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Every fine hair stood to attention on the back of Dr Franceen Lewis’s neck. Even the ones on her arms had started rising. What the hell? This was new.
Turning around would confirm who stood in the doorway of the room where she was treating a patient. Her palms grew sweaty, and her breathing became a little shallower. She resisted the urge to wipe her hands down her scrub pants. No way would she ever give Dr Scott Carruthers any indication that his presence unnerved her.
Her reaction to the CEO/Chief Registrar of Waratah River Regional Hospital, her new place of work, was getting annoying. She’d been working at the hospital for close to six months now, she shouldn’t still be reacting to him this way. The first time it had happened, on the day she started, she’d put it down to nerves and excitement about her new adventure. Not only was she doing more in this job than her previous one, she’d also relocated her whole life to take up this position.
Now her body’s response was just plain annoying and inconvenient. Her hormones, or whatever it was that was acting up around him, needed to get with the program and remember he was a work colleague and nothing more. Not to mention her superior. And she was remaining firmly single now. This time was all about her and her career. Not her personal life.
“Everything okay in here?” he asked, his voice smooth and reassuring. The type of tone that made nervous patients relax. Even the young woman she was treating sighed quietly under her breath.
Why did he feel the need to always check up on her?
She was an accomplished doctor in general medicine and women’s health and obstetrics. Yes, she was an over achiever. However, it worked to her advantage at the mid-sized rural hospital where she was now employed.
Patting the leg of her patient, she braced herself to show nothing but professionalism and turned to find Scott leaning casually against the door frame. Her pulse rate accelerated and she prayed that her face wouldn’t flush pink. “Yes, everything is fine.”
Man, why did he have to look so good?
He didn’t have his white doctor’s coat on, but the button-down shirt he wore was pale blue and looked like it had been starched within an inch of its life. His black pants had a sharp crease down the middle. Clearly he’d been doing more of his CEO role today than that of a doctor seeing patients in the ER. He wore scrubs as well as he wore what he had on today.
Did the guy ever sleep?
She’d taken the position not only as a new adventure for herself, but also to lend assistance to Scott and his staff. The hospital had undergone a review a few months ago. While she didn’t know the ins and outs of it all, the state government had increased the funding to the hospital for another doctor. She’d jumped at the offer, even though her colleagues in Brisbane were telling her she was insane for taking a job in rural New South Wales.
“When you’ve finished up here, can I see you in my office, Dr Lewis?”
“Absolutely. I should be there in about fifteen minutes.” Mustering up a smile she really didn’t feel, she nodded at Scott before concentrating back on her patient.
“Right. I’ll see you then.” There was the faint sound of a hand tapping the door frame, before the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck lay flat again.
“Wow, he’s really good-looking, isn’t he?” her young patient gushed.
Franceen nodded, but continued with her examination of the girl. She pressed down lightly on her stomach and was pleased when she felt the answering kick of the baby. “Everything feels good and your blood pressure, while slightly elevated, isn’t something I’m concerned about at the moment. If it’s still high on your next visit, then we’ll have to evaluate if your diet needs changing or something else is causing the increase.” She smiled reassuringly at the young woman, and grabbed a tube of gel. She smeared a generous amount over the protruding belly and took the wand from its holder on the ultrasound machine. “How about we take a peek at your little bundle of joy and take a few measurements?”
The look of worry that had been marring her patient’s face switched to one of excitement. “Yes, please. Do you think we can find out the sex this time?”
“If baby is cooperating, we sure can.” Franceen loved being able to let anxious parents know the sex of their baby, as well as letting them see the miracle growing inside of them.
Some days she wanted to experience the joy of impending motherhood for herself, but that wasn’t going to happen for her.
Firmly she pushed aside those yearnings. She’d come to the decision that motherhood was no longer on the cards for her.
For a short while she’d experienced what her young patient had. The excitement of feeling new life growing inside of her. The reassuring sound of a heartbeat. And then fate had decided there was another path Franceen needed to follow. Now here she was using her knowledge to keep other women safe, when she hadn’t been able to keep herself or her baby safe.
“All right, let’s take a look at your little one.” Determined not to let the past dictate her future, she moved the wand over her patient’s belly and with a flick of a button the whoosh whoosh of a heartbeat filled the room.
A sound she would never get tired of.
Franceen tapped on the closed door and upon hearing a muffled come in, she twisted the door handle. Scott looked up from the papers in front of him. The smile on his face faltered and something flared briefly in his dark chocolate–coloured eyes, disappearing faster than a kangaroo crossing the road at dusk.
“You wanted to see me?” She broke the silence that had stretched between them.
“Umm, yes. Take a seat.” He pointed to one of the black leather bucket chairs in front of his desk.
