Eminent surgeon Leo Costa's famous Italian charm has never failed him before--but whilst Dr Abbie McFarlane appreciates his skills as a doctor, his attention to her as a woman she can do without! Abbie doesn't do flings--if she's going to open her heart to Leo, she wants it to be for ever...
About the Author
Fiona Lowe is a RITA® and R*BY award-winning, author. Whether her contemporary books are set in outback Australia or in the USA, they feature small towns with big hearts and warm and likeable characters that make you fall in love. Sign up for her newsletter at http://bit.ly/1FmSvHN All social media links are at fionalowe.com
Read an Excerpt
Bright white lights radiated heat and sweat poured down Dr Abbie McFarlane's forehead as she gritted her teeth in concentration. A stray strand of hair escaped from her cap but she resisted the urge to wipe her forehead on her sleeve, the sterile law of the operating theatre drilled into her long and hard over many years. Her mouth framed the word 'sponge' but she quickly swallowed it, stealing it back before it tripped over her lips.
Squinting, she tried again. Her nimble hands, which usually deftly and ably sewed fine stitches, seemed at a loss as they plunged yet again down into the sticky mass and stalled.
'Dottore, do not stab it. Il pane, he needs you to be more gentle.'
Abbie sighed. 'Maria, the dough's just sticking to my fingers and I can't do anything with it.'
'You must use plenty of flour.' Maria's old, gnarled hands quickly scattered more flour on the workbench and expertly kneaded Abbie's sticky mess into a stretchy and elastic dough, before pulling it into a ciabatta roll.
Abbie immediately covered it with a fresh white tea towel. 'I think I'm a lost cause.'
The old woman grinned and shook her scarf-covered head. 'I do this for seventy years. You come again and try.'
Abbie played her only bargaining card in this unusual doctor-patient scenario. 'Only if you promise me you'll rest. Your blood pressure's a bit high and your family's worried about you. It's going to take the new medication a few days to start working, so you have to take it easy.'
'Pfft. I feel fine.' She patted her chest with her fist. 'My heart is strong.'
Abbie frowned and injected a stern tone into her voice. 'If you don't rest I'll put you in hospital.'
Maria sat down fast. 'You sound like my grandson.'
'He must be a wise man, then,' Abbie quipped as she washed her hands in preparation to head back to the clinic.
The eighty-year-old nonna rolled her eyes and jabbed the air with her finger. 'He is alone like you.'
'Well, I hope he's as happy as I am.' Abbie smiled and quickly laid the hand towel over the rail. Twelve months in Bandarra and she'd quickly learned every diversion tactic in the book to avoid being introduced to all and sundry's brothers, sons, cousins and grandsons. She'd even let the 'gay' rumour run wild until one patient had tried to set her up on a date with her daughter. Ironically, no one had made the connection to one of the reasons why she donated so much of her time to the women's shelter—it was the one place no one tried to match her up with anyone. If life had taught her anything, it was that she chose the wrong man every time so staying single was the safe choice. Nothing or no one was going to change that. Ever.
Abbie picked up the keys to her four-wheel drive. 'So, you're going to lie down for an hour until your daughter's back from the vineyard?'
Maria unexpectedly capitulated. 'Yes, dottore, I will do as you say.'
'Excellent. I'll call by tomorrow.'
'And I show you how to make bruschetta.'
Abbie laughed. 'Give up now, Maria. I can't cook.'
But the old woman just smiled.
'Karen, cara, my angel of the operating theatre, you can't be serious?' Leo Costa held his overwhelming frustration in check by a bare millimetre, knowing that yelling would work once but flattery worked for ever. Ignoring the pinching of his mobile phone against his ear, he poured on the charm. 'We organised this last week over lunch. I even filled in the paperwork as a special favour to you, so don't break my heart and tell me it's double-booked and I can't have the slot.'
A tiny silence ensued before Karen spoke. 'I guess I could ask Mr Trewellan to reschedule, seeing that we gave him an extra slot last week.'
'I like the way you're thinking, cara. Call me back as soon as it's sorted.' He snapped his phone shut without waiting for the theatre administrator's farewell and checked his watch. Damn it, but he was late for rounds and he hated starting the day on the back foot, especially when he had a full appointment list this morning in his Collins Street rooms.
He strode towards the bank of lifts and hit the up button, tapping his foot on the polished linoleum floor of Melbourne City Hospital. He'd had scant sleep last night, having operated on a road trauma case, and it hardly seemed any time at all since he'd left the hospital, and now he was back again. There'd only been enough time to catch a three-hour nap before a quick shower and shave and a much needed shot of espresso before arriving back at work.
