Authors: Laurie Paige
Okay, maybe she was envious, but only a little.
A heaviness swept over her spirits at the lie. This past year, as it became harder and harder to stick to her practice schedule, several truths had crept up on her.
First, dancing was hard work. Few lead ballerinas made it much past thirty, because the job was so hard on the knees and feet. She'd had no injuries in that department, but one never knew when it could happen. Besides, lately she was so tired all the time.
Second, she'd become aware of loneliness in her life. It didn't seem as if she would ever find the one person meant for her, someone who would understand her drive as a dancer and let her live her life.
And third, she'd probably never have children.
Watching Rose and Matt, seeing the glow in their eyes for each other had awakened something inside her.
Envy, yes. But more than that. A longing for something she couldn't exactly define.
She grimaced. Most men she met didn't take her career seriously at all. They didn't seem to under
stand that she'd spent years getting where she was, that she'd started dance lessons when she was four years old. Twenty-three years of unrelenting effort. One couldn't let up for a second and expect to remain at the top of the pyramid.
She'd expended just as much sweat equity in her career as most men had in theirs, and a heck of a lot more than some of them had.
“Hey, Michael.” She heard Matt call a greeting to the famous doctor. Her heart pounded furiously.
Arrogant ape, implying she was self-centered and bratty to cause her family concern over her condition.
It was her life, her body, her heart!
Only she could decide what to do about it. So far, she'd done fine, showing their family doctor and the cardiologist from her youth that she could make it with her “child-size” heart.
“The salad's ready,” she announced.
Rose glanced up with a smile from the chocolate icing she was spreading over brownies. “Good. The potatoes are done. I turned the oven off. Josie, would you mind taking the steaks out to Matt? Oh, and see if Michael would like a glass of wine or iced tea rather than beer.”
“I don't mind at all.” Josie smoothed the tablecloth and placed the crystal bowl of floating roses in the center.
Flynt's wife, Josie, was also expecting. There
must be a fecundity in the Texas air these days, Susan thought. Josie was a natural mother. Susan had watched her earlier with Baby Lena, who was asleep in the guest room at present.
“I'll set the table,” Susan volunteered, shaking off thoughts of babies and such things. She felt a tad self-righteous about helping her sister. That should show the baboon she was as nice as anyone.
Except she wasn't as nice as her big sister. Nor as beautiful. Rose, with her black hair, violet eyes and fair, delicate skin, was truly lovely. She had depth to her, a quietness within, as if she'd always known who she was and where she was going.
Susan sighed. She'd been something of a rebel, stubbornly packing off to Houston and trying out for a position with the ballet company in spite of her family's conviction that she would never make it, that her health wouldn't let her even if she had the talent.
She brightened. She
made it. But now her life's passion was threatened. The dance company director had made it clear she couldn't return without a clean bill of health.
Not only that, she wasn't even allowed to drive. Her license was temporarily suspended due to her collapse, until a doctor determined that she was well enough to manage a car. It was simply too much.
“Hello, Susan,” Michael said in a deep voice that caused the tension level in the room to soar.
Although she'd been aware of him entering the house, unexpected tremors vibrated through her, like a string plucked carelessly and too hard by someone who was not a musician. She inhaled sharply, aware of the heightened pulse beating in her temple, and filled her senses with the scent of talc, men's cologne and the freshness of the evening that clung to his powerful frame.
After placing the last plate on the table, she tossed a casual smile his way. “Nice to see you again.”
She'd be polite if it killed her. Rose didn't need to be upset by strain between her and this overconfident surgeon. Needing to go between him and the table to return to the kitchen, she hesitated as she eyed the space.
He was about six inches taller than her five feet, eight inches. A perfect height for ballroom dancing, the thought came to her. She loved all forms of the art.
Meeting the intense blue of his eyes, she murmured, “Excuse me,” and waited for him to move out of her way.
To her chagrin, he took her hand in his, then laid the fingertips of his other hand against her wrist.
“Don't,” she warned.
He counted, then released her hand. “One hundred and five.” He informed her of her heart rate as if he'd taken on responsibility for her health.
“I'm not your patient,” she whispered in a near snarl.
“Chalk it up to my job. It's worrisome when someone ignores the obvious. How long do you think your heart can keep up that pace?”
She swept past him. Seeing Rose's concerned gaze, she forced a smile and kept her hands by her sides, although the familiar pain stabbed at her chest. She breathed very deeply, willing her body to slow down and relax.
