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Authors: ROBIN GIANNA,

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BOOK: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF DR. DALTON
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“Mmm. Sounds good to me if the surgeon in question has beautiful black hair and gorgeous eyes.” The sound of a long sigh came through the phone and Charlie shook her head. She supposed she should feel smug that über-attractive Trent had wanted to spend a night with her. But, since he likely had a woman in every port, that didn’t necessarily say much about her personal sex appeal. “I actually have his new release papers on my desk to send out today. Are you going to hit on him before he leaves?” Colleen asked. “Might be a fun diversion for a couple days.”

Been there, done that
. And, yes, it had been—very fun. Keeping it strictly professional now, though, was the agreed goal. “I’ve got tons to do with the new wing opening any time now. And my dad called to say he’s coming some time soon to see how things are going with that.”

“Actually, I have some bad news about the new wing, I’m afraid.” Colleen’s voice went from light to serious in an instant.

Her heart jerked. “What bad news?”

“You know David Devor, the plastic surgeon we had lined up to work there?” Colleen asked. “He has a family emergency and can’t come until it’s resolved, which could be quite a while.”

“Are you kidding me? You know I have to have someone here next week, Colleen! The Gilchrist Foundation made it clear we won’t get the funding we need until I have at least one plastic surgeon on site.”

“I know. I’m doing the best I can. But I’m having a hard time finding a plastic surgeon who wants to work in the field. I’m turning over every rock I can, but I can’t promise anybody will be there until Dr. Devor is available. Sorry.”

Lord, this was a disaster! Charlie swiped her hand across her forehead. The hospital was scarily deep in the red from getting the new wing built. It had to be opened pronto.

“Okay.” She sucked in a calming breath. “But I have to have a plastic surgeon, like
now
.”

“I know, but I just told you—”

“Listen. I need you to hold off a day or two before you send Trent’s release papers. Give me time to talk to him about maybe staying on here. If he agrees, you can send Perry Cantwell somewhere else.”

There was a long silence on the phone before Colleen spoke. “Why? Cantwell’s expecting to come soon. And I can’t just hold Trent’s paperwork. He’s already filled in for you twice and is way overdue for his vacation. I don’t get it.”

“I found out Trent’s a plastic surgeon, not just a general surgeon.” She gulped and forged on. “If Devor can’t be here, I have to keep Trent here at least long enough to get the wing open and the funding in my hand. Otherwise I won’t be able to pay the bank, and who knows what’ll happen?”

“Maybe he’ll agree to stay.”

“Maybe. Hopefully.” But she doubted he would. Hadn’t he made it more than clear that he wanted to head out ASAP? The only reason he’d come back for a few days was because of how sick Lionel had been. “All I’m asking is for you to hang onto his release papers until I can talk to him.”

“Charlie.” Colleen’s voice was strained. “You’re one of my best friends. Heck, you got me this job! But you’re asking me to do something unethical here.”

“Of course I don’t want you to do anything you feel is unethical.” This was her problem, not Colleen’s, and it wouldn’t be right to put her friend in the middle of it. “Just send them out tomorrow instead of today, address them to me and I’ll make sure he gets them. That will give me time to contact the Gilchrist Foundation and see if they’ll make an exception on their requirements before the donation check is sent. If they won’t, I’ll try to get their representative to come right now while Trent’s still here. I’m pretty sure the guy is close—somewhere in West Africa. I’ll go from there.”

Colleen’s resigned sigh was very different from the one when she’d been swooning over Trent earlier. “All right. I’ll wait until tomorrow to send the release papers and finalize Perry’s travel plans to give you time to talk to Trent. But that’s it.”

“Thanks, Colleen. You’re the best.” Charlie tried to feel relieved but the enormity of the problem twisted her gut. “Hopefully they’ll send the funding check even if we don’t have a plastic surgeon here yet and we’ll be out of the woods. I’ll keep you posted.”

The second she hung up, she searched for the Gilchrist Foundation’s number. What would she do if they flat out said the conditions of the contract had to be met, which would probably be their response? Or if they couldn’t send their representative here immediately? If the GPC couldn’t find a plastic surgeon to come in any reasonable period of time, the whole hospital could fold. Every dollar of the GPC’s funding, and all the other donations she’d managed to round up, had been spent renovating the nearly destroyed building, buying expensive equipment and hiring all the nurses, techs and other employees needed to run the place. And the money she’d borrowed to build the new wing was already racking up interest charges.

