A butch lesbian parolee. The pretty pansexual nurse who got away. Is this their second chance at a happily ever after?
Finn is finally out of prison, which is great. Having no job, no car, and no place to sleep except her cousin’s couch? Not so great. Plus, her felony theft conviction isn’t doing wonders for her employment prospects, so she can’t afford her migraine meds without the public clinic.
The last thing she ever expected was for the gal who stole her heart to come walking down that clinic’s hallway: Vivi, the manicure-loving nurse who spent two years fighting the prison system to get proper medical care for her patients, including Finn.
Finn could never believe she imagined the attraction and affection between them. But acting on that in prison, especially as nurse and patient, had been a serious No Way. She’s had eight months to get over Vivi, who abruptly left her job without saying goodbye. Finn is over it. Honest! It’s totally and completely fine.
Except Vivi, here and now, doesn’t seem fine. And Finn couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t try to help.
Is fate offering Finn a second chance? Or is finding love as likely as finding a job with health insurance?
A contemporary romance novella with a guaranteed HEA.
“Finn? If you’re awake, give me a sign.”
That hushed voice wasn’t the weekend nurse for the prison infirmary. It was Vivi. More officially, Nurse Curiel. That meant it was now Monday, which was fine by Finn. This weekend hadn’t done her any favors. It was fired. No, wait. If it was Monday now, the weekend had already quit. Cool. Maybe she’d make a note in its permanent record anyway just in case.
Once she could open her eyes, if her eyelids would cooperate. They usually tried to go on strike after a bad migraine.
Finn tried turning her head and didn’t much enjoy the feel of her neck and jaw. A hand caught the ice pack—well, used-to-be-ice pack, now room temperature—before it slipped off her forehead.
“Want to try water?” Vivi asked, still not too loud. She always kept it down until she knew Finn was okay. She kept the light off over Finn’s bed, kept the guard from dragging the metal chairs across the tile which the jerk did even knowing they screeched. Vivi kept Finn safe, as best she could.
Finn managed to crack her eyes open. At first, she saw only blurs: Vivi’s regulation blue scrubs and her lightly tanned face. The tan was a little unfair since it was only April, but Vivi tanned easily for a white gal. Finn and her lifelong history of sunburning her pale skin were occasionally jealous.
Blinking a few times added detail. Vivi and the staff appearance guidelines had a conflicted relationship, so her sunny red lipstick today was slightly too bold. Her long dark hair, though, was up in its usual inoffensively neat bun. The color on her short nails—only the most durable polish so it wouldn’t chip at work—was similarly tame, the same shimmery pink she’d worn two weeks ago. On a Thursday and Friday, Finn’s brain helpfully supplied, right after the plum one with the glossy top coat.
Finn told her brain to take a hike and reached up for the ice pack so Vivi could let go. Their hands brushed in the process. Finn tried not to enjoy it too much.
“Hey there.” Finn’s voice was rougher than she’d hoped it would be. She’d wanted to sound like a person, not a patient, and ugh, who knew what her hair was doing at this point? Finn might not be allowed her preferred style because of how the dang “extreme haircuts” policy was interpreted here, but she did still have some pride.
“Hey there yourself.” Vivi beamed down at Finn as if her day had just gotten one hundred percent better.
Vivi gave her that smile often. It was the best part of Finn’s days, or at least the normal weekdays, when Finn had volunteer duty in the infirmary instead of being laid up in it. An unpaid prison assignment was better than having nothing to do. The other two days of the week, Finn aimed to get through by keeping her head down, and most of the time it even worked.
Vivi pulled a rolling stool bedside, sat, and offered Finn a plastic cup of water. Finn propped herself up on the pillows, which sent the ice pack from the back of her neck sliding down. Their hands brushed yet again as Finn took the cup. Finn tried to ignore it, and she tried to ignore how lonely it felt watching Vivi trying to ignore it too, and they both sat silently while Finn took a sip through the straw and waited for her stomach to protest. It didn’t. Cool.
“Finn, do I have to verbally kick someone’s ass on your behalf?” Patient care failures were Vivi’s nemesis, and when she found one, she was rarely inclined to leave it alone.
