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Ellie's eyes were stinging and she could feel tears welling up, accompanied by an unexpected lump in her throat as the coffin slid soundlessly on the stainless-steel rollers and disappeared through the curtain. Behind the curtain, screened from the mourners in the chapel, her grandmother's body would be taken away and all that would remain would be able to be contained in a small urn. That urn would end up behind a small brass plaque, next to the ashes of Ellie's grandfather and parents. 'You okay?'
Jess was sitting to Ellie's left. She was holding out a pack of tissues.
Ellie took one and smiled. 'Yes, I'm okay.' Her grandmother had been eighty-eight years old and her death hadn't been unexpected but it did mean that Ellie was now truly alone, the sole remaining member of her family. She was an only child and her parents had been killed when she was eleven. Her maternal grandparents had been her guardians and now they were both gone too. Her tears were selfish ones.
Surrounding her, flanking her, protecting her, were her closest friends. Jessica and Ruby sat on her left, Tilly on her right. She and Jess had been friends for several years now since meeting at university where they'd studied nursing together. They'd gone through the highs and lows of good and bad results, good and bad relationships and good and bad times generally. Ruby and Tilly had become her friends more recently, since they'd all started sharing a house and working at Eastern Beaches Hospital. These three were like family to her but they weren't family.
As she waited for the funeral music to stop playing Ellie thought back over the past two months. In the space of nine weeks she'd lost her boyfriendwell, not so much lost as found out he was actually someone else's cheating husbandand now she'd lost her grandmother. True, she had her friends but they weren't what she longed for. Her friends were fabulous but they weren't enough. Ellie wanted to belong and she longed for a family to call her own. Stop being pathetic, she told herself. It was one thing to cry over the death of a loved one, that was allowed, expected even, but to sit here, at her grandmother's funeral, feeling sorry for herself was being a little too self-indulgent. She was twenty-three years old, she had friends, she would be fine.
But the empty spot in her heart refused to listen. Ever since her parents had died she'd been conscious of this space waiting to be filled. She knew it could only be filled by love but it was a spot for family and family alone. No matter how much she loved her friends that spot was still there, empty, waiting. What if she never found her soul mate, her one true love. What if she never had the family she dreamed of? What if that empty spot was never filled?
Ellie shook her head. She couldn't think like that. She had to be strong. She had to be positive. Somewhere her perfect partner waited for her, she had to believe that. Rob had been a mistake, it didn't mean her quest for love was over. At least she hoped not.
The curtain was closed, the music had stopped, the coffin was gone, and her grandmother too. There was nothing left to do here.
She stood and her friends stood with her. They moved en masse to the lounge for the afternoon tea and shadowed her as she spoke to the funeral director and some of her grandmother's friends, keeping a silent and protective eye on her until Ellie decided that she was able to leave without seeming rude.
'Stat Bar, anyone?' Tilly suggested as they made their way out of the funeral home. The Stat Bar was their favourite after-work haunt; a few hundred metres down the hill from the hospital where they all worked and only a few steps from the house they all called home, it was convenient and trendy.
'Would you rather go somewhere else?' Ruby asked Ellie. 'Somewhere you can be anonymous?'
Ellie knew the Stat Bar would be crowded with hospital staff and she knew her friends would understand if she wanted to avoid it today but she shook her head. 'No, that sounds good. I'm fine, really.' A few familiar faces weren't going to bother her.
The sun was still shining when they got back to Coogee Beach on Sydney's south-eastern shore. It was a glorious afternoon, something Ellie couldn't reconcile with a funeral. But, she decided as she sipped her drink, the sun did boost her spirits.
They'd managed to grab a coveted outside table overlooking the beach and the tangy smell of salt in the air, the crisp white sand framing the ocean and the sound of the waves breaking on the shore all conspired to make her feel better. Maybe the fact she was on her second vodka, lime and soda was also helping to improve her mood.
The Stat Bar was beginning to fill up with the after-work crowd. The allied health practitioners from the hospital were the first to file through the doors, followed by the junior doctors. As more people gathered in the bar Ellie decided it was time to freshen her make-up, she could only imagine the state of her foundation and mascara. She stood up, hauling her bag from under her chair.
