Single dad to her rescue!
Dr. Alexandra Hudson's homecoming is bittersweet. She's still scarred by her family's rejection, and it's a comfort to find her childhood friend Will Kent. Except she's overwhelmed by her attraction to the handsome widowerfeelings she never expected to have again!
Will is shocked that the gorgeous new cardiologist is the girl from next door. He's also shocked by his desire to keep her safe in his arms! But now he has a toddler to protect, too. He'll gladly offer Alex a whole new life if she'll risk being part of a brand-new family!
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She'd come home to Heritage Port with plenty of misgivings, but within hours of her arrival Alex had known she'd done the right thing. Although her childhood had been happy, her best memories of the place were of the three and a half years she'd spent with the Armitage family, minding the rambunctious twins, finishing school and even starting her pre-med studies at university, she and the twins' parents juggling their timetables so everything ran smoothly.
Well, as smoothly as could be expected with two little mischief-makers in the house!
It wasn't that the horror of the rape and the humiliation of the trial that had followed it didn't occasionally still disturb her dreamsher ex-fiancé had blamed it for what he'd termed her inability to respond to his kisses, let alone anything more intimatebut she found herself pleased to be home in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
As the taxi carried her from the airport, bright sun shone on the rolling ocean, white-fringed waves crashed on the rocks at the headland, and shushed up the beach. The river was as green and peaceful as she remembered it, and, best of all, somehow, in the intervening years, the hard knot in her heart had loosened.
Now, sitting beside the hospital bed, she was able to look at her father and remember the man who'd first taught her to bait her fishing hookthe father she'd loved
'So, where have you come from?' one of the nurses in the ICU asked as Alex, her luggage stacked in a corner of the room, held her father's hand, and talked to the sleeping man about fishing in the dark shadows of the mangroves that arched over the little inlets off the river.
'Here,' she told him. 'I've just been away for a while.'
Away when the girls she'd been at school with had been marrying and having babies
Away when her mother had died without forgiving her for 'making a fuss'
Away, but always waiting for a letter that said two simple words, 'Come home.'
'How long's a while?' the nurse asked, making conversation, Alex knew, but welcoming it in the sterile room, the silence broken only by her voice and the machines.
And it had been.
When the Armitage family, with their darling twins, had shifted to Melbourne so Isobel and Dave could continue specialist careers, Alex had chosen to go north to Brisbane to finish her medical training.
From there, on Isobel's advice, she'd contacted her parents, writing to them to tell them where she was and what she was doing. Although she'd received no response, she'd continued writingbirthdays and Christ-masalways somehow hoping.
Then, three weeks ago, in far-off Glasgow, she'd received a letter from her father. Her mother was dead, Rusty, the dog, was dead, Mr Spencer had died, and he, her father, was going into hospital for open-heart surgery to replace a wonky valve.
The letter hadn't asked her to come home, but here she was, sitting in the intensive care unit in the new modern hospital at Heritage Port, talking quietly to her heavily sedated father, and remembering happy times.
* * *
Will Kent, head intensivist, doing a round of the ICU, was surprised to see the woman there, her arms cradling her head on the bottom of the bed, apparently deeply asleep. Mr Hudson might be his patient in this unit, Will's fiefdom, but the man had been unconscious since he'd arrived.
'Who's the woman in with Mr Hudson?' he asked one of the nurses.
'His daughterAlexandra, I think she's calledjust arrived from Scotland. Apparently hasn't been home for years. Some daughter!'
Of course she hadn't been home for yearsbanished as she'd been at sixteen. Ending up with his next-door neighbours, Isobel and Dave Armitage, as a nanny for their twins.
He peered more closely at the patient.
There didn't seem to be anything familiar about the manold now, and grey with illnessbut he did remember the day Isobel had asked him to accompany her and Alex back to the Hudson home so Alex could get some clothes. Dave had been working, and Will had felt enormously proud that Isobel had chosen him to go along. He'd seen himself as the protector of the two womena tall, lanky, bespectacled, twenty-two-year-old protector!
Mrs Hudson had thrown Alex's clothes from an upstairs window, ranting all the time about 'whores' and 'sluts', while Mr Hudson had barred the door, standing there like an ancient biblical prophet, his only prophecy doom.
Poor Alex had been scarlet with humiliation and hurt, tears leaking from behind the big dark glasses she'd worn even inside in those days. He'd wanted to put his arm around herto give her a hugbut he'd known she'd shy away, as she had from all but the twins' hugs and kisses.
Not that he'd have kissed hershe'd been, what? Fifteen? Sixteen?
