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"ARE you OK?" Dr Jack Dancer, Medical Director — in fact, only doctor at Bellbrook Hospital — tilted his head. He tried to bring together this city woman's list of qualifications and experience — then reconcile it with her youth and the tiny package she came in. Actually, Eliza May looked like a garden fairy with attitude. Her shoulders were tense, her head tilted and she glowered fiercely at him through slitted eyes.
This woman looked ten years too young to qualify for half of her résumé and, with Mary going, the hospital needed every skill this city woman was supposed to have.
He'd thought his cousin's agency recommendation extraordinarily glowing and he wondered what fanciful planet his cousin had been on when she'd recommended this woman.
"I'm fine." Her voice was not loud but contained an element of self-confidence that made him look at her again. She straightened and the movement added a desperately needed few centimetres to her height. Now he could see her eyes.
Jack felt a ripple shimmer down his back and his breath stuck somewhere behind suddenly sensitive ribs.
Good grief. Her eyes were amazing — vibrant green, alluring eyes that dared him to step out of line and taste the consequences. Even the jagged gold circles around her pupils seemed to glow and shimmer and draw him in. He couldn't look away.
Jack forced his diaphragm back into action, and dragged his gaze lower to accelerate past memorable lips and a determined little chin, but knew he was in trouble when he skimmed too low and had to bounce his attention out of her tightly restrained cleavage. What on earth had got into him?
"Lead on, Dr Dancer." Now she was decisive and he felt the earth shift again under his feet. No fluttery fairy here. He quietened his reservations — and his libido. Energy vibrated and the new Eliza May held such promise for Bellbrook Hospital that he would never risk jeopardising her suitability with unwanted attention.
Perish the thought.
Whatever shock wave had belted him was past now and he wouldn't think like that again.
Realistically they had no one else, and apparently she was multi-skilled and dynamic, though a bit of a chameleon. Still, they all required diversity when Bell-brook bestowed some of those moments of unusual interest and everything went haywire.
He had a full waiting room in his surgery at the side of the hospital and his sister-in-law, Mary, had been due to start maternity leave a month ago. His cousin had said Eliza was reliable.
"Right, then." He didn't look at her again. "As soon as we find our matron, she'll show you around. I won't see you until later when I do my evening round at the hospital."
"Good," Eliza said quietly, but with emphasis, and Jack blinked. Did she mean good she didn't have to see him till later, or good that the departing matron would show her around?
Strangely, both explanations piqued him and he glanced down at her as they made their way to the front of the hospital. This new matron came up to his shoulder yet her smaller legs didn't seem to have any trouble keeping up with him.
Her hair shone with red glints as they passed under a light and her fringe swung across her face as she turned her head to look up at him. She floated beside him on invisible wings and matched his speed.
"Where's the fire?" She lifted one finely arched brow as she dared him, and he couldn't help smiling at her.
"Touché," he said and slowed. "I forgot your legs were smaller than mine."
"Thought you might have," was all she said, and he realised she jangled his nerves and wasn't overawed by him at all. Well, that was good. Wasn't it?
Jack was pleased to see Mary up ahead.
Matron Mary McGuiness was round-faced and round-bodied, though, of course, most of her abdomen belonged to the baby inside her. Mary was the hospital.
The staff, and Jack, had a problem imagining anyone else in her position. He hoped Eliza May could do half as good a job in the time she was here.
After the introductions Jack was eager to get away. Most of his eagerness had to do with his waiting patients and a backlog of paperwork, but a percentage had to do with a sudden need to ring his cousin and find out a few more facts about Bellbrook's new Acting Matron. Something about Eliza bothered him.
In fact, several things about her bothered him in a way he hadn't been bothered for years.
He turned to Mary. "I'll leave Eliza with you, but after showing her around I want you signed off, and with your feet up. Doctor's orders, Mary!" He nodded at Eliza. "Good luck. You can phone my office if you're worried about anything."
Eliza smiled blandly. Not if she could help it, Eliza promised herself grimly. Thank goodness he was going. Dr Jack Dancer had everything she wanted to keep away from in a man, let alone one she'd have to totally rely on.
Eliza regretted another bad decision. She may as well rip the heart out of her chest and tear it in two. All he needed was some psychological disaster that kept him from forming a relationship and he'd be irresistible to her twisted mind. After eight weeks with her he'd be ready to marry — someone else.
She watched Dr Jack Dancer stride away and Eliza dispassionately imagined she could hear the creak of the fabric stretching across the strong muscles of his long legs and taut backside. Then there were his shoulders.
The man's physical presence was too much. Any woman cradled in Jack Dancer's arms wouldn't be afraid of falling — until he dropped her.
