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The Doctor's Return (Heartsong Presents)

By Narelle Atkins

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Megan Bradley inhaled the sweet perfume of a champagne rose in her sister-in-law's garden. "Kate, I love your roses. Jack has outdone himself this time."

Kate smiled. "A belated wedding present but definitely worth the wait."

Megan's brother had planted the rose garden along one side of the newly built home on the family apple farm in Snowgum Creek. After a number of delays, the house had been completed a couple of months ago, but Kate's debilitating morning sickness had postponed their Saturday lunch housewarming until today.

Megan stretched out the muscles in her back, stiff after yesterday's long drive from Sydney. Family and friends gathered on the spacious wooden deck at the back of the sandy brick house overlooking the Snowy Mountains. Only one person was missing—her brother's best friend, Luke Morton. She needed to summon the courage to talk to Luke soon.

She lifted her arms above her head, releasing tension in her shoulders. "As much as I'd love to hide away and chat, we should mingle with your guests."

Kate nodded. "I've been ordered to take it easy. Your mom and Aunt Doris have taken over my kitchen, and Jack is in charge of our new outdoor grill."

Megan straightened the hem of her lilac shirt. "They won't stop fussing over you until the baby arrives." She grinned. "I can't wait to meet my little nephew or niece."

Kate placed her hand on her slightly rounded abdomen. "Hopefully bub won't arrive early. I'd like some time to get settled in the house first."

A black Jeep meandered along a narrow dirt track leading to the house. Megan sucked in a deep breath, her pulse skyrocketing.

Kate lifted a brow. "I told you Luke was coming."

"I know." A busy doctor, Luke Morton had probably been delayed at the Snowgum Creek Medical Clinic. "I need to ask Jack something." She strode toward the back deck, away from Luke, who had parked his Jeep under a gum tree near the front of the house.

Kate followed close on her heels. "You can't run away from him forever."

"I'm not running." She frowned. Who was she kidding? She'd spent eight years trying to forget the events that had transpired the last time she'd seen him. "And I will talk to him today." Assuming he was willing to talk to her.

Megan left Kate chatting with friends and walked over to her brother. Jack stood near the grill on the far side of the deck, a broad smile covering his tanned face. She was glad he'd married her best friend a few years ago, and that he now looked forward to becoming a father later this year.

She breathed in the tantalizing aroma of barbecued beef. "Something smells good." Rib-eye steaks sizzled on the grill.

Jack nodded. "Lunch is nearly ready." He turned over a couple of steaks. "How are you?"

She pasted a bright smile on her face. "I'm fine. A bit tired from the drive yesterday." She'd arrived after dinner, exhausted from her last-minute rush yesterday morning to pack up all her belongings in her Chatswood apartment.

"How long are you visiting with Mom and Dad?"

"I'm not sure." Her family was unaware of her potential job opportunities and the strong possibility she might live in Snowgum Creek for the next twelve months. The longest period she would live in one place since she'd completed her exercise physiology studies in Sydney eight years before.

His lips formed a wry smile. "Luke is heading our way."

Megan spun around and flicked her long dark hair back over her shoulders. Luke's golden-brown eyes met her gaze, his face devoid of emotion as he wove his way through the guests gathering around tables on the deck.

She wiped clammy hands down the sides of her designer-label black fitted pants, holding his gaze and refusing to look away first. Her heart danced to a faster beat as old feelings, long forgotten, washed over her. He was leaner and fitter than she remembered, decked out in a casual shirt and jeans. His face had matured and his honey-brown hair was cropped short. No surprise he was considered the most eligible bachelor in Snowgum Creek.

Jack stepped forward and shook Luke's hand, stealing his attention. "Glad you could make it."

"Sorry I'm late. I had to fit in a couple of extra patients."

"No worries, we're just about to sit down and eat."

Luke turned to Megan, his intense gaze searching her face. "It's been a long time."

"Yep." She nibbled her lower lip, words escaping her. He still had the ability to scatter her thoughts.

Jack cleared his throat. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

Luke nodded. "Do you need me to do anything?"

"Can you watch the grill? We're putting the meat platters on the tables."

"No problem." Luke picked up an empty white ceramic platter.

"Thanks." Jack stepped away from the grill. "I think we're organized and ready to serve lunch."

Her brother headed indoors and an awkward silence followed Jack's departure. Luke filled a couple of platters with juicy steaks and she distributed the platters to nearby tables.

She lingered beside the grill. "Is there anything else I can do?"

"No, I think we're all right." He added a row of steaks to the grill. "You're looking well." Luke's eyes softened, his velvet voice sending her pulse into overdrive.

"Thanks." She twisted a lock of hair around her finger. "I hear you've taken over Dr. Davidson's medical clinic."