Her pulse was fast only because Michael O'Day, famous heart surgeon, made her so blasted angry. He probably tortured his patients into letting him operate.
At that ridiculous idea, she had to grin. She was letting all this turmoil affect her too much.
“Well,” she said when they sat down for the meal, “here we are. Two Wainwrightsâ” she indicated herself and Rose “âtwo Carsonsâ” she nodded toward Flynt and Matt “âand two referees to keep the peace.” She gestured toward Josie and Michael.
Susan was pleased when the other five laughed at her little jab about the infamous Carson-Wainwright feud. Their father had been furious when he learned Rose, the sweet, quiet one in the family, was pregnant. He'd nearly had a hemorrhage when he learned the father belonged to the Carson clan.
“Rose is a Carson now,” Matt said with obvious satisfaction.
Susan shook her head. “No way. Maybe half and half, but certainly no more.”
“These modern women,” Michael complained. “Life was simpler when we could just kidnap them and drag them off to join the male's clan.”
“In some tribes, the male joined the female's family,” Susan said, quick to point out this fact.
A cry from the bedroom had Josie leaping to her feet and fleeing the room, Flynt right behind her.
“Lena,” Rose explained.
The couple returned to the dining room carrying a bundle of pink. The baby girl blinked sleepily at the adults, then puckered up again.
“The bottle,” Flynt said, and rushed to the refrigerator. He brought a baby bottle to Josie. “Would you like me to feed her so you can eat?”
Josie shook her head. “Please, all of you, don't let your food get cold. This will only take a few minutes.”
The surrogate mother fed the hungry little girl while the other adults watched in open fascination.
“How old is she now?” Susan asked.
“About six months, we think,” Josie told her. “The doctor said she wasn't more than eight to ten weeks old when she was found. How could her mother bear to leave her?”
Susan pressed a hand to her chest as fresh pain
surged there. How, indeed, could anyone leave a child?
“I operated on a six-month-old in June,” Michael said, a pensive look on his face. “He had a hole between the chambers of his heart.”
Flynt gave his friend a worried glance. “How did he do?”
Susan's heart did a little dance against her breastbone when Michael smiled.
“Fine. He was a fighter from the start. Now his mother says she can't keep him out of trouble. He crawls all over the house and gets into everything.”
Susan was surprised at how relieved she felt at the happy ending to Michael's story concerning the child. Her eyes were drawn to Baby Lena. Her own mother had almost given up on grandchildren. Justin, her brother, had once been married, but that had ended in divorce and no children. Now they had Rose's baby to look forward to.
At ten, when Rose served coffee and dessert, Susan realized she was really tired. She'd have to wait until everyone left, though, so Matt could drive her home.
As if on cue, Matt spoke up. “Uh, Michael, would you mind dropping Susan off at her place on your way home?”
“Not at all.” Michael leveled a sardonic glance on her. “I probably should go since I have to return to Houston in the morning. If you're ready, Susan?”
She realized there was absolutely nothing she could say but yes. She hugged her sister, told Josie what a lovely job she was doing with Lena, bid the Carson brothers good-night and allowed Michael to escort her from the house.
In the car, with moonlight softly illuminating the landscape and the cool night air flowing through her hair, Susan fumed silently, determined not to quarrel or even speak for the duration of the ride. Thank goodness it wouldn't be long, for the Wainwright ranch adjoined the Carson spread along one side.
“Is it too windy?” he asked. “Shall I put the top up?”
“It was a good thing Flynt took the baby, wasn't it?”
“The foundling brought Josie into his life. She's been good for him, I think, just as Rose had been good for Matt.”
“Mmm,” she said.
Michael enjoyed needling her into conversation, such as it was. He had to fight a grin as her answers grew shorter and shorter. “Why don't you say what you're thinking before you explode?” he suggested.
“And what is that?” she asked haughtily.
“That you'd rather ride on a bony mule than in a car with me.”
“Personally, I can't see much difference.”
That did it. He burst into laughter while she flashed him a killing glance from those cool green eyes. “I've always been attracted to a woman of quick wit and a fiery temperament,” he murmured.
He was certainly attracted to this woman, he admitted. Flames singed his insides as they rode through the balmy September night. He had the feeling she wasn't indifferent, either, although she pretended he didn't exist at the moment, focusing her attention on the moonlight-flooded fields.
“Beautiful night, isn't it? If we were a couple of kids on a date, I'd be looking for a parking spot about now. Maybe under those pine trees over there.”
“You'd get pine sap on your car,” she informed him.
