Teach Your Heart
The meeting with four other specialists coordinating a treatment schedule seemed to be going well. Not that Owen was entirely focused as he sat in the small room, clicking his pen over a sheaf of paperwork. He’d gone through his mental list of names of potential babysitters and had come up with a short list of approximately…zero. Then Charlie had woken him at 3:00 a.m. with a nightmare about octopuses, or was that octopi? His thoughts went fuzzy, and he jerked, blinking rapidly—on the way to dozing off.
His phone vibrated on the meeting table with a persistent buzz. Giving an apologetic smile, Owen tapped the screen and read a message from his triage nurse asking him to call the desk immediately.
Saved by the buzzer.
“Excuse me one moment,” he said and stood. “I’ll take this in the hallway, but I might need to shoot down to the floor.”
Dr. Johnson waved him away. “We’re practically done here. Go.”
Owen stepped outside the room and called the emergency department’s extension number. “Hey, Jolene, it’s Owen. What’s up?”
“I have a Charlotte and William Heath who’ve just arrived on the floor. William apparently fell out of a tree, trying to catch the Golden Snitch.” A trace of humor wove through the triage nurse’s voice. “He’s fine, but they’re both asking for Uncle Owen.”
“I’ll be right down.” Owen disconnected and strode along the corridor toward the bank of elevators.
What tree could William have fallen from? He dodged past an orderly pushing an elderly man in a wheelchair and poked the down button. There weren’t any climbable trees around his property.
The elevator dinged, and Owen kept the doors open for the orderly—Dave Wiremu. One of his granddaughters had a trampoline accident resulting in a greenstick fracture in her forearm just after Christmas last year. Small hospital, small number of staff, a microcosm of Bounty Bay itself. Everyone knew everyone.
Dave gave Owen the bro-eyebrow-raise as he wheeled his patient into the elevator. “Howzit going?”
“Better if I hadn’t found out my nephew’s just arrived in the ED.” Owen hit the ground floor button and the doors slid shut. The sour pit in his stomach expanded. Day twelve of uncle duties, and already one of the kids had ended up in his hospital.
“Yeah? Think I saw him before I came up to collect Ned.” Dave patted the old guy on the shoulder. “Saw a young fulla looking sorry for himself a few chairs away from Ned’s missus.” He turned back to Owen and gave an exaggerated wink. “That’s some nanny you’ve got for your kids, Dr. O. Quite the looker.”
Owen blanked for a couple of beats.
Huh. Guess through Dave’s sixty-something, rose-tinted glasses, Mrs. Collins could be considered attractive. In a barracuda-ish way. “She’s a handsome woman, for sure.” He forced a smile. “Single, too, I believe. You should ask her out.”
Ned cackled and slapped a skinny thigh. “Go on now, Dave. Ask her to the pub for a pint.”
The elevator pinged again, and the doors slid open to the bustle of the hospital’s main floor.
“You’re both pōrangi—completely bonkers. The girl’s young enough to be one of my daughters.” With a bemused smile and a shake of his head, Dave rolled Ned out. “Hope your boy’s okay, Dr. O.” He angled the wheelchair to the right, the direction of the ED. “You reckon your missus would’ve finished that jersey she’s knittin’ yet, Ned?”
“Blimey, I hope not, ’cause then I’ll hafta wear it…”
Owen tuned out the rest of the conversation and followed behind them. Logical explanation: mistaken identity. Dave must’ve spotted the wrong kid or assumed a younger woman sitting near William was the boy’s nanny.
He raised a hand to Jolene at the ED desk. She paused in her conversation with a hoodie-wearing teen and pointed toward the rows of chairs off to the side.
The waiting room was nearly empty. Two other black-hoodie-wearing teenagers slouched over three of the chairs, Ned’s missus sat knitting the ugliest striped jersey Owen’d ever seen, and a woman with her back to him stood looking out a window to the parking lot, a phone pressed to a mass of dark-toffee-colored hair.
