CHAPTER ONE

 

‘Are you telling us or asking us?’ Annie demanded.

            The rest of the staff who were assembled around the board room table seemed to be sitting in quiet acceptance but Annie Simpson wasn’t having a bar of that. She stared at Patrick Hammond. Was he serious? Was the Hospital Director really telling her, telling them all, that Blue Lake Hospital was going to be the setting for a reality television show? That there were plans to film a hospital drama featuring real patients and real doctors, their patients and their doctors, in their hospital and he expected the staff to get on board?

            ‘I’m telling you what’s happening and asking if you’re prepared to be part of it.’ For a large man Patrick was very softly spoken and today was no exception. If Annie’s question had irritated him he showed no signs of annoyance.

            To be fair, Annie knew Patrick didn’t run his hospital like a dictatorship, most decisions were discussed with senior staff to some degree. Most medical decisions she qualified, the day to day running of the hospital was not something Patrick would normally converse with them about. Annie wondered exactly where a reality television show fitted into the scheme of things.

            ‘Do we have a choice?’ she asked.

            Patrick rubbed one hand over his closely cropped hair. ‘Of course you do. But I would like you to consider what this means for the hospital - money going into the coffers, good publicity, free publicity. With so many country hospitals struggling to stay open having this sort of media buzz can only be a good thing.’

            ‘Are you sure?’ Annie argued. ‘What if something goes wrong? What if there’s a disaster and the hospital gets sued? That won’t garner good publicity. And it’s not likely the government would close this hospital. We might be rural but we’re not a small six bed outfit. We are a specialist facility in the state’s second biggest town. There would be an outcry if they even mentioned shutting us down.’

            ‘We might be a large hospital but we’re still government funded and that means we have the same funding issues as everyone else,’ Patrick countered. ‘Do you have any idea how many people watched the last series of RPE?’

            Annie had thought his question was rhetorical but when Patrick paused, obviously waiting for her answer, she shook her head. She didn’t have a clue.

            ‘Two million. Every night.’

            That was a huge audience for Australian television. Annie had known RPE, the series filmed at the Royal Prince Edward Hospital in Melbourne, was popular but she hadn’t realised how popular.

            ‘And Caspar St Claire is one of the stars,’ Patrick continued. ‘This spin-off series is a big deal. He’s a local boy, made good. There will be big interest in what he does, not just locally but around the country. And the television network is compensating us nicely for the opportunity to film here.’

            ‘So it’s all about the money?’

            Patrick shook his head. ‘Don’t be too quick to criticise, there’s a long list of things the hospital needs and the money from the network will go a long way towards providing those things, including refitting a birthing unit for your department. And you do realise Caspar is a paediatrician?’ he queried. ‘As an obstetrician, I thought you’d be pleased to know that I’ve found someone to cover paediatrics while Phil is on long service leave.’

            Annie wasn’t ready to let Patrick have the last word. She’d been the subject of media interest before and it hadn’t been a positive experience. She’d moved to this quiet, regional centre to rebuild her life and she wasn’t happy to find that she might be cast back into the public eye whether she liked it or not. Not happy at all. ‘I would be pleased if I thought you’d found a replacement who has come to work but it seems to me you’ve just found one who is coming accompanied by his own circus. I’m not interested in being a part of this.’

            ‘I have never worked with a circus. Children yes, animals no and definitely not circuses.’

            Annie jumped as a deep, masculine voice spoke up behind her and ran like hot, molten lava down her spine. From the seat beside her she heard Tori Williams, one of the anaesthetists, catch her breath and then sigh and Annie didn’t need to turn her head to know that Caspar St Claire was standing behind her and had obviously heard her every word. She could feel his scrutiny just as she could feel the eyes of everyone else in the room. They were watching her, waiting with interest to see what she was going to do. She had no idea what Caspar St Claire was thinking and she didn’t want to turn around to read the expression on his face but he had addressed her and she couldn’t sit there pretending to be deaf. She turned in her seat to find the devil himself watching her. A rather handsome devil she had to admit but that didn’t change the fact that she didn’t want him here.

            Of course she recognised him immediately. No introduction was necessary, at least from her side. Patrick was right, RPE was a huge ratings winner and, even if Annie hadn’t actually been glued to her television like everyone else for the last season, she’d certainly caught a few episodes and knew who Caspar St Claire was. But why did he have to turn up here?

            ‘Let me assure you,’ he said in his ridiculously rich, made-for-radio voice, ‘that my patients always come first and the crew are exceptionally good at being as unobtrusive as possible.’

