Authors: Caroline Anderson
As if there was someone missing. If Kate were there, it would be more fun.
There was a knock on the door, and James pulled it open and gave a wry smile. “I was just coming to get you,” he said, and Kate smiled back and went up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.
“I'm sorry. I just had some things I needed to do. How far have you gottenâoh! The tree's looking lovely!”
“Not really. It's a bit sparse and somewhat lopsided, but, hey, we did it,” James said.
She gave him an encouraging smile. “You just need a few more little things on it. Oh, what's this?”
“I made it at school,” Rory told her. “It's an angel.”
It was a pretty scruffy angel, James thought. Kate, however, didn't seem to think any such thing.
She placed it in a prominent position on the tree, then rummaged in the box, came up with more red baubles and a fairy, and after they'd put the baubles on, she made James stand on a chair and hold Freya up so she could put the fairy on the top.
“There!” Kate exclaimed, laughing. “Now it's finished.” And she took Freya from him and swung her round, which gave James time to straighten the fairy before he got down and put the chair awayâ¦and swallow the lump in his throat.
Christmas is such a fabulous time of year, full of love and laughter and warmthâa time for families to get together with all their loved ones. But what happens if fate gets in the way? What if Christmas just underlines the fact that you're alone, that somebody irreplaceable is gone forever and it will never be the same again? Suppose, like James, you're struggling alone with two young children, and all your little boy wants for Christmas is a mommy?
This story was a real heart wrencher to write, and I cried buckets over it, but Kate, with her strange, complicated family and great big heart, sorted us all out.
I hope you love itâand themâas much as I did. I'm only sorry I can't make it all come true for everyone out there who needs a Kate, but each of us can find a little time and love for those less fortunate, even if it's only to spare them a thought.
Wishing you a fabulous Christmas and a wonderful New Year!
Good of you to join us.'
James stifled a growl of frustration and nailed a smile firmly on his face. âSorry I'm late. I was held up in HRâsome technical hitch with my registration.'
âSo I gather. Sorted now?'
âIt is.' And it wouldn't have arisen if he'd remembered to post the damn form back to the hospital once he'd completed it, but hey-ho. And now this dark-haired dynamo with eyes the colour of toffee was gunning for him. His boss.
He swallowed his pride and joined the group gathered round the nursing station. A doctor, two nursesâand the woman. Kate Burgess, consultant general surgeon and his reluctant boss. Well, she wasn't the only one who was reluctant. He managed a more genuine smile for the others. âHiâI'm James. Good to meet you all. Soâwhat are we doing?'
The dynamo arched one of those elegant, fine brows and speared him with a look. âWe? Well,
about to take a patient to Theatre.'
âThen I would imagine I'm assisting you? They said you were expecting me.'
âI was. An hour ago. As it is, I've taken Jo away from her job to do yours.'
He forced a smile. Actually it wasn't hard. What was hard was making sure it didn't look like a smile of relief, because he wouldn't be trapped in Theatre with her in this clearly combative mood. âWhy don't I do Jo's job, then, since I have nothing else that I'm expecting to do and it's fairly pointless for me to join you in Theatre without some kind of introduction to the patientâ'
âWhich you would have had if you'd been here on time.'
âWell, you need to talk to HR about that,' he said a little tightly, conscious of the interested and speculative looks they were attracting from the rest of the team. Damn her, how dare she give him a public dressing down?
âI didâa form you failed to return,' she said, her voice softer but nevertheless as sharp as a razor. âNot a good start, McEwan. Paperwork is important.'
He hung on to his temper with difficulty. âI am aware of that.'
âGoodâso I won't need to labour the point. Right, Jo, since Mr McEwan is now here, perhaps you'd like to carry on with what you were supposed to be doing while I fill him in, and then he can assist me in Theatre, as he seems to be so keen.'
âSure.' Jo smiled at him, pocketed her pen and headed for the door, winking at him as she shouldered it open. He chuckled under his breath. Oh, well, at least he had one ally in the department.
âRight,' she said, and fixed him with those toffee-coloured eyes. The sort of toffee you broke your teeth on. Or maybe your career.
