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Jordan Drake watched his daughter moving quickly up the sidewalk to school despite the cane she relied on. Hard to believe Michaela was already in the seventh grade. A now-familiar sadness threatened to overwhelm him. Sandra should be here, sharing this significant milestone in their daughter's life with him. But this was no time for regrets—Sandra wouldn't have wanted that. He had to keep moving forward.
The quiet drive to the hospital always calmed him, and he glanced up now at the rough-hewn mountain peaks, scattered with scrub oak, juniper and sagebrush, that surrounded River's End.
The rural town was plunked down in the middle of some of the prettiest country western Colorado had to offer. With a small population, it was, Jordan had always believed, a good place to raise a child.
But tragedy had found him even here.
Shaking off the thought, he focused on the sun-filled, late-August day. He was sorry he couldn't be outdoors, but he loved his job. Being an E.R. physician at River's End Regional Hospital had its perks. Working three days on, three days off gave him plenty of time to spend with Michaela.
After parking his black Ford Explorer in his designated spot, Jordan headed inside. He'd barely scanned the reports when a patient—a boy Jordan knew to be the best fullback on their high school team—was rushed into the E.R. with a head wound. Typically, it was bleeding profusely.
"His brother hit him with a machete," said the trembling woman hovering over Bruce Wilkins.
"It wasn't a machete, Mom, it was a big knife." The husky kid sighed in exasperation. "And it was an accident. I'm fine." He grinned as Jordan pressed a wad of gauze against the wound with gloved hands. "But I don't know about that lady at the check-in desk. She passed out cold when she saw this." Bruce pointed at his wound.
Shirley? Had to be, Jordan thought. She was the one who usually handled the front desk. But he was surprised to hear she'd fainted. Shirley had worked at the hospital for years and seen all kinds of injuries.
"She did?" Go figure.
"Yep. And she hit her head, too, so you might be puttin' stitches in both of us, Doc. I can wait if you need to stitch her up first."
"You cannot wait!" Donna Wilkins scolded her son. "I'm sure Dr. Drake isn't the only doctor here in the E.R."
"Actually, I am the only physician on hand at the moment, but Dr. Samuels is just finishing his shift. We'll page him if we need to."
Jordan's professional calm hid his concern. Someone needed to see if Shirley was okay.
He was about to duck out quickly to check on the receptionist when a wheelchair rolled into the adjoining exam room, which was partitioned off by a curtain.
Jordan couldn't see the patient, but he heard her protests over the squeak of the chair's rubber wheels.
"This is ridiculous. I'm fine, really."
"We'll let Dr. Drake be the judge of that," Molly Parker said. She'd been a nurse at River's End Regional for as long as Jordan could remember. "Now get yourself up there on that exam table, Missy, and I'll see where the doc's at."
If any more people came into the E.R., he'd definitely have to have Dr. Samuels paged.
"I'm here," Jordan said. He parted the curtain enough to look discreetly through the opening.
A petite woman with short, blond hair was in the process of exiting the wheelchair.
"Is Shirley all right?" Jordan asked. "We'll need to page Dr. Samuels, Molly, to check on her."
The nurse gave him a strange look. "Shirley's fine—why?"
"I don't need a doctor at all," the blond woman protested as she reluctantly climbed onto the exam table under Molly's watchful eye. Gingerly, she touched the goose egg Jordan spotted on her forehead. "It's just a bump."
"You hit the corner of the desk and lost consciousness," Molly said firmly. "But I think you can wait while the doctor stitches Bruce up, right, Dr. Drake? Or do you want me to page Dr. Samuels?" She looked as confused as Jordan felt.
He frowned. "I thought it was Shirley who hit her head."
"No, no," Molly said, her mop of dark curls bobbing as she shook her own head. "Dr. Drake, meet Darci Taylor, our new receptionist. Shirley's training her to replace Tiffany."
Who had gone into early labor yesterday afternoon. Now everything fell into place.
"Jordan Drake," he said. "You must be from the temp service." He held out his hand and the woman placed hers in it. She had a soft palm, but a surprisingly strong grip, and the bluest eyes he'd ever seen. The scent of vanilla perfume wafted his way, subtle and pleasant.
