TESSA’S GIFT (excerpt)

Tessa's Gift by Cerella Sechrist

CHAPTER ONE

TESSA WORTH bent over to finish clipping the leash to the pole. Before she could stand, her canine companion gave a hearty shake of his head, and she jerked back from the spray of slobber.

“Ugh.”

She wiped a strand from her chin as she straightened. “Rufus, we’ve been through this,” she chastised the dog. “Flinging drool on the ladies is no way to win hearts.”

The English bulldog looked up at her with doleful eyes.

“Don’t even start with me, mister,” she said, then gave a quick glance around to be sure no one was witnessing her one-sided conversation with the dog. “Those bedroom eyes may have worked for you when you were a stray, but they won’t get you anywhere with me.”

Rufus huffed, and another gob of drool landed on her sneakers. She groaned and swiped her shoe on the back of her leggings.

“Okay, listen. Just let me get some tea, and I’ll bring you one of those muffins you like.”

Rufus whimpered.

“No, not the bran-and-apple ones. The blueberry. Your favorite.”

Rufus licked his chops, leaving a strand of slobber dangling from his nose.

“Oh, buddy. We really need to do something about that.”

Rufus parked his behind on the sidewalk, unconcerned.

Overcome with affection, Tessa knelt down to scratch him behind the ears. He groaned with pleasure, and she was reminded once again how looks could be deceiving. During her time working at the local animal shelter, she had watched Rufus be bypassed for adoption again and again in favor of the younger or cuter pets. 

When she’d left the shelter for her new job as a marketing and PR coordinator for a nearby hospital, she’d realized she couldn’t leave Rufus behind. After all, they had something in common—she knew what it was to feel like she didn’t quite measure up. She’d adopted him on her last day working at the shelter a little over two weeks ago. She hadn’t regretted that decision for a second, despite the drool issue.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes. Sit tight.”

Rufus sneezed, which she took for a sign of agreement, and then Tessa stepped inside the Lighthouse Café.

The Lighthouse was a longstanding fixture of the Findlay Roads community. She’d gone there as a child, during summer visits to her grandmother’s cottage before she’d moved to the town permanently after college. Back then, it had been a diner, complete with blue vinyl booths and geometric-patterned countertops. 

Since it had been converted to a café, however, it had undergone extensive renovations to give it a much more modern and trendy vibe. With the tourist boom that had occurred in the town over the last several years, the café had become a favorite not only of locals but of out-of-towners. It helped that local son and famous country music star, Sawyer Landry, occasionally stopped in to play a couple of sets when he was in town. 

Tessa walked inside the café and stepped up to the counter to place her order.

“Hey, Tessa,” greeted the barista behind the bar.

“Hi, Liam,” she replied. “Can I get a mint green tea latte to go, please?”

“Sure.” Liam began punching her order into the system. “How’s that new job going?”

“Good,” she replied as she tugged her wallet out of her hoodie pocket. She didn’t carry a purse when she took Rufus on his morning walk. It was challenging enough trying to wrangle a fifty-pound bulldog. She needed both hands free for the attempt. “Pretty good. I’ve only been there a few weeks and I’ve mostly been getting the lay of the land, but now I’m finally starting to dig into my actual duties a little more.”

After almost two years working at the animal clinic, Tessa was enjoying the challenge of a new position. She’d worked for years as a pediatric nurse but stepped away from it after she’d bailed on her own wedding…and all the complicated emotions that went with that.

“That’s $3.59,” Liam said.

“Oh, I nearly forgot. Can you add a blueberry muffin?”

Liam arched a knowing eyebrow. “You’re spoiling that mutt, Tessa.”

Tessa assumed an affronted expression. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. That muffin is for me.”

Liam laughed as he punched her order into the system. “Sure, Tessa, sure. You know I can see him from here, don’t you?”

Tessa turned in the direction Liam pointed, noting that Rufus was sitting patiently where she’d left him, his hooded eyes watching the café door with interest.

“He was found abandoned by the side of the road. He deserves to be spoiled a little bit.”

Liam held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m just saying, you spend more money on that dog than on yourself.”

Tessa shrugged. “He’s worth it.”

Liam shook his head as he took the ten-dollar bill she handed over. She didn’t expect others to understand. She certainly hadn’t been surprised by most of her family’s reaction when she’d brought Rufus to the last family dinner.

Her sister Harper and her husband, Connor, as well as Connor’s daughter, Molly, had made cooing noises over Rufus as if he were a newborn puppy. Her other sister, Paige, had been somewhat less supportive, asking why she’d chosen such an ugly dog to adopt. Tessa had made all the appropriate defenses about Rufus’s character and disposition, but in the end, the family had assumed her choice was just part of what she’d once heard Paige refer to as Tessa’s “pre-midlife crisis”, a term that caused Tessa to flinch, though she hadn’t let her sister know she’d heard her.

Just because she’d left her fiancé at the altar and then quit her well-paying job as a pediatric nurse in favor of minimum wage at the local animal shelter didn’t mean she was going through a crisis.  Well, Paige’s assessment maybe did make sense. But only because her family didn’t know the whole story behind her choices.

And that wasn’t something she was planning to share anytime soon. If ever.

Tessa wished Liam a good day and then stepped to the end of the counter to wait for her order. She cast a quick glance outside to check on Rufus and then swiveled her gaze around the room, always interested to see the new faces in town. 

She’d inherited her grandmother’s cottage years before, and since then Findlay Roads had truly become home, more than the suburbs of Washington, DC, where she’d grown up. If only Nana could see how the town had grown. Much of it retained the same quaint, Chesapeake Bay charm Tessa remembered from her childhood. But there were plenty of new houses, shops and restaurants to cater to the tourist influx. Not to mention the Delphine, the sprawling luxury resort her own father had built to capitalize on the investment boom.

She noticed a couple in the corner and idly speculated whether they had come to the café to meet with a Realtor and visit some local properties. Real estate in the area had skyrocketed. The cottage she lived in was easily worth a fortune compared to what her grandparents had paid for it so many years ago.

She waved at a few familiar faces, including a girl she used to work with at the pediatrician’s office. She hoped Allison wouldn’t come over. While she had always been friendly with her coworkers, encounters with them now tended to be awkward since they, like her family, didn’t understand why she had up and left her job so unexpectedly.

