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What on earth was going on here?
As she stepped out of the lift, Dr Kate Graham found herself staring at the expanse of linoleum lining the floor of this hospital corridor. The flecked beige was clearly marked by
Not that a lot of hospital equipment didn't have wheels and it was conceivable that a particularly heavy itema portable X-ray machine, for examplemight have pneumatic tyres on its wheels, but these marks suggested the kind of wheels that belonged to something that needed a roadway to get from A to B.
The track marks were leading towards the children's ward, which was also Kate's intended destination, but she would probably have followed them anyway. Any distraction from what was waiting for her down in the bowels of St Patrick's hospital was welcome. Something that seemed highly inappropriate and might need sorting out was even better. Kate could potentially defuse the horrible tension that had been building in her for some time now by directing it elsewhere.
Whatever idiot had thought it might be OK to bring a motorbike, for heaven's sake, right into a ward full of seriously sick children? Kate could see the machine now, as she rounded a corner. A gleaming, bright red monstrosity at the end of the corridor, just outside the double doors that she knew led to the wide playroom, which was a space enjoyed by any child deemed well enough.
The playroom was well past the nurses' station where Kate had been headed to collect some urgent samples for the pathology department but she didn't even slow down as she passed the doorway. Not that the area was attended at the moment, anyway, because staff members and patients alike were crowded behind the astonishing spectacle of the motorbike and the leather-clad figure beside it, who was at that moment lifting a helmet from his head.
Well, no surprises there. The orthopaedic surgeon who specialised in child cancer cases might be something of a legend here at St Pat's but he failed to impress Kate. He was
disreputable, that's what he was. He might fit in just fine when he was in an operating theatre but when that hat and mask came off he looked, quite frankly, unprofessional. He was weeks behind a much-needed haircut for those shaggy, black curls and at least several days behind basic personal grooming such as shaving. If he wasn't in scrubs, his appearance was even worse. Jeans with badly frayed hems. Black T-shirts under a leather jacket. Cowboy boots!
Worse than his physical appearance, though, Connor Matthews broke rules. All sorts of rules, and many of them were far less superficial than a dress code. He was renowned for not following established protocols and he seemed to enjoy being in places he wasn't supposed to be. Good grief, last week he'd not only delivered a pathology sample to her department in person, in order to queue-jump, he'd hung around and peered through microscopes himself until a diagnosis had been made. If she'd been in the laboratory when he'd turned up he wouldn't have got away with it just by flashing that admittedly charming smile.
Was that how he'd engineered the appalling demonstration of rule flouting that was going on here now? The paediatric nursing staff had probably melted under the onslaught of his careless charm, the way the lab technicians had last week. They were certainly bedazzled right now. Nobody had noticed Kate's arrival and they weren't making room for her to get any closer to the centre of attention. Everybody was riveted by what was happening in front of them.
Connor Matthews was not a small man. As he sank to his haunches in front of a small, pyjama-clad boy, the leather of his pants strained across muscular thighs and the rivets on the back of the biker's jacket were put under considerable stress as it stretched taut across his broad, strong shoulders. Kate could almost hear a collective, wistful sigh from all the women present.
Connor was oblivious to her glare, of course. He had the motorbike helmet cradled in hands that looked too big to be capable of the delicate skills she knew he displayed in Theatre. She'd also heard how good he was with children too and that was more believable, given the way he was talking quietly to the boy as though they were the only two people in existence. And then he eased the oversized helmet onto the boy's head, got to his feet and lifted the child onto the seat of the motorbike with a movement that was careful enough not to compromise a tangle of IV lines and gentle enough to elicit an audible sigh from the women this time. The boy's mother was holding the IV pole steady with one hand. She was pressing the fingertips of her other hand to her face to try and stem her tears as Connor showed the boy how to hold the controls.
And then he did the unthinkable. He reached out and turned a key and the engine of the motorbike roared into life, emitting a puff of black smoke from the wide, shiny silver exhaust pipe. There were children in here suffering from major respiratory illnesses, for heaven's sake. Asthma, cystic fibrosis, compromised immune systems and.
And everybody around her was smiling and clapping. One of the nurses was taking photographs. Kate stood, rigid with indignation as the show broke up shortly thereafter. The engine of the motorbike was switched off. The small boy relinquished the helmet and was gathered up by his mother and taken away. Staff members remembered urgent tasks and dispersed in different directions and the other children were wheeled, led or carried back to where they were supposed to be, many of them craning their necks and sending longing glances back to where the excitement had been happening.
Only Connor remained. He hung the helmet over a handlebar by its chinstrap and kicked the stand up. With a movement that made the heavy machine look weightless, he turned it and began to wheel it back down the corridor, leaving a new set of track marks on the floor. The young girl with a mop and bucket and the uniform of the cleaning staff merely smiled shyly as he went past, ducking her head with pleasure as he made some apologetic comment about the mess. He looked up then in the direction he was travelling and that was when he saw Kate. A curiously guarded expression came over his features as he closed the distance between them.
