The world had never seen four such dejected children. It was the evening of April's Fools Day, normally a time for hoaxes and pranks, but for the Franklin Family, April Fool's was a dark day indeed. The full moon glowed with an eerie orange light, casting shadows on the barren Midwestern farm and the small garden of gravestones, one newly dug.
Even the animals were smart enough to stay away when the events of April Fool's began to unfold. The cows watched warily from the far side of the pasture; owls hooting nervously, waiting for midnight to pass.
In the distance, the lights from the old farmhouse were all dark, except for the last remaining guttering sparks of a kitchen fire nearly extinguished. Mother and Father Franklin were safe in their bed, pretending the day had passed without event. It was only the children who were still awake, counting the clock-ticks to midnight, counting the moments when their world passed from disaster back to normal once again.
The oldest boy, Cam, kicked at the marble gravestone, choosing to defy the fates, as was his way. His eye was blackened from a spirited encounter earlier in the day. At school, Leo Meeks, a larger and older student, had the spineless audacity to taunt Cam about the legend of the Franklin Curse, never an easy subject with any of the Franklin children. Cam, choosing to ignore the school principal's stern warning, had lit into the bully, but had discounted the newly-waxed floors. So instead of ramming his fist into Leo's meaty face, he had instead rammed his own face into the nearest bank of lockers that had happened to get in the way. "She should have told us," he demanded, to absolutely no one in particular, proceeding to kick at the stone until his foot began to ache. "She should have told somebody before she died. We can beat this, we just need to know how."
The middling child, Devon, popped up from behind the lightning-split elm tree, a position she had chosen because it was statistically unlikely that lightning would strike twice, and as a bonus, the tree provided an excellent vantage point. "You heard Mom. Grandmother was batty as a fruitcake. There's no way to beat it, Cam. You and Reg are wasting your time."
Reg, who was the most scholarly of the four, shook his head, his keen gaze scanning the night skies, as if the answers were in the stars. "She wasn't that batty. She said it started in the eighteenth century, with Olivia d'Espry, but she doesn't know the story--she doesn't know the why. That's what I want to find out."
Cam muttered something disagreeing and vaguely scatological, because he knew manure when he heard it. "It's just a story," Cam muttered.
"The pieces fit," Reg countered. "Olivia came from France to New Orleans with her father. Our family tree cuts through New Orleans, too."
"And that's when Great Grandpa Franklin first wrote about the curse," Devon said. "Or Great-great. Or something. Anyway, back when he was in New Orleans."
"Archives don't lie," Reg said. "History doesn't lie. It makes sense."
"The hell it does," Cam said. "It is what it is."
"It will make sense," Reg said. "I'm going to figure it out. I'm going to stop it."
They all looked at him, not believing, but then Reg's watch alarm began to chirp. Midnight.
Another day had passed. Another year's reprieve. Another year to hope.
April 1, 9:30pm.
"I don't care what the bone-headed insurance company is telling you. That's my social security number, there are no inverted digits, and I didn't steal it."
Safe on the other side of the ER ward, Dr. Jenna Ferrar watched the scene unfold, and shook her head with heartfelt pity. Cameron Franklin's belligerent tone would get him nowhere with Bertrice, the Guardian of Hospital Registrations, a woman secretly known as Ball-Buster Bertie. After four years of this, you'd think he would know better. Apparently not.
Still Jenna didn't understand how Bertie could get mad at somebody with a cast on his arm, and those deep, honey-brown eyes that could suck out a woman's virginity with one smoldering glance.
Every year on April Fool's, he was in her ER with something new. Last year was a broken leg while hang-gliding. The year before was a motorcross accident, complete with a distal radius fracture and more lacerations than Alfred Hitchcock could ever imagine.
Even with all the medical trauma, she still wanted to pull him behind the curtain and show him how doctor was meant to be played.
What she couldn't figure out was why Bertie was immune. Every other female in the ER had spent many a private moment in the staff lounge, fantasizing about Cam Franklin -- including Jenna.
Paging Doctor McSlutty…
Feeling the familiar pangs, her medically-trained scrutiny drifted over his anatomy in a purely non-professional manner.