            She wanted to laugh at him. If he thought she believed that for one second he was in for a surprise but the force of his gaze made the laughter catch in her throat. His hazel eyes held hers, challenging her to argue with him but she was temporarily struck dumb. She wished the floor would open up beneath her feet. But of course she wouldn’t have the good fortune for that to happen.

            Every medical television show had a resident heart throb doctor and even though RPE was a reality show they’d still managed to find some attractive stars and Dr St Claire was the pick of the bunch. But she hadn’t expected him to be even better looking in real life.  His dark hair was probably an inch longer than it needed to be but that extra inch gave enough length to let his hair curl, lending him a youthful look. A just tumbled out of bed look. As she pictured him tangled up in his sheets, running his fingers through his hair to try to tame it ready for the day she could feel the heat of his gaze burn into her as he continued to watch her, waiting for her reply. She felt her cheeks begin to flush as her temperature rose but she couldn’t think of anything to say.

            ‘Do you have any other objections, Dr Simpson?’

            He knew who she was? That shocked her out of her imaginings and back into the real world. Back to reality.

            Which was ironic given the reason he was here.

            She frowned. How the hell did he know her name?

            But she’d have to worry about that later. The rest of the staff was sitting mutely around the table, all watching the interaction, one-sided though it was at present, and there were more important things to worry about than how he knew her name. Far more important things.

            ‘I’m sure I have a lot more objections Dr St Claire and without more information, a lot more information,’ she stressed, ‘I won’t make a decision about my involvement. When do you begin filming?’

            ‘Tomorrow.’

            Annie’s eyebrows shot skywards. She needed more time. She wasn’t ready for her department to be invaded by cameras. She wasn’t ready for that exposure. Not again. Not by a long way.

            The easiest thing would be to say no, immediately.  To tell him she didn’t want to be part of this. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about anything further. She wouldn’t need to wait for more information. There was no way she was going to agree to a media circus in her delivery suites and she should tell him that right now.

            She opened her mouth but before she could speak Caspar interrupted.

            ‘Don’t say ‘no’ just yet.’

            Annie stared at him. Was she that easy to read? Although she supposed it was a reasonable guess, given her reaction so far. She was tempted to deny her intentions though, just to prove him wrong. But what if that was his game? She wasn’t ready for this. She didn’t want to play games, she didn’t want to play at all. 

            ‘Let me introduce the show’s producer, Gail Cameron, she will run through the details, answer any questions and take care of the legalities. You don’t have to make a decision today,’ he said as he continued to hold her in his sights, ‘but filming starts tomorrow and it would be great if some of you are on board by then.’ He broke eye contact with her as he looked around the table at the other staff members and Annie felt some of the heat leaving her body as he looked away, almost as though a cloud had passed across the sun, casting a shadow over her.  ‘We’re not here to sensationalise things,’ he continued, ‘we’re here to tell stories, to raise awareness and, as I’m sure Patrick has told you, Blue Lake Hospital, and therefore your departments, will benefit financially.’

            Annie decided she wouldn’t say ‘no’, not just yet. She didn’t want anyone accusing her of being difficult or obstructive and she was well aware the hospital could always use extra funds. She’d pretend to give the situation due consideration.

            And then she’d say ‘no’.

            Patrick stood up and moved chairs around making room for Caspar and Gail to sit at the table. Annie couldn’t help but notice that Caspar waited for Gail to sit first and his manners earned him a brownie point but he still had a long way to go in her opinion.

            Annie studied him as he stood beside the table waiting for Gail to get settled.

            He was wearing a single breasted suit, pale grey in colour, with a plain white shirt and a striped tie. His shoulders were broad and square and filled the suit jacket out very nicely.  His shirt was crisply ironed but the suit was a little crumpled. Perhaps, despite being Australia’s latest celebrity pin-up, appearances weren’t at the top of his list of priorities. Annie decided she could like that about the man, even if she didn’t have to like him being here.

            He undid the buttons on his jacket and held his tie against his stomach, keeping it out of the way, as sat in his own chair. Annie’s eyes were drawn to his stomach, it was flat and lean. Caspar St Claire was slimmer in real life than he’d appeared on television but then she remembered that the camera supposedly added pounds. Did in fact add pounds. She knew that from her own limited experience.

            Gail was speaking, saying something about the types of medical cases they were interested in and Annie knew she should be listening but her attention kept wandering. Caspar was rolling a pen through his fingers and the movement caught her eye. His fingers were long and slender and his hands were large. Annie could imagine him cradling the new born babies in his care, holding them nestled safely in the palms of his hands.

