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Luke Williams had been operating since dawn. All he wanted was bed. Instead he was coping with stinking tallow, teenage hysteria and the director of surgery and the representative of the founders of this hospital thinking pistols at dawn.
'You said multiple burns. Four children. I've spent most of the night with a kid with a collapsed lung, and you wake me for this '
Luke's boss, Finn Kennedy, the taciturn head of surgery at Sydney Harbour Hospital, was practically rigid with fury, but Dr Evie Lockheart, emergency physician, was giving it right back.
'I was told four children fell into a vat of boiling tallow from the meatworks. You think that's not worth getting you and Luke down here? I wanted the best.'
'Luke has other things to do as well. Like sleeping. And boiling? It must have been barely warm. You should have checked.'
'And waste precious time? Pull your head in, Kennedy.'
Luke sucked his breath in at that. These guys were powerhouses in this hospital. Evie Lockheart, of En-dowing-the-Hospital-with-Serious-Money Lockheart fame, and Finn Kennedy, the Do-Not-Cross Director of Surgery, had personalities to match their egos. Powerful intellects, serious commitment, serious conflict. Conflict getting worse.
Could he back away?
School holidays. A meat-processing operation out in the suburbs, with inadequate security. Four teen-aged boys, fifteen or sixteen, egging each other to walk the plankon rollerblades!over a two-thousand-gallon vat of tallow being rendered down.
They were lucky the heat had only just been turned on. They'd fallen into the equivalent of a bath that was a bit too hot.
Through the office window, the kids and their frightened parents looked a pool of misery. The stench was unbelievable, but it could have been much worse. A pert little blonde nurse was swabbing tallow from one kid's legs, exposing only minor scalding.
He couldn't leave, he decided, not until things had calmed down. Meanwhile he had a choice. Join in the fight. Look at the kids. Look at the nurse.
This was a no-brainer.
The woman was cute, he thought, even in her ER scrubs. Her blonde curls were wisping from under her cap. As he watched, she tucked them back in, and then glanced through the window.
He caught her gaze and saw laughter, quickly suppressed.
She'd be seeing the conflict, he thought, even if she couldn't hear it. Was she laughing at these two? Not a good idea, he told her silently. Laughter would be really unwise right now, even for him, and he'd been working here for nearly ten years. He foughtquite hardthe urge to smile back.
He also fought the urge to hold his nose. This stink was permeating the whole floor.
'The gastro outbreak has given us nursing shortages through the whole hospital,' Evie was snapping. 'I didn't have the nursing staff to clean and check each of these boys before calling you. Possible burns, possible major trauma, it's my job to call for backup.'
'They're not traumatised,' Finn snapped back.
But they were, Luke conceded, looking through at the very-sorry-for-themselves kids. It looked to him like their parents had initially been terrified and then expressed shock in the form of anger. He'd seen it time and time again in this job, fright finding vent in fury.
A couple of the kids had been crying. Tough teenage boys, scalded and scared They should do a bit of reassuring.
But first he needed to defuse the battle of the Titans. How to stop World War III without accidentally escalating it?
'You think your power gives you the right ' Finn Williams was growling to the Lockheart heiress.
Luke gave an inward groan and thought, Here we go.
The little blonde nurse had disappeared into the storeroom. Good idea, he thought. Could he follow?
Not so much. Finn was his direct boss. Evie was the granddaughter of the founder of this place.
If he valued his job he needed to stick around while these power-mongers tore each other's throats out.
In truth he wasn't so worried about his job. As head of the plastic surgery team at the Harbour his credentials made him pretty much unsackable. But as well as being his boss, Finn was also his friend, or as much of a friend as either of them wanted. The last few weeks, he'd watched Finn's perennially short fuse grow even shorter.
Finn and Evie had sparked off each other from the moment they'd met. As a junior doctor, Evie had dared query one of Finn's decisions. She'd been wrong, she'd apologised, but Finn had mocked her family's right to power, and their relationship had been.. interesting ever since. But now, even for Finn, his anger was over the top.
