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She'd done it. She'd sold Dr. Jason Drake's reputation for three million dollars and a closed case.
As Director of Diagnostics, Dr. Stephanie Mont-clair had agreed to pay off the family's wrongful death claim, with Dr. Jason Drake's name on the line as the attending physician and no fault levied against Sheffield Memorial hospital.
"We all tried our best to keep that precious little boy alive. Dr. Drake stayed up here three days straight trying to save little Isaac," Stephanie offered in token protest to the ring of lawyers that surrounded her desk.
"You're doing the right thing," the chief legal counselor reassured her. "A good prosecuting attorney would have a judge and jury in tears inside three minutes flat. Even if we were to win the suit in the end, Sheffield Memorial can't risk the prolonged negative publicity. And if Dr. Drake is called to the stand, with his brash manner, we can't predict how he'll come across."
Reluctantly, Stephanie agreed. Jason was a great doctorone of the bestbut he'd never seen the need to sugarcoat his words.
"There has to be a better way. Sanction me instead."
"Not an option, Dr. Montclair. The board would never approve it, and rightly so," one of the lawyers said. "That move could put the whole department in jeopardy."
The case had been heartbreaking. In conjunction with Diagnostics, Sheffield's Neonatal Unit had tried scores of unorthodox methods to keep the premature infant alive, many of them beyond the edge of convention, only to have the grieving parents lash out at the hospital to try to ease their pain.
That little Isaac's parents were high-profile celebrities hadn't helped. The grief-stricken couple had threatened to call in every publicity connection they had if Sheffield Memorial didn't take action against the culprit who'd killed their baby.
Stephanie could understand the parents' anguish. Although she'd only known about her own baby a few short weeks, the thought of losing that tiny life inside her sent heavy waves of dread through her heart.
Still, she and the lawyers couldn't make them understand there was nothing Jason or anyone else could have done better.
And now the hospital's reputation was in danger. As a small, private research and teaching hospital, Sheffield Memorial kept its doors open only through grants and goodwill.
Dr. Wilkins chimed in. "Stephanie, the board recommendation to name Dr. Drake in the lawsuit is the least harmful action we can take for the greater good. Dr. Drake might have his shortcomings, but he's one of the top diagnostic physicians in the world. His stellar professional standing can take the hit with no lasting, detrimental effect. That's why we shell out the big bucks for his malpractice insurance."
Not only was Wilkins the board's treasurer, he was a family friend who had attended her christening. He knew her Achilles' heel.
"We've already seen a drop in patient referrals. A messy court case along with a star-studded media circus would call our accreditations into question and jeopardize critical funding. We would have to turn away sick children who need us."
Before she could waver, she signed on the dotted line. Each of the hospital's team of lawyers stood and shook her hand, sealing the deal. She would be washing that hand as soon as possible.
As they left her office, Dr. Wilkins hung back from the others. "The board and I were worried you'd let your personal relationship with Dr. Drake influence your decision. They will be pleased to learn you had no qualms about putting Sheffield Memorial first."
Stephanie clearly heard the unspoken threat behind his words, despite the fact the hospital was named after her maternal great-grandfather.
Doctors ran on both sides of the family. Her mother was a cardiologist. Her father an endocrinologist.
Both sat on the hospital board. Although if a newcomer had suggested Stephanie had been appointed to her current position of Director of Pediatric Diagnostics because of who she was, instead of what she did, she hoped any of the hospital personnel would be quick to disabuse them. Stephanie worked day and night to be twice as competent as any other department head and prove she'd earned her position.
Then again, those who knew her staff didn't envy her. She was the only department head who could handle Jason Drake.
"Tell them not to worry. I would never put the hospital at risk for personal reasons." She hesitated to add more, but everyone on the Diagnostics floor already knew anyway. "Dr. Drake and I aren't together anymore."
"The board will be glad to hear it." Whether that was a comment on her loyalty to the hospital or her relationship with Dr. Drake or both, Stephanie didn't know. She only knew that, even though she'd effectively besmirched and betrayed Jason, she had made the right decision. So why did it feel so wrong?
Her stomach lurched, as if her baby were protesting Mommy's ill treatment of Daddy. Yes, the deal she'd finagled left a very sour taste in her mouth.
Outside the patient's open door, Stephanie stopped to gather her thoughts. She could see that Jason was already inside the room.
In accordance with the terms of the settlement, Stephanie would sit in on this case and every other case Jason picked up for the next six months. It was a mixed blessing that the bad publicity they'd already received had resulted in fewer patients checking into Sheffield Memorial. She wasn't sure how she would have handled the extra duties along with her normal responsibilities. But at least the morning sickness was letting up now.
