Gib is dedicated to his patients, he's not looking for love, though there's something about Sophie that is changing his mind. Then he makes a discovery about Thomas that changes everything. Sophie may have unknowingly brought him the best Christmas gift of all.
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SOPHIE had been so hell-bent on finding Thomas's father that the one thing she should have considered hadn't occurred to her. Not until two forty-seven on a Wednesday afternoon while she was wandering through the mall in Brisbane, trying not to think about Thomas and how he might be handling his new child-care situation—trying not to worry...
Then, from nowhere, it slammed into her mind—the question she'd never considered. The 'what if his father has changed his mind and wants him' question that hadn't, until that precise moment, entered her head.
She was seized by panic so strong that she had to steady herself with one hand against a jeweller's window. Breathing deeply, she told herself the father, whoever he turned out to be, didn't even know Thomas existed, so of course he wouldn't want him.
Telling herself lies? "It will be OK!" she muttered, saying the words over and over under her breath as if repetition might make them stronger.
"Are you all right?"
An elderly woman stopped beside her and one glance at the kind but anxious face was enough to pull Sophie out of her shock.
"Yes, thank you," she said, aware she must look very far from all right for the stranger to have stopped. "Just felt a little faint."
"There's a book store on the next corner with a great coffee shop on the ground floor,'her good Samaritan said. "I find wandering through book stores wonderfully therapeutic."
Sophie had to smile. "Me, too,'she replied. "Thank you for telling me about it." She moved cautiously away from the window, pleased to find the weakness gone, her brain functioning again and her legs obeying the order to move. She didn't need a coffee, but she'd buy a book for Thomas...
"Mum and Dad, Aunt Etty, the Pritchards and Marilyn. Mum and Dad, Aunt Etty, the Pritchards and Marilyn."
Gib was still repeating the names as he stared blankly at the rows and rows of books in front of him. It had become a meaningless mantra. He was too tired to be doing this—too tired for his brain to function effectively.
"Go home and get some sleep,'his receptionist had said. Not, "Go do your Christmas shopping!"
Maybe he should have listened!
But if not now, when? The two members of his team currently in hospital wouldn't be back any time soon and finding locum paediatricians with neonatal experience this close to Christmas, when the world and his wife were off on holiday, was like finding...well, snow on the ground outside, here in midsummer in sunny Queensland.
"Having any luck?"
He was reciting the list of the 'must get' presents once more under his breath when the deep, smoky words penetrated his exhaustion.
Turned to see dark smoky eyes that exactly matched the voice.
The jolt of recognition he felt startled him, although he couldn't say for certain he knew the tall, ebony-haired woman standing on the other side of a low carousel of cookery books.
"Not much,'he said, seeing a frown that probably matched his own gathering between her fine black eyebrows.
"Me neither," she said, waving her hand towards the array of brightly coloured covers in front of her. "But, then, I'm not really trying, just filling in time."
Her frown was still firmly in place, and he was pretty sure his was, too, the recognition signals annoyingly persistent.
"Do I know you?"
They spoke together, the chorused words bringing a flash of a smile to her face, lightening it for a moment— making it beautiful.
Or was exhaustion creating fantasies in his head?
Not in hers, apparently, for she was holding out her hand—saying her name.
"Sophie Fisher." 'Sophie Fisher? Dr Sophie Fisher?"
He took her hand and held it, seeing not this tall, slim woman in jeans and a faded T-shirt, long dark hair escaping from a knot of some kind at the back of her head, but a poised, elegant woman in a black suit, dark hair swept carefully back into a neat pleat.
"My Dr Fisher?"
He was sounding like an idiot but his beleaguered brain was having trouble making the leap between the two women.
And her hand was twitching in his as she tried to tug it free. "I thought you would still be in Sydney." 'Dr Gibson?"
His name was hesitant on her lips and her frown had deepened, but her brain was obviously working better than his for she got in the first apology.
"I'm sorry. I should have recognised you at once from the interview. Blame preoccupation. It's Thomas's first full day at the hospital child-care centre—he's had three morning sessions to get used to the place, but this was all day, and I've been seriously stressed. I thought I'd fill in the day house-hunting but that's an exercise in frustration. Apparently accommodation near the hospital doesn't become available until the new year, when staff transfers occur. More stress!"
Her gabbled explanation and faltering smile betrayed the truth of her statement. She pushed straying hair back from her face with long, slim fingers as she added, "Book stores seem to offer refuge, don't they?"
He remembered noticing her hands—beautiful hands— when she'd reached across the table to take the folder of information his secretary had prepared for the three candidates. Remembered being surprised he'd noticed because it had been so long since he'd noticed anything in particular about any woman...
"I'm sorry!" Was he repeating himself now? "I'm standing here like a malfunctioning robot. In fact, that might just about describe me. We're—"
He broke off as another—far better—thought struck him. "You were looking for a house? Thomas has started at the child-care centre? You're already here to stay?"
He grasped her by the arm and led her towards the escalator. "Coffee," he said. "I passed a coffee shop on the ground floor. We'll talk over coffee."
As a distraction from her own anxious thoughts, the man's appearance was a blessing, but did she need a madman as team boss? Sophie eyed Dr Alexander Gibson warily as he hauled her onto the escalator. He'd looked and acted quite normal when she'd been interviewed—clean-shaven, neat hair, dark suit and tie, very proper!—but perhaps that had been a front for the other members of the interviewing panel.
