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Shep McGraw hurried to the emergency-room door. In his arms, two-year-old Manuel let out a cry that echoed in the hospital's parking lot.
Tension and worry tightened Shep's chest. He'd been through this before with Manuel's earaches. Thank goodness Dr. Raina Gibson, the boy's ear, nose and throat specialist, had been on call for her practice tonight. He thought about his two other sons, who were with their nanny. They hadn't liked him leaving this late at night.
As Shep rushed through the automatic glass doors, he remembered another fateful E.R. visit many, many years ago. He shoved that out of his mind and hugged Manuel closer.
The woman in charge at the registration desk looked him over—from his tan Stetson to his fine leather boots—and he had to rein in his frustration with red tape. "My name's Shep McGraw. I'm meeting Dr. Gibson here to treat my…son."
"Mr. McGraw, if you'll have a seat—"
Manuel's crying had tapered off slightly, but now he screwed up his cute little round face and howled loud enough to scare his black wavy hair into disarray.
Shep shifted Manuel to his shoulder. "My boy needs someone to look at him now." He was about to add that the Lubbock hospital had all of his information on file, when Dr. Gibson came through a side door and crossed to the desk.
Although Manuel's crying still rent the waiting area, the beautiful doctor's appearance impacted Shep as it always did. Her Native American heritage was attractively obvious in the angles of her cheekbones and chin. Tonight she'd pulled her long black hair back into a low ponytail and clasped it with a beaded barrette. The white coat she wore molded to her long legs as she hurried toward him.
She greeted the woman at the desk as she reached for Manuel. "I'll take him back, Flo."
After patting Manuel's back and making soothing noises that quieted him, she said to Shep, "Give Flo your insurance card so she can put through the paperwork." Then she headed for the door leading to the examination cubicles, motioning him to follow.
Shep took out his insurance card, slapped it onto the desk and followed Raina. He couldn't help but admire her graceful stride, the straightness of her shoulders, even as she held Manuel and headed for the exam room. He had to smile at the sneakers she wore that made her look more like a runner than a doctor.
All was quiet for the moment in this part of the E.R. wing. Manuel's cries had faded to tiny hiccups. Shep felt so sad sometimes for this little boy, who'd been neglected, taken away from his mother and put in a foster home. Shep knew all about foster homes firsthand, though there was no indication the couple who'd cared for Manuel was anything like the foster parents Shep had lived with.
At the door to the exam room, Dr. Gibson paused and waited for Shep to precede her inside. Although Shep considered himself more cowboy than gentleman, he motioned her to go ahead of him. With a small smile and a quick nod, she did. But when she passed him, he caught the scent of lemon and his stomach twisted into a knot, as it did whenever he got too close to her. He didn't get too close to her if he could help it—for lots of very good reasons.
Raina glanced at Shep as she settled Manuel on the gurney. "On the phone you told me this started about an hour ago?"
"Yes. Before I put him in his crib. At first I thought he was just overtired or didn't want to go to bed. But then he started pulling on his ear, so I took his temperature and saw he had a fever."
"I'll take it again," she assured him with quiet efficiency. Her gaze met his. The earth seemed to shake a little and they both quickly looked away.
With coiled energy wound tight inside him, Shep moved to the gurney to hold Manuel. He hadn't intended it, but somehow his hands got tangled up with hers before she pulled them away from the little boy. Their gazes connected again…and this time held. Shep's blood rushed fast, and in that instant, he thought he saw returned interest in the pretty doctor's very dark brown eyes.
A moment later, he guessed he was mistaken. In a small town like Sagebrush, Texas, where they both lived—about fifteen minutes from Lubbock, where this hospital was located—certain people had a higher gossip profile than others. Dr. Gibson was one of them.
He'd asked his nanny, Eva, if she knew any particulars about the doctor, and he still remembered what Eva had said. "Her husband was a firefighter in New York City. He died saving others on September eleventh. Somehow, she picked up her life and finished her schooling, then returned here to be with her family. I can only imagine what she's gone through, and it's not something I ever want to even think about going through."
