"So it's true? You're really going to do this?"
Violet McCabe swung toward the sound of the low, gravelly voice. Gavin Monroe stood framed in the open doorway of the partially converted stable-house, dark brows lowered over his mesmerizing blue eyes.
"Do what?" she parried back, trying not to be swayed by the determination radiating from his tall, masculine frame or the sensual curve of his lips. "Go glamping for the next three months?" She was baiting her ruggedly confident colleague. "Or say no to the attending-physician position at Laramie Community Hospital?" One of two positions that had been offered to her.
Gavin strode closer, all indomitable male. "Both."
Pulse jumping, she watched as his gaze swept the exposed wooden beams supporting the high pitched roof and the large ceiling fan whirring overheard. Then it moved downward to take in the autumn sunlight pouring in through the windows of the rustic, cement-floored space she was about to call home.
"Glamping is going to be fun." She pointed to the Con-estoga wagon that would serve as her bedroom. The area in front, which held a couple of braided wool rugs and her living and dining room furniture, would comprise her entertaining space. To one side of that was a hallway that led to a small utilitarian bathroom with shower, sink and commode.
On the other side of the sliding, front barn doors was her camp kitchen.
"You think so now." He walked closer to the metal sink, antique wooden worktable and shelving unit. "But when you tire of such a primitive setup…"
When it came to cooking for one, Violet knew there was little she couldn't do here. Except maybe entertain her parents, five sisters and four brothers-in-law and all their kids.
She shrugged and stepped close enough to inhale the crisp male scent of his cologne. "Then I'll go into town or visit friends and family." She had plenty living in the area.
He folded his arms across his brawny chest. "We need you at the hospital."
And she needed a new lease on life, more desperately than anyone knew.
Feeling simultaneously flattered and annoyed, Violet swallowed. "Gavin, we've been over this." More than once, as it happens, over the past year. With the same result.
He nodded tersely. "You've talked. I've listened."
And never once believed she was serious, she thought with a beleaguered sigh. "You know why I can't stay on at LCH." There was too much scrutiny here, too many people wondering if she would ever get past her grief over her late fiancé or be able to move on the way they wished. Too many people hell-bent on helping her do just that. Including and especially Gavin.
He called on the rapport they'd built as casual friends and coworkers. "What I know is that you're making a mistake."
This had a familiar ring. Her parents had said the same thing. Only her five sisters seemed to understand her need to reset the clock and strike out on her own again. "It's mine to make," she said just as stubbornly. "I need a fresh start, Gavin."
Tension filled the silence between them.
His lips thinned. "This is about Sterling, then."
And the secret unrequited lust I feel for you.
"The point is, I'm in a rut." Violet ignored the mention of the only man she had ever loved and the painful reminder of the many ways she had let him down, despite her intentions otherwise.
The way she had begun to fear she might someday let her patients down, too.
Resolutely, Violet continued. "And now, given that my residency has officially ended—"
"You still have staff privileges for another few weeks," Gavin reminded her, clearly holding out hope.
"Until the new attending, Tara Warren, comes in to take over." Violet stalked out to the U-Haul trailer that held the rest of her things. Aware he was hot on her heels, she pointed out, "Which will be by the first of October, I'm told. Until then, I'll help out, on an as-needed basis, as promised, while simultaneously honoring my commitment to my family to oversee the renovation of the new McCabe House."
Lifting a heavy box into her arms, she nodded at the rambling Victorian farmhouse on the other side of the lawn. Home of her late grandparents, John and Lilah McCabe, the two-hundred-and-fifty-acre property was being turned into a hospitality center and temporary lodging for patients and families undergoing medical crises.
"How's that going?" Wordlessly, Gavin stepped up to give her a hand, his shoulder bumping hers in the process.
Tingling where their bodies had collided, as well as everywhere they had not, Violet wheeled the loaded dolly into the stable-house. He walked beside her, easily carrying what she could only wheel. "They're supposed to start the remodeling process next week."
She emptied the dolly and returned for another load, Gavin still at her side. "How many suites are there going to be?" he asked.
After unloading, Violet paused to show him the building plans, which were spread out over her desk. "Seven—all with private baths." She flipped through the plans, pointing as she spoke. "The entire downstairs will sport a large kitchen and one living and dining area."
"It was pretty great what your grandparents did."
