Authors: Laurie Paige
When he rose with her still in his arms, she clasped him around the shoulders. In his room, he let her slide down until her feet touched the floor. With one sweep, he tossed the comforter to the end of the bed.
“We won't need these,” he murmured, and peeled off his shirt. He helped her undress, taking turns until they were both breathless by the time he finished.
Sliding an arm around her back and thighs, he lifted her onto the king-size bed and settled beside her. Tremors raced over her skin as he perused her from head to toe.
“Very nice,” he said. “Very much as I've envisioned every night this past week. Days, too.”
She rubbed her fingertips over his chest. “Yes. It's madness, but I've had dreams of us like this.”
He pressed her against the pillow and strung kisses like hot pearls along the valley between her breasts. “We're going to take this very slowly.”
“I'm not sure I can handle slow.”
“I'll do it for you. We'll build to a point, then we'll rest. Then we'll start all over, but at a higher level each time until we reach the final peak. I've planned the details over and over this past week.”
Between every word, he kissed her at a different point, working downward, slowly, so slowly. She breathed deeply and let the sensation grow, slowly, as he said.
She gasped when he circled her belly button with his tongue. “I didn't knowâ¦I had so many sensitive spots.”
He raised his head and delved deeply into her eyes. “There's more. Fair warningâI intend to find them all.”
Tugging at his hair, she brought his face to hers and kissed him with the wild longing that ached to burst free from someplace inside where it had lain dormant all these years.
“Michael,” she whispered, desperate to tell him of the ache inside, of the passionate ache for more.
“I know, love. We'll get there. It'll be the sweetest journey either of us ever took.”
He began again, starting at the hollow of her throat and working his way to each breast, then skimming over her rib cage to her abdomen, past her groin and along each thigh.
His intimate exploration touched off an earthquake that caused fierce tremors all through her.
“Easy,” Michael whispered, then went back to his task, one that brought him more pleasure than he'd ever known. He wanted to make every moment the best she'd ever known, too.
But he would do it carefully, aware of all her physical needs and the demands on her heart. He found this didn't diminish his own anticipation in the least. On the contrary, every caress was heightened to its fullest.
Susan couldn't control the little cries that escaped her as his touch became more exciting, driving her to ecstasy and beyond. “Come to me,” she said, a plea and a demand.
“Not yet. There's lots more I want us to share. We're not going to rush it.”
His voice was deep, dark and husky. It filled her soul with light and music, like moonlight on rushing water. From the darkness was born a brilliance, a single flare of intense light. She knew the light was this man who kissed her so passionately, so tenderly.
“You make me weep,” she told him, panting as he lifted her higher and higher with his magic. “Your touch is so beautiful, it fills me to overflowing.”
“Do whatever feels good,” he urged with laughter and desire equally mingled in the words.
When she could no longer breathe, when air was no longer necessary for her existence, he gently stroked his hands over her and returned to her mouth, letting the tension drain slowly.
She clasped his hard phallus between her thighs and pressed close. “I want you. I've never wanted anyone like thisâ¦so fierceâ¦so hurting in its intensity.”
“I know. Be still now and rest. There's more. I promise we'll have it all.”
Resting against his warmth, she experienced a peace she'd never known to go with the incredible
passion he stirred in her. She gazed at him, questioning why this should be so.
“Why?” she asked him. “Why you? Why me?”
“We strike sparks off each other.” He took her mouth in a kiss that burned all thoughts to cinders.
As he promised, he took her nearer and nearer the peak, but without letting her go over. At one point, she took his bottom lip between her teeth and demanded that he come to her. “Now!”
His gaze, hot with desire, lazy with laughter, roamed over her as he, too, panted with the effort to hold back. “I like a woman who knows what she wants.”
Michael knew he was near the point of no return. Pinning her arms to the mattress so that she couldn't touch him and take him too far, too fast, he moved down her body and this time he didn't stop.
When she went over the edge with a little scream, he let her rest, then he rose and, after securing protection, entered her. Then he started building again, letting both of them ride the crest, higher and faster this time.
Susan writhed uncontrollably. The intensity was so great, the world collapsed to this instant, this wild joining of body and spirit. She was consumed. And so was he. They went as one to the sensual paradise she'd dreamed of.
“The best,” he whispered, kissing her temple.
She couldn't speak. Spent, she could only lie
against his strength in complete wonder. As she slowly recovered, a fear began to grow in her.
Was sheâ¦ Could she beâ¦ Had she fallen in love with the famous surgeon?
