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It was the part of his job Braden MacDowell hated most. Turning down requests. Telling someone their work was not going to pay off. Killing dreams.
Braden pushed through the hospital's double doors with more force than was necessary. Nurses stared. Perhaps no one expected a stranger wearing a business suit rather than doctor's scrubs to be walking purposefully through a treatment area, but Braden knew this was a shortcut to the conference room.
Perhaps they thought he looked familiar. Braden knew he shared his brothers' physical features. Dr. Quinn MacDowell was the medical director here. Dr. Jamie MacDowell had left the battlefields of the Middle East to serve the city of Austin in this hospital's emergency department.
Braden nodded curtly at the staff as he kept walking down the corridors, the endless hospital corridors.
Perhaps they stared because the man he resembled the most strongly was his father, whose life-sized portrait hung in the lobby. He'd founded the hospital. Two of his sons healed the sick here. But Braden, the eldest, had traded in scrubs and cowboy boots for a suit and Testoni shoes. He'd taken his medical degree and left Austin for the high-stakes world of corporate America.
The staff might be wondering which MacDowell he was, but they'd know soon enough. He was the MacDowell returning home to kill someone's dream.
Braden took two flights of stairs rather than wait for the elevator. This hospital was still as familiar to him as the back of his hand. He'd practically lived here during his residency, which was how he knew this shortcut would let him avoid the hospital's chapel.
He'd face that memory later.
Not before this meeting. His emotions didn't need to be churned up before he wreaked havoc with someone else's. Braden had killed dreams before, and he'd do it again for as long as he was in the biotech industry. Eliminating this program would free up millions of dollars for more promising research. For his own sanity, he kept the end goal clearly in mind: better health for all patients, everywhere.
Scientists of all disciplines patented new theories, new molecules, new devices. However, the kind of mind that came up with potential medical solutions rarely had the business acumen to turn those ideas into reality. Millions of dollars were required to fund the years of studies that were needed to prove that an idea would actually help the average patient.
The overwhelming majority of the time, it didn't.
Then the hopeful inventor-and Braden's company- were out millions of dollars and years of effort, and had nothing, not one thing, to show for it.
At what point was it nearly certain that the gamble was not going to pay off? Plaine Laboratories International relied on Braden to make that call. He was the man expected to know when to cut PLI's losses, when to halt the studies under way, when to give up looking for a cure down that particular alley.
And then, on days like today, Braden got to inform everyone involved that he'd decided their dream was over.
Renovations and new wings had been added to the hospital during his six-year absence, so at the conclusion of his shortcut, Braden had to rely on a sign to point him down a new corridor. The old conference room had apparently made way for an entire conference center.
Maybe the hospital chapel had been renovated or relocated. A pang of regret hit him. Maybe he wouldn't get the chance to say goodbye.
Impatient with himself for wasting his energy on nostalgia, Braden followed the signs through the new wing. A visit to the chapel would have been only a symbolic goodbye today. His first engagement was long over, and Braden was ready to move on. Ready to propose to his current girlfriend. Saying goodbye to the memory of his former fiancée wasn't strictly necessary.
Pulling his company's funding for this project was.
The new wing made West Central feel as strange to him as every other hospital he'd been to. He'd called on too many hospitals to count, flying from coast to coast, living in airports as he'd once lived in this hospital. But PLI rewarded him, raising his pay often and substantially, to keep him from being tempted by rival companies who tried to lure him away. There weren't many executives who held both an M.D. and a Harvard MBA, so Braden was on the radar as a potential executive for practically every global biotech corporation.
As president of research and development for PLI, Braden flew less often now. He allowed his handpicked regional directors to screen the applications and research sites. He let them build the thick skin they needed to cut failing programs.
Braden personally flew in when the stakes were at their highest. Only the biggest investment. Only the biggest potential for return. Now his career had brought him full circle, back to where he'd started. Back to Texas.
Today, he'd kill a dream at the hospital where his own most valuable, most precious dream had died.