She shifted her attention back to the bar, and her eyes fell on another new face. He was handsome but almost seemed to have a brooding aura as he studied his phone. His dark brown hair was trimmed short, and he was dressed in dark slacks, a heather-blue shirt and a plain gray blazer. Simple but sophisticated. She entertained herself by speculating on what sort of business he had in town. Was he looking to move here, as she’d imagined the young couple were? Or was he simply a businessman passing through? Perhaps an entrepreneur looking to invest in one of the local businesses. Maybe he had a secret job with the CIA, and he’d come to Findlay Roads searching for an international thief. She nearly laughed at the notion, though his handsome appearance did put her a little in mind of an actor from a spy thriller.

“Tessa, your order’s up.”

She pulled herself out of her reverie and reached for her tea latte and the brown paper bag holding Rufus’s muffin. From the corner of her eye, she noticed her CIA agent was still intent on his phone. He hadn’t even glanced up.

“Spoiling that dog of yours again?” asked Shannon, the barista at the bar.

Tessa made a face as she grabbed the paper bag. “You guys are way too interested in what I feed my dog.”

Shannon chuckled. “Nah, it’s not that. We’re just glad to see you coming around again.”

Tessa couldn’t argue with that. When she’d worked as a pediatric nurse, the Lighthouse Café had been part of her morning routine. She’d stop in for tea and a pastry before she headed to the clinic. But when she’d quit the doctor’s office and had to tighten up her budget, daily trips to the coffee shop had fallen from routine to a treat. It was only now, with her new job at the hospital, that she’d picked the habit back up. Plus, the café was on her walking route with Rufus. And he did like their muffins.

“Thanks,” she said. “It’s… nice to be back.”

Shannon eyed her for a moment, and Tessa tensed, fearing she’d ask more questions. But Shannon just nodded and grinned, and Tessa gathered her tea and muffin and turned to go.

“Hey, Tess.”

She paused at the door as Liam said her name.

“Tell Rufus the next one’s on the house.”

Tessa raised her tea latte in thanks and pushed out the door. Rufus was on his feet the second he saw her, his tiny nub of a tail wagging a greeting.

“You wouldn’t believe the grief I endure for you,” she teased him. She bent down, balancing her carryout cup in one hand and trying to juggle the paper bag on one arm so she could open it. She pulled out the muffin as Rufus jumped up and chomped the muffin out of her palm. Tessa tottered, thrown off balance. Hot tea sloshed out of the cup’s lid, splattering across her hand. Scalded, she gasped as she jerked to her feet, bumping against something solid while Rufus greedily chewed on the muffin. She registered cursing behind her as she regained her balance and frowned down at her dog.

“Rufus! That was rude!” But Rufus took this admonition in stride as he licked the crumbs from his jowls.

Tessa turned, an apology on her lips. The CIA agent was dabbing at a large coffee stain on his shirt. She glanced down and saw his cup on the ground, dark liquid chugging from the lid. Rufus, finished with the muffin, had taken it upon himself to begin lapping up the liquid. “I am so, so sorry,” she apologized to the man.

He fixed her with a glare. “You really ought to watch what you’re doing,” he said, his tone deep but frosty.

“I’m sorry, it was my dog…” She trailed off with a quick glance at Rufus.

“Then you should watch what your dog is doing,” he returned.

Tessa frowned. “Let me buy you another coffee,” she offered.

He checked his watch. She noted it had a mechanical timeface with a leather wrist strap. Under different circumstances, Tessa might have found it charming. She had never understood the digital watch thing, but even her dad wore one these days. She preferred a more traditional look.

“I don’t have time for another coffee.”

His words drew her attention back to the agent. He balled up the napkins he’d been using to clean his shirt and edged around her to toss them in a nearby trash bin. Rufus, who had finished his breakfast, suddenly took note of the man and gave a low growl. The guy paused midstep at the warning. Tessa stared at Rufus in surprise. During all the months she’d known him, she’d never heard him growl.

“I’m sorry, he’s not usually like this,” she said.

Rufus let out a nonthreatening bark as if to apologize, but the stranger only arched an eyebrow.

“Sorry if I don’t share your assessment. He looks like he belongs in the pound.”

Tessa felt a ripple of irritation. She was sorry she’d ruined the man’s shirt but did he have to insult Rufus?

“At least let me pay to dry-clean your shirt,” she offered, still trying to make amends.

He huffed. “I’m already running late.”

“Here.” She picked up the brown paper bag from the ground, tearing off a piece that hadn’t been splattered by coffee. “Do you have a pen on you?”

He grunted but pulled a pen out of his jacket pocket. “That’s not necessary,” he said, even as he handed it over.

Tessa scribbled her name and phone number on the bag. “Sorry to cause your morning to get off to a rough start, but it’s like the saying goes, ‘It’s never too late to start your day over.’” She passed the pen and paper back. “When you get the dry cleaning bill, let me know, and I’ll send you the money.”

He stuffed the items into his pocket and pushed past her without another word. She watched as he stepped across the street and got into a pickup truck, which was slightly incongruous with his sophisticated demeanor. She sighed.

“Well, Rufus, we better head back home so I can change or I’m going to be late for work, too.”

Rufus belched in response.

* * * *

DR. NOAH BRENNAN still wasn’t very comfortable in his office. Ever since he’d started working at Chesapeake View Children’s Hospital six months ago, he’d been unable to personalize the space. His last office had been filled with personal touches. Finger paint drawings, framed photos, the Post-it notes that Julia had stuck onto his iPad every morning. He’d filled the room with memories and reminders. But all of those mementoes were boxed away now, collecting dust in a storage locker.

He’d never been embarrassed by the emptiness until today, when he’d walked in and found Ana Morales, the hospital’s director of development, eyeing the bare walls and desk.

Inwardly, he cursed. “Ana. I didn’t know you were waiting for me. I apologize for running behind this morning.”

It was that woman at the coffee shop with her unruly dog. He fingered the scrap of paper in his pocket where she’d scribbled her name and phone number. Tessa Worth. He had little patience for careless individuals. Carelessness was how people ended up in the emergency room—something he’d witnessed firsthand during his residency.

If it hadn’t been for Tessa Worth, he might have had time to settle into his morning routine before being faced with this unexpected visit.

Ana, fortunately, waved a hand to dismiss his apology. “You spend every waking minute at this hospital. There’s no need to apologize.”

She crossed to the desk and took a seat in front of it, tucking a strand of black hair threaded with gray, behind her ear. Her olive skin was lined with only a handful of wrinkles, and her brown eyes were astute. He fidgeted uncomfortably and avoided her gaze by stepping behind the desk and taking a seat.

Ana was the reason he was working at Chesapeake View. She’d been the hospital administrator at his previous job before becoming the director of development here. Ana knew his background, knew how he’d wanted a fresh start, so she’d recommended him to the hospital’s board. Noah’s reputation as a physician and the accolades he’d received over the years had sealed the deal for them. 

