Authors: Laurie Paige
“Is that your usual mode of operation?” she asked coolly, ignoring the increased beat of a pulse through her temple. She pushed a wisp of hair behind her ear.
“Susan, introduce me to your friend,” her mother requested, all smiles for the obnoxious man.
“We haven't formally met,” he said, and held out his hand. “Michael O'Day.”
Kate shook his hand. “Won't you join us?”
To Susan's further chagrin, the big apeâhe was easily a couple of inches over six feet tallâpulled out a chair and sat down. “Iced tea,” he said to the waiter who hurried over.
“I'm Kate Wainwright. This is my daughter, Susan.”
“Flynt mentioned your names,” he said in an affable manner, as if they were all the very best of friends.
His voice was deep, almost a bass, and it rushed along her nerves like one long, drawn-out note from a cello, quiet yet vibrant, as if nature itself whispered through his rich cadences.
An unexpected shudder washed over her. A faint but persistent pain pinged in her chest with each heartbeat. She pressed a hand there to still it.
“I know where I've seen you,” her mother suddenly exclaimed. “I mean, besides here. There was a write-up in the Sunday paper a few weeks ago. You performed miracle surgery on the head of state from some foreign country. You're the heart specialist from Houston.”
Michael bowed his head briefly in acknowledgment.
So, he wasn't falsely modest about his skill, Susan noted. He was one of the top five heart surgeons in the U.S., per her own doctor. “Bold, innovative and determined” had been said of him in the article her mother referred to.
“Susan,” Kate said, a plea in the word.
Susan shook her head, warning her mother not to say anything to the arrogant heart doctor. Her own physician wanted her to go to Dr. O'Day for a consultation. So far, she'd steadfastly refused.
“Susan,” her mother said, more sternly this time.
“I'll see someone,” she promised.
Her mother wasn't at all deterred by her tone. “This is likeâ¦like a nudge from God. You can't ignore it.”
Susan could and was determined to do so. “Don't be silâ” She broke off, unable to be rude to her mother. “I'll see a doctor soon.” But not this one.
“This is a golden opportunity.”
“Is there something I should know about?” the irritating doctor wanted to know.
“Susan has a heart condition,” Kate answered before Susan could reply.
“Ah, I see.”
Susan felt his gaze on her, as incisive as a laser beam. “It's nothing,” she said, and heard the stubborn denial in her tone. “I'm fine.”
“You collapsed on the stage at your last performance,” her mother reminded her sternly.
“IâI was tired.”
“Collapsed?” he questioned. “I've seen you perform. You were magnificent.”
Amazed, she stared at him. He looked sincere. Maybe he wasn't such a baboon, after all, she conceded, since he obviously recognized her talent. She silently laughed at her own cockiness. She was as sure of her skills as the famous doctor seemed to be of his. “Thank you.”
“Did you have any symptoms before you fainted?” he asked, lifting the glass of iced tea the waiter had placed before him, his attention focused and sharp. “Chest pain? Shortness of breath? Tingling in the left arm?”
“I didn't have a heart attack,” she informed him. “I checked out fine in that department.”
“She was born with a congenital heart condition,” her mother supplied. “In a nutshell, her heart is too
small for her body. It was little to begin with and stopped growing before she reached adolescence.”
His gaze lasered into her again. “A child's heart in a woman's body. How old are you?” he demanded, a frown furrowing a deep groove between his eyes.
“Twenty-seven,” she replied, then was annoyed with herself. His forceful manner caused her to answer before she had time to consider that her age was none of his business.
“Hmm.” He spoke to her mother. “It's a wonder she's lasted this long.”
“I beg your pardon,” Susan spoke up. “My health is none of your concern. I have a competent doctor of my own.”
She was alert to his probing ways now. She paused as if considering, then told him the man's name, a very prominent internist in Houston.
“He's good,” the surgeon admitted. “Did he refer you to anyone for a checkup?”
This was a question she didn't want to answer. She tried to think how to do that without lying.