âI'm about to do a hemicolectomy on a patient with a primary tumour in the terminal ileum,' she said, and he felt cold sweat break out all over his body. Oh, God. No. Stick to the plot, he told himself as she went on, âStephen Symes, aged fifty-four, been experiencing abdo pain, alternate bouts of diarrhoea and constipation, he's been fast-tracked but was admitted yesterday with vomiting and rectal bleeding.'
He didn't need to hear the list. He knew it by heart.
No! Stop thinking about it. Focus. Focus.
âScan shows a mass which is almost totally obstructing the terminal ileum and attaching to the peritoneum over the femoral arteryâhence the emergency surgeryâbut we won't really know exactly the extent of it until we open him up, or even if we can do anything at all. It could be tricky, which is why he's our only patient this morning.' She smiled challengingly. âI tell you what, I'll be generous and let you lead.'
Something clenched in his gut. Did it show on his face? She looked at him keenly.
âI haven't seen the scans,' he said.
âNo problem. I'll brief you now. Scans are up there,' she told him, nodding her head at the light box behind him. He turned, and his heart sank. Poor bastard.
âWe can't hope to get it all,' he said.
âAlmost certainly not. Besides, he's also a little jaundiced, so it's quite likely it's metastasised to his liver already.' She filled him in further on the man's history, his symptoms and probable prognosis, which, even before they got inside him, he knew was appalling. And once in there, might prove to be even worse. The oncology team would obviously be involved, but there was a limit to what they would be able to do if it was as bad as it looked from the scan.
âSoâthere you are, McEwan. Let's go get some answersâand we can see how good you are, now you're finally here.'
âReady when you are,' he heard the anaesthetist say, and Kateâ
âsaid something pithy on the lines of being there just as soon as the team had finished organising itself.
Stifling a sigh, he finished scrubbing, dried his hands and gowned up. He'd met women like her beforeâtough, uncompromising, hard as nails, trying to prove themselves as better than the men they worked with, clawing their way up over the backs of anyone who dared to stand between them and their ultimate goal. Well, tough. He could be uncompromising with the best of them, but that wasn't what he was here for. He was here to test the water, to see if this time he could make it work.
And he could. He could grit his teeth and put up with her nasty sense of humour and her evil little digs about his lack of organisation, and make it work.
He had to. He had a living to earn, a career to reconstruct, and a family to hold together.
And Kate Burgess wasn't about to be given the chance to sabotage that.
He was even better looking than she'd remembered.
Not that she'd been exactly studying him at his interview, but she had noticed, and now, in his scrubsâwell, they did things for that solid, muscular frame that should have been illegal.
Not overly tall but too tall for her to look him in the eye without tipping her head back, strongly built, with floppy, tawny brown hair that had a tendency to fall down over his foreheadâor did, until he'd scraped it back with those long, powerful-looking fingers and tucked it into a theatre capâand curious pale blue eyes that seemed to look right through her and find her wanting.
She felt a twinge of guilt, but it wasn't her fault he'd been late, and she'd hung on as long as possible before removing Jo from her duties when her uncomplaining young SHO already had more than enough to do. And she hadn't really been unkind, she thought, trying to justify her behaviour to herself and knowing that she couldn't. She shouldn't have criticised him like that in public, it was unfair and unethical. Damn. She'd have to apologise, but she'd seen the scans and knew what lay ahead, and she hadn't needed a slack member of the team to deal with at the same time.
Especially not a member she hadn't wanted in the first place, even if he was supposedly a fantastic surgeon.
He had an odd history. He'd been a consultant in a London hospitalâonly for a yearâbut then he'd left abruptly and hadn't worked since, apart from a fewâa very fewâhighly temporary locum jobs. And it was now well over eighteen months since he'd given up his consultant's post, but he'd applied for the locum job to cover her registrar's maternity leave here at the Audley Memorial in mid-Suffolk, and the hospital board had welcomed him with open arms.
Not her, though. There were too many unanswered questions, too many potential complications, but there wasn't another candidate to come within miles of him. There was just something about him she didn't trust, something she didn't want in a colleague. He was too guarded, too unforthcoming, and he'd refused to be drawn on his career break, deflecting their questions gently but firmly, and citing personal commitments when they had asked why he wasn't going for a permanent post.