So Finn stalled. “What do the notes say?” It would have bordered on insubordinate if Finn had asked any other nurse, but Vivi Curiel wasn’t any other nurse. She and Finn were coworkers, friends…
And it had to stop there.
Finn knew it, really she did. She was a prisoner, Vivi was staff, and the rules existed for a reason. It was scary when somebody with power got into a thing with somebody who had none. Finn had watched it happen to other prisoners.
“The notes claim,” Vivi responded, starting to get a familiar steely glint in her eyes, “that per my explicit standing order, you received your meds within twenty minutes of asking the guard for them. But I believe the person who wrote those words about as far as I can throw the entire west wing of this building.”
Vivi’s anger was gratifying. At least one person in this concrete complex gave a damn about Finn’s well-being. But what if that one person made too much fuss and she ended up out of a nursing job?
There’d be no more placing mental bets on which color polish Vivi would wear next. No more spirited debates about who to put on a super-team made up of kick-ass women from action movies. No more quiet confessions about growing up motherless, Vivi’s mom passing away and Finn’s mother abandoning her parenting duties to devote her life to her church. No more listening to Vivi’s whispered emphatic speeches about underfunding of health care in the criminal justice system, the mass incarceration crisis in general, or the Texas Legislature’s latest boneheaded decision that would only make things worse.
No more realizing they were standing a little too close, smiling a little too softly, and seeing the same thing Finn was feeling in Vivi’s eyes before they both looked away.
“Don’t worry about it.” Finn forced herself to sit up more. Ordinarily she found Vivi’s righteous indignation one of her more appealing qualities, but escalating this might not end well for either of them. “I’m serious. I’ll schedule better next time.”
Vivi’s red lips twitched with amusement. “Schedule your migraines better?”
“Only on weekdays between six a.m. and four p.m. from now on. Scout’s honor.”
“You were a Girl Scout?” Vivi asked skeptically.
Finn did her best to grin. “You think I got this gay without doing a lot of camping?”
Vivi snickered and gave Finn a sarcastic thumbs up. Finn caught Vivi’s hand playfully, purely on reflex.
It felt so right.
It was so wrong.
Vivi took her hand back immediately.
“Nurse Curiel?” the guard called from across the room. “Everything okay?”
The nurse in question straightened her back and stood up. “Everything’s fine,” she called back. “Thank you.”
They waited to see if the guard would pull himself up out of his chair and walk over all slow and menacing, as if he’d be plenty happy if Finn was starting something. He didn’t, though. He simply rolled his eyes, re-crossed his arms, and went back to staring around the room.
Vivi turned her attention back to Finn. “That can’t happen again,” she said, her voice so low only the two of them could hear. Not reproachful or condescending. More… regretful.
Finn had undoubtedly spent way too much time imagining what Vivi would say to her if they could freeze time or step into an alternate universe or get teleported to another country, anything to let them step outside of their roles for five freakin’ minutes. Just so Finn could take a full, deep breath and she and Vivi could be completely candid with each other for once. Would Vivi say Finn, you’re fooling yourself? Would she say Finn, even if things were different, it would never happen?
Her gut said no. Not when Vivi looked at her exactly like this so often, as if Finn’s touch would be welcome if only the circumstances were different. As if Vivi was stopping herself from leaning forward only because she knew stopping herself was the right thing to do.
It was, of course. Five magical minutes of honesty wouldn’t change reality.
“I’m sorry.” Finn didn’t know if she was apologizing for the touch, or for being in prison in the first place, or both. What she’d done by putting herself here meant they’d found each other, but it also meant an uncrossable distance between them. Win-lose.
Vivi nodded. Then she nodded a second time, more briskly. Professional. “Can I please make noise about this med delay? You should be able to get treatment when I’m not here. You all should.” She sounded so worn down, and it was only Monday.
“No need,” Finn reassured her. If she could do nothing else, Finn could at least give Vivi a day without another fight.
Vivi didn’t appear the least bit happy about acquiescing. “Okay, next question. Are you hoping to work today, or should I write you a slip?”
