By Diana Douglas
(pseud. Richard Wilkes-Hunter), ©1974
Cover illustration by Allan Kass
When beautiful Melinda Fontane Excepted a new assignment during Mardi Gras time in New Orleans, she found her patient to be a charming, if enigmatic, man. She could not understand the veil of secrecy which surrounded his case. But when the doctor in attendance turned out to be handsome Garth Woodward, an old friend of Melinda’s, she was warned that her patient was a target for murder, and that she, too, could be in danger. That was all Garth would tell her, but he kept a close watch on his lovely young assistant—close enough to rekindle Melinda’s deep feeling for him. Then, suddenly, midst the swelling frenzy of the Mardi Gras, all disguise is dropped, and Melinda learned to the real identity of her mysterious patient—and discovered to the true face of love …
“First time I have ever had an attractive nurse to sit up with me, and I’m put to sleep.”
“I’m used to wounds. Remind me to show you my scars sometime.”
I am generally not a fan of nurse novels written in the 1970s, nor am I fan of author Richard Wilkes-Hunter. So this novel, which falls into both categories, was not likely to impress. It lived up to my expectations. Melinda Fontane is a nurse from New Orleans who once had a crush on Dr. Garth Woodward. They had dated briefly, but then he had gone off to start his private practice, and she had quit the hospital in favor of private nursing, leaving no forwarding address. They meet completely by accident when she is hired to care for the same patient he is watching over, a mysterious Mr. Wallace who has multiple sclerosis. Garth immediately tells her that he had tried to track her down but had been unable to find her—and she is strangely angry when he says that he thought she might work for him in his office. “So that was the only way he thought of her—as a nurse. Wasn’t that typical!” So she is particularly chilly to him every time they meet, which is guaranteed to win him back.
She—and also the readers—are given little information about the patient, apart from the fact that he has MS and therefore should not be driving and apparently needs constant vigilance lest he actually try to do something for himself, which will apparently set off a relapse. This is another one of those instances of VNRN “medicine” where the treatment may be worse than the disease. We also find out that Mr. Wallace has quite the coterie of government agents guarding him from an assassination attempt. But Mr. Wallace is a terrible patient—and an even worse person to try to guard—as he is constantly ducking out for adventures like lunch in New Orleans with his nurse in tow. On the luncheon escapade, Melinda drops by Garth’s office only to meet his very pretty office nurse Lisa, and immediately becomes enraged by the fact that Garth has been known to lunch at the intimate little bistro nearby. “His receptionist had been with him, Melinda decided jealously. She was sure of it.” That bastard!
So she subjects him to more unjustified needling, but the man bravely takes her aside and asks her what he has done to annoy her. She makes a number of snippy remarks that paint a clear picture of her jealousy, and he explains that though he has been out with Lisa, he does not care for her the way he does for Melinda. Unfortunately, she still cannot bring herself to be anything but horrible, and he is on the verge of giving up and walking off when at the very last minute she pulls herself together and begs him to come on the deep-sea fishing trip that Mr. Wallace is planning—though it is sure to cause a relapse!—and he accepts.
This is actually one of the more enjoyable parts of the book, as it appears that from author Wilkes-Hunter’s descriptions that he actually knew something about and greatly enjoyed the sport. Melinda herself is quite the expert and teaches Garth to fish, and he lands a 250-pound marlin. But he still doesn’t have much in the way of sea legs and nearly falls overboard, snagged at the last minute by Melinda. “But she finished up in his arms against the cabin wall. There did not seem to be anywhere either of them wanted to go from there, and someone had to take the initiative, so she did,” we are told in a cute turn of phrase. She gives him a “victor’s kiss” that quickly threatens to get out of hand until a speedboat sweeps in from out of nowhere and begins shooting at the party, wounding one of Mr. Wallace’s security guards.
Then it’s back to the mansion, where Melinda is attending Mr. Wallace, who swears this time, “I would not endanger you or any of the others again,” as he folds away the day’s newspaper headlined “1973 Mardi Gras Best Ever.” No one in this entire organization has the brains of a gnat, including Mr. Wallace, who continually falls for the stupidest ploys by the bad guys to capture him. Off to Mardi Gras he sneaks, with the car of security guards and Melinda in hot pursuit. Naturally she is the one who finds him—and he is easily lured into a trap and captured by the evil villains. Honestly, they could have pulled up in a white van and asked him if he wanted to see a phone booth full of candy around the corner and he would have climbed right in.
Everything turns out exactly as you know it will, with little excitement, clever writing, humor, or intelligence. Melinda has the unfortunate tendency to get pissy about inconsequential incidents, and is barely redeemed by her real strength of character—she always stands up for herself and her patient, and her extreme competence at boating and deep-sea fishing is the cherry on top. The “secret” of the ending is telegraphed on the first page, and it’s a long 157 pages to finally wind it up. Only four of the 14 VNRNs by Richard Wilkes-Hunter that I’ve reviewed have earned better grades than this one, but with a C+, it’s still, unfortunately, not a book you’ll likely want to bother with—and not even the Best Ever Mardi Gras is going to change that.