Seated in the far corner was Charlie, her yellow gumboots swinging high off the floor. Next to her sat William, his left arm enveloped in a serviceable sling—fashioned from a red tartan scarf. No sign of Mrs. Collins or Morgan.
Owen strode over to his niece and nephew. William glanced up then tucked his chin tight to his neck. Charlie also looked up, but instead of her usual enthusiastic greeting, she slumped into the chair and looked ready to burst into tears.
Owen crouched in front of the kids, calling on his bedside manner to appear calm and unruffled when really, he wanted answers. “Who wants to tell me what happened?”
Charlie’s lower lip pooched out, and she flashed a conspiratorial look at her brother. William shot her a resigned look right back.
“I fell out of a tree,” he said.
“What tree are we talking about?” Owen asked and laid a hand on his niece’s knee to still the constant foot-kicking.
“We were pretending it was the Whomping Willow,” Charlie said. “Well, Will was. I think it’s the Magic Faraway Tree.”
“I was trying to catch the Golden Snitch, and I slipped,” William said.
Whomping Willows, Golden Snitches, and magic-bloody-trees. He so didn’t have time for this. Owen pinched the bridge of his nose. “Let’s start at the beginning. Where is Mrs. Collins?”
Both kids shut their mouths, Charlie’s making a little popping sound as she crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head.
“There’s a code of silence around Mrs. Collins.” A feminine voice came from behind him.
Owen angled his head and met the gaze of the woman with dark-toffee-colored hair. She’d put away her phone and stood hipshot a few feet from where he crouched. His disadvantage in looking up at her could be considered an advantage if he took into account the view of her long legs, bare to her cut-off jeans, and the silky top that slid appealingly off one shoulder. To go with her beach-themed clothes, the woman had blue eyes the color of exotic coral and a cutely sunburned nose.
She wasn’t cute, though, nor classically beautiful, and definitely not vapidly pretty. She had a face that drew you in, made you look twice—and then a third time. Attractive, arresting. And that arresting face studied him with undisguised curiosity as he continued to stare.
“I threatened to tickle it out of them,” she said, “but they’re pretty tough kids.”
“They are.” Owen stood, and offered his hand. “I’m Owen Bennett, the tough kids’ uncle.”
“Also known as ‘Doctor O-for-Awesome,’ or so the kids tell me.”
The woman slipped her smaller hand into his. She gave his fingers a brief squeeze and then pulled back. A dimple flashed in her cheek, her full mouth parting into a smile that had his pulse kick up into fourth gear.
“I’m Gracie Cooper. I believe you know my brother Glen.”
Two beats of white noise buzzed between his ears before his brain managed to shift from her killer smile to the local connection. “You’re his younger sister who lives in Europe?”
She nodded. “Yep. I’m fresh off the plane from Heathrow. I’ve just driven up today from Auckland to stay with him and Savannah for a couple of weeks. I found these two at the corner store by the beach—they’d run away from Mrs. Collins. I don’t know how long they’ve been gone.”
“William?” Owen said.
His nephew looked up.
“No more games. Tell me what happened, and then we’ll get your arm checked out.”
William’s mouth twisted, and he sighed long and hard. “Mrs. Collins said she needed some peace and quiet for an hour, so she told me and Charlie to read books in my room. We sneaked out while she watched the Ellen show and walked down to the store. I slipped and fell out of the tree, and Gracie came and took us to the hospital. The end.”
Gracie made an exaggerated motion of checking her watch. “The end will be in ten minutes when Ellen finishes and Mrs. Collins checks on you and calls the police for real.”
“That’s right,” Owen said. “You two, big trouble.”
Both kids hunched down in their seats.
“I’ll call her in a moment to explain and see if she can come get you, Charlie, while I take William into an examination room.”
Charlie shook her head so fast her curls flew. “No-no-no-no-no. I don’t wanna go with Mrs. Collins.” Her voice scaled up onto a tearfully high note, a borderline wail. “I wanna stay with Gracie.”
