A baby is the last thing surgical nurse Anya Meeks expected from her passionate New Year's Eve fling. Growing up, Anya shouldered more than her share of responsibility, even raising her three younger siblings. She isn't ready to tackle a lifelong commitment to a childor to a manno matter how caring and attentive he seems.
A drop-dead-gorgeous doctor like Jack Ryder is used to the women of Safe Harbor Hospital vying for his attention. Too bad the only woman he wants is avoiding him. Jack longs for a familyhe'll do anything to persuade Anya not to put their baby up for adoption. But with her jaded views on relationships and family, it won't be easy. Can he convince her that their love is no accident?
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"That was unbelievable." Exhilarated, Dr. Jack Ryder stripped off his surgical gown, folded it inward to contain the soiled part and stuffed it into the specially marked laundry receptacle.
He wished his mentor, Dr. Owen Tartikoff, hadn't already left the operating suite so he could thank the man for letting him take the lead in today's microsurgery, a procedure known as pain mapping. Instead, he shared his high spirits with the anesthesiologist, Dr. Rod Vintner.
Rod quirked an eyebrow at the younger man's excitement. "Don't let it go to your head. In the Middle Ages, surgery was performed by barbers. By the way, I could use a trim." Pulling off his cap, he displayed a shock of graying brown hair.
"Getting a little thin in the middle," Jack responded. One of the techs, obviously new at Safe Harbor Medical Center, seemed startled at this exchange, so Jack explained, "Rod's my uncle."
"Barely," said the anesthesiologist, removing his glove from the edge, inside out to protect his skin from the contaminated surface. "We're the same age."
"Except that you're eight years older," Jack corrected mildly.
"Anything less than ten years is negligible." Rod slid his bare fingers inside the second glove and pulled it off, also inside out.
"In your fevered brain."
"I have much more interesting things in my fevered brain." Rod replaced his surgical cap with a fedora. The look, combined with his short beard and sharp eyes, reminded Jack of a college professor he'd once studied under, a fellow who'd also been quick to pounce on a student's vulnerability but was kind at heart.
As he washed his hands, Jack mentally replayed the surgery. The minimally invasive microlaparoscopy technique involved making an incision about the size of a needle stick. Then the patient had briefly been brought out of anesthesia, and he'd used tiny instruments to touch the organs, allowing her to react so he could identify the exact source of her pain.
After she was again under anesthesia, he'd removed the endometriosis, excess cells from the uterus lining that had spread to the abdominal cavity. The small amount might not have troubled another patient, but each individual perceives pain differently, and this patient had been in agony. Hopefully, she would now feel much better and be able to pursue her goal of having a baby.
"I can't believe I hesitated to apply for this surgical fellowship," he commented to Rod as they left the suite. "Thanks for nudging me."
"You'd been away from Southern California long enough," his uncle said. "Anyway, I needed a roommate and I like your cooking."
Jack took a quick glance around the second-floor hallway. A couple of young nurses must have been watching for him because they immediately made eye contact and flashed him warm smiles. He gave what he hoped was a friendly but distant nod in return. "Could you keep your voice down?" he murmured.
"Why is it such a big secret that you cook?" Rod strode alongside him toward the twin elevators.
"I learned a long time ago that if women find out I have domestic skills, they'll never leave me alone," Jack said. He'd unwittingly earned a reputation as a ladies' man in his younger years simply by responding to women's interest.
Whether they were attracted to him as a doctor or as a single male, he'd never been certain, but the discovery that he was a good cook acted like an accelerant on a fire.
He'd soon realized how quickly some ladies made assumptions about having a future with him and how easily feelings could get hurt. So he'd done his best to avoid involvement. Until recently
"Women never leave you alone," his uncle commented.
"Some of them do." Especially the one I didn't mean to drive away.
And there she was, waiting by the elevators, freshly scrubbed after surgery. Wavy brown hair tumbled around nurse Anya Meeks's sweet face, but her full lips no longer curved when Jack appeared and her intense brown eyes avoided his even while she'd been smoothly assisting him in the operating room.
He should have followed his own rules about not hooking up with a coworker. Yet something about Anya had drawn him to her from the start-her dark, humorous gaze, her quirky energy when they joked and the anecdotes she'd shared during operations about helping raise the younger siblings in her large family. After growing up longing for a stronger family connection, Jack had found those stories especially fascinating.
Which was why when he'd run into her at a New Year's Eve party five weeks ago and learned she was ready to go home before her designated-driver roommate, he shouldn't have offered her a ride. He'd been well aware of an undercurrent of attraction between them. Still, because they lived in the same apartment complex, the suggestion had made sense. But then he really shouldn't have walked her to her door, and then walked through her door, and then noticed the leftover mistletoe and claimed a kiss and then.
