Authors: Laurie Paige
“If you keep looking at me like that, I'll be forced to kiss you,” Michael announced in a casual manner.
His statement startled her. She tore her gaze from his. “Germs,” she reminded him, feeling shaky with longing.
“I scrubbed before leaving the office. I don't have a cold. You're doing well. It should be safe enough.”
Before she could frame a reply, he had acted on the thought. With easy strength, he lifted her into his arms and placed her in his lap. Then his mouth sought hers.
For about a tenth of a second, she thought of refusing. The ridiculous idea dissolved in a frothy mist of delight as his lips closed over hers. Crystal shards of joy spiraled outward from that point of contact to every part of her.
“I've wanted to do that for days, weeks,” he murmured against her mouth.
“You stayed away,” she reminded him. “You rarely came over, not even when my mother called and invited you to dinner.” She'd hated herself for listening for his step and the ringing of the doorbell
announcing his presence, for the yearning that choked her when she thought of him.
“You needed the time to recover without complications. I don't think I could have resisted you otherwise.”
“But you don't have to now?”
“No. I'm not your doctor anymore. Now we're a man and a woman with only this between us.”
He kissed her again. One hand cupped her shoulder while the other made magic along her back, leaving a trail of sparkles down her spine, up her side and finally over on her breast. The tip beaded as he caressed lightly.
She wondered how far he intended to go. And if she should let him.
Before she could find an answer in the whirling mist, the doorbell rang. With a deeply inhaled breath, he gently placed her in the chair, then went to answer. In a few minutes, he was back, carrying two covered containers that emitted a spicy aroma. She realized she was hungry for food as well as caresses. And that she was going to have to be the one to break off this senseless passion between them.
Michael observed Susan closely during the ballet performance. The show was long, and by the end, her graceful body had slumped into the velvet chair. She sighed wearily as they applauded the final act.
“Let's go.” He wanted to get her out while the
cast was taking their bows, before anyone spotted the former prima ballerina and rushed to the theater box.
Leading her down the dim stairs and out the stage door, he had a running argument about his intentions. He should return her to her mother's home and hit the road. That was what he should do. He wasn't sure he could.
Not that he was going to make love to her. She was too exhausted for passion, although it sometimes simmered between them when their eyes met. But he wanted to stay with her, to hold her while she slept.
He smiled at the image. He'd never considered himself an altruistic person, but since meeting this woman, something in him had changed. Falling in love had its interesting quirks.
Once in the condo, he urged her to sit. “The show was long. You're worn out.”
“I think I'd like to change.”
“Good idea. Put on your pajamas. I'll make us a cup of hot chocolate.”
She turned on him in fury, surprising him. “I don't need your nurturing. I get that from my mother.”
“What do you want?” he demanded, hunger growing as he thought of the possibilities.
“To be treated like a woman, not an invalid who can't get across the street by herself. You, my
mother, my whole family, in fact, act as if I'll collapse at any moment.”
She stopped abruptly, as if giving away too much. He thought he understood what the problem was. “I think of you as a woman,” he assured her. “Do you think you're any less desirable now than before the surgery?”
Shrugging, she laid the green silk shawl that matched her dress on the sofa arm.
“I want to make love to you, but you're not ready.”
“You're right.” Meeting his gaze levelly, she added, “I think it would be better not to see each other.”
“What?” He wasn't sure what he'd expected to hear, but it hadn't been this. “Why?”
“I think part of myâ¦attraction to you was born of need. I didn't want to admit it, but I knew I had no choice about the heart replacement. You were the best and I needed your expertise. I've been clinging to you, but now, I think I should stand on my own two feet. It would be easier without the complication of sex.”
Michael subdued the fury and the urge to sweep her into his arms and show her just how much she still needed him in ways that had nothing to do with his skill as a surgeon.
“I see,” he murmured. “I agree. I've been aware of the doctor-patient dependency factor from the mo
ment I knew of your condition. It was a complication between us, but I don't consider it one now. There's also the passion. It hasn't gone away.”
He watched as she took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He sensed a fragility about her that hadn't previously been there, or else she'd kept it hidden behind her stubborn will.
Which was the real Susan Wainwright?
“True.” She met his eyes with her usual candor. “But I don't want to give in to it. I have to find a new direction for my life. I think I could do that better without passion.”
