So what's this about?' Seb asked. 'You said you didn't want to talk about it on the phone.'

Straight to the point. Just like Vicky. 'There isn't an easy way to say this.' So he'd be blunt, too. 'Vicky needs an operation.'

'And you're breaching patient confidentiality?' Seb asked.

Jake grimaced. 'I'm telling you as her next of kin.'

'Are you her doctor?' Charlie asked.

She really had kept him quiet. Jake sighed inwardly. She'd said she loved him—but clearly not enough to tell her brothers about him. 'Yes and no. She wants me to perform the operation.'

'So what's the problem? I assume you're her colleague, so is it because you know her from the hospital?' Seb asked.

'No,' Jake said quietly, 'it's because she's my girlfriend.'

'Your girlfriend?' The brothers spoke in unison, and both of them sat up straighter and looked very hard at Jake. If it hadn't been for the circumstances, he would have been amused. Vicky didn't need her brothers to protect her from him. She was more than capable of holding her own.

'How long has this been going on?' Seb demanded.

The relationship? 'A few months.'

Seb's eyes narrowed. 'She hasn't mentioned you to us. At all.'

'She wouldn't,' Jake said. 'You two have been trying to pair her off at dinner parties and driving her mad. If she'd told you about me, you'd have insisted on meeting me and giving me the once-over. Especially given who she is and the fact that I come from a very different background. So you may as well know now. I'm a consultant neurologist at the Albert Memorial Hospital, but I don't come from a rich family. I rent a very, very small flat. And I don't give a damn about Vicky's money or her rank or her property. It's irrelevant.'

Charlie assessed him, then nodded. 'She did the same to us. Gave Sophie and Alyssa the once-over, I mean.'

'Rest assured, I'm never going to hurt Vicky,' Jake said wearily. 'I love her, God help me. But I'm seriously not happy about doing this operation.'

'So what exactly is wrong with her?' Charlie asked.

'Cerebral aneurysm. Twelve millimetres. She needs clip ligation,' Jake said quietly.

'Hell.' Seb put his hand over his mouth. 'I had no idea.'

'Neither did she until this week—when she got what I think was a sentinel headache.'

'You mean, it could rupture at any time?' Charlie raked a shaking hand through his hair. 'Why the hell didn't she tell us?'

'Because she says you'll fuss. But I'm not happy. So I pinched her mobile phone to get your numbers.' Jake paused. 'I, um, haven't said anything to your mother.'

'Don't,' Seb said feelingly. 'We'll deal with her. Vic doesn't need Mama Dearest on her back. Not at a time like this.' He shook his head. 'I don't believe this. Our baby sister's got a life-threatening condition and she hasn't breathed a word to either of us.' He stared at Jake. 'Was she actually going to tell us?'

Jake nodded. 'She planned to do it the day before the op. But I said you needed a bit more time to come to terms with it.'

'Too bloody right,' Seb said. 'I'll kill her.'

'No, you won't.' Charlie put a hand on his shoulder. 'I'm the oldest. I'll do it.'

'She needs you,' Jake cut in. 'Both of you. Though she won't admit it. And whatever you do, don't take her flowers.'

'Why not?' Seb asked, lifting his chin and looking every inch the aristocrat, disdainful and irritated by some commoner telling him what to do.

'Because I did,' Jake said softly. 'It made her cry. And that's when she told me she wanted me to do the op.'

'How good are you?' Seb asked.

'If Vic wants him to do it, he's good,' Charlie said, before Jake could answer. 'She's picky.'

'You can say that again.' Jake took a deep breath. 'There's something else you need to know.'

'More?' Seb closed his eyes. 'I'm not sure I'm ready to hear this.'

'I've asked your sister to marry me. And she said yes.'

'Vicky?' Charlie looked shocked. 'Vicky's going to marry you?'

'I'm not holding her to it,' Jake said dryly. 'She asked me to do something tough—operate on her—so I've asked her to do something tough, too.'

'So you're blackmailing her into marriage,' Seb said, giving Jake his iciest glare.

Jake sighed. 'No. I love her. I want to marry her—or just live with her for the rest of our lives. A piece of paper isn't going to change the way I feel about her. But you know Vicky. She's got her heart set on being a professor of neurology before anything else happens in her life. I wanted to show her how high the stakes were for me. Because if this is what she wants from me, I damn well want everything from her.'

'If she agreed to marry you in order to get you to operate, you must be seriously good,' Seb said. 'So I'm with Vic. I want you to operate.'

'It's not ethical. Not when I'm involved with her,' Jake said. 'Would you operate on your wife?' He remembered that Seb was an emergency specialist. 'OK. Suppose your wife had been in an accident. She has flail chest, a tension

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