Ned’s missus’s knitting needles paused clacking, and the hoodie-clad teenagers, now joined by the third, swiveled their heads toward them like grim reapers. Owen’s collar grew tighter around his throat, sticking to the sheen of sweat popping up on his skin.
“Just…wait a minute, okay?” Owen racked his brain for an alternative. “I’ll call Sam to pick you up and drop you at his mum’s place until I finish work. You met my friend Sam’s mum and said she was nice, remember?”
Charlie folded her arms, battle ready. “No. And I don’t wanna.”
“Charlie, be reasonable. William needs to have his arm taken care of, and we could be waiting awhile—”
“I wanna stay with Gracie.”
Shit. Now what?
Heat prickled up Owen’s throat, and he shoved his fists into his pants pockets. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”
He directed the question at Gracie, who appeared to be watching their exchange with barely concealed amusement.
“Sure.” She shrugged then swung her handbag off her shoulder and placed it in Charlie’s lap. “Charlie, can you get my phone if it goes? I’m expecting an important call from Kevin. I trust you to take a message.”
Jealousy, like a mild static shock, gave his gut a short, sharp zap. Of course a woman so stunning would have a guy calling her—and why the hell would he even go there? The sliding doors whirred open, and two guys, one hopping on one leg, his arm around his mate’s shoulder, staggered in. Owen didn’t have time for petty jealousy or stroppy four-year-olds, not if he hoped to get off the floor before the Friday night rush began.
Charlie’s eyes lit up, and she hugged the bag to her stomach. “You know Kevin?”
“Me and the little yellow dude are like this.” Gracie crossed her fingers. “But keep the secret spy stuff between us, and let me talk to your uncle, okay?”
Little yellow dude? Lightbulb. Charlie’s favorite movie. Apparently, Gracie also had a familiarity with kids’ cartoons.
“Okay.” Charlie’s sunny smile reappeared through the thunderclouds of the impending meltdown.
His brain spun hamster-wheel fast as he gestured for Gracie to follow him a short distance away from the kids.
“How did you know about Minions?” he asked once they were out of earshot. Not quite the question he’d originally planned, but it’d fallen out of his mouth when Gracie had brushed past him, and he’d caught the scent of sunscreen and strawberry bubblegum.
“I worked as an au pair in Lake Geneva for a year. Luca and Isabelle loved that DVD.”
Time stalled, and like a movie director ordering an extreme close-up, Owen zoomed in on Gracie’s mouth. And the magic words that had just left it.
His original question of, “Could you stay with Charlie until Sam gets here?” floated away, and he was pretty damn sure a heavenly choir started singing in the distance.
She’d worked as an au pair and two of his kids already liked her.
Owen applied his most charming smile. The one he utilized with uncooperative patients and nurses when scrounging for a favor.
“I want to offer you a job,” he said.
Did Dr. O-for-Orgasmic-Hazel-Eyes just proposition me?
Honestly, Gracie couldn’t say one way or another since she’d been blatantly staring at his sinfully shaped lips, entertaining the idea of taking them for a test drive…never mind. And she certainly hadn’t imagined what lurked beneath the stuffy business shirt, but she’d gotten a glimpse of hard-bunched biceps as Owen ran an agitated hand through his thick brown hair.
“Um…a job?” Gracie was ninety-nine percent certain he’d offered her a job and not a walk on the wild side.
Not that a guy like him would even have a wild side. To prove her point, Owen tucked a finger between the stranglehold of blue tie and stiff white collar again, tugging it away from his tanned skin. She squashed a few lust tingles because stiff-collared men probably ironed their boxers or got their wives to—Gracie’s gaze zipped to his left hand. No ring.
Owen cleared his throat. Maybe in checking out the status quo, she hadn’t been as subtle as she’d thought.
“Mrs. Collins the babysitter quit on me. I need a replacement—stat.” The corner of his mouth quirked up.
