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The single word was as dramatic as the way the man had stormed into Layla Woods's office and slammed a piece of paper onto her desk.
As dramatic as the man himself.
Alex Rodriguez was clearly furious. The waves of his thick, jet-black hair looked rumpledas if he'd pushed angry fingers through it. Eyes that were nearly as dark glared down at Layla.
A long way down. Layla had to fight the urge to leap to her feet so that she could feel taller. Braver. But that would be a dead giveaway that she was rattled, wouldn't it? And she couldn't afford to let Alex know the effect he was still capable of having on her.
With a satisfyingly steady hand, she reached for the piece of paper. The memo she had sent out that morning to all the senior staff members here at the Angel Mendez Children's Hospital.
'This is the agenda for the next monthly report meeting.'
'And you've put me down as being the first presenter.' Alex folded his arms. 'The answer's no. I decline the invitation.'
'It's not an "invitation",' Layla flashed back. 'It's the case I've chosen to open the meeting. I'm sorry if it's inconvenient but it's your patient, Alex, therefore you present the case. End of story.'
The head of paediatric neurosurgery made an exasperated sound, turning as if he intended to storm out of her office in the same way he'd entered. Instead, he stopped beside the large window, with the backdrop of a bright blue October morning. Was he taking in the fabulous view of New York's Central Park that this prestigious top-floor office had to offer?
An office befitting Layla's position as the new chief of paediatrics at this famous hospital. Her dream job. A position that had been in jeopardy a few short weeks ago until Alex had stepped in to protect her.
'What the hell are you playing at, Layla?'
The angry tone of Alex's voice must have carried because Layla's secretary appeared at the open door. Layla gave her a tight smile.
'Hold my calls, please, Monica.' The tilt of her head conveyed the message that she wanted more than her calls held to deal with this. The door was tactfully closed as her secretary retreated.
'Well?' Alex turned back to face her and this time Layla got to her feet.
She walked to the other side of her desk but couldn't go any closer to Alex. The huge can of worms that represented their shared history was blocking the way.
Or maybe it was the memory of what had happened the first time they'd confronted each other since they'd both been working here at Angel's. When they'd been close enough for the flames of a sexual chemistry that had clearly never died completely to flare into that scorching kiss.
It couldn't happen again.
Their past had been precisely what had put her new job in jeopardy. Had she really been naive enough to think that it had been so long ago it couldn't affect her life any more? That she could take a high-profile position like this and it wouldn't matter that she hadn't disclosed her involvement in the malpractice suit that had nearly destroyed Alex's career five years ago?
Somehow they had to move past this. Learn to work together.
'I had intended discussing the agenda with you. You declined the appointment I tried to set up last week.'
'I was busy.' Alex held her gaze. 'As you would have noticed if you'd bothered checking my electronic calendar.'
Layla kept her expression carefully neutral. She had checked his calendar but he could have easily suggested another time. They both knew the real truth. He had been avoiding her.
Since that kiss.
He hadn't even let her voice her thanks for the way he'd stepped in and defended her at the board meeting when her integrity had been under examination and it had been highly likely that they would decide she was not the right person to oversee the talented staff that Angel's was so proud of.
Being thwarted in expressing her appreciation had been a putdown but Layla's aggravation went deeper than that.
Good manners had been drummed into Layla Woods since she'd been knee high to a grasshopper and saying thank you to someone who'd done her such a huge favour wasn't just about maintaining a good appearance.
It was the right thing to do.
The idea of using the monthly report meeting had been a brainwave. OK, choosing a time she'd known Alex was busy to offer a chance to discuss the agenda could be deemed unprofessional, but Layla had had enough. She was taking control.
She hadn't expected it to backfire quite so instantly. Why hadn't Alex simply continued to avoid her? He could have asked his deputy head of neurosurgery, Ryan O'Doherty, to present the case on his behalf.
'It's not a current case,' Alex added. 'And it was successful.'
Of course it was. Layla would hardly have picked a case that was presenting a current dilemma or, worse, one that had had a bad result.
The last thing either of them would want would be to go over that old ground. To the case of the toddler, Jamie Kirkpatrick, that had brought them together in the first place. To the cutting-edge surgery for a complicated brain tumour that had fallen disastrously short of being successful. Jamie had died. Alex had been sued by a distraught family looking for someone to blame. He'd been cleared but Layla hadn't been there to help him celebrate, had she? She'd ended their affair the night before Jamie's surgery.
She nodded at Alex's terse summary. 'That's precisely why I chose it. We don't just put up a current, complicated issue to get the benefit of input from different specialties. Or to dissect what went wrong in a case that wasn't successful. Sometimes it's a good thing to reflect on a triumph. And Matthew was a triumph.'
'There are plenty of other cases you could have chosen.'
'Not one that so many people are so interested in.'
The brain tumour in the nine-year-old boy had been so rare and complicated that surgeons all over the state had refused to touch it. Until the little boy's desperate parents had brought him to Angel's as a last resort and begged Dr Rodriguez to use his legendary skills to give their son a chance to survive. And that was why it wouldn't make any difference if Ryan presented the case. Everybody already knew who the real hero was.
'The criterion for picking a case to report is that it's out of the ordinary,' Layla continued. 'From what I've heard, this one was all that everybody talked about at the time and the staff involved in the recent follow-up appointment were thrilled by Matthew's progress. I also heard that you're writing the case up for a top journal. I thought it would be nice to share that.' The occasional triumph shared at the meeting was good for everybody. A counterbalance for the heart-breaking cases.
