Authors: Laurie Paige
Bagels, cream cheese and jelly were on a buffet table beside the grill. She helped herself.
The air was clear in the city that morning and wonderfully refreshing for this time of September, although it would be hot in the afternoon. October was only nine days away.
She felt her life slipping away with each tick of the clock. And each beat of her heart.
A need to reach out and grab all she could hit her soul in a tidal wave of grief. With an effort, she summoned her composure and the anger that was rapidly becoming her only barrier to the darkness.
“Don't think, because I acceded to your orders last night, that I'm going to do so again,” she told him.
He hardly glanced up from the paper. “I wouldn't think of it,” he said drolly.
She gave him her meanest glare. He didn't look up.
“Don't think to sway me with sex, either. I admit you're attractive, but I've met lots of handsome men. A few kisses don't mean a thing.”
He sighed, folded the paper and laid it aside. “Do say what's on your mind,” he invited.
“Doctors don't always know what's best. My grandmother was told she'd be dead of cancer within six months when she was in her fifties. She'll be ninety her next birthday.”
“Sometimes remission happens when we least expect it,” he conceded. “But, unlike the Grinch who stole Christmas, your heart isn't going to grow three sizes anytime soon.”
“It's worked fine for years. Why should it suddenly quit?” she demanded. “Answer me that.”
He poured fresh coffee from an insulated carafe, taking his sweet time about replying. She sat perfectly still, as if she, too, had all the time in the world.
Three months. A year.
No wonder she was having nightmares. How dare he calmly tell her something like that! It was cruel.
“Brave heart,” he murmured after sipping the hot brew. “You have a hardworking little heart, but it's
worn out. Right now, I'd say it's running on courage and little else.”
She fought a wild desire to cry, to fling herself into his arms and sob out her fears and frustrations and fury with the uncertainty that haunted her.
No! she commanded. The tears receded.
“You sound like my family,” she told him with an edge of cutting humor. “Susan do this, Susan do that. Listen to your elders. It's for your own good.”
“I'm not that much older than you.”
“But you act like my fatherâolder and wiser and father-knows-best.” She spat out an expletive that told him what she thought of that.
“Were you always a rebel against authority?” he asked, sounding perfectly good-natured.
Michael decided there was only one way to handle an obstinate woman. He'd lay the truth on the line for her so she'd have no misunderstanding of what he was saying.
“We've kissed what, two, three, four times?” he asked.
The question obviously startled her before she remembered to glare at him in distaste, refusing to answer.
“Something like that,” he continued in a lazy drawl. “You reacted strongly each time. Like anger, passion is hard on the heart. How are you going to react when your husband tries to make love to you?”
She didn't answer.
He did it for her. “You could faint. Or have heart failure. Have you thought of that?”
“People laugh when older men have heart attacks while making love, but believe me, it isn't a joke. It's damn scary for him and for his partner. How do you think your husband would react?”
“Since I don't have one, I couldn't say.”
“Come on, entertainers have active imaginations. They have to, in order to transport their audiences into their world of make-believe, don't they?”
“You're the great philosopher. You tell me.”
What he really wanted to do was sweep her into his arms and take her to his bedroom and show her everything he could make her feel in his arms. It was a temptation, almost more than he could stand.
A light sheen of moisture broke out all over him.
“Having children would be out of the question. You are correct in that.”
“I might,” she contradicted. “If I rested and ate right.” She snapped her fingers. “I know. I could take an aspirin a day. Isn't that the miracle cure nowadays?”
“A fight to the finish,” he muttered, admiring her stubborn determination to live life on her terms. He said as gently as he could, “Not for you.”
Three months. One year.
Susan felt the words hammer in her brain. Feign
ing indifference, she finished the bagel and wiped her mouth. “Well, I'm off. Thanks for your hospitality.”
“It was a pleasure.”
There was such sincerity in his reply, such warmth in his eyes, she believed him. She took her dishes to the kitchen to escape his gaze.
He followed her. “I can give you the miracle you need. Let me put your name on the list for a donor.”