"That's right," she said. "Nice to meet you. Are you any relation to Dr. Nina Drake?"
"She's my sister." The psychologist of the family. He wondered how Darci Taylor knew Nina. Was she a patient?
Making a quick assessment of her head injury, Jordan nodded. "This can wait a few moments if you don't mind."
"Not at all. Please—take care of that young man." She gestured toward the curtained partition, looking pale again.
"I'll be with you as soon as I can, Darci." Her name rolled over his tongue like candy. She was suntanned and pretty—her petite figure all curves beneath the floral-print skirt and silky T-shirt she wore. How on earth had he missed her?
Whoa. What was wrong with him? He saw female patients every day, many of them as pretty or prettier than Darci Taylor.
But none with eyes that blue.
Darci felt like a complete idiot. Her first day—Lord, her first few minutes—on the job, and she'd fainted like some Victorian lady. When she'd accepted the position at the hospital through the temp agency, she'd somehow never connected working at a reception desk with seeing blood. Duh.
This was the emergency department, and she'd better get her act together in a happy hurry if she intended to keep the position. Her part-time job giving riding lessons on her aunt and uncle's ranch wasn't nearly enough to pay the bills.
Being a single mother wasn't easy, and this last year had been hell, but she'd managed to get through it.
Darci shifted farther back on the exam table, waiting her turn. It was impossible not to eavesdrop on Dr. Jordan Drake in the adjoining area. His deep voice was calm and patient as he tended to the boy who'd been brought in with the head wound. And then he laughed at something Bruce Wilkins said, and tiny goose bumps danced along her arms and neck.
The man had seemed so serious—she wondered what it took to make Dr. Cowboy Boots laugh.
Now where had that thought come from? Through a slit in the adjoining curtain, she couldn't help but steal a peek at the doctor. He didn't look much older than her own thirty-four—and met the old cliché standard of tall, dark and handsome.
But what sort of doctor wore jeans and cowboy boots with his scrub top? He looked more like a veterinarian who specialized in large animals. Well…River's End was a tiny ranching community. Maybe the guy treated both humans and livestock.
Darci's head throbbed, the bump feeling more like a cantaloupe than a goose egg. But she couldn't afford to take any time off work.
She'd combined two part-time jobs in Northglenn, outside of Denver, before moving here with Chris. Working for a temp service, and the twenty-plus hours a week she'd put in at a local stable afforded her the means to take care of her thirteen-year-old son and she hoped to do the same thing in River's End.
She planned to work extra hard for Aunt Stella and Uncle Leon. They were the only people who hadn't turned their backs on her and Chris when her son had committed a crime most people weren't willing to look past.
Shaking off the black thoughts, Darci let her mind drift back to handsome Dr. Drake. She couldn't resist sneaking another peek through the curtain at those Western boots and jeans he wore. Professional though he was, he still looked pretty hot in them. Definitely cowboy casual.
The only thing that ruined his cowboy image, was his smooth hands. It had felt so good when she'd shaken hands with him.
His hair, straight and thick and dark as his espresso eyes, was just long enough to brush the top of his collar. Her fingers itched to touch it.
What was wrong with her? Darci gave herself a mental kick, remembering that she had more serious things to take care of in her life right now. She didn't have time for good-looking doctors.
Dr. Cowboy Boots? the imp in the back of her mind teased.
Not even him, Darci thought, wondering if the bump on her head had affected her thinking. Still, she tried to imagine what Jordan's face had looked like just now when he laughed. But all she could picture were those dark eyes.
The curtain parted and Darci nearly yelped.
"So you've got quite the bump there," Jordan said as he moved toward her, chart in hand.
His professional voice was gentle, caring, and yet oh, so sexy.
"I—I skipped breakfast and felt a little dizzy," she said, unwilling to admit she'd flat-out fainted. She could have eaten the Grand Slam breakfast at the local Denny's and she still would've passed out at the sight of Bruce Wilkins's gaping head wound.
"Mmm-hmm." Jordan laid down the clipboard, lathered his hands to the elbows at the nearby sink, then snapped on a fresh pair of gloves before stepping up beside her.