“Yes. I'm sorryâ”
He waved the apology aside. “Don't be. I've admired your grit and honesty from the moment we met.”
“That,” he said in a harsher voice, “is the one thing I don't want from you.”
He hesitated, torn between a desire to remind her of the feelings between them, as well as the passion, and a sense of honor that demanded he leave as she requested.
“Stay away from crowds. Don't forget to take your pills. Walk every day. Rest often,” he ordered, and heard the irony in his words. He turned and left before he made a fool of himself.
On the road to his place, he reflected on the ironies of fate and the fact that he'd forgotten his own golden rule: Never get emotionally involved with a patient. He'd known the lovely ballerina was a heartbreaker that very first day he saw her in Mission Ridge.
He parked in the underground garage and grimly jogged up the fourteen sets of stairs to the penthouse, but found he was still too restless for sleep.
Okay, I've made a mistake, he admitted.
So get over it.
That might be easier said than done. He closed his eyes and tried counting sheep.
ou're full? I see. Thanks anyway,” Susan said to the woman at the airline shuttle service. After hanging up, she hesitated for a full five minutes before calling Michael.
His voice was groggy when he answered.
“Uh, this is Susan. I was wondering if you were flying to Mission Ridge today?” At the silence on the end of the line, she quickly added, “Mom called. My grandmother is ill. The shuttle is full, so I wondered if you were going.”
She wished she hadn't called.
“I'll pick you up in half an hour,” he said, now fully alert and cheerful.
Sounding stiff and artificial, she murmured, “Thank you,” then hung up as if the phone were too hot to handle.
She flew around the condo, getting her stuff together, determined to return to her own place after she made sure Gran was okay. When the doorbell rang, she was ready.
Or she thought she was until she saw Michael standing there, dressed in a white polo shirt, navy
cargo shorts and jogging shoes, sunglasses perched on top of his head. Her heart did a dip, a spin and a leap, then settled to beating frantically as she tried to think of a clever greeting.
“Hi,” she finally said.
A muscle twitched in his jaw. Rather than speaking, he simply nodded and grabbed her suitcase and the plastic bag still packed with the stuff left from the hospital stay.
“Would you mind stopping by my place? I want to leave most of this and check my mail.”
She locked the door behind them and followed him to his car. After he asked, she directed him to her apartment, having forgotten that he'd never been there. Odd, but their lives were enmeshed on so many different levels that it seemed as if he should know everything about her.
Pressing a hand to her chest, she admitted he did know nearly everything. But not all. He didn't know that she woke during the night, restless and unhappy, filled with longing to be in his arms.
No. She wouldn't allow herself to think of that.
“What's wrong? Are you having chest pains?”
Blinking at him, she shook her head and lowered her hand. “I was justâ¦thinking.”
“You said your grandmother was nearly ninety?” he asked, sympathy in his voice.
Susan nodded. “It would be hard to give her up,”
she began, then stopped. His parents had died when he was young. She'd had Gran for twenty-seven years.
He parked and turned to her. “I'll carry your things.” He ducked his head and peered into her eyes. “Are you crying?” he asked gently.
Before she could deny it, his arms were around her, drawing her close, surrounding her in warmth and safety.
“I'm fine. Let me go,” she demanded.
His face changed in an instant, becoming as opaque as stone. “Sorry.” He released her.
She rushed up the sidewalk and into the place she'd lived for six years. It felt like a foreign land, strange and barren, when she opened the door. Behind her, Michael stopped at the threshold, set her luggage inside and returned to his car.
After checking the mail and phone messages, she pushed the bags out of the way and closed the door, then turned the dead bolt. For the tenth time, she wished she hadn't called him. She could have chartered a flight.
Getting in the sedate dark sedan, she compared it with the flashy sports car he kept in Mission Ridge. Michael himself was a complicated personality, she thought as she looked at him. She'd seen him as a friend, as a doctor and as a lover. He was bold, confident, maybe arrogant, but he was also kind and
nurturing. Most of all, he was exciting, passionate and giving.
“Stop it. Unless you mean it,” he muttered in a low growl, braking at a red light.
“What?” As soon as she asked, she knew what he meant. He'd caught her staring. Heat slid into her face. “Sorry.”