Panic raced through her. “I'd rather be dead than never dance again,” she said as fiercely as she could to let him know she meant it.
“You have a wonderful talent. Why not share it with others by teaching?”
“I don't want to teach. I want to dance.”
“Grow up,” he said, suddenly harsh. “You've fulfilled that dream. Go on to another one.”
She grasped the edge of the counter and stared down at its smooth surface. “I can't. I'd be someone different.”
The hateful word hurled itself from her subconscious into her conscious mind. She would become an invalid, always taking pills, always worrying about a cold, a tiny cut, the least infection that could kill her.
“What kind of life would I have?” she questioned aloud.
Laying his hands on her shoulders, he turned her
to face him. “It could be normal. Humans have an amazing capacity to adapt, you more than most. You have great self-discipline. You'd establish a new life.”
Entranced by his belief in her, she was tempted to concede, to simply give in and stop fighting him and her family and those who thought they knew best for her.
“What's in this for you?” she demanded, wanting to hurt him because of the pain he stirred in her.
He gave her a wary, questioning look.
“Money?” she asked. “Prestige? Ah, the wonderful Dr. O'Day. He saved Susan Wainwright, you know. Her family endowed a whole wing of the hospital in his nameâ”
She got no further in her taunting.
Michael had always been too focused, too busy, to bother with anger, especially with other people. Right now, though, he saw red. It was as if an alien mist had rolled over his mind, taking control of his reactions and his conscience.
He would teach her a lesson.
With a quickness of motion ingrained in him from his work, he lifted and carried her to the sofa. There, he laid her out like a feast prepared just for him. Before she could move, he pinned her by lying partially on her, not enough to crush, but enough to keep her at his mercy.
“Let me go,” she demanded.
“Not on your life,” he said in an angry snarl.
Her eyes flicked open wide, then she gave him a narrow-eyed frown of warning. He caught her hands and pinned them above her head before she could think of a way to use them he might not like.
He took her mouth when she opened it. He delved inside and felt the exquisite heat that was hers. The mist in his mind thickened to a hot haze of desire.
Against his chest, he felt her nipples contract and knew she felt it, too, in spite of the battle of the wills between them, in spite of both knowing this was insane.
“How will you respond to this?” he asked huskily, and took her breast in his palm.
She tensed beneath him, and he experienced the flex of her strong, lithe, trained body. It was like holding some fluid medium, one of energy and force, but crafted with infinite grace, too.
It was wonderful. It was hell.
Hellâbecause he knew he couldn't go far enough to appease the raging hunger she released in him. But it would be far enough to teach her a lesson.
With easy movements, he dispensed with the buttons and the belt on her dress, then spread it to either side so that he could look at her. “You take my control to the limit,” he said, warning her and himself.
Unable to stand it, he unfastened the delicate bra and lavished attention on the rosy tips of her breasts,
sucking at one, then the other, until she moved against him, responding as he'd known she must. Neither of them could deny the need they stirred in each other.
And the anger. He had to hold on to that or he'd let go completely and take them both to paradise.
“Touch me,” he ordered.
With a shaky sigh, she yielded to the madness and pushed her hands under his T-shirt. She explored his flesh as if learning to trek through a strange land. When she fingered his nipples, a ripple of longing coursed through him. He sought her lips again.
The kiss went on and on, past lesson-giving, past reason and integrity and all that baggage.
“Ohh,” she gasped while he laved hot kisses along her throat. “Come to me.”
It was a plea.
He was on fire for her. Some part of him knew he'd slipped beyondâway beyondâthe control of his conscience. They were male and female, acting on instincts as old as time and as unrelenting.
Laying his hand on her breast, he felt the beat of her heart. Against his lips, he could feel the wild, harsh pounding of her pulse. He heard the gasps as she breathed. Her hands roamed over him in sensual forays, needy in the desperate yearning that consumed them.
He knew they had to stop.
“Easy,” he whispered.
“Now,” she demanded, her hands urgent on him.
“No.” He kissed her a thousand times, gentle soothing kisses to cool the volcano of need.
“Why? We're both willing.”