âMaybe one day,' he'd said, and that was that. Current employment law precluded any more searching questions, so they were stuck with what he volunteered. Which was next to zilch.
It was odd, though. Odd that a man whose rise through the ranks had been by all accounts meteoric, and whose disappearance from those ranks had been even faster, should emerge only to take a short-term post. Because her registrar
coming back, just the moment she'd had her baby and got her child care sorted.
And the previous hospital had spoken incredibly highly of him without telling her anything in the least revealing. So what was the story?
She didn't know, but she was damned if she was going to ask him again, when he couldn't even get himself organised enough to turn up on time with his ducks in a row for his first day at work. The only thing she was sure of was that she wasn't cutting him any slack. He did his job properly to her satisfaction, or he was out. She had a busy surgical team to run, and she didn't carry passengers, no matter what their personal commitments.
She didn't suffer fools gladly, either, and she wasn't starting with this one, no matter how beautifully put together he might be.
She was finished with all that. So finished that she couldn't imagine why she was even thinking about it.
âIn your own time, McEwan,' she snapped. Heading for the table, she picked up the iodine swab and sloshed it liberally over the man's abdomen. Then she looked up and met those disturbing pale blue eyes over the body of Mr Symes.
âYour patient, Mr McEwan.'
Meeting the challenge in her eyes with a quirk of his brow, he stepped up to the table and held out his hand.
He ripped off his gloves, peeled off his gown and ditched it in the bin with his hat, and headed for the changing room, Kate hard on his heels.
Of all the cases to start with, of all the evil twists of fateâ
âHave you got a problem?'
As if she cared. He turned his head slowly and met her eyes, too raw to be diplomatic. âNot as far as I'm aware, but you clearly have. Want to get the assassination over now?'
She frowned, propping up the doorframe and managing to look genuinely puzzled. âAssassination?'
âYou've had nothing good to say to me or about me yet today, and I know you didn't want the board to appoint me, so I don't imagine it's going to be pretty. So, do you want to do this now, or would you rather wait until you have an audience before you give me a blow-by-blow of my inadequacies?'
She coloured interestingly, but she held his gaze, to her credit.
âI'm sorry. I shouldn't have said what I did in public like that, but I wasâ¦'
âFrustrated. I wanted to meet you, introduce you to Steve Symes and his wife, go through the case.'
âInstead of which you gave me a scant glance at the scans and hurled me in at the deep end. Why?'
âBecause if you were only half as good as everyone said, I knew you could do it, and I wanted to see for myself how good you really were.'
âOr watch me fail.'
She shook her head. âNot at all. And I was right to trust you. You did a very good job. I couldn't have done it better myself. Possibly not as well. The graft on his femoral artery was a superb piece of surgery, and I'm glad you were able to do a bowel resection so he doesn't have a stoma, so at least he'll have his leg and his dignity if nothing else. It's just a shame it won't save him.'
âWe don't know that. It's only just gone off to Histology for grading,' he said. He wasn't falling for her flattery, and he was more concerned about their patient than scoring points, but she shook her head.
âCome on, James, you're good. You saw that mass, and you felt his liver. You know as well as I do what's going on.'
He swallowed and opened his locker door. âYes.' He stripped off his top, pulled on his shirt and waited for her to turn away. Apparently she wasn't going to, so with a slight shrug he dropped his scrub bottoms, kicked them off and reached into his locker for his trousers.
She moved then, he noticed wryly, soft colour flooding her cheeks for the second time as she took a step back and then turned on her heel and squeaked across the corridor in her rubber boots to the female changing room as if the floor was on fire.
Dear God, he was gorgeous.
Seriously hot, she thought as she stripped off her own theatre blues and reached for her clothes. And she was his boss, the woman who was going to have to put up with his weak excuses and his evident lack of organisation for the duration.
Oh, well, at least he was an excellent surgeon, and anyway, she wasn't about to be distracted by his physical charms. She was immune. Utterly immune. She glanced over her shoulder and got a perfect view through the two open doors as he hauled his trousers up over that taut, muscular bottom in its snug jersey boxers, and she stifled a moan.
Maybe she needed a booster vaccine.