As Shep studied Raina Gibson now, he saw no signs of a tragic past—unless it had carved those tiny lines under her eyes and fostered the ever-present quiet and calm he sensed about her.
She went to the counter, where she took an ear thermometer from its holder. When she returned to the table, she focused solely on Manuel. "This little guy has been through so much. I feel so sorry for him. Another ear infection is the last thing he needs." She cut Shep a sideways glance. "Or you need. How are Joey and Roy?" She had treated eight-year-old Joey last year for a sinus infection that wouldn't quit.
"They're good. They get upset when Manuel's sick, though. Roy's afraid he'll lose more of his hearing."
Raina studied Manuel's temperature and frowned. "It's one hundred one." Seconds later she was examining the toddler with the otoscope and then her stethoscope. Finally, she gave Shep her verdict. "I don't like the looks of this, Mr. McGraw."
"Shep," he corrected her, not for the first time. After all, Manuel had seen her at least three times over the past six months.
Now she didn't avoid his gaze, but looked him directly in the eyes. That was his first clue he wasn't going to like what she had to say.
That was the second clue. He had the feeling she'd used his first name to soften the blow.
"I'll give you a prescription again for Manuel, to get this cleared up. But I have to recommend that you let me do a procedure to put tubes in his ears. I'm afraid if we don't, he'll lose his hearing altogether."
Before he caught himself, Shep swore. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I just don't want to put him through anything else." He picked up his son from the table, easily lifted him to his shoulder where Manuel snuggled against his collarbone.
Raina's gaze was sympathetic, her voice gentle. "I know what he's dealt with already. But he's in your care now, and I can see that you love him. You have to think beyond the procedure to when he's three or four. You have to do what's best for him long-term."
Shep patted Manuel's back. Finally, he said, "Tell me what's involved."
Taking a few steps closer, Raina stopped within arm's reach. "The surgery's called a myringotomy. I make a tiny incision in the eardrum and any fluid will be removed. Then I'll insert a tympanostomy tube into the drum to keep the middle ear aerated. We'll leave the tubes in from six months to several years."
She was close enough that Shep was aware of her body heat as well as his. "Will he have to have surgery to remove them again?"
Tilting her head, she ran her hand over Manuel's hair then brought her gaze back to Shep. "No. Eventually they'll extrude from the eardrum and fall into the ear canal. I'll be able to remove them during a routine office visit, or they'll just fall out of his ears."
Shep could hardly imagine his small son in this big hospital, with medical personnel caring for him. "And you believe we have to do this?"
"Shep, Manuel has already lost some hearing. You know that from the assessment I did. I'm afraid if we don't do this, he'll have speech problems, too."
"And the downside?"
"I'll give you a sheet of information and you can read about the pros and cons. As often as you're bringing Manuel to me, I don't think you have a choice."
"I hate hearing statements like that," Shep muttered.
Manuel began crying again and Shep rocked him back and forth. "How long will this operation take?" he asked over the baby's heartbreaking distress.
Raina leaned closer to him, as if in empathy…as if she might want to take Manuel into her arms again…as if she hated seeing a child cry.
"Ten to fifteen minutes. It's done on an outpatient basis. Manuel will be given anesthesia. Once he's recovered from that, he can go home. Chances are good he'll feel better right away, because that pressure in his ears will be released. He's been suffering with this for too long. And so have you," she added with an understanding Shep found almost unsettling.
Again, their gazes locked and neither of them seemed to be able to look away. Shep didn't know what was happening to him, but he didn't like it. Every time he stared into those impossibly dark eyes of hers he felt unnerved, and if he was forced to admit it, aroused. That wasn't what he should feel, standing in this cubicle with her while he held Manuel. He should feel grateful…nothing else.
He must have been scowling from here into the next county, and she misinterpreted his expression. "I know you're worried. Every parent worries when anything is wrong with his child. But try to anticipate a positive outcome. Think about Manuel not having any more painful earaches."
"The anesthesia bothers me," he admitted.
"You must trust the doctors here. Give us a chance to help him."
