City girl Dr. Cara Conner can't imagine anything worse than returning to her small-town home for six months to work in her father's practice. Until she meets her new colleagueand old rival!Dr. Sloan Trenton. If only he wasn't so gorgeous
But then Cara starts to fall for the heart of gold that Sloan keeps hidden beneath his white coat. Leaving this delicious doc behind will be harder than she'd ever imaginedunless Sloan can give her a sparkly, down-on-one-knee reason to stay !
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At first glance, the slim redhead sitting on the funeral chapel's front pew epitomized poise and grace. But as she politely accepted the sympathy being expressed her fingers clenched and unclenched around the crumpled tissue in her hand. Dr. Sloan Trenton would like to hold her hand, let her cling to him to help her get through the next few days, to share the pain they both felt.
No matter how much he felt he knew Dr. Cara Conner, she saw him as a stranger.
Only she wasn't a stranger to him.
From the time Sloan had joined the Bloomberg, Alabama family medicine practice the year before, Preston had enthusiastically talked about his amazing daughter who worked in a downtown Manhattan emergency room. That must be why Sloan had thought of her so much since he had officially met her only yesterday.
He'd stopped by Preston's house to offer his sympathies. His heart had raced like crazy when he'd rung her doorbell, knowing he was finally going to meet her. Despite his exhaustion, his grief over Preston's heart attack, he hadn't been able to stay away. He'd had to go to her, to offer his condolences. He felt as if his own heart had been ripped to shreds at the death of a man who'd treated him as a son. Something Sloan had never had anyone do, blood kin or otherwise.
Probably that was why he felt such a connection to Cara.
Regardless of the reason, he'd been shocked at Preston's daughter's reaction.
She hadn't been out-and-out rude, but she hadn't been receptive to his visit, either, had failed to even invite him into the house and had failed to hide her dislike. He'd stood on Preston's front porch, a house the man had given him a key to, and he'd felt like an awkward inconvenience in Cara's world, like an outsider in a place where he'd, up to that point, finally felt at home.
Maybe it was just grief making her so prickly toward him. After all, she'd just lost her father. Still, his gut instinct warned her reaction ran much deeper than grief over Preston's death.
Sloan swallowed the lump that formed in his throat every time the reality that his mentor and best friend was gone hit him. He moved closer to the brushed steel casket he'd stood vigil by all evening.
Dr. Preston J. Conner had been the best man and doctor Sloan had ever known. He'd been the doctor Sloan aspired to be like. No matter how much he tried, he'd never be half the physician Preston had been.
Just fifteen feet away, Cara stood, wobbling slightly in her black stilettos and slim skirt. Sloan moved forward, determined to catch her if she didn't straighten. Without glancing his way, she headed out of the room, unaware that he couldn't drag his gaze away from her more than a few seconds at a time.
He excused himself from the bank president and a local preacher who had been carrying on a conversation around him and he followed Cara.
Leaving the large old Victorian-style house that had served as one of Bloomberg's two funeral parlors for more than a hundred years, she slipped around to the side garden.
If Sloan followed her, was that outright stalkerish or just the action of a man who was worried about a woman who had just experienced great loss?
He had to at least make sure she was all right.
Hadn't Preston's last words been for him to take care of Cara?
Sloan headed around the side of the building. She was sitting on a bench, looking up at the sky. A pale sliver of moonlight illuminated her just well enough that he could tell she was speaking, but he was too far away to make out what she said or even the sound of her whispered words.
His ribs broke loose and lassoed themselves around his heart, clamping down so tightly that he could barely breathe.
Never had he seen anything more beautiful than the ethereal image she made in the moonlight. Never had he felt such a fascination with a woman.
A commotion behind him had him spinning to see the source, but not before he saw Cara's head jerk toward the noise also, catching him watching her. Great. Now she'd add stalker to whatever other crimes he'd possibly committed.
But he didn't have time to dwell on that. The cause of the noise now had his full attention.
Mrs. Goines, a blue-haired little elderly lady, had fallen while going down the three steps leading out of the funeral parlor. Why she hadn't taken the handicap ramp Sloan could only put down to her stubbornness that she wasn't handicapped or disabled. She had lost her footing and down she'd gone.
He got to the frail little woman almost as quickly as the woman who'd been right behind herher daughter, if Sloan remembered correctly.
