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'Abigail, as you've only been with the team for a few weeks, I know it's a bit of an ask,' Max Fenton, the duty consultant, said, 'but Marina's put a lot into setting up the promise auction next weekend. So I was wondering if you might be able to donate something?'
Abigail knew that the quickest thing would be to ask her dad and his band to sign a photo and some CDs. Or offer tickets and a backstage pass to Brydon's next tour. Except she'd learned the hard way not to mention that her father was the rock guitarist and singer Keith Brydon, founder of the group that bore his surname. Or that her flat had been bought with the royalties from 'Cinnamon Baby', the song he'd written for her the day of her birth. It might be a quick win, but it'd make her life way too complicated.
She could simply say no, but that would be mean. The promise auction was raising funds to buy equipment that the department badly needed. And she did want to help.
'I, um OK,' she said. 'What did you have in mind?'
'Max, are you pestering our poor new special reg?' Marina asked, coming to stand with them and sliding her arms round her husband's waist.
'On your behalf, yes.' He twisted around to kiss her.
The perfect couple, Abigail thought, clearly so much in love. And even though she knew she was better off on her own, she couldn't help feeling slightly wistful at the love in their expressions. What would it be like to be with someone who loved her that much?
Marina rolled her eyes. 'Ignore him, Abigail. You honestly don't have to do anything.'
Which left her on the outside, Abigail thought. Where she'd always been. Would it be so hard to be part of the team for once? 'No, I'd really like to help,' she said. 'What sort of thing do you suggest?'
'Really?' Marina looked faintly surprised, then delighted. 'Well, other people have offered things like dinner out, or cleaning for a day, or a basket of stuff.' She paused. 'Maybe you could offer some cinema tickets with popcorn and a drink thrown in, or something like that.'
'Or a date. That'd be a good one,' Max chipped in.
'Shut up, Max. You're not meant to be pressuring her. A date's not a good idea. You know what' Marinastopped abruptly and put a hand to her mouth, looking horrified.
Abigail could guess why. And what Marina had been going to say. 'It's OK. I know people call me the ice princess,' she said dryly. 'It was the same at my last hospital.'
'People don't mean to be unkind.' Marina looked awkward. 'It's just that well, you keep yourself to yourself. It's quite hard to get to know you.'
'Yes.' There wasn't much else Abigail could say. It was true. She did keep herself to herself. For a very good reason. Once people worked out who she was, they tried to get close to her so they could get to meet her fathernot because they wanted to get to know her better. Been there, done that, worn the T-shirt to shreds. She blew out a breath. 'OK, then. I'll offer a date.'
'Please don't feel that we've pushed you into this,' Marina said. 'If you'd rather offer a basket of girly stuff or some cinema tickets, that'd be just as good.'
It was a let-out. But Abigail was convinced, whatever Marina said, that her colleagues would think even less of her if she took it. 'The date's fine,' she said.
Relief flooded Marina's expression. 'Thank you, Abigail. That's fabulous. I really appreciate it.'
And maybe, Abigail thought, this would be a new start for her. A way of making friends. Real friends for once. Something she'd always found so difficult in the past.
The alternativethat she'd just made a huge, huge mistakewas something she didn't want to think about.
Friday the following week was the night of the auction. The room was absolutely packed; all the emergency department staff who weren't on duty were there, along with people Abigail half recognised from other departments that she'd met briefly while discussing the handover of patients.
Max Fenton and Marco Ranieri, two of the department's consultants, had a double act going on as the auctioneers. And they hadn't spared themselves from the promise auction: they'd both put themselves up as household slaves for a day, and driven each other's price up accordingly.
Abigail bid successfully on a pair of tickets to a classical concert, and then it was her own promise up for auction.
Adrenalin prickled at the back of her neck. Why on earth hadn't she thought to ask someone to bid for her at the auction? She would've funded the cost herself, and it would've gotten her out of an awkward situation.
Still, she was the ice princess. Hardly anyone would be interested in a date with her, would they?
Except that Marco and Max seemed to be on a roll, really talking her up.
Abigail could barely breathe when the bidding reached three figures.
And then a male voice drawled, 'Five hundred pounds.'
Oh, for goodness' sake. That was a ridiculous sum. And the only reason she could think of that the man would pay that sort of money for a date with her was because he'd found out who she was.
Please, please, let her be wrong.
She held her breath, not quite daring to turn round and look at whoever was bidding. Not wanting to make eye contact.