“For you I'd chance it,” he goaded, his voice lowering to a sexy, husky level that he hadn't intended.
Arriving at the entrance to the Wainwright ranch, he turned in, then stopped in front of a sprawling white ranch house reminiscent of South Fork on the old TV series,
He wondered which bedroom was hers.
She had the door open almost before he stopped. When she headed for the house entrance, he was hot on her heels. With a deliberately casual air, he grasped her arm as if to make sure she didn't stumble
and fall into the lush landscaping bordering the front walk.
“Thanks for the ride,” she said politely. It was an obvious dismissal.
Something stubborn reared up inside him. “No trouble,” he murmured, then did something he'd never done before: he kissed an unwilling woman.
Bending slightly forward, he lowered his head and brushed his mouth over hers, softly, teasing her and perhaps himself because of the sparks that flashed between them now and that had from that first encounter in the street.
If he had any sense, he'd run as fast as he could in the opposite direction from this beautiful young woman with her lithe dancer's body and her fierce anger at the unfair hand she'd been dealt.
Instead of slapping his face as he half expected, Susan stood perfectly still during the first brief kiss, then anotherâ¦and another.
It was hard to stop, to give up the softness of her mouth, to ignore the tremor in her sensitive lips or the unconscious invitation when they parted in an audible sigh. Caressing her neck, he felt the telltale pounding of a pulse that spoke of the danger she was determined to deny.
“You can't fight fate,” he advised gently as he finally surrendered her mouth. “You'll only hurt yourself.”
Her chin shot up. “So you say. How much do you get for performing heart surgery?”
“A lot,” he admitted, not taking offense at her intended insult.
She went inside and closed the door quietly but firmly in his face.
Michael drove home, no longer aware of the moonlight, but thinking instead of the precarious nature of life itself. There was a sense of urgency in him, as if he needed to do something right away.
Like make love to Susan Wainwright before she disappeared into a wisp of moonlight?
He gave a wry grimace at the absurdity of this notion as he parked and depressed the remote to close the garage door behind him. Two shadows stepped out of the gloom of the dim interior.
“Easy, Doc,” one of them said. “We need to have a little talk.”
o I know you?” Michael asked when he stood face-to-face with the two men in his living room.
Both men wore suits and ties. One, obviously several years older than the other, had a diamond pinky ring. From their appearance, Michael didn't think this was a burglary.
“You know Carmine Mercado,” the spokesman of the duo informed him.
“Ah.” He indicated the comfortable grouping of chairs. “Have a seat, gentlemen. Would you like a brandy?”
The two men exchanged a glance and nodded. Michael poured each of them a brandy and one for himself, then joined them. “I suppose Mr. Mercado has more questions.”
“Nah,” the younger man said.
“Maybe,” the older one corrected. He leaned forward, his manner suddenly earnest. “He needs a heart.”
Michael nodded. “So he said.”
“His doc tells him he probably won't get one because of his age.”
Michael nodded again. The don had little hope unless a perfect match came in and there was no one younger and healthier who could use it. Fat chance of that happening.
“How does a half mil strike you?” the mobster asked.
“As in, half a million dollars?”
“Sorry, I don't follow you. What's the half mil for?”
“For the operation,” the older man said impatiently. “You arrange for the operation, get the hospital to agree and the money will be deposited in your name in any bank in the world, plus the insurance will pay your regular fee.”
Michael swirled the brandy, then took a sip, letting it glide across his tongue while he composed an answer.
“Tell Mr. Mercado I'm sorry,” he said, and truly meant it. A man's life hanging in the balance wasn't a joking matter, no matter how that life was lived. “It isn't up to me. There's a hospital medical board that decides who gets the next available heart, provided a match comes up. You do understand that there are several blood factors that have to match before we can even take a chance on surgery?”
Michael wasn't sure what the grunted answer meant. He waited for their next move, not at all
threatened by their presence now that he knew they were sent by Mercado. The Mafia boss controlled his operations and his minions with an iron fist in a velvet glove, or so he'd heard.
“So, you're refusing to do it?” the older mobster asked, his eyes narrowed.
“I didn't say that. Mercado has my office number. Tell him to call me tomorrow afternoon. I'll be glad to explain how the system works.” Michael stood, dismissing the men.
The older thug set the half-full brandy glass on the coffee table. The younger one polished his off in a final gulp before standing when his superior did.
Michael walked the men to the door and politely held it open for them. “Good night, gentlemen.”
