Some days Patrick MacNeill hated doctors. The whole know-it-all, knows-best profession. He hated his dependence on their schedules almost as much as he hated his need for their expertise. He'd measured away too much of the last four years on the smug, uninformative faces of waiting-room clocks.
Pacing the rows of blue and green upholstered chairs, he glanced again at the clock over the nurses' station. Swaim was already twenty minutes late. Patrick wondered if their appointment with the reconstructive surgeon would even last that long. But after two years of hospital stays and another two of routine physicals, this examination was a necessary preliminary to the surgery Jack needed. And whatever his boy needed, Patrick would make damn sure he got.
"Daddy? I'm finished."
The impatience knotting Patrick's chest dissolved. He strode toward the child-sized table and chairs occupying one corner of the room.
"Yeah? Let me see."
The four-year-old pushed his art pad toward a corner of the table, angling it so his father could see. Patrick leaned over, dropping a hand to Jack's shoulder as he studied the picture.
Eagles. His son had drawn eagles, carefully detailed and purposely composed: a nest at the top of a vertical cliff, three small bald heads with open beaks and a taloned adult with meticulously rendered feathers hanging in the sky above. At Jack's age, Patrick suspected, he'd still been drawing balloon-headed stick men and endless pictures of airplanes like hotdogs with wings.
He cleared his throat, gently tightening his grip on the small, sharp bones and growing muscle under his palm. "Well, now. That looks fine."
Jack's hand, still curled from clutching his crayons, pointed. "That's the daddy eagle with the fish."
"I can see that. It looks good, buddy."
The boy tilted back his head and grinned at his dad from under the brim of his baseball cap. "How about great?
"Great, huh?" Patrick rubbed the side of his nose, pretending to consider. "Yeah, okay. I think we can say this one looks great."
Jack giggled with satisfaction.
A crisp, feminine voice broke in on their rapport. "Mr. MacNeill? Can you come this way, please."
Patrick looked up. A pretty nurse in the loose white coat and scrubs worn by all the burn center staff stood in the open doorway. The sexy softness of her body under the oversize jacket contrasted pleasantly with her cool, tart voice and sharp, intelligent eyes. Surprised with himself for noticing-it had been years since he'd looked at a female with even passing interest-Patrick scooped up his son's art tablet.
"Okay, Jack-o, put away your crayons."
The nurse frowned slightly. "Please. We're running behind schedule this morning."
Patrick raised his eyebrows. "We noticed," he said, and had the pleasure of watching her flush. He waited until Jack had his crayons neatly aligned in their box before giving him a gentle push toward the door. "Let's go."
The nurse preceded them down the hall to the examining rooms, her curling light brown hair bouncing with indignation. Patrick followed, admiring the gentle sway of her backside under the limp white coat. He allowed himself a grin at his own expense. Obviously his libido was trying to make up for lost time. The little bossy nurse wasn't even his type, nothing at all like...Holly.
His heart clenched at the memory of his late wife. With practiced discipline, he shoved the vision into a closet in his mind and slammed the door.
"This way, please."
The nurse stood aside to admit them to a narrow box with hospital-approved art on hospital blue walls: anatomical diagrams and a photocopied warning to the staff to wash their hands.
"Yucky pictures," Jack commented.
Patrick heard his son's need for reassurance. "Absolutely."
Surprisingly, the nurse laughed, her face softening as she focused on Jack. "They are pretty awful, aren't they? I've been after them to get some real pictures for ages. Up on the table now."
With approval, Patrick noted she didn't try to lift the boy but let him climb up unaided. Patrick sat in the small, uncomfortable chair provided for parents, folding his long legs under the seat to avoid tripping the nurse.
"So tell me why you're here," she invited.
He opened his mouth to reply. He didn't see what good it would do-they were here to keep their appointment with Swaim, obviously-but he knew the medical drill by now. Give a history and another and another, until you finally gave it to the one person who could do something to help you.
"I have a scar," Jack piped up.
It didn't need pointing out. Patrick waited for the nurse to falter, to make some mistake, but her expression was only mildly interested. "Mmm. That's what it says on your chart. Do you mind if I have a look?"
Jack shook his head vigorously. "No." He pulled off his baseball cap.
It looked better, Patrick thought, with the detachment of experience and a father's foolish hope. And it could have been so much worse. Jack had sight in both eyes and a smile and a nose. He had eyelashes and one and a half eyebrows. A clear plastic mask worn in the first year had flattened the worst facial scars on his left cheek. His left ear was deformed, and he probably would never grow a full head of hair on that side. What he had, a soft, dark fuzz, was cut short.
"Like a fighter pilot," Patrick had told him. "Like mine."
The nurse approached the table, smiling as she touched a finger to the discarded cap. "So you're a Durham Bulls fan. Do you go to a lot of games?"
Releasing his breath, Patrick gave the nurse points for her matter-of-fact approach. Jack hated to be treated like a baby. Which was fine, but where the hell was the doctor?
Jack tilted his head to give the nurse better access to his ear. "Some. My dad takes me."
Patrick stood. "Excuse me, but when is Dr. Swaim coming in?"
The curly-haired woman flushed, looking suddenly younger and less self-possessed. "I'm sorry. I should have introduced myself. Dr. Swaim had to go out of town. I'm Dr. Kathryn Sinclair."
