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The Shed pumped with the throb of techno beat. A deep bass rhythm resonated off Max's ribcage, as if the music came from within him. Hard. Loud. Raw. Through a glass door leading out back he saw silhouetted people dancing, arms punching the air, the way he wanted to right now. The way he felt whenever surgery had been a success. But todayhell, nothing came close to that kind of buzz. Mission accomplished.
Bill, the barman, nodded towards the bottles in the fridge. 'Hey, Max. Usual?' 'Sure. Line them up.' 'Celebrating?'
'I think so.' It paid to be cautious. The first twenty-four hours were often the decider, although with transplants the decider could be years down the track. He'd laid it all out to Mitch and Jodi, plain and simple; Jamie's operation had resulted in a functioning kidney, but a lot could still go wrong. Too much.
He didn't want to go there. Emotions had no place in a surgeon's work and in his career he'd always managed thatbut saving his nephew's life? That was all kinds of different.
Bill slid the beer bottle across the bar, his eyebrows raised in understanding. The great boutique beer, plus the fact the staff never asked questions or gave advice, was the reason The Shed was Max's home away from home. After a heavy day of intense surgery he relished the chance to de-stress the best way he could in familiar surroundings, followed by some kind of hot physical workouta bed was optional.
Here in the public bar there was no one save a couple from the phlebotomy unit and a single woman a few seats down with her back to him. A mass of thick dark curls covered her shoulders.
His gaze drifted down her straight back, stopping short at the taut line of the black long-sleeved blouse stretched across her spine. Her dress was more funereal than fun, so much so he wondered why she'd be in party central. Most girls here showed far more skin. Intrigued, his gaze travelled over the narrow dip of her waist. The flair of her skirt over a decent amount of hip. The right amount.
He imagined running his palm over those curves.
Running a cool hand over the back of his neck instead, he eased the tension in his shoulders. Man.
After eight hours of surgery his hyped muscles needed a release. And he knew the perfect way.
A quick drink first. Then hit the back bar. Then maybe who knew? The night was still young.
'Barman? Excuse me? Hey.' The curls shivered as the woman raised her hand. 'Excuse me. Another mojito, please.'
Bill's pupils widened as he leaned across the bar to Max, his voice low. 'Been here an hour. Had three already.'
Following Bill's line of vision, Max caught a view of her face. In an urgent and acute response something twisted in his gut, tightened with an awareness that was full and powerful. Hell. It had been a long time since he'd had that kind of immediate reaction to a woman.
Her hair framed a soft face, kissable lips with a smattering of red lipstick. Almost perfect featurescute nose, a dusting of freckles. She was the kind of woman any man would give a second glance to. And most would chance a third. But the clip in her voice screamed that she was a woman not to be messed with.
So of course his interest ratcheted up the scale. Fiery women always presented a challenge. And, boy, did Max love a challenge. He hadn't become Auckland's most successful transplant surgeon without pushing a few boundaries.
Okaya lot of boundaries.
She caught him looking at her but he refused to look away.
Her eyes. Wow. Large, dark, almond-shaped, glittering with something. Hurt? Anger?
Which in itself was a warning sign. But, hell, a conversation didn't mean a whole lot of anything. And if it went furtherhe'd lay out his intentions from the get-go. Starting with nothing deep and meaningful. Ending with don't ask for forever.
Max leaned across the bar to Bill. 'Is she waiting for someone? Been stood up?'
The barman shook his head. 'Nah. Don't think so. She hasn't checked her phone or looked at her watch.'
Good. Not stepping on anyone's toes. He didn't break that brotherhood code as easily as others. As easily as Mitchell had. Max raised his beer to her. 'Tough day?'
'And getting tougher by the minute.' She took her refreshed drink and turned her back to him.
'Okay, I get it. You don't want to talk, right?'
Swivelling round, she gave him a full-tilt death stare. Definitely anger in her eyes. Hurt was a distant cousin. 'Gee, whatever gave you that idea? Very sorry, but my back's not feeling very chatty tonight.' She turned away again, but not quite as far as she'd gone before.
'Watch you don't get whiplash with all the swivelling around.' He caught her profile. The uplift of her chin. Tight lips.
And very possibly the hint of smile.
He'd been on the verge of leaving, but the fading smile reeled him in.
Never one to admit defeat, he slid into the seat next to her, determined to make that smile last a little longer. 'It's okay. We don't have to talk.'
'Get out of here. Really?' Her ribcage rose and fell quickly as she turned to face him, slim fingers running a diamond locket along a thin silver chain at her throat.
