The Doctor's Date
Dr. Owen “the Ogre” Gagnon is infamous for his hospital hallway fights with human resources director Erin Andreas, so everyone is shocked when Erin bids an obscene amount of money to win a date with Owen in the hospital bachelor auction. When Owen ups the ante by demanding Erin move in with him, everyone in Copper Point wants to know what’s going on. All Erin wants is for Owen to distract his overbearing father while he handles a delicate internal investigation, but struggles with his father bring up shadows from Owen’s past and send him into an overprotective frenzy. Owen wants to be the hero Erin has never had in his life, but to his frustration, Erin has no interest in being saved. Somewhere along the line, this fake relationship has become real, but they can’t have a happy ever after until they put their respective demons to rest.
WHEN OWEN Gagnon’s friend Simon came by his house and asked him to be part of the hospital bachelor auction Valentine’s Day fundraiser, he simply snorted and resumed arguing on an online political board.
Unfortunately Simon wasn’t easily deterred. “Come on. We’re short so many volunteers, and it’s for a good cause. We need this cardiac unit.”
Owen continued to type. “Then you and loverboy sign up.”
“Hong-Wei and I can’t. They want unmarried men.”
“You and Jack aren’t married yet.” Owen waggled his eyebrows. “Get on the stage, and **I’ll bid for you.”
Simon swatted him. “They don’t want married **or engaged men. Jared’s already said yes. I need one more volunteer and I’ll have met my quota for the committee.”
“This is sexist as hell, only asking men. Why can’t they do a gender-neutral auction?”
With a sigh, Simon sat beside him. “I know, but I’ve about sprained my back trying to yank the rudder on this ship so we stay away from insensitive areas. You wouldn’t believe some of the racist, sexist, homophobic things these people wanted to do for a fundraiser.”
“I would absolutely believe it.” Owen ran a finger down Simon’s nose. “Which is why I’m steering clear.”
“Please, Owen. I didn’t ask you to be part of the entertainment committee like I did Hong-Wei. I just need you to stand on stage for ten minutes while people bid on a date with you for charity.”
Owen closed the laptop. “First of all, Jack loves performing, so it’s no hardship. I assume your fiancé is playing with his damn quartet?”
“You could be in the quartet too. Ram keeps saying he’d make it a quintet if you came in as the other violin. He can play cello and double bass too.” Simon bit his lip. “I don’t know the whole story on why you don’t want to play anymore, but it has been a long time—”
Owen held up a hand, unwilling to let Simon see how the simple mention of the violin made him queasy. “I’m not joining Ram’s strings club, and I won’t be auctioned off for a date. Don’t start a sob story about the cardiac unit either. No one is going to bid on me if you put me on the block.”
Simon’s blush said this hiccup had occurred to him. “It’s not only for dates. People can ask for favors or things. Plus I have a plan.”
Oh hell. “Absolutely not. I’m not standing on stage so you and Jack can pity bid on me or so some nurse’s aide can get revenge.”
Rising, Owen went for the door, grabbing his coat on the way. “I’m going to work.”
“But we don’t have surgery until ten today.”
“I’m going to sit in the lounge and glare at people until your hubby needs me.”
This was exactly what Owen ended up doing. The house he shared with Jared—which he used to share with Simon and Jared, before Simon went and fell and love—was only a mile from St. Ann’s Medical Center, and three-quarters of a mile from the condo where Jack and Simon lived. It had snowed again the night before, bringing the on-the-ground total to a foot and a half. Damn lake effect snow anyway. The temperature was in the midtwenties, which for the end of January in northern Wisconsin was practically balmy. He considered walking, but since half the sidewalks were undoubtedly still not cleared, he drove.
He met Simon’s fiancé, Dr. Wu—Hong-Wei to Simon, Jack to everyone else—in the parking lot. Jack was huddled into his hat and scarf and shivering. “Owen, how are you not freezing?”
“Because this isn’t cold.”
Jack, born in Taiwan and living in Houston until last year, grunted as he hustled to the door. He held it for Owen, which was nice of him.
It was also suspicious.
Owen cast a side glance at him. “You’re here early for Monday. Since you didn’t have call this weekend, you don’t have any patients to see in rounds.”
“Need to go over a few files before surgery.”
Something fishy was definitely going on, and Owen was sure Jack was here because Simon had sent him to fulfill the mission he’d failed on. “I’m killing some time before surgery, so I guess I’ll see you later.”
Jack waved as they parted ways, Owen heading for the elevator, Jack the clinic entrance.
