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"Jackson Strange," the nurse read out, her eyes meeting his across the nearly empty waiting room. She checked something off on her clipboard. "The doctor will see you now."
Jackson stood, trying not to put too much weight on his left leg--and trying not to look like he was limping. Too late; Aunt Bella Bitoni was as perceptive as she was competent--and blunt.
"Stop right there, mister," the nurse told him. Her normally laughing black eyes were hard today, and focused completely on his leg. She pursed her lips and pushed a lock of silvering black hair out of her face. "Bobby, have you got the wheelchair in there?"
Aww, man. Jackson nearly groaned out loud. He hoped she wasn't going to write to his mother. "Bella, I'm fine--"
But Bobby, the teenaged evenings-and-weekends receptionist, was already wheeling the damn thing into the backs of his legs. They collapsed, fire shooting up from the left knee. "Dammit, Bella! Ow!"
"Thanks, Bobby," she said, ignoring him completely. The two other patients waiting snickered. "I've got it from here."
Jackson gave old man Bender from the grocery store an unpleasant glare as Bella wheeled him into an examination room. "Dr. Dan busy today?" he asked, mostly to keep her from lecturing him for walking on his injured leg.
"Dr. Dan's seeing about Star Hamilton's girl. She's due any day now." Bella didn't look up from filling in his chart. "We've got a new man in; he'll look after you." She put her pen down at last and scowled at him from behind her no-nonsense spectacles. "As for you, Jackson Strange, you should know better! No telling what damage you'll do to yourself next. And you'll break yourmother's heart. Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
Damn it; why did she always have to play the mom card? "No, Aunt Bella," he mumbled. Did they teach guilt-tripping in nursing school nowadays or what?
Aunt Bella grabbed the chair at the computer desk across from him and peered around the monitor, spectacles obscuring her eyes. "What did you do to yourself this time?"
Jackson sighed. He would have to hope for doctor-patient confidentiality on this, or Bella'd be writing to Calgary in no time. "Some fool left his toolbox out. I tripped, cut my leg open on a raw girder."
Bella winced, but she was typing away. Probably checking whether his tetanus was up to date. "By the way you were limping you've either let it get infected or it's fresh and you're gonna need stitches."
"I'm not that stupid," he protested. He'd only let an injury get infected once; that had been more than enough, thanks.
"Hmph. Depends on who you ask." Bella finished her data entry and looked at him over the rim of her glasses. "You need a place to stay while you're recovering, you call your Uncle John or me, you hear? Don't let them send you back to work before you're ready."
He bit his tongue to refrain from pointing out that it was his own business--literally--to manage and he'd go back when he was damn well ready, which was usually right away. He didn't like leaving someone else in charge. "Yes, Aunt Bella."
Bella closed the door.
Jackson let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. It had been a strain, hiding the pain from his aunt. God, he hadn't needed to swear this badly since the Flames lost the Stanley Cup finals. He pressed his closed fist into his left thigh, grimacing and cursing under his breath.
The door opened, admitting a tall, slender man in a lab coat.
"Who the hell are you?" Jackson growled, not letting up the pressure. Detachedly, he noted a growing red stain above the knee of his jeans.
"I'm Dr. Piet," the man said, not too sharply considering Jackson's attitude. He consulted his chart. "You must be Jackson Strange."
"I go by Jack," he said through clenched teeth. "You'll forgive me for not standing up."
"Bella didn't give you anything for the pain?"
"She thinks I should suffer for being careless."
"Hmm. We'll have to agree to disagree." He went to a cupboard and sorted through the various medications. "How bad's the pain? On a scale of one to ten?"
Oh, thank God, Jack thought. Morphine. "I dunno. Seven? Worse than the dog bite to the calf, but not as bad as the time I accidentally set myself on fire in high school."
He could hear the sadistic amusement in the doctor's voice. "Are you accident prone?" Then, before he could even answer, the prick of a needle at the curve of his shoulder.
Almost immediately, he could feel the pain begin to dull. "Oh, Doc. I think I love you."
"I'll bet you say that to all the boys."
Morphine-sedated, it was hard to tell what he meant by that. The sudden respite from pain also gave Jack a chance to look up at his lord and savior.