As if reading her mind, he raised on an elbow and gazed down at her solemnly. “I think I've done what no doctor is supposed to do.”
“Make love to a patient?”
He shook his head and didn't smile in response to her playful tone. “Fall in love with one.”
The world stopped spinning, but her mind whirled. “You can't. It's against the rules.”
“There are no rules where you're concerned.” He stroked a sheen of perspiration from between her breasts. “By the time I knew of your condition, it was too late.”
“It was the same for me,” she admitted.
His eyes narrowed at he stared down at her, then his beautiful smile bloomed across his face. “I've never mentioned love to a woman before.”
Happiness bubbled inside her. “It's kind of scary. I've always been so focused on my career.”
“Same here. This opens up a world of possibilities.” He laid his hand over her heart, which still beat too fast, too irregularly. “Let me operate.”
“Don't push. Please,” she begged, “not now.”
“All right, but I'm not going to give you up. I want more than a few months.”
The future came rushing at her, vague and uncer
tain. She closed her mind against it. “Let's just have
for now.” She caressed along his sides and hips.
“For now,” he agreed.
But she saw the determination in his eyes. She wanted time with him, she realized. A lifetime. For her, that was three to twelve months. Unless she had surgery.
When her primary physician had first mentioned the heart replacement, she'd done some research. A nurse friend had told her she'd have to take around ninety pills a day. A day! And stay mostly isolated from all but immediate family for months afterward. Everyone would have to scrub and wear a surgical gown before they could visit her.
It came to her that Michael was used to doing that. He would be there for her throughout the ordeal.
As a doctor or a lover?
“Can you be both?” she asked. “Can you be my doctor and my lover?”
His confidence increased her uncertainty. Would she be a whole person after the operation? Would she be able to function as a wife or a mother?
“Think about it,” he murmured, then bent to kiss her. “But not at this moment.”
Her heart did a flip at the look in his eyes. Was this love or mere madness? If love, then what? She hadn't a clue as to what was best for either of them.
The phone rang before things got too heated. Michael answered, listened intently, asked a few questions, then hung up. “I have to go. A heart has become available.”
“Yes. A car accident. The man had a signed organ donor card on him.” He headed for the shower, then paused. “Take my car to get home. I'll call you when I return, okay?”
“I can't drive.”
He'd forgotten. “I'll ask Chuck to take you. Do you have a private number, or should I call the ranch when I get back?”
“The ranch. I'll give you my mother's number, too.”
Thirty minutes later, ready to take off, he placed his hands on her shoulders. “I want to put you on the list.”
“Let me think about it, just until you get back.”
He nodded. There was nothing he could do at the present. “Take care,” he murmured, and brushed a kiss over her lips. He wanted more, but with Chuck standing by, he contented himself with a taste. There would be more when he returned to Mission Ridge.
“Thanks for your help,” he said to Chuck after they'd pushed the plane onto the tarmac.
“No sweat, man.”
They shook hands. Michael climbed into the plane
and took off for Houston. For the next few hours, his life was on hold while he performed lifesaving surgery on another.
Susan waited until the plane was out of sight, then she turned to Chuck with a smile. “Ready?”
He drove her to the ranch in the sleek sports car. “You ought to marry the doc,” he advised. “He needs someone to come home to.”
Her laugh was a bit shaky. “I don't know. It's a big step. What about you? Is marriage on your horizon?”
“Well, there is this sweet little gal, works as a waitress at Coyote Harry's.”
“I've eaten there. They have the best fajitas in the state of Texas. Are you two engaged?” She found she had an avid interest in other people's relationships all of a sudden.
Chuck grinned and came to a stop in front of the ranch house. “I'm thinking of popping the question, but she's pretty skittish. Her first husband was a jerk.”
Susan opened the door and hopped out. “Good luck. Thanks for the ride.” She waved as Chuck drove around the semicircle driveway and headed back to Mission Ridge.
She found her home deserted. She didn't know where her father was. Esperanza and her family were probably at their house. There was a casserole in the
oven and a salad in the fridge for supper. Susan helped herself, then went outside.
A stroll along the creek to her favorite place would help clear her head. She had to think about Michael and what he wanted from herâ¦and what she had to give him.
The terrible sadness rose in her. He deserved the best, someone who could be a full partner to him, who could give him children and a passionate love, not someone he'd have to take care of all their lives.
The scream rent her thoughts to shreds. Pivoting toward the sound, she saw seven-year-old Maria Martinez leap off the front porch of her home and run down the driveway.