The sling on his arm did nothing to detract from the finely tapered torso, the shaggy mane of sun-streaked brown hair, and the ass that -- well, in her line of work there were few backsides she wanted to see nude. But his... two bulbous cheeks lovingly gift-wrapped in faded Levis... da Vinci couldn't have sketched it any better.
Discreetly she raised a hand and fanned her own flushed cheeks.
Three years ago, she'd almost invented a tetnus scare in order to ask him to drop his trousers. In the end, she chickened out -- pesky medical ethics and potential for malpractice -- but even knowing that risk -- the temptation had been strong.
Seeing there was no hope for gratuitous nudity this year either, she stuffed her hands into the pockets of her lab coat and watched Bertie and Cam argue with ever-increasing wrath.
Before she could intervene, her cell phone beeped. It was her sister.
"What?" she answered, her eyes still focused on Cam, thinking that no man should look that sexy when he was irate and medicated.
"Are you okay?" asked Janie.
"Your voice sounds goofy. A little wobbly. Why is it wobbly?"
Jenna cleared her throat, erasing some of the lust, always a problem when Cam was around. "Better?"
"Ah, yes. Now there's the crisp, no-nonsense sister I know and love. I need a favor."
"No, I will not go out with Tony's business partner," she insisted, hoping to get off the phone soon. The patients were starting to notice the argument at the desk, and Larry the Security Guard had already peeped over there twice.
"No fix-ups. That wasn't the favor. Can you talk to Mom?"
"Why can't you do it?"
"You're the doctor."
"You're the mother, the wife, the managing direction of a billion dollar foundation. That's not peanuts. That should count."
"I'm afraid of her."
"I'm afraid of her, too. It's why we're hardened and driven and overcompensate in all areas of achievement. In many ways, that very terror is responsible for our success. Embrace your fears. Call her yourself."
"She wants me to come to San Diego with her. To a spa." Janie dragged out the words like a death sentence.
"Go. Sounds like fun."
"You're not listening to me, are you? Because if you were really listening, you would have expressed the appropriate levels of shock and horror at the idea of spending a weekend with mother. A weekend that involves mud and creepy levels of nakedness. It could scar me for life. "
"You are scarred for life, get over it." Tough love was the motto in the Ferrar family, except when it came to men. Then they were mush. Jenna cast a mush-filled look at Cam and sighed.
"You won't go? You could go. I'll tell her that you should go. "
"I'm needed here. I have to save lives."
"That's a likely story."
She noticed that Bertie looked ready to kill. Not so unlikely. "Can't go."
"I hate you."
"No you don't."
"I could hate you."
"No you won't. Who would go shopping with you and tell you that fleece sweatpants are actually flattering and you don't need to feel guilt for dressing like a frump? No one, because the people that love you are the ones that will lie."
"You're going to make me go?"
"Grow a pair. Tell her no," encouraged Jenna, who had lusted after Cam Franklin for four years, and had done exactly nothing. Yes, there was irony. Janie would never know.
"I can't tell her no. She's my mother," pleaded Janie, but Jenna heard the resignation in her voice.
"Hanging up now, sis."
Jenna hung up and started in the direction of the reception desk, thinking that maybe it was time for her to grow a pair as well.
"You don't need to call the police. There is no crime," Cam was saying, almost a bellow, but not quite. Safely behind the bullet-proof glass partition, Bertie jumped up, and glared, eyes promising death. "If you don't back away from my window, there will be crime, mister."
Cam leaned, palms down on the small counter and pressed his nose to the glass. "Try me, you little pencil-pushing gnome."
Uh-oh. Name-calling. Not good.
Sensing blood, Jenna moved faster through the crowd of four sniffy sneezies, two achy-backs, eight cases of dental malaise, and one tiny tot, currently running a temp of ninety-nine-point-three. All in all, it was a relatively quiet Thursday Night for Manhattan -- except for WWIII at the Admissions window.
"Bertie? Is there a problem?"
"Is an asshole considered a problem, Dr. Ferrar? I think not. I consider it an official hazard of duty, and if this patient thinks he can pull a fast one on Bertie, he can think again."
