It was no way to spend a birthday, drinking alone in some hole-in-the wall dive, but it beat sitting home alone, staring at the rented contents of his apartment. Hunched over a beer in the smoky darkness of Harry’s Place, Eric Cameron wondered where he’d gone wrong. By now he should have been a family man, with a wife and three or four kids to spoil—or at least someone to go home to who’d tell him he wasn’t the major screw-up at least half the Twin Cities thought he was.
But all he had to show for his thirty years was a three-day-old black eye, two bruised ribs, knees that burned like hot coals, and the knowledge he’d only dug his NHL grave deeper tonight. Even the sassy little waitress who’d given him the eye when he’d walked in would probably change her mind when she recognized him. The Minneapolis Saints jersey she filled out so nicely might have made him smile back if the night had turned out differently.
But it hadn’t, so instead he courted the shadows at the end of the bar, nursed his beer and wondered how many it would take to shut down his hearing. Judging by what he’d overheard since he’d wandered into the place, more than half of the maybe twenty men here had been at the game tonight and wished they’d spent their money drinking instead.
Eric didn’t blame them. The Saints’ first chance to beat the Wild all season, leading by two goals, and he’d blown it by mixing it up with the Merdham brothers. The Wild had scored four unanswered goals after his ejection from the game, proving once again the only thing Ronald Stump’s Money-Is-No-Object team of All-Stars was capable of generating was hot air.
Eric looked up at the tall, skinny bartender wiping his hands almost compulsively on a dingy towel. He seemed a little edgy, but maybe he was always like that. Eric had no idea. He’d never been in Harry’s Place before. But his liquor cabinet was as empty as his digs, by choice, so he’d opted for a late night walk to clear his head. Instead he’d found this dive within stumbling range of his apartment. Good selling point on an icy February night.
Still, he’d bet good money not many strangers wandered into Harry’s Place, much less after eleven on a Sunday night. Especially not six-foot-four, two-hundred-thirty-pound bruisers wearing a fading black eye and freshly cut cheek.
“Gimme a shot. Bourbon.” Time to switch poisons. The beer wasn’t working fast enough.
The bartender picked up a bottle of the cheap stuff and poured. “You, uh, from around here?”
Was his face that messed up? Eric supposed he should consider it a blessing. “No.”
“Been in town long?”
“No.” He’d been let go without warning from the St. Louis Blues six weeks ago. It still burned him, how they’d traded him to Stump’s farce of a team just before the playoffs. The Blues were sure to make the finals, at least. With or without him.
“Uh, go to the game tonight?”
Eric took a long look around the bar while he considered his answer. No one paid him any mind except the waitress, who winked at him from across the room. Go figure. His face had been all over the evening news, thanks to Stump. Maybe he needed some of whatever these guys were drinking. He’d love to forget who he was.
He looked back at the waitress. She smiled again. Not the hey-baby-let’s-get-naked kind of smile he was used to. A more friendly kind of smile. Tentatively, he smiled back. He could use a friend.
“Yeah, I was there.”
“The guys can’t stop bitching about it. Some of them thought for sure with...with...with Cameron wearing the “C” the Saints’d win this time.” He seemed to have trouble getting that last bit out. “‘Specially McNally over there.” The bartender nodded toward a group of five men playing cards at a round table in the corner. “Swears he lost a bundle.”
Eric eyed the group. Loggers on a bender by the looks of them. Four nearly empty plastic beer pitchers littered the table. The big one chomped on a cigar, an unpleasant reminder of Stump. As he raked in the pot, it looked like he was well on his way to recouping his game losses.
“Can’t figure what got into the guy, myself,” The bartender said beside him. Eric wondered how the hell this guy didn’t recognize him if he followed hockey. “You’d a thought he’d a wanted to win this one, seein’ as how it was against the Wild and all.”
“You got any food around here?” Eric asked, not about to talk about himself like he wasn’t even there. This was downright weird.
“Kitchen closed half an hour ago.”
Okay. Eric knew how this game was played. He pulled out his wallet and slipped a twenty across the bar. The bartender eyed it, then Eric.
