Authors: Laurie Paige
“A classic, or one of those modern things I never seem to understand?”
“We call it fruit salad,” she replied with an endearing little laugh. “A mixture of light, fun pieces from a variety of ballets. Pure fluff, but audiences love it.”
He liked her sharing this little insight with him, as if he, too, were an insider to the workings of the art form.
After she departed in that fluid, effortless manner she had, he dictated a report on her condition. The computer printed it out. After reading it over, he placed it in an envelope, put a stamp in the corner and stuck it in his pocket. He'd been asked for the report by Friday. The ballet director should get it tomorrow if he mailed it tonight.
Taking the letter with him, he walked the two blocks to his condo. His pad was on the fourteenth floor, a nifty but rather plain two-bedroom penthouse that was convenient to the office, the hospital and the gym where he worked out while in Houston.
No one had ever spent the night there with him, except his nineteen-year-old niece, Janis.
Ironically the youngster was also avid about ballet and wanted to come to Houston to study dance, but her dad, who was his brother and some twenty years older than himself, was against the idea. Her parents wanted her to stay at the University of Hawaii.
Jim and his wife lived in Hawaii, and they naturally wanted their daughter close. Michael could identify with that, even though he'd never had a close family life himself.
For a moment, nostalgia rolled over him. Recalling his evening at Matt's house with Susan and the other couples, he considered the camaraderie of the Carson brothers. It was one of the things that he'd noticed about the whole family when they had all showed up in mutual support of their father during his bypass surgery.
A nice family, he concluded, made even nicer by the addition of Josie and Rose and the expected babies.
Changing his direction, he decided to go to the gym for an hour and work off the restless energy that plagued him. Oh, one other thing. He dropped the envelope into the mailbox on the corner next to the gym.
There. The grisly deed was done.
He smiled grimly. Now it would be a race between
who would finish him off first: Susan Wainwright or Carmine Mercado. He was personally betting on Susan.
“Tell him Susan Wainwright is here,” Susan told the polite but implacable doorman who wouldn't let her go farther than the lobby of the expensive condos.
She glared at the polished pink granite tiles on the floor and the wall housing the elevator. She knew that Michael lived on the top floor.
The penthouse, where he seduced unsuspecting women, she added with vicious sarcasm.
“Uh, he says you're to go right up,” the doorman finally told her, hanging up the phone.
The man briskly opened the elevator, saw her inside and punched a button on the panel before stepping back into the lobby and watching as the doors slid closed.
Susan crossed her arms while she rose with smooth speed to the fourteenth floor. When the doors slid open, she stepped out into a large granite foyer with flowers and palm trees, illuminated by a skylight. Chaises and padded chairs were placed at strategic points, making the space seem like a formal living room. Four penthouses opened off the foyer.
Michael stood at one solid oak door. “Welcome to my humble home,” he said, a half smile on his lips. He gave a little bow.
“Huh” was her reply to his mock graciousness.
She sailed inside when he stepped back and waved her in.
She stopped abruptly. The lights of the city were laid out at her feet, a banquet of sparkling jewels wrapping around the living room in a breathtaking sweep through floor-to-ceiling windows that lined two sides of the elegant room. She had only to stoop and grab a pocketful of riches.
“Beautiful, isn't it?” he said softly behind her.
She became aware of his body heat along her back. When she stepped forward, then turned, she found his eyes on her.
Pain, sharp and hungry, speared through her.
It seemed unfair to find all this loveliness, to find
at this moment in her life.
“It's very nice,” she murmured, getting herself under control and dismissing the ache of passionate need, the longing that confused her.
“Have you eaten?”
She hadn't thought about food since her meeting with the director of the ballet company. “No.”
“Good. I put a chicken on the grill earlier. There's plentyâ”
“Why did you tell the director I couldn't dance again?”
He paused at a wide archway leading into a modern kitchen made for today's entertaining. A black glass cooktop was set into an island dividing the kitchen from the living room. The host or hostess
could prepare a meal and talk to guests at the same time.
“Mmm, she got the letter,” he said, nodding as if approving the swiftness of the postal service.
