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"Phone call lor you, Dr. O'Neil. She says it's an emergency."
Sean rolled his shoulders to ease the tension, his mind still in the operating room.
His patient was a promising soccer player. He'd torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, a common enough injury that had ended plenty of sports careers. Sean was determined it wasn't going to end this one. The procedure had gone well, although surgery was only the beginning. What followed would be a lengthy rehabilitation that would require dedication and determination from all involved.
Still thinking about how to manage expectations, he took the phone from the nurse. "Sean O'Neil."
"Sean? Where the hell were you last night?"
Braced for a different conversation, Sean frowned with irritation. "Veronica? You shouldn't be calling me here. I was told this was an emergency."
"It is an emergency!" Her voice rose along with her temper. "Next time you invite me to dinner, have the decency to show up."
A nurse came out of the operating room and handed him a form.
"Veronica, I'm sorry." He tucked the phone between his cheek and his shoulder and gestured for a pen. "I was called back to the hospital. A colleague had problems with a patient. I was operating."
"And you couldn't have called me? I waited in that restaurant for an hour. An hour, Sean! A man tried to pick me up."
Sean signed the form. "Was he nice?"
"Do not joke about it. It was the most embarrassing hour of my life. Don't ever, ever do that to me again."
He handed the form back to the nurse with a brief smile. "You'd rather I left a patient to bleed to death?"
"I'd rather you honored your commitments."
"I'm a surgeon. My first commitment is to my patients."
"So what you're saying is that if you had to choose between me and work, you'd pick work?"
"Yes." The fact that she'd asked that question showed how little she knew him. "That is what I'm saying."
"Damn you, Sean. I hate you." But there was a wobble in her voice. "Tell me honestly, is it just me or is it all women?"
"It's me. I'm bad at relationships, you know that. Right now my focus is my career."
"One of these days you're going to wake up alone in that fancy apartment of yours and regret all the time you spent working."
He decided not to point out that he woke up alone through choice. He never invited women back to his apartment. He was barely ever there himself. "My work is important to me. You knew that when you met me."
"No, important is being dedicated to what you do but still having a personal life. What work is to you, Sean O'Neil, is an obsession. You are single-minded and focused to the exclusion of everything else. That might make you a brilliant doctor but it makes you a lousy date. And here's a news flashbeing charming and good in bed doesn't stop you being a selfish, workaholic bastard."
"Sean?" Another nurse appeared at his elbow, her pink cheeks and awkward demeanor suggesting she'd overheard that last sentence. "The team coach is waiting outside for news along with the boy's parents. Will you talk to them?"
"Are you even listening to me?" Veronica's voice came down the phone, shrill and irritated. "Are you having another conversation while you're talking to me?"
Sean closed his eyes. "I've just come out of the operating room." He rubbed his fingers over his forehead. "I need to speak to the relatives."
"They can wait five minutes!"
"They're worried. If that was your kid in recovery, you'd want to know what was going on. I have to go. Goodbye, Veronica. I really am sorry about last night."
"No, wait! Don't go!" Her voice was urgent. "I love you, Sean. I really love you. Despite everything, I think we have something special. We can make this work. You just need to flex a little bit more."
Sweat pricked at the back of his neck. He saw the nurse's eyes widen.
How had he got himself in this situation?
For the first time in years he'd made a misjudgment. He'd thought Veronica was the sort of woman who was happy to live in the moment. Turned out he was wrong about that.
"I have to go, Veronica."
"All right, I'll flex. I'm sorry, I'm being a shrew. Let me cook you dinner tonight, I promise I won't complain if you're late. You can show up whenever. I'll"
"Veronica" he cut across her "do not apologize to me when I'm the one who should be apologizing to you. You need to find a guy who will give you the attention you deserve."
There was a tense silence. "Are you saying it's over?"
As far as Sean was concerned it had never started. "Yeah, that's what I'm saying. There are hundreds of guys out there only too willing to flex. Go and find one of them." He hung up, aware that the nurse was still watching him.
He was so tired he couldn't even remember her name.
Ann? No, that wasn't right.
Angela. Yes, it was Angela.
Fatigue descended like a gray fog, slowing his thinking. He needed sleep.