Dr. Piet--Julian, according to the name on the lab coat--hardly looked old enough to have a medical degree. He had no facial hair to speak of, and his skin was smooth and fair over sharp cheekbones. He had dark hair--sort of long and unruly, for a doctor--and darker eyes, which were definitely at least a little bit amused. "Are you stoned enough for me to look at the injury yet?"
Jack stared at him for a minute. "You want me to take off my pants?" He didn't know if he could do it, even with the drugs to kill the pain.
"I could cut them off if you prefer, but it'd be easier if you stripped. More room to move around. And you won't have to walk out of here naked."
Jack blinked. "Am I harassing you, or the other way around?"
Dr. Piet gave a slight smile as he turned again. "How about I help you out and we call it even?"
The part of Jack's mind that would normally have sensed a bad idea and found an alternate path had been more or less rendered comatose by the drugs. It hurt to be helped to his feet--but that was apparently as far as the good doctor was willing to go. Too bad. Now that he was standing Jack could see that the man had a truly exceptional ass.
Dr. Piet led him to a handgrip screwed into the wall. "You can use this to keep your balance. I'll be back in a few minutes. I need to get a bigger needle."
Jack watched the door close behind him and wondered if that would have sounded as erotic if he were sober. Now, how to get his jeans off? Left leg first, maybe? He undid his belt and popped the buttons open, but there wasn't really anywhere for the denim to go; his jeans were glued to the bandage wrapped around his leg. He was just going to have to peel them off.
Wiggling the jeans down past his ass didn't present too many problems. Once he got them halfway down his thighs, however, there was a renewed surge of angry protest from his injured leg. Carefully, he sat again--on the examination table this time--and more or less kicked the jeans off his right leg. It made peeling them down the other much easier.
Just in time, too. Just as he'd balled up his jeans and tossed them in the corner, there was a knock at the door.
Dr. Piet came in rolling his eyes, took one look at the makeshift bandage around Jack's leg, and made a face. "This was the best you could do?"
"It stopped the bleeding," Jack said defensively. "Well, for a while, anyway." He'd probably torn it open again walking in the waiting room.
The doctor pulled on a set of surgical gloves. "Let's have a look, then." He took a pair of plastic-wrapped surgical shears from a drawer and ripped the package open. The metal was cold against Jack's skin as he cut away the cloth and gently pulled it away from the injury. He held up the offending material. "What cowboy patched you up? Please tell me no one ever actually wore this."
"Johnson did it," Jack told him. "And what's wrong with my shirt?"
"Was it clean?" the doctor asked, going back for the bottle of alcohol. Damn, this was going to sting. "I mean, ever?"
"I'm an engineer! I do field testing!"
"So, what, hygienic considerations don't apply?" Dr. Piet grabbed a cotton swab and started sterilizing the wound.
Jackson was momentarily distracted from their banter by the fire in his leg. "Should that still hurt with the morphine?"
"Man of your size with the dose I gave you?" Dr. Piet looked him up and down speculatively, and Jackson did his level best to keep from reacting. "Yep."
"Just checking." Jack's stomach made an uncomfortably loud noise and he stopped watching the doctor's hands.
"You're going to need stitches," Dr. Piet announced, dropping the cotton swab in the hazmat trash can. "Surprise!" He held up two spools. "Would you like the pink thread, or the blue?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"Mostly; I don't think I have enough of the blue. How's the pain? Need another hit before I start sewing?"
Jack shook his head. "I've had stitches before. I'll be okay."
"That's what I love about cowboys. So macho." The doctor threaded the needle. "Out of curiosity, when was your last tetanus shot?"
Jackson watched the needle disappear into his flesh, then emerge on the other side. "Uh," his stomach twinged, and he turned away. "I'm not sure. A couple of years ago?"
"I'll check your records, but you'll probably need another, just to be safe. It was metal you cut yourself on, right?"
Jack nodded. "Gotta kick Harrison's ass for leaving his toolbox out like that."
"Or you could start watching where you're going," Dr. Piet quipped, slipping the needle through another few layers of skin.
Jack scowled. "They pay you to be funny?"
