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She didn’t pick him because he was gorgeous, even though he definitely was gorgeous. No, that wasn’t the reason. She chose him for the simple fact that he was smiling and had the gentlest gray eyes she’d ever seen, and in that moment, a gentleman, a gentle man, was exactly what she needed.
Lauren Mitchell squirmed uncomfortably on the hard plastic chair in St. Mark’s Hospital cafeteria. Papers, her iPad, and her phone lay spread out between her and hospital administrator, Peter Gresham, who was anything but a gentleman. Tugging the lapels of her sensible gray suit jacket together didn’t seem to stop him from leering at the perfectly respectable V-neck of her white blouse. It was all she could do not to kick him under the table and point to her face to get him to focus on the subject at hand—robotics equipment for the new cardiac surgery wing that St. Mark’s had recently added to the north end of the hospital.
This happened way too often. Because she was small, blonde, and, okay…bosomy, men tended to treat her as if she was present merely for their entertainment. She’d dealt with jerks like Peter Gresham her entire adult life. High-powered men who simply couldn’t fathom that a woman whose figure resembled a smaller version of Dolly Parton’s could possibly have a brain under that blond hair. Never mind that her credentials were right there on the Cardiotronics Technologies brochure she’d placed in front of him two days ago. The facts that she’d graduated summa cum laude from med school and excelled in her cardiothoracic surgery residency at a renowned heart hospital in Indianapolis, that she was published in several major medical journals, and that she’d helped to invent the robotic technology that Cardiotronics was installing in his hospital—none of this seemed to impress Peter Gresham.
However, her boobs had certainly grabbed his attention, and once again, Lauren reminded herself that the genes that had given her both curves and brains were a gift, not a curse. That kind of attention was a hill she’d been climbing since she started developing at age thirteen and her Gramma Alicia, her mother’s mother, had taken her by the shoulders to keep her from slouching. “You stand tall, you hear me, child?” Gramma had said, pulling Lauren’s shoulder blades together and making her already-round, high breasts thrust forward. “Be proud of being a woman. Don’t hide your beauty. It will open doors when that amazing brain of yours won’t.”
“What about dinner, Lauren? The Cotton Mill Inn has a great restaurant. Since you’re staying there, why not meet me tonight?” Peter’s beseeching tone, which he probably thought was sexy, was only annoying.
Lauren still hated the fact that her grandmother was right too often, even in today’s more politically correct world. Men were men, and it didn’t seem to matter whether they were “woke” or enlightened or whatever the current terminology was; way too many still turned into eighth graders on the bus when faced with a pretty girl who had both brains and boobs. But Peter was a man she couldn’t afford to insult. He was the one writing the checks to Cardiotronics. A deep breath later, she chose another way.
Gazing over his shoulder, Lauren tried to be unobtrusive about sizing up the tall, handsome man dressed in navy scrubs standing in the entryway. Immediately, she noticed the stethoscope and hospital ID lanyard hanging around his neck as well as his ringless left hand—that didn’t really mean anything, but she was prepared to take the risk. His scrub shirt, loose around the middle to accommodate his broad shoulders, was tucked into even looser matching drawstring pants. He talked animatedly to another man, who also wore the dark blue scrubs of the emergency department.
This gentle giant was her guy, and when the smarmy man sitting across the table from her slid his foot against her calf for the third time in less than ten minutes, her decision was made. She shoved her chair away from the table and rose. “Oh, there you are, babe!” She met him—Dr. Maxim Lange, according to the badge on his lanyard—as he started into the cafeteria. “You’re late. Did you get held up in the ER?” She threw her arms around his neck on the question, whispering in his ear as she pressed a kiss to his dark-bearded cheek. “Please, play along. Kiss me.”
