The holidays—a joyous time for regular folks—often sucked ass for medical professionals and first responders like Cash Kingston. Because all that regular people joy turned into stuff like eggnog-fueled ditch surfing, domestic dustups over which bowl game to watch, and all-around festivity madness. Add in coworker vacations and midwinter sick days, and it landed a guy on the seven-to-seven shift when he’d planned to be setting up a stellar surprise for the love of his life.
Instead, Cash was unloading a loaded college co-ed from the back of his rig and rolling her into St. Elizabeth’s emergency room. His partner on the ambulance tonight, Libby Arceneaux, was sharp and incredibly competent, and normally, he’d be thrilled to work with her.
As they hustled for the ER’s sliding glass doors, she shot him a smirk over the supine body of the blond girl who was babbling about… lash extensions? “Kingston,” Libby said, “you look like Santa shoved a rotten carcass into your stocking.”
Well, hell. Apparently, he hadn’t done a bang-up job of covering his frustration at being called in tonight. “Sorry. It’s just that—”
“You had other plans.”
“I get why the newbies are working extra shifts, but you’re one of the—”
“Do not call me one of the old guys.” He narrow-eyed her as the doors whooshed open and they pushed the stretcher inside the vestibule and through a second set of doors.
“I was going to say one of the people with seniority. I mean, you’re on the local SWAT and you don’t pull enough weight to get out of D and D scoops? That’s just wrong. And it means there’s no hope for me.”
“Everybody pulls their weight this time of year.”
“And a fine weight it is.” Libby gave him a once-over from the waist up, a look that might’ve seemed flirtatious if she and everyone else who worked with him didn’t know he was head over heels for Emmy McKay.
At least this call might let him catch a quick look-see at his fiancé. She was working a twelve-to-twelve here in the ER, but by the looks of things, she’d probably be lucky to get home when Cash did.
The college girl they’d transported was strapped to the stretcher, but she somehow found the dexterity to flail around and grab Cash’s crotch with alarming accuracy. He tried to dodge with what probably looked like some kind of hot coal dance, but she latched on like the claw in an arcade game.
“Juthtin,” she slurred. “Gimme thome o’ that, baby.”
Cash gently squeezed a pressure point in her hand to release her drunken grip and tucked her hand back on the stretcher.
“You’re a good guy, Kingston,” his partner said, but that didn’t keep her from chuckling.
He grunted. “Let’s see how you like it when she feels you up next.”
They wheeled the girl around a corner into what looked like a medical mosh pit. People in scrubs were hustling from room to room, and the waiting room receptionist poked her head into the hallway and called out, “We’ve got a full house out here.”
“No rooms available at the inn right now,” one of the nurses responded. “We’ll let you know as soon as we can triage more.”
Looked like they’d have to find a nice spot here in the hallway to park Miss Toasty for a few minutes. He was headed toward the nurse’s station—decorated with a reindeer head fashioned from a bedpan and something that was either a Christmas tree made of inflated medical gloves or a mutant cow—when something slammed into the stretcher from the back, almost forcing it from his and Libby’s grip.
“Juthtin!” the girl said, trying to look behind her.
Miss Toasty might be drunker’n a skunk, but her instincts were still sharp. Because sure enough, her boyfriend and his friends had followed them. Probably double-parked in the ER bay and blocking the ambulance.
“Dude,” he said to the kid wearing a pricy down puffer jacket, who was now half leaning over his girlfriend’s head and onto the stretcher, “you shouldn’t be in here. You and your buddies can find a spot in the waiting room.”
The kid looked up, and by the network of red capillaries in his eyes, he was just as wasted as the girl. “Dude, I don’t—”
Only one gag, and there he blew. Vomit volcano-ed every-damn-where. All over the girl, off the stretcher, up Cash’s arm and across his chest. Amazing how a person who was barely standing on his own two feet could win first place in an Olympic puking competition.
“Jesus Christ,” Cash’s partner said, covering her face with the crook of her arm.
Yeah, no matter how much nasty stuff they all came into contact with, sometimes it still took you by surprise. And this psychedelic spew had the scent of months-old Easter eggs and… peppermint. Still, Cash grabbed the kid before he slid off the stretcher and hit the floor. Hell, he couldn’t get much more disgusting, so Cash bear-hugged the guy and hefted him onto an empty stretcher.
“I see you’ve brought me a couple of pretty presents tonight, Cash. Remind me to thank you later. Much, much later.”
Cash turned to find Dr. Emerson McKay, hands on hips and mouth twisted into a resigned scowl, staring down at the kid. Emmy’s dark braid hung over one shoulder, and she pushed it behind her back to glance up at him. “Give me the rundown on them.”
“They’re both shit-faced.”