"It probably won't make the itemized list I send Blue Cross Alberta, no." He tied off a knot in the thread and surveyed the damage. "Mama would be so proud. It's hardly even going to scar."
Jackson had to admit, the pink stitches were not nearly as gruesome as the blue ones he'd had last time. "Thanks, Doc."
Dr. Piet was busy consulting his medical records. "That's my job." He pulled a small notepad out of his pocket. "I'm prescribing some antibiotics to prevent infection. Twice a day every day, with food, until they're gone. Any unusual side effects and you call me or Dr. Dan." He tore off the top sheet and handed it over. "I've got to grab the tetanus booster; they're in the supply room. Only had morphine in here out of sheer luck; last patient almost hacked his finger off chopping wood. It's supposed to be kept in back under lock and key. Damn fool should've gone straight to the ER in an ambulance, though. Be right back!"
Great, Jackson thought. Injury, Aunt Bella, stitches, booster shot. Good thing the doctor was hot or this'd be one hell of a day.
Easy, cowboy. This town was small enough already. No reason to risk shrinking it any smaller by giving the gossips something to talk about. Besides, the evidence that the good doctor might swing his way was circumstantial at best.
Anyway, his leg would put him out of commission for at least a few days.
Jackson heard the warning bells go off in his head, but he figured he could probably afford to ignore them--at least until he was no longer drugged to the eyeballs with opiates.
"Okay, where do you want it?"
Jackson looked up to see that the doctor had returned--and was holding up a giant syringe. "What?"
"Left or right?" the doctor asked. Was Jack just imagining that teasing glint in those eyes? "Arm."
"Oh," Jackson said, hoping to God he wasn't blushing. On second thought, he probably didn't have enough extra blood to blush. Please God, do not let me get an erection in the next ten minutes. It was not a prayer he had ever thought he'd need in his entire life. Then again, he'd never been half-stoned and half-naked with a hot doctor he couldn't seem to stop picturing naked. "Left, I guess," he said, rolling up his sleeve.
"Just a little prick," Dr. Piet promised. Oh, he was so doing it on purpose, that little tease.
Jackson watched the needle pierce his skin distractedly. It was more of a pinch than anything else, really. Why were the edges of his vision going black? "Hardly felt a thing," he said woozily, having the sudden urge to just ... close his eyes.
"You're not going to faint, are you?" the doctor asked.
Jackson's eyes rolled back. His head tipped forward. The last thing he knew as he passed out was Julian Piet's concerned touch, keeping him from sliding off the table.
Cowboys. It never failed. He couldn't even count the number of times some misguided macho man had ended up in his office unconscious. Julian caught his patient's head in one palm and his shoulder in the other and pushed him backward until he was lying flat on the table.
A quick check of his respiration and pulse told him the man was fine, probably just dehydrated. (And, a little voice in the back of his mind added, way beyond just plain "fine.") He pressed the button for the intercom, wondering why he hadn't used it earlier. It was so difficult to get used to a new set of exam rooms. The first day he'd hardly been able to find a damn tongue depressor. "Bella, I'm going to need an IV cart and a saline drip in two."
Poor Jackson; he was probably in for a lecture. Julian had only known the woman two days and he already knew not to cross her. Not that Julian was any more lenient with the people he loved injuring themselves. In fact, he was probably twice as bad as Bella, and he had a lot of experience with that. His college friends hadn't been the careful type.
As predicted, Bella arrived with the requested items in tow, pursed lips firmly in place. "I swear, that boy has a death wish."
"He's just dehydrated," Julian soothed, hanging the saline drip. He turned Jackson's right arm toward himself, noting without meaning to the obvious strength just beneath the surface, and slid the IV needle into the back of his hand. Easy. "He should be up at any minute. Make him sit there until the IV's done, and don't let him leave without seeing me. I have to put the fear of God in him."
Well, that was an exaggeration. It was more a fear of Not Being Able To Walk Without A Limp, but it was usually at least as effective.
Bella's only response was to harrumph in her crotchety old lady way as he let himself out.
"Hit me," he said to Barbara, the nurse manning what he always thought of as the dispatch station.
"Mrs. Jones is in one waiting for you; she's been having problems with her shoulder again."
