Everyone in Buffalo Creek, Texas, knows that Dr. Brooks Leland doesn't date. After his harrowing loss, the widower focuses all his time on helping the sick. But when a mysterious newcomer with a heartbreaking secret becomes his patient, Brooks is drawn to Eva Russell. Suddenly, the blonde spitfire he can't bear to fall for is working in his medical practice, living at Chatam House and challenging everything he knows about love. Now even the town's triplet matchmakers have hope that these two battered hearts are on the way to healing.
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Even in Buffalo Creek, Texas, with the bright sunshine streaming down and the utter absence of wind, January meant chill temperatures. Still, the willowy blonde had found a unique way to gather a crowd for her sales demonstration. Beneath the awning that she'd erected beside her minivan, she chattered and joked, flipping her long, straight butter-yellow hair, winking her big catlike eyes at her laughing onlookers, the colorful scarves draped about her person waving languidly. All the while she worked, she pressed bits of string and wood, gravel and broken glass into a damp clay disk, which she would presumably then bake in a small microwave oven at her elbow.
As tired as he was, Dr. Brooks Leland would have liked to have paused and joined in the fun, but he'd promised his best friend, Morgan, that he wouldn't be late to dinner. For once. Besides, since the untimely death of his pretty blonde wife, he avoided womenespecially blondeslike the plague. Oh, he would do it again, go through all the pain and the grief, just for those two short years with Brigitte. He would not, however, risk that kind of loss for anyone else, let alone stand in the cold just to watch a lovely woman try to sell unusual objects of art created on the spot.
Hurrying past the crowd, he crossed the parking lot to the entrance of the grocery store. Once inside, he picked up the multigrain bread requested by his hostess and, on impulse, grabbed a bouquet of flowers.
He'd given up trying to make his old buddy jealous. Not that he'd ever had any real interest in Lyla Simone anyway, but it had taken a mighty shove to make the confirmed bachelor professor tumble into love with his comely graduate student, and Brooks had been only too glad to deliver the blow. Once he'd fallen, Morgan Chatam had fallen hard. He was not a man to give his heart lightly, as Brooks understood all too well. It did Brooks's heart good to see his old friend so happy after all these years, and for that reason alone he would take Lyla Simone flowers forever. The joy of having a goddaughterLyla and Morgan's childsuddenly thrust into his life only gave him more cause. They'd named her Brigitte Kay, after Brooks's late wife and one of Morgan's aunts. She was an adorable little thing, happily and unabashedly spoiled, and in truth, she was the one thing Brooks envied his old friend.
Brooks made it through the checkout line, but before he could take his change, a teenaged male by the name of Jason Crowel burst inside, yelling for him.
"Doc Leland! Doc Leland! She fell down, and blood's all over!"
Leaving everything behind, Brooks bolted for the door. He saw the crowd as soon as he hit the parking lot. Brooks sighed inwardly. It would be the blonde. Jason caught up to him, bouquet and grocery bag clutched in his hands. The sides of Brooks's overcoat flapped like wings as he sprinted across the pavement. Digging into the pockets of his dark slacks, he found his car keys and plucked them out as he drew near the van, Jason at his heels. He set off the car alarm so the young man knew which car to go to, then tossed the keys to Jason.
"Leave the groceries and flowers, grab the medical bag off the backseat."
Elbowing his way into the crowd, Brooks asked, "What's happened here?"
Several people began speaking at the same time.
"She started talking gibberish and just toppled over."
"Hit her head on the pavement before anyone could catch her."
"Splattered blood all over."
The woman sat up, blinking at Brooks in confusion, blood streaking her pale hair. He checked her pulse, which was rapid and erratic, while speaking in a calm, reassuring tone.
"I'm Dr. Brooks Leland. You've taken a nasty blow to the head. Try not to move. Can you tell me your name?"
She lifted a hand toward her head. He caught it and gently pushed it down again, repeating his question.
"Can you tell me your name?"
"Tharestershestersaben," she babbled.
Jason returned with the medical bag, and Brooks took out his penlight, instructing firmly, "If no one has already done so, please call an ambulance."
