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A bachelor auction? Really?
Dr. Liam Thayer waited for Cullen Dunlevy, Celebration Memorial's chief of staff, to crack a smile, or indicate he and the pretty blonde in the business suit at his side were delivering a bad joke to lighten up the impromptu staff meeting.
Please. He could use a little levity to jolt him out of his bad mood. It had been one of those mornings. The twins, Amanda and Calee, hadn't wanted to get out of bed. Five minutes before they were supposed to walk out the door, Amanda remembered that she was supposed to bring cupcakes for an after-school club meeting.
To spur the girls along, he'd said if they left on time, they could stop at the grocery store on the way. But then the dog got out, running several victory laps around the neighborhood, before Liam had been able to wrangle, harness and deliver him home.
They didn't have time to stop for cupcakes, and by the time he'd deposited the girls at Celebration Middle School, they were all out of sorts. Well, he and Amanda were. Not Calee, who lived in her own little world of sugar-plum fairies and nutcracker princes. As long as Calee was dancing, the world was a beautiful place. She was so much like her mother, who had also been a ballerina, before she'd given it all up to marry Liam and start a family.
He and Amanda, on the other hand, seemed to be cast from the same mold. This morning he'd left her with a promise that their housekeeper, Rosalinda, would leave a dozen cupcakes at the school's front desk in time for this afternoon's club meeting-which Amanda would have to cut short because she and her sister couldn't be late for their dance class.
Amanda had been dubious and a little surly. She hadn't wanted to go to dance class today.
"Why can't Rosie take Calee while I stay at the club meeting? Then Rosie can come back and get me. Or better yet, why can't I skip dance altogether?"
"Because you have a commitment, and Rosie doesn't need to be running herself ragged to accommodate you. She's already going out of her way to make sure you get the cupcakes."
It had only made matters worse when Liam had snapped, "Next time maybe you'll remember to tell me these things before we're walking out the door."
He shouldn't have said it. Not like that, dammit. Even if it was true and a lesson she needed to learn. Now, as he sat there in the conference room trying to change gears from dad mode to doctor, he couldn't get the image of Amanda's sad face out of his head.
At that moment he missed his wife, Joy, so much it almost leveled him. She'd always taken care of things like cupcakes, permission slips and new ballet shoes. She'd had an uncanny ability to almost read their daughters' minds or, on the off chance when they did end up in a bind-like they had this morning-she'd always been able to pull a rabbit out of her hat and make things work.
Liam didn't know how she'd managed it. She had been perfect like that. Tiny, intuitive and good-natured, Joy had always been all about her family.
A series of sickening flashbacks transported Liam to that night when the cop had stood on their front porch and asked, "Is this the residence of Joy Thayer?" He'd told Liam that there'd been an accident but wouldn't give him much information, just asked if he would come to the hospital. When he'd identified his wife's body, his life and the lives of their daughters had shattered into a million irreparable pieces.
Liam scrubbed a hand over his eyes, trying to erase the memory. It had been two years. When would life without Joy get easier? When would the numbness give way to the manageable ache that the grief counselor had promised would come in time? Maybe never. Because part of his soul had died right along with his wife that night. The part that lived and laughed and felt.
Now his daughters kept him going. Because life didn't stop to mourn. Hell, it didn't even slow down to regroup. It kept marching forward, and if you didn't get on your feet fast, it would drag you right along behind it.
He refocused, irritated that he had to waste time this morning listening to the chief and this woman rattle on about bachelor auctions? For God's sake.
This had to be a joke.
But a sinking feeling warned him not to bank on Dunlevy delivering the punch line. Especially when his boss glanced over at the blonde and uncharacteristic warmth drew up the edges of his mouth.
"This is Kate Macintyre of the Macintyre Family Foundation," said Dunlevy. "She and her staff have been working tirelessly to raise money for the new pediatric surgical wing here at Celebration Memorial Hospital. I'll turn the meeting over to her and let her tell you more."
The new surgical wing-Joy had been excited about it. In fact she'd been one of the first volunteers to organize a kick-starter fund-raiser.
"Good morning," said the blonde.
What was her name again?
