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release papers in slightly shaky hands then shoved them deeper under the pile on her desk. She tried to draw a calming breath and remind herself that Colleen believed Trent had agreed to stay, so the new doctor wouldn’t just show up on the doorstep and give Trent the green light to leave. But if Trent called Mike Hardy, who knew what would happen?

She prayed the Gilchrist representative would show up fast. Surely they’d be impressed with what a great job the hospital’s plastic surgeon had done on Lionel’s eye; they would never know the talented man would be out of there as soon as the rep left. Trent would charm them, even if he didn’t know he was supposed to, because the man oozed charm just by breathing. And all would be well. It would.

Paying bills wasn’t exactly the way to forget about the problem, but it had to be done. Charlie tore open the mail and grimly dropped every invoice into the box she kept for them. One thing she could do to relieve the stress of it all was work harder on other sources of funding besides Gilchrist. Her dad had always told her to never put all her eggs in one basket, so she tried to have multiple fundraising efforts going. Time to make some more calls and send more letters to previous donors. There was no way any of them would come close to what the Gilchrist Foundation had committed, but something was a whole lot better than nothing.

A letter with a postmark from New York City and the name of some financial organization caught her eye and made her heart accelerate. The Gilchrist Foundation was based in NYC. Could they possibly just have decided to send a check without worrying about the final approval?

She quickly ripped it open then sighed when she read the letterhead: not from the foundation. But her brief disappointment faded as she read the check that was enclosed with the letter. She stared, not quite believing what she was seeing.

Fifty thousand dollars, written to The Louisa Edwards Education Project. With slightly shaky hands, she scanned the letter that came with the check.

Please find enclosed an anonymous donation to provide supplemental funding for the Louisa Edwards School.

It was signed by someone who apparently worked at the financial firm it came from.

She stared at the bold numerals and the cursive below them. Fifty thousand dollars. Fifty thousand! Oh, heavens!

She leaped up and tore out the door of her office, about to run all the way to the school to show John Adams and her dad, who was there with him. To have John Adams plan to hire another new teacher. To think of all the supplies on their wish-list they’d decided not to buy for now.

And she ran,
, right into Trent Dalton’s hard shoulder, just as she had before when he’d asked if she was late to lunch.

He grabbed her arms to steady her. “Wow, you must be extra-hungry today. Something special on the menu?”

“Funny.” She clutched the check to her chest and smiled up at him. “But even you can’t annoy me today. You won’t believe what just came in the mail!”

“A new designer handbag? Some four-inch heels?” he asked, little creases at the corners of his eyes as he smiled.

“Way, way better. Guess again.”

“A brand-new SUV?”

She held the check up in front of his face. “Look.” She was so thrilled she had to gulp in air to keep from hyperventilating. “Somebody sent a check—a huge check—to the school. I have no idea who it’s from, or how they even heard about us. We can serve so many more kids now. Get stuff we’ve been wanting, but couldn’t afford. Can you believe it?”

“No. Can’t believe it.”

There was a funny expression on his face, a little amused smile along with something else she couldn’t quite figure out. “You’re laughing at me, aren’t you? I can’t help being excited. More than excited! Oh my gosh, this is so amazing and wonderful. Just like a gift from the heavens.”

Beyond jubilant, she flung her arms around Trent’s neck and gave him a big, smacking kiss on the lips, because she just plain couldn’t help herself. She drew back slightly against his arms, which had slipped across her back, and could see his eyes had grown a tad more serious. The warm kiss he gently pressed to her forehead felt soft and sweet.

“I’m happy for you. You and John Adams deserve it for the work you’re accomplishing in that school, and obviously your donor knows that. You’re literally changing those kids’ lives, giving them a fighting chance in the tough world they live in.”

“Thank you. But you change lives too, you know.” She stepped out of his hold, instantly missing the warm feel of his arms around her. “Gotta go. I need to tell John Adams and Dad about this.”

“I’ll come, too. I’m not busy right now and I’d like to see the kids again.”

It hadn’t rained in a few days, so the earth wasn’t nearly as muddy as the last time they’d trekked over to the school. Her brain was spinning with possibilities, until a thought made her excitement drop a notch.

