grinned. “I’m only partially fucking nuts. Of course, I will invest some of my own money, but certainly not all of it. And I wouldn’t ask you to invest any.”

“What if I want to invest?” Pam smiled coyly.

“You’re not that reckless.”

A spark flashed in Pam’s eyes. “Have you thought of the publicity this would get?”

“Oh, yeah,” Valerie drawled. “We wouldn’t even have to advertise.”

Pam sat forward. “What about a name? We’d want something catchy.”

Valerie stood and resumed wearing down the carpet. “I know. I thought about something that implied Chippendales, but that seemed way too . . .”

“Tawdry.”

“Yeah.”

“I know!” Pam raised her hands. “How about: Home Health Hotties?”

“Yes! That’s good. Except that I’m not sure the old ladies are familiar with the term ‘hotty.’”

“Hmm.” Pam scrunched her mouth to one side. “Maybe not.”

“I’ve got it!” Valerie stopped. “Home Health Hunks!”

Pam looked skeptical. “Nobody uses that word anymore.”

“Nobody young uses it anymore, but my mom used it just yesterday to describe that male nurse. If our target market thinks it’s hip, that’s all that counts.”

Pam paused. “Home Health Hunks. It does have a nice ring to it.”

“Yeah. Let’s just hope we can find some investors who will give us hunks of money.”

 

***

 

Valerie went straight to her mom’s after work that evening. She found Mom sitting on the sofa with her legs extended and eager to recount the day’s events with a level of drama generally reserved for national crises.

Sitting on the opposite end of the sofa, Valerie wished Mom had sprained her tongue rather than her ankle. But she listened patiently, because Mom’s eyes bore the red roadmaps of exhaustion.

“I realize you can’t expect them to send one of their top nurses out for a case like mine, but this girl couldn’t even figure out how to operate the ice maker! And I’m supposed to entrust my life to her? Saints preserve us.”

“So where did that come from?” Valerie asked, pointing to the bag of ice on her mom’s ankle.

“What? Oh, well, she finally figured it out. After I gave her instructions about twenty times.”

Only twenty? “All right, let me ask you this. What if ‘she’ was a ‘he’?”

“What do you mean? Did you hire Keith?” She sat up like a marionette lifted by strings.

“No, no,” Valerie said, though she wanted to say, ‘I wish.’ “I mean, what if there was a home health care agency that employed men instead of women? Attractive, younger men?”

Mom squinted. “Why are you asking me this?”

Valerie explained her business concept, closely watching her mom’s reaction.

Mom’s mouth, which had hung slightly ajar as she’d listened to Valerie, slowly formed into a smile. “That’s preposterous.”

“Yes, but do you like it?”

She shrugged. “What’s not to like?”

“Would you be . . . uncomfortable having a man help you with personal things, like bathing?”

Mom considered a moment. “Hmm. Yes, that might bother me.”

Damn.

“But,” Mom continued, “it didn’t really bug me when Keith helped me with the bed pan yesterday. So I guess if the young man is polite and respects my modesty, I might be okay with it.”

Valerie smiled. And if he happens to be as handsome as Keith. “Pam and I are seriously thinking about starting such a business.”

Mom’s eyes widened in surprise. “You mean yourself? What about Mother Hubbard?”

“We’d still run that, too. After all these years, we can practically do that in our sleep.”

“But that would be awfully demanding, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, but that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about. You know I thrive on it, just like Dad loved all the hours he put in at his stores.” Valerie leaned forward. “This could be great, Mom. Imagine the publicity we’d get. We’re even thinking about—”

Her mom raised her hand like a traffic cop. “Valerie,” she began, her expression somewhere between concern and irritation, “what about Greg?”

Oh, Christ. Why did every conversation have to lead back to her marriage? “What about Greg?”

Now Mom looked exasperated. “How do you expect to save your marriage when you’re running two businesses?”

“I didn’t realize saving my marriage was my job alone.”

Mom frowned. “Oh, honey, of course it isn’t. But you know how he feels about your career.”

“What about how I feel about my career? Doesn’t anybody give a damn about that?”

“Hoot.”

“What?”

“You could say: ‘Doesn’t anybody give a hoot about that?’ You don’t have to resort to profanity.”

Okay, Satan, take me now! “Please, Mom, can we stick to the subject?”

“I’m just concerned that you don’t have your priorities straight. Shouldn’t your marriage come first?”

Shouldn’t it? Valerie hadn’t even considered Greg’s reaction. What did that mean? Later. Think about it later.

“Look, I just wanted to get your opinion about my business idea, not rehash my marital woes. Please.”