The good doctor bent down and tightened his grip with hands so large they nearly spanned her waist, tugging her closer. “Sure,” he whispered, then in a louder tone. “Sorry, we had a kid come in who’d been hit by a car up on the highway.” With that, he tipped his head and took her lips in a kiss so unexpected and so intimate that Lauren’s knees nearly buckled. His beard tickled the sensitive skin between her lips and her nose, which inanely, she remembered from Anatomy 101 was called the philtrum. Hers was tingling.
When he lifted his mouth, his lips curved up into a bemused and curious smile, and he touched his forehead to hers. “What’s up?”
“I’ve just missed you.” Aware of the many pairs of eyes on them and grateful he was receiving her cues with such aplomb, she slid her hands down his muscled arms before lacing the fingers of one hand with his. “I’ll bet you’re hungry; I’ve already got my lunch.” She jerked her head toward the table where Peter had twisted around his chair to stare at them. “I’m over there with Dr. Gresham. Why don’t you”—she peered around at his companion, suddenly cringing at the thought that she may have totally blown this whole charade because she had no idea whether Dr. Maxim Lange was straight or gay or what exactly—“both join us.”
Dr. Lange grinned, his teeth showing white against the dark beard. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. Have you met Christopher Johnson yet? He’s chief of the emergency department.” He raised his brows. “You know, my boss.”
His boss? Holy cats. She’d blown it all right. Lauren’s heart sank to her belly as heat crept into her cheeks. Taking a deep breath, she soldiered on because, really, what else could she do at this point? She stuck out her hand. “Hello, Dr. Johnson. Max has talked about you often”—dear lord, please let him be known as Max by everyone—“but I just arrived a few days ago, so we haven’t had a chance to meet in person yet. I’m Lauren Mitchell, Max’s…friend.”
Dr. Johnson, who gloriously resembled Denzel Washington, took her hand and smiled kindly. “Very nice to meet you, Ms. Mitchell. Max, why have you kept this lovely woman under wraps?”
When she glanced up at Max, his grin said he was clearly enjoying the heck out of her discomfort. His eyes searched the visitor pass around her neck, and she thanked the stars the badge pinned to her suit jacket let him know she was with Cardiotronics because the visitor pass told him squat. And that the FACC after her name gave him the information that she was a cardiologist. “Well, Chris, we, um…we met at that conference in Baltimore in January. Laurie works for Cardiotronics. They’re making great strides in cardiology technology.” He peered closer at the badge. “She’s actually Dr. Mitchell. She’s a cardiologist, aren’t you, honey?”
Oh, God, don’t call me Laurie.
“Cardiothoracic surgeon to be exact.” She dropped Max’s hand. “Go get some food. I’ll meet you at the table.”
He gave her hand a squeeze. “You want anything while I’m up there?”
“No, I’m good, thanks.” With a smile for Dr. Johnson, she deliberately sashayed back to where Peter Gresham sat, drumming his fingers on the Formica tabletop, and slid into her chair. “So sorry, Peter. Where were we?”
“You’re with Max Lange?” Peter’s voice had risen a couple of steps and his blue eyes glittered.
Somehow, she managed an innocent flutter of her eyelashes, a gesture she truly hated to resort to, but desperate times and all that. “Well, we’ve been dating long-distance since January. We were delighted when the company sent me down here to help you open your new cardiac surgery wing.” A moment’s pause gave the lie just the push it needed. “We’re so anxious to spend time together, so unfortunately, I can’t accept your dinner invitation. I hope to be with Max every free moment we both have while I’m here.”
As he picked up his chicken and noodles and green beans, Max kept glancing out at the smokin’ hot blonde who had just thrown herself into his arms. An interesting turn of events for a rather dull Tuesday afternoon in late April. He continued to the beverage station, grabbing a half-pint of milk and nabbing a brownie from a basket by the register. When he looked out into the café, Dr. Lauren Mitchell was gazing at him, her expression the adoring face of a woman newly in love. He sucked in a breath as his heart stuttered for a second. She was a looker, that was for damn sure. And one hell of an actress.
Chris nudged him with his tray. “You’re up.”