Maybe she shouldn’t be so quick to hire another teacher or two and immediately spend some of it on teaching supplies and another couple sewing machines for the students to learn that skill on. Maybe she needed to hold onto it just in case she couldn’t pay the hospital bills when they came in if the Gilchrist funding didn’t come through.

No. They’d always run the hospital and the school separately: different sponsors and donors, different bookkeeping, different projects. Whoever had donated this money wanted it to go to the school and she had to honor that. It was the only fair and right thing to do for both the donor and the students.

“Did you get hold of Mike about my letter? Or am I allowed to call him now, Miss ‘I’m The Director Of The Hospital And The Whole World’?” His lips were curved in a teasing smile, but his eyes weren’t smiling quite as much.

“I’m...sorry if I was being bossy and...and acted like I want you to leave. I don’t, really. I’ve just got a lot on my mind.” And, boy, wasn’t that the truth. “I spoke with Colleen, and apparently she does have someone lined up to come soon, but not today or tomorrow. I’m sorry about that also. I would greatly appreciate it, though, if you would stay just another few days.” And all that was the truth, too, which made her feel a tad better. She wasn’t being quite as deceitful as she felt.

“All right. Thanks for checking. I guess I can hang around for just a little while longer.”

She drew a deep breath of relief, then glanced up at Trent’s profile, at his prominent nose, black hair and sensual lips. It didn’t feel like just over a week since he’d returned from the airport. As he walked next to her, not touching but close enough to feel his warmth, it seemed much longer. Oddly natural, like she should just reach over to hold his hand.

Which was not good. Not only would he be leaving in a matter of days, she didn’t want to think about how shocked and angry he’d be if he ever found out about her little fibs. Okay, big fibs; the thought of it made her stomach knot.

Three figures, two taller and one small, along with a little dog, appeared up ahead on the road—obviously, her dad, John Adams, Patience and Lucky. Seeing them obliterated all other thoughts as Charlie ran the distance between them, waving the check.

“You’re going to faint when you see this!”

* * *

Trent followed slowly behind Charlotte, not wanting to intrude on her moment, sharing her excitement with the two men and Patience. Though he’d been itching to leave, to move on with his life, he felt glad—blessed, really—that he’d still been here when she got the check. He’d never been around when someone received one of his donations, and it felt great to see how happy it made her. To know it would help them achieve their important goals.

He watched her fling her arms around both men, first her dad, then John Adams, just as she’d done with him. Well, not exactly the same. Her arms wrapped around their middles in a quick hug. That was different from the way she’d thrown her arms around his own neck, drawing his head close, giving him that kiss; her breasts pressing softly against his chest, staying there a long moment, her fingers tucked into his hair, sending a shiver along his scalp and a desire to kiss more than just her forehead.

“You don’t know who the donor is?” her father asked.

She shook her head, the sun touching her shining hair as it slipped across her shoulders. “No. I wish I did. I wish I could thank them. That
could thank them. Think there’s any way to find out?”

“Not likely. But you could always contact the company it came from and ask.”

“I’ll do that,” Charlotte said as they turned and headed back toward the hospital. “Maybe even ask if there’s anything specific they want the money used for.”

Trent knew his finance man was discreet and they’d get no information that could trace it back to him. “Whoever donated it stayed anonymous because they wanted to. I say just spend the money as you see fit and know they trusted you to do that,” he said.

“Good point, Trent,” John Adams said. “We do get the occasional anonymous donation, though nothing like this, of course. I think we should respect that’s how they wanted to keep it.”

“Okay.” Charlotte’s chest rose and fell in a deep breath, and Trent found his attention gravitating to her beautiful curves. “I’m feeling less freaked out. Just plain happy now. Why are you three leaving the school?”

“Daddy promised he would take me to the beach,” Patience said. “He’s been promising and promising, but kept saying it was s’posed to rain. But today the sun is shiny so we can go!” The little girl danced from one foot to the other, the colorful cloth bag on her shoulder dancing along with her.