“A medical directive, she called it.” Susan was so angry, she could hardly speak. “You went behind my backâ”
“Hardly,” he interrupted in a harder tone. “I did my job, the one I was paid to do by the insurance company. The ballet director sent me the forms after I spoke to your regular doctor on Tuesday.”
“You had no right to fill out any forms,” she informed him, her voice shaking, she was so furious.
This time he spoke very gently. “I did.”
“I didn't take those tests as a patient of yours. I only did it to appease my family.”
His eyebrows rose at this proclamation. She realized in going with him to his office or the hospital or wherever he told her the past week, she had indeed become his patient.
He poured a glass of white wine and set it on the pink-and-black granite counter of the island, pushing it toward her. He refilled his own glass, then prepared another salad to join the one already made. He heated a frozen Duchess potato in the microwave.
Indicating the potato, he said, “Sorry. I take a lot of shortcuts. You may as well sit down. I'm not going to discuss this on an empty stomach. You look as if you need to settle down, as well.”
“I'm fine,” she said, hardly able to move her jaw.
His unexpected smile almost dissolved her fury at being tricked by him and the ballet director. Tears rose, nearly choking her as she thought of her future.
Which didn't exist.
She had lived for the ballet so long she couldn't imagine what she would do with her time if she never danced again. Pressing a hand to her chest, she willed the momentary weakness away. She was fine. Fine.
Michael came around the island and wrapped her in his arms, as if sensing her uncertainty. “I'll take very good care of you. I'll make the surgery as easy as I can.”
For a few seconds she let herself relax in his embrace. It felt so good to put herself in his capable hands and not have to think anymore. Her heart settled into a rhythm with his.
“Susan,” he said, his voice deep and quiet and compelling, but so gentle.
So very gentle it almost made her weep. She tilted her head against his arm and stared into eyes that suddenly seemed a darker blue. She wanted to speak, to ask himâ¦something, but she could only think of his name.
“Michael,” she whispered, and heard the longing she could no longer deny.
His chest lifted against her breasts as he pulled
in a deep breath. “You could make me forget,” he said.
“My oath to do no harm,” he muttered cryptically.
She couldn't wait any longer. Rising on her toes, she took the kiss, as hungry as a newborn for nourishment.
He gave a deep, throaty growl and pulled her closer into his arms. The kiss deepened, becoming ever more demanding as hunger rampaged between them.
She wished she'd met this man long ago, back when she was young and was positive she could have all of life her own way. The fierce hunger added to the pain that seemed to fill her soul of late.
When he sought entrance to her mouth, she gave it eagerly, then followed his tongue in sensual play. At last she became aware that she couldn't get enough air. She moaned and moved her head slightly.
He released her mouth, permitting her to breathe deeply, while he trailed kisses along her jaw, her ear, her throat, down to the open collar of her dress. Heat infused her all the way to the cold inner spot that had formed when she'd collapsed onstage. With this man, she felt strong and invincible once more.
“So different,” she murmured, perplexed by all
the emotion and sensation that assailed her. “Why? Why is it different with you?”
His soft laughter made her breasts ache for him, her nipples harden. She wanted more from him.
“Because it was meant to be. Some things can't be denied.” He lifted his head and stared into her eyes. “This is one of them.”
“I'm not denying it,” she told him, reminded that he'd accused her of being in denial about her heart. “It's realâ¦this passion, the hunger you bring into being.” She tried to look away but couldn't. “It isn't a good time.”
“The timing may not be perfect, but it would be good,” he promised, passion making his eyes flame with unconcealed need. “Between us, it would be very good.”
She pressed her forehead to his chest and tried to recall the anger. “You betrayed me. You wrote the letter that destroyed my life.”
“No. I did my job. I'll never do less than the best I can as a doctor. Nothing and no one can change that.”
He tipped her face up so he could study her. She met his unrelenting perusal, the demand in the depths of his eyes and knew what he wanted from her.
Pain, harsher than any she'd ever experienced, washed over her in a sickening wave. “I won't,” she whispered, pulling away from his comforting
embrace. “My heart has worked fine for twenty-seven years.”
“It's failing now.”
