Authors: Laurie Paige
She shrugged. “I don't know. It suddenly seems more important than it did. Why do we always want that which is denied to us?”
“Human nature.” He leaned back against a tree limb after making sure it didn't contain any thorny surprises. “Since Flynt and Josie married, I find myself thinking more about a family. My friends' lives are changing. I wonder if I should reconsider, too.”
“Benedict, the married man,” she teased, recalling the Shakespeare play from school days and taking perverse delight in imagining him with maybe five squalling kids, all keeping him awake at night.
He smiled and half closed his eyes.
“What about your family? Are your parents still living?” she asked.
“They both died while I was in my residency. My brother handled all the arrangements.”
“You have a brother?” She didn't know why she was surprised by this news. “In Houston?”
“Hawaii. He was stationed there while in the army and married a local girl.”
“Do they have children?”
“A daughter. My niece is nineteenâ”
“Nineteen?” Susan interrupted in surprise. “He must have married awfully young.”
“Not really. Jim's twenty years my senior. We've never been what you might call close. I was a change-of-life surprise for my parents. They were almost fifty when I came along.”
“Was that hard, having older parents?”
“The other kids thought it was a little strange, but there were advantages. My parents forgot I was a kid most of the time. They treated me as one of their contemporaries, just a bit shorter and with less gray hair than the rest.”
Susan burst into laughter at this humorous picture of his childhood, delivered in a droll voice. “Yes, I can see you and your father puffing on your pipes after dinner, discussing the madness of the younger generation.”
“You got it.”
His laughter was low and deep, like the river in full spring flow. There was aâ¦richness about him, reminding her of the black loam sometimes found on the bottom land next to the river, where farmers grew their best crops.
She stared at him, at his mouth and the shape of it and thought of the kisses they had shared, at the shiny darkness of his hair and thought of the times she'd run her fingers through it, at the length and breadth of his hands and thought of the caresses he'd bestowed.
With a little start, she realized he was watching her study him. A tiny smile played about the cor
ners of his mouth. She smiled, too, and couldn't look away.
“I've heard of this,” he murmured, “but I've never experienced it. Until now.”
“This.” His gesture took in the two of them.
It was silly to pretend innocence of what he meant. “I know. It's so at odds with my usualâ¦” She couldn't think of a descriptive word. “I really don't have a usual mode of operation with the opposite sex.”
“Haven't you ever been involved with your dance partners? I'd have sworn you were in love when I saw you in some doomed love story ballet one time.”
She shook her head, then pushed an escaped tendril behind her ear. “All ballerinas fall in love with their first choreographer. Once over that, it's rare for them to become involved. Too much ego, I think.”
“Did you fall in love with yours?”
“Yes, but he was seventy and his wife was the company stage director. She stuck pretty close to him.”
Michael laughed with her, but he wondered who she might have loved and why they hadn't married. The answer was simple, he realized. Susan was as dedicated to her career as he'd been to his.
In fact, he'd been ruthless during his years and years of training not to get deeply involved. He'd
known he'd had too little of himself left to give a woman, much less children. He wouldn't be the kind of absentminded parent to his kids that he'd had as a child.
Not that he hadn't loved his parents. He had. But he'd also known there were other families in which the father tossed a ball to his son, gave him pointers on how to swing a bat and coached the games.
His own father had had a heart condition by the time he came along and had retired by the time he was ten. Which probably explained his interest in medicine and especially in heart surgery.
“Tell me about your childhood. Did you come here often?” he asked.
“Every summer and every holiday. Luckily my mom's parents and sister lived in the county, too, so she visited with them while we kids stayed with my father. We ran back and forth from the ranch to my grandmother's house in those days. I thought it was fun.”
“You were a hellion?”
“Well, a daredevil. My brother would taunt his friends for cowardice, then show them that his little sister, a
would try anything.”
She pulled a sprig of mint and rolled it between her palms, producing a cloud of fragrance around them. He liked being in this peaceful place with her. Not that he was entirely relaxed. There was too much
awareness between them for that. But it was a good tension, filled with pleasurable anticipation.