“Mind if I come?” Trent asked. “I’ll build a sandcastle with you.” The kid was so cute, and he hadn’t seen an inch of Liberia other than the airport and the road to and from the hospital and school. One of the things he enjoyed about his job was exploring new places, discovering new things. He turned to Charlotte. “Would that be okay? Thomas is taking care of a man needing hernia surgery, and I’ve already seen the patients in the clinic. The nurses are finishing up with all of them. I can check on everyone when I get back.”

“Of course, that’s fine. I’ll see what’s in the kitchen for you all to take for a beach lunch.”

“Why don’t you go along, Charlie?” her dad suggested. “You never take much time off to do something fun. I’ve been wanting to go through the information you gave me, anyway, so I can keep an eye on things while you’re gone.”

“Well...” Her green eyes held some expression he couldn’t figure out. Wariness? Anxiety? “I’m not really a beach person, you know. And I don’t want you stuck here doing my work, Dad.”

“You may be the director, but I’m still a part of this hospital too, remember.” Joseph smiled. “You need to get over this fear of yours. Go get your things together. John Adams and I will scrounge up some food for you all to take.”

“What fear of yours?” Trent asked. From being around Charlotte just the past week or so, he couldn’t imagine her being afraid of much of anything.

“Nothing. Dad’s exaggerating.”

“Exaggerating? The last time we were at the beach, I thought you were going to hyperventilate just going into the water up to your knees.” Joseph turned to Trent. “When Charlie was a teenager back in the States, we didn’t realize we were swimming where there was a strong rip current, like quite a few beaches here in Liberia have. She got pulled farther and farther out and I couldn’t get to her. Her mom and I kept yelling at her to relax and not fight the current, to just let it take her. Then swim horizontal to the shore until she came to a place without a rip so she could swim back in.”

“Rip tides can be dangerous.” Trent looked at Charlotte and saw her cheeks were flushed. Surely she wasn’t embarrassed by something that happened when she was a kid? “Scary for anybody. But obviously you lived through it.”

“Yes. I admit I thought for sure that was it, though. That I was going to end up in the middle of the ocean and either drown or be devoured by a shark. So I just don’t like going in the water.”

“In the water? You don’t even like getting in a small boat. Which has been a problem a few times,” Joseph said. “You need to move past it and get your feet wet.”

“Can we just drop this subject, please? I have a lot of work to do, anyway.”

“Come to the beach, Charlotte,” Trent said, wishing he could pull her into his arms and give her soothing kisses that would ease her embarrassment and the bad memory. “We’ll work on getting you to move past your fear. You don’t have to get in the water if you’re not comfortable. But, you know, I did do a whole rotation in psychiatry at school. I’m sure I’m a highly qualified therapist.” He gave her a teasing smile, hoping she’d relax and decide to come. Living with any kind of debilitating fear was no fun.

“Just go, Charlie,” Joseph said. “It’ll make me feel less guilty that I let you swim in that rip to begin with.”

Charlotte gave an exaggerated sigh. “So this is about you now? Fine. I’ll go. But I’m not promising to swim. I mean it.”

“No promises needed,” Trent said. “We can always just build a sandcastle so big that Princess Patience can walk inside.”

“I like big sandcastles!” Patience beamed. “And In’t care if we don’t swim, Miss Charlie. Swimming isn’t my favorite, anyway. We’ll have fun on the beach.”

“All right, then, that’s settled,” Joseph said. “John Adams and I will pack lunch while you get your things.”

Trent grabbed swim trunks, a towel and his medical bag, which he’d learned always to have along on any excursion. Heading to the car, he had an instant vision of how Charlotte would look in a swimsuit: her sexy curves and smooth skin. Oh, yeah, he would more than enjoy a day at the beach with a beautiful woman; at the same time, he’d be glad to have chaperones to keep him from breaking his deal with her.

The thought of chaperones, though, didn’t stop more compelling thoughts of swimming with Charlotte. How she’d feel in his arms when he held her close, trying to relieve her mind and soothe her fears, their wet bodies sliding together. How much he wished that, afterwards, they could lie on the hot sand and make love in the shade of a palm tree with the warm breeze tickling their skin.

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