Adrenaline rushed through her veins as she straightened in her seat. The end justified the means. The hospital absolutely could not close and the plastic surgery wing had to open. It had to be there to help all the people who had horrible, disfiguring injuries left from the war. It had to help all the kids living with congenital deformities, like cleft palates, which they’d never have had to live with if they’d been born somewhere else. Somewhere with the kind of healthcare access she was determined to offer.

If the Gilchrist Foundation insisted on sticking with the contract stipulations, she had no choice but somehow to make sure Trent stayed on until the money was in her hand.

CHAPTER SIX

T
RENT
HAD
BEEN
relieved that Charlotte wasn’t in the hospital commons for dinner. He hadn’t wanted to make small talk with her while pretending he didn’t feel insulted by her words.

The book he tried to read didn’t hold his attention, and he paced in the sparse little bedroom until he couldn’t take the confinement anymore. He headed into the humid, oppressive air and strode down the edges of the road, avoiding the muddy ruts as best he could.

When he’d first met Charlotte, he’d been impressed with her enthusiastic commitment to this place, to her vision of what she wanted it to become. And, as they’d spent time together, she’d seemed interested in his life. She’d asked smart and genuine questions, and he’d found himself opening up, just a little—sharing a few stories he usually kept to himself, nearly talking to her about things he just plain didn’t talk about.

But, when it came right down to it, she was like anyone else: a woman who questioned who he was and why he did what he did. Who didn’t particularly care what he wanted from his own life. Had she asked him
why
he didn’t do plastic surgery exclusively? Expressed any interest in his reasons?

No. She’d just made the same snap judgment others had made. She’d told him what he should do, convinced she knew. Exactly like the woman in his life he’d trusted completely to have his back, to know him, to care.

A trust he’d never give again.

It was disappointing as hell. Then again, maybe this was a good thing. Maybe it would help him feel less drawn to her.

He needed to see this as a positive, not a negative. And, when he left in just a day or two, maybe the peculiar closeness he felt to her would be gone. He’d leave and hope to hell his world would be back to normal.

He kept walking, not having any particular destination in mind, just feeling like he didn’t want to go back to that room and smother, but not wanting to chit-chat with people in the hospital either. Maybe he should call up a buddy on the phone, one of the fraternity of mission doctors who understood his life and why he did what he did. They always made him laugh and put any personal troubles in perspective.

As he pulled his cell from his pocket, he noticed a light up ahead. Had he somehow got turned around? He peered through the darkness and realized he was practically at Charlotte’s doorstep. Had his damned stupid feet unconsciously brought him here because he’d been thinking of her so intently?

About to turn off on a different path, he was surprised to see little Patience bound out the door, holding a rope with a tiny puppy attached, bringing it down the porch steps. It sniffed around before doing its business, and Trent wanted to laugh at the look of distaste on the little girl’s face as she picked up a trowel from the steps.

He didn’t want to scare her by appearing out of nowhere in the darkness. “You have a new dog, Patience? When did you get it?”

She looked up at him and smiled. “Hi, Mr. Trent! Yes, Daddy got me another doggie. After my poor Rex was killed by that ugly, wild dog, I been asking and asking. He finally said yes, and my friends at the school like having her to play with too.”

“What’s its name?”

“Lucky—cos I’m lucky to have her. Except for this part.” The look of distaste returned, replacing the excitement as she gripped the trowel. “I promised Daddy I would do everything to take care of her.”

He scratched the cute little pup behind the ears, chuckling at the way its entire hind end wagged in happiness before he reached for the trowel. A little doggie doo-doo was nothing compared to many of the things he’d dealt with. “Here. I’ll do it for you this time.” With a grateful smile, Patience let him dig a hole to bury the stuff. “What are you and your new pup doing here at Charlotte’s house?”

“Miss Charlie fixed dinner for me and Daddy. They talking about work.”

The door opened and the shadow of John Adams’s big body came onto the porch. “Somebody out here with you, Patience?”

“Mr. Trent, Daddy. He’s meeting Lucky.”

