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How could a woman be so afraid of a situation of her own making?
Dr. Dasha Hardin stood before the bank of windows in her temporary office, waiting, eyes fixed on the parking lot where she expected Dr. Preston Monroe would park. She did her best to ignore the lump of lead in her belly that had been oatmeal an hour ago. Being the instigator of this meeting didn't mean she had any control over what was to come, and if he put even half the effort into sabotaging her career as he had done his own, she might as well clean out her locker now. The man couldn't control his mouth, and if he told what he knew about her past..
When the lead shifted and wobbled around her insides, she gave up her vigil for the physical embodiment of her biggest regret. Waiting for him, watching out windows for someone to come was too gut-wrenchingly familiar. She'd spent too much of her life waiting on someone to come, lost too many hours. This one would come. Probably.
She prowled away from the window and set about tidying the already immaculate space. If he had found out his morning meeting was with her-that she was the acting head of surgery for St. Vincent's- he might not show up. That was a nice thought.
If he came now, that was the better option, otherwise she'd just have to chase him down. She had to try and fix this. She'd promised Marjorie.
She uncrossed her arms and shook her hands out. When had she gone back to the window? Jeez. Calm down, exercise a little self-control. If he came she had to keep the situation civil and professional, and that couldn't happen if her emotions ran amok.
This was her hospital. Everyone loved and respected her. They wouldn't stop her just because Preston hated her.
Even if he told them what she'd done.
A light knock came at the door, more of a warning that it was opening than a request. She caught his reflection in the window. The oatmeal-lead flipped over, but it took her a couple seconds to make her body turn around.
No matter how she tried to will herself to be calm, her heart continued to square dance against her sternum.
Her eyes directly on him hit harder than the reflection. Five years hadn't aged him so much as refined him. Not a trace of boyishness remained in his face. Preston had his man face and, heaven help her, it was glorious. Broad. Cut jaw. Cheeks darkened with stubble despite being freshly shaved.
He didn't even blink when he saw her, but the pale blue eyes that had always mesmerized her looked tired. And cold. And every inch as devastating as they had always been. Having no apparent reaction made it seem like he wasn't angry at least, even though he focused on her with a strength that left her feeling skewered.
"Hardin." His mouth firmed and black brows drew together, more a look of resolve than the scowl she'd expected. "I was hoping to put off running into you, but we might as well get it over with." He stepped through the door.
Did he show anger before detonating these days? A brilliant surgeon he may be, but mercurial. His moods had always been a crapshoot, even before she'd painted a blood-red target on her back.
She should speak. The speech. She'd had a speech prepared, back before fear had eaten it. "You're meeting me," Dasha blurted out. "Our head is on hiatus. I'm Acting Head."
"The lady in HR managed to bypass that bit of information." Preston took his time closing the door and finding somewhere to stand and fill up the whole room.
"I was afraid you wouldn't come if you knew. Don't blame her. My fault." Dasha licked her lips, mouth dry as a winter wind.
"Am I here on your recommendation?" One of his eyes twitched. Should she read something into that? Like the arms folding over his chest weren't enough body language to clue her into his mindset. He might not be angry, but he certainly wasn't happy either. Not forgiven, not that she expected to be. She had done nothing to deserve it. Yet.
"Dr. Saunders recommended you to the board." At her request. She left that part out. "But he did it from home. His wife is ill."
"When will he return?" He uncrossed his arms.
Good sign? Bad sign? She had to stop trying to read him. This was business. Business spawned by personal mistakes and regrets but still business. Messy business, and she much preferred tidy. "I expect it will be a couple of months." She had to take another breath to force the remaining words out. "Marjorie's in hospice care and he doesn't want to leave her side. But he's expecting your call, if you want to put off coming to St. Vincent's until his return."
"You're who I'll be working with if I stick around now?"
He kept eye contact, and it was all Dasha could do not to look away.
"Yes." After work, she was so going to need to spend some time with Ben & Jerry. And maybe Jack Daniels too. She could make some kind of boozy ice-cream cocktail. Get one of those beer helmets to hold her booze-a-thon and wear out her treadmill. She needed to move. She used up her daily capacity for refined immobility while in surgery; outside the OR sleep was the only other thing that kept her fairly still. He didn't say anything.