He heard the perplexed hurt behind the words. “Because it's time to leave. My plane is ready. I'll take you home.”
“To Mission Creek?”
He knew the moment sanity returned. Regretfully he eased away and stood, freeing her from their mutual madness.
There would come a time, he was certain, when they wouldn't, couldn't, stop. Then where would they be?
No answer came to him then or on the silent flight to Mission Creek.
other, I'm fine. Really,” Susan insisted. She swung her feet off the sofa and sat up. She felt grungy and out of sorts and in need of a shower. Her hair was a mess. She combed a dried grass blade out of it with her fingers.
Both her parents watched her with grave faces. Vaguely she recalled a similar scene from her childhood, her lying in bed, her mom and dad leaning over her, fear in their eyes while they made her lie still. She'd fainted then, too.
The memory came back more clearly. Her familyâno, not her father, she recalled, but the rest of themâhad been to Lake Maria on a picnic while visiting their grandmother. She'd tried to follow her brother in diving down and retrieving a stone from the very bottom of the lake. The next thing she knew, she was in the hospital emergency room, waking to find both her parents bent over her, worry on their faces. Just as they were now.
“You stay put,” Kate ordered. “I'm going to call Dr. O'Dayâ”
“No!” Susan tried to smile and make light of her
panicky reaction. “There's no need to bother him on a Saturday. This is his time to rest.”
She didn't add she'd had all of the obnoxious doctor she could take at the present, thank you very much.
Archy Wainwright, her father, spoke sternly. “I've ordered the ranch hands not to let you ride unless they have my direct approval. You could have broken your neck, falling off a horse the way you did. Scared your mother half to death,” he added with a protective glance at his former wife.
Susan sighed and gave it up. “You're right,” she admitted, hoping meekness would throw them off track when firmness hadn't. “I'll be more careful from now on. Absolutely no more riding alone. I promise.”
She refrained from holding her hand up in a Scout's honor pledge. That would be overdoing it.
“You don't fool me a bit,” her mother informed her. “I'm going to call Michael O'Day and ask him to come out for lunch. I want to talk to him.”
“No need for you to bother with a meal,” Archy said to Kate. “Esperanza is already cooking. I'll tell her to add a plate for you and the doctor.”
“Yes, that would be good,” Kate said absently, her thoughts obviously on their daughter.
Looking more than a little worried, Archy left the room, but was back in a moment. He directed a steely eye on his daughter. “We'll ask the heart doc
tor the results of your tests and find out how
you really are.”
Susan flounced off the sofa. “Since we're going to have a guest, I suppose I'd better shower.” She rushed to her room before her mother could object.
Once under the steamy water, she thought of Michael and his threat to join her if she tried to bathe alone. The blood pumped furiously through her, making her vitally aware of how much that appealed to her.
Oh, she mentally groaned. She was obsessed with the man. What was wrong with her mind, her dancer's discipline?
Images of him and her at his condo leaped and spun through her brain like the finely executed chaÃ®nÃ©s she had once done so effortlessly. The visions left her breathless and excited and alarmed.
She had no time for romantic daydreams, not when her career hung in the balance.
And her life, according to him.
Finding it difficult to think of her own mortality, she nevertheless found it worrisome that the dizzy spells were coming more frequently. Perhapsâ¦perhaps she should retire from the active ballet.
At the dismal thought, pain grabbed her and wouldn't let go. What would she do with herself? The days were already endless now that she didn't have practices and performances to gear up for.
Clean and dry, her hair curling under at her shoulders, she stood in front of the full-length mirrors on her closet doors, dressed only in underwear. Her hand on a chair back, she bent her knees in a pliÃ©, a grand pliÃ©, then executed a small jump, a jetÃ©.
Her heart also leaped.
Grimly, her eyes on the bedside clock, she took her pulse. Slightly over a hundred with just one jetÃ©, and that not even a big one.
Slumping into a chair, she sat there for a long time, waiting for her pulse to slow to its usual eighty to ninety beats per minute, her mind curiously blank as she watched the activity on the sprawling acres visible from the window.