"Thank you, Dr. Dunlevy. I appreciate you letting me attend your meeting today. Even more, I am grateful that each of you has agreed to help raise money for the final leg of funding for this very special project. This pediatric wing is extremely near and dear to my family and me. I appreciate you all taking an active role in making it a reality."
Near and dear to her family? Liam glanced at her left hand. She wasn't wearing a wedding ring. Reflexively his thumb found the back of the band he still wore. It was the touchstone that kept him grounded, and reminded him of what was and always would be important in life. Family.
The blonde smiled at Liam's colleague, Charlie Benton, an internist, who was seated to her left. She held out a stack of pamphlets. "Would you mind taking one of these and passing them around, please?"
Eagerly Charlie obeyed.
Great. Judging by the look on his coworker's face, Liam would bet if she'd asked Charlie to run out to fetch her a bagel and a cappuccino, he would've fallen all over himself to oblige. Liam glanced around at the other men in the room. They all seemed transfixed, too. Apparently Liam was the only one immune to a pretty face and a great pair of legs.
"For the past three years, the Macintyre Family Foundation has partnered with the hospital to raise money to build a much-needed pediatric surgical wing," she said. "During this time we've been diligently working with the hospital's Department of Charitable Giving. They've been amazing. We only need five percent more to reach our two-million-dollar goal.
"That's why we were delighted when Dr. Dunlevy agreed to the idea of giving you all, the doctors of Celebration Memorial, the opportunity to play a key role in raising part of the remaining funds. When I learned that I'd be working with seven single male doctors, I thought, what was the chance of that?"
Her blue eyes sparkled as she looked from one face to the next, radiating enthusiasm and sincerity. She was doing a credible job.
"With seven eligible men, it only seemed natural to hold a bachelor auction. So, everyone, please save the date-one week from Saturday-for our first ever In Celebration of Bachelors auction."
Liam shifted in his seat, resisting the urge to excuse himself. This bachelor auction was not a joke, but there was no way in hell that he was going to subject himself to the humiliation of being sold off to the highest bidder. Even if the shenanigan would raise money for a good cause.
As a pediatric hospitalist and a single father to two teenagers, he didn't have enough time to devote to his daughters on a good day. He certainly didn't want to waste a night going out on a date with a woman who'd bid on him like a steer in a cattle sale. He might have been providing all the necessities, but he hadn't been able to give his children as much of himself as he wished he could. Not like his wife, who had always been there for them emotionally.
And, he had to admit, at the root of everything, participating in something like this felt disrespectful to Joy. Even if she was gone, it didn't mean he felt any less married. Certainly not single.
"Is something wrong, Dr. Thayer?" Cullen asked. "You look like you smell something."
Liam clicked his ink pen. He wanted to say, There's nothing like the stench of a bad idea first thing in the morning. But one glance at Kate Macintyre's hopeful expression-Kate Macintyre, that was her name-and he was weighing his words. "Is this bachelor auction idea a done deal? Do we have any other options?"
Kate blinked-once, twice-but her smile stayed unfalteringly in place. "Well, yes. I mean we're working on a very tight time line because of some special incentives, which I'll tell you about in a few moments." She glanced at Cullen as if for help.
"Yes, Liam, this is a done deal," Dunlevy said. "Is there a problem?"
"Yes. I have a family. I'm happy to make a donation, but I won't be participating."
With that, Kate's smile finally faltered. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought Dr. Dunlevy said all members of the senior staff were single."
"We are," Cullen confirmed. Then he flashed Liam a look that was part warning, part Let's not do this now and mostly Man up and be a team player.
By this time the pamphlets had made their way around to Liam. He took one and passed the scant remainder to Austin Roberts, an emergency room doctor who was seated to Liam's left. The slick, glossy brochure featured a picture of a man, a woman, two kids and a yellow Lab frolicking on the green grass in the backyard of a nice suburban home. The ideal family.
Liam waited to feel something-a stab, a pang or even a twist in his gut-but he didn't. He was numb. The only emotion coming through loud and clear was anger. He shifted his gaze to the bottom of the page, which was emblazoned with the Macintyre Family Foundation logo and the words Family, Community and Education written in bold red letters.
"It's true we're all single," Liam said. "I'm a widower."
"I'm sorry that you lost your wife."
