Read an Excerpt
'It's Rory Preedy's father. He was asking to speak to the head of paediatrics. He actually became quite agitated. I thought I was going to have to call Security.'
'I am sorry you had to go through that, Nicole.' Sunainah Carrington shifted the cold tub of yoghurt she was holding to her other hand, wishing she'd had the forethought to pick up a small basket when entering the supermarket. Of course, she had only come in for one or two things but now she was juggling not only yoghurt but bags of vegetables, some apple juice and a self-indulgent block of chocolate. After the day she'd had, she needed the treat.. even more so with Nicole's phone call.
Foolishly, Sunainah had thought her day was done, that she would be able to quickly stop off at the shops before heading to her quiet town house to make herself some dinner. Now, though, she would need to head back to the hospital to placate an irate father. The last thing she wanted was for him to create a scene, disturbing the young patients.
Sunainah tilted her wrist to check the time on her watch, accidentally dropping a bag of shallots that had been tucked beneath her arm. 'Oops. Uh ' She bent down to pick up the shallots but dropped the chocolate as well. 'Oh. Uh, Nicole?'
'I help. I help!'
Sunainah looked up at the sound of a little girl's voice and was just in time to see a barrel of arms and legs, clad in a mix of pinks and purples, rushing frantically in her direction.
'Sunainah?' Nicole's voice came through the phone. 'Where are you?'
Sunainah glanced around quickly for the parent of the child, who looked to be about three years old, but could not see anyone nearby who looked as though the little girl belonged to them.
'I help!' the moppet called again, her gaze fixed firmly on the chocolate.
'I am at the grocery store,' Sunainah said into the phone. 'Nicole, I will be there as soon as I possibly can.' Sunainah quickly ended the call and slipped her cell phone into her pocket, removing one of the obstacles, before scooping up the bag of shallots just as the little girl skidded to a halt beside her, rescuing the bar of chocolate. 'Thank you,' Sunainah said as the child handed the chocolate back to her. 'I help.'
'Yes, you are a very good helper.' Sunainah stayed crouched down so she was closer to the little girl's height. She quickly readjusted the items in her arms but once again dropped the chocolate.
The child giggled and picked up the chocolate again, handing it to Sunainah. 'I help!' There was pride in her words but before Sunainah could say another word, the little girl turned and raced off in the other direction.
Concerned that the child was running around the supermarket unsupervised, Sunainah quickly stood up and followed, wanting to make sure the girl was all right. The store was very busy and the child might run into someone's shopping trolley or she might be lost and unable to locate her mother. As she watched, she realised the girl was getting her a basket from the front of the store. What a clever little one she was.
'You really are a fantastic helper.' Sunainah accepted the basket from the girl and quickly put her things into it. 'Thank you very much.'
The girl preened and smiled and wiggled her little hips from side to side, clearly happy with the praise.
Sunainah once more looked around the store, wondering if there was a distraught mother nearby, trying to locate her daughter, but there still did not seem to be anyone frantically searching for a three-year-old. She knelt down once again and looked at the girl. 'What is your name?'
'Daphne?' The child nodded in confirmation. 'What a beautiful name you have, Daphne. My name is Sunainah.'
Daphne looked very confused at that and Sunainah smiled.
'Soo-neft-nah,' she said slowly, breaking it down.
'Soo-nen-nah,' Daphne immediately repeated.
'Well done. It is a tricky name. Daphne, do you know where your mummy is? Perhaps I can help you find her?'
'Gone?' Sunainah's eyes widened at this news, worry for little Daphne immediately piercing her. Daphne's mother was gone but the child did not seem the least bit concerned.
Perhaps 'gone' in Daphne's world meant something completely different. Perhaps her mother had gone down another aisle. 'I do not under'
Before she had finished speaking, Daphne turned and raced off through the store again, leaving Sunainah barely a moment to collect her basket and follow. She wanted to make sure the gorgeous little girl was indeed safe with her mother.
Keeping her gaze trained on Daphne, Sunainah quickened her pace and when Daphne turned into an aisle, disappearing out of sight, she wanted to run after her. As she turned into the aisle, she almost collided with a staff member, who was wheeling out a bucket and mop.
'You're not the only one, lady.' The teenage worker looked back over his shoulder at the freshly mopped aisle, a look of disgust on his face. 'Gross!'