Her involvement in his cases hadn't been an issue in the past. In fact, even though her administrative duties had limited her patient load, Jason had always invited her in on cases he'd thought would interest her. Hopefully he would continue to welcome her after he learned of the lawsuit.
As he paid little attention to any hospital business outside of medicine, she was counting on him shrugging off the deal as a necessary evil and continuing on as normal.
Only with the compromises she'd had to make it wouldn't be quite as normal as she would have liked, though she would try to make it as painless as possible for both of them.
As usual, Jason wore scrubs, although the other diagnosticians wore business attire and lab coats. On his six-feet-four frame the drawstring pants and boxy shirt took nothing away from his lean build, kept hard with hiking and white-water rafting.
He needed a haircut. His spiky dark blond hair went out of control almost as fast as his mouth did. How many times had she finger-combed those strands into place after making love?
One too many, apparently.
Originally they had agreed to keep it casual. She had avoided relationships in the past, not wanting to take her focus off her climb up the medical ladder, but Jason Drake had seemed perfect. Remote. Stoic. Yet highly sensual and with no strings attached. Perfect for her first intentionally cavalier relationship.
When Jason had seemed reluctant to talk about himself, his roots, his past, his reticence had only helped her stay detachedat least that was what she'd told herself. She had gotten exactly what she'd thought she wanted. But now she couldn't stop herself from wanting more.
She'd thought something special was developing between them, but now she understood she'd mistaken sexual attraction for an emotional connection.
No, she'd never meant to fall for him. He certainly hadn't made the same mistake with her. Jason didn't do emotions.
Now she was certain they had no future together. Not even for the sake of the baby. They might have if he'd bothered to show up for dinner that night, but she'd not been important enough to derail his plansagain.
At three and a half months, she would be showing soon. She should try again to tell Jason about the baby. He had a right to know, even if she didn't expect anything from him.
If only he were daddy material.
Damn. He hated these cases.
The little dark-haired girl wasn't quite four yet. She had big brown eyes that looked up to him to make her feel better.
He flipped through her chart, noting all the tests she'd gone through. The kid had been poked by more needles than a porcupine had. She couldn't understand.
Stay objective. Sympathy doesn't fix anyone.
First the baby boy, Isaac, and now this little girl was really getting to him. He was going soft. It didn't help that this was the anniversary of his brother's deathwhich should be the perfect reminder to keep his emotions out of the equation.
He needed a stress-reliever.
One good night in Stephanie's bed would fix him right up. Her, too.
Medicine wasn't the only thing he took pride in.
He still didn't understand what had happened. It was only a missed dinner date, and they'd both agreed at the beginning to keep things casual. Their careers were too important for anything more serious, which suited Jason perfectly. He had vowed on his brother's grave that he would never, ever lose himself in a relationship again.
Even if Stephanie didn't want to be intimate they could share a meal, talk, enjoy each other's company. Although he'd never been lonely before, since their breakup his evenings stretched into long, empty, sleepless hours to be endured before morning, when he could get back to his work.
He gave a tight nod to the girl's mother. "The test results are in. It's not multiple sclerosis."
Her mother gave him a protective version of her daughter's smile. "That's good. What's next?"
Automatically he compared the mother's features to her daughter's, looking for clues to an inheritable condition.
The father wasn't in the picture. How could any man look at himself in the mirror after deserting his own child? And a developmentally disabled child at that?
"We're still ruling out various forms of muscular dystrophy. We're testing muscular DNA samples, which may tell us something and may not. I'm not going to do a nerve conduction velocity test until I have to. It's rather uncomfortable and I don't think Maggie will understand." He should really run the test and get it over with, but Maggie had been through a lot lately and he might get his answer in a less invasive way.
Yes, he was definitely getting soft, and it was affecting his logic. Not good. For him or his patients.
His attention was diverted by Stephanie coming up behind them.
Jason would recognize that walk anywhere. Steady, confident and competent. In her customary high heels, she reached his chin. He only had to dip his head to meet her, mouth-to-mouth.
She walked with purpose. She did everything with purpose.
Directness was one of the qualities he admired about heralong with her body, her hair, her smell. He admired everything about her except her decision to break it off with him.
Her long, straight mink-brown hair was gathered into a low ponytail today.
It had been four weeks and two days since he'd freed it from its bindings and wrapped it around him like a waterfall in the privacy of her bedroom.
"I'll be joining you on this case, Dr. Drake."
"You're the boss." Not that he answered to any manor woman. He knew his purpose in life. Grabbing people back from the abyss of death had nothing to do with administrative rules or regulations.
Still, she was good at what she did: juggling patient care, internal politics and financial budgets. He had to admit his life ran much more smoothly with her in charge.
What was different about her lately?