"Right." Maybe he should have read all the active patient files before coming out here. There couldn't be that many. Taking the folder, he headed off into examination room one.
Mrs. Jones was a woman of forty-something years, immaculately groomed but with an air about her that said "mother of two." She looked up from Canadian Home and Garden as he walked in. "You're not Dr. Dan."
"So they keep telling me." He tucked the file under one arm and slid onto the little stool, facing her, holding out his free hand. "I'm Dr. Piet. Nice to meet you."
Mrs. Jones had a nice, firm grip, but he noted that she moved awkwardly when she reached forward to take his hand. "Same to you."
Julian held up her chart. "I see you've been having some trouble with your shoulder?" He'd hardly had time to go over her record in detail.
"I was in a car accident a couple of years ago and tore my rotator cuff."
He winced; shoulder injuries were not particularly forgiving in women of her age. "Since then?"
"I had chronic pain until I had it operated on about six months ago. The pain's not as bad as it was, but now it doesn't move too well. I thought I just needed to give it time, but now I'm worried I've waited too long."
Nodding, Julian flipped through the file for the X-rays. "Have you been seeing a physiotherapist at all?"
"The surgeon in Calgary told me I should get a referral, but I got busy. I just forgot."
Hmm. Julian bit his lower lip as he held the X-rays to the light. On the one hand, as a medical professional, it annoyed him that she'd ignored her doctor's advice. On the other hand, the surgeon should have done the referral his damn self. And after two years of undergrad, four of med school, and six of residency at a teaching hospital, he knew what it was like to be busy. "No need to panic just yet. Can you move your arm a bit for me, just to give me an idea of how much range of motion you have?"
He watched carefully as he directed her through a series of motions, gauging both her reach and her expression. Finally, he nodded again, double-checking her post-surgical X-ray. "That's fine, thank you." He squinted. "It looks from the X-rays like the bone damage has been contained, and you haven't got any major tendon or ligament damage."
Mrs. Jones looked like she didn't know whether to be relieved or worried. "What is it, then? Am I going to be stuck like this?"
He smiled. "Mrs. Jones, you've got what we call frozen shoulder. It happens often after shoulder operations, and like many other conditions, it can worsen with age. Luckily, it can also be improved with steroids and exercise."
He wheeled himself over to what he was beginning to think of as the Wall of Explanatory Pamphlets and selected, after several minutes of searching, one on the side effects and pros and cons of using corticosteroids to treat joint pain. "If you decide you want to go ahead with the steroid injections after reading this, just come see us during our usual business hours. We'll figure out the dosage from there." Julian dug a business card out of his pocket. "Meanwhile, you can start physio whenever you like. My sister Roz runs the local gym; she's got her PT. You won't need a referral. Just tell her Julian sent you."
She blinked. "That's it?"
He wondered if she thought he was dismissing her. "For now. I don't want you to make a decision on the steroids before you're properly informed. If you have any questions about the treatment once you've done your research, you can call me. But I think you should try the physio by itself for a while first, just to see. You might be surprised."
Mrs. Jones breathed a long sigh of relief. "Thank you, doctor."
Julian shook her hand again for good measure, and went to meet his last patient of the day.
Tom Bender was the slightly senile old man who ran the local grocery. He had rheumatoid arthritis in everything that could be remotely arthritic, coke-bottle glasses, a cane he probably didn't need, and a truly amazing sense of hearing for such an old man.
Dr. Matheson had told Julian he could expect him roughly once a week with some malady or another, ranging from an imagined nervous tick in his cheek to complaints of low energy to the insistence that he was suffering from any of a variety of brain cancers. Except for the arthritis, the man was literally a picture of health. Julian gave him some Tic Tacs in a prescription bottle and sent him on his way.
Bobby was forwarding the lines for the evening while Barbara disinfected the flat surfaces of the waiting room. Julian locked up the back, then popped back into examination room two to check on his patient. He opened the door just as Bella walked out, rolling her eyes, and poked his head around the frame before walking in completely. "Oh, good, you're awake."
Jackson blinked at the ceiling, squinted at the bright light and groaned. He didn't look so great, for a man who was ridiculously good-looking. "I fell asleep?" His voice was incredulous. Julian watched his movements carefully for any sign of further injury as he shuffled himself up onto his elbows.