"This will be your office." Obviously Mary McGuiness hadn't been sidetracked by Jack's physique and Eliza knew she was immune. Unobtrusively Eliza dug her nails into her palms to remind herself.
"Do I need an office?" Back on track, Eliza couldn't help returning the other woman's friendly smile because there was something about Mary that warmed the cold parts in Eliza left by too many people over the years. Mary would never let anybody down.
Mary nodded sagely. "Rosters, hunting up staff if someone is off sick, stock ordering, company reps, interviews with the local newspaper. Heaven forbid — disaster control."
"Good grief." Eliza laughed and then stopped, surprised at herself. She hadn't laughed freely for a while. There was such a different feel to this little hospital, a warmth and genuineness that probably radiated from the woman in front of her.
"I'm sure most of those occasions will wait for your return but I can see the need for a private space." Eliza looked out the door and into the corridor with the clinical areas. "You say most of my work is hands on?"
"I think you're pleased about that.'Mary smiled again and drew Eliza out of the office. She pointed at doorways as they walked the length of the small building.
"On the semi-acute side, we have two two-bed wards and four single rooms, each with their own bathroom.
We were fortunate to build this wing with a bequest from a grateful former client."
The rooms were light and airy and all the fittings sparkled with good care. Only two of the rooms held patients.
The first room held two men. "Meet the new matron, gentlemen. This is Eliza May."
In the bed beside the door, a man in his early thirties had both arms bandaged to the shoulder with just the tips of his fingers poking out the ends.
Mary stopped beside his bed. "Joe came off worse when he lit a bonfire with too much petrol." Mary shook her head at his folly.
"Because Joe's hands and arms are involved he needs help to care for himself. He should be in Armidale Hospital but Dr Dancer has a lot of experience with burns and they let Joe come home if he stays here for another few days."
"Hi, Joe." Eliza smiled. "When I was six I fell off my horse and broke both my arms. For six weeks it was hell with no hands. I have a lot of sympathy."
Joe sighed with relief. "Reckon you understand, then." 'Next to Joe is Keith." Mary smiled at a seventy-ish-looking man with leathery skin and crinkled stockman eyes. "Keith's supposed to be going home tomorrow. He ruptured his appendix without telling anyone. He wouldn't come in to see the doctor and nearly paid the ultimate price. We've kept him a few extra days to make sure he doesn't work too hard." Mary narrowed her eyes at the old gentleman. "I'm not sure he's right yet."
"Now, Matron.'Keith had a slow drawl and his lilting voice brought back memories to Eliza's mind of her father, as did the seriousness of the old man's expression.
He held out his hand to Eliza. "Good to meet you, new Matron. I'll shake for Joe and me."
His work-roughened hand felt cool and welcoming in Eliza's and she began to recall the sweeter side of country towns. These were the facets to country life that the city missed — that she missed — and she had never realised the fact before. Of course she'd never miss anything enough to move from the city permanently and there were aspects of country life that terrified her.
Small towns, gossip, everyone related to everyone else. Eliza had grown up in such a place and shuddered at the memory of when her mother had left them. Her father had closed his door on the wagging tongues, and incidentally Eliza's friends, and she'd never been so lonely. But she didn't want to think about that.
And she didn't want to be drawn into some tiny niche of a town where they would all know her business and invade her personal life.
She'd even told her friend, Julie, at the agency that. "Bellbrook might be a little too warm and fuzzy for me, the way I'm feeling at the moment," she'd said, but Julie had seen a benefit that had escaped Eliza.
"There's only one doctor you have to work with." Julie had avoided Eliza's eyes when she'd said that, now that Eliza came to think of it.
"Hope you enjoy your stay, Matron." The old man's kind words penetrated Eliza's reflections and she thanked him and moved on with Mary.
They moved on to the next room and Mary spoke to their only maternity patient. "This is Janice, and her son Newman.'The baby squawked as if he'd recognised his name and the three women smiled.
"Newman was born two days ago in Armidale by Caesarean, and Janice arrived this morning to convalesce here for the next few days. Meet our new matron, Janice. Eliza May."
"Congratulations, Janice. He's gorgeous." Eliza stroked Newman's tiny wrist. She'd read the patient notes later and find out the rest because there'd be a Caesarean story there. She'd always enjoyed her stints in Maternity.
Eliza's not-so-great ex-fiancé, Alex, had been reluctant to even speak of babies and months ago Eliza had decided she'd be better sidetracked by more illness-orientated nursing until her fiancé was ready to discuss children. But she'd missed working in Maternity.
Midwifery was such a fascinating area of nursing. If she wasn't going to get married, maybe she could just enjoy other people's babies.