top of page

Excerpt: Look on the Bright Side

CHAPTER ONE

 

Lark

 

“The sobbing has to stop, Dr. Smith.”

 

Larkby Christina Smith, M.D. (at least for now) gulped and looked at the head of Oncology at Hyannis Hospital. She wiped her eyes with one of the tissues he’d passed across the desk. Outside, the steady May rain beat against the windows.

 

“I know,” Lark whispered, then cleared her throat. “I’m sorry.” There. Her voice sounded slightly less pathetic.

 

Here in his office, Dr. Hanks (no relation) doled out bad news on a daily basis. Usually to his patients, but today, Lark suspected, to her. The good doctor’s voice voice was firm but gentle, his eyes kind. “The thing is, Lark, it doesn’t get easier. Not at all. Oncology isn’t for everyone.”

 

First name, not Dr. Smith. That didn’t bode well.

 

“I know you felt close to the patient,” Dr. Hanks added.

 

Lark tried to stifle a sob, failed, and put a hand over her eyes. “It’s just…you’re right. I did. Very close.” She swallowed another sob, but traitorous tears still leaked out of her eyes.

 

Three hours earlier, Lark’s favorite patient, Charles Engles, had died after an eight-month battle with pancreatic cancer. And yes, she may have (she had) let emotions get in the way. How could she not? Charlie, as he insisted she call him, had been so wonderful, so funny and kind and positive. He’d only been sixty-four…same age as her dad. His wife had been at his side the past three horrible days as Charlie faded in and out of consciousness. On the last day, Mrs. Engels (Patty) had climbed into bed with him, and even though he was barely alive, Charlie had put his arm around her. Their three sons had all been there, crying softly, and the grandkids had visited the day before. Lark had been present for Charlie’s last, labored breath, and when Mrs. Engels let out a wail, well…so had Lark. She hadn’t meant to. It just…slipped out.

 

“Dr. Smith. Get a grip.” Dr. Hanks folded his hands in front of him and looked at her firmly.

 

“Sorry,” she said, blowing her nose. God. At thirty-three, she should be in better control of her feelings.

 

“It’s one thing to be sympathetic. It’s another for the widow to be comforting you, Lark.”

 

She winced at that. “They, um…they felt like family. Charlie…that is, the patient told me he wished I was his daughter.” She stifled another sob.

 

“But you’re not.” Dr. Hanks’s voice was a little harder. “And while I commend the commitment you put into your work, it was their loss, not yours.”

 

“Fair point.” She’d miss Charlie. He was so sunny, even when he was in pain, someone she really looked forward to seeing every chance she got. Even after her long shifts, she’d stop by his room if he’d been admitted, chatting with him, holding his hand, even singing to him one night.

 

Dr. Hanks sighed. “We can’t have you falling apart every time a patient dies. This is oncology. We lose patients. We have to make friends with death, at least on some level.”

 

Lark nodded and blew her nose.

 

“I’m going to transfer you to the ER,” Dr. Hanks said, and Lark jolted.

 

“No! Please, Dr. Hanks! I’ll get my shit together. I promise.”

 

Dr. Hanks leaned back in his chair and squinted at her. “We’re about to admit a thirty-nine year-old mother for Stage IV breast cancer, metastatic to liver and brain, for palliative chemo.” He looked at Lark, waiting.

 

Lark tried to hold her face still. Felt her lips wobbling and tried not to blink so the tears wouldn’t fall. Didn’t even breathe. Nodded in what she hoped was a clinical yet compassionate and professional manner. “I see.” Her voice was tight, but not choked. Well done, Lark.

 

“Three kids. Ten, six and three. Found out she had cancer when she couldn’t nurse the last baby.”

 

“Oh, God! That’s so unfair!” So much for restraint, Lark thought as she shook with sobs. Her niece was three. What if Imogen lost Addie? What if Lark lost Addie, her identical twin?

 

“Again, the sobbing,” said Dr. Hanks. “I’ll call the head of the emergency department and make this official. It’ll be good for you. Fix ‘em up and ship ‘em out, no chance to get too attached.”

 

“Wait. Wait. What if I, um, improve?” She took a breath and tried to sound more convincing. “I was meant for this field, Dr. Hanks. You know my history. Give me a chance to prove myself.”

 

Dr. Hanks sighed in that can we please end this conversation way. “I won’t rule it out. We can talk about it in a couple months, how’s that? Take the rest of the week off, and best of luck.”