Sunainah looked around, confused as the teenager wheeled his bucket and mop away, then she spotted Daphne, clinging to the leg of a man who was frantically trying to wipe himself down with some baby wipes. In the shopping trolley next to the man was a crying little boy who, Sunainah belated realised, had recently been sick. The poor mite looked to be no more than eighteen months, perhaps a little older.
All the pieces of the puzzle started to connect themselves. The boy had been sick. The man had sent little Daphne to get help. The stroppy teenage employee had been sent to clean up the mess. Sunainah smiled warmly as she walked towards the man, the scent of disinfectant teasing at her senses.
'It looks as though you have your hands very full.' She placed her basket on the floor next to his trolley.
'I don't know what happened. One minute I had everything under control and the next the world seemed to explode or at least Joshua did.' He laughed with disbelief and pulled another baby wipe from the packet and wiped frantically at his shirt.
Sunainah found her lips twitching upwards at the deep, rich sound of his laughter. His blue eyes flashed with mild, confused amusement and she could not help but notice just how handsome this stranger was. 'I do not think that is going to help much. You will end up smelling like a lemon tree.'
'Better than the contents of Joshie's stomach.' The man shook his head then looked at his son who, although his hands and face had been wiped, would still require a change of clothes. 'Poor little man.' He rested the back of his hand on the boy's forehead then frowned.
'Hot?' Sunainah asked as she followed suit. 'Hmm. A little bit.' She looked into the little boy's eyes, noting they were glassy, that his cheeks were very red and his nose was runny. 'A bit of a cold, poor thing.' It was second nature for her to look at a sick child and immediately diagnose them. It was her job, after all.
'He wasn't well before the move but I was hoping he'd be able to fight it off.' The man wiped his hands with another disposable cleaning cloth before holding his hand out to her. 'I'm Elliot.'
'Sunainah,' she offered.
'What a beautiful name,' he instantly remarked, taking the time to really look at her. What he saw captivated him. Not only was her hand soft and supple against his rough palm, not only were her deep brown eyes filled with a natural joy, but the sound of her modulated voice, so sweet and smooth, was relaxing his jangled nerves.
'Thank you,' she returned, surprised that he had not instantly released her hand. It was not that she minded the cordial handshake but the small spark of awareness that seemed to shoot from his hand to hers before flooding throughout her body was definitely causing havoc with her senses. She should say something, do something to break this strange moment, and it took a second for her to get her brain back into gear.
'Er I saw Daphne running around the store,' she ventured. 'She helped me. Got me a basket.' It appeared she could only talk in small, stilted sentences. What was wrong with her? Elliot nodded but did not seem in any hurry to release her hand. In fact, it seemed he had forgotten they were still shaking hands. 'I wanted to make sure she found her parent.'
Elliot's smile increased. 'Thank you. I appreciate that.' It was as though they were in their own little world, just for one split second, and as their gazes met and held once more, Sunainah's heart seemed to lurch in her chest. What on earth was that? Her eyes widened in surprise.
'I help, Daddy!'
At the sound of his daughter's voice, Elliot seem to jolt back to the present and instantly let go of Sunainah's hand to focus his attention on his children. 'Yes. You helped. You're such a big girl.' Elliot brushed his hand over Joshua's head. The little boy's crying turning into more of a constant grizzle, indicating he would soon become highly impatient with his present situation. They should move. He should put some distance between himself and this exotic beauty who seemed to have completely captivated him for a few minutes. 'Well, Sunainah ' he nodded politely once more ' thanks again for your assistance.'
'My pleasure.' She bent and picked up her basket, pleased her heart rate seemed to have returned to normal. She should leave it at that and walk away, pay for her groceries and then head back to the hospital to deal with an irate father, but She angled her head to the side and pointed to Joshua. 'Perhaps I can offer you some further assistance, Elliot. I could watch Daphne while you change Joshua's clothes or at least go to the parents' room and wipe him down.'
A small frown touched Elliot's brow, and she realised that a stranger offering to help him look after his children might be construed as dangerous.
'I promise I am not a lunatic.' Sunainah quickly pulled her wallet from her handbag, showing him her driver's licence. Next to her licence was her hospital identification badge.
'You're a doctor at Sunshine General?' Elliot seemed astonished.
