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By Lois Richer
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"What have you done with my daughter?"
As fresh beginnings went, it stunk.
Barely an hour in a picturesque town with the unusual name of Blessing, Colorado, and already an irate father loomed.
"Where is she? And while you're at it, Arvilla, direct me to the unfeeling lout who ran over her. I'd like to press charges."
Blessing? They should have called it Catastrophe Corner!
Dr. Nicole Brandt gulped, fingers tightening on the stainless-steel kidney dish she was holding. The husky male voice continued its furious diatribe, though now it was muffled by the door Nicole's tiny patient quickly closed.
"That's my dad," the little girl whispered. "But don't worry, he's just scared. He always talks loud when he's scared." Tiny fingers curved around Nicole's lower arm, infusing warmth. "He's just pretending to be fierce."
He's doing a good job.
"Thanks, sweetie. I hope you're right." Nicole led the little tyke back to the table and lifted her onto it. "You'd better wait right here for him. Okay?"
The angel-wisp hair barely moved with the nod before they were interrupted.
In a whoosh the door whacked back against the wall, knob thudding into the doorstop with a dull bump. A man stalked in, his long legs swallowing the considerable distance across E.R. room number two with ease. He stopped in front of the child, eyes searching her pale face, hand half-stretched as if he didn't dare touch.
"Are you all right, baby?" The words dragged out of him.
"I'm fine, Daddy. I hurt my arm." The little girl smiled sweetly from her perch on the examining table.
"You scared me to death, Ruth Ann Elizabeth." He closed his eyes, leaned back on his heels and lowered his voice. "To death."
"I'm sorry, Daddy." China-blue eyes big as saucers filled with mournful tears. "I didn't mean to do it. I never do. It just happened, Daddy."
Nicole smothered a smile as Ruth Ann's sad tears melted away and a cherubic look flew in to take their place.
"But it's okay now 'cause the lady fixed it." She held up her almost dry cast. "See? I got a cast."
"Huh?" The raven head jerked up from his chest, eyes flew open. He bent over her. "What did you say?"
Nicole stepped forward, wanting to reassure him. Her steps faltered as his enormous shoulders stiffened into a rigid line.
"What lady fixed it, Ruth Ann?" The words hissed out between clenched lips.
"This one." Nicole waited for him to face her, heart thudding when he did. "I fixed it."
Wow! Her eyes absorbed his chiseled good looks only until she realized they were marred by an angry frown. He had a right to be upset, Nicole reminded herself. No matter how gently you put it, his little daughter had been injured. Of course he was worried!
"Dr. Nicole Brandt, sir." She stuck out one hand, smiling. "I just happened to be in the area."
He didn't take her hand. Didn't even acknowledge it was there. Nicole let it drop to her side as his eyes completed their in-depth scrutiny of her blond hair, loosened now from its usual upsweep. With one assessing examination he took in her dusty green shirt, faded jeans and grubby, worn sneakers. Her moving clothes.
"You're the new doctor." It was not a question.
Nicole held on to her dignity by a thread.
"Yes, I am. I arrived this morning. I'm sorry about your daughter's arm. I happened to drive past the accident on my way from a tour of the hospital. The policeman had seen me here earlier. He said the ambulance was busy, but he thought it would be all right if I drove everyone here. Fortunately, the break was clean and easily set."
"You don't say?"
Something in the way he said that made Nicole choke back the rest of her rushed explanation. She examined his face more closely. His eyes glowed the same rich blue as his daughter's, but there were fine lines at the corners. Worry lines. And a harshness lay behind his eyes that Ruthie certainly didn't have, an icy bitterness that warned her of something he kept banked up, hidden from prying substitute doctors.
She swallowed and tried again. "The housekeeper - Mrs. Tyndall, isn't it?" His head jerked, once.
"Yes, well, she was there. I brought her and your other daughters with us to the hospital. Mrs. Tyndall assured me she was fully authorized to consent to treatment for Ruthie, and since the nurses didn't object, I decided -"
To say he smiled was to overstate that grim uplift of his mouth. So ... arrogant. As if he questioned not just her brains, but her ability.
Nicole shrugged the thought away. It was a small-town thing, that's all. Once she was established in the clinic, had the local guy's blessing, they'd come to accept her.
"Excuse me? You were saying?" One black eyebrow flicked up at her in silent demand.
"Yes. Sorry." Nicole flushed, the hot red stain burning her cheeks, then plunging down her neck. She summoned her courage.
"I was going to say that I decided it was best to treat your daughter quickly, get the arm into a cast as soon as possible. Since we did have permission." She smiled at Ruthie, wishing her father would lighten up. "Kids this age are pretty active."
"I'm well aware of the antics of children this age." His eyes frosted over to a glacial chill. "You may remember that I have three of them."
"Oh." Actually he might have ten for all Nicole knew. No doubt he thought the nurses had already told her.
"Yes, of course, Mr. - ?" She glanced up, wondering if he'd ignore the hint, as before.
"Darling," he finished smoothly. "Joshua Darling. And it's Doctor."
"Ah. I see." Oh, no! Nicole prayed for courage. This was the man she'd be working with? Her heart did a nosedive straight to her toes. Good one, Nici. Alienate him first thing. Excellent beginning.
She forced herself to smile.
"It's nice to finally meet you, Dr. Darling."
His dubious look cast doubt on her statement. "I'd like to see the X rays. Now."
"Yes, of course." She turned to find the nurse who'd hovered while she set the arm, but there was no one else in the room. "I'm sorry, I don't know where she's taken them."
"Arvilla!" Dr. Darling barked the word out loudly enough that the whole hospital could have heard.
"Yes, Doctor. I'm here." The short, bustling woman handed him a big brown envelope. "I suspected you'd want to see these, so I didn't file them - yet."
Excerpted from Blessings by Lois Richer Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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