“I’ll see what I can do.” Darting a furtive look McNally’s way, the bartender deftly pocketed the twenty, then disappeared.
Eric settled in while he waited. He took off his black leather jacket and set it on the empty barstool beside him, then downed his shot of bourbon. A slow heat seeped from the back of his neck into his aching shoulders. He lowered his head and moved it from side to side, cursing the Merdham brothers under his breath. Voices drifted across the smoke-filled bar as if filtered through fog. He tried to tune them out, but the booze hadn’t fully kicked in yet. It had too much pain to wade through, first.
“Quitcher bitchin’ Seamus, they still got a shot at the playoffs if they can get their shit together.”
“Fat chance. Stump’s Chumps ain’t won a game in weeks.”
“Thought that’s why they traded for Cameron. To give the Saints the push they needed to make a run for the Cup.”
“Friggin’ waste of ten million. Stump shoulda left him and his bum knees to rot in St. Louis.”
“Shit, man, give the guy a break. He’s already got four Stanley Cup rings.”
“Glory days. Dumb bastard oughtta know by now when to keep his eyes on the puck and his hands to himself.”
“Try taking your own advice sometime,” a woman snapped.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
Eric heard hard plastic hit the wood table. “It means I’m tired of you trying to cop a feel every time I walk by.”
Eric didn’t hear her reply, but several men hooted. He looked over and saw the waitress reach for the drained pitchers on McNally’s table. Two in each hand, she turned to walk away from the men. Suddenly McNally reached out and hauled her onto his lap.
“Damn it, let go of me.” She lunged forward, but didn’t get anywhere. NcNally’s buddies howled their approval as she tried to squirm out of his hold.
“That’s it, Cass, move around some more. You’re gettin’ me all excited.”
The waitress stilled, a strong look of fear entering her eyes.
“Aw come on, Cass. I was just startin’ to have some fun.”
McNally grinned at his buddies. “Think I can get her to wiggle again?” The waitress gritted her teeth and lunged again. Eric saw the man’s hand sidle up her ribcage.
“Harry!” she shrieked.
McNally laughed and dropped his hand to her thigh. No one in the bar seemed to care that a woman was being molested right out in the open. “Harry’s in the back, playin’ with himself again. He knows better than to stick his nose where it don’t belong. And you know better than to give me a hard time, don’t you, Cass?” He paused. “Or maybe that’s what you been looking for all along. A good, hard time.” His beefy hand squeezed her thigh. “Been a while, ain’t it, Cass?”
“You sorry son of a bitch.” The woman’s voice broke even as her body went rigid.
Every conversation in the place fell silent.
“What did you say?” McNally asked.
“She said it’s time you let her get back to work.”
All eyes turned toward the man seated at the end of the bar.
“Who the hell are you?” McNally demanded.
“A thirsty man, who’d like the lady to get him a drink since the bartender seems to have disappeared.”
No one breathed. Obviously McNally was overlord of Harry’s Place. Eric realized he should have picked up on that sooner, like when no one seemed to notice or care that the man and his friends were openly gambling. Must have been the beer dulling his brain. Or was it the bourbon? Either way, he was finally feeling no pain.
“Well you’ll just have to wait, ‘cause the lady ain’t finished servin’ me yet.”
“Then I guess I’ll have to serve myself.”
Slowly, Eric slid to his feet. Calmly, he approached McNally’s table. He met McNally’s shrewd, flinty eyes, refilled his beer mug from a pitcher on the table, then held it up to McNally in salute. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”
“Son of a bitch,” a man in the far corner breathed into the stillness. “It’s Cameron.”
The waitress’ eyes went wide with recognition, then flashed in pure fear. She dropped the empty pitchers, rammed her elbows into McNally’s fat stomach and sprang to her feet. “I’m calling the cops,” she said as she darted past Eric.
“The hell you are!” McNally snarled and lunged after her. He came nose to nose with Eric instead.
McNally hesitated, then smiled as if he’d just won the main event. It was all the warning Eric needed. No stranger to bar fights, Eric dropped his beer, ducked McNally’s left hook and arrowed a fist into McNally’s wide gut. The dough-like softness surrounding his hand startled Eric so much that McNally’s bear hug caught him off-balance. Next thing he knew he’d crashed back-first onto McNally’s table, sending cards, money and beer flying.