Violet nodded. "And fitting, in a way, for them to deed their entire estate to the formation of a nonprofit foundation dedicated to providing food and shelter for families undergoing medical crises. Given that the two of them were the driving forces that established Laramie Community Hospital in the first place, more than seventy years ago."
"I admire what they've done. What you've volunteered to do. But you don't have to live out here for three months to watch the workers, Violet." His stormy blue eyes drifted over her. "You could easily supervise this process from town, too. And still take the part-time staff physician position in the oncology department, until it becomes full-time sometime late next year. Or stay on part-time, if you want, and let them hire another part-time doc, too."
Violet knew there were a lot of options available to her, should she decide she wanted to stay on at LCH. The chief of the department had made it clear they would work with her on that score.
But being around the hospital meant being around Gavin. A lot. And that was a problem for her, because despite the soul-crushing blows life had dealt her, she still wanted desperately to believe that a fairy-tale life was possible.
Whereas Gavin, who had also weathered some devastating life events, believed their experiences proved that no such utopia existed—or ever would.
Leery of having his cynicism engender even more doubts, she'd elected to create a healthy distance between herself and her gifted colleague.
Hopeful that her alone time would bring back her inherent optimism, she said, "I want to be here, Gavin." Aware he wouldn't let it go, she said, "I need to take a break. And it's got to be a big one."
It wasn't the first time Gavin Monroe had heard the sentiment. His ex-fiancée had said pretty much the same thing before walking out the door four years earlier. And while he hadn't minded so much then, he found he minded a lot now. Maybe because he was closer to Violet than any other woman who had come into his life.
Which was strange. Because they hadn't dated. Or acted on the simmering physical attraction between them in any way.
Not because he hadn't wanted to, but because he had known Violet was still carrying a torch for her own first love.
He had respected that for a time.
Envied it, really, because he had never felt the kind of allencompassing love and passion for anyone that Violet had apparently felt for Sterling.
But now, well, the ghost in their lives was beginning to get a little old. It was time Violet moved on and became romantically involved with someone else. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be him if she wasn't here. Which was yet another reason why he had to convince the lovely physician to stay.
"At least give up on the glam camping. Move back into town." Violet paused to take an elastic hair band off her wrist. Lifting her long, chocolate-brown hair off her neck, she twisted the thick, silky strands into a knot on top of her head. The casual updo brought even more attention to the classically beautiful features of her oval face. "I already gave up my place."
He inhaled the fragrance of her perfume and felt his heartbeat quicken. "So stay with me."
"You can't be serious."
He shrugged. "I'm only there half the time."
"You also live in a shotgun house," Violet scoffed. "With—what?—a thousand square feet of space."
"More like nine hundred. And there's nothing wrong with small houses. It has to be better than an un-air-conditioned barn."
"First of all, it's September. So the worst of the heat has passed. And with the barn doors open, the ceiling fan going, it's quite comfortable, even in the middle of the day."
Of course she wasn't uncomfortable. She had on a pair of khaki shorts that ended at midthigh and showcased her spectacular legs. A short-sleeved, V-necked T-shirt that did the same for her trim midriff and lusciously full breasts. He, on the other hand, was burning up in a pair of jeans and an open-necked knit shirt. Sizzling hot from below the waist.
"I don't understand why everyone is so skeptical about my plan to camp out here for the next couple of weeks."
Ever the idealist, he imagined she had all sorts of romantic notions—dramatized nicely by the whiteorganza-covered Conestoga wagon slash bedroom with the set of custom-made wooden steps leading up to it.
Trying not to think of what was inside that wagon, except a no-doubt very comfy, very femininely outfitted bed, he said, "Maybe because you're not really the outdoorsy type?"
Mischief twinkled in her eyes. "Exactly why I'm 'glam-ping' instead of camping."
He gave her a long, assessing glance, taking in every pampered inch of her. His desire to protect her intensified. "You got hot water in that shower back there?"
Violet opened her mouth. Shut it.
Which confirmed, Gavin thought, she didn't know.
"I'm sure it will be fine," she said stubbornly.
He couldn't help it. He laughed.
She dismissed him with an airy wave of her delicate hand. "I have some money saved. I could always put in a water heater if I want one."
He moved in close enough to goad. "Doesn't that defeat the purpose of glamping, having too many of the usual conveniences?"
Violet huffed, her cheeks turning an enticing pink, and stepped back from him. "I really don't see why you're so concerned with my comfort, but I really wish—" She stopped at the beeping of his cell phone.