The patient in question -- Cameron Franklin, age thirty-two, one-hundred-and-eighty-three pounds, unmarried, employed by King, Franklin, and Cross Development, O positive blood type, and no communicable diseases -- turned toward her, and as usual, Jenna had to stifle her sudden case of labored breathing. Those tiger-bright eyes always made her squirmy.
"Can you make her practice reason and logic? Do we have to take the word of some mindless, faceless, corporate bureaucrat over what -- five years of actual hospital history? My social security number has not changed. It's the same one I was born with, the same one I had last year. The same one you wrote in your little paperwork the year before, and the year before that. If you love the records so much, look at your own paperwork."
That last bit was directed at Bertrice, who for the first time in twenty years on the job, actually looked uncertain. She stared down at the manila folder in front of her, thumbed through a few pages, and frowned. Then, she picked up the next folder, thumbed through a few more pages, and scowled. Finally she looked up at Cam, sulky and unhappy, a two year old missing her favorite toy. "I think the records are wrong," she mumbled.
Jenna knew that Cam would pick up on the half-hearted tone. He did.
"All of them? Even the ones that you wrote? Last year? And the year before? No way. There is no freaking way that you could make a mistake," he told Bertie, voice dripping sarcasm.
"I don't make mistakes," Bertie defended. It was true. Although lacking in her customer service skills, Bertie was meticulous. However, sometimes, the unthinkable could happen.
Jenna coughed discreetly. "Bertrice. Normally I wouldn't dare correct you, but I think that's his correct social security number."
"See? If Doc Ferrar believes me, don't you think you should?"
Cam beamed, those kissably full-lips curving upwards. Jenna -- more driven by token gold-star signals of approval than she cared to admit -- beamed back.
Bertrice picked up the pile of folders and raised her brows. "I don't think I should. But I will. This is gonna take a while to fix, and if you think I'm going to hurry, well, mister, I'm going to make me a new definition for slow. In fact, I'm going to be so slow, they're going to put me in the dictionary, right next to the turtles. And don't leave, neither. Cause we know where you live and I'll hunt you down."
After Bertrice left, Cam turned to Jenna and dragged his hand through his thick hair, touselling it, distressing it, and not surprisingly, making him look even more beddable.
"I thought a hospital was a place for mercy and charity, a patient-centered haven nurturing the physical well-being of the wounded and infirm."
"Nah. You've got us confused with those hospitals on TV. In real life, it's all about preventative care. If the customer service is hell, maybe people will stay away. We keep hoping, but no such luck. Speaking of ineffective diagnosis, what are you in for this year?"
"What is parkour? It sounds exotic and slightly poisonous."
"It's running. Sort of. Running on an industrialized path, and you jump and climb over stuff. Very stylized."
"You do this in the city?" she asked, thinking it was a miracle no taxi had smashed him flat.
"Oh, yeah. Construction sites are actually the best."
"And that's how you got hurt?"
"Sort of. I was doing this monkey vault on some scaffolding for one of our buildings, jumping from one cross-brace to another, followed by a flawless underbar through the top-level beam, and then ending with a cat leap to the top of this old warehouse next door. It was great, everybody should try this, the wind rushing through your ears, like you're flying, but right when I was reaching for the brick on the warehouse, this goose decided to dive-bomb me and I lost my focus, and the rest can be found in my X-rays. Dislocated shoulder."
It was apparent he loved what he did, but sometimes the eyes gleamed a little too bright, a little too focused and it was then when Jenna worried.
"Cam, one of these days, you're going to kill yourself."
Sadly, he didn't even look concerned. "Then that's one less patient you'll have to treat."
"I'd rather up my stats the old-fashioned way, instead of being Dr. Death Angel. And by the way, you could help out by staying home on April Fools."
He met her eyes, serious, intent. "So you believe the curse is true?"
It was a discussion they'd had every year and every year she was just as uncomfortable. However, she knew enough to keep her impassive-doctor-face in place. "It doesn't matter whether it exists or not. Even without a curse, you'd still end up in my ER on April One because you have to be all Mr. Stupid-Head. It'd be flattering to think this is all an elaborate and painful ruse to get my attention, but I don't think it is."
