DR. ELI COLLINS’S breath caught as he stared at the gaggle of new employees. The first night was always a bit disorienting for the new hires, and they tended to arrive in packs for the first week or so. A petite woman, with long dark hair, lagged behind the rest.
The graceful way she moved sent a pulse of need through him. Amara? He hadn’t seen her in years.
And he wasn’t seeing her now.
Still, Eli’s heart pounded as he tried, and failed, to control his reaction to the miniscule possibility she was here. Hope, need, love, all wrapped around him before pain dismissed the fantasy.
Amara Patel was the best part of his past—and the worst. Any time he saw someone who bore a vague resemblance to her, Eli would stare for just a moment. It was never Amara, but after nearly a decade of trying, he still couldn’t break the habit.
“The new crop of nurses and doctors start tonight.” Dr. Griffin Stanfred slapped Eli’s shoulder as he slid in front of him.
“I know.” Eli shifted, trying to catch another glimpse of the woman. But she’d disappeared with the rest of the group. He wanted to run after them, force his mind and heart to realize that the mystery hire was just another look-alike. A beautiful, graceful, jet-haired woman, a talented nurse or doctor, sure, but it wasn’t his Amara.
His—that was a ridiculous thought. Amara hadn’t been his for nearly a decade. It was just a symptom of Eli’s loneliness.
He had let his desire to be the perfect son of the great Dr. Marshall Collins cost him his happiness. At least he’d come to his senses before taking on a surgical residency he didn’t want. That decision had been the right one, but Marshall had refused to speak to Eli during the entire duration of his residency and subspecialty training or the years that came after.
Only after Eli had given a keynote address at the second-largest emergency medicine conference in the country, eight months ago, had his father reached out to him. Their relationship was still more professional than personal, but Eli couldn’t stop the hope that one day Marshall might finally soften toward him. If Eli just achieved enough…
He let his eyes linger on the staff lounge door for a moment longer. Eli took a deep breath. Amara wasn’t at his hospital—she couldn’t be.
She’d landed a job at a prestigious university research hospital a week before graduating with her nursing degree. And two weeks after they’d broken up. Eli had watched from the corner of the room as she celebrated with their friends.
He’d wanted to reach out to her, to tell her how proud he was, celebrate with her. But he’d worried that if he said anything, he would beg her to take him back. Instead, Eli had made his excuses and left the party. It was one of the many moments in his past he wished he could change.
But life didn’t have a rewind button.
Eli hadn’t gone into surgery, but every activity he did was weighed against what it could do for his career. How it would improve Boston General. Make the institution great. Get it noticed.
Get him noticed.
Because no matter Eli’s achievements, he couldn’t stop the questions about his father. Even when he was surrounded by emergency professionals, someone always asked if he was related to Dr. Marshall Collins. Their eyes inevitably widened when Eli admitted he was his son. And part of him evaporated as they peppered him with questions about his father’s legacy.
Eli’s soul lifted a bit. Even after all these years, Amara’s voice still floated through his memories just when he needed it. That constant kept him sane and yet sometimes drove him mad.
Eli had considered calling Amara so many times. Just to check in, say hello. See if she’d like to catch up; if she’d gotten the life she wanted; if she’d moved on. But he couldn’t, because if she had, then the tiny ball of hope Eli had never managed to extinguish would die. His heart didn’t want to accept that final loss.
It was easier to imagine Amara in the ER than at home with a husband and family who loved her. Safer… They’d both believed emergency medicine was their calling. Even if he’d doubted it for a brief period.
“Gina quit. Took a job in Baltimore.” Susan Gradeson, the ER’s head nurse, sighed as she laid her laptop on the charging pad at the nurses’ station. “Luckily, one of the new hires agreed to take her shift.” Before Eli could ask any questions, Susan hustled away.
Boston General’s emergency room had one of the highest trauma rates in the nation. It was used by physicians and nurses as a launching pad to one of the nationally ranked academic hospitals that dotted the city. If only they were recognized on that list, then maybe the other hospitals wouldn’t have such an easy time siphoning away Boston Gen.’s talent.