“Susan?” her mother probed, her worry obvious.
“He referred me to you, if you must know.” She raised her eyebrows loftily. “I haven't had time to make an appointment.”
“Why are you determined to stay in denial about this?” he asked softly. “It isn't your fault.”
“I know that. Other than that one little dizzy spell, I've been fine. I just overdid it that week.”
“Could you make time to see her?” Kate asked.
“Mother, I'm sure Dr. O'Day doesn't carry around an appointment book with him. His office would handle that.”
“Michael,” he told her almost sternly. “My name is Michael.”
“To your patients?” she challenged.
Her mocking tone didn't seem to bother him at all. He simply nodded, his eyes studying her again. He made her uncomfortable, as if he could see all her doubts, her weaknesses, her furious questioning of God that she should have to give up the only thing in her life.
No. She wouldn't give up dancing. Never! She would, quite literally, rather be dead.
“I'm heading back to Houston Monday morning. I could see you that afternoon, get an idea of how serious a problem you have.” He leaned close and looked her in the eye. “Isn't it better to know the truth? Then you could deal with a certainty rather than an unfounded fear.”
She glanced at her mother, not wanting to upset her. “I'm not afraid. I've never been afraid of anything.”
He leaned back in the chair. She noticed his hands when he lifted his glass. They were incredible, the fingers long and very slender, like a world-renowned
pianist's hands, dexterous, capable of performing minute movements very fast and accurately.
She thought of those hands on herâand not in a medical context. Her heart suddenly pumped hard, and for a second, she was frightened. For a second, she thought of accepting his offer to see her.
But only for a second, then reason reasserted itself. She'd lived for twenty-seven years with her heart doing everything she demanded of it. She was fine, just fine.
“If you want a ride back to Houston, be at the airport Monday at nine.”
“Oh, how nice,” her mother cooed, fawning over the man. “Isn't that convenient?”
“Very,” Susan agreed, with absolutely no intention of accepting either the ride or the examination.
His lazy smile said he knew every idea that flitted through her head. She understood him, too. He thought she was a silly, stubborn female refusing to face facts.
It would be a cold day in you-know-where before she'd get within a mile of him, his plane or his office.
“Excuse me,” her mother said. “I see a friend.”
Susan shifted warily at being left alone with him.
“Don't worry. I'm not the big-bad-wolf type,” he murmured, again reading her accurately.
She forced herself to relax. She'd played these games before. It meant nothing. “What type are you?”
“Honest. Sincere. Basically harmless.”
To her surprise, she laughed. “No conceit in your family, right?”
His smile disclosed white teeth, even on top, but with one slightly out of line on the bottom. It made him more real, she observed, not quite so movie-star perfect.
She gasped when he laid a hand on her wrist.
“Easy.” He proceeded to take her pulse, then looked at her gravely. “Almost a hundred beats per minute.”
Jerking away from the incredibly gentle touch that spread fire through her skin, she informed him, “It's none of your business. You aren't my doctor. I'm not going with you Mondayâdon't expect me to be at the airport.”
“So, you like causing your family concern. Because it keeps you the center of attention?”
“Oh,” she muttered. “Youâ¦youâ¦”
“Baboon?” he supplied, lightly tossing the word out, his ego obviously not dented in the least.
Refusing to dignify the situation with an answer, she stared out at the eighteenth green where two couples completed their game.
A mist blurred her vision for a second. She swallowed hard as agony, which she could usually hold at bay, rushed over her.
“There are other things in life besides dancing,”
he said softly, his fingers gliding along her forearm as if to soothe the troubling emotion.
She recoiled from any possible pity he might feel toward her. “Not for me,” she stated, staring him straight in the eye.
He shrugged and rose. “It's your life. But my offer still stands.” He walked off.
unday morning, Michael arrived at the country club with fifteen minutes to spare before tee time. He grabbed his golf bag and joined Flynt Carson and Tyler Murdoch in front of the pro shop.
