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By Tori Carrington
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIN DR. NATALIE GIROUX'S experience, there were days that were great, others that were so-so and a handful of additional ones she'd prefer to erase from the record books altogether. Unfortunately, this cold, rainy Friday in November fell solidly into the last category. Not so much because of the threatening storm system that had been parked over Courage Bay, California, for the past couple of days. It was, after all, the rainy season, and, well, rain was to be expected. Her sluggishness didn't stem from the long, hard week she'd just gone through as Courage Bay Hospital's burn specialist, treating a wide variety of injuries she somehow never got quite used to seeing. Nor could her mood be blamed on nothing going according to plan, or the fact she'd been misplacing things all day.
No. The source of her melancholy was far more personal and went much deeper than such simple matters. And as a result, the dark monster was much more difficult to battle.
Natalie blinked her examining room back into focus, then gently tousled the head of a four-year-old burn patient in for a follow-up appointment.
"That's it," she said, helping the girl down from the table. "We're all done. Now, that wasn't so difficult, was it?"
She trailed the girl and her mother into thereception area. Little Jenny Barnard was recovering nicely. Natalie wished she could say that about all of her patients. She held up three different flavored suckers. Jenny took the yellow, lemon-flavored one.
"Now, do you remember everything I told you?" Natalie asked the four-year-old. "You've got to drink lots of juice and let your mom change your bandages when she says it's time." The superficial dermal burn on the right side of Jenny's face was the result of an unfortunate accident involving a pot of boiling spaghetti, a cat and the young girl a week ago. But the injury was not what Natalie focused on now that the examination was over. All she saw was Jenny's vibrant spirit.
"I will, Dr. Natalie."
Natalie smiled and crossed her arms over the girl's chart, hugging it to her, as she watched mother and daughter walk down the hall of the hospital. When they were out of sight, she glanced at her watch, trying to ignore the large numbers of the date at the left. She made a few notes on the chart, then slid it into the slot outside the examining room door for her assistant to pick up.
Today would have been her first wedding anniversary.
The thought snagged her attention, nearly causing the next chart she drew out to drop from her numb fingers.
She swallowed hard, seeking the solace she usually found in her work.
It wasn't so much the fact that she and Charles would have celebrated their first year of marriage today. She'd been mentally preparing herself for that milestone over the past month. What made her heart ache was that the week before their wedding day, she'd lost Charles. Not to another woman. Not to a case of cold feet. No, the loss was even more decisive. Natalie had lost him to heart disease. Permanently.
She cleared her throat and flipped open the chart in her hands, grateful to be so busy. During the past year, the hospital and her patients were all that had stood between her and emotional collapse.
But nothing seemed capable of helping her through today.
Her gaze fell on the name at the top of the chart and she sighed, glancing around the waiting area without much hope of finding who she was looking for.
"He didn't show," her assistant, Manuela, said from her desk on the other side of the reception area. "Again."
"What appointment is this?" Natalie asked. "His fourth?"
Natalie skimmed the contents of the chart. Fire Chief Dan Egan might be everything and more than his stellar reputation suggested when it came to his work, but keeping his appointments with her seemed to rank low on his list of priorities.
She leaned against the doorjamb, then turned the page of the file, although she really didn't need to. She already knew what it would tell her. Namely that the fire chief had suffered a contact burn to his side in the warehouse explosion three months ago. The severe blistering and her inability to judge the depth of the wound had required a follow-up appointment for her to better evaluate the injury and make assessments for additional treatment. Only the handsome fire chief had canceled that appointment. And the next one he'd made for a week after that. Until she stood right where she was now - essentially without the information she needed in order to close the file.
"Should I call and reschedule?" Manuela asked, interrupting her thoughts.
"Hmm? Oh." She flipped the chart closed. "No."
"Are you going to leave the file open?"
Natalie stared over the young woman's shoulder to the wall and the seascapes hanging there. But she didn't see the warm pastel colors depicting what was visible through any window looking over Courage Bay. Instead her mind conjured up an image of Charles right before his death. A staff psychologist with the hospital, Charles had refused to follow up on symptoms that in retrospect had foreshadowed the fatal heart attack that took his life.
"Are you all right, Natalie?" Manuela asked quietly.
Natalie's chest felt cramped and congested. Only she wasn't coming down with a virus. At least not one that could be treated. Rather, it was raw emotion that choked off her breath and made her feel sick to her stomach.
Excerpted from Total Exposure by Tori Carrington Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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