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'Oh, no. . .it's you, isn't it?'
Was that appalled-sounding male voice referring to her? Annabelle Graham turned her head just far enough to see the speaker and her heart sank like a stone. Later, she would realise she'd known who it was even before she turned her head. Those clipped private school kind of vowels that, for her at least, totally obliterated the sexiness such a deep voice should automatically have.
She would also realise that such an outburst was completely out of character so he must have been even more appalled to see her than his tone had suggested. Bella sucked in a long breath that she knew would get expelled in a resigned sigh as she turned her head far enough to be polite.
Oliver Dawson, eminent neurosurgeon here at St Patrick's hospital, looked like he'd frozen in mid-step as he'd been passing by the dayroom of this ward. He almost looked as if he'd been hit by a bolt of lightning. Her breath came out in the anticipated sigh.
One of the only immediately discernible perks of finishing her run in Theatre and starting her new nursing rotation in the geriatric wards had been the thought of not looking like an idiot in front of this man again. Bumping into things. Not wearing her mask properly, not being in the right place at the right time.
Just not being good enough. At anything.
It should have occurred to her that he might have patients in this area of the hospital. Old people had strokes. They got brain tumours. They fell over and suffered head injuries. Bella's heart sank even further. This was probably one of Mr Dawson's most frequent ports of call now that she came to think about it.
And, yep, she was the 'you' he had to be referring to because he had her pinned with a glare that was in no way softened by the rich chocolate shade of his eyes. And heaven help her, he was even more intimidating in a three-piece pinstriped suit than he had been in loose-fitting theatre scrubs.
The appalled tone was distressingly familiar. Being bailed up to get told off was not a new experience by any means. Bella sighed again.
'Yes,' she confessed. 'It's me.' She tried a bright smile. 'How are you, Mr Dawson?'
The glare took on an incredulous tinge but Bella was distracted by realising that this was the first time she had seen the surgeon without his hair being covered by a theatre cap. It was even darker than his eyes and as immaculately cut as his suit. There was an air of precision and control about Oliver Dawson that was undoubtedly a huge asset as a surgeon but he was on another planet as far as the men Bella had ever tried to placate. The smile seemed to hit some kind of force-field and bounce straight back at her. Oliver not only ignored her polite enquiry about his wellbeing, he was looking past her now.
'What are you doing here?'
'I've just started my rotation on Geriatrics.' Bella's first run in St Patrick's had been in Theatre. After her three-month stint in the dreaded area of the elderly and infirm, she had Paediatrics to look forward toher all-time favourite. It was going to be a few years until she could start a family of her own so Bella had every intention of making the most of being with other people's children until then. Her next run couldn't come soon enough. Especially now. But neurosurgical cases were fairly common with children, too, weren't they? Where would she be safe from failing to make the grade in Oliver Dawson's eyes? Did they need a nurse in Dermatology Outpatients, perhaps? Obs and Gynae?
A single, curt shake of the man's head told her that her response to his question had been incorrect. Well, no surprises there.
'I wasn't referring to the details of your employment roster,' he snapped. 'I would like to know what you are doing right now. With these patients.'
'Oh ' Bella turned back to find herself being watched with some sympathy by five pairs of eyes, most of which were behind fairly thick spectacle lenses. It was only then that Bella became aware again of the music coming from the cute little speaker she'd attached to her iPod. Good ol' foot-stomping country music. She could understand that it would seem a little inappropriate. And loud.
'I'll turn it down,' she offered hurriedly, following the words with action. 'I had to turn it up because Wally's pretty deaf and he couldn't hear the beat.'
'Aye.' The rotund, elderly man standing closest to Bella nodded vigorously. 'Deaf as a doorknob, I am.'
Wally got ignored, something that was rude enough to irritate Bella enormously. Typical surgeon, thinking he was God's gift and so important that he didn't have to observe common courtesy. When he also ignored the other four elderly people standing in silence, looking decidedly nervous as the consultant in the suit flicked his glance across the whole line, her irritation mounted to active dislike. Maybe this man had become a surgeon because he preferred to deal with people who were unconscious. Maybe he didn't really give a damn about how small he was making anybody here feel.
The raking glance finished with Bella.
'You haven't answered my question.'
He was speaking slowly, with a tone that suggested her intellect was sadly below par. A bit like the way he'd told her she should be in a nursery if she was going to wear her surgical mask like a bib.
Dislike was firmly established now. Old. Rebellion bloomed.
'We're having a line-dancing class,' she informed Oliver Dawson crisply. 'To be precise, we're learning The Electric Slide.' She smiled at the inpatients she'd found looking so incredibly bored in the dayroom of this ward when she'd started working here last week.
It wasn't as though she was forcing them to do something they didn't want to do and she wasn't supposed to be doing anything else herself. She was on her break, for heaven's sake. She wasn't doing anything wrong and they'd all been having fun until this pompous surgical consultant had interrupted them. Now she might have trouble persuading any of these oldies to get out of their chairs again judging by how confused poor Edna was looking. By the time Wally had looked from Bella to Mr Dawson and back again, he was huffing indignantly. He'd probably need his inhaler very soon. She smiled at them all reassuringly.
'We were getting pretty good at it, too, weren't we? Let's leave it for now and we'll have another go tomorrow. I'll bet we can get that stomp and clap on four sorted by then.'
Verity, who'd been bravely attempting line dancing with the aid of her walking frame, was the only one who smiled back.
'That will be lovely, dear. Remember not to come and get me until after I've fed the hens, though.'
Oliver shook his head with disbelief, turning away as he saw the nurse starting to assist her patients back to their chairs in front of the television soap opera running in the corner of the dayroom. He even heard her start to discuss the merits of different types of hen food with the confused old woman after telling the overweight gentleman to have a look in his dressing-gown pocket for his inhaler.