"If I wanted to get your attention, you'd know," he told her, flashing her a pure male smile that indicated he had some ideas. Possibly involving the loss of clothing. Instantly her blood-pressure spiked and Jenna worked to remember who she was. A doctor. Professional. Detached. Capable of coherent speech no matter what sort of debauched images were rolling in her head.
"Cam. Next year, stay home."
"I'm not going to let it beat me," he said, the smile disappearing from his face.
Jenna stared pointedly at the sling on his arm. "It's already beat you."
Before he could argue more, her pager beeped, and she shot him a long, frustrated look, because all of her brilliant advice was passing straight through that stubborn, studly head.
Some of her concern must have seeped through, because then Cam leaned over to kiss her cheek, a patronizing, yet still sweet gesture. However Jenna was no fool.
She twisted her head, and found herself mouth to mouth -- exactly as she intended. His lips moved over hers, warm, persuasive, instantly morphing from surprise to seduction with an ease that spoke of an ego-shattering amount of practice. His fingers lifted to her throat, an oddly intimate touch that stroked her more than most of her full-coital sexual experiences.
When he pulled away, she was pleased to see the dilated pupils, the shallow breathing. Exactly as she intended.
Now, she told herself. Say something provocative and sexy. However, Doctor McSlutty was nowhere in the building.
Her pager beeped again, and he waved his good hand. "See you next year."
They were the cocky and dismissive words of a fool, and Jenna fisted her hands in her coat before she hit something - or someone.
"No," she snapped, ignoring the curious looks of the staff. It wasn't often she lost it with a patient, but so what? She was human. Mostly.
"I don't want to see you next year," she lectured in her best I-Am-God voice. "Be a stranger."
At first she thought her words were falling on deaf and partially dumb ears, and she turned to walk away, however, she could feel the heat of his eyes on her, thinking, considering. It probably wouldn't make a bit of difference, but at least she tried.
Tried? That wasn't trying. If she really wanted to make a difference, she needed to do something more. Something bold. Something daring. Something she'd always wanted to do.
Then, while her stomach was still convulsing with the after-affects of sexual palpitations, Dr. Jenna Ferrar got a bold, and slightly idiotic idea.
She'd have to wait three-hundred-and-sixty-four days before implementation, but some things were worth waiting for.
Her fingers brushed over her lips, still feeling the heat. Yes. It was definitely idiotic, but even worse, three-hundred-and-sixty-four-days was going to be a long, long time...
March 31: Three-hundred-and-six-four days later.
It was about time. Cam watched as the steel girders were hoisted into the blue skies and smiled with satisfaction like he always did at the start of a new site.
Sure, the building wasn't going to be a New York City landmark, but it would be a perfect low-rent apartment complex that was sorely needed. Time to call it a day, because there was lots to do before tomorrow. After he checked in with the foreman, he packed up the plans, and was headed toward the subway when one of the crew called after him.
"Hey, Cam. Try and come back in one piece this time."
Cam grinned, holding up his middle finger, a symbol of so many things in his life. He never came back in one piece, but he always came back. All of the other Franklins feared the curse, but not Cam. Nope, he embraced it. He taunted it. Did anybody think that some ancient hoo-doo was going to alter his lifestyle? No way in hell. Sure, his partners thought he was a little light in the head, but Cam didn't mind. He'd rather be stupid, than whipped. This way, by taunting the gods, he took the day on his terms.
Tomorrow was powerboat racing. Forty knots, the slap of the oceanspray on your face, and plumes of water that rose like a geyser. Cam looked up at the skyline, at the towering line of structures that didn't take shit from anyone or anything.
It was why he'd chosen civil engineering. Building things, defying gravity, man over anything that got in his way.
The way God meant it to be.
In short order, the color, crowded, and ever-efficient New York Subway System had him back at his apartment, washing the day's grime from his skin.
The boat race was out on Long Island, far away from the city, and he was going to miss the annual walk of shame into the St. Catherine's ER. Actually, he was going to miss Dr. Jenna Ferrar, with that long, dark hair, those sexy, Dr. Dominatrix eyes, and the lean, tight curves that even a lab coat couldn't hide.
