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"Would you take your shirt off, please?"
Under other circumstances—and from just about any other woman—Daniel Galvez might have been tempted to take those words as a rather enticing request.
From Dr. Lauren Maxwell, he knew all too well she meant nothing suggestive—as much as he might wish otherwise.
He sighed, detesting this whole ordeal, even as he knew he had no choice but to comply. His right hand went to the buttons of his uniform and he wrestled them free, uncomfortably aware of her watching him out of those intense blue eyes that seemed to miss nothing.
He had to work hard to hide a wince as he shrugged out of his shirt, mentally bracing himself for the moment she would touch him with those cool fingers.
The pain didn't worry him. He had coped with much worse than a little scratch on the arm. Handling Lauren and the feelings she always stirred up in him was another matter entirely.
She watched him take off his shirt, her eyes veiled as they always seemed to be in his presence, and he wondered what she saw. The dirt–poor Mexican kid on the school bus in the fraying, too–small jeans and the threadbare coat? Or the harsh, hard–as–nails cop she must hate?
Those cool, lovely features didn't reveal even a hint of whatever she might think of him. Just as well, he thought. He had a feeling he was better off not knowing.
"Sorry to come in so late," he said as he pulled his blood–soaked shirt away. "I wouldn't have stopped if I hadn't seen the lights on as I was driving past."
She raised an eyebrow, though her attention remained fixed on his reason for being in her examinationroom of the Moose Springs Medical Clinic. "That's quite a nasty laceration you've got there, Sheriff. What were you going to do about it, if you weren't going to stop here? Stitch it up yourself?"
If he were capable of such a feat, he probably would have tried rather than finding himself in this uncomfortable position. "I figured I would catch a minute to run into the emergency clinic in Park City later."
That was still his preferred option. But since he was missing two deputies this weekend in a department that was already understaffed, he didn't have that luxury.
This was his third night of double shifts and he just couldn't spare the personal leave to drive the half hour to Park City, sit in the emergency clinic there while he waited his turn for a couple hours among all the bangedup skiers and tourists with altitude sickness, then drive a half hour back to Moose Springs.
With the ski season in full swing, Park City in January was crazy anyway—throw in an independent film festival that drew thousands of Hollywood types and their entourages, and he would just about rather chew tire spikes then spend time there if he didn't have to.
Even if that meant baring his chest for Lauren Maxwell. "You know I'm always on call for you and your deputies if you need me," she said. Though her voice was low and polite, he still felt a pinch of reprimand.
She stepped forward, close enough that he could smell the subtle, intoxicating scent of jasmine and vanilla that always seemed to cling to her. She didn't touch him yet, just continued to study the jagged three–inch cut on his upper arm that was beginning to throb like hell.
"How did you say you were injured?"
"Bar fight down at Mickey's. Some joker from out of town got mad when Johnny Baldwin kept playing 'Achy Breaky Heart' on the jukebox."
"Uh–oh. He and Carol are fighting again?"
"Apparently. By about the sixth go–around, the tourist had had enough of Billy Ray and tried to physically prevent Johnny from putting in another quarter."
"I hope you didn't arrest him for that. Sounds like justifiable assault to me."
A muscle twitched in his cheek at her dry tone, though it was taking most of his concentration to keep his mind on the story and away from how incredible it felt to have Lauren Maxwell's hands on him, even in a clinical setting. "Most of the bar probably would have backed the guy up at first. But of course he had to go and push his luck. He went just a bit too far and insulted both Johnny and any woman stupid enough to go out with him in the first place. And of course three of Carol's brothers happened to be sitting at the other end of the bar and they didn't take too kindly to that. By the time I got there, everybody in the place was having a good old time throwing punches and smashing chairs. I was trying to take the tourist into custody, mostly for his own protection, when his buddy came after me with the business end of a broken beer bottle."
He lifted his uninjured shoulder. "Hazard of the job."
"Should I be expecting more casualties?"
"From what I could tell, the damage seemed to be mostly bloody noses and a couple of black eyes. The paramedics showed up just in case but I appeared to get the worst of it."
"I imagine Mickey's not too crazy about having his bar ripped apart."
"You know Mickey. He was right in the middle of it all." She probed the edge of his wound and he couldn't hide a grimace.
"Sorry," she murmured, stepping away. "I'm going to have to clean it up a little before I can put in any stitches. Sit tight while I grab a suture kit and some antiseptic."
The moment she left the room, he huffed out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. Okay, so this hadn't been one of his better ideas. He should have just accepted his fate and driven into Park City, to hell with the jam it would put in his schedule.
Being here alone in the medical clinic with Lauren after hours was far too intimate, much too dangerous for his peace of mind.