 

~~~

 

Lark’s fellow residents hugged her, told her she had a good heart, was a great doctor, all that. It helped, a little. But everyone was aware she was leaving because she couldn’t hack it. And hacking cancer was supposed to have been her life’s purpose.

 

The second she got outside of the hospital, she did what she  always did in times of crisis— called her twin.

 

“What happened?” Addison asked before she  said a word. This was typical for them, not always needing words to communicate.

 

“I got kicked out of oncology and was tranferred to emergency medicine,” she said.

 

“Ouch. Demoted.”

 

Lark winced at the word, which was all too accurate. “Yeah.” Not that emergency medicine was for stupid people, of course. But being an oncologist took years more training. You spent more time with patients, got to know them, helped them through the worst time of their lives, and hopefully cured them. Plus, the whole “life’s calling” part. Her plan had been to work here on the Cape as an oncologist, admitting patients to Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston as needed, just ninety minutes away. She’d imagined being absolutely adored by her patients for her intelligence, her compassion and commitment. Her, um, grace under pressure.

 

Her eyes filled again.

 

“You were crying too much, weren’t you?” Addie asked.

 

“Mm-hm.” Weeping had always kind of been her thing. Addie had gotten the tough genes when their egg had split thirty-three years ago.  She’d had Imogen after twenty-seven hours of back labor and not a single drop of painkiller. Lark knew this, since she’d been on one side of the bed, Addie’s wife Nicole. on the other. It had been one of the best days of her life. Lots of tears then, too, but all so happy.

 

But if Addie had gotten the tough genes, Lark got the smart genes. Like their older sister, Harlow, Lark had been valedictorian at Nauset Regional High School. She’d gone to Boston University, then Tufts for med school, graduating in the top two percent of her class.

 

“Well,” Addison said, “this doesn’t mean anything.” Lark heard her sister clicking on a keyboard. “You can go back to oncology. I just checked.”

 

“My chances just threw themselves off a cliff, though.”

 

“Try not to overthink it, Larkby,” she said, one of the few who used her full name. “The ER will toughen you up. You’ll see all sorts of amputations and crushed limbs and gunshot wounds, right?”

 

“More like drug overdoses and tick bites.”

 

“Well, it doesn’t matter. You’re amazing. You’re already an M.D. This will all work out in the end.”

 

“Thanks, Addie.” Lark smiled a little. Addie’s confidence in her was always a boost.

“Gotta go. Esme’s bus is due any second.” Esme was her older daughter, the bio-baby of her wife. Same sperm donor, so the girls were half-sisters.

 

“Send me a picture of the girls, okay? Love you.” She ended the call, waited five seconds and smiled as the picture came through. Addie always had fresh photos of the girls, being one of those moms who posted on Instagram and TikTok at least three times a day. It was the only reason Lark still had social media accounts—to see her nieces. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d posted herself. At least seven years ago, she knew that.

 

The photo from Addie was of three-year-old Imogen, dressed all in beige, her blonde hair shining. She had the same green eyes as Lark and Addie, the same long blonde lashes. Lark’s heart gave a happy, hard squeeze. She could spend at least some of her enforced time off with her nieces, and that was never a bad thing.

 

Her phone buzzed again—the hospital, asking her to call in. She probably needed to do some paperwork, because what was medicine without paperwork? Obediently, she called the number.

 

“Hi, Vanessa, it’s Lark Smith,” she said to the receptionist, recognizing her voice. Saying “Dr. Smith” still felt weird. She’d only been an official doctor for two years.

 

“Hey, hon. You have an urgent message from Dr. Santini,” Vanessa said. “He needs you to return his call as soon as possible.”

 

“Dr. Santini? The surgeon Santini?” she asked, faintly alarmed. “Maybe you have the wrong number, Vanessa?”

 

“I’m just the messenger, honey. He was clear.”

 

“Huh. Okay. He didn’t say what it was about?”

 

“He just growled your name and said you needed to call him.”

 

“And it was definitely Lark Smith? Not Odell Smith?” Please, God, let it be Odell.

 

“It was you, kid. Sorry.” Vanessa recited the number, which Lark typed into her phone.

 

“Thanks, Vanessa. Tell your handsome hubby I said hello.”

 

“I will, honey, I will.” Lark could hear the smile in Vanessa’s voice.

 