Because of course Finn would need a slip to miss a work shift in the prison infirmary due to being in the prison infirmary. Had the outside world been this ridiculous? Finn sat up. The floor needed mopping, clean linens needed bringing up from the laundry, beds needed changing. It gave her something to do beyond contemplating how thoroughly she’d screwed up her life. The room stayed clear despite the angry throb near her eye. Not bad enough to skip her shift.
Vivi must have seen her flinch, however. “Nope, you’re in bed for today.”
“Come on, I’ll be fine.”
“You have a nursing license too?” Vivi exclaimed, eyes wide. “You never told me! No, seriously, lie down.”
Which was typical of how Vivi took care of her patients, though keeping prisoners in hospital beds didn’t make her popular with some of the guards and admin staff. Hospital beds were more comfortable than regular bunks.
Vivi helped Finn ease back down, took the expired ice packs, and returned with two fresh ones before Finn had even snagged the sheet to pull it up. Vivi smoothed the blessed cold onto Finn’s head in exactly the right places, took her pulse at the wrist, and covered her with the sheet.
All without a single unnecessary touch, because Vivi and ethics got along much better than Vivi and dress codes.
“Get some actual sleep,” Vivi said gently. “When you wake up I’ll tell you where I’m up to in The Last Airbender.”
Finn’s eyes drifted half closed. She was more worn out than she’d wanted to be. Tomorrow she’d double-time to get caught up. Vivi worked hard enough; she didn’t need to pick up Finn’s slack too. “You’ve forgiven me about the bats rushing out of the cave in that one episode?”
Vivi chuckled. “You’ll be forgiven when my roommate forgives me for waking her up when I shrieked.”
Finn gave her a sleepy thumbs up. “I accept full responsibility for not knowing you were afraid of bats, but it’s a travesty you’ve never seen it all.”
“Oh absolutely,” Vivi said with mock seriousness. “I had all the time in the world for TV while getting my degree and working over twenty hours a week, and I made bad choices. I’m so glad you came along to get me sorted out.”
Finn made an agreement-sounding hum; all she could manage. She should have gotten up. She could have. If Vivi had cleared her, she’d have made it through the day. She’d worked through worse at her last job, since it lacked paid sick days, a living wage, and management with any kind of morals.
However, Vivi had said to stay put, and now that Finn was lying back down, she had to admit her desire to get up was next to nil. It would be okay if she missed one more day to unconsciousness.
Two days later, when she walked into the infirmary and found a new day nurse in Vivienne Curiel’s place, Finn sure as hell wished she’d made a different choice.
Finn wouldn’t have appreciated the exam room in the low income clinic half as much before prison. It might be shabby, but its walls had posters of kittens. Before prison, Finn would have noted those kittens in passing and moved on to stressing about something. Going to prison had left her with a lot less to stress about. No toxic job anymore. No on-again, off-again girlfriend either.
So there was plenty of space for enjoying the kittens. Her favorite was the black one with the white spot around its left eye. It looked a bit sassy, like a troublemaker, yet cute. You couldn’t be mad if it climbed the curtains.
Finn had never had such detailed thoughts about kittens in her life as in this room, but it wasn’t like she had anywhere else to be. An article she’d stumbled across had said to treat finding a job as a job itself and spend at least forty hours a week on it. The most Finn had hit in the three weeks and change since her release was thirty two. She suspected most of the postings she’d responded to were perpetual, meant to keep a slush pile in case of a vacancy. Few places were hiring for seasonal work in the couple of weeks before Christmas and New Year’s; those jobs got filled before Black Friday… by people without felony theft convictions.
Two different nonprofit employment services had been a bust so far as well. Finn had gone so far as to email every business in the queer chamber of commerce listings, hoping she didn’t sound desperate, requesting any leads on menial positions. When she’d asked her parole officer for ideas, he’d scanned her extensive log of work search activities and shrugged.
Would she be starting the new year employed? Signs pointed to no. Which sucked, but it wasn’t a surprise. She’d find something eventually; it didn’t have to be fantastic. The Austin bus system wasn’t as bad as she’d feared, so she could forgo the expense of a car. A girlfriend could wait even longer. None of her romantic relationships before prison had been particularly inspiring, and the woman she’d felt the strongest connection with in her whole life had possibly been the worst case of wrong place, wrong time ever.