He knew they were going to kiss sooner or later.
At the moment, Susan was staring at the cascading water and idly pulling leaves off the mint plant. Her eyes flicked back to him, then away again.
She was still trying to be circumspect, but he wasn't bothering to fight it. Neither of them could take their eyes off each other, and he didn't pretend otherwise.
“I'm going to have to kiss you,” he told her, giving fair warning, although he didn't move. Yet.
She heaved a sigh. “I know. It's in your eyes.”
“Are you going to resist?” he asked lazily. “A token struggle can add a bit of spice to the moment.”
He watched the pulse beating at the side of her neck as her heart sped up. His own had picked up, too. He wanted to make love to her, carefully but thoroughly.
Reaching for her, intending to cuddle her in his lap while they enjoyed their feast of each other, he was surprised when she came to him and, tossing a leg over his thighs, straddled him.
This put their faces on the same level. An equal opportunity position, he realized, and very like the independent little rebel he knew her to be.
“Nice,” he whispered.
It was, Susan thought as a mist clouded her think
ing. More than nice. Necessary. She had to have more of him.
He wore a long-sleeved shirt, the cuffs rolled up. She unfastened it impatiently and pushed it aside. “Off,” she commanded.
Gazing intently into her eyes, he complied, then did the same with her blouse. Her bra followed, then he wrapped her in a tight embrace and brought them together.
She gasped at the wonder of this magical touching. Wine seemed to flow through her veins. “You make me feel sparkly and light inside.”
“Like champagne,” he agreed, knowing exactly what she meant. “It's the same for me.”
“Is it?” She pushed away from him and ran her hands all over his lean, muscular torso. “You have a tan.”
“I swim often.” He cupped her breasts, liking the way the nipple pushed impudently into his palms, then let his fingers glide down her streamlined body to her thighs. “Your muscles are like steel clad in velvet.”
“It's the dancing.” Her breath caught when he caressed intimately closer to her body.
Through his slacks, she could feel the rigid length of his erection. Breathing raggedly, she tried to tell herself they should back off from this, that it wasn't wise.
It didn't work.
Leaning close, she rubbed against him. His hand slid between them, finding her most intimate spot. She moaned as pleasure danced up her spine.
Michael took her lips again, holding her head in position with one hand while he explored her through the layers of cloth that separated flesh from flesh.
“Open,” he growled.
She opened her lips and let him delve into the sweet heat there. She'd be just as sweet, just as hot, in other places. He knew that, too, and nearly exploded at the thought.
But part of him was monitoring her from moment to moment. He at last drew back and let them breathe. Her face was flushed with passion with no paleness around the mouth.
“Good,” he murmured.
“Yes,” she panted, rubbing as sensuously as a cat, with no hint of shyness about her hunger for him.
He smiled and gazed into her eyes as he caressed her small, exquisite breasts, giving them both time to come down from the heights a bit.
She smiled back, then writhed against him.
“Vixen,” he said on a gasp.
“I need you,” she said, loving his heat and the way he caressed her, so urgent and yet so gentle. “You have magic hands.” She closed her eyes and let her hands roam over him, learning his body through her touch.
Michael winced. Her words wrung a groan of frustration from him, reminding him of his responsibilities. His hands were a large part of his skill as a surgeon, and he was tentatively her doctor. He caught her roaming hands, now exploring at his waistband.
“Easy,” he whispered, although it pained him to stop.
She opened her eyes and watched him, a dreamy invitation in those verdant depths. He noted the rapid rise of her chest, the visible flurry of the pulse in her neck.
“Let me put you on the waiting list,” he said, suddenly needing her whole and well. He wanted to make love to her without having to withhold a part of him in order to check her condition.
“What?” Susan couldn't make sense of anything. She didn't want to. The magic, she wanted only that.
“The sooner we get you on the list, the sooner your chances of getting a heart. Before it's too late.”
Shock speared through her. He was talking about heart transplant surgery!
Tearing herself out of his arms, she demanded, “Is this how you get your patients to do as you want? You seduce them into agreeing with you?”