Just the memory of her -- actually, it was the more the memory of a naked Dr. Ferrar - made him painfully hard, and because he conveniently happened to be in the shower, he took matters into his own hand, capping off the day, and exorcising her memory all in one feel swoop.
A thousand times he'd nearly trekked in on his own, merely to see if she was there, see if she wanted too get a cup of coffee, see if she wanted to come home with him, but he always left it alone.
There were women he dated, women he slept with, women he took to a club, but they all ended up three dates and out. In his heart, Cam knew that one day, he wasn't going to come home in one piece. You could only cross fate so often, but damnit, he wasn't going to play a victim, either. Hiding out like his sister Devon? Letting the tension eat at him like a disease? Not in this lifetime.
Cam was clean, packed, and ready to sit down with a cold beer when the buzzer rang. Immediately he glanced at his watch, but eight PM was too early for the really crap stuff to start. Four hours to midnight? Now that was when hell-night began.
It was probably some lost salesman, or a package for a neighbor. Curious, he punched the call-button.
"Got a visitor, Mr. Franklin. She says to tell you it's Jenna. Personally, I would advise you to let her up, sir, even if you don't know her, if you know what I mean."
Jenna? He only knew one Jenna. The doc. Here?
His eyes scanned the apartment for female unsuitables. Finding none, he snagged a shirt from the closet and shrugged into it, buttoning it up to something approaching non-slob.
He pressed the call button. "Send her up, Carlton."
"Good luck, Mr. Franklin. You should know I'm a very jealous man."
March 31, 8:00pm.
Jenna's heart was beating somewhere that was anatomically impossible when Cam opened the door. It was strange to see him without a cast, or brace, or pale from loss of blood.
Tonight, he looked hale, hearty, able to fulfill her every fantasy, which for Jenna was quite extensive. The demands of the medical profession didn't allow much in the way of a satisfactory sex life. A date here, a quickie there (usually regretted), and long nights alone with her romance novels and other electronic accoutrements to aid in keeping her de-stressed.
Her stress levels began to rise, mainly due to the way he stared at her, dark eyes tracing over her with an x-ray vision that could see through her Burberry trench coat, see through her attractive and cleavage-agumenting red dress, see through the brand-new black demi-bra and matching panty, see straight through to her nipples, which were currently jutting out like twin torpedoes, a perfectly natural reaction, she reminded herself -- a scientific justification that did absolutely no good in easing her awkwardness.
He looked at her, curiously, appreciatively. "I rate house-calls?"
"It's not a house-call," she answered, almost the truth. "I knew you'd be in tomorrow and I thought I'd get all the paperwork out of the way, first. You know, avoid any problems that might arise."
At the feeble, somewhat porno-sounding premise, his eyes gleamed with that all-male 'I know why you're here', which was not a comfortable moment for a woman who had won the Mayers-Andrews fellowship, not that she expected anything different. In fact, she reminded herself, it was exactly the animalistic reaction she had planned on, which soothed her ego, but did nothing to ease the nipple-peak.
"Come on in," he invited, the spider to the fly. Of course, that would mean that he was the fly, because this was her plan, so why didn't she feel like the spider? No, she definitely felt like the fly.
Dear God, she was rambling. In a completely fly-like move, she wrapped her arms across her chest, above the nips, above the bra, above the dress, above the trench coat.
It didn't help.
Quickly she scurried into his apartment. "I can't stay very long," she told him with a nervous smile, flicking her hair back, wondering if he'd noticed that she had the ends trimmed.
Don't think about the hair, she thought. Don't think about the man. Instead she focused on the array of sporting equipment that lined the wall. There were baseball bats, an assortment of balls, a tennis racket and bag of golf clubs, and no pads or helmets. In fact, there was no safety devices at all.
"Quite the athlete."
"I have a little of excess energy. It helps." He moistened his lips, and she caught the movement, her eyes drawn, glued, until she blinked her vision free.
"Would you like a drink?" he offered politely, walking into the small kitchen that was off the main room, leaving her alone. "Water's good," she called, thinking that sobriety might be a good thing.