The child's dress was on fire!
“Maria, don't run,” she shouted. “Roll on the grass. Drop and roll.”
But panic ruled the child. She ran down the road, screaming in terror. Susan took off after her.
“Maria, here! This way! Come to me!”
The little girl cut across the lawn. Susan realized she was heading for the garden area, where her parents were probably gathering vegetables. Leaping a raised flower bed, she ran as fast as she could across the grass, desperate to stop the child.
Her breath came in great gasps as she exerted herself to the fullest. Halfway across the lawn, blackness gathered at the edges of her vision.
Please, God. Please let me save her. She's only seven. Pleaseâ¦letâ¦her liveâ¦.
Susan knew the moment her heart had given its all. Pain kicked in, harsh and overpowering. She pressed on, running, running, gaining on the figure in front of her that had become a dancing ball of fire in the center of her fading vision.
“Maria,” she said, but could utter no more than a whisper now.
Blindly she ran toward the flames, guided by the shrieks of pain and terror as the blackness consumed her.
Faster, she ordered with each step.
Her body obeyed as it always had in the past. Power seemed to flow through her, the way it did when she danced Giselle, leaping and pivoting as if gravity had no claim on her being.
In front of her, the flames flickered like a playful nymph as she raced to catch them. Gathering all that she had left, she leaped, her arms reaching out blindly.
The flames seared her hands as she grabbed burning cloth. She hugged the small body of the child against her and fell to the ground, rollingâ¦rollingâ¦rolling until at last the darkness was complete, the shrieks faded into the drowning silence that filled her ears and there was nothing left but a deep void before her.
“Michael, I'm sorry,” she whispered.
Then she fell into the great emptiness.
ichael was beat when he arrived at his condo in the wee hours of Monday morning. All he wanted was a quick shower and sleep. He'd been at the hospital for almost twenty-four hours, on his feet in surgery for sixteen of those, fighting for the life of a teenage boy who had suffered drug-induced heart failure.
The doorman took one look at his face, opened the elevator and punched in his floor. “There you go, Doc.”
“Thanks,” Michael mumbled, almost too tired to respond.
At the fourteenth floor, he heard the phone ringing before he unlocked the condo door. By the time he got inside, it had stopped. No one left a message.
Shrugging, he started stripping before he reached the shower. By the time he got there, he was ready to step in.
After washing up and turning the water off, he reached for a towel and realized the phone was ringing again. He got to the bedside in time to hear a hang-up. Why the hell didn't they leave a message?
Unaccountably irritated, he crawled into the sack and fell asleep almost before he pulled the sheet up to his armpits. The phone woke him up seven hours later.
“Hello?” he barked, not quite cordially.
“Hey, Doc,” a man said.
Michael recognized the older man from the Mafia. “Oh, you.” He yawned and glanced at the clock. Past noon. He should be at the office. However, he'd left word with his secretary and nurse that he wouldn't be in this afternoon as previously planned.
“Carmine has a deal for you.”
Suppressing a sigh, Michael said, “Let's hear it.”
“We can get a heart for your woman, too. There's one lined up for the boss, a man dying of cancer.”
“That could be dangerous. Cancer cells can break off and spread to other parts of the body.”
“Yeah, but this one is okay. So what do you say?”
“There's no way the hospital or I would agree to a black-market organ donation. It's too risky.”
“Your woman needs one now. If you don't hurry, she might not need one at all.”
The ominous tone irritated Michael. “What woman?”
“Susan Wainwright. According to the hospital report, she's stabilized and was airlifted out of Mission Creek about an hour ago.”
“Airlifted to where?” Nothing made sense.
“Your hospital in Houston. Haven't you heard? She collapsed after saving some little girl who'd caught her clothes on fire. A real heroine.”
Michael swung his legs off the bed and grabbed a pair of sweatpants tossed over a chair.
“We can probably have a heart there within an hour,” the mobster offered.
“Get real,” Michael said in a furious growl and hung up. He pulled a polo shirt over his head as he walked out of the bedroom. In the kitchen, he stepped into loafers, grabbed his wallet and headed down the elevator. He jogged the short distance to the hospital.
He found Susan in the cardiac wing, unconscious and on oxygen. “When did she get in?” he asked the nurse who was checking the IV.
“About fifteen minutes ago.”
Michael read the brief notes on the emergency chart. She'd suffered mild burns on her hands and forearms, but nothing that wouldn't heal without a problem. The real trouble was internal. Quite simply, her heart had taken all it could.