But since coming to work at Chesapeake, Noah had gone out of his way to avoid Ana. She was still a reminder of his losses, and that made it difficult to be around her. She seemed to sense his dilemma and didn’t seek him out other than when necessary. The fact that she’d come looking for him today made him curious and on edge. Maybe it had something to do with the way his morning had started off with the coffee shop woman. Things tended to go downhill when his day began poorly.

But what had she said when she had offered to pay for his dry cleaning? It’s never too late to start your day over.

It sounded so much like one of Julia’s old sayings, before their lives had taken a turn for the worse, that he’d nearly flinched. The thought of his dead wife shook him. Would the ghosts he’d tried to leave behind never stop haunting him?

“What can I do for you, Ana?” he asked, trying to take his mind off his memories.

Ana straightened and gazed at him directly. Noah frowned. Whatever had brought Ana to his office, she meant business.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

It was an innocent enough question, but he knew what lay behind it. “How are you surviving” was perhaps a more accurate way to phrase it. But he didn’t want to talk about his feelings. It was much easier and less painful to simply wall them off. If he focused on his loss, he’d never be able to do his job.

“I’m fine, thanks, Ana. How about you?”

She eyed him as he turned the question around, but thankfully, she chose not to press. After another minute of watching him, she came to the reason for her visit.

“Noah, as you know, the hospital recently brought a marketing and public relations coordinator on staff to assist me.”

Noah recalled some mention of a new coordinator, but he didn’t pay much attention to the world beyond his hospital floor. He wanted to keep his focus on what mattered most—his patients.

Ana paused, watching him carefully. “We’ve talked before about bringing more awareness to the hospital and the pediatric oncology department specifically—your department.”

Noah’s eyebrows knit together. He was fully aware that part of his duties was to help promote his department. His reputation was part of what had won him this position in the first place, and the board had told him they expected him to actively participate in all publicity campaigns. But in the last six months, he’d managed to remain uninvolved in such efforts, which was the way he wanted to keep it.

“Ana, I’ve told you before. I’m a doctor, not a public relations ploy.”

A spark of determination entered Ana’s eyes. Noah had always respected her, but now, her flinty gaze made him wonder just who would win if he was forced to go head-to-head with her.

“Dr. Brennan,” she began, and Noah tried not to flinch. He recognized that by addressing him so formally, she was making it clear she was serious. “So far I’ve tried to be sensitive to your situation.”

Noah flushed with suppressed anger. “I don’t need your pity, Ana.”

She leaned forward. “It’s not pity to give someone time and space to mourn.”

He looked away. “I don’t need time and space. I need to be free to do my work.”

Ana sighed. “Your work includes bringing attention to the hospital and its programs, along with fund-raising to support those programs. You’re one of the top pediatric oncologists in the country, and that benefits the hospital tremendously, but it’s also important to broadcast those successes.”

Noah stiffened. “My job is to save children’s lives,” he corrected.

“Which is something you do with great skill,” she returned, “but it’s not all that is expected of you. The board would like you to be more actively involved in promotional efforts.”

Noah blinked. “The board is more interested in me playing a part for the public than helping the children on this floor fight for their lives?”

Ana’s expression hardened. “Self-righteousness is not an attractive trait, Doctor, even on you.”

He didn’t reply. It wasn’t self-righteousness. He had no claim to righteousness of any kind. If a doctor couldn’t save the very patient who had mattered most, what right did he have to act blameless?

Still, he had no desire—and in fact, was very much against—using his skills or reputation to support a sales pitch for the hospital.

“Noah, I need you to work with this new PR coordinator. Trust me, she’s trying to help these children as much as you are. More funding will allow for better technology, updated equipment, and a host of other things that will only give the kids an edge in fighting cancer and other diseases.”

Noah clenched his jaw, chastened by her words. He’d never begrudge the children the opportunity for more resources. What he resented was the hospital trying to use him, to leverage his skills and status when both of those things were clearly overrated.

“Promise me that you’ll be nice to this coordinator.”

He raised his head. “I am always professional with staff,” he pointed out.

Ana arched an eyebrow. “I didn’t say I wanted you to be professional, I said I wanted you to be nice.”

“I am nice,” he protested.

Ana looked skeptical. “Well, let’s just take it one step at a time, shall we?”

Noah appreciated Ana’s position, but he wasn’t going to make any promises. He wasn’t the easiest person to work with, and his attitude often put people off, which was just fine with him. It was better for others, and for him, if they didn’t get too close. And he didn’t intend to make an exception for this new coordinator, no matter how sweetly Ana asked.

CHAPTER TWO

CHESAPEAKE VIEW’S ONCOLOGY ward was actually a bright, welcoming place. The walls were painted a buttery yellow, and butterflies with vibrant wings in jeweled tones of red, green, blue and orange were stenciled onto the walls. As Tessa stepped off the elevator, she faced the reception desk, made of blond wood and accented by the teal counter. The lights were housed in globes of pastel colors, emitting a soft, radiant glow. There was a waiting area with blue overstuffed chairs and sofas, along with a large, flat-screen TV running an endless loop of cartoons. A glass mosaic dominated one wall depicting a garden with butterflies amidst the flowers.

Though the environment was cheery, Tessa prepared herself for a fight. She’d been warned that Dr. Noah Brennan could be difficult, but if she was going to do her job well, she’d need him on her side.

Tessa took her new job seriously. Her position as a marketing and PR coordinator was a newly created role, and her contract was only for a year. The hospital’s board of directors was looking to raise funds and boost awareness of their programs, specifically in the pediatric oncology unit. If she was able to leverage Dr. Brennan’s reputation and accolades to bring more attention to the hospital, the board had hinted her contract would be extended.

And she desperately wanted this job to continue. While she’d enjoyed working at the animal clinic, her small salary there hadn’t been enough to pay for the upkeep of her grandmother’s cottage. 

Plus, this job was a blessing, allowing her to keep her hand in pediatrics, which had once been her passion, without requiring her to work directly with patients. She missed the daily interaction with children she’d had as a pediatric nurse, but her heart ached too much now to be around them day in and day out. 

She adored kids. She always had. Becoming a mother was something she’d looked forward to her entire life, or at least until a couple of years ago. Since then, she’d made a concerted effort to avoid children. Now, she only prayed she could excel at this job so she could find her way past the heartache of the last two years.