He couldn't rememberremembered only the deep pity he'd felt for the so obviously damaged teenager.
Was this patient, here in the ICU, recovering from an operation for a heart valve replacement, that Mr Hudson?
Was the sleeping woman really Alex?
And had his thoughts disturbed her that she stirred and lifted her head?
Huge blue eyes she'd hidden behind darkened glasses for all the years she'd lived next door stared unseeingly at him.
Huge blue eyes framed by golden blonde hair tipped with silver here and there and softly tousled by sleep. The early beauty she'd tried to hide with shorn hair and the glasses had come to fruition. Even sleep-tousled, she was stunning.
She straightened up from the bed and frowned at him.
'I'm Will, Will Kentfrom next door to the Armitages, remember?'
The frown deepened and she shook her head, so obviously puzzled he had to smile.
'You pinched my job,' he added, remembering how he'd pretended to complain about losing the occasional babysitting he'd done for the Armitages.
'Superman?' she whispered, disbelief filling the words.
He flourished a pretend cloak and bowed low.
'At your service, ma'am! But also head intensivist at the hospital. Your father's in my care until he's well enough to be transferred to the coronary care unit.'
He saw her face light up as things fell into place and she shot to her feet and advanced to give him an allenveloping hug.
'Oh, Will,' she murmured, 'it's so good to see a familiar face.'
She eased back, looking at him, then laughed.
'Not so familiaryou've grown up!'
'Not even Superman can stay twenty-two for ever,' Will said gloomily, and she laughed again, her face lighting up with delightso gloriously beautiful Will felt his lungs seize.
Breathe, he told himself, and tried to remember how.
Fortunately, as his brain seemed to be similarly paralysed, instinct took over and his lungs filled with air while he tried to catch up with Alex's conversation.
'Intensivist? Weren't you heading towards O and G when you left Port? What made you change your mind? It can't have been the late night callouts, you'd get more of them in this job.' 'Whoa!'
Will held up his hand, pleased to see his limb was obeying messages, although other parts of his body were obviously still in shock.
'I'm on a ward round and really need to check your dad and the other patients.'
'Can we catch up later?' Alex asked. 'I couldn't get home before the op, but I've spoken to the surgeon who did the operation. He gave me the impression he wasn't too positive about the outcome.'
As Will was still feeling startling and unfamiliar reactions to Alex's hug, he wondered if this was wise, but she was entitled to ask questions about her father's health.
But beyond that, he was intrigued. The damaged teenager who, in the beginning, would duck away if she saw him over the fence, and who'd shrunk back from any physical contacteven a simple handshakehad emerged, like a caterpillar from a cocoon, as this beautiful butterfly.
He wanted to know just how she'd managed the transformationand how deep it went. He knew Isobel in particular had worked hard to restore Alex's self-esteem, but there'd been a fragility about the teenager that couldn't be hidden behind dark glasses and a dreadful haircut.
'As far as your father's concerned, the operation went well, but he wasn't in the best of health before it. Other heart problems apparently. I only know this stuff from his chart but I gather that if it hadn't been a necessity '
He paused, wondering how to tell this woman he knew but didn't know just how precarious her father's health was.
'Look, I should be through by eight and your father will still be sleeping off the anaesthetic until morning at least, so you might as well get out of here for a while,' he said. 'We could eat in the canteen but the food's appalling. There's a nice new bar and restaurant at the top of the old Royal Motel. It has a fancier name nowthe motel, that iswhich I can never remember. And it's in walking distance. We could have a mealgive us time to catch up.'
She nodded her agreement as a nurse came into the room. Will's attention, or ninety-five per cent of it, returned to his patient as he discussed Mr Hudson's progress and checked the results the monitor was revealing by the second.
Alex had slipped away, for which he was truly grateful, although he felt a momentary regret he hadn't looked at her more closely, if only to confirm his impression she'd blossomed into a startlingly beautiful woman.
Alex stood in the little bathroom off the family waiting room of the ICU and smiled as she ran the name through her head.
But had the Will Kent she'd known had laughing brown eyes that crinkled with smile lines at the corners, and lips that seemed to be on the verge of a smile all the time? Of course, eighteen years ago, when he'd left Port to finish his studies, his eyes probably hadn't been crinkled, and they'd been hidden behind the dark-framed glasses, and, anyway, in the state she'd been in back then she wouldn't have noticed anything about any man. Certainly not his lips.
And she'd better not notice them now, she reminded herself. As she'd pointed out, Will was all grown up now, and undoubtedly married with children. In fact, throwing herself at him, hugging him, had undoubtedly embarrassed him no end, rendering him practically speechless.