Eli had been offered a position at several of those academic hospitals too. But he loved the chaotic nature of Boston Gen. He thrived on the constant challenges, and even took pleasure in turning down the jobs. He’d bring in the offer letter and let the staff help him draft a blistering no-thank-you note. Eli never sent those, but it was an excellent way to let his friends and colleagues blow off steam.
His cell dinged with an image of his niece, Lizzy. She was waving at the camera; her cheeks covered in chocolate pudding. Eli darted around the corner and video called his mother. She’d taken to the role of grandma the minute Lizzy was born. And she’d refused to allow him to hire a nanny when Lizzy came to live with Eli eight months ago. He didn’t know how he would have survived without his mom’s calming presence.
He’d never expected to be a father. Marshall hadn’t set a great example, but Eli was doing his best. Which mostly meant Googling everything and hoping the mistakes he made were minor. His insides relaxed a bit as Lizzy waved again. Lizzy looked a lot like her father—a man she’d never remember.
Eli pushed his grief away. The months since his brother’s passing had dulled the pain, but there were still moments where Eli had to remind himself that he couldn’t call Sam after a hard day. Or text him a celebratory note after an unexpected success.
At least he had Lizzy.
“Hi, cutie!” Eli cooed as his niece played with the chocolate pudding on her high chair tray. Lizzy needed a happy parent, not a concerned, uncomfortable uncle who was still terrified that he was going to screw everything up.
He smiled and laughed at her silly antics as worries niggled at the back of his brain. Eli never wanted Lizzy to see how terrified he was to be a father. He may not have planned to be a dad, but he couldn’t fail Lizzy now that he was.
“Did she eat any of that?” Eli shook his head as he stared at the messy, almost two-year-old.
“A bit.” His mother laughed. “I was just getting ready to put her in the bathtub. Figured she might as well have some fun. Every kid loves to play with pudding at this age. I’ve got pictures of you and—” she paused for just a moment “—and Sam covered in the sweet stuff.”
A nurse with dark hair passed by in Eli’s peripheral vision. Amara? She’d already slipped into a patient’s room by the time he turned to get a better look.
Why was his mind playing tricks on him tonight?
“Look!” Lizzy giggled as the pudding dripped off her fingers.
Focus, he reminded himself. Smiling at Lizzy, Eli shook his head. “You really are a mess—a cute mess.”
“Daddy!” Lizzy stuck her tongue out at the camera.
Eli’s stomach clenched. That title still felt off. Like he was robbing Sam somehow. “It’s Uncle Eli, sweetheart.”
“Daddy,” Lizzy repeated.
“Well, I’m going to get her cleaned up.” His mom offered a soft smile, though he could see her blink away a few tears. “It’s okay to be daddy, Eli. Maybe it’s what she needs. Sam would understand—even give you a hard time about it.”
“Probably.” Eli agreed, then waved one last time before his mother shut off the video connection. Eli wasn’t Lizzy’s father. Sam was…always would be.
But he was gone.
He’d been killed in a plane crash along with his wife, Yolanda, heading to a surgical conference, just as Lizzy was starting to say her first words.
Daddy… It held so much meaning. Eli still felt lost, but Lizzy was his responsibility. No, she was his daughter. When she was older, he would make sure that Lizzy knew as much about her parents as possible.
Sam was the good son, after all. The one who’d followed in his father’s footsteps, though he’d refused to take on any roles at his father’s research facility after Yolanda announced she was pregnant. It was unfair that Eli was now the one putting Sam’s daughter to bed, getting to watch silly pudding videos, planning her future.
And hearing the word Daddy.
When Sam and Yolanda had asked him to be Lizzy’s guardian less than a week after her birth, Eli had agreed without thinking about it. But he’d never expected to take custody of Lizzy. He loved Sam, though watching him with his wife and daughter had always sent a wave of jealousy through him. But Eli’s goals didn’t include a family.
Hadn’t included a family.