She couldn't let herself believe that. “Liar.”
“I'm not the one in denial.”
Words failed her. She shook her head and pulled away from the warmth and security in his embrace. She wanted to run. She wanted to stay. She wanted him to take away the pain and give her life back.
Retreating, she grabbed her purse and rushed toward the door. “You don't know,” she whispered almost on a sob. “You just don't know.”
“I do,” he contradicted in the very gentle manner he sometimes displayed. “I do know. Don't go.”
But she had to. He was too compelling, too attractive, too many things, none of them meant for her.
ichael debated following Susan, but decided against it. She needed time to cool down, think things through, then accept the inevitable. He had no doubt that she would. She was too candid to lie to herself for long.
The phone rang.
He muttered an expletive. He didn't want to deal with a life-and-death emergency tonight. However the call wasn't from the hospital or his answering service.
“Hey, Doc,” the doorman said. “Uh, that lady that came to see youâ¦”
“Well, when the elevator door opened, she was lying on the floorâ”
“She like fainted or something. Can you come down?”
“Is she still in the elevator?”
“Yeah. I didn't know what to doâ”
“Send it back up. I'll take care of her.”
“Right,” the man said in obvious relief.
Michael waited impatiently in the foyer. As soon as the elevator doors opened, he stepped inside and assessed the situation. Susan was propped in a corner. She opened her eyes when he bent over her.
“I'm all right. Just a little dizzy spell,” she mumbled. Her face was white, her lips blue tinged.
“Little fool,” he said, and scooped her up.
“I'm fineâ¦” Her head wobbled and fell to his shoulder. She gave a low groan.
He could feel the hard erratic beating of her heart against his chest. Kicking the door closed behind them, he carried her into his condo. In his bedroom, he carefully laid her down on the comforter.
Taking her pulse, he found her heart was working overtime, but she still wasn't getting enough oxygen. Opening the medical bag he always kept with him, he pulled out the cuff and took her blood pressure. High, but not bad, considering the condition of her heart.
With quick movements, he unfastened the belt and buttons on her shirt-type dress and pushed it aside so he could listen to her heart with the stethoscope.
It was dropping beats, then pounding erratically to make up the loss, but the beats were strong enough, not fluttery or weak. No gurgles to indicate valve leakage.
“You're okay,” he said. “Just upset. You'll have to give up anger as a defense. Your heart can't take it.”
She opened her eyes and he saw the despair before she managed to hide it behind a sarcastic smile. “Dr. O'Day to the rescue. My hero.”
“Michael,” he said.
She pushed up against the headboard and pulled the edges of her dress together. It was too late. He already knew how enticing she looked in a lacy beige bra and matching panties. She wore no slip. Her legs were long, supple and tanned to a golden hue. He removed her sandals and placed them neatly under his reading chair.
He slipped an arm around her shoulders to lift her up and positioned two pillows behind her back, then lowered her so she could rest on them.
“Are you feeling nauseated?” he asked, forcing himself to step back rather than climb in bed with her.
“No. I'm fine.” She frowned. “Maybe a little wobbly.”
He could have kissed her for admitting it. A first step for the stubborn ballerina. A big one.
She fidgeted with her buttons, fastening them, but her hands were trembling, making her fingers awkward. He saw no reason to offer to help. She wasn't going anywhere.
“Here, take this.” He handed her a pill and fetched a glass of water from the bathroom.
“What is it?”
“Aspirin. To make it easier on your heart.”
She hesitated, then took the pill. “Would you call me a taxi?” she requested. “I don't think I feel like walking home at the present.”
Her smile was cheeky, but it didn't sway him. “No.”
“I want to go home.” She glared at him.
“You'll stay here tonight.”
“Either here or in the hospital. Your choice.”
She clenched her fists as if preparing to strike him. Color returned to her face, and her eyes flashed fire. He waited to see which way she would goâfight or flight.
Energy surged through him at the thought of a tussle between them. All his senses went on high alert. He inhaled the light scent of her cologne, the feminine fragrance that was part of her. Blood shot to strategic points in his body, making him very aware of his own heart's clamoring.