He made a quick examination, determined that her pupils were unequally reactive and that she needed stitches in her scalp, at the very least. Moreover, she seemed painfully thin, despite a suspiciously shapely figure beneath a heavy black leotard and all those artfully draped scarves. After applying a compress to staunch the flow of blood from the laceration to her scalp, he glanced around him.
"Any idea who she is?"
Murmurs of denial went through the crowd before someone said, "License plate on the van is Missouri."
Not a local girl, then, though even with Texas license plates, she might not be known. Texas was a big state, and the eight-million-strong Dallas-Fort Worth metro-plex sprawled just thirty-five miles to the north of Buffalo Creek, which itself boasted some twenty thousand souls.
The ambulance arrived within five minutes, but in that time he managed to stop the bleeding from the scalp wound. His patient remained remarkably composed, though she said not a single coherent word. He suspected a stroke and feared that she might be bleeding inside her skull. He made a phone call.
"Morgan, I'm afraid I'm going to be late for dinner, after all."
Eva recognized the tap-tap-tap of typing even before she opened her eyes. The room swam for a moment, refusing to come into focus and seeming much too bright. She automatically lifted a hand to shield her eyes, which ached with a ferocity that alarmed but also reassured her.
The light flickered out just as a pleasantly masculine voice said, "Welcome back. You've been sedated."
She remembered all too well struggling to get up off the X-ray table and telling them over and over again that she categorically refused to have pictures made of her head, but of course they hadn't understood a word she'd been saying. Still, the sedation had been a dirty trick. Reminding herself that they had merely been trying to help, she cleared her throat, swallowed and attempted to speak.
"That's a relief." The greater relief was that the words had come out clearly. Flush with success, she quipped, "For a minute I thought it was one of those deals where I'd had so much fun I'd forgotten."
"Your speech has cleared. You experienced expressive aphasia. That's a condition where"
"My brain was speaking English, but my tongue was talking Martian. Yeah, I got that."
"Is your head hurting?"
"On a scale of one to ten, if a plastic doll is a one and Marilyn Monroe in her prime is a ten, let's go with Marilyn," she gritted out, gingerly fingering the heavy bandage on the back of her head. At the same time, she realized that most of her clothes were gone, replaced by a hospital gown, though she still wore her leggings and socks. "So did I crack the bone?"
"Just your scalp, thankfully."
"How many stitches did I wind up with?"
"Yowza. Did they have to shave my head?"
"We did," he answered.
"But your hair's so thick it will cover up the bald spot nicely," said a reassuring female voice. At the same time, movement to Eva's left drew her attention to a nurse adjusting the drip on a saline bag.
"That's good," she muttered. Wouldn't want to leave an ugly corpse.
"You almost certainly have a concussion," the doctor went on smoothly. "Your pupils are not equally reactive. I really did not want to have to sedate you."
The nurse added, "You gave us no other option. Doctor hasn't left your side since, though."
Eva closed her eyes and carefully turned her head in his direction, gasping despite her best efforts to deny the pain. "It's the ICP," she murmured.
"Intracranial pressure," he said. "Yes, that would be my guess. Are you a medical professional? You seem familiar with the terminology."
"Worked as a transcriptionist."
"I see. Well, I've already administered IV medication that will reduce the swelling," he told her, "and now that you're awake, I can give you something to help with the pain. Are you allergic to any drugs?"
"Nope. None I've ever tried, that is. Hey, that's not a confession, by the way, just in case you're a DEA agent in deep cover."
She heard him chuckle as he tapped. Then he moved around, supposedly injecting something into the IV line as he spoke. "Not a DEA agent. Just a doctor. That should take effect soon."
"Not soon enough."
"I've ordered an EEG, and"
"No," she said.
"An EEG will tell us"
"It won't tell you anything of significance," she said, forcing open her eyes.
After the first flash of pain, her vision cleared and the pounding inside her skull settled to a survivable throb. He was even more handsome than she remembered, ridiculously so. She tried to focus on the black slacks, white shirt and black tie worn beneath an immaculately white lab coat, but she couldn't ignore the tall, fit, broad-shouldered man inside them.