She checked the time on her phone and nibbled at her lip in worry. Her boss was nowhere in sight. She had been scheduled to meet Ana Morales here fifteen minutes ago. The episode at the coffee shop that morning had cost her time, though, and she was running late. While Ana was a fairly flexible person, Tessa knew that arriving late, especially when she was finally going to meet the hospital’s most prestigious doctor, wasn’t the way to keep this job.

Fearing maybe Ana had come and gone without her, Tessa moved toward the nurses’ station to see if Ana was hopefully running behind herself. She was relieved when she spotted Miranda, one of the nurses. Miranda confirmed that Ana was already there and waiting for her in Dr. Brennan’s office. She pointed the way down the hall, and Tessa set off at a brisk pace, hoping she hadn’t missed anything too important. As she walked, she remembered her conversation the week before, when Ana had described the hospital’s chief pediatric oncologist.

“Noah is one of the best in the country, if not the world,” Ana had said. “He’s brilliant when it comes to treating childhood cancers. He came on board six months ago. He was looking for a— Well, a change of scenery, I suppose you could say.”

Tessa remembered sensing there was something Ana wasn’t telling her about Dr. Brennan, but Ana had continued speaking before she could ask any questions.

“We’ve tracked the success of other hospitals’ PR campaigns, and using someone gifted and well-known as the face of the campaign has yielded tremendous results. We are hoping to replicate that kind of success here. That’s where you come in.”

Tessa had read between the lines; whether she kept her job or not rested on the success of this venture with Dr. Brennan.

And now she was finally going to meet the man. She reached the door with Dr. Brennan’s name on it and swallowed, feeling a wave of nerves as she prepared to meet the doctor she’d be working closely with in the months to come.

She tapped on the door and waited until she heard a muffled call for admittance. Pushing it open, she stepped inside, her gaze first falling on Ana. She smiled a greeting at her boss.

“I’m so sorry I’m late, Ana, but I got tied up—” As she was speaking, her gaze automatically shifted to the man standing on the other side of the desk. She drew up short as she recognized him.

It appeared the man from the coffee shop wasn’t a CIA agent at all.

He was a doctor.

* * * *

NOAH BLINKED in surprise at the woman who had just stepped into his office. She looked equally stunned.

“Noah, this is—”

“Tessa Worth,” he interrupted Ana and then immediately winced. Tessa would probably think it strange that he had noted her name on the scrap of paper she’d given him.

“Oh, good, you two have met already,” Ana said. “Well done, Tessa, on diving right in.”

His eyes were locked on the woman standing just inside the doorway, and he couldn’t seem to tear them away. She looked as surprised as he felt, her cheeks coloring at Ana’s praise, but she also hadn’t spoken up. He wondered if she was waiting to hear how he would respond to this awkward situation. After another breath, he forced himself to look away from her and back at Ana.

“Ms. Worth and I met informally this morning.”

Ana frowned but didn’t question the explanation. “Well. Tessa is our new marketing and PR coordinator for the hospital.”

He nearly groaned aloud. This was the woman he was supposed to work so closely with? Based on their earlier encounter, he was even less thrilled than he’d been when Ana had explained the directive to him.

“Oh, well then. Tessa, Dr. Brennan is the head of our pediatric oncology ward.”

Tessa seemed to have gathered her composure as she stepped forward and raised a hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Dr. Brennan.”

He ignored her hand, stubbornly keeping his arms folded across his chest.

Ana cleared her throat, and as he caught her eye, he noted the scowl on her features. He reluctantly dropped his arms and shook Tessa’s hand. He couldn’t help noticing the softness of her skin, her fingers pleasantly cool within his. He broke the handshake as quickly as he could.

“I’d like for Tessa to shadow you today to get a better understanding of your role here at the hospital.”

Noah and Tessa both began to protest at the same time.

“I don’t think that’s warranted—”

“I’m sure Dr. Brennan has a lot to do—”

Ana’s expression silenced them both. “Let’s keep in mind what these PR campaigns are really about. It’s not about me, or either of you, or even the hospital. It is about raising money for these children. Getting them more care, better care and the very best tools to help them get well. So whatever issues you are dealing with should be set aside for the sake of this initiative. We are here to save lives.”

Noah frowned. He had to hand it to her—Ana had the guilt speech down pat. How could either of them protest when she put it like that? For the length of several heartbeats, no one said anything.

To his irritation, it was Tessa who broke it.

“I’d be happy to shadow you today, Dr. Brennan, if you don’t mind.”

Of course he minded. Not that he would say so now after Ana’s tidy little reprimand.

“That would be fine,” he replied, his voice tight. Ana picked up on his annoyance and shot him a warning look.

He ignored it. He appreciated the need for fund-raisers, and Ana was right—these children deserved every weapon the hospital could supply them in their fight against cancer. But Noah’s job was on the front lines, fighting with and for these kids. It wasn’t to be in the spotlight, promoting the hospital’s work. It only distracted him from his true purpose.

“Well then, if there’s nothing more you two need from me, I’ll leave you to get better acquainted.”

Noah felt a moment’s panic, and he could tell, from Tessa Worth’s wide eyes, that she was experiencing the same emotion.

“Maybe I should come back later, give Dr. Brennan time to…do…whatever he usually does in the morning,” she finished, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

“Later would be better—” He jumped on this opportunity to delay the inevitable.

“Don’t be ridiculous. The whole point is for Tessa to get an understanding of your day,” Ana said to him. “I trust you two will figure it out.”

Before either one could protest further, Ana stepped around Tessa and out the door, leaving them alone.

He suppressed a sigh as he said, “Well, let’s get started then.”

* * * *

AS TESSA FOLLOWED Noah on his rounds, he realized she’d gotten to know far more people in a couple of weeks than he had in six months. She greeted all the staff on the floor by name, asking after their spouses, their children and their pets. One of the nurses reminded her she was supposed to email them a recipe, and Tessa complied by instantly sending it out from her phone.

The more he saw how quickly they warmed to her, the more irritated he became. Who was this woman to show up and ruin his day, starting at the coffee shop and now here, in his own hospital?

It only made him more determined not to like her, especially the times they accidentally came into contact—when their arms brushed, or she leaned toward him to ask a question. She was bright and attentive, which only made his efforts to ignore her all the more difficult.

He updated her briefly on the next patient, Kyle Miller, trying his best not to notice how long her lashes were as her brown eyes focused intently on his. Clearing his throat, he turned and walked into Kyle’s room. Kyle was ten and had been battling leukemia since his diagnosis five weeks ago.

“Hello, Dr. Brennan.”

Kyle’s mother, Sheila, greeted him warily. It was a tone he was used to hearing. He knew she’d want answers, so he focused on Kyle and put Tessa out of his head as he brought up the boy’s chart on the iPad Noah held in his hand.