Not a nurse. Another doctor. And he'd just offended her with his unthinking assumption. Damn. He didn't mind alienating members of the medical profession, but he needed her cooperation.
Patrick wanted-Jack needed-to see Swaim. The reconstructive surgery Jack's doctor had proposed would take several operations spaced weeks apart. Patrick wanted it over and done with before Jack started kindergarten in the fall.
He accepted the hand this substitute doctor held out to him, noting it was small and strong and cool. A nice hand, for a doctor or a woman. "When is Dr. Swaim coming back?"
"I don't know." She inhaled once, sharply, and then favored him with a practiced doctor-to-patient smile. "Mr. MacNeill, I'm sorry about the confusion. We're short-staffed this morning. But I assure you I'm well qualified to examine Jack. I've been studying medicine for almost fourteen years, the last two as a senior fellow in reconstructive surgery at this hospital. I did my pediatrics training at Auburn. There is nothing Dr. Swaim could do for you this morning that I can't."
Patrick ran his hand through his hair. "Look, Dr....?"
"Dr. Sinclair." He committed it to memory. "I'm not questioning your qualifications. But I don't think anybody, however well trained, can schedule another doctor's surgery. Particularly when she doesn't know when that doctor's coming back."
The curly-haired doctor frowned, glancing at Jack. Bored with the adults' conversation, he'd opened his crayon case and sprawled on his stomach, drawing on the white protective roll that covered the examining table. His sneakers, enormous on the ends of his thin legs, waved in the air.
"What surgery?" Dr. Sinclair asked.
Patrick sighed. He'd known this was a waste of time. "Jack's."
"No, I mean... What type of surgery?"
Surprised he had to spell it out for her, Patrick said, "Multistage reconstruction on the external ear. Cosmetic work on the cheek."
"Now? At his age?"
The concern in her voice lifted the fine hairs on the back of Patrick's neck like a red indicator light flicking on in the cockpit. "Is there some reason why he shouldn't have this surgery at this age?"
"Well, I..." She bit her lip.
He should have kept his mouth shut. Faced with a direct opportunity to disagree with one of her colleagues, the pretty little doctor closed medical ranks. He understood and admired loyalty, but at the moment hers was damned inconvenient.
She adjusted the stethoscope around her neck. "As you say, your son is Dr. Swaim's patient. I'm sure there's a sound medical reason for Dr. Swaim's decision."
"But it wouldn't be yours," Patrick guessed. He didn't know why he was trying to pin her down. Swaim was the director of the burn center. He'd treated Jack since the accident. This woman, wherever she'd been educated, however she'd been trained, was barely older than he was. She couldn't match Swaim's experience.
"I didn't say that. So." She left off fussing with the thing around her neck to shove her hands deep in the pockets of her white lab coat. "I'll have the nurse call you to set up an appointment when Dr. Swaim returns."
That suited Patrick fine. He wasn't getting anywhere with the lady doctor. In any way. "That'll be fine. Come on, buddy. Hop on down."
Jack sat up, the paper crinkling under him. "That's it?"
The doctor's face softened. "That's it."
"Aren't you gonna..."
"Cool." Jack jumped off the table, his sneakers hitting the floor with a double thump.
The two adults smiled at one another. She had a pretty smile, Patrick thought. Nice teeth. Big brown eyes alive with intelligent humor. Annoyed with himself for noticing, he concentrated on Jack.
"Don't forget your drawing stuff."
Importantly, Jack hurried back to the table and began to brush his crayons into the bright yellow box. By the door, Patrick shifted his weight, impatient to be gone.
"How long has he been doing that?" the doctor asked quietly.'
Patrick straightened. "What?"
She nodded toward Jack. "Using his right hand like that."
Patrick watched closely as Jack flicked the last two crayons into the box and snapped the lid. He couldn't see anything wrong. "Like what?"
"His fingers are curled."
Patrick's heart jerked as he stared at his son's fingers. They weren't. They were fine. Scarred, sure, but straight. There had been a whole set of operations for function right after the accident. The tendon damage caused by the fire had healed.
"He always holds them like that," he said dismissively. "He's just tired. He was drawing before we came in."
Jack bumped into his legs, tugging at the pad of paper under his arm. "Do you want to see?"
She blinked. "All right. Please."
Proudly, Jack paged through his art pad and held it up. So the kid had taken a shine to the lady doctor, Patrick thought. So what? It was nice of her to take an interest. That didn't mean they had to see her again.
"That's excellent. I like the way you drew the feathers. Lots of detail."
"Do you want to keep it?"
Dr. Sinclair looked uncertainly at Patrick. He shrugged.
"Thank you," she said gravely. "I'd like that very much."
She didn't hug the boy, Patrick thought, the way Holly would have had she lived, the way his own mother might. Holly had been generous with spontaneous gestures of affection. Bridget MacNeill, Patrick's mother, was as openhanded with hugs as with spankings. He wondered if the doctor just wasn't naturally warm-natured or if she worried the kid might have something contagious. A doctor might think like that. Jack didn't appear to notice.
"Bye," he said, turning at the door.
She smiled then. She really did have nice teeth. "Goodbye." Over the child's head, her eyes met Patrick's. "I'll, um, speak to Dr. Swaim as soon as he gets back."
It was what he wanted, wasn't it? Only the best for his boy. So why, as he watched the doctor sashay down the hall in her sexless baggy coat, was he aware of a faint feeling of disappointment?