A warm pebble dropped low into Gracie’s belly. Never underestimate the attractiveness of a man with a sense of humor. “Mrs. Collins, the mean old lady recruited to take care of big sister Morgan, big brother William, and baby of the family, Charlie?”
“Yeah.” He shot a quick glance over his shoulder. “Look, I don’t usually make impulsive job offers, but would you consider it? Even temporarily?”
Gracie often did impulsively accept job offers. Once, while she’d been eating lunch at a Parisian café, a staff member had gotten into a fight with the owner and stalked off shouting French curses at volume. The owner had turned to her gaping-mouth stare and demanded, “What? You want his job?” Ten minutes later, Gracie was in a blue-striped apron, serving grand crème and mille-feuilles. Life was too short and uncertain not to take opportunities when they arose.
But she kept her tongue pinned between her teeth. Owen being friendly with her brother, it was unlikely the man was deranged and dangerous. She’d even called Glen from the waiting room to let him know she’d arrived, and, okay, to dig for an inside scoop on the kids’ uncle. Glen hadn’t known Owen long but said he was a good guy, though a little tightly wound like their big brother, Jamie. So what was with the quiver skating down her spine when the man’s dreamy hazel eyes locked with hers? What caused the pebble low in her belly to grow hotter?
Nothing. She was imagining things that weren’t there.
She cast a sideways glance at Charlie, who was still hugging Gracie’s handbag and kicking her feet. Her chest gave a twinge. “I’ll sit with Charlie and calm her down until your friend arrives.”
Owen shoved his fists into his suit pants pockets, drawing Gracie’s gaze to the photo ID dangling from his belt and the tight curve of his ass under the boring gray fabric. The doctor obviously didn’t spend all his time paper-pushing.
“And working for me?” he asked.
“I’ll think about it.” She braced herself for him to push harder, because from the harried look in Owen’s eyes as he, too, glanced at the kids, the man really was desperate.
“When you’ve had time to think, Glen has my number. I’ll give Sam a call; he should be here in fifteen minutes.” He took a few steps toward his niece and nephew then paused.
“I’m an ass,” he said. “First thing I should’ve done is to thank you for taking care of Charlie and Will. So thanks, Gracie.”
“It was my pleasure.” Oh no, the pleasure was all hers, thanks to the shivery tingles teasing over her skin as he said her name.
Owen gave her a small nod and walked back to the kids, touching William’s shoulder. William stood, and Gracie slipped into the seat next to Charlie.
Alone in the waiting room, Gracie lost track of the time, chatting to the girl about Minions, Barbie, and the Magic Faraway Tree.
Gracie looked up—way up—to the man who’d appeared at the end of the row of seats. His height and breadth of shoulders beneath his black tee shirt gave him an intimidating bulk. Add to that wraparound dark shades and a fierce scowl, and his intimidation factor doubled.
She stood. “I’m Gracie Cooper.”
He gave her a chin lift and walked—no limped—toward them. She scanned his face. Short black hair, dusky brown skin, strong jaw, and a nose that spoke of his Maori heritage and—oh. She squinted, recalling an offhand comment from her brother about meeting an ex All Black living in the area.
Isaac Ngata. That was it. One of New Zealand’s rugby heroes, and then in a catastrophic instant…not. Unlike many of her ex-pat friends overseas, she didn’t obsessively follow the sport, getting up at weird hours of the morning to catch a televised All Blacks test match. But she knew who he was—everyone knew who he was—and how he’d survived the accident that had killed his fellow teammate and friend five years ago.
He limped to a halt in front of her and shoved his shades on top of his head. Dark eyes studied her coolly, as if he could read her mind and knew she’d judge him the same way everyone else did.
“I’m Isaac, Owen’s mate. My brother, Sam, got held up in the workshop and our mum’s out at her sisters, so he sent me to mind the girl.” He leaned to the side to see past Gracie and offered the girl in question a smile. It was a smile that’d graced many magazine covers, but to a four-year-old it probably looked as terrifying as a shark’s. “You can head off.”