Its beats had become so erratic, she couldn't get enough oxygen. The emergency team had handled that part, but it had been touch-and-go during the night. While he'd been in surgery or sleeping, her life had hung in the balance.
His review was interrupted by the senior ward
nurse, telling him of a meeting and that he was needed.
Grimly Michael went to the chief surgical resident's office. An emergency meeting convened shortly thereafter. Susan's name was moved to the top of the organ transplant list. “That is if she gave power of attorney over her health to a family member. If not, we'll have to wait until she's conscious and get her signature,” the chief said.
Michael cursed silently. “I'll check on it. I'm sure some of her family are here.”
“Most of them,” the senior nurse reported. “In the third-floor waiting room.”
Michael went to find them. Archy, Kate, Rose and Matt stood when he entered.
“Well?” Matt demanded.
Michael ignored his friend and glanced at Archy. “Do you have a power of attorney for her on health matters?”
Kate spoke up. “I do,” she said. “Do you need me to sign something?”
“Yes, permission to operate when we get a donor heart for Susan.”
“Will you do the surgery?” Matt asked.
Michael nodded. He met Matt's questioning glance levelly. “There will be four doctors on the team,” he explained. “I'll supervise removing her heart while another team checks out the new one. If all is well, then I'll install the donor one.”
Susan's father snorted in anger. “You make it sound like fixing the plumbing.”
“Basically, that's what it is,” Michael said calmly, familiar with a family's fears and frustrations.
The senior nurse stuck her head around the door. “You're needed, Dr. O'Day.”
“Check at the cardiac desk,” he told Kate. “The forms are there.”
She nodded and followed after him.
“Uh, the patient is awake and asking for you,” the nurse told him with an oblique glance at the mother.
“Susan is awake?” Kate asked.
The nurse nodded. “You'll have to scrub before you go in,” she told Kate. “And put on a gown.”
Several minutes later they entered Susan's room, both of them scrubbed and wearing surgical greens. The oxygen clip had been removed and her heartbeat was fairly steady, Michael noted, doing a quick sweep of the various machines hooked up to the patient.
He went to the bed and took her hand. Without thinking, he bent and kissed her, one quick brush of his lips over hers. Her mouth felt warm and soft. He crushed a need to gather her close. Her eyes were open when he lifted his head. “How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Fine.” Susan smiled at the lie, then added, “Better.”
“I've talked to the surgical board. You're at the top of the list for a donor heart.”
“I wanted to talk to you about that.” She saw her mother. “Mom, you're here.”
“Most of us are. Justin will be here as soon as he can,” Kate assured her daughter. “I was going to give permission for the operation.” She looked anxiously from Susan to Michael. “Is it still up to me?”
“Not as long as Susan is coherent and can speak for herself. Will you sign the forms?” he asked the patient.
Susan looked from the quiet encouragement in his eyes to the worried look on her mother's face. “I think it's time,” she said. “Yes, I'll sign.”
“I'll get them,” the nurse said, and hurried out.
“Can you tell me how Maria is? Is sheâ¦will she live?” Susan asked her mother.
Kate's smile was one of vast relief. “Maria is fine. She'll have a very short hairdo for a while and she'll sleep on her stomach, but her burns are mostly superficial except for a few spots on her upper back and neck.”
“How did she catch on fire?” Susan asked.
“She was having a party for her doll and decided to light a candle the way her mother had for her birthday. She put it on the floor in front of the doll, then turned around and bent over to get her teapot
out of the toy box. The back of her dress apparently was directly over the flame and caught fire. If you hadn't seen her in timeâ” Kate pressed a hand over her lips and shook her head.
“She was running,” Susan murmured. Odd, but it hurt to speak, as if she had strep throat. “Flames were all up and down her back. I yelled and chased after her. Then things started going black and I was afraid I couldn't reach her.”
Michael lifted her hand to his lips. “You saved her. The word is already out.”
She wanted to cling to him, but she refrained from reaching for him as an anchor of safety. She had to stand on her own two feet. “How did you know I was here? Did the hospital call?”
“Somebody from Mission Creek called. It doesn't matter,” he added when he saw the question forming on her lips. “Ah, the forms.”
He took them from the nurse and showed her the places to sign. When it was done, the nurse witnessed the signature, then walked briskly from the room.
“How long?” Susan asked.