"I have wine," he said, poking his head back into the room. "A few years back, I went ballooning in Napa. The vineyards felt bad after the accident, so they sent me a few cases. It's really good stuff."
"I'll take it."
"You can take off your coat," he yelled from the kitchen. A perfectly courteous remark that did not mean, strip. Still, Jenna hesitated, then told herself she was being way too prudish for someone who had prepared a whole year for this grand seduction.
Quickly she slid the trench coat off, adjusted her boobs, straightened her dress, sat on the couch, and crossed her legs in her most attractive pose.
When Cam re-entered the room, he paused, taking in the legs, the dress, the boobs. The pause grew longer, and Jenna noted the pronounced vasocongestion swelling beneath his jeans indicating growing sexual arousal. A small sound emerged from her throat. In layman's terms, they called it a moan.
Okay, the plan was working.
In his hands were two glasses and a bottle of Cabernet. An entire bottle was good. It said, linger, kick-back, let me climb underneath your clothes.
"Wow, you look very nice without a lab coat. Your dress, I mean. Very attractive."
"It's just something I…" picked out four months ago… "threw on." She lifted the glass to her lips, gulped, feeling the warmth of the alcohol being absorbed in her blood. Actually, it was medically impossible for the lightheadedness and fever to be caused by alcohol, not this fast, but she blamed it on the drink anyway.
"You have the paperwork?" he asked, not affected by the alcohol at all.
Jenna licked her lips, and he noticed, and she leaned over to get the forms from her purse, and her neckline gaped, possibly exposing a hint of black lace that she hadn't planned on exposing this early, but he noticed, and she noticed that he noticed.
She fumbled in her purse, digging aside the condoms, lotions, and handcuffs, until her fingers clasped the papers. Hands trembling, she pushed them toward him.
"You seem nervous," he stated, a completely obvious statement that didn't need to be put out there for public consumption. Jenna had been a National Merit Scholar, scored 10.3 on the MAC, and won the prestigious (somewhat) Mead Prize for Medical Service. Did she have to be a genius at seduction as well? No.
"I think I have the beginnings of a cold. Chills. Fever." She sniffed. "Congestion."
"Do you want me to fill these out?" he asked her, glancing at the papers.
"I think it would be more efficient, don't you?"
"Actually, you made the trip for nothing. I'm not going to be in the city tomorrow. The boat race is way out, the tip of Long Island. It's about four hours from here."
Completely oblivious to how easily he had decimated her plans, Cam handed the papers back to her, an artless smile playing on his lips.
So now what, Sherlock?
"Have you checked out the hospitals in the area? Southampton has a good trauma unit. Most boat injuries are head injuries or drownings. Have you considered that you might get chopped up in a propeller?"
Undaunted, he clicked her glass. "To not getting chopped up in a propeller."
Normally, her patients nodded and wrote down her instructions, word for word. People did not argue with their doctors. They did not disagree with them, or doubt their ability to know all. Except for Cam.
It was time for a more direct approach. Time for drastic action. But not that drastic. Ignoring the itch between her legs, she chose instead to plead.
"Cam, don't go."
He pushed a hand through the thick thatch of hair, exposing a tense jaw, and angry eyes. Obviously he took his life-risks seriously.
"That's why you're here? To talk me out of this?"
Jenna thought about denying it, but that would involve confessing deeper, darker secrets involving motivations, plans, possibly sexual motivations, and what the US Government would surely consider a violation of HIPAA. No, copping to ordinary logic and reason seemed best.
"That was my first approach, yes."
"It won't work."
Yes, she was beginning to get that.
Boldly she gulped down the last of the wine, and conquered her nerves. She was thirty-one, not thirteen. He found her attractive -- dare she say it -- highly attractive. Gathering her courage, she inhaled deeply, breasts rubbing against cool silk and lace. It was erotic. It was liberating. Doctor Sugarpants was in.
"Then I'm on to Plan B," she said in a silky voice. Emboldened, she pulled the band from her hair, shaking it loose, and she noticed the way his hands bit into his thighs. Hard.
It was about time the patient respected the doc. "What's Plan B?" he asked.
She shot him a half-smile and coughed discreetly. "Sex."
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