“Oh, thanks.” He tapped his Visa on the point-of-sale machine the cashier turned toward him, then led the way to the square table where Lauren sat with Peter Gresham, one of Max’s least-favorite people at St. Mark’s Hospital.
“Hey, Pete.” Max nodded as he unloaded his food, then set both his and Chris’s empty trays on the table behind them. “How’s it going?”
Dr. Gresham frowned. “Peter.” He deepened the frown to a scowl, clearly unhappy about having to remind Max again that he disliked the nickname.
Max knew that, but it was so much fun to annoy prissy Peter Gresham, particularly today, when it was clear Peter was trying to score points with the lovely Dr. Mitchell. She was fiddling with her salad, moving cucumber slices from one side of the plate to the other, then piercing a grape tomato and setting it carefully on top of a cucumber. He glanced at Lauren’s half-eaten salad and untouched slice of French bread. “Are you going to eat that bread, honey?”
She set it on his plate. “No, you can have it. Your chicken and noodles look good.”
“This is one of the things they do well here.” Max loaded a bite onto his fork. “Here, try it.”
He held in a chuckle as she drew back visibly, then caught herself, and, with her fingers on his wrist, accepted the morsel. “Mmmmm.” She chewed and swallowed. “That is good.”
“I know, right?” He dug in with gusto, shoveling the food in because he and Chris were due back in the ER in about twenty-five minutes.
“How’s the child?” Lauren threw him with the question.
He paused midbite, then remembered. “Oh, he’s fourteen, actually, and he’s going to be fine. Got hit crossing the highway against the light. Broken arm, some bruises.” He set the bite on top of the piece of French bread and ate them together.
“So, Max has kept you a secret, Dr. Mitchell.” Chris tossed him a smirk. “He said you met at a conference in Baltimore in January?”
She blinked. “Um, yes…we…we did.” She placed a perfectly manicured hand on Max’s arm, sending a pleasant tingle right to his chest and points south. “We’ve been calling and FaceTiming ever since.”
“You never mentioned you knew someone here at St. Mark’s when we spoke earlier, Dr. Mitchell.” Peter was clearly pissed, which pleased Max to no end.
Lauren ran her fingers lightly up Max’s forearm. “Well, my connection with Max is personal, and I’m here professionally.”
Oh, what the hell? Max put one arm around her shoulders and tugged her closer, tweaking the curl that had escaped her tidy blond bun. “Yeah, we’ve kept things quiet while she helps get the new cardiac surgery unit up and running, just grabbing what time we can together. Between my ER rotations and her meetings, it’s been hard.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “We may have to start meeting in supply closets if things don’t lighten up, babe.”
She leaned into him. “I can manage dinner tonight at the inn if you can. My last meeting is at one thirty. What time do you get off?”
Max grinned down at her. “I’m done at seven. I’ve been on since seven this morning, so I’ll be ready for a steak dinner and”—he winked—“bed.”
Her cheeks turned bright red. “I-I…um…”
Chris cleared his throat and tossed her a lifeline. “Dr. Mitchell, tell me about what your company is doing here at St. Mark’s.”
“Please, call me Lauren.”
Peter shoved away from the table, picking up his plate and cup as he rose. “I’m going. I’ve heard her spiel.” His glance to Lauren was positively icy. “Dr. Mitchell, I’ll meet you in the conference room in the new wing at one thirty. The whole team will be there for the demonstration, so you might want to make sure you’re well prepared.”
“Of course.” Lauren’s tone matched Peter’s icy glare and Max could almost see the steam coming out of her ears, but she played it with dignity. “Thank you for lunch, Dr. Gresham. I’ll see you and the others at one thirty.”
“Good.” Peter tossed a brief, unsmiling nod to Max and Chris, turned his back on the table, and stalked away.
Silence reigned for a few seconds before Chris finally heaved a big sigh. “Okay, so clueless Gresham may not have figured this out, but you two want to tell me what kind of charade you’re up to?”
End of Excerpt