"He retired last year, and the clinic provided a great opportunity to move back home from Sunny Ridge."

"That makes sense." His dream eight years ago had been to finish med school and own a medical clinic in Snowgum Creek. A dream she hadn't shared. Her yearning had been to travel and explore the world.

"I'm glad to be back. Snowgum Creek is a thriving town, unlike many small towns in this region."

"Kate said Sunny Ridge is booming, too."

"It has experienced significant growth over the last decade." He checked the remaining steaks on the grill. "Did you know Sunny Ridge is now officially classified as a city?"

"Really?" She inspected her fingernails. They'd need a manicure if she helped Jack and his workers pick the last of the apple crop next week. "I heard your medical clinic is expanding."

"Yes. It keeps me busy. My schedule this morning was jam-packed and I ran overtime."

"Is that normal?"

"Sometimes. It depends on the day." Jack returned and Luke handed over the cooking utensils.

"Thanks." Jack smiled. "You two should sit down and enjoy lunch."

Luke turned toward her, indicating two spare seats at a nearby table. "Would you like to join me?"

"Sure." He held out a chair and she slipped into the wooden seat. How many times had they practiced this ritual during their four-year relationship in college?

Luke sat beside her and together they served their lunch of steak, salad and crusty French bread rolls. Megan made small talk with a couple of Jack's friends who she hadn't seen in years. Her short visits back home over the past eleven years hadn't included catching up with the townsfolk. Luke seemed at ease beside her, chatting with the other guests.

His forearm brushed against her elbow and she tensed, aware of his presence only inches away. She concentrated on her lunch, her traitorous heart liking his close proximity. The moment everyone at their table had finished, she stood and started clearing their plates.

"I'll help." Luke collected a few empty platters and walked with her to the kitchen.

Alone with Luke, she focused on loading the plates and cutlery into the dishwasher.

He leaned back against the kitchen counter, arms crossed over his muscular chest. "Are you here for the weekend or longer?"

"I haven't decided."

"Did you take leave from work?"

She shook her head. "I'm between jobs at the moment.

Please pass on my congratulations to Ben and Amy, by the way."

"I will. They arrived back from their honeymoon a few weeks ago."

"Where did they go?"

"Batemans Bay, one of Ben's favorite fishing spots. They were supposed to be here today but my niece is sick with a cold."

"I hope she gets well soon." She pulled out the top rack, already halffull with cups and glasses. "Um, can we talk?"

"Sure, what about?"

"No, not here. Can we go somewhere where we won't be overheard?"

He raised an eyebrow. "It has taken you long enough to finally decide to talk."

Touché. She lowered her lashes, knowing she had hurt him. At least he was prepared to talk.

"How about a walk in the orchards?" he asked.

Like old times. How often had they snuck away into the orchards? Her cheeks flushed as memories of her final year of high school invaded her thoughts.

She squared her shoulders. "I'll finish cleaning the kitchen first."

"I'll meet you at my Jeep in ten minutes." A smile curved up the corners of his lips. "If we're not discreet, the gossips will have us married off by the end of the afternoon."

"True, they don't need any encouragement."

"See you soon." He left the kitchen, his boots tapping on the wooden floorboards as he headed toward the veranda.

She filled the top rack with cups and bowls from the sink and switched on the dishwasher. Luke seemed okay with her temporary return to Snowgum Creek, but was he prepared to make this a more permanent arrangement? Could she convince him to rent her a consulting room in his medical clinic?

Ten minutes later, Luke let himself out the front door of Jack and Kate's home and headed over to his Jeep. He walked around the vehicle and found Megan slouched against the door, her beautiful dark blue eyes squinting in the early-afternoon sunlight.

His heart constricted, bittersweet memories filling his mind. Jack had warned him that she'd be here today, but he hadn't been prepared for the deluge of feelings that had smashed through him when his gaze had locked with hers. Eight years had passed, and he still wasn't immune to her charms.

"Which way should we walk?" he asked.

She stood straighter, rolling her shoulders. "Toward the pine trees."

He nodded. The obvious solution since that part of the orchard wasn't visible from the house. He fell into step with her, his curiosity building. Why had she sought him out after all these years?

They walked between rows of apple trees, passing wombat burrows on the edge of the path.

He ducked under a low-lying apple branch, heavy with ripe fruit. "Do emus still visit the dam?"

She shrugged. "You'll have to ask Jack."

He remembered hiding with her at the far end of the orchard and watching a pair of emus skirt around the dam, their heads bobbing on their long necks as they walked. Occasionally a platypus would pop its head out of the water. Kangaroos had bounded through the orchards at dawn and dusk. Scare guns had echoed at regular intervals, deterring the cockatoos and other birds from feasting on the apples.