Dr. Lana Donnoli had been given less than an hour's notice for this meeting. Her predecessor, the esteemed Dr. Montgomery, had once been the faculty adviser during her residency in this hospital. He'd survived a myocardial infarct weeks ago, a common heart attack that must have caused him to reconsider his career. From his hospital bed, he'd called her office at the Washington, D.C., hospital where she worked and had offered her his position. It was an opportunity she couldn't refuse, a chance to skip a few rungs to get higher on her career ladder. For that, she could face Texas again.
She'd given her two-week notice, packed up her apartment's meager contents in a do-it-yourself moving van and driven from the mushy snow on the gray Potomac River to the cool and dry hill country of brown Central Texas. Dr. Montgomery had welcomed her with a brief handshake, announced that he was leaving before the job gave him another heart attack and literally walked out the door.
This morning. Monday. Her first day as the new chair of the Department of Research and Clinical Studies at West Central Texas Hospital had started with a bang.
West Central. It was a fine hospital with a crazy name.
Is it west or is it central? You 're either in the west or in the center; you can't be both. Every time she saw the hospital's name on a sign, she heard the lightly mocking question in her mind. The voice that posed the question was always the same: always masculine, always affectionate. Always her ex-fiancé's.
It had been a running joke between them, becoming so ingrained in her psyche that the thought played automatically, even six years after he'd left his medical training behind and moved to Boston. Six years after he'd traded in his white coat and stethoscope for an MBA from the prestigious Harvard University. Six years after he'd left her, his supposedly beloved fiancée, behind. Alone.
Still, she could hear his laughter: Is it west or is it central?
She pushed open the double doors with more force than necessary. The nurses stared, perhaps surprised at the amount of force coming from someone as petite as she was. Her Italian-American grandfather had fallen in love with her Polynesian grandmother in the South Pacific during World War II. Lana could have inherited her very black hair from either grandparent, but her grandmother's genes had given her hair its straightness and her eyes just a touch of an almond shape-and the petite height that came with both Polynesian traits.
If I can be an Italian-Pacific-Asian-American, why can't the hospital be West Central? Are you saying I'm an oxymoron?
No, you 're a perfect combination. Hands down the sexiest, brainiest, beautiful-est- Beautiful-est?
Beautiful-est, unique-est woman on earth, and I'm smart enough to make you mine.
Braden had tapped the diamond she'd worn on her finger, the proof of his undying love.
He'd given her the ring in the middle of their third year of medical school. On their way to the surgical suite where they'd been interning, he'd taken her by the hand and pulled her into the quiet, dim light of the hospital's small chapel, gotten down on bended knee and popped the question. She'd floated through their shift that day- her ring tucked into her bra so it wouldn't poke through her latex gloves-feeling happy even when her arms had ached from holding retractors for hours while a thoracic surgeon repaired someone else's damaged heart.
For the next year, just a glance at the ring had made her feel good, even when she was on the eighteenth hour of her day, walking down these same corridors to yet another patient.
With an impatient smack of her file against her thigh, Lana stopped her memories. She'd known coming back here would trigger them, not that they'd ever completely stopped. But she'd long ago acknowledged that the past was the past, and it shouldn't prevent her from taking advantage of this new position. The desire to avoid memories of her former fiancé wouldn't prevent her from grabbing the best opportunity she-or anyone in her field-could hope for. It was a great step toward her future, as the single but successful Dr. Lana Donnoli, a woman on the cutting edge of research, bringing new cures and new hope to patients across the country.
There was nothing wrong with being single. There was nothing wrong with being successful.
Wasn't that what you told Braden when you broke your engagement, that you understood his dedication to his career?
She was using this corridor only as a shortcut to the conference room, not to circumvent the hospital chapel.
The conference room was dead ahead. Money for the hospital-for her hospital-was at stake, but she knew very little about this research project. If the study was failing to show results, it could be canceled. They'd lose over a million in funding. That much, she'd been able to learn in the hour since her administrative assistant had told her this meeting was on her morning's schedule.
She was going to have to think fast to keep up with the representative from Plaine Labs International who'd come to hear the status of the study being conducted at West Central.
Is it west or is it central? You can't be both.
She wouldn't have time for memories.
* * *
Braden tapped his fingers impatiently on the conference room's table while a senior resident fumbled with the projector for her laptop. She'd told him three times that Dr. Montgomery, Braden's former faculty adviser, had asked her to present the study's midpoint data.