Her high heels clicked on the tiled floor as she entered the ladies' room. She always wore heels when she wasn't at work as a way of compensating for only being five feet two inches tall. She dumped her bag on the counter and examined her face. Her eyes were a bit bloodshot but not too swollen, although the tip of her nose was still red from crying. She pulled a hairbrush and her make-up out from the depths of her handbag. Tipping her head back, she squeezed a couple of eye drops into the corner of each eye before sliding the Alice band from her shoulder-length blonde hair and running the brush through it. She repositioned the Alice band, using it to hold her hair off her face as she blended a little foundation over her nose. She leant forward, overbalancing slightly on her high heels as she checked her eyes. The drops were working, her blue eyes looked a little brighter now. She straightened up and applied a fresh coat of gloss to her lips. She removed a few long blonde hairs from her black dress, checking to see that she'd gotten rid of all the stray strands.
As she walked past the bar to return to her friends she saw Rob, her lying, adulterous ex, paying for his drinks. His distinctive appearance made him easy to pick out in a crowd. He was out of his theatre clothes and was wearing an immaculately pressed suit, a sharp contrast to the more casual clothes and various hospital uniforms that surrounded him. He had his back to the ocean and to the rest of the room and she could pass behind him unseen. She hurried past as Rob picked up his drink and turned from the bar.
'Rob's here,' Ruby pointed out when Ellie returned to their table.
'I saw him.'
'Are you happy to stay?'
Ellie nodded, 'Yes, I'm fine. Completely recovered.'
She'd had to recover quickly. She and Rob worked together on the orthopaedic ward so she saw him on an almost daily basis and she hadn't had the luxury of time to retreat to lick her wounds in privacy. She'd had to maintain a civil working relationship. Rob's personality was aloof and cool at the best of times, something Tilly had always delighted in reminding Ellie of, and since the breakdown of their relationship he certainly hadn't become any more amenable, but mostly they managed to work together harmoniously. Although she didn't want to socialise with him, she had no problem being in the same bar as him.
'I'm still embarrassed,' she admitted, 'but pleased the whole thing was such a secret that I don't have to live out my embarrassment in front of the entire hospital. I know I got caught up in all the possibilities of the relationship but I think I might have learnt my lesson, for a while at least. I'm going to take my time from now on, not dive in head first.'
Ellie's remark made Ruby grin and Tilly laughed.
'What's so funny?' Ellie demanded.
'Famous last words,' Tilly replied. 'I've never known anyone who falls in love as quickly as you.'
'I admit I'm a hopeless romantic,' Ellie replied to Tilly, 'and when you fell in love with Marcus, and Ruby and Cort sorted out their lives, I got a bit carried away, thinking I could be next, but I'm going to be patient.' She reminded herself that she was going to be strong. Positive. Her perfect partner was out there, she just had to bide her time. She would find someone. 'There's someone out there for me and when the time is right he'll appear.'
'How about right now?' Jess interrupted. 'There's a hot guy at the bar.'
'I didn't mean today.' Ellie laughed.
'Check him out before you cross him off your list,' Jess advised. 'He looks okay to me.'
Ellie turned her head. It wasn't hard to see who Jess was talking about. Leaning on the bar, wearing faded jeans and a snug black T-shirt that hugged his sculpted arms and chest, was one definitely hot guy. He had one foot on the railing that ran around the base of the bar and his jeans were moulded to his very shapely backside. He was thin, not scrawny, but his waist was narrow. There was no sign of any spread around his middle and Ellie could see a slight ripple of abdominal muscles along his side. He looked naturally slim, not like he spent hours in the gym.
His face was in profile as he waited for his order. He had a square jaw darkened by a hint of stubble, full lips, one dark eyebrow that she could see and dark lashes. He got his order and turned away from them, unaware of their scrutiny as he moved through the crowd. Ellie straightened in her seat and followed his progress across the room. His walk was quite graceful, his long lean lines leant fluidity to his movement, and his steps were confident. He stopped to join the group of surgeons standing with Rob and Ellie watched, intrigued, as Rob introduced him to the others. How did Rob know him?
'Do you know who he is?' Jess asked. She'd shifted in her chair to get a better look.
'No idea,' Ellie replied.
She had a good view of him now. Standing beside Rob, she could see he was a few inches shorter, around six feet tall. Rob was getting thicker around his middle and the contrast between Hot Guy and Rob made Rob look older than his thirty-three years. Rob's hair was more grey than brown, although it was still thick. Hot Guy had thick, almost black hair, with a definite curl.
'If Ellie isn't interested, you should go and introduce yourself, Jess,' Ruby suggested.