For a moment she thought he was nervous, but pushed the idea away. With running a hospital, not to mention doing shifts, he was probably distracted about a patient. Or some other administration problem. That brief look had nothing to do with her being in close proximity to him, unlike her issues. Even after the lecture she’d given herself, the one where she had to keep her reactions to her boss under control. Like always, the fine hairs on her neck and arms were back to standing at attention.
Boss. He’s my boss.
She needed to remember that. He ran the hospital she now worked at. Workplace relationships were never a good idea.
Again, the silence stretched between them like a long piece of silk suture thread. Why didn’t he say something? Anything. After all, he’d asked to see her. Didn’t he know she had other patients to attend to? There was a mountain of paperwork waiting for her to attend to as well.
“Are you going to tell me why you summoned me to your office, or are we going to sit here in silence? I do have other things to do.”
Darn, that came out snarkier than it should’ve. Really not the sort of tone she should use with a superior. Although, to be fair, in all the dealings she’d had with him, Scott hadn’t held the fact he ran the hospital over her or any other staff member’s head. He was by far the fairest hospital CEO she’d ever worked for. Maybe it was because he was a doctor himself, so he understood the stresses they often found themselves under. Not to mention she’d heard through the grapevine that on numerous occasions Scott had made decisions that would be better for the staff than a non-medical CEO would have made.
“I received a call from Ryan this morning.”
Franceen was pleased he didn’t feel the need to explain who Ryan was, as she was looking after his wife during her pregnancy. Wait, Ryan had called Scott because there was an issue with his wife’s health, instead of calling her? That would really be the epitome of rudeness.
“Right. I’m hoping it has nothing to do with his wife’s pregnancy. If it does he should’ve contacted me, not you.” As much as she tried to keep her annoyance out of her voice, she’d been as unsuccessful as keeping the snark out earlier.
“No, nothing like that. And I can assure you that Sindy wouldn’t allow him to do that anyway. I am firmly in the role of brother and uncle-in-waiting, and Ryan’s role is father only.” He spread his hands wide. “This is entirely the Sindy and Dr Lewis show.”
Her shoulders dropped and she leaned back in her chair. Yes, her reaction was a little over the top, but for so long she’d dealt with the patriarchy of hospitals, not to mention the outdated views of the person who was supposed to have been her biggest supporter. What a joke that had been.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions.”
Scott’s brow furrowed, as if he wanted to examine her outburst a little longer and ask her why she’d leapt to the conclusion she had. “It’s fine.” He shuffled some more papers together. “Anyway, back to Ryan’s call. As you know, he visits the surrounding farmers and communities to supply medical attention where needed.”
Franceen had heard about this initiative, one that was started a long time ago by Colin McCarthy, former doctor of Bunya Junction, the town where Ryan was a general practitioner. Where Scott had grown up and where she currently lived.
When she’d made the decision to take the job at Waratah River, she’d decided she wanted to experience it all and live in a small town. While Waratah River wasn’t a huge town, by any stretch of the imagination, she’d fallen in love with Bunya Junction when she’d stopped there for a coffee and pastry on her way to the hospital for a look-over after her appointment by the Health Department. Yes, the commute was long, but it was worth it.
“Is Ryan planning to drop the work that he does out there?”
“Oh no, not at all. And we wouldn’t want him to. It’s a joint venture between us and him. A successful one at that.”
“That’s good. Everyone deserves to have the opportunity for medical attention, even if they don’t accept it. I’ve met some stubborn individuals who believe they’ve got a situation under control and don’t need medical help. Fortunately, they usually have a partner who makes them see reason.”
“Any type of sickness can cause fear in the most reasonable person. Anyway, last week on one of his visits, a young pregnant girl and her mum stopped by. The young girl looked in good health, but he thought she looked a little bloated around the face and hands. He told me that he mentioned to them that you had joined our staff at Waratah River and if they wanted an appointment to call or drop in at the hospital.”
Immediately Franceen’s heart tightened at what Scott told her. The bloating of hands and face could be a sign of water retention and high blood pressure. She hoped they’d come to the hospital. “Right, that could mean a few things. Some serious.”
“How do I fit in the picture? Does Ryan want me to go see her, even though he told them to come to the hospital?”
“No, it was more about giving you a heads-up, in case they mention that he sent them. Ryan doesn’t tend to push people to do things they’re not comfortable with, as much as he’d like to on some occasions. He respects their wishes and we do the same here too.”
“Okay, I can understand that. Anything else about her that he told you?”
“He estimated she’s about six or seven months pregnant. She seemed happy and not in any discomfort. A few of the other women in the community came up and chatted to both of them. As Ryan said, he thinks they’re new to the area.”
“Oh, that’s sweet.”
A picture of small-town rural life was unfolding in her mind. She loved hearing about how they were rallying around a new mum-to-be and her family and showing them love and support.
