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She would beg, borrow, lie, cheat or steal for her child.
Courtney Albright knew what she had to do was one notch down from all of the above, but for her it was worse in some ways. She needed a favor from a man she had no reason to trust. Dr. David Wilder, genius plastic surgeon, lousy family guy. She supposed it made sense that a man empty and hollow enough to ignore and neglect the people who loved him would dedicate himself to enhancing outer beauty.
The problem was she'd just had an accident with her daughter in the car. Janie's face was broken and the doctors here inWalnut River were saying they didn't have the specialized skills she needed. David Wilder did and he'd agreed to a consult. It was a favor and Courtney didn't trust favors. Especially from men.
But her little girl was lying in a hospital bed with half her face covered in gauze bandages and fallout from a favor was a small price to pay for her little girl's health. So where was he? What was taking so long? Maybe he wouldn't show up.
With every ounce of willpower she possessed, Courtney held back the sob that pushed up from deep inside and lodged in her throat. Tears wouldn't helpthey never had and never would. Especially not now. To get through this crisis, her six-year-old needed strength, not a mother who ran away. Hysterics would be like running away, and she couldn't give in to that. Her own mother had just taken off without a word. Courtney had had her father, such as he was. But Janie's father was dead. Janie only had her and she'd do her best not to let her baby down.
At least not again.
The accident was bad enough. And if she could, she would trade places with Janie in a heartbeat. Courtney had a bump on the head and a broken wrist, but that was nothing compared to what her little girl was suffering. Courtney had refused to let them admit her as a patient. She'd insisted they let her be with Janie. Hospitals were scary. She worked here, but not in patient care.
At the sound of the deep voice, Courtney glanced over her shoulder. It was himDavid Wilder. He was really here and, if possible, more handsome than the one and only time she'd seen him. She shuddered with relief although it shamed her. She hated needing something from him or anyone else. But she'd have hated it more if he'd blown her off.
"You're here. I didn't think you'd " She pressed her lips together, cutting off what she'd been about to say. "Thank you for coming, Dr. Wilder."
"You know me?" he asked.
"I saw you at your father's funeral."
James Wilder had died of a heart attack not quite two months ago and Courtney still missed him. He was the only man she'd ever known who had been kind to others without expecting anything in return. "There were a lot of people there." David frowned as if he was thinking back.
He was a famous Beverly Hills plastic surgeon to the stars so there had been a lot of talk about him that day. About him in the tabloids, linked to A-list movie actresses. About him featured on TV gossip shows in regard to cosmetic procedures on models. Him dating a bevy of beautiful, high-profile women for about a minute until he moved on.
The Dr. David Wilder could be in the movies himself. Dark hair meticulously mussed, vivid blue eyes. Square jaw with some serious scruff which was how the "in" celebrity males accessorized these days, though he wore it better than most. A battered leather jacket fitted his broad shoulders and gave him a bad-boy-biker look along with worn jeans that hugged his lean hips and muscular thighs. He looked like the guy next doorthe good-looking guy next door.
Even if he didn't live on the other side of the country, their paths would never cross because they didn't travel in the same social circles. He had no reason to remember the unre-markable nobody who ran the hospital gift shop. She'd lived in Walnut River for over six years and had never laid eyes on him until his father's funeral.
"I wouldn't expect you to remember me," she said.
"Then you'd be wrong, Mrs. Albright. About remembering you, I mean."
His smile was friendly and attractive and she felt it go straight through her even as she wanted to ask how that bedside manner was working for him. But she had to give him points for showing up.
"Thank you for coming," she said again.
"You sound surprised." The smile disappeared.
"Ella said you were at the airport in New York on your way back to California. I just I was afraid Walnut River is so far out of your way that I wasn't sure you'd come."
Boy, was she wrong. But it didn't make sense in her frame of reference. On the spur of the moment a successful, busy plastic surgeon came all this way to see a patient he didn't know? And so fast. Although it felt like a lifetime, the accident was only a few hours ago.
"As it happens, I was in New York for a plastics symposium when my sister called. I came as quickly as I could."
"Out of character for you" She couldn't believe she'd said that out loud. The words popped out of her mouth before she could stop them. It had been the worst few hours of her life and she was taking it out on him. "Scratch that. How incredibly ungrateful that sounds. I apologize. I'm not at my best right now."
"Forget it," he said, but shadows crept into his eyes. "I understand you work here at the hospital but can't" He stopped and didn't say whatever it was he'd been about to, but something suspiciously like pity crept into his eyes.
"Walnut River isn't that far out of my way and Ella said your daughter's facial injuries are pretty serious."