Ellie couldn't remember saying she wasn't interested in the hot guy specifically but she bit her tongue because she had just said she was going to bide her time.
'No way. I'm not going to interrupt that group,' Jess said.
Ellie understood her sentiments. As very recent nursing graduates they still felt there was a pecking order among the medical staff and their social standing in the hospital certainly didn't allow them to fraternise with the surgeons uninvited out of hours. And if the group of surgeons included Rob, they'd definitely keep their distance.
But Ellie knew there was another reason why Jess wouldn't approach the hot guy. Jess had been quite genuine in pointing him out to Ellie and even if he hadn't been talking to Rob she wouldn't have gone over, because Jess was completely besotted with Adam.
Adam Carmichael; the token male in their house, their mostly absent landlord, Ruby's brother and their resident Casanova rolled into one. There was never a shortage of women traipsing through his door when he was in Sydney and the girls often joked that he should put a revolving door on his bedroom so he could move his conquests in and out more efficiently. And, even though he was completely wrong for her, Jess had a thing for Adam.
Ellie wished Jess would meet somebody who would take her mind off him, someone who was ready for a real relationship, someone who wouldn't break her heart. But despite Ellie's pleas Jess seemed quite determined to ignore any other possibilities, including the hot guy. And in that case, Ellie decided, she might as well enjoy the view.
She looked back into the bar. Hot Guy was still talking to Rob but he was looking at her. Their gazes locked and something flashed through her. A jolt, a strike, a shock to the heart, and the rest of the room receded as the spark of connection flared. She sat still, riveted to the spot as he looked her up and down without a hint of embarrassment. She should have been horrified but all she could do was wait for him to finish. Wait for his eyes to meet hers again. Without consciously acknowledging her actions, she was waiting to see if she could work out what had happened with that first glance. What was it?
His gaze returned to her face and there it was again. A flash of what? Recognition? Ellie wondered if he knew who she was. She mentally shook her head. No. Rob would never have talked about her.
She didn't move, she couldn't move. She knew she was staring but she couldn't stop. She felt a blush spread up her neck and into her cheeks but still she couldn't look away.
His smouldering good looks had a slight wildness about them, an edginess, which drew her to him. She imagined she could feel the heat radiating from him. Her fingers itched to touch him and if he'd been standing beside her she knew she would have reached out to feel him. She could imagine the heat of his hands burning her skin and that made her blush even more.
He held her gaze, a hint of mischief in his eyes, almost as though he could read her thoughts, and then he grinned at her. Ellie smiled back. She didn't mean to and she was surprised to find her face was capable of expression but her smile was an automatic response to the power of his.
She tore her eyes away from his, forcing herself to break the connection. She tried to focus on the conversation going on around her, tried to behave normally, tried to pretend she hadn't just shared a moment with a hot stranger.
She had no idea how successful she was being but thankfully the arrival of Ruby's fiance, Cort, provided a welcome distraction.
Cort was a senior emergency registrar and Ellie wondered if he knew who the hot guy was. She didn't have to wonder for long.
'Do you know who the guy in the black T-shirt is over there? The one who's talking to Rob Coleman?' Ruby inclined her head in their direction as she asked Cort the question.
'That's James Leonardi,' he said as he took in the group. 'He's a new registrar.'
'In Emergency?' Ellie asked. Was the new reg working with Cort?
Cort shook his head. 'Orthopaedics.'
'Orthopaedics?' Ellie repeated. She didn't know whether to be nervous or delighted. The hot guy was an orthopod? She was going to have to work with him?
'He's transferred from Royal North Shore. I understand the director of orthopaedics poached him, and apparently there are high expectations of him.'
Ellie was vaguely aware that Cort was still talking but her mind had wandered off in the direction of the hot guy. James Leonardi. His name sounded Spanish or Italian. She should have known. That would explain where the heat was coming from, he would have passionate blood running through his veins, it was almost tangible. It was in his eyes too, in the look he had given her. Fire, heat and passion.
There was a silent humming in the air around her. She could feel it and she was convinced it was coming from him. How was it possible to feel such an instant connection with a complete stranger?
She shifted in her chair. She needed to change position. She needed something else to look at. She was going to be working with the man so she needed to picture him in a white coat, in a sterile environment. In theatre scrubs. No. That wasn't helping. He looked just as good in her imagination.
Maybe she should go home. Maybe it was a case of out of sight, out of mind.