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Pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ryan O'Doherty's attention remained on the child lying in the ICU bed of Angel Mendez Children's Hospital in New York City as he spoke to the father. "I removed as much of the tumor as possible. I didn't get it all because I couldn't risk additional impairment."
This father wasn't the first person to hear those words and he wouldn't be the last. Ryan made a point not to gloss over the truth when speaking to parents. Despite the fact that Ryan knew he possessed more than competent skills, he'd done all he could for the child. He couldn't fix them all. Parents had to accept that.
"I understand. His mother and I will take him home and love him for as long as we can," the father said in a voice filled with tears.
The father had courage. He'd have to cling to it down the road.
The sharp, shrill sound of Ryan's phone filled the air. He tapped the screen, stopping the offending noise, and looked at the message. Human Resources. He'd forgotten all about being expected down there. What could possibly be so important in the paper-pusher department that he was needed so urgently?
He glanced at the father again. "The neurologist will re-evaluate your son's case. I'll be here if needed," he said curtly. "Now, if you will excuse me "
"Thanks for all you've done."
Ryan nodded. It was his job.
Ten minutes later, Ryan walked through the network of gray hallways on his way to the human resources department. Hospital leadership was notorious for putting HR departments in the basement of the oldest section of the hospital and in the furthest corner, if they could accomplish it. Angel's was no different. Ryan hadn't seen this particular region of the building since he'd become an official employee five years earlier.
He wasn't sure why he'd been summoned, but he'd received an email the day before, requesting his presence. When he'd called to say he was too busy to make the meeting, Matherson, the HR director, had stated it was mandatory that he attend. Ryan was sure the trip down would be a complete waste of his time. Whatever he was needed for, surely could be handled by email.
Despite technically being an employee, he still wasn't used to being called into someone's office. If there was something to be said he was typically the one doing the calling. Expected for a surgery consultation in just a few minutes, he needed to get this over with. He made the final turn in the hallway and pushed the faux wood-grain door open, entering the functional waiting area that would have been drab if not for the colorful framed pictures of children hanging on the wall.
Ryan headed straight to the middle-aged woman sitting behind the L-shaped reception desk. "Dr. O'Doherty here to see Mr. Mather-son," he said with a smile he didn't feel. He'd learned long ago that it paid to mask your emotions.
"He's expecting you," the woman at the desk chirped, as if she'd said it hundreds of times.
Not bothering to sit, he stood over the receptionist as she picked up the phone and spoke into it, and looked around the room.
A young woman, maybe in her late twenties, sat facing the entrance in one of the three utilitarian chairs set against the office wall. She glanced up at him. Her large blue eyes reminded him of a summer afternoon, but held a sadness that contradicted their lovely color. With a single blink, the melancholy was replaced by an unwavering stare before she looked away.
"Dr. O'Doherty is here, Mr. Matherson." The receptionist listened a moment then glanced at the woman sitting in the chair.
Ryan followed the receptionist's look. The woman sat with her ankles crossed and her hands laced primly in her lap. There was little outstanding about her apart from those large eyes and a rope of hair that fell over her shoulder. She wore a business suit of light gray with a flimsy peach blouse beneath. A little too school-marmy for his tastes.
He could tell her clothes were of a fine quality. He snorted quietly. Must have been all those long-suffering shopping trips he'd made with his sisters that had given him that knowledge. He quirked a corner of his mouth. Should he be proud of that?
"Ms. Edwards, Mr. Matherson would like to see you and Dr. O'Doherty now."
Who was this Ms. Edwards and why would she have anything to do with him being here? Ryan's focus sharpened when she stood. The woman was tall, with a willowy frame that spoke of someone who took care of herself. Her gaze met his. The sadness he'd seen early in her eyes had been replaced by a resolute look.
She held his gaze a moment before her attention turned to the HR man.
Mr. Matherson, a round bodied man with a balding head, had come round a corner. "Dr. O'Doherty and Ms. Edwards, please come back to my office."
Ryan stepped back and allowed her to go ahead of him. Her head reached his shoulder. Her wheat-colored hair was controlled by a braid. What was it called? He'd heard his sisters talk about them enough. Something foreign. A French braid, that was it. Even with the braid her hair went midway down her back. Did it touch her hips when free?