Tessa shifted beside him, and when he remained absorbed in Kyle’s chart, she took it upon herself to tell the family who she was. As she chatted with the parents, he scrolled through Kyle’s latest test results, trying not to listen but finding it impossible.

“You like model ships?” she commented, and from the corner of his eye, Noah saw she was referring to the wooden craft Kyle had obviously been assembling.

“Yeah,” Kyle shyly confirmed. “This was a gift from my grandpa. He came to visit me yesterday.”

“That’s great,” Tessa said, and he marveled at how genuine she sounded. “It looks pretty hard to assemble, though. Is your dad helping you put it together?”

Kyle’s father, Matt, laughed. “I can’t even glue together popsicle sticks, so I’m no help.”

Noah flicked his eyes up just long enough to see that the entire family seemed to be slightly more at ease as Tessa spoke to them. He continued reviewing the boy’s chart. The test results looked promising, and he felt a measure of relief. Kyle might be turning the corner before long.

“My dad once tried to put together a model airplane,” Tessa was saying. “I think he ended up using it for kindling one winter.”

There was more laughter, and something about the sound set Noah on edge.

“Kyle’s numbers are improving,” he said, interrupting the conversation. “This means the treatments are working. We’ll continue on this course.”

The mood shifted, and Noah felt the family’s momentary joy dissipate as swiftly as blowing out a match.

“For how long?” Sheila asked.

“We’ll continue the chemotherapy for a couple more months. The numbers in the next few weeks will determine how long the treatment progresses.”

“So…that’s good?” Matt asked.

“For now,” Noah said as he looked back at the iPad. “As I said, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Someone cleared their throat, but he ignored it. Then, a second time. Noah glanced up and realized it had been Tessa who made the sound. She was staring at him, her eyes conveying some sort of message he couldn’t read. He stared back at her, uncertain why she was looking at him in that way. After a few awkward moments, she turned back to Kyle and his parents.

“I’m sure what Dr. Brennan means is that this is good news. The treatments are working. That’s why we will continue doing what we’re doing, in order to help Kyle obtain full remission from the disease.”

Noah frowned. “I can’t make any promises to that end.”

Tessa’s head whipped around, and she gave him that sharp gaze once more. He noticed that Kyle’s parents were glancing back and forth between him and Tessa. He didn’t much like it.

“Does that mean I’m not going to get better?” Kyle piped up.

“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that you do,” Noah stated, his tone firm.

“Dr. Brennan, could I have a private word with you?” Tessa asked, her tone sweet but unyielding.

Noah made an effort not to let his irritation show. What in the world did she want now?

“Of course,” he agreed, attempting to sound reasonable. Tessa turned to the family.

“Would you excuse us for a moment?”

She stood and headed from the room as he hurried to keep pace with her clipped strides. She didn’t stop walking until they were out in the hall and several feet away from the room, well out of earshot from Kyle and his parents.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

“I don’t understand the question,” he said.

“Those people are facing the most horrific scenario they can imagine, the possible death of their son, and you are treating them no differently than if their child has a common cold!”

Noah blinked once, then twice, before his anger began to rise.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” she muttered in a low tone, keeping her voice down. Noah was vaguely aware that they were standing in an alcove of the hallway—not in direct sight and hearing of others but close enough for someone to observe their exchange.

“Can you remind me again, Ms. Worth, what it was you were hired to do here?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off.

“Marketing. Fund-raising. Publicity. Goodwill. Not diagnosis. Not medicine. Certainly not cancer treatment. That is my job,” he reminded.

Her eyes were shining with rage, deepening them to a beautiful caramel brown. But he was angry, too, and determined not to be distracted.

“That’s not the only part of your job,” she countered. “You’re also supposed to support these people, treat them with compassion.”

“I’m compassionate,” he argued and then cringed at the defensiveness of his tone. He did not need to prove himself to this woman.

“Not from what I can see,” she fired back, and the passion of her words stirred something deep inside him. When was the last time he’d encountered such fervor? When was the last time he had ever felt such fire in himself? Not for years. Not since before Ginny had started experiencing symptoms… He shifted the watch on his wrist, righting it so the face stared up at him.

“That little boy is terrified,” she continued. “So are his parents. And you did nothing to reassure them.”

He tensed. Passion was one thing, but he would not let her presume to know his job. “I don’t make false promises,” he replied, his voice cold in contrast to the heat in hers. “Hope does more harm than the cancer itself.”

She opened her mouth, presumably to contradict him, but he forged ahead, rattled by her judgment of him and his methods.

“Do you know what hope is, Ms. Worth? It’s a disease. It leads you along, blinds you to reality, and leaves you unprepared for death. When you cling to hope, it eats away at you, one minute at a time, a more silent killer than the leukemia ever will be. Because it destroys you without evidence. It misdirects, making you think there is a chance that life will one day be the same, that you can go back to normal. But there is no normal life anymore. There is no chance of that.”

Noah wasn’t sure at what point in his speech he’d stopped referring to his patients and began speaking of himself, but he kept going, a flood of angry words that he could not seem to stop. It had been so long since he’d allowed himself to get angry, to rail against the forces beyond his control. But this woman and her sudden intrusion into his day had worn away at the defenses he normally kept in place.

“You can do everything right— treatments, protocols, rules—but all it takes is one mistake, a single slipup, and the disease rushes in, more ravenous than before. And where is hope when that happens? It abandons you.” He clenched his hands around the tablet he still held, trying to keep his fingers from shaking with rage. “Do not mistake compassion with false guarantees. I do not lie to my patients. They should be prepared for every scenario.”

A memory of Ginny surfaced, in the last days before the disease had taken her, her face chalky, purplish-red bruises beneath her faded, green eyes. She had looked at him, almost accusingly. He had promised her she would get better, that she’d be running and playing again before she knew it.

Within the month, she was dead.

His voice was hoarse with the effort of keeping back the tears and resisting a grief so deep and sharp that it felt as if his heart had been pierced. “Hope is fine for fairy tales, but it has no place here, in these halls,” he rasped out.

And then he turned away, oblivious to the stares he sensed around them, and headed for his office, where he could close the door and remind himself that he was no longer hope’s victim. Because fate had already taken everything that mattered to him, and now, there was nothing left for it to claim.

CHAPTER THREE

RUFUS STRAINED ON his leash as Tessa rang the doorbell of her parents’ Findlay Roads home. Though her mom and dad had a penthouse apartment in Washington, DC, they had purchased a second home in town a couple of years ago. Her father divided his time between the Delphine, the local resort he owned, and his financial investment firm in the city.