Her dark gaze slid from his face down his body and back again. 'People actually say that? Is it from Cheesy Pick-ups for Dummies?' She held up her hand. 'Wait. No. It's a phone app, right? Lame Lines for Getting Laid.'
'Ouch. Cruel. I'm mortally wounded.' He touched his heart for effect. 'Actually, it's from Just trying to be friendly dot com. But forget it. I'll leave you in peace.'
She blinked. 'No. I'm sorry. Come on, hit me with another line.'
'That was my best shot. I'm all out.' He winked, took his phone out and whispered, 'Quick. Help me out here. What was that app called again?'
'Yeah, right. Like you'd need it.' She laughed. The glitter in her eyes turned to one of humour. Her mouth kicked up at the cornersshe was fighting it, but he'd made her laugh. And that gave him a sharp punch of pride to his gut. She clearly got a kick out of the sparring and, hell, judging by the effect of that smile on his libido, so did he.
Her eyebrows lifted. 'You must have some more lines? Surely? Tell you whatyou try them on me and I'll rate them out of ten. Then no other poor unsuspecting woman has to put up with the bad ones.'
'Okay.' He took a slug of beer and rose to the bait. If it meant a few more minutes laughing with her, then game on. Then he'd go out back. 'My friend's all-time favourite was "Hey, darling, do your legs hurt from running through my dreams all night?"'
'No. No. No. Stop. Running away from a nightmare, more like.' She grimaced and put her fingers in her ears. 'That's terrible. A very poor three. Please don't tell me people actually use that?' Her head tipped back a little as she laughed.
He was mesmerised by the delicate curve of her throat. Imagined placing a kiss in the dip lined with the silver chain. When she leaned forward again he got a delicate scent of flowers. Made him want to inhale way more deeply than he should.
Boy, he definitely needed to get out more.
She shook her head. 'Was that your best shot? You are so bad at this.'
'Thank God, I've never needed them. Obviously.'
'The worst one I ever heard was "Is your dad a baker? Because you've got a nice set of buns."' She snorted into her drink, then pointed to her face. 'Hey. Eyes up here.'
'Clearly he was a good judge of character.' Max reluctantly dragged his gaze from the swell of her blouse-covered breasts back to her smiling mouth. Whatever shadows had been haunting her when he'd arrived had gone. Her eyes shone clear and bright. Job done. 'Seriously, you just looked like you could do with cheering up.'
'And you voted yourself cheerleader? How sweet.' Her eyes narrowed and she pointed at him. 'But I was managing just fine without the benefit of your help. Now you should go. Thank you.'
Huh? This was new. He hadn't been knocked back for a very long time.
Adrenalin pumped round his veins. Instinct told him they could have fun togetherand his instinct was rarely wrong. That and the fact he always liked to win meant he'd have to up his game. The chase usually lasted all of two seconds once they knew who he was, what he did. 'And yet here you are, smiling.. .er?' He held out his hand. 'I'm Max.'
'Max ' She paused, clicked her fingers together. 'Max Max Maitland. You're that guy. Thought I'd seen you before.'
'Seen me where?' Because he sure as hell hadn't seen her. He'd have remembered.
'I had my first-day orientation on the paediatric high dependency unit today. While you were doing your rounds I looked after little Jamie for a few hours. He's gorgeous.'
'Yes. Yes, he is.' A weird tightness squeezed his chest. He breathed it out, chalked it up to the long day. He'd just left Jamie sleeping soundly in his mother's arms, tubes and drains permitting. He'd looked so small, still a baby really. Renal failure sucked at any agebut at three? The world wasn't fair. He quickly checked his phone. No messages. No news was good news. 'He's my nephew.'
'I get that. Same name. Same eyes. Cute kid. That must have been hard, watching your nephew fighting for his life then having to operate on him. Takes guts.'
The guardedness she'd had in her eyes relaxed a little as she watched him. She held his gaze as if weighing him upno, more, as if she could see right through to his core. A hazy connection snapped between themhe sensed she understood some of what he'd been through.
Weird. The women he usually met only wanted a good time, a turn on his boat, expensive dinners, the high life of a successful surgeon. None of them ever saw past the label and the cash. Certainly none of them had X-rayed his soul before.
Her lips formed a small pout. 'You did good today. Very good.'
He leaned in. 'That's because I am good.'
'Now, that's better. Rising up the scale, Mr Maitlandmaybe an eight.' Raw need flared behind her gaze. Her lips parted a little as she ran the tip of her tongue along her bottom lip.
This was dodgy territory.
