Pressure

Pressure cover artRavi Singh is a homeless veteran haunted by memories of his time in the Marine Corps. Thanks to his attempts to get a group of teenaged gang members to leave the life of crime they’ve chosen, he got shot. Now the wound is infected, and he’s too sick to move. When the teens bring his favorite nurse practitioner to him, he’s torn between anger that they kidnapped her and gratitude that they cared enough to get him help.

As Emma Johnston works to treat Ravi, searches for a way to escape, and attempts to figure out just what his relationship to the gang is, she meets the young orphan boy dubbed Twitch. The child brings out the best in Ravi and helps Emma see a side of the gang members she never expected. The more she learns about Ravi’s unconventional life, the better she understands him and the more she wishes he would quit stubbornly refusing to seek psychiatric treatment. Falling for him was never part of the plan, but neither was getting kidnapped.

Can their budding relationship survive such challenging circumstances, or will it end in devastation?

Excerpt

 

Chapter One

 

Emma Johnston’s footsteps echoed through the dark parking garage as she hurried toward her car. The hair on the back of her neck rose with the sensation of someone watching her, but the garage appeared as empty as ever. Why hadn’t she asked security to escort her to her car? Waiting an extra twenty minutes for a guard to show up when she was already exhausted would have been better than compromising her safety by venturing so far from people in the middle of the night.

She formed a fist around her keys, making sure the points stuck out between her fingers. It wouldn’t do much damage to an attacker, but it would likely cause enough pain to let her get away. Drawing in a deep breath, she tried to convince herself she was just paranoid due to exhaustion. The unsettled spring weather had everyone jumpy, which was why she had finished her shift in the Green Team clinic and been called to help out in the emergency room. The number of accident victims, fight participants, and psych patients had been overwhelming, causing the VA hospital emergency room to call in assistance from other departments. Because Emma had begun her career with the hospital working long hours in the ER, she’d been near the top of their list. That experience plus her skills as a nurse practitioner made her able to do whatever they needed.

Spotting her car ahead, she breathed a sigh of relief. In less than two minutes, she would be safely inside and on her way home for a well-deserved rest. The scuff of a shoe on the pavement to her left made her jump and tighten her grasp on the keys. Whirling toward the sound, she spotted two older teenage boys in baggy clothes standing much closer than she liked.

“You Emma Johnston?”

“Ye-es?” How did they know her name? She knew all of her patients and some of the family members by sight, but there wasn’t even a faint glimmer of recognition with these two.

The two teens stepped closer. “You gotta come with us.”

“I don’t think so.” She backed away, prepared to run screaming until they disappeared back into the shadows. Of all the days to forget to charge her cell phone...

They both pulled out black handguns and aimed them at her. At first, her mind refused to accept what she was seeing, but then it sank in that the weapons were nearly identical to what the police carried. Her heart leapt into her throat as the two teens advanced.

“You’re coming with us.” The boys flanked her, and the only one to speak so far took hold of her arm as the other one pried the keys from her fingers and took her purse. “We heard you straight, and the old man needs a doctor.”

Someone was ill or injured? “I’m not a doctor.”

“We heard you close enough.” He tugged her arm. “C’mon. Our ride’s this way.”

With guns prompting her, she had no choice but to go. Her mind raced faster than her heart as she looked for escape. Yet she was torn. If someone needed medical treatment badly enough that these two were willing to kidnap her at gunpoint, how could she in good conscience refuse to go? Tears pricked her eyes as terror and duty warred within her.

Why, oh, why hadn’t she gotten a security escort or parked somewhere else?

Once outside, the two boys took her around the side of the parking garage to where a running sedan waited in the shadows. The shorter boy opened the back door, and the one holding her arm gave her a shove. “Get in.”

She considered a last ditch effort to get away, but the sight of the guns resting comfortably in her kidnappers’ hands changed her mind. She climbed into the car and slid all the way across the seat while the taller kidnapper climbed in after her. The other boy got into the front seat with the driver, a boy who looked barely old enough to have a license. As soon as the doors closed, the driver took off, carrying Emma away from all hope of safety.

Rather than focus on the danger, she turned her thoughts to the man the teen had mentioned. Maybe if she treated him, they would let her go without harming her. “You said the old man needs a doctor. What exactly is wrong with him?”

“He sick.” The teen beside her looked over with an intense gaze faintly illuminated by the dashboard lights and passing streetlamps. “He done right by us, helped us out. Now he needs us to help him, which means you gonna make him better.”

