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No. It couldn't be. Daniel rubbed his eyes and tried to deny the highly sensual sight that faced him. But when he looked again, Lace McGee still filled his vision.
It had been a long endless shift, in an even longer endless day. Now it was nearly nine o'clock. Time for him to go home. Though the emergency room still roared with chaos, his brain felt numb, his body dulled with fatigue. He wanted to walk out the sliding-glass doors and to his car, but there she stood, blocking the way by her mere presence. Just the sight of her seemed taunting and tempting. She was a thorn in his side, a pain in the butt…Hell, there didn't seem to be a single part of his anatomy that Lace didn't bother in one way or another.
He would simply ignore her, he decided. He stepped away from the front desk and waved goodbye to a group of nurses who hustled past, sending him spoony sidelong glances. They were ever persistent, but gently so, with discretion, respecting his wishes as a bachelor to remain a bachelor. Not like Lace, who forced her way into his thoughts whether he wanted her there or not. She didn't like it when he tried to ignore her—as if any man actually could. She was too damned intrinsically female, too…noticeable.
He didn't mean to, but he glanced at her again, and then he couldn't look away. His palms began to sweat. His glasses fogged.
The cold evening wind sent her dark cloak swirling as white snow blew in behind her, making her entrance seem dramatically staged. Was she here to harass him again, to tease him until his body warred with his brain and his resolve crumbled? His heartbeat quickened as it always did, even as his customary scowl fell into place. He would not let her win.
Then she stepped farther inside and the doors whispered shut behind her.
Without the winter night as a backdrop, he realized Lace wasn't standing as tall as usual. Her face seemed pale rather than radiant, her white-blond hair looked bedraggled, and as he looked lower, he saw a large tear in her black slacks and blood covering her leg. His heart gave a painful lurch at the sight of that slim pale leg, and he jerked out of his stupor. A nurse had already reached her by the time Daniel roared up to her side.
"What the hell happened?"
The nurse looked startled, but Lace only gave him her patented killer grin, though it didn't measure up to her usual knock-him-on-his-can standard. "Hello there, Danny." Her gaze skimmed his face, then his body, and her voice lowered to a husky whisper. "My, you're looking in fine form today."
She deliberately threw him with ridiculous compliments, and he always allowed himself to be thrown, damn her. But not this time. Not with her so obviously hurt. He took her arm to steady her, then reached to lift her cloak and look behind her where most of the damage seemed to be. She slapped at his hands, but his determination overrode her efforts.
He dropped the cape and in a softer, more controlled tone asked, "What happened, Lace?"
She leaned into him—which he expected since that was another of her ploys to drive him insane. This time he didn't step away from her, but held her a little closer. Her body felt warm and soft against his. When she looked up at him, her expression was serious rather than flirtatious. He didn't like it; this wasn't the Lace he was used to.
Lace didn't seem to notice. "I got bit. By a big stupid neighbor's dog."
She looked shaken and he said easily, offering her more support, "The neighbor is big and stupid, or the dog is?"
Without missing a beat, he turned to the nurse. "Notify the police and health authorities, then join us." She nodded and hurried away. Daniel's gaze came back to Lace. Damn, but he didn't want to feel concern for her. He didn't want to feel anything. He didn't even like the woman.
He merely lusted her.
Her pants were a mess, shredded from just above the back upper thigh, to the front of her right knee. Another nurse had hurried forward with a wheelchair, but Daniel waved her away. "I don't think she can sit." Then to Lace, "Should we get a stretcher, or can you make it to a room?"
Her beautiful eyes narrowed. "I can make it."
He recognized that stubborn set to her jaw. It was the same stubborn look she wore whenever she wanted him to see things her way, which was usually whenever she got around him. And because she was his sister's best friend and they were a close family, that seemed to be more often than not lately. Which explained why he was slowly—and painfully—going crazy.