“Trent. Come on inside. Charlie and I were just talking about you.”

Damn. He didn’t want to know what they were talking about and didn’t particularly want to see Charlotte. But his feet headed up the steps, with Patience and the puppy trailing behind.

The warm glow of the quaint room, full of an odd mix of furniture styles and colorful rugs, embraced him as he stepped inside and he wondered what it was about this old house that gave it so much charm and appeal. An old upright piano against a wall had open sheet music leaning against the stand. Charlotte, dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt, was curled on a sofa, and she looked up, her lips slightly parted.

The surprise in her green eyes gave way to a peculiar mix of wariness and warmth. As their gazes collided, as he took in the whole of her silken hair and lovely face, he was instantly taken back to earlier today. To their physical closeness beneath that umbrella. To the moment it had felt like it was just the two of them, alone and intimate. Despite all his promises to himself and to her, he’d found himself for that brief second leaning in to taste her mouth, to enjoy the sweetness of her lips.

Being in her house again sent his thoughts to the moment they’d sat on that sofa and kissed until both of them were breathless, ending up making love on the floor. Why did this woman make him feel this way every time he looked at her?

“Trent. I’m...surprised to see you.”

Could she be thinking about their time together here too? “I was taking a walk. Then saw Patience and her new pup.”

Patience ran to the piano and tapped on the keys, bobbing back and forth as the dog pranced around yapping. “Lucky likes to sing and dance, Mr. Trent, see?”

“She has a beautiful voice.” As he smiled at the child, he was struck by a longing to go to the piano himself. To finger the keys as he’d done from the time he was six, until he’d left the U.S. for good. He hadn’t realized until he’d first walked into this room with Charlotte a few days ago how much he’d missed playing.

“Miss Charlie has a very pretty voice,” Patience enthused. “Please play for us, Miss Charlie. Play and sing something!”

Charlotte shook her head. “Not tonight. I’m sure Mr. Trent doesn’t want a concert.”

Her cheeks were filled with color. Surely the ultra-confident Charlotte Edwards wasn’t feeling shy about performing for him? “Of course I’d like to hear you. What’s your favorite thing she plays, Patience?” Surprised at how much he wanted to hear Charlotte sing, he settled himself into a chair, figuring there was no way she could say no to the cute kid.

“That song from church I like:
How Great Thou Art
. Please, Miss Charlie?” The child’s hands were clasped together and for once she stood still, her eyes bright and excited.

As Trent had predicted, Charlotte gave a resigned sigh. “All right. But just the one song.”

She moved to the piano, and his gaze slid from her thick hair to the curve of her rear, sexy even in sweatpants. Her fingers touched the keyboard, the beginning measures a short prelude to the simple arrangement before she began to sing. Trent forgot about listening to the resonance of the piano’s sounding board and heard only the sweet, clear tones of Charlotte’s voice, so moving and lovely his chest ached with the pleasure of it.

When the last piano note faded and the room became quiet, he was filled with a powerful desire for the moment to continue. To never end. Without thought, he found himself getting up from the chair to sit next to Charlotte, his hip nudging hers to scoot over on the bench.

“Let’s sing a Beatles tune Patience might like,” he said, his hands poised over the keys, his eyes fixed on the beautiful green of hers. He began to play
Lean On Me
and, when she didn’t sing along, bumped his shoulder into hers. “Come on. I know you know it.”

“Yes, Miss Charlie! Please sing!” Patience said, pressing her little body against Charlotte’s leg.

John Adams began to sing in a slightly off-key baritone before Charlotte’s voice joined in, the dulcet sound so pure it took Trent’s breath away. When his hands dropped from the keyboard, he looked down into Charlotte’s face, seeing Patience next to her, and he was struck with a bizarre and overwhelming vision of a life he hadn’t even considered having: a special woman by his side, a family to love; the ultimate utopia.

“That was wonderful,” she said, her eyes soft. “I didn’t know you could play. Without music, even.”

He drew in a breath to banish his disturbing thoughts. “I was shoved onto a piano bench from the time I was little, and had a very intimidating teacher who made sure I was classically trained.” He grinned. “I complained like heck sometimes when I had to practice instead of throwing a football around with my friends, but I do enjoy it.” He hadn’t realized how much until just now, shoulder to shoulder with her, sharing this intimate moment.