He gave her a slow, burning appraisal. “Not usually, but I'm willing to consider whatever works.”
Painâshe wasn't sure of its causeâseared her insides. It was a lesson in humility. She'd been think
ing only of making love; he'd been thinking of a damned operation.
“No, thanks, Dr. O'Day. I don't mix pleasure with business. Not ever.”
Grabbing her clothing, she turned her back and struggled into the bra and shirt, her fingers turning to all thumbs. Finished, she stalked off without once looking back.
fter leaving the Wainwright ranch, Michael returned home, did his workout in the pool, then drove to town and picked up an order of barbecue ribs for dinner.
Back at his place, he grabbed a beer from the fridge, intending to sit on the patio with its view of Lake Maria to the north and Mission Creek to the south and enjoy his meal.
No such luck.
“Hello, Doc,” a gravelly voice said as soon as he stepped outside.
Michael turned to see the same two henchmen of Carmine Mercado's who had visited him once before. “Hey,” he said quite jovially, but with an inward grimace. “If I'd known you were coming, I'd have ordered more ribs. Care for a beer?”
“No,” the older mobster spoke before the younger one could open his mouth.
Michael had to give the man creditâhe was all business. “What's on your mind?” He settled at the patio table and indicated they were welcome to take a seat.
They remained standing. “I have a new proposition for you,” Carmine's spokesman told him.
Michael took a swig of beer, ignoring the tantalizing aroma coming from the container of ribs, slaw, jalapeÃ±o peppers and corn bread. “What's that?”
For the first time, the man looked a bit uncomfortable. “We supply the heart. You get the hospital to agree to let you do the surgery.”
“On Carmine Mercado,” Michael said, not bothering to hide the sardonic tone.
“Who's volunteered to supply the heart?”
The younger man grinned. The older one didn't. “You don't have to concern yourself with that part.”
“You recall there has to be a matchâ”
“There will be.”
The black market, Michael concluded. There was a huge international black market in human organs as well as those of animals, all used for everything that one could imagine. And quite a few that a person probably wouldn't think of. People were a strange and macabre lot, taken as a whole.
However, this was no time to wax philosophical, he reminded himself. His guests awaited an answer.
“I'll see what I can do. Please pass the word that six blood factors
to match before there's a prayer of success. Six. Got that?”
Both men nodded.
“Have your boss's health records sent to my of
fice in Houston. I'll look them over next week. Then he'll have to come in for blood work and a thorough examination. After that, I'll let him know what his chances are.”
The older man frowned, then nodded again.
Without another word, they walked off the patio, around his house and disappeared. He heard an engine start up a few seconds later from farther down the street.
With a sigh of part exasperation, part amusement, part worry, he wondered what the hell he should do now. Call the police? The FBI? The CIA? Who the devil handled a case like this?
And what was he to report?
That some thugs might bring a heart to him to be inserted in their boss, assuming they found one that matched Mercado's need?
Man, what a farce this was turning out to be. He gave a snort of laughter. His peaceful existence in the middle of Texas's ranching belt had ceased, hmm, when?
Ah, the day he'd nearly run down Susan Wainwright, prima ballerina, stubborn hellion and all woman.
Hunger attacked him, in the stomach and lower. He opened the styrene box. His stomach he could accommodate. The other hunger would have to wait.
Sunday, after the usual golf game in which Tyler whipped them all again, Michael went to the tem
porary structure housing the Men's Grill. He ordered a cheeseburger and fries for lunch, then added a salad as a bow to good nutrition to appease his conscience.
Spence Harrison, the D.A. and their usual golfing partner, joined him while Flynt raced home to be with his wife. He ordered the same.
Michael noticed their waitress was Daisy again. The gal seemed to work all the time.
“Spence, old man, I got a slight problem,” Michael said as soon as they were alone.
“Speak, son. I'll give you the benefit of my vast wisdom and experience.”
“There're these two guys who have visited me twice now. They, uh, seem to be able to enter my home at will.”
The humor left Spence's eyes. “You don't say. What do they want?”
“That's the odd thing. At first I assumed it was a robbery, but no such luck. They want me to operate on Carmine Mercado.”