By no less than Princess Prim and Proper from Pathology.
The alliteration was pleasing enough to tease a quirk of his lips but Connor wasn't about to allow a real smile to form. Partly because he knew he could be in for some serious flak if some the rule-makers around here heard about this morning's stunt but it was more because he was facing someone who clearly didn't have the compassion to have been as moved by what had just occurred as everyone else was.
The lump in his own throat was only just beginning to melt now and it was being replaced by another kind of constriction. One that had its roots in much darker emotions. The kind he'd grown up with. Feelings of sadness and frustration and
Attack might be the best form of defence.
Connor smiled. Always a good diversionary tactic. He raised his eyebrows as well, to suggest a pleasant surprise.
'Kate, isn't it? Fancy meeting you here.'
The subtext wasn't very subtle. This was his patch. With the kids that deserved all the help they could get and their families who needed it just as desperately. This woman with her palpable air of disapproval belonged in the basement of St Pat's. Along with her test tubes and microscopes and the bodies of those unfortunate enough not to make it out of hospital.
She didn't smile back. No surprises there.
'Not everyone delivers urgent samples to the pathology department in person,' she said.
Her subtext wasn't exactly subtle either. Connor met her glare steadily.
'Sometimes,' he said, choosing his words carefully, 'you find yourself in a situation that requires a bit of lateral thinking. Going the proverbial extra mile, if you like.'
His gaze travelled slowly over Kate. Her hair was glossy and black and had the potential to be attractive but it was scraped back into the tightest ponytail ever with its length braided into a very solid-looking rope. Her eyelashes were visible, despite the thick rims of her glasses, and they were also thick and black. God given, no doubt, because Connor couldn't see any evidence of make-up being applied.
There were sensible, flat shoes on the other end of her body and, in between, he could see a small amount of a plain, straight skirt. She wore a white coat, for heaven's sake. Who did that these days? And even the people who felt the need to advertise some kind of clinical status would never, ever be uncool enough to button it up like that.
When he lifted his gaze to her face again, he found Kate staring back at him as if he was speaking a foreign language. He suppressed a sigh.
'No, I don't suppose you would ever feel like doing that, would you?'
'If you mean I wouldn't feel like bringing a motorbike indoors and puffing poisonous exhaust fumes around a whole lot of sick children, you'd be right. I can't believe that you thought it was'
Her outraged admonition was interrupted by someone hurrying towards them.
It was the mother of the little boy from the back of the bike. She'd courageously managed to hold back her tears earlier but they were flowing freely now.
'Thank you,' she said, her words choked.
' Connor held the weight of the bike with one hand, using his other arm to draw the woman close as she wrapped her arms around his neck. 'It was nothing, Jeannie.'
Jeannie gave an enormous sniff. 'I have to get back. It
it won't be long now.'
'I know.' The lump was back in Connor's throat. He needed to find a space by himself for a few minutes. Preferably with a bit of speed involved. Maybe he'd take the bike for a quick spin on the motorway.
Jeannie stood still for a moment, taking a huge gulp of air to steady herself. 'I just had to say thank you,' she whispered. 'Liam
went to sleep with the biggest smile on his face.'
'I don't think he was even aware of any pain when he was sitting on your bike. The photos are
'Something you'll treasure.' Connor had to swallow hard. 'Go and be with Liam, Jeannie. He needs his mum.'
Her face crumpled again as she turned away. Connor had to take a very deep, slow breath because he was suddenly aware that Kate was still there and that she'd heard every word of that emotional exchange. Surely she couldn't have missed the undercurrent? The reason why Connor had been prepared to break so many rules here?
She hadn't. He could see it in her face, which had gone a shade paler. And in the way her eyes seemed to have grown a lot bigger. He hadn't noticed how blue they were before.
I don't know what to say,' she stammered awkwardly.
'Don't say anything, then,' Connor advised wearily. He had to get away. If he was going to cry, it had to be out on the motorway where the moisture could be attributed to the wind getting in his eyes.
He got the motorbike moving again with a jerk. Kate was still standing there, opening and closing her mouth as though she really wanted to say something but couldn't think what. She looked like a stranded fish.
And she was still giving off a disapproving vibe. Maybe she still intended to do something about his misdemeanour. Connor felt sandwiched between the constraints of the establishment she represented, with its inability to do enough for someone like Liam, and the weight of grief he could feel emanating from that private room down the end of the ward where a mother would be cradling her dying child.
He had to push back against one of those barriers or he wouldn't be able to breathe.
'You know what?' Connor shook his head. 'You need to get a life. You're about as buttoned up as that ridiculous coat you're wearing.'