Everyone else in the room seemed to be holding their breath, too.
And then Max said easily, 'Do we have an increase on five hundred pounds?'
'OK, then, that's a wrap. Thank you. One date with Dr Abigail Smith, sold to Dr Lewis Gallagher.'
Abigail's brain couldn't quite process it. Lewis Gallagher, special registrar in the emergency department, was the one man in the hospital who really didn't have to buy a date. Women queued up to date him because he was a challenge. Every single one of them seemed to believe that she'd be the one to make him review his 'three dates and you're out' policy. And, from what Abigail had heard, every single one of them failed.
Except her. Because when Lewis had asked her out last week, she'd said no.
And now he'd bought a date with her.
Oh, help. She needed some air. Time to think about how she was going to get out of this.
Except it was too late, because Lewis was standing beside her.
'Move to me, I think, Dr Smith,' he said softly, brandishing the certificate Marina had got her to sign for the auctionthe promise of a date.
'Five hundred pounds is a lot of money. Thank you for supporting the auction.' She lifted her chin. 'You get a date, but don't expect me to end up in your bed.'
He laughed. 'What makes you think that's what I had in mind?'
His reputation. Colour rushed into her face. 'So why did you buy a date with me, Dr Gallagher?' Because he knew who she was?
He shrugged. 'Because you said no when I asked you.'
Ah. Because she'd challenged his ego. She relaxed. Just a little bit.
He held her gaze. 'And now you don't have an excuse to say no.'
'Maybe I just don't want to go out with a party boy.' She'd recognised his type the first time she'd met him. Handsome, wonderful social skillsand shallow as a puddle.
Not her type.
Lewis gave her the most charming, heart-melting smile she'd ever seen in her life. She'd just bet he practised it in front of a mirror.
'Maybe I'm not the party boy you think I am,' he said. 'Want to know where we're going?'
'I haven't decided yet,' she said. And she almost winced at how haughty and snooty she sounded. This was ridiculous. She didn't behave like a spoiled diva. That wasn't who she was. Abigail Smith was a quiet and hardworking doctor who just got on with whatever needed to be done.
Yet Lewis Gallagher made her feel like a brat, wanting to throw a tantrum and stamp her feet when she didn't get her own way. And she couldn't understand why on earth he was affecting her like this.
'Newsflash for you, princess. I bought a date with you. So you don't get to decide where we're going.'
Shut up, Abigail. Don't answer him. Don't let him provoke you. Except her mouth wasn't listening. 'Correction. You bought a date with me. Which means I organise it and I pick up the bill.'
'Nope. It means you get to go out with me on Sunday morning.'
She was about to protest that she couldn't, because she was working, when he added, 'And you're off duty on Sunday morning. I checked.'
She was trapped.
And maybe the fear showed in her eyes because his voice softened. 'It's only a date, Abby.'
Abby? Nobody called her that. Not even her father.
Well, especially not her father. He used her given name. The one she made sure nobody at work knew about because then it would be too easy to connect her with her father. Not that she didn't love himKeith Brydon was the most important person in the world to her. And she was incredibly proud of him. She just wanted to be seen for who she was, not dismissed as an attention-grabbing celeb's daughter riding on her famous parent's coat-tails.
Before she could protest, Lewis continued, 'We're just going somewhere and spending a bit of time together. All we're doing is getting to know each other a little. But, just so we're very clear on this, I'm not expecting you to sleep with me. Or even,' he added, 'to kiss me.'
'Right.' Oh, great. And now her voice had to croak, making it sound as if she wanted him to kiss her. How pathetic was that?
'Wear jeans,' he said. 'And sensible shoes.'
'Do I look like the sort of person who clipclops around in high heels she can barely walk in?' And then she clapped a hand to her mouth. Oh, no. She hadn't actually meant to say that out loud.
His eyes crinkled at the corners. 'No. But I think you could surprise me, Abby.'
She shivered. Oh, the pictures that put in her head. 'I suppose now you're going to say something cheesy about finding out if I have a temper to go with my red hair.'
'It's a cliche and I wouldn't dream of it,' he said. 'Though, on this evening's showing, I think you do.'
And, damn him, his eyes were twinkling. She almost, almost laughed.
'You need sensible shoes,' he said again. 'Trainers would be really good. Oh, and wear your hair tied back.'
That was a given. She always wore her hair tied back. 'So what are we doing?' Despite herself, she was curious.
