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The first thing Colleen Kavanaugh Sinclair saw when she walked into Dr. Fielding's familiar examination room was her son, Brendan, slouching in a chair. The second thing was her arch-nemesis standing nonchalantly next to him. Once she took in Eric Reyes's unexpected presence, pretty much everything faded from her awareness for two stunned seconds.
Of course, he wasn't really her arch-nemesis. That was just stupid. An enemy would have to mean something to her, and Eric Reyes did not mean anything.
"Colleen, Dr. Reyes mentioned that you two know one another." Dr. Fielding's voice interrupted her dazed disbelief.
She blinked and forced her attention to Dr. Fielding. He looked especially short, round and amiable while standing next to the brooding, dark tower of maleness that was Eric Reyes. Dr. Fielding had moved to Harbor Town around twelve years ago, soon after Colleen herself had returned. He'd delivered Brendan and her daughter, Jenny. Because he hadn't lived in Harbor Town at the time of the crash, he clearly didn't get the history and thick emotion that ran like a humming electrical wire beneath his seemingly innocuous statement about her and Eric knowing one another.
"Did he?" Colleen returned, eyebrows arched.
"Yes, he's told me you two work together at The Family Center. Wonderful place. I've heard Colleen speak twice now about the facility," he said, turning to Eric. "Once for the Rotary Club and once for the Pediatric Society in Detroit. She's a talented public educator and speaker, in addition to being a gifted clinician. But I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't know, Eric," Dr. Fielding said.
His warm, friendly glance between Eric and Colleen melted when he noticed Eric's wooden expression and Colleen's averted gaze. She inhaled deeply for courage. If Eric could seem so calm, so could she.
"I work at The Family Center," Colleen corrected. "Dr. Reyes is a volunteer. He comes in a few hours a week." Blessing us with his supreme presence, Colleen finished silently. Eric's mouth twitched, as if she'd spoken the words out loud. If she hadn't been thrown so off balance by Eric's unexpected presence at her son's doctor's appointment, she probably would have had to hide a grin at the knowledge that her arrow had hit its target.
"What are you doing here?" she asked him quietly instead.
Eric held up a chart. "Dr. Fielding consulted with me about Brendan's case today. I examined Brendan. Even though your son hasn't quite finished his course of penicillin, I recommended an X-ray and bone scan. We've received the results."
"Fou recommended them?" Colleen repeated. She hadn't realized he'd examined her son, although she now recalled Brendan mentioning a funny, cool young doctor dude who had looked at his foot last week before Colleen had taken him for X-rays in a different part of the hospital. Dr. Fielding had said he'd have a specialist take a look at the foot, but neither that comment or her son's description had brought to mind Eric Reyes, who, in Colleen's opinion, was an interfering, arrogant block of ice. Sure, he might have that glossy, dark, movie-star-quality hair and angular jaw that kept the secretaries at The Family Center wide-eyed and breathless. And she conceded he possessed an authoritative yet trustworthy bedside manner.
But Colleen's days of being overwhelmed by those surface charms were long over.
"Dr. Reyes is Harbor Town Memorial's finest orthopedic surgeon, Colleen. I immediately went to him when I had questions about Brendan's foot problem."
Her brow crinkled. She glanced anxiously at Brendan. Her son gave a small, sheepish shrug and rolled his eyes. Her heart squeezed in her chest in compassion for him. She knew how much he longed to be back playing football, how much he despised all these doctor appointments. The "foot problem" had become the bane of his twelve-year-old existence.
Over the past month, Brendan had acquired a limp. Initially, it'd hardly been noticeable, but it became more pronounced every day. Brendan denied any serious pain, insisting there was only a dull ache in his right foot. Colleen had assumed he'd pulled a muscle or gotten run over by an unusually big kid at Little League football practice, although Brendan and his coach insisted nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. She'd made an appointment with Dr. Fielding, not really expecting anything more than the normal bruises and sprains Brendan had acquired over his active boyhood years. Dr. Fielding had discovered internal swelling and recommended a course of antibiotic treatment. Much to Brendan's distress, Dr. Fielding had also put the kibosh on any more football for the rest of the season.
Eric Reyes was an orthopedic surgeon, though. His presence at this day-long hospital visit implied the foot problem was a good deal more significant than a bruise or infection.
"He needs a specialist? It's that serious?" Colleen asked Eric.
"Brendan hasn't responded to the course of oral antibiotics. The swelling of the soft tissue has increased, as has his pain. Considerably," Eric replied.
She knew patients at The Family Center responded to Eric to an uncommon degree, seeming to instinctively trust his intelligent, incisive, perpetually unruffled manner. What he was saying in that even, authoritative tone didn't soothe Colleen at the moment, however. It frightened her.
This did sound serious.
"Your pain is worse?" Colleen said, turning to Brendan. Her son shrugged again.
"It doesn't hurt that bad," Brendan mumbled.
"On a pediatric scale of pain, Brendan is scoring in the high category," Eric said.
"Brendan, why didn't you tell me you were hurting so much?" Colleen asked worriedly. Brendan hunched down, revealing little to her but the crown of his dark gold, wavy hair. She forced down a maternal desire to go over and hug him. She swore her son had skipped preadolescence and moved right into teenage rebellion. It bewildered her at times, how independent he wanted to be, how withdrawn he could get. One second he'd been an adorable, chubby two-year-old, the next he'd become an impenetrable puzzle.