Tessa liked having more family nearby. For years after her grandmother died, she was the only one who called Findlay Roads home. But then after her sister, Harper, lost her job as a restaurant critic, she’d moved in with Tessa until she got back on her feet. Now, Harper was happily married to local restaurateur Connor Callahan, and had adopted Connor’s daughter, Molly. She and Connor had recently celebrated the birth of their first child together. Little Grace was a beautiful combination of Connor’s green eyes and Harper’s blond hair, and Tessa was every bit as enamored with her as she was with her other two nieces.

Tessa’s parents still spent a lot of their time in the city, but now that they owned this house, they were making more and more trips to Findlay Roads. Only her oldest sister, Paige, and her husband and daughter still lived exclusively in DC. Tessa was hoping that might change at some point. For one thing, she was extremely close to her niece, Zoe, Paige’s daughter, and she’d love the opportunity to see the six-year-old more often.

Rufus whined impatiently. “Rufus, behave,” she warned him. She probably should have left Rufus at home. But she couldn’t stand the thought of making him stay by himself after she’d spent the whole day away at work. Not to mention that after spending so many hours with Dr. Noah Brennan, she needed Rufus to lower her stress level. 

Then again, she knew she couldn’t rely on Rufus alone. In the past two years, she’d shut too many other humans out. It was easy to love animals because they didn’t wound like humans did. But over the last few months, Tessa had realized how isolated she’d become, how she’d begun to justify shutting people out of her life. She didn’t want to become that person. She didn’t want to turn into someone like Noah Brennan. She shuddered at the memory of their day together, and his bitter words.

Do you know what hope is? It’s a disease.

It made her curious. What had happened to Noah Brennan to make him so jaded?

In any case, she was glad she’d decided to bring Rufus along. Zoe and Molly loved having a dog to play with during these family gatherings. And while Tessa would never admit it aloud, she sort of liked ruffling Paige’s feathers with the dog. Paige had always been kind of stuck-up. Tessa loved her, but sometimes she wished Paige wasn’t quite such a snob. She hoped Rufus would loosen Paige up a little bit.

It didn’t look promising, though. Paige kept a good distance from the dog at all times.

The door opened, and her mother stood on the threshold.

“Tessa, darling, come in.” Her mother leaned forward to place a kiss on her youngest daughter’s cheek as Rufus tried to slip inside. He only got past the doorway before his leash came up short, pulling Tessa past her mother and inside with him.

“Oh, you’ve brought Rufus!” Her mother bent down to politely pat his ears, and Rufus grunted a greeting.

She knew her mother found her choice of canine companion odd, but at least she didn’t criticize him like Paige did.

“Everyone else is in the dining room. We were just waiting for you before we started.”

“Sorry if I’m late. I had to swing home and pick up Rufus after work.”

“Oh, that’s no trouble, darling. You know we keep ourselves entertained. How was your day?”

Tessa recognized the hesitation in her mother’s tone. Her family was relieved that she had left her job at the animal shelter for something more distinguished. But they were still baffled because she hadn’t told them the real reason behind her radical decisions from the year before. They’d given up asking since she’d stubbornly refused to share any details. But she knew they worried about her. They were all hopeful this new job was the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. She didn’t quite see it that way. Her life, her hopes for the future, would never be what they once were. But she, too, was hopeful for some kind of new beginning.

“Do you think we should lock Rufus on the patio while we eat?” her mother suggested. But the question came too late. Molly and Zoe had caught sight of him and were emitting girlish squeals of delight as they descended on him.

Rufus woofed and wagged his tail at the attention. Tessa had to smile as the girls knelt down to scratch his ears. He flopped onto the floor and rolled onto his back, inviting them to scratch his belly.

The rest of the family greeted her, but she couldn’t help noticing how Paige eyed Rufus’s presence with pursed lips.

“Tessa, we weren’t aware you’d be bringing the dog.”

Tessa shrugged. “He was home alone all day. I didn’t feel it was fair to leave him while I came over here.”

“Well, perhaps he’s not the right pet for you then. After all, with this new job, you’re bound to be working some late hours. How is it going?”

“Slow down, Paige,” their father, Allan, held up a hand. “Give her a chance to sit down first.”

Tessa was relieved for the intervention. She unclipped Rufus’s leash as the girls continued to pet him, pausing to offer them both a kiss on the head.

“Zoe,” Paige chastised, “That’s enough playing with the dog.”

Zoe reluctantly stood. She sneezed and wiped the back of her hand across her nose.

“Now go wash your hands. No wonder you can’t get rid of that cold with all the germs you pick up.”

“I’ll go with her,” Tessa offered. “I should clean up anyway.” She took her niece’s hand, unconcerned about the germs, and led the way to the bathroom. They took turns at the sink as Tessa asked questions about her day. Zoe sneezed again as they finished up.

Tessa’s medical training kicked into gear, and she felt her niece’s forehead. “Let me check your lymph nodes, munchkin.” She felt around Zoe’s neck, noting her lymph nodes were slightly enlarged. “You’ve had this cold on and off for a few weeks now, haven’t you?”

Zoe shrugged. “Mom says I need to wash my hands more.”

“Well, that certainly can’t hurt,” Tessa agreed. “Has your mom or dad taken you to the doctor?”

Zoe nodded. “They gave me annie botics.”

“Antibiotics?”

“Yeah. Annie biotics.”

Tessa smiled. “Okay then. I hope you start feeling better soon, kiddo.”

She took her niece’s hand again as they made their way back to the dining room. Dinner proceeded as it usually did. She, Harper and Connor talked about mutual friends in town, along with how the restaurant was doing. Her mom chimed into their conversation occasionally while Paige and her husband, Weston, discussed current events and business with their dad.

Molly and Tessa’s mom chatted about school and summer plans, but Tessa couldn’t help noticing that Zoe remained relatively quiet, only poking at her food instead of eating it. No one else seemed to pick up on Zoe’s strange mood, but then again, Tessa had always had a special bond where Zoe was concerned.

At one point during the meal, she was able to stretch her leg under the table and knock Zoe’s foot with her own. The six-year-old looked up, startled, and met Tessa’s gaze. Tessa winked, and Zoe grinned. She experienced some relief at the sight. Zoe had lost one of her baby teeth a month ago, and there was still a small hole where her adult tooth hadn’t quite filled in yet.

Tessa leaned back as she finished the last bite of her dinner, feeling full and a little sleepy after the long day. Rufus had loyally curled up next to her chair, and she reached down to pat him as a reward for his quiet behavior during the meal. As she straightened, Connor stood and cleared his throat.