As the light above the lift glowed red and the heralding 'ping' sounded, his phone vibrated in his pocket. Hopefully, it was good news about the theatre mess. He flicked his phone open. 'Leo Costa.'
'Oh, thank God, you're not scrubbed.' The unexpected but familiar voice of one of his many sisters came down the line.
'Anna?' He rubbed his hand through his hair. Usually at this time of morning she was knee-deep in children, the school run and juggling calls from restaurant suppliers. 'What's up?'
A half sigh, half cry came down the line. 'It's Nonna, Leo. This time you have to come back to Bandarra.'
Abbie stifled a yawn as she swung her red dust-covered boots from her four-by-four onto the hospital car park's sticky asphalt. The hot summer sun had finally fallen below the horizon and Venus twinkled at her as if to say, Isn't life wonderful. But she didn't feel twinkly today. The day had thrown everything at her, including an emergency evacuation from the Aboriginal settlement a hundred kilometres away. Now she longed to crawl out of the clothes she'd been wearing for seventeen hours, ached for a shower to wash the ingrained grit of the outback dust from her skin, and wanted nothing more than to snuggle into soft cotton sheets.
The automatic hospital doors opened and she walked into air-conditioned cool, a blissful respite from the outside summer heat that not even nightfall could cool. She paused, her ears and eyes alert, and then she smiled, letting out a long, slow breath. Calm.
Tonight, the small hospital had the air of quiet, drama-free purpose which, given her day, was exactly what she needed. She'd do a quick check on Maria, consult with the nursing staff about her other two inpatients and then head home and somehow convince Murphy, her Border collie, that he didn't want a walk tonight.
The nursing station was empty, but the charts had been gathered for the ease of the night shift and sorted into alphabetical order. She quickly rifled through them until she found the group labelled 'Rossi'.
'Page her doctor again.' A rich baritone voice, threaded with startling steel, travelled down the corridor, followed a beat later by, 'I'd really appreciate it, Erin.' The steel in the voice had vanished, replaced by a deep mellow sound reminiscent of a luxurious velvet cloak that wrapped enticingly around a person and caressed with beguiling softness.
Abbie knew all about velvet hiding steel. She'd grown up with it in many guises and it had chased her through a disastrous relationship. Charm so often hid threatening control.
'Of course, Mr Costa, I'll try again for you.' Erin Bryant, the immensely capable no-nonsense night-duty nurse who always did things her way, had just been vanquished with Charm 101. The fact that a relative was even in the hospital at this time of night was testament to that.
Holding the multicoloured charts, Abbie grinned, knowing that for the first time today the fates had actually come down on her side. She didn't have a Costa in hospital and Justin, her most recent locum who'd been gleefully counting down the days until he left for his cross-Asia trek back to his home town of London, would have to deal with this determined relative as one of his last obligations. Being British, he did polite much better than she did. Humming to herself, she walked down the corridor to Maria's room, turned into the doorway and stopped dead.
A man stood just inside the door, his presence filling the room with vibrating energy that swirled and eddied like a tornado, pulling at everything and everyone in its path.
An involuntary shiver shot through Abbie, immediately chased by a foreign flicker of heat. Heat that hadn't glowed in a very long time.
No way, not possible. But her hand instinctively tightened around the charts.
Erin's face beamed with a high-wattage smile. 'This is Dr McFarlane, Mr Costa, and I'll go and get you that coffee I promised.' Still smiling, she backed towards the door.
'Grazie, Erin.' His head tilted and his lips curved into a smile that travelled along black-stubble cheeks, and for a fraction of a second it lit up his eyes like the bright-white light of Venus.
Abbie took in a deep breath just as Maria's unknown visitor turned his unrelenting gaze to her. A gaze that shot from eyes as black as the night sky but was now minus the twinkle. One bold dark brow lifted as he took in her dust-streaked shorts, her crumpled and stained polo shirt and her uncontrollable mass of chaotic curls. Judging by the expression in the depths of his onyx eyes, he found everything about her eminently lacking.
Abbie needed to lift her chin to meet his scrutiny and if he, a patient's relative, had the temerity to openly give her the once-over, then right back at you, pal. But that was when irony socked her hard like a sucker-punch to the gut.