Alfalfa was being cut in one field. In another, it was being rolled into huge round bales of hay. Ranch hands were loading some cattle heading for the market.
Hector Martinez, the gardener, was spraying a bed of roses. His little girl, Maria, held a pair of pruning shears for him. Esperanza, Hector's wife, came outside and talked to them. Maria, under her father's direction, cut a dozen roses and gave them to her mother. Esperanza carried them into the house. They would appear on the table at lunch.
Life as usual on the Wainwright ranch.
But not for her. She wasn't to ride alone, she couldn't drive a carâ¦ “Speak of the devil,” she muttered.
A light-blue sports car parked in front of the house. Michael climbed out. Her mother had wasted no time in calling the arrogant surgeon, it appeared.
Glancing at the clock, she saw it was time to go down. Quickly slipping into beige slacks, a striped blouse and espadrilles, she headed for the patio.
It occurred to her that her mother was often at the main house of late. Since the ignominious collapse onstage, in fact. Divorced for many years, her parents seemed to have formed an alliance against her.
On further reflection, she realized that Kate, although keeping a condo in Houston, had mostly lived at the ranch for the past couple of yearsâsince returning to Mission Creek to oversee her own mother's move into the senior care facility in town.
Her father had insisted on remodeling a cottage on the place and having Kate stay there “to be near your mother and closer to the children,” he'd said when Kate had at first refused.
Since Justin was sheriff and had his own place and Rose was now married to a Carson and lived at Matt's home, that left only Susan as the child at home. Permanently at home?
No, she refused to feel sorry for herself. She wasn't a coward, no matter what Michael thought of her. Life was what it was. She'd figure out a way to live with no problem. Or die trying. On this sardonic note, she went outside.
“Hello,” she called, brightly cheerful as she
breezed over to the table to join the others. “Michael, how nice that you could join us.” There, that put him firmly in the friends-of-the-family category and not that of her doctor.
After taking her place, she glanced at her father. His face had the closed look he got when he was upset. Her mother's was in its determined mode.
“You and your mother favor each other,” Michael murmured to her while her parents were distracted by Esperanza's appearance with a lovely vase of pink roses.
“Yes, we have the same stubborn look, I've been told,” she said coolly, with just the right tinge of humor.
She suppressed the jab of irritation with his easy agreement. She'd be calm if it killed her!
Her father deferred to his former wife when the housekeeper asked where the flowers were to go. After suggesting a side table, Kate turned back to the group. “Dr. O'Day, can you give us a report on Susan?”
“Please, call me Michael,” he requested.
He took in the scene with his quick intelligence, Susan noted. Had she not been the topic of discussion, she would have enjoyed him being put on the spot by her mother.
Michael began. “You are both aware that Susan has a small heart.”
Archy nodded. “And she had another dizzy spell this morning and fell off a horse.”
She hadn't fallen from a horse since she'd been eight and tried to ride a mean stallion on a dare from her brother. This morning, one of the hands had been the first to reach her. He'd quickly examined her for injury, then put her in his pickup and taken her back to the house against her protests. Naturally her father had called her mother, one thing led to another, and now here they were.
“Do I have your permission to give them the results of your tests?” Michael asked.
Reluctantly she nodded.
“Her heart is failingâ”
Her mother gasped and pressed trembling fingers to trembling lips. “Easy, Katie,” her father said gently.
“When the heart has to continuously work so hard to pump blood, whether from high blood pressure or another reason, it starts breaking down. This is known as congestive heart failure. There's no question Susan will have to have a new one,” Michael continued. “She hasn't yet consented to be placed on the list for a donor heart.”
“To give up that which works, no matter how imperfectly, for that which might not, seems foolish to me,” Susan told him. “What kind of choice is that?”
“A hard one, but necessary.”
“Listen to the doctor,” Archy ordered, sharing a glance with the younger man.
There was an obvious rapport between the two men. Her father was much older than the doctor, yet the men seemed to be cast from the same steely mold and to communicate on the same level of some masculine code that eluded her.
“How can we convince her this is the right thing to do?” her mother asked.