He heaved a breath, then took off when the light changed. At the airport, he ran through the preflight check with the total concentration she'd learned to expect of him. In a few minutes, they were airborne.
The hour-long trip was accomplished in near silence. After he landed and secured the plane in his hangar, he motioned toward the house. “Give me a minute to check my answering machine, then I'll take you home.”
“To my grandmother's place, please. She lives in Sunny Acres. It's closer than the ranch. My mom will be there.”
He nodded and went inside.
She waited on the patio, aware of the peace and beauty surrounding his home. She thought of children playing on the lawn, a dog running at their heels. He would make a wonderful father. And husband. Some woman would be lucky.
Hot tears sprang into her eyes. She wanted to be that woman, his wife, the mother of his children. There were feelings between them, as well as passion. Why not take everything life offered?
Desperation seized her. She wanted to, so very much. She had only to reach for him and bind him to her through passion and his innate compassion.
She couldn't. To go to him now would be unfair, a sign of weakness on her part. She had to prove herself first and show him and her family that she could make it on her own, that she wasn't an invalid who needed constant attention.
“Ready,” he said, returning and leading the way inside the neat garage, which housed only the car.
In the sporty convertible, with the October breeze blowing her hair, the longing receded. The day was beautiful beyond description, making her spirits suddenly buoyant. “On days like this, it's difficult not to feel invincible, to feel as if the world was here just for our pleasure.”
Clamping down on her bottom lip, she wished she hadn't mentioned pleasure. It conjured up images she didn't want to invoke between them.
“Maybe it is. All animals were created with an inborn sense of pleasure, a gift, as it were.”
She watched his strong hands on the wheel as he pulled under the portico at the nursing home. They were capable of pleasure and comfort and saving lives. He deserved a mate who could match his strengths. A nurse perhaps, one of those who stood by him at the operating tableâ
“Here we are,” he reminded gently, a smile tilting the corners of his mouth.
“Oh. Yes. Well, thank you for the lift.”
He nodded, reached across her and opened the door. For the briefest instant, his arm crossed her midsection, leaving a burning path of yearning there. She got out and waved as he closed the door. He gave her a half salute and drove off. From inside the glass doors to the senior care facility, she watched him leave. Her heart went with him.
“Susan,” her mother said in surprise. “I thought that was Michael when I saw the car. I'm delighted you're here.”
“I thought I would see about Gran, then spend a few days at the ranch. How is she?”
Kate frowned and shook her head. “She has pneumonia. So you can't go in. I'll tell her you stopped by.”
Susan burst into tears.
“There, dear, there now. Don't cry. Gran will be all right. She's quite strong, a fighter, the doctor said, just as Michael said you were.”
Susan sobbed harder, not at all sure why she was crying or why she felt so desperately sad.
The phone was ringing when Michael walked into his house. Sitting on a stool at the island counter, he grabbed the receiver. “O'Day here.”
“Hey, Doc,” a gruff voice said.
“How's Carmine?” Michael asked, recognizing the old man's henchman.
“Not so good. He's asking for you.”
This news gave Michael pause. “Where is he?”
“Give me the address.” He wrote it down, changed to slacks and a white shirt, then drove down the curving road, off the ridge where he lived, to Goldenrod, a community on the road to Mission Creek.
“This way,” the older mobster said, letting him in the impressive mansion. He ignored Frank Del Brio and others who were gathered in the living room.
Michael noticed the absence of conversation. He recognized Carmine's brother, Johnny, and his nephew, Ricky. Both men looked tired. Three other men were present, but no women.
It occurred to Michael that, other than his bodyguards and presumably some servants, the old don lived in this huge house alone. When he entered the bedroom, he was taken aback at Carmine's appearance. The Mafia boss seemed to have shrunk in the three weeks since he'd seen him. His face was pasty, his crafty gaze dim with pain. An oxygen tank stood beside the massive four-poster bed.
“Carmine,” he said, going to the bedside and shaking the cold, waxy-feeling hand. Michael recognized the signs of a rapidly failing heart.
“Good of you to come,” Carmine rasped. “I
wanted to tell youâ¦I'm going to leave you the half mil.”
“I won't take it.”
“Give it to the hospital then, whatever you want.”