In the lounge, Owen surveyed the paper over coffee, reading the minutes of the most recent hospital board meeting, scanning an editorial that questioned where the funding had gone for the proposed cardiac program. Two of the visiting specialists were in the room with him, the speech therapist and the podiatrist. They were having a pleasant chat near the soda machine, but after a glare from Owen, they changed it to a hushed conversation. Two family medicine doctors entered, guffawing about something; then one of them shushed the other. “Gagnon’s here.”
Owen smiled behind his paper. He enjoyed his reputation as the resident pariah. It allowed him to live his life in peace.
The door opened again, and this time Jack entered. Owen groaned and slid deeper behind his paper.
Jack waved at the other doctors and returned their polite greetings before settling beside Owen. “Don’t mind me.” He tugged at the edge of the local news section. “Anything good?”
“The usual nonsense. Someone is up in arms about the cardiac unit, convinced the fundraiser won’t bring in enough money because there’s some kind of backroom conspiracy. Someone wrote a letter to the editor about the mine ruining the environment, and someone else wrote how we need more jobs. Then there’s one complaining about whoever is kicking over his garbage cans.”
Jack looked bemused. “I’ll never get over small towns.”
Owen pretended to read the paper a little longer, then folded it. “I’m tired of waiting. Ask me to take part in the auction so I can tell you no.”
Jack stared back implacably. “I wasn’t going to ask because I knew you’d say no.”
“Seriously, you can stand down. Obviously I’m not going to participate, but I’ll help Si find someone to fill his quota.”
Jack shrugged. “Don’t worry. I’m looking.”
“You don’t need to. I can do it, I said.”
Jack glanced around the room at the other doctors, who regarded Owen with unease and Jack with respect bordering on awe. “I think it’ll be better if you leave it to me.”
Oh, now Owen was going to find Simon’s last person for sure.
He left the lounge and wandered the halls, ignoring the way the nursing staff scuttled away from him. That was nothing new. He scanned every man he encountered, doctors and nurses both, for potential bachelor auction candidates. He was immediately hampered, though, by several factors. Jack was right, his pariah status did him no favors. Also, he had no idea who was already roped into the thing or who was working the night of the fundraiser and therefore was out of commission.
The thought of Jack’s knowing smirk sent Owen grumbling to the third floor and the administration offices, where he tried the most obvious and therefore clearly stupid get, the hospital CEO, Nick Beckert.
Beckert was in his office, and he happily waved Owen inside. He grinned sadly when Owen asked if he could pin him down for the auction. “I was the first one they put on the list, I hate to tell you. But why are **you asking me? I didn’t think you were on the recruiting committee.”
“I’m not. I was recruited, and I’m trying to find a replacement.”
Nick lifted his eyebrows and whistled low. “Good luck. From what I hear, everyone else has either been called up, is on shift, or is ineligible.”
Good grief. “How is that possible? Also, why is this limited only to men, by the way?”
“Because the planning committee is short on imagination and big on words like traditional values. If I’d known you were this invested, I would’ve put you on the team.”
Owen held up his hands. “I’m fine helping find the last victim, thanks. There’s got to be at least one single male who isn’t on shift. I need to know who’s already signed up and who isn’t eligible.”
“You’ll need to talk to Erin.”
“Speaking of Andreas, how come he’s not on the list?”
“On what grounds?” Owen sat up straighter. “His father didn’t finally coerce him into an engagement, did he?”
“No. But he’s recused as a committee member.”
Owen eased back, annoyed at his heart for kicking up a notch at the idea of Erin engaged. “That’s ridiculous. Why can’t committee members be on the auction block?”
“I did tell you this was an interesting group. The only rudders we had were Erin and Simon, and Erin wasn’t supposed to participate, simply ensure the evening ran smoothly.” Nick grimaced. “Between you and me, it’s just as well he couldn’t be asked to be auctioned off. His father would have arranged for something uncomfortable.”
True. After all they owed Erin for, Owen would have ended up bidding on him to get him out of his father’s clutches, which would’ve made Erin furious.
Actually, now Owen was mad he couldn’t do this.
Owen sighed. “This whole Valentine’s Day fundraiser is ridiculous. Why aren’t they doing a tired old dinner on a random weekend in March the way they usually do?”
“Because **someone stood up in front of the board and declared we were going to do things differently. And now we’re doing things differently. All of the things. Incredibly differently.” Nick pushed his glasses higher on his nose. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a mountain of work to finish before the board meeting.”
Owen wanted to sit and argue with Nick longer, but he knew he’d get nowhere. The hospital CEO was cautious, though Owen understood why. He’d been brought on after the former president embezzled money from the hospital, but his predecessor had been chummy with the present hospital board, so they resented Nick at every turn. Additionally, his family had moved to Copper Point when he was young, and his father had joined and left the board in a scandal in the nineties. Though Nick had done everything he could to prove himself, plenty of people in town still saw him as a member of an enemy camp. Nick couldn’t help Owen. He had enough work to do helping himself.
