If Eve Spicer was looking for a man, obstetric consultant Hugh Douglas would be almost perfect. He's kind, handsome and skilled with the mothers and babies, whose lives he saves every day.
But Eve isn't looking! And she can't take on Hugh's kids, however much she might one day want a family of her own. She has a career to build and promises to keep. No, her irresistible boss is firmly off–limits.
That's what Eve's head tells her. Unfortunately, her heart, her body and her every instinct disagree.
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HE KNEW who she was straight away.
The formal suit, the neat court shoes — they stood out a mile among the relatives in their casual clothes and the hospital staff in their scrubs and tunics and white coats. If that wasn't enough, the set of her shoulders and the distracted way she was staring out of the landing window while her teeth raked that soft, full lower lip were dead giveaways.
She was a nice-looking girl, he thought irrelevantly. Pretty. Well, no, probably not pretty in the conventional sense, because her nose was a little crooked and her chin a little too firm, at least from that angle, but she was certainly interesting. She interested Hugh, anyway, and as he climbed the last three stairs he was able to study her for a moment, undetected.
Mmm.Very interesting. Slender, elegant — and not nearly as composed as she would have liked to be, he'd bet his life.
He ought to walk past her, say 'Good morning' politely and go and start the process, but for some reason he paused, fascinated by the way she caught the side of her bottom lip in her teeth again and worried it gently as she stared into the distance. "Interview?" he murmured, even though he knew the answer.
His voice startled her, and she looked towards him, her eyes scanning the area as if to check that he really was talking to her. Those soft grey eyes, thoughtful and wary, flicked over his suit and back to his face, checking him out. "Yes. You, too?"
He nodded slowly. Well, it wasn't really a lie... "A fellow victim," she said with a rueful grin, before honesty could raise its head. "I'm Eve Spicer."
She held out her hand, and he took it. It was slim and cool, her handshake firm despite the slight tremor he could feel in her arm.
For some reason he didn't want to examine, he withheld his name, just smiled and held her hand slightly longer than was strictly necessary before releasing it, dragging out the subterfuge a moment longer. "Good to meet you, Eve,'he said.
Her pretty mouth twisted wryly, that bottom lip a little pinker where she'd nibbled it. "I wish I could say it was mutual, but if we're after the same job I think I'm screwed."
He felt his brows twitch together at her refreshing honesty, and guilt tugged harder at him but, instead of coming clean, he found himself asking, "Why?"
Her smile became rueful. "Because I've lost the last two jobs to a man. It might be coincidence but, whatever, it's beginning to be a habit."
"Habits can be broken. Perhaps it'll be third time lucky." She gave a little shrug, frustration showing in the line of her shoulders. "Maybe. I'm beginning to wonder if I'm doing something wrong in my interviews. Perhaps it won't matter so much for a temporary post — or am I deluding myself? Seem to do a lot of that these days, but I really want this job, even though it's only covering sick leave, because I know someone who was his SHO last year, and she said Hugh Douglas is wonderful to work with and a brilliant teacher. She learnt so much from him."
Wonderful? Brilliant? He squashed his ego back into its box and wondered to whom he owed this amazing PR. Probably Kate. He'd have to thank her. "I'm sure you can't be doing anything too badly wrong," he said with another twinge of guilt.
She sighed. "Oh, I wouldn't be too sure. I think I'm just too honest, but at least I'll stand or fall on my own merits, and if anybody gives me a job, they'll know what they're getting. Trouble, probably!"
Her laugh was a little too taut, and the remark puzzled him, but he was distracted by her hand sliding over her hair, nervously checking that it was in place, scraped back against her well-shaped head and twisted into a knot skewered with what looked for all the world like a pair of short chopsticks.
He wondered what would happen if he pulled them out, if the sleek, glossy hair with its paler streaks of gold would fall down round her shoulders in a shimmering curtain, or if it would curl rebelliously. Curl, he thought hopefully, but he was distracted again by her hand moving down, straightening the lapel of her jacket, tugging at her skirt as if to lengthen it. The hem skimmed her slender, shapely knees, and he felt a little surge of jealousy that it wasn't his hand running over her thigh like that...
Good grief. What was happening to him? He hadn't reacted like this to a woman in years.
"You look fine," he said hastily. "Stop worrying. Very chic and professional. I have to go, they'll be waiting for me. Just remember to smile."
"Thanks. Good luck." She grinned a little off-kilter, her eyes slightly less wary, and then, just as he turned to go, she threw him a curve.
"Would you give me the job?" she asked, and this time he couldn't lie. He felt his mouth tug into a smile.
Bless his heart, she thought ruefully. If only!
He waggled his fingers at her, turned and strode down the corridor, palming the double doors out of the way as she watched him go. She tried — she really tried — to wish him positive vibes, but it was hard. She wanted this job so much and he was, after all, her competition.
But then the door at the end of the corridor opened, and she heard a man's voice — the great Mr Douglas? — say casually, "Hi, there. Good of you to join us."
She didn't hear his reply, because the door swooshed shut behind him, but she'd heard enough. She turned back to the window, staring out over the car park and the trees in the distance, her optimism fading even further. He knew them. No wonder he'd gone breezing down there without a care in the world, whereas she was hovering out here, a bundle of nerves.