“Spence can't make it,” Flynt informed the other two. “He's tied up on a case.”
“The Carl Bridges case, I assume,” Tyler muttered.
Michael didn't know Tyler all that well, but he liked and respected what he'd seen of him. The man was an engineer of some kind for the military. There was a darkness about him, a fierceness that could be intimidating in his hawklike glance. He played one hell of a game of golf and had the lowest handicap of any of them.
“I would guess so. Matt is going to join us,” Flynt continued. “If he can tear himself away.”
Michael grinned along with the other two men. He wondered what it was about newlywed bliss that mellowed out men. Both Flynt and Matt showed signs of going soft in the head since their marriages.
It wasn't something he and Tyler were apt to experience. They were dedicated career men.
“I heard Michael here isn't a possible father to Lena,” Tyler continued. “I finally grabbed a minute and went over to the clinic for the test. We'll know in a few days if I'm a match.” He snorted in obvious disbelief.
Flynt checked his watch, then peered down the road with a frown. Matt was late. Michael glanced at the clock behind the desk where the golf pro looked over some papers. They had two minutes until they were supposed to tee off.
Tyler yawned and stretched. “I'll give you ten to one that the unknown daddy is ol' Luke.”
“You think?” Flynt questioned affably.
“Damn right,” Tyler affirmed. “He's probably off with some gal at a tropical island getaway right this moment. The P.I. we hired will have a time following Luke's path among women the world over.”
“I admit Luke disappears pretty regularly. The only thing predictable about his comings and goings is that they are totally unpredictable,” Flynt explained to Michael.
Michael knew of Luke's reputation as an international playboy. The multimillionaire could afford the lifestyle.
“Anybody going to take my bet?” Tyler demanded. “A hundred dollars on Luke is my offer.”
“Not me,” Flynt said.
“Nor me,” Michael echoed. “It's time to go. Do we give up our slot and wait, or head out?”
“We'll start,” Flynt decided. “Matt can catch up.”
The three claimed their golf cart and headed for the first tee. Running footsteps warned them of Matt's arrival a few seconds later. “Sorry,” he puffed, tossing his bag into the back of the cart. “Rose was sick this morning.”
Michael nodded. “It's common with pregâ” He broke off, worried that Matt might not want to discuss his bride's condition.
“Pregnant women,” Matt finished. “I know, but I've never been around one before. It's alarming.”
While Flynt and Matt discussed pregnancy and its symptoms with great earnestness, Tyler rolled his eyes and winked at Michael, who chuckled as he walked up to the tee and hit his first ball of the day.
All in all, a satisfying game, he thought later, heading for the Yellow Rose CafÃ© and lunch after coming in second, right behind Tyler. Sunshine. Golf. Friends. The good life.
Matt called home on his cell phone once they were seated. “Rose is fine,” he reported when he hung up. “She's having lunch with her mom and sister.”
“I met Susan Wainwright yesterday,” Michael told them. “She called me a baboon after I nearly ran her down in the street. I hope Rose is easier to deal with than her sister.”
He immediately regretted the lapse in good manners, and even a possible doctor-patient relationship, assuming the stubborn ballerina showed up tomorrow for the checkup.
Matt didn't seem to notice the criticism of his new sister-in-law. “The sisters are diametrically opposite. Rose is gentle and kindâ¦well, not that Susan isn't,” he hastily amended. “She's had a lot on her mind of late.”
“The heart condition?” Flynt asked.
“Yes. She's been taken off the ballet roster until she has a thorough checkup and her doctor's written okay to return. She's pretty mad about that. Rose is worried.” Matt looked at Michael. “You know, you might talk to her and see if you can make her listen to reason.”
Michael gave his friend a skeptical smile. “I already offered my services. After our little run-in, I think it would take a major miracle before she would see me.”
Daisy, the same waitress from the previous day, came by to take their orders. The place was rapidly filling up, and she looked a bit harried. Michael wondered if she had a crush on Flynt. She was staring at him in an intense way that sent up a caution flag.
