Authors: Jill Shalvis
he two nearly naked babes frolicked in the waves only yards away and Luke Walker yawned.
Oh, definitely, he was on the edge of burnout. On the edge and skating on thin ground. Behind him stood his home on the Malibu bluffs. In front of him were the bikini babes.
And inside him … exhaustion. Actually, he was far beyond exhaustion and heading straight for brain dead, but who was keeping track?
Unfortunately, even sleep couldn't help him, not today, not when every time he closed his eyes, he transported himself back.
Blood soaking his hands, splattering across his scrubs as he knelt on the moving gurney next to the far-too-still six-year-old boy. Orderlies racing them down the hallway towards surgery as Luke barked orders, held the boy's wound shut and prayed to a God he wasn't sure could hear him.
"So why aren't you down there frolicking with the babes?"
At the heavily Spanish accented voice, Luke groaned and opened his eyes. Carmen DeCosta took great pleasure in thinking she knew him well enough to boss him around. She stood there with her hands on her ample hips, waiting for an answer.
Was everyone going to give him that bug-on-a-slide look today? "Don't go there," he warned. "I'm trying to take a breather here."
"Good. You don't do that enough." With a spryness that belied her chunkiness, the dark-haired, dark-skinned—or should he say
-skinned—woman dropped to the sand next to him, apparently taking a break from her duties cleaning his house to offer him her opinions on his life. Nothing new. She liked to boss him around. She liked to fuss over him as well, and he knew she thought of herself as a surrogate mother since his own was gone.
But he didn't need one. Actually, he'd never needed one. And yet somehow he'd never managed to convince her of that.
He looked out at the pounding surf, at the ridiculous bikinied beach babes, and saw nothing but Dr. Leo Atkinson from South Village Medical Center frowning at him. Luke was head of the E.R., but Leo was head of surgery. He was also director of all the various department heads. So while technically they were peers, Leo, sitting on the hospital board and also town council, had far more power. Which was fine with Luke, who just wanted to be left alone to heal people, not navigate the bullshit, ass-kissing waters that was hospital politics.
You went too far, Luke,
Leo had said.
You're a marketing nightmare, and now, unfortunately, something has to be done or you won't be named E.R. Head again in this century.
He was referring, of course, to when Luke had let out a statement regarding the idiocracy of the bureaucrats running their hospital after he'd learned they'd helped fund Healing Waters Clinic, a place where conventional medicine wasn't even practiced.
The comment had been leaked to the press, who'd gleefully reported it in the
Los Angeles Times
The South Village Press,
among others. The fallout had been immediate. The owner of the clinic had called the hospital board, who'd gone to Leo, who'd gone to Luke.
Fix it. Retract the statement.
Not that easy. To Luke things were black and white. Give him a medical emergency and he could either fix it or not. Mostly he could.
No gray areas, no middle ground.
But Healing Waters Clinic… They worked in that gray area with aromatherapy, massage therapy, acupressure …
That the board funded such a place when the hospital turned away patients who couldn't pay, patients who legitimately needed their help, was asinine.
In his humble opinion.
Which wasn't so humble, apparently. He was going to be punished for his outburst. In the worst way possible.
"It's just the way it is," Leo had said in only slight apology. "You're amazing with your patients, but when it comes to everyone else—the board, your staff, everyone—they say you're a nightmare, and even I have to agree. You've got to learn to soften your approach, Luke, or good as you are, you're going to get your walking papers. In light of that, you're going to volunteer your services at the Healing Waters Clinic every Saturday for three months."
Luke had stared at him for one full moment. "Why don't you just take away my license," he'd finally said. "It would be less painful."
Leo had laughed over that, then slapped him on the back. "Enjoy it, Luke. This is your last chance to prove you're a team player."
A team player. Woo hoo, his biggest goal.
He glowered at the ocean, brooding.
"Nice view." Carmen nodded to the bikini crowd.
He shrugged. Damn it, he was a good doctor. A great doctor. That should be all that mattered, not how well he could spin a tale for the press, or appease the people around him.
"So…" Carmen leaned back on her elbows, looking as if she didn't plan on more cleaning anytime soon. "How many patients did you see today?"
Luke sighed. "A lot."
patients? Say … someone interesting enough to date?"
Why was it a single man was always such an irresistible setup? "Why?"
"Because one of them left you some cookies. Must have made a huge impression on her, Dr. Luke."
One big wave after another hit the shore, causing shrieks of joy from the bathing beauties. Luke inhaled the salt air, then slowly let it out.
"Don't you want to know who left the cookies? Let me help you remember. Blond, tall, gorgeous. And…" Carmen cupped her hands out in front of her chest. "Stacked."
Inhaling more salt air…
"Are you listening?"
"I'm trying not to."
"Oh, you. Do you know who left the cookies or not?"
Lucy Cosine. He'd stitched her up earlier in the week when she'd neglected to stop at a red light and had plowed into a mail truck, putting her head through her windshield. She was late twenties, rich, husband-searching based on status (her words, not his) and apparently Luke fit the bill.
Too bad he wasn't on the market. "Are the cookies any good?"
"Bah." Carmen made a face. "Mine are better." In front of them, one of the two women went down under a wave and came up laughing like an idiot. "Tough job you got there, doctor. Hard to believe you can't manage to find yourself a woman." She looked him over critically. "Maybe you have a problem with your attention span?"