That brought a reluctant smile to her beautiful face, and Cash automatically took a step toward her but was warded off by her outstretched arm. “No closer. You smell—and look—like a well-used emesis basin. Any idea what they drank or took?”
As much as it pained him to smell himself, Cash took a tentative breath. “No one was talking, but I’m pretty sure peppermint schnapps is gonna be permanently banned from my liquor cabinet.”
A nurse hurried by and said to Emmy, “Room six just opened up.”
Emmy motioned to Libby. “Let’s take them both in.” When Cash made to push the stretcher, Emmy grabbed it and pointed him toward the staff lounge. “Good Lord, you even have vomit on your neck. Extra scrubs are in the cabinet. Please, go hose yourself off.”
As Cash turned away from Emmy, he saw the evening he’d planned for the two of them slipping even further away. He had music, food, candles, and champagne all ready to go. He’d also splurged on something for the bedroom that he hoped would help him romance and seduce the woman he was marrying. But that was looking less likely with every breath he took, because what woman in the history of the world had ever been turned on by the smell of regurgitated peppermint schnapps?
Although the young man Cash and his partner had brought her was moaning like a Halloween ghost, Emmy was more concerned about the girl lying on the other bed. Her head kept drifting from side to side, but she never seemed to focus on anything, not even the penlight Emmy was shining in her eyes. She was also mumbling something that sounded like lines from either a Dr. Seuss book or a Lewis Carroll poem.
Slithy toves had nothing on this chick.
“Dixie pust,” the girl muttered.
That got Emmy’s attention. “Did she say pixie dust?” she asked the nurse.
“Sort of, but not exactly.”
Emmy leaned close to the girl and touched her face. Her pupils were now pinpoints and her respirations were slowing. “Did you take pixie dust?”
Libby said, “We had no reason to suspect opioids. When we picked her up, there were beer cans and liquor bottles everywhere, but no evidence of needles or powder. Her respiration was fine in the rig. Shit, did we miss something?”
“I don’t know.” But Emmy turned to the nurse. “Let’s hit her—both of them—with Narcan.”
“But isn’t pixie dust ketamine and LSD?” Libby asked.
“It’s not like these things have very specific ingredients,” Emmy said. “These kids are master chefs, always tweaking the recipes.”
Emmy administered a dose to the girl, spraying the naloxone into her left nostril, while the nurse took care of the guy. Both kids were starting to respond when Cash entered the room. He’d obviously washed off, as water droplets clung to his short blond hair, and he smelled infinitely better than he had a few minutes ago. But it only took one glance at him for Emmy to realize something was wrong. He was a smiler, even under trying circumstances, but the groove on the left side of his face was nowhere to be seen.
He held a hand to his broad chest and he swayed. “I’m not feeling… wellllll fuuuuck.” Cash’s brown eyes rolled back and his knees buckled. Emmy lunged forward to catch him around the waist. But her weight was no match for his and they crashed to the floor, landing in a tangled heap on the linoleum.
Libby rushed toward them, reaching out to help, and Emmy said, “He’s not breathing. Narcan. Now.”
Oh, God. He wasn’t breathing.
Libby looked up at the nurse and yelled, “Narcan! Now! Then go check on the other kids in the waiting room.”
By sheer will and riding a wave of fear, Emmy rolled Cash to his back, took the drug the nurse shoved into her hand, and inserted the nozzle into Cash’s nose. She pressed the plunger so aggressively that she was surprised she didn’t drive the damn thing into his brain.
“Breathe, dammit! Breathe, baby, breathe.” As she watched Cash’s slack face, Emmy’s stomach leapfrogged to the top of her pounding heart for what seemed like eternal hell. In reality, it took mere seconds for Cash to gain consciousness.
“Thank you, God. Thank you, Universe. Thank you, Narcan.” The love she felt for this man was so big that she couldn’t imagine what the world would look like without him. Less bright, less fun, less everything. They’d found one another again after years apart, and Emmy would be damned if she’d lose him. She laid her head on Cash’s chest and squeezed her eyes closed. She didn’t give a damn who might see her cry, but she needed to be steady for him. “Don’t ever do that again,” she said into the fabric of the green scrubs he was wearing.
His arm came around her and he laughed, a breathy wheeze of a sound. “Didn’t mean for it to happen the first time. I didn’t feel weird until I walked in here.”
Which reminded her she had other people and patients in the room. She scrambled up from the floor, but eased Cash back and gave him a quick kiss when he tried to stand. “Stay there. Just rest a second.”
Ignoring her like the man he was, he sat up and scooted so his back was against the wall. His forehead furrowed, he looked between her and Libby. “What the hell happened?”
Her stomach and heart still trying to take their proper positions inside her torso, Emmy said, “I’m pretty sure you just overdosed.”