In the horrid days after the accident, Eli had held their sleeping child feeling devastated. But he’d sworn to raise her with all the love Sam had shown for her. Somehow, Eli was going to be both an amazing father and a top emergency room doctor. The patients and Lizzy came first. He could do this—he had to.
Turning, he stared at the room where the dark-haired nurse had disappeared a few minutes ago. Eli didn’t think she’d exited yet. If a patient was being difficult, she might need help. That was why he was moving toward the room. Not because he needed to prove to himself that it wasn’t Amara.
Just before he got to the door, Susan grabbed his arm. “I’ve got a kid in room 7 that needs stitches and an elderly man in 4 that probably needs to be admitted for pneumonia. Any chance you can clear either of them out of my ER?”
“Your ER?” Eli echoed. “Last time I checked, I was the senior doctor on staff this evening.”
“That supposed to mean something?” Susan quipped as she marched toward another room.
That was Eli’s running joke with Susan. The head nurse had worked at Boston General longer than anyone, and she ran a tight ship. Everyone fell in line when Susan Gradeson ordered it.
Eli looked over his shoulder one last time. But the nurse, or more likely, the figment of his imagination, still hadn’t materialized.
He tried to convince himself that it wasn’t Amara. It wasn’t.
Eli had a few hours left on his shift. He’d see the dark-haired woman before he went home. Then his brain could stop hoping that a miracle had occurred. He had never stopped loving Amara, but that was a feeling he’d learned to live with.
Amara held her breath as Dr. Eli Collins finally walked away from the room where she was hiding. Her pulse rate was elevated, and she could feel the heat in her cheeks. Eli was here…here.
She’d already double-checked on the patient, a young woman waiting on her release papers following a minor fender bender. Amara had gone over the concussion protocol with her and made sure she knew the indicators for internal bleeding. Now Amara was hovering. Her stomach twisted as she tried to work out what to do.
She’d left Massachusetts Research after her relationship with Dr. Joe Miller had crashed and burned in full view of all her colleagues. No matter how high she’d held her head, there’d been whispers when Joe immediately started dating her ER colleague Kathleen Hale. Louder whispers when they’d eloped a few weeks later.
Amara had been considering a change for years. If Joe’s affair was the catalyst for it, so what? But now she was facing working with another ex—and she’d never fully recovered from their breakup…
Amara was independent. That was the word she used to describe herself. Independent…that word sounded so much better than afraid of commitment. Terrified of losing your dreams to someone else’s goals. Of disappearing in the one relationship where you were supposed to stand out.
That was the fear that had driven her to walk away from Eli. It had been the right choice. But it didn’t stop the regret that sometimes seeped deep into her bones as she lay awake at night. They wouldn’t have worked. It was the mantra she’d repeated for years. He wanted to chase glory, like her father. Eventually, that need destroyed everything it touched.
She’d watched her mother give all of herself to her father. All her dreams, her goals had been sacrificed to support him. And she’d gotten almost nothing in return.
Even after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, Amara’s father hadn’t put away his bid to secure funding for his newest start-up. Her mother had fought for her life without her husband by her side. And it had been Amara holding her hand at the end, not the man she’d stood beside for nearly forty years.
The patient coughed, and Amara’s cheeks heated again. The young woman hadn’t commented on her extended presence—yet, but she was watching Amara count the supplies in the cabinet. Amara made a note to restock the extra-small gloves, and wanted to shake herself.
Coward! her brain screamed. She should march out of the room and pretend that Eli was just any other doctor on the ER floor.
Boston General was supposed to be her fresh start. Her new place.
And Eli was here.
Did he still have to look so handsome?
Amara hated the selfish thought. Eli had been gorgeous in college, and the last decade had been very kind to the man. No beer belly or receding hairline for him. No, he was still the tall, broad-shouldered, dark-haired medical student that had been every woman’s dream date. Except now, he was an ER doctor. Not a surgeon.
Joy tapped across Amara’s skin. Eli had evidently followed his own path. That didn’t make it any easier to walk out the door and say hello, but she was surprised by how much it warmed her heart.