Mom shrugged her surrender. “All right.” Then her baby blues softened. “I just want you to be happy, dear. That’s all.”

“I know, Mom. And I appreciate that. But I’ll tell you what, if this new business flies, we may both have something to be happy about.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Two months later, as Valerie and Pam sat in a conference room facing a small group of potential investors, Valerie’s dream for the new business seemed like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing being shaken away.

She recalled how Eric, her financial adviser, had briefed her about the people sitting across the table from the three of them.

“These are ‘angel’ investors, which means they’re wealthy people who finance start-ups that the banks and venture capitalists won’t touch. I hand-picked these investors from among my most adventurous clients, and I think they’re gonna eat it up.”

But to Valerie’s chagrin, they were spitting it out.

“I’m not convinced you won’t face sex-discrimination suits,” said the widow of Oscar Van Something, her face lifted so tightly it resembled a drum.

“Our lawyer has studied the Hooters’ litigation, and he’s convinced we can create job categories that will satisfy the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.” Valerie struggled to keep her voice steady.

The old guy with the bolo tie spoke next. “I know you said you expect little need to advertise because of the publicity you’ll get, but that publicity will be short-lived.”

“We realize that.” Pam sat up straighter and unbuttoned her ill-fitting blazer. “So we’ve done a comprehensive market analysis of where it would be most effective to advertise. One important thing we discovered is that using media that only targets seniors would be a huge mistake, since most of the care-buying decisions are actually made by the adult children.”

Oscar’s widow grimaced. “I would hope they’d be made jointly by the children and the parents.”

“Well, of course,” Valerie attempted the save. “I think what Pam meant is that the actual purchasing of the services is generally done by the children.”

The guy in the navy suit, whose bald head looked like finely polished mahogany, asked them how two people who’d never worked in health care themselves could possibly run a visiting-nurse service. Pam explained they would hire a nurse manager who could handle all the legalities, education, infection control, and so forth. After she finished, an awkward pause suggested the presentation had ended.

“So!” Eric slapped his hands together and gave the investors an enthusiastic smile. “What do you think?”

“I’ve got to be honest with you,” the widow said. “You’ve got a cute idea, but I’m just not convinced you can make a go of it. I’m going to have to pass.”

The others followed suit, and Valerie felt like she’d been punched in the sternum. Her “brilliant solution” to the dilemma of how to care for Mom now appeared quite dull in the harsh light of reality.

Still, she and Pam mustered the tact to stand and shake the investors’ hands and thank them for coming. After they left, Valerie sank back into her chair. “Now what?”

A tinny version of Pink Floyd’s “Money” rang out from Eric’s cell phone. He glanced at the caller ID. “I’ve gotta take this. Back in a minute.” He left the women alone in the conference room.

Pam crossed her arms and leaned against the table. “We gave it our best shot.”

Valerie brought her fingertips together like a steeple. “I wonder if we have any other options.”

“I thought the angel investors were our last, best hope.”

“Yes, that’s what Eric said.”

Eric burst back into the room looking eager as a puppy. “You won’t believe this.” His pupils were huge.

“What?”

“You know Jack Stenberg? Stenberg Enterprises?”

Valerie nodded. “I’ve heard of him, sure.”

“He just called from China. He’s putting together a big deal over there, and that’s why he couldn’t be here today. Anyway, he read your proposal and he loves it. He’s willing to provide seventy-five percent of the financing if you can come up with the other twenty-five, and he also wants a seat on the board. It’s a great offer. I don’t think you should pass it up.”

Valerie’s mind raced. “I can supply the other twenty-five percent myself.” She didn’t love the idea of having Stenberg on the board, but Eric had warned them that angel investors often liked to play some role in the management of the companies they funded. If that was the only way to get Stenberg’s backing, she preferred the risk of having a nettlesome director over chucking the concept entirely. She stood, squared her shoulders, and looked Eric directly in the eye. “We’ll take it.”

Eric beamed. “Awesome.” He shook her hand. “I’ll get going on the paperwork right away.”

Valerie turned to Pam, who seemed stunned. Valerie’s own heart had gone into overdrive. “We’re really gonna do this, Tonto.” They both started laughing, then did a handshake that turned into a hug.

“Oh, my God.” Valerie shook her head. “I thought we were totally screwed. Let’s go have a three-chocolate-martini lunch to celebrate.”

“Better make it two. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Valerie grinned. “That’s right. We’ve got some hunks to hire!”