Reluctantly, he lifted it off his belt. "Dr. Monroe."
"Hey, Gavin. It's Mitzy Martin."
Laramie County's premier social worker.
"I have to talk to you," the amiable thirtysomething went on, as direct as always. "Preferably in person. Where are you?"
He watched Violet go back to carrying in belongings.
He wandered out to lend a hand. "Is Violet McCabe there by chance?" Mitzy continued.
With a smile he said, "She's standing right in front of me," and gestured for Violet to wait—that he'd carry the box of books she was contemplating.
Violet's brow furrowed.
"Great!" Mitzy enthused. "I need to see her, too. I'll be right there." She hung up before he could ask anything else.
Clipping his phone back on his belt, he reached out to relieve Violet of the box she had once again started to pick up. "Mitzy Martin wants to speak to us."
"Any idea why?"
"She didn't say." But knowing Mitzy as well as he did, it had to be something important.
"Let's all sit down, shall we?"
Violet wasn't surprised that Mitzy got right down to business. Nor did she mind.
Spending too much time in close quarters with Gavin Monroe always left her feeling off-kilter. Frankly, she needed a chaperone where he was concerned, so she was glad for the extra company. Lest she find herself forgetting her usual reserve and acting on the innate restlessness she felt these days.
As soon as the three of them were situated comfortably around the table, Mitzy turned on her laptop computer and clicked on the appropriate file. She turned the screen so everyone could see it. "Youall remember Tammy Barlowe and her husband, Jared?"
Violet nodded. "They came into the ER last spring when Jared fell ill during a weekend trip to Lake Laramie. Gavin stabilized him. I was called in because he was a stage four cancer patient." Having a last hurrah with his teenage wife.
"You also know that Jared died last summer."
"Tammy wrote us, to let us know." Violet struggled to contain the lump in her throat. "It wasn't all bad news, though. She was pregnant. In fact, shouldn't she be due to deliver in a couple of weeks?"
"That's what we need to talk about," Mitzy said solemnly. "It wasn't just Jared who was sick. Tammy had a heart condition that made carrying a baby unwise. She chose to ignore medical advice and get pregnant anyway. Although Ava was born a month early, she's fine."
"And Tammy?" Gavin asked.
Mitzy shook her head. "Her heart wasn't strong enough. She died during childbirth."
Violet laid a hand over her heart. "Oh, no…"
Gavin squeezed Violet's hand.
She relaxed into his grip, accepting the quiet comfort he offered.
"Because she knew her death was a possibility, she left a videotaped will of her wishes." Her expression still solemn, Mitzy clicked on the file.
Tammy Barlowe appeared on the screen. She was clad in a hospital gown and robe. Her short brown bob looked lackluster, her freckles stood out beneath her pale skin, and there were pronounced dark circles beneath her eyes. And yet there was a serenity about her; a deep maternal happiness that seemed to shine through despite her physical difficulties. Hand protectively cupping her swollen belly, she looked straight into the camera and said, "Hey, Dr. McCabe, Dr. Monroe. If you're seeing this, it means I'm not here anymore…but my baby girl, Ava, is. And that means she needs a home and family to watch over her."
Tammy swallowed. Lower lip trembling, she pushed on. "I wish Jared and I had relatives we could call on, but we don't." She paused to look long and hard at her audience. "And the last thing either of us ever wanted was to have a child of ours grow up the way we did, in the foster care system."
A soft sound of dissent was heard in the background.
Tammy grinned and lifted a hand at her off-camera audience. "No offense to the social system that helped us, and the social workers and legal aid attorneys who are helping me now. But being a ward of the state is not the same as living with parents who love you and will make sure you grow up right." Clearing her throat, she glanced toward the camera again. "Which is where you come in, Dr. McCabe. You're not just a great lady doc, you're everything I ever wanted in a mom. And, Dr. Monroe, you're everything I ever wanted in a dad."
Violet could see that Gavin would make a wonderful father. Not that she'd ever heard him talk about wanting kids. Or not wanting them, either.
Tammy continued with her trademark enthusiasm. "Both of you were so wonderful to me and Jared. And you work so well together when it comes to caring for people." Another long pause. "And I also know, 'cause I did a little checking, that neither of you is married or has any other kids of your own."
She hitched in a bolstering breath. "So I'm asking you both to step in, in the event of my demise, and adopt my Ava together. You don't have to be married or anything. Just be the mom and dad she needs."