She drummed her fingers against her thigh and waited, holding his gaze. Silence wasn't her favorite, but the longer he went without erupting into a full verbal assault, the easier it got to be around him.
He was still Preston. He was still inherently good at heart, even if he tended toward selfishness. Not that she could say anything about that. Old Dasha was like that too. Much more than New-and-Improved Dasha.
New-and-Improved Dasha had spent time on her people skills and increased her frustration tolerance. She waited until it seemed like he was also waiting on her to say something else. "If you'd prefer to wait until Dr. Saunders returns, you can work directly with him on his cases, but the board wants you working with a surgeon on staff for a probationary period before they decide to finalize the privileges."
"Probation?" he repeated, his voice rising ever so slightly. Okay, yeah, the meeting was wearing on him too. Maybe she should have worked up to that bit.
Preston had never responded well to limits. He plowed his way through obstacles, something that had attracted her to him back in school. That had been the start. Sometimes she wondered if she'd have made it through medical school and residency without that rivalry-even after it had grown into a relationship, the rivalry had still been there.
Preston's idea of support had usually involved him taunting and teasing her until she felt driven to do just as well as she knew he would do. Sometimes Dasha had been certain she'd only pulled it off out of spite. And that crippling need to prove she was as good as everyone else. Worthy of his challenges. Worthy of his friendship
She sucked in a deep breath. Getting through this meeting meant avoiding those sorts of detours into their past, or at least the emotions that had driven her. She had to stay on point.
As she'd stormed ahead when she should have trod lightly, she did her best now, under the weight of his stare to at least soften the blow. "This is not about your surgical ability. You're brilliant with a scalpel and I don't think anyone would ever deny that, but your people skills are the worst."
"I've never betrayed a friend," he drawled, no longer dancing around the past. "So, between the two of us, I'd say my people skills were superior."
Keeping this completely businesslike and gentle just wasn't going to work-he'd just demoted her from ex-girlfriend to ex-friend. Too much tension hung between them to avoid all the unpleasantness that had come before-all the unpleasantness she'd caused-but she still wanted to try. "Be that as it may, you have a reputation for being difficult. Which I'm certain you know."
"No, I don't know. Explain it, Hardin. I'm difficult?" There it was. Anger. Dampened, kept from burning hot right now, but still present.
God, those eyes. Ice-blue they may be but she could swear there were tiny flames dancing in his pupils. Never mind what that tone. "I'm trying to be tactful, Preston."
"Yes, I can see that. One thing I always appreciated about you was your directness. Spit it out."
"Fine. Everyone expects you to be an ass." Dasha stuffed her hands into her pockets. New-and-Improved Dasha didn't do that because cultured people didn't do that. It was an old habit. Old Dasha did this. She yanked her hands back out and forced them to relax at her sides. "St. Vincent's has a close-knit community. The board likes it that way, the department heads make certain everyone works and plays well together. Staff, administration and physicians, we're all people and, no matter what, conflict needs to be handled civilly." God help her if he brought up how badly she'd worked and played with him. Dasha plowed forward like the thought never occurred to her.
"The board wants good reports about good behavior-that means you can't just speak your mind. Other people can, but other people aren't as sharp-tongued as you are. You cannot pick fights with people. And if you have it in you after all those long exhausting hours of not fighting with anyone, maybe you could work a few of the miracle procedures that makes the board willing to take the risk."
"Why are you willing?" Those eyes followed her every movement.
Willing might be overstating that. "Dr. Saunders and I are both willing to-"
"That's not what I asked," Preston cut in. "I get why he's willing. Why are you willing? What does it get you?"
A clean conscience? Cleaner.
The peace of knowing she'd righted a terrible mistake? Or tried to.
There was no gently working up to subjects with this man. He stormed ahead, setting the pace and expecting everyone else to keep up. And he really didn't seem inclined to back off the subject now. She might as well do it quickly and cleanly. Maybe it would even salve his pride to know that she didn't view this situation as doing him a favor. "I owe you."