Dr. Santini. It was probably a mistake. The man was loathed, feared and admired, the last for his abilities in the OR. Outside of that, he was referred to as Dr. Satan. She couldn’t imagine why he’d need a lowly (now somewhat disgraced) resident. She’d only met him during the painful weeks of her surgical rotation, during which she tried to blend in with the walls. Lark didn’t even know his first name. Though he was probably only around forty, he was definitely old school, the kind of doctor who used terror, intimidation and ridicule to educate. As she well knew.

 

Happily, he only worked occasionally at Hyannis Hospital, swooping in from the great institutions of Mass General Brigham, Dana Farber, Beth Israel. On top of being truly gifted, he had also invented a device that kept organs oxygenated during transport, making it much more likely for them to be successfully transplanted. According to rumor, it had made him fabulously wealthy. Lark had seen him getting out of a Maserati one day in the parking lot, but had ducked down behind an SUV so as not to attract attention. No one wanted attention from Dr. Santini except his patients.

 

During her surgical rotation, she’d gotten some, unfortunately. The godlike Santini had agreed to do rounds with them, the lowly residents! It was terrifying and thrilling.  "Santini! Educating us! Can you believe it?” Also, “Stay on your toes. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Don’t make an ass of yourself. He eats people like us for a bedtime snack.”

 

Lark had been the snack. During rounds that unhappy day, he’d barked out, “What diagnosis should be considered for anal fissures that are not at six or twelve o’clock?” No reason. Just whimsy. Just a sort of gotcha pop quiz.

 

At the words anal fissures, one of her classmates snickered. Unfortunately, he’d been standing right next to Lark, who went red with terror as Dr. Santini turned toward them. His eyes settled on her, and she swallowed.

 

“You think this is funny?” he snarled. “You think someone’s pain is funny, Doctor…” He looked at her jacket. “Smith?”

 

“No, sir,” she said in a near whisper. She didn’t do well with angry people, but neither was she about to rat on Tomas. “Not at all.”

 

“Answer the question, then.”

 

By then, she’d forgotten the question. To be fair, she’d been awake for thirty-two hours straight, and also fear tended to make her mind go blank. “Can you repeat it, please?” Her voice shook. Her fellow residents oozed away from her, including Tomas. No one made eye contact.

 

“No! Do you think I have time to repeat it? Someone else, answer.”

 

“Crohn’s disease,” said Lacey, a Nigerian student with a photographic memory. She cut Lark an apologetic look.

 

“Crohn’s disease, Dr. Smith! Anal fissures anywhere but twelve and six o’clock indicate Crohn’s or another underlying disease. Dr. Smith, do us a favor and name at least three other diseases that could indicate anal fissures at anywhere but twelve and six o’clock!”

 

He sure liked saying anal fissures. “Ulcerative colitis and childbirth?” she said meekly.

 

He glared. “Two more, and try to speak like a doctor and not a scared sixth grader.”

 

“Colon cancer and…um…HIV.”

 

He turned and strode off to the next patient, the five residents following like a swarm of fearful bees. Blessedly, that had been the only time he’d  spoken to her, since she was a peasant who didn’t want to become a surgeon.

 

Why he would want her to call him now, she had no idea. She dialed the number, which went right to voice mail. “Dr. Santini. Leave a message.”

 

“Um, hi. This is Lark Smith. Dr. Smith? Um…you asked me to call you, I think. So here I am. Okay. Well. Make it a great day!”

 

Shit. She should’ve planned what to say.

 

Maybe he was calling because he’d heard Charlie Engels had died. Two years ago, he’d done a Whipple procedure on Charlie Engels, in fact, which had certainly extended Charlie’s life. It was one of the most complicated surgeries there was, removing the head of the pancreas, the bile duct, the gallbladder and part of the small intestine, then reconnecting everything. Post-operative complications were common. But Dr. Santini, despite having the personality of a feral boar, had done a beautiful job, and Charlie healed without incident.

 

But calling her because he thought she’d be sad? That didn’t seem like him.

 

A second later, her phone buzzed with a text.

 

Meet me at 6:30 at the Naked Oyster on Main Street.

 

She frowned. I think you have the wrong person, she typed.

 

I don’t. Be on time. Obviously, I’ll pay.

 

Gathering her nerve, she typed, Can I ask why you want to see me?

 

No answer. No three dots, either. God didn’t have to answer a lowly resident.

 