“Play something classical. Simple modern songs are about it for my repertoire.”

He thought about what he’d still have memorized from long ago and realized it shouldn’t be Bach or Haydn. That it should be something romantic, for her. “All right, but don’t be surprised if I’m a little rusty. I bet you know this one: Debussy’s
Clair de Lune
.”

When the last notes of the piece died away, the softness on her face only inches from his had him nearly leaning in for a kiss, forgetting everything but how much he wanted to, and the only thing that stopped him was Patience’s little face staring up at him from next to the keyboard.

“I liked that, Mr. Trent!”

“Yes.” Charlotte’s voice was a near-whisper as she rested her palm on his arm. “That was...beautiful.”

As he looked at the little girl, and stared into Charlotte’s eyes filled with a deep admiration, the whole scene suddenly morphed from intimate and perfect to scary as hell. Why was he sitting here having fantasies about, almost a longing for, a life he absolutely did not want?

Abruptly, he stood. He needed to get out of there before he said or did something stupid.

Hadn’t he, just earlier this evening, been annoyed and disappointed in her? Then one more hour with her and, bam, he was back to square one with all those uncomfortable and mixed feelings churning around inside. What the hell was wrong with him, he didn’t want to try to figure out.

“You know, I need to head back to my quarters. I’m going to get most of my things packed up. I’m sure the GPC let you know the new temp is coming in just a day or two?”

“We need to talk about that.” The softness that had been in her eyes was replaced by a cool and professional expression. He was damned if it didn’t irritate him when he should be glad. “We have an issue.”

“What issue?”

She glanced at John Adams before returning her attention to Trent. “Come sit down and we’ll talk.”

“I’m happy standing, thanks.” Her words sounded ominous and he folded his arms across his chest, the disconcerting serenity he’d been feeling just a moment ago fading away like a mirage in the desert. He had a feeling this conversation had something to do with him staying longer, and that wasn’t happening.

“The new temp is delayed. I’m not sure when he’s going to get here.” She licked those tempting lips of hers and, while her expression was neutral, her eyes looked strained and worried. As they should have.

“I told you not to try to guilt me into staying. I can’t be here indefinitely.” Except, damn it, as he said the words the memory of the comfort he’d felt a moment ago, that sense of belonging, made it sound scarily appealing.

“I’m not trying to guilt you into anything. I’m simply telling you the facts. Which are that, if you leave, there won’t be another surgeon here for a while.”

“The GPC does a good job finding docs to fill in when there’s a gap. Especially when a place has nobody. Besides, you have Thomas here, and he does a great job on the hernias and other simple procedures.”

“But what if we get another appendicitis case? Ectopic pregnancy? Something serious he can’t handle?”

He shoved his hands into his pockets and turned to pace across the room, staring out the window at the heavy blackness of the night sky. Looking anywhere but into her pleading eyes.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that one person can’t save everybody who needs help, Charlotte. I’d be dead if I tried to be that person. Think about the ramifications of this for others, too: the longer I’m here, the more the snowball effect of docs having to fill in where I’m supposed to be next, which is the Philippines.” He turned to her, hoping to see she understood what he was saying—not that the idea of staying here longer was both appealing and terrifying. “If the GPC hospital in the Philippines doesn’t have anyone because I’m not there, is that okay? Better for patients there to die, instead of patients here?”

Her hands were clasped together so tightly her knuckles were white. “Just a couple of weeks, Trent. Maybe less, if it works out.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Charlotte. As soon as my release paperwork comes through from the GPC, I have to head out.”

“Trent, all I’m asking is...”

The room that had felt so warm and welcoming now felt claustrophobic. He turned his attention to John Adams so he wouldn’t have to look at her wide and worried eyes. “I have a few patients scheduled for surgery early, so I’m going to get to bed. If either of you know of patients needing surgery, you should schedule them in the next couple days before I leave.” He scratched the dog behind the ears before he walked out the door, finding it impossible to completely stuff down the conflicting emotions that whirled within him.

As he walked through the darkness, a possible solution struck him that would assuage his guilt. Maybe a phone call to an old friend would solve all his problems and let him move on.

BOOK: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF DR. DALTON
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