McNally erupted in a roar of something that sounded like a command, grabbed the man nearest him and shoved him at another man. One of the better-built card players launched himself at Eric. The table cracked beneath their weight and they rolled across the floor, grunting and swearing until Eric found his shot and knocked the guy out.
For the next several minutes Eric hit anything that came at him. Amid hoots, hollers, thuds and groans, fists, bottles, pitchers and chairs flew. The cigarette machine crashed to the floor just as Eric spotted the uniforms pouring through the front door.
Instinctively, he backed away from the fray. A fistfight was one thing, a crack on the head with a nightstick was another. He’d seen firsthand what those could do to a man’s head.
Within minutes the cops had rounded up the rowdiest of the brawlers and were herding them out the door and into a paddy wagon. Eric flexed his bloody, aching hands, glad the worst of it was over. He needed to go home and get some sleep.
But McNally and his boys weren’t through with him yet. Suddenly it was like watching a bad western—the kind where some big sleazebag owns the whole town. McNally’s boys closed ranks, swearing up and down that Cameron alone was responsible for the brawl.
Yessir, Sheriff, we was just sittin’ here mindin’ our own sweet business when this here stranger walked in lookin’ for trouble.
Someone wearing a badge and gun invited Eric to step outside. He ran through his options and agreed to go quietly. Something wasn’t right here, but he didn’t have time to figure out what it was. He wasn’t innocent in this fiasco, but no way was he going to take the rap for all of it.
First he needed to get out of here. There would be plenty of time to straighten things out later. When his mind wasn’t so damn fuzzy. When he wasn’t feeling like he’d been run over by a locomotive. He was heading for the door, flanked by two uniforms, when he spotted McNally and the skinny bartender standing side by side, arms crossed over their chests, wearing almost identical pleased expressions.
Brothers, he realized.
Eric stopped in his tracks. “Wait.” Ignoring his police escort, he turned slowly, taking a long, bleary look around the destroyed bar. Hoping he was wrong. Knowing he wasn’t.
The sassy little waitress in the Saints jersey was gone.
And so were his jacket and wallet.
He’d been set up.
Midnight found Emily Jordan up to her elbows in split lips, broken noses, black eyes and bruised ribs. She patched, taped, splinted and stitched until her shoulders ached, her fingers cramped, and her feet felt cemented to the floor. Damn it. The world was too violent as it was. Didn’t these imbeciles have anything better to do than get drunk and beat each other up?
“Hey there, Missy. Ease up a little. That hurt.”
Emily looked up at her twelfth brawler in a row, her fourth with bruised ribs, and realized she’d jerked the adhesive tape holding the dressing over a gash on his chest a little harder than necessary. She started to apologize, then changed her mind. She had no sympathy for bear-size men who pummeled each other for kicks, then whined if she caught a few too many chest hairs under the tape. “More than it hurt when you were rolling on the floor with whoever cold-cocked you tonight?” she asked.
He glared and muttered something about uppity women doctors. Emily gritted her teeth and turned her attention to a blood-soaked swath of plaid flannel wrapped around his forearm. Finding an even nastier gash beneath his filthy makeshift bandage, she reeled off the items she’d need to Susan, the ER nurse assisting her. This one would need stitches. While Emily cleaned the wound, Susan gamely struck up a conversation with the man to distract him from Emily’s stitching.
Apparently someone named Cameron had started the fight. It didn’t explain why everyone else had felt compelled to get in on the act, but by the time Emily had patched up her fifteenth brawler, she’d gleaned this Cameron character had a reputation as a fighter, and the police had taken him into custody.
Good, she thought. May he stay there where he belongs. The man was clearly a menace to society.
She turned number fifteen over to Susan to dress his superficial wounds, and went to see who was next. The treatment rooms were empty, as was the waiting room, except for Augustus Caldwell, her boss and mentor, and a young woman who looked as frazzled as Emily felt. The woman held a sleeping infant in her arms and was apparently the mother of the toddler who sat behind her, his right arm in a sling.