"Dr Spicer? Could you come through?"
So soon? It must be just a formality, then, a foregone conclusion. Damn, damn and double damn.
She nearly told the secretary, Maggie, that she wouldn't waste their time, but Maggie smiled at her and held the door, and that didn't seem to leave her a lot of choice.
Oh, well, it couldn't get worse than being told she hadn't got it. She straightened her shoulders, swallowed hard and dredged around for an answering smile. Not easy, but she managed it, and even hung on to it until Maggie opened the door and she was ushered in, but then it failed her.
There were three of them, two men, one woman, seated around a table, and there was one empty chair.
"Dr Spicer, thank you for joining us," the woman at the head of the table was saying, but she wasn't really listening, because there, on the left of the empty chair, was her fellow interviewee, getting to his feet with lazy grace and smiling at her.
She would have thought they'd show him out first, give her the dignity of a private rejection — but then he walked towards her, his hand outstretched and his smiled tinged with apology, and said, "Hugh Douglas. Welcome to the Audley Memorial Hospital, Dr Spicer,'and she wasn't sure whether to cry or hit him.
His hand was still extended, and for a moment she contemplated ignoring it and slapping him instead. Only for a moment, though — just long enough to make him think.
Then tipping back her head and meeting his eyes again with a look that should have fried his eyeballs, she said, softly but clearly, "Well. Fancy meeting you here, Mr Douglas." And instead of slapping that guilty, handsome face, she placed her hand in his for the second time that morning.
His fingers closed around hers and his mouth twitched. "I'm sorry. I owe you an apology."
"I think so. I don't like being made a fool of — and I hate being lied to."
Her voice was deathly quiet, and his reply was just as quiet. "I don't recall making a fool of you, Eve — and I didn't lie, exactly. I meant every word I said."
She extracted her hand from his. "Every word?'Even the bit about giving her the job? But his smile had faded and his eyes were utterly sincere.
"Absolutely," he repeated. Funny, it was harder to believe him this time, no matter how much she might want to.
"I'm sorry, have we missed something?" The woman at the head of the table interrupted their soft-voiced exchange. "Do you two know each other? Because if there's a conflict of interest here, Mr Douglas, we ought to know."
"No conflict, Julia," he said easily. "We met a few moments ago at the top of the stairs. I wasn't perhaps quite fair with her about my identity. Hopefully she won't hold it against me."
Eve felt her eyes drawn to him again — the lean, muscled frame that did incredible things to his understated charcoal-grey suit, the warmth in his toffee-brown eyes, the teasing smile that played at the corners of his mouth — and refused to allow herself to contemplate holding anything against Hugh Douglas — least of all herself!
"Eve, allow me to introduce you to my colleagues," he went on smoothly. "Dr Julia Fry, our fertility expert, and Sam Gregory, another of the obs and gynae consultants."
She shook their hands, noting that Julia's was cool and hard — curiously like her eyes — and that Sam's was warm and firm and matched his smile.
So it was Julia she was going to have to convince. Hugh Douglas drew out her chair, turned the full wattage of his charm on her with a smile that made her knees go weak and slid the chair in behind her in the nick of time, bending so his breath whispered over the nape of her neck.
"Break a leg," he murmured, so low that only she could hear it, and she wondered if he realised it wasn't her leg she was contemplating breaking!
As he hooked his own chair back in behind him and sat down again, she took a steadying breath, smiled again and swept her eyes around the table, wondering who was going to start.
She didn't have long to wait. "Thank you for seeing us at such short notice," Hugh Douglas said, and she turned to him, her smile taking on a cynical twist that she could feel but couldn't control.
"No problem. As you'll be aware, I'm not in a post at the moment — "
"No, I noticed that in your CV,'Julia Fry said, her expression chilly, as if she still didn't quite trust what was going on. "As you know, we only have the post because the person we'd appointed has had an accident and is on long-term sick leave, but we weren't expecting to find anyone of the right calibre able to take it on at such short notice. Perhaps you could explain your immediate availability, Dr Spicer?"
Here we go, she thought, and swallowed discreetly. "I shouldn't have been available. I was offered a post, but the offer was subsequently withdrawn just before I was due to start, so I missed the February rotation start date — hence I'm applying for locum posts."
"Why was the offer withdrawn?'That was Sam Gregory coming in unexpectedly, studying her over his steepled fingers, asking the very question she'd fruitlessly hoped to avoid, but his eyes were kind and his tone encouraging. "It was...personal." 'I think we have a right to an explanation, if you wish us to consider your application seriously, Dr Spicer," Julia Fry said without a trace of warmth, and Eve's heart sank. "It is, after all, almost April and you're still without a job."
Eve met Julia's eyes full on and sighed softly, resigning herself to another lost opportunity, another interview down the pan. "Of course. He was a friend of my father's. He has a good reputation as a surgeon, and that was why I'd applied. However, he also has a reputation as a woman-iser, but I'd fondly imagined that his relationship with my father might protect me from that. Apparently not. I complained to him, and he withdrew the offer. Said I was a troublemaker."
"And are you?" 'No. Not if my colleagues don't grope me uninvited." There was a grunt of laughter from her left, quickly stifled, and she was aware of Sam shifting, leaning back, relaxing and enjoying the moment.