Spence straightened from his relaxed, somewhat indolent posture. “What?”
“Yeah, it kinda surprised me, too. I told them it wasn't up to me, but to the hospital board.”
“Of which you're a part.”
“I didn't mention that.” Michael glanced around to make sure no one seemed to be listening. He'd
chosen a table a little apart from the others in the grill. Fortunately, it was early for the usual lunch crowd to arrive, and, except for two elderly men, they had the place to themselves.
“They're bound to find out,” Spence said.
“Probably. Last night they told me they could supply the heart. All I have to do is take care of convincing the hospital to allow the surgery.”
Spence's eyebrows shot up. “I see.”
“What do I do now, O great wise one?”
“I was afraid you were going to ask.” Spence propped his chin in his hand and thought. “We can't arrest anyone for a possible crime. Unless we can catch them red-handed with the victim, we don't have much of a chance at establishing a case.”
“I suspect they've put out feelers on the black market for an organ donor.”
“It's a big market and growing,” Spence muttered. “With every advance in science, police work gets both tougher and easierâtougher because the crooks use it to their advantage, easier because we do, too, with DNA testing and all that.”
“I don't want to hear about your problems. I want a solution to mine,” Michael reminded his friend.
“String him along. Tell him you're talking to the other members of the hospital board to see how they feel before making a formal request.”
“Right. I already said Mercado would have to
come in for an extensive exam and blood work before I could even consider his chances.”
Spence stretched and yawned. “Okay then, we got your problem solved.”
“Temporarily. I don't think the Texas Mafia don is an easy man to put off for very long.”
“Maybe we'll nail him for Carl Bridges's murder before you have to act.”
Michael was at once interested. “You think so?”
“Hell, no. I'm just daydreaming aloud. The bosses keep their hands clean, so the Feds will have to nail Mercado for income tax evasion or some crap like that. Keep me informed of your dealings with him, though. Just in case.”
“Will do.” Michael exchanged rueful glances with his friend and wondered what had drawn Spence into his line of work. After their salads arrived and the blonde was gone, he asked the attorney about it.
“Funny you should ask. I was thinking of that very thing last night,” Spence admitted, his brown eyes taking on an introspective light.
The D.A. was around Michael's age. At six feet, he was a couple of inches shorter, but was as lean and hard muscled.
Spence kept himself in shape, Michael noted with his doctor's eye. That was good. He needed physical outlets to handle the stress of his job, dealing with
criminals and courts and the extremely slow wheels of justice.
“I don't recall if I told you, but Flynt, Luke, Tyler and I were charged with manslaughter years ago.”
“I've heard the story.”
“Carl Bridges was the attorney who defended us. That was a life-changing experience for me. I decided, if we made it, I was going to go into law and help people.” Spence clenched one fist and banged it on the table. “I'd give my right arm to put away the goons who killed Carl.”
A tray landed on their table with a crash that reverberated through the room. Daisy, their waitress, turned her back to them and put her hands over her face.
Michael jumped to his feet. “Hey, you okay?”
Pulling her hands down, he quickly examined her face but saw no signs of an imminent fainting spell.
“I'm fine.” She pulled away and rubbed one eye. “It was justâ¦I got something in my eye.”
“Something in my eye” sounded like “somethin' in mah ahh,” when spoken in her twang.
“Let me see,” he offered, picking up a napkin from the table.
“No. It's fine now.” She blinked several times to show him. “Please, Dr. O'Day, be seated. Your food is getting cold. The manager will have my hide if it's sent back.”
Michael consented to take his seat and let her
serve the meal. She topped off their iced tea glasses, checked that they had everything and left. He watched her hurried stride as she disappeared toward the kitchen.
Spence studied Michael. “What?” he finally asked after taking a bite of his cheeseburger.
“She had tears in both eyes,” Michael said. “Usually, when you get something in your eye, only the one waters, not both, at least, not copiously. Daisy was about to burst into a storm of weeping.”
“Probably a fight with her boyfriend,” Spence suggested, shrugging the woman's worries aside.