Emily had to smile. She guessed they were waiting for a taxi. Augustus had a soft spot for single mothers with no sign of support.
The admissions clerk was busy flirting over the counter with two Minneapolis police officers, so Emily decided to prop up her feet until the next wave of activity hit, or until Augustus released her from duty. She headed for the staff lounge.
“Emily!” Her hand on the half-open door to the lounge, Emily turned to see Sarah Ferguson, head ER nurse, emerge from a nearby elevator, a mountain of starched and pressed linens in her arms. “How’s it going with the Brady Bunch?”
The staff had already nicknamed the brawlers, who had come from some bar on Brady Street. Emily nodded wearily down the hall. “Susan’s finishing up the last of them. I’m going to lie down for a while. Let Augustus know where I am if he needs me, okay?”
Sarah dropped the linens onto a cart for an orderly to collect later. “Sure. You look beat.”
“I am. I swear, if I’d had to spend another five minutes breathing alcohol fumes and being insulted by some overgrown idiot who doesn’t have the sense God gave a sheep, I would’ve—”
Just then one of the brawlers exited the men’s room, withdrew a flask from inside his jacket and took a hefty swig. He spied Emily and Sarah and smirked, then belched before he tucked the bottle away and swaggered toward the main exit.
“I see what you mean,” Sarah murmured, then strode after the man as it became clear he planned to leave without checking out.
Feeling drained, Emily entered the lounge. She crossed to the sink, turned on the faucet and splashed cool water on her face. Toweling her face dry, she caught her reflection in the mirror above the sink. First a twelve-hour shift, then being called back in to work barely four hours later...this had to stop. She was operating on two hours sleep and looked it. Her lab coat was covered with stains and smelled, her eyes bloodshot, her hair a disaster—
“Excuse me, Miss.”
Emily stilled, wondering if she’d imagined the hoarse male voice. It almost sounded like...
But that was impossible. The owner of that raspy voice was seven hundred miles away and hadn’t terrorized her for years. No. She was exhausted, her mind playing tricks on her. She turned, fully expecting to find herself alone.
Instead she found the most dangerous-looking man she’d seen in quite a while. He sat on the couch behind the door, his back propped against the wall, his long legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles. His blue oxford shirt was torn and bloodstained, his faded jeans filthy. His black eye was at least three days old, his dark hair a matted mess, his face and hands dirty, swollen and seriously scraped.
“Mind if I have a refill?”
Emily noticed the paper cup in his hand and smelled alcohol at the same time. She looked up and met eyes as bleary and bloodshot as her own.
Another drunk. For Pete’s sake, hadn’t she dealt with enough of them for one night?
“What do you think you’re doing in here?”
His eyes not leaving hers, the man slowly, almost deliberately, set his paper cup aside. A long-suppressed memory flared in Emily and she felt a flash of remembered fear. She reminded herself those days were over. He was the fish out of water here, not she.
“Waiting for the doctor,” he said. “Apparently someone forgot to tell him he has another overgrown idiot to examine.”
So he’d overheard her conversation with Sarah. Too bad. “Her,” she said.
“Her. Somebody apparently forgot to tell her.”
Surprise skittered across his battered features. Awareness seeped into his dark brown eyes, as he slowly looked her up, then down, then lowered his head and shook it, chuckling softly.
Enough was enough. “Listen, if you have a problem with women doctors, I suggest you pick yourself up and stumble down to the waiting room, where you’ll find—”
“Whoa. Whoa.” He held up a puffy hand. “I didn’t say I had anything against women doctors. I just wasn’t expecting to meet one tonight, okay? I’m not exactly, uh, looking my best.”
Emily crossed her arms and eyed him again. He had that right. He looked awful. He must have wandered in when no one was looking and decided to make himself at home instead of waiting in the lobby with the rest of the brawlers. Yet he acted as if he had every right to lounge on the sofa she’d intended to occupy.
“Why are you in here? This is the staff lounge.”
“Guess they figured this was the best place to put me.”
“The man with the white hair and that chirpy nurse out front.”
Emily relaxed a shade. Augustus had sent him here. Probably taken pity on him and—
“How long ago was that?”