Although her condolences seemed sincere, he shrugged, rejecting her pity and biting back the urge to say, Can we just get on with this? I have things to do, patients to see. Instead, he said, "A bachelor auction isn't a good fit. Maybe we can come up with something else."
"How can a date with a beautiful woman be a bad idea, Thayer?" asked Nick Chamberlin, who worked with Roberts in the emergency room.
Jake Lennox, the other staff internist, snickered. "It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it."
Liam glanced at his watch. "Knock yourselves out but don't count me in. I have patients to see. Is there anything else on the agenda?" He managed to close his mouth before he added, Or is today's fratparty over?
"Yes, there's more, Dr. Thayer," Dunlevy growled at him. "We're talking about the bachelor auction first so that Ms. Macintyre can get back to her office. But while we're on that agenda item, I want to make it clear that we're a team. I expect every player to be on board."
Player. If that wasn't the operative word. Liam worked with a bunch of players. While he respected his colleagues as professionals, doctors who put heart and soul into serving the patients of this hospital, he and the six of them were worlds apart when it came to the time they spent away from work.
They were single.
He was a single father.
"Don't look so put upon, Thayer," ribbed Quinn Vogler, the new orthopedic hospitalist who'd recently joined the staff. "You're not the only single father in the bunch. I have a daughter, but I don't have a problem with this."
Right. Vogler had moved to Celebration from somewhere out west after a nasty divorce. Liam didn't know the details other than that Quinn had a daughter around Calee and Amanda's age who studied ballet at the same dance studio as his girls or something like that. Liam wasn't sure. He didn't have time to keep track of his colleagues' personal lives.
"Out of all of us, it seems like you could use a night out," Vogler said. "You work too hard and take life way too seriously."
"Maybe you don't work hard enough, Dr. Vogler," Liam said.
Quinn scoffed, and Liam suddenly remembered his girls saying something about not liking Vogler's daughter very much because she was a bully. Liam hadn't put too much weight into that because he figured it had something to do with competition among teenage girls.
Now he wondered if the Vogler girl's needling nature came naturally. But Liam made it a policy not to meddle in his colleagues' personal lives. In turn he expected Vogler, the new guy, to show him the same courtesy.
Donning a layer of emotional armor, Liam crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. Ignoring Quinn and silently challenging the others to test him further, he felt like the only grown-up in the room, embarrassed that this scene was unfolding in front of Kate Macintyre.
So he wasn't the only family man on the small staff. It didn't mean he needed or wanted a night out. The agonizing torture of those initial minutes, hours and days without Joy had accumulated into weeks, then added up to months that had stretched into years that were marked by the passing of birthdays, holidays and anniversaries that were nothing without her.
He did well to drag boxes of Christmas decorations down from the attic much less summon the energy to cajole the kids to put them on the tree. But somehow the three of them had managed to go through the motions. If their family had once been a tight circle when Joy was alive, now that she was gone, the circle was broken, and had become a straight line in which he and the girls were desperately hanging on to each other, grasping, making it through day by day.
Physically Liam left almost everything he had at the hospital. The emotional reserves were left for his kids. Not for a date with a woman who had won him in a sophomoric bachelor auction. Even if it was for a good cause, Amanda and Calee were the only company he wanted.
Kate Macintyre continued on with her spiel. "A moment ago I mentioned that this event would happen in short order because we have a special incentive." She paused, and, obviously knowing who her best audience was, she looked at Liam's colleagues with sparkling eyes, as if she were trying to contain her enthusiasm.
"Have you all heard of the reality television show Catering to Dallas? It stars Pepper Merriweather- who happens to be my sister-in-law-Sydney James, A.J. Sherwood-Antonelli and Caroline Coopersmith. It's filmed locally but is broadcast internationally. It chronicles the inner workings of the local catering company called Celebrations, Inc.
"It's a fun show, and it's really caught on with the television audience. They have a huge fan base. I just learned that a scheduled event canceled, and the producers have agreed to let us have the vacant spot. The bachelor auction will be recorded and broadcast at a later date on international television. They've also agreed to give viewers an opportunity to contribute to our cause at the end of the show. Even though the show will air later, the hospital's building fund will have an ongoing need."