“Before we get a heart?” Michael shook his head. “Only God knows that. You'll have to stay here until we do. Just in caseâ”
“In case my heart goes crazy again,” she finished for him. “It was terrible when I realized I might not
reach Maria, that I couldn't catch her, a seven-year-old.”
“Don't think about it,” Kate begged, patting her arm. “Your father and Rose and Matt are here. Do you feel up to seeing them?”
Susan looked at Michael. He nodded. “They can come in as soon as they scrub and put on surgical garb, provided they don't have colds or anything contagious. No one but immediate family will be allowed in. You might pass the word to her friends and the dance company.”
Kate left to tell the rest of the family. The room seemed too silent when she was alone with Michael. She watched him check the machine readouts, which showed her heart and breathing rates. “What's that one?” she asked, pointing to another number.
“The percentage of oxygen in your blood.”
“My, you can tell everything about a person these days, just by hooking one up to a machine.”
“Not everything.” His smile flashed quick and brilliant. “It doesn't read the female mind.”
“Are you really going to do the surgery?”
She thought about it. “I suppose making love once doesn't constitute aâ¦personal involvement.”
He adjusted the IV drip into her arm. “I think it does,” he told her in no uncertain terms.
“I thought doctors couldn't operate on people they loâthey're involved with.”
His gaze speared into her. “I won't let anyone but the best touch you. You have my word on that. We have one of the most competent cardiac teams in the world at this hospital.”
“But people die on operating tables, some from the trauma of the surgery if not the disease.”
“That's a chance we have to take.” He leaned over her. “I can divorce my feelings as a man from my skills as a surgeon. It's something a doctor has to learn early on. If he doesn't, he has a heart attack within ten years and is forced to do so or has to go into research, where he doesn't have to have direct contact with patients.”
Now that the surgery was a foregone conclusion, she found she was no longer worried about it or her future. In those moments of chasing after Maria, when her body began to fail her, she'd known she had no choice. It was either surgery or death. She could take her pick.
Sleep began to claim her. She wondered if he'd put something in the drip. “I'm not afraid,” she said, her eyes refusing to stay open. “Not with you.”
“I'll do the best I can” were the last words she heard before sinking down into blissfully peaceful darkness, which was not at all like the torturous moments when she ran blindly toward those dancing flamesâ¦.
Michael half expected the two Mafia men to be at his condo when he arrived home late that evening. Fortunately the place was empty. He felt thankful for small favors.
He'd spent the afternoon in his office after all, seeing patients on referral, then had returned to the hospital to check on the teenager who had OD'd on drugs and to see how Susan was doing. She'd been quite cheerful.
An act, he decided, to reassure her family.
He'd met Susan's brother, Justin, sheriff of Lone Star County, who had flown in that afternoon. He had donated blood for her, as had her parents and Matt. Rose had been rejected due to her pregnancy. They would need twenty-seven pints of blood on standby before beginning the operation.
Michael rotated his shoulders, working out the tension. He debated going to the gym but decided it was too late. He was too tired and, besides, he wanted to be at home in case the hospital called. In case Susan needed him, he corrected with total honesty.
Before he had time to analyze the situation between them, the phone rang. He heaved an exasperated breath and picked it up.
“The offer still stands,” a gravelly male voice said.
For a moment, he was tempted. He'd have to force the donor heart past the board, but to save Susanâ¦
He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. “It's generous, but tell Carmine no thanks.”
The silence on the other end was ominous. The mobster finally found his voice. “I hope you don't live to regret this, Doc. If your woman dies, it'll be tough.”
“She'll live, but thanks for your concern. Tell Carmine to come to my office next week for a thorough checkup. I'll see what we can do for him. Legally.” Michael meant what he said. In spite of accusations of doctors playing God, he didn't judge his patients on their worth to society as a condition for surgery.
The man said he'd relay Michael's advice to the Mafia don and hung up.
Once in bed, Michael stared at the ceiling, his thoughts winging three blocks away to where Susan slept. His body stirred as he thought of her night here with him. He wanted more of those. Lots more.
A lifetime? Yeah.
Funny, a guy could go along not thinking of love or marriage or any of that stuff, positive he was immune to it, then
there it was, staring him right in the face.
But for the present he couldn't afford to think about the future. He had to concentrate on getting her through the surgery and the ordeal ahead.
He slept but a second it seemed, then the phone
started in again. He came instantly awake. “Yeah?” he said, expecting to hear the Mafia guy.
“This is Kelly McNeil,” one of the senior surgical nurses said. “We have a donor for Susan Wainwright.”