“Couple of hours, maybe more. Hard to tell. I ah, fell asleep after we got here. Just woke up a few minutes ago.”
A couple of hours, maybe more? Emily stared. Given the extent of his bruises, the man either had the patience of a saint or was in too much pain to move. The healer in her wanted to get right to work. The skeptic in her prevailed. “I assume our chief of staff had a reason for separating you from the others?”
“I think that was my escort’s idea.”
“The boys in blue. They insisted we stop by on our way downtown. I told them not to bother, that I’d have my own doc—now what?”
“What’s your name?” Emily asked, fearing she already knew. This had to be the infamous Cameron, whose thirst for a good fight had pulled her out of bed in the middle the night.
“Does it matter?” he asked.
“If I’m to examine you, I’ll need to have someone bring me your chart. For that, I’ll need your name. You did fill out an admissions form, didn’t you? Or did your post-brawl nap take precedence?”
The man’s dark eyes narrowed. Emily’s irritation segued into dread. Damn it, what was she thinking? She knew better than to bait a sleeping bear. It had to be the lack of sleep.
“I filled it out. In triplicate.”
“Then I’d appreciate it if you’d cooperate with me. Name?”
He hesitated. She wondered why. From what she’d heard, this Cameron fellow threw his name around as indiscriminately as his punches. Thought he was some kind of hot shot.
“Cameron. Eric Cameron,” he said quietly.
She closed her eyes and prayed for patience.
“Something tells me you’ve heard the name before.”
“Several times in the past few hours.”
Oddly, he seemed to relax. “Ah, yes. From your patients. The ones who haven’t got the sense God gave a sheep.” He smiled grimly. “I couldn’t agree with you more. So, where are they now?” he asked.
She pulled her focus away from his battered features. Nothing appeared to be broken, but Emily Jordan knew better than most how looks could be deceiving. “Who?”
“The lost sheep.”
She thought of the belcher. “Who knows? The last of them left several minutes ago. You’re the only one left.”
“You mean they walked? All of them?”
“You didn’t expect them to?” Was the man a lunatic?
“Hell no!” Eric erupted, losing his temper at last. “Not after I—” He swore and closed his eyes. How was he supposed to get to the bottom of what had happened in that bar without witnesses? After he’d explained his side of the story, he’d expected the police to hold at least a few of them for questioning. “Forget it,” he muttered in disgust. It wasn’t her problem. “Just do whatever you have to, to get me out of here.”
The little redheaded doctor edged toward the door, her sudden nervousness surprising him. “Of course. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll check on your chart and be right back.”
She was lying, her body language a dead give-away. After twenty-two years of playing hockey, Eric Cameron knew a deke when he saw one. “Yeah, right. Thanks.”
Stepping into the corridor, Emily wasn’t surprised to find her knees shaky. She hated the sound of voices raised in anger. Particularly when alcohol was involved. Usually she was able to deal with it, to move past her fear, but for some reason this time it wasn’t happening.
“That was quick.” Emily looked up to see Sarah coming out of the testing lab next door. “Your nap. Must have taken all of five minutes. What happened? Did we get a new hit?”
Emily shook her head. “Sarah, there’s a man named Eric Cameron in there, who—”
“Really? Eric Cameron? In our lounge? What’s he doing—”
“Shh...he’s with the Brady Bun—” She noticed Sarah trying to peer past her into the lounge, her eyes bright with interest. Emily glanced over her shoulder, then pulled the door shut. “He’s with the group of men who came in earlier.”
“You’re kidding! He was in the brawl?”
Emily didn’t understand Sarah’s excitement. In comparison, it made her fear and unease in his presence seem trite and unprofessional. “What difference does it make?” she snapped. “He’s here and he’s hurt. Augustus separated him from the others hours ago and no one’s paid any attention to him since. If I hadn’t wandered into the lounge he might have spent the night in there, untreated.”
Sarah drew back in hurt surprise. Emily remembered Sarah was ultimately responsible for admissions. She opened her mouth to apologize, but Sarah spoke first. “I’m sorry, Doctor, I’ll look into it and see that whoever’s responsible is reprimanded.”