With his arm around her narrow waist, and his other hand supporting her elbow, he took her to the first empty examining room he found. "Where, exactly, did you get bit?" He had to control his tone with an effort. The idea of an animal attacking her made his gut clench and his heart pound. He didn't like her, didn't approve of her, but she was a delicate woman, more feminine than any he'd ever known. The thought of her soft flesh being torn by sharp teeth was obscene.
Amazingly, her cheeks colored and she looked away. "In the butt."
Daniel knew embarrassment when he saw it, but he'd never have expected it of Lace. Good grief, the woman was a sex therapist, renowned for her books on sexual enlightenment and her late-night radio talk show. A self-professed expert on male/female relationships, she talked openly and without hesitation about every private subject known to man. Of course, as a doctor, he'd known plenty of other therapists. But Lace was different. She was certainly no Dr. Joyce Brothers.
So surely being bitten in a less than auspicious place couldn't be what bothered her. Daniel didn't even try to understand her. He'd done that numerous times, and it only raised his blood pressure and gave him a headache.
Exasperated with himself, he took off his glasses to polish them on a sleeve, giving himself a moment to think. "Tell me what happened."
"I had just come in from a late appointment—"
"An appointment, huh?" He shoved his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose.
"Get your brain out of the gutter, Doctor. Or was it your libido that went slumming there?"
He scowled. She always had some smart remark that thoroughly outdid his own, and she never explained herself. Not that he really expected her to, but still…
"I put my purse away then went down to the lobby to check the mail. And somehow a cat had gotten into the building. It ran behind me, the neighbor's dog tried to go through me and, like an idiot, I turned to see if the cat was all right, giving the mutt a prime target. But he'd never acted aggressive before, so I didn't really consider that he'd bite me."
"Damn. Hold still."
"No." She twisted around to stare at him, and panic edged her tone. "What are you doing?"
"Cutting these pants off you so we can see the damage."
"We?" There was so much nervous sarcasm in her voice, he almost hesitated. "Are you using the royal vernacular now? Because you're the only one looking. I sure as certain can't see a thing."
"Hush, Lace. The nurse will be right back."
"I don't want to hush!" Her voice rose to a squeak as he peeled the bloody pants away. "I demand a different doctor!"
"Well, you've got me." Daniel winced at the damage done to her beautiful skin. Whatever color her panties had once been, they were now stained dark by Lace's blood. The dog's teeth had punctured several places, and then actually torn through her skin, probably when she pulled away. He carefully swabbed at the blood, making certain to wipe away from the wound. His hand shook and he hated himself for it. He'd seen plenty of female bottoms, but none had been hers. Of course, all those nights when he'd dreamed of being this close to her bare, perfectly rounded backside, Lace had been beside herself with desire—only for him. She most certainly hadn't been in pain.
He swabbed at a particularly vicious tear and Lace howled.
Daniel spared her a glance, but his attention remained on caring for her. Past grievances seemed to drift away. Seeing her hurt made him hurt, as well. But she was his sister's best friend, so he reasoned that was acceptable.
"Shh. I know it stings. And you're definitely going to need stitches. The wound is too large to leave open, especially over a stress point like this."
"Damn you, Daniel, stop looking at me!"
"I have to look at you to assess the damage. Whatever modesty you're trying to protect is still intact, I assure you."
"I want a plastic surgeon!"
That gave him pause. "Lace, the scarring will be minimal, and being where it's located, it won't even be seen by the…casual…observer."
He ran out of words and his insides twisted. "Surely it's not that big a deal. Even the briefest bathing suit will cover it. But then, that's not the issue here, is it?" He watched her face, keeping his own expression carefully impassive. "It would be awkward, but I imagine if two lovers were very creative, the scar might be seen. How often do you intend to be displaying this part of your anatomy for male appreciation, Lace?"
She'd gasped with his first words and now her color rose. "That's certainly none of your business, you damned lecher!"
The nurse walked in and came to a dead stop at Lace's accusing tone. To Daniel's relief, Lace snapped her teeth together and held back any further barrage of outrage. She turned her face away, crossing her arms over her head, and Daniel imagined her stubborn little nose pressed hard against the stiff, cloth-covered table.