It was quarter to six now. Wellfleet, where she lived, was forty-five minutes away, so going home to change wasn’t an option. Today, she wore the typical, sensible-professional garb of a hospital resident—a knee-length black skirt, white oxford and Naturalizer flats Addie described as “shoes that would make a nun cry from boredom.” But Addie didn’t have to spend twelve hours a day or more on her feet. Hospital policy had her wear her hair up, keep her earrings small, and cover the one tattoo she had. In other words, she looked like she was about knock on someone’s door to talk about the Church of the Latter Day Saints.

 

She’d never been to the Naked Oyster before. She googled it, saw it was very swanky. And expensive, so she was glad Dr. Santini had already cleared up who was paying. Her stomach growled, reminding her that the last food she’d had was a power bar at 5:45 this morning. The Naked Oyster it was.

 

Lark drove carefully. The aging Honda hybrid she’d had since college had 267,493 miles on it, and didn’t take well to pot holes or sudden stops. She should buy a new car, but she loved it. It had been through a lot with her. She did need to get new wipers, though, because the windshield smeared with rain. Perfect weather for a nap and a long hard think. She wished she was home right now, or at least headed home, so she could get into her cozy bed, maybe snag Connery, the Cairn terrier she and her landlady shared.

 

When she arrived she saw the restaurant was a tiny place right next to the British Beer Company, a place she had been with her hospital friends. She found a parking place  two blocks away, checked the car floor for an umbrella (nope), then grabbed her purse and ran through the rain.

 

“Whoo! Rainy out there,” she said to maitre d’, who smiled. “It’s been such a wet spring.”

 

 

“Don’t I know it. My tulip bulbs rotted, it’s rained so much.”

“Oh, no! I love tulips. They’re my favorite,” Lark said. “I’m Lark, by the way.”

 

“Chloe. Nice to meet you. Do you have a reservation?”

 

“Um…maybe? Under Santini? I’m early,” Lark said, smoothing her hair, which she knew from experience looked limp and flat. Her oldest and youngest siblings had gorgeous curls; she, Addison and Winnie had the kind of hair that was completely straight no matter what.

 

“Oh…Dr. Santini?” asked Chloe, her smile slipping.

 

Lark tried not to grimace. “That’s the one.”

 

“Well. Good luck.” Chloe picked up some menus and headed to a small table in the back of the bar. Lark’s stomach growled again, triggered by the smell of bread.

 

“Do you want a drink before he joins you?” Chloe asked. It seemed like more of a firm suggestion than a question.

 

“Okay,” Lark said. The memory of the anal fissure humiliation flared again. “What’s the most expensive drink on the menu?”

 

Chloe smiled. “I’ll tell the bartender to make you something special.”

 

Lark’s stomach growled again. “Can I have some bread? And maybe an appetizer?” She glanced at the menu. “How about the Oishi oysters? Are they good?”

 

“They’re amazing.”

 

“Sold.” She beamed up at Chloe, who beamed back.

 

“You have such a pretty name, by the way.”

 

“Thanks! You do, too.” Her stomach growled audibly. “You didn’t hear that, of course,” she said.

 

“Of course I didn’t,” Chloe said with a grin. “But I’ll put a rush on your order just the same.” She smiled and headed for the bar.

 

 Lark made a mental note to bring her some tulips. She could pick them and swing by with a bouquet. Joy, her landlady, wasn’t the outdoorsy type, but had a beautiful garden, thanks to the previous owners. She always told Lark to help herself. Whenever she had time, Lark would pick Joy a bouquet, a smaller one for the tiny guest house she rented on the property. If she could manage, she’d stop by with flowers for Chloe, just because she’d been so sweet.

 

Addie often told her she tried too hard to make people like her. It was true, but there wasn’t anything wrong about that. Her twin would prefer that Lark had only her. But Lark couldn’t help it. She smiled a lot. Too much, Addie said. As if on cue, she smiled at an older man at the bar, who was looking at her. Smiling never hurt anyone, after all. Smiling made people’s days better.

 

Her phone was filling up with supportive texts from her family, since Addie was unable to keep news to herself. It was fine. She’d answer them later. Right now, Chloe returned, balancing a tray, and set down an absolutely beautiful cocktail containing a sprig of rosemary and a slice of dried orange.

 

“Oh, how pretty!” Lark said as her new friend put down the bread and oysters.

 

“Gotta go, Lark, but it was so nice talking to you. Good luck with Dr. Santini.” She lowered her voice. “We call him Dr. Satan, by the way.”

 

“So do we! At the hospital, I mean.”

 

“Are you a doctor?”

 

“Yep. Um, emergency room.” Her smile faltered a bit.

 

“If I ever need stitches, I’ll ask for you.” She smiled again and was gone.

 