Colleen wasn't ready for her little boy to grow up. She wasn't prepared to deal with Eric Reyes. She wasn't ready for any of this.
"Some people are underreporters of pain," Eric said, diverting her attention away from Brendan. He approached her and opened the medical chart. "It's actually fairly common among active, athletically inclined kids. Brendan's not being dishonest when he says it doesn't hurt that bad. He just has a high pain tolerance, that's all."
She glanced up quickly into his face. Typically, she made a point of not standing so close to him when they worked together at the Center. At five foot eight inches, she was tall for a woman. Her brothers were both tall men, but in general, she wasn't used to having to look up so far into a man's face. She especially hated having to do it with Eric.
He showed her the contents of the folder, pointing at an X-ray. "Here's the problem. Do you see this dark portion here? That's an osteolytic lesion at the first metatarsal of Brendan's foot. It's beginning to punch into the bone."
"Lesion? Wait. .you don't mean" Colleen stopped herself short, her mouth hanging open. She gaped at Eric as the beginnings of panic started to roil around in her belly. The word she'd stopped herself from saying in Brendan's presence echoed around in her skull like a ricocheting bullet.
"It means that the inflammation of the soft tissue is starting to eat away at a portion of Brendan's bone," Eric said quietly. She stared up at him, unable to look away from his eyes. The compassion she saw in them couldn't penetrate her alarm. Neither did Dr. Fielding's reassuring touch on her upper arm.
"Dr. Reyes is recommending surgery on the foot, Colleen," Dr. Fielding said in his warm, grandfatherly manner. "I'd like to admit Brendan this afternoon. We've already briefed him, and Dr. Reyes has generously made room in his schedule. He'll be able to do the surgery first thing tomorrow morning."
"No," Colleen blurted out.
"Uh no?" Dr. Fielding repeated, confused. "Colleen, this is my recommended course of treatment. Dr. Reyes feels the surgery should be done as soon as possible, and I agree wholeheartedly. "
"May I talk to you for a moment? In private?" Colleen asked Eric in a high-pitched voice.
She distantly noticed through her rising anxiety that Eric looked much calmer than Dr. Fielding, almost as if he'd expected Colleen's reaction. He nodded toward the door.
She gave Brendan a reassuring smile and brushed back his bangs. "I'll be right back. Okay?" She waited for her son's nod before she followed Eric. He led her down the hallway to a dark, empty exam room.
"What do you mean, lesion?" she demanded the second he flipped on a light and closed the door. "What is it, exactly, that's eating into Brendan's bone?"
"It's likely that some kind of foreign body somehow managed to lodge itself in the tissue. I questioned Brendan about it. He does recall stepping on a good-sized thorn when he was at the beach months back."
He held up his hand in a "pause" gesture.
"I know he probably never said anything about it to you. He wasn't aware that something had lodged in his foot. I won't know more until I can get in there and clean up the tissue."
"But you said lesion. You said something was eating away at the bone. Does that mean it's cancerous?"
The edges of her vision darkened, as if just saying the word out loud had taken everything out of her. Eric stood just inches away, one hand on her upper arm, steadying her. When had he moved closer? Colleen wondered dazedly.
"No, no, it's not cancerous," he said hastily. "It's an unusual situation. The cells are irregular, yes, because of the persistent inflammation. The location of the lesion is isolated, though. A minor surgery and debridement of the tissue will take care of things completely. On the other hand, we shouldn't wait, because the health and structure of Brendan's bone is at risk. I wouldn't want it to develop into osteomyelitis. He'll get an intravenous cocktail of antibiotics, but that's the only postoperative treatment he'll require besides some physical therapy. We'll follow him closely afterward, but there's every reason to believe that a cleanup of the tissue and removal of the foreign body will resolve things."
Colleen stared blankly at the light blue shirt he wore beneath his blue lab coat. "The bone hasn't been damaged permanently?"
"No," he replied, his firm tone reassuring her despite her disorientation.
"I want another opinion."
"I thought you might say that." She glanced up. A shock went through her when she finally took in how close he was to her. He'd combed his hair back, but the long bangs had fallen forward and brushed his cheekbone. A five o'clock shadow darkened his lean jaw. He had a cleft in his chin. She didn't know how it was possible that his midnight eyes could be as cold and hard as onyx at times, and so warm at others.
"The only other orthopedic surgeon at Harbor Town Memorial is Marissa Shraeven." He leaned his head to the side and hitched his chin toward Brendan's chart, keeping his gaze on her the whole time. Colleen realized he'd tossed the chart on the exam table before he'd reached out to steady her. "I had her review the case. She agrees one hundred percent with my course of treatment."
The pressure of his hand increased subtly. She turned out of his hold and took several steps, distancing herself. His nearness was only increasing her unrest.
"I'd like Dr. Shraeven to operate, then."
"Really?" he asked dryly.
She spun around. "What's that mean?" He looked so calm that for a split second, she was sure she'd misunderstood the edge of sarcasm in his tone. He reached and retrieved Brendan's chart.
"I think you know what it means," he said mildly, his gaze flickering over the chart.