Emily sighed and shook her head. She didn’t have the energy for this tonight. “Just get me his chart and I’ll be happy. We’ll be in room five.”
“Of course, Doctor. Right away.”
Knowing she’d handled that badly, Emily re-entered the lounge. She found her newest patient where she’d left him, propped up against the wall with his eyes closed. He didn’t look so dangerous now, just resigned and battle weary.
His black eye drifted open. “Well, what do you know? The way you scooted out of here, I didn’t expect to see you again.”
The man was much too perceptive for a common drunk. “How do you feel?”
His second eye opened. He studied her for a long, unsmiling moment. “Like you’d expect any man in my situation to feel.”
So his anger wasn’t snuffed, just banked. Her heart thumped in dread. “I meant physically.”
“So did I.”
“Can you sit up by yourself?”
He offered her a dry look. “Of course.”
“Then whenever you’re ready, Mr. Cameron.”
He closed his eyes and moved forward, moving much more slowly than she would have expected of a man his age, with his physique. She scanned his broad shoulders and lean hips, and suspected there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. She also suspected he’d taken quite a beating tonight, and wondered again why he hadn’t demanded medical attention sooner. He had to be in pain. A lot of pain. What had really happened in that bar?
She looked into his battered face, found him watching her again, and decided she’d be better off not knowing.
“Do you feel up to taking a walk?”
Emily almost smiled at his confusion. Almost. “I’m not a faith healer, Mr. Cameron. I can’t help you without examining you. For that we need to move you into a treatment room.”
Clearly he considered the prospect of moving unappealing. “It’s only next door, but if you don’t feel you can make it on your own, I can call an orderly—”
So he had an ego. No surprises there. “Fine. If you’ll follow me...”
She heard him enter the room behind her as she snapped on her examination gloves. She turned and found him sitting on the gurney, legs spread, hands curled over the gurney’s edge. Waiting. Watching. Watching her.
She decided not to wait for his chart. “I’ll look at your hands first,” she said as she moved forward.
“Not unless you tell me your name.”
“My name?” She stopped and looked down to where her nametag should be. She must have left it at home. Beside the bed she’d had to vacate in such a hurry, thanks to this man.
“I told you mine, but we never got to yours.”
“I’m Doctor Jordan.”
“I want to know your first name.”
“That’s not necessary.”
His dark, steady eyes captured hers. “I disagree.”
Suddenly Emily understood how Eric Cameron had felt confident enough to take on fifteen men. The man had self-confidence to spare. She doubted there was any sort of confrontation he backed away from, and very few, if any, he lost.
But she was in charge here. “Which hand shall I check first, Mr. Cameron?”
He considered her for another long moment, then held up a swollen right hand. She took it in hers and ran her fingers over it, feeling for broken bones. Finding none, she checked his left hand. “You’re lucky. They’re only bruised.”
“Tell me about it.”
Emily wished she’d apologized to Sarah. She could do with some moral support right now. This Cameron character rattled her more than most. “You instigated the fight, didn’t you, Mr. Cameron?”
“That’s what they say.”
She paused, waiting for more. He didn’t oblige.
“I’ll check your face now.”
He nodded. Emily moved closer, her thigh brushing his as she stepped between his spread legs. Their eyes met, and in his she sensed a subtle change. Awareness of her as a woman, for certain, but also a lessening of the dark wariness in him. Acceptance of a sort, perhaps even the beginnings of professional trust.
Encouraged by the thought, she did her best to examine his face as carefully as she had his hands. He didn’t move so much as a muscle. In fact, he hardly seemed to breathe.
“Your face looks good too,” she said, and stepped back. “It’s a little swollen, but nothing that won’t take care of itself.
He exhaled and she caught a whiff of stale alcohol. But not before she saw him flinch. Another case of bruised ribs, she guessed. Possibly broken. She’d have to get his shirt off to check. The thought had a thoroughly unprofessional effect on her insides. She wondered where the devil Sarah was with that chart. Or Susan. Or anyone.
“What were you drinking?” she asked, as she searched the cabinet beneath the sink for a cloth to clean up his hands and face. The disposable wipes were more likely to sting. Why that thought bothered her, she wasn’t sure. It didn’t usually.