During her obstetrics training she’d helped out at a clinic where pregnant teenagers could receive medical care. She was an honorary aunty to many cute babies.
A pain stabbed in her belly at what she would never feel again, but she pushed the feelings to the side. She’d moved on from that disappointment after she’d made her decision. Her focus was on the here and now, not the past. No matter how hard it tried to pull her back into its grasp.
“Yes, it is. I won’t lie, as I’m sure you’re feeling the same way too. I am a little concerned, so I hope she does come to see you and fear doesn’t keep her away.”
Franceen pondered the best way to approach the situation that she was going to find herself in. Nothing came to mind, but hopefully she’d have a couple of days to come up with an action plan that would be successful. “I’ll make a call to Ryan and see if I can get some more information out of him. Maybe he’s remembered something he forgot to mention to you.”
“I’m sure he’ll appreciate the call.”
“If they do come to the hospital, perhaps I could ask Barbara to be there when I examine the girl. Having a midwife there might make the family feel more comfortable.”
“I like that idea. Barbara could know the family as well. I know she’s asked to help out with births in the outlying communities. Maybe she’s spoken to the family, and Ryan didn’t know about it.”
“I guess anything is possible, but we’ll play it by ear. I’ll check in with Barbara and ask her about it.”
“Keep me updated.”
“Will do. Anything else you wanted to talk to me about?”
For a fraction of a second Scott hesitated, as if he wanted to say something else. “No, that’s it. Thanks, Franceen.”
As she walked out she tried not to think about the disappointment thrumming through her. What did she expect him to do—ask her out?
No, that wasn’t happening. Her focus had to be on her job and a young patient who may need medical help so that nothing happened to her baby. She’d experienced that type of loss and it was a pain that never went away.
As the door closed behind Franceen, Scott breathed deeply and immediately regretted it when the lingering scent of roses hit him.
He leaned back in his chair, swivelling it so he faced the window, not paying attention to the view of the native bushland that was behind the hospital. A view he’d seen a hundred times. His thoughts were turned inward.
Franceen Lewis, specifically his attraction to her, was an inconvenience he could do without. He didn’t know what it was about her, but the moment they’d met he’d wanted to get to know her better. And not in a professional capacity. Totally in a personal way. However, in his role as CEO and chief registrar, getting involved with a staff member, while it wasn’t explicitly prohibited, it wouldn’t be the wisest idea in the world.
After the review had been conducted at the hospital, he’d been on the fence about the decision to have a doctor who specialised in women’s health and obstetrics on staff. Not that it wasn’t needed; it was just that, over the years, female doctors had come and gone so often that in the end most of the women of the area were used to dealing with the male doctors on staff.
God, he sounded like a misogynistic oaf. He prided himself on being a fair boss and always gave equal opportunities to all who deserved them, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. He certainly treated everyone with the utmost professionalism. But Franceen blew all his good intentions out the window.
Scott pinched the bridge of his nose and breathed deeply a couple of times to clear his mind. His problem wasn’t the fact that Franceen was a woman doctor, it was just his damned need to sample her plump pink lips. She was temptation personified and he didn’t think she was aware of how much she tempted him.
He pushed away from the desk and started to pace around his office. He couldn’t think about her or what she did to his equilibrium. He had a hospital to run and a scholarship initiative to get up and running. He had no time in his life for a personal relationship.
God, when was the last time he even had one? It would have been before he’d taken over this job at Waratah River. The job had come at the right time in his life. He had been getting tired of city life and had broken up with his girlfriend of six months because she’d been cheating on him. Her excuse for her cheating—he worked too much and had been neglecting her. She hadn’t minded him being a doctor when they’d first started dating. After that experience he hadn’t been willing to rush into the arms of another woman, only to find out she couldn’t understand the demands of his career.
What could he say, he loved his job and gave it a hundred and ten percent. He’d yet to find a woman who would appreciate that about him.
Franceen Lewis would understand. She is a doctor after all.
Damn his inner voice and its reasonable assumption. It wasn’t happening. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not next month. Not ever.
Yet the desire to be in a settled relationship and start a family with a special woman still hit him when he least expected it. Like after spending time with his siblings who’d all settled down and were starting families of their own.
Sitting back down, Scott pulled the file with the information from Ryan’s lawyers about scholarship plan, within the foundation he wanted to set up, toward him. He lost himself in the words, making note of things he wanted to follow up and question. Everything was falling into place and he couldn’t be happier. Soon he was going to be able to make some deserving people’s dreams come true.
A slight twinge in his stomach reminded him that if he wanted to keep working, he needed to get some food into him. As he made his way down to the hospital cafeteria, his mind turned over the other tasks he needed to attend to.
The large room wasn’t crowded, and he was glad about that. He could eat without someone asking him a question about an admin policy or patient. He picked up a ham and salad sandwich, along with some fruit salad.
