Luke by Jill Shalvis

Chapter 1

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The two nearly naked babes frolicked in the waves only yards away and Luke Walker yawned. Yawned.

Oh, definitely, he was on the edge of burnout. On the edge and skating on thin ground. Behind him stood his home on the Malibu bluffs. In front of him were the bikini babes.

And inside him … exhaustion. Actually, he was far beyond exhaustion and heading straight for brain dead, but who was keeping track?

Unfortunately, even sleep couldn't help him, not today, not when every time he closed his eyes, he transported himself back.

Blood soaking his hands, splattering across his scrubs as he knelt on the moving gurney next to the far-too-still six-year-old boy. Orderlies racing them down the hallway towards surgery as Luke barked orders, held the boy's wound shut and prayed to a God he wasn't sure could hear him.

"So why aren't you down there frolicking with the babes?"

At the heavily Spanish accented voice, Luke groaned and opened his eyes. Carmen DeCosta took great pleasure in thinking she knew him well enough to boss him around. She stood there with her hands on her ample hips, waiting for an answer.

Was everyone going to give him that bug-on-a-slide look today? "Don't go there," he warned. "I'm trying to take a breather here."

"Good. You don't do that enough." With a spryness that belied her chunkiness, the dark-haired, dark-skinned—or should he say thick-skinned—woman dropped to the sand next to him, apparently taking a break from her duties cleaning his house to offer him her opinions on his life. Nothing new. She liked to boss him around. She liked to fuss over him as well, and he knew she thought of herself as a surrogate mother since his own was gone.

But he didn't need one. Actually, he'd never needed one. And yet somehow he'd never managed to convince her of that.

He looked out at the pounding surf, at the ridiculous bikinied beach babes, and saw nothing but Dr. Leo Atkinson from South Village Medical Center frowning at him. Luke was head of the E.R., but Leo was head of surgery. He was also director of all the various department heads. So while technically they were peers, Leo, sitting on the hospital board and also town council, had far more power. Which was fine with Luke, who just wanted to be left alone to heal people, not navigate the bullshit, ass-kissing waters that was hospital politics.

You went too far, Luke, Leo had said. You're a marketing nightmare, and now, unfortunately, something has to be done or you won't be named E.R. Head again in this century.

He was referring, of course, to when Luke had let out a statement regarding the idiocracy of the bureaucrats running their hospital after he'd learned they'd helped fund Healing Waters Clinic, a place where conventional medicine wasn't even practiced.

The comment had been leaked to the press, who'd gleefully reported it in the Los Angeles Times and The South Village Press, among others. The fallout had been immediate. The owner of the clinic had called the hospital board, who'd gone to Leo, who'd gone to Luke.

Fix it. Retract the statement.

Not that easy. To Luke things were black and white. Give him a medical emergency and he could either fix it or not. Mostly he could.

No gray areas, no middle ground.

But Healing Waters Clinic… They worked in that gray area with aromatherapy, massage therapy, acupressure … yoga.

That the board funded such a place when the hospital turned away patients who couldn't pay, patients who legitimately needed their help, was asinine.

In his humble opinion.

Which wasn't so humble, apparently. He was going to be punished for his outburst. In the worst way possible.

"It's just the way it is," Leo had said in only slight apology. "You're amazing with your patients, but when it comes to everyone else—the board, your staff, everyone—they say you're a nightmare, and even I have to agree. You've got to learn to soften your approach, Luke, or good as you are, you're going to get your walking papers. In light of that, you're going to volunteer your services at the Healing Waters Clinic every Saturday for three months."

Luke had stared at him for one full moment. "Why don't you just take away my license," he'd finally said. "It would be less painful."

Leo had laughed over that, then slapped him on the back. "Enjoy it, Luke. This is your last chance to prove you're a team player."

A team player. Woo hoo, his biggest goal. Not. He glowered at the ocean, brooding.

"Nice view." Carmen nodded to the bikini crowd.

He shrugged. Damn it, he was a good doctor. A great doctor. That should be all that mattered, not how well he could spin a tale for the press, or appease the people around him.

"So…" Carmen leaned back on her elbows, looking as if she didn't plan on more cleaning anytime soon. "How many patients did you see today?"

Luke sighed. "A lot."

"Any interesting female patients? Say … someone interesting enough to date?"

Why was it a single man was always such an irresistible setup? "Why?"

"Because one of them left you some cookies. Must have made a huge impression on her, Dr. Luke."

One big wave after another hit the shore, causing shrieks of joy from the bathing beauties. Luke inhaled the salt air, then slowly let it out.

"Don't you want to know who left the cookies? Let me help you remember. Blond, tall, gorgeous. And…" Carmen cupped her hands out in front of her chest. "Stacked."

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