Owen could feel the writing on the wall about this stupid fundraiser. He was annoyed, and he wanted to argue. He wanted to snarl at someone without having to worry about being polite. If he was called a demon or a dragon or a devil or a monster or an ogre, he wanted it to be done with a glint in his accuser’s eye, not a tinge of fear.
In short, he wanted to spar, and he knew exactly who he needed to see.
Simply pushing his way into Erin Andreas’s office, taking in the ridiculously neat room, gave Owen a satisfying rush of annoyance. Nick’s office was tidy, but it had a reasonable amount of lived-in clutter: overflowing inboxes, forgotten coffee cups, unopened mail in piles on filing cabinets, yesterday’s blazer folded in a casual heap over the arm of a chair. Not Erin’s workspace. It looked as if someone had gone across the bookshelves with a ruler and made sure the books and binders lined up, not a single one of them sticking out farther than the other, the decorative knickknacks on top drab and soulless, yanked from some design catalog—but perfectly arranged. There were three plants in the window spaced evenly across, neatly trimmed, not a dead leaf among them. The desk was clear of everything but Erin’s ubiquitous laptop and a wire pencil holder—containing only crisply sharpened pencils—a pencil sharpener devoid of shavings, a desk lamp tilted at a ninety-degree angle, and of course his inbox. The papers and files inside of it were stacked in such incredible alignment they looked like a single unit.
In the middle of the scene was the man himself, Erin Andreas, human resources director. He’d arrived almost two years ago to work at St. Ann’s, but in the mindset of Copper Point, he was still new, especially since the previous HR director had held the position for twenty-five years. Erin wore the same prim heather gray suit he always did, with the same pristine white shirt. Only the tie changed, and not much. Today it was dark gray, almost black. It didn’t suit him at all, though it did match the desk. The suit choked Erin’s petite frame and made most of his body blend into his desk chair, giving the illusion he’d been strapped into it by invisible threads.
The only thing about the man that didn’t fit the corporate image was his hair, which was curly and too long, resting in unruly ringlets around his ears and brushing his collar. The ringlets shone in the fluorescent overhead lighting, and as always Owen had the juvenile urge to tug at one and make it bounce. He managed to refrain, but his gaze trailed them, and he knew a whisper of delight as one caught the edge of Erin’s collar and another boinged against his eyebrows as he lifted his head.
A kick hit Owen in his belly as his opponent’s eyes ignited with fire. Finally.
Erin pursed his lips. “Is there any hope you will ever learn to knock?”
Owen shut the door and plunked with deliberate heaviness in the chair opposite Erin’s desk, knocking it out of its careful alignment. He purred inwardly as Erin’s annoyance ticked up a notch.
He kept his pleasure from his face as he laced his fingers over his chest. “What’s going to change if I rap my knuckles on the door?”
“I’ll tell you to go away because I’m busy.”
“Precisely why I don’t knock.”
The curls boinged again as Erin leaned over the top of his computer. “Did you have some purpose in coming here today, or is this playground-bully routine your way of telling me our resident anesthesiologist needs more work assigned to him?”
Oh yes, this was precisely what Owen had come for. Narrowing his eyes, he gave Erin a thin, menacing smile. “I have a bone to pick with you about this ridiculous auction.”
Flinching, Erin lowered his eyes to his computer screen. “I don’t have any authority over that. I’m only on the committee.”
Owen hesitated, thrown off his game. Okay, what in the hell was that about? This was decidedly not in the script. Thinking he must have stepped in something without realizing it, Owen softened. “I get the concert, the overpriced dinner, the usual crap. Where in God’s name did this auction come from, though, and why is every single male roped into it whether they want to be part of it or not? I’m the last person you want up there. I’m either going to be laughed into the wings or bought up by a cabal of nurses with a grudge.”
This was Erin’s cue to tell Owen to stay out of committee business unless he wanted to sign up and do the work, to remind him everyone in the hospital had to volunteer, to point out he could do this duty since he hadn’t signed up to do anything else. Any of those responses would have been fine and given Owen an excuse to snarl in response again. He was ready for them.
Instead Erin… paled. When he spoke, he didn’t sound irritated half as much as he sounded nervous. “I don’t have time to entertain your pointless questions right now, Dr. Gagnon. If you don’t mind, I want to finish preparing for the meeting. I’m certain you have somewhere else to be.”
Owen was so stunned he had no idea how to respond, could only gape at Erin, who in turn stared at his laptop screen, face flushed.