It was messing with staff morale. It was also worrying, and Luke didn't like being worried. Luke Williams was a man who held himself apart. He didn't get close to people.
He was worrying now about his friend.
And through the window.
He hadn't seen this nurse before.
Pretty. Great eyes. They were a blue that made you feel like diving into clear, sunlit water on a hot day. It must be her first night on the job, he decided. He would have noticed those eyes.
Where was she?
Maybe she'd gone to get a hose.
'There may well be second- or third-degree burns under that mess,' Evie was saying, almost hissing her anger.
'There's no sign of shock. All they need is a good wash.'
'And then assessment,' Evie snapped. 'So then I'll call you back?'
'You won't need to call us back. I'm guessing first-degree burns at worst.'
'Could we find out?
It was Blue Eyes, out of the storeroom, popping into their private war with her arms full of plastic. 'Sorry,' she said, blithely, as if she hadn't noticed any anger. 'I know it's not my place but I've spent the last couple of years working in a country hospital where all staff step in at need. I'm thinking we have four kids here, and four medics if you count me. How about we all put on protective gear, get each of these guys in a shower cubicle and do an individual check for any burn that needs attention? Split up the work from there.'
Whoa. Luke's jaw practically hit his ankles. Did she know who she had here? Only three of Sydney Harbour Hospital's most influential doctors. Head of Surgery. Head of Plastics. Member of the Lockheart family.
She wasn't wearing the Harbour uniform. She was an agency nurse?
She was holding out the protective gear as if she was expecting them to take it.
But What choice did they have? There were no nurses spare. The gastro outbreak had badly affected the hospital, plus there'd been a brawl early in the night; he'd seen it on his way off duty. Drunk casualties. That meant intensive nursing, guys who'd been stitched up but who were still affected by alcohol.
So Evie had been left with one lone nurse and four filthy kids with possible burns. An emergency department full of hysterical patients, parents and stink. No wonder she'd called for help, even if she'd called for help a bit high up the food chain.
Maybe the nurse was right, this was the fastest solution. And, besides, those eyes.
'I'll take the beefy one with the scowl,' he said, taking a set of waterproof gear.
Evie gazed at him, speechless. 'You '
'You called me,' he said mildly. 'I assume you need me.' He grabbed another waterproof set and tossed it to Finn. 'It'll do us good,' he said. 'Bit of stress release. You want to take the little guy with freckles?'
Finn caught the waterproofs. Looked flabbergasted.
'I'll do the skinny one,' Blue Eyes said, and handed the last set of overalls to Evie.
There was a moment's pregnant pause. Very pregnant.
Blue Eyes calmly hauled on her waterproofs, then bent and started putting on boots.
She had wispy blonde curls on the back of her neck, Luke thought. Cute. Really cute.
Was that the reason he hauled on boots as well?
No. This was sensible. He didn't succumb to testosterone when it came to cute, not any more, but this place was clogged with stinking kids. They all needed checking, there were no nurses free and this way. Blue Eyes had it right, in the time they spent arguing they could get them checked and out of here.
'I'll ring the cleaning staff and tell them we need this place cleared while we're showering,' Blue Eyes said, now clad all in waterproofs. She tugged open the door, allowing contact between doctors and patients. Before she even had Finn's okay.
'Ross, you go with Dr Williams, Robbie, you're with Dr Lockheart, Craig, you're with Mr Kennedy and, Jason, you're with me,' she said. She turned to the parents. 'Could you leave the kids with us? They're in the best of hands; we have the most senior doctors in the hospital working with them. We'll clean them, check there are no problem burns and then get them back to you. Maybe you could find an all-night supermarket and pick up some loose clothes. Is that okay with everyone?'
But before they could answer they were interrupted. 'Excuse me ' The night receptionist edged into the emergency area like a scared rabbit. Of course she was nervous, Luke thought. Everyone in this hospital was nervous around Finn Kennedy, and for good reason. 'The police are here,' she ventured, and before she could say more two cops pushed past her.
Uh-oh. They hadn't realised, Luke thought with grim humour, that they'd just entered Finn Kennedy territory. Facing gun-toting drug dealers might be safer.