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Alison Forester stopped so fast she almost stepped out of her pumps.
Dr. Nicholas Sheppard looked to be naked. She peeked around the Los Molina Rodeo grounds to see if anyone else had noticed.
Hey, Naked Man over here. Whoo-hoo.
But everyone had left the arena, the rodeo practice long since over. The only things left behind were the pipe panel livestock chutes and tall, aluminum grandstands that appeared to be deserted beneath the blueberry-colored sky. Cows and horses called out to one another from their pens, but Nicholas Sheppard didn't notice as he rummaged through a brown duffel bag.
No. Not naked, she realized when he stood. He wore underwear, the kind that usually came with tiger stripes or leopard spots — only these were white. His tanned body was completely at ease as he shook out a pair of black jeans, his chiseled rear swinging around toward her as he started to pull them on.
My, my, my.
Ali jerked back.
So did Nicholas Sheppard. "Can I help you?" he said, holding up his waistband.
He was supposed to look different from his medical school picture. Bald, maybe. Or pudgy. Really, really pudgy — with a pocket protector in his shirt. But this was the same, darkly handsome face that had just about taken her breath away when she'd first seen it.
"Dr. Nicholas Sheppard?" she asked, knowing it was him. He'd left his jeans undone, the white V of his underwear visible behind the —
He cleared his throat, quickly doing up the zipper and the snap.
"I'm Nick Sheppard," he confirmed. Nicholas Sheppard was tall. And tanned all over — she should know — with eyes the color of riverbed grass and a face too masculine to belong to a world-renowned reconstructive surgeon. "I'm a — " Ali swallowed. "I'm — " Who are you, Ali? Think. Think. "I'm Ali Forester," she said in a rush.
She knew he recognized the name. And why shouldn't he? She'd left enough messages on his machine to fill a movie reel.
"Well, well, well," he drawled, standing there with his hands on his hips like the jolly Green Giant, only with dark brown hair, not green. "I guess if the mountain won't come to Mohammed — "
"Mohammed came to you," she finished for him. In response he turned and — oooh — bent down. She wished he wouldn't do that. Her body warmed as he retrieved a beige shirt from his bag. With one smooth jerk, he had the shirt on.
"Do you always change out in the open?"
"I do when my old clothes are dirty and I need to go someplace afterward."
"Oh," she answered, feeling as intelligent as the fly that buzzed around her face. Obviously he'd been riding, which meant the truck and long white horse trailer she'd passed in the deserted gravel lot must belong to him.
"You could have waited for me to call back," he said, doing up the last of the buttons, then sucking in his abdomen — what there was of it — and tucking in his shirt. "See, that's just it," she said, shifting her heels and resisting the urge to fuss with her black business suit. "I have waited. Weeks, in fact. And I have to be honest, it's a little odd for me to hear your voice without a beep after it."
At his lifted brow, she added, "You know, the one that usually follows your, "Hi, you've reached Nicholas Sheppard. I'm not here right now. Leave a message."
His brows dropped. "Beeeeep," she added.
He frowned. "I've been busy." Ali inhaled so deeply, her bra strap popped off her shoulder. She nonchalantly fixed it before saying, "Obviously, which is why I've come to you." Nervously she launched into her speech. "We need you, Dr. Sheppard.You're the most gifted reconstructive surgeon in the United States. The Daniel Meredith Burn Center in Texas needs that expertise.You'll be working on people who've lost hope. People who need you to give it back to them." People like me.
"Look," he said, slipping on a pair of brown cowboy boots that had been standing empty nearby, "I appreciate that you seem to have set your sights on me."
But he wasn't going to do it; she could see the answer in his eyes. Damn. "I'm not practicing that kind of medicine anymore," he said, turning away from her again to zip up his duffel bag, the spurs attached to his boots clinking against pebbles.
"Do you mind me asking why not?"
He threw his bag over one shoulder and covered the only part of him that looked doctorly — his short-cropped brown hair — by cramming a black cowboy hat on his head.
"Is it because of that boy you lost?" she called as he walked away.
His boot heels kicked up little puffs of dust, the rowels on his spurs spinning, he'd stopped so suddenly. In the distance she heard a horse neigh. A car drove by on the road in front of the grounds. Nicholas Sheppard turned back to her, eyes narrowed, an OK Corral look of pique on his face.
"Because if it is, you don't need to worry. I've seen the file. You did everything you could to save him."
"You've seen the file?"
Those green eyes narrowed even more, if that were possible. "How the heck did you get your hands on a patient's file? And how do you know about Robby to have looked in the first place?"
"When I made the inquiry, they told me about the case. And when I asked to look at the file they seemed happy to give it to me." Of course, Nana Helfer had made the call. Members of one hospital board often did things for sister members of the board, even if those hospitals were thousands of miles apart.
"That file is none of your business."
"I needed to be thorough, and when I heard about what happened, naturally I wanted to make sure "
That you weren't negligent. "What else has your snooping uncovered?" he asked.
"Your personnel file. And might I say it's impressive, though I'm disappointed it didn't give me your weight and hair color."
Her joke fell flat. He just looked at her, stern, before turning away.
"No," he said right back. "I have no interest in whatever job you're here to offer me."
"Head of the department," she said, coming up alongside him. "And I know you've always wanted to research new skin-graft techniques. If you worked for us, you'd have your own research staff, unlimited funding you name it, you've got it."
"Not interested," he said, tugging his hat lower on his head and looking a far stretch from one of the most gifted surgeons in the industry. He looked like a cowboy.
"Have a safe flight back," he said. And Ali was surprised to realize they'd reached his truck and horse trailer.
"But — "
He threw his duffel bag on the passenger seat and then climbed inside. With a polite if somewhat old-fashioned tip of his hat, he slammed the door in her face with a gust of air that blew a few strands of her blond hair out of the bun she'd wrestled it into.
When the truck started, Ali jumped back. Well, that had gone well.
He started to pull out, the tires on his horse trailer popping up gravel as he rolled away.
He'd be a tougher nut to crack than she thought.
NICK REFUSED to look in his rearview mirror as he drove his rig toward the exit.
Calm down, Nick. It was just a job offer.
And yet he still felt rattled. And, darn it, there he went looking in his rearview mirror. The woman with the corporate-raider attire and the sweet-as-honey Texas accent walked to her car, looking as out of place at the Los Molina Rodeo grounds as a show horse at a racetrack.
The gooseneck stock trailer groaned as he slowed, riveted by the sight of her feet. She wore some kind of shoes with thin straps that crisscrossed and wrapped around her very delicate ankles. He didn't know what surprised him more, the feminine shoes or that she looked nothing like he'd envisioned. Beautiful in an ice queen sort of way, with gray-blue eyes.
Bam, bam, bam.
Nick groaned. Damn it, he'd forgotten to tie his horse, something that wasn't a problem — as long as the trailer wasn't moving.
He shook his head and stopped the trailer. His own research staff.
Yeah, well, he thought, as he got out of his truck, spurs clinking against the door frame, he was through with that dream. From now on he'd patch up cowboys at rodeos — the kind of doctoring his father had wanted him to do in the first place. No more burn victims. No more crying parents.
No more children. "Hold on," he said, slapping the side of the trailer to get the horse's attention. Damn thing. He'd hurt himself if he didn't stop scrambling around.
Out on the road, a car flew by, blowing Nick's cowboy hat up in the back. The driver honked, which meant Nick probably knew him, but he was too busy to look up to see who it was.