            Now that he was sitting down, diagonally opposite her, Annie had less of him to peruse. His head was turned to his left, slightly away from her, leaving her looking at his profile. Leaving her free to study him. There were flecks of grey at his temples, a touch of salt and pepper in his black curls and his olive skin was darkened by the shadow of designer stubble on his jaw. His nose was perfectly straight but maybe a touch longer than it needed to be, which was a good thing, Annie thought, it stopped him from being too good looking.

            Was there such a thing as too good-looking? She’d never wondered about that before.

            His green eyes were scanning the room, working his way around the table in a clockwise direction as he studied each person present in the meeting and Annie wondered what he was thinking.

            He was looking at Colin, one of the orthopaedic surgeons and Annie knew it was only a matter of time before his gaze would land on her. She felt her heart rate increase with that thought. For some reason this made her nervous. Her palms felt sweaty and she wiped them on her trousers.

            Caspar was watching Tori now but Tori was oblivious to his inspection. She had her head down, furiously taking notes. That was good, she and Tori had formed a close friendship in the six months since Annie had moved to Mount Gambier and Annie could use Tori’s notes to catch up later on everything she hadn’t heard Gail say.

            And then it was her turn. She’d meant to look away before his gaze reached her but she hadn’t and now he was looking straight at her, his green eyes locked with hers. Annie could feel herself begin to blush again under his scrutiny. The heat started over her sternum and she knew it was only a matter of time before it spread to her face but she was unable to break the connection.

            Until Tori nudged her with an elbow.

            ‘Ow,’ Annie complained. But it was enough to get her to glance to her right.

             ‘Are you paying attention?’ Tori asked. ‘You need to listen to this.’

            ‘I’ll read your notes later,’ Annie told her but as she turned her head away from Tori she deliberately sought out Gail’s face as she pretended to listen and tried to keep Caspar St Claire out of her line of sight. She’d expected his attention to have moved on to the next person around the table but from the corner of her eye she could see that he was still watching her and she couldn’t help but move her head, ever so slightly, to look back at him.

            He appeared to be concentrating ardently and she wondered again what he was thinking. What he thought about her. His expression seemed to be challenging her but she wasn’t sure what his challenge was. Did he want her to question him or back down?  If he wanted her to give in on the very first day he was going to be sorely disappointed. She had no intention of giving in, not today and not tomorrow.

            She met his gaze as she thought about all the ways she could say no but then his intense expression gave way to a smile and his seriousness dissolved into something else altogether. Something slightly carnal and iniquitous and Annie forgot all about reality television, all about the cameras invading the hospital, all about saying no as his smile raced through her. It lit a fire in her belly that poured through her, warming everything from her face to her toes and everything in between, until she felt as though her insides might melt together in a big pool of lust. She’d thought his serious, brooding expression had been handsome but his smile transformed his face completely and his expression now was cheeky and playful and made her think of sex. Something she hadn’t thought about for a long time.

            Sex wasn’t something that had ever been high on her list of priorities. She enjoyed it but she didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. She was quite happy being celibate. But Caspar St Claire made her think of sex. And not the type of sex she was used to. He made her think of hot, sweaty, take-no prisoners sex. Tangled bed sheets and late afternoon sex. The weight of a hard, firm male body. He made her think of multiple orgasms and sex that was so all-consuming she’d be too exhausted to be able to move afterwards. The kind of sex she’d read about in novels and seen in movies but had never experienced.     

            The temperature in the room felt as though it had increased by several degrees and Annie could feel her nipples harden as her imagination worked overtime. That was enough to make her break eye contact. She looked away hurriedly, almost guiltily, afraid he would be able to see her shameless thoughts.

            Her ill-fated marriage had been based on lots of things but desire hadn’t been one of them. She’d been a young, inexperienced bride and her marriage had been more about companionship and less about physical attraction or raging hormones. At the time she’d thought she was making a sensible choice. She had seen her parents’ relationship self-combust repeatedly and theirs had definitely been a physical thing. As a teenager she’d decided she wouldn’t make the same mistake. The trouble was she just made a different one.

            But she’d never felt such a strong, unexpected stirring of desire before and to have it triggered by a complete stranger disturbed her. She didn’t want to be affected by him. She didn’t want to be affected by anybody. As far as she was concerned that was asking for trouble.

            She was going to put Caspar St Claire and everything he was associated with into a mental box marked ‘Do Not Open’. She didn’t need to worry about him or his business. It was going to be nothing to do with her.