Michael resumed the previous conversation. “Any info you can share on Carl's death?”
Spence shook his head. He sighed. “Last night I dreamed of Haley Mercado.”
“The girl whose drowning you four were charged with?”
“Yes. I was in love with her all through school. I think we all were. At the time of her death, she was engaged to Frank Del Brio.”
Michael knew Del Brio was a big man with the mob and that the drowned girl's uncle was Carmine Mercado. Her father and brother were also involved in racketeering.
“Who will take Carmine's place when he goes?” Michael asked, curious about the workings of the Mafia.
Spence grimaced. “Whoever carries the biggest
stick. Some are betting on Del Brio, but Ricky is the logical heir. He's tougher than his old man, Johnny, and sharper.”
Michael caught the disheartened note in his friend's tone. “Ricky Mercado was a school chum?”
“Yeah. We were all real friends at one timeâme, Flynt, Tyler, Luke and Ricky. We did everything together, including the Gulf War.” Spence sighed. “It was the celebration upon making it home that led to Haley's death. Ricky and his family hated us after that.”
“A tough break,” Michael said in sincere sympathy.
“The irony is that Ricky and his family wanted me behind bars then. Now I want to see them there.” He muttered a curse, his eyes dark and filled with painful memories.
Michael saw Frank Del Brio come out of the main lobby and stand on the sidewalk, gazing toward the golf course. A chill, like a cold hand from a grave, crept along his neck. There was something about the don's right-hand man that he didn't like.
“The police didn't find a body at first,” Spence continued. “They dragged the lake and finally found it near the base of the dam a couple of weeks later. It was Haley, they decided. Who else could it be? But the odd thing was that her dental records had been lost, so they couldn't compare them for a positive identification.”
When Spence lapsed into silence, Michael ate without speaking, too, giving the other man time to get over the past before turning to a lighter subject. “I hope somebody beats Tyler soon. He's getting a big head from winning all the time.”
“Not to mention wiping out my lunch money every week,” Spence said with a wry laugh.
Across the way, Michael spied Frank Del Brio watching them. There was something unnerving about the guy. He studied a person with the impassive expression of a snake looking over a handy supply of eggs in a robin's nest. For a second, his eyes met Michael's before moving on.
Frank Del Brio viewed the D.A. and his doctor friend through an icy rage. The little scene with the blonde had been touching. Just what, he wondered, had upset her.
Something Spence Harrison and the hotshot surgeon who was going to operate on Carmine had been saying? How much gossip and speculation did she overhear as she worked silently and efficiently in the grill and cafÃ©? How much truth and how many secrets were disclosed within her hearing? Enough that he should worry?
“Hey, Frank, you think that snooty doc will fix Carmine up?” the younger man of the two with him asked.
Not if he had anything to say about it.
Frank didn't voice that opinion to the two enforcers. “Sure. Why not? Carmine's insurance is paid up,” he said, drawing a grin from the younger man and a wary eye from the older one.
Frank shifted uneasily under that gaze. These men reported directly to Carmine. The older of the two had been around a long time and was loyal to the don.
So was he. For now.
But he wasn't going to wait around forever for the old man to die. Carmine had already had a long and useful life. It was time to turn the reins over to a younger man. He meant to see that younger man was himself and not the old man's nephew, Ricky Mercado.
Eyeing Spence and the doctor, he wondered about progress in the Bridges murder. Also the case involving the baby found here at the country club.
He'd seen the passport of the baby while he was cleaning up evidence left by Alex Black at the home of Carl Bridges. The photo had disclosed dark hair and eyes with golden flecks in the brown. Johnny Mercado and his son, Ricky, had eyes like those. Also their daughter, who'd been his fiancÃ©e.
Haley was supposed to have drowned years ago. He'd believed that until a mysterious nun had showed up at Isadora Mercado's hospital bedside. The guard Carmine had placed at the door said he'd
overheard the nun tell Isadora that she was her daughter.
A touching family reunion, no doubt.
He wanted another one. Just him and Haley. He had a few questions that needed answers from the woman who would rather have staged her own death than marry him.