“You can't make meâ” She stopped as if realizing he possibly could.
“I can,” he stated. “After that barrage of tests this week, I'm listed as your caregiver with the hospital and the testing lab. You'd have to fill out a ton of hospital and insurance forms to go against my orders.”
“Yes.” He went to the armoire. “Here are pajamas and a robe. Dinner's in fifteen minutes.” He
paused and looked her over, a sharp challenge in his eyes. “Don't try to slip out. And don't take a bath. Unless you want me in there to see that you don't faint and drown.”
Chuckling at the shock that flitted over her rebellious face, he returned to the meal he'd been working on before her timelyâor untimely, according to how one wanted to look at itâarrival. He placed the two Duchess potatoes in the toaster oven to warm, set the table, turned the lights to a soft glow so they could enjoy the lights of the city while dining. Out on the garden patio, he removed the chicken from the grill rotisserie.
After putting the food on the table and pouring them each a fresh glass of wine, he called, “Dinner.”
She appeared at once, still dressed and buttoned from neck to hem, the sandals on her feet.
Holding a chair, he beckoned her to be seated. She did so, her back as stiff as a mad cat's.
He played the polite host, inquiring as to her favorite kind of meat, white or dark, then giving her some of each when she indicated it didn't matter. While she picked at the food, he polished off almost all the chicken, along with the potato and a huge serving of mixed salad greens.
“There's frozen yogurt and strawberries for dessert,” he told her when she laid the fork on her plate. He didn't comment on how little she'd eaten.
“I don't care for any, thank you.”
He carried their plates to the kitchen, put them into the dishwasher, then dished up a big bowl of the yogurt and strawberries and added a large dollop of hot fudge sauce to top it off.
“You should be big as a house,” she muttered when he returned to the table.
He grinned. “A growing boy needs sustenance.”
Heat erupted low in his abdomen as she raked him over with those green eyes, cool now that she'd calmed down.
When she turned back to the view, he inhaled deeply and willed his libido to quiet down. In letting him perform tests on her, he truly had become her doctor. Only the worst kind of medical practitioner took advantage of the doctor-patient dependency syndrome that could thus develop.
Not that Susan showed any signs of that, he admitted with rueful candor. Just the opposite. She fought him every step of the way. Besides, the attraction had been there from the first, before he knew her as a candidate for surgery.
“Did you mean it when you said you'd give me three months?” she asked after several minutes of silence.
She watched him over the rim of the wineglass as she took a sip after asking the question. A shield, he mused. She was keeping her defenses up.
“It's a definite possibility.”
He saw her chest rise and fall in a sigh. Placing the glass on the table, she rubbed the condensation from it, her expression closed but thoughtful. He waited, although he wanted to take her into his arms again and comfort her.
He knew where that would lead.
They were both too vulnerable tonight, and they were too volatile together. He pulled his shredding integrity together and stayed where he was while she considered her options and the ordeal she faced.
“Bite?” he finally asked, and held out a spoonful of dessert.
To his surprise, she took it, delicately wiping off a drop of chocolate from her lower lip with a quick sweep of her tongue. It almost wiped out every bit of his resolve to resist his attraction to her.
They finished off the treat, sharing bites as if they'd done this often. After he straightened up the kitchen, they watched an old movie on TV. He took her pulse and blood pressure again before going to bed.
“Better,” he pronounced when she looked at him, concealed anxiety in her eyes. “This will help you sleep.”
He gave her a medication that would relax her and induce natural sleep. Her heart needed the rest, as did her mind. Sleep would let her subconscious sort through the tangled emotions and maybe accept her fate.
After she was ensconced in the guest room, along with the pajamas, robe and a toothbrush, he went to his room. Looking at the mussed comforter on his bed, he thought of sleeping there with her. Well, not exactly sleeping.
An hour later, he considered taking a pill himself in order to relax and get some sleep. It had been a long time since a woman had kept him awake. His life had been too busy. Dedicated to his career, he really hadn't thought about marriage and all that it entailed.
And he still wasn't considering it, he reminded himself caustically. Commitment was a big step and he'd already made oneâmedicine.