“I'm on vacation for the next few days. I'll talk to her.” Michael shot a grin at Susan. “Will you listen?” he asked, tossing the question at her like a fastball to first base, hoping to surprise the runner there.
With the others watching, what could she say?
“Of course,” she managed to get out without throwing a glass of water in the handsome face observing her with wry amusement in his eyes.
He knew he had her at his mercy. She wouldn't be too awfully rude in front of her family. But when she got him aloneâ¦ The thought brought up a whole list of other things they could do. Furious with her willful mind, she stared at the fields until her heart calmed again.
Esperanza broke the tension by serving a salad topped by bay shrimp. She placed a tray of small crystal pitchers filled with various salad dressings in the middle of the table, along with a basket of fresh bark bread covered with poppy and sesame seeds.
Her oldest daughter, Carmel, pushed a drink trolley onto the patio. The housekeeper served regular or raspberry-flavored iced tea. There was also a carafe of coffee, which could be served hot or cold.
“After lunch, Susan, perhaps you would take Michael on a tour of the grounds,” her mother suggested. “The mint along the creek smells wonderful.”
Susan tried to think of something compelling she had to do. Nothing came to mind. She could claim stiffness due to the fall. No, that would make her parents worryâ
Michael burst out laughing.
Startled, she glanced up and saw everyone watching her. Her parents looked a bit disapproving. Michael, the big ape, was still chuckling. Esperanza and Carmel were smiling.
Heat rushed to her face as she realized they all knew exactly what she was thinking. “I'd be delighted to show Dr. O'Day the mint beds at the creek,” she said demurely.
“Michael,” he corrected softly.
“The pride of the ranch,” Susan said, indicating a herd grazing in the nearest pasture. “Our best brood cows.”
“How many head of cattle can you run on a fifteen-thousand-acre ranch?”
“Truthfully, I'm not sure. You'd have to ask my
father. This is natural rangeland. My grandmother says there used to be grass as far as the eye could see, but overgrazing destroyed most of it. Mesquite, creosote bushes and cactus replaced the native grasses.”
“Then settlers brought in citrus and cotton,” Michael added. “From the air, you can see miles of groves and fields of white when the cotton is ripe. Did you notice when we flew in?”
“Yes.” Since this sounded like a shared bond and she was determined to keep her distance, she walked faster. “This way.”
He strolled alongside her as she turned onto the path that skirted the arroyo once filled by Mission Creek, a small stream that flowed down to the Rio Grande. That was before the Carson ancestors had talked the city fathers into damming the creek, thus forming the lake that had cut off the water supply to the Wainwright ranch.
“The creek was the source of the feud between your family and the Carsons, right?” Michael asked, holding a thorny mesquite limb out of their way.
“Part of it. A betrayed love and a suicide started it. Then my great-grandfather shot the Carson great-grandfather. It was tit for tat after that, conniving to outsmart each other and cattle rustling between them.”
“So where does the water come from?” He indicated the cheerful flow in the rocky creek bottom.
“Not to be outdone, my grandfather built a diversion line to bring it back. He piped the water into a series of lakes formed by putting rocks and soil across the original creek bed at strategic points. This is the overflow. Since we get forty to fifty inches of rain a year, we have plenty of water for our operations.”
“That must have been expensive.”
“But worth it.” She heard the pride in her voice and laughed ruefully. “One-upmanship over the Carsons has been a rule in my family for as long as I remember.”
“Grandchildren often bring families together. Matt and Rose's baby may end the feud.”
Susan's spirits perked up. “I can't wait for it to get here. I'm determined to spoil it dreadfully, then tell Rose she isn't raising the baby right. She was always telling me not to be so reckless when I was young.”
When they reached one of her favorite spots, a place where the creek cascaded down a series of huge rock slabs, she settled on a convenient boulder in the shade of several mesquites and leaned back on another.
Her thoughts lingered on her sister's coming child, then drifted to the children she would never have. She suddenly missed them, as if they were real and had been taken away.
“I've never thought much about having chil
dren,” she said, giving voice to her musing. “It was always something in the vague future, sandwiched in between ballet seasons.”