Texas is the perfect place for holiday heatexactly what Dr. Anastazia St. Sebastian needs before making the biggest decision of her career. Enter hunky shipping billionaire Mike Brennan, who insists on buying her dinner after she saves his nephew. But one night leads to more. And even three days of fun in the sunand in Mike's bedroomaren't enough. This doc of royal descent wants to fall in love but how can she when what Mike wants is the one thing she can never give?
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Zia almost didn't hear the shout over the roar of the waves. Preoccupied with the decision hanging over her like an executioner's ax, she'd slipped away for an early-morning jog along the glistening silver shoreline of Galveston Island, Texas. Although the Gulf of Mexico offered a glorious symphony of green water and lacy surf, Zia barely noticed the ever-changing seascape. She needed time and the endless, empty shore to think. Solitude to wrestle with her private demons.
She loved her familyher adored older brother, Dominic; her great-aunt Charlotte, who'd practically adopted her; the cousins she'd grown so close to in the past few years; their spouses and lively offspring. But spending the Christmas holidays in Galveston with the entire St. Sebastian clan hadn't allowed much time for soul-searching. Zia only had three more days to decide. Three days before she returned to New York and
"Go get it, Buster!"
Sunk in thought, she might have blocked out the gleeful shout if she hadn't spent the past two and a half years as a pediatric resident at Kravis Children's Hospital, part of the Mount Sinai hospital network in New York City. All those rewarding, gut-wrenching hours working with infants and young kids had fine-tuned Zia's instincts to the point that her mind tagged the voice instantly as belonging to a fiveor six-year-old male with a healthy set of lungs.
A smile formed as she angled toward the sound. Her sneakers slapping the hard-packed sand at the water's edge, she jogged backward a few paces and watched the child who raced through the shallows about thirty yards behind her. Red haired and freckle faced, he was in hot pursuit of a stubby brown-and-white terrier. The dog, in turn, chased a soaring Frisbee. Boy and pet plunged joyously through the shallow surf, oblivious to everything but the purple plastic disc.
Zia's smile widened at their antics but took a quick downward turn when she scanned the shore behind them and failed to spot an adult. Where were the boy's parents? Or his nanny, given that this stretch of beach included several glitzy, high-dollar resorts? Or even an older sibling? The boy was too young to be cavorting in the surf unsu-pervised.
Anger sliced into her, swift and icy hot. She'd had to deal with the results of parental negligence far too often to view it with complacency. She was feeling the heat of that anger, the sick disgust she had to swallow while treating abused or neglected children, when another cry wrenched her attention back to the boy. This one was high and reedy and tinged with panic.
Her heart stuttering, Zia saw he'd lunged into waves to meet the terrier paddling toward shore with the Frisbee clenched between his jaws. She knew the bank dropped off steeply at that point. Too steeply! And the undertow when the tide went out was strong enough to drag down full-grown adult.
She was already racing back to the boy when he disappeared. She locked her frantic gaze on the spot where his red hair sank below the waves, crashed into the water and made a flying dive.
She couldn't see him! The receding tide had churned up too much sand. Grit stung her eyes. The ocean hissed and boiled in her ears. She flung out her arms, thrashed them blindly. Her lungs on fire, she thrust out of the water like a dolphin spooked by a killer whale and arced back in.
Just before she went under she caught a glimpse of the terrier's rear end pointed at the sky. The dog dove down at the same instant Zia did and led her to the child being dragged along by the undertow. She shot past the dog. Grabbed the boy's wrist. Propelled upward with fast, hard scissor kicks. She had to swim parallel to the shore for several desperate moments before the vicious current loosened its grip enough for her to cut toward dry land.
He wasn't breathing when she turned him on his back and started CPR. Her head told her he hadn't been in the water long enough to suffer severe oxygen deprivation, but his lips were tinged with blue. Completely focused, Zia ignored the dog that whined and pawed frantic trenches in the sand by the boy's head. Ignored as well the thud of running feet, the offers of help, the deep shout that was half panic, half prayer.
The small chest twitched under Zia's palms. A moment later, the boy's back arched and seawater spewed from his mouth. With a silent prayer of thanksgiving to Saint Stephen, patron saint of her native Hungary, Zia rolled him onto his side and held his head while he hacked up most of what he'd swallowed. When he was done, she eased him down again. His nose ran in twin streams and tears spurted from his eyes but, amazingly, he gulped back his sobs.
