After a childhood spent in foster care, art therapist Corrine Evans knows how important first impressions are. So when her enigmatic new boss, Dr. Tom Riley, questions the impact her work can make, Cori is intent on proving her value!
But as Cori gets to know this devoted doc, she realizes there's a dark shadow haunting Tom's past. And as he begins to let her in, Cori discovers there's so much more to Dr. Riley than she ever dared dream
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'Do me a favour
There was more than a hint of flirtatiousness about the tone of the request, but Tom Riley knew that Dr Helen Kowalski's designs on his person were far from recreational. A Sunday afternoon, a doctor at a loose end and a phone call from a busy A and E department added up to only one thing.
'You want me to come down and see someone?'
'If you're not busy on the ward. We've got a kid here who's driving everyone crazy.'
'And since he's under sixteen, you thought you might pass him on to me.' Tom smirked into the phone. 'Because awkward customers are my speciality.'
Helen snorted with laughter. 'I could say something about it taking one to know how to deal with one.'
'If you do, I'm going home. I'm not even supposed to be at work today.'
'Get down here, Tom.' A crash sounded from somewhere in the background and Helen muttered a curse. 'Please '
'I'm already on my way.'
The source of all the trouble turned out to be eight years old, with a shock of red hair. He was sitting on the bed in one of the cubicles, swinging his legs. Tom gave him a wide berth to avoid being kicked, and smiled at the woman sitting next to him.
'I'm Dr Tom ' He winced, stepping back as he realised that he'd underestimated the reach of the boy's flailing feet.
'I'm so sorry Adrian, please don't do that, you'll hurt someone.' It looked as if Adrian's companion had come straight from some half-completed DIY project, with her dark hair fastened at the back of her head and bound with a scarf. Paint-stained overalls had been slipped from her shoulders, with the sleeves tied around her waist, to reveal a Fair Isle sweater with a darn at one elbow.
'No harm done.' Tom dismissed the urge to rub his leg where Adrian had kicked him. 'What brings you here?'
When she looked up at him, it registered that she had violet eyes. Whatever had brought her here seemed suddenly unimportant.
'It's Adrian.' She turned wearily to the boy, laying her free hand on one flailing leg in an attempt to restrain him. Tom noticed that the other was held fast in Adrian's own hand. 'He's hit his head. There's a lump.'
'Okay.' Tom wondered whether Adrian was usually this badly behaved. 'Anything else? Any change in his demeanour?'
Her wry smile was directed at the boy, who promptly stopped kicking his feet. 'He always has plenty of energy.'
That was one way of putting it. 'So what happened?'
'I was up a ladder and Adrian was playing. He brushed against the ladder and we both ended up on the floor. He banged his head, so I thought it was best to bring him here and get him checked over.'
She tipped her face back towards Tom, raking him with her gaze. He could almost feel it caress his face, before she looked away.
'You weren't hurt?' Instinct told him that Adrian had probably careened straight into the ladder, rather than merely brushing against it. And the stiff way that she moved told him that Adrian wasn't the only one who should see a doctor.
'I'm fine.' She couldn't even meet his querying look. 'Adrian, don't do that, please.'
Tom focussed his attention back on the boy and saw that he had started to meticulously shred the paper cover that had been laid over the top of the bed. First things first. 'Right, young man. Let's take a look at that head of yours.'
Adrian's freckled face and red hair seemed to flame. He clutched fiercely at the woman, and she winced. Tom backed off. Experience had told him that it was always good to listen to adults, but that you learnt a great deal more by looking at a child.
Pulling a chair away from the bed a little, he sat down, leaning back and folding his arms. Now that there was no imminent danger of being wrestled from the grip of his companion, Adrian calmed, regarding him steadily.
'All right, Adrian.' Tom stretched his legs out in front of him, as if he had all the time in the world. 'How are we going to do this?'
This doctor was a dream. Cori had known that taking Adrian to A and E was going to be a challenge, but he needed to be examined by a doctor, and on a Sunday afternoon there wasn't a great deal of choice but to join the queue and try to reassure him and keep him calm. The loud farting noises that he had made in the waiting room had ensured a circle of empty chairs around them, and the woman doctor that Adrian had seen at first had been kind and efficient but clearly too busy to give him the time he needed.
She hadn't caught this doctor's second name, and perhaps he hadn't given it. He wasn't wearing a name badge like the other staff in A and E, but more importantly he'd had the time and the inclination to sit back and let Adrian dictate the pace. He'd explained everything that he was about to do, and nodded when Cori had added the piece of information that she knew Adrian needed to hear. He'd be going home with her, as soon as they were finished here.
The man was blond and blue-eyed, but gifted with enough hard edges to indicate that he was probably no angel. He hadn't tried to part her and Adrian either, but had somehow contrived to examine Adrian while he'd still clung to her. When his fingers had accidentally brushed her cheek, she'd forgotten the pain in her hip and shoulder and had felt herself automatically relax.
'Right, then, Adrian.' Tom grinned. 'I'm officially giving you a clean bill of health. That means you can go home with your ' His gaze flipped questioningly towards Cori.