Ms. Edwards's eyes narrowed. Had she guessed his thoughts?
"Please come in and have a seat," Mr. Matherson instructed as he stepped around the desk facing the door and remained standing. Ms. Edwards took one of the burgundy vinyl chairs and Ryan sat in the other before Mr. Matherson settled in his seat.
"Dr. O'Doherty, this is Lucy Edwards, and she's just recently joined the Angel family."
Ryan offered his hand and a half-smile. "Ryan O'Doherty."
For a flicker of a second she hesitated before her small fingers slipped into his. Her grasp was firm, her hand soft and the touch brief. He liked the feel of her hand.
He gave Matherson an expectant look. They needed to get a move on with this meeting. His colleague was waiting on that consult. "So what brings us here?"
Matherson regarded Ryan as if he wasn't comfortable with others taking over his meetings. Clearing his throat, the HR man said, "Ms. Edwards is a family counselor. She comes with the highest credentials and praise from her last position. As I understand, she was the person the families regularly requested."
The woman beside him shifted uncomfortably. Pink touched her cheeks. She obviously didn't enjoy being the center of attention. That came as a surprise. In his experience, woman generally enjoyed being the main focus. What made this one different?
Matherson continued as if giving a great oratory to be remembered. "Angel's is setting up a new program called Coordinated Patient Care, where we're pairing a counselor with a doctor. Ms. Edwards is your partner. You'll be working with her on all your cases."
What was this? Another hospital bureaucratic feel-good project? Ryan leaned forward, piercing the rotund little man with a look. "Didn't we try something like this a couple of years ago and decide it didn't work?"
Matherson had the good grace to look contrite. "Similar, but this is a little different. You two are the beta test. If it works then we'll require other departments to follow suit."
"Is all this necessary? I'm sure Ms .uh"
"Edwards," the woman supplied.
He sensed more than saw her stiffen. "I'm sure Ms. Edwards and I could both use our time more wisely."
"Please don't speak for me." The woman who had been sitting stiffly beside him said, shifting direction. "Doctor, I can assure you that the closer the doctor-counselor relationship is, the better it is for the patient."
Her words were said in a soft Southern drawl laced with an edge of steel. So the woman had some backbone. Interesting.
He cocked a brow and smiled. "So-o-o." He dragged out the word to match her drawl. "You believe that working closely with the doctor is important."
She rewarded him with a blush that added a brighter touch of pink to the ridge of her cheeks.
Matherson cleared his throat, but Ryan chose to ignore the man. He gifted her with a smile. The identical one he used when making an effort not to ruffle the nurses while at the same time trying to get his way.
"I didn't mean to imply that your job doesn't have merit, it's just that I don't think we need to personally discuss each patient. In fact, I don't discuss the same type of issues with my patients that you would be concerned with. You can make notes on their charts about any matters you think I should know about and I can read from there." Ryan stood. To his surprise, Ms. Edwards rose to face him.
"I can assure you, Doctor, our relationship will be strictly professional," she said through clenched teeth. She took a breath and continued, "Patients, as well as their families, need reassurance and comfort that you can't provide."
She couldn't have been more correct.
"That's my job and I do it well." She squared her shoulders, punctuating the statement.
"I'm sure that is true but I'm not going to waste my time in meetings when there is a perfectly good computer system we can use for correspondence. Now, if you'll both excuse me "
"Dr. O'Doughty," Matherson said with a pointed look at Ryan, "I don't know if you fully understand what's being asked here. This is a trial program. The board's supporting it unanimously. Your co-operation would be noticed and to your advantage."
Ryan compressed his mouth. Matherson was making a veiled reference to the fact that he hadn't been offered the head of neurosurgery position and that his co-operation would look good on his CV. By rights the department head job should have been his. Instead, they'd hired Alex Rodriguez.
Drawing his lips into a thin line, Ryan looked directly at Matherson for a long moment. The hospital pencil-pusher did have the good grace to lower his eyes. If going along with this ridiculous time-consuming coordinated patient care idea would make him look good on paper to the powers that be, then he'd make some form of an effort. He'd at least give it lip service, but based on his experience it would be a waste of time. Shrugging a shoulder, he said, "Okay." He looked at Ms. Edwards. "I guess we're a team, then."