She might have a good ten years on this kid, but he scared the daylights out of her. The fact that he was armed didn’t help. What she wouldn’t give to be able to jump out of the car. Too bad he would likely shoot her before she could escape. Better to focus on the task they had for her and worry about escape when the opportunity presented itself. Instead of asking for more details about the condition of this old man, she brought up the dilemma they apparently hadn’t considered. “How do you expect me to do anything for him when I have no medical supplies? I don’t even have a stethoscope with me, let alone any kind of medication.”

“Once you know what you need, give me a list. I’ll make sure you get it.”

“How can you — Never mind.” Emma doubted she wanted to know how they could get medical supplies. Most likely, they would steal them from somewhere.

The teen beside her pulled a rolled bandanna from his pocket and held it out to her. “Tie this over your eyes.”

She didn’t take it. “What?”

“You ain’t gonna see where we going. Tie it over your eyes, or I’ll do it for you. Your choice.”

The farther he stayed from her the better. She took the bandanna and tied it in place, all the while wondering why they didn’t want her to know where they took her. Paranoia? They certainly looked like stereotypical gang members. Maybe they had the sick man at their hideout or safe house or whatever they called it. Why was he even there? Ignorance didn’t suit her, so she tried for a little more information. “If this old man needs medical attention, why didn’t you take him to a hospital?”

All three boys laughed, but the same one spoke. “Yeah, like we gonna take him somewhere cops’ll ask questions. For an almost doctor, you sure don’t know much.”

She bit back the reply burning the tip of her tongue. Making these kids mad wouldn’t do her any good. She had to focus on her patient, whoever he was. The only way to do that was to keep quiet, avoid provoking the armed teens, and pray she had the medical knowledge to treat the old man’s illness. She couldn’t consider what kind of danger she would be in if he needed someone with more training or experience. They wouldn’t kidnap a doctor, would they? Maybe she could talk them into taking the old man to an emergency room if he needed more help than she could give.

By the time the car parked in some kind of echoing place, Emma’s nerves were at their limit. Her captors had remained silent, and her precarious situation sank in a little more. This wasn’t a nightmare. It was real, and she had to treat some old guy with an unknown illness in unknown conditions with no supplies. How was she going to get out of this alive?

“We here.” Her door opened, and hard metal poked her just below the shoulder, making her jump. “Get out.”

She felt for the edge of the door and climbed out. Hands outside the car steadied her, and she wondered just how many people were in on this. She hadn’t heard any other car doors open. Whoever steadied her pulled her forward, and she heard the teen who had done all the talking slide out of the car. The door closed a moment later, and the car drove away.

“Bring her,” her kidnapper ordered, and the hand on her arm urged her to move.

They crossed a large echoing expanse and went up a short flight of metal stairs. After passing through a creaking door, they took her forward several yards before turning and going through another door with squeaky hinges. The air inside this room held the overpowering stench of body odor. Apparently, the old man rarely bathed, if he was even in there. Someone desperately needed a shower, anyway.

Someone untied the bandanna covering Emma’s eyes and removed it. The sudden brightness temporarily blinded her. She blinked a few times to help her eyes adjust to the fluorescent lights as her kidnapper spoke beside her.

“The old man’s over there. Let me know what you need to treat him.”

She followed the wave of his hand and spotted the man lying on a cot against a plain white wall. The “old man” appeared to be about thirty and in desperate need of a shave and a haircut as well as a shower. Emma’s compassion came out at the pathetic sight, and she moved to his side as he moaned. He shifted under the blanket, and it slipped down to reveal a bare mahogany shoulder with a vaguely familiar tattoo of an eagle, anchor, and globe. Sweat soaked his shaggy black hair, and she prayed whatever he had wasn’t contagious. With the serious lack of hygiene, it wouldn’t surprise her if he had several bacterial and fungal infections and maybe a parasite or two.

She knelt by the cot and spoke soothingly as she brushed the hair off of his forehead. His skin was hot to the touch. “It’s okay. I’m here to help you.”

He groaned and shifted again. “My wound... it’s bad.”

She gasped as he opened his dark eyes and looked at her. She knew this man. He was one of the homeless veterans who came in from time to time, and he was one of her assigned patients. “Ravi Singh?”

His glazed expression clouded with confusion. “Nurse Johnston? They took me to the VA?”

“No, they brought me to you.” She lifted the blanket to find his wrist and checked his pulse. Fast but strong. “They said you’re sick. Aside from fever, what are your symptoms?”

“Pain. Lots of pain.” He pulled down the blanket to reveal a lean upper body with a bandaged abdomen. “I think it’s infected.”