No acrid rejoinder. No demands Owen leave his office with a heat that said, in fact, he wanted him to stay and keep shouting until they nearly burned down the hospital. Nothing at all.
This was… weird.
There was no denying Erin had been off his game for some time, a little more frazzled around the edges, slightly more inward than normal. It was easy to pinpoint ground zero for his transformation: he’d been the person who’d stood up in front of the hospital board, after all. Except he hadn’t stood. He’d sat defiantly in the middle of the hospital cafeteria, waiting for his father—the hospital board president—to gut him after Erin sent a particularly nuclear staff memo.
This reaction was different, though. Was it about the committee? Owen frowned at Erin, disquiet settling in his gut. Everyone in the hospital rejoiced at the freedom Erin’s reversal of the policy had granted them. How much of the cost had come on Erin’s shoulders?
Had everyone ignored that and left him to face dragons alone? Had Owen done that too?
Well, now he felt like an ass.
Erin glanced up from the computer, saw Owen regarding him with concern, and immediately swapped his hollow expression with an icy glare. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
The disdain was such a relief Owen had to suppress a fist pump. He wanted to ask Erin what was wrong, but he was smart enough not to make a direct line of questioning. “What’s your meeting about?”
Internally he winced—well, that wasn’t a direct question, but it was a ridiculous angle to take. The delivery was too bald, almost politely inquisitive. Now Erin regarded him warily, as if he were a snake about to strike. “My office is not a social lounge. If you don’t have business with me, please leave.”
**Nice save. Owen leaned forward so his elbows rested on his knees. **Think of another topic. Another topic, anything, anything…. “This Valentine’s Day auction is a mess. There’s got to be time to kill it.”
What the fuck was with him? Totally the wrong tone, completely the wrong approach, and the dead worst thing to bring up.
Maybe it would be okay. Maybe he’d pissed Erin off with this out-and-out begging. Maybe he’d fix Owen with an icy smile and tell him off as he’d never been told off. Then everything would be normal again.
Erin shrank into his chair, color draining from his face as he lowered his gaze, his voice going quiet. “The auction is nonnegotiable.”
An ill wind blew over Owen’s neck, and he forgot all about fighting, all about delicately dancing around the topic. “Erin, what is going on with you?”
Erin iced over and aimed a long, slender finger at the door. “Leave.”
“Why are you closing up like this every time I bring up the auction? Why are you barely fighting with me?”
**Why do you look so… lost?
Erin said nothing, and Owen angsted in a conflicted private storm, at a loss over what to do. He’d sparred with Erin since he’d come to St. Ann’s, and they’d never been anything close to friends, but it wasn’t as if he didn’t care about the man as a human being. Particularly since that stunt with the memo, Owen had begun to rethink his stance on Erin Andreas entirely, because clearly this man whom he’d thought of as aligned with the old guard on the board had been an ally all along. For some time now, Owen had wanted to know what other secrets this man was hiding, but it was difficult when their entire relationship was built on arguments.
Looking at Erin now, feeling the fractures in him, Owen had never been more motivated to craft a bridge toward a new understanding between them. What could be the problem? Maybe if he nudged him in the right direction, Erin would loosen up and tell him what was going on.
It wasn’t hard to guess what the problem likely was, the more he thought about it.
“Your father.” Owen hesitated, trying to figure out what to add, then decided that was enough to get started.
Erin didn’t loosen up. “At whatever point you’d like to leave, please do so.”
Owen was so frustrated. “I just want to help. Let me help. You don’t want help?”
He didn’t know if it was an improvement or not, but Erin wasn’t frozen or hollow-looking anymore. He was coldly furious. “Why would I want your help?”
**Yikes. Also, ouch. Owen rubbed his cheek. “Harsh.”
Erin gathered a pile of papers and shuffled them, banging the bottoms with excessive force against the desk. “I’m perfectly fine.”
“That is the biggest line of bull I’ve ever heard. You’re completely wooden, you can barely maintain eye contact with me, and you get weird every time I bring up the auction. Usually you can argue with me until we’re both blue in the face, but you can’t keep up more than a few lines of banter today. Something is wrong.” He pursed his lips. “It’s got to be your father.”
For a moment Owen had him. Erin had softened—and looked at him—when Owen pointed out he couldn’t maintain eye contact, and just before the end, he seemed almost ready to, if not confess the problem, at least admit there was one.
The second Owen said your father, though, he lost him. His cool, dead mask sliding back into place, Erin averted his gaze again. “Leave, or I’ll tell the entertainment committee you’ve volunteered for a violin solo.”
Owen drew back as if he’d been slapped.
Rising, he pushed Erin’s desk light into the most obscene angle possible and exited the office without a word. If he was going to play that kind of dirty pool, he could damn well save himself.