Lark took a long sip of the drink. Oh, yummy. Vodka, some kind of citrusy liqueur, maybe some lemon and egg white foam on top. She’d bet it cost twenty bucks. She took another sip. Worth it, especially on Dr. Santini’s dime. Almost immediately, the drink relaxed her. She was a lightweight, and on an empty stomach, the alcohol might as well have been administered intravenously. One more sip.

 

And these oysters! So fresh, with a nice wasabi kick. She slurped one down, then took a warm roll and smeared it with butter. Heaven. She ate another oyster. It was such a cozy place, this restaurant. Comfy, too. Outside, it was dark and wet, and it felt wonderful to be here, resting, eating, drinking like an adult, rather than like a starving raccoon, which was how most residents ate.

 

She could get back into Oncology. She’d figure out a way to toughen up. How? Watch those documentaries about people with terminal disease? She winced. She’d ask Grandpop for some advice. After all, he’d watched Grammy die a slow and quiet death and had been a rock the entire time. Lark had been around, too, of course, but hadn’t been much good at the end. She’d been fine handling the work of it—washing Grammy, giving her morphine, adjusting her nasal cannula—but when she had to think losing her beloved grandmother, she ended up sobbing in the corner.

 

Hospice, maybe. Yes, hospice! Darlene, the director, was wonderful, and Charlie had been on hospice the last two weeks. Maybe she could ask for some help from Darlene. That would be a great first step.

 

She glanced at her watch (wearing one was required for all doctors). 6:16. Nervousness shot through her, and she took another gulp of liquid courage, finished the oysters and buttered another roll, the butter soft and creamy. One more sip of her drink, and Lark closed her burning eyes. God, that felt good. She’d just give them a little break before Dr. Satan—er, Santini—arrived. Mm. Cozy indeed. Lovely, in fact.

 

“Dr. Smith!”

 

Lark jerked at the sound of her name. “Yes! I’m awake! I’m here! What do you need?” Ah. Right. Not at the hospital. She brought her napkin to her mouth. Positive for drooling. Crap.

 

Dr. Santini sat across from her, arms folded, face grim.

 

“Hi.” She tried to smile.

 

He said nothing. Just shifted his eyes to her martini glass and the half-eaten roll in her hand. The empty oyster shells sitting on a platter of ice.

 

“I ordered an appetizer,” she said.

 

“So I see.” He glanced at the menu, then raised his hand and beckoned a waiter. “Artisinal salad, hold the gouda, grilled salmon, steamed asparagus, garbanzo beans, no butter on anything.” He didn’t deign to make eye contact with the kid, who couldn’t have been older than eighteen.

 

“Um…none of that is on the menu,” the poor lad said.

 

“Just write it down and hand it to the chef. I’m known here.”

 

I’m known here.

 

“Do you want anything to drink?” the kid asked. “Our wine list—”

 

“Water.”

 

 “Dieting?” Lark asked. It sounded more like Addie than her. She probably had chugged that drink too fast.

 

Dr. Satan stared at her with dead shark eyes. “Dr. Smith? Did you wish to have more food, or did you eat enough before I got here?”

 

He wasn’t universally despised for nothing. Lark sat up straighter. “You know, I would love some more food.” She turned to the terrified waiter. “What’s your favorite thing on the menu?”

 

Dr. Santini sighed.

 

“Um…the burger?” the kid said.

 

“Hm. That does look good.” Not expensive enough, however. “I think I’ll have  the ribeye, please. Medium rare. Oh, and the smoked burrata. That sounds amazing. And a lovely big glass of cabernet, okay? And you know what? Bring me a caesar salad, too, what the heck.” The boy scribbled furiously. “What’s your name?” she asked.

 

“Brian.”

 

“Thank you, Brian.” She beamed at him, and his face reddened.

 

“Hurry up, Brian,” Dr. Santini said. “This is a business meeting.”

 

“Yes, sir. Um, doctor, sir.” Brian scurried away.

 

“So.” Lark said. “A business meeting. Um…are you looking for help on something?”

 

“Please,” he said. “I wouldn’t ask a resident to get me a napkin, let alone help me with something medical.”

 

Lark blinked. You’re not at work. And he’s not your boss, Addie’s voice said in her head. He doesn’t get to push you around.  “Why am I here, Dr. Santini? Other than to eat?”

 

“I’ll get to that.”

 

Alright then. At least she’d be fed, and fed very well. Brian, the sweetheart, slid her the glass of wine to her and melted away. She took a sip and stared at her dinner companion.

 

If he never opened his mouth and you were unaware of his personality, Dr. Santini would be considered very good looking. Indeed, almost every blissfully ignorant nurse or doctor got a jolt of appreciation when they first saw him, right before he crushed their souls. He had thick, wavy  dark blond hair and blue eyes. Strong jaw, Cumberbatch-style cheekbones, not an ounce of fat on him (and after hearing him order, Lark could understand why). He had the unforgiving build of a Tour de France bicyclist— tall, thin and steely, like…like a scalpel. Yes. Great comparison. She bet he ran six miles a day. At least.

 