 

***

 

Valerie and Pam launched their hunt for hunks right after the investors’ meeting, thinking their offer of higher-than-typical pay and flexible hours would prove irresistible. But after four weeks of advertising, they still were attracting more skunks than hunks.

The young man now seated before them in Valerie’s office typified the candidate pool. Smack-dab in the middle of his shirt, he had a stain that resembled an upside-down SUV and almost certainly originated from something deep-fried. Did he honestly think they wouldn’t notice?

Valerie wrapped up the interview and thanked him for coming in.

After he left, Pam said, “I don’t know why, but I’ve got this incredible craving for fried chicken.”

Valerie groaned. “Did that gross you out as much as it did me?”

“I suppose if we were hiring a chef, it would have been fine. But I have this crazy notion that nurses are supposed to care about cleanliness.”

Valerie sighed as she leaned back in her office chair, rubbing her temples. “I can’t believe some of these losers. I’m not sure I’d let them scoop my litter pan, let alone draw my blood.”

“I know. It’s pretty discouraging.”

Valerie felt a tightening in her chest, but she ordered herself to ignore it. “Well, we found an excellent nurse manager, and we’ll find our Triple-H men, too. We just have to be patient. Who’s next?”

Pam opened the folder on her lap and took out an application. “Thomas Fontana.”

“Another nurse?”

“Yeah. Thomas is an LPN with two years’ experience at Whirley Nursing Home.”

Valerie looked at her watch. “This will be the last one I can sit in on, because my mom’s appointment with Dr. Thaxton is at four.”

“All right.” Pam checked her own watch. “We’ve got a few minutes before he gets here, so this might be a good time to think inside the box.”

“Good idea.” Valerie opened the rectangular leather box on her desk and removed two foil-wrapped orbs. They savored their chocolate truffles in silence until Valerie’s administrative assistant called to say Thomas had arrived.

After replacing the phone receiver, Valerie put her hands together in the prayer position and raised her face skyward. “Dear God, please give us something we can work with.”

The second Thomas walked into her office, Valerie vowed to put an extra $20 in the collection plate the next time she went to church.

While not hunkaliciously handsome, he did have the kind of well-groomed appearance and polite smile she knew the old ladies would love. The hint of aftershave, wavy brown hair, and cleft chin were just frosting on an already nicely built cake.

Thomas handled himself well throughout the interview, and after he left, Valerie and Pam high-fived.

“We’re on our way, Tonto.” Valerie grabbed her coat and shoulder bag. “Just a few more like him and we’ll be up and running in a couple of months. I’ll call you later to see how the rest of them went.”

“Why don’t we just clone Thomas?” Pam asked.

Valerie laughed as she sailed out the door. Wriggling into her coat, she braced for the wet April chill as she rushed down the hall. Just as she reached the outside door, it swung open.

Her stomach plummeted when she saw the man who stood there. He truly was hunkalicious, but she knew he didn’t want a job. He wanted his wife.

 

Chapter Three

 

Helen applied her lipstick the way a pastry chef would decorate petit fours, then assessed her reflection in the bathroom mirror. “Not bad for an old hag.”

She turned off the bathroom light and ambled into the kitchen, grateful the ankle didn’t bother her nowadays unless a low-pressure system was moving in. “So today’s the big day, Stanley. But don’t you worry. No young whippersnapper could ever take your place.”

Raising the shade above the kitchen sink, she spotted a Baltimore Oriole on the back feeder. “Oh! That’s the first one we’ve had this summer.” She surveyed the backyard. “The grass is growing well. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to mow it anymore? That little Heffernan snot does a decent job, but he charges me—”

The phone rang, and she reached it by the third ring. “Hello?”

“Morning!”

“Hi, Lorraine.”

“Is he there yet?”

“No, I told you he’s not coming until nine.”




Valerie Palka is a savvy businesswoman who is obsessed with keeping her elderly mom, Helen, safe from all the lethal disasters that can befall widows living alone. Helen thinks the workaholic Valerie should focus on having as much luck in the bedroom as she does in the boardroom. But when Helen takes a spill and is rushed to the ER, a handsome male nurse, Keith Nuber, strikes her fancy, and she tells her daughter, "If you could get a handsome devil like that to take care of me, I'd be willing to consider it." So Valerie creates a care agency, Home Health Hunks, staffed by attractive younger men. Valerie's idea is filled with potential . . . and potholes. As she navigates the tricky road to satisfying her mom as well as her own ambition, she falls in love with one of her employees--Keith--and learns the true meaning of success.

A Hunka Hunka Nursing Love

                  Kathryn Maeglin
                                                            Author