“What was I drinking? Beer, bourbon.” He gave a short, oddly deprecating laugh. “More beer.”
Emily turned on the faucet a little harder than she’d meant to. She really had a problem with men who drank irresponsibly. “How much did you have?”
“What difference does it make?”
“None,” she countered coolly. “As long as you don’t mind coming back later to have your stomach pumped after taking the painkillers I plan to prescribe.”
“Don’t need any damn painkillers,” he muttered.
Emily chose to ignore that as she focused on wiping his hands free of dirt and dried blood. She’d dried his hands and applied ointment to the cuts before asking, “Can you take off your shirt?”
He looked startled. “What for?”
Emily frowned. Why the surprise? Surely he wasn’t shy about his body. He didn’t seem to be shy about anything else. “I suspect you may have a bruised or broken rib...or two.”
“Two’s right,” Eric informed her matter-of-factly. “Bruised them last week. Had them looked at, too. You don’t need to do it again.”
His doctor’s amazing green eyes narrowed sharply, and she started to say something, but apparently thought better of it. In that moment, Eric decided Emily Jordan had the prettiest red hair and clearest complexion he’d ever seen. She wasn’t wearing any make-up, either. No way was he going to let anyone that perfect see the damage the Wild had done to him tonight.
Besides, gloves or no gloves, he wasn’t sure he could trust his body not to respond if she put those incredibly gentle hands on his chest. Hell. She thought he’d been disappointed she was a woman. His only disappointment was they’d met under such humiliating circumstances.
“But thanks anyway. Emily,” he added, trying out the name he’d overheard someone call her in the hall.
Her jaw tightened as she turned away to rinse out her washcloth. Eric smiled. The lady had a temper, but was doing her best to keep it under wraps. When she returned, fully composed again, to doctor his face, he closed his eyes and enjoyed himself. Beneath the scent of soap and antiseptic, she smelled faintly of peaches. Memories he’d shoved aside because they hurt too much filtered into his mind and, strangely enough, for the first time, they didn’t seem so painful. More like nostalgic for a change.
“Was that when you got your black eye? Last week?”
He opened his eyes to see her studying his shiner. Emily. He liked the name. He liked her, temper and all.
“No, that was last Thursday night.”
She dabbed at the souvenir Murder had left on his cheek. “How often do you get into fights, Mr. Cameron?”
“As often as I have to.”
She studied him for a long moment, clearly debating whether to get personal with him. Eric suddenly hoped she would. Hoped hard.
“I would think,” she said quietly, “That seeing you come home black and blue all the time would be hard on your family.”
She couldn’t have struck a more sensitive nerve if she’d tried. No one cared what he came home looking like, and hadn’t for years. “No problem there, Doc. Don’t have a family. So you can stop wondering if I’m beating anybody up at home, too.”
Her eyes flashed, but she didn’t take the bait. “How about your job? What does your boss say when you show up for work looking like this?”
Eric stared. She had to be kidding. But she wasn’t. He knew that now. He’d been watching her all night, waiting for her to recognize him, but the woman had no clue what he did for a living. For a split second he considered telling her, then decided that once, just once, he wanted to be able to meet a woman as a man, not as Eric Cameron, seven-time-NHL-All-Star center and current involuntary captain of the fledgling Minneapolis Saints.
He offered his best smile. “Most of the time he probably figures he’s getting his money’s worth.”
She frowned, looking adorable, then turned away and reached for the tube of ointment. Silently she applied the cool ointment to the cut on his cheek. Stump and the rest of the team would howl if they could see him now, being fussed over like this.
But Eric was enjoying every minute of it. The warmth of her fingers was an almost erotic contrast to the cool ointment.
He wished he had more cuts for her to doctor. He also wished she didn’t have to wear those damned gloves.
“What were you fighting about tonight?”
His mind was still on how her bare hands would feel against his skin. “Hell if I know,” he drawled contentedly.
She straightened abruptly, and recapped the tube of ointment with a snap. “Then you deserve what you got.”
“Oh?” Her sudden shift in attitude soured his mellowing mood. “Tell me, Doctor Jordan, is that a medical opinion or a personal one?”