He tried for patience—which always seemed in short supply whenever Lace McGee came around. She had a knack for bringing out the worst in him, and he hated himself for allowing her that advantage. He'd learned control long ago; he'd become a master at hiding his feelings and taking care of business because it had been vital to do so. After his mother had died and his father had fallen apart, someone had needed to see to his younger brother and sister. Daniel had elected himself.
But years of self-training and rigid discipline seemed to melt away whenever this particular woman showed up. He took a deep breath and nodded to the nurse.
"Finish getting her pants off so we can make sure there's no other bites. I'll be back in just a minute."
Lace made a choking sound at his order, but kept her thoughts, and her words, to herself. Just as well, he decided, because objections in this case wouldn't have done her any good. He was a doctor, now her doctor, whether she liked it or not.
He stepped out of the room and collapsed against the wall beside the door. The fatigue had left him. He felt wide-awake, charged, full of determination and renewed purpose, and the reason didn't sit well with him at all.
She was a liberal—a sinfully enticing, sexy liberal and a horrible influence on his sister Annie. After twenty-five years of being a sweet-natured tomboy, Annie was suddenly stubborn and willful and more often than not when he saw her, she looked too…female, too…
His brain shied away from the word sexy when applied to the sister he'd practically raised on his own.
But he knew it was true. Annie now attracted men in droves, and he didn't like it. But Annie did. Just recently, Annie had gotten pulled into a melee when a brawl had erupted at a local singles' bar. She'd been picked up by the police. Before that, she'd never even been in a bar. He still didn't know what the hell she'd been doing there.
But he did know that it was somehow Lace's fault. She'd turned his sister in a willful femme fatale and she'd affected his libido to such a degree he didn't recognize himself anymore. Hell, she could probably adversely affect the morals of the whole human race with her candid, brassy way. She talked openly of sex, flirted with him outrageously simply to provoke him, and dressed for effect. She enjoyed making him squirm. They were opposites in every way, and she loved driving that fact home whenever it would make him most uncomfortable.
But what she didn't realize was that he'd become addicted to her unique form of torture. After all, he was a man, and he couldn't help reacting to her as such. When she wasn't around, he thought of her, dreamed of her. Yes, he disapproved of the lifestyle she led. As a rational, intelligent, responsible man, he abhorred sexual promiscuity—yet she epitomized that standard with her every breath. When he allowed common sense to guide him, he disliked her immensely.
But that didn't keep him from wanting her. Of all the women in all the world, he wanted Lace McGee so badly he could no longer sleep at night. He burned with wanting her, and resistance became more difficult every day.
And now, for the first time in his life, he hadn't been able to remain totally detached when treating a patient. With the very fiber of his being, he'd been aware of touching Lace, seeing Lace, worrying for Lace. That fact struck at the bone of his professional pride. He should get away from her now, while he still had his integrity.
But he'd be damned if he'd let anyone else in there with her.
Lace wished she could hide somewhere, anywhere. Under a mossy rock would do just fine. Of all the doctors to be on call tonight, why did Daniel have to be the one to see her first? And why, when he so obviously disdained everything about her, did he insist on taking care of her? If he knew the depths of mortification she suffered by the circumstances, he'd be more than a little amused. The damn Neanderthal. The damn gorgeous, uptight, prudish Neanderthal.
Lace tightened her fingers in her hair and winced when the nurse tugged her slim-fitting slacks over her backside. "So, you and Dr. Sawyers know each other?"
That almost brought a grin. Here she was in the most ignominious position of her entire twenty-seven years, and the nurse displayed signs of jealousy. Lace knew the gossip would be all over the hospital in short order, but at the moment, she didn't care. She lifted her head to face the nurse and noted that she was a pretty woman, young and dark-eyed. Lace narrowed her gaze. "Dan is my best friend's brother." And a totally obnoxious fellow.
"Dr. Sawyers prefers to be called Daniel."
Lace dropped her head back onto the table. "Yeah, well, I prefer to annoy him. So I call him a variety of things."
"Then you two aren't…involved?"