Back then he'd been the Armitages' next-door neighbour christened Superman by the twinsor probably their parents, given his surname. Self-effacingthat was how she'd have described himbut somehow he'd always been around in that first year she'd been with the Armitages. In and out of the house, borrowing textbooks from Dave or Isobel, seemingly always there if she'd needed him. She tried to remember.
He'd certainly helped her rescue Riain out of the tree one day, and had carried Rosi down to the doctor's the day she'd fallen off the swing.
She smiled at the memories and told herself that today, with all the emotions of her return home churning inside her, she'd probably have hugged any familiar face.
An image of Will as he was now, dark hair touched with silver, lips stretched in a surprised smile, continued to linger in Alex's head, making her feel hot and embarrassed and somehow ashamed all at the same time.
Why had he suggested dinner?
He could have talked to Alex in the visitors' room, or his office, but a bar?
Had a beautiful woman giving him a hug gone straight to his head?
Or had his mother's gentle naggingyou've got to start going out again some time, Willprompted the choice?
His mother was probably right!
He did have to start going out again.
Three years nowthree years, eight months and five days, if he was countingsince Elise's death, and Charlotte deserved to have a mother.
He stared out at the lights sparkling in the darkened town beneath him and gave a huff of laughter.
'That would be ironic laughter,' he muttered to himself, remembering trying to explain irony to Alex, she pushing the twins on the swings while he'd leaned over the fence. Later, that was, after she'd got used to him being around and had actually asked him for some help with some assignment she was doing.
'Are you talking to yourself?'
He turned to see her, and all the physical reactions he'd had at the hospital happened again.
'Never!' he lied. 'That would really label me a nut job.'
Alex smiled, intensifying all the stuff going on inside his body.
'You might think back to when I met you,' she teased. 'You were hanging upside down on the side fence, so the nut-job label was firmly in place from the beginning.'
Will gathered the tattered remnants of his dignity.
'I was being a bat!' he reminded her. 'Showing the twins how they hung in their trees.'
She laughed with such frank and open delight his insides melted.
But along with all the physical confusion came the clang of warning bells.
They were both damaged people, besides which she was probably married, or engaged, or partneredtoo beautiful to still be singlewhile he was no catchsingle father still hurting from the loss of his wife, shying away from the very thought of love. Not that this was a date.
'Are you okay?'
'I guess,' he answered the still smiling woman, although okay was a long way off.
He was sitting at a table that had a view over the mouth of the river and up along the coast as far as a distant headland.
The view provided the distraction he needed.
'Can we see your house from here?' he asked, looking not out to sea but up the river.
Alex looked too, checking the scattering of houses on the far side of the river from the townreached by ferry during its operating hours or by a long detour back around via the highway when the ferry stopped at midnight.
'I think so,' she said. 'You see the ferry down by the wharf and the fishermen's co-op on itthe shed-looking thing? Beyond that there's the bit of waste land and the huge old fig treewell, we're two houses down from the tree, although you probably can't see the house because they seem to have built an enormous place beside it.'
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
'We're two houses down,' she repeated. 'It's funny talking about "my house" when I haven't been there for so long. Although I didn't make it back in time to see Dad before the operation, we'd spoken on the phone a couple of times, and he'd been so upset about what had happened in the past that I promised when I came I'd stay with him, at least until he's over the op.'
Will smiled, brown eyes twinkling in his tanned face, and Alex immediately regretted this reunion.
It was because he was a familiar face that she was noticing little things about himlike the twinkling eyes.
And she certainly shouldn't be noticing twinkling eyes when he was wearing a wedding ring.
She touched his finger.
'You're married, that's nice. Kids?'
The twinkle disappeared and Will's open, friendly face went completely blank.
'Let's get you a drink first.'
He was on his feet, waiting for her order.
On his feet too quickly?
Far too quickly!
Get with it, Alex!
'G and T in a long glass, please.'
That's better. Or it would have been if she hadn't watched him walk towards the bar, seeing the breadth of his shoulders and how his back sloped down to slim hips and
You will not look at his butt! The man is married, he is off limits, he's nothing more than an oldnot exactly friend but someone she had known quite well.
It's just that he's the first familiar face you've seen that you're reacting this way.
He brought her drink and a small bowl of cashews for them to share, then settled back down at the table, this time looking out at the stretch of beach.
Do I ask again? Alex wondered, as an uneasy silence hovered around them.
'I'm a single father,' he began, still staring out along the beach. 'My wife died when Charlotte was borncancerCharlotte's three and a half.'