Should he warn his golfing buddy to watch out for her?
“Listen, could you come to dinner tonight at the ranch?” Matt suddenly asked, disrupting Michael's
thoughts. “Maybe you could reassure Rose, answer some questions for her about Susan's condition. Susan will be there,” he added.
“I really don't know much about it.”
Flynt added his invitation. “I think you should join us. Josie was asking about you this morning. She read an article in some magazine and was impressed with your credentials. I might be jealous,” he warned.
“Right,” Michael said wryly. He had nothing better to do that evening. The idea of confronting the haughty Wainwright daughter appealed to him. “What time's dinner?”
“Come at six for cocktails,” Matt immediately said. “I'll tell Rose to expect you.”
Michael made a mental note of the time and nodded.
“Hey,” Tyler said sotto voce. “There's Carmine Mercado. The goon who shot Carl Bridges supposedly works for him. I understand he denies all knowledge of the man.”
Michael did a quick once-over of the mob boss as the man left the temporary structure housing the Men's Grill, a cigar clamped between his teeth.
The doctor in him noted the pasty grayness about the mouth and bags under the Mafia don's eyes. He knew Mercado was in his sixties. At one time, the older man would have been described as portly. Nowadays he would be termed overweight and out
of shape. He certainly ought to lay off the smoking, Michael observed, listening to the hacking cough as the man and his crony headed for the door.
Abruptly Mercado stopped.
Michael had the uncomfortable feeling Mercado was staring at him. He glanced at Flynt. His friend raised his eyebrows as if to say he hadn't a clue what the older man was looking at.
Mercado entered the cafÃ© and threaded his way between the tables, garnering irritated glances as he puffed on the stogie. Daisy, the waitress, stopped him.
“No cigars allowed in here, sir,” she said politely but with an edge to her voice.
There was a brief pause in the general conversation, then it resumed as if the diners remembered some fascinating tidbit they had to share at that moment.
“Wow,” Tyler murmured. “The kid's got brass.”
The mob boss narrowed his eyes at the blond waitress, then he dropped the cigar into a glass of water on the table nearest him. Fortunately the diners had left only moments before, so no one was offended by the action.
“Thank you, sir,” Daisy said in her heavy drawl and went on her way.
“Arrogant son of a bitch,” Flynt said, a steely gleam in his eyes as he watched the little scene.
The rest of the diners let out a collective sigh of
relief. Michael felt the tension drop about ten levels in the cafÃ©.
To his surprise, the older man came to their table. He nodded to Flynt, Matt and Tyler, then looked at him. “You're the heart doctor, right?”
Although Michael was pretty sure the man had been born in the U.S., there was a definite trace of an Italian accent in his guttural tone.
“Michael O'Day, yes.”
Mercado stuck out his hand. Michael had no choice but to shake it. He did so, then gave the don a level stare, refusing to be intimidated by the perusal he was getting.
“My doc told me I needed a new heart.”
Michael digested this news, which tied in with the pastiness of the man's skin and the quick, shallow breaths he took. “You need to give up smoking,” he stated.
The bushy eyebrows, still black although the man's hair was mostly gray, rose as if questioning Michael's sanity to speak to him this way. “I read about you,” Mercado continued. “I want you to do the operation.”
“I work out of Houston.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Mercado waved this little inconvenience aside. “I'll come there.”
“I take cases only upon referral from other medical professionals,” Michael coolly informed the man.
“My doc will refer me.”
This was said in such a way that Michael knew there would be no question about it. He suppressed a smile. There was something of a farce in the scene, as if they were all playing parts in a bad movie.
“Good.” He pulled out a business card. “Here's my office number. Have your doctor call.”
The bushy eyebrows wagged up, then down. He handed the card to the man behind him. “Here, Frank, hold on to this for me. I'll be in touch,” he said to Michael, and walked off.
Silence followed his path to the door.
“Damn,” Tyler muttered as everyone relaxed again, “I'd hate to have him for a patient. One mistake and you're out of this world. Literally. What will you do if he shows up?”