Amara once believed they’d grow old together. That they’d work in the same ER and go home to a small house with a couple of kids. It had been a good fantasy, and for a short period, she thought those dreams were enough for Eli too. But what was a happy home life compared to medical glory?
Amara’s heart clenched as she forced the past away.
What was Eli doing at Boston General?
She’d assumed he’d gone to Chicago. It was ridiculous, but every year she checked the online annual hospital report to see if he was listed with the other top surgeons. He’d wanted to be like his father so much, but working at Boston Gen. wasn’t likely to land Eli on that list.
In a city full of prestigious academic hospitals, Boston Gen.’s administration wasn’t interested in attracting investors that would make demands that took resources away from the hospital’s patients. Which meant it was chronically underfunded in its quest to provide quality care. Eventually, many of its talented physicians and nurses sought out the hospitals with research dollars, beautiful new buildings and better hours.
The low retention rate for employees at Boston Gen. was well-known. It was one of the reasons why, when Amara figured she needed a change to jump-start her life, she’d applied here.
If she’d known Eli was working at this hospital… She forced that thought away. It didn’t matter. Amara was not going to be another retention statistic on Boston Gen.’s ledger.
Squaring her shoulders, she marched from the room and ran directly into the head nurse, Susan.
“Sorry!” Amara grabbed her to keep them from tumbling to the floor. She instinctively looked over Susan’s shoulder. Eli was gone—at least he hadn’t witnessed her bout of clumsiness.
What would he say when they finally crossed paths?
Amara ignored that thought. She didn’t want to think about Eli, now. Or ever, though there was little hope of that.
“No harm done…?” Wrinkles ran along Susan’s forehead as she stared at her.
“Amara,” she said helpfully. She’d stepped in at the end of their orientation yesterday when Susan had announced that the ER was short-staffed for this evening’s shift. Amara doubted the head nurse had even bothered to write her name down before rushing back to her post.
She looked around Susan one more time and then mentally chastised herself. Amara needed to get Eli out of her head.
“Looking for someone?” Susan raised an eyebrow.
“A doctor… I…no,” she stuttered.
Amara suspected Susan knew she was lying, but at least she didn’t press her. “While we have a lull, I wanted to see if you’d help with the health fair in a few weeks. All the hospital’s departments have a few booths. Several of the ER doctors always run their own. There is a competition—the winner gets two extra vacation days.”
Eli would love that. He’d thrived in competitive environments in college—always pushing himself to come out on top. But Amara hadn’t been the right prize. She knew that wasn’t fair, but a decade later, she still woke up from dreams where he was holding her. Her subconscious refused to give up the whisper of hope Amara was too scared to voice while awake.
Pain rippled up her spine, but she ignored it. Amara was starting a new chapter, and it did not include Dr. Eli Collins. Straightening her shoulders, she gave Susan her full attention. “Put me down for whichever booth needs help.” Her voice didn’t sound as strong as she wanted, but at least it was a start.
A man walked behind Susan, and Amara made sure to keep her gaze focused on the head nurse. She was not going to look for Eli again—she wasn’t.
“You might want to get to know the doctors who are participating first. Like I said, this helps the community, but the competition…”
Amara waved away Susan’s concerns. “It’s fine. I don’t need extra vacation time.” Her father and his new wife lived in California now, and she had no desire to visit.
Not that she’d been invited.
Jovan Patel had barely waited until her mother was gone to set a wedding date. No long mourning period for him.
“We’ve got a four-car pileup coming in!” one of the nurses cried as she ran past Amara and Susan.
Susan turned and yelled, “Dr. Collins was talking to his daughter over by room 3, but he might be in room 7, putting in a few stitches now, and Dr. Stanford is in room 6.”
Amara’s insides chilled. Eli had a daughter. Perhaps even a wife. Her heart raced as she headed for the ambulance bay doors. It was her body prepping for the incoming wounded, not because of Eli.
How simple would life be if she could believe that?