“I heard you were dropped by Oncology today,” he said.

 

She jerked a little, felt her face flush. “Technically, yes. But I’m hoping to get back in.”

 

“Reports were that you couldn’t take it. Too soft.”

 

Hospital grapevine, ever reliable, faster than the speediest internet connection on earth.  He’d probably heard before she called Addie. But why did he care?  “Dr. Santini, you asked me…well, ordered me here tonight. I’m your guest. Please don’t insult me.”

 

"I was told you have issues with people dying. Oncology is a strange choice in that case. I’m not sure how much better the ER will be.”

 

“Thanks for your opinion .”

 

Their salads arrived, his nutritious looking, hers smothered in delicious garlicky dressing and buttery croutons. She took a bite and groaned a little. “So good,” she said around the romaine. “Is that why I’m here?” Was there some sort of hospital requirement for senior doctors to mentor residents? “Did you want to advise me on my career?”

 

He scoffed. “Hardly. I imagine you’ll be churning out babies in three years, not practicing medicine at all.”

 

“Wow. Okay. I think you need to talk to an obstetrician. Babies aren’t exactly churned.” The buzz was really…helpful. “What’s your first name, by the way? Since we’re enjoying this lovely meal together?”

 

Dr. Satan considered the question, as if wondering if she was worthy. “Lorenzo,” he said after a minute.

 

“Oh, nice. Tell your mom she did a good job.” He said nothing, just chewed his greens. “My name is Lark,” she added. “Larkby, but everyone calls me Lark, except for my twin sister. We’re identical.” People loved twins. He didn’t comment. “Do you have siblings, Lorenzo?”

 

His eye twitched. Didn’t like being called anything but God, she guessed. “Yes. I have a brother and two sisters,” he said after too long.

 

“I have a brother and three sisters,” she said.  “Harlow’s the oldest, then Addie, or Addison, then four minutes later, me, then Winnie, whose real name is Windsor, and then our baby brother, Robbie. Robert. Named after our grandfather. And  Addie is married to Nicole, and they have two daughters, Esme and Imogen. Oh, and Harlow…well, never mind. That’s a story for another day.”

 

“Did I indicate interest in your family?”

 

“No, but someone has to fill the silence.”

 

“Why?”

 

Fair point. She took another sip of wine and continued eating her excellent caesar salad. The burratta came, and she dug into that, too. So creamy, so delicious. “Want a bite?” she offered.

 

Lorenzo Santini’s answer was in the disdain in his eyes. He drank his water. Drummed his fingers against the table.

 

It was only after his healthy meal and her cholesterol-fest were set down in front of them and Brian had once again scuttled away that Dr. Satan spoke.

 

“I’m looking for someone to do a job for me. Unrelated to medicine.”

 

“I see. What is it?”

 

He took a bite of salmon and chewed thoroughly, not looking at her. If this is what dating was like, Lark was glad she didn’t waste her time.

 

“Dr. Santini? Do you need a new roof? A driver? A housekeeper?”

 

Still no answer.

 

“Do I have to guess?” She took a bite of steak. “Oh, my God! This is the best steak I’ve ever had.”

 

Her dinner companion took another couple of tidy, joyless bites of his fish. Then he set his fork and knife down.

 

“How is everything?” asked Brian, coming over to check.

 

“Go away,” Dr. Santini said.

 

“It’s wonderful,” Lark said. “Thank you, Brian.”

 

The boy widened his eyes at Lark in sympathy and obeyed Dr. Santini. More silence ensued. Lark found she didn’t mind, because the food was so good. And the wine! Like velvet.

 

Finally, after an interminable amount of time had passed, Dr. Satan—Lorenzo—took a breath, paused, then exhaled. “It’s a delicate situation,” he said. “It involves my family.”

 

She waited for more. More did not come.

 

“Does someone need an organ?” she asked suddenly. “A bone marrow transplant, maybe?” She leaned forward, concerned. “Did you run my blood type at the hospital?” Now that made sense. She was a match for something, so he took her out for dinner to ask. And she’d do it. She’d give her bone marrow, no questions asked. Saving lives was her life’s mission, after all. “I’m in. You don’t have to ask twice.”

 

“Calm yourself, Dr. Smith. It’s not that.” He looked at a spot over her head. “My sister is getting married on Labor Day. Our grandmother is ninety-nine and is in poor health.”

 

“I hope she makes it until then.” He didn’t say anything else. “And how does this involve me?”

 