When the laptop's screen was finally, successfully projected on the wall, Braden took advantage of that awkward moment before the young doctor clicked on the icon that would start the slide show. He'd become an expert at gathering all kinds of intelligence in those seconds. File names that looked personal indicated that any PLI-provided laptops were not being used strictly for research. The name of any file often indicated how many versions existed. Always, Braden would note the amount of total slides before the first one ballooned up to fill the full screen-in this case, slide one of forty-three.
Death by PowerPoint. It looked as though this resident planned to make it a slow, painful death.
Braden would cut it short after a polite amount of slides had passed. He'd already received the raw data from the midpoint of this study. He'd done the statistical analysis himself. While there was some trend toward the treatment group having a better outcome than the placebo group, there was no statistical difference. Plaine Labs International was not going to sink another 1.2 million dollars and another eighteen months of time into this study, not with such weak results at the midpoint.
It was a shame, because Braden had a soft spot in his heart for the subject: a new medicine for migraines, something his father had suffered from. The man had been a force to be reckoned with, but Braden had been awed as a child at seeing his indefatigable father laid low within moments of a migraine's onset. This particular molecule wasn't going to work, though. It was time for PLI to cut its losses and move on.
Time to kill someone's dream.
The door behind him opened with a hard push, and the PowerPoint physician looked up from her laptop and exhaled in relief. "Ah, Dr. Donnoli is here-our new department chair. She'll be able to field any questions after the presentation, I'm sure."
Dr. Donnoli? Dr. Donnoli was in West Central Texas Hospital? It couldn't be. She was in Washington, D.C., adding more impressive credentials to her curriculum vitae. He knew, because he knew where all the key research physicians in America were. But he swiveled his chair to look, and it was her.
The beautiful-est girl in the world.
Damn it all to hell.
* * *
Lana crossed the beige carpet to the conference table, taking care to walk as if she were as confident as she hoped she looked in her high heels and her dark blue coat dress.
"Dr. Donnoli?" A young woman in a lab coat addressed her. "Would you like to make the presentation to Mr. MacDowell?"
MacDowell? Lana's gaze darted from the woman to the man in the dark suit. He'd been sitting with his back to the door when she'd walked in, but now he was facing her. Braden MacDowell. Her Braden MacDowell.
For a moment, she was frozen. Confused. It was as if being in this hospital had not only refreshed all her memories, but actually conjured her ex-fiancé in the flesh. Quite a magic trick-an unwelcome, unwanted trick of the mind.
Her administrative assistant, a compact ball of energy one would hesitate to label "elderly," burst through the door behind her.
"Sorry I'm late," the gray-haired Myrna said. "Oh, good. I see you've got that projector working."
Lana barely processed the words. Every brain cell was occupied with Braden. He looked just the same. It took only one glance for her to recall the feel of his skin, every angle of his jaw, the texture of his dark hair sliding through her fingers. Myrna kept talking as she placed notepads around the table. Lana was grateful for the valuable seconds it provided to regain her composure.
"You must be the president of Plaine Labs," Myrna was saying, making small talk and saving Lana. "Cheryl called me this morning to say you'd be here. I didn't realize you were already in the building. Welcome to our conference center. May I introduce our new chairperson, Dr. Lana Donnoli?" She gestured at Lana. "Dr. Donnoli, this is Mr. Braden MacDowell."
Braden stood and nodded at Lana politely. Impersonally. How did he manage it? Was she nothing more than a past memory, an old college girlfriend?
"Dr. Donnoli," he said, and the bored formality in his voice went straight to her heart. And it hurt.
That he could still have that kind of power over her, six years after leaving her behind, made her angry. She extended her hand to shake his, determined to show him the professional she was, not the heartbroken girl he probably remembered sobbing over a phone line.
"Mr. MacDowell?" she asked, with a skeptical lift of her brow. "Isn't it Dr. MacDowell?"
"I don't use the title." He shook her hand firmly, once, and let go.
"Why not? You earned that much." She knew she'd made it sound as if it wasn't much at all.
"I'm well aware that it's an academic title only. Since I don't practice medicine, I don't choose to use it."