Was he going to touch her?
Of course he was. He was a doctor after all. He could hardly examine her head from across the room. But right now Darci could use a little distance between them. The antiseptic smell of the hospital was overpowered by Jordan's own clean scent. Soap, pure male and…what else? Words like woodsy and musky came to mind, but that wasn't right either. Jordan didn't strike her as the musky type.
No. His scent was more like fresh squeezed limes and—
Tequila, the imp prompted, inspiring images of body shots and salt and…good grief, she'd hit her head all right! And lost her mind in the process.
Jordan frowned in concentration and gently touched the lump on her forehead.
"Tender?" he asked.
Darci winced. "Very."
She felt raw and vulnerable sitting there with his wonderful, strong and capable hands on her…and aching for more.
It had been way too long since she'd enjoyed a man's touch, or even a simple date for that matter. The threats Christopher had made at his former school in Northglenn had taken over their lives, consumed Darci day and night for the past several months.
"Looks like you could use a couple of stitches," Jordan said, jarring her from her thoughts. "Or maybe we can put some butterfly clamps on the laceration. Less scarring that way."
"Sounds good," Darci said. She tried not to flinch as he tended to her wound.
"There, that should do it. Don't get it wet for a few days, and let me know if you notice any heat or further swelling. If the pain gets bad, take some Tylenol."
"What—not two aspirin and call you in the morning?" Darci blamed her head injury on the lame quip. Just because he'd eyeballed her a little when she'd first come in…or had he? Maybe she'd imagined it. But it didn't matter anyway. Just didn't mean a thing. For all she knew there was a Mrs. Cowboy Boots in the picture.
So why couldn't she quiet that damned imp in her head?
Jordan studied her as he peeled off his gloves, then reached for a pen and notepad. He scribbled something, and Darci spoke quickly. "I don't need a prescription. It doesn't hurt that bad."
He handed over the scrap of paper and Darci looked at it and nearly choked. He'd jotted down a pair of phone numbers in a neat, looping scrawl unlike the stereotypical hard-to-read doctor's handwriting.
"Call me if you have any complications—excessive headache, vomiting, that sort of thing," he said. "Either Dr. Samuels or I will be on call."
"Thanks." Darci folded the slip of paper and put it in her purse.
She could've looked up the hospital number in the phone book. Had he given her his home number?
Don't be silly.
Maybe she could ask him to write out a prescription for her after all. One for a woman who'd been too long without a date. An anti-man drug. Maybe an antihista-mine. Inwardly she snickered at her own lame humor.
Lord, she'd had no idea a head injury could turn her into a ditz.
Jordan put his key in the front-door lock and opened the dead bolt. What had he been thinking? There was no reason to have given Darci Taylor his home phone number in addition to the one at the hospital. At least it wasn't his cell. He didn't need to be bothered day and night with minor medical emergencies.
But then, she probably wasn't the type to do that anyway. Darci seemed like a strong, confident woman who took matters into her own hands.
You want her to call.
The voice inside his head taunted him as he deactivated the alarm and called out to Michaela that he was home.
Darci had looked vulnerable as she sat in the exam room with a head injury, though. She obviously wasn't cut out to work in the E.R. admittance. Maybe she'd get a job elsewhere and then he could stop thinking about her.
Besides—he hadn't been interested in a woman since Sandra had died. No point in starting now.
"Mac!" he called again, using the nickname his daughter preferred.
"In the kitchen, Dad."
She was at the table, eating a frozen yogurt and working on her laptop. The way her head was tilted, with her long, light brown hair caught up in a ponytail, she looked so much like her mother.
Jordan's chest tightened.
"Is that homework?" She was allowed online, but with limited access.
He had to protect his daughter.
Michaela nodded. "I'm writing a report on the opening chapter of a book we're reading." She rolled her eyes. "Why do teachers always make us read boring things instead of something we'd actually like?"
"Good question." He bent and kissed the top of her head. "One that kids asked even in my generation."
"They had books back then?"
"Very funny. What's this?" He picked up a piece of paper from the countertop. A flyer about parent-teacher meetings and an open house being held at the school a week from Tuesday.