"The medical term is lost consciousness." He said it with relish. Jack's reactions were too entertaining.
His patient stopped trying to right himself and stared at Julian. "I fainted?!"
"I take it this is a new experience for you." Yep, he was definitely enjoying this. It was totally innocent, he told himself. He was just amused by Jack's injured pride; that was all.
Jackson attempted a glower, then apparently thought better of it and laid his head back against the examination table.
Julian took pity on him and started to explain. It was, after all, he reminded himself firmly, his actual job. "It happens sometimes when people get dehydrated. For example, after a traumatic loss of blood. You're lucky you didn't damage your femoral artery." He padded over and carefully removed the IV. "Since you were unconscious, I took the liberty of re-hydrating you."
"Didn't know you cared."
"I'm that kind of guy."
Jack gave him a long, calculating look, and Julian tried not to chafe under it, instead holding out a hand to help him up. Jack hauled himself upright. "Is this the part where you tell me I should take it easy for a few days?"
Julian shrugged eloquently, dropping down onto his favorite of the clinic's rolly stool things. "Only if you like your leg." It was a flippant answer, but one that would doubtlessly get the point across. He pulled out his prescription pad again and wrote one for some slightly above-counter grade drugs. "Painkillers," he said, and handed it over. "I don't recommend taking them on an empty stomach."
Jack gave himself some time to adjust to the new blood flow before swinging his legs over the edge of the table--very, very carefully--Julian noted with approval. He probably didn't want to faint again, not that Julian thought he would.
"How did you get here, anyway?"
"Drove," Jack said shortly, like it was a dumb question.
Julian raised his eyebrows. Dumb shit, was his first thought. He could have passed out at the wheel and ended up in worse shape than he'd already been. Then again, people didn't generally do their best thinking while bleeding from a gaping flesh wound. "Just tell me it's not a manual."
Jack blinked, reaching for his jeans and managing to wiggle his left leg in without falling over. "I mean, Hamilton drove me. I think he wanted to have the rest of the day off to be with Mel. They just live around the corner."
Well, thank God he wasn't a total idiot. Julian let out the breath he'd been holding. As a doctor he would have had to advise strongly against anyone operating heavy machinery in Jack's condition. "Good. So, let's talk shop. I don't think you've got any irreversible damage, but you're going to be operating below capacity for a while. If you've got the time, I'd like to refer you to a physiotherapist. You wouldn't be going for a week or more. I just want to make sure the muscles heal properly. That all right by you?"
"There's one here in town?" He sounded surprised. Distractingly, it was just his ass hanging out of the bloodstained jeans now.
Julian guessed it wasn't all that unusual that not everyone knew Roz had completed her qualifications a few months ago, before she'd returned to take over the gym their parents had run for as long as he could remember when they retired to Florida. Truth be told, Jack probably didn't need the physio. He likely would have been just fine on his own. But his health insurance covered it, and anyway it was an easy way to keep an eye on the injury and forestall any future problems. "She's my sister," he explained. "And if you want a ride home from someone other than your Aunt Bella you'd better like her."
Jack huffed a laugh. "In that case, I think we'll get along fine."
"It's quitting time, so she should be here any minute." Julian flushed a little in spite of himself. Here he was at twenty-seven, getting picked up from work by his sister. "I had to sell my car when I finished my residency in Ontario. For one thing, it wouldn't have made the trip, and for another, it wouldn't have survived the winters anyway. The shit that passes for snow down there."
"Ha!" Sliding down from the table, Jack's tone was triumphant. "I studied engineering at U of T. You should have heard them whining every time there was the slightest flurry. You'd think they lived in Georgia or something."
For the first time, Julian caught the hint of an accent. "Not from around here, then?" Most of the local boys never got out of province for an education, but then again, most of them didn't need to.
Jack looked sheepish. "You couldn't guess, with a name like Jackson Strange?" The accent was suddenly a lot thicker. "Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Worked my arse off to get in to U of T and out of the Maritimes; God knows the east coast's in poor enough shape."