"Mom? Are you okay?" she asked, confirming Sloan's memory of who she was. She leaned over her mother, who moaned in pain.
"I can't move." Ignoring her daughter, Mrs. Goines's gaze connected to Sloan's and she groaned in obvious agony. "I can't get up."
Assessing the position in which she'd fallen and how she'd landed, Sloan winced. She'd landed on her right hip, leg and arm. Her hip and her shoulder had taken the brunt of her weight. He'd seen her in clinic several times since he'd come to Bloomberg. He knew her health history. She was on a biphosphanate medication to strengthen her thin bones, having struggled with osteoporosis for more than a decade. Her weakened bones hadn't been able to withstand the impact of her fall.
"Don't try to move, Mrs. Goines," he ordered in a low, confident tone. "I'm going to check you, but I will need to send you to the hospital for X-rays."
"Is everything okay?" Cara asked, joining them and hunching down next to Sloan. At his dash at the noise, she'd apparently come to investigate. Taking the elderly woman's hand, her expression softened with a compassion that caused Sloan's breath to catch in his throat.
"Mrs. Goines," she chided with a click of her tongue and the twinkle in her eyes that had captured his imagination in Preston's office photos, "were you sliding down the railings again? You know my dad warned you about that."
The woman's pain-filled eyes eased just a tiny bit with Cara's distracting words. "Remember that, do you, girlie?"
"I remember a lot of things about growing up in this town. Like that you used to sneak me extra peaches when I'd go through school lunch line," Cara told her in a gentle voice. "Can you tell me where you are?"
The woman frowned. "If you don't know, then it should be you being checked by a doctor, not me. It's your father's funeral we're at, girlie."
"You're right," Cara agreed, not explaining that she was checking the woman's neurological status with her question. "Did you hit your head when you fell?"
"If only," Mrs. Goines moaned. "I wouldn't be hurting nearly so much."
"Possibly not, but I'm still glad you didn't hit your head." Cara looked into her eyes, studying her pupils in the glow of the porch and lit walkway. "Can you tell me where you hurt most?"
Completely ignoring Sloan now, Mrs. Goines continued to moan in pain while answering Cara's questions.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Sloan had to fight a smile at the transformation that had taken place. Gone was the lost, grieving daughter from moments before. In her place was a confident doctor who stepped in and took charge. Truly, she was her father's child.
She moved efficiently and thoroughly, quickly coming to the same conclusion Sloan had while watching her examine the older woman. "She needs X-rays. I'm not sure we will be able to move her. You'll need to call for an ambulance."
He nodded his agreement and motioned to what he held next to his ear. He'd already punched in the emergency dispatcher's number. "I need an ambulance sent to Greenwood's Funeral Parlor," he told the woman who answered the call. "I've a ninety-two-year-old white female who's fallen and can't get up. Probable fractured right hip. Possibly her right humerus, as well."
Cara, Sloan and the crowd that had gathered to see what the commotion was all about stayed with the in-pain Mrs. Goines until the ambulance pulled to a screeching halt in front of the funeral home.
Bud Arnold and his partner Tommy Woodall came up to where Mrs. Goines still lay on the concrete steps at an awkward angle. With her level of pain, moving her had risked further injury so they'd just made her as comfortable as possible where she lay.
"Hey, Dr. Trenton," the paramedics greeted him, then turned to the moaning woman.
"Mrs. Goines, please tell me you didn't try sliding down the handrail," Bud said immediately when he realized who the patient was.
Obviously, there was a story behind Mrs. Goines and handrails. Sloan would get her to tell him about it soon. Maybe when he rounded on her in the morning because no doubt she'd be admitted through the emergency room tonight and he'd check on her prior to Preston's funeral service.
"Hey, Bud," Cara greeted him, causing the man's eyes to bug out with recognition.
"Well, I'll be. If it isn't Cara Conner. Good to see you, pretty girl." Then he recalled why she was in town and his happy greeting turned to solemn remorse. "Sorry to hear about your dad. He was a good, good man. Best doctor I ever knew."
"Thanks, Bud. He was a good man and doctor." She took a deep breath. "Now, let's take care of this good woman lying here in pain. She's going to have to be put on the stretcher. Right hip is broken. I can't be certain if her right shoulder is broken or just shoved out of socket from the impact of her fall. Her right clavicle is fractured, too."