The experience of being with her had been so unexpected and powerful, he'd wanted to proceed with caution. Plus, Anya had urged him to leave before her roommate came home. "Let's just keep this light, okay?" she'd said.
Jack had agreed. After all, they were still coworkers and neighbors, and too much closeness too soon could spell disaster. He did want to see her again, but he'd figured they'd gravitate to each other naturally and let whatever happened, happen. But she'd avoided him ever since. During the past month, he'd done his best to throw himself into her path, but that had led exactly nowhere.
Anya pushed the down button, which was already lit. Jack searched for a casual opening that might persuade her to turn around. Nothing occurred to him that wasn't unbearably clunky.
"Got any plans for the weekend?" Rod asked him.
Jack didn't want to answer such a question in Anya's presence, even though his schedule was extremely boring. "It's only Thursday."
"The lady next door mentioned baking pies with the apples her sister gave her," Rod continued. "I think she was hinting. With a little encouragement, you could."
"She's a real-estate agent," Jack said between gritted teeth. "She thinks we're rich doctors and she can sell us a house."
Anya kept her back to them, but he saw her shoulders hunch. Didn't Rod realize she could hear every word?
Jack wasn't trying to put the moves on her. He simply regretted that, for some unknown reason, she'd taken a dislike to him after what he'd considered a thrilling encounter that had left them both deliciously sweaty and breathless. She'd moaned louder than he had, he'd be willing to testify.
Scratch that. No testifying. No public testimonials of any sort.
Anya pressed the button again. This floor didn't show the lights from all six stories, so they had no idea where the cars were.
"Must be a lunchtime holdup," Rod remarked. "There's always a chatterbox who can't stop gossiping with her co-workers."
Anya turned, finally. "Why do you assume it's a she?"
"Women usually have the best gossip," Rod replied without hesitation. "Heard anything good lately?"
Long dark lashes swept her cheeks as she glanced down. "This is ridiculous. I'm taking the stairs."
Before she could leave, Jack said, "Why don't you drop by for dinner tomorrow night? I'm broiling pork chops with an orange-rosemary dressing."
Rod stared at him, then spread his hands in a what-the-hell-gives? gesture.
"Tempting, but no," Anya replied, flicking the tiniest of glances at Jack but otherwise keeping her eyes on the ground. "See you around, doctor."
Off she went, a cute figure in that blue-flowered uniform. Even cuter without it.
Stop that, Jack reprimanded himself and started after her. He caught the heavy door to the stairs before it could close in her wake. "Hold up!"
She halted. "What?"
"I " Think fast. "I want to apologize if I've offended you. I didn't call you afterward because, well, you gave me the impression you wanted to take things slow."
"That's right," she said.
"You're not mad?"
"No, and thanks for the African violet. Zora and I will give it a suitable burial." She began her descent.
Jack paced alongside. "You killed it already?"
"Not yet, but the light in our unit is terrible," Anya said. "Also, I know you don't usually do laundry on Sunday mornings, so don't pretend otherwise."
"I ran into you by accident." Weak, Jack, weak. "Spilled stuff on my clothes the night before."
"While cooking?" Beside him, she lifted a dark eyebrow. Much more effective than when Rod did it. He had no quick comeback with her.
But he'd better speak before they reached the bottom, which was coming up fast. "New recipe. Kind of exploded."
"Sorry I missed the fun."
"So everything's normal between us?"
"Why wouldn't it be?" With that nonanswer, she shouldered the exit door.
Although not completely reassured, Jack hoped that in a few days she might reconsider joining him for dinner. He wanted to be alone with her, to have her bright spirit focused solely on him.
One problem: he'd have to get his uncle out of the apartment. Jack supposed he might encourage Rod to go out with their Realtor neighbor or join an internet dating site. One lousy marriage shouldn't sour the guy on women forever.
"If you're headed for lunch, we could share a table," he said to Anya just as a muscular guy in a dark blue nurse's uniform materialized. He had dark hair, a confident swagger and a couple of tattoos extending from beneath his short sleeves.
The bar pin disclosed the stud's name as Luke Mendez, RN. Jack had never seen him in surgery or labor and delivery, so most likely he worked in the adjacent office building.
"Hey," the man said to Anya. "New developments. You won't want to miss this."
"Miss what?" Jack asked.
"Nothing important," Anya told him. "See you around." Off she went with Nurse Tattoo in the direction of the cafeteria.
Well, damn. Briefly, Jack considered buying lunch at the cafeteria, too. He wouldn't sit at the nurses' table, of course; the only doctors who did that were married to nurses, and even then they usually respected each other's separate social circles. Still, he was curious about what he might overhear.