Gracie’s gaze zipped to Charlie, who gawped at Isaac with huge eyes. Fearful eyes. Charlie lunged for Gracie’s hand, the girl’s fingers digging into Gracie’s palm.
“I wanna go home now. Please.”
Maybe he was once a member of an elite sporting team and maybe behind the sharklike smile lurked a squishy teddy bear of a man, but Gracie wasn’t leaving Charlie with him.
“I’ll take her home,” she found herself saying. “I’m headed back that way anyhow.”
The big man’s forehead pulled into cavernous wrinkles. He slid a phone from his pocket and tapped the screen.
“O,” he said when a voice answered. “Sam sent me; I’m in the waiting room. Your niece wants Gracie to take her home, cool?” A pause. “I’ll ask.”
He held the phone away from his ear. “Owen says he appreciates it, but Mrs. Collins won’t wait around much longer, she’s”—an intense stare at Charlie—“a little upset.”
What the hell, in for a penny, in for a pound…“I’ll stay with her at the house until he gets back with William.”
The fingers squeezing Gracie’s relaxed. Suddenly aware she was inviting herself into a stranger’s home and taking responsibility for his niece, she added, “He can ring Glen if he needs a character reference.”
“Glen the writer? You related?”
Isaac snorted and Charlie jumped, wrapping an arm around Gracie’s thigh.
“If you’re Glen’s sister, Owen won’t need a character reference.” Half turning away from her, Isaac muttered into the phone and then disconnected. “He’s taking William for an X-ray because he’s not sure if the arm’s broken. Says he should be home in a couple of hours, max.” He rattled off Owen’s address and with another chin lift said, “I’m off. Spot ya.”
He walked away, his uneven gait eliciting a tug of sympathy in her chest for the former loose forward.
“He’s not a nice man. He’s a big scary monster,” Charlie whispered.
Or not so much a whisper as Isaac’s shoulder blades twitched, his spine stiffly aligning to ramrod straight. He dropped his glasses back over his eyes and continued across the hospital’s waiting room.
“He is very tall, but that doesn’t make him scary,” Gracie said with a slightly elevated voice, hoping Isaac would hear. “And he’s your uncle’s friend, so that means he must be a nice man.”
Isaac didn’t glance back as he strode outside, but everyone else in the waiting room visually tracked his exit.
“I don’t like him,” Charlie said. “He made my tummy feel squirmy. Didn’t he make your tummy feel squirmy?”
Considering Isaac was a poster boy for a sexy-though-surly sportsman, he should’ve given her the same shivery reaction Charlie’s uncle had. But he hadn’t. Not even a little bit. Yet Gracie’s tummy still fluttered, thinking about her brief conversation with Owen—so mark that as squirmy in a good way.
“No. I just felt bad that his leg was hurting.”
“Oh yeah.” Charlie’s frown evaporated. “Maybe that’s why he looked so grumpy and sad, because his leg was sore.” She wriggled off the chair and handed Gracie her handbag. “Uncle Owen would know how to fix his leg. Then he won’t be sad anymore. Uncle Owen’s good at fixing things and making people feel better.”
Sure the good doctor made a lot of women feel better after they’d spent a night enjoying his bedside manner. Inappropriate thoughts to be having while talking to his four-year-old niece.
“What say we get you home, Miss Charlie-not-Charlotte?” Gracie asked.
“Home in the Minion-mobile, yay!”
As they walked to the exit, Gracie’s mind flickered back to Owen’s gaze skimming up her legs and over the curve of her hips. Spots of warmth flared on her cheeks and she tugged down the legs of her cut-off jeans. She’d never have worn them today if she’d known she’d run into anyone but her brother and Savannah. She certainly hadn’t planned on meeting a man who made her stomach flutter and her pulse race.
She sighed, smiling ruefully at her reflection in the glass sliding doors. With her curves she’d never be mistaken for a big screen actress like Savannah, but Gracie was good with that. She was healthy again. She was alive.
And Doctor O-for-Awesome had definitely checked her out in return.