He'd been called to an emergency in the night and had been on his feet operating since dawn. Soon the adrenaline would fade and when it did he knew he was going to crash big-time. Sean wanted to be somewhere near his bed when that happened. He had the use of a room at the hospital but he preferred to make it back to his waterside apartment where he could nurse a beer and watch life on the water.
"Dr. O'Neil? Sean? I'm so sorry. I wouldn't have put the call through if I'd known it was personal. She said she was a doctor." The look in her eyes told him she'd have no objection to being Veronica's replacement. Sean didn't think she'd be flattered to know he'd temporarily forgotten her existence.
"Not your fault. I'll talk to the relatives" He was tempted to take a shower first, but then he remembered the white face of the boy's mother when she'd arrived at the hospital and decided the shower could wait. "I'll go and see them now."
"You've had a really long day. If you want to come by my place after work, I make a mac and cheese that is wicked good."
She was sweet, caring and pretty. Angela would come close to most men's idea of a perfect woman.
His idea of a perfect woman was one who didn't want anything from him.
Relationships meant sacrifice and compromise. He wasn't prepared to do either of those things, which was why he had remained resolutely single.
"As you just witnessed, I am an appalling date." He managed what he hoped was a disarming smile. "I'd either be working and not show up at all, or so tired I'd fall asleep on your sofa. You can definitely do better."
"I think you're amazing, Dr. O'Neil. I work with loads of doctors, and you're easily the best. If I ever needed a surgeon, I'd want you to look after me. And I wouldn't care if you fell asleep on my sofa."
"Yes, you would." Eventually they always did. "I'll go and talk to the family now."
"That's kind of you. His mother is worried."
He saw the worry the moment he laid eyes on the woman.
She sat without moving, her hands gripping her skirt as she tried to contain anxiety made worse by waiting. Her husband was on his feet, hands thrust in his pockets, shoulders hunched as he talked to the coach. Sean knew the coach vaguely. He'd found him to be ruthless and relentlessly pushy and it seemed that surgery on his star player hadn't softened his approach.
The guy wanted miracles and he wanted them yesterday. Sean knew this particular coach's priority wasn't the long-term welfare of the kid lying in the OR, but the future of his team. As a sports injury specialist he dealt with players and coaches all the time. Some were great. Others made him wish he'd chosen law instead of medicine.
The moment the boy's father saw Sean he sprang forward like a Rottweiler pouncing on an intruder.
The coach was drinking water from a plastic cup.
"You fixed it?"
He made it sound like a hole in a roof, Sean thought. Slap a new shingle on and it will be as good as new. Change the tire and get the car back on the road.
"Surgery is only the beginning. It's going to be a long process."
"Maybe you should have got him into surgery sooner instead of waiting."
Maybe you should stop practicing armchair medicine.
Noticing the boy's mother digging her nails into her legs, Sean decided not to lock horns. "All the research shows that the outcome is better when surgery is carried out on a pain-free mobile joint." He'd told them the same thing a week before but neither the coach nor the father had wanted to listen then and they didn't want to listen now.
"How soon can he play again?"
Sean wondered what it must be like for the boy, growing up with these two on his back.
"It's too early to set a timetable for return. If you push too hard, he won't be playing at all. The focus now is on rehab. He has to take that seriously. So do you." This time his tone was as blunt as his words. He'd seen promising careers ruined by coaches who pushed too hard too soon, and by players without the patience to understand that the body didn't heal according to a sporting schedule.
"It's a competitive world, Dr. O'Neil. Staying at the top takes determination."
Sean wondered if the coach was talking about his player or himself. "It also takes a healthy body."
The boy's mother, silent until now, stood up. "Is he all right?" The question earned her a scowl from her husband.
"Hell, woman, I just asked him that! Try listening."
"You didn't ask." Her voice shook. "You asked if he'd play again. That's all you care about. He's a person, Jim, not a machine. He's our son."
"At his age I was"
"I know what you were doing at his age and I tell you if you carry on like this you will destroy your relationship with him. He will hate you forever."
"He should be thanking me for pushing him. He has talent. Ambition. It needs to be nurtured."
"It's your ambition, Jim. This was your ambition and now you're trying to live all your dreams through your son. And what you're doing isn't nurturing. You put pressure on him and then layer more and more on until the boy is crushed under the weight of it." The words burst out of her and she paused for a moment as if she'd shocked herself. "I apologize, Dr. O'Neil."