“By the way, Doc, you forgot to set your security alarm.” The thug smiled before stepping outside.
Michael nodded once in response. In truth, he never armed the device. He had very little in the house to steal.
After locking the door, he returned to the living room and picked up his brandy glass. It occurred to him that the goons had no doubt searched every inch of his house.
They probably had a wax impression of his front door key or the code to his garage door opener or whatever means the Mafia used nowadays to enter a person's house unbidden.
He laughed at the absurdity of the situation. Susan
Wainwright and Carmine Mercado. His life was definitely getting interesting.
Susan paced restlessly in front of the hangar. She wouldn't be here at all except for the constant worry she saw in her mother's eyes. So she would let the arrogant Dr. Michael O'Day do a few tests, conclude that her heart was doing just fine and that would be the end of it.
A niggle of fear belied that conclusion.
“Well, hello,” a surprised male voice said.
Every nerve in her body twitched at the sound of the indecently sexy tone. “Hi,” she said grumpily. “It should be a crime to sound so cheerful this early in the morning.”
Michael glanced at his watch as he opened the hangar door. “The sun was up hours ago.”
His light-blue gaze swept over her, making her heart speed up. She willed it to a normal beat.
“No luggage?” he asked.
“No. My apartment is in Houston, along with my city clothes. I keep my ranch duds here.”
“Good thinking. Come inside. It'll take me a few minutes to run through the checklist.”
She observed him as he went through the routine of the preflight check, his attention totally focused on the job.
He wore light-blue slacks and a white polo shirt with blue edging on the collar and sleeves this morn
ing. A bit of silver gleamed among the strands of black hair as sunlight shone briefly on him when he moved around the front of the plane.
“Yo, Doc,” another man called and came over to them.
Susan exchanged greetings with the handsome black man dressed in baggy shorts and a leather vest when Michael introduced them.
“Chuck is the best airplane mechanic in these parts,” Michael explained. “He manages the airstrip, too.”
Chuck accepted the praise as his due. “I checked the engines over on this baby. She's cool, man.”
“Thanks.” Michael put the checklist in the plane. He glanced her way. “You can board, if you like, then I'll push the plane out.”
“I'll help,” she volunteered.
His grin was quick, charming and easy. “Okay.”
She was relieved he didn't argue or make a fuss about her heart. Her father and brothers would hardly let her lift a finger when she was at the ranch.
The three of them pushed the plane into position. She and Michael climbed aboard. She waved at Chuck, who gave her a thumbs-up sign and an approving smile. She wondered if he thought there was more to her being with Michael than a doctor-patient relationship.
Stealing a glance at her companion as he completed the checklist then taxied to the runway, she
wondered the same. Those fleeting kisses, hardly more than the lightest glissade across her lips, had left her sleepless last night.
As the plane rose, she watched the landscape fall away. “There's our ranch,” she said.
“Shall we buzz it?”
“Is it legal?”
“As long as we don't get caught.”
With a chuckle, he swooped down on the ranch house. Susan waved to the ranch hands as they walked toward the stable. “Oh,” she said, seeing someone else.
Michael dipped the right wing so he could see what she was staring at. “Who is he?” he asked, spotting the man fixing a flat by the side of the road.
“You can't just drop it at that,” he told her in that gentle way he had when he knew a person was upset.
“My father had an affair with someone. A Native American woman. Hawk was the result. I never knew of him until he moved here and took a job at a nearby ranch.”
“Is he why your parents divorced?”
“Yes. My mother found out when I was a baby. My father admits nothing, but Hawk bears his name andâ¦and there is a family resemblance. The three
legitimate kids, Justin, Rose and myself, have never known how to handle the situation, so we've mostly ignored him. He's pretty standoffish, too. It must be terrible to be an outsider to your own familyâ” She stopped abruptly. Hawk was a family secret that no one talked about.
“Yeah, tough,” Michael agreed.
She appreciated his sympathetic yet nonjudgmental tone. “We lived in Houston while growing up, but Mother moved back here to be near her family a couple of years ago. Father remodeled a house on the ranch for her. She stays there when she's not in Houston. I think they still love each other, butâ¦”
“It's hard to forgive and forget?”
“Would you?” he asked.
A chill attacked her neck at the softly spoken question. She shook her head. “I think women still require fidelity in a marriage. Otherwise, why bother?”
“Yet, in a recent report in a medical journal, twenty-eight percent of the DNA tests for paternity turned out not to be the reputed father's, but some other man's kid. Females don't appear to be much more faithful than males.”