Around the table, everyone’s attention shifted to him.

“I made something special for dessert since today, Grace turns three months old.”

Tessa felt a tug in her chest. Her eyes fell to Harper, who was cradling her infant daughter in her arms. A stab of jealousy struck her directly in the stomach, decimating any desire for dessert, no matter what delicious dish Connor had cooked up.

“And I just wanted to take this opportunity to say how thankful I am to be part of this family. As you know, my mom died when I was still a lad, and my father’s been gone for several years now…” Connor trailed off, his Irish accent more pronounced as his voice filled with emotion. Harper used her free hand to reach out and grab Connor’s.

“Aye, well.” He sniffed. “I am a very blessed man.” He looked down at Harper with a smile that was achingly sweet. “I have a loving, supportive wife. And I never thought I could be so lucky as to have twogorgeous daughters.” He winked at Molly before his eyes came to rest on Grace, who slept like an angel in her mother’s arms.

“So before I bring out dessert, I just wanted to offer up an Irish blessing.” He reached for his glass and raised it. The rest of the family followed suit, except for Zoe, who yawned and leaned against Tessa’s side.

“May your troubles be less,” Connor said, “and your blessings be more, and nothing but happiness come through your door.”

The rest of the family voiced their agreement with these words and drank to little Grace and all the blessings of family.

And while Tessa sipped from her water glass right along with them, she couldn’t help feeling removed from her family’s joy. Because how could she share in their happiness when the one thing she’d always wanted—a biological child of her own—could never be hers?

* * * *

NOAH SCANNED THE common area of the assisted care facility for his father-in-law. He found him by the window, staring out at the courtyard. Noah felt a moment of hope that his father-in-law was aware of the beauty of the day. But as he approached, his wishful thinking dissipated. There was no awareness in the other man’s eyes. Only a blank, unseeing stare.

“Hey, John,” he greeted, dropping a hand onto the other man’s shoulder and squeezing by way of greeting. “How are you today?”

John said nothing. Not that Noah had expected him to. The stroke had rendered him catatonic.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Noah said. “Why don’t we go outside?”

Since John could neither agree nor protest, Noah took hold of the wheelchair and navigated the older man into the courtyard. When they were outside, he made sure to tuck the blanket tightly around John’s hips. The spring weather was pleasant, bright with sunshine and only a very mild breeze, but Noah knew how quickly his father-in-law could become cold. He pushed him around the concrete walkway until they reached the opposite side of the courtyard, where a bench awaited. He parked John beside it and sat down.

“I see the daffodils are blooming,” he remarked. “I know those have always been some of your favorites. There are several planted along a walkway at the hospital, and whenever I see them, I think of you.” He drew a breath. “You’d love the landscaping there. In fact, you’d probably keep the staff tied up for hours, telling them facts about different flowers. I remember the first time we met, and you kept me out in your garden forever, just talking about plants. I was so petrified to be meeting Julia’s parents that I hardly said two words, and you just kept talking about soil acidity and compost techniques.” He chuckled softly at the memory.

John kept starting straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to the beauty of the day as well as Noah’s conversation. Noah sighed, humor evaporating, and leaned back on the bench.

“Speaking of the hospital—they’ve brought on some new marketing coordinator. Her name’s Tessa. She and I are supposed to work together to elevate the hospital’s reputation and my role there.” He made a face even though he knew John wouldn’t register it. “Can’t they see it for the distraction it is? My focus is patients, not publicity. That’s what they hired this Tessa woman to do. Let her worry about garnering public awareness and leave me to do my job.”

He stood and started to pace. “The first time we met, she made me spill my coffee all over myself. I had to go back home to change, so I was late getting to the hospital. And then she tried to tell me how I should talk to my patients.” He shook his head. “In any case, it’s not my job to worry about publicity. My patients need my undivided attention. All it takes is one wrong judgment call, one distraction, and it could cost a child their life.”

He stopped suddenly, the weight of these words settling around his heart, reminding him of Ginny. He sank back onto the bench. John didn’t so much as twitch, and for that, Noah was grateful. He would give anything to restore his father-in-law to awareness, but that was a selfish wish. 

He envied John his ability to block out the world and the memories of all they had lost. How pleasant it would be to forget, to be blissfully ignorant of the disease and death that had stolen all that he loved most in this world. And while it might have been nice to speak with the other man once more, Noah thought it was better this way. Let John have his catatonic peace. It was the only thing left to him. At least Noah still had his battle with the disease that had taken his daughter…and, indirectly, his wife. It was a distraction, but it was rarely enough to silence the guilt and grief completely.

“It doesn’t happen often,” Noah whispered, “but sometimes, I’ll get so involved with a patient that I forget. I forget how I lost her. In some ways, I wish it happened more.” He closed his eyes, letting the sun warm his face and fighting back tears. “Is that wrong, do you think? That there are moments I just want to forget? Not forget Ginny or Julia, really, but just to have a bit of respite from the grief?”

He opened his eyes. “But I suppose it iswrong. My memories are my punishment. I don’t deserve to forget, do I? Why should I when I’m still here, and they’re gone?”

He swallowed. “There are days when I hate Julia for doing what she did. And there are other days when I envy her. I wish I’d been able to find the courage to do the same thing.” He paused. “But that’s not right. I’m here because I have to make amends. I need to save the others even if I couldn’t save Ginny.”

The burden of this confession overwhelmed him. It brought no relief to speak it aloud. John’s eyes had slipped closed, and Noah wasn’t sure if he was asleep or simply resting. It didn’t matter. He prayed that John had peace now, even if Noah didn’t. That would have to be enough.

* * * *

THE DAY AFTER Tessa’s first interaction with Dr. Noah Brennan, she purposely avoided him. She knew Ana wanted them to work together, but she wasn’t up to dealing with the man’s disapproval. She used her morning in other ways instead, writing up several grant applications on the hospital’s behalf and getting a start on the email campaign she had in the works.

Tessa kept the door to her office closed, and to her relief, Ana didn’t pop in to check on her. She liked her new boss, but she didn’t need more pressure where the hospital’s all-star doctor was concerned. By noon, however, Tessa was ravenous. She’d had no appetite that morning, so she’d skipped her early walk with Rufus and hadn’t had her tea latte. Before heading out the door, she’d grabbed a tea bag, and later found a crumbled packet of crackers, two mints and a sealed snack bag of gummy bears that she kept for Zoe and Molly in her purse. It had made for a poor breakfast, and now her stomach was rumbling so loudly she feared the sound of it would draw Ana to her anyway.