The breeze lifted her glossy hair off her shoulders, a few wisps blowing in front of her face. She looked exactly the same as he'd remembered, with only a couple of fine lines now crinkling at the corners of her eyes when she smiled. Her face was lightly tanned and her body toned, presumably from regular workout sessions at the gym.

"What do you want to talk about?" he asked.

She pressed her lips together. "My work."

Kate had told him about Megan's nomadic lifestyle. Ski instructor at the Snowy Mountains every winter, and short-term exercise physiology contract work in Sydney fitted in around overseas trips. "You must be heading off to the snow soon."

"Actually, I'm not going this year."

He paused, turning to face her. "But you go to the snow every year."

She stared at the ground, kicking a stick with her black leather boot.

He frowned. Something didn't add up. She had been obsessed with skiing for as long as he could remember. He had it on good authority from Kate that she loved her regular ski instructor job at the Snowy Mountains resort village.

"Are you injured?"

Her eyes widened. "Physically I'm fine and my knees are in good shape." She traced her finger over a ripe Granny Smith apple hanging on a low branch. "It's time for a change, that's all."

She wasn't telling him the full story but it wasn't his prerogative to push for information. Eight years ago she had made his place in her life crystal clear.

She drew in a deep breath. "I'm looking to stay in Snow-gum Creek for a while."

He narrowed his eyes. "What does that have to do with me?"

"I've been offered a contract with Sunny Ridge and Snowgum Creek hospitals."

"I'm glad to hear they're planning to expand their services." Many of his elderly patients struggled to travel for two hours to Sunny Ridge to access essential health services that weren't available in Snowgum Creek.

She nodded. "They're very keen to employ me but only for three days a week. One day a week in Sunny Ridge, where the job is based, and two days in Snowgum Creek. I would need a second job to supplement my income."

"Have you heard the health club has been redeveloped?"

"Yes. Kate is very excited about the new facilities."

"The townsfolk spent a couple of years lobbying and fund-raising to build the facility. The hospital has access to the heated pool." It seemed as though everyone in town had a stake in the new fitness center and indoor pool complex.

"Another reason why they are prepared to employ an exercise physiologist who works at both hospitals."

"That makes sense. From what I've seen, the gym facilities would suit rehab patients."

She nodded. "I'm looking to set up my own business, consulting to private patients and personal training at the gym. I need to rent a consulting room a few days a week, and you own the only medical clinic in town with extra space."

His mouth fell open. She wanted to work with him in his clinic. He stood taller, shaking his head. "I do want to lease the space but I'm looking for long-term tenants."

"I'm prepared to sign a twelve-month contract with an option to extend."

"Seriously?" She was prepared to live in one place for a whole year? He had his doubts.

"The hospital contract is for a year minimum."

"What about skiing? And overseas holidays?" Could she sacrifice her jet-setting lifestyle and settle in a small town?

"It can wait." She placed her hands on her hips and lifted her chin. "I'm committed to this new direction for my life."

He tugged his mouth into a firm line. "You know you can't leave your patients and clients without care if you decide to run off overseas or to the ski slopes for a few months. And since I'm going to be one of the doctors referring patients to you, I need to feel confident you'll be around to look after them."

Her wide eyes pleaded for his understanding. "All I can give you is my word. I know why you think I'm unreliable…."

He rubbed his hand through his hair. "This is a business decision." A decision clouded by his personal judgments and past experiences.

"There are currently no exercise physiologists in Snowgum Creek." She sighed. "You know the health club is fully equipped to suit my needs. I promise you, I'm not going to run off in breach of my contracts."

Unlike the way she ran off the night he'd proposed marriage. A week later she was in Whistler, Canada, at a ski resort. He'd been a struggling med student who would have done anything for her, made enormous sacrifices to keep her happy. Instead, he'd learned the hard way that she was more committed to her freedom than to him.

Now their lives had intersected on an unfamiliar path, and she was the one asking him for favors. Despite being drawn to her, he couldn't risk his heart by getting involved again. Working with her, seeing her on a regular basis, would be an added complication.

He couldn't ignore the fact that his patients were on waiting lists for services Megan could provide. Services they might not receive if he declined Megan's request and she chose to leave Snowgum Creek. "Okay, I'll think about it." Against my better judgment.

She smiled, her face vibrant in the afternoon sunlight. "Thank you. I appreciate your help and I won't let you down."

"It's not a done deal yet, and I need to talk to my legal people first." He tipped his head to the side. "Do you really want a one-year contract with an option to negotiate an extension?"

"Yes, please." Her blue eyes gleamed. "I promise you won't regret this."

He swallowed hard. Could he put aside their past history and build a successful working relationship for the benefit of the Snowgum Creek community? Could he afford not to?

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