A strong, straight nose centred his Roman face and high cheekbones defined it as striking, but it was his well-shaped lips that told the truth - gorgeous and well aware of it. Despite the fatigue that played around his eyes and hovered near a jagged white scar on his square jaw, the man could have modelled for fashion week, although she sensed he'd have taken no nonsense and would have probably given the organisers a very hard time.
He was urban chic from his glossy indigo hair down to his Italian leather loafers. A black V-necked light cotton sweater clung to, and curved around, broad square shoulders, toned pecs and a flat stomach, boldly advertising the buff goods that nestled below. Soft and cool dune-coloured linen trousers caressed long, long legs unsullied by any hint of outback red earth or heat-induced perspiration. If she wasn't standing in front of him breathing in his scent of mint mixed with orange, she would have dismissed him as a mythical being that no mere mortal could ever hope to emulate.
She dropped her gaze and frantically gathered her scattered thoughts, focusing on the fact that she was the doctor and he was her patient's relative. She was therefore the one in charge. Dealing with relatives was something she prided herself on. She understood their occasional outbursts as a projection of fear and feelings of powerlessness in a foreign environment and, after all, hospitals were strange and frightening places for the general public. But absolutely nothing about this man looked uncertain or unsure, or powerless.
His firm stance of controlled casualness rippled with panther-like readiness and he spoke before Abbie could introduce herself. 'You're Nonna's doctor?' Incredulity mixed with a hint of censure rode on the words.
A shaft of determination straightened her spine. So what that she was dirty and grimy and he was 'Mr Ultra-Clean and well-kempt from the city'; he hadn't just spent the afternoon in the middle of nowhere keeping a young boy alive until the Flying Doctors had arrived. Given those neatly trimmed, dirt-free nails, he was probably an accountant and the closest he got to life and death was a wobbly row of figures.
It was hard to peer imperiously down her nose when he towered over her five foot two inches, so instead she extended her hand with crisp efficiency. Abbie McFarlane, GP, and you would be?'
He suddenly smiled, dimples spiralling into the inky stubble as his hand gripped hers. 'Leo Costa, Maria's grandson.'
Unambiguous sexual electricity zapped her so hard she saw stars. She pulled her hand back fast and somehow managed a garbled, 'Oh, right, yes, she mentioned you when I saw her yesterday', while trying to rein her wanton body back under the tight control she'd held it in for three years. Not an easy task after being broadsided by the explosive combination of his touch and smile. A smile that should come complete with a classification warning.
She caught a glance of the sleeping Maria, which immediately centred her, and she instinctively stepped back out into the corridor. 'Let's not wake your grandmother.'
Like a giant cat, Leo Costa moved forward with rippling fluidity, stepping into the space she'd just vacated, his energy ramming into her, setting up more unwanted and inappropriate tingling.
'How long have you been my grandmother's doctor?' The casual question, asked in a conversational tone, was at odds with the tension hovering across his shoulders and narrowing his eyes.
She thought about how long she'd actually known Maria and the time it had taken to convince her to accept an examination. 'A few weeks '
'And you saw her yesterday?' The conversational tone slipped slightly.
Abbie nodded. 'I did. She was trying to teach me how to bake bread but '
'A sick woman was teaching you to bake bread at a time when you should have been admitting her to hospital.'
His words were a shot across the bow, in stark contrast to the captivating smile. Warning bells rang loud in her head. 'I beg your pardon?'
He spoke quietly but every word reverberated like the strike against a bell. 'If you'd admitted my grandmother to hospital yesterday and monitored her more closely, she wouldn't have had a stroke.'
She sucked in a breath, hearing it whistle between her teeth. Stay calm. 'Mr Costa, I understand you're upset, as am I. Your grandmother is a very special woman but she didn't have malignant hypertension, which is extremely high blood pressure. Although her blood pressure was elevated, based on her observations yesterday, there was no need to admit her.'
He casually crossed his arms over his chest but she caught a silver flash of steel in his black eyes. 'You prescribed medication?'
She pursed her lips. 'Yes, she was commenced on medication to lower her blood pressure and she was instructed to rest.'
The corner of his mouth seemed at war with the twitching muscle in his jaw but the attempted smile lost out and the charm he'd used with Erin, and half-tried with her, totally vanished. 'And I put it to you that the medication was too strong and brought her BP down too fast, causing a focal cerebral ischemia.'
Focal cerebral ischemia? O-K. Maria's grandson definitely wasn't an accountant. His commanding control of the room suddenly made sense, although it struck her as odd that Maria hadn't mentioned her grandson was a doctor. That aside, his grandmother was her patient, not his and Maria's medical care had been textbook.
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