'Sister.' She volunteered the closest description she could manage without a lengthy explanation.
He nodded gravely, clearly taking a shot at estimating the eighteen-year difference between Adrian's age and hers. 'Right. Your sister.'
Perhaps he'd come to the conclusion that they came from a large family, which was close enough to the truth. Cori nudged Adrian, who was now beaming at Tom.
'Thank you,' Adrian responded to her prompt, and Tom smiled again. He had a nice smile, which came packaged up with a small nod, as if he was sharing a secret. Cori reminded herself that, whatever the conspiracy was, it was probably between him and Adrian and not her.
'You're very welcome. You were right to come.' He turned his attention to Cori, and she felt her fingertips tingle. That was probably the effect of having fallen hard on her left side, although why her right hand should be affected as well was beyond her.
'How are you getting home?'
'My father's coming to pick us up. He should be here by now.'
'All right. What's his name?'
'Ralph Evans. But'
'Stay there.' Tom's look brooked no argument. 'I'll see if I can find him.'
* * *
Adrian was clearly still determined not to be parted from his sister, and so Tom was going to have to find a way of examining her without distressing the boy. Because however much Adrian wanted to go home, and however much his sister tried to hide it, she was clearly in pain. And as much as he prided himself on his medical skills, Tom was unable to tell whether her ribs were broken by simply looking at her.
He caught Helen's eye as she hurried past. 'Have you got a minute? I want you to have a look at the woman that the boy came in with.'
'What's the matter with her?'
'She's had a fall. If you could just check her over.'
Helen shook her head. 'If she's not urgent then she'll have to wait. The boy's father was here a minute ago.'
'You get on. I'll find him.'
Helen shot him a smile over her shoulder, and Tom looked around the busy department for some clue as to who the father might be. Maybe red hair, which matched the boy's.
A middle-aged man turned towards him, following the receptionist's pointing finger. 'Dr Riley? I'm here for Adrian Harper, I'm his guardian.'
Tom's surprise must have shown on his face.
In his experience you could often explain a child's behaviour when you met the parent, but this man, with his relaxed manner and dark, salt-and-pepper hair, bore no resemblance to Adrian at all. Before he could frame the question, the man had reached into his pocket and drawn a card from his wallet to identify himself.
'Adrian's your foster son?'
Ralph nodded. 'Is he all right?'
'He has a bit of a bump on his head.' Tom remembered the pamphlets on aftercare that were stacked behind Reception and reached across, selecting the right one and handing it to Ralph. 'You should keep an eye on him for the next twenty-four hours.'
Ralph chuckled. 'We always do. Is Cori all right?'
'His sister?' Tom realised that he didn't know her name. Her smile and the extraordinary colour and warmth of her eyes had seemed enough.
'Yes. When she called she said that Adrian had cannoned into a ladder. I was rather hoping she hadn't been up it at the time.'
Cori had obviously rationed out the truth, giving little bits of it as and when she'd reckoned necessary. 'She told me he brushed against the ladder and that she'd fallen. I'd like her to see a doctor, as she's obviously in pain, but Adrian won't let go of her.'
Ralph nodded, clearly not fazed by any of this. 'Okay, thanks. I'll take Adrian home and make sure that Cori sees someone.'
'Today.' Tom peered through to the waiting room, which, if anything, looked even fuller than it had been half an hour ago. 'If she comes back here, I'll try and find someone who'll see her quickly.'
'Thanks. I know how busy you are, and I appreciate it. She'll be back as soon as I've got Adrian into the car.'
Cori walked back from the hospital car park. Adrian had been mollified by her assertion that she wasn't coming with them because she was going straight back to her own flat, but Ralph had insisted quietly that she do nothing of the sort. Now she had at least another two-hour wait in front of her before she saw one of the doctors in A and E.
The pain in her shoulder and hip was getting worse, though, and now that she was alone Cori suddenly wanted to cry. She couldn't be injured, not now. Tomorrow morning she'd be starting an eight-week attachment, here at the hospital, which might lead to getting the permanent post that she really wanted. However hard she'd fallen, she couldn't afford not to get up and get on with it. 'Hey, there.'
That sounded suspiciously like Tom's voice, laced with a hint of the conspiratorial quality of his smile. She looked up, and saw him standing outside the entrance to the A and E department, a cup of coffee in his hand. He looked like a dream come true.
'Come along.' He took a long swig of the last of his coffee and spun the paper cup into the bin.
She wanted to just go with him, without asking where or why. But that wasn't going to get her out of there any quicker. 'I've got to go and register at Reception. Get my place in the queue.'
He grinned and Cori hesitated. When he smiled, he was the most perfect man that she had ever seen. Wherever it was that he wanted her to go, it suddenly seemed like a good idea.
'You've just jumped the queue.'
'But ' It was tempting. 'There are people waiting. You should see them first.'
'I'm off shift, and there's nothing more for me to do here. And you've already waited once.'
Did he have to be quite so persuasive? 'It's okay, really. I appreciate it, but you should go home if your shift has finished.'
His brow darkened. 'You're not going to kick me, are you?'