Dr. Santini took another yoga breath in order to tolerate her questions, then let it out slowly. “My grandmother and I are close. She recently told me she…” He paused. “Never mind.”

 

“Just spit it out,” Lark said. “Rip off the Band-aid.” She was realizing the wine was so good, she might need to Uber it home. Also, she could cut this rib-eye with a spoon, it was so tender. Philosophically, she wanted to be a vegetarian, but the kind who ate steak once in a while. And cheeseburgers. And bacon. But otherwise, no meat. Better for the planet.

 

“She’s worried about me never getting married or having children.”

 

“Sure. Grandparents are like that. My grandfather wants to fix me up with his girlfriend’s grandson.”

 

He stared at her. “I…I’d like to reassure her that I’m fine. Not lonely.  Not… unattached.”

 

“Are you lonely and unattached?” she asked.

 

“No, and yes,” he said, irritated. “That’s why you’re here. The unattached part.”

 

Lark stopped chewing. “Say again?”

 

“I would like you to be my companion at family functions this summer and my guest at my sister’s wedding.”

 

Ah ha. He wanted her to pretend to be his girlfriend, bless his heart. Based on this interaction, however, she’d actually rather give her bone marrow. “Um, I’m sorry, I doubt I’m the person for the job.”

 

“I’ll pay you for your time, of course.” His voice was flat.

 

Lark choked on her wine, recovered, and wiped her lips with her napkin. “Um, isn’t that illegal?”

 

“No, Dr. Smith, paying for sex is illegal. Paying for your company is not.”

 

“Right. So I’d be an escort? An amateur escort.”

 

“I suppose.” He shifted in his seat, the only sign of his discomfort.

 

“Why not just get a girlfriend? You’re not ugly, and you make a great living.”

 

“I don’t know any women I’d want to date, and I don’t have the time to find one. You’re attractive and not entirely stupid, so you’ll do.”

 

“Not entirely stupid. I blush.” She set down her fork and blinked. “So you want to rent me? For the summer?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Dr. Satan needed a girlfriend. That was a good one. “What’s in it for me?” she asked.

 

“The money, for one.” He glanced at her torso. “I’d buy you some decent clothes.”

 

“So I’m Julia Roberts now?”

 

“Sorry?”

 

“You haven’t seen Pretty Woman?”

 

“No.”

 

God. He hadn’t seen Pretty Woman. “Get on Tinder or something. I bet you’d find someone pretty fast, Dr. Santini. Why lie to your grandmother? Just do it for real. I’m sure someone would like you.” Whoops.

 

“I have yet to find a woman whose company I enjoy more than solitude.”

 

“I’m guessing that last sentence is why you trying to rent a human, Dr. Sat—Santini.”

 

“Look. I’d rather pay you than lead someone on. I’m sure you’re well aware I wouldn’t date you in real life, so there will be no hurt feelings.”

 

Lark threw her head back and laughed, and honestly, after the day she’d had, it felt great. “Aren’t you delightful,” she said. “Well, this is a very special offer, but I have to say no. Brian? Could we have dessert menus, please?”

 

Brian was holding the dessert menus, conveniently.

 

“I can’t believe you want dessert after that enormous meal,” Dr. Satan said. “I can hear your arteries hardening.”

 

“I just want to run up the bill. Thanks, Brian.” She glanced at the menu. “I’ll have the chocolate torte. And a cappucino, too.”

 

“Of course. Sir?”

 

“Nothing for me,” he said, still staring at Lark.

 

“Be right back, then,” Brian said.

 

Lark looked at him, tilting her head. Plenty of women dated assholes, especially wealthy assholes. She knew (again, through the hospital grapevine) that Dr. Santini had a place here on the Cape and one in Boston. This indicated that he was loaded, given the real estate market. Surely women would be interested in him, and a man had needs, right? But maybe he was more the sex-doll type. Or asexual. That seemed more likely.

 

The thought that he wanted to make his grandma happy, though…that was kind of sweet.

 

Brian returned with her torte and coffee. “Thanks, Brian. Everything was delicious.”

 

“You’re welcome,” he said, blushing again.

 

“Bring the check in ten minutes,” said Dr. Satan. “Not before, not after.”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Sorry he’s so rude,” Lark called as Brian practically ran away.

 

“You haven’t asked how much I’ll pay you,” Dr. Santini said.

 

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not interested.”

 

“I’m sure you have a lot of student debt.”

 

“I’m a doctor. Of course I do. But I generally don’t whore myself out to make payments.” She smiled as she sipped her coffee. “Just as a general practice.”

 

“There’d be no whoring. Just attendance at a few events and the wedding itself. All at very nice venues with good food. My family has high culinary standards, and you obviously love to eat.”

 