Luke studied the sharp, blue sky, amazingly void of Southern California smog today. "Funny."
"Love is a good stress reliever, you know."
"We are absolutely not going to discuss sex."
Not sex." Carmen's voice was filled with mischief. "But sex works too."
A rough laugh escaped Luke at that. Always, no matter how bad things got—and they'd been pretty bad here and there—Carmen could somehow provide the comic relief. "You're ruining my bad mood for me."
"Good." Carmen beamed, and reaching over, she noisily kissed his cheek. "I just want you to be happy, Luke. Everyone deserves a little happiness."
"I am." Or he had been happy enough anyway, until Leo's ultimatum today.
"Nah, you need a woman for that, one to share your heart, your home, your bed, and not necessarily in that order."
Luke would take the woman in his bed part, just about any night of the week—if he had the time and wasn't on call—but a woman in his heart? Not a chance in hell, not when he lived and breathed his work. What woman in her right mind would want a man who didn't have anything left to give?
And what woman in her right mind would want a man, a doctor, who'd just been slapped with a disciplinary action that was likely going to kill him?
Working in a natural healing clinic for God's sake. For three months. Unbelievable.
Truly, he couldn't think of a worse fate.
* * *
When her horoscope said the stars weren't aligned in her favor, Faith McDowell should have believed it and pulled the covers back over her head.
But lounging in bed had never been her style. As to what was her style, she hadn't quite figured that out yet. She didn't have much time for that.
On autopilot, she turned on the shower, cranked up the radio, and lit a jasmine candle guaranteed to uplift and stimulate.
Soaping up, she sang at the top of her lungs, because singing was an excellent energy releaser. It worked for all of sixty seconds, which was how long it took for her brain to refuse to be sidetracked by music and scents, and face reality.
Her reality wasn't easy to face.
Just this week, she'd had to give herself a pay cut as Director of Healing Waters Clinic. That meant a lot of macaroni and cheese in her immediate future.
But at least she still had a clinic, and a lovely building in South Village to house it. She'd opened the place last year, right on
North Union Street
, the main drag of the town that rivaled Sunset Strip in pedestrian traffic. She'd opened it after four years of being a nurse practitioner.
Working in a San Diego E.R. she'd seen it all, every kind of suffering, and had always felt modern medicine wasn't doing all it could. But no one had wanted to hear her ideas of natural healing, of homeopathic healing, of all the ancient and established methods that really worked, not when there were multiple gunshot wounds, motor vehicle accident injuries and other emergency traumas to deal with every day.
Here, in her healing clinic, she could concentrate on those ideas considered outside the lines of conventional medicine, she could finally concentrate on easing suffering in less invasive ways. Shockingly, the powers that be at the local hospital had been willing to refer people to her, and later had even helped fund her efforts, and she'd never been happier.
Until one of the local doctors, a Dr. Luke Walker, had publicly raised his nose at her work there. She'd faced such disdain before, only she'd underestimated Dr. Walker's reputation and following. Once the public had heard his opinion, once they'd realized she didn't have his support, she'd ended up spending a good part of her day answering questions and debating medical practices, which in turn meant more time with each patient, creating more backlog and long waits. As a result, people weren't coming back.
Mercifully, the hospital had stepped in, promising a quick fix. They were giving the clinic an extra hand, one that belonged to Dr. Walker himself, as a matter of fact, for three months of weekends.
she thought, with her first smile of the day. A silver lining. So therefore, her horoscope had to be wrong.
She was so sure of it, that when she ran out of hot water with conditioner still in her hair, it was a shock. Then the bathroom scale decided
to be her friend, and to top it all off, she couldn't find clean socks.
Already wary of the day and it wasn't even seven o'clock. She went downstairs. There was one negative thing about living over the clinic on a major street in a major town filled with people who got up early. The street was already filled with joggers, bicyclists, early shoppers and workers; the majority of them young, hip, urban, and far better put together than she had ever been at seven in the morning.
She located her newspaper, which hadn't made it to the stoop, but had instead landed in the small patch of wet grass. Picking it up with two fingers, the soggy, chewed mess fell apart like confetti. With a sigh, she looked up into the face of her neighbor's eighty-pound Doberman. "Again, Tootsie?"
Tootsie lifted his chin and gave her a doggie smile before trotting off.
"That's what you get for living at your work." This from Shelby Anderson, her co-naturopathic practitioner at Healing Waters, and Faith's best friend. She came up the walkway and followed Faith into the back door of the clinic, looking more like an actress in her flowered scrubs than the real thing.
Faith knew Shelby couldn't help the fact that her blond hair was always just right, and that she needed hardly any makeup to glow, or that her long, willowy body was the only one on the planet that scrubs actually looked good on, but it was still a little irksome, especially so early in the morning.
"I live above my work, not
my work," Faith corrected, tugging at her scrubs, which most definitely were not nearly as flattering on her as they were on Shelby.
"Above work, at work, same thing," Shelby said. "Both suck."
Faith looked down at her chewed newspaper. "Okay, sometimes, yes."
Shelby set down her purse and leaned against the counter, sipping at the herbal tea she'd brought. "Would you like some? You look beat already."
"Gee, and I thought I'd used my makeup concealer correctly."
Shelby smiled. "You don't wear any makeup, much less concealer, so stop it. Just remember, every time you let yourself run down, you get the flu."