"No need to apologize. I understand your concern."
Tension snapped his muscles tight. No one understood the pressures of family expectation better than he did. He'd been raised with it.
Do you know how it feels to be crushed by the weight of someone else's dreams? Do you know how that feels, Sean?
The voice in his head was so real he rocked on his feet and had to stop himself glancing over his shoulder to check his father wasn't standing there. He'd been dead two years, but sometimes it felt like yesterday.
He thrust the sudden wash of grief aside, uncomfortable with the sudden intrusion of the personal into his professional life.
He was more in need of sleep than he'd thought.
"Scott's doing fine, Mrs. Turner. Everything went smoothly. You'll be able to see him soon."
The tension left the woman's body. "Thank you, Doctor. I You've been so good to him right from the start. And to me. When he starts playing" she shot her husband a look "how do we know the same thing won't happen again? He wasn't even near another player. He just crumpled."
"Eighty percent of ACL tears are non-contact." Sean ignored both the woman's husband and the coach and focused on her. He felt sorry for her, the referee in a game of ambition. "The anterior cruciate ligament connects your thigh to your shin. It doesn't do a whole lot if you're just going about your normal day, but it's an essential part of controlling the rotation forces developed during twisting actions."
She gave him a blank look. "Twisting actions?"
"Jumping, pivoting and abrupt changes of direction. It's an injury common among soccer players, basketball players and skiers."
"Your brother Tyler had the same, didn't he?" The coach butted in. "And it was all over for him. It killed his career as a ski racer. Hell of a blow for such a gifted athlete."
His brother's injury had been far more complicated than that, but Sean never talked about his famous brother. "Our aim with surgery is to return the knee joint to near-normal stability and function but it's a team effort and rehabilitation is a big part of that effort. Scott is young, fit and motivated. I'm confident he'll make a full recovery and be as strong as he was before the injury, providing you encourage him to attack rehab with the same degree of dedication he shows to the game." He hardened his tone because he needed them to pay attention. "Push too hard or too soon and that won't be the case."
The coach nodded. "So can we start rehabilitation right away?"
Sure, just throw him a ball while he's still unconscious.
"We generally find it helps for a patient to have come around from the anesthetic."
The man's cheeks turned dusky-red. "You think I'm pushy, but this kid just wants to play and it's my job to make sure he gets whatever he needs. Which is why we're here," he said gruffly. "People say you're the best.
Everyone I talked to gave me the same response. If it's a knee injury, you want Sean O'Neil. ACL reconstruction and sports injuries are your specialty. Didn't realize you were Tyler O'Neil's brother until a few weeks ago. How's he coping now he can't compete? That must be hard."
"He's doing just fine." The response was automatic. At the height of Tyler's skiing success the whole family had been bombarded by the media and they'd learned to deflect the intrusive questions, some about Tyler's breathtaking talent, others about his colorful personal life.
"I read somewhere he can only ski for recreation now." The coach pulled a face. "Must be hard for a guy like Tyler. I met him once."
Making a note to commiserate with his brother, Sean steered the conversation back on topic. "Let's focus on Scott." He went through it again, repeating words he'd already spoken.
Drumming the message home took another twenty minutes. By the time he'd showered, checked on a few of his patients and climbed into his car, two hours had passed.
Sean sat for a moment, summoning the energy to drive the distance to his waterfront home.
The weekend lay ahead, a stretch of time filled with infinite possibilities.
For the next forty-eight hours his time was his own and he was ready to savor every moment. But first he was going to sleep.
The phone he kept for his personal use rang and he cursed for a moment, assuming it was Veronica, and then frowned when the screen told him it was his twin brother, Jackson. Along with the name came the guilt. It festered inside him, buried deep but always there.
He wondered why his brother would be calling him late on a Friday.
A crisis at home?
Snow Crystal Resort had been in their family for four generations. It hadn't occurred to any of them that it might not be in the family for another four. The sudden death of his father had revealed the truth. The business had been in trouble for years. The discovery that their home was under threat had sent a ripple of shock through the whole family.
It was Jackson who had left a thriving business in Europe to return home to Vermont and save Snow Crystal from a disaster none of the three brothers had even known existed.
Sean stared at the phone in his hand.