Tears welled in her eyes again and she turned away, embarrassed by the show of weakness. When he put a comforting hand on her shoulder, the urge to give in to her fear and grief swamped her. With an effort, she pulled herself together and faced him again. She might be the nobody who ran the gift shop but if that connection was what got him here it was one more reason to be grateful for it.
She looked at the half of her daughter's face that she could see and noted the pale skin on Janie's normally healthy pink cheek. "She's been sleeping off and on since the accident."
"That's a combination of shock and medication to keep her comfortable," he explained.
"They told me."
The staff had done an excellent job of keeping her informed. They were her friends as well as coworkers and if not for them, she wasn't sure this wouldn't have broken her.
He walked around to the other side of the bed and very gently pulled away the strips of paper tape loosely holding the gauze over Janie's cheek and ear. "I just got here and wanted to introduce myself and have a quick look at the patient"
"Janie," she said. "My daughter's name is Jane Josephine Albright. Everyone calls her Janie."
"Janie." He met her gaze, then looked down and continued his examination. "She's a beautiful child."
"Yes, she is" Courtney stopped, choked up because she wanted to say was.
She'd known it was bad or he wouldn't be here. Courtney remembered very little about the accident and nothing about the helicopter flight that airlifted her and Janie to Walnut River General Hospital. She'd come around and remembered being X-rayed and having her wrist immobilized. The E.R. doctor had ordered CT scans for Janie, then they'd cleaned her up, covered her face and called in a specialist.
No one had pushed Courtney to look and she didn't really want to see. If that made her a coward, so be it. But she didn't think she could bear it, knowing what she'd done to her own child. If she could have her choice of days to do over, today would be at the top of a very long list.
She'd been taking Janie out to an early breakfast before work and school. It was a rare treat because she couldn't afford meals out but Janie had been named student of the month and they'd planned to celebrate. Courtney's gut had told her it wasn't a good idea. The weather was bad. What was that saying? March came in like a lion, out like a lamb? It was true. And she'd worried about the roads being safe.
She should have listened to her gut. She could try and pin this on Mother Nature or God, but the fact was, there was no one else to blame for a single-car rollover accident.
She knew part of her was always trying to make up for the fact that Janie didn't have a dad. It didn't matter that if he'd lived, Joe wouldn't have been a very good parent. All Janie knew was that her father was gone forever.
Courtney was the mom and trying so very hard to be a good one. Trying not to be like her own mother. A powerful wave of guilt washed over her. Her mother had walked out, which was unforgivable, but Courtney had never ended up in a hospital intensive care unit. So which one of them was the worst mother ever? Janie was a beautiful child, but she might be scarred for lifeand it was all Courtney's fault.
The doctor replaced the gauze and brushed Janie's blond hair off her forehead in a surprising and unexpectedly tender gesture. He met her gaze. "I'm going to look at her chart."
"Is she going to be all right?"
"Her condition is serious, but her injuries aren't life-threatening."
"They already told me that. I want to know if her face is going to be all right."
"I need to evaluate all her test results."
"What aren't you telling me, Dr. Wilder?"
"Please call me David."
She'd call him the devil himself if it would help Janie. She'd call him anything he wanted if he would simply tell her the truth. "David, what are you keeping from me?"
He glanced at Janie and sympathy slid into his vivid blue eyes. "The injuries to her cheek, eye and nose are severe, but I can only see the soft tissue. I need information about muscles, nerves and bone involvement before I can evaluate the extent of the damage. Until I see everything, I can't tell you what kind of outcome you can expect."
"Okay." That made sense. If the little patient in the big bed were anyone other than her child, she'd have realized that without him telling her. It's true what they said about losing objectivity when it concerned someone you loved. "But when you have answers, I want you to tell me everything. The whole truth."
"You have my word, Mrs. Albright."
"Call me Courtney."
He nodded, then walked out. She felt inexplicably alone, which was weird since she hadn't expected him actually to show up at all. Why would he go out of his way? Unless there was something in it for him. She was probably the most ungrateful woman on the planet for thinking such thoughts. But not listening to her gut had cost her in the past and she'd paid a high price today for another lesson.
She didn't have to like the situation, but in her circumstances she had very little choice but to go along with it. The old children's rhyme Humpty Dumpty kept going through her mind.
All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together againbut none of them were a mom.
David would rather be anywhere but Walnut River, and the feeling wasn't about the CT films he was studying on the viewer. Although it would require a great deal of work, he could repair Janie Albright's face and she would grow up to be as beautiful as her mother. Courtney.
He hadn't known her name until today, but he remembered seeing her the day they'd buried his father. She'd been the single bright spot in his dark void of what-ifs and self-reproach. With her blond hair blowing in the frigid wind, she'd been like a beacon in the sea of pitch black. Her warm brown eyes had been full of sympathy and sadness and he had wondered why she looked that way.