Susan woke frightened and disoriented. She stared around the dark room and wondered where she was.
The door opened a crack.
“Are you all right?” Michael asked.
Everything came back to her. She pressed a hand to her pounding chest and sucked in deep breaths until the pain receded. “I was dreaming.”
“Yeah, I heard you struggling. Did a monster grab you?”
He came into the room and flicked on the bedside lamp. She saw it was nearly two in the morning.
Ignoring his humor, she shook her head. “It was someplace dark. I couldn't see anything. It was like being blind. And deaf. I was waiting for my cue, but
I couldn't hear the music. I tried to move closer to the stage, to see which ballet we were doing, but it was as if I was glued to the spot. I knew it must be time for me to go on, but something held me back.”
Closing her mouth, she cut off the flow of words before she disclosed too muchâthe horror of the dream, the terrible, terrible sense of loss, the desperation to take her place onstage, the need to dance until her heart stoppedâ¦
“You must have been backstage at the ballet,” he told her.
A chord thrummed inside her. It bothered her that he understood the dream and what she'd been feeling.
“Turn over,” he said in a soothing voice.
Before she quite knew how it happened, she was on her stomach, and he was massaging her shoulders through the borrowed pajama top. When he rubbed down either side of her spine with his thumbs, she moaned in ecstasy.
“I'll give you just thirty minutes to stop that,” she said, the tense muscles relaxing all at once as she tried for a lighter note. The nightmare receded, and she felt safe once more.
He chuckled, a rich sound that reminded her of hot-fudge sauce and other good things. The hunger roiled through her, catching her by surprise. She gasped.
“Did I hurt you?” he asked, easing up on his strokes.
“Do you need another pill to sleep?”
“What's wrong?” he asked.
“How do you always know when I'mâ¦whenâ¦” She stopped the runaway words before she made a complete fool of herself and willed the need to go away.
“When you're vulnerable?” he asked quietly. “Because you're a fighter, and there's no one to fight.”
She turned over and looked at him, and her breath caught. He wore pajama bottoms only. His chest was broad and muscular. A generous covering of black hair swirled over trim, washboard ribs and arrowed down to the waistband.
“Don't look at me like that,” he warned, a hint of laughter in the words, but danger, too.
He was an aroused male animal. She knew she shouldn't tempt him too far, but she ignored the warning.
“Make love to me,” she whispered.
Regret shadowed his eyes. He shook his head. “I can't. It's not good ethics.”
“Ethics be damned.” She reached for him.
The kiss was sweet and as hot as a July fire-cracker. Somewhere in the misty delight, she won
dered why she wanted this man, this way, this much. It made no sense to desire the enemy. Except he didn't feel like an enemy.
She ran her hands over his torsoâhis back, his sides, his chest, down to his abdomen where the muscles tensed like rocks under her fingers.
He caught her hands and held them against the mattress, his weight lightly on her. Their bodies slipped down until she lay on the pillow. She could feel her heart beating, felt that his was just as fast. When he let her mouth go, he pressed his face into her hair.
“You can drive me wild with just a word, a touch,” he admitted.
“I've never wanted anyone like this, either. It's totally insane, yetâ¦”
“It seems the only sane thing in a world gone mad,” he finished for her. Then he pulled away and sat up. “But it's not going to happen.”
She considered, somehow knowing she could push past his defenses if she persisted. It was heady knowledge. Her nipples beaded as fresh hunger rushed through her.
He smiled and with a forefinger gently flicked each tip visible against the cotton of the pajamas. “We're a dangerous combination. Go to sleep, dancing girl, before I forget my good intentions.” With that, he left her and closed her door behind him.
Sighing deeply, she let the sexual tension drain out
of her, refusing to see any other reasons for the passion between them. It was all physical attraction, nothing more.
Finally she closed her eyes as sleep claimed her again. She felt oddly secure now. She had only to call out and he would be there. It was a good thing to know.
Susan spotted Michael on the patio as soon as she entered the living room the next morning. He was drinking coffee and reading the paper. She went to the kitchen and poured a cup. Seeing her, he indicated a chair at the glass-topped table. She joined him.