Michael shook his head. “Leave it directly to the hospital, if that pleases you, but count me out.”
“Stubborn pup,” the old man muttered, anger brightening his gaze for a moment.
“If I'd had a son, he'd 'a been like you. When I was in my heyday, I could whip my weight in bob-cats, thought I owned the world and nothing could touch me. Like you.”
Hiding his pity, Michael grinned. “Tough, huh?”
“Forget the Wainwright girl. That family is too proud. Get you a good woman. My wife was a fine one. She died twenty years agoâ¦missed her every single day.”
Looking into the old man's eyes, Michael thought this was true. A man on his deathbed tended to count his blessings, once he stopped ranting against his fate. Most of them tried to make up for past sins. Carmine was at that point.
The old man paused for a moment, fighting for breath. Michael checked the oxygen flow on the tank, then clipped the tube to Carmine's pajama top when he shook his head, indicating he didn't want it on his nose. The scent of a cigar clung to the old man.
“No smoking,” Michael reminded him.
“You doctors, always fussing.”
The two men grinned at each other.
Carmine sucked in several breaths, then spoke again. “I already left the hospital a half million in your name. The other half mil is in cash, there on the table.”
Startled, Michael glanced at a leather briefcase on a low table in front of a sofa with gold leaf on its scrolled back and legs. “Better put it in a safe. It might disappear when you're gone.”
The old man laughed, then coughed several times before speaking again. “It will. What's it to me now?”
Michael had an idea. “Tell your men to give it to the children's wing of the local hospital, an endowment for the children you should've had. I think you'd have been one hell of a father.”
“Good or bad?” the old man joked.
“Good,” Michael said sincerely.
Carmine waved this aside. “Take care,” he murmured, his eyes drooping as weariness overtook him. “You're a good man. I wishâ¦”
Michael waited, but the don said nothing more. A hand touched his elbow, and he looked quickly around at the older mobster, who had tears in his eyes. They went into the hall.
“You heard about the money?” Michael asked.
The man nodded. “It'll be taken care of.”
Michael knew Carmine's last wishes would be carried out. In his car, the sun on his face and the wind in his hair, he felt the weight of mortality on his shoulders. The brevity of life seemed much more real.
He wanted a good woman at his side, but she didn't seem to want him, not since the surgery. There were still sparks between them, but he wouldn't lure her with passion. She had to come to him freely because she wanted a future with him, not because of overwhelming desire.
Not that the passion hadn't been great.
Susan was strong willed. Dancing was her first love, her true passion. If she could find some way to express that, either through teaching or dancing again, she evidently didn't need anything else.
That was what he'd thought about his own lifeâ¦until he'd met her.
Kate Wainwright felt like a sneak in her own homeâactually, the one-bedroom cottage Archy insisted she useâas she lifted the phone and dialed a number. On the third ring, she decided to hang up, but then Michael answered.
“Hello,” she said. “This is Susan's mother.”
“Hello, Kate. What can I do for you?”
His manner was so relaxed and easy, she immediately felt better about calling him first thing on a Sunday morning. “Well, it's Susan,” she said.
“Is she okay? I hope she hasn't fallen off a horse again.”
“No, no, it's nothing like that. She burst into tears yesterday at the nursing home when I told her she couldn't see Gran because of pneumonia. Susan never cries.”
The long pause at the other end alarmed her, but finally he spoke.
“Depression is normal after any kind of surgery, especially a major operation as Susan had. All the body's resources are tied up in healing.”
“But she's been so cheerful all month. She did everything she was supposed to. She walkedâand wore the mask while she didâand ate everything on her plate and went to bed early.” She paused to think about this odd behavior. “That isn't like Susan, is it?”
“She's usually a rebel,” he agreed, “but she wants to get well as fast as she can. That's probably why she's being so good.”
Kate sighed. “I don't know. Something's bothering her, but when I asked, she went back to being Pollyanna. I must admit it worries me.”
“I'll be around this week. I'll check on her.”
“That would be great,” Kate admitted, relieved to put her daughter in his capable hands. “I wondered if you would be available to come to dinner tonight? Susan and Justin are going to join me. I
need to speak to them about the provisions in Gran's will, as she requested.”
“Won't I be in the way?”
“No, I'll speak to them before you arrive. Come around seven. Is that too early?”