'You'll find out on Sunday. I'll pick you up at your place.'
She shook her head. 'There's no need. I could meet you there.'
'Ah, but you don't know where we're going.'
Irritating man. She forced herself to sound super-sweet. 'You could tell me.'
'True. But it'd be a waste of resources if we took two cars.'
'Then I'll drive.' Maybe needling him a little would make sure he agreed to it. 'Unless you're scared of letting a woman drive you?'
'No.' He laughed. 'Well, there's one exception. But she'd scare anyone.'
Ex-girlfriend? she wondered. The one that got away?
Not that it was any of her business. And not that she was interested. Because she didn't want to date Lewis Gallagher. She was only doing this because she'd made a promise to raise funds for the department.
'So are you going to make a fuss about it, or will you allow me to drive rather than direct you?'
Put like that, she didn't have much choice. She gave in. 'OK. You can drive.'
'Good. I'll pick you up at nine. Your address?'
If she didn't tell him, she was pretty sure he had the resources to find out. So she told him.
'Great. See you on Sunday.' And he was gone.
Making quite sure he had the last word, she noticed.
Abigail was really grateful for the fact that her shift on Saturday was immensely busy, with lots of people limping in with sports injuries and the like. The fact that she barely had a second to breathe also meant she didn't have to talk; the hospital grapevine had been working overtime, so everyone knew Lewis had paid a ridiculous amount of money for a date with herand she just knew that everyone was itching to ask questions. Why would a man who could date any woman he chose pay for a date with the girl nobody wanted to go out with?
This was crazy. She wasn't his type. She wasn't a party girl or one of the women who sighed over him and thought she could reform him. And, actually, she wanted to know the real answer to that question, too. Why on earth had he paid so much money for a date with her? Was his ego really so huge that he hadn't been able to stand someone turning him down?
Though that was a bit unfair. It didn't fit in with the man she'd seen taking time to reassure a frightened child with a broken wrist earlier in the week. Or the doctor who, instead of going to get something to eat during his lunch break, had spent the time talking to the elderly man who was in for observation with stomach pains but clearly didn't have anyone to come and wait with him. Or the man who'd got a terrified yet defiant teenage girl to open up to him and tell him exactly which tablets she'd taken then had sat holding her hand and talking to her the entire way through the stomach pump that Abigail had administered.
Lewis was good with people. He gave them time. As a doctor, he was one of the best she'd ever worked with.
And Abigail had to admit that Lewis Gallagher was also very easy on the eye. His dark hair was cut a bit too short for her liking, but his slate-blue eyes were beautiful. And his mouth could make her feel hot all over if she allowed herself to think about it. Not to mention the dimple in his cheek when he smiled.
But she wasn't looking for a relationship, and he was wasting his time. She'd explain; she'd give him back the money he'd paid for the date, and then hopefully that would be the end of it.
Except on Sunday he turned up at her front door with a bunch of sweet-smelling white stocks. Not a flashy, over-the-top bouquet with ribbons and cellophane and glitter, but a simple bunch of summer flowers wrapped in pretty paper. The kind of thing she'd buy herself as a treat. And it disarmed her completely.
'For you,' he said, and presented the flowers to her.
'Thank you. They're lovely.' She couldn't help breathing in their scent, enjoying it. And she'd have to put the flowers in water right now or they'd droop beyond rescue. It would be rude to leave him outside while she sorted out a vase.
But this was Lewis Gallagher. In the white shirt and formal trousers he wore with a white coat at work he looked professional and she could view him as just another colleague. In faded jeans and a black T-shirt he looked younger. Approachable. Touchable.
How had she ever thought she could handle this? Her social skills were rubbish. They always had been. Maybe if she hadn't grown up in an all-male environment.. She pushed the thought away. This wasn't about her motheror, rather, her lack of one. She was thirty years old and she was perfectly capable of dealing with this on her own.
'Come in,' she mumbled awkwardly.
She put the flowers in water, then buried her nose in them and breathed in the scent again. 'These are glorious.'
'I'm glad you like them,' he said. 'I wasn't expecting you to bring me flowers.'
'I believe it's official first date behaviour.'
First of three, according to the grapevine. 'So today you're on your best behaviour, next time you're going to be a bad boy, and after the third date you dump me?' She shook her head. 'No, thanks. I'll pass.'
'That's a bit unfair. You don't know me.'