Mixing business with pleasure was a definite no. Too much gossip, too much to live up to. Hell, he'd had enough of that.
And yet there was something simmering between them. A tension building, an awareness they both acknowledged, if not with words then with those fleeting looks. Like a gathering storm, intense, alive with static.
Then the connection fractured as she frowned. 'But I know all about men like you. Big-shot surgeon. Work too hard. No time for friends or relationships.' She glanced at his hand. 'No wedding band. No one to go home toor you'd be there already. You just want something quick and hot and uncomplicated.'
And now she was stamping on a raw nerve. No woman had ever challenged him so blatantly. Pure lust fired inside him. He whispered in her ear. 'You reckon you fit the picture?'
'Not today. So if you don't mind, I need a little privacy.' She held her glass out to Bill. 'Another one, please.'
Max didn't want to ask why she was so intent on getting tanked. The woman was free to do what she liked. She certainly looked as if she could handle herself. In truth, the less he knew about her the betterthat way things could stay strictly professional.
But his interest was way off the scale.
He wrapped his hand over her wrist, gently pulling the glass onto the bar. His fingers were drawn to her hand. He turned it over and rubbed her palm with his thumb. Checked for wedding rings. None. Good. The static jumped and buzzed around them at his touch. 'Don't you think you should be slowing down?' And why did he care?
Her fingers shook free and the frown deepened. 'Seriously? I've had four drinks. I can still walk, talk and count. No big deal. Don't bust a gut over me. This is a once-a-year indulgence I allow myself. I'm having a ball, so don't go spoiling my party.'
He wanted to ask why. Why once a yearwhat had happened? Why here? Why the hell had things aligned for him to bump into her today, when he needed something, as she'd so rightly said, hot and quick. With her it felt complicated already, not least because they were going to be colleagues. And there was that thing that invisible tug between them. 'Hey, I'm a transplant surgeon. Livers fail. I worry.'
'Oh, sweetie. Don't.' Her mouth twitched. 'Once a year. The rest of the time I'm a saint.'
'Well, lucky I found you tonight, then. Your liver will be eternally grateful.'
'Sure it will. But my brain will never forgive you.' Gabby shook her head. The man was beyond irritating. Okay, she conceded, and not a little gorgeous with his dark messy hair, tight black jeans and startling blue eyes that drew her gaze every time she looked in his direction. They were a deep-set, mesmerising, intense blue framed by eyelashes bordering on illegally long.
Not to mention the way his white shirt clung to thick biceps and broad shoulders dragging her eyes to his body.
She tried to ignore the fire smouldering in her belly as he touched her hand.
But really? The man was rude and way too self-assured. Six feet plus of trouble.
His reputation went before himfirst time she'd had an orientation that had come with a health warningMax Maitland, legendary surgeon, serial heartbreaker.
If she hadn't seen the softening in him at the mention of Jamie she'd have believed the hypechalked him up as a self-centred charmer.
She had to admire him, though. He could spar as well as she could. But his ego was spilling out of that crisp cotton shirt. From previous ugly experience she'd erased over-confident and iibercharming from the list of qualities she liked in a man. Nonna had been right about one thing, men just couldn't be trusted.
She rolled her eyes. 'Next time I need some advice from the fun police I'll know who to call.'
'And I'll make sure I'm right there in my superhero outfit.'
'I so did not need an image of you with your undies over your trousers.' She shrugged, stifling a laugh, trying hard not to look at the way those jeans hugged his long legs. His perfect backside. Fascinating.
'It's the twenty-first century. We don't do outfits like that anymore. I'll let you into a secret ' He finished his beer. 'We transform'
She mustered indifference, holding her laugh back. 'I'm only interested if you transform me another mojito.'
'A virgin mojito for sure.' He motioned to Bill to bring an alcohol-free drink despite her protests. 'Er I still don't know your name.'
'You are very annoying.' And damned gorgeous, and way off-limits. And all the things she'd been warned about. And funny and sexy, too, and there was that strange pull to him that she was trying to ignore. But they were going to be working together so he'd find out her name soon enough. 'Charge Nurse Radley. Gabby, to my friends.'
'Well, Gabby, pleased to meet you.' He stuck out a hand. 'Do you have any interesting secrets you'd like to share?'
Not even if hell froze over. She'd moved to Auckland to restart her life, not relive it. Freedom. At last. Space of her own. No one to tell her what to do.
She regarded his hand with as much disdain as she could muster. God, she'd met her match here. Most men had run a mile by now.
In another life this could be fun. He could be fun.