What was her relationship with his father? Why did she mourn so deeply for the man David had disappointed so many years before? More than once since that day he'd recalled her all-American beauty that included a matching set of dimples. His patients who were searching for physical perfection would pay a lot of money to duplicate her looks.
From what Ella had said, Courtney didn't have a lot of money. That meant she needed him. And that made him wary. It wouldn't have if he hadn't been instantly and intensely attracted. But he'd learned a long time ago that intense feelings for a beautiful woman could make a man do stupid things. Life-altering things.
Still, she wasn't the reason he didn't want to be here. That was all about a past filled with mistakes and regrets. It was all about the things he'd done wrong and could never make right. His father was dead and he could never get back time with him or the relationship he'd lost.
At the airport when he'd talked to Ella, his initial reaction had been to plead schedule conflicts that prevented him from coming here. The truth was, he wasn't due back in his Beverly Hills office for several days. The other doctors in the practice would pick up the slack for him. When he'd intended to say no, the word yes came out of his mouth. Before she'd hung up, Ella said since he'd be in town Peter would be expecting him at a cocktail party following the rededication of the hospital library in honor of their father. And so it began
But there was a pressing problem. How was he going to tell a worried young mother that her daughter's damaged face needed extensive work if she was ever going to look normal again?
David pulled Janie's films from the viewer and clicked off the light. After looking through the chart, he walked down the hall and into ICU where he saw Courtney holding her daughter's hand. The little girl was awake and when she saw him, she tensed.
Courtney glanced over her shoulder. Like mother, like daughter. She tensed, too. But he had a feeling her fear wasn't all about what he had to tell her. On some level it was personal. Instinctive. He wasn't sure how he knew that, but he'd bet his favorite stethoscope it was true.
Her arm immobilized in a dark-blue sling, she looked back at her daughter. "Sweetie, this is Dr. Wilder. He's come a long way to look at you and tell us what to do to make you better."
David walked over to the bed and smiled down at his patient. "Hi, beautiful."
Janie studied him with her one good eye. It was blue. "Hi." Underneath the bandage he knew her shattered cheekbone was dragging down her other eye and there was damage to the eyelid. The long gash on her chin and the injury to her ear were the least of the problems and the easiest to fix. There was a six-hour post-trauma window during which repair work could be done without debriding in surgery to avoid infection. It was simplest for the patient and the clock was ticking.
"If I take your mom away for a few minutes will you be all right?" he asked her.
She glanced apprehensively at her mother, then back at him and her mouth trembled. "Why does Mommy have to go with you? Are you gonna fix the bump on her head?"
David knew the injury didn't need his intervention and would heal nicely on its own. Courtney's face would be as flawless as the first time he'd seen her. The fact that she'd refused anything besides basic medical attention in order to remain at her daughter's side showed selflessness and character and a beauty on the inside where it counted most.
He smiled at Janie. "Your mom will be fine without my help. But I need to talk to her for just a couple of minutes."
"Yes," he answered.
"'Bout my face?" Janie asked, a tear sliding down her good cheek. "Mommy said my arm is broken. Is my face broken too?"
Something shifted and stretched in his chest and the feeling made him acutely uncomfortable. A doctor wasn't supposed to become personally involved with a patient, but some had a way of sneaking through his defenses. Janie Albright could easily be one of them.
"Did your mom tell you that Dr. Ella fixed your arm and that's why it's in a cast?" When she nodded, he said, "It's going to be good as new." He chose his words carefully.
"There are doctors who can make your face good as new."
"Really?" Courtney asked, hope chasing the wariness from her eyes.
"Really." He looked at the little girl. "And I need to tell your mom all about that, but it's pretty boring. Is it okay with you if we go over there?" he asked, pointing to a spot just inside the door. "You can still see her and we'll be right here if you need anything. How would that be?"
"Okay, I guess," Janie said uncertainly.
"Do you hurt anywhere?" he asked.
"A little." She glanced at the cast on her wrist. "My arm."
"They gave her something for pain a few minutes ago," Courtney told him.
He nodded. "Give it a few minutes, kiddo. You'll feel better. I promise."
"Okay," Janie said.
David moved away from the bed and Courtney followed, cradling her injured arm.
"You promised to tell me like it is," she reminded him, as if she didn't believe he would keep his word.
"And I have every intention of doing that."
She nodded and winced at the movement. "Okay. How bad is her face? Will she really be all right?"
"Yes," he said firmly. "Before I get specific you need to know that she will look normal again."
"Thank God," she said, breathing a sigh of relief.