“What is infected?” What had happened to this poor man?

“The gunshot wound.”

Had her kidnappers shot him? She tossed a glance over her shoulder and found a handful of male teenagers watching her every move. Were they all armed? Would they shoot her too?

The taller of her kidnappers rolled his eyes. “We didn’t shoot him, just like we ain’t gonna shoot you if you help him.”

Ravi spoke in a surprisingly firm voice. “You’re not going to shoot her even if she can’t help me. I keep telling you violence is not the answer. It only creates more problems.”

“Like trying to stop violence did you so much good. It got you shot.”

“Trevor, don’t argue with me right now. You know why I’m lying here in pain. Accept responsibility for your actions and learn from your mistakes.”

Emma caught her breath as the teen glared and clenched his jaw. Had Ravi lost his mind? She didn’t care if he had been a marine. Didn’t he realize how stupid it was to make a guy with a gun angry?

Trevor spun toward the door. “Tiny, get a list of what she needs and bring it to me. I’ll be outside.”

A boy built like a linebacker nodded as Trevor left the room. Emma breathed a little more easily without his intimidating presence. Maybe Ravi knew what he was doing after all. Now it was time to prove she knew what she was doing.

She reached for the tape holding the white bandage in place. “It might hurt when I pull this off.”

Ravi nodded and closed his eyes. “Do whatever you have to do.”

She peeled back the bandage and cringed. He had two weeping wounds — one gash and one small round hole. Both were red and yellow, oozing in an unhealthy manner, and the smell was unbelievable. She replaced the bandage and drew in a deep breath of slightly fresher air as tears stung her eyes. It never should have gotten this bad.

She glanced at Ravi to find his dark gaze on her. “Do you still have a bullet in you?”

He shook his head. “It went through and came out my back.”

How bad would the third wound look? “Roll onto your side and let me take a look.”

He was too weak to roll over on his own, so she helped him, well aware of the young gazes burning into her. How had Ravi gotten mixed up with a teenaged gang? Was he a part of it? The words and actions of the boys indicated he was, but it didn’t fit with what she knew of his personality.

She checked the exit wound, relieved that it looked fairly healthy. “Not bad.”

“It doesn’t hurt as much as the others.” Ravi heaved a sigh of relief as she helped him settle on his back again. “So, can you help me?”

“I’ll do my best.” She studied him, struggling to understand. “Why didn’t you come in when you first got injured? We could have helped you avoid suffering like this.”

He looked away from her searching gaze and spoke barely above a whisper. “I couldn’t. The boys did the best they could with their limited knowledge and their own experiences, but I couldn’t force them to take me to a hospital.”

Emma remembered the way he’d taken charge just moments ago when Trevor threatened her. Something wasn’t adding up. “Why not? They seem to listen to you.”

“The memories,” he murmured, his voice hoarse. “The tension, the shooting, all of it... The memories stopped me from living.”

“Oh, Ravi.” She stroked his tangled hair, wishing she could take his pain away. He had resisted the last time she suggested counseling to help him deal with the memories of his time in the service, but maybe now he would consider it. “I can help you get hooked up with psych. There’s no need for you to suffer.”

He shook his head and looked past her. “Get me healthy. That’s all I want right now.”

She glanced over her shoulder to find a larger group of teens watching and understood. He didn’t want to admit weakness in front of these dangerous kids. Maybe if she could get him alone, she could talk him into going to the VA hospital for treatment. She returned her gaze to him, noting his closed expression. Or maybe not. For a sick and injured man, he still bore a strong resemblance to a stubborn mule.

She straightened and turned toward the linebacker-wannabe called Tiny. “I need a piece of paper and a pen, so I can write out what I need to treat Ravi.”

He motioned to a boy who looked about twelve or thirteen. The younger boy stepped forward and held out a clipboard with a pen connected to it by a string. Emma took it with a smile, wondering if these kids were all mute. “Thank you.”

She started making her list, but Ravi’s voice distracted her.

“Try to give them a couple of options if you can. They’ll do their best to get exactly what you ask for, but some medications are harder to find than others.”

She lowered the clipboard and lifted an eyebrow. “And you know this how?”

He shrugged and closed his eyes. “The boys have taught me a lot about how things work in this city when you need to fly under the radar for one reason or another.”

What had he gotten involved in? What was she now involved in? For the sake of keeping her fear under control, she decided she didn’t really want to know. Once she was out of here and home where she was safe, then she could think about it all. For now, she had a rather lengthy list to write.

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