A ROSE FOR ROMEO
"I don't understand any of this, Doctor," Lauren said, shaking her head in disbelief.
Dr. Melina Rose understood how shocking all of this had to be for her assistant. She'd come to work this morning expecting nothing more than to facilitate a full schedule of patients through their appointments the way she usually did.
Melina stopped boxing up her most confidential files to look up at Lauren. The generally sturdy, immaculate woman resembled a baby bird trembling on a branch in a windstorm, where she sensed the inevitability of being torn from everything safe she'd known.
She doesn't feel my convictions, Melina reminded herself. Lauren hadn't been up all night--again--agonizing over the horrendous curve her life had taken away from her original goals and convictions.
Melina walked over to her. Going against her natural instinct to keep her distance, she took Lauren's hands securely in her own. "Lauren, I don't expect you to understand this. A part of me doesn't understand what I'm doing either. But the fact is, I can't do this anymore. That much I know beyond a shadow of a doubt."
She couldn't cope with the images, the shock, the disgust, the depravity, the nightmares, the attacks, the need to distance herself from everyone for fear that, if she exposed herself, they would open up to her without permission and shatter any potential for friendship and respect. All of it had to stop--before her soul withered and dispersed like the way ashes did from a campfire.
"Do what?" Lauren wailed uncharacteristically, her dark eyes filled with uncertainty and tears. "Counsel? You can't counsel anymore?"
Melina took a deep breath. "Yes. Counsel. I'm closing this chapter of my life."
Lauren's mouth opened, but all that came out was a gasp of shock and dismay.
No one could know the dread Melina felt over coming in to work each day. Her only desire throughout the day was to escape this place ... but she couldn't escape the words, the images provoked by their words, their horrible disclosures that should have remained hidden in their own minds. They haunted her so she had no safe haven from them, not even in her New York penthouse, where she closed herself away in her private fortress when she wasn't traveling to promote a new book. She couldn't remember the last time she'd slept without reliving the images brought about by the perversions of her patients. And to think her intention from the start, and the reason she'd stayed so long, had been her overwhelming desire to help people.
Early in her career, she'd become terrified of letting anyone get close to her. She didn't want them to touch her because she could lose herself in their world of danger, illusion, and constantly metastasizing obsession. It was why she'd established a deep cover of her true identity with the persona she'd assumed, and become known nationally for, as acclaimed sex therapist and bestselling author Dr. Mindy Rose.
When she'd made her decision to walk away from her highly successful career last night, she'd been wildly grateful for her need to distance herself with a different identity. No one knew who she really was or where she was from.
"Lauren, this is all sudden. I know," Melina said, squeezing her assistant's cold hands tighter. "I've already written you a glowing letter of recommendation that should secure you as a shoo-in anywhere you apply for a position. I've also cut you a generous final paycheck that includes the wages you've earned, your annual bonus very early, as well as a three-month severance package. So you'll have plenty of cushioning while you look for another job. Finally, I've prepared a letter for all my colleagues in New York, recommending you for employment. If you're comfortable with them, you may send them out at your own discretion."
As she spoke, Melina could see the relief spreading over Lauren's rounded face. Her lips trembled, and she warmly clasped Melina's hands. "Really?" she asked, hope in her voice.
"Really." Melina gave her a reassuring smile that made Lauren brighten.
"I worried about you, Lauren. I knew I needed to take care of you before I walked away. I don't want to set you adrift because of my decisions. You'll be amply provided for until you can find work elsewhere."
"Thank you. You're very generous, Doctor. You always have been. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this ... especially because of the down payment I just paid for my first house last month."
The withdrawal Melina experienced at her employee's sudden, intimate revelation made her step back both physically and emotionally. Though she and Lauren had worked together fluidly for more than ten years, their relationship could be considered nothing more than coolly business-like. Lauren had seemed to sense her penchant for closing herself off personally and had respected her invisible and impenetrable guards. Clearly, her gratitude for Melina's generosity--and Melina's own desire to reassure her--had made her unthinkingly cross the line.
Awkwardly, Melina turned back to the half-empty file cabinet and resumed the task of getting all her patients' files boxed up and ready to transfer across town. "After you've cleaned out your desk, you can go home if you'd like," Melina murmured, disliking the coolness in her tone. "Your letter of recommendation and severance pay are on your blotter."
"You've already paid me, no doubt for today, too. I'd like to stay and assist you in any way you require, Dr. Rose."
Lauren's voice was both respectful and professional--perfectly willing to once more accept a purely business relationship. Her flexible attitude was part of the reason they'd worked so well together from the beginning.
"I'd appreciate that, Lauren."
She had a plane to catch in two hours. "Dr. Daniels has agreed to take over my cases. I need to box up all the patient files before the messenger arrives to transfer them to Dr. Daniels' office across town."
Though Dr. Daniels had accumulated many accolades scholastically and set up a private practice in the city, his client list remained small. When Melina had called him at three o'clock that morning, he'd initially been stunned to have her call him so early, but he'd become eager when she explained the nature of her call.
Her own practice had thrived right from the beginning, with the publication of her first self-help book on intimacy coinciding with the opening of her new private office. Only two years afterward, she'd gotten to the point where she had no choice but to turn away patients because her current clientele filled her schedule to maximum capacity. Those who remained interested in her services even after her moratorium on new clients and referral to other competent therapists went on an ever-growing waiting list on the off-chance that she'd have an opening in the future.
Lauren moved to another file cabinet with an empty box and began unloading. "I assume you've canceled all your appointments for the day?" she queried.
Lauren didn't glance at her as she said, "I'll cancel those for the remainder of the week as soon as we're done here, and I'll contact everyone on your client list and inform them that you're retiring."
"Dr. Daniels said his secretary could do that," Melina said, though the prospect had bothered her. She was too relieved to be getting out to do anything about it.
Lauren shook her head. "I believe it would be better received if the announcement came from your own office, Doctor."
She hadn't wanted to make Lauren do more work, knowing she'd be out of a job immediately after. She'd wanted to give her the choice to walk out with her severance package as soon as she heard. "Thank you. I've asked the phone company to disconnect the business lines first thing tomorrow morning."
"Then I'll have to complete the necessary calls quickly. Will you be vacating the office tomorrow as well?"
"The movers will be here soon to clear everything out."
"Goodness. Sounds like you've taken care of everything," Lauren commented in mild surprise.
She didn't know the half of it. As soon as Melina had made her decision, she'd begun preparations for closing every avenue of her life immediately and permanently, including the sale of her penthouse suite and the closing and emptying of all her accounts. Everything she was leaving behind in her apartment was going to Goodwill, and she'd written a letter to her publisher through her now-former lawyer, stating that she wouldn't be writing anymore, and royalties should be sent anonymously to World Vision. She'd severed all connections she had to this life. Since they were business contacts, she had no regrets whatsoever. She hadn't slept more than an hour last night. She'd had too much to accomplish in too little time, and her growing confidence in what she'd been doing had kept her wide-awake.
She knew where she was going and nothing more. Crazy as it was, she'd never been more certain she was making the right decision before. She was going home--the place she'd vowed never to return to when she was eighteen and had never looked back at until last night. Home, where she had a supernaturally strong feeling that she would find her own heart.