By 12:07, she knew she had to give up and venture to the hospital commons. She hoped she wouldn’t run into Ana and have to answer questions as to how she and Dr. Brennan were getting on. She grabbed her wallet, peeking her head out of the office before she made a dash for the main lobby of the hospital and then followed the walkway to the atrium that housed the commons cafeteria.

It was peak lunch hour, and the tables were filled with visitors, nurses, doctors and other staff members. Feeling like the new kid at school, Tessa got into the line and waited, scanning the area for free seats. She could always take her lunch back to her office, but it would be far easier to hide out here, with so many people. Tessa had noticed that Ana often worked through her break, so it was probably safer to be out of her office at the moment. 

Once she had her chicken Caesar salad and fruit cup, she looked for a place to sit. She perked up when she saw a small table with only one other occupant. She headed in the direction of the vacant seat, hoping the diner would be willing to share their spot. She was nearly upon the table before she recognized the person sitting there.

Dr. Noah Brennan. She stifled a groan. Then again, if she wanted to keep this job, maybe she should make an effort to get to know him a little better. As she was working up the courage to sit, he looked up and met her eye. She forced a smile, the decision made for her. “Mind if I join you?” she asked, gesturing with her head to the empty seat.

His expression didn’t change, nor did he respond for what felt like a full minute. But then he dipped his head, and she moved forward to slide into the vacant chair.

“Thank you,” she offered. They were both silent for a few minutes.

Tessa picked at her salad, realizing her appetite had disappeared. She felt awkward and miserable and again marveled at Dr. Brennan’s utter lack of people skills. How were they going to work together when they couldn’t even sit at the same table without the atmosphere becoming uncomfortable?

She put her fork down and shifted to face him.

“I feel like we got off on the wrong foot,” she said. “I’m sorry about how I spoke to you yesterday and for what happened at the Lighthouse Café.”

He didn’t respond, but she noticed something in his posture, an easing of the shoulders, so she took it as a good sign and continued.

“I adopted Rufus—that’s my dog—a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still training him.” She smiled at the thought of her pet. “Rufus has a good heart, but sometimes, he gets a little too excited…especially when food is involved.” She chuckled to herself. “You should have seen him at the animal shelter where I worked. He always knew when feeding time was getting close. I swear, that dog has an internal clock. If we were one minute late getting the food to him, he would start barking to remind us.”

She smiled at the memory. Rufus had been overlooked because he was a little homely and he seemed gruff. But the truth was, he was the sweetest dog she’d worked with during her time at the clinic. It was why she’d taken him with her when she left.

“You worked at an animal shelter?”

Dr. Brennan’s voice was so unexpected that it took a moment for it to register that he’d spoken.

“What? Oh. Yes. I mean, I did. Before I got this job.”

He cocked his head, and she felt compelled to justify her experience.

“I worked there for a little less than two years. Before that, I was a pediatric nurse at a physician’s office.”

Dr. Brennan pushed his plate aside and looked at her. His eyes were a dark gray, “storm-tossed,” as she’d read in a novel once. She was struck again, as she’d been in the coffee shop, by how handsome he was.

“That’s quite a shift, from pediatrics to pet care,” he said.

His gaze was curious, and his interest rattled her.

“Not just pet care,” she corrected. “The animal clinic also assists abused animals and finds foster placements. In fact, that’s a large part of what they do.”

He continued to eye her with curiosity. “Still, what caused you to make a change like that? Unless…it wasn’t your choice?” he prompted, arching one eyebrow.

She frowned at his implication.

“It was my choice,” she said firmly. “I had a…crisis of faith, I guess you could say.”

It was the truth, without revealing the details. He waited a beat, then when she didn’t elaborate, he looked away…but not before she witnessed a flash of some emotion in his eyes.

“I see,” was all he said.

She poked at her salad again. “Anyway, after I left pediatrics, I took a step back and decided to work with animals. Then I saw this job opening. During college, I spent summers working at my dad’s investment firm as a marketing intern. I even worked there after college for a few months until I moved to Findlay Roads. I had the qualifications for this kind of role, so I thought I’d give it a shot. And here I am!” she awkwardly declared, her voice too loud on the last few words.

She speared a piece of lettuce and forced herself to take a bite.

“How about you?” she asked in an attempt to be conversational.

Dr. Brennan’s head whipped back in her direction but he said nothing.

“How did you end up here?” she asked.

Instead of replying, he stood and gathered up the remains of his half-eaten lunch. She swallowed, the lettuce sticking in her throat.

“The same as you. I gave it a shot. Here I am.”

The clipped reply struck her harder than it should have. She was obviously being dismissed. She felt the sting of rejection. She had only been trying to build a bridge between them, since they had to work together.

She made one more effort to get past whatever dislike Dr. Brennan had for her.

“I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?”

He tossed his wadded-up napkin onto his tray.

“No.”

The denial did nothing to reassure her.

“Dr. Brennan, I have apologized for yesterday, but if I have done something else to offend you, I would prefer you tell me. Like it or not, we have to work together, and I think it’s best if we make an effort to get along.”

He fixed her with a cool stare, but she refused to be cowed by him. She stared right back.

“I’m here to do a job,” he said, “and distractions like marketing are detrimental to the care of my patients. I understand we need to work together, but you and I don’t have to be best friends in order to do that. We’re both professionals, and I expect we can manage just fine on that level.”

Her cheeks were flaming with embarrassment and anger by the time he was finished. She had never met anyone so presumptive, so arrogant. She stood to her feet as well, disliking how he still loomed over her.

“I suppose we can,” she returned, keeping her own tone cool, “but I’ll remind you that the very definition of ‘working together’ implies  cooperation. I haven’t been here long enough to see how you run your department, Doctor, but you don’t strike me as much of a team player. So may I remind you that a medical community is just that—a community. We rely on each other, elevate each other and encourage one another. But especially, we work hand in hand to provide the best care possible to our patients. You say marketing is a detriment to your job, but you can’t care for those kids without help from others. You are not their one and only savior. Therefore, I’ll expect you to be an active participant in whatever scenario I present you with.”

He blinked, looking surprised. She didn’t blame him. She’d shocked herself with that little speech. She wasn’t naturally a forceful person. In her family, that was usually Paige. And, if pressed, maybe Harper. But never Tessa. Apparently, Noah Brennan had brought it out of her.

“The next time I see you, Dr. Brennan, I hope you have a very different attitude than the one I’ve seen thus far.”

She picked up her lunch tray, and with one last glance at Noah Brennan’s startled expression, she turned on her heel and left.