Ms. Edwards angled her head, mistrust written all over her face. Was she questioning his motives? Would she let him get away with doing as little as possible? Maybe there was more to this unassuming woman than he'd originally supposed. If nothing else, it would be a challenge to see if he could get her to smile. Find out if he could make that sadness in her eyes disappear.
"So it's settled." Matherson sounded far more cheerful than Ryan felt. "Then I'll let you two get started."
* * *
Lucy glanced at the self-absorbed doctor walking half a pace ahead of her up the hall. It had been hard enough to leave her entire life behind to start a new job in an unfamiliar city but being forced to work with a person who resented her being foisted on him made it almost impossible. Left no choice, she had to make this partnership work somehow.
Matherson, with the syrupy smile still on his face, had inquired if the good doctor was going back up to the neuro floor. When he said he was, Matherson had the nerve to ask him to show her the way. She'd been horribly embarrassed that Matherson had relegated this surgeon to a tour guide but didn't know a graceful way to say she'd find her own way.
As they left the HR department, Dr. O'Doherty held the door for her to go ahead of him. Someone had at least instilled manners in the self-absorbed man. She'd seen little else to impress her. That wasn't exactly true. She hadn't failed to notice his wide shoulders, piercing blue eyes and height. Even now his long legs were eating up the well-worn tile floor beneath them. Not often did she find a man that she couldn't meet almost eye to eye.
Gripping her purse, Lucy found herself tagging along behind him. With each step she became more irritated with his attitude. He walked as if he couldn't leave the HR or her quickly enough. Regardless, she appreciated him leading the way as they made one turn then another, past another bank of elevators. She had no idea where she was in the vast hospital.
That morning when she'd stood across the street in Central Park, facing the front entrance of Angel's, and had looked up, she hadn't begun to count the number of floors. The building spread across an entire block. To say she'd been intimidated would have been an understatement. Still, there had been something about the mixture of old and new architecture that had appealed to her. If nothing else, the bright yellow and red awning leading to the front door had made her think the place had warmth.
Being employed by a large hospital wasn't new to her. Most children's hospitals were attached to a larger teaching hospital that was affiliated with a big university. But compared to Angel's, those she'd worked in were dwarfs in size. She liked the nickname Angel's. Glancing at the man beside her, she decided he didn't act very angelic or hospitable.
Dr. O'Doherty finally stopped in front of a set of elevators and pushed the 'up' button.
Her job required her to read people. Dr. O'Doherty's rigid stance and unyielding demeanor said he wasn't pleased with having to answer to the HR department and now to her in a lesser way. She wasn't surprised. Typical surgeon. Highly typical neurosurgeon. Confident, in control and with minds closed to anyone's ideas but their own. Still, she had a job to do, and that meant co-operating with this guy. She had no choice but to make it work.
Clearing her throat, she said, "I understand this arrangement isn't really your idea of a good plan."
He moved to face her. "No, it isn't."
His displeasure didn't encourage her. If this was the way he acted over a simple request, she couldn't imagine his reaction to a serious issue. She was well acquainted with lifealtering experiences. She wasn't going to waste her energy getting upset over anything as mundane as being partnered with the egotistical doctor.
"I'd like to make my end of it as painless as possible for both of us."
The elevator arrived, putting their conversation on hold. The doors opened and they stepped into an already crowded car. Dr. O'Doherty's solid frame brushed hers as they turned to face the front of the elevator. A prickle of awareness spread through her body.
On the ride upward, they stood close enough that the heat of his body warmed her down one side. It was the first time in months that the Arctic cold buried deep within her had melted even for a second. The numbness returned the moment the elevator doors opened and he moved away. She stepped out behind him, then paused.
He stopped and looked at her. "Something wrong?"
"No, I'm just always amazed at how completely different patients' areas are from the business parts of the hospital. These bright yellow walls are like coming into sunshine after being in gloom."
"I've never noticed."
She wasn't surprised.
"Can you get to your office from here?"
She glanced around, recognizing a framed picture of a child's artwork on the wall. "I know where I am now." He turned to leave and she asked, "So how're we going to handle this coordinated care plan, Dr. O'Doherty?"