Michael shrugged. “A patient is a sick person. I don't judge a sick person's personal life.” He grinned. “But I sure hope his doctor suggests someone else.”
While his friends chuckled, he made a connection between the don and the recent murder of Carl Bridges.
“Wasn't Carl the one who defended you guys when you were accused of negligent homicide in the death of Mercado's niece?” he asked Flynt and Tyler.
Flynt nodded. “Spence and Luke were also involved. We were having a big reunion celebration
out at Luke's place, all of us having survived the Gulf War and made it home in one piece. Naturally the beer was flowing pretty freely. For some stupid reason, the four of us and Haley went for a boat ride. The boat overturned, and Haley drowned. Her family used its influence to have us tried for manslaughter. Carl saved our bacon. It was a bad time for everyone.”
Michael dealt with pain on a daily basis, both physical and mental, in his patients and in the relatives who worried about them. He recognized it in his friend and was sorry to have reminded him of the past.
“I was half in love with Haley,” Flynt continued softly, sadly. “I guess we all were. She was beautiful, with thick dark hair and flirty eyes and a smile to melt your heart. She was also smart. And funny. She could imitate almost anyone after hearing them once.”
“Could Carl's death have been some kind of revenge thing from the Mercado family?” Michael asked.
Tyler spoke up. “Not for something that happened years ago. They'd have offed him, and probably us, as soon as the trial was over and we walked out of the courthouse. Haley's brother, Ricky, was a friend. He might have intervened with his uncle for us. Who knows?”
Daisy Parker, aka Haley Mercado, slipped into the lady's lounge, thankful that it was empty at the moment, and slid into a chair.
She crossed her arms over her chest, holding in the need to cry and rant against fate. It had been terrifying to face Carmine Mercado and his henchman, Frank Del Brio, in the cafÃ©, not that either man suspected who she really was.
When the Mafia boss had approached Flynt Carson's table, she'd wanted desperately to listen in.
Perhaps it had been foolish to return to Mission Creek, which held so many bad memories for her. But along with the pain, there had been one wonderful one, a night so special she would never forget it.
A sob caught in her throat. At present, her life was unbearably lonely, and she longed for an end to this charade. Please, she prayed, let the FBI complete their investigation of the Texas Mafia soon. She wanted the case finished. She wanted an end to spying and trying to overhear conversations as she worked in the cafÃ© and grill at the posh country club.
More than that, she wanted things that were probably never going to happenâa quiet life, the husband of her dreams, their children happily playing in the sun.
At the thought of home and family, she nearly gave in to her anger and grief. She was positive her own mother had died at the hands of a Mafia en
forcer. She would help the FBI by finding out anything she could.
Straightening, she vowed to keep her word. Holding in the useless tears, she returned to work.
Later that afternoon, swimming laps in the community pool at Mission Ridge, Michael mused on the ill mob boss. Carmine Mercado had been dressed in an expensive suit. His manner had been arrogant, but with a certain Old World directness not without charm. It would certainly be interesting to have him as a patient.
Still smiling at a mental picture of him operating, with a bunch of thugs milling around the sterile room, all with tommy guns hidden under their green surgical scrubs, he went home, showered and shaved, then dressed in casual slacks and a blue shirt.
Rolling the sleeves up on his arms as he headed for the garage, his thoughts turned to the ordeal at hand. Susan Wainwright, at her age and level of health, would be an ideal candidate for a new heart.
He grinned with wicked humor. She'd be furious when she saw him at dinner tonight. The idea still amused him when he arrived at the Carson ranch, all 15,500 acres of it.
Susan heard the purr of an engine and knew Michael had arrived. She wished she hadn't come, but Rose had asked her to help with the meal, since her
morning sickness was acting up and apt to occur at any time of the day or night.
A funny ping went through Susan at the thought of a child. It wasn't that she was jealousâRose was the most wonderful sister one could imagineâit was justâ¦