Maybe it was the alcohol, but this was getting fun. “Okay. What’s your opening offer?”

 

“Ten thousand dollars.”

 

She choked. “American dollars?”

 

“Yes. But you couldn’t tell anyone about the arrangement.”

 

“Oh. Why?” That would be much harder than just going to a few parties.

 

“Because it’s a small world. My sister’s a nurse at South Shore Medical Center. Nurses gossip.”

 

“Doctors gossip, too, Lorenzo. A lot more than nurses, in my limited experience.”

 

His left eyelid ticked. She took a bite of the creamy chocolate torte. She was going to ask Addison to take her here for their birthday, since Addie was loaded. “And ten grand, while a lovely number, isn’t enough to role-play all summer, especially at work. My debt is a quarter of a million dollars.” Which, of course, was her own fault. It could’ve been much less. “But I’m sure you could find someone else to take you up on your offer.”

 

He sighed. “Twenty-five, then.”

 

Her fork clattered against her plate. “Holy crap. Are you serious?” Ten percent of her student debt wiped out just like that?

 

“Yes.”

 

Wow. A lot of money. But that wasn’t how she wanted to pay off her loans. It wasn’t honorable. She wanted to be an oncologist, beloved, devoted and, sure, well paid.

 

“I’m sorry, Dr. Santini. It’s, um, very nice of you to consider me, but no. It’s not really my style.”

 

He paused, looking at that fascinating spot over her head. “I could get you back into the oncology program. In Hyannis or somewhere in Boston.”

 

Lark blinked a few times. “How…how could you do that?”

 

He shrugged. “I carry a lot of influence. I went to Johns Hopkins with the president of Dana Farber. You’re not stupid, just embarrassingly emotional, from what I hear.” He glanced at his watch. “Twenty-five grand, and I introduce you to the right people, and the rest is up to you.”

 

“What if you think I’m an idiot? It would be unethical to recommend me to a profession you think I can’t hack.”

 

“I said I’d introduce you, not recommend you.”

 

Still, it would be like Bill Gates saying, There’s a young programmer I want you to meet. Obviously, she’d have to carry the ball into the end zone on her own merit. But she could do that. She would do that. “You don’t think that would be unethical?”

 

“No. I would never do something that would breach my ethical standards.”

 

“Like ask a younger doctor who works at a hospital where you’re a god to pose as your girlfriend?”

 

He glared at her. “You know what? The offer is off the table. I thought, given today’s professional humiliation, you might be interested in what is a completely unromantic business arrangement. Forget I asked.”

 

“Wait. Hold on.” She took a bite of cake, staring at him while she chewed. “What aren’t you telling me?” Because there was something, she was sure. Being single wasn’t so awful that a person would rent a date. In fact, she had the impression Lorenzo Santini liked being single. Jesus never dated, after all.

 

He shifted. Folded his napkin very precisely. “My grandmother was put on hospice a few weeks ago. I don’t want her to die concerned about me being too…alone.”

 

Oh, no. Those were two powerful words right there. Hospice…and alone. She herself knew the feeling all too well.

 

Dr. Satan had an Achilles heel, and it was a sick old lady. Her eyes stung with tears. If Grandpop was dying—please God, never—and told Lark all he wanted was for her to be with someone, would’t she do the same thing Lorenzo was? Just to soothe his soul for a month or two?

 

And let’s be honest. That introduction wouldn’t hurt. If she didn’t get back into the oncology program here on the Cape, she’d at least have a chance to try again in Boston. There was a damn good reason she’d chosen that field in the first place.

 

Besides, a few parties this summer in pretty places with pretty clothes…she didn’t have much of a life outside the hospital and family stuff. Maybe this would distract her from the yawning hole in her life.

 

“I’ll do it. No money. Maybe the introduction. We’ll see. But I’m a softie where grandparents are concerned.”

 

His shoulders loosened a centimeter or two.

 

“This is where you say thank you,” she said.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“So a few family parties, the wedding, and then we break up.”

 

“Yes. And if my grandmother dies before that, your services will no longer be required.”

 

She almost wondered if he’d prefer that. She stuck out her hand. “You have yourself a girlfriend, Dr. Satan.”

 

He didn’t blink. Guess he knew his nickname. “I don’t want a girlfriend. Just show up and be pleasant.” He glanced at her hand, took out his wallet and pulled out a Black Amex. “Can we be done now?”

newsletter
bottom of page