SAMANTHA LEWIS RAN UP the steps of the agency, pulling her bright pink scarf from her head and scattering a trail of raindrops behind her. The forecast had been clear, but she should have known better in damp London in the middle of December.
As she pushed open the door she was hit by a wave of heat and a rush of noise. No one in the agency seemed to sit down. It was constantly busy, dealing with desperate calls for specialised nursing care over the holiday season. She undid the buttons on her thick grey duffel and tried to find somewhere to perch until she could speak to someone.
It shouldn’t be long. She already knew where her assignment would be, and who she’d be looking after—she just needed confirmation. Looking after Daniel Banks—a seven-year-old with cystic fibrosis—was really the perfect job for her. Three weeks’ work for the equivalent of six months’ worth of her current NHS salary. A match made in heaven.
It was hard work, but Daniel was a gorgeous little boy who needed round-the-clock care. His family clearly adored him, and having an extra pair of hands—expert hands—to watch their little boy over the Christmas period benefited them all.
She caught the eye of Leah, the receptionist, and gave her a smile. But Leah, who was normally so friendly, looked away quickly and picked up the phone again. Strange.
She watched for a few minutes as a couple of familiar faces appeared, picked up their assignments and headed off back out into the throng of Oxford Street. At least she wasn’t alone. Most other nurses she knew wanted to spend time with their families at Christmas.
Then there were the few who were just as desperate as she was. This was the best-paying gig of the year. The last two years she’d lucked out with Daniel’s fantastic family. Some of her other colleagues hadn’t been so fortunate and had spent the festive period being a cross between a housemaid, a nanny and, in one case, a cook, as well as a nurse.
There was a stiff breeze at her side as another door opened. Trish, the owner, stuck her head out. ‘Sam, in here, please.’
She started fastening the buttons on her duffel again. Even though they were inside, the wind whipping around Trish’s office was worse than the current gale blowing down Oxford Street. Trish Green was going through the ‘change’ and her staff knew all about her flushes and had warned everyone not to mention a thing.
‘What’s up, Trish? Aren’t you just going to give me my assignment?’
She closed the office door behind her as Trish gestured to the seat in front of her desk. She couldn’t help but notice the troubled look on Trish’s face. The happy, shining feeling she’d had while climbing the stairs was starting to leave her.
Trish’s face was flushed red as she sat down at the other side, a file clasped in her hand. ‘I’m sorry, Sam
. I did try to call you.’ She hesitated for a second, as if she knew the impact of what she was about to say. ‘Daniel Banks was hospitalised last night.’
Sam sat straight up. ‘Is he okay? What’s wrong with him? Is it a chest infection?’
Chest infections were pretty common for kids with CF and Sam was a specialist, she could give IV antibiotics and extensive physio if required. Trish licked her lips and took a deep breath as she shook her head. ‘Nothing so simple. It’s pneumonia. He’s been ventilated.’
Tears sprang to the corners of her eyes. This was serious. Pneumonia could be deadly to a kid like Daniel. ‘No! How is he doing? Have you spoken to his parents? Is there anything we can do?’
Trish sighed. ‘Yes, I’ve spoken to them. They’ve been warned that all plans will need to be cancelled. They’re in it for the long haul.’
Sam rested back in the wobbly chair. Daniel was a lovely little boy, so full of joy, so full of fun, with a body that betrayed his spirit. She couldn’t imagine how the family must be feeling.
‘Sam?’ She looked up.
Trish had worry lines along her brow like deep furrows in the ground. ‘I’m sorry, but it means your assignment will be cancelled.’
A chill swept over her body, every tiny little hair standing on end as her breath caught in her chest. It hadn’t even entered her brain. Of course, she couldn’t work for Daniel’s family now. And, of course, she wouldn’t be paid.
It was a horrible set of circumstances. Trouble was, her mother’s nursing-home fees would still need to be paid at the end of the month. This was why she was here. This was the reason she gave up her holidays every year.
Her chest tightened. She still hadn’t released the breath she was holding. She was trying not to let panic consume her. Trying not to say all the words out loud that were currently circulating like a cyclone in her brain. How on earth was she going to pay the fees?
Trish shifted uncomfortably in her chair. ‘I had a quick look before you got here, Sam. I don’t really have anything similar. I certainly don’t have anything that lasts for three weeks and pays the same fee.’ She shuffled some papers on her desk. ‘I’ve got a patient requiring terminal care but they’re in Ireland, a woman with dementia who needs to be accompanied on a flight to Barbados, and a child with an infectious disease who basically needs to be babysat while the rest of the family go on their Christmas cruise.’
‘They’re going on holiday without their kid?’ She couldn’t hide the disgust in her voice. ‘What happened to holiday medical insurance and cancelling for another date?’
Trish couldn’t look her in the eye. ‘The father can’t get other holidays, so the rest of the family have to go without the child.’
‘That’s shocking. Who does something like that?’
Trish shoved the paper under the others on her desk. ‘Didn’t think that one would be for you.’
The door opened and Leah hesitated in the doorway. ‘Eh, Trish? That query earlier—it just came in. It’s a definite. Flight’s at seven from Gatwick. We need someone now.’
Trish’s eyes flickered from side to side, between Leah and Samantha. She bit her lip and took the file from Leah’s hand, opening it and sitting it on her desk. For a few moments she scanned the page in front of her.
Sam couldn’t stand the silence—it let her hear the thoughts currently circulating in her head. ‘Anything I can do?’ Was that her voice, sounding so desperate? Had she really just said that out loud?
She needed a job. She needed something that paid her for the next three weeks, otherwise she’d need to go back and plead for extra bank shifts. Would three weeks’ overtime pay in the NHS equal what she would get at the agency? Not even close.