Coal black hair brushed straight back from a high forehead with strokes of silver at the temples looked very distinguished on a square-jawed face. A perfect nose, wide, spare mouth that showed a decided tendency to smile and a healthy tan added up to the ideal masculine blend. The eyes were what did it, though. Tawny-gold to go with the silver streaks, they all but shouted, "Treasure! This man is a treasure!" They declared his intelligence and a depth of character that seemed out of place in a man well shy of fifty. She'd be surprised, in fact, if he was much past forty, despite the threads of sliver at his temples.
Regardless of those eyes and all they proclaimed, she frowned. She disliked handsome men on principle, especially those who knew they were handsome. And he knew it. As if challenging her to deny it, he grinned, displaying rascally dimples, a double set, twin grooves that slashed deeply into his cheeks on either side of his mouth and bracketed his even, white smile.
Turning away from the computer terminal mounted on the wall beside the bed, he pulled over a rolling stool with his foot and sat. He was a tall one; at least three inches over six feet, she judged. Being a tall womanfive feet nine-inchesshe appreciated a tall man, especially one tall enough that she didn't have to wear flats as a sop to his vanity. She liked heels, spike heels that showed off her long legs, not that it mattered anymore. Not much did.
"I introduced myself before," he said, putting out a square-palmed, long-fingered hand, "but it may need repeating. Dr. Brooks Leland. I was in the grocery store when you collapsed."
"Lucky me," she said, shaking his hand.
"If you believe in luck," he returned, inclining his head.
She lifted an eyebrow, her hand still in his. "What, then? Fate?"
"No. And you still haven't told me your name."
The medication was beginning to work and work well, so she inched closer, as if prepared to confide in him. "Don't you know that all the most attractive women are mysterious by nature?" she whispered. The nurse snorted and tried to cover it with a cough.
He bent closer still and said, "The most attractive women eat healthy diets. When was the last time you ate?"
As if to remind her that it had been far too long, her stomach rumbled loudly. She hid her embarrassment behind a sultry smile and a smoky tone of voice. "Complaining about my figure, Doc?" she asked, squeezing his hand.
He let go of her, sat back and said to the nurse, "Bring her a full meal tray, please. Right away."
The nurse swept instantly from the room, his word apparently being law.
The door hadn't bumped closed before he leaned his elbows on the bed rail, looked down at Eva and bluntly stated, "The breast implants do not hide the fact that you are much too thin. I don't see signs of bulimia or anorexia, so I have to conclude that you simply haven't been able to eat regularly. Now, I ask you again, when was the last time you ate?"
She sighed and looked at the peaks of her toes beneath the blanket. "It's been a day or two." She could feel his unrelenting gaze boring into her. "Okay, it was day before yesterday."
"Duh. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get good caviar?" she cracked sarcastically. When he didn't laugh, she added, "I'm broke, all right?"
Her money had been running short even before the van had broken down. Thankfully, they'd gassed it after making the repairs in Lancaster. Considering what they'd charged her, they should have done that and more. She'd be out of here shortly, though where she'd go she had no idea. The old jalopy ought to have enough juice to get her to Waco, though.
"That explains the art show in January," the doctor muttered.
A male technician pushed a cart into the room just then, announcing, "EEG."
"I've already told you, no EEG," Eva insisted.
"Why not?" Dr. Leland wanted to know. "The machine's already here. Doesn't take long. You can be done before your dinner arrives."
"What part of broke don't you get?" she demanded, rolling her eyes at him. "I can't afford it. Okay? Besides, it's not going to tell you diddly. Anyone who knows me can attest that my brain function has never been normal. Trust me."
"And where would I find these people who can attest to your abnormal brain function?" he asked lightly.
She opened her mouth to tell him, realizing only at the last moment what she'd be giving away. "Ah, ah, ah," she scolded, wagging a finger. "I hate to stiff you, Doc. I really do. But a billing address won't do you a bit of good. You can't get blood out of a turnip, as the saying goes. Besides, I didn't ask to be brought here."
He just smiled. "You weren't in any condition to ask, and this hospital takes all patients, regardless of their ability to pay."
"Oh. Cool. Well, I'm on my way out of here as soon as I eat and change, anyway. I appreciate the tailoring." She waved a hand at the bandage. "But I've got places to go, Doc, things to do."
He held up his hands, waved away the technician and said, "I'll cancel the order."
The tech shrugged and wheeled the cart out of the room.
"You are a very stubborn young lady," he said, getting up and going back to the computer.