"Wh.? What happened?"
She gave him a reassuring smile. "You went out too far and got dragged in by the undertow."
"Did I.? Did I get drowned?"
He hooked an arm around his anxious pet's neck while a slowly dawning excitement edged out the confusion and fear in his brown eyes. "Wait till I tell Mommy and Kevin and abuelita and " His gaze shifted right and latched on to something just over Zia's shoulder. "Uncle Mickey! Uncle Mickey! Did you hear that? I almost got drowned!"
"Yeah, brat, I heard."
It was the same deep baritone that had barely registered with Zia a moment ago. The panic was gone, though, replaced by relief colored with what sounded like reluctant amusement.
Jezus, Maria es Jozsef! Didn't this idiot appreciate how close a call his nephew had just had? Incensed, Zia shoved to her feet and spun toward him. She was just about to let loose with both barrels when she realized his amused drawl had been show for the boy's sake. Despite the seemingly laconic reply, his hands were balled into fists and his faded University of Texas T-shirt stretched across taut shoulders.
Very wide shoulders, she couldn't help but note, topped by a tree trunk of a neck and a square chin showing just a hint of a dimple. With her trained clinician's eye for detail, Zia also noted that his nose looked as though it had gotten crosswise of a fist sometime in his past and his eyes gleamed as deep a green as the ocean. His hair was a rich, dark sorrel and cut rigorously short.
The rest of him wasn't bad, either. She formed a fleeting impression of a broad chest, muscular thighs emerging from ragged cutoffs, and bare feet sporting worn leather flip-flops. Then those sea-green eyes flashed her a grateful look and he went down on one knee beside his nephew.
"You, young man," he said as he helped the boy sit up,
"are in deep doo-doo. You know darn well you're not allowed to come down to the beach alone."
"Buster needed to go out."
"I repeat, you are not allowed to come down to beach alone."
Zia shrugged off the remnants of the rage that had hit her when she'd thought the boy was allowed to roam un-supervised. She also had to hide a smile at the pitiful note that crept into Davy's voice. Like all five- or six-year olds, he had the whine down pat.
"You said Buster was my 'sponsibility when you gave him to me, Uncle Mickey. You said I had to walk him 'n feed him 'n pick up his poop 'n."
"We'll continue this discussion later."
Whoa! Even Zia blinked at the that's enough finality in the uncle's voice.
"How do you feel?" he asked the boy.
"Good enough to stand up?"
With the youthful resilience that never failed to amaze Zia, the kid flashed a cheeky grin and scrambled to his feet. His pet woofed encouragement, and both boy and dog would have scampered off if the uncle hadn't laid a restraining hand on his nephew's shoulder.
"Don't you have something you want to say to this lady?"
"Thanks for not letting me get drowned."
His uncle kept him in place by a firm grip on his wet T-shirt and held out his other hand to Zia. "I'm Mike Bren-nan. I can't thank you enough for what you did for Davy."
She took the offered hand, registered its strength and warmth as it folded around hers. "Anastazia St. Sebastian. I'm glad I got to him in time."
* * *
The sheer terror that had rocked Mike's world when he'd spotted this woman hauling Davy's limp body out of the sea had receded enough now for him to focus on her for the first time. Closer inspection damn near rocked him back on his flip-flops again.
Her wet, glistening black hair hung to just below her shoulders. Her eyes were almost as dark as her hair and had just the suggestion of a slant to them. And any supermodel on the planet would have killed for those high, slashing cheekbones. The slender body outlined to perfection by her pink spandex tank and black Lycra running shorts was just icing on the cake. That, and the fact that she wasn't wearing a wedding or engagement ring.
"I think he'll be all right," she was saying with another glance at now fidgeting Davy, "but you might want to keep an eye on him for the next few hours. Watch for signs of rapid breathing, a fast heart rate or low-grade fever. All are common the first few hours after a near drowning."
Her accent was as intriguing as the rest of her. The faint lilt gave her words a different cadence. Eastern European, Mike thought, but it was too slight to pin down.
"You appear to know a lot about this kind of situation. Are you an EMT or first responder?"
"I'm a physician."
Okay, now he was doubly impressed. The woman possessed the mysterious eyes of an odalisque, the body of a temptress and the smarts of a doc. He'd hit the jackpot here. Nodding toward the colorful umbrellas just popping up at the restaurant across the highway from the beach, he made his move.