Don't be an idiot. She'd said everything was fine between them. Furthermore, having been up since before dawn, he could use a nap. The shortage of office space at Safe Harbor forced newcomers like Jack to see their patients on evenings and weekends in shared quarters. It was after one o'clock now, and he had to return by five.
Why should he care about Anya and her chums? Whatever they were doing, he'd find out soon enough via the hospital grapevine and his uncle. So why did he feel as if he was missing something?
So Jack cooked, Anya mused. It gave him a certain domestic appeal-as if a guy with bright green eyes, thick brown hair and a million-watt smile needed or deserved any further advantages.
As she accompanied Luke-Lucky to his friends-to the cafeteria, Anya felt propelled by her own mental kicks in the butt. Downing two drinks on New Year's Eve was no excuse for jumping into bed with her handsome neighbor. His clumsy attempts to score a second time-which is what she assumed he was doing, given his reputation-were mildly amusing, but she wasn't that big a fool.
She had a more pressing problem-her period being three weeks late. The pill was 99.9 percent effective when used properly, which she did. She ought to take a pregnancy test, but she was almost certain it would prove negative. When it did, Anya preferred to have expert advice on hand because there was definitely something wrong with her.
She doubted it was stress. She wasn't that upset about her stupidity in bedding Jack, nor about her roommate pressuring her to move to a cheaper place rather than renew their lease. So was this a hormonal imbalance? An autoimmune disease? At twenty-six, surely she was too young for early menopause.
She checked her phone. No text from Dr. Cavill-Hunter's nurse about working her into today's schedule.
In the cafeteria, Anya studied the posted menu. "What's the special? I don't see it."
"They're out of it," Lucky told her. "It's nearly one-thirty. Just grab a sandwich, will you?"
Anya folded her arms. "What's the rush?"
"People have to get back to work."
She hated pressure. It usually inspired her to go even slower, but she was hungry. Also, across the busy room, she spotted a halo of short ginger hair that identified her roommate, Zora Raditch, sitting across from patient financial counselor Karen Wiggins. Karen's hair color this week: strawberry blond with pink highlights.
The third woman at the table, Melissa Everhart, projected pure gorgeous class with her honey-blond hair in a French twist. Melissa worked with the hospital's recently opened egg bank as egg donor coordinator.
They weren't sharing a table by accident, nor from longstanding friendship. They had serious business to discuss, and it included her.
By now, Lucky was jogging in place. Anya chose a pastrami pita sandwich with avocados and sprouts, sweet-potato chips and iced tea. She paid the cashier and followed her impatient companion.
The three women huddled over a sheet of paper. "You could have this room in the front and Anya this one on the side," Karen was saying as they approached.
Glancing over her roommate's shoulder, Anya saw the floor plan of a two-story house. "I thought you were all set for renters, Karen."
Zora swung around, braced for action. "We're getting a second chance, Anya. Come on! We'll never find a more fun place to live than Karen's house, and it's really quiet and backs onto a park."
Here we go again. For the past year, Anya had relished both the close companionship and the comparative privacy of living with just one friend. Having grown up in a crowded household where her family's expectations, assumptions and criticisms weighed on her constantly like a heavy coat in summertime, she had no interest in sharing quarters with a group.
"That isn't a park-it's wetlands. Mosquito central," Anya responded, setting her tray on a clear spot. "What happened to the two guys who'd signed on?"
"Ned Norwalk decided he prefers living alone." Ned was a fellow nurse. "I wish he'd told me sooner." Karen scowled at Lucky.
"I had nothing to do with that." Turning a chair backward, he sat at the other open space. "I like him."
"But you hate Laird," Melissa noted.
Lucky shrugged. "Karen, I'm sorry, but you know how he is. A few drinks and he's making passes at random women." Catching Karen's eye roll, he added, "Unwelcome passes."
"So you chased him off," Karen grumbled.
"Once you come to your senses, you'll thank me," Lucky replied.
Quietly eating her sandwich, Anya conceded that she didn't like Laird either. He might be a psychologist and family counselor, but in her opinion, he could use some counseling of his own.
"How'd you get rid of him?" Zora asked.
Lucky addressed his response to the others, ignoring Zora, as usual. "I may have implied that I'd make his life miserable if he moved in. That's all."
Karen smacked the table. Anya had to grab her iced tea to prevent a spill. "This may be a game to you, Lucky, but I can't make the payments by myself. Now that the renovations are finished, I need a full house. Otherwise, I either have to raise everyone's rent sky-high or sell."
For years, Karen-now in her early forties-had cared for her ailing mom while medical expenses ate up their savings. They'd had to defer all but the most essential maintenance on their five-bedroom home. A few months ago, though, following her mother's death, the counselor had taken out a loan to upgrade the electrical, plumbing and appliances. Then she'd solicited her friends and coworkers to move in for what Anya had to admit was a very reasonable monthly rent.