Trish fixed her steely gaze on her. She cleared her throat. ‘How are you with diabetes, Samantha?’
Sam straightened in the chair. It wasn’t easy as every time she moved, the wobbly legs threatened to throw her to the floor. She couldn’t help but search her brain desperately. ‘I’m fine. I mean, I’m good. No, I’m better than good.’
Yip. Definitely sounding desperate.
Trish’s eyebrows had risen, a look of pure disbelief on her face. If this was the difference between getting another job or not, it was time to put on the performance of a lifetime.
Sam took a deep breath. ‘Obviously, I know all the basics as a nurse. But my sister is diabetic, diagnosed as a child. I know about hypos, high blood sugars, adjusting insulin doses and all the risks and complications.’ It was true. She did know more than the average nurse. Living with someone with diabetes as a child was a whole different ballgame from looking after a patient for a few days in a hospital.
Trish was still studying her carefully. ‘How do you feel about working with someone who’s just been diagnosed? You’d have to do the entire education package and training with them.’
Sam licked her lips and nodded slowly. The fundamentals of diabetes hadn’t changed over the years. She’d watched her sister change monitoring systems and insulin regimes many times. The most important factor was always going to be steady blood-sugar levels. ‘I think I can manage that without any problems. What age is the patient?’
Trish was still shuffling papers on her desk. ‘Do you have a current passport? And how do you feel about signing a non-disclosure agreement?’
‘A what?’ Trish still hadn’t answered the previous question. Was the patient a baby, or maybe a toddler? Some kids could be diagnosed when they were really young.
Trish was looking a little shifty. She waved a piece of paper from the file. ‘A non-disclosure agreement. You’d need to sign it.’
Now she was getting confused. What kind of job was this? ‘Why would I need to sign a non-disclosure? That seems a little odd. All nurses are bound by confidentiality anyway.’
‘This is different. It’s not a kid. It’s an adult. And he’s a well-known adult.’
Something had just clicked into place in her brain. ‘Passport? Is the job not in the UK?’
Trish pushed the file across the desk towards Sam. ‘The job is in Innsbruck, a ski resort in the Alps. You’d need to fly there tonight. And this is all the detail I have. I can’t tell you any more. You sign the non-disclosure and leave tonight. You don’t find out who you’re working for until you get there.’
Alarm bells started ringing in her head. ‘What do you mean?’ She scanned the piece of paper in front of her. It looked as if it had come from some sort of agent. And it was only the basics. An adult male, diagnosed with diabetes less than forty-eight hours ago. Assistance required in helping him learn to manage and deal with his condition over the next three weeks.
Her gaze reached the bottom of the page. The fee. For three weeks’ work. Her eyes were nearly out on sticks. How much??
‘Is this safe?’ Her voice squeaked.
She was trying to think rational thoughts, even though her brain was moving to rapid calculations of exactly how many months’ worth of nursing-home fees that sum would cover.
It was all her own fault. When her mother had had the stroke over two years ago she’d spent the first few months trying to care for her mum herself. When it had become clear that she couldn’t care for her mum and work at the same time, she’d changed jobs, swapping from a sister in an ITU, working shifts, to a school nurse with more regular and shorter hours. But the pay cut hadn’t helped, particularly when she’d had to pay two mortgages and supplementary day care for her mother. And when the day-care assistants had failed to show for the seventh time and her mum had had an accident at home, she’d finally faced up to the fact that her mother needed to be in a home.
Picking a nursing home that was up to her standards hadn’t been easy—and when she’d finally found one, the fees were astronomical. But her mother was happy, and well cared for, hence the reason she needed to work for the agency
to supplement her salary.
Trish stood up. ‘Of course it’s safe, Samantha. I wouldn’t send you anywhere you need to worry about. Now, can you be on a flight out of Gatwick at seven tonight?’ She held out the non-disclosure agreement again, along with a pen.
Sam hesitated for only a second. How bad could this be? It was probably some aging actor who needed some basic guidance and hand-holding for a few weeks. She’d heard of Innsbruck before—hadn’t the Winter Olympics been held there? The money was just too good to turn down. She grabbed the pen and scribbled her signature before she started asking any more questions that might make her change her mind.
She stood up. ‘Innsbruck—that’s Austria, isn’t it?’ She wrapped her scarf back around her head, trying to ignore the fact that she and skiing didn’t mix. She shot Trish a beaming smile and held out her hand to shake it. ‘A ski resort at Christmas? What more could a girl want? This’ll be a piece of cake.’
* * *
Mitchell Brody felt terrible. He wasn’t even going to look in the mirror because then he’d know that he looked terrible too.
The timing couldn’t be worse. This was the last thing he needed right now. His tour kicked off in three weeks. He had to be fit and well for that. He needed to be able to perform. He had to get this under control.
The consultant was still shaking his head and frowning. ‘You can’t sign a discharge against medical advice. I won’t allow it.’
Mitchell planted his hands on his hips. ‘You can’t stop me. Find me someone who can get me through this.’
‘I’ve already put in a call to an agency in London. But it’s a difficult time of year, staff are at a premium, and it will be hard to find someone with the skills you’ll require.’
He sighed, frustration was building in his chest. ‘Just find me someone, anyone, who can do this for me. I can pay. Money isn’t a problem.’
The consultant narrowed his gaze. ‘You don’t understand. This isn’t about someone “doing this” for you. You have to do it for yourself. You have to learn to take care of yourself with this condition. This is twenty-four hours a day, for the rest of your life. And it isn’t an issue of cost. At this time of year staff come at a premium price. You have no choice but to pay it.’