His gaze narrowed slightly.
Dasha waited for him to say something, but when that failed to happen she added, "And you're an amazing surgeon, Dr. Monroe. You would be an asset to St. Vincent's."
He shifted, still quiet but mulling things over, if she had even the tiniest ability to read him anymore.
The fact that there was no immediate refusal didn't really help her endure the silence. She looked down, away from his eyes-like that would give him some privacy to think-and got distracted by the shape of his body. Lean and broad. He filled out the blue scrubs like he was meant to sell them. Dasha had never found scrubs flattering, but there was something equalizing about everyone having to wear shapeless, wretched clothes that did nothing good for most figures.
Until it came to Preston.
He looked good. Narrow hips. Long legs. Broad shoulders. Lean. A swimmer's build. But he was a runner. Like her-and yet another way they'd been rivals. In the class. At the track. During residency. Her libido had been shut down for years, and five minutes with this man and she was undressing him in her mind.
Before he had a chance to answer, the phone in her pocket buzzed and she fished it out to look.
"Big accident on I-40." She looked him in the eye then. The man had worn scrubs to an interview, he'd come ready to work-or he had before he'd realized with whom he'd be working. As nice and easy as she'd wanted to play this, there was a chance he'd say no if she just asked him to come along. The only way Dasha knew how to make Preston do what she wanted? Make it a competition dare him. "I've been summoned to Trauma One. I see that you came prepared to work, but I know that having to work with me might be too much for you to handle. I don't want to make you do anything you just aren't able to do, but do you think you could give us a hand? Maybe it will help you decide whether you want to stick around."
The way his eyes narrowed made her worry that she'd played the wrong card.
"I know what you're doing," he said, his voice level enough to raise warning bells. "Do it again and I'm gone. I don't really care what you think. If it didn't sound like you needed help, I wouldn't help. Maybe you can learn something from me."
Before she could say anything, he was out the door and heading in the direction of Emergency. A quick lock of the door and Dasha ran to keep up with his easy jog.
Of course he knew where he was going. He probably memorized the layout of all the buildings before coming. And she was already lagging behind. But that was okay. No, it was better than okay. He would help. They'd need his help today.
And she knew one more thing now: he still looked on her as a rival, otherwise he wouldn't have had to have the last word. And he really wouldn't have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet.
Maybe he wasn't so different after all. She could work with this Preston.
A tractor trailer had turned over, crushing some cars and causing others to pile up, bringing to the ER the kind of injuries Preston expected. Until he saw two people pinned together by a length of steel rod. "What was the semi hauling?" He dragged on gloves and followed Dasha to the unlucky couple.
She called orders as a nurse helped her into a gown and gloves.
The grim looks he saw on the staff's faces couldn't be because he was there Something was wrong. Something besides the carnage.
"You're looking at it," a nurse said, nodding to the skewer. "They were in the car together and had to be cut out."
X-rays hung on the light board, side by side. The woman had a pierced lung, but she was conscious, with fluid currently draining. The man had abdominal trauma. Possibly pierced through his liver. Unconscious.
"Who's on call for Cardiac?" Dasha asked.
"Stevens," someone answered, then added, "But he was in the accident."
The cardiac surgeon had been involved in the tractor trailer wreck?
"Is he injured?" Dasha never stopped moving but her dismay showed for a second before the wall came up. Preston checked the wound on the unconscious man and listened to his breathing then moved to repeat the check on the woman.
"He didn't make it." The same nurse who had answered him.
"Who's on call?" Dasha moved past it, asking questions of different people, compiling the information she needed to see this through.
If the whole staff were as close as Dasha claimed, he could understand the grimness.
A faint burning started in his left eye. Not tears. Tears would be better. It was the other thing. A warning his eyes were acting up. The last thing he needed, an attack on his first day. Possible first day. If he stayed. It was starting to feel like some psychosomatic self-sabotage. But the job was the best part of him, even his subconscious had to realize that.
It was stress.