She shook her head, silently.
'Good. In that case, you'd better follow me.' He turned on his heel, not waiting for the objection that Cori felt duty-bound to make, and led the way back into A and E.
Tom hadn't given her the chance to protest any further. He'd taken one look at the rapidly forming bruises on Cori's shoulder and hip, and filled out a form for her to take down to X-Ray. While he was waiting for her, Helen had made the most of the opportunity and passed a couple of minor cases to him, telling him that she couldn't bear the thought of seeing him bored.
When they came through, he reviewed the X-rays carefully, and then went to find Cori. She was sitting on a chair in one of the cubicles, a hospital gown pulled down over her knees, her T-shirt and sweater wrapped in a bundle and hugged against her chest.
'I wanted to say thank-you, for being so nice with Adrian. And that I'm sorry he kicked you. I hope he didn't hurt you too much.' She blurted the words out almost as soon as he drew the curtain across the entrance to the cubicle.
'It's okay. I've had worse.' A lot worse. He'd grown up with it, and Tom had learned to just take the blows and move on. To cry later, when he was alone in his bed. He pushed the memory away, wondering why it had chosen that moment to surface. Maybe it had been something to do with the gentle way that Cori had treated Adrian. Tenderness always seemed to awaken an obscure feeling of loss in him.
'So what were you painting?' He didn't want to think about it any more, and Cori seemed nervous. Small talk would hopefully rectify both those issues.
'It was a wall.' She seemed to relax a bit. 'Actually, a mural. In my spare time I work with a group of artists, which donates wall art to charities and schools.'
'Sounds great. Only Adrian had different ideas?'
She stiffened. 'He didn't mean to do it. He's not usually as naughty as when you saw him '
He liked the way she rose to the boy's defence, her eyes flashing defiance at him. 'That's okay. I'm not blaming him for anything.'
'No. Thank you. Adrian hasn't had things very easy in the last few years.'
'Your father told me he's fostered with your family.'
'Yes, that's right. He's had a few really bad experiences with hospitals.' She clutched at her sweater, as if she felt she'd just made a faux pas. 'Not this one.'
'No hospital's an easy place to be for a child. We do our best, but.'
'I know. You were great with him, and I really appreciate it. It makes a difference.' She seemed unwilling to let the point go. 'When he was little, he was taken into his local A and E department with his mother. Drugs overdose. The boyfriend forgot all about Adrian and he got left in the waiting room on his own. The staff found him curled up in a corner.'
A little boy, lost and alone. Tom felt a sudden heaviness in his chest, as if something was trying to stop him from breathing. 'Which is why he wouldn't let go of you?'
'Yes. And why I said there was nothing wrong with me.' She shrugged, and winced painfully. 'I shouldn't be telling you all this, but I guess it's okay, since you're his doctor. And I wanted you to know how much the way you treated him will have meant to him. He doesn't have the words to say it. Not yet anyway.'
For a moment, Tom really couldn't breathe, and felt himself begin to choke. Then self-control came to his rescue. 'Thanks for telling me. Adrian's lucky to have you to speak up for him.'
'I'm adopted too.' She gave him a bright smile. 'I was lucky to have someone speak up for me when I needed it.'
And now she was paying it forward. Tom turned quickly, trying to shut out the what ifs. The fact was that no one had spoken up for him when he'd been a child, and it was far too late for anyone to do it now. He moved the bed down so she could sit on it without him having to help her up, and motioned her towards it.
'Your X-rays are fine, so there are no breaks or fractures, but I'd like to check on the movement in your shoulder.'
She nodded, rising stiffly from the chair and sitting down on the bed. Tom raised it until they were almost face to face, trying not to allow her eyes to distract him from the job in hand.
'I'm going to rotate your shoulder. It's going hurt a little bit but try and relax.'
She smiled again, almost as if she was trying to reassure him. But he wasn't supposed to be noticing her smile, let alone allowing himself to react to it like a teenager. 'It already hurts a little bit.'
'Right. Then it's going to hurt a little bit more.'
It hurt. He was gentle, and measured, but it still hurt.
'Sorry. Nearly done.'
She let out the breath she'd been holding. Somehow she'd let go of the edge of the bed, and her fingers had clutched at the closest thing to hand, the material of his white coat. She felt herself flush, and let go, hoping he hadn't noticed.
'Everything's fine there. I just want to take another look at the bruising. If you could slip the gown off your shoulder.'
Cori did as he asked with trembling fingers. It was nothing. She'd shown her shoulders in public before without a second thought. But even though Tom had his back turned and was scribbling something on her notes, she was suddenly embarrassed. In the moment before she'd let go of his coat, she'd felt hard muscle flexing beneath her hand.
He was cool, and professional, his gloved fingers gently probing her shoulders and back. That just made things worse. If he'd cracked a joke, at least she could have come back with a smart reply to take the edge off the tension. Cori squeezed her eyes closed, dropping her head forward.
'Okay. That's good.' He didn't seem aware of the fact that her forehead was resting against his shoulder, and that they were in an awkward replica of an embrace. When he stepped away again, she wanted to pull him back.