Julian stared at him blankly for a moment before he came up with something to say. Jack's voice had an odd lilt to it now, a cadence that was somehow ... he didn't know what to call it. It made him want to keep Jack talking. "You must really hate living in Alberta," he commented as they left the room, turning the lights out in the office as they went.
"Not as much as my mother," he said ruefully. The words came out sounding like me mether. "I think it breaks her heart a little every day she doesn't see the sea. But Cape Breton's tiny, and there were too many memories of my father, so she left, came out here to be close to me." He laughed self-deprecatingly. "Not that Calgary's that much closer, come to think on it."
"This place is rather isolated," Julian commented as he locked the door behind them. He shivered, shrugging into his coat. The long winter was already starting to make its presence known. Yuck. It was only September! He hoped Roz had the heater going. "It's not really close to anywhere. Where do you live, anyway?" Julian asked, fighting the urge to curl his hands up his coat sleeves like a little kid. He shifted from foot to foot, trying to keep warm.
Jack raised an eyebrow at him. He was probably wondering about the fidgeting, but didn't comment on it. "Few minutes out on Highway 77. Five kilometers, maybe."
"Don't much like the neighbors, eh?" Julian teased. Inwardly, he was a little worried, since the location was pretty remote, but if at his age Jack couldn't take care of himself there was certainly nothing Julian could do for him. Worrying obsessively didn't count, though it was a possibility.
"What neighbors?" the other man joked. "Everyone knows everyone in this town, anyway."
Julian was just about to disagree with him--he certainly didn't know everyone, not anymore and not yet--when he was saved by a dirty Silverado swinging around the corner. "That's our ride."
Roz pulled the Chevy up to the doors and put the thing in park...
which was when Julian remembered that the Silverado was a three-seater and not the extended-cab version they'd had when Mom and Dad were still in the country. Balls. It was about to get a little crowded. He opened the door.
"Hey, Beanstalk," Roz greeted cheerily. "Who's your friend? He looks familiar."
Julian sighed exaggeratedly and stepped aside. "Jackson Strange, meet my sister Roslin. I guarantee she's stranger than you."
The two shook hands, awkwardly through the height difference provided by the truck.
"Pleasure," Jackson said.
Roz eyed him up and down without any shame. "No kidding."
It was going to be a long ride home. "As cozy as this must be for you, Roz, we are freezing our balls off out here. Let us in, would you? I promised Jack a ride home."
"East or west?" Roz asked after they'd piled in.
Julian held his arms in close to his body, folding his hands awkwardly in his lap, but there was no way to keep his elbow from brushing Jack's. He chewed his bottom lip distractedly.
"West," Jack told her.
Roz threw the truck in reverse and backed up, making a left onto the main street. Julian considered telling her to stop at the pharmacy--Jackson was sure to be sore in a few hours, and Julian wanted to start him on antibiotics as soon as possible--but there would have been no point; the pharmacy closed at four-thirty on Fridays.
"You running a taxi service out of your office now, Jules?"
Julian scowled at her and considered using the excuse to shift closer to Jack but resisted, reluctantly. "Leg injury, lack of vehicle. What was I going to do, send him home with Mata Hari?"
Roz shot a look at Jack over Julian's head. "Bella's a friend of yours, then?"
"My father's sister," Jack said with a wry smile Julian could practically hear. "I take it you know her."
"By reputation mostly. My little brother's a dinner talker."
"Never would have guessed."
"I am sitting right here."
"Yeah. You're hard to miss, you take up so much room." Jack nudged him into Roz.
Flushing, Julian relaxed slightly, shoving back. The trick was in ignoring Roz's knowing look and the tingle in his shoulder at the same time. "How old are we?"
"Personal question," Jack barked teasingly.
"I'll show you mine if you show me yours."
"Would you two prefer to have this conversation somewhere private?" Roz broke in, pulling into a driveway. "This is it, right?"
Julian glanced out the window, mentally noting the location.
"This is me," Jack confirmed. "Thanks for the lift, Roz." A wink.
Julian rolled his eyes. "Take it easy, Jackson. I mean it."
"Yes, sir." He ripped off a mock salute.
"I like him," Roz commented after the door shut.
"You would," Julian muttered, moving over.
Dammit. The seat was still warm.