'Paediatrician, so I do have had some experience with children.' She smiled down at Daphne, who was watching the exchange between the two adults like someone watching a tennis match.
Elliot looked around at their present surroundings, noticing the way the other shoppers were wrinkling their noses at the stench even the disinfectant wasn't disguising and giving him a wide berth. He needed to get out of the supermarket sooner rather than later and the stunning woman with the Indian-English accent was offering to help him. She was dressed as though she'd not long left the hospital, in a knee-length emerald-green skirt and cream-coloured shirt, her long black hair pulled into a low bun at the nape of her neck. Tidy, pro-fessionaL.perfect.
Elliot gave his head a little shake, needing to get his thoughts back on track. He was in 'Daddy Hero' mode. He needed to contain the situation, to fix things, to get his life and his children back under control, back on track, not stand in the middle of a supermarket aisle with a sick child, ogling the woman before him, who he realised was going to be one of his new colleagues. He probably should mention that but right now his son required attention, and Sunainah's offer of help would indeed expedite the situation.
'Thank you, Sunainah. I'd appreciate the help. First off, why don't we head to the checkout, then we can find the parents' room.'
'I know where it is.'
'Do you have children of your own?'
'No. I am not a parent.' They walked towards the checkout, Daphne more than happy to slip her hand into Sunainah's free one. She smiled down at the girl. 'You are very friendly, little one.'
'Sometimes too friendly.' Elliot shook his head as they lined up at the checkout. 'The whole "stranger-danger" concept is too much for her to grasp at the moment, which does pose a few concerns.'
'Of course,' Sunainah agreed, trying to hide a smile as the woman with a large shopping trolley filled with groceries sniffed the air then turned to stare at Elliot and his son. She was ahead of them in the checkout line but after assessing the situation immediately insisted Elliot go before her.
'Thank you.' His words were polite and his smile was warm and inviting and Sunainah watched with interest as the woman's reaction instantly changed to one of delighted compliance. A blush tinged her cheeks and she smiled brightly at him. Elliot's charming smile had made this woman completely flustered.
Had she looked that way when she had first seen him smile? He was a very good-looking man, with his tall stature, his straight nose and square jaw, and his eyes really were the most dazzling blue. She also liked the way his curved lips highlighted a small dimple in his left cheek. His dark hair was peppered with grey at the sides but that only made him look more distinguished, or perhaps it was the way he carried himself, with pure confidence mixed with purpose.
It was not every day she stood and openly ogled a man, and as he quickly put his groceries onto the small conveyor belt at the checkout, she gave herself a mental shake, clearing her thoughts and focusing on the people around her. It was then she noticed Daphne had unpacked her basket of items and put them onto the conveyor belt with her father's.
'Oh, no. These are a separate transac' she started to say to the teenage girl, who was already scanning a few of her items.
'It's fine.' Elliot's smile encompassed her.
'It's the least I can do after your offer of assistance.'
'Well ' Sunainah realised it was not the time or the place to make a scene, and as her friend Reggie always said, 'Why stop a man from being chivalrous? Just say "Thank you" and move on.'
'Thank you, Elliot. That is very kind.' Su-nainah returned his smile and bowed her head for a moment in a gesture of added thanks.
Once they were free of the supermarket, she led the way to the parents' room, Daphne still holding her hand and Elliot pushing Joshua in the trolley behind them. The room was equipped with three baby-changing stations, chairs for parents to sit in, toys for young children to play with, a sink, a microwave and a television. There was also a parent toilet cubicle with one large and one small toilet, specifically provided to make it easier for both mums and dads.
'Do you have a change of clothes for him?' Sunainah asked as Daphne was instantly captivated by the toys.
'I do.' Elliot pulled a bag out of the trolley and opened it up. Nappies, clothes, drinks, fruit snacks and other paraphernalia required for taking children out was contained inside.
'Did you also pack a change of clothes for yourself?' She smiled as he lifted the grizzling Joshua from the trolley and placed him on the change area.
'Unfortunately, no. Must remember that in future.'
'Daddy. Daddy.' Daphne came running over to him, jumping up and down and crossing her legs, a pained expression on her face. 'Toilet.'
Elliot groaned. 'It never rains but it pours.'
Sunainah chuckled. 'Go. I can deal with Joshua.'