"I hope you'll let Davy and me show our appreciation by buying you breakfast, Dr. St. Sebastian."
"Thanks, but I've already had breakfast."
No way Mike was letting this gorgeous creature get away. "Dinner, then."
"I'm, uh, I'm here with my family."
"I am, too. Unfortunately." He made a face at his nephew, who giggled and returned the exaggerated grimace. "I'd be even more grateful if you give me an excuse to get away from them for a while."
He didn't miss her brief hesitation. Or her quick glance at his left hand. The white imprint of his wedding ring had long since faded. Too bad he couldn't say the same for the inner scars. Shoving the disaster of his marriage into the dark hole where it belonged, Mike overrode her apparent doubts.
"Where are you staying?"
She took her time replying. Those exotic eyes looked him up and down. Lingered for a moment on his faded T-shirt, his ragged cutoffs, his worn leather flip-flops.
"We're at the Camino del Rey," she said finally, almost reluctantly. "It's about a half mile up the beach."
Mike suppressed a smile. "I know where it is. I'll pick you up at seven-thirty." He gave his increasingly impatient nephew's shoulder a squeeze. "Say goodbye to Dr. St. Sebastian, brat."
"Bye, Dr. S'baston."
"See you later, Anastazia."
"Zia," she said. "I go by Zia."
"Zia. Got it."
Tipping two fingers in a farewell salute, Mike used his grip on his nephew's T-shirt to frog-walk him up the beach.
Zia tracked them as far as the row of houses on stilts fronting the beach. She couldn't believe she'd agreed to dinner with the uncle. As if she didn't have enough on her mind right now without having to make small talk with a complete stranger!
Arms folded, she watched the terrier jump and cavort alongside them. The dog's exuberance reminded her all too forcefully of the racing hound her sister-in-law had hauled down to Texas with her. Natalie was nutso over the whip-thin Magyar Ag r and insisted on calling the hound Dukemuch to the chagrin of Zia's brother, Dominic, who still hadn't completely adjusted to his transition from Interpol agent to Grand Duke of Karlenburgh.
The duchy of Karlenburgh had once been part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire but had long since ceased to exist anywhere except in history books. That hadn't stopped the paparazzi from hounding Europe's newest royal out of the shadows of undercover work. And Dom had retaliated by sweeping the woman who'd discovered he was heir to the title off her feet and into the ranks of the ever-growing St. Sebastian clan. Now Zia's family included an affectionate, bersmart sister-in-law as well as the two thoroughly delightful cousins she and Dom had met for the first time three years ago.
And, of course, Great-Aunt Charlotte. The regal, iron-spined matriarch of the St. Sebastian family and the woman who'd welcomed Zia into her home and her heart. Zia couldn't imagine how she would have made it this far in her pediatric residency without the duchess's support and encouragement.
Two and a half years, she thought as she abandoned the rest of her morning run to head back to the condo. Twenty-eight months of rounds and call rotations and team meetings and chart prep and discharge conferences. Endless days and nights agonizing over her patients. Heartbreaking hours grieving with parents while burying her own aching loss so deep it rarely crept out to haunt her anymore.
Except at moments like this. When she had to decide whether she should continue to work with sick children for the next thirty or forty years or whether she should accept the offer from Dr. Roger Wilbanks, Chief of the Pediatrics Advanced Research Center, to join his team. Could she abandon the challenges and stress of hands-on medicine for the regular hours and seductive income of a world-class, state-of-the-art research facility?
That question churned like battery acid in her gut as she headed for the resort where the St. Sebastian clan was staying. With the morning sun now burning bright in an achingly blue Texas sky, the holiday sun worshippers had begun to flock down to the beach. Umbrellas had flowered open above rows of lounge chairs. Colorful towels were spread on the sand, occupied by bathers with no intention of getting wet. Patches of dead white epidermis just waiting to be crisped showed above skimpy bikini bottoms, along with more than one grossly distended male belly.
Without warning, Zia's mind zinged back to Mike Bren-nan. No distended belly there. No distended anything. Just muscled shoulders and roped thighs and that killer smile. His worn flip-flops and ragged cutoffs suggested a man comfortable with himself in these high-dollar environs. Zia liked that about him.
And now that she thought about it, she actually liked the idea of having dinner with him. Maybe he offered just what she needed. A leisurely evening away from her boisterous family. A few hours with all decisions put on hold. A casual fling.
Whoa! Where had that come from?