“How are you today, Dr Carruthers?” Bea, the cashier, smiled at him. He noticed the faint shadows under her eyes, his doctor instincts kicking in.
“I’m good. How about you, Bea? Everything all right with you?”
The cashier sighed. “Harold had a tough night last night. He was up and down a few times. Said his knee was playing up.”
Her husband had recently had a knee replacement surgery. Scott was aware that sometimes an internal infection could occur and the patient wasn’t even aware of it. It sounded like this could be a possibility for Harold. “Tell him to come see me and we’ll have a look to see what’s up with the knee.”
Bea shook her head and wry smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “I tried, but he’s a stubborn old coot sometimes.”
As he’d said to Franceen in their meeting—sometimes people were plain stubborn and put up with pain instead of getting help. “Tell him it’s doctor’s orders.”
“Will do. Thanks, Doc.” Bea held out his change.
“All part of the service and keep the change.”
“You’re a good man, Dr Carruthers,” Bea murmured as he walked away. He stopped and examined the room when a slight tingle at the base of his neck informed him the one person he was hoping he wouldn’t see was in the room. Scanning the area, he found her sitting at a table by the window. The sun shone through the glass and highlighted a hint of red in her otherwise black hair. She was eating her salad as she read from a tablet.
Franceen seemed perfectly happy by herself, but his feet weren’t getting the message and they headed in her direction.
“Mind if I join you?” He gripped the sides of his tray.
Franceen looked up and he caught the flash of surprise and awareness in her eyes, before it was blinked away. “Umm, sure.” She waved at the spare seat opposite her.
“Thanks.” He sat and unwrapped his sandwich. “Reading a good book?”
Her lips twisted into a grimace. “I’m trying to read a paper on some of the latest techniques in home births, but the author of the piece is rambling and not getting to the point.” She placed the device down on the table between them.
“Home births? I wouldn’t have thought that was something you’d be in favour of?” Shit, again he sounded like an ignorant fool. He was well aware that women in the outlying communities gave birth to children without hospital intervention all the time.
“Obviously my ideal hope would be for all women to receive medical care, but we both know in the country it isn’t possible. Plus, if I can bring in some techniques that benefit the journey our mothers go through with home births into a hospital environment then it’s a win for everyone.”
Scott chewed his sandwich and was impressed with Franceen’s thought processes. He shouldn’t be surprised, though. In the short time she’d been at the hospital he’d seen the way she always put patient care first. Another check mark on the positive side for Dr Lewis.
He went to take another bite of his sandwich when a sharp pain burst out in his lower abdomen. He dropped the sandwich and clutched the table. The pain was intense, like his insides were being twisted into knots.
“Scott, are you okay?” He was aware of Franceen talking to him, but his focus was on dealing with his discomfort.
Her fingers closed around his wrist taking his pulse. Even he could tell it was elevated as his heart was racing.
“Breathe in and out through your nose. Slowly.”
Taking her instructions to heart, he followed them and the pain didn’t seem so unbearable. A simple but effective technique. What Franceen said to him was something he should’ve known, what he would say to a patient if they were in the same amount of pain as he was.
Her hand encircling his wrist gave him something to focus on as she quietly reminded him to breathe in and out. He’d bet a month’s salary this was how she spoke to her labouring mothers to help them through a contraction.
After what seemed like forever, but was probably only a couple of minutes, the tightness eased and he was able to sit up.
“Thanks, I’m not sure what that was. It came on so suddenly.” He looked at his sandwich and his stomach revolted at the thought of attempting to finish it. He wrapped it up; maybe he’d feel like it later.
“I think we should go down to the ER and get you examined.”
Scott stood and waited to see if the motion would bring back the pain. When it was clear it wouldn’t, he picked up his tray. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I’m sure it was just a one-off thing.” He bent to the left and right, forward and back. “See, nothing. Not a twinge of pain.”
Franceen collected her device and placed her salad plate on her tray, eyeing him with a hint of scepticism. He supposed he deserved it. “You know, this is why doctors have a bad reputation. We ignore getting ourselves looked at when we should. Doctors can be just as bad as the people we were discussing earlier who don’t want to get help when they need it.”
“Seriously, I’m sure it’s nothing.” Scott wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince, himself or Franceen. He didn’t like to look vulnerable in front of anyone, particularly his very attractive colleague.
How did one word hold a wealth of derision? But somehow Franceen had managed to convey her disbelief in five letters.
“If it happens again, I’ll come downstairs. Okay?”
“That would be good. Call me, though, if you do.”
He didn’t see that happening. He’d deal with it himself. All he wanted to do was get to his office so that he could continue on with his day’s work and put the episode behind him. He really didn’t think it was anything serious.
End of Excerpt