'Shine the spotlight on someone else, Layla,' Alex growled. 'Somebody's going to wonder why you picked on me and I've been talked about more than I'm comfortable with around here lately.' Alex turned to look out of the window again as he spoke but then his gaze swerved back to Layla. 'Gossip about the Kirkpatrick case was bad enough. What happens when people start talking about the fact that I was having an affair with a married woman at the time? How do you think that's going to help my reputation?'
The glare Layla received would have intimidated anyone.
Layla straightened her spine.
'I came to Angel's for a fresh start,' Alex ground out. 'I won't allow you to drag my name through the mud.' Oh Lord
OK. The plan had been to make this a public gesture of thanks, whether Alex liked it or not. She knew that this case would earn him even more respect from those colleagues who didn't know all the details of the case, even though it had been breaking news on the grapevine in the months before she'd come to Angel's. She had also known that it would be a public statement of her own faith in his abilities.
But it was a huge leap to go from not wanting her gratitude or public support to accusing her of being prepared to damage his reputation. The attack was unjustified. Unfair.
'You're not the only one who's come here for a fresh start,' Layla snapped. 'And I'm sure you haven't forgotten but I was the married woman. I don't want that being common knowledge any more than you do.'
'So stay away from me, then.'
Layla let out an incredulous huff. 'You're the one who came storming into my office.'
'Because this needed to be dealt with.'
'What needs "to be dealt with",' Layla responded, 'is the fact that we find ourselves working in the same hospital. Again.' She took a deep breath. 'It's unfortunate, I agree, but you had your chance to get rid of me. You could have let me get fired.'
'I didn't do it to protect your job and keep you here, if that's what you're thinking.'
No. That idea had been farfetched enough for Layla to have dismissed it at the time.
'So why did you do it?' she asked quietly.
'Because I'm not going to let my past dictate my future. The Kirkpatrick case did enough damage already. I stood up for you because because it was the right thing to do.'
Thanking him had seemed like the right thing to do, too, but he wouldn't let her. Now Layla wasn't even sure she wanted to thank him. Had he just been facing his own demons? Making them a part of a past that didn't matter any more?
She had to look away. 'Well.. we're going to have to work together. I'm not about to leave a job I've only just started.'
'Neither am I.'
He was still angry. Layla could feel the waves of it reaching her across the distance she'd been careful to maintain between them.
She could also feel other currents mixed in with the anger. Like his determination to succeed and the fierce intelligence with which he was assessing his options. And beneath all of that she could feel his raw magnetism and power. The charisma that Alex Rodriguez wore like a second skin.
There seemed to be nothing left to say.
They were at an impasse. Both of them struggling to take control of their present by focussing on the future and dismissing the past.
Could it be that easy?
Layla had to make an effort to swallow. 'Fine. Then let's start as we mean to go on from now on. I've set the agenda for the meeting. I'll look forward to hearing your presentation, Dr Rodriguez.'
Alex said nothing. With no more than another searing glance, he turned and left her office.
Two days later and people were filing into the small lecture theatre tucked away on an upper floor, along with the operating theatres. Some were carrying Styrofoam cups of coffee and paper bags containing sandwiches and some were reading messages on their pagers. All of them would have a notebook and pen available.
Fellow Texan, neonatal doctor Tyler Donaldson came in, protectively ushering his now very pregnant fiancée, Eleanor, into a front-row seat where she would have plenty of room. Eleanor smiled at Layla.
'Don't mind me if I have to sneak out to the bathroom,' she said. 'My bladder capacity is shrinking by the day.'
'Yeah ' Tyler beamed proudly. 'And that little rodeo rider in there likes to work out and use it for a punching bag.'
Layla returned the smile but said nothing. She wasn't in the mood for baby talk and Tyler might be an old friend but it wasn't exactly professional to sit there holding hands with Eleanor, was it?
There was a quiet buzz of conversation going on and seats were being filled but there was still no sign of Alex. Layla gave Ryan a questioning look, her head tilted towards the door. As Alex's second-in-command, surely he would know where the senior neurosurgeon was? But Ryan merely shrugged and then turned to his companion, a smile on his face as he responded to some comment.
The atmosphere in here was relaxed and why wouldn't it be?
There was no blame, no shame for unsuccessful cases but the discussion could get robust. What could have been done differently? What would be done differently next time? Hindsight was a wonderful thing when it could be used for a good purpose. You could never say they didn't learn from mistakes around these parts.
Could Layla say that about herself?
Professionally, of course she could.
Personally? Layla suddenly became aware that she was tapping her foot impatiently. How long had she been doing that? Had anyone noticed? Her foot stilled.
Of course she could say that she learned from personal mistakes.
She hadn't got married again, had she?
She had challenged Alex, though. She hadn't heard a peep out of him since that tense exchange in her office and she'd been left wondering if he would back down and appear to present his case. Surely he would guess that a non-appearance would start people talking even more than if he'd shown up as her star turn of the day?
There was an air of expectancy in the room now. These were busy people. They only had an hour to spare and they were all giving up their lunch-breaks to attend. There were a few empty seats but that was normal. Some people couldn't make it on the day, even if they were rostered to present a case, but that was OK, too, because they always had more cases lined up than they ended up having time to discuss.
She'd give Alex exactly one more minute to show up.