“That number doesn't extend to the whole female population. Those were cases in which paternity was already being questioned. I think it's pretty revealing that in seventy-two percent of them, from marriages
that were obviously in trouble, the child
“A point well taken,” he conceded.
“You said that once before, on Saturday when you nearly ran over me.”
“You have a good memory.”
His eyes met hers. They suddenly seemed darker as thoughts she couldn't read darted through them. She pulled her gaze away from the mesmerizing quality of his.
“I'll never marry,” she said, then was appalled at herself. Why should he care?
“I don't have time for a husband or children.”
“Mmm,” he said. “Childbirth would probably be too much of a strain on your present heart, but with a new one, once past the early rejection stages, there's no reason you couldn't have a normal life.”
“My normal life is ballet,” she reminded him.
“You might have to give up professional dancing,” he told her. “But you could probably teach.”
The unvarnished truth was a bitter pill to swallow, she found. “You can afford to be sanguine about it, but this is my life we're talking about.”
“I'm always truthful with my patients, Susan,” he said quite gently.
Tears stung her eyes. She forced them back and managed a laugh. “Maybe we'd prefer a little less honesty.”
He considered, then shook his head. “I would never lie to you. Perhaps you're more courageous than you think. I think you're capable of taking whatever fate dishes out.”
She wished she was as sure. However, she discovered she did feel better about this trip and the possible diagnosis the famous Dr. O'Day might give her.
“I haven't agreed to an operation,” she quickly reminded him. “I'm only here because of my mother. And my grandmother. She's nearly ninety, but her mind is good. They ganged up on me yesterday.” Her laughter sounded more like a nervous whinny. “So I agreed to see you because of them, because I care about them.”
“Of course,” he said smoothly, and began the descent into Houston.
“How long have you been having chest pains and shortness of breath?” Michael asked on Thursday.
It was after five. His office was closed and only his most stubborn patient was still there. He'd asked Susan to come over after hours to discuss the results of the tests she'd had taken that week.
She tilted her head to one side. “Who says I am?”
For a second he actually considered kissing that mulish expression off her lovely face, but that might lead to other complications and he couldn't afford them.
Monday, he'd had a hard enough time doing his job when he'd had her undress and put on an examining gown. Listening to the erratic beat of her heart had made his own go a little crazy. Barely touching her smooth skin had conjured up visions of climbing onto the table with her and making love instead of checking her health.
He hadn't had those kinds of problems with a patient since his early days in medical school. He smiled grimly to himself. Sometimes his job was tougher than usual.
“You can lie to your parents and yourself, but not to your doctor,” he chided, injecting a hint of humor into the moment. It didn't work.
“You don't know everything.”
Denial was common in patients with serious conditions. To make progress, she had to get past that. As with the death of a loved one, a person had to go through the stages of grief before acceptance could come. Coming face-to-face with your own mortality wasn't easy.
Susan wasn't at that point yet.
But it would have to come. And soon. He decided on brutal honesty. He laid the reports in a neat pile on his desk, his eyes locked on hers. “If you try to continue your present lifestyle, I'll give you three months. If you take it easy, you might have a year.”
She looked stunned. “What? What are you saying?”
“The tests indicate your heart is failing. It drops beats regularly. You didn't get five minutes into the stress test before you became dizzy and weak. You have angina and shortness of breath. How much plainer can I get? In how many more ways does your heart have to warn you it needs help before you listen?”
He had to give her credit. She didn't blink. She didn't cry or curse or do any of the things a patient usually did.
Lifting her chin, she said, “I see. Well, I suppose I'd better get my affairs in order. Isn't that what you tell terminal patientsâto get everything sorted out?”
He shrugged. “I find most patients do as they please without hints from me.”
Her eyes flashed green fire. Fox fire. Again he suppressed an urge to kiss her intoâ¦what?
Acceptance of her fate? Acceptance of his touch?
Turning away abruptly, he pocketed the charts in her folder and laid them in the file basket. “Your life is in your hands. You'll have to decide the future.”
“If I have a transplant, won't I have to take medication the rest of my life?” she asked, her manner now almost subdued.
He liked the fire better. “Probably. A lot at first, then it'll gradually taper down as your body learns to live with the new heart.”
“Quits fighting the alien invasion, don't you mean?”
Ignoring the sarcastic question, he stood. “Would you like to join me for dinner?” He hadn't realized he meant to ask until that moment.
She shook her head. “I'm going to watch the new ballet the company is putting on tonight.”