Finn had already spent approximately ten zillion too many wakeful hours wishing that situation had worked out differently. She’d never come up with a single way it could have without a natural disaster or alien abduction, neither of which would have been great. Probably.
Anyway, Finn was moving forward. She needed migraine meds, which she’d already put off getting for far too long, working her way through the Medical Assistance Program application process while hating having to ask for help. All she had to do now was sit in the exam room and speculate about the personalities of kittens until a doctor showed up.
A clinic nurse came in first, saving Finn from her feline-related thoughts. She apologized for running late, but why would Finn complain about free health care? She counted herself lucky to have gotten her appointment moved up, especially three days before Christmas. Thank goodness the person who’d answered the phone had believed Finn that prodrome meant I’m going to have a migraine literally today, this can’t wait.
The nurse stayed for all of four minutes. Twenty minutes later, the doctor visited for five minutes, kind but harried. He agreed Finn needed both kinds of meds, the daily preventative she’d had the most luck with, and the abortive nasal spray for when the preventative didn’t work. Or, like today, when it hadn’t been available. Finn was assured her prescriptions would be e-zapped to the H-E-B grocery store on South Congress, and their pharmacy was open until nine o’clock. All she had to do was show her MAP card, and sweet, sweet lack of soul-crushing pain would (hopefully) be hers.
Finn said goodbye to the doctor and the kittens and stepped back out into the hall—
Only to see Vivienne Curiel walking towards her.
Even after eight months, Finn knew she couldn’t be anyone else. Vivi’s bun had lavender in it now, and was higher, almost on top of her head, and her scrubs were hot pink instead of prison staff blue. She’d put on some weight and looked seriously va-va-voom. Vivi glanced up from the chart she’d been scanning and stopped short about five feet away, her lip-glossed mouth dropping open. She was as stunning as the day Finn had last seen her, the day Vivi had said a cheery goodbye as if everything was completely normal.
Finn waited to find out if Vivi would come closer, or turn around and go as if they’d never even known each other, as if they’d never been… whatever they had never been.
Vivi closed her mouth, made her decision, and walked to the open doorway Finn was blocking. Her voice came out higher than Finn remembered it. Nervous. “Finn? How did— Um, what are you doing here?”
Not the first words Finn had been hoping to hear. When she couldn’t stop herself daydreaming about running into Vivi somewhere, she’d envisioned something along the lines of Finn, oh wow, how are you? or Thank goodness you’re free, take me home and cover me with kisses.
Okay, not really the last one. That would be weird.
Finn held up her post-visit printout like an elementary school hall pass while she waited for her brain to reboot. She couldn’t stop staring at Vivi. There were dark circles under her eyes which Finn didn’t remember from before. Vivi was exhausted, or maybe sick. Also gorgeous and standing right here. Finn’s nervous system had no idea what to do with all this information.
“I guess you’re—” Vivi started, as Finn managed “Are you o—”
They both stopped.
This was weirder than the cover me with kisses vision. This was flat-out awkward. Why? They’d been friends first, whatever else either of them had wanted, and they hadn’t parted on bad terms. Finn had made the one regrettable slip near the end, holding Vivi’s hand, but she’d been forgiven. Hadn’t she?
“So you aren’t… here to see me?” Vivi asked.
Oh no. Finn could see it from Vivi’s perspective. Girl quits job, girl gets new job in Austin hundreds of miles away, then other girl from old job randomly appears at new workplace? Prison staff probably had to be careful about that kind of thing.
But whatever peace Finn had finally made with Vivi’s disappearance had come when she’d put the past behind her. Regardless, Finn never would have come to Vivi’s work uninvited. If Finn had learned anything from her prison stay, it was how much she’d taken privacy and boundaries for granted before.
Plus, this wasn’t how Finn would have wanted a reunion to go. Too many of the questions Vivi might ask had awkward answers. Where was Finn working? Nowhere. Where was she living? In her cousin’s stepsister’s living room trying not to disturb any of the Christmas decorations, and yeah that was a damn long story.