He sighed, frustrated once again at this tension that always simmered between them.
It hadn't always been this way, but the events of five years earlier had changed everything. Lauren was still cordial, unfailingly polite, but she didn't treat him with the same warmth she gave everyone else. Every interaction between them seemed awkward and tense.
Though they grew up a few blocks away from each other, they may as well have been on different planets when they were kids. For one thing, she was three years younger. At thirty and thirty–three, now that didn't seem to make much difference. But when he was thirteen and trying his best to find his place in the world, a ten–yearold girl held about as much interest to him as learning the fox–trot.
Beyond that, they had been worlds apart demographically. She had been the smart and beautiful daughter of the town mayor—his dad's boss—and he had been the son of Mexican immigrants who never had enough of anything to go around but love.
He had tried to cross that social divide only once, the year he finished out his football scholarship and graduated from college. He had come home to work construction at her father's company for the summer before starting his police–officer training in the fall and he suddenly couldn't help noticing smart, pretty little Lauren Maxwell had grown into a beautiful college freshman, home for the summer between terms.
One night she had stopped by her father's office at the same time he dropped in after a job to pick up his paycheck. They had talked a little, flirted a little–though in retrospect, that had been one–sided on his part—and he had ended up asking her to dinner.
She had refused him firmly and decisively, almost horror–stricken, leaving him no room at all to maneuver around his abruptly deflated ego.
He could survive a little rejection. Hell, it had probably been good for him, a college jock far too full of himself.
If that had been the end of it, he imagined they could have salvaged at least a casual friendship over the years, especially after they both returned to settle in Moose Springs. She was the town's only doctor and he was the sheriff, so they were bound to interact sometimes.
But what came after had effectively destroyed any chance he had of claiming even that.
There was too much history between them, too many secrets, for anything but this awkwardness.
He wasn't sure how much she knew. Enough, obviously, for her to simmer about it. If she knew the whole truth, she would despise him even more. Somehow that knowledge did nothing to squash the attraction that always seethed under his skin, the edginess he couldn't seem to shake.
The door opened suddenly and she returned carrying a tray of bandages and suture supplies. He must have done a credible job of hiding his thoughts. She gave him a smile that almost looked genuine—until he saw the murkiness in her blue eyes.
"You'll have to sit down so I can reach your arm. You can rest it on this table."
He hesitated only a moment before he sat down where she indicated and thrust out his arm. The cut was jagged and ugly and still stung like hell, but he knew it looked worse than it really was.
Still, he winced when she pulled out a needle to numb the area. He would far rather face a dozen broken beer bottles than a needle. She caught his expression and gave him a reassuring smile. "It will only sting for a minute, I promise."
Feeling foolish and itchy at her nearness, he stoically endured the shot, then the gentle brush of her hands as she washed off the blood with Betadine and went to work stitching him up. He finally had to focus on a painting on the wall of two children on a beach eating ice cream and couldn't help wishing for a little cold refreshment to offset the heat of her fingers touching his skin.
"You're very good at that."
She didn't look up from her careful suturing.
"Thanks. I considered a surgical specialty when I was in med school but I decided I wanted to see more of my patients than their insides."
"Lucky for us, I guess."
She didn't answer and the silence stretched between them. He scrambled around for another topic of conversation and grabbed the first one that came to him.
"How's your mother?"
This time her gaze did flash to his, her expression unreadable. "Good. The warm St. George climate agrees with her. She's become quite a rabid golfer now that she can play all year."
He tried to picture soft and prim Janine Maxwell ripping up the golf course and couldn't quite get a handle on it. But then he never would have pictured Lauren Maxwell choosing to practice in quiet Moose Springs, when she could have gone anywhere else in the world.
Oddly, she seemed to follow his train of thought. "Mom wants me to sell the clinic and open up another one in southern Utah."
He didn't like the sudden panic spurting through him at the thought of her leaving. "Will you?"
Her hair brushed his arm as she shook her head. "Not a chance," she said firmly. "Moose Springs is my home and I'm not going anywhere."
He didn't miss the defiance in her voice and he fully understood the reason for it. Things couldn't always be easy for her here—he knew there were some in town who would rather drive the thirty–five minutes to Park City for their medical care than walk through the doors of any clinic run by the daughter of the town's biggest crook.
The good people of Moose Springs hadn't taken
R. J. Maxwell's embezzlement of more than a million dollars of their hard–earned money very kindly. Even five years after his death, there were those who still carried a pretty hefty grudge.
Most people in town didn't blame the daughter for the father's sins, but he had heard enough whispers and veiled innuendos to know most didn't mean all.A certain percentage of the population wasn't as fair–minded.
If the full story ever emerged, he knew that percentage would probably increase dramatically.