Shep was used to being in control. His history had taught him not to let anyone else run his life…let alone his son's. "How soon do you want to do this?"
"How about next week?"
"You have a housekeeper, right?"
Did she remember this kind of information about all of her patients? "Yes, Eva. She'll be able to take care of Joey and Roy if I'm not home."
Obviously thinking that distracting him for a minute might be a good thing, Raina said, "Roy's and Joey's adoptions are final now, aren't they?"
"Yes, they are."
"I'll be his dad in a few months, if all goes well."
"I admire what you're doing, Mr. McGraw."
"Shep," he reminded her again, suspecting she used his surname to distance herself. Why would she need to distance herself? Could she be as interested in him as he was in her? It had been a long time since he'd wanted to pursue a woman….
"Shep," she repeated, her cheeks coloring a little. "Giving these boys a home is so important. And you obviously care about them a great deal."
"I wouldn't have decided to adopt them if I didn't. The foster-care system—" He shook his head. "It's not like it once was, but it's hard for children to feel loved when they don't know where they'll be sleeping the next night."
After being abandoned by his mother, a series of foster homes, as well as a chief of police, had convinced Shep he wasn't worthy of anyone's love…until a kind rancher named Matt Forester had proven differently. Matt had been Shep's role model and he was determined to give Roy, Joey and Manuel the same leg up in life that Matt had given him and his friend Cruz.
Raina was looking at him thoughtfully, as if there were more to him than she'd ever realized. Her intense gaze made his interest in her reach a new level, and he had to tamp down a sudden urge to touch her face.
He felt warm and uncomfortable, and now just wanted to get the prescription for Manuel and leave.
The doctor cut through the awkwardness between them by suddenly pulling a pamphlet from a stack on the counter and a pad from her pocket. She wrote out the prescription, then handed the papers to him. "Go home and think about the procedure. Look at the pamphlet I've given you. I'll be in my office tomorrow. Call me if you have any questions."
Someone knocked on the door.
Raina went to it and opened it, then returned with a few papers. "You need to sign these before you leave."
As he signed the forms, he tried to make conversation—anything to distract himself from her quiet beauty. "Did you come in just for Manuel, or have you been here all day?"
She gave a shrug. "This has been an exceptionally long day. I had office hours this morning, surgeries this afternoon and a complication that kept me here." At his look, she was quick to assure him, "Not for anyone who had tubes inserted in their ears."
Shep smiled the first smile that had come naturally since he'd entered the emergency room. "You knew I was going to ask."
"You're the type who would."
"You care, Mr. McGraw. You ask questions and you want answers. That's a good type to be when you're a parent." There was admiration in her voice.
"You're going to have to practice using my given name."
Another blush stained her cheeks. "Maybe I will. I'll walk you out."
As they strode side-by-side to the reception area once more, Manuel stilled on Shep's shoulder. He could tell the little boy was almost falling asleep. His crying had exhausted him.
Raina must have seen that, because as they stopped at the entrance to the hallway leading to the pharmacy, she peered around Shep's shoulder at Manuel's face, and then gently patted him on the back. "I imagine he'll get more sleep tonight than you will."
"You probably imagine right."
Standing there like that, staring down into her eyes, Shep felt totally unsettled. His gut tightened, his collar felt tight and he was overcome by a desire to kiss her.
He was absolutely crazy.
A woman like Raina Greystone Gibson wouldn't give a man like him a second look. Her husband had been a hero.
He was no hero…and because of his past, he never would be.
The following Wednesday, Raina hurried to the day-surgery waiting room. Manuel had been her last surgery of the day, and she was eager to bring his father good news. However, when she reached the doorway to the waiting room she stopped cold as her gaze went immediately to an obviously nervous Shep McGraw.
To her dismay, she felt flustered, knowing she was going to have to talk to him again. That was ridiculous! She didn't fluster easily. But something about this tall, lean cowboy got to her, and she couldn't figure out why. Since Clark had died, no man had made her feel much of anything. But then, the way Clark had died probably had something to do with that.