“I didn’t have a clue you worked here,” Finn promised, relieved this was a misunderstanding and she hadn’t unknowingly committed some transgression. There were enough in the known column already. “I didn’t even know you lived in Austin now.” Finn would have remembered any mention of Austin in Vivi’s bio, since Finn had expected her cousin Hollis who lived here to put her up. Which he was doing as best he could.
Finn expected Vivi to relax now that Finn’s presence had been explained. Instead, she hiked the patient chart up in front of her chest. When she spoke, she was obviously trying to be Nurse Curiel, but Finn could only give it a seven out of ten for verisimilitude. Too shaky.
“Oh.” Vivi put on a smile Finn had only seen her use with strangers. “Well. I’m glad you’re out, that’s wonderful. If you have any questions later, call the nurse line, and if you don’t get what you need there, ask for a call back from the nurse manager.” She sounded like she was preparing to give Finn more instructions for if things went wrong, such as how to escalate to the Executive Director, or contact the media for an investigative report, but she visibly stopped herself. “I’m glad you’re getting care. Maybe I’ll run into you here again. Bye, Finn.”
Finn might not have known Vivi lived in Austin now, but she knew something was wrong. “Vivi, wait. Please.”
Finn had never said Vivi’s name out loud. She’d only ever heard that nickname said by other staff at the prison. It must have been waiting on the tip of her tongue all this time, or Nurse Curiel would have come out. She kinda wanted to say it again, so she could hear it again in her own voice.
But Vivi had already turned back, listening. Finn’s eyes grabbed every detail she could. The freckles across Vivi’s nose and cheeks, darker now, especially the two above the corner of her lips. The shimmery eye shadow. The way her chin might be about to start trembling like on Vivi’s twenty-seventh birthday when she’d been missing her mother.
She wasn’t okay. Vivi wasn’t okay, and maybe Finn was at fault or maybe not, but either way Finn couldn’t stand it.
“Can we talk?” Finn tried to put all her genuine concern into the question and none of her selfish confusion. “Sometime? Catch up?”
Vivi didn’t immediately walk away, but she didn’t open up either. After a moment she seemed to pull up some reserve energy and gave Finn another smile. Still fake, though, as if Finn was no longer someone Vivi could turn to.
“Sure,” Vivi said, a pale echo of her old cheery self. “We should catch up. Um… tonight? Is that too soon? Today I actually know I’m getting out of here on time. We could meet at Knockdown Coffee at six thirty?”
Finn didn’t have a clue where Knockdown Coffee was, but she’d get there even if she had to take a cab with the emergency cash her cousin had given her.
“Yeah. Sounds perfect.”
Vivi nodded sharply, all business. “See you there.”
Then Vivienne Curiel, the wrong place, wrong time woman Finn hadn’t been able to forget no matter how hard she tried, walked on down the hall.
I’ve tried to make these as spoiler-free as possible, but to me it’s more important to give full content information to those who need it.
On-page or extensive discussion:
- Sex (explicit in Chapter 9; less detailed reference in Chapter 14)
- Reflection on negative prison experiences, including delay of medical care and observing trans prisoners being housed in wrong prison
- Reflection on factors that lead to people being in prison, including abuse, addiction, and poverty
- Housing insecurity and prospect of living with homophobic parents
- Difficulty accessing a prescription from a government-funded program
- Character with chronic migraines has one start on-page
- Unintended pregnancy with serious consideration of both abortion and continuing the pregnancy
- Side character is a former police officer
- One phone call from an inebriated side character (who is safe at the time)
Off-page or brief mention:
- Mentions of character’s mother dying when she was a young child and parentification of oldest sister
- Descriptions of being rejected by conservative Christian parents for sexual orientation
- Recovery from injuries sustained in a car accident
- Weaning off pain medication
- Discussion of biological parent not being able to raise their child
- Character with young children has been abandoned by spouse
- Volunteering at abortion clinic (note: this is included only because some readers may have had stressful or dangerous experiences while volunteering)