Aware, however, that one should humour madmen, she went with him, studying the flecks of silver showing in his dark hair, thinking, absurdly, that he needed a haircut.
Did his wife not remind him?
And why had she noticed his wedding ring? "I'm sorry, you must think I'm crazy." He accompanied this new apology with a charming smile as he turned to steady her as she stepped off the escalator, but the smile failed to hide neither the deep lines of exhaustion in his face, visible beneath the rough stubble on his chin nor the dark shadows beneath his red-rimmed blue eyes.
Without conscious thought, she lifted her hand towards him, then realised she'd been about to touch his cheek and quickly withdrew it, covering the weird movement with a question.
Gib saw her frown return and eyes, which he'd thought brown but now saw were grey, darken. Had he flinched as her hand had moved towards him?
The way his nerves were it was only too likely, but rather than apologise again, he simply steered her towards the coffee shop, dumped her at a table and strode to the counter to place their order.
Their order? He hadn't asked. "Lattè," she said, not dumped at all but right beside him. "And a slice of that poppy seed cake, please."
He realised, belatedly, she was talking to the girl behind the till, and though he protested as Sophie passed across the correct change, she ignored him, simply taking a table number and returning to where he'd thought he'd left her.
"Long black, same table number,'he said to the girl, then felt the heat of embarrassment as he turned away, only to be reminded he hadn't paid. So, by the time he returned to where Dr Sophie Fisher was sitting placidly at the table and sat down opposite her, he was wondering if asking her— begging her—to start work early was as good an idea as it had seemed, up there between biography and cooking.
"So?'she said, and smiled again. And again he registered beautiful. Though when the smile faded he looked hard at her face and saw that though she had great bones and a strong, individual kind of face, it was at best attractive.
As in attracting him? The idea was so bizarre he simply stared at her.
"You wanted to speak to me, Dr Gibson?" she eventually prompted, growing more certain by the moment the man had something seriously wrong with him. Now he was staring at her—not in a man-looking-at-a-woman kind of way, but intently, as if trying to see beneath her skin and bones and into her brain.
Maybe she had something wrong with her! Something more than first-whole-day-at-child-care and what-if-his-father-wants-him worries over Thomas.
"Gib. Call me Gib. Even my patients call me Gib, those old enough to talk, of course," he said, switching his attention from her face to the table number, which he now twisted on its stand. "I'm not doing this too well, but I've had about six hours' sleep in the last forty-eight and I'm not functioning at one hundred per cent efficiency—probably not even fifty per cent. Then realising who you were— it seemed like a miracle."
He looked up and met her eyes. "I'm not that used to miracles," he said, and although he spoke lightly, she sensed the words were painfully true.
Recently true. "Are any of us?" she said, trying to sound offhand, although her own personal miracle—the one she'd hoped and prayed for—hadn't happened either.
"I guess not, although in paediatrics especially we do occasionally see one, don't we?"
"A badly injured baby boy who lives when he should have died? A teenage girl whose bone-marrow transplant takes? I suppose we do."
"And now you," he said, and smiled.
Afterwards, Sophie would wonder why the tired smile of an exhausted man should have affected her at all, but right now all she could do was stare at it, transfixed by its strength and character, although it was entirely a mouth smile, not reaching the dark shadows in his eyes—not lighting them at all.
"I'm a miracle?'she said, still seeing the smile, although it had passed only fleetingly across his face.
"You are indeed,'he told her, and smiled again, although this time at the waitress who was serving their coffees and Sophie's slice of cake.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like something to eat with your coffee?" the waitress asked, wiping nonexistent crumbs from the table and simpering at the man. "Quite sure," he said, but before he could smile at her again, Sophie interrupted the little bit of byplay.
"You were explaining the miracle," she reminded him. The waitress threw her a dirty look and moved away reluctantly, while Sophie registered that underneath the tiredness and incipient beard there was a very handsome man.
He sugared his coffee and took a cautious sip, then sighed in pleasure and drained the cup, setting it down carefully in its saucer before looking at her again.
"Two of my team—my current number two, the one you'll be replacing, and a second-year resident—have recently become engaged. Usual celebrations, then driving home from visiting her parents last weekend an out-of-control truck slammed into their car and they're both in hospital."
Pity for the young couple, injured at the peak of their happiness, swamped through Sophie.
"Are they badly hurt? Will they be all right?" Her companion frowned though not, she thought, at her this time.
"They'll be fine, but it will take time. Petra sustained injuries to both legs and has external fixators on them, Pete has comminuted fractures of his left leg, yet to be operated on, and damage to his right shoulder that will take a series of ops to fix. Pete was driving and has internal injuries as well—damaged spleen..."
"And you're down two team members," Sophie said, understanding now why the man looked so tired. "But surely the other teams..."
"Three weeks before Christmas, when it seems the whole of Queensland goes on holiday? My team was the only one where none of the staff was taking Christmas leave, mainly because Pete's moving on at the end of the month and Petra's saving all her leave for her wedding next year."
"So with two down there's you and...?" 'A second-year resident, Yui Lin. She's good, but she's not Superwoman. And I suspect she's pregnant, although she hasn't said anything, so I'm worried about pushing her too hard. Did you work through your pregnancy?"