Cara pushed aside the loose material of Mrs. Goines's dress neckline. Sure enough, there was a large bump that had fortunately not broken through the skin but which did indicate that the woman's collarbone had snapped from the impact against the concrete steps.
"I do believe you're right, Doc," Bud agreed. "Let's get this feisty little lady to the emergency room."
The two paramedics lowered the stretcher as far as it would go and positioned Mrs. Goines to where they could slide her onto the bedding.
Cara and Sloan both positioned themselves where they wouldn't interfere with Bud and Tommy's work but where they could help stabilize Mrs. Goines's body as much as possible during the transfer.
"On the count of three, we're going to lift you onto the stretcher," Bud told their patient.
Although Mrs. Goines cried out in pain, the transfer went smoothly.
Sloan turned to Cara and smiled. "You should move back to Bloomberg. We make a good team, you and I."
Her gaze narrowed as if he'd said something vulgar. "You and I are not a team," she said, low enough that only he could hear. "And I will never move back to Bloomberg."
She stood, bent and said something to Mrs. Goines, who was now strapped onto the stretcher to prevent her from falling off while they rolled her to where the ambulance waited. Then she nodded toward Bud and Tommy and disappeared inside the funeral home.
Slowly, Sloan rose to his feet, scratched his head and wondered what he'd ever done to upset Preston's daughter so completely and totally.
And why he'd never wanted a woman to like him more.
People Cara had known her entire life shook her hand, hugged her and pressed sloppy kisses to her cheek. People told her how wonderful her father had been, what a difference he'd made in their lives, stories of how he'd gone above and beyond the call of duty time and again during his thirty-plus years of practicing medicine in Bloombergas if Cara didn't know firsthand what he'd sacrificed for his patients.
She knew. Oh, how she knew.
Everyone milled around, talking to each other, saying what a shame it was the town had lost such a prominent and beloved member. All their words, their faces churned in Cara's grieving mind, a whirlwind of emotional daggers that sliced at her very being.
Her gaze went to the one stranger in their midst. A stranger only to her, it seemed as he was the other person receiving condolences from everyone in the funeral parlor.
Acid gurgled in her stomach, threatening to gnaw a hole right through her knotted belly.
Why was he getting handshakes, hugs and sloppy kisses from people like little old arthritic Mary Jo Jones and Catherine Lester? Why did everyone treat him as if he'd suffered just as great a loss as she had?
Preston had been her father, her family. Not his.
Sloan Trenton was an outsider. Someone her father had recruited to join his practice about a year ago when he'd apparently given up on her joining any time in the near future. Then again, maybe not an outsider. How many times had her father said Sloan was like the son he'd never had? How impressed he was by the talented doctor he'd added to his practice? Every time they'd talked, he'd been "Sloan this" and "Sloan that."
So perhaps the bitterness she felt didn't really stem from Sloan being treated as if his grief was as great as her own. Perhaps her bitterness had started long ago while listening to her father go on and on about the man, about how Sloan loved Bloomberg and its people almost as much as Preston himself did, about how Sloan tirelessly gave of himself to the town, that watching Sloan was like a flashback to himself thirty years before, except that he'd been married. Of course, her father had joked, Bloomberg's most eligible bachelor wasn't still single because of a lack of trying on many a female's part.
Sloan. Sloan. Sloan. Gag. Gag. Gag.
Dr. Sloan Trenton could do no wrong in her father's eyes and, deep down, Cara resented that. Although he'd loved her, she had never achieved that complete admiration because she'd had too much of her mother's love of the big city in her blood, too much of her mother's resentment of how much Bloomberg stole from their lives, and her father couldn't, or wouldn't, understand.
She'd had enough of her father in her to love medicine, but she hadn't been willing to have her life light snuffed out by the demanding town that had taken its toll on her family. Give her the anonymity of the big-city emergency room any day of the week.
She huffed out an exasperated breath.
The tall, lean object of her animosity couldn't have heard her sigh, not over the chatter in the crowded funeral home and the distance that separated them, but Sloan turned as if she had called out his name. Filled with concern, his coppery brown gaze connected to hers and held, despite the men still talking to him as if he was focused solely on them.
She narrowed her eyes in dislike, not caring what he thought of her, not caring about anything except the gaping crater in her broken heart. She focused all her negative energy toward him, as if he were somehow to blame for her loss, as if he could have prevented her father from dying. Logically, she knew he couldn't have.