Emily gritted her teeth. She’d taken enough verbal abuse for one night, thank you. She started to tell him he was free to go when he suddenly shifted forward. Reflexively, Emily froze. He was still seated, but his body had become an unmistakable instrument of intimidation. Fear snaked down her spine as she forced herself to hold her ground, thinking she was a fool for it. He was easily a foot taller than she and at least a hundred pounds heavier.
“You don’t like me much, do you, Doctor?”
Her voice went tight. He was too close. Too big. “Don’t worry about it.” Damn it, where was Sarah?
“I won’t. But only if you have dinner with me.”
“What?” Emily stared, incredulous. “Have you lost your mind?”
Eric grinned. He could lose a lot more to this spunky lady if she’d give him half a chance. Brainy women fascinated him, but they didn’t as a rule hang out in the sort of places hockey players frequented. This one intrigued the hell out of him with her big green eyes and oh-so-gentle hands.
“Possibly.” He smiled his most disarming smile. “So how about it? Feel like sharing life stories over pasta and pesto sauce? Say Thursday night? Five o’clock?”
“No? Just like that? No ‘I’ll think about it—give me your number and I’ll let you know?’”
He waited, watching her again, but she didn’t back down. Didn’t offer any excuses or apologies. Just held her ground. He liked that in her. Most women he met fawned all over him. “You’re not big on compromise, are you Dr. Jordan?”
“I’m not big on men who enjoy violence, Mr. Cameron. Or men who drink. I find the fact that you clearly enjoy both appalling and repulsive. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m sure that by now I have other patients to see. Be sure to check with the front desk before you leave.”
Eric felt as if she’d hooked his skates out from under him. Stunned, he watched her calmly turn her back on him, remove her gloves, and toss them into the trash.
Appalling and repulsive?
Okay, appalling he could deal with. But repulsive? The woman found him repulsive? He couldn’t believe it. Not after that flicker of awareness that had passed between them when she’d first stepped up to examine his face. Not after the way she’d talked to him.
Not after the way she’d touched him. She’d been so gentle, so soothing, so unexpectedly—
He realized she was halfway out the door. “Emily. Wait.”
She paused, her expression wary. He hesitated, and wondered if he was making a mistake. Maybe she really wasn’t interested in him. But her opinion of him suddenly mattered. He needed to tell her who he was.
Great. You want to fall back on that one already? What happened to wanting to be accepted or rejected on your own merits? Coward.
“You, ah, never checked my ribs.”
“I believe that was your decision, Mr. Cameron.”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
“Fine. I’ll send in a nurse to help you undress.”
The frost in her voice annoyed him. Especially since he had no idea where it came from. He pushed off the gurney. “Forget the nurse. We can manage without—”
Her eyes widened and she bolted. He went after her instinctively, catching her by the wrist as they entered the hallway. “Wait. What the hell’s going on—?”
He froze. He’d never seen such contempt in a woman’s eyes. Or was it fear? Eric stared in disbelief. It was. Pure, raw fear. Hiding behind her contempt.
Holy hell, the woman was afraid of him. Terrified of him.
“Let the doctor go, Cameron, before anyone gets hurt.”
He looked up to see his police escort not ten feet away. Behind them stood the white-haired doctor and two blonde nurses close to his own age, looking both wary and angry. He looked back at Emily, glaring up at him, her cheeks a deep, fiery red.
She was so small. So delicate, her wrist so fragile beneath his hand. No wonder he’d scared her, coming after her like that. Especially after he’d come on to her so strong.
“I’m sorry,” he said, releasing her gently. “I never meant to frighten you.”
She backed away and turned to the white-haired guy. “If you don’t need me any more...“
He nodded. “Go home, Emily. You deserve some rest.”
She slipped past Eric and into the lounge.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the assembled group of onlookers, feeling a sudden need to explain. This whole evening wasn’t like him at all. None of it. But they didn’t know that. “I didn’t mean to upset her.”
Emily returned just then, bundled up in a dark hat and coat and carrying a big black purse. She didn’t speak to or look at anyone as she blew past the entire group and out the front door.
Within seconds, she’d vanished into the frigid February night.