Line dancing? With frail, elderly patients who were at enough risk of falling and injuring themselves just getting through the activities of daily life?
Ridiculous. Irresponsible and and air-headed. About what he would have expected from the nurse whose name he didn't even know.
He'd remembered her, though, hadn't he? Even in theatre scrubs she'd been distracting, with those unusually dark blue eyes and the wispy blonde curls that seemed incapable of accepting complete restraint within the confines of an elasticised theatre cap. She had a mouth that seemed permanently on the verge of laughter, too. Inappropriate in the serious environment of an operating theatre and he'd certainly noticed that when she'd had the nerve to wander into his theatre with her mask dangling around her neck like a damn bib.
Oliver stalked past the nurses' station on his way up the back stretch of the U-shaped ward. He caught sight of another nurse's uniform behind the counter.
The charge nurse looking up from the computer screen. 'Oliver! You're early for a visit today.'
'I had an empty slot in my outpatient clinic so I thought I'd pop up.' He cleared his throat. 'Have you got any idea what's going on in your dayroom?'
Sally grinned. 'The line-dancing class?'
Oliver didn't return the smile. 'Yes.'
'It's great, isn't it? She's only been here for a few days but I've never seen anyone establish a rapport with patients quite the way she has.'
'I can imagine.'
Sally didn't seem to notice the dryness of his comment.
'She's getting people moving more than any of the physios or occupational therapists have simply because she's making it so much fun. Daniel told me today that he's thinking of incorporating line dancing into his future physiotherapy routines. He's never thought of it before because he works with people individually. Diversional therapy for whole groups is something we associate with rest homes, not hospitals.' Sally shook her head. 'Who'd have thought? A junior nurse could be starting a revolution.'
Oliver pressed his lips together. There wasn't much point in making his disapproval known if the physiotherapists and other professionals were happy about this. Would he have to wait until of the patients tripped over and broke a wrist or worse before he could step in and make sure the plug got pulled on this unconventional and very dubious activity?
Frustration bubbled. It wasn't even his call really, was it? He could, of course, have a word with his senior colleagues in Geriatrics. Yes that was the way to go. He didn't usually tap into the influence he had always been able to exert but maybe this was a case of having to override the professional with a more personal status. The thought should have been satisfying but, instead, it led to a very disturbing thought. The muscles around his lips strengthened their hold.
'Lady Dorothy?' The query was succinct. Surely his mother wouldn't have been tempted to not only make a fool of herself but endanger her fragile health by cooperating with the blonde bimbo nurse and her outrageous activities?
Sally's face softened. 'She's in her room,' she said quietly. 'I'm sorry, Oliver, but she's still refusing to try anything in the way of rehab or social activities.'
With a nod, Oliver was on his way to the private room at the end of the corridor. Refusing to participate in social activities in an environment like this was perfectly understandable but some form of rehab was essential if his mother wasn't going to lose an enormous amount of quality of life. He paused for a moment in front of the closed door of the private room and the curtains on the corridor side windows were pulled shut. How many people would be walking past without even realising that one of most revered society matrons in Auckland was an inpatient of St Patrick's?
Lady Dorothy Dawson was in bed. She was resting against a mound of pillows with a silk shawl around her shoulders and the silver waves of her hair brushed and shining but she looked pale and unhappy. Her face brightened as Oliver moved to her bedside.
'Oliver! What a lovely surprise!'
Kissing the soft skin of his mother's cheek, Oliver realised that part of her pallor was due to the fact that Lady Dorothy was not wearing any make-up. She'd probably allowed a nurse to brush her hair but to let a stranger do something more personal like applying foundation or lipstick would be galling, wouldn't it? Especially to a woman who'd always been as proud and independent as his mother.
'How are you, Mother?'
'I'm fine, darling. I'd like to go home.'
'Soon.' His smile hid an increasing anxiety as Oliver took a seemingly casual glance around the room. He was becoming very good at assimilating the information he needed at lightning speed.
The joints in his mother's hands were still swollen and angry from the vicious recurrence of her arthritis. She looked as if she was still losing weight, probably because she was refusing to allow anyone, even him, to help her eat and for days now her only intake had been smoothies or cool soups that she could sip through a straw. The weight loss wasn't the main worry, however. The combination of reduced food intake and her illness was playing havoc with her blood-sugar levels, making control of her insulin-dependent diabetes very difficult. 'How's the pain?'
Lady Dorothy simply gave him a look and Oliver had to smile. It was exactly the kind of look he remembered from when he'd been a small child and he'd hurt himself in some fashion. The 'suck it up and get on with it' look because pain was an inconvenience that couldn't be allowed to interfere with life being lived. Or duty being done. It was the way Lady Dorothy had been raised and the way she'd raised her only son.
His mother might look like an ultimately pampered member of the most elite social circle to be found in the young country of New Zealand but he knew she had the strength of a tiger and a heart of purest gold. Her fundraising efforts were legendary and St Patrick's had benefited along with countless other institutions and charitable organisations. Lady Dorothy was seventy-three years old and had never needed to work for financial reasons but she put more time and effort into her passion than some forty-year-old CEOs of large corporations ever did.
If being able to be hands on for her work had come to an end, Lady Dorothy would be devastated but right now she wouldn't be able to make a phone call, let alone hold a pen. And if her blood-sugar levels couldn't be stabilised she wouldn't be able to drive her car or be left alone at any time due to the risk of her falling into a diabetic coma. While she'd always had help running their enormous property with the help of a housekeeper and gardener, more intrusive staff had always been spurned. An invasion of privacy that simply wasn't acceptable.